Sunday, March 30, 2008

"And I must finish the novel that has become such a nuisance to me."

Between a weekend of proofreading and making giant pots of chili to feed to guests in honor of the incipient baseball season, I find myself again without time to write. So, as I've had Anna Karenina on my mind this past week, today I'll give you only a couple of bits from letters Tolstoy sent to his longtime friend Nikolay Strakhov during the four-year period in which Tolstoy was struggling with Anna Karenina, which are featured in one of the chapters of Viktor Shklovsky's Energy of Delusion (1981). This first letter, from March 25, 1873, gives a glimpse into the novel's moment of conception; it also offers an optimism about the ease of its inevitable composition that quickly dissipates:
I'm going to tell you about myself, but please, keep it a secret, because it may be that nothing will come of what I'm going to tell you . . . After work, I happened to pick up . . . a book by Pushkin and as always (for the seventh time, I think), reread it all, unable to tear myself away from it, as though reading it for the first time. And what's more, it seems as if it resolved all my doubts . . . And there is a line, "The guests were getting ready to leave for the country house." Involuntarily and quite unintentionally, without knowing why and how, I began thinking up people and events, went on doing so, then, of course, changed the, and suddenly everything tied in so beautifully and unexpectedly, that the result was a novel, which is almost finished in draft form. A very lively, passionate and complete novel with which I am pleased; it will be ready, if God grants me good health, in two weeks. . . . Please do not scold me for such an incoherent letter--I have been working happily all morning. I'm excited that it's finished, and now, in the evening, I have an hangover.
Perhaps Tolstoy decided the letter really was too incoherent, for he never sent it. Regardless, that short paragraph gives us so much of the man--especially his unstoppable imagination, determined to imbue with full life even the slightest thought about the things and people of the world, and his confident enthusiasm when things are going well.

As with anything to which Tolstoy turned his attention, however, Anna Karenina, as its complexity and difficulty became apparent, began to seem an insurmountable challenge, driving him nearly to despair; by November 9th, 1875, he was writing to Strakhov:
My God, if only someone could finish Anna Karenina for me! It's unbearable.
His mood continued to swing, however, with each day's writing, and within two months he was writing to a pair of friends, A. M. and T. A. Kuzminsky,
Farewell, good-by. Sonya will describe everything, and I have written it all in Anna Karenina, and nothing is left
--while telling Strakhov days later,
Anna Karenina is making progress.
I'll leave you with an image that I found particularly striking, Tolstoy's account, in a letter to Strakhov of February 13, 1874, of his working method:
You are right to assume that I'm very busy and have been working a lot. I'm glad that I didn't start publishing anything, as I wrote in one of the previous letters. I don't know how else to draw a circle but to close it first and then begin correcting the original flaws. And now I have just come to the closure, and the corrections are endless.
And now to the kitchen. Baseball season beckons.

{Photo of me making baseball chili by rocketlass.}

Friday, March 28, 2008

My kind of town . . . for murder!

From The Fabulous Clipjoint (1947), by Fredric Brown
Things like that must happen a dozen times a day in Chicago, I thought. They don't rate ink unless it's a big-shot gangster or somebody important. A drunk rolled in an alley, and the guy who slugged him was muggled up and hit too hard or didn't care how hard the hit.

It didn't rate ink. No gang angle. No love nest.

The morgue gets them by the hundred. Not all murders, of course. Bums who go to sleep on a bench in Bughouse Square and don't wake up. Guys who take ten-cent beds or two-bit partitioned rooms in flophouses and in the morning somebody shakes them to wake them up, and the guy's stiff, and the clerk quickly goes through his pockets to see if he's got two bits or four bits or a dollar left, and then he phones for the city to come and get him out. That's Chicago.

And there's the jig found carved with a shiv in an areaway on South Halsted Street and the girl who took laudanum in a cheap hotel room. And the printer who had too much to drink and had probably been followed out of the tavern because there'd been green in his wallet and yesterday was payday.

If they put things like that in the paper, people would get a bad impression of Chicago, but that wasn't the reason they didn't put them in. They left them out because there were too many of them.
It's a good thing I have to no time this weekend to do anything but stay inside and proofread! (Aside, that is, from a quick break tomorrow morning to visit the lakefront--on which trip, however, I'll be running, and therefore safe from the Criminal Element, most of whom, surveys reveal, are smokers, and thus unable to catch the fleet of foot.)

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

The Man Without Qualities

I spent far too much time tonight making a pizza to write a proper post, but I can at least share a couple of standout passages from The Man Without Qualities (1930). First, an arresting image from a description of Bonodea, the past and future love of Ulrich, the book's focus (and Robert Musil's stand-in):
She was once again the dear old Bonadea whose curls hung down over her none-too-wise brow or were swept back from it, depending on the dictates of fashion, and in whose eyes there was always something reminiscent of the air rising above a fire.
That sort of piercing image--so perfect as to bring the reader up short--turns up reliably in The Man Without Qualities, and, along with a plethora of aphoristic expressions, completely makes up for the occasional longuers of Ulrich's indecisive overthinking. To be fair, Musil himself seems to know that Ulrich's mental and emotional crises needs a gentle deflation at times. During what Ulrich views as "the worst crisis of his life," which sees him boiling the entire question of his life down to,
A man who wants the truth becomes a scholar; a man who wants to give free play to his subjectivity may become a writer; but what should a man do who wants something in between?
--Musil, while clearly supportive of Ulrich's quest, offers this description:
If one wants to imagine how such a man lives when he is alone, the most that can be said is that at night his lighted windows afford a view of his room, where his used thoughts sit around like clients in the waiting room of a lawyer with whom they are dissatisfied.
And then there's the interleavings of satire, aimed at all sorts of humbuggery and self-importance in the ruling class of prewar Vienna. Here's Section Chief Tuzzi, an official in the foreign affairs ministry:
Tuzzi was laconic on principle. He felt that pun and the like, even if one could not do entirely without them in witty conversation, had better not be too good, because that would be middle-class.
I love the offering of puns as the antithesis of laconicism, as if more expansive conversation doesn't even exist beyond wordplay. Or take this account of Ulrich's Aunt Jane's whispered-about first husband:
He had of course been an artist, although, because of the rotten luck of small-town, provincial circumstances, only a photographer. But a short time after they were married he was already running up debts like a genius and drinking furiously. Aunt Jane made scarifices for him, she fetched him home from the tavern, she wept in secret and openly at his knees. He looked like a genius, with an imperious mouth and flamboyant hair, and if Aunt Jane had been able to infect him with the passion of her despair, he would have become, with his disastrous vices, as great as Lord Byron.
By informing us that Aunt Jane "wept in secret and openly at his knees," Musil transforms what could be straight comedy into something greater, reminding us that what is ridiculous to us remains all too real to those we're chuckling at. He doesn't manage that synthesis as often as Proust, and the various strands of thought in the book overall don't cohere as organically as Proust's themes--but at times he can be both as funny and as perceptive. A book this capacious also has room for occasional flights of beautifully observed visual detail, and I'll close with one. To end a chapter that has seen Walter and Clarissa, married friends of Ulrich, engaged in a brutal verbal battle, Musil essentially borrows a move from cinema, pulling the camera back to reveal the darkening room, suffused with emotion, as the pair quietly feels the unexpectedly renewed power of their union:
Dusk had fallen. The room was black. The piano was black. The silhouettes of two people who loved each other were black. Clarisse's eyes gleamed in the dark, kindled like a light, and in Walter's mouth, restless with pain, the enamel on a tooth shone like ivory. Regardless of the greatest affairs of state occurring in the world outside, and despite its vexations, this seemed to be one of those moments for which God had created the earth.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

"The more one sees of life the more one is aware how hopeless it is without art to give it meaning."

