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ARCHIVED ENTRIES FOR MARCH 2007

March  29,  2007

Patrick: Lagniappe

Dryden himself has spoken memorably upon rhyme.  Discussing the imputed unnaturalness of the rhymed "repartee" he says:  "Suppose we acknowledge it: how comes this confederacy to be more displeasing to you than in a dance which is well contrived?  You see there the united design of many persons to make up one figure; . . . the confederacy is plain amongst them, for chance could never produce anything so beautiful; and yet there is nothing in it that shocks your sight . . . 'Tis an art which appears; but it appears only like the shadowings of painture, which being to cause the rounding of it, cannot be absent; but while that is considered, they are lost: so while we attend to the other beauties of the matter, the care and labour of the rhyme is carried from us, or at least drowned in its own sweetness, as bees are sometimes buried in their honey."  In this exquisite passage Dryden seems to have come near, though not quite to have hit, the central argument for rhyme--its power of creating a beautiful atmosphere, in which what is expressed may be caught away from the associations of common life and harmoniously enshrined.  For Racine, with his prepossesssions of sublimity and perfection, some such barrier between his universe and reality was involved in the very nature of his art.  His rhyme is like the still clear water of a lake, through which we can see, mysteriously separated from us and changed and beautified, the forms of his imagination, "quivering with the wave's intenser day."

--Racine from Books & Characters by Lytton Strachey

March  28,  2007

Patrick: Lagniappe

When Tom and I left it was pitch dark, the fog having thickened.  It was almost impossible to see a thing.  By tapping with my stick against the curb, he clinging to my left arm, we reached the King's Road.  After a fond farewell, and Tom's farewells are so fond they always touch me, we separated.  Slowly and cautiously I followed in the wake of motor lights and walkers' torches, presuming that I was on my way to the Chelsea Hospital Road.  After half an hour, not knowing where I was, and almost desperate, I bumped violently into someone.  I apologized.  The victim apologized.  It was Tom.  Peals of laughter.  We clove to one another, and agreed not to separate again.  We staggered to his flat, and abandoned our different projects for the evening.  Instead we ate scrambled eggs and drank red wine.  Once I am indoors I love pea-soupers, the coziness, the isolation, the calm broken by distant squeals of taxis and thuds of wary footfalls, the tapping of sticks against area railings, and the blessed expansion of confidence between two friends.

 

----Diaries, 1942-1954 by James Lees-Milne (abridged and introduced by Michael Bloch), entry for Wednesday, 13th December, 1944

March  27,  2007

Patrick: Lagniappe

When we're all gone at last then there'll be nobody here but death and his days will be numbered too.  He'll be out in the road there with nothing to do and nobody to do it to.  He'll say: Where did everybody go?  And that's how it will be.  What's wrong with that?

--The Road by Cormac McCarthy

 

It's Getting Harder and Harder to Stay Ahead of the Curve


I've been writing the last week or so about McCarthy's The Road and the clichéd nature of his vision of a post-apocalyptic world.  How clichéd is it?  So clichéd that even the Los Angeles Times this past Sunday has picked up on the spurting spigot of lurid pulp spewing from this spring. You can peruse the article for yourself here.  What does this mean?  Not much except that for McCarthy, when one couples The Road with his last outing, No Country for Old Men, it is becoming ever more difficult to argue that his books should be shelved in "literature" and not
"suspense/thrillers" or "science-fiction."  There's nothing wrong with writing genre works-John Banville just wrote his first mystery,Christine Falls, under the pseudonym, Benjamin Black.  I've already bought a copy and am looking forward to snuggling up with it.  But let's not act like this is the second coming of War and Peace. 

March  26,  2007

Patrick: Lagniappe

 Read the papers in Brooks's and walked to the London Library in my corduroy trousers and an old golfing jacket.  Joined the volunteers for two exhausting hours in salvaging damaged books from the new wing which sustained a direct hit on Wednesday night.  They think about 20,000 books are lost.  It is a tragic sight.  Theology (which one can best do without) practically wiped out, and biography (which one can't) partially.  The books lying torn and coverless, scattered under debris and in a pitiable state, enough to make one weep.  The dust overwhelming.  I looked like a snowman at the end.  One had to select from the mess books that seemed usable again, rejecting others, chucking the good from hand to hand in a chain, in order to get them under cover.  For one hour I was perched precariously on a projecting girder over an abyss, trying not to look downwards but to catch what my neighbor threw to me.  It it rains thousands more will be destroyed, for they are exposed to the sky.

----Diaries, 1942-1954 by James Lees-Milne (abridged and introduced by Michael Bloch), entry for Sunday, 27th February, 1944

March  24,  2007

Patrick: Lagniappe

 Queequeg was George Washington cannibalistically developed.

