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ARCHIVED ENTRIES FOR AUGUST 2006

August  1,  2006

Patrick: Lagniappe

Bees droning; white clouds in full sail for an open sea of blue, and the odor of clover, honeyed and familiar and reminding one of all the summers gone by—that is July.

The clover plant is such a common thing that nobody praises it as it deserves to be praised, this fragrant, hardy, ubiquitous plant that leaves the soil richer than it found it. I am not forgetting that Irishmen have taken the shamrock for their national symbol. But according to the dictionaries the Gael word seamar—or seamroge, which is the fine old Irish orthography for it—does not mean clover specifically, but any three-lobed leaf. Half the world will uphold the clover and the other half insists that the true shamrock, used by St. Patrick to teach the Trinity to the wild tribes of Erin, seems to me an excellent symbol, for if Ireland were divided into north, south, east and west, then only three of the lobes would be Ireland. Orange Ulster will forever remain the missing fourth leaf in Ireland’s luck.

--An Almanac for Moderns by Donald Culross Peattie

[N.B.: Note the wonderful grammatical construction of that one-sentence first paragraph with a bold semicolon just two words in, followed by a couple of commas and then rounded out by an "m" dash that sets off just the last three words. I find it aesthetically beautiful in its equipoise. The next paragraph, too, has a few grammatical biological delights not to be overlooked such as the third sentence started with a conjunction and including a finely set-off phrase bracketed by "m" dashes. Who needs bird watching when one can indulge in any hour of the day in sentence watching?]

 

The Racist Taint

Zadie Smith’s fine new novel, On Beauty, among many, many other things, grapples with the multi-form complexities of racism in the modern world, particularly as confronted by mixed-race families. Hers is a highly intelligent exploration—without resolution—of this tangled briar patch (an allusion that, itself, is fraught with difficulty). One’s notions of race are constantly in flux—not evolving, necessarily, just transforming. Some changes, though, have been widely perceived as salutary and can hardly be denied except by the most hardened of marginalized racists. These notions, though, have had the side effect (or, my favorite: by-blow) of banishing otherwise worthy works of literature. A case in point: An Almanac for Moderns: A Daybook of Nature by Donald Culross Peattie.

Donald Peattie, an American naturalist, wrote the almanac in 1930 as a day-to-day description of the changing wonders of nature as the seasons progress through a year in his beloved New England. Certainly, the book is sprinkled throughout with many vivid passages such as this:

When the burning day was over, we walked out together, carrying long sticks, with only the still, still woods and the rushing of the many brooks for company. Then it was that the thrush spoke to us out of the depths of the woods, a song inimitable by human syllables, but with the ring in it of old silver lightly dropped. Day after day he called, his song so clear that it carried for a mile, and no matter how distant, it always seemed near to us, intentionally delivered for our delight. And, solitary singer that he was, his very song reminded how still was all else in Nature, how intensely he and we were alone together.

The book is also a celebration of the advancement of biology, from the first philosophical musings of the early naturalists to the scientific rigors of formicologists still alive when Peattie wrote his book. It is also filled to the brim with a collation of deep wisdom culled from Peattie’s decades-long naturalist musings, as exemplified from this entry for May Tenth:

Was it worth while for a mayfly to have been born, to have been a worm for weeks and a bride or a bridegroom for one day, only to perish? such is not a question to which Nature will give the human mind an answer. She thrusts us all into life, and with her hand propels us like children through the role she has allotted us. You may weep about it or you may smile; that matters only to yourself. The trees that live five hundred years, or five thousand, see us human mayflies grow and mate and die while they are adding a foot to their girth. Well might they ask themselves if it be not a slavish and ephemeral soft thing to be born a man.

One stumbles across delightful passages such as this on practically every page of Peattie’s almanac. But there lurks a slithering snake in this naturalist’s paradise—the dark taint of racism. I’ll explain in the next post.

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August  30,  2006

Patrick: Lagniappe

I understood that Cecilia looked at me as an object with specific functions, because that’s how I looked at her. Without knowing it, that is how I looked at everyone who came into my life then. This wasn’t because I had no feelings. I wanted to know people. I wanted to love. But I didn’t realize how badly I had been hurt. I didn’t realize that my habit of distance had become so unconscious and deep that I didn’t know how to be with another person. I could only fix that person in my imagination and turn him this way and that, trying to feel him, until my mind was tired and raw.

--Veronica by Mary Gaitskill

[N.B.: Here’s another trick by Ms. Gaitskill.  All but the last sentence of this paragraph consists of one simple, banal cliché followed by another simple, banal cliché.  Certainly, we’re deep, deep into the psyche of a model pity party, although do we really need to go through all this cheap gim-crack philosophy?  But then comes that last sentence—a real zinger—and it makes you forget and forgive all that pabulum that came before it.  Unfortunately, the book is still mostly pabulum; you just don’t seem to notice it.  It goes down good, like pabulum should.]

