Wednesday, June 26, 2013

When there's no hare in the race, a turtle can have his day in the sun, or, A Winner!

Readers, you have outdone yourselves! I asked for your turtle stories, in celebration of the publication of Russell Hoban's wonderful and odd novel Turtle Diary, and you came through brilliantly!

Fifteen of you posted stories--you can read them all in the comments to this post, and I urge you to do so--and so many of them are good that picking just one to win the promised copy of Turtle Diary has proved to be very difficult.

It's probably no surprise that the most beautifully written, calling up a summer night in all its humid verdancy, comes from Patrick Kurp, discerning shopkeeper over at Anecdotal Evidence:
In the late summer, the fields and marshes along Riverview Road are dense green jungles dotted with the gaudy magenta of purple loosestrife. The road follows the southernmost edge of Saratoga County, N.Y., paralleling the Mohawk River and stretches of the old Barge Canal.
The rest of the story lives up to its opening, bringing together youth and age, wisdom and inexperience, and uniting them through simple care for an animal that most likely is incapable of understanding it.

The simplest, on the other hand, is Lisa Peet's account of dreaming of owning a turtle named Quonset, while the saddest is undoubtedly Bentham Hurtado, Jr.'s lament for his late turtle friend, Cabbage.

Alas, there can only be one winner, and that is Thomas, who shares this story:
In 1997, in Athens Greece, a cousin of mine had an extended house-sitting arrangement with an elderly woman who had gone to London for some kind of therapy. It was a one-floor house in Kypseli, an area of Athens that had once been both a popular middle-class neighbourhood as well as home to all kinds of writers, musicians and arts, but had now become overpopulated, even slummy in parts. The living room had French windows that opened to a shabby, dusty garden surrounded on all sides by apartment buildings. The old woman had rescued two turtles in the early 1980s and given them a home in this garden. They were still alive when my cousin was staying there and one of her duties was to make sure they had food and water.

One day she was sitting in the living room when she heard a thudding noise on the French windows. She tried to ignore it, but it kept occurring. Finally she got up. Through the window she saw one of the turtles knocking at the base of the door with its head. When she opened, it turned around and started walking away. After a few steps, it stopped and looked back at her. It took a few more steps and again looked back. To my cousin's amazement, the turtle was trying to lead her to the end of the garden.

She followed it to where some empty ceramic pots were kept, and among them she found the other turtle, which had somehow managed to fall over and was stuck on its back. She turned it over again, and the two turtles went off to another corner of the garden together.
I'm a sucker for a good Lassie story, especially when the Lassie character wears a shell. Thomas, if you'll drop me an e-mail with your address, I'll get the book out to you.

Thanks again to everyone who contributed. As William G. might put it, it's been nice to think turtle thoughts with you.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

In youth

I'm as deep into working on The Getaway Car, my forthcoming Donald Westlake collection, as I've been yet--the hope is to turn in a draft manuscript next week--so all I'll steal time away for today is to share a paragraph from Jane Bowles's Two Serious Ladies:
As a child Christina had been very much disliked by other children. She had never suffered particularly because of this, having led, even at a very early age, an active inner life that curtailed her observation of whatever went on around her, to such a degree that she never picked up the mannerisms then in vogue, and at the age of ten was called old-fashioned by other little girls. Even then she wore the look of certain fanatics who think of themselves as leaders without once having gained the respect of a single human being.
I picked up Two Serious Ladies entirely on the strength of a single line quoted by a friend on Facebook:
It is against my entire code, but then, I have never begun to use my code, although I judge everything by it.
You folks are now in the fortunate position of having a whole paragraph more than I did--plus my assurance that it was a good decision. To the bookstore, I say!

Friday, June 14, 2013

From turtles to water-beetles

While I'm busy collecting turtle stories--go leave yours in the comments to Wednesday's post!--I'll share another passage from Russell Hoban's Turtle Diary. This one is from Neara's diary, written after a session of watching her pet water-beetle:
It was past three in the morning and I was staring into the green murk of Madame Beetle's tank. The plants are all shrouded in long green webs of algae, there are white and ghostly bits of old meat hanging about blooming with mould, the sides of the tank are very dim. It's like the setting for a tiny horror film but Madame Beetle doesn't seem to mind. I can't think now how it could have occurred to me that I might write a story about her. Who am I to use the mystery of her that way? Her swimming is better than my writing and she doesn't expect to get paid for it. If someone were to buy me, have me shipped in a tin with air-holes, what would I be a specimen of?
I don't know the answer to that, but I do know that, as her eventual partner in well-meaning crime, William G., points out, she would be the source of Neara soup.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

You can never have too many turtles, but maybe you can have too many Turtle Diaries? Or, a contest!

