Monday, March 30, 2009

"The attitude of a crafstman towards a trade, with no tendency to regard the writing of books as an elevated pursuit," or, Talking with Thomas Hardy

{Photo by rocketlass.}

Though I almost exclusively buy my books new--my neat streak working in tandem with a desire to support publishers and authors--once in a while a used bookstore will offer up an utterly unexpected treasure, a book I might never have come across in decades of glancing through bibliographies and following recommendations from bloggers.

Sunday was one of those days: after seeing my friend Carrie Olivia Adams read from her new book of poems, Intervening Absence, at Myopic Books, I wandered to the criticism section, where in search of Hazlitt, I happened instead to find a slim volume entitled Talks with Thomas Hardy. Published by Vere H. Collins in 1928, two years after Hardy's death, it was (inexplicably) reprinted in cloth by Duckworth in 1978, and for a mere $6 I was able to take it home. Callooh, callay, indeed!

As Collins explains in his introduction, he was more or less a nobody: he became of fan of Hardy's novels as an undergraduate, then a fervent believer in Hardy's poetry after the Great War, and,
For many years I had felt as Browning felt about Byron when he said that he would "at any time have gone to see a curl of his hair or one of his gloves."
So in 1920, out of the blue, Collins wrote to Hardy, praising his poetry and asking for a short interview. To his surprise, Hardy wrote back days later inviting him to Max Gate; a series of visits followed over the next two years.

Why did Hardy grant this total stranger, who came bearing no credentials or introduction, access to his house and person? Collins traces it, convincingly, to his stated preference for Hardy's poetry over his fiction; though Hardy's poetry has plenty of partisans now, at the time it was still comparatively neglected, his decision to eschew fiction still considered unfortunate. The resulting conversations--in which the second Mrs. Hardy, less odd but possibly more possessive than the first Mrs. Hardy, participated--are at times remarkably light, but in their focus on the poetry and their unguardedness they offer many pleasures.

As I've done with the more extensive (and much more expensive!) volume Thomas Hardy Remembered that Ashagte put out a couple of years ago (and in which Collins doesn't figure), I'll almost certainly return to this book over time. For now, I'll share just two brief passages, neither one focusing on the poetry.

First--this one's for DC Cairns--Hardy's take on early cinema's embrace of his novels:
C: I see that Tess is being shown on the films.

H: I was present at a rehearsal of it in the United States.

C: Are others of the novels to be done too?

H: I don't know. I leave all that to Macmillan. My experience of seeing film plays has been unfortunate. There always seem to be motorcars rushing over cliffs and people jumping out of windows. What effect do you think the cinematograph will have on the sale of books?

C: I should have thought that it would appeal to a public that read only sensational novels.

H: I was surprised that people cared for Tess on the film, for it always seems to be mainly young people who go to see the cinematograph. . . .

Hardy's point about the spectacular nature of silent film sounds like something that might have come out of Bertie Wooster's mouth--only, from Bertie, it would have qualified as praise. I wonder how much Hardy's lack of interest in films came from their silence; as a devoted fan of drama, who had enjoyed seeing, and even participating in, performances of his novels, I could imagine him frustrated by the necessary reduction of dialogue and narration to the brevity of intertitles.

Second, I think you'll enjoy what I found on the page I turned to when I first opened the book, a passage that seemed appropriate to a late March weekend that had been honored by the visit of a thundersnowstorm:
C: I was very lucky to have such a fine day after the gale of the night before. When I was here at Easter it was also extraordinarily mild. I remember your husband telling me of some flowers that were out unusually early. He dislikes cold weather very much, does he not?

Mrs. H: Yes, he says it freezes his brains.
Frozen brains. I think I've identified my problem. But hark! Is that the crack of the bat I hear? The hideous mating call of the umpire? We may just survive this winter after all!

Saturday, March 28, 2009

A Saturday miscellany

{Photos by rocketlass.}

Some reading notes for your Saturday, held together, as you'll see, by the slimmest of threads:

1 As longtime readers of this blog know, I'm fascinated by the topic of dreams. So I've been paying particular attention to Shelley's dreams as I've been reading Richard Holmes's biography of the poet this past week. Shelley was a troubled sleeper from childhood, prone to sleepwalking and vivid dreams--and quite possibly, depending which of his friends you believe, waking visions--that fueled his poetic embrace of the ghostly and the macabre. At one point in the biography, Holmes quotes a passage from an account by Shelley's cousin Tom Medwin that reads like a cross between Borges and the Arabian Nights:
At this time Shelley was ever in a dreamy state, and he told me he was in the habit of noting down his dreams. The first day he said, they amounted to a page, the next to two, the third to several, till at last they constituted the greater part of his existence.
While the thought of the writing of a dream journal consuming one's life is scary enough, after that the account moves into the positively uncanny:
One morning he told me he was satisfied of the existence of two sorts of dreams, the Phrenic and the Psychic; and that he had witnessed a singular phenomenon, proving that the mind and soul were separate and different entities--that it had more than once happened to him to have a dream, which the mind was pleasantly and actively developing; in the midst of which, it was broken off by a dream within a dream--a dream of the soul, to which the mind was not privy; but that from the effect it produced--the start of horror with which he waked--must have been terrific.
2 Which leads me to a dream I had last week: I was in a boat, possibly a police launch, cruising purposefully up the East River on a chilly night. We were looking for a body . . . and Nero Wolfe was with us. I think that's how I realized that it was a dream: no force on earth, I told myself, could get Nero Wolfe to leave his townhouse and board a boat for a wintry nighttime cruise up the East River. That said, I bet he would have found what we were looking for had I only stayed asleep a little longer.

3 Speaking of Nero Wolfe, he tosses off a line in Some Buried Caesar that's been lingering in my mind since I read the novel a couple of weeks ago. Dismissing some complaints about a ruse he'd employed, he says,
Victor Hugo wrote a whole book to prove that a lie could be sublime.
I'm far from a Hugo expert, and a tiny bit of research didn't turn up any obvious answers, so I put the question to the audience: what book is Wolfe talking about?

4 Though I've only lost about half a dozen books in my life, strangely enough two of them were Victor Hugo novels: back in high school, I had mass market paperbacks of Les Miserables and The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and both of them disappeared when I was partway through them. Perhaps one of my classmates was a secret Hugo fan?

I've thus never finished either one, though I'll admit that my enjoyment of ridiculously long books has led me to eye Les Miserables at the bookstore on occasion--I'm willing to listen to arguments on its behalf if anyone has any to offer.

