Wednesday, December 30, 2009

"Most people know little about it, aside from the fact that a great deal of dancing took place."

{Photo by rocketlass.}

Just in time for a game of Risk with my nephew, his dad, and my brother*, over Christmas weekend I started reading Rites of Peace: The Fall of Napoleon and the Congress of Vienna (2007), by Adam Zamoyski. At the halfway mark, it’s nearly as fascinating as Zamoyki’s earlier book, Moscow 1812.

Zamoyski does a remarkable job of helping the reader keep the dizzying array of people and interests at the Congress straight. Though not representative of his general style, the following list is worth reproducing for the picture it gives of the complexity of Napoleonic-era European politics; it covers only the minor German interests--dispossessed nobles and the like--in attendance at the Congress:
Some Standesherren had got together and elected one of their number in a region; others preferred to go themselves. There were also representatives of the four Hanseatic cities (Hamburg, Lubeck, Bremen and Frankfurt); of the city of Mainz; of the Chamber of Commerce of the city of Mainz; of the Teutonic Order; of the firms of Bonte and Co., Kayser and Co. and Wittersheim and Bock, creditors of the government of Westphalia, which had been abolished; of the Bishop of Liege; of the subjects of Count Solms-Braunfels. One delegation of Catholic clergy demanded full restitution under Papal authority; another, consisting of four delegates led by the Bishop of Constance, called for the institution of a new German national Catholic Church. The Pope’s delegate, Cardinal Consalvi, was there to oppose this. There was also a delegation, consisting of Friedrich Justin Bertuch of Weimar and Johann George von Cotta of Stuttgart, publisher of the Allgemeine Zeitung, representing eighty-one German publishers and demanding a copyright law as well as freedom of the press. And there were J. J. Gumprecht and Jakob Baruch of Frankfurt and Carl August Buchholz of Lubeck, representing the interests of the Jews. They were one of the few groups eager to preserve changes made by Napoleon, who had granted them full equality, of which the authorities in many German states were now attempting to strip them once more.

Yet out of this mess, Zamoyski constructs a narrative that is clear, coherent, and, even more remarkable, compelling. He freely indulges a taste for entertaining anecdotes--as in this story of one of the English plenipotentiary Sir Charles Stewart:
Accident-prone as ever, he came home one evening in his usual drunken state, tore off his uniform and threw himself onto the bed without bothering to close the french windows into the garden, and woke up to find that not only his richly gold-braided hussar jacket with its diamond-studded decorations, but every single item of clothing had been stolen. He was confined to quarters while a tailor ran up a new uniform.
The book spills over with such moments, which together paint a lively and unforgettable picture of the upper reaches of early nineteenth-century life.

Zamoyski is also blessed with the presence of three of the century’s most memorable figures: Tsar Alexander--of whom a friend once wrote,
He would willingly have made everyone free, as long as everyone willingly did what he wanted.
--the Austrian foreign minister, Metternich--who
was in every sense the center of his own universe. He would write endlessly about what he had thought, written and done, pointing out, sometimes only for his own benefit, how brilliantly these thoughts, writings, and doings reflected on him. This egotism was buttressed by a monumental complacency that was proof against all experience.
--and the French foreign minister, Talleyrand--whom Goethe called "the supreme diplomat of our century." and whom Roberto Calasso in The Ruin of Kasch credited with "the ability to sniff out the age." Together (or more accurately, perpetually at odds) they offer a tableau of drama, intrigue, and personal power that are breathtaking in their contrast to the limited political life of our more democratic age.

I’ll have plenty more to share from this book over the coming weeks, but with New Year’s Eve looming, it seems fitting to close with a brief description of one of the dozens of lavish balls held during the Congress. This account of the opening night fete--which filled two ballrooms and an indoor riding school--comes from the young German wife of the Danish ambassador:
In place of the windows there were enormous mirrors which reflected 100,000 sparkling lights. . . . The stairs swept down in two arcs to the floor of the riding school, which was covered with parquet and ringed on three sides with rows of seats like an amphitheatre. Blinded and almost dizzy, I paused for a few moments at the top of the stairs, and once I had gone down I could view the dazzling procession as the whole court of Vienna and those of other countries descended.
Those of you who, like me, tend to be skeptical about parties may find the response of Prussian chancellor Karl August von Hardenberg more in your line:
"Crush," Hardenberg jotted down in his diary. He disliked large gatherings and was in a bad mood besides, but even he could not resist adding "--many beautiful women."
Sounds like he might have been the sort to stay home on New Year’s.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Early reading experiences

