Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Woolf the torero, or, On The Story abou the Story

In the most recent issue of the Quarterly Conversation we featured an adapted version of J. C. Hallman's introduction to his new anthology, The Story about the Story: Great Writers Explore Great Literature (2009), and while the introduction itself--along with Hallman's feisty blog posts at Tin House--has led to some combative back-and-forth online, nearly everyone seems to agree that the contents of the anthology are impressive. So I was excited to finally pick up a copy the other day, and so far it hasn't disappointed.

Hallman has brought together a group of essays in which distinguished writers--Nabokov, Lawrence, Wallace Stegner, William Gass, and many more--turn their attention to a particular work or author who has been important to them. The runners among you will know what I mean when I say that the resulting book is one that's perfect for reading before a long run; the baseball fans among you can picture it as between-innings reading for a late-season ballgame, attended alone because one's regular seatmates have bailed, driven away by September's too-familiar twin ills, futility and chill. The book's trove of carefully phrased arguments and deeply held beliefs about literature *, its making and its purpose, roll and rattle around in the brain long after the book is closed, and the miles or the innings slip away barely noticed.

One of my favorite pieces thus far is one that Virginia Woolf wrote for the Times Literary Supplement in 1928: under the smilingly innocuous title "An Essay in Criticism," she handily dismantles Hemingway's short-story collection Men Without Women (1927). The relatively brief review contains a number of interesting observations, of the sort that can sometimes be occasioned by the collision of mismatched artistic temperaments, but the most compactly insightful passage is this one, keyed to a few sentences from The Sun Also Rises (1926):
(But if we had to choose one sentence with which to describe what Mr. Hemingway attempts and sometimes achieves, we should quote a passage from a description of a bullfight: "Romero never made any contortions, always it was straight and pure and natural in line. The others twisted themselves like corkscrews, their elbows raised and leaned against the flanks of the bull after his horns had passed, to give a faked look of danger. Afterwards, all that was faked turned bad and gave an unpleasant feeling. Romero's bullfighting gave real emotion, because he kept the absolute purity of line in his movements and always quietly and calmly let the horns pass him close each time.") Mr. Hemingway's writing, one might paraphrase, gives us now and then a real emotion, because he keeps absolute purity of line in his movements and lets the horns (which are truth, fact, reality) pass him close each time. But there is something faked, too, which turns bad and give an unpleasant feeling--that also we must face in course of time.
Later, after some passages in which she leavens real praise for some of Hemingway's sentences (such as "a long, lean phrase which goes curling around a situation like the lash of a whip") with apt criticisms of his dialogue and characters, Woolf unexpectedly both draws and drives home her shiv in one smooth, elegant move:
There are in Men Without Women many stories which, if life were longer, one would wish to read again.
Even Mack Heath would be proud of a murder that quick and clean. I expect she walked away with nary a drop of blood on her.

To be fair, I should note that of course Woolf--though an old favorite--is not without her own faults. Here, for example, she's at her roundabout worst:
[H]e is a skilled and conscientious writer. He has an aim and makes for it without circumlocution. We have, therefore, to take his measure against somebody of substance, and not merely line him, for form's sake, beside the indistinct bulk of some ephemeral shape largely stuffed with straw.
Good god--I hate to think how many words it would take for her to describe the Tin Man or the Cowardly Lion!

Reading an essay like this one, which find me nodding along to certain strongly worded criticisms--such as
On the other hand, his is a talent which may contract and harden still further, it may come to depend more and more on the emphatic moment; make more and more use of dialogue, and cast narrative and description overboard as an encumbrance.
[T]hough Mr. Hemingway is brilliantly and enormously skilful, he lets his dexterity, like the bullfighter's cloak, get between him and the fact.
--because they so comfortably confirm certain of my prejudices, ultimately has the opposite effect of what might be expected: I find myself thinking that I should go back to Hemingway, free him from the barnacles of faulty memory and the false certainties of ever-evolving taste and actually read him again.

Perhaps Raymond Carver, one of his descendants, is the same way, for after an initial flurry of admiration, I find myself disliking his stories, too, when I reconstruct them in my mind long after reading them. Perhaps, tending as I do these days towards the baroque, I should read both as a restorative every few years, if only to remind myself that even if the signpost to which they pointed ultimately reads Dead End, that doesn't mean it wasn't worth investigating--and, perhaps just as important, that they bear no responsibility for their legion of self-appointed acolytes, who worship the bony leanness of their prose while failing to understand what has put the marrow deep within it.

And now, having handily put down what I have to say is a very nice little straw man of my own, it's off to bed for me.

Monday, September 28, 2009

"The moment is fleeting. But insight cannot be taken back. You cannot return to the moment you were in before," or, More from Wolf Hall

I haven't much time tonight, but as I'm still utterly wrapped up in re-reading Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall, I feel it's my duty to share some more notable passages.

