November  30,  2004

Patrick: Lagniappe

He paused for a moment, and then his face brightened. ‘Have you ever thought,’ he said, ‘of making your son a missionary?’
A sort of sigh emanated from his wife.
‘In a warm country,’ she said, ‘a long way off?’
Mr Lorton nodded.
‘Healthy but remote,’ he said,‘where his moral enthusiasm could have full play?’
‘And where his personal appearance,’ said Mrs Lorton, ‘could scarcely fail to be such a protection to him?’
‘Quite so,’ said Mr Lorton. ‘I can conceive of no one eating dear Augustus.’
Mrs Lorton smiled not unkindly.
‘No one at all,’ she said, ‘not even the most debased.’
--Augustus Carp, Esq., by Himself Being the Autobiography of a Really Good Man by Sir Henry Howarth Bashford

David Foster Wallace and the Magic Circle
I just finished reading DFW’s latest book, a collection of short stories called Oblivion.  As is true for most of DFW’s other works, it is a book that demands a lot from the reader.  This circumstance is not necessarily a demerit.  Paul Johnson, in the current Spectator, makes the point that for certain great writers, it’s the “omissions, reticence and silence which did the trick.”  Johnson cites as one example Jane Austen, who is the unrivalled mistress of “hesitations, reticences, lacunae and other subleties.”  Austen’s works are short, but very, very deep.  Johnson quotes Virginia Woolf, who regarded Austen as “a mistress of much deeper emotion than appears upon the surface.  She stimulates us to supply what is not there.”  Johnson also quotes Mary Lascelles, whose book on Austen, Jane Austen and Her Art, he considers the best treatment on the subject:  “It is a mark of a great writer that he or she takes the reader into the magic circle of composition, and gets you to join them in the art of creation.”

DFW is often criticized for being the exact opposite of this kind of writer who refuses admittance to the magic circle.  He throws everything in.  His gaze—omnivorous.  His first-person narrators out-Jamesian Henry James in their subtlety and intellectual acuity.  I must admit I, too, find his technique, although exhilarating at times, also, quite exhausting.  Matters are not helped by his grammatical quirkiness.  One short story in Oblivion, titled Another Pioner—and quite a long one, too—is composed of a single paragraph.  Sentences stretch for pages and contain nested parentheticals, many times set off by “m” dashes.  Clauses frolic, merge and subsume one another.  Here’s a sample from the title story, Oblivion:

I even went so far as to try consulting or ‘seeing’ a professional Couple counselor—again, an action undertaken on my own and, as it were, ‘sub-rosa,’ as I knew quite well Hope’s, her stepfather’s, and the bulk of her true and adoptive family’s (with the exception of Vivian whose allegedly ‘Recovered’ memories and hysterical public accusations at the extended family’s Holiday get-together at Paul and Theresa’s extraordinary vacation home off the Manasquan inlet had led to herself and Hope’s ‘falling out’ and to the entire extended family’s unspoken prohibition of any mention of the entire subject, besides which were Dr. Sipe’s own sentiments respecting the issue of ‘therapy’’s eligibility as a Medical expense for the purposes of Health Care plans and ‘Managed Care,’ which were well known and vociferous) feelings vis a vis the ‘therapy’ issue, and knew also, by that point, that Hope’s flat, tight-mouthed refusal, were I to broach the issue, even to consider ‘seeing’ the counselor with me as a ‘couple’ would frustrate and aggravate me all over again, and simply escalate or further the scope of the marital conflict—only, there-upon, to my considerable chagrin, to repeatedly have, suffer or endure a series of ‘therapeutic exchanges such as, in substance, the following:"

Let’s end the sentence there, shall we?  So, is DFW a nut?  Yes, but, in the way that all great artists are “nuts.”  This sentence operates on several levels.  First, it advances the point of the story, which is ably dissected and explained in the current issue of the London Review of Books (I highly recommend the LRB to you, at least visit their website).  Second, this is the sentence of a master grammarian, as Kathryn has previously explained.  DFW is showing off here.  Of particular interest are the multiple possessives and the different types of possessives.  You have here the very odd creature of the double single-quotation mark [(i.e., ‘therapy’’s) DFW does this several times in the book (oh, and he loves multiple nested parentheticals [like this one]].  You also have the multiple noun possessive (i.e., Hope’s, her stepfather’s, and the bulk of her true and adoptive family’s . . . feelings [the ellipse is itself a marker for the long parenthetical in the sentence]).  This sentence has, in all, depending on whether you count the multiple noun possessive as one possessive, which I shall do, a total of eight possessives.  Plus the parenthetical.  Plus the “m” dash.  Plus multiple “n” dashes.  Plus multiple single-quotation mark words, set off in a David Lettermanesque “ironic,” or is that ‘ironic’ suggestiveness.

So, is that it?  Or is there more?  I think there is. DFW does want you to enter his magic circle.  He does leave a lot out for the reader to interpret and discover.  And I have one word for it: OuLiPo.

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November  29,  2004

Patrick: Lagniappe

For a similar reason, even had I been attracted to it, the profession of Medicine would have been unavailable, while from that of the Law, nobler in very way, I was equally precluded.  For some time, however, we canvassed very carefully the strong claims of Diplomacy, for which in many ways, as my father agreed with me, I was admirably fitted.  And I am still convinced that both as attaché and ambassador I should have found congenial and Xtian employment. Unhappily, however, such a career involved the acquirement of the French language, with attendant dangers, to which my father could not persuade himself to expose me.  Whether he was right in this is perhaps open to argument, and I have since met several apparently devout men who have not only spoken this tongue with reported fluency, but have deliberately sojourned in the country of its origin.  Personally, however, while reluctant to condemn them, I must confess to sharing my father’s views, and I am happy in the knowledge that the vicar of my parish holds precisely the same opinion.
--Augustus Carp, Esq., by Himself Being the Autobiography of a Really Good Man by Sir Henry Howarth Bashford

Wolf-Pack Watch II
It is apparently very tiring for the New York Times to have to generate multiple bad reviews of Tom Wolfe’s I Am Charlotte Simmons. But Jacob Weisberg manfully rises to the task in the latest issue of the New York Times Book Review (which, for cryin’-out-loud, includes a glowing review of Jimmy Buffet’s [yes, that Jimmy Buffet of the floral-print shirt who evokes some kind of weird ‘60s flashback in drunken herds of addled baby-boomers] novel of, what else?, the sea and a lighthouse—although not in Margaritaville).  Whereas and wherefore the first NYT critic hacked at Wolfe for being “peculiarly dated” and “peculiarly lackadaisical,” in, I suppose, using the same peculiar adverb in consecutive paragraphs, our new batter, Mr. Weisberg, whacks at Wolfe for creating a character “whose momma would whisk her right on back to Possum Hollow,” but, instead, she “first asserts her lil’ backwoods self.”  Am I the only one who finds this stereotyping of rural denizens neither witty, clever nor fresh?  I know, I know, Mr. Weisberg, with a wink and a snort, would defend himself by saying that he was merely parodying Wolfe’s heavy-handed drawing of the character.  Please.

So, what other heavy-handedness have we got here?  Hmmm, this says Wolfe’s novel provides a “comic-book version of college.”  Oh, and that limp bit over there talks about “the novel’s didactic lesson.”  Hold on a second, let me lift up this old sock: ahhh, here we go—“it is by far the weakest of his novels.”  Wait, wait, I know I left something else under these dirty towels.  Yep, I knew it: Wolfe’s cardboard characterization “speaks to the author’s boredom with his own limited creations. That Wolfe . . . cannot make real Charlotte’s emotional collapse underscores the extent to which he remains a writer of outward appearances rather than inner dimensions.”  Uggh, how repulsive.  Let’s just dump the used laundry back on top of that, shall we?

Okay, so we know to avoid that shallow, stupid Tom Wolfe who doesn’t know a college frat party from a hole in a ground.  So what author should we turn to for insight and authority?  Why, the aforementioned party of the second part, Jimmy Buffet.  This review, titled “Wise Old Jimmy Buffet,” tells us that his novel, A Salty Piece of Land is “a tangy tale, at times turbulent and unpredictable as the ocean, at times as wistful as the whitecaps on the waves.” Also, his “prose style now seems to flow in a fresh, fanciful, finely imagined fashion.”  Oh my goodness, call the alliteration police, there’s a multiple offender on the loose.  So, there you go.  Don’t read Wolfe whose whitin’ would make woo wince.  Instead, boffo Buffet’s book best be bitten into, along with a lime and some salt.  And if there’s someone to blame, yes I know, it’s the NYT’s own durn fault.

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Image, Source: b&w color film copy transparency, pre-conservation

November  28,  2004

Patrick: Lagniappe

Nor did we confine ourselves, while at the seaside, merely to terrestrial amusement, and we would frequently indulge, for perhaps a quarter of an hour, in the enjoyable practice of pedal immersion. Wholly precluded, of course, for constitutional reasons, from the fuller development of the art involved in swimming, we nevertheless found this to be a most laughable and even exciting occupation; and I can recall at least two occasions when, owing to a momentary inadversion, our rolled-up trousers became partially submerged. A smart run home, however, a cup of hot milk, and immediate retirement to bed sufficed, in both instances, to protect us from any untoward results.
--Augustus Carp, Esq., by Himself Being the Autobiography of a Really Good Man by Sir Henry Howarth Bashford


Norman Mailer: Forgotten Comic Genius, Part IV
Mailer, the maestro, rises from one great artistic height to yet, another higher clime.  Having eviscerated the pretentious Freudian/existential drivel of his contemporaries, he turns his throat-slit saber onto the mightiest beast of all: the self-regarding poet; Robert Lowell, turn and face your destroyer.  So, who could resist poking fun at that serious, mopy figure who spouts clunky chunks of non-rhythm and no-meter on some lofty topic?  Well, most of the “big ideas” have already been covered: love, requite, love, despite, love, contrite.  Trite. Trite.  Trite.  If one is to write a proper parody, it needs to be on a serious topic that is highly inappropriate for a comic treatment.  How about cancer?  Not too many poems written about that.  Isn’t it too malignant?  Come to think of it, I believe a lovely sonnet might be written on the topic of syphillis.  I’ll give you the first four lines and you may add the rest:

Upon a maid I met while drinking ale/I asked of her, “a hearty tipple, miss?”/At first she laughed, “that little rusty nail?”/”I’d rather romp and give a cripple kiss.” 

Before I get carried away, here’s the first few lines of Mailer’s cancer canto:

Dead Ends
Cancer? They said. What do you know about cancer?
That the cause is so simple we dare not look.
Nothing is simple but a simple mind,
   said my host
      and they laughed at his wit
            which was tone
             to their ears
         for the essence of the urbane
         is the well-burnished god of oneself
         glowing like a brass heart
         in the fireplace of manner.

Still, I said, if you will allow me
            to insist on a theme
           which irritates your laughter
     I would submit that the simple
      subtends the complex
      in such a way
         that the complex may never comprehend the simple.

Existentialism bores me, said the host.
    As you know, my passion is precise.
    I say you take advantage of my house
      and flaunt the magic of the simple
          because your mind retains no longer
          those indispensable acids of the scholar,
          the lacework, trace, and dry-point of knowledge.

Talk about clumping about in a giant’s boots with no sense of proportion or line. The best effect is to read this turgid screed aloud so as to experience the rattling chains of the words as they drag across the floor.  , I am merely giving you a small taste, a lagniappe, as it were, of the entire poem.  Cancer, cancer, boil the chancre—there’s cancer for everyone.  And, as you see, existentialism too rears its hoary head and gurgles at us, spewing “indispensable acids.”  All this is a bit too difficult for me to follow.  But, then again, “the simple subtends the complex.” To experience this monstrosity in all of its Rabelaisian glory, I suggest you buy the book, Advertisements for Myself, for yourself.  Mailer, my skipper's cap is off to you—a national treasure that should make the likes of Milton Berle and Bob Hope cry, “Uncle,” or at least, “Step-Cousin.”
Pardon my enthusiasm, I can’t resist leaving you with the last few stinky feet of this wonderful comic poet creation:

But I found my wit before the door
         and turning said
You mean, Find mother
         in the clutch of another
Your life is a hole
And cancer is the death of the hole.
And if the hole upon
        is the dead of poetry
        as a scheme in rhyme
        well fail me never
            dear wit
       cancer is the boredom
       where sound cannot be.

The hole, the hole, my cancer for a hole—as King Richard III might have blurted out at the end. Good night sweet princes and princesses, don’t forget to put the cancer out.

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November  27,  2004

Patrick: Lagniappe

Unable at last, owing to his acute sensibilities, to witness my agony any longer, my father was obliged, with the deepest reluctance, to confine himself to a separate bedroom. But it was in this extremity that is almost Quixotic unselfishness shone, if possible, with an added lustre. From the time of his marriage to the day of my birth, and as soon thereafter as the doctor had permitted her to rise, my father had been in the habit of enabling my mother to provide him with an early cup of tea. And this he had done by waking her regularly a few minutes before six o’clock. In view of the fact, however, that he was now occupying a different bedroom, and that, owing to my indisposition, she was awake most of the night, he offered to excuse her should she chance to be asleep at that hour, from the performance of this wifely duty. Needless to say, it was not an offer that she could accept. Indeed, in his heart he had not expected her to do so. And I have even considered the incident, in later days, as illustrative of a certain weakness in my father’s character. But I have never been able to regard it without affection or to forbear mentioning it on appropriate occasions.
--Augustus Carp, Esq., by Himself Being the Autobiography of a Really Good Man by Sir Henry Howarth Bashford


Norman Mailer: Forgotten Comic Genius, Part III
Hoo boy, I don’t think you can handle what’s coming up next.  Strap yourselves in—we’re going on a Mailer-fueled rocket ride to Planet Manic.  This is an excerpt from an alleged work-in-progress titled, no snickering please, The Time of Her Time.  It concerns a modern-day Lothario, Sergius O’Shaugnessy (Dickens, you have met your master) who lives in Greenwich Village and earns his keep by, get this, giving bull fighting lessons.  Here’s Sergius’s ruminations with respect to women who climb the “slopes of Mt. O’Shaugnessy”:  “what it came down to was that I could go an hour with the average girl without destroying more of the vital substance than a good night’s sleep could repair, and since that sort of stamina seems to get advertised, and I had my good looks, my blond hair, my height, build and bullfighting school, I suppose I became one of the Village equivalents of an Eagle Scout badge for the girls. I was one of the credits needed for a diploma in the sexual humanities . . . .”  Yes, yes, the mixed metaphors are simply over the top.  But that “vital substance” could be right out of Dr. Strangelove and the stealing of General Jack Ripper’s vital fluids (which probably was stolen from this earlier work of Mailer’s). 

And, here’s a sample of Sergius’s witty conversation with another conquest who “was still far from formed, there had been all sorts of Lesbian hysterias in her shrieking laugh”: “But this new chick had been a mistake—I had met her two weeks ago at a party, she was on leave from her boy friend, and we had had an argument about T. S. Eliot, a routine which for me had become the quintessence of corn, but she said that Eliot was the apotheosis of manner, he embodied the ecclesiasticism of classical and now futureless form, she adored him she said, and I was tempted to tell her how little Eliot would adore the mannerless yeasts of the Brooklyn from which she came.”  No comment, it’s just too good. 

So what does this Love Song of Prufrock Eliot make Sergius want to do?  “Her college-girl snobbery, the pith for me of eighty-five other honey-pots of the Village aesthetic whose smell I knew all too well, so inflamed the avenger of my crotch, that I wanted to prong her then and there, right on the floor of the party, I was a primitive for a prime minute, a gorged gouge of a working-class phallus, eager to ram into all her nasty little tensions.”  The wrong-headed erotica (“pronged”) mixed with the school-boy alliteration just can’t be beat. So, can this get any funnier?  Oh yes, indeedy, just sit back and enjoy the pronging.

So, our lover boy decides to make his move. “I had the message again, I was one of the millions on the bottom who had the muscles to move the sex which kept the world alive, and I would grind it into her, the healthy hearty inches and the sweat of the cost of acquired culture when you started low and you wanted to go high. She was a woman, what! she sensed that moment, she didn’t know if she could handle me, and she had the guts to decide to find out.” Could anything be wittier than that “healthy hearty inches”?  So, anyhoo, we’re now into the “act” itself where are lovely lady is being handled.  “I worked on her like a beaver for forty-odd minutes or more, slapping my tail to build her nest, and she worked along while we made the round of the positions, her breath sobbing the exertions, her body as alive as a charged wire and as far from rest.”  Oh, come on, there’s never been anything funnier written about the “act” then that beaver quip.  But then, all good nest building must come to an end, which leads to this fantastic pillow-talk exchange:

Of course it was easy to find satisfaction with Arthur, “via the oral perversions. That’s because, vaginally, I’m anaesthetized—a good phallic narcissist like you doesn’t do enough for me.”
In the absence of learned credentials, she was setting out to bully again. So I thought to surprise her. “Aren’t you mixing your language a little?” I began. “The phallic narcissist is one of Wilhelm Reich’s categories.”
“Aren’t you a Freudian?”
“It would be presumptuous of me to say,” she said like a seminar student working for his pee-aitch-dee. “But Sandy is an eclectic. He accepts a lot of Reich—you see, he’s very ambitious, he wants to arrive at his own synthesis.” She exhaled some smoke in my face, and gave a nice tough little grin which turned her long serious young witch’s face into something indeed less presumptuous. “Besides,” she said, “you are a phallic narcissist. There’s an element of the sensual which is lacking in you.”

This isn’t a tin ear.  This is an ear made of snips and snails and puppy dog tails. Only a great comedian, with a fine sense of the preposterous, could come up with such leaden, and yet hilarious, dialogue.  So, how can Norman tops this, you may well ask?  How about with the worst poem ever published.  Let’s save this coup de grace for the last post.

