Thursday, July 31, 2008

Three things that you might reasonably assume that we know . . .

. . . yet which recent reading has revealed to me that we don't.

The location of the Rubicon

Adrian Goldsworthy, in his Caesar: Life of a Colossus (2006) explains,
On the road from Ravenna to Ariminum (modern Rimini) the boundary between the province and Italy itself was marked by the Rubicon, a small river that to this day has not been positively identified.
Tom Holland, who named his Rubicon: The Last Years of the Roman Republic (2003) after the fateful river, points out that not only is our knowledge of the river limited mostly to the fact that it was "narrow and obscure," but we're not even sure when it was crossed. The consensus is that it was on the night of January 10th, 49 BCE, but that's by no means certain:
One source tells us that the Rubicon was forded after sunrise. Others imply that the advance guard had already passed into Italy by the time that Caesar himself arrived on the river's bank. Even the date can only be deduced from extraneous events. A scholarly consenss has formed around 10 January, but any date between then and the 14th has been argued for--and besides, thanks to the vagaries of the pre-Julian calendar, what the Romans called January was in fact our November.

What the Library of Alexandria looked like

This one I'll leave to Alberto Manguel, who writes of the Library of Alexandria in the first chapter of his lovely new book The Library at Night (2008):
It is infuriating not to be able to tell what the Library of Alexandria looked like. With understandable hubris, every one of its chroniclers (all those whose testimony has reached us) seems to have thought its description superfluous. The Greek geographer Strabo, a contemporary of Diodorus, described the city of Alexandria in detail but, mysteriously, failed to mention the Library. "The Museion too forms part of the royal buildings and comprises a peripatos [deambulatory], an exedra with seats, and a large building housing the common room where scholars who are members of the Museion take their meals," is all he tells us. "Why need I even speak of it, since it is imperishably held in the memory of all men?" wrote Athenaeus of Naucratis, barely a century and a half after its destruction. The Library that wanted to be the storehouse for the memory of the world was not able to secure for us the memory of itself.
I am particularly impressed by the misplaced confidence of Athenaeus of Naucratis: no matter how well-remembered a place was, after a century and a half, wouldn't you think at least a thumbnail description might be in order?

Which of Byron's feet was lame

This one, I'll admit, is less world-historically important than the other two. That's somewhat balanced, though, by the fact that it concerns a person who lived relatively recently, and who was an object of intense fascination even in his lifetime, making the uncertainty all the more surprising.

Fiona MacCarthy examines the question in her Byron: Life and Legend (2003):
Which was Byron's lame leg? So much mystery has shrouded the subject, some of it created by Byron himself in his attempts to draw attention away from his deformity, that Thomas Moore, collecting information for his biography of Byron only a few years after Byron's death, could not arrive at a consensus of opinion. Elizabeth Pigot, Byron's old friend from Southwell, Augusta Leigh, his half-sister and lover, and the old Nottinghamshire cobbler who made young Byron's special shoes for him, all said it was the right leg. Leigh Hunt and Mary Shelley maintained it was the left leg, as did Jackson the pugilist, drawing on his memories of Byron's stance when sparring, and Millingen the surgeon who attended Byron in his final illness. The notoriously inaccurate Edward Trelawny, in a high-flown description of his visit to "the embalmed body of the Pilgrim," claimed to have discovered that both Byron's feet were clubbed. However, we can safely take his mother's word for it. As she told her sister-in-law, Mrs Frances Leigh, "George's foot turns inward, and it is the right foot; he walks quite on the side of his foot."
It does seem as if the more reliable sources agree on the right foot, but I'm still impressed at how much uncertainty there is, especially because of the role that Byron's lameness has long been presumed--even by his friends--to have played in the formation of his character. Edward John Trelawny--who on his visit to Byron's body waited until Byron's valet William Fletcher left the room, then sneakily uncovered his dead friend's feet--spoke for more than just himself when he wrote, in Records of Shelley, Byron, and the Author (1858,
His deformity was always uppermost in his thoughts, and influenced every act of his life, spurred him on to poetry, as that was one of hte few paths to fame open to him--and as if to be revenged on Nature for sending him into the world "scarce half made up," he scoffed at her works and traditions with the pride of Lucifer.

But don't worry, folks: future readers won't suffer under unanswered questions like these--anything any descendants of ours could conceivably want to know will surely be somewhere in the Twitter archives, right?

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

The dangers of drink!

{Photo of the lovely Le Tigre bar in Madison, Wisconsin by rocketlass.}

At least somewhat under the influence of gin and champagne at a wedding last weekend, I . . .

1 Discussed, with rocketlass and another guest who happened to be an Anthony Powell fan, which of two attendees was most likely to be Pamela Widmerpool. The vote, as I suppose it usually would regarding this question, broke down on gender lines.

2 Urged said Powell fan to watch the BBC television adaptation of A Dance to the Music of Time. I would likely never have been willing to try it without Ed Park's recommendation, but on watching it this spring rocketlass and I were pleasantly surprised at how much of Powell's sensibility it conveyed. And oh, the casting is good! I'm not sure that it would hold any interest for a non-Dance fan, aside from its splendidly rendered period settings and costumes (How well upper-class men dressed in the first half of the twentieth century!), but for a Powell fan the initial appearance of nearly every character is a moment of sheer pleasure.

3 Succumbed, following years of resistance, to my friend Erin Hogan's entreaties to read her favorite novel, David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest. My capitulation came about in large part because said Powell fan, who happens to be her best friend, explained that, on reading Dance, he e-mailed Erin to say, "The Jest has fallen to second place." Worse, I promised to read it this week, which, as I try to be a man who honors his word, I've begun to do.

