September  22,  2005

Patrick: Lagniappe

They stood there two feet apart in all that vale of tears, one man asking another how he was, the other asking how the other was, the one not knowing truly what the world was, the other not knowing either. One nodded to the other now in an expression of understanding without understanding, of saying without breathing a word. And the other nodded back to the other, knowing nothing. Not this new world of terminality and astonishing dismay, of extremity of ruin and exaggeration of misery.
--A Long Long Way by Sebastian Barry

A MacArthur Genius for Bibliophiles
The MacArthur Foundation just announced its Fellows for this year—what are colloquially referred to us “genius awards” although the Foundation poohs-poohs the use of that term (probably because it would denigrate the intellectual abilities of the rest of us lesser mortals; to such concerns, I respond, disdainfully, with a hint of rich Corinthian leather in my voice, quoting the words of that great genius, Alfred E. Neuman, “What me Worry?”)—and one of the winners is Terry Belanger, a professor at the University of Virginia.  Now what makes Prof. Belanger so biblio-rific is that he has created the Rare Book School (“RBS”) which provides a course of teaching revolving around the preservation of the book and its importance as an artifact, not just as a repository for the transmission of cultural knowledge, but as a physical manifestation of same. Go here for a nifty NPR interview with Prof. Belanger and some drool-inducing slides of valuable incunabula from the UVA Rare Book Collection. Cool beans!  

N.B., Part II

Well, Rita's coming dead on for us and, when it hits, it'll be the largest hurricane ever to whack Texas (indeed, it may become the largest Atlantic hurricane).  I've got folks humping it up from Houston to wait the monster out.  It will probably be awhile before I'll have another post on here.  But stay tuned.  If nothing else, I should have plenty of time for reading (by candlelight, perhaps).

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September  21,  2005

Patrick: Lagniappe

Then suddenly a hand of fear dipped into his stomach. What a curious thing. One moment as brave as a young bird. Well, he felt as if he might even throw up his breakfast, truth to tell. And that had been three gristly black sausages murdered into life by the cook, so he didn’t want to see them again.
--A Long Long Way by Sebastian Barry

A Long Long Way to Nowhere
Sebastian Barry’s A Long Long Way concerns a journey of a young man, Willie Dunn, but, unlike the well-worn template where a novel’s young hero goes through many a toil and snare in order to emerge at the end as an older, wiser, chastened adult, Willie Dunn undergoes no such epiphanies but remains a static cipher.  This is no Tom Jones.  There are no Sorrows of Young Werther.  This lack of development is usually seen as a sign of weakness in a book.  But, here, it is a synecdoche for the West and its inability to learn the lessons of the Great War, thereby doomed to etc., etc.  Not just Willie Dunn died on those soggy, mud filled fields.  A civilization did, too—and we are too jejune to mourn its passing.  The Great War is the seminal event in the history of the West.  It forever severed us from our roots.  Hence, Sebastian Barry’s title:

Even writing his last letter he had a funny felling in his water that he was getting at things he shouldn’t be trying to get at in the company of his father, as it were, but since, as a child and a boy and a young man, he had always been quite open and at ease with him, and praised and nurtured well enough by him, he had thought he might follow his mind as always and speak it. But all the same he had had an inkling of the little rat of unease creeping about, a few words too far that might unsettle an old-fashioned mind like his father’s. And now he was a long long way off and he feared it would be too tricky to put it all right be mere letters, especially as he wasn’t quite sure what had caused offence, though he had a fair idea.

Yes, we all have a fair idea of how we would offend our elders who stand on the other side of that abyss.  Henry James lays it out for us—an inability to adhere to the truth and a delight in the theatre of cruelty.  A false and a cruel people is such a long long way from that distant past.  But at least we’re not hypocrites.  We can stare into the void and move on:

Death was a muddle of sorts, things thrown in their way to make them stumble and fall. It was hard and hard again to make any path through the humbled souls. The quick rats maybe had had their way with eyes and lips; the sightless sockets peered at the living soldiers, the lipless teeth all seemed to have just cracked some mighty jokes. They were seriously grinning. Hundreds more were face down, and turned on their sides, as if not interested in such awful mirth, showing the gashes where missing arms and legs had been, their breasts torn away, and hundreds and hundreds of floating hands, and legs, and big heavy puddles of guts and offal, all mixed through the loam and sharded vegetation. And as solid as the ruined flesh was the smell, a stench of a million rotted pheasants, that settled on their tongues like a liquid. O’Hara was just retching as he went, spewing down the front of his tunic, and many others likewise. There was nothing they could do, only follow each other to the other side. In the corner of his eye Willie caught a glimpse of Father Buckley, taking up the rear of the battalion, far back at the edge of the slaughtered troops. He quickly looked away. He didn’t like the way Father Buckley stared about him. Too many souls without prayers to speed them, too many, too many.

