July  31,  2006

Patrick: Lagniappe

"To tell the truth, Polly, I think most of our patients would be better off at home. The Victorian system was better, with mad Auntie upstairs. More human. The fault lies mostly with the families. They want to get their mad relation out of the house and into what’s known as ‘the hands of competent professionals.’ I.e., sadistic nurses and orderlies. The same with old people; nobody wants old people around any more." "Oh, I agree!" exclaimed Polly. "I like old people. It’s awful, the way they’re junked, like old cars."

--The Group by Mary McCarthy


Flat As A

Pancake—a Breece D’J Pancake, that is. Who he? Just the latest flay-va to say-va by the int-lit creative-writing crowd. Here’s his write-up over at NPR. Pancake killed himself with a shotgun at an early age, so, of course, he’s revered in some circles as a towering talent whose time was tragically cut short. He produced just one book, a short stack of short stories, before blowing out his blueberries. But that’s all we have. His stories are set in the backwoods of Appalachian West Virginia and are filled to the brim with twisted trashy Eudora Welty eccentrics—instead of A Ponder Heart think A Ponderosa Trailer Park. So, are his stories any good? Yes they are, for a first effort. He uses a pared down Hemingway-like style to create a Faulkner-like mythos. All his characters seem to inhabit the same general area of back-country West Virginia, a land that time supposedly forgot—indeed, Pancake names one of his stories "Trilobites" and in another has a character hunting fossils—"ol’ dead stuff"—just in case you haven’t figured out yet that Pancake is engaged on a literary reclamation project. This amalgam is not a bad idea and could have developed into something truly worthwhile. At this stage, though, there are too many instances where the project meanders into parody such as: "The shot jerked Sally from her half-sleep, but she settled back again, watching the blue TV light play against the rusty flowers of ceiling leaks as the last grains of cocaine soaked into her head." I dare you to write a sentence as compact covering as many country-bumpkin clichés. There, are other spots, though, where a true literary sensibility shines through:

He laid down his rifle, crossed the fence, and took it up again. He headed deeper into the oaks, until they began to mingle with the yellow pine along the ridge. He saw no squirrels, but sat on a stump with oaks on all sides, their roots and bottom trunk brushed clean by squirrel tails. He grew numb with waiting, with cold; taking a nickel from his pocket, he raked it against the notched stock, made the sound of a squirrel cutting nuts. Soon enough he saw a flick of tail, the squirrel darted to the broadside trunk. Slowly, he raised his rifle, and when the echoes cleared from the far hills across the valley, the squirrel fell. He field-dressed it, and the blood dried cold on his hands; then he moved up the ridge toward the pine thicket, stopping every five minutes to kill until the killing drained him and his game bag weighed heavily at his side.

Niii-iiiiice. Pancake could have been a contender—there’s one short story, "The Salvation of Me," which makes clear he wasn’t just a one-note West Virginia Johnny. But then came the blueberries.

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July  29,  2006

Patrick: Lagniappe

But if she could not match dear Gus, like a paint sample or snippet of material, with any of the charted neuroses, the opposite, she found to her dismay, was true of herself. She seemed to be suffering from all of them. She was compulsive, obsessional, oral, anal, hysterical, and anxious. If her sexual life was not disturbed now, it certainly had been. A sense of guilt transpired from her Sunday-night washing ritual, and she allayed her anxiety by the propitiatory magic of ironing and darning. The plants on her window sills were the children she could not have. She was addicted to counting; she collected buttons, corsage pins, string, pebbles, hat pins, corks, ribbons, and newspaper clippings; she made lists, including this one, and was acquiring a craving for drink. The fact that she viewed this alarming picture with humorous fascination was itself a very bad sign, proving a dissociation from herself, a flight into fantasy and storytelling from an "unbearable" reality. The whole Andres family, Freud would say, lived in a world of myth.

--The Group by Mary McCarthy

[N.B.: Ahhh, Freud, that old entertainer—he, appropriately enough, got his start in mesmerism and magnetism but realized early on that coming up with his own shtick was the sure way to make a packet (strangely enough, Mary McCarthy in The Group has an inkling of the true nature of Freudianism as revealed by the remark of a character, Jim Ridgeley, who is a trained psychiatrist: "I’m going to get out. It was a mistake I made in medical school. I thought it was a science. It ain’t."). Some lament living in these post-ideological times where the latest idea providing a capital-letter explanation of How the World Works is not immediately greeted with a chorus of hosannas (unless one sees Islamism as an "idea" as opposed to a reflexive urge to reach for one’s gun). It must have been tiring—not to mention tiresome—to have to keep all this claptrap straight. It’s much easier to immerse oneself in Buffy the Vampire Slayer.]


