Tuesday, May 29, 2007


About a hundred pages into John Crowley's Endless Things (2007), the final piece of his Aegypt tetralogy, I put it down. Seven years--an appropriate number for a series wrapped up in the idea of the mythically powerful--had passed since I'd read the first three parts, and I realized that if I was going to properly appreciate this novel, I would need to go back and reread the first three. The thought gave me pause. Though re-reading is something I enjoy, the decision to return to a book is always fraught; the countless unread novels--potential favorites all--press on me with particular force when I open a book for second time. And Aegypt in its entirety runs to more than 1,500 pages

Because work, travel, and family obligations have slowed my reading, it's taken me three weeks, but I've re-read it all, and it's been worth it. I've described the tetralogy a bit before, and if you want a more thorough explanation, this review from 2000 in the Boston Review does about as good a job of explaining Crowley's project as I can imagine. I've written before about what a surprisingly small role books and reading play in most fiction--relative, at least, to the role they play in my life and, I trust, those of most writers--and what struck me most in re-reading Aegypt was how utterly wrapped up in stories, and therefore books, the whole series is. Crowley presents his characters, led by his protagonist Pierce Moffett, as preternaturally aware of the way that we use stories to understand the world--and how those stories then shape, or even create, the world they describe. Old stories bleed into new, trace elements of discarded myths linger like junk DNA in our individual understandings of our everyday lives, and even the simple act of recognizing those inherited parameters and archetypes can influence our subsequent decisions.

Yet to feel yourself too strongly to be a character in a story, with feats to perform, prizes to win, and momentous decisions to make is also to be reminded constantly that the story could have gone differently, that a seemingly ordinary decision could be responsible for moving your story from the comedic or the heroic to the tragic. It can be paralyzing, and Crowley's protagonist, Pierce Moffett, spends most of the tetralogy suspended in that sort of uncertainty, wondering about what it is he is supposed to be doing and what sort of story he's supposed to be living. For three novels Pierce spins a variety of alternate theories of the history of the world, of the persistence of magic into our own age, and Crowley travels right along with him, showing us magic in many forms, most of them attempts to achieve power or deny inevitable loss--through wealth, sex, religion, pity, even parenthood. Crowley and Pierce step right up to the edge of promising us secret, forbidden knowledge, hinting that they have a key to understanding the hidden, occult history of the world--the sort of understanding (and, thus, power) that is tempting even to us rational skeptics.

The achievement of Endless Things is, without denying or damaging what has come before, to convince us that it was all just another story--and stories, after all, are the original, crucial magic, the only kind that we as a society can't do without. But, Crowley argues convincingly, on an individual level stories can be limiting, a distraction. We can live our lives wrapped up in books--thank goodness--but we have to remember, along the way, to actually live those lives. In Endless Things Pierce finally realizes that he must take Prospero's road and abjure his magic. The only real secret knowledge was the hope of a secret knowledge itself; realizing that, Pierce is finally willing to accept the uncertainties and finalities of existence and simply plunge into the business of living.

Which returns me to the point I made in writing a few weeks ago about Crowley's reading at KGB: for all its complexity, its heady ideas, layers of self-reference, and its interweaving of different times, places, and myths, Aegypt is about people, their decisions and their fates. That's what all good stories are about, after all, what keeps us reading, hoping to see these lives, so real, so similar in many ways to our own, set into a form that allows for understanding. Even if that understanding primarily consists of accepting that the complexity of life is beyond our ken, our desires will at least be gratified with an end to the story; the lives therein, messy as they may be, as messy even as our own, will be allowed the clarity and dignity that accrues to any ending. As Crowley says late in Endless Things:
Endings are hard. Everybody knows. It's probably because in our own beginningless endless Y-shaped lives things so rarely seem to end truly and properly--they end, but not with The End--that we love and need stories: rushing toward their sweet conclusions as though they rushed toward us, our eyes damp and breasts warm with guilty gratification, or grinning in delight and laughing at ourselves, and at them too, at the impossible endings; we read and we watch and we say in our hearts, This couldn't happen, and we also say, But here it is, happening.

Friday, May 25, 2007

The hour is late, and night draws in on silent feet

(Photo by Rocketlass)

Though Chicago is nowhere near as mysterious as Venice, this is the best time of year for sitting late on the back steps and watch the city night steal in over the dark cemetery behind our house, its silent occupants waiting patiently for their hours to come. The sodium vapor lights in the alley slowly expand their dominion, the day sounds--of cars and talk and alley basketball--turn to night sounds--of sirens and breaking bottles and the distant music of party chatter. The evenings unfold slowly, and the mosquitoes have yet to renew their annual war on all warm-blooded creatures, so with books and a martini I remain outside until darkness forbids further reading.

From After Dark (2004, English translation 2007), by Haruki Murakami
Through the eyes of a high-flying night bird, we take in the scene from midair. In our broad sweep, the city looks like a single gigantic creature--or more like a single collective entity created by many intertwining organisms. Countless arteries stretch to the ends of its elusive body, circulating a continuous supply of fresh blood cells, sending out new data and collecting the old, sending out new consumables and collecting the old. To the rhythm of its pulsing, all parts of the body flicker and flare up and squirm. Midnight is approaching, and while the peak of activity has passed, the basal metabolism that maintains life continues undiminished, producing the basso continuo of the city's moan, a monotonous sound that neither rises nor falls but is pregnant with foreboding.

From Lois the Witch (1856), by Elizabeth Gaskell
Evening was coming on, and the wood fire was more cheerful than any of the human beings surrounding it; the monotonous whirr of the smaller spinning-wheels had been going on all day, and the store of flax downstairs was nearly exhausted, when Grace Hickson bade Lois fetch down some more from the storeroom, before the light so entirely waned away that it could not be found without a candle, and a candle it would be dangerous to carry into that apartment full of combustible materials, especially at this time of hard frost when every drop of water was locked up and bound in icy hardness. So Lois went, half shrinking from the long passage that led to the stairs leading up into the storeroom, for it was in this passage that the strange night-sounds were heard, which everyone had begun to notice and speak about in lowered tones.

