Thursday, November 30, 2006

Staking the memoir on uplift

At Slate, Gideon Lewis-Kraus has an interesting essay about Azar Nafisi and the debate over Reading Lolita in Tehran.

Two favorite poems

I forgot to mention the other day, poems I loved at age twelve or thirteen and probably knew by heart at one point and don't anymore but still would call favorites.

First, Robert Browning's "My Last Duchess". This one's quite excellent--in retrospect I see I liked it not just because of the language, though you can certainly taste every word here in the way that you always can with a good poem (I can't read poetry without wanting to feel the shape of the words in my mouth), but because of (a) the appeal of the whole sort of Machiavellian Italian Renaissance thing, it went along with my love of Jacobean tragedy and revenge plays in particular (really this is a dramatic monologue rather than a lyric) and (b) what would turn out to be a lifelong interest in unreliable narrators esp. of the sinister but compelling kind.

Here it is, anyway (I still never figured out how to do the "after the cut" link on Blogger, but there is something in any case satisfying though impractical about pasting in a long and indispensable poem):

That's my last Duchess painted on the wall,
Looking as if she were alive. I call
That piece a wonder, now: Frà Pandolf's hands
Worked busily a day, and there she stands.
Will't please you sit and look at her? I said
"Frà Pandolf" by design, for never read
Strangers like you that pictured countenance,
The depth and passion of its earnest glance,
But to myselfthey turned (since none puts by
The curtain I have drawn for you, but I)
And seemed as they would ask me, if they durst,
How such a glance came there; so, not the first
Are you to turn and ask thus. Sir, 'twas not
Her husband's presence only, called that spot
Of joy into the Duchess' cheek: perhaps
Frà Pandolf chanced to say "Her mantle laps
Over my Lady's wrist too much," or "Paint
Must never hope to reproduce the faint
Half-flush that dies along her throat": such stuff
Was courtesy, she thought, and cause enough
For calling up that spot of joy. She had
A heart -- how shall I say? -- too soon made glad,
Too easily impressed; she liked whate'er
She looked on, and her looks went everywhere.
Sir, 'twas all one! My favour at her breast,
The dropping of the daylight in the West,
The bough of cherries some officious fool
Broke in the orchard for her, the white mule
She rode with round the terrace -- all and each
Would draw from her alike the approving speech,
Or blush, at least. She thanked men, -- good! but thanked
Somehow -- I know not how -- as if she ranked
My gift of a nine-hundred-years-old name
With anybody's gift. Who'd stoop to blame
This sort of trifling? Even had you skill
In speech -- (which I have not) -- to make your will
Quite clear to such an one, and say, "Just this
Or that in you disgusts me; here you miss,
Or there exceed the mark" -- and if she let
Herself be lessoned so, nor plainly set
Her wits to yours, forsooth, and made excuse,
--E'en then would be some stooping, and I choose
Never to stoop. Oh sir, she smiled, no doubt,
Whene'er I passed her; but who passed without
Much the same smile? This grew; I gave commands;
Then all smiles stopped together. There she stands
As if alive. Will't please you rise? We'll meet
The company below, then. I repeat,
The Count your master's known munificence
Is ample warrant that no just pretence
Of mine for dowry will be disallowed;
Though his fair daughter's self, as I avowed
At starting, is my object. Nay, we'll go
Together down, sir. Notice Neptune, though,
Taming a sea-horse, thought a rarity,
Which Claus of Innsbruck cast in bronze for me!

(". . . and I choose / never to stoop"!)

Second (this thought was prompted by some Pope-reading this morning), there is no doubt that my particular favorite poem by Alexander Pope (though of course
"The Rape of the Lock" is a work of total genius) is "Elegy to the Memory of an Unfortunate Lady" about which there is something delightfully novelistic and gothic on the small scale. I was first tipped off to this poem by Edmund Crispin's Frequent Hearses (not Crispin's best, but the best ones are absolutely sublime--I think my demented favorite is The Moving Toyshop--that title also is drawn from Pope--but I have a deep passion for the late over-the-top Fen novel Glimpses of the Moon).

In fact much time during my teenage years was spent using classic British detective fiction as a kind of reading guide: Nicholas Blake (aka Cecil Day-Lewis)'s Thou Shell of Death directed me to Webster and his Head of a Traveler to Housman's "Fragment of a Greek Tragedy" (which age thirteen or fourteen I found more or less incomprehensible--how would you know where to follow down the references?!?--but still irresistibly appealing and funny); and Gaudy Night to Elizabethan songs and The Anatomy of Melancholy and Thomas Lovell Beddoes' "Death's Jest Book".

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Casseroles and floor wax

At the New York Observer, Diane Johnson on Jessica Mitford's letters. I do rather want to read these--hmm...--oh, and I am happy to see that Mitford's autobiography Hons and Rebels is available in the always-excellent New York Review of Books reprint series (with an introduction by Christopher Hitchens!), that's another book I loved as a child.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

On poetry

It's been fairly slim pickings round the blog recently, too busy to write much, but I am decadently going to steal a middle-of-the-day hour to do Cam's poetry meme (thanks to Dorothy for putting the idea in my head).

1. The first poem I remember reading was...

"Goblin Market" by Christina Rossetti, which I had in a very attractively illustrated adaptation by Ellen Raskin (also the author, I might add, of the ever-enthralling children's books The Westing Game and The Mysterious Disappearance of Leon (I Mean Noel)). I found this book absolutely enchanting and read it again and again: the story of the two sisters reminded me of my favorite tale The Snow Queen, or perhaps it is better to say I liked the two for similar reasons, but it was the poem's catalogs of delectable fruits that had me greedily in thrall (this is the goblin cry):

"Come buy, come buy:
Apples and quinces,
Lemons and oranges,
Plump unpecked cherries-
Melons and raspberries,
Bloom-down-cheeked peaches,
Swart-headed mulberries,
Wild free-born cranberries,
Crab-apples, dewberries,
Pine-apples, blackberries,
Apricots, strawberries--
All ripe together
In summer weather--
Morns that pass by,
Fair eves that fly;
Come buy, come buy;
Our grapes fresh from the vine,
Pomegranates full and fine,
Dates and sharp bullaces,
Rare pears and greengages,
Damsons and bilberries,
Taste them and try:
Currants and gooseberries,
Bright-fire-like barberries,
Figs to fill your mouth,
Citrons from the South,
Sweet to tongue and sound to eye,
Come buy, come buy."

2. I was forced to memorize (name of poem) in school and...

I don't remember being forced to memorize poetry at school. I memorized poems now and then just because I liked them. When I was a very serious and intellectual (what age would this have been?) maybe eleven-year-old I rather solemnly memorized the whole of "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," which I was certain must be the best poem ever. I was also partial to various things in The Faber Book of Comic Verse and the companion volume of nonsense verse: I remember learning by heart for instance also at around that age or maybe a bit older a quite delightful poem (I thought it the height of wit) called The Sycophantic Fox and the Gullible Raven by Guy Wetmore Carryl. I'm pasting it in because it still seems to me very pleasing (I remember I was especially taken with the words "umbrageous" and persiflage"--oh, I must go and see if I can get more of this guy's Aesop adaptations):

A raven sat upon a tree,
And not a word he spoke, for
His beak contained a piece of Brie.
Or, maybe it was Roquefort.
We'll make it any kind you please --
At all events it was a cheese.

Beneath the tree's umbrageous limb
A hungry fox sat smiling;
He saw the raven watching him,
And spoke in words beguiling:
"J'admire," said he, "ton beau plumage!"
(The which was simply persiflage.)

