Friday, March 29, 2013

Writing home

One of the problems of not having children and not practicing any religion is that spring break sneaks up on you. Judging by the lack of commuters on the L today, I suspect that the Internet may have already packed its Speedo and headed out the door for the weekend, hying (or, since this is the Internet, perhaps "hai-ing"?) to Daytona Beach to pound some Jager and barf intricate patterns onto the sand?

Well, just in case I'm wrong, let's look at some letters! And today's subject is perfect: Faulkner, a master drinker himself, a man who--to his ultimate detriment, one suspects--could have out-Jello-shotted your average Chi Delt Biff of Tri Delt Betty any day. This day, however--January 12, 1925, when he was twenty-eight--the pleasures on offer were more modest and quiet. He writes to his mother from the house of a friend, where he's visiting:
We got there Saturday evening in time for dinner. They are grand people, they let you do whatever you want to--dont try to entertain you, you know. Dr Rainold is a funny light little man, and Mrs Rainold is like Mrs Eatman. They were sitting before the fire reading, and spoke to us, and then went on reading. I have never felt as completely at home. They didnt try to 'talk' to me at all, let me get a book and read too.
Ghosts of the Rainolds: if you're listening, you're welcome to haunt the Rocketship any time you'd like. We've got books a-plenty. Just watch the ectoplasm; it ruins books.

Because I'm going to be spending at least part of my weekend proofreading--and thus ever-so-briefly regretting that I chose the glamorous field of publishing--I'll close with a reminder that the world is made up of readers and non-readers, and we, friends, are not in the majority. From a letter Faulkner sent home from Paris on November 9 of that same year:
I'm having one high and elegant time. With my $200.00 check I got to the American express Co. bank. I stand in line for a long time and then am told I must see a manager. I go to the manager's office: i is 12:30 then, and he is gone to lunch. He returns at 2:15, followed by a train of people all talking at once--like Moses crossing the Red Sea with his gang. After a San Francisco woman gives him hell for thirty minutes, I get to speak with him. Well, he never heard of Boni & Liveright--not a reading man, he explained. He looks in Bradstreet & Dun, Liveright is there, but no rating whatever is given. So he wont take the check.
The American consul also turns him down. What he doesn't do is go try Sylvia Beach--surely she, at least, would have honored the check? He might not have been able to turn it into food or booze, but books are a better consolation than nothing.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

A rule for used book shopping

{Photo by rocketlass of marginal commentary in the University of Chicago Library's copy of Richard Stark's Plunder Squad.}

The paperback editions of the Nero Wolfe novels that Bantam published in their Nero Wolfe Library in the 1990s all carry introductions by contemporary crime writers. For the most part, those introductions, while well-meaning, do little but remind us of the vast number of relatively cozy crime writers working at that time--almost none to my taste, but not out of place introducing Wolfe. Nearly all the introductions explain how the writer first came to the Wolfe stories, then, as I've done here many a time, point out some of the reasons they endure. Wholly inoffensive, but far from essential, in other words.

Robert Crais's introduction to Before Midnight, however, deserves to be preserved. That's not because of any particular insight he offers into Rex Stout, and not even because he mentions Donald Westlake and Richard Stark. No, it's because his story of first encountering Wolfe is great fun. As a young man living in Baton Rouge, Crais haunted a used bookstore,
a grungy, dirty, seedy kind of place, but I discovered Chandler there, as well as Ted Mark and Donald Westlake and Don Westlake writing as Richard Stark. A paperback cost nineteen cents. If it had no cover, it cost a dime. I had gone through the Chandlers and was working on the Hammetts and I walked into the little store that day very much wanting a copy of Red Harvest. The stacks were divided by category (western, mystery, science fiction, etc.) but were rarely alphabetized, so if you wanted a particular author, you had to look through all the mysteries, ofttimes a tedious process. There was only a single copy of Red Harvest, and some yo-yo had written BITE ME across the cover in green ink, so that ended that. I won't buy a book with BITE ME on the cover. Not even for half price.
A good rule, and one that led him to pick up the next book that looked of interest, which happened to be by Rex Stout. Sorry, Hammett. If only you'd attracted a better class of reader . . . (and if people are writing BITE ME on Hammett, good god, what must they be writing on Jim Thompson? Or--shudder--Mickey Spillane?)

Monday, March 25, 2013

Mr. Wolfe prefers not to.

One of the things Rex Stout does best--and most entertainingly--in his Nero Wolfe novels is to portray the imperious presumption of executives . . . and then show what happens when it comes up against the 300 pounds of immovable object that is Nero Wolfe.

Before Midnight (1955), the Wolfe novel I read this weekend, offers some particularly fine examples, among them Wolfe turning down a $50,000 check to preserve his dignity ("Dignities are like faces," he says in explaining his opposition, "No two are the same."), tearing up a retainer check, and hiring, firing, and briefly re-hiring a lawyer.

