December 30,  2004

Patrick: Lagniappe

Hitherto disappointed in my enquiry after the famous men of the present age, I was resolved to mix in company, and try what I could learn among critics in coffee-houses; and here it was that I heard my favourite names talked of indeed, but mentioned with inverted fame. A gentleman of acknowledged merit as a writer was branded in general terms as a bad man; another of exquisite delicacy as a poet was reproached for wanting good nature; a third was accused of free-thinking, and a fourth for having once been a player. “Strange,” cried I, “how unjust are mankind in the distribution of fame; the ignorant among whom I sought at first were willing to grant, but incapable of distinguishing the virtues of those which deserved it; among those I now converse with, they know the proper objects of admiration, but mix envy with applause.”
--The Citizen of the World (Letter One Hundred and Nine) by Oliver Goldsmith

Blood Simple:  Captain Blood and the Death of the Author

Once upon a time, no one thought that the novel should be sliced and diced into different narrow categories of consumer interest, each with its own mechanical rules and concerns.  Rather, the great masters who handled certain types of declasse subject matter--pirates and fighting, for instance--adhered to the same high standards of workmanship as did other writers who had decided to craft "serious" fiction involving soldiers and fightingOne such was Rafael Sabatini.

Sabatini, of illegitimate birth from Italy, did not learn English until he was an adult (like Conrad, he would eventually move to England and become an English citizen).  Like most Victorian/early-modern writers, Sabatini wrote prodigiously, typically producing a novel a year.  As a result, his work was uneven and, except for a devoted coterie, is today forgotten.  That's a shame because Sabatini had the flair for plot and character of Dumas without Dumas's annoying habit of padding out his works (allegedly, with the assistance of an army of ghost writers) to amazingly prodigious lengths--The Count of Monte Cristo is a bloody phone book.  Now one might wonder, "Well, if that's true, bub, why has Dumas survived--at least as children's literature--but Sabatini has not?"

Survival, at least with respect to what is now derisively called genre/juvenile fiction would seem not be a bloody battleground as one sees with the sacrosanct canon.  No professorship awaits the plucky critic who crosses no-man's land to bring back to the genre/juvenile fiction fold a lost author who had gotten stuck in a bomb crater.  Nor is a professorship waiting for that doughty warrior who goes "over the top" and bayonets a weak, nodding genre/juvenile fiction author who deserved to be killed off.  There are no bloody engagements here as opposed to the distant boom of canon fire that can be heard off in the distance.  Authors here die off for, I believe, a more prosaic reason--they live (or die) across the new "line of death":  copyright law.

Dumas is outside of copyright.  Sabatini, who's work was reissued or written in the '20s, is probably not.  So why bother reprinting him?  There's no money in it.  As a result, while Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes continues to skulk about the foggy streets of London town, Sabatini's Scaramouche has long been guillotined by an angry mob of Copyright sans-culottes.  A moment of silence, please.

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December 29,  2004

Patrick: Lagniappe

Tragedies, however, as they are now made, are good instructive moral sermons enough; and it would be a fault not to be pleased with good things. There I learn several great truths, as: that it is impossible to see into the ways of futurity, that punishment always attends the villain, that love is the fond soother of the human breast, that we should not resist heaven’s will, with several other sentiments equally new, delicate and striking. Every new tragedy therefore I shall go to see; for reflections of this nature make up a tolerable harmony when mixed up with a proper quantity of drum, trumpet, thunder, lightening, or the scene shifter’s whistle. Adieu.
--The Citizen of the World (Letter Ninety-Seven) by Oliver Goldsmith

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December 28,  2004

Patrick: Lagniappe

It is usual for the booksellers here, when a book has given universal pleasure upon one subject, to bring out several more upon the same plan, which are sure to have purchasers and readers from that desire which all men have to view a pleasing object on every side. The first performance serves rather to awake than satisfy attention; and when that is once moved, the slightest effort serves to continue its progression; the merit of the first diffuses a light sufficient to illuminate the succeeding efforts, and no other subject can be relinquished, till that is exhausted. A stupid work coming thus immediately in the train of an applauded performance, prepares the mind to be pleased upon different topics and resembles the sponge thrust into the mouth of a discharged culverin in order to adapt it for a new explosion.
This manner, however, of drawing off a subject or a peculiar mode of writing to the dregs, effectually precludes a revival of that subject or manner for some time for the future; the sated reader turns from it with a kind of literary nausea; and though the titles of books are the part of them most read, yet he has scarce perseverance enough to wade through the title page.
--The Citizen of the World (Letter Ninety-Seven) by Oliver Goldsmith

Blah Humbug:  John O'Hara's Sour Prose and Perspective

Well, now we come to the sad part of our story.  O'Hara, who has so many gifts--heck, he published more short stories in the New Yorker than anybody else (talk about damning with faint praise) [N.B.: he even mentions the New Yorker in a positive light in Appointment in Samarra]--still managed to slip below the waters of Lethe, never to be read again.  How did that happen?  One answer, alluded to earlier, was his adolescent, unrelieved tone of sour grapes and unjust denial of his rightful place in the universe (of Shaky Grove Country Club).  Not a recipe for longevity.  And then we come to the prose itself:

Too many turns in that road, and all uphill.  You come to a fairly steep hill on that stretch, you climb the hill and think you're set, but then you find it's only the beginning of the real hill.  Once you get on top of the hill it is only a few hundred yards to the crossroads, which is where the Stage Coach is built.  If you want to you go on and climb some more hills, because the Stage Coach is built on a plateau, one of the coldest places in Pennsylvania.  There has been an inn on the site of the Stage Coach as long as there has been a road.  It was one of those things that had to be.

Well, maybe so, but this dull description did not have to be in O'Hara's book.  Was he going for the record of boring the reader in the shortest amount of prose?  The constant repetition of "hill" and the passive sentence constructions certainly helped.  Here, a simple prose style deadens, not enlivens.  Take note all you Hemmingway myrmidons.  So, here's the next bit:

It was axiomatic in Gibbsville that you could tell Mill Ammermann anything and be sure it wouldn't be repeated; because Mill probably was thinking of the mashie-niblick approach over the trees to the second green.  Julian derived some courage from her smile.  He always had liked Mill anyway.  He was fragmentarily glad over again that Mill did not live in New York, for in New York she would have been marked Lesbian on sight.  But in Gibbsville she was just a healthy girl.  Good old Mill.

I quote this bit for that delightful car wreck of an adverb "fragmentarily" which seems to give force to all that advice from second-rate writers (calling Stephen King) not to use adverbs.  Great writers have no trouble with adverbs and the judicious use of them sparkles up their prose.  Then you have "fragmentarily."  This short quote also gives a good sense of that sour adolescent smug knowingness that drives me to distraction.  "Good old Mill," indeed.  She is an extremely minor character who is mentioned just in this one short scene but O'Hara can't resist the drive-by smearing.  Kick the dirt on his corpus, he does not deserve better.

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December 27,  2004

Patrick: Lagniappe

But it is of no importance to read much, except you be regular in your reading. If it be interrupted for any considerable time, it can never be attended with proper improvement. There are some who study for one day with intense application and repose themselves for ten days after. But wisdom is a coquet and must be courted with unabating assiduity.
--The Citizen of the World (Letter Eighty-Three) by Oliver Goldsmith

Hum Bugbah: John O'Hara's Sweet Ear

I alluded yesterday to O'Hara's unrivalled ear for dialogue.  I thought I might delve into that wonderful gift a bit more before attacking his leaden prose and lack of form.  I think the attack against snarky book reviews is, in general, well manned (or womanned, as the case may be) because it is much easier to destroy than to build.  In other words, an interesting and enlightening piece on why something is particularly fine is so much harder to write than a few nasty words about drivel.  Drivel is as drivel does and it will dribble away and disappear with or without a bad word said in its wake.  So before I describe why O'Hara has dribbled away, let's admire his good, his solid side and to hell with Dale Peck and his like (who shall dribble away oh so much faster in the hot sun of criticism before the same afflicts the objects of their green and yellow bile).

Dialogue, then.  Sounds easy.  Heck, we waft it about all day long and are constantly muzzled in its cocoon.  What's so hard about that?  Precisely that we use it all the time--as opposed to flowery language that we consciously have to dwell upon in order to germinate.  Hence, just like breathing, we don't notice its cadences unless something has gone awry.  That's the problem with why it's so difficult to write: we don't really listen to half of it which is full of filler and pauses and repetition and half-started ideas and allusions and veiled thoughts and unknown intentions.  If you look at it from this perspective, it becomes rapidly apparent that dialogue is probably the most difficult part of imaginative writing [N.B.: until rehabilitated, I refuse to use the term "creative writing," except in a derogatory sense, which is perfectly useful in itself but has been debased in the present climate by academia that has once again ruined a useful phrases].  Dialogue, contrary to popular belief, is infinitely complex and much harder to write than all that self-conscious floweriness with its quirky adverbs and precious adjectives; all that fictional brown-palette daubing scene-painting that makes one vomit before a third-rate follower of Vlaminck.  

O'Hara appreciates the strangeness and complexness of dialogue, with its stops and starts.  Here's a sample between two minor characters Lute Fliegler, who works for our feckless protagonist, Julian English, and his wife, Irma Fliegler:

"What time do you want dinner?" said Irma.

"Whenever it's ready," said Lute.

"Well, you only had breakfast an hour ago.  You don't want dinner too early.  I though around two o'clock."

"Okay by me," he said.  "I'm not very hungry."

"You oughtn't to be," she said.  "The breakfast you ate.  I was thinking I'd make the beds now and Mrs. Lynch could put the turkey on so we could eat around two or ha' past."

"Okay by me."

"The kids won't be very hungry.  Even Curly was stuffing himself with candy a while ago till I hid the box."

"Let him eat it," said her husband.  "Christmas comes but once a year."

"Thank heaven.  All right.  I'll give them the candy, on one condition.  That is, if you take care of them when they have stomach ache in the middle of the night."

"I'll be only too glad.  Go ahead, give them all the candy they want, and give Teddy and Betty a couple of highballs."  He frowned and rubbed his chin in mock thoughtfulness.  "I don't know about Curly, though.  He's a little young, but I guess it'd be all right.  Or else maybe he'll take a cigar."

"Oh, you." she said.

"Yes-s-s, I think we better just give Curly a cigar.  By the way, I'm going to take Teddy out and get him laid tonight. I--"

"Lute!  Stop talking like that.  How do you know one of them didn't come downstairs without you hearing them?  They'll be finding things out soon enough.  Remember what Betty said last summer."

"That's nothing.  How old is Teddy?  Six--"

"Six and a half," she said.

"Well, when I was Teddy's age I had four girls knocked up."

"Now stop, Lute.  You stop talking that way.  You don't have any idea how they pick things up, a word here and there.  And children are smarter than you give them credit for. You don't have to go anywhere today do you?"

"Nope.  Why?"