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August  29,  2006

Patrick: Lagniappe

Riding still, out of the roaring night into a pallid day of sidewalks and beggars with the past rising through their eyes. Shadows of night sound solemnly glimmer in rain puddles; inverted worlds of rippling silver glide past with lumps of mud and green weeds poking through. The past coming through the present; it happens. On my deathbed, I might turn toward my night table and see René’s rose-colored lamp shade with the brown moth flapping inside it.

--Veronica by Mary Gaitskill

[N.B.: This is a good example, I think, of Ms. Gaitskill’s power as a writer to evoke a certain mood—typically, melancholia.  It’s probably this gift, which, if one is in a melancholic mood, seems to provide so much literary satisfaction (and, hence, outsized praise—book reviewers, notable for nothing else, tend to be a depressed lot, which accounts for their lack of humor. Q.E.D.).  But, upon closer examination, the prose falls apart.  What the heck does it mean that "[s]hadows of night sound solemnly glimmer in rain puddles?"  It sounds purty, don’t it?  And yet signifies—nothing.]

 

Stockbroker Literature

I have been dipping lately into a charming little nest of critical hornets titled, Fifty Works of English Literature We Could Do Without, first published in 1967. Don’t worry, it’s long been out of print, so you won’t have to worry about getting stung.  The books lives up to its title:  It provides fifty essays on why certain works of near or actual canonical status are not worthy of being read today.  A few of the choices are meant to be provocative, such as, by following T. S. Eliot’s lead, a condemnation of Shakespeare’s Hamlet (hmmm, there might be a reason that this work of criticism is out of print).  Others, however, are spot on: The Bride of Lammermoor (Sir. Walter Scott); The Autocrat of the Breakfast Table (Oliver Wendell Holmes); Lorna Doone (R. D. Blackmore); Esther Waters (George Moore); The History of Mr. Polly (H. G. Wells); The Forsyte Saga (John Galsworthy) and The Moon and Sixpence (W. Somerset Maugham).  That last book contains the following devastating judgment on Maugham’s craft, or lack thereof, which has been amply born out by his oblivion today:

Part of the trouble is that Maugham places far too heavy an emphasis on narrative. He was always at great pains to describe himself as a story-teller; but stories as such lack resonance. Any idiot can tell a story: only an artist of imagination can tell it significantly. Maugham lacks intellectual imagination. At his best he was a good reporter – a slightly superior Galsworthy.

Some might argue that this broadside neatly nails a current popular writer who, at his best, is a very fine prose stylist.  Let me see, he always wears a stylish hat and a white suit.  He fancies himself the head of an army of Zolas—of course, Tom Wolfe.  I do admire him, but will he last?  He is vastly entertaining, but, so, in his day, was Maugham.  Oh well, alas poor Wolfe, I knew him, Horatio: a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy.  Now, for the most devastating cut of all:

The best that can be said of The Moon and Sixpence and, for that matter, of Maugham’s entire oeuvre, is that it is admirable middle-brow stuff, ideally geared to the demands of the stockbroker who likes to parade his literacy but has no taste for literature.

This is strong stuff, but got me to thinking:  What would the sub-literary stockbroker read today (assuming that such a creature exists in this world of HDTV and the X-Box)?  Would he not read those writers who have been branded as "serious" but write with a touch of light whimsy and fantasy?  That describes John Irving, and the whole crop of new fabulists, Jonathan Safran Foer, Michael Chabon, etc.  It even describes the late Philip Roth (and perhaps the early one). These folks are highly entertaining.  But, in a deep sense, are they serious?  Saul Bellow, to the last, a very serious writer, was incapable of writing a bit of alternative science fiction like Roth’s The Plot Against America (a book similar in style to Kingsley Amis’s ventures into alternative history).  John Updike, too, has a sweet tooth for fantasy fiction.  Where will all these writers wind up?  You know my answer.

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August  28,  2006

Patrick: Lagniappe

The debut of the armless young German at court was brilliant. On reaching the palace, he was presented to the Grand Duke, who congratulated him. The Princesses, to whom he was introduced, were also very gracious, and deigned to ask him a number of questions on his account. As soon as he saluted an audience of nigh two hundred and fifty ladies and gentlemen, by doffing his hat with one of his remarkable feet, there was a spontaneous burst of laughter and applause. Thus encouraged, he began to thread a needle and sew, holding needle and thread with such adroitness between his toes that they seemed the nimble fingers of some experienced sempstress. He stitched well, and gallantly thrusting forth a foot to some of the ladies standing near him, displayed a fragment of the linen he had sewn; and they were greatly astonished. Then he fixed a quill between his big toe and one of the little toes of his right foot, and wrote a letter in his native language which nobody understood, with the exception of Princess Violante, but all admired the neatness of his calligraphy. The climax came when, after a lengthy repertoire of similar marvels, he extracted various instruments from a case and began to shave. He seized the razor with his right foot, sharpened it on a leather strop, and spread it with a coating of grease on the sole of his left one, so swiftly, so surely, that it was indeed a joy to behold. After he had shaved in a few minutes, and no barber could have done better, congratulations and compliments rained on him like manna, and ladies grew quite lyrical.