One aspect of Laura Miller's The Magician's Book which I was pleasantly surprised by was her treatment of childhood reading, of how children experience and understand books. Her account is built largely on memory, like this attempt to reconstruct her first encounter with Narnia:
What remains is a dim recollection of how life was shaped before I knew about Narnia, and a more distinct sense of what it was like afterward. I had found a new world, which at the same time felt like a place I'd always known existed. It wouldn't have occurred to me to be wistful about the fact that I'd never read this perfect book for the first time again. All I wanted was more.
But she also offers other perspectives, including accounts from educators, psychologists, and other authors. Here, for example, is a quick look at the absence of parents from most good children's books:
In the great enterprise of growing up, a child's imagination practices the painless, surgical removal of an attachment that, however essential it may be at the moment, will sooner or later have to be left behind. The same child (myself, for example) who finds imagining her parents' deaths to be heart-freezingly scary will also fantasize about the exciting escapade of being left entirely to her own devices. In her memoir, Welcome to Lizard Motel, the educator Barbara Feinberg describes leading a children's creativity workshop whose participants liked pretending they were orphans, though not, one litle girl clarified, "the sad part of orphans."
Then there's this almost unbearably cute anecdote about the reaction of some friend's children to a picture book she was reading to them:
When I got to the part where a whistling Andy nears a turn in the road and notices just the tip of the runaway lion's tail peeping around the corner, [three-year-old] Desmond scrambled anxiously to the other end of the sofa and hid behind a cushion. Next we read Chris Van Allsburg's The Polar Express, and, at the moment when Santa put his arm around the book's narrator and called for a cheer from the crowd of onlooking children, Desmond sat up straight, radiating pride.
That sort of reflection is sprinkled throughout The Magician's Book, a recurring reminder that we are not the same people--and certainly not the same readers--we were when we first encountered the books of childhood that we recall so fondly.

Almost any serious reader risks slipping into rapturous tones when describing childhood reading. It's one of the rare instances of nostalgia in which there seems little danger of memory playing us false--the experience really was that intense, that all-encompassing.

But when I think of myself as an enthusiastic young reader, I think of an incident that's far more pedestrian: when I was in kindergarten, I read my first Hardy Boys book, The Tower Treasure, and I loved it. Detectives, robberies, mysteries--this was how the world should be! The clues and questions mounted, and just when it seemed that things couldn't get any more dramatic, Frank and Joe discovered who was behind the crimes: a hobo!

Only, the problem was, I thought the word "hobo" meant "ghost." The world of the Hardy Boys was even wilder than I'd imagined--and suddenly I wasn't so sure I wanted to be a detective!

I don't remember how long it took me to figure out I'd made a mistake, but thirty years later I still think of it every time I encounter a difficult passage in a book. I am not the reader I once was, indeed.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Merry Christmas!

From Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, translated by Simon Armitage:
It was Christmas at Camelot--King Arthur's court,
where the great and the good of the land had gathered,
all the righteous lords of the ranks of the Round Table
quite properly carousing and reveling in pleasure.
Time after time, in tournaments of joust,
they had lunged at each other with leveled lances
then returned to the castle to carry on their caroling,
for the feasting lasted a full fortnight and one day,
with more food and drink than a fellow could dream of.
The hubbub of their humor was heavenly to hear:
pleasant dialogue by day and dancing after dusk,
so the house and its hall were lit with happiness
and lords and ladies were luminous with joy.
May Christmas find you at your family's Camelot, your table ringed with loved ones, the hubbub of their humor heavenly to hear--or, as the Middle English has it, "Such glaum ande gle glorious to here"--and nary a Green Knight in sight.

Monday, December 21, 2009

The year draws in--time for a list!

{Photo by rocketlass.}

I'm not generally inclined to make a year-end best books list, but this year it occurred to me that I could use the occasion to note some books that I failed to write about, despite their being among my very favorites. So here goes: a novel, a book of poems, and a category for special circumstances.


Karl O. Knausgaard's A Time for Everything (2004, translated by James Anderson and published in 2009 by Archipelago Books) is the only novel I read this year that could come close to challenging Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall as the most absorbing, affecting read of the year. Shifting between philosophical detachment and psychological realism, A Time for Everything mixes reflections on the nature of angels in Christian history with retellings of a couple of stories from the bible.

If that doesn't sound promising to you, stay with me for a minute: the reflections on angels offer bookish, antiquarian pleasures in the playfully questing spirit of Eco or Borges--but with the addition of Danilo Kis's sense of tragedy and loss--while Knausgaard transforms the biblical tales (their spareness "fraught with background," as Eric Auerbach so memorably described them) into agonizing human dramas. Stefan Heym has worked some of this territory before, in his great novels The King David Report and The Wandering Jew, as has Nino Ricci in his Testament, but--while not intending to make too great a claim for the novel--I have to say that the writer this book most calls to mind is Tolstoy.

