About

Main

Contact

SEARCH

Archives

ARCHIVED ENTRIES FOR JUNE 2005

June 28,  2005

Patrick: Lagniappe

If you made up a story as you went along, there was always a danger that it would go in too many different directions, inhabit the consciousnesses of too many characters, touch on too many themes, to achieve unity and concentration of effect. That, he had to admit, had happened in the composition of his last two full-length novels, The Princess Casamassima and The Tragic Muse. And that perhaps was why he had been tempted to try his hand at dramatic representation, with its inherent formal constraints.
--Author, Author by David Lodge
 

Henry James: Rumbling the Beast in the Jungle, Round Two
Welcome back to what’s turned out to be an exciting, hard hitting grudge match between the challenger, Colm “Trendy” Toibin, weighing in with his book about Henry James and his sexual predilections, The Master, and his opponent, the real master of disaster, David Lodge, with his own book about Henry James, Author, Author.  It’s now time for round two to get started.


Toibin appears to have caught his second wind after that last combination for Lodge where he got walloped by Henry James’s “innate lack of concupiscence.”  He looks like he’s got something to prove and you can see the fire in his eye.  Lodge appears tentative and is backing away from Toibin, but not fast enough!  Here comes Toibin with that devastating left hook:

One day in the fall of 1860 Henry had come into the studio to find his cousin Gus Barker standing naked on a pedestal while the advanced students sketched him. Gus was strong and wiry, red-haired and white-skinned. He stood immobile and unembarrassed as the five or six students, including William, worked on their drawings as though they did not know the model. Gus Barker, like the Temples, had lost his mother, and his orphanhood gave him the same mystery and independence. No mother could arrive to tell him to cease this display and put on his clothes forthwith. His form was beautiful and manly, and Henry was surprised by his own need to watch him, while pretending that his interest in Gus Barker, like that of the other students, was distant and academic. He studied Williams’ drawing closely so that he could then raise his eyes and study at some length his naked cousin’s perfect gymnastic figure, his strength, and his calm sensual aura.

Well, “forthwith” Lodge has once again been staggered by Toibin’s blow.  He seems to lack a defense to that left hook.  But wait, he’s shaking off that “calm sensual aura,” and has once again entered his stance.  He’s clearly wary of Toibin and his massive left.  Toibin, sensing weakness, once again charges in, and Lodge appears to be stumbling back on his right foot.  Wait, it was a feint—he fell back on his right so that he could put more punch in his own left hook.  And he’s scored a hit, opening up a nasty gash above Coibin’s right eye:

When it dawned on them that Henry had no carnal interest in women they sometimes assumed his taste must be for men or young boys, which Henry found still more offensive. The idea that one might be celibate and yet an authentic artists was clearly unthinkable to them. The hypocrisy of English society, where the true extent of adultery and vice was suppressed and denied in life and in literature, only surfacing in the occasional sensational court case, was in many ways odious and repugnant, but it provided useful cover for a bachelor novelist who was fascinated by the power of sexual attraction in human relations but unqualified and disinclined to represent the intimate details of such experience. He aimed in his fiction to steer, by means of subtle suggestion and eloquent ellipsis, a middle course between the shocking but adult explicitness of the French novel and the childish evasions and falsehoods of the Anglo-American variety. It was however necessary to this project that the novelist should know exactly what it was he was leaving out. Therefore, although he went along, in polite society, with the conventional English disapproval of ‘vile’ and ‘beastly’ French novels, he read a good many of them.

Coibin, now, is on the defensive and appears a bit tentative.  That last blow seems to have shaken him to the core.  He’s having to wipe the blood out of his eye with his glove.  I think he realizes that that last blow has brought a sense of urgency to this fight.  Lodge, too, seems to feel that the momentum has changed and has quit backing off from Toibin.  Each fighter appears to be testing the other’s defenses. Toibin tries a couple of light punches to the body:

She had been caught, as it were, in a great misunderstanding, caught not only in the snare of his solitary, sedentary exile, but also in the idea that he was a man who did not, and would not ever, desire a wife. Her intelligence surely should have warned her that he would, under the slightest pressure, even out of fear, pull back; but her need and the quality of her sympathy came to outpace her intelligence, he thought.


Lodge easily shrugs off those blows, and hits Toibin with a couple of body shots in return:

Henry looked forward eagerly to their reunion at Posilippo, just outside Naples, where Zhukovski had taken a villa. He had settled there to near Wagner, who was spending a year at the Villa Ungri with his wife, surrounded by an entourage of Russian and German admirers and hangers-on to whom Henry was quickly introduced. The atmosphere of decadence and vice that permeated this little court shocked Henry, and he stiffened in resistance to it with the strength of conscience partly formed in puritan New England. There were men who painted themselves, and women who made lewd jokes; couples fondled each other openly in company, and sometimes they were of the same sex. When Zhukovski, at the end of a bibulous evening, attempted to kiss Henry on the mouth, he fled the place and never returned.

Toibin also easily shrugged that off, and returns with another body-shot:

“Constance,” he whispered, “I have come as close as I could, as near I dared.”

Lodge exchanges another body shot:

The motives of these two women, who circled his existence like moons, showing him at most only half of their selves, were never entirely clear, but Alice continued to be both fascinated by and jealous of the unseen Fenimore. Once when William had arrived in England without warning they travelled down to Leamington together and Henry went ahead to prepare Alice for Williams’ visit. ‘I must tell you something,’ he began. ‘You’re not going to be married?’ she shrieked. Henry did not need to ask whom she thought he might be about to marry.

Neither fighter appears the worse for wear from that exchange.  If anything, Toibin appears more determined.  He suddenly rushes in and hits Lodge with a vicious right:

He turned away and tried to regain control but found that he was being held by the sculptor, his shoulders cupped against Andersen’s chest and Andersen’s hands reaching around to grasp his hands and hold them as firmly as he could. He was surprised at Andersen’s strength, the size of his hands. He immediately checked that there was nobody in view before allowing the embrace to continue, feeling the other man’s warm, tough body briefly holding him, wanting desperately to allow himself to be held much longer, but knowing that this embrace was all the comfort he would receive. He held his breath for as long as he could and kept his eyes closed and then Andersen released him and they walked quietly back to the cemetery gate.

That’s pushed back Lodge.  He doesn’t seem to have a defense to being “cupped,” first by the bony Oliver Wendell Holmes and now the virile sculptor, Andersen. Lodge is clearly trying to buy time for a breather, but Toibin won’t have any of it. He lunges in an pops Lodge once again:

Andersen’s decision to stay a short time was, despite his dreaming, not only a sentence of disappointment but a way for him to experience again, but more sharply now, the sense of doom which came with longing and attachment. As if to ward off the ache which fresh disappointment might bring, he went over the time in Paris with Paul Joukowsky more than twenty years earlier. He had gone through that night so many times in his mind. It lived with him in its drama and its finality. He remembered circling and circling, presuming that he would move away soon, return in the misty night to the grim sanctuary of his Paris flat. Yet had had moved closer. He had stood on the pavement as night fell and the mist became rain, and even thinking about it now made him afraid but also excited at what might have been. He had waited there, staring up at Paul’s window which was etched in lamplight, desperately holding himself back from crossing the street and making himself known. For hours he had stayed there, his long vigil ending in defeat. For years, it had come to haunt him at unlikely moments, as it haunted him now.

Hoo-boy, Lodge wasn’t expecting Toibin to return to his devastating left hook and Paul Joukowsky.  But that’s what makes Toibin such a tough fighter.  Even when he’s hurt, he sticks with his game plan and plays to his strengths.  Lodge is clearly hurting now and has backed up all the way to the ropes.  Toibin comes in for the kill and whomps Lodge with yet another left:

Henry, as he lay on his back with the book he was reading left to one side, his own lamp still switched on and shining, closed his eyes and envisioned his guest now, naked in lamplight, his body powerful and perfect, his skin smooth and soft to the touch, the floorboards creaking under him as, having inspected himself in the mirror one more time, he got into his night attire and crossed the room to fetch his book perhaps, and returned to the bed.


