Tuesday, June 29, 2010

"Never again to meddle in the affairs of cities and gods . . . "

From Zachary Mason's The Lost Books of the Odyssey (2010):
Agamemnon had the sleeping Odysseus locked belowdecks. After sleeping, he searched the hold and, finding nothing, broke into Agamemnon's cabin (its lock was contemptible). Among weapons, wine cups and trophies of war he found a book called the Iliad. It was the tale of his war and the gist was right but the details were often wrong. In the introduction he read:
It is not widely understood that the epics attributed to Homer were in fact written by the gods before the Trojan war--these divine books are the archetypes of that war rather than its history. In fact, there have been innumerable Trojan wars, each played out according to an evolving aesthetic, each representing a fresh attempt at bringing the terror of battle into line with the lucidity of the authorial intent. Inevitably, each particular war is a distortion of its antecedent, an image in a warped hall of mirrors.

The Iliad and the Odyssey have sometimes, through authorial and managerial oversights, become available to their protagonists. Surprisingly, this has had no impact on the action or the outcome. Agamemnon is too obstinate to change his mind and anyway never believes what he reads. Achilles flips through the Iliad and shrugs. Priam makes sacrifices to the nonplussed gods and anyway thinks that he is above prophecy (recall Cassandra). Perhaps there were once characters who read the book with dawning apprehension and fled that very hour, finding refuge in the hills, never again to meddle in the affairs of cities and gods, but if ever there were they are long gone now.
Though I read it months ago, I haven't written at length about Mason's wonderfully inventive and coy The Lost Books of the Odyssey, and, beset by travel, I don't really have time to do so now. Suffice it to say that it is one of my favorite books of the year, offering one of those all-too-rare experiences when a reader opens a book and quickly begins to feel that it was written just for him, that in some sense he's been waiting for this book for years. A lover of Odysseus and a regular re-reader of Homer, I didn't know that I wanted a volume of tales of Odysseus filtered through a Calvino-esque sensibility, but now that I have it I'm so, so pleased.

My first thought on closing the book was that Ed Park would love it. He does. My second thought was that I should try to convince Ed that he and I should write something along similar lines about Atlantis, taking into account all the legends and variations over the centuries. Alas, when I raised the possibility, Ed informed me that Eliot Weinberger had already done so in his essay "Dreams from the Holothurians," found in his Outside Stories--and anyone who enjoys this sort of playing around in myth and legend and the shadowier corners of historical inquiry should seek it out.

A few selections to draw you in:
Lost! Plutarch claimed that Solon began an epic poem on Atlantis, and gave it up. Lost! Plato's account of the continent, Critias, ends suddenly in mid-sentence: "And when he had called them together, he spoke as follows:"


Atlantis! Heinrich Schliemann's grandson Paul claims that he inherited a letter, an envelope, and an owl-headed vase of unknown provenance. The letter instructed that only a family member willing to devote his life to the material contained in the envelope and vase should open them. He pledged his life, and broke the vase. Inside were four square coins and a metal plaque inscribed in Phoenician, Issued in the Temple of Transparent Walls. He opened the envelope, and found his grandfather's secret notes from the excavation of Troy: the finding of a bronze urn full of coins marked From the King Cronos of Atlantis. Young Schliemann then set off for Tibet, where he discovered a Chaldean account of the destruction of the Land of the Seven Cities. Schliemann reports his findings to the New York American in 1912, promising to reveal much more in a forthcoming book.


Lost! After his newspaper article, Paul Schliemann was never heard from again, his book never published, and the Schliemann family claimed they had no one named Paul.
You could do worse at the beach this summer than to carry The Lost Books of the Odyssey and "Dreams from the Holothurians." When the long ships draw up onto the beach, you'll be the only sunbather who's expecting them; you should be able to tell by the quantity of deepwater muck and seaweed adorning the prow whether the oarsmen are Achaeans or Atlanteans.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

"A feeling of long-term fondness which is perhaps the most important residual emotion of the experience of literature," or, How I love Nicholson Baker

Months ago, when I was first contemplating writing about David Shields's Reality Hunger, I was struck by something that Nicholson Baker said in the course of a wonderful interview with Chris Lydon for Radio Open Source. Baker was talking about his charming and funny novel The Anthologist, and he said it all started when he was sitting in the side yard one day and began thinking of a new way of understanding poetic meter and rhyme:
So when I realized that I had, this to me exciting discovery, I thought, you know, I've got, I've got a novel here, and I rubbed my hands together and then, and I wrote lots of notes, and I didn't have a novel, I had, I had a theory. But it was an extreme enough theory that it seemed to me the right thing for a fictional character to have. This guy has strong opinions, and the great liberating thing about writing it as a novel is that you can just follow out those, those, strong opinions--you can just lay it out, and realize you're being inconsistent with yourself, but you're, you're, you're telling it as truthfully as, as you know how to tell it, that afternoon, out in the side yard. You're doing your best--that's what a novel allows you to do, is do your best at that moment and not worry about the fact that you're not coming up with a codified, perfectly consistent body of theory that you can publish as a, as a new doctrine of rhyme.
"You're doing your best--that's what a novel allows you to do." The task of defining the novel is impossible, every definition doomed by exceptions, but I'm tempted to adopt Baker's: it's an attempt, the best attempt one can make, to get down what it was like at that moment. Which, unexpectedly, aligns me to some extent with Shields, who loves the idea of the essay as the verb form of the word, a test or attempt, and who lists Baker as one of the hybrid writers he admires--though if one accepts that the novel (and, let us be broad, fiction in general) is fundamentally a hybrid genre, capable of assimilating nearly everything, then the need for a manifesto damning its sins rapidly fades away.

