October 30, 2004


The ship creaked in every plate, doors slammed, trunks fell about, the wind howled; the screw, now out of the water, now in, raced and churned, shaking down hat-boxes like ripe apples; but above all the roar and clatter there rose from the second-class ladies’ saloon the despairing voices of Mrs ape’s angels, in frequently broken unison, singing, singing, wildly, desperately, as though their hearts would break in the effort and their minds lose their reason, Mrs Ape’s famous hymn, There ain’t no flies on the Lamb of God.
--Vile Bodies by Evelyn Waugh

Patrick: It’s the Character, Stupid, Part II

Some one should write a book, not about particular authors, but particular characters and why certain of them refuse to die—indeed, why we lovingly commit the pathetic fallacy in talking about them. The characters of Dickens, of course, must be at the top of any such list. Indeed, one cannot help but be envious of Dickens by how, in just a few economical strokes, he can make a minor character, one he just tossed off in a leisurely hour or two, live forever. Perhaps the best example is the exceedingly minor character from Our Mutual Friend, Mr. Podsnap. Here’s the two justly famous paragraphs:

Mr. Podsnap was well to do, and stood very high in Mr. Podsnap’s opinion. Beginning with a good inheritance, he had married a good inheritance, and had thriven exceedingly in the marine insurance way, and was quite satisfied. He never could make out why everybody was not quite satisfied, and he felt conscious that he set a brilliant social example in being particularly well satisfied with most things, and, above all other things, with himself.

Thus, happily acquainted with his own merit and importance, Mr. Podsnap settled, that, whatever he put behind him, he put out of existence. There was a dignified conclusiveness, not add a grand convenience, in this way of getting rid of disagreeables, which had done much towards establishing Mr. Podsnap in his lofty place in Mr. Podsnap’s satisfaction. “I don’t want to know about it: I don’t choose to discuss it; I don’t admit it!” Mr. Podsnap had even acquired a peculiar flourish of his right arm in often clearing the world of its most difficult problems by sweeping them behind him (and consequently sheer away) with those words and a flushed face: for they affronted him.

That’s it. This full-blooded character has received the gift of eternal life based on two measly paragraphs. We will all be dust and ether, not even a disembodied name connected to some coerced overworked undergraduate’s vague thought that there is something that name should stand for (hmmm, “Norman Mailer,” wasn’t that the humorist who wrote a minor comic novel? Yes, he did, a delightful one called, Advertisements for Myself, which I will blog about soon). But folks will still talk about and delight in Mr. Podsnap. Why? Let’s take a closer look.

The first paragraph creates the broad strokes, not just in subject matter but in the choice of words employed. Mr. Podsnap is of a very narrow disposition. How do we know? Because he is repetitive—not in what is conveyed in this paragraph (that comes in the second) but in the language chosen. Dickens repeats “inheritance,” “satisfied” and “things,” not only for comic effect (indeed, it works at that level) but to give us a sense that Mr. Podsnap is in a rut. And what’s that rut’s name? Why, Mr. Podsnap, of course. All of  the noteworthy effects are achieved from the economy of the words chosen, the repetition, and the broad comedy.

But the immortal lines sink into our spirit from the second paragraph. Here, we learn Mr. Podsnap’s mannerisms and motto: The sweep of his right arm with the deadly invocation, “I don’t want to know about it: I don’t choose to discuss it; I don’t admit it!” The repetition in this paragraph appears only in this quotation. Dickens crafts Mr. Podsnap with the rest of the language to convey his contempt for the world and all that lies outside of his narrow venue. There are echoes, however, of the description from the first paragraph binding the second: the reference in both to Mr. Podsnap’s importance and his satisfaction. From these few master strokes, expertly bound together over the two paragraphs, an immortal is born. See how easy it is? Guffaw.

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October 29, 2004

Patrick: Lagniappe

And as true charity not only covers a multitude of sins, but includes a multitude of virtues, such as forgiveness, liberal construction, gentleness and mercy to the faults of others, and the remembrance of our own imperfections and advantages, he bade us not inquire too closely into the venial errors of the poor, but finding that they were poor, first to relieve and then endeavor—at an advantage—to reclaim them.
--Master Humphrey’s Clock by Charles Dickens.

 It’s the Character, Stupid

What do I look for in a good book? For starters: artistry (chiefly, form—no disproportionate elements; and compactness—no “baggy monsters” as Henry James put it); complexity and style. And, for a novel, that ineffable wildcard: character, which can trump the absence of the other three elements (hence, in spite of my rant, Dame Christie will continue to be enjoyed, in spite of her infelicitous style, bad mechanics and decidedly backward social and racial views, because she blessed the world with Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot). A good example is James Joyce’s Ulysses. This is a baggy monster to end all baggy monsters. It has no compactness at all and the form of an oil slick. But it has complexity and stylishness up the wazoo. And, most importantly, it has two great characters: Leopold Bloom and Stephen Dedalus. The same is true for Joseph Heller’s Catch-22. Heller will be remembered for just that one book, more particularly, one character: Captain John Yossarian. The rest is dross—the novel is decidedly not laugh-out-loud funny unless one is a baby boomer or older (and we know in which direction the numbers in that cohort are moving); the plot is paper thin; the book has no form; it is not complex; and the author’s writing style is pedestrian (hence, the reason none of his other work will last). But Yossarian has life.

Another extreme example is Arthur Miller. The problem with being a playwright is similar to being a journalist: all of your output decays and dies in a relatively short period of time (think The Second Mrs. Tanqueray, or, although I have no idea why they did this, The American Library’s recently published volume of the rightfully forgotten jazz-era playwright, George S. Kaufmann—note to editors, this will not bring him back; oh, and please, spare us the efforts of any other members of the Algonquin roundtable, except, perhaps, those of Dorothy Parker). Of course, it should come as no surprise that this phenomenon of early datedness exists because most plays are concerned with current affairs and events (Hello, Tony Kushner!). These “problem plays” may survive for a generation or so but once everyone forgets who Richard Nixon was (trust me on this baby-boomers, it will happen) or Roy Cohn, the plays revolving around these figures will naturally crumble into dust. Now we come to Arthur Miller who has mastered the difficult feat of writing an instantly dated, irrelevant play. His latest, Finishing the Picture, is about a blond bombshell movie-star wife of a playwright—oh puhleez, if it wasn’t so tired and desiccated, one could hear both Derrida and Foucault rolling around in their graves—whose face does not appear throughout the entire performance, although the rest of her sure as heck does (hubba hubba). Yeah, this might have been interesting in the ‘60s, but not now. Which brings me to Willy Loman (“low man,” get it? like Pflaumen) the only scrap of Miller’s output that will survive into posterity.

Why? The play itself, Death of a Salesman is a long, baggy rant against capitalism. It has all the mid-century buzz-topics about the workers and the oppression of the proletariat, along with the socialist . . . ummm, sorry, I nodded off a bit, there. Willy’s sons are two big, strapping athletic dimwits who light up the stage like swamp gas. These stereotypes exist so that Miller can expose the lies that . . . ummm, sorry, again. Willy serves the same function. So why does he live? There’s no track record here; particularly for this playwright who has not created any other lasting artistic work (sorry, The Crucible dies with the last of you to shiver at Ol’ Smokin’ Joe). But Willy does live, bless him.

Let’s ruminate upon this wonderful mystery, shall we, until the next post on this topic.

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October 29, 2004

Kathryn: DFW on Irony

Here is David Foster Wallace on irony in postmodern culture:

“Irony in postwar art and culture started out the same way youthful rebellion did. It was difficult, painful, and productive—a grim diagnosis of a long-denied disease. The assumptions behind early postmodern irony, on the other hand, were still frankly idealistic: it was assumed that etiology and diagnosis pointed toward cure, that a revelation of imprisonment led to freedom
           “So then how have irony, irreverence, and rebellion come to be not liberating but enfeebling in the culture today’s avant-garde tries to write about? One clue’s to be found in the fact that irony is still around, bigger than ever after 30 long years as the dominant mode of hip expression. It’s not a rhetorical mode that wears well. As [Lewis] Hyde (whom I pretty obviously like) puts it, ‘Irony has only emergency use. Carried over time, it is the voice of the trapped who have come to enjoy their cage.’ [FN] This is because irony, entertaining as it is, serves an almost exclusively negative function. It’s critical and destructive, a ground-clearing. . . . But irony’s singularly unuseful when it comes to constructing anything to replace the hypocrisies it debunks.”

From “E Unibus Pluram,” in A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, by David Foster Wallace.

FN: Lewis Hyde, “Alcohol and Poetry: John Berryman and the Booze Talking.

Patrick and I gleefully disagree about much in life, but we’re both with DFW on the question of the limitations of irony. Postmodern irony is smug, adolescent, fun for awhile, and utterly enervating. It goads us to snicker when we should mourn and robs us of our most humane impulses.

Anthony Lane is coming to town
So the New Yorker college tour is coming to my city, bringing with it the spectacularly arch movie critic Anthony Lane. Whee! Ah, yes, and some other literati. But Anthony Lane! In the flesh! OK, I’ll stop with the exclamation points. (Although it is fun to annoy Patrick with them.) But I love Lane's work. I especially enjoy reading his reviews of movies that I’d never bother to see.

Don’t know Anthony Lane? Here’s a link to his review of Lord of the Rings: Return of the King.  (And, hey, bonus points: It addresses one reason the world was so smitten with LotR: its profound lack of irony.) And Random House offers a bit on the reviewer.

October 26, 2004

Patrick: Lagniappe

'It has occurred to me,’ he said, ‘bearing in mind your sequel to the tale we have finished, that if such of us as have anything to relate of our own lives could interweave it with our contribution to the Clock, it would be well to do so. This need be no restraint upon us, either as to time, or place, or incident, since any real passage of this kind may be surrounded by fictitious circumstances, and represented by fictitious characters. What if we make this an article of agreement among ourselves?’

--Master Humphrey’s Clock by Charles Dickens.

[N.B.: And so, modern fiction was born. May one-thousand fictionalized treatments regarding creative-writing classes and writer’s block bloom. Thank goodness Dickens rarely followed his own advice—although he led an exciting enough life, a la David Copperfield, to get away with this.]


Mary McCarthy and The Company She Keeps

Mary McCarthy, a feisty, whip-smart author seemed to have it all—striking looks, a cracker-jack prose style and the bona-fides of a Noo Yok Intellectool, to boot. But her fame flickers low now and threatens to snuff out. That would be unfortunate, not only because of the loss of several delightful works of fiction based, in part, on her own fascinating life. But also her essays which are consistently witty and ferociously intelligent. Indeed, McCarthy seemed the embodiment of the knife-edged hot-house predator that thrived in Manhattan. She had the smarts of a Dorothy Parker but the looks of a Kathryn Hepburn from her days teaming up with Spencer Tracy in some high-flyin’ fast-talkin’ star-crossed professional lovers’ comedy. Of course, the part of Spencer Tracy in real life was played by McCarthy’s husband, the dyspeptic critic and literary flaneur, Edmund Wilson, the twentieth-century American Samuel Johnson (his flame, too, flickers low; but it seems to be sparking back up with the renewed interest in the prurient Memoirs of Hecate County). And McCarthy’s background? It reads like a Dickens novel that Dickens himself would be too embarrassed to scribble up —but, luckily, McCarthy did in what is probably her one work which will last: Memoirs of a Catholic Girlhood (note to Kathryn: she was an orphan by the age of six—go here to learn more).