Two things there are, no doubt you know,
To which a fox is used:
A rooster that is bound to crow,
A crow that's bound to roost;
And whichsoever he espies
He tells the most unblushing lies.

"Sweet fowl," he said, "I understand
You're more than merely natty;
I hear you sing to beat the band
And Adelina Patti.
Pray render with your liquid tongue
A bit from Gotterdammerung."

This subtle speech was aimed to please
The crow, and it succeeded;
He thought no bird in all the trees
Could sing as well as he did.
In flattery completely doused,
He gave the "Jewel Song" from Faust.

But gravitation's law, of course,
As Isaac Newton showed it,
Exerted on the cheese its force,
And elsewhere soon bestowed it.
In fact, there is no need to tell
What happened when to earth it fell.

I blush to add that when the bird
Took in the situation
He said one brief, emphatic word,
Unfit for publication.
The fox was greatly startled, but
He only sighed and answered, "Tut."

The Moral is: A fox is bound
To be a shameless sinner.
And also: When the cheese comes round
You know it's after dinner.
But (what is only known to few)
The fox is after dinner, too.

3. I don't read poetry very often because...

I like reading fast and if I want to read something that rewards slow reading it is more likely to be the Wittgenstein-Adorno-Plato kind of axis rather than a poem. But I do quite often read poetry from the past, only if it is pre-1800 I somehow don't think of it as poetry per se but rather as just something good.

4. A poem I'm likely to think about when asked about a favorite poem is...

All right, it's totally a cliche, but I would pretty much have to say Elizabeth Bishop's
"One Art." I vividly remember reading this poem for the first time--well, the whole Geography III collection, which just blew me away (and "In the Waiting Room" is of course my other favorite Bishop poem, though "Crusoe in England" comes a close second)--in a quite wonderful English elective class when I was in ninth grade, it was taught by the remarkable Deborah Dempsey and the other poets we read closely were Theodore Roetke and Adrienne Rich. We spent a long time looking at that amazing last stanza and trying to figure out if it's tragic or sort-of-redemptive (I was on the sort-of-redemptive side--it's the "Write it!" that brings things back round, I argued the case then and I would do it again now although I think it means reading against the grain of the poem):

---Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan't have lied. It's evident
the art of losing's not too hard to master
though it may look like (
Write it!) like disaster.

Other favorite poems, off the top of my head: Andrew Marvell's "The Mower Against Gardens"; Swift's "The Lady's Dressing Room"; and (regrettably, because it makes me laugh so much) Wordsworth's "The Thorn".

5. I ...

used to write poetry when I was a Young Person (in fact I won $100 in a poetry contest in high school, first money I ever made by writing) but I took a poetry-writing workshop my first semester of college that was simultaneously quite a good workshop and also the direct cause of me deciding I would never write another poem again. And I never have. And I almost certainly never will--might write some strange prosey things though that would be vaguely poem-like. Also I have rather a yen to write an opera libretto sometime, but that probably doesn't count.

6. My experience with reading poetry differs from my experience with reading other types of literature...

because it happens more slowly, and that makes me irritable! I find myself impatient with much contemporary poetry because it does not seem to meet even the minimum acceptable standard of copy-editing that you would expect from good prose. I like reading bad novels and good novels, but I will only read the very best poetry or else I become excessively annoyed. Which is not good for the soul.

7. I find poetry...

Interesting, appealing, sometimes magical but on the whole inessential. Novels are essential, intellectual prose essential, plays I miss if I don't get them often enough, essays absolutely soothing and often very delightful, but poetry is for some reason the one I can do without. Not permanently without, but I do not require it with a very high degree of frequency. The other thing I find is that new poems are too often either humorless or if they are funny then they are too whimsical (whimsy is my absolute least favorite thing in the world). There are exceptions, but not many (one very happy recent exception was my friend Steve Burt's absolutely lovely sestina "Six Kinds of Noodles" which you must all go and read now, it really is something special).

8. The last time I heard poetry....

Hmmm...I try and avoid hearing poetry, I don't like being read aloud to and I particularly become savagely antisocial and misanthropic when it's middling-to-bad poetry! I remember recording a lot of Donne's poems on a cassette tape the summer I was studying for orals, though, and listening to them again and again on the Walkman while I ran round the reservoir in Central Park.

9. I think poetry is like....

Nothing else. It's not like life, but it's like a feeling you get sometimes that lasts very briefly--oh, I had it yesterday afternoon when I walked outside of my apartment & was struck with the bareness of the trees and winteriness of the sky in the bit of the park I can see over the edge of the stone wall along the west side of Riverside Drive. The reason I am not a poetry-writer (also you can only write good poetry if you are absolutely steeped in poetry, it is an art of allusion in a way that fiction is not--in this respect it's more like philosophy) is that it does not suit my temperament to sit around waiting for that sort of feeling to strike, in fact sitting around waiting is not my strong suit and I am too great a believer in the rational brain to embrace voluntarily a kind of writing that seems to involve giving oneself over to external control!

Yes, sir, yes, sir

From Jeffrey Toobin's article in this week's New Yorker on the death throes of habeas corpus in the United States, this quotation from Patrick Leahy, ranking Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee:

“When Lyndon Johnson became Vice-President, he wasn’t welcome at Senate Democratic caucus meetings anymore, because it was for senators only. But every Tuesday since Bush has been President it’s been like a Mafia funeral around here. There are, like, fifteen cars with lights and sirens, and Cheney and Karl Rove come to the Republican caucus meetings and tell those guys what to do. It’s all ‘Yes, sir, yes, sir.’ I bet there is not a lot of dissent that goes on in that room. In thirty-two years in the Senate, I have never seen a Congress roll over and play dead like this one.”

Monday, November 27, 2006


the Tesla Roadster. Seriously, this is straight out of my novel....

Can it really be true

that the Bond theme music began life as a sitar-backed song for a never-realized musical based on V.S. Naipaul's A House for Mr. Biswas?!? At the Times, Michiko Kakutani enjoys Simon Winder's book (it really does sound quite delightful, surely it's one of those good double-purpose buy-it-for-an-Xmas-present-but-quickly-read-it-first-myself-type presents) The Man Who Saved Britain: A Personal Journey into the Disturbing World of James Bond. Who could resist a book with that title?

Saturday, November 25, 2006

"I love scrims"

(I do, too.) In this week's Times magazine, Daphne Merkin takes on Tom Stoppard. I think I am going to have to go and see the marathon Coast of Utopia in the new year, I was seesawing on this (bad experiences with New York productions of other Stoppard) but really it seems unskippable--and think if I get to teach a Shaw-Stoppard seminar sometime what an idiot I'll feel if I missed it while it was here, seems quite irresponsible....

Good things

at the NYTBR this week.

Liesl Schillinger has a great piece about the new Pynchon novel (which I've got, and am supposed to read soon, but this is perhaps the first review I've read that really gives me the fortitude to tackle it--aside from everything else I am perplexed and amused by the way it sounds so much like MY novel--dynamite, science and technology, secret history of an alternate twentieth century--only I have resolutely held out against airships, I like airships of course [who doesn't?] but there is a veritable airship craze right now, possibly sparked by Philip Pullman but maybe just one of those zeitgeisty things--certainly reading Gravity's Rainbow was one of the great events of my adolescence, another thing for which I can thank the demented Anthony Burgess 99 Novels book which was like my secret guru when I was fifteen and sixteen).

Also: Hitchens on Vidal; and Deborah Blum on Dale Peterson's Jane Goodall biography (which I am SO going to read over Xmas break, I think I've got an advance copy floating around here somewhere, must go and check and put it in some conspicuous spot along with the couple other things I most want to read but can't get to till school's over).