The best moment, however, features Archie Goodwin as Wolfe's immovable proxy. Goodwin meets perfume exec Talbot Heery while on a mission to retrieve from a safe-deposit box some poetry, related to an advertising contest for Heery's company--a contest that became of interest to Wolfe when it led to murder. Archie introduces Heery by saying,
I could merely report that I kept my two-thirty appointment and got the verses and the answers, and let it go at that, but I think it's about time you had the pleasure of meeting Mr. Talbott Heery.
Heery doesn't make much impression until Archie takes him up on an offer to share a cab and get dropped off at Wolfe's on Heery's way downtown:
As we stopped for a red light at Fifth Avenue, headed west on Forty-seventh Street, Heery said, "I have some spare time and I think I'll stop in for a talk with Nero Wolfe."

"Not right now," I told him. "He's tied up."

"But now is when I have the time."

"Too bad, but it'll have to be later--in fact, much later. He has appointments that run right through until late this evening, to ten-thirty or eleven."

"I want to see him now."

"Sorry. I'll tell him, and he'll be sorry, too. If you want to give me your number I'll ring you and tell you when."

He got a wallet from his pocket, fingered in it, and came up with a crisp new twenty. "Here," he said. "I won't need long. Probably ten minutes will do it."

I felt flattered. A finiff would have been at the market, and a sawbuck would have been lavish. "I deeply appreciate it," I said with feeling, "but I"m not the doorman or receptionist. Mr. Wolfe has different men for different functions, and mine is to collect poetry out of safe deposit boxes. That's all I do."

Returning the bill neatly to the wallet, he stated, with no change whatever in tone or manner, "At a better time and place I'll knock your goddam block off." You'll see why I wanted you to meet him.
The scene could serve as an exemplar of a key aspect of Stout's genius, and the pleasures his books afford: it's the feeling of returning again and again to the familiar--familiar settings, characters, situations--while each time seeing a new set of changes rung. We've seen many an exec try to browbeat Archie, and plenty try to bribe him. Rare is the exec who tries both--and Heery, stand six foot though he may, is the only one bold enough to offer to knock Archie's block off.

Which, you'll not be surprised to learn, he doesn't get to do. We live in a fallen world, and not everyone gets everything he wants all the time--even executives.

Friday, March 22, 2013

The Wodehouse cure

{Photo by rocketlass.}

Among people who are willing to countenance the possibility that ghosts exist, one of the most common explanations for haunting--for why this person returns be-sheeted while that one sleeps peacefully in the grave--is that the person died with some important business left undone on this plane.

If that's the case, the new collection of P. G. Wodehouse's letters may explain why no one has ever seen the Master's ghost wandering the stately homes of England, harrying aunts and aiding nephews. For with the next-to-last letter in the book, undated but from very late in Wodehouse's life, and addressed to Godfrey Smith, editor of the Sunday Times magazine, Wodehouse discharged a duty:
Jeeves's bracer does not contain dynamite as is generally supposed.

It consists of lime juice, a lump of sugar and one teaspoonful of Mulliner's Buck-U-Uppo. This, it will be remembered, is the amount of the Buck-U-Uppo given to elephants in India to allow them to face tigers on tiger hunts with the necessary nonchalance.
Imagine the loss to humanity had Wodehouse gone to his grave with this recipe a secret!

Now to lay in a store of Buck-U-Uppo. Next time I'm in New York, I'll have to stop by the Butler Supply District and claim a case or two.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Updike reminds us what it's like to be twenty

A month ago, Patrick Kurp, on his Anecdotal Evidence blog, mentioned in passing a John Updike story, "The Happiest I've Been," first published in the New Yorker in 1959. Patrick described the story as,
the best fictional treatment I know of the exhilarating free-fall between high school and college, adolescence and faux-adulthood.
We all have those writers whom we've simply failed to read, not through distaste or deliberate choice, but simply because, as Hussain Haddawy put it in the introduction to his translation of some of the Arabian Nights stories, "There are other fair creatures in the world." Updike has long been one of mine, wholly unread--though in recent years I've been edging closer: I read Nicholson Baker's U and I, and sentence after sentence that he quoted impressed me, as did his--and other writers'--tales of Updike's courtesy and kindness, the notes he would send to young writers whose work he appreciated, the professionalism with which he seemed to approach his work. For all that I enjoy reading about the Byrons of the world, my heart (to say nothing of my admiration) is with those artists who evince kindness and courtesy.

Patrick's praise was enough. I sought out "The Happiest I've Been"--and if all you want to know is whether Patrick is right, you can stop reading here: the first thing I did after reading it was make two copies to send to friends. It's that good, full of sharp observations expressed in sentences whose every word seems diligently labored over, glowing with a sense that it was chosen through deliberation aiming at perfection rather than the logorrhea of chance.

