Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Geoff Dyer on the Great War

{Photo by Flickr user Dunechaser. Used under a Creative Commons license, which reserves some rights.}

Geoff Dyer's The Missing of the Somme (1994) has just been published in the States for the first time, the lag probably an indication less of Dyer's formerly low profile over here than of the relatively small place of World War I in American memory. I suspect that if, rather than World War I, we called it the Second Franco-Prussian War--thus stripping it of its not inaccurate position as a prelude to World War II, which remains a constant topic of self-congratulatory (and, again, not wholly inaccurate) American reflection--it would occupy a position more like the French and Indian War or the War of 1812, covered in grade school, then all but forgotten by anyone who's not a history buff.

 For our participation in that war was late and limited, our losses negligible. And by 1914, we were just settling into what would become a century and a half (so far) of reflection on our own horrible, romantic, inescapable, endlessly compelling war, the Civil War. Its battlefields were America's Somme, its convulsions and aftermath our rending of the veil of heroic illusion. That we, driven by Southern apologists, spent much of the twentieth century attempting to sugarcoat it, strip it of its meaning, and accord both sides equal honor despite the fact that one side was fighting to keep humans in bondage seems fundamentally American, a core sample of our national character.

 No, for us the impact of World War I was relatively limited at the time, attenuated nearly to nothingness by now. Its greatest effect was to continue and amplify the consolidation of federal power, regularization of daily life, and knitting together of the many disparate and rural pockets of the far-flung nation that was set into motion by the vast apparatus of the Civil War and that reached its apogee during World War II. (One example: in his wonderful, data-based Daily Life in the United States, 1920–1940, David E. Kyvig notes that nearly one-third of American draftees for World War I were rejected as physically unfit, leading to significant pushes by the federal government to educate the population about proper nutrition, exercise, and hygiene.) The emotional valence of the war has never come close to what it carries for European nations.

 And therein lies the fascination for me, and the reason that Dyer's book seems nearly perfect. It is an account, not of the war, but of how Europeans (and the English in particular) have remembered it--beginning with poems, news accounts, and memorials created as it was happening and carrying through to the moments when Dyer and friends, sometimes a bit drunk, trek from battlefield to battlefield in 1990s France. It owes an acknowledged debt to John Berger; its closest other kin is probably Paul Fussell's magnificent The Great War and Modern Memory, on which it draws--though Dyer writes much more personally and is much more open to the idea, and its accompanying frustration, that certain questions, certain feelings, certain, to steal from Berger, ways of seeing, have been closed to us by time. Its closest Stateside kin, which I hope Dyer knows, is Lee Sandlin's Losing the War, published in the Chicago Reader in 1997. All three are less concerned with facts--though they don't disdain them--than with impressions, reactions than actions.

In a book full of interesting ideas and observations, the sort that lead a reader down new paths of thought and inquiry, this passage stood out:
"Before the Great War there was no war poetry as we now conceive the term," writes Peter Parker in The Old Lie; "instead there was martial verse." So pervasive were the conventions of feeling produced by this tradition that in 1914 the eleven-year-old Eric Blair could write a heartfelt poem--"Awake, young men of England"--relying entirely on received sentiments. In exactly the same way, an eleven-year-old writing fifty years on could, in similar circumstances, come up with a heartfelt poem expressing the horror of war--while also relying solely on received sentiment. In some ways, then, we talk of the horror of war as instinctively and enthusiastically as Rupert Brooke and his contemporaries jumped at the chance of war "like swimmers into cleanness leaping." This is not just a linguistic quibble. Off-the-peg formulae free you from thinking for yourself about what is being said. Whenever words are bandied about automatically and easily, their meaning is in the process of leaking away or evaporating. The ease with which Rupert Brooke coined his "think only this of me" heroics by embracing a ready-made formula of feeling should alert us to--and make us sceptical of--the ease with which these sentiments havebeen overruled by another.
Dyer's skepticism, here and throughout, is bracing, in a way that goes far beyond the question of World War I and its meaning. We should always keep in mind the seductive danger of received opinion; when everyone is agreeing with us we should pause a moment to disagree with ourselves and see how that sits. Dyer reminds us that even the writing of participants in the war traffic in tropes that were common enough to be limiting thought and expression, closing off rather than opening out questions, as the war was just getting underway. He doesn't dismiss the war poems and memoirs, but he reminds us that even though those who experienced the war had to wrestle it into shape somehow, and--to no discredit--they often chose the shapes that were, culturally speaking, lying around.

 In some sense, though he doesn't mention him by name, Dyer seems to endorse Ford Madox Ford's take on the war: Ford's masterpiece, the four-volume Parade's End, is almost entirely concerned with the war and its damage; by the third volume, description has largely given way to ellipses, elision indicating that which, if described, would killingly concretize into cliche.

Yet at the same time Dyer's account can't help but send us back to that generation in general and its literary output. If we try to escape the frame of "horror," and focus instead--as I find myself doing--on the slightly narrower question of what must that all have been like (which ranges from what must it have been like to winter in the trenches; to what must it have been like to live, a woman, in a village from which all the men had left; to what it must have been like to live in a nation in which one in ten males has been violently killed), we have to return to Graves and Sassoon and Owen (and even, in a refracted way, Lord Dunsanay, whose Tales of War (1918), recently republished by Whisky Priest Books, offers a simultaneously more literary and more vigorously angry perspective). They remain our strongest link to those irrecoverable times and emotions, and as the centennial of the tragedy approaches, they have lost little of their power. I suspect our descendants will still be wrestling with them at the bicentennial.

Monday, August 29, 2011

"Our speeches in the day time cause our phantasy to work upon the like in our sleep," or, In dreams