Lodge looks worn out against those ropes.  But wait, it’s the old rope-a-dope trick. He bounces off the ropes and hits Toibin hard on that gash over his right eye:

It was set in England and of course contained no recognisable portrait of Symonds, though the Italianate title of the fictitious author’s novel was a clue to a few knowing readers. Henry left the precise nature of the scandalous content of ‘Beltraffio’ obscure and ambiguous—indeed, he didn’t find it necessary even to know himself what it was. In due course, however, it became clear that Symonds was by temperament, and probably in practice, a Uranist, or, to use a term that had just begun to circulate, homo-sexual, and this was the real cause of incompatibility between him and his wife. Only a few month before his death Gosse had sent Henry a copy of a privately printed booklet by Symonds called A Problem in Modern Ethics which was nothing less than a plea for toleration of physical love between men, citing the precedent of such relationships between mature citizens and youths in Plato’s Athens to argue that they were not incompatible with the highest kind of civilisation. Henry found the Athenian or Platonic model of mentor and ephebe an appealing one for his own relations with his young admirers, but only up to a point that stopped well short of the grossly physical. A hug or embrace between friends, on greeting or parting, was of course perfectly natural, and he deplored the frigid Anglo-Saxon prejudice against demonstrations of affection—or love, why not call it love?—between men. But something fastidious in him recoiled from any thought of intimate sexual contact involving nakedness, the groping and interlocking of private parts, and the spending of seed.

That seems to have enraged Toibin who comes back with a murderous blow concerning Henry’s sister, Alice, that knocks Lodge down to the canvas—it looks like for good:

“I’ve always said to William that Alice and Miss Loring might have had very good reasons for coming to England away from all their relatives and friends.”
Henry looked at her in disbelief.
“You know, Harry, the maid at home would talk, and, indeed, Aunt Kate might not always knock on the bedroom door before entering, and I think that in England Miss Loring and Alice could have found the sort of happiness together that is not mentioned in the Bible.”

Yes, Lodge is definitely out for the count.  But wait, the judges are motioning over the referee for some sort of ring-side discussion.  Oh my goodness!  This is an amazing turn of events. That last blow of Toibin’s was an illegal blow to Alice and has disqualified Toibin from the fight.  So, even though he’s out and can’t appreciate the irony, Lodge wins by a technicality. What a shocker--they'll be rioting in the streets over this one!  Well, come back next week for more exciting action when we pit Ian McEwan with his modern secular fairy tale, Saturday, against Ismail Kadare and his medieval Balkan fairy tale, Doruntine.  Until then, thank you for tuning into litblog.


Click Here to Comment or View Comments on This Entry

June 23,  2005

Patrick: Lagniappe

In his practice as a novelist and short story writer, Henry had developed a firm faith in the superior expressiveness and verisimilitude of the limited point of view. He believed the author of fictional narratives should represent life as it was experienced in reality, by an individual consciousness, with all the lacunae, enigmas, and misinterpretations in perceptions and reflection that such a perspective inevitably entailed; and if this function were to be shared by several characters in the course of a novel, it should be passed from one to another, like a baton in a relay race with some regularity of plan. The antithetical method was well exemplified by Trilby, in which the authorial narrator, in Thackerayan fashion, took out his puppets from the box, and set them capering and told you in his own confiding ruminative voice exactly what they were all thinking at any given moment, and awarded them marks for good or bad motives, in case there should be any danger of the audience having to make some interpretative effort on its own part.
--Author, Author by David Lodge
 

Henry James: Rumbling the Beast in the Jungle
Two recent fictional accounts of the life of Henry James square off on the murky subject of his sexuality—or lack thereof.  First on the block is Colm Toibin’s The Master. Toibin sees James as a repressed homosexual.  Toibin’s opponent is David Lodge, who, in his book, Author, Author contends that not only was James incipiently heterosexual, but that he had a very low sex drive and was a true, virginal “bachelor.”  The fur is flying. Who will win this exciting match?  Let’s go to the ring, where the opponents are getting ready to ruuuuuuuuumble.


And now, in this corner, having received universal acclaim for his latest novel, The Master, his own master of disaster, short-listed for the 1999 Booker Prize and currently living in Dublin; he told ya so—Colm Toibin.  The challenger, whose book, Author, Author, sunk without a trace, but who is still scrappy with having authored eleven novels and numerous works of criticism, essays and drama, the man you can’t dodge, don’t seek shelter in his house—David Lodge.


Okay, you two, no punches above the belt.  This fight is about Henry James’s sexuality so let’s come out swinging.  Go to your corners.


First out with a smashing left hook is Colm Toibin, in his first chapter, with Henry James pining in front of the house of his handsome friend, Paul Joukowsky:

He had stood in the beautiful city on a small street in the dusk, gazing upwards, waiting, watching, for the lighting of a lamp in the window on the third story. As the lamp blazed up and with tears in his eyes he had strained to see Paul Joukowksy’s face at the window, his dark hair, the quickness of his eyes, the scowl that could so easily turn into a smile, the thin nose, the broad chin, the pale lips. As night fell, he knew that he himself on the unlit street could not be seen, and he knew also that he could not move, either to return to his own quarters or—he held his breath even at the thought—to gain access to Paul’s rooms.


Paul’s note was unambiguous; it had made clear that he would be alone. No one came or went, and Paul’s face did not appear at the window. He wondered now if these hours were not the truest he had ever lived. The most accurate comparison he could find was with a smooth, hopeful, hushed sea journey, an interlude suspended between two countries, standing there as though floating, knowing that one step would be a step into the impossible, the vast unknown. He waited to catch a moment’s further sight of what was there, the unapproachable face. And for hours he stood still, wet with rain, brushed at intervals by those passing by, and never from behind the lamp for one moment more was the face visible.

Wow, it seems that the left hook caught Lodge off guard.  He’s staggering about the ring and Toibin appears to be edging in for another attack.  But wait, Lodge has steadied himself and lets loose with a right uppercut:

He was a bachelor, a ‘confirmed bachelor’ as the saying went. He had made up his mind in his early thirties that he would never marry, and stated as much with increasing firmness to his disappointed mother until her death in 1882, and to other relatives and friends who were constantly teasing or goading him on the subject. The reasons were complex and he did not care to probe them too deeply even in self-communing. It was enough to tell himself that his pursuit of literary greatness was incompatible with the obligations of marriage. He needed to be free, free to be selfish—that is to say, selflessly committed to his art. Free to travel, free to seek new experiences, and free, when his muse beckoned, to shut himself up for hours and days at a time to write, without bothering about the needs, emotional and economic, of a wife and children. Du Maurier, admittedly, seemed to manage the trick of being an artist and a paterfamilias simultaneously, but at a cost: a certain limitation of horizons, both physical and mental. He was chained to his drawing board most of the year, and when he took a break it was always a family holiday, with all the human complication and material impedimenta inseparable from such excursions, in Whitby or Folkestone or some Anglicised resort on the Normandy coast. He had never been to Italy, a deprivation that Henry could hardly imagine.


Toibin seems to have easily side-stepped Lodge’s right, but wait, the right was just a feint.  It’s a combination.  Here comes Lodge’s left and it’s a doozy concerning James’s attraction for Du Maurier’s female children:

They were a good-looking and high-spirited brood. Beatrix, the eldest, was a real beauty, who had only just ‘come out’ when Henry met her, and being squeezed into a broom cupboard with her during some boisterous game of Hide and Seek, pressed up against her sweet-smelling, gently yielding form in the dark, had been one of the more remarkable sensations in his experience, and one which helped him to understand the ecstasy that lovers, apparently derived from embracing. He watched with fascination as she opened like a flower to the warmth of a developing social life.

That blow definitely caught Toibin by surprise, he’s backed up against the ropes.  He certainly didn’t expect to see that phrase—“come out”—used in quite that fashion.  Wait, though, he’s shaking it off and is coming towards Lodge with a determined look on his face.  Here comes another left hook with the naked Henry James and Oliver Wendell Holmes cuddling up in bed for some serious “quality time”:

Now suddenly Holmes moved towards the center of the bed. His movement seemed to Henry like an act of will and not the unconscious movement of a man in his sleep. Quickly, without leaving himself time to think, Henry edged his way closer to Holmes, and they lay thus without stirring for some time. He could feel Holmes’s breathing presence, his large bony frame, close to him now, but he was careful to keep his breathing as shallow and quiet as he could.


