Friday, October 31, 2008

"When years come upon you, you will find that poring over books will be an irksome task."

{Photos by rocketlass.}

The headline of this post comes from an admonition that Samuel Johnson reportedly received from an old man at Oxford in 1763 who urged him, "Ply your book diligently now," before old age robbed him of his thirst for knowledge. Johnson, forever afraid of his natural indolence, took the urging to heart, making up a plan; here's how Peter Martin explains it in his thoughtful and well-written new Samuel Johnson: A Biography (2008):
On 21 November 1729, in an effort to get down to study, he made a self-disciplining table of how much reading he could get done in a week, month and year if he read ten pages per day: 60, 240, and 2880 respectively. To begin with a meagre ten pages per day may suggest just how indolent he thought he had become. He soon realized that ten pages per day would get him nowhere, so he tabulated what he could achieve based on 30, 50, 60, 150, 300, 400 and 600 per day, though he did not take the last four as far as computing annual totals, realising the stark fantasy in such an exercise. Sixty would yield 17,280 for a year, and apparently he thought that was as much as he could realistically read. Such computations would become almost chronic with him as he struggled to impose order on a sense of disorder, "as it fixed his attention steadily upon something without, and prevented his mind from preying upon itself." He even counted the number of lines to be read in The Aeneid and other works by Virgil, as well as in works by Euripides, Horace, Ovid, Theocritus and Juvenal.
I remember making calculations of that sort when I was a teenage boy who loved math and ordered systems; the tendency reappears now and then in my adult life, usually when I'm contemplating a seemingly insurmountable stack of pages requiring careful proofreading. For the most part, though, I'm satisfied these days with making some progress on one or two of the several books I'm always lugging with me on my commute, numbers and plans be damned.

Given my recent preoccupation with the copious quantities of unread matter lining the walls (and, let's be frank piled on the floor) of my house, it probably won't surprise you that I was struck by Johnson's approach to the problem. More troubling, however, for the bibliophile surrounded by books, is this account later in the biography of the fate of Edward Harley, the cataloging of whose vast library Johnson took on as paid work in his pre-Rambler, pre-Dictionary years:
Harley, friend of Pope and son of Robert Harley the Tory Lord Treasurer in the reign of Queen Anne, was owner of the great estate of Wimpole Hall in Cambridgeshire. He owned a vast collection of books, manuscripts, and tracts that he housed at Wimpole Hall, his house in Dover Street, and his magnificent mansion in Cavendish Square. The size of the collection included some fifty thousand books and seven thousand volumes of manuscripts, not to mention coins, engravings, Greek and Roman antiquities, and more than five hundred paintings.
That doesn't sound bad, does it? So what's the problem, you ask? Why does this book blogger, who mere months ago broke down and bought all-new bookcases, feel a chill wind sweep over him on reading about Harley? Because Martin goes on to explain:
His need to build elegant places to house them eventually brought on severe financial worries that may have hastened his death.
If you need me, I'll be over here, culling my shelves for donations to the Chicago Public Library.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Mere coincidence . . . or eerie coincidence?

{Photo by rocketlass.}

You might want to dim your lights for this one. Maybe open the window a crack to let in the October chill. Pull the blanket a bit closer, warm your brandy, put another log on the fire, that sort of thing. Are you sure you threw the deadbolt?

Monday, as I was reading James Boswell's Life of Johnson, I encountered this bit of doggerel from, as Boswell terms him, "the very ingenious Mr. Didben":
A Matrimonial Thought

In the blithe days of honey-moon,
With Kate's allurements smitten,
I lov'd her late, I lov'd her soon,
And call'd her dearest kitten.

But now my kitten's grown a cat,
And cross like other wives,
O! by my soul, my honest Mat,
I fear she has nine lives.
My first thought on reading that (other than to think how glad I was not to be Mr. Didben's poor wife) was that it sounded like the kernel of a story that John Collier might cook up in conjunction with Robert Arthur. A harridan of a wife who drives her husband to murder . . . but then he finds he has to murder her again and again and again--seems like just their kind of story.

Two days later, I received in the mail an old copy of Alfred Hitchcock Presents Stories for Late at Night (1961), which I'd ordered following James Hynes's enthusiastic recommendation at his blog. Though I'd known that Robert Arthur had served as editor for the great anthologies aimed at children that were published under Hitchcock's name in the 1960s (and that I read multiple times when I was kid in the '80s), it hadn't occurred to me that he'd probably played the same role in the creation of the adult Hitchcock anthologies of the period as well. But on opening this volume, I encountered the following note, which I think one wouldn't be faulted for assuming understates the case:
The editor gratefully acknowledges the invaluable assistance of Robert Arthur in the preparation of this volume.
If Arthur didn't get quite the credit he most likely ought to have for his editorial work on Stories for Late at Night, it was made up for by the placement of his own story "Death Is a Dream" at the opening of the collection.

Which brings us back around to our starting point, the wife with nine lives: "Death Is a Dream" is about a man whose wife returns from the grave . . . so he kills her . . . but then has to kill her yet again! "I fear she has nine lives," indeed.

What was that? You say you heard something? A sound at the window? Oh, I'm sure it was nothing. Nothing at all. . . . After all, who on earth would be out there on this blustery October night?

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Is there no joy in Joyland?

{Photo by rocketlass.}

I recently mentioned that I'd taken on the job of Chicago editor for Joyland, a hub for short fiction. As such, I'm responsible for publishing one or two stories each month from writers who live in or have lived in Chicago.

