Saturday, March 31, 2007

Industrial magic

Philip Oltermann at the Guardian has a very nice little piece at the Guardian about the Quaker Homeless Action's mobile library--it will warm the cockles of your heart--really I need to embark on some massive and reading-related service-type project, it's at the back of my head but of course there are always more pressing things--however once my new novel comes out I am determined to get going on that, find a really good way of doing it (something to do with teenagers and libraries I suppose--maybe teenage felons--the other thing I read this week that made me feel absolutely ashamed was Jason DeParle's absolutely devastating NYRB piece about the American prison system, I always have this in the back of my head as the lurking thing that really I will be permanently ashamed of myself later for never having done anything about, I know people feel like this about animal rights & I take the point but surely we are going to look back from the middle of the 21st century--if the world has not started to fall apart in Mad Max-style post-apocalyptic chaos, which really I believe it will, although for some reason this does not stop me putting all my spare dollars in a retirement account, it's like going to the dentist even when you are skeptical about your own future!--and find our most devastating moral failure of these decades to have been the growth of an abusive and inhumane home-grown prison system that erodes the humanity of prisoners and guards and has destroyed the future of millions--DeParle calmly shows the scope of the fallout, it is pretty much what you suspected but still horrifying to see it on the page like this--very effective piece of writing, I must say...).

Friday, March 30, 2007

His hand around my throat

A magically good essay by Colm Toibin at the LRB site (no subscription required). It's indescribable, it's about everything (memory and loss and voices and Irish literature), but it's particularly about Beckett's actors (Jack MacGowran especially), and each paragraph is like a little world opening up. It is a scandal that I have not read any of this guy's novels, that must be remedied...

Really the essay is too good to excerpt, something about the flow from paragraph to paragraph makes me feel you must have it altogether, but here's a nice late aside:

Sometimes when I was teaching at Stanford last year I would go down into the bowels of the library late at night and, just to cheer myself up, watch both men perform as the students played Google games all around me. First, Magee in Eh Joe from 1972. The face sensuous, the expression mournful but oddly flexible, the mouth trembling, the lips full, the gaze full of deep intelligence and a sort of brutality, a figure for whom silence was natural but on whom the holding back of both thoughts and tears had taken its toll, so that at the end of this brilliant and sustained performance the trickling of tears comes to have enormous power.

And then MacGowran’s Krapp from 1970, made for American TV by Alan Schneider and never shown – out of loyalty to Magee, MacGowran had turned down an offer to make it in London a decade earlier. Look at it now: the eyes utterly beautiful, prominent, liquid, veiled; the face emaciated, drawn, haggard, lit as in a painting, managing to look young and old; the voice on tape like that of an RTE announcer, almost cheerful, but now troubled, frightened, a barrister turned beggar, both Lear and a Fool, both old Dublin and quite posh; the face suddenly alert and feral, the laughter fiercely ugly, and then the clownish tenderness in the eyes as he darts to listen; he is brilliant at conveying wondering, puzzlement, all fidgety and not at all like the man I remember in Gorey although I saw him in that same year. Here he is conveying the self as parchment, dried up despite the fire that was there once and which he manages also to convey. Death is in every darting gesture, every flicker, every sudden turn towards tenderness and a terrible melancholy, but there is too much life in the eyes, too much brooding memory for death to be anything more than a tasty shadow here. No use to anyone. This tape was lost for years and now exists merely in the basement of a few libraries. It is, by any standards, one of the treasures of our age.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

The post-birthday world

is a phrase that I feel should enter the standard lexicon--I rationalized reading Lionel Shriver's new novel The Post-Birthday World when I should have been doing other more immediately pressing things because (a) it seemed the perfect book to talk about at this style panel we did the other night and (b) it was good for my soul. Shriver is an amazing writer, definitely one of my touchstones--for various reasons having to do with my own personal psychology I still think that Double Fault is my particular favorite (here was what I wrote about it last year), but this one is a deep pleasure that should not be missed by anyone who loves reading long rich novels about human relationships.

The Post-Birthday World involves an interesting structural choice--the first chapter has the novel's protagonist Irina, an American children's book illustrator living in London with her staid solid think-tank employed partner Lawrence, spending an evening with their glamorous acquaintance Ramsey, a professional snooker-player; Irina and Lawrence always see Ramsey on his birthday, but this year Lawrence is out of town. When Ramsey suggests going back to his house after dinner to get stoned, Irina says yes, and as she sits & watches him shoot frames of snooker, she's overcome with the impulse to kiss him. The novel then unfolds in two parallel paths from this moment of choice, with two chapter twos, two chapter threes, etc. May sound gimmicky (and also reminiscent of the awful Sliding Doors, a movie whose only redeeming feature was Gwyneth Paltrow's nice haircut--my brother saw this by accident when the movie he was trying to see was sold out, & walked out in disgust--when he told me, I thought he was having general disapproval of this sort of movie--then I saw it on a plane and was truly appalled by its lameness, what a pointless thing for someone to have made), but it is a delight, I read it pretty much in one sitting.

I have a longstanding obsession with the question of whether we can talk about style as something moralized. Beyond the linguistic or strictly literary aspects of a novel's style, is it just a kind of fallacy to think that styles encapsulate moral orientations towards characters (i.e. would this be better reframed in more technical terms?), or is it fair? What happens when you make the leap from the stylistic to the moral in considering a prose style? And the reason this book's such a good one for illuminating this question arises from the parallel-tracks-ness of it. I must get sensibly down to work, cannot be sitting here writing about Lionel Shriver all morning, but here are two passages, the first from the post-birthday world in which Irina has kissed Ramsey (Lawrence has just arrived home the next evening, and Irina's in the kitchen cutting him a piece of the pie she baked the day before for his homecoming):

Leadenly, Irina removed the pie from the fridge. Chilling for under two hours, it wasn’t completely set. With any luck the egg in the filling had cooked thoroughly enough that the pie’s having been left out on the counter for a full day wasn’t deadly. Well, she herself wouldn’t manage more than a bite. (She’d not been able to eat a thing since that last spoonful of green-tea ice cream. Though there had been another cognac around noon . . . ) The slice she cut for herself was so slight that it fell over. For Lawrence, she hacked off a far larger piece—Lawrence was always watching his weight—than she knew he wanted. The wedge sat fat and stupid on the plate; the filling drooled. Ramsey didn’t need admiration of his snooker game, and Lawrence didn’t need pie.

She pulled an ale from the fridge, and pondered the freezer. Normally, she’d join him with a glass of wine, but the frozen Stolichnaya beckoned. Since she’d brushed her teeth, Lawrence needn’t know that she’d already knocked back two hefty belts of neat vodka to gird herself for his return. Spirits on an empty stomach wasn’t like her, but apparently acting out of character could slide from temporary liberation to permanent estrangement from your former self in the wink of an eye. She withdrew the frosted bottle, took a furtive slug, and poured herself a better-than-genteel measure. After all. They were “celebrating.”

And here's the post-birthday world in which Irina has virtuously suppressed her sexual attraction to Ramsey (Lawrence has just criticized her for having had a drink before he got home):

Scrutinized for signs of inebriation and disgusted with herself for having overimbibed the night before, in the kitchen Irina poured herself an abstemious half-glass of white wine. She pulled out the pie, which after chilling for a full day was nice and firm, and made picture-perfect slices that might have joined the duplicitous array of photographs over a Woolworth’s lunch counter. She shouldn’t have any herself; oddly, she’d snacked all afternoon. But countless chunks of cheddar had failed to quell a ravenous appetite, so tonight she cut herself a wide wedge, whose filling blushed a fleshy, labial pink. This she crowned with a scoop of vanilla. Lawrence’s slice she carefully made more modest, with only a dollop of ice cream. No gesture was truly generous that made him feel fat.

Interesting, eh? I leave you to draw your own conclusions...

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Two good things

of Wayne Koestenbaum's (both courtesy of the excellent Dave Lull). First of all, a delightful piece in the new issue of Bookforum (I'm going to post at greater length about that issue when I have a minute to spare, lots of other great stuff too) that opens with this mouth-watering sentence:

Here’s how I read Mallarmé’s prose, in Barbara Johnson’s lustrous new English translation: painfully, dutifully, passionately, a sentence at a time, while holding the French original in my other hand, so I can compare her sentence with his sentence, and so I can measure as accurately as possible each crevice where an adjective meets a noun, a comma meets a dependent clause.

Wayne is one of only a handful of writers (Toni Schlesinger's another) who makes me want to put their sentences in my mouth!

And here Tony Leuzzi interviews Wayne at Jacket Magazine. Mostly they're talking about sex and ottava rima (two very interesting topics, intersecting in the person of Byron) but there's a very funny and apt part about the writing process also, with regard to Wayne's own long ottava rima poem Model Homes:

WK: The book started as an exercise for myself. I wrote the warm-up, which appears before the “First Canto.” I was so happy to do this. I hadn’t had so much fun in years. I thought, “I’m going to write until I run out of inspiration.” I wrote much of it in August, which is the best month of writing for me because I go back to teaching in September and I’ve had a little leisure in the previous summer months, a kind of inner-fertilization period. I hit this August stride. Actually, it was in July. No, I wrote it in July. I started to revise the book in August. This is how I do most of my writing. I go with an impulse until it dies. And don’t give up. I get kind of obsessed and manic and work daily on the process and just keep going until I run out. It’s really hard to do. Since I wrote each of those cantos in a day, it was very hard to sustain it. I kept saying to myself “Don’t stop until you get to a satisfying number.” It was nine, but I completed fourteen or fifteen cantos and condensed them into twelve.

