Tuesday, October 31, 2006

I am happily corrected

Fangland (one word) does have an Amazon page. If someone has an advance copy to send my way I will be very grateful!

Creative property

Partly, I think, as a memorial to his dear friend & fellow writer John M. Ford, who died recently without having left a will to direct the handling of his literary estate, Neil Gaiman has posted an excellent thing, a really valuable resource: a basic will format that creative artists of various kinds can use to make sure that after their deaths their work will be properly handled by executors. Here's the link to the will in PDF format.

Monday, October 30, 2006

I desperately want

a copy of John Marks' forthcoming novel Fang Marks, which does not seem to exist on Amazon but is praised by James Hynes in an excellent top-ten list of Halloween recommendations at Maud Newton's ever-delightful blog (oh, and I am glad to see Ira Levin get his props too, that guy is sort of an unsung genius these days & deserves a huge resurgence in popularity).

On Thursday evening at 7:30pm

Orhan Pamuk will speak with Arthur Danto about life, literature, etc. at Columbia's Miller Theater, here are the details for the event and here's where you have to go to reserve a (free) ticket.

The price of empire

Charles McGrath at the New York Times on Robert Fagles' new translation of Virgil's Aeneid. Now that is a poem I particularly love--I should teach a class on epic and mock-epic....

Sunday, October 29, 2006

Anthrodermic Bindings, or, Shorthand Made Shorter

At his blog Weekend Stubble, Paul Collins directs readers to his fascinating article for the Believer about the murder of Maria Marten in the Red Barn, which led to a Truman Capoteesque flourishing of true-crime writing in nineteenth-century England (and here's the link for the associated NPR story, plus a neat appendix at the Believer that reprints some of the letters sent in response to the murderer's personals ad). NB I may be misremembering--brain like a sieve--but I believe another copy of the narrative bound in the murderer's skin exists in the collection of the Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons, I imagine the surgeon in question had a number of copies bound at the same time for presents....

Money versus reputation

Lynn Barber profiles James Hamilton Paterson at the Observer. I want to read this guy's books--I remember being absolutely delighted with the excerpt from Cooking with Fernet Branca published in Granta a few years ago (also this is the point in the semester--and I am having a remarkably enjoyable semester, all told, my classes are very good and there's lots of stimulating stuff going on--when I want to retire to a European city where nobody knows me and write a lot of books, I am starved for writing time these days...).

The 'good things' Sunday miscellany

#1: Sarah Weinman's thoughtful review of the new Elizabeth George novel at Newsday.

#2: Gordon Bowker at the Observer on a new collection of Orwell essays (I am in love with Orwell's prose, I want this volume--oh, and Bowker says Orwell almost certainly coined the term "cold war"--interesting, eh?).

#3: My first official (timed) race this morning, very exciting--I am pleased with my results too, I totally cracked nine minutes (I feel I am allowed to gloat a bit as the running thing has come solely by virtue of extremely hard work & well-organized training, running is not my natural talent).

#4: Eugene O'Neill's The Hairy Ape at the Irish Rep; not exactly a good play, I think, but a wonderfully appealing one, its expressionism and socialism take it totally over the top and on the whole it is somewhat dated but the language and aspects of the staging (as it's conceived, I mean, not just as it's performed--since I am too lazy to paste in correct accents from Microsoft Word it would seem ridiculous to say mise-en-scene!) are absolutely spectacular, I quite loved this & the production is really excellent. The old-style New York diction of the main character tips it over the edge into complete surrealness, in its own time I expect it would have been a bit more naturalistic (well, perhaps that's not right, it's dementedly expressionist in a quite delightful way, the chorus of stokers reminded me of the goblins in George MacDonald and the prison scene in particular is superb), but Greg Derelian is really amazingly good as Yank--my only quibble is that while his posture is perfect, exactly that hulking stooped high-waisted effect that you see in photographs of the old-time boxers from the 1920s, his musculature is rather too well-defined--should be better padded for historical accuracy, I think only in modern times have people so much been getting that low-body-fat effect--oh, and while it would be too much for me to paste in a hundred of the amazing lines about hairy apes, did you know that this play actually ends with the main character being crushed to death by a gorilla at the Bronx Zoo?!? Absolutely delightful in any case.

#5: And though you might think the union-organizer theme that O'Neill highlights would rather outmoded by now (but the Wobblies guy is one of the best things in the play, very well-acted too by Allen McCullough if I have correctly matched the actor to the part), I heard the true organizer vein last weekend at the lively & stimulating n+1 "little magazine" discussion--in a rather enjoyable late-stage controversial intervention from the audience, the basic premises of the magazine were challenged ("You guys are all the same!" he called out to the editors as they sat there at the front of the lecture hall) by a strident character who, it later turned out, is Benj DeMott, son of the critic Benjamin DeMott and himself editor of the radical/literary tabloid First of the Month. We all perked up, controversy is exciting; and here is the link for the first part of DeMott the Younger's essay about his father in the magazine's current issue. (Thanks to whatever well-wisher slipped the paper issue under my office door, I was indeed very interested to read it after hearing its editor's characterization.)

Them's the cords...

Alan Deutschman on Erik Larson's new book Thunderstruck at the San Francisco Chronicle. Telegraph helps catch murderer--at first I thought this was going to be a book about a particular favorite murderer of mine (one who featured prominently in my undergraduate senior thesis), John Tawell, the first criminal to achieve notoriety for being apprehended with the help of the electric telegraph--unfortunately not--but it still sounds very good, it's Crippen and Marconi in this case.

Clearly murderers end up virtually interchangeable in my memory, because I also want to say--but it might have been a completely different one, and I am not sure in any case about the source for this fact, sounds to me like family myth rather than historical fact though I suppose it's not inherently that unlikely--that my great-grandfather was on the jury that hanged Crippen, and that it was just before my grandfather was born. Hmmm...

Saturday, October 28, 2006

Better not write novels

if you are planning on running for public office. Bonus link: Peter Boyer's fascinating New Yorker article about the Webb-Allen race. Also of note at the New Yorker website: David Remnick interviews Barack Obama.


At the NYTBR, Adam Goodheart makes a diagnosis about Charles Frazier's fiction:

The problem, I think, is that Frazier writes almost exclusively to create effects. He seems to be in love with the supposed gorgeousness of his own prose, a backdrop against which his characters emerge merely as dim figures, without consistent motivations or even personalities. Tolstoy and Virgil — and, come to think of it, Margaret Mitchell — credibly describe human beings driven by ambition, greed, drunkenness and fickle lust. Frazier can’t even get the drunkenness right. When Will is reunited with an old Cherokee buddy, “at a certain point of whiskey camaraderie, we contested to name all the colors the mountains and their foliage are able to take on. ... We went on down the colors, even all the purples, including puce. And the yellows including cadmium.” Now that’s what I’d call a couple of tough old-timers, getting plastered and chitchatting about cadmium and puce! (Unfortunately, they run through the rest of the color spectrum, as well.)

Also worth noting: Alexandra Jacobs on Laura Kipnis (and Jacobs had a hilarious piece in the Observer this week about the Spy magazine book--she's developed a fantastically good voice for this sort of thing, very bitchy in a good-humored way--if you learned that she was about to review your new book, you would be half terrified and half curious to see what she'd say--here's the Spy link).

Friday, October 27, 2006

Boredom, real life and the life of the imagination

Orhan Pamuk on writing novels, at the Guardian. His tone is a bit serious for my taste, but much of what he says strikes me as exactly right (boredom in particular is surely the most necessary ingredient for writing, I find I have to let the boredom and understimulation mount up over the course of the morning to an alarming and actively unpleasant degree before I steel myself and sit down to write):

Let me explain what I feel on a day when I've not written well, if I'm not lost in a book. First, the world changes before my eyes: it becomes unbearable, abominable; those who know me can see it happening to me, too, for I myself come to resemble the world I see around me. For example, my daughter can tell that I have not written well that day from the abject hopelessness on my face in the evening. I would like to be able to hide this from her, but I cannot. During these dark moments, I feel as if there is no line between life and death. I don't want to speak to anyone, and anyone seeing me in this state has no desire to speak to me either. A milder version of this despair descends on me every afternoon, in fact, between one and three, but I have learned how to treat it by reading and writing: if I act promptly, I can save myself from a full retreat to my corpse.