The first story under my editorship went up last night: "Insult," by Joseph Clayton Mills. Hope you enjoy it.

I'm still taking submissions; if you meet the criterion and have a good story, drop me a line at the e-mail address in my Blogger profile. I got a great batch of stories after my initial notice, some of which I'm sure will turn up at Joyland in the coming months, but I'm always ready to look at more.

As for the headline of this post: all but two of the stories I received after my initial call for submissions involved a suicide. Of the remaining two, one made up for that deficiency with a murder. Is this indicative of a prevailing Windy City gloom? Should I worry? Could it be possible that even Mayor Daley suffers dark nights of the soul?

Monday, October 27, 2008

Getting lost in October Country

{Photo by rocketlass.}

Every October, I do my best to spend at least some time reading stories of ghosts, haints, fetches, ghouls, and other unpleasant manifestations. This October has, sadly, found me too busy to get very far in that project, so that all I have to share right now is a bit from a letter from Penelope Fitzgerald to her editor Mandy Kirkby of May 19, 1995, collected in the wonderful So I Have Thought of You: The Letters of Penelope Fitzgerald:
The ghost at the Southwold-Walberswick crossing is said to be a mother waiting for her child who was supposed to be coming back on the last ferry. The white dog, which I have actually seen, was something to do with Dunwich, I think, and the poltergeist was horrid.
This is one of those occasions that makes one wish that collections of letters as a matter of course incorporated both sides of the correspondence. What did Kirkby ask to elicit this response? Readers of Fitzgerald's The Bookshop will recognize the poltergeist (and not be surprised that the ghost in the novel, convincingly eerie, was drawn from life), while the ferry ghost seems pretty straightforward--but what was the white dog? And what were the circumstances of Fitzgerald's sighting of it? I've written before about a certain matter-of-factness the English seem to bring to relations the appearance of the presumably ghostly, and this seems a perfect example.

But for those intrepid readers who are not English, and who refuse to simply accept intrusions from the unlikely spirit world as commonplace, that little taste of ghostliness will surely not be enough. Fortunately, prompted by Maud Newton, James Hynes has put together a list of ten great scary stories at his blog. The ones I already know are frightening and uncanny enough that later this week I'll be making the effort to seek out the rest.

And if that list doesn't include enough scares for you, you're welcome to dip into the I've Been Reading Lately archives and enjoy my numerous ghost-and-goblin posts from last October. Or you can simply reflect at length on various Sarah Palin-as-President scenarios . . .

Friday, October 24, 2008

"Light up you li'l ol' bug o' lightning"

In response to my mention of Johnny Mercer's "Glow-Worm" in yesterday's post, Patrick Kurp of the wonderful Anecdotal Evidence sent me a link to this clip of the Mills Brothers performing the song on "The Nat King Cole Show":

The performance is enthusiastic, yet retaining an element of cool. The smile on Donald's face when he takes the lead seems fully genuine: these guys are having fun with this song.

Gene Lees's biography of Mercer, Portrait of Johnny (2004), offers this account of the writing of "Glow-Worm" from singer Betty Bennett:
When I was singing with the Alvino Rey band, we had a vocal group called the Blue Reys. Because we recorded for Capitol, Johnny was going to do a tune with us. He was writing special lyrics to "Glow-Worm." We met with him and rehearsed the tune, the first two choruses. But there was a chorus missing. So he said, "Wait a minute, I'll run down to my offiec, I think it's on my desk." So he was gone fifteen minutes and came back with a wonderful lyric--having just written it.
Not to question Ms. Bennett, or to criticize one of my favorite songwriters, but if the verse she's referring to is this one--
Glow little glow-worm, turn the key on
You are equipped with taillight neon
You got a cute vest-pocket Mazda
Which you can make both slow and fazda
I don't know who you took a shine to
Or who you're out to make a sign to
I got a gal that I love so
Glow little glow-worm, glow
Put on a show worm
Glow little glow-worm, glow
--well, let's just say I bet Mercer had better fifteen-minute inspirations over the years. Yet the essential silliness of the lyrics doesn't really matter: "Glow-Worm" is an utter trifle, some fun wordplay serving as an excuse to trot out a nice little jump beat, but like so many Mercer songs, once you hear it, it stays with you.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Breaking: Book Boy Blinks, Baseball Bests Blogging!

{Photo by rocketlass.}

Even though the half of this year's World Series is being played in a ballpark more suited to a spring-training split-squad scrimmage, if not tractor pulls and dental conventions, we're still watching. And between the demands of chili-making and Fox Sports-booing, my blogging time is severely constrained. So for today I'll simply share a questionable bit of natural history that I came across yesterday in James Boswell's Life of Johnson, appropriate for this time of year in that it features reflections on hibernation.

Johnson, writes Boswell,
seemed pleased to talk of natural philosophy. . . . "Swallows certainly sleep all the winter. A number of them conglobulate together, by flying round and round, and then all in a heap throw themselves under water, and lye in the bed of a river."
This next has nothing to do with the season, but I can't help but share it:
He told us, one of his first essays was a Latin poem upon the glow-worm. I am sorry I did not ask where it was to be found.
Much as I enjoy Johnson, a bit of Latin juvenilia couldn't possibly be as much fun as Johnny Mercer's take on the same animal:
Glow little glow-worm, glow and glimmer
Swim through the sea of night, little swimmer
Thou aeronautical boll weevil
Illuminate yon woods primeval
See how the shadows deep and darken
You and your chick should get to sparkin'
I got a gal that I love so
Glow little glow-worm, glow
There's more, including a rhyme so ridiculous it's charming, between "Mazda" and "fazda," here.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

"We inherited from him early his abounding sense of the possibilities of the countryside."

