Wednesday, June 29, 2011

If ever a time machine deposits you at a literary luncheon in Paris in the 1890s . . .

. . . don't sit next to Henry James! Here, from Simon Nowell-Smith's The Legend of the Master (1948), a collection of memories of James by those who knew him that I learned about from the Maxwell-Welty letters, is the reason:
Henry James . . .would regale us with accounts of the various dilemmas into which his shyness had precipitated him. On one occasion, at a table d'hote on the Continent where he found himself in the centre of a long table, he felt very ill at ease until he had fortified himself with a bottle of claret. After a glass his spirits revived and he was just getting into his stride with the lady on his right and waving his hands about, as was his habit while talking, when to his horror he knocked over his bottle of wine which cascaded into the lady's lap. She was, however, most comforting and he ordered a second bottle. Gradually confidence returned and gesticulation sprang into abnormal activity. Suddenly a lady on the opposite side of the table, who had been practising her English on her neighbours, was heard to exclaim in a loud voice, "Luke, Luke, 'e 'ave done it again!" And sure enough the same lady received a second deluge of claret. This was too much for James, who immediately retired to his room and left the hotel early next morning.
I know that Dr. Johnson had decided thoughts on claret, as it related to manliness, port, and brandy, but what would he have settled on as the right spirit for spilling on a lady, I wonder?

Monday, June 27, 2011

Maxwell and Welty

I feel I could write post after post after post about What There Is to Say We Have Said: The Correspondence of Eudora Welty and William Maxwell; instead, pressed by that demon Time, I'll simply say that if you like either writer, if you like dailyness and the pleasures of the commonplace, if you like Virginia Woolf or Thomas Hardy and would gladly talk about them and their lives endlessly, if you are more amused by the world than angered by it, if you are more saddened by the world than angered by it, if you could use a couple of examples of writers who made their art within the context of full and reasonably contented lives rather than having it deform them, well, buy the book, read it, and keep it near for the coming years. Its genius is born in the quotidian, in the way that, for most of us, if we're lucky, books and culture are part of a larger, fuller, sometimes much more trivial life, and the interplay between the daily and the lasting only heightens the pleasures of both. Such are the virtues, side by side and sentence by sentence, of these letters.

The overriding theme, however, is friendship. It's friendship within limits--you get the sense that, as in a lot of friendships that are no less real or lasting for this, certain topics are silently unremarked upon--but it's nonetheless a friendship of deep love and caring. There are many moments, on both sides, that demonstrate this, but the most memorable one comes during a rough patch in Welty's life. Maxwell's letter to her of January 24, 1967 is a marvel of care and circumspection, of careful management of topic and tone. He begins quietly enough, responding to queries about a recent illness and lamenting the drain that editing the work of other writers can be; he talks of reading Far from the Madding Crowd, calling Hardy "a magician." And then he turns serious--but he begins gently, almost imperceptibly, by, without preamble, launching into a story:
Your feeling about 1966, and fear for 1967, brought back the lowest period of my life, at the end of my sophomore year in college, when for about four or five months I really thought that the reason one thing after another turned out badly was that anything having to do with me necessarily would. So I decided on one last try, and if that didn't work, I would not try any more, ever. I had nobody to room with in my junior year and I had been introduced to somebody in a revolving door who seemed like a nice enough boy, so I got his address and wrote and asked if he'd like to room with me, and he wrote back he would, and in the fall, when we met in the dormitory, it was not the boy I had met in the revolving door--I must have got his name wrong--but a boy whom I had never laid eyes on, who had had polio, and had a withered leg, so he always dressed and undressed in his clothes closet, and he was a perfectly marvelous room-mate and from that time on everything worked out beautifully, for years and years.

What I am trying to say is there is no pattern in years, no constancy of good or bad luck. Who knows what the day after tomorrow will bring--the very thing we most wanted and haven't allowed our hearts to hope.

