May  30,  2007

Patrick: Lagniappe

The essay form is one of the weakliest plants in literature's garden.  It promises very little, is powered by a barely creative urge, and pushes up only a few pale sprouts, leaves that are seldom accompanied by anything as positive as a flower.  In some ways it is--to change the metaphor--a sort of intellectual tatting for those not strong enough to embark on a full-scale piece of work.  There is Montaigne, of course, and there is Bacon.  Neither perhaps, however historically or personally interesting, is quite sufficient to wipe away the stigma left by Johnson's definition of what he too wrote, the essay: an irregular, ill-digested piece.  The essay's dependence on the essayist's personality is rather frightening: it never quite cuts free--as does a work of art--and gradually seems to demand more and more sustenance from the personality.  It hovers on an intimacy which is false; it encourages the essayist to construct a public persona, usually self-deprecatory, whimsical, a lover of little things, a bit of an oddity but well aware of the literary value of being an oddity.  Ultimately, it becomes a genteel strip-tease which, while insisting on its artistic qualities, is aware of being sustained by vulgar human curiosity.

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

[N.B.:  I don't necessarily agree with these sentiments concerning the essay, but I did find this devil's advocate brief amusing.  Even more delicious is the fact that this screed is contained in what essentially is a collection of essays lambasting various books that have been thought highly of at one time or another.  Oh, and perhaps needless to say, this book is yet another work of English literature that we could do without as it has been out of copyright for some time.]

May  29,  2007

Patrick: Lagniappe

We had tea at the Red Lion, Henley.  Then on to Newbury.  I pointed out the gates of Shaw House, so up the drive we went.  Walked round the house which we greatly admired.  Then to Sandham Memorial Chapel, which they did not much like and thought should not have been accepted.  Stayed at the Chequers Hotel, Newbury.  We pool our money and I am made treasurer and pay the bills.  Vita [Sackille-West] went early to bed and H. [Harold Nicolson] sat up reading a book on Lenin for a review.  At dinner we guessed what fearful impositions Attlee would announce tomorrow.  Harold admits that he foresees no solution to the predicament we are in, and his reason for becoming a Socialist is that socialism is inevitable.  By joining, he feels he may help by tempering it.  He says the sad thing is that no one dislikes the lower orders more than he.  Vita keeps saying how hungry she is.  It is true that in hotels one does not get enough to eat.

--Diaries, 1942-1954 by James Lees-Milne (abridged and introduced by Michael Bloch), entry for Tuesday, August 5th 1947

May  27,  2007

Patrick: Lagniappe

 The diplomatic tempo of Europe was that of the horse traffic on which all communications rested, and political necessity was subjected to the meaningless interventions of nature: contrary winds or heavy snows played their part in averting or precipitating international crises.  Vital decisions had to be postponed or in some desperate case thrust upon an underling without time to consult a higher authority.

--The Thirty Years War by C.V. Wedgwood

May  26,  2007

Patrick: Lagniappe

 "Captain Peleg," said Bildad steadily, "thy conscience may be drawing ten inches of water, or ten fathoms, I can't tell; but as thou art still an impenitent man, Captain Peleg, I greatly fear lest thy conscience be but a leaky one; and will in the end sink thee foundering down to the fiery pit, Captain Peleg."

"Fiery pit! fiery pit! ye insult me, man; past all natural bearing, ye insult me.  It's an all-fired outrage to tell any human creature that he's bound to hell.  Flukes and flames! Bildad, say that again to me, and start my soulbolts, but I'll--I'll--yes, I'll swallow a live goat with all his hair and horns on.  Out of the cabin, ye canting, drab-colored son of a wooden gun--a straight wake with ye!"

--Moby Dick by Herman Melville

May  23,  2007

Patrick: Lagniappe

He knew what she was doing; she was praying that her lover would come back for her soon, and from her secrecy he guessed that she was not accustomed to prayer.  She was very frightened, and with a cold sympathy he was able to judge the measure of her fear.  His experience told him two things, that prayers were not answered and that so casual a lover would not trouble to return.

