March 31, 2005

Patrick: Lagniappe

A jade figuring of a pot-bellied monk—one of Big Beaver’s pieces—sat smirking to itself on the window sill beside me. Things, in their silence, endure so much better than people.
--The Untouchable by John Banville

McSweeney’s 15: Icelandic Literature Leaves Me Cold
As one might have gathered, I am not a particular fan of modern fiction—particularly the short story unless William Trevor is the author (having said that, my copy of Ian McEwan’s Saturday should be delivered in the next couple of days; I can’t wait to start reading it).  But, I have always had a weakness for imaginative literature.  And what could be more imaginative than Iceland, the home of the Queen of Quirkiness, Bjork? So, when I saw that the odd-ball literary magazine, McSweeney’s, had an Icelandic literature issue with a really cool cover by Leif Parsons (I’m such a sucker for striking covers), I had to own the coveted object.  Well, the issue (a book, really) is, as an aesthetic object, quite pleasing.  The cover art, a schematic that reminds one of those old photogravure prints, depicts horses lolling about the Icelandic landscape.  The book is not much more than octavo size and fits easily in the hand.  If only the concept fit so easily.

Instead, it appears that the editors never really figgered out how to “fit” the issue together to begin with:  Only half of the issue is concerned with works from Icelandic authors with the other half made up of short stories from America, Great Britain and Ireland.  Worse, as the editors must have known given that the Icelandic authors were crammed in the back of the issue, the other short stories are, over all, much better than the Icelandic ones.  The first short story, Steven Millhauser’s A Percursor of the Cinema, is the kind of imaginative romp I was hoping for from the Icelandic authors.  The story concerns a “super-realist” painter from the late nineteenth century who develops a type of paint that, when viewed from different angles, absorbs and reflects light in such a manner as to give the illusion that the figures in the painting are moving.  The story is written in a mock academic historian style.  And it’s very entertaining.  There’s also a Roddy Doyle short story, I Understand, told from an African emigre's point of view in Ireland about the hazards of being an illegal immigrant in the clutches of the IRA.  It has the Roddy Doyle signature of being mostly in dialogue—a tic I find annoying after a while since Doyle’s fiction comes off more as a test script for an HBO sit-com than as literature—which works surprisingly well here given the short-story format.  Roy Kesey’s Asuncion is also interesting in an ax-to-the-back-of-the-neck or, more appropriately, knife-in-the-chest, sort of way.

Alas, one does not need to worry about a knife in the chest from the Icelandic authors (not even an ice pick).  Given these meager offerings, I’m not willing to write off modern Icelandic literature, yet.  As noted in the introduction to this section, although Iceland has a total population of around 290,000 people, the country publishes about a thousand books a year, which is probably the highest book-published-per-capita ratio in the world.  Further, this tiny country has produced a Nobel laureate in literature, Haldor Laxness.  Not to mention a wonderful body of medieval literature involving various sagas—the most famous, perhaps, being Njal’s Saga.  And from this great tradition we get this:

On weather-satellite pictures a black depression seemed to cling low over the city, a gray swirl twisting counterclockwise around a black epicenter. The bees buzzed and droned and stung and drove the citizens mad. The only answer was to use poison; planes specially designed to extinguish forest fires flew back and forth, poisoning. Yet the bees continued to be drawn to the city and so the poisoning continued until the last citizens finally abandoned the place. The streets were covered with a fifty-centimeter-thick layer of evenly fallen bees, yet the insects continued to flock there, carrying seeds or pollen on their feet. Soon flowers sprang up in every nook and cranny, putting down roots among the dead bees. Vegetation climbed the walls of the skyscrapers and spread over the streets. The largest glass buildings turned into greenhouses, hot and damp, full of reptiles, insects, and tropical plants that sprawled unchecked from their pots, while other buildings resembled huge beehives, full of honey that oozed down the walls, trickled along the streets, and dripped into the drains.

Enough. That should give you a flavor, so to speak, for Andri Snaer Magnason’s Interference (an excerpt from his novel LoveStar—this is also annoying, more than half of the McSweeney’s Icelandic literature selections are “bleeding chunks” excised from novels; not one of the non-Icelandic stories comes from such source material).  Certainly, this is imaginative.  But so what? Such drivel can be—and, unfortunately, is—cranked out all over the world. Maybe it’s not bees that destroy the cities.  Instead, it’s global warming, or rats or Godzilla—the message is drearily the same:  Man has abused his custodianship of Nature and he must Suf-fah!  Certainly, this is a message well worth conveying, but please, keep King Kong on a leash.  Hmmm, it seems this post has gotten out of hand, length-wise (also, anytime I mention Godzilla and King Kong in the same scribbling, I know it’s time to wrap things up).  Let’s postpone my further wanderings in the ice-tundra for the next post.

Click Here to Comment or View Comments on This Entry

March 30, 2005

Patrick: Lagniappe

A sense of desolation and irremediable woe took hold of me, and brought me back all the way to the nights of my earliest childhood, when I would lie in bed in the swooping candlelight, while Freddie crooned in his cot and Nanny Hargreaves preached to us of hellfire and the fate of sinners; and, now, hurtling through the dark towards London and the suddenly real possibility of damnation, in this world if not the next, I prayed. I did, Miss V., I prayed, incoherently, wriggling in terror and shame, but pray I did. And to my surprise, I was comforted. Somehow, the great Nobodaddy in the sky reached down a marmoreal hand and laid it on my burning brow and soothed me.
--The Untouchable by John Banville

Riding the Iceberg: Art and Literature
There’s a short review in the New York Times Book Review concerning Unnatural Wonders, the latest critical writings by the pre-eminent conceptual-art critic, Arthur C. Danto.  Why is he pre-eminent?  Let’s let the reviewer tell us:

Greenberg was set on his critical path by Jackson Pollock. Andy Warhol performed the same function for Danto, who argues that ever since Warhol's Brillo boxes of 1964, an art object could be anything at all (or even nothing), that for the first time in history artists were free to do whatever they wanted -- to slice up dead animals, throw elephant dung on canvases, display their soiled underwear and used tampons, mold images of themselves out of their own blood. In this world of total freedom, the actual physical attributes of a work counted for less than its philosophical justifications. All art had become conceptual art, and the job of the critic was to articulate what meaning the particular artist wished to convey and how that meaning was embodied in the work at hand.

Now, assuming this is true—which is not much of an assumption—where exactly does that leave the practice of art?  As I explained a couple of months ago, art as practiced today resembles an iceberg where the actual, physical object is just the small bit seen above the surface while the vast theoretical super-structure lies tantalizingly beneath.  The critic’s job is to explain to the lay audience the nature of this hidden structure.  The better the critic lovingly describes each bump and recess, each fold and peak, the better the critic is.  If one thinks about it, the real heavy lifting, then, is done by the critic under this arrangement.  The artist is just responsible for the smudge of flotsam peaking up while the heroic critic is responsible for everything else.  Indeed, the critic is the maker, the forger, the creator.  The artist is merely his apprentice, his sweaty helot deep within the silver mines, bringing forth ingots for the critic to analyze and interpret.  Art, then, is merely an appendage—and a fairly weak one, at that—of the vast kingdom of literature.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not denying to the great artists their share of helots. The current New Yorker has a reproduction of one of Damien Hirst’s latest realist paintings (he of the formaldehyde shark tank and the diced horse). Ooops, did I say Hirst’s paintings?  Well, they’re his paintings if one has a radical view of the artist’s workshop.  Taking a page from Jeff Koon’s ledger, Hirst has his own sweaty toilers painting “his” canvases.  He’s the genius, no? Does it matter if he does not deign to dirty his cuffs by actually lifting brush to canvas?  As pointed out by Frank Stella, why bother learning how to draw, anyone can do it after 20 years study, so what’s the point except a colossal waste of time?

I agree—what’s the point?  The point, my dear, is to provide more grist for the insatiable mill, the maw, of literature.  So, produce, produce, my minions, as I snap my whip across your sweaty backs to make you dig, dig, to fill my coffers. I’ll just sit back in my blog and listen to the “chink, chink” of your little flotsam and jetsam as it passes from one hand to another.  Verily, I say unto you, you will receive your reward in this life—lucre, grants, commission, applause, acclaim—but in the next: nothing.  Like a ghost from the tomb, the artist fades to black.

Click Here to Comment or View Comments on This Entry

March 29, 2005

Patrick: Lagniappe

How I used to sneer at those critics—the Marxists especially, I am afraid—who spent their energies searching for the meaning of [Poussin’s] work, for those occult formulas upon which he was supposed to have built his forms. The fact is, of course, there is no meaning. Significance, ye; affects; authority; mystery—magic, if you wish—but no meaning. The figures in the Arcadia are not pointing to some fatuous parable about mortality and the soul and salvation; they simply are. Their meaning is that they are there. This is the fundamental fact of artistic creation, the putting in place of something where otherwise there would be nothing. (Why did he paint it?—Because it was not there.)
--The Untouchable by John Banville

Smudges on the Ivory Tower: Poetry as Graft
Yesterday, I pointed out a couple of reviews from the New York Times Book Review which, in one way or the other, ruminated upon some of the failings of modern academic culture.  One of them concerned Camille Paglia’s book, Break, Blow, Burn, which is aimed at undergraduates and tries to convince them why one should still care about poetry.  Nothing wrong there.  The harder nut to crack, though, is to explain why one should care about modern poetry, specifically, free verse (which ahb-so-lootely everyone writes in nowadays, dahling).  Robert Frost dismissively likened it to playing tennis without a net. A brewing scandal, however, points out an even darker side of that simile.  If one plays tennis without a net, it is impossible to keep score.  Why should that matter?  Because if poems are the currency of contests, then the judges can select anyone (including their spouses, relatives and colleagues) without having to justify their selections in any kind of objective manner.  In other words, free verse corrupts and absolute free verse corrupts absolutely.

There’s a year-old site up, www.foetry.com, which details the egregious back scratching occurring between the judges and “winners” of a plethora of university-sponsored poetry contests.  Apparently, the scam works something like this (as detailed on www.mobylives.com):

Judges select their friends, students, and lovers from pools of manuscripts numbering the hundreds or thousands, accompanied by an entry fee, usually around $20-$25. Some of the competitions are sponsored by university presses, such as the Iowa Poetry Prize and the University of Georgia Contemporary Poetry Series.
As soon as Foetry.com was launched, the defenses began. “What if the manuscript really was the best one?” “This is how it’s always been.” “You should spend less time whining and more time writing.” “You’re just bitter that you didn’t win.”
We hear the same arguments regularly and none are convincing. When is it ever acceptable to cheat? Have we really come to the point that universities sponsor “open” competitions that are funded by thousands of hopeful victims? When Jorie Graham, a Harvard professor, selects the manuscript of her own husband and colleague, Peter Sacks, out of hundreds of entries, why are people angry at us instead of them? Does academic integrity apply only to students and not to professors?

Well, not to put too fine a point on it, yes. There’s no cheating here. If the net is down, then it’s certainly defensible to say that a fat, slovenly blow-hard like Bobby Riggs really was the better tennis player than Billy Jean King.  So, if some fat, slovenly lines written by what just happens to be the judge’s husband/boyfriend/pimp-daddy wins the poetry prize (this is apparently referred to as the “Jorie Graham rule”) who’s to say that’s corrupt?  There are no rules, so no harm no foul.  You could just write about your boils in flowery language, break up the lines into a poetic stanza, turn in the work and wait for the prize money to roll in.

Why does this happen in the area of poetry and not in any other literary area? Well, because with a short story, say, you can’t really win by turning in a free-form screed about your boils.  There are a few rules, quaintly referred to as grammatical, which still must be abided by.  Oh, and then there’s all that bother about character and story.  Hard just to write about boils with those kind of requirements.  Indeed, one has a difficult time imagining the dramatic tension involved with a boil.  Perhaps lancing the boil could create the moment of crisis. The boil might shiver in anticipation—get all goose-pimply—as the razor-sharp knife edges ever closer to its protruding pustules.  Hmmm, maybe I should rethink this whole boil thing [N.B.: Danger! Danger! Will Robinson, I detect a bad pun on the horizon!] I know, I could create a new literary category:  the hard-boiled short story! [N.B.: groan, wince, whimper, explode].

Click Here to Comment or View Comments on This Entry

March 28, 2005

Patrick: Lagniappe

There was a large, stately woman, with the prominent chest and bright cheeks and glassy stare of a ship’s figurehead, who must have been the Prinzessin, and her daughter, a washed-out version of her mother, white-faced and unreachably distant, with ash-blonde plaits coiled at the sides of her head like a pair of earphones. Two sturdy, crop-headed boys, big-bottomed and virtually neckless, were evidently, if implausibly, the young Princess’s sons. Every so often they would scramble down from their chairs and set to wrestling with each other like bear cubs, rolling about the floor, their shrieks flying up to the timbered ceiling and falling back again, nerve-janglingly.
--The Untouchable by John Banville

NYTBR Attacks the Ivory Tower
There’s a couple of interesting essays in this week’s New York Times Book Review (“NYTBR”) concerning weaknesses in academic culture—one substantive and the other procedural.  The substantive one is a review of Camille Paglia’s book, Break, Blow, Burn by Clive James.  The books is a beginner’s guide to appreciating poetry in non-jargon speak.  No revelations here, but it says something that even a professional gadfly like Paglia feels compelled to write such a nuts-and-bolts book and then a critic like James feels compelled to write a very long and favorable review of it.  The work is nothing more than close readings of 43 poems ranging from the shaggy maned singer, Joni Mitchell (who I mentioned last week and thought had an interesting book list) to Shakespeare.  The best part of the review is a nifty group portrait, available online, of a number of the poets.  The worst part is some odd carping from James that Paglia in her book describes Anne Heche, the has-been movie actress, as having “the mental depth of a pancake.”  James protests: “How many pancake brains could do what Heche did with David Mamet’s dialogue in ‘Wag the Dog’? No doubt Heche has been stuck with a few bad gigs, but Paglia, of all people, must be well aware that being an actress is not the same safe ride as being the tenured university professor of humanities and media studies at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia.”  Oh, how embarrassing for James.  The proper criticism was to snigger at the fact that a pancake brain like Heche was even mentioned in what is purported to be a serious book on poetry.  James did put his finger on it, even if he also put his foot in it at the same time:  Paglia can get away with such gratuitous name-dropping of pop-cultural effervescence (will anyone even know who Heche is in ten years?) because she is, indeed, ensconced in her ivory tower of tenure and tendentiousness.

The second essay includes probably the best line I’ve heard in a while for putting one’s foot in it.  This one concerns, in general, the procedural defects of governing a modern mega-university and, specifically, the travails of Harvard President Larry Summers who has a certain “way with words,” one might say—indeed, one joke about him widely circulated amongst the faculty is that he opens his mouth only to change feet.  The cattiness escalates from there.  Read this if you enjoy the aroma of catnip in the morning—hmmm, it smells like victory.  Otherwise, this is the same tired litany regarding the arrogance of both entrenched administrators and tenured faculty and is as lively as last year’s bunged-up scratching post.  A pox—or at least fleas—on both their houses.

Click Here to Comment or View Comments on This Entry

March 25, 2005

Patrick: Lagniappe

A small man approached me, cherubic, pinkly bald, with baby-blue eyes and tufts of woolly grey curls above his ears, conspiratorially smiling, one eyebrow roguishly arched, and took me delicately be the lapel and said:
“I’m here for safe keeping, you know. Everyone is afraid.”
The Sister stepped forward and lowered an arm between us like a level-crossing gate.
“Now now, Mr. McMurty,” she said with grim good humour, “none of that, thank you very much.”
--The Untouchable by John Banville

[N.B.: Notice the plenteous bounty of adverbs in the first sentence. I’ve said it before; and I’ll keep saying it ‘til I turn blue in the face: The grammatical unit that most unerringly separates writers into the literary equivalents of sheep, goats, and manure is the adverb. The bad ones (manure—Oh, that’s not fair) use it promiscuously to wreak havoc upon the pulpy countryside, the mediocre ones (goats—Stephen King) shun it and the great ones (sheep—John Banville) use it promiscuously to sublime effect.  Yes, yes, I am well aware of the riposte headed in my direction, but I’m a nimble blogger and can dodge it ever so effortlessly.]

Henry James: Stand-Up Comedian
As regular readers know, I’ve gone out of my way in the last couple of months to touch upon some of the more humorous aspects of Henry James’s writings.  One of the shaggiest, hoariest literary shibboleths is that James and his writings are dour with a capital “D.”  Au contrair!  He’s a hoot!  Typically, if someone lacks a sense of humor, that’s the sure sign of a second-rate talent.  The towering literary figures are laugh riots: Shakespeare, Rabelais, Swift, Pope, Fielding, Voltaire, Byron, Austen, Dickens and . . . James.  Over at About Last Night, Terry Teachout’s co-blogger, OGIC (“Our Girl in Chicago”—who has since revealed her name, but I forget where—I know Teachout’s Reader  is dedicated to her) has an amusing entry concerning the amusing HJ.  Go check it out.

Also, in our comments, there’s a string about further humorous HJ stories. Recommended is one of James’s early stories/novella’s Lady Barberina—shades of Barbarella. (Go to Cornell’s site here to read the story in a facsimile reproduction of Century Magazine where it was originally published—you’ll note there’s plenty of other interesting articles in the index such as HJ’s article with the provocative title, “Is Marriage Holy?”  Unsurprising, HJ concludes it is holy, but, in typically Jamesian fashion, finds that marriage is much, much more holy than people think and spins out a fascinating view of femininity that might go a long way to explaining why he is today seen as the exemplar of the gentleman bachelor.  If you like that, sample also his essay with the even more provocative title, “The Logic of Marriage and Murder”).  It sounds like delectable reading during this Easter Weekend.  And a Happy Easter to all of you—you might not hear from me again until Monday.  So, in the interim, may I recommend cuddling up with that fuzzy-faced comedian, HJ.

