Monday, November 30, 2009

Hard Times, come again no more

As I read Hard Times last week, I found myself trying to imagine what it must have been like to read it as it was published, in Dickens's journal Household Words, in the spring of 1854. Such a reader surely would have come to it with breathless excitement, for its immediate predecessor, Bleak House, concluded seven months earlier, had displayed Dickens at the top of his craft, his language, plotting, and eye for character all reaching new heights. And the opening page of Hard Times, though not as strong as the meditation on dust that rings in Bleak House, shares with it a vivacity and inventiveness that would surely only have raised those expectations:
"Now, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them. This is the principle on which I bring up my own children, and this is the principle on which I bring up these children. Stick to Facts, sir!"

The scene was a plain, bare, monotonous vault of a schoolroom, and the speaker's square forefinger emphasized his observations by underscoring every sentence with a line on the schoolmaster's sleeve. The emphasis was helped by the speaker's square wall of a forehead, which had his eyebrows for its base, while his eyes found commodious cellarage in two dark caves, overshadowed by the wall. The emphasis was helped by the speaker's mouth, which was wide, thin, and hard set. The emphasis was helped by the speaker's voice, which was inflexible, dry, and dictatorial. The emphasis was helped by the speaker's hair, which bristled on the skirts of his bald head, a plantation of firs to keep the wind from its shining surface, all covered with knobs, like the crust of a plum pie, as if the head had scarcely warehouse-room for the hard facts stored inside. The speaker's obstinate carriage, square coat, square legs, square shoulders—nay, his very neckcloth, trained to take him by the throat with an unaccommodating grasp, like a stubborn fact, as it was,—all helped the emphasis.
A promising start, no? But very quickly, disappointment would surely creep in, for Hard Times is not a very good novel. Conceived and written in a haste that was unusual even for Dickens--designed to counteract a slump in sales of Household Words--it feels throughout like a rush job. Its language, though never boring, is at the same time nowhere as wildly free and inventive as in Bleak House, weighed down all too often by the combination of sentimentality and didacticism that mars some of Dickens's Christmas books. None of its several plotlines offers much interest or surprise on their own; nor do they come together particularly well. In fact, their failure to cohere is indicative of the greatest failure of the novel: it is a book without a center. Rather than a compelling protagonist on the order of Esther Summerson or Mr. Dombey, Hard Times offers a clutch of secondary characters, a mix of variations on Dickens's typically too-pure-to-interest Victorian women and his monomaniacal eccentrics. Some of them are unquestionably memorable--Gradgrind, who was introduced in that opening scene, being the greatest of them--but none is strong enough to carry the narrative. When set next to the triumph of Bleak House, Hard Times seems particularly impoverished.

A cursory investigation suggests that contemporary reviewers had that reaction. The Oxford Reader's Companion to Dickens says that
Reviewers were virtually unanimous in condemning Hard Times and dull and disappointing,
which Peter Ackroyd, in his biography of Dickens, fleshes out:
" . . . A mere dull melodrama," The Rambler said, "in which character is caricature, sentiment tinsel, and moral (if any) unsoud." The Westminster Review commented upon its topical nature, and suggested that Dickens's language was one which "speaks especially to the present generation" and may not be intelligible to the next. And, later, there was a sharp parody of Dickens's style in Our Miscellany: "The crowd gathering. Like a snowball. Much dirtier, though. Rather."
Meanwhile, F. R. Leavis's attempt to raise its status by calling it a "moral fable" in his The Great Tradition decades later seems fundamentally misguided. We don't, after all, go to Dickens for the weak tea of fables; we go to him for the full-bodied life he offers, dashing and funny and wild and unexpected and full of meaning. If the best we can find there is a "moral fable," then we've not found the best of Dickens.

All of this ought not to obscure the fact that even lesser Dickens offers real pleasures. The description of Mr. Gradgrind that I've already shared reminds me of the following account of the novel's other great eccentric, Mrs. Sparsit:
Mrs. Sparsit, lying by to recover the tone of her nerves in Mr. Bounderby's retreat, kept such a sharp look-out, night and day, under her Coriolanian eyebrows, that her eyes, like a couple of lighthouses on an iron-bound coast, might have warned all prudent mariners from that bold rock her Roman nose and the dark and craggy region in its neighborhood, but for the placidity of her manner. Although it was hard to believe that her retiring for the night could be any thing but a form, so severely wide awake were those classical eyes of hers, and so impossible did it seem that her rigid nose could yield to any relaxing influence, yet her manner of sitting, smoothing her uncomfortable, not to say, gritty, mittens (they were constructed of a cool fabric like a meat-safe), or of ambling to unknown places of destination with her foot in her cotton stirrup, was so perfectly serene, that most observers would have been constrained to suppose her a dove, embodied, by some freak of nature, in the earthly tabernacle of a bird of the hook-beaked order.

She was a most wonderful woman for prowling about the house. How she got from story to story, was a mystery beyond solution. A lady so decorous in herself, and so highly connected, was not to be suspected of dropping over the banisters or sliding down them, yet her extraordinary facility of locomotion suggested the wild idea. Another noticeable circumstance in Mrs. Sparsit was, that she was never hurried. She would shoot with consummate velocity from the roof to the hall, yet would be in full possession of her breath and dignity on the moment of her arrival there. Neither was she ever seen by human vision to go at a great pace.
Then there's this beautifully observed moment--one so singular as to give the sense of something witnessed in reality, then stored away for later fictional use--that comes when two women have raised an alarm about a man fallen down a mine:
One of the men was in a drunken slumber, but on his comrade's shouting to him that a man had fallen down the Old Hell Shaft, he started out to a pool of dirty water, put his head in it, and came back sober.
It's the rare moments like those in Hard Times, when Dickens gives the sense of being fully engaged with both his characters and his language, that make the rest of its wan pages so frustrating.

