Monday, August 24, 2015

Powell and Fitzgerald

Though he never transformed it into fiction--saying in a 1975 Paris Review interview that "you really never know what things are going to be suitable material for books. And for some reason I've never thought it was suitable material"--Anthony Powell's brief sojourn in Hollywood in 1937 has long been an object of fascination for me. What might have happened had he managed to latch onto A Yank at Oxford and begin to make a name for himself as a reliable writer of screenplays? Would we have had no Dance? Without the war years--and the particularly English perspective on them--the sequence is hard to imagine. Could we somehow have had a US-focused version, inflected with the strange mix of Hollywood falseness, wartime boosterism, and almost unfathomable industrial growth that was Los Angeles in the 1940s?

Nowadays, to the extent that Powell's Hollywood period is known at all, it's for his brief meeting with F. Scott Fitzgerald. (Side note to those possessing a time machine: some of us would really appreciate a bit more detail about the time he met Douglas Fairbanks. Was Fairbanks wearing a shirt? Were his arms akimbo? Did he laugh with insouciance? (No, yes, no, I presume.)) Powell goes into it a bit in his memoir, To Keep the Ball Rolling, an account that includes a brilliant aside that I've quoted before:
One could not fail to notice the tone in which people in Hollywood spoke of Fitzgerald. It was as if Lazarus, just risen from the dead, were to be looked on as of some doubtful promise as a screenwriter.
What I didn't realize until recently was that Powell had written about the encounter, and his Hollywood time in general, at much greater length. The piece, originally published in the Times Saturday Review on October 3, 1970, was included in the Hemingway-Fitzgerald Annual for 1971, and it's well worth seeking out if you have access to a good library.

Powell's account of his own experience is as droll as you'd expect:
Of efforts to become a Hollywood script writer there is little more to say than that they were unsuccessful. My American agent had died during our weeks on the high seas. The replacement was antipathetic. This was getting off to a bad start.
The meetings that followed, Powell, says, were "pursuing the mirage":
One became familiar not so much with the bum's rush, to use an old fashioned expression,as that stagnation of movement, total inanition where any action is concerned, to some extent characteristic of all theatrical administration, more especially when the art of the film is in question.
"To some extent characteristic" feels like the most fundamental Powellian phrase: he's categorizing, which is one of his essential modes, but at the same time he's leaving a gap--individuality, even as one necessarily sorts by type, is what matters.

What follows is a brief account of the accommodations, the lifestyle (as glimpsed by a more or less determined outsider), and the people--and then he gets to Fitzgerald:
He was smallish, neat, solidly built, wearing a light grey suit and lightish tie, all his tones essentially light. Photographs--seen for the most part years later--do not do justice to him. Possibly he was a person who at once became self-conscious when before a camera. Even snapshots tend to give him an air of swagger, a kind of cockiness, he did not at all possess. On the contrary, one was immediately aware of a sort of unassuming dignity. There was no hint at all of the cantankerousness that undoubtedly lay beneath the surface. His air could be thought a trifle sad, but not in the least broken down, as he has sometimes been described at this period. In a railway carriage or bar, one would have wondered who this man could be.
Powell and Fitzgerald seem to have hit it off, apparently monopolizing the conversation to such an extent that Fitzgerald eventually realized that neither Violet Powell, or their other luncheon companion, Elliott Morgan, had gotten a word in, a situation he good-naturedly tried to remedy.

What's of particular interest is Fitzgerald's assessment, at that moment, of his legacy. He was at low ebb, and knew it:
We talked of his own books. He dismissed any idea that they would ever be read in England. It certainly seemed unlikely then--a good example of the vicissitudes of authorship--that within 10 years and a world war everything Fitzgerald had written would be in print in a London edition.
In the Paris Review interview, Powell credits Cyril Connolly, who was for a time all but the sole champion of Fitzgerald in the UK, for insuring that he knew of--and admired--Fitzgerald's work.

In the original article, Powell notes something that he only alluded to in the his memoirs: this was a moment--in fact, the very day--when a lot was happening in Fitzgerald's life. That evening, he would have dinner, for the first time, with Sheilah Graham, the woman who would be his companion in the final years of his life. Despite the emotional upheaval that surely accompanied the success of that dinner, Fitzgerald followed through with a note of thanks to the Powells for a pleasant lunch, and the gift of some books.

Even late, rackety Fitzgerald could regularly come through with some class.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

On the books, read and unread, on my shelves

One of the first rules you learn if you work in food service is "First in, first out." When, bleary-eyed at 5 AM, you greet the truck that brings the racks of ready-to-boil bagels and vats of cream cheese and load them into the walk-in cooler, you have to rearrange everything, every day, pushing yesterday's supplies to the front and making space to wedge the new stuff in the back. (If you're like I was at twenty, you'll also eat about half a dozen pickles from the man-sized pickle bucket while you're at it. Yum.)

The first in, first out rule is often in the back of my mind when I'm looking over the shelves of my library. I certainly don't come close to practicing such an approach. Does anyone? Though I know there are diligent, focused readers, I have never been of their party, tending more to be in the camp Samuel Johnson describes here:
Idleness is a disease which must be combated; but I would not advise rigorous adherence to a particular plan of study. I myself have never persisted in any plan for two days together.
Combine that with an inveterate habit of haunting bookstores and libraries, and the result is a situation where older books--good, interesting books, books that were brought into the house in the full intention that I would read them--get buried under newer books, and at least some of which will doubtless soon find themselves buried by specimens still more fresh.