Click Here to Comment or View Comments on This Entry

March 24, 2005

Patrick: Lagniappe

I wonder what became of him, and if he survived the war. I have the feeling he did not. He was the kind of minor character that the gods test their blades on, before proceeding to deal with the Hectors and the Agamemnons.
--The Untouchable by John Banville

The Lapidary Pleasures of Author, Author
First, let me make a bit of a confession about David Lodge, the Author, Author author. (Hmmm, that sentence construction seems a bit precious, oh well).  I have never read anything by David Lodge.  I would see his books on the shelf, note that he specialized in campus comedies, doubt that any of them could rise to the level of Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim and its protagonist, Lucky Jim Dixon, and so would dismiss them without a second thought.  Then, as I explained earlier, I picked up this book, Author, Author, as a lark, because I was intrigued by a Zeitgeist that would have two well-thought-of authors, Lodge and Colm Toibin, write, at least superficially, about the same topic at roughly the same time.  As I have explained, the appearances are just that—superficial. Toibin has written a book that will make him the high-brow celebrity of the moment, and whose 15 minutes are rapidly winding down—Oh, I say, is that Alan Hollinghurst coming around the corner?  Lodge’s book is much richer, much more enjoyable, and should last assuming that the deafening silence from the critics does not drive it to an early grave.

So, given that no one else will speak up for Author, Author, I feel honor bound to grab my trusty spade and to start shoveling out the just-laid loam from its literary tomb.  As I mentioned in my discussion of Tom Wolfe’s I Am Charlotte Simmons, it’s darn difficult to write a good review.  Writing bad reviews are so much more fun.  Further, one can be insouciant and flippant, two traits best avoided for good reviews.  So, with those caveats, let’s start with the serious spade-work.  First, the book itself is very well constructed.  It has a pleasing aesthetic shape--like Rita Hayworth in The Lady From Shanghai.  What I mean is that the book is built in a tri-partite structure:  The story of the disastrous theatrical interlude is book-ended by the soon-to-be late James reminiscing (or just plain expiring) in his deathbed.  So, we have here a traditional framing device that starts near the end of the story, works back to fill in a few gaps concerning the mature James embarking on his theatrical interlude, and then ends with, well, the end—of James.

Now, the meat, the theatrical interlude, begins with the middle-period James becoming more and more unpopular.  His relationships with others (Fenimore and Kiki, predominantly) are sketched in so that they can serve as a counterweight to James’s literary failures.  As they become more popular, James feels that it is imperative for him to gain some measure of popularity as well.  He comes to gamble it all on one roll of the dice:  Guy Domville. Craps!Even though the reader is well aware of the looming disaster, Lodge builds up the suspense, culminating in a kaleidoscopic chapter describing the opening night of the play.  Here, Lodge pulls back from simply observing James and his interactions to take in the thoughts and experiences of a number of different characters. This draughtsman’s technique of adding pigment on top of pigment creates a much more poignant picture than if the focus was simply on James during this episode.  Only here, in the damnation, do we see all.  Then the author brings the focus back tight on James so that we can better experience the after-effects of the hammer blow. This is a tightly crafted plot.  It’s not just one damn thing happening after another—which is, generally, what happens with a person’s life.  Toibin accepts this and just reports one damn thing after another. Lodge is the better artist and shapes the formless blob of biographical material into an aesthetically pleasing shape.  Bravo!

Click Here to Comment or View Comments on This Entry

March 23, 2005

Patrick: Lagniappe

I have always been fascinated by the hunger for documentation shared by all great institutions, especially those run by supposed men of action, such as the Army, or the Secret Service. I cannot count the number of times I was able to foil this or that inconvenient development at the Department, not be removing or suppressing documents, but by adding new ones to an already bulging file.
--The Untouchable by John Banville

Life Imitates Life Imitates Art: The Sad Fate of Author, Author
David Lodge has written a wonderful book about the life of Henry James, Author, Author.  Too bad no one will read it (it’s current amazon ranking is an abysmal 126,277).  And why is that?  Superficially, it would seem that this book should be well received.  It concerns the life of the late Henry James and how he appeared to squander five years of it by futilely pursuing fame and fortune through the vehicle of the dramatic theater.  James failed—badly.  The book is ingeniously constructed around what was undoubtedly the most mortifying night of his life, the premier of his play on the London stage, Guy Domville.  The climactic chapter has James fretting through the evening wondering how his creation is being received.  He sits through Wilde’s hit, An Ideal Husband, at another theater in nail-biting anticipation (as it turns out, a little-known Wilde squibble, called The Importance of Being Earnest, would replace Guy Domville after its short run--Oh, you hussy, Dame Fortuna, your pyloric valve should freeze shut).  James, thinking his play is a hit, is seduced on-stage by the lead actor to take a bow and is inundated by resounding boos.  He resolves never to write for the theater again—a promise he mostly keeps.  Even so, he is tormented by the knowledge that his good friend, George du Maurier (a.k.a. Kiki) who took up writing through the urgings of James and published Trilby, a book of little interest today but a huge boom in its time (think The Da Vinci Code, only bigger, with hats, sausages, stoves and anything else one could imagine named the “trilby”), was made into an incredibly successful play that ran for years.  Now, doesn't this episode sound like great grist indeed for a modern author’s mill?

David Lodge thought so, too—that he could grind out a wonderful tale of how James’s literary career seemed to have stalled, his attempts at jump-starting it with a foray in a theater, and then, after the disaster, returning to literature, having learned a few, hard-won dramatic lessons, to embark on his great “late manner” and produce that undying troika of empyrean riches:  The Wings of the Dove, The Ambassadors and The Golden Bowl.  Further, David Lodge is a great writer who has twenty-something books under his belt, including a couple of dramas (none of the plays have done particularly well—just like James!).  So, this sounds like a fool-proof recipe for success.  But then comes the saddest sentence in Author, Author.  Actually, it’s not in the actual book itself.  The sentence comes at the very end of the “Acknowledgements, etc.” after the book.  Here it is with the lead-in:

A few weeks after I delivered the completed Author, Author to my publishers in September 2003, I learned that Colm Toibin had also written a novel about Henry James which would be published in the spring of 2004. I leave it to students of the Zeitgeist to ponder the significance of these coincidences.

Actually, there was nothing to ponder.  The book critics all raved over Toibin’s The Master (it’s current amazon ranking, a respectable 1,452).  As I explained earlier, this work is very much a product of the current Zeitgeist.  It is much shorter than Lodge’s novel and covers much more of James’s life based on the single guiding star of explaining how James manages to screw-up his own life and those of the people around him because of his inability to come to grips with his sexuality (Lodge takes a swipe at this kind of in-vogue reading at the end of his own book: “[H]e would be adopted by a branch of academic criticism known as Queer Theory, whose exponents claim, for instance, to find metaphors of [N.B.: I’ll leave this to your imagination but give you the clue it rhymes with ‘rain-dull misting’] in the prefaces of the New York edition”). Again, I will not explain how tiresome, reductive and, quite frankly, juvenile, this approach to James’s life is.  Of course, this simplistic rendering appealed to all the critics who took turns swooning over it.  Then, right on its heels, appeared Author, Author.  What to make of it?  A couple of very short, perfunctory, favorable reviews.  And then, the silence of the tomb.

The tomb is a safe solution for a work that is manifestly better than the one being lauded.  By analogy, I have written of the two books on Balanchine that have appeared recently (one by Terry Teachout and the other by Robert Gottlieb). Here, the reviewers would use the duel book-review gambit and point out that Teachout did not know Balanchine and is late to coming to appreciate Balanchine as opposed to Gottlieb who did know him early on (of course, unmentioned is the fact that Teachout is south of 50 and a non-New Yorker while Gottlieb is the insider’s insider.  f one thinks about it, this kind of criticism should be beside the point in favor of that old perennial, “so how do the books hold up?”  Well, Gottlieb’s is always described as being “dry”—never a good sign—while Teachout’s style is not discussed at all.  That might be a hint as to which book is better written.  But, it doesn’t matter:   Current amazon rankings—Gottlieb 2,076; Teachout 103,429.  In other words, pretty much the same result as one gets with the Toibin-Lodge fight.  Toibin (and Gottlieb) win by a knock-out.  Who says you can’t fix a fight?

Click Here to Comment or View Comments on This Entry

March 22, 2005

Patrick: Lagniappe

They had taken over the lounge, where they sprawled amid their strewn kit, staring before them in slack-jawed boredom, looking more like the stragglers from a rout than a troop on its way to join battle. All that could animate them, it seemed, was the frequent ceremony of tea and sandwiches. Did Odysseus’s men look like this as they sat down on the sand to their haunches of roast bullock and goblets of sea-dark wine? When Nick and I took a turn about the deck and glanced in through the portholes, it was like looking in at a children’s party, the boy-men half happy and half worried as they watched the ship’s stewards—still in their white coats—progress among them disgustedly with mighty tea-kettles and trays of corned-beef sandwiches.
--The Untouchable by John Banville

[N.B.: Corned-beef sandwiches, mmmm-mmmm.  By the bye, just admire that alliteration in the first sentence.]

Let My Books Go!
I've stumbled across an interesting article from the Harvard Crimson concerning the copyright snags that Google has run into by trying to copy and digitalize the contents of the Harvard Library to be made available on the internet for research purposes.  The Association of Learned and Professional Society Publishers (no, I did not cadge this moniker from Evelyn Waugh) strenuously puts its forefinger to its tortoise-shell glasses, pushes them vigorously up the bridge of its nose and squeakily denounces in J’accuse tones: “The law does not permit wholesale copying (which is what digitisation is) by a commercial organisation of works that are still in copyright.”  Indeed, “[i]t is also illegal to make those works available digitally once they have been copied.”  So, the Collusion of Guild-Hall Pedants demands that permission be sought from the various and sundry ublishers first. This, obviously, would kill the project given the number of books to be copied and digitalized (roughly 40,000). Unfortunately, the Conspiracy of Learned Smut Peddlers has a point, as noted in the article: “In the U.S., works copyrighted before 1923 are generally in the public domain, while in many other countries, the copyright period is determined by the number of years after the author’s death, according to HUL Associate Director for Planning and Systems Dale Flecker.”

1923! Can you imagine that everything is frozen in ice from that date forward—and it’s not elective; unless you affirmatively give up your copyrights, they automatically stick to your work.  Indeed, these random ramblings that I’m posting today are also subject to copyright.  So hands off.  Do not open for at least 100 years.  Historically speaking, we live in an incredibly oppressive period in terms of copyright.  One must journey back to the Eighteenth Century in Great Britain to find a comparable period with such copyright restraints.

The problem with such lengthy periods is that they perversely encourage scofflawism, as the music industry, to its woe, has found out. You can sue all the 17-year olds you want for swapping files, but they’ll just keep doing it given the alternatives.  The same goes for pirate DVDs.  I read somewhere, that something like 75 percent of the bandwidth for the internet is being taken up by folks swapping DVD movie files.  And I’m betting they ain’t paying no royalties, neither.  This is one area the book publishers have a leg up on from the music and movie folks.

 I do not like digitalized books.  I don’t care to read them.  I find the aesthetic experience unpleasant.  In other words, I’m stuck with the tangible, pulp products. Unlike the Eighteenth and Nineteenth centuries, book piracy is not the bane of authors—Henry James’s most successful book, Daisy Miller, profited the pirates much more than the author who failed to properly secure his American copyright.  Similarly, Dickens’s deep revulsion for America was due, in no small part, to the number of American pirate editions of his works which the then-weak federal government could do little to stymie in spite of the vigorous British demands for prosecution (sounds curiously like the roles of America and China today, only reversed).

So, what is to be done?  Nothing, really.  The large, international conglomerates have a vested interest in banding together and extending copyright laws out until Gotterdammerung.  Those opposed to this development—that’d be we and us—are scattered about and the monetary hurdles are such that it is impractical to mount a counter offensive.  Oh well, I suppose we need to get used to the vaporings of the Society of Mrs. Grundy’s Handbag Pickings:  “And another thing, you nasty, nasty people, trying to put your filthy hands on my books. Why, I never liked the term ‘google.’ It sounds filthy—‘I’ll google you. Let’s google him. Did you google her yet?’  It’s a regular Sodom and Gomorrah of googlers! Shame. Shame. . . .”

Click Here to Comment or View Comments on This Entry

March 20, 2005

Kathryn: More on Peter Pan; DFW's "Host"

Here I am again, the blog's jack-in-the-box. We should probably demote me to guest blogger status or something, except that doing so would imply that I have thoughts particularly perspicacious to share on whatever topics I undertake.

So, lessee, back in February, I was discussing the widespread misconception that the original Peter Pan was a cheery paean to the sweetness of childhood.

Here is the final stage direction in Act V, scene 1, after the lost boys and Peter have defeated the pirates and driven Hook to suicide (Peter's insouciance exasperates Hook and finally breaks the man's heart; he goes to the crocodile "like one greeting a friend"):

"The Curtain rises to show Peter a very Napoleon on his ship. It must not rise again lest we see him on the poop in Hook's hat and cigars, and with a small iron claw."

Soon after, the Darling children return to their nursery:
"[ . . .] the truants find entrance easy when they alight on the sill, John to his credit having the tired Michael on his shoulders. They have nothing else to their credit; no compunction for what they have done, not the tiniest bit of fear that any just person may be awaiting them with a stick. The youngest is in a daze, but the two others are shining virtuously like holy people who are about to give two other people a treat."

Anyhow, you get the notion. The children of Barrie's play are darlings only ironically.

In DFW news: Have you seen David Foster Wallace's essay on right-wing talk-radio host John Ziegler in the April issue of the Atlantic? If you've been missing Wallace's footnotes and gentlemanly understatement, hie thee to a news stand.

Click Here to Comment or View Comments on This Entry

March 19,  2005

Patrick: Lagniappe

The wedding was a quiet affair, as the saying was in those days. The ceremony took place at Marylebone registry office. The Beavers were there, Nick and his parents and an ancient aunt I had never met before—she had money—and Boy Bannister, of course, and Leo Rothenstein, and a couple of Baby’s girlfriends, mature flappers in ridiculous hats. My father and Hettie had come over the night before on the ferry, and looked frightened and country-mousey, and I was embarrassed for them, and by them. Nick was best man. Afterwards we went to Claridges for lunch, and Boy got drunk and made a disgraceful speech, throughout which Mrs. Beaver sat with a terrible, fixed smile, twisting and twisting a napkin in her hands as if she were wringing the neck of some small, white, boneless animal. The honeymoon was spent in Taormina. It was hot, and Mount Etna wore a stationary, menacing plume of smoke. We read a lot, and explored the ruins, and in the evenings, over dinner, Baby told me about her former lovers, of whom there had been an impressive number. I do not know why she felt the need to recount these adventures, which sounded uniformly melancholy, to me; perhaps it was a form of exorcism. I did not mind. It was even pleasant, in a peculiar way, to sit sipping my wine while this ghostly line of bankers and polo players and hapless Americans threaded its way through the hotel’s lugubriously ornate dining room and disappeared into the steamy, starstruck night.
--The Untouchable by John Banville

[N.B.: Does any other writer cover more ground in a single paragraph?  Just look at all this heavy lifting this paragraph and the one from yesterday is doing for John Banville.  Sure, there’s authors with longer paragraphs—just take a gander at Henry James’s mature work.  But, one might argue, they are meant to cover as little ground as possible.  Theirs is a lapidary effect meant to befuddle and mesmerize the reader into an HJ coma.  Ummm, summer afternoon.  Ooops, sorry, I drifted there a second.  Anyway, Banville’s paragraphs are muscular and actually accelerate the author’s aims.  His are the equivalent of those souped-up race-car engines which are meant to be incredibly efficient. Banville's throttle is wide open.]

 Famous People Book Lists III—The Eclectic Reader and the Joker
Let’s dig up more nuggets from the Gardiner Public Library site, Who Reads What?  Some famous people actually have very intriguing and eclectic book lists. I’ve already mentioned Laura Bush.  Some others include the tough-guy actor, Stacy Keach, who likes Complete Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway and Theodore Rex by Edmund Morris (no surprise, there, but still interesting) as well as Nights in Rodanthe by Nicholas Sparks and Embers by Sandor Marai. Another unusual list comes from T. Jefferson Parker, described as a best-selling author of thrillers and mysteries (heck if I know, you’ll have to take the copyist’s word for it) who recommends Peace Like a River by Leif Enger, The Cadence of Grass by Thomas McGuane, True Confessions by John Gregory Dunne and Legends of the Fall by Jim Harrison.  Ben Stein, the actor, probably gets the hat tip for the most cats-and-dogs list:  John Brown’s Body by Stephen Vincent Benet, Charles Paris mysteries by Simon Brett, Samuel Johnson by Walter Jackson Bate, The Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith, What I Think by Herbert Stein (yes, a shameless plug for his dad—heck, I’d do the same thing), Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov, The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald and Lee’s Lieutenants by Douglas Southall Freeman.  A close second would be the actress, Sada Thompson (whoever that is) who lists:  Little Women by Louisa May Alcott, And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie, Lady Jane by C. V. Jamison, Period Piece by Gwen Raverat, The Ten Grandmothers by Alice Marriot, The Lylleton Hart-Davis Letters (this is an inspired choice—their letters are next to impossible to get in the U.S.; amusingly, the website describes them as Lyttleton by Hart Davis Letters), Speak Memory by Vladimir Nabokov, Morte D’Urban by J. F. Powers and Diary of Helena Morley by Elizabeth Johnson.