Imagine Tolstoy's ruminations on history shifted to ruminations on the role of angels; his empathy applied to a Cain who watches Abel, crazed by visions of angels, begin to lose his moorings. Imagine a Tolstoy who chooses to retell the story of the flood, not from the perspective of Noah, but from that of his doomed sister. There is real horror here: the human cost of divine anger has never, in my experience, been more clearly, achingly described. At the same time, the loving attention lavished on characters whose fates we know--and dread--reminds us of the necessary role of love in all creation, authorial or divine. Take this passage about Noah's sister's husband, for example:
She learned a lot about him that first autumn. She learned that he worked grudgingly, he'd rather sit and chat with people. But work was something he had to do. And when he'd at last reconciled himself to it, and begun to work, it always progressed slowly. He took plenty of time, no matter what he was doing. As if the measure of it was more the time it took than the work itself. Putting out a net in the evening shouldn't take long, it was only a matter of rowing out, casting the net, and rowing back, but for Javan it took hours.
We know he's going to drown, along with everyone he knows, yet Knausgaard convinces us to attend to him, think about and worry about him. A Time for Everything is an absolutely stunning book, one that I'll be thinking about for years to come.


Ernest Hilbert's Sixty Sonnets is exactly what its title suggests--and thus it's a performance as much as a book of poems, showy and spectacular. From the brisk noir of "She Remembers How They Fled from the Liquor Store Robbery in New Mexico"--
You'd been shot three times, soaked with tar and sweat,
But you gunned the grimy frame toward night,
Lit a smoke and cringed at the oily guts
Leaking from your side. . .
--to the ironic call-and-response of "Fortunate Ones"--
You will inherit large sums of money
(But someone dear to you will have to die first).
You will travel far and see the wide world
(And load yourself with debt; these things aren't free).
You can relax now. You've been through the worst
(But it consumed your youth, and now you're old).
--to the elegiac fatalism of "White Noise--
My songs are lost, as all will be at last,
Unremembered as a minor fiefdom,
Its peasants who tilled fields and died in wars.
--Hilbert takes the reader on a bravura run through seemingly every variation of tone and style that the sonnet can contain. It's a craftsman's book, a revival of form best summed up by the opening lines of "Song":
A song for those who learn forgotten, slow
Skills, crafts submerged long past by massed commerce,
By hard, dark, oily machines, and the din
Of duplicates shipped by the millions, stowed
In cavernous depots to be dispersed
To each home, used once, and then binned.
Books of the year are those you know you'll never bin; Sixty Sonnets belongs in their company.

Special Circumstances

1 Two of my very favorite books this year were written by good friends, and I'd be remiss to close out the year without noting them. Joseph G. Peterson's debut novel Beautiful Piece plunges the reader into the claustrophobic consciousness of a hard-luck Chicago man who is trying, in his limited, obsessive way, to figure out just how he's ended up in bed with the girlfriend of a dangerous man. The novel is short, but its repetitive phrasing and mobius-strip chronology combine with the intensity of the first-person narrative voice to make it haunting; its working title was Alone in the Heat Alone, a phrase whose thumping rhythm and repetition in a mere five words give a clear sense of the book's style. For a taste of Joe's distinct, insistent voice, you can check out the two stories of his I've published at Joyland.

2 My friend Carrie Olivia Adams, meanwhile, last winter published her first full-length book of poetry, Intervening Absence. Incorporating her earlier chapbook, A Useless Window (which I wrote about here), it is cinematic and mysterious, its frozen moments resembling film stills that have been severed from the domesticating surroundings of plot and exposition, leaving them full of fugitive meaning that eventually dissolves into dread, regret, and loss. In "A History of Drowning," the speaker, with the authority of an omniscient narrator, places you in the urban landscape--
This is before you have forgotten which way is east.
So, this is after you stopped on a bridge
by a statue to admire her hands.
And you turned your head to find yourself
in someone's photograph, your body arched
across the stone base, pressing up.
--before locking you away for good, and hinting that you should be grateful:
There is a room in the attic with jointed anatomical models and dressmaker torsos.
You & the parcels may stay there.
Inattention, in these poems, might bring us to disaster ("Floods have reached the bridge / Now the bridge bridges nothing); attention might not save us, either, but the book demands it nonetheless, its lines and images lodging deep in the mind, unforgettable.

3 Finally, a book from work. I tend to stay away from writing about books for which I serve as the publicist in my day job at the University of Chicago Press; it seems best to keep the two enterprises entirely separate, for, as my friend Luke once said, "Getting fired for your blog is so 2002."