All right, that's enough to give you a flavor of O'Hara's ear for dialogue (and a delightful mixed metaphor to boot, then again I always liked the taste of ears, just ask Van Gogh).  Notice here all the hallmarks of a good colloquial conversation: repetition (Lute uses the exact same phrase twice in a row in response to his wife's question--"okay be me"), shorthand slang, slurs and interruptions ("nope," "yes-s-s," "six--"); and very short sentences (rarely does a conversation consist of long sentences). 

Now let's consider the artistry.  Most conversation is dull and blah.  So O'Hara livens it up with some ribaldry.  But the ribaldry is believable.  That's the really tough part: mixing the banality with believable bits of interest so that the reader does not get bored.  And O'Hara is a master of that.  He knows and lives by the cardinal rule that should be tattooed on every creative writing student's forehead:  Don't bore the reader!  Oh, and there's a corollary tattoo to be printed on their backsides:  Nothing bores (and nauseates) the reader faster than artful description and pretty language.  That's enough tattooing for today.

[N.B.:  As a note on style, I prefer the conventions displayed by O'Hara here of regularly having the speaker of each piece of dialogue identified and the dialogue placed in the quotes.  I realize this is viewed as old fashioned by many current writers who eschew both.  Note, here, in the above snippet, how O'Hara varies the use of the identifications and does not identify every single line so as to make these tags as unobtrusive as possible.  Why does he do this?  Gather around me boys and girls, lean in closer to the fire:  BECAUSE, YOU NITWITS, LONG STRINGS OF DIALOGUE ARE HARD TO FOLLOW AND A WRITER'S JOB IS TO MAKE IT EASIER FOR THE READER, WHO CAN SHUT YOUR BLATHERING AT ANY MOMENT, NOT TO MAKE YOUR SCRIBBLING LOOK "CLEANER."   Hey, hey, I didn't mean to scare you.  Come back.  I promise not to frighten you again.  I've got marshmallows.]

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December 26,  2004

Patrick: Lagniappe

You are now arrived at an age, my son, when pleasure dissuades from application, but rob not by present gratification all the succeeding period of life of its happiness. Sacrifice a little pleasure at first to the expectance of greater. The study of a very few years will make the rest of life completely easy.
But instead of continuing the subject myself, take the following instructions borrowed from a modern philosopher of China. “He who has begun his fortune by study will certainly confirm it by perseverance. The love of books damps the passion for pleasure, and when this passion is once extinguished, life is then cheaply supported; thus a man being possessed of more than he wants can never be subject to great disappointments, and avoids all those meannesses which indigence sometimes unavoidably produces.
--The Citizen of the World (Letter Eighty-Three) by Oliver Goldsmith

Bah Humbug:  John O'Hara's Appointment in Samarra

I assume all are recovering nicely from their post-prandial Christmas festivities.  So let's finish off the last of the curdled dregs of eggnog with a peek into John O'Hara's blighted Christmas tale, Appointment in Samarra.  First, some back story:  O'Hara is the definition of a New Yorker magazine writer.  He published more short stories there than anyone else (although this generation's dependable Oldsmobile, John Updike, might be giving your dad's Oldsmobile a run for its money).  Also, like any other regular New Yorker contributor--including Thurber--he is pretty much unread today (Oh, don't worry Updike, this bell does not toll for you, I'm sure that lots of Generation Xers can't wait to read your 1500+ page opus on the narcissistic, self-regarding tendencies of the baby boomers and their forefathers in the form of your Rabbit novels).  The knock against O'Hara is that he churned out a bunch of mediocre pulp (14 novels and 402 short stories; again, Updike, not to worry, I'm sure your massive output is an exception and will beloved by generations to come as they dilate over the hot sex scenes for senior citizens--surely a first in any literature).  Indeed, few folks bother to defend him today except to say his first novel, Appointment in Samarra, is quite good and worth the read.

Well, yes and no.  It's short.  Little invested, little lost.  It also showcases O'Hara's strengths, his chief one being an uncanny ear for dialogue (this written in the '30s and the conversation still sounds fresh today).  If only Norman Mailer had read this he could have figgered out not only how to curse without resorting to the use of the sophomoric euphemism "fug" in The Naked and the Dead but how to give his soldiers something believable to say.  O'Hara understands the rhythm of dialogue:  the give and take, the false starts and circumlocutions and telescopic summarizations.  Please memorize this rule:  No one speaks in paragraphs except for a few very gifted individuals [N.B.: I had a boss once that spoke in this manner, but he clearly qualifies as one of those gifted few; indeed, I found the habit so disconcerting that I have been on lookout for a repeat but have yet to come across another with this unscripted gift].  If someone is interested in this from a writing mechanics point of view, then I highly recommend Appointment in Samarra.

Plot, though, is another matter.  And so is character.  O'Hara intended this book to be originally a collection of linked short stories, each focusing on a related character (Danger! Danger! Will Robinson).  Unfortunately, the finished novel still falls into this old groove from time to time.  Although the main character is a dissolute young man on the make, Julian English, there are plenty of longeurs where some other peripheral character will take center stage because, I guess, he or she was supposed to in the original short-story scheme.  If this was meant to illuminate something, anything, in the book, it could be forgiven.  But the whole book is just one writer's rant about being on the outside of the country club set looking in and desperately wishing to be a part of it.  Since he can't be, though, he'll just pour bile on everyone [N.B.: perhaps I was fortunate having grown up completely unaware of such strivings.  Maybe this is a blind spot on my part and people feel real angst about being excluded from the local golf course cum private cafe cum pilates class.  I am grateful that there is a place for such folks and find attacks against them dull and tedious.]

This singularly adolescent view does have some interest--as does any act of vandalism.  But, given the lack of caritas (a tone that Dickens, for example, never omitted, even in his bleakest books such as Hard Times), the book becomes tiresome.  Everyone here is a phony.  Everyone is a stuffed shirt.  Everyone is a sexual hypocrite.  Oh, and it all occurs in the three days around Christmas (not too ironic--irony/knowingness, the last refuge for your smug, 15-year-old pimply faced nephew who's been to a U2 concert and can tell you all about the oppressed people of the world who have been robbed of their livelihood by certain mega-star Irish rock gangsters who brazenly rip-off musical ideas from . . . well, err . . . don't forget the capitalist pigs, man).  So a Merry Christmas to you.

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December 24,  2004

Patrick: Lagniappe

The most usual way among young men who have no resolution of their own is first to ask one friend’s advice and follow it for some time, then to ask advice of another and turn to that, so of a third, still unsteady, always changing. However, be assured that every change of this nature is for the worse; people may tell you of your being unfit for this or that employment, but heed them not; whatever employment you follow with perseverance and assiduity will be found fit for you; it will be your support in youth and comfort in age. In learning the useful part of every profession very moderated abilities will suffice; nor do I jest when I observe that if the mind be a little balanced with stupidity it may in this case be useful. Great abilities have always been more unserviceable to the possessors than moderate ones. Life has been compar’d to a race, but the allusion still improved by observing that the most swift are ever the least manageable.
--The Citizen of the World (Letter Sixty-One) by Oliver Goldsmith

A Place of Greater Safety

As regular readers know, I rarely dwell on the merits of a particular book I have been reading.  You can see for yourself what’s on my nightstand by glancing at the right-hand column and then you can scroll through what I’ve read for the year.  If I don’t like a book that I have started, then it’s not on the list of books I’ve read because I have not finished it—I have tossed it.  I simply don’t understand this fetish or taboo that cringes from not finishing a book one has started.  It certainly doesn’t apply to rancid food: “Hmmm, this tuna tastes a bit off.  Well, let’s just dump a bunch of ketchup on it.  Must clean my plate and all. Starving children and whatnot.”  I don’t think so; and this fetish should not apply to rancid books, either.  Yes, yes, I know our country was founded by a bunch of narrow-minded sectarians with a penchant for funny hats and brass buckles. But that’s no reason to let the residue of the Protestant work ethic and Puritanism interfere with one’s private reading enjoyment.  It’s your free time, dammit, and you don’t need Cotton Mather and Jonathan Edwards looking over your shoulder, threatening to abandon you into the hands of the angry librarian.

The hands of the angry librarian . . . my, my, I have strayed a bit from my intentions here.  I meant to dwell upon the dangers of falling into the hands of the angry mob.  An angry mob of Jacobins and sans-culottes, that is.  Which is the subject matter of Hilary Mantel’s A Place of Greater Safety (lousy title, by the bye, which might explain in part the book’s obscurity; it does allude to the dreaded Committee of Public Safety and also the main characters’ futile search for a place of greater safety, but, who cares, the title just lays there like a dead turbot on your plate, staring up at you, just daring you to eat it—oops, I see I have drifted into rancid fish again, must have been something I ate (or didn’t)). The book concerns three major characters who were instrumental in moving forward the French Revolution—Danton, Desmoulins, and Robespierre.  These characters were roughly the same age (late twenties to early thirties) during the critical years of the revolution and are portrayed by Mantel as being “on the make,” a very modern conceit which has the ring of truth about it.  All of them were from the provinces, not quite country bumpkins but not aristocrats either. Their chance for fame and fortune came in their ability to ride out the revolution. Of course, as Buck Owens might say, when you’ve got a tiger by the tail. . . . And that’s basically the book.

Doesn’t seem like there’s much to Mantel’s tale.  But, oh, there is.  First, she is a wonderful writer who knows how to shape her material.  Plus she has that keen sense of historical imagination which one finds more pronounced in the British than in the Colonists (probably due to a longer history).  Hence, her tale feels true in the way the books of Robert Graves resonate.  They do not grate on the historical “ear.”  Also, I have read quite a bit about the French Revolution, almost all of it non-fiction (or bad fiction such as Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities).  Schama’s Citizens is a delightful work of history which does a good job of advancing the thesis that the Revolution was more about violence than anything else.  But he can’t shape his material to save his life.  He finds a colorful anecdote—such as some fellow who daringly escaped from the Bastille—and he’ll spend pages retelling it.  In other words, he lacks a sense of proportion.  Now, this is not much of a fault in my view because all I ask, as regular readers of this blog know, is for a writer to be entertaining, interesting. Schama is very interesting, indeed.

Mantel, however is the master—she smoothed out the tangled strands of the historical narrative that I kept getting knotted up.  The story of the French Revolution is horribly gnarled like a backed-up fishing reel.  There are strands here and there with loops within loops.  People are constantly falling in and out of power (truly, a constant revolution—just the ups and downs of Danton would make one dizzy).  First, one had the King and his Court.  Then the Estates General.  Within the Estates General, power rested with the aristocracy and the church.  But this switched to the Third Estate, led, in part, by Mirabeau.  In the background is the King’s relation, Orleans, conniving to use the revolution to depose the King in favor of his own ascension.  Then, the informal political clubs, such as the Cordeliers and the Jacobins rise up.  Then, there’s the National Assembly.  Then, the Committees.  At every turn there is also the cult of personality: Lafayette, Mirabeau, Orleans, Marat, Danton, Desmoulins, Robespierre, Roland, Hebert (nee Pere Duchesne), etc.  All this happens within five years with power flowing back and forth in eddies, sometimes collecting around this person or faction or institution, sometimes around something else. And the changes can happen in the blink of an eye.  Mantel captures all of this complexity within a compelling story.  The French Revolution is like Michelangelo’s fifteen-foot block of marble which has the potential for greatness within it, but, in the wrong hands, can be turned into hackwork.  Trust me, plenty of hacking has gone on here.  But Mantel has carved the David.