I wrote briefly back in May about how Mantel's prose in this novel rewards close attention; while the book's primary glory is its delineation of ruthless power politics--and of how one might retain one's honor, and one's sense of self, while navigating such deadly shoals--one of its frequent incidental pleasures is the descriptive richness with which Mantel invests the late medieval world of Cromwell and More and their king.

There is the pre-Enlightenment world of mystery and ritual, the calendar that forever whirls round, season to season, feast day to fast day:
This year, there has been no summer plague. Londoners give thanks on their knees. On St John's Eve, the bonfires burn all night. At dawn, white lilies are carried in from the fields. The city daughters with shivering fingers weave them into drooping wreaths, to pin on the city's gates, and on city doors.
Then there's the frightening sounds of the pitch-black nighttime city, in which a smart man with resources does not venture out alone, but relies instead on link-men with torches, and sidekicks with strong right arms:
The damp streets are deserted; the mist is creeping from the river. The stars are stifled in damp and cloud. Over the city lies the sweet, rotting odour of yesterday's unrecollected sins. . . . Someone is screaming, down by the quays. The boatmen are singing. There is a faint, faraway splashing; perhaps they are drowning someone.
And then there are the scents, some of them designed to cover up the decay and dirt of that unwashed world, others employed to complete an impression of sumptuous abundance, endless splendor--such as those that emerge from the wardrobe of Cardinal Wolsey when, stripped of royal favor, he must surrender his vestments to the king's men:
The copes were sewn in gold and silver thread, with patterns of golden stars, with birds, fishes, harts, lions, angels, flowers and Catherine wheels. When they were repacked and nailed into their traveling chests, the king's men delved into the boxes that held the albs and cottas, each folded, by an expert touch, into fine pleats. Passed hand to hand, weightless as resting angels, they glowed softly in the light; loose one, a man said, let us see the quality of it. Fingers tugged at the linen bands; here, let me, George Cavedish said. Freed, the cloth drifted against the air, dazzling white, fine as a moth's wing. When the lids of the vestments chests were raised there was the smell of cedar and spices, sombre, distant, desert-dry. But the floating angels had been packed away in lavender; London rain washed against the glass, and the scent of summer flooded the dim afternoon.
As chill Chicago rain washes against the glass, and a procession of newly fallen leaves rattles down the alley, announcing autumn's arrival, what I wouldn't give for one last flood of mid-summer scents.

Instead, I'll sink yet again into Mantel's recreated world of late medieval England, to dream in its cadences and wake with its worries.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Wish fulfillment

In preparation for a review I'll be writing for the Second Pass, I'm currently re-reading Hilary Mantel's brilliant new novel, Wolf Hall, and it's reminded me of an e-mail exchange I had recently with Jenny Davidson of Light Reading about Stieg Larsson's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo--and why I seem to be the only crime novel fan (and maybe the only person, period) who actively dislikes it.*

Jenny nailed it, explaining that I didn't like Larsson's book largely because I'm not into wish-fulfillment novels--and that's what the novel's two leads represent. Mikael and Salander are smarter, more talented, more dramatic, better looking, and sexier versions of ourselves, engaged in more exciting and dramatic adventures than we ever encounter. Jenny's right: it just doesn't appeal to me. I don't buy it, and, more, I don't really even want it: life is fine without approaching perfection, and as someone with generally low ambitions, the few dreams I have are too reasonable to require authorial intervention.

What re-reading Wolf Hall has reminded me is that there is one particular kind of wish-fulfillment to which I am susceptible: that of simple, understated functional hyper-competence. I've written before, in joking fashion, about Mantel's portrayal of Thomas Cromwell's wide range of abilities, and how those help create an aura of fear, even awe, that is a great help in his multifarious activities on behalf of Henry VIII. Without ever bragging, or seeming to place too much importance on the fact, Cromwell demonstrates again and again that in almost any field he knows what he's doing. And even though I know that what I'm reading is fiction--however much the historical Cromwell may underlie Mantel's portrait--I find myself thrilling to that competence every time.

A similar feeling draws me to Richard Stark's Parker. Though he is clearly not a character Stark wants us to emulate, or even like, at the same time his relentless drive for perfection is hard not to admire. He is the best at what he does, and while he doesn't make me want to rob banks, he does make me want to be that capable.

Of course, to remain convincing such functional competence has to stay just this side of perfection. Parker does make mistakes, and even Cromwell can't retain the king's favor forever. On the other hand--to take an example that's been in the news lately, Robert Langdon, hero of Dan Brown's novels, is so endlessly, flawlessly skilled that his perfection quickly becomes risible, smacking far more of cack-handed authorial grant than of a lifetime of dedication.

But in the hands of a skilled author--like when Mantel shows us Thomas Cromwell casually calculating the value of Thomas More's carpet, then filing the answer away to use later against his rival--such demonstrated skill calls up some long-dormant childhood definition of masculinity, a belief that a real man is one who can do things. I know better, know the many ways in which such a definition is limited, complicated, even ridiculous . . . but reading about Cromwell I suddenly find myself wondering again about the skills I don't have, thinking maybe I should take boxing lessons, or brush up my Spanish, or improve my dismal swimming skills.

