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"What's this hanging out your bag?"
"What do you think it is, stupid? It's a
string for my lute."
"What's that?" The policeman drew back a
little. "Are you local?"
"Is it the part of the police department to
harass me when this city is a flagrant vice capital of the civilized
world?" Ignatius bellowed over the crowd in front of the
store. "This city is famous for its gamblers, prostitutes,
exhibitionists, anti-Christs, alcoholics, sodomites, drug addicts,
fetishists, onanists, pornographers, frauds, jades, litterbugs, and
lesbians, all of whom are only too well protected by graft. If
you have a moment, I shall endeavor to discuss the crime problem
with you, but don't make the mistake of bothering me."
--A Confederacy of Dunces by John
Back at his table, he tried to look soberly
confident. The trouble was, the more he reflected, the less
cheerful he felt. In recent years Western governments had been
noisy about terrorism, about standing tall and facing down the
threat; but the threat never seemed to understand that it was being
faced down and continued much as before. Those in the middle
got killed; governments and terrorists survived.
--The Visitors from A History of the
World in 10½ Chapters by
[N.B.: This work was written pre-9/11 and
is interesting with respect to its view of terrorism in those
antediluvian times. Mr. Barnes is a very good writer and his
story, The Visitors, is a sophisticated and well-wrought tale
of an incident on a cruise ship taken over by middle-eastern
terrorists. This is no common slice-of-life trifle but a good
ol' fashioned yarn that comes to a satisfying conclusion. And
yet its conceit about terrorists and moral relativism--that their
twisting of history is no different from what everyone does--seems
simple minded when considered in tandem with the thoughts of the
truly great writers such as Dostoevsky with his The Demons
and Joseph Conrad and his Under Western Eyes (not to mention
Henry James's Princess Casamassima).]
My memory is curious, a magpie with a perverse
eyes, if fascinates me. Jewels I remember only as glitter, and
the feel of glass in my beak. I have filled my nest with
dross. What does it mean? That is a question I am
forever asking, what can it mean? There is never a precise
answer, but instead, in the sky, as it were, a kind of jovian nod, a
celestial tipping of the wink, that's all right, it means what it
means. Yes, but is that enough? Am I satisfied?
I wonder. That day I remember Nockter falling, Mama running
across the garden in the rain, that scene in the hall, all those
things, whereas, listen, what I should recall to the exclusion of
all else is the scene in the summerhouse that met Michael and me
when we sneaked down there, the ashes on the wall, that rendered
purplish mass in the chair, Granny Godkin's two fee, all that was
left of her, in their scorched button boots, and I do remember it,
in a sense, as words, as facts, but I cannot see it, and there is
the trouble. Well, perhaps it is better thus. I have no
wish to make unseemly disclosures about myself, and I can never
think of that ghastly day without suspecting that somewhere inside
me some cruel little brute, a manikin in my mirror, is bent double
with laughter. Granny! Forgive me.
--Birchwood by John Banville
[N.B.: Yes! Spontaneous combustion
lives. Who says only Dickens is allowed such a fanciful
ending. Krook, the Grand Chancellor of rags and bones in
Bleak House is now joined by good Granny Godkins. Kathryn
has kept track of many a literary orphan if you glance at the left
sidebar. But what about all those cases of literary
spontaneous composition? Where's their roll of honor? I
wonder if there are many other such literary cases. Curious
Squeeze! squeeze! squeeze! all the
morning long; I squeezed that sperm till I myself almost melted into
it; I squeezed that sperm till a strange sort of insanity came over
me; and I found myself unwittingly squeezing my co-laborers' hands
in it, mistaking their hands for the gentle globules. Such an
abounding, affectionate, friendly, loving feeling did this avocation
beget; that at last I was continually squeezing their hands, and
looking up into their eyes sentimentally; as much as to say,--Oh! my
deaf fellow beings, why should we longer cherish any social
acerbities, or know the slightest ill-humor or envy! Come; let
us squeeze hands all round; nay, let us all squeeze ourselves into
each other; let us squeeze ourselves universally into the very milk
and sperm of kindness.