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November  26,  2004

Patrick: Lagniappe

‘A boy,’ she said. ‘It’s a boy.’
‘A boy?’ said my father.
‘Yes, a boy,’ said Mrs Smith.
There was a moment’s hush, and then Nature had its way. My father unashamedly burst into tears. My mother’s mother kissed him on the neck just as the two fellow-members burst into a hymn; and a moment later, my mother’s five sisters burst simultaneously into the doxology. Then my father recovered himself and held up his hand.
‘I shall call him Augustus,’ he said, ‘after myself.’
‘Or tin?’ suggested my mother’s mother. ‘What about calling him tin, after the saint?’
‘How do you mean – tin?’ said my father.
‘Augus-tin,’ said Mrs Emily Smith.
But my father shook his head.
‘No, it shall be tus,’ he said. ‘Tus is better than tin.’
--Augustus Carp, Esq., by Himself Being the Autobiography of a Really Good Man by Sir Henry Howarth Bashford

Norman Mailer: Forgotten Comic Genius, Part II
Yesterday, we were discussing that unjustly unremembered comic novel, Advertisements for Myself.  Let’s dive right into the good stuff today, shall we?  Here’s the first few sentences for one of the short-pieces in the book,  Advertisements for Three War Stories:

‘The Paper House,’ ‘The Language of Men,’ ‘The Dead Gook’ and ‘The Notebook’ were all written in the same period and they were all written quickly. I used to start a story in the morning and if I didn’t finish it in the same day, I would give it up, I would decide it wasn’t meant to be written. In a few weeks I wrote ten stories by this method. ‘The Paper House’ was done in a day, so was ‘The Language of Men.’ ‘The Dead Gook’ was an exception and took two days. What I liked about writing these stories was that I had no responsibility.

Where do I start with this comic gem?  First, we have the choice of story titles, both pretentious and outre at the same time.  And then we have the narrator describing how long he wrote each, as if he actually kept a diary that tracked the production of his narrative output like some kind of factory manager (indeed, the rest of the Advertisement continues in this vein).  Of course, “The Dead Gook,” would take longer than the rest.  But this allegedly unconscious skewering of the author (a la Augustus Carp) is not enough.  Mailer then throws in that he liked these stories best for having no responsibility for them.  As if he had some sacred flame to keep.  Precious.

Let’s move on to another Advertisement, this one meant to stand alone and entitled, Last Advertisement for Myself Before the Way Out. Here, the author is sort of describing his place in American Letters compared to other great American authors (another delicious conceit):

Still! There is the fault of others, and the fault of oneself, and I have my debts to pay. Fitzgerald was an indifferent caretaker of his talent, and I have been a cheap gambler with mine. As I add up the accounts, I cannot like myself too much, for I was cowardly when I should have been good, and too brave on many a bad chance, and I spent my first thirty years abusing my body, and the last six in forced marches on my brain, and so I am more stupid today than I ought to be, my memory is half-gone, and my mind is slow; from fear and vanity I paid out too much for what I managed to learn. When I sit down, soon after this book is done, to pick up again on my novel, I do not know if I can do it, for if the first sixty pages are not at all bad, I may still have wasted too much of myself, and if I have—what a loss.

Again, I stand in awe of this comic master.  Here’s almost a pitch-perfect parody of Wilde’s De Profundis.  Mailer caught the maudlin tone just right [N.B.: before, dear reader, you start to cast aspersions, let me assure you that I love Oscar Wilde and am a great admirer of his, although I fear he dissipated his great talents].  What a loss, indeed.  Then, in the very next paragraph, we get this laugh-out-loud manifesto from our “author”:

If it is to have any effect, and I can hardly look forward to exhausting the next ten years without hope of a deep explosion of effect, the book will be fired to its fuse by the rumor that once I pointed to the farthest fence and said that within ten years I would try to hit the longest ball ever to go up into the accelerated hurricane air of our American letters. For if I have one ambition above all others, it is to write a novel which Dostoyevsky and Marx; Joyce and Freud; Stendhal, Tolstoy, Proust and Spengler; Faulkner, and even moldering Hemingway might come to read, for it would carry what they had to tell another part of the way.

Boy, it’s hard to start with what’s best here.  The puffery and grandiosity are truly tres magnifique. But the juxtaposition of great authors with the decidedly second rate: “Doystoyevsky and Marx” and “Joyce and Freud” (heck, even the pairing up is funny) is again, perfect.  And to include Spengler, of all people, that’s too rich.  The mixed metaphors are good too, what with fuses and fences and hurricanes and long balls and who knows where this kitchen-sink word-painting kitsch will end.

Okay, enough, I can’t take much more for today.  Let’s pick up with the very crème de la crème in the next post.  That’s what I love about Mailer, it’s only onward and upward with him.

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November  24,  2004

Patrick: Lagniappe

Trials of my infancy. Varieties of indigestion. I suffer from a local erythema. Instance of my father’s unselfishness. Difficulty in providing a second godfather. Unexpected solution of the problem. The ceremony of my baptism. A narrow escape. Was it culpable carelessness? My father transfers his worship to St James-the-Lesser-Still, Peckham Rye.
--Augustus Carp, Esq., by Himself Being the Autobiography of a Really Good Man
by Sir Henry Howarth Bashford

[N.B.: Yesterday’s lagniappe concerned that odious middle-class figure, the “self-deluded, puffed up” unconscious hypocrite. Today’s lagniappe quotes from the title-piece to chapter two of an minor British comic classic, Augustus Carp, Esq., which anatomizes this vice in a mordantly humorous vein.  I highly recommend this novel.  But be warned, it is very British and very dry, like a char-broiled Ozona, Texas summer day.  If that’s your preference, you’ll love this work.  Which means you will chuckle to discover three chapters devoted to the discomfiture caused to the Carp paterfamilias by a new church lectern shaped as an eagle rampant.  If your humor does not run in this vein, you will tear your hair out by its roots during the frog-march of tedium imposed by this excellent Xtian gentleman.]

Norman Mailer: Forgotten Comic Genius
Having posted about Augustus Carp, I started thinking about other comic masterpieces that have unfairly slipped beneath the waters of Lethe, i.e., oblivion.  As you might have guessed by now, I am a fan of comic novels—particularly those of the British persuasion.  When I’m feeling my oats to a greater extent, I’ll try to tackle that ticklish troika: Firbank, Waugh and Powell. Today, however, I wish to dwell on a forgotten writer I have come across who hales from these boisterous shores and has written a great, if not the great, American comic novel.  His name is Norman Mailer and, boy howdy, is he a knee-slapper.

Some of you may recall vaguely that name.  He wrote a few minor works during the heat of the Sixties concerning levitating the pentagon and what not (another laff riot: The Armies of the Night).  He also wrote some funny stuff about Hollywood where everyone is really in Hell—making fun of all those pretentious stuffed shirts like Sartre and his play, No Exit—in a work called Deer Park (why, Deer Park, bub?  Because that's where Louis XV would go for a stroll to hunt down the wild wantons who willingly stocked/stalked its grounds--you do the math).  But, in my opinion, his great comic masterpiece is an early work: Advertisements for Myself (which, as a bonus, contains some of the funniest bits from Deer Park).

The premise of Advertisements for Myself provides an unlimited supply of laugh-out-loud jokes (even the cover is hilarious, featuring the author in his best fake “come hither” look while wearing a nautical cap like the Skipper’s from Gilligan’s Island). M uch like the faux first-person autobiographical narrator of Augustus Carp, Advertisements for Myself is supposedly a collection of the author’s reprinted pieces.  But, here’s the ingenious part, each is introduced by some self-serving remarks about its importance to the author’s oeuvre (hence, the word “Advertisements” in the title).  It’s hard to tell which is funnier, the supposedly self-aware commentary or the short-pieces themselves.

Before we dive into the rib-breaking guffaws, let’s look at the beginning of this wonderful satire.  My hat’s off to Mailer (or at least my skipper cap), for his having apparently waded through hundreds of volumes of pretentious works by puffed-up authors in order to write this clever parody.  He starts with two tables of contents: one interspersed with his self-proclaimed “advertisements” which are mini-introductions to each “serious” piece. The second describes all the serious pieces by their own genres—fiction, essays and articles, and what not—and then lists the “advertisements” as a new genre altogether: “biography of a style.”  Oh, that’s just too delicious.  Dead on target, Mailer!

Okay, that’s plenty for now, let’s get to the meat in the next post.

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November  24,  2004

Patrick: Lagniappe

The poor man is democratic out of necessity, the nobleman is democratic out of freedom. Have you ever noticed . . . that the unconscious hypocrite is a pure middle-class type? Your aristocrat may be a villain, and your beggar may be a criminal; neither is self-deluded, puffed up with philanthropism and vanity, like a Rockefeller or an Andrew Carnegie. And the French, who are the most middle-class people in the world, have produced a satirical literature that is absolutely obsessed with this vice.
--The Company She Keeps by Mary McCarthy

Taboo Art Topics: Paintings Under Glass
[N.B.: Warning! The following post is a cranky complaint that has little to do with literature—please send your protests to the appropriate parties. Thank you. The Management.]

One of the most amusing conceits today must be the ululating of the art critics condemning the unwashed masses for failing to appreciate the strange otherness of the unknown.  Sure, it might be described as “transgressive,” but that’s just code for “liberating.”  These all-too-knowing art-critic hierophants delight in telling their thralls that they are not afraid to confront—or, better yet, antagonize—any topic and that this state is one that all should seek to obtain. They neglect to acknowledge, however, that there are certain taboo art topics that they dare not discuss.  These topics fall into a dichotomy [n.b.: yes, I am like Auden and Kierkegaard in seeing things, at times, as Either/Or] of procedural and substantive issues.  What I mean here is that an issue is procedural if it concerns the structure around a piece of art, such as the economics of the art market or the museum market (two overlapping, but different markets with different concerns).  On the other hand, substantive issues concern the content of the art itself—what can and cannot be depicted and the methods that can and cannot be used in rendering the subject.  Today, I wish to discuss a particularly annoying procedural issues that, as far as I can tell, is absolutely verboten to discuss: the aesthetic deficiencies inherent in placing glass on top of paintings in museums.

First, let’s get to the why of this taboo topic which has little to do with politics unless one still believes in politics as a conflict of  economic classes in the classical Marxian sense.  Let me point out here that there is nothing wrong in viewing things through the prism of capital accumulation and class conflict as long as one realizes that it is just that, a prism, and there are many, many other ways to view life, in all its messiness.  There is no secret code, no Rosetta Stone, to solving all of life’s issues through some kind of totalizing world view. Indeed, the sure mark of a charlatan is to claim just that.  Snake oil always cures everything.  But, having said that, snake oil, although failing to cure major ailments, might still cure the piles.  And that’s Marxism for you—it’s good for piles.  So what does Marxism have to do with glass on paintings?

Well, why do you think museums put glass on paintings?  That’s right, to protect their investments.  Not long ago, there was a deranged young man in Europe who would swallow lots of food coloring and an emetic, then he would rush into a museum, and vomit up bright yellow or green on a Rembrandt or a Van Gogh. Also, there is a famous incident where another deranged young man, now a well-known art critic who deserves oblivion, spray painted Guernica when it was at the MoMa.  And, there are well-documented instances of deranged young men—notice how defacing art always involves young men, curious—slashing canvases.  So, it would seem museums are justified in protecting these works for future generations by putting them under glass.  Right?

Wrong. Museums have abandoned their mission to make available the greatest paintings for the public by nullifying to a large extent the aesthetic enjoyment thereof.  Have you ever seen someone stand in front of a painting by Caravaggio, you know, one that has a particularly lively play between light and dark (chiaroscuro for you art thralls) and comb his hair by his reflection in the glass?  He might as well.  Glass backed by a dark surface makes a fine mirror. There is a novelist, I would love to say it is Ronald Firbank, that has one of his characters do just that.  And that’s all these paintings are good for once the glass goes up: personal grooming aids.  This is particularly true when the museum has a harsh light shining on the painting.  Such lighting makes sense without the glass, but once the glass is put up, the entire work is obscured.

So, do you ever see anything written about this wide-spread travesty?  No.  If one thinks about it, the scattered acts of vandals, no matter how deplorable, should not justify the widespread destruction of the aesthetic experience for millions of museum visitors.  One, instead, should expect such random acts to just happen like the occasional hurricane or earthquake—not respond by trying to destroy all the works ahead of time.  And, in any event, one can’t put glass on every painting (oops, perhaps I shouldn’t give curators another bad idea). But, no; you, the dumb, mewling public, you, are supposed to go to the museum anyway and oooh, ahhh over the paintings in spite of the fact that any penny-dreadful reproduction of them would serve you better than the actual physical enjoyment of the works themselves.  Why is that?  One word: iconostasis.

Iconostasis in Eastern Orthodox churches is the rood screen separating the altar from the rest of the church and upon which are hung the holy icons.  There has been a concerted effort in art circles to transfer this notion to art museums—although no one calls it iconostasis [N.B.: for a funny take, although from a distinctly philistine perspective, on the churchy interior of the newly reopened MoMa, go here].  Instead, curators say that there is an inherent aesthetic enjoyment in standing before the authentic work itself that one cannot derive from a reproduction no matter how perfect it might be (and, the scared curator might note as he furtively pulls at his collar, that technology is getting better and better everyday).  So, if we turn the paintings around, and just the backs (reversos-art thralls) of the canvases are on exhibit, then that should be just as good (or, better yet, put glass on top of them and shine lights on the glass so you get the same effect).  And the curator would be right—if the modern art experience in a museum is akin to the function performed by the iconostasis.

Why have an iconostasis? Well, you need something to protect the altar from the masses. As a pale substitute, you place icons—holy paintings—on the iconostasis for purposes of prayer and reflection (for some good photographs of same, go here). It does not matter what the artistic quality of the icons might be.  Rather, the spiritual quality in which they are imbued is of the utmost importance. It would be blasphemy to criticize possibly the greatest icon painter of all time, Andrei Rublev, who was active in Russian during the late Fourteenth and early Fifteenth Centuries, by pointing out that his depictions of the human figure tend to be too elongated and reminiscent of the Mannerists.  That’s not the point. And the modern museum curator wants you to think the same thing as you stand in front of a black, muddy canvas that has been converted into a mirror with the help of modern glass and lights.  Sure, the title card might say it is a Rembrandt, and although you can’t tell what it is, that’s not the point:  your job is to stare at it in gaping awe, while the spirit washes over you. 

Yes, some might argue, wrongly, that art museums are supposed to be the new churches.  But, even if you buy into that rigmarole, are you really willing to give up the aesthetic experience for what that entails?  Do we need an iconostasis in the National Gallery?  Or are today’s curators more like the Wizard of Oz who admonishes Dorothy to ignore that little man behind the curtain?  And who is that little man?  Let’s give Marx the last word: Why, Benjamin Franklin, himself, winking at you from the cozy confines of his oval on the hundred dollar bill (which, by the bye, is definitely not glassed in).

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November  23,  2004

Kathryn: W. S. Merwin

On Friday, W. S. Merwin gave a poetry reading at the Katherine Anne Porter House. It was a wonderful reading in a relatively intimate space, given the stature of this poet. The crowd overflowed the room, and the Porter House staff opened doors and windows so people standing outside could listen through the screens. He read from works spanning his five-decade career, opting mainly for shorter works. Here is a photo I took of him:

He seems very kind. When I mentioned that my husband read Merwin's poem "Little Horse" to me during our wedding ceremony, he said that he wished he'd known; he would have read that poem during the reading. My favorite poem from the reading, "To the Consolations of Philosophy," is at PoetryMagazine.org. The poem begins

Thank you but
not just at the moment

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November  23,  2004

Patrick:  Lagniappe

The romantic life had been too hard for her. In morals as in politics anarchy is not for the weak. The small state, racked by internal dissension, invites the foreign conqueror. Proscription, martial law, the billeting of the rude troops, the tax collector, the unjust judge, anything, anything at all, is sweeter than responsibility. The dictator is also a scapegoat; in assuming absolute authority, he assumes absolute guilt; and the oppressed masses, groaning under the yoke, know themselves to be innocent as lambs, while they pray hypocritically for deliverance. Frederick imagined that she had married him for security (this was one of the troubles between them), but what he did not understand was that security from the telephone company or the grocer was as nothing compared to the other security he gave her, the security from being perpetually in the wrong, and that she would have eaten bread and water, if necessary, in order to be kept in gaol.
--The Company She Keeps by Mary McCarthy


Vibrations Among the Redwoods, Part II
I was very lucky and had the chance to hear W. S. Merwin at a poetry reading this past week.  I won’t say much about it because I am sure Kathryn will probably post at length on this topic.  Merwin is one of my favorite living poets. The reading centered on various tangents vectoring out from the world of botany.  In the course of it, Merwin referred to a number of his influences, including, of all things, Samuel Taylor Coleridge.  Merwin also made an off-the-cuff remark about Osip Mandelstam and how he did not feel comfortable with his contemporaries because he viewed his contemporaries as being Ovid, Virgil and Dante. This deep erudition, worn so very, very lightly, reminded me of the redwoods.  Merwin may be one of the few left.

But now we are back in the deep forests of these barked titans. Let us hike to one of the mightiest of them all, Henry James, and press our ear against his rough surface.  In The Portrait of a Lady, published, in serial form, during 1880-1881, Henry James, has M. Merle first describe and introduce the character of Gilbert Osmond to Isabel Archer in the course of a disquisition on the faults of Isabel’s gravely ill cousin, Ralph Touchett, whose father, at Ralph’s insistence, will soon give Isabel a fortune.  M. Merle points out that Ralph has no occupation:

“’He is very cultivated,’ they say; ‘he has got a very pretty collection of old snuff-boxes.’ The collection is all that is wanted to make it pitiful. I am tired of the sound of the word; I think its grotesque. . . . But I persist in thinking your cousin is very lucky to have a chronic malady; so long as he doesn’t die of it. It’s much better than snuff-boxes.”

In the same paragraph, M. Merle goes on to describe Gilbert Osmond as being cut from this same cloth:

“He is Gilbert Osmond—he lives in Italy; that is all one can say bout him. He is exceedingly clever, a man made to be distinguished; but, as I say, you exhaust the description when you say that he is Mr. Osmond, who lives in Italy. No career, no name, no position, no fortune, no past, no future, no anything. Oh yes, he paints, if you please—paints in water-colours, like me, only better than I. His painting is pretty bad; on the whole I am rather glad of that. Fortunately he is very indolent, so indolent that it amounts to a sort of position.”

As becomes clearer later on in the book, Gilbert and Ralph, are mirrors of one another, but of opposite magnetic polarizations (please forgive me mixed-metaphor police, it is merely a venial sin).  Ironically, it is Ralph’s illness, as M. Merle half-way intuits, which gives him his humanity, his humaneness. Otherwise, he could just as well wind up with the vile character of Gilbert Osmond.  The passage leaves little doubt as to how James himself feels about Gilbert.  The description of the pointless pursuit of the snuff-box bibelots will be shown, on a grander scale with Gilbert Osmond, to simply spur a character consumed in accidie to greater heights of folly and cruelty.  Ralph does not suffer from accidie because he suffers physically, in truth.  His pain gives him no time for boredom and spiritual sloth, as I discussed earlier with respect to Alphonse Daudet’s In the Land of Pain.