He was sorry that he had involved her, but he regretted it only as he might have regretted a necessary lie.  He had always recognized the need of sacrificing his own integrity; only a party in power could possess scruples; scruples in himself would be a confession that he doubted the overwhelming value of his cause.  But the reflection for some reason made him bitter; he found himself envying virtues which he was not rich or strong enough to cherish.  He would have welcomed generosity, charity, meticulous codes of honor to his breast if he could have succeeded, if the world had been shaped again to the pattern he loved and longed for.  He spoke to her angrily:  "You are lucky to believe that that will do good," but he found to his amazement that she could instinctively outbid his bitterness, which was founded on theories laboriously worked out by a fallible reason.  "I don't," she said, "but one must do something."

--Stamboul Train by Graham Greene 

May  22,  2007

Patrick: Lagniappe

I reread my pieces about James and Peregrine and was quite moved by them.  Of course they are just sketches and need to be written in more detail before they become really truthful and "lifelike."  It has only now occurred to me that really I could write all sorts of fantastic nonsense about my life in these memoirs and everybody would believe it!  Such is human credulity, the power of the printed word, and of any well-known "name" or "show business personality."  Even if readers claim that they "take it all with a grain of salt," they do not really.  They yearn to believe, and they believe, because believing is easier than disbelieving, and because anything which is written down is likely to be "true in a way."

--The Sea, The Sea by Iris Murdoch

May  21,  2007

Patrick: Lagniappe

Old men have their interests, collecting stamps, antique matchboxes, interfering with little girls, but the most I could recall of his life was a wicked grin shuffling down the hall and a face staring vacantly into a fire.  He had wasted that wealth of days, scooped out and discarded their hearts, happiest with husks.  So much emptiness appalled me, I tried to creep away, those yellow eyes transpierced me.

--Birchwood by John Banville

May  18,  2007

Patrick: Lagniappe

The Prof. said that after forty no man cherished illusions; and that after fifty all he cherished was personal comfort and freedom from agitation.

--Diaries, 1942-1954 by James Lees-Milne (abridged and introduced by Michael Bloch), entry for Saturday, 22nd March 1947

May  17,  2007

Patrick: Lagniappe

Doreen [Colston-Baynes] telephoned and I went to see her at six o'clock.  She told me she has a medium who regularly visits her; that she sees visions of the departed, unfortunately too often of the people that she most disliked when they were alive; that, notwithstanding, she is eagerly looking forward to death, which her medium tells her takes the form of life being gently drawn through the fingers.  She is not the least melancholy and enjoys her life, which is not life as enjoyed by most people.  From true life she is too divorced to care whether she exists any longer in this alien world.  We all feel like this, but most of us cannot withdraw from it in the way she manages to do, shut up in her bedroom and adjoining sitting room, with curtains tightly drawn, for days on end.

--Diaries, 1942-1954 by James Lees-Milne (abridged and introduced by Michael Bloch), entry for Wednesday, 1st January 1947

May  16,  2007

Patrick: Lagniappe

"They are always the same, the bourgeois," he said.  "The proletariat have their virtues, and the gentleman is often good, just and brave.  He is paid for something useful, for governing or teaching or healing, or his money is his father's.  He does not deserve it perhaps, but he has done no harm to get it.  But the bourgeois--he buys cheap and sells dear.  He buys from the worker and sells back to the worker.  He is useless."

--Stamboul Train by Graham Greene

May  10,  2007

Patrick: Lagniappe

But why do I say actresses are mad?  It is not because so many of them believe in astrology: that is not a sign of madness, merely of stupidity; a condition afflicting the sane and insane alike.  Nor are they mad in that dreary sense of "Hah!  You have to be crazy to do this job!"  We all know there is no one on earth more depressingly sane than the person who has a sticker proclaiming "You don't have to be mad here--but it helps!"

In my experience there are many more good actresses around than there are good actors.  Being mad in no way conflicts with or militates against good acting.  Quite the reverse.  The madness springs from the very way they approach their work.

In the rehearsal room most actors are, quite properly, highly embarrassed.  Picture the initial read-through of, say, Oedipus Rex.  The actor playing Oedipus comes to that mighty passage where he realizes he is a parricidal mother-snogger.  Sophocles demands a scream.  A great scream, a monumental "Aieeeeeeeeee," a keening, shrilling howl of agony.  Any British male confronted with this moment out of costume, with only cast and general support staff for audience, will, quite naturally, blush, grin and shuffle his feet, muttering "And then there's the scream, er, we'll come to that later, um, obviously," and get on with the rest of the reading.  The actress playing Jocasta, however, in the cold of the rehearsal room, confronted with her big scene will, a polystyrene cup in one hand, the script in the other, let out such a heart-rending, naked wail as to make the soul of the beholder quiver.  No embarrassment.  If there is a definition of madness that satisfies it is the complete absence of any sense of social embarrassment.