Book Shelf Domination

Over at Kate’s Book Blog, there is an ongoing inquiry for book lovers concerning which authors dominate their bookshelves—domination defined here as five or more books by the same author. I thought I might include my own (admittedly incomplete) list of authors that tend to dominate my bookshelves and, by extension, my reading habits:

Max Beerbohm            W. H. Auden           John Gardner      Martin Amis

David Foster Wallace   Joyce Carol Oates   Kingsley Amis    Hilaire Belloc

Patrick Leigh Fermor    Edmund Wilson       Alfred Duggan    Robert Graves

Peter Ackroyd             John Banville           Charles Dickens  Henry James

Anthony Powell            V. S. Naipaul           A. N. Wilson     Tom Wolfe

Stefan Zweig                Stephen Fry             Hugh Kenner      Dylan Thomas

W. S. Merwin              Walker Percy           Edith Wharton    Robert Nye

T. S. Eliot                    Willa Cather              Peter Carey       Tom Sharpe

G. K. Chesterton         Graham Greene        Iris Murdoch      Ezra Pound

Vita Sackville-West     Harold Nicolson       Robert Hughes   Will Self

Lord Macaulay            Thomas Carlyle        Muriel Spark      Jane Austen

JM Coetzee                 Mary McCarthy       Paul Johnson      John Buchan

Ivy Compton-Burnett   Lionel Trilling           Jacques Barzun   John Lukacs

Hugh Trevor-Roper     Simon Schama         Czeslaw Milosz   Philip Roth

Anthony Burgess          P. G. Wodehouse    Aldous Huxley    Evelyn Waugh

George Orwell             Rudyard Kipling       Joseph Conrad    Ted Hughes

Robert Louis Stevenson  Kenneth Clark      W. B. Yeats        James Joyce

Arthur Conan Doyle     Rex Warner             EH Gombrich    Geoffrey Hill

Ryszard Kapuscinski     Ismail Kadare         Milan Kundera   Mark Twain

Virginia Wolfe              Rebecca West         Marcel Proust     Roald Dahl

Ford Maddox Ford      Cyril Connolly          William Trevor    Italo Calvino

Vladimir Nabokov        William Faulkner      Frank Kermode  John Ruskin

Hmmm, that seems like an odd lot. It’s definitely weighted toward the English and the Irish writers. I wouldn’t turn my back on that motley crew. Oh well, perhaps some day I’ll actually get around to organizing my books. Fat chance of that happening.

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July  28,  2006

Patrick: Lagniappe

"It is your pride, little girl, that makes you act so," said Mr. Schneider one evening when she had reproached him for trying to find her a "man." "Maybe," said Polly. "But don’t you think, Mr. Schneider, that love ought to come as a surprise? Like entertaining an angel unawares." The deep cleft in her chin dimpled. "You know how it is in mystery stories. The murderer is the least obvious suspect, the person you never would have guessed. That’s the way I feel about love. The ‘right man’ for me will never be the extra man specially invited for me. He’ll be the person the hostess never in her born days would have chosen. If he comes." Mr. Schneider looked gloomy. "You mean," he said, nodding, "you will fall in love with a married man. All the other suspects are obvious."

--The Group by Mary McCarthy


The Neglected Books Page

I received a nice email the other day from the proprietor of the Neglected Books page alerting me to this a very nifty website containing a linked list of neglected books as prepared over the decades by various magazines, publishers and authors. Needless to say, it is absolutely fascinating. I’m always trying to hunt down some obscure book worth revisiting (my current entry is William Gerhardie’s God’s Fifth Column; Gerhardie’s books turn up in a number of the lists), and now I can do all my perusing in one place. Plus the website has that retro-pulp-fiction feel that I find particularly appealing. Go check it out—I highly recommend it.

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July  27,  2006

Patrick: Lagniappe

His liking for name brands was what had sold him on Communism years ago, when he graduated from Brown spank into the depression. Shaw had already converted him to socialism, but if you were going to be a socialist, his roommate argued, you ought to give your business to the biggest and best firm producing socialism, i.e., the Soviet Union. So Gus switched to communism, but only after he had gone to see for himself. He and his roommate made a tour of the Soviet Union the summer after college and they were impressed by the dams and power plants and the collective farms and the Intourist girl guide. After that, Norman Thomas [who he?] seemed pretty ineffectual. Gus never took any notice of the little splinter groups, like the Trotskyites [ehhh?], which Polly’s friend, Mr. Schneider, across the hall, belonged to, or the Lovestoneites [whuh?] or the Musteites [errr]—every big movement, he said, had its share of cranks. Yet he had not joined the Party when he and his roommate got back. He did not want to hurt his father, the owner of a job-printing business in Fall River that had been in the family for four generations.

--The Group by Mary McCarthy

[N.B.: Looking back at the tawdry Twentieth Century, one wonders why so many folks got involved with such ludicrous (not to mention murderous) ideologies as communism. Mary McCarthy’s explanation here strikes me as particularly insightful for the run-of-the-mine fellow traveler: one became a communist because one wanted to be seen as being in the vanguard, to be attached to the new, new thing. Thank goodness the wars of the last century at least killed off (along with hundreds of millions of people) the Whig view of history that life tends to get better and better with Pangloss nodding on his thrown in heaven. No longer do folks assume that the latest new idea must necessarily be a better one. What’s the new voice of a new generation? I do believe it is Pepsi. Note, by the bye, how McCarthy takes a jab at those "cranks" the Trotskyites—she happened to be one of them. She admitted in some interview that she joined up with them because she instinctively went for the underdog. So communism, which is here depicted as a consumer product along the lines of laundry soap, also had diversified to offer different product lines for different types of consumers: Extra-strong Red-Tide Communism for the fancier of the übermenschen or Tie-Dyed Trotskyism for the pinko pal of the proletariat. ]