And while I'm on the topic of Baker, towards whom I feel inordinately fond, in no small part because of the way that he blurs the line between authorial and fictional voice, it seems right to make sure you've all seen his letter to John Updike that appeared in the June 21 issue of the New York Review of Books. Baker explains in the introduction that he sent the letter to Updike in March of 1985, as he was in the throes of writing his first novel, and that Updike's failure to respond was entirely forgivable, since he didn't include a return address. The letter is worth reading in full--hell, it's worth buying the entire issue for. While I've never been an Updike fan, it seems succinctly to get at many, if not most, of the charms of reading a living writer. If you've read this blog for long, you know how I love Trollope, and the way Baker invokes him will give you a sense of the appreciative tone of the letter:
I thought what an amazing thing that Mr. Updike has been writing all the years that I have been growing up, and how I have come to depend on the idea that he is writing away as a soothing idea, and then I was reminded of Trollope, and how nice it must have been for writers back then to go about their lives knowing that Mr. Trollope was going to have a new book coming out soon, that it would be good; and they might not read all of the things he wrote, but they would read some, and they would know that what they didn’t read they were missing, but were comforted also that they knew what kind of man he was because they had already read a lot of what he wrote; and the idea they had of the man who gradually had written all these books was a powerful, happy thing in their lives.
All too often, we aim for detachment, rational assessment of artworks; once in a while, it's okay to make a space for unabashed love, and the gratitude that should follow.

Friday, June 25, 2010

David Shields on Hamlet, Hamlet on everything else

One piece from David Shields’s Reality Hunger that I wasn’t able to find a place to address in Wednesday's post was this take on Hamlet:
Hamlet, dying, says, "If I had the time, I would tell you all." The entire play is the Hamlet show, functioning as a vehicle for Hamlet to give his opinion on everything and anything, as Nietzsche does in Thus Spoke Zarathustra. The play could easily be broken up into little sections like "Hamlet on Friendship," "Hamlet on Sexual Fidelity," "Hamlet on Suicide," "Hamlet on Grave Diggers," "Hamlet on the Afterlife." Hamlet is, more than anything else, Hamlet taking on a multitude of different topics. (Melville's marginal comment on one of the soliloquies in the play: "Here is forcibly shown the great Montaigneism of Hamlet.") I find myself wanting to ditch the tired old plot altogether and just harness the voice, which is a processing machine, taking input and spitting out perspective--a lens, a distortion effect. Hamlet's very nearly final words: "Had I but the time . . . O, I could tell you." He would keep riffing forever if it weren't for the fact that the plot needs to kill him.
This seems like a perfect demonstration of what Shields doesn't seem to get about fiction: he’s right about what would happen if you were to take the plot out of Hamlet—but he doesn’t realize that the result would be terrible. A Hamlet who riffs forever? Could anyone really want that?

The reason we care to listen to Hamlet isn’t because he’s so brilliant. It’s that his manic flow of thought can’t obscure—in fact, reveals—the pain and confusion he’s grappling with and trying to drown in words. Without the plot, Hamlet would be nothing but an adolescent blowhard. Without the ghost of his father looming over him, he would be merely another, more articulate version of that guy you knew in high school who discovered Nietzsche and Ayn Rand and couldn’t stop raving about them.

It’s the anguish of his loss and his dilemma—reflected in the anguish of Gertrude and Ophelia as they watch him disintegrate—that make us care enough to listen to Hamlet in the first place. It’s because we have such aching sympathy for him that we are interested in what he has to say; only our sympathy allows us to put up with him, and that sympathy is rooted in the events Shields derides.

In a sense, Shields is right about one thing: the plot does need to kill Hamlet. But he's ignoring the fact that here plot--as it so often is--is actually character, and vice versa. The plot needs to kill Hamlet not as a mere device or as a way to shock or surprise; it needs to kill him because that is where the very mania that Shields celebrates is inexorably tending. The plot needs to kill Hamlet because you can’t go on that way—life simply can’t be lived at that pitch and be sustainable. Disaster will come, and we know it in our bones as we watch. That’s why it’s a tragedy, and why it is more powerful and affecting than any “Hamlet on . . . ” could ever hope to be.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Reality Hunger and What's Next

In James Hynes's novel Next (2010), the protagonist, Kevin Quinn, having been accidentally knocked down by a dog and realizing he has no interest in punishing the careless teen holding the leash, thinks:
Kevin's a midwestern college-town liberal not just by accident of birth, but by temperament. It's in his bones to see both sides of a question.
A lifelong Midwesterner myself, that's a very familiar attitude. I think of it as the "Yes, but" response, and it's what I found myself thinking at some point on nearly every page of David Shields's simultaneously fascinating and maddening Reality Hunger: A Manifesto.

Nearly as many words have been devoted to Shields's book in recent months as can be found in the book itself, so I'll keep my summary short: in 618 brief entries, as short as a sentence or as long as a couple of pages, Shields makes a deliberately fragmented, elliptical argument against the practice of fiction and in favor of a hybrid form of nonfiction and memoir that he dubs the lyric essay. The book is deliberately provocative--Shields lifts many of his lines from other sources, arguing that he's "trying to regain a freedom that writers from Montaigne to Burroughs took for granted and that we have lost"--and deliberately slippery, constructed less as an argument and more as an Escher-like set of moving staircases that can be deployed in various combinations to lead the reader wherever Shields is heading at that moment.

