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ARCHIVED ENTRIES FOR JANUARY 2006

January  31,  2006

Patrick: Lagniappe

"My dear young lady," said Mrs. Touchett, "there are as many points of view in the world as there are people of sense. You may say that doesn’t make them very numerous! American? Never in the world; that’s shockingly narrow. My point of view, thank God, is personal!"

--The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James

[N.B.:  Somehow, I think Henry James is in sympathy with Mrs. Touchett on this point--if on no other.]

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January  30,  2006

Patrick: Lagniappe

"Good heavens, how you see through one!" cried Ralph, with a dismay that was not altogether jocular.

"But I like you all the same," his cousin went on. "The way to clinch the matter will be to show me the ghost."

Ralph shook his head sadly. "I might show it to you, but you would never see it. The privilege isn’t given to every one; it’s not enviable. It has never been seen by a young, happy, innocent person like you. You must have suffered first, have suffered greatly, have gained some miserable knowledge. In that way your eyes are opened to it. I saw it long ago," said Ralph, smiling.

--The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James

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January  29,  2006

Patrick: Lagniappe

Her reputation of reading a great deal hung about her like the cloudy envelope of a goddess in an epic; it was supposed to engender difficult questions, and to keep the conversation at a low temperature. The poor girl liked to be thought clever, but she hated to be thought bookish; she used to read in secret, and, though her memory was excellent, to abstain from quotation. She had a great desire for knowledge, but she really preferred almost any source of information to the printed page; she had an immense curiosity about life, and was constantly staring and wondering. She carried within herself a great fund of life, and her deepest enjoyment was to feel the continuity between the movements of her own heart and the agitations of the world. For this reason she was fond of seeing great crowds and large stretches of country, of reading about revolutions and wars, of looking at historical pictures—a class of efforts to which she had often gone so far as to forgive much bad painting for the sake of the subject.

--Washington Square by Henry James

[N.B.:  This description is of the heroine protagonist of Henry James's comedic novel of manners, Washington Square.  I would be curious to learn of other "bookish" fictional characters described by great literary writers--there must be a small regiment of such types.  Of course, the greatest of them all just happens to be literature's greatest fictional character: Don Quixote.  What others inhabit this noble branch?  Please feel free to send me a comment with your suggestions.]

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January  28,  2006

Patrick: Lagniappe

But [Lionel] Trilling had no doubt that [C. P.] Snow was wrong. There is no such thing, he said, as a scientific culture that tells us what is valuable or worthless. Snow should never have dismissed in his jaunty way the writers who were sickened by the effects of industrialism. The standard of living matters but no civilized person accepts that the quality of life can be measured in terms of real wages alone. Literature, said Trilling, not science, helps us to understand the meaning of life. It helps to create our culture and to criticize it. Every great writer in modern times, with varying degrees of passion, has expressed his resentment at our civilization and his bitterness that the generous desires we as individuals entertain cannot be fulfilled.

--Our Age by Noel Annan

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January  24,  2006

Patrick: Lagniappe

The end of the war marked a change in manners concerning one topic. The revelation of the Holocaust in the concentration camps altered the way the educated classes spoke and felt about the Jews. Anti-semitism never dies; like other forms of xenophobia it festers and erupts on strange issues. But at any rate after 1945 it became bad form and was regarded as disgusting to talk in a derogatory way about Jews, still less discriminate in public against them. No doubt some clubs and public schools still operated a ban or a quota. During the war Claude Elliott, the headmaster of Eton, got the fellows to pass an amendment to the statues, excluding from entry to College, i.e. through open scholarship, any son of a naturalized subject. He intended to exclude the children of Jewish refugees. When in the sixties Freddie Ayer challenged this exclusion and pointed out that he had been just such a boy when elected to College, Macmillan (who had been himself in College) advised Elliott, by that time provost, that the statute should be amended and the boy in question admitted. The kind of anti-semitic remarks common enough among Keynes’s and Harold Nicolson’s circles disappeared. Underground, perhaps: but Jews were now wholly accepted in public life.