"I had dreams, not nightmares but musical dreams, dreams about transparent questions . . . "--from Amulet, by Roberto Bolano
1 I was reading Neal Stephenson's Baroque Cycle, which I've not read.
"I think dreams have a great many sorts of explanation. Once the Freud virus has, as it were, got into you, you keep on looking at things in that way. But surely there's a lot of pure accident in dreams. One has kinds of obsessions and fears that can't be given a sexual meaning. I think the inventiveness and details of dreams are amazing."--from From a Small Corner in the House of Fiction: Conversations with Iris Murdoch
2 I am playing basketball with the Chicago Bulls. I take a pass and fling up an outside shot, which misses abysmally. I turn around to find Michael Jordan shaming me by wagging a long finger, while Dennis Rodman is doubled over, gripping his knees in helpless laughter.
"The Atlantes, according to my sources, never eat any living thing, and never dream, either."--from The Histories, by Herodotus
3 At my nephew's ninth birthday party I was surprised to notice two guests whose attendance I certainly had not expected: Marcel Proust and Eloise of the Plaza. I got the sense that they'd somehow been invited in error, that it was quite possible that they knew no one at the party aside from each other. That wasn't really a problem, however, as they gave the impression of being the sort of close friends who need little to no outside contact. Huddled together in a corner, they sipped from the tiny teacups of my niece's tea set and quietly shared private, gossipy jokes that caused them now and again to break out in skeins of poorly muffled giggles.
"I knew that in many dreams one must disregard the appearance of people, who may be disguised or may have exchanged faces with one another, like those mutilated saints on the fronts of cathedrals which have been repaired by ignorant archaeologists in a jumble of mismatched heads and bodies, attributes and names. Those we give to characters in our dreams can be misleading. The one we love can be recognized only by the quality of the pain we feel."--from In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower, by Marcel Proust
4 I am running a marathon in some anonymous but lovely European mountain town. The course, which winds through the narrow, wandering late-medieval streets of the town, is convoluted and difficult to follow, but that difficulty, in the early part of the race, is a help, giving my mind something to focus on aside from the details of my exertion. But around mile twelve I realize quite suddenly that I'm all alone, the body of fellow runners having silently slipped away somewhere along the course. It's clear that I've take a wrong turn and left the course behind. Worried, I look around, hoping to find a guide or a map. All I see is a quaint-looking pastry shop spilling a warm glow of candlelight onto the crooked sidewalk. I enter the pastry shop, conscious of the salty sweat caking my body, and, with apologies for my gross condition, I ask the baker whether he might happen to have a map of the marathon course. Smiling, he reaches into the display case and selects a cookie baked in the shape of an elephant balancing on a ball. He pokes a pudgy finger at the intricate lines that, pressed into the cookie, make up the design. In a voice tinged with a vaguely Germanic accent, he says, "You simply follow these lines." The cookie is a map of the route; the route forms the shape of an elephant balancing on a ball.

With a smile on my face and a cookie in hand, I leave the shop and begin to trot back toward the course.
"It is not much of a dream, considering the vast extent of the domains of dreamland, and their wonderful productions; it is only remarkable for being unusually restless, and unusually real. He dreams of lying there, asleep, and yet counting his companion's footsteps as he walks to and fro. He dreams that the footsteps die away into distance of time and of space, and that something touches him, and that something falls from his hand. Then something clinks and gropes about, and he dreams that he is alone for so long a time, that the lanes of light take new directions as the moon advances in her course. From succeeding unconsciousness he passes into a dream of slow uneasiness from cold; and painfully awakes to a perception of the lanes of light--really changed, much as he had dreamed--and Jasper walking among them, beating his hands and feet."--from The Mystery of Edwin Drood, by Charles Dickens
5 One of the editors at my workplace had arranged for some prominent authors to give lectures on their craft to the entire office. First up were Ernest Hemingway and Joseph Conrad. They took turns speaking, and they actually had fairly interesting things to say about each other’s work. Hemingway was surprisingly self-effacing, and Conrad was exactly as I expected: formal, precise, and thoroughly serious.

It was only after I’d returned to my office following the lecture that I remembered that both Hemingway and Conrad were long dead. “Of course!” I thought. “Those must have been professional impersonators!”

I ran for the front desk, hoping to catch them before they left. Conrad was gone by the time I got there, but Hemingway was just stepping into the elevator. “Wait!” I shouted. “Who do you do when you’re not doing Hemingway?”

Hemingway turned. Then, smiling, he ripped off his mask, held it aloft, and jauntily shouted, "Yourcenar!”
"Against fearful and troublesome dreams, nightmare and such inconveniences, wherewith melancholy men are molested, the best remedy is to eat a light supper, and of such meats as are easy of digestion; no Hare, Venison, Beef, &c. not to lie on his back, not to meditate or think in the day time of any terrible objects, or especially talk of them before he goes to bed. For, as he said in Lucian after such conference, I seem to dream of Hecate, I can think of nothing but Hobgoblins; and, as Tully notes, for the most part our speeches in the day time cause our phantasy to work upon the like in our sleep, which Ennius writes of Homer: as a dog dreams of an hare, so do men dream on such subjects they thought on last."--from The Anatomy of Melancholy, by Robert Burton
6 I was at the zoo, watching a gorilla very close up through the bars of his cage. He gave me a quizzical look, tugged at his earlobe, then pointed at my earlobes while mouthing the word, "Earring?" I stared for a second, then remembered that I was wearing a big, gold pirate-style hoop in each ear.
"There is no great difference, says Proust, between the memory of a dream and the memory of reality. When the sleeper awakes, this emissary of his habit assures him that his 'personality' has not disappeared with his fatigue."--from Proust, by Samuel Beckett
7 I am reading James Boswell's Life of Johnson and find a typo that somehow turns an ordinary sentence into some sort of prognostication about my brother's life. As I read it I am amused but impressed, and I remember that Johnson himself left a cryptic note about dreams and brothers in his diary. The entry for January 23, 1759, the day of his mother's funeral, includes the line, "The dream of my Brother I shall remember." Johnson's brother, Nathanael, had died at only twenty-four, a possible suicide; his sole surviving letter is an indictment of Samuel for his harsh treatment.
"It makes a difference whether your dreams usually come true or not. . . . See then if you can follow my example, and give a happy interpretation to your dream."--from a letter to Suetonius Tranquillus by Pliny the Younger
8 I was at Wrigley Field to watch a Cubs game, and, as game time approached, I got out my scorebook to take down the starting lineup. The public address announcer began to rattle off the Cubs lineup. "Leading off, and playing right field . . . a sesame ball." I wrote it down. "Batting second, and playing second base, a furry kitten." I wrote it down. "Batting third, and playing first base, Stacey Shintani." On hearing my wife's name, I threw down my pencil and exclaimed to my seatmate, "They're trying to throw this game!"
"My earliest memory is of a dream. It was in the house where we lived when I was three or four years of age. I dreamed I was asleep in the house in an upper room.

Then I awoke and came downstairs and stood in the living room. The lights were on in the living room, although it was hushed and empty. The usual dark green sofa and chairs stood along the usual pale green walls. It was the same old living room as ever, I knew it well, nothing was out of place. And yet it was utterly, certainly, different. Inside its usual appearance the living room was as changed as if it had gone mad."--from "Every Exit is an Entrance (A Praise of Sleep)," by Anne Carson
9 I was reading—and greatly enjoying—Anthony Powell's’s biography of Robert Burton, author of The Anatomy of Melancholy. It was only after I woke up that I remembered that Powell never wrote a biography of Burton; that was Nick Jenkins, the narrator of Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time, who serves as Powell’s stand-in.
"In some ways a narrative is like a dream. You don't analyze a dream--you just pass through it. A dream is sometimes healing and sometimes makes you anxious. A narrative is just the same--you are just in it. A novelist is not an analyst. He just transforms one scene into another. A novelist is one who dreams wide awake. He decides to write and he sits down and dreams away, then wraps it into a package called fiction which allows other people to dream. Fiction warms the hearts and minds of the readers. So I believe that there is something deep and enduring in fiction, and I have learned to trust the power of narrative."--Haruki Murakami, from a lecture in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 2005
10 I dreamed that Van Morrison was at a dinner party I was attending with about a dozen other friends. After dinner, he got up to play a few songs. He ran through a somewhat perfunctory "Moondance," then asked me if I would accompany him on vocals and guitar for a couple of numbers. I don't play guitar, and while I do like to sing, I'm far from a good singer. But, unwilling to refuse Van Morrison, I got up and faked my way through "The Way Young Lovers Do," strumming and singing along. I was sufficiently nervous that I forgot nearly half the lyrics, but Van sang them all beautifully.