--Mad as an Actress from Paperweight by Stephen Fry

May  9,  2007

Patrick: Lagniappe

But by projecting our own fears, inadequacies and self-loathing onto others we perpetuate those failings.  Any doctor will tell you the first step to the cure of an addiction is to confess out loud, to others, that you have it.


So let it be with other problems.  Paradoxically, the moment you tell others what a lousy driver you are, you cease to be a lousy driver at all.  "I must be careful here," you say to yourself, like any good driver, "it's rather foggy and I'm a hopeless driver."  Any workaholic will tell you he drives himself hard because he is so terribly lazy.

--Good Egg from Paperweight by Stephen Fry

May  8,  2007

Patrick: Lagniappe

"But of course I shan't, darling.  Why, I owe you everything."  The words did not satisfy Mabel Warren.  When I love, she thought, I do not think of what I owe.  The world to her was divided into those who thought and those who felt.  The first considered the dresses which had been bought them, the bills which had been paid, but presently the dresses were out of the fashion and the wind caught the receipt from the desk and blew it away, and in any case the debt had been paid with a kiss or another kindness, and those who thought forgot; but those who felt remembered; they did not owe and they did not lend, they gave hatred or love.

--The Stamboul Train by Graham Greene

May  7,  2007

Patrick: Lagniappe

"What is science, anyway?" asked the country lass.

"Science?" said the doctor.  "Why, science is nothing but classification.  Science is just tagging a name to everything."

--The Circus of Dr. Lao by Charles G. Finney


Think Low


I've noted this before, but I always like to give credit where credit is due (although, for the life of me, I can't remember if it was Gertrude Himmelfarb or Midge Dector who came up with the apercu):  When one observes human behavior that tends to appear mysterious or unfathomable, "think low."  Which brings me to an article in yesterdays New York Times  trumpeting the entrance into American literature's pearly gates (those being the Library of America's) the likes of none other than Philip K. Dick.  The review by Charles McGrath, whose identification as a literary emperor who wears no clothes has been revealed for some time, makes what, in any other context, would be regarded as a profoundly silly assertion:  any author who is published by a particular imprint instantly receives literary greatness (the secular equivalent of sainthood--if the Catholic Church (or the Library of America) proclaims it, it must be so, now and forever, amen).   As I have argued before, the recent choices of the Library of America confirm, not the opposite, but the negation of such an assertion.  Its publication of a particular author means no more (or less--well, possibly, quite a bit less) than if Penguin or Everyman's publishes an author.  That's its opinion and welcome to it.  But, please, no sainthood.


Why this silly notion, then?  That gets back to my first point: "think low."  All modern authors remain alive in copyright for many decades after their corporeal existence on this mudball has come to an end.  Not only is our brief existence rounded by a sleep, but by copyright, too--and it lasts a bit longer than a puff of smoke.  Indeed, it now typically lasts for almost 100 years.  So someone, somewhere, is making dinero off Dick. 


And who's up next?  None other than Jack Kerouac (a more misogynistic and racist modern writer would be hard to find (not to mention grammatically incoherent)--go back and read On the Road again, if you dare).  See a trend here? I'll give you another couple of recent clues: Saul Bellow and Philip Roth.  Oh, and here's another: Arthur Miller.  What do all of these authors have in common?  They make up the Baby Boomer canon of saintly literature.  If I'm right, we can also expect the Library of America's holy precincts to be populated with the likes of Norman Mailer (I cringe just to write that name), Joseph Heller (not as much cringing) and Kurt Vonnegut (even less cringing, but still a twitch or two).   The Library of America isn't the keeper of the literary flame but yet one more institution that has become thoroughly Bam-Boomerized.  When will this cloud of locusts pass?