5 Finally, on the topic of books I've never finished: nearly four years ago I read about four hundred pages of The Count of Monte Cristo while on a weekend road trip. I was surprised to find that nearly everything I knew about the novel--the frame-up, the imprisonment, the escape--happened in the first three hundred or so of those pages, which were great fun, on par with the best parts of The Three Musketeers. But the next hundred pages proved a bit of a slog: where I was expecting the Count to instantly and implacably begin wreaking vengeance, instead he embarked on a series of improbable picaresque adventures. So I put the book away, unsure that I had the patience for another nine hundred pages of such swashbuckling.

So, I ask any Monte Cristo fans out there: was I wrong? Should I take up the Count's story once more?

6 Now that I think about it, this list comes distressingly close to being a perfect example of how my mind works: I may not be a social butterfly, but I plead guilty to being a mental one.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

"Leviathan is not the biggest fish;--I have heard of Krakens," or, To the boats!

{Photos by rocketlass.}

From Moby-Dick, by Herman Melville
What is the great globe itself but a Loose-Fish? And what are you, reader, but a Loose-Fish and a Fast-Fish, too?
A press of obligations has me feeling much more like a fast-fish than a loose-fish today, but I feel I should at least take the time to point you to my guest post on the blog of the recently launched online book site the Second Pass. Follow that link and you'll find me raving about an old favorite, Moby-Dick, and a new favorite, Dan Beachy-Quick's A Whaler's Dictionary; dig around the site some more and you'll find plenty of good stuff (including an excellent appreciation of Russell Hoban's doomsday novel, Riddley Walker).

But first, back to Melville. I hope that if I've established anything with this blog, it's the fact that one book always leads to another: my love of Moby-Dick led me to pick up A Whaler's Dictionary when I spotted it in St. Mark's back in January; reading it led me both back to Moby-Dick and, thanks to a recommendation from reader ctorre, forward to Paul Metcalf's unclassifiable novelish book Genoa: A Telling of Wonders (1965), which takes much of its material and inspiration from Melville.

You enter one book, but you may find that the only exit from that book opens right into another one; as Metcalf writes,
[S]inking in one ocean, I have risen to the surface of another--in a different hemisphere, or on the other side of the equator. The heart beats, the blood flows, the lungs inhale and discharge air--but all are radically altered.
I've been dipping into all three volumes here and there for months; the melting away of the lake ice and the halting approach of spring makes me think it's the right time to banish all other books from my shoulder bag and read only the tales of the whale for a while.

So I'll plunge in, and who knows what I might find at the confluence of the three books' waters? Perhaps I'll discover what Beachy-Quick describes in his entry for "Line":
Every book, unlike every whale hunt, ends in silence. The line runs out and becomes blank.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

A most difficult walkback, or, The perils of drink! Even for the non-drinker!

{Photo by rocketlass.}

Pickwick Week deserves at least one more post, and I'll try to get to that tomorrow, but today I can't help but digress. I'm hip-deep in Richard Holmes's Shelley: The Pursuit (1974), and I've been brought to laughter by an explanatory note. In recounting the nineteen-year-old Shelley's sojourn in the Lake District in late 1811, Holmes tells of Shelley's disappointment when, having assumed he'd make the acquaintance of the Lake District trifecta of Wordsworth, Coleridge, and de Quincey, he instead managed only a meeting with the far less interesting Robert Southey.

"Coleridge," writes Holmes, "was away lecturing in London that winter, and Wordsworth remained deep in hibernation at Grasmere." To which explanation he appends the following note:
Both poets were in the middle of a bitter quarrel, which seems to have been started by a minor misunderstanding of certain remarks that Wordsworth made to Coleridge's host in London Basil Montagu, about Coleridge being "a rotten drunkard" and "an absolute nuisance in his family."
Now, I fully realize that I could with very little effort gain access to multiple accounts of this incident that would clarify the details of that quarrel; Holmes himself cites Mary Moorman's 1965 biography of Wordsworth, while just a couple of years ago Adam Sisman published a full (and, if Sisman's track record is any guide, well-written) account of the friendship between Wordsworth and Coleridge.

That said, I prefer tonight to choose, however temporarily, ignorance--because that allows me to pose the question: how on god's green earth could a person possibly misunderstand a friend's description of him as "a rotten drunkard" and "an absolute nuisance"?! I imagine that Coleridge's eventual explanation had to be a bit tortured--perhaps he drew on this quotation from Samuel Butler's "Miscellaneous Thoughts," which he would later include in his Biographia Literaria (1817):
The metaphysic's but a puppet motion
That goes with screws, the notion of a notion;
The copy of a copy and lame draught
Unnaturally taken from a thought:
That counterfeits all pantomimic tricks,
And turns the eyes, like an old crucifix;
That counterchanges whatsoe'er it calls
B 'another name, and makes it true or false;
Turns truth to falsehood, falsehood into truth,
By virtue of the Babylonian's tooth.
Oh, fine. If you insist, I'll go consult Sisman and report back.

P. S. Have I mentioned that I love footnotes?

Monday, March 23, 2009

"He has mapped the coordinates of the city firmly in his mind," or, Pickwick Week continues!

{Photos by rocketlass.}

One of the most interesting aspects of The Pickwick Papers, for a reader who comes to it with the whole of Dickens before him, is the bits of later Dickens that we see in this, his earliest extended production. An interpolated tale of a heartless sexton, for example, is a first assay of the idea that would blossom into A Christmas Carol, while Mr. Pickwick's sojourn in the Fleet Prison offers the first real hint that Dickens's agenda might extend beyond entertainment.

But what I find most fascinating is how attuned Dickens already is to the reality of the city--and how its bustle and excitement are markers of its most salient characteristic, constant change.

Here, in the opening of Chapter 10, he reflects on the losses necessarily entailed by that change:
There are in London several old inns, once the head quarters of celebrated coaches in the days when coaches performed their journeys in a graver and more solemn manner than they do in these times; but which have now degenerated into little more than the abiding and booking places of country wagons. The reader would look in vain for any of these ancient hostelries, among the Golden Crosses and Bulls and Mouths, which rear their stately fronts in the improved streets of London. If he would light upon any of these old places, he must direct his steps to the obscurer quarters of the town; and there in some scluded nooks he will find several, still standing with a kind of gloomy sturdiness, amidst the modern innovations which surround them.
The nostalgia seems awfully rich for a twenty-four-year-old, who could not have known the coaching inns for long (though now that I think about it, I suppose I tended more towards unearned nostalgia at that age than Ido these days--I hope!).