--The Last Medici by Harold Acton

 

A Lesson in Grammar

Here’s the second paragraph from Mary Gaitskill’s praised-to-the-heavens new book, Veronica (it was nominated for the National Book Award—so this is no false praise, mind, at least not false as far as indicating contemporary approval):

I drink my coffee out of a heavy blue mug, watching the rain and listening to a fool on a radio show promote her book. I live on the canal in San Rafael and I can look out on the water. There’re too many boats on it and it’s filthy with gas and garbage and maybe turds from the boats. Still, it’s water, and once I saw a sea lion swimming toward town.

Note that in this very short paragraph of four sentences, there’s six "ands." Also, in the last three sentences, three of the "ands" are used as naked conjunctions to join independent clauses. Of course, such clauses should either be broken up into sentences or be joined by a semi-colon. Let’s try to break up the sentences first:

I drink my coffee out of a heavy blue mug, watching the rain and listening to a fool on a radio show promote her book. I live on the canal in San Rafael. I can look out on the water. There’re too many boats on it. It’s filthy with gas and garbage and maybe turds from the boats. Still, it’s water. And once I saw a sea lion swimming toward town.

This is obviously worse than what the author chose to do because it emphasizes the cuckoo-clock rhythm of this ticky-tacky sentence construction (although I made things a bit more interesting by starting that last sentence with a conjunction—an improvement on the original, by the bye). If one used semi-colons, the banal uniformity of the sentence structure becomes even more apparent:

I drink my coffee out of a heavy blue mug, watching the rain and listening to a fool on a radio show promote her book. I live on the canal in San Rafael; and I can look out on the water. There’re too many boats on it; and it’s filthy with gas and garbage and maybe turds from the boats. Still, it’s water; and once I saw a sea lion swimming toward town.

Of course, using semicolons would have exposed the paucity of this writer’s artistry. So, instead, she cheats to hide her banal grammar. Does she know what she’s doing? Well, of course she does, because on page twelve the gentle reader is subjected to a tirade by the title character of the book, Veronica (who dies of AIDS—but don’t worry, it’s in a very non-clichéd way):

"Excuse me, hon, but I’m very well acquainted with Jimmy Joyce and the use of a semicolon." She proofread like a cop with a nightstick.

Charming—so the author actually revels in the banality of her prose. Indeed, besides the semicolon, she also prefers the comma splice to the use of "which" or "that." Here’s an example from page ten:

She looks up, smiling; I’m invoking civility on this concrete strip between roaring and hugeness, and she appreciates it. Her smile is like an open door, and I enter for a second.

See, Ms. Gaitskill does know how to use a semicolon, although she has also succeeded, in that first sentence, of using not just a semicolon but also a comma splice at the end (not an easy feat).  This comma splice, just like its companion in the very next sentence, could be remedied, not by using a semicolon, necessarily, but by using "which" or "that." Gaitskill refuses to be led to the which/that pen, though, and balks at the gate.  Why?  Is this some further inanity inflicted in creative-writing classes that I’m unaware of?  Hmmm, let’s see from the jacket flap what Ms. Gaitskill does for a living, besides cranking out books about models and women who die of AIDS (how cutting edge of her): "she teaches creative writing at Syracuse University."

One might protest at this point: Well, Mr. worthless poster-blogger, blogger-poster, Ms. Gaitskill is a professional writer and she can bust any darn-tootin’ rule she feels like bustin’.  True enough. Ol’ Jimmy Joyce (J.J.—Kid Dy-no-mite—the Novel Knifer) certainly did enough bustin’ in his day. But sometimes sticking to the rules let’s the writer know when their prose [N.B.: do you like the way I’m using the Zadie Smith-approved plural-pronoun convention? See I’m not such a grammatical fuddy-duddy] is becoming, well, repetitive.  Ms. Gaitskill might object that her prose is meant to mirror the banality of her characters’ lives.  Oh, please. Dickens never fell for that old ruse.  Just because Jo may be a street-urchin cipher is no reason to water down the prose to match the drip from his nose.  That way, friends, does not lead to stylistic madness, but to badness.  Enjoy your highbrow model book, just don’t stop to smell the grammar—it’s filthy with gas and garbage.