Let’s not lose sight, though, of our redwoods amidst all this pain.  Here’s another redwood, James’s good friend, Edith Wharton.  In 1912, some thirty years after The Portrait of a Lady, she publishes The Reef, a novel about the ill-fated consequences of a brief fling that threatens to destroy the approaching connubial bliss of two sets of soon-to-be newlyweds when it is discovered that the groom of one pair, George Darrow, had a tryst with the bride of the other. The book concerns the ramifications of this situation as the characters seem to be hopelessly trapped on these tragic breakers, hence the title, The Reef. Darrow’s soon-to-be-bride, Anna Leath, is the widow of Fraser Leath, Darrow’s successful rival for her hand the first go-round. Here is Wharton’s description of Mr. Leath:

“Mr. Leath’s art was water-colour painting, but he practised it furtively, almost clandestinely, with the disdain of a man of the world for anything bordering on the professional, while he devoted himself more openly, and with religious seriousness, to the collection of enamelled snuff-boxes. He was blond and well-dressed, with the physical distinction that comes from having a straight figure, a thin nose, and the habit of looking slightly disgusted—as who would not, in a world where authentic snuff-boxes were growing daily harder to find, and the market was flooded with flagrant forgeries?”

Do you see what Wharton has done?  She has poked a bit of fun at James by painting a very minor, indeed wholly absent and dead character, in the same brushstrokes as James does for his chief antagonist, even down to the snuff-boxes and watercolors. I n using the same leitmotif, she is agreeing with James that a short-hand sketch of a dull, lazy dilettante can be best summed up by snuff-boxes and watercolors.  She is leaving her calling card for James to discover in the immortal, literary afterlife and to chuckle over.  It is the secret handshake; the wink and the nod; the whispering between the redwoods.

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November  22,  2004

Patrick:  Lagniappe

Ah, she said to herself now, I reject this middle-class tragedy, this degenerated Victorian novel where I am Jane Eyre or somebody in Dickens or Kipling or brave little Elsie Dinsmore fainting over the piano, I reject the whole pathos of the changeling, the orphan, the stepchild.  I reject this trip down the tunnel of memory which resembles nothing so much as a trip down the Red Mill at Coney Island, with my aunt and her attributive razor strop substituting for Lizzie Borden and her axe.  I reject all those tableaux of estrangement: my father in his smoking jacket at the card table with his nightly game of solitaire for ever laid out before him, my aunt with her novel by Cardinal Wiseman that is reading for the fifteenth time, and myself with the cotton handkerchief that I must hem and re-hem because the stitches are never small enough; I deny the afternoon I deliver my prize-winning essay at the Town Auditorium and there is no family there to applaud me because my father is away on a hunting trip, and my aunt, having just beaten me for me error in winning the prize (‘You are too stuck-up already’), is at home in her bedroom having hysterics; and also the scene at her summer resort where the lady looks up from the bridge table and utters her immortal tag line, ‘Surely, Mr. Sargent, this isn’t your daughter!’ It is all too apropos for acceptance.
--The Company She Keeps by Mary McCarthy

[N.B.: Mary McCarthy’s fiction tends to be thinly veiled reworkings of incidents and people in her own life—see my Lagniappe on Master Humphrey’s Clock for why that’s just fine and I wish more writers would put down interesting things they know rather than navel-gazing fantasy that no one, and I mean no one (do you hear me John Updike with you book on Gertrude and Claudius) cares about. This excerpt, taken from her first work of fiction, is, unsurprisingly, about herself: a young orphan who had to grow a carapace of burnished steel or be diced to bits--although it was not strong enough for the likes of the vile Lillian Hellman.]


Vibrations Among the Redwoods
Never having done so, and based merely on my own musings, I imagine that walking among California’s giant redwoods must be a singularly humbling exercise.  There, with the feeble sun’s shafts swimming lightly among the behemoths, you experience the sensation of a small flea, crawling among the hairs of your head.  These silent sentinels have communed amongst themselves for a millennium before you came to gaze upon them; and they will continue in their uncanny community for a millennium after you serve no purpose other than to fertilize their distant relations.  And yet, standing there, an insignificant presence beside their yawning, silent vastness, you feel an odd vibration in the air, as if, upon waves of sound too slow and low for our ears, they are speaking to one another, deep to deep.  This experience, I imagine, is how the literary immortals, literature’s giant redwoods, talk to one another still in the vasty deep [N.B.: Glendower: I can call spirits from the vasty deep; Hotspur: Why, so can I, or so can any man, But will they come when you do call for them? (I Henry IV, act iii, sc. I, l. 53)].

I have had this experience a couple of times recently from reading Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady and Edith Wharton’s The Reef. First, in James's work, the female antagonist, who brings the heroine, Isabel Archer, to ruin, is named Madame Merle.  Her antecedents are American but she has become the model of a modern European.  In other words, she is French to the core.  James, like Dickens, chooses names that may have some meaning beyond mere tokens and place-markers for the reader.  In The Bostonians, the prize fought for by the two contending protagonists, Verena Tarrant, has a name quite common to a certain gynecological term, which is appropriate, given, in James’s eyes, that she is the personification of femininity, in all its glories and defects. The two protagonists are the rigid feminist Mrs. Chamberlain (apt name, that) and Basil Ransom, the dashing, Southern confederate veteran who demands of Verena the ransom of her talent for public speaking in the service of feminism. Guess who wins?  In any event, James does not merely pluck names for his characters out of the air on a whim.  Typically, their names are meant to “fit” them in some way.

The “fit” for Madame Merle seems obvious to me.  Merle, is merely one letter off from a certain coarse French term used to describe human waste (switch out the “l” for a “d”).  Indeed, James does not constrain himself from describing his displeasure with this character.  Here, he has Isabel reflect on Madame Merle’s morality:

She had once said that she came from a distance, that she belonged to the old world, and Isabel never lost the impression that she was the product of a different clime from her own, that she had grown up under other stars. Isabel believed that at bottom she had a different morality. Of course the morality of civilised persons has always has much in common; but Isabel suspected that her friend had esoteric views. She believed, with the presumption of youth, that a morality which differed from her own must be inferior to it; and this conviction was an aid to detecting an occasional flash of cruelty, an occasional lapse from candour, in the conversation of a woman who had raised delicate kindness to an art, and whose nature was too large for the narrow ways of deception.

Notice in the typical master-stroke of description, that James does not clearly commit himself to describing, from on high, how he views M. Merle.  Oh, no, he is like Tolstoy, in that he describes his characters with, a cold, detached, almost scientific, precision (as opposed to Jane Austen who had no trouble calling a prig a prig).  But, unlike Tolstoy, James cannot help himself but to give one clues to his own feelings—and, I believe, his characters names assist us on this point. In the above description, we have James dutifully transcribing Isabel Archer’s impressions, with the authorial comment that Miss Archer viewed her own morality as superior because of the presumption of youth.  In other words, James is giving us a clue here that Miss Archer’s presumption is just that, a presumption which is not an axiom to be applied at all times in all cases.  This might lead one to believe that she is false in her belief here that her morality is superior to that of M. Merle’s.  Ahh, not so fast.  Even if the presumption is not an axiom, it still might be true in a particular case and, as we learn later on in the book, it is, indeed, correct here with respect to M. Merle.  But, the presumption has another defect to it, as well.  That is, even though it allows one to see that one’s morality is superior to another’s, it also assumes that, coming from the same civilization, in the main, the two morality’s are fairly similar and that M. Merle’s “nature was too large for the narrow ways of deception.”  Again, as is learned later in the book, this assumption is false.  So, through indirection, James throws us off the scent here.  But when we finish the book and come back to this passage, we realize that this is James talking:  He sees M. Merle as both cruel and deceptive.  These are the two traits that are an anathema to James. Cruelty is probably the greater sin in that it is almost impossible for him to write about it except through the most elaborate veils of indirection and oblique reference.  Deception, on the other hand, he will boldly confront and condemn. I’ll probably write about his horror of lying soon, particularly since it is so quaint today in a culture that gives lip service to condemning the liar and yet embraces him on the sly, or, in some cases, in flagrante delicto.

This exposure of the lying and cruelty, and James’s condemnation of it, is meant to demonstrate that he truly feels that M. Merle is merde. She is irredeemable. She is a monster. So what does this have to do with the redwoods?  Well, perhaps I just like communing with nature.  Okay, perhaps not.  In one of Dickens’ last novels, Little Dorritt, which concerns the corrupting influence of power as exemplified by the misuse of commerce and government, the great commercial fraud in that book, the banker who commits suicide when his fraud is exposed, is none other than Mr. Merdle.  Here is Dickens’ initial description of him—who, like Austen, can call a merde a merde; although here, like the annoying commercial jingle, he asks, “Got merde?”:

Mr. Merdle was immensely rich; a man of prodigious enterprise; a Midas without the ears, who turned all he touched to gold. He was in everything good, from banking to building. He was in Parliament, of course. He was in the city necessarily. He was chairman of this, trustee of that, president of the other. The weightiest of men had said to projectors, “Now, what name have you got? Have you got Merdle?” And the reply being in the negative, had said, “Then I won’t look at you.”

And critics have commented on Dickens’ uncouth but in no way ribald sense of humor.  That might be true in English, but decidedly not in French.  Anyway, let’s skip to Merdle’s suicide where Dickens renders his awful judgment:

For by that time it was known that the late Mr Merdle's complaint had been simply Forgery and Robbery. He, the uncouth object of such wide-spread adulation, the sitter at great men's feasts, the roc's egg of great ladies' assemblies, the subduer of exclusiveness, the leveller of pride, the patron of patrons, the bargain-driver with a Minister for Lordships of the Circumlocution Office, the recipient of more acknowledgment within some ten or fifteen years, at most, than had been bestowed in England upon all peaceful public benefactors, and upon all the leaders of all the Arts and Sciences, with all their works to testify for them, during two centuries at least--he, the shining wonder, the new constellation to be followed by the wise men bringing gifts, until it stopped over a certain carrion at the bottom of a bath and disappeared--was simply the greatest Forger and the greatest Thief that ever cheated the gallows.

So what does this all add up to—just a pile of Merdle or Merle?  Perhaps, or perhaps the great literary giants spot the little references and innuendos in one another’s works and pay secret compliment to them in their own works.  It’s like a secret handshake—a way of saying that we all belong to this very exclusive fraternity and speak in an obscure language which only other initiates may appreciate.  At least that is my conceit.  Not only, in T. S. Eliot’s view, does the circle of greats widen with the entry of another great who changes the relationships between all the other members of the circle, but also, these members speak to one another in veiled tones and half-heard whispers for their own recondite enjoyment.  So, yes, the redwoods do whisper among themselves.  And they whisper: merde.

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November  21,  2004

Patrick:  Lagniappe

Moreover, he was enjoying himself enormously. He had the true American taste for argument, argument as distinguished from conversation on the one hand and from oratory on the other. The long-drawn-out, meandering debate was, perhaps, the only art form he understood or relished, and this was natural, since the argument is in a sense our only indigenous folk-art, and it is not the poet but the silver-tongued lawyer who is our real national bard.
--The Company She Keeps by Mary McCarthy


Come on in, the poetry's fine!

I don't know why it's happening all of a sudden, like the brisk norther coming down to sweep out the stale, moldy air left over from summer, but I am grateful for the continuing changes morphing the once-staid New York Time Book Review ("NYTBR") into a interesting outlet of literary criticism (hat tip, perhaps, to the new fiction editor, Sam Tannenhaus).  This week is the Poetry Issue; and it's full to the brim with delicious goodies.

Some of those goodies include such dainty chocolates as John Ashbery's ruminations on James Tate and Harold Bloom, for once, due to space limitations, decidedly not the interminable gasbag, offering a lucid interpretation of Ashbery's Litany.  I highly recommend the issue, if, for no other reason, than that it seems that any major venue offering an entire anything on poetry criticism deserves our full-throated applause.  Bravo!

The quality of the poetry criticism is another matter.  Bloom's short piece is a good example of the quagmire that such criticism now finds itself, like a lost Tommy searching for his unit in the rained out shell-holes of the Ypres salient during a moonless night:  All is dark, lights out, with only the occasional flash of the phosphorescent Very lights to freeze him to the ground or the distant flash of an artillery round; otherwise all is shadows and dark, bulky, broken things rearing up in the black night.  Bloom seems frozen to the ground, too.  Here is the most certain living critic, pronouncing literary delphic judgments as if Zeus himself were whispering into Bloom's ear.  But, when Bloom approaches a poem, he suddenly shies away like a young colt bristling at the bridle.  He doesn't know where to start and dawdles over a line here or there.  Finally, he gives up on trying to make any aesthetic judgment and instead attempts to provide a straight forward description of what the poem does and how he, personally, feels about it.  It's the literary equivalent of seeing a hammer on the floor, picking it up and describing the salient features that make it "hammer-like" and then exclaiming how you, at that particular moment, holding the hammer in your hand, feel about it.  This might be interesting--as are Bloom's observations--but not particularly illuminating.  Why is that?

The answer to "why" is also furnished in the issue.  Jim Harrison, commenting on why he likes Ted Kooser and Gary Snyder, remarks, "[t]his is not to say they are the best poets of our time--I find such rating attempts paltry and onerous--but the poets whose work most soothes and enlivens me."  Robert Pinsky, in his essay, starts off with the pronouncement, "[t]here is no 'most' or 'best' in art.  No Top 10 or First Place on the scale of art: the large scale, where Ben Jonson is more famous than this year's celebrity."  In other words, the only acceptable poetic criticism is that which is self-consciously solipsistic, where one judge is as good as another as long as each judge is limited to delineating his own personal preferences.  So at least with respect to standards, poetry criticism has suffered the ultimate defeat of atomization and self-referentialism.

How powerful is this atomization?  As I mentioned above, even the likes of the Bloom-Beast, who will boldly go where no critic has gone before, blanches before the terrible, weed-choked gate marked in rusty letters, "poetry."  Indeed, because, of this prohibition, a negative review in the same issue of the NYTBR such as A. O. Scott's of Dana Gioia's Disappearing Ink, a collection of poetry criticism, is perversely fatuous.  It is perverse because Scott takes Gioia to task for being too nice in his criticism and, as a result, having his pieces "disproportionately loaded with abstractions, cliches and nuggets of wisdom so uncontroversial as to be inane."  No, what is inane is some critic trying to do the Tom Wolfe-treatment on a book of poetry criticism.  The profession itself, due to its solipsism, is, by its very nature, "loaded with abstractions" and "cliches."  To criticize a dog for barking is the height of fatuity--as Aesop's old fable of the scorpion goes, "I couldn't help it, it's my nature."

So, how did the once useful profession of poetry criticism come to such a pass?  Ah, that is a post for another day.  I admit, I find it a mystery.  It is not as self-explanatory as the corruption of art criticism where there is a clear economic motive (a taboo I will write on soon, I hope).  There is no money in poetry, at least until recently with the giant bequest made to Poetry magazine.  But this corruption happened long before that.  Why?

[N.B.:  There is also in the issue of the NYTBR a fine review of Czeslaw Milosz in the accepted hammer style described above.  Also, there's a nice appreciation on the passing of Anthony Hecht--although it fails to mention his great gifts as a formalist and, instead, in typical, solipsistic fashion, apologizes for his perceived fault of "impersonality" and assures the skittish reader that such impersonality "never dulls emotion."  Thanks dad.] 

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November  20,  2004

Kathryn: Cloud Atlas 2

Here’s a little lagniappe, a passage from the last section of the book, the second part of “The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing”:

My next cogent remembrance is of drowning in salt water so bright it hurt. Had Boerhaave found my body & thrown me overboard to ensure my silence & avoid tiresome procedures with the American consul? My mind was still active & as such might yet exercise some say in my destiny. Consent to drown, or attempt to swim? Drowning was by far the least troublesome option, so I cast about for a dying thought & settled on Tilda, waving off the Belle-Hoxie from Silvaplana Wharf so many months before with Jackson shouting, “Papa! Bring me back a kangaroo’s paw!”
      The thought of never more seeing them was so distressing, I elected to swim & found myself not in the sea but curled on deck. . . .

Is Cloud Atlas a Novel or a Collection of Short Fiction? BTW, I thought I’d tie this discussion into Patrick’s posts on short fiction. Cloud Atlas is subtitled “A Novel.” I think the subtitle is provided purely as clarification, perhaps as an anxious declaration. One could make the claim that this book is a set of linked novellas. The device of nesting them is clever, but it does not, to me, lend the book an overarching trajectory or complexity of the kind usually associated with novels. When I ask myself what the book is about, I get something vague about how humans (1) prey on one another and (2) communicate across time, but I don’t really come up with a plot, per se. Six highly plotted plots, but not a plot.

I suppose one ought to say that the book is simply itself and argue against the need to shoehorn the work into existing categories. But that subtitle seems to me to betray an anxiety on the part of the author or (more likely) the publisher as to the identity of the book. Anyone out there who’s read the book care to comment?

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November  18,  2004

‘It’s funny,’ she said, ‘whenever a man starts to tell you he’s going to break with you, he uses your first name, even if he’s never used it before.’
‘I wasn’t . . . ‘ said Jim.
‘Oh yes,’ she said. ‘Yes, you were. Well, I’m going to be nice. I’m going to help you out. I’m going to say all the proper things.’ She took a breath and began to recite. ‘There is no future in this, it can’t lead anywhere, it would only hurt us both, it wouldn’t be any good unless it were serious and under the circumstances it can’t be serious; if we once loved each other, we might not be able to stop, so we had better stop now. Or I could say,’ her voice dropped, ‘if we once loved each other, we would be able to stop, so let’s stop before we find that out.’
The taxi drew up in front of her apartment, which was on a street with a quaint name, in the Village.
‘Good night,’ she said. ‘Please don’t see me to the door.’ She jumped out of the taxi with a kind of exaggerated lightness, just as she had done at the hotel. She ran up the steps and opened the outer door.
--The Company She Keeps by Mary McCarthy

Spaniards Spurn Cervantes
Catchy journalistic headline, no?  No.  Okay, well, the New York Times today  has an interesting article concerning the apparent indifference that Spaniards have for Cervantes.  That’s not too surprising since this endlessly inventive literary giant does not really “fit” within any particular national culture, the way Dickens, say, is quintessentially “English” (as opposed to being “British,” a touchy topic I might post upon at a later date).  Rather, he is like Laurence Sterne, who decided to invent post-modernism about two centuries before some tenure-bait professor came up with the neologism.  Actually, one can make a decent argument that Cervantes was the true father of post-modernism. Which, by the bye, should clue you in that if a “new” genre is based on it being a self-referential game demonstrating the nullity of any ordering rules, then there truly is nothing “new” under the sun.  Further, such a turn is merely the opening gambit.  You better be able to raise and come up with some decent cards besides being merely “clever” (John Barth, do you hear me?).  Cervantes, of course, was holding a royal flush with two jokers: Don Quixote and Sancho Panza (let’s call Rocinante the four of clubs).