In response to my post last week about the shared desire of Thomas Hardy and Wendell Berry to preserve rapidly disappearing rural ways of life, Frank Wilson of Books, Inq. commented,
The idealization of country life seems to be about as old as literature. But it is the work of writers, who have a tendency to airbrush out the grinding poverty and back-breaking labor that went with pastoral scenes. Which is not to say that I do not find myself susceptible to such idealization.
It's a sensible response to a post in which I confessed to finding Berry's and Hardy's visions of rural life seductive, but fairness to both authors dictates that I make clear that they actually spend a lot of time chronicling the hard work necessitated by such a life. In fact, they're two of the best writers about work, period, that I know.

At the same time, however, neither man denies the pleasure to be had in good company while you're working with your hands. It's a feeling I know from the work I did as a boy on farms, and as a young man in food service and the retail trade: when you're performing straightforward manual tasks, your mind--and your conversation--can roam free in a way that even the best office life can't replicate.

Tess offers some great examples of both aspects of manual labor. While Tess find little but happiness--despite the early hours and tiring work--at the dairy where she begins her working life, at the farm where she labors later she finds toil at its most draining. The following scene is a good example: Tess and her fellow laborers are working with the itinerant owner of a rudimentary steam-powered threshing machine hired by the farmer. Because the machine's time is precious, the farmer forces them to take advantage of the full moon and keep working through the night until the hayrick has been completely threshed. Night wears on:
By degrees the freshest among them began to grow cadaverous and saucer-eyed. Whenever Tess lifted her head she beheld always the great upgrown straw-stack, with the men in shirt-sleeves upon it, against the gray north sky; in front of it the long red elevator like a Jacob's ladder, on which a perpetual stream of threshed straw ascended, a yellow river running up-hill, and spouting out on the top of the rick.
The threshing concludes in a scene that can only be horrifying to our modern eyes, but was simply an accepted part of the job in nineteenth-century Dorset: the hubbub that ensues when the work reveals the layer of live rats at the bottom of the hayrick.
The time for the rat-catching arrived at last, and the hunt began. The creatures had crept downwards with the subsidence of the rick till they were all together at the bottom, and being now uncovered from their last refuge they ran across the open ground in all directions, a loud shriek from the by-this-time half-tipsy Marian informing her companions that one of the rats had invaded her person--a terror which the rest of the womeon had guarded against by various schemes of skirt-tucking and self-elevation. The rat was at last dislodged, and, amid the barking of dogs, masculine shouts, feminine screams, oaths, stampings, and confusion as of Pandemonium, Tess untied her last sheaf; the drum slowed, the whizzing ceased, and she stepped from the machine to the ground.
Writing about farm life as lived nearly a century later, Wendell Berry, too, conveys both its responsibilities and rewards. The former is summed up nicely in this paragraph from the funny and moving story "Never Send a Boy to Do a Man's Work":
Carter Keith was a good father. He kept Athey with him as much as his work and, later, Athey's schooling would alow. The Keith place was always asire with work in those days. Everybody on the place would be up and the men and boys at the barns while the stars still shone, and at work by first light. Carter Keith followed the rules that he handed on to his son: He made use of all the daylight he had and would ask no man to do anythign that he would not do himself. His tenants and hands knew this and so respected him, and they worked hard.
While these passages from "Where Did They Go?" offer a small glimpse of the pleasures of manual labor in a crew:
Though talking put Leaf to extreme effort, tightening the cords of his neck, when he sang his voice came sweet and free. To hear him stop talking, which he seldom did, and start to sing "The Wabash Cannonball or "Footprints in the Snow" always seemed a sort of miracle to me, as if a groundhog had suddenly soared into the air like a swallow. . . . It was pretty work when you had time to think about it, and weren't too tired to care. We drew the white-stemmed, green-leafed plants out of the moist ground of the beds, and laid them neatly in bushel baskets and old washtubs. R. T. hauled them to the patch where the setter crew spaced them out in the long rows. They would wilt in the heat that day, but by the next morning or the next, they would be stickign up again, pert and green and orderly, in the dew-darkened ground. Each night when we quit, Jake would say to me, fairly singing: "We're getting it done, Andy boy! We're leaving it behind!"
And that "leaving it behind," I can tell you from walking beans as a teenager, is one of the best feelings in the world.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

"He was committed to the tactical clarity of eradicating mystery," or, Finding the right crime novel

Feeling a bit drained by my most recent immersion in the world of Anthony Powell's A Dance to the Music of Time, what I need now is the literary equivalent of a snack--something I can gleefully, heartily enjoy in a single sitting. I find myself in the deplorable state of having no unread Parker novels in the house, but I do have a small stack of recent Hard Case Crime novels to choose from. Time to try some opening lines.

First up is The First Quarry (2008), by Max Allan Collins, which relates the origin of Collins's hit man anti-hero. The first line:
The night after Christmas, and all through the house, it was colder than fuck.
About as hard-boiled as you can get, no? And with bonus swearing. But I recently read (and enjoyed) Lawrence Block's Hit and Run (2008), about his hit man anti-hero John Keller, and though I've never really considered the question before, a one-hit-man-novel-per-month rule seems reasonable.

