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ARCHIVED ENTRIES FOR MARCH 2006

March  30,  2006

Patrick: Lagniappe

Frank is too restrained to make the obvious point: it’s much easier to live with stiffing somebody if you can work up a grievance against him.

--Joseph Frank’s Dostoevsky in Consider the Lobster by David Foster Wallace

[N.B.: Hence Polonius’s advice in Hamlet to neither a lender nor a borrower be.  For scholarly disquisition on this advice, go here.]

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March  29,  2006

Patrick: Lagniappe

That distinctive singular stamp of himself is one of the main reasons readers come to love an author. The way you can just tell, often within a couple paragraphs, that something is by Dickens, or Chekhov, or Woolf, or Salinger, or Coetzee, or Ozick. The quality’s almost impossible to describe or account for straight out—it mostly presents as a vibe, a kind of perfume of sensibility—and critics’ attempts to reduce it to questions of "style" are almost universally lame.

--Joseph Frank’s Dostoevsky in Consider the Lobster by David Foster Wallace

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March  28,  2006

Patrick: Lagniappe

As I see it, it probably really is good for the soul to be a tourist, even if it’s only once in a while. Not good for the soul in a refreshing or enlivening way, though, but rather in a grim, steely-eyed, let’s-look-honestly-at-the-facts-and-find-some-way-to-deal-with-them way. My personal experience has not been that traveling around the country is broadening or relaxing, or that radical changes in place and context have a salutary effect, but rather that intranational tourism is radically constricting, and humbling in the hardest way—hostile to my fantasy of being a true individual, of living somehow outside and above it all. (Coming up is the part that my companions find especially unhappy and repellent, a sure way to spoil the fun of vacation travel:) To be a mass tourist, for me, is to become a pure late-date American: alien, ignorant, greedy for something you cannot ever have, disappointed in a way you can never admit it. It is to spoil, by way of sheer ontology, the very unspoiledness you are there to experience. It is to impose yourself on places that in all non-economic ways would be better, reader, without you. It is, in lines and gridlock and transaction after transaction, to confront a dimension of yourself that is as inescapable as it is painful: As a tourist, you become economically significant but existentially loathsome, an insect on a dead thing.

--Consider the Lobster in Consider the Lobster by David Foster Wallace

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March  27,  2006

Patrick: Lagniappe

[T]he soul-killing anonymity of chain hotels, the rooms’ terrible transient sameness: the ubiquitous floral design of the bedspreads, the multiple low-watt lamps, the pallid artwork bolted to the wall, the schizoid whisper of ventilation, the sad shag carpet, the smell of alien cleansers, the Kleenex dispensed from the wall, the automated wake-up call, the lightproof curtains, the windows that do not open—ever. The same TV with the same cable with the same voice saying "Welcome to ________" on its menu channel’s eight-second loop. The sense that everything in the room’s been touched by a thousand hands before. The sounds of others’ plumbing. [Is it] any wonder that over half of all US suicides take place in chain hotels.

--Up, Simba in Consider the Lobster by David Foster Wallace

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March  26,  2006

Patrick: Lagniappe

[W]e’ve been lied to and lied to, and it hurts to be lied to. It’s ultimately just about that complicated: it hurts. We learn this at like age four—it’s grownups’ first explanation to us of why it’s bad to lie ("How would you like it if . . . ?"). And we keep learning for years, from hard experience, that getting lied to sucks—that it diminishes you, denies you respect for yourself, for the liar, for the world. Especially if the lies are chronic, systemic, if experience seems to teach that everything you’re supposed to believe in’s really just a game based on lies. Young Voters have been taught well and thoroughly. You may not personally remember Vietnam or Watergate, but it’s a good bet you remember "No new taxes" and "Out of the loop" and "No direct knowledge of any impropriety at that time" and "Did not inhale" and "Did not have sex with that Ms. Lewinsky" and etc. etc. It’s painful to believe that the would-be "public servants" you’re forced to choose between are all phonies whose only real concern is their own care and feeding and who will lie so outrageously and with such a straight face that you know they’ve just got to believe you’re an idiot.

--Up, Simba in Consider the Lobster by David Foster Wallace

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March  24,  2006

Patrick: Lagniappe

Maybe the one thing that the reader ends up appreciating about Ben Turnbull is that he’s such a broad caricature of an Updike protagonist that he helps clarify what’s been so unpleasant and frustrating about this author’s recent characters. It’s not that Turnbull is stupid: he can quote Pascal and Kierkegaard on angst, discourse on the death of Schubert, distinguish between a sinistrorse and a dextrorse Polygonum vine, etc. It’s that he persists in the bizarre, adolescent belief that getting to have sex with whomever one wants whenever one wants to is a cure for human despair. And Toward the End of Time’s author, so far as I can figure out, believes it too. Updike makes it plain that he views the narrator’s final impotence as catastrophic, as the ultimate symbol of death itself, and he clearly wants us to mourn it as much as Turnbull does.

--Certainly the End of Something or Other in Consider the Lobster by David Foster Wallace

[N.B.: DFW puts his finger (so to speak) on the problem with John Updike:  He is not an adult.  Hence, he cannot be taken seriously, no matter how exquisite his prose might be or how powerful his descriptive powers (see Swinburne, who is a secret fetish of mine, I must confess ).  And unserious, light literature—as opposed to genre fiction such as murder mysteries, science fiction and what not—is forgotten literature.]

 

The Pleasure of Fictional Non-Fiction II

There is no "scientific" history, in the sense that one cannot take the various primary and secondary sources used to create a work of history and duplicate that book word-for-word in some kind of cosmic history laboratory. But that’s the only sense in which the work could be "scientific." Otherwise, it’s that distinguished thing greater than science—art. And for art, the question is how aesthetically pleasing is the lying in revealing, paradoxically, "truth." Which brings us to one of my favorite essays, Oscar Wilde’s The Decay of Lying, where he posits that the overriding criterion of the work under scrutiny is not whether or not it is "true" to nature but rather whether it is "true" to art, that is to say, aesthetically pleasing.

