Wednesday, March 28, 2007

The Other Side of You, part three

Part one is here and part two is here.

This was all thrown into sharp relief the next morning, as, in reading Anthony Trollope's Can You Forgive Her? (1865), I came across the following passionate discussion, which runs along similar lines to some of Thomas and Elizabeth's conversations. George Vavasor talks here with his cousin, Alice, to whom he had once been engaged and whom he had treated badly, about her impending marriage to a quiet country farmer:
"Between you and me there can be no necessity for falsehood. We have grown beyond our sugar-toothed ages, and are now men and women. I perfectly understood your breaking away from me. I understood you, and in spite of my sorrow knew that you were right. I am not going to accuse or to defend myself; but I knew that you were right."

"Then let there be no more about it."

"Yes; there must be more about it. I did not understand you when you accepted Mr Grey. Against him I have not a whisper to make. He may be perfect for aught I know. But, knowing you as I thought I did, I could not understand your loving such a man as him. It was as though one who had lived on brandy should take himself suddenly to a milk diet,--and enjoy the change! A milk diet is no doubt the best. But men who have lived on brandy can't make those changes very suddenly. They perish in the attempt."

"Not always, George."

"It may be done with months of agony;--but there was no such agony with you."

"Who can tell?"

"But you will tell me the cure was made. I thought so, and therefore thought that I should find you changed. I thought that you, who had been all fire, would now have turned yourself into soft-flowing milk and honey, and have become fit for the life in store for you. With such a one I might have travelled from Moscow to Malta without danger. The woman fit to be John Grey's wife would certainly do me no harm,--could not touch my happiness. I might have loved her once,--might still love the memory of what she had been; but her, in her new form, after her new birth,--such a one as that, Alice, could be nothing to me. Don't mistake me. I have enough of wisdom in me to know how much better, ay, and happier a woman she might be. It was not that I thought you had descended in the scale; but I gave you credit for virtues which you have not acquired. Alice, that wholesome diet of which I spoke is not your diet. You would starve on it, and perish."
Though I'm only about a third of the way through Can You Forgive Her?, and I suspect that George may not ultimately be entirely trustworthy, I do think that here his speech is sincere. Whereas Thomas's pleadings to Elizabeth all seem rooted in his desire to further his own aims, George's to Alice, though they may have that effect, seem just as strongly rooted in a real desire for truth and an understanding of his cousin. Am I mistaken? Michael Dirda's not the only person, after all, who praised The Other Side of You--could this just be a very personal reaction to a couple of particular characteristics that Vickers has assigned to her character? From what I've provided here, do you see any difference in tone between the men as presented by Vickers and Trollope?

I'll close this too-long post with one last point against those who celebrate their own rudeness as having some inherent, iconoclastic value. I think Stephen Miller was dead-on in his Conversation: A History of a Declining Art (2006) when he wrote:
In popular culture rude people are celebrated as authentic, and those skilled at the art of conversation are often depicted a superficial or effeminate or dishonest (or all three).

The Other Side of You, part two

Part one is here.

The first time they meet, Thomas says,
I find I have to say things aloud so I can listen, because I'm the only person who understands me well.
They fall out of touch for fifteen years, Elizabeth marries and has a family in the London suburbs, and when they meet by chance on a flight to Rome, Thomas says,
"Of course, you're half Italian, aren't you? I've forgotten your name."

She began to say "Eliz-" but he interrupted.

"Don't be absurd, naturally I know you're 'Elizabeth.' The other one."

"It was Bonelli, but it's Cruikshank now."

"So there's a Mr Cruikshank? Who is he?"

"Someone I met soon after we met."

"Tell me all about him." She'd forgotten his trick of putting his head on one side. "Do you know, the Indians believed that the eyes of twin souls are an identical width apart?"

Those bits of dialogue are Thomas in a nutshell. His conversation is a mix of lecture-hall factoids, self-involved pronouncements, and bluntness. He's a blowhard--and, I quickly realized, one of a particular type, the sort that celebrates his own rudeness as some righteous blow struck against convention on behalf of truth. I found him instantly, remarkably, unpleasant. And as the pair embarks on a passionate affair, his claims of being a blunt truth-teller--someone who, as he says, "doesn't fuck about"--are revealed as not just annoying, but deeply pernicious. Thomas isn't actually interested in truth or honesty; rather, he's interested in the leverage that claims of truth can give him, in truth's value as a weapon.

In its simplest manifestation, that takes the form of his criticizing her wardrobe--from her underwear to her coats--as fusty, inauthentic to her free soul, and, ultimately, abominable. At its worst, it becomes an attempt to unmoor Elizabeth's every opinion and conviction in an effort to control her. Here is a portion of a conversation the two have about why she is reluctant to leave her family to be with him:
"For God's sake," said Thomas. "Behaving 'badly,' as you put it. What's that? By Neil's lights you'll be behaving appallingly badly by leaving him for a complete stranger. Anyway, why not behave badly? What's wrong with bad behaviour? Bad behaviour, good behaviour, what's the difference? Do you think you know? Really know? And you do know, don't you, he'll feel better if you behave, as you put it, "badly"? You'll be doing him a kindness if he can say you've behaved like a trollop. Be a trollop. Abandon him. Abandon your principles. They aren't yours, anyway. They're made up. You should stop making yourself up."

"I don't know what you mean," she said. She wasn't quite prepared to cry.

"Look," said Thomas, less fiercely, "it's like this. You aren't the person you've made yourself out to yourself to be. You're another person, quite a different one, maybe not too nice at all. I don't know. I don't care. I don't love you because you're nice. What's nice anyway? They can be "nice." Let them be. I'm not."

And later:
"You are trying. Extremely trying. I've never met anyone so trying. And I'm not being 'like' anyone except myself. I see things you don't see. It was there from the beginning. You didn't wait for me. You went and married him. You didn't wait. I should have seen."

Thomas, in other words, is an asshole. Now, to have created a character who is such an authentic, believable, blowhard asshole is a legitimate accomplishment. But I quickly realized, to my astonishment, that's not the character Vickers thought she was creating. The romance between Thomas and Elizabeth is the heart of the book; Vickers presents both Elizabeth and the psychiatrist as drawing different, life-changing lessons from their story, lessons about faith and the losses inherent in the choices we make. Vickers doesn't think Thomas is a jerk; though she makes some gestures towards acknowledging that he can be difficult (and has him do so, too), she thinks he's essentially right, both in his opinions and as a figure of romance for Elizabeth and of admiration for the psychiatrist. Yet even the most generous reading of his pushy, petulant behavior makes it seem an extremely unlikely foundation for a relationship of equals.

And with that realization, The Other Side of You was ruined for me. After all, trust is at the heart of the compact between reader and writer. I agree to surrender significant amounts of my time because I trust that a writer has interesting thoughts about people and human relationships. If Salley Vickers can't even recognize a horrid blowhard--one she's created--I have to doubt all her other impressions of human nature, too.

More tomorrow.

The Other Side of You, part one

I picked up Salley Vickers's The Other Side of You (2006) because Michael Dirda said that fans of Marilynne Robinson, James Salter, and Penelope Fitzgerald would like it. He wrote,
All these authors reflect, with grace and gravity, on life's moments of sorrowful epiphany, so achingly summarized by the Elizabethan playwright Thomas Heywood:

O God! O God! That it were possible

To undo things done; to call back yesterday. . . .

That was enough for me. But for the second straight time, the usually reliable Dirda has steered me wrong.