Then he launched into Sam Cooke's "That's Where It's At," and suddenly everything was right: I happened across the right chords, was even able to throw in some simple, but convincing finger-picked flourishes, and Van and I sounded stunningly good singing together.
"He was also terrified with manifest warnings, both old and new, arising from dreams, auspices, and omens. He had never been used to dream before the murder of his mother. After that event, he fancied in his sleep that he was steering a ship, and that the rudder was forced from him: that he was dragged by his wife Octavia into a prodigiously dark place; and was at one time covered over with a vast swarm of winged ants, and at another, surrounded by the national images which were set up near Pompey's theatre, and hindered from advancing farther; that a Spanish jennet he was fond of, had his hinder parts so changed, as to resemble those of an ape, and having his head only left unaltered, neighed very harmoniously. The doors of the mausoleum of Augustus flying open of themselves, there issued from it a voice, calling on him by name."--from The Lives of the Twelve Caesars, by Suetonius
11 I was rereading Vladimir Nabokov's Laughter in the Dark, in the pages of which I encountered a book I hadn't noticed on my first reading: Ghost Whim, by Robin Anne Powter.

According to Nabokov's narrator, Ghost Whim is a cultural history of dreaming . . . but before I could learn what would happen if I read a nonexistent cultural history of dreaming inside an actual novel inside a dream, I woke up.
"Night comes when you least expect it. You are making dinner or working late, you look out the window and the sky is already dark. The arrival of night can be elusive, mysterious, and in the city we don't often see it, though we always know when it has fallen. In the country night takes its time. A glorious sunset might flag its approach, yet it seems we can never pinpoint its exact arrival. Nightfall is a subtle process."--from Acquainted with the Night, by Christopher Dewdney

Friday, August 26, 2011

Conrad and Powell

Anthony Powell fans who turn to Joseph Conrad's novella The Duel (one of the five novellas of that title that Melville House, in a clever gimmick, published together last week) will enjoy an amusing echo of Uncle Giles in the whinging of one of the two contestants. Conrad's tale concerns Feraud and D'Hubert, a pair of officers in Napoleon's army who, through the insane readiness of Feraud to take offense, spend more than decade of the Napoleonic Wars in an on-and-off duel. Or, rather, a perpetually on duel, one whose interstices are forced by circumstance: recovery from wounds, lack of proximity, or, in the case that calls Uncle GIles to mind, difference in rank. D'Hubert is promoted to colonel, which leaves Lieutenant Feraud unable to challenge him without rendering both men liable to court martial. Feraud, formerly a casual, even feckless soldier, felt "an urgent desire to get on" spring up in his breast. He
resolved in his mind to seize showy occasions and to court the favourable opinion of his chiefs like a mere worldling.
That in itself is not much like Uncle Giles, who didn't tend to court work or opinion of any sort. But this certainly is:
He began to make bitter allusions to "clever fellows who stick at nothing to get on." The army was full of them, he would say; you had only to look around. . . . Once he confided to an appreciative friend: "You see, I don't know how to fawn on the right sort of people. It isn't in my character."
The minute he gets his promotion, Feraud begins making the arrangements to meet D'Hubert at arms, for,
"I know my bird," he observed grimly. "If I don't look sharp he will take care to get himself promoted over the heads of a dozen men better than himself. He's got the knack for that sort of thing."
Powell was a staunch fan of Conrad, calling him "one of our greatest novelists" in a 1974 article, so it's not unreasonable to think that Feraud's cynical disdain played a part in the creation of Giles.

In a different article on Conrad, published in the Times Literary Supplement in 1947, occasioned by a two new volumes of biography, Powell draws out a couple of succinct distillations of Conrad's stance and concerns as a writer. One is constructed almost entirely from some lines from Razumov, the student from Under Western Eyes who, as Powell puts it, is "forced to play a shabby part through no particular fault of his own . . a favourite theme of Conrad's":
"As if anything could be changed!" thinsk Razumov. "In this world of men nothing can be changed--neither happiness nor misery. They can only be displaced at the cost of corrupted consciences and broken lives--a futile game for arrogant philosophers and sanguinary trifles." This was the lesson Conrad himself had learnt.
Then there's this, which fruitfully compares Conrad to Kipling (an author to whose fundamental literary and imaginative qualities Powell, with his conservative leanings, is probably a better guide than many, able to judge with relative dispassion Kipling's achievements and failures; those of us on the left can then decide where to set the balance regarding other aspects):
Indeed, his informed distrust of pretentious claims to idealism and of pursuit of power masquerading as liberalism sets him apart form the mood of his literary contemporaries. . . . In this divergence he resembles Kipling--an author personally unsympathetic to him--who shares Conrad's respect for a sense of duty, his recognition of the practical difficulties of exercising command, and also, to some degree, his satirical attitude towards officials. Conrad is more sensitive than Kipling in handling the niceties of human character, but he does not possess Kipling's dexterity nor, perhaps, his imaginative powers. On the other hand Kipling--although his dislike for Peter Ivanovitch and his [anti-Tsarist terrorist] circle would in no way have fallen short of Conrad's--could never have achieved the objectivity of Under Western Eyes.
For the best distillation of Conrad's moral sensibility, however, you'll be best off turning to Conrad himself--and if you don't have time to read the whole of Victory, where it's given its most explicit treatment, then this brief passage of scene-setting from The Duel will suffice:
No man succeeds in everything he undertakes. In that sense we are all failures. The great point is not to fail in ordering and sustaining the effort of our life. In this matter vanity is what leads us astray. It hurries us into situations from which we must come out damaged; whereas pride is our safeguard, by the reserve which it imposes on the choice of our endeavour as much as by the virtue of its sustaining power.
I suppose as a key to Conrad, that passage could be faulted for lacking an explicit reference to honor and duty, but it's at least a good start.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Joseph Conrad

Now this is how you open a story:
Napoleon I, whose career had the quality of a duel against the whole of Europe, disliked duelling between the officers of his army. The great military emperor was not a swashbuckler, and had little respect for tradition.

Nevertheless, a story of duelling, which became a legend in the army, runs through the epic of imperial wars. To the surprise and admiration of their fellows, two officers, like insane artists trying to gild refined gold or paint the lily, pursued a private contest through the years of universal carnage. They were officers of cavalry, and their connection with the high-spirited but fanciful animal which carries men into battle seems particularly appropriate. It would be difficult to imagine for heroes of this legend two offices of infantry of the line, for example, whose fantasy is tamed by much walking exercise, and whose valour necessarily must be of a more plodding kind. As to gunners or engineers, whose heads are kept cool on a diet of mathematics, it is simply unthinkable.
That's how Joseph Conrad begins his novella The Duel. I know there are those who dislike Conrad's prose--Ha Jin, for example, has written that it "tends to be purple at the expense of immediacy and penetrativeness"--but I find it almost always suited to his aims at a particular moment. What better way to begin a somewhat ridiculous, satirical account of a decade-long running duel than with the gentle irony of these sentences? The opening sentence alone, with its almost immediate interpolation of opinion, instantly reveals a narrative voice at some remove, both temporally and intellectually, from his subject, the perfect location for a Conradian narrative voice. (It's the position in which we find Marlowe at times, Heart of Darkness aside--though his emotional connection to the stories he tells prevents him from ever being as wry as this opening.)