I sometimes playfully cuff Oscar Wilde under the chin for this or that outrageous literary peccadillo—but it’s only because I love him.  He seemed to delight in taking provocative stances in order to better outrage the masses. But some of his work--such as The Decay of Lying--was meant to elicit more than a smirk.  It is a jeremiad—well, actually, it’s a platonic dialogue, but who cares about technical distinctions—lamenting the decay of the creative impulse. This admonition is as relevant today as it was then, particularly with respect to the so-called category of "non-fiction" where authors seem to be more concerned in getting the facts straight—whatever that means—instead of creating a pleasing whole for the presentation of such facts.

I have just finished reading Alan Clark’s The Donkeys, an impassioned denunciation of the British generals on the western front of the Great War during 1915.  The book, in turn, has been denounced  as a distorted portrait of the British generals who weren’t such heartless bastards after all—certainly not "the donkeys" leading the lions.  Perhaps by the end of the war this was the case, but Clark’s argument regarding the first year of the war does have merit, too.  How does one choose between these competing views?  The answer is that they are probably both right to some extent.  So who wins?  Ahh, that’s an easy one—Clark does, whose book, The Donkeys, has become the popular perception of the British conduct of that war. Why?  Because his work is the more aesthetically pleasing. We may admire Thucydides for his (failed) attempt at historical objectivity but it’s Herodotus, with his fairy tales and hoary historical chestnuts, that we love.

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March  23,  2006

Patrick: Lagniappe

Alex Dane is now telling Harold Hecuba about a stray dog she found and has decided to keep. She is excited as she describes the dog and for a moment seems about fourteen; the impression lasts only a second or two and is heartbreaking. One of the B-girls, meanwhile, is explaining that she has just gotten a pair of cutting-edge breast implants that she can actually adjust the size of by adding or draining fluid via small valves under her armpits, and then—perhaps mistaking your correspondents’ expressions for ones of disbelief—she raises her arms to display the valves.

--Big Red Son in Consider the Lobster by David Foster Wallace

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March  22,  2006

Patrick: Lagniappe

Thirty-four-year-old porn actor Cal Jammer killed himself in 1995. Starlets Shauna Grant, Nancy Kelly, Alex Jordan, and Savannah have all killed themselves in the last decade. Savannah and Jordan received AVN’s Best New Starlet awards in 1991 and 1992, respectively. Savannah killed herself after getting mildly disfigured in a car accident. Alex Jordan is famous for having addressed her suicide note to her pet bird.

--Big Red Son in Consider the Lobster by David Foster Wallace

 

The Pleasure of Fictional Non-Fiction

I’ve recently read two works by A. N. Wilson, The Victorians and After the Victorians, which may serve as examples of aesthetically crafted fictional non-fiction.  Wilson himself calls these works "a portrait" of the years involved (roughly 1837—the coronation of Queen Victoria—to 1953—the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II).  Here’s his apologia from his preface to The Victorians:

I am not an academic historian, and would consider myself qualified to write for such as were. What follows is what G.M. Young in an earlier generation, and in a masterly account of the Victorians, called a ‘portrait of an age.’ . . . I have tried to draw a picture of the Victorians and their age which makes sense of them to our generation, to retell some of the outstanding incidents and portray some of the outstanding figures of the period. Everyone’s perspective will be different. And there is always the paradox in a book of this character, which attempts plausibly to live up to a huge portmanteau-title, that an aspect of the subject which demands more words is not necessarily more ‘important’ than one which can be mentioned succinctly. The Crimean War for instance is not in my view more ‘important’ than the growth of the railways, but it has received much more space here. Sometimes, however, I have deliberately given more time or description to incidents or figures who have in my opinion been misunderstood or underestimated. For example, it seems incomprehensible to me that Cardinal Newman is generally esteemed more highly today than Cardinal Manning.

*          *           *          *          *          *          *          *          *

All history is selective, and by implication, if not overtly, it makes judgements. A books such as this inevitably reflects my own preoccupations and those of the present age. If there has been a single shift in balance since Lytton Strachey wrote his mischievous debunking of Eminent Victorians over eighty years ago, however, it is the reversal of roles in the judicial bench. Strachey and his generation self-confidently judged and condemned the Victorians. We, while noting many things amiss about Victorian society, more often sense them judging us.

Wilson, understandably, is being quite modest about his aims.  But he need not be. His disclaimer applies to all history—from Gibbons’ Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire to Wilson’s To the Finland Station.  Written history is, to a degree, fictional.  It emphasizes some things and downplays other things.  It leaves things out.  It describes things from one point of view and not another.  Unless it is of infinite length, it must engage in these creative (lying?) choices which are those of fiction, not non-fiction.  Carlyle’s French Revolution is a great book not because it is a model of the modern major monograph but because it is a stylized—dare one speak its name—fictional, retelling of the revolution.  It has more in common with Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities than Schama’s Citizens (although Citizens, too, offers a distorted (fictional?) view of the revolution which lovingly dotes on visions of violence and brutality).  Great books, except for the most tedious of treatises (perhaps an article on the gall wasp—as the monomaniacal Dr. Alfred Kinsey used to crank out before he found something better to crank on) are, to a lesser or greater degree, fictional.  The better the work, the more fictional it is (hence the reason no one reads Dr. Kinsey’s catalogs on the gall wasp, although there’s still a bit of interest in his later works).

A. N. Wilson, though, by not being a so-called "professional" historian, is willing to point out that in a work of history the choice of what matters to emphasize and what ones to minimize are aesthetic choices made by the author.  Wilson is more interested in the Crimean War than the growth of the railways, so he’ll spend more time on the former and not the latter.  This candor is refreshing.  All historians make these choices—probably through the delusion that the material "chooses" its importance for the historian instead of vice versa.  Of course, it is just this conceit that drives historians such as E. P. Thompson to describe history from the "bottom up."  They, of course, make the same mistake of thinking their areas of interest are, naturally, of greater importance and that those old fuddy-duddy historians suffers from a myopia of vision.  The truth is, there’s no truth, these are aesthetic preferences.  Do you prefer the peasant in the mud or the burgher addressed as "m’lud"?  I don’t care, as long as the historian realizes that his job is not to try to be faithful to history in all of its dullness, but, instead, to make a pleasing picture for my enjoyment. As Oscar Wilde pointed out in another context: "Art really reveals to us is Nature's lack of design, her curious crudities, her extraordinary monotony, her absolutely unfinished condition."  A. N. Wilson intuitively understands this (mostly) forgotten precept and, as a result, produces two highly enjoyable works of fictional non-fiction.