And that, dear readers, is the history of the Twentieth Century in a nutshell: too many, too too many.  Hugh Kenner, in his monumental work concerning the literary modernists, The Pound Era, opens that amazing book with Henry James:

Toward the evening of a gone world, the light of its last summer pouring into a Chelsea street found and suffused the red waistcoat of Henry James, lord of decorum, en promenade, exposing his Boston niece to the tone of things.

We are, indeed, a long long way from the red waistcoat and that lost civilization embodied by Henry James. Put copper pennies on his eyes, that is all that will remain when he and his sensibilities have crumbled into dust.


You may have noticed that posts here have been sporadic as of late.  I direct your attention to Kathryn's New Orleans links on the right-hand-side column.  Yep, she's from New Orleans and has been busy helping folks out in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.  Since we both live in Austin and many of the evacuees of that storm have relocated here, we both have been doing our part with the relief effort.  And now a potentially bigger hurricane--Rita--is headed our way.  So, please bear with us. 

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September  17,  2005

Patrick: Lagniappe

He thought he knew what a saying was supposed to do, despite his denial. A saying, since a saying arises always from the mouths of adults when a person was just a listening child, was supposed to carry you back there, like a magic trick, or a scrap of a story, or something with something else still sticking to it. But he had no inclination to bother his pals with such a winding thought.
--A Long Long Way by Sebastian Barry

Willie Dunn: Everyman and Noman
Sebastian Barry’s A Long Long Way, as the title suggests, is not just about Ireland (with its connotation of Tipperary) but also about journeying far from home, both physically and spiritually. Willie Dunn, the novel’s protagonist, does travel a long, long way, but, unlike travelers in other tales, the trip does not make the man. That is to say, A Long Long Way is not a bildungsroman, but rather its opposite.  Willie travels far, but the farther he goes, the less of a man he becomes, until, at the end, rejected by his family, his erstwhile sweetheart, his companions (more through death than antipathy) he goes from being an everyman to a no-man.  This destination is foreordained, too, given that he, literally, must fight in no-man’s land in the trenches of France.

Although the start of the travel is everyman’s:

He was a little baby and would be always a little boy. He was like the thin upper arm of a beggar with a few meagre bones shot through him, provisional and bare.
When he broke from his mother he made a mewling sound like a wounded cat, over and over.

. . . it’s end is no-man’s, because Willie, as his father, and his father’s father, and his father’s father’s father, has been, since birth, aligned with one religion, while many of Ireland’s people are aligned with another, and the times, well, the times they are a changin’:

He knew he had no country now. He knew it well. . . . All sorts of Irelands were no more, and he didn’t know what Ireland there was behind him now. But he feared he was not a citizen, they would not let him be a citizen. He would have no pride to be walking through Stephen’s Green, he would not have the mercy of youth or the hastening thoughts of age. They may stone him too when he returned, or burn the house of himself to the ground, or shoot him, or make him lie down under the bridges of Dublin and be a lowly dosser for all the rest of his days. He went on through the widening farms. He had fought for all this in his own manner. He had crouched in the murderous trenches, he had miraculously—so said Christy Moran—come through the given battles, and almost alone of his comrades he was alive. . . . But how would he live and breathe? How would he love and live? How would any of them? Those that went out for a dozen reasons, both foolish and wise and all between, from a world they loved or feared, but that equally vanished behind them. How could a fella go out and fight for his country when his country would dissolve behind him like sugar in the rain? How could a fella love his uniform when that same uniform killed the new heroes, as Jesse Kirwan said? How could a fella like Willie hold England and Ireland equally in his heart, like his father before him, like his father’s father, and his father’s father’s father, when both now would call him a traitor, though his heart was clear and pure, as pure as a heart can be after three years of slaughter? What would his sisters do for succour and admiration in their own country, when their own country had gone? They were like these Belgian citizens toiling along the roads with their chattels and tables and pots, except they were entirely unlike them, because, destitute though these people were, and homeless, at least they were wandering and lost in their own land.

No home.  No country.  All dissolved like sugar in water.  As you might guess, some have drawn modern parallels with this story.  Indeed, ironically, given the current state of global politics, those shadowy analogies might be the reason that Sebastian Barry’s book is chosen for the Man Booker Prize.  But that would be a cheat.  It should be chosen because both story and prose have come together--like Willie Dunn, a small, tightly-wound figure--as clear and pure as English when it was made new by the Elizabethans.  This is the prose of Shakespeare and the King Jame’s Bible—those two colossal pillars, that uphold the world of English literature like the mighty arms of Atlas.  Barry has returned to the source and brought back a bounteous treasure.  Enjoy.