--Our Age by Noel Annan

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January  23,  2006

Patrick: Lagniappe

Virginia Woolf was quite certain when modernism began. ‘In or about December 1910, human character changed . . . all human relations shifted – those between masters and servants, husbands and wives, parents and children. And when human relations change there is at the same time a change in religion, conduct, politics and literature.’ In picking that date she had in mind the post-impressionist exhibition which Roger Fry and her sister Vanessa had helped to organize. Perhaps she remembered the ball to celebrate it when she and Vanessa scandalized the press by appearing as Gauguin girls, bare-shouldered and bare-legged swathed in African sailcloth. Next summer she was to bathe naked in Byron’s pool with Rupert Brooks at Cambridge, and go camping with him in Devon unchaperoned. In the spring before the exhibition her sister had begun an affair with Roger Fry and said she did not see why the women in Bloomsbury should not have the same freedom as the homosexual men. This happened shortly after another freedom had been established in Bloomsbury – the freedom to say in mixed company things that formerly had been said only by men to men. On August 11, 1908, Lytton Strachey saw a stain on the front of Vanessa Bell’s skirt and had said to her, ‘Semen?’

--Our Age by Noel Annan

[N.B.:  Of course, "the freedom to say in mixed company things that formerly had been said only by men to men," applied to the upper classes only.  For the rest, such speech was just "low."  Now, by the miracle of Bloomsbury, it's "Bohemian."  No wonder Bloomsbury's reputation has been taking a beating as of late.  Not to mention that there was only one true "genius" in this Boobwahgee melange--Virginia Woolf.]

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January  19,  2006

Patrick: Lagniappe

The first paragraph of Hugh Kenner’s The Pound Era:

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

The last paragraph of Hugh Kenner’s The Pound Era:

His mind on Carpaccio, on cats and stones, on butterflies ("gasping," "milkweed the sustenance"), on the conversation frequent visitors brought, on faces present and gone, on his own past; shrunken, slight, no more weight than he had half-grown, long ago, in Wyncote, he shouldered the weariness of 85 years, his resource memory within memory within memory. At Wyncote, last, a summer night in 1958, St Elizabeths freshly behind him, in bed in his old house for the last time (and aged 72), he had somehow wakened—always a brief sleeper; genius enjoys long days—and tiptoed downstairs in his pajamas, out into the dark street, and down to the Presbyterian Church, to sit on its steps looking over the moonlit lawns of great estates: sitting where a boy had sat 60 years before, his eye on trees before dawn, his mind on a poet’s destiny, which should be that of dreaming old men’s silences; the old man’s memory now in turn accessible to the still older mean in Venice, to be guessed at but never experienced by any comer. "Shall two know the same in their knowing?" Thought is a labyrinth.

--The Pound Era by Hugh Kenner

[N.B.: One frequently hears the derogatory snort—please see my post at the beginning of last month, Attack of the Fabulously Small Reviewer—that a mere critic cannot, given the second-hand nature of his subject matter, create a first-rate work of art. Hugh Kenner’s The Pound Era loudly annihilates such jealous mewling. The first and last paragraphs quoted above consist of some of the finest writing to be found at the beginning or end of any book, fiction, nonfiction, or mere criticism.]

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January  18,  2006

Patrick: Lagniappe

The gods have never left us. Nothing we know the mind to have known has ever left us. Quickened by hints, the mind can know it again, and make it new. Romantic Time no longer thickens our sight, time receding, bearing visions away. Our books of cave paintings are the emblems of its abolition, perhaps the Pound Era’s chief theme, and the literary consolidation of that theme stands the era’s achievement. Translation, for instance, after Ezra Pound, aims neither at dim ritual nor at lexicographic lockstep, but at seeming transparency, the vigors of the great original—Homer, Kung—not remote but at touching distance, though only to be touched with the help of all that we know. Robert Fitzgerald’s Odyssey

                                Of these adventures, Muse, daughter of Zeus,

                                Tell us in our time; lift the great song again

--is greatly told and in, exactly, our time; and the translator learned the meaning of certain words by using his eyes, on a boat in the Aegean, at dawn. (Only the arcanely skilled may deeply read.) And 50 years after the dismal fuss about Pound’s Propertius, we read in Christopher Logue’s variations on the Iliad how Achilles, inspecting armor "Made in Heaven" "Spun the holy tungsten like a star between his knees"; read them, moreover, printed and commended, in a learned journal devoted to the classics, though in that line for instance not one word stands for a word of Homer’s.