For several years now, Ed Park has been urging me to read Russell Hoban's Turtle Diary. So it's fitting that in his introduction to the new NYRB Classics edition what he does is, essentially, urge you--and you, and you over there--to read it. "I'm going to make you need this story," he writes, and elsewhere,
My own shelves are crammed with books I mean to get around to sometime. Yours probably are, too. What if I told you that this novel, of two loners on a mission to liberate the sea turtles from the London Zoo, is like a lot of things you already like, while being so much its own stupendous thing that it's become one of my literary yardsticks?
And what if I told you that my shelves, too, are crammed, with books Ed has convinced me to read (while his, I suspect, groan under a similar weight in return), and that those I've followed through on (Charles Portis! Charles Portis! Charles Portis!) have taken their place among my favorites? When Ed Park tells you to read something, trust him.

He's right about Turtle Diary, too. Told through dual (not quite dueling) diaries, it comes to life through the voices of its twin narrators, William G. and Neera, and the wild (and often hilarious) peregrinations of their strange, solitary thoughts. On the first page alone, William dreams of an octopus, then looks up a picture of one in the bookstore where he works:
Their eyes are dreadful to look at. I shouldn't like to be looked at by an octopus no matter how small and harmless it might be. To be stared at by those eyes would be altogether too much for me, would leave me nothing whatever to be.
From that unexpectedly bleak thought, within sentences he's on to this:
They're related to the chambered nautilus which I'd always thought of only as a shell with nothing in it. But there it was in the book full of tentacles and swimming inscrutably.
"Swimming inscrutably." Perfect, and perfectly strange. A later entry opens:
Briefcases. Businessmen, barristers carry briefs. When I was in advertising we always talked about what our brief was. Brief means letter in German. Brief is short. Life is a brief case. Brief candle, out, out. In the tube there was a very small, very poor-looking man in a threadbare suit and a not very clean shirt, spectacles. He made a roll-up, lit it, then took from his briefcase a great glossy brochure with glorious colour photographs of motorcycles. Many unshaven men carry briefcases. I've seen briefcases carried by men who looked as if they slept rough. Women tramps usually have carrier bags, plastic ones often. I carry one of those expanding files with a flap. Paper in it for taking notes, a book sometimes, sandwich and an apple for lunch. The apple bulges, can't be helped.
Lately I've been admiring Alice Thomas Ellis's ear for the quiet, often punishing asides we deliver, sotto voce or even silently, in the interstices of difficult conversations--and her ability to render their often unsettlingly oblique quality. Hoban has a similar skill with what we say truly to ourselves, the altogether more benign jokes and tangents that pepper our thoughts throughout the day, and that in quantity and importance often outweigh the words we speak aloud.

(My favorite of those? This one, which I have found myself thinking about pretty much every day in the month since I first read it:
Two of the turtles at the Aquarium are green turtles, a large one and a small one. The sign said: "The Green Turtle, Chelonia mydas, is the source of turtle soup . . . " I am the source of William G. soup if it comes to that. Everyone is the source of his or her kind of soup. In a town as big as London that's a lot of soup walking about.
How can you resist that?)

The voices, and the underlying sensibility, are what draw you in, but Hoban doesn't rely solely on that--he instead sets his two seemingly inertia-ridden characters in motion and works them through a plot, and even a romance. If the plot is a bit fractured, if, as Ed puts it, "the dramatic mainstays of love and death . . . are not necessarily in the places you expect," well, that's what happens when you set out with oddballs. The book starts off funny, and, while never losing its charm, winds up being moving, earning its place as "one of the great novels of middle age," as Ed puts it:
It's a book that can help you, even if you don't think you need help. (If you've read this far, you do.) It offers solace to anyone who has ever looked at her situation in life and wondered, as one of Hoban's characters does, "Am I doomed?" (Answer: No.)
Now that I've filled your mind with turtle thoughts ("Funny, two minds full of turtle thoughts"; "Now here we are, both of us alone and thinking turtle thoughts."), let's put them to good use! I've ended up with an extra copy of Turtle Diary, and rather than let it moulder on my shelf, I thought I'd give it to someone: I'll send the book to the person who leaves the best turtle story in the comments by June 20.

I'll start. A few years back, I was walking out of Central Park up the 77th Street ramp, when a young man on a bicycle came barreling down the ramp, swept around the curve, and headed north, towards Belvedere Castle and Turtle Pond. How did I know that's where he was headed? In his right hand, held out away from his body, was a turtle, legs swimming in air. As he flew past, the man was saying to the turtle, "Don't fret! Don't fret!"