From reading literature, I'm given to understand that people have, through the years, here and there been known to commit more grievous errors when under the influence of drink. At times, there are unquestionable benefits to being a book nerd.

Monday, July 28, 2008

"The integrity of my sleep has been forever compromised, sir."

{Photo by rocketlass.}

One night last week I dreamed that a previously unknown and unpublished story by Vladimir Nabokov, called "H. H. in Eden," had come to light. Even as I was dreaming, I was trying deliberately to remember the details of the story as I read it; the usual half-lucidity of my dreaming self allowed me to know that the only place "H. H. in Eden" actually existed was in my head. Though on waking I lost the rich language of Nabokov--which, heartbreakingly, was fully realized in the dream--I retained the basic outline of the tale.

What I remember of it is this:
Humbert Humbert, having somehow escaped the fate described for him in the introduction to Lolita, manages to trick the Archangel Michael into letting him slip into the long-vacant Eden to escape the hash he has made of his life. Once past Michael and his flaming sword, however, Humbert is surprised to discover that Eden, rather than being depopulated . . . is full of other Humberts. Somehow {and here is where my ability to translate the logic of dreamlife begins to break down} that brings home to Humbert the painful realization that Michael hadn't been fooled at all, and that he'd let Humbert, not into Eden, but into Purgatory.
And there, with that somewhat metaphysical take on an O. Henry twist, the story ended. If only I could get back to that specific dream--but we so rarely find our way back to the same dreams twice, to what Proust called the "second apartment that we have, into which, abandoning our own, we go in order to sleep." I fear that the summary above is all our world is likely to enjoy of "H. H. in Eden."

The dream reminded me that I haven't yet presented a link to a pleasantly strange article by Hilary Mantel that appeared in the Guardian a while back, in which she tells of a story that, Coleridge-like, she pulled straight from a dream. Explains Mantel,
Wrapped in its peculiar atmosphere, as if draped in clouds, I walked entranced to my desk at about 4am and typed it on to the screen. The story was called "Nadine at Forty". In its subject matter, in its tone, its setting, it bore no relation to anything I have ever written before or since. It extended itself easily into paragraphs, requiring little correction and not really admitting any; how could my waking self revise what my sleeping self had imagined? By 6am I had finished. I was shaking with fatigue.
Part of what draws me to Mantel as a writer is her ability to plausibly--and yet chillingly--convey, both in fiction or memoir, uncanny moments; in this particular tale, there's still another unexpected creepy turn to come once she's transcribed the story from her dream brain to her computer.

I should also point out the nice recent piece on sleep in the London Review of Books by regular contributor Jenny Diski. Diski is a lover of sleep, while I only reluctantly make my daily peace with its necessity, but her column is wonderfully decriptive and anecdotal, her description of the borderlands of sleep--forevermore owned by Proust though they may be--sufficiently enchanting to justify reading the whole article:
Coming to, coming round. Slowly. Holding onto sleep, then hovering in hypnoland for as long as you can. Jung almost redeems himself from creepy spiritus munditude with the story in which he asks his new patient, a pathologically anxious, blocked writer, to describe his day in detail. ‘Well, I wake, get up and . . .’ ‘Stop,’ Jung says. ‘That’s where you’re going wrong.’ Not likely to be true, but perfectly correct. The hinterland between sleeping and waking is what compensates for having to start and get through the day, blocked writer, besieged schoolteacher or sullen secretary as I’ve been in my time.
Finally, a prize* awaits the first person who can tell me where I took this post's headline from.

*Prize to be your choice of one of two books I've discovered multiple copies of recently in my house: Tanizaki's Some Prefer Nettles or the second volume of Tolstoy's letters. This is, after all, a low-rent blog, which fact prizes will necessarily reflect.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

"Tolstoy's truest prayer was the manuscript of Hadji Murad"

One of my tiny goals in writing this blog is to make it one of the first places people land following searches for information about Tolstoy's last fiction, the posthumously published novella Hadji Murat (1912). I've raved about the book before: though one of the least well-known of Tolstoy's works, it's the perfect introduction to his genius, offering in a mere hundred-plus pages glimpses of both his unmatched eye for telling detail and the seemingly endless wells of sympathy that underlie his characterizations. At the same time, when set next to his early novel The Cossacks, which is set in the same region, Hadji Murat serves as a clear demonstration of the growth of his skill and perception. Despite the fact that the The Cossacks was based largely on Tolstoy's own experiences as a young man, while Hadji Murat was created through research, it is the earlier novel that at times feels imagined or constructed, while the later novel never feels less than fully lived.

In Tolstoy and the Novel (1966), John Bayley writes that "some portraits in the story are as life-giving and complete as those in War and Peace," while Viktor Shklovsky, in Energy of Delusion (1981), not only makes the grand claim of this post's headline, but also writes, "Among his great works, Tolstoy has one that's the best. It's Hadji Murad." The tale's place at the end of Tolstoy's ouevre is given a further poignancy by the fact that even as he wrote it, Tolstoy was actively denying to himself that literature had value. As A. N. Wilson explains in Tolstoy: A Biography (1988)
While he was writing it between 1896 and 1904, so little did its subject matter accord with mainstream Tolstoyan pacifism that he felt obliged to work on it "on the quiet" and, by the time he had completed the Shakespeare essay and persuaded himself that literature was evil or a waste of time, Hadji Murat was laid aside.
Wilson explains that though Tolstoy denigrated his achievement, his wife, even as their long-running marital wars were reaching fever pitch, treasured the book, writing in her diary,
I have done nothing but copy out Hadji Murat. It's so good! I simply couldn't tear myself away from it.
What brings me back to Hadji Murat today is a letter I came across in the second volume of R. F. Christian's two-volume collection of Tolstoy's letters. Written from Yasnaya Polyana in January of 1903 to Anna Avessalomovna Korganova, the widow of the army officer who had guarded Hadji Murat after he had crossed over to the Russian side in the perpetual war in the Caucasus, it reveals Tolstoy even at that late date searching for specific details to give his portrait of the charismatic rebel leader the force of reality.
Dear Anna Avessalomovna,