--Moby Dick by Herman Melville

 

Running Down the Road on Saturday

There’s a reason (actually, quite a few reasons) why J. M. Coetzee has been awarded the Nobel prize for literature but Ian McEwan and Cormac McCarthy have not.   Certainly, all are interesting writers—I enjoy reading their books and look forward to new works from them (well, maybe not as much from McCarthy).  But whereas J. M. Coetzee is acutely aware of the form that his aesthetic objects take (usually, quaintly referred to as “novels”), McEwan and McCarthy tend to take their forms for granted and hope to achieve their effects predominantly through style.  They are wrong to embrace such a distortion—but it is a forgivable wrong because they know not what they do.  They are blind to this flaw because it is the chief chimera of our age that a self-styled “writer” must first, last and foremost, be concerned with his or her “style.”  Even if true, the problem is that upwards of a thousand writers at any given time have achieved a master’s proficiency at wielding the English language.  So why should I read you, little groundling?   I thought not. 

This failure of form appears most glaring where McEwan and McCarthy are being their most sincere (that is, unaware, unironical).  Both are good eighteenth-century rationalists and accept that God is dead and all is quiet in His heaven (A. N. Wilson, by the bye, is another of their ilk, although he tends to be a bit more coy about the matter).   Further, God is so dead that there is no need for updating the sentiments expressed in Voltaire’s Candide as James Wood did recently with his The Book Against God (still highly entertaining and worth reading; by the bye, James Wood is married to Claire Messud, which reminds me that I haven’t praised yet this week her wonderful book, The Emperor’s Children, so now you can consider it well and truly lauded).  No, there’s ceased to be a need to bait the benighted faithful.  Let them wallow in their ignorance.  But there’s still a need to provide a literature to the un-faithful that is as brilliant and complex as that afforded to their dim brethren who, unjustly, are forever shoving the likes of Doestoevsky in the God-Deads’ faces.  It is this earnest endeavor that has led McEwan and McCarthy (sounds like the monniker for a run-down Irish bar) to their own undoings.

I’ve already written about how McEwan’s Saturday is an artistic failure, at least with respect to the canons of realism, since its central plot device turns on the wildly improbable—indeed, gigle inducing—conceit that a naked lassie could stave off the unwanted attentions of a couple of burglars and would-be rapists by reciting to them the lilting lines of Arnold’s poem, Dover Beach, where he describes the “melancholy, long, withdrawing roar” of the “Sea of Faith.”  Did C. S. Lewis, in the grip of his maudlin Christianity, ever stoop to such absurdities (probably, but that's a post for another day).  Certainly, this stuff might make for a good secular fairy tale, but not a novel in the realist tradition.   But I sympathize with McEwan because he really, really, really needs this to be true.  The un-faithful crave their parables too.  Fair enough.

Which brings me to Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, that dark, post-apocalyptic sci-fi pot boiler.  God, here too, is dead—or might as well be since he’s reduced to the likes of an impotent old duffer.  Everybody has reverted to a Hobbesian Hell where life is nasty, brutish and short (as in being a short-order special for one’s fellow canibals).  Again, as with the authorial mangling of Saturday, McCarthy can’t abide with his book’s natural ending with should dovetail with its decidedly death-inducing theme that if God is dead, we might as well be too.  And so, at the end of the novel [N.B.:  I get complaints from time to time for not inserting spoiler warnings when I start to give away the ending to a novel; and I’d like to address those concerns now in a bracket in the middle of something else because I really don’t think they deserve much more:  great works of literature are crafted so as to be enjoyed over and over again like any other great work of art such as Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony or Matisse’s Porte-Fenetre (which basically encapsulates the entire significant artistic output of both Rothko and Diebenkorn), which means that they are meant to be enjoyed ironically, in the dramatic sense that, at least for works unfolding in time, we know what is going to happen later, so that for novels plot is irrelevant except as it adds to the aesthetic experience as a whole; and now excuse me as I start spoiling] our two protagonists, a Boy and his Dad (sorry, no personal identifiers please, we’re on our way slouching toward Gahenna) face the inevitable, death.  Dad dies.  And if this novel was faithful to its dark vision, Boy would then be caught and eaten by cannibals.  Instead, another man comes up to him hitherto unknown to us gentle readers, lets the Boy know he’s one of the “good guys,” and they tottle off into the sunset (well, this being the post-apocalypse, sunshade) to live happily ever after.  Oh please—give me the naked poetry-spouting git anyday to this curdled candy ending.   Again, though, I’m sure McCarthy is sincere in his craft.  And it is that sincerity which has doomed him (speaking of slouching, I do believe Yeats mentions in Slouching Towards Bethlehem something about the worst being “full of passionate intensity”).   Maybe God gets the last laugh after all.

March  23,  2007

Patrick: Lagniappe

Drama must create a factitious spell-binding present moment and imprison the spectator in it.  The theatre apes the profound truth that we are extended being who yet can only exist in the present.  It is a factitious present because it lacks the free aura of personal reflection and contains its own secret limits and conclusions.  Thus life is comic, but though it may be terrible it is not tragic: tragedy belongs to the cunning of the stage.  Of course most theatre is gross ephemeral rot; and only plays by great poets can be read, except as directors' notes.  I say "great poets" but I suppose I really mean Shakespeare.  It is a paradox that the most essentially frivolous and rootless of all the serious arts has produced the greatest of all writers.  That Shakespeare was quite different from the others, not just primus inter pares but totally different in quality, was something which I discovered entirely by myself when I was still at school; and on this secret was I nourished.  There are no other plays on paper, unless one counts the Greek plays.  I cannot read Greek, and James tells me these are untranslatable.  After looking at a number of translations I am sure he is right.