{Vivien Leigh in Anna Karenina, 1948}

From Viktor Shklovsky's "Another Note on Beginnings and Endings," from Energy of Delusion: A Book on Plot (1981)
If a talented person tried to lie, Tolstoy said, his talent wouldn't allow him to.
It's an inordinately busy week, so I've only got time to share a couple of quick bits tonight.

The Shklovsky I present in honor of a renewal, last night with my friend Bob--who is spending this week getting drunk on Tolstoy--of the eternal, inexhaustible conversation about Anna Karenina. A bit more from the same essay:
Sometimes happy endings are dressed with irony. As in one of Charlie Chaplin's pictures his friend, the millionaire, recognizes him only when he is drunk, but when he is sober, Chaplin is a stranger to him.

At the beginning of the novel, Karenina is reading an English novel about a baronet. She reads it through to the traditional ending, when the baronet gains his happiness.

Suddenly she is filled with shame.

She has already seen Vronsky.

This is the first hint of adultery.

It's not going to end like the novel about the baronet.
Which seems like a good enough lead-in to a pair of entries from Cyril Connolly, who provides this post's title. I'm drawing today from a piece in The Condemned Playground (1945), "England Not My England," which consists of selections from a journal kept by the twenty-three-year-old Connolly, chosen by him to highlight his whiplashing dis- and re-enchantment with his native England. The first strikes an unusual note of forthright satisfaction:
2nd to 4th August 1927

I ought in fairness to announce that these two days by the sea I have been distinctly happy.
But true to form, Connolly is soon right down in it again:
8th September 1927

My thoughts run to depression as a child to its mother. Not to be born is best, or, being born, to live at Cadiz.
Even at his most self-pitying, Connolly remains detached enough to derive a level of amusement--even pleasure--from his condition; Robert Burton would, I think, have approved.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Wishful thinking

{Photos by rocketlass.}

In honor of the poor, pretty robins I watched flit through the snowfall on Friday, the first day of spring, some wishful thinking.

From Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
Bot thenne the weder of the worlde wyth wynter hit threpes,
Colde clenges adoun, cloudes uplytfen,
Schyre schedes the rayn in schowres ful warme,
Falles upon fayre flat, flowres there schewen.
Bothe groundes and the greves grene at her wedes,
Bryddes busken to bylde, and bremlych syngen
For solace of the softe somer that sues therafter
bi bonk;
And blossumes bolne to blowe
Bi rawes rych and ronk
Then notes noble innoughe
Ar herde in wod so wlonk.

And as translated by Simon Armitage last year:
Then the world's weather wages war on winter:
cold shrinks earthwards and the clouds climb;
sun-warmed, shimmering rain comes showering
onto meadows and fields where flowers unfurl;
woods and grounds wear a wardrobe of green;
birds burble with life and build busily
as summer spreads, settling on slopes as
it should.
Now every hedgerow brims
with blossom and with bud,
and lively songbirds sing
from lovely, leafy woods.

The reality, sadly--more sadly for the robins, the misguided swallows who've already returned, and all the other bryddes than for me and my cats, comfortable in our house--has in recent days been more like this:
But wild-looking weather was about in the world:
clouds decanted their cold rain earthwards;
the nithering north needled man's very nature;
creatures were scattered by the stinging sleet.
Then a whip-cracking wind comes whistling between hills
driving snow into deepening drifts in the dales.
Though Armitage's translation is very good--vivid and visual, with rich alliteration--I'll also include the Middle English once more, just for the pleasurable sound of it and the occasional cognate that can serve as a guidepost:
Bot wylde wederes of the worlde wakned theroute,
Clowdes kesten kenly the colde to the erthe,
Wyth nyye innoughe of the northe, the naked to tene.
The snaw snitered ful snart, that snayped the wylde;
The werbelande wynde wapped fro the hyghe
And drof uche dale ful of dryftes ful grete.
But the snaw is no longer snitering ful snart, and even the cloudes are beginning to uplyft. Maybe we'll have some spring one of these days after all.

Friday, March 21, 2008

For Whom the Bells Toll, or, Everything That's Blogged Must Converge

{Bells (2006), by secretagentmartens. All rights reserved.}

Reading Thomas De Quincey's wry, deliciously nasty essay "On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts" (1827) on the bus this morning, I suddenly realized that nearly everyone I wrote about this week can be unexpectedly connected--which means it's time to play Chase That Topic!

In "On Murder," De Quincey jokingly refers to the old saying that Dorothy L. Sayers drew on for the title of The Nine Tailors (1934), "Nine tailors make a man":
The subject chosen [for a murder] ought to be in good health: for it is absolutely barbarous to murder a sick person, who is usually quite unable to bear it. On this principle, no Cockney ought to be chosen who is above twenty-five, for after that age he is sure to be dyspeptic. Or at least, if a man will hunt in that warren, he ought to murder a couple at a time; if the Cockneys chosen should be tailors, he will of course think it his duty, on the old established equation, to murder eighteen--And, here, in this attention to the comfort of sick people, you will observe the usual effect of a fine art to soften and refine the feelings.
De Quincey is employing the saying in its most literal interpretation, which is the first offered by the 1898 edition of Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable:
Nine tailors make a man.

The present scope of this expression is that a tailor is so much more feeble than another man that it would take nine of them to make a man of average stature and strength. There is a tradition that an orphan lad, in 1742, applied to a fashionable London tailor for alms. There were nine journeymen in the establishment, each of whom contributed something to set the little orphan up with a fruit barrow. The little merchant in time became rich, and adopted for his motto, “Nine tailors made me a man,” or “Nine tailors make a man.” This certainly is not the origin of the expression, inasmuch as we find a similar one used by Taylor a century before that date, and referred to as of old standing, even then.

“Some foolish knave, I thinke, at first began
The slander that three taylers are one man.”
Taylor: Workes, iii. 73" (1630)
Sayers, however, was referring to a different interpretation of the phrase; after reading in yesterday's post about the prominence of church bells in The Nine Tailors, you probably won't be surprised to learn that her version originates in bell-ringing. Brewer's places that interpretation second:
Another suggestion is this: At the death of a man the tolling bell is rung thrice three tolls; at the death of a woman it is rung only three-two tolls. Hence nine tolls indicate the death of a man. Halliwell gives telled = told, and a tolling-bell is a teller. In regard to “make,” it is the French faire, as On le faisait mort, i.e. some one gave out or made it known that he was dead.