If what I heard in your voice persists, will you drop everything and come to New York and settle down in the back room and let us hang garlands of love around your neck, day after day, until you are feeling yourself again?
As an outsider, by the time you reach the end of the letter, and Maxwell's heart-wrenching plea to his friend--in whom he must have sensed real despair when last he talked with her--you realize that the whole letter was written with that final paragraph in mind, its studied casualness an example of nerves held tightly under control, in order that Maxwell's own fear not unduly frighten the friend he hoped to comfort. Would that we all have friends like that, could be friends like that.

Friday, June 24, 2011

This only happens to Nabokov

I was planning to write today about the letters of William Maxwell and Eudora Welty, but I was unexpectedly waylaid by another set of letters, ones that arrived as a completely unexpected and unheralded treat in the June 13-20 issue of the New Yorker: five letters sent by Vladimir Nabookov to Vera in the autumn of 1942 as he traveled the United States on a lecture tour.

The letters are a joy, loving and slightly absurd and polished and precise like all of Nabokov's prose. The first letter, which finds him having difficulty convincing several different South Carolinians who are waiting to meet a visiting Russian professor that he is that man, reads like a deleted scene from Pnin, all gentle misunderstanding and comedy. But the most wonderfully Nabokovian letter, the one that really makes it hard not to conclude that he somehow lived in a slightly different, stranger dimension and just sent back dispatches, is one mailed from Springfield, Illinois on November 7, 1942:
At the station in Springfield I was met . . . by the club secretary, a creepily silent melancholic of somewhat clerical cast with a small stock of automatic questions, which he quickly exhausted. He is an elderly bachelor, and his profession consists of doing secretarial work for several Springfield clubs. He livened up and flashed his eyes one single time--got awfully nervous, having noticed that the flagpole by the Lincoln mausoleum had been replaced by a new, taller one. It turned out that his hobby--or, rather, the passion of his life--is flagpoles. He sighed with relief when a watchman gave him the exact information--seventy feet--because the pole in his own garden is still ten feet taller.
The occasional treat like this would be enough on its own to make a New Yorker subscription worthwhile; as far as I'm concerned, everything good the magazine publishes for the rest of the year now is gravy.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Hemingway, Stevens, and literary letters

In the midst of my current run of reading writers' letters, I received the e-mail below from my friend Joseph G. Peterson, novelist and poet, and it was too much fun, too full of the pleasures offered by literary letters and biographical anecdotes, not to share. So with Joe's permission, here it is:
Last night, I was browsing over the beautiful Borzoi edition of Wallace Stevens's, "Selected Poems". I was reading the biographical timeline in the back of the book when I encountered this fascinating biographical detail:
1936: In February in Key West, a somewhat intoxicated Stevens insulted Ernest Hemingway and a fistfight ensued; Stevens broke his hand on Hemingway's jaw, but the two made amends and concealed the cause of the injury (Stevens claimed he fell down some stairs). In October; Knopf published a trade edition of "Ideas of Order".
It's interesting to note that Stevens was 20 years Hemingway's senior and two years earlier, in 1934, Stevens had been promoted to vice president of Hartford Accident at a salary that in 2008 would have been $280,000.

Can you imagine: 1) a similarly ensconced 55-year-old insurance executive at the high-point of his poetic career going mano a mano with a 35-year-old self-styled pugilist who just three years earlier wrote "Death in the Afternoon"? It seems too unreal to believe.