So we move on to The Max (2008), by Ken Bruen and Jason Starr:
"Gonna have your sweet white ass later."
Opening a crime novel with vicious dialogue is a solid move. In this case it's particularly good, because those of us who've read the first two Bruen and Starr black comedies know that the line is being addressed to the odious, ridiculous Max Fisher, a small-time hood with destructive delusions of grandeur--who when last we saw him was on his way to federal prison. But as much brutal, disreputable fun as The Max promises, I'm not sure that it's right to follow Anthony Powell's dry wit with Bruen and Starr's grotesquerie.

That leaves us with David J. Schow's Gun Work (2008):
How Barney came to occupy a room on the wrong side of management in a hostage hotel deep inside Mexico City had to do with his friend Carl Ledbetter and one of those scary phone calls that come not always in the middle of the night, but whenever you are most asleep and foggy.
Aha. That's the one: the sentence that grabs you by the collar and drags you along, ignoring your protests, until it's finished with you. I think this is what I was looking for.

Mere pages later, we get this passage:
Now, rate your friends, your acquaintances and your intimates. Among that group you already know which person you'd ask for help when shady badstuff rears up in your life. Yeah, that one--the person you always suspected was a bit illicit, a hair violent, two baby steps beyond the law. After-hours help, a less-than-kosher midnight run, some muscle, maybe some payback, and you know the person you'd call when quiet society says you should be calling a cop.
So who would I call? If I needed helpers for a stylish heist, I'd call rocketlass and Carrie, no question.

{Photo by rocketlass.}

But as a fixer for the sort of dangerous mess Schow's describing, one's wife would seem to be categorically excluded from consideration, so rocketlass is out. Should I call Tony? Bob? Ed? Amy?

Oh, what am I saying? I need to try to strike up a friendship with this guy.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Thomas Hardy and Wendell Berry

{Photos of Dorsetshire by rocketlass.}

When I went to shelve Tess of the D'Urbervilles tonight I realized that I first needed to add one more post to the string inspired by my recent re-reading of this most heartfelt of Thomas Hardy's novels.

I wrote a bit already about Hardy's tinkering with the text between the novel's first appearance in 1891 in the Graphic and its inclusion in the Wessex edition of his works in 1912. The most obvious and important changes Hardy introduced were to the relationship between Tess and Alec, but another set of alterations seems worth noting, particularly for a reader coming to the book more than a century later. As David Skilton, editor of the 1978 Penguin Classics edition, explains,
On the whole there is an increase in dialect and colloquialism in the dialogue between the 1891 and 1912. . . . The spoken language is generally rather neater, more economical, and less "literary" in the later version.
The increased employment of dialect, alongside the occasional added reference to some old country practice--such as Angel Clare's wearing of a cabbage leaf under his hat to keep cool, which only appears in the 1912 edition--suggests that Hardy revised with an eye towards preserving details of a way of life that, in the decades since Tess's first publication, had almost entirely disappeared.

Even at the time of writing, Hardy was aware that the old country ways, having held from time immemorial, were slipping away, obsolescent in the face of the machine age. Late in the novel Hardy writes of the increasing hubbub of Old Lady-Day, when farm laborers who want to change situations moved to their new homes:
These annual migrations from farm to farm were on the increase here. When Tess's mother was a child the majority of the field-folk around Marlott had remained all their lives on one farm, which had been the home also of their fathers and grandfathers; but latterly the desire for yearly removal had risen to a high pitch.
At the same time, Hardy explains, the villages were also being depopulated, their non-farm residents--carpenters, smiths, and other skilled workers--were being forced out; when their leaseholds expired, which often happened on the death of the head of the family, their cottages were torn down, the land beneath them going under the plow. As Hardy explains,
These families, who had formed the backbone of village life in the past, who were the depositaries of the village traditions, had to seek refuge in the large centres; the process, humorously designated by statisticians as "the tendency of the rural population towards the large towns," being really the tendency of water to flow uphill when forced by machinery.

That passage, written in close to a pure editorial voice, reminds me of Wendell Berry, who takes on the same mission of preservation in his novels. Berry draws on more than a century of unbroken chains of story and memory to recall rural life as it was lived in the years just before and after World War II, when the largely self-contained, pre-petroleum economy still held sway in the more remote hill farms of Kentucky. Berry's belief in that mostly lost way of life as more sustainable, human, and fulfilling than our contemporary industrial culture is implicit in all his fiction, echoed in the relationships of characters to one another and to the land, and in his emphasis on the importance of stewardship in all our interactions.

Berry makes those points explicit in his non-fiction, as in this passage from his essay "People, Land, and Community," collectd in The Art of the Commonplace:
People are joined to the land by work. Land, work, people, and community are all comprehended in the idea of culture. These connections cannot be understood or described by information--so many resources to be transformed by so many workers into so many products for so many consumers--because they are not quantitative. We can understand them only after we acknowledge that they should be harmonious--that a culture must either be shapely and saving or shapleless and destructive. To presume to describe land, work, people, and community by information, by quantitites, seems invariably to throw them into competition with one another. Work is then understood to exploit its people. And then instead of land, work, people, and community, we have the industrial categories of resources, labor, management, consumers, and government. We have exchanged harmony for an interminable fuss, and the work of culture for the timed and harried labor of an industrial economy.
It was only when I read Wendell Berry, more than a decade after I left my rural birthplace for Chicago, that I understood how my hometown, like the smaller farming communities around it, had entered upon the decline that, by the time I left, had trimmed its population and largely shuttered its downtown. Berry's accounts, in fiction and nonfiction, showed me what those towns had been as recently as a generation ago, and it made me ache for their loss in a way I never had when I lived there.