Some other interesting lists include that of Richard Dreyfuss, the actor, who comments that he reads each of these books at least once a decade: Scaramouche by Rafael Sabatini, The Lion Alone by William Manchester and Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert Heinlein (what an odd troika to choose as one’s literary life companions!).  Another one is by David Bowie, the singer/actor, who admits to being a voracious reader, consuming at least three books a week:  Fifth Business, The Manticore and The World of Business by Robertson Davies, Night at the Circus by Angela Carter, Money by Martin Amis, Brazzaville Beach by William Boyd, The Viceroy of Ouidah by Bruce Chatwin and Libra by Don Delillo.  Another interesting list from a Brit is Alistair Cooke’s:  Required Writing by Philip Larkin, Marriage Lines by Ogden Nash, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain, The Web and the Rock by Thomas Wolfe, The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger, The Power and the Glory and The End of the Affair by Graham Greene. The final eclectic list I’ll post is from a surprising source, the singer, Carly SimonTender is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald, Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy, House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende and Catherine the Great by Henri Troyat.

Oh, there’s some joke lists as well.  Jim Henson, the creator of the muppets, listed as Kermit the Frog’s favorite books:  Green Mansions by William Henry Hudson, How Green Was My Valley by Richard Llewellyn and The Greening of America by Charles A. Reich.  Henry Youngman recommends his own book, Take My Life, Please with the plea, “Buy my book—please!”  Finally, Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens chose Hamlet, Prince of Denmark by Edward de Vere, the Seventeenth Earl of Oxford, writing under the nom de plume of William Shakespeare.

Click Here to Comment or View Comments on This Entry

March 18,  2005

Patrick: Lagniappe

“Do you know philosophy?” I asked. “I mean ancient philosophy. The Stoics: Zeno, Seneca, Marcus Aurelius?” Cautiously she shook her head. She was plainly baffled by this turn in the conversation. “I used to consider myself a Stoic,” I said. “In fact, I was quite proud to think of myself thus.” I put down my glass and joined my fingers at their tips and gazed off in the direction of the window, where light and shade were still jostling for position. I was born to be a lecturer. “The Stoics denied the concept of progress. There might be a little advance here, some improvement there—cosmology in their time, dentistry in ours—but in the long run the balance of things, such as good and evil, beauty and ugliness, joy and misery, remains constant. Periodically, at the end of aeons, the world is destroyed in a holocaust of fire and then everything starts up again, just as before. This pre-Nietzschean notion of eternal recurrence I have always found greatly comforting, not because I look forward to returning again and again to live my life over, but because it drains events of all consequence while at the same time conferring on them the numinous significance that derives from fixity, from completedness. Do you see?” I smiled my kindliest smile. Her mouth had fallen open a tiny way and I had an urge to reach out a finger and tip it shut again. “And then one day I read, I can’t remember where, an account of a little exchange between Josef Mengele and a Jewish doctor whom he had salvaged from the execution line to assist him in his experiments at Auschwitz. They were in the operating theatre. Mengele was working on a pregnant woman, whose legs he had bound together at the knees prior to inducing the onset of the birth of her child, without the benefit of anaesthetics, of course, which were much too valuable to waste on Jews. In the lulls between the mother’s shrieks, Mengele discoursed on the vast project of the Final Solution: the numbers involved, the technology, the logistical problems, and so on. How long, the Jewish doctor ventured to ask—he must have been a courageous man—how long would the exterminations go on? Mengele, apparently not at all surprised or put out by the question, smiled gently and without looking up from his work said, Oh, they will go on, and on, and on . . . And it struck me that Dr. Mengele was also a Stoic, just like me. I had not realised until then how broad a church it was that I belonged to.”
--The Untouchable by John Banville

[N.B.: This disturbing monologue is by the book’s protagonist and narrator, Victor Maskell, who I have blogged about earlier.  I find this distillation of Maskell’s philosophy chilling in the extreme.  When was the last time that a great work of literature contained a multifarious, human, but, none the less, damning portrait of a villain? Obviously, there’s lots of second-rate fiction out there with the Simon-Legree type still being retailed to the genre-gnoshers.  But it’s been a long time since I’ve come across a villain as complex, and as creepy, as Victor Maskell.]

More Famous People Book Lists—Great Victorians and Garbage
Oh, I just can’t help myself, but I find this section of the Gardiner Public Library site, Who Reads What?, quite amusing.  I culled through the lists and have noted below those persons who named various Victorian authors as their favorites (since I didn’t get a very big list outside of various books by Dickens and Trollope, I cheated a bit and roped in some of the Edwardians, too—and even E. M. Forster; Oh, Fortuna, when will the Victorian-letting cease?).

Enough claptrap about my extremely scientific Victorian methodology, let’s get down to cases.  Who is obsessed by Anthony Trollope’s The Palliser Novels and can’t help but read them over and over again—apparently gaining little from the experience?  Why, none other than former British PM, John Major.  A similar passion for Victoriana in the form of Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities grips Lord Jeffrey Archer.  He is joined in this choice by George Gallup, Jr.,  chairman of the eponymous polling company (Could there be a diabolical connection?  The plot thickens, the spy-thriller writer, Robert Ludlum, also gives the nod to this book).  Dickens again scores with the second-rate historical bodice ripper, John Jakes, who likes Bleak House and the science-fiction author, Isaac Asimov, who claims to have read Pickwick Papers at least 25 times.  Who else is a Victorian literature nut?  Peter Banks, the author of the “Inspector Banks” series—whatever that is (he likes Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights).  And John Kenneth Galbraith goes ga-ga for Trollope’s Barchester Towers.

Strange but true, it seems the largest category of famous persons who love Victorian literature—maybe because there’s just more of them, like cockroaches, than any other group of famous persons—consists of the folks connected to the various dramatic arts.  Score another one for Dickens with Kenneth Branagh who describes as a “truly great novel” David Copperfield—hard to argue with that assessment (the writer Barbara Taylor Bradford—again, who she?—has the same view, as well as a love for Wuthering Heights, so she must have some redeeming characteristics).  Joanna Woodward makes the quirky pick of Little Dorritt.  Trollope also gets another nod from George Grizzard, some actor I’m not familiar with, who likes both The Warden and Barchester Towers; the same goes for Sylvia Miles who prefers Trollope’s The Eustace Diamonds.  For a harder, grittier Victorian, Alan Bates, prefers Thomas Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge (regrettably, I must also report that Shari Lewis, who’s occupation is given as “puppeteer,” has a big crush on Hardy’s Return of the Native).  Another actor, Kelsey Grammer, prefers what I think of as the anti-Victorian (honorary anti-Victorian, perhaps?) E. M. Forster and his A Passage to India.  Yet another actor, Carrie Fisher, likes George Eliot’s Middlemarch.  Quite embarrasingly, Deepak Chopra,  the perspirational . . . err. . . inspirational, new-age guru dotes upon, what else, Rudyard Kipling’s Kim (He is seconded by Joni Mitchell).  Pat Carroll, an actress I’m not familiar with but will be given her inspired choice, likes Cranford by Elizabeth Gaskell.  Ed McMahon—of “Heeeeeere’s Johnny” fame (and little else)—likes R. L. Stevenson’s Treasure Island.  So does Hume Cronyn along with Conan’s Doyle’s The White Company (a good companion, I think, to Stevenson’s adventure tales).  Count Steven Spielberg a fan of Treasure Island, too.  I was beginning to think no one would mention Jane Austen, but thank goodness for Glenda Jackson who just adores Persuasion.

Oh, by the bye, two books that I’ve considered horribly overrated are both favorites of none other than Brooke Shields.  Also, the greatest overrated, mutton-headed philosopher is the favorite of Jerry Lewis who describes one work as “a very profound book . . . makes you think!”  Yes, it makes me think that the French don’t have a clue about the bathetic awfulness of Jerry Lewis movies.  He is joined in this assessment by the non-entity, Mayim Bialik, who finds these “[b]y far the most incredible books I have read. Enthralling and educational—opened up a whole other dimension to me.”  Sounds spooky.  Oh, here’s another backhand from Martina Navratilova:  “The striving for excellence, sticking to your beliefs and ideals even if it means going against the popular tide. Accepting responsibility—wow, what a concept—too bad politicians don’t read these books.”  Hey, Martina, politicians don’t read these books because they have better things to do with their time—wow, what a concept.  Is it just me or does sarcasm come off a bit poorly from a former Russian women’s tennis champion?  But wait, I’ve saved the best for last—Hugh Hefner is also a big fan:  “I read it first in college and it had a profound effect on me at that time.”  Who knew that philosophy brought us the playboy bunny?

Click Here to Comment or View Comments on This Entry

March 17,  2005

Patrick: Lagniappe

The boy Flower seemed displeased at the interruption.
‘Well?’ he said, with some acidity.
‘You lay off of him,’ said Tommy Murphy.
‘Who, me?’ said Orlando Flower.
‘Yay, you,’ said Tommy Murphy.
Orlando Flower gave him an unpleasant look.
‘Huh?’ he said.
‘Huh,’ said Tommy Murphy.
‘Huh?’ said Orlando Flower.
‘Huh,’ said Tommy Murphy.
There was a pause.
‘I saw him first,’ said Tommy Murphy.
It was a good legal point, of course, but Orlando Flower had his answer.
‘Oh, yeah?’
‘I caught him, didn’t I?’
‘I saw him first, didn’t I?’
‘I caught him, didn’t I?’
‘I’m telling you I saw him first.’
‘I’m telling you I caught him.’
‘You lay off of him.’
‘Who, me?’
‘Yay, you.’
--Laughing Gas by P. G. Wodehouse

[N.B.: You might as well bookmark this lagniappe, you’ll never find a more perfect, sublime example of demotic conversation, with all of its repetitions, redundancies and irrelevancies intact.]

A Modest Proposal: The Library of English Speaking Peoples
Okay, yesterday I got some carping off my chest with respect to the barrel scrapings currently being offered by the Library of America.  But, as they say in the army, “Don’t worry about the grumblers, it’s the quiet guys you need to watch out for.”  So, no more grumbling, not that I’ll be quiet, either.  I do have a modest proposal:  Why not expand the mandate of the Library of America to include works by any English speaking author?  Admittedly, I’m swiping this idea, transmogrified for ease of handling, from good ol’ Winston Churchill. During the height of the Blitz, he was busy scribbling out his four volumes of The English Speaking Peoples.  In it, he covered not just the history of the English, but of the British as a whole and her colonies (that’d be us). There was an obvious propaganda angle, of course, given that the U.S. wasn’t in the war yet and a strong isolationist element reigned in the Senate.  Regardless of Churchill’s motives, he was right to view the British Diaspora as historically linked by a common culture, religion and mores (redundant, yes, but that’s my middle name, oh wait, that’s dunder-head; well, it was close).  So, why can’t we do that with our belles lettres?

To treat American literature in isolation from the greater English speaking tradition is a bit like those greatest-hits opera CDs which hew out from the masterwork operas the various arias and present the “bloody chunks” on a platter for our delectation.  Yuck!  American literature, particularly in its origins, was constantly looking to, and trying to catch up with, its father across the Atlantic.  One can’t appreciate this without also including authors from Great Britain.  Anyhow, the British have failed to come up with a uniform project like the Library of America or the French Pleiades series of its great authors.  I always wondered why?  England has produced the O.E.D. and, just as of late, the monumental Dictionary of National Biography—but nothing like a uniform edition of its great authors’ collected works (there’s some uniform editions by Oxford and Cambridge, but not on the scale I’m discussing here).  So, why not join up forces with our English-speaking brethren from across the way?  We have nothing to lose but H. P. Lovecraft (ooops, too late).

Another benefit of such a project—besides the obvious one of saving our aesthetic tastes from becoming the world’s laughing stock—is that we no longer have to make the tedious decision of who is really “American” and who isn’t.  It seems silly to me that certain immigrants get to be American for purposes of the Library of America and others don’t.  For example, both Christopher Isherwood and W. H. Auden became U. S. citizens—no volumes for them, though, because they’re really British regardless of their later conversion.  On the other hand, Henry James, who gave up U. S. citizenship to become an English citizen, gets to stay in the Library of America (not to mention T. S. Eliot who has a few poems in an edition of Twentieth Century poetry but no volume of his own).  What this points to is the futility of trying to hermetically seal off American literature.  We’re a country of immigrants fer cryin’ out loud!

A more in-depth look at some of the immigrants and emigrants currently included shows just how idiotic it is to stick with only “American” authors.  Yes, both Vladimir Nabokov and Isaac Bashevis Singer, although their cultural sensibilities were formed in non-English speaking countries and they began their literary careers writing in a foreign language (respectively, Russian and Yiddish) belong in the Library of America because of their brilliant English works which they produced during their long residence in the U. S.  The same is true for Gertrude Stein, who, like Henry James, was born in America but lived almost her entire adult life abroad—in her case, France.  And, of course, Alexis de Tocqueville is included for his seminal work, Democracy in America, even though he wrote it in French, was a French aristocrat, spent all of two years in the U. S., and then returned to France and died a French citizen!  This is just silly.  Let’s have a Library of English Speaking Peoples.

Click Here to Comment or View Comments on This Entry

March 16,  2005

Patrick: Lagniappe

‘It’s so awful when you get a cinder in your eye.’
‘Yes. Or a fly.’
‘Yes. Or a gnat.’
‘Yes. Or a piece of dust.’
‘Yes. And I couldn’t help rubbing it.’
‘I noticed you were rubbing it.’
‘And they say you ought not to rub it.’
‘No, I believe you ought not to rub it.’
‘And I always feel I’ve got to rub it.’
‘Well, that’s how it goes.’
‘Is my eye red?’
‘No. Blue.’
‘It feels red.’
‘It looks blue,’ I assured her, and might have gone on to add that it was the sort of blue you see in summer skies or languorous lagoons, had she not cut in.
--Laughing Gas by P. G. Wodehouse.

[N.B.: No one is superior to Wodehouse in capturing the humorous banality of commonplace conversation. And if you thought this was good, just wait for tomorrow’s lagniappe.]

The Fall of the House of the Library of America
Who’d of thunk that the likes of the forgotten Broadway-collaborator playwright, George S. Kaufman, and the horror shlock-meister, H. P. Lovecraft, would pull down the venerable columns of the Library of America? But so they have.  I have written on this before:  How Edmund Wilson dreamed up this wonderful idea of the Library of America (concerning Mr. Lovecraft, Wilson remarked that the only horror in his corpus was the author’s “bad taste and bad art”) and how it came to fruition, inexorably followed by its sad decline. Have we reached rock bottom yet?  Nope.  We still have those volumes of Arthur Miller, Norman Mailer and John Updike to look forward to.  Indeed, it’s hard to see when we will hit the muddy floor hidden by the the inky depths, the dark, swirling vortex beyond the call of Cthulhu, given the current crop of entrants.

So why am I bemoaning the sinking of the S. S. Library of America?  Oh, because the Wall Street Journal has an article in Tuesday’s edition about how wonderful it is that Lovecraft is getting the recognition that long has been owing to him—believe it or not, his great masterpiece, The Call of Cthulhu was rejected by the pulp venue “Weird Tales.” [N.B.: So sorry, no link to the article because the WSJ charges to access any of its stories on line—you’d think it promoted capitalism or something.].  Indeed, “[i]f our country’s literary canon has a dress code, then surely it involves those shiny black jackets covering the volumes produced by the Library of America.”  Yes, the reason they’re black is that it’s easier to hide the smudge marks.  Even the reviewer must admit that Lovecraft’s best work may “sound silly and, at a certain level, it surely is.”  One would think that “certain level” would have been the cruising altitude of the Library of America, but wait, it’s sinking further, is that John Irving I spy off the port bow?  Lovecraft is important, however, because his stories contain “many elements that will be familiar to fans of ‘The Da Vinci Code’ by Dan Brown.” Wait, shouldn’t Dan Brown get his own Library of America volume?  Where’s Conrad when you need him.  The horror.  The horror.

The Norman Mailer Classic Poets Corner
Time once again, boys and girls, to put on our red sweaters, lace up our white sneakers, and journey on the magic train to the neighborhood of the Norman Mailer Classic Poets Corner.  Remember the rules of the neighborhood:  A longish work by a fairly well-known poet on an important subject that is embarrassingly awful and/or portentous.  So, thank goodness for The New Yorker, or we would likely have few candidates to fill our pantheon.  This week’s inductee is A. R. Ammons, a very-well respected poet who has been weighed down with a plethora of honors including the National Book Award, the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Bollingen Prize—but not yet the honor of being inducted here.  And how did he merit such an honor?  Why, with his poem in the March 14, 2005 issue of The New Yorker, Tree Limbs Down.

Yes, yes, I admit that the title does seem promising.  It has a sense of foreboding about it.  But, of course, the title is merely metaphorical and has, at best, a very tenuous relationship with the contents of the actual poem itself. Before we get to the heart of the poem, let me discuss the style a bit.  Let me adjust the dial on this blather-meter, ahh, here we go:  Living today in the era of modernism with the freedom to let the line sing on its own without artificial constraints, blah, blah, blah, etc., etc.   Basically, the poem is unrhymed, demotic verse with a passing resemblance to the iambic pentameter of the heroic couplet but only as the platypus is related to the mammal (I mean, where else would you put it?).  That is to say, the two lines of each couplet are roughly of the same syllable length (10 to 15 syllables each).  Otherwise, there ain’t much resemblance.  Oh, and there’s practically no full stops at the end of the couplets, everything’s enjambment, meaning that the relentless momentum of the subject matter pulls you along like a vicious undertow—or not.  So, let’s savor the first few lines shall we?:

The poverty of having everything is not
wanting anything; I trudge down the mall halls

and see nothing wanting which would pick me
up: I stop at a cheap $79 piece of jewelry,

a little necklace dangler, and it has a diamond
chip in it hardly big enough to sparkle, but it

sparkles: a piece of junk, symbolically vast;
imagine, a life with a little sparkle in it, a

little sparkle like wanting something, like
wanting a little piece of shining, maybe the . . . .