But when I work on a book that draws on IBRL favorite Fernando Pessoa, how can I possibly justify ignoring it here? Philip Graham's The Moon, Come to Earth: Dispatches from Lisbon tells of a year he spent living in Pessoa's hometown of Lisbon with his wife and daughter, falling in love with the culture even as the everyday struggles of living in a foreign country continually reminded him that he could never quite be at home there.

Graham is wry, self-deprecating, and attentive to the unusual and the usual alike--just what I want in an armchair traveling companion. The following passage, which finds him settling in on the subway to read Pessoa following a confusing incident wherein a ticket salesman seemed offended that Graham had come to him to buy a ticket, will give you a sense of his tone:
Again, I press on and search further--I'm not sure why--here and there, until I find, "If I lift up my eyes from my thinking, they smart at the sight of the world."

I glance up at the window, and see the faint reflection of my own surprised face as I remember the ticket clerk, a few miles of train track safely behind me, and wonder if I've stumbled on the method behind his madness. What if invisible, convoluted strands of his imagination fill that glassed-in booth, and he sees anyone approaching as an alien unable to breathe his own brand of air. If so, what are a few strangers' missed connections to the unwelcome loss of his dream-state? His reputation has given him the solitude he craves, with the help of an accomplice, that ticket dispenser right outside on the platform.

Maybe everyone in the neighborhood gives him wide latitude in that booth, recognizing his artistic disposition, his need to defend an interior domain against all comers. Maybe those looks of shock and surprise I received weren't sympathy for me, but for the clerk who'd been interrupted by an insensitive newbie.

I blush, and then an alternate, Pessoa-like voice inside me rises up and says, Or maybe he's just a pain in the ass.
If you want more samples from The Moon, Come to Earth, you can find them at McSweeney's, where they were originally published in serial form.

Happy holidays and merry Christmas to you all. May your stockings bulge with books.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

In the wake of the storm

For all the folks on the east coast who are digging out from yesterday's snowstorm, two entries from the wonderful new edition of Thoreau's journals that the New York Review of Books Classics line has just published:
December 24, 1856
More snow in the night and to-day. making nine or ten inches.

P.M.--To Walden and Baker Farm with Ricketson, it still snowing a little.
        It was very pleasant walking thus before the the storm was over, in the soft, subdued light.

December 25, 1856

Take long walks in stormy weather or through deep snows in the fields and woods, if you would keep your spirits up. Deal with brute nature. Be cold and hungry and weary.
Now, as you settle into your third hour of shoveling, you can console yourself with the fact that you're just taking your place in a long American tradition of snow appreciation!

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Childhood reading

{Photo by rocketlass.}

As I read Laura Miller's charmingly conversational yet thoughtful The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia (2008), I perked up at this passage about J. R. R. Tolkien:
Tolkien has had many admirers of considerable intellectual stature--Auden was his great champion in the press, and the novelist Iris Murdoch sent him fan mail--but this, too, doesn't go very far in persuading other intelligent people who can't abide his books. Murdoch perhaps chose the wisest course when her husband, the Oxford professor John Bayley, would demand to know how she could be so enthralled by books that were so "fantastically badly written": she'd stare at him in amazement and insist that she didn't know what he was talking about.
Murdoch's response seems just right to me: Bayley is asking a question that doesn't really apply to the Lord of the Rings. Yes, they're badly written, teeth-clackingly awkward at times, but that's not the point. At their best, they immerse the reader in a world that seems inexhaustible, so fully imagined that we begin to suspect there's no question we could ask that Tolkien wouldn't have been able to answer--we feel that we've been invited to enter a supreme work of focused imagination, the vitality of which makes the clunky archaisms of Tolkien's prose entirely beside the point.

That said, neither Tolkien nor his friend C. S. Lewis were real touchstones for me as a young reader, like the latter was for Miller. I read and loved The Hobbit and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, but I felt none of the same magic from the two men's subsequent books. Looking back, I can see that they represented two important poles of imagination for me: the jumble-sale quality of Lewis's imagination--which, as Miller writes, "lifted figures and motifs in whole cloth from a motley assortment of national traditions, making no effort to integrate them into any coherent mythos"--clashed with my desire for order, while Tolkien's obsessive attention to detail (a quality I would later come to admire) took the books too far in the other direction, bogging them down in hours of elvensong when all I really wanted was for someone to draw sword in anger.