So what does a Dickensian heroine do when left to the tender mercies of the modern industrial colossus in the throes of its own crisis, the depression of the 1930’s? Well, you need to read The Company She Keeps, McCarthy’s first work, to find out. First, she develops a reputation for being “fast,” and marries fast, too. She then turns up the nitro with a quickie divorce. Barreling around the bend, she skids into the sticky art-world slick, but rights herself, zooms through the Manhattan cocktail circuit, takes the Trotskyist red flag and then gooses up the juice to the finishing line: another marriage and the analyst’s couch. Sure, this twentysomething’s bildungsroman is dated—Trotskyist, what the heck was that? Some new dance craze? (yes, with hatchets). And all this stuff about capitalists and communists wrasslin’ in the mud, and the blood and the fear; come on, now, who’s gonna believe that forced drama? Go read Edmund Wilson’s American Earthquake, the best American literary treatment of the great depression (the English have several comparable literary treatments of this low decade such as the book by Robert Graves and Alan Hodges, The Long Weekend, plus there’s a recent historical treatment that is quite the cat’s meow, Piers Brendon’s The Dark Valley).

Yes, Virginia, there was a communist party and it was seen as the next, best new thing (as opposed to our etiolated view of this concept where we think the next, best new thing is version four of the latest video game). Folks in the 1930’s didn’t care about right or wrong, they were in the ditch blindly groping for a shovel. So they grabbed the wrong handle. Heck, they were hunkered down hungry, sick and desperate so it’s understandable. As far as they knew from history, new ideas promised progress (think whig, think onward and upward, think Aimee McPherson, think Mrs. Ape, think the King Fish—Huey Long and his heavin’ sweatin’ mob, dry as kindlin’ and just waitin’ for him to light a match). Well, communism was new and said it would make everything better. It was the shiny bottle of cure-all in the medicine cabinet and was good for the gout, the gripe, weak knees and piles. But it was all cyanide cut with some arsenic and strychnine for flavor.

No one knew any of that in the 1930’s—they did have the Moscow show trials, alluded to in The Company She Keeps, but it wasn’t until the Nazi-Soviet pact of 1939 which sealed the fate of Poland and its Jewish population, that the bloom came off the rose. Even then, folks could still rally around communism, pledging allegiance to one of its perceived less-virulent strains such as Trotskyism. That’s McCarthy. She wanted to help. She was scary smart. She came from dirt—the whole maudlin orphan-with-no-one-makes-good-in-the-big-city folderol (except it all happens to be true). So, heck yeah, she became a Trotskyist. Woo Hoo.

And that’s the story told in The Company She Keeps, a collection of linked short stories written in a still fresh and crackling prose style describing different facets of our scrappy heroine, Miss Sargent, making her way through the wilds of Manhattan with its strange tribes, customs and taboos. It can be seen as a souffle-light update of The Portrait of a Lady, even down to the detail of having a villain-aesthete Gilbert Osmond in the form of Mr. Pflaumen (although Pflaumen (“flaw man,” get it?) is more a sadsack than a malignant Osmond-like viper; that’s McCarthy’s intention, too; she’s no Henry James who can cold-bloodedly craft the most revolting persons that he holds in utter contempt; one senses that McCarthy has a reserve of understanding and compassion for all of her creations). And the story rocks along as Miss Sargent ricochets off one character and another, burnishing her own character with each collision. I thoroughly enjoyed the book.

Yes, yes, that’s all nice—ricocheting and burnishing and what not—but the book is concerned with outdated ideas and practices that no one cares about any more: the Trotskyism, the analyst’s couch. What? Are there no anachronisms in our great writers? Do they not dwell on institutions since defunct? Do we not still draw inspiration and pleasure from their tales because institutions and ideas in all times act upon that one irreducible element, the human soul? Is it not that process which is timeless and of intrinsic interest? Remember Dickens’ Bleak House. It concerns the corruption of an arcane legal institution, the court of chancery. But that court had already been overhauled and reformed by the time of the publication of Bleak House. Does that mean Jarndyce v. Jarndyce should be relegated to the dustbin to be swept up by poor Jo? No. A book lasts not because the incidental details treated therein are still relevant but because the treatment of those materials as they interact with and affect the unchanging phenomenon of man are rendered in a manner that is fresh and true. That’s McCarthy. Read her.

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October 25, 2004

Patrick: Lagniappe

‘It took a deal o’ poetry to kill the hairdresser, and some people say arter all that it wos more the gin and water as caused him to be run over; p’r’aps it was a little o’ both, and came o’ mixing the two.’

--Master Humphrey’s Clock by Charles Dickens.

[N.B.: Always a timely reminder: “Don’t drink and drivel.”]


They’re dropping all around us, now. It turns out that Michael Grant died on October 5 at the ripe age of 89. His death was just reported by the New York Times. Grant was part of that endangered species, the gifted stylist who writes serious works of history for the reading public. We still have a few examples in the United States, such as Edmund Morgan, Gordon Wood and, David McCullough. Grant, though, was known for his lucid, synthesizing works on the ancient world, primarily Greece and Rome. He wrote over 50 books and many are still in print. If you ever wanted a popular account of any (and I do mean “any” aspect of ancient Greece or Rome; he had one work on gladiators re-printed to coincide with the debut of the roller-coaster ride . . . errr . . . movie feature) then I highly recommend checking him out. His works can usually be purchased quite cheaply form abebooks.com or half.com as well as at large used book stores in their ancient history sections. I would suggest for starters: History of Rome, The Ancient Mediterranean, The Twelve Caesars, and From Alexander to Cleopatra.

By the bye, Terry Teachout, who typically writes about the performing arts but will jump into the literary pool from time to time, has two very entertaining posts on revisions to Brideshead Revisited and The Almanac, his collection of common-place entries (and one of my sources of Lagniappe). They are both well worth reading.

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October 24, 2004

Kathryn: What's Next? Cloud Atlas, Poisonwood Bible

OK, so not Gogol next. I picked up Cloud Atlas instead.

Also, a reader who is interested in Maxine Hong Kingston's Poisonwood Bible posted a comment asking whether we take requests, or, as I would think of it, recommendations. The answer to that is yes, although, speaking for myself, I won't read everything that's recommended. (And Patrick, by golly, I know you won't.) But I've heard good things about The Poisonwood Bible, so it's in the queue now.

And Wit

Just watched the Mike Nichols movie Wit, with Emma Thompson. It is based on the Margaret Edson's Pulitzer-winning play of the same title. Wonderful movie. Provides a good dose of John Donne, too, so you can get a little literature in with your cry. Be sure to be kind to someone after.

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October 24, 2004

Patrick: Lagniappe

‘Well, but suppose he wasn’t a hairdresser,’ suggested Sam.
“Wy then sir, be parliamentary and call him vun all the more,’ returned his father. ‘In the same vay as ev’ry gen’lman in another place is a honourable, ev’ry barber in this place is a hairdresser. Ven you read the speeches in the papers, and see as vun gen’lman says of another, “the honourable member, if he vill allow me to call him so,” you vill understand, sir, that that means, “if he vill allow me to keep up that ‘ere pleasant and uniwersal fiction.’”

--Master Humphrey’s Clock by Charles Dickens.

[N.B.: I included this lagniappe because it comments on one of Dickens’ earliest jobs as a speech reporter. Further, it includes a correct use of the double that (“that that”) which some folks apparently feel is an abomination. The poor little orphan “that that” will no one show him love and respect? Dickens will, and God bless you that that every one.]

Agatha Christie Agonistes, Part III

Having worked our way through the dense undergrowth of Dame Christie’s writing and mechanics, we part the giant palm fronds and see standing before us the golden edifice of modern lit-crit; well, maybe not golden, tarnished bronze and covered with creepers, let’s say. We all know what these folks are up to, so let’s not dawdle over too-plowed ground. Yes, it’s typically myopic to view anything as complex as literature through a single viewpoint, be it Old Criticism, New Criticism, Feminism, or whatever. But each is helpful as one tool among many in the trusty kit. So, let’s dust off the old drill-and-litcritbit to see how many holes we can put in Dame Christie. Oh, dear . . . or should that be, Oh, Dear!!!

As I mentioned in a previous post, the ten soon-to-be-dead little Indians, include a Captain Philip Lombard, soldier-of-fortune. Early in the book, the ten are confronted with a gramophone recording of their misdeeds, each being accused of causing the death of a single person (all right, two in the case of that devil-may-care scalawag, Mr. Anthony Marston, the “young, bronzed god” who ran over the adoring John and Lucy Combes in his dashing hot-rod).  All, that is, except for Mr. Lombard: “You are charged with the following indictments: . . . Philip Lombard, that upon a date in February, 1932, you were guilty of the death of twenty-one men, members of an East African tribe.” Now, why, do you suppose, that Dame Christie added that last clause? She does not tell us the tribe of the other victims—probably because it is obvious from the descriptions that they are all upstanding Englishmen and Englishwomen. Indeed, she gives all of them names—except for our poor, anonymous East African Tribesmen.

So, is Mr. Lombard repentant of his crime? Well, err, no. While all the others initially deny that they are responsible for the deaths attributed to them, Mr. Lombard happily steps up to the plate:

Lombard spoke. His eyes were amused. He said, “About those natives—“
Marston said, “What about them?”
Philip Lombard grinned. “Story’s quite true! I left ‘em! Matter of self-preservation. We were lost in the bush. I and a couple of other fellows took what food there was and cleared out.”
General Macarthur [n.b.: yes, I know, quite the coincidence] said sternly, “You abandoned your men—left them to starve?”
Lombard said, “Not quite the act of a pukka sahib, I’m afraid. But self-preservation’s a man’s first duty. And natives don’t mind dying, you know. They don’t feel about is as Europeans do.”
Vera lifted her face from her hands. She said, staring at him, “You left them—to die?”
Lombard answered, “I left them to die.” His amused eyes looked into her horrified ones.

Okay, now Dame Christie does try to put across that this was a horrible thing to do. But she thinks the only way this will seem to be particularly horrible is if Mr. Lombard does this to a whole bunch of East African Tribesman (all anonymous, no names, please). This gambit reminds me of the old saw that a newspaper will put on the front page one death in its hometown but it needs a million deaths in China for the same treatment. Unfortunately, at least with newspapers, this is still the case. But certainly not with novelists. If anything, Mr. Lombard’s nonchalant acceptance makes the matter worse since it’s only a silly female who seems to be repulsed by this admission (we will address how Dame Christie treats Vera later on in this post—but note here that only Vera is referred to by her first name while the male characters are either addressed by their full names or their last names).

