October  31,  2005

Patrick: Lagniappe
In that spacious Hall, a coalition of the gown, from all the bars of it, driving a damned, dirty, vexatious cause before them, will all their might and main, the wrong way!—kicking it out of the great doors, instead of, in—and with such fury in their looks, and such a degree of inveteracy in their manner of kicking it, as if the laws had been originally made for the peace and preservation of mankind;----perhaps a more enormous mistake committed by them still—a litigated point fairly hung up;----for instance, Whether John o’Nokes his could stand in Tom o-Stiles his face, without a trespass, or not—rashly determined by them in five-and-twenty minutes, which, with the cautious pros and cons required in so intricate a proceeding, might have taken up as many months—and if carried on upon a military plan, as your honours know an Action should be, with all the stratagems practicable therein,----such as feints,--forced marches,--surprises—ambuscades—mask-batteries, and a thousand other strokes of generalship, which consist in catching at all advantages on both sides----might reasonably have lasted them as many years, finding food and raiment all that term for a centumvirate of the profession.
--Tristram Shandy by Laurence Sterne

[N.B:  Since it's Halloween, I'd thought I'd have a quote about the scariest monsters of all--attorneys!]

Happy Halloween!

In celebration of Halloween, here's a site devoted to the spooky covers of Edward Gorey.  Enjoy and just ignore that bump in the night, that's just Gorey upset over the latest hideous book-cover design.  Now that's scary!

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October  27,  2005

Patrick: Lagniappe

--And did you step it, to take a look at the grand picture in your way back?
--‘Tis a melancholy daub! my Lord; not one principle of the pyramid in any one group!—and what a price!—for there is nothing of the colouring of Titian—the expression of Rubens—the grace of Raphael—the purity of Dominichino—the corregiescity of Corregio—the learning of Poussin—the airs of Guido—the taste of the Carrachis—or the grand contour of Angelo.—Grant me patience, just Heaven!—Of all the cants which are canted in this canting world—thought he cant of hypocrites may be the worst—the cant of criticism is the most tormenting!
--Tristram Shandy by Laurence Sterne


A Novel Idea: Eyeglasses and Books
Here in the States, various Hollywood illuminati have developed the irrational fear that, in spite of grossing millions of dollars per picture and being the star in a bust-the-bank franchise like Kung Who?, Commander Cheddar or Let Them Eat Chalk, their opinions still will not be taken seriously by various bored Congressional staffers as they testify at the Sewers & Drains Subcommittee on the ecological disaster to befall mankind by requiring wastewater workers to wear plastic booties that won’t decompose for thousands of years (unlike their earnest, botox-ridden faces).  So what do they do?  They don eyeglasses in order to appear, well, not quite so, you know, actorly (i.e., stupid).  What do folks in Great Britain do?  They buy the latest touted up-I.Q. novel.  The Guardian has a slightly tongue-in-cheek article about how, in Great Britain, intellectually vain young people (one in eight in the latest survey) confess to choosing a book “simply to be seen with a shortlisted title.”  Oh the humanity!  There are not six degrees of separation between ourselves and our British brethren—there’s more like sixty.  It’s hard to fathom anyone admitting to this in the United States [First, the pollster would have to explain what the techincal term “shortlisted” meant (Are you sure now that “shortlist” is not a kind of flaky pastry?)]  No, instead we have the phenomenon of dolts masquerading  in eyeglasses confessing that they read too much—what, with having to get through the scripts for Thumb in Eye IV: The Blinding and Just Guns—that they suffer from tension headaches.  Pobrecito.

Speaking of masquerades, let me wish all of you lots of ghoulish fun for Halloween.  But please, I have a weak heart, just don’t go dressed as Alec Baldwin.

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October  26,  2005

Patrick: Lagniappe

There is nothing more pleasing to a traveller—or more terrible to travel-writers, than a large rich plain; especially if it is without great rivers or bridges; and presents nothing to the eye, but one unvaried picture of plenty: for after they have once told you, that ‘tis delicious! or delightful! (as the case happens)—that the soil was grateful, and that nature pours out all her abundance, etc. . . . they have then a large plain upon their hands, which they know not what to do with—and which is of little or no use to them but to carry them to some town; and that town, perhaps of little more, but a new place to start from to the next plain—and so on.
--Tristram Shandy by Laurence Sterne

[N.B.: Note that Sterne, in describing a large rich plain, does so in one large rich sentence.  There has been a theory bruited about, as lately represented in the over-baked Thomas Pynchon novel, Mason & Dixon, that the Eighteenth Century was the last one to permit the overflowing of man’s imagination since it was the last one to view science and magick as two sides of the same coin (so it would not be unusual for a man to remark that his companion was a talking dog, or, for an artist of genius—say, William Blake—to remark that he had just been conversing with Michael Angelo’s angel).  I would posit the corollary that the same is true for the rules of grammar.  Sterne’s Tristram Shandy is full of inventive grammatical quirks that would never be countenanced by the Miss Grundys of the grammar books.  But those infelicities add a certain spicy flavor that I find delightful.  Let’s start a movement to bring back the double “m” dash!  You have nothing to lose but your (grammatical) chains.]