In The Other Side of You, a psychiatrist relates the story of a woman named Elizabeth Cruikshank, whom he counseled after a suicide attempt. He tells of their increasingly intimate sessions, of his own fear and uncertainty, and of the ways that the sessions become as much about his own emotional growth as about her coming to terms with the business of living. Slowly she reveals that her suicide attempt was driven by the loss of a great love. Not believing she could be truly loved, she pulled away, and she blamed that faithlessness, in part, for her loss. As Vickers puts it,
It is a hallmark of the damaged that when it comes to their own desire instinctively, ruinously, they tend to court the opposite.

The book is peppered with that sort of aphoristic lines about human nature, some of them almost as sharp as those found in George Eliot. For example, the psychologist, confronted with a pathologically lonely student, thinks,
I'm not sure why there is something shaming about having no one to confide in, but in my view a good deal of aberrant behaviour stems from unbearable isolation and the socially unacceptable sense of being quite alone
Of Eliabeth's attempts at assuaging the loss of her love, Vickers notes,
She was to learn why the commonly advised remedy of "pulling oneself together" is one which is recommended only by those who have been spared the doomed attempts to apply it.
And of his patients, the doctor states,
The people we were treating were not so much looking for a remedy for anxiety or depression, they were looking for a reason to be alive.

From all this, it's clear that Vickers has an interesting mind and is serious in her thinking about emotion, desire, and pain. The problem comes when she has Elizabeth begin describing her lover, Thomas, a free-spirited art historian.

More tomorrow.

The disappearing bees

Is it just me, or does this sound like the opening sentence of an apocalyptic sci-fi novel:
It started with the honeybees.

Note to the universe: while I enjoy reading about the end of the world, I'd rather not actually experience it.

Saturday, March 24, 2007

For your Saturday

Posting may be light the next week or so, because we have family in town and work has been taking up an inordinate amount of my other time and thought.

But I feel I need to start the weekend off with something.

First, from a letter of October 25, 1918, from Violet Trefusis to her lover, Vita Sackville-West, reproduced in Sackville-West's son, Nigel Nicolson's Portrait of a Marriage (1978)
Heaven preserve me from littleness and pleasantness and smoothness. Give me great glaring vices, and great glaring virtues, but preserve me from the neat little neutral ambiguities. Be wicked, be brave, be drunk, be reckless, be dissolute, be despotic, be an anarchist, be a sufragette, be anything you like, but for pity's sake be it to the top of your bent. Live fully, live passionately, live disastrously. Let's live, you and I, as none have ever lived before.

Let's follow that with words from someone else who felt the pull of strong passions his whole life, but who directed much of it towards god, John Donne.
A Hymn to God the Father

Wilt though forgive that sin where I begun,
Which was my sin, though it were done before?
Wilt thou forgive that sin, through which I run,
And do run still: though still I do deplore?
When thou hast done, thou hast not done,
For, I have more.

Wilt though forgive that sin which I have won
Others to sin? and, made my sin their door?
Wilt thou forgive that sin which I did shun
A year, or two: but wallowed in, a score?
When thou has done, thou hast not done,
For I have more.

I have a sin of fear, that when I have spun
My last thread, I shall perish on the shore;
But swear by they self, that at my death thy son
Shall shine as he shines now, and heretofore;
And, having done that, thou hast done,
I fear no more.

Donne and his struggles with desire were an influence on the poetry of Lord Rochester, who, however saw no reason to check his desires, living as he did without a belief in any higher power or eternal reward.

And, finally, in case you're trying, as your weekend beckons, between a quiet evening of reading and a raucous night on the town, I'll close with some Thomas à Kempis. Being an unbeliever myself, I think his words are unlikely to save you from damnation, but their peace might save you from a hangover.

From The Imitation of Christ (1420-27)
The man who has not diligently practiced holy repentance is not worthy of heavenly consolations. If you want to experience this repentance in your heart, go to your room and shut out the din of the world, as it is written: commune with your own hearts on your beds and be silent. Retire to your room and there you will preserve what you usually lose by leaving it.

If you keep to your room you will find delight in it, but if you only visit it, it becomes irksome and annoying. If, at the time of your conversion, you had accustomed yourself to stay in your room and remain there, it would now be your good friend and a source of great pleasure to you.

As a keep-to-my room sort, all I would add to Thomas's prescription is a martini and, of course, a good book. Enjoy your weekend.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

It Happens Every Spring

Every year, about this time of the pseudo-spring, I read a baseball book. I try to limit myself to one--aside, that is, from the annual Baseball Prospectus (and, now, for the first time, The Hardball Times Season Preview)--because I spend plenty of non-reading time thinking about baseball; my reading time should, I figure, be mostly baseball-free.

This year, after reading a great interview with the author at my favorite Cardinals blog, I chose Wall Street Journal sportswriter Sam Walker's Fantasyland: A Sportswriter's Obsessive Bid to Win the World's Most Ruthless Fantasy Baseball League (2006). I had skipped it when it was in hardcover because, despite years of being a statistically literate baseball fan, I'd always avoided fantasy baseball. But the same day that I read the interview--which made clear that the book would be of interest to any somewhat nerdy baseball fan, despite fantasy-avoidance--my friend Eric, ruthlessly drawing on all the power of a decade-long long-distance friendship, talked me into running a fantasy team in his league. So how could I not read Sam Walker's book?

It's good--Walker is very good at sketching out characters, building drama, and getting the reader deeply involved in the utterly inconsequential. The book deserves, and will, if I stay organized, receive, a full post (cross-posted, like this one, at Jim's and my baseball blog). For now, though, I'll just reproduce the passage that made me get up and find the laptop. Walker has just finished--in his eyes fairly successfully--his first fantasy draft in the nation's premier fantasy league. Drunkish on Guinness from the post-draft party at a bar in Queens, he wanders back to his Greenwich Village apartment. And he experiences a moment that seems to encapsulate my love of baseball, cities, and, in particular, New York:
By the time my shoes meet the pavement in Manhattan, it's well past midnight. As I'm staggering home down Bethune Street, something on the sidewalk catches my eye. It's scuffed and cracked and frayed at the seams, and probably not even made of leather, but nonetheless it's a baseball. On a damp and chilly night at the end of March, I step into the middle of the cobblestone street and, after checking for cabs, wheelchairs, dogs, bicyclists, and beat cops, I fix the ball in my fingers with a two-seam grip and take the sign.

Then I set, kick, and deliver.

The ball bounces under the glow of streetlights, skitters on a manhole cover, and ricochets off the front tire of a Toyota. The real major league season doesn't start for a few days, but mine begins right now. One of the advantages of owning a Rotisseries team is the inalienable right to throw out your own first pitch.

Players are working out, in Florida and that other place, Anthony Reyes of the world champion St. Louis Cardinals reportedly has command of his two-seamer, and even Rick Ankiel has a chance at making the major-league roster--as a hitter. We're almost at the best time of year since October; you could do far worse than usher it in with Sam Walker.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Lord Rochester, part three

Part one is here, and part two is .

Ultimately, however, the reason to care about Rochester is his poetry, which at its best is remarkably fun and inventive. I'll leave you with a couple of my favorites, all varying degrees of nasty. I'll begin with a couple of brief ones--the first, Greene surmises, written on the occasion of the end of his longest-lasting love affair, with a Mrs. Barry:
Upon Leaving His Mistress

'Tis not that I am weary grown
Of being yours, and yours alone:
But with what face can I incline,
To damn you to be only mine?
You, whom some kinder pow'r did fashion,
By merit, and by inclination,
The joy at least of a whole nation.

Let meaner spirits of your sex
With humble aims their thoughts perplex:
And boast, if by their arts they can
Contrive to make one happy man,
While, mov'd by an impartial sense,
Favours, like Nature, you dispense
With universal influence.