From At Day' Close: Night in Times Past (2005), by A. Roger Ekirch
"He that does ill hates the light," affirmed a Scottish proverb. Numerous folk, besides burglars, robbers, and other hardened rogues, exploited the evening darkness, often for illicit purposes. Petty criminals were far more numerous, if less feared. For poor families, social and legal constraints of all sorts eased. Indigent households buried their dead at night to escape paying parish dues, which had the added benefit of protecting gravesites from thieves, often needy themselves. Where grave robbers at night stole clothing and caskets, "resurrection men" unearthed entire bodies, freshly interred in churchyards, to sell for medical dissection. . . . The best time for treasure hunting fell after midnight, with some evenings preferred to otehrs depending on the moon's phase. Silence was critical. As a defense against demons, it was customary to draw one or more circles at the supposed spot. More alarming to authorities, malevolent spirits might be invoked to assist in unearthing the treasure. An English statute in 1542 threatened hunters with the death penalty for "invocacions and conjurations of sprites" to "get knowledge for their own lucre in what place treasure of golde and silver shulde or mought be found."

From Peter Haining's introduction to The Ghost-Feeler: Stories of Terror and the Supernatural, by Edith Wharton
It is a strange fact that for the first twenty-seven years of her life, a woman who is today regarded by several authorities on ghost fiction as one of the foremost writers of supernatural stories of her time, was quite unable to sleep in any room that contained so much as a single book of such tales. So unnerved was Edith Wharton by supernatural fiction that she later admitted to destroying any that she came across in the home.

From Blitz: The Night of December 29, 1940 (2005), by Margaret Gaskin
On his brief fact-finding mission from New York, PM editor Ralph Ingersoll had found the most striking aspects of Blitz life were "the normalcy of life by day and the dramatic suddenness with which that life stops at sundown." Though he had adjusted to it, he just "couldn't get over" it at first: in London, "The two worlds, the world of peace and the world of war, exist side by side, separated by only a few minutes of twilight.

From Religio Medici (1643), by Sir Thomas Browne (encountered in The Oxford Book of Death (1983), edited by D. J. Enright
I believe . . . that those apparitions and ghosts of departed persons are not the wandring souls of men, but the unquiet walks of Devils, prompting and suggesting us unto mischief, blood, and villainy; instilling and stealing into our hearts that the blessed Spirits are not at rest in their graves, but wander solicitous of the affairs of the World. But that those phantasms appear often, and do frequent Cemeteries, Charnel-houses, and Churches, it is because those are the dormitories of the dead, where the Devil, like an insolent Champion, beholds with pride the spoils and Trophies of his Victory over Adam.

From The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis (1984, English translation 1991), by Jose Saramago
The evidence of death is the veil with which death masks itself. Ricardo Reis has gone past the tomb he was looking for. No voice called out, Hello, it's here, yet there are still those who insist that the dead can speak. What would become of the dead if there were no means of identifying them, no name engraved on a tombstone, no number as on the doors of the living.

One's only recourse, clearly, is to stay awake, keeping company with the owls and the nightjars, opossums and rats. If it means closing one's book when it's too dark to read, well, at least night also belongs to the hoboes and raconteurs, who can surely keep us entertained until dawn.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

On why, having read only 59 pages of Gore Vidal's Lincoln, I returned it to my local library

On the scale of Abraham Lincoln fandom, my interest in the man wouldn't even register. A search on "Abraham Lincoln" at Amazon, for example, returns 44,402 results, of which I've read maybe four. But I am a native Illinoisan, and Lincoln is an endlessly compelling subject: despite those 44,000 volumes, his interior life remains almost completely obscure, and his achievements as a leader are so profound as to almost demand that we keep attempting to plumb that obscurity. What made him the man he was?

That sense of Lincoln's of essential mystery was what drove me to Gore Vidal's Lincoln (1983). How better to get into Lincoln's head than to be freed from strict accountability to history? Good historical novels, after all, can succeed as both history and fiction, illuminating and giving character to the bare facts of history; the fictional depictions of the Battle of Borodino in War and Peace and the Gordon Riots in Barnaby Rudge, for example, have a human weight and immediacy that few historical accounts can match.

But after slogging through 59 pages of Vidal's Lincoln, I closed the book with a sigh and returned it to the library, defeated. I could no longer stomach clunky chunks of exposition-rich, history-laden dialogue like this one:
"But you ain't Union, Mr. Thompson. You're from Virginia, like us."

"What I may be in my heart of hearts, Davie"--Mr. Thompson was now solemn--"I keep to my self, and I suggest you do the same because of our numerous distinguished customers."

"Mr. Davis was one of your customers?"

"One of my best customers, poor man. I've never known anyone to suffer so much from that eye condition of his. He'll be blind by the summer, I said to Dr. Hardinge, if you don't change the prescription. But you can't tell Dr. Hardinge anything. On my own, I gave Mr. Davis belladonna to stop the pain--"

"So then he is your President."

"If I were in business in Montgomery, Alabama, yes, he would be. But I am here--with my loved ones--in a shop at Fifteenth and Pennsylvania Avenue, and I am the official unofficial pharmacist for the presidents of the United States and as I looked after Mr. Buchanan and Miss Lane--she'll never make old bones, I fear--I intend to look after the Lincoln family, a large one, for a change, and sickly, I should think, wonderfully sickly, from the glimpse I had of them yesterday."