As Robert Alter notes in Imagined Cities: Urban Experience and the Language of the Novel (2005), from which the title of this post is taken, Dickens
was, as many testimonies by his contemporaries suggest, a passionate Londoner. All his life, he loved exploring London's nooks and crannies, usually on foot, undeterred by the filth and stench and threat of disease of its slums, and he could amaze his friends with his minute knowledge of its most obscure neighborhoods and byways.
But what lover of the secret and obscure areas of a city, no matter how much he understands that their prized obscurity is a result of their obsolescence, doesn't at the same time risk falling victim to nostalgia, hating the change whose earlier expression resulted in the very places whose eventual loss he stands ready to deplore?

For even as Dickens grasped, as well as any other novelist before or since, the incredible generative powers of the city--the possibilities of serendipity, boundary-crossing, and surprise among them--he railed against its disruptions and destructions. Pickwick is a novel of coaches and relative quiet, even in its London scenes; by the time of Dombey and Son, we are in the railroad era, when whole neighborhoods are being destroyed, and whole ways of life with them. I don't really mean to find fault with Dickens here--the coming of the railroads does seem to have been truly horrible, whatever its overall benefits. It's more that I'm surprised at his awareness already, at such a young age, that he is in the midst of perpetual change, and that one of his duties as a novelist will be to take note and preserve. At his best, his response to that is righteous anger; at his worst, it's cloying sentiment.

The ultimate recourse for Dickens, time and again, was to family, and to small groups bound, not by ties of commerce or tradition--for those were perpetually liable to external breakage--but by friendship, loyalty, and love. As Franco Moretti explains in his Atlas of the European Novel, 1800-1900 (1998),
It is a further instance of the tentative, contradictory path followed by urban novels: as London's random and unrelated enclaves increase the "noise," the dissonance, the complexity of the plot--the family romance tries to reduce it, turning London into a coherent whole.
It is in the teeming drama of the city that the individual can find his destiny, but it is by the fireside, surrounded by loved ones, that he can find his home. In that, too, Dickens was prescient: what is the Pickwick Club if not a forerunner of the much-discussed "urban tribes" formed by relative newcomers to the contemporary city who, lacking either the obligations or the guidance of family or tradition, render the vastness of the city manageable by reimagining it as a small network of trusted friends?

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Charles Dickens doesn't want your Fanfic!, or, Pickwick Week continues

The Pickwick Papers was first published in monthly installments, many of which opened with a direct prefatory address from Dickens to the reader. The fifteenth chapter carried this note:
Notice to Correspondents

We receive every month an immense number of communications, purporting to be "suggestions" for the Pickwick Papers. We have no doubt that they are forwarded with the kindest intentions; but as it is wholly out of our power to make use of any such hints, and as we really have no time to peruse anonymous letters, we hope the writers will henceforth spare themselves a great deal of unnecessary and useless trouble.
Dickens's claim that he had no time to read anonymous letters was undercut a bit, however, by an earlier statement, in the postscript he had appended to Chapter Three:
Always anxious to amuse our readers by every means in our power, we beg to present them with the following verbatim copy of a letter, actually addressed and sent by an anonymous correspondent to the Editor of the Pickwick Papers, a fortnight since. Our correspondent's notions of punctuation are peculiar to himself, and we have not ventured to interfere with them.
In times when the great. and the good are. largely association for. the amelioration of the Animal Kingdom, it seems remarkable. that any writer should. counteract their. intentions. by. such careless paragraphs as. the one. I. inclose!

if it is carelessness. only. it may be corrected if it is. bad taste. I am afraid it. will be more difficult. but perhaps you could. in another paper. point out, to the obtuse, like myself, the wit or humour, of depicting. the noblest of animals faint, weary, and over driven,
When the Knees Quiver and the Pulses beat!
Subjected. to a. Brute; only to be. tolerated because he at least is ignorant, of. the Creature and his Creator. to whom he is responsible, and whose. 'admirable frolic and fun' consists in his giving. his brutal history of his horse. in bad English!
And then follows an extract from a newspaper, containing hte Cabman's description of his Horse, from page 6 of our first number.

This is evidently a very pleasant person--a fellow of infinite fancy. We shall be happy to receive other communications from the same source--and on the same terms; that is to say, post paid.
I suppose it's a comfort to know that, no matter how much the world may change, the public mailbox remains a strongly held redoubt of the monomaniacal and the off-center.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Pickwick and Plum and Fielding, oh my!

{Photo of my hat at risk by rocketlass.}

I've always thought that the primary influences on P. G. Wodehouse's gloriously funny work are fairly easy to spot: Shakespeare and the Bible provide most of his references and many of his cadences, while musical theatre, particularly Gilbert and Sullivan, inspire the energetic joking and intricate plotting. Reading The Pickwick Papers makes me realize, with some surprise, that hitherto I've missed a quite obvious one: Dickens.

Take this scene, which finds Mr. Pickwick chasing his hat, which has blown off his head and is "gambolling playfully away in perspective":
There are very few moments in a man's existence, when he experiences so much ludicrous distress, or meets with so little charitable commiseration, as when he is in pursuit of his own hat. A vast deal of coolness, and a peculiar degree of judgment, are requisite in catching a hat. A man must not be precipitate, or he runs over it: he must not rush into the opposite extreme, or he loses it altogether. The best way is, to keep gently up with the object of pursuit, to be wary and autious, to watch your opportunity well, get gradually before it, then make a rapid dive, seize it by the crown, and stick it firmly on your head: smiling pleasantly all the time, as if you thought it as good a joke as anybody else.

There was a fine gentle wind, and Mr Pickwick's hat rolled sportively before it. The wind puffed, and Mr Pickwick puffed, and the hat rolled over and over as merrily as a lively porpoise in a strong tide.
A narrator pausing the action to deliver a brief analysis, followed by seriously given instructions for an utterly unserious action--can you get more Wodehousian? Dickens's humor is so through-and-through lighthearted in Pickwick that its place as an ancestor to Wodehouse's work is much more clear than in the later novels, with their surrounding darkness.