TL: Writing in form requires a good deal of discipline. Many writers write a long formal poem over a number of years. But you wrote it quickly.

WK: It did ultimately –– and this is the sad thing about spontaneity –– take several years. I wrote it that summer, spent a couple of months revising it, and then I showed it to a number of poet friends who told me the rhymes weren’t working. The original had much more approximate rhymes in it. Very approximate. Then I went back and reworked it. This process took me a year to make the rhymes as exact as I could and make the meter as exact as I could. This was Hell. By the time I had finished rewriting it, any memory of the original pleasure it had given me was gone.

That is a feeling every writer knows, and surely there is nothing to be done about it either. I like revising, it is often interesting and always essential, but I am deeply resentful of the long afterlife in editing of a project whose first draft seemed to use up all of the excitement and enthusiasm you had for it. I can work myself up again to enthusiasm as needed, but the problem is that the long spell of follow-up and reworking is generally incompatible with doing significant new writing, at least for me, so that you end up losing stretches of months that you had earmarked for the deep gratifications of new writing to the solid but less spiritually nourishing fare of revision.

A lost love

Lots of good free content in the latest NYRB, including Pankaj Mishra on Hisham Matar and Laila Lalami and a rather funny but very good piece on Shakespeare and the uses of power by Stephen Greenblatt (my personal opinion is that if I should ever find myself shaking hands with the president of the United States, whoever that might be, I would be physically incapable of uttering the words "Mr. President" with a straight face--it is my Quaker education, I just feel unbelievably over the top using ostentatious titles, and in fact when I went to college it was a nasty shock to realize that the custom was indeed to say "Professor X" when you spoke to a professor--I feel unbelievably obsequious when I address someone this way, I have to give it a mildly satirical flavor just in order to feel myself--but more importantly Greenblatt's is the third thing I've read recently that makes me realize I must, must, must read Bernard Williams, a shocking gap in my knowledge of things I care about).

Quite a lot of other good stuff isn't online (Hilary Mantel on Adam Sisman's Wordsworth-Coleridge book, Keith Thomas with a very funny and apt mini-essay about Hugh Trevor-Roper, Daniel Kevles on the history of chemical warfare--really it's full of other interesting things too, I can't be listing everything here!) but the one I particularly commend to your attention is a lovely essay by Colm Toibin about Andre Aciman's new novel. (If you're Columbia-affiliated, you can read it here; otherwise, hit the library or the newsstand...)

Really I am tempted to paste in the whole last part, but that is not sensible, so here's a taste (Toibin's reflecting here on a question that will undoubtedly have occurred to many readers of Call Me By Your Name--did Aciman himself, a married man with children, have a same-sex love affair as a teenager that corresponds to his narrator's?):

For most novelists, writing is a sly disturbance of the self, a spreading out of the self into places where only the spirit has ventured. Carlos Fuentes, for example, dining in a hotel in Zurich in 1950, could observe at another table Thomas Mann as a "quiet and dignified old man" having a meal with his wife and daughter. All of his life Mann has been battling with his own dignity, his solidity, his deeply conservative nature, working out ways to defrock himself in fiction, using parts of his own life, adding bits of the lives of Nietzsche, Mahler, Schoenberg, playing with ideas of violence, risk-taking, the demonic. In the meantime, he sat in the hotel doing a perfect imitation of an ordinary high-bourgeois man.

Some readers of André Aciman's novel may wish to ask how much of the book is autobiographical, as readers of "Death in Venice" asked, or other readers may wish to know how much of the book is a playful exploration of the private aspects of an imagined self. But there is another question which is more interesting and more fruitful. Call Me by Your Name seems to me a deeply autobiographical book not because the events may actually have taken place and merely been recorded by the author, much as Thomas Mann recorded in his diary entry for January 20, 1942, his memories of a similar lost love:

Read for a long time old diaries from the Klaus Heuser time, when I was a happy lover. The most beautiful and touching occasion the farewell in Munich, when for the first time I took "a leap into dreamland" and rested his temple on mine. Now indeed—lived and loved. Dark eyes that spilled tears for me, beloved lips that I kissed —this was it, I too had this, I can tell myself when I die.

The origins in autobiography of Call Me by Your Name lie not in its theme but in its shape. The golden summer, the sheer happiness of Elio as he finds Oliver and his misery when he loses him, can be read as a version, deeply embedded in metaphor, of Aciman's life in Alexandria and his exile from there, from what Cafavy calls its "exquisite music," which Aciman described in Out of Egypt. There were the servants and the summer, the family meals, the books and the music, the abundance of things; there too was the sense of an all-embracing and all-enclosing love but existing as Elio recounts in the novel only "on borrowed time." In both books there is an abiding sorrow for what was so glorious and is now so lost. Experience in both books is something that will seem more perfect in the light of the scattering which came afterward. Thus it seems that Aciman is not exploring or dramatizing a masked self but finding a new story with which to tell his own story, which seems to have come back to him in eloquent whispers, more erotically changed and consciously shaped the second time around.

Toibin then makes several other interesting points, about the politics of sex with minors and of fluid sexual identities as they are treated by Aciman--will be interesting to see how people respond to this one, these things are so controversial to talk about and yet it seems to me a deeply persuasive and perceptive piece. The Thomas Mann stuff is heartbreaking. And read Aciman's novel if you have not already, it is quite extraordinary!

Quantum computing and DNA origami

Theme for the day: science fact is even better than science fiction. Jonathan Hodgkin has a rather enchanting TLS piece about two recent books on biocomputing and twenty-first-century technology:

For solving some computational problems, it is possible to encode the problem in a complex soup of many different DNA molecules. Complementary DNA molecules are able to find and pair with one another, so with the right tricks a unique solution can be extracted from the soup. Gradually, more and more complicated problems are being attacked by this kind of approach, which is radically different from conventional computing. The second strand is the use of DNA in micro-fabrication, to construct minute structures by exploiting the ability of DNA to fold up in specific patterns dictated by base pairing. This process, sometimes called DNA origami, is tremendous fun, and has led to recent advances such as the synthesis of bits of DNA that spontaneously fold up into two-dimensional shapes like smiley faces, or maps of America. The smiley faces are a few millionths of an inch across, so they can only be seen with an atomic-force microscope, but they can be made by the billion, because it is so easy to replicate DNA. As a result, the scientists involved joked that they had been responsible for “the most concentrated happiness ever created”. Other scientists have gone on to make tiny motors attached to a DNA scaffold, or stable three-dimensional objects made of DNA. There seems to be no end in sight for ingenious creative developments in this area.


Semi-identical twins.

The peculiar genetic arrangements of marmosets.

Good stuff...

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Your fashionable women

At Tin House, Stephen Elliott tells the story of his homeless year, at age thirteen and then fourteen. Only part of it's available online--I've got to get the rest. Was tipped off to it by a good post at Weekend Stubble, whose proprietor Paul Collins also has a piece in the same issue of the magazine. It's not up on the website, but he gives an alluring taste:

In Italy [knapsack traveler Lee Meriwether] has a glass-eye maker blow white orbs in front of him and then explain why discerning customers demand two sets of glass eyes. ("The pupil is much smaller in daytime than at night, and your fashionable woman would not think of entering a ballroom with the pupils of her eyes of different sizes.")

On the topic of fashionable women, I saw a most enchanting movie last night, breaking a year-and-a-half-long non-movie-watching streak. (I think the last movie I saw in the theatre was Syriana, over Thanksgiving 2005. In the calendar year 2006, unless I am much misremembering, the sole movie I saw was The Woodsman on DVD at my brother's house--he worked on it, and we were particularly checking out the Philadelphia locations, though I thought Kevin Bacon was very good & the movie only marred by over-artsiness. That little girl in the red riding hood should have been banned. Resolution: to see more movies in 2007!) It was The Earrings of Madame de ..., and I loved it (here's a bit of Anthony Lane's New Yorker piece a few weeks ago); among other reasons, it's a great movie about lying, a perennial favorite topic of mine (that Danielle Darrieux is an extraordinary beauty with a face like you would not believe--also I am confirmed in my longstanding impression that arguments about lying are often interwoven with the theme of master-servant relations), but it's also got the most lovely and delightful details. My favorites: the lovely pack of hounds (I want one of those dogs!); the conversation about the Waterloo painting. Very good stuff, genuinely transporting.

Sunday, March 25, 2007


My colleague Karl Kroeber has some interesting thoughts on Columbia's Literature Humanities curriculum at the Spectator. (I mostly keep a fairly clear line between work thoughts and recreational thoughts, at times it amounts to a pretty effective cordon sanitaire but at this point in the school year the work stuff seems to be taking over!)

I did find time to read a couple much-anticipated young-adult novels over the past couple days, it is both a good and bad thing that these books are so short (bad because we want more): Catherine Gilbert Murdock's quite lovely The Off Season (sequel to Dairy Queen--these books are particularly indispensable reading for young-adult authors, I really love them--thanks to L. for getting me an advance copy BTW) and the immensely satisfying Magic's Child, the final installment in Justine Larbalestier's Magic or Madness trilogy. And the ending of this one seems to leave room for further installments! How excellent, I like it when trilogies turn into series--and I assume that Murdock will write more of her character's story also.