Not content to let sleeping East African Tribesmen lie, Dame Christie then blesses us with this exchange later on in the book between the old spinster, Emily Brent (I guess spinsterhood blesses one with having both names mentioned, what, practically being a man and all anyway) and Vera:

Emily Brent’s brow, which had been frowning perplexedly, cleared [n.b.: don’t you just love the pathetic fallacy?]. She said, “Ah, I understand you now. Well, there is that Mr. Lombard. He admits to having abandoned twenty men to their deaths.”
Vera said, “They were only natives. . . .”
Emily Brent said sharply, “Black or white, they are our brothers.”
Vera thought: Our black brothers—our black brothers. Oh, I’m going to laugh. I’m hysterical. I’m not myself…

Well, this exchange is a bit . . . unpleasant (ACE). First, our good spinster, who is helpfully identified at the beginning of the book as having “a disturbed—and perhaps dangerous—mind” is the only person to stick up for the East African Tribesman. Of course, she leaves off one, saying only twenty men were abandoned. Oh well, it’s hard to keep track of them, given that there are so many and none of them have names anyway. Emily Brent certainly must be disturbed if she thinks they are her “black brothers” as Vera giggles to herself. That’s enough of that: can we say “vile”? I thought so.
Finally, not once but twice, Dame Christie uses, along with her other hackneyed cliches, the phrase, “there’s a n***** in the woodpile.” Charmed, I’m sure. Thank goodness one can no longer describe that little bon-mot as a cliché any longer given its rightful obscurity. Perhaps Vera would no longer find it endearing.

So what about our gal Friday, Vera? She’s described as level-headed and sensible. But as the above passage suggests, she’s starting to get a bit hysterical. Which leads to:

She began laughing wildly again. Dr. Armstrong strode forward. He raised his hand and struck her a flat blow on the cheek. She gasped, hiccuped—and swallowed. She stood motionless a minute, then she said, “Thank you . . . I’m all right now.” her voice was once more calm and controlled—the voice of the efficient games mistress.
She turned and went across the yard into the kitchen saying, “Miss Brent and I are getting you breakfast. Can you—bring some sticks to light the fire?” The marks of the doctor’s hand stood out red on her cheek.
As she went into the kitchen Blore said, “Well, you dealt with that all right, doctor.”
Armstrong said apologetically, “Had to! We can’t cope with hysteria on top of everything else.”
Philip Lombard said, “She’s not a hysterical type.”
Armstrong agreed. “Oh, no. Good healthy sensible girl. Just the sudden shock. It might happen to anybody.”

I wonder if it really “might happen to anybody.” Would the good doctor then feel compelled to slap the crusty judge across the face? Or our dashing soldier-of-fortune? Would good old Blore whistle a merry tune, fixin’ up the vittles, with the livid red marks of Dr. Armstrong’s fingers across his face? At least Dr. Armstrong was apologetic. Even if Vera was thankful for it. She knew she had it coming. Best to keep those hysterical dames in line. A good slap is best administered by a doctor, anyhow; he’s been to medical school and all. I think this passage pretty well speaks for itself, res ipsa loquitur, and so forth.

Now one might fume and protest: “Wait a minute, here, Dame Christie was just a product of her time. No better nor worse than any other author.” True, perhaps. But, as I pointed out in an earlier post, she is the most widely translated English author . . . not excepting Shakespeare (ACE). In other words, fair or not, she has a lot to answer for. This sort of casual, brute prejudice is hard to swallow (Kipling is usually unjustly tarred with this stick so why should Dame Christie get off scot-free?). It’s made worse, I think, by the fact that it is so casual and simply taken for granted. It is not intentionally inserted in the work. It just shows up there in all its glory. Certainly, if this work had some kind of other redeeming feature, such as can be found in Huckleberry Finn, no doubt an argument can be made that such anachronisms should be overlooked. But it’s just a bloody mystery novel. And a poorly written one, at that.

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October 23, 2004

Patrick: Lagniappe

"His whole delight wos in his trade. He spent all his money in bears, and run in debt for ‘em besides, and there they wos a growling avay down in the front cellar all day long, and ineffectooally gnashing their teeth, vile the grease o’ their relations and friends wos being re-tailed in gallipots in the shop above, and the first-floor winder wos ornamented vith their heads; not to speak o’ the dreadful aggrawation it must have been to ‘em to see a man alvays a walkin’ up and down the pavement outside, vith the portrait of a bear in his last agonies, and underneath in large letters, “Another fine animal wos slaughtered yesterday at Jinkinson’s!” Hows’ever, there they wos, and there Jinkinson wos, till he wos took wery ill with some inn’ard disorder, lost the use of his legs, and wos confined to his bed, vere he laid a wery long time, but sich wos his pride in his profession, even then, that wenever he wos worse than usual the doctor used to go down-stairs and say, “Jinkinson’s wery low this mornin’; we must give the bears a stir;” and as sure as ever they stirred ‘em up a bit and made ‘em roar, Jinkinson opens his eyes if he wos ever so bad, calls out, “There’s the bears!” and rewives agin.”

--Master Humphrey’s Clock by Charles Dickens.

[N.B.: The last lagniappe illustrated one way in which the present might be considered inferior to the past. Then there’s today’s . . . . (ACE)]


Poetry Explained for You

Facetious title, no? Well, I started to ruminate upon this topic given the recent death of Anthony Hecht (which I posted on yesterday).  I have stumbled across a number of definitions thrown about for such things as poetry and art as to make me wonder if there does not exist some core elements that everyone could agree upon. Let’s start with the definition of poetry. Typically, someone offers an Emersonian ode to poetry’s special relationship with language. Poetry embodies words qua words—whereas prose just slaps them together cheek by jowl to build up a fancy edifice: a novel, a bank note, a speeding ticket. Of course, the problem with these definitions is that they fail to exclude stuff that is not poetry (the old Derrida saw that we is what we ain’t—see Kathryn’s post alerting us that Derrida himself ain’t what he was or is since we cannot fully understand all of the connotations around the simple statement, “Derrida is dead,” Derrida detritus if you will). Certainly, plenty of prose focuses on words qua words—this is particularly true for so-called meta-fictions such as Perec’s A Void.

What, then, distinguishes poetry from prose? I offer two examples as a thought experiment (otherwise known as a “heuristic device,” for the apparatus-challenged)—first example:

One Flesh
They are sitting at opposite ends
Of the old horsehair sofa
Waiting for something to happen.
A rainy summer night,
Or is it a rainy autumn night,
Smelling of wet leaves.
A muffled reedy music
Permeates the room
Like remembered music
In which rhythm is blurred.
One by one
Enormous soft-winged insects
Fly toward them,
Or scuttle above their heads
On the ceiling.
Several clocks tick in unison,
Sounding like a single clock.

Second example:

The Passing of the Passenger Pigeon
The bird used to be the most numerous on earth. And to blot out the sun for hours over Wisconsin and Michigan. And to strip bare the great forests of cranberries, pine-nuts, and acorns. Whole trees toppled under the weight of roosting birds. In flight they made a sound like Niagara Falls. Horses trembled, and travellers made wild guesses at their number and meaning. The bird’s sad demise is chronicled on many websites. Children visit these for homework, and learn how far and fast the passenger pigeon flew, and that its breast was red, and head and rump slate blue.

As the opulent sun set, raccoon-hatted hunters would gather with pots of sulphur, and clubs and poles and ladders; in a trice they’d transform the dung-heaped forest floor into a two-foot carpet or smouldering pigeon. Being so common, they sold in the city for only a few pence a dozen. Farmers fed them to their pigs. By the century’s end they had all but joined the Great Auk and Labrador Duck in blissful oblivion.

The last known passenger pigeon was called Martha, after Martha Washington. She died in Cincinnati Zoo on September 1st, 1914. Her stuffed remains were transported to the capital, and there displayed in the Smithsonian.

So, which is poetry and which is prose? The first is prose—the lead short story from Joyce Carol Oats’ remarkable collection of stories, The Assignation. The second is a poem by Mark Ford published in the August 5, 2004 edition of the London Review of Books. As you may have guessed, I took the liberty to rearrange the formatting, line breaks and paragraphs for each—but otherwise kept the words themselves intact. You may sputter and say, but such liberties cannot be taken without irremediably warping the elements which determine the “breath,” “cadence,” “rhythm,” and so forth, for a poem, and therefore cannot be disrupted. Precisely. But such an argument assumes that there is a poetic toolbox containing certain arcane instruments to be used to create certain effects. Meter might be one, to reproduce the effects of a poet’s breath or the natural tension and relaxation found within the language itself. But, as we know, meter now can mean anything—or nothing. The same is true for any of the other so-called measuring sticks, even the most basic, clumsy ordering devices: if you notice, I was even so wicked as to omit stanzas from the first example.

So what constitutes a poem? Typically, a title followed by one or two carriage returns with further writing beneath it beginning and ending with three or more carriage-return tabs from both the left and right margins of the paper. All the rest is merely sound and fury. In other words, we have reached the terminus: the difference between poetry and prose is merely a formal one—the use of stylistic ordering rules to organize the work on the printed page. If a string of words is organized in one fashion, it is a poem; if organized in another fashion, a work of prose (or a speeding ticket). There is no other distinction.

Of course, this is not the revelation. Edgar Allen Poe pointed the way, arguing that a poem is merely a device to create “some amount of suggestiveness—some undercurrent, however indefinite, or meaning.” (thanks to the Adam Kirsh review in the August 2004 issue of Poetry for the quote). Robert Frost—playing with the net down and what not—would immediately take me to task and give me a good hiding behind the wood shed (indeed, I would be desperately seeking the path not taken). But Frost is dead. And buried. His cramped view of poetry rejected. Until his like return again,  or that of Anthony Hecht, all poets need only punch their tab keys in harmonic unison.

[N.B.: The lead poem in the September issue of Poetry has already transgressed these boundaries. Written by Atsuro Riley, it includes the immortal lines: “He was hooked right quick on the well-bottom peace of the pumicey concrete and how sounds sounded in there, and resounded. Tight-curled as he had to get—like a cling-shrimp one day, a pill-bug, a bass-clef, a bison’s eye; an abalone (ocean-ear!), antler-arc, Ark-ant, apostrophe another—sure as clocks a cool clear under-creek would rise, and rinse him through, and runnel free.” I doubt Dr. Seuss in his best green-eggs-and-ham mode could concoct such verbal razzle-dazzle. Not even Dame Christie appears capable of the grammatical home run in the second sentence: a compound noun connected by an “n” dash, followed by an exclamation point, all italicized and then sealed in the amber of quotation marks. So what merits this work’s preeminent position in Poetry magazine?  Obviously, it is written as a new form of literature, prosetry, if you will. That is to say, it is written without carriage returns. So, of course, since there’s no formal way to tell that this is a poem and not, say, a speeding ticket, the poet lets you in on his clever game by using uber-poetic language, with lots of alliteration and repetition (calling Dr. Seuss, is there a Sam I Am in the house?). These arch poetic turns are necessary, don’t you know, so as to make clear that you, the pious, humble believer, are in the presence of the real thing, the genuine, the poetic!]

