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ARCHIVED ENTRIES FOR APRIL 2005

April 30,  2005

Patrick: Lagniappe

When you’re young, three days away from the person you love seems forever, but it’s paid back many times over with the joy of meeting again. But with age you become grateful when the people you love go away for a couple of days so you can take a rest from them and their constant, overwhelming presence; this is because you live in the hope that someone will enter your life unexpectedly while the other is away, maybe even more than one. If you’re not that lucky, you can always believe that the person who went away will surely return with something to renew you afterward.
--A Room Underground by Gudbergur Bergsson (from McSweeney’s 15)
 

Can Nonfiction Be Literature?

This seems an obtuse question--emphatically, no.  Just go look at the other litblogs which discuss the variety of fictional flora and fauna (although, admittedly, most seem more concerned with the dull mechanics of publicity rather than the aesthetic merits of literature--the Reading Experience being an honorable exception) and nary a mention of a nonfiction work shall you find.  In English departments forest upon forest is decimated to dilate upon the aesthetic qualities of Virginia Woolf but not a branch is lost to discuss the aesthetic qualities of Burton's The Anatomy of Melancholy.  There seems to have developed this view--with a few honorable exceptions--that God created fiction and nonfiction and never the twain shall meet.  In my humble view there's just one category--fiction, some works are just more fictional than others.  Certainly, Dickens' Bleak House is a supreme work of fiction, but so are Lillian Hellman's memoirs (for which Mary McCarthy produced the witticism, much to her later dismay when sued, "[e]very word she writes is a lie--including 'and' and 'the'").  So what work of supposed nonfiction is not a lie?

Well, Mr. Obtuse, it would seem that a book which contained only the simple formula:  "2+2=4" cannot be a lie.  Ahh, but George Orwell showed us in his wonderful exposition on totalitarianism, 1984, that not only is that a lie but it is demonstrably false in that 2+2=5.  Why is it a lie?  Because Big Brother said so.  And so it goes.  I find the distinction between fiction and nonfiction particularly pernicious (although I'm just as guilty of it here given that I have not posted on works of nonfiction--but no more).  The standard should not be whether something is true or not.  Does anyone care if Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire can be characterized as vicious anti-clerical screed?  More to the point, would still be less of a object of interest if it turned out that Gibbon's research was false?  I would argue no.

The argument is a bit convoluted--but there you go.  Gibbon writes about the foibles and follies of mankind--just like Jane Austen.  Even if his facts are wrong, his insights into the human heart are just as assuredly right.  Indeed, he could see more clearly into that dark glass than just about any other writer.  To him, all of mankind is a stage that we caper upon for our short time and then, soon enough, we are snuffed out.  Counterexample--do we care that Shakespeare's history and geography is so wrong-headed?  He has one laugher after another with landlocked countries suddenly studded with ports and English kings deformed into unrecognizable caricatures (Richard III was as much a hunchback as Errol Flynn, but Shakespeare was writing to the house of kings that exterminated his line).  We don't read Shakespeare, though, for these niggling details.  We read him because his well wrought aesthetic objects are sublimely beautiful.  Is there anything more stark and breath-taking than the last act of King Lear?  Well, what we nominally call nonfiction can have that aesthetic effect, too.

For example, we currently our blessed with living in the golden age of biography.  The very best biographies are only superficially concerned with the lives of their subjects.  More importantly, these biographers endeavor to shape the raw stuff of a life into a pleasing aesthetic shape.  Peter Ackroyd, one of Britain's great living writers--the great living writer on London--is also one of Britain's great living biographers.  He has written, aesthetically speaking, the supreme biography of Dickens.  Is it nonfiction?  Ackroyd, himself, would be evasive on this point.  It is true to his aesthetic object, which may or may not be "true" as far as a biography of anyone's life can be described as such.  It is not maliciously false.  But even falsehood in a biography may serve the aesthetic goals of the biographer in a way that makes the object, the literary life, more beautiful.

The hagiographies of medieval saints may be beautiful but not altogether true, in this sense.  The biography of a modern day saint exemplifies this point.  One of the greatest of modern biographers, Richard Ellmann, wrote one of the great aesthetic works of art in biography, Oscar Wilde.  As any great artist, Ellmann saw the raw facts of Wilde's life as just so many different pigments on his palette, and he judiciously chose which ones to use in his portrait.  And, at the end, he chose, for justifiable aesthetic reasons, to change Wilde's death.  Wilde, to him, was the great iconoclast brought down by the braying philistine mob.  But, on his deathbed, Wilde seemingly betrayed himself and his principles by converting to Catholicism.  Not for Ellmann.  As a rephrasing of Wilde's witticism concerning the hideous hotel wallpaper in the room where he died, "One of us has got to go," for Ellmann it was the priest that was to be banished.  And this is true to his aesthetic purposes, although not to history.  So, is nonfiction literature?  Emphatically, yes.

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April 29,  2005

Patrick: Lagniappe

Age brings a special kind of joy alongside sorrow, namely that you stop being afraid of life, the less that is left of it. This kind of love is also courage: it is quite unlike the love that I felt naturally and candidly toward my wife while it lasted, and was called marital bliss. If you become tied by different bonds of love you automatically start living a life that cannot be lived openly or in reality, it turns into a type of fancy and fiction that defies description.
--A Room Underground by Gudbergur Bergsson (from McSweeney’s 15)
 

April 28,  2005

Patrick: Lagniappe

Evening, and the birds that sang in the trees in the morning are long silent. He hasn’t the strength to think about life, not for long enough at a time. He becomes fearful, feels that death is just about to come; the ceiling and walls darken. Death comes over the wall—it is not enough to put a roof on the walls, he just comes through the roof window. And if there isn’t a roof window when he comes, then he makes a roof window in an instant. Hammering and sawing, and he whistles a snatch of a tune that resembles birdsong. One might think that morning had come when he whistles like that. But he comes bringing dark mist through the window with him, and the dark mist fills the room and glides out under the eaves. No whistling is heard any longer.
Hoses, peat pits, clocks, coffins, ravens.
The climbing plants wind around the house. Under another roof far away is a woman who could have said, “You can die in peace. I shall join you in fifty years’ time.” But to do that, she would have had to know the young man who is in the attic, and she doesn’t. In her attic there are bright new lightbulbs in the lamps, lightbulbs that last a long time. But the dark mist is filling the other bedroom.
--Seven Stories by Gyrdir Eliasson (from McSweeney’s 15)
 

April 27, 2005

Patrick: Lagniappe

Fridrik places the book on Abba’s breast and lays her hands to rest in a cross on top. He accidentally holds them tighter than intended and feels the small fingers through the mittens. This cheers him a little; these are the hands that comforted him after he lost his parents.
--Fridrik and the Eejit by Sjon (from McSweeney’s 15)
 

April 26, 2005

Patrick: Lagniappe

Fridrik finishes filling in the grave. He takes off his woolen cap, folds it, and puts it in his jacket pocket. He pulls off his gloves and shoves them in his armpits.
He falls to his knees.
He bows his head.
He sighs sorrowfully.
Straightening up, he gazes down through the earth to where he pictures Abba’s face, and recites two verses for her. The first is an optimistic poem, a little bird rhyme of his own making:
A summer bird sang.
On a sunny day:
Happiness led me,
O’er the airy way
My friend for to see
The little bird sang
of its rowan tree.

The second is the introduction to a lost ballad. It tells of the equality that all living beings are ensured in the end, with no need for any revolution:
Earth fails,
All grows old and worn.
Flesh is dust—however it's adorned.

Rising to his feet, he puts on his cap, reaches into his pocket for a little pipe made from a sheep’s leg bone, and plays a tune from “The Death of the Nightingale” by the late Franz Schubert, thus linking the two poetic fragments.
--Fridrik and the Eejit by Sjon (from McSweeney’s 15)
 

Litblog’s Got a Brand New Look
Our special tech-wizard, Stephanie, has updated the look of litblog which I think is now much cleaner and just all-around purtier.  Thanks a lot.  Also, you’ll note that we know longer have the alternative name, literatureblog.com.  When first setting up this site, I had no idea what name would be preferable or if both names might be needed.  Well, after the first six months or so, it’s clear that litblog.com is the overwhelming favorite.  So, as part of my catch-and-release domain name program, I’ll throw literatureblog.com back into the internet waters with the hopes that someone else with a love of literature might enjoy using it.  So, from now on, when you want a cranky, grumpy, addled view of literature, you just need to type in, “litblog” and there you go. Toodles.


Exciting News for the Norman Mailer Classic Poets Corner
As you can see from this New York Times article, Norman Mailer, for a measly $2.5 million has agreed to dump his papers (and his “maileribilia,” though I doubt it would include anything exciting such as rusty kitchen knives with ex-wife blood on them or anything), at the University of Texas Harry Ransom Center in Austin, Texas. Well, that’s just right down the block; so I guess I’ll have to toddle over there and see if there’s any unpublished gems amongst his weighty correspondence such as marginalia in his drafts of such towering masterpieces as Ancient Evenings (“Note to self: change title to Ancient Evenings, the title, Llareggub, has already been taken by Dylan Thomas”).  At a minimum, expect much more material for the Norman Mailer Classic Poets Corner from its namesake.

Jorie Graham is having a bad week
Well, as I posted about last week, first Ms. Graham does get a nice write-up and color photo in the New York Times—one can tell that she must have been a very striking woman in her day.  That seems to be a good start.  But, come Sunday, the New York Times Book Review has what must be one of the most damning reviews of a career I’ve seen in many a year.  Titled Jorie Graham, Superstar, it begins on a high note, speculating that Jorie Graham, “a burnished idol of the poetry world,” has a “good chance” of being the “new Major Poet . . . etched into the stones of Parnassus.”  She’s won all sorts of plaudits, most importantly, perhaps, a “breathless, full-profile attention from The New Yorker.”  And, “she’s nice,” and “has friendly words for her tribe of former students,” and has “good looks, sophistication and elite connections,” and, and, and . . . .  But then things fall apart, or, more pertinently, become diffused.