When Holmes turned away from him, as he did now as suddenly as he had turned before, Henry realized that it would be his fate to lie here through the night, his mind racing, with this figure beside him, who was perhaps unaware of him, used to the company of men at close quarters. Holmes had, he now believed, fallen asleep. Henry did not know whether he was disappointed or relieved, but he wished he, too, could fall unconscious so that he would not have to think again until morning.


After a time, however, he became sure that Holmes was not sleeping. As they lay back-to-back he could feel the carefully tensed presence against him. He waited, knowing it was inevitable that Holmes would turn, inevitable that something would occur to break this silent, slow, deadlocked game they were playing. Holmes, he felt, was as consciously involved as he was in what might happen now.


He was not surprised then when Holmes turned and cupped him with his body and placed one hand against his back and the other on his shoulder. He knew not to turn or move, but he sought to make clear at the same time that this did not imply resistance. He remained still as he had done all along, but subtly he eased himself more comfortably into the shape of Holmes, closing his eyes and allowing his breath to come as freely as it would.

Holy smoke, I don’t think Lodge was prepared to deal with a naked Oliver Wendell Holmes and “his large bony frame” putting the moves on his Henry.  Lodge is down to one knee on the ring.  The referee has called a break and Toibin has gone to a neutral corner.  Lodge is waiving off the referee and has gotten back on his feet.  Okay, the two fighters have squared off again and are tentatively testing each other’s defenses.  Lodge seems a bit slow.  But, wait, he just hit Toibin with another devastating combination:

Henry did not suspect him of dissipation, but he though it probable that a handsome young Englishman who had been to public school and ‘varsity and holidayed abroad with other young men would have found occasion to lose his virginity. It was perhaps because he had never relinquished his own that the plight of respectable young girls, brought up in innocence and ignorance of the sexual life, especially in the puritanical, hypocritical societies of England and America, and then thrown abruptly into the sea of marriage to sink or swim, stirred Henry’s imagination and sympathy so deeply.


He knew of course about the mechanics of procreative intercourse, and from illustrated works of erotica—Lord Houghton’s collection at his country house had been particularly informative—he was acquainted with the variations and perversions which human ingenuity and depravity had added. But he found it impossible to imagine himself performing any of these acts, even the most elementary, with anyone; and he had never, even as a young man, positively desired to do so—not with Minny Temple, the New England cousin with whom, before her tragically early death, he had sometimes thought he was in love, nor, at the other end of the female spectrum, with the prostitutes who constantly importuned him in Piccadilly during his first years in London. One consolation of his increasing years—perhaps the only one—was that his innate lack of concupiscence would seem increasingly less remarkable to others.

Hoo boy, that knocked Toibin for a loop.  I don’t think he was expecting Lodge to hit him with a predilection for erotica followed up by an “innate lack of concupiscence.”  Toibin seems disoriented.  But there goes the bell.  Well, that’s been a great first round.  This fight, though, is far from over.  Let’s take a break and get ready for round number two of Rumbling the Beast in the Jungle!

Click Here to Comment or View Comments on This Entry

June 20,  2005

Patrick: Lagniappe

Imagining himself in this plight Henry summoned up a deathbed speech of such poignancy and eloquence that it brought tears to his own eyes as he penned it: ‘”A second chance—that’s the delusion. There never was to be but one. We work in the dark—we do what we can—we give what we have. Our doubt is our passion and our passion is our task. The rest is the madness of art.”’ He was not quite sure himself exactly what the last two sentences meant; like the speeches of Hamlet or Lear they contained more than any prosaic paraphrase could express. If he were to die tomorrow, he would be happy to have them inscribed on his tombstone.
--Author, Author by David Lodge
 

Kadare’s Sense of Foreboding
Living in a post-9/11 world, I find it uncanny to read Kadare and his foreboding premonitions of Muslim ascendancy.  His The Three-Arched Bridge, has hanging over it the coming storm of the Ottomans which, soon, very soon, would sweep all before them in one on-rushing flood.  Here’s the start of an early chapter:

A week later the master of roads and bridges bought the stretch of highway that belonged to our lord. Two other emissaries had been journeying without rest for three months and more through the domains of princes, counts, and pashas, buying up the great western highway that had once been called the Via Egnatia and was now called the Road to the Balkans, after the name the Turks have recently given to the entire peninsula, which comes from the word mountain. More than by the desire of the Ottomans to cover under one name the countries and peoples of the peninsula, as if subsequently to devour them more easily, I was amazed by our readiness to accept the new name. I always thought that this was a bad sign, and now I am convinced that it is worse than that.

This paragraph hints at both the insidious infiltration of the Ottoman influx as well as how this slow infusion better prepares the Balkans’ native peoples to accept the foreign invader.  But this is not a welcome, melting-pot admixture, but rather a new, more totalizing invading force which will sweep out the old ways and replace them with new customs, dress, food—in short, a new religion requiring a new culture:

Turks have been appearing more often all over the Balkans. You meet them on the highways, at inns, at city gates waiting for permission to enter, at fairs, on boats, everywhere. Sometimes they turn up as political or commercial envoys, sometimes as trade missions, sometimes as wandering groups of musicians, adherents to religious sects, military units, or solitary eccentrics. Increasingly you hear their attenuated melodies, heavy with somnolence. Everything about them throws me into anxiety, their manners, their soft gait, their hidden movements inside their loose garments that seem especially created to conceal the positions of their limbs, and above all their language, whose words, in contrast to their soporific songs, end with a crack like a mallet blow. This is something different from the conflicts so far. This anxiety turns into pure terror when I realize that these people are concealing a great deal. There is something deceitful in their smiles and courtesy. It is no accident that their silken garments, turbans, breeches, and robes have no straight lines, corners, hems, or seams. Their whole costume is insubstantial, and cut so that it changes its shape continually. Among such diaphanous folds it is hard to tell whether a hand is holding a knife or a flower. But after all, how can straightforwardness be expected from a people who hide their very origins: their women?

The last sentence, of course, refers to the Muslim custom of female immurement, whereby their women are veiled and must stay at home unless in the company of their male relatives.  The immurement of the man in the three-arched bridge is a portent of the coming immurement, not just of the Balkan women, but of everyone. At least, that is a possible interpretation.  Kadare is too great a writer to allow his poetic ambiguity to subside into one concrete meaning.  Here is his discussion of the symbol of the Ottomans, the crescent moon:

The hunger of the great Ottoman state could be felt in the wind. We were already used to the savage hunger of the Slavs. Naked and with bared teeth like a wolf’s, this hunger always seemed more dangerous than anything else. But in contrast, the Ottoman pressure involved a kind of temptation. It struck me as no accident that they had chosen the moon as their symbol. Under its light, the world could caressed and lulled to sleep more easily.

As I walked along the riverbank, this caress terrified me more than anything else. Dusk was falling. The bridge looked desolate and cold. And suddenly, in its slightly hunched length, in its arches and buttresses, and in its solitude, there was an expectancy. What are you waiting for, stone one? I said to myself. Distant phantoms? Or an imperial army and the sound of nameless feet, marching ten, twenty, a hundred hours without rest? Cursed thing.

Those nameless feet are on the way, but they have not yet reached the bridge. The sense of foreboding, however, is oppressive and omnipresent:

We were on the brink of war, and only the blind could fail to see it. Since the Ottoman state became our neighbor, I do not look at the moon as before, especially when it is a crescent. No empire has so far chosen a more masterful symbol for its flag. When Byzantium chose the eagle, this was indeed superior to the Roman wolf, but now the new empire has chosen an emblem that rises far higher in the skies than any bird. It has no need to be drawn like our cross, or to be cut in cloth and hoisted above castle turrets. It climbs into the sky itself, visible to the whole of mankind, unhindered by anything. Its meaning is more than clear: the Ottomans will have business not with one state or two states, but with the whole world. Your flesh creeps when you see it, cold, with sometimes a honey-colored and sometimes a bloody tinge. Sometimes I think that it is already bemusing us all from above. There is a danger that one day, like sleepwalkers, we will rise to walk toward our ruin.

The books ends with a bloody skirmish between the mounted scouts of the invading Ottomans and the guards of the bridge. War has finally come to crush the Balkans:

The bloodshed occurred one day before Christmas, at four in the afternoon. Everything took place in a very short time, the bat of an eyelid, but it was an event of the kind that is able to divide time in two. since that day in the month of St. Ndreu, people do not talk about time in general, they talk about time before and time after.