This raises the question, Levi, what parts of that fist fight are memorialized in Stevens's greatest poem? Can you see Wallace Stevens fresh from his battle with Hemingway, hand wounded, heart still beating furiously, warrior-like (no longer the insurance man) and saying to himself:
Ramon Fernandez, tell me, if you know,
Why, when the singing ended and we turned
Toward the town, tell why the glassy lights,
The lights in the fishing boats at anchor there,
As night descended, tilting in the air,
Mastered the night and portioned out the sea,
Fixing emblazoned zones and fiery poles,
Arranging, deepening, enchanting night.
How crazy to think that two of the most influential writers of the twentieth century should have come to blows in Key West. It makes me think too, that Stevens fled the wreck of that visit and memorialized it in that wonderful stanza from"Farewell to Florida,"
I hated the weathery yawl from which the pools
Disclosed the sea floor and the wilderness
Of waving weeds. I hated the vivid blooms
Curled over the shadowless hut, the rust and bones,
The trees like bones and the leaves half sand, half sun.
To stand here on the deck in the dark and say
Farewell and to know that that land is forever gone
And that she will not follow in any word
Or look, nor ever again in thought, except
That I loved her once . . . Farewell. Go on, high ship.
Typing this stanza down, by the way, reminds me of just how closely Stevens entwined his poetic language with that of both Eliot's poetry "Curled over the shadowless hut, the rust and bones, The trees like bones" and of Yeats's poetry, "And that she will not follow in any word, Or look, nor ever again in thought, except / That I loved her once . . . Farewell. Go on, high ship".

But these are just "Thoughts of a dry brain in a dry season" written on a rainy Chicago morning.
Joe later informed me that his speculation was wrong, that the timing was all off, the poems written before the punch was thrown. But I told him that simply recasts Stevens as a prophet, a seer who knew--as surely many did--that one day Hemingway would need to be punched, and that he might just be the one called on to do the deed.

Monday, June 20, 2011


{Photo by rocketlass.}

Having spent the past week devouring What There is to Say We Have Said, the new collection of the correspondence of Eudora Welty and William Maxwell, and thereby being reminded of just how much I love to read writers’ letters, I pawed through my books Sunday afternoon to see just how many collections I have. The results:
The Selected Letters of Lord Byron

The Selected Letters of Anton Chekhov

The Letters of Lord Chesterfield

The Letters of Noel Coward

The Selected Letters of Gustave Flaubert

The Lyttleton-Hart-Davis Letters, Volume I

Selected Letters of Julian Maclaren-Ross

The Letters of Herman Melville

In Tearing Haste: Letters between Deborah Devonshire (Mitford) and Patrick Leigh Fermor

The Letters of Jessica Mitford

The Bookshop at 10 Curzon Street: Letters between Nancy Mitford and Heywood Hill, 1952-73

The Letters of Nancy Mitford and Evelyn Waugh

Iris Murdoch, A Writer at War: Letters and Diaries, 1939-1945 (more, please!)

A Very Private Eye: An Autobiography [of Barbara Pym] in Diaries and Letters

Just the Thing: Selected Letters of James Schuyler, 1951-1991

Tolstoy's Letters, Volumes I and II

The Letters of E. B. White
Which leads me to the question: what am I missing? Knowing my taste, as so many of you do, are there collections I should seek out while I wait for a volume by Anthony Powell and further volumes from Iris Murdoch?

Friday, June 17, 2011

Westlake on Westlake, sorta

In my continuing mission to read all of Donald Westlake's novels, this week found me reading The Hook (2000), a non-series, non-comic novel that Ethan Iverson calls "a companion to The Ax which is almsot as good." If there's anyone to trust on the subject of Westlake, it's Ethan, but I think he's overstating the case here a bit: The Ax, as I've written before, is a flat-out masterpiece, a truly harrowing book whose hopelessness is so intense that reading it is almost painful. The Hook, on the other hand, while dealing with some of the same themes--a man turns to murder because his legitimate skills are no longer in demand--is, well, odd, and distinctly lesser.

The Hook tels the story of Wayne, a writer of thrillers who has seen his career destroyed by a slight, but steady, decline in sales--and by the way that those sales, recorded by the book chains' computers, set him on a path of downwardly spiraling expectations, advances, and sales. By chance, he meets an old friend, Bryce, who's a very successful writer but is blocked, unable to write because he's wrapped up in a terrible divorce. Bryce offers Wayne a deal: let Bryce publish Wayne's latest manuscript under his name, with no public acknowledgment, and he'll split the advance. Oh, and also Wayne has to kill Bryce's ex-wife.