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September  15,  2005

Patrick: Lagniappe

They stood there two feet apart in all that vale of tears, one man asking another how he was, the other asking how the other was, the one no knowing truly what the world was, the other not knowing either. One nodded to the other now in an expression of understanding without understanding, of saying without breathing a word. And the other now in an expression of understanding without understanding, of saying without breathing a word. And the other nodded back to the other, knowing nothing. Not this new world of terminality and astonishing dismay, of extremity of ruin and exaggeration and misery.
--A Long Long Way by Sebastian Barry

A Long, Long Time
Sorry for the hiatus—I’ve been off traveling and whatnot.  But I did want to drop a quick note highlighting my first book recommendation which I have listed first in “Patrick’s Picks” for the last couple of months or so: Sebastian Barry’s A Long Long Way.  I found this work very powerful and still have not collected my thoughts together to say anything particularly profound or coherent about it.  Barry, a literary polymath, is probably better known as a poet and playwright (he wrote Our Lady of Sligo).  I’ve seen his writing style described as “luminous” and “transcendent.” Given that he is a well-known playwright, he has a pitch perfect ear for dialogue. His descriptive and ruminative passages, too, are marvels or construction.  Since Barry is also a poet, one has the sense from reading A Long Long Way that perhaps it would be even better if spoken aloud:

That Jesse’s mother, Fanny Kirwan, was a little woman from Sherkin island on the coast of Cork. Her own people being millenarians from Manchester, who had come to Sherkin to await the New Jerusalem. But in the end the sect had dwindled and there was no one left among them for Fanny Kirwan to marry. She had gone away to Cork City with Patrick Kirwan, a lithographer, and a Catholic, Jesse’s dada himself, never to return again, causing hurt to herself and to her own father. It was the rule of her sect that no one could marry outside the chosen families, and if they did, loved as they might be, they must go and never return. And she chose that, because she had been so intent to have her children. Losing her place in the New Jerusalem and by the hearth of her family, to have her children. And she had had a child, said Father Buckley, and they had just lain him in the ground.

These rhythms with that final down-beat in the last sentence, are, I find, deeply moving, elegiac.  And this is a mere scrap, an aside, an anecdote glancingly glimpsed as Barry’s narrative slowly, grindingly slouches to its end—which is no Bethlehem or New Jerusalem.  This is a remarkable book that I highly recommend. After reading it, I immediately went online and ordered the rest of Barry’s books. He is definitely a talent to watch.

And everyone in Great Britain is watching him already since he is one of six finalists for the Man Booker Prize, the most prestigious literary award for a British writer. As noted in the press release for the finalists, this is considered, “[t]he richest year for contemporary British and Commonwealth fiction since the launch of the Booker Prize in 1969.”  That is no exaggeration.  Every one of the finalists is a fantastic author (with other great authors left out such as Ian McEwan with his very good book I have extensively blogged about earlier, Saturday):

Banville, John The Sea Picador
Barnes, Julian Arthur & George Jonathan Cape
Barry, Sebastian A Long Long Way Faber & Faber
Ishiguro, Kazuo Never Let Me Go Faber & Faber
Smith, Ali The Accidental Hamish Hamilton
Smith, Zadie On Beauty Hamish Hamilton

Indeed, of this list, Barry is probably the least well known of the bunch.  I, of course, love rooting for the underdog, an appropriate response given that Barry’s protagonist, Willie Dunne, must be one of literature’s sorriest sad-sacks that a reader could possibly wind up loving despite his callow fecklessness.  Dunne’s sorry situation, as a trench soldier in the Great War and as a riot breaker on his own Irish soil, should turn anyone into an underdog partisan.

I’ve said it before, we are living in a golden age of British literature.  Too bad our publishers in the good ol’ U. S. of A. believe there’s no demand for such riches. You can get Barry’s book over here (which amazon.com, by the bye, is offering at a whopping 60% discount for less than $10.00—that’s a great deal). But not Banville’s which isn’t available until March of next year (Oh, the humanity!).  And, word for word, Banville is even a greater literary prodigy than Barry.