Your son, Ivan Iosifovich, having learned that I am writing about Hadji Murat, was kind enough to tell me many details about him and, moreover, permitted me to turn to you with a request for more detailed information about the naib Shamil who lived with you at Nukha. Although Ivan Iosifovich's information is very interesting, many things might have been unknown to him or wrongly understood by him, since he was only a ten-year-old boy at the time. I am venturing therefore to turn to you, Anna Avessolomovna, with the request to answer certain questions of mine and to tell me all you remember about this man and about his escape and tragic end.

Any detail about his life during his stay with you, his appearance and his relations with your family and other people, any apparently insignificant detail which has stuck in your memory, will be very interesting and valuable to me.

My questions are as follows:

1. Did he speak even a little Russian?
2. Whose were the horses on which he tried to escape--his own, or ones given to him? And were they good horses, and what colour were they?
3. Did he limp noticeably?
4. Did the house where you lived upstairs, and he downstairs, have a garden?
5. Was he strict in observing Mohammedan rituals, the five daily prayers etc.

Forgive me, Anna Avessalomovna, for troubling you with such trifles, and accept my sincere gratitude for everything you do to carry out my request.

I remain, with the utmost respect, at your service,
Lev Tolstoy

P.S. Another question (6) What were the murids like who were with Hadji Murat and escaped with him, and how did they differ from him?

And yet another question (7) Did they have rifles on them when they escaped?
It's the hurried questions in the postscript that really bring Tolstoy to life in this letter; like a good friend lingering at a dinner party because there's still so much more to talk about, he can't help but want to know more, more, more. I love question six in particular, the way its request for what are essentially brief character studies rests on an implicit confidence that the discernment and descriptive powers of a master novelist--what Shklovsky calls "Tolstoy's strength and ability to construct the temple of the human soul"--are available to any stranger to call on when asked.

The letter seems to support what Shklovsky, in his typically fervid fashion, notes about Tolstoy's work on this novel in his last years:
[E]ven when he was sick and close to death, Tolstoy was still doing research for this novel. He demanded books, checking the details in them. . . . When Tolstoy finished Hadji Murad, he lifted himself up on the arms of his chair and said: that's how it should be, yes, that's how it should be.

And there he was, a mountaineer, heading straight toward the bullets.

He was singing a song.
As I've urged before: read Hadji Murat. You won't regret it.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

The madness of the artists

{Photo by rocketlass from the House on the Rock.}

Is it even humanly possible to resist a book with chapter titles like these:
Eccentric Behaviour and Noble Manners

Genius Madness, and Melancholy

Suicides of Artists

Celibacy, Love, and Licentiousness

Misers and Wastrels
They're from Born Under Saturn (1963), an anecdote-laden study of the relationship of art and madness by Margot and Rudolf Wittkower. Just republished by those strenuous supporters of melancholy, the New York Review of Books, I can tell after mere minutes that it's going to offer many a great line to share. Like this, from the section in "Genius, Madness, and Melancholy" called, "Was Franz Xaver Messerschmidt Insane?":
Even the most extravagant beliefs can hardle be quoted as proof of an individual's insanity, if they are shared by many thousands for hundreds of years.
Or this, from "Artists and the Law":
It must be recalled that lawbreakers infested every country and every class of society. Unrestrained passions, violence and felonies of all kinds were not confined to a "criminal class." Kings and popes, members of the aristocracy and clergy burghers, craftsmen and peasants were all capable of crimes which now, as a rule, are the reserve of specialized professionals or maniacs.
Elsewhere, they relate the story of an artist who slashes the face of a rival, but, through the peculiar justice of the early Renaissance,
at the last moment the penalty was commuted to service on one of the papal galleys, "in consideration of his being innocent of most of the accusations except the sin of face-slashing--if sin it is."
No question that you'll be hearing more from this one in the coming months.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Anne Carson unquestionably deserves better than to be stuck in this post with my lame attempt at haiku, but that's not stopping me!

{Photos by rocketlass.}

From Autobiography of Red (1998), by Anne Carson
Thank you, said Geryon
and bit into an olive. The pimiento stung his mouth alive like sudden sunset.
In South Haven, MI,
Not a martini in sight.
Should have packed my kit.
If we call Helen up either she will sit with her glass of vermouth and let it ring or she will answer.
And though we would never be so presumptuous as to disturb Helen of Troy--who of course is the sort to drink straight vermouth--with a phone call, should we ever find ourselves with a ringing phone in hand and Helen of Troy at the other end, we just may ask her to deliver our portable martini-making kit.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Evidence of a pathology?

{Photos by rocketlass.}

That's what our second bedroom looked like last week while we waited for our new bookcases to arrive. Fortunately, we had no guests at the time.

Now they're here, and it's remarkable how much more ordered life seems, A leading unwaveringly to Zed. And (is this a bad thing?) it's amazing how much more room we have to put new books!

As Luc Sante noted in his Wall Street Journal article about his library a couple of months ago, people--usually non-readers--are always asking, "Have you really read all those books?"

To which the most honest response is, "Of course not: this is my to-do list."

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Unexpected connections

Pleasantly surprising rhymes of tone and subject like this one are the primary reason for my habit of reading a couple of novels at once.