Friday, November 24, 2006

The exotic and desirable avocado pear

At the Guardian, Nicholas Lezard on the charms of Ian Fleming's Bond books (I adored those books when I was younger, I have read the best of them again and again in my time--I must confess that my particular favorite was always the narratively anomalous The Spy Who Loved Me). My admiration for the Fleming mode definitely has something to do with my long-time failure to appreciate the novels of John LeCarre, who seems weighty and humorless in comparison--and yes, I know they are doing two totally different things, but really Fleming had the more striking imagination of the two and a far more pleasing literary mode also (LeCarre at his best is morally suggestive and thought-provoking but at his worst is just plain pretentious and awful).

At the Times

Charles McGrath test-drives the Sony Reader and finds it wanting. I think that everyone who has an iPod and loves reading is waiting for Apple to develop a product (only perhaps there just isn't the market for it, not sure about that one--and I still have doubts about the content-related issues, I am not going to pay money for e-books unless under very exceptional circumstances...).


Jenny Diski has an absolutely perfect little diary piece at the London Review of Books on her experience with the Friendly Spider Programme at the London Zoological Society. Just go and read it, it is amazingly good....

(On an altogether less delightful and far more dispiriting note, also at the LRB, John Barrell decimates Christopher Hitchens's Thomas Paine book. I really wish people would not write bad books, it is so low--I guess there is a mindset of the "if someone is going to give me money to do this, I will dash it off on a whim & in great haste without checking any of the facts" variety, but I really cannot imagine--it is an outrageous cliche, but I am soundly and even perhaps obsessively of the "if a thing's worth doing, it's worth doing well" school of thought. Anthony Burgess wrote an extraordinary number of books and while many of them are quite odd not a single one is bad, they are all done with flair and attention; so being prolific is not an excuse.)

An oratorio-like brain episode

Margaret Atwood has a fabulously good piece about Richard Powers in this week's New York Review of Books; the best piece I've read, I think, on his new novel. I do love that Margaret Atwood--she's as smart as any critic you'll ever read, but she's funny on top of it, which is rarer than you might think, a slightly ridiculous aura of the sacred hovers over even much of the best criticism...

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Lionel Shriver on OJ Simpson

at the Guardian.

There's something about Shriver's writing that puts her on my very short list of favorites, the writers to whom I have a powerful and beyond-rational attachment that has something to do with a sort of aspirational identification rather than simple pleasure/bowled-over-ness (off the top of my head, this list includes Poppy Z. Brite, Jenny Diski and the late Heather Lewis; as opposed to writers whose stuff I'm obsessed with/admire/love but couldn't see myself writing anything like, let's say Jonathan Lethem or Kazuo Ishiguro--and no, it's not any kind of straightforward boys versus girls thing, Wayne Koestenbaum's on my aspirational/identification list for instance and Claire Messud on the other one). I think what I like is the way Shriver's strictly cerebral intelligence works like some kind of a weapon--it's not that she's not a good stylist, lots of her sentences are very striking (and the voice in We Need To Talk About Kevin is an amazing stylistic achievement), but if you visualize what she's up to you'd have to say she's working with a sledgehammer rather than a scalpel. (When I was drafting Dynamite No. 1 I was picturing myself with a machete hacking a way through a dense field of some sugar-cane-like ten-foot-tall stuff, all you have to do is hack yourself the path through and you can worry later about cleaning it up--and even though it's back-breaking sweaty muscle-killing work you just keep in mind the clear view through that you'll have when you make it to the other side. Seriously, I always have very strong tactile relationships with my reading and writing, it's partly why I find both of those activities so satisfying--when I'm reading books for my academic writing it is virtually as though the quotations I will use float off the page at me in blocks of different-colored text, royal blue, say, rather than black--in this case the machete image was so strong that I could almost feel the work in my triceps, my phantom triceps.)

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Lead-to-gold alchemy

Paul Collins has a fascinating piece at Slate about plagiarism:

[D]on't people accidentally repeat each other's sentences all the time? It seems to me that this should not be unusual. Yet try plugging that last sentence word by word into Google Book Search, and watch what happens.

It: Rejected—too many hits to count
It seems: 11,160,000 matches
It seems to: 3,050,000
It seems to me: 1,580,000
It seems to me that: 844,000
It seems to me that this: 29,700
It seems to me that this should: 237
It seems to me that this should not: 20
It seems to me that this should not be: 9
It seems to me that this should not be unusual: 0

It seems to me that this should not be unusual is itself ... unusual.

Google Book Search contains hundreds of millions of printed pages, and yet after just a few words, the likelihood of the sentence's replication scales down dramatically. And even before our sentence implodes into utter improbability, there's another telling phenomenon at work. The nine books that contain the penultimate It seems to me that this should not be are from a grab bag of subjects: a 2001 study of Freud, an 1874 collection of Methodist camp sermons, minutes from a 1973 hearing of the Senate subcommittee on transportation. So, if replicating the same sentence alone is suspicious behavior, then to also replicate it on the same subject warrants dialing 911.

On a Collins-related note, it looks to me as though Presidential Doodles: Two Centuries of Scribbles, Scratches, Squiggles & Scrawls from the Oval Office might be a very useful Xmas-present item for the non-narrative reader on your gift list....

Monday, November 20, 2006

I must get back

to normal life (no literary news till later tonight, I think), but I can't do it without posting briefly about the whole half-marathon experience in Philadelphia this weekend. It was delightful if painful, various family members were immensely supportive and the whole experience makes me even more determined to run a marathon in 2007.

The race itself was interesting. I pulled a muscle in my thigh three weeks ago, and if this hadn't been my first long(ish) race I would definitely have taken some weeks totally off from running and canceled the race plans. It has been moderately to acutely painful, and I knew the race would be totally doable but perhaps not very enjoyable & certainly rather slower than I had imagined.

So I ran with my training partners for the first four miles or so, despite the unpleasant feeling that a vise was slowly closing in around my thigh--my mother and sister-in-law were stationed around mile 4 and I knew they would like to see us all go by together, plus it would be worrying to them if I was trailing behind and limping. After that I fell back to a slower pace and just concentrated on getting myself through.

The thing that surprised me was how mentally tough the whole thing was. Not the running itself--my training has been very good, the painful two-loops-in-Central-Park-with-agonizing-pulled-muscle twelve-mile run (this was two weeks ago) proved to me that I could do the race itself under circumstances even a bit more adverse than they actually were. Especially because I was running at a fairly easy pace, I never thought for a minute that I wouldn't finish, though the spirit was more one of grim determination than actual enjoyment.

But from mile 4 to mile 10 I had far too much time to contemplate the depressing time result I was likely to achieve. It is my firm belief that my blog is not the place to indulge in self-loathing and self-criticism, such things should only be visited in private (and preferably not at all, of course), but we all have quite a bit of such things roiling around inside of us (academia is a breeding-ground for these things!) and I fell absolutely into the grip of a feeling that reminded me of how I felt when I couldn't find a publisher for my first novel--a sense that though I was doing everything I could, and though I certainly wouldn't let the general horribleness of things stop me from seeing the project through to the bitter end, and though nobody would possibly reproach me as much as I would reproach myself for the general unsatisfactoriness of the present state of affairs, and though my self-dissatisfaction was completely unreasonable and irrational and I would chide and tease a friend or a student out of such thoughts and into a more positive way of thinking, there was no doubt of my being very, very unhappy with myself.