Neither author could match Lloyd Alexander's Chronicles of Prydain or Susan Cooper's Dark Is Risingi sequence (and in particular its first, and least fantastic book, Over Sea, Under Stone, which I read over and over). Looking back, I think that one overarching reason for my preference was that Narnia and Middle-Earth both lacked a quality I prized in fiction even as a boy: a sense of the everyday reality that lies underneath the fantasy and adventure. As Miller points out, neither Tolkien nor Lewis seemed all that interested in the day-to-day life of their worlds: there's no discernible economic activity, no incidental change, and--outside of Sam Gamgee--no characters who reveal long-range plans or aspirations that are disrupted by the events that have swept them up.

Alexander and Cooper, on the other hand, offer plenty of hints of what people in their worlds do when not questing: Taran is an assistant pig-keeper; Coll a full pig-keeper; Fflewddur Fflam a bard; Eilonwy, as a princess, is expected to do nothing--and that limitation drives her nuts. At the end of a battle, Coll laments the crops churned under by the fighting, a loss that will be felt that winter in the surrounding villages. In Over Sea, Under Stone, the Cornish village that the children visit on holiday is entirely ordinary, which makes the irruption of sinister forces and ancient magic all the more astonishing. It is a simple vacation with a somewhat distant relative, a situation we can all recognize--and then suddenly it's much more.

I was a very fortunate child, surrounded by a loving family in a rural freedom that seems more idyllic with every passing year. I didn't want to escape to somewhere: I wanted a world where adventure and dailiness could live side by side, where I could be part of momentous events but not have to give up the home I loved. Alexander and Cooper seemed to understand that in a way that Tolkien and Lewis--whom I now know were themselves in search of full-on escape from a world grown uncongenial--did not.

To circle back to where this post started, I'll turn once again to Iris Murdoch. In a 1962 interview for the Sunday Times, collected in From a Tiny Corner in the House of Fiction: Conversations with Iris Murdoch (2003, edited by Gillian Dooley), Murdoch responds to a question about whether there's a division between fantasy and reality in her own work:
If fantasy and realism are visible and separate aspects in a novel, then the novel is likely to be a failure. In real life the fantastic and the ordinary, the plain and the symbolic, are often indissolubly joined together, and I think the best novels explore and exhibit life without disjoining them.
Though Murdoch wasn't referring here strictly, or even at all, to fantastic literature as represented by Tolkien, Lewis, et al., I think her point nonetheless has some validity. Cooper's and Alexander's books were so powerful for this young reader exactly because they "indissolubly joined" the world of the everyday and the world of the imagination; they offered a new reality I could believe in, and set alongside my own, rather than escape to.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Looking ahead . . . to 2110!

{Photo by rocketlass.}

One of the most fun pieces of criticism I read all year was the Second Pass's "Fired from the Canon" article from mid-summer, in which a handful of anonymous reviewers gleefully slagged books by such eminent writers as Dickens, Faulkner, Garcia Marquez, DeLillo, and more. Find yourself the right bar--one with a literary clientele and free wifi--and you just might have enough fodder argument fodder there to enable you to break John Steinbeck's twenty-seven-martini record.

The holidays, however, are a more generous time, and in that spirit the Second Pass today published a complementary article, "The 2110 Club," in which they invited contributors to make a pitch for one book, relatively little-known or poorly understood now, that they could imagine holding up for a century.

The resulting list of books includes a couple of old favorites--and that's before you get to my own contribution, which I describe as "a novel so grim—and so relevant—that it’s almost painful to read." If that doesn't whet your appetite enough to make you postpone wrapping presents for a few minutes, what will?

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Oh, the weather outside is--good god--frightful!

I feel I should apologize in advance for the fact that today's post is yet another in a series of weather-related entries. My only defense is that of inappropriate shock, of a constitution--ordinarily hardy--that this year seems to have decided to respond to winter's inevitable descent with umbrage expressed through shivering.

Keeping that condition in mind, you'll understand why, fresh from a seductively mild weekend with my in-laws in California, I was struck this cold, bright morning by the following passage:
A disappointing kind of sun was shining. She lures you outside with her radiant eyes and blackmails you with the accusation that you're missing some exceptional, lovely weather, but once you've gone outside, full of good intentions, and you're walking the streets, along with all those other cheery city-dwellers and tourists blinking with confusion, you wished you'd put on a thicker sweater.
That's the opening paragraph of Ilja Leonard Pfeijffer's Rupert: A Confession (2002, translated from the Dutch by Michele Hutchison in 2009), recently published by Open Letter Books. Only a moron, an optimist, or a tourist*, of course, would have been fooled by today's brittle sun; a Chicagoan knows better. Yet at the same time, there is a part of me that--looking ahead to the bleak gray of the seven weeks of January yet to come--agrees with Rupert's conclusion:
But to go back now would be an affront to the beautiful day--lovely weather really, mustn't grumble, pity to stay indoors.
I'm less than thirty pages into the novel, but already I'm taken with it. Rupert is one of those domineering, insistent narrators that takes you by the arm with the first sentence and, heedless of your protests, proceeds to construct the entire universe of his story exactly to his specifications, truth, when necessary, being casually damned. I'm a sucker for that approach, and while I already suspect that Rupert will lie far, far closer, on the continuum of creepiness, to Humbert than to Holden, I expect I won't regret the hours I spend in his company.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