--Moby Dick by Herman Melville
[N.B.: I'm well aware that your are
sniggering right now with a condescending air as you do a bit of
parlor-psychologizing on good ol' Herman. Indeed, you might
think what a backwards hick rube he is--out of the mouths of babes
and all that. I would argue, though, that we're the rubes--the
ones that squeeze all cultures onto the procrustean bed built by one
of the most damaging frauds of the twentieth century, Sigmund Freud.
Freud's great crime is that he simplified a complex culture through
a monomaniacal theory concerning human psychology.
Monomaniacal theories are false for that reason--humanity is
infinitely complex and all who attempt to reduce that complexity
are, at the same time, reducing humanity itself.
The world Melville describes is actually more complex in terms of
human relations--particularly those between members of the same
sex--than what we can imagine today. But just because Freud
has robbed us of our imagination in this area does not mean that at
one time such complex relations did not exist (and, indeed, will not
exist again). Just keep sniggering as Ishmael sleeps in the
same bed with queer Queequeg. Queequeg is queer in the sense
that he can imagine us but we can't imagine him.]
What person whose life is involved with the
visual arts, as mine has been for some forty-five years, has not
thought about Goya? In the nineteenth century (as in any
other) there are certain artists whose achievement is critical to an
assessment of our own perhaps less urgent doings. Not to know
them is to be illiterate, and we cannot exceed their perceptions.
They give their times a face, or rather a thousand faces.
Their experience watches our, and can outflank it with the intensity
of its feeling. A writer on music who had not thought about
Beethoven, or a literary critic who had never read the novels of
Charles Dickens--what would such a person's views be worth, what
momentum could they possible acquire? They would not be worth
taking seriously. Goya was one of the seminal artists.
--Goya by Robert Hughes
[N.B.: Having read all of the novels of
Charles Dickens, I am painfully aware of the irony, perhaps
unwitting, latent in this squib. Several decades ago, one
would run across an admiring reference to the fact that Ezra Pound
one year read through all of Henry James. Back then when that
tidbit was bandied about it was done so to communicate Pound's deep
knowledge as a critic--one that the retailer of the anecdote could
not hope to reach. Of course, that little story lies covered
under a rock now because not only do the modern critics not even
bother to aspire to such depths--with the glowing exception of James
Wood--but they are contemptuous of those who would view such a goal
as admirable. And as for Dickens? Oh please, he's so old
fashioned. Just like Shakespeare. Once again, ring the
tocsin for the knell of the book review while we puff the magic
In the convent cemetery, among the tiny crosses
of the nuns, was a big monument to one of the orphans, an infant
known as Little Nellie of Holy God, who had suffered and died in a
particularly edifying way, and about whom, at the time, a certain
cult was growing up. I had a deep personal interest in her,
because not only was I rather in that line myself, but Father had
assisted at her exhumation when her body was removed from a city
cemetery, and verified the story that it was perfectly preserved.
Having attended several funerals, seen the broken coffins and the
bones that were heaped on the side, and heard my relatives say
knowingly: "That was Eugene now. The one below him was Mary,"
I was strongly in favour of the saintly life. When they dug me
up, I wanted to be intact.
--An Only Child by Frank O'Connor
To treat Juliet as a friend is to value her for
her own sake, as the particular person she is. It is to
value her, to use the language of Kant, "as an end in herself."
Only someone who sees other people as having intrinsic value can
make friends. This does not mean that his friends will not be
of instrumental value. But their instrumental value depends
upon the refusal to pursue it. The use of friends is available
only to those who do not seek it. Those who collect friends
for utility's sake are not collecting friends: they are manipulating
--Culture Counts by Roger Scruton
There is nothing more becoming any wise man
than to make choice of friends, for by them you shall be judged what
you are. Let them therefore be wise and virtuous, and none of
those that follow you for gain. But make election rather of
your betters, than your inferiors, shunning always such as are poor
and needy. For if you give 20 gifts, and refuse to do the like
but once, all that you have done will be lost, and such men will
become your mortal enemies. Take also special care that you
never trust any friend or servant with any matter that may endanger
your estate; for so shall you make yourself a bond slave to him that
you trust, and leave yourself always to his mercy. And be sure
of this, you shall never find a friend in your young years whose
conditions and qualities will please you after you come to more
discretion and judgment, and then all you give is lost, and all
wherein you shall trust such a one will be discovered. Such
therefore as are your inferiors will follow you but to eat you out,
and when you cease to feed them they will hate you. And such
kind of men, if you preserve your estate, will always be had.