Okay, that’s plenty, and, I assure you, these are not the lyrics from a rejected power ballad off of Tori Amos’s latest album, Tiny Whiney.  I do like that “mall halls,” though.  Makes me think of “Pall Mall”—really, not apropos of anything, but that’s the sign of a poem worthy enough to be included in the Norman Mailer Classic Poets Corner.  I also like the repeated use of the word, “sparkles.”  The sound of it, for some reason, makes me think of . . . victory. Here then, is my obligatory parody in a new form I will christen Moronic Couplets with Toe Enjambment:

Slaughtership Down
What is that upon the far distant horizon sparkling,
Sparkling with the glisten of fool’s gold, that will

Soon be disgorged from the cargo hold of that
Mighty iron ship filled to the brim with consumer

Goods such as a $12.99 pair of velveteen purple
Pajamas with gold piping and ozone-destroying

Anti-deodorant that fills the air with a noxious
Cloud, smelling of, smelling of, well, teen spirit.

Click Here to Comment or View Comments on This Entry

March 15,  2005

Patrick: Lagniappe

Little by Little Dr. Sloper had retired from his profession; he visited only his patients in whose symptoms he recognised a certain originality. He went again to Europe, and remained two years; Catherine went with him, and on this occasion Mrs. Penniman was of the party. Europe apparently had few surprises for Mrs. Penniman, who frequently remarked, in the most romantic sites—“You know I am very familiar with this.” It should be added that such remarks were usually not addressed to her brother, or yet to her niece, but to fellow-tourists who happened to be at hand, or even to the cicerone or the goat-herd in the foreground.
--Washington Square by Henry James

All the President’s Books
I read the New York Times article yesterday about President George W. Bush’s interest in Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, which got me to thinking that maybe a list of his recent reads would be of some interest, hence the title of the post.  Well, okay, this title is a bit misleading—below is a list of some of the books that President George W. Bush has been reported to have read in the last couple of years (in a few cases I’ve had to make a (semi) intelligent guess where only an author or part of a title was mentioned).  This is by no means an exhaustive list, but it is interesting given that the President reportedly reads all the way to the end of the books that he starts—as opposed to President Bill Clinton who is described as a voracious reader, but, not surprisingly, skimmed and skipped more than he finished (He claims to read about 70 non-fiction and fiction books a year). Hence, it’s probably futile to try to come up with a list of books for President Clinton.  But, not so with the current White House occupant.  Apparently, Bush is a slow and methodical reader who absorbs the “thickness” of what he reads and likes to discuss it at length with others [N.B.: I am quite sympathetic with this style; I read the same way--I wish I could read more like President Clinton].  As a result, I think President Bush's reading list might be more illuminating than one put together for other famous figures.  And now, drum roll, please, All the President’s Books (subject to the above aforementioned reservations and exceptions):

1. The Bible.
2. The Complete Works of Oswald Chambers by Oswald Chambers.
3. Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow.
4. His Excellency: George Washington by Joseph J. Ellis.
5. The Case for Democracy by Natan Sharanksy.
6. Democracy in America by Alexis de Tocqueville.
7. I Am Charlotte Simmons by Tom Wolfe.
8. God’s Strength for This Day by Lloyd John Ogilvie.
9. Supreme Command: Soldiers, Statesmen and Leadership in Wartime by Eliot A. Cohen.

If that’s not enough for you, go here for the sour grapes President Bush reading list.  Also, this fascinating site by the Gardiner Public Library in Gardiner, Maine has a web page of the book reading lists for a number of famous people—most of these lists appear to contain childhood favorites.  What a great idea! Included, is what then Texas Governor George Bush had read.  Also, there’s a childhood reading list for both Tony Blair [N.B.:  Yes, I am well aware that a significant proportion of litblog's readership is from our cousins across the Big Pond] and Bill Clinton.

By the bye, Laura Bush actually has posted her recommended reading list.  I think some of the selections are a bit surprising, e.g., Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses and Truman Capote’s Music for Chameleons.  If you want to see more of the President’s and Laura Bush’s cultural interests, go here  (Laura Bush recently saw the French film, A Very Long Engagement, which I am dying to see, but, given where I live, it hit the screen for about two showings and then left).  True to my deduction above, I can’t seem to find anything current on Bill Clinton's or, for that matter, Hilary ’s, reading list or books read.  Does anyone know if one is posted?

Click Here to Comment or View Comments on This Entry

March 14,  2005

Patrick: Lagniappe

“I am afraid you are in trouble, my dear. Can I do anything to help you?”
“I am not in any trouble whatever, and do not need any help,” said Catherine, fibbing roundly, and proving thereby that not only our faults, but our most involuntary misfortunes, tend to corrupt our morals.
--Washington Square by Henry James

[N.B.: I find James’s fascination with speaking truthfully to the utmost peccadillo quite fascinating, particularly given a perusal of his remaining correspondence (he burnt as much as he could) where he makes one disingenuous remark after another. David Lodge in his brilliant roman a clef novel on James's life, Author, Author, has great fun with this conceit.  One almost gets the impression that James saw lying as a failure of intellect.  If one was smart enough, he never need lie because he would always speak with sufficient Jesuitical suavity so that his words would be literally true although the impression conveyed by them false. As Bill Clinton might say, “it depends on what the definition of ‘is’ is.”  Or, in Euripides’ notorious formulation: “’twas but my tongue, ‘twas not my soul that swore.”]

P. G. Wodehouse, the Third Earl of Ineffable
Hilaire Belloc, after the debilitating stroke which robbed him of his creative faculties, would spend his days reading only two authors:  himself (well, of course, what author wouldn’t) and P. G. Wodehouse.  Wodehouse is the great comforter, the anti-depressant that comes without a prescription.  He was that rare artistic genius who succeeded in two media:  Broadway (which, apparently, no one can succeed at today) and Literature.  One of his novels which comes close to combining these two passions is Laughing Gas, an odd precursor to such madcap scenarios as Freaky Friday.  Here, the two protagonists, Reggie Havershot, the Third Earl of Havershot (“Height six feet one, eyes brown, hair a sort of carroty color.”—Has anyone ever been more succinct with a physical description? Not one verb in the whole lot!) and Joey Cooley, a cynical child movie star with shock curls and a tongue to go with them, exchange consciousnesses while gassed at the dentist office (hence the title).  And does this consciousness exchange involve some high-falutin’ trans-migratory twilight-zonish balonish?  Nope.  Here’s the ether-world: “It seemed to me that he and I were in a room rather like the waiting-room only larger, and as in the real waiting-room, there were two doors, one on each side.”  Of course, Joey Cooley goes through the wrong door.  That’s it.

And from such banality comic hi-jinx ensue.  I love Wodehouse because there’s no there there.  His world is an ineffable soufflé:  Delicious when eaten but leaves not a trace of its passage after half an hour.  Don’t come to Wodehouse looking for answers to the afterlife—they’re all behind a dentist’s door marked “I. J. Zizzbaum.”  Or the angels of heaven come wafting on wings of 100% pure rotgut:

‘Haven’t you ever heard of Sister Lora Luella Stott?’
‘No. Who is she?’
‘She is the woman who is leading California out of the swamp of alcohol.’
‘Good God!’ I could tell by Eggy’s voice that he was interested. ‘Is there a swamp of alcohol in these parts? What an amazing country America is. Talk about every modern convenience. Do you mean you can simply go there and lap?

So much for Heaven—now to the other extreme, Hollywood.  What does Wodehouse think of Hollywood?  Not much, as in, he doesn’t give it much thought.  Hollywood is filled with people on the make who are continually importuning others to give them their big break.  In other words, the butler is really an actor, and so is the chauffeur, and the gardener, and the desperate gang of kidnappers.  Of course, it ain’t much different from today, as Elmore Leonard has been busily pointing out about a half-century after Wodehouse (and not nearly as humorously).  Let me leave you with this one exchange between our Earl and his butler:

‘There’s the heartache of the exile, sir. There’s the yearning to be away from it all. There’s the dull despair of living the shallow, glittering life of this tinsel town where tragedy lies hid behind a thousand false smiles.’
‘Oh, is there?’ I said aloofly.
I was in no mood to listen to other people’s hard-luck stories. I declined to allow this butler to sob on my shoulder. He appeared to be looking to me to hold his hand and be the little mother, and I wasn’t going to do it.
‘I dare say you are wondering how I come to be here, sir.’
‘No, I’m not.’
‘It’s a long story.’
‘Save it for the winter evenings.’
‘Very good, sir. Ah, Hollywood, Hollywood,’ said the butler, who seemed not to like the place. ‘Bright city of sorrows, where fame deceives and temptation lurks, where souls are shrivelled in the furnace of desire, whose streets are bathed with the shamed tears of betrayed maidens.’
‘Keep it clean.’
‘Hollywood! Home of mean glories and spangled wretchedness, where the deathless fire burns for the outspread wings of the guileless moth and beauty is broken on sin’s cruel wheel. If you have finished with the tray, sire, I will take it.’

And on that fine note, let me take your litblog tray, and bid you adieu, too. For parting, even in Hollywood, is such sweet sorrow; and I shall save my thousand false similes for tomorrow.

Click Here to Comment or View Comments on This Entry

March 13,  2005

Patrick: Lagniappe

“His hatred of you burns with a lurid flame—that flame that never dies,” she wrote [N.B.: The romantic Old Maid and all-around busy-body, Mrs. Penniman writing to her niece Catherine’s fortune-hunter suitor, Morris]. “But it doesn’t light up the darkness of your future. If my affection could do so, all the years of your life would be an eternal sunshine. I can extract nothing from C.; she is so terribly secretive, like her father. She seems to expect to be married very soon, and has evidently made preparations in Europe—quantities of clothing, ten pairs of shoes, etc. My dear friend, you cannot set up in married life simply with a few pairs of shoes, can you? Tell me what you think of this. I am intensely anxious to see you; I have so much to say. I miss you dreadfully; the house seems so empty without you. What is the news down town? Is the business extending? That dear little business—I think it’s so brave of you! Couldn’t I come to your office?—just for three minutes? I might pass for a customer—is that what you call them? I might come in to buy something—some shares or some railroad things. Tell me what you think of this plan. I would carry a little reticule, like a woman of the people.”
--Washington Square by Henry James


With the Old Breed:  12th Street Books

Ah, 12th Street Books--I can see it now, comfy leather chairs, an octavo volume, refreshments . . . no cigars though.  [N.B.: I  live in one of those modern "hippie" towns ("Keep Austin weird" and all that) so,  I now have to co-exist with these former "love children" now that they have evolved upright, cut their hair and become productive members of society with the attendant moral adjustments--as the saying goes, there's nothing more puritanical than a reformed rake; of course, the City Council has banned indoor smoking; I suspect bacon will be next.]  Luke, the kindly proprietor of 12th Street Books is always there.  He loves books, knows his inventory and . . . horrors . . . even knows what you like.  He greets you by name when you pop by and tells you if he's held something new back thinking you would like it (he's almost invariably correct).  Of course, 12th Street Books would have long since died, nestled as it is in the shade of the goliath, Half-Price Books, were it not for the internet.

The internet has proven to be the last lifeline for the genus of the independent book shop.  12th Street books--the actual physical premises--is very small.  I have been to many, many bookstores that are much, much bigger.  Indeed, Half-Price Books would glare down its schnozzle at such a small fossil.  But, as the saying goes, it's not how big it is but what you do with it.  And 12th Street Books is as flexible as an egg-beater--it knows how to stock its limited space.  You won't find Danielle Steele or John Grisham.  Instead, each book on the shelves has been judiciously chosen because of some intrinsic literary quality that would appeal to the bibliomaniac book buyer.  Plus, there's much more stock in the warehouse which can be perused through the internet.  That's where a goodly proportion of the sales comes from; and, I'll bet, it's the margin that allows 12th Street Books to continue to exist as a physical location and not just a phantom of the internet ether.

So, let us praise the internet, not just due to the gift of being able to peruse litblog, but because it gives the edge to the independent book shop.  Maybe the world of books will continue to evolve and the likes of  the giant, no-nothing, impersonal used mega-bookstore is the dinosaur after all and the small, independent, friendly, internet-savvy bookshop is the scruffy mammal, the portent of the future.  Let's hope so.  To lose the likes of 12th Street Books and Luke Bilberry would make the world a bit grayer and a lot less civilized.

Click Here to Comment or View Comments on This Entry

March 12,  2005

Patrick: Lagniappe

Mrs. Penniman got up, with a melancholy sigh, as if she thought him very unimaginative. “She has always performed them faithfully; and now do you think she has not duties to you?” Mrs. Penniman, always, even in conversation, italicised her personal pronouns.
--Washington Square by Henry James


An Elegy for the Independent Used Bookshop

Yesterday I wrote of an endangered species that everyone is familiar with:  the independent retail bookshop.  If you live in a fairly large city, you have seen the corporate takeover by the chain bookstore and the muscling out of general, local retail bookshops.  Today, the only ones that can survive are those "lifestyle" stores a la Urban Outfitters such as feminist or political bookshops, or ones that specialize in a particular genre such as science-fiction or mystery bookshops.  Well, I am the herald from Babylon to warn you that the King Xerxes of used bookstores is on the march and will soon be gobbling up the used bookstores near you.  What is the name of this inexorable kingdom?  Half-Price Books.

Half-Price Books started in Dallas back in the early '70s by a couple of hippies.  This is the great irony.  Just as Starbucks was apparently birthed by some left-wing types and, like a rotten egg, continues to maintain the sparkling white shell of its political orientation while within is something not quite as palatable (ask a barista sometime how many hours she works a week--she'll probably say between 35-39 hours; why so?; because if she worked 40 hours she'd have to be paid benefits; ahhh, how so) so Half-Price Books, too, is now out for the quick starbuck . . . errr . .  . buck. 

Half-Price Books does have a humongous selection of books--indeed, you may find me haunting a Half-Price Books on a regular basis.  But, then again, I don't have much of a choice.  Also, I have to spend quite a bit of time there looking for books because the staff is quite proud that they don't have a clue what they have.  At best, they'll just point you to the general classification where you book might be.  You see, if they told you right off, "hmmm, Evelyn Waugh, so sorry, we don't have anything by her," well, you'd just turn on your heel and leave.  But they want you to browse about and maybe that Tom Clancy number will catch your fancy, not to mention the luscious Dame Danielle Steele winking at you from the "literature" section. 

Well, if you want to avoid those lascivious winkings and blinkings of those promiscuous hussies, Clancy and Steele, get thee to an independent used bookstore.  The one I love is 12th Street Books manned by the dynamic due of Luke Bilberry and Julie Carpenter.  You'll never guess where it's located.  I'll sing its praises next post.

Click Here to Comment or View Comments on This Entry

March 11,  2005

Patrick: Lagniappe

He said to her, with his charming smile, “Tell me about yourself; give me a little sketch.” Catherine had very little to tell, and she had no talent for sketching; but before he went she had confided to him that she had a secret passion for the theatre, which had been but scantily gratified, and a taste for operatic music—that of Bellini and Donizetti, in especial (it must be remembered in extenuation of this primitive young woman that she held these opinions in an age of general darkness)—which she rarely had an occasion to hear, except on the hand-organ. She confessed that she was not particularly fond of literature. Morris Townsend agreed with her that books were tiresome things; only, as he said, you had to read a good many before you found it out. He had been to places that people had written books about, and they were not a bit like the descriptions.
--Washington Square by Henry James

[N.B.: I bet Henry James wishes he could take back that parenthetical now—obviously, neither is a Wagner, but they each have operas that are firmly ensconced in the canon.]

An Elegy for the Independent New Bookshop
I am fortunate to live in a city which still has a large, independent retail book store—Book People.  Now, in the age of Amazon and Barnes & Noble, one might wonder, “Why do we need such an atavistic creature?”  Isn’t this decrepit dinosaur on its last legs, crawling, crawling to some dark ally to hide squeezed between the Borders and the XXX Big-Box.  Who needs such a crusty store for literature?  Well, I do for one.

So, what does Book People have that the giants don’t?  Well, it has character, for one.  If you go to a Barnes & Noble or Borders, in Amarillo or Fresno, they’ll have the same look to them with the same stock and the same nice folks to help you get the latest Broiling with Nigella or Q is for Quack-Quack. Barnes & Noble, of course, appeals to the middle-brow by appearing high-brow as the middle-brow would imagine the high-brow (dark-wood paneling, murals of famous-authors wall paper, etc.) while Borders, as far as I can tell, goes for the no-brow new-age look (lots of CDs, DVDs and crystals slightly leavened by some strange objects which appear to be oblong-shaped receptacles of pulp products in bound sheaves).  Book People disdains such flippant characterization.