Though a friend tells me that Vidal's Burr is actually very good, I think Lincoln has probably turned me off Vidal's fiction for the foreseeable future. If you're looking to get your Lincoln fix, I recommend Adam Gopnik's article in this week's New Yorker instead. Nothing new there for true Lincoln afficionados, I'm sure, but for us casual fans it's a nice, brief look at recent scholarship on Lincoln's language. As for me, if I'm still in a Lincoln mood come the family vacation this summer, I may finally tackle Doris Kearns Goodwin's Team of Rivals (2005).

But on such a pleasant summer evening, it seems wrong to only criticize in this post, leaving you with nothing but another item for your unrecommended list. So instead, because I believe you can never remind people too many times or too loudly that, yes, the Civil War really was about slavery (and that those who try to say otherwise are usually pushing an unpleasant agenda)--and because I was inspired by the hilarious article on lolcats on Slate yesterday, I present to you an LOL Lincoln . . . the Lincloln:

(Original photo by chadh, used under Creative Commons license; Lincloln created by rocketlass.)

Monday, May 21, 2007

Done, seen, read in New York

From The Zurau Aphorisms, by Franz Kafka (translated by Michael Hofmann, published in English in 2006)
It isn't necessary that you leave home. Sit at your desk and listen. Don't even listen, just wait. The whole world will offer itself to you to be unmasked, it can do no other, it will writhe before you in ecstasy.
Ah, but only by disregarding Kafka's Thomas-a-Kempis-ean advice can you even think about going New York for a week on business.

And if you go to New York, you just might, on the first morning you're there, walk past a man on the street who looks, at a glance, like John Crowley--or at least like John Crowley looked twenty years ago when the photo was taken that decorates his novel Love and Sleep, which is tucked under your arm so you can read it at breakfast. Knowing that John Crowley is going to be in town a few days later for a reading, you might even think of saying to the man's receding back, quizzically, "John Crowley?" How often, after all, is he recognized on the street?

But the moment, most likely, would pass too quickly, the question remain unasked. Off to breakfast you'd go.

That, it turns out, is for the best, because at the reading you might realize that the man you saw was not John Crowley. He was too tall, and too young; his hair and beard were dark rather than gray. In fact, you might realize, he resembled not so much Crowley as the protagonist of Crowley's Aegypt tetralogy, Pierce Moffett, whom all these years you've associated, rightly or wrongly, with his creator. As a character, Pierce does give off a bit of the sense of idealization, of both his virtues and his faults, that often accompanies authorial stand-ins; but Crowley probably deserves more credit for his invention than that, and as you imagine the two together in this bar, the distance between them--and thus the value of Crowley's creation--seems to grow.

Which, in its way, only seems to make it more likely that the man you saw was the imaginary Pierce, wandering in search of the long-gone streets of late-70s New York, of old lovers and old buildings and old impressions long ago effaced by moneyed progress. He wouldn't have turned had you hailed him by the wrong name, but perhaps it would nonetheless have registered as a quiet ripple, a flash of inexplicable familiarity--even a shivery moment of deja vu.

From The Book of Disquiet, by Fernando Pessoa (translated by Richard Zenith, published in English in 2002)
Another life, of the city at nightfall. Another soul, of one who watches the night. I walk uncertainly and allegorically, unreally sentient. I'm like a story that someone told, and so well was it told that I took on just a hint of flesh at the beginning of one of the chapters of this novel that's the world: "At that moment a man could be seen walking slowly down So-and-so Street."

What do I have to do with life?

That's how your trip might have gone, had you been willing to ignore Kafka and Thomas a Kempis and set out in the first place. Some journeys are like that, after all: for example, having written earlier in the week about surprises left in library books, you unexpectedly get a chance to convince John Crowley to sign your Chicago Public Library copy of Love and Sleep. Now the title page will address the next patron to open it:
To all readers of Chicago Public--John Crowley.

Then one night you spend talking with a pair of friends who are thinking about going to Portugal in part because of Jose Saramago's book The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis. The novel tells the story of Ricardo Reis, one of Fernando Pessoa's many obsessively maintained authorial identities, somehow surviving his creator's death and returning, confused, to 1936 Lisbon--which is all a bit odd because Pessoa happens to be the only author you chose to carry in your suitcase on this trip to leaven the 1,500 pages of John Crowley you're reading. Maybe that was Pierce Moffett you saw on the street after all.

Later, meeting another friend in a bookstore during a thunderstorm, not only do you discover that a new volume of Pessoa's poetry has just been published, but you talk her into leaving the shop with a copy of The Book of Disquiet under her arm--and at the counter you discover The Zurau Aphorisms, which you happen to open to this:
All human errors stem from impatience, a premature breaking off of a methodical approach, an ostensible pinning down of an ostensible object.
Which, to be honest, sounds like as close to a method as you've got for your blog. Thus coincidence and doubling, despite your not being on the lookout for them, pervade the trip--probably because you're secretly, perpetually on the lookout for them. After all, WWBD? What would Borges do?

I'm sure there are blogs out there that would benefit from a methodical approach, but this one, I think, will continue to attempt to make a virtue of ostensible pinnings down, of falling into error.

It really was a splendid trip.

Friday, May 18, 2007

John Crowley at KGB

One thing that literary critics and scholars generally agree on is that reading for character is one of the most naive forms of reading. It's how we begin reading, after all: we learn about the prince and princess, learn that some cruel magic is keeping them apart, and we read on (or pester our parents to read on) to find out if they will find each other, and happiness. As we get older and read more, our interests widen. We start to take note of style, metaphor, theme. We look at novels for what they tell us about the society in which they were written. The truly adventurous wander off into the weeds of experiment, where reading for character may not even be possible.