Bonus link: Magnus Linklater at the Times on the tyranny of the long-running hero (Rebus, Harry Potter, Sherlock Holmes et al.). It's a somewhat tongue-in-cheek piece, I think; I heartily deplore the over-long-running series myself (one of my betes noires is the kind of series where the main character doesn't age with the times, leading to implausibilities of many sorts--this is why certain writers would be better off adopting the Dick Francis-style "my characters are virtually indistinguishable from each other but just different enough that I can happily relocate them in the appropriate year with a cellphone and e-mail" method), but as a reader I always want more. Lee Child has said that Jack Reacher will die a couple books further along in a lonely motel room--this makes me sad, I want an infinite number of Reacher books, and yet it is certainly a more shapely way of concluding things than the option of continuing indefinitely...

150 revisions

Geraldine Bedell interviews A. L. Kennedy at the Guardian. It's a hilariously funny interview, in a bleak way (I identify with A. L. Kennedy!); I am ashamed to think that I've only read one book of hers, I must read more this summer. She is such a good writer....

Here are some of the best parts of the piece (what I like is the way that she's still so strongly in control of her own voice, even once it's down on the page--the interviewer must have been good, too--but often you see people's words put down and their own self-mocking ironies have just become pompous in the transcription, here it remains very funny--funny because truthful...):

It's tempting to think that AL Kennedy might be playing up her misery, cultivating the bleakness that is often said to characterise her fiction. There is an unflinching, exposed quality to her work: Day is about RAF bombing raids and requires the reader to enter the head of a man who is mentally disintegrating. She is sensitive to absurdity, to the imminence of what she calls 'the pantomime surprise of death'.

She vigorously denies courting unhappiness, claiming to think it's wholly unnecessary to successful fiction. She'd rather have joy, but it's simply not available. 'I have sex about once every five years. I've lived alone since I was 17. I am slightly tired. My life is not comfortable to me. But I am philosophical. It's just the way things have worked out.'

What would make her comfortable? 'Occasional company,' she says. I am starting to find this self-pity slightly comical, so I say: 'I bet you've got a secret husband at home.' Perhaps she has too, because she answers: 'Yeah, I killed him and ate him.' She would like, she says, 'just to have people to talk to who you can actually talk to, which is quite rare'.


For all the craft, the revisions, the foraging for the ideal phrase, AL Kennedy manages to be pretty prolific: she is 41, and Day is her fifth novel. There have been four volumes of short stories (she's working on a fifth right now) plus eight or nine drama scripts, a couple of works of non-fiction, regular journalism and, now, the stand-up. 'If you're quite a fast cook, you don't have children, you don't have pets and you've got no one to talk to, what else are you going to do?' she asks. 'I've got vast amounts of time to occupy.'

Saturday, March 24, 2007

What Keats said

A conversation between Janna Levin and Jonathan Lethem at Seed Magazine. (Many thanks to Maxine for the link.)

Here's Lethem, anyway, on the fiction-non-fiction divide:

Well, one of the underrated aspects of novels per se, one of the forms of pleasure that we readers derive from reading fiction that is least discussed in traditional literary criticism, is factual material. People thrive on finding great chunks of information on how the world works in their fiction. One of the great secrets to the crime drama is that readers are almost always inadvertently thrilling to descriptions of how, for instance, a bank operates. These are the sorts of things that ordinary novelists feel that they're not allowed to talk about or get interested in—they're supposed to be concerned with the emotional or psychological lives of their characters and would never stop to tell you at what hour the teller counts her drawer and moves it to the back of the bank. And yet we're all hungry for those pieces of information about our world. We're nourished, without even noticing it, by this genre that's devoted to telling us quite a lot about them.

Lots more good stuff too, go and have a look--I like reading this kind of thing, makes me itchy to write something really good (though I must say that the conversation itself is far more metaphysical than anything I'd like to be embroiled in)!

Mention of metaphysics reminds me that my favorite Irish philosophy PhD is reading in April at KGB, this is one that I'm going to totally clear the calendar for even though it's the dreaded Sunday-night scheduling which makes me crazy: here's the link, April 22 at 7pm. It's the Hard Case Crime lineup (too lazy to paste in links, but this should be fun): Ken Bruen and Jason Starr, who have authored a sequel to last year's collaborative neopulp experiment, Richard Aleas aka Charles Ardai, Peter Pavia and Max Phillips. That's excellent...

That boney light

A useful link from Nico: Historical Anatomies on the Web. Some really lovely things there (look at Cheselden's delightfully bony animals!--which irrelevantly makes me feel the need to quote Dickens--here's the chapter in question, from Our Mutual Friend--but I am going to recklessly paste in a huge chunk of it anyway, I have finished my essay and psychological exigencies persuade me it is worth taking the evening off before making a huge effort tomorrow to clear the deck of various work stuff--I do love taxidermy...):

'Oh dear me, dear me!' sighs Mr Venus, heavily, snuffing the candle, 'the world that appeared so flowery has ceased to blow! You're casting your eye round the shop, Mr Wegg. Let me show you a light. My working bench. My young man's bench. A Wice. Tools. Bones, warious. Skulls, warious. Preserved Indian baby. African ditto. Bottled preparations, warious. Everything within reach of your hand, in good preservation. The mouldy ones a-top. What's in those hampers over them again, I don't quite remember. Say, human warious. Cats. Articulated English baby. Dogs. Ducks. Glass eyes, warious. Mummied bird. Dried cuticle, warious. Oh, dear me! That's the general panoramic view.'

Having so held and waved the candle as that all these heterogeneous objects seemed to come forward obediently when they were named, and then retire again, Mr Venus despondently repeats, 'Oh dear me, dear me!' resumes his seat, and with drooping despondency upon him, falls to pouring himself out more tea.

'Where am I?' asks Mr Wegg.

'You're somewhere in the back shop across the yard, sir; and speaking quite candidly, I wish I'd never bought you of the Hospital Porter.'

'Now, look here, what did you give for me?'

'Well,' replies Venus, blowing his tea: his head and face peering out of the darkness, over the smoke of it, as if he were modernizing the old original rise in his family: 'you were one of a warious lot, and I don't know.'

Silas puts his point in the improved form of 'What will you take for me?'

'Well,' replies Venus, still blowing his tea, 'I'm not prepared, at a moment's notice, to tell you, Mr Wegg.'

'Come! According to your own account I'm not worth much,' Wegg reasons persuasively.

'Not for miscellaneous working in, I grant you, Mr Wegg; but you might turn out valuable yet, as a--' here Mr Venus takes a gulp of tea, so hot that it makes him choke, and sets his weak eyes watering; 'as a Monstrosity, if you'll excuse me.'

Repressing an indignant look, indicative of anything but a disposition to excuse him, Silas pursues his point.

'I think you know me, Mr Venus, and I think you know I never bargain.'

Mr Venus takes gulps of hot tea, shutting his eyes at every gulp, and opening them again in a spasmodic manner; but does not commit himself to assent.

'I have a prospect of getting on in life and elevating myself by my own independent exertions,' says Wegg, feelingly, 'and I shouldn't like--I tell you openly I should NOT like--under such circumstances, to be what I may call dispersed, a part of me here, and a part of me there, but should wish to collect myself like a genteel person.'

'It's a prospect at present, is it, Mr Wegg? Then you haven't got the money for a deal about you? Then I'll tell you what I'll do with you; I'll hold you over. I am a man of my word, and you needn't be afraid of my disposing of you. I'll hold you over. That's a promise. Oh dear me, dear me!'

Fain to accept his promise, and wishing to propitiate him, Mr Wegg looks on as he sighs and pours himself out more tea, and then says, trying to get a sympathetic tone into his voice:

'You seem very low, Mr Venus. Is business bad?'

'Never was so good.'

'Is your hand out at all?'

'Never was so well in. Mr Wegg, I'm not only first in the trade, but I'm THE trade. You may go and buy a skeleton at the West End if you like, and pay the West End price, but it'll be my putting together. I've as much to do as I can possibly do, with the assistance of my young man, and I take a pride and a pleasure in it.'

Mr Venus thus delivers hmself, his right hand extended, his smoking saucer in his left hand, protesting as though he were going to burst into a flood of tears.

'That ain't a state of things to make you low, Mr Venus.'

'Mr Wegg, I know it ain't. Mr Wegg, not to name myself as a workman without an equal, I've gone on improving myself in my knowledge of Anatomy, till both by sight and by name I'm perfect. Mr Wegg, if you was brought here loose in a bag to be articulated, I'd name your smallest bones blindfold equally with your largest, as fast as I could pick 'em out, and I'd sort 'em all, and sort your wertebrae, in a manner that would equally surprise and charm you.'

'Well,' remarks Silas (though not quite so readily as last time),

'THAT ain't a state of things to be low about.--Not for YOU to be low about, leastways.'

'Mr Wegg, I know it ain't; Mr Wegg, I know it ain't. But it's the heart that lowers me, it is the heart! Be so good as take and read that card out loud.'

Silas receives one from his hand, which Venus takes from a wonderful litter in a drawer, and putting on his spectacles, reads:

'"Mr Venus,'

'Yes. Go on.'

'"Preserver of Animals and Birds,"'

'Yes. Go on.'

'"Articulator of human bones."'

'That's it,' with a groan. 'That's it! Mr Wegg, I'm thirty-two, and a bachelor. Mr Wegg, I love her. Mr Wegg, she is worthy of being loved by a Potentate!' Here Silas is rather alarmed by Mr Venus's springing to his feet in the hurry of his spirits, and haggardly confronting him with his hand on his coat collar; but Mr Venus, begging pardon, sits down again, saying, with the calmness of despair, 'She objects to the business.'

'Does she know the profits of it?'

'She knows the profits of it, but she don't appreciate the art of it, and she objects to it. "I do not wish," she writes in her own handwriting, "to regard myself, nor yet to be regarded, in that boney light".'

Mr Venus pours himself out more tea, with a look and in an attitude of the deepest desolation.

