Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Heirlooms and stories

Late in The Hare with the Amber Eyes, a memoir of a family traced through the travels of a collection of netsuke, Edmund de Waal writes,
It is not just things that carry stories with them. Stories are a kind of thing, too. Stories and objects share something, a patina .I thought I had this clear, two years ago before I started, but I am no longer sure how this works. Perhaps patina is a process of rubbing back so that the essential is revealed, the way that a striated stone tumbled in a river feels irreducible, the way that this netsuke of a fox has become little more than a memory of a nose and a tail. But it also seems additive, in the way that a piece of oak furniture gains over years and years of polishing, and the way the leaves of my medlar shine.
The passage could almost serve as a precis of the book, which is nearly as much about de Waal’s quest to learn about his family as it is about what he finds, a balance that wouldn’t work if de Waal weren’t such an interesting, congenial presence with whom to travel. He’s interested in the things we want him to be interested in: the lush details of imperial Vienna; the tiny traces of long-gone relatives that linger in family stories; the elements of his great-great-uncle Charles that went into the making of Proust’s beloved Swann. I can’t imagine any fan of the art, literature, and culture of pre-war Europe not finding something here to cherish.

And then there’s Japan, which, for me, gives the book even more interest. It starts and ends there, the netsuke purchased from there in the early days of the nineteenth-century craze for Japonisme, and it ends there, in cultured evening talks between the college-aged De Waal and his expatriate great-uncle, Iggie. It is in those moments, the interactions with Iggie, that the book comes most fully to life, reminding us of the ways that family relationships can bridge gaps of decades and differences of culture, can offer a comfortable entree for a young person into a world of culture and experience that, associated with true adulthood, has until that moment seemed impossibly remote.

Which brings me to the scene I most want to share. It’s from postwar Japan, the early 1950s--long before de Waal was born--when the country was beginning its remarkably rapid recovery from the war, and forty-something Iggie was just settling in to what would become a lifetime there. De Waal assembles the scene from a clutch of old Kodachrome prints:
Back in the corridor we move through an open doorway, under a Noh mask and into the sitting-room. The ceiling is of slatted wood. All the lamps are on. Objects are displayed on spare, dark, clean-lined Korean and Chinese furniture alongside comfortable low sofas, occasional tables and lamps, and ashtrays and cigarette boxes. A wooden Buddha from Kyoto sits on a Korean chest, a hand raised in blessing.

The bamboo bar holds an impressive quantity of liquor, none of which I can identify. It is a house made for parties. Parties with small children on their knees, and women in kimonos, and presents. Parties with men in dark suits seated round small tables, loquacious with whisky. Parties at New Year with cut boughs of pine trees hanging from the ceiling, and parties under the cherry trees, and once--in a spirit of poetry--a firefly-viewing party.
Don’t you want to go to that party? Knot your narrow tie, button up your nondescript black suit, and swelter through a Tokyo summer day in order to step onto that balcony in the night, cold drink in hand, and start counting fireflies?

Monday, September 27, 2010

"My current works reflect a sort of decadence in me," Or, Borges in conversation

{Photos by rocketlass.}

For the past week or so I’ve been really enjoying a collection of Borges interviews, Seven Conversations with Jorge Luis Borges, which was published in Spanish in 1972, in English in 1982, and was republished this year by Paul Dry Books. The interviews are conducted by Argentine writer Fernando Sorrentino, and because of that, and their intended audience of Spanish-speaking readers, they remind me more than I expected of the recent collection of interviews with Roberto Bolano: the conversation between Borges and Sorrentino is peppered with the names of Spanish-language authors, from the familiar (Adolfo Bioy Casares) to the familiar but unread (H. Bustos Domecq) to the completely unfamiliar (Jose Marmol and many, many others). Because the names emerge in the course of ongoing talks about favorites and influences and schools, it’s less a case of name-dropping and more a pleasant reminder of the largely unknown wealth of non-English literatures--and of how Borges always thought of himself as a reader at least as much as he thought of himself as a writer. At a minimum, he's convinced me to give Jose Maria de Eca de Queiros a try sometime soon.

I’ll share one passage that jumped out at me tonight, an act of . . . well, the only word I can come up with, though it sounds too strong, is bravery, on the part of the interviewer, telling Borges what he likes and doesn’t like in his writing, and getting an interesting answer:
F. S. Reader usually believe, unjustly perhaps, that they can demand a particular kind of behavior from a writer they admire. I, who have been dazzled by the stories in Ficciones and El Aleph, take the liberty of criticizing you for having given up, in the stories of El informe de Brodie, those complex plots. How would you answer me?

J. L. B. My answer to you is that I’ve done it deliberately, because since I’ve been told there are other people who are writing that type of literature, and no doubt they’re doing it better than I, I’ve attempted something different. But it’s possible that this is my conscious motive and, for that very reason, not too important. Instead, I believe there is something that has led me to write stories of another type: being tired of mirrors, of labyrinths of people who are other people, of games with time. Why not suppose that being tired of all that, I want to write stories somewhat the way others do?