And your turtle story?

Monday, June 10, 2013

Penelope Fitzgerald on Barbara Pym

Before I leave Barbara Pym for a while, here's one last, quick post in honor of her centennial. In a review of Pym's A Few Green Leaves, Penelope Fitzgerald--who, though nearly Pym's contemporary, didn't truly get established in her writing career until much later, and who clearly felt Pym's influence--offers a description of the mostly hidden stakes that quietly underlie conversations in Pym's works:
In her nine novels Barbara Pym stuck serenely to the [world] she knew best: quiet suburbs, obscure office departments, villages where the neighbours could be observed through the curtains, and, above all, Anglican parishes. . . . This meant that the necessary confrontations must take place at cold Sunday suppers, little gatherings, visits, funerals, and so on, which Barbara Pym, supremely observant in her own territory, was able to convert into a battleground. Here, even without intending it, a given character is either advancing or retreating: you have, for instance, an unfair advantage if your mother is dead, "just a silver-framed photograph," over someone whose mother lives in Putney. And in the course of the struggle strange fragments of conversation float to the surface, lyrical moments dear to Barbara Pym.
"An anthropologist," declared Miss Doggett in an authoritative tone. "He does some kind of scientific work, I believe."

"I thought it meant a cannibal--someone who ate human flesh," said Jane in wonder.

"Well, science has made such strides," said Miss Doggett doubtfully.
"Well, he is a Roman Catholic priest, and it is not usual for them to marry, is it?"

"No, of course they are forbidden to," Miss Foresight agreed.

"Still, Miss Lydgate is much taller than he is," she added.
In such exchanges the victory is doubtful: indeed, Miss Doggett and Miss Foresight are, in their way, invincible.
Pym's conversational battles, like her humor, are so subtle that an inattentive or unsympathetic reader could easily miss them entirely. Unlike Ivy Compton-Burnett, whose characters fight with words like naked blades and in not a few cases are ready to back up their thrusts with actual violence, Pym's characters leave the social surface unruffled; in fact, a fear of troubling the waters is at the root of many a silent retreat. Pym's dialogue, and what it represents, is part of a lineage that stretches back to Austen--but surely Penelope Fitzgerald was not its last practitioner? Anyone have nominations for the Pym of today, in that regard?

Wednesday, June 05, 2013

Falling in love (with a writer--specifically Barbara Pym)

Is there any moment more important to us when we're young--more obsessed-over, more fraught--than that of falling in love? The energy and emotion that we, at sixteen or eighteen or twenty, bring to bear on trying to pinpoint the instant when appreciation and amusement and desire and friendship and intrigue crystallize into love . . . well, if it does nothing else it reminds us, ineluctably, that we're ultimately all the centers of our own Copernican scheme.

But when does it happen with a writer? There's no question that sometimes it's instant. For me, that's Borges, or Steven Millhauser: reading both the first time felt uncannily like welcoming old friends into the house--there was surprise and mystery there, certainly, but also a comfort, as if Borges's Library of Babel had already alerted me to the existence of these brilliant permutations of letters. Other times, it's gradual. I didn't really fall for Anthony Powell until well into the second volume of A Dance to the Music of Time, and I didn't--to stay with and extend the metaphor--marry him until my second time through the sequence.

It's probably no surprise, given the ups and downs of her reputation over the decades, that the process was gradual with Barbara Pym. Penelope Fitzgerald's praise led me to Less Than Angels, and I was impressed with her delicacy and humor, but it took time for head and heels to swap. I read another, then another. Then I read the diaries and letters, and used a whole pad of post-it flags. Then I found myself spotting Barbara Pym characters and situations in everyday life. I was caught.

There really is no one quite like her. Oh, Jane Austen is her model, and Ivy Compton-Burnett, Penelope Fitzgerald, and Anthony Powell impinge on her Venn diagram, but no one else provides her exact cocktail of insight, aphoristic asperity, wit, perceptiveness, and at times painful honesty--mixed, crucially, with love and comfort. Her centennial has sent me back to her books, as it should, and that has only confirmed my love.

I'll close with an anecdote that makes me smile, shared by Pym's sister, Hilary Pym Walton, which opens her brief foreword to "All This Reading": The Literary World of Barbara Pym (2003):
I am reminded of an incident from the distant past when someone, on meeting Barbara and me with our mother, asked, "And which is the clever one?" I am afraid that she was referring to me, as I had drawn a picture of a horse at an early age and had received some sort of certificate.
Which leads me back to Pym's inexhaustible diaries, to an entry from July 10, 1943, when she was in an army training camp:
I went with Peggy Wall, a quiet dark girl who seems to be about the best of our lot--she used to be secretary to a literary agent. She said as soon as she saw me she thought--I bet she's going to write a novel about it. Well--who knows.
If you share my tastes at all--there's nearly eight years of blog posts here to help you determine that--and you've not read Pym, do. It will make your summer.