The story, told in the first person, relates a night-long party in the narrator's hometown, a party to which he's taken unexpectedly by a friend with whom he's supposed to be sharing a ride to Chicago a few days before the end of the Christmas break of his freshman year of college. He only learns of the party after he's been loaded into the car, and, "In everything that followed there was this sense of my being picked up and carried somewhere."

That's a feeling that will be familiar, I suspect, to anyone who was fortunate enough to ease into their twenties largely in the company of others who were doing the same--and a feeling that most of us rarely re-encounter in later years. What Updike does brilliantly is to show us all the ever-varying vantage points we had on those moments: enjoyment and abandon, uncertainty and isolation, confusion and anticipation. "The party was the party I had been going to all my life," the narrator notes: a girl cries and dances at the same time; three former athletes, "still . . . with that well-coordinated looseness, a look of dangling on strings," crash the party, then disappear silently into the basement; the host plays the same jazz record over and over and over, deliberately soaking in melancholy.

When the host's parents return home, the narrator realizes that they, too, see the same party they've always seen: "It was a pleasant joke to see in their smiles that, however corrupt and unwinking we felt, to them we looked young and sleepy: Larry's friends." But the few months that the narrator has been away have been enough to make him feel estranged. At one point he wanders off and buries himself for a while in the first book he finds, the second volume of Henry Esmond; at another, the sight of a pile of shoes discarded by the girls at the party brings unexpected emotion:
Sitting alone and ignored in a great armchair, I experienced within a warm keen dishevelment, as if there were real tears in my eyes. Had things been less unchanged, they would have seemed less tragic. But the girls who had stepped out of these shoes were, with few exceptions, the ones who had attended my life's party. The alterations were so small: a haircut, an engagement ring, a tendency toward plumpness more frankly confessed. While they wheeled above me I sometimes caught from their faces an unfamiliar glint, off of a hardness I did not remember, as if beneath their skins these girls were growing more dense. The brutality added to the features of the boys I knew seemed a more willed effect, more desired and so less grievous.
These are the people he knew, but he no longer knows them; he wonders "at the easy social life that evidently existed among my friends at three-thirty in the morning." And later, his sense of being out of time and place, focused on one person and one relationship, reaches an acuity that verges on cruelty:
So I talked to Margaret about Larry, and she responded, showing really quite an acute sense of him. To me, considering the personality of a childhood friend so seriously, as if overnight he had become a factor in the world, seemed absurd; I couldn't even deeply believe that in her world he mattered much. Larry Schuman, in little more than a year, had become nothing to me.
That's the moment that Updike recreates so well in this story and carries through to a perfect ending: the time when we've worked enough slack into our family ties to feel free and the ties to old friends--stripped of the circumstances that catalyzed them--have atrophied to the point of inexplicability, yet the claims of our future have not yet been made. At twenty, on the right night in the right circumstances, we are as close to being free as we ever will be--and, briefly, it can seem like the best possible way to live.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Wodehouse's letters

In need of a quick post today, I find Jeeves coming, as usual, to the rescue. Well, not Jeeves so much as his creator: I can't believe I've not yet mentioned the new collection of P. G. Wodehouse's letters.

For a proper review of the volume, you couldn't do better than my fellow Invisible Librarian Ed Park's for Bookforum (which I just amused myself by mistyping Bookfuror). One of Ed's most interesting observations concerns the disjunction between Wodehouse's meticulous plotting and an expressed desire for its opposite:
How interesting, then, to read what a younger Wodehouse wrote to a friend in 1914: “That is what I’ve always wanted to be able to do, to interest the reader for about five thousand words without having any real story. At present, I have to have an author-proof plot, or I’m no good.” Voice is subservient to narrative. Of course, an author as long-lived as Wodehouse will change his views on craft and ambition over the years. But in that contradiction between form and style—in a pinch, predestination and free will—lies a curious truth. Could it be that for us readers (after all, the most important part of this equation), Wodehouse in the end achieved his goal of dispensing with “any real story”? “It’s just a question of detail,” Wodehouse remarks about the composition, after the heavy lifting is done. Perhaps the aspects of his books that give us the most pleasure—the utter insouciance, the similes of fizzy genius (comparing, to pluck at random from the sacred oeuvre, a dour countenance to a “V-shaped depression off the coast of Iceland”)—could only be arrived at once the scaffolding was absolutely secure. Which is to say, a reader with much on his mind about the uncertainties of life might well have deeper reasons for immersing himself in a story called “There’s Always Golf.”
It's well worth clicking through to read the rest--there are few writers whose comedic sense I trust more than Ed's, and that comes through in his choice of lines to quote.

For my part, I'll share just two of the bits that have greatly amused me as I've flipped through the book. First comes from a letter to Wodehouse's daughter, Leonora, of July 3, 1921:
Love Among the Chickens is out in the cheap edition. I'll send you a copy. Townend told me it was on sale at the Charing Cross bookstall, so I rolled round and found they had sold out. Thence to Piccadilly Circus bookstall. Sold out again. Pretty good in the first two days. Both men offered to sell me "other Wodehouse books," but I smiled gently on them and legged it.
Just as Bertie would have done.