F. S. Of course, I understand that. But, speaking for myself, I wouldn’t think of reading El Informe de Brodie again, yet I read and re-read El Aleph (I know it almost by heart).

J. L. B. That might be due to the fact that when I wrote El Aleph, the writing was carried out in a kind of literary plenitude. On the other hand, it could be that I’m now in a state of decline and my current works reflect a sort of decadence in me. It would be perfectly natural because it’s biologically understandable. In August, I’ll be seventy-two years old, and it’s only logical for what I’m writing now to be inferior to what I wrote earlier. I think this biological explanation is a pretty likely one.
I love this exchange. Sorrentino is honest and straightforward, at the risk of seeming like a jerk, and Borges takes up his question seriously. And after explaining that he’s tired of, among other things, games with time, he turns to pleading that time itself may be at fault--an answer that is simultaneously sensible, convincing, and, with that final little time-indicting twist, suitably Borgesian.

Friday, September 24, 2010

The long war of the Tolstoys

The new volume of Sofia Tolstoy's diaries that I wrote about back in the summer has just been published here in the States, and the very first entry I saw when I opened the book at random gives a perfect sense of just how crazy the Tolstoys' lives were by the end. Here's the entry for August 31, 1909--which, I should warn you, is pretty horrible:
This morning we had a visit from a 30-year-old Romanian who had castrated himself at the age of 18 after reading The Kreutzer Sonata. He then took to working on his land--just 19 acres--and was terribly disillusioned today to see that Tolstoy writes one thing but lives in luxury. He questioned everyone, seeking an explanation of this contradiction. He was obviously very hurt, and said he wanted to cry, and kept repeating, "My God, my God! How can this be? What shall I tell them at home?" Then a rich deaf mute arrived from Kiev with his friend, a barber, especially to make Tolstoy's acquaintance. Goldenweiser came and played chess with L.N.
The Kreutzer Sonata, with its violent condemnation of marriage and conjugal love, was, as you might expect, a sore point with Sofia. She was embarrassed by the all-too-easily drawn conclusion that life with her had led Tolstoy to that renunciation--a conclusion that, while not inaccurate, certainly doesn't do justice to Tolstoy's own eager part in the long war of mutual cruelty that was their marriage.

And in her diaries, Sofia was writing at least as much for Lev, whom she knew would read them, as for herself, so it's no surprise to find her emphasizing the disillusion of the poor young Romanian. Yet even taking that into account, I'm astonished by how matter-of-fact she is about the man's self-mutilation. My god, he castrated himself because of something her husband had written--and her only real response is a sort of unsurprised snort at his disillusion? And then she just trucks along to an account of the next couple of visitors they had that day?

Here is where--as James Meek pointed out in his fascinating article about the diaries for the London Review of Books this summer--what you want is facing-page dual (and dueling) diaries. We see here what Sofia wanted us to see of this event, and, to some extent, how it affected her. But what about Lev? What is it like to have someone take a fairly unhinged rant of yours so brutally seriously? Surely even Lev, so self-confident and--when it helped him to be--so self-delusional, was shaken by that?

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Solomon and the Queen of the Ants

I wrote about one of Solomon’s Arabian Nights-style adventures found in Louis Ginzbuerg’s endlessly entertaining,seven-volume Legends of the Jews on Monday, and before I put the books back on the shelf for a while, I want to share one more. This one, however, which comes under the heading “Lessons in Humility,” reads more like a cross between Aesop’s Fables and T. H. White’s The Once and Future King:
On one occasion, he strayed into the valley of the ants in the course of his wanderings. He heard one ant order all the others to withdraw,to avoid being crushed by the armies of Solomon. The king halted and summoned the ant that had spoken. She told him that she was the queen of the ants,and she gave her reasons for the order of withdrawal. Solomon wanted to put a question to the ant queen, but she refused to answer unless the king took her up and placed her on his hand. He acquiesced, and then he put his question: “Is there any one greater than I am in all the world?”--”Yes,” said the ant.

Solomon: “Who?”

Ant: “I am.”

Solomon: “How is that possible?”

Ant: “Were I not greater than thou, God would not have led thee hither to put me on thy hand.”
Exasperated, Solomon threw her to the ground, and said: “Thou knowest not who I am? I am Solomon, the son of David.”

Not at all intimidated, the ant reminded the king of his earthly origin, and admonished him to humility, and the king went off abashed.
While I enjoy this story for its individual elements--Solomon wandering willy-nilly around the world! Talking ants!--I have to admit that I fail to see how it teaches Solomon a lesson in humility. The ant’s argument about God’s intentions isn’t terrible, but neither is it particularly powerful--and, rather than convincing Solomon, it seems only to anger him. But then she mentions his earthly origins, and that does it? Seems unlikely.

I like to think there’s something missing here: maybe she had her army of ants overwhelm him, but leave him unharmed, to demonstrate the extent of her power? Or she points out that she can speak and understand his language, while he can’t understand a word of hers? An ant in Aesop would, I think, have been craftier.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Jews, legends of the, carefully indexed

A week or so ago, I mentioned what a pleasure it’s been, now that our books have been freed from boxes and restored to their proper places on our shelves, to dip into favorite books--in particular, books that I’d long been used to grabbing for a few minutes’ pleasurable browsing but had been unable to employ for that purpose for nearly a year now.