So, let’s see, the British (including the Commonwealth), have nominated for their big gong of a literary prize for the current year: John Banville, Julian Barnes, Sebastian Barry, Kazuo Ishiguro, Ali Smith and Zadie Smith.  Who do we Americans have? Well, who were the finalists for the past year’s National Book Award for fiction? Oh yeah, the New York Five (long live log-rolling!): Sarah Shun-lien Bynum, Christine Schutt, Joan Silber, Lily Tuck and Kate Walbert.  Hang your heads in shame, dear readers—well, at least the American ones.  Hang your heads, and cry.

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September  9,  2005

Patrick: Lagniappe

‘I see this Garfield as a man of some considerable culture,’ said Lorne Guyland. ‘Lover, father, husband, athlete, millionaire—but also a man of wide reading, of wide . . . culture, John. A poet. A seeker. He has the world in his hands, women, money, success—but this man probes deeper. As an Englishman, John, you’ll understand what I’m saying. His Park Avenue home is a treasure chest of art treasures. Sculpture. The old masters. Tapestries. Glassware. Rugs. Treasures from all over the world. He’s a professor of art someplace. He writes scholarly articles in the, in the scholarly magazines, John. He’s a brilliant part-time archaeologist. People call him up for art advice from all over the world. In the opening shot I see Garfield at a lectern reading aloud from a Shakespeare first edition, bound in unborn calf. Behind him on the wall there’s this whole bunch of oils. The old masters, John. He lifts his head, and as he looks towards camera the light catches his monocle and he . . .’
--Money by Martin Amis

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September  8,  2005

Patrick: Lagniappe

I replaced the receiver and stared at my lap. On it lay a cellophaned wallet of Guyland press handouts—this was where I’d scribbled his number. Running my eye down the page I saw that Lorne had, in his time, on stage or screen, interpreted the roles of Genghis Kan, Al Capone, Marco Polo, Huckleberry Finn, Charlemagne, Paul Revere, Erasmus, Wyatt Earp, Voltaire, Sky Masterson, Einstein, Jack Kennedy, Rembrandt, Babe Ruth, Oliver Cromwell, Amerigo Vespucci, Zorro, Darwin, Sitting Bull, Freud, Napoleon, Spiderman, Macbeth, Melville, Machiavelli, Michelangelo, Methuselah, Mozart, Merlin, Marx, Mars, Moses and Jesus Christ. I didn’t have the lowdown on every last one of these guys but presumably they were all bigshots. Perhaps, then, it wasn’t so surprising that Lorne had one or two funny ideas about himself.
--Money by Martin Amis

[N.B.: The problem with satire, as a genre, is that one always runs the risk of the world catching up with your cockamamie absurdity. What’s the one name in this list clearly meant to be satirical and by its presence casts an odious cloud of ill-association on the rest of the distinguished figures? Yep, you guessed it: Spiderman, the top box-office grosser of them all.  Insert evil, maniacal laughter here.]

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September  7,  2005

Patrick: Lagniappe

I held the telephone at arm’s length, and stared at it. What impressed me most, I think, was the sheer instantaneousness with which Lorne lost his temper. Suddenly, immediately: no temper—gone, long gone. I’m a short fuse artist myself, but even I need a little longer than that. It takes at least a couple of seconds before I recognize the last straw. But to some people, clearly, every straw is the last straw. To some people, the first straw is the last straw.
--Money by Martin Amis

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September  4,  2005

Patrick: Lagniappe

The cab journey downtown was an anguish of effort, of clogged and doddering crisis. . . . You cannot get around new York and that’s the end of it . . . I looked at my watch. I sat sweating and swearing on the sticky back seat. It’s heating up here already, yes it’s stoking up here nicely for the scorch-riots of August. Of the many directives gummed to the glass partition, one took the trouble to thank me for not smoking. I hate that. I mean, it’s a bit previous, isn’t it, don’t you think? I haven’t not smoked yet. As it turned out, I never did not smoke in the end. I lit a cigarette and kept them coming. The frizzy-rugged beaner at the wheel shouted something and threw himself around for a while, but I kept on not not smoking quietly in the back, and nothing happened.
--Money by Martin Amis