The entries can be as silly and pointless as this:
These categories are plastic.
     But they aren't.
     Ah, but they are.
Or as banal as this:
The lives in memoirs often have clean lines, like touched-up photographs. They glow in the dark. Does the pursuit of dramatic effects enhance the truth or bend it?
And they can be as pithily thought-provoking as this:
Story seems to say that everything happens for a reason, and I want to say, No, it doesn't.
Throughout, Shields returns to the theme of his own boredom with fiction, his belief that it is a tired genre, and that its exhaustion leads it to stifle creativity:
In 1963, Marguerite Yourcenar said, "In our time, the novel devours all other forms; one is almost forced to use it as a medium of expression." No more. Increasingly, the novel goes hand in hand with a straitjacketing of the material's expressive potential. One gets so weary watching writers' sensations and thoughts get set into the concrete of fiction that perhaps it's best to avoid the form as a medium of expression.
He is particularly troubled by plot, as in this entry:
Plot is a way to stage and dramatize reality, but when the presentation is too obviously formulaic, as it so often is, the reality is perceived as false. Skeptical of the desperation of the modernist embrace of art as the only solution, and hyperaware of all artifices of genre and form, we nevertheless see new means of creating the real.
To which I find myself saying, "Yes, but . . . " Yes, I love The Unquiet Grave, but I also love The Rock Pool. I love The Crack-Up, but that doesn't diminish my love of The Great Gatsby. I love Anna Karenina while still managing to love Tristram Shandy. Their different approaches need not be reconciled to be appreciated. For someone who is attacking form, Shields far too often falls victim to the inherent peril of the manifesto form: the way it blinds its writer to the possibility that the fault might lie, not in their stars, but in themselves--that the problems may lie less with these genres than with Shields as a reader. If one finds novels tired and other forms more vibrant, that's fine, but it's a big leap from there to saying that the novel is tired.

In some sense, I feel that Shields gives the game away in this entry:
I've always had a hard time writing fiction. It feels like driving a car in a clown suit. You're going somewhere, but you're in costume, and you're not really fooling anybody. You're the guy in costume, and everybody's supposed to forget that and go along with you.
Again, I think, "Yes, but." Yes, but that's the agreement: when a reader opens a book, he implicitly agrees that, unless you draw attention to the clown suit through incompetence or direct reference, he won't take note of it, won't mind it--in fact, he'll even be glad for it, because he's picked up a novel on purpose, looking for this sort of experience. Does that make it tired? It certainly can, if the novel's no good, but by no means does it have to be. If Shields is unwilling to wear the clown suit, that's fine, but so long as readers are willing to take the ride, there's no reason to strike it from the list of options for other writers.

One of the reasons I opened this post with a quote from James Hynes's Next was because Reality Hunger kept coming to mind as I read it. I'm confident that Shields won't ever read Next, and that if he did read it, he'd hate it. It's a straightforward, psychologically realistic novel; Hynes, in other words, is wearing the clown suit. And, because the book is constructed as a single day in the life of its protagonist, Kevin Quinn, during which he reflects back on important and unimportant moments of his life, there are a couple of moments when the reader has to simply choose to ignore the clown suit, for no matter how skilled an author is, with this many memories to call up, there can't help but be times when the transitions seem a bit forced. At those points, Shields surely would cry foul.

But even as Next would likely confirm every one of Shields's prejudices about the novel, at the same time it serves as a rousing rebuttal to his manifesto. In entry 383, Shields writes,
It is my ambition to say in ten sentences what everyone else says in a whole book--what everyone else does not say in a whole book.
--and it is that very sentiment that Next denies: Next is not about something. It's not a mere vehicle for transmitting a couple of pithy ideas. I suppose I could try to break it down to a sentence or two (though they'd require giving too much away--click here if you want to see them), but that's pointless: Next exists to be a novel. It exists to give us a convincing--and, because it is successful, moving--illusion of access to another person's consciousness, to throw a line across the unbridgeable gap between self and other, to lend us understanding of a life not our own.

In other words, it's a novel. And a good one. It familiarizes us with two distinct locales, Ann Arbor and Austin, and shows us things we might not have taken the time to notice in our daily lives, like this scene at an Austin Starbucks:
The morning rush is nearly over, and the place is disheveled--napkins on the floor, crumbs underfoot, a plastic stirrer in a little pool of coffee on the countertop. Behind the counter a black girl with dreadlocks hangs on a lever at the espresso machine, and a golden-haired white girl with a stain on the breast of her company tunic slouches at the register. They each have that end-of-shift, thousand-yard stare that Kevin recognizes from his own days in retail. Meanwhile a rotund young woman with a buzz cut works up a sweat changing out the trash bins; she yanks a bulging bag of cups into the air and twists it sharply, as if snapping its neck.
It reminds about us of the vagaries of relationships, broken and unbroken:
He knew that look, and even now, when it shouldn't matter anymore what she thought of him, he hated it and feared it. It was the look she gave him when she was measuring him against some private standard in her head. It was a look that already held the expectation that he would disappoint her. The problem was that he never knew what the standard was, and she wouldn't tell him. It was a look that still made him angry--not the implied judgment itself, but that fact that he still let it get to him.
It is smart about the ways that attachment to the past can be limiting, but it is just as smart about the dangers of complacency and self-congratulation. It's perceptive about how and what we can pick up about others on quick acquaintance:
The way she's composed her face tells Kevin that apologies don't come easy to her, but that she has disciplined herself to make them when necessary. He is appropriately appeased that she's taking the trouble for him. . . . She has made up her mind to be nice, and nothing, evidently, will deter Dr. Barrientos after she's made up her mind. . . . Kevin wonders if Dr. Barrientos is able to do anything at all without you being able to see the wheels turning. That could be a kind of curse, especially if she's aware of it, leading to an infinite regression of self-consciousness.
And, as the phrasing of "infinite regression" gently hints, the book is funny, sardonically, wryly, self-deprecatingly funny, Kevin Quinn's middle-aged meanderings akin to, if less coruscating than, those of the hero of Sam Lipsyte's The Ask. (Shields, meanwhile, gives the impression of being completely impervious to humor--the least funny writer this side of James Wood--unless, that is, the whole enterprise is an elaborate joke.) Kevin comes fully to life, and by the end of the book we know him, know the mid-life dilemmas he faces, and worry about how he'll resolve them.