Then there's this account, sent to his friend William Townend in 1932, of a visit to H. G. Wells's house:
I like Wells, but the trouble with him is that you can never see him alone. He is accompanied wherever he goes by the woman he's living with. When they came to lunch, we were all set to listen to his brilliant table talk, and she wouldn't let him get a word in edgeways, monopolizing the conversation while he sat looking like a crushed rabbit. I did manage to get him away in a corner after lunch long enough for him to tell me that he had an arrangement with her that when he went to London, he went by himself, and he added, his face lighting up, that he was going to London next week. Then she yelled for him, and he trotted off.

By the way, when you go to his residence, the first thing you see is an enormous fireplace, and round it are carved in huge letters the words: TWO LOVERS BUILT THIS HOUSE.

Her idea, I imagine. I can't believe Wells would have thought of that himself.
What makes that letter even more deliciously amusing is that--as editor Sophie Ratcliffe points out in a note, Wodehouse used that very image a mere six years later in The Code of the Woosters. Bertie explains that at the house of a newly married friend he'd seen, over the fireplace, "the legend 'Two Lovers Built This Nest,' and I can still recall the look of dumb anguish in the other half of the sketch's eyes every time he came in and saw it."

I would be falling down on one of my self-imposed Internet duties if I didn't close with some lines from Wodehouse's one letter to Anthony Powell, from 1967. A bookseller had sent him Powell's 1939 novel What's Become of Waring, and Wodehouse sent Powell a note of appreciation:
I have always admired your work so much, especially the Music of Time series. The early ones are all fine, but what I like, and what I suppose everyone likes, is the feeling that one is living with a group of characters and sharing their adventures, the whole thing lit up by the charm which is your secret. I hope the series is going on for ever. I should hate to feel that I should never meet Widmerpool again.
Which leads to two thoughts:

1 It's interesting that Wodehouse likes Dance, for Powell's sense of time couldn't be more different from Wodehouse's: the latter's characters are trapped in amber, living forever in a prelapsarian (or at least pre–World War I) wonderland, while Powell's are forever moving, paced by death and driven by various and sundry furies, acted upon by time in ways they could never have predicted.

2 I'm pleased that Wodehouse uses the word "charm." It's undeniably one of Dance's great qualities, yet it's not one I've ever properly identified by that name. But Wodehouse is right: there are few books whose wit and humanity are more delicately charming than Dance.

Friday, March 15, 2013

The spy in the tree

In case Monday's post didn't convince you to buy Artemis Cooper's Patrick Leigh Fermor: An Adventure, I'll share a couple more good bits today.

1 One of the things that comes through most clearly is how many times Fermor could have easily been killed while working as an operative on Crete during the war, a role that was about midway between that of a spy and that of a guerilla organizer. The most memorable came when he and two colleagues were caught out in a field as more than a hundred Germans began pouring up the hill. The three
scrambled into the woods and hid in a thick cypress tree. They spent the rest of that freezing day (it was 25 January) in its branches, scarcely daring to move. The German patrols went to and fro, shouting to each other; some soldiers passed almost directly beneath them. But in the late afternoon the Germans gave up the search when a mist rolled in and snow began to fall.
Fermor and his companions climbed down and clambered uphill to safety . . . of a sort: they spent the night in a damp hole before making their way to a friendly village.

My first thought on reading that was of the Royal Oak, in which Charles II took a similar shelter (with the wonderfully named Lord Careless) after having his forces crushed by Cromwell at the Battle of Worcester in 1651--and I was pleased to learn from Cooper that Fermor took to referring to the escape oas "Oak Apple Day" in honor of the historical parallel.

I thought I remembered a good account of that scene in Jenny Uglow's engaging biography of Charles II, A Gambling Man, but on turning to it I discovered that she refers to it only in passing. Her overall account of the king's dramatic escape, however, is worth sharing:
Although a huge reward of £1,000 was on his head, and all were asked to watch out for "a tall black man, over two yards high," Charles dodged his pursuers with the help of the royalist network and his own wits and charm. He took refuge with Catholic gentry in Shropshire and Staffordshire before cutting his long black hair short and working his way across the West Country as a servant of Jane Lane, a colonel's daughter travelling to help her sister-in-law in childbirth. As a servant should, he rode on horseback with her, doffing his cap to his betters, overseeing the shoeing of a horse, fumbling with a kitchen jack, joking with ostlers and grooms. Finding no chance of a boat from Bristol or Bridport in Dorset, both bristling with Commonwealth troops, Charles turned east, along the south coast. In Brighton, as he stood with his hands on the back of a chair near the fire, an innkeeper knelt down and kissed his hand, "saying, that he would not ask him who he was, but bid God bless him whither he was going."
2 I shared a handful of very brief points of interest (or amusement) on Twitter earlier this week that I'll repeat in case you didn't see them there. Lawrence Durrell, on first meeting Fermor, called him "A wonderful mad Irishman . . . quite the most enchanting maniac I've ever met," while Steven Runciman called him "a very bright, very grubby young man." And then there's this, which Cooper reports from Fermor's time on Mount Athos during his trans-European hike: "He also saw the cook's cat, which could do somersaults." My cats are even lazier than I thought.