Fortunately for our imagined Victorian reader, unhappily laying aside the August 12, 1854 issue of Household Words that saw the novel's end, Hard Times did not signify a diminution of Dickens's powers--something that even Dickens himself may have feared. As John Lucas points out in Charles Dickens: The Major Novels, the beginning of his next book was a bit rough:
He apparently had far more than his usual difficulty in getting started; and I have noted that he changed his mind about what his novel was to be called. This suggests a degree of uncertainty which the opening pages don't entirely dispel. Reading and re-reading them I sense a writer casting around, trying to find the right tone, the right point of entry, the right subject even.
Yet the resulting novel, Little Dorrit, is one of his strongest, and it launched him on a string that would lead to the haunting Great Expectations and the sprawling, panoramic breakthrough of Our Mutual Friend--a reminder that our favorite writers surely deserve our forbearance in the case of an occasional failure.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Re-entering "The Little Room"--this time with the help of the Internet!

Back in October, I wrote a post about Madeline Yale Wynne's "The Little Room" (1895), a short story whose delicacy in dealing with the inexplicable could serve as a model for writers of uncanny tales. A few days ago, Addie Harris came across that post and left a comment that is far too interesting to be left to mulch in the archives. If you've not read "The Little Room," I'd suggest you take ten minutes to go here and read it before you read Addie's comment. You'll be glad you did

Addie writes,
My husband and I own a house that once belonged to Madeline Yale Wynne's aunt and uncle. Before we bought the house we were given a tour by the real estate agent. When we went upstairs to see the bedrooms he pointed out that it was unusual for a Victorian house to have been built with original closets. He took us into the first bedroom at the top of the stairs, showed us the view out the double window and pointed out the closet. At the second bedroom he pointed out an identical double window and an identical closet. He followed the same routine in the third bedroom. The fourth and apparently last bedroom was full of furniture so we stayed behind as he squeezed around the foot of the bed to point to yet another double window and another closet but, as we were turning to leave the room, we found ourselves alone. A second later there was a faint "Are you coming?" from inside the closet. In the back of that closet was a doorway leading into another room with blue wallpaper that has no entrance from the hall. I read somewhere that Madeline Yale Wynne was probably inspired to write "The Little Room" by her home in Massachusetts but I don't believe that.
I love that they learn about the room because they're thinking of buying the house--a situation that has set up spooky stories for more than a century. I further love that the real estate agent doesn't even seem to think there's anything all that odd about the little room; maybe he has some strange power--maybe all the houses he shows suddenly have little rooms?

The wonderfully fortuitous nature of this discovery about Wynne's story threatens to send me into yet another rhapsody about the glories of the Internet. Instead, I'll merely thank Addie for taking the time to share her knowledge, and I'll remember to add the Internet to the list of things I'm thankful for this holiday weekend.

Things here will most likely be quiet through the weekend but should be back to normal by Monday. Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

"It would have been a sure way to invite demons to the party," or, Subtle connections

Autumnal bread baking has won out over blogging this afternoon, so rather than a proper post I have merely two passages to share. They have no explicit commonalities, but when I read the second this afternoon it called to mind the first. See what you think.

The first passage comes from "Little Red's Tango," a strange, elliptical, atmospheric story by Peter Straub (which is collected in a stunning anthology he edited last year, Poe's Children: The New Horror) that reads like the offspring of Steven Millhauser and Kelly Link. The title character, Little Red, is a jazz record collector and friend to a certain subset of those in need; he is spoken of only in vague terms, for though it seems clear that he has some unusual powers, their nature is elusive, even to him.
He will not remind you of anyone you know. Little Red is not a type.

The closest you will come to thinking that someone has reminded you of Little Red will occur in the midst of a movie seen late in a summer afternoon on which you have decided to use a darkened theater to walk away from your troubles for a couple of hours. As you sit surrounded by empty seats in the pleasant murk, watching a scene depicting a lavish party or a crowded restaurant, an unnamed extra will move through the door and depart, and at first you will feel no more than a mild tingle of recognition all the more compelling for having no obvious referent. Someone is going, someone has gone, that is all you will know. Then the tilt of the departing head or the negligent gesture of a hand will return to you a quality more closely akin to the emotional context of memory than to memory itself, and with the image of Little Red rising into your mind, you will find yourself pierced by a sense of loss, longing, and sweetness, as if someone had just spoken the name of a long-vanished, once-dear childhood friend.
The second passage comes from Joscelyn Godwin's fascinating Athanasius Kircher's Theatre of the World (2009), from a brief aside explaining Kircher's relationship to magic:
Kircher was not a magician like Marsilio Ficino, who summoned the planetary influences with Orphic songs and perfumes. He is never known to have drawn up horoscopes, like Johann Kepler or Jerome Cardan. Unlike Tommaso Campanella, he did not perform ceremonies of astrological magic for his patron Pope Urban VIII. Nor had he any respect for alchemy, either physical or spiritual. He despised all forms of divination, especially the geomancy that infatuated Robert Fludd. One cannot be sure that he never indulged in erotically energized meditations, like Giordano Bruno, but it seems unlikely. He never, ever summoned spirits or attempted to converse with angels, like John Dee and Edward Kelley; it would have been a sure way to invite demons to the party. . . . While he wrote unhesitatingly about magnetic magic, musical magic, hieroglyphic magic, and many other magics, the only ones Kircher considered licit were natural. That is, they were based on the knowledge and exploitation of nature's hidden laws, which not even angels and demons were free to disobey. That these laws included correspondences between entities on the different planes of being (planets, plants, parts of the body, etc.) was not supernatural: it was simply the way the natural universe was put together, "bound by secret knots."
In typing these out, I think I've discovered why they linked themselves in my mind: the urgent whisper of that Someone is going, someone is gone in the Straub excerpt feels very much like stumbling across one of Kircher's "secret knots," the hint of an order that we're too small, too finite in our understanding, to fully grasp; though Straub tied this particular knot himself, it has the authentic feel of something ancient and strange, the shadowy glimpse of magic that gives a good uncanny story its power.

