June  28,  2007

Patrick: Lagniappe

A harrowing visit this afternoon to see an old woman, Mrs. Walter Tibbitts, in a private residential hotel in Inverness Terrace, Bayswater.  She had offered her "collections" to the Trust.  From her descriptions of Benares ware, Poona brass, marquetry furniture, and from the photograph she produced of a Hindu carved screen, it sounded appalling and unsuitable.  Yet she had not a flicker of doubt that it was important and insisted that the collection be kept together.  She is seventy-eight and must find a home for it before she dies.  I left her feeling more depressed than words can describe.  When the old have to live in soulless drabness, which this hotel is, alone, ridiculous and unwanted, they are pitiable.  When they are slightly truculent, to keep their end up, it moves me beyond compassion to a sadness which haunts me for days.  The agony of it.

--Diaries, 1942-1954 by James Lees-Milne (abridged and introduced by Michael Bloch), entry for Thursday, December 18th 1947

June  26,  2007

Patrick: Lagniappe

"Go away.  We don't want spies round here.  Go away, you Jew."  With the calm of his race Myatt drew away; it was a superficial calm carried unconsciously like an inherited feature; beneath it he felt the resentment of a young man aware of his importance.  He leant towards the soldier with the intention of lodging in the flushed animal face some barb of speech, but he stopped in time, aware with amazement and horror of the presence of danger; in the small hungry eyes shone hatred and a desire to kill; it was as if all the oppressions, the pogroms, the chains, and the envy and superstition which caused them, had been herded into a dark cup of the earth and now he stared down at them from the rim.  He moved back with his eyes on the soldier while the man's fingers felt round the trigger.  "I'll see the stationmaster's clerk," he said, but his instinct told him to walk quickly back to his car and rejoin the train.

--Stamboul Train by Graham Greene

[N.B.:  Greene wrote Stamboul Train in 1932, just one year before Hitler came to power in Germany.  This vignette presciently points towards the horrors to come.  It's also interesting to note how Greene depicts the pervasiveness of these attitudes at the time (some would argue, with justification, that such is still the case).  Further, Greene himself, although clearly sympathetic to his hero, Myatt, also suffers from the taint to a small degree by describing "the calm of his race."  Although meant as a compliment, the generalization does tend to dehumanize as well (the fate of all generalizations, no matter how nobly intended).]

June  25,  2007

Patrick: Lagniappe

Myatt shouted again, "Slower," but the driver pointed to his watch and drove his car to its creaking, unsafe, and gigantic limit of strength.  He was a man to whom thirty dinas, the difference between catching and losing the train, meant months of comfort; he would have risked his life and the life of his passenger for far less money.  Suddenly, as the wind took the snow and blew it aside, a cart appeared in the gap ten yards away and right in front of them.  Myatt had just time to see the bemused eyes of the oxen, to calculate where their horns would smash the glass of the windscreen; an elderly man screamed and dropped his goad and jumped.  The driver wrenched his wheel round, the car leapt a bank, rode crazily on two wheels, while the others hummed and revolved between the wind and earth, leant further and further over till Myatt could see the ground rise like boiling milk, left the bank, touched two wheels to the ground, touched four, and roared down the road at sixty-five miles an hour, while the snow closed behind them, and hid the oxen and cart and the astonished terrified old man.

--Stamboul Train by Graham Greene

[N.B.:  One always hears about writers who are masters of suspense.  Greene is rarely singled out for this accolade, probably because he is a master period--and suspense just happens to be one of the many tools of his trade that he has mastered.  Still, it's worthwhile to point out that the truly great writers can handle many modes and are not tied, like a dumb ox, to just one cart.  The problem for such ox-like writers is that tastes change and a mode that is popular today may very well get driven off the road by a crazed Myatt in a souped-up car tomorrow.  And then where is the dumb ox left?  That's right:  In a ditch with Hugh Walpole.]

June  24,  2007

Patrick: Lagniappe

Brother Fursey possessed the virtue of Holy Simplicity in such a high degree that he was considered unfit for any work other than paring edible roots in the monastery kitchen, and even at that, it could not be truthfully claimed that he excelled.