One of the ones I’ve been most enjoying being reunited with this week is the Johns Hopkins University Press’s seven-volume edition of Louis Ginzberg’s Legends of the Jews (1938). It’s not a book I’ve ever felt inclined to try to read straight through--that seems too daunting even for someone as relatively untroubled by length as I am. Rather, it’s for opening more or less at random, safe in the knowledge that you’ll always find some bizarre and fascinating tale.

Today, I opened it to some stories of Solomon. Like this one, which starts with a book--the book, I suppose--tattling on him to God:
When Solomon in his wealth and prosperity grew unmindful of his God, and, contrary to the injunctions laid down for kings in the Torah, multiplied wives until himself, and craved the possession of many horses and much gold, the Book of Deuteronomy stepped before God and said: “Lo, O Lord of the World, Solomon is seeking to remove a Yod from out of me, for Thou didst write: ‘‘The king shall not multiply horses unto himself, nor shall he multiply wives to himself, neither shall he greatly multiply to himself silver and gold’; but Solomon has acquired many horses, many wives, and much silver and gold.”

Which, understandably, irks the Lord, leading him to get Solomon entangled with the demon Asmodeus, who went to heaven every day,
to take part in the discussions in the heavenly academy. Thence he would descend again to earth in order to be present, though invisible, at the debates in the earthly houses of learning.

Solomon captures Asmodeus rather easily, but then he lets his curiosity get the best of him:
One day the king told Asmodeus that he did not understand wherein the greatness of the demons lay, if their kin could be kept in bonds by a mortal. Asmodeus replied, that if Solomon would remove his chains and lend him the magic ring, he woudl prove his own greatness. Solomon agreed. The demon stood before him with one wing touching heaven and the other reaching to the earth. Snatching up Solomon, who had parted with his protecting ring, he flung him four hundred parasangs away from Jerusalem, and then palmed himself off as the king.
Note to self: Don’t free demons from chains on request. And if you do free them, at least don’t also give them your magic ring. Solomon does eventually make it back to his throne, after a bit of Haroun-al-Rashid-like incognito wandering, while Asmodeus is eventually tripped up by complaints from Solomon's mother, Bathsheba, and his wives, that
the behavior of the king had completely changed--it was not befitting royalty and in no respect like Solomon’s former manner.
Displaying tact, the tale gives no further detail.

The best part of the seven volumes, however, is not actually the legends themselves: it’s the insanely comprehensive index that takes up the whole of the seventh volume! Almost any page offers a litany of references and sub-references that in themselves are so remarkably detailed that you can’t help but smile. Here’s one example: Balaam and his talking ass, who play a part in Numbers. The ass only figures in two entries, though the second is surprising, at least to those of us most familiar with Balaam’s ass from Wodehouse’s regular mentions of it:
Balaam, ass of, details concerning, I., 83; III., 363, 364, 365; V., 94; VI., 126, 128, 364

Balaam committed sodomy with his ass, III., 365; VI., 128
Balaam himself goes on to figure in another sixty-three entries! One of which, “Balaam, the vices of,” does, as one might expect, cross-reference to "Balaam committed sodomy with his ass.”

The entry for “Plague” is much shorter, though perhaps more rich in the pleasures offered by the fractured syntax of the index style. I’ll leave out the page numbers here and just give you the finely delineated entries:
Plague, Reuben afflicted with the,

Plague, a punishment for adultery,

Plague visited Israel in the desert,

Plague raged in Palestine during the visit of the spies,

Plague, incense a remedy against the,

Plague, Phinehas’ attempt to ward off,

Plague destroyed the tribe of Simon,

Plague, inflicted on the Philistines,

Plague, the punishment for taking a census,

Plague in the time of David, the cause and duration of,

Plague, Cain afflicted with a new one, each century,

Plague pacified God’s anger at Israel,

Plague, stopped by Zadok,

Plague, the Angel of Death traverses the world with one stroke in the time of,

Plague struck the Gentiles who refused to permit the disinterment of Ezra,
How can any bookish type not marvel at that list, and at the obsessive dedication that went into its making?

{Also: am I alone in feeling bad for Cain here?I know he did wrong, but good god, isn’t being “cursed from the earth” and told that “when thou tillest the ground, it shall not henceforth yield unto thee her strength; a fugitive and a vagabond shalt thou be in the earth” a pretty harsh punishment without the surprise addition of a new and different plague each century?}

Friday, September 17, 2010

Ronald Firbank

The primary reason that Harold Nicolson's Some People is remembered at all today is because of the barely veiled portrait it features of Ronald Firbank, a writer of campily decadent novels and stories that were popular and influential among aesthetically inclined writerly types in the early part of the century, and have remained favorites of a small, but passionate group of readers ever since.