Friday, November 20, 2009

The Lambs of London

A post by Patrick Kurp at Anecdotal Evidence last week about Peter Ackroyd's novel The Lambs of London (2004) reminded me that I had a copy of that book, unread, on my shelves, purchased several years ago when all I knew of Charles and Mary Lamb was their Tales from Shakespeare. Patrick's post gives a good sense of the pleasures of this slim novel (and you can also turn to him for praise of Charles Lamb's essays, which I plan to dive into this winter); since he's covered that ground, I'll merely share a few aspects that struck me.

Though Ackroyd dwells far less than I would have expected on the sad circumstances of the Lambs' shared life, he does give clear pictures of both Charles's alcoholism--
He had a strange relationship with his drunken self; he considered him to be an unhappy and unfortunate acquaintance to whom he had become accustomed. He would neither defend him nor apologise for him. He would merely recognise his existence.
--and Mary's bouts of insanity. Without overdoing things, Ackroyd suggests that Mary's troubles, if not caused by the cramped life forced on her by Georgian propriety, were at the very least exacerbated by it: while Charles spends his evenings out with friends, Mary stays at home, awaiting the talks they'll have on his return. When she does leave the house, it takes courage; she "decides to venture" into their street. She has barely been out of their neighborhood; a trip across the Thames affords her "a rare moment of discovery." When Charles challenges her about having been out one evening, she whirls on him,
"When you see me in this house I am sleep-walking. I have no real--no genuine--life here at all. Why do you think I long for you to come home each evening? When you are not wretchedly drunk, of course. . . . Whom do I see? Whom do I talk to? Whose propriety is it that I should be pressed to death? Whose convention is it that I am already lying in the family grave?"
By contrast, Charles's life as a young cleark for the East India Company is full of company, wit, charm, and sociability; his companions are sketched quickly but convincingly, my favorite being Alfred Jowett, who was
practical, hard-headed and a little mercenary. He divided his salary by the length of the working year, and had calculated that he earned five pence and three farthings every working hour. He had a written table inside his desk and, whenever he managed to idle away one of those hours, he added that sum to his running profit.
When comparing the lives and ambits of the siblings, it is hard not to think of the James family, of Alice stuck at home while her brothers escaped; in the century that separated them from the Lambs, the situation had improved, but not nearly enough.

Unexpectedly, though Ackroyd centers the story on the tragedy of the Lambs--when Mary, in a fit, killed her mother--he drives his plot with a story of forgery, introducing a young bookseller named William Henry Ireland, who briefly wowed literary England with the slowly doled out discovery of a cache of Shakespeare's papers, including, ultimately, a whole lost play, Vortigern. When his deception is finally undone, he apologetically explains,
I acted out of innocent delight and sheer intoxication with my gifts.
--while his success, however temporary, was rooted in a similar delight: people wanted to believe in the forgeries, wanted to believe that they had not seen the last of Shakespeare.

All of which reminded me of a passage from an interview of D. Graham Burnett conducted with historian Anthony Grafton in the Spring 2009 issue of Cabinet. Speaking of forgery, Grafton says,
[I]n many cases it was the forgers who took on the most ambitious projects of historical recovery. They were the ones who were trying to make the past live again, to animate, to resurrect the lost worlds. They had to steep themselves in these worlds enough that they could actually inhabit them creatively. . . . [I]n many cases there is a sense that these sorts of forgeries are not an effort to falsify the past, but in fact to rescue it. The truly passionate historical forger of the Renaissance was often saying something like, "I really know what was going on back then. I know how this tradition in antiquity worked. I know what the record ought to show, and if it's not there in our crappy manuscripts, well then, dammit, I'm going to put it there!"
And what else is a historical novelist doing but that? History may not have retained any extended account of Charles Lamb's table talk, or of his quiet tenderness towards his sister, or her private worries, but we have Peter Ackroyd, master forger, to fill in the gaps.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

To Boldly Go Where No Blogger Has Gone Before!, or, Four years in

As some days it seems that a depressingly large amount of online talk about books is about their future--or lack thereof--it seems only appropriate that on this, the fourth birthday of I've Been Reading Lately, I look not to the past and its 775 posts but to the future. But what can I say about the future? I don't know any better than you what books will look like in the years to come, or how we'll read them* . . . fortunately, however, as I was distracting myself from the task of folding laundry this evening by watching TV, I realized who does know: the crew of the USS Enterprise, NCC-1701!

For right there, in the series' pilot episode, "Where No Man Has Gone Before," was the answer: by the twenty-third century, books will be stored on cassettes that are similar in appearance to, though a bit smaller than, eight-tracks, and they will be projected on small monitors a page at a time. I have to admit that I'm disappointed less in the relatively bulky data storage that it appears our descendants will devolve to than in the lousy image quality they will achieve; the Kindle and Nook may not perfectly replicate the experience of reading text on a page, but at least they don't look like a splotchy mimeograph of a page set in a distressed, utilitarian typewriter font. Still, it's heartening to have proof that the written word will survive, and even to be reassured that at least one of my favorite writers will as well: Spinoza's Ethics makes an appearance onscreen in the episode.