None of that can be boiled down to ten sentences and retain its value. None of the things that Next does well matter much outside of their larger context, the agreement we make with Hynes to disregard the artifice long enough to be rewarded with a reminder of just how much we are capable of caring about people we'll never meet, and just how much, when giving in to a good writer, we can learn about how people live in the world.

Can a lyric essay do that? Of course it can--but that needn't require even its most strenuous partisan to dismiss the novel. As Husain Haddawy wrote in the introduction to his translation of the Thousand and One Nights, "There are other fair creatures in the world"; a Midwesterner knows better than to write them off.

Monday, June 21, 2010

And "the flood of waters was upon the earth"—and in the library!

{Photos by rocketlass.}

Friday night's apocalyptic thunderstorms called to mind the well-known seventeenth day of the second month of Noah's six hundredth year, when
On the same day were all the fountains of the great deep broken up,and the windows of heaven were opened. And the rain was upon the earth forty days and forty nights.
Unfortunately, our basement was--not unreasonably one must admit--beneath heavenly notice, so no advance ark-building instructions were given, and thus, when the waters of the deep burbled up, on their frothy plenitude we found floating some boxes of books.

Through quick action and good fortune we were able to reduce the damage to a minimum, saving all but a handful of volumes. What was lost, however, were some truly foundational components of our library: my battered Oxford World's Classics edition of the King James Bible and three different translations of The Thousand and One Nights.

These are books I've turned to again and again over the years, the densest repositories of endless stories I know; they've forever marked my sense of what a story is and how it should be told. As Borges says in his unfailingly charming volume of lectures, Seven Nights,
One feels like getting lost in The Thousand and One Nights, one knows that entering that book one can forget about one's own poor human fate; one can enter a world, a world made up of archetypal figures but also of individuals.
And so even as I tell myself that I should be glad that so few were lost--as I imagine Noah tried to tell himself as he slapped at a mosquito while watching the last unicorn slip beneath the waves--I am sad nonetheless. (Though, unlike the unicorn, the books are replaceable.)

I have, however, enjoyed consoling myself by imagining the words, soaked right off the swollen pages, slipping into the swirling waters and down the drain, Sinbad swimming alongside Goliath, the Forty Thieves locking arms with the 700 left-handed Benjamites, Haroun al Raschid trading tips with wily David, all floating off together in a sea of stories down to the netherworld of the appropriately mythical-sounding Deep Tunnel, there to spend eternity entertaining the coelacanths, giant squids, and the ghosts of the Eastland. There are worse fates.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Oh, what we endure for the sake of being unfashionably fashionable!

{Photo of the ol' seersucker in its natural environment by rocketlass.}

As anyone who's manned a counter in the book trade can tell you, some customers become visibly embarrassed when needs of one sort or another lead them to carry to the counter, say, books of very specific medical advice; handbooks for disorders of the mind, heart, or relationship; or luridly decorated volumes of plain, old-fashioned smut. This is, we must admit, not unreasonable: the bookseller may not judge, but oh, he notices.

I, on the other hand, will admit to having felt a tinge of embarrassment in St. Mark's bookshop in New York recently when, while wearing a seersucker suit on a sweltering day, I couldn't resist the lure of a front-counter stack of Honore de Balzac's Treatise on Elegant Living (1830).

It is, after all, one thing to wear a seersucker suit; yet another to wear it in Manhattan on a Sunday; and still a third to, while wearing it, buy a seminal tract on dandyism. As rocketlass said, or at least thought, in the matter of the fez, there are lengths to which one may go and there are lengths to which one, &c. And, it must be said, it is that remaining capacity, however minor, for recognizing absurdity in menswear that has kept me, thus far, out of plus fours.

So perhaps I was right to be embarrassed--but I was also right to buy the book! For what reader of sense would pass it up? It's a lovely little edition, whose translator, Napoleon Jeffries, acknowledges right off the bat one's immediate objection: that Balzac, as evidenced by the photo below, was no dandy. I think there is food on his shirt!--and that's far from the worst of his sins against fashion in this photo!

As Jeffries explains in his brief but solid introduction:
Even those familiar with Balzac's novels may be initially taken off guard by the notion of that giant presenting himself as an expert on elegance--let alone a self-proclaimed originator of, to use his own coinage, the new science of "elegantology." Even more surprising may be the fact that Balzac considered himself something of a practitioner of the science. He was an odd manifestation of early French dandyism: taking his cues in dress from friends such as Eugene Sue and Lautour-Mezeray (both of whom make appearances in this treatise), Balzac proved to be more of a part-time dandy. The dandy memorialist Captain Gronow provided a particularly amusing assessment of the man's elegance in practice: "The great enchanter was one of the oiliest and commonest looking mortals I ever beheld; being short and corpulent, with a broad florid face, a cascade of double chins, and straight greasy hair . . . [he] dressed in the worst possible taste, wore sparkling jewels on a dirty shirt front, and diamond rings on unwashed fingers."
Though he was obviously no Beau Brummell, nonetheless Balzac demonstrates in this tract that he did at least understand elegance. Take, for example, this brief definition, which feels a bit like Aristotle slurped through a bendy straw labeled Spinoza:
[E]legant living has its deadly sins and its three cardinal virtues. Yes, elegance is one, indivisible, like the Trinity, like liberty, like virtue. From this follows the most important of our general aphorisms:


The constituent principle of elegance is unity.


Unity is impossible without cleanliness, harmony, and relative simplicity.