“The fourme of the Trinitie was founded in manne… . Adam our forefather… . and Eve of Adam the secunde personne, and of them both was the third persone. At the death of a manne three bells schulde be ronge as his knyll, in worscheppe of the Trinitie—for a womanne, who is the secunde personne of the Trinitie, two belles schulde be rungen.”—An old English Homily for Trinity Sunday
Throughout The Nine Tailors, Sayers offers bell-related epigraphs. She does not, however, draw on Byron, who also made an appearance this week--perhaps because his writing on bells, in Don Juan, focuses on those of a considerably less heavenly cast:
Canto XLIX

But I digress: of all appeals--although
I grant the power of pathos and of gold
Of beauty, flattery, threats, a shilling--no
Method's more sure at moments to take hold
Of the best feelings of mankind, which take grow
More tender as we every day behold
Than that all-softening, overpowering knell,
The tocsin of the soul--the dinner-bell.
John Aubrey, meanwhile, whose endless riches I cabbaged from yet again this week, gathered some oddities having to do with church bells in his Miscellanies Upon Various Subjects (1696):
At Paris, when it begin to Thunder and Lighten, they do presently Ring out the great Bell at the Abbey of St. German, which they do believe makes it cease. The like was wont to be done heretofore in Wiltshire; when it Thundered and Lightned, they did Ring St. Adelm's at Malmsebury Abbey. The curious do say, that the Ringing of Bells exceedingly disturbs Spirits.
Given his experience in The Nine Tailors, I think Lord Peter Wimsey might agree with the curious in that last point.

Aubrey's brief life of Thomas Hobbes, which itself served as blog fodder this week, also unexpectedly includes some church bells, in Aubrey's description of Hobbes's birthplace and the depredations it suffered during the English Civil War:
Westport is the Parish without the West-gate (which is now demolished) which Gate stood on the neck of land that joines Malmesbury to Westport. Here was, before the late Warres, a very pretty church, consisting of 3 aisles, or rather a nave and two aisles, dedicated to St. Mary; and a fair spire-steeple, with five tuneable Bells, which, when the Towne was taken by Sir W. Waller, were converted into Ordinance, and the church pulled-downe to the ground, that the Enemie might not shelter themselves against the Garrison.
Hobbes, meanwhile, brings us full circle to De Quincey, who in the most inventively ridiculous section of "On Murder" proclaims,
For, gentlemen, it is a fact, that every philosopher of eminence for the last two centuries has either been murdered, or, at the least, been very near it; insomuch, that if a man calls himself a philosopher, and never had his life attempted, rest assured there is nothing in him.
After offering some rather sketchy, amused accounts of an attempt on Descartes' life and the purported murder by poison of Spinoza, De Quincey draws his satiric sword on Hobbes:
Hobbes, but why, or on what principle, I never could understand, was not murdered. This was a capital oversight of the professional man in the seventeenth century; because in every light he was a fine subject for murder, except, indeed, that he was lean and skinny; for I can prove that he had money, and (what is very funny,) he had no right to make the least resistance; for, according to himself, irresistible power creates the very highest species of right, so that it is rebellion of the blackest die to refuse to be murdered, when a competent force appears to murder you.
Acknowledging which, and facing the irresistible power of a waiting martini, I will surrender this post to its fate.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Nine Notes on Dorothy L. Sayers and The Nine Tailors

1 I came to Dorothy L. Sayers last week as a reaction to the intellectual drama of Robert Musil: I was in search of something straightforward and cozy, a world where questions had answers and everything would ultimately find its place. I first seized on Gaudy Night (1936) because in Michael Dirda's appreciation of Agatha Christie in Classics for Pleasure (2007) he notes in passing, "I bow to no one in my admiration for Gaudy Night." I opened it with much anticipation.

The early pages were excellent. I enjoyed the company of the protagonist, Miss Harriet Vane, as she attended a reunion of her Oxford class, an occasion that allowed Sayers to offer some splendid observations of the early days of women's education there--including a complaint from a staff member that the young ladies had the previous spring taken to sunbathing in their underwear rather than the more concealing bathing costumes of the day. The observations at the heart of this bit of dialogue, too, were memorable:
"Yes," Miss de Vine smiled oddly. "If you were to listen at those windows, you would find it was the middle-aged ones who were making the noise. The old have gone to bed, wondering whether they have worn as badly as their contemporaries. They have suffered some shocks, and their feet hurt them. And the younger ones are chattering soberly about life and its responsibilities. But the women of forty are pretending they are undergraduates again, and find it it rather an effort. Miss Vane--I admired you for speaking as you did tonight. Detachment is a rare virtue, and very few people find it lovable, either in themselves or in others. If you ever find a person who likes you in spite of it--still more, because of it--that liking has very great value, because it is perfectly sincere, and because, with that person, you will never need to be anything but sincere yourself."
Page after page went by, however, and the only mystery to arise was the rather dreary question of which member of the college had been sending some poison pen letters. Instead, the focus of the book seemed to be rapidly settling on the question of whether Harriet would accept Lord Peter Wimsey's proposal of marriage. In the face of such a desultory mystery, that choice seemed far from unreasonably--but as I didn't know Lord Peter as anything other than a famed detective and was only just getting to know Harriet, the fact that their romance was dominating what was purportedly a detective novel began to chafe. With nearly four hundred pages still ahead, I decided to chuck it.

2 When I explained my plight to my friend Sarah, she pressed a different Sayers novel, The Nine Tailors (1934) into my hands, arguing that it was more typical of Sayers--and probably closer to what I'd been looking for. The title was familiar, but it wasn't until I got home that I realized that this novel had served as Exhibit A in Edmund Wilson's amused evisceration of the genre, "Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?" (1945):
Well, I set out to read The Nine Tailors in the hope of tasting some novel excitement, and I declare that it seems to me one of the dullest books I have ever encountered in any field. The first part of it is all about bell-ringing as it is practised in English churches and contains a lot of information of the kind that you might expect to find in an encyclopedia article on campanology. I skipped a good deal of that, and found myself skipping, also, a large section of the conversations between conventional English village characters. . . . There was also a dreadful stock English nobleman of the casual and debonair kind, with the embarrassing name of Lord Peter Wimsey, and, although he was the focal character of the novel, being Miss Dorothy Sayers's version of the inevitable Sherlock Holmes detective, I had to skip a good deal of him, too.
This did not bode well.

3 Having now read The Nine Tailors, I can say that Wilson was right about everything but the dullness . . . yet it doesn't really matter. Yes, the bits of campanology are too much. The bell-ringers' jargon is almost entirely unintelligible to the layman, and the interest of the passages is slight--they have nothing of the thematic force of the similar insertions of encyclopedic materials in Moby-Dick, to take a brutally unfair example. And, yes, the rustic dialogue is perhaps too cute at points, and Lord Peter is for much of the book a more blithe and amusing figure than is perhaps believable. Yet it works: the campanology fleshes out and roots the characters Lord Peter encounters; the rustic dialogue provides Dickensian verbal tics and some moments of genuine humor, and Lord Peter's breeziness in the early part of the novel serves to lend his harrowing experience at the novel's real power. To argue, as Wilson does, that the clever solution to the case is appropriate to the sort of story that Sherlock Holmes could have dispensed with in thirty pages is to utterly miss the point: Wimsey likes these people and their odd rural interests--and so do we, so neither of us is in a hurry to be shed of them. His having a mystery to solve gives us both an excuse to stick around for a while.