Philip Roth and Edmund Wilson: Two Good (Literary) Guys

The New York Times today has a couple of fascinating articles about two writers who represent the pinnacle of American letters--Philip Roth and Edmund Wilson.  The Roth article, written by Charles McGrath, and assuming pride of place as the lead in the Arts & Leisure Section with a nice photo of Roth (actually, three) is the kind of gushing, literary school-girl crush piece that Roth eminently deserves.  Although, when McGrath starts panting about the "young and darkly handsome Philip Roth with burning Tyrone Power-like eyes," one starts to get a bit creeped out.  All in all, this is an excellent piece about why Roth is an important contemporary American writer.  The hook for writing this piece, though, is misplaced--apparently, the only reason Roth deserves such a lavish spread is that he is about to be "canonized" by the Library of America.  Indeed, all of Roth's work has been deemed worthy of such an august reprint.  McGrath points out--as I noted earlier--that only Henry James will have more Library of America volumes published than the eight to be devoted to Roth.  Just to give you some perspective,  none of Hemingway is included in the Library of America.  Nor is any of the early Faulkner, including The Sound and the Fury.  Don't get me wrong, Roth is truly a great writer.  But to somehow think that the Library of America is capable of "canonizing" anyone given such unexplained gaps in its ranks is silly.  So let's praise Roth because of his remarkable body of work, not because he's gotten into some strange literary Good Ol' Boys Club.

Of course, the person who suggested the creation of the Good Ol' Boys Club . . . errr . . . I mean the Library of America, was none other than Edmund Wilson, who has a nice article written by Colm Toibin as the cover of this week's New York Times Book Review.  Although Wilson conceived of the idea of the Library of  America, it has yet to include any of his works in its "canon" of literary saints.  No doubt it's still working on that rush job to get the works of Pearl Buck ready for publication.  Wilson is one of the greatest of the American stylists and although he styled himself as a critic, as noted by Toibin, he had no "system" or over arching theory to explain literature, so his books are strange portmanteau creatures of close readings of literature, history, character studies, and fast-paced stories.  If intrigued, you should start by bearing to your left with To the Finland Station, then go straight from there to Patriotic Gore, take another hard left at The American Earthquake and then you'll wind up at Axel's Castle--all stops definitely worth visiting.  Au Revoir!

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September  2,  2005

Patrick: Lagniappe

Me, I was up in Stratford making a TV-ad for a new kind of flash-friable pork-and-egg bap or roll or hero called a Hamlette. We used some theatre and shot the whole thing on stage. There was the actor, dressed in black, with his skull and globe, being henpecked by that mad chick he’s got in trouble. When suddenly a big bimbo wearing cool pants and bra strolls on, carrying a tray with two steaming Hamlettes on it. She gives him the wink—and Bob’s your uncle. All my commercials featured a big bim in cool pants and bra. It was sort of my trademark. No one said my ads were subtle. But boy did they sell fast food fast.
--Money by Martin Amis

Camille Paglia’s Pronunciamentos
The Divine Camille has been flitting about as of late, pollinating a classical flower here spewing spoor on a stinkpot there, but always, always, being her irascible, illuminating and irrepressible self.  Apparently, Ms. Paglia has decided to don the moth-eaten mantle of Critic-at-Large last held by St. Edmund—Wilson, that is.  I’ve just picked up her new book, Break, Blow, Burn: Camille Paglia Reads Forty-Three of the World’s Best Poems, which, in more enlightened times, would seem a bit superfluous—just what we need, more diaphanous musings about the great poets (which, due to some unfortunate baby-boomer static interference, includes the blowsy Joni Mitchell and her tinkle tune, Woodstock).  But, oh, how Camille can muse!  Yes, the readings are derivative and wrong-headed in spots, but let’s not be churlish. Camille can write.  And she’s entertaining to boot.  That’s St. Edmund in a nutshell—sometimes wrong, but never in doubt and never dull.  I’ll take that combo (my own personal motto is: usually wrong and doubtfully dull). More please.

William Blake’s Night Thoughts
I’m as giddy as a pony kicking up clods of dirt on his own private paddock.  I’ve just received my copy of the Folio Society’s reproduction of Edward Young’s Night Thoughts with watercolor illustrations by William Blake—and it’s gor-jus! This work is one of those publisher’s enchanted cigarettes that should have been smoked and forgotten.  Night Thoughts (and Edward Young, for that matter) is completely forgotten today, but, in its time, was considered the premier example of poetic gothic melancholia.  And, boy howdy, it was a long sucker, too.  So, anyhoo, this hapless publisher, Richard Edwards, gets the bright idea to produce an illustrated version of this colossus and collaborates with none other than the sublime William Blake (go here to see a fulsome collection of Blake’s work).  And the rest is history—or would have been, except that the lavish project never really got off the ground and only the first volume was ever issued (go here to view a few of its pages).  Blake, though, did produce a full, folio-size watercolor, for every page. That sum totals up to a staggering 537 designs, about a quarter of Blake’s entire output.  And now, for the first time, those watercolors have been produced in all their glory in a facsimile edition of what would have been Edwards’ project if it had ever been finished.  Go here and here to see a few more of the designs while I snuggle up in my favorite easy chair with a glass of single-malt scotch (just one sliver of ice, please).  Cheers.

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