From Sodom and Gomorrah (1921), by Marcel Proust, translated by John Sturrock
A demon of perversity had driven her, despising a ready-made position, to flee the conjugal home, and to live in the most scandalous fashion. Then, the world she had despised as a twenty-year-old, when it was at her feet, failed her cruelly at thirty, when, for the last ten years, no one, bar a few faithful woman friends, any long acknowledged her, and she had undertaken painstakingly to reconquer, bit by bit, what she had possessed at her birth (a not uncommon return journey).

From Do Everything in the Dark (2003), by Gary Indiana
"I want to forget all this," Jesse says, "but what if one day I want to remember?" Frivolous options.

Friday, July 18, 2008

The pleasure of unrepentant nastiness

{Photo by Joe Germuska, used under a Creative Commons license.}

As you can tell if you've read this blog for a while, I'm not much of a fan of escapist fiction. Yet at the same time, literature is my one big escape, distracting me during my commute and getting me through long lines at the grocery. My post the other day about cattiness reminded me, though, of one fairly escapist way in which I use literature: I love to read about horrid, unrepentantly nasty behavior that I would never for a moment tolerate--that in fact would horrify me--in real life. {It's a pleasure that rocketlass completely fails to understand. I think that means she's a better person than I am.}

And I'm in the mood for some now, which is why I picked up Choderlos de Laclos's Les Liasons Dangereuses at the bookstore the other night--though my friend Jim McCoy, who's very good on this topic, tells me that the copy of Balzac's Lost Illusions that I have on my bookshelf would do just fine . . .

A very dry martini, some cold-hearted betrayals, and page after page of calculating, slashing, unrepentant double-dealing and nastiness. What more could I want for a summer evening? Any other reading suggestions while I'm at it?

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

"A thoroughly nasty piece of work" or, Parties and some lessons in the glories of cattiness

{Photo by rocketlass.}

I apologize in advance for the vulgarity of this first scene, but it was too good to pass up. It comes from Gary Indiana's Do Everything in the Dark (2003):
From a fat manila envelope bursting at the seams, Jesse fishes snapshots of Millie Ferguson. He remembers her green eye shadow, glassy Mylar dresses, high wiry whore-blond hair, the array of indelible expressions that wacky woman wore instead of jewelry. Millie exuded an air of hoarding astounding secrets and spiriting special people into dark corners to examine her pussy (which Jesse'd always imagined the lair of rare African snakes or fantastic Amazonian orchids) or to snuffle up an Everest of cocaine. The dope addict rictus, the born sneak's irresistible smirk, the stolid Teutonic jawline that slackened like rubber after two a.m. Millie Ferguson got ambushed by mirrors, stuck to them like a pinned butterfly, and who wouldn't if they looked like her? People wanted either to be Millie or to fuck her, or both.
Such sterling cattiness Indiana pulls off there, reaching heights only scaleable with the aid of real longing and undeniable praise. It's nearly worthy of the master, Proust, whose way with a cutting comment is so easy that he doesn't even have to save them all for Marcel, instead distributing them freely to all manner of characters, worthy and unworthy alike. Here, for example, is Madame de Guermantes, taking her oily leave of a party, in Sodom and Gomorrah:
"Goodbye, I've hardly spoken to you, that's how it is in society, we don't meet, we don't say the things we'd like to say to one another; anyway it's the same everywhere in life. Let's hope it'll be better organized after we're dead. At least we won't always have to wear low-cut dresses. Yet who knows? Perhaps we shall show off our bones and our worms on big occasions. Why note? I say, look at old mother Rampillon, d'you see any great difference between that and a skeleton in an open dress? It's true she has every right, she's at least a hundred years old. She was already one of those sacred monsters I refused to curtsy to when i was starting out in society. I thought she'd died long since; which would as it happens be the one explanation for the spectacle she's offering us. It's impressive and liturgical."
Or this, which he gives to Madame de Gallardon, spurned cousin of the Duchesse de Guermantes:
"I'm not in the least anxious to see her," she had replied. "I caught sight of her just now, in any case, she's beginning to age; it seems she can't come to terms with it. Basin himself says so. And I can well understand that, because, since she's not intelligent, is a thoroughly nasty piece of work, and has a bad way with her, she certainly feels that, once she's no longer beautiful, she'll have nothing left at all."
It is one of Proust's greatest achievements to reveal the emptiness and ridiculousness of society life while simultaneously making us very glad that he took us along to these parties. We love being there because, unlike all the guests Proust depicts, we can simply relax and enjoy the spectacle through his eyes, without worrying about the figure we cut or the connections we make. Which makes Proust's eye for the ridiculous and the silly all the more fun. Here he offers us the words of the frivolous and self-regarding Madam de Citri, at the same party:
"Do you like listening to that, music? Good Lord, it depends on the moment. But it can be so very tedious! I mean, Beethoven, la barbe!" With Wagner, then with Franck, and Debussy, she did not even trouble to say 'la barbe' but was content to pass her hand across her face, like a barber. Soon, what was tedious was everything. "Beautiful things, they're so tedious! Paintings, they're enough to drive you mad . . . How right you are, it's so tedious, writing letters!" In the end it was life itself that she declared to us was a bore, without one quite knowing from where she was taking her term of comparison.
Which puts me in the mind of that great apostle of both cattiness and list-making, Sei Shonagon. Here she combines her two strengths, with a list of "Things That Have Lost Their Power" from her Pillow Book, which itself is definitely belongs on a list of life's pleasing things:
A large boat which is high and dry in a creek at ebb-tide.

A woman who has taken off her false locks to comb the short hair that remains.