In fact, to draw out the chain by one more link, the same is true for Dickens's own debt to the narrative verve and mock-seriousness of Henry Fielding--it's much more obvious in the playfulness of Pickwick than in the seriousness, of, say, Dombey and Son. Not that Dickens's admiration for Fielding is any sort of secret: he did, after all, name his eighth child Henry Fielding Dickens.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Visiting with Dickens

{Photo by rocketlass.}

Earlier this week, while I was still weighing the dozens of unread books in the house against my desire for the comforts of an old favorite, About Last Night's Carrie Frye quoted from Dickens, in a post about Martin Chuzzlewit and a bear (Really--go read her post!). What better way to satisfy both urges than to read one of the three Dickens novels I'd never read! For opening a Dickens novel, even one whose plot and characters are unknown, is like visiting an old friend: from the first page, we recognize that familiar, effervescent voice, and that world of cultivated eccentricity and urban bustle that only he can conjure up.

I chose The Pickwick Papers (1837), leaving The Old Curiosity Shop (1841) and Hard Times (1854) for later. The Pickwick Papers was Dickens's first novel, and it made him a star at twenty-four. A ramshackle picaresque, it doesn't offer the masterly plotting that we would come to expect from Dickens's later novels, but the many characters who populated its loosely connected stories are so lively and comic that it's easy to see why it became such a sensation. Take this exchange between the oddly charming (but wholly untrustworthy) Alfred Jingle and a couple of members of the Pickwick Club:
[Jingle said,] "English girls not so fine as Spanish -- noble creatures -- jet hair -- black eyes -- lovely forms -- sweet creatures -- beautiful."

"You have been in Spain, Sir?" said Mr Tracy Tupman.

"Lived there -- ages."

"Many conquests, Sir?" inquired Mr Tupman.

"Conquests! Thousands. Don Bolaro Fizzgig -- Grandee -- only daughter -- Donna Christina -- splendid creature -- loved me to distraction -- jealous father -- high-souled daughter -- handsome Englishman -- Donna Christina in despair -- prussic acid -- stomach pump in my portmanteau -- operation performed -- old Bolaro in ecstasies -- consent to our union -- join hands and floods of tears -- romantic story -- very."

"Is the lady in England now, Sir?" inquired Mr Tupman, on whom the description of her charms had produced a powerful impresion.

"Dead, Sir -- dead," said the stranger, applying to his right eye the brief remnant of a very old cambric handkerchief. "Never recovered the stomach pump -- undermined constitution -- fell a victim."

"And her father" inquired the poetic Snodgrass.

"Remorse and misery," replied the stranger. "Sudden disappearance -- talk of the whole city -- search made everywhere --- without success -- public fountain in the great square suddenly ceased playing -- weeks elapsed -- still a stoppage -- workmen employed to clean it -- water drawn off -- father-in-law discovered sticking head first out of the main pipe, with a full confession in his right boot -- took him out, and the fountain played away again, as well as ever."
Though I have no reason to think this is actually how Dickens constructed this passage, I love imagining him writing Jingle's lines in more normal cadences, then one by one stripping away verbs, prepositions, and other markers until he'd stepped right to the verge of incomprehensibility--and thus knew he'd allowed Jingle's voluble eccentricity its full play.

In the thirty-odd years that followed this debut, Dickens would greatly refine not just his plotting, but his language and his understanding of character as well. But while The Pickwick Papers may display a talent that's not fully formed, at the same time, the sensibility behind it is already, obviously, lovably Dickensian--and reading it feels like coming home.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Passing once more through The Gate of Angels

{Photo by rocketlass.}

William Hazlitt having convinced me to act on a recent desire to do some re-reading of favorite authors, late last week I pulled a half-dozen or so titles from my shelves from which to choose. I got no farther than the first page of the book on top of the stack, Penelope Fitzgerald's The Gate of Angels (1990), before my choice was made.

Here's the opening paragraph that won me over:
How could the wind be so strong, so far inland, that cyclists coming into the town in the late afternoon looked more like sailors in peril? This was on the way into Cambridge, up Mill Road past the cemetery and the workhouse. On the open ground to the left the willow-trees had been blown, driven and cracked until their branches gave way and lay about the drenched grass, jerking convulsively and trailing cataracts of twigs. The cows had gone mad, tossing up the silvery sweeping leaves which were suddenly, quite contrary to all their experience, everywhere within reach. Their horns were festooned with willow boughs. Not being able to see properly, they tripped and fell. Two or three of them were wallowing on their backs, idiotically, exhibiting vast pale bellies intended by nature always to be hidden. They were still munching. A scene of disorder, tree-tops on the earth, legs in the air, in a university city devoted to logic and reason.
So much in that paragraph to consider! It opens with a note of surprise at a strikingly unexpected image, then its finely observed details--the silvery leaves, the decorated cows' horns, the "vast pale bellies"--cascade one upon another under the force of the rushing wind until the scene springs to life before us with all the strangeness with which it strikes the struggling cyclists who are out in it. Land is turned into sea, inanimate trees writhe like wounded animals, and cows are topsy-turvy. This may be nothing but the onset of an ordinary thunderstorm, yet Fitzgerald's careful description seems to suggest that something deeper is amiss.

"A scene of disorder" is right: this is Cambridge in 1912, that late Edwardian period when everything--religious belief, scientific knowledge, gender roles, class relations, and more--was being called into question. While the fact that the cows remain unperturbed by their topsy-turvy state suggests that perhaps nature may be more resilient and mutable than human doctrine, that would surely be at best cold comfort to those people who were trying to assemble a life in the midst of all that uncertainty.

In that intellectual and social ferment Fitzgerald sets the story of a junior fellow in physics at a mouldering Cambridge college who is hopelessly in love with a nameless woman he met through a bicycle accident; the woman herself, Daisy, a trainee nurse from the lower working class, is looking merely for the independence and security that are at that moment still almost entirely unavailable to an unattached young woman. As she tells the story of the pair's awkward, halting progress towards one another, Fitzgerald also paints a portrait of an era--and, for this book, more than any of her others, is a romance--of the way that love can transcend even the greatest uncertainties.