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July  26,  2006

Patrick: Lagniappe

"The ones who counted were you and Lakey and Libby and Kay." Norine had always been an expert on who "counted" and who did not. "You were Sandison. We were Lockwood," pursued Norine somberly. "You were Morgan. We were Marx." "Oh, pooh!" cried Helena, almost angry. "Who was ‘Morgan’?" In her cool character the only passion yet awakened was the passion for truth. "The whole group was for Roosevelt in the college poll! Except Pokey, who forgot to vote." "One less for Hoover, then," remarked Norine. "Wrong!" said Helena, grinning. "She was for Norman Thomas. Because he breeds dogs." Norine nodded. "Cocker spaniels," she said. "What a classy reason!" Helena agreed that this was so. "All right," Norine conceded after a thoughtful pause. "Kay was Flanagan, if you want. Priss was Newcomer. Lakey was Rindge. I may have been oversimplifying. Libby was M.A.P. Smith, would you say?" "I guess so," said Helena, yawning slightly and glancing at her watch; this kind of analysis, which had been popular at Vassar, bored her.

--The Group by Mary McCarthy

[N.B.: No kidding, Mary McCarthy, it bores me, too! Here is a prime example of why the literary greats avoid being too topical—sure, sure, Tolstoy might write about specific Napoleonic battles but he doesn’t dwell on who was on the ins and outs with Napoleon’s general staff. So, why do second-rate authors engage in this sort of folderol? Well, referencing topical events and people who only the "well read"—i.e., those folks who actually bother to keep up with current events (the apotheosis of this odd sub-species are the ones who in Washington, D.C. bookstores pick up the latest insider account about the current Presidential administration and flip to the index to see it they’re mentioned in it) and who like to talk amongst themselves about such public gossip and ephemera—know about makes such self-informed persons feel superior to the great unwashed who would rather be engrossed reading In Search of Lost Time rather than searching for the lost issue of Time that’s fallen behind the sofa. Guess, though, which form of reading material will continue to be read in the next hundred years, let alone in the next week.]

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July  25,  2006

Patrick: Lagniappe

"She’s morally offended by impure English." "Like what?" encouraged Kay. "Dangling modifiers. Improper prepositions. ‘Aggravating’ to mean ‘annoying,’ ‘demean’ to mean ‘lower,’ ‘sinister.’" "’Sinister’?" echoed the publisher’s reader. "Mother says it only means left-handed or done with the left hand. If you tell her a person is sinister, all she will infer, she says, is that he’s left-handed. A deed, she allows, may be sinister, if it’s done sidewise or ‘under the robe’ or ‘on the wrong side of the blanket.’"

--The Group by Mary McCarthy


Copyright Blight

Scurrying warily across the moonlit, desolate landscape of one-man’s land, a forlorn figure attempts to evade the rapacious clutches of a raiding party made up of some of the most fearsome warriors of the copyright battles. Led by the intrepid Captain Winnie (Pooh first class) and seconded by his trusted Lieutenant Peter Pan, the group of hardened soldiers lob a flurry of cease-and-desist orders at the scrambling scout as he desperately zig-zags towards his trenches. Winnie, realizing that the messenger might escape, orders Mickey Mouse and Bugs Bunny to give chase on foot with Batman and Spiderman. They almost overtake the pathetic runner, but at the last moment he dodges their whiz-bang complaints and leaps into an old shell hole. At first, he thinks he’s alone in the foul-smelling crater, but then he spies the spectral corpse of another runner, his old buddy, Napster, whose skeletal head grins up at him as a portent of death and defeat. Stunned, he leaps out of hole and is immediately spotted by Donald Duck who orders a detachment of Porky Pig, Rhett Butler and Jay Gatsby to give chase. Luckily, a fog of fair use covers the battlefield and the scout is able to safely scuttle back to his lines where he delivers the latest dispatch from the front. All is now quiet in one-man’s land, save for the distant rat-a-tat as a roving party of commandos machine gun a motley collection of satirists.

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July  23,  2006

Patrick: Lagniappe

The Lovers

Across the round field, under the dark male tower

drift the two horses, the chestnut and the black,

aloof and quiet as two similar clouds

alike and distant, heads toward the wind--

and the grass a green pool under moving clouds,

under the sickle gulls, the grey-eyed screaming girls.

Only at night around the standing tower

the stallion's white teeth in the brown mare's shoulder

those eight hoofs fly like thunder in the wind,

like water falling under the night's drum.

--Alex Comfort from The New British Poets an anthology edited by Kenneth Rexroth

[N.B.  Alex Comfort was a physician and a poet who later became famous for writing a little book called The Joy of Sex.  Here is a fellow who appreciates that much debased of terms, the erotic.  I leave you with a stanza from his longish poem prefiguring his notorious book, The Postures of Love:

There is a white mare that my love keeps

unridden in a hillside meadow--white

as a white pebble, veined like a stone

a white horse, whiter than a girl


And now for three nights sleeping I have seen

her body naked as a tree for marriage

pale as a stone that the net of water covers


and her veined breasts like hills--the swallow islands

still on the corn's green water: and I know

her dark hairs gathered round an open rose


her pebbles lying under the dappled sea.