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October  25,  2005

Patrick: Lagniappe

It is the nature of an hypothesis, when once a man has conceived it, that it assimilates every thing to itself, as proper nourishment; and, from the first moment of your begetting it, it generally grows the stronger by every thing you see, hear, read, or understand.
--Tristram Shandy by Laurence Sterne

In Praise of the Knight of the Doleful Countenance, Part II
Earlier this month, in one of my sporadic posts throughout the year in honor of the 400th anniversary of the publication of Cervantes’ Don Quixote, I waxed eloquent on the many references made to Cervantes’ Dynamic Duo, Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, by another great writer, Laurence Sterne, in his comic masterpiece, Tristram Shandy.  Of the great works of comic (in the modern, not classic, sense) literature, only a few could stand in the same select company as Tristram Shandy and Don QuixoteGulliver’s Travels, of course, and Gargantua & Pantagruel, oh, and lest we forget, pretty much the entire oeuvres of Jane Austen and Charles Dickens (and, in the Twentieth Century, the oeuvre of P. G. Wodehouse).  Then things drop off to the works of Evelyn Waugh, Amis père & Amis fils, Ivy Compton-Burnett, and a whole host of others.

But back to Tristram Shandy and Sterne’s love affair with his elder, Cervantes. Here is Tristram Shandy explaining why his father considered it such a bad omen that Tristram was accidentally christened “Tristram,” which, to his father’s mind, was a name full of evil magick:

His opinion, in this matter, was, That there was a strange kind of magic bias, which good or bad names, as he called them, irresistibly impressed upon our characters and conduct.
The hero of Cervantes argued not the point with more seriousness,----nor had he more faith,----or more to say on the powers of necromancy in dishonouring his deeds,--or on Dulcinea’s name, in shedding lustre upon them, than my father had on those of Trismegistus or Archimedes, on the one hand—or of Nyky and Simkin on the other. How many Caesars and Pompeys, he would say, be mere inspiration of the names, have been rendered worthy of them? And how many, he would add, are there, who might have done exceeding well in the world, had not their characters and spirits been totally depressed and Nicodemused into nothing?

How many, indeed?  Although, here, Sterne is making light of the still widespread superstition concerning names, he does helpfully illuminate at the same time the magical potency that Quixote attached to the sublime name of Dulcinea.  No such woman need exist with that name because its magical properties brought forth the Platonic Form of such a happy mistress.  Indeed, for an earthly Dulcinea to exist, the Form itself would have to vanish.  As with Plato, and his view that the Forms were more “real” than our mere shadowy selves that falteringly resembled their substance, so too, Quixote’s Dulcinea is more “real”—and will continue to be so as long as their exists a love of literature—than we shall be.  Dulcinea’s reality shall long outlive us.

Let’s end this post, a homage to Sterne’s homage to Cervantes, with a quick sketch of Sterne’s uncle Toby’s hobby-horse, that is, uncle Toby’s obsession with all things military regarding fortifications.  Toward this end, like many a bibliomaniac before and after, he embarks upon purchasing all the works he can find on the subject:

In the second year my uncle Toby purchased Ramelli and Cateneo, translated from the Italian;--likewise Stevinus, Moralis, the Chevalier de Ville, Lorini, Cochorn, Sheeter, the Count de Pagan, the Marshal Vauban, Mons. Blondel, with almost as many books of military architecture, as Don Quixote was found to have of chivalry, when the curate and barber invaded his library.

This little anecdote reminds me that for those bibliomaniacs in Texas—particularly for those with a taste for Texana (a wretched word, but there it is)—the Texas Book Festival will be going on in Austin this weekend (October 28th – 30th) at the Capitol.  Kathryn will be volunteering, so you might see her with a twinkle in her eye as former President Bill Clinton opens the festival at 10:30 AM on Saturday in the House Chamber.

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October  24,  2005

Patrick: Lagniappe
And, in your case, remember this plain distinction, a mistake in which has ruined thousands,--that your conscience is not a law:--No, God and reason made the law, and have placed conscience within you to determine;----not, like an Asiatic Cadi, according to the ebbs and flows of his own passions,--but like a British judge in this land of liberty and good sense, who makes no new law, but faithfully declares that law which he knows already written.
--Tristram Shandy by Laurence Sterne