Poetry, too, survives, as evidenced by a poem that helmsman Gary Mitchell recites to Dr. Elizabeth Dehner:
My love has wings
slender, feathered things
with grace
and upswept curve and
tapered tip
It's unclear from the context whether what Mitchell recites is a fragment or the whole poem, but he reveals that it is called "Nightingale Woman," and it was written by Tarbold on the Canopius Planet in that long ago year of 1996. He also doesn't reveal in what year humans will first learn of the poem--which we would of course have no way of knowing about here in 2009 were it not for Star Trek, given that we've failed thus far to achieve first contact--but he does describe it as "one of the most passionate love sonnets of the past couple of centuries."** So all you oh-no-poetry-is-dying folks can relax for at least a few hundred years.

Thanks for reading these four years; I hope you've enjoyed it even half as much as I have.

Monday, November 16, 2009

"Those rather hit-or-miss days," or, Wodehouse in spats and letters

In Wednesday's post about the P. G. Wodehouse interview that's included in the newest volume of The Paris Review Interviews I mentioned in passing Wodehouse's expression of dismay at the disappearance of spats, but his whole disquisition on the topic is so good that it seems a shame not to share it, for it gives a great flavor of the light, yet thoughtful tone Wodehouse maintains throughout.

The exchange begins with a lament from Wodehouse about the changing times:
. . . I suppose a typical member of the Drones Club now is someone with a job and very earnest about it. Those rather hit-or-miss days have passed away. . . .

I suppose that world has gone the way of spats. You were very fond of spats, weren't you? Tell me a little about them.

I don't know why spats went out! The actual name was spatter-dashers, and you fastened them over your ankles, you see, to prevent the spatter from dashing you. They certainly lent tone to your appearance, and they were awfully comfortable, especially when you wore them in cold weather. I've written articles, which were rather funny, about how I used to go about London. I would borrow my brother's frock coat and my uncle's hat, but my spats were always new and impeccable. The butler would open the door and take in my old topcoat and hat and sniff as if to say, Hardly the sort of thing we are accustomed to. And then he would look down at the spats and everything would be all right. It's a shame when things like spats go out.
In fact, as Orwell (among others) has pointed out, Bertie Wooster was out of date almost the instant he first appeared; in his sympathetic 1945 essay defending Wodehouse against the charge of treason for the German radio broadcasts he made from Berlin during the war, Orwell notes,
Conceived in 1917 or thereabouts, Bertie really belongs to an epoch earlier than that. He is the "knut" of the pre-1914 period, celebrated in such songs as "Gilbert the Filbert" or "Reckless Reggie of the Regent's Palace". The kind of life that Wodehouse writes about by preference, the life of the "clubman" or "man about town", the elegant young man who lounges all the morning in Piccadilly with a cane under his arm and a carnation in his buttonhole, barely survived into the nineteen-twenties. . . . It is significant that Wodehouse could publish in 1936 a book entitled Young Men in Spats. For who was wearing spats at that date? They had gone out of fashion quite ten years earlier.
Reading Orwell's essay again made me wonder what Wodehouse himself thought of it, whether his appreciation for the support would be diminished by the fact that Orwell's defense consisted largely of establishing that Wodehouse was so ignorant of reality as to be essentially blameless when it unexpectedly intruded. Robert McCrum, in his biography of Wodehouse, reports the essay was actually in part the result of a correspondence the two men struck up following a group lunch in Paris*, and that at the time the essay was published, Wodehouse was grateful, writing to Orwell,
I don't think I have ever read a better bit of criticism. You were absolutely right in everything you said about my work. It was uncanny.
A bit more digging, however, led me to the P. G. Wodehouse Books site, which quotes from a letter Wodehouse sent around the same time to his friend Bill Townend, wherein he complains about Orwell's mention of Wodehouse's line from the radio talks about how German officers near his house were always "dropping in for a bath or a party":
From Orwell's article, you would think I had invited the blighters to come and scour their damned bodies in my bathroom. What actually happened was that at the end of the second week of occupation, the house next door became full of German Labour Corps workers and they seemed to have got me muddled up with Tennyson's Sir Walter Vivian. The gentleman who "all of a summer's day gave his broad lawns until the set of sun to the people." I suppose to a man fond of German Labour Corps workers, and liking to hear them singing in the bath, the conditions would have been ideal, but they didn't suit me. I chafed, and a fat lot of good chafing did me. They came again next day and brought their friends.
Even the staunchest Wodehouse apologist is unlikely to have much sympathy for his account of the suffering brought on by the horrors of German singing, considering what others went through; at the same time, the letter itself sounds so Wodehousian--so unexpectedly close in tone to some of his characters--that it's hard not to be in some degree charmed nonetheless.

One last note before I leave Wodehouse behind for a while. That passage led me to wonder whether his letters might be worth reading--whether they were, as for so many writers, a place for rehearsing what would later turn up in his fiction. Well, if Nancy Mitford is to be trusted--and on the subject of comedy, I think she surely is--the answer is no: she closed a letter to Evelyn Waugh** in 1953 with this postscript about Wodehouse's just-published Performing Flea: A Self-Portrait in Letters:
Have you read the P G Wodehouse letters? He never seems to stay in one place more than a week. Not a joke in the whole lot -- as far as I've read.
Anyone out there read them and disagree strongly enough to make a case for my giving them a try?

Friday, November 13, 2009

"It seemed to be always 3 o'clock," or, Ye Olde Time Sunday Feeling

When I was a boy, Sundays meant getting up early to watch "The Little Rascals," as the old "Our Gang" shorts were renamed when they were run on our local television station in the early 1980s. If we were lucky, we could follow it with George Reeves in the "Adventures of Superman"--but if we were unlucky, we had to leave Superman to put the world to rights on his own while we all set out for church, which has never, in the seventy-plus years of Superman's existence, come close to rivaling him for entertainment.