The city is my home, and I love it far too much to ever want to leave it, but through Berry's eyes I finally saw what a small town could be even now, if propelled by a dynamic, decidedly local economy. It's a seductive vision, and one that I think Thomas Hardy would recognize and approve.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

In which I demonstrate my ridiculousness in two ways, conveniently photographed (as is so much of my ridiculousness), by rocketlass.

Books do furnish a bag

That is a photo of the contents of my shoulder bag as they looked on my trip to work the first two days of this week. The sane will note that the mini-library pictured is a bit more comprehensive than round-trip commute of two hours would warrant. To which charge my only defense is that each morning as I packed the books I was telling myself that--all appearances to the contrary--I was merely dipping into, rather than actually re-reading, A Dance to the Music of Time, and thus needed to have a lot of other options to hand.

The reality, harder to escape with each turned page, was that of course I was re-reading Dance; fortunately, so far as self-deception goes, the consequences of this feeble pretense were relatively mild, felt only in my aching shoulders.

Flags do furnish a book

For this battered, beflagged galley copy of Roberto Bolano's 2666 I can offer no defense beyond a legitimate, somewhat fuddled effort to grapple with Bolano's talent. So much to note, so much that I might want to cite in my eventual review of the novel, such a mess my good intentions have made.

Which all leads me to this line from The Journal of Jules Renard, which is also somewhere in the shoulder bag:
Every time I want to settle down to work, literature gets between.
Ain't that the truth.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Let not your imagination plague you--send me stories instead!

From Robert Burton's The Anatomy of Melancholy:
For as the body works upon the mind by his bad humours, troubling the spirits, sending gross fumes into the brain, and so per consequens disturbing the soul, and all the faculties of it . . . with fear, sorrow, etc., which are ordinary symptoms of this disease: so, on the other side, the mind most effectually works upon the body, producing by his passions and perturbations miraculous alterations, as melancholy, despaire, cruel diseases, and sometimes death itself. . . . What imagination I have is sufficiently declared in my digression of the anatomy of the soul. I will only now point at the wonderful effects and power of it; which as it is eminent in all, so most especially it rageth in melancholy persons, in keeping the species of objects so long, mistaking, amplifying them by continual and strong meditation, until at length it produceth in some parties real effects, causeth this and many other maladies.
Attention Chicagoans! If your imagination produceth such real effects and maladies, it no longer need do so in vain: I've taken the position of Chicago editor for Joyland, an online hub for short fiction, and my mailbox is now open for submissions! In the face of the perennial gloom and doom about the short story, Joyland is an effort to try something new, and I'm excited to be part of it. Joyland is organized by city, with each editor responsible for stories from residents (or former residents) of his or her city; authors already published there include Joe Meno, Ed Park, Nathan Sellyn, Rebecca Rosenblum, and more. I'll be posting one story a month or so, and I'm open at this point to pretty much any style or theme. So if you've had a story percolating in your brain, disrupting your sleep and bringing despaire, drop me a line and I'll be happy to give you more information.

For if, as Montaigne agrees, the imagination can be a troubling possession--
Wee sweat, we shake, we grow pale, and we blush at the motions of our imaginations; and wallowing in our beds we feele our bodies agitated and turmoiled by their apprehensions, yea in such manner as we are sometimes ready to yeeld up the spirit.
--you might as well get some good short stories out of it, right?

And now to find the place in The Anatomy of Melancholy where Burton explains the melancholy that can be caused by taking on too many responsibilities . . .

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Right--that'll be one chimerical cocktail, one make-believe mixed drink, and one illusory libation, coming right up.

{Photos by rocketlass.}

As Ed and I have, admittedly, been hard pressed to find ways to spend the oceans of grant money that have been flowing into the vaults of the Invisible Library--let alone our allotted portion of the $700 billion invisible bailout approved by Congress last week--I was glad to hit upon an idea while I was reading P. G. Wodehouse's Meet Mr. Mulliner (1927) yesterday afternoon.

In "The Story of William," Mr. Mulliner's Uncle William, having lost his best girl to a bounder in 1906 San Francisco, drags the empty shell of himself into Mike's Place in search of a specific for treating the rent heart:
The gentlemanly bar-tender pondered for some moments.

"Well," he replied at length, "I advance it, you understand, as a purely personal opinion, and I shall not be in the least offended if you decide not to act upon it; but my suggestion--for what it is worth--is that you try a Dynamite Dew-Drop."

One of the crowd that had gathered sympathetically round shook his head. He was a charming man with a black eye, who had shaved on the preceding Thursday.

"Much better give him a Dreamland Special."

A second man, in a sweater and a cloth cap, had yet another theory.

"You can't beat an Undertaker's Joy."
The imaginary cocktail! That's what the Invisible Library needs: a lavishly appointed, dimly lit lounge where our weary, word-drunk patrons can obtain purely notional cocktails, poured--alongside invisible viands and nonexistent noshes--by a dour-faced bartender who looks to have been pickled (rather carelessly) early in the Taft administration. As soon as I'm done with this post, I'll start drawing up the plans and thinking of apposite additions to the cocktail menu. The Menard's Malady? The Byronic Conscience? The Rough Magic? The Odo's Lament? The Third Murderer? The Lincoln's Dream?

As for Uncle William, well, he took the advice of the room to heart:
They were all so perfectly delighted and appeared to have his interests so unselfishly at heart that William could not bring himself to choose between them. He solved the problem in diplomatic fashion by playing no favourites and ordering all three of the beverages recommended.