--The Sea, The Sea by Iris Murdoch

 

Reading with Crooked Lines, Part VI

Before we are patronized with the false redemption of one of the last surviving humans in Cormac McCarthy's post-apocalyptic Gotterdammerung ( a boy, of course, shades of Harlan Ellison’s A Boy and His Dog) finding peace at last with the “good guys”—McCarthy doesn’t even have the decency to contemptuously snigger at us for buying this shopworn brummagem as the Marquis de Sade would have done—we have paraded before our sensibilities a grotesque carnival of depraved vignettes.   Although I don’t share Coetzee’s context and have no objections to quoting one of the milder ones here, I’ll abstain from doing so in deference to and respect of Coetzee’s concerns and stature as a great writer.  Instead, I’ll quote a lyrical passage where McCarthy’s dark vision seeps into even the brief moments of reverie (in this respect, his writing reminds me of Martin Amis’s technique in Yellow Dog, a book concerning the pornographic-ization of the modern world, where Amis uses pornographic terminology and imagery throughout the book, even to the point of describing such innocuous and mundane events as rain pattering on a window):

He got up and walked out to the road.  The black shape of it running from dark to dark.  Then a distant low rumble.  Not thunder.  You could feel it under your feet.  A sound without cognate and so without description.  Something imponderable shifting out there in the dark.  The earth itself contracting with the cold.  It did not come again.  What time of year?  What age the child?  He walked out into the road and stood.  The silence.  The salitter [N.B.: scroll to the entry for December 10, 2006—as pointed out there (and I checked) the word “salitter” is not even in the Oxford English Dictionary (I could write a post on McCarthy's annoying William F. Buckley-esque habit of using a twenty-five-cent (or, here, a fifity-dollar) word when a nickel word would do); but thank goodness for the internet] drying from the earth.  The mudstained shapes of flooded cities burned to the waterline.  At a crossroads a ground set with dolmen stones where the spoken bones of oracles lay moldering.  No sound but the wind.  What will you say?  A living man spoke these lines?  He sharpened a quill with his small pen knife to scribe these things in sloe or lampblack?  At some reckonable and entabled moment?  He is coming to steal my eyes.  To seal my mouth with dirt.

Another reason McCarthy’s book is a prime candidate for Coetzee condemnation is that it makes explicit that God is dead, which, as discussed in the last post, if taken seriously, provides a compelling reason for banning such works as McCarthy’s from the credulous, easily depraved, sensibilities of mankind.  Here’s just one exchange (there are many more in the book):

How would you know if you were the last man on earth? he said. [N.B.: note the lack of punctuation marks and the failure to capitalize following the question mark; McCarthy, no doubt, would defend this practice by pointing out that a stripped down use of grammatical signs mirrors the stripped down language of the book.  Yawn; oh, and wrong.]

I don’t guess you would know it.  You’d just be it.

Nobody would know it.

It wouldn’t make any difference.  When you die it’s the same as if everybody else did too.

I guess God would know it.  Is that it?

There is no God.

No?

There is no God and we are his prophets.

Yep, that’s it—a clever tag line but not much more to show for this nihilistic philosophy.  Such maunderings were handled much betted by Turgenev over a century ago with his undying creation, the physician Bazarov, in Fathers and Sons.  If people take the death of God seriously, as, to his credit, Coetzee does, then a new censorship should be right around the corner.  Enjoy this brief respite in the sunlight, the storm is coming; and abandon all hope ye who are caught in the rain.

March  22,  2007

Patrick: Lagniappe

The interval between possession and hell was short though I admit it was wonderful.  Rosina was one of those women who believe that "a good row clears the air."  In my experience a good row not only does not clear the air but can land you with a lifelong enemy.  Rows in the theatre can be terrible and I avoided them.  Rosina more than once called me a coward for this.  She liked rows, any rows, and she believed in loving by rowing.  I began to grow tired.  The golden bridge for the departing lover I have always, I hope, provided when it became necessary.  Rosina, when she saw me cooling, had no such merciful contraption ready.  She clung closer and closer and screamed louder and louder. 

--The Sea, The Sea by Iris Murdoch

 

Reading with Crooked Lines, Part V

I just finished reading Cormac McCarthy’s The Road as it was picked for my book group next month, and was quite surprised to find that it may be a good example of an obscene book as described by J. M. Coetzee’s eponymously-named character, Elizabeth Costello.  As I wrote earlier, one of the vignettes in the book, Elizabeth Costello, concerns a lecture by Ms. Costello where she castigates Paul West (who happens to be in the audience reading “some kind of comic book”) for writing The Very Rich Hours of Count von Stauffenberg, a work of fiction that describes in minute, lurid detail the execution by hanging of various conspirators who sought to kill Adolf Hitler in a failed assassination attempt in July 1944.  In that book, without providing any guidelines (this is fiction after all, not an experiment utilizing the scientific method), Costello/Coetzee argues that some books should not be written because they morally degrade both the author in the act of writing the work and the author’s audience in the act of reading it.  She/he thought such morally degrading details occurred in Paul West’s book where he imagined what the hangman actually said to taunt the condemned prior to their execution. 