Anthony Powell, who was a bit too young to have known Firbank--whom he described as a "talented, painfully shy, lonely, tipsy, ailing homosexual" in a review--was a fan, and Firbank's influence, like Hemingway's, can be seen in the clipped dialogue of Powell's early novels. Michael Dirda, whose enthusiasms have been drawing me, from one to the next, all week, has described Firbank's spare style nicely:
He discarded leisurely descriptions, stripped dialogue of its "he saids" and "she saids," subordinated plot to language, and made his characters, those absurd and ingratiating puppets with names like Mrs. Shamefoot and Madame Wetme, into vehicles for social satire and joyful, imaginative extravagance.
Dirda quotes Firbank--echoing Scott Fitzgerald's stated willingness to scrap a whole story for the sake of one good sentence he could use elsewhere--saying, "I think nothing of filing fifty pages down to make a brief, crisp paragraph or even a row of dots."

Nicolson's depiction of Firbank, as the title character of the story "Lambert Orme," is so good that it's easy to understand why it's lasted:
It would be impossible, I think, to actually be as decadent as Lambert looked. I split the infinitive deliberately, being in the first place no non-split die-hard (oh, the admirable Mr. Fowler!), and desiring secondly to emphasise what was in fact the dominant and immediate consideration which Lambert evoked. I have met many men with wobbly walks, but I have never met a walk more wobbly than that of Lambert Orme. It was more than sinuous, it did more than undulate: it rippled. At each step a wave was started which passed upwards through his body, convexing his buttocks, concaving the small of his back, convexing again his slightly rounded shuolders, and working itself out in a backward swaying of the neck and head. This final movement passed off more rapidly than the initial undulations, with the resulting impression of a face upturned generally, but bowing at rhythmic intervals, as if a tired royalty or a camel marching heavily along the road to Isfahan. . . . He dressed simply, wearing an opal pin, and a velours hat tilted angularly. He had a peculiar way of speaking: his sentences came in little splashing pounces; and then from time to time he would hang on to a word as if to steady himself: he would say “Simplytooshattering FOR words,” the phrase being a slither with a wild clutch at the banister of “for.”
Firbank's works are available here in the States from New Directions, but back in the early 1930s it was Powell himself, while he was working at Duckworth, who was responsible for getting them back into print in England. In Messengers of Day, the second volume of his autobiography, he wrote,
I also pressed the claims of Ronald Firbank, whose novels at this period were all out of print. The directors showed no overwhelming enthusiasm for Firbank, but, in consequence of making enquiries as to where the "rights" lay, it was disclosed that Firbank had left a sum of £800 to be devoted to guaranteeing the republication of his books at some future date.
There's a lesson here, authors: attend to your wills!

I've only barely read Firbank: I gave him a half-hearted try several years ago and wasn't quite convinced. But Powell's enthusiasm, Nicolson's amusement, and Dirda's claim that, "In the right mood they are very nearly the most amusing novels in the world," have convinced me to try again.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

The Fingers of M. Stambuloff

Michael Dirda's recommendation of James Lees-Milne having proved good recently, I decided last week to follow him once more, this time picking up Harold Nicolson’s odd little book of semi-fictionalized tales of friends and acquaintances, Some People (1929). It's a strange book, a bit too deeply involved in the ephemera of interwar upper-class English culture for me to be able to recommend it to too many people, but it had plenty of charms nonetheless.

One passage was so grotesquely entertaining that it's worth sharing despite its being much longer than what I’d usually quote here. It comes in “Miss Plimsoll,” a story about the woman who was Nicolson’s governess when his family lived in Sofia:
The hostility latent in our feelings towards each other would not, I think, have reached the surface had it not been for M. Stambuloff’s fingers. I am still glad that in this connection I behaved so badly: I suspect also that Miss Plimsoll, when she has a tea-party at Southsea, will to this day recount the incident with gusto. But at the time my action led to serious trouble. M. Stambuloff had been murdered in the street: they had attacked him with yataghans, striking him on the head: he had put his hands up to protect himself, with the result that his fingers were severed and fell upon the pavement. They were picked up by an admirer and given to his wife. After the funeral she put them in a large bottle of methylated spirits and placed the bottle in the window of her dining-room, so that passers-by could see. I was told of this by Zachary, the chasseur of the Legation, and I begged my father to take me to see them. He refused. On the following day I asked Miss Plimsoll to come for a walk. She was pleased at this and we started off briskly, talking about the British Navy. M. Stambuloff’s house was near the Club, and as we approached it we saw a little lot of loiterers gazing in at the dining-room window. I steered Miss Plimsoll in the same direction and we came to anchor in front of the window. It was a very large bottle, and the eight fingers floated dimly in it like little pickled cucumbers. Miss Plimsoll took so long to realise what they were that I was able to enjoy myself thoroughly. When at last she did identify the contents of the bottle she gave a little sharp scream like a shot hare, clutched me by the forearm, and dragged me violently away. She called a cab and drove back to the Legation: she began to sob a little on the way, and when she got home she burst into hysterics. I for my part was sent to bed.