Being a voracious reader, however, I knew that even without Superman, we had it good: in novel after novel, I encountered Victorian children and frontier American children whose entertainment options from sundown on Saturday to sundown on Sunday were limited to the Bible and the sermon, with any hints of fun or amusement or light-heartedness strictly forbidden.* The very thought of such enforced piety--and the crushing boredom it necessarily brought with it--made our hour-long, light-on-fire-and-brimstone Presbyterian service much more bearable.

All that came to mind last night as I was reading Molly Hughes's A London Child of the 1870s (1934), a charming memoir of a middle-class London family of the Victorian era. The book isn't that well known these days--though Adam Gopnik, in his introduction to the lovely Persephone Boks edition, makes a convincing case for it as an urban counterpart to the more popular and beloved Lark Rise to Candleford--but it's a wonderful little book, one that any lover of London or Victoriana should read; Gopnik describes it, aptly, as David Copperfield from the point of view of the Micawber children.

I expect, however, that on Sundays even the ebullient Micawbers forced their faces into pious expresions, and Molly Hughes's family was no different:
The mere word "Sunday" is apt to give a mental shiver to people of long memories. The outer world closed down. It was wrong to travel except for dire necessity, and then very difficult. It was wrong to work, and wrong to play. In fact, existence in some houses was so dull that Tom said he undersrtood the full meaning of the opening verse of the 122nd Psalm. However, we did the best we could with the day, and it had the advantage of my father being with us all the time. He didn't take religion too seriously, and left it to mother to enforce all her superstitious restrictions that she had imbibed in her Cornish home.
Church--which the family took at St. Paul's, after a lovingly described walk through the relatively quiet Sunday streets--was bad enough, the sermons "usually stiff with learning and far over our heads,"** but it was the rest of the day that was the real torture:
The afternoons hung heavy. It seemed to be always 3 o'clock. All amusements, as well as work, were forbidden. It was a real privation not to be allowed to draw and paint. However, an exception was made in favour of illuminated texts, and we rivalled the old monks in our zeal for copying Scripture, with the same kind of worldly decorations that they devised.

Naturally our main stand-by was reading, but here again our field was limited by mother's notions of what was appropriate for Sunday. Tom Brown, Robinson Crusoe, Hans Andersen's Tales, and Pilgrim's Progress were permitted, but not the Arabian Nights, or Walter Scott, or indeed any novel. We had to fall back on bound volumes of Good Words for the Young, which were not so bad as the title suggests, and contained plenty of stories. Again and again I turned to something entitled The Dark Journey, only to find that it was an account of one's digetsion. You may wonder why I did this more than once, but I always hoped that I had been mistaken, and that such a splendid title must mean a good story. No, there was still that forbidding picture of one's insides cut through the middle.

We all liked certain parts of a three-volume story called Henry Milner, which purported to be an account of the upbringing of a Christian gentleman. I believe he never did anything wrong, but his school-fellows didi, and all their gay activities shone like misdeeds in a pious world.
It's good to see that some things never change, and that the best parts of tales of uplift likely always have been the lovingly described scenes of life at its most sordid.

There was, however, one real, unmitigated pleasure, which suggests that even Mother realized--though she refused to acknowledge it--that the Sabbath at times required the leaven of laughter:
Pickwick Papers, by some blessed workings of mother's conscience, did not come under the head of novels. They were "papers." She herself led the laughter over the long gamekeeper and Bob Sawyer's supper-party. Not sabbatical by any means, but those readings rescued our childhood's Sundays from the grimness that might otherwise have stuck to them.
Oh, the perennial joys of Dickens! The thought of that family, in the years just after Dickens's death, laughing at the same books we still laugh at today; it takes me back to standing in the poky little Dickens museum in London many years ago, overwhelmed with gratitude at the thought that one man could have brought all of us so, so much joy.

Hughes may not have left us nearly the riches that Dickens did, but her gem of a memoir carries a tone reminiscent of Dickens's lighter moments, full of the joys and surprises of everyday middle-class life. A London Child of the 1870s doesn't appear to be available in the United States; it's unclear whether Persephone has a distributor over here. But it's well worth getting from the UK; I can think of few better cup-of-tea-and-a-blanket-by-the-fireside books for the incipient winter.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

"And I thought, Suppose one of them had an omniscient valet?", or, P. G. Wodehouse on Jeeves

The two highlights for me of the new fourth volume of The Paris Review Interviews--reason enough on their own for me to buy the book--are the interview with Haruki Murakami, which I drew on yesterday, and the one from 1975 with P. G. Wodehouse.

Wodehouse comes across as amiable and a bit goofy, but at the same time every bit the master craftsman and hard worker his fans know him to have been. The interview is sprinkled with wonderful moments--like when Wodehouse says, "I'm bad at remembering things, like when flying really became fashionable," or "It's a shame when things like spats go out"--but what has inspired today's post is one of the standard questions that Wodehouse must have fielded hundreds of times, but to which this time he gave an interesting answer:
Did you ever have a butler like Jeeves?