But if your friends be of better quality than yourself, you may be
sure of two things. The first, that they will be more careful
to keep your counsel, because they have more to lose than you have.
The second, they will esteem you for yourself, and not for that
which you possess.
--The Voyage of the Destiny by Robert
[N.B.: This is an imagined "Sir Walter
Ralegh's Instructions to his son, and to posterity." Polonius
I picked up the book she had dropped and
thumbed glumly through it. The words lay dead in ranks, file
beside file of slaughtered music. I rescued one, that verb to
love, and singing its part in a whisper, I lifted my eyes to the
--Birchwood by John Banville
Puff the Magic Maslin
In today's New York Times, book reviewer
Janet Maslin starts out her
review of Amy Bloom's new novel, Away, with the following
"Away" is the modest name for a book as
gloriously transporting as Amy Bloom's new novel. Alive
with incident and unforgettable characters, it sparkles and
illuminates as brilliantly as it entertains.
I have never read any of Ms. Bloom's novels and
never will (nor will I ever read any of Mr. Dan Brown's, Ms.
Danielle Steel's (although I might try her latest literal
stinker, "a beautiful blend of lush green notes, modern florals
and sensual musk") or Mr. Jonathan Safran Foer's), but I have a
feeling that although many words could be used to describe Ms.
Bloom's prose-poems, "gloriously transporting" ain't two of 'em.
Why does criticism matter? Because without it one can puff
indiscriminately. Lack of readers didn't kill the modern book
review--it was self-inflicted suicide. And good riddance.
Lastly, just because I can't resist the reference, in the immortal
and gloriously transporting words of Joseph Welch:
no shame?" Of course not, your a book reviewer.
The sea had jeeringly kept his finite body up,
but drowned the infinite of his soul. Not drowned entirely,
though, Rather carried down alive to wondrous depths, where
strange shapes of the unwarped primal world glided to and fro before
his passive eyes; and the miser-merman, Wisdom, revealed his hoarded
heaps; and among the joyous, heartless, ever-juvenile eternities,
Pip saw the multitudinous, God-omnipresent, coral insects, that out
of the firmament of waters heaved the colossal orbs. He was
God's foot upon the treadle of the loom, and spoke it; and therefore
his shipmates called him mad. So man's insanity is heaven's
sense; and wandering from all mortal reason, man comes at last to
that celestial thought, which, to reason, is absurd and frantic; and
weal or woe, feels then uncompromised, indifferent as his God.
--Moby Dick by Herman Melville
[N.B.: Dear reader, you too, if able to
plumb such depths of utter strangeness may produce the exotic GAN--but
don't bet on it.]
In the evenings I usually watch television or
go to the movies. Week-ends I often spend on the Gulf Coast.
Our neighborhood theater in Gentilly has permanent lettering on the
front of the marquee reading: Where Happiness Costs So Little.
The fact is I am quite happy in a movie, even a bad movie.
Other people, so I have read, treasure memorable moments in their
lives: the time one climbed the Parthenon at sunrise, the summer
night one met a lonely girl in Central Park and achieved with her a
sweet and natural relationship, as they say in books. I too
once met a girl in Central Park, but it is not much to remember.
What I remember is the time John Wayne killed three men with a
carbine as he was falling to the dusty street in Stagecoach,
and the time the kitten found Orson Welles in the doorway in The
--The Moviegoer by Walker Percy
[N.B.: This is such an alien book for our
culture. The thesis that seeing blown-up pictures on a screen
in a darkened room can spiritually anaesthetize and alienate the
viewer provoking profound anomie is not a disturbing notion--it is
an incomprehensible one. Further, the irony served up in this
passage--that experiencing the Parthenon at sunrise is of a piece
with sitting in a theater--is practically undetectable. Truly,
the most secure cage is the one the prisoner cannot comprehend.]
Wolf told me that the most important thing
about a book was its date. No point in reading a book if you
didn't know its date, didn't know how far away or how close it was
to you. The date of a book fixed it in time, and when you got
to know other books and events, the dates began to give you a time
scale. I can't tell you how liberating that has been for me.