The next morning I received a full-dress scolding. I was scolded by my father. I was even scolded by my mother. Miss Plimsoll called me into her bedroom and told me to sit down. She then explained to me that my action had not only been heartless but also disgusting. Things, she said, could never be quite the same for her again: all her life, she said, she would be haunted, yes haunted by those fingers. Did I realise how cruel I had been? I said I was very sorry, I would never, never do it again.

The guilt with which these upbraidings weighted my soul developed, in the weeks that followed, into panic fear. I also became haunted by the fingers of M. Stambuloff. . . . Night after night the fingers of M. Stambuloff would appear in my dreams, enormous, clustering--not in the least like cucumbers, having circles of bleeding flesh and shattered bone around their base.
Horrible, no? Nicolson's promise "never, never" to do it again is a bit hollow, even if meant: how often does a boy get the chance to introduce such a horror? And ultimately Miss Plimsoll shows herself, as expected, the bigger person: rather than leave the boy to stew, she sits up with him night after night until he can sleep.

Dirda says that Nabokov once claimed that he had been fighting against the influence of Some People all his life, "like a drug," and the grotesquerie of this passage, allied to the balanced, precise, assonant prose of the rest of the book, makes such influence easy to imagine.

{Photo by rocketlass.}

Monday, September 13, 2010

Back into the desert

On Friday I wrote that perhaps only Charles Doughty’s loving, detailed, ornate descriptions of the desert could convince me, a lifelong Midwesterner, of its charms and enchantments. But moments after I posted that, I remembered that I’d recently encountered another writer who had done nearly so well at that task: Dorothy Dunnett.

In Scales of Gold (1991), the fourth book of her House of Niccolo series, Nicholas and his friend, Umar, a former slave who is Nicholas’s great friend and has been his host during a journey to Africa, head north through the desert from Timbuktu towards Arawan with a caravan of some two hundred and fifty camels and three hundred or so people. They set out:
There are few wells in the Sahara, and the journey between them depends on navigation as exact and as strict as that employed by a captain at sea, venturing out of sight of his port, and into waters unknown. In time of clear skies, the Sahara caravan makes its way as the birds do, and the captains: by the sun and the stars, and by whatever landmarks the sand may have left. But the winds blow, and dunes shift, and the marks left by one caravan are obliterated before the next comes. And so men will wander, and perish.

The guide Umar had chosen for Nicholas was a Mesufa Tuareg, and blind. For two days, walking or riding, he turned the white jelly of his sightless eyes to the light and the wind, and opened his palpitating black nostrils to the report of the dead, scentless sand which was neither scentless nor dead, but by some fineness of aroma proclaimed its composition and place. At each mile’s end, he filled his hands with the stuff, and, rubbing, passed it through his brown fingers. Then he smiled and said, “Arawan.”

“Umar,” Nicholas said, “I hope you know what you’re doing.”
Though Dunnett doesn’t underplay the risks that face the caravan--like any good adventure novelist, she takes full advantage of them--at the same time she portrays the quiet of the desert, with its cool nights and tapestry of stars, as a potential healing force, drawing Nicholas, for once, away from the constant plotting and battling that have engulfed his life:
To begin with, they spoke very little. With the rest, they walked through the first night and part of the day, halting rarely. Sleep was brief, and taken by day. During the worst of the heat, they lay with the camels under the white, shimmering sky, and ate, and rested. . . . On the long transit to Taghaza, walking under the Andalusian vaults of the stars, there was time to talk again now and then--and a need. The clarity of the desert demanded something as rare; demanded truth, vision, honesty of those who walked in it.
T. E. Lawrence, in his introduction to Doughty’s Travels in Arabia Deserta, which I quoted from on Friday, makes much the same (admittedly essentialist) point:
The desert inhibits considered judgments; its bareness and openness make its habitants frank. Men in it speak out their minds suddenly and unreservedly. Words in the desert are clear-cut.
I know that in my heart I’ll always prefere the decadent ease of an early autumn day in the northern forests over that harshness, but don’t they make it sound at least a bit tempting?

Finally, since I’ve been wandering the desert the past couple of days, I figure I might as well link to the commonplace book–style piece I put together for the New York Moon a couple of years ago on the topic, in case you haven’t seen it. The Moon’s editors got some great illustrators for it, and the result, I think, is a lot of fun. Pour yourself a tall, refreshing glass of iced tea and enjoy!

Friday, September 10, 2010

Put the book back on the shelf

{Photo by rocketlass.}

Having given up, for now, our plans to sell our condo and move to a house possessed of a garden, we spent last Friday night unpacking and reshelving our eighty-plus boxes of books. Friends helped--we owe @santheo and @joegermuska drink after drink after drink--and the work went well, a gradual unearthing of old familiars. For a year, we’d been reduced to one bookcase, a carefully selected group of the unread and the perennial, and I think we did reasonably well in our choices. In his strange and charming Anatomy of Bibliomania, Holbrook Jackson wrote of the sort of enforced paring we’d endured:
Many have speculated upon which are the best books, and it is no easy matter to come to a conclusion where there are so many claimants; especially it is difficult to decide upon what books, or book, were we confined to one, we would choose for an imprisonment, or if marooned on a desert island.
Andre Gide, he reveals, “as a youth made out such a list every quarter”--and never included a single novel.