Nah. More likely I'll just continue with my autumn project of trying to re-learn how to play the piano. Surely a man who can make a strong martini and play "One for My Baby" can count on folks cutting him some slack in other areas, right? {Of course, first I have to manage the much simpler "Swanee River." Baby steps, baby steps.}

Thursday, September 24, 2009

One last reminder: We're bringin' the Joyland to the Book Cellar tomorrow night.

A quick post tonight to remind any of you who are in Chicagoland about the first-ever public reading by Joyland Chicago authors that we're having tomorrow night, September 25th, at 7 p.m. at the Book Cellar in Lincoln Square.

I don't know what any of my four authors are going to be reading, but I feel confident in promising a good time, and we'd love to see you.

More details are in this post. Hope to see you there!

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Things I learned from Donald E. Westlake . . .

. . . that I would never have suspected

From What's the Worst That Could Happen? (1996):
The casino part of each strip hotel is widespread, but it is also low-ceilinged and windowless, so that its air supply, except out at the very edge of the slot machines near the check-in desk and the main entrance, is completely artificial. It is air-conditioned, of course, with temperature and quality controlled from an air room near the rear of the hotel, next to the kitchens and very close to the loading dock. But air-conditioning isn't all. Each night between midnight and 8:00 A.M., the controlled air delivered from this room to the vast casino area is sweetened with just a little extra oxygen, to make it a richer air than human beings normally breathe on the planet Earth. This richer air makes people feel more a wake, happier, more energized. Because of this, they don't feel like going to bed, not quite yet. They feel like staying up, playing at the tables just a little longer, trying just a little harder. Who knows? Luck might turn.
Sounds like an opening for an unscrupulous set of characters like Dortmunder and his crew, no?

. . . that I already knew, but enjoy learning again and again

From What's the Worst That Could Happen? (1996):
When Stan Murch felt the need for temporary wheels, he liked to put on a red jacket and go stand in front of one of the better midtown hotels, preferably one with its own driveway past the entrance. It was usually no more than ten or fifteen minutes before some frazzled out-of-towner, vibrating like a whip antenna after his first experience driving in Manhattan traffic, would step out of his car and hand Stan the keys. One nice thing about this arrangement was that it wasn't technically car theft, since the guy did give Stan the keys. Another nice thing was that such people were usually in very nice, clean, new, comfortable cars. And yet another nice thing was that the former owner of the car would also give Stan a dollar.
. . . both of which would be number [insert large number here] in a series if only I'd bothered to keep track.* Oh, the many and varied debts I owe to Donald Westlake!

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Fanny Burney tells me to put down the laptop and take up a pen right this minute!

Last week, I had my nagging sense of guilt over being delinquent in correspondence with a couple of friends reanimated by reading a letter that Joseph Conrad sent to a friend apologizing for a similar failure. I resolved to make good . . . but first I had to finish my post on Byron and Boswell, which sent me to Fanny Burney's letters, in hopes that she'd written something amusing about the wild Lord--and what did I come across on the first page I turned to but another reminder of my neglected duty!

This one took the form of a coy, witty letter from Burney to her son admonishing him for not writing, and it's worth reproducing in full, as it gives a sense, in distilled form, of the charm, intelligence, and playfulness that emanates from all of Burney's letters and journals:
5 June, 1816

Stanhope street, Bath.

Are you ill, my dear Alex?
If so, beg your Friend--
      or your Apothecary--
      or your Gip*--
      to write a line instantly,
      and we will be with you immediately.
      Has any disappointment or mischance annoyed your happiness, and sunk your spirits?
      If so, open your heart at once,
comfort and kindness are all that will be offered you: -- sympathy, my Alex, that will sooth and relieve you--
      If you can have neglected to write,
      or only have mislaid a Letter, and not searched for it--
      then, indeed. Your own self-reproach--
      upon reflection--
will tell you the reproaches you will merit from us: though even then, a candid and immediate avowal will cancel them.
      At all events--If You, or some Proxy--answer not by return of Post, My suspense and uneasiness will make Me instantly address Mr Chapman or Dr. Davy.**
And now you'll surely all understand if I cease blogging for the night and turn instead to making good my epistolary debt.