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August  25,  2006

Patrick: Lagniappe

But Antonio Magliabechi, who strangely enough was employed as Cosimo’s librarian, ‘lamented, most feelingly, the decline of that patronage which he had been accustomed to receive at Florence’.

It was related of him once, as he was showing the city to a stranger, he remarked in front of the Riccardi Palace: ‘Here letters were born again,’ and then, pointing towards the College of Jesuits opposite: ‘There they returned to the grave.’ He told Burnet that there was not one man in Florence that either understood Greek, or that examined manuscripts. And he gave other visitors a similar impression of the state of Florentine culture. Misson writes: ‘Mr Magliabechi told me, that it was computed there were 2,300 Oriental manuscripts in the Great Duke’s library; and I could have wished also he had informed me what real advantage had been drawn and received from those books for the good of mankind. But he told me, that if it was true, that there was any treasures in ‘em, they were hid, for the present, as being laid in the ground.’

--The Last Medici by Harold Acton

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August  23,  2006

Patrick: Lagniappe

The average petty thief was bound to a column in the market-place and dealt fifty lashes, each numbered by the executioner (cinquanta frustate ben conte). Youthful sinners were punished with corresponding severity: in some cases, however, one must applaud the method. Settimanni writes, in October, 1690: ‘A peasant boy between five and six years old, from the district of Pistoia, was castrated in the hospital of S. Maria Nuova, for killing a little girl of three with a stone. He had wanted to remove a medal that she wore about her neck, whence she began to scream, and he stoned her to the ground, striking her head in such wise that it killed her. Seeing that she was dead, he dragged her to a ditch, and covered her face with his clothes. For so much craftiness (malizia) it was well judged that he should not be allowed offspring in this world, and therefore he was castrated.’ Cruelty to animals was also punished in a manner we might emulate: a scoundrel was put in the pillory by the column in the market-place, with a collar and placard, ‘for being a murderer of cats’, and two of his dead victims were appended to his neck.

--The Last Medici by Harold Acton

 

The New York Times Book Review is the Best

book-review newspaper insert in America—and it’s awful.  I’ve quit carping about it because it doesn’t even serve the most basic function of alerting one to important books worth picking up.  I just wanted to drop a short post, though, concerning the current week’s egregious cover feature regarding a biography of the life of James Tiptree, Jr. a/k/a Alice B. Sheldon.  Who dat?  Well, you moron, I’ll let the book reviewer explain it to you: "Tiptree’s narratives of alien worlds and alienation make up one of science fiction’s most vivid and influential bodies of work."  Yep, Ms. Sheldon wrote science fiction short stories that "by the early 1970s, [made her] unquestionably one of the brightest-burning talents in the constellation of science fiction."  Oh, and because she was assumed to be a man by such towering talents as fellow science-fiction writer, Robert Silverberg, when she revealed she was a woman, everyone was just, so, so, so, well, so very, very, I mean, they were shocked, okay? 

Such a gambit had never been tried before.  Well, at least not by a science fiction writer--who wrote short stories. And certainly not by one of the "brightest burning talents."  Hmmm, although I do recall there might have been some women in the past who wrote using a male pen name.  Fairly obscure writers, though.  Certainly not one of the "brightest burning talents."  Let me think, now.  I believe the most well known one of them used a first name that was the same as a very curious humanlike mammal, possibly of the genus Macaca (although not of the political variety).  Oh, I know, "George."  The last name is the same as an obscure Twentieth-Century poet.  He wrote a one-off poem about a garbage dump or a landfill—something with a lot of refuse in it.  No, it wasn’t Newark.  Ahh, yes, The Wasteland.  That would make a great alternative title for the NYBR, come to think of it.

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August  22,  2006

Patrick: Lagniappe

A sermon against blasphemy was delivered in Santo Spirito (where Martin Luther had preached when he paused, as an Augustinian friar, in Florence, on his way to Rome); after which a ‘grossone’ [N.B.: "A silver coin formerly in use and worth nearly threepence.."] was exposed ‘bearing the images of Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary’. The legend returns to Empoli on January 17th, 1392. It was said that a sacrilegious gambler, enraged after losing his money, nailed this, his last coin, to the table with a dagger. Whereupon a quantity of blood had gushed from the wounded silver, and it was taken with great devotion to Santo Spirito, and revered as a miraculous relic.