A large tree that has been blown down in a gale and lies on its side with its roots in the air.

The retreating figure of a sumo wrestler who has been defeated in a match.

A man of no importance reprimanding an attendant.

An old man who removes his hat, uncovering his scanty topknot.

A woman, who is angry with her husband about some trifling manner, leaves home and goes somewhere to hide. She is certain that he will rush about looking for her; but he does nothing of the kind and shows the most infuriating indifference. Since she cannot stay away forever, she swallows her pride and returns.
Or, for a more straightforward baring of her teeth, how about this:
Masahiro really is a laughing-stock. I wonder what it is like for his parents and friends. If people see him with a decent-looking servant, they always call for the fellow and laughingly ask how he can wait upon such a master and what he thinks of him. There are skilled dyers and weavers in Masahiro's household, and when it comes to dress, whether it be the colour of his under-robe or the style of his cloak, he is more elegant than most men; yet the only effect of his elegance is to make people say, "What a shame someone else isn't wearing thse things!"
Ouch. And double ouch when you remember that Sei Shonagan surely smiled to Masahiro's face as she composed these lines in her head. Then there's this, from a list of "Hateful Things":
A man who has nothing in particular to recommend him discusses all sorts of subjects at random as though he knew everything.
There's enough of an implicit warning in that to make me close this post; I'll wrap up by including a video for one of my favorite songs of last year, the languid, scandalously unimpressed Pierces singing "Boring." Enjoy . . . or, as the mood strikes you, be bored:

Monday, July 14, 2008

Why I am much more of a Connollyean than a Sartrean

Oh, I suppose there are a host of reasons--along with reasons that, properly considered, would push me the other way. But for now, I think this one will do: while it's impossible to deny that Sartre's formulation that hell is other people at times rings quite true, this definition by Cyril Connolly, from a 1968 review of George Orwell's Collected Essays, Journalism, and Letters seems far more useful--and more brutally dead-on:
My idea of Hell is a place where one is made to listen to everything one has ever said.
Seems the right thought for a Monday morning, no?

Friday, July 11, 2008

Though Rivka Galchen's Atmospheric Disturbances doesn't appear anywhere in this dream, I promise that's what this dream is about.

{Photo by rocketlass.}

Right before I went to bed last night, I read for a while from Rivka Galchen's impressive and strange new novel Atmospheric Disturbances (2008); as I read, I found myself reminded, more than anything else, of Kazuo Ishiguro's The Unconsoled (1995), a book I read on its publication thirteen years ago and in a certain sense haven't stopped thinking about since. It's a giant mess of a book that partakes of nearly equal parts Kafka and Chaplin, about a pianist who is perpetually finding life interfering with life, small everyday distractions and failures of memory wreaking havoc on his efforts to be a good husband, father, and artist.

Ultimately The Unconsoled is as frustrating as it is memorable; I tend to think of it as a magnificent failure--yet one whose very ambition has shadowed all of Ishiguro's subsequent novels, showing them up for the circumscribed, disappointingly minor works that they are. {Though I should be clear that I'm in a definite minority here, as the consensus view of Never Let Me Go (2006) in particular is that it was brilliant.} I haven't stopped rushing to the bookstore to buy Ishiguro's novels the minute they're available, but so far I'm still waiting for him to write something as impressive as The Unconsoled.

Which brings me to my dream. Along with my parents, brother, sister, and rocketlass, I had decided to swim across Lake Michigan. Though the dream didn't offer an explanation, I had also decided to carry my copy of The Unconsoled with me. So I was more or less swimming one-armed, switching off every once in a while but always keeping one hand above the waves, the book--a 500-plus-page hardcover--clutched tightly. Fortunately, it turns out that not only is Lake Michigan not nearly as wide as one might think when standing on Montrose Beach looking east, but it also features quite a few spots where it's shallow enough that a swimmer can touch down and rest for a moment before plowing on. Carrying my book, and not being a particularly strong swimmer to begin with, I took full advantage of the shallow spots along the way.

When I reached the Michigan shore, I settled down on the beach to read the still-dry book as a sort of reward for my impressive accomplishment. Not wanting to damage the jacket with sand, I pulled it off the book . . . only to discover that back in 1995 when I had last read The Unconsoled, I had for some reason decided to drape a chapati around the cloth binding under the jacket; as you might imagine, after thirteen years, the chapati and the binding both were pretty gross.

And that's my dream about Rivka Galchen's Atmospheric Disturbances. Maybe it makes you want to read it?

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

"I left a note for the sleeping woman, though I wasn't quite sure to whom I was really addressing it."

{Photo by rocketlass.}

The opening sentence of Rivka Galchen's Atmospheric Disturbances (2008) is extremely promising:
Last December a woman entered my apartment who looked exactly like my wife.
Whether the woman really is an imposter or the narrator is suffering from the terrifying Capgras delusion, who cares at this point? Something is dreadfully yet intriguingly wrong, a great position from which to start a novel.

But it quickly gets better: Galchen peppers the first few pages--all I've read so far of the novel--with several moments of tiny slippage and oddity, designed to signal that there's something going on here. The atmosphere of overall strangeness begins with the simple fact that the narrator's pseudo-wife barely reacts when he directly tells her that he doesn't think she's really his wife; it thickens with the sort of distracting attention to perfectly described details that is common to Nabokov's unreliable narrators--the woman "imitated Rema's Argentine accent perfectly, the halos around the vowels," "the ascending pitches of our teakettle's tremble are so familiar to me"; and it quickly moves into the truly bizarre, like this moment when the narrator, surreptitiously rifling the woman's purse,
noticed what I was doing--unfolding credit card receipts, breathing in the scent of her change purse, licking the powder off a half stick of cinnamon gum.
Though there's always the risk that this sort of accumulation of mysterious, half-freaky details will ultimately add up to little, I will admit to being a sucker for a story that begins with such clear, yet unexpected warnings that all is not as it seems; it's one of the great pleasures offered by some of my favorite authors, including Kazuo Ishiguro and Philip K. Dick.