If I've had to go a long stretch without my paper-and-ink cure, be it due to travel, an unpaid gas bill, military service (as was once the case), political affairs (as has been the case more recently) or any number of other obstacles, I can feel my misery setting inside me like cement. My body has difficulty moving through space, my joints get stiff, my head turns to stone, my perspiration even seems to have another smell. This misery can only grow, for life is full of punishments that distance a person from literature. I can be sitting in a crowded political meeting, or chatting with my classmates in a school corridor, or eating a holiday meal with my relatives, struggling to converse with a good-hearted person whose mind is worlds away or else occupied by whatever is happening on the TV screen; I can be at an important "business meeting", making an ordinary purchase, making my way to the notary, or having my picture taken for a visa - suddenly my eyelids will grow heavy, and though it is the middle of the day, I'll fall asleep. When I am far away from home, and therefore unable to return to my room to spend time alone, my only consolation is a nap in the middle of the day.

So yes, the real hunger here is not for literature, but for a room where I can be alone and dream. If I can do this, I can invent beautiful dreams about those same crowded places, those family gatherings, school reunions, festival meals and all the people who attend them. I enrich the crowded holiday meals with invented details and make the people themselves even more amusing. In dreams, of course, everything and everyone is interesting, captivating and real. I make the new world from the stuff of the known world. Here we come to the heart of the matter. To write well, I must first be bored to distraction; to be bored to distraction, I must enter into life. It is when I am bombarded with noise, sitting in an office full of ringing phones, surrounded by friends and loved ones on a sunny seashore or at a rainy funeral - in other words, at the very moment when I begin to sense the heart of the scene unfolding around me - that I will suddenly feel as if I'm no longer really there, but watching from the sidelines. I'll begin to daydream. If I'm feeling pessimistic, I can think about how bored I am. Either way, there will be a voice inside me, urging me to "go back to the room and sit down at the table". I have no idea what most people do in such circumstances, but it is this that turns people like me into writers. My guess is that it leads not to poetry but to prose and fiction. This sheds a bit more light on the properties of the medicine I must be sure to take every day. We can see now that its ingredients are boredom, real life and the life of the imagination.

How to get rich quick

Jenny Diski at the Guardian on why to write a book. (The piece is cross-posted at her excellent blog.) I post all the time here about Diski, she's definitely one of my particular favorite writers; here were my thoughts on her latest essay collection, which I was happily seduced into ordering from Amazon UK. (This is the Amazon US link, but I think it must have been a limited release of some kind.)

Here's a bit from the essay titled "On spiders and respect for sheep," it expresses a sentiment that speaks directly to my inner recluse:

Being really alone means being free from anticipation. Even to know that something is going to happen, that I am required to do something is an intrusion on the emptiness I am after. What I love to see is an empty diary, pages and pages of nothing planned. A date, an arrangement, is a point in the future when something is required of me. I begin to worry about it days, sometimes weeks ahead. Just a haircut, a hospital visit, a dinner party. Going out. The weight of the thing-that-is-going-to-happen sits on my heart and crushes the present into non-existence. My ability to live in the here and now depends on not having any plans, on there being no expected interruption. I have no other way to do it. How can you be alone, properly alone, if you know someone is going to knock at the door in five hours, or tomorrow morning, or you have to get ready and go out in three days' time? I can't abide the fracturing of the present by the intrusion of a planned future.

Miscellaneous literary things

Mick Imlah writing at the TLS persuades me that I must read Geraldine McCaughrean's Peter Pan sequel (oh, and Carol Tavris has an extremely bitter and damning indictment of Alice Miller's writings on child psychology and the specter of parental abuse); also, Neal Ascherson at the LRB on Gunter Grass (when is that book going to appear in English?!? I remember being mesmerized by The Tin Drum when I was sixteen & read it for the first time--I still horribly always think of it when I eat the delicious thing that is eel...) and David Runciman, also at the LRB, with a quite wonderful piece on political hypocrisy.

I'm going to paste in a big chunk, because hypocrisy is one of my longtime obsessions (I even wrote a book about it)--the contributor bio says that Runciman is writing a book about hypocrisy in political thought from Machiavelli to Orwell (two touchstones of mine as well), how excellent. Anyway, here's Runciman:

During Liars’ Week at the Labour Party Conference last month – when Gordon pretended that he still had a lot of time for Tony, on hearing which Cherie said that’s a lie, but being overheard herself had to deny she’d said any such thing, though the next day Tony more or less admitted that her denial wasn’t to be trusted either, before going on to pretend that he still admired Gordon too, and then pledging himself to the cause of peace in the Middle East – it was no surprise that the boldest liar of all came out on top. Fortune favours the brave. In politics, it is tempting to think that a lie is a lie is a lie, and since everyone is at it, all that matters is what you can get away with. But that is to do Tony Blair a disservice. He is not simply the boldest liar, he is also the best, in that he understands better than anyone the new rules of political fabrication. He comprehensively outmanoeuvred Gordon Brown in Manchester by being truer both to himself and to the spirit of contemporary politics in the way he stretched the truth. Blair was sincere in the lies he told. Brown, by contrast, came across as a straightforward hypocrite.

Take the statement that is said to have provoked the outburst from Cherie. What Brown claimed in his speech was that it had been a privilege to serve under Tony Blair as prime minister. This was too much for Cherie to stomach, but strictly speaking it wasn’t a lie, since every chancellor holds office on the sufferance of the prime minister, and for Blair to have put up with Brown for so long was indeed quite an honour. What’s more, I have a horrible feeling that Brown said it because he knew it wasn’t technically untrue, and his own sense of probity required that whatever he said to smooth over his differences with Blair shouldn’t be a brazen falsehood. Brown is not a born liar: he is, as we keep being reminded, a son of the manse, which, if it means anything, means that. But by not actually lying, Brown came across as something worse, a man who was happy to conceal the true state of his feelings. Because what was transparent, and what Cherie instantly picked up on, is that Brown would never have said what he said in the conference hall if he had been free to speak his mind. It is impossible to imagine Gordon Brown in a private setting, surrounded by his intimates and his acolytes, using the word ‘privilege’ to describe his relationship with the prime minister. Compare this with what Blair said about Brown: he called him a ‘remarkable man, a remarkable servant to this country’. It is easy to imagine Blair holding to this line, through thick and thin, in public and in private, even in the heat of battle with Cherie, because he is happy to allow it to be true. Yet at the same time, when he did say it, he wanted his audience to believe it was false, because the purpose of Blair’s speech, indeed of the entire conference, was to question Brown’s suitability as his possible successor. Blair displayed the liar’s disregard for the truth, but not the hypocrite’s detachment from his own true feelings.

Hypocrisy comes in many different forms, and Gordon Brown by no means ticks the boxes for all of them. The common or garden type is not practising what you preach, which is not Brown’s problem at all. His innate cautiousness, and his apparently settled and blameless personal life, make him almost painfully eager not to fall into this trap. Not for Brown the ghastly contortions of John Prescott, happy to scourge the Tories for their failings as husbands and fathers in the dog days of the Major administration, but equally happy to try it on himself when a comely employee fell his way. Yet this sort of hypocrisy doesn’t seem to bother people much these days, though it gives everyone great pleasure when it comes to light. Prescott is now something of a joke, but he is still deputy prime minister, and he was able to pre-announce his retirement on his own terms, having stage-managed his little moment of contrition at the Labour Conference. Certainly, he had a better time in Manchester than Brown did.