It's a great set-up, worthy of Westlake at his best. But the resulting novel is a little too long, a little awkward, and a little slow. It's got neither Westlake's comedy nor the claustrophobic, trapped feeling that his serious novels burn with at their best. At the same time, however, it's interesting simply for the fact that, for all its failings, it feels so much like a Westlake novel: from the Invisible Library titles it contains (Double in Diamonds, The Shadowed Other, The Pollux Perspective, The Second Woman, Two Faces) to the unpredictably meandering nature of the plot, you can feel Westlake the playful magician at work, having fun working out every last inevitable detail of the plot he's set in motion.

What's perhaps of more interest to long-time Westlake fans, however, is a sketch of a novel idea that Bryce offers late in the book, when it's clear that he's lost his ability to come up with thriller plots. It comes right after Wayne criticizes an earlier idea as lacking action:
"It's all interior," Bryce said. "It's all inside him."

"Joe would want some action, I think," Wayne said. "And readers, too, they expect something else from you."
Bryce's next idea is even more interior:
"And what happens is, the book opens, he's coming to in the hospital. At first, he doesn't even know who he is."

"Uh huh," Wayne said.

"What happened was," Bryce said, "somebody beat him up, almost killed him, they got him into the hospital just in the nick of time."

"Uh huh," Wayne said.

"His memory comes back," Bryce said, "except for that. The beating. He doesn't remember anything about that."

"Uh huh," Wayne said.

"That's common, you know," Bryce said. "A traumatic experience, and people block it from their memory."

"Yeah, I know," Wayne said.

"So he doesn't know who did it, and he doesn't know why," Bryce said, "and he doesn't know if they're waiting out there to finish the job."

"Uh huh," Wayne said.

"So when he gets out of the hospital," Bryce said, "he starts searching back, trying to get to that moment of the beating, understand it."

"Uh huh," Wayne said.

Bryce looked at him. He didn't say anything.

Wayne said, "And?"

"That's all," Bryce said. "I mean, that's all I have so far."
At the time The Hook was published, there was no reason a Westlake fan would take any real note of that description--but then last year Hard Case Crime published Memory, a novel Westlake wrote in the 1960s but couldn't get published, largely because, as Charles Ardai explained, it's not a crime novel but
serious, ambitious, philosophical literary fiction. . . . that grapples with the themes of existentialism.
The plot? A man gets beaten up on the first page, loses his memory, and spends the entire book trying to reconstruct--and hold on to--the very concept of a continuing self. In other words, too interior--if all you're looking for is a crime novel. But if you're willing to shift your expectations, it's a fascinating book, with moments as tense and freighted with anxiety as any crime novel, and finding its trace unexpectedly in The Hook, along with an acknowledgment of its fate, was quite a surprise.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Watership Down

Of all the many, many books that were important to me as a child, and that have remained closely with me over the years--Lloyd Alexander's Prydain books, The Phantom Tollbooth, Susan Cooper's Over Sea, Under Stone, The Hobbit--I'm not sure any occupies as high a place as Richard Adams's Watership Down. I read it in third grade, and had a nosebleed all over my father's copy. I read it again in fourth grade, and a couple more times in middle school and high school. Adams's great achievement--presenting characters who are believably complicated, interesting, and human-like, while at the same time never letting us forget that they're rabbits--is one that remains impressive even on adult reacquaintance with the book. If anything, it's a more astonishing novel, because the anthropomorphizing that is so much a part of childhood is farther away, our tolerance significantly lessened, yet Adams holds our interest, and convinces us, nonetheless.

At heart, it's a book about different ways of organizing a society, and as the rabbits encounter a number of warrens, each built around a different idea of what constitutes security, the book takes on a moral force akin to that found in The Once and Future King. Lest that make the novel sound crudely allegorical, I should say that it's nothing of the sort: the rabbits are rabbits, their society is their society, not ours, and while we can draw lessons from what they experience, within the novel it never feels as if they're experiencing it for our sake.