Yup, Ms. Galchen has hit upon a good way to keep me reading. Back out to the porch with this book!

Monday, July 07, 2008

This one's for Luc Sante . . .

and his love of crime novels, mass market paperbacks, and the French language.

Seen in the window of a furniture store in Montreal, perched--too carefully to be truly casual--on a modern end table next to an unrumpled (and perhaps unrumplable) platform bed, adding a quiet suggestion of danger, even trashiness, to the starkly impersonal lines of the faux bedroom of the display: a tatty and tattered paperback of a Lawrence Block novel translated into French under the title Trompe la Morte.

The scene:
When he returns, late, she’s sitting up in bed, half-draped by the artfully disarranged bedclothes, the floor lamp spotlighting the paperback in her hand that he’d left on the table that morning, now fully redeployed in its new role as a weapon against him.

Waving it at him with the manicured thumb she’s using to mark her place, she asks, in French, “Why do you waste your time reading this trash?”

He opens his mouth to reply, in English, but instead he turns away from her and quickly fans through the crumpled notes in his wallet. Even after what can only be termed a successful night, he’s still more than $120 short. Tossing the useless wallet on the low dresser, where it skids across the black lacquer right to the edge before stopping, he quickly begins to shuck his clothes, then fetches the last cigarette from the pack in his shirt pocket before he lets the bundle drop, flares it into light. Then he stretches full-length on the bed, opposite her, his tired feet by her head, eyes up, staring intently as a finger of smoke ascends in a straight line toward the shadows of the ceiling.

“I hate it when you smoke in bed,” she says, again in French.

After a beat, he replies, “I know.” After another beat, he adds, “Mon cherie.”
{This is of course offered with all due and proper apologies to Mr. Block himself.}

Sunday, July 06, 2008

When the whole of your defense is that they weren't sisters and I only slept with one of them . . .

might it not be best to let the rumors go unanswered?

Perhaps not unexpectedly, that absurdly provocative lede carries us to a letter from Lord Byron, dated November 11, 1818, sent from Venice to his friend and informal agent John Cam Hobhouse along with a manuscript:
There are firstly--the first Canto of Don Juan . . . containing two hundred Octaves--and a dedication in verse of a dozen to Bob Southey {at the time Poet Laureate, reminds your obliging blogger}--bitter as necessary--I mean the dedication; I will tell you why.--The Son of a Bitch on his return from Switzerland two years ago--said that Shelley and I "had formed a League of Incest and practiced our precepts with &c."--he lied like a rascal, for they were not Sisters--one being Godwin's daughter by Mary Wollstonecraft--and the other the daughter of the present Mrs. G[odwin] by a former husband.--The Attack contains no allusion to the cause--but--some good verses--and all political & poetical.--He lied in another sense--for there was no promiscuous intercourse--my commerce being limited to the carnal knowledge of the Miss C[lairmont]--I had nothing to do with the offspring of Mary Wollstonecraft--which Mary was a former Love of Southey's--which might have taught him to respect the fame of her daughter.
Though it's hard to imagine a more un-Byronic figure than Anthony Powell {unless perhaps--and should I be sad about this?-- me}, I find I often link the two, primarily because of Powell's {remarkably non-prurient} fascination with the nearly infinitely variable ways in which sex takes--and even controls--people. I'm reminded of a line from his A Writer's Notebook (2001):
People always talk of a love affair as if lovers spent all their time in bed.
Then there's this, also from Powell's notebook, which--if you can get over the implied note of doubt about the feminine intellect--does seem to jibe with experience:
The really extraordinary thing about professional seducers is the drivel they talk, there is not a single cliche they leave unsaid. That is why they have such a success with women.
Even more, I'm put in mind of a line that Powell gives to the best friend of his narrator Nick Jenkins, composer Hugh Moreland, in Temporary Kings (1973), the penultimate volume of A Dance to the Music of Time. Moreland, who has been through his share of tempestuous affairs, offers this bit of wisdom from what will soon become his deathbed:
All other people's sexual relations are hard to imagine. The more staid the people, the more inconceivable their sexual relations. For some, the orgy is the most natural.
Which brings me to a line that one of Iris Murdoch's characters offers in one of her best novels, The Nice and the Good: (1968),
Sex comes to most of us with a twist.
Like the character who hears that statement in the novel, I don't quite buy it every day--but when I read Byron's letters for long enough I do begin to wonder . . .

Friday, July 04, 2008

"no one's going to love you, don't be alarmed"

{Photo by rocketlass.}

It seems fitting that this day of fireworks and celebrations opened, for me, with a post from the mysterious and self-lacerating Spurious, who earlier this week alerted us to the existence of a museum in Lisbon devoted to Fernando Pessoa--and off-handedly noted that the museum was a tremendous disappointment. {Let's be honest, though: doesn't that seem right? Would you want to come out of a Pessoa museum invigorated, transformed, calling your friends to tell them of your love? No, no, instead you want to leave by an unmarked door, pull your hat lower, hunch your shoulders into your coat, and wander off, barely looking at the street signs; your silent room will find you.}

Today Spurious is gnawing at some overwrought, yet admirable, lines from Alberto Giacometti in which the sculptor finds himself "sobb[ing] with rage" at his inability to express himself in words. Why, wonders Spurious, is the very thought of sobbing over recalcitrant prose these days more likely to make us smile with amusement than shake with sympathetic frustration? The investigation leads Spurious {him? her? I don't know that anyone knows, aside from Spurious's occasional interlocutor, W.} right back to Pessoa, then through Beckett and Blanchot, until finally Spurious surrenders, offering a closing paragraph that opens with a ring of rapturous abandon--
Stab yourself in the neck, drink until you fall over. Copy out Giacometti's lines on the walls of your padded cell. Laughter, endless laughter: literature has a fever and is burning up.
--and gets better from there.