So, as alluded to in the article, it is not surprising that Cervantes is not revered in Spain given his universal qualities that do not make him a particularly “Spanish” writer.  In short, he was a cosmopolitan that just happened to be born in Spain. I don’t care that the 400th anniversary of the publication of Don Quixote is coming up in January.  I don’t recall any great hoopla made over Laurence Sterne, either (of course, the 200th anniversary of his death was in 1968, when everyone was probably too busy frolicking in their strawberry fields forever to notice Sterne’s—or anyone else’s, for that matter—passing).

Given Cervantes’ cosmopolitanism (he was wounded during, arguably, the true first European Great War, at the Battle of Lepanto—which reminds me of G. K. Chesterton’s immortal poem  on that subject: “Don John of Austria is going to the war”), it is no surprise, although lamented by the NYT, that the Spaniards would embrace a decidedly lesser light, the playwright and rival of Cervantes, Lope de Vega.  Lope de Vega’s plays are still regularly performed in Spain to the delight of audiences old and young, as the cliché might go (de Vega wrote in a broad, satirical manner lampooning the Spanish character and customs).  Lope de Vega is a quintessentially Spanish writer.  So, it is no surprise he is hugged tightly to the Spanish bosom.

Okay, so Cervantes’ house is torn down and his own grave is under a street named for Lope de Vega.  Further, Lope de Vega’s house is maintained as a kind of shrine in the middle of Madrid.  I can vouch for this personally, having traveled to Madrid to go on one of those self-conscious Cervantes tours, but stopping off at this holy shrine of Lope de Vega because it was close to the bullfighter hotel I was staying in (cliché, thy name is Patrick).  Anyhoo, I didn’t speak any Spanish, and the holy friars . . . errr . . . tour guides of the house didn’t speak any English.  So they reverentially walked me through the interior pointing out in dumb show the great man’s desk, bed pan, etc.  Ahh, the holy bedpan, which ritually received the literary leavings of Lope.  Truly, has any literary figure been so intimately grasped by an adoring public?  Perhaps it's best to leave that question unanswered.  Again, though, the point (what, you have a point, I thought this was a disquisition on a peculiar Spanish playwright's personal habits) here is that it should surprise no one that the great, world-striding figures are loved abroad and treated, if not with disdain, then with indifference, at home.  There now, Henry James, do you feel better?

And, maybe, not just Henry James.  I wonder what other great literary figures there are who are more beloved abroad than at home.  We, in the United States, see Edgar Allan Poe as a great writer.  But the French see him as the great American writer.  I don't know enough about other cultures to make this kind of multicultural judgment.  But I am curious if others might have some view on this matter.

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November  17,  2004

Kathryn: Cloud Atlas
I enjoyed this book but really didn’t engage with it emotionally. Its cleverness made it worth the read for me, but in an English-majory sort of way. I fear Mr. Mitchell has been reading classic literary criticism and taking notes. (Paging the American Adam:You’re needed in the postcolonial wing.) Reading Cloud Atlas is a little like going into an ancient church to admire the architecture rather than to worship. And that's really not a gripe. I've enjoyed a lot of architectural forays into churches.

This novel has fine architecture. Mitchell has created a “sextet” of nested narratives (and, bonk, one of his characters writes a musical masterpiece described as “a sextet for overlapping soloists,” titled, bonk, Cloud Atlas).  (Warning: Spoilers ahoy.) Mitchell underscores the artifice of Cloud Atlas by having each narrative be an artifact in one of the other narratives, except for the heart of the book, “Sloosha’s Crossin’,” which appears in no other narrative.  A table of contents for the book would look like this:

1. The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing
2. Letters from Zedelghem
3. Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery
4. The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish
5. An Orison of Sonmi-451
6. Sloosha’s Crossin’ an’ Everythin’ After
7. An Orison of Sonmi-451
8. The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish
9. Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery
10. Letters from Zedelghem
11. The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing

A summary lifted (and twiddled with) from amazon.co.uk, originally by Travis Elborough:

The 19th-century journals of an American notary in the Pacific that open the novel are subsequently unearthed 80 years later on by Frobisher in the Zedelghem library of the aging, syphilitic maestro he's trying to fleece. Frobisher's waspish letters to his old Cambridge crony, Rufus Sexsmith, in turn surface when Rufus, (by the 1970s a leading nuclear scientist) is murdered.  A manuscript about Luisa Rey's investigation into Rufus' death finds its way to Timothy Cavendish, a London vanity publisher having difficulties related to an author who gained notoriety and popularity by forever silencing a snide reviewer. And in a dystopian Blade Runner-esque future, a genetically engineered fast-food waitress, Sonmi-451, sees a movie based on Cavendish's escape from forcible incarceration in a retirement home. (Cavendish himself wonders how a director called Lars might wish to tackle his plight). Sonmi-451’s experiences are recorded on a kind of video, which Zachary stumbles upon in “Sloosh’a Crossin’.” All this is less tricky than it sounds; only the lone Zachary chapter, told in Pacific Islander dialect (all "dingos'n'ravens," "brekker," and "f'llowin'"s) is an exercise in style too far.

More soon.

Patrick: Lagniappe

‘I love you,’ he said, and listened to the words with surprise, for this was not on the cards at all, and he did not even know if it were true.
‘I know,’ she whispered, and as soon as he heard her say this he was convinced it was true and he began to feel joyfully unhappy.
--The Company She Keeps by Mary McCarthy

[N.B.: Note that last phrase “joyfully unhappy.” It seems quite the style, the vogue, the hot-cha-cha-cha-cha to cynically point out alleged oxymorons and chuckle gleefully.  Here’s an obvious oxymoron, “joyfully unhappy,” and yet it is not a self-contradiction.  It is the recognition that strong cross currents of diametrically opposed emotions can exist at the same time and create a knife’s edge of indecision.  Dostoevsky would understand that—Raskolnikov is gripped by such a conflict through much of Crime and Punishment. As Ms. Runcible—a nonsensical character who might have sprung (spooned?) from Edward Lear’s poetry but instead slithered forth from Evelyn Waugh’s Vile Bodies—might remark, such shallow cynicism is oh, too shame-making.]

The Wolfe-Pack Watch
Apparently, I am not the only one amused by the literature-impaired gimp gang-tackle of Tom Wolfe’s latest book, I Am Charlotte Simmons. David Brooks, writing in yesterday’s New York Times has this to say:

It’s easy to write a negative review of a Tom Wolfe novel; hundreds of people do it every few years. First, out of the thousands of sociological details Wolfe gets right, you pick out some he gets wrong (thus establishing your superior hipness). You mention that he obsesses over the superficial details of life while you ignore his moral intent (thus hinting at your own superior depth). Then you graciously allow that many of Wolfe’s scenes are hilarious, while lamenting that his characters are not fully developed. Then you call it a day.

Bravo! Read the whole thing here.  Brooks makes the telling point that Wolfe is trying to describe what happens to intelligent people when confronted by the moral atomization of society.  As you might guess, it ain’t pretty.  Anyway, it’s nice to see a writer of the caliber of David Brooks coming to Wolfe’s defense. But don’t worry, I’ll try to keep track of the more amusing negative reviews for your sardonic delectation.

In the Land of Pain, Part II
Yesterday, I described the context and translation of In the Land of Pain by Alphonse Daudet.  Today, I wish to share a few of its bon mots.  Since this short work is something of a commonplace book on the author’s experiences of pain, a map of pain, as it were, the observations are necessarily fragmentary and incomplete.  The translator, Julian Barnes, does an able job of trying to link these entries together through his judicious use of footnotes.  Nonetheless, I think the poignancy of this work is mostly derived from its tentativeness, its sketchiness, its sense of exploring a dark and forbidding continent where no one returns.  In other words, it is the Baedeker’s to that pain and suffering unto death.  This may prove a comfort to some.  I have already alluded to the parallels between Daudet’s descriptions here concerning syphilis and the modern-day sufferers of AIDS.  In any event, here are a few of its observations I found particularly insightful:

-- ‘The illness of a neighbor is always a comfort and may even be a cure.’  A proverb from the Midi, the land of the sick.

--At night I wander the corridors and hear four o’clock strike, from all sorts of clocks and church towers, near and far, over a period of ten minutes.
Why doesn’t everyone keep the same time?  Various explanations occur to me. Essentially, our lives are so different one from the other, that it makes sense for the disparity to be symbolized in this way.

--Are words actually any use to describe what pain (or passion, for that matter) really feels like? Words only come when everything is over, when things have calmed down. They refer only to memory, and are either powerless or untruthful.

 --No general theory about pain. Each patient discovers his own, and the nature of pain varies, like a singer’s voice, according to the acoustics of the hall.

--My poor carcass is hollowed out, voided by anaemia. Pain echoes through it as a voice echoes in a house without furniture or curtains. There are days, long days, when the only part of me that’s alive is my pain.

--Coming back again and again to the same place, like the wall you stood against as a child and on which they marked your height. A quantifiable change every time. But whereas the marks on the wall always demonstrated growth, now there is only regression and diminution.

--The clever way death cuts us down, but makes it look like just thinning-out. Generations never fall with one blow—that would be too sad and too obvious. Death prefers to do it piecemeal. The meadow is attacked from several sides at the same time. One of us goes one day; another some time afterwards; you have to stand back and look around you to take in what’s missing, to grasp the vast slaughter of your generation.

I think that’s enough ruminating on pain, for now.  Daudet, as one can see, was a very sensitive instrument. Near the end, he used his pain and transformed it into a source for doing good, as a way of showing that he was the master of his illness.  Daudet felt that illness should be treated as an unwanted visitor, and, to the extent possible, ignored.  In another sense, however, it must always be kept in view as a reminder of mortality, so as to spur the sufferer to constant efforts of self improvement, both for himself and others.  And that, perhaps, is Daudet’s greatest gift to us.

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November  16,  2004

Patrick: Lagniappe

The result was that the people who came to their cocktail parties, at which Nancy served good hors d’oeuvre and rather poor cocktails, were presentable radicals and unpresentable conservatives—men in radio, men in advertising, lawyers with liberal ideas, publishers, magazine editors, writers of a certain status who lived in the country. Every social assertion Nancy and Jim made carried its own negation with it, like the Hegelian thesis. Thus it was always being said by Nancy that someone was a Communist but a terribly nice man, while Jim was remarking that somebody else worked for Young and Rubicam but was astonishingly liberal. Every guest was a sort of qualified statement, and the Barnetts’ parties, in consequence, were a little dowdy, a little timid, in a queer way (for they were held in Greenwich Village) a little suburban.
--The Company She Keeps by Mary McCarthy

In the Land of Pain
Okay, I just attacked short fiction; and now I’m going to heartily recommend a very short book.  Ah, Patrick, thy name is fickle.  So be it . Anyhoo, I have just finished a quite curious work by one of the Nineteenth-Century’s second-tier French authors, Alphonse Daudet.  Daudet is little known, now.  But in his time, he was a well-beloved author, thought of in the same company as Zola and the Brothers Goncourt.  Then he sickened and died—struck down by the great sexual disease of that century, it’s AIDS epidemic: syphilis.  Lots of literary greats suffered from it such as Flaubert, Heine, Jules Goncourt and Maupassant (who, allegedly, saw the contraction of syphilis as a sign of virility and would gleefully inform his bedded prostitutes of this fact—an eerie parallel to the Canadian pilot described in Shilts’s And the Band Played On).  The disease itself was hidden under various guises of medical terminology (just like AIDS, where one dies of pneumonia or cancer, not the dreaded acronym).  In those times, one did not have syphilis, one had ataxia, or tabes dorsalis or, even, rheumatism.  I always thought a good book could be written on the strange parallels between syphilis then and AIDS today and to compare and contrast how society treated the victims of each.  In my opinion, Nineteenth-Century Europe was in some ways much more humane, what with setting up resorts and thermal stations for the sick to go and expose their pain-wracked bodies to the curative powers of hot springs and mud baths (think here of the retreat for Hans Castorp and his relation in Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain).  And Parisian society did not shun one as a diseased sexual leper—rather, as Daudet ruefully observes, Paris shunned one for being plain sick and not part of the interesting, fashionable beau monde. Oh well, each era has its own peculiar prejudices as well as its own peculiar diseases.

The disease of syphilis struck Daudet in his teens; and he lived with it for decades.  As its symptoms advanced, he hit upon the idea of documenting this cartography of crumbling decay in a book he tentatively titled, In the Land of Pain.  As one might guess, the pain drained his creative powers, so that the book never advanced past the stage of a sheaf of notes.  Then Daudet died, and the notes remained just that . . . notes [ACE].  Well, about a century later, along comes another remarkable writer, Julian Barnes, he of Flaubert’s Parrot.  As one might guess from that title, Barnes, a great writer in his own right, is intrigued by the literary culture of Nineteenth-Century France (one might argue that Barnes is infatuated by it).  In any event, he decides to translate the notes and so we have this curious little book.

Curious, and remarkable, as well.  It used to be quite common for contemporary writers to translate the great works of earlier writers.  It was a way, I suppose, that, as Newton might put it, the contemporary could pay homage to “standing on the shoulders of giants.”  Perhaps the most striking example of this loving labor would be Alexander Pope’s remarkable translations of Homer (or, better yet, variations on a theme by Homer).  Such is rarely done today.  My guess is because modern writers are mostly poor, clumping monoglots (J’accuse!—Zola might say pointing his stubby finger in my face; guilty as charged).  Which might explain, in part, why modern British writers, such as Barnes, tend to be better writers overall than American ones.  They have delved into other languages—that is, other ways of thinking, of seeing all of nature—and it is this multiplicity of viewpoints which adds texture, and, yes, complexity, to their works.  It is no coincidence that great linguists, Conrad, Nabokov, etc., also make great writers.  They must, by necessity, have access to ideas and concepts that are completely walled off to those of us simple monoglots.  For example, the Germans have a term, volk, which sort of means something like the English term, folk, but it also has lots of connotations that concern race and heritage which are difficult to grasp without being immersed in that language. And, it is only when one is immersed in that language, that one can appreciate how these ideas of heritage and race are woven into the very fabric of speech itself.  Which makes it more understandable how a movement like the Nazis could infect what was believed to be the most advanced liberal civilization at its time. The civilization might have been advanced, but the language, as encapsulated in that simple word, volk, was not.

All this twaddle about civilization and language is meant to highlight Barnes’s achievement with respect to his translation of In the Land of Pain.  It is, certainly, a wonderful translation.  But it is so much more, too.  We have Barnes, the author, constantly breaking into the text through clever footnotes (if anything, they remind me of the sardonic comments made by Gibbons at the bottom of his august pages; for example: at one point, Barnes points out that a spa where Daudet stayed was championed by his doctor, Charcot, who was known to find the Germans “annoying,” and so, “[i]n 1944, the Germans annoyingly removed his bronze bust from the top of the Fountain; it was eventually replaced by a stone replica in 1955”; how droll).  Barnes also has written an introduction, an afterword, and a fascinating note on syphilis.  So, in the final analysis, Barnes has created a new work of art, a joint production between Daudet, the syphilitic author, and Barnes, his modern translator.  This, to me, is the highest calling of a translator:  To not just render an earlier work in a foreign language true—but new, as well.  I would like to think that Alexander Pope is smiling down upon Barnes who need not worry of his inclusion in the heavenly Dunciad.

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November  15,  2004

Patrick: Lagniappe

‘You know, Al,’ he would say, twisting his head upwards and to one side in the characteristic American gesture of a man who is giving a problem serious thought (the old salt or the grizzled Yankee farmer scanning the sky for weather indications), ‘you know, Al, I never thought so at College, but the Communists have something.  Their methods over here are a little operatic, but you can’t get around their analysis of capitalism.  I think the system is finished, and it’s up to us to be ready for the new thing when it comes.’  And Al, or whoever it was, would be doubtful but impressed.  He might even go home with a copy of the Communist Manifesto in his pocket—in that period, the little socialist classic enjoyed something of the popularity of Reader’s Digest: it put the whole thing in a nutshell, let a fellow like Al know just what he was up against.  Later that evening Al might remark to his wife that maybe it would be a good idea (didn’t she think?) to lay in a stock of durable consumers’ goods—in case, oh, in case of inflation, or revolution, or anything like that.  His wife would interpret this in terms of cans and leave a big order for Heinz’s baked beans, Campbell’s tomato soup, and somebody else’s chicken á la king with the grocer the next day.  This was the phenomenon known as the dissemination of ideas.
--The Company She Keeps by Mary McCarthy

[N.B.: Yes, yes, I know this passage is dated—but that is what gives it its charm.  It also serves as a hook for explaining my disagreement with Martin Amis in his recent work, Koba the Dread. There, he bemoans the fact that we make jokes about communists instead of seriously contemplating the horrors wrought by Stalin & Co.  He notes that we do not make such jokes about the Nazis.  I agree about the jokes, but draw the exact opposite conclusions.  We joke about the communists because they are figures of derision and foolishness. No one would go home today with a worried frown and read the Communist Manifesto except for its unintentional humor—“Didja see this Al, ‘Workers of the world unite, you have nothing to lose but your chains,’ yeah, and your roadster, third wife, hot tub and Vegas getaways.”  The Nazis, on the other hand, are another matter.  We used to make fun of them—remember Hogan’s Heroes; heck, remember Mel Brooks’ The Producers, with “Springtime for Hitler.”  Brooks knew how to treat Der Füehrer—like a chump, a sap, a worthless ass that no one in his right mind would ever follow down the street, let alone down the wide path of destruction.  Sure, The Producers is a huge Broadway hit today, but it was first a movie produced in 1968, about the same time as Hogan’s Heroes.  Would even Mel Brooks dare to write The Producers today?  I hope he would.  I have the sinking feeling, though, that the aura of power has returned to the Nazis.  And that Hitler is no longer seen as a chump, a sap, a worthless ass.  But he should be.]