All of which is a roundabout way of getting to the point of this post: if you're a Chicagoan and you love Watership Down, or loved it as a kid, you should go see the Lifeline Theatre's production of it that runs through this weekend. Rocketlass and I went Saturday, our confidence in Lifeline just barely balancing the inevitable doubts: How on earth can you put on aplay about bunnies without everyone on stage looking ridiculous? How, with the scrim of the mind's eye removed, would they be able to convince us that these actors, obviously people, were actually rabbits?

Well, they did it. The actors don't dress like rabbits, but they move with a deliberate, practiced strangeness that is taken from, and calls to mind, the twitchy fearfulness of rabbits. And within minutes of the curtain rising, rocketlass and I--and, it seems, the entire audience--bought it. By the time the first act drew to a close, coming out of the story was a lot like emerging from a dream.

The adaptation isn't perfect, if only because a long novel has been squeezed into a play of ordinary length. Each of the groups of other rabbits that the bunch meets is dealt with more glancingly in the play than in the novel, which causes the casual brutality of the first warren and the uncanny horrors of a later one to be muted. The complicated relationships among Fiver, Bigwig, and Hazel are sketched rather than fully enacted, and while the play tries admirably, it can't ever quite convey as well as Adams the way that being thrust into leadership works on Hazel. Adams manages to perpetually locate him in the moment of decision, with no sense of authorial or readerly knowledge of what's to come, lets us see Hazel forced to learn, adapt, and be decisive, and the admiration those qualities elicit in his companions; the play does a good job of addressing the topic, but again, time constraints limit it.

Yet even having acknowledged those limitations, I'm amazed. For two and a half hours, I felt like we were watching, and caring about, rabbits, in the same way that Adams makes you feel like you're reading about rabbits. Their vulnerability makes you ache: they're forever in danger; like Cain, the whole world sets its hand against them. Watching, you feel what it is to be prey. It's an amazing achievement, and it brings to mind the terror of powerlessness that Philip Larkin captures in his poem about a disease that was deliberately introduced to control rabbit populations, "Myxomatosis":
Caught in the center of a soundless field
While hot inexplicable hours go by
What trap is this? Where were its teeth concealed?
You seem to ask.
I make a sharp reply,
Then clean my stick. I'm glad I can't explain
Just in what jaws you were to suppurate:
You may have thought things would come right again
If you could only keep quite still and wait.
But unlike Larkin, Adams and the Lifeline crew, bring the rabbits out of it. Their enemies will never be fully vanquished, of course, but the rabbits are at least vouchsafed a bit of hard-earned peace. If you're a Watership Down fan, go see this play. If you've not read Watership Down, seek it out--then give a copy to your kids, your nieces and nephews.

Monday, June 13, 2011

"If I keep on reading Hardy, it will come."

I've spent the past week head over heels in What There Is to Say We Have Said: The Correspondence of Eudora Welty and William Maxwell, which is looking likely to become the only letters collection I've ever read straight through. I've been, and will continue to be, drawing on it in my Twitter feed and over at the Annex; few writers are as dear to my heart as Maxwell, and the correspondence seems likely to turn me into a Welty fan, too.

There are many reasons to love these letters, and I'll get into a number of them in the coming weeks, but one of the chief reasons is the way the pair share their reading--and the fact that they're both perpetually reading a couple of my favorite authors. They talk continuously of Virginia Woolf, voraciously reading every new book about her and her coterie that appears; they're gone on Forster, whom I suspect it's time for me to revisit; and they both revel in the high tragedy of Thomas Hardy.