Why Write?
The back-page essay of Sunday’s New York Times Book Review has a barely tongue-in-cheek timeline of the typical fade to black for a well-received and –reviewed book.  I had a friend who published a book (a work of constitutional law and policy analysis) about a year ago; and she would have ululated to the heavens to have received a mere fraction of the attention that is disdainfully dismissed in this essay.  Perhaps, in the hallowed halls of the NYT, this is the typical experience for Manhattan writers who loll about in their rent-subsidized apartments, hail their fare-subsidized taxis, and lunch with their advance-subsidized agents and publicists.  For the vast majority of humble scribblers, there are no reviews, no agents, no publicists—and, certainly, no advances.  Further, there is no fade to black since all is darkness and void from the beginning. But, at least, they, like William Blake, can rail against the cruelty of an unfair universe that neglects such genius.  For those whose books came calling arrayed in the bright frippery of publicity and decorated with the multi-colored bows of talk shows and the ribbons of print and ink, there is no escaping the stark fact that the reader’s door was firmly shut in their faces because, in the satanic inverse of Sally Fields blithe Oscar acceptance speech, “You really dislike me. You dislike me.”  Better to die an obscure death in outer darkness, not knowing one’s true merits, than to have a bright light illuminate one’s faults so that one is shunned, not out of neglect, but from conscious choice and design.

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October  21,  2005

Patrick: Lagniappe

Digressions, incontestably, are the sunshine;----they are the life, the soul of reading!—take them out of this book, for instance,--you might as well take the book alone with them;--one could eternal winter would reign in every page of it; restore them to the writer;--he steps forth like a bridegroom,--bids All-hail; brings in variety, and forbids the appetite to fail.
--Tristram Shandy by Laurence Sterne


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October  19,  2005

Patrick: Lagniappe

It is a terrible misfortune for this same book of mine, but more so to the Republic of letters;--so that my own is quite swallowed up in the consideration of it,--that this self-same vile pruriency for fresh adventures in all things, has got so strongly into our habit and humour,--and so wholly intent are we upon satisfying the impatience of our concupiscence that way,--that nothing but the gross and more carnal parts of a composition will go down:--The subtle hints and sly communications of science fly off, like spirits upwards,----the heavy moral escapes downwards; and both the one and the other are as much lost to the world, as if they were still left in the bottom of the inkhorn.
--Tristram Shandy by Laurence Sterne

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October  14,  2005

Patrick: Lagniappe

--No doubt, Sir,--there is a whole chapter wanting here—and a chasm of ten pages made in the book by it—but the book-binder is neither a fool, or a knave, or a puppy—nor is the book a jot more imperfect (at least upon that score)—but, on the contrary, the book is more perfect and complete by wanting the chapter, than having it, as I shall demonstrate to your reverences in this manner.—I question first, by the bye, whether the same experiment might not be made as successfully upon sundry other chapters----but there is no end an’ please your reverences, in trying experiments upon chapters----we have had enough of it—So there’s an end of that matter.
--Tristram Shandy by Laurence Sterne

[N.B.: This is the wise commentary immediately following the famous “blank chapter” of ten pages inserted—or, would that be, omitted?—in the midst of Tristram Shandy.  If only more authors followed Sterne’s sage advice.  Vollmann, are you listening?]

National Book Award Finalists Announced
Last year, I lamented loud and long how the National Book Awards had been hijacked by a panel of judges—led by the literary poseur, Rick Moody—who, under the laughable rationale that the more obscure novelists should be recognized who labor without reward in the hinterlands of Fair Dame Fiction, limited the finalists to the geographic boundaries of the wilds of outer Manhattan.  Well, my lamentations have been answered and a lot of smiting has been going on.  This year’s finalists include the likes of E. L. Doctorow for his book about Sherman’s march to the sea, The March, and William T. Vollmann with his gigantic—some might say, megalomaniac—work, Europe Central.  You can check out the whole list here.  Although I’m glad to see a return to sanity with this year’s choices, I would point out that, compared to the Booker list, there truly exists a yawning gap between the quality of writers here and over the pond. Why is that?

OH, one last note, regarding the poetry award finalists.  They include W. S. Merwin who has been a bridesmaid at this particular altar seven previous times—but never a bride.  If you peruse this site, you’ll find a page dedicated to Kathryn’s and my pilgrimage to Kyle, Texas (the birthplace of Katherine Anne Porter) to hear W. S. Merwin give a poetry reading.  Kathryn even snapped a few candid photos with the great Merlin . . . errr . . . Merwin.  Anyhoo, here’s hoping that this year Merwin doesn’t get jilted at the altar.

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October  13,  2005

Patrick: Lagniappe

Did not Dr. Kunastrokius, that great man, at his leisure hours, take the greatest delight imaginable in combing of asses’ tails, and plucking the dead hairs out with his teeth, though he had tweezers always in his pocket? Nay, if you come to that, Sir, have not the wisest of men in all ages, not excepting Solomon himself,--have they not had their Hobby-Horses;--their running horses,--their coins and their cockle-shells, their drums and their trumpets, their fiddles, their pallets,--their maggots and their butterflies?—and so long as a man rides his Hobby-Horse peaceably and quietly along the King’s highway, and neither compels you or me to get up behind him,--pray, Sir, what have either you or I to do with it?
--Tristram Shandy by Laurence Sterne

Happy Birthday Litblog
It was one-year ago, well, one year and several days ago, back on October 10th, but who’s counting, when Litblog was first started and has changed the face of reading as I know it.  Specifically, I now put yellow stickys in all my books as I read along so I can shower you with various bon mots on the Litblog.  Also, I have someplace to keep track of the books I read.  Plus, Kathryn now has a corner for all of the various and sundry of her orphans.  I hope we have been entertaining.  And now, on with the show . . . .