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March  21,  2006

Patrick: Lagniappe

If I have landed on the coast of lit-crit only as a raider, leaving the jungle of the interior well alone, it's because of an allergic response to books with a colon in the middle of the title. The Cain-mark of academe, it usually threatens the minute examination, at great length, of immaterial evidence about something or the other not very important, in language few can understand and no one could enjoy. Whatever a writer has to say, it's his or her job to make it easy for me to understand. Even that's not enough. They have to make me enjoy it.

--Julian Roach’s top 10 books on Percy Bysshe Shelley

 

The Problem of Fictional Non-Fiction

It seems that some are trying to blame the recent car wreck between James Frey and Oprah Winfrey (there is nothing like the fury of an Oprah scorned) when his mini-compact memoir-cum-confessional-cum-fiction-cum-fantasy got plowed under by her eighteen-hundred wheeler inquisition-cum-confessional-cum-talk show-cum-show trial for the decades-long decline in the reading of fiction. Indeed, some seem to worry that folks will stop reading fiction once they realize it’s . . . well . . . fictional.  Sorry, buddy, you’ve come up snake-eyes.

The problem is not that people will realize that fiction is a lie—even if it is "the one lie that can tell us the truth."  Nor is it a particular concern that "fiction makes no claim to reality."  These commonplace middle-brow sentiments, although unfortunately widespread, simply are beside the point.  Yes, fiction is not based on "reality" because it is fictional.  But neither is nonfiction.  The problem is not that people fail to realize that fiction is not true but that they fail to realize that nonfiction is "the lie that dare not speak its name."

Nonfiction, just like so-called "objective" journalism, is, by necessity, false.  This is true for a number of reasons, only a few of which I’ll elucidate here.  First, the writer (or journalist) must first choose what to write about.  That initial step in the winnowing process is necessarily subjective and cannot represent the full "thickness" of reality.  It is, at best, a pale imitation of same.  Second, once a small strip has been ripped from reality’s bark, the writer must then decide what shape to carve it into. Should this detail be emphasized, this one cut down, or outright removed?  All of these decisions, again, are subjective and not true to reality.  Then, in what order should these details be arranged?  Again, purely subjective. And, as well, there’s the choice of what language (the writer’s "voice" or "style") should be used to describe these details.  Tom Wolfe writing about the space program, even if he used the same details in the same order as Norman Mailer, would produce a very different kind of "nonfiction."

If there is no difference between nonfiction and fiction, then why maintain these artificial distinctions?  Good question.  I would submit that we would be much more intelligent as readers if we cast a critical eye over all works, not just those of fiction, and asked whether this work—whether nonfiction or fiction, journalism or fantasy—represents reality as we are familiar with it.  Or, better yet, that we do not have the knowledge to make that decision and so shall suspend judgment until further illumination which can best be provided by juxtaposing antagonistic elements (for example, reading works about the American Civil War as penned by historians of both Southern and Northern sympathies—where the judgment of these works overlap, there we can have some confidence that at least a general opinion of a matter is shared).  And, even if we do suspend judgment as to whether "reality" is actually portrayed, we may still judge the work based on its aesthetic qualities (journalism, though, must be condemned on these grounds tout court—excepting, of course, that of the Beloved, Charles Dickens, and a few other of my cherished favorite pets).  So what does this mean with respect to works of non-fiction?  Let’s wait for the next post.

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March  18,  2006

Patrick: Lagniappe

Fate is prone to reserve her smiles for the mighty, and for those who do great deeds. She will remain faithful for years to one man, will be the devoted slave of a Caesar, an Alexander, or a Napoleon; she has a liking for primitive natures, akin to herself—incomprehensible, unfathomable.

Yet, occasionally, at very rare intervals, she sets her cap at some inconspicuous mortal, placing in his hands the threads of doom, the clumsy weaving of which may change the course of history. The poor fellows on whom Destiny thus bestows her favours are alarmed rather than delighted; they are overwhelmed by the torrent of responsibility which sweeps them into the mighty river of world happenings. For the most part, therefore, they allow the threads to slip form their tremulous fingers. Seldom indeed do events prove so cogent that event he weakling is carried upward to soaring heights. The great moment passes swiftly, and he who fails to grasp his opportunity will never be vouchsafed another.

--The Decisive Hour at Waterloo in The Tide of Fortune by Stefan Zweig

 

Robert Nye and History

In contrast to Robert Graves and his Goddess Theory, Robert Nye, although also preoccupied with the relations between the sexes, takes a more traditional, masculine perspective.  Not surprisingly, his literary skill does not rise to the level of that possessed by Graves, that towering eccentric literary genius.  But Nye does have the ability, to paraphrase Pound, to make the commonplace seem strange.  He has at least grasped one of the primary rules of great literature: One must wring truth from the unexpected juxtaposition of clichés (the vast majority of successful, but transient, "serious" literature wring lies from same; this usually occurs because the writer thinks he is working with "new" elements, not clichés, but, as pointed out by Solomon, when it comes to the essential nature of mankind, there is nothing new under the sun; the intelligent writer knows this and realizes he must work within these cramping strictures—which, paradoxically, can be liberating, as T. S. Eliot explained; in another context, so has Robert Frost noted, using a negative example, likened the writing of verse libre to playing tennis without a net).

Robert Nye may not be a writer of the first water, but he has created a fascinating character study in his work, The Voyage of the Destiny. Everyone used to be familiar with Sir Walter Raleigh, the protagonist and first-person narrator, of Nye’s The Voyage of the Destiny.  Of course, nowadays, no one is familiar with nothing, and only nothing. [shrug shoulders]  Nye endeavors to carve his Raleigh as an Everyman, a universal figure composed of various conflicting impulses. Nye explicitly compares Raleigh to Shakespeare’s Hamlet (although, amusingly, Raleigh does not care much for the Bard’s work).  Further, Nye uses his puppet, Raleigh, to comment on the artificiality of not just historical fiction but the inherent inability to describe anyone without taking into account that person’s historical milieu in all of its finely calibrated detail.  Indeed, the novel seems to hint that, pace Tom Wolfe, this latter undertaking is literally impossible, or, at the very least, would require a Ulysses the size of the Library of Congress.  Here is Raleigh (Nye) ruminating on memory:

I remember Elizabeth’s smell too. When she died they said that she had sat for many days and nights on a pile of cushions in the middle of her private chamber, refusing to go to bed. Then she danced. Then she fell down on the dancing floor. They had to strip layer after layer of cheesy petticoats from her. I remember—

          What is it that says ‘I’ in I remember?