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December 23,  2004

Patrick: Lagniappe

As in common conversation the best way to make the audience laugh is by first laughing yourself; so in writing the properest manner is to shew an aim at humour, which will pass upon most for humour in reality. To effect this, readers must be treated with the most perfect familiarity; in one page the author is to make them a low bow and in the next to pull them by the nose: he must talk in riddles and then send them to bed in order to dream for the solution. He must speak of himself and his chapters and his manner and what he would be at, with the most unpitying prolixity, and now and then testify his contempt for all the world beside. Ever smiling without a jest, and without wit possessed of vivacity, he may use what freedoms he thinks proper, provided he now and then throws out a hint of being too contemptible for resentment.
--The Citizen of the World (Letter Fifty-Three) by Oliver Goldsmith

The Strangeness of Shakespeare
Shakespeare’s uncanny nature reveals itself in unexpected places.  Twelfth Night is a bit of fluff.  A little, light-hearted comedy for the delight of a bunch of mossy lawyers (what would they know about good plays anyway) who were probably deep in their cups when the thing was staged.  Indeed, the surface is as smooth as linoleum: A brother and sister are shipwrecked in the distant land of Illyria (that is, Yugoslavia; err, that being now, Croatia, perhaps?) each thinking the other has drowned.  They both go their separate ways with the sister disguising herself as a castrato who joins the service of Duke Orsino, and is sent by him to woo the fair Olivia on his behalf.  Of course, the fair Olivia falls in love with the disguised sister, which angers an elderly suitor, which leads to a duel, etc., etc., ad nauseum.  It winds up with the disguised sister marrying the Duke Orsino and the lost brother marrying the fair Olivia. Can you get any frothier? Shakespeare didn’t bestow the alternative title of What You Will for nothing.

And yet, there’s some spots where this froth curdles into a much darker mixture. One of the major characters is Olivia’s fool Feste—I’m sure that some great writer must have commented on the use of the fool in Shakespeare’s plays (probably Nabokov or W. H. Auden in their lectures—I’ll need to go back and look; if you don’t own these books, well drop what you’re doing and go get them, they’re both brilliant: Nabokov’s Lectures on Literature and Auden’s Lectures on Shakespeare).  The festival of Twelfth Night is a time of topsy-turvydom which is constantly alluded to by the fool’s jests, usually involving an inversion of meaning (keep in mind, this play was for attorneys—talk about inverts).  So, here we are, rolling along with our convoluted plot and laughing at the fool and others (such as Malvolio, Sir Toby Belch and Sir Andrew Aguecheeks) when the fool sings this for the Duke Orsino:

Come away, come away death
     And in sad cypress let me be laid
Fie away, fie away breath,
     I am slain by a fair cruel maid.
My shroud of white, stuck all with yew,
     O prepare it.
My part of death no one so true
     Did share it.
Not a flower, not a flower sweet
     On my black coffin let there be strewn.
Not a friend, not a friend greet
     My poor corpse, where my bones shall be thrown.
A thousand thousand sighs to save,
     Lay me O where
Sad true lover never find my grave,
     To weep there.

What in tarnation is this?  Shakespeare just sticks it in as entertainment for the Duke who asks Feste to sing it because, as the Duke explains to the disguised sister, masquerading as Cesario, “Mark it, Cesario, it is old and plain. The spinsters, and the knitters in the sun, and the free maids that weave their thread with bones, do use to chant it. It is silly sooth, and dallies with the innocence of love, like the old age.”  Okaaay.  It is also obliquely tied into a discussion the Duke and Cesario have just had over the benefit of an older man marrying a younger woman for the Duke has become worried that Olivia is the same age as he: “Too old by heaven. Let still the woman take an elder than herself. So wears she to him; so sways she level in her husband’s heart. For, boy, however we do praise ourselves, our fancies are more giddy and unfirm, more longing, wavering, sooner lost and worn, than women’s are.”  The Duke further dilates on this theme: “Then let thy love be younger than thyself, or thy affection cannot hold the bent; for women are as roses, whose fair flower being once displayed, doth fall that very hour.”

So Shakespeare mixes into this one little scene a discussion of the nature of love as experienced by men and women, the melancholy of love lost and the depredations of old age and death.  And this is his idea of a comedy.  Truly such a monster has not been glimpsed before.  It would be better for us all if each of us was clothed in a “shroud of white, stuck all with yew [i.e., a coffin]” then to spend too much time in such a singular, nefarious presence.  Never think of Shakespeare as being somehow homey and comfortable—as snug as a titmouse in its nest.  He is exceeding strange, calling forth ghosts from the vasty deep. And when he calls, they come.

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December 22,  2004

Patrick: Lagniappe

I once had an author who never left the least opening for the critics; close was the word, always very right, and very dull, ever on the safe side of an argument, yet with all his qualifications, incapable of coming into favour. I soon perceived his bent was for criticism; and as he was good for nothing else, supplied him with pens and paper and planted him at the beginning of every month as censor on the works of others. In short, I found him a treasure; no merit could escape him; but what is most remarkable of all, he ever wrote best and bitterest when drunk.
--The Citizen of the World (Letter Fifty-One) by Oliver Goldsmith

[N.B.: Did I mention, the more things change . . . . ?  Wolfe-Pack where are you?]

The Scandal of Shakespeare

What would you think of a writer who sprinkled throughout his works obscure topical references to events of the day, has no concept of plot continuity, uses such tired plot twists as mistaken identity and lost twins (when he’s not actually stealing plot ideas from others), likes to use exotic locales or famous historical scenes for his settings (chock full of anachronisms), sprinkles his works with doggerel and sappy love songs, some of which he steals from himself from earlier works, mixes it all together and calls it a play?  If you would think him a genius, you would be correct.  For that is Shakespeare.  In Twelfth Night he breaks all of these rules.  But we don’t care and love him the more for it. Mediocre writers should blanch at committing any of the “errors” listed above. Those rules are good ones for good writers. But for great writers there are no rules.  The whole playing field is fair game; there are no markers, no out of bounds.  And that is the scandal of Shakespeare—his impunity and carelessness which marks greatness.  He has the same attitude in common with the worst writer:  He doesn’t care.

It is this common attitude which, at least for me, helps to delineate the technical talent of three different types of writers (the imaginative talent of writers is, I believe, of infinite gradation and not subject to categorization—in other words a very bad technical writer might be a first-rate imaginative genius such as J. M. Barrie, the creator of that deathless myth, Peter Pan or Theodore Dreiser and his American Tragedy; the inverse proposition can also be true—lots of good technical writers have little or no imagination such as John Updike; however, the true technical geniuses cannot lack imagination because the one goes with the other).

First, one has the actively bad writers who either don’t know or don’t care they’re bad.  One can lump into this category all sorts of folks—most genre writers such as, for example, Agatha Christie who I discussed back in October. Most journalism, too, falls into this category since, by its nature, it must be written quickly for the moment; and such ephemera is neither meant to nor does live beyond the expiration date on a jug of milk.

The second category is made up of those writers who spend some time and care on their writing.  Unfortunately, a good proportion of these diligent scriveners have been reduced to creative-writing school hacks.  Such modern Dothebook Halls churn out writers with a certain “style” that is as distinctive as the style taught to plumbers and electricians at a local technical institute: It’s practical and gets the job done but has no individuality.  I call this the new “tragedy of the commons.”  That is, this herd of independent writers all think they are writing in a new and unique style while all graze . . . err . . . write in the same, small common enclosure, under the watchful eye of Shepard Squeers who wrote two mid-list works of fiction twenty years ago and has been living off them ever since for his grog and nosh.

The third category defies coherent description except to say something fatuous as: “One knows it when one sees it.”  This is where that most neglected of aristocratic/elitist/toff/posh values comes into play: taste.  One has it or one does not.  As with most things, the more one reads, the more one may refine one’s sense of taste.  But if the bedrock matter is not there, one may as well read Dame Christie or Dame Austen.  Offensive, yes, but so is the world.  That is part of its charm.  And it’s scandal.

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December 21,  2004

Patrick: Lagniappe

Music having thus lost its former splendour, painting is now become the sole object of fashionable care; the title of connoisseur in that art is at present the safest passport into every fashionable society; a well timed shrug, an admiring attitude, and one or two exotic tones of exclamation are sufficient qualifications for men of low circumstances to curry favour . . . .
--The Citizen of the World (Letter Thirty-Four) by Oliver Goldsmith

[N.B.:  See, I told you that nothing changes--oh, except that the tones of exclamation need to include a reference to Derrida or Adorno.]

I’ll admit, it’s not as flashy as Freddie Mercury’s rendition of “Y.M.C.A.”  But there’s not much mystery with respect to a Queen song on what the subtext might be.  Not so for “M.O.A.I.”  It is the last line of a cryptic verse contained in a forged letter found by Malvolio in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night.  Here’s the relevant lines: I may command where I adore/But silence like a Lucrece knife/With bloodless stroke my heart doth gore./M.O.A.I. doth sway my life.” Malvolio assumes that “M.O.A.I.” is a reference to him, although he admits that, other than the “M,” the rest of the letters are transposed from his own.

 Shakespeare never explains what “M.O.A.I.” stands for.  Indeed, no scholar has discovered the secret to this puzzle. There have been many proposed solutions—apparently, most folks who have looked into think it is an anagram as Malvolio himself supposes.  Even a few scholars have speculated that it has no meaning.  Ultimately, though, there has yet to be a satisfactory explanation.

My guess is that M.O.A.I. does have some kind of meaning simply because Shakespeare seems to delight in ciphers.  Also, the meaning is probably not a private joke since Malvolio takes up several lines puzzling over the solution and thereby emphasizing it.  A private joke would probably just be mentioned once without comment since the other person in on it would grasp it instantly and there’s no point bogging down the audience with it.

So, assuming it is something more than a private joke, the next thought would be that Shakespeare supposed most people in the audience would “get” it, just like with Malvolio’s “c-u-t” bit discussed yesterday.  Which brings us to the question of the original audience—it was composed of learned attorneys well-versed in Latin.  Indeed, the play is sprinkled throughout with Latin phrases which the characters are constantly mangling or misinterpreting.  Sir Toby Belch burps up such twaddle on a regular basis.  These were clearly inside jokes for the attorneys which would be over the heads of most laymen.  So, one would think M.O.A.I. would be an inside joke too, possibly the initials from a well-known Latin phrase.  Further, given Shakespeare’s predilection for bawdy, it would not be too far fetched to think the reason Shakespeare gives just the initials is because the Latin original is too vulgar for the vulgar, so to speak.

