Friday, April 30, 2010

"It's your notion then that Jesus was a bootlegger?," or, Riding along with Charles Portis

{Photoz by rocketlass.}

At the urging of Ed Park, about ten days ago I read Charles Portis's The Dog of the South (1979). And . . . wow. Imagine an absurd blending of the Kafka who used to double his friends up with laughter when he read his stories; those nightmares wherein there's something you desperately need to do but are forever being drawn away from--only recast in the tone of a silent fim comedy; and the showmanship, shadiness, and hucksterism of Melville's The Confidence-Man.

The result is unlike anything else I've ever read, crammed from start to finish with oddballs, dropouts, and failures, all of whom cling to this world all the more intensely for the fact that they can't quite figure out what to do with it. Ray Midge, the energetically sad-sack copy editor who is the novel's protagonist, seems to regard all the world's facts as equally important; though paring them down or assigning importance might reveal hints of a pattern, it's as if he feels an obligation not to discriminate, as if each and every detail deserves his full care--as if the world is a manuscript, and his job is to check it out. It's as admirable as it is crazy, and when he sets out on a road trip to Latin America to retrieve his runaway wife, the reader can't help but harbor some hope that, when he finds her, she'll see his awkward strangeness that way, too.

I realize that's not the most articulate account; in some sense I feel like I'm still recovering from the book. For a more considered--but just as enthusiastic--take on this book and Portis in general, you should check out Ed's article from the March 2003 issue of the Believer. Meanwhile, I'll just pass on a scene that gives a sense of Portis's off-kilter humor. Midge has just washed up in Belize in the company of Dr. Reo Symes, confidence man, scam artist, and owner of a nonworking bus named The Dog of the South. Symes has fallen ill and is to be delivered to his mother and her friend Melba, who
ate heartily for a crone, sighing and cooing between bites and jiggling one leg up and down, making the floor shake. She ate fast and her eyes bulged from inner pressure and delight. This remarkable lady had psychic gifts and she had not slept for three years, or so they told me. She sat up in a chair every night in the dark drinking coffee.
Mrs. Symes quickly starts in on Midge with a barrage of pointed, staccato personal questions:
"Why kind of Christian do you call yourself?"

"I attend church when I can."

"Cards on the table, Mr. Midge."

"Well, I think I have a religious nature. I sometimes find it hard to determine God's will."

"Inconvenient, you mean."

"That too, yes."

"What does it take to keep you from attending church?"

"I go when I can."

"A light rain?"

"I go when I can."

"This 'religious nature' business reminds me of Reo, your man of science. He'll try to tell you that god is out there in the trees an grass somewhere. Some kind of force. That's pretty thin stuff if you ask me. And Father Jackie is not much better. He says God is a perfect sphere. A ball, if you will."

"There are many different opinions on the subject."

"Did you suppose I didn't know that?"

Then, holding firm to her attitude of skepticism towards her son and all his friends, Mrs. Symes begins to ask about Reo:
"Is that woman Sybill still living with him?"

"I just don't know about that. He was by himself when I met him in Mexico."

"Good riddance then. He brought an old hussy named Sybil with him the last time. She had great big bushy eyebrows like a man. She and Reo were trying to open up a restaurant somewhere in California and they wanted me to put up the money for it. As if I had any money. Reo tells everybody I have money."

Melba said, "No, it was a singing school. Reo wanted to open a singing school."

"The singing school was an entirely different thing, Melba. This was a restaurant they were talking about. Little Bit of Austria. Sybil was going to sing some kind of foreign songs to the customers while they were eating. She said she was a night-club singer, and a dancer too. She planned to dance all around people's tables while they were trying to eat. I thought these night clubs had beautiful young girls to do that kind of thing but Sybil was almost as old as Reo."

"Older," said Melba. "Don't you remember her arms?"

"They left in the middle of the night. I remember that. Just picked up and left without a word."

"Sybil didn't know one end of a piano keyboard from the other."

"She wore shiny boots and backless dresses."

"But she didn't wear a girdle."

"She wore hardly anything when she was sunning herself back there in the yard."

"Her shameful parts were covered."

"That goes without saying, Melba. It wasn't necessary for you to say that and make us all think about it."
How can you not want to spend more time with these people?

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Sylvia Beach, dream bookseller

I think you'll enjoy my post today over at the Constant Conversation about The Letters of Sylvia Beach (2010), which revels in an account Beach gave of how bookselling works at its best.

The collection, which I've spent the past week flipping through, offers many charms, especially for Joyce fanatics (which, for all my admiration of Ulysses, I am far from being). Take this passage, from a note to Joyce's benefactor Harriet Weaver, from June 6, 1922:
Dear Miss Weaver,

It was so kind of you to send me a copy of the "Sunday Express" containing James Douglas' attack on "Ulysses" and all those mess writings.

I took them at once to Mr. Joyce and read them to him as he is always impatient to hear of any articles. He gets very much depressed and bored lying in bed and Douglas' article quite made him forget the pain in his eyes for the moment but he seems to be somewhat too excited at present. I think it is good for him to have something to think of that takes him out of himself however. The doctor says that his eyes are better and that he is suffering mostly from his nerves now.Add the near-constant back-and-forth with Joyce's representatives, international publishers, and lawyers regarding publication details about Ulysses, and it's hard to imagine any Joyce devotee not being fascinated by this volume.