I suppose Costello/Coetzee’s point might be that by exposing us (and indeed having us participate through the positive act of reading) to the outward limits of human depravity, limits we did not have the imagination to envision prior to the reading of the work, forces us to acknowledge certain human capabilities that would otherwise be unknown to us.  If one does not believe in God, a traditional understanding of Heaven and, just as essential, Hell, then this is a very disturbing development since there is no higher authority to restrain a human being from acting on his or her newly-discovered impulses.  All that stands between that person and the abyss are other human beings who are merely on an equal footing as far as moral/ethical authority might be concerned (whatever those terms might mean in the absence of a higher authority—Nietzsche and the Marquise de Sade would say they mean whatever you choose them to mean, and they are quite right in this context, see the mid-twentieth century and that troika of proofs, Stalin, Hitler and Mao; indeed de Sade would contend under his own warped version of utilitarianism that the most fleeting and barely perceptible pleasure that he might receive from your unending agony is a permissible trade-off).   

Under this reasoning, to expose people to hitherto unimagined depravity makes it more likely that they will engage in such actions themselves or at least find such behavior as performed by others more acceptable because, by realizing that these behaviors, too, compose our common humanity, they, in that sense, become comprehensible, understandable; and as the French like to say, to understand all, is to forgive all (this might explain why Hitler and his henchmen are condemned as bestial or non-human in order to dissuade such acts from occurring again—a bootless endeavor; it is their mundane humanity, their “banality of evil” in Hannah Arendt’s arresting phrase from her book, Eichmann in Jerusalem, which makes their works so terrible, so abominable).  In such a context, it would be better, as a prophylactic measure, to label such works as obscene and ban them.  Of course, such an argument loses its force once God, Heaven and Hell are brought back into the picture since there would then exist a higher authority which might restrain such readers from acting on their newly-imagined impulses (although such works may be banned for other reasons under that framework).  But I’m assuming here that such do not exist in Costello/Coetzee’s world (a view amply supported by a close reading of Elizabeth Costello). 

Hence, one should ban books which expose the reader to the outer boundaries of human depravity.  If true, who better to ban than Cormac McCarthy and his new book, The Road.   This work is yet another in the tired science-fiction niche of a post-apocalyptic future where just a few stumbling survivors must fight (and eat) one another for bare animal survival.  Strangely enough, I can’t recall any of the ecstatic reviews of this work pointing out how much of this ground covered by McCarthy had already been plowed by countless others into a deep, muddy rut.  Indeed, Jim Crace has just authored The Pest House which is yet another scraping.  Haven’t we hit rock bottom yet?  In any event, regardless of its lack of imagination with respect to breaking new pulp science fiction ground, the depth of depravity is new—at least as far as I can judge.  The work is a montage of horrific images confirming that we are nothing but gibbering monkeys who would skin and roast our babies if driven to that point (indeed, such an event occurs in the book).   McCarthy does perform the de Sadean trick (I think it’s from the ending of Justine where the heroine is subjected to every form of sexual debasement but on the last page is reformed and then killed by a bolt of lightning) where we are dragged through utter depravity but then, at the very end, a deus ex machina redemption occurs so that McCarthy at least has the fig leaf of arguing he's really showing that even in the midst of the most horrific events the bright light of humanity still shines forth.  De Sade would have ripped off that fig leaf and wiped his arse with it. 

March  21,  2007

Patrick: Lagniappe

Christopher and I went out several times between the bursts of gunfire to look around.  A clear, starry night.  It was beautiful but shameful to enjoy the glow of the fires, the red bursts of distant shells and the criss-cross of searchlights.  I suppose that Nero derived a similar thrill from watching the Christians used as human torches.

----Diaries, 1942-1954 by James Lees-Milne (abridged and introduced by Michael Bloch), entry for Wednesday, 23rd February, 1944

March  19,  2007

Patrick: Lagniappe

But, as a rule, Racine's characters speak out most clearly when they are most moved, so that their words, at the height of passion, have an intensity of directness unknown in actual life.  In such moments, the phrases leap to their lips quiver and glow with the compressed significance of character and situation; the  "Qui te l'a dit?" of Herminone, the "Sortez" of Roxane, the "Je vais à Rome" of Mithridate, the "Dieu des Juifs, tu l'emportes!" of Athalie--who can forget these things, these wondrous microcosms of tragedy?  Very different is the Shakespearean method.  There, as passion rises, expression become more and more poetical and vague.  Image flows into image, thought into thought, until at last the state of mind is revealed, inform and molten, driving darkly through a vast storm of words.  Such revelations, no doubt, come closer to reality than the poignant epigrams of Racine.  In life, men's minds are not sharpened, they are diffused, by emotion; and the utterance which best represents them is fluctuating and agglomerated rather than compact and defined.  But Racine's aim was less to reflect the actual current of the human spirit than to seize upon its inmost being and to give expression to that.  One might be tempted to say that his art represents the sublimed  essence of reality, save that, after all, reality has no degrees. 