--The Pound Era by Hugh Kenner

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January  17,  2006

Patrick: Lagniappe

But in 1965, Eliot; and in London, for the service at Westminster Abbey, a white-bearded ghost deplaned, frail, with piercing mobile eyes. He had not seen the Eliot of the last years, weakened by emphysema beneath the sartorial armor (the lapels a shade wide, the suit in fact somehow massive; and the fountain pen a size larger than customary, and the watch chain suggesting anchorage for a cruiser. "Remarkable man, Mr. Eliot," said a tailor he patronized. "Very good taste. Nothing ever quite in excess." There has been no more accurate insight.)

--The Pound Era by Hugh Kenner

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January  16,  2006

Patrick: Lagniappe

Meanwhile the New World went on providing, it supposed, access to all that man’s heart can desire: mountains and fir trees, water and wheat and sunlight. Do men need men? Do they need cities? The New World inclines to think not. Her sage is Thoreau. She feels that her cities are her problem areas; that some economic process, no doubt related to the concentrations of capital, makes them exist and metabolize thought and wealth; but that they turn cancerous.

--The Pound Era by Hugh Kenner

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January  14,  2006

Kathryn: David Foster Wallace's Consider the Lobster, etc.

Just a quick plug for David Foster Wallace's new collection of essays, Consider the Lobster. Brilliant, wide-ranging essays on everything from the Adult Video News Awards (fly-on-the-wall style) to John Updike (from which essay I would like to gratuitously highlight the phrase "penis with a thesaurus") to the Maine Lobster Festival (mainly on the ethics of boiling and eating lobsters). Also a hilarious essay on American usage (using Garner's Dictionary of Modern American Usage as a jumping-off point). For a laudatory review, go here
or here: http://tinyurl.com/bunh2 .

And on the subject of DFW, I would also recommend this interview, which includes some discussion of DFW's views regarding the corrosive effects of irony and our "inner saps."

A couple of new orphans are on the list in the left margin, BTW: Mathilde and Manech from A Very Long Engagement. Manech gets double points, as he is also an amnesiac.

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January  8,  2006

Patrick: Lagniappe

His interest dwelt on how the bard’s throat shapes air: his cadence (cadenza): his breath, literally his psyche. (Psyché te ménos te, says Homer, equating the two: his breath and strength, all that it is to be alive.) Pound liked to quote what Yeats said of a poem, "I made it out of a mouthful of air": a physical reality for the Irish poet who paced the downstairs room at Stone Cottage, intoning

that had made a great Peeeeacock

              in the proide ov his oiye

              had made a great peeeeeeecock in the . . .

made a great peacock

              in the proide of his oyyee

proide ov his oy-ee;

(Cantos 83/534:569)

and Homer as we now think composed only aloud, building the Iliad out of mouthfuls of air, the Muse singing as his chest contracted, his breath governing the line, his heart beating against the stresses.

--The Pound Era by Hugh Kenner

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January  6,  2006

Patrick: Lagniappe

As in his could chamber a physicist sees an electron’s trace, so Ezra Pound looking at ideograms in the 1940’s was inspecting tracks left, he was thoroughly convinced, by the patterned energies at the roots of phenomena. I raise my eyes from this page and see a jet contrail, very high, luminous pink in the dawn sky. Those who are skilled in fire may read it. It proclaims Newton’s third law, action and reaction, and Boyle’s law that unites the heat and the volume of gases, and Dalton’s discovery that cooling condenses water, and Snell’s law of refraction whereby droplets grow luminous when sunlight enters them: self-interfering patterns, written in a lengthening trace in front of which, invisible, a hundred people are being carried through the high air.