Monday, April 26, 2010

"Lawrence thinks critics influential and should realize their responsibility," or, D. H. goes to parties

Considering how important he was to the first years of my consciously literary reading--the first year or so of college, say--I've not written that much about D. H Lawrence in the nearly five years I've been writing this blog. That's largely because, as I've joked before, Lawrence, for all his actual virtues, is one of those authors one tend to grow out of: as one's experience widens, the overwrought quality of his depictions of relations between men and women becomes apparent, starts to look less like a clear-eyed acknowledgment of the inevitable struggle of primal forces and more like a self-aggrandizing depiction of willed difficulty. Life and love, for the sane, are just not quite that tough.* I'm reminded of a scene from Harold Nicolson's diaries, collected in John Gross's indispensable New Oxford Book of Literary Anecdotes, telling of a meeting with Frieda Lawrence at a party:
She says that Lawrence said, "Frieda, if people really knew what you were like, they would strangle you." I say, "Did he say that angrily?" She said, "No--very quietly, after several minutes deep thought."
Anthony Powell--whose relatively catholic literary tastes can be trusted to overcome what one would be right to assume would be his social and political dislike of Lawrence--described him well in a review of Lawrence's literary criticism written for Punch in 1956:
Lawrence was in a way too gifted; at least too lacking in self-discipline to control his gifts to their best advantage. Leaning heavily towards the state of being primarily a poet, he was chiefly, as it turned out, concerned with writing novels. As a novelist, with all his force, he is never wholly at ease with his medium. He himself is the only character who ever truly emerges.
Nonetheless, Lawrence and his work remain of interest, so when my coworker Joseph Peterson lent me Edmund Wilson's The Twenties, one of the volumes of his journals that FSG published in the 1970s, I was greatly entertained by Wilson's account of a party given for Lawrence in August of 1923 that Wilson, then twenty-eight, attended:
Terrific argument betwen John Macy and Lawrence about extent to which reviewers were prostitutes. Lawrence thinks critics influential and should realize their responsibility. . . . I found Lawrence's appearance disconcerting. He was lean, but his head was disproportionately small. One saw that he belonged to an inferior caste--some bred-down unripening race of the collieries. Against this inferiority--fundamental and physical--he must have had to fight all his life: his passionate spirit had made up for it by exaggerated self-assertion. (I have never seen this physical aspect of Lawrence mentioned.) On this occasion, he suddenly became hysterical and burst out in childish rudeness and in a high-pitched screaming voice with something like: "I'm not enjoying this! Why are we sitting here having tea? I don't want tea! I don't want to be doing this!" The Seltzers [the hosts], rather stodgy in their bourgeois apartment, sat through it and made no reply, and nobody else took any notice of it. . . . The furious fit soon passed, and he presently came over and began to talk to me in a conventional British way. I don't remember what he said except to ask me a question or two about myself. I had earlier been rather antagonized by his denunciation of Dante as a writer who had tried to intellectualize love.
After which I find myself wanting to turn back to Powell, who, elsewhere in the Punch piece quoted above, wrote of Lawrence,
[H]is whole approach seems largely inappropriate to the world of literature. Lawrence was a frustrated politician or preacher. He wanted power: to force people to do his will. He was temperamentally unable to understand that different people by their nature may require to live different lives; and, accordingly, to find their expression in different forms of art.
All of which, oddly enough, makes me think it may be time--after nearly twenty years--to revisit The Rainbow.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

R. I. P. Gene Lees (1928-2010)

Yesterday, Terry Teachout passed on the sad news of the death of songwriter Gene Lees. Lees wrote the unforgettable English-language lyrics to Antonio Carlos Jobim's "Corcovado"--
Quiet thoughts and quiet dreams, quiet walks by quiet streams,
and a window that looks out on the mountains and the sea, oh how lovely.
--which alone would be a sufficient monument for any mortal. But Lees was at least as well known as a prose writer, and if you've not read his writings on jazz, you have a treat in store.

A good place to start is with Singers and the Song II, a collection of pieces from his Jazzletter newsletter. Along with essays on Frank Sinatra, Peggy Lee, Yip Harburg, and many more, it includes a profile of Johnny Mercer that's one of the finest pieces of biographical writing about an artist I've ever encountered, one that makes both the art and the man come to life:
I know two or three people who despised Johnny Mercer. For others, it wasn't that simple. . . . John was as generous in his praise of good songwriters as he was quietly critical of the shallower practitioners of the craft. As for me, I liked John. A lot. And we got along, perhaps because we shared the lyricist's paranoia, which John once perfectly expressed in a single line: "You get tired of being everybody's lyric boy." He was referring to all the lead sheets and demo tapes sent to you by musicians who think lyrics are dashed off in a moment from ideas picked casually out of the air. Music, as they see it, is the important art. Everybody uses words, don't they?
Set alongside sharp analyses of Mercer's lyrics--including a study of consonance in "I Thought About You" that is revelatory--Lees' descriptions of Mercer's frequent, alcohol-fueled descents into pointedly cruel verbal abuse are heartbreaking, making us ache for this man of such great talent and so little happiness. The portrait in Singers and the Song II actually outdoes Lees' later biography of Mercer, its brevity sharpening its punch.

The most memorable piece in Singers and the Song II, however, is "Pavilion in the Rain," a lyrical, detailed reconstruction and analysis of the big band era. The opening paragraph gives a sense of the tone:
On warm summer nights in that epoch between the wars and before air conditioning, the doors and wide wooden shutters would be open, and the music would drift out of the pavilion over the converging crowds of excited young people, through the parking lot glistening with cars, through the trees, and over the lake—or the river, or the sea. Sometimes Japanese lanterns hung in the trees, like moons caught in the branches, and sometimes little boys too hung there, observing the general excitement and sharing the sense of an event. And the visit of one of the big bands was indeed an event.
The note of wistfulness may seem too much at first, but by the time Lees has finished explaining the rise and fall of the big bands--having brought in copyright law, urban rail networks, remote broadcast technology, taxation, unionization, and more--it is clear what we had, temporarily, how lucky we were to have it, and how much we've lost. Lees earns that note of loss.