More holiday cheer from Thoreau

While I was typing the entry from Thoreau's journals that closed my most recent post, I noticed two others on the facing page that I can't resist sharing. In their juxtaposition of the serious and the silly, they give a nice sense of the many pleasures to be found in the book.

First, as our Puritan upbringing teaches us, we will be serious:
December 26, 1858
Call at a farmer's this Sunday afternoon, where I surprise the well-to-do masters of the house lounging in very ragged clothes (for which they think it necessary to apologize), and one of them is busy laying the supper-table (at which he invites me to sit down at last), bringing up cold meat from the cellar and a lump of butter on the end of his knife, and making the tea by the time his mother gets home from church. Thus sincere and homely, as I am glad to know, is the actual life of these New England men, wearing rags indoors there which would disgrace a beggar (and are not beggars and paupers they would could be disgraced so?) and doing the indispensable work, however humble. I am glad to find that our New England life has a genuine human core to it; that inside, after all, there is so little pretense and brag.
I'm impressed (and entertained) by the way that Thoreau recasts a moment of embarrassment as an indication of the essential goodness and simplicity of New Englanders--and at the same time I love the little glimpse this entry gives of the social awkwardness we sense underlying much of Thoreau's work. It can't always have been easy to know him, can it? "He will pop up, won't he?" I can imagine the lady of the house above muttering to her husband as he swings wide the front door.

And now for the silly, from two days later:
December 28
Aunt Jane says that she was born on Christmas Day, and they called her a Christmas gift, and she remembers hearing that her Aunt Hannah Orrock was so disconcerted by the event that she threw all the spoons outdoors, when she had washed them, or with the dishwater. . . .
Better the spoons with the dishwater than the baby with the bathwater, I suppose.

Friday, December 11, 2009

"The days are short enough now," or, Winter walks with Thoreau

{Photo of Walden Pond in winter by Flickr user Kingdafy. Reproduced under a Creative Commons license; some rights reserved.}

After being tantalized by excerpts all autumn long on A Different Stripe, the blog of the New York Review of Books Classics, I finally got myself a copy of their new edition of selections from Thoreau's journals this week. It couldn't be more suited to dipping into here and there: the entries are rarely more than a couple of pages long, and a few minutes spent with their meditative tone and wide-ranging thoughts are a perfect way to start or end one's day.

Today, as snow and cold put paid to any lingering fantasies of a mild winter, I looked through to see what Thoreau was doing on some long-gone Decembers. And, much as I love snow, I can't say that the first one I found didn't leave me feeling a tad jealous:
Dec. 10, 1853
Another still more glorious day, if possible; Indian-summery even. These are among the finest days in the year, on account of the wholesome bracing coolness and clearness.

Thoreau's invocation of Indian Summer does seem a bit optimistic, however, as he goes on to give more--and specifically more wintry--detail:
Paddled Cheney's boat up Assabet.

Passed in some places between shooting ice-crystals, extending from both sides of the stream. Upon the thinnest black ice-crystals, just cemented, was the appearance of broad fern leaves, or ostrich-plumes, or flat fir trees with branches bent down. The surface was far from even, rather in sharp-edged plaits or folds. The form of the crystals was oftenest that of low, flattish, three-sided pyramids; when the base was very broad the apex was imperfect, with many irregular rosettes of small and perfect pyramids, the largest with bases equal to two or three inches. All this appeared to advantage only while the ice (one twelfth of an inch thick, perhaps) rested on the black water.

What I write about at home I understand so well, comparatively! and I write with such repose and freedom from exaggeration!
Lest you become too jealous of Thoreau's lovely day--or too troubled by your own blustery, frigid one--you should know that a mere two weeks earlier he had been convinced that winter's grip was as solid as it gets:
Nov. 27
Now a man will eat his heart, if ever, now while the earth is bare, barren and cheerless, and we have the coldness of winter without the variety of ice and snow; but methinks the variety and compensation are in the stars now. How bright they are now by contrast with the dark earth! The days are short enough now. The sun is already setting before I have reached the ordinary limit of my walk, but the 21st of next month the day will be shorter still by about twenty-five minutes.