Fitzgerald's style, as in all her novels, is economic to the point of asperity, a concision that gives her every narrative pronouncement the force of an Olympian judgment. Here, for example, is how she introduces an explanation of Daisy's whereabouts:
In fact there was no mystery about Daisy's movements. Mystery is a luxury and would have been quite beyond her means.
That quiet precision--and the trust in Fitzgerald's eye that it engenders--makes the reader more attentive when she chooses to offers a mass of detail, as in this staggering account of the kitchenware that plagues a middle-class housewife:
She looked at the sink, loaded down with all that was necessary when a husband had his daily meals in the house. . . . [T]oast-racks, egg-cups, egg-cosies, hot water jugs, hot milk strainers, tea-strainers, coffee-strainers, bone egg-spoons, sugar-tongs, mustard-pots manufactured of blue glass inside, metal outside, silver fruit knives (as steel in contact with fruit-juice was known to be poisonous), napkins with differently coloured rings for each person at table, vegetable dishes with handles in the shape of artichokes, gravy boats, dishcovers, fish-forks with which it was difficult to eat fish (but fish-knives were only for vulgarians), muffin-dishes which had to be filled with boling water to keep the muffins at their correct temperature, soup-plates into which the soup was poured from an earthenware container with a lid, cut-glass blancmange dishes, knife-rests for knives, fork-rests for forks, cheese dishes with lids the shape of a piece of cheese, compotiers, ramekins, pipkins, cruets, pots. All of these were not too much (on a clean cloth, too, with the centre fold forming a straight line the whole length of the table) for Mr Wrayburn to expect--Mrs Wrayburn did not think it unreasonable, nor did Daisy--and most of them were in the sink at the moment, waiting, in mute reproach, to be washed and dried.
A single long paragraph, and the period's gender relations are set before us in all their absurdity.

As I noted above,The Gate of Angels is a decidedly light, even romantic novel. Despite the topsy-turvy opening, we rarely worry that all won't end well (though it's hard not to remember that the slaughter of World War I looms, sure to exact a brutal toll from the characters Fitzgerald depicts). At the same time, it offers the pleasures of humor, gentle irony ("Professor Flowerdew . . . had told him that he could not hold out any great hopes for the future of the material universe. On the other hand, he had spoken very highly of Fred."), and deeply perceptive empathy that are the hallmarks of all Fitzgerald's fiction--plus the unexpected bonus of a splendid interpolated ghost story in the style of M. R. James! Like all her novels, it rewards close attention, and re-reading: merely attending to what Fitzgerald leaves out, and what she gets across despite, is a lesson for any writer.

Fitzgerald herself offered a joke about her concision in a letter about the novel to her friend Harold Woelmer in 1990:
I'm already getting letters to say that there seems to be some mistake as it is so short and some pages must be missing out of their copy. It's Collins's fault for not putting The End, like we used to have at the movies in the dear old days.
More self-deprecatingly, in a later letter to her editor, she thanks him for the cover design of the paperback, noting that she'd received one letter from a reader assuring her that the cover was the best part of the book.

No matter the cover design, that reader is not to be trusted: Penelope Fitzgerald never published a word not worth your time.If you've not read her, you have a treat ahead.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

"The dust and smoke and noise of modern literature have nothing in common with the pure, silent air of immortality."

Despite having never read any of Samuel Richardson's monumental novels, I have recently gotten into the habit of taking note when I come across valued authors delivering themselves of opinions of the man and his work. It's the least I can do for my friend Maggie, who valiantly slogged through the 1,630 pages of Richardson's Clarissa (1748) when I gave it to her for Christmas a couple of years ago--and retained the energy and goodwill to report on the book's pleasures and pains. ("I would not say that I didn't enjoy the book, but there is so, so much of it.") It seems only fair that, having followed Clarissa through her near-endless travails, Maggie should feel she has company, should be able to see herself as part of a centuries-long chorus of voices of those who've done the same--a survivors' support group, say.

So yesterday I as I was reading William Hazlitt's pleasantly meandering essay "On Reading Old Books" (1821), to which I'd been directed by Patrick Kurp at Anecdotal Evidence, I was pleased to encounter some strong praise for Richardson. Hazlitt writes,
I consider myself a thorough adept in Richardson. I like the longest of his novels best, and think no part of them tedious; nor should I ask to have anything better to do than to read them from beginning to end, to take them up when I chose, and lay them down when I was tired, in some old family mansion in the country, till every word and syllable relating to the bright Clarissa, the Divine Clementina, the beautiful Pamela, "with every trick and line of their sweet favour," were once more "graven in my heart's table."
Now, Maggie, surely that makes you feel that you could have done better by the bright Clarissa? Perhaps you should re-read her story, attempting to approach it this time in a more generous frame of mind?

Strong as is Hazlitt's praise for Richardson, it pales next to his words for Edmund Burke later in the essay. Burke's conservatisim was anathema to Hazlitt, but in some ways that made his appreciation of Burke's mind and writing even more powerful:
To understand an adversary is some praise: to admire him is more. . . . For the first time I ever cast my eyes on anything of Burke's . . . I said to myself, "this is true eloquence: this is a man pouring out his mind on paper." All other styles seemed to me pedantic and impertinent. Dr. Johnson's was walking on stilts; and even Junius's (who was at that time a favourite with me) with all his terseness, shrunk up into little antithetic points and well-trimmed sentences. But Burke's style was forked and playful as the lightening, crested like the serpent. He delivered plain things on plain ground; but when he rose, there was no end of his flights and circumgyrations.
But even the finest of prose styles can only go so far if the reader disagrees with the argument they decorate, and Hazlitt has fun reminding the reader of that:
I did not care for his doctrines. I was then and am still, proof against their contagion. . . . I conceived, too, that he might be wrong in his main argument, and yet deliver fifty truths in arriving at a false conclusion.
Hazlitt's essay--which he opens with the bald statement,
I hate to read new books. There are twenty or thirty volumes that I have read over and over again, and these are the only ones that I have any desire ever to read at all.
--has not only caused me to reopen my volume of Burke, but has also inspired in me a general spate of re-reading, sending me back yesterday to Penelope Fitzgerald's light and lovely Gate of Angels and today to Moby-Dick . . . and all the while my favorite book to re-read, Anthony Powell's A Dance to the Music of Time, maintains its perpetual beck. We'll see if I'm strong enough to resist and instead pluck something from the stacks of the unread instead.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

"I was reflecting that of all Wolfe's thousand techniques for making himself obnoxious the worst was when he thought he was being funny."

After reading a novel about Nazis, however, well-written it might be, a retreat to novelistic comfort food seems essential. And what better comfort than that offered by Rex Stout, who, following my recent discovery of the pleasures afforded by his Nero Wolfe novels, offers me a near-Wodehousian quantity of books to enjoy?