I also enjoy this early poem, a sort of libertine's creed, which is unrepentant, yet honest about the monotony of the totally dissipated life:
The Debauchee

I rise at eleven, I dine about two,
I get drunk before seven, and the next thing I do,
I send for my whore, when for fear of a clap,
I dally about her, and spew in her lap;
There we quarrel and scold till I fall asleep,
When the jilt growing bold, to my pocket does creep;
Then slyly she leaves me, and to revenge the affront,
At once both my lass and my money I want.
If by chance then I wake, hot-headed and drunk,
What a coyl do I make for the loss of my punk?
I storm, and I roar, and I fall in a rage,
And missing my lass, I fall on my page:
Then crop-sick, all morning I rail at my men,
And in bed I lie yawning till eleven again.

"The Debauchee" leads nicely into a couple of stanzas from "The Maim'd Debauchee," in which, old and infirm, the poet offers up his debauched life as an example for the youth--that they might choose the same road:
So when my days of impotence approach,
And I'm, by love and wine's unlucky chance,
Driv'n from the pleasing billows of debauch
On the dull shore of lazy temperance,

My pains at last some respite shall afford,
While I behold the battles you maintain,
When fleets of glasses sail around the board,
From whose broad-sides volley of wit shall rain.

Nor shall the sight of honourable scars,
Which my too-forward valour did procure,
Frighten new-listed soldier from the war;
Past joys have more than paid what I endure.

Should some brave youth (worth being drunk) prove nice,
And from his fair inviter meanly shrink,
'Twould please the ghost of my departed vice,
If, at my counsel, he repent and drink.

And finally, a long poem that tells of a temporary infirmity. Remarkable even among Rochester's work for its explicitness and vulgarity, it seems a good way to close this series:
The Imperfect Enjoyment

Naked she lay, clasped in my longing arms,
I filled with love, and she all over charms;
Both equally inspired with eager fire,
Melting through kindness, flaming in desire.
With arms,legs,lips close clinging to embrace,
She clips me to her breast, and sucks me to her face.
Her nimble tongue, Love's lesser lightening, played
Within my mouth, and to my thoughts conveyed
Swift orders that I should prepare to throw
The all-dissolving thunderbolt below.
My fluttering soul, sprung with the painted kiss,
Hangs hovering o'er her balmy brinks of bliss.
But whilst her busy hand would guide that part
Which should convey my soul up to her heart,
In liquid raptures I dissolve all o'er,
Melt into sperm and, and spend at every pore.
A touch from any part of her had done't:
Her hand, her foot, her very look's a c***.

Smiling, she chides in a kind murmuring noise,
And from her body wipes the clammy joys,
When, with a thousand kisses wandering o'er
My panting bosom, "Is there then no more?"
She cries. "All this to love and rapture's due;
Must we not pay a debt to pleasure too?"

But I, the most forlorn, lost man alive,
To show my wished obedience vainly strive:
I sigh, alas! and kiss, but cannot swive.
Eager desires confound my first intent,
Succeeding shame does more success prevent,
And rage at last confirms me impotent.
Ev'n her fair hand, which might bid heat return
To frozen age, and make cold hermits burn,
Applied to my dead cinder, warms no more
Than fire to ashes could past flames restore.
Trembling, confused, despairing, limber, dry,
A wishing, weak, unmoving lump I lie.
This dart of love, whose piercing point, oft tried,
With virgin blood ten thousand maids have dyed;
Which nature still directed with such art
That it through every cunt reached every heart -
Stiffly resolved, 'twould carelessly invade
Woman or man, nor aught its fury stayed:
Where'er it pierced, a cunt it found or made -
Now languid lies in this unhappy hour,
Shrunk up and sapless like a withered flower.

Thou treacherous, base deserter of my flame,
False to my passion, fatal to my fame,
Through what mistaken magic dost thou prove
So true to lewdness, so untrue to love?
What oyster-cinder-beggar-common whore
Didst thou e'er fail in all thy life before?
When vice, disease, and scandal lead the way,
With what officious haste dost thou obey!
Like a rude, roaring hector in the streets
Who scuffles, cuffs, and justles all he meets,
But if his king or country claim his aid,
The rakehell villain shrinks and hides his head;
Ev'n so thy brutal valour is displayed,
Breaks every stew, does each small whore invade,
But when great Love the onset does command,
Base recreant to thy prince, thou dar'st not stand.
Worst part of me, and henceforth hated most,
Through all the town a common fucking-post,
On whom each whore relieves her tingling cunt
As hogs do rub themselves on gates and grunt,
May'st thou to ravenous chancres be a prey,
Or in consuming weepings waste away;
May strangury and stone thy days attend;
May'st thou ne'er piss, who did refuse to spend
When all my joys did on false thee depend.
And may ten thousand abler pricks agree
To do the wronged Corinna right for thee.

A brief publishing note to close: Lord Rochester's Monkey was written in the early thirties, but Greene's publisher, Heinemann, rejected it, presumably because it was deemed too racy--as was, at the time, Rochester's verse. It wasn't until 1972 that a scholar noticed a reference to the book in Greene's papers and asked him about it; with a bit of updating, the book finally saw print in 1974. It's a brief book, and the publisher, Bodley Head, dressed it up with illustrations on each page, primarily of the principal characters and locations. It's out of print now, but used copies are readily available, well worth the cost for Rochester or Greene fans.

Lord Rochester, part two

Part one is here.

I have to admit that what has come down to us of Rochester's drunken antics tends to read more like the ill-natured thoughtlessness of the privileged--a court version of frat-boy pranking--than the work of a true wit. And there is no doubt that he had his unpalatable side; he was frequently violent, and even the most generous reading of his marriage has to account for his leaving his wife alone in the countryside for months on end with only his horridly overbearing mother for company. But even aside from the poems, hints of a more interesting and complicated personality break through. When temporarily banished from court for satirizing Charles II, Rochester took on the guise of an astrologer and doctor and plied that trade, incognito, on Tower Hill. At other times, he pretended to be a tinker or a vagrant; in these stories there are shades of the stories of Haroun al-Raschid, a deep-rooted restlessness and desire to shed the self.

By age thirty, Rochester's life of womanizing, whoring, and carousing through stews and rake-hells had caught up with him; he fell into poor health and died of a variety of ailments, syphilis looming large among them, at thirty-three. His apparent deathbed conversion, much bruited about by those hoping to curtail the scandalous behavior of Charles II's court, has been a source of controversy ever since. Greene treats Rochester's deathbed dialogues with ministers as serious inquiries, but he is unwilling to grant that Rochester's conversion and repentance were true. After all, a few months before he died, when, despite a temporary improvement, he surely knew the end was near, he wrote "The Wish":
O that I now cou'd by some chymic art
To sperm convert my vitals and my heart,
That at one thrust I might my soul translate,
And in the womb myself regenerate:
There steep'd in lust, nine months I wou'd remain;
Then boldly ------- my passage out again.

Certainly, Rochester's companions at court viewed tales of his conversion with a jaded eye. But that didn't keep those who wanted from pushing the story wholeheartedly. The following poem, written by a Sir Francis Fane, argues for Rochester's sneaky goodness; even supposing Rochester's repentance to be genuine, I find the only appropriate response to this argument to be laughter:
Satan rejoic'd to see thee take his part,
His malice not so prosperous as thy art.
He took thee for his pilot, to convey
Those easy souls whom he had led astray:
But to his great confusion saw thee shift,
They swelling sails and take another drift,
With an illustrious train reputed his,
To the bright regions of eternal bliss.

Greene's biography is similar to Anthony Powell's reviews of biographies, in that it frequently focuses on odd details and controversial topics at the expense of a straightforward narrative, assuming, perhaps correctly, that any student of English literature will have a more than passing knowledge of the Restoration. At times, though--for example, when he's attempting to settle the question of whether Rochester is guilty, as he has been charged over the years, of having rival John Dryden cudgeled by thugs--Greene's elliptical tendencies get the best of him. It's like reading the corrections box in a newspaper: what you want, and what they will never supply, is both the truth and the original mishandling of it.