Unfortunately, I am not well-versed in Latin invective. The only phrase I could come up with was “militat omnis amans,” a phrase from Ovid that roughly translates as “every lover serves as a soldier.” [N.B.: I found this in a very helpful volume, the Dictionary of Foreign Terms by C. O. Sylvester Mawson] Of course, my problem here is that I’m missing the “I.”  Oh, and it’s not pornographic—although it is amatory.  So, although the sentiment is not far off from the situation described in Twelfth Night, it’s probably not the correct phrase.

Another possibility is that “M.O.” simply refers to “Modus Operandi” which is still a familiar phrase today.  Then “A.I.” might be any number of well-known Latin phrases.  Unfortunately, there are a bunch of phrases that have the initials “A.I.”  The best I found that made sense in this context is “ad ignorantiam” which refers to ignorance (i.e., of the facts) said of an argument or appeal.  So the combination of these phrases would mean that Malvolio’s usual mode of operation was to act in a manner ignorant of the true facts of a case (which, of course, Malvolio does throughout the play).  These two phrases, both legal in nature, would be familiar to attorneys.  Again, the strike against them is that neither is pornographic.  Oh well, if anyone out there is familiar with lewd Latin, drop me a note.

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December 20,  2004

Patrick: Lagniappe

Let the reader suspend his censure. I admire the beauties of this great father of our stage as much as they deserve, but could wish for the honour of our country, and for his honour too, that many of his scenes were forgotten. A man blind of one eye should always be painted in profile. Let the spectator who assists at any of these new revived pieces only ask himself whether he would approve such a performance if written by a modern poet; if he would not, then his applause proceeds merely from the sound of a name and an empty veneration for antiquity. In fact, the revival of those pieces of forced humour, far fetch’d conceit, and unnatural hyperbole which have been ascribed to Shakespear is rather gibbeting than raising a statue to he memory; it is rather a trick of the actor who thinks it safest acting in exaggerated characters and who by out-stepping nature chuses to exhibit the ridiculous outre of an harlequin under the sanction of this venerable name.
--Of the Stage by Oliver Goldsmith

The Bawdy Bard’s Buttery Bar
Talk about a tongue twister—try to say the title ten times fast.  See, I told you it was tricky. It comes from a line of Shakespeare’s comedy Twelfth Night or What You Will.  Shakespeare wrote this piece for a bunch of lawyers as part of their Twelfth Night revels.  Other than that association and its light, frothy jollity, it has nothing to do with Christmas.  But it at least captures the Christmas Spirit, as it were, and so makes for good holiday reading.  Take it up and drown a mug of grog with Sir Toby Belch, although it’s better to walk afore him than behind, if you get my drift (or you’ll get Sir Toby’s).

Sir Toby Belch in his cups is a good place to start, though, in refreshing our recollection of just how down and dirty Shakespeare can be.  Reading Twelfth Night makes one goggle in wonder that any teacher was allowed to let some naïve hobbledehoy’s unformed mental lucubrations be deformed by Shakespeare’s juvenile wit.  Where’s the holy wrath of the censorship board when you need it?  Just look at this exchange:

SIR ANDREW AGUECHEEK: Sir Toby Belch! How now, Sir Toby Belch?
SIR TOBY BELCH: Sweet Sir Andrew.
SIR ANDREW (To Maria): Bless you, fair shrew.
MARIA: And you too, sir.
SIR TOBY: Accost, Sir Andrew, accost.
SIR ANDREW: What’s that?
SIR TOBY: My niece’s chambermaid.
SIR ANDREW: Good Mistress Accost, I desire better acquaintance.
MARIA: My name is Mary, sir.
SIR ANDREW: Good Mistress Mary Accost.
SIR TOBY: You mistake, knight. ‘Acost’ is front her, board her, woo her, assail her.
SIR ANDREW: By my troth, I would not undertake her in this company. Is that the meaning of ‘accost’?
MARIA: Fare you well, gentlemen.
SIR TOBY: An thou let part so, Sir Andrew, would thou mightst never draw sword again.
SIR ANDREW: An you part so, mistress, I would I might never draw sword again. Fair lady, do you think you have fools in hand.
MARIA: Sir, I have not you by th’ hand.
SIR ANDREW: Marry, but you shall have, and here’s my hand.
MARIA (Taking his hand): Now sir, thought is ree. I pary you, bring your hand to th’ buttery-bar, and let it drink.
SIR ANDREW: Wherefore, sweetheart? What’s your metaphor?
MARIA: It’s dry sir.
SIR ANDREW: Why, I think so. I am not such an ass but I can keep my hand dry. But what’s your jest?
MARIA: A dry jest, sir.
SIR ANDREW: Are you full of them?
MARIA: Ay, sir, I have them at my fingers’ ends. Marry now I let go your hand I am barren.

Oh, what filth!  What’s your metaphor, indeed!  And you always thought this play simply concerned a comeuppance for Puritanism in the guise of having Sir Toby Belch castigate Malvolio with the immortal line:  “Dost thou think because thou art virtuous there shall be no more cakes and ale?”  That line should be tattooed on the head of every gray, balding baby-boomer with a greasy rat’s tail hanging off the back of his head who still dreamily recalls the “Summer of Love,” at least as it’s portrayed in the movies, what with the clouds of ganja smoke lazily drifting across the horizon, naked nymphs sporting in the rancid mud puddles, wide, candy-striped, bell-bottomed trousers and what not, but wants to make darn-tootin’ sure that none of today’s youth will be allowed to enjoy their “cakes and ale.”  Enough, ranting, here’s another ribald riposte just a few lines further down:

SIR TOBY: Pourquoi, my dear knight?
SIR ANDREW: What is ‘Pourquoi’? Do, or not do? I would I had bestowed that time in the tongues that I have in fencing, dancing, and bear baiting. O, had I but followed the arts!
SIR TOBY: Then hadst thou had an excellent head of hair.
SIR ANDREW: Why, would that have mended my hair?
SIR TOBY: Past question, for thou seest it will not curl by nature.
SIR ANDREW: But it becomes me well enough, does’t not?
SIR TOBY: Excellent, it hands like flax on a distaff, and I hope to see a housewife take thee between her legs and spin it off.

Of course, Shakespeare being Shakespeare, his ribaldry isn’t going to stop with a description of The Act.  No, he’ll also need to get into a discussion of certain gross, lower functions. I do believer Rabelais might have a challenger:

SIR ANDREW: And I think I have the back-trick simply as strong as any man in Illyria.
SIR TOBY: Wherefore are these things hid? Wherefore have these gifts a curtain before ‘em? Are they like to take dust, like Mistress Mall’s picture? Why doest thou not go to church in a galliard, and come home in a coranto? My very walk should be a jig. I would not so much as make water but in a cinquepace. What dost thou mean? Is it a world to hide virtues in? I did think by the excellent constitution of thy leg it was formed under the star of galliard.
[N.B.: Both a “galliard” and a “cinquepace” are lively dances.  A “coranto” is a sprightly but somewhat stately dance. ]

Well, having covered the waterfront, so to speak, Shakespeare now will give us a two fer, combining his penchants for bathroom banter and bedroom bawdy. The scene has our hapless steward, Malvolio, stumbling upon a cryptic letter which he thinks is from his mistress, Olivia, but is actually from her waiting gentle-woman, Maria. Here he is determining that the handwriting is actually Olivia’s:

MALVOLIO (Taking up the letter): By my life, this is my lady’s hand. These be her very c’s, her u’s, and her t’s, and thus makes she her great P’s. It is in contempt of question her hand.
SIR ANDREW: Her c’s, her u’s, and her t’s? Why that?

Why that, indeed. I guess Shakespeare figgered his audience wouldn’t get the joke the first time around so he had it repeated. In Elizabethan times, and still in some currency today, a “cut” refers to a woman’s vulva.  I guess he didn’t repeat the other joke since he expected a chuckle right away about Olivia’s “great P’s.”  And on that fine note, I bid(et) you adieu.

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December 18,  2004

Kathryn: Gogol

Hmmm, I seem to be on a Russian kick. (See entry on The Return, below.)

The Pevear/Volokhonsky translation of The Collected Tales of Nikolai Gogol is brilliant, IMHO. I came to Gogol naively, having read only a short story or two, and was stunned by the book. It's amazing--the more so because Gogol was writing in the early to mid-1800s but seems clearly pre-Modern--or even just Modern, really.

Powell's site has a blurb saying, "Gogol has been called the father of Russian modernism and realism. His stories, with their humor and archetypal Russian characters, had a profound influence on Dostoevsky, Nabokov, and others."

Here's a link to a some Gogol resources.

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December 17,  2004

Patrick: Lagniappe

Those who are acquainted with writing know that our language runs almost naturally into blank verse. The writers of our novels, romances, and all of this class who have no notion of stile naturally hobble into this unharmonious measure. If rhymes, therefore, be more difficult, for that very reason I would have our poets write in rhyme. Such a restriction upon the thought of a good poet often lifts and encreases the vehemence of every sentiment; for fancy, like a fountain, plays highest by diminishing the aperture.
--Upon Criticism by Oliver Goldsmith

A Christmas Garland’s Tribute to Tom Wolfe

Well, you shouldn’t be surprised, what with the Wolf-Pack Watch and all. Yep, Tom Wolfe’s just one fat, glitzy target waiting to get whacked.  So why should I stand in line?  With Max as my co-pilot let’s buzz the big Wolfester, shall we?:

The Right Stocking-Stuffer
Wha-bang, bing, bang, bang, skreee-eeetch!  Santa pulled back on the reins as the sled skidded precariously on the roof and almost side-swiped the chimney. One of Dasher’s fore-hooves dangled off the shingles.  Santa leaped from the sled, his sack at his back, and patted the nervous reindeers’ throbbing giblets as their sides wheezed under the strain.  Standing on the frozen tar-sheets, Santa thought back to his initial sled-training with a group of other hot-dog, would-be Santa Clauses.  This Santa fraternity, even though everyone sported a belly that shook like a bowl full of jelly and had eyes that twinkled, was divided into those who had it and those who did not.  This quality, this it, was never named, however, nor was it talked about in any way.

As to just what this ineffable quality was . . . well, it obviously involved bravery. But it was not bravery in the simple sense of being willing to risk your life.  The idea seemed to be that any fool, even Rudolph, could do that, if that was all that was required.  No, the idea here seemed to be that a Santa should have the ability to go up in a hurtling sled and put his hide on the line and then have the moxie, the reflexes, the experience, the coolness to pull it back in the last yawning moment—and then to go up again to the next rooftop, and the next rooftop, and the next and every next, even if the series should prove infinite—and, ultimately, in its best expression, to do so in a cause that means something to thousands, to millions of girls and boys all over the world.  Nor was there a test to show whether or not a Santa had this righteous quality.  No, many young Santas, their bellies just starting to nose down to their toes, looked like terrific sleigh riders.  But, once they started hurtling nose-first, Rudolph’s red light blurring like a small red fuzz-ball, towards some iced-over rooftop looking no bigger than a postage stamp, nothing could prepare them for the panic that gripped and tore at their guts as they careened toward that icy blacktop.  And if someone was up there on the roof, he’d be thinking: This is not a sleigh coming toward me, it is a brick with some poor sonofastockingstuffer riding it (one much like myself!), and it is not gliding, it is falling, a fifty-thousand-pound brick, headed not for a soft landing but for me—and with a horrible smash!. Those Santas would wash out.  But, ultimately, God willing, one day, a Santa might be able to join that special few at the very top, that elite who had the capacity to bring tears to the eyes of boys and girls, the very Brotherhood of the Right Stocking Stuffer itself.