And to think Kadare penned these words almost a decade before 9/11.  Now, it seems, one cannot escape the jabbering commentators with their tired trope of before-9/11 and after-9/11.  But that phrase contains a profound truth, too.  And Kadare, being the great writer that he is, foresaw it all.  He reminds me of Yeats whose Second Coming also foretold of a coming totalitarianism that would soon engulf the world:


Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Click Here to Comment or View Comments on This Entry

June 18,  2005

Patrick: Lagniappe

‘Having an audience makes all the difference.’
‘Indeed it does,’ said Henry. Being part of it that evening, watching his own play through its eyes and ears, had been an extraordinary experience, as if the big black maw of the auditorium which he had looked into that afternoon had swallowed him and, like Jonah in the whale, he was both part of this great live breathing creature and yet distinct from it. He felt every tremor and vibration of its reaction to the spectacle on the stage, he registered the strength of every collective laugh and chuckle, and measured the intensity of every silence at moments of dramatic tension, while himself remaining strangely detached, unmoved and unamused by the familiar material.
--Author, Author by David Lodge
 

Kadare’s Bridge
Ismail Kadare is a crazy man, a prophet, a realist, a fantasist—and one of the most interesting of living writers.  I just finished reading Kadare’s The Three-Arched Bridge, which he wrote in 1993 although it reads like something very clever that would have been written post-9/11.  Indeed, it is a rebuke to the precious parable palaver of the likes of Jonathan Foer who attempts to write a modern-day fairy tale in the form of Extremely Close and Incredibly Loud.  Step aside, kiddo, and let a master show you how it’s done.


That’s Kadare and his The Three-Arched Bridge; a weird, modern myth about a weird medieval myth that has been manipulated by early capitalists on the eve of the Ottoman invasion.  Hmmm, that does sound a bit prescient.  The myth, though, is a disturbing one about the need to placate the water demons under the river (whose name translates as the “wicked waters”) which flows beneath the three-arched bridge. The demons (actually, paid agents of rival capitalists) may be placated by immuring a man into the bridge itself—to be buried alive, at least up to the collarbone, with the shoulders and head sticking out from the support and covered with plaster.  This immurement not only allows for the bridge to be finished, but also serves to attract jaded travelers who gladly pay the toll to cross the bridge and stare, gaped-jawed, at the immured man.


Like Kadare’s The Pyramid, The Three-Arched Bridge does read like some strange, amoral parable or legend.  It is as if Kadare has tapped into some kind of malevolent, unconscious stream of early symbols and images (truly, "wicked waters"), dredged out his monsters, and then left them dripping and wriggling on the pages of his books.  There’s nothing supernatural about his books.  But there’s nothing natural about them, either.  Rather, they inhabit that region of fragmentation and dissonant discourse which is all the rage of the clotted ivory toilets.  But this isn’t academic drivel—it’s the real thing.  And it burns to the touch.  Again, if you haven’t discovered Kadare, now’s the time to do so. You will not forget him.

Click Here to Comment or View Comments on This Entry

June 15,  2005

Patrick: Lagniappe

He sat in an armchair and browsed through the newspaper without finding anything that held his attention for more than a few moments. There seemed to be rumbles of imminent trouble in Eastern Europe—when were they not? There was a situation in Armenia and a crisis in Newfoundland. The Japanese had seized Port Arthur from the Chinese, who had captured a few Japanese soldiers, chopped them up and carried the pieces about on sticks, and the enraged Japanese had retaliated by massacring five thousand Chinese. How very horrible—but so remote, it was hard to feel any emotion. The ‘Police’ column contained stories infinitely more trivial but of greater human interest. At Marylebone magistrate’s court a well-dressed woman was charged with stealing umbrellas from two ladies while they were occupied in confessionals in Roman Catholic churches in the West End. At Clerkenwell, Ernest Henry Peckham, 33, clerk, was charged with indecent behaviour in St Paul’s Rd, on Thursday evening. Evidence given by two young girls. Peckham a prominent member of his church (Congregational). Sentenced to three months’ hard labour. Alas poor Peckham! His life was ruined. There was correspondence on the Drink Question, and on proposed changes in the rules of Billiards. There were advertisements for new books. A Dark Interlude. By Richard Dowling. The Worst Woman in London by F. C. Phillips. Mrs Jervis: a romance of the Indian Hills by B. M. Croker. He had never heard of any of these authors before—but then a familiar name leapt from the page and smote his heart with a pang of grief: ‘My First Book by Robert Louis Stevenson and 21 famous authors. With Prefatory story by Jerome K. Jerome’. Poor Louis! Dead at forty-six in Samoa, and it was apparently not the bronchial disease that had dogged him all his life, and driven him to the South Seas in search of a benign climate, that had killed him, but a brain haemorrhage, which might have happened to anyone, anywhere. The news had reached England in the first week of Guy Domville, so he had not the leisure to mourn him properly, and chance reminders like this advertisement cut sharply. What was Louis’ first book? he wondered. Travels with a Donkey? And who were the other twenty-one famous authors? He could have contributed a pretty piece himself, about A Passionate Pilgrim and other tales, but he had not been invited, presumably because insufficiently famous.
--Author, Author by David Lodge


[N.B.: Guy Domville is Henry James’s play which had a disastrous first-night London reception and serves as the motive force behind David Lodge’s Author, Author.  Lodge makes the convincing case that HJ’s failure as a playwright deepened his artistry as an author; and it is from these shards of defeat that HJ crafted his masterful late style.  Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes is a wonderful, idiosyncratic travelogue of Stevenson’s hike through France—one of the first books to discuss hiking and camping as an actual recreational activity.]

Click Here to Comment or View Comments on This Entry

June 14,  2005

Patrick: Lagniappe

The prospect of getting involved in the practicalities of putting on a play, of meeting actors, attending rehearsals, and consulting about costumes and sets, produced an undeniable tingle of pleasurable anticipation. And then, the excitement of seeing one’s work performed in front of an audience, to hear their laughter and applause . . . . At this juncture of his thoughts he was prone to lapse into a kind of daydream, bathed in a golden glow of footlights, in which he himself, immaculate in evening dress, was pulled half-resisting from the wings of a stage amid resounding cries of ‘Author! Author!’ form the auditorium, and took bow after blushing bow.
--Author, Author by David Lodge
 

Cervantes: Appearances Can Be Deceiving
The New York Times yesterday published a provocative article about religion as it relates to Cervantes’ Don Quixote.  Given that the reconquista, was a relatively recent phenomenon when Cervantes composed his immortal work, it is not surprising that it would be filled with characters and commentary regarding the interaction of Catholics, Moors and Jews.  Cervantes wrote immediately after the height of Spain’s own melting-pot culture when it was filled with a polyglot of moriscos, conversos, marranos, Tagarinos, Mudejares and Elches.  But the expulsions, first of the Jews and then of the Moors, resulted in a monolithic and procrustean culture that led eventually to the collapse of the Spanish empire.  It is no coincidence that the rise of Great Britain can be traced to Cromwell, as Lord Protector of England, who admitted the Jews back into England after several hundred years of expulsion, whereas the decline of Spain can be traced to the opposite phenomenon.  Cervantes brushes up against these issues—and the interplay between appearance and reality (one of the great themes of Don Quixote).

 
The sign of a towering masterpiece is that it changes with the times so that themes that are skipped over in some ages are resurrected in others.  Shakespeare is the great exemplar of this phenomenon.  So, too, is Cervantes.  His warning that great empires can sustain themselves only be acceptance of the other is a lesson still pertinent today.  It informs the work of V. S. Naipaul who, in warning about the present totalitarian tendencies of Islam, is reaching a hand out across the ages to embrace Cervantes.  As T. S. Eliot explained, these giants speak to each other and the “lines of force” between them change as new figures enter the holy circle of literary greatness.  It is a conversation that continues throughout time, subtly changing with each new entrant. It is a conversation that desperately and imperatively must be heeded.