When I think of our history, I no longer feel I am sinking in a
timeless degradation. I see more clearly. I have an idea
of the scale and sequence of things.
--Magic Seeds by V.S. Naipaul
Finally, having selected his equipment--the
nice bit of timber that would nearly do for a shelf, and the
brackets that didn't quite match, and the screws or nails that were
either a bit too long or a bit too short, and the old chisel that
would do for a screw-driver, and the hammer with the loose
head--Father set to work. He had lined up mother and myself as
builder's mates, to hold the plank and the hammer, the saw that
needed setting, and the nails and screws. Before he had been
at work for five minutes, the top of the hammer would have flown off
and hit him in the face, or the saw would have cut the chair instead
of the plank, or the nail that was to have provided the setting for
the screw would have carried away inches of the plank with the
unmerciful wallops he gave it. Father had the secret of making
inanimate objects appear to possess a secret, malevolent life of
their own, and sometimes it was hard to believe that his tools and
materials were not really in a conspiracy against him.
--An Only Child by Frank O'Connor
"Anyone who likes Rodin so much should really
meet him," he said finally. "Tomorrow I am going to his
studio. If you wish, I will take you with me."
If I wished! I could not sleep for
happiness. But at Rodin's, the words stuck in my throat.
I could not say a single thing to him, and stood among his statues
like one of them. Strangely enough, my embarrassment seemed to
please him, for at parting the old man asked me if I did not want to
see his real studio in Meudon, and even asked me to dine with him.
My first lesson had been taught me--that the greatest men are always
--The World of Yesterday by Stefan Zweig
His father was so rich that he had gone down in
the Titanic, and it was told of Henry Montgomery, as it has
been told of almost every other male on that vessel's passenger
list, that he had been (a) a hero, and (b) that the captain had to
shoot him dead to keep him out of the women's and children's
--Appointment in Samarra by John O'Hara
There are some enterprises in which a careful
disorderliness is the true method.
--Moby Dick by Herman Melville
[N.B.: This apercu is the introductory
sentence to Melville's chapter titled, "The Honor and Glory of
Whaling," a recap of the historical and mythological barnacles that
have attached themselves to whaling's hide. This chapter,
along with a few others, are generally regarded as "filler" since
they have nothing to do with the main plot of the book but rather
seem to have been imported from another work entirely--which, by the
bye, happens to be true--regarding the history of whaling. As
more readers, however, come to realize that plot is the least
essential aspect of a novel, those same readers, when confronted
with Moby Dick, should also realize that it is these chapters
which create a mythos for Moby Dick and are largely
responsible for making it one of the few Great American Novels ("GAN").
GAN does not live on plot alone--or character either. GAN also
requires a rich, loamy fertilizer, in which to grow (what one might
call a "careful disorderliness"). As with any other kind of
farming, shoveling the manure tends to be the most laborious and
dullest of drudge duties--but without it the rest of the work cannot
come to fruition. It is precisely this task which modern
novelists neglect--perfectly understandable and unforgivable.
Tom Wolfe is one of the few that is willing to ladle on the
fertilizer nice and thick. Unfortunately, he tends to choke
out the rest of his work with the high acidic content. Now
don't I sound like Chance from
Arriving at Barribault's, I found him in the
lobby where you have the pre-luncheon gargle before proceeding to
the grillroom, and after the initial What-ho-ing and
What-a-time-since-we-met-ing, inevitable when two vanished hands who
haven't seen each other for ages re-establish contact, he asked me
if I would like one for the tonsils.
--Much Obliged, Jeeves by P.G. Wodehouse
One day I was presented to a muffin lady all
in silk, plum-colored silk, with violet beads. Her name was
"The Poetess." She looked like one, the first one I'd ever
met, and like all others looked from that meeting on. She read
us a poem about the fog. It wooed me into a cloudy nap, and
when I told Mother she was delighted, if a little wary, that I had
been "exposed" to such interesting people. However, it was a
month before I was allowed to go back to be exposed again.