Terry Teachout, who knew Lees, has more at About Last Night, plus links to obituaries and some more extensive reflections. Raise a glass to Lees tonight, and if you're enjoying a quiet night of quiet stars, be grateful.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

"Let's be jocund while we may; / All things have an ending day," or, Blogging while busy!

Time is too much with me; late and soon, today, so I only have a few tidbits to share tonight.

First, from a new collection of the letters of Sylvia Beach, owner of Paris's Shakespeare and Company bookstore and publisher and booster of a host of Moderns, there's this wonderfully cryptic note from Beach to Ernest Hemingway, sent June 8, 1931:
Dear Hemingway,

I am very anxious to ask you advice about a matter concerning Joyce—wasn't it stupid of me not to think of it when you were here! Would it be possible for you to find a minute in the short time you are in Paris to call me up or drop in again. Never mind if you can't manage it. I called up Hadley's apartment but she was out.
Yours affectionately,
The fun of speculating about the nature of Beach's question is almost endless--though, given the mountains of Joyce scholarship, I fear that someone (maybe the volume's editor, Keri Waslh?) probably knows the answer. Regardless, Beach's letter does make me think we should all adopt a new rule for living: Be sure to write some thoroughly mysterious letters every once in a while. You do want to give your eventual biographers a challenge, after all, don't you?

Second, while I'm on the subject of books that offer rewards when opened to nearly any page, I'll share a few poems from Robert Herrick, whose complete works I've enjoyed dipping into this past week. The majority of Herrick's poems are brief, many mere couplets that express a single thought--or bit of confusion, as in this poem that I'm not sure I even understand:
"Clothes, are conspirators."

Though from without no foes at all we feare;
We shall be wounded by the clothes we weare.
Then there's this, a bit longer and a lot more clear:

Mans disposition is for to requite
An injurie, before a benefite:
Thanksgiving is a burden, and a paine;
Revenge is pleasing to us, as our gaine.
And it's only right to close with a gentle toast:
"The Coblers Catch"

Come sit we by the fires side;
And roundly drinke we here;
Till that we see our cheeks Ale-dy'd
And noses tann'd with Beere.
With that, I'll raise a glass, close this post, and open a book. I can only recommend you do the same.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

"I have contented my selfe of late with laughing when ever I heard it mention'd," or, Writers encounter their readers

In the course of describing Dickens's self-confidence as a performer in his Charles Dickens as a Reader (1872), Charles Kent passes along the following anecdote:
[T]he present writer recalls to recollection very clearly the fact of Dickens saying to him one day,--saying it with the most whimsical air by-the-bye, but very earnestly,--"Once, and but once only in my life, I was--frightened!" The occasion he referred to was simply this, as he immediately went on to explain, that somewhere about the middle of the serial publication of David Copperfield, happening to be out of writing-paper, he sallied forth one morning to get a fresh supply at the stationer's. He was living then in his favourite haunt, at Fort House, in Broadstairs. As he was about to enter the stationer's shop, with the intention of buying the needful writing-paper, for the purpose of returning home with it, and at once setting to work upon his next number, not one word of which was yet written, he stood aside for a moment at the threshold to allow a lady to pass in before him. He then went on to relate--with a vivid sense still upon him of mingled enjoyment and dismay in the mere recollection--how the next instant he had overheard this strange lady asking the person behind the counter for the new green number. When it was handed to her, "Oh, this," said she, "I have read. I want the next one." The next one she was thereupon told would be out by the end of the month. "Listening to this, unrecognised," he added, in conclusion, knowing the purpose for which I was there, and remembering that no one word of the number she was asking for was yet written, for the first and only time in my life, I felt--frightened!"
Is it just me, or do you hear shades of William Shatner in the punctuation of that last line?

It reminded me of one of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu's letters, written from Venice to her daughter on October 10, 1753, wherein she tells of being praised at social gatherings for her writing:
I confess I have often been complemented (since I have been in Italy) on the Books I have given the Public. I us'd to deny it with some Warmth, but finding I persuaded no body, I have of late contented my selfe with laughing when ever I heard it mention'd, knowing the character of a learned Woman is far from being ridiculous in this Country, the greatest Familys being proud of having produce'd female Writers, and a Milanese Lady being now proffessor of Matheatics in the University of Bologna.
As she was wont to do ("This subject is apt to run away with me," she warns.) Montagu follows that thought until it developed into a broadside against the hidebound, sexist literary establishment she'd left behind in England:
It appears to me the strongest proofe of a clear understanding in Longinus (in every light acknowledg'd one of the greatest Men amongst the Ancients) when I find him so far superior to vulgar Prejudices as to chuse his two Examples of fine Writeing from a Jew (at that time the most despis'd people upon Earth) and a Woman. Our modern Wits would be so far from quoteing, they would scarce own they had read the Works of such contemptible Creatures, tho perhaps they would condescend to steal from them at the same time they declar'd they were below their notice.
Though I bow to few in my admiration for Dickens, I can't help but wistfully imagine how much richer, how much more convincing his work would have been had he found room in it for a heroine as intelligent and fiery as Lady Mary Wortley Montagu.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