4 And now on to the fun bits. Sayers's Foreword begins:
From time to time complaints are made about the ringing of church bells. It seems strange that a generation which tolerates the uproar of the internal combustion engine and the wailing of the jazz band should be so sensitive to the one loud noise that is made to the glory of God.
Though anyone who has spent a quiet Sunday morning in the deserted streets of the City of London, with no accompaniment but the occasional church bells, can appreciate Sayers's point, she severely weakens her case by opening the novel with a scene of a rural vicar organizing a series of peals to be rung on New Year's Day for nine hours--from midnight until nine in the morning! Enduring such an ordeal while I was trying to sleep would be more than sufficient to shift me to the side of the bell-haters.

5 I've written before about a certain strain in English writing, both fiction and nonfiction, of casualness about ghosts and apparitions. Such an attitude appears in The Nine Tailors in a throwaway line by an uneducated housewife, a friend of whose daughter has been scared by a ghostly light (which turns out to be entirely explicable in earthly terms) in the graveyard at night. Lord Peter questions the woman:
"Did she tell her mother and father?"

"Not then, she didn't. She didn't like to, and I remember well, as a child I was just the same, only with me it was a funny sort of thing that used to groan in the wash-house, which I took to be bears--but as to telling anybody, I'd ha' died first."
My knowledge of the natural history of England is far from perfect, but I don't think bears have been groaning in wash-houses there since at least the days of Elizabeth I. Clearly it was a ghost.

6 I also enjoyed the following exchange between Lord Wimsey and his manservant, Bunting:
[Wimsey] put aside the vest and pants, filled a pipe and wandered down the garden, pursued by Mrs. Venables with an ancient and rook-proof linen hat, belonging to the Rector. The hat was considerably too small for him, and the fact that he immediately put it on, with expressions of gratitude, may attest the kind hear which, despite the poet, is frequently found in close alliance with coronets; though the shock to Bunter's system was severe when his master suddenly appeared before him, wearing this grotesque headgear, and told him to get the car out and accompany him on a short journey.

"Very good, my lord," said Bunter. "Ahem! there is a fresh breeze, my lord."

"All the better."

"Certainly, my lord! If I may venture to say so, the tweed cap or the grey felt would possibly be better suited to the climatic conditions."

"Eh? Oh! Possibly you are right, Bunter."
Surely Bunter later shared a quiet laugh about that moment with his friend Jeeves over brandy at the Junior Ganymede Club?

7 For Wimsey's appreciation of rustic pleasures, you can't do better than the somewhat ironic enthusiasm he expresses to a waiter in a rural restaurant about the festivities anticipated for the opening of a new drainage system for the fens. The waiter explains that it is hoped that the Duke of Denver--who, unbeknownst to him, is Wimsey's brother--will come to kick off the party:
"I'll make a point of jogging old Denver up to his duty. We'll all come. Great fun. Denver shall present gold cups to all the winners and I will present silver rabbits to the losers, and with luck somebody will fall into the river."

"That," said the waiter, seriously, "will be very gratifying."
Come the event itself, the pleasure is more than trebled:
The weather was perfect, the Duke of Denver made a speech with was a model of the obvious, and the Regatta was immensely successful. Three people fell into the river, four men and an old woman were had up for being drunk and disorderly, a motor-car became entangled with a tradesman's cart and young Gotobed won First Prize in the Decorated Motor-Cycle section of the sports.

8 Late in the book, Sayers offers up a string of headline phrases that would, I think, amuse any fan of the newspaper honor box:
The public memory is a short one. The affair of the Corpse in Country Churchyard was succeeded, as the weeks rolled on, by so many Bodies in Blazing Garages, Man-Hunts for Missing Murderers, Tragedies in West-End Flats, Suicide Pacts in Lonely Woods, Nude Corpses in Caves and Midnight Shots in Fashionable Road-Houses, that nobody gave it another thought.
If only we could get copies of Sayers's lurid imaginary newspapers into the hands of Michael Lesy or Felix Feneon!

9 Potty Peake, a man who could uncharitably be described as the village idiot, is described by one of Sayers's characters as a "natural." I'd never encountered that meaning of the word, but sure enough, Merriam-Webster's offers as the first definition of the noun form of natural, dating from 1533:
One born without the usual powers of reasoning and understanding.
--while the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary offers, as sense four,
A person mentally handicapped from birth.


Now that I've settled into the Sayers sensibility, any fans out there want to offer an opinion on whether I should once again attempt Gaudy Night?

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

The perils--and rewards--of reading before bed

{Tree of Crows, by Caspar David Friedrich}

From The Notebooks of Robert Frost (2007), edited by Robert Faggen
A book should chiefly represent a state the author was in while writing. Half the authors wrote in no particular state at all.
I don't know whether my state affects my writing, but my writing definitely affects my state, especially when I write--or even think about writing--just before going to sleep. On those nights, I'm doomed to dream in pages, words, and tangled sentences in need of an editorial machete. Usually little remains of my efforts on waking except the weariness I'd intended to leave behind.

Last night's book-induced restless sleep was, however, unusually worthwhile. An e-mail conversation with Ed Park had started me thinking about writers' notebooks, which made me perk up when I came across this line from John Aubrey's life of Thomas Hobbes
He walked much and contemplated, and he had in the head of his cane a pen and ink-horn, carried always a note-book in his pocket, and as soon as a thought darted, he presently entered it into his book, or otherwise he might perhaps have lost it.
That led me to Frost's notebooks, and this line:
These are not monologues but my part in a conversation in which the other part is more or less implied.
--and then to Lord Byron's journals, which reminded me that it was past time for bed:
Tuesday, December 7, 1813

Went to bed, and slept dreamlessly, but not refreshingly. Awoke, and up an hour before being called; but dawdled three hours in dressing. When one subtracts from life infancy (which is vegetation),--sleep, eating, and swilling--buttoning and unbuttoning--how much remains of downright existence? The summer of a doormouse.

So off to bed, where I dreamed about trolling the Internets in search of quotations about writers' notebooks to dress up some writing of my own. The dream Internet came through in spectacular fashion, offering up two slightly different epigrams from Aristotle:
The world is my notebook, and time is my pen.

The world is a notebook, and I am the pen.
On waking, I quickly used the waking world's Internet to confirm that Aristotle said no such thing--in his extant writings, that is. Who's to say that my dream Internet hasn't indexed the corpus of Aristotle's lost writings? Either way, it seems like a good night's work.

The Notebooks of Robert Frost
Maybe sometimes in the morning when I first wake up I am sometimes free

Monday, March 17, 2008

Fragments of uncertain origin and the benefit of vomiting, or, Be careful what you drink!

On the L this morning on my way to the office, I was dreading the pile of work that was sure to greet me following Friday's day off. But as I read Alvaro Mutis's The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll (1992), suddenly my plight didn't seem so bad: Maqroll, on a boat heading into the deepest jungle, has nothing to drink but
a cup of something that passes for coffee but is really a watery slop of indefinable taste, with pieces of unrefined sugar that leave a worrisome sediment of insect wings, plant residues, and fragments of uncertain origin at the bottom of the cup.
No matter how overwhelming my inboxes were sure to be, at least I knew I could count on a good, strong, insect-free cup of coffee to see me through.