And then it all miraculously changed--at the ten-mile marker, I actually looked properly at the clock and realized the time was still in the 1:40s and that if I kept plugging away even at my current pitifully slow pace I would have a respectable finish time that I could live with. And I did--I came in about five minutes after my training partners, with a clock time of 2:17:14 and a chip time of 2:12:18 (that's the time from when you actually crossed the start rather than when the start signal went off--huge throngs of people struggling to get across...). Which is just over a ten-minute pace--I was hoping for more like 9:30, but 10:05-6 I can totally live with, especially under the circumstances (afterwards I could barely walk, and indeed it is going to take many weeks of rest and recovery to shake this injury).

On the bright side, I am more determined than ever to run a marathon in 2007, and it was interesting running at this slower pace--I am confident that I could do a marathon at exactly that pace (I mean, I hope I could do it faster--4:15! and that's just for the first one, I feel certain that with the right training I could do one under four hours...--but now I know I could do it with ten-minute miles). So that is valuable in itself.

There is going to be a lot of Epsom salt in my future!

Friday, November 17, 2006

What if you loved vanilla ice-cream

but found your cortex indifferent to it? Daniel Engber used to scan brains for a living (as I have said before, I am fond of Slate's Explainer feature, its worldview seems very close to my own--they are comically but also aptly tied to whatever's been in the news, with a good science/technology bent--I think my favorite one ever was about what to do when your eye gets popped out of its socket).

Radio silence round here for the rest of the weekend. Back Monday.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

A very long post about running and the eighteenth century

In my mind almost everything harks back sooner or later to the eighteenth century, it is a hobby-horse of sorts; last week it was Uncle Toby and groin injuries, and last night I steeped myself in a muscle-softening bath of Epsom Salts and had reflections on Smollett. This is Matthew Bramble writing to Dr. Lewis about Bath, in one of my particularly favorite eighteenth-century novels:

Two days ago, I went into the King’s Bath, by the advice of our friend Ch----, in order to clear the strainer of the skin, for the benefit of a free perspiration; and the first object that saluted my eye, was a child full of scrophulous ulcers, carried in the arms of one of the guides, under the very noses of the bathers. I was so shocked at the sight, that I retired immediately with indignation and disgust—Suppose the matter of those ulcers, floating on the water, comes in contact with my skin, when the pores are all open, I would ask you what must be the consequence?—Good Heaven, the very thought makes my blood run cold! We know not what sores may be running into the water while we are bathing, and what sort of matter we may thus imbibe; the king’s evil, the scurvy, the cancer, and the pox; and, no doubt, the heat will render the virus the more volatile and penetrating…

After all, if the intention is no more than to wash the skin, I am convinced that simple element is more effectual than any water impregnated with salt and iron; which, being astringent, will certainly contract the pores, and leave a kind of crust upon the surface of the body. But I am now as much afraid of drinking, as of bathing; for, after a long conversation with the Doctor, about the construction of the pump and the cistern, it is very far from being clear with me, that the patients in the Pump-room don’t swallow the scourings of the bathers. I can’t help suspecting, that there is, or may be, some regurgitation from the bath into the cistern of the pump. In that case, what a delicate beveridge is every day quaffed by the drinkers; medicated with the sweat, and dirt, and dandriff; and the abominable discharges of various kinds, from twenty different diseased bodies, parboiling in the kettle below. In order to avoid this filthy composition, I had recourse to the spring that supplies the private baths on the Abbey-green; but I at once perceived something extraordinary in the taste and smell; and upon inquiry, I find that the Roman baths in this quarter, were found covered by an old burying ground, belonging to the Abbey; thro’ which, in all probability, the water drains in its passage: so that as we drink the decoction of living bodies at the Pump-room, we swallow the strainings of rotten bones and carcasses at the private bath—I vow to God, the very idea turns my stomach!

On an only obliquely related note, it seems to me that theories of nutrition and running must have been developed first for animals and only later for people: a few weeks ago my friend L. and I had a very good evening run around the full Central Park loop & found ourselves overtaken by a horse and carriage. I foolishly suggested that we might race it up the hill (it wasn’t going very fast, although of course seeing a carriage like that sort of lumbering up a hill makes you feel like you’re in a Dracula movie); L. sensibly observed that such creatures have been bred for millennia to run up hills with carriages and that we should do no such thing; I said that since we weren’t pulling carriages it might even things out; by that point we were at the top of the hill and we had overtaken it after all.

But it made me think about the way that in Tom Jones and such-like the ostlers at inns always cheat on giving the horses oats and then they lose steam halfway up a hill and the passengers in the coach don’t understand because they mistakenly believe the horses were given the oats that were paid for at the last stop; but you never see discussions in eighteenth- or nineteenth-century literature of a person losing energy in a similar way, though surely it happened all the time (descriptions of heroines like Lucy Snowe fainting are sometimes attributed to lack of food but more often to some kind of neurasthenic cause)…

On a more serious and rewarding note, I’ve snagged a great running-related guest post from a dear friend and former student of mine, Wei Keen Sung. Wei was one of the very first students I taught at Columbia (it was Literature Humanities, September 2000) and in the interim we have had many years of good conversation about various matters intellectual and otherwise; and now he is going to be my running mentor, because he just ran the New York Marathon and we share a devotion to the sport of running! Seriously, Wei’s marathon commitment has involved fundraising for Team For Kids, a very worthy organization (a branch of the NYRR) that provides fitness programs for 15,000 New York City schoolchildren who would otherwise lack access to physical education, and I thought it would be fun to post his narrative about the race here and to urge you to donate a few dollars—even five or ten dollars will add up, if a few people choose to give.

To contribute, go here and click on "Contribute," where you will need Wei’s entry number, 38554 (the foundation will inform him of all contributions made in his name).

Here is Wei’s story (the last two paragraphs are the best of all, make sure you scroll down and read them--also I make a brief cameo appearance at mile 23):

Dear Friends and Family,

Thank all of you all the support. I have successfully raised up to $2,100 dollars for the kids. Sorry for taking so long to send you the final update of the NYC marathon last week. This marathon was the toughest and most unforgettable experience I ever had. The result of this triumph was 10 minutes of hyperventilation and 20 minutes of severe muscle cramming. Despite the agonizing pain I experienced, I am really inclined to run more marathons. In my opinion, all marathoners were winners by completing the formidable physical challenge: 26.2 mile run.

I finished running the marathon at the 8:30 pace or in 3 hours and 44 minutes or 45 minutes slower than Lance Armstrong except that I didn't vomit. The NYC marathon was my second marathon and is by far the hardest run. The NYC marathon started from Staten Island to Brooklyn, to Queens, then to the Bronx, and ended up in Central Park for the distance of 26.2 miles. My team, Team for Kids, was the nation's largest marathon team with 1,000 members with the totally 37,000 runners.

Our team members met up on 51st. Street between 6th and 7th avenue to ride the academy buses to Staten Island. Because of the large quantity of people, each pace group stayed in a separate bus. I was on the 8:30 pace group bus. Team for kids buses were being escorted by a few police cars all the way to Staten Island. The bus ride was about an hour long. Every runner was wearing the green team for kids' singlet. Mario, Oscar, Jeff, Melanie, and I were planning to run as a group. Our strategy was to run 16 miles of commute/jogging pace, 4 miles of warm up pace, and 6.2 miles of race pace. We would keep track of our pace and speed for 16 miles before we'd separate for the race.

An hour passed by, we reached Staten Island. 52 degree & sunny. It was the perfect weather for the marathon. During the NYC marathon last year, I thought that I was in a French speaking country since I was surrounded by French people. This year was different. My previous alienated feeling dissipated. The marathon seemed very familiar to me, partly because it was my second marathon. Also, I was with the people I struggled over training for the marathon in the last 2 months. Simply put, we had spent time running, training hard, and partying. It was very comforting to have half a dozen people I knew running with me. Further more, 1 out of every 37 marathon runners would be a team for kids member.