One of the pleasures of Conrad is that he feels almost inexhaustible: there are nearly twenty novels, a handful of memoirs, and countless short stories. A reader can pick up one or two each year, when the hot late summer breeze brings thoughts of distant islands, and not run out for a long time. Such a summer night is this one; I'm glad The Duel is here.

Monday, August 22, 2011


{Photo by rocketlass.}

From Le Morte D'Arthur, by Sir Thomas Malory:
So that knight, Sir Pellinore, rode after Sir Tristram and required him of jousts. Then Sir Tristram smote him down and wounded him through the shoulder, and so he passed on his way. And on the next day following Sir Tristram met with pursuivants, and they told him that there was made a great cry of tournament between King Carados of Scotland the King of North Wales, and either should joust against other at the Castle of Maidens; and these pursuivants sought all the country after the good knights. . . . Then Sir Sagramore le Desirous rode after Sir Tristram, and made him to joust with him, and there Sir Tristram smote down Sir Sagramore le Desirous from his horse, and made his way.
As a belated birthday present, some friends took me and rocketlass to Medieval Times this weekend. Braving the Slough of Expressway and venturing into the uncharted Swamps of Suburbia, we hit upon Castle Schaumburg and, once there, enjoyed a throughly pleasant, if fundamentally ridiculous, evening of falconry, horse ballet, stage combat, and, yes, jousting.

I had read a bit of Malory that day in preparation, but I found myself thinking less of his endless catalog of combats than of Dorothy Dunnett. One of the most effective ways--to this untrained history dillettante--that Dunnett unmoors readers a bit from our own era is through her depiction of the deadly sporting contests in which her characters engage. Nearly every novel has one, and they range from the familiar (a fox hunt) to the somewhat familiar but ridiculously dangerous (a proto-polo, a castle-top game of soccer) to the absolutely ridiculous (a footrace across the moving oars of a galley, a drunken chase across city rooftops). In most of the games, at least one contestant dies, and the loss is essentially shrugged off: no one is blamed or held to account. Life, Dunnett convinces us, was cheaper then; people mourned their own as powerfully as we do today, but that sense of loss wasn't extended to strangers.

I also found myself thinking about Robert Massie's Peter the Great, because, along with weaponry, Medieval Times has a collection of medieval instruments. While they're presented (and presumably received by the majority of the patrons) as relatively uncharged artifacts of long-gone days, they're nonetheless horrifying and disturbing, their sick ingenuity a reminder that torture always goes beyond its (perceived) instrumentality and becomes its own end. In Peter the Great's reign, torture was commonplace, the regular response to murmurs of conspiracy, and Peter regularly required nobles to prove their loyalty by taking part in the torture and execution of the accused. Massie makes a fairly convincing case that Peter was by no means unusually cruel by the standards of his day, but that doesn't make even his occasional acts of "mercy" much more palatable: frequently, on seeing a conspirator broken on the wheel, Peter would order his sufferings ended through immediate beheading. That the beheadings were often conducted by inexperienced headsmen and thus became in themselves a form of torture only adds to the train of horrors.

Which brings me back to Malory. When I first read Malory, at age ten or so, having sought him out in our public library, I was amazed by the fact that it's just a litany of knights meeting in the woods, clouting each other a bit, and then traveling on. There's little discernible narrative movement relative to the book's bulk, and very little sense of progress or achievement. As a pre-teen, I was confused and ultimately bored; as an adult, I see it as more interesting, if more wearying: good does not vanquish evil; rather, the two keep knocking each other about, and wherever good wanders, evil is there to challenge it. The cycle continues without end, as long as the knights exist.

And that brings to mind, of all things, the Incredible Hulk. I remember as a teen reading a long run of Hulk comics from, say, the mid-1970s through the mid-'80s, and it seemed as if every issue told this exact story: Bruce Banner wakes up somewhere in torn clothes, without any memory of where he is or how he got there. He staggers about for a bit like a man trying to shake a hangover, and then he runs into some supervillain . . . who makes him angry. He hulks out, stomps the supervillian, and then bounds away to parts unknown, his uncomprehending Hulk brain unable to understand how he got into the fight or what he should do now that it's over. The issue would end, and between issues the Hulk would calm down and return to his Banner form, and the cycle would continue.

I swear, it seemed like that was what happened, month after month after month, unbroken, for approximately a decade. As a kid, I liked the Hulk enough to want to keep reading, but even then I thought it was bizarre: what Marvel Comics had done for the concept of superheroes was to allow them a continuing story and the possibility of change; this was almost a direct refutation of the breakthrough.

Looking back, however, I like those issues. Oh, I won't pretend to believe that they took that form out of some grand design; I suspect laziness and lack of creativity were the reasons for the Hulk's stagnation. But if all superheroes and their battles are in some way metaphorical, I like seeing the Hulk's lost decade as a successful metaphor: Bruce Banner is forever trapped in bad patterns of behavior, reacting in the same way to the same triggers, not knowing how to change for the better; evil and destruction erupt into life again and again, never to be eternally vanquished.

And now that I've brought this post so far from Medieval Times and its jousting, dueling knights: what better to turn to now than Melville House's five new entries in their Art of the Novella series . . . all titled The Duel? I think that's got to be next.

Friday, August 19, 2011

The very existence of this entry, I fear, suggests that I need a hobby (beyond, that is, this blogging thing).

{Photo by Flickr user penreyes, used under a Creative Commons license that reserves some rights.}

At a party a couple of weeks ago, my friend Joseph Clayton Mills and I got onto the topic of Chet Morton, friend of the Hardy Boys; brother of Joe Hardy's girlfriend, Iola; and inveterate hobbyist. I mentioned my favorite of Chet's one-per-book hobbies, taxidermy, and Joseph countered that he was always most impressed by Chet's brief passion for falconry.

"Falconry?" I asked. "Where in Bayport would Chet have encountered falconry, the sport of kings?"

Then, earlier this week, I stumbled upon what I thought might be the answer: perhaps Chet's interest in falconry began with a session of George Plimpton's Video Falconry on Biff Hooper's Colecovision?

This led Joseph to some quick research on the subject of Chet's hobbies. The list on Wikipedia, he reported, is "woefully inadequate," but the entry did deliver this remarkable bit of information:
Chet is one of the most popular characters in The Hardy Boys. In fact, by the mid-sixties, Chet had become so popular that in 1965 the Stratemeyer Syndicate was planning to develop a series about him and his hobbies.