Book People tries to keep things weird.  Yes, it has a coffee shop, but it’s not part of a chain Bigbucks, I mean, Starbucks.  The shop is just a local place that serves high-octane go-juice.  And you need that go-juice because Book People is open long hours (9 a.m. to 11 p.m.).  Yep, it’s there when you need it.  No big mall hours for Book People.  Plus, when you walk in, they’ve got a help desk that is . . . gasp . . . helpful.  Sure, it might also be pierced and tattooed and branded and even fricasseed, for all I know, but it can point you to exactly where you can find the book you’re looking for.  Oh, which likely will be on the shelves because Book People is a multi-story book lover’s paradise with far more stock than you find at any of the chains.  Plus, it has lots of chairs for lounging about and perusing its wares.  It’s almost as if they have some kind of louche flaneur on staff who does nothing but lay about and anticipate the serious book addict’s psychic needs.

And, let’s not forget Book People’s other psychic qualities, as well.  When I walk into a B&N, usually because I need to go to the bath room (sure, the store might not be that great, but, honey-chile, the toilet is to DIE for—so clean, so firm, so fully packed, so light and easy on the draw [ooops, sorry, that was some kind of rogue transmission from a Jack Benny radio program, don’t worry, I’ll get the blog adjusted in a minute here]), I'll pass the front “come hither” table and gasp in shock.  Let’s see what’s on display here.  Hmmm, the latest installment of Am I Hearing Voices or Are These My Conversations with God, appropriately next to volume twelve of, The End Days: You’re Burning in Hell, Hell I Tell You, AH-HAHAHAHAHAHAHA!!!.  Oh, and here’s the the new fiction titles, The Badda-Bing Code, The Fried Focaccia Danielle Steele Book Club, Misty Murmurings, and Hootchie Mama.  What’s going on here?  These titles are B&N’s idea of new literature worthy of my attention?  Puhleez.  Last week, I went to Book People to pick up vol. 15 of McSweeney’s (the Icelandic literature issue—I’m about a third of the way through this collection of short stories, and, so far, it’s really, really good; I might blog on it soon).  As I’m walking through the door, I see that a copy of it is on display in the front window, fer cryin’ out loud.  And there, on the front table, is the Cheops Pyramid of McSweeney’s for my delectation.  That’s psychic for you.  Kinda spooky.

Also psychic is the selection of authors that makes the rounds of Book People. Whereas Boarders is sure to have Dr. Annie Ketone Johnson speak on her new childrearing book, Time-Out for Co-Dependency, Book People actually has authors such as Martin Amis, Joyce Carol Oates and, even, Hilary Clinton, show up.  This Saturday at 1:00 p.m., my lust-in-the-heart femme fatale, Lauren Bacall, is speaking.  Can it get any better than that?  I don’t think so.  Those of you without a big independent book store need to whistle one up.  You know how to do that don’t you?  Just put your lips together and blow.

Click Here to Comment or View Comments on This Entry

March 10,  2005

Patrick: Lagniappe
“I shall be curious to hear her description of you!” said Mrs. Almond, with a laugh. “And, meanwhile, how is Catherine taking it?”
“As she takes everything—as a matter of course.”
“Doesn’t she make a noise? Hasn’t she made a scene?”
“She is not scenic.”
“I though a love-lorn maiden was always scenic.”
“A fantastic widow is more so. Lavinia has made me a speech; she thinks me very arbitrary.”
“She has a talent for being in the wrong,” said Mrs. Almond. “But I am very sorry for Catherine, all the same.”
“So am I. But she will get over it.”
“You believe she will give him up?”
“I count upon it. She has such an admiration for her father.”
“Oh, we know all about that! But it only makes me pity her the more. It makes her dilemma the more painful, and the effort of choosing between you and her lover almost impossible.”
“If she can’t choose, all the better.”
“Yes, but he will stand there entreating her to choose, and Lavinia will pull on that side.”
“I am glad she is not on my side; she is capable of ruining an excellent cause. The day Lavinia gets into your boat it capsizes. But she had better be careful,” said the Doctor. “I will have no treason in my house!”
“I suspect she will be careful; for she is at bottom very much afraid of you.”
“They are both afraid of me—harmless I am!” the Doctor answered. “And it is on that that I build—on the salutary terror I inspire!”
--Washington Square by Henry James

[N.B.: I picked this passage because it runs counter to several false stereotypes about Henry James—that he isn’t funny, is always very serious, and his language is formal and high falutin’ (note the use of two contractions in the same sentence--if he keeps that up he'll soon be rowing a raft down the Mississippi with Huck and Jim!). Also, it has not one, not two, not three, not four, but five, count ‘em and weep, five, exclamation points; so put that in your editor’s pipe and smoke it Robert Maxwell (he of the advice that a writer should use no more than two exclamation points in a career—for a funny (but, I warn you, blasphemous and obscene) satire on this advice go here). Finally, I like this passage because it ends with the use of the double-that, which Old Maid Ethel from Poughkeepsie considers the height of bad grammar.]

The Wolves in the Wilde: Banality v. Novelty
My post yesterday got me to thinking about this dichotomy between banality and novelty.  So, donning my W. H. Auden cap (he had a penchant for analyzing critical issues based on opposed dichotomies), let us explore these two sides of the coin, banality and novelty.  First, I wish to use the term “banality” in the neutral sense as simply meaning the lack of novelty or originality.  Certainly, in many areas of today’s hurly-burly world, a premium is placed on novelty whereas the lack of it, banality, if you will, is disdainfully rejected as the province of, well, provincialism and stodginess. But, as I described yesterday, this dull coin is given added luster when considered in the light of literature.  Here, there exists a strong school which rejects, or at least, minimizes, novelty for its own sake, in favor of plainness, probably best exemplified by George Orwell’s remark from his essay, Why I Write, that “prose should be as clear as a window pane.”  The moral underpinning to this observation might be Orwell’s further remark: “The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one's real and one's declared aims, one turns, as it were, instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish squirting out ink.”

So, the lack of clear language may be a signal of insincerity, of subterfuge, of opacity, or falsehood.  Certainly, we have all writhed upon the procrustean bed of government-speak with its monstrosities of verbs turned into nouns and nouns into verbs (Ovid and Dante don’t have nuttin’ on the transmogrifications of the guv’ment pencil-pushers).  But there should be a different yardstick used with respect to fiction.  By definition, it’s fictional—false, and yet truthful, too.  Fiction is a chimera.  It tells you truth through lies.  It speaks lies to power.  And, if the liar is of a stature of Harriet Beecher Stowe, the lies are so strong that they bring down something as powerful and as monstrous as the entire slave-economy of the South.  Was the fictional depiction of Simon Legree fair to the South?  What does that mean?  Fiction does not have to be fair.  It does not even have to be artistic—as Stowe showed.  It has to be only one thing: false. With the rise of the realists, such as Zola, this crucial element became obscured. Some, though took note of this trend and rebelled.  Indeed, one of the greatest fabulists of all time, Oscar Wilde, raged against this assault on the sacred citadel of falsehood in his essay, The Decay of Lying.

And falsehood, like Wilde, is all about style.  Style necessarily distorts because it presents the world through the lens of one limited consciousness.  Now, this consciousness might be quite interesting, entertaining and informative. But it can’t be the definitive truth.  Style must exclude.  It can’t be just-the-facts-ma’am.  And, here’s the key, banality, in rejecting novelty, in rejecting style, is, necessarily, it’s own style.  It’s the stylishness of non-style.  This non-style seems to be the desideratum, the new lodestar for aspiring writers.  Don’t be fancy.  Don’t be quirky.  Just keep your head down at the Dotheboys Creative Writing School and Old Mr. Squeers won’t box your ears.  In other words, let’s all be more like Tom Wolfe and less like Oscar Wilde (okay, maybe not Tom Wolfe, more like Ann Beattie). How’s about we call’s a truce and let’s be both.  We need more Wolfes in the world and more Wildes.

Click Here to Comment or View Comments on This Entry

March 9,  2005

Patrick: Lagniappe

Ah, no. To distant climes, a dreary scene,
Where half the convex world intrudes between,
To torrid tracts with fainting steps they go,
Where wild Altama murmurs to their woe.
Far different there from all that charm’d before,
The various terrors of that horrid shore;
Those blazing suns that dart a downward ray,
And fiercely shed intolerable day;
Those matted woods where birds forget to sing,
But silent bats in drowsy clusters cling,
Those poisonous fields with rank luxuriance crowned,
Where dark scorpion gathers death around;
Where at each step the stranger fears to wake
The rattling terrors of the vengeful snake;
Where crouching tigers wait their hapless prey,
And savage men, more murderous still than they;
While oft in whirls the mad tornado flies,
Mingling the ravaged landshape with the skies.
Far different these from every former scene,
The cooling brook, the grassy vested green,
The breezy covert of the warbling grove,
That only sheltered thefts of harmless love.
--The Deserted Village (excerpt) by Oliver Goldsmith

[N.B.:  The "wild Altama" refers to a river bordering the feral states of Georgia and Florida.  I find it amusing how Goldsmith views such country with horror and disdain. Shades of Martin Chuzzlewit, there.]

Bad Writing v. Good Writing
First, given my tirade a couple of days ago and this screed today, I certainly do not want to give the impression that I’m picking on The Atlantic.  I thoroughly enjoy the Books & Critics section of the monthly and am quite happy that it was one of the changes instituted by the former editor Mike Kelly (may he rest in peace) that has not been abolished.  Further, its lead reviewer, Christopher Hitchens, is one of my faves along with James Wood and Frank Kermode.  I rarely agree with him, but, like his idol Orwell, he writes in transparent prose from a quirky point of view which makes him endlessly refreshing as opposed to the grey banality that infects the writing of most critics.  So, keep in mind I like The Atlantic, I really, really do.  Okay, now to the wet work.

And wet is the operative term because we’ve got quite a bit of sludge to get through here.  It seems that the Books & Critics section has lately been asking the usual literary suspects to analyze various writings of their peers, prod at them in minute detail—I mean really get down to the nitty-gritty, the down and dirty, the hurdy-gurdy (well, maybe not hurdy-gurdy, how about the “mean and shirty”?)—and explain why some literary works work and some don’t.  Below are the two examples from this issue.  Your mission, should you choose to take it, is to determine which is the “good” writing and which is the “bad”—just like Sesame Street!  But hurry, this blog will self-destruct in 10 seconds:

1). The candles were cinnamon-scented and made my throat feel constricted. She lit them at the beginning of the meal, and by the end she seemed to have forgotten about talking about my father. She mentioned a book she’d been reading about Arizona. She offered to show me some pictures, but they, too, were forgotten. We watched a movie about a dying ballerina. As she died, she imagined herself doing a pas de deux with an obviously gay actor. We ate M&M’s, which my mother has always maintained are not really candy, and went to bed early.
--from “Find and Replace,” in Follies and New Stories by Ann Beattie

2). “The woman at the mercado had dirty blond hair, like margarine full of crumbs.” Another character uses a particular word “liberally and randomly, like some used curry.” Still another has “a short-shorn beard that wraps his face as a bandage would a man, decades ago, suffering from a toothache.” And, finally, here’s a landscape description: “The moon was striped by the blinds but I could see its nickly shimmer on the bay. It looked like aluminum foil when crumpled and then smoothed with a thumb or the back of a knife.”
--from various stories in How We Are Hungry by Dave Eggers.

So, which is the bad writing?  The second example, of course.  Why?  Because these descriptions are all examples where the author is preeminently concerned with novelty to the extent of causing “narrative harm.”  Note in the first example that the language certainly does not call attention to itself and would not be guilty of such an intentional tort.  Indeed, the language in the first example could serve admirably as a description of the ingredients on the back of a jello box.  Or the emergency exit procedures framed next to the pastel seascape in a Motel 6.  It certainly wouldn’t get in the way of the narrative, or even a declarative.  Or of the back of my hand as I raise it to my mouth to stifle a yawn.

So what’s going on here?  To be fair, probably most folks who engage in “literary” writing, as opposed to those folks who actually write literature, have been terminally exposed to a surfeit of gamma rays emanating from the large stockpiles of creative-writing classes littering (literaling?) our university landscape.  Is there no superfund clean-up for this mess?  Apparently not.  So, lots of innocent, young, would-be writers are exposed to the same tired “rules” which isolate and nullify any individual style they might have had and burn it off like a skin melanoma wart.  Eggers, damn him, is trying to write fiction which has “narrative logic that can easily be undone by stylistic departures. If the rigor of such fiction proves to be too much, Eggers might do well to seek another freer outlet. As exasperating as it can be, his is a voice best used liberally, not randomly.”  That last sentence does offer a good bit of advice:  If one has a unique, authorial voice—like Eggers—stick with it and don’t leaven it with the dry, just-the-facts-ma’m approach exemplified by Beattie.  The rest of the advice regarding narrative logic, is, of course, asinine.

There are more things in heaven and in earth than are dreamt of in narrative logic.  If that’s your god, you better get ready to burn a few witches, starting with Shakespeare and Dickens.  Narrative logic is the last refuge for an unimaginative writer.  I really could care less for narrative logic—this is true with respect to movies as well—so long as the writing has life, art, that ineffable something that Eggers clearly has.  To lambaste him for it is sheer churlishness. So he doesn’t write like a modern-day Hemingway except, of course, missing the trick that the spare words which remain fail to allude to any unseen presences.  Look at Beattie’s passage again.  Do you feel that there is an electric, hidden world throbbing behind that spare prose?  Or, rather, the prose is banal because it’s describing a flat, banal world?

Ultimately, these issues involving banality and novelty are aesthetic ones that reasonable minds may disagree upon.  My complaint is that creative-writing, as flogged, seems to aspire towards either a spare style exemplified by Beattie or a spiky style decked out with quirky adverbs and adjectives which is closer to Eggers.  Again, which is better is more a matter of taste.  Either one, in the words of Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch should “murder your darlings” or, in the words of Ezra Pound, “make it new.”  I probably fall more in the Pound camp and just wish to encourage the other, the different, the outsider, the unique.  Give me individuality or give me Lethe.

Click Here to Comment or View Comments on This Entry

March 8,  2005

Patrick: Lagniappe

Nor this the worst. As social bonds decay,
 As duty, love, and honour fail to sway,
 Fictitious bonds, the bonds of wealth and law,
 Still gather strength, and force unwilling awe.
 Hence all obedience bows to these alone,
 And talent sinks, and merit weeps unknown;
 Till time may come, when stript of all her charms,
 That land of scholars, and that nurse of arms;
 Where noble stems transmit the patriot flame,
 And monarchs toil, and poets pant for fame;
 One sink of level avarice shall lie,
 And scholars, soldiers, kings, unhonor’d die.
 --The Traveller (excerpt) by Oliver Goldsmith

The Untouchable: Victor Maskell
Modeled on the real-life Cambridge spy, Anthony Blunt, Victor Maskell from John Banville's The Untouchable, at first, does not appear to be promising material for a full-blown novel told in the first person.  Maskell, like Blunt, is a cold-blooded materialist who falls into Marxism because it seemingly cloaks him in an aura of romance and a sense of superiority.  He could not give two figs for the baying proletariat and tries to distance himself from the mob at every opportunity.  Indeed, he pursues a career—as art connoisseur and Royal courtier—which assures him that their baying cries become ever more distant and faint.  When he does have to dirty himself with their presence, such as the low-level agents and police officers who dog his path once his cloak-and-dagger capers are revealed, he takes delicious delight in showing them up or outright lying in order to snigger at their decoupage educations.  I’m thinking here of the befuddled policeman Maskell meets in his house near the end of the book who tries to find some common ground by commenting on one of Maskell’s paintings which Maskell maliciously misidentifies, thereby foreclosing any such attempts at rapproachement.  Such vicious behavior, however, is leavened by our knowledge, quietly accumulating throughout Maskell’s maundering confessions, that Maskell himself has been treated just as maliciously by his so-called friends.

This food chain of bad behavior makes Maskell sympathetic to some degree because although he desperately seeks approval from what he considers his peer group, they, on the other hand, have seen fit to Babbittize him.  What I mean, is that in Sinclair Lewis’s Babbitt, there is a scene where Babbitt, a prominent real-estate dealer from State University, invites over to his house a couple whom he and his wife entertains.  It becomes increasingly clear during the meal that this couple is not as well educated, and, being from a lower class, can do nothing but increase the discomfiture of the Babbitts who realize that the invitation was ill-planned.  Then, the Babbitts dine with, I believe, a banker and his wife who is educated from the Ivies.  The same result occurs, but with the Babbitts as the déclassé interlopers.  Maskell suffers a similar fate.  Just as he maliciously misidentifies the painting to the police man, so, too, his “friends” planted a faked Poussin in an art gallery’s inventory for Maskell to “discover” and covet.  He begs his friends for the money to purchase it and has enjoyed it ever since as a prized desideratum.  Not until the end of the book does he realize it is probably a fake and may have been used as a way to draw him into the Marxist circle as a dupe to be used, and, ultimately, exposed, for the benefit of his so-called pals.  They, all along, were treating him with the same vitriol of condescension, laughing at him as his puppet strings pulled him this way and that.  They babbittized him.

Maskell is a fascinating, and unique, character in fiction. He is brilliant, but not brilliant enough.  Of course, those that have outwitted him come from the very top drawer.  So, this is not some half-baked morality play like Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, where Lennie and George are merely ‘30s caricatures of dumb and dumber.  This, instead, is of genius and geniuser.  Now, I would not deny that writing sympathetically and realistically of the retarded and marginally intelligent is not a difficult task—Faulkner’s great masterpiece, The Sound and the Fury, with the chapters told from the first person of a retarded man, demonstrates the high level of artistry that might be employed.  But, on the whole, I think most attempts wind up like the maudlin Of Mice and Men.  No, it is the other extreme which is typically the more difficult.  Think of the characters of Henry James.  Why do they have such refined sensibilities that make them so compelling?  They are ferociously intelligent.  Even the villains.