--The Pound Era by Hugh Kenner

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January  5,  2006

Patrick: Lagniappe

[T]he girl never attempted to write a book, and had no desire to be an authoress. She had no talent for expression, and had none of the consciousness of genius; she only had a general idea that people were right when they treated her as if she were rather superior. Whether or no she were superior, people were right in admiring her if they thought her so; for it seemed to her often that her mind moved more quickly than theirs, and this encouraged an impatience that might easily be confounded with superiority. It may be affirmed without delay that Isabel was probably very liable to the sin of self-esteem; she often surveyed with complacency the field of her own nature; she was in the habit of taking for granted, on scanty evidence, that she was right; impulsively, she often admired herself. Meanwhile her errors and delusions were frequently such as a biographer interested in preserving the dignity of his heroine must shrink from specifying. Her thoughts were a tangle of vague outlines, which had never been corrected by the judgment of people who seemed to her to speak with authority. In matters of opinion she had had her own way, and it had led her into a thousand ridiculous zigzags. Every now and then she found out she was wrong, and then she treated herself to a week of passionate humility. After this she held her head higher than ever again; for it was of no use, she had an unquenchable desire to think well of herself. She had a theory that it was only on this condition that life was worth living; that one should be one of the best, should be conscious of a fine organization (she could not help knowing her organization was fine), should move in a realm of light, of natural wisdom, of happy impulse, of inspiration gracefully chronic. It was almost as unnecessary to cultivate doubt of oneself as to cultivate doubt of one’s best friend, and to give oneself, in this manner, distinguished company. The girl had a certain nobleness of imagination which rendered her a good many services and played her a great many tricks. She spent half her time in thinking of beauty, and bravery, and magnanimity; she had a fixed determination to regard the world as a place of brightness, of free expansion, of irresistible action; she thought it would be detestable to be afraid or ashamed. She had an infinite hope that she should never do anything wrong. She had resented so strongly, after discovering them, her mere errors of feeling (the discovery always made her tremble, as if she had escaped from a trap which might have caught her and smothered her), that the chance of inflicting a sensible injury upon another person, presented only as a contingency, caused her at moments to hold her breath. That always seemed to her the worst thing that could happen to one. On the whole, reflectively, she was in no uncertainty about the things that were wrong. She had no taste for thinking of them, but whenever she looked at them fixedly she recognized them. It was wrong to be mean, to be jealous, to be false, to be cruel; she had seen very little of the evil of the world, but she had seen women who lied and who tried to hurt each other. Seeing such things had quickened her high spirit; it seemed right to scorn them. Of course the danger of a high spirit is the danger of inconsistency—the danger of keeping up the flag after the place has surrendered; a sort of behaviour so anomalous as to be almost a dishonour to the flag. But Isabel, who knew little of the sorts of artillery to which young ladies are exposed, flattered herself that such contradictions would never be observed in her own conduct. Her life should always be in harmony with the most pleasing impression she should produce; she would be what she appeared, and she would appear what she was. Sometimes she went so far as to wish that she should find herself some day in a difficult position, so that she might have the pleasure of being as heroic as the occasion demanded. Altogether, with her meagre knowledge, her inflated ideals, her confidence at once innocent and dogmatic, her temper at once exacting and indulgent, her mixture of curiosity and fastidiousness, of vivacity and indifference, her desire to look very well and to be if possible even better; her determination to see, to try, to know; her combination of the delicate, desultory, flame-like spirit and the eager and personal young girl; she would be an easy victim of scientific criticism, if she were not intended to awaken on the reader’s part an impulse more tender and more purely expectant.

--The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James

[N.B.: This partial quote of the opening paragraph of Chapter VI of The Portrait of a Lady, is the character sketch of Isabel Archer, the novel’s heroine.  It is the unanswerable refutation of the first rule in any creative writing class "to show, not tell."  Oh really?  That’s all Henry James, arguably the greatest novelist of all time, does—he tells you what his characters are about and then he tells you what happens to them.  There’s another literary lightweight who does the same thing, some forgotten authoress, what is her name?, oh yeah: Jane Austen.]

The Evil that Men Do: Show, Don’t Tell

Well, last post concerned why does Paul Collins exist.  I believe we answered that one in good Descartian fashion:  He thinks he should, therefore he does.  Bully for him.  Along the way, though, we also noted a formidable reader trap which Mr. Collins seems rather fond of—the hoary old creative-writing school adage to "show, don’t tell."  Using Mr. Collins’s book, Sixpence House, which is about neither (as he gleefully admits in de rigueur arch ironic fashion [N.B.: the reason irony should be banned from modern prose is that it is used as a cloak to disguise the lamentable lack of a point in one’s writing]), as an exemplar, we see that the rule "show, don’t tell," violates two fundamental rules for most good writing, as Henry James, in a much more elliptical fashion, would address: (1) it promotes falsehood by omission; and (2) it thwarts parsimony.