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December 16,  2004

Patrick: Lagniappe

There are still some men, whom fortune has blessed with affluence, to whom the muse pays her morning visit, not like a creditor, but a friend: to this happy few, who have leisure to polish what they write, and liberty to chuse their own subjects, I would direct my advice, which consists in a few words: Write what you think, regardless of the critics. To persuade to this, was the chief design of this essay. To break, or at least to loosen those bonds, first put on by caprice, and afterwards drawn hard by fashion, is my wish. I have assumed the critic only to dissuade from criticism.
--Upon Criticism by Oliver Goldsmith

A Christmas Garland’s Tribute to Joyce Carol Oates

Having served up a piping hot parody of David Foster Wallace a couple of days ago, I thought it only fitting to follow it up with a mouth watering snide dish of Joyce Carol Oates.  Hopefully, Max Beerbohm will find the eatings to his taste. If not, there’s always take out:

By the Chimney

Helen thought: “Am I in love again, some new kind of love? Is that why I’m here?”

She was sitting by the fireplace in the living room, looking up the chimney on Christmas Eve.  She knew the big old room with its dirty tile floor by heart. Everything was familiar.  She was waiting for Santa Claus to come down the chimney and give her presents without any fuss.  Well, Helen was a bit worried this year because she had killed her husband, baby girl, family, in-laws, the minister and the dreary sun-bleached beach bum who would make eyes at her at the Piggly-Wiggly. But Santa had understood in the past.

Santa should be here by now, he would be here in a few minutes, so there was no time to worry; Helen would have her presents in about an hour.  When she thought of Santa, the ugly sleigh would its odor of reindeer and spilled egg nog would fade away—she remembered his voice, how gentle and soft she had felt listening to that voice, giving in to the protection he represented.  Helen had endured his rough hands as a child, because she knew they protected her, and all her life they had protected her.  There had always been trouble, sometimes the kind you laughed about later and sometimes not; but she had always managed to stay off of Santa’s naughty list when Christmas Eve rolled around. All she wanted to do was to make other people happy, what was wrong with that?  Was she too lazy to care?  Her head had begun to ache.

A few minutes later Santa came, his big boots stomping on the floor of the fireplace.  Was that really him? she thought.  Her heart beat furiously.  If blood drained out of her face she would look mottled and sick, as if she had a rash . . . how she hated that!  Santa hesitated until Helen stood and ran to him.  “Santa,” she said, “I’m so glad to see you.”  It might have been years ago and he was just going to take his sleigh to the North Pole now, finished with his business of delivering toys to all the good little girls and boys, and Helen would be waiting until next year to see him.

“I guess you’ll be wanting your present,” Santa said.  “Santa,” Helen said, “I hope you’re not mad at me. I wrote you that letter explaining. I wanted to write some more, but you know . . . I don’t write much, never even wrote to the Easter Bunny when he gave me those rotten eggs.  I never forgot about you or anything, or Mrs. Santa Claus . . . I thought about the elves, too, and Rudolph, but Rudolph could take care of himself—he has that red nose and all.  And he’s smart.  He really is.  You’re not ashamed of me, are you?”

“Well, let me get your present.  But, I was wondering, why did you come back after what you had done?  Why were you waiting for me by the chimney?”
“Come back?” she tried to smile across the fireplace grate.  “I came back because . . . because . . . .”  And Helen shredded the mistletoe in her cold fingers, but no words came to her.  She watched the mistletoe-fragments fall. No words came to her, her mind had turned hollow and cold.

Santa slowly pulled something out of his bag and Helen saw in his hand something silvery and bright.  Her eyes seized upon it and her mind tried to remember: where had she seen it last?  He came to her and touched her shoulder as if waking her, and they looked at each other, Helen so terrified by now that she was no longer afraid but only curious with the mute marblelike curiosity of a child, and Santa stern and silent until a rush of hatred transformed his face into a mass of wrinkles, his eyes twinkled, his nose like a cherry, the skin mottled red and white.  He did not raise the knife but slammed it into her chest, up to the hilt, so that his whitened fist struck her body and her blood exploded upon it.  He then thought of the next thing he must do, as he whispered, “Happy Christmas to all and to all a good night!”

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December 15,  2004

Patrick: Lagniappe

“I rather fancy, Madam, that the times then were pretty much like our own, where a multiplicity of laws give a judge as much power as a want of law, since he is ever sure to find among the number some to countenance his partiality.”
--A Reverie at the Boar’s Head Tavern in Eastcheap by Oliver Goldsmith

Wolf-Pack Watch V
It seems that certain persons inspire such feelings of hatred and revulsion as to drive otherwise reasonable minds to extremes of idiotic behavior.  Typically, this response (it’s a shame we don’t have a single German word for it—such as schadenfreude for the pleasure one takes in another’s pain—perhaps let’s coin the English word now: ravingrot) attaches to certain politicians.  One sees it by taking quotations from politician X out of context and holding them up for ridicule such as: “Unless it goes up, then unemployment will go down.”  Sounds stupid, don’t it?  But then let’s suppose this is just an excerpt from the following: “We need a strong dollar and unless it goes up, then unemployment will go down.”  Not so stupid now, eh? So why would someone quote politician X out of context?  Maliciousness?  Mendaciousness?  Nope and nope.  They suffer from ravingrot.

Now, in the world of the arts and literature, ravingrot runs rampant.  Great, towering figures such as Richard Wagner are natural magnets for ravingrot.  Just say, “Nietzche,” and little children jump into their beds a quivering and pull up the covers, while grown ups fall to the rug, a munching at the edges, suffering from ravingrot.  Now Tom Wolfe ain’t no Wagner or Nietzche.  Nor is he politician X.  But for some reason he inspires raging cases of ravingrot.  As I said before, I don’t think he’s top drawer.  I might need to rethink this position, though, given the unmitigated vituperation he seems to be undergoing.

The latest vituperation: Tom Wolfe just won the bad sex award for the sex scenes in I Am Charlotte Simmons.  No, I’m not kidding—go here  and see for yourself.  Now this charge is particularly ludicrous.  Indeed, it falls in nicely with my politician X example, because Tom Wolfe has pointed out that he purposefully meant the sex scenes to appear mechanical, dry and repulsive. That’s one of the themes of his book, fer cryin’ out loud.  So why act like this is some kind of literary fault on his part?  Maliciousness?  Mendaciousness?  Nope and nope.  Ravingrot.

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December 14,  2004

Patrick: Lagniappe

But instead of this, as I have already observed, we send them to board in the country to the most ignorant set of men that can be imagined. But least the ignorance of the master be not sufficient, the child is generally consigned to the usher. This is generally some poor needy animal, little superior to the footman either in learning or spirit, invited to his place by an advertisement and kept there merely from his being of a complying disposition and making the children fond of him. “You give your child to be educated to a slave,” says a philosopher to a rich man; “instead of one slave, you will then have two.”
--On Education by Oliver Goldsmith

[N.B.: Goldsmith here is commenting on the lamentable English country schools which Dickens later made infamous in Nicholas Nickelby through Dotheboys Hall along with the schoolmaster, Wackford Squeers. It’s interesting to note how little things have changed, at least with respect to the usher, whom we would now call the adjunct professor. For a full-throated jeremiad on this subject, please see the recommended link to the Invisible Adjunct on this page.]

A Christmas Garland’s Tribute to David Foster Wallace
Max Beerbohm is the greatest English parodist, dead or alive.  Sez who?  Well, just about everybody (trust me on this—have I steered you wrong before?; okay, have I steered you wrong lately?; alright, alright already, have I steered you wrong in the last two days? See, there you go.).   Beerbohm published this wonderful book (among many other wonderful books), A Christmas Garland, which is divided into chapters, each being a parody of a well-known author (such as Henry James, Joseph Conrad, Hilaire Belloc, etc. [by the bye, don’t you hate it when a book reviewer/critic/reformed alcoholic lists several names as “famous” and always throws in some obscure ringer? But trust me here, Belloc should not be the obscure ringer—as I’ll blog about soon]) concerning a Christmas theme. So, in the spirit of Christmas, I thought I’d do an update for David Foster Wallace:

The Twelve Days of Christmas (or [as much as I have gleaned from the official records’ paragraphs’ sentences’ words’ letters’ data (but in no way claiming a complete perusal of same [which could be charted where x equals the total number of records to review; y equals the total amount of my time I wish to waste on the endeavor; and z equals the arrival of the Ham-on-Rye train at St. Pancreatic station])] a close approximation thereof)
On the twelfth day of Christmas (understanding, of course, that this Christmas tradition in no way approximates the current non-secular, consumerist “Holiday” or “Winter” season [transparently the case in countries such as Japan which have no cultural meme and/or embedded traditions] beginning immediately after Halloween, which, in a strange twist that has more to do with the popularity of the adrenaline high associated with fear and anxiety as found in the proliferation of haunted houses and theme parks that have Halloween Weekend festivals, such as Universal Studios, which are highly lucrative since the “rides,” little more than cheesy walk-thrus replete with Texas-Chainsaw-Massacre Maniacs and Night-of-the-Living Dead Zombies, allow the parks to generate two admissions for the same event day [one for the regular rides during the diurnal cycle and then one for the scary monsters for the nocturnal cycle], although certain parks, such as Disneyland, cannot participate in this lucrative revenue stream due to its “branding campaign” as a wholesome, fun-filled family-type vacation event, even though several children have been sucked into drain pipes from certain accidents resulting from horse play during the Pirates of the Caribbean [which would seem to qualify as a scary, Halloween-type ride, what with the menacing pirates torturing bourgeois burgo-master townspeople (as if the ride were designed by some crypto-trotskyist to rub the faces of the sated, bourgeoisie masses in the dirt of their future at the hands of their proletarian/socialist masters) and the menacing skeletons looming in provocative poses over heaps of gold (again, to confirm the bankruptcy of capitalism which will lead to the hanging of all plutocrats, cossacks and tartars)] and It’s a Small World (which, if it doesn’t have Trotskyist One-World Conspiracy written all over it—as opposed to the Stalinist view that communism should be limited to Russia and its immediate satellites—then I don’t know Marx from a hole in the ground [or the dustbin of history, for that matter] has, as of late, become as, if not more, popular than Christmas with its admittedly less-sustained “high” of seeing the looks of joys on the recipients’ (typically, childrens’) faces for the gifts which you bestow upon them from your capital-accumulation surplus, or, much more likely in this consumer-oriented society, American Express, Visa and Master Cards’ credit cards’ limits’ marginal deficits’ revolvers) my true love gave to me twelve drummers drumming (these drummers’ drums’ drumsticks’ tips’ surfaces being coated with a special polymer developed by petrochemical conglomerates working together in a single-purpose entity joint venture with the “parent” or “holding” company consisting of a limited liability company located in a tax-favorable offshore “jurisdiction” which allows for hybrid-entity “treatment” of business “arrangements” so that the foreign or “home” jurisdiction treats the company as a corporation for tax purposes “whereas” the United States, which, along with a few “other” countries such as South “Korea,” taxes a citizen or domestic corporation on its global, world-wide income, would treat the venture as a pass-through partnership, thus resulting in a “disequilibrium” of tax consequences between the two jurisdictions), eleven pipers piping (MX-11), ten lords a-leaping (MX-10), nine ladies dancing (MX-9), eight maids a milking (MX-8), seven swans a-swimming (MX-7), six geese a-laying (MX-6), five golden rings (MX-5), four calling birds (MX-4), three French hens (MX-3), two turtle doves (MX-2), and a partridge in a pear tree (MX-1).  But then the Grinch stole Christmas because he is so utterly alone and unable to make a human connection or experience love because no one can understand the Grinch and his frustrated need for Who-man companionship except for Linda-Lou Who, the smallest Who, who was only two (oh, and his [the Grinch’s not little Linda-Lou Who’s, who was a female who, or the who-gynecoid equivalent thereof] heart was two sizes too small).