At 10:10, it was the moment we waited for months. The gun went off and everyone started strolling forward. First we ran through the Verrizano bridge. It was a bit of an uphill, but it wasn't a challenge. We were constantly trying to slow speed down since it was still too early into the race. We talked and made jokes while running to ensure that we were at the jogging/commuting pace. The bridge seemed to be vibrating by thousands of runners' feet pounding on the ground. The first 5k of the marathon was much slower because of the traffic of people from the start line. As we were exiting the bridge and running on 86th street, a huge crowd of Brooklyn people cheered on 4th Avenue. Jeff claimed that he used to live Brooklyn so he knew many people there. "Come on Jeff. People were just calling out the name printed on you shirt" I said. As the race continued in Brooklyn, more and more people called "Jeff", but there wasn't a single person who called my name. Though puzzled, I then realized that people didn't call my name because they couldn't pronounce "Wei". Jeff is a generic name. Some people who managed to say my name called me "we" instead of Wei. So that was closed enough. Mostly, people screamed "Mario", "Marty, and "Jeff" out loud as we ran in Brooklyn. Suddenly, I heard "Wei" coming from Mario and Jeff. Well, I am really glad to be in the team. Our team remained slow and steady for 13 miles in Brooklyn. We stopped every 3-4 miles to quench our thirst for water and Gatorade. Marathon was a mind game. As much as we felt great on mile 13, we could fall apart in the following mile. We were still sticking with our game plan and ran 1 minute/mile slower than our race pace.

After mile 13, we passed Brooklyn's Greenpoint and entered my hometown- Queens. We ran passed Long Island City, the neighborhood of my high school. For some peculiar reasons, I started to hear people calling my name out. I looked back and saw some familiar faces but really couldn't make out whether or not I knew them. "Wei" I heard my name again. It was my friend Ivan who came to see me in the run. I waved my arm and continued to look strong and moved forward. That was incredible. I would think anybody would come to see me in the race. Then we arrived in Queensboro Bridge at mile 15, one of the hilliest parts of the race. The bridge consists of a half mile uphill. It was so challenging that some people walked through the first half of the bridge. I did walk the Queensboro Bridge in the last year's marathon. After the first half of the bridge, all runners started picking up speed downhill. Upon exiting the bridge to Manhattan, we heard a fanfare of cheering. There were hundreds of zealous fans cheering and screaming by the sides. We ran on 1st avenue from 59th street all the way 125th street to enter the Triboro Bridge. It was a very exciting moment. There were thousands and thousands of people cheering by the sides of the road. We started our warm up pace, 8:10 pace at mile 16. At this point, our team started to split up, leaving only Jeff and me running together. The vociferous spectators were frantic, screaming and cheering the runners every moment they could. There were more people calling out my name during the 30 minutes on the course than my last 2 hours of running. I felt so motivated that I was tempted to sprint the rest of the race and showed off my best performance. Thus, I did not notice that I was running faster than I should have. Fortunately, Jeff was my proponent for pacing; slowing me down every time I got excited by the crowd.

At mile 19, I was about to race the marathon after another mile of running. Mile 20 was what I trained one and a half month for. We ran all the way up to 125th Street and entered the Triboro Bridge to the Bronx. This part was one of the most physically challenging courses of the race. The bridge is elevated 35 degrees upward. The floor of the steel bridge did not give very good support to our feet since the floor was hollowed. Defeated by this heart-break hill, many runners preferred walking up the bridge. The runners' physical limit is usually the 18th or 19th mile. At this distance, every part of our bodies felt heavier. The exhausted runners were dragging their legs like a couple anchors. As a more experienced runner, I was able to overcome this obstacle and ran through the bridge to the Bronx with ease.

We had to run in the Bronx from mile 20 to mile 21. Mile 21 was the moment waited for a whole year, the marathon race has begun. I started picking up speed and completely left Jeff behind my sight. My goal was to sprint through the last 6.2 miles of the race. The run felt very good to me as I raced in 6:50 minutes/mile speed. My moment of glory was short-lived. After my record-breaking run, my legs started to feel stiff and heavy. I tapered off my pace to 8 minutes/mile as I entered Harlem, where most people were walking and struggling to finish the race. Between mile 22 to mile 24, the runners were running on the 5th avenue Street. This very last part of the race was the most challenging feat. I continued to slow my pace as every part of my muscles hurt. My thighs were crammed up, back stiffened, and joints ached; I was falling apart. Some one called out "Wei," and I saw Professor Jenny Davidson. I was glad she came to support my run when I most needed. Barely turn my head to look back, I slightly waved to her and returned to my run. At Mile 23, I were literally dragging my legs, moving one leg in front of another. Step by step, I hoped to get to the finish line. Cheering became much louder as I ran slower and slower. The crowd was usually a great source of motivation. But with my current fatigue condition, I would rather not respond to people in order to husband the every last bit of my energy. Hungry, thirsty, and exhausted, I tried to grab a drink of water and few slices of oranges at every water stop.

3 painful hours and 32 dreadful minutes into the race, I entered the very last course of the battle, with one mile left to the race. My legs felt like they were being stitched up by strings. If I ran any faster, I might break the strings and tear my legs apart. My vision became blurry, losing concentration gradually. Every step I made caused me a great deal of agonizing sharp pain. It was too late to give up now. I had worked too hard to stop running! I had to finish the race even if I were to become incapacitated afterward. I slowly regained some energy as I saw a sign stated "100 yards to go". Fuel by my excitement, I ignored the pain and dashed through the finish line. I did it. I finished the marathon in 3 hours and 44 minutes with one month of training. It was a miracle. My therapist was skeptical that I could run a marathon with my bad ankle.

Training for the marathon has changed my life forever. This greatest physical feat made me humbled. I have a great respect for running and all serious runners. Some zealous runners might say running is fun. But I don't consider running fun. Fun doesn't involve with intense pain. Watching a movie, taking a stroll in the park, or reading a book is considered fun. Running is a discipline one has to master. It takes hours and hours of tedious stepping movements. It is painful! There isn't a real runner who hasn't had some kind of pain that is directly resulted from running. In that case, running is painful and boring! However, many runners like myself find satisfaction in running. Through running, I've learned a great deal about myself. I know how and when to push my limit. I stay with a healthy diet in order to enhance my performance. Running keeps me motivated, energetic, and confident. I know that every time I feel down, running will help clear my head. Running a marathon is the ultimate way to satisfy my life and quench my thirst for challenge. The conclusion of this marathon is the next chapter of my venture. I will run more and more as long as I can.

On plastic bags and wheelie bins

Andrew O'Hagan at the LRB on the funniest book in the English language

"I adore italics, don't you?"

Alan Hollinghurst on Ronald Firbank at the TLS. Novelists and would-be novelists are required to go and read this piece, it's a wonderfully perceptive piece of literary criticism with some helpful hints about voice and sensibility (I can't resist the long paste-in--Hollinghurst in any case is on my short list of fiction-writing geniuses of our time):

Firbank’s books all appeared in uniform format and binding, with off-white jackets, a little coordinated library, so that they made up as they appeared a collected edition of the kind most writers gain only in old age (like Henry James) or posthumously. Here was a “Works”, with the air at least of a classic. But the actual texts of these exiguous but elegant first editions are full of quirks – not only what one early reviewer called “adventures in spelling” but, since the novels consist largely of conversation, the quirks of speech. The page has the aeration of a play-text (“He began to suspect that what he had been seeking for all along was the theatre”), of dialogue interspersed with brief imagistic description of setting and action. Punctuation is deployed on a very personal footing, for rhythm and emphasis rather than in accordance with any strict modern system. Grammar is equally subjective, defiantly improper, as in the opening words of The Flower Beneath the Foot, “Neither her Gaudiness the Mistress of the Robes, or her Dreaminess the Queen were feeling quite themselves”. And the text is thick with capital letters, italics (“I adore italics, don’t you?”) and exclamation marks, of which Firbank was far fonder than a good writer is supposed to be (he uses them in their multiple hundreds, and sometimes makes up unspoken, or unspeakable dialogue entirely out of ellipses, question marks and exclamation marks).