Here’s The Modern Caliban’s Guide to Being a Great Poet:  “Graham’s work combines two qualities not generally found together—first, it’s often sumptuously ‘poetic’ (‘in a scintillant fold the fabric of the daylight bending’); second, it’s ostentatiously thinky (typical titles: ‘Notes on the Reality of the Self,’ ‘What Is Called Thinking,’ ‘Relativity: A Quartet’).”  Based on this guide, let’s try out a new poem, shall we?:


A Sonata Upon String Theory
The zenotic zither of cosmic coruscating recrudescence
Shining through diaphanous curtains of azalea-tinged air
All strange charm, up and down, bottom and top
The darkly glass gleams
At bottom, a string
Wash it out, barkeep, and get me anudder.

Ahhhh, as exclaimed by the reviewer, “it practically yodels Pooooeeetrrry!”  But then there’s the rub—“there’s always something strangely bleary in Graham’s writing.”  And before you know it, we’re racing to the bottom.  Graham’s not a “bad poet . . . but rather that the fogginess that has been a chronic problem in her work becomes especially inhibiting in [her latest book of noodlings] because, well, there’s just no leeway for muddling.”  Whack!  Then we hit the hard, unyielding surface of Mount Parnassus, itself:  “[I]f we think a Major Poet is meant to be more than this [a zaftig zeitgeist], then maybe we should be arguing over these matters more often—and more publicly.  Because if the books the poetry world leaves in the laps of its slumbering audience are compromises rather than necessities, isn’t it likely that readers will wake only to rub their eyes, thumb a few pages, sigh and go right back to sleep again?”  Ouch!  Norman Mailer Classic Poets Corner here we come [I’ll need to check out Ms. Graham’s latest book, Overlord: Poems, which is about WWII (Overlord was the code-name for the D-Day invasion; the book is a collection of link poems on WWII; Oh, and here's a friendly tip:  Don't pick a title that lends itself to numerous satiric puns:  Overbored/Overboard/Oh Lord!/etc.); by the bye, if you want an outstanding book of related poems on WWII, I highly recommend Tom Paulin’s The Invasion Handbook).

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April 23, 2005

Patrick: Lagniappe

Thank you. Thank you, Constant Rectitude. I would be obliged were I to be henceforth known as Inherent Muddle. These are our new Indian names. I saw two arguably better ones in Poplar North Dakota just off the Ft. Peck Reservation. They were Kills Twice and …
And?
I have forgotten the other name. Also Something Twice, but it was something mundane, not killing, something even faintly ignoble, like Sleeps Twice. I can’t recall it.
--Manifesto by Padgett Powell (from McSweeney’s 15).
 

Charles Dickens' Wild Strawberries

I have just seen Ingmar Bergman's Wild Strawberries and was struck this time around by how great a debt he owes to Charles Dickens (as pointed out in this review).  It's no secret that Dickens, as one of the greatest storytellers, has produced literary works that are also successful as movies (think of the cinematic triumphs, Great Expectations and David Copperfield--with W. C. Fields as Mr. Micawber).  Typically, an author cannot have his cake and eat it too.  There are exceptions such as Graham Greene with the movie treatments of The Third Man and The Quiet American.  Although he is a unique case in that he self-consciously wrote both novels and lesser works he dubbed "entertainments."  The Third Man, as a literary work, falls in the second category--and its cinematic treatment is considered one of the best of all time.  The Quiet Man, when first made into a movie, was execrable with Audie Murphy, of all people, in the title role.  But the second time has been the charm.  Greene, himself, was amused by the second-rate cinematic treatment of his novels as exemplified in his novel, The End of the Affair (which has also been made into a decent movie) when the protagonist, the writer, Bendrix, takes the doomed Sarah to a movie of one of his books and makes wry comments throughout. 

One would think that Dickens, too, would have enjoyed making wry remarks at the movies, given his obsession with acting out his works before his adoring public (a habit, alas, that seems to have killed him).  Dickens, though, has not only made literary masterpieces that have been transformed into cinematic ones, but his sensibility has come to suffuse the warp and woof of the creative imagination of such a great director as Ingmar Bergman and his stunning work, Wild Strawberries.  Although there is no overt allusion, to Dickens' A Christmas Carol, the structure is unmistakable.  A cold, lonely old man, Isak Borg, whose wealth could benefit his relations instead takes pleasure in belittling them with his brusque manner.  The movie is set during one day (Ding!).  Throughout that day, Borg has three major dream sequences (Ding! Ding!).  In the first, he dreams that he is alone in a street of ruined houses.  A driverless Victorian hearse drives up and its coffin crashes before him.  He looks inside and sees himself.  The second occurs after he stops to visit his childhood home and while picking wild strawberries (shades of Proust and his tea-soaked madelines) is reminded of the care-free days of his youth.  This is not strictly a dream in that Isak is present during private conversations that occurred when he was originally absent on a fishing trip with his father (think here of  Scrooge visiting with the Ghost of Christmas Present the Bob Cratchit household with Tiny Tim).  The last dream occurs in Isak'scar after he has a number of adventures with various colorful characters.  In this dream he is judged for his present-day sins with these new acquaintances as the jury and prosecutor (Ding! Ding! Ding!). 

And then, at the end of the day, Isak decides to change his ways.  Bergman, though, improves on the original A Christmas Carol, by slyly making the ending look ambiguous with the possible interpretation that Isak is now too old to change and these revelations will go unheeded.  Actually, it seems to me that he's just had a long day and all will be well in the morning (his son makes clear that he will stay with his wife because he would die without her--even though she will bear a son against his wishes; his housekeeper will not let him address her by her first name, but, in a tone that's clear even in Swedish, she lets him know she's keeping the door open if he needs anything at all, and, finally, he tries to tell his son that his son need no longer repay the debt to him, but, that too, can wait for the morrow).  Ahh, Wild Strawberries and Dickens, a tasty combination!

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April 21, 2005

Patrick: Lagniappe
During the reign of Stalin, the efficiencies of power reached such a level of refinement that men in gray suits were sent from the Hoover Institution in California to learn how it was done. The information was more gymnastic than encyclopedic, requiring a nimble intelligence.
“Substitute a weathervane for a compass,” one of Stalin’s gray men told one of Hoover’s gray men. “Every day requires a new vocabulary.”
“Never drink from the same faucet twice,” another said.
“Truth can be cut with a knife to serve two.”
--Midnight by Eric Hanson (from McSweeney’s 15).
 

Ding! Dong! Foetry is Dead; Long Live Foetry!
A few weeks ago, I posted about this nifty website, foetry.com, which sought to expose the allegedly sleazy relationships between poets and judges of various university-sponsored poetry contests.  Well, the New York Times yesterday ran an article on the recently-outed operator of the website who, it reported, has now shut it down as the result of losing his anonymity.  The article features a particularly smug photo of Jorie Graham, one of the poets most criticized on the foetry site for awarding first prize in a contest she judged to her then paramour and soon-to-be-and-current husband.  There’s plenty of juicy details in the article including a brilliant defense by Ms. Graham of her past actions who “said in a telephone interview yesterday that the claims on Foetry were untrue as well as ‘vitriolic and very painful’ and took unfair aim ‘at the people who have worked to try to help young poets in this country.’”  Well, that clears everything up then.  Ms. Graham did not explain, though, how her fiftyish husband qualifies as a “young” poet but I’m willing to give her a pass on that since Baby Boomers, as they, shall we say, ripen, keep dragging the age cut-off for the definition of youth up with them.  I shudder to see them in their seventies in fishnet stockings and lycra.


Well, now that the fishnet stocking has been ripped off the head of the proprietor of foetry, the New York Times has been quick to crow that he had pulled the plug on the site and gone slinking off to face his condign punishment—“No enjambment for you, you naughty, naughty little boy.”  Well, guess what? He’s back!  I’ll let him do the talking:


Foetry! We missed you. Why did you come back? It's the biased and poorly researched article in the New York Times declaring a surrender. Reminds me of the Wicked Witch of the West flying through the sky, "Surrender Foetry." You can thank Foets, Janet Holmes and Jorie Graham, who have threatened me with legal action and said that I lied. Well, Foets, the site's back up and I stand behind the information here. -- Alan Cordle


Okay, the Classics Aren’t Coming
I started my earlier post this week about the Independent article containing what seemed to be incredible news about a breakthrough in deciphering the Oxyrhynchus Papyri which could increase by 20 percent the number of classical works, by stating that I assumed it to be true.  Well, you know the old saw about “assume.”  Anyhoo, call off the dogs, it appears that the story is a tarted-up publicity piece from a slow news day.  It still might be true.  Just like the Piltdown Man.  Oh well.  Another good example of hopes getting in the way of facts.  My favorite literary character is still Don Quixote, though.


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April 20, 2005

Patrick: Lagniappe

The summer sky was blue, with white clouds, and the darting flight of swallows. In the distance the sound of a brass band mixed with the rattling of streetcars. Gil put the finished pages in order. He straightened them and squared the pile with the palms of his hands. In spite of everything, a man was given a change to get a little peace. He allotted himself a task and, while performing it, realized that it was meaningless, that it was lost among a mass of human endeavors and strivings. But when a pen hung in air and there was a problem of interpretation or syntax to solve, all those who once, long ago, had applied thought and used language were near us. You touched the delicate tracings warmed by their breath, and communion with them brought peace. Who could be so conceited as to be quite sure that he knew which actions were linked up and complementary; and which would recede into futility and be forgotten, forming no part of the common heritage? But was it not better, instead, to ponder the only important question: how a man could preserve himself from the taint of sadness and indifference.
--The Seizure of Power by Czeslaw Milosz
 

Caliban’s Guide to Letters, Part III
Having mastered the twin towers of reviewing and poesy, it is time for you, the nimble literary mountaineer, to turn your back upon the misty slopes of Mount Parnassus and descend into the foothills of the not as lucrative but still remunerative heights of the lesser literary production, the personal paragraph.  This is a short, anecdotal scribbling which still appears in abbreviated form in such lofty citadels of literature as the New Yorker.  Here’s a few admirable examples of this neglected art:


Lady Gumm’s kindness of heart is well known. She lately presented a beggar with a shilling, and then discovered that she had not the wherewithal to pay her fare home from Queen’s Gate to 376, Park Lane (her ladyship’s town house). Without a moment’s hesitation she borrowed eighteen pence of the grateful mendicant, a circumstance that easily explains the persecution of which she has lately been the victim.
*           *          *          *          *          *          *          *
Lord Harmbury was lately discovered on the top of a ‘bus by an acquaintance who taxed him with the misadventure. “I would rather be caught on a ‘bus than in a trap,” said the witty peer. The mot has had some success in London Society.
*           *         *          *          *           *             *             *
Lady Sophia Van Huren is famous for her repartee. In passing through Grosvenor Gate an Irish beggar was heard to hope that she would die the black death of Machushla Shawn. A sharp reply passed her lips, and it is a thousand pities that no one exactly caught its tenor; it was certainly a gem.