Coffee in the morning and a martini in the evening. Not a bad routine--though if John Aubrey is to be believed (and why would one ever choose to live in a sad, colorless world in which Aubrey is not to be believed?), not one that Thomas Hobbes would endorse:
He was, even in his youth, (generally) temperate, both as to wine and women. I have heard him say that he did believe he had been in excess in his life, a hundred times; which, considering his great age, did not amount to above once a year: when he did drink, he would drink to excess to have the benefit of vomiting, which he did easily; by which benefit neither his wit was disturbed (longer than he was spewing) nor his stomach oppressed; but he never was, nor could not endure to be, habitually a good fellow, i.e. to drink every day wine with company, which, though not to drunkenness, spoils the brain.
Remind me not to invite Hobbes to my next philosophers' drinking party.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Determination rewarded, or, Maybe I'm now a Powys fan?

My first attempt at reading John Cowper Powys, years ago, was decidedly not a success. Knowing that he was a favorite of Iris Murdoch, among others, and having recently immersed myself in Chretien de Troyes's Arthurian poems, I opened A Glastonbury Romance (1932), Powys's novel of Grail legends and modern Glastonbury, with great anticipation.

Within hours, that anticipation had fled in the face of overwrought sentences, frustratingly deliberate pacing, and unbearably pompous mystical meanderings. I struggled mightily through about 150 pages, but as my weariness increased the prospect of the hundreds of pages still ahead became overwhelming. I closed the book--and, I thought, my experiment with Powys.

I later learned that in rejecting Powys I was in good company. Many readers have found him intolerable on any number of fronts, from his prose to his philosophy to his person. His recent biographer, Morine Krissdotter, described Powys in the Guardian last fall as literary Marmite:
If you are a Marmite lover like Iris Murdoch and John Bayley, you will want to read Powys with breakfast, supper and tea. If you like your novels and your authors uncomplicated, you are the bird in the recent commercial that hates the taste and flies off--as fast as your little wings can carry you.
His critics, she wrote, "dismiss him as a crackpot mystagogue," while even one of his friends complained that he could write "ridiculous tedious rubbish."

Having made a valiant effort with the "tedious rubbish" of Glastonbury, I certainly thought I was through with Powys. Some authors, however, are not so easily dismissed (Murakami and, for all his flaws, D. H. Lawrence being two who come to mind). When in Dorset last spring to visit the Thomas Hardy sites, I was confronted by Powys again--for Dorset was as much his country as Hardy's, the home of his extended family and the setting of many of his novels. An exhibit at the Dorset County Museum made me wonder whether I'd been too hasty . . . so six months later, when Frank Wilson (late of the Philadelphia Inquirer) recommended that I try Powys's epic of fourteenth-century Wales, Owen Glendower (1940), I was determined to give him one more go.

That attempt lasted all of forty-five difficult--even rebarbative--pages. In the opening scene, Powys introduces, in short order and with little description, the majority of the novel's seventy-plus characters. To further complicate matters, he continually varies his characters' appellations: a priest named Walter Brut of Lyde, for example, is referred to as the Lollard, the heretic, and the follower of Wycliffe. Other priests--and we meet no fewer than five in the opening chapter!--are referred to by their orders, their nicknames, and their areas of study. The varying nomenclature allows Powys to emphasize that, in the medieval world, one's place in society is at least as important an identifier as one's personal characteristics--but until one becomes familiar with the characters, Powys's technique guarantees confusion and frustration. In the introduction to the Overlook Press edition, Morine Krissdotter quotes Powys's diary, in which he notes that his partner, Phyllis Playter, reading an early draft, complained that
I have so many characters with weird names that it is confusing to the reader--who has to look back to see who this or that fucking person is!

So I put the book down for four months. Yet as it sat unread, I found myself regularly recalling moments from the opening chapter, in which a young man impulsively acts to save a woman and a mad friar from being burnt as heretics. The scene returned to my mind with a force--almost chilling--that, amidst the frustration of the reading, I hadn't even realized I'd registered. Obviously the book had made more of an impression than I'd thought--so a week ago, I dove back in, more determined than ever.

And oh, was I rewarded! Owen Glendower is a strange and magnificent novel, capacious and moving. Around the historical record of the Welsh uprising against Henry IV, Powys weaves scenes and characters of unforgettable drama and vitality. Presenting a batch of discrete episodes through the sixteen years of Owen Glendower's rebellion, he offers scenes ranging from violent, terrifying battle to heartbreaking moments of individual moral choice--along the way outlining a theory of history as the cumulative result of a series of small, seemingly inconsequential decisions. Because death in this medieval world is always at the door, life--and at times, it seems, the world--truly does hang in the balance in the course of Owen's rebellion, investing every action of Powys's characters with dramatic force. Again and again, they find themselves tested in their honor, courage, and self-knowledge, and their moments of decision--where you tremble at the seductive pull of each of their choices--are achingly tense.

That said, the book is never quite easy: the characters, in their sheer number, remain difficult to keep track of, the religious disputations engaged in by the priests get a bit old, and Powys's language, allusive and philosophical, can be overwrought. But the occasional brilliant passage more than compensates for any frustrations. Powys's metaphors are rich and powerful: he describes a crackling fire as sounding like the screaming of salamanders--a near-perfect joining of description and allusion. He also creates dozens of unforgettable images, like this account of a two girls walking:
Lu's troubled little face under her hood began to resemble a crumpled leaf that had turned its back to the mist, but to give herself strength she took a firm hold of the tall girl's mantle, and thus supported drifted along at her side with swift-gliding steps, like an oarless boat towed by a ship in full sail.
Or this harrowingly physical account of a man about to spear a defenseless prisoner:
He kept lifting up his spear as if pondering where to strike, but he was clearly reluctant to waste his stroke, and the memory must have come to him of some unpleasant recent occasion when he couldn't draw out his weapon from the victim's body.
By the time I'd finished Owen Glendower, I felt drained and exhilarated both, as if I really had spent much of the week in the past that Powys describes, growing and suffering with his characters. I certainly won't ever forget it. Near the end of the book one of the characters thinks about those who have gone before him, and his reflections serve well both to give a sense of Powys's infectious openness to the mysterious forces of life and of the way that I imagine Owen Glendower will live on in my mind:
Yes, you must bear the day's burden, thankful when the day ended. Yes! certain things had to be forgotten, else the sad play couldn't proceed; but the dead needn't be forgotten--they couldn't be. They were in us! While we lived our half-life, they lived their half-life. Dark, dark, dark--the life of the living, the life of the dead! And how dark it was underfoot! But the East was transforming itself now into receding gulfs of golden light. It was as if some huge planetary portcullis had been lifted, and the base-court of the Infinite exposed to view! Night and dawn! So the cycle revolved, so the wheel turned.
So thanks for the recommendation, Frank. Perhaps I'll crack Glastonbury one of these days after all.

Friday, March 14, 2008

"Dance was his life."

Pause in your work.
Pause in your work.
Pause in your work--put a hand to your heart.
Think on a friend, now lost, whom you loved.
In the warp and the weft of the world he helped make,
His thread may be gone, but the pattern remains.

This morning, Stacey and I attended the funeral of Gus Giordano, the father of a good friend. I only met Gus a couple of times, but I knew that he was a legend in the dance world, an innovator and teacher whose influence was incalculable. The funeral, both in its attendees and its program, reflected that; it was the funeral of an artist, a man whose legacy surrounds us. "Dance was his life," said one of his sons. One of his students imagined him telling her, as she stood at the podium, "Stretch farther!" and "Work harder!" She quoted Saint Augustine: "O man, learn to dance, or else the angels in heaven will not know what to do with you."