3 Finally, as it's Friday, I'll close with two bits about drinking, which Paddy and his friends did prodigiously in the years before, during, and right after the war. As Greece teetered on the verge of civil war in 1946, Fermor was hired by the British Council to travel the country giving lectures on British culture--but he relatively quickly found himself instead telling the story of how he led a team that kidnapped a German general from Crete. (That adventure is told well in Ill Met by Moonlight, written by Fermor's companion on the raid, W. Stanley Moss.) Cooper tells of the first lecture about the kidnapping:
At the lectern Paddy had a carafe and a glass, from which he took repeated sips as he told the story. When it was nearly empty, he refilled it from the carafe. A roar of approval went up from the crowd as what remained in the glass turned milky-white--Paddy had been drinking neat ouzo.
Then there's Fermor's account of the regular drinking--and its effects--when he got back to London, a bit at sixes and sevens like so many following the war, in the spring of 1947:
"It was a marvellously exhilarating time: hangovers were drowned like kittens the following morning in a drink called either a Dog's Nose or a Monkey's Tail: a pint of beer with a large gin or vodka slipped into it, which worked wonders."
I think--and I suspect that Aesop might back me up--that that's not how one drowns a kitten, but a lion. Have a good weekend, folks.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

"In a movie theater at least you can hold hands."

One of the many commonalities between Rex Stout and P. G. Wodehouse* is that their characters are essentially stuck in time. For Wodehouse, that era was gone by the time he really established himself as an author: it's early Edwardian. As Orwell explained in "In Defence of P. G. Wodehouse,"
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. But the traditional "knut," the "Piccadilly Johnny," ought to wear spats.
Stout's characters, meanwhile, are forever of the 1930s, the period of his first success. Though the Depression barely makes an appearance--the Wolfe stories are more akin to the Busby Berkeley musicals than, say the realist movie that John L. Sullivan wants to make in Sullivan's Travels--but the characters, from the thugs and Inspector Cramer to, more importantly, Archie and (sigh) Lily Rowan, are the familiar fast-talking slang-shooters of period's brilliant screwball comedy.

Such stasis is no small part of the comfort these books afford--a comfort matched by few, if any, other writers. Yet both writers continued working regularly until the 1970s, and both, in familiar series tradition, let their characters float in a vaguely defined eternal present rather than having them age or specifying that their new adventures are taking place in the past.** And thus it becomes interesting to note where the present (now well past) creeps in. Christopher Hitchens, for example, once pointed out the ghastly strangeness of Bertie Wooster--allied to no cause aside from aunt-baiting--running into an anti-war demonstration in the 1974 novel Aunts Aren't Gentlemen. With Stout, the dislocations are never jarring, merely interesting.

Such a moment appears in In the Best Families (1950), one of the most clever and satisfying Wolfe stories. Archie has been dispatched to a country house under slim cover, pretending to investigate a mere dog poisoning (shades of the Philo Vance Kennel Murder Case?) while really looking into murder, and after dinner he's stuck in the living room with all the suspects as they watch television:
Nintey minutes of video got us to half-past ten, and got us nothing else, especially me. . . . Television is raising hell with the detective business. It use to be that a social evening at someone's house or apartment was a fine opportunity for picking up lines and angles, moving around, watching and talking and listening; but with a television you might as well be home in bed. You can't see faces, and if someone does make a remark you can't hear it unless it's a scream, and you can't even start a private inquiry, such as finding out where a young widow stands now on skepticism. In a movie theater at least you can hold hands.
I'm no detective, but I sympathize. As March crawls past, insisting on its pretense of being winter with all the wheezy grotesquerie of a past his prime ladies' man bathed in cologne, the Baseball Machine at the Rocketship maintains its winter dormancy. If Archie wants to bring some suspects by, I'll be happy to help him catch a murderer while the cathode rays sleep.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Highlights from Artemis Cooper's Patrick Leigh Fermor: An Adventure

When I was in London in January I picked up--on the advice of one of the sales reps I work with, who said it was the best book he'd read all year--Artemis Cooper's new biography of Patrick Leigh Fermor. Forty pages in, I feel I've already been repaid for lugging it o'er the seas in my luggage. Some early highlights:

1 Patrick Leigh Fermor's mother's name was Aeileen, but as a girl "she signed herself 'Avrille' or 'Mixed Pickles' when writing to her parents, while they and her husband most often referred to her as Muriel." Patrick's father, named Lewis, she called Peter. Patrick, meanwhile, was known to all as Paddy, which is much more straightforward.