Enough of the personal paragraph, you should all be able to excel at clomping up its gently sloping heights.  In closing, let’s turn our sights now to the end of Mr. Caliban’s admirable instruction book, his Note on Style. Here it is in its entirety:


One does well to have by one a few jottings that will enable one to add to one’s compositions what one call’s style in case it is demanded [N.B.: I initially mistyped this as “damnanded”—ahh, the telling unconscious stroke] of one by an editor.
I would not insist too much upon the point; it is simple enough, and the necessity of which I speak does not often crop up. But editors differ very much among themselves, and every now and then one gets a manuscript returned with the note, “please improve style,” in blue pencil, on the margin. If one had no ideas as to the meaning of this a good deal of time might be wasted, so I will add here what are considered to be the five principal canons of style or good English.


The first canon, of course, is that style should have Distinction. Distinction is a quality much easier to attain than it looks. It consists, on the face of it, in the selection of peculiar words and their arrangement in an odd and perplexing order, and the objection is commonly raised that such irregularities cannot be rapidly acquired. Thus the Chaplain of Barford, preaching upon style last Holy Week, remarked, “there is a natural tendency in stating some useless and empty thing to express oneself in a common or vulgar manner.” That is quite true, but it is a tendency which can easily be corrected, and I think that that sentence I have just quoted throws a flood of light on the reverend gentleman’s own deficiencies.
Of course no writer is expected to write or even to speak in this astonishing fashion, but what is easier than to go over one’s work and strike out ordinary words? There should be no hesitation as to what to put in their place. Halliwell’s “Dictionary of Archaic and Provincial Words” will give one all the material one may require. Thus “lettick” is charming Rutlandshire for “decayed” or “putrescent,” and “swinking” is a very good alternative for “working.” It is found in Piers Plowman.
It is very easy to draw up a list of such unusual words, each corresponding with some ordinary one, and to pin it up where it will meet your eye. In all this matter prose follows very much the same rules as were discovered and laid down for verse on page 86 [N.B.: see yesterday’s post].


The second canon of style is that it should be obscure, universally and without exception. The disturbance of the natural order of words to which I have just alluded is a great aid, but it is not by any means the only way to achieve the result. One should also on occasion use several negatives one after the other and the sly correction of punctuation is very useful. I have known a fortune to be made by the omission of a full stop, and a comma put right in between a noun and its adjective was the beginning of Daniel Witton’s reputation. A foreign word misspelt is also very useful. Still more useful is some allusion to some historical person or event of which your reader cannot possibly have heard. As to the practice, which has recently grown up, of writing only when one is drunk, or of introducing plain lies into every sentence, they are quite unworthy of the stylist properly so called, and can never permanently add to one’s reputation.


The third canon of style is the occasional omission of a verb or of the predicate. Nothing is more agreeably surprising, and nothing more effective. I have known an honest retired major-general, while reading a novel in his club, to stop puzzling at one place for an hour or more in his bewilderment at this delightful trick, and for years after he would exclaim with admiration at the style of the writer.


The fourth canon of style is to use metaphors of a striking, violent, and wholly novel kind, in the place of plain statement: as, to say “the classics were grafted on the standing stirp of his mind rather than planted in its soil,” which means that the man had precious little Greek, or again, “we propose to canalize, not to dam the current of Afghan development,” which means that the commander of our forces in India strongly refused to campaign beyond the Khyber.


This method, which is invaluable for the purpose of flattering the rich, is very much used among the clergy, and had its origin in our great Universities, where it is employed to conceal ignorance, and to impart tone and vigour to the tedium of academic society. The late Bishop of Barchester was a past master of this manner, and so was Diggin, the war correspondent, who first talked of a gun “coughing” at one, and was sent home by Lord Kitchener for lying.


The fifth canon of style is, that when you are bored with writing and do not know what to say next, you should hint at unutterable depths of idea by the introduction of a row of asterisks.
*           *          *          *          *         *          *          *          *           *


I know, I know, you question my veracity that this little book was actually published in 1903 or that it has long since drifted out of print, given that it’s precepts seem to be so widely practiced today.  But I assure you such is the case. There are no samizdat copies passed furtively from one pink, puffy paw to the next in the bowels of our universities.  No grubby hands have gleaned its gems on Grub Street.  It is in the air, the zeitgeist of our literary culture.  Too, bad, though, of that fifth rule of style having fallen out of favor.  I feel that a row of asterisks would certainly have benefited a number of my own lucubrations.

*          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *         *          *

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April 20, 2005

Patrick: Lagniappe

The front page was filled with the big trial of “traitors to the nation, base servants of the Anglo-American intelligence service.” Gil always admired the subtlety with which trials of that kind were prepared. Dates, events, meetings were, he believed, on the whole substantially true. The skill lay in the interpretation so that, when put together, the most innocent and accidental data composed themselves into the picture of a crime. As a malicious anonymous poet once said: “From a small grain of truth a plant of lies grows; when telling a lie it’s fatal to neglect the truth.”
--The Seizure of Power by Czeslaw Milosz
 

Caliban’s Guide to Letters, Part II
So what are some of Caliban’s recommendations for being a successful journalist? First, one needs to become adept in the ancient and honorable art of reviewing:


As it is the most important, so also it is the first which a man of letters should learn. It is at once his shield and his weapon. A thorough knowledge of Reviewing, both theoretical and applied, will give a man more popularity or power than he could have attained by the expenditure of a corresponding energy in any one of the liberal professions, with the possible exception of Municipal politics.


Caliban then includes a sample review titled, A Young Poet in Danger: Mr. Mayhem’s “Pereant Qui Nostra.” Here’s a summary of this excellent example of the reviewer’s art:


We fear that in “Pereant qui Nostra,” [N.B.: “we who perish”] Mr. Mayhem has hardly added to his reputation, and we might even doubt whether he was well advised to publish it at all. “Tufts in the Orchard” gave such promise, that the author of the exquisite lyrics it contained might easily have rested on the immediate fame that first effort procured him:
“Lord, look to England; England looks to you,”
and—
“Great unaffected vampires and the moon,”
are lines the Anglo-Saxon race will not readily let die.
*           *          *          *          *          *          *
It is more regrettable that he has missed true poetic diction and lost his subtlety in a misapprehension of planes and values.
“Vile, vile old man, and yet more vile again,”
is a line that we are sure Mr. Mayhem would reconsider in his better moments: “more vile” than what? Than himself? The expression is far too vague.
*           *          *          *          *          *          *
“Babbler of Hell, importunate mad fiend, dead canker, crested worm,” are vigorous and original, but do not save the sonnet.


After having mastered the reviewer’s art, our manikin of letters may now sup on the firmer broth of the short story. This section of the book starts off with a helpful review of the current state of the law regarding the short story, including the decision of Justice Veal (brother of Lord Burpham) that “the word ‘story’ would hold as a definition for any concoction of words whatsoever, of which it could be proved that it was built up of separate sentences, such sentences each to consist of at least one predicate and one verb, real or imaginary.”  From these legal decisions, Mr. Caliban deduces the five simple rules which concern the Short Story:


1st. It should, as a practical matter apart from the law, contain some incident.
2nd. That incident should take place on the sea, or in brackish, or at least tidal, waters.
3rd. The hero should be English-speaking, white or black.
4th. His adventures should be horrible; but no kind of moral should be drawn from them, unless it be desired to exalt the patriotism of the reader.
5th. Every short story should be divided by a “Caesura”: that is, it should break off sharp in the middle.


There follows an exemplar of these rules from the author’s own hand concerning a gentleman who falls into the brackish waters of the lower Thames near the shore where the water comes up to his shoulders and is subsequently saved “within forty-three seconds of his falling” by a boat-hook, but, from then on, he embellishes the story into a life-saving adventure from drowning so that upon his death he leaves the sum of £69,337. 6s. 3d. to the Lifeboat Fund.  Once this ripping yarn has roused the reader’s blood, it is only fitting that the next chapter would concern the composition of poetry and the short lyric.  Here, the author divides poetry up into two schools or styles: the Prattling style and the Obscure style.  There are six rules for the Obscure style which are exemplified by the following:


THE YELLOW MUSTARD
Oh! Ye that prink it to and fro,
In pointed flounce and furbelow,
What have ye known, what can ye know
That have not seen the mustard grow?

The yellow mustard is no less
Than God’s good gift to loneliness;
And he was sent in gorgeous press,
To jangle keys at my distress.

I heard the throstle call again
Come hither, Pain! come hither, Pain!
Till all my shameless feet were fain
To wander through the summer rain.

And far apart from human place,
And flaming like a vast disgrace,
There struck me blinding in the face
The livery of the mustard race.
* * * * *

To see the yellow mustard grow
Beyond the town, above, below;
Beyond the purple houses, oh!
To see the yellow mustard grow!


[N.B.: The lead article in this week’s NYTBR has an excellent example of Mr. Caliban’s dictum that one should dwell on obscurities in order to befuddle and brow-beat the reader into the false position of presuming that the reviewer is more intelligent than he—or a sheep dog.  Here, the reviewer positively gloats over his own superiority: “[T]he war between the outlaws and the canonicals was another dispute between the Big-Endians and the Small-Endians. (Half a dozen people with a taste for the recherche will even get this allusion).”  Half a dozen?  Really, that’s quite presumptuous that Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels has fallen that far out of favor.  I believe that sheepdogs find his works more diverting than chew bones.]