You, meanwhile, might go visit Shaun Usher's stunning new blog, Letters of Note, where reproductions of odd and interesting letters will surely keep you busy until I've safely handed my own missives to yon postman.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

"He recited his favourite poetry at inordinate length," or, Byron and Boswell at table

This afternoon while enjoying Edna O'Brien's fun, gossipy Byron in Love: A Short Daring Life (2009)*, I was struck by one of the few mundane scenes in Lord Byron's whole sordid life, his first meeting with the parents of his wife-to-be, Annabella Milbanke. After dithering in ridiculous fashion** for nearly two months following the acceptance of his proposal, Byron finally set out for the Milbanke family seat in the "God-forsaken hamlet" of Seaham, where--having arrived two days later than even his amended schedule had led the family to expect--for one evening he acted the part of a typical prospective son-in-law:
Yet he rallied at dinner, listened to Sir Ralph's stockpile of jokes, familially known as "pothooks," jokes about fleas and frogs and electioneering and a shoulder of mutton.
Given the horrors he would soon inflict on Annabella, and the countless other lives he ruined through the years, it's rare that one has much sympathy for Byron; however, imagining a hoary, time-worn "leg of mutton" joke following hard on the heels of a similar joke about a flea--all laid atop a gout-inducing English dinner--does elicit at least a cringing twinge of that emotion.

The scene stood out in part because it reminded me of another, much worse account of dinners endured by James Boswell. In late November of 1786, Boswell was pleasantly surprised when a representative of Lord Lonsdale, one of the richest and most powerful men in the kingdom, asked him to come to Carlisle to serve as counsel for the Lord in the upcoming election; Boswell, hoping to secure Lonsdale as a political patron, jumped at the chance. He arrived in Carlisle, where he met Lonsdale, and--as Adam Sisman recounts in his wonderful Boswell's Presumptuous Task (2000),
Lonsdale received Boswell courteously, and . . . they dined with half a dozen others in a local public house. Lonsdale did all the talking. Three of his MPs were present, all of whom were utterly quiet. . . . Boswell dined with Lonsdale every day, and every day the pattern was the same. Lonsdale harangued, and when anyone ventured to speak, even to express agreement, Lonsdale silenced him, ordering, "You shall hear." One of Lonsdale's cronies whistled like a bird when Lonsdale treated him with contempt. No private conversation was tolerated. He snapped at a servant who made a noise. He declaimed forcefully on subjects of his own choosing, and recited his favourite poetry at inordinate length. Boswell was struck by the force of Lonsdale's physiognomy, his utterance, his memory. He perceived that several of his fellow-diners took refuge in sleep. Lonsdale himself sometimes appeared to doze off, though Boswell was warned not to relax his guard, as this could be a pretence.
Believe it or not--and Sisman deserves praise for structuring his telling this way--it gets worse:
Lonsdale surrounded himself with hangers-on, all dependent on him, united in fear and greed. Boswell was amazed when Lonsdale at a whole plate of fresh oysters without offering anybody else one. Most insulting of all, Lonsdale denied his guests wine, while drinking it himself. When a new guest naively asked for some white wine, Lonsdale replied, "No. That has never been asked for here."
At those moments, how dreadfully stark must have been the contrast between Boswell's present company and that of his late friend Dr. Johnson! Is it any wonder that when he limped back home after a month in Lonsdale's clutches he once again summoned up the energy to dive back into work on his Life?

Friday, September 18, 2009

"It is a fool's business to write fiction for a living," or, Joseph Conrad's letters

I've been enjoying dipping into The Portable Conrad this week, particularly the small selection of letters that close the volume, which alone would make the whole book worth picking up for any Conrad fan. I drew from one of those letters, to John Galsworthy, on Wednesday, but there's more worth sharing--including the closing line of that letter:
The finishing of "H. of D." took a lot out of me. I haven't been able to do much since.
Which does seem excusable.

The letters, at least the selection included here, offer us a somewhat unexpected Conrad, less weighty and serious than in his novels, and at times almost light--though what's fascinating is how frequently Conrad veers from moments of humor or self-deprecation into darker passages of near despair. Take the opening of this letter, from October 12, 1899, to his friend E. L. Sanderson:
Were you to come with a horsewhip you would be still welcome. It's the only kind of visit I can imagine myself as deserving from you. Only the other day Jessie asked me whether I had written to you and overwhelmed me with reproaches. Why wait another day? But I am incorrigible. I will always look to another day to bring something good, something one would like to share with a friend,--something,--if only a fortunate thought.
That lament will, I fear, be familiar to the couple of friends to whom my letter writing debt has settled into serious arrears. But, knowing me as a naturally a light-hearted person, they would I think be shocked if I followed up that lament with the bleakness that Conrad envisions:
But the days bring nothing at all,--and thus they go by empty-handed,--till the last day of all.
That same letter also offers some entertaining reflections on publishing and the craft of writing, starting with the raising--and instant dashing--of hopes of financial reward:
A book of mine (Joseph Conrad's last) is to come out in March. Three stories in one volume. If only five thousand copies of that could be sold! If only! But why dream of the wealth of the Indies? I am not the man for whom Pactolus flows and the mines of Golconda distill priceless jewels. (What an absurd style. Don't you think I am deteriorating?) Style or no style,--I am not the man. And oh! dear Ted, it is a fool's business to write fiction for a living. It is indeed.
The very next paragraph, however, turns what had begun as a joking account into a striking, unforgettable description of the haunted existence of the dedicated writer:
It is strange. The unreality of it seems to enter one's real life, penetrate into the bones, make the very heartbeats pulsate illusions through the arteries. One's will becomes the slave of hallucinations, responds only to shadowy impulses, waits on imagination alone. A strange state, a trying experience, a kind of fiery trial of untruthfulness. And one goes through it with an exaltation as false as all the rest of it. one goes through it,--and there's nothing to show at the end. Nothing! Nothing! Nothing!
With some adjustments, that passage could slip into any number of Conrad's works; I even hear echoes of the final lines of Heart of Darkness