But as readers of this blog know, odd details are something I greatly cherish in a biography, and Greene delves deeply into letters and diaries of Rochester and his contemporaries to provide them. The letter I posted a few days ago is a good example; another is this note about a brief stay Rochester made in France, from the pen of William Perwich, the English agent in Paris:
On Monday this Court went to St Germains, where the King [of France] made a general muster of all his Army, with the ceremony of great guns in the field, and that night he went hence my Lord Rochester was robbed in a chaise (of some 20 pistols and his periwig).
Or this note about the fate of Rochester's letters:
A greater loss still, a history of the Restoration Court in the form of letters to [his friend] Savile, went to the bonfire. For Rochester had asked his mother to burn his papers, lest the example of his works should lead others to sin, and she obeyed with alacrity. "Apropos," wrote Horace Walpole, "did I ever tell you a most admired bon mot of Mr Bentley? He was talking to me of an old devout Lady St. John, who burnt a whole trunk of letters of the famous Lord Rochester, 'for which,' said Mr Bentley, 'her soul is now burning in heaven.'"
Greene quotes from a letter Rochester wrote to Savile,
I have seriously consider'd one thing, that [of] the three businesses of this age, women, politics, and drinking, the last is the only exercise at which you and have not prov'd ourselves arrant fumblers.

More tomorrow.

Lord Rochester, part one

It seems reasonable that biographers, especially those who are essentially dabbling in biography rather than making it their career, should find in their subjects mirrors of their own preoccupations and personalities. After all, few biographers actively choose a subject whose life and opinions they find utterly uncongenial; from there it is but a small step to discovering that one's subject is, it turns out, a slightly refracted version of oneself.

Thus it is no surprise that Graham Greene, in Lord Rochester's Monkey (1974), presents a Lord Rochester whose libertinism and cynicism are born from a disappointed ideal, a sense that the world and all in it have fallen far short of what we might have been--a view that hews closely to what I would attribute to Greene himself. While Greene's ideal was born of Catholicism (which has the added benefit of ascribing nobility to suffering, however self-inflicted, and repentance, however repetitive), it is unclear where Rochester's originated, unless it was simply by analogy: what I see around me is highly praised, despite being utterly unworthy; the fact that I am perceptive enough to see that means there must be something better--a good, perhaps--that lies beyond this tawdriness. In such a world, a man who sees through the pious declarations and pretension to virtue has a choice: he can either stand strong, resist the world's temptations, and call out its failings with religious fervor, or he can succumb--to drink, lust, cynicism--and thus provide crucial support for his own contention. Rochester chose the latter, argues Greene, who, though he might not have put it so bluntly, did the same.

So Rochester, after serving bravely in naval engagements against the Dutch while still in his teens, arrived at the infamously wild court of Charles II as the greatest excesses of the Restoration were just getting underway, letting out all the wantonness that had been bottled up by two decades of war and Puritan rule. Becoming a close friend of the King, Rochester joined him and others in drunken escapades, sharing of mistresses, and all manner of generally unruly behavior (another reminder, if any are still needed, that when right-wing loonies screech about the horrors of contemporary morality, they're demonstrating yet again their willful ignorance). Rochester became embroiled in duels, attempted to kidnap his future wife, and, all the while, wrote poetry that was by turns viciously satirical and breathtakingly salacious. He turns up frequently in the diaries of Pepys, who, despite their similarly concupiscent natures, seems always a bit unsure about Rochester.

Rochester quickly became the foremost poet and wit of the Restoration court, apparently as charming as he was rackety and unreliable. As his friend George Etherege said of him, "I know he is a Devil, but he has something of the Angel yet undefac'd in him." A Mr. Waller writes,
Last night I supped at Lord Rochester's with a select party: on such occasions he is not ambitious of shining; he is rather pleasant than not: he is comparatively reserved; but you find something in that restraint, which is more agreeable than the utmost exertions of talent in others.
Another friend, poet Nathaniel Lee (who was destined to end his days in Bedlam), based a character on Rochester in a play and wrote of him,
He was the spirit of wit and had such an art in gilding his failures, that it was hard not to love his faults. He never spoke a witty thing twice, though to different persons; his imperfections were catching, and his genius was so luxuriant, that he was forced to tame it with a hesitation in his speech to keep it in view. But oh how awkward, how insipid, how poor and wretchedly dull is the imitation of those that have all the affectation of his verses and none of his wit.

More tomorrow.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

The World's Worst Mustache, Redeemed

That, you will surely agree, vies for the title of most grotesque mustache in the history of the world. Yet I cannot fully condemn its creator. How, you ask? How could I countenance such a blight?

It's simple. That mustache was borne by Henry Wilmot, first Earl of Rochester, the father of the Restoration poet, libertine, and drunk Lord Rochester. Rochester's poetry--bawdy, crude, cynical, satrical, and vicious--is a source of great fun. But I would redeem Lord Rochester's father from punishment for his mustache had his son written nothing more than the following letter to, as Graham Greene puts it in his biography of Rochester, "his fat, patient, and disreputable friend," Henry Savile:
Mr Savile,
Do a charity becoming one of your pious principles, in preserving your humble servant Rochester from the imminent peril of sobriety; which, for want of good wine more than company (for I can drink like a hermit betwixt God and my own conscience) is very like to befall me. Remember what pains I have formerly taken to wean you from your pernicious resolutions of discretion and wisdom! And, if you have a grateful heart (which is a miracle amongst you statesmen), show it, by directing the bearer to the best wine in town: and pray let not this highest point of sacred friendship be peform'd lightly, but go about it with all due deliberation and care, as holy priests to sacrifice, or as discreet thieves to the wary performance of burglary and shop-lifting. Let your well-discerning palate (the best judge about you) travel from cellar to cellar, and then from piece to piece, till it has light`ed on wine fit for its noble choice and my approbation. To engage you the more in this matter, know, I have laid a plot may very probably betray you to the drinking of it. My Lord ---- will inform you at large.
Dear Savile! as ever thou dost hope to oudo Machiavel, or equal me, send some good wine! So may thy wearied soul at last find rest, no longer hov'ring twixt th' unequal choice of politics and lewdness! Mast thou be admir'd and lov'd for thy domestic wit, belov'd and cherish'd for thy foreign interest and intelligence.

Need I say more in defense of Lord Rochester's father against all calumnies?

There's much more to share about Rochester, which I'll do once this too-busy week is concluded.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

A weekend's reading

I spent the weekend reading about lost worlds. First I was wrapping up George Orwell's Coming Up for Air (1939), which is an engrossing monologue by an unexpectedly thoughtful low-level insurance executive who, like everyone else in 1938 England, is dangling between the ordinariness of daily life and the certain horrors of impending war. The thought of war leads him back to his own childhood, before World War I, the last, lingering years of old country life in England--a life that would have been recognizable in its contours, if not its particulars, to his great-great-great grandparents. His appraisal is fairly clear-eyed, but he looks back on that time (and his youth, cut short by war), with real nostalgia:
I'm back in Lower Binfield, and the year's 1900. Beside the horse-trough in the market-place the carrier's horse is having its nose-bag. At the sweet-shop on the corner Mother Wheeler is weighing out a ha'porth of brandy balls. Lady Rampling's carriage is driving by, with the tiger sitting behind in his pipeclayed breeches with his arms folded. Uncle Ezekiel is cursing Joe Chamberlain. The recruiting-sergeant in his scarlet jacket, tight blue overalls and pillbox hat, is strutting up and down twisting his moustache. The drunks are puking in the yard behind the George. Vicky's a Windsor, God's in heaven, Christ's on the cross, Jonah's in the whale, Shadrach, Meschach and Abednego are in the fiery furnace, and Sihon king of the Amorites and Og the king of Bashan are sitting on their thrones looking at one another--not doing anything, exactly, just existing, keeping their appointed places, like a couple of fire-dogs, or the Lion and the Unicorn.