But as book after book emerged, I realized that, while they’d not been forgotten, they had been relegated to a strange spot in the memory, a sort of vault of denial--remembered, yet locked away, inaccessible. So in the past week I’ve enjoyed diving back into old favorites. Tonight, it’s Charles M. Doughty’s Travels in Arabia Deserta (1888). The two-volume Dover edition I have, which, sadly, is out of print, features an introduction by T. E. Lawrence, in which, while praising Doughty, he classifies the adventuring sort of Englishman:
We export two chief kinds of Englishman, who in foreign parts divide themselves into two opposed classes. Some feel deeply the influence of the native people, and try to adjust themselves to its atmosphere and spirit. To fit themselves modestly into the picture they suppress all in them that would be discordant with local habits and colours. They imitate the native as far as possible, and so avoid friction in their daily life. However, they cannot avoid the consequences of imitation, a hollow, worthless thing. They are like the people but not of the people, and their half-perceptible differences give them a sham influence often greater than their merit. They urge the people among whom they live into strange, unnatural courses by imitating them so well that they are imitated back again. The other class of Englishman is the larger class. In the same circumstance of exile they reinforce their character by memories of the life they have left. In reaction against their foreign surroundings they take refuge in the England that was theirs. They assert their aloofness, their immunity, the more vividly for their loneliness and weakness. They impress the peoples among whom they live by reaction, by giving them an ensample of the complete Englishman, the foreigner intact.
Doughty, explains Lawrence, was a member of the second group:
His seeing is altogether English, yet at the same time his externals, his manners, his dress, and his speech were Arabic, and nomad Arab, of the desert. . . . His record ebbs and flows with his experience, and by reading not a part of the book but all of it you obtain a many-sided sympathetic vision, in the round, of his companions of these stormy and eventful years.
And on this quiet, cool, autumnal Friday night, it seems right to bid the summer adieu with a passage from Doughty:
The lingering day draws down to the sun-setting; the herdsman, weary of the sun, come again with the cattle, to taste in their menzils the first sweetness of mirth and repose.--The day is done, and there rises the nightly freshness of this purest mountain air: and there to the cheerful cup and the song at the common fire. The moon rises ruddy from that solemn obscurity of jebel like a mighty beacon:--and the morrow will be as this day, days deadly drowned in the sun of the summer wilderness.
I think it would be impossible for me to grow to love the desert; the upper Midwest is too deep in my bones. But if anyone could set that hook, it would be Doughty.

Oh, it's good to have these books back at hand.

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

James Lees-Milne

Michael Dirda’s piece from the Barnes and Noble Review in praise of the diaries of James Lees-Milne--which I wrote about briefly here--led me happily to Lees-Milne’s brief memoir, Another Self (1970). Described by Dirda as “hilarious, half-true, half-fantastic,” it is a wonderfully entertaining little book, full of stories of upper-class strangeness--especially involving Lees-Milne’s parents.

Lees-Milne’s father carries shades of the Mitford sisters’ father, Lord Redesdale: unpredictable, slightly tyrannical, and dismissive of his unmanly son, while his mother is flighty, flirty, and vague, characteristics that infuriated the father when they appeared in the son:
”What on earth d’you suppose you two would do, I would like to know, if you found yourselves alone on a desert island? In the Indian Ocean?” my father once yelled at us during a picnic He was incensed by our inability to open a box of preserved fruits. “Rot,” my mother answered with a little smile. “It isn’t,” he snapped back, misunderstanding her meaning. “I asked what would you do?” To which she languidly repeated, “Rot. We would just rot.”
My favorite portrait in the book, however, isn’t of one of Lees-Milne’s parents, but of the crammer they hired to prepare him for Oxford, Reverend H. B. Allen. For a one-sentence description, Lees-Milne quotes Herbert Asquith’s diary, which would be hard to better:
At a very advanced age, he was a testament to the preservative powers of whisky and a firm believer in free love, and continued in a chronic state of insolvency because of the kindness of heart which led him to maintain a retinue of sick horses and donkeys.
From there Lees-Milne builds a picture of a gentle, preoccupied old man, obsessed with the classics, which he imagined played about him on the Cotswolds:
Hopelessly unpractical, improvident and vague, the Priest was a dedicated classical scholar with an ability to instill enthusiasm into his pupils. . . . He would sit on the window seat of his study with his arms round the neck of whichever pony happened to be grazing on the garden bed outside. In between kissing the pony’s nose and stuffing its mouth with carrots he attended to us. Hesitant and giggling, slushing and adjusting his ill-fitting false teeth he would recite and translate for our benefit the Idylls, Eclogues, and Metamorphoses from beginning to end.
Unexpectedly, this strange performance was effective: Lees-Milne wrote that he and the other boys fell completely under the Reverend’s spell, enchanted by his obvious love of his material.