My favorite passage about Hardy thus far is this, from a letter sent by Maxwell on March 7, 1967:
I am so glad you are working. Able to. I think about working. This idea and that. But don't take off my hat and sit down to it, for some reason. I almost had an idea in France last summer, but it faded away like the Cheshire cat's smile. But I tell myself if I keep on reading Hardy, it will come. I have just finished Tess of the D-- ---. When Angel Clare found her in that seaside resort, living with Alec D'Urbeville, and she said, "Don't come near me," and "Too late, too late," and he went away, and she went upstairs to her bedroom and [threw] herself on the floor with her head on that chair, and said "O,O,O" and then "I can't bear it," it was she and I that couldn't bear it. I will never be the same. But what do you think they talked about for those five days, in that empty house that didn't belong to them? Brazil?
This hints at a crucial aspect of Hardy: either you vibrate to the tones he works in, are willing to go with what Anthony Powell calls his "at times clumsily expressed" account of life's grotesqueries and tragedies, or you see it all as overblown and ridiculously operatic. If you're in the former camp, Hardy's novels--Tess especially--can wrench you like little else, you can't bear it; if you're in the latter, your response is likely to take the form of, "Really? Really?"

Having taken great pleasure in reading and re-reading Hardy over the years, I am glad to be in the former camp, and, now, to know that I have such distinguished company as Maxwell and Welty.

Friday, June 10, 2011

"I'll never see anything like it again, nor will anyone." R. I. P., Patrick Leigh Fermor (1915-2011)

The NYRB Classics Tumblr has alerted me to the news that Patrick Leigh Fermor has died. The death of a ninety-six-year-old tends to bring more appreciation than sadness, at least to those of us who knew the man only through his words. I've written about Fermor here quite a bit before; his travel writings are among the best of the genre, and for an unapologetic Anglophile like myself, Fermor epitomized a certain attractive strand of English upper-class intrepidity, a more benignly globetrotting twentieth-century version of the Victorian imperialist adventurer. If you've not read him, now's the time: as I wrote over at the Annex: Start with A Time of Gifts, the first leg of his lifelong journey, or In Tearing Haste, the collection of his correspondence with Deborah Mitford. And then don’t stop. When you’re done with it all, you can read W. Stanley Moss’s Ill Met by Moonlight, an account of the time the author and Fermor kidnapped a German general.

A Fermor fan site is gathering links to obituaries, which will be plentiful and full of incident. For my remembrance, I'll turn to an unforgettable party scene that Fermor, a splendid raconteur and light-hearted enjoyer of good company, described in a letter of thanks to the host, his good friend Deborah Mitford, in a letter of July 26, 1990, collected in In Tearing Haste:
It was a marvelous and grand arrival there--the expanse of empty black-and-white check flor, then the great swoop of scarlet stairs, with your solitary triumvirate welcomingly halted half way up. . . . It was as if the whole house had transformed into a different element, half familiar and half unknown, like a fair, or an aquarium full of resplendent creatures and any number of friendly faces, starting with Henry's. The tented acreage--those steps and the normally outdoors reclining statue and dog being indoors gave a real through-the-looking-glass feeling. The whole thing, that array of people looking after us, everything being marvellous and on time, as though being painlessly managed with a magic wand--there were so many openings for things being held up, or going wrong. None did and, for me, the whole thing dissolved into one of those golden Turner radiances. . . . The great thing was that you and Andrew spread such a feeling of enjoyment and warmth and fun, that it seemed to affect everything else. It was only later that it occurred to me that I had told my entire life story to Madame de Vogue last time, the only one, I'd sat next to her, but it didn't seem to matter. Part of the previously golden Turneresque mist was that I lost touch with all nearest and dearest--couldn't find you or Robert, sat and had long chats with Coote and Billa. What was strange was that it seemed simultaneously to last for ever and to be over almost at once. Like Wellington's battle comparison. It all looked fantastic, driving away, looking back on bridge and river, the big tent, the full moon high up, a few decorative alabaster clouds floating discreetly, some people strolling under oak trees, and dawn beginning to break. It was still total glory. I'll never see anything like it again, nor will anyone, and many many thanks to you and Andrew.