While we're on the subject of publishing, I'll close with this letter from late in Conrad's life to Richard Curle, about a magazine article Curle was writing about him. (I think that's the case--one of the faults of The Portable Conrad is that it entirely lacks contextual or explanatory notes.). Dated July 14, 1923, it opens with Conrad expressing gratitude for the form of the survey Curle had made of his work, then continues:
I was in hopes that on a general survey it could also be made an opportunity for me to get freed from that infernal tail of ships and that obsession of my sea life, which has about as much bearing on my literary existence, on my quality as a writer, as the eunmerating of drawing rooms which Thackeray frequented could have had on his gift as a great novelist. After all, I may have been a seaman, but I am a writer of prose. Indeed the nature of my writing runs the risk of being obscured by the nature of my material. . . . Even Doubleday was considerably disturbed by that characteristic as evidenced in press notices in America, where such headings as "Spinner of sea yarns--master mariner--seaman writer," and so forth, predominated.
Conrad is overstating his case there a bit: his ships, for what their natural isolation does to a man's spirit, are far more important to his writing than he suggests--just as Thackeray's drawing rooms, and their distorting effects on character, are in some important way the heart of his work. I have some sympathy for him nonetheless; the sense of being forever defined by the accidental path of one's youth must, as age closes in, be incredibly frustrating.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

The inimitable Joseph Conrad

{Photo by rocketlass.}

From Joseph Conrad's The Secret Sharer (1909):
She floated at the starting point of a long journey, very still in an immense stillness, the shadows of her spars flung far to the eastward by the setting sun. At that moment I was alone on her decks. There was not a sound in her--and around us nothing moved, nothing lived, not a canoe on the water, not a bird in the air, not a cloud in the sky. In this breathless pause at the threshold of a long passage we seemed to be measuring our fitness for a long and arduous enterprise, the appointed task of both our existences to be carried out, far from all human eyes, with only sky and sea for spectators and judges.
Those who know Conrad understand that the young captain, in setting this scene, has left out a far more terrible judge--next to whom the relatively forgiving judgments of sky and sea will seem as nothing: the implicit judgment posed by a man's idea self, honorable and brave--at least until it faces its first real challenges.

I deeply admire Conrad; Victory and Lord Jim are among the most important books in my development as a reader, my memories of first reading them still powerful fifteen years later. Yet he occupies an odd place among writers I love: I can go for a year or more without reading him . . . and then the urge will come over me, and absolutely no one else--not even his most obvious descendant, Graham Greene--will do.

That urge is what led me to The Secret Sharer last week. Of a piece with Conrad's other novel of young, inexperienced command, The Shadow-Line, it presents a narrator who is similarly young and uncertain in his command, and like that novel it verges on the uncanny--the captain's account of the discovery of a would-be stowaway reads like nothing so much as the set-up for a classic, Jamesian (Henry or M. R.) ghost story:
In the end, of course, I put my head over the rail.

The side of the ship made an opaque belt of shadow on the darkling glassy shimmer of the sea. But I saw at once something elongated and pale floating very close to the ladder. Before I could form a guess a faint flash of phosphorescent light, which seemed to issue suddenly from the naked body of a man, flicked in the sleeping water with the elusive, silent play of summer lightning in a night sky. With a gasp I saw revealed to my stare a pair of feet, the long legs, a broad, livid back immersed right up to the neck in a greenish cadaverous glow. One hand, awash, clutched the bottom rung of the ladder. He was complete but for the head. A headless corpse! The cigar dropped out of my gaping mouth with a tiny plop and a short hiss quite audible in the absolute stillness of all things under heaven. At that I suppose he raised up his face, a dimly pale oval in the shadow of the ship's side. But even then I could only barely make out down there the shape of his black-haired head. However, it was enough for the horrid, frost-bound sensation which had gripped me about the chest to pass off. The movement of vain exclamations was past, too.I climbed on the spare spar and leaned over the rail as far as I could, to bring my eyes nearer to that mystery floating alongside.
I love the detail of the cigar plopping into the water, and the way the horror simply presents itself, unmoving, for the captain's mind to amplify and expand. The tale remains just this side of the supernatural, but it does make me dream of a parallel body of work by some alternate-universe Joseph Conrad, writer of ghost stories.