And I will ride her thighs' white horses.

Dr. Comfort must have been a real pip in his day.  I guess it's a bit ironic that he's now remembered, if at all, for writing a successful sex manual.]

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July  22,  2006

Patrick: Lagniappe

Dead Ponies

There is death enough in Europe without these

dead horses on the mountain.

(They are the underlining, the emphasis of death.)

It is not wonderful that when they live

Their eyes are shadowed under mats of hair.

Despair and famine do not gripe so hard

When the bound earth and sky are kept remote

behind clogged hairs.


The snow engulfed them, pressed their withered haunches flat,

filled up their nostrils, burdened the cage of their ribs.

The snow retreated.  Their bodies stink to heaven,

Potently crying out to raven, hawk, and dog,

Come pick us clean, cleanse our fine bones of blood.


They were never lovely save as foals

before their necks grew long, uncrested;

but the wildness of the mountain was in their stepping,

the pride of Spring burnt in their haunches;

they were tawny as rushes of the marsh.


The prey-birds have had their fill and preen their feathers:

soft entrails have gone to make the hawk arrogant.

--Brenda Chamberlain from The New British Poets an anthology edited by Kenneth Rexroth

[N.B.:  Kenneth Rexroth, a well-respected poet in his own right (although somewhat faded in fame and renown) had a discerning eye for the odd within the commonplace.  I've never heard of Brenda Chamberlain, but her poems, as represented in this anthology, have a peculiar charge to them.  She has another, titled simply Lament, which is similar in structure to the one quoted above and has an even more disturbing ending couplet:

The wave tore his bright flesh in her greed:

My man is bone ringéd with weed.

What an unusual sensibility!  I'll probably sprinkle a few more poems throughout litblog in the next few days since, as far as I can tell, most of the poets anthologized in The New British Poets, although the book was published after the Second World War, have completely vanished into obscurity.  Once again, thank you dead-hand copyright laws--a copyright term of a century does not preserve art, but erases it.]

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July  21,  2006

Patrick: Lagniappe

At fourteen, after the death of her French teacher, Irène began writing. Settled on the sofa, a notebook on her lap, she developed a technique inspired by Ivan Turgenev. As well as the narrative itself, she would write down all the ideas the story inspired in her, without any revision or crossing out. She filled notebook upon notebook with thoughts about her characters, even the minor ones, describing their appearance, their education, their childhood, all the stage of their lives in chronological order. When each character had been detailed to this degree of precision, she would use two pencils, one red, the other blue, to underline the essential characteristics to be retained; sometimes only a few lines. She would then move quickly on to writing the novel, improving it, then editing the final version.

--Preface to the French Edition of Suite Française by Irène Némirovsky

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July  20,  2006

Patrick: Lagniappe

It’s a truism that people are complicated, multifaceted, contradictory, surprising, but it takes the advent of war or other momentous events to be able to see it. It is the most fascinating and the most dreadful of spectacles, she continued thinking, the most dreadful because it’s so real; you can never pride yourself on truly knowing the sea unless you’ve seen it both calm and in a storm. Only the person who has observed men and women at times like this, she thought, can be said to know them. And to know themselves.

--Suite Française by Irène Némirovsky

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July  19,  2006

Patrick: Lagniappe

[S]he never thought her daughter-in-law and the German could possible care for each other. After all, people judge one another according to their own feelings. It is only the miser who sees others enticed by money, the lustful who see others obsessed by desire. To Madame Angellier, a German was not a man, he was the personification of cruelty, perversity and hatred. For anyone else to feel differently was preposterous, incredible. She couldn’t imaging Lucile in love with a German any more than she could imagine a woman mating with some mythical creature, a unicorn, a dragon or the monster Sainte Marthe killed to free Tarascon. Nor did it seem possible that the German could be in love with Lucile. Madame Angellier refused to accord him any human feelings. She interpreted his long looks as a further attempt to insult this already defiled French home, as a way of feeling cruel pleasure at having the mother and wife of a prisoner of war at his mercy.

--Suite Française by Irène Némirovsky


The Crime of Being Clever, Part III: John P. Marquand’s The Late George Apley

There’s a cheap trick—an oldie, but a goodie—to get your reading audience immediately in your corner at the start of your book: Invite them to laugh at your characters and relish their superiority to them. Of course, we now have television so that one would think this trick passé (why bother wasting the effort to actually read why one is cleverer when one may merely passively observe one’s surpassing cleverness). But then we have Jonathan Franzen’s snide, ironic, omniscient narrator who drags us by the arm as he points out the foibles of his novel’s main characters, the members of the Lambert family. Awards and accolades follow—but so, too, shall oblivion.