If those passages amuse you like they amused me, you’ll enjoy Another Self, as its gently meandering narrative is full of them, alongside thoughts on architecture, Oxford, and growing up, and a strikingly vivid account of a bad night during the Blitz. The only wrong notes in the book come when Lees-Milne regrets not having been brave enough to go fight for Franco in the Spanish Civil War. Lees-Milne was a staunch conservative and anti-communist, and anyone who reads about the Spanish Civil War knows that neither side was anything like blameless, but it’s rare these days (or even, I suspect, in 1970) to encounter someone who openly laments not having put his life on the line for Franco.

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Fall is here, and, as always, it brings Fall issues!

Once you've finished packing away your seersucker and your white pants for yet another dark winter, I recommend that you hop over to the Quarterly Conversation, where the Fall issue has just been published. As usual, there's plenty of good writing there to help you while away a work week.

I'm in there writing about John Beer's The Waste Land and Other Poems, a book whose deliciously daring name was enough to make it stand out from the morass that ever threatens to claim review copies. Patrick Kurp invites fans of Kay Ryan to check out Marianne Moore, and vice versa. Carrie Olivia Adams covers Julie Carr's new book, Sarah--Of Fragments and Lines, while Ron Slate tackles Ken Chen's Juvenilia. Barrett Hathcock draws a line from John Updike to David Foster Wallace . . . via one of my favorites, Nicholson Baker. Jeff Bursey reviews Steven Moore's fascinating-sounding The Novel: An Alternate History, Beginnings to 1600.

And much, much more. Officially, you have no excuse for being bored at your desk this week.

Friday, September 03, 2010

Yours, A. Chekhov

If I were a professional blogger, and thus obligated to post something (or, god forbid, several somethings) every day, you'd see me have recourse to Chekhov's letters much, much more often. They offer the joys of any good letter collection: a familiar, conversational voice and a pleasant hodge-podge of topics and tones, from the quotidian details of ordinary life to the lasting questions of art and culture. But what raises them above the works of other writers of letters is the sense they give of Chekhov himself, and how it jibes with the sense of the man that comes through from his fiction: a kind, affectionate, man who didn't let his remarkable perceptiveness sour into harshness. As Lillian Hellman writes in her introduction to a selection of Chekhov's letters that she edited in 1955,
Chekhov was a pleasant man, witty and wise and tolerant and kind, with nothing wishywashy in his kindness nor self righteous in his tolerance, and his wit was not ill-humored. He would have seen through you, of course, as he did through everybody, but being seen through doesn't hurt too much if it's done with affection. . . . Such an nature is rare at all times, but it is particularly remarkable in a period when maudlin soul-searching was the intellectual fashion. . . . Anton Chekhov was a man of balance, a man of sense.
Any collection you can find will reward your time; I've almost never turned to a page of Chekhov's letters without discovering something of value.

And even better, for a blogger, is that they're all available--and searchable--online through Project Gutenberg! So a busy blogger can search the letters for, say, the word "book," and from the fifty-five instances returned, find passage after passage worth sharing.

Having done so, I'll share two before I turn you loose on your weekend. First, this self-critical account by the twenty-eight-year-old Chekhov of his literary production to that point, sent in a letter to his publisher and friend, Alexei Suvorin, on October 27, 1888:
To tell the truth again, I have not yet begun my literary work, though I have received a literary prize. Subjects for five stories and two novels are languishing in my head. One of the novels was thought of long ago, and some of the characters have grown old without managing to be written. In my head there is a whole army of people asking to be let out and waiting for the word of command. All that I have written so far is rubbish in comparison with what I should like to write and should write with rapture. It is all the same to me whether I write "The Party" or "The Lights," or a vaudeville or a letter to a friend--it is all dull, spiritless, mechanical, and I get annoyed with critics who attach any importance to "The Lights," for instance. I fancy that I deceive him with my work just as I deceive many people with my face, which looks serious or over-cheerful. I don't like being successful; the subjects which sit in my head are annoyed and jealous of what has already been written. I am vexed that the rubbish has been done and the good things lie about in the lumber-room like old books. Of course, in thus lamenting I rather exaggerate, and much of what I say is only my fancy, but there is a part of the truth in it, a good big part of it. What do I call good? The images which seem best to me, which I love and jealously guard lest I spend and spoil them for the sake of some "Party" written against time.... If my love is mistaken, I am wrong, but then it may not be mistaken! I am either a fool and a conceited fellow or I really am an organism capable of being a good writer. All that I now write displeases and bores me, but what sits in my head interests, excites and moves me--from which I conclude that everybody does the wrong thing and I alone know the secret of doing the right one. Most likely all writers think that. But the devil himself would break his neck in these problems.
A bit overplayed, perhaps--it's hard to imagine that even at his lowest point Chekhov really thought his stories no better than "a vaudeville or a letter to a friend," but regardless, I love the image of the characters grown old in his head, waiting for him to get around to writing their story.