Brown’s hypocrisy is much closer to the classical sense of the term, which involves not believing what you say. The original hypocrites were persons of apparent faith who were simply mouthing the pieties: it meant going through the motions (only later did it come to be attached to the sort of puritans who laid down rules they couldn’t possibly abide by themselves). Even here, there have always been different ways of dissembling what is going on behind the public mask. The pious hypocrites who pretend to be true believers are liars, because what they claim of themselves is not true. But it is also possible to conceal the truth about oneself by sticking to the truth in public: that is, by sticking to a kind of public truth, so that what comes out of your mouth is the bare minimum that allows you to get by. This is Brown’s particular vice, and it makes him appear to be someone who is always holding something back, something he would only ever be willing to share among people he really trusts, which emphatically does not include the public at large. It is Brown’s great misfortune that this now appears to be the kind of hypocrite that the public really detests, much more than they hate the liars and adulterers and fools that populate the political scene. What no politician can safely afford is to look as though he is keeping some private truth to himself.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Daniel Mendelsohn's The Lost

reviewed by Gideon Lewis-Kraus at the Nation. I can't wait to read this one, not sure when that will happen though I hope soon--meanwhile it's tantalizing to see the reviews... (Thanks to the Elegant Variation for the link.)

Of Snow Crash and Shakespeare & Co.

Michelle Pauli has a fascinating piece at the Guardian about book-themed cyberspace and the Second Life virtual reality platform.

I was having an uncharacteristic virtual reality fantasy last night: in the hallway where I work is an object that I have a sort of love-hate relationship with, on the one hand it is something that would have absolutely delighted my childhood self and on the other it basically should have been put in the trash years ago. It's a rather ancient (I'm guessing it was built in the 1950s) scale model of the Globe Theatre on a plywood base about, oh, six feet across (it's big in other words, and it's just sitting there outside the gender-neutral bathroom on the fourth floor) with a hilarious plastic bubble over the top, like the ones on those childhood games where you press the plastic bubble and the dice shoot loudly around inside (or like the bubbles that astronauts wear in children's books--I once saw Laika in her little dog suit complete with goldfish-bowl helmet at the space museum in Moscow, it was cool but very sad also). For some time now chunks of the base have been falling off, pushing it more firmly away from "cool but shabby artifact" towards "trash," and I was meditating on it as I often do while waiting to use the bathroom and thinking that one day I was going to lose patience and just put it in the trash without authorization. And then a favorite colleague of mine walked by and told me that mice have been spotted in the Globe Theatre! Isn't that amazing? There should be a Beatrix-Potter-style children's book about the mice in the Globe Theatre at Columbia University--or indeed (now I got back round to the main point) a virtual-reality environment, I have absolutely zero talent for drawing or painting or anything and what I was thinking as I gazed at the bubble was that there must be some way of using, oh, a Polaroid and doing very close-up and slightly blurry color-saturated pictures and superimposing the pictures of the mice on top, but that really what I wanted was a virtual-reality model--not of anything pretending to be the actual theatre, that might be an interesting teaching tool (is anyone working on anything like that?!?) but a bit over the top, just a virtual reality you could enter of a modest little funny old-fashioned scale model with mice dressed in little outfits conducting their business as usual, i.e. getting excited when there are pizza crusts in the trash after the MA Colloquium.

The digested read

(John Crace's feature at the Guardian) is funniest when he's taking down someone impossibly and irrefutably lively or energetic; I find it more discouraging (though sometimes also very funny in a scathing way) when he decimates minor literary fiction, but he's amazing on celebrity autobiographies and it's also always good when he does popular writers whose books delightfully already approach self-parody (Jilly Cooper, Dick Francis). Here's he's done a very good one on Clive James's latest volume of autobiography (digested read as apt criticism: I feel certain now that the book really is very much like this...):

My early reviews for the Times Literary Supplement were much improved by the keen eye of its editor, Ian Hamilton. His prose was a model of sardonic limpidity and he had an unerring eye for the slipshod simile and the overblown cadence. He took an inky scalpel to my pieces, shaving and sponging them of their indignities, and, after a lengthy process of excision and emendation, they would appear in print. It is a huge loss that he never got to read this book before you did.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Atheist takedown

at the London Review of Books: Terry Eagleton on Richard Dawkins. It's a rather good piece, I think; here are the opening paragraphs, in any case:

Imagine someone holding forth on biology whose only knowledge of the subject is the Book of British Birds, and you have a rough idea of what it feels like to read Richard Dawkins on theology. Card-carrying rationalists like Dawkins, who is the nearest thing to a professional atheist we have had since Bertrand Russell, are in one sense the least well-equipped to understand what they castigate, since they don’t believe there is anything there to be understood, or at least anything worth understanding. This is why they invariably come up with vulgar caricatures of religious faith that would make a first-year theology student wince. The more they detest religion, the more ill-informed their criticisms of it tend to be. If they were asked to pass judgment on phenomenology or the geopolitics of South Asia, they would no doubt bone up on the question as assiduously as they could. When it comes to theology, however, any shoddy old travesty will pass muster. These days, theology is the queen of the sciences in a rather less august sense of the word than in its medieval heyday.

Dawkins on God is rather like those right-wing Cambridge dons who filed eagerly into the Senate House some years ago to non-placet Jacques Derrida for an honorary degree. Very few of them, one suspects, had read more than a few pages of his work, and even that judgment might be excessively charitable. Yet they would doubtless have been horrified to receive an essay on Hume from a student who had not read his Treatise of Human Nature. There are always topics on which otherwise scrupulous minds will cave in with scarcely a struggle to the grossest prejudice. For a lot of academic psychologists, it is Jacques Lacan; for Oxbridge philosophers it is Heidegger; for former citizens of the Soviet bloc it is the writings of Marx; for militant rationalists it is religion.

Stephen King's new novel

is totally polarizing! (I want to read it, I think I am going to like it very much.) Janet Maslin loves it, and it's also praised by Peter Millar at the Times of London; Adam Mars-Jones absolutely hates it and so does Edward Champion of Return of the Reluctant Fame. (Thanks to Sarah for miscellaneous links.)

Saturday, October 21, 2006

Around the edges of work

a rather delightful bit of light reading, The Good Fairies of New York by Martin Millar in an attractive reissue from the excellent Soft Skull Press (bonus: the introduction by Neil Gaiman).

Why haven't I read any of Millar's books before?!? This one was great: it isn't like anything else, it's definitely its own thing, but in a good way it reminded me of Terry Pratchett and Charles de Lint and Holly Black and Suzy McKee Charnas and all sorts of other good stuff. Funny and smart and fantastic: oh, and the main human heroine has a colostomy bag, which seems to me an unusual and interesting touch.

NB I had such a pang thinking of my beloved Scottish grandfather when one of the tiny and troublesome punk-rock Scottish fairies yells out "Wha daur meddle wi me! Touch not the cat bot a glove!" "This was the motto of the MacKintosh clan, and obscure even by Scottish standards," the narrator comments. But of course it is not really obscure at all: the official Davidson family motto is Sapienter si sincere (I can't believe I still remember this stuff, I thought it lost in the mists of childhood), but the Davidsons were also part of the same Clan Chattan whose motto is "Touch not the cat." And one of Mary Stewart's best books is Touch Not the Cat (and why is it that writers like Mary Stewart and Dick Francis make it look so easy to write perfect escapist fiction, and yet there are so few books out there nearly as enjoyable to read as theirs?).