And there was dancing. Strong, young dancers leaping and twirling down the aisles of the vast church, radiating joy. Watching them, I was reminded of why I find dance--which I both see and do too rarely--to be so powerful: it seems to offer so many of art's essential aims in breathtakingly pure form. The difficult is made, through dedication, to look easy. The limits that most of us accept without a thought--in this case, the strictures of gravity--are, through hard work, transcended. And the everyday stuff of life--those feet that trip us up, those hands that fumble with our keys--are transformed into expressive instruments of joy. Watching those dancers, and thinking of an elegant and powerful young Gus Giordano half a century ago, was incredibly moving.

Tomorrow night we're going out dancing, and Gus and his family will be in our hearts. We'll dance poorly, but we'll do it with joy. I think he'd approve.

Rest in peace, Gus.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Four more ten-word reviews, along with a belated credit.

As I wrote the batch of ten-word reviews I featured in a recent post, I had a nagging sense that I had seen someone taking that exact approach to reviewing recently. I didn’t remember where, though, so I credited the closest model I could recall, Michael Atkinson’s money-shot movie reviews.

On reading my post, Ed Park, proprietor of, among other blogs, the revealingly named Ten Word Reviews, demonstrated his magnanimity: rather than taking me to task for stealing his idea, he invited me to join the Ten Word Reviews roster! So, with apologies to Ed for forgetting his influence in the first place, I’ve gladly joined that blog and will be posting occasional review of non-book items.

Books, however, being this blog’s bailiwick, one more brief batch of ten-word reviews is in order, this one picking up recently read books that I inexplicably left out of the earlier roundup.
Rumpole’s curmudgeonly arrogance tends to charm or irritate. I’m charmed.

Magnet for haplessness Dortmunder steals one diamond six *#@#^&* times!

Parker's in Palm Beach. He ain’t there for the sun.

Who knows Matt Murdock is Daredevil? Everyone! Which is bad.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

A Connolly Coda

{Cyril Connolly, photographed by Janet Stone, from the collection of the National Portrait Gallery}

I thought I was done with Cyril Connolly for a while, but I couldn't very well not share this anecdote from a letter that Nancy Mitford sent Evelyn Waugh on April 13, 1946:
Dined at the Embassy on Thurs: Stephen Spender -- I suppose you hate him. He told me an awfully funny story about when Cyril was living with Jean and Diana Witherby & caught them both out having affairs with other people & said to Steve, almost in tears, "It is hard, here have I been absolutely faithful to 2 women for a year, they've both been unfaithful to me."
What Mitford politely doesn't point out is that it would have been an even more impressive story had the two ladies been stepping out on Cyril with each other.

Just in case the addition of that betrayal to the rest of Connolly's history of dismal relationships makes you start to feel too sorry for him, it's worth noting Mitford's reaction years later when Connolly's second wife leaves him:
Poor widowed Smartyboots -- rather sad, isn't it, when he so loves to be the one that chucks.
Mitford's opinion, assuming it is well-founded, does rather deflate Connolly's hysterical rant in The Unquiet Grave about the primal joy women take in discarding their men. As so often in life, and especially in marriages to which one is not a party, the situation is more complicated than it might at first seem--which is, after all, one of the lessons novels are always trying to teach us.

Sunday, March 09, 2008

"No doubt Cyril was an exceptionally lazy man."

The headline is from a review Anthony Powell wrote of Cyril Connolly's posthumously published journals, seemingly a good opening to an odds-and-end post to close Cyril Connolly week. Powell opens his review by writing,
On one thing everyone was agreed--schoolmasters and dons, patrons and fellow competitors, friends and enemies--Cyril Connolly was not in the least like anyone else.
George Orwell, meanwhile, in a review of The Unquiet Grave that focuses on the author's struggle between sympathy for socialism and a fear that it would render obsolete his own position and the individual artistic achievements he so prizes, claims one can draw a portrait of the author from simply reading the book:
"Palinurus" is the easily penetrable pseudonym of a well-known literary critic, but even without knowing his identity one could infer that the writer of this book is about 40, is inclined to stoutness, has lived much in Continental Europe, and has never done any real work.
Even the prospect of Connolly working was enough to trouble Evelyn Waugh, at least jokingly; in a letter to Nancy Mitford on April 8, 1951, he wrote of Connolly (whose Mitford-assigned nickname was Boots):
Boots said: "I am going to become a waiter at a fashionable restaurant so as to humiliate & reproach my friends for their ingratitude." He saw a worried look, I suppose on my face & said: "Ah, I see now I have touched even your cold heart." So I said: "Well no Cyril it isn't quite that. I was thinking of your fingernails in the soup."
Perhaps his fingernails were the source of the problem in a terrible lunch he once suffered through with Edith Wharton. Unlikely, I know, but as Powell points out, the bald notation of the event in Connolly's journal leaves us begging for more detail:
Connolly said the luncheon had aged him ten years.
If, as we might more reasonably infer, Wharton found Connolly uncongenial, she was by far not the only one--anyone who reads memoirs of biographies from the period is bound to come across descriptions of rows and sundered friendships, for, as Powell points out,
He had an utter disregard of other people's well-being and convenience, and often abominable manners.
Which makes the behavior of his second wife, Barbara Skelton, as described in a letter by Nancy Mitford, if not excusable then at least a bit more understandable:
Heywood writes that Boots' wife marks him for tidiness, lovingness etc & if less than 6/10 she turns him into Shepherd Market where he spends the night.
If he could be that unpleasant, why pay attention at all? For his friends, the boorish self-absorption was balanced by his reliable intelligence and flashes of charm, while for us there is the simple fun of watching, from a safe remove, such a complicated and often silly character wander through a rich literary scene. But even that would make him only a period curiosity, were his prose not such a pleasure, brimming with personality, and his opinions so strong and subjective. He was an enthusiast, and his criticism seems largely to be a wander through the bookshelves that held him entranced for a lifetime. Earlier this week I quoted Sven Birkerts on Connolly's enthusiasm; Powell also picked up on that characteristic, raising it to the level of a foundational critical position:
One of the things Connolly understands very well--and many contemporary critics fail completely to grasp--is that, as Rilke remarked, it is no good approaching a work of art in any spirit but sympathy. It is perfectly easy to make fun of Shakespeare or the Sistine Chapel if you apply only that treatment.
There is little in Connolly's shambles of a personal life that one is tempted to imitate, but when it comes to literature one could do worse than to set his critical approach as a model, and root one's own efforts in that same rich soil of sympathy.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

Connolly on "the mellow Stoicism" of Lord Chesterfield

In a deeply sympathetic brief essay on Cyril Connolly, Sven Birkerts writes of Connolly's occasional "venomous spray of self-loathing," occasioned by his disappointment in his own literary output when set against the great works that animated his life. Birkerts writes,
His adoration of genius could not but lead him into the most bitter self-reproach: "Why not me?"