Memory had more to it than the first person singular. Memory’s life is larger, deeper, darker, more abundant. Better to go along with these movements of remembrance than to get stranded in midstream on the mere stepping-stones of identity. What such movements amount to is not exactly a flowing river, either. Even less a long thread of moments passed through that eye of a needle which is the self.

Nye/Raleigh suggests elsewhere that this recapturing of memory—and of personhood—is beyond the ordinary ken of the senses.  It is a futile endeavor. However, certain cultures, through chemical means, have learned how to bypass this Gordian knot:

The khoka leaf perhaps. The Indian bought me another this afternoon and I am chewing it as I write. The herb has the power to sharpen the past, to make it like a thorn in the mind. It also heightens one’s awareness of the present. A moment ago I cut myself a slice of bread. Cutting a slice of bread. What could be more everyday, more ordinary? Yet I found myself transfixed for a moment in the moment. The knife seemed to glow in my hand, the bread as it broke apart looked to me like a miracle, and I had all at once this sensation of being one with the knife and the bread and yet standing in the corner of my cabin and watching the whole transaction—bright blade cutting through brown crust—as if I were someone else, a spectator.

Of course, as the Beats have shown—and the Bloomsbury Group before them, and the Decadents before them, and the Symbolists before them, etc., etc., ad nauseum—rarely can the use of chemicals be regulated so as to avoid crossing over from insight into banality.  Even Aldous Huxley, who probably came closer than most to staying on the right side of that very thin line (It’s such a fine line between stupid . . . an’ clever ) still managed to slip and bonk his noggin on The Doors of Perception.  So, although this way may be one method to cut the Gordian knot, it usually winds up hanging the user.

So what does Nyr/Raleigh recommend?  Poetry.  Or, at least, a very idiosyncratic definition of poetry:

This poetry was not written. It had nothing to do with words. To understand it you must rid your mind of the idea that poetry is always and of necessity limited to the world of language. Poetry can be in persons and their actions. A poem can come into being between a man and a woman. This concept of poetry has to do with an idea of absolute rightness. But while such rightness is commonly a matter of the best words in the best order, it can also be a matter of the best acts in the best order. Or, rather, the only acts in the only order. That’s what I mean by absolute rightness, my son. Sometimes there is only one thing to do, the right things, but you have to be inspired to do it.

         Also you need luck.

And I wish you luck in reading Nye’s The Voyage of the Destiny.  Not only is it a "ripping yarn," as the pub-house boys say, but a thought provoking one, too.

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March  17,  2006

Patrick: Lagniappe

Unique and inexplicable were the characters of the Spanish conquistadors. More fervent believers than any other Christians before them, they were always ready to make the most earnest appeals to God, and would simultaneously commit the most inhuman deeds ever recorded in history. Capable of the most splendid courage, self-sacrifice, and endurance of suffering, they cheated one another and fought with one another in the most shameless way—and yet, amid all their baseness, they had a highly developed sense of honour, and a wonderful, an admirable awareness of the historical significance of their undertakings. This very Nunez de Balboa, who the evening before had fed prisoners to his hounds, and who perhaps was this morning ready to fondle the blood-stained chops of the fierce beasts, was fully cognizant of the importance of his enterprise in the history of mankind, and was able, at the decisive moment, to make one of those magnificent gestures which can never be forgotten.

--Flight into Immortality in The Tide of Fortune by Stefan Zweig

 

Robert Graves and Herstory

Robert Graves was a serious nut-job.  I won’t hide that fact from you.  I’m telling it to you right up front.  See, nothing to hide.  Graves.  Nut-job.  Nut-job. Graves.  There you go.  He believed that the original myth systems—including the Greek myths—were centered around Goddess worship, later supplanted by bad-boy Zeus and his louche lad-lords. He even wrote a historical novel, Homer’s Daughter, positing that The Odyssey was written by a woman.  Personally, I think his theory has a lot of merit.  But, suffice it to say, that’s the distinct minority  opinion.  And, given the Graves is a DWM ranting without a license, he’s ignored by feminist scholars, too.  So, it’s left to the likes of your humble litblogger to try to explain why Graves is such a wonderful prose writer.

First, as I mentioned in passing in the first post, Graves is a great poet.  Indeed, many think he is one of the premier poets of the Twentieth Century.  Here’s a sample:

Call It a Good Marriage

Call it a good marriage –

For no one ever questioned

Her warmth, his masculinity,

Their interlocking views;

Except one stray graphologist

Who frowned in speculation

At her h’s and her s’s,

His p’s and w’s.

 

Though few would still subscribe

To the monogamic axiom

That strife below the hip-bones

Need not estrange the heart,

Call it a good marriage:

More drew those two together,

Despite a lack of children,

Than pulled them apart.

 

Call it a good marriage:

They never fought in public,

They acted circumspectly

And faced the world with pride;

Thus the hazards of their love-bed

Were none of our damned business-

Till as jurymen we sat on

Two deaths by suicide.

I hope I’ve established Mr. Graves’s bona-fides that he can write.  Indeed, being a great poet makes him a master stylist in prose.  And how curious that he chose to the historical novel as the primary vehicle for exercising that prosaic gift.  Indeed, in one of his historical novels, his list of works on the frontispiece is described thusly:

Historical Novels by Robert Graves

13th Century B.C. Hercules, My Shipmate

1st Century B.C. and A.D. I, Claudius

1st Century A.D. Claudius the God

1st Century A.D. King Jesus

6th Century A.D. Count Belisarius

16th Century A.D. The Islands of Unwisdom

17th Century A.D. The Wife to Mr. Milton

18th Century A.D. Sargeant Lamb’s America

18th Century A.D. Proceed, Sagreant Lamb

19th Century A.D. The Real David Copperfield

Post-Historical Watch the North Wind Rise

So, clearly, Graves was proud of his accomplishment—as he should be.  The few works of his I have read from this list are uniformly excellent (although I have not read it yet, many admire Count Belisarius as the best of these genre works).  This, then, is a long-winded way for me to recommend his obscure, out-of-print work, The Islands of Unwisdom, which can be picked up for a song here.