Henry James, our truth-telling paladin par excellence, made something of a fetish of abiding by the truth. He did so, in his writings, in part, by tell, tell, TELLING.  In Portrait of a Lady, he spends page upon page (in just one paragraph, mind) expositing in the finest detail known to man the many facets of our heroine’s, Isabel Archer’s, character.  He performs this laborious exercise in order for the reader to judge whether this finely wrought character, Miss Archer, behaves appropriately, or, dare I say it, truthfully, in the myriad of situations that James subjects her to.  The book is hundreds of pages long.  If James abided by "show, don’t tell," it would be hundreds of pages longer still in order for the reader to, drip, by agonizing drip, discern Miss Archer’s character. But what’s the point of that?  It merely confuses the matter and violates the second rule of parsimony—the need to cover the most literary ground in the shortest verbal distance possible.  Yes, James might spend pages on one small, apparently inconsequential, scene in Gilbert Osmond’s drawing room.  And that is where "show, don’t tell," has its pride of place.  But like any blunt tool, it’s overuse creates a distorted and, finally, brutish figure fit to be worshipped only within the benighted barbarian dens of creative writing schools.

The problem with "show, don’t tell," as a guiding principle, is that it allows the author to side step causality.  The author shows you one scene, then another, apparently unconnected one, and then another and another.  It’s your job, gentle reader, to try to stitch these scenes together.  Of course, Professor Toff will barge in at this point with the exclamation, "Harummph and bumpf, that’s the point of modernist literature, the consciousness is just a bunch of gleaming fragments; personality is non-existent and we can no more be the same person from one moment to the next than a man can walk into the same river twice; so causality is simply a will o’ the wisp."  Thanks Professor Toff, we get that.  But Paul Collins’s book is a work of non-fiction about living in Hay-on-Wye and is supposed to have something to do with Sixpence House.  In other words, it’s not some grand modernist experiment—just a shabby little anecdotal travel book, with, unfortunately, few travels and fewer anecdotes.

Mr. Collins disguises this sad state of affairs, though, by a liberal slathering of "show, don’t tell."  It’s not until one comes to near the end of the book, which, believe it or not, is where Sixpence House finally makes its cameo appearance—in a chapter faux charmingly titled, "Chapter Fourteen Is Awfully Late to Be Introducing the Title Setting"—that one stitches enough of the variegated scenes together to discern that there is no there there [N.B.: so why is the book titled Sixpence House—obviously, because the author thought it was a charming title that would sell books. Wrong, yet again, as attested to by the reproachful piles of remaindered copies].  And that, at last, is the point of this rambling post—"show, don’t tell," like any good literary tool, has its place in one’s creative writing toolbox, but to use it to excess, like any tool, creates a work that has no artistry, no soul.

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January 4,  2006

Patrick: Lagniappe

Writing of Arabian music in 1920, his most intensive dealing with Arnaut not long behind him and his Cantos beginning to find their shape, Pound noted how "as in the Provençql metrical schemes,"

the effect of the subtler repetitions only becomes apparent in the third or fourth strophe, and then culminates in the fifth or sixth, as a sort of horizontal instead of perpendicular chord. One might call it a "sort of" counterpoint; if one can conceive a counterpoint which plays not against a sound newly struck, but against the residuum and residua of sounds which hang in the auditory memory.

This "sort of horizontal chord," an "elaboration of echo," had in Provence and Tuscany achieved great complexity, and had formed minds fit to delight in it. Arnaut once more, making convention new, had more than once made of a renewal a consummation.

--The Pound Era by Hugh Kenner

Why Does Paul Collins Exist?