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April 19, 2005

Patrick: Lagniappe

“The recognition of the existing order of affairs is not false on my part. It is a realistic assessment. On the other hand, I do not recognize your philosophy and I shall always make that clear. I am a Catholic.”
“The meaning of that word is not at all clear today,” said Wolin. “It was clear as long as a man could include dogmas in his picture of the world. He can’t do that today. From Catholicism, at least here in this country, you have derived—or thought you derived—your political conceptions. But in reality it was from your political conceptions that you deduced the need for Catholicism.”
“Your weakness lies in refusing to take intangible things into account.” Michael looked up with half-closed lids. “There has been a thousand years of Catholicism here, and a nation which denies its traditions loses its spiritual life. It’s a question of keeping faith.”
--The Seizure of Power by Czeslaw Milosz
 

Caliban’s Guide to Letters
Hilaire Belloc is now chiefly remembered for his scabrous poems about what happens to naughty children. An example may be found here.  Belloc was a chum-in-arms with G. K. Chesterton (George Bernard Shaw referred to the two of them as a strange zoological specimen, the Chesterbelloc).  Belloc was incredibly prolific and could scribble out several books in a year during his prime.  His Caliban’s Guide to Letters (the full title being: The Aftermath; or, Gleanings from a Busy Life: Called upon the outer cover for purposes of sale, Caliban’s Guide to Letters) is one of these sparks that flew off of him during his prime (1903).  It purports to be a book written by the anonymous friend of the deceased Mr. Caliban who has, in a fit of homage, edited Mr. Caliban’s pronouncements on the production of journalism into a book.  This parody extends not just to the “how to” guides for being a successful literary provocateur, but to the scaffolding that goes into making a book.  For example, Belloc has a page of questionable press notices (“. . . very repetitive and tiresome stuff . . . “ and “ . . . This is a book which those who take it up will not willingly lay down, and those who lay it down will not willingly take up . . .”--this, by the bye, decades before Norman Mailer did the same thing for his dreadful novel, The Deer Park) as well as a mock errata list (“for ‘enteric’ read ‘esoteric’” and “for ‘the charming prospect of such a bribe,’ read ‘Bride’”).  There’s also an amusing introduction which provides a précis for the illustrious Mr. Caliban, and his immortal quotations, including this anecdote:


His political effect was immense, and that though he never acceded to the repeated request that he would stand upon one side or the other as a candidate for Parliament. He remained, on the contrary, to the end of his career, no more than president of a local association. It was as a speaker, writer, and preacher, that his ideas spread outwards; thousands certainly now use political phrases which they may imagine their own, but which undoubtedly sprang from his creative brain. He was perhaps not the first, but one of the first, to apply the term “Anglo-Saxon” to the English-speaking race—with which indeed he was personally connected through his relatives in New Mexico. The word “Empire” occurs in a sermon of his as early as 1869. He was contemporary with Mr. Lucas, if not before him, in the phrase, “Command of the sea”: and I find, in a letter to Mrs. Gorch, written long ago in 1873, the judgment that Protection was “no longer,” and the nationalization of land “not yet,” within “the sphere of practical politics.”


The author, though, does not dally merely upon Mr. Caliban’s literary genius, but also notes his many other positive qualities—such as his appreciation of foreign peoples:


Of Scandinavia he knew singularly little, but that little was in its favor; and as for the German Empire, his stanzas to Prince Bismarck, and his sermon on the Emperor’s recent visit, are too well known to need any comment here. To Holland he was, until recently, attracted. Greece he despised.


Also included are samples of Mr. Caliban’s witty repartee, including the following riposte regarding unfavorable comment concerning England’s use during the Boer War of the concentration camp [N.B.: the term and tactic was invented by the British as a way to suppress popular insurrection in South Africa]:

 
A young radical of sorts was declaiming at his table one evening against the Concentration Camp. Dr. Caliban listened patiently, and at the end of the harangue said gently, “Shall we join the ladies?” The rebuke was not lost.


Not until after this amusing biographical sketch do we have the actual manuscript providing one with a humorous crib notes on how to be a successful journalist.  As one might surmise, journalists were held in the same high degree of regard and self-esteem at the turn of the nineteenth century that they find themselves in today.  Oh, if you wish to purchase a copy, I would direct you to abebooks, in that the book itself—like most literary productions—has long been out of print.


[N.B.: The current issue of The Spectator contains a book review of a new collection of Nelson’s letters, titled, appropriately enough, Nelson: The New Letters. The reviewer, Philip Hensher, with no discernible irony, effuses over the phrasing of the letters: “The letters are full of neat touches, and here are the first appearances of some of Nelson’s happiest phrases: the ‘band of brothers’, or, in the famous prayer in the journal on the eve of Trafalgar, ‘may humanity after Victory be the predominant feature in the British fleet.’”  Well, at least we now have solved where Shakespeare cribbed the famous phrase for the eponymous hero’s speech in Henry V.  No mention on whether Nelson coined the phrases, “Anchors aweigh!” or “an eye for an eye.”  It’s too bad Caliban’s Guide to Letters is out of print.  Mr. Hensher may have profited from it.]

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April 18,  2005

Patrick: Lagniappe

“Dialectics!” he shrugged his shoulders. “Marx didn’t teach that the understanding of facts should be prevented by force. I don’t know if you ever heard of a man called Machajski. One of our Socialists. That was a long time ago, in my youth. The Czar’s government had him deported to Siberia. He was the author of only one small booklet, published in Russian, in which he expounded his theory. According to him, when you say that the proletariat makes a revolution, this really means that revolution is being made by intellectuals looking for their place in the social organism. You know, there’s a grain of truth in that. Look at the madness of the Russian intelligentsia, a suicidal madness. Like the sexual attraction of a male spider to the female that will devour him afterwards. Look at the backward countries, at India, China. The masses are apathetic there. But let a man learn to read, taste some knowledge, go to a university, and he becomes a Stalinist. This seems to him obvious and logical. The great snare of the twentieth century. If it’s scientifically precise and looks good on paper why not wish for it, why not put it into practice? When the sorcerer’s apprentice begins to wonder about demonism it’s too late; he’s already the servant of the demon he liberated.”
--The Seizure of Power by Czeslaw Milosz
 

The Classics are coming! The Classics are coming!
I assume this story from the Independent is true. It appears that a group of Oxford classicists have employed infra-red technology to decipher a garbage dump hoard of ancient papyri found at the end of the nineteenth century, known as the Oxyrhynchus Papyri (Here’s the official website).  Unreadable until now, this collection found in historic dumps outside the Graeco-Egyptian town of Oxyrhynchus (“city of the sharp-nosed fish”) contains an estimated five million words which could lead to a 20 percent increase in the number of ancient Greek and Roman works in existence. Just in the last week scholars have deciphered lost writings by Sophocles, Euripides, Hesiod and others.  I have not found any other reference to this story, but it strikes me as a huge blockbuster, the most exciting piece of literary news I can recall in my lifetime.  Or is this further confirmation that I’m some kind of odd-ball crank whose interests rarely coincide with those of the day-to-day hurly-burly literary world?  We will leave the answer to that query, along with, hopefully, a lot fewer of the plays of Sophocles, to the mists of time.

Back to the Future with the New York Times Book Review
This week’s NYTBR is a real gas, a cool cat, a hot tamale, a polygon in squares-ville.  Can you dig it?  The lead article is titled The Rebel Establishment by David Gates (who he? Well, I googled him and the first couple of entries that came up concerned a David Gates from the ‘70s rock band, Bread, along with a scintillating interview and some “come hither” pics; followed by David Gates & Associates, a landscape architecture, urban design and land planning firm in Danville, California (it’s actually a nifty looking site}; oh, here we go, David Gates, he writes for Newsweek and has published some books, including Jernigan and Preston Falls (okay, not so nifty, but do visit that cool architectural site)).  So, Mr. Gates has written one long, rambling review of The Outlaw Bible of American Literature which concerns one, long rambling movement, America’s outlaw literanistas.  It is to laugh.  Included are such neglected figures as one Norman Mailer.  Oh, if only it were true!


But the literanistas were never particularly concerned with the truth (or writing, or grammar, or spelling, or, or, or . . . ).  Gates rightfully ridicules the editors’ introduction which includes such barmy sentiments as: “Some of our best, our fiercest, our most volcanic prose is not a tongue-twisted Henry Jamesian labyrinth of ‘creative writing’ but an outraged American songline of tear-stained revelation.” Then, to show his street cred, Gates adds, “I can’t sit still for James either—who the hell can?—but the editors ought to visit some creative writing classes: these days, both Jamesian maundering and Vesuvian spewing get the red pencil.”  What a little, little man you are—one of Harry Lime’s smudged dots that absolutely no one would miss.  I can understand someone not liking James, but here’s some advice—don’t admit it; you merely confirm your own literary stature for everyone else (the same is true for a limited number of other authors, including Shakespeare, Austen, Dickens and Elliot—not the one “l” Eliot, alas).  Also, that remark about creative writing is quite illuminating.


As I have ranted about before, I find creative writing (the course, not the concept) to be, in general, the bane of good writing in the United States.  Gates’s remark helps to explain why.  Some view creative writing as a procrustean bed upon which any little individual quirks or habits—what the benighted ancients referred to as “style”—are hacked off and cut up into bloody little bits so that we can all write like Frank Conroy (by the bye, the New York Times has an article about his successor to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Ms. Lan Samantha Chang—salary $115,500, who says teaching scribbling don’t pay?—who offers the refreshing insight about workshops:  “I don’t think they should advocate one aesthetic over another.”  She also is opposed to using workshops as therapy sessions.  Perhaps the literary worm has turned.