But it is not simplicity rather than harmony, or harmony rather than cleanliness that produces elegance: elegance is born from a mysterious concordance between these three primordial virtues. To create it suddenly everywhere is the secret of innately distinguished spirits.

When analyzing any instances of bad taste that taint a stranger's clothing, apartments, speech, or deportment, observers will always find that they sin through relatively perceptible violations of this triple law of unity
Now, aren't you grateful that I was willing to endure the (admittedly unexpressed) scorn of the St. Mark's clerk to bring you this? (To say nothing of the sweat--good god, seersucker, for all its charms, is far from proof against the diabolical team of Sol and asphalt that is a New York June!)

Thursday, June 17, 2010

The pleasures of not staying focused on the goal, or, Fear not, for now, the grue!

On Tuesday I made two discoveries in the course of wandering away from what I was supposed to be doing that pleased me and, I hope, will amuse you.

1 What's better than an Invisible book? Surely it's a book that seems as if it ought to be invisible, but then turns out to be real! Which is what happened as I read Eric Kraft's lovely and gentle novel Herb 'n' Lorna (1988) and one of the characters consulted The Automobile: Its Selection, Care, and Use, by Robert Sloss. At first I assumed that Kraft had invented the handbook to suit his needs, but a quick check of Google books proved me wrong: The Automobile: Its Selection, Care, and Use was actually published, by New York's Outing Publishing Company, in 1910. Even better, the first lines of its opening chapter, "Buying an Automobile," are deliciously overwritten, offering a wonderful mix of high diction and chumminess:
Choosing a car is by no means so esoteric a task as choosing a wife, since, of course, there could never be as many nice cars in the world as there are nice girls. But there are enough of the former to quite bewilder any one who approaches the array of them for the first time with serious intentions. I venture to put it thus because of an apt illustration furnished by an acquaintance of mine who chose his wife and his automobile at the same time.
It strikes me that this opening is the early automotive equivalent of the scantily clad young lady draped over the car on the garage calendar. The friend, I probably need not say, does better with the wife than the snappy runabout he heedlessly picks up at the same time and eventually has to abandon on a Pennsylvania back road.

The book is remarkably readable and fun, for an instructional manual a century out of date. Take this bit, for example, from the same chapter about choosing a car:
In fact, as an authority said to me recently, "sometimes the best thing you can say about a car is that it has no talking points." In other words, the more closely your mechanism approaches the type which manufacturers are developing along standard lines, the more comfort and use will you get out of your selection. It is but common sense to avoid freak construction, for which the claim may be made that it will accomplish more easily what is already being accomplished in a way which experience has taught the skilled mechanicians of the industry to be the most reliable and worthy of dependence.
Advice that would have saved non-mad-scientist DeLorean buyers a pretty penny, no?

2 In the course of writing a piece of copy for work, I wanted to find a clever way to talk about the grotesque details of grave robbing, and my first instinct was to write about the "grue and gore." But wait, I thought: is "grue" even a word?

The Oxford English Dictionary said yes--and what a word it turns out to be! It has no fewer than five meanings as a noun and an additional pair as a verb--and rather than mere shadings of the same ultimate meaning, these seven definitions represent at least six fully distinct uses of the word.

The first noun meaning is the only one that's not at least rare:
With negatives: not a (one) grue, no grue: not an atom, not a whit.
Even for that one, however, the most recent citation is from 1939.

The second meaning, considered rare, is very straightforward: a grue is a crane. That usage is reflected in one of the meanings of "grue" as a verb, which is for a crane to "utter its characteristic cry." That meaning, however, is obsolete, as is Noun 3, "A kind of meal cake made in Cheshire"--or, one assumes, no longer made in Cheshire. Meaning four is also rare, which is sad because it seems to make grue a wonderfully useful word:
The action of GRUE; shivering, shuddering; a shiver, shudder.
That noun sense's counterpart on the verb side gives a nicely expanded account of what it means to grue:
1. To feel terror or horror, shudder, tremble; quake; to shrink from something; to be troubled in heart.

b. Of the body: To shiver, shudder.

c. To thrill.

2. it grues me: I shudder, tremble, quake; I shrink from something. Obs.
Then there's the last noun definition: in northern dialects, grue can mean "Ice in flakes, or detached pieces," such as, from the Leader of February 3, 1891, "The 'grue' floating down the Tweed."

Al of these definitions pleased me greatly--but they still left me unable to use the word the way I wanted--even as, it appears, almost no one is using it these days in any of the ways it is defined. Thus, feeling feisty, I offer you my own new, sixth noun definition of "grue":
The pulpy, red bits of flesh and brains that are the sometimes residue of an attack by zombies, werewolves, kraken, or other dangerous creatures; the cumulative feeling of queasy horror evoked by the sight of such bodily detritus.
If we do this right, by October, everyone will be talking about the grue and gore that surely awaits us as the days grow shorter.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Summer's here, sayeth the Quarterly Conversation!

The new Summer issue of the Quarterly Conversation is online and full of good reading to distract you from your work all week.

There's no review from me in this issue--though I'll soon be popping up with one of John Beer's The Waste Land and Other Poems--but that still leaves plenty more good pieces than I can highlight here:
An impressionistic, elliptic review of Anne Carson's Nox by George Fragopoulos. "Family denies us the possibility of exclusion: one will always belong even if one belongs only in a sense of not belonging," writes Fragopoulos of Carson's book about her late brother. "But what happens when you alone are that center, you alone are the only one left to lay claim to that aspect of your identity? Can it even be said to exist anymore?"

• An essay by Gregory McCormick on Eileen Chang. McCormick argues that Chang's "tendency to emphasize the domestic over the national" has been borne out by the fact that "many of the overtly political novels from this period are largely forgotten, even in China."

An excerpt from a new translation of Robert Juan-Cantavella's El Dorado.