Click Here to Comment or View Comments on This Entry

June 13,  2005

Patrick: Lagniappe

The Aspern Papers was, Henry thought, one of the best things he had ever done, and he had written other short pieces of late which had similarly satisfied him—in particular a wickedly ironic story called ‘The Lesson of the Master’, about a gifted novelist who had sacrificed his artistic integrity to ‘the idols of the market; money and luxury and “the world”; placing one’s children and dressing one’s wife; everything that drives one to the short and easy way’. Having made this confession and given this warning to a worshipping young protégé, the novelist cynically betrayed him in a narrative twist of which Henry was particularly proud. These stories were first-class, Henry had no doubt of that, but collections of short tales didn’t ‘sell’ and they didn’t make an impression. It was the novel, of which Mary Ward’s lumbering three-decker was such a dispiriting example, that counted in the literary marketplace.
--Author, Author by David Lodge
 

The Perils of Nice, II
Last week I wrote of the fate of Jorie Graham, a poet of considerable promise, who came to confuse the goal of the advancement of literature with the advancement of the careers of people around her.  I do not think this occurred because of some base motive—as expressed in today’s lagniappe—but rather from a nobler impulse: to help others who are in need.  This is a wonderful example that every virtue, taken to extreme, inverts into a sin.  Joyce Carol Oates frequently dilates on this maxim in her work.


Enough dilation—let’s crank down and focus on another peril of niceness:  my city’s book club.  Austin, like most large-ish cities, has gone in for the recent fad of attempting to promote reading by the vehicle of the city wide book club (here called the “Mayor’s Book Club” ).  In principle, this seems a worthwhile project. One book is picked every few months or so; and the hope is that a goodly percentage of the city’s population will read it and discuss it, thus encouraging others to pick up the book.  Of course, the key is to select a book that will be embraced both by people who read regularly and those who don’t.  The book club phenomenon started, I believe, in Chicago, which cannily picked, as its first book, Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird.  Austin followed suit last year by selecting Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses.  Both these books are well written and can please readers from a number of different levels (like the works of Charles Dickens--such as Bleak House).  But then the book club was attacked by a severe case of nice.


The Mayor’s Book Club, has confused promotion of the city with the promotion of reading.  Hence, the current choice, Writing Austin’s Lives: A Community Portrait.   This book is a collection of short pieces (essays, short stories, etc.) by various hands concerning their Austin-based experiences.  For someone like myself who grew up in Austin, it is full of entertaining vignettes about life in obscure corners of my fair city.  But, it can’t be read all the way through—rather it must be dipped into here and there.  Also, it’s a giant paperback that does not fit easily in the hand--the picture of our good Mayor, Will Wynn (is that the best name for a politician ever, or what?), makes him look like an overgrown kid trying to hold the massive thing.  So, why was it chosen?  For the obvious reasons of promoting Austin and publicizing the numerous authors which Austin is lucky to have sheltered at one time or another.  But does this promote reading?  No, but it sure is a nice gesture.

Click Here to Comment or View Comments on This Entry

June 11,  2005

Patrick: Lagniappe

How could people fail to see that, well-intentioned and edifying as it was, and interesting as the social and theological questions it touched on were, in terms of fictional form Robert Elsmere was creakingly antiquated? The point of view from which the story was told shifted abruptly as narrative expediency dictated, with no concern for consistency or intensity of effect; the characters debated the issues in long set speeches that bore very little resemblance to natural utterance; the descriptive passages were heavy with cliché; and the plot flagrantly served the purposes of the ideological debate.
--Author, Author by David Lodge


[N.B.: Boy howdy, here’s some great advice for every budding novelist—particularly that last point. For lasting literature, ideology must be subordinate to art, not vice versa.]
 

The Short List for the Man Booker International Prize
The new Spectator has an interesting article by Alberto Manguel concerning the process for choosing the first recipient of the Man Booker International Prize.  As I noted a few days ago, this prize was just awarded to a very worthy recipient, Ismail Kadare, which has spurred me to add to my night table his novel, The Three-Arched Bridge (so far, so good).  He received the prize for his “achievement in fiction by a writer still living and available in English.”  As Manguel points out, who knows what “achievement in fiction” means.  The judges, though, were able to whittle down the list of worthy authors to the following individuals: Margaret Atwood, Saul Bellow, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Gunter Grass, Ismail Kadare, Milan Kundera, Stanislaw Lem, Doris Lessing, Ian McEwan, Naguib Mafouz, Tomas Eloy Martinez, Kenzaburo Oe, Cynthia Ozick, Philip Roth, Muriel Spark, Antonio Tabucchi, John Updike and A. B. Yehoshua.

What I find interesting, is that this is not a bad list. Typically, there’s some second-rate chaff sprinkled among the wheat, but most of these writers seem to have composed works that one could argue without snickering of having lasting value. Okay, I can’t resist snickering over John Updike, but I understand that the myopic critical community views him as a giant (turn the telescope around, folks).  The same could be said of Doris Lessing and Cynthia Ozick, although they might have a fairly long academic half-life (particularly Lessing for her mediocre, but, from a historical literary perspective, important, The Golden Notebook). [ N.B.: Lessing’s latest book, by the bye, is The Story of General Dann and Mara’s Daughter, Griot and the Snow Dog, a science-fiction philosophical thriller set in a future dystopia where war is endemic and civilization is lost—can I get a big YAAAAWN over here; thank you very much—oh, and please feel free to enter this book in the “Worst Title of the Year Contest”].  I, personally, would have added Joyce Carol Oates and the Nobel prize winner, J. M. Coetzee, but I can see arguments for keeping them off the list.  I am not so sanguine about leaving off two other Nobel prize winners: V. S. Naipaul and Jose Saramago.


There is no rational argument that John Updike or Cynthia Ozick have somehow made a more profound and lasting “achievement in fiction” than V. S. Naipaul or Jose Saramago.  The only excuse for excluding Naipaul is a political one, which, again, although understandable, discredits the judges.  As for leaving off Saramago, that must have been sheer carelessness (hat tip to Wilde's Lady Bracknell).  Of course, all in all, I’m happy with the selection of Ismail Kadare; and the list of finalists is nothing more than a suggested starting point for next year’s judges. Kadare’s work, I think, is certainly of lasting value; plus, there’s a good argument that he may be the greatest Albanian writer of all time (and, no, that’s not quite the equivalent of being the greatest left-handed red-headed window washer of all time). So, my literary hat is off to the judges for a fine choice as the inaugural winner.  All hail Kadare!

Click Here to Comment or View Comments on This Entry

June 10,  2005

Patrick: Lagniappe

And I think I take a gloomier view of human nature than you do, Kiki. I believe there is such a thing as evil—original sin if you like—and that perhaps humanity needs religion as a bulwark against it. And I rather envy the Romans their rituals and symbolism—the sung masses, the votive candles, the anointing of the sick . . .’
‘You wouldn’t convert, though, would you?’ Du Maurier enquired, almost anxiously.
‘No, no fear of that,’ Henry said with a smile. ‘Consciousness is my religion, human consciousness. Refining it, intensifying it—and preserving it.’
--Author, Author by David Lodge
 

Overboard! Over-bored! Oh, Lord!
As I think I mentioned earlier, it’s probably not a good idea to name a book with a catchy one-word title that can be easily transmogrified into a scurrilous smear by book review critics.  Such has not deterred Jorie Graham and her new book of poetry, Overlord.  The book appears to be a mixture of poems about American servicemen in World War Two—hence the book’s title, Overlord, which was the code-name for the invasion of Normandy and a poem’s title, Omaha, which was one of the Normandy landing beaches (and the bloodiest one to capture)—and the ability or not to pray (again, a play on words of the title, Overlord; excuse me while a stifle a yawn).  You’re not here, though, to read cogent exegesis.  Let’s get to the juice.


Here’s the first few lines (I hesitate to call these the first stanza, although there’s a definite break at the end, simply because the term “stanza” has no meaning anymore) from the first poem in the book, Other:


For a long time I used to love the word now. I murmured its
tiniest of songs to myself as a child when alone. Now now now
now
I say, not much knowing where we were. Until, before I knew it,
it put forth its liquid melody, and time, shimmering, begain to flow
nearly inaudible, alongside the crickets if it was summer, alongside the penumbral
clock if it was the kitchen, alongside the tapping of the wintered lilac’s branches on
                                                                                              violet-shadowed
walls that held the garden,
if it was wind.