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April 16,  2005

Patrick: Lagniappe

One day, pushing aside the rushes, he saw a group of young men and girls. They were all completely naked. They were playing cards. By their nakedness, by the lazy movements with which they shuffle and dealt their cards in the emptiness of suspended time, they demonstrated their complete indifference to communal laws, customs, tasks, problems of the past and future. Duty, convictions, the sacrifice of their own lives were all far behind them. They were alive and that was all. If Seal were to go up to them and say that, like them, he was a soldier of this shattered city, they would look up, invite him with a gesture to join in, and deal him a hand. Letting the rushes go and quietly moving away, he retained an impression of places where, among traces of transient civilizations, on the banks of flowing rivers through deserted lands, there lived small groups of people ignorant of each other’s existence, equally hostile to what had been and what would be. He was like them; there were many of them; but they would lead to nothing.
--The Seizure of Power by Czeslaw Milosz
 

Achilles and Hamlet, Part Two
Achilles’ anger—his god-like fury—is, at first, hard to fathom.  Here’s the set-up: The leader of the Greek expedition to Troy, Agamemnon, is ticked off that he has to give up his war booty, a priestess of Apollo, because it’s decreed by the gods. Achilles urges him to obey the gods, and Agamemnon grudgingly agrees.  But then, Agamemnon turns around and takes Achilles war booty, Briseus.  This greatly angers Achilles, and not just because it shows a lack of respect.  In ancient Greek society, warriors had two things to strive for:  honor and undying glory.  Honor, for them, was a hydraulic concept, a win-lose scenario.  If someone gains honor that only can be at the expense of someone else, as Agamemnon graphically demonstrates.  Undying glory, too, is a win-lose scenario, but with more finality: One gains undying glory by killing someone else in battle.  So, the only way to gain undying glory, immortality, is to mortally wound someone (actually, a bunch of someones).  [N.B.: By the bye, this explains why poets were so highly prized in Greek society; they were the mechanism, the transmitting device, the techne, for the warrior’s immortality.  Oh, how the mighty have fallen!].


If one thinks about it, these prizes, honor and undying glory, are based on the very slippery sands of humiliating or killing others while risking one’s own shame or death.  This is little better than the bull moose who leads the herd only until he grows too old to fend off the attacks of the younger moose (meese?).  Achilles comes to this realization when Agamemnon deprives him of his war booty, Briseus.


Further, Achilles, unique among all the humans in Greek mythology, knows his two possible fates:  Achieve undying glory on the battlefield and die young or go home and live a long and uneventful (and forgotten) life.  It’s practically unheard of that a human might have more than one fate—or to be able to choose his fate.  Achilles, the son of a goddess, Thetis, is given this insight into his own future.  And, spurred on by the actions of Agamemnon, he chooses to reject the warrior’s ethos grounded as it is in a vampiric code that one can live only upon the blood of others. All of this is made explicit when Agamemnon, in desperation, later sends an embassy to Achilles offering to return Briseus and throwing in a Super-Deluxe Price-Is-Right Showcase of Fabulous Prizes.  Achilles turns it down—sure, he might get the prizes today but Agamemnon can just take them away tomorrow; and he’s right back where he started.  What’s the point?  So he sits at his ships and is resolved to return home, content to have his fellow Greeks slaughtered.


Of course, we all know that Achilles does not return home.  His good friend, Patroclus, is killed; and, in a rage, Achilles returns to the battle.  In my view, this is the true tragedy of Achilles’ wrath.  Not that his rage causes him to withdraw from battle but it pricks him on to dying undying glory.


The same is true for Hamlet who rejects the ethos of his society based on “seeming” and subterfuge.  His “to be or not to be” is not much dissimilar from the choice of Achilles.  Hamlet can choose to end his existence in such a rotten society or to continue on.  Ultimately, events get out of Hamlet’s hands—just as with Achilles—and his choice, death, is made for him.  He fights Laertes, is poisoned, and dies—dragging everyone else down with him.  Achilles’ failure to leave also results in a multitude of deaths:  Himself, his best friend, the Trojans, their wives, their daughters and even their babies which are dashed upon the rocks from the ramparts.  Indeed, death continues to spiral out in wider and wider circles as the gods become angered by the atrocities the Greeks commit against the Trojans. Soon death embraces almost everyone (the wily Odysseus being the exception—yet another reason The Odyssey is such an inferior epic to The Iliad).  The tragedy for both Achilles and Hamlet is that in some way they have the potential for transcendence but, by choosing not to choose, their choices are made for them: Death.


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April 15,  2005

Patrick: Lagniappe

“My people don’t exist any more. The Polish Jews. There were three million of them.  They’ve perished like those here or like my parents in their Galician village. There was limitless promise, the chain of unborn generations.  Great scholars, artists, writers who might have existed and now never will.  Everything that was best has perished.  And who was saved?  A small number of those who had money.  A few people like myself, assimilated, already almost Aryan.  At the cost of broken solidarity.”
--The Seizure of Power by Czeslaw Milosz
 

Achilles and Hamlet
[N.B.: Warning! Self-indulgent hobby-horseish blather to follow.]  Probably the most notorious of T. S. Eliot’s ex cathedra pronouncements as a critic was that Hamlet, the play, failed because the “objective correlative” to explain Hamlet’s strong emotion—his disgust—had an insufficient cause:  His mother’s guilt as a, perhaps, unknowing accomplice in the death of her first husband, Hamlet’s father, to be supplanted through her hasty (less than two months from the death) marriage to his brother, Hamlet’s uncle, Claudius.  In other words, Eliot thought that the extremity of the disgust was due to an insufficient cause (i.e., it’s underdetermined). At this point, one could crack a few ribald jokes about the gray, bloodless professor [N.B.: By the bye, that reminds me of Hilaire Belloc’s poem, Lines to a Don, which includes the following:  Don clerical/Don ordinary/Don self-absorbed and solitary/Don here-and-there/Don epileptic/Don puffed and empty/Don dyspeptic/Don middle-class/Don Sycophantic/Don dull/Don brutish/Don pedantic] and Eliot’s relationship to his own mother.


Let’s leave everyone’s mother out of it, shall we? We are all post-Freudian, now. Still, I would like to dispute this idea that the objective correlative is not strong enough in Hamlet.  Indeed, I believe that Hamlet’s professed disgust for his mother is actually a ruse—consciously or not—to disguise his true disgust with the society in which he finds himself. Hamlet is one of those few, remarkable men that is successful not only in the society in which he finds himself but can gleam its structure and shortcomings and wish to change it into something better (Hamlet, in other words, is a potentially transcendent figure).  But Hamlet can’t.  And that’s his real objective correlative.  He can rail against his mother—and women in general for their inability, as Hamlet sees it, to be faithful to society’s mores and womens’ consequent changeability (“Get thee to a nunnery”).  But he can’t rail against the actual mores of a society where custom is better followed in the breach and one may smile and smile and still be a villain.  As Hamlet puts it to his mother, Gertrude, very early on in the play, “Seems, madam? Nay, it is. I know not ‘seems.’”  It is this keynote of modern society where appearances must be different from substance which repulses and disgusts Hamlet.  His mother’s behavior simply exemplifies it.  So, Hamlet’s disgust for his mother is to serve as a metonymy (and a synecdoche), if one will, for his disgust with society as a whole.  That is the true and equivalent objective correlative.


Why bother with this long-forgotten dust-up about the objective correlative concerning T. S. Eliot, a literary figure who has gone somewhat into eclipse?  First, in spite of my mumblings above, I think Eliot is a rare two-fer:  A great poet and a great critic.  The notion of the “objective correlative” is a helpful one for judging literary endeavors—even though Eliot, in introducing the notion, failed to use it properly, in my opinion.  Also, because Eliot’s analysis points to another character whose emotion seems out of proportion to the motivating event—Achilles and his anger in The Iliad.  The first line of The Iliad tells us the play is about Achilles’ anger, his god-like wrath.  And why is he so angry?  Why does he sulk on the beach while the other Greeks are massacred and driven back to their ships, their armies broken before the might of Hector and his Trojans?  Because Agamemnon took Achilles’ war-booty (literally), Briseus, from him.  Huh?  Talk about a mismatch of an objective correlative.


How can the towering rage of Achilles be justified by the objective correlative of taking a slave girl?  If Hamlet’s disgust at his mother seems forced, then this certainly appears ludicrous.  Actually, it doesn’t.  Just as Hamlet’s feelings for his mother are transposed from his feelings towards society as a whole, the same is true for Achilles and his emotions regarding the taking of Briseus.


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April 13,  2005

Patrick: Lagniappe

When Peter wrote two pages of a literary essay in order to please his teacher everything changed suddenly. He had forgotten his amazement at the time. His pen moved smoothly over the paper; he allowed himself to be guided by the logic of a reasoning that was independent of truth and falsehood; it had its own validity. And what was more important, when he tried to control himself, nothing intelligent came into his head. He suffered from a lack of ideas and earned comments like: “Subject undeveloped. Style too concise, too telegraphic.” But later, ideas rushed to him of their own accord and he caught them with the greatest ease. He received a good grade, and when he applied his method to his whole behavior at school, he soon became one of the best students in his class. The whole secret lay in a pliant yielding to social pressure; it was important not to believe too much in what was recommended (which would be bad, for it would have cramped him internally), and not to believe too little. And what else had he been doing since his release from camp? He was falling back into his old school habit—through it was only at this moment that he had realized it, while talking to Baruga. The new system was just like a big school, and millions of people had discovered its mechanism. It was not in the least important to accept it with sincerity; but when expressing an opinion, it was necessary to make internal arrangements to insure that you really believed what you were saying. Five minutes later you could begin to doubt privately (as in school in front of the blackboard) every single word.
--The Seizure of Power by Czeslaw Milosz
 

Counting the Dots
One of my favorite movies is The Third Man (hey, you, in the back, wearing the black turtleneck, quit yelling, “Duh!”).  There’s one scene where the antagonist, Harry Lime (played by Orson Welles, natch’) is on a ferris wheel looking down on the crowds below. He remarks to his companion:


Victims? Don't be melodramatic. (He opens the door to the car.) Look down there. Would you really feel any pity if one of those dots stopped moving forever? If I offered you 20,000 pounds for every dot that stopped, would you really, old man, tell me to keep my money? Or would you calculate how many dots you could afford to spare? Free of income tax, old man, free of income tax. The only way you can save money nowadays.