--The Last Medici by Harold Acton

 

Put the Book Down and Step Away from the Boredom

Nick Hornby has a delightful column concerning the hidden virtues of putting down books—not literally, of course, no slaughtering of the infirm and halt in the mystery section of your local bookstore (although, come to think of it . . .).   Nope, what I’m talking about, in the famous words of Paul Newman’s chief tormentor from Cool Hand Luke, is that what we have here is a failure to communicate.  As Nick Hornby so pithily puts it: if the book is boring you, abandon it before you start to resent reading and wind up abandoning the habit altogether.  If thy Henry James offends thee, then, by all means, pluck it out.  Of course, I love Henry James.  But I know plenty of people who would rather undergo complicated dental surgery than The Portrait of a Lady.  I feel their pain, sort of.  I couldn’t stand the prose of either Frankenstein or Uncle Tom’s Cabin, two of the generally recognized towers of literature.  I will never read another word by either of those authors. Does that make me a bad person?  Well, no, there’s plenty of other reasons for that designation. It just makes me a realist.  There’s too much good writing in the world so why bother with something that makes one want to weep with relief when the end is finally a mere one-hundred pages off?  Chuck it.  Thanks for the permission Nick.

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August  21,  2006

Patrick: Lagniappe

Marguerite-Louise would tolerate no criticism. ‘Cinzia told me that the Grand Duchess does not want to bring Mademoiselle de Mainville to Marly because she says that she is loquacious. When she was last at Court this gentle girl spoke warmly in favour of the Grand Duchess whom she maintained was most devout in her application to good works, and that she thought only of charities. When the Grand Duchess heard of it she said to this young lady, with a very haughty air: "I’ll give you a sound drubbing if you mention me again, for I do not wish to be spoken of, kindly or otherwise; and if you speak of me I’ll hit you such a rap that you will say I have ceased to be good."’

--The Last Medici by Harold Acton

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August  18,  2006

Patrick: Lagniappe

"What made it hurt more," the stocky man said, "what made it hurt worse was knowing what they were going to do to you, you know? There you are and they tell you very matter of fact that you made somebody mad, you made a big mistake and now there’s somebody doing time for it, and it isn’t anything personal, you understand, but it just has to be done. Now get your hand out there. You think about doing it, you know? I was in Sunday School when I was a kid and this nun says to me, stick out your hand, and the first few times I do it she whacks me right across the knuckles with a steel-edged ruler. It was just like that. So one day I says, when she tells me ‘Put out your hand,’ I say, ‘No.’ And she whaps me rights across the face with the ruler. Same thing. Except these guys weren’t mad, they aren’t mad at you, you know? Guys you see all the time, maybe guys you didn’t like, maybe guys you did, had some drinks with, maybe looked out for the girls. ‘Hey look, Paulie, nothing personal, you know? You made a mistake. The hand. I don’t wanna have to shoot you, you know.’ So you stick out the hand and—you get to put out the hand you want—I take the left because I’m right-handed and I know what’s going to happen, like I say, and they put your fingers in the drawer and then one them kicks it shut. Ever hear bones breaking? Just like a man snapping a shingle.

--The Friends of Eddie Coyle by George V. Higgins

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August  17,  2006

Patrick: Lagniappe

Erskine’s great talent . . . lay in making people feel far more important than they actually were. He had many techniques. You might receive an urgent message from Erskine’s secretary on your voicemail, which arrived simultaneously with an e-mail and a handwritten note in your college box. He might take you aside at a party and share with you an intimate story from his childhood that, as a recently arrived female graduate from UCLA, you could not know had already been intimately shared with every other female student in the department. He was skilled in the diverse arts of false flattery, empty deference and the appearance of respectful attention. It might seem, when Erskine praised you or did you a professional favour, that it was you who were benefiting. And you might indeed benefit. But, in almost every case, Erskine was benefiting more. Putting you forward for the great honour of speaking at the Baltimore conference simply saved Erskine from having to attend the Baltimore conference. Mentioning your name in connection with the editorship of the anthology meant that Erskine himself was free of one more promise he had made to his publisher, which, due to other commitments, he was unable to fulfill. But where is the harm in this? You are happy and Erskine is happy! Thus did Erskine run his academic life at Wellington. Occasionally, however, Erskine came across difficult souls whom he could not make happy. Mere praise did not pacify their tempers or ease their dislike and suspicion of him. In these cases, Erskine had an ace up his sleeve. When someone was determined to destroy his peace and well-being, when they refused to either like him or to allow him to live the quiet life he most desired, when they were . . . giving someone a headache who was in turn giving Erskine a headache, in situations like this, Erskine, in his capacity as Assistant Director of the Black Studies Department, simply gave them a job.

--On Beauty by Zadie Smith

[N.B.: I quoted this excerpt mostly because I thought it was witty and wise, but, also, to note a trend in the fading out of gender-specific pronouns in favor of some other grammatical legerdemain. Note that last sentence referencing "someone . . . them" instead of the grammatically correct, but misogynistically suspect, "someone . . . him." I don’t think this is a sloppy oversight on Zadie Smith’s part, but rather a vote for the use of the plural-neuter pronoun construction as opposed to the objectionable use of the singular-male pronoun as a recognized marker of inclusiveness of both sexes. Of course, the latter is a fiction, too—so, if one is dealing in fictions, why not have the plural substitute for the singular instead of vice versa? That seems eminently reasonable to me. Kathryn, though, will probably crack my knuckles with her grammar ruler.]