The Islands of Unwisdom fits nicely in Robert Graves’s Grand Goddess Theory That Explains Everything Including Gooseberry Cream, although from an oblique angle.  It is a fictional retelling of an actual event.  In 1606 the Spaniards took a little trip, across the grand Pacific and down to the Solomon Islands’ tip.  There, things went horribly awry and after many hair-raising adventures (as the movie copy might say) the fleet of Spanish boats limped back to civilization.  As things got nasty, brutish and short, the flotilla wound up being commanded by Dona Ysabel Barreto, the widow of its former leader, General Alvaro de Mendana. [N.B.: Graves then drops a Don Quixote-inspired footnote (you should know by now how I can’t resist shoehorning a reference to that most sublime of novels into any entry, no matter how far-fetched) providing: "It was still unusual for a woman to adopt her husband’s surname. Cervantes mentions as a novelty in Don Quixote (1605) that Sancho Panza’s wife Teresa had done so, the custom having recently spread to La Mancha from France."]  To have a woman head a flotilla of ships is unique in the annals of naval history.  For that woman to be from the 16th-17th Centuries is even more unbelievable.  But life, unlike fiction, need not be probable—or even plausible.  And so, once again, I heartily recommend that you strike your colors for a rollicking voyage on the good ship, The Islands of Unwisdom.

Actually, heaping praise on Robert Graves and his book, The Islands of Unwisdom, wasn’t the real point of my posts.  Actually, I’d like to draw attention to his modern-day disciple, Robert Nye, and his book about the life of Sir Walter Raleigh, The Voyage of the Destiny, which is set during the same time period as The Islands of Unwisdom.  More on my true point next post.

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March  16,  2006

Patrick: Lagniappe

This visit was the turning-point in the career of Vasco Nunez de Balboa, who up till then had been nothing more than a desperado and a hardy rebel, liable to execution by the rope or the axe at the instance of Castilian justice. Comagre received him in a large and well-built stone mansion, the richness of whose furnishings amazed Balboa; and, unsolicited, the cacique presented his guest with four thousand ounces of gold. But now it was the turn of the Indian chief to be astonished. Hardly had the children of heaven, the mighty strangers whom he had received with such reverence, set eyes on the gold than they cast their dignity to the winds. Like unleashed hounds they began to fight with one another, drawing their swords, clenching their fists, shooting and raging—for each of them wished to secure the lion’s share of the precious metal. Contemptuously the cacique watched the broil, with the amazement which unsophisticated savages have invariably and everywhere felt on discovering that to white men, who pride themselves on their civilization, a handful of gold seems more precious than all the intellectual and technical acquirements of culture.

--Flight into Immortality in The Tide of Fortune by Stefan Zweig

 

Whither Historical Fiction

Given the continued dominance of Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, what with it lording it over the rest of the world of fiction at the top of the bestseller list for the last three years, there should be little doubt that whither historical fiction goest must be, in the words of James Cagney’s Cody Jarrett, "Ma, Top of the World!"   Let me just say straight off that I have not read The Da Vinci Code nor do I intend to for the same reason that, because I get a whiff of a rank stink emanating from a dumpster, I am not tempted to investigate the origin of the smell (hmmm, is it coming from that dead rat or that bag of soiled nappies?)—it suffices for me to know that the stench exists.  I acknowledge that The Da Vinci Code exists, so let’s move on to more interesting topics [N.B.: I’m well aware that The Da Vinci Code is really just a gussied-up thriller with a few historical asides thrown in to tart things up a bit—a gutter-bum’s version of A. S. Byatt’s Possession, if you will].  So, now that we have established Dan Brown’s popularity, whatever happened to the upper-middle-brow authors (a very British literary class-icsism if I do say so myself) who used to churn out this stuff by the bucketfuls?

Pace Dan Brown, the reigning emperor of this genre is Robert Graves whose I, Claudius will continue to glower over this world like a colossus long after The Da Vinci Code has skipped off to join Maurice Hewlett’s The Forest Lovers (which you can read here in all of its unexpurgated glory, alas! [N.B.: This website referenced, by the bye, Project Gutenberg, has a top-100 list based on the number of times a particular work is downloaded, and guess what is perennially in the top five: The notebooks of Leonardo Da Vinci; can we not escape the baleful influence of Dan Brown?] ).  Needless to say, The Forest Lovers was a huge hit in its day, full of dash and vigor in Merrie Olde England with knights frolicking about on top of trolls and foaming casks of beer lolling around a maypole while pinioned maidens danced with unicorns and ate roast mutton and the Lord’s bear-baiter.  Indeed, if one reads every other word in The Forest Lovers but only in each third line, one will have deciphered the secret of The Da Vinci Code: breathless suspense with a minimum of verbiage.  In other words, Dan Brown is a worshipful disciple of Elmore Leonard’s pithy formula (cut out all the exposition and build-up so as to concentrate on action and dialogue).  This formula certainly spells success in this world, and, verily, given that thou hast received thy reward here on earth, there shall be none for thee in the world hereafter.

Okay, so I, Claudius and Robert Graves have managed to make it into the world hereafter (although most folks would argue that’s because of his other talent as one of the troika of great poets—Sassoon and Owen being the other two—to emerge from the Great War).  But what happened to the rest of his historical fiction?  Was it, well, not to put too fine a point on it, a bit stinky, too?  No, no, no.  If anything, I, Claudius, is a fairly weak sister compared to the rest of Graves’s historical-fiction output.  But, due to an unfortunate confluence of circumstances, his other books have been relegated to the dustbin of history, or, more appropriately, herstory.  I’ll explain in the next post.