--I Like What I Know by Vincent Price
[N.B.: Yes, yes, it's
that Vincent Price. But, unlike most--one hovers
enticingly over the emendation, "almost all"--celebrity books, this
one was clearly written by the alleged author. Indeed, one of
the unexpected delights of this tome is to hear the dulcet tones of
the author recite the words of the text within the reader's inner
ear. Certainly, this self-proclaimed "visual autobiography" of
Vincent Price's aesthetic experiences feels a bit shop-worn since
its publication in 1959. But his enthusiasm and exquisite
taste make for a delightful reading experience. As for his
musings on art, they are no more gaseous than those of John Updike
whose art criticism graces the pages of the New York Review of
Books. Given this total collapse of art criticism one
could do much worse than spend a few cozy evenings with the Master
of Horror (and Peruvian Sculpture--as it turns out).]
Mr. Cobbell became quite Horatian in mood as
he discussed the Chablis at the last dinner of the "Friends of Old
"When the secretary asked me what I thought of
it," he boomed, "I replied that it was certainly water stained, but
that I doubted if it would leave me even slightly foxed."
--Learning's Little Tribute from Such
Darling Dodos by Angus Wilson
The fruit we hardly picked, but rather saved.
From under their canopies of leaf the heavy purple clusters tumbled
with a kind of abandon into our hands. Down in the green gloom
under the bushes, where spiders swarmed, the berries were gorgeous,
achingly vivid against the dusty leaves, but once plucked, and in
the baskets, their burnished lustre faded and a moist whitish film
settled on the skin. If they were to be eaten, and we ate them
by the handful at the start, it was only in that shocked moment of
separation from the stems that they held their true, their unearthly
flavour. Then the fat beads burst on our tongues with a chill
bitterness which left our eyelids damp and our mouths flooded, a
bitterness which can still pierce my heart, for it is the very taste
--Birchwood by John Banville
Some soldiers enjoy serving in a sloppy unit;
but in the long run it doesn't pay. Sooner or later you are
smartened up, and the zeal of the reformers makes life unpleasant
even for those who have been conscientious.
--Family Favorites by Alfred Duggan
Wisdom from Mary Gordan
The New York Times Magazine has a
continuing feature consisting of a pithy one-page interview of some
semi-famous figure (typically, someone whose back the interviewer,
for obscure reasons, has decided to scratch). This
week's is with the writer, Mary Gordon--another author I have
not gotten around to reading, although, based on the strength of
this interview, I'm now very curious to dip into. I wonder
what would be the best Mary Gordon book to start with--hmmmm.
Anyway, I wanted to draw your attention to two highlights:
Who do you think writes well about human
sadness? William Trevor is my absolute beau ideal.
I love him. I love Coetzee. I think Toni Morrison
can be great. "Beloved" is a great, searing novel.
What about Philip Roth? He's
not afraid of intense emotion. O.K., Roth is not cold.
But his only real subject is himself. And why is he still
angry at women?
Why is Roth still angry at women?
And why is it that the three leading lauded literary lions (try
saying that ten times quickly) can all be tainted with that same
brush: solipsistic and misogynistic. I am alluding to, of
course, not just Roth, but also Norman Mailer and John Updike.
Maybe it was something in the creative-writing-retreat water.
Anyway, it is these limitations that, ultimately, will doom all
three to the Hugh Walpole void. Yes, even Roth.
Portnoy's Complaint is already a musty museum piece to place on
the shelf with Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer. One
simply cannot build a lasting place in literature by mining the
smithy of one's soul until the coal runs out. As Joyce knew,
one must also create, not just recover.
As before, the Pequod steeply leaned over
towards the sperm whale's head, now, by the counterpoise of both
heads, she regained her even keel; though sorely strained, you may
well believe. So, when on one side you hoist in Locke's head,
you go over that way; but now, on the other side, hoist in Kant's
and you come back again; but in very poor plight. Thus, some
minds for ever keep trimming boat. Oh, ye foolish! throw all
these thunder-heads overboard, and then you will float light and
--Moby Dick by Herman Melville
Why Book Reviews Are a Dying Art
There's been some scuttlebutt concerning the
decline of the book review in the daily press. Apparently,
this is taken as yet another sign of the public's growing
indifference to books and its lack of cultural literacy.