I also very much liked the following passage, from a letter of January 21, 1900 to his medical school classmate G. I. Rossolimo:
Dear Grigory Ivanovitch,

. . . I send you in a registered parcel what I have that seems suitable for children--two stories of the life of a dog. And I think I have nothing else of the sort. I don't know how to write for children; I write for them once in ten years, and so-called children's books I don't like and don't believe in. Children ought only to be given what is suitable also for grown-up people. Andersen, "The Frigate Pallada," Gogol, are easily read by children and also by grown-up people. Books should not be written for children, but one ought to know how to choose from what has been written for grown-up people--that is, from real works of art. To be able to select among drugs, and to administer them in suitable doses, is more direct and consistent than trying to invent a special remedy for the patient because he is a child.
I doubt that the past century's remarkable blossoming of children's literature would have changed his mind, given the relative inflexibility implied by his medical metaphor, but I do like imagining him reading the Winnie-the-Pooh stories, say, and appreciating how their gentleness might perfectly suit a child.

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Renewing my acquaintance with Iris

After a decade or so of reading and rereading Iris Murdoch regularly, I’ve spent the past few years away from her, reading nothing but From a Tiny Corner in the House of Fiction, a fascinating collection of interviews. But you can’t ever escape an author who so dominates your youthful reading, and this week I turned back to her, re-reading The Nice and the Good (1968). And while much of the book--Murdoch’s style, the plot--was familiar, the time away had unquestionably been salutary: I took renewed pleasure in the density of Murdoch’s prose, the way she worried away at her philosophical themes, and the sheer pleasure she obviously took in putting her often slightly silly characters through their self-inflicted paces.

The Nice and the Good concerns a typical group of Murdoch characters: educated, upper-class Britons living in slightly too close intimacy while still holding secrets, dissatisfied with life but unsure of why or how to change it, and prone to being swept up, however temporarily, by the transformative power of love. I know of no other writer who so skillfully combines philosophical themes with such rich plotting--Shakespearian in its deployment (and enjoyment) of misapprehension, eavesdropping, and misplaced, shimmering eros--and an ability to describe physical action. The Nice and the Good, like The Sandcastle and, if memory serves, The Book and the Brotherhood, has as its climax a scene of breathtaking physical danger, so palpable and full of tension as to be difficult to read--a forceful reminder that all the preceding talk of emotion and duty and goodness ultimately boils down to fragile physical bodies in a harsh universe.

And while Murdoch often allows her characters to be overwrought--in fact, I realized fully for the first time in this reading, to be downright silly, even self-parodying--even as they agonize over decisions that ought to be simple, or freight their feelings with outsized importance, they nonetheless continually get at something about our relationships, to others, to the good, to ourselves. Take this scene, for example, which finds John Ducane, who reflexively thinks of himself as a good man, trying to break off an unsuitable relationship:
Ducane said to himself, human frailty, wickedness in me has made this situation where I automatically have to behave like a brute. She is right to say why kill love, there is never enough. Yet I have to kill this love. Oh God, why is it so like a murder. If I could only take all the suffering on to myself. But that is one of the punishments of wickedness, perhaps the last and worst one, that even if one wills it one cannot do it.
Few characters ever get it all quite right--and those who do tend to be at a remove from the world, often damaged by it before the novel opens. But nearly every character gets some of it right, some moment of insight, and the cumulative effect is that, while Murdoch leads us through the twists and turns of her plots, we think, and we learn, and we know ourselves better.

In addition, here and there she allows herself a straightforward passage of philosophical reflection, delivered in a questing, but assured, voice that is familiar from her straight philosophical writing. Here, for example, the narrator reflects on Ducane:
What Ducane was experiencing . . . was . . . one of the great paradoxes of morality, namely that in order to be good it may be necessary to imagine oneself good, and yet such imagining may also be the very thing which renders improvement impossible, either because of surreptitious complacency or because of some deeper blasphemous infection which is set up when goodness is thought about in the wrong way. To become good it may be necessary to think about virtue; although unreflective simple people may achieve a thoughtless excellence.
These passages, while interesting in themselves, also serve to teach us how to read Murdoch’s book, what sort of self-deceptions--her greatest theme--we are to look for in her characters.

And for all her reputation for chatter and wordiness, at times she offers up a thought that approaches the concision of aphorism:
This is perhaps the saddest experience in the demise of love: to come to know that someone who loved you once now regards you as boring and annoying and unimportant.
Once in a while, she even allows her characters such moments of crystalline insight. The Nice and the Good offers one particularly amusing instance. After the thoughtful, reserved Willy Kost has offered forcefully expressed intellectual and spiritual comfort to the discarded mistress of a friend . . . and then immediately, gently, seduced her in that same friend’s bed, she turns to him:
Jessica said, softly, not anxiously, but curiously, “What are we doing, Willy, what is this?”

“This is sacrilege, my Jessica. A very important human activity.”
What a sheer pleasure this re-reading was--the closest comparison I can make is to spending a long night talking with a friend you’ve not seen for years, but with whom you instantly slip back into rhythm and accord. The mind was familiar, but newly fresh, fully invigorating. You can’t ask for much more from a re-reading.