Poor Little Short Story: I Just Want to be Loved. Is that so Wrong?
Yes.  It is.  Okay, that's just the teeniest bit fatuous, but stick with me to the end because my complaint might just have a point.  Yesterday, I enthused about Jonathan Franzen’s book review in the New York Times Review of Books (“NYTRB”) about Alice Munro.  In the course of describing why she should be more widely read, besides the insignificant fact that she “has a strong claim to being the best fiction writer now working in North America” (that’s “North America” to you, bumpkin, not the United States, because she’s Canadian; and one wouldn’t want to be merely the best Canadian fiction writer, why that’s like being the best Albanian fiction writer—to which slighting remark Ismail Kadare pipes up like Oliver Twist confronting the beadle, Mr. Bumble, “Hey, Bub, don’t forget me”; ooops, good point, okay, best Las Vegas fiction writer; there, I should be safe now), Munro also is the greatest living practitioner of the short story, for certain hazy, gauzy reasons which need not detain us here; suffice it to say, that they include things like “compelling contemporary fiction” and “gestaltlike” [N.B.: the review does not include those other two literary-critical German buzzwords, schadenfreude and gesamptkunstwerk; perhaps I should start a side project on this blog called the Modern Literary Over-Used Words Dictionary (“M’LOUWD,” for short)]. And if she is the greatest living short story writer, then she must be the greatest living writer—at least in all of North America, Tijuana included—because “the most exciting fiction written in the last 25 years . . . has been short fiction.”

Wrong. Dead wrong. But first, why would anyone, even a good, but not great, writer like Franzen, make such a claim?  Well, first off, he’s got some powerful back-up artillery.  Ever heard of a little badge of honor called the National Book Awards?  I blogged on them recently because all the nominees hailed from Manhattan, just like the judges, so you do the math.  But that is neither here nor there.  What I didn’t mention about the nominees which has since been emphasized, most recently by Laura Miller in this week's NYTBR, is that all of them have written so-called “novels” which are really short fiction in disguise. You know what I mean: a “novel in stories,” a linked group of short stories (like Mary McCarthy’s wonderful debut, The Company She Keeps) or a slim, big-margin novella stretched out by typeset trickery to look weighty enough to pass itself off like a novel (sort of like a middle-weight boxer guzzling a bunch of water before weigh-in to pass for a heavy-weight).  Over at the New York Review of Books, in the October 21, 2004 issue, a similar claim is made by Diane Johnson reviewing Julian Barnes’s latest work, The Lemon Table, a new collection of short stories all linked by the leitmotif of aging and the aged (I love Barnes and would highly recommend anything he has written).  She notes, “in the hands of the greatest short story writers, the form has the weight and complexity of a novel.”  She then lists the usual suspects Munro, Updike, Hemingway, etc.  So Franzen is in good company.

Please, don’t misunderstand me, there’s nothing wrong with the genre of the short story.  I love short stories myself (uh, oh, whenever someone says in a self-defensive way, “I love. . .” as surely as night follows day or the Jester follows King Lear, a “but” is in the near future) but to claim that is the spot to look for today’s great fiction is like going to a wildcatter’s truck looking for oil in the middle of an oil-field.  Yes, oil is there—but you’re missing the gushers.

So why is Franzen trying to siphon oil out of the short story’s gas tank? He gives an interesting, and, at least on its face, not implausible reason, although Franzen gets muddled up in expressing it:  In the hands of a great master of the genre, through the wizardry of compression, one can describe “the size of a whole life” and “things within things,” and, although, admittedly unstated but nonetheless to be understood, one can do so just as well as one working in a longer genre such as a novel.  It is this unstated premise that is dead wrong.  Of course, if I’m misinterpreting Franzen’s viewpoint, please forgive me.  But, why else can one claim that a short-story writer, of all things, can be the greatest North American writer?  Or that the best of fiction is now in the short form? Such claims seem to indicate the existence of this unstated premise.

Pace Franzen and Johnson, short stories simply cannot have the “weight and complexity of a novel” if one is comparing apples to apples.  That is, the very best short stories must be compared against the very best novels.  Think of the literary giants: Homer, Herodotus, Thucydides, Virgil, Dante, Milton, Cervantes, Rabelais, Shakespeare, Goethe, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Melville, Dickens.  Now think of the great practitioners of short fiction: Chekhov, Poe, E. T. A. Hoffman, Gogol, Kafka.  If one had to obliterate a genre from the face of the earth, which would you choose?  The answer is obvious, but needs further explanation. Perhaps a musical analogy will help.

With respect to musical composition, I love Chopin’s etudes. But, historically, the mark of a great composer is the one who has the ability to wrestle with that most dangerous of monsters, the symphony.  Why is that?  Because the latter may encompass the former.  Further, given that music, is, in part, the unfolding of complexity over time, since symphonies take longer to unfold, they can be more complex.  That does not mean that one cannot derive greater enjoyment from an etude.  But it does mean that, as a whole, the symphony constitutes a genre of greater complexity, and hence, the composer of same will produce more complex works of art that are more likely to withstand the test of time.  It is complexity to includes legions, as Whitman might say.  Those legions tend to be a requisite for immortality.  Of course, there are exceptions like Chopin.  I would not want to lose him.  But if the choice of banishment was between the symphony and the etude, only the fatuous and perverse would save the latter and chuck the former.  Yes, I would lose the etudes of Chopin, but I would preserve the symphonies of Beethoven, Brahms, Dvorak, Schubert, Tchaikovsky, Bruckner, Mahler, etc.  These are the colossi astride the musical world.

So it is with the practitioners of the novel and the short story.  Certainly, one can reach great heights with the short story, but it can be subsumed within the novel. Think here of Cervantes with his interpolated stories within Don Quixote.  Better yet, think upon the brooding, restless figure of Ivan Karamazov in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov and his parable, The Grand Inquisitor.  Again, I love my Chekhov.  But to somehow try to equate him with these works is perverse.  A short story does not have the scope to allow for the unfolding of complexity over time that a novel, in the hands of its greatest practitioners, is capable of doing.  The scenes of battle in Crane’s Red Badge of Courage are some of the greatest ever put down on paper and that novella may stand as the greatest work of fiction on the Civil War.  But it pales in comparison to Tolstoy’s War and Peace and its battlefield scenes.  Again, Tolstoy is painting on a larger canvas. But that, paradoxically, might be just the problem in today’s age.

We are an age that loves the small canvas, the simple work. In the National Gallery in Washington, D. C., resides one of the great jewels contained within any North American museum (hat tip to Franzen), that being Bellini’s Feast of the Gods (with the sky and mountainous background sketched in by some light-weight by the name of Titian).  This huge, sprawling canvas showing the Gods cavorting about at a feast in the guise of plain mortals is so complex, so difficult, and yet, so ethereal and loving, that one loses one’s breath gazing upon it.  It is so complex, almost too complex.  But it draws one to it again and again, to discover some new detail, some intricate interplay of form, color or composition.  And yet, when I visit the National Gallery, I usually have this painting to myself, with the odd, casual stroller stopping to look at it for a few seconds—simply, I suspect, because it’s so darn-tootin’ big—and then moving on.  But I can’t squeeze in edge-wise to see the National Gallery’s tiny Vermeers.  Those glowing jewels that wink and beckon.  Today, I suspect, the small etudes are what the public craves.

And maybe it is the etude that appeals to today’s book critic.  Perhaps such a critic is overworked, overtaxed, and does not have the time or energy to spend waiting for complexity to unfold.  Of course, being human, one will not admit to the venal fault of impatience or disinterest, or even, perhaps, the more mortal sin of accidie (the sin of spiritual sloth).  So, the fault must be with the work, not the reader:  I can’t find any good novels being written in the last 25 years, so I have no choice but to turn to short fiction.  And, hey buddy, I have no trouble following this short story.  It’s quick.  And fast.  And easy.  Yes, and McDonald’s french fries certainly are tasty.  But I still will not give up Coq au Vin.

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November  14,  2004

Patrick: Lagniappe

And how fond Pflaumen was of talking about loyalty! ‘It’s the only thing I expect of my friends,’ he would say, sententiously. Loyalty, you now perceived, meant that Pflaumen should never be left out of anything. He was like an x that you can never drop out of an equation no matter how many times you multiply it or add to it this side of infinity. All at once, you saw how he could be generous and humble and look predatory at the same time; the hawklike mouth was not deceptive, for he was a true bird of prey: he did not demand any of the trifles that serve as coin in the ordinary give-and-take of social intercourse; he wanted something bigger, he wanted part of your life.
--The Company She Keeps by Mary McCarthy


A Good Good Book Review

It seems that the New York Times Book Review ("NYTBR") is dead set on making me eat lots of crow.  So let's pile up the plate with tasty beaks and feathers.  Last week I ruminated on David Foster Wallace's enlightening bad book review from NYTBR on Borges.  This week, it's DFW's friend's turn, Jonathan Franzen (DFW was an early and enthusiastic fan of Franzen's huge literary hit, The Corrections; Franzen in the book review here plugs DFW's new book of short stories, Oblivion), who has written NYTBR's cover review of the Canadian writer Alice Munro's new collection of short stories, Runaway

I think Franzen is a good, competent writer.  He does not have a memorable writing style, like Wolfe [Wolfe-Bashing Watch Alert:   Although Wolfe has not published a novel in six years, the current New Yorker does not bother to give him a full-length bad review but instead dismisses him as one--although, admittedly, the first--of four short capsule reviews that appear each week on a single page as the "Briefly Noted" feature.  The other three reviews are generally favorable, while the review of Wolfe, unsigned 'natch, describes his "latest novel, his third, is the weakest--saddled with the familiar leery terminology . . . but containing no news more startling than that college students are erotically overheated and intellectually distracted."  Actually, the third novel takes on the massive project of describing the decline of masculinity and documenting what has replaced it.]  Franzen, though, is mildly inventive and his book review, although not as entertaining or as enlightening as DFW's, is still well worth reading.

Given that Franzen is not a great writer, one cannot expect dazzling fireworks from him.  But he does give it the ol' creative-writing try, by using the tired but, for me, at least, still entertaining, literary device of the list.  Franzen gives his top eight reasons (how come eight, probably because ten would seem noticeably cliched--Letterman, where's your lawyer?) why Munro should be read.  I have a confession to make here:  although I own several Munro books, I have not yet read her.  The fact that she writes only in short stories is a bit daunting.  There are a couple of writers known primarily for their short stories, Gogol and Poe, and more recently, V. S. Pritchett and William Trevor.  But they have also written longer pieces, too.   Munro, I believe, never has--just short stories.  That's not a good sign for a major writer.

And yet, Franzen describes her not just as a major writer, but as a writer having "a strong claim to being the best fiction writer now working in North America."  The first reason he gives for reading Munro is that her "work is all about storytelling pleasure."  That's fine and good.  I'm currently reading The Collected Tales of Nikolai Gogol (translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky)Gogol's tales are wildly--one might say, maniacally--inventive and intricate.  His language, as rendered by what I consider two of the greatest living translators, Pevear and Volokhonsky (and, yes, they are husband and wife) bubbles forth in an all-encompassing froth of irrelevant detail and side-long observations.  He stops and starts and then veers off here and there, sometimes in service of the plot, sometimes just to enjoy the view of where he may be going.  One gets the sense with Gogol that he did not have a clue where his stories might take him and was riding along with the reader in his souped-up short-story jalopy.  Indeed, Gogol never could find the end of his novel, Lost Souls.  So, is Munro like this? 

Apparently not.  We are told that Munro writes about people.  This is taken as a great compliment.  I suppose it is.  If she had chosen to write instead about lint and fuzz-balls I doubt anyone would regard her as the greatest living North American writer.  Franzen's point is that she doesn't write historical bodice-rippers.  So what?  That's taken for granted.  Okay then, Mr. Smarty-pants, she also doesn't write about grandiose, self-important topics with titles like "Canadian Pastoral" or "Canadian Psycho."  Well, from that crack I can tell you don't like Bret Easton Ellis or Philip Roth.  But, again, this tells us what Munro doesn't do.  What does she do that makes her such a great writer?

Now we come to the lick-log:  Munro is a great writer because, in Franzen's view, the best fiction written in the last 25 years is short fiction; and Munro is the best writer of such short fiction (Franzen reels off a list of living short-story writers he admires and tellingly leaves off T. C. Boyle and William Trevor, the two who have the best chance of surviving; uh-oh, danger, danger Will Robinson: possible Pen Envy spotted).  Munro is the best writer because even though she writes about the same subject over and over again--"a bright, sexually avid girl grows up in rural Ontario without much money . . . ."--she does so with the sense of complexity that makes up life and makes this point through a "gestaltlike completeness in the representation of a life."  And, like a magician pulling a vacuum cleaner from his hat, she does this all within the confined space of a short story.  This is a very interesting point.  I think it is dead wrong.   But, as I pointed out before, the reviewer does not have to be correct--just be interesting and articulate a thesis that makes the reader think, for a change.  Franzen accomplishes this task admirably.

Let's wait for the next post on why I think he is wrong.

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November  13,  2004

Patrick: Lagniappe

He clapped his hands twice in pantomime and gave you a long, ironic smile. You bent your head and blushed, and, though you were excited, your heart sank. You knew that you were not a violent Trotskyist, and Erdman must know it too. It was just that you were temperamentally attracted to unpopular causes: when you were young, it had been the South, the Dauphin, Bonnie Prince Charlie; later it was Debs and now Trotsky that you loved. You admired this romantic trait in yourself and you would confess humorously: ‘All I have to do is be for somebody and he loses.’  Now it came to you that perhaps this was just another way of showing off, of setting yourself apart from the run of people. Your eyes began to fill with tears of shame; you felt like Peter in the Garden, but yours was, you knew, the greater blasphemy: social pressure had made Peter deny the Master; it had made you affirm him—it was the difference between plain and fancy cowardice.
--The Company She Keeps by Mary McCarthy

[N.B.: my spell-checker did not recognize the word “Trotskyist”; what a shame. And who still has a sentimental tear to shed for plodding old Eugene Debs? The South has now risen and Bonnie Prince Charlie is in cahoots with a frumpy handbag of a superannuated party girl.  Where are our romantic Lost Causes? Oh, yeah, reading literature; there you’ll come a cropper.]


Ranking the Novels of Dickens, Part II
I think Dickens is an almost uncanny in his ability to generate another world that looks something like this world, clearly is not, and yet still feels as complex and alive as our own.  Each book is a self-contained excursion into this Realm of Dickens.  The laws of coincidence have no bearing here; indeed, there are irrelevant since the preeminent value is placed on characters and how they interact with one another.  Each character, even if he or she appears for only a paragraph or two, has intrinsic interest (certainly not the case with the run-of-the-mill personages we tend to meet on a daily basis).  And they all operate within a phantasmagoria of bizarre props, bumping off the scenery and one another willy-nilly.  For me, at least, it is these self-contained worlds, these near-but-not-near illusions of reality, that draw me again and again to Dickens.  He is no realist. Not even a naturalist.  But, who cares.  Now, on with the list:

8) Oliver Twist—Yes, yes, I know this is many folks’ personal favorite.  But the eponymous character, Oliver, is nothing more than a cipher or chess piece moved around to illuminate the fantastic, dream-like world described in the book.  Also, there’s the problematic Fagin character.   Of course, there’s a lot of fun here, too; what, with Mr. Bumble and “the law is an ass”; the corrupted and corrupting man-child, Artful Dodger (who is treated too sympathetically in modern renditions); Nancy and Bill Sikes.  The interactions between the last two characters probably constitute the darkest, most horrifying, episodes in any of Dickens’ works.  Overall, a pleasant, sunny read, but with a few thunderheads.

9) Hard Times—this is by far the shortest of Dickens’ novels and, if not for its unremitting bleakness, might serve as a good introduction for the Dickens neophyte.  Even though this is a short work—for Dickens—it tackles two intractable issues that still speak to us today: the baleful effects of industrialization (the haunting scenes set around Coketown will stay with the reader for a long time) and utilitarianism (particularly when introduced into a school setting).  There are no particularly memorable characters here, other than the two antagonists (not quite villains), Gradgrind and Mr. Bounderby.  Have you ever noticed how Dickens’ villains tend to be much more life-like than his heroes? Be honest now, don’t you really like the Old Scrooge much better than the New-and-Improved Scrooge?

10) Martin Chuzzlewit—You thought Hard Times was bleak?; well, wait ‘til you pick up this tome.  This early work into the dark underbelly of mankind scared Dickens back into the light due to a marked drop-off in subscriptions (remember, all of his novels were serialized) as the work progressed.  Here we fine the despicable Chuzzlewit family, which has not left our eponymous hero untainted.  If you are looking for character development (as opposed to just seeing the full-formed mannikins beat against one another) this might be the work for you.  Martin, gasp, actually matures through the work (sort of like Pip in Great Expectations).  Oh, and the greatest hypocrite throughout all of literature resides in these pages:  Mr. Pecksniff.  Americans might particularly wish to look into this book since it is the only one of Dickens’ novels that has his characters journeying to America; and a good chunk of the plot takes place there.  Be warned, Dickens thought we were a bunch of back-woods, violent, bible-thumpers and credulous rubes.  See how much European opinion has changed since then?

11) Nicholas Nickleby—This is the most theatrical of Dickens’ novels.  Dickens loved the theater, and, some have argued, his love of the footlights indirectly caused his early death from exhaustion.  In any event, this is a light, comedic treatment of the adventures of our eponymous hero (a bit repetitive, no?) as he journeys from being a school teacher under the thumb of the delightfully buffoonish Squears to acting with a traveling troupe of players.  Dickens' mother served as the model for Nicholas's mother.  A light-hearted romp.

12) The Old Curiosity Shop—In Dickens’ lifetime, this was one of his most popular novels, spawning the war-horse chestnut [N.B.: when I mixes my metaphors, they stays fixed] about flocks of desperate American readers crowding the New York docks as a late installment is coming by boat into the harbor and yelling out to the befuddled captain, “Did Little Nell die?” Yes, Virginia, she is as dead as a door nell . . . err . . . nail.  Before we kick the dirt upon her, I should point out that the book features a remarkable villain, the large dwarf, Quilp [N.B.: yet another un-oxymoronic oxymoron; let's call them from now on: un-ox]. The psychological portrait of this individual, is, in my opinion, unmatched by any of Dickens’ other efforts.

13) The Pickwick Papers—I am disconcerted to see that I have put this novel near the bottom of the list.  But, remember, I think all of Dickens’ novels are worth reading.  In any event, this was Dickens’ first whack at the novel form and it shows.  There are interpolated short stories throughout (Dickens loved Cervantes’ Don Quixote and was probably tracing out that master’s footsteps). Anyway, such interpolations, although fairly well crafted, are still annoying. There are two great characters here: Mr. Pickwick and Sam Weller.  Also, the Christmas scenes in the country are immortal.  Enjoy.

14) A Tale of Two Cities—Why this pot-boiler was forced down the throats of captive school children at one time, I’ll never know. This ponderous and preposterous work (the plot turns on a set of identical twins, fer cryin’ out loud) was written when Dickens was in thrall to Thomas Carlyle’s French Revolution, which, by the bye, is a neglected classic that I guess I'll need to write about soon. Warning: don’t thrall and write.