Despite all that, for most of us non-scholars, character is still what binds us to novels, drawing us back and convincing us to give over such large portions of our lives to imagined realities. From Tolstoy to chick lit, we see in created characters our own lives, our own friends, refracted, adapted, made over, made strange--and we learn about how life is lived outside of our own subjectivity. We surrender to a new reality, suffer through characters' vicissitudes and agonize over their decisions. And when we close the book, the best of them stay with us, expanding our world of acquaintance, shifting ever-so-slightly the way in which we see the universe.

All this was brought home to me with particular force Wednesday night at KGB Bar in New York. I was there, alone, to see John Crowley read from the long-awaited final volume of his Aegypt tetralogy, which he began all the way back in 1987. Aegypt is complicated, multi-layered, hard to describe, centered around a couple of years in the lives of a group of aging hippies and new agers living out the '70s in a small town in the hills of New England--but it also wanders into late-1950s Appalachia and Renaissance Europe, explores alchemy and magic, cults and werewolves, and tells the stories of Elizabethan mage John Dee and Renaissance scholar Giordano Bruno. Crowley employs all these disparate elements to answer such seemingly simple--even childish--posers as, "Why is the universe the way it is, and not some other way?" and "What if the past was different at one point from what it is now?" and, most poignant, "Why could the past not be different from what it is? Why can I only do, and never undo?" Ringing changes on these questions with a master's skill, Crowley has created what is essentially a single 1,500-page novel of ideas, fantastic and surprising and compelling.

I've not yet read the final book, Endless Things, choosing instead to re-read (and reacquaint myself with) the earlier volumes, which have reminded me that for all the architecture of ideas underlying the books, the heart of Crowley's story remains the characters he has created. Damaged and tentative, and uncertain about what they want in life, they still somehow retain a hope that they will someday come to understand the manifold workings of the heart. The ideas, fantasy, and history are anchored and made palpable by Crowley's realistic--and generous--depiction of his characters; concern for them is what drives our appreciation of the whole.

At KGB, Crowley demonstrated that he knows that. As he took the podium in that dark, red-walled bar, a thunderstorm washing down Manhattan outside, he announced that he would be reading about a wedding--and all of us in the audience smiled, for we had been waiting for this wedding, hoping it would happen despite obstacles, and now we rejoiced in the event as if these characters were our friends, taking pride in the choice they'd made and glad that we'd seen them to this point.

Were we responding like naive readers, taking these characters as if they were real people, their happiness as real happiness? Possibly. But in that setting, in that crowd, the scene was magical, the wedding the result of paths and turns and switchbacks, dropped strands and lucky breaks, the way real weddings can sometimes be--and the joy was undoubtedly, entirely real.

Crowley, in front of all of us, worked the magic for which he'd been laying the groundwork for twenty years: for one brief moment, his imaginary community drew all of us strangers together, and the power of fiction was made manifest. There's not much more an artist can hope for than that.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Indexes, lice, and the land of Cockaigne

I'm in New York for work this week, so there won't be much posting. But while flipping through the index of Emily Cockayne's Hubbub: Filth, Noise and Stench in England, 1600-1770 (2006), I found something I thought you might enjoy:
on an apprentice 76
in beds 58
figs blamed for 94
head 60, 66, 67
houses infested with 155
millers prone to 61
spreading typhus 212

Doesn't an index entry like that more or less guarantee a good book?

Emily Cockayne would seem to have the right name for someone writing about filth; by some accounts, the mythical medieval utopia of Cockaigne was only reached by fording a river of dung--up to one's nose--that took seven years to cross (though some other versions of the legend opt for eating challenges instead, such as a ten-thousand-foot-high pudding or a mountain of cheese).

Oh, but it'll all be worth it once you get there, you poor, lice-ridden late-medieval apprentice! Cockaigne is an earthly paradise, its pleasures--unlike the vaguely boring perfection of Eden--earthy and explicit. Here is how Pieter Brueghel the Elder imagined it in his 1567 painting The Land of Cockaigne:

In various versions of the story, after crossing the river of shit, travelers are rewarded with rivers of oil, honey, milk, and wine. Pigs in Cockaigne have knives in their backs for easy cutting, the owls lay fur coats, and grilled geese fly into people's mouths. On top of that, everyone in Cockaigne is forbidden to work--presumably even the lice. If this whets your appetite, you can learn much more about Cockaigne in Herman Pleij's Dreaming of Cockaigne: Medieval Fantasies of the Perfect Life (2003).

A final, unrelated note for today: in my online searching for the definition of "cockaigne," I stumbled across a word I didn't know, but which I will certainly find occasion to employ in its first sense in the future:

1) a self-important little man
2) the game of leapfrog
3) boastful talk

Saturday, May 12, 2007

An unexpected postscript on libraries

Soon after I finished yesterday's post about libraries, I by chance came across two pieces of writing that seemed, together, to demand that I write a brief postscript. First, moments after I finished yesterday's post, I read the following in John Crowley's Aegypt:
Like many monkish libraries, San Domenico's was a midden of a thousand years' writing; no one knew all that the monastery contained, or what had become of all that the monks had copied, bought, written, commented on, given away, and collected over the centuries. The old librarian, Fra' Benedetto, had a long catalogue in his head, which he could remember because he had composed it in rhyme, but there were books that weren't in this catalogue because they didn't rhyme. There was a Memory Palace in which all the categories of books and all the subdivisions of those categories had places, but it had long ago filled up and been shuttered and abandoned. There was a written catalogue too, into which every book was entered as it was acquired, and if you happened to know when a book was acquired, you might find it there. Unless, that is, it had been bound with another, or several others; for usually only the incipit of the first would be put into the catalogue. The others were lost.

So within the library which Fra' Benedetto and the prior and the abbot knew about there had grown up another library, a library which those who read in it did not catalogue, and did not want catalogued.