The vigor and precision of the prose, however, were a rebuttal, for they partook, often, of something like genius. It was as if he had to contradict himself into brilliance.
The piece from which I drew the opening lines of yesterday's post, a review of Samuel Shellabarger's Lord Chesterfield (1935), reveals many of Connolly's virtues as both a prose writer and a sympathetic, attentive critic--in a mere five pages. Connolly, attuned to the "transitional age full of a certain beautiful clumsiness" in which Lord Chesterfield wrote poetry and wonderfully amoral letters to his bastard son, finds Chesterfield sympathetic; Shellabarger, on strictly religious grounds, does not. Connolly rightly points out the essential absurdity of Shellabarger's even troubling to write about this age:
Above all this is no subject for the religious, for it represents the first flowering in English life of the Roman spirit, with its urbanity, good sense, and stoical courage, the first reasonable, measured, intelligent attack which the Augustans launched on the citadel of happiness, after impregnating themselves with the spirit of Horace, the city-bred sophistication of Martial and Juvenal, and the solid qualities of the pagan world rather than the Renaissance's wild adaption of them.
It is a truism of biography that the writer inevitably ends up hating his subject, but Shellabarger seems to have begun by hating Chesterfield, and his unrelenting condemnation prevents him from appreciating anything the man accomplished. It's hard to disagree when Connolly, writing about Shellabarger's dismissal of Chesterfield's letters, writes,
A man who could write such a phrase as "Cunning is the dark sanctuary of incapacity" deserves more than moral condemnation.
Yet that fundamental disagreement does not prevent Connolly from giving Shellabarger what credit he deserves. I've drawn on Anthony Powell's paraphrase of this next line before, but it's worth presenting in its full context:
Granted that the author disapproves of Chesterfield, he has written a very interesting book about him, for he is intelligent enough to see that his life represents, as it were, the second line of defense of paganism, just as Rochester's, for instance, is the front line which apologists find almost too hot to hold and which they often have to evacuate.
Lord Rochester, presumably, would have scorned our offers of help regardless, preferring to gloriously fail to hold the front line himself.

Even Connolly's final, sharpest barb is leavened with an elegiac note of appreciation:
Those who are going to write about men of the world ought, I think, to like the world, but apart from this there is much that is interesting, understanding, and well-put in this biography, which has, indeed, a certain mournful epigraphic quality, appearing at a time when we seem about to bid a final farewell to the life of reason, and in a year that has witnessed the demolition of Chesterfield House, and the death of the last Earl of Chesterfield. The Cyrenaicism of Rochester killed him in his thirties, the mellow Stoicism of Chesterfield secured him happiness until he was eighty.
Three or four perceptive, memorable, even quotable lines in a five-page review, written on deadline--it may not have satisfied Connolly, but I'd sure think it a good day's work.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Where to point one's time machine?

To open a review of a book on Lord Chesterfield, collected in The Condemned Playground (1945), Cyril Connolly wrote,
All of us who allow the sense of the past a certain play in our lives come sooner or later to adopt a special period, to fall in love with a few decades of history which we cannot read about without a certain quickening, an interior voice affirming, "This was the time." For many people it will be the Elizabethan period, for others the seventeenth century, the Regency, or the reign of Charles II. For me it is the first half of the eighteenth century and the few years before it: the end of Dryden, the flowering of Congreve and Pope, the beginnings of Horace Walpole and Selwyn, a transitional age full of a certain beautiful clumsiness such as is found in the interiors of Hogarth and the furniture of William Kent.
Before I set about answering Connolly's implied question, the relatively rigorous rationalist in me insists on pointing out that any serious look at the difference between past and present will come down almost entirely in favor of the present, at least for those of us fortunate enough to live in the developed world. Looked at from any number of viewpoints (from basic human rights and gender equity to advances in medicine to the decreasing costs of knowledge to the fact that I can, right now, on a freezing March night, find a bunch of fresh grapes for sale, cheap, within half a mile, something that would have made a Roman emperor pass out) any real wish to be somewhere in the past should be looked at with deep suspicion--and that's all before we note that such a wish always assumes that one's historical travels will land one in some echelon of the comfortable classes, however small their numbers may have been. The life of a peasant in the early eighteenth century is not, we can assume, what Connolly is imagining.

But now that rationality has said its piece, let's just wave politely at its departing back and settle in to the pleasurable warmth of literary nostalgia. Aaaaah. That's more like it.

So what era whispers to me? It won't surprise regular readers of this blog that for almost my entire adult life it's been Connolly's own time: the interwar years in England. Described vividly in countless cherished novels and memoirs, they were the heyday of so many of my favorite writers: Anthony Powell, Evelyn Waugh, P. G. Wodehouse, Virginia Woolf, Graham Greene, Ivy Compton-Burnett, George Orwell, and Nancy Mitford among them. The satirists alone make me want to travel to their time, so that I can see firsthand the vapidity and philistinism that was their source material. The lives we learn about from the authors of the interwar years are similar enough in both outlook and material culture to ours to feel comfortably comprehensible, yet the world they reflect is tinged with a glamor that did not survive the rapid-fire modernization that followed World War II. It's almost enough to make you forget that this was also the period of the rise of fascism, the Moscow show trials, and a worldwide depression--but I forgot: I'm officially trafficking in nostalgia here. Oh, to have a drink on the terrace of a country house with Anthony Powell and Henry Green, with Evelyn Waugh grumbling in the corner!

In the past year, however, I've found my faith wavering, my eyes wandering to the eighteenth century, the freewheeling years that saw the births of both the novel and the print culture in which we still live. Maybe Connolly is right? Or almost right--I'd be more inclined to pick a slightly later period, essentially the years of James Boswell's lifespan, 1740 to 1795. Johnson dominates the era, but he is joined by such an array of wonderful characters, among them Henry Fielding, Samuel Richardson, David Garrick, Laurence Sterne, William Hogarth, and Lord Chesterfield. If I could be allowed to tack a few years onto each end of Boswell's sadly short life, it would be possible to be an adult in time to meet Jonathan Swift and Alexander Pope, while as an old man getting to read the first of Jane Austen's novels. Could one ask for more?

So which should it be? My reading in the eighteenth century is neither as broad nor as deep as my knowledge of the interwar years, so if confronted today with a time machine, I'd have to chose the closer destination. But the late Georgian era is tempting nonetheless . . . maybe Jenny Davidson, who specializes in that period, would be willing to weigh in?

And while we're at it, what period calls to you?

Monday, March 03, 2008

"Your time is short, watery Palinurus. What do you believe?", or, Connolly in Lemuria

{Nursery monkey painted by rocketlass.}

Sven Birkerts describes Cyril Connolly as
a man who wandered slowly and purposefully through the vast territories of the written word. . . . He loved literature, and his whole life was given over to expressing that love.
--which would seem to fit with Anthony Powell's assessment, more generous than it sounds at first blush, that
Connolly's outstanding quality is his pervasiveness, his determination that you are going to like what he likes.
Despite its melancholy overtones, Connolly's magpie masterpiece The Unquiet Grave (1944) demonstrates that enthusiasm, piling quotation after quotation, thought after thought from and about his favorite writers into a sort of literary hedge against the physical and emotional oblivion of the Blitz. With its thumbnail sketches, parables, epigrams, and aphorisms, it feels like a writer's notebook. But rather than pillage it for a novel, Connolly published it as is, perhaps taking his own advice:
Those who are consumed with curiosity about other people but do not love them should write maxims, for no one can become a novelist unless he love his fellow-men.
So rather than being ceded to an imagined character, aphorisms like this one--
Money talks through the rich as alcohol swaggers in the drunken, calling softly to itself to unite into the lava flow which petrifies all it touches.
--remain the property of Connolly himself; similarly, an observation like this one--
It is the fear of middle-age in the young, and of old-age in the middle-aged, which is the prime cause of infidelity, that infallible rejuvenator.
--stripped of any distancing context, is difficult not to see as a reflection on Connolly's own vexed relationship to marriage.