--The Unfortunate Fursey by Mervyn Wall

June  22,  2007

Patrick: Lagniappe

It would make a difference, therefore, whether he were of the people or not, inasmuch as in the day of the great revenge it would only be the people who should be saved.  It was for the people the world was made: whoever was not of them was against them; and all others were cumberers, usurpers, exploiters, accaparreurs, as M. Poupin used to say.  Hyacinth had once put the question directly to Mr. Vetch, who looked at him a while through the fumes of his eternal pipe and then said, "Do you think I'm an aristocrat?"

"I didn't know but you were a bourgeois," the young man answered.

"No, I'm neither.  I'm a Bohemian."

"With your evening dress, every night?"

"My dear boy," said the fiddler, "those are the most confirmed."

--The Princess Casamassima by Henry James

June  21,  2007

Patrick: Lagniappe

When the bell rang for matins the monks came from their cells a little haggard and shaken, but with renewed confidence.  Everywhere that the enemy had manifested himself he had been defeated.  Father Sampson had spent the night struggling with an incubus, but as Sampson had been a wrestler at the court of the King of Thomond before he entered the cloister, he had been well able for his adversary.  Brother Patrick had been caused annoyance by a huge black dog hideous to look upon, barking at him from a corner of his cell.  As Patrick had been too terrified to reach for the holy water, the demon had remained until the crowing of the first cock; but the lay brother had suffered no inconvenience other than loss of sleep; and Brother Patrick remarked philosophically:  "I wouldn't have slept in any case."  Other monks had been scandalized by the presence of damsels of excessive comeliness, who had succeeded in divesting themselves of the greater part of their clothing before the fathers could find the right page in the books of exorcism.  A suave gentleman of swarthy aspect, thought to be the Prince of Darkness himself, had actually had the audacity to try to tempt the Master of Novices and had got very much the worse of the encounter.

--The Unfortunate Fursey by Mervyn Wall


Art for Art's Sake

Who'd of thunk it that John Ruskin now reigns supreme with respect to art criticism, just as he did in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries.  Of course, he is now the unacknowledged (and unread) ruler.  Just how unread?  I was able to pick up one of the limited-edition thirty-volume sets of his collected works for a mere $100 bucks from that most gimlet-eyed of used book stores: Half Price Books.  It's unfortunate, his being unread, since he is one of the great English prose stylists.  But the details of his theory have been rejected and laughed at out of hand.  It seems only Sigmund Freud is granted the dispensation of being considered a great literary figure even though his confabulation of psychoanalysis is swiftly being brushed into the dustbin.  Freud might be a great prose stylist, but he wrote in German and his English translations were all accomplished by blinded acolytes not known for their literary sensibilities--so excuse me if I don't wholly embrace this exception.  My guess is that in 50 years nothing of Freud's will be read--just like with Ruskin.  It's still unfortunate, though, for Ruskin.

Ruskin's manifold theories--about certain natural curves and proportions and rocks and stones and brooks and crooks--may have languished lo these many decades, but his driving insight, that there is a subjective instinct in man which responds to certain combinations of forms and colors, is very much alive and well and worshipped.  I was reminded of this when reading an article in the current New York Review of Books by Sanford Schwartz concerning a Hogarth exhibition.  Here's a longish excerpt:

For all that Hogarth himself is a vivid and solid presence, he doesn't do what an artist about whom, say, we know little or nothing, and whose work sounds the same note again and again, might do: stop us in our tracks with a mesmerizing and personal way of looking at the world, one that makes us see space, color, or shape differently.  . . .

Much of Hogarth's work, however, failed to catch fire.  Too many of his attempts at what were, at least in England, relatively new kinds of painting, whether his group portraits, his historical or allegorical works, his paintings based on plays, even his satiric images of the ups and downs of London's social life, felt insubstantial or half-hearted.

I actually admire Mr. Schwartz's writing but his criticism is strictly Ruskinian.  He faults Hogarth for not "mesmerizing" him (something Freud could have helped with early in his career) and for producing paintings that "felt" either "insubstantial or half-hearted."  Of course, the "felt," is the clue--this is all purely subjective.  I happen to disagree with Mr. Schwartz on this point.  How can he argue me out of my opposition?  All he can do is say that he feels differently--in a much more pleasing prose than I could accomplish.  This is not criticism, this is sentimentality.  In other words, it's Ruskinian.  It is the reason that John Updike, a great prose stylist who can neither construct novels nor pieces of art criticism, is considered a master in both genres.  It is also why a charlatan like Jeff Koons who never touches one of his works can demand that the elves of his atelier construct a giant porcelain of Michael Jackson and his chimp, Bubbles, and receive at auction millions of dollars for the sweat from his Santa's workshop.  I'll leave you Mr. Koons while I sit back and enjoy my Ruskin.  