I finished reading Sixpence House by one Paul Collins, for whom I fail to discern the reason for his existence as a writer.  As you can see from amazon.com, the hardback is rightly remaindered, which is how I came across a copy.  Amusingly, Mr. Collins, foreshadows the fate of his book, as this conversation with another writer indicates:

I am being published soon myself, though perhaps published and forgotten—"Ehhhh," a writer muttered to me once as we drove through Philly, "we’re both going to be footnotes. Maybe not even that"—and yet the boundary has been crossed.

Not to worry dear Paul, you will not wind up as a footnote.  You, instead, will be a blog post.  So why am I banging on about a poor bloke who has written some soon-to-be-forgotten twaddle?  Because it’s deceptive twaddle—and it’s deceptive in a manner that is quite commonplace today and serves as a handy example for one of the banes of modern writing:  that duplicitous rule taught in every creative writing class "to show, not tell."

But first, let’s answer the question posed in the post title: Why does Paul Collins exist?  His book, Sixpence House, is not about Sixpence House, an old pub converted into a home in the middle of Hay-on-Wye, the famous Welsh town with about 40 book stores but only 1500 souls.  Indeed, this house happens to be one of several that the Collins family looks at as a possible residence while they while away a few months in Hay-on-Wye pretending to the reader that they might actually settle down there and run a bookshop, which would be the MacGuffin for a decent book.  But they don’t.

Instead, the book is a loving portrait of what a wonderful person our Paul has turned out to be.  Why, just plunk him down anywhere, go ahead, he’s been to many exotic spots, such as Philly, and before you can say, "Bob’s your Uncle," our Paul has ingratiated himself with the benighted locals by imparting such words of wisdom as:

Back in America, I sometimes wondered whether my wife and I were the only people in the country without cars, without licenses even; she’s never had one, and I neglected to renew mine years ago. When people would tell us that something was nearby, Jennifer and I would look at each other and silently think, yes, it’s nearby, for car people. Not owning a car shapes your conception of the United States in weird ways, analogous to Saul Steinberg’s famous map of New York and the rest of the country. For Not-Car-Having People, the United states consists of New York, Boston, San Francisco, Seattle, and Chicago, and a series of transcontinental stops following the Amtrak and Greyhound routes between the aforementioned destinations; one mile to either side of these routes, the ground drops away beneath your feet into chasms of inaccessibility. Should you it into a smaller city, your experience of that city is limited to the downtown and adjacent areas; everything outside is Hinterland.

The entire states of Arizona and Florida do not even exist.

It’s hard to believe that our Paul omitted mentioning what must be the current plague of Not-Car-Having People’s existence: Texas.  Now, I’m sure that our Paul thought that everyone reading his book which is supposed to about a town of books in Wales would be thrilled to also be made privy to his deepest, inner thoughts about the global situation and the little bit he’s doing to make the world a better place.  Typically, only two groups of people in the United States don’t own cars, the very poor and the very wealthy, but there’s only one group that feels the need to inflict upon the rest of us their political opinions.  Care to take a stab in which group our Paul falls into?  Here’s a hint (no, not the one where he begins a paragraph with the observation: "It looks precisely like my father-in-law’s lute workshop in Sonoma County."):

Later that spring, a Very Famous Playwright visited my school for several days; it was that kind of school, I guess, though I was quite ungrateful for it. Before he’d arrived, they’d herded us into Memorial Hall to watch the old black-and-white film with Big Stars that had been made from his Big Play . . . . Anyway, then the Very Famous Playwright spent three afternoons fielding the same question over and over from well-scrubbed boys in blazers and ties—"How can you be a Democrat?" we’d pester—and he would erupt into a deep sigh whenever anyone said that they wanted to be a writer.

Do I need to add that this was a boarding school?  Oh well, consider it added.  And who do you think the Very Famous Playwright might have been?  My money’s on Arthur Miller, but, whoever, it was, he spent three days with these ungrateful buggers. Perhaps they were all Republicans, as our Paul insinuates, except for himself being a Not-Car-Having Person and, to top it off, a Not-Old-Enough-to-Drive Person.  All I know is that the big event at my public school was to go to the old Butterkrust Bakery at the far end of town and eat a hot slice of bread dripping with melted butter (hmmm, hmmmm).  Of course, our Paul seems to have realized that this anecdote might tend to alienate the one or two intrepid readers who have trudged this far into his volume wondering when the fabulous Hay-on-Wye with its overflowing bookshops would take up center stage.  So, our Paul, following the diktat of "show, don’t tell," adopts an ironic pose towards this incident of the Very Famous Playwright, even if he is sympathetic to him.