I know, I know, most folks prefer Welles’s ad-lib about the Borgias and the cuckoo clock.  But this is my favorite quotation, so tough. Oh, and what’s the analogy to be drawn from it?  Some drivel, perhaps, about who is an indispensable author/poet/scribbler or who is just a “dot.”  Or, maybe, a short, pungent essay about indispensable works in a particular author’s oeuvre.  Or, I just might like this quote and thought I would plunk it down as a good eye catcher at the start of this post.  Yeah, that’s the ticket.


Well, I suppose I should include some list of vague, literary interest that has some tangential relationship to the quote.  I know, I’ll list my top twenty living authors whose books I’ll snap up and soon as they are published (who knows, a hundred years from now they all might seem nothing more than smudged dots). So, without further ado, here’s my top twenty—actually, top twenty-two:


1. Peter Ackroyd
2. Martin Amis
3. John Banville
4. Julian Barnes
5. A. S. Byatt
6. J. M. Coetzee
7. Umberto Eco
8. Seamus Heaney
9. John Keegan
10. Frank Kermode
11. Milan Kundera
12. David Lodge
13. Gabriel Garcia Marquez
14. Ian McEwan
15. W. S. Merwin
16. V. S. Naipaul
17. Joyce Carol Oates
18. Jose Saramago
19. Simon Schama
20. Muriel Spark
21. William Trevor
22. David Foster Wallace


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April 12,  2005

Patrick: Lagniappe

“What begins with a lie will remain a lie. Your father was overjoyed when the Revolution broke out there. Czarism was abolished. You know yourself what it’s like. You talk the way you do because you have to. If you’d spoken differently you wouldn’t have been able to get out. Anyone who speaks the way he has to speak begins to think what he’s got to think.”
--The Seizure of Power by Czeslaw Milosz
 

Lady Barberina and the Barbarians, Part II
So our good Dr. Lemon soon contemplates marriage to the good Lady Barberina. He, being an American, does not quite appreciate the difference between himself and the British (this story is a light-hearted variation of HJ’s early, tragic novel, The American).  Henry James, though, typically in the form of the old and wise expatriate Americans, the Freers, is happy to serve as our guide.  Dexter Freer/Henry James doesn’t want to let the good Dr. Lemon in on his future discomfiture too quickly, though, because he wants the marriage to proceed as “[i]t will be very amusing.”  Mrs. Freer demurs in that she thinks it will make Dr. Lemon “wretched.”


Indeed, there is a great gulf—and not just the Atlantic ocean—between Dr. Lemon and Lady Barberina.  First, as explained by Dexter Freer, Lemon is a Doctor and, “over here, you know, they only call them in to prescribe . . . the profession isn’t—a—what you’d call aristocratic.”  Further, the British don’t go in for this American nonsense of the two young intendeds actually spending some quality time together in order to try to get to "know” each other.  They’ll have plenty of time for that once they’re married—and anyway, even a brute can seem decent in a suit for thirty minutes.  The important thing is that the bride has a “settlement” so that if her husband winds up being a cad, she has something to fall back upon.
Not a bad theory but Doctor Jackson will have none of it—he’s young, he’s wealthy, he’s tall . . . okay, not tall . . . not small . . . not as small as Lady Barberina has had a warm thought about . . . did I mention he’s incredibly wealthy? Here he is explaining his fabulous wealth to Lady Barberina’s only slightly non-plussed father, Lord Canterville:


He had a fine taste, and he wished to appeal to Lord Canterville primarily as a gentleman. But now that he had to make a double impression, he bethought himself of his millions, for millions were always impressive. “I think it only fair to let you know that my fortune is really very considerable,” he remarked.
“Yes, I dare you are beastly rich,” said Lord Canterville.
“I have about seven millions.”
“Seven millions?”
“I count in dollars; upwards of a million and a half sterling.”
Lord Canterville looked at him from head to foot, with an air of cheerful resignation to a form of grossness which threatened to become common. Then he said, with a touch of that inconsequence of which he had already given a glimpse: “What the deuce, then, possessed you to turn doctor?”
Jackson Lemon coloured a little, hesitated, and then replied, quickly: “Because I had the talent for it.”
“Of course, I don’t for a moment doubt of your ability; but don’t you find it rather a bore?”
“I don’t practise much. I am rather ashamed to say that.”
“Ah, well, of course, in your country it’s different. I dare say you’ve got a door-plate, eh?”
“Oh yes, and a tin sign tied to the balcony!” said Jackson Lemon, smiling.
“What did your father say to it?”
“To my going into medicine? He said he would be hanged if he’d take any of my does. He didn’t think I should succeed; he wanted me to go into the house.”
“Into the House—a----“ said Lord Canterville, hesitating a little. “Into your Congress—yes, exactly.”
“Ah, no, not so bad as that. Into the store,” Jackson Lemon replied, in the candid tone in which he expressed himself when, for reasons of his own, he wished to be perfectly national.


Ah, yes, dear reader, it appears we have wandered into the Victorian version of that immortal comedy routine, “Who’s on first?”  HJ seems to get quite a chuckle over how an American and Englishman, although both supposedly speaking English, are constantly falling into misunderstandings—each inadvertently offending the other.  Doctor Lemon talks of his millions and seems common.  Lord Canterville is more offended by the commonness of being a Doctor.  While Lemon is aghast that any gentleman would be seen as a politician in Congress, although Lord Canterville just last week spoke in Parliament. What fools these mortals be.

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April 11,  2005

Patrick: Lagniappe

“Do you think I don’t understand you, my child? I’m stupid, I don’t know anything about theories. But you want to convince yourself that what is the same won’t be the same. For you’re better off here than in Russia. Human beings think in terms of places, of regions. Our secret organizations came across letters written by German soldiers on the Eastern front to their families. They cursed the country of murders and atrocities and longed for their net curtains and flower pots and Gemutlichkeit. Yet they themselves committed murders and atrocities. The place, the region must have been responsible.
--The Seizure of Power by Czeslaw Milosz
 

Lady Barberina and the Barbarians
As I prognosticated a few weeks ago, I did have the opportunity to read Henry James’s Lady Barberina.  It’s a hoot!  This story was written fairly early on in HJ’s career while he’s still in the afterglow of his greatest popular triumph, Daisy Miller (published five years earlier in 1879).  This novella, too, is written in a light-hearted, humorous vein.  It starts with a scene that tries to out-Thackeray, Thackeray (which James is even cheeky enough to allude to) by describing Hyde Park on a fine afternoon in June with the spectacle of the well-to-do strolling or riding about for the amusement of the spectators, which include the old and wise Freers from America.  The point of this episode is to give HJ the chance to do some fine scene painting—plus use it as a superior contrast to the paltry offerings of Central Park in New York:


The mild blue of the sky was spotted with great silvery clouds, and the light drizzled down in heavenly shafts over the quieter spaces of the Park, as one saw them beyond the Row. All this, however, was only a background, for the scene was before everything personal; superbly so, and full of the gloss and lustre, the contrasted tones, of a thousand polished surfaces. Certain things were salient, pervasive—the shining flanks of the perfect horses, the twinkle of bits and spurs, the smoothness of fine cloth adjusted to shoulders and limbs, the sheen of hats and boots, the freshness of complexions, the expression of smiling, talking faces, the flash and flutter of rapid gallops. Faces were everywhere, and they were the great effect; above all, the fair faces of women on tall horses, flushed a little under their stiff black hats, with figures stiffened, in spite of much definition of curve, by their tight-fitting habits. Their hard little helmets; their neat, compact heads; their straight necks; their firm, tailor-made armour; their blooming, competent physique, made them look doubly like amazons about to ride a charge.


Of course, we now know that James was a repressed homosexual, so all this dawdling about on the aesthetic pleasures of gazing at female flesh should be taken with a grain of salt--a bit of misdirection, sleight of hand.  Also, James being James, he doesn’t scene paint just for aesthetic effect, but also for humorous effect as well:


These spectators were now agitated by a unanimous impulse: the pushing back of chairs, the shuffle of feet, the rustle of garments and the deepening murmur of voices sufficiently expressed it. Royalty was approaching—royalty was passing—royalty had passed. Freer turned his head and ear a little; but failed to alter his position further, and his wife took no notice of the flurry. They had seen royalty pass, all over Europe, and they knew that it passed very quickly. Sometimes it came back; sometimes it didn’t; for more than once they had seen it pass for the last time. They were veteran tourists and they knew perfectly when to get up and when to remain seated.


So, that’s the set-up, a delightful June afternoon in Hyde Park.  Soon, our eponymous heroine, the daughter of Lord Canterville, Lady Barberina Clement, shall trot up on her horse, one of HJ’s amazons.  Her Jason, Jackson Lemon, is trotting by her side.  As you might guess, he has a rather sour disposition but, no matter its acerbity, it will probably melt before the cool, unflappable majesty of Ms. Clement.

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April 9,  2005

Patrick: Lagniappe

Peter drank the tea and thought about the unattainable longing of his life. He remembered his father only as something large and warm, an emanation of cheerful strength, a great knotty tree embracing him with its branches.
--The Seizure of Power by Czeslaw Milosz
 

Close (Very Close) Reading at the Atlantic Monthly
I have complained about this before, that the selections chosen for “A Close Reading” by Christina Schwarz don’t seem all that great or worthy of close analysis.  Here’s this month’s bleeding chunk from Stewart O’Nan’s The Good Wife, cut out and dripping on the autopsy table:


She goes to Eileen, stopping by after work. Eileen makes instant and listens without judging or giving advice. Patty knows she won't discuss it with her mother—maybe Cy, but he's safe, Eileen would never forgive him if he told anyone. As if to make things even, Eileen offers her a secret: they're getting married.
In June. Nothing fancy, just a small ceremony at their old church and a reception for friends at the Moose Lodge.