(MX=[([12-x]/7r) + 1000ch]; m=merry; x=X-mas; r=rudolph/red-nosed/reindeer; ch=chimneys)

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December 13,  2004

Kathryn: The Return

Have you seen the Russian movie The Return (Vozvrahcheniye)? It's amazing. The story is archetypal, almost a fairytale. Technically brilliant and beautifully structured. I have built a wee page for it, here.

Here's what Kenneth Turan has to say:
"While most films are fortunate if they succeed on any level, The Return works easily on several, making as powerful a mark emotionally as it does visually and even allegorically. Yet the film so catches you up in its compelling story, you're almost not aware of how masterful a piece of cinema you're watching."

And Anthony Lane:
"It is the first film to be directed by Andrey Zvyagintsev, and what it shares with other coruscating débuts, from “The Four Hundred Blows” to “Badlands,” is a sense that it HAD to be made. There is a controlled wildness at the heart of such movies, whose narratives ask to be handled as delicately as explosives."

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December 12,  2004

Patrick: Lagniappe

The manner in which most writers begin their treatises on the Use of Language, is generally thus: “Language has been granted to man in order to discover his wants and necessities, so as to have them relieved by society. Whatever we desire, whatever we wish, it is but to cloath those desires or wishes in words, in order to fruition; the principal use of language therefore, say they, is to express our wants so as to receive a speedy redress.”
Such an account as this may serve to satisfy grammarians and rhetoricians well enough, but men who know the world maintain very contrary maxims; they hold, and I think with some shew of reason, they hold that he who best knows how to conceal his necessities and desires is the most likely person to find redress, and that the true use of speech is not so much to express our wants as to conceal them.
--On the Use of Language by Oliver Goldsmith


Literary Interviews

Before the advent of the litblog, what with its insta-interviews of this and that literary luminary, there existed something called The Paris Review.  The New York Times Book Review has an entertaining essay about the various writers put under the white-hot lights and some of their subsequent confessions.  My fave: Gore Vidal, when asked whether he wanted to act in films "as Norman Mailer does," replies: "Is that what he does?  I have always been curious."  Read the whole thing here.  The reason for the article is to draw the reader's attention to the posting online of a variety of juicy Paris Review interviews for your delectation.  Of course, fat lot of good that does you if you're reading the newspaper.  Luckily, you're not--so just go here and roll around to your heart's content.  And that, boys and girls, is why the newspaper will not be with us much longer.  But you've got me--what else could you want?

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December 10,  2004

Patrick: Lagniappe

 The plain was completely flat, merging in a straight line with the sky. A gray plain—fields of stubble, yellowish soil, the uncertain green of young pine woods; a late summer sky, pale and transparent. Into this sky a cloud of smoke curled lazily and rose and was dispersed high above a line of birds in flight. The first bird migrations had begun already: from the tundras of Lapland and the Swedish lakes they flew southward in formation, the layers of air vibrating to the movements of their wings; their cries were heard only faintly and occasionally by the small shepherd boy far below, barefoot and carrying a long whip, who raised his head to look; but even when inaudible, they persisted as a presence unseen but felt.
--The Seizure of Power by Czeslaw Milosz

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December 8,  2004

Patrick: Lagniappe

Small boys in surplices tinkled little bells. The sound of the organ, the chasuble of the priest, old peasant women moving their fingers along the large print of their prayer books. Peter thought of the graves of Soviet soldiers. There were hundreds of thousands of those graves between the Volga and the Vistula. They were marked with small wooden pyramids bearing the Red Star. He did not know why this emblem was so infinitely sad. Perhaps it was only a habit of the imagination, and perhaps because the cross was the simplest two-dimensional form to be found in nature—the form of man, the form of a tree. The tombs of Soviet soldiers imitated marble mausoleums, and the boards of which they were made were clumsily painted to imitate stone. To rest under this symbol of the new religion which, to commemorate individual death, could create only a diminutive copy of the pyramids, those memorials erected to the glory of empires and kings? He felt a pang when he looked at those graves. Perhaps it was because he held a grudge against a state which left not even its dead in peace, which did not permit them to lie under any sign which was not a sign of its power?
--The Seizure of Power by Czeslaw Milosz

This and That

I'll probably be out of pocket for a few days as my wife and I journey to the hospital for the birth of our new son.  So if you hear any caterwauling and cursing, you'll know where it's coming from.

I'll leave you with a few stray items:

1.  The new Mike Nichols flick, Closer, is very good, in an anti-love story, anti-feel good sort of way (too bad, that).  It has a whip-smart script which reminds me of those fast-talking Hepburn/Tracy romantic comedies.  It's too bad Hollywood can't do that anymore.  So, if you don't mind the LaBute view of human nature: nasty, butal (oops, brutal) and short, then you'll probably get a kick out of Closer.

2.  I just started on Hilary Mantel's A Place of Greater Safety, a work of fiction concerning the French Revolution and centered on Desmoulin, Danton and Robespierre.  Wow!  So far she's in the Robert Graves zone of historical fiction.  Yet another instance of how the British seem to be running rings around American writers.  Not that one would know it since our review outlets do a good job of studiously avoiding the literary limeys.

3.  I have almost finished Joyce Carol Oates's Marriages and Infidelities, one of her first collections of short stories (early '70s).  JCO seems to have been sui generis--she just popped out of the box fully formed with her own unique voice.  I particularly liked By the River and The Children.  She uses very spare language to convey extremely complex emotional states--such as the frustration of a young mother trying to nurture her children, but who is also exasperated and frustrated by them.  She recognizes that these competing forces form a delicate equilibrium and a push in the wrong direction can lead to unfortunate consequences.  That's The Children.  The more I read of JCO, the more I am dazzled by her artistry.   

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December 7,  2004

Patrick: Lagniappe

He put on a torn sweater and thought for a moment about replacing a missing button. But for this he would need thread: he must remember to ask his neighbor if she would like to exchange a spool of thread for a spare needle he still possessed. He spread his books on the table; they opened of their own accord at the right place; the pages bore the traces of his fingers. Then, in a small even hand, he began slowly to add sentence after sentence:
“Words had to change their ordinary meaning and to take that which was now given them. Reckless audacity came to be considered the courage of a loyal ally; prudent hesitation, specious cowardice; moderation was held to be a cloak for unmanliness; ability to see all sides of a question; inaptness to act on any. Frantic violence became the attribute of manliness; cautious plotting, a justifiable means of self-defence. The advocate of extreme measures was always trustworthy; his opponent a man to be suspected. To succeed in a plot was to have a shrewd head, to divine a plot a still shrewder; but to try to provide against having to do either was to break up your party and to be afraid of your adversaries. In fine, to forestall an intending criminal, or to suggest the idea of a crime where it was wanting, was equally commended, until even blood became a weaker tie than party, from the superior readiness of those united by the latter to dare everything without reserve; for such associations had not in view the blessings derivable from established institutions but were formed by ambition for their overthrow; and the confidence of their members in each other rested less on any religious sanction than upon complicity in crime.”
--The Seizure of Power by Czeslaw Milosz

[N.B.: These are the last two paragraphs of the introduction of the novel set after World War II (this being Pearl Harbor Day, I thought it was an appropriate lagniappe), concerning, Professor Gil, an impoverished scholar living in the ruins of Warsaw and trying to scrape out a living by translating Thucydides.  Milosz was not just a towering poet.  Seek out The Seizure of Power.]

Reading Between the Lines: Deciphering Book Reviews
This will be the first part of a continuing public service to help you, the reading public, figger out what books to read based on a perusal of book reviews. Here’s my first tidbit:  given my discussion yesterday about the banished Edmund-Wilson ogre, don’t.  That is, you figger out who you like; and buy books based on the authors, not the subject matter.  Yes, writers can be very uneven—and, for the mediocre to bad ones, they tend to get worse as they get older (see John Updike’s The Villages). So, for the second-rate, just buy their youthful works.  Another good example, described ad nauseum in the latest issue of the New York Times Book Review, is Truman Capote.  For the rest, just buy their latest book and as far as what the critics have to say about them, in the words of your local cabbie: fuggedaboutit!

Okay, fuggedaboutit, great advice, but why do you read book reviews?  Well, first, sometimes I do want to know about a particular subject but not in such detail as to buy the book.  So, being lazy, I’ll just read the review.  What, isn’t that blasphemy?  Trust me dearie, if that gets you excommunicated, well, it’s going to be a mighty empty church come Sunday.  Of course, the trade’s dirty little secret is that the reviewers may or may not read the book they will review. Oh, that’s right, I forgot, skimming is just as good as reading.  How silly of me.

So let’s just skim along to the next point:  maybe I do want a book on a particular subject but don’t know which one is best.  A good review will compare the new book to the past efforts and tell you which is preferable.  A really bad review will erroneously tell you it’s the new book—hey, the author’s alive, needs royalties, and makes a killer martini—whereas the definitive book was written by some now-dead drunk who couldn’t mix a martini if his life (oops, too late) depended on it.  A good example of this is all the praise heaped on Isaacson’s new book on Ben Franklin to the expense of Van Doren’s classic—and still the best treatment—of good ol’ Ben.  This kind of invidious comparison is next to impossible to detect unless one seeks out the dirty back alleys that are not part of the wide prospects around the intersection of Log Rolling Lane and Scratchback Pass.