"All that is required in studying them is patience," or, On youthful enthusiasm

We had an old college friend in town this weekend, which made me take particular note of two descriptions of college life that I encountered in my reading the past few days. First, there's the fifteen-year-old protagonist of Peter De Vries' Slouching Towards Kalamazoo (1983), who, fearing that his bad study habits are about to prevent him from reaching high school, offers a prematurely wistful riff on what he'll therefore ultimately miss by not going to college:
Lights blooming at dusk along the Quad. Girls with convertibles. The glee club singing "Brown October Ale." Swallowed oysters retracted on the end of a string by potential fraternity brothers. Limburger set by wits on dormitory radiators.
Then I came across a reminder--not dissimilar to what one gets from accounts of Lord Rochester's "growing debauched" as a twelve-year-old at Oxford in the seventeenth century--that even De Vries' midcentury vision of gentle college prankery is a step up from earlier days, as displayed in this description by Robert D. Richardson of early nineteenth-century Harvard:
The three Rs at Harvard during Thoreau's time were rote learning, regimentation, and rowdyism. Boys commonly entered college at fifteen, sometimes younger. Dress, hours, and attendance were all prescribed. Meals were in commons, and the food was said--as all college food is always said--to have been dreadful. Breakfast consisted of hot coffee, hot rolls, and butter. Supper was tea, cold rolls "of the consistency of wool," and no butter. The midday meal was the only one that was plentiful, and students sometimes affixed a piece of the noon meat to the underside of the table, with a fork, in order to have meat for supper. . . The habits of the students were rough; throwing food at meals was nothing compared to the habitual destruction of property, which was not confined to breaking up furniture. Public rooms in inhabited buildings were blown up with gunpowder "every year," according to some accounts. . . . Many [dorm] rooms had a cannonball, useful when hot as a foot warmer, when cold to roll down the stairs in the middle of the night.
Our college lives were . . . um, a bit different from both those accounts, not even really partaking in the contemporary versions of those ignoble pastimes. Nary a keg stand have I done.

Instead, my college days were marked, at their best, by a realization that sprung pleasantly upon me in my first days as a student, as I was starting to discern potential friends in the mass of my contemporaries: here, and here, and here again, were people who were openly enthusiastic! These people, the ones to whom I found myself drawn (and with many of whom I am still close eighteen years later), were excited about things--art, books, movies, sports, ideas--and weren't the slightest bit ashamed to reveal that excitement. Coming hard on the heels of high school, with itsde riguer poses of disenchantment and disdain, that fervor was tonic. Its unabashedly nerdy charms carried me through my English degree, and they continue to underlie nearly everything I do today, from my writing here and other places to my baseball fandom to my fumblings at the piano.

In his biography of Thoreau*, Richardson uses a line from Madame de Stael to describe Thoreau's intellectual eagerness as a young man:
Thought is nothing without enthusiasm.
It's appropriate that Thoreau was one of the people who set me off on this train of thought, for enthusiasm--as seen in his unquenchable thirst for knowledge of the natural world--is one of his most endearing qualities. I'll close this post with a demonstration, from his journal entry for this day, April 18th, 1857:
Frogs are strange creatures. One would describe them as peculiarly wary and timid, another as equally bold and imperturbable. All that is required in studying them is patience. You will sometimes walk a long way along a ditch and hear twenty or more leap in one after another before you, and see where they rippled the water, without getting sight of one of them. You sit down on the brink and wait patiently for his reappearance. After a quarter of an hour or more he is sure to rise to the surface and put out his nose quietly without making a ripple, eying you steadily. At length he becomes as curious about you as you can be about him. He suddenly hops straight toward you, pausing within a foot, and takes a near and leisurely view of you. Perchance you may now scratch its nose with your finger and examine it to your heart's content, for it is become as imperturbable as it was shy before. You conquer them by superior patience and immovableness; not by quickness, but by slowness; not by heat, but by coldness.
To which the wonderful new edition of Thoreau's journals from NYRB Classics appends this note:
A Concord farmer's perspective: "Why one morning I went out in my field across there to the river, and there, beside that little old mud pond, was standing Da-a-vid Henry, and he wasn't doin' nothin' but just standin' there--lookin' at that pond, and when I came back at noon, there he was standin' with his hands behind him just lookin' down into that pond, and after dinner when I come back again if there wasn't Da-a-vid standin' there just like as if he had been there all day, gazin' down into that pond, and I stopped and looked at him and I says, 'Da-a-vid Henry, what air you a'doin'?' And he didn't turn his head and he didn't look at me. He kept on lookin' down at that pond, and he said, as if he was thinkin' about the stars in the heavens, 'Mr. Murray, I'm a-studyin'--the habits--of the bullfrog!' And there that darned fool had been standin'--the livelong day--a-studyin'--the habits--of the bull-frog!" (Quoted in Mrs. Daniel Chester French, Memories of a Sculptor's Wife, 1928)
The outside world may frequently be bemused by such unfettered enthusiasm, but we of the not-so-secret society of nerds and scholars, oh, we understand!

Friday, April 16, 2010

For the Annals of Wayward Press Releases

From Charles Portis's The Dog of the South:
Just then I heard someone at the door and I thought it was the children. Some sort of youth congress had been in session at the capitol for two or three days and children were milling about all over town. A few had even wandered into Gum Street where they had no conceivable business. I had been packing my clothes and watching these youngsters off and on all day through the curtain and now--the very thing I feared--they were at my door. What could they want? A glass of water? The phone? My signature on a petition? I made no sound and no move.
This morning, a few hours before I read the passage above, I found in my inbox the following e-mail:
To Whom it May Concern:

I know about your involvement with orphans and just wanted to let you know about a new book called Orphans and the Fatherless: Making Ourselves Known.