Schwarz describes in lines vibrating with awe her admiration for O’Nan’s “striking economy” and “contrived naturalness” in making the conversation seem real by telescoping the dialogue but not actually real because it leaves out pauses, umms, and what-not.  As an example of what Binx in Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer might describe as “doubleness,” Schwarz, in writing this analytical piece, also engages in a “striking economy” and “contrived naturalness” of her own by leaving out any links she might have with O’Nan.
I, at first, thought that maybe this exegesis should fall under the category “to each his own” and that Ms. Schwarz’s tastes and mine were wholly irreconcilable.  I found the excerpt, even though commendably brief, telescopic to the point of unintelligibility and wholly off-putting.  Then, I remembered my foetry posts, and wondered if there might not be a less, well, naïve answer to this mystery.  Bingo! Ain’t the internet (specifically, google) great?

 
By typing in “Christina Schwarz” and “Stewart O’Nan” in the google search box, the second entry to come up—after this month’s Atlantic Monthly essay—is a book review from the San Francisco Chronicle by Stewart O’Nan of Christina Schwarz’s Drowning Ruth entitled "The Lady in the Lake: Two rural sisters and an icy death make for a breakthrough first novel."  Here’s the first paragraph:


The immediately impressive thing about ``Drowning Ruth'' is not the author's talent, though that is apparent within the first few pages, but the ambitious narrative scheme she's devised to tell her tale. First novelist Christina Schwarz takes great technical risks, pulling out all the stops to relate her Gothic melodrama of two sisters in the isolated lake country of Wisconsin.


Sounds fairly wishy-washy to me.  I’m sure Ms. Schwarz, in her ecstatic review of Steward O’Nan’s prose, plum forgot about this lackluster review.  How big of her not to mention it in her own essay and thereby demonstrate that she could overcome her own hurt feelings and disappointed expectations to write a glowing essay about an author who treated her first book so shabbily.

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April 8,  2005

Patrick: Lagniappe

“Urbanski. Oh, that was a long time ago. They arrested him in the street, back in ’40. He died at Auschwitz. His wife and daughters—they, like nearly everybody else here . . .” She paused.
“What do you mean, like nearly everybody else here?”
The old woman pointed with her finger at the ground.
“They said this house was unsafe. Weak, wouldn’t stand up to bombing. So nearly everybody went to number sixteen, to the cellar of that big house. Then there was a direct hit and they were buried alive. They’re still there. There’s nobody to dig them out. It would take months.”
--The Seizure of Power by Czeslaw Milosz
 

Frank Conroy, R.I.P.
The New York Times has a fascinating obituary by Charles McGrath, the prior editor of the New York Times Book Review (which tells you just how important this personage was), of the writer, Frank Conroy, who passed away on Wednesday, April 6, 2005.  Some might wonder, who was Frank Conroy?  By the bye, the reason I am not posting about the passing of Saul Bellow is that no one should have to ask that question of the Nobel laureate (but go here for a wonderful appreciation of Bellow by Ian McEwan).  In many ways, Frank Conroy may be seen as more important than Saul Bellow, at least in terms of the hottest fad to hit literature since the invention of streams of consciousness.  I am, of course, describing the creative writing program.

Conroy’s literary output was minimal, although it did include a well-respected memoir, Stop-Time—but, much, much more importantly, he was for 18 years the head of the Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa.  He “helped shape the early careers of writers including Curtis Sittenfeld, Elizabeth McCracken, Z. Z. Packer, Nathan Englander and Abraham Verghese.”  Who they?  Second- and third-rate nobodies.  But, as I have commented before, the medium is the message. You can’t understand why American letters is in such a decline unless you can grasp the phenomenon of the academicization of literature.  At the heart of this baleful trend is the creative writing program and the writer’s workshop.  And what is at the dark heart of this dark heart?  Iowa.


Iowa! Hmmm, that’s got to be right up there with the curious screed, What’s the Matter with Kansas.  So, what’s the matter with Iowa?  Let’s take a closer look at Mr. Conroy’s life.  First, the book that made him, Stop-Time, was “one of the rare books to have been blurbed by both Norman Mailer and William Styron, [and] made its author a literary celebrity.”  Thank goodness that atrocity can’t happen anymore.  However, after that book, things got off-track:


But 18 years elapsed between the publication of “Stop-Time” and Mr. Conroy’s next book, “Midair,” a short-story collection. “People thought I knew what I was doing when I wrote, ‘Stop-Time,’ but I didn’t,” Mr. Conroy said last year. “I knew I was a very good writer, but it had all been an act of faith.”


He just knew, knew he was a good writer—why Norman Mailer had told him so. In spite of this confidence, Conroy produced only five books:  first the memoir (1967), then, almost two decades later, the collection of short stories (1985), almost another decade turns up his one novel (1993), followed at the en by a collection of his magazine articles (2002) and a travelogue about walking through Nantucket (2004).  Pretty much the one-hit wonder, literary-wise.  Indeed, one would think this might constitute the slimmest of reeds for a literary reputation.  But, one has forgotten the most important—the essential—literary ingredient today:  The Academy.


The Academy came calling relatively late for Conroy (after he had hung out for several years in various jazz circles; Mingus gave him the back-handed compliment, “You are an authentic primitive. That is true. But you also swing.”). Conroy fell into teaching at Iowa in 1978, by happen-stance apparently, as a last-minute replacement.  I doubt that kind of fortuitous accident will happen again.  So, there he is, teaching away at Iowa.  Why was he so good?


His students remember the care and instinctive sympathy he brought to the task. Mr. Halberstam said: “I think what made him a great teacher was that he was so wounded himself; he had a very good sense for the wounds in other people. He knew what a frail business this being a writer is.”


Ahhh, so he was a great therapeutic teacher—don’t hurt the little writerlings precious wittle egos.  I hope, dear reader, your copying down these tit-bits as a recipe for success in the academic world.  But, he had more going for him than just gobs of indiscriminate sympathy.  He also “lived a big life” and was “a very cool guy—a great hipster.”  “Frank talked a kind of jazz vernacular that would have been an affectation except it was real.”  In other words, Conroy was a character.


So, let’s summarize the lesson shall we.  One can be a great writer, a great teacher of other writers, if one over several decades produces one book in the following genres: memoir, short story, occasional criticism, travel and fiction; one is a character; and, most importantly, very, very understanding and sympathetic.  And what does that get you?  The most prestigious plum of all: Head of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop.  The Holy of Holies.  Truly, the emperor has no clothes.  It is no coincidence that what are considered the two greatest post-war American writers, Saul Bellow and Vladimir Nabokov, were both Russian emigres.  Nor is it a coincidence that the greatest living writer in English, V. S. Naipaul, has never been associated with the academy (which, to a large degree, probably explains the tepid to negative reviews of his works).  Neither, I believe, is Tom Wolfe (ditto, ditto, ditto).  Do you get the picture?  Or, as the English say, “let me put you in the frame.”  You’ve got your choice: a nice, cozy sinecure or fame.  Nothing has changed since Achilles and The Iliad.  He wisely took the road less traveled.


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April 6,  2005

Patrick: Lagniappe

They reached the river. Ragged spring clouds, wind across an open space, pillars of ruined bridges. Gulls circled with shrill cries over the mud flats. On the other side, in the cold sunshine, they could see the uneven line of the ruins. Their color for some unknown reason reminded him of meat—horsemeat; it was an absurd notion, for in fact they were shades lighter. Peter screwed up his eyes and tried to recognize the buildings he had known. But he could not make any out; there was only a chaos of battered walls, gaping holes, and great diagonal cracks. Only the fourteen-story building in Napoleon Square stood out above this irregular range; it had lost all its old elegance and looked like a half-chewed corncob.
--The Seizure of Power by Czeslaw Milosz
 

April 5,  2005

Patrick: Lagniappe

They now spoke predictions. “The fortuneteller wouldn’t tell me anything,” Brunio stooped over with a disconsolate expression. “She only said: you’ll eat in good restaurants until you’re eighty.” Gajevicz was nodding approval. “Predictions sometimes come true in reverse. Take Thaddeus for instance. We warned him but he kept saying over and over again: ‘I’m not afraid of the Gestapo; a fortuneteller told me that I’m going to get married on the thirtieth of May.’ He was arrested on the thirteenth and shot on the thirtieth. The woman had mixed up the heart-line and the life-line.”
--The Seizure of Power by Czeslaw Milosz
 

Foetry
Lo, and behold, I’m not the only one whose curiosity is piqued by the website www.foetry.com, which has gone on a rampaging crusade against graft and corruption in poetry contests. Go here  for a story from the March 31, 2005 edition of The Boston Globe regarding the foetry website.  Not surprisingly, four of the judges of these contests who have been accused of improprieties failed to respond to the reporter.  The reporter, consequently, had to come up with his own justification in their defense:


Still aren’t some conflicts in these high-profile poetry contests inevitable? Let’s say, generously, that there are 100 talented poets out there. Wouldn’t it stand to reason that they would have studied together in the few prestigious poetry programs, and that they would hang out and schmooze in the laurel-strewn groves of Starbucks, or wherever poets scribble these days?


First, journalists should not try their hands at light comedy, as the unfortunate Starbucks reference indicates.  Leave comedy to the professionals, folks. Second, the reporter is wrong to assume that “generously” there’s only 100 talented poets out there.  Each of you, dear readers, is a talented poet.  Don’t get a big head, now, that’s also true for roughly six billion other potential poet laureates, too.  As I explained, since the accepted paradigm is now free verse, that means, procedurally at least, there are no rules for how a poem should be constructed.  Instead it just has to “sound” good—whatever that means—and its words conjure forth an poetically-pleasing image—whatever that means (do note the circularity in this definition, it is intentional, unlike most of my broken-down reasoning; oh, and the scare quotes are intentional, too; and so is the mocking tone of voice; and my aggressive use of “m” dashes; don’t worry, there’s no extra charge for these services).  So what separates a “good” poem from a talented “poet” from a “bad” poem from a “hack”?  Well, a bunch of other poets who are considered “good” think the good poem is “good” and the bad one is “bad.”  Oh, wait, I just got circular again.  Let me try one more time. Well, how about this bit of criticism from the December 2004 issue of Poetry describing the poems of Michael Donaghy:   “So many of Donaghy’s best poems pull us into this nebulous zone and bandy us about, swinging us rapidly from image to image along oblique and idiosyncratic lines of likeness.”  Oh, wait, that’s the same as what I just said.  Okay, how about this bit of criticism from the same issue concerning the poems of Sharon Olds:


The self becomes the world: this is Olds’s strength, her weakness, and doubtless a source of her understandable popularity, the acclaim she’s rightly earned, and a certain disdain with which here poetry is occasionally read. Though laudable, her effort to reach out to realms beyond herself, as in the poem dedicated to the astronaut Christa McAuliffe, slides back to the poet’s daughter, her father, and herself.