And tons of love from
If there's an afterlife, I hope that a Turneresque mist and some alabaster clouds, plentiful fine drinks and good company, and perhaps a little-noted footpath disappearing off into the woods, are what greet Fermor tonight. Rest in peace.

Tuesday, June 07, 2011

Summer is here!

And so is the Summer issue of the Quarterly Conversation!

My review this time is of a new translation of Ovid's Amores and Heroides from Harvard (from which I've quoted extensively over at the Annex already). Other highlights include Patrick Kurp on Adam Zagajewski, Andy Frazee on Alberto Mobilio's new book, and Erica Mena on the monster FSG Book of Twentieth-Century Latin American Poetry.

Oh, and a collection of takes on the question "Who was David Foster Wallace?", the answers to which range through all of his published works, from his masterpiece, Infinite Jest, to his story collections to the new, unfinished The Pale King. It's an impressive lineup of writers, and the results vary interestingly in their tone and approach to the question.

Let your work slide, folks--there's reading to do!

Monday, June 06, 2011

Dorothy Whipple

Browsing Three Lives & Company bookstore on a recent trip to New York, I was seduced yet again by an elegant book from Persephone Press, Dorothy Whipple's Someone at a Distance (1953). It's a straightforward tale of the destruction of a seemingly stable marriage by the introduction of a French adventuress who, in her amorality and biting disdain is nearly as memorable as Thackeray's Becky Sharp. She loves Madame Bovary, for all the wrong reasons. It's the sort of novel that Persephone does so well: minor and forgotten, yet well worth reading if you're into quietly domestic twentieth-century British fiction.

The book is primarily carried by Whipple's keen insight into the compromises and self-deceptions of marriage, as well as the destructiveness of unacknowledged selfishness, but it's also full of well-drawn minor characters and moments of shining wit. The dry tone of the following made me smile:
The art of letter-writing, as taught at the Pension Ste Colombe, had not included an example of a letter one could write to one's lover's wife to ask her to send the clothes he had left behind when he deserted her, and Louise spent a considerable time in wondering how to word it. It was, she admitted to herself, a difficult sort of letter.
And then there's this peek inside the cloudy head of the weak husband himself:
"I think we'll all have a glass of sherry," he said.

He almost worked on that axiom. When in doubt, have a glass of sherry. It tided him over. It put things off, and after a glass of sherry, problems mostly solved themselves.
That's nearly enough to indict him on its own: anyone who would fall back on sherry as a problem solver is not to be trusted. Sherry, after all, is at best a pointed stick compared to the Swiss army knife that is gin.

Friday, June 03, 2011

Nicholson Baker works blue once again

I feel I should begin this post with an apology, and perhaps a warning: as they say in the comedy business, I am, however temporarily, working blue here.

It's because of Nicholson Baker. Late this summer, Baker will publish a new novel, which would be a reason for joy no matter its content; Baker's novels, each sui generis, yet each affording what feels convincingly like communion with Baker's odd, hyperspace mind, are a sheer joy.

But this time, the anticipation is even greater, because of the book's title. Are you ready? (Have you made sure your boss isn't looking over your shoulder?) House of Holes: A Book of Raunch. Ahem.

Anyone who's read The Fermata, that magically ridiculous piece of porn masquerading as literature, knows that Baker can definitely work blue--and that he can do it without surrendering the Nabokovian sheen of his prose. The new book apparently offers more evidence of that skill: a couple of weeks ago Sam Anderson, on his Times blog The 6th Floor, selected two sentences from House of Holes among his five favorite sentences of that week . . . and then redacted them, calling them "too scatological for the 6th Floor blog."