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August  16,  2006

Patrick: Lagniappe

You complain about creation myths—but you have a dozen of your own. Liberals never believe that conservatives are motivated by moral convictions as profoundly held as those you liberals profess yourselves to hold. You choose to believe that conservatives are motivated by a deep self-hatred, by some form of . . . psychological flaw. But, my dear, that’s the most comforting fairytale of them all!

--On Beauty by Zadie Smith

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August  14,  2006

Patrick: Lagniappe

Harry just wanted Howard to sit down, start again. There were four more hours of quality viewing lined up before bedtime—antique shows and property shows and travel shows and game shows—all of which he and his son might watch together in silent companionship, occasionally commenting on this presenter’s overbite, another’s small hands or sexual preference. And this would all be another way of saying: It’s good to see you. It’s been too long. We’re family. But Howard couldn’t do this when he was sixteen and he couldn’t do it now. He just did not believe, as his father did, that time is how you spend your love.

--On Beauty by Zadie Smith

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August  12,  2006

Patrick: Lagniappe

The food arrived. Clarie was still speaking about the land. Zora, who had been clearly brooding on something, now spoke up. ‘But how do you avoid falling into pastoral fallacy – I mean, isn’t it a depoliticized reification, all this beauty stuff about landscape? Virgil, Pope, the Romantics. Why idealize?’

‘Idealize?’ repeated Claire uncertainly. ‘I’m not sure I really … You know, what I’ve always felt is, well, for instance, in The Georgics –‘

‘The what?’

‘Virgil . . . in The Georgics, nature and the pleasures of the pastoral are essential to any . . . ‘ began Claire, but Zora had already stopped listening. Claire’s kind of learning was tiresome to her. Clair didn’t know anything about theorists, or ideas, or the latest thinking. Sometimes Zora suspected her of being barely intellectual. With her, it was always ‘in Plato’ or ‘in Baudelaire’ or ‘in Rimbaud’, as if we all had time to sit around reading whatever we fancied. Zora blinked impatiently, visibly tracking Claire’s sentence, waiting for a period, or failing that, a semicolon in which to insert herself again.

‘But after Foucault,’ she said, seeing her chance, ‘where is there to go with that stuff?’

--On Beauty by Zadie Smith

[N.B.: Do you hear that low chuckle? It’s the mocking of Int-Lit. "As if we all had time to sit around reading whatever we fancied." But, of course, we do. We need merely to cultivate a sense of disdain for popular opinion—the Big Now.]

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August  11,  2006

Patrick: Lagniappe

He never really got over her face. It gave him so much pleasure. Erskine often joked that only a man who had such pleasure at home could be the kind of theorist Howard was, so against pleasure in his work. Erskine himself was on his second marriage. Almost all the men Howard knew were already divorced, had begun again with new women; they told him things like ‘you get to the end of a woman’, as if their wives had been pieces of string. It that what happened? Had he finally go to the end of Kiki?

--On Beauty by Zadie Smith

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August  10,  2006

Patrick: Lagniappe

‘Carlene, I got to be honest with you, honey,’ said Kiki, laughing, ‘I don’t think Howard’s in any danger of a knighthood any time soon. Thanks for the warning, though.’

‘You shouldn’t make fun of your husband, dear,’ came the urgent reply; ‘you only make fun of yourself that way.’

--On Beauty by Zadie Smith

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August  9,  2006

Patrick: Lagniappe

Travel had seemed the key to the kingdom, back then. One dreamed of a life that would enable travel. Howard looked through his window at a lamp-post buried to its waist in snow supporting two chained-up, frozen bikes, identifiable only by the tips of their handlebars. He imagined waking up this morning and digging his bike out of the snow and riding to a proper job, the kind Belseys had had for generations, and found he couldn’t imagine it. This interested Howard, for a moment: the idea that he could no longer gauge the luxuries of his own life.

--On Beauty by Zadie Smith

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August  8,  2006

Patrick: Lagniappe

‘So I have this Salomé dress – red, sequined, I knew when I saw it that it was my Salomé dress, I bought it in Montreal. I wanted to get married in my Salomé dress and take a man’s head with me. And . . . I did. And it’s such a sweet head,’ said Clair, pulling it gently towards her.

‘So full of facts,’ said Kiki. She wondered how many times this exact routine would be repeated to well-wishers in the coming weeks. She and Howard were just the same, especially when they had news. Each couple it its own vaudeville act.