Having mentioned Henry James above, it seems right to share some of Conrad's take on James, which I came across in a letter included in the wonderfully small and chunky copy of The Portable Conrad that I found at my local library during this most recent eruption of Conrad fever. In a letter to John Galsworthy of February 11, 1899, Conrad offers this rousing defense:
Dearest Jack,

Yes, it is a good criticism. Only I think that to say Henry James does not write from the heart is maybe hasty. He is cosmopolitan, civilized, very much homme du monde and the acquired (educated if you like) side of his temperament,--that is,--restraints, the instinctive, the nurtured, fostered, cherished side is always presented to the reader first. To me even the R. T. [The Real Thing] seems to flow from the heart because and only because the work approaching so near perfection, yet does not strike cold. Technical perfection, unless there is some real glow to illumine and warm it from within, must necessarily be cold. I argue that in H. J. there is such a glow and not a dim one either, but to us used, absolutely accustomed, to unartistic expression of fine, headlong, honest (or dishonest) sentiments the art of H. J. does appear heartless. The outlines are so clear, the figures so finished, chiselled, carved and brought out that we exclaim,--we, used to the shades of the contemporary fiction, to the more or less malformed shades,--we exclaim,--stone! Not at all. I say flesh and blood,--very perfectly presented,--perhaps with too much perfection of method.
This seems a clear case of the best qualities of one writer appealing directly to the best qualities of another, superficially quite different writer: minute variations in self-understanding and self-assessment are crucial to both men, despite the very different settings and characters they deploy to explore them.

All of which, now that I've temporarily sated my appetite for Conrad, may just set me off on a long-overdue James binge. Perhaps OGIC will be willing to point me in the right direction?

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Come out, come out! Joyland Chicago goes public!

In this recession-riddled economy, what better way to spend a Friday night than at a free reading?

Well, be sure to mark your calendars, line up a date, press your tux, and warn the babysitter you just might be out all night, because next Friday night, September 25th, the good folks at the Book Cellar in Lincoln Square will host the first-ever Joyland Chicago reading!

I'll be introducing a solid lineup that includes some of my favorite contributors to the site's first year:
Jeff Waxman
Samuel Bennett
Paul LaTour
Joseph Clayton Mills
The Book Cellar is at 4736-38 N. Lincoln here in Chicago. The reading starts at 7 and will probably last a bit less than an hour--but I recommend you allow yourself some extra time to browse the shelves, eat pastries, and drink wine.

Hope to see you there!

Sunday, September 13, 2009

"To perhaps overgeneralize, book reviews are declarative statements; blog posts are questions."

A weekend of traveling has left me with no time to do any blogging today beyond posting a link to my contribution to the symposium on book blogging that Patrick Kurp and D. G. Myers have conducted over the past ten days.

There's little in my take on the form that will surprise any longtime readers of this blog, but it was certainly fun to have an excuse to think directly about what I hope I'm accomplishing here day after day. The other contributions--links to all of which are to be found low down in the left sidebar of D. G. Meyers's Commonplace Blog--offer plenty of pleasures: at a minimum, you should check out those of Mark Athitakis, who contributed the quote I used as this post's headline, and Patrick Kurp, who draws on poet David Ferry to remind us that "writing / Is a way of being happy."

Friday, September 11, 2009

A Jazz Age Friday fancy

{Photos by rocketlass.}

I know deep in my heart that wishing you were living in another era is a mug's game--and however attractive it might seem at times, it will always come up against my more natural, even borderline pathological, tendency towards contentment--but even so, doesn't reading this opening page of Edmund Wilson's novel I Thought of Daisy (1929) make you want to be, even if just for one night, one party, in the 1920s?
It was a low red-brick house with a white door, a brass knob and brass name-plates, and new green-and-white awnings and green window-boxes: the sort of place which, in those days, downtown, seemed particularly smart. We rang, and, after a moment, the electric clicking began--with its quick and ready profusion, plucking distinctly the string of excitement which could still be set vibrating for me at the prospect of meeting new people in Greenwich Village.

They were Hugo Bamman's friends: I had never met them. Rita Cavanagh, the poet, was to be there--and other persons reputed to possess genius or to whom I vaguely attributed romance. The stairs were soft-carpeted in green. The host, tall and smiling, in a dinner jacket, met us at the door. The rooms were very bright and well-kept: I saw lettuce-green cocktail glasses, a bruised-mulberry batik behind a divan and, on the wall, a set of framed designs for the costumes of some ballet, vividly tinselly golds, blues and purples. And there were girls, like the colored sketches, in the brightest make-ups and clothes, with red silk roses of Cuban shawls and silver turbans and red hair and black arching Russian eyebrows beautifully penciled on.
Ah, yes, it's Friday night and you're young, your escape from the provinces recent enough that glamorous New York's own admiration of its undeniable charms has yet to lose its appeal; you have new friends and they have money, to neither of which you've yet seen the downside; at a bar nearby the Millay sisters are probably pouring; the booze is illicit and surely lousy but oh, how freely it flows; September's settling in, the Village's street trees starting to turn, while the streetlights ensure that it's never quite night.

For one night, for one party . . .