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November  12,  2004

Kathryn: Didja Miss Me? and Anthony Lane Again

Took a few days to, um, get over the election. Or perhaps I have been merely lazy. Sometimes it’s hard to tell whether apathy is a sign of socially significant worry and dismay or simply our old friend indolence. Also, I’ve been focusing my paltry literary efforts on finishing Cloud Atlas, which seems to have been telescoping a bit as I progress through it. Now within fifty pages of the end, I’m still waiting to find out what I think and will write when the novel has digested a little, assuming digestion is warranted.

Several days ago I mentioned that the New Yorker was sending its genius movie critic Anthony Lane to our humble city. A couple of days ago I sneaked out of work early and drove across town to attend his screening of The Lady Eve, an engaging screwball comedy starring Barbara Stanwyck and Henry Fonda. By the bye, the director, Preston Sturges, got some hilarious bits past the censors; see it not at home a la Netflix (and don’t get me wrong; I love Netflix) but in a communal setting. Movies like this are best appreciated in a room full of people laughing out loud. Mr. Lane spoke before and after the film.

If you get a chance to see Mr. Lane, do. Here, have some utterly uselessly random observations (and there’s still some Halloween candy left if you’d like that, too): He is young, gracious, English, and profoundly witty. And he warmed the crusty heart cockles of at least one editor in the room by declaring “I don’t like writing. I like rewriting. It seems to be the great fun in life.”


Patrick: Lagniappe

You were for him, you discovered, the perfect object of charity, poor, but not bedraggled, independent, stubborn, frivolous, thankless and proud.  He could pity you, deplore you, denounce you, display you, be kind to you, be hurt by you, forgive you.  He could, in fact, run through his whole stock of feelings with you.  A more grateful beneficiary would have given him no exercise for his masochistic emotions; a more willing one would have left his sadism unsatisfied. He was not going to let you go if he could help it.  You stood to him in the relation of Man to God, embraced in an eternal neurotic mystery compounded out of His infinite goodness and your guilt.
--The Company She Keeps by Mary McCarthy

Ranking the Novels of Dickens, Part I
Warning, this post is for amusement purposes only and should not be read while driving heavy farm machinery.  It’s purely an idiosyncratic post retailing my opinion on how I rate the novels of Dickens.  I’ll follow this post with another containing an idiosyncratic list of which of his novels might have a particular interest to different types of readers.  I realize I’m a bit of an odd bird in having read all of his novels—which should clue you in that I like them all and don’t consider any of them unworthy of being read today.  But, as is true for everything under the sun, there’s great novels and then there’s great novels.  So, this is how I’d rank them, with my own peculiar reasons:

1) Our Mutual Friend—Dickens’s last finished novel concerns the decay of society and human relations in London as personified by the “Golden Dustman,” i.e., the big boss in charge of the dump.  DeLillo makes use of this same theme in The Underworld where everything turns to soot, although he was beaten to the punch by Dickens about 150 years ago—plus Dickens actually has well-rounded characters in the place of the micro-thin cut-outs moved about by Delillo for his personal pleasure (which, apparently, consists of going to baseball games and shooting up heroin).  This novel has the famous opening of the midnight boatman patrolling the refuse of the Thames for dead bodies he can rob.  It also contains the most fully fleshed female character that Dickens breathed life into: Bella Wilfer.  Also, the boatman’s daughter, Lizzie Hexam, walks among us as a living, breathing creature, not a mere pasteboard cutout. Here, Dickens finally figured out female characters. Too bad his end was near. A late masterpiece by the great master. But, be warned, there are a number of people that can’t stand this book and think it a particularly dull effort by Dickens (you can guess what I might think of such critics).

2) Bleak House—How can one go wrong with a murder mystery wrapped within a systematic attack on the legal profession?  This is the one that has it all: a great plot, great characters (the menagerie of lawyers alone is worth the price of admission), great atmosphere and a great structure (basically, a vortex centered around the Chancery court and its doppelganger, the rag and bone shop).  A wonderful, wonderful book which is typically cited as Dickens’ greatest masterpiece.

3) Great Expectations—this is probably what most Dickens fans would regard as their favorite novel.  It’s easy to see why, with the characters of Gargery, Pip, Maggs, and the rest of the crew.  And who can’t cheer for the plucky Pip against the likes of Estella and Miss Havisham?  The book is both light and dark (as opposed to Bleak House and Our Mutual Friend, which are basically, dark and darker).  Plus the British movie of this book is probably the best cinematic treatment of a Dickens novel.

4) Dombey & Son—just as Bleak House is a running indictment of the legal profession, Dombey & Son serves the same purpose for the business executive. Mr. Dombey’s great sin is pride; and it is that pride which almost destroys himself and all those around him.  The book is full of clever parallels and leit motivs regarding the world of business, with a Mr. Dombey doppelganger in the form of an “unsuccessful” businessman, Solomon Gills, just like the head of Chancery and the rag-and-bone shop proprietor in Bleak House. This book is considered the start of Dickens’ second great period of darker, more difficult and mature works.

5) Little Dorritt—expanding upon the theme of Dombey & Son, this book concerns the corrupting influence of money itself and how it warps the personalities of all that come in contact with it.  It also concerns the corrupting influence of government in the form of the famous Circumlocution Office.  The book features a very modern-day villain, Mr. Merdle, the great businessman cum swindler. Another seedy character, William Dorritt, Little Dorrit’s father, is also Father of the Marshalsea, the debtor’s prison where the family resides.  Little Dorritt is, in part, a powerful indictment of this institution.  As you may have guessed, William Dorritt was partly modeled on Dickens’s father.

6) David Copperfield—speaking of characters modeled on members of Dickens’s family, who can neglect David Copperfield, what, with the hero himself modeled on Dickens and Mr. Wilkins Micawber the most famous character based on Dickens’s father.  Given the semi-autobiographical nature of this work, the book is a bit of James’s “baggy monster” (indeed, another great author, Robert Graves, whom I will blog about at excessive length I am sure, published a condensation of this work, The Real David Copperfield).  But the characters are wonderful: the most ‘umblest of villains, Uriah Heep; the sensible nurse, Peggotty, and her suitor, Mr. Barkis, who provides the most curt wedding proposal of all time through a third party, “Barkis is willing.”  A delightful, but flawed, book.

7) Barnaby Rudge—probably the most obscure of Dickens’s major works, and how unfortunate. The theme here, religious intolerance, is of particular modern interest.  It is one of only two overtly historical works by Dickens (the other being a Tale of Two Cities, which I consider by far the worst of Dickens’s novels).  This one concerns Gordon’s anti-pope riots in London during the eighteenth century.  Dickens writes in almost a hallucinatory prose as he describes the swirling of the London mob as it engulfs all before it.  Those scenes alone ensure that this work will endure.

Well, that’s about half way through Dickens’s novels. Let’s save the bottom half for the next post.

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November  11,  2004

Patrick: Lagniappe

[Y]ou had become an expert at discovering and pointing out some trifling flaw that in no way invalidated the whole, a prop that was out of place, a coat that wrinkled imperceptibly across the shoulders, sleeves that were a quarter of an inch too short on a dress, a foreground that seemed a little crowded.  Once you had made your criticism, everybody would be very happy.  It was a form of exorcism; some minor or totally imaginary error is noted and corrected, symbolically, as it were, with the idea that all real and major imperfections have thereby been dealt with—as if by casting out some impudent small devil you had routed Beelzebub himself.
--The Company She Keeps by Mary McCarthy

A Great World War II Novel
My nomination for a great World War II novel is actually a disguised triple-decker: Evelyn Waugh’s Sword of Honor trilogy.  I know, I know, I have condemned such prolix works in the past, such as Farrell’s Studs Lonigan, as being unfit for long-term survival.  But such works as Studs Lonigan are indeed prolix to a fault—they go on, and on, and on . . . . [ACE].  Waugh, on the other hand, is, at bottom, a sour-pussed satirist who understands that compression and brevity are the sires of wit.  My guess is that word-for-word, the Sword of Honor trilogy, composed of the individual books, Men at Arms, Officers and Gentlemen, and The End of the Battle, is actually shorter than a middling Charles Dickens novel.  Quite a bit of the work is composed of dialogue—Waugh is one of the modern masters of this literary art, indeed, his work, Vile Bodies, is probably the first published instance where conversation over the telephone plays an integral part in the novel (so take that, Vox).  [N.B.: speaking of Vox and Vile Bodies (quite the coincidence both titles start with “V”—not to mention Pychon’s V.), it seems to me that an interesting book could be written about novels that contain the “first” use of certain literary conventions, with, Don Quixote, as in everything else, taking pride of place; perhaps I’ll blog a bit more about this later].

So what makes the Sword of Honor trilogy a great World War II novel?  First, let’s set the ground rules.  Any great-anything novel will have to meet the basic requirements for greatness in a novel, as I have alluded to last week, that is: artistry, complexity, style and character (obviously, not all of these elements need to be present, but, conversely, if they are present the work should last—or at least be in my soon-to-be-exhumed Tomb of the Unforgivably Unknown Authors).  Let’s start with the last, first: The Sword of Honor trilogy features a great central character, Guy Crouchback, the desiccated descendant of an ancient European family of Catholic lineage.  He is destined to be the last of his line (although it is quite amusing how this occurs).  The extinction of his line, writ small, is the extinction of Christendom exemplified by the triumph of Barbarism in the forms of Nazism and Bolshevism.  Through it all, however, one institution survives, that old sly fox, the Catholic Church (Waugh was part of the Twentieth-Century British Catholic Literary Renaissance).  Here’s a key passage near the end of the last volume right after a stray bomb has, almost bashfully, wiped out all of Crouchback’s close personal connections:

When Guy left the presbytery he turned into the adjoining church. It was a building with the air of antiquity which no one but a specialist could hope to date. No doubt there had been a church here from early times. No doubt parts of that structure survived. Meanwhile it had been renovated and repainted and adorned and despoiled, neglected and cosseted through the centuries. Once when Begoy was a watering place it had enjoyed seasons of moderately rich patronage. Now it had reverted to its former use. There was at that moment a peasant woman in the local antiquated costume, kneeling upright on the stones before the side-altar, her arms extended, making no doubt her thanksgiving for Communion.

Obviously, the church is a symbol for the Church. Even though Guy and Europe’s Christian culture is destined to be wiped away (see the recent EU Constitution which omits any mention of Christianity), Catholicism abides.  This, of course, is probably not a particularly agreeable theme for many people.  It is, however, brilliantly played out with much color and variation throughout the work.  So, that should take care of complexity and artistry.  As for style, you just have to take my word for it that Waugh is one of literature’s great stylists.

Well, we’ve covered the basic ground rules—but what makes a novel a great novel about World War II?  Perhaps the best way to think about this is to discern what makes any novel a great novel about the conflict it covers.  As I mentioned earlier, that conflict should not be a mere back drop for the story (even though the work itself might be a great novel in its own right, such as Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair, not a work, I hazard to guess, that most people would think of as a novel about World War II).  Instead, the novel should help to illuminate the greater spiritual/artistic/economic/political/whatever forces the conflict of which led to the actual physical conflict at issue.  So, with World War I, an author may view the class-conflict as embodying that horrific conflagration—thus, All Quiet on the Western Front (of course, I am simplifying, but please, allow me some telescopic brevity in order to keep this post manageable).  I am not saying that seeing World War I through the prism of class is absolutely correct.  But it is illuminating.  And the artist is using that conflict as an objective correlative to explore the issue of class.  So, too, Waugh uses World War II to describe the final decay of Christendom, the conflict between the Believer and the Un-Believer.  Again, he does not have to be absolutely correct, but merely illuminating.  And if there’s one thing Waugh is good at, it’s illumination.

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November  10,  2004

Patrick: Lagniappe

He held out his arms to help you with your coat and what might have been an ordinary service became a tableau of politeness.  Your hands shook, missing the buttons, for you felt that the coat was getting too much of the limelight.  It would have been kinder to whisk the shabby thing inconspicuously into a closet.  If you did not yet know him well, you did not realize that he loved you for that patched fur. It signified that you were the real thing, the poet in a garret, and it also opened up for him charming vistas of What He Could Do For You.  He led you into his bedroom, where a new novel by one of his friends and a fine edition or two lay open on a table.  A lamp with a pale-amber shade (better for the eyes) was burning beside them, and the cushion in the easy chair by the table was slightly mussed. An impression of leisure and the enjoyment of fine things was readily engendered, though you knew that he could not have been back from his office for more than an hour, and that he must have bathed, shaved, dressed, and arranged the final details during that time.  Yet he was not a hypocrite, so undoubtedly he had been reading.  Five minutes with a book was as good as an hour to him anyway, for he took literature like wine-tasting: you can get all the flavour in the first sip; further indulgence might only blunt your palate.
--The Company She Keeps by Mary McCarthy

[N.B.:  I am a slow reader and typically will not pick up a book until I know I will have at least an hour to indulge my habit.  Magazines, of course, are just perfect for the odd five minutes here or there.  Which reminds me of a good piece of advice from A. N. Wilson, I believe, which is to the effect that one should always carry reading material about because it fills up the “slippage” that otherwise occurs during the day while waiting on line (“queue”) for this or that without the accompanying feeling of guilt that one could be accomplishing something productive.]

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November  9,  2004

Patrick: Lagniappe

In his habits he was soft and self-indulgent; yet you felt there was a furnace of energy burning in him, and you drew back from the blast.  It was this energy that had made it possible for him to discipline his body and his manners into patterns so unnatural to him; and, ironically, it was at the same time this energy that undid him as a society man by making him over-demonstrative, over-polite, over-genial, like a comedian who produces an effect of fatigue in his audience by working too hard at putting his gags across.
--The Company She Keeps by Mary McCarthy

Where are the great World War II Novels?
Having read The Seizure of Power, which, for me, is one of the best novels I have read on World War II, I am now wondering what great novels about World War II will survive the test of time.  And yes, I’m almost ashamed to admit it, I have real all of The Naked and the Dead which has good pacing in some parts but is practically unreadable—and is unread—today.  As I have discussed elsewhere, Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 has one of the immortal characters of literature in it, Captain Yossarian, but the novel itself really is an absurdist fantasy that just so happens to be set in World War II.  That, of course, is the charitable view—if I’m wrong, Catch-22 is an abomination because it stands for the premise that all wars are pointless and absurd even though that novel concerns battling the Nazis (talk about a self-defeating thesis).

So, what are the great World War II novels?  Perhaps, the answer could be, they have not been written as of yet. That, though, seems doubtful (although Michael Shaara’s The Killer Angels, concerning the Civil War, and, arguably, the best novel on that conflagration, did not appear until 1974; counter: yeah, but what about Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage written about twenty years after; point taken). Certainly, for World War I, the great novels appeared about ten to twenty years after the event: All Quiet on the Western Front, The Radetzky March, Memoirs of an Infantry Officer, The Good Soldier Svejk, etc. [N.B.: at this point let me put in a recommendation for the new Audrey Tatou movie coming out soon based on a recent novel concerning World War I, A Very Long Engagement by Sebastien Japrisot; the book was great and I’m betting the movie will be as well]. All of these books are masterpieces. But what works of such stature resulted from World War II?

That conflict produced well-wrought tales such as Michener’s Tales of the South Pacific and Jones’s From Here to Eternity.  Heck, I’ll even be charitable and include Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead in this category. There are also a couple of minor masterpieces such as J. G. Ballard’s The Empire of the Sun.  But none of these reach the heights of the books I’ve listed for World War I. Indeed, the great works of literature concerning the World War II conflict, such as Catch-22, seem to use World War II as a back-drop but not the modus operandi, as it were, for the book.  Think here of Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair where the V-2 buzz bomb attacks on London are critical to the development of the plot, but the book as a whole is about much bigger issues than just World War II.  In other words, the themes of the book could have been developed without the intervention of the war.  That is certainly not true of the World War I novels cited.  Again, I am left with the curious conundrum: Where are the great novels on World War II?  Any suggestions?  Stay tuned for my own nomination.

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November 8,  2004

Patrick: Lagniappe

“Pflaumen had taken the risks out of social life, that was the trouble; and you felt that it was wrong to enjoy an evening without having paid for it with some touch of uncertainty, some tiny fear of being bored or out of place. Moreover, behind those bland and humble telephone calls, there was an unpleasant assumption about your character. Plainly Pflaumen must believe that you went out at night not because you liked your friends and wanted to be with them, but because you were anxious to meet new people, celebrities, to enlarge your own rather tacky social circle. No doubt this was at least half true, since with your real friends you seemed to prefer those whose spheres of interest were larger rather than smaller than your own—or at any rate to see more of them, if you could—but in those cases you were able to be sure that you liked them for themselves. With Pflaumen, unfortunately, there was never any question of that. Yet every time you accepted one of his invitations you entered into a conspiracy with him to hide the fact that he was a foolish, dull man whom nobody had much use for. And though some of his friends—the rich ones, perhaps—could feel all right about sitting at his table (after all, they were doing him a favour), you poor ones knew that he had bought your complaisance with his wines and rich food and prominent acquaintances, and you half-hated him before your finger touched his doorbell.
--The Company She Keeps by Mary McCarthy

[N.B.: Message to Pflaumen: I would never half-hate you. Will talk for food.]


What does Martin Amis, Joyce Carol Oates and Tom Wolfe Have in Common? (Hint: It Sure Ain’t Their Politics), Part II
What do these three have in common?  Two words: Pen envy.  These are three undeniably top-notch, first-rate authors.  I would not argue that any are in the ranks of the immortals (I can’t say straight out that they rank with the likes of their contemporaries, V. S. Naipaul or Gabriel Garcia Marquez, who are immortal-worthy).  But they are close.  They certainly do not deserve the snickering, pigtail-in-the-inkstand reviews that they are subjected to upon the arrival of each new work.  So, perhaps, a better question is to ask what separates them from authors who are considered as top-shelf such as John Updike, John Irving and Norman Mailer.  Tom Wolfe supplies an answer regarding these three in his book of essays entitled Hooking Up. In the essay, My Three Stooges, he explains why these three (“I MU” for short) hate his guts: basically they are lazy, don’t get out much, and write lots of books about themselves and their friends or implausible fantasies about stuff they don’t bother to research.  Fair enough.  But that does not explain why they get lauded and Wolfe gets lit into by book reviewers. One would think it would be the reverse, if so.