Gilbert Osmond in The Portrait of a Lady may be the most despicable villain that Henry James ever crafted.  He embodies the two flaws that James most reviles—lying and cruelty.  I use cruelty here in the sense that its perpetration has a malicious element to it.  It is done deliberately. James realized that Osmond, in venturing forth to snare, Isabel Archer, could not do so unless he was at least as intelligent as she.  And Archer is very smart indeed.  So Osmond must be not only a flaneur but, like Maskell, a connoisseur, an arm chair expert of the bibelots who can charm and enchant a brilliant creature like Isabel Archer.  So, too, Maskell is like an updated Osmond, but one who does not lounge about in his Florentine rooms waiting for the fly to come to him but instead spins his web in the world at large.  Unfortunately, he finds out, too late, that he is fly and spider both.

James was concerned with the fly—the spider merely his catalytic agent to determine the tensile strength of the fly’s constitution.  The fly, alas, breaks under pressure.  Isabel Archer resorts to lying in an attempt to dissuade Osmond’s daughter, Pansy, from marrying her love, Mr. Rosier, in order for Pansy to be able to marry one of Isabel’s wealthy former suitors.  James scathingly describes Isabel’s remarks as being made “hypocritically” so that she feels her face must be “hideously insincere.”  Although Isabel is opposed to this scheme, she tells Pansy that she herself wishes Pansy to break off with Mr. Rosier so that Pansy may marry someone else.  Isabel has cracked.  The dénouement comes later when Osmond is conversing, and repudiating, Madame Merle in her apartments. He has picked up a rare porcelain cup to examine it.  Madame Merle pleads, “Please be very careful of that precious object.” Osmond “dryly” responds, “It already has a small crack,” and puts it back down.  For me, that scene is chilling—I imagine James is inhabiting Osmond at that moment, slowly moving his fine eye over the character of Isabel Archer and finding her wanting, having a small crack.  And so, he carelessly puts her down.  The rest of the book just peters out.  Isabel no longer fascinates James—she is discarded, her fate unknown, and uninteresting.

Banville does not discard Maskell.  He retains his affection for him.  He knows he is a cracked cup from the beginning, but has come to love that flaw and wishes to dilate upon it.  Indeed, it is that crack, that thin line of debasement and corruption, which makes Maskell much more intriguing than the typical man on the make, the mere modern-day equivalent of Dickens’ Mr. Bounderby or Waugh’s Rex Mottram.

Click Here to Comment or View Comments on This Entry

March 7,  2005

Patrick: Lagniappe

A Sonnet
Weeping, Murmuring, complaining,
Lost to every gay delight;
Myra, too sincere for feigning,
Fears th’approaching bridal night.

Yet why this killing soft dejection?
Why dim thy beauty with a tear?
Had Myra followed my direction
She long had wanted cause to fear.
--by Oliver Goldsmith

The Bad Book Review II: Quit Picking on Little Johnny le Carre
In the new issue of The Atlantic, there’s a carping review by one B. R. Myers, a contributing editor, who is unhappy about John le Carre’s latest spy thriller, Absolute Friends.  B. R. Myers (let’s call him “Brrrr” for short)  is upset that le Carre’s latest spy thriller is not up to the standard of his earlier work, The Spy Who Came In From the Cold.  Brrrr found the earlier work quite bracing but offers a rather chilly reception to le Carre’s latest.  Why?  Well, it seems le Carre has committed the cardinal sin, in Brrrr’s eyes, of having the audacity to write a second-rate spy thriller.  No, say it ain’t so, Joe . . . errr . . . Brrrr.

As I complained of earlier, this habit of elevating genre authors to the level of “serious” literary figures and then lambasting them for then failing to live up to the supposed literary standards they should then be subjected to, is—how should I put this—oh, so tiresome.  Repeat after me: John le Carre is to the spy thriller as John Grisham is to the legal thriller.  No more, no less.  He makes his greenbacks on “entertainments”—which Brrrr mentions approvingly to the disparagement of Graham Greene who truly was a great literary figure.  Greene, of course, would classify some of his works as not quite top shelf and label them “entertainments.”  How dare he poach on Brrrr’s critical domain.  Shame, shame Mr. Greene—go back to your library with the candlestick and Colonel Plum.

Brrrr, although reproachful of Mr. Greene, is downright disparaging of le Carre. Why?  Here’s the key sentence:  “[B]ook reviewers [that be Brrrr] confer honorary ‘serious’ status only on storytellers who, like Elmore Leonard, have a sufficiently showy prose style, or who, like le Carre, are thought to have some moral or philosophical message.”  What fatuous tripe!  Where does one start pumping the bilge, Captain Queeg, I seem to be up to my niblets in rotten giblets.  First, my earlier point on teaching pigs to read applies here in spades with respect to conferring “honorary ‘serious’ status” on genre writers such as le Carre or Leonard.  These writers are very, very, very good at what they do. But, as has been pointed out ad nauseum in the writings of the true literary giants such as Henry James in his The Lesson of the Master or Roderick Hudson, Rudyard Kipling in The Light that Failed, and even the lesser lights such as Cyril Connolly in his Enemies of Promise, artists with great potential may still spoil their gifts by debasing their tastes for the sake of current acclaim. They may become vulgar journalists (Enemies of Promise), popular, depraved sculptors and painters (Roderick Hudson and The Light that Failed) or, more to the point, genre crankers (The Lesson of the Master).  Verily, I say unto you, they have received their reward on earth and have no need of such in heaven.

Second, if just having a sufficiently “prosy style” or a “moral or philosophical message” was enough to get one into the literary pearly gates, we’d all be praising Ayn Rand now.  Ooops, I meant Norman Mailer.  Ooops, ooops, I meant John Hershey.  There, that’s better.  Sorry, the reception is acting up again.  Apparently, le Carre’s great sin is that Brrrr had placed him in the box marked “moral or philosophical message.”  Brrrr then cites this passage as condemnatory of le Carre:

“I have in mind such thinkers as the Canadian Naomi Klein, India’s Arundhati Roi, who pleads for a different way of seeing, your British George Monbiot and Mark Curtis, Australia’s John Pilger, America’s Noam Chomsky, the American Nobel Prize winner, Joseph Stiglitz, and the Franco-American Susan George of World Social Forum at Porto Alegre. You have read all these fine writers, Mr Mundy?”
“Nearly all.” And nearly all Adorno, nearly all Horkheimer and nearly all Marcuse, Mundy thinks …
“From their varying perspectives, each of these eminent writers tells me the same story. The corporate octopus is stifling the natural growth of humanity.”

Now, what in Sam Hill is wrong with this?  It’s got “moral or philosophical message” up the wazoo.  If that’s not meaty, I don’t know what is.  Heck, I chipped a front tooth just trying to masticate Arundhati Roi.  And good ol’ Random Brrrr is unhappy, because, well, le Carre is just a bit too obvious, a bit too bumptious about his message.  Well, he’s a spy thriller writer, fer cryin’ out loud, Brrrr.  He ain’t being paid to be subtle.  He is being paid to provide genre entertainment.  Here, let me pull him off this pedestal you have put him on and beat you with it.  There, I feel much better now.  Don’t you?

Click Here to Comment or View Comments on This Entry

March 6,  2005

Patrick: Lagniappe

Nor can I go on without a reflection on those accidental meetings which, though they happen every day, seldom excite our surprize but upon some extraordinary occasion. To what a fortuitous concurrence do we not owe every pleasure and convenience of our lives. How many seeming accidents must unite before we can be cloathed or fed. The peasant must be disposed to labour, the shower must fall, the wind fill the merchant’s sail, or numbers must want their usual supply.
--The Vicar of Wakefield by Oliver Goldsmith

[N.B.: And you thought that coincidence in literature marked merely the paucity of an author’s imagination.  Au contrair.  It is indeed all of a piece with the great commercial enterprises put in motion by our modern economies and mighty nations.  So do not sneer when for the umpteenth time Dickens’ Little Nell, destitute in the streets, is rescued per chance by Golly Goodoodle—that’s not just the mere fortuitous confluence of circumstances but no less than the mighty invisible hand of Adam Smith, himself, come down to smite you for your impertinence.]

The Wit of the Untouchable, Part Two: The Epigram
At one time, deep, deep, in the misty past, there lived a literary sub-genre of books consisting of nothing but terse, witty epigrams.  The most famous is probably The Maxims of Le Rouchefoucauld.  In English, a modern equivalent might be Cyril Connolly’s The Unquiet Grave.  There is a grave danger in embarking on such a work—which probably explains its demise—in that a book of such witticisms lends itself to instant ridicule for any discerning reader with a jaundiced eye and a habit of scribbling scurrilous remarks in a book’s margins.  This fate befell Connolly who gave an inscribed copy of The Unquiet Grave to his friend, Evelyn Waugh.  Waugh marked it up with lots of harsh abuse and insults.  Later, Waugh gave the book, along with the rest of his papers, to the University of Texas Harry Ransom Center, currently the largest depository of such ephemera for Twentieth Century literary figures.  The book can be seen today on the first floor of the HRC in a special exhibition concerning the relationship between Waugh and Graham Greene.  As noted in the accompanying placard (as I explained earlier, no museum artifact worth its salt would be seen in public without one) Connolly, on other business, journeyed to the HRC, pulled the book, was aghast at the marginalia, and promptly sold his complete set of inscribed Waugh first editions.  I’m sure Connolly consoled himself with the numerous bottles of veuve clicquot he was able to purchase from the books’ sale proceeds.

So much for Connolly, but he had to endure his shame only in private (well, until the current exhibition was mounted).  A more public embarrassment awaited one Holbrook Jackson.  “Who he?” one might inquire.  Mr. Jackson was an acquaintance of that great Edwardian wit, G. K. Chesterton, and had the temerity to give to Chesterton his book, Platitudes in the Making—Precepts & Advices for Gentlefolk.  Chesterton made comments—many of them derogatory—with respect to each platitude, and apparently set the book aside for his own private enjoyment.  This occurred around 1911.  Decades later, in 1955, the scribbled-upon book turned up in a San Francisco bookstore, and was subsequently published, scribbles and all, in 1997 under the title Platitudes Undone.  It is a facsimile copy of the marked up book and is full of such gems as these:

HJ: “A lie is that which you do not believe.”
GKC: “This is a lie: so perhaps you don’t believe it.”

HF: “No opinion matters finally: except your own.”
GKC: “’No opinion matters finally: except your own,’ said the man who thought he was a rabbit.” [N.B.: shades of Harvey there]

HF: “Every custom was once an eccentricity; every idea was once an absurdity.”
GKC: “No, no, no. some ideas were always absurdities. This is one of them.”

And the book goes on, and on, and on.  It is a delightful, short read; I highly recommend it.  Perhaps the folks at the HRC will one day publish Waugh’s scribbled copy of The Unquiet Grave.  From the two pages I saw, it looked very entertaining as well.

Now, what does all of this have to do with Mr. Banville and The Untouchable? Not much, I just thought it made for a diverting circumlocution.  Oh, and that I found quite impressive Mr. Banville’s use of the aphorism/epigram/maxim which he sprinkled throughout this tart work.  Here’s a few samples for your delectation:

--“Thing is, Maskell,” he said, “a bad pope doesn’t make a bad church.” [N.B.: Querell (a cross between Peter Quennell and Graham Greene) mildly rebutting Maskell’s fulminations over Stalin’s ‘30s show trials]

--The worm in the bud is more thorough than the wind that shakes the bough. [N.B.: Maskell musing on the different methods employed by the spy and the man of action--this may be a quote from a poem but I haven't been able to track it down.]

--If not a Hun, I thought, then Austrian, surely—somewhere German-speaking, at any rate; all that gloom and soulfulness could only be the result of an upbringing among compound words.

--a casuist who would split an ideological hair to an infinitesimal extreme of thinness—in other words, a man in need of a faith (No one more devout than a sceptic on his knees—Querell dixit)

--Someone has written somewhere, I wish I could remember who, of the sensation of gleeful anticipatory horror he experiences in the concert hall when in the middle of a movement the orchestra grinds to a halt and the virtuoso draws back his arm preparatory to plunging his bow into the quivering heart of the cadenza.

--Belief is hard, and the abyss is always there, under one’s feet. [N.B.: Maskell explaining the difficulty of remaining a Marxist ideologue in the face of the continuing whip-saw of the party line.]

Ahhh, such a bracing, biting, bilious sense of humor does the heart good. Serious fiction nowadays suffers from a surfeit of, well, seriousness.  Here, on the 400th birthday of the publication of Cervantes’ Don Quixote, let us saddle up our Rocinantes and do battle with our own witty windmills.  Banville’s book concerns a deeply serious and distressing subject—the betrayal of the nation which first cobbled together a working liberal democracy in favor of totalitarianism by that nation’s own preening elite.  Such a work would seem to be the stuff of tragedy.  But even King Lear has his Fool. Play on, Fool, play on.

Click Here to Comment or View Comments on This Entry

March 5,  2005

Patrick: Lagniappe

Thus providence has given the wretched two advantages over the happy in this life, greater felicity in dying, and in heaven all that superiority of pleasure which arises from contrasted enjoyment. And this superiority, my friends, is no small advantage and seems to be one of the pleasures of the poor man in the parable; for though he was already in heaven and felt all the raptures it could give, yet it was mentioned as an addition to his happiness that he had once been wretched and now was comforted, that he had known what it was to be miserable and now felt what it was to be happy.
--The Vicar of Wakefield by Oliver Goldsmith

Sorry, Old Bean, We Don’t “Do” Bushnell
The lead article in the Wall Street Journal’s Weekend Journal on Friday concerns exclusive book clubs.  Under the headline, “The Book-Club Snub,” the article describes how book clubs have come to be seen as status symbols. Of course, any English toff can tell you that you can’t have status without excluding certain undesirables.  And who might these undesirables be?  One red-rope holder for a book club dismissed aspiring applicants because they made the faux pas of admitting, “’Oh, I love to read Candace Bushnell,’ a reference to the ‘Sex and the City’ author.” Having never perused any of Ms. Bushnell’s . . . errr . . . offerings, I certainly cannot judge just how serious a social fault this literary predilection might be.  In some circles, however, it’s deadly.

Words such as “deadly” and “exclusive,” would not, unfortunately, be used to discourage any would-be aspirants to the book club I belong to along with my co-blogger, Kathryn.  Our book club has been around for many years and has seen more rotating members than the backfield of the Dallas Cowboys.  I can’t recall ever excluding anyone from our pulply gates—a sad commentary on the status, or lack thereof, to be gained from sitting down with us and perusing the latest offerings of some literary poseur not half as well known as Ms. Bushnell and her . . . errr . . . accomplishments.  Nor, as detailed in the WSJ, do we banish tardy members to the arctic wastes of the “cc” list on emails.  We don’t even have a waiting list.  Let alone a vetting committee.  Kathryn, when will you get on this and start vetting our new members?  And, as pointed out by the WSJ, keep the social climbers to a minimum (or wait list them).

So what does a no-wait-list, inclusive book club look like? Well, we meet once a month at one another’s homes; and the host is responsible for providing dinner.  I, being the sly dog that I am, have fortunately been blessed with members who are excellent cooks.  Kathryn, the group’s historian, might be able to remember some of the more memorable meals (the dinner of all-Russian cuisine stands out as a highlight).  Everyone else must bring a bottle of wine—preferably red.  Of course, we decant the juice of the grape immediately; and it certainly “turbo-charges” the discussion.  Typically, no discussing the book, itself, until dessert.  Oh, and usually the desserts are the high-point of the evening (I am now fantasizing about home-made peach cobbler and a number of heavy dark chocolate confections).  Hmmm, where was I?  Yes, yes, there’s some book discussing that goes on.  Very high level, lots of theory and what not.  Way too high-brow, I assure you, for me to elucidate further.  Just think of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s description in Tender is the Night of one of Dick Diver’s dinner parties where the guests seem to rise above the earth and converse among the Gods in the empyrean.  Well, something like that—certainly, after the third bottle of wine I feel like rising up but am unable to do so.

Now that we are drifting down to Earth, I might as well describe some of the criteria for choosing a book.  First, we have a minority veto, so anyone may reject a book thus guiding the group to settling for a consensus choice.  I will go on record now as saying that I would certainly be open to considering Ms. Bushnell’s . . . errr . . . attributes.  The other rule is that the book should be no longer than 300 pages (although this pronunciamento tends to be honored more in the breach—indeed, this month’s choice is A Confederacy of Dunces, a work that exceeds the limit and puts great upper pressure on the dictat’s pyloric valve).  Other than that, we tend to concentrate on fiction but will read non-fiction when the mood takes us. 

Our choices have been all over the map.  With respect to this latest iteration of the book group, we started with Dostoevsky’s House of the Dead—not the most auspicious choice for an inaugural tome.  Since then we have read all sorts of stuff from typical book-group fodder such as Laura Hillenbrand’s Seabiscuit, Da Chen’s Colors of the Mountain and Yann Martel’s The Life of Pi to quirkier fare such as Willa Cather’s The Professor’s House, Leonid Tsypkin’s Summer in Baden-Baden and Alan Paton’s Too Late the Phalarope.  What books have we liked the best?  How should I know—didn’t I describe earlier all that wine we imbibe?  Sheesh.  Ask Kathryn, maybe she’ll dig up her list of books and post it on the site for everyone’s amusement.