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March  15,  2006

Patrick: Lagniappe

The noise of its fall re-echoed through Christendom, shaking the whole Western world. The news aroused terror in Rome, Genoa, Venice, and Florence; like the rattle of distant thunder the tidings came to Paris and crossed the Rhine; and a shuddering Europe realized that, thanks to her callous indifference, something which would hamper and paralyze her forces for centuries, a fatally destructive element, had entered Byzantium through the forgotten door of Kerkaporta. But neither in history nor in individual human lives does regret bring back a lost opportunity, and a thousand years cannot atone for the failure of an hour.

--The Conquest of Byzantium in The Tide of Fortune by Stefan Zweig

[N.B.: Zweig’s book, Tide of Fortune, was published in Great Britain during the first year of WWII, so, obviously, there is a bit of an apocalyptic flavor to it.  I think, however, that Zweig’s warning of the West’s tendency to ignore a festering problem until it’s too late is particularly relevant in light of the French situation in the last several years.  Clearly, France is about to experience a civilizational change that will entail a radical replacement of its basic cultural foundations (libertie, egalitie and fraternatie, last I checked, are not enshrined in Sharia).  The French have already done a wonderful job of stripping their cathedrals of art, thanks to the French Revolution and its aftermath, so that they have a number of ready-made Hagia Sofias for their next occupiers (Notre Dame and the Pantheon, in particular, are eerie examples of what a church building can feel like once stripped of its religious trappings).  This preliminary preparation, though, does not answer what might happen to the works of art in the Louvre and the myriad other French art museums. As the recent dispute over the Danish Muslim cartoons indicates, though, there will be no tolerance for the depiction of religious themes.  My guess is that the paintings in these institutions will be destroyed in a giant Bonfire of the Vanities that would make even Savonarola cringe.  I am a bit surprised, therefore, that, given the historical example of Byzantium, there does not appear to be any discussion about what should be done about such artworks once the culture switch becomes imminent (which, given that 50% of the French residents under the age of 18 are Muslim, I would guess will happen in the next 75 to 100 years or so, perhaps sooner). By the bye, I’m calling dibs on Théodore Chassériau’s Two Sisters.]

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March  14,  2006

Patrick: Lagniappe

The crowds of unhappy mortals who had sought refuge in churches were ruthlessly flogged out; the old people were promptly butchered as useless mouths; the young, bound together like cattle, were herded in droves. Aimless destruction went hand in hand with looting. Whatever in the way of relics and works of art the Crusaders had left behind in a hardly less indiscriminate sack of Constantinople, the victorious Moslems now destroyed. Valuable pictures were cut to pieces; statues were hammered into fragments; books which contained the wisdom of the ages, and should have preserved for all time the wealth of Greek thought and imagination were burned or thrown in the gutter. Never will mankind know all the disaster which befell it in that fateful hour when Kerkaporta door was left open, nor how much was forever lost to the world of the spirit through the pillaging of Rome, Alexandria, and Byzantium.

--The Conquest of Byzantium in The Tide of Fortune by Stefan Zweig

 

Tom Wolfe and John Updike

The current issue of The Atlantic has a reappraisal by Mark Bowden of Tom Wolfe’s last book, I Am Charlotte Simmons.  Yep, that’s the same Tom Wolfe and the same I Am Charlotte Simmons that was trashed just about this time last year by the usual gang of suspects led by the exquisitely precise barometer of literary pretentiousness, Michiko Kakutani.  I have already written extensively about this dust-up which illuminates more the failings of the chattering critics rather than those of the book.  So pardon me if we skip over that old ground.  Let’s give a hand, though, to Mr. Bowden in grateful acknowledgement that there still exists a critic willing to elucidate the obvious and to labor against the unthinking herd.  As I hope this blog has made clear from time to time, great literature does not necessarily stand the test of time (or, if it does, it may be decades—or even centuries—before it receives its just recognition).  I prefer not to wait for almost one-hundred years before learning of my generation’s Herman Melville.  Jonathan Foer, you can put your hand down.  You, too, Clunkel . . . errr . . . Kunkel.

But wait, who’s that old hack in the back frantically jumping up and down? Attention must be paid to him—or not.  Well, I’ll be . . . it’s Old Man Updike, having just got back from his whirlwind world tour of explicating all the great masterpieces of Western art.  He seems to be jibber jabbering about some kind of male bonding between septuagenarians who are working on their third wives as they lament the loss of their potency.  We’d better sit down; it looks like this tirade might be a long one.  Hold on, though, what’s that up in the sky?  Is it a bird?  Is it a plane?  No, it’s Mark Bowden with his last paragraph from the Tom Wolfe article:

So what makes fiction great? What is the standard? In his put-down of Wolfe, Updike didn’t explain the difference between "entertainment" and "literature," other than to suggest that the dapper former journalist’s writing was not "exquisite." According to Webster’s, the word means "carefully selected" … "marked by nice discrimination, deep sensitivity, or subtle understanding" … "pleasing through beauty, fitness, or perfection." The put-down invites a comparison between Wolfe’s writing and Updike’s own. I admire Updike’s books, although I have read only a small portion of his prodigious output. Couples, Villages, and the Rabbit series in particular are intensely realistic, and capture better than anything the texture of American suburban life and the subtle transactions of emotional and sexual need in modern relationships. But his books run together in my mind. They all have a similar feel, and as engrossing and exquisitely written as they are, I find I have a hard time remembering them afterward. In the long run, fiction that endures is by definition memorable.

By that standard, my money is on Wolfe.

Mine too.  Old Man, the bell is tolling . . . and it ain’t for recess.

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March  12,  2006

Patrick: Lagniappe

As a good psychologist he knew the best way of stimulating zeal to the uttermost, so he made a terrible promise, which to his honour and dishonour was terribly fulfilled. His criers were sent to all parts of the camp and each, after a trumpet blast, made the following proclamation:

By the name of Allah, by the name of Mohammed and the four thousand prophets, by the soul of his father, Sultan Murad, by the heads of his children, and by his scimitar, Mahmud swears that when the town has been taken by storm the troops will have an unrestricted right to three days of rapine. Everything within the walls—furniture, jewels and trinkets, gold and silver, men, women, and children—shall belong to the victorious soldiery, the Sultan himself renouncing any reward beyond the glory of having conquered this last bulwark of the Eastern empire.