The lasting authors resist this great temptation—who doesn’t want to be liked by their readers in a friendly, comradely fashion?—because the fostering of disdain and contempt rarely evokes worthwhile art. Mark Twain’s books are filled with rascals and scalawags, but he typically communicates a certain fondness, a certain compassion, for them (the same is true, of course, for Charles Dickens). Certainly, the villains may be morally inferior, but they are not absolutely so—usually, indeed, they are socially and intellectually superior. The two villains in The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James possess both of these qualities, and, I would argue, it is in large part due to this circumstance that makes the book such a lasting success. In other words, cheap melodrama does not wear well. And neither does its clever cousin.

Which brings me to a very clever book—a Pulitzer prizewinner—which, nonetheless, is almost completely forgotten and unread today. And justifiably so. It is John P. Marquand’s The Late George Apley. What, you haven’t heard of John P. Marquand? Surely you have seen that forlorn shelf of his books at your friendly, neighborhood mega-used-bookstore, each one the prize possessor of being a feature selection by the book-of-the-month club. He was also a best selling author in his day a-la Chez Franzen. Who can forget the riveting excitement as Marquand describes the genteel life of a turn-of-century Boston Brahmin in H. M. Pullman, Esquire; his ups, his downs, his life of quiet desperation. Or you can revel in the riveting excitement as Marquand describes the genteel life of a turn-of-century New England banker, Charley Gray ("Gray," get it?) in Point of No Return; his ups, his downs, his life of quiet desperation. Or you can pick up the best of the bunch, The Late George Apley.

The Late George Apley is full of riveting excitement as Marquand describes the genteel life of a turn-of-century Boston Brahmin, George Apley, in the form of a memoir written by his childhood friend, a slightly pompous and unreliable narrator, Mr. Willing, supplemented by family correspondence that is also slightly pompous, faintly ridiculous, but, overall, velly, velly, genteel. Here’s a sample of Mr. Willing summarizing George Apley’s reminiscences of his childhood days:

Other more informal hours were spent at Hillcrest in the company of Tim, the coachman. His learning consisted almost entirely of Irish folktales, concerned with black ghosts and white ghosts and banshees. Sometimes in the kitchen Bridget, the cook, would sing snatches of ballads. One in particular dealt with a fiery-tempered young man who went walking with the girl of his choice down an Irish lane. For some reason which George Apley could not understand, this young man suddenly hit his sweetheart over the head with a club, and threw her body behind the thorn hedge. Later, on his return home, the girl’s sister had him tried for murder, and the ballad ended "And well she might, for she knew the night, when I took her sister out." Since this ballad-narrative puzzled young George he went to the one source he knew, where the puzzle might be resolved: his mother. After listening carefully, Elizabeth Apley brought him to the library, where his father was arranging books, and there George repeated the story. Thomas Apley also listened carefully and made no comment, but Bridget thereafter lost her gift of song.

Hardee-Har-Har. And this is one of the funniest incidents in the book. Note the author’s invitation to give the reader a three-fer: (1) Snicker at the pompous way that Mr. Willing summarizes this story; (2) Guffaw at young George Apley’s gormlessness; and (3) Snigger at the antics of the unwashed Irish. In each instance, the reader is meant to feel, well, superior, to all these characters. Isn’t that comfy? Let’s put another blockhead on the fire and keep our toes nice and toasty as we peruse our narcotic. The only author I can think of who can pull off something like this is P. G. Wodehouse, but he knows to go over the top with the slapstick and is also probably one of the top ten greatest writers of the English language (so I’ll give him a pass on this aspect of looking down our noses at poor Bertie Wooster—although Jeeves is clearly cleverer than all us readers put together).

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July  18,  2006

Patrick: Lagniappe

"Madam, I am a soldier. Soldiers don’t think. I’m told to go somewhere and I go. Told to fight, I fight. Told to get myself killed, I die. Thinking would make fighting more difficult and death more terrible."

"But what about enthusiasm . . ."

"Madame, forgive me, but that’s a term a woman would use. A man does his duty even without enthusiasm. Perhaps that’s the way you know he’s a man, a real man."


--Suite Française by Irène Némirovsky


The Crime of Being Clever, Part II: Mary McCarthy’s The Group

Mary McCarthy’s great strength is as a short-story writer. But before attention spans had atrophied to the point that a writer who wrote nothing but short stories, such as Alice Munro, could be revered as the greatest living fiction writer, if one wished to be taken seriously in the world of letters, one had to write novels. So Mary McCarthy came up with a very clever idea. She could have solved her problem the old James Michener way by writing a series of interlocking short stories each of which featuring many of the same characters in the same setting (instead of calling it Tales of the South Pacific she could have called it Tales of the Upper East Side). But Mary McCarthy decided to be a bit more clever than that. She wrote one big novel that began and ended with the wedding and funeral, respectively, of one of the members of a group of Vassar graduates (class of ’33). If this sounds disturbingly similar to Four Weddings and a Funeral, well, there you go. Indeed, the book Mary McCarthy eventually wrote—The Group—can be seen as the chthonic ancestor for a number of well-respected television and movie genres. Sandwiched in between this wedding and funeral are a number of vignettes where each member of the Group is given the spotlight in turn (her own little short story, if you will) and has her character fleshed out with respect to a particular problem she is confronted with.