The cat of the motto is a wildcat, not a housecat. Coincidentally I am thinking about writing a novel (also set in New York) about a non-werewolf animal shapeshifter who changes into a cougar, a private-investigator-type novel in a near-future slightly dystopian New York. Of course some urban-fantasy-type writers move indiscriminately between supernatural creatures--the name Laurell K. Hamilton comes to mind, and appealingly & hilariously her main character Anita Blake majored in supernatural creatures in college!--but on the whole I would think you have a strong temperamental preference for fairies, vampires or werewolves depending on a cluster of style-related and other traits. I am in the werewolf camp, I like the way good novels about people who change into animals have to delve into Konrad Lorenz-Frans de Waal--ethologist-type territory. I think it unlikely that I would write a book prominently featuring either vampires or fairies, although I am fond of reading about them.

In other news (this is really exciting--but I promise this isn't going to become a running blog, just occasional posts), I ran ten miles today for the first time. Very, very exciting. I've been doing a class at the Running Center and I can't recommend it highly enough, if in New York and you're a beginner or a serious long-time long-distance runner wanting to improve your speed or whatever there is something good at that place for you. Today was the Last Ten Mile Run, which covers the last ten miles of the actual New York Marathon course two weeks before the race. The weather was perfect and I had a great run--I am steady rather than particularly fast, I have no turn of speed on short distances especially, but I came in at a very respectable one hour and thirty-six minutes (9'36" mile pace, and I feel sure I can do faster than that once I've built up a longer history with the long-distance thing). I am having such a pang that I have wasted all this time without doing marathons, I will not be able to do one before this time next year at the earliest I think but I am doing my first half-marathon in Philadelphia in a month and another in January and after that we will see. I think I am going to do the Running Center's Summer/Fall Marathon Training Program; I will see if I can get a spot in the New York Marathon in the lottery, but if I can't, I'll do the Philadelphia Marathon in 2007 and meanwhile run the nine New York Road Runners races in 2007 that give you an automatic spot in 2008. Hmmm... I like it that I've unleashed my obsessive/extreme side on the problem of exercise...

Friday, October 20, 2006

A community of sentimental, wealthy, agnostic Adam Smithians?

David Wootton has a pretty great piece about Deirdre McCloskey's new book The Bourgeois Virtues at the TLS (no subscription required). It's a wonderfully well-handled mix of the scathing and the sympathetic; definitely one for the model-book-review files (model as in technically rather than morally exemplary, though actually this seems to me a very responsible and charming way of handling what sounds like a maddening though also very interesting book).

Thursday, October 19, 2006


at finding something great for the blog is at war in my heart with absolute horror. Check it out (the story's by Alison Hawkes for the Herald-Standard):

Embattled U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum said America has avoided a second terrorist attack for five years because the "Eye of Mordor" has instead been drawn to Iraq.

Santorum used the analogy from one of his favorite books, J.R.R. Tolkien's 1950s fantasy classic, "Lord of the Rings," to put an increasingly unpopular war in Iraq into terms any school kid could easily understand.

"As the hobbits are going up Mount Doom, the Eye of Mordor is being drawn somewhere else," Santorum said, describing the tool the evil Lord Sauron used in search of the magical ring that would consolidate his power over Middle-earth.

"It's being drawn to Iraq and it's not being drawn to the U.S.," he continued. "You know what? I want to keep it on Iraq. I don't want the Eye to come back here to the United States."

The 12-year Republican senator from Pennsylvania said he's "a big Lord of the Rings fan." He's read the first of the series, "The Hobbit" to his children (he has six).

(Thanks to A. for the link.)

A depressing and somewhat sensationalistic

but of course also on that front rather grippingly interesting piece at the Guardian: Yehuda Koren and Eilat Negev on the relationship between Ted Hughes and Assia Wevill, who killed herself and the child she had with Hughes four years after the death of Sylvia Plath. (The first place I think I read about Assia Wevill was Fay Weldon's extremely interesting and scatterbrained memoir Auto Da Fay.)

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Walking across a frozen sea

An interesting piece at the TLS, Jonathan Ree on the mutual illumination of Kierkegaard and Hans Christian Andersen:

Copenhagen was still a small walled city in the first half of the nineteenth century, so it was inevitable that Kierkegaard and Andersen would be acquainted with each other, at least to the extent of exchanging nods of recognition when they met in the street. No one knows when they first set eyes on each other, but in his autobiography Andersen mentions an encounter in 1837 which was evidently not their first. Both of them were members of a rebellious younger generation, but their experiences of life could hardly have been more different. Andersen had been born in provincial Odense in 1805, his mother an illiterate, hard-drinking washerwoman and his father a cultivated cobbler who died in his early thirties, leaving the eleven-year-old Andersen to fend for himself and move away to Copenhagen to seek his fortune. (It seems he also had a sister who went there to work as a prostitute, though Andersen preferred to put it about that he was an only child.)

Kierkegaard, on the other hand, was the seventh child of a pious Copenhagen businessman who would live to the age of eighty-one, always supporting his son financially, and providing him with a legacy that should have allowed him to spend the rest of his life as a pampered dandy. At the time of their meeting in 1837, Kierkegaard was twenty-four and a student, still under his father’s thumb, and he had published nothing apart from a few forgettable pieces of student journalism; while Andersen was thirty-two, and already had fourteen books to his name, comprising verses in a rustic, Romantic style, European travelogues, and above all some long sentimental novels, of which he had just published his third, known as Only a Fiddler!. He was also on the point of becoming a prodigious international success: his novels would shortly be translated into English, and a spin-off poem called The Fiddler would soon be given an unforgettable musical setting by Robert Schumann.

At times

when I am reading a ton of stuff for fun/intellectual play I often guiltily find the issues of the TLS and the New York Review of Books piling up unread; it's when I'm too busy to have non-work-related book-reading (i.e. the last six weeks, it's making me slightly crazy and actually I just picked up the two plays I need to read for a discussion group tomorrow & realized that after having already today written a book review and taken care of edits on another and lectured on Tom Jones and held office hours and had various important meetings with students really and actually from dawn till dusk my brain was going to totally bust if I tried to read anything to do with the eighteenth century and I am just going to have to give the evening over to calm mental relaxation preferably involving a bit of blogging and a novel with supernatural creatures of some kind and take the plays up again in the morning tomorrow when I will have been in theory mentally refreshed by sleep) that they come to seem such a godsend. Intellectual stimulation in small doses, also conveniently able to lie flat on the table in front of me while I eat my dinner!

So I have been avidly consuming the more literary or otherwise interesting-to-me-and-not-policyish end of stuff in the NYRB. Last week (no point listing everything, lots of good things) there was Luc Sante on H. P. Lovecraft (available online to non-subscribers) and a very good essay about Proust by Graham Robb (not sure who that link will work for--let me know if it gets you through without a Columbia ID?--but it is a great relief that the Columbia library's finally sorted out the electronic subscription, I have been grumbling for ages on principle about the unreasonableness of having to pay an additional sum for an electronic subscription, it is what I will not do...) and also a very striking essay by Istvan Deak about police informers in Communist Hungary; this week Joyce Carol Oates on Margaret Atwood (no subscription required) and a great piece by Darryl Pinckney about Colson Whitehead's latest novel Apex Hides the Hurt (not sure about the link's accessibility again, but I especially liked this because I am a fan of both guys' writing and it's nice to see the one appreciating the other).

So all of this is well and good. But really the point of this (I hope uncharacteristically) rambling and roundabout and altogether-more-confessional-than-usual entry is to say something quite different. There is the most wonderful thing published in two parts over these two issues, and if you only read one thing this whole year in the New York Review of Books this is what it must be.

It's David Bromwich on Lincoln, and it would be good if they published some version of it in a little chapbook, it is a very wise and compelling piece of writing and I would buy several copies for Xmas presents. (Oh dear, that is a frivolous way of expressing it, but I really do feel the need to press this text on everyone I know.)