We never learn who the Very Famous Playwright is, but it doesn’t really matter—sort of like the rest of the book. Instead, it provides one, of, apparently, an unlimited number, of opportunities for our Paul to trot out his bona-fides of what a very fine person he is.  And that’s the central evil of "show, don’t tell," it allows one to engage in authorial mendacity, to hide the literary ball, so to speak.  If we were told right up front—"This book is about a pompous Not-Car-Having Person who wishes to natter on about his personal beliefs disguised as a happy-go-lucky trip to a Welsh book town"—we would have left the volume buried in the remainder pile, which is exactly what the vast majority of browsers chose to do.  For us unlucky few, though, we fell into the "show, don’t tell" trap.

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January 3,  2006

Patrick: Lagniappe

[Wyndham Lewis] had the painter’s special understanding of the use of movements, easily explicated. Movements bear on the painter’s place in the market economy, where the writer’s situation is a little less anomalous. In proportion as his book attracts attention, and then for so long as it pleases, the writer draws money from its sale, but the maker of a picture is paid only once. Expensive resales profit only the resellers. And what he is paid bears no necessary relation to his effort and intelligence, but only to his fame. Fame may be fortuitous; in the 1940’s Grandma Moses commanded better prices than Lewis. It may also be a stock as carefully tended as that of a holding company. What the buyer of a Picasso purchases is just that "a Picasso": a share in Pablo Picasso’s reputation. Picasso shares command high prices. To make a living therefore, such a man incurs the obligations of a dual career: the painter’s, the publicist’s. The painter makes pictures. The publicist shapes nothing—bubble reputation—into "Picasso" or "Braque" or "Warhol": the heady entity in which people will buy shares in the act of acquiring one of the signed artifacts. Whistler understood this necessity: he invented "Whistler." So Lewis welcomed Pound’s invention of "Vorticism": something in which the potential purchaser, who literally cannot see a picture, might yet buy shares if it proved its staying power ("A little Vorticist thing for the pantry wall"). His remark 32 years later, "Vorticism . . . was what I, personally, did, and said, at a certain period," was in two senses perfectly accurate; his was the primal energy, and "The Vorticist," albeit a mere name, was a persona invented for his use.

--The Pound Era by Hugh Kenner

This ‘n’ That

I posted last month about a scurrilous review railing against the eminent man of American letters, Edmund Wilson. The incredibly small reviewer will go unmentioned, but I did wish to direct you to a lovely paean to Edmund Wilson by Pankaj Mishra in the current issue of the New York Review of Books. Unfortunately, it’s subscription only (everyone knows there’s literally gadzillions of Edmund Wilson fans clamoring to plop down three bucks to read the latest panegyric about their idol).

Speaking of paeans, I found the current issue of the New York Times Book Review fair to bursting with them which focuses on the latest biographies of various literary lives, including William Wordsworth, Frank Norris, Leigh Hunt, Isaac Babel, Siegfried Sassoon and Katherine Anne Porter.  That last one—Ms. Porter—I find of particular interest given that, not only did she lead a very varied life, but she also grew up not far from my hometown of Austin, Texas, in a small Southern burg called Kyle (renowned then, and still, for it’s famous "hangin’ tree"). Katherine Anne Porter’s house has been turned into a museum and literature center where Kathryn and I last year were fortunate enough to hear a poetry reading by the latest National Book Award winner for poetry, W. S. Merwin.  I wonder when the Library of America will bother to publish one volume (that’s all one needs, not eight or twenty or however many volumes of Philip Roth being cranked out) of Ms. Porter’s writings.  Oh, that’s right, I forgot, they’re busy squirting out a volume of H. P. Lovecraft, clearly a much more accomplished writer than Katherine Anne Porter.  They probably have in the wings the collected writings of Robert Bloch, who wrote Psycho and various classic Star Trek episodes.  Beam me up, Scotty!

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