--On Beauty by Zadie Smith

 

The Sense of Sensibilities

As I was spending my usual 10 minutes perusing the current issue of the New Yorker, I came across this delightful article by John Updike concerning late works by great writers. Well, so much for the 10-minute flip-through of the cartoons. About once every three or four months, the New Yorker will have a decent article which will actually make me slow down and smell the newsprint. How strange that this quarter’s delight would be by one of my bête noire’s, John Updike. As one might surmise from my prior fulminations, I do not like Updike; I do not like him on a train, or in a plane, or with a goat or on a boat; I do not like Updike. Why is that? He is a great prose stylist, but, c’mere bub, so’s lots of other palookas. Indeed, having a masterful command of the Queen’s English is not all that unusual (it just seems so when one peruses the prose of the bestsellers lists). Nope—if I went on prose alone I’d have to start reading the likes of Elmore Leonard (who, I understand is as addictive as crack—same for Patrick O’Brian). It’s not how big your command of prose is but what you do with it in the bardroom. And, in my humble opinion, that’s where Updike breaks down, at least for me.

Updike strikes me as an superannuated priapic adolescent forever reliving the glory days of the Sixties and Seventies. Writing as a lapsed WASP [N.B.: Warning--this link is to a fossilized specimen of wild WASP still grazing in its natural habitat], Updike enjoys delineating the death of the WASP—but John O’Hara already covered that ground (and look what it got him—oblivion). In short, Updike offends my literary sensibility. His themes are not my themes. Nor his concerns. Nor his subjects. He lacks a sense of my sensibility.

I think the very greatest writers, though, have such a large sensibility that anyone with an appreciation of fine prose can’t help but admire—and enjoy—them. Jane Austen springs to mind as a great test of this kind of literary sensibility. If you do not like Jane Austen, there is something wrong with you, not her. To reject Austen is to reject complexity, concision, and, above all, wit (that is, comedy—the very fiber of life). There is no principled stand to made against the likes of her. Updike, ugggh. Austen, ahhhh! So ends my perspicacious critical explanation of one of literature’s giants.

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August  7,  2006

Patrick: Lagniappe

Despite costume changes, the significant features remain largely unchanged by the years. His teeth—uniquely in his family—are straight and of a similar size to each other; his bottom lip’s fullness goes some way towards compensating for the absence of the upper; and his ears are not noticeable, which is all one can ask of ears. He has no chin, but his eyes are very large and very green. He has a thin, appealing, aristocratic nose. When placed next to men of his own age and class, he has two great advantages: hair and weight. Both have changed little. The hair in particular is extremely full and healthy. A grey patch streams from his right temple. Just this fall he decided to throw the lot of it violently forward on to his face, as he had not done since 1967—a great success. A large photo of Howard, towering over other members of the Humanities Faculty as they arrange themselves tidily around Nelson Mandela, shows this off to some effect: he has easily the most hair of any fellow there. The pictures of Howard multiply as we near the ground: Howard in Bermuda shorts with shocking white, waxy knees; Howard in academic tweed under a tree dappled by the Massachusetts light; Howard in a great hall, newly appointed Empson Lecturer in Aesthetics; in a baseball cap pointing at Emily Dickinson’s house; in a beret for no good reason; in a Day-Glo jumpsuit in Eatonville, Florida, with Kiki beside him, shielding her eyes from either Horward or the sun or the camera.

--On Beauty by Zadie Smith

[N.B.: Here, in this partial paragraph, is a master class on how to write a descriptive paragraph of a main character that combines physical appearance with character sketch, neither being too obtrusive. We don’t mind all these details piled higgledy-piggledy one on top of another because the whole is lightly lathered in a thin veneer of humor. The last sentence, in particular, is delicious.]

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August  3,  2006

Patrick:

A Literary Luddite

Over at the Guardian, there’s an interesting article by the hot young playwright, Mark Ravenhill, basically table-thumping for the destruction of the writer’s workshop. As I have argued before, I think the creative-writing workshop is a blight on the American literary landscape that must be extirpated root and branch. Why? Because it kills that which is seeks to preserve: creativity. One cannot create pursuant to a rigid set of rules—as Ravenhill pithily puts it:

The trouble is, the more I write, the less I feel I know about writing—certainly, the less I feel I can articulate what is going on when I’m doing it. And the more suspicious I become of anything that pretends to be a rule of playwriting. But tell a workshop participant that there are no rules, that they need to discover what a play means to them and write something that is unique to their sense of the world, and you are likely to be faced with a sullen customer who feels they aren’t getting their money’s worth. And a black mark on your "How helpful was this workshop?" evaluation form at the end.

[N.B.: note in the above paragraph that he starts three sentences with conjunctions—and, but, and—which do not feel monotonous but rather pull the reader along to the witty conclusion.].  And here’s Ravenhill’s conclusion:

Good artists make good art. Good teachers teach, often brilliantly. Rarely are the skills combined.