Which brings me to another of Baker's best qualities: his utter shamelessness--and even more, the evident glee he takes in being shameless. There is no topic that is beneath him, no indignity to which he will not admit if it furthers the argument he's making or the story he's telling. Most of us, were we to come up with the idea of a man who's able to temporarily stop time, would quickly bury it once some of the more sordid possibilities began to emerge; Baker dove in and wrote a whole novel. Most of us, if we thought our psoriasis was an indicator of some essential affinity with John Updike, would pretend even to ourselves that we didn't actually believe it. Baker not only writes about it at length in U and I, he takes it one ridiculous, unnecessary step further:
When my psoriasis began to get bad, on the other hand, I welcomed its spread at first--I'd been worried that because the disease had shown up late in me (phase I involved only the scalp and penis) . . .
And, surprised anew, we laugh. Elsewhere in U and I is what is, to me at least, a much more startling confession:
I myself have never successfully masturbated to Updike's writing, though I have to certain remembered scenes in Iris Murdoch.
To which my response--and, I'm willing to proclaim, any sane response--is:

1. Eewww.
2. Really? Iris Murdoch? "Sex comes to most of us with a twist," indeed.
3. That "succesfully" in there. That's the brilliant bit, a little landmine of glee masquerading as straightforward explanation. If you wanted to shoot Baker's genius into space on the tiniest of rockets in order to give alien civilizations something a bit more down to earth to chew on than the high-culture bombast carried by Viking II, that one little word might almost suffice.

All of which makes me await House of Holes with bated breath. Which is better, I suppose, than heavy breathing.

Wednesday, June 01, 2011

The Anatomy of Melancholy, anatomized

Melyvn Bragg's "In Our Time" program on the BBC's Radio 4 is almost always worth attending to: Bragg assembles three or four experts on a topic, anything from logic to Cleopatra to the neutrino, and he somehow manages to keep them all on point and speaking clearly at a smart layman's level for an hour of fascinating discussion and explanation.

Recently, "In Our Time" covered one of my favorite books for perpetual consultation, Robert Burton's The Anatomy of Melancholy. You can listen to the program at the BBC's site, though I believe they only keep them up for a limited time; it's possible that if it's disappeared from that link you can find it for free in the iTunes store.

One of the pleasures of the digital age is being able to consult Burton on specific topics merely through a keyword search. A search for "broadcast," which seemed unlikely (Yes, I find: Merriam-Webster's dates it to 1767), led me to a search for "news," which was more productive, turning up this bit of advice about letting go of one's regrets and not dwelling on one's past--for everyone else will soon be distracted by other topics:
Be content; 'tis but a nine dayes wonder; and as one sorrow drives out another, one passion another, one cloud another, one rumour is expelled by another; every day almost, come new news unto our ears, as how the sun was eclipsed, meteors seen i'th' aire, monsters born, prodigies, how the Turks were overthrown in Persia, an earth-quake in Helvetia, Calabria, Japan, or China, an inundation in Holland, a great plague in Constantinople, a fire at Prage, a dearth in Germany, such a man is made a lord, a bishop, another hanged, deposed, prest to death, for some murder, treason, rape, theft, oppression; all which we do hear at first with a kind of admiration, detestation, consternation; but by and by they are buried in silence: thy father's dead, thy brother rob'd, wife runs mad, neighbour hath kild himselfe; 'tis heavy, gastly, fearful newes at first, in every mans mouth, table talk; but, after a while, who speaks or thinks of it? It will be so with thee and thine offence: it will be forgotten in an instant, be it theft, rape, sodomy, murder, incest, treason, &c. thou art not the first offender, nor shalt thou be the last; 'tis no wonder; every houre such malefactors are called in question: nothing so common,
There is, of course, the alternative approach, taken by Charlie Sheen, of reveling in one's bad acts and noising them about oneself. I don't know how Burton would have addressed such a tack, but this passage might suffice:
for his intemperance he hath aches, crudities, gowts, and, as fruits of his idleness and fulness, lust, surfeiting and drunkenness, all manner of diseases: pecuniis augetur improbitas: the wealthier, the more dishonest. He is exposed to hatred, envy, peril and treason, fear of death of degradation, &c. 'tis lubrica statio et proxima prxcipitio; and the higher he climbs, the greater is his fall.