But it would not be the reverse if pen envy is the answer.  I MU also have one other thing in common. It is clear at this point that their work will die with the generation they are part of and the one following that (i.e., the “greatest generation” and the “grates generation”).  Book reviewers typically fall into these cohorts, as well.  And they love I MU, because they moo, too. This herd is all “children of their time.”  Updike speaks to them, because he coddles them in their generational viewpoints and illusions. So does Irving.  And Mailer, ohmigawd, Mailer lathers it on with a steamroller. Sure, they’re not much as writers.  But as first-rate coddlers, there you go.

And if there is one thing Wolfe, Amis and Oates have in common, it’s that they don’t coddle you, even if you are in their same generation.  Indeed, Amis’s latest book, Yellow Dog, is an indictment of the pornographication (sorry for the neologism) of society.  A disturbing, pornographic sensibility even leaks into his prose.  Yes, this is offensive—but it serves a purpose.  My guess is Wolfe’s latest offering, I Am Charlotte Simmons, tackles another related facet, the process of the sexual degradation of the young, which is aided and abetted, indeed, accelerated, by modern university life. Again, not a cheery subject likely to appeal to the “let it all hang out and down” generation.  As for Oates, she just writes too dang much first-rate stuff about our modern dilemma from a very strange and disturbing viewpoint.  For a recent example, I found her short story in the New Yorker from a month or two ago about the New Jersey senator tainted by sexual and financial scandals particularly creepy in its relevance (I assume it was written prior to the scandal involving the New Jersey governor—ol’ whassisname and who cares).  So, off with their heads, yells the fashionable mob of the here-and-now.

If we are to have yelling, I’ll do my part by officially announcing my special, no commitment on my part, program to protect the endangered species of Amis, Oates and Wolfe. This program will consist of regularly blogging about them and their works in a more favorable light. If you don’t like them, and wish to follow the herd of independent minds, please, feel free to skip over those posts. Otherwise, get ready for some unexpurgated gushing over my three muses.

The Good Bad Book Review
Besides delighting in crafting non-oxymoronic oxymorons (a Cretan-liar kind of oxymoron in itself) I also do enjoy eating crow when it means my next course will be something quite yummy. So let me embark on my crow-eating and apologize to the good editors of the New York Times Book Review (in my light-hearted mood, let’s call it “Trifle” for short) for once again proving the efficacy of that colorful Southern saying involving the blind hog and the acorn.  I just took Trifle to task for not publishing intelligent bad book reviews, and, lo and behold, as if the next issue burst into flames like the proverbial burning bush, here comes the angry prophet, David Foster Wallace (“DFW”—much like the airport, difficult and byzantine in its construction, but sure to get you to someplace far away and quite pleasant), thundering down the mountain with an Old Testament curse of epic proportions against the new biography, Borges A Life by Edwin Williamson, who bellows in his best Charlton Heston-mode, pointing his staff at the stiff-necked Pharaoh, Yul Brynner, the sweat glistening on his bald pate: “Let my Borges go!!!”

Well, it’s no rain of frogs or transubstantiation of the Nile into blood, but if I were Williamson, I would certainly be looking for a rock to climb under. And the Trifle featured this blast of Mosaic Mayhem on its cover; with, for it, an unfashionably lengthy three-page article (the reader had to—horrors, hide the children—turn the page); and, a cover photo of the great Borges himself. So, has the Trifle decided to become less . . . trifling? [ACE]. Well, that remains to be seen but you need not wait to read this wonderful review.

Wonderful, you say?  But you just got finished with a spittle-spattering diatribe against bad reviews.  So what gives?  Well, DFW’s review is an example of the good bad book review.  He eviscerates Williamson’s book for using the same, tired Freudian psychoanalyzing angle with respect to re-telling Borges’s life. Of course, this type of psycho-babble has been discredited, so the use of such a methodology is immediately suspect.  Also, given our very puny understanding of psychology, any attempt at approaching a biography from this angle is fraught with danger.  DFW certainly takes Williamson to task for reducing all of Borges’s literary output as a primal scream against his sexual failures.  But that’s just the start of DFW’s project.

What makes the review a model of its kind is that the demolition of the book is merely used as a hook for a positive project DFW has in mind.  As I have noted before, anyone can say a book stinks.  And, sad to say, most books are stinky. How does one deal with this descent into publishing’s Original Sin?  Again, the best advice is that given out in Bambi, “if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.”  In other words, ignore the book.  But one can still give a creative bad book review.

And that’s just what DFW has in mind.  Sure, the book’s scaffolding is based on tired Freudian twaddle that has been condemned ad nauseum.  But, it’s particularly offensive here because Borges in his literary works is almost impregnable to a personal psychological interpretation. His works are mythic—or, in other words, impersonal. The ideas expressed within them are meant to live long after the lowly author, Borges, has ceased to exist, even as a name. Who first wrote the myth of Jason and the Golden Fleece?  Who knows?  And, more importantly, who cares?  The myth is a creation that exists independent of its creator, like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

DFW argues that Borges had as his goal no less than the creation of the modern, or should I say, post-modern Frankenstein.  He is the bridge between the modernist and post-modernist literary movements.  He is our Dr. Frankenstein.  Is DFW right?  Again, who cares?  His thesis is a provocative one.  And, in my book, any thesis, right or wrong, which gets the imaginative juices flowing, is of some positive value (hence the reason I do not condemn Freudianism outright, it gave birth to some of Hitchcock’s best work such as Psycho and Rear Window (and I do adore Grace Kelly in that role)).  So, here too, DFW has used the wobbly vehicle of the bad book review to advance the literary conversation about the value of Borges. Bravo!

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November 7,  2004

Patrick: Lagniappe

‘Wars don’t start nowadays because people want them. We long for peace, and fill our newspapers with conferences about disarmament and arbitration, but there is a radical instability in our whole world-order, and soon we shall all be walking into the jaws of destruction again, protesting our pacific intentions.’
--Vile Bodies by Evelyn Waugh

What does Martin Amis, Joyce Carol Oates and Tom Wolfe Have in Common? (Hint: It Sure Ain’t Their Politics)
So, what does Martin Amis, Joyce Carol Oates and Tom Wolfe have in common?  Easy enough: whatever books they come out with, their works are sure to be reviewed with close to uniform derision by book reviewers (as opposed to critics, who generally give some modicum of thought to their writings).  Why is that?  I was left to ponder this matter upon reading the review of Tom Wolfe’s latest book, I Am Charlotte Simmons on the front page of the Friday, October 29 Weekend Arts section of the New York Times.  The review, by some unknown hack, and I do mean that literally, chops up the book into little splinters.  One might be aghast by such a performance given the calumny heaped upon the head of Dale Peck for just such reviews which sparked the entire tiresome and boring jeremiad debate about snarky book reviews and the decline of civility in the book-reviewer profession (which is sort of  like people complaining about the “tone” of the Presidential elections as if they were totally ignorant of the horrendous calumnies spewed forth during the Jefferson/Adams Presidential race; on second thought, strike that, they were totally ignorant). All of this reminds me of the famous retort by the German composer Max Reger to one of his critics, “I am sitting in the smallest room in my house. I have your review before me. In a moment, it will be behind me.” I am sure Tom Wolfe would agree.

At the moment, however, the review is still before me. It is a pop-eyed stuffed-to-the-tufts rant consisting of such tired, put-down cliches as: “flat-footed,” “tiresomely generic,” “hyperbolic,” and (my favorite) “the perennial dog-eat-dog theme.” “Perennial,” boy, you got that right—just like with the first breath of Spring, the first breath of a new Tom Wolfe book is sure to produce an overgrown, weedy expanse of noxious reviews [N.B.: In the interest of full disclosure, I should point out that the Wall Street Journal has a glowing review of the book by none other than great Harvard political philosopher, Harvey Mansfield, who, among many other things, has produced the definitive translation of Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America (which leads to another digression: why didn’t the Library of America use this translation instead of commissioning another, much inferior one? I’ll probably blog later about how the Library of America has strayed a bit from its path as of late, what with producing volumes on American writers’ impressions of Paris (oh, that might make me look literate lounging on the coffee table unread) or impressions of baseball (that’s right, next to the barco-lounger). In any event, Mansfield’s glowing review merely proves my point since it is by a great writer and not some unknown critic manque].  If this is supposed to be withering criticism, give me the book, dagnabbit.  But, of course, the hack was just fulfilling his assignment: Wolfe is fair game, a literary pariah who is “not a novelist” and is the subject of universal calumny.  So even the stunted village-idiot reviewer can chunk a rotten cabbage or two at the pilloried author. Why is that?

It’s not just Tom Wolfe. Joyce Carol Oates and Martin Amis also have to dodge cabbages from the same half-literate, gangly hobbledehoys. Oates’ latest novel, The Falls, although not quite as reviled, also received uniformly half-hearted or outright hostile reviews:  Her work was sloppy, ill-formed, messy—and so was her writing, so there. The same could be same of Philip Roth’s latest work, The Plot Against America, a half-hearted exercise in the tired “what if the past was different” genre which he apparently gets bored with about three quarters of the way through and then gives up on any attempt at a plausible denoument of the messy work. But no one adversely criticizes him (again, other than a few serious critics). Instead, all the reviewers sing his hosannas. So, why is Roth the boss and Oates the goat (sorry, couldn’t resist)?

Finally, we come to Martin Amis, whose latest work, Yellow Dog, was the subject of a now-infamous rotten-review campaign led off by a fellow novelist, of all things.  As it turned out, this third-rate manikin, whose name rightfully escapes me, had a book published on the same day as Amis’s.  The other reviewers, however, did not have the same understandable self-interested motives.  They just reviled the work for the heck of it.  The critical consensus: tired and tawdy; down-right badly written and poorly thought out.  The usual stuff one can say of just about anything.

But just about anything does not receive the bum’s rush that’s accorded to these three. Indeed, many an issue of The New York Times Book Review (“Tosh” for short), can be perused—not, I would say, for one’s pleasure—without coming across a negative review.  The editor of Tosh might respond that this makes perfect sense because bad books are best forgotten and the best way of doing that is not to review them in the first place.  Good point, that.  But that does not explain the special treatment for these three.  The Tosh editor might then point out that Tom Wolfe is a best-selling author and so needs to be covered.  Oh, ho, is that right ? Have I missed all the Tom Clancy reviews in Tosh?  I have not missed the recent Tosh Stephen King reviews [N.B.: My deep, dark confession—I was a Stephen King fanatic growing up and devoured all of his works; he is the crack-cocaine of modern novelists; no one—and I do mean no one—has a better sense of pacing and suspense; plus he’s great at dialogue and atmosphere; then, it’s all down hill: no sense of proportion; and he can’t create a memorable character to save his life if drowning; all that cardboard would get water-logged and sink in no time; But, oh, those fond adolescent memories; end of confession].  Shame, shame.  Plus, this is no excuse for Oates or Amis, neither of which have had a best selling novel for some time.

So, why the gang tackle? Let’s wait for the next post—same bat-blog; same bat-channel.

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November 6,  2004

Patrick: Lagniappe

He put on a torn sweater and thought for a moment about replacing a missing button. But for this he would need thread: he must remember to ask his neighbor if she would like to exchange a spool of thread for a spare needle he still possessed. He spread his books on the table; they opened of their own accord at the right place; the pages bore the traces of his fingers. Then, in a small even hand, he began slowly to add sentence after sentence:

“Words had to change their ordinary meaning and to take that which was now given them. Reckless audacity came to be considered the courage of a loyal ally; prudent hesitation, specious cowardice; moderation was held to be a cloak for unmanliness; ability to see all sides of a question; inaptness to act on any. Frantic violence became the attribute of manliness; cautious plotting, a justifiable means of self-defence. The advocate of extreme measures was always trustworthy; his opponent a man to be suspected. To succeed in a plot was to have a shrewd head, to divine a plot a still shrewder; but to try to provide against having to do either was to break up your party and to be afraid of your adversaries. In fine, to forestall an intending criminal, or to suggest the idea of a crime where it was wanting, was equally commended, until even blood became a weaker tie than party, from the superior readiness of those united by the latter to dare everything without reserve; for such associations had not in view the blessings derivable from established institutions but were formed by ambition for their overthrow; and the confidence of their members in each other rested less on any religious sanction than upon complicity in crime.”

--The Seizure of Power by Czeslaw Milosz

[N.B.: These are the last two paragraphs of the introduction of the novel set after World War II, concerning, Professor Gil, an impoverished scholar living in the ruins of Warsaw and trying to scrape out a living by translating Thucydides.]

Milosz and The Seizure of Power
So, given Milosz’s death on August 14th, I have decided to go back and see how some of his early works hold up to the test of time—very well, thank you very much. First up is The Seizure of Power, Milosz’s first novel, I believe, published here in 1955 (this was written after his brilliant treatise on the corruption of intellectuals under totalitarianism titled The Captive Mind). The Seizure of Power concerns four intellectuals who fight against the Nazis in and around Warsaw, either as members of the resistance or as part of the Soviet juggernaut during the summer of 1944 which culminated in the failed Warsaw Uprising and the subsequent leveling of the city (all of this occurring under the eyes of the Soviets who used the Nazis as an unwitting tool to destroy any opposition to their own takeover of Poland). The book is framed by Professor Gil, laboring away in post-war, shortage-plagued Warsaw as an underpaid translator of the classics, specifically Thucydides. Not surprisingly, as shown in today’s Lagniappe, Thucydides has a direct bearing on Poland’s current plight.

And what is that plight? The terrible one of being a lowly fisherman in a small barque trapped in swelling seas between opposing, sheer breakers. No matter how skillful the pilot, the boat must be smashed alternately between one outcropping of rock and then another. So it is for Poland between the Nazis and the Soviets. All the novel’s characters must grapple with this terrible dilemma. What does one do when one is merely a pawn between greater, malevolent forces? Does one resign oneself to fate? Milosz rejects this possibility. No, one struggles on and instead takes comfort from the small moments of beauty in life still left for aesthetic enjoyment before the final smash and sinking beneath the turbulent waters. For the fisherman in that small boat, it might be a faded photograph of a pining loved one. In Milosz’s terms, this thought is crystallized by an entry in a diary found on a dead British airman:

A detail. On my way to Julia. Thick walls, gray shadow. A dense vine and in it a window. On a rough, well-worn wooden table an earthen-ware jug and bread; a family at supper. Behind them an open door and a bright light shining from behind it. In the half-darkness wine in glasses, ruby against the light. Bare hands on the table; the tangibility, the solidity of a strong human body. Necks. “My girl has a transparent neck, against the light you can see what she’s eating and drinking.” Behind the people, pans on the wall. The gleam of polished brass. You can only express things properly be details. When you’ve observed a detail, you must discover the detail of the detail. That Italian family; the very glasses, their hands, each of their faces and the brass pans: an infinity of colors and shapes. Yet a detail ceases to mean anything when it becomes nothing but a color and a shape, when we feel it’s a detail and nothing more. People shouldn’t paint pictures.

Today I told Julia that I’m going to stay here after the war. Poor Betsy. “An Englishman Italianate is a devil incarnate.” To live where there are fewest abstractions, and most details. Human lives are distributed unevenly. For some, the same space is filled with a thousand details; to others—only shades, reflections, the sea, the earth, supper—and that’s all. My bay: an abstract notion. I didn’t know in the past how to look. One can only learn to see where people have small objects, old customs established for centuries, ancient walls. The was is good in spite of everything.

With Julia, above the village, between olives, near old wine-barrels. What they write in the books we read in school is meaningless to the pupils. They think of it as something “written to sound well.” But nothing could ever be real were we not able to experience this happiness.

I remember here that poor, shambling hulk of rotted-out greatness, Oscar Wilde, when he was finally released from prison (an intentionally murderous form of penal servitude consisting of, as Wilde so eloquently described in De Profundis, of very poor food, worse bedding and the pointless torment of the treadmill—think here of Cool Hand Luke being forced to dig and refill the same hole in the ground). What did Wilde do? Did he curse his fate? No, he bent down and gushingly admired the frail flowers peeking up at the glowering jail-house gates.

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November 5,  2004

Patrick: Lagniappe

‘Oh, Nina, what a lot of parties.’

(. . . Masked parties, Savage parties, Victorian parties, Greek parties, Wild West parties, Russian parties, Circus parties, parties where one had to dress as somebody else, almost naked parties in St John’s Wood, parties in flats and studios and houses and ships and hotels and night clubs, in windmills and swimming baths, tea parties at school where one ate muffins and meringues and tinned crab, parties at Oxford where one drank brown sherry and smoked Turkish cigarettes, dull dances in London and comic dances in Scotland and disgusting dances in paris – all that succession and repetition of massed humanity. . . . Those vile bodies . . .)

He leant his forehead, to cool it, on Nina’s arm and kissed her in the hollow of her forearm.

--Vile Bodies by Evelyn Waugh


The Complexity and Paradox of Czeslaw Milosz
As I mentioned earlier, great literary artistry almost always requires great complexity.  At the turn of the Twentieth Century, this complexity had reached the point that several authors took to using as a trope the idea of seeming paradox.  I say seeming paradox because usually, although the statement or situation might see self-contradictory on its face, the literary work in which it was embedded actually functioned on several different yet inter-connected levels so that one aspect of the supposed paradox made sense at one level, another aspect at another, even though both aspects, if functioning at the same level, would be rendered self-contradictory.  The two most famous practitioners were G. K. Chesterton and Oscar Wilde. Chesterton’s second level was Catholicism, so that his paradoxes typically resolved themselves in doxology. Wilde’s second level has been discussed ad nauseum so there’s no need for me to delve into it now.  Oh, I certainly don’t want to give the impression that these two authors only worked on two levels, although it seems that this, in general, tended to be the case (by the bye, Henry James, although not generally viewed as a practitioner of paradox, also made use of this art, which I will post on shortly in respect to James’s The Portrait of a Lady).

These ruminations on paradox were prompted by the latest issue of the magazine, First Things, which has a fascinating article on Czeslaw Milosz and his Catholicism by Jeremy Driscoll. Suffice it to say that Milosz was something of a mystic who was attracted to gnosticism (this should come as no surprise to students of his work). What I found interesting concerned Milosz’s response to World War II (he was Polish/Lithuanian and participated in the Warsaw Uprising in 1944). As I will discuss soon, he came very close to the heart of the inferno as documented in his novel, The Seizure of Power. His poetry of this period, however, appears not to reflect this experience. He, at what at first appears to be paradoxical, wrote lyrical, pastoral verses concerning nature while the world burned around him.  But here is his explanation:

As is well known, the philosopher Adorno said that it would be an abomination to write lyric poetry after Auschwitz, and the philosopher Emmanuel Levinas gave the year 1941 as the date when God “abandoned” use. Whereas I wrote idyllic verses, “The World,” and a number of others in the very center of what was taking place in the anus mundi, and not by any means out of ignorance. . . . Life does not like death. The body, as long as it is able to, sets in opposition to death the heart’s contractions and the warmth of circulating blood. Gentle verses written in the midst of horror declare themselves for life; they are the body’s rebellion against its destruction.