I think these lines capture well the essence of why Ms. Graham is so admired as a modern poet.  They are pleasant to speak and evoke sensual images of slightly exotic contentedness.  Little more can be said, as Wittgenstein noted, “[w]hereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.”  If technical standards cease to exist, then all one can fall back on is the meat of the language itself and the aroma wafting up from it.  Is it fat or lean?  Is it cooked or raw?  Is it stale or fresh?  Has it been seasoned heavily or not?  Ms. Graham’s offerings are a bit fat, but, at least for me, that adds to the flavor.  The choice bits are definitely cooked and marinated over the slow, charring fire of erudition and academicism.  I think the poetry’s fresh, although seasoned a bit too much for my taste—typically, seasoning disguises staleness.  But, all in all, a tasty morsel.  Will these poems last?  Just as long as a marbled slab of beef left out in the sun.

Click Here to Comment or View Comments on This Entry

June 9,  2005

Patrick: Lagniappe

‘I fear you are displeased with the article, Fenimore,’ he said.
‘No, no,’ she said, unconvincingly. ‘I’m sure you are right.’
‘Right, about what?’
‘The modest extent of my achievement.’
‘But I praise your work very highly!’ Henry protested.
‘Do you? Let me see it again.’ Fenimore took the article back from him and scanned it rapidly. ‘You say that Anne – which is the novel for which I’m best known – is my worst.’
‘Not “worst”.’ Henry demurred. ‘I think my words were, “least happily composed”.
‘And that East Angels is my best,’ she continued. This was her most recent book, published the previous year.
‘I believe it is,’ he said. ‘By far the best.’
‘And then you say, “and if her talent is capable, in another novel, of making an advance equal to that represented by this work in relation to its predecessors, she will have made a substantial contribution to our new literature of fiction.” It seems to me, when I do the calculation in that sentence, that I still have a long way to go before my work will amount to anything.’
--Author, Author by David Lodge
 

Jorie Graham and the Perils of Nice
Believe it or not, I don’t have anything against America’s premier poet, Jorie Graham.  How could I; she’s too nice.  As I have related over the last month or so, she has been loaded down and piled up with various and sundry honors and awards for poetry—in spite of which, she is uniformly described as incredibly caring, compassionate and, well, just plain nice.  There is that dust-up with foetry concerning the “Jorie Graham rule” instituted by several poetry contests which prohibits a judge from selecting a current or former student, colleague or paramour as a winner of a supposedly “blind” contest.  Ms. Graham apparently has managed the neat hat trick of covering this field.  The operators of the foetry site see this achievement as “unscrupulous.”  I disagree—I think Ms. Graham’s motivations are much more insidious.  She is not unscrupulous or corrupt.  She’s just too nice.


Who wouldn’t want to help a student get ahead a bit in life?  Or a colleague?  Or a paramour?  And, certainly, these folks are not going to submit sub-par submissions to a poetry contest.  Indeed, in today’s current world of poetry a sub-par submission would be one that was historically informed of the technical apparatus of poetics and could be scanned.  Modern students are much too much sophisticated to fall for such cold, exacting science.  Scansion?  That sounds like some kind of ontology treatment for the detection of cancer, not meter.  Plus, unlike being a trapeze artist, it’s a lot easier (and sloppier, and muddier, and fuzzier) to write poetry without a net.  So, if there’s no standards, who can say that Ms. Graham was “unscrupulous” or “corrupt” in choosing Peter Sacks, her colleague and partner, for a prize in a poetry contest?  But, I can accuse her of being nice.


I have before me (and soon I’ll have behind me, etc.) Ms. Graham’s new book, Overlord, that I’ve checked out of the local library. You didn’t think I’d spend $22.95 on this, did you?  Before we get to the poetry, let’s just admire the book cover, shall we?  On the front is a bad pastiche collage of some newspaper clippings smeared with red paint to suggest a blindfolded and bleeding male head. Ahh, that good ol’ modernist stand-by, mixed media, the corn-pone likker of the backwoods aesthete dilettante.  And who assembled this?  Peter Sacks.


Now, let’s look at the author’s photo on the back cover.  Hmmm, that's odd.  It appears to be a tourist snap of her in England.  The picture seems very busy, with power lines hanging down from one corner and a gothic steeple cropping up in the far background.  All that’s missing is a blurry thumb in the lower left-hand corner. Hmmm, who’s the photographer?  You get three guesses and none of them count. Peter Sacks.


I think we get it—Ms. Graham is head over heels for Mr. Sacks.  That’s just, well, nice.  I wish her the best.  True love like this—allowing your significant other to decorate your books with his bad art and photos—is rare today.  Ms. Graham is the Citizen Kane of poetry, building an opera house for folks who can’t sing.  And that’s poetry today: a huge gilded edifice with all the trappings of classicism, romanticism, and narcissism, but housing within just a lone, blurry, wispy, wobbly, warbling voice.

Click Here to Comment or View Comments on This Entry

June 7,  2005

Patrick: Lagniappe

He had of course read [Constant Fennimore Woolson’s] article about himself in the Atlantic, with its gratifying opening statement, ‘Mr James always offers an intellectual treat to appreciative readers,’ and even if she had been unnecessarily emphatic in denying him ‘the genuine story-telling gift’, the general tenor of her remarks was both positive and discriminating. He had read some of her own work, and although it was limited by a typically feminine concentration on the themes of love and marriage, he found it full of happy touches, acute observation of people and places, and the marks of a genuine artistic integrity. She favoured tales of heroic self-sacrifice by women in matters of the heart, and if there was sometimes a sense of strain in the emotional conflicts she contrived for her heroines, this was infinitely preferable to the trivial obstacles and facile resolutions of the usual ‘love story’. In short, she was on the side of the angels—that is to say his side—in the great aesthetic war in which Henry considered himself to be engaged: the effort to make truth to life, to life as experienced on the pulses and in the consciousnesses of individual human beings, the main criterion of value in the English and American novel, as it was in the best French and Russian fiction.
--Author, Author by David Lodge.
 

Your Most Excellent Highness, Ripened Fruit of the Universe
One of the unintentionally funniest parts of the Lyttelton Hart-Davis Letters concerns the elaborate addresses that each correspondent makes towards the other.  As discussed in yesterday’s post, these letters comprise the weekly musings of George Lyttelton, a cranky, retired schoolmaster, and Rupert Hart-Davis, a London publisher; a correspondence which started in late 1955.  It’s not unusual to find such an exchange of missives where one scribbler is some great man of letters and his correspondent is a wheedling young man on the make (see the Holmes-Laski Letters for the paradigmatic example of this; by the bye, these are also, arguably, the best collection of letters in the United States concerning law and literature; I highly recommend them—they’re out of print but turn up at your finer used bookstores on a fairly regular basis).  Here, though, both correspondents are unsure of their standing in the eyes of the other, so that both go through an elaborate, kabuki-style of address at the beginning of their letters.  I, at least, find these hosannas of obsequiousness highly entertaining.


Here’s the opening paragraph from Hart-Davis in an early letter dated October 30, 1955:

Never did so slender a fly catch such a whopping salmon! When I got home on Friday to find no letter, I sadly feared that mine had misfired or miscarried (if you’re going to mix your metaphors, mix them thoroughly like a salad), but on Saturday morning the postman drove up with your delicious budget—so much more acceptable and pointed than Butler’s. There’s no fear of your becoming a burden: indeed I regard you more as a liberator—and before I read your letter again, let me cover a page or two with details of some of the affairs from which I am so happy, once a week, to be liberated.

So, how’s Lyttelton going to respond to the double-slops portion of praise?  Why, with a bucketful (or two, or three) of his own.  Here’s the first paragraph of his reply dated November 3, 1955:

Your letter is immensely interesting. It is quite clear that for the moment Fortune has it in for you—in that cryptic modernism. You will (probably) crossly rebut as an empty compliment (but you shan’t prevent) my saying that only a good man finds all that on his plate. How fantastic that you should have these publishing crises. Only yesterday a young man—intelligent, literary, foot-on-the-ladder etc.—uttered your name with what I can only call reverence, and he clearly found it heartening that a firm which keeps up such a standard should be so conspicuously successful! That is the reputation you have. You see the world is full of people who are saying ‘R. H-D. is the man to get us out of this’.