'And so a man climbs to the top of the tree, Mr Wegg, only to see that there's no look-out when he's up there! I sit here of a night surrounded by the lovely trophies of my art, and what have they done for me? Ruined me. Brought me to the pass of being informed that "she does not wish to regard herself, nor yet to be regarded, in that boney light"!' Having repeated the fatal expressions, Mr Venus drinks more tea by gulps, and offers an explanation of his doing so.

'It lowers me. When I'm equally lowered all over, lethargy sets in. By sticking to it till one or two in the morning, I get oblivion. Don't let me detain you, Mr Wegg. I'm not company for any one.'

At the Times

Jonathan Rosen has an interesting piece about my colleague David Damrosch's new book on Gilgamesh. (Here's the Amazon link--sounds pretty interesting, eh?) Which also reminds me I meant to link to a piece David published a few weeks in the Chronicle of Higher Education (that link should work without a subscription) about the risks and rewards of academics writing "trade" books for a wider audience. Here are the opening paragraphs:

The American public has a deeply ambivalent attitude toward scholarship. Parents are eager to have their children taught by leading scholars but are often bemused by what the scholars actually do, particularly in their work outside the classroom. Regularly mocked as purveyors of arcane topics in clotted prose, professors often display a reciprocal ambivalence toward the general public. To call a young colleague's work "rather ... journalistic" is to signal a negative vote on tenure. As much as we might like to help shape public understanding on contentious issues — and to earn royalties in the tens of thousands of dollars rather than in the tens of dollars — we hesitate to set aside our highly honed analytical skills, our close attention to history, nuance, and shades of meaning, and start turning out sound bites in prose.

The problem isn't that academics "can't write," as is often claimed, but that we are typically engaged in what scholars of the Renaissance know as coterie writing. In 16th-century England, for instance, small groups of aristocrats such as Sir Philip Sydney, his sister Mary Herbert, and their circle would compose poems for their mutual entertainment, circulating them privately from one country estate to another. Scholars today may reach a somewhat larger circle, but most academic writing is part of a continuing conversation among a coterie of fellow specialists with common interests and a shared history of debate. Even for scholars who are elegant prose stylists, it isn't an easy matter to make the transition from writing for Milton's "fit audience, though few" to a larger but less fit readership.

Friday, March 23, 2007

The data-mining gambit

Alice considers the epistemological consequences for movie-making of the notion that obsessive reading will pay off. Here's a taste, but it's full of other interesting comments about everything from lie detectors to actors with famous voices to (Shakespeare assignmenters take note!) the career of Donald Foster:

I'm partial to any data-mining techniques practiced by young Robert Redford in Three Days of the Condor, but I'm skeptical of how often the gambit gets used in movies and books because it frequently seems to provide exactly and only the information that the detectives need. I know I'm supposed to suspend disbelief at these things--I always do in 24, where data-mining seems to take seconds--but it strikes me as an interesting epistemological question (no, really) about crime procedurals: how do we know what we know in the procedural? How do we distinguish good and bad information? Why do we believe that more evidence-gathering will lead to greater clarity? The great thing about Zodiac is that it takes up many of these questions: the film is so long because there's so much contradictory information to be sorted out, and there are significant lags in coordinating the investigations among the three police departments involved in the case. Owen Gleiberman mentions this fascinating problem in his review of the film.


is our topic, and the occasion is a Columbia Journal of Literary Criticism-sponsored panel discussion this coming Tuesday. Here's the lineup (hmm, I think that's alphabetical order! very tactful...):

Amanda Claybaugh, Assistant Professor of English and Comparative Literature
Nicholas Dames, Theodore Kahan Professor in the Humanities
Jenny Davidson, Associate Professor of English and Comparative Literature
David Kurnick, Adjunct Lecturer in English and Comparative Literature

Tuesday March 27, 2007
8:00 PM
Altschul Auditorium 417 International Affairs Building

It's a huge room, so come if you can, if you're Columbia-affiliated or just vaguely interested & find yourself in the area. I have no idea what I'm going to talk about (but am toying with the idea of rereading parts of The Corrections and thinking a bit about moralizing/moralized style--I have to have a self-imposed ban on Austen since a number of the students involved with the journal either have taken my Austen seminar in the past or are currently enrolled in it), I think the discussion will be very interesting though. I am very proud of the students who put out the CJLC, every year it's a fantastic group; I've been the faculty advisor on and off since the journal was founded a few years ago, and it's a great pleasure.

I've got a million blog posts in my head but the other self-imposed ban is on any substantial blogging until I've properly finished and sent off my Austen essay, which is just taking longer than I thought to write; however it will be done shortly, back now to the editing...

The modern world

Andrew Scull has a devastating critique of Foucault's scholarship in the latest TLS.

It must be said, though, that Foucault at his best is an extraordinary writer and thinker: I am more or less allergic to Foucauldianism, especially in its more literal-minded versions, but I find myself returning to particular bits of his writing very regularly. I'm thinking in particular of that amazing essay "What Is Enlightenment?", required reading in my opinion (some of my students have heard me rhapsodize about this piece!).

Here's my favorite part, a rousing call for Friday-morning thinking (Foucault's essay responds to Kant's of the same name):

This ethos [of permanent critique] implies, first, the refusal of what I like to call the 'blackmail' of the Enlightenment. I think that the Enlightenment, as a set of political, economic, social, institutional, and cultural events on which we still depend in large part, constitutes a privileged domain for analysis. I also think that as an enterprise for linking the progress of truth and the history of liberty in a bond of direct relation, it formulated a philosophical question that remains for us to consider. I think, finally, as I have tried to show with reference to Kant's text, that it defined a certain manner of philosophizing.

But that does not mean that one has to be 'for' or 'against' the Enlightenment. It even means precisely that one has to refuse everything that might present itself in the form of a simplistic and authoritarian alternative: you either accept the Enlightenment and remain within the tradition of its rationalism (this is considered a positive term by some and used by others, on the contrary, as a reproach); or else you criticize the Enlightenment and then try to escape from its principles of rationality (which may be seen once again as good or bad). And we do not break free of this blackmail by introducing 'dialectical' nuances while seeking to determine what good and bad elements there may have been in the Enlightenment.

We must try to proceed with the analysis of ourselves as beings who are historically determined, to a certain extent, by the Enlightenment. Such an analysis implies a series of historical inquiries that are as precise as possible; and these inquiries will not be oriented retrospectively toward the 'essential kernel of rationality' that can be found in the Enlightenment and that would have to be preserved in any event; they will be oriented toward the 'contemporary limits of the necessary,' that is, toward what is not or is no longer indispensable for the constitution of ourselves as autonomous subjects.

When I was eighteen I was totally in love with literary theory and I must confess that my favorite book of Foucault's was the luridly titled I, Pierre Riviere, Having Slaughtered My Mother, My Sister and My Brother (the verb in the original French is "ayant égorgé," isn't that delightful?!?). And though I cannot say that I ever had the passion for Foucault that I had for Deleuze and Guattari's Anti-Oedipus (a book I read the first semester of freshman year & that just blew my mind, I read it again and again and it sent me to a ton of books by and about schizophrenics, including Schreber and Laing and so forth, very good reading) or for Derrida's lovely "Signature Event Context", which helped me to think about the electric telegraph and technologies of writing when I was doing my senior thesis, it was quite possibly this book of Foucault's that set me on the path of realizing (and there were other books along the way, like Peter Linebaugh's The London Hanged, recommended to me by Simon Schama after an amazing seminar on writing narrative history in which we read everything from Thucydides to Michelet and beyond & which showed me why I had not gotten anything out of creative writing classes & why my own temperamental & intellectual formation meant that there were other better ways of learning about fiction-writing, even if they involved me beating my head against a wall as I doggedly revised an unpublishable novel for the eleventh time or whatever!) that I was going to write a historical novel about Jonathan Wild. So that's, you know, autobiographically important...

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

On banning Wikipedia

Cathy Davidson (no relation) at the Chronicle of Higher Education on digital learning and the latest media frenzy about Middlebury College's supposed ban on Wikipedia citation.

Frontier vampire and Hawthorne noir

Toni Schlesinger at the Observer on the taste for American Gothic. Coincidentally I ran into Toni in the lobby of my building a few weeks ago, she was writing a piece about private libraries & looking at the one belonging to the distinguished and now deceased literary critic whose apartment's on the top floor here; by the time I went to find the piece, it was locked away behind a subscriber wall, so I cannot provide it here for your delectation. But this stuff she's doing for the Observer now is great!

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Modern Shakespeare

From Michael Dobson, The Making of the National Poet: Shakespeare, Adaptation and Authorship, 1660-1769 (Oxford: Clarendon, 1992), on "how Shakespeare came to occupy the centre of English literary culture between the restoration of the monarchy and the Stratford Jubilee":

This process deserves close scrutiny, not least because so many of the conceptions of Shakespeare we inherit date not from the Renaissance but from the Enlightenment. It was this period, after all, which initiated many of the practices which modern spectators and readers of Shakespeare would generally regard as normal or even natural: the performance of his female roles by women instead of men (instigated at a revival of Othello in 1660); the reproduction of his works in scholarly editions, with critical apparatus (pioneered by Rowe's edition of 1709 and the volume of commentary appended to it by Charles Gildon the following year); the publication of critical monographs devoted entirely to the analysis of his texts (an industry founded by John Dennis's An Essay upon the Writings and Genius of Shakespeare, 1712); the promulgation of the plays in secondary education (the earliest known instance of which is the production of Julius Caesar mounted in 1728 'by the young Noblemen of the Westminster School'), and in higher education (first carried out in the lectures on Shakespeare given by William Hawkins at Oxford in the early 1750s); the erection of monuments to Shakespeare in nationally symbolic public places (initiated by Peter Scheemakers' statue in Poets' Corner, Westminster Abbey, unveiled in 1741); and the promotion of Stratford-upon-Avon as a site of secular pilgrimage (ratified at Garrick's Jubilee in 1769). The fact that these ways of presenting and representing Shakespeare have endured for so long has tended to make their specifically Enlightenment origins and interests virtually invisible--to the extent that until comparatively recently, histories of Shakespeare's reception, espeically his critical reception, have characteristically identified the eighteenth century as the period which simply 'rediscovered' Shakespeare and restored him to his natural pre-eminence in English culture.