All of which led me, too, to Pessoa, in the moments just after dawn, when, having woken with the birds, I was alone in the quiet house; as always, a few minutes spent paging through The Book of Disquiet were rewarded. Here, from "A Factless Autobiography," Pessoa {or his heteronym Bernardo Soares} quietly urges us to rapture by laying out its opposite:
The world belongs to those who don't feel. The essential condition for being a practical man is the absence of sensibility. The chief requisite for the practical expression of life is will, since this leads to action. Two things can thwart action--sensibility and analytic thought, the latter of which is just thought with sensibility. . . . Every man of action is basically cheerful and optimistic, because those who don't feel are happy. You can spot a man of action by the fact he's never out of sorts.
Can those who are never out of sorts really ever be in sorts, though? Can a state exist without its opposite? Or do they simply exist, unchanging and unchanged, neither gaining nor losing--simply, uncomplicatedly, unreflectively being? Is it better to rage like Giacometti?

In principle, yes, for we all can see what Giacometti made of his rage. But I will admit that I tend to keep an even keel, that right now I am unequivocally enjoying sitting on the back stairs in the summer breeze with my laptop, coffee, and ziggurat of books. Uncomplicatedly.

As Beckett had the first word of this post, in the headline, it seems right to let him also have the last one, stepping forward, stepping back, stepping forward. If he can't convince us, no one can.

From "Texts for Nothing" (1950-52)
Leave, I was going to say leave all that. What matter who's speaking, someone said what matter who's speaking. There's going to be a departure, I'll be there, I won't miss it, it won't be me, I'll be here, I'll say I'm far from here, it won't be me, I won't say anything, there's going to be a story, someone's going to try and tell a story. Yes, no more denials, all is false, there is no one, it's understood, there is nothing, no more phrases, let us be dupes, dupes of every time and tense, until it's done, all past and done, and the voices cease, it's only voices, only lies.
Now hie thee out into the holiday and rapturously set some things on fire.

Thursday, July 03, 2008

"The grim shadow of self-knowledge"

{Photo by rocketlass.}

Apropos of the PJ Harvey song I wrote about a few days ago, here's Joseph Conrad's good friend Marlow on self-deception, from Lord Jim (1900)
I didn't know how much of it he believed himself. I didn't know what he was playing up to--if he was playing up to anything at all--and I suspect he did not know either; for it is my belief that no man ever understands quite his own artful dodges to escape from the grim shadow of self-knowledge.
As I've been reading Lord Jim this week, I've also been reading MacDonald Harris's Mortal Leap (1964), a book that, coincidentally, opens with a young man being swept away to a life sea by his reading of Conrad, and which shares some thematic elements with Lord Jim; this passage from the book's opening chapter can serve as a sort of fervid companion to Marlow's cool appraisal:
[U]nder the scars, behind the wrinkle in the forehead, there were other ghosts, deeper and more elusive. Here was the mark where I murdered and fornicated, betrayed my friends and was betrayed by them; here I slept in strange rooms, the whore's cubicle, the prison cell, the psychiatric ward. Is there anybody who would like to have written on his forehead a record of the places where he has slept? We are all innocent, in the end, and all guilty. We move blindly toward our sins, and the things we do and the things we suffer for don't have much to do with each other. In the end there's no justice: the universe is not an auditing firm. Would we like it better if it were? If we had to pay for everything, down to the last cruelty, the last fornication, the last harmless lie? Let's leave the dark places where they are.

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

And the hearts of the world's Joseph Mitchell fans go pitter-pat . . .

MacDonald Harris's novel Mortal Leap (1964) is about Larry Backus, a sailor in the merchant marine who, having had his identity stripped away by a torpedo during World War II, finds himself claimed by a wealthy woman as her husband, a naval lieutenant on the ship amidst whose wreckage Backus, burned beyond recognition, was recovered. I'll have more to say about the book in coming days, especially about how the story of this autodidact is steeped in books to a degree beyond that of most novels, even those featuring proper intellectuals--but today I just want to quickly share a moment that made me break out into a broad smile.

Backus, still adjusting to life among the cultured and moneyed, has just caused a minor stir by putting catsup on his filet mignon. His father-in-law unexpectedly disrupts the awkward silence that ensues, revealing in the process that he, too, has had to earn his familiarity with money:
After a while Leo remarked, "Joe Gould when he was living in the Village always used to pour catsup out on his plate and eat it with a spoon. He didn't like the stuff but he said it was the only thing in a Village diner that was free."

"Who was Joe Gould?" I demanded, still a little truculent.

"A philosopher," was all he would say. A philosopher who ate catsup? That night after the other had gone to bed I locked myself in the study and looked him up in Baldwin's Dictionary of Philosophy, but he wasn't there.
If only the Internet had existed in 1964, perhaps the Wikipedia might have been able to come to the rescue!

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Short stories

In a recent e-mail exchange, a friend who occasionally teaches writing asked me if I had any recommendations of great short stories that he might add to his syllabus. Though I have certain favorites--Flannery O'Connor, Kafka, and J. F. Powers, for example--my general preference for the capacious strangeness of the novel makes me a relatively poor resource when it comes to the short story. Especially when set against my friend's classroom-honed knowledge of the form, I figured initially that I didn't have anything to contribute.