Here's part one, which opens with these wonderful and Hazlitt-tinctured yet deeply Bromwichian sentences (it is a matter of style and of substance, there's both a ring in the words and a particular sidewaysness in the insight that are characteristic of his mode of thinking, like a maxim from La Rochefoucauld made more supple and humanized by the workings of the moral imagination): "Abraham Lincoln knew himself well—something we seldom allow for and perhaps do not want in a great man. It is harder to feel a legitimate pride in our own understanding when the hero has been there first."

(There are times when I am willing to concede that the essay can match the novel blow for blow when it comes to the intellectual and ethical investigation of character.)

And here is part two. If you can't click through with those links, perhaps send me an e-mail and I will see if I can e-mail them to you, these really are something special.

(Full disclosure: David Bromwich was one of my dissertation advisors, and if I were the type to be an intellectual acolyte--which I am not, not at all, nor is he the type to encourage such behavior--I would definitely sign on for this one. I learned more from that guy than from any other teacher I've ever had. And I learned a lot from a lot of the other teachers too, I have been very lucky in my teachers, so this is not a casual statement.)

Here's a particularly striking bit from the second part (it's a review essay, really, about recent Lincoln biographies by Richard Carwardine and Doris Kearns Goodwin):

A second popular fallacy has crept into recent discussions of the Civil War in the light of the present "war on terror." Two groups, unrestricted libertarians and admirers of an imperial presidency, now look back on Lincoln as a radical innovator in the use of emergency powers. Libertarians deplore what they think Lincoln did, while champions of executive power endorse it, but the two agree that he went extraordinarily far. How true is this? Let us remember that Lincoln was president at a time not of foreign but of civil war, the only extended war on American soil, when the very existence of the republic was in peril. He spoke of the situation candidly: "Must a government, of necessity, be too strong for the liberties of its own people, or too weak to maintain its own existence?" He had both a profound and a practical love of liberty, and a notably unexaggerated view of the meaning of "maintaining its own existence." He was in fact, by the standards of later presidents such as Roosevelt, Nixon, and George W. Bush, restrained in his use of emergency powers. Lincoln went by a contracted not an expansive definition of state security.

His first invocation of such powers gives a sense of the purpose that informed his policy. Habeas corpus was suspended in 1861 to protect the railroad—used for the transportation of soldiers and supplies—against the danger that rioters in secessionist Maryland would tear up the tracks. A celebrated later episode turned on the arrest by General Burnside of the anti-Union demagogue Clement Vallandigham (an Ohio congressman and later a gubernatorial candidate): an arrest that Lincoln, without having ordered it, defended in a closely reasoned public letter. Having made his argument, he drew back and offered to revoke the order against Vallandigham if his supporters would swear not to foment desertion and sabotage.

But here's the part from the first half of the review that had me thinking for days afterwards:

Goodwin's subtitle [The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln] makes a point that is easily missed. The political genius of Lincoln appears most sharply in the collective talents of his cabinet. We may thus be reminded of two sorts of biography she has the wit not to attempt: the portrait of a solitary genius in politics, and the sequence of facts about a man who was president when important things happened around him. Both of those stories have been told about Lincoln, and both are misleading, but the second is the more pernicious and more apt to be taken seriously today. When Lincoln said in a late letter to Albert Hodges, "I claim not to have controlled events, but confess plainly that events have controlled me," he was employing a stock formula of humility whose sense was evasive and concessive. Yet the statement has given deterministic historians, from his time to ours, all the evidence they need to convict him of playing a subordinate role in the inexorable march of events.

Goodwin asks us to regard Lincoln not as an isolated hero, and not as a patient absorber of the shocks of impersonal forces, but as the first among peers who led the country through its most dangerous emergency. What is a cabinet? In a constitutional system, it should represent neither the elite of a party nor the unmodified will of the people. Where persons of honor and competence are brought together and managed by a presiding intelligence—if the president knows who those people are and if the president is one who can lead and not just speak and sign—the cabinet becomes a well-adapted instrument for the public good, a body more coherent than a legislature and taking longer views than a king. To make it work, however, the president must have certain qualities. He must cherish an impartial curiosity about all the shades of opinion in the country he governs. He must want to hear bad news.

Lincoln determined from the first to make Seward his secretary of state—for the respect he commanded, for his worldly wisdom, and to reward all he had done to deliver a Republican victory in New York. Yet Seward differed with Lincoln immediately on the makeup of the cabinet. Lincoln believed it should exhibit the whole range of the party; Seward preferred to include nobody except former Whigs. Accordingly, he opposed the appointment of Chase, of Gideon Welles, and of Montgomery Blair, former Democrats whom he rightly saw as hostile to his interests. His New York ally Thurlow Weed backed this exclusionist plan, and told Lincoln that by taking on Chase at Treasury, Simon Cameron as secretary of war, Welles for the Navy, and Blair for postmaster general, he was building up a cabinet that threatened to overwhelm Seward at State, Bates as attorney general, and Caleb Smith in the Department of the Interior. It would simply make for a Democratic majority. "You seem to forget," said Lincoln, "that I expect to be there."

What is a cabinet, indeed?

I prefer not to link anymore

to the Evil Weekly That Shall Not Be Named, not since they let Ed Park go and in various other respects gutted their arts section; but a ghostly Park-like voice from the past has pronounced Light Reading the Evil Weekly's best local literary litblog for 2006. (It would be suitably Potteresque if there really was a newspaper called the Evil Weekly.) Also of note: best new New York noir is Sara Gran's excellent Dope (here's me raving last December about how much I loved it).

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Hospital fiction

The Guardian prints Julia Langdon's very nice obituary for nurse/romance-writer Lucilla Andrews (whose autobiography was an important source for Ian McEwan's Atonement):

She worked as a military nurse from 1937 to 1939, joined the British Red Cross on the outbreak of the second world war and was trained as a Nightingale nurse at St Thomas's hospital. She wrote vividly about nursing the injured from the Battle of Britain, delivering babies while bombs fell and was able to evoke such enthusiasm for nursing in her books that in later years she often received letters from readers who professed to have taken up the profession because of the influence of her writing. When her nurses home was hit by a V2 bomb in 1945, she grabbed two things from her room: her eyelash curlers and her file of notes for the books she wanted to write.

One of her patients was Chaim Weizmann, the founder and future first president of Israel, who was recovering from ophthalmic surgery in 1946. She records how she asked him: "How it must feel to be you, now you're founding a new state, a new world for your people. How does it feel?" She went on: "Dr Weizmann, his eyes still shaded, reflectively swallowed the final teaspoonful of his boiled egg and continued to reflect for some seconds. 'Troublesome, Nurse Andrews, troublesome'."

Phantoms in the brain

If you're interested, some of my thoughts on Richard Powers' novel The Echo Maker can be found over at Ed's place. It's one of those novels that makes me feel that not nearly a high enough percentage of my time is devoted to novel-writing, the novel really is almost the best way to explore a complex topic with intellectual and emotional heft--maybe the best way. The discussion itself was also very enjoyable, and Powers has responded to all of our comments in some very generous and thoughtful remarks that will be posted at the end of the week. It was great fun--I am having an insufficiency of novel-reading this semester (I mean, I'm reading lots of novels written in the eighteenth-century, and they are very delightful indeed--it is one of the great privileges of my job that I get to turn people on to these amazing books that they would quite likely otherwise never read at all, or not read at any rate in the immediate future--but reading eighteenth-century novels for teaching purposes, while delightful in its own way, does not satisfy the same urge that drives me to want to read--these are the ones most immediately awaiting my attention and sending out their alluring little "beep, beep, read me" signals which I am resolutely and virtuously ignoring--The Good Fairies of New York, Fragile Things and The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million).

Monday, October 16, 2006

This week

at Return of the Reluctant: a roundtable discussion of Richard Powers' excellent new novel The Echo Maker. I really loved the book--I'll link once my (minor) contribution to the discussion goes up later in the week.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Dante today

My dear friend Arielle Saiber, associate professor of Italian literature at Bowdoin College, has made a quite wonderful website featuring citings and sightings of Dante in a wide variety of contemporary media--go and take a look if you've got any interest in the subject.