Indeed, if only every newspaper carried a weekly book review
section, all will return to normalcy: the prodigal will cease to
frolic with the swine and Little Nell will live forever in the bosom
of her adopted family with Quilt as a reformed scamp serving her
every need. But then, one peruses the pages of the leading
book review section in the country, the New York Times Book
Review, and comes upon this
admission from one of its regular contributors, Walter Kirn,
concerning a book of literary essays by one of my favorite writes,
J. M. Coetzee:
Without experience to cloud one's judgment
or information to slow one's thinking, the passage from
ignorance of a writer's work to a vague acquaintance with its
main elements--courtesy, say, of an essay or a review executed
by someone better versed--can be a stimulating imaginative
exercise. On the basis of brief descriptions and short
quotations the reader is free to conjure up a figure who may not
much resemble the artists in question but is rich in
associations anyway and who will do--will have to do--for now
(which sometimes, sadly, is all the time one has).
I'm thinking her of W.G. Sebald, the late
German writer whom I've never read but am told I should by
people who impress me . . . .
First, along the lines of the admiration
I feel towards the bank robber, Willie Sutton, who candidly admitted
that he robbed banks because that's where the money is, I wish to
give Mr. Kirn points for honesty in admitting that he has not read
anything by W.G. Sebald, one of the most important European writers
of the second half of the 20th Century. I'll admit, too, that
although I own all of Sebald's books, I have yet to take a crack at
him myself. But, then again, I am not a regular book reviewer
for the New York Times. And if there is a more fatuous
excuse for one's own laziness than proudly trumpeting the evils of
experience in clouding one's judgment, I am not aware of it.
Britney Spears, doubtless, can bask along with Mr. Kirn, each in an
obliterating tanning coffin of their own hermetically sealed
Thank you, Mr. Kirn, in saving me the time of
having to read any more of your reviews, given that they are,
self-admittedly, unclouded by an informed judgment. And that
is why book review sections deserve to die--if the reviewers cannot
be troubled to be well-read, then, I say, be done with it and start
reading blogs where at least the writers have some passing
familiarity with the material they dare to review, even if it is
clouded by more than a "vague acquaintance" with an author's
Everyone knows the manner in which some
specific name will recur several times in quick succession from
different quarters; part of that inexplicable magic throughout life
that makes us suddenly think of someone before turning a street
corner and meeting him, or her, face to face. In the same way,
you may be struck, reading a book, by some obscure passage or lines
of verse, quoted again, quite unexpectedly, twenty-four hours later.
--At Lady Molly's by Anthony Powell
And so where does the fiction cease and the
reality begin? Perhaps even to ask that question is to posit a
false antithesis. For Mann the external world was of interest
only as a source of art; life was subordinate to art. And
Diaghilev tried to live the life of a character of fiction, a
latter-day Rastignac in the guise of a Des Esseintes or a Charlus.
At the turn of the century Theodor Herzl wrote that "dream is not so
different from deed as many believe. All activity of men
begins as dream and later becomes dream once more." And at
roughly the same time Oscar Wilde could take a characteristically
provocative position on the issue: "One should so live that one
becomes a form of fiction. To be a fact is to be a failure."
Marcel Duchamp, despite proclaiming the opposite intention, would
blur the distinction between art and life by inserting actual
objects into his work. Man Ray, by juxtaposing a European face
and an African mask in his photography, would blend time, culture,
and history. Truman Capote and Norman Mailer would write
"nonfiction novels," and Tom Wolfe in his "new journalism" would
introduce his readers to what one critic has called "fables of
fact." If there has been a single principal theme in our
century's aesthetics, it is that the life of imagination and the
life of action are one and the same.
--Rites of Spring by Modris Eksteins
I remember I used to despise sheep for being so
profoundly stupid. I'd seen them eat and eat and eat, I'd
watched dogs outsmart whole flocks of them, I'd chase them and
laughed at the way they ran, watched them get themselves into all
sorts of stupid, tangled situations, and I'd thought they quite
deserved to end up as mutton, and that being used as wool-making
machines was too good for them. It was years and a long slow
process, before I eventually realised just what sheep really
represented: not their own stupidity, but our power, our avarice and
--The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks