Monday, November 12, 2018

"A mathematician offers the game"

Karr's memoir book also includes a superb list of memoirs (she stars the ones that are exceptional as books as well as personal histories - I find a high degree of congruence between her tastes and my own). One that I hadn't read and immediately obtained and devoured was G. H. Hardy's heartbreaking A Mathematician's Apology, which comes with a wonderful introductory essay by C. P. Snow.

Snow on Hardy: "His life remained the life of a brilliant young man until he was old: so did his spirit: his games, his interests, kept the lightness of a young don’s. And, like many men who keep a young man’s interests into their sixties, his last years were the darker for it." And this striking description of the relationships Hardy had with a handful of young men over the years:
These were intense affections, absorbing, non-physical but exalted. The one I knew about was for a young man whose nature was as spiritually delicate as his own. I believe, though I only picked this up from chance remarks, that the same was true of the others. To many people of my generation, such relationships would seem either unsatisfactory or impossible. They were neither the one nor the other; and unless one takes them for granted, one doesn’t begin to undertand the temperament of men like Hardy (they are rare, but not as rare as white rhinoceroses), nor the Cambridge society of his time. He didn’t get the satisfactions that most of us can’t help finding: but he knew himself unusually well, and that didn’t make him unhappy. His inner life was his own, and very rich. The sadness came at the end.
The charm of Hardy's style of thought: “The proof is by reduction ad absurdum, and reduction ad absurdum, which Euclid loved so much, is one of a mathematician’s finest weapons. It is a far finer gambit than any chess gambit: a chess player may offer the sacrifice of a pawn or even a piece, but a mathematician offers the game.”

Here is Hardy on the morality of mathematics:
... there is one purpose at any rate which the real mathematics may serve in war. When the world is mad, a mathematician may find in mathematics an incomparable anodyne. For mathematics is, of all the arts and sciences, the most austere and the most remote, and a mathematician should be of all men the one who can most easily take refuge where, as Bertrand Russell says, ‘one at least of our nobler impulses can best escape from the dreary exile of the actual world’. It is a pity it should be necessary to make one very serious reservation—he must not be too old. Mathematics is not a contemplative but a creative subject; no one can draw much consolation from it when he has lost the power or the desire to create; and that is apt to happen to a mathematician rather soon. It is a pity, but in that case he does not matter a great deal anyhow, and it would be silly to bother about him.

"A stubborn little bulldog of a reviser"

Thinking memoir these days - Mary Karr's The Art of Memoir was helpful not least because of how much it encourages you to write bad pages in the wrong voice first and worry later about how it is all going to come right! "Carnality" is her term for what makes memoir come alive - can you feel it through the five senses? My own personal carnality (yes, of course there are sounds and smells and colors as well) is overwhelmingly in words and ideas....

Some highlights:
Each great memoir lives or dies based 100 percent on voice…. The secret to any voice grows from a writer’s finding a tractor beam of inner truth about psychological conflicts to shine the way. While an artist consciously constructs a voice, she chooses its elements because they’re natural expressions of character. So above all, a voice has to sound like the person wielding it—the super-most interesting version of that person ever—and grow from her core self…. However you charm people in the world, you should do so on the page.

A memoirist’s nature—the self who shapes memory’s filter—will prove the source of her talent. By talent, I mean not just surface literary gifts, though those are part of the package, but life experiences, personal values, approach, thought processes, perceptions, and innate character.
There's a good account of why Karr couldn’t write the story of her childhood in the form of a novel, and how and why The Liars' Club only came to life when she admitted that it had to be nonfiction (I heard Robert Polito tell this story, they were in the same writing group during those years, but it is nice to have a citable version from the author herself!). Maybe the most useful stretch for teaching would be Chapter 14: “Personal Run-Ins with Fake Voices.”

Karr writes extremely well about the psychological shift she experiences, with each book project, of finally finding the right voice: “The images in my head suddenly had words representing them on the page. And accompanying the words was a state of consciousness. It almost felt like I’d walked into some inner room where my lived experiences could pass through and come out as language.” Her sequel thought (and why she is a memoirist rather than a novelist, this wouldn't be true for many writers of fiction): “If the voice worked as a living contract with the reader, it also strangely bound me to candor. To make stuff up would somehow have broken the spell the voice cast over me.”