A review of Michael Marr's new Speak, Nabokov by Scott Esposito.

A review of Christopher Ricks's new look at Geoffrey Hill, Anthony Hecht, and Robert Lowell, True Friendship, by Patrick Kurp, who recommends Ricks to those "readers uneasy with literary criticism, fearing they squander finite reading time when not attending to the objects of criticism (fiction, essays, poetry) but instead their parasitic offspring."

• And, as they say in advertising, much, much more!
Don't forget: a handful of TQC contributors and editors are also talking books every day at our still-relatively-new group bog, the Constant Conversation. Come on down and join in the conversation!

Sunday, June 13, 2010


On a day when the grumble of lawn mowers drifted in the windows in the early hours, drowning out the birds, and when neighbors rumbled their vacuum all over the floor for what seemed sufficient time to suck up the Sahara, and I, in my turn, surely drove them near to mania with my repeated failures to master "A Foggy Day" on the piano . . . I was amused to open David Kynaston's Family Britain to the following evidence of distinctly un-neighborly feelings in early 1950s Britain:
I don't believe in talking to the neighbours; you have to be careful what you say.

I never have a neighbour inside. I am one of those who keep themselves to themselves. Mind you, I'm sociable, I say "Good Morning."

I'm not one for going into people's houses unless for illness.

We don't mix with the people round here. We're not gossips like they are: they're not too bad this end of the street but at the far end the people are always standing on the doorsteps gossiping.

It's just a question of knowing people over walls and through doors.
Researchers Mark Hodges and Cyril S. Smith pinpointed the crucial distinction between being "neighborly" and being "friendly," which still seems to suit the case, more than a half-century and one ocean away:
The former . . . was "based on willingness to give, or readiness to ask for and accept, help from others"; the latter implied "a close reciprocal relationship based on trust, affection and respect."
Or, as another interview subject put it,
A friend you can confide in, a neighbour you can't. What you say to neighbours over the garden wall might be passed on and you might get involved.
All of which is not to say that I have any real complaints about my neighbors--they're actually quite easy to live with, and I did choose to live in a city.

And there's no question that it could be much worse--I'm extremely glad never to have had a neighbor who could elicit this sentiment, found in the same set of interviews:
I never thought I'd come to hate anybody like I do her.
Grateful for being spared such trouble, I'll enjoy the small portion of privacy and seclusion that I'm allotted and be glad for those early mornings when I can temporarily find some silence.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Celebrating birthdays with Thoreau

Having recently celebrated my thirty-sixth birthday, I turned--as I have so often done in the months since I bought the book--to Thoreau's Journal to see what he was up to on his thirty-sixth birthday, July 12, 1853. He takes no notice of his birthday in the pages of the journal, and it seems he spent the day, in typically quiet fashion, paying attention to the woodland plants:
White vervain. Checkerberry, maybe some days. Spikenard, not quite yet. The green-flowered lanceolate-leafed orchis at Azalea Brook will soon flower. Wood horse-tail very large and handsome there.
Birthdays have been spent in far worse ways, and I find Thoreau's approach to birthdays congenial. A birthday seems best spent doing what one always chooses to do when free of obligation; in my case, that involves a stack of books and a pitcher of iced tea on the back porch, with perhaps a martini to welcome the dusk. My version of paying attention to the woodland plants.

Thoreau's forty-third birthday offers a bit more idiosyncrasy, in the form of some advice for hikers:
The best way to drink, especially in a shallow stream, or one so sunken below the surface as to be difficult to reach, is through a tube. You can commonly find growing near a spring a hollow reed or weed of some kind suitable for this purpose, such as rue or touch-me-not, or water saxifrage, or you can carry one in your pocket.
In Chicagoland, that advice takes on added poignancy this week, which has seen the local water authorities balk at the EPA's efforts to make it work to return the Chicago River to something more closely resembling water.

Speaking of rivers: in a wonderful interview with Christopher Lydon on Radio Open Source, Damion Searls, the editor of the new edition of Thoreau's Journal that has so entranced me these past months, offered a memorable passage from the entry for May 17, 1854 whose closing could serve, in a pinch, as a distillation of Thoreau's approach to the world:
Observed a rill emptying in above the stone-heaps, and afterward saw where it ran out of the June-berry Meadow, and I considered how surely it would have conducted me to the meadow, if I had traced it up. I was impressed as it were by the intelligence of the brook, which for ages in the wildest regions, before science is born, knows so well the level of the ground and through whatever woods or other obstacles finds its way. Who shall distinguish between the law by which a brook finds its river, the instinct by which a bird performs its migrations, and the knowledge by which a man steers his ship around the globe? The globe is the richer for the variety of its inhabitants.
Even better, in typical fashion, Thoreau immediately shifts from that well-turned phrase and flight of fancy to the particular, taking note of a humble squirrel:
Saw a large gray squirrel near the split rock in the Assabet. He went skipping up the limb of one tree and down the limb of another, his great gray rudder undulating through the air, and occasionally hid himself behind the main stem.
Oh, living things, hide not from Thoreau! It is pointless, for he will seek you out; it is pointless, for he is your dearest friend.

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Dr. Johnson is picky, or, What else is new?