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

The Quarterly Conversation, Issue 17

Issue 17 of the Quarterly Conversation has just gone up, and it's full of good stuff. I already mentioned Jordan Anderson's piece on two I've Been Reading Lately favorites, Proust and Javiar Marias, a few days ago when I was proofreading it; if, like me, you're breathlessly anticipating November's English-language publication of the final volume of Marias's trilogy Your Face Tomorrow, Anderson's piece will serve to remind you of why you're so excited. If, on the other hand, you're a Proust fan who's never encountered Marias before, Anderson's take on Marias's use of Proust can't help but pique your interest.

I contribute a brief overview of the career of Kazuo Ishiguro, who is one of my favorite authors despite a somewhat vexed relationship to his work; his new story collection, Nocturnes, which will (finally!) be published here in the States later this month, provides the occasion--and some glimmers of hope for those of us who look back at his messy masterpiece The Unconsoled with frustrated fondness.

And my stable of poetry reviewers keeps contributing good work: the estimable Patrick Kurp weighs in on a new collection of the work of one of his favorite poets, Geoffrey Hill; George Fragopoulos responds appropriately--and thus oddly--to the endearingly strange For the Fighting Spirit of the Walnut, by Takashi Hiraide; Andy Frazee addresses Joshua Harmon's Scape; and more.

Head over there and while away your afternoon. You won't regret it. I, meanwhile, will start laying plans for Issue 18 . . . good god, how does David Remnick survive forty-seven issues per year?

Monday, September 07, 2009

To ease your re-entry . . .

After the pleasant languors of the one holiday weekend in which we are directly instructed not to labor, what better way to ease our return to the working world than reading a brief, perceptive, sad, and moving account of what office life was like a scant decade ago, before the Internet changed our deskbound days? If that sounds good to you, go read Ed Park's piece in L Magazine on the subject, and remind yourself of what the Internet hasn't changed, namely the assumptions and omissions and conventions that keep us from ever truly getting to know most of our colleagues. Longtime readers will not be surprised--though I hope they'll be pleased--to discover that A Dance to the Music of Time plays a part as well . . .

{I really should have linked to Ed's piece in Thursday's post that touched on the pleasures of sharing stories and discoveries with friends, for Ed is both a master sharer and a wonderful recipient; the list of good novels he's put me on to is long and, despite my efforts to keep up, pleasantly ever-growing.}

Thursday, September 03, 2009

Send in the clowns. The sympathetic, empathetic clowns.

Last week, the Millions published a very good interview conducted by Annie K. Yoder with Phillip Lopate about his recent book on Susan Sontag, Notes on Sontag. The whole interview is worth reading--as is the review of Lopate's book published recently by the Quarterly Conversation--but the following description by Lopate of Sontag's failings as a novelist really stood out:
Sontag felt the big game was fiction. And that’s where you win the Nobel Prize. You don’t win it for writing essays. That’s understandable and that would’ve been great had she been a great fiction writer. Some people can do both, but she lacked a deep sympathy for other people—which is okay if you’re a critic because you don’t have to be that empathetic if you’re a critic, you just have to know what you think about something. And she lacked, for the most part, a sense of humor. It’s hard to be a great novelist without those two things.
That seems almost perfectly accurate. Lopate doesn't rule out the possibility of a great novelist who is essentially humorless (thus leaving us room for most of Thomas Hardy's great works) or unsympathetic (Dostoevsky, perhaps? I'm ready to be corrected here.)--he simply says that it's very hard; and it's true that nearly all my favorite novelists (such as Anthony Powell, Proust, Dickens, Iris Murdoch, Barbara Pym, J. F. Powers, to take the first ones that come to mind) have both qualities in spades.

In Tuesday's post on Anthony Powell, I discussed a feature of friendship that Powell understands as well as any writer I know, the pleasure we take in sharing anecdotes and discoveries with particular friends whom we know will appreciate them, and my reaction to this passage serves as a nice illustration: the moment I read it, I knew I had to send it to Patrick Kurp, as it sounded like lines he might have written himself. He replied,
In the passage you quote, he’s dead right about Sontag and novelists in general. Immediately I tried to find exceptions among great novelists. Tolstoy had a vestigial sense of humor and it’s not central to his vision, but it’s there. Rather than a “deep sympathy for other people,” I might substitute deep interest (though never contempt). James and Faulkner possessed both (by my reading, both are comic writers). So did Sterne, Melville, Dickens, Eliot, Bellow, on and on.
Later in our exchange, Patrick, never one to mince words, wrote, "I have no use for Woolf." Woolf would certainly fall into the humorless category, and while I have to break with Patrick (and thus to some extent with Lopate) here--To the Lighthouse and Mrs. Dalloway remain marvels in my view--he is in agreement with our shared favorite, Powell, who disliked Woolf's novels intensely, writing in his journal, for example, that The Waves is "twaddle," having
all the artificiality of a Compton-Burnett background, without any of the wit, willingness to grapple with real human problems, general grasp of novel-writing material.
Elsewhere he writes that Woolf is "so infinitely to be preferred in Diaries and Letters to novels."