Ahhh, yes, if one can’t be a young man on the make, why not cite to one as praising your correspondent?  At the risk of mixing my metaphors—not so much as a salad, but more like a bouillabaisse or trashcan punch—let’s take a quick dip in the waters of later correspondence and scoop up a few tantalizing ortolans from the chafing dish of literature:


u “In a world where nearly all is dark, as Bishop Gore used to say, two things are luminously clear: vis that your letters are of first-class interest and quality, and that your handwriting is perfectly legible, and, in fact, very pleasant to look on. [Letter from L. to R. H-D. dated November 9, 1955].


u “You’ve no idea what a joy it is to stagger home on Friday evening after a hellish week, and find a fine witty stimulating letter in your beautiful hand. [Letter from R. H-D to L. dated November 13, 1955].


u “There are many things I like about your letters and one of the chief ones is they are exactly like good talk—which is really to say all that need be said. You say in one place that you are ‘drooling’. And how immensely refreshing and gratifying it is to be drooled to! Surely there is no greater compliment. [Letter from L. to R. H-D. dated November 15/16, 1955].


u “What can I say to thee, O liberal and princely giver?” [Letter from R. H-D to L. dated November 20, 1955].


Oh, what can I say to thee, O liberal and princely (or princessly, as the case may be) reader?  Will you accept just a bit of drool, a small token of appreciation, dripped across thy gleaming countenance?  No?  Then, in the immortal words of that paragon of Anglican angularity, Bishop Gore, “beadle, whack that insolent sinner for nodding off during my second hour peroration!”  Wait, maybe I’m getting my bishops bumbled.  Hmmm, let me find the correct text.  Ahh, here we go: “Oh, blessed readers, may the synchronization of sycophancy lightly scatter gleaming gems of carefully crafted compliments upon your path wherever ye may travel.” Until next post, please, no drooling.

Click Here to Comment or View Comments on This Entry

June 6,  2005

Patrick: Lagniappe

Punch had always occupied a privileged place in Henry’s consciousness. His mental images of England and the English were first formed by the creased and dog-eared back numbers he and William pored over as boys in New York. When he was taken to England for the first time since infancy, at the age of twelve, and looked about him, his eye had already been trained by the woodcuts of Leech. By the time he returned as a young man, Punch, its pictorial range now extended by Keene and Du Maurier, was his guide, his Baedeker and Bradshaw, for the interpretation and negotiation of English social life. Experience soon revealed its limitations for this purpose, but Du Maurier’s cartoons—the drawings rather than the sometimes ponderous text beneath tem—recorded a fine-grained satirical observation of social behaviour that Henry found helpful and suggestive as, shifting his base restlessly between America an Europe in the 1870s, he developed his own ‘international’ fiction of manners. When he visualised his English characters, when he dressed them and had them sit down and stand up and walk about and converse in various public and domestic settings, his mental images were often in black and white, as if one of Du Maurier’s tableaux had come to life. Du Maurier understood perfectly how dress and décor told you a person’s class or caste, while their features and posture gave you their individual characters. It was this tension between conformity and individuality, expressed in line and shading, that was the secret of Du Maurier’s art—and perhaps, Henry sometimes thought, of the man himself.
--Author, Author by David Lodge.


These Students Today, What Horrors!
For some time I would read these nostalgic reviews (usually in the London Review of Books) about a certain correspondence between Rupert Hart-Davis, a London publisher, and George Lyttelton, a retired schoolmaster which began with weekly letters in 1955 and ended with Lyttelton’s death in the early’60s.  These letters have been praised for their unabashed civility and unrepentant erudition regarding Western Civilization.  Don’t fret if you haven’t heard of the Lyttelton Hart-Davis Letters, they have been out of print, at least in the United States, for some time.  And one can see why, as revealed by a very witty satire, The Marsh-Marlow Letters by Craig Brown which mocks the obsequious tone that each correspondent dons for the other.


Now, as it turns out, our don manque, Lyttelton, as a former school master, still grades the examinations for a number of students.  Reading the first volume of the letters, I found his complaints concerning the decline of civilization as evidenced by the appalling quality of the students’ papers somewhat—how should one say this—refreshing.  Today, we look back to mid-twentieth century as a golden time of learning compared to the cretins being glopped out of the vast regurgitation vats today.  Ahhh, not so.  It seems that the dons have always decried the feeble quality of the vacuous, student mind. Plus ça change... (plus c'est la même chose).


Given that this is the graduation season, I thought it would be fun to quote a few of Lyttelton’s more acerbic observations. Here’s one from his letter of July 26, 1956:

I have all day been reading the literary judgments of third-rate beaks at fourth-rate schools. These judgments are dictated to their pupils, who learn them more or less by heart, without more than half understanding them. One lot of boys, answering the question which they thought the best and which the worst poem in the Lyrical Ballad, said ‘The Idiot Boy’ was the best and ‘The Ancient Mariner’ the worst. Another lot said that Dr Arnold was the only subject in Eminent Victorians which Strachey had treated with sympathy and admiration. And, my God, the flat, indiscriminate, insincere superlatives many of them effuse with diarrhoetic prodigality! The poor lambs were clearly bored with The Antiquary, but one and all babble of Scott’s ‘incomparable’ mastery in ‘describing scenery’ of all tedious arts.

I particularly admire that touch of “effuse with diarrhoetic prodigality.”  There’s no chance of dull cliché wagging it’s hoary head here.  As the summer goes on, Lyttelton becomes ever more put out by the quality of the student exams, as expressed in his letter of August 3, 1956:

And talking of cheapness, I have just marked forty papers on five English books from Malvern. Not only were they dreadfully bad and idle, but the tone was that of Teddyboys, flippant, blasé, shallow, sneery. I never read more deplorable stuff, which left me with the conviction that it must be a very bad school. They didn’t ask for a report, but they are jolly well going to get one. One bright boy did a very bad paper and then saw fit to write a poem about Cleopatra, the last stanza of which began ‘Cleopatra/ was the Egypt answer to Montmartre/ a most respectable tartra’. It is to accompany my report.


Oh, I kinda like the Cleopatra poem.  I’ve always had a sweet tooth (or is it an Achilles heel? Well, it’s sure to be some kind of body cliché) for doggerel.  Let’s continue with the crankiness—I believe we are now up to August 8, 1956:

I have finished my first batch of Cert papers. Pretty bad most of them. It is pretty clear [N.B., that Lyttelton likes to use as a crutch the vague superfluity, “pretty”] that the men teaching English in most schools are the most lowest forms of pond life. Hardly any answers have the kick or the warmth which some members of a class would reveal, if, say, they had been taken through Julius Caesar as Mr King took his lot through the Regulus ode. Even his sworn foe Beetle couldn’t help saying ‘Interestin’ beggar, King, when he’s on tap’. Occasionally the cloven hoof of Leavis appears, e.g. in the instructor of one school, half the candidates of which had a callow sneer at ‘Tintern Abbey’. One bright boy, asked why Wordsworth laughed himself to scorn at the end of ‘Resolution and Independence’, said it was because the leech gatherer had told him leeches were much scarcer than they used to be. And yet there are those who say W.W. had no sense of humour!

I don’t have a clue who King and Beetle might be. Leavis is F. R. Leavis, the don and critic, who is completely forgotten today but at one time was worshipped by all and sundry for his idiosyncratic views that the entire corpus of literature had only a few writers worth reading—Dickens, Elliot, D. H. Lawrence—and the rest deserved the dunghill.  In other words, he made molehills out of mountains.  Enough of dunghills and molehills, for now.