The effect was instantaneous and gratifying. As he drained the first glass, it seemed to him that a torchlight procession, of whose existence he had hitherto not been aware, had begun to march down his throat and explore the recesses of his stomach. The second glass, though slightly too heavily charged with molten lava, was extremely palatable. It helped the torchlight procession along by adding to it a brass band of sinular power and sweetness of tone. And with the third someobody began to touch off fireworks inside his head.

William felt better--not only spiritually but physically.
Now that's the effect we want our invisible restoratives to have on our frequently melancholy patrons--making them keen of mind, strong of heart, firm of constitution! Perhaps we could name the bar The Circulation Desk?

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Steps in the Dance

{Photo from the Auckland City Libraries' Anthony Powell Collection.}

If I continue writing this blog long enough, eventually I'll have enough disconnected observations about Anthony Powell's work to fill a book. I suppose if I were a more rigorous thinker that's what I'd aim for: some sort of organized, detailed account of how and why Powell's fiction works. Instead, every time I dip into A Dance to the Music of Time I notice something new that seems worth sharing . . . if along the way I manage to convince a few readers to open Powell's masterpiece, I'll be satisfied.

Today's post is prompted by my re-reading the closing pages of the third novel in the Dance sequence, The Acceptance World (1955), which follows the narrator, Nicholas Jenkins (who is now in his twenties) to an Old Boy dinner for his school, then to an assignation with his problematic paramour, Jean Templer. The Old Boy dinner is a masterly set piece, bringing together figures of Nick's youth in such a way as to make inescapably clear the vast changes that a decade has rendered in their relative positions. Nick's two closest friends from school days, Peter Templer and Charles Stringham, who used to seem so worldly and capable, have both been tested by adult life and found wanting: Peter's marriage is a shambles and his career as a stockbroker in the City has been less than stellar, while Charles seems utterly unmoored and "has been drinking enough to float a battleship." On the other hand, Widmerpool, who in school days was an object of cruel fun, has--while losing none of his awkwardness and unpleasantness--become a surprisingly successful businessman, on the verge of becoming a figure of some renown. Nick, who is slowly finding his feet in an artistic milieu, quietly marvels throughout the dinner at these unexpected alterations of what had hitherto seemed immutable social relations; the dance has barely gotten underway, and its movements have already proved surprising.

What particularly struck me on this reading was the paragraph below. Stringham, burning with a low blue flame from a pitcher of martinis and a magnum of champagne, has decided that the base of the fence around Green Park is a good place to sit for a prolonged spell, and he's resisting Nick's entreaties to rise and stumble home. Widmerpool happens upon the scene, assesses the situation, and acts:
Widmerpool acted quickly. He strolled to the kerb. A cab seemed to rise out of the earth at that moment. Perhaps all action, even summoning a taxi when none is there, is basically a matter of the will. Certainly there had been no sign of a conveyance a second before. Widmerpool made a curious, pumping movement, using the whole of his arm, as if dragging down the taxi by a rope. It drew up in front of us. Widmerpool turned towards Stringham, whose eyes were still closed.

"Take the other arm," he said, peremptorily.
You often hear writers describing the simple mechanics of movement as among the most difficult tasks they face; getting a character out of a room can be surprisingly difficult and awkward. That's essentially Powell's task in this paragraph: he simply needs to get Stringham into a cab and on his way home. Yet in the space of a paragraph he not only accomplishes that task, but also allows Nick a moment of meditative observation about the newly capable, even powerful, Widmerpool. Then he adds that wonderfully vivid image of Widmerpool's physicality, showing the sort of attention to the oddities of motion that makes some of Kafka's scenes so powerfully, comically grotesque. By the time we reach Widmerpool's order to Nick, what could easily have been a throwaway paragraph has instead become another building block in Powell's slow explication of Widmerpool's character, and Nick's worldview.

I've quoted the following passage from The Acceptance World before, but it bears repeating, summing up as it does Nick's central characteristic of an engaged, curious, contemplative attention:
I reflected, not for the first time, how mistaken it is to suppose there exists some "ordinary" world into which it is possible at will to wander. All human beings, driven as they are at different speeds by the same Furies, are at close range equally extraordinary.
That insatiable interest in the details of human experience, as played out over twelve novels and nearly 3,000 pages, is what keeps me going back to the Dance, and what makes it ever-rewarding.

Thursday, October 09, 2008


Over the weekend Scott McLemee, that intrepid reporter critic and writer covering the life of the mind as practiced in and around modern universities, invited me to contribute a couple of paragraphs to an edition of his Intellectual Affairs column on the mini-uproar generated by Horace Engdahl, permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy, when he injudiciously stated last week that American literary culture is far too insular for its practitioners to stand a chance of winning a Nobel Prize in Literature in the near future.

You can read my thoughts on the matter, surrounded by those of a host of more qualified commentators, in this issue of Inside Higher Education. What I didn't tell Scott was that my first thought on reading Engdahl's comments was that if the Swedish Academy is effectively blackballing Americans then they're greatly increasing the odds of my waking up to find that my employer, the University of Chicago Press, has a newly minted Nobel Prize-winner on its list.

Lo and behold, this morning I arrived at my office to find that the 2008 Nobel Prize in Literature had been awarded to French writer J. M. G. Le Clezio, whose The Mexican Dream: Or, the Interrupted Thought of Amerindian Civilizations (1988, translated into English in 1993), published by Chicago, is one of only about half a dozen works by Le Clezio currently available in English.