2 You get the impression that no school could have held Paddy--his person or his attention--but he does seem to have been subjected to a couple that were exemplars of English strangeness and decrepitude. His first, Walsham Hall, was run by Major Faithfull, "a pioneer of the wilder shores of education, . . . with messianic eyes and a shock of grey hair." Cooper describes the curriculum:
Lessons were very haphazard; there was also what Paddy described as "a lot of lying down and doing free association while Major Faithfull took notes. I used to invent all sorts of things for him." Most bewildering of all were the country dancing and eurhythmics, in which both staff and pupils participated in the nude. "Nimbly and gravely, keeping time to a cottage piano and a recorder, we sped through the figures of Gathering Peascods, Sellinger's Round, Picking-up Sticks and Old Mole."
It reminds me of the school in which another young Patrick was once placed, by his Auntie Mame:
"So like your father," she sighed. "By the way, I know the most divine new school that a friend of mine is starting. Coeducational and completely revolutionary. All classes are held in the nude under ultraviolet ray. Not a repression left after the first session."
3 His next stop was King's School, Canterbury, which was founded by Henry VIII and boasted Christopher Marlowe among its graduates. By Fermor's time, it was utterly run down, but it's not clear that even the most up-to-date and resource-rich of schools could have handled the young Fermor. His fellow student Canon Hill
remembered that Paddy's arrival had had an immediate impact on the school. He spoke in elaborate sentences, a mode of speech quite unlike the monosyllabic schoolboy slang of his contemporaries. He would launch into blank verse or Shakespearean dialogue at the drop of a hat, and recited poetry by the yard. Hill remembers once coming back from games and hearing someone singing "Ye Watchers and Ye Holy Ones," an unusual choice from the English Hymnal. Intrigued, he followed the sound and found Fermor dancing about in the showers, stark naked, singing "Alleluia! Alleluia!" at the top of his lungs, all by himself.
I suppose it wouldn't be an English school if there weren't a lot of stories of nudity. Of more interest are the stories Cooper relates of Fermor's daredevilry and recklessness:
The sort of myths that float around schools tended to settle on Paddy. It was said that someone heard Fermor creeping out of the dorm in the middle of the night, and decided to follow him. Lighting his way with a torch and unaware that he was being shadowed, he made his way to the gym, which had a very high ceiling spanned by a great beam, hung with climbing ropes. Hidden in the shadows, the boy watched with mounting alarm as Fermor shinned up one of the ropes, clambered on to the beam and walked from one end to the other. Having completed this feat, he came down the rope and made his way back to the dormitory.
Cooper goes on:
If anyone was caught hanging around the betting shops, smoking cigarettes, clambering over the roof or getting into fights, it was probably Fermor; and his sins were compounded by a fearless swagger and total disregard for punishment.
What an intoxicating combination that must have been for his fellow students, especially when coupled with the charm to which everyone who ever met Fermor attests!

4 He was, unsurprisingly, expelled--though for the relatively pedestrian sin of holding hands with a girl while out on the streets of Canterbury, a dual no-no. He then spent the spring and summer of 1933, when he was eighteen, racketing about London and falling in with the Bright Young People whom Waugh would satirize so mercilessly in Vile Bodies. At one of their haunts, the Cavendish Hotel in Jermyn Street, he became a favorite of the proprietress, Rosa Lewis, which leads to this priceless anecdote, apparently related by Fermor directly to Cooper in conversation:
Mrs Lewis thought that Evelyn Waugh's description of her as Mrs Crump in Vile Bodies did not do her justice. "If I get my 'ands on that Mr Woo-aagh," she told Paddy, her false teeth rattling ominously, "I'll cut 'is winkle orff!"
Fair or unfair, it's not hard to see why Lewis would be after Waugh's winkle. To take just one example of many in Vile Bodies, here's Crump at her most obtusely unfeeling:
"We've all been upside down this morning. Such a fuss. Had the police in we have, ever since I don't know what time, drinking up my wine and asking questions and putting their noses where they're not wanted. All because Flossie must needs go and swing on the chandelier. She never had any sense, Flossie. Well, she's learned her lesson now, poor girl. Whoever heard of such a thing--swinging on a chandelier. Poor Judge. What's-his-name is in a terrible state about it. I said to him it's not so much the price of the chandelier, I said. What money can make, money can mend, I said, and that's the truth, isn't it, dear? But what I mind, I said, is having a death in the house and all the fuss. It doesn't do anyone any good having people killing theirselves in a house like Flossie did.
Interestingly, though Cooper points out that through this circle--at another bohemian haunt, the Gargoyle Club--Fermor became friends with Constant Lambert and Cyril Connolly, he seems to not have crossed paths in any memorable way with their mutual friend Anthony Powell. What would Powell have made of him? I suspect that his oddity was, in a way, too foursquare to be the sort that drew Powell as a writer, too well-grounded in confidence: Fermor, it seems clear, did things in order to do them rather than as a means to power, fame, sex, or any of the other phantoms we chase, and whose obsessive pursuit so interested Powell.