--Racine from Books and Characters by Lytton Strachey

March  16,  2007

Patrick: Lagniappe

The weather is cold, the air clear, the moonless sky starry.  Lovely weather for bombing.

----Diaries, 1942-1954 by James Lees-Milne (abridged and introduced by Michael Bloch), entry for Thursday, 24th February, 1944

March  15,  2007

Patrick: Lagniappe

Lying in the bath this morning, with the hot tap gently running and the water making throaty noises down the waste-pipe--a thing one is strictly enjoined not to allow in war-time--I thought how maddening it is that the worst sins are the most enjoyable.  I wondered could it possibly be that these sins would recoil upon me in my old age.  For at present they don't seem to do my soul much harm.  And the lusts of the flesh, instead of alienating me from God, seem to draw me closer to him in a perverse way.  He on the other hand may not be drawn to me.  Yet I feel he ought to know how to shake me off if he wants to.  Can it be that he is too polite, as I am when Clifford Smith [National Trust furniture expert] button-holes me at a party, and I am longing to escape?  How oddly one's body behaves in the bath, as though it did not belong to one.  Admiring my slender limbs through the clear water I thought, what a pity they aren't somebody else's.

----Diaries, 1942-1954 by James Lees-Milne (abridged and introduced by Michael Bloch), entry for Friday, 10th December, 1943

March  14,  2007

Patrick: Lagniappe

And yet of course it was also at the same time a scene of carnage.  (Why do I so much enjoy writing this down?)  I told her from the start that I had no conception of marrying her.  Was it blind stupid hope nevertheless which made her so infinitely kind to me?  An ungrateful thought: I am sure she had no hope.  I told her that the affair was temporary, and doubtless her love for me was temporary.  I spoke of mortality and the fragile and shadowy nature of human arrangements and the jumbled unreality of human minds, while her large light brown eyes spoke to me of the eternal.  She said, I want to be perfect for you so that you can leave me without pain, and this perfect expression of love simply irritated me.  She said, I will wait forever, although I know . . . I am not . . . waiting for . . . anything.  What a love duet, and how much I enjoyed it although in her suffering I suffered a little too.  Certainly she concealed her pain as much as she could; but towards the end it was impossible.  She cried before me with wide open eyes, not staunching the tears.  Her tears fell on my sleeve, on my hand like storm rain.  And when at last I told her to go she went like a shadow, with silent swift obedience.  After that I went on my second visit to Japan.  The taste of sake still makes me remember Lizzie's tears. 

--The Sea, The Sea by Iris Murdoch

March  13,  2007

Patrick: Lagniappe

Emotions really exist at the bottom of the personality or at the top.  In the middle they are acted.  This is why all the world is a stage, and why the theatre is always popular and indeed why it exists: why it is like life even though it is also the most vulgar and outrageously factitious of all the arts.  Even a middling novelist can tell quite a lot of truth.  His humble medium is on the side of truth.  Whereas the theatre, even at its most "realistic," is connected with the level at which, and the methods by which, we tell our everyday lives.  This is the sense in which "ordinary" theatre resembles life, and dramatists are disgraceful liars unless they are very good.  On the other hand, in a purely formal sense the theatre is the nearest to poetry of all the arts.  I used to think that if I could have been a poet I would never have bothered with the theatre at all, but of course this was nonsense.  What I needed with all my starved and silent soul was just that particular way of shouting back at the world.  The theatre is an attack on mankind carried on by magic: to victimize an audience every night, to make them laugh and cry and suffer and miss their trains.  Of course actors regard audiences as enemies, to be deceived, drugged, incarcerated, stupefied. 

--The Sea, The Sea by Iris Murdoch

March  11,  2007

Patrick: Lagniappe

Sometimes is helps to draft in haphazard order the most striking, and hence the easiest, sections of the work in progress.  At least this is fairly pleasurable; you can juggle these fragments around later, determine the best sequence, string them together with other material, rewrite them as needed.  In the course of this a good beginning paragraph may occur to you; good endings are in my opinion far harder, and your editor will not be pleased if you give up the struggle and simply write (as I have done on occasion) THE END, hoping he will not notice your failure to construct an elegant conclusion and a chic final sentence--what a journalist friend of mine calls a "socko ending."  Nor will he welcome a dreary summation of what went before.  I can offer no useful guidelines here, as each piece of work will present its own unique problem.  One can only hope the solution will occur in a sudden blinding flash of insight.

--Poison Penmanship: The Gentle Art of Muckraking by Jessica Mitford

March  10,  2007

Patrick: Lagniappe

In his essay "Stop the Press, I want to Get On," Nicholas Tomalin, a talented and versatile English journalist, wrote: "The only qualities essential for real success in journalism are ratlike cunning, a plausible manner, and a little literary ability."  He added, "The capacity to steal other people's ideas and phrases--that one about ratlike cunning was invented by my colleague Murray Sayre--is also invaluable."