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October 22, 2004

Patrick: Dagnabbit and Jiggery Pokery: Anthony Hecht is Dead

All right, now I am seriously ticked off. First, on August 14, Czeslaw Milosz died. And now, on October 21, Anthony Hecht has followed that master across the Styx. Which basically leaves us with Seamus Heaney and Geoffrey Hill. Disgraceful! It’s not like we currently have great poets to spare (On a hopeful note: I am a fan of Tom Paulin and hope he matures to take his place with these two).

I greatly admire both Hecht’s poetry and prose. He was an erudite scholar and a commentator on one of my all-time favorite poets, W. H. Auden. Hecht’s book on Auden, The Hidden Law, is an (undeservingly obscure) classic on that author’s work. Hecht published six or so thin books of poetry in his long life (he died at the age of 81). Why so small an output? Because he was a great formalist. His poetry was many things but slap-dash confessional was not one of them—I am thinking here of John Ashberry, or, even more pointedly, Robert Lowell (who will survive, with his fame rightly diminished, despite this egregious flaw). In other words, Hecht’s artistry did not follow the trends of his lifetime and did not embody that most horrendous of insults, being “a child of his time.” Hecht loved the old poetic forms—and even created a new one: a light verse form, the double dactyl, hence “jiggery pokery” in the post’s title—so that his poems are both profound and architecturally pleasing.

Such formalism does not mean that Hecht ignored his own times. Far from it, like Milosz, he kept returning to the central great theme of his generation: The problem of evil triumphant. This, for Hecht, meant wrestling with the Shoah [N.B.: I never did like the term the “Holocaust” which has certain historical positive and misleading connotations—“Shoah,” which means roughly, “a calamity,” seems more apt], which he observed first hand as a soldier during World War II. Milosz, as a Polish intellectual, actually participated in the 1944 Warsaw Uprising (his also undeservingly obscure novel, The Seizure of Power, concerns this event—don’t worry, I’ll post about it soon). Hecht and Milosz towered over that landscape. Although Hecht is not the greater poet of the two, I would like to think that there will always be a small light flickering over his work for those few devoted acolytes of the hierophant. His is a shrine well worth visiting. I wish him well and mourn his passing.

Agatha Christie Agonistes, Part II

Before we completely abandon the writing (as opposed to partially abandoning it—see discussion on infectious style in Part I from my October 18 post), I wish to dwell a bit on this dispiriting note which appears at the front of my book: “At the time of her death in 1976, Agatha Christie had written a total of 87 published works, over fifty of them mysteries, and had been translated more widely than any other British author, not excepting Shakespeare.” I particularly savor that last clause, because, of course, Shakespeare usually is excepted with respect to other boasts: “Except for Shakespeare, Charles Dickens is the most punned upon author with respect to his name.” Most widely translated—what a ghastly indictment. Then again, perhaps most widely translated just means that there are a few Laplanders flogging their wolf packs as they zip across the frozen tundra perusing Dame Christie as opposed to Willy Shakespeare. Indeed, what would the average Lap make of all of that “to be or not to be” rot? Surely, the more important question is “to eat or not to eat.”

[N.B.: I am about to discuss the plot of Ten Little Indians, so, for those of you who have not read this intellectual feast and do not wish to have the ending ruined, please fine something else to do for the next few minutes. May I suggest viewing Kathryn’s Orphans? They are quite the pitiful lot, what with their hang-dog expressions and big eyes, holding up a too large bowl and wooden spoon as they beg of Mr. Bumble, “more, more. . . .” My how I wander; I do so like trying out this ellipse thingy though, now that Dame Christie has shown just what a wicked turn it can be put to. Anyhoo, stop reading, I don’t want to ruin the “water-tight” ending for you, which puts me in mind of the immortal words of that cartoon genius, Foghorn Leghorn: “I say, I say, are you listenin’ to me Sonny? He has a mind like a steel trap . . . full of mice.” (buddup-dup)]

So much for the literary gift of Shakespeare. But what about the actual mechanics of the plot? Isn’t this the locked-room puzzle writ large? I mean, instead of a locked room, here’s a whole island with no escape from it. The house itself is modern and has no secret passageways or hidden rooms—no spooky, creaky dumbwaiters, either (other than the servants, the Rogers). All that we have are ten strangers, brought to Indian Island! (sorry, obligatory exclamation point) under false pretences by a certain U. N. Owen (“Unknown,” get it? Clever, huh? Huh? Huh?). As it turns out, each of these ten guests are responsible for deliberately killing one or more human beings. But they have pulled off the trick in such a way that they are beyond the reach of the law. For instance, Mr. Lombard, the soldier-of-fortune, left twenty-one members of an East African tribe to starve to death without provisions. As is pointed out later, “they’re only natives.” But this is no defense to murder, because we’re all “brothers” in the eyes of God. This genteel racism will be discussed in my next posting of this book.

So, these ten pseudo-murderers are brought to Indian Island!! and are slowly killed off, one by one, in the same manner as the children’s nursery rhyme, Ten Little Indians. As one might expect, some of the Indians die in fairly odd ways that would be hard to reproduce on an island. Let’s see, “Six little Indian boys playing with a hive; A bumblebee stung one and then there were five.” Well, how is that going to work on a bloody deserted island off the coast of England? Aha, the murderer lets loose a bumblebee in the room with one of the victims and then stealthily sneaks up behind and “stings” her with a hypodermic filled with cyanide. Okaaaay, not too contrived. But what about, “Three little Indian boys walking in the Zoo; a big bear hugged one and then there were two”? Not a problem, one of the victims conveniently stands under a window and is clocked in the head by a a big bear . . . clock. (yes, in honor of Dame Christie I will continue to use the ellipse; let’s call it the Agatha Christie Ellipse, which gives us the cute acronym, “ACE”). Didn’t anyone link up this clock with the nursery rhyme ahead of time? Well, no, because the first mention of the clock is when it materialized to bonk the unfortunate victim, so how could anyone comment on it before hand? Well, you get the idea.
All right, so the manner of the killings is a bit . . . hokey. (ACE). But nowhere near as bad as the solution itself. Remember, this is a “locked-island mystery,” so when the inspector arrives, everyone is dead. No one came or went from the island. So the killer must be one of the deceased. It turns out to be the judge who everyone thought was killed fairly early on by a bullet through the forehead. Nope. He had finagled the doctor into faking his death under the pretense that he could then snoop about and find out who the real killer was. This freed him up to kill some other folks. Well, you might say, that’s fine, but when he’s the last one left alive on this island, how does he kill himself? Let’s let Dame Christie tell us (via the confession he left in a bottle that he tossed out to sea—no this is not an inane joke on my part):

There is, I think, little more to say. After entrusting my bottle and its message to the sea I shall go to my room and lay myself down on the bed. To my eyeglasses is attached what seems a length of fine black cord—but it is elastic cord. I shall lay the weight of my body on the glasses. The cord I shall loop around the door handle and attach it, to too solidly, to the revolver. What I think will happen is this. My hand, protected with a handkerchief, will press the trigger. My hand will fall to my side, the revolved, pulled by the elastic, will recoil to the door, jarred by the door handle it will detach itself from the elastic and fall. The elastic, released, will hang down innocently from the eyeglasses on which my body is lying. A handkerchief lying on the floor will cause no comment whatever. I shall be found, laid neatly on my bed, shot through the forehead in accordance with the record kept by my fellow victims. Times of death cannot be stated with any accuracy by the time our bodies are examined.

You got that? Nope, neither did I. There’s just one teensy little problem with this explanation—actually, more than one, but let’s stick to one—and that’s the trajectory of the bullet. The judge shoots himself point-blank in the forehead. Where, pray tell, does he think the bullet will go? Will it just happily snuggle into his membrane and pal around with his ganglia? Isn’t that nice. No muss. No fuss. Certainly, no one has ever heard of a bullet taking a more abbreviated stay and actually having the audacity to create a back entrance, leaving as quickly as it came. Surely, the bullet would stop for tea and admire the brilliancy of the neural connections (“Would that be one gray lump, or two?”). It wouldn’t leave a mess. No blood over anything to show that the murder occurred somewhere other than where the judge was “supposed” to have died. Apparently, Dame Christie needs an elementary forensics course. Too bad Six Feet Under wasn’t around in 1939—or television for that matter—or those insipid commercials for Clorox bleach. Oh, sorry, got a bit carried away. Unfortunately, it will probably happen again.

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October 21, 2004

Kathryn: SNOOTs weigh in: Prose as means or end?

Well, Patrick’s SNOOTy* Christie blog (Oct 18) has provided a dandy segue into my entry today. I just finished The Davinci Code and Ten Little Indians. Now, I am, like Patrick, something of a SNOOT. And my question, after this foray into the thriller/mystery genre, is What about this divide between authors for whom prose is just a means to an end and those for whom prose is itself an end?

For many readers, the pleasure of the story itself—the plot, that is—is the key pleasure. For others, especially SNOOTs, there’s a lovely, frictional pleasure that comes with fine prose. To me, reading Christie or Dan Brown is rather like listening to someone summarize a movie instead of watching it. There’s a sense of just hurrying through, plot point after plot point. One feels that the Cliff’s Notes for either of these books would not be distinguished from the original by much more than length.

The Davinci Code is especially puzzling because it is so obviously otherwise erudite and intricate. We get truly interesting passages on symbology and art history interrupted regularly by silly “She-tossed-her-burgundy-hair-and-laid-a-hand-on-his knee” stuff. (Burgundy?)

Now Christie is clearly sloppy, and her editor(s) obviously found good enough good enough. But her story has great bones. There’s a good reason that she has been so much imitated. But she’s no stylist.

So, on to Gogol next, I think.

*SNOOT: If you’re unfamiliar with the term, David Foster Wallace’s article “Tense Present” defines SNOOT at length. DFW provides a pithy remark that illustrates the basic concept: “A fellow SNOOT I  know likes to say that listening to most people's English feels like watching somebody use a Stradivarius to pound nails.” Not that I blanch at split infinitives or any other nonsense like that, but I do prefer a well-turned phrase.