If you would like to check it out, go to

Have a great day!
Now, had this press release taken the usual tack, that of a generically cheery announcement of new book X, I wouldn't have done more than glance at it before deleting it. Like all book bloggers, I get a fair number of press releases for books that aren't really up my alley; that's what publicists do, after all. But how could I not sit up and take notice when told--with, in that "I know about" construction, at least a hint of a hint, presumably unintentional, of a veiled accusation--that I was receiving this press release because of my "involvement with orphans"? To what on earth could this note conceivably be referring?

Let's consult the evidence. I suppose it's possible that two of our cats were orphans, but I don't know that. I did play Oliver Twist in a community theater production of Oliver! back in 1988, and it's true that when I see packs of children racing around and causing an unsupervised ruckus in public, I do have a bad habit of echoing Scrooge and crying out, "Are there no orphanages? Are there no workhouses?" In addition, I will admit, I once wrote a short story that ended with this sentence, one that could, I suppose, be construed as the product of involvement with orphans, if of a decidedly non-Dickensian, post-apocalyptic variety:
That is why, tomorrow, when I do not see my neighbor, I will lower the blinds, all of them, on all my many windows, and I will check the locks, for there is nothing more terrifying than an empty street on a gray afternoon when one knows there are children around.
Come to think of it, maybe I was the right person to receive that press release after all! Carry on, then! Best of luck with getting the word out about your book!

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Strong openings

Being on vacation at home this week has allowed me to read two wonderfully funny and sarcastic novels of exuberantly stylized prose, Peter De Vries's Slouching Towards Kalamazoo (1983) and Jerzy Pilch's The Mighty Angel (2000, translated from the Polish by Bill Johnston in 2009). The opening paragraphs of both books are worth sharing, for both declare themselves fervently, instantly establishing their distinctive voices.

De Vries's book is narrated by a man looking back on his precocious, if underachieving, fifteen-year-old self, and it opens like this:
My old eighth-grade teacher, Miss Maggie Doubloon, said she was half Spanish, half French, and half Irish, a plethora of halves not entirely unnoticed by some of the brighter pupils. Joke though it was, it well expressed her superabundance of spirits, the verve and fire--sheer spitfire, fire-in-the-belly fire--that made her in the end decide that that golden oldie, The Scarlet Letter, had long been due for an overhaul; must, in fact, be dragged forcibly out of the gray, chill, toxic riverbottom fog of Puritan morality and up into the sunlight of sexually liberated twentieth-century America. To be sure, such stormy petrel stuff was only an intensification of the author's own implied disapproval of the colonial austerity he was depicting, but Hawthorne's "liberalization" left ninety-five percent of the way still to go. A man for whom the Boston Unitarianism of his day was a little far out isn't going to waltz you into the twentieth century. The modernization Miss Doubloon effected wasn't something she wrote--she lived it. That naturally involved committing Hester Prynne's sin, in a North Dakota city of which the mayor, a precursor of today's Moral Majority, said on hearing she had assigned The Scarlet Letter to us eighth-graders, "We're gonna tighten our Bible Belt! We're gonna show 'em we're the buckle of that belt!" Perhaps you share my secret taste for old-fashioned windbags. In any case, I got the message. I must absent me from felicity awhile, and in this harsh world draw my breath in pain, to tell Maggie Doubloon's story. So here it goes.
Pilch's book, on the other hand, is narrated by an alcoholic about to embark on yet another attempt to dry out:
Before the mafiosi appeared in my apartment in the company of the dark-complexioned poetess Alberta Lulaj, before they wrenched me from my drunken sleep and set about demanding--first with dissembling pleas, then with ruthless threats--that I arrange for Alberta Lulaj's poetry to be published in the weekly Tygodnik Powszechny, before there began the tempestuous evnts I wish to recount, there was the eve of those events, there was the morning and evening of the preceding day, and I, from the morning to the evening of the preceding day, had been drinking peach vodka. Yes indeed, I had been drinking peach vodka, brutishly longing for one last love before death, and immersed up to my ears in a life of dissolution.
The mention of poetry reminds me of a funny exchange from later in De Vries' novel, between the narrator and a policeman in a park:
At last [the cop] comes over, propelled by curiosity.

"You a poet or something?"

"How did you guess?"

"Way you gnaw your pencil and look off into space, like groping for a rhyme."
As for poets and drink, I've got more on that subject today over at the Constant Conversation.

Monday, April 12, 2010

"If there's time to lean," or, What better time to think about the workplace than when you've taken a week of vacation to sit at home and read?

In Sam Lipsyte's coruscating, acid-tongued, and hilarious novel The Ask (2010), narrator Milo Burke describes his position in the ecology of the college development office in which he works like this:
I'd become one of those mistakes you sometimes find in an office, a not unpleasant but mostly unproductive presence, bobbing along on the energy tides of others, a walking reminder of somebody's error in judgment.
Since Jean Edward Smith's Grant (2001) has had me thinking about Ulysses Grant's many good qualities as a boss, I started imagining what Grant would do with that sort of employee. If his approach to the slackness he found in the Army of the Potomac on taking over as general in chief in 1864 is any indication, Milo may want to commence worrying:
Virtually half the soldiers in Federal service were holding down rear-area jobs, guarding supply lines, providing garrisons for cities and forts in occupied areas, and were not available for battlefield duty. . . . Grant instructed Halleck to forward all new recruits to the field immediately, and to strip each department "to the lowest number of men necessary for the duty to be performed." By summer, Grant had cleaned out the rear areas and had reduced the ratio of garrison to combat troops by half, an accomplishment no previous general in chief had considered possible.
That change seems to have pleased the frontline troops immensely, impressing them immediately with Grant's seriousness and fairness. As for the folks ejected from their relatively cushy rear-area jobs, I expect enthusiasm was a bit more tempered.