Is it gone for ever? I'm not certain. But I tell you it was a good world to live in. I belong to it. So do you.

The world he speaks of is greatly changed, yet it is not totally lost. But in my reading, things got worse from there. I moved to Richard Matheson's I Am Legend (1954), which tells of a man living in Los Angeles, barricaded in his house by night, the only survivor of a plague of vampirism. Matheson builds up a terrifying account through layers of plausible detail, leading us through the difficult, repetitive tasks that take up the man's day--and that are essential to his survival:
In the beginning he had hung these necklaces [of garlic] over the windows. But from a distance they'd thrown rocks until he'd been forced to cover the broken panes with plywood scraps. Finally one day he'd torn off the plywood and nailed up even rows of planks instead. It had made the house a gloomy sepulcher, but it was better than having rocks come flying into his rooms in a shower of splintered glass. And, once he had installed the three air-conditioning units, it wasn't too bad. A man could get used to anything if he had to.

That ability to cope--or lack of it--is at the heart of the book I read next, John Wyndham's The Day of the Triffids (1951), which envisions the utter breakdown of society that would occur if nearly everyone went blind. Though Wyndham complicates the story wonderfully, introducing a second, effectively creepy threat in an invasive species of woody shrubs known as Triffids, the collapse that the blindness alone brings about is instant and total. London is left with perhaps a couple of hundred sighted people, and The Day of the Triffids is concerned with the different ways they respond, the possible ways they imagine structuring a new society. Like I Am Legend--or any other good apocalypse novel--it uses detailed accounts of the hard work necessitated by the failure of our specialized supply and production system as the backdrop for the fundamental questions about nature, sufficiency, society, and knowledge that would instantly be laid bare by such a fundamental rupture of daily life.

Then I watched 28 Days Later, which, not being a book, I won't discuss here beyond saying it's scary and was perhaps, on top of the two books, a bit more than I needed in that vein in one weekend. Dark, apocalyptic, riddled with loss and unresolvable questions--this reading list is a reliable recipe for swampy anxiety dreams.

But then today the sun came out, the temperature warmed up and nearly chased the last of the snow--the ice on the lake went out, floes of it floating from the shore carrying groups of seagulls--and after taking a walk, Stacey and I sat on the back steps in the late-afternoon sun with our pet fish and some iced tea. She embroidered and I read out loud from The Letters of E. B. White (2006). And the large-hearted humanity that comes through White's letters immediately began to change the tenor of the whole weekend.

White is sometimes comfortably curmudgeonly--in August of 1944, despite being concerned about the war, he writes to Harold Ross of the New Yorker, asking that items sent to him not be stapled together. In response, Ross sends him an unstapling machine:
18 August 1944
Dear Ross:
The unstapling machine arrived yesterday and has given me new courage to go on. So far, the only thing I have had to unstaple is the card marked "Mr. H. W. Ross," which was attached by staple. Anyway, it gave me a nice workout, although in order to hold the box properly, I had to cover the instructions with my hand, which made it necessary for me to memorize the instructions, instead of reading them as I went along. The "Mr." in front of your name sounds like a phony, by the way. Sounds like the "Prince" in front of Romanoff. I suspect you are an imposter--have all along.

If they can invent a thing to remove staples, it is conceivable that they can eventually find something to emasculate a rocket bomb. Anything is possible today, as you know.

This is just to thank you for the Ace Staple Remover.
Brig. Gen. White

At other times, White tells of his life in rural Maine, which usually takes the form of a slightly pixilated comedy. A few weeks after the stapler exchange, he writes to his brother:
I had just gone out when you phoned last night, and Aunt Caroline took the call. She is slightly deaf, and probably had to make up all the answers. The reason nobody else was in the house was that we were all out returning a visiting pig to its owner. When the owner came along the road to meet us, he looked accusingly at the pig and said: "Hell, everything I own is adrift tonight."
Later in the letter he says of a visitor: "Her St. Bernard left last week, and the departure of a St. Bernard from a home is one of the finest things that can happen to the home." This particular St. Bernard, a footnote informs us, "insisted on rescuing swimmers who were not in need of rescue."

New York can provide comedy, too: he writes to his wife's secretary at the New Yorker to say:
I know you will be interested to hear that I left New York, by mistake, one day sooner than I intended to. Meant to go Friday, got on the train Thursday in error. Pullman seat was for Friday. I just stood up.
Yrs in error,

Even business correspondence includes jokes and anecdotes, written in White's wry, careful, balanced prose. Here he writes to his editor about Charlotte's Web (1952):
I am relieved to learn that the first printing wasn't too ambitious and that there will be a second. My wife is buying a great many copies and has, I believe, managed to exhaust the first printing almost singlehanded. I'm not sure there is any profit for the author in this sort of arrangement, but I shall not attempt to work it out on paper.

Meanwhile, he replies to fans in surprisingly straightforward fashion:
There is no sequel to "Stuart Little." A lot of children seem to want one, but there isn't any. I think many readers find the end inconclusive but I have always found life inconclusive, and I guess it shows up in my work.

To another, he writes:
Dear Mr. Mouthrop:
Thanks for your letter. I'm very glad to know that Stuart and Charlotte can take someo f hte pressure off an adolescent. I haven't been an adolescent for a number of years but I can remember that the pressure was fierce.

But my favorite of the letters I've read so far, and the one that seemed most fitting for the lovely late-afternoon light of this unexpectedly springlike Sunday, is one from 26 December 1952, to Grade 5-B in Larchmont, New York:
I was delighted to get you letters telling me waht you thought about "Charlotte's Web." It must be fine to have a teacher who is a bookworm like Mrs. Bard.

It is true that I live on a far. It is on the sea. My barn is big and old, and I have ten sheep, eighteen hens, a goose, a gander, a bull calf, a rat, a chipmunk, and many spiders. In the woods near the barn are red squirrels, crows, thrushes, owls, porcupines, woodchucks, foxes, rabbits, and deer. In the pasture pond are frogs, polliwogs, and salamanders. Sometimes a Great Blue Heron comes to the pond and catches frogs. At the shore of the sea are sandpipers, gulls, plovers, and kingfishers. In the mud at low tide are clams. Seven seals live on nearby rocks and in the sea, and they swim close to my boat when I row. Barn swallows nest in the barn, and I have a skunk that lives under the garage.

I didn't like spiders at first, but then I began watching one of them, and soon saw what a wonderful creature she was and what a skillful weaver. I named her Charlotte, and now I like spiders along with everything else in nature.

I'm glad you enjoyed the book, and I thank you for the interesting letters.
What a thrill that deeply generous letter must have given Mrs. Bard and her students when they returned from the Christmas holidays!

And what a good note on which to end a weekend.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Books in the suitcase

"Weeks before any journey, I begin to worry about what books I'll bring."

Sound like any blogger you know? Though it could have been written by me, it's actually the opening sentence to a nice piece by Jay Parini in the Chronicle of Higher Education about picking books with which to travel. I've written before about how difficult it is to choose books for a trip, about the complex formulae involved in determining which and how many books to bring for a trip of x duration. First of all, you need to be sure you have enough books for the trip, but you also need to have an extra (or two) in case you find yourself not in the mood for one of the ones you brought--and you need at least one book in which you repose complete confidence so you know your attention will be totally diverted during the flight.