The idea of a secret library within a library returned later in the evening when I showed some friends the following handwritten note that I had found in a copy of Gore Vidal's Lincoln (1984) that I had checked out from the Chicago Public Library's Bezazian Branch:
Lew Welch

Step out onto the Planet
Draw a circle 100 ft round

Inside the circle are
300 things nobody understands,
and, maybe
nobody's ever really seen.

How many can you find?

The Internet quickly revealed that Lew Welch was a beat and this one of his poems. But my initial search led me into some confusion, landing me on a site that, had, it seemed, the poem I was looking for. According to this site, it was called "Stepping Out," and it was ever-so-slightly different from the one in the book:
Step out onto the planet.

Draw a circle as big as you can throw a stone.

Inside that circle are
300 things that nobody understands, and, maybe
nobody's ever really seen.

How many can you find?

Pick one,
and protect it.
How, I thought, could someone who had taken the trouble to write this poem down and leave it in a book have left off the closing injunction, which the whole poem builds towards? And had they gone out and heaved a stone, discovering that they could throw it a hundred feet? Stacey quickly added the last two lines to the handwritten poem, her purple ink and distinct handwriting making them stand out even more than the poet intended.

But this morning as I was harvesting links for this post, I discovered that I had made a mistake: the longer poem is not a Lew Welch poem but a very close reworking by someone identified as tamo and noted as "After Lew Welch's 'Inside the Circle.'" The library's anonymous note-writer was correct in his transcription, and now, by combining Lew Welch's original and tamo's adaptation, we've created an ever-so-slightly different third poem.

I think this writing and rewriting, this doubling and mistaken identity, this anonymous communication would entertain John Crowley, would resonate with his fascination with the transmission of knowledge--passed through unknown hands and from mind to mind, altered by that sharing--down through the centuries. So I'll fold this note, tuck it in the pages of Aegypt, and return it to the library, helping the poem along in its travels and sowing further confusion for the next unsuspecting reader.

Friday, May 11, 2007

On libraries

From Jorge Luis Borges's "The Library of Babel" (1941)
The Universe (which others call the Library) is composed of an indefinite, perhaps infinite number of hexagonal galleries. In the center of each gallery is a ventilation shaft, bounded by a low railing. From any hexagon one can see the floors above and below--one after another, endlessly. The arrangement of the galleries is always the same: Twenty bookshelves, five to each side, line four of the hexagon's six sides; the height of a normal librarian. One of the hexagon's free sides opens onto a narrow sort of vestibule, which in turn opens onto another gallery, identical to the first--identical in fact to all. To the left and right of the vestibule are two tiny compartments. One is for sleeping, upright; the other, for satisfying one's physical necessities. Through this space, too, there passes a spiral staircase, which winds upward and downward into the remotest distance. In the vestibule there is a mirror, which faithfully duplicates appearances. Men often infer form this mirror that the library is not infinite--if it were, what need would there be for that illusory replication. I prefer to dream that burnished surfaces are a figuration and promise of the infinite. . . . Like all the men of the Library, in my younger days I traveled; I have journeyed in quest of a book, perhaps the catalog of catalogs. now that my eyes can hardly make out what I myself have written, I am preparing to die, a few leagues from the hexagon where I was born. When I am dead, compasionate hands will throw me over the railing; my tomb will be the unfathomable air, my body will sink for ages, and will decay and dissolve in the wind engendered by my fall, which shall be infinite. I declare that the Library is endless.

Busy today, so all I've got for you is a couple of bits I've come across lately about libraries. Borges's infinite library that is the universe seems a good lead into a bit from John Crowley's Aegypt (1987), on the role of distant libraries in forging in the main character, Pierce, a lifelong obsession with mythical, mystical, shadowy pasts:
Such was the family Pierce was to make his way in; in their isolation they were like some antique family of gentry, in the specialness of their circumstances like foreigners living within a pale. It was only the Oliphant children who were taught by the priest's sister; only the Oliphants (as far as Pierce knew) who every month received from the state library in far-off, blue grass-green Lexington, a box of books. . . . Every month the read books were packed up and shipped back, and on receipt another box would be sent, more or less filling the vague requests on the Oliphants' list (Mother West-wind, more horse stories, "something about masonry," anything of Trollope's) and picked up at the post office, and opened in excitement and disappointment mixed, Christmas every month. Pierce remembering his confusion and contempt before this bizarre system--bizarre to a child who had had the vast, the virtually illimitable reaches of the Brooklyn Public to wander in, his father went every two weeks and Pierce had always gone with him and could have any book he pointed at--Pierce remembering those battered library boxes wondered if it had been they, those librarians or whoever they were who had filled them, who by sending him some book full of antiquated notions and quaint orthography had first suggested to him the existence of that shadow country, that far old country that was sort of Egypt but not Egypt, no, not Egypt at all, a country with a different history, whose name was spelled too with a small but crucial difference: it was not Egypt but Aegypt.

The small town I grew up in had an old Carnegie library, but its offerings were necessarily limited, and we, too, relied on similarly vague requests sent off to larger libraries in other towns and cities. Now I'm spoiled, living half a block from a branch of the Chicago Public Library and also having access to a major research library. Almost anything I want is available--though sometimes just barely. When I decided earlier this week that I couldn't really approach Endless Things (2007), the final volume of John Crowley's Aegypt tetralogy, without revisiting the first three, which are out of print, I was surprised to find that the Chicago Public Library system only has three copies of each--and one was checked out, presumably in the hands of a Crowley fan who, having the same idea I had, was quicker on the draw. Maybe the uniform paperback editions that Overlook is bringing out in the autumn will inspire the library to increase its holdings.