It is too cold to-day to use a paddle; the water freezes on the hand and numbs my fingers.
Before I turn to my fireplace and mulled wine, I'll give you an entry for tomorrow, too, because I can't resist the way this entry combines wildly disparate modes of thought:
Dec. 11, 1858
To Walden. An overcast afternoon and rather warm. The snow on the ground in pastures brings out the warm red in leafy oak woodlands by contrast. These are what Thomson calls "the tawny copse." So that they suggest both shelter and warmth. All browns, indeed, are warmer now than a week ago. How much warmer our woodlands look and are for these withered leaves that still hang on! Without them the woods would be dreary, bleak, and wintry indeed!

A "swirl" applied to leaves suddenly caught up by a sort of whirlwind, is a good word enough, methinks.

Some, being offended, think sharp and satirical things, which yet they are not prepared consciously to utter. But in some unguarded moment these things escape from them, when they are as it were unconscious. They betray their thoughts, as it were by talking in their sleep, for the truth will out, under whatever veil of civility.
That closing meditation makes me wonder what sort of arguments Thoreau had been getting himself into that day!

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Machiavelli, as he will, offers advice

Prompted by a long-ago post by Brad DeLong, recently I have been flipping through a brief selection of the letters of Machiavelli, and today I happened across a passage that I think you'll surely enjoy. It comes in the midst of a letter Machiavelli sent from exile on his farm to his friend (and, as I learned from the Italian Wikipedia, ambassador to the Papal Court) Francesco Vettori on August 10, 1513; the letter itself is a complicated explanation of why Machiavelli favors action to encourage France to dislodge the English from Lombardy.

After explaining that what he really fears is the Swiss, who now "have entered Lombardy with the excuse of putting the present duke back there, but in fact they themselves are the dukes," Machiavelli argues that from Lombardy they are almost certain to overrun all of Italy*, and that thus "one needs to be exceedingly afraid of them."

Knowing that Vettori would be reluctant to take this view, Machiavelli continues,
I know that to this opinion of mine is opposed a natural defect of man: first, wishing to live from day to day; second, not believing that anything can happen that has not happened; last, always reckoning about a person in the same way.
About the first of these, it seems to me that we can--and maybe should--do little: despite being by nature a planner, I, too, like to live from day to day, and I think that temporary fixes deserve a better reputation than they generally carry. The latter two, however, are recurrent problems that I've never before seen described so succinctly. Put so well, the pitfalls Machiavelli describes seem eminently avoidable; would that that were the case.

Monday, December 07, 2009

Stuffing your virtual stocking early, it's the The Quarterly Conversation!

{Grinchy-looking photo by rocketlass. I am reading a novel about the plague, which seems like a sufficient excuse for the frown.}

Various holiday travels (to say nothing of holiday planning, shopping, socializing, or egg nog drinking) may result in spottier-than-usual posting through the month. Fortunately, the new Winter issue of the Quarterly Conversation just hit the virtual newsstand, so no matter how badly I may fall down on the job you'll have more than enough to keep you busy as Christmas nears.

My review this time is of Rachel Loden's new book of poetry, Dick of the Dead; the Dick of the title is Nixon, whose jowly growl Loden conjures vividly, more than once from beyond the grave. Other highlights include Ron Slate's review of Farrah Field's Rising, George Fragopoulos's essay on Mahmoud Darwish in English, and Barrett Hathcock's review of The Ask, by the bitingly hilarious Sam Lipsyte ("How are you to review a book that simply frightens you?").

The most impressive piece in the issue, however, is "Translate This Book!," which collects responses from a wide variety of authors, translators, critics, and publishing folks to the question, "What is the best book you know that's never been translated into English?" The resulting list is enough to make you want to learn a dozen languages; barring that, I'll settle for getting it into the hands of some adventurous acquisitions editors.

Friday, December 04, 2009

"A library is total generosity," or, Roberto Bolaño speaks!

Fans of Roberto Bolano who can't read Spanish have it remarkably good right now. Though we have had to adapt our reading to the structural pace of the publishing industry, for the past few years each season's list from New Directions has brought a freshly translated edition of one of his old novels. And while this requires patience, it seems clear that eventually we'll have them all--something that can't be said about the work of many other great novelists who wrote in languages other than English.

And now we even have a collection of interviews, pulled together into a slim volume by Melville House, Roberto Bolaño: The Last Interview. Some of its contents have appeared in English before--most notably his final interview, with Playboy Mexico, which was published in Stop Smiling a few years back and the introductory essay by Marcela Valdes, which was originally published in the Nation--but it's great to have them all in one place, enhanced with explanatory notes that are a great help when Bolaño mentions writers who are little-known in English.