Parini's solution is a bit simpler than mine: he carefully arranges to be three-quarters of the way through a gripping novel when he sits down on the plane. But that seems wasteful to me, because you know from the start you'll be carting around a novel you've finished. I prefer to preview several novels, just to make sure they're not godawful, then bring a couple. Maybe when I'm older, my shoulders less willing to bear a multi-book burden, I'll take Parini's advice, but for now I'll keep carrying two or three too many books on every trip.

My friend and former coworker Jim sent me the link to Parini's story because we were discussing this topic over the weekend. With a vacation in prospect, Jim is starting to plan out his reading, simultaneously making sure that he'll not be in the middle of anything when the time comes to leave and starting to eye the books he might want to take along. At the time, I expressed sympathy . . . and then the other day Stacey and I decided to fly to London next month. So now I'm in the same spot: what to take along? I'm tempted to take Tess, since I've been thinking and writing about Hardy so much lately. Maybe we'll even go visit his home in Dorset. Or some Trollope? And no matter how many times I've read him, I always consider taking Anthony Powell to London; other than Dickens, there are few better books to read on the tube.

Anyone want to make other suggestions?

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

A final post on raconteurs

I was able today to see what the full Oxford English Dictionary had to say on the subject of raconteurs:
One skilled in relating anecdotes or stories.

1828 J. C. YOUNG Jrnl. 3 July in Memoir Charles Mayne Young (1871) I. v. 169 Sir Charles is a handsome, thoroughbred gentleman, and a capital raconteur. 1829 DISRAELI Yng. Duke I. xii. (1831) 97 Stamped the illustrious narrator as the most consummate raconteur. 1855-6 THACKERAY Four Georges (1861) 183 Scott..the very best raconteur of his time. 1885 Manch. Exam. 13 Apr. 5/7 He was a good raconteur. No one knew more good stories or could tell them so well. 1922 JOYCE Ulysses 604 A gifted man, Mr Bloom said of Mr Dedalus senior, in more respects than one and a born raconteur if ever there was one. 1937 Discovery Oct. 326/1 Mrs. Johnson says little about herself, indulges in no purple passages, and without the conscious effort of the raconteur she manages to introduce many good stories and telling anecdotes. 1958 L. DURRELL Mountolive xv. 296 The inevitable anecdote of a famous raconteur to round off the letter. 1972 J. MOSEDALE Football iii. 35 (caption) Jimmy Conzelman functioned as quarterback, coach, raconteur, songwriter..and promoter.

So raconteuse (-tøz), a female raconteur.

1863 OUIDA Held in Bondage (1870) 46 ‘There's not one of you men now-a-days like Selwyn’, began the old raconteuse again. 1892 Daily News 2 Aug. 5/1 Let us admit that she is a good raconteuse, for the sake of grammar.

Which leads me to a couple of raconteuses, a group I've managed to neglect all week. We'll start with Dorothy Parker. She opens this selection from "Literary Rotarians," (from the February 11, 1928 issue of the New Yorker and collected in The Portable Dorothy Parker (2006)), by slagging, by implication, the literary raconteur:
You cannot go ten yards, on any thoroughfare, without being passed by some Rotarian of Literature, hurrying to attend a luncheon, banquet, tea, or get-together, where he may rush about from buddy to buddy, the writing game. I believed for as long as possible that they were on for their annual convention; and I thought that they must run their little span and disappear, like automobile shows, six-day bicycle races, ice on pavements, and such recurrent impedimenta of metropolitan life. But it appears that they are to go on and on. Their fraternal activities are their livings--more, their existences.

Granted, Parker is writing not so much about raconteurs as about a very specific type of literary hobnobber, but her capacity for scorn is so great that I doubt she would hold fire should some theoretically unobjectionable retailer of anecdotes of literary life wander into her sights.

Even so, she can't help herself; the stories to be gleaned from watching this crowd are too tempting:
I went to a literary gathering once. How I got there is all misty to me. I remember that, on that afternoon, I was given a cup of tea which tasted very strange. Drowsiness came over me, and there was a humming noise in my ears; then everything went black. When I came to my senses, I was in the brilliantly lighted banquet-hall of one of the large hotels, attending a dinner of a literary association. The place was filled with people who looked as if they had been scraped out of drains. The ladies ran to draped plush dresses--for Art; to wreaths of silken flowers in the hair--for Femininity; and, somewhere between the two adornments, to chain-drive pince-nez--for Astigmatism. The gentlemen were small and somewhat in need of dusting. There were guests of honor: a lady with three names, who composed pageants; a haggard gentleman who had won the prize of $20 offered by Inertia: A Magazine of Poesy for the best poem on the occupation of the Ruhr district; and another lady who had completed a long work on "Southern Californian Bird-Calls" and was ready for play.
But Parker, as you can already see, did not allow the glamour of the event to overwhelm her skepticism:
By pleading a return of that old black cholera of mine, I got away before the speeches, the songs, and the probably donning of paper caps and marching around the room in lockstep. I looked with deep interest, the net morning, or the bookmen's and bookwomen's accounts of the event. One and all, they declared that never had there been so glamorous and brilliant a function. You inferred that those who had been present would require at least a week to sleep it off. They wrote of it as they wrote of every other literary gathering--as if it were like those parties that used to occur just before Rome fell.

From that day to this, I have never touched another cup of tea.

To balance Parker's scorn, I'll close with a raconteuse who truly relished outre stories, Nancy Mitford. In an October 19, 1953 letter to Evelyn Waugh, she tells of meeting Field Marshall Montgomery for lunch:
Well I had my luncheon with Monty. He is terribly like my Dad--watch in hand when I arrived (the first, luckily), only drinks water, has to have the 9 o'clock news & be in bed by 10, washes his own shirts, rice pudding his favourite food. All my books by his bed & when he gets to a daring passage he washes it down with Deuteronomy. But oh the glamour! He sat me next him although there were a French Marquise & and English peeress at the bout de la table. I do hope I did well--not absolutely sure, though. He took me to see an awful little English garden with maples turning red, & I was obliged to say that I couldn't look--too ugly. He was surprised. His ADC told me he said to a French general "I know what you're like--I've read The Blessing" & the Frog replied "Yes, well I've read Love in a C. C."

And, finally, from another letter to Waugh from October 30th of that year, a description of the recent activities of her reclusive, reactionary father (nicknamed Prod):
Prod lives on a small yacht, usually tied up at Golfe Juan. He is a perfectly happy human being & the idol of the local population there. He looks exactly like some ancient pirate--bone thin, pitch black, white hair & beard & dressed in literal rags. He wears steel rimmed spectacles. He has a villainous Spaniard who does the chores--when, on one occasion this fellow displeased Prod he ran up a signal, "Mutiny on board." However nobody in the modern world, except Prod, can read these signals any more so nobody came to the rescue. Last time he went to England he was shown that list of dutiable goods at the customs. He asked for paper & pencil & wrote down everything that is on it: "perfume handbags ladies underwear etc etc." It took ages & they had to keep the train. Then they asked him to open his suitcase & it was empty. So they said they would have him up, but Prod said "you can't have me up for declaring what I haven't got, only for not declaring what I have got." Do say he's lovely.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Some more on raconteurs

Before I move on, as promised, to Ludwig Bemelmans, I can't resist giving you another taste of Julian Maclaren-Ross's storytelling, one which seems to perfectly place him within my personal definition of the word raconteur. Here, in Memoirs of the Forties, he describes a night out in Guildford Street:
More of the chaps appeared, I hoped some of the girls might show up as well, but the party remained all male and the conversation became a lot less literary. All at once it turned on a woman, evidently much given to experiment and well known to all, who'd been the victim of an accident, perhaps to her leg, on a remote Italian hillside, and had had to have a blood-transfusion on the spot. Since none of the people roundabouts belonged to the proper blood group, the doctor had been compelled to accept as blood donor some mountain animal; here my memory begins to falter, although a goat seems the most probable in such surroundings and comes most readily to mind as the kind of quadruped concerned.