The mannered typographical emphasis of the texts, so integral to Firbank’s view of character and relations, relates to his taste for the camp declarative nature of Restoration comedy and the highly stylized forms of the eighteenth century: the texts of Pope’s Satires or of Tristram Shandy are alive with italics, italics used for proper names, which appealed to Firbank, I suspect, because they seemed also to emphasize them, and to him the name of a character often was emphatic, in an eighteenth-century way: Mrs Asp, Lady Listless, Mrs Thoroughfare. (As so often with Firbank, manner, wit, alertness of cultural reference, seem to fuse with a kind of artlessness. He was in a way untutored, and the dense cultural web of his novels, the talk of theatre, music, ballet, books, is clearly and very welcomely the expression of something instinctive and enthusiastic, not academic or learnt.) When his letters to his mother were published a few years ago, they showed, not of course the polish of the novels, but a certain continuity of manner when it came to evoking people and places. Here was the same uneducated dash, zany spelling and heavy use of the exclamation mark; but here proving capable of many shades of implication. “I suppose one must bear with the monotony!” is a nice example, which could be cheerful, stoical or despairing, read in different ways. Lady Firbank’s own letters seem not to survive, but from Ronald’s own underlined, exclamatory and waveringly grammatical side of the correspondence you get a sense of what she wanted to hear, and of the pitch of the peculiar understanding between a homosexual son and a mother who must of course have known the unstated thing which, as in a Firbank novel, was going on underneath.

* * *

Like other marginalized writers, Firbank has fallen prey to a normalizing urge in later editors. When Duckworth published his complete works, in a sequence of different editions, after his death, they set about regularizing his grammar, spelling and punctuation, stripping out the capital letters and italics, even rewriting passages in ways that changed their meaning and spoilt their music or their wit, and inevitably introducing new errors of their own. When Firbank’s letters to his mother were published (Letters to His Mother 1920–1924, 2001) their editor, Anthony Hobson, adopted the confusing practice of preserving the eccentric spelling for the first two sections of the book, but correcting it thereafter, except for proper names; it was as if a small dose of unadulterated Firbank was amusing enough, but after a while he needed bringing in line. The dashes which lend character and animation in the letters were all replaced by full stops and commas; new paragraphs were introduced. The tops and tails of the letters were docked, making them into bulletins rather than loving and respectful addresses. And at the same time, in the editorial matter, numerous words were misspelt in ways even Firbank would have wondered at. With the novels, there is admittedly some ambiguity, since the pages Firbank passed for the press contain errors that are the result of mere ignorance or oversight; the nice task for the editor is to know where error ceases and the proper wilfulness of the Firbankian text begins. These are other hazards of the non-classic.

But what I want to stress here is all those wilful unclassic things that Firbank insists on, and which seem the intimate and inevitable outcome of his peculiar and dissident personality. By making the novel a structure of bright fragments, Firbank had aestheticized it, and in the aesthetic realm the normative claims of morality are relaxed. Firbank’s difficult inconsequential manner is part of a bigger subversion of the novel, and what is in many ways a homosexualization of the novel. Characteristically, he didn’t do this by writing a “gay novel” of the kind that E. M. Forster had struggled with in Maurice, or of the kind that James Baldwin or Gore Vidal would later write in Giovanni’s Room and The City and the Pillar – novels in which the homosexual condition is itself the subject, with an unusual dominance of maleness. For Forster, the crisis which led him to abandon the novel form altogether was the impossibility of writing about the one thing which most determined his view of life. It wasn’t only or exactly that the novel was an inveterately heterosexual form, since a novel could in theory be about anything you liked. It was just that a forthright novel on homosexual themes was a legal impossibility, something that couldn’t happen “until my death and England’s”, as he put it. Firbank’s dodge, especially in his earlier English novels, was simply not to write about relations between the sexes at all – and instead of making his books all about men, to write almost entirely about women. No other male novelist has so immersed himself in the world of female society, conversation, dress; a world of spinsters, widows, grass widows, the world defined in Jane Austen’s famous diagnosis, “We live at home, quiet, confined, and our feelings prey upon us”.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Homo britannicus

At the FT, Clive Cookson has a fascinating piece summarizing the findings of three recent books on the original settlement(s) of Britain.

I am almost tempted

to adopt a blase and world-weary pose, but really it's pretty exciting: I've got a review in the special children's book section of this week's NYTBR. And it was especially nice to get the chance to write about a truly wonderful book, one that you may even have already read if you dabble in young-adult fiction (it's had a lot of buzz among the, you know, grown-ups too): M. T. Anderson's The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing.

I had the curious feeling as I was reading (it will have produced this feeling in others also, it's just that kind of book) that the book was uncannily perfectly tailored to my tastes, as though my mind had been psychically MRI'd and my deepest reading desires probed and magically translated into an enchanting book. Smallpox, the eighteenth century, Linnaean racial classifications, sinister and proto-eugenic experiments touching on crypto-eugenic theories of human difference, Shandean devices of various kinds: mmmm....

This didn't fit into the final version of the review, but the book it most reminded me of was John Edgar Wideman's The Cattle Killing, a book I love and now must reread in the near future; also the review prompted me to reread a chunk or two of Elizabeth Anne Fenn's Pox Americana. I do love books about skin diseases, if demented and sinister awards were being given out to contemporary writers M. T. Anderson would be anointed the Bard of Skin....

Friday, November 10, 2006

Square one

James Fenton has a rather irresistible little essay in the Guardian Review about taking the grade five music theory exam as an adult en route to further study of the piano:

The first thing you find, as an adult student (assuming you have a good teacher, a matter in which I have always been lucky), is that the very first thing you do is deeply interesting.

That is, the very first thing you do is try to play a note well, and this business of trying to play a note well is what is going to absorb your attention forever after. You do not begin by learning how to play a piece badly, and later, at an advanced stage, become inducted in the method of playing it well. You start with your ulterior purpose in plain view. In this sense, you are treated as an adult.

Which is most important: what horrifies the adult student is the prospect of a second childhood at the keyboard (Mrs Curwen's Pianoforte Method, and the immortal music of Joan Last and Adam Carse). The faintest hint of condescension in music makes it intolerable to the adult: anything with English nursery rhymes, anything programmatic (that is, descriptive pieces with titles like "Going Up the Stairs" or "Putting Teddy to Sleep") is repulsive. And it would continue to be repulsive even if the titles were chosen some-how to reflect the ups and downs of adult life: "Taking Crystal Meth", "Putting Your Back Out", "Stepping in Something Nasty" would be, once the novelty had worn off, just as bad, viewed as elementary piano pieces. They would share the same mimetic quality, the same sense that the abstract pill of music has to be sugared for the beginner.

That is what is so good about Bartok as an elementary composer. I have often heard people say that the first two books of "Mikrokosmos" are a bore to listen to, and maybe they are. But they are never a bore to play. They are like a serious invitation to self-discipline. You can bring as much ambition to them as you please, in the matter of producing a beautiful sound by striking a series of notes.