She is also particularly good on revision:
I always circle my own stories, avoiding the truth like a pooch staked to a clothesline pole, spiraling closer and closer with each revision till—with each book—my false self finally lines up eye to eye with the true one.

On the most basic level, bad sentences make bad books. Poet Robert Hass taught me you can rewrite a poem by making every single line better. I revise and revise and revise. Any editor of mine will tell you how crappy my early drafts are. Revisions are about clarifying and evoking feelings in the reader in the same way they were once evoked in me.

... other than a few instances of luck, good work only comes through revision ....

... those early pages I threw away were somehow necessary, even if I wrote past them. They were way stations I needed to visit to eliminate them from the final itinerary.

For me, the last 20 percent of a book’s improvement takes 95 percent of the effort—all in the editing. I can honestly say not one page I’ve ever published appears anywhere close to how it came out in the first draft. A poem might take sixty versions. I am not much of a writer, but I am a stubborn little bulldog of a reviser.

Monday, October 22, 2018

'old broken Gibbons piece reveals itself'

Nico did a diary piece for the LRB and a more production-oriented essay for the NYT. I share his fondness BTW for the three-flap French folders....

(I was hoping that I was going to be able to see MARNIE on the simulcast night - it is in local theaters in Paris on Nov. 10 - but I am currently about 98% sure that in the same time interval I am going to need to be present at a party for Institute fellows hosted by the Columbia founder - still slightly hoping that he might have us for early evening drink rather than full mid-evening hospitality and I can dash off thereafter - but no, I see the screening starts at 18:55, that won't work. That said, should be able to pay for access online thereafter, so it is not a total disaster, though I'd have liked to see it in a theater!)

Also - is it because of Orlando Gibbons that people want to say Gibbons instead of Gibbon for the historian, or does it just work better in English in the plural form?

Sunday, October 21, 2018

Wormwood forest

Ah, I see that it is exactly a year since I last posted here - a link to Gene's obituary. He has been much on my mind this month, for obvious reasons.

Am deep in Gibbon book and its writing - just spent the afternoon reading a book that I first heard about more than ten years ago (in this TLS review, though I can't access the whole piece without requesting it through ILL - in all these years, the TLS still hasn't improved the usability of its archive!), Mary Mysio's Wormwood Forest: A Natural History of Chernobyl. It is a very good book without being a great one (the excellence of the topic exceeds the skill level of the writer, perhaps - the copy-editing isn't great and in the hands of a different publisher it might have developed into something more for the ages). Which is to say that it doesn't have the literary force (the unforgettable shock value) of Svetlana Alexievich's Voices From Chernobyl: An Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster, with which it must be read in tandem (I'm thinking about a reread now). And yet it is an absolutely extraordinary story! Not least in the episode it recounts about the release into the wild of several small herds of Przewalski's horses, a longtime favorite of mine (I just saw some at the small zoo at the Jardin des Plantes the other week).

My reading was prompted by this passage in Gibbon, in which he discusses the repeated and ongoing invasions of the Illyrian provinces after the death of Valens:
Could it even be supposed, that a large tract of country had been left without cultivation, and without inhabitants, the consequences might not have been so fatal to the inferior productions of animated nature. The useful and feeble animals, which are nourished by the hand of man, might suffer and perish, if they were deprived of his protection: but the beasts of the forest, his enemies, or his victims, would multiply in the free and undisturbed possession of their solitary domain. The various tribes that people the air, or the waters, are still less connected with the fate of the human species; and it is highly probable, that the fish of the Danube would have felt more terror and distress, from the approach of a voracious pike, than from the hostile inroad of a Gothic army. (26, 1:1068-69)
The Gibbon book is going to be weaving together a lot of different stories, memoiristic as well as critical, but is really about the cast of thought that makes information become intellectually and analytically interesting....