. . . .

I remember that, in an effort to divert my attention, one of the young men pointed wildly into the darkness ahead, shouting, "Look, down there's Doughty Street. Where bloody old Dickens lived," while another leant over some railings to show me an area in which he'd once either had a fight or else been sick, dropping in the process a bottle of pale ale which shattered below.

. . . .

After [the antique dealer] had finished explaining that all worthwhile drama, indeed all art, had originated somewhere in Central Europe, eaten the last piece of salami and made sure that there was no more wine, he climbed with Makins' assistance into a fur-collared overcoat. . . . The antique dealer was however, the only jarring note in the whole evening: the chaps were all nice cheerful intelligent young men and I regret, during all my future nights in Bloomsbury and Soho pubs, that I never came across any of them again; nor did I ever run into the woman who had been transfused with the blood of the goat. Perhaps they were all killed in the war, though I hope not.

I don't tend to think of Anthony Powell as a raconteur, because despite the stories of his contemporaries that fill his autobiography he is best known for his fiction, which while drawing on those stories alters them significantly. But a Powell fan can hear his voice in Maclaren-Ross's studied vagueness--"evidently much given to experiment," "perhaps to her leg," "my memory begins to falter"--which, as in A Dance to the Music of Time, where the most unexpected and unlikely events come to the narrator second- or third-hand, over drinks, lends a wonderful air of verisimilitude to even the most outlandish drunken tales. Some of the best of those tales, of course, concern down-at-heel writer and Soho raconteur X. Trapnel, who was modeled, down to the malacca cane he carried, on Julian Maclaren-Ross.

Now on to Ludwig Bemelmans, whom you probably know best as the writer and illustrator of the Madeleine books. Since my first trip to New York a few years ago, I've also known him as the artist who decorated one of my favorite spots in the city, Bemelmans Bar at the Hotel Carlyle, which is a forties-style bar decorated top to bottom in lovely little paintings of animals, children, parents, and New York scenes, all clearly the work of Madeleine's creator. But I had also heard that Bemelmans had done some writing for adults, and recently Stacey got me a volume put out by Overlook, Hotel Bemelmans (2002), which collects his short pieces about working in New York's grand hotels at their 1920s and '30s height.

Turns out he's quite the raconteur, with a quick wit and an eye for the telling detail. His grandfather owned a brewery, and:
After years of experience [he] could drink thirty-six big stone mugs of beer in one evening. He ate heavy meals besides, hardly any vegetables, only dumplings and potatoes, potatoes and dumplings, and much meat.

In consequence of this diet, Grandfather had several times a year attacks of very painful gout, which in Bavaria is called Zipperl. Much of the time, one or the other of his legs was wrapped in cotton and elephantine bandages. If people came near it, even Mother, he chased them away with his stick saying: "Ah, ah, ah" in an ecstasy of pain and widening his eyes as if he saw something very beautiful far away. Then he would rise up in his seat, while his voice changed to a whimpering "Jesus, Jesus, Jesus." He said he could feel the change in weather in his toes, through the thick bandages. But he did not stop eating or drinking.

His hotel and restaurant stories are the works of a perceptive insider, revealing the knavery and goofiness that go on behind the scenes, familiar in contour if not detail to anyone who's ever worked even the lowest level of food service. In the following passage, he helps a friend break into the hotel icebox to steal cheese for a party:
"Shh," said Mr. Sigsag, and I looked around once more; there was no one outside. He climbed in and reached down, but he was too short to reach the cheeses. I held his knees, then his ankles, and then his shoes; then I had his shoes in my hands and Mr. Sigsag was down with his face in some Camembert. Also there was a noise. I closed the icebox door. It was the night watchman; he looked in and I polished away at some bottles. The man sat down, lit a pipe, and started to talk; it wa a long time before he left again on his rounds.

In the meantime, Mr. Sigsag had been trying to get up; kneeling and standing and sliding and then sitting down again in all kinds of cheese. He first handed out a Pont L'Eveque, hard and solid. "There will be trouble anyway," he said, "we might as well take it along." Then he gave me his cold hands, but for some time I could not lift him out. They were smeared with cheese and slipped out of mine. I gave him a napkin, with which he cleaned his face and hands, and finally I could pull him out, his sleeves and trousers full of cheese. He took a shower downstairs, change his trousers, but he still smelled.

That passage exemplifies what I ask of a raconteur: take me someplace where I by temperament or circumstance am unlikely to go, and tell me about the people you meet there and what they're up to. I suppose it's not all that different from what I ask of any writer, of fiction or non-fiction.

Regardless, as again and again I tuck myself in at an hour long before the monsters, night owls, beats, aberrations, goths, goons, vagabonds, knockabouts, oddities, lunatics, ravers, on-the-makers, and drunk poets have rounded into form, I'll reserve a special place in my heart for the raconteurs and raconteuses, my foreign correspondents from the night.

Monday, March 05, 2007

On Raconteurs

Though I've long loved the word "raconteur," I've recently realized that I have been giving it a sense that it does not, apparently, have. According to Merriam-Webster's, the meaning of raconteur, which dates from 1828, is very straightforward:
A person who excels in telling anecdotes.
The New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary is a bit more inclusive to start:
A (usu. skilled) teller of anecdotes
but then circumscribes the word significantly by adding a reference to a word I'd never heard of:
raconteuse A female raconteur.

What surprises me here (aside from raconteuse) is not what is in the definition, but what is left out. Having over the years imagined a definition based on the ways I've heard the word used, I would have defined raconteur as
One who skillfully tells anecdotes, often (if not always) from personal experience, that experience gained often (if not always) while drunk or with drunks.

Am I the only one who thinks of raconteurs this way? I decided to put the question to Google. A search on notable storyteller Garrison Keillor and raconteur returns 518 hits, while a search on notable drunk, actor, and storyteller Peter O'Toole and raconteur yields 567 hits. That may not satisfy science, but the fact that someone best known for his acting and drinking outperforms someone primarily known for his storytelling is enough for me.

[Side note: A search on Garrison Keillor and drunk yields a surprising 67,700 hits--but here's where O'Toole really shines: he draws about 130,000. What a man.]

This is all prelude to an appreciation of raconteurs, especially as I erroneously define them. As someone who mostly stays at home or sees the same old friends, enjoys a single martini and hates hangovers, and is nearly always in bed by midnight, my respect for those who are capable of adventuring until dawn knows almost no bounds. I understand that the rackety life can cause difficulties for the practitioner and his loved ones--but once the tippler has survived his adventures, and especially once he's committed them to the page, he becomes my friend for life, giving me entree to late-night worlds as unexpected and exotic as those of The Arabian Nights.

In recent weeks, I've been spending a lot of time with a couple of literary raconteurs. I'm continuing to plow through Soho dandy Julian Maclaren-Ross's ouvre, which is essentially one long story about being down at heel and looking for money for cigarettes and booze. His Memoirs of the Forties (1965) features cameos from all sorts of well-known and long-forgotten London literary drunks and hustlers, from Dylan Thomas:
"Why don't you take that bloody jacket off?" Dylan said.
"What's wrong with my jacket?"
"Fucking dandy, flourishing that stick. Why don't you try to look more sordid, boy. Sordidness, that's the thing."
to the mostly-forgotten editor of Poetry London, J. Meary Tambimuttu, about whom Maclaren-Ross first learns from a girl named Kitty of Bloomsbury:
When Kitty came down from Oxford and was looking for a job, [Tambi] took her to a bare basement room, containing a half-collapsed camp bed, a kitchen chair and a wooden table on which were a bottle of blue-black ink, a chewed post-office pen holder, and stacks of [his] embossed crested paper.