At the TLS

Heather Glen praises the novels of Elizabeth Gaskell, now released in a new scholarly edition. I heartily endorse the Gaskell thing, I had always loved Mary Barton and then I read and loved North and South at some point during the college years and then in grad school the one that really blew my mind was the quite excellent Wives and Daughters (which I am now experiencing a burning desire to reread); the other full-length fictions are interesting, but maybe especially worth reading is the rather novelistic (in a good way) Life of Charlotte Bronte.

Hardly a moment for light reading round here, very unfortunate, but I did read a couple novels over the weekend, one quite reasonable though I am not in favor of the multiple-first-person-narrator scheme & I felt the ending was rather pat (that's Patricia McKillip's Solstice Wood) and one really very bad, almost so trashy that it wasn't enjoyable to read at all--it's terribly Orientalist sort-of-Victorian fantasy stuff, it's a pity because it just misses being really perfect light reading only in practice it is so disgustingly badly written under-the-sign-of-Kipling-but-with-magic that I was really for once actually embarrassed to be reading it. (This is the book if you're curious. The thing it made me want to reread is a book I absolutely adored as a child, I ritually reread it every two years when we visited my grandparents in London, Kipling's Puck of Pook's Hill and the sequel Rewards and Fairies. It seems that there is a one-volume Oxford World's Classics edition only it is now out of print...)

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Next Wednesday (Nov. 15)

my colleague Edward Mendelson will read from his new book at Labyrinth Books on 112th St.; I'll be doing a (very brief) introduction. The book is The Things That Matter, and though I'm afraid I'm too lazy to dig up the links it has been glowingly reviewed over the past few months--stop by the reading if you want to get a great nineteenth-century novel fix (I am just typing up a few notes on Frankenstein so this is very apropos)....

What Lydia Millet's reading

at Critical Mass, the blog of the National Book Critics Circle.


James Marcus has the most heavenly interview with Gore Vidal at his blog House of Mirth. There's lots of good stuff there, better just go and read it if you have any bent that way, but I especially liked this bit (it's all very appropriate for the post-election moment in any case--and I still think that Julian is Vidal's best novel, though of course Robert Graves is the supreme master of the genre--hmmm, reminds me I still haven't gotten hold of a copy of Imperium...):

GV: It was my decision not to go to Congress. I nearly won it in 1960--I ran 20,000 votes ahead of Jack Kennedy, who pulled down the whole ticket. There was a great anti-Catholic backlash in the district, which none of us were prepared for. But four years later, in 1964, the seat was mine if I wanted it. I had just finished Julian, however, and decided that I didn't want to go to Congress. Simple as that.

JM: Did you give the idea serious consideration?

GV: Oh, in 1960 I wanted to win.

JM: And in 1964?

GV: No. I'd got a place in Rome by then, Julian had come out, and I was a novelist once more. Also: you can't do both. A writer's job is to tell the truth as he sees it, and a politician must never give the game away. So you have two opposing forces in you, and you can't function that way.

JM: Can you think of a single example of somebody who's done both things decently?

GV: I can't. Clare Luce had her plays written for her. Winston Churchill was a windy self-promoter, writing stories about himself and his family. There have been very good writers who have been president, of course. Wilson was a very good writer, Roosevelt wasn't too bad, but again, it was all self-promotion.

JM: What about Lincoln as a stylist?

GV: Lincoln, I've always said, was probably the greatest American writer. And a close second was Ulysses S. Grant. But they're not creative writers.

Oh, and the other most delightful thing about the interview is that Marcus uses the term "Minié balls"! (Here's the Wikipedia definition.) I love the name, but I also love the glimpse it gives into an alternate universe--I did a lot of research on ordnance and weaponry for my new novel, which has a serious history-of-technology-type component--my heroine is in the girls' rifle corps at school (I have never fired a gun, I am sorry to say, I am going to go and get some actual shooting experience I hope before writing the more non-cadet-practice-type-actual-in-the-wilds-of-Swedish-Lapland-shooting sequel), also the American Civil War played out all differently in this world--and there are various reflections on bullet shape....

On which note--history of technology, that is, not rifles--I made an amazing discovery the other day. There is a fantastic little chemistry museum in the basement of Havemeyer Hall at Columbia! Here's the real link for the museum (site under construction)--I only had time the other day (I was waiting for my instructional session on how to use the fairly-idiotproof-but-you-have-to-get-trained-before-they-give-you-a-room electronic classroom technology) to look at the exhibits in the hallway but I am going to go back at the earliest opportunity and see everything. There was a very good exhibit on matches (I love the term "comb matches," it is so descriptive and yet also so estranging), and also some beautiful glass tubes with lovely early twentieth-century labels describing the gases contained in the them & instruments involved in the discovery of the x-ray & similar--it was an enchanting surprise....

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

It is not a particularly appropriate use

of Columbia's election-day holiday, but I have promised myself a whole day of working on my breeding book, despite the intense pressure of other work. Very exciting. And as an earnest of that intention, here are the two epigraphs for the introduction. The first is very famous, some of you will know it already; and the second is something I've posted before, but I feel it cannot possibly be given again too often (Leslie Farber's writings have been one of my great intellectual discoveries over the past few years; he and John Passmore are perhaps the two writers who've most affected my thinking on character and human perfectibility since I began working on the book, in fact there is a Passmore passage I am also tempted to include here only I think three epigraphs is too many).

Here goes (the introduction's title is "Breeding: Nature and Nurture Before Biology"):

I Wish either my father or my mother, or indeed both of them, as they were in duty both equally bound to it, had minded what they were about when they begot me; had they duly consider’d how much depended upon what they were then doing;—that not only the production of a rational Being was concern’d in it, but that possibly the happy formation and temperature of his body, perhaps his genius and the very cast of his mind;—and, for aught they knew to the contrary, even the fortunes of his whole house might take their turn from the humours and dispositions which were then uppermost:——Had they duly weighed and considered all this, and proceeded accordingly,——I am verily persuaded I should have made a quite different figure in the world, from that, in which the reader is likely to see me.—Believe me, good folks, this is not so inconsiderable a thing as many of you may think it; you have all, I dare say, heard of the animal spirits, as how they are transfused from father to son, &c. &c.—and a great deal to that purpose:—Well, you may take my word, that nine parts in ten of a man’s sense or his nonsense, his successes and miscarriages in this world depend upon their motions and activity, and the different tracks and trains you put them into; so that when they are once set a-going, whether right or wrong, ’tis not a halfpenny matter,--away they go cluttering like hey-go-mad; and by treading the same steps over and over again, they presently make a road of it, as plain and as smooth as a garden-walk, which, when they are once used to, the Devil himself sometimes shall not be able to drive them off it.

— Laurence Sterne, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman (1760), I.i

The realm of causation is treacherous ground for a man interested in the truth about himself. Although it is certainly probable that most phenomena of this world, human and otherwise, do have cuases of one sort or another, an absorption with the role of causation in human affairs may lead to an habitual reduction of any human event to its postulated cause. It is apparent how such reduction promises refuge to a man beset by the necessity to “confess”: once he turns his attention to cause, his personal responsibility (whether he acknowledges it or not) is diminished, along with any undue stress or discomfort he may have felt in facing what he believes to be his absolute worst. No matter what scandalous detail about himself he may reveal, he follows such revelation with “I am this way because . . . ,” and everyone relaxes.