Booker Award Announced
October 10th is an important date in the literary world—not only as the anniversary date for Litblog, but also the date of the announced winner of the Man Booker Prize, who this year was none other than John Banville, with his bestseller over here, The Sea.  Wait, you haven’t purchased a copy of this masterpiece yet?  Oh yeah, I forgot, it won’t be published in the good ol’ U. S. of A. until November 1, 2005. I’ve preordered a copy on amazon, and you might wish to do the same (just be glad the publisher moved up the publication date from the Spring of next year). Interestingly, amazon pairs the book with Sebastian Barry’s A Long, Long Way, another Booker nominee which I have been praising for a while now.  I also would like to take credit for having as my recommended picks both this book and an earlier one by Banville.  Coincidence?  I think not.

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October  10,  2005

Patrick: Lagniappe

Toward the end of dinner in the kind of Village salad-hutch where the staff look like orthodontists, the food carries a live-forever guarantee, and the toilet features an oak tree craning from the bowl, I did something right out of character. And I wasn’t drunk. I was grimly making do with frequent, bidet-sized glasses of white wine—no liquor or anything. I put my hand over hers on the bare tabletop and said,
‘Maybe you’re a little disappointed. Now don’t get me wrong. I can say this because I’m so lost in my own life. But you hoped yours would be clearer and straighter. You expected or even assumed it would be. Or not. Or not at all. I don’t really know what I mean.’
I didn’t, either. It was one of my voices. I often see no reason not to say things, containing all these other voices as I do.
--Money by Martin Amis

American Biography, Anyone?

In this weeks NYT Book Review, James Atlas has a provocative essay concerning the relative popularity of serious English biography in England as opposed to the disinterest for this genre shown by Americans.   His piece is basically a jeremiad condemning Americans for not appreciating the literary qualities of this genre.  Of course, he neglects to discuss the role of the memoir--the kissing cousin to biography--which seems to be enjoying widespread popularity.  I'm sure he'd dismiss such works as maudlin reminiscences which rarely display the kind of literary craftsmanship he champions in his essay.  Unfortunately, his piece appeared in the very same issue with not one, but two, excellent articles about the new memoir by Joan Didion, The Year of Magical Thinking, which is very literary indeed.  Oh well. 

Atlas also argues that Americans have produced only a handful of truly great biographies:  "To my mind, only Ellman's 'Joyce,' Walter Jackson Bate's 'Samuel Johnson' and Leon Edel's five-volume 'Henry James.'"  Uhhh, ever heard of an obscure scribbler called Robert Caro?  He wrote this minor biography of Robert Moses which is considered the cornerstone on urban planning and the functioning of municipalities.  I think he might have written something else, too.  Maybe it was that life of LBJ, currently in three volumes, that has been praised for its insights into politics.  And then there's that even more obscure biographer, David McCullough.  I think he might have written a pamphlet on Truman--oh, and another on John Adams.  I'll need to search the remainder piles to verify that.

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October  7,  2005

Patrick: Lagniappe

Waiting sounds like a passive thing but this vigil, this waiting, was as active and strenuous as anything I had ever performed. You can kill time in a number of ways but it always depends on the kind of time you’re fighting: some time is unkillable, immortal. Whenever I did anything I always wanted to be doing something else but when I started doing something else I found I didn’t want to do that either. Smoking and drinking and swearing and pacing were about all I could manage. Nothing for it, then, but to do the waiting. So I drank and paced and smoked and wore for sever hours in my private, in my personal waiting room.
--Money by Martin Amis

The Part of “Martin Amis” Played by Martin Amis
I mentioned yesterday that the character “Martin Amis,” in Martin Amis’s Money, has a small, but crucial, walk-on role in the book.  He and the novel’s protagonist, John Self, formally meet in the neighborhood pub:

I was just sitting there, not stirring, not even breathing, like the pub’s pet reptile, when who should sit down opposite me but that guy Martin Amis, the writer. He had a glass of wine, and a cigarette—also a book, a paperback. It looked quite serious. So did he, in a way. Small, compact, wears his rug fairly long . . . The pub’s two doors were open to the hot night. That seems to be the deal in early summer, tepid days and hot nights. It’s riot. Anything goes.
I was feeling friendly, as I say, so I yawned, sipped my drink, and whispered, ‘Sold a million yet?’
He looked at me with a flash of paranoia, unusual in its candour and bluntness. I don’t blame him really, in this pub. It’s full of turks, nutters, martians. The foreigners around here. I know they don’t speak English—okay, but do they even speak Earthling? They speak stereo, radio, crackle, interference. They speak sonar, bat-chirrup, pterodactylese, fish-purr.
‘Sorry?’ he said.
‘Sold a million yet?’
He relaxed. His off-centre smile refused to own up to something. ‘Be serious,’ he said.
‘What you sell then?’
‘Oh, a reasonable amount.’
. . .
‘Hey,’ I said. ‘When you, do you sort of make it up, or is it just, you know, like what happens?’
‘Autobiographical,’ I said. ‘I haven’t read any of your books. There’s, I don’t really get that much time for reading.’
‘Fancy,’ he said. He started reading again.
‘Hey,’ I said. ‘Your dad, he’s a writer too, isn’t he? Bet that made it easier.’
‘Oh, sure. It’s just like taking over the family pub.’

Riveting conversation, no?  But it does have the feeling of verisimilitude which separates the great writers from, oh, say, Norman Mailer.  The dad referred to, by the bye, is the great comic writer, Kingsley Amis, one of Britain’s original Angry Young Men.

There’s been a bit of a brouhaha lately over so-called literary authors—a.k.a Bret Easton Ellis—inserting themselves into their works.  This maneuver is seen as somehow “post-modern” and “transgressive.”  Nope, it’s old hat and should be worn like one.  Which is just the touch that Martin Amis puts on it.  He realizes that this device can become tiresome rather quickly, and so he uses it sparingly, in an off-hand manner.  Again, to each his own, but this strikes me as the right amount of seasoning, so as not to make the work as a whole unpalatable.  Again, the mark of a master chef---errr, author.

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October  6,  2005

Patrick: Lagniappe

Selina, she’s like a girl in a men’s magazine. She probably is a girl in a men’s magazine: there are so many these days, it’s hard to keep tabs on them all. Normal girls, they aren’t like the girls in the pornographic magazines. Here’s a little-known fact: the girls in the pornographic magazines aren’t like the girls in the pornographic magazines either. That’s the thing about pornography, that’s the thing about men—they’re always giving you the wrong ideas about women. No girls are like the girls in the men’s magazines, not even Selina, not even the girls in the men’s magazines. I’ve checked out one or two of them and I know. It transpires that everyone has their human shape, their human form. But try telling pornography that. Try telling men.

How did I get to discover this little-known fact? How did I get to check out one or two of the chicks in the pornographic magazines? Well how do you think?

Money—that’s right.

--Money by Martin Amis

[N.B.: Here you go, the perfect quote that sums up Martin Amis’s career: pornography and money.  Okay, it doesn’t quite have the frisson of Dickens’s obsessions: exploitation of the poor and children (or, better yet, poor children).  But it sure is a lot more interesting than what most so-called “literary” authors have on offer today—that being family troubles and the atomization of society, i.e., narcissism/neuroticism (same thing, really).  Ho hum.  When’s the next Elmore Leonard novel coming out?  No, I meant next week’s, not this week’s; I think it’s called Daiquiri Death or Get Happy.  You can’t miss it—it’s the one that’s all snappy, cool dialogue for the ritalin dependent.]

Money, Money, Money, Money, Part II
So, where was I?  Ahhh, yes, money.  Well, so we now know money makes the world go round . . . or at least John Self’s world go round.  John Self’s world, as you might recall, is a movie that he is trying to finance so that he can pay for the latest hot properties (or, at least, the perennial properties) to star in it.  Unfortunately, John Self runs into his bete noir, a writer.  This writer is hired by Mr. Self to re-write a hopelessly tangled script which has provoked all of Mr. Self’s stars into open hissy fits.  The writer, in good faith, earnestly endeavors to extricate John Self from a sticky situation.  But, instead, like a page from Mel Brooks’ The Producers, by making the script workable and satisfactory to all of the movie’s stars, it means that the writer’s labors have enabled the production to go forward. That’s a bad thing, though, because that also means there won’t be any insurance to collect for its cancellation.  John Self is the patsy here and doesn’t realize, until it’s too late, that the money being used to finance this monumental motion picture is not coming from Hollywood or his producers, but, instead is coming from him-self. Yep, in the worst pun of all, John Self has signed all the contracts as “self” not realizing that “self” is Self and not “self.”  Get it?  Got it?  Good.