"This was my office," he said. "Now it is yours. I engage you as my secretary and poetry-reader." Squashing a cockroach on the sweating wall with a rolled-up copy of Poetry London, he waved this at a chaos of accumulated MSS in a corner.

"Poems," he said. "Contributions, you know? I have not time to read them. If they're no good, perhaps they should be returned. They've been here a long time; the rats have eaten some. We have no typewriter yet, but there is ink and paper to write the authors. You will be paid fortnightly. Do you have any money?"

"Yes, thank you, I've got five pounds."

"That is good," Tambimuttu said. "I am a prince in my country and princes don't carry money, you know. Give me the fiver and later the firm will refund you. I am going to lunch with T. S. Eliot. You know who is T. S. Eliot?"
Tambimuttu, whose incorrigibility is perhaps only matched by his general enthusiasm for anything not involving paying out money, becomes a regular drinking companion of Maclaren-Ross. One night, says Maclaren-Ross,
We were with two suburban young women, new to Fitzrovia, whom he'd picked up in the Wheatsheaf and who were both uninteresting and interested only in being bought a meal in some newly opened restaurant which they'd heard was good but which was off our usual beat. Tambi was becoming increasingly worried as we stumbled over cobble-stones further and further from the territory that he had made his own; he glanced longingly at strips of light visible through the blackouts of pubs where the girls refused to stop.

"Nearly ten o'clock," he muttered. "In an hour they'll be closing and this restaurant perhaps has no license," and suddenly he caught up with the girls who were walking ahead arm-in-arm, giggling and whispering together, convinced that they'd achieved their objective in finding a pair of suckers who would foot the bill.

"Listen you must tell us please, my friend and I wish to know, do you do it or not?"

"Do it?" they chorused. "Do what?"

"You know. Sex."

There was a pause for shock to register, then outraged gasps of "How dare you," came in unison.

"You mean you don't?"

"Certainly not. The idea!"

"Then be off!" Tambi shouted, banishing them with a gesture into the blackout: "You are wasting our valuable drinking time," and we retraced our steps to Rathbone Place.

I said: "I could have told you those girls were NBG."

"How did you know?"

"Well they were nurses or something weren't they?"

"Don't nurses do sex?"

"Yes but only with doctors whom they hope to marry after."

"Only doctors? Is that all?" Tambi was silent for a moment then asked: "Only medical doctors? A doctor of literature would not be any good?"

"Are you a doctor of literature?"

"Not yet, but I could have a degree conferred. Honorary you know. From Oxford. I know many professors there, and then I could fuck with all these nurses. What do you think?"

Again and again, Maclaren-Ross recounts tales that could only happen in the wee hours, when the participants are burning with a low blue flame--exactly the hours I spend in bed, and exactly what I want from my raconteurs. Similarly, many of the people he tells of would be absolutely intolerable in real life--especially if one or both of you were sober--which leads me to expand on my definition of raconteur:
One who skillfully tells anecdotes, often (if not always) from personal experience, that experience gained often (if not always) while drunk or with drunks--frequently drunks who are best heard of at second-hand.

This rambling post is getting long, and I haven't even gotten to the second of my recent raconteur companions, Ludwig Bemelmans. For that, you'll have to wait until tomorrow. Until then, I'm going back to my martini.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Some thoughts on Tess and truth, to close a week of Hardy

I thought I was finished with Thomas Hardy, but a conversation at the office today about him led me back to Claire Tomalin's biography where I dug out the following letter from Robert Louis Stevenson to Henry James, deploring Tess of the D'Urbervilles (1891):
Tess is one of the worst, weakest, leas sane, most voulu [Wanted? French speakers--anyone clear this up for me?] books I have yet read . . . no earthly connexion with human life or human nature; and to be merely the unconscious portrait of a weakish man under a vow to appear clever, or a rickety schoolchild setting up to be naughty and not knowing how . . . Not alive, not true was my continual comment as I read, and at last--not even honest! was the verdict with which I spewed it from my mouth.

Stevenson's criticism is close in tone to Tomalin's statement about the darkest, most self-pitying portions of Jude the Obscure:
"This is not a true account of life. Hardy is not only coercing his plot, he is generalizing falsely."
Similarly, Nick Hornby (to whose column on Pete_Dexter I find myself referring for the second time this week), tells of Martin Amis recalling his father saying
that he found Virginia Woolf's fictional world 'wholly contrived: when reading her he found that he kept interpolating hostile negatives, murmuring, "Oh no she didn't" or "Oh no he hadn't" or "Oh no it wasn't" after each and every authorial proposition.

Though I disagree Amis about Woolf (for whom it is hard to imagine a reader less likely to be congenial or receptive), I appreciate the sentiment. When I judge a novel a failure, it is most often because it has failed the test of reality; the author has intentionally misrepresented, bent, or damaged human nature--and the world itself--for some other purpose, and thus the novel's every word has become suspect. Once you begin to doubt an author, there's little reason to continue except to argue with the book (which, like Kingsley, I will admit I do quite a bit of).

If I were forced to boil my aesthetic as a reader of fiction down to one phrase, it would be that I am looking in fiction for the manifold answers to the question of "What is one to do?" Such an aesthetic should not be mistaken for a belief in a truly pedagogical role for literature; rather, I formulate it that way to emphasize the openness I hope to bring to any piece of writing: I want to learn about characters on their terms, as their situations and the decisions they entail strike them. But for that question to matter at all, the people and the world being presented absolutely must ring true--one false note can ruin a whole work.

That said, I find it's an aesthetic that is incredibly malleable, one that does not by its nature foreclose any type or genre of literature, for any form, well practiced, can accommodate true observations about people and their interactions. As I don't by nature tend towards the doctrinaire, I can sometimes enjoy novels, from crime to sci-fi to comedy, that do suborn a true representation of life to other goals--but the best authors (such as Patricia Highsmith and Graham Greene, Stanislaw Lem and Phillip K. Dick, J. F. Powers and Kingsley himself) find ways to present a real understanding of people without sacrificing their other aims. And while someone who has a way with a sentence will always have an advantage over someone whose prose is pedestrian, ultimately it all comes back to the question behind Stevenson's complaint: is this author paying real attention to the world, has this creation fully come to life, is it true enough to be real?

Which brings us back to Tess, about which I--and Claire Tomalin--think Stevenson is dead wrong. Picking almost at random, I find the following passage, wherein Tess, well beyond down on her luck, finds herself, at the end of a tremendously long walk across the Dorset countryside, needing to seek succor from her father-in-law:
She nerved herself by an effort, entered the swing-gate, and rang the door-bell. The thing was done; there could be no retreat. No: the thing was not done. Nobody answered to her ringing. The effort had to be risen to and made again. She rang a second time, and the agitation of the act, coupled with her weariness after the fifteen-miles' walk, led her to support herself while she waited by resting her hand on her hip, and her elbow against the wall of the porch. The wind was so nipping that the ivy-leaves had become wizened and gray, each tapping incessantly upon its neighbour with a disquieting stir of her nerves. A piece of blood-stained paper, beat up and down the road without the gate; too flimsy to rest, too heavy to fly away; and a few straws kept it company.

Tess remains so powerful more than a hundred years after its publication precisely because it feels so true to life. Tess herself is achingly real, her sufferings all the more painful because her ultimately insufficient strength is so deeply rooted in a life, and a person, in whom we fully believe. Hardy, for all his failures in gender relations within the confines of his marriage, clearly understood and appreciated women with a perspicacity unexpected in a late Victorian man; it may be unfair to conjecture thus, but I wonder if Tess was simply too much for Stevenson, a woman beyond his imagining?