No, never like Jeeves. My butlers were different, though I believe J. M. Barrie had one just like Jeeves.
Really? Now this calls for a trip to the bookshelves, where from Lisa Chaney's Hide-and-Seek with Angels: A Life of J. M. Barrie (2005), we learn about Barrie's manservant Frank Thurston, who entered Barrie's service in the 1920s and does seem to have been remarkable:
Thurston's ability to enter and leave a room with absolute silence was a reflection of his enigmatic and, some thought, slightly sinister personality. To compound the mystery he had somehow familiarised himself not only with Spanish and French, but also with Latin and Greek. In addition to admirably fulfilling his role as skilled and urbane butler, it soon became clear that Thurston was a man of startling learning. Cynthia [Asquith] wrote of him:
Dictionaries and various learned tomes soon cluttered up the pantry, where I would constantly find him reading Latin or Greek while he polished the silver.
Thurston had an astonishing memory for other things besides living and dead languages. He could supply any forgotten date or quotation. One day Barrie remarked that the only line in an Oxford quotation that survived was "A rose red city half as old as Time." Though we all knew this line, no one of us could remember the name of the poet.
When Cynthia's husband, Beb, confessed that he couldn't remember the name of the "rose red city" and no one else at the table could either, Thurston, passing around the meat, finally said, "Was it not Petra, Sir?"
In light of Thurston's surprising erudition, Chaney tells us, Barrie took to warning his guests that
if they were thinking of reading a thriller in bed they would be advised "to hide it between a Pliny and the latest theory of Ethics."
While Robert McCrum's recent biography of Wodehouse barely mentions Barrie, and Thurston not at all, it does appear
(if Google Book Search's frustratingly limited preview isn't leading me astray) that N. T. P. Murphy at least touched on the question of Thurston as an inspiration for Jeeves in his In Search of Blandings: An Investigation into the Sources That Inspired P. G. Wodehouse (1986), writing that, through the accounts of Wodehouse's friend Denis Mackail, Thurston "played a part in the 'growth' of Jeeves in the early part of the 1920s."*

All of which makes me wonder how Thurston would have handled an odd incident involving Barrie that I've related before, but which seems worth sharing once again. It's from Penelope Fitzgerald's loving, perceptive group biography of her uncles, The Knox Brothers (1977), and, appropriately or not, it's the first thing that comes to my mind when Barrie is brought up:
Desmond MacCarthy, the most genial of Irish critics, had been at King's, and wanted to help [Fitzgerald's uncle Edmund Knox], as he wanted to help everybody he met. He also knew everybody. Eddie must come to him and ask advice from James Barrie, who was at the height of his fame, though he could sometimes be a little disconcerting, unless the side of him which spoke to adults, and which he called "McConachie," happened to be foremost. Buoyed up by MacCarthy's confidence, the two of them called at 133 Gloucester Terrace, where they found the room empty, except for a large dog, with which Barrie used to play hide-and-seek in the Park. While they waited, Eddie in sheer nervousness hit his hand on the marble mantelpiece. It began to bleed profusely. MacCarthy was aghast. Barrie could not bear the sight of blood. They tried to staunch it with handkerchiefs, and with the cuffs of MacCarthy's soft shirt, which became deeply stained. Barrie appeared at the doorway, took one look at them, and withdrew. Kind-hearted though he was, he was obliged to send down a message that he could not see them.
For that matter, how would Jeeves himself have handled it? Bertie's scrapes, though plentiful and harrowing, were rarely the sort to draw blood. Most likely, I suppose, is that no such incident would have occurred, Jeeves having quietly sanded all the corners of the mantelpiece at some point in the past in anticipation of just this sort of danger.

Monday, November 09, 2009

On Doubles

In the newest volume of The Paris Review Interviews, Haruki Murakami offers an interesting analysis of his relationship to his protagonists:
Your protagonists often seem to serve as projections of your own point of view into the fantastic world of your narratives--the dreamer in the dream.

Please think about it this way: I have a twin brother. And when I was two years old, one of us--the other one--was kidnapped. He was brought to a faraway place and we haven't seen each other since. I think my protagonist is him. A part of myself, but not me, and we haven't seen each other for a long time. It's a kind of alternative form of myself. In terms of DNA we are the same, but our environment has been different, so our way of thinking would be different.
That description is sure to resonate with longtime readers of Murakami--though when I think of his obsession with doubling and twinning, I tend to think not of his mid-30s male protagonists but of the young, attractive women who enter their lives. The interviewer, too, picks up on that, and later asks Murakami about it:
There seem to be two distinct types of women in your novels: those with whom the protagonist has a fundamentally serious relationship--often this is the woman who disappears and whose memory haunts him--and the other kind of woman, who comes later and helps him in his search, or to do to the opposite--to forget. This second type of woman tends to be outspoken, eccentric, and sexually frank, and the protagonist interacts with her in a much warmer and more humorous way than he had with the missing woman, with whom he never quite connected. What purpose do these two archetypes serve?

My protagonist is almost always caught between the spiritual world and the real world. In the spiritual world, the women--or men--are quiet, intelligent, modest. Wise. In the realistic world, as you say, the women are very active, comic, positive. They have a sense of humor. The protagonist's mind is split between these totally different worlds and he cannot choose which to take. I think that's one of the main motifs in my work. It's very apparent in Hard-Boiled Wonderland, in which his mind is actually, physically split. In Norwegian Wood, as well, there are two girls and he cannot decide between them, from the beginning to the end.
"Split," though Murakami is applying it here to his male characters, seems the appropriate description: to my mind, it's less that Murakami's offering polarities than that he's sorting the elements that make up one person into two different characters, as if his protagonists' understanding of the ultimate complexity of others is fundamentally limited, affecting his ideas of how to relate to them--and, perhaps, even precipitating the losses he endures.

Soon after reading that interview, I read Steve Rasnic Tem and Melanie Tem's fantastic, creepy story "The Man on the Ceiling," which is included in Poe's Children: The New Horror (2008, edited by Peter Straub), and this passage, written in Steve's voice, jumped out at me for obvious reasons:
As a child I was a persistent liar. I lied slyly, I lied innocently, and I lied enthusiastically. I lied out of confusion and I lied out of a profound disappointment. One of my more elaborate lies took shape during the 1960 presidential election. While the rest of the country was debating the relative merits of Kennedy and Nixon, I was explaining to my friends how I had been half of a pair of Siamese twins, and how my brother had tragically died during the separation.

This was, perhaps, my most heartfelt lie to date, because in telling this tale I found myself grieving over the loss of my brother, my twin. I had created my first believable character, and my character had hurt me.