May  5,  2007

Patrick: Lagniappe

So that there are instances among them of men, who, named with Scripture names-a singularly common fashion on the island-and in childhood naturally imbibing the stately dramatic thee and thou of the Quaker idiom; still, from the audacious, daring, and boundless adventure of their subsequent lives, strangely blend with these unoutgrown peculiarities, a thousand bold dashes of character, not unworthy a Scandinavian sea-king, or a poetical Pagan Roman.  And when these things unite in a man of greatly superior natural force, with a globular brain and a ponderous heart; who has also by the stillness and seclusion of many long night-watches in the remotest waters, and beneath constellations never seen here at the north, been led to think untraditionally and independently; receiving all nature's sweet or savage impressions fresh from her own virgin voluntary and confiding breast, and thereby chiefly, but with some help from accidental advantages, to learn a bold and nervous lofty language--that man makes one in a whole nation's census--a mighty pageant creature, formed for noble tragedies.  Nor will it at all detract from him, dramatically regarded, if either by birth or other circumstances, he have what seems a half wilful overruling morbidness at the bottom of his nature.  For all men tragically great are made so through a certain morbidness.  Be sure of this, O young ambition, all mortal greatness is a disease.

--Moby Dick by Herman Melville

[N.B.: Ishmael's gloss on Ahab.]


Why Bother to Read the Atlantic Monthly, Part II

Last month I couldn't pull myself away from the slow-motion train wreck which is the Atlantic Monthly's book review section.  Unfortunately for you, I'm still mesmerized by it.  One keeps thinking the carnage can't get any worse-and then the next month's issue arrives.  I'll be mercifully brief this month (or not).  

First, I'll start with a positive sign.  That wretched column authored by Christina Schwarz, A Close Read, has been apparently put out of ourmisery.  This was the column which allowed the silver-stylist Ms. Schwarz to extol the virtues of various mid-list literati as the greatest thing since sliced-Shakespeare.   Not surprisingly, it also afforded the greatest opportunity for log rolling since the Jonestown
flood.  But let's not speak ill of the-hopefully-dead.

Instead, let's move on to the lead article by Benjamin Schwarz, the Literary Editor, (oh, did you notice he  has the same last name as the fair Christina?  that might be because he's her husband-I'll refrain from a logrolling joke at this time) where his description of his book choice starts off with an absolute stunner of banality mixed with pomposity.

The house nurtures our sense of self, embodies our notions of intimate
family life, and serves as our haven in a heartless world.  But it's
also the site of Sisyphean labor, mostly female-cooking, minding,
cleaning, imposing order on the fruits and detritus of bourgeois life,
including but not limited to vast holdings of cotton-ball-festooned
pre-K art projects.  All of which means, of course, that it's contested
terrain-between the individual and the family, children and parents,
wives and husbands.

That last sentence should win some kind of award for high-brow blather.  Anyhoo, what wonder-writing has caused the lascivious lashings of lavish lauding from the fair pen of our Literary Editor?  None other than Alice Friedman's Women and the Making of the Modern House.  What? You haven't heard of it?  Well, it's just been issued in paperback after disappearing without a trace when it first came out in hardcover--back in 1998 (I prefer books in hardcover and this one's an absolute steal off of amazon where it's being offered for less than three bucks).  Seems a bit odd to review a paperback doesn't it?  I'm the last one to use a word like "logrolling" so let's just roll along shall we.

Our intrepid Literary Editor starts off by noting that Ms. Friedman's book is "alas, quirkier than its title implies" because it "analyzes six houses designed by notable architects for women who were unattached to men."  Certainly, that does sound a bit eclectic but I don't think the title is necessarily quirky given the subject matter.  Although it is if the lead paragraph to the book review discusses "Sisyphean labor," an activity which the women featured in Ms. Friedman's book probably never engaged in--not to mention the absence at their abodes of "vast holdings of cotton-ball-festooned pre-K art projects."  You would think, given
Mr. Schwartz's good luck at having his near relations close at hand to review the stylistic felicities of his work, that he could receive some assistance towards
weeding out his pointless pontifications (or not).

May  1,  2007

Patrick: Lagniappe

A tender light flooded the compartments.  It would have been possible for a moment to believe that the sun was the expression of something that loved and suffered for men.  Human beings floated like fish in golden water, free from the urge of gravity, flying without wings, transport, in a glass aquarium.  Ugly faces and misshapen bodies were transmuted, if not into beauty, at least into grotesque forms fashioned by a mocking affection.  On that golden tide they rose and fell, murmured and dreamed.  They were not imprisoned, for they were not during the hour of dawn aware of their imprisonment.

--Stamboul Train by Graham Greene