--The Conquest of Byzantium in The Tide of Fortune by Stefan Zweig

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March  11,  2006

Patrick: Lagniappe

But again and again in history is repeated the tragedy that the man of the study, because burdened by an excessive sense of responsibility, so rarely shows himself a decisive man of action. Repeatedly we encounter the same cleavage in intellectual and creative persons. Because they see better than others the follies of the time, they are eager to intervene, and in an hour of enthusiasm will impetuously fling themselves into the political arena. But simultaneously they shrink from meeting violence with violence. Their inward sense of responsibility makes them hesitate to instill terror, to shed blood; and their hesitancy and caution at the precise moment when precipitancy and recklessness have become not merely desirable but essential, paralyses their energies.

--The Head Upon the Rostrum in The Tide of Fortune by Stefan Zweig

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March  10,  2006

Patrick: Lagniappe

In Samuel Butler’s Note-books: "If a writer will go on the principle of stopping everywhere and anywhere to put down his notes, as the true painter will stop anywhere and everywhere to sketch, he will be able to cut down his words liberally. He will become prodigal not of writing—any fool can be this—but of omission. You become brief because you have more things to say than time to say them in. One of the chief arts is that of knowing what to neglect."

--A Reading Diary by Alberto Manguel

[N.B.:  This is also the benefit of scribbling in the modern-day equivalent: the litblog; except, of course, when one enters rant-mode.]

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March  9,  2006

Patrick: Lagniappe

When Sterne died, only his bookseller was in attendance at the funeral. Weeks later, students in an anatomy course at Cambridge University were horrified to discover that the unearthed cadaver they were dissecting was that of the celebrated author of Tristram Shandy. Sterne’s remains were sent back to the graveyard for reburial.

--A Reading Diary by Alberto Manguel

What do demon rum and Demosthenes have in common?

I received an enlightening email from the folks at zacappa, whose website is billed out as an "arbitrary literary resource"—in other words, it’s an entire site devoted to literary lagniappe.  I flitted over there and, shore ‘nuff, it does have some down-right down-home good readin’ on a variety of literary sidelights such as the Nabokov/Wilson feud and various Borges brouhahas.  Zacappa apparently refers to a smooth, aged rum, Ron Zacapa.  Hey, anyone whose litblog site is dedicated to an adult beverage is A-OK in my book.  So where is the Lagavulin litblog?  Isn’t there one whiskey wino who hasn’t spent all of his shekels on peat likker and can start up a website dedicated to the finest (and peatiest) of single-malt scotches and literature?  Oh well, the literary world will have to wait for that alcoholic innovation. In the meantime, we can all get drunk on zacappa.

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March  8,  2006

Patrick: Lagniappe

For Jaun Jose Saer, Don Quixote is an epic hero because he is uninterested in whether his mission of justice will succeed or fail. "This is the essential point that must be retained," says Saer; "that the clear or muddled awareness of the ineluctability of failure of every human enterprise, is something fundamentally opposed to the moral epic." Compare this to Stevenson’s remark: "Our mission in life is not to succeed, but to continue to fail in the best of spirits."

--A Reading Diary by Alberto Manguel

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March  7,  2006

Patrick: Lagniappe

Reading Don Quixote, I’m distracted by the world Cervantes has recreated and pay little attention to the unfolding of the story. The landscape through which the two adventurers travel, their daily conflicts, their pain and grime and hunger and friendship are so powerfully real that I forget that they follow a narrative, and simply enjoy their company. I am less interested in what will happen next than in what is happening now. I sometimes feel the same reading Conrad or Thomas Mann, or the Sherlock Holmes stories.

--A Reading Diary by Alberto Manguel

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March  6,  2006

Patrick: Lagniappe

After the sale of museum reproduction rights to multinational companies, local governments, administrative organizations and private landowners have begun to claim rights over certain "natural views." Monuments such as the Eiffel Tower can be photographed for free during the day, but the right to reproduce the lit symbol of Paris at night belongs to a private company. Among the examples of visual private property: the view from the cliffs of Cassis, near Marseilles; the boats on the beach of Collioure, in southern France; the Estuary of Trieux, in Brittany. Will a future Kenneth Grahame have to pay some large corporation for the use of his memories of Cookham Dene on the Thames?

--A Reading Diary by Alberto Manguel

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March  5,  2006

Patrick: Lagniappe

I have never felt in exile, unlike so many of the writers I’ve met. I remember the Cuban group in Paris, clustered around the novelist Severo Sarduy, always conscious of not being in the place they had been compelled to leave. Sarduy was very aware that exile had made him nostalgic for a country that no longer existed, perhaps had never existed, at least as he remembered it—a country created by layers and layers of memory, embroidered, corrected, reshaped. He believed that even the places we live in become transformed through prejudices, whims, limited experience, through the fact that we walk one route and not another from our house to the baker’s, or that we choose one café, one park, one grocer form the variety of sites that make up a certain city. In this sense, every place is imaginary.

--A Reading Diary by Alberto Manguel

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March 4,  2006

Patrick: Lagniappe

On the door to my library I’ve written a variation on the motto of Rabelais’ Abbey of Thelême: LYS CE QUE VOUDRA ("Read what you will").

--A Reading Diary by Alberto Manguel

 

Why Satire Might Seem Dead

. . . but really isn’t. One hears the complaint—which probably started with the snide remarks of the early readers’ of Plato’s Phaedo  chuckling over Socrates’ last earthly request regarding the return of a cock—that life is too absurd to be further exaggerated through the stringent arts of satire. Admittedly, I, too, from time to time, happen across some ridiculous tidbit that makes me wonder if there’s still a place in the literary firmament for satire. Case in point: What do the authors of Screw It, Let’s Do It and Chickenfeed have in common? Give up? Not a clue, other than they might be involved in some illegal form of animal husbandry? Actually, they’re two of a motley crew of British authors who have agreed to write Quick Read books for Random House. At this point, I must quote from the article  before I lose all semblance of propriety:

The books are aimed at people who struggle with reading or have lost the habit of carrying around a good book. But the plots and subject matter have been pitched to appeal to a wider audience.

Each book has fewer than 128 pages and language is simple, with short sentences and a limited number of words of three syllables or more.