In other exciting news

(I'm a bit late with this one also) my old friend Bruno Maddox is a National Magazine Award finalist for his Blinded by Science columns in Discover: here are some particularly good ones on twins (the author of the twin study he mentions was not very happy with this one!), thinking and a host of other interesting topics.

On is and ought

Nicholas Wade in the Science Times on Frans de Waal's work on primate morality.

Of chain-saws and camera-shutters

Not up-to-date, not literary, but this lyrebird clip is quite amazing. I must start reading that Athanasius Kircher Society blog more regularly... (Thanks to Nico.)

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Munching his words to a mumble, or Burgess redux

Sholto Byrnes on the Malaysian transformation of John Wilson to Anthony Burgess.

Last year when I read Andrew Biswell's Burgess biography I had a list-like redaction of the book's ten most enchanting details; I will paste it in again here in honor of one of my favorite writers of all time (and I heartily recommend the Biswell book, it's a mesmerizingly good read).

Here goes:

One of the things Biswell deals with particularly gracefully is the extent of Burgess's own confabulation--call it lying--about his own biography, so the facts below may be taken with a large grain of salt. But here are ten particularly entrancing details garnered from Biswell's pages:

1. Burgess recorded passages from A Clockwork Orange (issued on vinyl, Caedmon, 1973) in a strongish Manchester accent, though he had otherwise modified his speaking voice to something more like RP (Biswell observes that "his speaking voice altered in the other direction when regional accents came into fashion later on in the 1960s, with the rise of the Beatles and the Mersey Beat poets").

2. In a piece for the Sunday Times Magazine in October 1977, Burgess declared his "Seven Wonders of the World" to be Tiger Balm massage oil, the chameleon, the pre-decimal British monetary system, Gilbert and Sullivan's The Mikado, the Petrarchan sonnet form, champagne and Fritz Lang's Metropolis.

3. In an interview for the magazine of the school at which he taught in 1952, Burgess answered the question "What do you think is the greatest menace at the present time?" thus: "Neo-Pelagianism (refusal to believe in Original Sin) which produced Russia, America, youth organizations and holiday camps."

4. Stanley Kubrick asked Burgess to adapt Schnitzler's Traumnovelle for the screen long before Frederic Raphael wrote the script that became Eyes Wide Shut.

5. After his return to England in the early 1950s, Burgess was so broke that his wife cut his hair using kitchen scissors and a pudding basin ("a mean economy, as the photographs of Burgess from this time testify," Biswell comments); he later also claimed to have paid the chemistry master at the school to make tonic water (at the cost of a penny per gallon) to save the expense of buying it in shops.

6. The junior neurologist who saw Burgess when he arrived at the Neurological Institute with a suspected brain tumor was Roger Bannister, the first person in recorded history to run a mile in less than four minutes (however--despite Burgess's later claims--Bannister did not "trepan the Burgess cranium").

7. Burgess in an unpublished letter written during the composition of A Clockwork Orange: "I've just completed Part I - which is just sheer crime. Now comes punishment. The whole thing's making me rather sick. My horrible juvenile delinquent hero is emerging as too sympathetic a character - almost Christ-like, set upon by the scourging police. You see what I mean by moral deterioration."

8. Burgess often wrote eight hours a day, seven days a week; when his concentration failed him, he took three dexedrine tablets and a pint of gin and tonic and returned to work.

9. The vocabulary of the Shakespeare bio-novel Nothing Like the Sun only includes words that Shakespeare could have known, with one exception, the word "spurgeoning," a deliberate anachronism to honor the literary critic Caroline Spurgeon ("He kicked in youth's peevishness at the turves of the Avon's left bank, marking with storing-up spaniel's eye the spurgeoning of the black-eddy under the Clopton Bridge").

10. Shirley Conran was his neighbor in (tax-havenish) Monaco, and he read her novel Lace in typescript, which led various people to speculate that he was her ghost-writer: "When she asked for his permission to name him in the acknowledgements," Biswell adds in a note, Burgess politely declined: "I don't think it's in order to express this putative help or encouragement publicly [. . .] I think it might even be considered indiscreet to mention help. So please don't bring me into it."

Wintry mix

A lot of good things in the Guardian Review this week.

Daniel Hahn on Jan Bondeson's book about clever pigs and cat orchestras (made me wish I could see the Moscow Cats Theatre again, that was one of my favorite things ever), for one.

On a more serious note, James Fenton considers the logbook of the slaver Juverna (up for auction later this week) and the world of logbook collecting:

It must, I think, be a potentially interesting world, since the keeping of logbooks goes back centuries. I have a reprint of two such journals, which I bought under a slight misapprehension, thinking they contained an account of a performance of Hamlet on board ship in 1607, off the coast of Sierra Leone. William Keeling, the captain, tells us that, becalmed, he "invited Captain Hawkins [from another ship] to a fish dinner, and had Hamlet acted aboard me; which I permit to keep my people from idleness and unlawful games, or sleep".

One point about this extraordinary record is that it is extremely early. The crew would have been using either the First Quarto of 1603 (the "Bad" quarto of which only two copies have survived) or the Second Quarto of 1605. It would be convenient to act an Elizabethan play upon a ship of the period since, as one scholar tells us, "A wooden stage is indistinguishable from a wooden deck, a trap door resembles a ship's hatch, a tiring house façade is remarkably similar to a forecastle, a theatre's 'cellerage' is structurally parallel to below-decks."

So Captain Keeling, sailing for India on behalf of the East India Company, had the forethought to pack at least one copy of Hamlet and another of Richard II, which his men also performed. And meanwhile the captain taught himself a little Arabic.

Unfortunately, my reprint of Keeling's journal turned out on arrival to record a later voyage in 1615-17, but it is full of human interest nevertheless. The East India Company had ordered, at some early date, that every captain, master, master's mate and purser should keep a journal, to be presented to the company at the end of the voyage. These journals vary according to who is writing them: included in my volume is a logbook of the same voyage by a master's mate, which consists mainly of navigational information. Keeling, by contrast, tells us what punishments he administered and why, what diseases people suffered from, who died and how.

The theater-history angle is especially appealing, it's a kind of work that lots of people have been excited about recently (there's Thomas Keneally's The Playmaker, on the 1789 performance of Farquhar's The Recruiting Officer by convicts in Australia, and Timberlake Wertenbaker's theatrical adaptation Our Country's Good--I reread this in the fall and found it rather dated, though it's an appealing idea--and then a whole host of interesting academic work on related topics, maybe most notably Kathleen Wilson's book-in-progress on the colonial stage in the eighteenth century, that's going to be a really good one).

For some reason I've been thinking about drama a lot recently, in another universe just proximate to this one I would be more obsessed with theater than with novels & would be acting and writing plays and writing about performance history, and this is why I loved Samuel West's fascinating piece about working with Harold Pinter on a radio production of The Homecoming. It's full of interesting things, go and take a look for yourself, but here's an especially good part:

The transferring of well-known stage plays to radio entails some compromise. I remember going to Maida Vale Studios to record Tom Stoppard's Arcadia during the original National Theatre run. The advantage was that the cast knew the play and could perform without scripts. The disadvantage was that some pieces of Stoppard's brilliant stage business couldn't easily be transferred to radio. ("What's that in your hand, Gus? Is it an apple?") We have a similar concern in The Homecoming. Pinter's pauses make eloquent audio; the problem comes when someone makes a silent exit. To clarify the action, the maestro has agreed to one of Lenny's silent departures being accompanied by a new line: "Ta-ta." I'm immensely proud to be performing the world premiere of a Pinter line, albeit one only two syllables long.

When he was 25, my father wrote a radio play satirising over-explanatory wireless dialogue. It was called This Gun That I Have in My Right Hand Is Loaded. It's almost certainly the silliest thing he's ever done - adapted for radio by H and Cynthia Old-Hardwicke-Box, it contains some classic radio-speak ("A whisky? That's a strange drink for an attractive auburn-haired girl of 29") and cliches that have since become old friends of the family ("It's not a pretty sight - it's been in the water for some time", "Come now doctor; blackmail's an ugly word" and the classic "Is he ... ?" "I'm afraid so").

This Gun is still used in good drama schools to illustrate the pitfalls of the genre, but listening to the odd Afternoon Play, it's possible to conclude that writers have taken it as a blueprint rather than a cautionary tale. Good radio writing is a real art. I think a good radio play is better than any other sort of play, but by the same token, a bad one is so much worse. Radio is the most unforgiving medium, more revealing of untruth than any other. Nothing distracts you from whether you believe the reality of what you are hearing.

I've been in a real state recently about work-related deadlines--it's not sensible, I know I need to just calm down and get things done one at a time and that is exactly what I will do, but the anxiety levels are high enough that (this is well beyond my usual reluctance/inability to make social plans, of course I would always rather be at home reading and writing or--these days--obsessively exercising than actually having life in the world, my inner recluse has been rather domineering recently!) I have been finding myself practically hyperventilating out of anxiety at not being at home working as I wait on the subway platform to go and do something with other people.