Now here’s the point at which the cleverness turned terminal (at least as far as joining the ranks of the Greats are concerned): These particular problems were racy updates of so-called "women’s" issues that would keep her imagined female readers glued to the page (Mary McCarthy’s narrator even refers at one point to her audience as "girls"). Of course, these tantalizing tit-bits are now as appetizing as week-old seafood, but one is still expected to tuck into them with abandoned delight. Hmmm, let’s see. What’s this hiding under the wilted garnish? Ahhh, it’s an exposition on the pessuary—i.e., the diaphragm—how to get one, how to insert it, and where to put it. Interesting (yawn). Ummm, this brownish goop seems a bit past its prime---uggh, a discussion of the merits of breast-versus-bottle feeding. Oh, and this stale sauce must be the recitation of what it’s like being psycho-analyzed (slathered with a description of actually being admitted to a psychiatric hospital). What, no abortion? That might have stayed fresh. Instead, to finish off the repast, one of the members turns out to be a lesbian, whose lover, of course, is a formidable European countess. How tres chic, for ’33, I guess. Terminal cleverness. It will stale. What’s that buzzer sounding? Is that Jonathan Franzen’s blue-plate special?

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July  13,  2006

Patrick: Lagniappe

Like many young men subjected to strict discipline from childhood, he had acquired the habit of bolstering his ego with outward arrogance and stiffness. He believed that any man worthy of the name should be made of steel. And he had behaved accordingly during the war, in Poland and France, and during the occupation. But far more than any principles, he obeyed the impulsiveness of youth. . . . He behaved kindly or cruelly depending on how people and things struck him. If he took a dislike to someone, he made sure he hurt them as much as possible. During the retreat of the French army, when he was in charge of taking the pathetic herd of prisoners back to Germany, during those terrible days when he was under orders to kill anyone who was flagging, anyone who wasn’t walking fast enough, he shot the ones he didn’t like the look of without remorse, with pleasure even. On the other hand he would behave with infinite kindness and sympathy towards certain prisoners who seemed likeable to him, some of whom owed him their lives. He was cruel, but it was the cruelty of adolescence, cruelty that results from a lively and subtle imagination, focused entirely inward, towards his own soul. He didn’t pity the suffering of others, he simply didn’t see them: he saw only himself.

--Suite Française by Irène Némirovsky


The Voice of a Generation

Lev Grossman, writing for Time (okay, okay, not exactly a reliable sign of authority anymore), has an interesting article about who might be the young novelist recognized as the Voice of the Generation (whatever that might be).  It boils down to this:  Who’s a lasting under-forty novelist who will be recognized, decades in the future, as having captured as certain je ne sais quoi about his or her generation? He notes that the usual suspects, David Foster Wallace, Jonathan Franzen, Jonathan Lethem and Michael Chabon, are all over forty.  He then provides a list of under-forty novelists which sadly demonstrates the lack of talent in the United States. In desperation, he reaches across the Atlantic to pull in some British novelists, dubbing Zadie Smith, at the tender age of thirty, and who, of late, I’ve been gushing over, as "her generation’s consensus No. 1 seed."  I think this is right (both as to the judgment on Ms. Smith and the wish to include British authors), and have posted before about how narrowly provincial it seems to me to talk of an "American" literature, consisting of writers who were born in the United States, or lived here, or ate lunch here once, or some such nonsense (which is demonstrated on a regular basis by whom the Library of Congress chooses to include or exclude from its list—the emigrant, Isaac Bashevis Singer, an admittedly great writer, but whose sensibility had nothing to do with the United States or the English language, for that matter, he’s in; W. H. Auden, who actually became a U.S. citizen, he’s apparently out) as opposed to an "English" literature, meaning, books written in English.  So why aren’t there any good (good, here, meaning, "F. Scott Fitzgerald"-level good) under-forty U.S. novelists?  As I have written about before, get thee to a creative writing program, for "there is a kind of honey-dew that’s deadly; ‘twill poison your fame."

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July  12,  2006

Patrick: Lagniappe

And almost immediately, as if they were meeting again after the most peaceful, the most ordinary of summers, they began the kind of conversation Charlie called "Fragile—Don’t touch" conversation: lively and light-hearted small-talk, ranging over any number of subjects but dwelling on none in particular."

--Suite Française by Irène Némirovsky


The Crime of Being Clever: Mary McCarthy’s The Group

Everyone remembers Mary McCarthy, right? Wasn’t she that wise-cracking Irish moll, the updated Dorothy Parker for the mid-century set (What! You don’t know who Dorothy Parker was?—well get thee to this website http://www.dorothyparker.com/index.html )? Mary McCarthy, wasn’t she married to the last man-of-letters, the serial seducer and gooser, the indefatigable and dilapidated Edmund Wilson? Didn’t she write mostly criticism and short stories, but she also wrote several well-received novels, too? Let me think, her most famous novel was about this group of Vassar women (’33—the year McCarthy graduated from Vassar, natch’) and their post-graduate, post-partum problems; I believe it was called The Group. Yep, yep, yep, yep and yep.