Us Woolf fans might argue that Powell was far from Woolf's ideal reader--but no one would argue that he didn't know comedy, and in his infinitely re-readable notebook, among many other thoughts on writing, he astutely noted,
In a novel there is always the risk of something unserious being too serious.
As, I think we can agree, in life itself.

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

"Some suggestion . . . that things could have been even better."

As I mentioned last week, I came to my current re-reading of Anthony Powell's A Dance to the Music of Time straight from Proust, so I was particularly open to narrator Nick Jenkins's many references to In Search of Lost Time as he's reading it during The Military Philosophers, the last of the war volumes. The following one, which comes at the end of a trip through Cauberg--Proust's Balbec--with a group of foreign military attaches, is worth particular attention:
At the same time, a faint sense of disappointment superimposed on an otherwise absorbing inner experience was in its way suitably Proustian too: a reminder of the eternal failure of human life to respond a hundred per cent; to rise to the greatest heights without allowing at the same time some suggestion, however slight, to take shape in indication that things could have been even better.
Jenkins's--and thus Powell's--take on that disappointment hews closer to my experience than does Proust's, however much I might enjoy it. Being not, by nature, an idealist or a dreamer--I'm essentially a pragmatist, and (were it not for the unavoidable hint of self-congratulation contained in the description) might even call myself a realist--I find neither the ideal so high nor the actual so low as does Proust. Nick's more middling, muddling route--and the melancholy pleasure to be found therein--is closer to my style.

That relative calm also comes through in Jenkins's tendency to meditation, or reverie, a characteristic of the novel that is really standing out in this, my fourth or fifth time through Dance: a scene or a person or an exchange will remind Nick of a book or a painting, perhaps an old memory, and he will pause for a moment to suss out the similarities and differences, and what those might teach him about the current moment. What's struck me this time through is the inherent calm required for that approach, a fundamental wholeness of or confidence in himself that allows him to simultaneously operate on two timescales, that of the moment and the much longer, more lasting one of literature, friendship, and personal history.

It's a deeply appealing characteristic, one that allows Powell to perpetually remind us of the reason we read books, the insight that only they can offer. Acknowledgment of the fact that such insight is unavailable to large swaths of our fellow humans is something else that sets Powell apart from most novelists; I've quoted this passage from The Valley of Bones before, but it remains the most succinct statement of that fact that I know, and thus bears repeating:
I was impressed for the ten thousandth time by the fact that literature illuminates life only for those to whom books are a necessity. Books are unconvertible assets, to be passed on only to those who possess them already.
That thought arises from the fact that, in the Army, Jenkins encounters a situation that will be familiar to anyone who has worked a job that mixes classes: being identified, usually skeptically, as a reader. Jenkins eventually surrenders to being pegged as such:
I no longer attempted to conceal the habit, with all its undesirable implications. At least admitting to it put one into a recognisably odd category of persons from whom less need be expected than the normal run.
I'll close out my Powellian musings for the week by noting another aspect of Nick's character--and thus Powell's understanding--that I appreciate: the simple fact that anecdotes that will stun some friends will fall entirely flat with others, and that one of the greatest--if simplest--joys of friendship is the eager anticipation of a chance to tell certain friends certain stories that you know will leave them gobsmacked. Those of you who haven't read Dance but might should skip this next passage, which reveals more than you ought to know in advance, but which illustrates my point:
I had not set eyes on Widmerpool myself since the day Farebrother had recoiled from saluting him in Whitehall. Although, as an archetypal figure, one of those fabulous monsters that haunt the recesses of the individual imagination, he held an immutable place in my own private mythology, with the passing of Stringham and Templer I no longer knew anyone to whom he might present quite the same absorbing spectacle, accordingly with whom the present conjuncture could be at all adequately discussed.
E-mail, cell phones, and other electronic communication aids have brought those crucial friends closer to us, made the stories that are the stuff of friendship easier than ever to share, but of course nothing will ever bridge that final gap, which puts me in mind of two passages I first discovered in D. J. Enright's marvelous anthology The Oxford Book of Death (1983). The first, from "Tam Cari Capitas," by Powell's contemporary Louis MacNeice, reminds us that "When a friend dies out on us and is not there," we miss him most "not at floodlit moments," but
. . . in killing
Time where he could have livened it, such as the drop-by-drop
Of games like darts or chess, turning the faucet
On full at a threat to the queen or double top.
Then there's this from the ever-helpful Samuel Johnson, as recounted by Hester Lynch:
The truth is, nobody suffered more from pungent sorrow at a friend's death than Johnson, though he would suffer no one else to complain of their losses in the same way; "for (says he) we must either outlive our friends you know, or our friends must outlive us; and I see no man that would hesitate about the choice."
A sentiment which I believe neither Nick Jenkins nor the long-lived Anthony Powell would dispute.