Monday, June 03, 2013

Good birthday wishes for Thomas Hardy and Barbara Pym!

In a diary entry for May 20, 1977, Barbara Pym noted,
Seeing a handsome Dorset woman at a petrol pump I thought a Hardy heroine of today might well follow such an occupation. Tess for instance.
She mentions reading Hardy a couple of times in her diaries and letters, once accurately describing the right atmosphere for taking comfort from his poetry--
The weather is dull but not unpleasant--rather calming and saddening and I'm glad i have brought Hardy's poems with me.
--and later trying (and failing) to imagine him driving.

If she knew they shared a birthday, she didn't mention it. Yesterday, June 2, would have been Pym's hundredth birthday, Hardy's 173rd. They overlapped for fifteen years, long enough for us to imagine a young Pym, having fallen for Tess, saddened at hearing of Hardy's death. They're not similar writers at all, but in a talk written for the BBC in the spring of 1978, "Finding a Voice," Pym did reveal some passages from Hardy's notebooks that, while she doesn't explicitly make this point, feel like part of the Pym universe:
Let me quote this entry for Sunday, February 1st 1874: "To Trinity Church, Dorchester. The rector in his sermon delivered himself of mean images in a sublime voice, and the effect is that of a glowing landscape in which clothes are hung up to dry." Or another entry, for October 25th 1867, more likely to have inspired a poem: "Martha R --, an old maid whose lover died, has his love letters to her bound, and keeps them on the parlour table."
The latter has the self-aware wistfulness of Pym's characters, the former a hint of her judgment and humor--though if we encountered it in the context of Hardy's work the judgment would predominate.

Which leads to the unanswerable question: Would Hardy have liked Pym's work? It seems wildly unlikely, doesn't it? Hardy bridges the Victorian and Edwardian eras, but for all their ventures into psychology his novels remain nearly as full of incident as their predecessors, whereas Barbara Pym's books turn on such modest changes of heart and fortune that a reader more accustomed to the violence and passion of Hardy could miss them entirely. In fact, the developments in Pym's plots so often don't exist, involving as they do the raising and surrendering of unexpressed dreams--whereas dreams in Hardy are rarely (if ever?) repressed, finding life in wild, dramatic action.

The humor, too, would be a problem. Hardy's novels are almost entirely humorless, at least when it comes to their central characters and concerns, as Anthony Powell noted in a 1971 review for the Telegraph:
Hardy's failing was a total lack of humour, which, one feels, might have prevented some of the absurdities. He could do knockabout up to a point, or irony, but one has only to think of Balzac, Dickens, Dostoevsky, Proust, or Conrad, to see the missing quality that is possessed by most of the great novelists in one form or another.
Hardy's humor is almost always found in the rustics around his protagonists, the characters who see no disjunction between their dreams and their surroundings, who harbor neither hope nor fear of change--they're Shakespearean jesters (though fortunately less irritating). Gentle satire of Pym's sort, even if you could explain its essential reference points of contemporary social intercourse, would I suspect fall entirely flat with Hardy. As Penelope Fitzgerald notes in her perceptive review of Pym's last novel, A Few Green Leaves,
High comedy needs a settled world, ready to resent disturbance.
--and Hardy's world is anything but settled. What we get in Hardy is the friction caused by different rates of change, between an old way of life that is inexorably being lost (but slowly enough that the fact can be denied) and a new freedom that is emerging too fitfully (and that ultimately may not wholly compensate for what's been lost). Tess as a gas station attendant in Hardy would involve disgrace and rage in at least equal parts with fierce independence; as a Pym character she would be merely a figure of speculative village gossip.

No, much as Pym loved Hardy, the reverse seems unlikely. But birthday mates they are despite. This year, Pym, rightfully, is getting the lion's share of attention: her centennial has sparked a wonderfully astute appreciation by Carrie Frye for the Awl, while bloggers at My Porch and Fig and Thistle are hosting a Barbara Pym reading week. From My Porch's gallery of Pym covers I learned that the New York Times once called her "the novelist most touted by one's most literary friends," while Shirley Hazzard simply noted that "her books will last." Indeed. It's unlikely we'll be around for her bicentennial, but I hold out hopes that her books will.