The Group is still important in a historical way in the sense that it was the first successful cosmopolitan girl group novel. In other words, it was the novelized version of the hit television show, Sex and the City, with the same setting (Manhattan—but during the Great Depression) with the group consisting of eight women that were young twenty somethings, not the program’s older, more jaded, late-thirty-to-forty somethings (of course, folks grew up quicker in them olden days). From this perspective, it is certainly of continuing interest to literary types who are interested in exposing the roots of a particularly hardy variety of chick-lit. But is there more to the book than that?

There is more to the book in the sense that Mary McCarthy was a great writer, possessing the classical, pellucid writing style that tends to drag the reader along in its wake, even when it is floundering in the miasmic swamps of some dull exposition concerning the various Marxist factions from the Thirties instead of popping along the surf of the deep-blue snappy conversation of the characters. Here’s a sample mostly from a minor character, Dick Brown, whose main function in the novel is to deflower one of The Group’s members (who he rakishly refers to as "Boston"):

"I like a man’s life," he said. "A bar. The outdoors. Fishing and hunting. I like men’s talk, that’s never driving to get anywhere but just circles and circles. That’s why I drink. Paris suited me—the crowd of painters and newspapermen and photographers. I’m a natural exile; if I have a few dollars or francs, I’m satisfied. I’ll never pass third bases as a painter, but I can draw and do nice clean work—an honest job. But I hate change, Boston, and I don’t change myself. That’s where I come a cropper with women. Women expect an affair to get better and better, and if it doesn’t, they think it’s getting worse. They think if I sleep with them longer I’m going to get fonder of them, and if I don’t get fonder that I’m tiring of them. But for me it’s all the same. If I like it the first time, I know I’m going to keep on liking it. I liked you last nigh and I’ll keep on liking you as long as you want to come here. But don’t harbor the idea that I’m going to like you more." A truculent, threatening note had come into his voice with the last words; he stood, staring down at her harshly and teetering a little on his slippered feet. Dottie fingered the frayed tassel of his dressing-gown sash. "All right, Dick," she whispered.

A beginning writer could learn a lot from this paragraph: Short, sharp sentences with plenty of crackle, just the way ol’ Pa Hemingway used to make them; mixed dialogue in the same paragraph separated by a short bit of exposition to keep the reader moving along the page; and last, but not least, breaking up the prose with long dashes and starting sentences with conjunctions. Yep, folks, it’s all there for the taking. But being a good writer isn’t enough, is it folks? I mean, one can write like an angel but lots of people can do that, can’t they? And here comes English’s dirty little secret: Yes. There’s a surprising number of remarkable prose writers out there who you’ve never heard of, but, boy, can they write: Alfred Duggan, the mid-Twentieth Century historical novelist extraordinaire; Peter Fleming, the older brother of Ian Fleming and the better writer—Peter, though, made the mistake of cranking out a series of fascinating books about various obscure historical incidents instead of putting a certain man’s man’s man’s man’s spy through his paces; Hilaire Belloc, the historian and militant Catholic apologist who made up the hind quarters of what George Bernard Shaw dubbed the "Chesterbelloc"; and etc., etc., and so forth. Now, you might correct me here and point out these writers are all British—so name some unknown American writers. Hmmm, well, that’s a good point. Maybe its just obscure British writers who can write like angels. Then again, not very many folks have heard of Mary McCarthy (or that ex-husband of hers, Edmund Wilson).

So, why haven’t more people heard of Mary McCarthy? The answer can be found in The Group. And now, we’re finally coming along to the point of this post—that book, usually considered her finest, suffers from terminal cleverness. But, ooops, folks, we’ve run out of time, so lets discuss its cleverness next time.

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July  11,  2006

Patrick: Lagniappe

The people around him, his family, his friends, aroused a feeling of shame and rage within him. He had seen them on the road, them and people like them: he recalled the cars full of officers running away with their beautiful yellow trunks and their painted women, civil servants abandoning their posts, panic-stricken politicians dropping their files of secret papers along the road, young girls, who had diligently wept the day the armistice was signed, being comforted in the arms of the Germans. "And to think that no one will know, that there will be such a conspiracy of lies that all this will be transformed into yet another glorious page in the history of France. We’ll do everything we can to find acts of devotion and heroism for the official records. Good God! To see what I’ve seen! Closed doors where you knock in vain to get a glass of water and refugees who pillaged houses; everywhere, everywhere you look , chaos, cowardice, vanity and ignorance! What a wonderful race we are!"

--Suite Française by Irène Némirovsky


On Beauty and The Corrections

Having just finished reading Zadie Smith’s On Beauty and listening to Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections, I’m a bit mystified by my very different responses (unabashed love for the former and loathing for the latter) to what seems, at least superficially, to be very similar novels. Both are slice-of-life dissections of the mores of a modern, irreligious, post-Protestant, American family using the omniscient narrator and an updated mix of elements taken from the scaffolding of the Victorian novel. So, I’m left with those ineffable imponderables: tone, construction (of both plot and character) and theme. In short, Jane Austen’s sense and sensibility. Zadie has it. Franzen doesn’t. [N.B.: You can already see my bias in how I choose to address the two authors—although, the case might be that her last name, "Smith," is a confusing commonplace, just like his first name, "Jonathan."]