It's very unfortunate, I must try and make it stop, but I had a helpful development on Friday which was that I had a day of art and it was good for my soul! Really, you can almost feel your chest cavity expanding in a yoga-esque way when you look at pictures & more particularly and especially listen to delightful music, it was very good and I am still feeling the benefits

The first thing was that I saw the Stubbs show at the Frick, it is small but excellent. I always find the ones with the lions inadvertently comical, there is something so hilariously wicked and never-seen-in-nature about the expressions on those lions' faces (stage villains, very Shylocky!) and the poor terrified horses look so silly in these over-the-top landscapes, but the best of the pictures are really quite extraordinary: four or five of the horse-centered ones make you feel like you really could touch the horse's warm flanks and feel the veins and muscles beneath the skin, there are a couple dog ones that gave me a huge pang of dog-wanting (reminded me, too, of a funny bit in Peter Dickinson's underrated novel The Green Gene about trying to breed dogs just on the basis of an image of a dog in a seventeenth-century Dutch painting, that's a book I must reread) and also an absolutely heartbreaking painting of a monkey that's the first thing you see when you walk through. (Here was Simon Schama's very good Stubbs piece in the New Yorker.)

The Frick in general is quite transporting, it wasn't quite deserted but the combination of snow and Friday afternoon and general non-corporateness meant you could very pleasantly amble through nearly empty rooms (that building would make a good transplanted setting for a fantastical young-adult novel, it's very Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler in a way that the Met itself no longer can be, the last time I went to the Met the crowds--it was the spirit photography exhibit--were so horrendously misanthropy-inducing that I think I will never again go there on a weekend, it was too horrible). I forgot how many of those lovely Reynolds and particularly Gainsborough portraits they have there, it was really good (and they've got Thomas More also, how did I forget?!?).

And then the most amazing thing was Nico Muhly's Carnegie Hall concert. The place was packed, despite the weather, and you just had that elusive and rare feeling of something exciting and important happening; the program was a lovely mix of sixteenth-century English choral music (oh, and that Weelkes "When David Heard" piece is quite extraordinary, what an amazing thing) and Nico's own stuff, which just exactly fits my aesthetic sensibility. It's not often you can say about something (novel, play, music) that it is both stringent/demanding and also miraculously fun, but that's the quality that Nico's music has, I would defy even the most non-classical-music-listening person to hear this stuff and not just fall a little bit (maybe a lot) in love with it.

Most of these pieces are written for particular people/performers, and that's part of the magical quality: everyone was great, but the piece called "The Only Tune" that Nico wrote for Sam Amidon (I am so going to get So This Chicken Proved False-Hearted, in fact even without having heard it but just on the basis of the title I must particularly get it for a chicken-loving friend of mine, chicken the bird rather than the food of course) is a total work of genius that depends on the unique collaboration between a particular composer and a particular performer, hard to imagine anyone else doing it. It's a really imaginative--brilliant, I'd say--adaptation of a folk song, sort of Brittenesque in spirit (I grew up singing those Britten settings, I love them) but backwards-deconstructing in its initial impulses and then returning to the fullest possible immersion in the song-ness of it in the later part; basically I am too lazy to find a more evocative way of describing it, you'd have to hear it to believe it could even exist in its surprising and somewhat wayward artistic perfection, but that Sam Amidon is totally a genius also.

And the final piece on the program was "Keep in Touch," written for and performed by the remarkable Nadia Sirota, and though it's slightly less the case with this one that you can only only ever imagine this one person performing it (the technical and personality demands on the lead performer of "The Only Tune" are unusually stringent) you still have a very strong sense of the particular connection between performer and piece and the things that Nadia brings to it that nobody else could possibly have. Quite magically good, really transporting again; the whole concert was an absolute delight, I can't remember when I last spent such an enjoyable evening all told (including, subsequently, a rashly late night out downtown made even more festive-demented by the snowiness of it all).

It struck me as I was listening that my alternate-universe self might want to write a book--sort of at the intersection of performance history and acting theory, I am obsessed with these questions about acting and the somatic production in real actual physiological bodies of things that are only notional in scripts of all kinds--about the dynamic of this sort of collaborative work. I think maybe I'm just ignorant, it is quite possible (does anyone better-informed have an opinion?) that a great deal of music when it is written has this quality of collaboration built into it, but Nico's music strikes me in particular as having more in common structurally with dance than with a lot of new classical music that you hear, in that the particular artistic constitution of the central performer or performers is itself deeply written in to the music. In the same way you feel that Tom Stoppard actually wrote a lot of those female parts for Felicity Kendal, or directors working with particular actors, etc. etc., and the relationship's summed up/finds its essence especially in the notion of, say, Balanchine working with those particular dancers to create roles. And then there are interesting particular challenges as those works move into the next stage of their life, once the original performers were dead and gone: it's a tradition of teaching and of younger artists learning from older ones, very interesting.

(I am making a resolution, or confirming a resolution already made, that I really am going to find a way of doing this Bacchae adaptation that's been on my mind for several years now. Every few months I see something that gives me another glimpse of what it could be, and my sense right now--oh dear, this will sound totally demented, and I will have to make a lot of people help me with the different parts, like my brothers for the puppets and sets and Helen Hill's experimental filmmaker friends for the film technique and Nico for the music of course--is that it should be a magical three-minutes-and-fifty-seconds-long experimental animated short with puppets, and the whole dynamic of that entire insane Euripides play and its rationality-madness West-East tragedy-of-intemperacy/obduracy somehow summed up in a teeny-tiny but expansive little sequence that's over almost before it begins but would undoubtedly take me a year and a half of hard work to make. At this time in the school year I am starved of art-making time, it is not good! But having other people's art is an excellent next-best-thing, it really is a magical remedy for that cramped feeling of constriction and deadlineness that I have been suffering.)

All right, that was much longer than I thought, must get back to Austen and point of view....

Onagers and cataphracts

Neal Stephenson makes me want to see "300."

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Between 8 and 10,000 thoughts

Graham Robb at the TLS on the first volume of a new edition of Balzac's letters. I am finding myself particularly strangulated by deadlines this week, it is not at all a pleasant feeling (though of course preferable to the thing that you have when you are a young person and nobody cares enough about what you're writing to give you a deadline or not, so I am not really complaining, it will all be for the best later on, only sometimes I wish I were not so much the queen of deferred gratification, there are three novels sitting here that it pains me not to have time to have read this week, and it is not as though I've got any writing done either! But I am on the brink of it, I hope--this essay on Austen is something that's been sitting there sort of trembling in my mind for a long time now, I must just steel myself and put it down on paper), and so I was delighted by a number of Robb's revelations about Balzac, really the whole piece is rather enchanting:

The most revealing letters are the earliest, especially those that he wrote to his sister Laure when he was living in a little room in the east of Paris, trying to turn himself into a writer. They show the twenty-year-old Balzac in the boiler room of his literary career, wrestling with an unwieldy five-act tragedy on the subject of Cromwell, in desperate need of an instruction manual: “A verse tragedy ordinarily contains two thousand lines, which calls for between 8 and 10,000 thoughts, not counting those required by ideas, plot, character”, etc. A few days later, he decided to write the whole play in one go, and then to “colour it in” later on. All he needed now was some genius: “If there’s any for sale in Villeparisis, buy me as much as you can”.

And it ends with a warning to the maniacally workaholic among us, about the state of Balzac's health "[s]ixteen years after setting out on the road to glory and riches":

... his Herculean labours were taking their toll. His hair was turning white and falling out “by the handful”. He was suffering from back pains and dizzy spells. Sometimes he fell into a stupor, and even his special blend of coffee failed to reactivate his brain.

I need a special blend of coffee to reactivate my brain!


The next installment of Marco Roth's memoir at Nextbook. It's both sociologically sharp/fascinating & full of some rather beautiful writing, definitely go and take a look....

The scarlet letter

Alice on archives.

Monday, March 12, 2007

The hyphen

is my top number-one favorite punctuation mark (the semi-colon runs a close second), and there are a lot of good ones in Gideon Lewis-Kraus's interesting discussion of Benjamin Black aka John Banville's noir thriller Christine Falls at Slate (so much so that I wonder whether he set himself a secret and arbitrary challenge to insert as large a number of hyphens as possible).

On tenderness

This week's job is to write an essay (a slightly overdue essay that must be finished by Friday) titled "Austen's Voices" for a volume of essays that will be published in honor of one of my dissertation advisors, but as I began rereading Pride and Prejudice this morning I found myself distracted by the ways that my topic there (which concerns voice, point-of-view and the processes by which Austen both thwarts and rewards readers' desires to identify with an appealing main character as well as tempting them to identify Austen herself with the novel's protagonist) resonates with some thoughts I've been having about the varied artistic consumption of the last week or two. Thought I'd better clear the deck, as it were, before returning to Austen, so here goes.

On Friday I saw the Signature production of August Wilson's King Hedley II. The play's not as strong, I think, as the other two they've done this season; also, it's set in the bleak 1980s, which limits the magic that can be performed. On the other hand, the writing's still wonderfully good compared to almost all of what you see around the place (the lines all ring true, it's just the structure of the play as a whole that seems a bit more problematic), and the production is quite extraordinary. Just wonderfully good acting, and that is magical; Russell Hornsby in the title character is quite amazing, but so is everyone else (everything about Cherise Booth's performance in the part of Tonya, for instance, is exactly right, not just her voice and body language but her actual physique and the costumes and everything--I mean, I was there in the 80s, this I really can recognize with a shiver for the presence of the uncanny!)