So, who is this force of nature, the writerly embodiment of John Self’s nemesis? Why, it’s none other than a character named “Martin Amis.”  This fellow happens to live in John Self’s London neighborhood, lovingly described by our protagonist:

Slipping off the demographic shuttle, I moved into the calmer latticework of dusty squares and sodden hotels. Some of the residential allotments are going up in the world too: they are getting gentrified, humidified, marbleized. Ad-execs, moneymen, sharp-faced young marrieds, they’re all moving in and staking out their patch. You even cop the odd sub-celebrity round my way now. An old actor, singing arias of bitterness in the backstreet pubs. There’s a chick newsreader whom I sometimes see cramming her kids into the battered Boomerang. Every day a failed chat-show host and an alcoholic ex-quizmaster grimly lunch at the Kebab House in Zilchester Gardens. Oh yeah, and a writer lives round my way too. A guy in a pub pointed him out to me, and I’ve since seen him hanging out in Family Fun, the space-game parlour, and toting his blue laundry bag to the Whirlomat. I don’t think they can pay writers that much, do you? . . . He stops and stares at me. His face is cramped and incredulous—also knowing, with a smirk of collusion in his bent smile. He gives the creeps. ‘Know me again would you?’ I once shouted across the street, and gave him a V-sign and a warning fist. He stood his ground and stared. This writer’s name, they tell me, is Martin Amis. Never heard of him. Do you know his stuff at all?

Ahhh, more of the knowing wink.  Do we know his stuff at all?  Hard to tell, since we’re in the midst of reading it.  But, as “Martin Amis” tells us, it’s a hard slog reading a whole book through and all:

Toward the end of a novel you get a floppy feeling. It may just be tiredness at turning the pages. People read so fast—to get to the end, to be shot of you. I see their problem. For how long do you immerse yourselves in other lives? Five minutes, but not five hours. It’s a real effort.

It is a real effort, that few bother to exert nowadays.  Further, I don’t know about you, dear readers, but I am a very slow, a very deliberate reader, so, for me, I sometimes find myself actually dreading the end of a particularly good book.  I’ll set it down and let the details marinate, percolate, infuse my intellect for a few days before finishing off the last tidbits.  I’m not in a hurry because I have rid myself of the original sin of novels—plot.

Martin Amis, though, is still up to his eyebrows in original sin.  He has to come up with that silly dénouement that I described above involving the downfall of John Self. Why bother? He has created one of the great characters in modern literature, perhaps in literature period.  When Shakespeare created Falstaff in Henry IV, I guarantee you it wasn’t thought of as Henry IV, Part I.  That play has a nice, rounded plot with Hal becoming, at its end, King Henry V, and rejecting his old cronies, including Falstaff.  But Shakespeare realized that Falstaff was a big hit and a wonderful character.  So, what did he do?  He basically just rewrote the plot of Henry IV and called it Henry IV, Part II.  Do we care?  No. Why?  Because we get more Falstaff.  Even when Shakespeare got tired of him and killed him off in Henry V, he still brought him back in an encore with The Merry Wives of Windsor, a play which has very little plot to speak of.  It’s just one long romp for Falstaff. Again, do we care that the plot is just a thin tissue of situation comedies for our man Falstaff?  No.  He’s a great character and we want more of him. [N.B.: That’s the secret, by the bye, of great TV sitcoms. The Korean war, in time, ended long before the smash, M.A.S.H., with its hero, Hawkeye, had run its course.]  What I am positing is that there are some characters—Don Quixote, Sherlock Holmes (who was also killed off and later resurrected by his author), Falstaff—who transcend the lead bonds of the novelistic form. They are greater than the mere plot clods and clock-work elements of what we call a “novel.”

I see, though, that I have drifted far from my intention to talk about money.  So, let’s end with a money shot, which is John Self describing his withered end:

I want money again but I feel better now that I haven’t got any. There are these little pluses. You, they can’t do much to you when you haven’t got any money. . . . I’ve been rich and I’ve been poor. Poor is worse, but rich can be a clunker too. You know, during that time of pills and booze, during that time of suicide, my entire future flashed through my head. And guess what. It was all a drag! My past at least was—what? It was . . . rich. And now my life has lost its form. Now my life is only present, more present, continuous present.

Continuous present—sort of like the act of being lost in reading, a gift that all may enjoy with or without money.

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October  5,  2005

Patrick: Lagniappe

Martina sighed. ‘You were drunk. You know, it’s quite a lot to ask, to spend a whole evening with someone who’s drunk.’
. . . I had always known the truth of this, of course. Drunks know the truth of this. But usually people are considerate enough not to bring it up. The truth is very tactless. That’s the trouble with these non-alcoholics—you never know what they’re going to say next. Yes, a rum type, the sober: unpredictable, blinkered and selective. But we cope with them as best we can.
‘Meet me tonight. I won’t be drunk, I promise. Look, I’m really sorry about last night.’
‘Last night?’
‘Yeah. Things got a little out of hand.’
‘Last night?’
‘Yeah. I don’t know what came over me.’
‘It wasn’t last night. It was the night before. Call me at eight. I’ll be able to tell. If you’re drunk then I’ll just hang up.’
Then she just hung up.
--Money by Martin Amis

Money, Money, Money, Money
Some wag has aphorized that there are many more works of fiction written about love than money.  And, I may add, the same is true for the romantic occupation of trolling the Thames at midnight for corpses and the Office of Circumlocution.  The latter bureaucratic organization is celebrated in only one novel, Dickens’s Little Dorritt, which, by the bye, is a work about money.  Money is used as a metaphor throughout the book to describe the characters’ relations to one another and to the world at large.  Further, the central villain in the work, Mr. Merdle, is seen as a titan of commerce until he is unmasked as a financial fraud who ends his existence as a tawdry suicide.  That last note—tawdry—seems to be a recurring motif in literary works concerning filthy lucre.  That same note is struck repeatedly on the ragged, mongrel hide of John Self, the protagonist of Martin Amis’s Money.