It seems that the Stratemeyer Syndicate did a lot of work on this series (even some complete chapters were written), yet the Syndicate never began to publish it.
And that's not all:
A list of proposed titles in the Chet Morton series were found in the Stratemeyer Archives at the New York Public Library.
1. Chet Morton and the Funny Putty Caper
2. Chet Morton and the Talking Turkey
3. Chet Morton and the Mighty Muscle Builder
4. Chet Morton and the Stolen Flea Circus
5. Chet Morton and his Electronic Exam Passer
6. Chet Morton and his Bird-Brain Blimp
7. Chet Morton and the Monkey’s Uncle
8. Chet Morton and the Flying Fruitcake
9. Chet Morton and the Mystery at Tucks Cove
10 Chet Morton and the Mystery at the Friar Tuck House
11 Chet Morton and the Mystery of Ben's Bat
Those aren't quite Invisible Library titles, but I couldn't resist at least passing them on to my fellow invisible librarian, Ed Park, who replied, "Why do I feel like these could all be euphemisms in House of Holes??"

Surely someone's already working on the Chet Morton fanfiction, right?

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Chabon misses a trick, Westlake upholds his usual standards, and McMurtry sneaks into this post somehow, too

My good friend Bob has sent along what seems to be a clear case of a inexcusable failure to make a Sydney Greenstreet simile! Here it is, from Chapter 7 of Michael Chabon's The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay:
At a time when an honorable place in the taxonomy of male elegance was still reserved for the genus Fat Man, Harkoo was a classic instance of the Mystic Potentate species, managing to look at once commanding, stylish, and ultramundane in a vast purple-and-brown caftan, heavily embroidered, that hung down almost to the tops of his Mexican sandals.
The "Mystic Potentate species"? Could there be a more Greenstreetian character than that?

As many of you know, I am on a crusade of sorts--a calm, even patient one, the kind that would not cause even Greenstreet's ample frame to break a sweat--to encourage the use of Greenstreet as a descriptive and metaphorical reference point in fiction. Should any of you know Chabon, I ask you to urge him to correct this oversight in subsequent printings of his Pulitzer Prize–winner. America's literary landscape would be a more well-rounded place for it.

While we're speaking of large men, I have to share a bit of description from Donald Westlake's final novel, Get Real (2009). One of the pleasures of the Dortmunder series is the nearly unhinged joy Westlake took in describing Dortmunder's crony Tiny Bulcher. While Bulcher is far too large to be an apt subject for a Greenstreet reference, nonetheless in book after book Westlake found new and amusing ways to tell us how boot-quakingly enormous Tiny is.

Tiny's entrance in Get Real is one of the simplest, but also one of the best:
As Dortmunder nodded, the doorway filled up with enough person to choke Jonah's whale. This creature, who was known only to those who felt safe in considering him their friend, as Tiny, had the body of a top-of-the-line SUV, in jacket and pants of a neutral gray that made him look like an oncoming low, atop which was a head that didn't make you think so much of Easter Island as Halloween Island.
All these oddities of the human shape call to mind a passage I read the other day in Lonesome Dove (1985). It's fairly long, but so's the book, and I think both are worth it:
Lippy finished his concert and came and joined them. He wore a brown bowler hat he had picked up on the road to San Antonio some years before. Either it had blown out of a stagecoach or the Indians had snatched some careless drummer and not bothered to take his hat. At least those were the two theories Lippy had worked out in order to explain his good fortune in finding the hat. In Augustus's view the hat would have looked better blowing around the country for two years than it did at present. Lippy only wore it when he played the piano; when he was just gambling or sitting around attending to the leak from [the wound in] his stomach he frequently used the hat for an ashtray and then sometimes forgot to empty the ashes before putting the hat back on his head. He only had a few strips of stringy gray hair hanging off his skull, and the ashes didn't make them look much worse, but ashes represented only a fraction of the abuse the bowler had suffered. It was also Lippy's pillow, and had had so many things spilled on it or in it that Augustus could hardly look at it without gagging.

"That hat looks about like a buffalo cud," Augustus said. "A hat ain't meant to be a chamber pot, you know. If I was you, I'd throw it away."

Lippy was so named because his lower lip was about the size of the flap on a saddlebag. He could tuck enough snuff under it to last a normal person at least a month; in general the lip lived a life of its own, there toward the bottom of his face. Even when he was just sitting quietly, studying his cards, the lip waved and wiggled as if it had a breeze blowing across it, which in fact it did. Lippy had something wrong with his nose and breathed with his mouth wide open.

Accustomed as she was to hard doings, it had still taken Lorena a while to get used to the way Lippy slurped when he was eating, and she had once had a dream in which a cowboy walked by Lippy and buttoned the lip to his nose as if it were the flap of a pocket. But her disgust was nothing compared to Xavier's, who suddenly stopped wiping tables and came over and grabbed Lippy's hat off his head. Xavier was in a bad mood, and his features quivered like those of a trapped rabbit.

"Disgrace! I won't have this hat. Who can eat?" Xavier said, though nobody was trying to eat. He took the hat around the bar and flung it out the back door.
If you laughed like I did at that, well, McMurtry's got another 850 pages of it for you. I'm 300 in and have been grateful for each one so far.

Monday, August 15, 2011

The Magician King

Last year I wrote, of Lev Grossman's novel The Magicians, which tells of a young man who discovers that magic is real and he's good at it, but that it doesn't make him a hero or make the world any more amenable to heroic quests:
The occasional frustrations in this otherwise very satisfying novel seem to come from Grossman's rejection of one of the now-standard characteristics of fantasy literature: the carefully balanced, multi-book story arc. It's as if, because there can be no truly heroic quest in The Magicians, because the world--even, or perhaps especially, the magic world--simply isn't like that, then the story itself can't be made to fit the same the heroic shape we're used to. The result is that portions of the novel feel compressed, bits of its impressively imaginative world-building more suggested than fully worked out. . . . A sequel apparently is in the works, and perhaps Grossman will flesh out some of these aspects in its pages, but within The Magicians itself I felt the lack.
That sequel, The Magician King, has arrived, and while it's quite good, it, too, feels as if it would have benefited from being expanded: some of the major characters from the first book, including Eliot and Janet, barely register in this one, making little impression even when they're present on the page; Brakebills, so important to Quentin and his friends in the first book, is given only a token appearance; and some key elements of the plot and the world Grossman's created (like the role of the Order in protecting the Neitherlands) are dispatched far too quickly.

In nearly all other respects, however, The Magician King is impressive, and a better book than The Magicians: more dramatic, more inventive, and similarly clear about its characters' failings of character while feeling less deliberate about foregrounding them. Its central quest is modeled on The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, but interwoven with the story of that sea journey is the story of Julia, a high school friend of Quentin, Grossman's protagonist. In The Magicians, Julia fails the Brakebills entrance exam, but the spell that routinely wipes the memories of failed applicants doesn't work, and the realization that magic exists--and she's been shut out of it--drives Julia to learn it on her own. By the end of that novel, she has reappeared as a "hedge witch" (Grossman's brilliant coinage for a self-taught magician [CORRECTION: As Biblibio points out in the comments, this is a common term, not Grossman's invention.]); in this book, we learn how she did it--and what she had to sacrifice along the way. It's a brutal, harrowing tale, and it shows Grossman at his best: watching Julia move through the subculture of samizdat magic is fascinating, and Grossman absolutely nails the combination of self-regard, self-satisfaction, power games, and pathologies that subcultures so often breed. The network of self-taught magicians is so well-conceived and fully realized that it seems almost plausible.