Click Here to Comment or View Comments on This Entry

March 4,  2005

Patrick: Lagniappe

Whether is it from the number of our penal laws or the licentiousness of our people that this country should shew more convicts in a year than half the dominions of Europe united? Perhaps, it is owing to both; for they mutually produce each other. When by indiscriminate penal laws a nation beholds the same punishment affixed to dissimilar degrees of guilt, from perceiving no distinction in the penalty the people are led to lose all sense of distinction in the crime, and this distinction is the bulwark of all morality; thus the multitude of laws produce new vices, and new vices call for fresh restraints.
--The Vicar of Wakefield by Oliver Goldsmith

The Wit of the Untouchable
I alluded to about a month ago how John Banville’s—and his traitor, Maskell’s—charm seems to seep into the very prose of the book, The Untouchable.  I thought I would dwell a bit further on this in the hopes of dissuading the dour likes of Toibin from continuing along the hard, concrete foundation of high seriousness (heck, even T. S. Eliot wrote Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats).  First, though, I want to make clear that the tone of Banville’s work is not comic, but just the opposite:  He is writing a tragedy where the hero is British society itself and its “Achilles heel” that old faithful disease, hubris.  Lets start with Maskell’s first musings on his own consciousness:

Even as a babe I was already a solitary. It was not so much my mother’s kiss that I Proustianly craved as the having done with it, so that I could be alone with my self, this strange, soft, breathing body in which my spinning consciousness was darkly trapped, like a dynamo in a sack. I can still see her dim form retreating and the yellow fan of light from the hall folding across the nursery floor as she lingeringly closed the door and stepped backwards in silence out of my life. I was not quite five when she died. Her death was not a cause of suffering to me, as I recall.

Oh yes, Maskell is a very cold fish indeed.  This scene sets the table, as it were, for the malingering creepiness to come.  Banville makes clear from the start that Maskell is not a sympathetic character.  But he sets out to make him, if not sympathetic, at least in spurts charming and likable.  Unlike Toibin who tries to explain away the strangeness of James with a jolly jaunt through the fields of Freudianism, Banville wants his character to remain essentially uncanny but to illuminate how even of creature like Maskell can still, is some furtive manner, connect with the rest of humanity.  Banville leaves the strange strange but opens up a window so that we may peer down into its dark depths.  As a digression, I would also like to point out the wonderful language from the quote above—particularly the adverbs.  Abundant misuse of adverbs is a sure sign of incompetence, minimal use mediocrity, and, to complete the circle, abundant use mastery.  I particularly admire that neologism, “proustianly.”  Also, the simile, “like a dynamo in a sack” is just right for the passage being novel, strange, full of energy and, at the same time, disturbing in its unfelt capacities.  The flat, declarative sentences at the end of the paragraph perfectly reflect the formation of the flat, declarative Maskell.

Let’s examine another early scene, with no noticeable comic hi-jinks, indeed, there’s a sense of loss, a sense of elegy:

At four in the morning Querell drove me home. In Leicester Square he ran the car gently into a lamp-post, and we sat for a while listening to the radiator ticking and watching an illuminated advertisement for Bovril blinking on and off. The square was deserted. Squalls of wind pushed dead leaves back and forth over the pavements from which the recently ceased rain was drying in big map-shaped patches. It was all very desolate and beautiful and sad, and I though again that I might weep.

This scene follows on the heels of a sour party reminiscent of Waugh’s “bright young things.”  Here, the bright young things realize, with the advent of World War II, that theie world, too, is winding down.  And although Maskell might weep, the way Banville portrays him, staring groggily up at the Bovril advertisement [N.B.: Bovril, by the bye, is a dark brown, tar-like substance that can be spread on bread like jam. What is it? Basically, “liquid cow,” just a couple of steps down the spam, potted-meat ladder.  Yummy!  Go here to worship at the “Bovril Shrine.”] makes a mockery or his maudlin pathos.  Again, observe the wonderful use of the adverb “gently” which adds to the light comic touch and that precise, evocative description of the drying rain in “big map-shaped patches.”

The last scene I’ll discuss here could be a modern re-working from Waugh’s Vile Bodies where the male protagonist, Adam Fenwick-Symes, a poor writer, keeps falling in and out of engagement with his much put-upon amour, Nina Blount:

“You do love me, I take it?”
The waiter glanced at her quickly and away. I took her wrist and drew her hand toward me and blew out the match. We had started on our second bottle of wine.
“Yes,” I said, “I love you.”
I had never said it to anyone before, except Hettie, when I was little. Baby nodded once, briskly, as if I had cleared up some small, niggling matter that had been on her mind for a long time.
“You’ll have to see Mummy, you know,” she said. I stared blankly. she permitted herself an ironic smile. “To ask for my hand.”
We both looked at where my fingers were still lightly holding her wrist. Had there really been an audience, the moment would have raised a scatter of laughter.
“Shouldn’t it be your father that I talk to?” I said. Big Beaver was about to publish a monograph of mine on German baroque architecture.
“Oh, he won’t care.”

Note in this exchange the marbling effect of the comic—the incongruous elements of a profession of love entangled with the publishing of a monograph, the ridiculous nicknames “Baby” and “Big Beaver”—with the tragic—the break-down in social customs (asking the mother because the father could care less, the off-hand nature of the proposal itself), and the willingness of Baby to enter into a loveless marriage.  That’s Waugh.  I would not argue that Banville has reached the empyrean heights of Waugh.  But Banville is certainly standing on a ridge in sight of him.  One last digression on craft—I included this exchange because the way Banville records dialogue is the way I prefer to see it written. He (gasp!) uses quotation marks and further, doesn’t just write a monotonous string of “he said”/”she said” down the page but breaks up the dialogue with witty observations about the speakers.  Bravo.

Click Here to Comment or View Comments on This Entry

March 3,  2005

Patrick: Lagniappe

In all the foreign universities and convents there are upon certain days philosophical theses maintained against every adventitious disputant; for which, if the champion opposes with any dexterity, he can claim a gratuity in money, a dinner, and a bed for one night. In this manner therefore I fought my way towards England, walked along from city to city, examined mankind more nearly, and, if I may so express it, saw both sides of the picture. My remarks, however, were few: I found that monarchy was the best government for the poor to live in, and commonwealths for the rich. I found that riches in general were in every country another name for freedom; and that no man is so fond of freedom himself that he wound not chuse to subject the will of some individuals of society to his own.
--The Vicar of Wakefield by Oliver Goldsmith

Literature is a Virus
My computer has been in the shop yet again.  Its continued malfunction has spurred me to further musings regarding literature and viruses. There seems to be any number of grand literary theories out there attempting to encompass that quirky construct, “literature,” as opposed to mere “genre writing.”  I am thinking here in particular of T. S. Eliot’s short essay, Tradition and the Individual Talent,  (thank goodness it was published in 1922 and has fallen out of copyright—I reiterate, it is maddening that we are limited to creative works from that time or earlier; as if builders would be satisfied with lumber and nails from the flapper era) regarding the changes in the lines of influence and relationships among literary greats when a new one is added to their numbers.  I like to think of this as the algebraic theory of literature where the addition of a new variable changes the values and relationships of all of the existing variables.  A corollary to this is Harold Bloom’s book, Anxiety of Influence, which posits that newer talents are “anxious” of how they may break free and advance literature given the imposing standards of the existing construct.  I always find it amusing that Eliot scribbled out his essay in what looks to have been a few days at most (maybe only a few hours) while Bloom has used his book to “crank out” numerous subsidiary books and essays expanding on this idea.  Indeed, one may argue that Bloom’s entire career and any hope of posterity rests on that further refinement of Eliot—assuming, of course, Bloom is not completely written off as a crank given his obsession with Hamlet and his kooky believe that Shakespeare created the “human” (whatever that means) thereby.

Posterity, though, can be viewed by many different yardsticks and not just the algebraic.  I am thinking of the viral qualities of literature.  Although the trend today is to think of books as “text,” what if we think of them instead as “code”? Indeed, this makes more sense when talking about the early epics such as Homer’s The Iliad or The Odyssey, which were basically constructed as long, coded computer programs, the computer here being the bard who memorized the songs thanks to given “loops” of repeated lines and motifs that were associated with particular characters.  With these cues, a bard could be programmed to sing epics that were many hours in length—apparently, this tradition lasted in some parts of Europe into the Twentieth Century.  Why program people in this manner?  Entertainment for one, which will always be with us. But, also, the Iliad program concerned Achilles’ overarching desire:  To be remembered by posterity.  Achilles would be aghast today to learn that a mere computer programmer—Homer—should be better known than him.  This obsession with posterity, though, has been with literature from the very beginning and, indeed, is the driving force of the protagonist of the first work of the canon [N.B.: Yes, yes—I am well aware of the debates concerning whether a “canon” exists and if so, what should be in it.  Please.  People hundreds of years from now will be embarrassed for us that we spilt so much ink over such obvious, and therefore, trifling matters.  Whatever anyone thinks about these things, clearly, The Iliad is part of the canon—and always will be.  So just get over it].
Once such programs could be written down, the elaborate cues and repetitions were no longer needed.  However, from the point of view of the writer, posterity thereby became much more difficult to attain.  Why?  Well, because any Homer-come-lately could scribble something out on parchment and have it preserved for future generations.  Indeed, we have the barbarian invasions—plus a few judicious library burnings—to thank for having most of this dross destroyed.  Such periodic brushfires pretty much obliterated all except those works which were replicated over and over because of their intrinsic merit.  Of course, this is not quite true, either.  Some great works are irretrievably lost to us in spite of creating back-up copies.  Also, we have some works that were saved, not because of their perceived literary merits, but because they were useful primers for students—practice code if you will.  Still, the dilemma persisted:  How to write code that would withstand the vicissitudes of posterity.

This is where the trope of the virus comes in.  Posterity can be viewed as the computer that the virus codes are trying to crack.  At first, it’s relatively easy to break in.  The precursors for our “genre” works survive simply because they happen to be the first virus of their kind.  This would include such authors as Sir Walter Scott, who, unread today, is still honored as the inventor of the historical romance.  Also, creators of works that acted not just as a virus with respect to literature but also as a virus with respect to politics or social/cultural constructs are also revered.  Here you have Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle and the writings of Tom Paine.  They might have little literary value in and of themselves—Edmund Wilson likened Stowe’s prose style to a dried sponge—but their extra-literary effects have been profound.  The viral strains I wish to concentrate on, though, are those which rely on ever increasing complexity.  The great virus writer in this respect is James Joyce. More later.

Joyce is a Virus
Joyce’s first work of genius that has survived posterity—his first successful virus if you will—was The Dubliners.  This work, a collection of related short stories set in, surprise, Dublin, concern the life of Dublin as approached through various characters.  The masterstroke is the novella-length story, The Dead. This virus has been done before:  Gogol’s St. Petersburg Stories comes to mind, as well as Turgenev’s A Sportsman’s Sketches.  So, this is not a novel virus, but rather a variation on a theme. Still, it probably would not have survived at all if not for the truly inventive viruses which followed it.

The first inventive one out of the box is A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.  This, too, is not necessarily new, but it is not clearly a repetition of a well-known device like The DublinersThe Portrait, at least formally, seems very old hat, indeed.  It is the lightly fictionalized autobiography of the author.  This seems like a well-worn path which should fit comfortably in the niche with the likes of Dickens’s David Copperfield and Dostoevsky’s The Gambler.  But, it portrays the main character—Stephen Dedalus—as an archetype, The Artist. This is the reverse of Henry James in his The Portrait of a Lady [N.B.: yes, I do not think the similarity in titles to be merely coincidental] where he endeavors to provide the definitive portrait of a particular character, Isabel Archer, who just happens to be A Lady.  In doing so, James takes for granted that she is a lady and is not so interested in illuminating what it means to be a lady but rather what happens when a lady is subject to certain intolerable moral pressure (as I explain elsewhere, she “cracks,” and is thereby rendered uninteresting—at least to James).  Conversely, The Portrait is one sketch, one way—not the definitive way—to illuminate, to understand that archetype, The Artist.  In doing so, we learn of the artist's modus operandi, “silence, exile and cunning,” and what not. Well, this virus is more interesting than The Dubliners, but it still does not seem like it could have breached posterity on its own.  There are lots of mediocre novels that attempt to illuminate archetypes—indeed, some authors can’t seem to help but write characters as archetypes; not the best idea for penetrating posterity unless one is Bunyan writing Pilgrim’s Progress or Milton writing Paradise Lost.

Now we come to Joyce’s time-delayed viruses, the deadly code which burrowed deep within posterity before detonating to devastating effect.  First is Ulysses.  A whole book—and no doubt several have already been attempted—could describe the novel (i.e., new) tools first uncovered within this work.  These tools, I believe, do not include the conceit of modeling the story of Dedalus’s and Bloom’s wandering over Dublin on just one day, Thursday, June 16, 1904, upon Homer’s The Odyssey.  That strikes me as just a conceit that does not advance artistically the book, as Rebecca West recognized in her formidable work of criticism, The Strange Necessity (the title refers to a concept strangely akin to the internet in this work—it’s out of print so go look at abebooks if you want a copy).  Instead, it seems that Joyce has to take a plot-horn to try to wedge the events of the day into the shoe of The Odyssey, with the result of causing pinched toes and blisters.  No, the novelty comes in with the creative devices used to illuminate Dedalus and Bloom.  Chief among these is the idea of stream of consciousness (first defined by Henry's brother, William James).   There really wasn’t anything like this before; the helter-skelter of half-thought ideas and images spilling out willy-nilly from the minds of an author’s characters.  Just for this innovative virus alone should Joyce be remembered.  Of course, Ulysses has much more than that tool for the serious author to try out, as Anthony Burgess discussed in his books on Joyce such as Re-Joyce.  I’ll not try to venture further into waters best left to such master swimmers.

To end I would mention Joyce’s last work which demonstrates the pitfalls of being a successful virus writer: Finnegans Wake.  Here is the art of virus writing run amok.  The entire novel is meant to take place in one night as the mostly unconscious dream life of Mr. Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker.  Most of the novel is unreadable because, as Edmund Wilson pointed out in his seminal work of criticism on the symbolists, Axel’s Castle, Joyce wrote and re-wrote his manuscript, each time editing his prose to throw in puns and obscure references, so that, by the umpteenth revision, the work became so dense that only Joyce himself could follow it.  That’s the working method of either a genius or an autistic monomaniac (or, perhaps, both).  This work, too, has breached posterity but I would argue that it is read “more in the breach.”  When it’s time to sing its praises, “here comes everybody,” but as to actually sitting down with the baggy monster, not a hoot can be heard.  Yes, that virus will survive, but who will trouble himself to glean its structure and admire its cold, adamantine comeliness?  Narcissus was the most handsome of lads, but, in the end, only he—and the icy pool—could see his beauty.

Wolfe-Pack Watch: Can’t We All Just Get Along?
Ah, what a tangled web we weave as we follow the critical developments concerning Tom Wolfe’s I Am Charlotte Simmons.  After dismissing this book as a pile of overripe tripe, The New York Times Book Review publishes an essay in the back of its current issue musing about the reception the book has received on college campuses.  Apparently, it’s a big bestseller at campus bookstores and students find it accurate and enthralling.  So much for the criticism that I Am Charlotte Simmons is a cranky, dated screed written by Allan Bloom’s brother and should have been called The Closing of Tom Wolfe’s Mind.  So, why would the NYTBR have another essay about this forgettable tosh?  Cynics might think it’s so the NYTBR can hedge its bets and won’t be lumped in with the rest of the reviews which reviled it if it winds up becoming a classic later (I don’t think there’s much chance of that because, as I discussed earlier, while I Am Charlotte Simmons is a good book, an entertaining book, perhaps, for this day and age, an important book, I doubt that it is a book that will survive).  The other reason for publishing the essay concerns what I believe is the prime mover for the adverse criticism: politics.

The essay writer notes that with respect to college papers, those broadsheets of a conservative cast are uniformly in favor of the book while those of a more liberal persuasion are not.  There are some exceptions where a liberal paper has a favorable review, but overall the criticism breaks down along ideological lines. The essay writer fails to note that no such break down occurred with respect to “grown up” papers—they pretty much uniformly hated the book.  Is this because they have higher standards and do not allow matters such as politics to cloud their judgment?  Pshaw.  I feel like such an idiot for not making the connection sooner.  And then the New York Times bashed me over the head with an article concerning our President's literary habits.

It turns out that George W. Bush is a huge Tom Wolfe fan, has read everything Wolfe has written, and is recommending I Am Charlotte Simmons to all of his buddies.  The article notes that Bush reads and enjoys mostly biographies of past presidents, but finds it curious that this is the one work of fiction he recommends.  The article then goes on to speculate why this might be so.  We then are treated to some fatuous pseudo-psychological analysis straight out of the oeuvre of Alfred Hitchcock which is highly entertaining and worth savoring in its own right.  The article also notes in passing that Wolfe committed the ultimate apostasy—he voted for Bush.  So there you go.

Have we gotten to the point where we need a scorecard to see who an author voted for and the reviewer voted for while reading a review?  Of course, this sort of thing has been going on for a long, long time.  There’s a new book out concerning the relationship between Sartre and Camus, Camus and Sartre: The Story of a Friendship and the Quarrel that Ended It by Ronald Aronson.  The book describes how Sartre commissioned a poison-pen review of a Camus’ book, The Rebel, after Camus had broken with him.  Of course, in hindsight, Camus is the author who looks like he will survive.  Retrospectively, Sartre comes across as what he probably was—a bitter, little man who suffered from logorrhea.  But does this need to be the fate of all book reviewers?  Can’t we all just get along?