5 At the same time that the young Fermor was clubbing it up in London, he was essentially broke, and to alleviate that he took a job selling stockings door to door to suburban London ladies, a job he was good at but hated. Cooper tells a story that Fermor told her:
One evening at the Running Horse [Pub], the boss singled him out as a star salesman and asked him to give the other members of the team a few tips. According to Paddy, he pulled a stocking over his hand and described its properties as if it were a condom--which had the team howling with laughter, and his boss purple in the face with rage. He was sacked immediately.
The whole episode reminds me of Julian Maclaren-Ross, who at a similar period in his life sold vacuum cleaners door to door. He, too, hated it--but without even the consolation of being good at it. In his Memoirs of the Forties, he recounts a conversation with Graham Greene before a lunch that he'd managed to land in order to talk about adapting A Gun for Sale for radio:
"What d'you do meantime? Besides writing radio plays I mean."

"I sell vacuum cleaners," I said.

Greene, almost on the threshold of the pub, halted abruptly and turned to take a good look at me. Unlike the housekeeper, it was clear that he'd not suspected this. "Vacuum cleaners?" he said.


"Are you doing it to get material?"

"No, I'm doing it because I wouldn't have any money otherwise."

"But do you earn much as it is?"

"I don't do bad at the moment. Eight to ten quid a week."

Greene said: "Good for you," plainly surprised. . . . "I thought of signing on myself at one time. To write a book about it afterwards of course. I never knew one could actually sell the damn things."
Despite his protests, Maclaren-Ross did make use of his experience, building his bleakly comic novel Of Love and Hunger around a failing vacuum cleaner salesman. Maclaren-Ross, however, didn't have the luxury of going out with a bang like Fermor: he was sacked by Electrolux for simply failing to sell cleaners, then, after signing on with their rival, Hoover, was sacked by Hoover for selling a second-hand cleaner at the secret behest of his unscrupulous supervisor.

Which just goes to show, yet again, that we can't all be Patrick Leigh Fermor. Alas.

Friday, March 08, 2013

Did you mean to attach a document?

As part of my continual trawl through various letters collections, I wandered into those of Daniel Defoe recently. There are almost no extant letters of a personal nature--as George Harris Healey wrote in his introduction to the 1955 collection he edited, "One searches in vain for a single letter written to his parents, or to Mary Defoe, patient helpmeet of a half-century of small triumphs and great calamities."

Which leaves business and politics, in both of which Defoe was up to his ears. Many of the letters are written to patrons, and thus are almost unreadable today for all their florid praise and nonsense. The occasional letter, however, jumps out for its immediacy: when, as a journalist (and spy) in Scotland promoting the cause of union, Defoe scribbles the news and hurries it on its way, the power and immediacy of political machinations come to life, feeling almost news-like, even familiar and contemporary.

My favorite letter, however, is the following, sent on April 17, 1712 to Defoe's patron and spymaster, Robert Harley, Earl of Oxford. In the introduction, Healey acknowledges his gratitude to Harley for preserving so many of Defoe's letters . . . though he could have done a slightly better job:
The cautious Harley was a collector, and it is to his instinct for keeping things that we owe the happy preservation of most of the letters in this book. One may wince at his occasional practice of tearing off the now-prized signature of his secret agent, but he did not destroy the letter itself, and for that the student of Defoe must always be the debtor of Harley.
The letter itself I think you'll find amusing:
I am to ask Pardon for a Mistake I thought my Self Uncapable of (Viz.:) That having written to your Ldpp last Night for Cover of The Enclosed, and Given The letter to a Servt to Carry, I Found The Receipt on My Table left Out. I have left it without Date because your Ldpp So Ordred before. I Humbly Ask your Ldpps pardon for the Mistake And am

May it Please your Ldpp

Your Most Humble and Obedt Srvt—

Daniel Defoe
That's right: even three hundred years ago people were forgetting to attach the document before hitting Send.

Wednesday, March 06, 2013

Rules for writing

In the midst of a run of disappointing contemporary novels, Michael Dahlie's The Best of Youth has popped up like a friend spotted across the room at an awkward party. I'm only halfway through, but after being left cold both by comic and more deliberately heartfelt novels recently, it's been a pleasure to find one that's funny, thoughtful, and--in its not wholly unsatirical way--convincing. (As an added bonus, it includes an Invisible Library book!)