Julia's journey ends with a scene of violent destruction as surprising as it is frightening; as in the first book, Grossman is extremely good at conveying terror and unbridgeable imbalances of power. All books dealing with magic, it seems, ought to have a scene wherein mortals find themselves in over their heads, sparring with powers whose extent they've woefully, oh-too-humanly underestimated. If there is hidden power in the universe, there surely are also hidden Powers, and a fantasy that can convincingly depict them can be deliciously frightening.

I want to end with a brief note about the Brakebills exam itself. The test was one of the real highlights of The Magicians: Quentin, Julia, and a host of strangers are essentially plucked off the streets of ordinary life, magically shuttled to Brakebills, and told they are to stand an examination. As they're smart teens, that's far less odd than it seems--think back to your math nerd years and how often you were taken to some other school to match wits with strangers for vaguely spelled-out prizes. And Grossman's account of the test brings back the feeling of being a smart teen like nothing else I can remember reading: even when he's not sure of the point, Quentin takes each complicated math and language problem as a personal challenge, getting wholly wrapped up in them with the near-autistic intensity that, for me at least, is now only a memory. And what nerd wouldn't, with questions like this:
[T]he test gave him a passage from The Tempest, then asked him to make up a fake language, and then translate the Shakespeare into the made-up language. He was then asked questions about the grammar and orthography of his made-up language, and then--honestly, what was the point?--questions about the geography and culture and society of the made-up country where his made-up language was so fluently spoken. Then he had to translate the original passage from the fake language back into English, paying particular attention to any resulting distortions in grammar, word choice, and meaning. Seriously.
But why, then, did Julia fail? She's clearly intelligent, and she's gifted enough in magic to eventually make her way without instruction, so why did she not pass the test? In The Magician King we get the explanation. Whereas Quentin took the events of that day as much in his stride as would be humanly possible, because he'd always been expecting his drab life to suddenly change for the better,
Julia had been blindsided. She had never expected anything special to just happen to her. Her plan for life was to get out there and make special things happen, which was a much more sensible plan from a probability point of view, given how unlikely it was that anything as exciting as Brakebills would ever just fall into your lap. So when she got there she had the presence of mind to step back and make a full appraisal of exactly how weird it all was. She could have handled the math, God knew. She'd been in math classes with Quentin since they were ten years old, and anything he could do she could do just as well, backward and in high heels if necessary.

But she spent too much time looking around, trying to work it through, the implications of it. She didn't take it at face value the way Quentin did. The uppermost thought in her mind was, why are you all sitting here doing differential geometry and generally jumping through hoops when fundamental laws of thermodynamics and Newtonian physics are being broken left and right all around you? This shit was major. The test was the last of her priorities. It was the least interesting thing in the room.
Magic aside, that, too, is familiar, a risk I recall lurking at the verge of consciousness at every one of those teenage tests, from math contest to the SAT: if you let your glance slide to the bigger picture, you were sunk. It's one of the difficulties of teenage life that's hardest to recover as an adult. We tend to say that we want young people to think of the bigger picture (college, jobs), but we fail to realize that a successful teenage life, even strictly on the academic side, requires a fairly fundamental myopia, an ability to attend blindly to this task, that moment without lifting one's eyes to the horizon. Because if you do, those concerns, those requirements, even those achievements, will almost inevitably look small, partial, or even inconsequential . . . even as the years between you and adulthood remain just as substantial as ever.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011


I accidentally left my shoulder bag at the Asian grocery across the street when I was buying tofu tonight, and I didn't realize it and go retrieve the bag for a couple of hours . . . which was enough to convince me that I can't really blog about Nicholson Baker's new novel House of Holes: A Book of Raunch, because as I was jaywalking my way back to my bag, what was running through my head was, "Please don't let them have looked in it. Please don't let them have looked in it. Please don't let them have looked in it." Because House of Holes was one of the books I'd been carrying today.

As others have already alerted you, if you're one to attend to book news, House of Holes is unapologetically a book of porn. Sam Anderson calls it "a porny Alice in Wonderland." Charles McGrath calls it "a blue-flaring plume of smut-talk." (Apparently the Times style guide calls for "smut-talk" to be hyphenated. Now we know.) And while this blog is unabashedly a fan of, and occasional home to, swearing of nearly all sorts (look closely at this post if you don't believe me), it does not generally take notice of the bluer reachers of our literasphere.

Then there's the fact that, frankly, I don't know what to make of it. I love Baker--love his prose, love his goofy mind, love his utter shamelessness. And Baker's written porn before, in Vox and its better successor, The Fermata. But in those books--particularly the sometimes disturbing latter--the pornographic sequences were part of a larger narrative centered in characters, ideas, and ways of thinking about human (and gender) relations in our era. Here . . . they're just, well, porn.

But that's not fair. The'yre not just porn. Baker's too good a writer of sentences and too humane and intelligent a person for that. The charge against porn is that it's reductive and degrading; Baker's porn is reductive and . . . celebratory? Innocent? Loving? At its best, House of Holes is simultaneously hot, ridiculous, charming, silly, elegant, and inventive. As Baker piles on the ideas--Masturboats, the Porndecahedron, and more inventions whose names I refuse to type--at times his wildly creative prurience offers shades of the lighter Calvino, of a mind choosing carefully among finite permutations and making of them something new.

And House of Holes also has value, for fans of slang, as a poorly organized glossary of creative names for actions and organs. A brief, highly edited list, sans definitions, in deference my online prudishness:
prune elevator
I'll stop there. You get the idea.

But where does that leave us? Honestly, I have very little idea at this point. If you've never read Baker, don't read this one; go get The Mezzanine, his unqualified masterpiece. If you love Baker, you're going to give this a try anyway, despite the fact that it's far from his best book. It's those who find themselves squishing around in the middle ground who are in question . . . and oh, I don't know what to tell you folks. Maybe see what you think the next time you pop up, wide awake, at midnight?

Monday, August 08, 2011

Crime time!

{Photos by rocketlass.}

Sorry, can't blog today. Too busy reading Gillian Flynn's Dark Places.

Oh, fine. How about a quick crime novel roundup, and then I'll go back to trying to figure out what wonderfully horrible twist Flynn's going to surprise me with next?

1 The new batch of Parker novels is out now from the University of Chicago Press: Flashfire (2000) and Firebreak (2001). They've got an introduction by Terry Teachout that's one of the best we've published. Teachout points out that despite his sociopathic tendencies, "Parker kills only when absolutely necessary, a clear sign that he isn't crazy"; does a nice job of drawing the distinction between Stark's Parker and Westlake's Dortmunder; and quotes my favorite Dortmunder line, which just might be my favorite Westlake line, period:
Whenever things sound easy, it turns out there's one part you didn't hear.
Flashfire is one of the best in the series, featuring a lot of heists, a strong female character (who's a civilian, no less!), and some truly great exchanges between Parker and a Florida sheriff. It's easy to why Hollywood chose this one to launch the upcoming Parker movie series.