Maybe Milo Burke should just go into retail . . . or, at least, retail like it used to be, the independent sort, before the chains and changes of habit forced even the most idiosyncratic of locally owned stores to hire employees who actually, you know, work. One of the many quiet pleasures in James Hynes's stunning new novel Next (2010) is this brief glimpse of the back-in-the-day retail life, record store phylum:
"The sixties were very, very good to Mick," the manager told Kevin once, when they were taking a break in the alley behind the store. Though the circumstances of the observation strike Kevin as ironic now--they had been sharing a joint at the time--the disjunction between the remark and its context went unnoted back then. In a hip, regionally famous, independent record store in Ann Arbor in the late seventies--long gone now, of course, strangled by the chains and the Internet and iTunes--reliability and even competence weren't necessarily the first things you looked for in an employee. Entertainment value counted for a lot, and McNulty had entertainment value to burn. During the long reaches of slow, midweek midsummer days when Big Star was nearly empty, Kevin would stand with McNulty behind the counter or in the back of the store by the jazz section, and McNulty would smoke and slouch and, from the depths of a heavy-lidded midafternoon coma, relate fantastic stories from his youth.
All of which, really, is just an excuse to share two of my favorite retail stories, neither of which is from my own experience.

The first comes from baseball blogger Craig Calcaterra (whose pithy daily rundown of baseball results for NBC sports's Hardball Talk should be part of every baseball fan's morning). Soon after Calcaterra was hired as a full-time blogger last fall, he wrote a post for his personal blog, "Jobs I've left: an inventory," that, in the midst of descriptions of fast-food jobs and office jobs, all of it worth reading, told of his time at the Ohio State University Bookstore, where he worked with a character who will be familiar, at least in outline, to any retail veteran:
Office supplies counter: I had this job for the balance of college. It was about half student employees, half-lifers. The lifers were a bit scary. One of them said that the worst thing that could ever happen to him would be for him to win a lottery when the jackpot was below $20 million. Why? "Because there are certain things I'll need to do if I win, and I'll need all of that money." His expression when he said that was serious, approaching dire.
And finally, there's my friend Jim, whom I've known since back in my own days as a bookseller, who said he once had a bookstore coworker from Russia who said to him, more than once,
The question you have to ask yourself is, "Which Karamazov am I?" We are all one of the Karamazovs, all of us. Only, which one are you? Which one are you?
I'm willing to assume that his expression at that moment was, to borrow from Craig Calcaterra, "serious, approaching dire."

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Rats and cats--or, more properly, rats and cattiness

A handful of times in Victoria Glendinning's Jonathan Swift: A Portrait (1998), the author turns to Lady Mary Wortley Montagu for a bit of contemporary commentary, and every time she does Montagu comes through with a bit of vigorous, sharp-tongued imagery that brings the period and its strange characters to shimmering life. Montagu flits at the edges of accounts of a lot of prominent Georgian figures, turning up in biographies and anecdotes with regularity, but I'd never paid her much attention; Glendinning's selections were striking enough to convince me I was missing something.

Here, for example, is Montagu's poisonous description of the aged Lady Orkney, who in her youth had been the mistress of William III:
She "exposed behind a mixture of fat and wrinkles, and before a considerable pair of bubbys greatly withered, a great belly that preceded her; add to this the inimitable roll of her eyes, and her grey hair which by good fortune stood directly upright, and 'tis impossible to imagine a more delightful spectacle."
Cattiness is one of the many qualities I love in my reading that I try to avoid in life, and Montagu's brand--witty and perceptive, unstinting and finely honed--ranks among the best. This aside about George I, quoted by Glendinning, is simple but effective in its emphatically faint praise:
"[I]n private life, he would have been call'd an honest blockhead."
The moment that impressed me most, showing the ridiculous degree to which Montagu would indulge herself in a grudge, was Glendinning's note about a habit Montagu developed when she lived in Venice:
Lady Mary, when she lived in Venice, used to show privileged visitors her commode. On the bottom of this receptacle were painted the faces of Pope, Swift, and Bolingbroke.
All of which sent me to Montagu's letters, which, if my first quick look at them is representative, you'll be hearing more about in this space in the coming weeks. For now, I'll leave you with this effusion, from a letter sent to her sister in February 1725, when she was thirty-six:
All our Acquaintance are run mad; they do such things, such monstrous anstupendous things! . . . Sophia and I have been quite reconcil'd and are now quite broke, and I beleive not likely to piece up again. Ned Thompson is as happy as the Money and charms of Belle Dunch can make him, and a miserable Dog for all that. Public places flourish more than ever; we have Assemblys for every day in the week, besides Court, Operas, and Masquerades. With Youth and Money 'tis certainly possible to be very well diverted in spite of Malice and ill Nature, tho they are more and more powerfull every day. For my part as it is my establish'd Opinion That this Globe of ours is no better than a Holland Cheese and the Walkers about in it Mites, I possess my mind in patience, let what will happen, and should feel tolerably easy tho a great Rat come and eat halfe of it up.