Without seeming disingenuous, the interviews feel like performances as much as anything: Bolaño throws out names, books, ideas with abandon, weaving a complicated tapestry of influence and Spanish-language literary history that it's easy to imagine taking a different form in another interview, conducted another day when he was in a different mood. Throughout, it's as if we're rushing through a giant library with Bolaño as our guide, his praise and damnation both driven by enthusiasm, as if he doesn't quite care if you agree with him--or even remember what he says--so long as you walk out the door with an armload of books.

While not as crammed with author names as many other answers, this exchange from a 1999 interview in Capital gives you an idea of the attitude Bolaño expresses toward books and authors:
RB:In one way or another, we're all anchored to the book. A library is a metaphor for human beings or what's best about human beings, the same way a concentration camp can be a metaphor for what is worst about them. A library is total generosity.

HS/MB: Nevertheless, literature is not purely a sanctuary for good sentiment. It is also a refuge for hatefulness and resentment.

RB: I accept that. But it's indisputable that there are good sentiments in it. I think Borges said that a good writer is normally a good person. It must have been Borges because he said practically everything.
Elsewhere, he hints at the outlines of his positions on larger literary questions, especially as they relate to his working methods; here, in an interview from 2002 in Bomb, he answers the question of how he chooses plots:
Yes, plots are a strange matter. I believe, even though there may be many exceptions, that at a certain moment a story chooses you and won't leave you in peace. Fortunately, that's not so important--the form, the structure, always belong to you, and without form or structure there's no book, or at least in most cases that's what happens. Let's say the story and the plot arise by chance, that they belong to the realm of chance, that is, chaos, disorder, or to a realm that's in constant turmoil (some call it apocalyptic). Form, on the other hand, is a choice made through intelligence, cunning and silence, all the weapons used by Ulysses in his battle against death. Form seeks an artifice; the story seeks a precipice. Or to use a metaphor from the Chilean countryside (a bad one, as you'll see): It's not that I don't like precipices, but I prefer to see them from a bridge.
I think that's the best, most concise description I've yet seen of the way that the relatively formal organizational structures of Bolaño's novels work to contain--or to fail to contain--the limitless sprawl of the forever branching stories within stories within stories that make up their plots.

The Last Interview is a slight book, but it's one that I'll be returning to as I keep reading my way through Bolaño's body of work--and it will make a nice stopgap while we wait for the collection of his nonfiction that Natasha Wimmer is currently translating. If only all international authors could be treated so well in English!

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Props for Pops

I just finished reading Terry Teachout's wonderful new biography of Louis Armstrong, Pops, which is as good as its many rave reviews have said. Since everyone from the Times on down has weighed in with praise already, I'll just heartily second them, and share two things:

1 Throughout the book, Teachout keeps the music front and center, never letting us forget that that was what was most important to Armstrong himself. He frequently offers detailed analysis of songs, some of which were unfamiliar--but every time he described an unfamiliar song, I was able to go to and listen to it. Lala is an online service that sells digital music--and, more important in this case, they also let you listen to any song in their library one time for free. This is the first music bio I've read since the site's debut, and having a legitimate, nearly unlimited source of reference tracks when reading a book like this makes the experience incalculably richer. If you're going to read Pops and you don't know Armstrong's music like the back of your hand already, do yourself a favor and have Lala at hand in your browser; you'll be glad you did.

2 One passage that really stuck with me was Teachout's account of the postwar demise of the big bands. I knew, as a casual fan of jazz, big bands, and popular song, that their disappearance was quick, but I had no idea it was this rapid:
The bottom fell out of big-band jazz in the winter of 1946. Time ran an obituary for the era: "The big brassy jazz bands had become a luxury that people were unwilling to pay for. . . . In the past eight weeks, Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey, Harry James, Les Brown and Jack Teagarden decided to disband. Gene Krupa and Jimmy Dorsey cut salaries. This week Woody Herman gave up too." [Armstrong's manager] Joe Glaser needed no journalist to read him the writing on the wall. "Promoters all over are going broke--bookings are being canceled at the last minute--I can name at least half a dozen Colored bands that will disband in the next 30 days and at least 30 white bands that will disband," he had written to Joe Garland that summer.
Good god, that's dizzying. I suppose it's just another reminder--as people in the old live radio industry or the newspaper industry can attest--when tastes change and costs rise, things can fall apart really fast.

Because the holidays are nearing and cheer is the order of the day, I'm going to temporary refuse to apply that lesson to publishing. For now, after all, publishing still lives, books are still with us, and Pops is a beautiful example of the bookmaker's, no less than the biographer's art; may Armstrong's smile grace many a stocking this Christmas.