Then in quick succession, I thought of three stories . . . one of which, despite its perfection, I can't really recommend for a writing teacher, while the other two aren't actually stories. Clearly I was on to something!

I've written about the first story already: it's "Peonies and Forget-Me-Nots," from Georgi Gospodinov's And Other Stories (2007). Running to a mere three pages, it's spare and starkly emotional, shot through with loss and the cruelties of fate--yet it shouldn't be allowed anywhere near a writing class. A bare-bones summary, draining the story of its careful language and unexpected perception, will I think make clear the reason: A man and a woman meet in an airport for a couple of hours, during which time they realize that they're soulmates who simply never found each other until that moment, a moment that must inevitably end forever when the woman gets on her plane. See what I mean? My own history as a fiction writing student tells me you're likely to get plenty of that sort of crap without in any way encouraging it. Read and marvel at the story, but please keep it far from any syllabus.

My second suggestion I've also written about recently: it comes from pages 222-24 of Roberto Bolano's The Savage Detectives (2007), an account by Joaquin Font of a day's thoughts as he sits in El Reposo Mental Health Clinic in Mexico City. Hypnotic and repetitive, larded with cryptic references, it barely delivers any information to help the reader place Font or the woman whose loss he's lamenting, yet in its obsessive tying of a tragic memory to the creeping progress of the slow seconds of painful thought, it achieves an undeniable power. Is it a short story? Not really, being an important part of a sprawling, 650-page novel--but I could imagine it serving as a bracing example of the possibilities of the form at its most compact.

Compared to my final example, the preceding one might as well be "Bernice Bobs Her Hair," for this last one is not in any conceivable way a short story. And yet . . . over the weekend, discussing PJ Harvey's best album, Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea (2000), with rocketlass and our friend Carrie, I began to describe "You Said Something," the album's most memorable song (excepting perhaps the four minutes of towering lust that are "This Is Love") . . . and I soon realized that the account I was giving of the song was far more detailed than any straightforward reading of the lyrics would allow. Yet I felt that I was only drawing out what was already there, unsaid, perhaps, but deeply felt. Let's see what you think.

I'll respect Harvey's copyright enough to point you to this site rather than reprinting the full lyrics here; it's probably best if you read them before you continue reading this. The song is only twenty-six lines long, seven of which, repeated, form what there is of a chorus, so the simple summary is easy: the singer finds herself on a rooftop in Brooklyn at one in the morning with a friend, looking out over Manhattan. As one does on a rooftop at night, they lean out and take in the view, "acting like lovers"; later (or perhaps another night) they take his car to Manhattan, where they do the same. And somewhere in there, the singer tells us, her companion says something "that I've never forgotten."

Pretty simple, right? But, oh, how much is conveyed by those few facts, by the tone and mood they set, by the minimal details on offer! The setting--late-night Manhattan viewed across the East River--is inherently romantic, but it's not until we get to the line "acting like lovers" that we're sure what's going on: these two are friends . . . but there has always been the tense awareness that more might be possible, and this wee-hours climb has ratcheted up that tension considerably. Even as they both sense what's going on they're leaning against the railings, trying to pretend all is as usual--yet the singer finds herself holding her breath, waiting--and we can't help but share her shudder of anticipation and guilty excitement. It's possible that they've both got other commitments, of which parts of their brains are trying to remind them, and yet here they are, together, drawn inextricably into one another's orbit.

Then the song moves on: they journey to Manhattan, and the singer tells herself, "I'm doing nothing wrong / riding in your car"--the sort of attempt at denial only necessary when patently untrue, a self-deception guaranteed to fool no one, least of all oneself. They take the elevator to the eighth floor, singing all the way to the radio they've just left behind in the car, the singing a nervous yet companionable way to avoid the very real risks posed by speech at that moment, risks topped only by those of the physical proximity that they can do nothing about. On the rooftop again, alone together . . . he says something.

And there the song ends, defying our expectations and in the process nearing the sublime. In her chorus, the singer has told us again and again about her companion's statement, which is "really important" and which she's "never forgotten"; given its place in the structure of the song, we assume we'll learn what he said--yet by denying us that satisfaction, Harvey both highlights the spareness of her story and gives it an undeniable verisimilitude. It takes a rigor that's beyond me to believe that this isn't an account of a real incident in her life; she's willing to turn it into a song, yet unwilling to sully the essence of that moment by sharing--and thus betraying--the private words of her friend. What we get instead is the mood and the feel of an encounter, the frisson generated by the lies we tell ourselves when we're considering doing something we know is wrong. Sung over a churning 6/8 beat, led by a guitar figure that rises, then falls in an embroidered refraction of itself, the lyrics convey that unforgettable feeling of surrendering--almost willfully--one's moorings to what one tells oneself is an inexorable pull.

Perhaps it's the Nick Jenkins in me overpowering whatever tiny bit of Lord Byron I also embody, but I tend to think that what her companion said stopped things where they stood, that this friendship stayed just that. The alternate reading is less convincing: the ensuing events surely would overwhelm that moment of speech, make it ultimately forgettable. But part of what's glorious about this song is that very ambiguity: Harvey offers us just enough to make us wonder, without closing off the wide range of possibilities.

So no, "You Said Something" is not a short story--but it carries many of the glories of the form, elliptical yet forceful, evocative rather than explicit, suggestive and stark. If one of the characteristics of art is that it opens rather than closes interpretation, leads to questions rather than offers answers, then "You Said Something" certainly qualifies.