June  20,  2007

Patrick: Lagniappe

Our species appears to have constituted an adaptive experiment in the partial and imperfect substitution of culture for instinct, with all the liability to self-deception and fanaticism that such an experiment involves.  we chronically strain against our animality by inhabiting self-fashioned webs of significance--myths, theologies, theories--that are more likely than not to generate illusory and often murderous "wisdom."  That is the price we pay for the same faculty of abstraction and pattern drawing that enables us to be not mere occupiers of an ecological niche but planners, explorers, and, yes, scientists who can piece together facts about our world and our own emergence and makeup.

--Introduction to Follies of the Wise by Frederick Crews

June  19,  2007

Patrick: Lagniappe

When the boy was about fifteen years of age Mr. Vetch made him a present of the essays of Lord Bacon, and the purchase of this volume had important consequences for Hyacinth.  Anastasius Vetch was a poor man, and the luxury of giving was for the most part denied him; but when once in a way he tasted it he liked the sensation to be pure.  No man knew better the difference between the common and the rare, or was more capable of appreciating a book which opened well--of which the margin was not hideously chopped and of which the lettering on the back was sharp.  It was only such a book that he could bring himself to offer even to a poor little devil.

--The Princess Casamassima by Henry James

[N.B.:  Would it surprise you to learn that Mr. Vetch is a middle-aged bachelor?  Methinks there's a bit of Henry James in Mr. Vetch--but why kvetch about it.]

June  18,  2007

Patrick: Lagniappe

Though nominally included in the census of Christendom, he was still an alien to it.  He lived in the world, as the last of the Grisly Bears lived in settled Missouri.  And as when Spring and Summer had departed that wild Logan of the woods, burying himself in the hollow of a tree, lived out the winter there, sucking his own paws; so, in his inclement, howling old age, Ahab's soul, shut up in the caved trunk of his body, there fed upon the sullen paws of its gloom!

--Moby Dick by Herman Melville

June  17,  2007

Patrick: Lagniappe

"I make her listen to me--I make her tell me," said the ardent girl, who was always climbing the slope  of the Rue de Constantinople, on the shady side, where in the July mornings, there was a smell of violets from the moist flower-stands of fat, white-capped bouquetires, in the angles of doorways.  Miriam liked the Paris of the summer mornings, the clever freshness of all the little trades and the open-air life, the cries, the talk from door to door, which reminded her of the south, where, in the multiplicity of her habitations, she had lived; and most of all the great amusement, or nearly, of her walk, the enviable baskets of the laundress, piled up with frilled and fluted whiteness--the certain luxury, she felt as she passed, with quick prevision, of her own dawn of glory.  The greatest amusement perhaps was to recognize the pretty sentiment of earliness, the particular congruity with the hour, in the studied, selected dress of the little tripping women who were taking the day, for important advantages, while it was tender.  At any rate she always brought with her from her passage through the town good-humour enough (with the penny bunch of violets that she stuck in the front of her dress) for whatever awaited her at Madame Carr's.

--The Tragic Muse by Henry James 

[N.B.:  I thought this description of the dawn in Paris would be a good pendent with Henry James's description from yesterday of the twilight in London. By the bye, twins and mom are fine and at home.]

June  16,  2007

Patrick: Lagniappe

It was a long walk from Lomax Place to the quarter of the town in which (to be near the haberdasher's in the Buckingham Palace Road) Miss Henning occupied a modest backroom; but the influences of the hour were such as to make the excursion very agreeable to our young man, who liked the streets at all times, but especially at nightfall, in the autumn, of a Saturday, when, in the vulgar districts, the smaller shops and open-air industries were doubly active, and big, clumsy torches flared and smoked over hand-carts and costermongers' barrows, drawn up in the gutters.  Hyacinth had roamed through the great city since he was an urchin, but his imagination had never ceased to be stirred by the preparations for Sunday that went on in the evening among the toilers and spinners, his brothers and sisters, and he lost himself in all the quickened crowding and pushing and staring at lighted windows and chaffering at the stalls of fishmongers and hucksters.  He liked the people who looked as if they had got their week's wage and were prepared to lay it out discreetly; and even those whose use of it would plainly be extravagant and intemperate; and, best of all, those who evidently hadn't received it at all and who wandered about, disinterestedly, vaguely, with their hands in empty pockets, watching others make their bargains and fill their satchels, or staring at the striated sides of bacon, at the golden cubes and triangles of cheese, at the graceful festoons of sausages, in the most brilliant of windows.  He liked the reflection of the lamps on the wet pavements, the feeling and smell of the carboniferous London damp; the way the winter fog blurred and suffused the whole place, made it seem bigger and more crowded, produced halos and dim radiations, trickles and evaporations, on the plates of glass.