The mention of Wodehouse is anything but accidental, as Stout's novels in their tight plots and attention to slanguage resemble nothing so much as what one would imagine Wodehouse himself might have turned out had he devoted himself to mysteries rather than the troubles of privileged kittenheads. Not that Stout's language reaches the brilliance of Wodehouse--to be honest, it's hard to think of anyone who matches Wodehouse when he's at his best. But Stout at least earns the comparison, both for the off-the-cuff beauty of Archie Goodwin's vocabulary and for the Blandings Castle-like sense that, much as the trappings of life may change, in essence Archie and Wolfe remain forever in Depression-era New York, their townhouse a fiercely held redoubt against modern existence.

So I turned to a recently published two-fer, which comprises Some Buried Caesar (1938) and The Golden Spiders (1953), and I was far from disappointed. Both offer circumstances that are unusual for Wolfe: he spends the entirety of the former not only outside his beloved 35th Street townhouse, but, god forbid, in rural New York, while the latter sees the case at its heart opened by, of all things, a child. Yet (and this is one of the keys to the appeal of the Wolfe novels) Wolfe himself is essentially the same no matter the circumstances: certain and secretive, imperial and imperious, finicky and forbidding. His unchanging, self-involved nature offers many of the same pleasures as his model, Sherlock Holmes--but, crucially, Wolfe, for all his peculiarities and sensitivities, suggests nothing of the strange neediness or even hard-fought weakness that occasionally flicker around the edges of Holmes's personality. Wolfe will never need us or our mysteries--but if we need him, we can rely on Nero Wolfe completely. If, that is, we can put up with him.

To aid us in that mission, we have, as ever, Archie Goodwin, whose Bertie Woosterian vocabulary serves as an excellent distraction from his Jeevesian competence. If Archie can tolerate Wolfe, then surely so can we. He serves as our eyes and our sounding board, testing theories and attempting to interpret Wolfe's monumental self-confidence. Without Archie, these books could easily have been little but puzzle mysteries, chances to test our wits against Wolfe's complicated plans and cryptic pronouncements; Archie's constant attention to character and motive are a large part of what enlarges them so that they become something more, a sort of compromise among Conan Doyle, S. S. Van Dine, and the noir masters whom Stout's work is, by design, too light to openly acknowledge.

And then there's Archie's language, which is a treat in and of itself. Whether he's describing how out of place a dandyish thug looks on a country ranch--
[T]he proper environment for that type is bounded by 42nd and 96th Streets on the south and north, and Lexington Avenue and Broadway on the east and west. In their habitat they don't look bad, in fact they help a lot in maintaining the tone, but out in the country like that, still wearing a Crawnley town suit including vest and a custom-made shirt and a Monteith tie, they jar.
--or being pleasantly surprised by the secretary at a highbrow magazine--
Having on Sunday bought a copy of the magazine that Vincent Lipscomb edited, and looked through it before passing it to Wolfe, I had supposed that any female employed by it would have all her points of interest, if any, inside her skull; but a curvy little number with dancing eyes, seated at a switchboard, gave me one bright glance and then welcomed me with a smile which indicated that the only reason she had taken the job was that she thought I would show up someday.
--or dismissing an unctuous PR flack--
In size he had been shortchanged, the top of his head being about level with the tip of my nose. With his thin brown mustache trimmed so it wasn't quite parallel with the thick lips of his wide mouth, I wouldn't have called him well designed to make the sort of impression desirable for a handler of public relations, but I admit I'm prejudiced about a mustache trying to pass as a plucked eyebrow.
--or just describing his own movements--
The basement floor was concrete. I navigated it, now as silently as silence.
--Goodwin's running monologue is idiosyncratic, worldly, goofily self-regarding, and, most important, great fun. He's wonderful company.

Now to read the remaining sixty-nine Nero Wolfe novels. After all, if I don't do that, how will I know whether Stout ever came up with a better closing line that the one that ends The Golden Spiders? It's damn hard to top "What the hell," you've gotta admit.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

"Her voice sounded firm and unwavering. Now that there was danger seated at the table, her fear and unrest were gone."

I've got a review of Hans Fallada's novel of German resistance to the Nazis Every Man Dies Alone up at the Seminary Co-op bookstore's Front Table today. The novel, which was published to great success in Germany in 1947, has only now been translated into English for the first time, the result of some literary crate-digging by Melville House publisher Dennis Johnson.

Liesl Schillinger's review of the novel in the New York Times Book Review offers a quick recap of Fallada's troubled life and strange career: his early success, his emotional and mental instability, his decision to remain in Germany throughout the war (much of which he spent in an asylum), and the twenty-four-day burst of writing in 1946 that produced Every Man Dies Alone. Geoff Wilkes's afterword to the book, meanwhile, presents a more extended biography, while also offering a nuanced consideration of the sometimes troubling mix of collaboration and resistance that enabled Fallada to survive the war without being forced to flee Germany.

Simultaneous with the publication of Every Man Dies Alone, Melville House is also publishing two of Fallada's earlier novels, Little Man, What Now? (1932) and The Drinker (1950), which were published in English soon after their original publications but have long been out of print. It's a smart decision, one that I wish more publishers would make, for it enables readers to immediately get a better sense of a writer's overall achievement, as well as offering a context for the flagship book. I'll definitely have to check these two out.

Sunday, March 08, 2009

News from the Invisible Library!

{Photo by rocketlass.}

The past week saw two developments that will be of note to fans and ostensible patrons of the Invisible Library:

1 A friend who works as a librarian in a major non-invisible municipal library system received an interlibrary loan request from a patron in search of My Parents Didn't Steal an Elephant, by Uriah C. Lasso. On failing to find the book in any of his normal databases, my friend did a quick Google search . . . which revealed it--as he explained to his astonished patron--to be an invisible book!

My Parents Didn't Steal an Elephant, he realized, was a book lent by Carla, a school counselor, to the protagonist of Louis Sachar's There's a Boy in the Girls' Bathroom (1988). Given that Carla lends another character a copy of J. D. Salinger's very much not invisible Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters, it's easy to understand how the patron became confused . . . and thus missed the clue embedded in the fact that Uriah C. Lasso is an anagram of Louis Sachar.

Rest assured, patron: the Invisible Library now has the book on its shelves. Now if only we can figure out how to fill out the Interlibrary Loan paperwork . . .

2 Intervening Absence, the impressive new book of poetry that my friend Carrie Olivia Adams has just published, offers in its pages no fewer than nine new invisible books!

Featured in the poem "Works Cited," a part of the sequence "On Leaving: An Essay," the titles include Luna Moth's A Short Short, Boxed Parrot's Green Under Closed Lids, Woman Who Re-Reads Your Letters's Memoirs of a Scab Picker, and others that you'll have to visit the Invisible Library to see.