--Poison Penmanship: The Gentle Art of Muckraking by Jessica Mitford

 

Why Bother to Read the Atlantic Monthly

The title of this post could be viewed as a rhetorical question.  Paraphrasing the words of the immortal Henny Youngman (while dangling one’s modifier at the same time; there might be a charge on your bill for this bit of verbal acrobatics), “Take my Atlantic Monthly, please!”   Indeed, let’s take a stroll through the latest issue for April 2007.   The cover story—based, no doubt, on the theory that this perhaps constitutes “news you can use”—concerns who the winners and losers might be as global warming continues for the next century or so thereby bestowing on the lucky reader fortunate enough to live to be one-hundred-and-fifty the ability to take advantage of the author’s pearls of wisdom.  You will be shocked to learn that places that are a bit nippy now—say Nome, Alaska—will be warmer while current hot spots—such as Tierra del Fuego—will be positively broiling.   So, one should run out and put in a reservation for a new Nome condo (such a tongue-in-cheek conceit constitutes the cover of the issue).   Now I’ve saved you the bother of reading the lead story.   What else might tickle your fancy? 

The very next article also concerns, surprise, surprise, global warming.   This one is about how the horrific conflict in Darfur might not actually be a case of religious genocide as the Muslims from the North seek to exterminate the Christians in the South (in spite of the combatants’ statements and history to the contrary), but rather is a case of global warming.  If only us smug Westerners were not toasting waffles in the morning, cats and dogs, Jews and Greeks, Muslims and Christians would lie down like the lion with the lamb and all conflict would cease—at least in Darfur.  How silly of us not to have noticed.   I’ll chuck my waffle iron into the bin right away.   Ahhh, the world feels more peaceful already.   So there’s your second article.

Perhaps we should avoid current events—I’ll run out of household appliances if I keep reading these hand wringers—so let’s turn instead to the critics section.  The first article is from the chief book review editor in a section called, “Editor’s  Choice:  What to Read this Month.”   The selection this month is In Vogue, a history of Vogue magazine, accompanied by a smattering of high-fashion photographs.   The editor, who will remain nameless because I am feeling charitable, gushes that Vogue magazine is “’The Bible,’ as the fashion-afflicted call it.”   Bible or not, it is still a tawdry little monthly full to bursting with advertising aimed at the demographic who find the movie Dumb and Dumber too high-brow for its taste.  Perhaps the name of this feature should be changed to, “Editor’s Choice: What to Read this Month Since Sex and the City Has Gone Off the Air.”  Or perhaps we should simply shudder, shield our eyes from this horrific review train wreck, and move on. 

The next article is a review of three books, a troika of intellectual energy-bars: It’s in the Bag: What Purses Reveal—and Conceal by Winifred Gallagher; How to be a Budget Fashionista by Kathryn Finney; and Bags: A Lexicon of Style by Valerie Steele and Laird Borrelli (apparently, this lexicon is so dense and learned that it requires two authors to sort through the subject matter, like rummaging around in a handbag, perhaps).  No, I did not bother to read this article, this paean to purse politics, because I had just read Claire Messud’s brilliant book, The Emperor’s Children, which includes a witty send-up of this genre where the character, Miranda Thwaite, spends years laboring over a fatuous faux high-brow book about the politics of children’s clothing.  Yet again an example of life imitating art.

So why read the Atlantic Monthly?  It appears to be almost an insuperable problem to solve, along the lines of Fermat’s Last Theorem.  However, as there is a less than satisfactory solution to that conundrum, so too for the current head scratcher under consideration.  Actually, there’s two answers (perhaps three, when P. J. O’Rourke feels that he is the mood to write something that does not have more than a passing resemblance to his endless Rothko-like variations on the theme of Drunken Republican Tourist Behaving Badly in Foreign Hellhole) those being the journalists Mark Steyn and Christopher Hitchens. 

First, Mark Steyn has a feature on obituaries, which, although at first glance, appears quite unappealing, is actually very witty and amusing as he digs up (some pun intended) for our enjoyment various recently deceased personages of second- or third-rate celebrity who would otherwise go unremarked if not for Steyn’s witty summing up of their life’s work.  The current feature concerns Denny Doherty, the lead singer of the Mamas and the Papas, best remembered for, well, being the lead singer of the Mamas and the Papas.  From this less-than-appetizing material Steyn miraculously creates endless amusement.  Bravo.

The second answer is Christopher Hitchens who always writes with verve and flair even if it’s about some incredibly tedious topic such as waffle irons or modern Marxism.  His current article is a review of Clive James’s most recent book which is blessed with having Hitchens scribble about it before it disappears in what appears to be well-earned oblivion.  Perhaps Hitchens could be persuaded to opine upon ladies’ handbags and Vogue magazine.  Ouch, don't put your cigarette out on my hand.  Okay, perhaps not. 

March  9,  2007

Patrick: Lagniappe

Queen Victoria once asked the aged Admiral Foley to lunch to report on the sinking of the Eurydice.  "After she had exhausted this melancholy subject," wrote the Queen's grandson, William, "my grandmother, in order to give the conversation a more cheerful turn, inquired after his sister, whom she knew well, whereon the Admiral, who was hard of hearing and still pursuing his train of thought about the Eurydice, replied in his stentorian voice, 'Well, Ma'am, I am going to have her turned over and take a good look at her bottom and have it well scraped.'  The effect of his answer was stupendous.  My grandmother put down her knife and fork, hid her face in her handkerchief and shook and heaved with laughter till the tears rolled down her face."