As I read a bit of William Empson's Seven Types of Ambiguity today, I enjoyed the following passage, which shows the similar, if, in this case, opposed, types of rigor brought to bear on poetry by Empson and Samuel Johnson:
It is usual, of course, for a poet to feel his subject is a good one because it throws light on matters of another sort, because it illustrates life, or what not; such an unexpressed ambiguity is a very normal feature of good poetry. Often what on a first reading seems faulty or irrelevant has been put in to insist on this feeling; that is not to say it is not genuinely faulty, because unnecessary. Dr. Johnson's objections to Gray's Cat can, I think, only be answered in this way.
Selina, the cat, is called a nymph, with some violence both to language and sense; but there is good use made of it when it is done; for of the two lines--
What female heart can gold despise?
What cat's averse to fish?
the first refers merely to the nymph, and the second only to the cat.
The Doctor complains here that the separation is too neat, which is true enough; but since cat and nymph have been confused in the first part of the verse,it is a relief to the reason (such as he would have been the first to admit into poetry) that they should be separated at the end of it. As to the violence done to language, it is justified by a sort of honesty, because we are meant to be so conscious of it; that we are asked to make that collocation is the point of hte poem; and Johnson's pretty distinction between merely and only is unfair, because both nymph and cat are the main subject.
I rarely spend time on thoughts of an afterlife, but I do enjoy imagining a heavenly coffee-house encounter between the two in which they--while agreeing with Gray that "one false step is ne'er retrieved," and that one should "be with caution bold"--could hash out their different opinions of his execution of his theme.

Monday, June 07, 2010

Eleventh-century Scots and . . . Anthony Powell?

I wouldn't be a good Anthony Powell obsessive if I didn't follow up Saturday's post on Dorothy Dunnett with a note highlighting the following unexpectedly Powellian passage that I noticed late in her King Hereafter:
The year changed, and then began to unroll, like a wheel in turbulent country; like an unreeling ribbon of Groa's weaving that once, long ago, he had spoiled with his blood. A spinning ribbon in which, peg by peg, the device switched without warning, producing a new assortment of patterns, a new set of boundaries, a new line of direction, a mischievous disorder of design that tested his strength to the limit through the most powerful tenet by which he lived: Adapt and survive.
The language isn't exactly Powellian, but the sentiment definitely is, reminding me of one of the most perceptive and memorable passages in A Buyer's Market, the second volume of A Dance to the Music of Time:
Certain stages of life might be compared with the game of Russian billiards, played (as I used to play with Jean, when the time came), on those small green table, within the secret recesses of which, at the termination of a given passage of time--a quarter of an hour, I think--the hidden gate goes down; after the descent of which, the coloured balls return no longer to the slot to be replayed; and all scoring is doubled. This is perhaps an image of how we live. For reasons not always at the time explicable, there are specific occasions when events begin suddenly to take on a significance previously unsuspected; so that, before we really know where we are, life seems to have begun in earnest at last, and we ourselves, scarcely aware that any change has taken place, are careering uncontrollably down the slippery avenues of eternity.
So true, so familiar. "Life has begun in earnest," and "scarcely aware that any change has taken place," we are off on what will turn out to be--if for no other reason than that by the time we realize what's going on we will have come such a long way on it--our true course. On that subject, and the way it ramifies throughout our lives, Powell has no equal.

Saturday, June 05, 2010

Falling for Dorothy Dunnett

{Photos by rocketlass.}

I've mentioned a couple of times recently that I've fallen for Dorothy Dunnett's historical novels, but I've not yet explained what it I find so compelling about them. I was put on to Dunnett byby Jenny Davidson at Light Reading, whose description of her novels made me realize that they might be able to sate a craving that had bedeviled me for months: ever since I finished my second reading of Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall last fall, I'd sought total immersion in a similar world of deadly power politics and intrigue, a world where you have no choice but to pick your prince, and inattention to nuance can mean the loss of everything. I'd found that world before, in Ronan Bennett's Havoc, in Its Third Year and Halldor Laxness's Iceland's Bell, to name two--but where to go now?

Dunnett, it turned out, was the answer. While, as Jenny acknowledges, she doesn't quite measure up to Wolf Hall's brilliance, the two novels I've read, King Hereafter (1982) and Niccolo Rising (1986), have been incredibly satisfying, both historically convincing and psychologically perceptive, full of fascinating details of the past and of power, as casually delivered as they are wholly convincing.

Take this scene, for example, from Dunnett's novel of the historical Macbeth, King Hereafter, which finds young Lulach on the beach in Orkney awaiting the return of the ships of his father, Thorfinn (Macbeth):
From Trelleborg to Tonsberg, from Rousay to Rodel, there could have been few boys of the age of nine who had not stood on the shore of their fathers and watched the boats of the kindred come home from their viking. When, at fourteen, they buckled on the sword their father had bought and carried their box up the gangplank, they knew the worst and the best, and were prepared for it.

To Lulach it was unknown. The horns blew for the longships' arrival, and Sulien, his robe crumpled still from the riding, his fresh face unsmiling, took the boy by the shoulder and walked him downhill from the door of the hall, disregarding the others, men and women, who left their houses and, brushing by, made for the beach and the jetty before him. . . . Then the sails began to appear round the eastern headland and, like everyone else, [Thorkel, Thorfinn's foster-father], began to count. As the sails dropped and the figureheads were taken in and they began to work under oar to the beach, you could see the damage.

The grey-goose figurehead with the scarlet sail made for the rivermouth and the wharf, as Sulien had expected. He and the boy took the ford over the river to where the burned hall had once stood and the new building now looked down on the sweep of the shore. Far over the sea, the sun picked out the clear green of the Orkney island of Hoy, while here, behind the new hall, the eastern horn of the bay lay as if stitched in pink on the braided blue silk of the seascape.

Thorfinn's figurehead came down, bright against the stiff flaps of scarlet as the sail was roughly stowed. The lower strakes of the boat were foul with weed, and the timber above was chopped and shaved as if tooled by an adze. Three of the thwarts stood blank and empty, and the gunwales, with their careful gilding, were scuffed and gapped. . . . On board, there was a lot of talk and laughter and other sounds. Someone screamed once, and then a second time. The gangplank came down, and Lulach came slowly and stood by Sulien, along with the dozen or two others who had joined them by this time. The first man, carrying another over his shoulder, steadied himself and began to come ashore.
In Dunnett's hands, the scene is ancient, yet familiar, its antiquity belied by the mutated versions that persist in our time, which is far from free of the war dead.