I've not read Le Clezio yet, but I can at least pass along the dual assessments of my colleague Teresa Lavender Fagan, who translated the book for the Press: she says it's one of the best books she's ever translated, and Le Clezio is one of the most pleasant and kindly authors she's ever worked with.

{Housekeeping note: Since this is one of those unusual occasions when my work life and my blogging life openly overlap, I figure I ought to point out, as I have once or twice before, that the two are not connected in any official way. This blog is an entirely separate enterprise, driven solely by my various literary obsessions and written on my own time, under no direction or constraints from my employer. As my Blogger profile states, I do sometimes write about books published by my employer without identifying them as such. I hope that those of you who've been reading for a while know my tastes well enough to trust that my opinions here are truly my own; new readers are welcome to peruse the archives and see what they think. }

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Pages and pages and pages . . .

{Photos by rocketlass.}

In the preface to the Wessex edition of Thomas Hardy's works, a definitive collection published in 1912, when Hardy had long since turned from novel-writing to poetry, Hardy wrote,
The more written, the more seems to remain to be written; and the night cometh.
Why isn't that a well-known line? A Google search only turns up two instances of it online aside from this post and my Twitter feed. Sure, it's a bit overwrought--it wouldn't quite be Hardy if it weren't--but it expresses an agony that seems to afflict many writers, who realize to their frustration that with each year and each work, they know more and have more to say. I'm far more of a reader than a writer, but I think a reader feels it no less: there's always so much unread, let alone all that deserves to be read again, and with each passing day there's less time available to us.

That's true of all life's pursuits, of course. But reading seems particularly susceptible to that sense of Sisyphean challenge: we have only so much time in life to make friends, too--but our unmade friends don't loom over us, neatly ordered on shelves, when we settle in with a novel each night. And once our attention is drawn to the unread books on our shelves, it can't help but move on to the unread books beyond them, the ones they drew on, the ones they influenced, the ones they scorned and wrote against.

Perhaps it was the arrival of autumn darkening my thoughts, but when I came across Hardy's lament last weekend, I had been beginning to feel a bit oppressed by the stacks of unread books, many of which I desperately wanted to read right that moment. Hardy's lines crystallized that feeling, while shading it with his typical fatalistic tints.

So perhaps it's only right that a different book, newly added to the stack, should instantly invite me to take a more optimistic view. In his Journal, Jules Renard writes,
When I think of all the books still left for me to read, I am certain of further happiness.
Until a few days ago, when A Journey Round My Skull recommended him, I had never read Renard, but I can already tell he's going to be a favorite. Being reminded of that fact alone--that the universe of unread books might still offer us new favorites--is enough to shake this reader out of autumnal Hardyean gloom for at least a few days.

Sunday, October 05, 2008

Annotations, or, What's a gam'ster?

The edition of Tess of the D'Urbervilles that I'm currently reading is the 1978 Penguin Classics edition, edited and with notes by David Skilton. I usually find that the editors of Penguin Classics append a bit too much annotation, to the point that the superscripts become distracting, whereas for most of the past week I've been frustrated at how scanty Skilton's notes are: while he flags every biblical reference (which I mostly don't need, since I'm reasonably strong on the Bible), he does nothing to clarify the many wonderful Dorset slang terms with which Hardy lards his characters' speech. Some terms--such as "skillentons," meaning skeletons, or "hobble," meaning a spot of trouble--are easy enough to figure out from context. But what on earth is a pummy? Or a gam'ster? Or a rozum?

Just now, however, as I was stupidly attempting to simultaneously read and stir the beginnings of bread dough, I dropped the book . . . and it fell open to a glossary. Oops. Pummy, it turns out, is the name for "crushed apples used in cider-making"; and a gam'ster is "a cudgel player, etc.; hence a plucky animal"; while a rozum is "a quaint saying or nonsense," and by extension a person with strange ideas. And, ooh, one more: a market-nitch is "the amount drunk after market. A 'nitch' is 'a burden; as much as one can carry of wood, hay, or straw, and sometimes of drink,'" drawn from William Barnes's A Grammar and Glossary of the Dorset Dialect (1863). Sometimes of drink!

The Penguin edition also marks all the changes Hardy introduced between the first publication of the novel, in the Graphic, in the fall of 1891, and the collected Wessex edition of his novels that was published in 1912. Some of the changes are bound to be of great interest to Hardy fans, as they show Hardy continuing to tinker in relatively serious ways with the details of Tess's relationship with Alec D'Urberville--long after he'd pointedly sworn off novel-writing.

One utterly minor emendation seems worth sharing, as it's hard not to enjoy despite Alec's horridness: on Alec's first appearance in the Wessex edition of the novel, he is described as having
an almost swarthy complexion, with full lips, badly moulded, though red and smooth, above which was a well-groomed black moustache with curled points, though his age could not be more than three- or four-and-twenty.
At the time of the Grapic edition, however, his moustache had been less impressive:
a sooty fur represented for the present the dense black moustache that was to be.

All this reminds me of a letter from Tolstoy to his publisher, M. N. Katkov, that I read recently. Sent from Yasnaya Polyana on January 3, 1865, it accompanied the manuscript of the first part of War and Peace, which Tolstoy encouraged Katkov to publish, preferably in one part, and soon:
But of course you have your own considerations, and if you find it better to divide the first part, it can't be helped. But in that case, write and tell me whether you wish to have the 2nd part this year, i.e. this winter. It woudl be a nuisance for me to leave it until next autumn, since I can't hold on to waht I have written without correcting and revising it endlessly. . . . The manuscript is full of crossings out, and I do apologise, but as long as it's in my hands I revise it so much that it can't look any different.
As I've said before: thank you, tireless textual scholars. Your loving drudgery is appreciated.