--The Book of Royal Lists (ed. Craig Brown and Lesley Cunliffe).

 

Notes on a Small Mind

I have been listening in the car to Bill Bryson’s Notes on a Small Island and am quite grateful to be doing so, because, as far as I can tell, the book is unreadable without Bill Bryson himself narrating the text with a panoply of funny voices which he invokes for the occasion (in this respect he differs from Chuck Palahniuk’s latest excrescence, Haunted, which is not only unreadable, but unlistenable too).  Bill Bryson fancies himself as some kind of wit, apparently of the half or nit variety, and so has produced a travel book about his rambles around Great Britain without bothering to learn anything about the country he visits, even though he has lived there for twenty-some-odd years.  He thinks his wit, like his two feet, can carry him anywhere unaccompanied by such cumbersome apparatus as learning or a bus.  Both suppositions turn out to be false, resulting in the laziest book ever written about bus travel.

Bill Bryson believes he can make up for these deficits, very grave ones indeed when viewed with the jaundiced eye, an eye, mind you, which he employs to hilarious effect, at least for the first seven or so pages of the book, before the view becomes tiresome.  Indeed, tiresome is the mot juste for this work given that Mr. Bryson finds that everything around him is tiresome: the pubs, the food, the people, the landscape, streets, rain, sand, and, I suspect, God.

His tour of a small town usually begins with him wandering lost in the hills nearby until he stumbles across the hamlet and blesses it with some witty moniker such as Toiletville, Cheese Dip Place or Lower Mandibles.  Since he knows nothing about Knockers by the Sea, he instead regales the reader with his destitute man’s Evelyn Waugh whinging about various pedestrian activities, such as, I imagine, being a pedestrian:

Have you ever noticed how walking is such a time consuming activity?To get anywhere one must move one foot and then the other, and not just anywhere, mind you, oh no, the foot being moved must be placed somewhere in front of the other foot.  A side foot or back foot just won’t do, particularly since we do not have eyes in the back of our heads and so cannot tell what we might bump into if we did do something so unexpected as to wish to place one foot backward.  So, we must place one foot in front of the other.  How monotonous.  Here I am placing my right foot forward.  And now my left.  Right.  Left.  Right. Left.  How tiresome.  Why couldn’t God come up with some better manner of perambulation?  What, was he sitting up there in the clouds wondering how to make man and thought, “hmmm, he’ll have to move somehow but I don’t think a jet pack would be very practical—plus it would be too expensive and make all the angels jealous, even Gabriel will want one if I start slapping them on the backs of mere humans—I know, I’ll give them feet, that should do.”  So now, here I am, walking through some dull little town which has practically nothing but English people in it, almost all of them walking just like me.  They’re putting one foot in front of the other.  Right.  Left.  Right.  Left.  Well, all except this elderly lady in a wheelchair.  She gives me a nasty look as if she wishes she could engage in this tiresome business.  Please madam, you have no idea what you’re missing.  Oh, and now my feet have brought me to a pub, I guess I’ll need to quaff a few beers in here so that I can complain about the fact that it smells like, well, beer, and is full of a bunch of English people all of whom seem to be engaged in the same activity of drinking beer.  Have you ever noticed how people in a pub drink beer?  What’s up with that?

Some mysteries must remain so.  One of those is the attraction of Bill Bryson.  I’m sure there must be people, perhaps even in Britain, perhaps in a pub, perhaps drinking a beer, or two, or twenty, that find this shtick infinitely amusing.  I, fortunately, am not one of them.

March  8,  2007

Patrick: Lagniappe

Most writers can't talk naturally, which is why they write.  Martin Amis has the gift of relaxation.  He lets rip.  Your first book is about your friends, he said, generalizing from experience, your second about your town, then your country, the world etc.  His new novel, The House of Meetings, is a love story set in a Soviet gulag in 1956, involving the terrible two-month journeys undertaken by visitors for half-hour meetings, "which were treasured and valued among prisoners, but always tragic."  He tells Lawson that his father was a Communist until the Russians invaded Hungary in 1956--"then it had to be Labour . . . . Not that there was any division of Labour in our house."

--Freelance by Hugo Williams (Times Literary Supplement, October 20, 2006)

March  7,  2007

Patrick: Lagniappe

This is the circus of Doctor Lao.

We show you things that you don't know.

We tell you of places you'll never go.

We've searched the world both high and low

To capture the beasts for this marvelous show

From mountains where maddened winds did blow

To islands where zephyrs breathed sweet and slow.

Oh, we've spared no pains and we've spared no dough;

And we've dug at the secrets of long ago;

And we've risen to Heaven and plunged Below,

For we wanted to make it one hell of a show.

And the things you'll see in your brains will glow

Long past the time when the winter snow

Has frozen the summer's furbelow.

For this is the circus of Doctor Lao.

And youth may come and age may go;

But no more circuses like this show!