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October 20 2004

Patrick: Lagniappe

‘I con-sider,’ said Mr. Weller, ‘that the rail is unconstitootional and an inwaser o’ priwileges. . . . As to the comfort, vere’s the comfort o’ sittin’ in a harm-cheer lookin’ at brick walls or heaps o’ mud, never comin’ to a public-house, never seein’ a glass o’ ale, never goin’ through a pike, never meetin’ a change o’ no kind (horses or othervise), but alvays comin’ to a place, ven you come to one at all, the wery picter o’ the last, vith the same p’leesemen standin’ about, the same blessed old bell a ringin’, the same unfort’nate people standin’ behind the bars, a waitin’ to be let in; and everythin’ the same except the name, vich is wrote up in the same sized letters as the last name, and vith the same colours.'
--Master Humphrey’s Clock by Charles Dickens.

[N.B.: Amen, brother Weller. Preach it and be thankful you never lived to see an international airport.]

Non-New Yorkers Need Not Apply: The National Book Award Fiction Nominees

Let me say right off that I think this year has been an extraordinary one for fiction, both worldwide and in the United States. Clearly, Mark Twain would be amused by the reports of the novel’s demise given this year’s bumper crop from the likes of Philip Roth, Cynthia Ozick, Joyce Carol Oates and, next on the plate, Tom Wolfe. I agree that the real biggies are not Americans: David Mitchell (Cloud Atlas); V. S. Naipaul (Magic Seeds); Jose Saramago (The Double); oh, and not to forget Gabriel Garcia Marguez’s new book about to be released (Memories of My Melancholy Whores—not a particularly promising title, granted, but let’s hope for the best). So, whom did the National Book Award committee choose for their fab five fiction finalists? Wait for it. Wait for it. All right, don’t wait for it and go here.

This year’s National Book Award short list is comprised of the fabulously talented superstars: Sarah Shun-lien Bynum, Christine Schutt, Joan Silber, Lily Tuck, and Kate Walbert. Hey, where did everybody go? Come back, I have cheez wiz and crackers at the buffet. Hello? Anyone? Do you find me repulsive? I just want to be loved, is that so wrong? I didn’t say you had to actually have heard of any of the nominees are bought one of their books. There, that’s better—have a Ritz cracker and some velveeta.

So, what do all these folks have in common—besides the fact that they are all women? Well, pardner, they all live in Noo Yok City. Yessiree-bob, the best-darnedest rooten-tootenest novelistas this here side of Newark are all nestled down like a bunch of fillies right here in the best darn corral in the whole wide world, The Big Apple Ranch. Can anyone say, embarrassingly provincial? Indeed, I have no way of knowing this, but would it surprise anyone if these five ladies are regulars on the Noo Yok City chuck-wagon circuit? I can see it now, these five sharp and talented novel-slingers all rustle into the corrupt city to clean up the the Clanton-King gang with their wispy adjectives and quirky adverbs, not to mention gorjus scene-paintin’, realistic dialogue and probing, earnest endeavors into the secret wells of the human heart. It’s like, it’s like . . . buttah [ACE].

And how did this embarrassment occur? Well, the delightful thing about the unconscious mediocrity is that he cannot help but to let it all hang out for everyone’s viewing pleasure. So, as reported by the New Yorker, Stewart O’Nan, a National Book Award judge and one of those earnest mediocre novelists who will have just as much of his work survive the test of time as John Updike or Norman Mailer (quite a compliment, don’t you think?) has this to say about Tom Wolfe, whose novel, I Am Charlotte Simmons, will come out in November: “Ay-yi-yi, John Irving was right: the guy’s not a novelist. It’s nice that he thinks he’s the new Dickens, but he’s just not. Wow! What are you gonna do?” Oh, did I forget to mention, Mr. Stewart will also have the same amount of his work survive as that of Mr. Irving’s (apparently, an even bigger compliment).

I certainly wouldn’t say Tom Wolfe’s writing will survive the test of time (to learn more, go here). Or that he is the new Dickens (if anything, Wolfe sees himself as the new Zola; a comparison I would probably disagree with, as well). I believe Wolfe is on the edge of posterity and may wind up as a specialty taste like P. G. Wodehouse or G. K. Chesterton. Sure, he has an unusual and forceful prose style—he definitely passes the “one paragraph test” in that one can read one paragraph of his prose and identify it as his—that alone, however, would not cause me to group him with the immortals. But to make such an off hand “Ay-yi-yi” crack about him is akin to snickering at John O’Hara. Not a giant, perhaps, but truly a great and gifted novelist. And if one can’t see that, well, then it is no surprise that one would make the choices that we see for the National Book Award fiction finalists. I do believe a far better author put it best: "I know your works -- that you are neither cold nor hot. I would that you were cold or hot. So then because you are lukewarm and neither cold nor hot, I will spew you out of my mouth.”

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October 18, 2004

Patrick: Lagniappe

‘Wot are you goin’ away for?’ demanded Sam, seizing his father by the coat-tail.

‘I never see such a undootiful boy as you Samivel,’ returned Mr. Weller. ‘Didn’t you make a solemn promise, amountin’ almost to a speeches o’ wow, that you’d put that ‘ere question on my account?’

‘Well, I’m agreeable to do it,’ said Sam, ‘but not if you go cuttin’ away like that, as the bull turned round and mildly observed to the drover ven they wos a goadin’ him into the butcher’s door.’

--Master Humphrey’s Clock by Charles Dickens.

[N.B.: I included this excerpt as a good example of a “Wellerism,” made famous in The Pickwick Papers, that is, a simile that has one object addressing another by analogy to the situation in the text. These are always spoken by Sam Weller and, although appearing fairly easy to imitate, are actually quite difficult, given that they must be both pertinent and colorful while, at the same time, wholly original.]
Agatha Christie Agonistes, Part I

Did I miss the memo on this one? I had never read anything by Dame Christie before. And, when our book club thought she might be a good author to dip into, I readily agreed.  But the prose.  And the mechanics.  The horror.  The horror.

First, the prose.  It reminds me of one of the comical turns of phrase of Mr. Pickwick’s servant, Sam Weller: “I only assisted natur, ma’am; as the doctor said to the boy’s mother after he’d bled him to death.”  Bled him to death, indeed.  Here are five choice grammatical infelicities within the first five pages of my edition of Ten Little Indians, allegedly a classic in the mystery vein (pun half-way intended):

"Indian Island! Why, there had been nothing else in the papers lately! All sorts of hints and interesting rumors. Though probably that was mostly untrue. But the house had certainly been built by a millionaire and was said to be absolutely the last word in luxury."

Note the jarring use of serial exclamation points. I believe it was Maxwell who muttered the witty aphorism that no author should be allowed more than two exclamation points in their his career—a point, by the bye, upon which I disagree—but in any event, note to Dame Christie: you have exhausted your store.  And the cliché (“last word in luxury”) preceded by a pointless adverb (“absolutely”).  Well, yes, the last word must be tautologically “absolutely” the last word, as opposed, I suppose, to the second-to-the-last word.  Finally, one must love those passive constructions. Next item:

"He had said it in a casual way as though a hundred guineas were nothing to him. A hundred guineas, when he was literally down to his last square meal!"

The second sentence is a rare triple-play: italic emphasis at the start, followed by an exclamation point at the end, while embracing one of the crustiest cliches of all time.  But wait, we can also throw in the passive constructions. Now how much would you pay? Still not enough?  How about this next item:

"In a non-smoking carriage, Miss Emily Brent sat very upright as was her custom. She was sixty-five and she did not approve of lounging. Her father, a Colonel of the old school, had been particular about deportment. The present generation was shamelessly lax—in their carriage, and in every other way . . . ."

I included this one due to its delightful use of italics for emphasis followed by the ever-helpful ellipse. Plus, lots of passive constructions and cliches. But there is another bonus, too: note how the word “carriage” pops up twice in the short passage. I find myself doing this, as well, but I try to comb through my prose later to weed out identical words that I have used inadvertently in close proximity—this example is a particularly good one because “carriage” is used in two different senses. Hence, I would guess it was harder to spot by Dame Christie. If this still is not enough, here’s another:

"Lombard’s own lips parted in a grin. By Jove, he’d sailed pretty near the wind once or twice! But he’d always got away with it! There wasn’t much he drew the line at really. . . . No, there wasn’t much he’d draw the line at. He fancied that he was going to enjoy himself at Indian Island. . . ."

One must admire that rare and remarkable home run, beginning in the second sentence: start and end it with a cliché, and emphasize further with an exclamation mark, followed by another; then an ellipse and end the sentence with a preposition (let’s just call that a tipped foul ball); finally, jam in at the plate and knock over the catcher with a second ellipse. Yep, two exclamation points followed by two ellipses. The crowd’s stunned. An amazing performance. So, let’s end on a high note:

"Indian Island! There had been things in the paper about Indian Island—something about a film star—or was it an American millionaire? Of course often those places went very cheap—islands didn’t suit everybody. They thought the idea was romantic but when they came to live there they realized the disadvantages and were only too glad to sell."

Wait, isn’t that the first quote?  Nope, a slightly different one three pages later (sorry, Dame Christie’s style is contagious). I repeat: did I just miss the memo on this one or was I passed out in the gutter when the circular was sent out?

[N.B.: I picked out what I believe to be representative examples of Agatha Christie’s writing, all within the first five pages of my edition of her work, Ten Little Indians. There were many, many others to choose from. I believe this is a fair procedure and not a “hatchet job” (pun three-quarters intended) on her work. I am not just “pecking” it apart (pun absolutely and fully intended—note redundant adverbs; see how infectious Agatha Christie is). But, I do object to the habit by certain snarky reviewers of picking out from a work one or two stray sentences, perhaps hundreds of pages apart, and giggling over the grammatical mulligans. Heck, anyone is prone to such bone-headed boo-boos from time to time. It’s the consistency of such errors that counts. I realize my method can be quite tedious. But that might be a hint in itself: unless the work reviewed is replete with such car wrecks, please, keep the matter out of the review. I find it boring and mean spirited, and tend to stop reading immediately at that point. If you must include the error, tack it on at the end, along with your observations on how the author missed certain historical minutia that only you, yes you, actually might care to carp about: “No, no Louis Napoleon’s favorite stockings were violet with lavender stripes, it was his second-favorite pair that were violet with plum stripes.” Can’t you just send the author an e-mail about that instead of putting it in your review and annoying all your readers? Oh, I forgot, that would require you to fill up the space with something actually witty and insightful. I’ll probably blog more in depth later on reviewer habits that rankle me.]

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October 17, 2004

Patrick: Lagniappe

 You may believe that the little town of Windsor did not escape the general contagion. The inhabitants boiled a witch on the king’s birthday and sent a bottle of the broth to court, with a dutiful address expressive of their loyalty. The king, being rather frightened by the present, piously bestowed it upon the Archbishop of Canterbury, and returned an answer to the address, wherein he gave them golden rules for discovering witches, and laid great stress upon certain protecting charms, and especially horseshoes. Immediately the towns-people went to work nailing up horseshoes over every door, and so many anxious parents apprenticed their children to farriers to keep them out of harm’s way, that it became quite a genteel trade, and flourished exceedingly.

--Master Humphrey’s Clock by Charles Dickens.