Paul Collins on the closing of CBGB

at Slate: go and check it out, it's a good one (like everything this guy writes):

Like most rock musicians, I gave up being a rock musician years ago. A couple of months after my first kid was born, I looked out over a club drum riser in San Francisco and asked—What am I doing here?—came home, tossed my kit into the basement nook next to the water heater, and never rode shotgun in an Econoline again. I'm a historian now, and when I see the address 315 Bowery, I don't hear feedback or a squeaking kick pedal; I hear the clicking of mice and the whirring of microfilm through public-property deeds and old newspapers. After all, CBGB is just one measure of that land parcel's long, dissonant, odd-time composition.

I had a funny conversation with my brother J. a few years ago when a band he was playing in at the time had an opening gig at CBGB. It seemed to me that this was the equivalent for him of a landmark event for me a year or so previously, having my first novel reviewed in the NYTBR. If you could say to your twelve-year-old self "You will play in a band that plays at CBGB" or "You will publish a novel that will be reviewed in the Times," your twelve-year-old self would be able to, you know, sit back and relax in the foreknowledge that life would turn out pretty much how it should.

It is almost certainly impossible to say this without sounding annoyingly smug or self-satisfied, but I feel grateful every single day that the life I have now is exactly the life I hoped for from the time I was about ten years old. I have a virtually infinite supply of books (also a cat) and no constraints on obtaining more when I want them (my mother was a good sport about this when I was little, but during the summer especially I would pester her to take me to the public library which was beyond walking distance for a very young person & would get there and check out the maximum of twelve books & by twenty-four hours later would have read them all, even though I knew I wouldn't be able to go again for at least a week, it was awful & displayed a signal lack of self-control), I spend almost all my time reading and thinking and writing, I get to go to interesting talks and know lots of writers and scholarly geniuses of various kinds and keep completely irregular hours when I want to. Seriously, my ten-year-old self would have been extremely relieved to know that in future existence there would be nobody to tell me not to read at the table! And Amazon (and enough money to buy what I want there, within reason) and my particular favorite BorrowDirect would have sounded like a science-fictional dream come true.

Gregoire Bouillier's mother

conceived him during a threesome and told him this made him a mutant (the essay is in the Times Magazine this week, translated by Violaine Huisman and Lorin Stein):

[W]hen my mother met my father, she was 16. He was 18. It was 1956, and they were at a dance party on the outskirts of Paris. My father was playing drums in a little jazz band; my mother helped him with the dishes; within a year they were married and my brother was born.

Two months later my father was called up for his military service, which at the time was mandatory in France. It wasn’t a good moment to be doing your patriotic duty. Thanks to what was not yet called the Algerian War, my father would spend three years in uniform instead of the usual 18 months. He was stationed at Tizi Ouzou, the capital of Great Kabylia, where, according to him, nothing much ever happened.

Being separated so soon from her husband came as a blow to my mother. Before anyone knew what was going on, she took matters into her own hands: she left the baby with her in-laws and went off to Algeria to find the man she loved. For a 17-year-old girl, in those days, this showed real spirit.

When she arrived, my parents leapt into each other’s arms. Not just each other’s either. One of the internists at the Tizi Ouzou hospital fell under my mother’s spell, which was powerful; soon he was joining them in bed. I was conceived during one of their threesomes.

“You are a love child,” my mother used to tell me when I was little. I never knew quite what this meant, though the sound of it made me uneasy. When she revealed (much later, and under questioning) the circumstances surrounding my conception, she passed along something she claimed to have read in a magazine: that when two men ejaculate into a woman’s vagina, their sperm, instead of competing, team up to fertilize the ovum, and they create a mutant. At the time, I didn’t dare ask what kind of mutant she was talking about. Something like one of the Fantastic Four? Possibly the Thing?

Seriously, it's like something out of a Houellebecq novel; I've been meaning to read The Mystery Guest, but this rather clinches it....

The time-torn man

Richard Holmes has a lovely review of Claire Tomalin's Hardy biography at the Guardian Review. When I was a Young Person I had an obsession with literary biography (Holmes himself was a particular favorite, and I still find myself often recommending his books--the Shelley and Coleridge ones in particular, I think the decision to split the Coleridge life into two volumes was unmatched genius) and read them constantly, but at some point it became too close to what I might do for work, and in fact I rarely find myself reading one these days unless it's strictly related to research. But then literary biography seems to be losing its prominence as a genre--what was I reading about this recently? Its heyday came in the 1980s and 1990s, this person was arguing, and it has now been somewhat displaced at least in the marketplace by other kinds of narrative nonfiction. NB good ongoing series of jokes about literary biography in Martin Amis's flawed but often very funny (and apt-about-the-unsuccessful-writer's-life for sure) novel The Information.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

At Columbia next week

Friday, October 20
7:30 - 9:30 PM, 501 Schermerhorn Hall

The Department of English and Comparative Literature presents "The Function of the Little Magazine at the Present Time," a panel discussion with three of the four editors of n+1 magazine, Keith Gessen, Benjamin Kunkel, and Marco Roth. Professor Bruce Robbins will moderate. Free for students; $5 for everyone else.

I hope the money is going to a good cause (the coffers of n+1 count as a good cause), I find it galling to pay money for literary events esp. on campus...

Friday, October 13, 2006

Sad boys

At the Seattle Stranger, a provocatively titled excerpt from Stephen Elliott's new book, My Girlfriend Comes to the City and Beats Me Up. That's one I've definitely got to get and read, I have found his writing unusually compelling (Happy Baby in particular is one that everyone should read, it's quite amazing).

On journalism and pariahdom

Anna Politkovskaya, the Russian journalist murdered last weekend in Moscow, on the obligation to keep writing.

The self-promotion of a marketing master

Paul Devlin on Ernest Hemingway and other famous literary self-promoters at Slate:

He was always showing up in some high-circulation magazine like Life with a big fish on the hook or hunting rifle in hand. His visage was (and is) immediately recognizable. And he had no problem letting that familiar visage appear in ads, for which he also wrote the copy. In one he promotes Ballantine Ale (while sitting in a deck chair with a book open) writing, "You have to work hard to deserve to drink it. When something has been taken out of you by strenuous exercise, Ballantine puts it back in." There's one for Pan American Airlines ("We started flying commercially about the same time. They did the flying. I was the passenger."), and another for Parker 51, "The World's Most Wanted Pen," to whose ad Hemingway lent his face and a paragraph (presumably in his handwriting) on the horrors of war.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Public service announcement

Oh dear, I don't know why I'm in such a scathing mood this morning, but reading Charles Isherwood's glowing review in today's Times of the Roundabout's revival of Shaw's play Heartbreak House made me remember I'd meant to issue a warning to potential theater-goers: not a good play, not a good production. I saw it over the weekend and found it regrettably bad (and they're doing that awful fake-English-accent thing where you feel that the poor actors are concentrating so hard on the accents that they are hardly paying any attention to the meaning of what they're saying). Hard to imagine why anyone thought this one worth reviving: seriously, the main reason to go and see this is if you're a young playwright daunted by the thought of the genius of Shaw & will find it psychologically enabling to see how weak some of his plays were. The first half is amusing but vaguely pointless, the second half quite absurdly self-serious and awful. And I love Shaw, so it was a great disappointment.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Blood, lipids, marrow

A wonderfully morbid story at New York Magazine about the deboning of Alastair Cooke and other matters. Seriously Dickensian. That funeral home was pretty near to where I live, too....

Forty years on

Keith Thomas and Stella Tillyard revisit the TLS "New Ways in History" debates. NB I heard a startlingly good talk a few weeks ago on the topic of current trends in history-writing, by one of my Columbia colleagues; when the book's in print, I'll definitely link....