Unfortunately, the article alerting these "special needs" readers to this exciting development contains a number of words in excess three syllables. One wonders what these readers will make of such conundrums (three syllables) as: "supermarkets" and "sophisticated," not to mention "literacy." Perhaps, the solution is to engage in a bit of syncope (again, three syllables) so that "literacy" might be shortened to "lit’cy," although this might be confused with a bit of Texas banter along the lines of: "Lit’cy whether we need to git them hens so more chickenfeed."

If I might engage in a bit of prolepsis (still three syllables), I foresee that this trend might spawn the need for even simpler books for the remedial "special needs" reader, whom, still craving sophisticated plot and pacing involving rounded characters, won’t be able to follow something as long as 128 pages [N.B.: Where in the world did that number come from? Was there extensive testing performed on "special needs" readers to come up with that outer limit? Were they force-fed on Stephen King and Elmore Leonard? Was there reader cruelty involved? Quick, get a talking head on this scandal quick!] and instead will need to have their fare cut down to much more manageable bite-sized bits the consistency of Oliver Twist’s gruel. Herewith, my sample chapter for the NewReader (copyright pending) of the future:

"Blood," Jill screamed. She had a stump leg. Her good foot was in it. Yuck. She would need a bath, and Jack would like that.

"Watch it," Jack said. He stunk and would need a bath, too. Maybe with Jill. Jack was a cop, but he had a grudge. He would kill bad guys but would still be kept on the beat. He got no help from his boss. And he had a lisp from when he caught a gun in the face from a fight with a drunk. It hurt. But not as much as what he did to that drunk. Heh.

"Look at my foot. I need a bath." Jill looked to Jack to see what he would do.

Jack smirked. Heh.

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March 3,  2006

Patrick: Lagniappe

Kierkegaard: "Most people really believe that the Christian commandments (e.g., to love one’s neighbor as oneself) are intentionally a little too severe—like putting the clock ahead half an hour to make sure of not being late in the morning."

--A Reading Diary by Alberto Manguel

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March 2,  2006

Patrick: Lagniappe

Note: According to Sir George Sitwell, "the first English gentleman" was a certain Robert Erdeswick of Stafford, who in 1413 had to declare his social position at a trial in which he was accused of "housebreaking, wounding and incitement to murder."

--A Reading Diary by Alberto Manguel

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March 1,  2006

Patrick: Lagniappe

Chateaubriand’s account of Napoleon’s tyranny is applicable to almost any other dictatorship: "Those who were persecuted dreaded seeing their friends, for fear of compromising them; their friends dared not visit them, for fear of provoking even heavier persecution. The unfortunate outlaw, become a pariah, cut off from human company, remained in the quarantine of the despot’s hatred. Welcomed as long as your freedom of opinion remained secret, everything was withdrawn as soon as it became known; nothing was left to keep you company but the authorities spying on your relationships, on what you had to say, on your correspondence, on your dealings with others. Such were those days of happiness and freedom."

--A Reading Diary by Alberto Manguel

 

Undead Updike

Every generation produces its own form of evil, its signature tune of wickedness. And what has the laughably misnamed "Silent Generation" begotten? What rough beast slouches toward us all? The Adolescent Undead—emotionally stunted husks of dried testosterone who cling to the literary floodlights as they declaim such lines of DOA prose as:

He was a handsome man, with a head of tightly wiry hair whose graying did not diminish its density, but he was frail inside from rheumatic fever in his Maine boyhood.

Plunk, plunk, plinkety plink—the gimcrack, tuneless player piano cranks out one flat note after another as we’re expected to waltz to the breathless intonations of the keeled-over crooner, John Updike, performing his latest maudlin warble, "My Father’s Tears," in the February 27, 2006 issue of the New Yorker. Sure, we’ve heard this melancholy tune a thousand times before in a thousand different dreary settings, Schuylkill, Youkill, Mekill, Weallkill for some new thrill. But we can’t get any new thrills because the likes of John Updike simply WON’T SIT DOWN. As the Undead Updike so succinctly puts it:

The list of our deceased classmates on the back of the program grows longer; the class beauties are gone to fat or bony cronehood; the sports stars and non-athletic alike move about with the aid of pacemakers and plastic knees, retired and taking up space at an age when most of our fathers were considerately dead.

"[W]ere considerately dead"; maybe Miss Grundy had a point about avoiding adverbs in one’s prose. But, of course, rules are meant to be broken by a master stylist, even one who refuses to be "considerately dead." And why won’t Updike go gently into that good night (don’t let the Library-of-America door hit you on the way out)? Once again, let’s crank up "My Father’s Tears":

But we don’t see ourselves that way, as lame and old. We see kindergarten children—the same round fresh faces, the same cup ears and long-lashed eyes. We hear the gleeful shrieking during elementary-school recess and the seductive saxophones and muted trumpets of the home-bred swing bands that serenaded the blue-lit gymnasium during high-school dances. We see in each other the simplicities of a town rendered changeless by Depression and then by a world war whose bombs never reached us, though rationing and toy tanks and air-raid drills did. Old rivalries are rekindled and put aside; old romances flare for a moment and subside into the general warmth, the diffuse love. When the class secretary, dear Ann Mahlon, her luxuriant head of chestnut curls now whiter than bleached laundry, takes the microphone and runs us through a quiz on the old days—teachers’ nicknames, the names of vanished luncheonettes and ice-cream parlors, the titles of our junior and senior plays, the winner of the scrap drive in third grade—the answers are shouted out on all sides. Not one piece of trivia stumps us: we were there, together, then, and the spouses, Sylvia among them, goodnaturedly applaud so much long-hoarded treasure of useless knowing.

"[G]oodnaturedly applaud"—Miss Grundy, get a gun. But it takes more than a gun to kill the Undead Updike. The above paragraph basically sums up his entire oeuvre: "we see in each other the simplicities of a town," "old rivalries are rekindled and put aside," "old romances flare for a moment and subside into general warmth, the diffuse love," and yet it all boils down to "useless knowing." Still, though, the Undead Updike clings to the microphone, refusing to relinquish his memories, because, you see, he is still the lovable little lambkins, a kindergarten kiddo frolicking in the eternal sunshine of his own mind.

HURRY UP PLEASE IT’S TIME

HURRY UP PLEASE IT’S TIME

HURRY UP PLEASE IT’S TIME

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