Most days, I don't mind this. I'm no scholar; I have no duties to these books or any others. And while it's not wrong to say that there is at least some risk that a new novel left too long may transform, in a was not wholly dissimilar an aged vat of cream cheese, into something less appetizing, it seems far from unreasonable to think that a novel that can't patiently wait its turn is probably a novel that didn't need reading in the first place. If a new book buries a nearly new book, it's a small sin.

Yet there's no question that a pathology, however modest, underlies this. I do not, in any sense, need all these books in my house; I bring them home to read, but I also, no doubt, bring them home . . . simply because I like knowing they're at hand? I'll share one symptom, trusting that it will speak for the whole problem. This photo shows the bookshelves in my office, to which I recently carted all the books I currently have on loan from the University of Chicago Library.

Ahem. I trust I stand convicted. While I do hold to the belief that one's shelves should feature a large proportion of unread books--they are a to-do list and a wish list as much as they are a repository of personal knowledge--there are times when the situation in my library does seem a bit out of hand. Holbrook Jackson, in his Anatomy of Bibliomania (1950), offers citations for both the damning and the defending of a reader who finds his library in a state like mine:
That book-colletcors read not what they buy is a common observation. Every age furnishes evidence of those who hoard books without reading them. One such is reproached by Lucian: "Nobody who knows you," he complains, "would think you do it on account of their helfpfulness, or use, any more than a bald man would buy a comb, a blind man a mirror, a deaf-mute a flute-player, an eunuch a concubine, a landsman an ora, or a seaman a plough." There are many who insist that this is a prime symptom; others stoutly contest the view: "some books are to be read, others are to be collected" (A. Edward Newton); and [Sir Adam] Ferguson as boldly maintains that "the larger number of books are not for reading; their improtance does not depend upon their contents, but upon themselves."
Edmund Gosse, meanwhile, in an essay about his own library, asserts:
Books are not entirely valued or intimately loved unless they are ranged about us as we sit at home.
But then there are those days when by chance I turn away from the stacks of new books and walk my shelves. On those days, after I inevitably discover a forgotten volume that, on its initial entry into my life, brought a shiver of excitement, I resolve, however weakly, to curb my pathology and cut back on new books for a time.

I'm in the midst of one of those spells now, and I'm pleased to say that the first half of August has seen the balance between read and unread books in my house tip ever so slightly to the former. One of the books I dug up, which had been left in a partially read state for years, was Clive James's monumental, staggeringly learned Cultural Amnesia: Necessary Memories from History and the Arts. In his introduction, James writes,
It has always been part of the definition of humanism that true learning has no end in view except its own furtherance.
In a lighter vein, Holbrook Jackson concludes The Anatomy of Bibliomania with:
Go then, choose your book and your time. There is no compulsion. Reading is not a virtue--unless the enjoyment be virtuous.
I agree with both, though I also hope they'll both forgive me if, for this brief late-summer span, I ascribe the tiniest bit of utilitarian virtue to my reading. The situation is still absurd, of course, the balance still deeply tilted to the unread side, but as with so many things in life, merely demonstrating to oneself that one's will can be imposed feels like a victory.

Friday, August 07, 2015

One last thought on utopias, with Ellis Peters

In last week's post about utopias, I quoted from Ellis Peters's Monk's-Hood, the third in her series of medieval mysteries starring Brother Cadfael, a twelfth-century monk from Shrewsbury Abbey. In that post, I likened the appeal of Peters's novels to that of Rex Stout's: that they're less about a mystery to be solved than an opportunity to spend time in a familiar, congenial setting and atmosphere that, unlike the rest of our lives, is all but unchanging--that last being one of the characteristics of a utopia.

At the end of a lovely vacation week largely spent sitting on my porch reading, I find myself thinking of a passage from Monk's-Hood that considers a slightly different aspect of potential utopian ideals. An aged local noble has just deeded his estate to the Abbey in exchange, essentially, for a life tenancy just outside its walls, which sets Cadfael thinking:
Another curious theme intruded itself persistently into Cadfael's musings. This matter of the occasional guests of the abbey, so-called, the souls who chose to abandon the working world, sometimes in their prime, and hand over their inheritance to the abbey fora soft, shielded, inactive life in a house of retirement, with food, clothing, firing, all provided without the lifting of a finger! Did they dream of it for years while they were sweating over lambing ewes, or toiling in the harvest, or working hard at a trade? A little sub-paradise where meals dropped from the sky and there was nothing to do but bask, in the summer, and toast by the fire with mulled ale in the winter? And when they got to it, how long did the enchantment last? How soon did they sicken of doing nothing, and needing to do nothing? In a man blind, lame, sick, he could understand the act. But in those hale and busy, and used to exerting body and mind? No, that he could not understand. There must be other motives. Not all men could be deceived, or deceive themselves, into mistaking idleness for blessedness.
Though I genuinely love my job, time away from it, and from work, period, is always appreciated. And while I would never choose idleness--else why type this when I could be basking in the park?--the draw of a world where needs are supplied, and time is thus freed for non-remunerative pursuits, is strong.

Would the illusion last? Though I'm far from certain it wouldn't, I do think Peters is on to something here--a point that could be applied to her books, and which differentiates the pleasures they offer from the seductions of utopia. What such cozy mysteries, executed with the skill of Peters and Stout, offer is not a perfect world we can imagine moving into, but rather a retreat--a conventual realm, where we can briefly set aside the cares of the world and take up a new, ordered, reliable, unchanging life. They're less pernicious than true utopias both because they don't intend to hold us forever: we're to while away a few hours, then close the book and return to the everyday.

And with that, I'll close my week and start the weekend by opening some Rex Stout. You could do worse than join me . . . and Archie and Wolfe and Lily and Fritz and . . .