Zadie, being black herself (and, no, she can’t be described using the current expression, "African-American," because she’s British—on top of being clunky, that tag also excludes over ninety percent of the world’s population that happens to share a similar genetic profile) focuses on the Belseys, a Boston family with black children and a black mother (okay, I guess they qualify as "African-American," although the father is a white, British citizen). This family experiences a number of conflicts due to the philandering of the father, Howard, an art professor at fictional Wellington college, and the arrival from England to Wellington of another black family (who also can’t be described as . . . oh, why bother) headed by Monty Kipps, a rival art professor who is a popular public intellectual and Howard’s bete noire. Hijinx ensue.

As one can see from the tangled parentheticals in the preceding paragraph, On Beauty wrestles with the knotty problem of race relations in the United States. On the other hand, Franzen’s glancing blow at this problem involves a—I kid you not—talking feces with racist tendencies. So, you can walk the walk. Or, have a turd that talks. And that pretty much sums up the aesthetic sensibilities and differences between these two writers. Franzen is all into boyish potty humor while Zadie eschews such capers.

These differences in sensibility become more pronounced as the novels progress—particularly with respect to the narrator. Franzen’s narrator is a snide, carping ironist who finds no redeeming qualities with respect to his American family, the Lamberts, starting with the pater familias, Alfred, a clockwork workaholic engineer whose emotional withdrawal prefigures his mental withdrawal due to Parkinson’s disease (and eventually, life withdrawal, from refusing to eat), then moving to his wife, Enid, a passive-aggressive hausfrau who has sacrificed her life on the altar of Alfred’s ice-cold taciturnity, and now, picking up speed as the narrator scampers to the farthest branches of the family tree, sketching out the three children: Gary, the depressed yuppie bank-manager control freak and selfish solipsist; Chip, the ex-professor, ex-sexual predator, ex-intellectual but very much current juvenile hipster and perpetual adolescent; and, finally, Denise, the soon-to-be celebrity chef who hasn’t met another person’s marriage that she couldn’t ruin by stepping into the role of the "other woman" or, even, the "other man," when called for. Some people might find this mélange hee-haw hilarious. And, if one is inclined towards the slapstick antics of bad-mouthing bowel movements (a hallucination due to the progression of Alfred’s Parkinson’s) then this is the book for you. Otherwise, I found it extremely tedious. So, again, why such a marked reaction to Franzen? I believe it’s due to a particular affliction that the would-be intellectual is particularly vulnerable to: The crime of being clever.

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July  6,  2006

Patrick: Lagniappe

She came to the conclusion that for her nothing would change. Her wealth consisted of jewelry—which could only increase in value—and property (she’d made some good investments in the Midi, before the war). Yet they were mere trimmings. Her principal assets were her legs, her figure, her scheming mind—thing vulnerable only to time. But there was the rub . . . She immediately thought of her age and, taking a mirror from her handbag in the way that you touch a good-luck charm to ward off evil spirits, looked carefully at her face. An unpleasant thought occurred to her: she used nothing but American make-up. It had been difficult to get hold of any for a few weeks now. That put her in a bad mood. So what! Things might change on the surface but underneath everything would be the same. There would be new rich men, just as there always were after great disasters—men prepared to pay dearly for their pleasures because their money had come easily and so would love. But please, dear God, let all this chaos end quickly! Please let us get back to a normal way of life, whatever it might be; these wars, revolutions, great historical upheavals might be exciting to men, but to women . . . Women felt nothing but boredom.

--Suite Française by Irène Némirovsky

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July  5,  2006

Patrick: Lagniappe

Privileges, exemptions, connections, all that was for the middle classes. Deep in her heart were layer upon layer of hatred, overlapping yet distinct: the countrywoman’s hatred, who instinctively detests city people, the servant’s hatred, weary and bitter at having lived in other people’s houses, the worker’s hatred. For the past few months she had replaced her husband at the factory. She couldn’t get used to doing a man’s work; it had strengthened her arms but hardened her soul.

--Suite Française by Irène Némirovsky

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July  3,  2006

Patrick: Lagniappe

"They look so tired, so hot!" everyone kept saying, but not one of them thought to open their doors, to invite one of these wretches inside, to welcome them into the shady bits of heaven that the refugees could glimpse behind the houses, where wooden benches nestled in arbours amid red-currant bushes and roses. There were just too many of them. Too many weary, pale faces, dripping with sweat, too many wailing children, too many trembling lips asking, "Do you know where we could get a room? A bed?" . . . "Would you tell us where we could find a restaurant, please, Madame?" It prevented the townspeople from being charitable. There was nothing human left in this miserable mob; they were like a herd of frightened animals. Their crumpled clothes, crazed faces, hoarse voices, everything about them made them look peculiarly alike, so you couldn’t tell them apart. They all made the same gestures, said the same words. Getting out of the cars, they would stumble a bit as if drunk, putting their hands to their throbbing temples. "My God, what a journey!" they sighed. "Hey, don’t we look gorgeous?" they asked with a giggle. "They say things are better over there," they would say, pointing over their shoulders to somewhere lost in the distance.

--Suite Française by Irène Némirovsky

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