Friday, October 03, 2008

"Makes no bones about causing trouble for its own sake."

Baseball playoffs, as usual during October, are hampering blogging a bit. So today all I have is a little treat for any Cyril Connolly fans out there . . . and surely you're out there, right?

While flipping through Anthony Powell's Journals, 1987-1989 the other night in search of opinions about Thomas Hardy, I happened across Powell's first impressions of Barbara Skelton's memoir Tears Before Bedtime (1987), in which Skelton (the model for Pamela Widmerpool) tells of her difficult marriage to Connolly. The highlights:
Early life rather vague, cliche-ridden. After becoming a model (having apparently at the age of seventeen been seduced by rich friend of her father's), set up on flat in Crawford Street, off Baker Street. She puts down what happens with a good ability, complete disregard for what anyone might think of her. Result extremely lively. Makes no bones about causing trouble for its own sake, indeed resemblance to Pamela Flitton could hardly be more emphasized. Cyril's similar taste for conflict met its match when they lived together, in due course married. Her account of Cyril lying in bed chewing the sheets vivid to a degree. . . . She is fairly rude about Peter Quennell (who passed her on to Cyril, apparently sharing her with several others at the same time during the war). . . . Cyril's encouragement of his wife's affair with King Farouk of Egypt puts him within hail of ponce area; material eminently suitable for Elizabethan, Caroline, comedy. There will probably be a chorus of shocked horror on the part of reviewers (always essence of sanctimoniousness), amongst whom Quennell might easily figure.
The passage (like, presumably, the memoir itself) is fun primarily for its sheer gossip value--but at the same time, it's rife with distinctly Powellian touches. "Result extremely lively"; "could hardly be more emphasized"; "vivid to a degree": could there be a more Powellian combination of diffident assertion and dry amusement?

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

"But I miss you most of all / My darling / When autumn leaves / Start to fall"

{Photo by rocketlass.}

In Tuesday's post, I mentioned in passing that in my current re-reading of Tess of the D'Urbervilles, I have found myself paying attention to aspects of the novel that would never have held my attention the first time I read it, at age twenty. In particular, I find myself sinking pleasantly into Hardy's lush, detailed descriptions of the natural life of the countryside, just as I find myself these days far more attentive than I was at that age to the wildlife that shares my city, from the peregrine falcons who nest across the street, to the juncos who visit in the spring and fall, to the humble sparrows who are my year-round window companions.

This account of the mid-summer mornings of the milking crew, which because of the long English days of that season begin dreadfully early, offers a good example of Hardy's ability to focus his--and therefore our--attention on quiet moments of interaction with nature:
At these non-human hours they could get quite close to the waterfowl. Herons came, with a great bold noise as of opening doors and shutters, out of the boughs of a plantation which they frequented at the side of the mead; or, if already on the spot, hardily maintained their standing in the water as the pair walked by, watching them by moving their heads round in a slow, horizontal, passionless wheel, like the turn of puppets or clockwork.

They could then see the faint summer fogs in layers, woolly, level, and apparently no thicker than counterpanes, spread about the meadows in detached remnants of small extent. On the gray moisture of the grass were marks where the cows had lain through the night--dark-green islands of dry herbage the size of their carcasses, in the general sea of dew. From each island proceeded a serpentine trail, by which the cow had rambled away to feed after getting up, at the end of which trail they found her: the snoring puff from her nostrils, when she recognized them, making an intenser little fog of her own amid the prevailing one.
The precision of Hardy's language, married to what can only be termed love for the humble, easily missed details of his scene--the cow's puff of recognition; the dry islands in the sea of dew--is what makes this scene come to life. The wheeling of the herons is "passionless," the fog is "woolly," the cows "ramble," their trail is "serpentine." It's language born of a belief that these aspects of Tess's existence are important enough to get exactly right, that they contribute to the self she is trying to establish and the temporary pleasure and comfort she feels in these surroundings. It works: like Tess, we are almost lulled into believing that the past can be left behind.

On this first day of October, one which the cool weather and the start of baseball playoffs agree signals the true start of autumn, it seems right close this appreciation with Hardy's account of Tess's autumnal wanderings with her beau, Angel Clare:
Thus, during this October month of wonderful afternoons they roved along the meads by creeping paths which followed the brinks of trickling tributary brooks, hopping across by little wooden bridges to the other side, and back again. They were never out of the sound of some purling weir, whose buzz accompanied their own murmuring, while the beams of the sun, almost as horizontal as the mead itself, formed a pollen of radiance over the landscape. They saw tiny blue fogs in the shadows of trees and hedges, all the time that there was bright sunshine elsewhere. The sun was so near the ground, and the sward so flat, that the shadows of Clare and Tess would stretch a quarter of a mile ahead of them, like two long fingers pointing afar to where the green alluvial reaches abutted against the sloping sides of the vale.
This afternoon in Philadelphia, the shadow of the grandstand will creep across home plate, making pitches dart elusively between darkness and light; as it grows dark tonight at Wrigley Field, the chill we remember from Opening Day back in April will settle in alongside the hopes we harbored then, and are lucky enough to still maintain.

It's the best time of the year, time for chili and beer and magic jack-o-lanterns. Time to play ball.

{Ozzie-o-lantern, and photo, by rocketlass.}