Master Humphrey’s Clock: Time and the Genesis of Tiny Tim

One theme in MHC concerns the treatment of time and how it affects memory. I can’t recall a major novel of Dickens that toys with this theme to the extent of MHC. Certainly, none uses something as conspicuous as a clock for its central motif. I wish Dickens did more with this idea—other than creating the flashback sequences for A Christmas Carol, published in 1843, a couple of years after MHC. Those sequences, combined with the compression of time that Scrooge experiences when visited by the three ghosts, although somewhat interesting in their own right with respect to the perception of the passage of time, do not display some of the elaborate effects that Dickens pulls off on this motif in MHC. For example:

"His mind was wandering among old Christmas days, I thought. Many of them sprung up together, not with a long gap between each, but in unbroken succession like days of the week. It was a great change to find himself for the first time (I quite settled that it was the first) in an empty silent room with no soul to care for. I could not help following him in imagination through crowds of pleasant faces, and then coming back to that dull place with its bough of mistletoe sickening in the gas, and sprigs of holly parched up already by a Simoom of roast and boiled."

These effects culminate in the episode from the MHC conclusion which provides the first sketch of Tiny Tim. Before discussing that, however, it would be helpful to see how time is interwoven into the very warp and woof of Master Humphrey’s Club. First, the telling of tales, typically of by-gone days, always begins with a time-honored ceremony:

"Our salutation over, the venerable piece of antiquity from which we take our name is wound up in silence. The ceremony is always performed by Master Humphrey himself (in treating of the club, I may be permitted to assume the historical style, and speak of myself in the third person), who mounts upon a chair for the purpose, armed with a large key."

This ceremony is parodied downstairs by the servants who start their own society:

Unbuttoning the three lower buttons of his waistcoat and pausing for a moment to enjoy the easy flow of breath consequent upon this process, he laid violent hands upon his watch-chain, and slowly and with extreme difficulty drew from his fob an immense double-cased silver watch, which brought the lining of the pocket with it, and was not to be disentangled but by great exertions and an amazing redness of face. Having fairly got it out at last, he detached the outer case and wound it up with a key of corresponding magnitude; then put the case on again, and having applied the watch to his ear to ascertain that it was still going, gave it some half-dozen hard knocks on the table to improve its performance.
“That,” said Mr. Weller, laying it on the table with its face upwards, “is the title and emblem o’ this here society.”

Finally, in the last installment of MHC, following Barnaby Rudge, the conclusion begins with Master Humphrey (his first name, tellingly, never given), relating his trip to the clock located in the dome of St. Paul’s. This hallucinatory passage contains, I believe, some of Dickens’ finest early writing. Here is a sample describing the great clock:

"I sat down opposite to it, and hearing its regular and never-changing voice, that one deep constant note, uppermost amongst all the noise and clatter in the streets below,--marking that, let that tumult rise or fall, go on or stop,--let it be night or noon, to-morrow or to-day, this year or next,--it still performed its functions with the same dull constancy, and regulated the progress of the life around, the fancy came upon me that this was London’s Heart, and that when it should cease to beat, the City would be no more.
It is night. Calm and unmoved amidst the scenes that darkness favours, the great heart of London throbs in its Giant breast. Wealth and beggary, vice and virtue, guilt and innocence, repletion and the direst hunger, all treading on each other and crowding together, are gathered round it. Draw but a little circle above the clustering housetops, and you shall have within its space everything, with its opposite extreme and contradiction, close beside. Where yonder feeble light is shining, a man is but this moment dead. The taper at a few yards’ distance is seen by eyes that have this instant opened on the world. There are two houses separated by but an inch or two of wall. In one, there are quiet minds at rest; in the other, a waking conscience that one might think would trouble the very air. In that close corner where the roofs shrink down and cower together as if to hide their secrets from the handsome street hard by, there are such dark crimes, such miseries and horrors, as could be hardly told in whispers. In the handsome street, there are folks asleep who have dwelt there all their lives, and have no more knowledge of these things than if they had never been, or were transacted a the remotest limits of the world,--who, if they were hinted at, would shake their heads, look wise, and frown, and say they were impossible, and out of Nature,--as if all great towns were not. Does not this Heart of London, that nothing moves, nor stops, nor quickens,--that goes on the same let what will be done,--does it not express the City’s character well?"

And the Heart of London continues to grind on. But no longer under the keen eye of Master Humphrey. He, sitting by the embers of his fire, nods. His mind drifts to scenes long past:

"In the chimney-corner, opposite myself, sits one who has grown old beside me. She is changed, of course; much changed; and yet I recognise the girl even in that gray hair and wrinkled brow. Glancing from the laughing child who half hides in her ample skirts, and half peeps out,--and from her to the little matron of twelve years old, who sits so womanly and so demure at no great distance from me,--and from her again, to a fair girl in the full bloom of early womanhood, the centre of the group, who has glanced more than once towards the opening door, and by whom the children, whispering and tittering among themselves, will leave a vacant chair, although she bids them not,--I see her image thrice repeated, and feel how long it is before one form and set of features wholly pass away, if ever, from among the living. While I am dwelling upon this, and tracing out the gradual change from infancy to youth, from youth to perfect growth, from that to age, and thinking, with an old man’s pride, that she is comely yet, I feel a slight thin hand upon my arm, and, looking down, see seated at my feet a crippled boy,--a gentle, patient child,--whose aspect I know well. He rests upon a little crutch,--I know it too,--and leaning on it as he climbs my footstool, whispers in my ear, “I am hardly one of these, dear grandfather, although I love them dearly. They are very kind to me, but your will be kinder still, I know.
I have my hand upon his neck, and stoop to kiss him, when my clock strikes, my chair is in its old spot, and I am alone.

Upon this reflection, Master Humphrey dies. He is found by his friends the next day, seated before the ashes of his fire. One friend remembers the words he last spoke to him, “God bless you.” “Everyone” is all that is missing. And so, Master Humphrey expires—he merges into the little boy with the tiny crutch. The frail little boy grew up to become the solitary bachelor and storyteller. And who is this storyteller, whose imagination calls forth such wondrous characters and anecdotes? I would like to think it is Dickens as he wishes to see himself in his old age: surrounded by memories of the characters he has created which are no more than simulacrums of those he knew, or that his imagination, in retrospect, fashioned into memories of what he supposes to know, from real life. And that poor, struggling waif, Tiny Tim? I would like to think that too is how Dickens would wish to imagine himself as a poor, lost soul slaving away in a boot-blacking factory. So the three all represent the ages of Dickens and the ages of man—a sentimental retelling of Titian’s The Flaying of Marsyas.

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October 16, 2004

Patrick: Lagniappe

‘You knew me directly!’ said Mr. Pickwick. ‘What a pleasure it is to think that you knew me directly!’
I remarked that I had read his adventures very often, and his features were quite familiar to me from the published portraits. As I thought it a good opportunity of adverting to the circumstance, I condoled with him upon the various libels on his character which had found their way into print. Mr. Pickwick shook his head, and for a moment looked very indignant, but smiling again directly, added that no doubt I was acquainted with Cervantes’s introduction to the second part of Don Quixote, and that it fully expressed his sentiments on the subject.

--Master Humphrey’s Clock by Charles Dickens.

[N.B.: Dickens always struck me as a working in the same vein as Cervantes. Being an admirer of Don Quixote—by the bye, the new Edith Grossman translation is “da bomb” and should be purchased post haste—I found it a happy circumstance that Dickens should also indicate his intimate acquaintance, and obvious approval, of this work.]

Master Humphrey’s Clock: The Return of Pickwick and Sam Weller & Co., Part II

My prior discussion about recycling characters from an earlier novel into a later one got me to thinking that it would probably be helpful to divide up the different types of works that have re-occurring characters. Dickens’ use in MHC is probably the most fraught with danger: successful early characters are simply brought into a later work that has no organic connection to the prior work and these characters play a major role in that work. Of course, feel free to chuck The Merry Wives of Windsor in my face at this point. It's almost as if the author realizes his work is drowning and chucks out a life saver in the form of a popular earlier character in a desperate attempt to save it.  Usually, though, the waves are too high, the wind too rough, and it sinks without a trace.

Speaking of disappearing works, I should not leave out books such as Studs Lonigan that are better classified as a multi-volume bildungsroman.  Perhaps Little House on the Prairie is a more successful (in the sense of more long-lived) example of this technique in this genre.  And, of course, one must pay due homage at the altar of  the great Huck Finn/Tom Sawyer novels.    Although one could find fault with the way Tom Sawyer was trotted out to muck up the ending of Huckleberry Finn. It Twain had not done that, he probably would have written The Great American Novel (one could still argue that he accomplished that goal in spite of muffing the ending).

Then there are the picaresque stories which can just go on, and on, and on, and on . . . . [ACE (N.B.:  If you are wondering what this acronym stands for, stay tuned for my blogs on Agatha Christies to follow shortly)]. I’ve already mentioned Don Quixote. Another of my favorites is The Canterbury Tales. One could argue that the same is true of Tristram Shandy (how does one classify this strange and exotic specimen?). Heck, even a one-volume work like Tom Jones could have been serialized indefinitely if Fielding had wanted to do it. Ditto for Hans Castorp in Magic Mountain, although Mann appears to envision a very short life span for our wan, effete everyman in the closing pages of that book. I, for one, would have enjoyed the further adventures of Mr. Castorp; surely the copyright, at least the European one, should have expired by now and some talented soul--someone like Peter Carey with his reworking of Great Expectations through his very enjoyable Jack Maggs--could write me up a sequel.

Another use is what I call carbon-copy stories. These would include recycled mysteries involving Dame Christie’s Miss Marple and Hercule Piorot. The same is true for Chandler’s Marlow. And, of course, for Shakespeare’s Falstaff where King Henry IV, Part II is a blatant re-tread of King Henry IV, Part I. O’Brien’s Aubrey/Maturin series fits here, as well as Wodehouse’s Bertie Wooster/Jeeves (perhaps I'll blog sometime about famous pairs of fictional creations)  and a host of other comic characters--including the unintentionally comic, like James Bond.  I would guess this is the most common use of recurring characters. As a Texas wildcatter might drawl, “Where’s the best place to drill for oil? In an oilfield, idjit.”

Also common, and perhaps the least perilous, is to have characters that were prominent in an earlier work make cameo appearances in a later work. Evelyn Waugh did this repeatedly, and to great effect, in his early comic novels (Vile Bodies, Scoop, Black Mischief, etc.). Chesterton points out that Robert Louis Stevenson used this same device in the Master of Ballantrae. There are, of course, many other examples. I think I’ll stop here in my taxonomy or else risk becoming unbearably tedious (I heard that mumbled, “Too late”; I’ve got ears in the back of my, oh, never mind.).

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October 15, 2004

Kathryn: DFW's A Supposedly Fun Thing; Oblivion; watchers, watching, and blogging

Many thanks, Sheila. We'll endeavor to deserve your attention. And we apologize for any glitches while we're learning to build the site. The site ought to be really humming along after a couple of weeks.