For now, though, let’s pop into a hamburger joint right off of Scratchback Pass and get a jumbo order of eminence grise greasy fries to go.  Here, two or more books on the same subject might come out at about the same time; and the reviewers will prefer the establishment author even though his is the weaker treatment of the subject.  Swarms of such books usually appear around the centennial of some person’s famous something—birth, death, first drunken pub-crawl, first lost fistfight with Alma Mahler, first time berated by Hemmingway for certain personal “inadequacies,” etc.  This is currently going on with respect to two books that have come out on the centennial of the birth of George Balanchine.

I am not a balletomane, or even a balletomundane, but I would be interested in a good, short treatment that describes why Balanchine is considered the great genius of that world and provides me, poor, ignorant peon that I am, with some insightful analysis concerning Balanchine’s masterworks.  Oh, and the book must be written in felicitous prose (always a necessary but not necessarily sufficient requirement).  So, I have two new books to consider:  All in the Dances by Terry Teachout and George Balanchine by Robert Gottlieb.  Now, I happen to be an avid reader of Teachout’s writings, so I know he is a remarkable cultural commentator and can write like an angel.  So, I don’t need to read book reviews to know which one to buy.  But, poor reader, if you did not have this recondite knowledge, you would run out and buy the Gottlieb based on the book reviews.

For example, the New York Times Book Review has a joint review of the two works.  Teachout’s book is never panned, instead it is kicked to the curb with the backhanded compliment that Teachout is good at portraying “sheer excitement”—and so is any football coach writing his memoirs.  Gottlieb’s book, however, “offers the better value” because of “its authority, completeness and articulate excellence.”  There is no other literary criticism offered between the two (the distant echo of the Edmund-Wilson ogre’s roars can be faintly heard over the far horizon).  Let me give you a tip here: if something is preferred for its “articulateness” that’s very small beans indeed—just ask any African-American who is sick and tired for being praised for his or her “articulate” speech, as if it’s a surprise that such was possible.  The New Yorker is even better: it provides a brief notice of Gottlieb’s book in the current issue and fails to mention Teachout’s at all. T hat’s my biggest complaint with the banishment of the standards spell—one can now simply ignore the good books.  So how will you know what to get?  The answer is simple:  just keep reading litblog. Boy, that was easy.

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December 6,  2004

Patrick: Lagniappe

Then I stood erect again, dashing the tears from my eyes. He pulled out his handkerchief.
‘Don’t wet me,’ he said.
‘It was inadvertent,’ I said.
‘I’m glad to hear it,’ he replied.
‘And I apologize’, I said, ‘to the moisture.’
For a moment he gaped at me, and little wonder. It was perhaps the crushingest remark in human history.
‘I apologize’, I said, ‘to the moisture.’
Yes, it must have cut him to the quick.
--Augustus Carp, Esq., by Himself Being the Autobiography of a Really Good Man by Sir Henry Howarth Bashford

Wolfe-Pack Watch IV
Cheerio, chaps, this is your British correspondent from across the Big Pond with a packet of gossip to go with a hot toddy concerning that toff with spats, Tom Wolfe. The Times Literary Supplement (“TLS”) has now weighed in, and the reviewer, Benjamin Markovits, let’s you know, spot on, what he thinks: “It seems almost beside the point to criticize Tom Wolfe. He writes legal thrillers; their purpose is to amuse.”  Good thing he wasn’t given Dickens’ Bleak House to review.  Bloody police procedural.

Although not quite as dry as a police report, how would one characterize Mr. Markovits’s criticism, which isn’t much different from the rest of the lot. Ind eed, it makes one think that “this sort of thing is simply a result of laziness.”  Oh wait, that’s Mr. Markovits criticizing Wolfe’s prose.  Apparently, the folks over on the other side of the Big Pond are not familiar with American criticism of Wolfe, because Mr. Markovits apologizes for describing in detail how the “many superficial blemishes in the prose . . . sometimes obscure the deeper problems” with the ingenuous remark that “[h]is work . . . has been sufficiently praised that it might be worth going over these in detail.”  Aha!  All that praise which the Wolfe-Pack Watch has been diligently heaping upon Wolfe’s head.  Praise describing how Wolfe’s work is “bloated,” “heavy-handed,” and “boring.”  If only my work could receive such praise.  Why, of course, given that Wolfe has been placed upon a pedestal by such remarks, Mr. Markovits is perfectly justified at heaving a few spitballs at him.

So, with the spitballs still whizzing overhead, why should I care as each negative review becomes more and more ridiculous?  Gather around me boys and girls; and let me tell you a fairy tale in which the “critic” lives happily ever after.  Once upon a time there was an evil spell cast upon Criticdom called “standards.”  This “standards” had been practiced by evil wizards such as the ogre, Edmund Wilson, which required certain hidden knowledge in order to explicate something called a “book.”  The poor peon critics who did not have this knowledge could not earn a living with the likes of such ogres roaming about looking for whom they might devour.  So, one day, the peon critics rose up and banished “standards” by simply proclaiming that such a spell did not exist.  And, lo and behold, “standards” disappeared along with the ogres such as Edmund Wilson.  And the critics lived happily ever after, busily chopping and cutting there, mending and sewing here, all in the service of capital . . . err. . . literature. Let’s let the forgotten Edmund-Wilson ogre have a word from his Letters on Literature and Politics (p. 127): “What one misses are men who occupy themselves with literature without turning it into a business—I mean, a business like the cloak and suit business, with its inevitable politics, combinations, incessant talking of shop, and general unfitting of its victims for any kind of activities other than professional ones.”

So, there you have it, the destruction of critical standards now means everything and nothing is fair game.  This does not bother me so much when this condition is brought into play to praise mediocre or stinky works.  Those works will die anyway; and I can usually discern very quickly such a work’s quality.  I am annoyed, however, when this same condition turns from a shield into a sword and is used to gut those works that are deserving of a reader’s attention (or, worse yet, actively ignores them).  Again, it does not matter in the grand scheme of time.  Melville’s Moby Dick is proof of that.  But I would like to read the future classics of my own time.  I crave the great literature being produced today for, the, yes, admittedly solipsistic reason that I wish to better understand myself situated in my own time (and, for the even more solipsistic reason of appreciating a well-formed aesthetic object).  And the corruption of critical standards throws up unnecessary barriers to achieving this goal.  Certainly, the good will out in the end—but, paraphrasing Keynes, in the long run we’ll all be dead.

[N.B.:  The New York Times Book Review has just come out with its one hundred notable books for 2004 and, lo and behold, I Am Charlotte Simmons is on the list.  How can that be?  The NYTBR, itself, covered that work in a thick coat of green-and-yellow bile.  How could such a cheap imposter make it on the list?  Oh, wait, the internet link has an archive of several past years' of notable books.  Is the NYTBR worried that this book might be viewed by posterity as a "notable book" and its exclusion from the list would be a source of derision?  Certainly not--they're just being charitable.  'Tis the season.]

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December 3,  2004

Patrick: Lagniappe

“I realized from the outset that I was now definitely committed to the most critical period of a young man’s life – namely, the years, so fatal to the vast majority, between his seventeenth and twenty-fourth birthdays. Then it is, alas, that intoxicated with the knowledge that he has become, in my father’s phrase, a marriageable adult that he begins to resort for the first time to the tobacconist and the publican – to buy the cigarette that will so inevitably lure him into loose and licentious company, and the fermented liquor that will only too surely encase him in a drunkard’s coffin.
Nor is that all. For it is in these same years, turning aside from the pleasures of home – from such innocent round games as Conceal the Thimble or the less familiar Up Jenkins, or from the happy singing round the family harmonium of such a humorous glee as Three Blind Mice – that he enters the Pit (so appropriately named) of some garish and degrading theatre.
--Augustus Carp, Esq., by Himself Being the Autobiography of a Really Good Man by Sir Henry Howarth Bashford

Another Forgotten Comedian: Henry James
Henry James, of course, is not forgotten.  But, somewhere along the way, as folks praised him for this, that and the other, they misplaced his sharp sense of humor.  In my experience, the truly great anythings (writers, painters, Indian Chiefs) tend to have an irascible sense of humor.  Indeed, the sure sign of a mediocrity is the absence of a sense of humor (oh, of course, the obverse is not true—David Sedaris sure is funny, but he ain’t great).  Think of the great writers: Rabelais, Shakespeare, Cervantes, Austen, Dickens, etc.  It’s as if all of literature were one big pratfall.  Of course, there are exceptions (as is the case with any good generality—again, air-tight logic is the sign of a lack of oxygen, not brilliance).  But, those exceptions may have an explanation for the lack of comedy.  Indeed, that lack of the comedic touch might shine a light upon the obscure, inner workings of a great talent.  Take Joseph Conrad, for instance. Certainly, some might find a twisted sense of humor permeating Heart of Darkness, but such folks should probably seek professional guidance and/or institutionalization.   I can’t think of one funny thing he wrote.  But he’s clearly one of the immortals. Was he a freak of nature?  I don’t think so.  Rather, he was a Polish count who learned English as a second language.  Great comedic effects require an intimate acquaintance with the inner workings of the language medium the author is working in (hence the reason David Foster Wallace is so witty—he is a wizard grammarian; and it’s no coincidence that great grammar and comedic skills go together).  Conrad just might not have felt comfortable writing in a humorous vein in English (or, of course, he might have been of a naturally saturnine disposition).   On the other hand, not being a native English speaker didn’t stop Nabokov from writing Lolita or Pnin. Again, typically, great minds can’t help but be witty.

And the same wittiness shines through with Henry James.  Yes, yes, he is considered the dour master, the serious adult, the tut-tutting tut-tutter.  But, oh, how unfair!  What a cramped, blinkered view of James.  Let’s use as our text today what is considered James’s most serious, tragic and all around bummer of a novel: The Portrait of a Lady.  First, James throughout the book toys with the notion of paradox—as did a number of other writers of his era such as Oscar Wilde and G. K. Chesteron.  I will post more in depth about his use of paradox later because David Foster Wallace also makes use of it in Oblivion. So, putting paradox aside, let’s start with some light, witty banter—first between our heroine, Isabel Archer, and her decrepit young cousin, Gilbert Touchett:

“I don’t see what harm there is in my wishing not to tie myself. I don’t want to begin life by marrying. There are other things a woman can do.”
“There is nothing she can do so well. But you are many-sided.”
“If one is two-sided, it is enough,” said Isabel.
“You are the most charming of polygons!” Ralph broke out, with a laugh.