Later I came to recognize that about that time (I was ten), the self I had been was dying, and that I was slowly becoming the twin who had died and gone off to some other, better fiction.
What's particularly fascinating about this--in light of Murakami's talk of a twinned self and intentionally doubled or split characters--is that "The Man on the Ceiling" is written by a husband-and-wife team, authors of many books, who are working together for the first time, telling a story about the fears, nightmares, and strengths of their marriage and their family. Steve Tem may have lost his imaginary twin, but as becomes apparent in the story, in his wife he has found, if not a replacement, then at least a reflection; the story's honest appraisal of the odd combination of intimacy, trust, fear, and ultimate separateness that turns a pair into a couple is moving and unforgettable.

Friday, November 06, 2009

"Avoid naming it straight," or, Reading Henry James

A recent post by OGIC at About Last Night having convinced me that I'd been away from Henry James too long, I'm currently hip-deep in The Ambassadors (1905), which, knowing my tastes, was where OGIC suggested I dive in--right into the heart of baroque, roundabout late period James. And she was right: I find myself deeply admiring James's odd combination of tenacity and circumspection, his constant circling about an idea or emotion not so much out of delicacy as out of a desire not to miss a single nuance.

Yet at the same time I find that reading James is a lot like watching a performance of Shakespeare: it takes me a few minutes, every time I open the book, to settle into the rhythms of the prose, and, almost as if I'm translating from a foreign language, I can feel my brain engaging some higher, rarely tested gears. A passage like this one, perfectly grammatical though its sentences may be, requires an attention to its elusive thread of thought that's hard to maintain in the quiet bustle of the L or the bus:
The fact was that his perception of the young man's identity--so absolutely checked for a minute--had been quite one of the sensations that count in life; he certainly had never known one that had acted, as he might have said, with more of a crowded rush. And the rush, though both vague and multitudinous, had lasted a long time, protected, as it were, yet at the same time aggravated, by the circumstance of its coinciding with a stretch of decorous silence. They couldn't talk without disturbing the spectators in the part of the balcony just below them; and it, for that matter, came to Strether--being a thing of the sort that did come to him--that these were the accidents of a high civilization; the imposed tribute to propriety, the frequent exposure to conditions, usually brilliant, in which relief has to await its time. Relief was never quite near at hand for kings, queens, comedians and other such people, and though you might be yourself not exactly one of those, you could yet, in leading the life of high pressure, guess a little how they sometimes felt.
Though the reward is palpable--that memorable insight about delayed relief--there is nonetheless an inescapable air of obsession to the slightly overcooked precision of that account; you can feel the hand of revision, of what Alice Munro in an interview called James's habit of rewriting "simple, understandable stuff so it was obscure and difficult."*

And, much as I'm enjoying The Ambassadors, it's hard not to sympathize with the frustration of Henry's brother William--whose whole philosophical project was to render the unknown in plain language--when confronted with such fussy concatenations of prose. In his biography of William James, Robert D. Richardson draws from a letter William sent Henry in 1907:
"You know how opposed your whole 'third manner' of execution is to the literary ideals which animate my crude and Orson-like breast," William rumbled, "mine being to say a thing in one sentence as straight and explicit as it can be made, and then to drop it forever; yours being to avoid naming it straight, but by dint of breathing and sighing all round and round it, to arouse in the reader who may have had a similar perception already (Heaven help him if he hasn't!) the illusion of a solid object, made (like the 'ghost' at the Polytechnic) wholly out of impalpable materials, air, and the prismatic interferences of light, ingeniously focused by mirrors upon empty space."
Many's the day I understand William's position (and oh, how much more might I do so were Henry my brother!), but for today I'll gladly plow ahead in Henry's mode, which I'm currently thinking of in terms he employs to describe one of the female characters in The Ambassadors, who is "a slow contemporaneous fact who had been distinctly slow to establish herself." Indeed.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Enough with the ectoplasm and pseudo-science! It's time for some Renaissance skepticism!

It seems only right to follow a month of willfully credulous Halloween posts with some science-based debunking of wondrous phenomena. And who better to take on the task than seventeenth-century polymath Athanasius Kircher?

I’ve just started digging into a new book by Joscelyn Godwin about Kircher, Athanasius Kircher’s Theatre of the World: The Life and Work of the Last Man to Search for Universal Knowledge, and thus far it’s fascinating—and visually stunning, oversized and packed with Kircher’s own illustrations for his many books. For more about Godwin’s book, you can check out Philip Pullman’s rave review from the Guardian. I’m sure I’ll have more to share in the coming weeks, but for now, I’ll just let Godwin tell how Kircher applied his inquisitive intellect to the question of whether, indeed, giants once walked the land:
In the second volume of Mundus Subterraneus, Kircher treats the creatures that live, or lived, beneath the surface of the earth. In pride of place are the giants, both real and legendary. This plate shows from left to right a giant whose skeleton Boccaccio reports and discovered in Mount Erice; an ordinary man, Goliath, champion of the Philistines who was slain by David; and giants reported from Switzerland and Mauritania. Of course Kircher believed in Goliath, “six cubits and a hand in height” (i.e. about ten feet or three metres, as stated in I Samuel 17:4), but only as a special case “due to God’s providence for manifesting the glory of his people.” He gave no credence to the other reports, arguing that even if animals of such size live in the sea, none exist on earth. If they did, they would soon have devoured the available food and exterminated all other creatures. And if a man of this size existed, where would he live? How could he find enough to eat? What would he wear? Then there is the question of his weight. Just as colossal statues need extra props, a man of this size could hardly move without collapsing. To clinch the matter, in 1637 Kircher himself had visited the cave in Sicily where the giant had supposedly been found. It was much too small to house him, and there was no sign of his bones. On the same expedition, Kircher consented to view the site of discovery of a collection of monstrous teeth and bones which a historian of Sicily, Marchese Carolo de Vintimiglia, was convinced were those of a giant. After finding not a single human-like bone, Kircher concluded that they were the remains of an elephant, probably left over from Hannibal’s campaign.
Lest the vanishing prospect of giants hiding somewhere in Switzerland or Sicily leave you saddened at the lack of marvels on the earth, you should take heart from the opening of Godwin’s next paragraph:
Although he did not believe in giants, dragons were another matter.
Oh, it seems so unfair that Kircher wasn’t alive scientists began to reconstruct dinosaurs—how he would have loved the charmingly inaccurate dinosaur statues of Crystal Palace Park!

{Photo by rocketlass. For more Crystal Palace dinosaurs, go here.}

Monday, November 02, 2009

Notes! On Agatha Christie and Nero Wolfe!

Too much time spent watching baseball and attempting to learn to play "Linus and Lucy" on the piano without driving rocketlass totally insane leads to . . . a Notes column! Newspapers may die, but the Notes column is eternal!

1 Recently, an article by John Curran in the Guardian in honor of Agatha Christie's 120th birthday sent me to The ABC Murders (1935). Like the last time I read Christie (prompted by Pierre Bayard's gamesmanship), I was pleasantly surprised at her light touch, which didn't register during my long-ago middle-school Poirot binge. Sure, the characters rarely rise above type and the dialogue is wooden, but the sense of fun that pervades the novel--even as its ostensible focus is brutal murder--is infectious. It even extends--unexpectedly--to Christie poking a little fun at herself and her formula, in this conversation between Poirot and his trusty friend Hastings:
"If you could order a crime as one orders a dinner, what would you choose?"

I fell in with his humour.

"Let me see now. Let's review the menu. Robbert? Forgery? No, I think not. Rather too vegetarian. It must be murder--red-blooded murder--with trimmings, of course."

"Naturally. The hors d'oeuvres."

"Who shall the victim be--man or woman? Man, I think. Some bigwig. American millionaire. Prime Minister. Newspaper proprietor. Scene of the crime--well, what's wrong with the good old library? Nothing like it for atmosphere. As for the weapon--well, it might be a curiously twisted dagger--or some blunt instrument--a carved stone idol--"

Poirot sighed.

"Or, of course, I said, there's poison--but that's always so technical. Or a revolver shot echoing in the night. Then there must be a beautiful girl or two--"

"With auburn hair," murmured my friend.

"Your same old joke. One of the beautiful girls, of course, must be unjustly suspected--and there's some misunderstanding between her and the young man. And then, of course, there must be some other suspects--an older woman--dark, dangerous type--and some friend or rival of the dead man's--and a quiet secretary--dark horse--and a hearty man with a bluff manner--and a couple of discharged servants or gamekeepers or something--and a damn fool of a detective rather like Japp--and well--that's about all."

"That is your idea of the cream, eh?"

"I gather you don't agree."

Poirot looked at me sadly.

"You have made there a very pretty resume of nearly all the detective stories that have ever been written."

2 Christie also offers a quick little joke at the expense of Sherlock Holmes:
"The crime," said Poirot, "was committed by a man of medium height with red hair and a cast in the left eye. He limps slightly on the right foot and has a mole just below the shoulder-blade."

"Poirot?" I cried.

For a moment I was completely taken in. Then the twinkle in my friend's eye undeceived me.

"Poroit!" I said again, this time in reproach.

"Mon ami, what will you? You fix upon me a look of doglike devotion and demand of me a pronouncement a la Sherlock Holmes!"
The ABC Murders appeared in 1935, a mere five years after Conan Doyle's death, and only eight years after the publication of the last Sherlock Holmes story, which makes me wonder when the first parody of Holmes appeared. How quickly did wags begin to treat Holmes's infallible perceptiveness as an object of humor? Somehow I doubt Christie was the first--and if Google Books had more than a limited preview of The Alternative Sherlock Homes (2003), I might be able to say for sure. Looks like this may require a trip to the library . . .

3 Then there's this exchange, which smacks more of the relationship between Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin than what usually prevails between Poirot and Hastings:
"Is that a way to fold a coat? And regard what you have done to my pyjamas. If the hairwash breaks what will befall them?"

"Good heaveans, Poirot," I cried, "this is a matter of life and death. What does it matter what happens to our clothes?"

"You have no sense of proportion, Hastings. We cannot catch a train earlier than the time that it leaves, and to ruin one's clothes will not be the least helpful in preventing a murder."
Unlike Archie, however, Hastings simply cannot be counted on for a wry rejoinder. I could imagine a Hastings who is more of an English Archie--think Bertie Wooster with a sidearm--but I don't picture him lasting long with Poirot, who seems to need less a goad than a foil.

4 Speaking of Nero Wolfe, it was his fault that the premise of The ABC Murders, described by John Curran as "beautifully simple," didn't surprise me this time around. The murders mounted, and I began to think I could see the motive behind them . . . but it took me a while to remember that I'd come across the same diabolical plan recently in "The Slaughtered Santas," an episode of the early 1950s "The Adventures of Nero Wolfe" radio show. {Spoilers here, for those who want them.}

5 The Nero Wolfe radio show, sadly, isn't as good as fans of the novels would have a right to hope; it arrived too late in the radio era to get the quality of writing Rex Stouts novels deserve. Still, there's undeniable pleasure in hearing the glorious Sydney Greenstreet in the title role--imagine him delivering this line, from Too Many Cooks (1935):
I have only so long to live--so many books to read, so many ironies to contemplate, so many meals to eat.
A list that's sad, but true, and to which I'd have to add that one only gets so many World Series, so in an effort to postpone winter's chill at least one more night, it's time to watch some baseball.