James and Wolfe
I wrote earlier about viewing Henry James as a cold-blooded laboratory technician and The Portrait of a Lady as his experiment.  Roughly, James sought to determine whether his heroine, Isabel Archer, a clean, decent young woman, full of talent and intelligence, could be plucked out of the obscurity of America, set down in Europe among hardened, cynical American expatriates, principally Madame Merle and Gilbert Osmond, and withstand their depredations without “cracking.”  She could not withstand the heat—she cracked, that is lied.  Not only did she lie, she lied to an innocent young girl, Lily Osmond, and precipitated Lily’s own destruction (which, for James, means immurement in a nunnery—James did the same thing to his heroine in The American).  Lying, for James, is almost the ultimate in wicked behavior.  In The Europeans, his heroine there is cast aside, because, as a European, she had the audacity to lie.  Of course, if she had been truthful, she would have been cast aside any way.  Oh, no matter, the point is that James cannot abide a liar.  I’ll probably dwell more on this later, given how lying is so carelessly and ceaselessly practiced today.  Indeed, a major author such as James being obsessed with lying is sort of like Goldsmith’s comical minister in The Vicar of Wakefield being obsessed with defining marriage as the union of one man with one spouse forever—so if one dies, the other cannot remarry.

James sees such long-lived, dire consequences flowing from the act of lying.  As I described before, I would like to think that Gilbert’s disdainful detection of a crack in Madame Merle’s porcelain cup is a veiled reference to James’s disdainful detection of a “crack” in Isabel Archer’s character.  Once the crack is revealed, James realizes his experiment has failed.  So he quickly stashes his tools away and leaves his characters suspended, to fend for themselves.  What ultimately happens to Isabel Archer?   James, no doubt, would have derisively answered, “who cares?”

That same cold authorial disdain I detect with Tom Wolfe and his heroine, Charlotte Simmons.  Like Isabel Archer, she is plucked from the backwoods obscurity of Sparta, North Carolina and set down, plunk, in the middle of the great campus of Dupont University.  Will pure, unspoiled Charlotte resist the depraved machinations of the sinister denizens of Dupont with nothing standing between them and her virginity but her sturdy, prophylactic character?  Alas, no. Like Isabel, she too, cracks, but more in the classical academician sense of poor waifs painted holding chipped pitchers and busted pots.  That is, she is deflowered by a brute.  The energy behind the book builds up to this great scene, this, pardon the pun, anti-climax.  And then everything deflates, even the ball-peen hammer, and Charlotte is left desolate and depressed.  She does pick herself up in the last few pages and once again triumphs.  But not as the old Charlotte Simmons.  And one senses that Wolfe, like James, has grown tired on his flawed heroine.  He rushes through the scenes following the epic deflowering, tying up lose plot strands here, accelerating character development there, all the time pushing his pawns willy-nilly across his stageboards.  And then, exhausted, he ends the thing.  Not with a bang; but a whimper.  Charlotte seems to have broken free from her depression and has ascended the social stratosphere of Dupont University, just like Isabel Archer breaks free of Gilbert Osmond.  All seems painted in tints of peach and rose.  Except for the rapidly receding backs of Wolfe and James as they hastily make way for the darkened back exit.

Arthur Miller: R.I.P.
The playwright, Arthur Miller, passed away a couple of weeks ago. Go here  to read the NYT obit.  I always enjoyed Death of a Salesman, and thought Willy Loman a riveting figure with the right actor portraying him [N.B.: I saw Brian Dennehy do his star turn as Willy Loman when the play came to San Diego. Half-way through the play, the mechanism that moved the sets on the stage malfunctioned, trapping Dennehy in the Loman house—Dennehy just continued to glare, staring out of the darkness of the window, then abruptly turned around and walked off—just what one would expect Loman to do. The mechanism started up again a couple of minutes later and Dennehy picked up from where he left off. A great performance.].  But one great play does not a legacy make. Has Miller written a virus to breach the deep defenses of posterity?  Doubtful.
Indeed, from a couple of weeks ago, in Monday’s New York Times, a memorial appears in the editorial pages half-heartedly attempting to erase such doubt.  Obviously, the strongest pillar is Death of a Salesman.  But, even though Miller wrote 17 plays, nothing else in his oeuvre measures up to that work.  Sure, there’s The Crucible, which I remember having to read in high school, but I couldn’t tell you of any memorable characters in that work.  And that’s the problem with Miller (except for the wonderful Willy Loman).  He did not care to craft fully realized human beings and place them in morally complex situations.  He, instead, wanted to preach.  Even Death of a Salesman is marred by Miller’s didacticism, his social realism that feels like a throw back to that dishonest, low decade, the ‘30s.  Indeed, the name "Loman" reflects Miller’s political vision.  Certainly, politics—even bad, despicable politics—can create great art.  Just look at the career of David, first memorializing the French Revolution and then, its antithesis, Napoleon.  Miller, though, is no David.  His works, like The Crucible, are thinly veiled allegories concerning topical politics—in that case, the McCarthyite witch-hunts (oh, except now that the Soviet Union has collapsed, we learn that witches such as Alger Hiss really did exist—so much for The Crucible).  An artist, unless he is a towering genius like David, who sacrifices aesthetics for ideology has taken the path Achilles spurned to follow.  No kidding, it says so right there in the Bible.  He shall receive accolades and hosannas in his own long life but no songs will be sung to his memory. He was a child of his time, a golden child, but his time has passed and he with it.

Ah, but Arthur Miller, the ‘50s-era golden child, could still be—and almost certainly will be—memorialized by the Library of America.  Miller, regardless of his inability to resist the siren song of ideology, is still a much better playwright than George S. Kaufmann, who was just recently honored with a volume from the Library of America (as I remarked earlier: “How embarrassing!”). Kaufmann did not heed the call of ideology or anything else for that matter.  He, with the assistance of others, wrote cotton-candy eye-ear-nose-and-throat candy for the masses.  Such fluff has long since dissipated or grown stale.  Which is a nice segue to which plays will be included in an upcoming Library of America volume by Miller.  Obviously, Death of a Salesman and The Crucible.  Also, probably, A View From the Bridge and All My Sons.  By the time we get to All My Sons (the story of a defense contractor intentionally selling defective parts) we have entered Lillian Hellman agitprop territory.  After that, the pickings get mighty slim.  Maybe one could round out the volume with a movie screenplay, such as The Misfits.  Or talk about Miller’s wife, Marilyn Monroe.  Two hundred years from now, that’s probably what he’ll be remembered for.  Oh, Fortuna!  Look how low the wheel has spun.  Boethius will not be able to offer consolation.  Nor will Ignatius Reilly, using both paws to try to push the wheel out of the ditch, risking life and limb (not to mention his pyloric valve), prove successful.  Fortuna, you bawd, you minx.

Arthur Miller: The Greatest Playwright of all Time
Okay, that title might seem just a teensy bit overblown—there’s that Shakespeare character, although his plays are written in some kind of archaic English.  Heck, he uses all sorts of strange words that don’t make any sense. And what’s with that blank-verse shtick?  Oh, and don’t bring up that Moliere fellow—he’s French for crying out loud.  I think a bunch of his plays were written in Alexandrian Hexameter, whatever that is.  Sounds more like geometry than dramaturgy.  So, are there any other playwrights I’m missing?  Chekhov? Come on, he’s known for his short stories, really.  That whole hokey gimmick of using the broken string in The Cherry Orchard is just downright embarrassing. Henrik Ibsen?  Oh, worse than Moliere, he’s Norwegian.  Who knows what’s going on up there in Scandanavia—except a lot of lascivious lewdness, which pretty much sums up Ibsen.  A Doll’s House, indeed.  He should have been honest and called it A Bawd’s House.  Tennessee Williams, Eugene O’Neill, Congreve, Dryden, Fletcher, Kyd, Jonson, Marlowe, Pinero—a bunch of second raters, the whole lot of ‘em.

So, who’s not second rate?  How about the fellow whose plays invoke this kind of reflection: “The world is so suffused with the wisdom of those plays, with their indispensability, that we can’t envision somebody actually sitting down and writing them, line by line, . . . .”  Indeed, the writer goes on, and on: “Works such as his seem not so much created as unearthed, as stumbled upon, like a brooding Stonehenge of the human spirit.”  Who he?  He is your creator little man: “You are who you are—and the world is what it is—because of Miller. Because of what he lived and believed and embraced and repudiated.”  Who said farce is dead in the world of journalism.  Journalism is farce—or maybe it’s just the brooding Stonehenge of farce.

Let’s journey now from Stonehenge to Valhalla and sit down for a little chat with another scribbler who has entitled his encomium: “Twentieth-century America’s greatest dramatist.”  What, only the Twentieth Century?  And only in America?  It’s outrageous that our Brooding Babylonian Hanging Gardens should be disparaged with such twaddle.  Perhaps this little critic should be hung up as well.  Oh, wait, he is saying some nice things here: “I think he’s one of those people who managed to get to the root of the anxieties and aspirations of his generation, and then pushed beyond that so it applies again and again to other countries, other generations, other societies.”  All right, that’s better.  I thought our so-called sycophant might be wandering off the reservation, but he ends with this statement that none could disagree with:  “He was charismatic—after all he married Marilyn Monroe.”  Now that’s something to be known for!

Another journalist jingle-writer goes beyond this praise of Monroe to note: “There was even a mythic unity of brains and beauty that fascinated the country in his 1956 marriage to the quintessential movie goddess, Marilyn Monroe.”  I’ve never heard Miller described as beautiful, but there you have it.  As our beauty is swaying in the breeze, gilding brooding Stonehenge with boughs of Spring flowers, our intrepid Acteon spies upon her and sees her essence: “His work, it seems, was shaped by a responsibility he felt to society. The idea of a communal bond, the fealty a person owes to something more important than himself or herself, courses through Miller’s plays.”  Don’t forget itself.  And all that “coursing.”  Yes, that’s Miller’s lasting legacy:  To have supplied several more gallons of the “idea of a communal bond” for our delectation.  Hopefully, it won’t stop up our pyloric valve.

The Norman Mailer Classic Poets Corner
After reading the current issue of The New Yorker, I thought I’d start a Classic Poets Corner dedicated to the memory of Norman Mailer (What? He’s not dead yet? Are you sure?).  As I explained a while back, Norman Mailer has blessed us with the most wretched serious poem to see print—his, what I call, “Ode to Cancer” in Advertisements for Myself.  I have now found another poem in this genre, bits of which I’ll display shortly.  First, what kind of genre are we talking about?  Well, to wind up in the Norman Mailer Classic Poets Corner, the poem must be by a well-known and respected figure, not necessarily a poet.  The poem must be a longish effort; not a mere short squib that could be excused as having been dashed off unthinkingly at the local Starbucks on a laptop while appearing mighty studious.  No, this must be a major effort which required a great expenditure of poetic lucubration.  And hubris.  It must be on a serious topic, serious as cancer.  It need not necessarily concern topical political issues, as the master, Norman Mailer, has shown, but, in all probability, that will help its induction into the Corner.  This is particularly true now that the personal has become the political.  Mailer made the mistake of thinking it was the sexual.  Oh well, live and learn.  Or don’t.

Anyway, our first inductee into the Corner is a very well respected poet, indeed: Jorie Graham.  Her contribution, an eighty-six line monster entitled: Praying. One might think she was praying to get into the Corner.  The entire subject of this colossus is described in the first five lines:

If I could shout but I must not shout
the girl standing in my doorway yesterday weeping
In her right hand an updated report on global warming.
An intelligent girl, with broad eyes and a strong
wide back. What am I supposed to tell her?

Yo, Jorie, how about telling her to worry about letting all the warm air out of your office?  Ooops, that would be global cooling (or, maybe, merely office cooling).  Just like with Mailer, the poem meanders about with lots of weeping and gnashing of teeth.  Oh, the fickleness of Fortuna.  Did she not see “The Day After Tomorrow” or was that “The Day Following Next Wednesday”? Apparently not.  Here’s Jorie’s final lamentation:

I, here, today, am letting her cry out the figures, the scenarios,
am letting her wave her downloaded pages
into this normal office air between us. 19 April. 2004.

Like I said, tell her to close the door.  Anyway, there’s no point criticizing this kind of poetry.  It follows no rules.  It runs on high-octane emotion: fierceness, anger, self-righteousness.  Not much to talk about there.  It did get me thinking on how one could write some funny parodies, though.  Here’s one from a conservative perspective:

I saw her crumpled to the ground at the rally
weeping, weeping at the uncaring purveyors of injustice
She then sprang from the grass, holding high her home-made sign:
“Stop the Judicial Filibusters.”

Maybe I’d end my poem with musings about the corruption of power by long-time senators as they gloated from the windows of the Capitol:

See them, their cufflinks sparkling as they chuckle at the demonstrators
Puffy, pink faced men who tut-tut their favorite wrongs
While they let good, decent men and women--our future judges
Twist slowly, slowly in the Senate.

Ahhh, now that’s some poetry for you.  I hope to continue to add to The Corner in the future.  Please, if you have any suggestions, pass them along.  I would like them more in the non-political Norman Mailer vein, but realize that malignant diseases have been eclipsed by that most fast-spreading of cultural epidemics—politics.

Why There Should be Few Negative Book Reviews
Let’s face it—most books stink, at least on aesthetic grounds.  Why are they published, then?  For any number of non-literary reasons.  They teach you how to remove your appendix.  They lend support to your irrational prejudices and weltanschauung (and teach you German for what that means).  They serve as sleeping aids and pulp versions of video games so as to while away the time snoring or dreaming.  For some, they may merely constitute a fetish along with toe sniffing and boot licking.  But none of these should be the point of book reviews.

Indeed, it is probably easier to tell you what book reviews shouldn’t do.  Book reviews should not review exercise books and tell you which will lead to firmer deltoids and which to muscle spasms.  They should not tell you if Nigella’s fried snickers recipe is less healthy than Martha’s Kentucky Bourbon pancakes.  Nor should they dilate on whether Danielle Steele’s latest excursion in the world of high class shopping and philandering is somehow more satisfying than her other fifty endeavors in that genre.  Has Tom Clancy accurately described the technical specifications for the latest armored personnel carrier?  Inquiring minds want to know.  But not those inquiring from the pages of a high-falutin’ book review. They are looking for nothing less than their literary fix.

Book reviews are for aesthetic junkies.  They don’t need to be told that Tom Clancy’s latest is the aesthetic equivalent of paprika mixed with ground Bermuda grass.  Given that most books are junk, they know to avoid noxious specimens without being told about them.  What these junkies crave is information on where to find the good stuff. Bad stuff need not be mentioned.
So, why did the New York Times Book Review (“NYTBR”) a couple of weeks back publish a negative review of The Know-It-All: One Man’s Humble Quest to Become the Smartest Person in the World.  Just from the title, you know this book is wretched.  And it’s hook, its raison d’etre as Jane from Muriel Sparks’s The Girls of Slender Means might have asked of her struggling, third-rate authors, is nothing less, nor more, than it’s “a lighthearted account of the year [the author] spent reading the entire Encyclopedia Britannica” (as described by the author). Oh how horrible that sounds.  Worse, the author makes bad jokes through out of his experience.  Did a page of the NYTBR need to be taken up with such drivel?  No.

But a negative review was duly set forth.  As one would guess, it wasn’t just mildly negative.  Oh no.  It was stingingly, vociferously, pugnaciously negative. Our author, who was just out to make a buck in the lame high-school humor genre certainly did not expect his offering to be held up to literary aesthetic standards, fer cryin’ out loud.  It’s as if John Grisham’s latest ambulance chaser was compared to Dickens’ Bleak House.  So our Smartest Person had a gripe. What did he do about it?  He lobbied the NYTBR for a rejoinder as a full page essay in a subsequent issue.

And, miracle of miracles, our Smartest Person got his page, by gum!  Now, he has all that blank space to fill in protesting against the injustice of receiving “one of the most mean-spirited reviews” in the NYTBR.  He then goes on to confirm that he does indeed possess one of the most excuriatingly lamest senses of humor ever barnacled onto an individual.  No surprise, I guess, since I would have expected the Smartest Person to be rather a dour and no hanky-panky type of fellow.  So, he duly trudges forth and promises us that his little trifle of a book isn’t as bad as all that.  He really didn’t deserve such a mean-spirited review.  He’s just out to make a quick buck like the other funnies floggers.  And he’s got a point—not just on his head.

A genre trifle such as his should have never been reviewed by the NYTBR. Maybe Mad Magazine, but not a serious review.  The NYTBR is there to tell us where to get our literary fix.  It need not warn us away from those dealers whose product consists of flour and talcum powder.  We’re not so stupid that when we are trolling through our local bookstore a tome with the title such as Bongo Boy’s North Dakota Travels is liable to prove irresistible.  This little kafuffle demonstrates why the NYTBR should stick to its job and not wander off in search of the next Bongo Boy to flog.  No one wins by trying to educate a hog.

Click Here to Comment or View Comments on This Entry

March 2, 2005

Patrick: Just A Quick Note

I am finished with computer repairs for the nonce.  I now know how the ancients felt when they journeyed to Delphi to await the Gnostic (don't mind the archaism)  hazy, drug-induced mutterings of some so-called virgin oracle who's probably hung-over from some tainted honey dropped off by the last credulous traveler.  No wonder Agamemnon got fed up and just chucked it all, along with Iphigenia, at Aulis.  Heck, he had a whole fleet to take care of and couldn't be expected to wait around for the wind to pick up.  And look at the trouble he got into--Clytemnestra isn't the one I'd want checking up on me in the tub.  So, at least he got a bit of the old ultra-violent with his droogs.  I didn't get that.  No, not even a pat on the head and an admonition that "Little Alex" needed to behave himself with respect to picking up those nasty computer viruses. 

Okay, enough whining.  Hopefully, starting tomorrow, I'll start plopping down the posts I've been saving up for the last THREE WEEKS or so.  I still can't believe it takes three weeks to figger out what's wrong with the old electric bean.  Dang you Delphic oracles. 

Click Here to Comment or View Comments on This Entry