Bravo. Creativity, like the miracle of transubstantiation, is a phenomenon resistant to the tinkering of white-coated dry-as-dust professores fumbling with their beakers and red-inked pens. Why did D’J Breece Pancake kill himself? Maybe it was in despair at realizing that he had reached the pinnacle of his art and would be forever after forced to grind into ever finer dust his experiences in the backwoods of West Virginia as he pontificated to his twenty-second creative-writing class the importance of "show not tell" and "write what you know." Who wouldn’t prefer blueberries to such a fate? God save the Queen, at least the British are not hog-tied—yet—to such drudgery. The British aren’t better writers than Americans; they just have more common sense and an instinctive distrust of a systematizing uniformity which always kills that which it seeks to preserve. If you love your writers, set them free.

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August  2,  2006

Patrick: Lagniappe

But the purpose of studying Nature at all, aside from the distraction which it affords, (and it is in the nature of distraction not to dwell on anything to the point of tedium) is that the study should illuminate the relation of living things to each other, to us, to the environment. One thing should lead to something quite other. Complexity is the keynote of biology—a fact which those who have been trained first in the exact or physical sciences can never seem to grasp. The goal of biological thought is ramifications, many-viewpointedness, and a man who drops his swallows uncompleted because he has suddenly grown excited over beetles is simply a man who is growing.

--An Almanac for Moderns by Donald Culross Peattie

 

The Racist Taint, Part II

Peattie, unfortunately, was a child of his time—and, as I have explained elsewhere, children of their time may be popular during their day, but they die with it (do you hear me, John Updike, Norman Mailer, John Irving, etc., etc.?). He is writing during, as W. H. Auden put it, that "low dishonest decade," when educated folks thought that part of their education entailed intellectual servitude to the popular theories of the day explaining How the World Works (as I’ve described this past week or so this is an Achilles heel to the otherwise exceptional work of Mary McCarthy—who’s still one of my favorites, by the bye; the lover may speak harshly from time to time of his beloved but it is only to sharpen, by contrast, his intense adoration for her). So, of course, Peattie is a village atheist, which, currently has morphed into that deadliest of boors, the militant unbeliever. More unfortunate, though, is that he also subscribed to the notion of scientific racism. It’s hard to believe nowadays—post-Hitler—that very intelligent people subscribed to the idea that humanity was not one species but many divided on a continuum by the color of its skin. But, as a result, the modern reader stumbles across an almanac entry such as this one for, of all days, July Fourth:

Little Auguste Forel’s black friends were the common slave ants, Formica fusca. Of a fine warm morning you can, almost anywhere, find quantities of them, running actively on their long legs, in the woods, in suburban gardens, even on city sidewalks. They can be told at once by their long legs, rapid gait, large black body, with satiny sheen on the abdomen. The rest of the creature is dull and ashy, as if he had just fallen in the dust.

Every species of ant has its racial characteristics. This one seems to me to be the negro of ants, and not alone from the circumstance that he is all black, but because he is the commonest victim of slavery, and seems especially susceptible to a submissive estate. He is easily impressed by the superior organization or the menacing tactics of his raiders and drivers, and, as I know him, he is relatively lazy or at least disorganized, random, feckless and witless when free in the bush, while for him masters he will work faithfully. I found the variety and the particular colony I studied longest to be superstitiously afraid of the dark. It popped underground at sundown, and was never caught in my kitchen at night, as other species were. But under a broiling subtropical sun at midday its energy was only accelerated.

I found the black ant continually engaged in trying to make petty thefts from the sweet-stocked nests of the golden miners and harvesters of the genus Pheidole. These were not the concerted attacks which highly organized species make on stores of sweets, for the black ants are incapable of doing anything in a concerted way while under their own government. These were single and sneaking attempts to pilfer, like those of the traditional dark thief of the watermelon patch.

This is deeply, deeply offensive. Such writing means that although the book has many great merits, it is unpublishable today—at least without significant editing. With the entry quoted above, I suppose one could delete the second paragraph and the last sentence of the third paragraph, but there still lurks the sinister shadow of an insidious insinuation in such words as "dull and ashy" and "highly organized species." What is one to do? I might add, that with British books from this period, one stumbles upon the similar flaw of anti-Semitism (although here, tellingly enough, modern readers and publishers seem more forgiving—as can be seen in this short essay defending H. G. Wells; but see--if you must--Mel Gibson). To my feeble intellect, the problem seems insurmountable. Perhaps, even with all of its glories, a work such as Donald Peattie’s must lapse into the mire of obscurity until we reach a point where sentiments such as his can be understood in the context of his time without producing feelings of outrage and revulsion. In the end, no one must be forced to read that which is distasteful to one—except students, of course, who pay for the whip’s lash.

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