OK, as to David Foster Wallace's A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again: Utterly brilliant. Great essaymanship. I thought "E Pluribus Unum" (on the relationship between modern fiction writers and television) and the title story, known to members of the Wallace-l listserv as ASFTINDA, (on the subject of a 7-night luxury cruise, on which our hero embarked at the behest of Harpers') were the most compelling, the former because of its insights, the latter because of its humor.

The former touches on a subject that DFW's recent short story collection, Oblivion, speaks to eloquently (OK, here I will admit that I am segueing to another book because I have, in fact, lent not just my loaner copy* of ASFTINDA but also my own copy. So I can't provide any marvelous ASFTINDA quotes here just now.)

Anyway, the Oblivion story "Good Old Neon" addresses the issue of whether we see ourselves more as subjects or objects: watchers or the watched.

Here's a passage:
"Even as I wrote my note to Fern, for instance, expressing sentiments and regrets that were real, a part of me was noticing what a fine and sincere note it was, and anticipating the effect on Fern of this or that heartfelt phrase, while yet another part was observing the whole scene [ . . . ] and thinking what a fine and genuine-seeming performance in a drama it would make if only we all had not already been subject to countless scenes just like it in dramas ever since we first saw a movie or read a book, which somehow entailed that real scenes like the one of my suicide note were now compelling and genuine only to their participants, and to anyone else would come off as banal and even somewhat cheesy or maudlin, which is somewhat paradoxical when you consider--as I did, sitting there at the breakfast nook--that the reason scenes like this will seem stale or manipulative to an audience is that we've already seen so many of them in dramas, and yet the reason we've seen so many of them in dramas is that the scenes really are dramatic and compelling and let people communicate very deep, complicated emotional realities that are almost impossible to articulate in any other way, and at the same time still another facet or part of me realizing that from this perspective my own basic problem was that from an early age I'd somehow chosen to cast my lot with my life's drama's supposed audience instead of with the drama itself, and that I even now was watching and gauging  my supposed performance's quality and probable effects, and thus was in the final analysis the very same manipulative fraud writing to Fern that I had been throughout the life that had brought me to this climactic scene of writing it and signing it [. . . . ]" [italics mine]

Wallace is interested in the relationship between the agents in a drama and the audience. Those who cast their lots with their lives's dramas's audiences do so out of sense of security it provides--and a sense of agency. If I am conscious of another and judge another, then surely I am an agent and am somehow superior to the person judged. But it is, paradoxically, the object of my attention who is worth watching. The one who does things that I judge is the agent of all that I judge. Etc. You get the idea, and Wallace says it better than I can.

So, I lay all this out as a kind of backdrop for the blog. Bloggers are the watched watchers. Is their watching worth watching? We'll see, no?


*Gotta have two copies of any GREAT book I  know I'll lend AND want to come back to, since most loaners never make it back.

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October 15,  2004

Patrick:  Lagniappe

I have been led by this habit to assign to every room in my house and every old staring portrait on its walls a separate interest of its own. Thus, I am persuaded that a stately dame, terrible to behold in her rigid modesty, who hangs above the chimney-piece of my bedroom, is the former lady of the mansion. In the courtyard below is a stone face of surpassing ugliness, which I have somehow—in a kind of jealousy, I am afraid—associated with her husband. Above my study is a little room with ivy peeping through the lattice, from which I bring their daughter, a lovely girl of eighteen or nineteen years of age, and dutiful in all respects save one, that one being her devoted attachment to a young gentleman on the stairs, whose grandmother (degraded to a disused laundry in the garden) piques herself upon an old family quarrel, and is the implacable enemy of their love. With such materials as these I work out many a little drama, whose chief merit is, that I can bring it to a happy end at will. I have so many of them on hand, that if on my return home one of these evenings I were to find some bluff old wight of two centuries ago comfortably seated in my easy chair, and a lovelorn damsel vainly appealing to his heart, and leaning her white arm upon my clock itself, I verily believe I should only express my surprise that they had kept me waiting so long, and never honoured me with a call before.

--Master Humphrey’s Clock by Charles Dickens.

[N.B.: I have included this excerpt, not for the intrinsic interest in the style of writing, but rather because of the window it affords into how Dickens’ imagination works upon the inert material it encounters. Given that he is capable of spinning off such stories and characters from a few daubs of paint, one gets the feeling that if Dickens were alive today his hypertrophied imagination would cause him to have a seizure every time he attempted to surf the internet or television.]


Master Humphrey’s Clock: The Return of Pickwick and Sam Weller & Co.

I mentioned earlier that MHC features the return of two of Dickens’ most beloved early creations: Pickwick and Sam Weller. It seems quite common now for an author to take a successful character and run him through the mill of successive volumes. There is nothing particularly obnoxious about such a procedure—I believe everyone should be thankful that Cervantes gave the world a second book of Don Quixote, Sancho Panza and Rocinante. I am also quite partial to Chandlers’ Philip Marlowe. Heck, even Shakespeare resurrected Falstaff for The Merry Wives of Windsor. And yet, and yet. Somehow the use of such a device strikes one as not quite top shelf—as a crutch.

Certainly, in MHC, Pickwick and the Weller clan romp about quite amusingly and still have some of the sparkle from The Pickwick Papers. But not as much sparkle. The ingenious parody of Master Humphrey’s Society upstairs by the Weller Society downstairs is certainly one of the high points of MHC. And yet it lacks the freshness of the earlier work. It seems a bit forced, a bit too sentimental (oh, I realize this is very thin ice for criticism when in the realm of Dickens). One almost feels that Dickens realized this as well. As pointed out by G. K. Chesterton, perhaps Dickens’ most perceptive critic—pace Edmund Wilson (whose Two Scrooges is also quite good)—it almost seems that Dickens realized that his characters, once removed from the frame in which they were born, become, not exactly lifeless, but slow, sluggish things that tire the creator upon prolonged handling. The point to note here, as stressed by Chesterton, is that Dickens is precisely the author that one would expect to conjure up the reappearance of his characters. But he never did it again.

And good for him, too. Certainly, there are exceptions, as mentioned above—oh, and not to leave out Dumas’ The Three Musketeers, although only the first book is read today, the same is true for Balzac’s Comedie Humaine—but think of all the failures. Actually, one can’t think of the failures, because, well, they are forgotten. One that is probably still well known, however, is probably Farrell’s Studs Lonigan (another might be Galsworthy’s The Forsyte Saga). If Farrell could have compacted Studs Lonigan down into one book, perhaps it would still survive, even if in an 800-page form like most of Dickens’ works or Dreiser’s American Tragedy. My guess is that Dreiser’s American Tragedy, although an exceptionally long work, has many times the readers today of Farrell’s. John Updike, let go of that Rabbit; are you listening?—I think eternity just hung up on you.

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October 14,  2004

Patrick:  Lagniappe

It was in this city (hallowed by the recollection) that I met him first; and assuredly if mortal happiness be recorded anywhere, then those rubbers with their three-and-sixpenny points are scored on tablets of celestial brass. He always held an honour—generally two. On that eventful night we stood at eight. He raised his eyes (luminous in their seductive sweetness) to my agitated face. ‘Can you?’ said he, with peculiar meaning. I felt the gentle pressure of his foot on mine; our corns throbbed in unison. ‘Can you?’ he said again; and every lineament of his expressive countenance added the words ‘resist me?’ I murmured ‘No,’ and fainted.

--Master Humphrey’s Clock by Charles Dickens.
[N.B.: a further excerpt from the prior post’s satirical letter ]


Master Humphrey’s Clock, Part II

So, what about that orphan-within-an-orphan story? First, the set-up: one of Master Humphrey’s small clique is a lovable orphan, Jack Redburn, who serves as Master Humphrey’s jack-of-all-trades about his house. As per the rules of Master Humphrey’s society, Jack has written up a story to be deposited into Master Humphrey’s large clock, where it will be subsequently extracted and read for the society’s enjoyment. Jack gave the script to Master Humphrey at midnight with the explanation that the main incident had been suggested to him based on a dream he had the night before. The story is entitled, “A Confession Found in a Prison in the Time of Charles the Second.” The confession is of a condemned man in prison who, “while I write this, my grave is digging, and my name is written in the black-book of death.” He and his brother marry two sisters, with his brother’s wife developing a marked antipathy to him. Later, his brother’s wife dies while giving birth to a boy. His brother also dies when the child is but four, leaving the orphan to his own wife’s care. The remaining brother has no children so his wife naturally raises the boy as her own. But then:

 "I can scarcely fix the date when the feeling first came upon me; but I soon began to be uneasy when this child was by. I never roused myself from some moody train of thought but I marked him looking at me; not with mere childish wonder, but with something of the purpose and meaning that I had so often noted in his mother. It was no effort of my fancy, founded on close resemblance of feature and expression. I never could look the boy down. He feared me, but seemed by some instinct to despise me while he did so; and even when he drew back beneath my gaze—as he would when we were alone, to get nearer to the door—he would keep his bright eyes upon me still."

As one might imagine, the brother becomes fixated on the orphan, develops a murderous impulse towards him (it goes without saying that the dead brother’s estate devolves upon the orphan with the proviso that upon the orphan’s death, the brother’s wife would be the next in line) and then entices the orphan to the edge of a pool. The brother creeps up behind the orphan, but hesitates, with the unfortunate consequence that the orphan spots the reflection in the water. The orphan then turns round:

"His mother’s ghost was looking from his eyes. The sun burst forth from behind a cloud; it shone in the bright sky, the glistening earth, the clear water, the sparkling drops of rain upon the leaves. There were eyes in everything. The whole great universe of light was there to see the murder done. I know not what he said; he came of bold and manly blood, and, child as he was, he did not crouch or fawn upon me. I heard him cry that he would try to love me,--not that he did,--and then I saw him running back towards the house. The next I saw was my own sword naked in my hand, and he lying at my feet stark dead,--dabbled here and there with blood, but otherwise no different from what I had seen him in his sleep—in the same attitude too, with his cheek resting upon his little hand."

No one is as creepy as Dickens. And this story takes an even more bizarre turn when the brother buries the orphan in the garden and then receives visitors while he lounges on his chair placed directly over the child’s grave. He is found out by a couple of nosy hounds and winds up in prison, waiting while “my grave is digging.”

As has been noted elsewhere  there seems to be a marked correspondence between this story, written in 1841 and Edgar Allen Poe’s tale, appropriately enough entitled, The Tell-Tale Heart, written in late 1842. But it is, at bottom, a distant similarity of subject matter—nothing approaching an identity. Poe takes the obsessive motivation over a cuddly orphan and twists it into an egoist’s dislike for a disfigured elderly acquaintance. Poe’s story is a masterwork which stands as such in its own right. The correspondence, though, reminds me of the recent contretemps involving Nabokov’s possible use of an obscure short story for some of the raw material of Lolita. Any negative remark regarding such use fails to account for all of the great artists, in whatever discipline, who have for centuries been commenting upon and configuring variations using others’ works. No one believes that Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini is somehow a lesser or derivative work. The same is true in the visual arts. Only the litterateur, it seems, can be scandalized by these archeological tracings of some ür-literary palimpsest—oh, but even then, we must make an exception for Shakespeare’s Hamlet and its obvious historical antecedents. How tiresome.