2 Over the weekend I continued my progress through the rest of Westlake's novels. I started with a darkly comic novel called Two Much (1975), in which one of Westlake's least honorable and least likable protagonists cons two rich twin sisters into thinking that he, too, is a twin--and a separate twin is sleeping with each sister. It's a great example of two Westlake strengths: his enjoyment of playing out the implications of a puzzle he sets for himself and his understanding, most clearly on display in the Parker novels, that our instinct as readers is to want the narrator to get away with what he's doing almost regardless of how awful it is or how amoral he is. Present us with a problem and we want to see it solved; Westlake knew that better than anyone I can think of.

3 The other Westlake I read this weekend was refreshingly light: Good Behavior (1985), which finds John Dortmunder and his gang trying to kidnap a nun . . . on behalf of her convent. It won't surprise you that the gang ends up dressed in habits:
Very strange. When nothing shows but your face, enclosed by the white oval of a wimple and the featureless black of a nun's costume, you wouldn't expect much by way of individual character to show through, but it did, it did. . . . Tiny, whose face mostly consisted of knuckles anyway, was barely plausible as the kind of false nun who, in the Middle Ages, poisoned and robbed unwary travelers. Stan Murch looked like a pilgrim in The Canterbury Tales, probably the one with ideas for alternate routes to Canterbury. . . . Kelp was surely someone whose sister was the pretty one, while Dortmunder looked mostly like a missionary nun who was already among the cannibals and headhunters before realizing she'd lost her faith.
It's all as ridiculous as it sounds, and it makes for one of the best of the Dortmunder series.

4 While Hard Case Crime will officially mark their welcome return next month with the publication of Lawrence Block's new book of smut and crime, Getting Off (which I'm looking forward to reading soon alongside Nicholson Baker's new book of smut and smut, House of Holes), they'll also be publishing a new book by Max Allan Collins, Quarry's Ex (2011). Collins is at his best when writing about Quarry, whose character is perfectly suited for Collins's tight mix of violence, quips, and social observation, and I've really enjoyed watching him flesh out the hitman's backstory these past couple of years. Quarry's Ex is a strong addition to that story. It should show up in stores in September; it's available for pre-order now.

5 I'll close by returning to Gillian Flynn, so that I can return to reading Gillian Flynn: last summer, at the start of the annual Stahl family vacation, I gave a copy of Flynn's first novel, Sharp Objects, to my sister. She blazed through it, then lent it to my brother. As he was nearing the end, my sister and I sat and watched him, waiting for him to get to that part, so we could see how he reacted. He kept looking up and laughing at us . . . and then he got to that part. He stopped laughing.

Thursday, August 04, 2011

The Beauties of Powell--and no, this isn't a post about Pamela Flitton and Matilda Donners

When you re-read a favorite book as often as I re-read Anthony Powell's A Dance to the Music of Time, you find yourself focusing on different aspects each time through. This time around, as I've been reading the penultimate volume, Temporary Kings, the past couple of days, I've found myself reading it almost as if it's one of those collections from the days of lax copyright enforcement, a "Beauties of" collection, this one not The Beauties of Shakespeare or The Beauties of Sterne, but The Beauties of Powell.

I'm drawn to his frequently memorable turns of phrase, their aphoristic nature softened--even as their effect is heightened--by Powell's habit of putting them in the mouths of specific characters. Take this, for example, from Dr. Brightman, an academic Nick Jenkins meets at a conference in Venice:
Certain persons require a court. Others prefer a harem. That is not quite the same thing.
It's a line that could have come from any number of Nick's closest friends--Barnby, Moreland, and even Isobel come to mind--and its function here is not only make us smile with recognition, but to help us understand the affinity Nick feels, to his mild surprise, for Brightman.

Then there are Nick's own observations, which tend to be more extended and to carry a meditative, worried-over, even self-doubting quality. Here, he's reflecting on some stories provided by a potential biographer of X. Trapnel:
Enormous simplifications were possibly necessary to carry a deeper truth than lay on the surface of a mass of unsorted detail. That was, after all, what happened when history was written; many, if not most, of the true facts discarded.
Then there's this, provoked by meeting a pair of acquaintances whom logic suggests would only be found together if sex is involved:
Ada's immediate assumption of the exaggeratedly welcoming manner of one caught in compromising circumstances was not very convincing either.
Or this, on an old boss re-encountered:
He gave minute instructions, forcibly bringing back the years when I had worked under him, something establishing a relationship which can never wholly fade.
Or his assessment of his father, whose finicky, martinet-by-way-of-habitual-grumpiness marked Nick's childhood:
My father had few friends. The cause of that was not, I think, his own ever smouldering irascibility: people put up surprisingly well with irascibility, some even finding in it a spice to life otherwise humdrum. There is little evidence that the irascible, as a class, are friendless, and my father's bursts of temper may, for certain acquaintances, have added to the excitement of knowing him. It was more a kind of diffidence, uncertainty of himself (to some extent inducing the irascibility) that also militated against intimacy.
Adding interest to this description is the fact that Nick, while alert to his father's faults, is himself diffident, more seen than heard, a quality that makes him the perfect narrative window.

Page after page of Dance offer similar pleasures, presenting the world seen, not, in Browning's sense, plain, but through a distinct sensibility, Nick's, informed by the experience (and gossip) of decades and generous enough to encompass, gratefully, the stories and opinions and judgments of the many other people who make up the weave of a life. There's a reason this is my favorite book in the world, folks; I'll be reading and re-reading it for a long, long time to come.

Wednesday, August 03, 2011

Temporary Kings

Finding myself last night in one of those rare moods when I couldn't settle into any one book--I tried fiction, criticism, poetry, history--I finally remembered the best rule for a situation like that: turn to an old favorite. For me, that was Anthony Powell, and the moment I opened A Dance to the Music of Time my restlessness was cured.

I picked up at the penultimate volume, Temporary Kings (1973), where I'd last left off in my perpetual re-reading. The final volumes of Dance are unquestionably the weakest. Some critics, including Christopher Hitchens, deem them (or at least the final one, Hearing Secret Harmonies) a failure,
no longer informed by experience and curiosity, well-recollected and hard-won and wrought over in reflection. Rather, it resembles the plaintive tone of a beached colonial retiree, convinced that all around him is going to the dogs.
Though I think Hitchens certainly goes too far (a specialty of his), and I've defended the final volumes before, I'll concede that the final two books, at least, don't have quite the verve or appeal as the earlier ones: many of the most interesting characters of the earlier volumes are dead, and even Trapnel, the series' final brilliantly living invention, is no longer around, leaving the narrative to be carried by second stringers (Ada Leintwardine, Polly Duport, Books Bagshaw) and new characters, some compelling (Gwinnett, Brightman), others flat or one-note (Jacky Bragadin, Louis Glober).