--The Princess Casamassima by Henry James

[N.B.:  Henry James is a lot closer to Charles Dickens in temperament than one has been led to believe.  I have noted before his exuberant wit--certainly not as flashy as Dickens's--but just as prevalent.  Here, too, in this excerpt, is an example of his descriptive powers of a quick sketch of a sleepy London which is just as full of insight as what one would expect from the pen of Bleakhouse and Great Expectations (not to mention what I consider the greatest of Dickens's London novels, Barnaby Rudge).  By the bye, I have not blogged much as of late because my wife just had twins yesterday.  Still a bit sleepy.  Good night and good luck.]

June  9,  2007

Patrick: Lagniappe

"I will have no man in my boat," said Starbuck, "who is not afraid of a whale."  By this, he seemed to mean, not only that the most reliable and useful courage was that which arises from the fair estimation of the encountered peril, but that an utterly fearless man is a far more dangerous comrade that a coward.

--Moby Dick by Herman Melville

June  5,  2007

Patrick: Lagniappe

Distended with hot air himself, Melville's whale can beget no progeny except wind eggs.  One of them contained just enough life to hatch into the crocodile in Peter Pan.  Otherwise, the whale is father to nothing but the dozens of novels which, with only proper name altered, have repeated his burly opening sentence, "Call me Ishmael," and the misconception that (a) the Great American Novel can be written by thinking about writing it instead of thinking about whatever it is about, (b) that it must be about brutality to animals, and (c) that brutality to animals, if pursued by men whose tears are the glue which fasten their eyes to the eyes of their fellow men, is manly and portentous.  (Where did all the great white whales go?  They went Hemingway).

--Moby Dick from Fifty Works of English Literature We Could Do Without by Brigid Brophy, Michael Levey and Charles Osborne

[N.B.:  I disagree with pretty much all the sentiments in this squib but couldn't resist the clever pun at the end--if any pun can be clever.  I think Moby Dick is the Great American Novel of the North just as Huckleberry Finn is the Great American Novel of the South.  I haven't figgered out yet what the Great American Novel of the West might be (obviously, for historical reasons, there is no Great American Novel of the East since in the beginning the East Coast was divided between the North and the South).]


How Not to Start a Book Review

Here's the first two paragraphs of Alan Hollinghurst's review of Satyr Square: A Year, a Life in Rome by Leonard Barkan (Hollinghurst is Great Britain's more talented version of Jonathan Safran Foer--at least in terms of media acclaim):

The acknowledgments pages in books are very proper as records of indebtedness, but they have other, less candid purposes.  In part, of course, they are potted, slightly cryptic narratives of the writer's heroic struggle.  The mumble of humility masks the purr of self-satisfaction.  Lists of names may be a covert form of boasting, the sheer number of people thanked being proof of the author's industry in bothering them.  And the names themselves, to the knowledgeable reader, may be rich in implication: so he did get to interview the reclusive widow, he got around the embargo on the letters to Mme X.

In scholarly books, the listing of fellowships and visiting professorships, the generously granted leave, the tirelessly helpful libraries and foundations, are testimony too to the author's cordiality and shared view of the importance of his work.  To the non-academic reader these pages create an image of enviable solidarity and good fortune.  At the outset of Unearthing the Past, his study of the impact of archeology on the culture of the Renaissance, Leonard Barkan admits that "I have, first of all, been blessed with collaborative support from a worldwide network of art historians," something the unsupported will see as a pretty formidable advantage.  Scholarship appears as a festive joining of hands around the globe, and the story of the book's writing emerges inevitably as a triumphalist one, of labor reaching its harvest in the sunshine of universal encouragement.