(Here's the Times review, if you're interested.)

Wilson is tender with his characters in one sense--their voices are lovingly rendered, at any rate--but brutal with regard to what happens to them; the ending of this one in particular wrenches away any sense of fruitful patterning you might have achieved over the course of the cycle of plays. The week before, I saw the Pearl Theatre Company's revival of William Saroyan's The Cave Dwellers. It's a strange play, really not to my taste at all, partly because of its sentimental fairy-tale-like aspect--I kept waiting for a cynical twist, it is almost impossible to believe the play's intended to work "straight" like this, and yet I believe it is. Not enough particularity of human character (human nature will not after all stand in for character development!), not enough of a sense of life as it's lived (at least lived and understood by me), a strange and unrealistic over-protectiveness towards the characters: and yet in many ways the writing is very good, just undercut by an impossible-to-sustain vision of human nature that leads to some sentimentalizing. The production is extremely good, though; a clear vision, I think, on the director's part, and remarkably good acting across the board. Interesting to watch and to think about, though I cannot say it gives me much of an urge to plunge further into Saroyan's oeuvre.

It's an interesting question to ask about the novels one cares about, what the orientation of the narrator is towards the characters. Austen's narrators often have a shepherding or protective relationship towards the female protagonists of their respective novels: it's very striking in Northanger Abbey, for instance, and in a different way in Emma. These thoughts were crystallized for me when I read Darryl Pinckney's piece in the latest New York Review of Books (subscriber only, I'm afraid, though I think that link will work if you're a Columbia affiliate and plug in your uni and password) on Edward P. Jones's All Aunt Hagar's Children.

Now, I'm a passionate advocate for that book, in fact it's my pick for best American fiction of 2006 (out of what I read of course), and I was taken aback by seeing Pinckney (whose criticism I find wonderfully compelling) reach such different conclusions about the volume than I had. Here's the last bit of his review:

Jones awards most of his characters a sort of moral victory, or moral comfort. All Aunt Hagar's Children has a sentimental mood running through it, because of the life-affirming endings that he has constructed. It isn't that Jones prettifies the history of black people in the South. One of his characters can hate the state of Georgia, "because it had executed his uncle, an armless man who was as innocent as Jesus Christ." However, there is a softness at the center of Jones's new work and it has something to do with the way that folklore can turn black history into an uplifting heritage lesson. "We want, we rage, we desire, we fail, we succeed. We stand in that long, long line. Where were you when they taught us that?"

Then, too, Jones's attitude toward his subjects has much to do with his gentle, caressing tone. He is the shepherd of his invented world; protective toward his flock, his people. "About these passioning souls he did not need to be ironical," Saul Bellow said of John Berryman among the mental patients. It's not that Jones likes them so much he can't make anything bad happen to them. Caesar, the ex-con returning to his neighborhood in "Old Boys, Old Girls," recalls once again the death of his beloved mother:

It was one thing for him to throw out a quick statement about a dead mother, as he had done many times over the years. A man could say the words so often that they become just another meaningless part of his makeup. The pain was no longer there as it had been those first few times he had spoken them, when his mother was still new to her grave.

But it's as though he saw it as his mission as the writer of their fates to compensate them for life's sorrows, to take them out of history or to give them victory over that history.

His language shields them, elevates them, transports them. He isn't a magical realist so much as he is a historical lyricist. Other black writers who have made the folkloric an important part of their tone can sound hammy and overdone when compared to Jones, whose prose usually carries everything before it. Or maybe Jones's work is another step in black literature, another register of the folk voice as a literary voice. The way he can make the strange occurrence seem like the most natural thing that could happen to a black person recalls the passion and grace in the work of Henry Dumas, the brilliant young short story writer who was shot to death by a policeman in a Harlem subway in 1968—but without Dumas's overt militancy.

Jones's cultural politics are conservative, by comparison, and maybe, in trying to reach for the universal in black wisdom, he invents a world that isn't as sharp and arresting and truly weird as in his earlier work.

I agree with the observation about the tender caressing tone, also the shielding-elevating-transporting component, but I differ radically in the emotional and intellectual response it elicits in me. Why is "sharp and arresting and truly weird" aesthetically and morally preferable to transporting? Surely "moral comfort" is exactly not synonymous with sentimentalizing? I find in these stories that the precision of the language and the clarity of the vision (each story makes you feel that you're entering a whole novelistic world--and yes, it is a world in which lives are patterned in not explicitly Christian but certainly spiritually meaningful ways, and this is unusual, and if you described it to me I do not know whether it would sound particularly appealing, but in practice I am enchated by it) works as a powerful antidote to any hint of softness towards characters. Anyway, Pinckney's words really struck me, and I thought some of you might be interested to read & think about them further.

And on an altogether more frivolous note, my brain was in such a sorry state on Saturday that I realized the only thing to be done was to seek out the absolutely perfect light reading. So I walked virtually in a trance over to the Columbia bookstore (it is ludicrous that I felt I needed to go and buy something, my apartment is full of appealing books to be read, but so it goes when the light-reading fit descends) and bought Robert Crais's The Watchman and consumed it in one single delighted long sip of reading. Oh, it's such a good book: features Joe Pike as the main character (I like it when these series-writing guys shake it up a bit, and of course Pike really is more appealing than Elvis Cole), with all the fantastical wish-fulfilling tough-guy good-guy protector fantasies that this sort of book taps into. It really is great (makes me want to be like Joe Pike, go for a 3:30am run in a canyon with coyotes lurking alongside & then run up a million flights of stairs and do pushups on my thumbs--I was reminded of the deep appeal of the Navy Seal training plan which my friend Adam sent to me, I really am almost tempted to set this as my long-term fitness goal only of course it is really designed for very fit guys in their mid-20s--that's not the actual link he forwarded, I can't seem to find it again--but really there is no way that I would be able to run five miles at a sub-7:30 pace, I mean I suppose it is just vaguely humanly possible but I think it extraordinarily unlikely....)

The only bad thing was that reading it made me immediately want another book exactly as good & perfectly satisfying, and of course that book is Lee Child's forthcoming Jack Reacher novel, which has the appealing title Bad Luck and Trouble. I must see if I can get an advance copy, it is not published until May....

(What really would be funny and delightful & totally over-the-top would be if Robert Crais and Lee Child went in together and licensed a "Joe Pitt-Jack Reacher" fitness boot camp thing, I would totally do it--with lurking satirical impulses of course--how Disneyfied!--but wouldn't it be hilarious?!? There would have to be a special trip to a firing range, even though guns are not strictly speaking fitness-related...)

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner

A charming interview with John Mortimer at the Times. Oh, I loved those Rumpole stories when I was young, and the TV adaptations were remarkably good also (despite the disorienting effect of then seeing, you know, Rumpole [oh, and that Wikipedia bio appealingly includes the phrase "despite the difficulties posed by his glass eye and Australian accent," how excellent...] playing Gloucester in Lear--though of course he was very good...)

Saturday, March 10, 2007

The young and the restless

Steve Smith profiles my dear friend & former student Nico Muhly at the Times. (Oh dear, it's really pretty funny, starting with the headline--a word which, Freudian-slip-wise, I first mistyped "deadline"...) Here's where you can get a ticket for next Friday's concert at Carnegie Hall. I am so excited for this one, it's going to be great....

The bob-and-wheel

Frank Kermode has a quite delightful piece in the latest LRB on new translations of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight by Simon Armitage and Bernard O'Donoghue. It's illuminating on various matters (on the whole Kermode seems to fall down on the side of recommending that we all reread Tolkien's translation), and there's a rather adorable contributor's note also...

But I was caught short reading by Kermode's graceful and brief remembrance of A. D. Nuttall, "lately and sadly lost to us" (mentioned on account of "his brilliant book Dead from the Waist Down," which I have not read but have certainly been curious about--NB note to self that was an awful quotation recently about Susan Sontag saying of herself aged eighteen--just married to Philip Rieff--that not only was she Dorothea Brooke, but she went so far as actually to marry Casaubon also--I have not caught the witty and cruel pithiness of her actual phrasing--it is not a compliment about someone in any case, I think, to suggest that they're like the heroine of a George Eliot novel).

I did not realize A. D. Nuttall had died! I only met him a year or so ago when he spoke at the humanities center here, but I well remember reading A New Mimesis: Shakespeare and the Representation of Reality during the first few years of grad school and having it really blow my mind, in fact I was just thinking the other day of what he says there about the challenge of casting an actor to play Iago (and that link seems to be to a new reissue from Yale, how excellent--I must get a copy and read it again this summer). Here is a nice obituary in the Independent (the word "nice" is impossible but so useful now and again...).

Sybille Bedford remembered

at the Guardian; also, James Fenton on Hogarth, Tristram Shandy and the line of beauty. (Unfortunately that Hogarth exhibit closes just before I'll be in London in May, that's a pity...)

Thursday, March 08, 2007

The interior lives of young people

My colleague Andrew Delbanco has an extremely interesting essay in the current NYRB on the scandals of higher education. Here's what he concludes about the group of books under review:

None of these books—whether by outside critics or inside administrators—has much to say about the interior lives of young people eager for intellectual and aesthetic excitement, learning to examine old ideas in light of new imperatives. If—as Bowen, Golden, and Michaels variously insist—it is a scandal that so few disadvantaged students are able to attend our most advantageous colleges, it is also urgent, in the words (the italics are his) of Donald Levine, former dean of the college at the University of Chicago, to notice that

the scandal of higher education in our time is that so little attention gets paid, in institutions that claim to provide an education, to what it is that college educators claim to be providing.