This is non-literary

but completely enchanting, I have always been particularly fond of camels. From the AP at the New York Times, Scientists Find More Bones of Big Camels (stories like this always make me wish I was writing insane Crichtonesque thrillers like Congo, only in this case of course it would open in Damascus):

Hunters stalked giant camels as tall as some modern-day elephants in the Syrian desert tens of thousands of years ago and archaeologists behind the find are wondering where the camels came from and what caused them to die off.

The enormous beasts existed about 100,000 years ago and more of the bones, first discovered last year, have been found this year in the sands about 150 miles north of the capital, Damascus.

The animal, branded the "Syrian Camel" by its Swiss and Syrian discoverers, stood between three and four yards high -- about twice the size of latter-day camels and the height at the shoulder of many African elephants.

"The camel is a dromedary but extremely big and extremely tall -- about double the size of a modern day camel," said Jean-Marie Le Tensorer, who led the Swiss side of the team.

The camels did not appear to have been bred by humans as beasts of burden, the scientists said, raising questions about its provenance -- and disappearance.

"What we want to know now is: where did it come from, and why did it disappear never to be seen again? Was it migrating from Asia to Africa?" said the team's Syrian leader, Heba al-Sakhel.

Le Tensorer said humanoid bones were discovered at a nearby site and stone tools used by early humans were found with the camel's bones, which are thought to be up to 100,000 years old.

"The bones -- a fragment of an arm and a tooth -- are, of course, of the hunter of the giant camel. He probably stalked his prey to a water spring where he came to drink," said Le Tensorer.

"Ordinary camels appeared in the (Middle East) region some 6,000-7,000 years ago and, for the first time, we have a wild form and very, very old," he said.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

A forum on memoirs and blogging

at the Columbia Record, and here's my contribution (in which I explain why my blog will not become the basis of a memoir).

The build-up to the Booker Prize

has completely passed me by this year (a sign that last September was insufficiently full of other distractions, I think), but Kiran Desai has won this year's prize for The Inheritance of Loss. Earlier today I was reading John Crace's digested shortlist and having two contradictory thoughts: (a) while I find his "digested in 400 words" features almost invariably very funny, there's something dispiriting about seeing a whole heap of them all together like that--not good for the soul; (b) I am not having much of a desire to read any of the finalists. I seem to be off certain kinds of literary fiction recently--it's partly because I've had so little time for reading, but I find that what I've got I want either for nonfiction or for my particularly favorite kind of literary stuff (nb Richard Powers counts) or else, you know (but I don't seem to have had enough of these around recently), trashy novels about vampires. The Booker Prize needs more vampires!

Monday, October 09, 2006

A pumped-up version of oneself

Adam Liptak at the New York Times tells the story of a prosecutor whose self-published novel got her bumped from a case that bore a close resemblance to the one in her book. What I like: the brief quotations from the novel.

“Intoxicating Agent,” which Ms. Dudley paid to have printed, is made notable by Ms. Dudley’s acknowledgment to a local newspaper that her fictional heroine was “a pumped-up version” of herself.

Ms. Danner, Ms. Dudley writes, has “the poise and sexiness of a dancer, the brains of a scholar and the protective passion of a mother.”

“She had always been attractive,” Ms. Dudley continues, “but now, having reached middle age, experience, confidence and poise further enhanced her beauty.”

Oh dear.... Not that there is anything wrong with the wish-fulfilling main character thing, lots of good crime novels have idealized versions of the author in the place of investigator.

On blood-selling and censorship

Just read this story (but it's very discouraging).

Sunday, October 08, 2006

The torpedo of mediocrity

From William Godwin, Memoirs of the Author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1798):

About the middle of the year 1788, Mr. Johnson instituted the Analytical Review, in which Mary took a considerable share. She also translated Necker on the Importance of Religious Opinions; made an abridgment of Lavater's Physiognomy, from the French, which has never been published; and compressed Salzmann's Elements of Morality, a German production, into a publication in three volumes duodecimo. . . . It perhaps deserves to be remarked that this sort of miscellaneous literary employment, seems, for the time at least, rather to damp and contract, than to enlarge and invigorate, the genius. The writer is accustomed to see his performances answer the mere mercantile purpose of the day, and confounded with those of persons to whom he is secretly conscious of a superiority. No neighbour mind serves as a mirror to reflect the generous confidence he felt within himself; and perhaps the man never yet existed, who could maintain his enthusiasm to its full vigour, in the midst of this kind of solitariness. He is touched with the torpedo of mediocrity.

The adjectival style

Rachel Cooke interviews Barbara Taylor Bradford at the Observer Woman. This one gave me a pang, my English grandmother would have liked it: she loved those books. (They were the first ones I ever read, I think, where the heroines all have emerald or violet or turquoise eyes.)

Friday, October 06, 2006

Lots of good things

at the Guardian Review; I am slightly horrified to see there's a whole new round of ambivalent pieces about Jonathan Franzen now that The Discomfort Zone's been released in Britain (I want to read that book for myself, I read a bunch of reviews that convinced me it's a must-read--will link once I get to it), but more appealingly there's Chris Petit on Derek Raymond (it was pre-blog when I discovered Derek Raymond c. 1997-98, but rest assured that I was completely obsessed and couldn't stop talking about him, he is one of the great literary geniuses of the twentieth century in my opinion--one of these days I'm going to reread all of his books and rave here about how amazing they are) and Michael Dibdin on the new thriller from Benjamin Black aka John Banville. My alternate-universe self is living in a very grimy studio apartment in the West Village (sixth-floor walkup) and writing noir novels possibly with vampire/shapeshifting elements to them, and working the night shift word-processing somewhere in the Financial District to pay the rent.

Baby steps

From Richard Powers, The Echo Maker (it is now more than a year since I smoked what I fully intend to be my last cigarette ever, or if "ever" sounds overly dramatic then at any rate for a very long time, I have no intention of relapsing & in fact am currently suffering from a wretched cold that would be far, far worse were I still a smoker so it is direct confirmation of the rightness of quitting, and yet this struck me as a wonderfully good description--the female protagonist's brother is in the hospital with serious head trauma following a car crash):

Coatless, she cut a surveyor's line to the Shell station she'd been daydreaming about for a week. She pasted a sum on the counter and asked for a pack of Marlboros. The cashier laughed at her: two dollars short. Six years since she'd thought of buying a cigarette, and the price had doubled while she was stupidly staying clean. She made up the difference and dragged the prize outside. She put one to her lips, already buzzing from the taste of the filter. With a shaking hand, she lit it and drew in. A cloud of indescribable relief expanded in her lungs and inked into her limbs. Eyes closed, she smoked half the cigarette, then carefully stubbed it out and slipped the unsmoked half back into the back. When she returned to the hospital, she sat on a cold bench in the horseshoe drive, just outside the sliding glass doors, and smoked the other half. She would brake her descent as much as possible, a long, slow ride back to exactly where she'd been before her six brutally won years. But she'd savor every baby step back down into enslavement.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

War correspondents

The Powell's Review-a-Day site posts Christopher Benfey's fascinating New Republic review of the selected letters of Martha Gellhorn, edited by Caroline Moorehead.

In York to collect the pay

Mary Beard has a great piece at the TLS on life in Roman Britain (no subscription required). I've pasted in a big chunk of it below because I found it so appealing; I am addicted to this sort of thing from reading the novels of Rosemary Sutcliffe as a child. It would make an interesting topic for an essay--well, probably someone's written it already--the obsession with Britishness in the English children's literature of my (American but British-inflected) childhood, it's there in Susan Cooper (who is I believe American) as well. And obviously the Roman empire is still totally the model for everything from Star Trek to Star Wars, it's the pattern our imaginations run along when we want to meditate on that sort of thing. I'm too lazy to look for the link, but Garth Nix (whose Sabriel trilogy is one of my particular favorite things in all the world) wrote somewhere about the whole thing being inspired by a photograph of Hadrian's Wall in which the landscape south of the wall is all green and luxuriant, while the bit to the north is still completely covered with snow. Evocative.