Money is, not surprisingly, about money as it molds the novel's protagonist, John Self, to its own wicked ends.  As in Amis’s latest work, Yellow Dog, where the concept of pornography infuses not just the lives of the characters and the plot, but also the very fabric of the prose itself, so, too, in this earlier outing, does the clink of legal tender clatter throughout the vagaries of John Self’s odyssey in the dark dens of New York and London as he seeks to produce a major Hollywood extravaganza.  The problem, though, is money.  And, like Mr. Merdle, John Self will ultimately come to a bad end (well, more of a loose end, an empty end, but not the final end).  But first, John Self must tread his own financial road of Calvary.  Here he is dealing with his weaseling friend, Alec, who is perpetually down on his luck:

‘Give me the money. Come on, man—do it! Do it. How much are you getting for this film? Eighty? A hundred?
‘Nothing yet.’
‘Do it. I’d do it for you.’
‘Yeah, you keep saying that.’
‘I pay you back in ten days. I swear. There’s a cheque coming in. This is just a bridging loan.’
‘Yes, I know all about this bridging business.’
I did, too. It was always the same. The money Alec was expecting—it looked like my money now. It looked as though it was all marked me. But when that money came, it wouldn’t look like my money any more. It would look like his money. He wouldn’t want to blow it all on me. Money is very versatile. You really have to give money credit for that.

Money is a very versatile character in Money, and, punningly, one that deserves credit for its protean role in the book.  Not only does money not care who owns it, it also doesn’t care how it is acquired.  It just wants to be used (another bad pun). Here’s John Self ruminating on the difference between a self-made misogynist such as himself, and Doris Arthur, a Harvard-educated feminist:

Doris was the beneficiary of a university education, over at Harvard there. She could find her own way. As a rule, I hate people who are the beneficiaries of a university education. I hate people with degrees, O-levels, eleven-pluses, Iowa Tests, shorthand diplomas . . . And you hate me, don’t you. Yes you do. Because I’m the new kind, the kind who has money but can never use it for anything but ugliness. To which I say: You never let us in, not really. You might have thought you let us in, but you never did. You just gave us some money.
And told us to get lost . . . As for feminism in general, well, my position here was that of the unbudgeably powerful mob boss who, when piqued by bothersome incursions that threaten to sour the whole deal, calls the Ladies in and calmly says, Okay, so you want a piece of this. What kept you? We thought you were happy doing all that other stuff. You stayed quiet for however many millions years it is. Now you tell us. But I’m a reasonable man. Some time soon there’s a concession coming up in one of our out-of-town operations. If everything goes through okay and you keep your nose clean, who knows, we might be able to . . .

It’s hard to believe this was written in 1984.  Back then, this bile would be seen as the sour grapes of a sour mind.  Sure, we can all laugh at the likes of John Self.  But who’s laughing now?  Why, money is, of course.  Because money is right, you can just give folks some money.  It’s only money.  Still, though, we have to keep up appearances for it:

Mind you, they were a surprisingly unostentatious mob, lacking the glow—poorly shod, some of them, and crying out for a few grands’ worth of rug work or complexion fixative. There was a lot of jazz and jabber in the air, what with the good champagne, the prettified canapés, the tuxed tapsters, the money, and swapping the odd smile or wave or shout I moved among them, as free as water. They all seemed to be talking about acting, fairly specifically too—working, resting, availability, auditioning, projection, all the usual stuff. Well, I thought, they’re all amateur producers, or they are now. And being rich is about acting too, isn’t it? A style, a pose, an interpretation that you force upon the world? Whether or not you’ve made the stuff yourself, you have to set about pretending that you merit it, that money chose right in choosing you, and that you’ll do right by money in your turn. Moneymad or just moneysmug, you have to pretend it’s the natural thing . . . I never felt I deserved it, money, for what I did (it was a big embarrassment), and that’s probably why I pissed it all away. I won’t be able to piss this lot away, though. There isn’t a can deep enough, and there’s simply too much money. Then I’ll have to join them, the money artists.

Ahhh, yes, the money artists.  Owning money is the ultimate form of performance art.  Perhaps, it’s the ultimate form of fine art.  The fine art of wearing money: see how gracefully it clings and what a fine sheen.  Everyone, practice before the mirror now.  Vogue.  Or, better yet: Money.