Click Here to Comment or View Comments on This Entry

June 4,  2005

Patrick: Lagniappe

If ever the barbarians gain possession of the world they will be forced to adopt some of our methods; they will end by resembling us. Chabrias fears that the pastophor of Mithra or the bishop of Christ may implant himself one day in Rome, replacing the high pontiff. If by ill fate that day should come, my successor officiating in the vatical fields along the Tiber will already have ceased to be merely the chief of a gang, or of a band of sectarians, and will have become in his turn one of the universal figures of authority. He will inherit our palaces and our archives, and will differ from rulers like us less than one might suppose. I accept with calm these vicissitudes of Rome eternal.
--Memoirs of Hadrian by Marguerite Yourcenar
 

All Hail Ismail!
The Albanian writer, Ismail Kadare, has been awarded the inaugural Booker International Prize, beating out the likes of Muriel Spark and Ian McEwan.  What, has something gone horrible awry?  Nope, all is right in the universe.  Kadare is a fantastic writer; and I can’t put it any better than the chair of the judge panel, John Carey (who has a provocative new book out—What Good Are the Arts?—which, of course, is available, like most of the good stuff, only in Great Britain) that Kadare is "a universal writer in the tradition of storytelling that goes back to Homer.”  Each of his novels is very different from the others, but all have that mythic, Homeric, quality about them.  I’ve been meaning to write about Kadare for some time—I have just about all of his novels—and have thoroughly enjoyed those I’ve had a chance to read.  Check out The Pyramid which is an odd, allegorical tale about totalitarianism in ancient Egypt that entailed the sacrifice of thousands of lives to construct the Great Pyramid at Cheops juxtaposed with Tamerlane and his construction of pyramids of human skulls as he ravaged Eastern Europe and the Levant.  This is a deeply human and disturbing book.  I highly recommend it.  Again, a great inaugural choice which I hope spurs some long-neglected recognition for Kadare.


All Hail Oprah!
Okay, now I’m really off my rocker, right?  Perhaps.  But, you may recall, a few weeks ago I defended Oprah and her book club.  And I’m doing it again.  It turns out Oprah just made her summer book club selection and it’s none other than three early works by William Faulkner: As I Lay Dying, The Sound and the Fury and Light in August. As I complained a couple of days ago, don’t bother purchasing the Library of America volumes because those idjits don’t think The Sound and the Fury is worthy of their illustrious imprint.  Too bad, because it might have actually netted them a best-seller.  Oh well, I'm sure they can make do with all the moolah rolling in from that fantastic volume, George S. Kaufman & Co.


Click Here to Comment or View Comments on This Entry

June 3,  2005

Patrick: Lagniappe

My soul, if I possess one, is made of the same substance as are the specters; this body with swollen hands and livid nails, this sorry mass almost half-dissolved, this sack of ills, of desires and dreams, is hardly more solid or consistent than a shade. I differ from the dead only in my faculty to suffocate some moments longer; in one sense their existence seems to me more assured than my own.
--Memoirs of Hadrian by Marguerite Yourcenar
 

Faulkner and Hemingway

Hemingway had a gimmick, just like Lytton Strachey had a gimmick and Wilfred Owen had a gimmick.  Strachey, of course, turned historical biography into satirical, acerbic literature with his Eminent Victorians, a trick that would be repeated ad nauseum.  Owen’s trick, as he related in his correspondence, was the use of pararhyme or double consonance.  This trick has also been repeated ad nauseum. Interestingly, W. B. Yeats saw Owen as a one-trick pony and savagely dismissed him.  I find much to admire in Owen’s verse, but, guiltily, must admit that Yeats’ judgment is sound.  Since one of my favorite literary subjects, though, is the Great War, let’s just agree to tactfully ignore Yeats on this one, shall we?  In any event, having a gimmick does not guarantee that one will be read by the masses—as I have explained earlier with respect to poor Sir Walter Scott and his invention of an entire genre, the historical novel.

Hemingway’s gimmick was to pare away as many words from a piece of prose as possible so that the work would resemble a poem in its allusiveness and uncertainty. In other words, here’s the seed for the First Commandment of the Creative Writers’ Workshop: Thou shalt not tell, but show.  This commandment, like any other in literature, is a guarantee to mediocrity—it’s good advice if one’s not a particularly great writer (which would explain one’s attendance in creative writing classes).  The greats make their own commandments.  Someone like Jane Austen tells and tells and tells until she is blue in the face.  And, surprise, she’s one of the towering giants of literature—whether DWEM or DWEW (not to be confused with Nancy Dwew with her twusty fwashwight and magnifying gwass).


Hemingway is still one of the great moderns—oh, unless you work for the Library of America.  Anyhoo, there’s the old saw about how he and Faulkner are on opposite stylistic poles—the pared down, bare-bones modern v. the decaying, efflorescent, effulgent, Southern gentleman.  But, reading Sanctuary, one gets the odd feeling that Faulkner was “trying out” Hemingway’s trick of pared down obliqueness.  And, inadvertently, he shows why it can easily become a gimmick for gimmick’s sake.

For example, Temple, a virgin, is raped by Popeye with a corn cob because he’s impotent.  Hmmm, that explanation took about fourteen words.  In the book, we have to go through chapters and chapters of allusiveness after allusiveness—most of it completely unnecessary—just to put together those fourteen words.  Indeed, that first sentence up there is the driving force of the entire book.  True, back when Faulkner wrote Sanctuary and had it published (1931), one needed to be allusive to avoid the censor.  Indeed, his father, Murry Falkner, told a coed carrying Sanctuary that it wasn’t fit for a nice girl to read.  But, if you’ve got half a brain, Faulkner makes it very clear at the end of the book what went on and what goes on and what happens to unfortunate characters like Ruby’s common-law husband who is wrongfully convicted for Popeye’s crimes.  Let’s just say he was wishing the enraged mob used a corn cob on him.

The problem with Hemingway’s trick, at least back in the 1930’s, is that it could be used as a way to discuss lurid and sensational material without being censored.  Of course, this would encourage an imaginative writer—like Faulkner—to get as lurid as all get out.  The drawback here is that such lurid and sensational material almost always dulls over time.  Sanctuary reads like A Streetcar Named Desire on steroids.  That’s not a good thing.  Sure, one starts with something like Hemingway’s short story, Hills Like White Elephants, an elegant set piece which is all about the then taboo subject of abortion without mentioning it, but one ends up with a bloody corn cob.

Click Here to Comment or View Comments on This Entry

June 2,  2005

Patrick: Lagniappe

One desires to die, but not to suffocate; sickness disgusts us with death, and we wish to get well, which is a way of wishing to live. But weakness and suffering, with manifold bodily woes, soon discourage the invalid from trying to regain ground: he tires of those respites which are but snares of that faltering strength, those ardors cut short, and that perpetual lying in wait for the next attack. I kept sly watch upon myself: that dull chest pain, was it only a passing discomfort, the result of a meal absorbed too fast, or was I to expect from the enemy an assault which this time would not be repulsed?
--Memoirs of Hadrian by Marguerite Yourcenar
 

June 1,  2005

Patrick: Lagniappe

In former years I had given the philosopher Euphrates permission for suicide. Nothing seemed simpler: a man has the right to decide how long he may usefully live. I did not then know that death can become an object of blind ardor, of a hunger like that of love. I had not foreseen those nights when I should be wrapping my baldric around my dagger in order to force myself to think twice before drawing it. Arrian alone has penetrated the secret of this unsung battle against emptiness, barrenness, fatigue, and the disgust for existing which brings on a craving for death. There is no getting over it: the old fever has prostrated me more than once; I would shudder to feel it coming on, like a sick man aware of an approaching attack. Everything served me as means to postpone the hour of the nightly struggle: work, conversations, wildly prolonged until dawn, kisses, my books. An emperor is not supposed to take his own life unless he is forced to do so for reasons of State; even Mark Antony had the excuse of a lost battle.
--Memoirs of Hadrian by Marguerite Yourcenar

June 1,  2005

Kathryn: Amnesiacs and orphans

At my father's suggestion, I've added a list of amnesiacs to the blog. The list is at the bottom of the left-hand column, underneath the orphans. Suggestions for additions to the list are welcome.

The amnesiac and the orphan, a seemingly odd pair, actually have much in common. In pragmatic terms, both figures make spectacular plot devices and can spare authors quite a bit of trouble. A character unencumbered by family, friends, and the relational complexity of everyday existence, easily plunges into whatever quest or set of adventures the author chooses.

But I'd argue that such considerations alone don't explain the strangely large numbers of orphans and amnesiacs wandering the literary world. Both the orphan and the amnesiac pose compelling questions about selfhood, identity, and origin for the reader or moviegoer: Who am I? Is there a kernel of self that is purely mine, untouched by the world and uninfluenced by the people who socialized me?

The amnesiac figure allows us to ask, further, how our  experiences and memories define us: If I could step out of the accumulated roles and responsibilities I inhabit now, who would I be?

Like the orphan, the amnesiac allows us to explore the fantasy and the horror of radical individuality. Through this figure, we get to ask who we'd be if the contingent realities that prop up our sense of self were stripped away.


Click Here to Comment or View Comments on This Entry