— Leslie Farber, “Schizophrenia and the Mad Psychotherapist” (1962)

It is convenient that I'm teaching
Tristram Shandy this week, but it is also unfortunately all too appropriate that I should have spent the weekend rereading a novel that contains what is surely the most famous groin injury in English literature: for the last week and a half I have been having an awful problem with the hip adductor. It has dawned on me that the one problem with running is that it creates complete psychological dependency, so that an injury will send you into total mental tailspin (I am running a half-marathon in less than two weeks, I cannot be injured now!); however I feel more tranquil after having made it successfully through the last twelve-mile training run on Saturday morning, it was a great run despite acute pain in mile 4, agonizing pain in mile 8 and double-agonizing in miles 10-11 (mile 12 was of course euphoric). Could barely walk in the afternoon, but was miraculously helped by amazing Iyengar yoga (if you live in NY and like yoga, you must check that place out, it is absolutely excellent). My brother M., a more experienced runner than I am & also suffering from his own injury, had the most apt comment: "You'll find there's a very steep learning curve," he observed, "when it comes to running-related pain." (Also I had better take this opportunity to give official reassurance to my mother that if necessary I will give in and go to the doctor after the half-marathon is over!)

All right, off to lavish some attention on Locke and Rousseau and Mary Shelley....

Monday, November 06, 2006


Colleen Mondor at Chin Music Press on Poppy Z. Brite's latest. I love these books, everyone must read them because they are quite delightful...

Out of the mind of a Bram Stoker

At the San Francisco Chronicle, Paul Wilner reviews the first volume of the new collected Paris Review interviews:

In 1956, Dorothy Parker regales her interlocutor with tales of her days at Vogue: "I wrote captions. 'This little pink dress will win you a beau.' That kind of thing, Funny, they were plain women working at Vogue, not chic. ... They wore funny little bonnets and in the pages of their magazine they virginized the models from tough babes into exquisite little loves. Now the editors are what they should be: all chic and worldly; most of the models are out of the mind of a Bram Stoker, and as for the caption writers -- my old job -- they're recommending mink covers at seventy-five dollars apiece for the wooden ends of golf clubs -- 'for the friend who has everything.' Civilization is coming to an end, you understand."

The author (with her brother)

of Cheaper By the Dozen has died. I must say I loved that book as a child, I checked it out many times from the school library--it was very exciting when I was more grown up to learn that the parents of the family really were well-known time-and-motion experts, that's a cool science...

On blogs and American politics

John Lanchester at the LRB (oh, and I see he's got a memoir coming out in the spring with the appealingly sly Lanchesterian title Family Romance).

I love Gore Vidal

(when I was a teenager in particular he was the third in a trinity that included Anthony Burgess and John Fowles, I think my particular favorites of his novels were Julian and Lincoln but his sensibility and technique and personal history taken together are just remarkably appealing); however it seems as if this time round he's written a singularly bad book. The verdict seems to be that rather than reading this second installment of memoirs we should go back and reread the wonderful Palimpsest instead.

At any rate, on the grounds that non-gratuitously scathing reviews are sometimes edifying and often amusing, here's Adam Kirsch writing in the New York Sun (shades of my recent lectures on Fielding and crypto-aristocratic posturing--thanks to Nico for spotting it):

. . . the sheer number of Mr. Vidal's famous acquaintances comes to seem less remarkable than the fact that he has never known anyone who is not famous. "It seems that practically everyone that I have ever met is now the subject of at least one biography," he wrote in "Palimpsest," leaving the reader to wonder what sort of person would contrive such a glamorously restricted life. The one great exception to the rule was Mr. Vidal's lifelong companion, Howard Auster, whose death from lung cancer evokes the only moving passages in "Point to Point Navigation."

Yet here, as in "Palimpsest," Mr. Vidal tells us next to nothing about Auster's personality or their relationship, except to repeat, airily and rather brutally, that it was entirely asexual. Only his allusions to Joan Didion's "The Year of Magical Thinking," a far better book about mourning a spouse, suggest that he understands how much more deeply this subject could, and should, have been treated. Mr. Vidal has always revelled in the aristocrat's pose of cool detachment; by allowing that pose to freeze into indifference, "Point to Point Navigation" reminds us why almost all great writers have come from the middle class.

And here's James Marcus at the LA Times (quoting these last paragraphs out of context makes it sound outrageously scathing, but it's the more humane and perceptive review of the two, I think--in both cases you see the reviewer torn between sympathy and impatience, interesting phenomenon...):

. . . Vidal's imagination has always operated most vividly upon the past. Einfühlen is the word he has used, borrowing it from the German philosopher Johann Gottfried von Herder. In a 1999 interview, Vidal defined it as "an ability to get into the past, while realizing that it's not just another aspect of the present, with people you know dressed up in funny clothes." The present, especially in his fiction, sometimes hobbled him. The past — the pageant in the rearview mirror — gave free rein to his archeological brand of empathy with compulsively readable results.

But not, alas, this time. Despite some exquisite passages and frisky prose, "Point to Point Navigation" betrays a diminishing attention span. There are sentences so sloppy that I never would have attributed them to a spit-and-polish stylist like Vidal. There are clanging redundancies, including entire paragraphs lifted almost directly from "Palimpsest." Nor can he resist kicking his biographer, Fred Kaplan, in the shins whenever the impulse seizes him.

That's not the worst of it. It's bad enough when the author turns over the microphone to a pair of his academic exegetes — one of whom helpfully informs us that Vidal "exploits the congruencies among critiques of genetic, genital, and technological determinism." (Help!) But when one of our greatest living critics reprints a Publishers Weekly précis of a book rather than summarizing it himself, it's really time to throw in the towel. Shame on the publisher for wheeling this subpar product into the marketplace.

As for the 81-year-old Vidal, I hope he'll sail on to his centennial and beyond — and that he'll go out on a more distinguished note than this one. He certainly has earned it.

Saturday, November 04, 2006

Definitely one

for the best-books-of-2007-according-to-me-and-also-you-might-like-to-buy-a-copy-as-a-holiday-present-for-someone list (forthcoming in mid-December) is the altogether excellent The Family That Couldn't Sleep: A Medical Mystery by D. T. Max. Here's my review at Newsday; I highly recommend this one, it's a remarkably enjoyable and informative read.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Videtur quod Auctor hic obiit

Angus Trumble in a delightful piece at the TLS on Ole Benedictow's book about the Black Death, 1346-53:

The best horror stories are real. A flea sinks its proboscis into the skin of a sick black rat, feeds on its blood, and ingests lethal bacteria. In the confined space of its tiny alimentary canal, the bacteria multiply to such an extent that they form a blockage in the stomach of the flea. In desperation, after it senses a drop in the body temperature of the rat, which is by now dead, the increasingly ravenous flea jumps ship. It cannot find another living rat in the nest. Rat nests having for millennia thriven in barns and granaries, the flea does not have to travel far to find an alternative source of food. It searches out the nearest man, woman, or child, maybe burrows its way through layers of clothing, and sinks its proboscis into warm flesh.

The blockage in its stomach prevents the maddened, dying flea from being able to ingest more than a small amount of human blood, and causes it instead to regurgitate tiny amounts of infected rat blood that, breaking free from the blockage, carry thousands of bacteria into the open wound. So gaining entry to the largely defenceless human body, the bacteria travel through the lymphatic system to nodes in the groin or under the arms or in the neck, congregrate, multiply hugely, create a bubo of exquisite, agonizing sensitivity, which duly propels bacteria into the bloodstream that in 80 per cent of cases overwhelm, then kill the sufferer. In rare instances when the flea vomits directly into a tiny blood vessel, the bacteria bypass the lymphatic system entirely, further multiply at a dizzying rate, bringing death in a matter of hours, with 100 per cent mortality. Thus, in a vignette that has been played out by thousands of generations of fleas, Yersinia pestis, the seemingly unstoppable bacterium we know and fear as the bubonic plague, plays leapfrog from rat to person, and runs its ghastly course.

Mmmm . . . amazing.