No, this is not meant to be funny.  It just is.  The point here, is that, ultimately, no one really cares about the poet’s actual production, but about her persona.  If there’s no rules, one has to come up with something after all. Why not base it on the carefully cultivated personality?  Olds is the poet who writes about herself in pornographic terms; Dylan Thomas in drunken terms; Lowell in cra-azy terms. [N.B.: You know, we truly live in a golden age of comedy. It’s like the Fourteenth Century all over again—the last gibberings of scholastic Aristotelianism woven into ever more fantastic shapes to try to explain a modern world on the brink of the Renaissance.  We laugh at those medieval scholastics now, and for good reason.  All that chatter of the four humours and what not. How lucky we are to have the same kind of fantastic brain-doodlings spewing forth from our modern universities.  Our professors may not be Aristotelians, but, for my sawbuck, the Foucaultians are every bit as funny.  But where’s their Rabelais to immortalize them?  He’s coming—you can tell from the evil-smelling miasmic cloud drifting over the horizon accompanied by raucous laughter].


So, what’s the moral for this story?  Lenin was right, after all (I always like to cite Lenin whenever possible, particularly with respect to ethics; personally, I try to live my life by Lenin’s maxim, “a lie told often enough becomes the truth”).  It just boils down to: Who, whom?  Who be the poet and whom be awarding her the prize money.  So, cough it up, baby!

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April 4,  2005

Patrick: Lagniappe

It was in this changing light that they noticed a group of white figures standing motionless. Seal thought he was seeing things. So did the others. Were they the ghosts of people who had been murdered there? They kept their eyes fixed on the apparition. Seal realized with shame that he had goose flesh, but it was beyond belief. The figures began to move along slowly. Were they Germans?
“Don’t fire!” somebody shouted. And the tone of the voice, which indicated that its owner was watching and had understood, broke the tension. After a moment the voice went on calmly: “They’re patients from St. John’s Asylum. It was hit.”
--The Seizure of Power by Czeslaw Milosz
 

McSweeney’s 15: Putting the Ice in Iceland
The McSweeney’s Icelandic literature issue does contain a few stories by Icelandic authors that are well worth checking out because (now my biases are showing) they do seem to capture that wild, melancholy magic that suffuses the medieval Icelandic sagas.  These stories include Fridrik and the Eejit by Sjon, which concerns mourning as a commonplace element in the hardscrabble life of Iceland.  It is told in a kind of elegiac language that evokes the sagas.  The same is true for Seven Stories by Gyrdir Eliasson.  There is a fair bit of whimsy here, but it is kept under control and produces jarring images such as this:


The accordion in its black box is on the table not far away from me. I looked at the box after we had turned off the light. It was not unlike a coffin, coal black like that, and the twilight dark as earth.
As the dreams slowly engulfed me I though that I would like to have an accordion played at my funeral. Very robust tunes that would confuse death.
“It shouldn’t be like this,” he would mutter to himself. “Things should be dismal and hopeless when I’m around.” That’s how the playing should be, and the coffin shaped like an accordion case.


As you might guess, Fridrik and the Eejit and Seven Stories lead off the Icelandic literature section of McSweeney’s.  Unfortunately, after that, the stories go down hill precipitately—as I discussed earlier.  Oh, as an added lagniappe there’s a “bonus pocket-mag—culled from actual Icelandic magazines—chronicling the glossy doings of Reykjavik’s starriest stars.”  It’s quite entertaining.  As you might guess, I’m easily swayed by aesthetic considerations and the book itself, the physical object of McSweeney’s, is particularly fetching, so, with significant reservations, I’d recommend picking it up.

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April 2,  2005

Kathryn: The Moviegoer

At home sick today, I had what is now a really rare opportunity for me and read a whole book through over the course of an afternoon and evening. Granted, a short book: Walker Percy's The Moviegoer. It's a really odd little volume. It came out in 1960 and won the National Book Award. It is a strange story of an odd thirty-year-old who is a strange combination of metaphysical seeker and truly ordinary male mammal. But what really struck me about it is that is has many interesting parallels with Toole's Confederacy of Dunces, which I'd never really noticed before, though I've read both books before.

Both books are about protagonists who consider themselves to be outside their times and milieus; both are avid moviegoers. Both are regarded by their families as unusually bright while exhibiting high levels of eccentricity as well as huge blind spots--especially in terms of human interaction. And, perhaps most important, both books involve significant journeys on Scenicruisers.

I find Percy's style in this novel a bit opaque. I'm from New Orleans and enjoy much of the specificity of his descriptions of the place, but some of the specificity is distractingly foreign--so specific that if you aren't familiar with what he describes, it's more opaque than if he hadn't laid down the adjectives and scenery. What's up with all the camphor berries underfoot, for example? I lived in New Orleans twenty-three years but wouldn't know a camphor berry if it bit me, and yet his characters tread upon them with such regularity that a non-native might assume camphor to be as common there as azaleas and camellias. But he's got Ship Island right, and the neighborhoods near Lake Pontchartrain. Plaster medallions on the ceilings of Garden District homes and all that.

My favorite overwrought simile from the book is about the protagonist's  insomniac father returning to the house in the morning: "I can see him, blundering through the patio furniture, the Junior Jets and the Lone Ranger pup tents, dragging his Saskatchewan sleeping bag like the corpse of his dead hope."


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April 1,  2005

Patrick: Lagniappe

This nervous boy was frightened. In his consciousness there were still algebra problems, erotic daydreams, thoughts about rivers, unknown cities, far-off countries. In the warmth of his body at dawn everything he might one day become was wound up tightly like a small spring. Each impact of his foot on the ground carried him on an enormous flight above the world. Freedom, space. There were hundreds, thousands of ancestors in him, uncharted centuries of heredity. Ancestors who hunted wild beasts and drew their shapes on the walls of caves, who raised wheat and drank from earthenware jugs in the heat of harvest time. Ancestors who wrote with a stylus on wax tablets. And the seed of generations to follow him, of unknown people in whom the trace of his smile might be preserved, the way he bent his head, his individual desires or his destiny. Now there was only the wide empty street under machine-gun fire, and his companions.
--The Seizure of Power by Czeslaw Milosz
 

More on McSweeney’s 15 (Icelandic Literature): Ice, Ice Baby!
So, when last we left our intrepid ice explorer, I had vented about the imaginative subject matter—or lack thereof—of the Icelandic selections for volume 15 of McSweeney’s.  As far as the more formal literary qualities, who knows, given that all the stories were written in, suh-prize, suh-prize, suh-prize, Icelandic.  So, it’s impossible to know if the translators are being faithful to the music of the original language.  In my experience, there are very, very few translators who can be relied upon for even passing fidelity, a point made much better than I can ever hope to (true for everything I write, unfortunately) by William H. Gass, Reading Rilke: Reflections on the Problems of Translation.  So, I won’t fault the Icelanders if they’re prose seems a bit, well, stiff and cold.


Some of the prose, though, seems so pared down that it must have sounded a bit stiff in the original.  For example, Bragi Olafsson, a founding member of the Sugarcubes (he played bass—just some pointless trivia for the Bjork groupies out there), has a story called My Room which is just that—a story about an unnamed character who goes to his apartment and wants to see his room but the lady showing the place won’t let him so he leaves.  That’s the story.  Maybe in the original the language is so gorgeous that one doesn’t mind the mundane banality of the story.  Then again, it’s hard to see how one would freshen this up:


We lived on the third floor. At a rough estimate I’ve walked up these stairs maybe eight or nine thousand times. And been down them just as often, I expect. Random memories stir in my mind as I climb the stairs for the first time in twenty-four years, and when the present owner of the apartment opens the door and invites me in, these memories awaken and leap up like a living person. I think I can smell the same old smell. But when I enter the hall, this gives way before a heavy odor of cooking, an odor that instead of whetting my appetite puts me off the thought of food altogether.


And the story continues along in this vein until the narrator leaves the apartment. Okaaaaay, I feel more, hmmm, more, well, more aware of just how much time there must be to kill in Iceland so that people will actually read pages of this stuff.  But that’s far from the worst.  There’s a story called Uninvited by Einar Mar Gudmundsson that is close to unreadable—surprise, it’s another bleeding chunk from a novel, Knights of the Spiral Stair.  This one is about a little boy, Johann, who hits his next door neighbor, Oli, with a claw hammer and is then uninvited to Oli’s birthday party.  All’s well in the end because Johann gets Oli a white matchbox car as a present. O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!  As we move towards this dénouement with all the momentum of cooling magma, we are constantly bombarded by little bits of fey whimsy.  You know, there’s nothing I like better in my fiction like a huge, sloppy helping of fey whimsy:


All this and much more I could do, because by definition I ought to be feeling sorry for myself and in no condition to do anything. Nobody will believe I’ve done anything, as long as everybody thinks I’m stooping in prayer asking God to forgive me for hitting you with a hammer. You know that God forgives everything. Even though prayers are being said nineteen to the dozen and nobody knows whether God understands Icelandic, he still forgives everything all the same.


And to imagine that there’s a whole book, a whole, big thick tome, that goes on and on in this manner.  One shudders for the fallen trees—hasn’t Iceland denuded its forests by now?  Shouldn’t there be some legal protection afforded the poor firs asked to lay down their lives for this tosh?  I assure you, gentle readers, that I am now praying nineteen to the dozen—and it ain’t in Icelandic. Please, pray with me.

April Fool!  The stories are all wonderful!  Okay, no they're not; that was the April Fool.  Have a good April Fool's Day anyway.

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