--The Circus of Dr. Lao by Charles G. Finney

[N.B.:  Lots of folks write just one book and, once in a while, like Lampedusa and his The Leopard, they wind up being remembered for that book.  Lots more folks write a bunch of books and produce just one worth remembering (of course, the biggest class of folks consists of those who write lots of books and aren't remembered at all--such as, wait, I am peering into the dim recesses of the misty future of fifty years from now, Norman Mailer).  Charles G. Finney wrote a little of this and a little of that but his great piece is the inspired fictional hokum called The Circus of Dr. Lao.  Granted, there's not a lot of candidates for best American circus fiction, but, in that tiny niche, The Circus of Dr. Lao will always occupy a place in that puny pantheon (and, perhaps, if ancient Egyptian buggery develops a cult following, Norman Mailer will find his spot, too). 

March  6,  2007

Patrick: Lagniappe

At Mass in Cheyne Row I felt devout again.  My devoutness is more readily maintained by my having my rosary and telling beads.  It is when I am distracted from my devotions--I can't honestly say, prayers--by trying to make sense of the liturgy, or indeed listening to the sermon, that everything goes wrong.  The moment reason takes over, faith flies out of the door.  But concentrating on my rosary to a background of symbolic acts, punctuated and not interrupted by rising for the Gospel, kneeling for the sanctus bell and elevation, and crossing myself on approaching certain well-known and loved landmarks, then I can often be devout.  Then I can feel I am making contact.  God preserve us from too much illumination.  What I need is a twilight atmosphere relieved by myriads of twinkling candles from crystal chandeliers, a plethora of gold, jewels, rich raiment, silver vessels, clouds of incense, and tinkling and tolling of innumerable bells.  Beauty, not austerity, is what I crave in order to be religious.

----Diaries, 1942-1954 by James Lees-Milne (abridged and introduced by Michael Bloch), entry for Sunday, 5th December, 1943

 

March  1,  2007

Patrick: Lagniappe

Do not misunderstand me: I have no doubt that I possess genius, of a kind.  It is just not the kind that it has pretended all those years to be.  I sometimes think that I missed my calling, that I could have been a great artist, a master of compelling inventiveness, arch, allusive, magisterially splenetic, given to arcane reference, obscure aims, an alchemist of word and image.  Indeed, my critics often grumble at the desolate lyricism of my mature style, seeing behind it the pale hand of the poet.  I take their point.  Mine is the kind of commentary in which frequently the comment will claim an equal rank with that which is supposedly its object; equal, and sometimes superior.  In my study of Rilke, an early work, there are passages of ecstatic intensity that world-drunk lyricist himself might have envied, while those long, twinned essays on Kleist and Kafka are as desperate and inconsolable as any of the plays or the parables of those two hierophants of dejection.  Shall I bow before these great ones?  Shall I bend the knee to their eminence?  Damned if I will.  I hold myself as high as any of them, in my own estimation.

--Shroud by John Banville

[N.B.:  When I think of a critic who was, in that delicious phrase, "magisterially splenetic," I envision Edmund Wilson, high atop Mount Arbiter dispensing judgment with the weary acerbity of a man who has read it all and retained it.  The rest of the above-quoted passage reminds me of Wilson's tyro work, Axel's Castle, an early book of his, and, to my mind, still the best, on literary modernism.  It accomplishes the difficult feat of praising the authors and works reviewed in a profound manner.  The rags today are full to bursting with superficial praise of itinerant works that are here today and, most assuredly, gone tomorrow.  The only thing almost as simple, as Mr. Peck has shown, is to engage in superficial condemnation.  The much more difficult labor is to praise in a manner that is enlightening and reveals unknown depths to the work under review.  That is a rare gift that Mr. Wilson possessed in abundance.  If you haven't already done so, read Axel's Castle, you shan't be disappointed.]

March  1,  2007

Patrick: Lagniappe

Already I had made myself adept at appearing deeply learned in a range of subjects by the skilful employment of certain key concepts, gleaned from the work of others, but to which I was able to give a personal twist of mordancy or insight.  In everything I wrote there was a tensed, febrile urgency that was generated directly out of the life predicament in which I had placed myself; I was fashioning a new methodology of thinking modelled on the crossings and conflicts of my own intricate and, in large part, fabricated past.  I could discourse with convincing familiarity on texts I had not got round to reading, philosophies I had not yet studied, great men I had never met.  My assertive elusiveness, as one critic rather clumsily called it, mesmerised the small but influential coterie of savants who sampled and approved of my early pieces.  Though they might question my grasp of theory and even doubt my scholarship, all were united in acclaiming my mastery of the language, the tone and pitch of my singular voice; even my critics, and there were more that a few of them, could only stand back and watch in frustration as their best barbs skidded off the high gloss of my prose style.  This surprised as much as it pleased me; how could they not see, in hiding behind the brashness and the bravado of what I wrote, the trembling autodidact hunched over his Webster's, his Chicago Manual, his Grammar for Foreign Students?  Perhaps it was the very bizarreries of usage which I unavoidably fell into that they took for the willed eccentricities in which they imagined only a lord of language would dare to indulge.

--Shroud by John Banville