Thursday, April 08, 2010


One of the great pleasures of the two excellent biographies I've read in the past week have been their peripheral figures, those side characters who, in thumbnail sketches or recurrent roles, do so much of the work of fleshing out a well-written life and times. Today I'll share one this brief sketch from Jean Edward Smith's Grant (2001) of the towering abolitionist senator Charles Sumner:

For the president, Charles Sumner personified Puritan elitism at its worst: narrow-minded, sanctimonious, ever ready to transform mundane practicalities into precious issues of principle. In Sumner's case those characteristics were exacerbated by a waspish tongue and an effete manner that were difficult to digest for a soldier like Grant. Above all, however, it was Sumner's intellectual arrogance that annoyed the president. When Boutwell asked one day whether he had ever heard sumner converse, Grant, a twinkle in his eye, observed that he had never had the privilege, though he had "often heard him lecture." Like Massachusetts's Ellbridge Gerry, the quintessential loose cannon of the early republic, Sumner treated politics as the pursuit of perfection. When Grant was told that Sumner did not believe in the Bible, he was not surprised. "Well, he didn't write it," said the president. Years later Grant noted sadly that, "Sumner is the only man I was ever anything but my real self to; the only man I ever tried to conciliate by artificial means."
I admire the way that Smith deploys Grant's quotations there: without ever losing track of the main point of the paragraph, which is to let us see Sumner as a political actor and public figure (Remind you of any Liebermans?)*, he uses the quips to keep the ultimate focus on Grant, and Grant's attitude towards Sumner. The wit those quotes display is a pleasant surprise, though perhaps it shouldn't be: Grant is famous for the clarity and economy of his battlefield orders, and what benefits from clarity and economy more than a bon mot?

This weekend, I'll share some scenes featuring my favorite peripheral character in Victoria Glendinning's Jonathan Swift (1998), Lady Mary Wortley Montagu. But before I close this post I have to add an amusing aside that Smith includes in a footnote to an 1869 cabinet meeting, the first after a long, heat-induced summer recess:
Summers in Washington before air conditioning were no treat, and the sumer of 1869 was particularly unpleasant. The temperature in Fish's State Department office, supposedly the coolest in the building, hovered in the mid-90s throughout August. [Attorney General] Rockwood Hoar wrote his wife that Washington "is hot! hotter!! hottest!!! hottentot! hottentotter! hottentottest! more hottentotter! most hottentottest!!!!!!!! The daily bill of fare is as follows: For breakfast, Attorney General broiled; For dinner, Attorney General roasted; For supper, Attorney General boiled, and the same dish kept hot in an oven, and served at any hour of the night."
I'm no fan of air conditioning--I would gladly live without it at home--but a 90-plus-degree office is enough to make me shudder.

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

"Whan that Aprille with hise shoures soote . . .", or, Spring is here!

{Photos by rocketlass.}

Last night's spectacular thunderstorm--which offered among its many boisterous attractions a surprise drum-roll of hail--combined with the pleasant chittering of birds outside my window that woke me before dawn this morning has finally convinced me that spring is truly upon us.

It's also put me in the mind of Chaucer, and specifically the prologue to his Canterbury Tales, which offers my favorite evocation of the spring. I quote it here in the Middle English because it's far more fun to read that way--and as a reminder that one of the pleasures of Middle English is that you don't really have to know it to read it. If you barrel through with confidence, you'll be mostly right in your interpretation:
Whan that Aprille with hise shoures soote
The droghte of March hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veyne in swich licour
Of which vertu engendred is the flour,
Whan Zephirus eek with his swete breeth
Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
The tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne
Hath in the Ram his half cours y-ronne,
And smale foweles maken melodye
That slepen al the nyght with open eye,--
So priketh hem Nature in hir corages,--
Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages.
The "smale foweles maken melodye / That slepen al the nyght with open eye" cheer me greatly every time I think of them; as a notoriously light sleeper, I never feel quite so close to the birds I love to watch as when Chaucer describes their restless rest, and the way that the spring reminds them to leaven it with melody.

As for goon on pilgrimages, the best I'll do on that front will be to joyfully bicycle the mile and a half to Wrigley Field on Monday. Until then, I'll make my devotions to the spring by continuing to revel in the journals of Thoreau, who on April 6th of 1856 encountered some not-so-smale foweles:
As I am going along the Corner road by the meadow mouse brook, hear and see, a quarter of a mile northwest, on those conspicuous white oaks near the river in Hubbard's second grove, the crows buffeting some intruder. The crows had betrayed to me some large bird of the hawk kind which they were buffeting. I suspected it before I looked carefully. I saw several crows on the oaks, and also what looked to my naked eye like a cluster of the palest and most withered oak leaves with a black base about as big as a crow. Looking with my glass, I saw that it was a great bird. The crows sat about a rod off, higher up, while another crow was occasionally diving at him, and all were cawing. I am not sure whether it was a white-headed eagle or a fish hawk. It rose and wheeled, flapping several times, till it got under way; then, with its rear to me presenting the least surface, it moved off steadily in its orbit over the woods northwest, with the slightest possible undulation of its wings,--a noble planetary motion, like Saturn with its ring seen edgewise. It is so rare that we see a large body self-sustained in the air. While crows sat still and silent and confessed their lord.
For a week or two now, I expect I'll think of crows, when I see them, as Thoreau's crows, confessing their lord. There are worse ways to enter the spring.

Sunday, April 04, 2010

Two Generals

Jean Edward Smith's big biography of Grant, like all Civil War books, is full of memorably strange characters, many of whom will be familiar to the casual student of American history. Two that I don't remember from earlier reading in the period, however, have jumped out at me this time around: Brigadier General William "Bull" Nelson and Major General John McClernand, two Union generals who had very different styles--and relationships to Grant.