The sequence "On Leaving: An Essay" also includes a line that makes me shiver every time I read it, one of those rare lines that, the moment it is read, takes on the force of an previously unglimpsed truth:
Hands ask what eyes can't. They lead the leaving.
True in life, and in the Invisible Library as well, where eyes will avail you not. Hands, ranged over dusty shelves in the darkness, perhaps. Trust your fingers to know what they're after.

Friday, March 06, 2009

In praise of Genji the book

{Photos by rocketlass.}

In yesterday's post about The Tale of Genji, I praised Royall Tyler's translation, but I should have taken the time to point out just what a wonderful production the entire book is. As I explained yesterday, the complex relationships and rules that govern Genji's world can make the book a challenge for a contemporary reader; what Penguin's edition of Tyler's translation does is to offer relatively unobtrusive aid at every point.

Tyler's introduction sets the scene, offering brief but informative accounts of the book's origins, style, and themes, as well as thumbnail descriptions of the life of Lady Murasaki and the society she inhabited and wrote about. In addition, each of the book's fifty-four chapters opens with a cast list, noting all the characters who will play a part in that chapter, along with their ages, titles, and relationships to other characters. Within each chapter, Tyler provides footnotes explaining terms that might be unclear; he also nimbly glosses the book's many poetic allusions, while line drawings scattered throughout illustrate details of costumes, housing, furniture, and the like.

No edition of Genji in English--including Knopf's edition of Edward Seidensticker's translation, which was the first Genji I attempted, years ago--has offered anything like this assistance to the reader; paired with Tyler's fluid translation, it makes this edition the standard.

And the production of the book is equal to its contents. The hardcover was published in two lovely volumes, with a slipcase, in 2001 and has since gone out of print, but the paperback is nearly as striking, with an elegant cover design, french flaps, good paper, and the strong binding necessary to the long-term survival of a 1,200-page book. The whole volume is a triumph of the publisher's art, a book designed to be turned to again and again over the years.

{That said, I may have to pick up yet another Genji soon. The Caustic Cover Critic recently drew my attention to some new editions of Japanese classics from Kodansha illustrated by Masayuki Miyata, including The Tale of Genji: Scenes from the World's First Novel, which pairs chapter summaries of Genji with Masayuki's intricate papercuts. I got to take a quick look at it in the seven-story Kinokuniya bookstore when I was in Tokyo, and it's absolutely lovely.}

Thursday, March 05, 2009

"I have dyed my heart so deeply in the charm of murasaki"

{Photos by rocketlass.}

In a comment to my post last month in which I mentioned that I'd be taking The Tale of Genji on my trip to Japan, reader Justus wrote:
I really liked Tyler's translation of Genji, though I don't really see a connection between "trip to Japan" and "read Genji." Just because they happen to come from the same geographic area doesn't mean one addresses the modern reality of the other.
Had the comment arrived before I left on my trip, I probably would have responded by arguing that any novel that has held such a prominent position in a culture for a millennium couldn't help but shed some light on that culture today, however great the changes have been.

But now that I've been to Japan, and read Genji throughout my trip, my answer is different: though there were points here and there when hints of the world of Genji could still be glimpsed in modern Japan--especially in Kyoto, both in the temple where we stayed and in the halls of the Nijo Castle--for the most part Genji turned out to be the perfect reading for this trip precisely because the world it described was so different from contemporary Japan. Every morning we were there, while rocketlass and our traveling companions slept, I read Genji for an hour or two--and the crowded, energizing craziness of perpetual motion that is modern Tokyo faded away, replaced by a quieter, less populous, more contemplative world. Even as I was reading about Japan, I was at the same time following Graham Greene's advice to always take a book on your travels that's about somewhere else; my somewhere else was a long-lost ancient society.

I'd tried reading Genji a couple of other times over the years, but I'd never gotten much more than a hundred pages or so into it before being distracted by something else. This time, with a thirteen-hour flight to start the journey, I was able to plunge in and stay with it--which was important, because Genji takes more time to settle into than any other novel I've ever read. At first glance, it appears to be an impenetrable web of allusions spun by a huge cast of characters whose very names are frustratingly indirect and mutable. Though translator Royall Tyler's informative introduction and notes help, it's only after a couple of hundred pages that their lessons about Genji's society and Lady Murasaki's unfamiliar narrative techniques truly sank in and become a natural part of the backdrop against which I read the novel.

The roots of the difficulty lie in the fact that Genji's world is so very different from our own, and Lady Murasaki's narrative approach both is tailored to that world and assumes a casual familiarity with it. Life was built around strict, carefully delineated hierarchies--stretching from the poorest peasants to the Emperor himself, and on into the afterlife--with the sort of complicated rules of etiquette and station common to any royal or imperial court, but with the added complication of a thicket of religious requirements, rituals, festivals, and proscriptions.

It was a society of polite indirection and careful distance, especially between men and women, who would almost never see each other face to face but rather would communicate across rice-paper screens--with even those words often not spoken directly, but through one of the many trusted retainers and servants who were always at their sides. Most feelings and actions are not to be spoken of directly, even by the narrator; rather, they are hinted at or described metaphorically. Similarly, characters are rarely named outright, with men being referred to instead by their ever-changing office or rank, while Genji's many wives and lovers are assigned names that reflect their homes or a defining characteristic. When you add the fact that much of the characters' conversation, let alone their flirtations or courtship, is conducted through poems that ring changes on a vast corpus of Chinese and Japanese verse that it was assumed all nobles would know, you begin to understand the difficulties facing the modern reader.

Yet hard as it may be to imagine, after a while all this oddity becomes second nature, and we can simply begin to enjoy the story. That is owing in no small part to Royall Tyler's translation, which manages elegantly to retain the indirection and discretion of the original without its hampering the book's undeniable emotional and narrative interest. Strangely enough, it reminded me of nothing so much as Watership Down, in which Richard Adams somehow manages to allow us to identify with and care about his characters while at the same time never, even for a moment, losing sight of the fact that they're rabbits. The world of Genji never becomes familiar or ordinary, but at the same time we eventually settle into it just enough that its strangeness is no longer a barrier but simply another aspect of the story we're being told.

Ultimately that's because the underpinnings of the story are the same as those that have supported fiction in the millennium since: human emotions--love, hate, lust, obsession, jealousy, fear. Because of the scope of the novel, whose thousand pages take Genji from birth to death, we are given ample time to become intimately familiar with his character, in all its virtues and flaws, as well as many of those around him. Genji's multiple, overlapping romances may be founded in gender relations that are strange to us, but the desire that drives them is all too familiar--and when it leads to despair, as it so often does, we ache with him and the women both.