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October  4, 2005

Patrick: Lagniappe

I started reading again—I always was reading, or at least quite a few pages seem to have gone by. I must admit, I admire the way in which Orwell starts his book fairly late in, on page seven. This has to work in your favour. Reading takes a long time, though, don’t you find? It takes such a long time to get from, say, page twenty-one to page thirty. I mean, first you’ve got page twenty-three, then page twenty-five, then page twenty-seven, then page twenty-nine, not to mention the even numbers. Then page thirty. Then you’ve got page thirty-one and page thirty-three—there’s no end to it. Luckily Animal Farm isn’t that long a novel. But novels . . . they’re all long, aren’t they. I mean, they’re all so long. After a while I thought of ringing down and having Felix bring me up some beers. I resisted the temptation, but that took a long time too. Then I rang down and had Felix bring me up some beers. I went on reading.
--Money by Martin Amis

In Praise of the Knight of the Doleful Countenance
As I’ve no doubt mentioned before, this year is the 400th anniversary—depending on the vagaries of the Gregorian Calendar (which is also based on a 400-year cycle)—of Cervantes’ sublime masterpiece, Don Quixote.  I’ve meant to blog more about our Sad Knight and his faithful Squire but I’ve been busy tilting at other windmills.  Here, though, is a nice article by Carlos Fuentes in praise of all things Cervantes.

And now for something almost completely different, that is, a few stray references to Cervantes from that other master of the absurd, Laurence Sterne, in his Tristram Shandy.  The scene is the death bed of Yorick, the local Anglican priest, one of the beloved characters from Tristram Shandy (indeed, upon Yorick’s death, Sterne inserted into his book the famous black page of mourning).  Yorick has been driven to his death by a conspiracy of persons who have struck at him unawares and denied him a Bishopric.  Here’s Sterne’s lively description—in the tones of Henry James, in other words, all details omitted—of the conspiracy:

Revenge from some baneful corner shall level a tale of dishonour at thee, which no innocence of heart or integrity of conduct shall set right.----The fortunes of thy house shall totter,--thy character, which led the way to them, shall bleed on every side of it,--thy faith questioned,--thy works belied,--thy wit forgotten,--thy learning trampled on. To wind up the last scene of thy tragedy, Cruelty and Cowardice, twin ruffians, hired and set on by Malice in the dark, shall strike together at all thy infirmities and mistakes:----The best of us, my dear lad, lie open there,----and trust me,----trust me, Yorick, when to gratify a private appetite, it is once resolved upon, that an innocent and an helpless creature shall be sacrificed, ‘tis an easy matter to pick up sticks enough from any thicket where it has strayed, to make a fire to offer it up with.

Wait, was this a commentary on the Senate hearings for Supreme Court nominees? No, no, we’re still dealing with Yorick, who, upon his tombstone is written, “Alas, poor YORICK!”  For the conspiracy is successful and in less than a page from the above quote, it drives him to his doom.  At his death bed is Yorick’s old friend, Eugenius:

I declare I know not, Yorick, how to part with thee, and would gladly flatter my hopes, added Eugenius, cheering up his voice, that there is still enough left of thee to make a bishop, and that I may live to see it.----I beseech thee, Eugenius, quoth Yorick, taking off his night-cap as well as he could with his left hand,--his right being still grasped close in that of Eugenius,----I beseech thee to take a view of my head.—I see nothing that ails it, replied Eugenius. Then, alas! my friend, said Yorick, let me tell you, that ‘tis so bruised and mis-shapened with the blows which ***** and *****, and some others have so unhandsomely given me in the dark, that I might say with Sancho Pança, that should I recover, and “Mitres thereupon be suffered to rain down from heaven as thick as hail, not one of them would fit it.”----Yorick’s last breath was hanging upon his trembling lips ready to depart as he uttered this:--yet still it was uttered with something of a Cervantick tone;--and as he spoke it, Eugenius could perceive a stream of lambent fire lighted up for a moment in his eyes;--faint picture of those flashes of his spirit, which (as Shakespeare said of his ancestor) were wont to se the table in a roar!

There you have it, one of the most moving death scenes in English literature which joins together through some magical alchemy two of the greatest works in all of literature, Cervantes’ Don Quixote and Shakespeare’s Hamlet, into a third, Sterne’s Tristram Shandy.  In a somewhat Cervantick—but more, a Shakespearean tone—I would leave you with the remark that to witness such scenes I would not exchange my estate with kings.

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October 1,  2005

Patrick: Lagniappe

It was cold all right, but there was a huge sky now of stars like wedding rings and all just thrown about against something as hard looking as an enamel basin. He half expected to hear them rattling. There was a great murmuring all over the ship that the talking men made, and the engines aching far below, but around that there was only the enormous single note of the sea. The green, green sea, darkening everywhere to black.
--A Long Long Way by Sebastian Barry

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