Even leaving aside possible biographical links, The Unquiet Grave is full of casually interesting thoughts:
How many people drop in on us? That is a criterion of friendship.

Imprisoned in every fat man a thin one is wildly signalling to be let out.

To sit late in a restaurant (especially when one has to pay the bill) or over a long meal after a cocktail party is particularly conducive to Angst, which does not affect us after snacks taken in an armchair with a book.
Not everything Connolly includes is of interest; some ideas, as is bound to be the case in any writer's notebook, remain inert on the page. For example, this question-and-answer seems like warmed-over Lichtenberg or Kafka:
Why do sole and turbot borrow the colours and even the contours of the sea-bottom? Out of self-protection? No, out of self-disgust.
That passage also hints at the pretension that dogs The Unquiet Grave, forever threatening to overwhelm it, especially in the too-common passages of untranslated French and Latin. But for the most part pretension is held at bay by Connolly's wit, self-deprecation, and unexpected humor, as in this "Message from the Id":
If you would collect women instead of books I think I could help you.
Or this pleasantly idiosyncratic list of stimulants, which pops up in the midst of a meditation on the ways to properly feed the brain:
Thus tea, coffee, alcohol stimulate.

So do heights, wet days, south-west gales, hotel bedroom in Paris and windows overlooking harbours. Also snow, frost, the electric bell outside a cinema at night, sex-life and fever.
Which brings me to my favorite moment in the book, when Connolly writes lovingly absurd obituaries for two lemur "houseghosts" who lived with him and his wife along the Mediterranean, one of which sometimes traveled with him by bicycle, "buttoned up inside my jacket with his head sticking out." The lemur Whoopee is described as "gentle and fearless," given to taunting dogs, but it's in the obituary for the other lemur, Polyp, that Connolly really begins to shine:
Most gifted of lemurs, who hated airplanes in the sky, on the screen, and even on the wireless. How he would have hated this war! He could play in the snow or swim in a river or conduct himself in a night-club; he judged human beings by their voices; biting some, purring over others, while for one or two well-seasoned old ladies he would brandish a black prickle-studded penis, shaped like a eucalyptus seed. Using his tail as an aerial, he would lollop through long grass to welcome his owners, embracing them with little cries and offering them a lustration from his purple tongue and currycomb teeth. His manners were those of some spoiled young Maharajah, his intelligence not inferior, his heart all delicacy--women, gin and muscats were his only weaknesses. Alas, he died of pneumonia when we scolded him for coughing , and with him vanished the sea-purple cicada kingdom of calanque an stone-pipe and the concept of life as an arrogant private dream shared by two.
By the end, not only has Connolly convinced us, undoubtedly, to like what he likes, these "wild ghost faces from a lost continent who soon will be extinct," but he's seamlessly drawn their loss into the larger story of his own losses, of his crumbling marriage and the war to come.

It seems only fair to end this with a note labeled "Birthday resolution," which gleams hopefully amid the surrounding melancholy:
From now on specialize; never again make any concession to the ninety-nine parts of you which are like everybody else at the expense of the one which is unique. Never listen to the False Self talking.
Though Connolly had turned forty by the time he completed The Unquiet Grave, that resolution seems admirably like the thought of a young man, still at home in the unusual and confident in his powers; the memorable bricolage of The Unquiet Grave is a unique testament to both qualities.

Saturday, March 01, 2008

Cyril and the Mrs. Connollys

In The Departure Platform (1998), the third volume of her memoirs, Lady Violet Powell relates the following story of the first visit of Cyril Connolly and his second wife, Barbara Connolly (nee Skelton) to her and Anthony's country house, in the early 1950s:
On Sunday morning Cyril set up a record of six sausages at breakfast, one still standing and only equalled nearly twenty years later by the Australian writer Clive James. Later in the day we drove Cyril and Barbara to see Wells Cathedral. Possibly with the idea of conveying peace to her soul, Cyril dictated that Barbara should sit in the Lady Chapel and raise her eyes in contemplation of the roof. Edward Hutton (Highways and Byways in Somerset) describes the Lady Chapel at Wells as "the most beautiful East End to be found in England, a thing beyond criticism or praise, an immortal and perfect loveliness." These might well have been Cyril's sentiments. Barbara's remained a matter for speculation.
If you detect a wry doubt in that last line, you're not incorrect: it wasn't long before Barbara, whom Lady Violet describes as a "seductively pretty girl," was known to be generally, well, available--among her conquests over the years were, reportedly, Charles Addams and King Farouk.

Not long after the Connollys' weekend visit, the Powells attended a party for election night of 1955 hosted by the Daily Telegraph (a party that one assumes was fairly joyous on the whole, given the strong showing by the Telegraph-supported Tories in that election), where Lady Violet ran into Mrs. Connolly again:
As the night wore on, emotions ran hot and cold. At one moment I found myself soothing a disgruntled politician, who was foreseeing the defeat of his party. Later, I listened sympathetically while Graham Greene, an old friend, complained that a young actress to whom he had taken a fancy was showing an unreasonable preference for a TV commentator more nearly her contemporary. These were simply occasions for kind words, but I was somewhat foxed when Barbara Connolly fought her way through the crowd in order to say, "I hear we behaved so well when we stayed with you that we may even be asked again." My difficulty was that Barbara was closely followed by a new partner, George Wiedenfeld, so that the term "we" had become ambiguous.
What delicate, amused irony in that last line!

Perhaps it is to such brazenness that Connolly was looking forward--while, presumably, drawing on the pain of the failure of his first marriage--when he wrote the screed against wives from The Unquiet Grave (1940) that opens,
There is no fury like an ex-wife searching for a new lover. When we see a woman chewing the cud meekly beside her second husband, it is hard to imagine how brutally, implacably, and pettily she got rid of the others. There are two great moments in a woman's life: when first she finds herself to be deeply in love with her man and when she leaves him.
By 1959, however, Connolly had overcome his trepidation once more in order to marry Deirdre Craven, to whom he would remain married until his death in 1974. Deirdre also makes a brief appearance in Lady Violet's memoir, at a dinner party soon after the marriage. I enjoy this scene, like the two above, both for the picture of Connolly and for the glimpse of Lady Violet's eye for character and incident, a taste that clearly ran along similar lines to that of Anthony:
Discussing the pattern of the girls he fancied, Cyril had slotted them into the categories of the dark consoler, the redhead and the extreme blonde. This certainly matched the pattern of his wives as far as appearances went, Jeannie, Barbara and Deirdre in that order.
One can easily imagine that act of categorization, barely altered, turning up in the musings of Nick Jenkins A Dance to the Music of Time.

I'll most likely have some more on Connolly--including his obituaries for lemurs!--over the next couple of days.