As regular readers know, I'm at heart more of a book buyer than book borrower, but I still make fairly regular use of the local library. It's particularly good for a summer Saturday afternoon when nothing on my shelves seems right; I can head out to the library confident that within ten minutes I can be back in my chair with a good mystery novel or two. People have of course been using libraries in that way--to pick up a quick bit of pleasurable reading--since they were invented. John Brewer describes a couple of early libraries in The Pleasures of the Imagination: English Culture in the Eighteenth Century (1997):
The largest circulating libraries were more than adjuncts to a bookselling business. In the capitals of the three kingdoms, in the large provincial towns and in resorts such as Bath and Margate, circulating libraries offered comfortable, spacious surroundings in which customers could gossip, flirt, browse, examine newspapers and reviews, and choose from a selection of every kind of book. The late eighteenth-century engraving of the library at Margate, sold jointly by its proprietor and engraver, conveys the ambience library proprietors wanted: one of leisure and display as well as learning.

The biggest libraries published catalogues: John Bell's famous London Library contained more than 8,000 volumes; Sibbald's in Edinburgh offered its patrons a choice of 6,000 titles in 1786; and Ann Ireland's Leicester Library, though not as large a Barber's in Newcastle, nevertheless housed 2,500 books. These libraries were not only repositories of fiction. The number of novels and romances was never as great as those of history, travel, and geography; indeed for every "frivolous" volume there were two of more serious reading matter. But these figures refer to books on the shelf: no records survive to reveal the pattern of borrowing in a major circulating library. It may well have been that the sober histories and detailed travellers' tales never received a second glance as readers hurried to the shelves of multi-volumed novels and well-thumbed romances. Isaac Cruikshank's The Circulating Library certainly takes this view.

The shelves for novels, tales and romances are empty--all the books are out--but the sections for history, sermons, voyages and travels are full, attesting to their unpopularity.
That was before libraries had learned to stock multiple copies of the most popular trashy books: the Chicago Public Library has, according to their online catalog, 26 copies of The Da Vinci Code (2004), about half of which are available right now for checkout.

It seems unlikely that any trashy books marred the shelves of the library John Stow describes here in his A Survey of London (1598):
Joceline of Furness writeth, that Thean, the first Archbishop of London, in the reign of Lucius, built the said church by the aid of Ciran, chief butler to King Lucius; and also that Eluanus, the second archbishop, built a library to the same adjoining, and converted many of the Druids, learned men in the pagan law.
Just think of the splendid confusion a time traveler could create by stealing on of Chicago Public's extra copies of The Da Vinci Code and slipping it into the stacks of Eluanus's library. By the time the historical ripples reached the present, Dan Brown's faux-scholarly mishmash might actually have created the sort of secret societies it purports to uncover--though I suppose even Druids might find his characters and sentences a bit wooden.

But people do enjoy fluff and trash, and I'm not one to deny anyone pleasure from books, of whatever kind. I think D. J. Enright, in Interplay: A Kind of Commonplace Book (1987), gets at least part of it right:
A love of literature, Virginia Woolf wrote, is often roused and initially nourished, not by good books but by bad ones. "It will be an ill day when all the reading is done in libraries and none of it in tubes." And vice versa, too.

Interplay, too, is out of print, and obscure enough as to be missing from most library collections. But a commonplace book, being a bedside and armchair companion, is best owned rather than borrowed anyway--and there an Enright fan is in luck: searchable used bookstore inventories have made it readily available to anyone anywhere.

And, as John Crowley clearly understands, there are few things more inherently exciting to a reader than getting a box of books in the mail.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Spain and the Civil War, part three

Part one is here and part two is here.

Oh, for an editor! Because I forgot to note last night that there would be another post on Spain today, Steve weighed in with a sharp comment on yesterday's post that anticipates some of the topics in today's:
Levi, you raise some interesting questions but I think there are a few things working against "truth and reconciliation." Briefly, the war in Spain was super-political. That statement may seem obvious but There's a fairly well documented history of the actions of both the right and the left and neither come off particularly well. Next, Spain is flourishing. Supposedly their economy is about to pass Italy's in size. It's completely transformed from the backwater of Europe that it was before the Civil War--really agrarian and highly impoverished. It's a totally different country. These days, with the socialists in power you would think they might be interested in this sort of exercise but they have enough on their plate dealing with immigration, the Basques, and keeping the country growing. With the 70th anniversary of Guernica there's a lot of new scholarship coming out but unfortunately it's still fighting the battles of the 30's and not a pretty sight.
All these points and more come up in Ghosts of Spain: Travels through a Country's Hidden Past (2006), by Giles Tremlett, a Guardian correspondent who has lived in Spain for the past twenty years, watching as Spain recovered from the hangover of fascism and became a full participant in modern Europe. Thought he takes the reader on a fascinating trip throughout contemporary Spain, from its booming economy--especially its growing tourist industry--to changes in sexual mores to politics, the Iraq war, and the Madrid bombings of March 11, 2004, he opens with and regularly returns to the legacy of the war.

The book begins with the highly publicized reburial in 2002 of some Republicans who had been assassinated and left in roadside graves by the Falange during the war. The reburial, and the heated public arguments about it, seemed to open the floodgates to larger questions about the war and the buried history of violence on both sides. Tremlett travels the country being a good listener, interviewing veterans and visiting sites of remembrance, learning that the decades of silence have done little to lay the ghosts to rest; the meaning of those years remains in vigorous dispute--even where facts are indisputable--and the wounds are still raw. The silence has been viewed by many as serving everyone, for who wants to learn that a friend or neighbor was a killer when young? Who wants others to know their secrets? As Javier Marias's narrator says in Your Face Tomorrow:
No, I should not tell or hear anything, because I will never be able to prevent it from being repeated or used against me, to ruin me or--worse still--from being repeated and used against those I love, to condemn them.
But of course secrets have a way of coming out, and silence cannot be maintained forever. How Spain will answer the lingering questions about its past--and who will get to answer them--is still up in the air.