Tonight I'll share my favorite moment thus far. The protagonist, Henry, a Brooklyn-based young millionaire (rich parents, crashed boat), after modest success with short stories, signs on to ghost-write a young adult novel for Kipling, a feckless British movie star. The star tells Henry his idea for the book: "[W]hat I'd like to write is a book about a young person, a twelve-year-old, say, who's friends with an old person." Henry tries to draw Kipling out, asking questions about the two characters or possible plot points, but all he gets is, "The story is the story of a friendship--a friendship between an old man and a young man. That's the heart of it all. It's almost all anyone needs to know." Which leads Henry to think "that if this was what Kipling thought an idea looked like, it would all be hard going."

Alas, Kipling does actually have more developed ideas than that. The problem is that he doesn't share them until Henry is nearly done with his first draft--and they're not about the book, but about writing itself. He e-mails Henry:
"Since you're polishing up the draft now," he wrote, "I thought I'd also send you a few rules of thumb that I live by and that are important for the final product." Kipling then proceeded (in a strangely formatted list with indentations and bullet points) to offer Henry a detailed explanation of what he thought was important to remember about a work of art, "especially a work of literature," although, in the spirit of modesty, he did preface this list with the statement, "I'm sure you know these things, but as a writer in my own right, I never think it hurts to revisit common conclusions about good writing."

Among the points Kipling made (and there were many) were:

  • If you use parentheses and semicolons, it's because you haven't thought through your work properly. Please make sure none are in the final product.
  • Please be careful with the overuse of prepositions, i.e., use "she awoke" instead of "she woke up."
  • Take plenty of breaks to sleep and to eat. Hemingway did. So should you.
  • If you run into trouble, remember that a writer's greatest asset is his imagination. A day of daydreaming is better than a month of research.
  • To which my only response is: There are more? Many more? Want!!!!

    Rules for writing are rarely useful, even when not written by fictional dabbling idiots. Even Elmore Leonard's much-celebrated rules are really only of interest as an expression of a sensibility, while Strunk and White's are better honored in the breach. But after laughing at Dahlie's contribution, I do feel that I should explicitly note my two unbreakable rules for writers--neither of which, let's be clear, Dahlie appears to have taken to heart in writing his novel. Herewith:
    1 When a character has a hangover, that hangover should be described in soul-shivering detail. Slather it on, sir, and make us feel as if we've earned it.

    2 When it is possible to use Sydney Greenstreet as the basis of a simile, one must use Sydney Greenstreet as the basis of a simile.
    Mr. Dahlie, your transgressions are forgiven. This time. Another infraction, I'm afraid, is likely to see you hit with thirty days without the option.

    Monday, March 04, 2013

    How to know that you've spent too much time reading Anthony Powell

    {Photo by rocketlass.}

    I'm going to use the fact that the New York Review of Books blog has recently been running a series of posts on dreams--a topic that longtime readers know is dear to my heart--as an excuse to share a dream from last week. Today's NYRB post is from Tim Parks, who writes of his many dreams about water and says that "It is impossible not to wish to interpret or somehow understand intense dreams." Well, there's a very simple interpretation of the dream I'm going to share today: I've read A Dance to the Music of Time too many times.

    The experience of duality is common to dreams, possibly even fundamental. A person is a stranger, yet also your cousin. An object is ordinary, yet also horrifying. While it's impossible to convey the full experience of a dream--impossible even to retain it for long ourselves--I can tell you one thing about a lot of my dreams: they're simultaneously something I'm experiencing and something I'm reading. The dream world, for me, is often made of words.

    That was definitely the case with the dream I'm about to describe. While I'm sure that a substantial amount of accuracy has been lost to the transition to the waking, typing world, what follows are, to the best of my ability to recall them, the actual words I remember from my dream as it unfolded, simultaneously events in space and words on a page:
    Tired from the hours of sleep lost to preparation for the day's exercises, I hoped to pass the General's door unnoticed, but the fates, busy, one might reasonably suppose, in the larger theater of war, were not with me. "Captain Jenkins," came the call from the office. "Captain Jenkins!"

    I took the minimum number of steps into the office that military etiquette required. "Yes, sir?"

    "I've been going over the map for today's exercise, and I've discovered something."

    Was he proud? Chagrined? Sleeplessness was not helping me to read what hid beneath his graying guardsman's mustache. "Yes, sir?"

    "I'd thought it was fifty miles we'd be covering. I was sure it was fifty miles--I've done it before, and I knew it was fifty. But it's not: it's thirty-seven."

    "Indeed, sir?"

    "Thirty-seven! But I'm so used to fifty . . . and it's such a solid number! So . . . we're just going to say it's fifty nonetheless. We'll be doing fifty miles today, Captain--but fifty short miles. I doubt the men will mind." Stroking his mustache, the Generale lowered his head and chuckled quietly to himself as he folded his map, clearly amused by the ever-reliable reactions of the enlisted man through history. "No, no, I doubt the men will mind a short mile or two."

    "Indeed, sir."
    Indeed. Sleep well, folks.