Anyway, here's Beard:

Hadrian’s Wall must have been a decidedly undesirable posting for a soldier in the Roman army. Many a British schoolchild has reflected on just how undesirable it was, with the help of W. H. Auden’s engaging piece of doggerel, “Roman Wall Blues”:

Over the heather the wet wind blows
I’ve lice in my tunic and a cold in my nose.
The rain comes pattering out of the sky
I’m a Wall soldier; I don’t know why.
The mist sweeps over the hard grey stone
My girl’s in Tungria; I sleep alone . . . .

And so on, in much the same vein.

What neither the children nor, I suspect, most of their teachers have often realized is that this poem – as its title hints – was originally a song, with music by Benjamin Britten (quite how “Blues-y” Britten managed to be we shall probably never know, for his score is lost). It was written to be part of a radio documentary for the Home Service broadcast in 1937, on the ancient and modern history of the Wall. In fact, this Reithian background probably explains some of the poem’s coyness: when Auden goes on to characterize an irritating Christian mess-mate as being against “kissing” (“There’d be no kissing if he had his wish”), it’s hard not to imagine that Auden had something a bit more raunchy in mind.

Auden’s script of the whole programme survives intact. It is an imaginative interweaving of two stories. The first features a motley family of tourists making a visit to the fort at Housesteads: the kids are enthralled by their guidebook’s account of the building of the Wall; Dad refuses to be impressed (“I’m glad they put up notices to tell you what’s what. It looks to me more like a housing estate after the builder’s gone broke”). The second story, told in song and spoken dialogue, is that of the Roman garrison, with their discomforts and troubles, lice and all. It ends on an unsettling note, as Auden poses the question that dogs so many histories of Roman Britain: whose side are we on in this conflict between invader and native? Auden’s answer is bleak and even-handed. There is little to choose between Romans and Britons and not much moral difference between (Roman) Imperialism and (native) barbarity: “That man is born a savage, there needs no other proof than the Roman Wall. It characterizes both nations as robbers and murderers”. The very last line of the script must have struck home in the late 1930s: “Whoever deprives an unoffending man of his right, is a barbarian”.

The fact that Auden’s lyrics are less well known now than they were twenty or thirty years ago has little to do with changing tastes in poetry, and not much to do with the disappearance of Classics from the school syllabus (the Romans in Britain still have a secure place in Key Stage 2 of the National Curriculum). It has more to do with the fact that teachers can now offer their pupils authentic Roman voices from the Wall and dispense with Auden’s ventriloquism. These voices come from the famous documents that since the 1970s have been unearthed at the fort of Vindolanda. Never mind the fact that Vindolanda is actually a mile south of the Wall, or that the overwhelming majority of the preserved texts date from a period before it was even built. The documents discovered there, written on small sheets of wood – letters, complaints, lists and accounts – bring us much closer to real Roman soldiers than Auden ever could. How far they have captured the scholarly and popular imagination is shown by a television vote on Britain’s “Top Ten Treasures” in 2003. BBC viewers put them second only to the finds from Sutton Hoo.

Out of the hundreds of texts so far discovered, the popular favourite is a letter from the wife of one officer to another, inviting her to a birthday celebration (“I give you a warm invitation to make sure that you come to us, to make the day more enjoyable for me by your arrival”). This has been a godsend to teachers looking for a female angle in the generally blokeish world of Roman military history. It has also launched a load of nonsense about just how like us the Romans were (they even had birthday parties . . . ). More interesting are the apparently more austere documents. A “Strength Report”, for example, of the cohort garrisoning Vindolanda at the end of the first century AD gives the lie to our usual image of cohesive, individual units of the Roman army, based all together at a single camp. Out of the 750 soldiers who made up this cohort, more than half were absent from base: including over 300 at the neighbouring fort at Corbridge, a handful on some business in Gaul, eleven in York “to collect the pay”. When you subtract the fifteen sick, the six wounded and the ten squaddies with an eye infection, only 265 at Vindolanda were “fit for active service”. Other documents in the collection give the Roman view of the military capabilities of the “bloody Brits” (Brittunculi), list the impressive quantity of poultry consumed in the officers’ mess, request that hunting nets be sent, or record the dispatch of new underwear.

At the Guardian

Lucy Mangan considers some of the books and authors that have meant the most to her, including Enid Blyton:

I am listing Blyton instead of a single book because the fact is, she wrote the same one eight billion times a year: it is both pointless and practically impossible to elevate one above another. Wherever you start, you will soon have the measure of proto-lesbian George, dickless Dick, Anne the idiot, Julian the interwar home counties' answer to Jack Bauer, and Timmy the dog. They neither change, evolve nor behave in any way approximating that of real people, probably because their inventor was possessed of only two adjectives - "Queer!" and "Rather queer!" - which weren't as interesting then as they are now.

But it doesn't matter. Just as the plottiness of Dan Brown or Jeffrey Archer is sometimes all you're up for in adult life, so Blyton's linear, literal narratives are all kids require at some point or other. If you're a natural reader, you may realise after the capture of the 97th group of smugglers in a not-particularly-well-hidden cove that you are ready for a spot of characterisation or some oblique light commentary on the human condition. If you're not, you probably won't. But you will have learned something about telling a good story - and how to make a bed out of bracken.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

The technological sublime

Jill Owens interviews Richard Powers at Powell's. He says some things about voice that make me unbelievably impatient to read The Echo Maker: I've got it right here, am hoping if possible to squeeze it in somewhere this weekend....

Best kept guinea pig

Lots of book-related stuff at the New York Observer this week, including Adam Begley on Cormac McCarthy's new novel (it's a thoughtful review, but doesn't persuade me this is one for me to read, though I prefer post-apocalyptic to Western as a mode: the only McCarthy novel I've read is All the Pretty Horses, didn't take to it at all, in fact McCarthy is on my short list of novelists that might be worth reading just so I can explain why I dislike their books with greater conviction and less irrational prejudice); also, Robert Gottlieb on the recent spate of books and movies about Britain's royals. I definitely want to see The Queen (strange to say, unless I'm misremembering I have not seen a single movie in 2006; the last thing I remember seeing was Syriana, which I found myself referring to in class the other day). Resolution for 2007: see more movies! This has been my resolution every year for the past five or six, never happens, but there's always a chance....

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Legislating virtue?

Lionel Shriver (at the Australian) takes down the notion that art should be censored. It's a great piece, go and read it for yourself; these are the last two paragraphs (she's got a good tone, doesn't she?):

Until some new self-righteous law stops me, I will continue to write characters who don't follow the rules. My characters are not necessarily representative of the communities in which they live, and I will not hesitate to make them Armenian or Catholic or Pakistani, even if they're not portrayed as perfectly emblematic of Armenians, Catholics or Pakistanis as a whole.

My characters are full of prejudices. My characters may not like Chinese people. My characters may believe that homosexuality is unnatural. My characters may slander Islam, or belief in crystals, or my father's Presbyterianism. My characters murder schoolchildren, plot to massacre two billion people overnight and hit their husbands over the head. My characters are obnoxious, spiteful, seething, difficult, resentful and inconsistent; and no, my characters will not always take their six-year-old kids to therapists to get help. My characters think abominations. In other words, my characters are the closest approximations I can contrive of real people.

(Thanks to Critical Mass for the link.)

Bonus: here's my post on Shriver's excellent novel Double Fault, which I have found myself thinking about very often since I read it; in fact, I see that Shriver has become part of the constellation of writers I refer to constantly here on the blog. I must see if I can get someone to let me do a real review of The Post-Birthday World when it comes out next year.