This leads to a slight, but palpable sense of disengagement--but one that is, if frustrating at times, nonetheless suitable. The greatest achievement of Dance is its tracking of the way that age changes a cohort, from Nick Jenkins, the narrator, on down. By Temporary Kings, Nick and friends are in their mid-fifties, and while a true aficionado and observer of human behavior will always find new wrinkles to fascinate him, by the time of Temporary Kings, Nick evinces an awareness that the stories most important to his life, the threads that have truly been woven in with his own, have been spun out, tied off, and that when most of the new threads he sees around him, spun out by people in a younger generation, are resolved, he won't be around to see them. The novel's title, taken from a reference Nick makes to The Golden Bough, is an acknowledgment of that fact: the world is slowly passing him, and his generation, by, as it always has and always will.

Which is not to say, by any means, that a reader of Dance won't find pleasures in the characters in this volume, nor that they shouldn't look forward to some of its truly dramatic and revealing scenes featuring older favorites. The first time around, there will be plenty to engage and surprise in Temporary Kings. But on what must I think be my fifth time through, I found myself taking pleasure in and attending less to the specifics of character or plot than to the simple pleasure of being in company with Nick Jenkins and his approach to thought and observation, modeled, one feels comfortable assuming, on Powell's own.

Take the opening scene, which finds Nick, in Venice for an academic conference, watching an aged singer of Neapolitan songs perform. As usual with Nick, art occasions reflection, offering new ways of thinking of, classifying, and understanding friends, family, and experience, seeing how each holds up against or is refracted by similar or dissimilar portrayals in various art forms. In this case, a memory of a youthful visit to Venice (during which he saw a singer who looked remarkably similar to this one) leads to comparisons of the singer to an old acquaintance:
The stylized movements of the hands were reminiscent of Dicky Umfraville at one of his impersonations. He too should have harnessed his gift, in early life, to an ever renewing art from which there was no retiring age. To exhibit themselves, perform before a crowd, is the keenest pleasure many people know, yet self-presentation without a basis in art is liable to crumble into dust and ashes. Professional commitment to his own representations might have kept at bay the melancholy--all but chronic Frederica and his stepchildren complained--now that Umfraville had retired from work as agent at Thrubworth.
Which eventually returns Nick to the singer himself:
The aged singer looked as if thoughts of death, melancholy in any form, were unknown to him. He could be conceived as suffering from rage, desire, misery, anguish, despair; not melancholy. That was clear; additionally so after the round of applause following his number. The clapping was reasonably hearty considering the heat, almost as oppressive as throughout the day just passed. Dr Emily Brightman and I joined in. Acknowledgment of his talent delighted the performer. He bowed again and again, repeatedly baring blackened sporadic stumps, while he mopped away streams of sweat that coursed down channels of dry loose skin ridging either side of his mouth. Longevity had brought not the smallest sense of repletion where public recognition was in question. That was on the whole sympathetic. One found oneself taking more interest than formerly in the habits and lineaments of old age.
What I appreciate about these passages is less the specifics of Nick's reflections, though I definitely enjoy those, than the fact of them: this, I realize as I read them, is how we experience art, one part of our brain engaging, sometimes deeply, with it, while another part meditates, zooms off on tangents, weaves it into the larger fabric of life and our attempts to understand it. Reading Dance reminds me of how frustratingly short shrift art (and especially books) gets within fiction; a reader's life, mental and emotional, is always wrapped up in the books he's reading, but how often do you encounter a fictional character who manifests that relationship to any kind of art?

I'll have more to say about Temporary Kings in Friday's post. For now, I'm just pleased to be back in Powell's world, one where art is as much a part of life as friends, gossip, love, and loss.

Monday, August 01, 2011

"The beginning is not a beginning at all," or, Maybe it's time to read Tristram Shandy again?

I pulled Adam Thirlwell's The Delighted States: A Book of Novels, Romances, and Their Unknown Translators, Containing Ten Languages, Set on Four Continents, and Accompanied by Maps, Portraits, Squiggles, Illustrations, and a Variety of Helpful Indexes (2007), a book as precious yet as satisfying as its title, off my shelf over the weekend because I remembered that Thirlwell wrote well on the topic of Tristram Shandy. And I wasn't disappointed. Here, for example, is as good a distillation of Shandy as I could imagine being crammed into five sentences:
The essence of Sterne's novel is the way, deadpan, he makes Tristram a character who is stricken by a mania for comprehensiveness. To describe this type of mania, Sterne came up with the word hobbyhorse. Sterne's style is predicated on the hobbyhorse. All his destabilising of beginnings and endings (and everything in between) are part of his way of describing character: a construction helplessly at its own mercy, in thrall of compulsions of its own making. And Tristram's mania for comprehensiveness creates havoc with the book.
Writing a novel, you can try to get it all in; you can leave it all out; you can strike a middle ground and pretend that you've covered it all. Brutally: David Foster Wallace; Chekhov; Trollope. Sterne decided to make a game of pretending to care most about trying to get it all in; we've been playing in his playground ever since.

But Thirwell's next paragraph is even better, because it can so easily be turned on us, readers racing through our piles of unread books:
Tristram takes his life so seriously that his Life becomes impossible. For Tristram discovers that no beginning is ever a beginning. Every description of a beginning requires another description of the beginning's beginning, and so on. Therefore, although Tristram's Life, in its final state, take up around 600 pages, he has still not managed to get past the first few months of his life.
We read, in part, to illuminate and understand our experience, but what is the balance? When, instead, should we put down the book and go out?

All of this reminded me of a line from an early review of the novel in the Royal Female Magazine of February 1760, collected in the Norton Critical Edition of Tristram Shandy, which makes up for its ugliness as a book with this section of contemporary reviews:
The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy . . . affects (and not unsuccessfully) to please, by a contempt of all the rules observed in other writings, and therefore cannot justly have its merit measured by them.
The reviewer does, however, go on to complain of the "wantonness of the author's wit" and to wish that a note of delicacy could have been introduced. The very idea of a delicate, inoffensive Sterne boggles the mind (a topic that came up a couple of years ago in connection with Thirlwell and one of those oh-so-eighteenth-century volumes, The Beauties of Sterne).

Then there's the first review of the novel, by William Kentrick in the December 1759 issue of the Monthly Review, which notes what is still a valid objection, and its, if not refutation, then at least its leavening factor:
There prevails, indeed, a certain quaintness, and something like an affectation of being immoderately witty, throughout the whole work. But this is perhaps the Author's manner. Be that, however, as it will, it is generally attended with spirit and humour enough to render it entertaining.
Which, if my memory of sixteen years ago is true, remains the case these 250 years later. There is, in Tristram Shandy, some flop sweat, but it's more than made up for by the true humor, inventiveness, surprise, and even genius on offer elsewhere in the book. Yet sixteen years is a long time to be away from a book one professes to love: perhaps it's time to revisit Tristram and Uncle Toby and the rest? Any thoughts, readers?