Okay, okay, not an outright knee-slapper, but still, quite witty.  Then there are the minor comic characters—Isabel’s American-journalist friend, Miss Stackpole, and her British bounder boy-friend manqué, Mr. Bantling.  These two traipse across Europe as the Nineteenth-Century equivalents of Abbott & Costello.  But their comedy is of the broader sort that does not translate well in snippets.  Therefore, I’ll end with the description of another couple of minor characters, Countess Gemini (how can one not be funny with a name like that), the sister of the nefarious Gilbert Osmond, and her husband (who is so minor, he fails to appear in the book except as an indirect reference by others):

The Countess Gemini was often extremely bored—bored, in her own phrase, to extinction.  She had not been extinguished, however, and she struggled bravely enough with her destiny, which had been to marry an unaccommodating Florentine who insisted upon living in his native town, where he enjoyed such consideration as might attach to a gentleman whose talent for losing at cards had not the merit of being incidental to an obliging disposition.  The Count Gemini was not liked even by those who won from him; and he bore a name which, having a measurable value in Florence, was, like the local coin of the old Italian states, without currency in other parts of the peninsula.  In Rome he was simply a very dull Florentine, and it is not remarkable that he should not have cared to pay frequent visits to a city where, to carry it off, his dulness needed more explanation than was convenient.

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December 2,  2004

Patrick: Lagniappe

Nor did I wish to stay. But I was now face to face with a situation of the utmost difficulty. Growingly repugnant as was this woman’s presence to me, and singularly complete as had been my moral triumph, both my posterior trouser-buttons were still lying upon the floor.
‘Oh, I see,’ she said, ‘would you like to take them with you? I’ll put them in an envelope and then you won’t lose them.’
She accordingly did so, handing me the envelope, which I quickly took from her and placed in my pocket.
‘You see, I’m afraid’, she said, ‘that I could hardly trust myself to – to actually sew them on.’
I bowed to her coldly, ignoring the split infinitive.
‘Nor should I have seen fit’, I said, ‘to concede you the opportunity.’
--Augustus Carp, Esq., by Himself Being the Autobiography of a Really Good Man by Sir Henry Howarth Bashford

Wolfe-Pack Watch III

“[B]loated, schematic, heavy-handed, and, it must be said, boring.” Is it a bird? A plane?  The Holiday Issue of the New York Review of Books (“NYRB”)? No, it’s the latest review of Tom Wolfe’s reviled novel, I Am Charlotte Simmons, by Daniel Mendelsohn in the NYRB.  Here’s some of Mr. Mendelsohn’s insightful criticism:

He is, among other things, never quite sure which of the terms he’s studied need explaining and which don’t, and the wearying result is that he feels compelled to explain everything. Who, exactly, has to be told that (for example) ours is an age in which young men go to gyms because being well-muscled is fashionable? Or, for that matter, told what StairMasters are? Or what Trekkies are (“after the old sci-fi TV series”)? Or an “everything bagel”? And then there are the lengthy explications of the various slang uses of obscenities . . . .”

Boy howdy, it’s a good thing Mr. Mendelsohn wasn’t asked to review Herodotus.  This isn’t even criticism—it’s just sheer stupidity.  Are we this solipsistic?  And, by gum, why does Plutarch go on and on in his essays about various cultural rituals and activities?  Didn’t Romans find all of that blather tedious and boring?  There’s plenty more where this came from.  But, at some point, shooting fish in a barrel also becomes tedious and boring.  Enough.

[N.B.: The NYT a couple of days ago had a scathing review—by the same person, who shall remain nameless (but, I am told, is the “most important reviewer alive today,” heh)—excoriating V. S. Naipaul’s latest work, Magic Seeds (please, I beg you, don’t make me whip out the “Naipaul Napalm Alert” on you).  That’s mighty gutsy given that Naipaul is the only English writer alive today who is guaranteed to be read hundreds of years from now (basically, for the same complex reasons as Kipling: a wonderful prose stylist who is writing about an important historical development [Kipling: imperialism; Naipaul: third-world diaspora/clash]).   James Atlas, in the New York Times Book Review, sees this giant pothole, and, even though one senses he would love to drive right through it, he instead skirts the edge and gives merely a luke-warm review.  He probably realizes that trashing late Naipaul is akin to trashing late Henry James: “The Golden Bowl is nothing more than a pretentious, self-regarding, mish-mash; there’s no shape to it; no action; and the language is so dense that you couldn’t even strain a pea through it.” Very, very gutsy—and, again, stupid.]

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December 1,  2004

Patrick: Lagniappe

‘Providence has delivered them’, he said, ‘into our hands.’
For a moment I was silent. Then I rose to my feet.
‘I had rather thought’, I said, ‘that might be the case.’
‘Oh, it is,’ said my father. ‘It is. Do you remember those beautiful words of David’s, “the righteous shall rejoice when he seeth the vengeance: he shall wash his feet in the blood of the wicked”?’
‘Not only do I remember them,’ I said, ‘but had you not quoted them, I should certainly have done so myself.’
‘We’ll wash them tonight,’ said my father. ‘Put on your cap. No, it would perhaps be better to wear your bowler,’ and five minutes later we were standing once more on the front door step of Hopkinson House.
--Augustus Carp, Esq., by Himself Being the Autobiography of a Really Good Man by Sir Henry Howarth Bashford

David Foster Wallace and OuLiPo
OuLiPo! OuLiPo! OuLiPo!  So, is this a tribal war cry ritualistically chanted as Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock are about to be lowered into the Pit of Doom by certain oddly colored, speckled, striped—and yet, strangely nubile—aliens? Perhaps.  Or, it might be a movement founded in 1960, and still going strong, concerning the investigation of certain procedures regarding literature that included such eminences as Italo Calvino, Georges Perec and Raymond Queneau.  Oh, that’s helpful.  Cleared that right up, didja?  Alright now, bub, what’s this OuLiPo and make it snappy before I OuLiPo your nose.

Okay, okay. OuLiPo is short for Ouvroir de Litterature Potentielle (generally translated as “Workshop for Potential Literature”).  Here is Harry Matthews, one of the members of OuLiPo, describing what it is in an interview:  “It’s about structure and procedure.  Production in the sense of potential production, but not the product. . . . I just started a novel last month, and at the last meeting I presented one of the structures that’s going into the novel and explained how it will work. But that has nothing to do with what the book is going to be like as a whole, or whether it will be good or bad.”  Examples of such structures are Perec’s A Void, a novel written without the letter “e” and Calvino’s The Castle of Crossed Destinies, whose structure is based on the 78 tarot cards.

So what does this have to do with DFW and Oblivion?  Well, Matthews came up with an algorithm for generating some of his work—which might (and, indeed, did) take years to produce.  Now, DFW, in a well-known 1993 interview, explained that before he turned to literature, he was a philosophy major in college with a specialization in math and logic.  Here’s his description of the “buzz” he received from solving intricate mathematical problems:

I was actually chasing a special sort of buzz, a special moment that comes sometimes. One teacher called these moments “mathematical experiences.” What I didn’t know then was that a mathematical experience was aesthetic in nature, an epiphany in Joyce’s original sense. These moments appeared in proof-completions, or maybe algorithms. Or like a gorgeously simple solution to a problem you suddenly see after half a notebook with gnarly attempted solutions. It was really an experience of what I think Yeats called “the click of a well-made box.”

So, at least with respect to mathematical problems—and, as is explained later in the interview—with respect to literature in general, DFW is in constant search for the “click,” that sense of aesthetic accomplishment (“Hey, Mr. Pusher Man, do you have some click for me today?”).  Although not in the argot that the members of OuLiPo would use, this notion is very similar to the purpose underlying OuLiPo: to create deep structures that “click” with respect to literary products.  As far as I know, DFW has never expressed an affinity with the methods or members of OuLiPo.  But then again, we wouldn’t expect him to, now would we?  That would make it just a little bit too easy to close the magic circle.

DFW does give a few clues, though.  Each work of fiction takes an inordinately long time to produce.  He has admitted to doing 5 to 8 rewrites for each piece.  Now, suppose, he spends many more times than that on each work.  Of course, he wouldn’t own up to that—it would seem a bit, well, odd.  But it wouldn’t seem so odd if he was fine-tuning a work that had a deep structure to it that was based on some other system not readily apparent.  Sort of like the literary equivalent of Schoenberg’s 12-tone system in music or Mathew’s algorithm in OuLiPo.  Might this be going on in Oblivion?

Well, let’s crack the book and look for clues.  And clues are all we can find because I did not major in philosophy and math at college, so any algorithm sub-structures will be way, way over my head.  But look here in the first story titled Mr. Squishy; the entire tale is bristling with abbreviations, Greek deltas, chemical compositions and mathematical formulae such as this cryptic footnote: “= Analysis of Variance model, a hypergeometric multiple regression technique used by team [Delta]y to establish the statistical relations between dependent and independent variables in market tests.”  Even more cryptic is the mathematical terminology used in Good Old Neon including a complex formula which determined “in logical terms, that their domains were exhaustive and mutually exclusive, or that their two sets had no intersection but their union comprised all possible elements.”  The story ends with this cryptic bracket (p. 181): “[[forward arrow]NMN.80.418].”  Kathryn tells me this might refer, at least in part, to the main character’s life-time batting average (in other words, the only thing that a fraud can find authentic is baseball—a banal conclusion if true).  Then we have this discussion in Oblivion concerning the doppelganger narrator’s snoring (it turns out that the narrator, who appears to be the snoring husband, is actually the wife who is dreaming that she is the snoring husband):

The cart’s monitor . . . now displayed . . . a template of four evenly spaced horizontal lines, not unlike a musical score’s, between which moved a jagged or erratic line of white light which signified my own ‘brain’ waves, which had evidently been recorded through the conductive E.E.G. leads throughout our nights in the Sleep chamber. The waves’ white ‘line’ was discomfiting, being palsied, bumpy and arrhythmic rather than regular or consistent, as well as being trended with dramatic troughs and spikes or ‘nodes’ suggestive in appearance of an arrhythmic heart or financially troubled or erratic ‘Cash flow’ graph. Also, not unlike a series of Hewlett-Packard HP9400B mainframes arrayed in sequence for co-sequential (or, in A.D.C.’s nomenclautre, ‘Sysplex’) data processing [n.b.: DFW screwed up here because, as the story is structured, it is implausible that the narcissistic, self-regarding sleeping wife could have access to this information—indeed, the constant criticism of the wife creates a secondary problem with the story’s “twist in the tail”]

Is DFW just a giant math-geek?  Certainly.  But maybe this is also a clue as to the “deep structure” of the story itself.  As I explained in yesterday’s post, the language itself is also very gnarled and complex, full of parentheticals and possessives and odd-ball locutions.  Why?

Again, I’m thinking DFW is engaged in a project congenial to OuLiPo. Anthony Burgess, a writer similar to DFW in many respects, came to writing from music and based an entire book, Napoleon’s Symphony, on the structure of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony (Burgess, by the bye, was not a member of OuLiPo, I just think his work is similar).  There’s some kind of structure—my guess is a mathematical one, an algorithm, perhaps (as described in the above quote)—undergirding one or more of the stories.  This structure might be so complex that it determines how the individual sentences must be fashioned.  If so, this could take years to work out (which is how long it takes DFW to come out with a new work of fiction).  As I said, I’m too innumerate to speculate in a coherent fashion.  And I am not planning on developing the cabalistic expertise to figger all this out.  I just find it interesting.  And, at another level, profoundly disturbing.  Which is why I like DFW: he is strange, uncanny.

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