Powers of the Mind: The Reinvention of Liberal Learning in America, Levine has written a fascinating history of curricular debates at the University of Chicago, reaching back to its founding more than a century ago. It is a story of serious teachers responding to continuous change in the world and in their particular academic disciplines while always keeping in view the enduring goal of liberal education, which Levine succinctly calls "the cultivation of human powers." To reach this end requires first of all the recognition that it is unending, in the sense that "the purpose of school education," as John Dewey put it, "is to insure the continuance of education by organizing the powers that insure growth." It requires the student to become informed about past and present—to learn, that is, something substantial about history, science, and contemporary societies in order to bring that knowledge to bear on unforeseeable challenges of the future.

Better get that one and read it, I think...

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

"People who read are hiders"

So this is why you must, must, must read Andre Aciman's novel Call Me By Your Name.

(Oh, and really you must do yourself a favor and get Out of Egypt also if you have not read it already, I remember being entranced by that book when it came my way during my last year or so of graduate school, I had it from the Yale library & even in all its library-binding-ness it was a magical antidote to the--what would I call it that's both truthful and polite?--provincial rootedness-in-space that comes from dissertation-writing at a New England university, your mind travels very far in time if you're working on eighteenth-century British literature but not really very far in terms of culture or geography, so that the lost Alexandria of Aciman's memoir had an even-more-intense-than-otherwise Proustian allure. NB he's got a great Chesterfield reference in that book, I quoted it in Hypocrisy and the Politics of Politeness along with another rather delightful one from William Boyd's Armadillo in order to show the longevity of the Chesterfield aura--the footprints of light reading...)

But I digress. (Teaching Tristram Shandy this fall had a terrible effect on my lecture manner, I somehow found in that novel license--if I had not taken it already, which I probably had long since without realizing--to put aside my notes completely and just riff for twenty minutes at a time on a related topic of interest--today I was teaching Shaw's Pygmalion for instance but found myself instead discursing in a way that may have been more enjoyable for me than for my students about Chomskyan generative grammar and the political and linguistic empowerment it offered non-standard English speakers. Lecturer's prerogative, and one of the many reasons that lecturing is more fun than being lectured to.)

Aciman's novel is just ravishing.

I am resistant to being ravished by beauty, also I have a soft spot for the underdog and something in me often digs in its claws & refuses to be moved in the presence of beauty in particular and awardwinningness of the literary-fictional sort more generally. (I am reflexively annoyed at the very idea of Cormac McCarthy for instance. And the word "lyrical" in a blurb or a review is likely to put me off reading a novel altogether.)

But I was reading this (I will not say lyrical, though it is, because the word usually means something absolutely horrible) book ravenously and thinking to myself in the back of my head "Oh, this is SO one for the best-of-the-year, it is going to sweep every award that exists for literary fiction" and miracle of miracles I was not thinking this with a sense of exasperation but of absolute delight in finding myself in the presence of such a superlative novelistic mind and prose stylist.

In fact the word delightful was made for this book! (And usually I read a good book and immediately pass it on, but this one I'm keeping so that I can read it again in a couple of months.)

The passage where I first knew I was completely entranced (it follows an exchange between the seventeen-year-old narrator Elio and the postdoctoral researcher who's come to stay with his family for a summer in Italy in which they repeat each other's phrases almost word for word ["'So you won't tell me?' 'So I won't tell you.' 'So he won't tell me,' he repeated, pensively, as if explaining to someone about me"):

How I loved the way he repeated what I myself had just repeated. It made me think of a caress, or of a gesture, which happens to be totally accidental the first time but becomes intentional the second time and more so yet the third. It reminded me of the way Mafalda would make my bed every morning, first by folding the top sheet over the blanket, then by folding the sheet back again to cover the pillows on top of the blanket, and once more yet when she folded the whole thing over the bedspread--back and forth until I knew that tucked in between these multiple folds were tokens of something at once pious and indulgent, like acquiescence in an instant of passion.

In the hands of another writer this sort of observation might simply annoy me, I am intolerant of what might be called flourishes--but here (and Proust has this quality too, I had a very funny and enjoyable session of Proust-reading the other day with a student & it made me resolve I must spend some time this summer reading Proust properly...) there is not even a single molecule of feyness or self-indulgence, it is beautifully observed as well as beautifully written and it's also psychologically persuasive coming from this rather unusual teenage boy (a boy whose passionate book-reading and thinking-about-things side made me strongly identify with him, but who will draw a kind of sympathetic identification from all sorts of different readers because his humanity is so transparently rendered).

That first line's almost an echo (at least in its patterning and repetition) of the famous line from Augustine's Confessions, and yet not, it is something quite different in its own right (and in general this is a wonderfully allusive novel, of the hospitable kind where you don't mind feeling an allusion's happening and not knowing it, in fact it's lightly enough handled that you probably don't even notice); the image of the folded sheets is erotic and chaste in a perfectly adolescent way...

My other favorite thing: the word clementizing, which Aciman has kindly glossed in the comments to my post below. It's just such a good word, too, isn't it? (Reminds me of the Wildean Bunburying though I could not tell you exactly how the two are related--same sort of verbal formation, of course, but also a bit the same sort of hint of multiplicity in lives lived?) And the San Clemente sequence in the last part of the novel is almost my favorite thing in the whole book, not least because we get a latecomer to the party who's straight out of my beloved Symposium! So I leave you with the latecomer's words:

I think that all this clementizing is quite charming, though I've no idea how your metaphor will help us see who we are, what we want, where we're headed, any more than the wine we've been drinking. But if the job of poetry, like that of wine, is to help us see double, then I propose another toast until we've drunk enough to see the world with four eyes--and, if we're not careful, with eight.

I was reminded at points, for obvious thematic as well as stylistic reasons, of Alan Hollinghurst's The Folding Star (which struck me when I first read it as his great masterpiece, only I think it may even have been superseded by the achievement of The Line of Beauty). But the book it's really most like, perhaps, is a particular favorite novel of mine, Sybille Bedford's A Compass Error. (Which reminds me that I've got Bedford's memoir Quicksands unread in a pile round here, must dig it out and take a look; as a bonus here's a post I wrote a while ago on Hollinghurst's NYRB essay on Bedford, which I think is not available online to non-subscribers. But a great compliment I would like to bestow on Aciman's novel is that it makes me want to go and reread all the other books it alludes to or reminded me of...)

(And for a postscript, the sentence that gave me a painful moment of self-recognition. It's Elio describing Oliver at cocktails speaking with a visitor who is "busily listening to [his] description of his book on Heraclitus": "He had perfected the art of giving a stranger a five-sentence precis that seemed invented on the spur of the moment for the benefit of that particular listener." Hmmm--I will not say more--it is so well observed, almost enough so to make me stop doing exactly that thing--almost but not quite--it it is a necessary form of performance of the self of course, we teach our graduate students how to do it when they go on the job market, and yet one does not want to be captured as it were in the act of performing oneself, and more especially of offending the recipient of the sentences who may be hurt by this revelation of impersonality in the guise of the personal...)

(And for a second postscript, I was also delighted with the novel for a completely frivolous reason--it is a fantastic novel of swimming, cycling and running! Seriously, I'm not kidding--it gave me a sort of languishing and regretful fantasy of what a pity it is that I did not grow up in this way of swimming and bike-riding during adolescence, really I hit age ten and was too self-conscious for evermore to even wear a bathing suit in public, also pool access in the northeast is mostly for the quite wealthy--for better and for worse [I think it was good for my work ethic, in a slightly awful & still-can't-abide-the-smell-of-frying-beef kind of way!] the summer I turned seventeen I was, like, cooking cheesesteaks in a bunker-like poolside concrete grill pit for the country-club members rather than actually swimming myself! I had a depressing-but-in-the-end-uplifting swimming lesson yesterday wherein [a] it was immediately clear to the teacher--not the one I've been having lessons with most recently, who is amiable & convenient but much less skilled--that my stroke had actually become significantly worse since I last saw her a month and a half ago but [b] that this was fixable. By the end of the hour I was swimming magically better than I ever had before. I think I will probably lose it again and have to fight to get it back every single time I swim, but then it will be six months from now and I will be a far better swimmer. It is like the Pelagian heresy all over again--if I cannot be a good swimmer by an Augustinian act of grace then I will get it by a [mock-]heroic course of self-improvement. Of course the thing about swimming is that when it goes well it should feel like a state of grace itself, you move so easily and powerfully through the water; I think this is why, although I like being in the water very much, my temperament mitigates against giving myself over & relaxing in the way that's necessary to become a really good swimmer. But I will make it happen!)

(And since I am in a more confessional mode than usual, partly because Aciman of course spurred more reflection on adolescence than I usually care to indulge in--I am anti-nostalgia!--I will observe that I am about to go and have a supremely delightful sequence of things, I am anticipating spring break by a tiny bit--six more papers to grade tonight, and a few commitments Thursday and Friday during the day--but it is really almost here, thus the long session of blogging this afternoon & the attractive string of activities to come: an hour and a half of yoga, my injury-rehabilitation-allotted three miles of jogging [but on a treadmill due to dire weather conditions] and then a talk by Oliver Sacks on music and mind. I say this slightly laughing at myself, but the only thing that would be better would be if Sacks changed his mind at the last minute and lectured on swimming instead! He is one of the great writers on swimming that I've encountered, in fact I wonder if there is some sort of Faber Anthology of Swimming that I could read for inspiration...)