Then there's this scene, which demonstrates as well as any the dramatic power of a blade suddenly unsheathed in the midst of diplomatic niceties and indirection:
Thorfinn said, " . . . I want the land west of Wedale and the south bank of the river Forth to do with as I please. I also want the rights to all other churches in the Lothians, now existing and to be established, which are not and have never been in the past dedicated to the shrine of St Cuthbert. The remaining Lothian lands and the remaining churches you may retain."

Silence fell. Even after Tuathal started to breath, Earl Siward still remained motionless. "And the Normans [whom you have invited onto the land]?"

Thorfinn said, "The land I have described is my land, and I shall place on it whom I please."

"Your land?" said Siward. "Your grandfather had Danes and Norwegians attacking both coasts and a Scandinavian earldom threatening to move up from Northumbria. Your father was dead. Your grandfather had lost the support of the Orkney fleet. He had to fight for Lothian. But after that, there was old age and an incompetent grandson and vassaldom under Canute and then a King of Alba who did half his ruling from Orkney. What makes it your land?"

"Take it from me," said Thorfinn.

Silence fell, briefly, again. To look at the six faces opposite was difficult. One looked from side to side, at the two speakers, or else down at the table or, fleetingly, at one's own side. The boy Maelmuire, who had started with a high colour like his father Duncan's, had gone very pale. His first experience of the conflict between two powerful men, tossing between them the idea of war. Two men who were his uncles.
If that scene gives you chills, as it did me, by all means seek out Dunnett. Two novels in, I'm with Jenny, who, on finishing the House of Niccolo series, wrote, "I have been living in the world of these novels, I do not want to come back to real life!"

Thursday, June 03, 2010

Laughlin on the Beach

When I packed up ninety percent of my books this winter in homage to the gods of real estate (Surely blandness and beige shall follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Dull forever.), one book I was careful to leave on the shelf was James Laughlin's odd semi-memoir, The Way It Wasn't. For someone who writes regularly about books--and has a soft spot for literary gossip--the book's alphabetical entries on authors are indispensable: if a twentieth-century author had even a whiff of the modern about him, Laughlin was on the scene, friend and publisher, and the book, drawn from his jottings and notebooks and files, reflects that familiarity.

I drew on Laughlin the other day in writing about the Quarterly Conversation's Anne Carson contest (enter now!); today I'm back for another figure I happened to as I flipped through looking for Carson: Sylvia Beach,friend, supporter, and publisher of moderns and founder of the Paris bookstore Shakespeare and Company. I've written a couple of times recently about the many pleasures offered by the collection of Beach's letters that Columbia University Press recently published, so it seems right to add to that Laughlin's portrait of her:
Sylvia was a birdlike little figure but she had the strength and energy of a racehorse. She was a chain-smoker and constantly in motion. I remember that quickness of movement as she darted about the shop, the brightness of eye, the sense of humor (she loved puns) and her gift for repartee. Never a dull moment at Shakespeare and Company.
As a former bookseller, I fixate on that image of Beach perpetually in motion: even after more than a decade in an office job, I find I still move with the speed drummed into me in retail, zipping around the cubicles as if I have a customer at the counter who needs a book right now.

After that description, Laughlin digresses a bit, turning to Gertrude Stein, a customer and friend of Beach, but the anecdote he relates is so good as to stand as a Tristram Shandy-worthy point in favor of digression in general:
All went well until Sylvia published Ulysses. Then a freeze descended and "the flowers of friendship faded friendship faded," to quote the famous Stein poem. I can vouch for this anecdote. I had experience with the literary monolith. The summer that I was working for her at Bilignan, her place in the country, all was going well till she caught me reading Proust. She was deeply offended. "J," she asked, "how can you read such stuff? Don't you know that Proust and Joyce copied their books from my Making of Americans?"
Having allowed myself to get sidetracked by Stein, it seems proper to give Beach the last word. She barely mentions Laughlin in her letters, so the obvious way to close is no good. Instead, I'll offer this charmingly playful note to Ernest Hemingway from August 8, 1923:
Dear Hemingways, How is the Book coming on? How is the group of Feather Cats standing the heat? Is it going to Anastasie's Stade this Saturday? We have a thatched cottage all to ourselves except for some cows in the next room. Our door opens into a field where we brush our teeth and everything. Adrienne sends her best love with mine
The "Book" seems likely to have been The Sun Also Rises; I trust it was coming on well.

Tuesday, June 01, 2010

Filling in the [adjective] blanks

{Photos by rocketlass.}

James Laughlin's not-quite-memoir, The Way It Wasn't, includes some notes about poet Anne Carson, whom he brought to New Directions back when he was still the press's director. Of his first encounter with her work, he writes,
When I first read the "God poems" in the magazine, I had a kind of pleasant and electric shock thinking that you were the poet I had been waiting for for some years.
And in another note, he describes her as
a Volcanist; she paints volcanoes that look like the sundaes we used to get at the drugstore counters exploding with chocolate sauce. I shouldn't be irreverent. She's obviously someone to be reckoned with.
Much as I agree, at the same time I can't help but be irreverent--and thus a contest! Over at the blog of the Quarterly Conversation, the Constant Conversation, I'm running an Anne Carson Mad Libs contest: fill in the gaps that time and carelessness have left in the fragments of Sappho that Carson translated for her book If Not, Winter, and you can win a copy of her gorgeous, strange, and moving new book-in-a-box, Nox.

What are you [adverb] waiting for? Get out your [adjective] pens and get to work!