Running throughout all this is unforgettable poetry, with almost every page featuring a couple of poems. The characters communicate largely through this richly allusive verse, their images immediately beautiful no matter how much their deeper meanings may depend on a skein of allusion. They usually take the form of a two-line plaint, like this one:
There has never been a parting in the autumn untouched by sorrow,
but oh, do not cry with me, pine crickets upon the moor!
Or this one:
Cast yourself away into that sad stream of tears where you wish to drown,
and each shoal or shallow reach would undo your forgetting.
This is an area where Tyler's notes help immensely, identifying references to common tropes--the shallows are "an image for the vicissitudes of life"--and direct references to specific poems. By the end of the book, I found myself occasionally able to parse a poem's secondary meaning, or even recognize a reference that I'd seen in an earlier poem; it was a great feeling, akin to the first time you communicate without anxiety in a foreign language.

In his introduction, Tyler explains,
The women of the world for which Genji was written had households to run or lords and ladies to serve, and they could be busy with many tasks, duties, or pastimes. Still, the pace of life was slow. The tale is for readers who have time. Not only is it long, but it invites a degree of reader participation--a kind of active absorption--that few contemporary novels demand.
What Tyler doesn't mention is that, in exchange for that investment of time and energy, Genji at its best moments can cast a spell that seems to transport the contemporary reader to that earlier time and its slower-paced life; the modern world rushes by, and even when we return to it and its demands, we retain something of the patience and quiet we've taken from Genji's time. It's a marvel, and it's easy to understand why it's been with us for a thousand years.

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

"We are yet but young in deed."

{Photo by rocketlass.}

Saturday night, rocketlass and I saw the Chicago Shakespeare Theatre's production of Macbeth, a high-intensity staging steeped in gore that has left me ever since with one of Macbeth's lines running through my head. Late in Act III, when it has become obvious that his accession to power will not be quite so simple as he and Lady Macbeth had deluded themselves into thinking, Macbeth says to her,
I am in blood
Stepped in so far, that, should I wade no more,
Returning were as tedious as go o'er.
This characterization of Macbeth's dilemma has long been one of my favorite of Shakespeare's images, but this week, as I've been reading Natsuo Kirino's Out (1997, translated into English in 2003 by Stephen Snyder), I've latched onto it as a distillation of the very heart of noir. A character makes one mistake--whether out of weakness, venality, anger, desire, or some other reason matters little--and suddenly everything has changed. The doors to his old life all slam shut, but others creak open . . . and while that's anything but light he sees spilling from them, it's surely still better than the present darkness that's steadily enveloping him, right? Or maybe not . . .

Well, if noir is made of dark choices compounded by more dark choices, Out is about as noir as it gets. I turned to it after reading The Tale of Genji, and it was the perfect antidote: where Lady Murasaki's world is refined, passionate, and ancient, Kirino's world is brutal, cold, and utterly contemporary. She tells of four unhappy women, coworkers on a factory night shift in a Tokyo suburb, who become co-conspirators when one of them murders her husband. Almost before they've given the matter any thought, they're dismembering the body and trying to convince themselves that,
Garbage was a natural by-product of human life; and it was nobody else's business what got thrown away or who did the throwing.
In other words, they've "in blood stepped in so far" that it very quickly becomes obvious that they have little choice other than to make their deadly way forward--but the path they navigate from that point is impressively surprising, and far darker and more gruesome than I'd ever have expected.

The writing is a bit flat at times (The sentences here and there reminded me of the awkwardness of the English versions of Koji Suzuki's Ring novels--could this be a problem of translation?), but Kirino's attention to the realistic details of her characters' lives and world pays off in the creation of a convincing portrait of dead-end life in contemporary Japan, which makes the contrast between the goriness of the women's crimes and the everyday manner in which they set about them all the more effective. Her unflinching attention to the physicality of murder (and eye for black comedy) would do Patricia Highsmith proud, while her adeptness with the ramifications of bad choices brought to mind Scott Smith (though she displays much greater skill in delineating individual psychology).

The ending is, if possible, more troubling than anything else in the book--primarily, I think, because it's the first part of the novel that doesn't fully convince, which makes its horrors much more difficult to take--but it can't ruin a novel that to that point has offered such an entertainingly bleak and nasty ride. What we're left with is a book that you'll be guaranteed to get back within days when you lend it to a friend: lend it to the wrong person and they'll return it in shock after fifty pages; lend it to the right one and they'll hand it back gratefully, sleepless and satisfied. Thanks go to the readers who suggested it when I asked about Japanese crime fiction; I'll definitely be picking up Kirino's other novels soon.

As for those of you who may now be eying the height of the bloody stream and beginning to wonder if we should have crossed at a ford instead of just plunging in, don't worry: the next post will be about Genji, wherein there is no murder, no dismemberment, and no blood. Some angry demons and a lot of poetry, but no blood.

Sunday, March 01, 2009

It's that time again!

{Photo by rocketlass.}

My midweek return from my vacation in Japan, which meant a return to the office and overflowing inboxes of all sorts, has left me feeling a bit behind. {"Wait," you're probably saying, "because of the International Date Line, didn't you get two Wednesdays last week? Shouldn't you be ahead rather than behind?" Um, I suppose. But really, what's one to do with a supernumerary Wednesday?} So while I promise that I'll write soon about the trip--or at the very least about the one book I ended up reading while there, The Tale of Genji--today I'll just direct you to the newest issue of the Quarterly Conversation, which went up this weekend.

In Issue 15 you'll find a review of Cesar Aira's Ghosts (which I'm definitely going to have to pick up); a review of Ron Silliman's new 1,000-page book of poems, The Alphabet; an essay by George Fragapoulos with the irresistible title of "Ten Theses on the Nature of Metafiction (and a Parenthetical Review of Salvador Plascencia's The People of Paper"; as well as my review of Tomaz Salamun's poetry collection Woods and Chalices. Oh, and there's a contest: in 200 words or less, tell the editors about a book they've never heard of but should pick up right now, and you could win $65 in credit on the website of my favorite bookstore, the Seminary Co-op.

I'm also excited to announce that I will be taking on the role of poetry editor for the Quarterly Conversation starting with the next issue. So if you come across any new books of poetry that you think I absolutely shouldn't miss, please don't hesitate to drop me a line.