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October 12, 2004

Patrick:  Lagniappe

“Master Humphrey has been favoured with the following letter written on strongly-scented paper, and sealed in light-blue wax with the representation of two very plump doves interchanging beaks. It does not commence with any of the usual forms of address, but begins as is here set forth.

Bath, Wednesday night.

Heavens! into what an indiscretion do I suffer myself to be betrayed! To address these faltering lines to a total stranger, and that stranger one of a conflicting sex!—and yet I am precipitated into the abyss, and have no power of self-snatchation (forgive me if I coin that phrase) from the yawning gulf before me.
Yes, I am writing to a man; but let me think of that, for madness is in the thought. You will understand my feelings? O yes, I am sure you will; and you will respect them too, and not despise them,—will you?

--Master Humphrey’s Clock by Charles Dickens.

[N.B.: This satirical letter appears in Charles Dickens’ Master Humphrey’s Clock and presumably is meant to send up the overwrought correspondence that some letter writers indulged in. It strikes me as particularly apt for blog writers, too, since anyone can scribble, scribble, scribble, and have such dribble plastered willy-nilly all over the internet with no second thought about its content. I hope, dear reader, that you will protect me for I, too, have no power of self-snatchation and hope you will not despise my writings.]

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October 11, 2004

Patrick:  Lagniappe

A pretty numerous company were gathered together at this spot; for, besides the officers in attendance to enforce the proclamation, there was a motley crowd of lookers-on of various degrees, who raised from time to time such shouts and cries as the circumstances called forth. A spruce young courtier was the first who approached: he unsheathed a weapon of burnished steel that shone and glistened in the sun, and handed it with the newest air to the officer, who, finding it exactly three feet long, returned it with a bow. Thereupon the gallant raised his hat and crying, ‘God save the Queen!’ passed on amidst the plaudits of the mob. Then came another—a better courtier still—who wore a blade but two feet long, whereat the people laughed, much to the disparagement of his honour’s dignity. Then came a third, a sturdy old officer of the army, girded with a rapier at least a foot and a half beyond her majesty’s pleasure; at him they raised a great shout, and most of the spectators (but especially those who were armourers or cutlers) laughed very heartily at the breakage which would ensue. But they were disappointed; for the old campaigner, coolly unbuckling his sword and bidding his servant carry it home again, passed through unarmed, to the great indignation of all the beholders. They relieved themselves in some degree by hooting a tall blustering fellow with a prodigious weapon, who stopped short on coming in sight of the preparations, and after a little consideration turned back again. But all this time no rapier had been broken, although it was high noon, and all cavaliers of any quality or appearance were taking their way towards Saint Paul’s churchyard.

--Master Humphrey’s Clock by Charles Dickens.

[N.B.: This passage is part of a story stitched within the crazy quilt of MHC concerning Queen Elizabeth’s ban within the London city limits of rapiers longer than three feet in order to discourage bullying and disorder. Of course, we have Sigmund Freud to thank for reading this passage as a palimpsest with a hidden meaning. Although he is now discredited, although not quite to the extent of a Madam Blavatsky, it is interesting how his memes still have cultural resonance and the potential to lead a reader astray. One might remark that Dickens was putting one over on his readers who might have missed the obvious—to our post-Freudian eyes—of the double entendre. That is anachronistic thinking. The remarkable thing about Dickens, and Dickens is a remarkable thing, is that his characters are bouncy, bouncy, trouncy, trouncy, fun, fun, fun, fun. But the most remarkable thing about Dickens is that, in spite of such energy, he never deigned to descend to bawdy. Not only did he refrain from bad language but he refrained from scenes which might have such an inference—unless, of course, he is condemning such practices as prostitution in Oliver Twist. Kids, tell your father, “Thanks, Freud.”]

Master Humphrey’s Clock, Part I

I am one of those insufferable souls—luckily time and phthisis are eroding our numbers—who worships at the Dickensian altar. I have feasted raw upon all of his major novels and lick my slathering jaws for more. Indeed, I shall “blog” soon (what a delightful verbal addition to the language with its louche connotations of studied depravitiy: “Why, I’ll blog you, you filthy blogger”) upon the dreadful neglect cloaking that inestimable work, Barnaby Rudge. Today, however, I’ll meander a bit on Master Humphrey’s Clock (“MHC”), a strange creature, being neither fish nor fowl—or is that chalk or cheese; or a fish with a bicycle; damn British witticisms.
Taxonomists, when separating the fish from the fowl (or is that the sheep from the goats), studiously try to pin Dickens into the little box marked “Victorian triple-decker.” But he keeps squirming his way out. MHC, that odd squibble [n.b.: my term for a squib crossed with a scribble] is a good example. It comes quick on the heels of his first successes—that boisterous, optimistic period that produced Sketches by Boz, Pickwick Papers, Oliver Twist and Nicholas Nickleby—and before the darker work of Martin Chuzzlewit, quite possibly his most unrelentingly depraved and dour novel (though Bleak House and Our Mutual Friend both would be straining to ease their noses past its at the finish line—of the glue factory, that is).
MHC is not particularly dark—with one exception that we shall discuss shortly—but it is not all sweetness and light, either. It is structured, quite self-consciously, upon the lines of The Arabian Nights, that is, a long tale serving as the framework for a series of unrelated interpolated tales. It should also come as no surprise that Dickens was an admirer of Don Quixote, and, indeed, that work is mentioned in MHC. The structure of MHC follows that of Pickwick Papers, although Pickwick Papers has most of the meat in the framework and not in the interpolated stories (again, like Don Quixote), whereas MHC turns out to be a very thin framework bursting at the seams to contain the elephantine stories.
Dickens structured MHC as a magazine with the basic plot—old cripple brings together friends to share stories housed in the cripple’s grandfather clock—providing a ready “McGuffin” in the Hitchcockian sense for presenting various stories he would dream up. Well, we are talking Dickens here, so we do get a few eerie tales told by one or the other of the group, quite like the Pickwick Papers setup—indeed Mr. Pickwick makes an appearance as part of this group. (I plan on blogging soon on one of these stories which Kathryn should find of particular interest given that it is told by an orphan concerning an orphan). But soon, something goes horribly awry with this apparatus. Metastisizing like hideous tumors, two full grown novels mature and ripen from this thin vine: The Old Curiosity Shop and Barnaby Rudge. Apparently, just as a grotesque pumpkin may grow to such proportions that it will eventually smother its supporting vines, the last of these prodigious fruits led to the demise of the MHC framework.

But what a curious framework. Certainly, modernist authors today try to come up with novel scaffolding to contain a “story,” but would any have dreamt up this strange monster? MHC is a framing device for unrelated stories. Fine. It concerns a lovable old cripple and his coterie. Fine. It even contains the return of Mr. Pickwick and his popular sidekicks, Lou and Sam Weller (with a guest appearance by the little Weller-kin). Fine, again. But look at what Dickens is doing. He is basically creating some kind of weird literary spin-off. He then makes fun of the framing device itself by having the two Wellers form their own “reading society” that is conducted in the kitchen while Master Humphrey’s continues apace upstairs. Here is the literal “upstairs, downstairs” with a self-referential twist. And then there are the weird stories to top it off. First, a few spooky tales ala Pickwick Papers. But soon followed by the two novels. What an odd construct MHC turns out to be. What is it? The framing device itself is more than one-hundred pages long. But it certainly does not feel like a novel (indeed, it contains two novels within it). I believe it is truly a meta-novel, a device that generates other novels, serving as the birthing mother that brought two healthy children into the world. What a wonderful and strange literary construct. It may, indeed, be a literary singularity. I cannot think of any other such oddball use of literature which produced such fecund results.

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October 10, 2004

Kathryn's Introduction

Well, Patrick asked me to co-blog, and here I am. It's all about the literature, right? We're still building the site (as you may have noticed), so I'll be focusing on that for the near future.

But here's some news: Derrida has died. (BBC obituary)

The New York Times obit is better than the BBC one linked above, which was written by somebody who seems to be unfamiliar with deconstruction. But since you have to be registered with the NYT to read their obit, I include both links.

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October 9, 2004

Patrick’s Introduction

This scribbling arose from a concern that when I discussed notions regarding literature these observations simply wafted through the ether, never to be heard—or, more importantly from my standpoint, remembered—again. What to do? Eureka: transfer them to another form of ether, some gadget called the “internet.” At this point you might object and make the common-sense observation that the present state of affairs is best for all concerned in that it subjects a mere handful of poor souls to my blatherings. Luckily, common sense rarely prevails in human affairs.
I then noodled about on the internet and found these forums where people made observations about this and that, much like the old eighteenth-century broadsheets such as the Rambler. This set me to thinking that perhaps others chat about literary matters in the same desultory manner through the medium referred to as a “blog”—not to be confused with its frequent doppelganger, the bog. So, how to find one of these blogs about literature? Hmmm. Perhaps I could simply type in: www.literatureblog.com. Nope. Maybe the more trendy abbreviation: www.litblog.com. Nope, again. I then decided: to heck with it, I’ll just do it myself, using those monikers. So, in tandem with my co-conspirator .. . errr . . . co-blogger, Kathryn, we are now ready to blog to our hearts’ content. And there you have it. Yes, I know the story would be much more exciting if it involved an international conspiracy instigated by the Crusades and revolving around some kind of religious artifact actually tossed into a bog. Maybe next time.

By the bye, I have since discovered that there are quite a few blogs about literature already zipping around on the internet—no doubt, the vast majority of them much more intelligent and erudite than this one. But, at least for me, they are hard to find (although a number are listed under “links”—just take a look). If you don’t care for the ramblings here, please, by all means, go elsewhere.
As you may have guessed, there’s not much “apparatus” underpinning this rambler. But I would not presume to speak for my co-blogger who may demur on this point. In any event, my principles, best summed up as “few and scattered,” are these: I read a lot of books; I know what I like—and don’t; and I have no qualms praising or complaining about all things “literature,” a very broad term in my view, which concerns aesthetic writings in all their messy, complex, knottyness (or, not infrequently, their homophone). Rarely will I summarize plots; I suggest you go to Amazon.com for that (or the New York Times Book Review—it is published each Sunday in the New York Times and may be distinguished from the New York Times Magazine in that it is not published on glossy paper but good old fashioned newsprint suitable for wrapping breakables and houseplants; don’t let the term “review” in the title put you off, it rarely allows such extraneous considerations to get in the way of a good capsule plot summary).

And with that, let the blogging begin.

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