So, this leaves us with the imponderable concerning how best to confront evil: Is it, in Joyce’s words from his Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, to employ the strategies of “silence, exile, cunning”? Or, should it be direct confrontation either in the physical or, as explained by Milosz, in the aesthetic (or, if you are of a more religious turn of mind, the spiritual) realm?  Perhaps all tools should be used in the service of life against death.  The point, after all, may be your perseverance in the struggle.

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November 4,  2004

Patrick: Lagniappe

Mr Benfleet was there talking to two poets. They said ‘. . . and I wrote to tell William that I didn’t write the review, but it was true that Tony did read me the review over the telephone when I was very sleepy before he sent it in. I thought it was best to tell him the truth because he would hear it from Tony anyway. Only I said I advised him not to publish it just as I had advised William not to publish the book in the first place. Well Tony rang up Michael and told him that I’d said that William thought Michael had written the review because of the reviews I had written of Michael’s book last November, though, as a matter of fact, it was Tony himself who wrote it. . . . ‘
‘Too bad,’ said Mr Benfleet. ‘Too bad.’
‘ . . . but is that any reason, even if I had written it, why Michael should tell Tony that I had stolen five pounds from William?’
‘Certainly not,’ said Mr Benfleet. ‘Too bad.’
‘Of course, they’re simply not gentlemen, either of them. That’s all it is, only one’s shy of saying it nowadays.’
Mr Benfleet shook his head sadly and sympathetically.
--Vile Bodies by Evelyn Waugh
[N.B.: There is nothing new under the sun (Mr. Amis, feeling better now?)]

The Elements of a Good Book Review
For me, the consistently best source for intelligent, erudite, interesting book reviews, at least in the United States, is the New York Review of Books (“NYRB”). The NYRB also, however, consistently contains book reviews that display certain infelicities which I find highly annoying—the current issue, awash as it is in politics, serves as an example. It’s the “Special Election Issue” of November 4, 2004, as if I care whom a bunch of editors think need to be president. My guess is anyone with a still-firing synapse knows who these folks all recommend (which, tellingly, is the reason the British reviews are better because they recruit reviewers from all across the political spectrum). I know, I know, their radical roots made ‘em do it. But why should I be forced to wade through election gunk as if I’m four-years old and have to eat my stale spinach before I can have a slice of fresh, moist chocolate cake? Enough about the negatives—let’s move on to the good stuff.

Let’s just stick to the current issue of the NYRB, after skipping over the political stuff, although that does mean avoiding the first ten pages of the issue (I do believe the Brits have an apt phrase for the short “think pieces” that the NYRB allowed folks to indulge in here—“trite tosh”). The first book review concerns—ok, ok, it is actually a good example of what I don’t like about book reviews—a book of correspondence between two third-rate personages, one a poet who gave us the immortal lines, as published in the article: “Now Johnson would go up to join/the great simulacra of men,/Hitler and Stalin, to work his/fame/with planes roaring out from/Guam over Asia,/etc., etc., etc. . . .” Oh, the humanity! I wish old hippies were not so narcissistic as to think that such drivel actually interests anyone under the age of 50. So, let’s skip that (although I would note it’s written by Charles Simic who is usually a very entertaining reviewer on poetry) and move to the sublime second review which embodies why I love the NYRB.

The review, The Artistic Bloke is by Richard Dorment, the art critic for the The Daily Telegraph who has been named Critic of the Year in the British Press Awards and has won the Hawthornden Prize for Art Criticism in Britain. Dorment’s review is of William Nicholson by Sanford Schwartz. Nicholson was one of those “tweener” Edwardian artists who rejected the floweriness of the Pre-Ralphaelites but also the spikiness of the Modernists. This is Dorment’s description of Nicholson: “By 1907, when William Orpen painted the young Nicholson family, William had become the very image of an Edwardian paterfamilias. In a dining room hung from dado to ceiling with framed pictures, he sits in an antique library chair, wearing a black silk dressing gown and slippers, benevolently ignoring his wife and children. The man in the picture is shown neither as an aristocrat nor as an artisan, but as what he was: a gent.”

Dorment then describes Nicholson’s evolution from print-making (which Dorment thinks is his most important artistic contribution) to a style of painting more reminiscent of Sargent than the Ashcan School with which Nicholson is usually compared to.  Dorment rightly laments how such hard-to-categorize artists become marginalized by the art establishment’s whigish demands for a history of art that is ever upward and onward. Ultimately, though, Dorment concludes that Nicholson is not one of the immortals, although he is an interesting artist who can be appreciated on his own merits.

Besides describing Nicholson’s place in British painting, Dorment also describes his social circle, including the bon vivant and all-around literary dilettante, Max Beerbohm (whose portrait by Nicholson is reprinted in the article) [N.B.:  I am one of those poor souls bitten by the Beerbohm bug--whom I will soon blog about at nauseating lengths].  Dorment weaves with a deft and witty hand these social observations into his art criticism. Indeed, Dorment’s writing is very fresh and surprisingly free of the clanking, Frankenstein’s chains that typically accompanying most modern art criticism as the monster lurches back and forth between the riotous mob of gender/culture criticism and the baleful creator of Freudianism/Structuralism. No, none of that: just a well-wrought piece on a relatively unknown and underappreciated artist from an informed point of view.

Why is that so hard to do? Edmund Wilson would rejoin that it is, it is—which is why it’s rarely done anymore (too much hard work to make things look transparent and easy). Look at the criticism at the bookshop: row upon row of dour, fat, rat-killers, all leaking four- and five-syllable jargon upon the objects under discussion until they resemble the coats of lacquer and resin on those dark Renaissance painters, followers of Caravaggio, that are no longer discernible other than as a dark smudge of furtive figures that once had the chiaroscuro of laughing light offset by a fillip of blackness. There’s nothing wrong with a bit of obscurity, a bit of dark that cannot by deciphered (some matters shall always remain obscure and inscrutable)—but to drown the canvas in it is another matter. That shows both a lack of learning and a sense of proportion. The same is true for criticism.

Dorment brings back the laughing light.  Please, shut off the internet, go down to the local bookshop and buy the latest issue of the NYRB—if for nothing else than for Dorment’s review alone. It’s easy enough to ignore the political twaddle. The beauty of the printed page is that, unlike the squawking jabber-box, you are not an unwilling captive to the present flickering foolishness but can easily change the subject by that most civilized of modern exercises (indeed, one of the few forms of physical exertion I approve of): turning the page.

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November 3, 2004

Patrick: Lagniappe

The poor man is democratic out of necessity, the nobleman is democratic out of freedom. Have you ever noticed . . . that the unconscious hypocrite is a pure middle-class type? Your aristocrat may be a villain, and your beggar may be a criminal; neither is self-deluded, puffed up with philanthropism and vanity, like a Rockefeller or an Andrew Carnegie. And the French, who are the most middle-class people in the world, have produced a satirical literature that is absolutely obsessed with this vice.
--The Company She Keeps by Mary McCarthy

Augustus Carp: The Unconscious Hypocrite
Today's Lagniappe entry quoted from Mary McCarthy’s The Company She Keeps where her heroine, Miss Sargent, rails against the “unconscious hypocrite,” in her opinion a middle-class phenomenon that has produced a sizable body of literature in France. Of course, one of the great English examples of this booby can be found in the allegedly eponymous Augustus Carp, Esq. (actually penned by a minor writer, Sir Henry Howarth Bashford). The Carps, both pere and fils, allegedly upstanding Xtian gentlemen, embrace the term “unconscious hypocrite” from the first page to the last of that wonderful book. Indeed, throughout, the two embark on schemes of blackmail, libel, dishonesty and fraud, all in the best of Xtian conscience. Which, of course, got me to thinking, what about our own literary oeuvre dedicated to the “unconscious hypocrite”? Certainly, we, too, should have a literature to be proud of in this area. I, for one, am not willing to cede the French this ground without a fight.

As mentioned earlier, we have Mary McCarthy’s The Company She Keeps which features a red variety of this species: Jim, the strapping Yale communist who everyone—particularly the red radicals—excuses for making so much money and not holding the quite-correct line in the ever-changing communist rulebook. There are others, as well—I’m thinking of the wealthy businessman who accosts (and, err, does other things with) Miss Sargent on the train—but I am not inclined to flip through the book and dredge them up. You get the picture.

And, of course, one must always put in the picture Dickens: There’s Pecksniff, the hypocrite’s hypocrite from Martin Chuzzlewit (who H. L. Mencken particularly adored), Mr. Bounderby from Hard Times and, on a lesser scale, Uncle Pumplechook from Great Expectations. My favorite Dickensian unconscious hypocrite is Mr. Podsnap from Our Mutual Friend. (Please go to my post from last week to read the two great paragraphs describing Mr. Podsnap). There are, admittedly, plenty of other hypocrites throughout Dickens’ works. But usually, they are conscious hypocrites—and, arguably, Pecksniff might fall into this category. Of the conscious hypocrites, I am thinking here, just as an example, of the Murdstones from David Copperfield and “Fascination” Fledgeby from Our Mutual Friend. Oh, and not to leave out the ‘umblest of conscious hypocrites: Uriah Heep from David Copperfield.

Back to the American scene, we have a literary neologism for the practice of unconscious hypocrisy: Babbittry from, of course, Sinclair Lewis’s Babbitt. Along with Elmer Gantry, George F. Babbitt is one of the two immortal characters created by Mr. Lewis. Embodying Mencken’s favorite insult—the “boobgeoisie—Babbitt casts a long shadow over the landscape, arms akimbo: the preeminent unconscious hypocrite. Indeed, let us give Mencken the last word:

“Moral certainty is always a sign of cultural inferiority. The more uncivilized the man, the surer he is that he knows precisely what is right and what is wrong. All human progress, even in morals, has been the work of men who have doubted the current moral values, not of men who have whooped them up and tried to enforce them. The truly civilized man is always skeptical and tolerant, in this field as in all others. His culture is based on ‘I am not too sure.’”

And, no, this is not some subtle reference to the election--my word, such a vulgar topic, current events.  Please, I really must go before I sully myself further.

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November 1, 2004

Patrick: Lagniappe

‘Now let me introduce you – that’s Mr What’s-his-name, you remember him, don’t you? And over there in the corner, that’s the Major, and there’s Mr What-d’you-call-him, and that’s an American, and there’s the King of Ruritania.’
‘Alas, no longer,’ said a sad, bearded man.
--Vile Bodies by Evelyn Waugh

[N.B.:  If you haven't seen Stephen Fry's wonderful cinematic adaptation of Waugh's Vile Bodies, entitled Bright Young Things, then, in the immortal words of Hamlet, "Get thee to a megaplex."]

Museum Art Explained for You
Sorry, I can’t explain art as a whole because the term encompasses no common elements and, therefore, has been rendered essentially meaningless. When a concept is reduced to “I know it when I see it,” we are in the land of pixie dust and little elves. Or, more pertinent to this topic, priests and sacraments. I was thinking upon these matters due to a certain flap involving an artist, Damian Loeb, (see the story here ) whose painting, rendered in the hyper-realist style, was removed from a university exhibition, ostensibly for copyright concerns. Apparently, part of the subject of the painting, three young boys, fully clothed, was copied from a book of photographs published in the 1990s. The painting, however, also depicted, in the background, a young girl performing a certain precocious procedure on a fourth boy (as you might guess, I have been unable to find a link to this painting on the internet). As to the source for this latter image, Mr. Loeb coyly remarked, “[t]hat is probably not a question that would be wise for me to answer at this point.” Unfortunately, the story has been condensed on the New York Times web-site; and this remark, along with other colorful details, has been omitted as it appeared in the October 12, 2004 print edition. In any event, it is not clear if people are to be outraged by the alleged censorship or the alleged copyright infringement. It seems we have now reached the outer limits, removal of a work depicting child pornography must be condemned unless it involved the violation of someone else’s copyright. The absurd is us (a topic I will write about shortly).

So, all this bluster and wind is merely a round-a-bout way to discuss the topic on offer: What is museum art? Simple enough. It is any object contained within the four walls of an institution designated as a museum (which, for our purposes in the United States, is a tax-exempt entity as recognized by the Internal Revenue Service) that is accompanied by an object label otherwise referred to as an identity tag. The tag typically provides certain “basic facts such as the name or title of the object, its maker or origin, the material the object is made of, pertinent dates, collection or catalog numbers, and other relevant data.” David Dean, Museum Exhibition Theory and Practice 114 (2000). Unfortunately, Dean’s book devotes a mere page to this all-important element to museum art; it’s sine qua non.

So, if one wanders into a museum and sees an object with an identity tag, that object is art. If the object does not have a tag, it may or may not be art (“potential art,” say) until its identity tag is affixed near it. In other words, at a bare minimum, no object with an identity tag is not art—obviously, restrooms do not count here since their identity tags do not contain the data outlined by Mr. Dean. Restrooms, though, might be a close call. Their identity tags tend to be more graphically striking—all those etiolated stick figures—than what one typically sees with art object identity tags.

Some might object to this purely formalistic approach to art, but those critics would be clearly in error. A yobbo might rejoin, “You effete git, everyday household objects can’t be art, I don’t care what kind of identity tag is on them.” Calling Andy Warhol, a rather agitated provincial needs to be stoned with Campbell’s soup cans. “Hey, stop chunking those cans, but, in any event, kitsch can’t be art; avant garde types have been railing against this genre of aesthetic-deadening gutterwash for decades.” Calling Jeff Koons, please drop on the head of one outraged, hidebound muzhik the ceramic, life-sized sculpture of Michael Jackson and Bubbles the Chimp. “Oh my goodness, it’s bright gold and white, too; but, surely there is agreement that just the typical, raunchy, throbbing giblets, technicolor porn fest can’t be art?” I said, calling Jeff Koons, your entire oeuvre of works with your ex-wife porn-star Cicciolina are needed in the emergency room, stat.

There is, however, as a thought experiment, a work of art that could transgress my boundaries of the bare minimum of museum art. Have you guessed it yet? It is, of course, the non-object, the void. Imagine an identity tag placed outside of an empty gallery identifying the contents within as follows: “A VOID (2004) by A. Perec. No materials.” This object could be displayed in a couple of ways. First, the entire room could be gated off and admirers could gaze lovingly into the void from a discreet vantage point. Or, the room could be open to visitors and a computer could be set up outside the gallery which depicts the void in three dimensions and then modifies and shrinks the contours of the void to correspond with the movement of the visitors within it. In other words, the computer would render in three dimensions the empty space around the objects (errr, people) in the room. We would then have the realization that sculptors such as Moore and Smith have dreamed about: the tangible representation of space around an object that represents not just a part of the work of art (in other words, with respect to sculpture, its interaction with the negative space around it) but as the work of art itself. That, my friends, is the last frontier left open in the world of museum art: the void.

Please, no giggling.

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October 30, 2004


The ship creaked in every plate, doors slammed, trunks fell about, the wind howled; the screw, now out of the water, now in, raced and churned, shaking down hat-boxes like ripe apples; but above all the roar and clatter there rose from the second-class ladies’ saloon the despairing voices of Mrs ape’s angels, in frequently broken unison, singing, singing, wildly, desperately, as though their hearts would break in the effort and their minds lose their reason, Mrs Ape’s famous hymn, There ain’t no flies on the Lamb of God.
--Vile Bodies by Evelyn Waugh

Patrick: It’s the Character, Stupid, Part II

Some one should write a book, not about particular authors, but particular characters and why certain of them refuse to die—indeed, why we lovingly commit the pathetic fallacy in talking about them. The characters of Dickens, of course, must be at the top of any such list. Indeed, one cannot help but be envious of Dickens by how, in just a few economical strokes, he can make a minor character, one he just tossed off in a leisurely hour or two, live forever. Perhaps the best example is the exceedingly minor character from Our Mutual Friend, Mr. Podsnap. Here’s the two justly famous paragraphs:

Mr. Podsnap was well to do, and stood very high in Mr. Podsnap’s opinion. Beginning with a good inheritance, he had married a good inheritance, and had thriven exceedingly in the marine insurance way, and was quite satisfied. He never could make out why everybody was not quite satisfied, and he felt conscious that he set a brilliant social example in being particularly well satisfied with most things, and, above all other things, with himself.

Thus, happily acquainted with his own merit and importance, Mr. Podsnap settled, that, whatever he put behind him, he put out of existence. There was a dignified conclusiveness, not add a grand convenience, in this way of getting rid of disagreeables, which had done much towards establishing Mr. Podsnap in his lofty place in Mr. Podsnap’s satisfaction. “I don’t want to know about it: I don’t choose to discuss it; I don’t admit it!” Mr. Podsnap had even acquired a peculiar flourish of his right arm in often clearing the world of its most difficult problems by sweeping them behind him (and consequently sheer away) with those words and a flushed face: for they affronted him.

That’s it. This full-blooded character has received the gift of eternal life based on two measly paragraphs. We will all be dust and ether, not even a disembodied name connected to some coerced overworked undergraduate’s vague thought that there is something that name should stand for (hmmm, “Norman Mailer,” wasn’t that the humorist who wrote a minor comic novel? Yes, he did, a delightful one called, Advertisements for Myself, which I will blog about soon). But folks will still talk about and delight in Mr. Podsnap. Why? Let’s take a closer look.

The first paragraph creates the broad strokes, not just in subject matter but in the choice of words employed. Mr. Podsnap is of a very narrow disposition. How do we know? Because he is repetitive—not in what is conveyed in this paragraph (that comes in the second) but in the language chosen. Dickens repeats “inheritance,” “satisfied” and “things,” not only for comic effect (indeed, it works at that level) but to give us a sense that Mr. Podsnap is in a rut. And what’s that rut’s name? Why, Mr. Podsnap, of course. All of  the noteworthy effects are achieved from the economy of the words chosen, the repetition, and the broad comedy.

But the immortal lines sink into our spirit from the second paragraph. Here, we learn Mr. Podsnap’s mannerisms and motto: The sweep of his right arm with the deadly invocation, “I don’t want to know about it: I don’t choose to discuss it; I don’t admit it!” The repetition in this paragraph appears only in this quotation. Dickens crafts Mr. Podsnap with the rest of the language to convey his contempt for the world and all that lies outside of his narrow venue. There are echoes, however, of the description from the first paragraph binding the second: the reference in both to Mr. Podsnap’s importance and his satisfaction. From these few master strokes, expertly bound together over the two paragraphs, an immortal is born. See how easy it is? Guffaw.

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