The sunshine of universal encouragement?  What self-indulgent tosh.  Here's a tip for Hollinghurst, the non-academic reader skips right over the acknowledgements section and doesn't give two tuppence for it--let alone two paragraphs.  I quit reading the review at the end of that second paragraph and am grateful to Hollinghurst for conserving my precious time so I could spend it on more fruitful fare, such as Frank Kermode's review of Orwell in Tribune: "As I Please" and Other Writings 1943-7 (compiled and edited by Paul Anderson).  Now there's a two-fer for you: Britain's greatest living critic reviewing a book of short reviews and journalism of  Britain's greatest mid-twentieth-century critic.  Why are you still here?  Go buy the book fer cryin' out loud.

June  4,  2007

Patrick: Lagniappe

Significantly, and to the final exoneration of his period, although Trollope's wholesale production of lavender water found some market during his lifetime, it was not until the 1939-45 war that he became a popular (indeed, a paperback) novelist.  Perhaps it was then that the English middle classes discovered that Jane Austen was not what they had supposed and took to Trollope in her place, hoping to rebut through him the threat extended by bombs, and still more by evacuees, to the whole Thames valley gamut of English "good taste"--the Wedgwood Jasper Ware, the gilt-framed prints of Redout roses on the satin-striped walls, the place-mats after the "Cries of London" series--whereby the British Bourgeoisie demonstrates to its neighbor that it is cultivated, without having to undergo the martyrdom of being actually and emotionally moved by works of art.

--The Warden from Fifty Works of English Literature We Could Do Without by Brigid Brophy, Michael Levey and Charles Osborne


Stupid Is As Stupid Does

With a post title like that, I must be about to rant against book critics, probably from the New York Times Book Review.  Guilty as charged.  True, probably since Samuel Johnson put pen to pent-up opinion, there have been Grub Street Guelphs and Ghilbellines willing to scrawl scurrilous attacks of condemnation or odes at praise at the behest of their paymasters.   In other words, there has never been a Golden Age of criticism untainted by the tang of filthy lucre.  But such a state of affairs is more deleterious in these times when copyright extends out 70 years past an author's death.  So now a book that is unjustly neglected must remain in purgatory for 100 years or more before it might see the light of day since copyright acts as a modern law of tainted blood so that none may publish it without running down who, if anyone, might still hold the copyright--in many cases, the answer is the same as chiseled on the lid of the tomb of the unknown soldier.

As for the opposite of the unknown soldier, the NYTBR asks the usual suspects in a survey, if they'd Read Any Good Books Lately.  If you wish to see the most naked case of unashamed logrolling, just peruse their answers (Jonathan Safran Foer, as befits his position as the current reigning Emperor With No Literary Clothes, provides the most blatant example).  But this is just to be expected, given the nature of the system.  Even if Mr. Foer points out that his chosen courtier's tome has been wronged: "(Sadly, it hasn't been reviewed in these pages)"; one merely brushes aside a crocodile tear and moves on with nary a look back.

However, one must stop and stare goggle-eyed at the crass musings of one Joe Queenan as he trashes Thomas Hardy's Return of the Native.  There are certain works of literature, which, of course, one may not care for, but to hold such an opinion indicates a deficiency on the part of the reader, not the author.  Charles Dickens' Bleak House  is one such work; the oeuvre of Jane Austen is another (with, perhaps, the exception of Northanger Abbey).  If you find these works bad, the badness is a reflection on yourself.  So, too, is the case with Hardy's Return of the Native.  Queenan apparently finds the doings of Gabriel Oak and Co. as too lugubrious for his taste (one shudders to think what he would make of Tess of the D'Urbervilles).  Here is Queenan's clincher:

[P]erhaps it was merely a case of my being too young to appreciate Hardy's genius when first exposed to it.  Determined to clear up the matter, I picked up a copy of Hardy's rustic masterpiece and gave Dorset's most famous author a second chance to prove me wrong.  On Page 6 I happened upon this sentence:

"To recline on a stump of thorn in the central valley of Egdon, between afternoon and nights, as now, where the eye could reach nothing of the world outside the summits and shoulders of heathland which filled the whole circumference of its glance, and to know that everything around and underneath had been from prehistoric times as unaltered as the stars overhead, gave ballast to the mind adrift on change, and harassed by the irrepressible New."

That's when I took it back to the library.  Thomas Hardy wrecked the summer of '66; there's no way in hell he's wrecking the summer of '07.

Idiot.  Stupid.