In an afterword to the UK edition, Tremlett explains that Spain's current Socialist government is slowly beginning to officially accept that the silence needs to end. A new law has been proposed that would, among other things,
set aside money to do something about Spain's abandoned Civil War and Franco-era archives. They will provide valuable extra material for historians and investigators, who continue to flood the market with work on the period.
But, just as when they were in power for the twenty years after Franco's death, the Socialists are still wary of going too far:
The pact of forgetting, however, remains intact as far as the naming of perpetrators is concerned. The draft law says documents emitted by the committee of experts will "omit any reference to the identity of anyone who took part in the events." There will, in other words, be no individual guilt. The only bad guy will be Franco himself. No one else must be blamed or punished for whatever they did in his name. Francoism, in that respect, remains an abstract thing.
The crimes will be brought to light, but the criminals will be left to their own consciences.

Maybe Steve's right about more information at this point not helping much: Tremlett agrees with him that in recent years, a spate of diametrically opposed histories of the war haven't really improved understanding of the period. At best, they've muddied the waters; at worst, they've inflamed unquenchable old passions. Maybe the majority of Spaniards would rather keep moving into the future, letting the past worry about the past. Maybe they would prefer, even when reburying the unjustly dead, simply to memorialize them and lay them to rest, leaving larger questions of blame and justice to the ages.

I think that impulse might be harder, at least to some extent, for a Brit to understand than for an American--even if we disagree with it. Tremlett seems a bit surprised that the war is still such a charged topic, but an American observer of Spain immediately starts thinking about our own civil war and its aftermath. It ended more than 140 years ago (though I suppose its last overt battles weren't really fought until the civil rights movement), yet in any of a dozen southern states, its legacy is still hotly, if covertly, contested. Any Republican candidate for high office has to at least give a wink and a nod to the idea that the South was right all along, that all we white folks (which can be read as "all we good Americans") would be better off had John Wilkes Booth been there on Inauguration Day in 1861.

Old loyalties die hard--and in a climate where it is assumed that one ought to be ashamed of one's past, resentment and self-righteousness can make a toxic brew. In that context, it's a bit easier to understand if Spain, less than forty years removed from fascism, wants to let troubling questions rest for another generation and instead take satisfaction in its stunning transition to democracy.

Monday, May 07, 2007

Spain and the Civil War, part two

Part one, which discusses Javier Marias's Your Face Tomorrow, is here.

A similar sense of uncertainty and secrecy runs through Carmen Laforet's Nada (1945), which was just issued in a new translation by the Modern Library. Written a few years after the civil war, when Laforet was only twenty-three, it tells of Andrea, a nineteen-year-old girl, orphaned by the war, who moves to Barcelona to live with her grandmother and aunts and uncles. The family has been impoverished and is clinging desperately to their run-down old house, reduced to selling off pieces of furniture to buy insufficient food. The war is rarely mentioned, but its effects are everywhere, from the poverty plaguing Barcelona to the psychological damage that has nearly destroyed the girl's aunts and uncles. Andrea's arrival at the house sets the book's gothic tone of secrecy and decay:
The old woman still couldn't understand very much, and then through one of the doors to the foyer came a tall, skinny man in pajamas who took charge of the situation. This was Juan, one of my uncles. His face was full of hollows, like a skull in the light of the single bulb in the lamp.

As soon as he patted me on the shoulder and called me niece, my grandmother threw her arms around my neck, her light-colored eyes full of tears, and saying "poor thing" over and over again. . . .

There was something agonizing in the entire scene, and in the apartment the heat was suffocating, as if the air were stagnant and rotting. When I looked up I saw that several ghostly women had appeared. I almost felt my skin crawl when I caught a glimpse of one of them in a black dress that had the look of a nightgown. Everything about that woman seemed awful, wretched, even the greenish teeth she showed when she smiled at me. A dog followed her, yawning noisily, and the animal was also black, like an extension of her mourning. They told me she was the maid, and no other creature has ever made a more disagreeable impression on me.

Over the course of a year, Andrea tries to grow up and establish a normal life, all the while watching as the family slips deeper into poverty and spins further out of control, driven apart by a variety of poorly kept secrets. Hints are dropped of betrayals, denunciations, affairs, violence, but nearly everything remains a bit cloudy, partially apprehended. As in the novels of Kazuo Ishiguro, characters damage themselves by intentionally closing off thought, by pretending not to know things they know--in this case, about the civil war and who did what to whom. The gravity of that hidden topic warps everything in the house and the novel, making for an atmosphere so claustrophobic that, when Andrea finally escapes, it's as if we've escaped, too.

Andrea is able to leave behind her obviously damaged family members, but in reality, Spain itself can't quite do the same. Many veterans of that brutal war survive, and Franco himself ruled until his death just over thirty years ago. Spain's almost immediate transition to democracy, spearheaded by Franco's handpicked successor, King Juan Carlos I, was remarkable, but it was built on an implicit understanding that no one would inquire too closely into the war years. Moving on peacefully, it was argued, required that there be no truth commissions, no war crimes trials, and no assessment of guilt. A silence that under Franco was enforced by law continued under democracy, enforced by custom--and of fear of what might be learned.

Yet can such important questions be suppressed forever? I think Javier Marias and Carmen Laforet would surely argue that they cannot. For a person to hide truths, especially painful ones, is to risk real psychological damage; who knows what it can do to an entire culture?