Bull Nelson plays only a small part, but as you can tell from the photo, he's such a striking figure that he stands out nonetheless. When he joins Grant just after Grant takes Fort Donelson, Smith describes him this way:
Six foot five and pushing 300 pounds, the foul-mouthed, hard-driving brigadier shared the fighting spirit of Foote and C. F. Smith. . . . No fight was too big for Nelson and he admired the audacity of Grant's plan. Told that ammunition for two of his brigades had been sent mistakenly to Cairo [Illinois], Nelson said not to worry. "I will endeavor to find the enemy with the bayonets of my division."
Later, Nelson was the only officer--including Grant--to realize that Grant was in danger of being attacked at Shiloh:
The not-so-genial giant was sitting on the north bank of the Duck River on the afternoon of March 27 watching the bridge-building efforts when he learned that the Tennessee no longer stood between Johnston and Grant. "By God," he exclaimed to a startled staff officer, "we must cross that river at once or Grant will be whipped."
In the absence of a bridge, he issued detailed orders instructing his men and equipment to ford the two hundred yards of the flooded Duck, "their pantaloons, in a neat roll . . . carried on the point of the bayonet." Which they did, without the loss of a single man or wagon; his arrival near the end of the first day of fighting at Shiloh proved decisive.

A footnote on Nelson's fate gives yet another operatic touch to this outsized character:
Nelson's fighting career ended abruptly September 29, 1862, when he was shot and killed by Indiana brigadier Jefforson C. Davis in the corridor of Galt House in Louisville, Kentucky. Nelson had insulted Davis the week before. When Davis demanded satisfaction, Nelson slapped him in the face with the back of his hand. David procured a pistol from a bystander and shot Nelson. General Philip H. Sheridan said, "the ball entered Nelson's breast just above the heart, but his great strength enabled him to ascend the stairway notwithstanding the mortal character of the wound, and he did not fall till he reached the corridor on the second floor. He died about half an hour later."

Then there's the truly bizarre story of General McClernand, which unfolded just before the attack on Vicksburg:
Grant, for his part, was energized by rumors, soon confirmed, that the second-ranking officer in his command, Major General John McClernand, was back in Illinois raising volunteers for an independent assault on Vicksburg. in one of hte more bizarre episodes of the Civil war, McClernand [was] a prominent Illinois lawyer, Democratic member of Congress, and close friend of Lincoln's. . . . [F]ueled by dreams of military glory and critical of Grant's ability to command, the politically ambitious McClernand persuaded Lincoln that he could rekindle the patriotism of Democrats in the old Northwest Territory if given the opportunity to raise a new army of volunteers, descend the Mississippi, capture Vicksburg, and "open navigation to New Orleans." Without informing Grant, Lincoln approved the scheme. McClernand left Washington in late October armed with a confidential order dictated by the president authorizing him to proceed to the Middle West and raise a separate force to capture VIcksburg.
Ultimately, McClernand's gambit was foiled and he was brought back under Grant's command, though not before forcing a direct appeal to Lincoln, who, perhaps recognizing his mistake, sided with Grant. Even leaving aside the strange subterfuge at the heart of this story, I love it for the boundlessness of McClernand's confidence in his own abilities: he, with a newly raised volunteer corps, would simply go and do what Grant and the entire western half of the Army of the Republic had been planning for months.

That pair of characters only reinforces a thought I've been entertaining a lot lately: that if only Tolstoy had somehow become an American Civil War buff, oh, what a novel he could have written about it! From the limited research I've done thus far, I can't determine whether Tolstoy was even aware of the war--anyone want to lend me their time machine so that I can go correct that?

Friday, April 02, 2010

Grant in the saddle--sort of

Today I want to share a scene from the life of Ulysses S. Grant that, it seems to me, should be much more widely known. Not that it's a secret or anything--it turns up in every biography of Grant--but it's so over-the-top that if I had my way, it would come to mind every time anyone pulled out a fifty-dollar bill and saw his gloomy, bewhiskered mug staring back at them.

It's a moment from the Mexican War, a war that young Lieutenant Grant thought (appropriately, it seems at this distance) was unjust, but in which he offered valuable service nonetheless, while also learning many lessons that would help him in the Civil War. The U.S. forces under Old Rough and Ready, Zachary Taylor, had moved into the outskirts of Monterrey and were beginning to squeeze the Mexican army that was holed up in the city's central plaza. After a day of heavy fighting, ammunition began to run low--and from here, I'll let Jean Edward Smith, whose captivating bio of Grant I'm currently reading, tell the story:
The brigade urgently needed to be resupplied, but sending a messenger back to division headquarters would be hazardous. Mexican musket fire raked every intersection and the air was filled with grape shot. Colonel Garland called for a volunteer. Grant said he would go. Like a trick rider in a rodeo, he hooked one foot around the cantle of his saddle, one arm around the neck of his horse, Nelly, and with his body clinging to the sheltered side, galloped away at full speed. "It was only at street crossings that my horse came under fire, but these I crossed at such a flying rate that generally I was past and under cover of the next block of houses before the enemy fired."
Horse and rider reached headquarters safely, and Grant, according to friends, responded to praise with his typical modesty, appearing "to look upon Nelly's conduct as more courageous than his own."

What neither this account, nor Grant's own in his memoirs, is able to tell us is how the officers and soldiers around Grant reacted when they saw how he'd decided to approach his mission. Even knowing, as they surely did by then, what an uncannily great horseman Grant was, could they have reacted in any way other than by dropping their jaws and staring?