Sunday, May 06, 2007

Spain and the Civil War

I've been letting my anglophilia show a bit too much lately, so today I'll write about some books I've recently read that deal, directly or indirectly, with the Spanish Civil War. The most impressive of the batch, the stunning first two novels in Javier Marias's projected trilogy, Your Face Tomorrow (2002 and 2004, English translations 2005 and 2006), have perhaps the most oblique relationship to the war. If Marias's Written Lives (2004), which I've praised here before, is a model of compression, distilling the lives of various writers to a couple of thousand words highlighting their lives' oddest and most eventful moments, Your Face Tomorrow is a model of extension, of expansive drawing out and study of individual moments, thoughts, and feelings.

Marias is clearly following Proust in his method, taking pages and pages of rich, circumspect prose to track, for example, a single sentence that opens a conversation--or most of a book to detail the interactions at a cocktail party. His narrator, a middle-aged Spaniard, newly divorced and lonely, is forever examining his impressions, weighing his subjective perceptions, attempting to read, between lines of a conversation, the intentions of his interlocutors. After all, if, as he has learned, one's deep-rooted perceptions of one's own marriage are not to be trusted, then of what use are first impressions, passing thoughts, hasty judgments?

That question is both the central thematic concern of the novel and the driver of its plot--which Marias somehow gets rolling despite his oh-so-deliberate pace. The narrator is recruited by an Oxford professor to a shadowy secret service agency, whose mission and whose ties to the government are both unclear, and whose work--at least the narrator's portion of it--consists largely of meeting businessmen, diplomats, and the like and writing instant, candid assessments of their character, trustworthiness, and likely future actions. Though the narrator seems to have a knack for the job, he remains skeptical, for the reasons given above; that skepticism allows Marias to tie his story to the story of the Spanish Civil War. The narrator stays up all night at his friend the professor's house reading a history of the war and reflecting on its confusing welter of split loyalties, double agents, political violence--and its hidden, mostly unspoken presence in modern Spanish life.

After all, the narrator thinks, there are Francoists, people who carried out political assassinations, alive and living quietly in Spain today, growing old under a different face from the one they wore during the war. Who and what and how can you trust, especially when--as in the case of the narrator's secret occupation or the post-war refusal to discuss war crimes and culpability--there is no way to verify your impressions, no outside confirmation of what you think you know?
That's what happens sometimes with those things that we deny or keep silent about, that we hide away and bury, they inevitably start to fade and blur, and we come to believe that they never actually existed or happened, we tend to be incredibly distrustful of our own perceptions once they have passed and find no outside confirmation or ratification, we sometimes renounce our memory and end up telling ourselves inexact versions of what we witnessed, we do not trust ourselves as witnesses, indeed, we do not trust ourselves at all, we submit everything to a process of translation, we translate our own crystal-clear actions and those translations are not always faithful, thus our actions begin to grow unclear, and ultimately we surrender and give ourselves over to a process of perpetual interpretation, applied even to those things we know to be absolute fact, so that everything drifts, unstable, imprecise, and nothing is ever fixed or definite and everything oscillates before us until the end of time, perhaps it's because we cannot really stand certainty, not even certainties that suit us and comfort us, and certainly not those that displease or unsettle or hurt us, no one wants to be transformed into that, into their own fever and spear and pain.

More tomorrow.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Scott Horton

A crowded schedule of work and friends will make for light posting this week, so I'm taking this chance to direct you to one of the best and most important blogs I read. Scott Horton, an international human rights lawyer, used to send a daily e-mail roundup of news, drawn from the major international dailies, and commentary, drawn from his impressive knowledge of history, philosophy, and law. Recently, Harper's brought him under its umbrella, and Horton converted the daily e-mail to a blog. The historical depth--and passionate belief in the duty we all bear to preserve human rights--that Horton brings to his coverage of the news clarifies and locates the stories better than any other commentator I read; when Horton writes about daily events, he reveals how the whole of Anglo-American legal history, with its glorious victories and ignominious setbacks, lies behind and brings us to the present moment. Put it in your google reader; it's the best fifteen minutes a day you could spend on a blog.

When I look to ground my view that every individual deserves equal protection under law, that every human deserves to be protected against violence, coercion, and outrages against their person, I return to, of course, the Constitution. But when I take it one step further, when I think of our responsibility as individuals and as a society, to ensure these rights, I also return, in a way that their authors would most likely not have approved, to the Bible and to John Donne. Even stripped of their specifically religious content, Matthew 25 and Donne's Meditation XVII carry powerful reflections on our interconnectedness and our inherent duty to one another as free, thinking beings.

Matthew 25:34-46
34 "Then the King will say to those on his right, 'Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.'

37"Then the righteous will answer him, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?'

40"The King will reply, 'I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.'

41"Then he will say to those on his left, 'Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. 42 For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.'

44"They also will answer, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?'

45"He will reply, 'I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.'

46"Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life."
I think you can understand the force of this injunction without believing in any divinity or eternal reward. The same for Donne's Meditation XVII, which reminds us more directly that we are all connected:
No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend's or of thine own were. Any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.
Though the part of Meditation XVII that everyone knows is "No man is an island," I find myself much more drawn to Donne's following thoughts. The realization that no man can stand alone could, after all, be a simple acceptance of need, born out of self-interest. It's only when Donne reaches, "Any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind," that we reach a truly disinterested understanding of common humanity, a radical openness to the separate reality of others and their claims on us.

"I am involved in mankind," affirmatively stated, almost as if it is a choice, an obligation assumed rather than required. For Donne, that obligation is assumed because we are all equal in the eyes of the Lord. For this nonbeliever, the interconnectedness Donne sees needs no supernatural foundation to have active force; acknowledgment of our common humanity is sufficient to make a moral imperative of the avoidance of heedless violence, torture, and precipitate war--and the bringing to justice of those who advocate such abominations. Common humanity demands that we insure unbroken continuance of the long line of history and thought that have wrought the idea that all are equal under law, and that we abhor and punish those who, acting in our very names, try to subvert that founding ideal.