Friday, February 27, 2009

A thousand words

It goes against the grain with me to say it, but sometimes the picture really does get the point across more effectively...

(I think I am almost the only person in the world who still uses Pine - now Alpine - as my main e-mail program. I love it - it makes the keyboard feel typewriterly and like my utterly perfect writerly prosthesis - no interference, minimal interface of any kind - and fast!)

Symptomatic of the stress and chaos of the last few years was a disastrous accumulation of e-mails in my inbox.

It has dawned on me over the last few weeks, though, that there are honestly only a couple things I really genuinely still need to sort out to make life pretty much exactly as I want it to be.

(Well, there always are taxes, and various things of that sort - and library books that need renewing! - but this we cannot really do anything about other than respond as new demands arise...)

One of these two things is my new office in Philosophy Hall - it is still largely unpacked, and there are books and papers in boxes from pretty much every stage of my life, with some major sorting and organizing needed. (But help is on the way!)

The other was the e-mail inbox.

This morning there were 40,000 messages in it, give or take.

Now there are NONE!


Thursday, February 26, 2009

Occult squiggles

Kat Balkoski has written a very nice piece for the Columbia Spectator about my new book Breeding: A Partial History of the Eighteenth Century. Thanks, Kat!

Here is the information for the event this evening at Book Culture (112th St. between Broadway and Amsterdam - I believe the advertised start time is seven, and we will probably get going around ten minutes past the hour or perhaps quarter past).

Afterwards we will adjourn to my apartment for a housewarming party of sorts. Everyone is welcome!

The wine has been delivered....

The cupcakes have been iced....

(Hmmmm, the decorative scheme was a bit hasty, it has not come out quite as I'd have liked - I think really you want pink-on-pink and dark-brown-on-light-brown, but I was working in haste and with limited supplies! I enjoyed making the occult squiggles, but those little tubes of gel icing are not perfectly suited to the job. A bad moment last night: I got home with bags of groceries around 10:30pm, after an evening work obligation, and laid out the cupcake-making equipment. Then I opened the oven - I never cook, I literally had not opened it since I moved here in mid-December - only to realize that there were no racks! That is one of life's minor mysteries - I had to dig out another cake tin and use it to create a kind of shelf for propping the cupcake pan onto. I could only bake one tray at a time...)

I even have a haircut appointment at five so that I will look respectable - now I must go and have some frantic last-minute tidying and cleaning!

I will hope to see some of you later on this evening, though...

"He's a TV fanatic"

A crazy story about primates and the people who think they are suitable pets. Ugh, that is depressing to contemplate...

"The contents of his envelopes"

At the TLS, David Wootton has a thought-provoking piece on Keith Thomas's book on happiness. Some interesting reflections at the end on the shape of the field of British history of the early modern period as it has changed over the last forty years, but the bit I liked best was this:
The texture of the book reflects the author’s method of working. He reads voraciously and indiscriminately (“I try to read everything”), and copies out telling phrases he notes onto pads of paper. Thus when Thomas tells us that John Donne, in one of his sermons, says that “work” is “a word that implies difficulty, and pain, and labour, and is accompanied with some loathness, with some colluctation [ie, struggling]” it is a reasonable guess that he has come across this quotation by the elementary procedure of reading all twelve volumes of Donne’s sermons. It so happens that I too have read all Donne’s sermons, but I read them in order to understand Donne’s theology. I find it hard to imagine what it would be like to read them for Donne’s passing references to daily life, to courtship and children’s toys, to holidays and labour, to sickness and health – to read them, as it were, constantly against the grain. And harder still to imagine what it would be like to realize that hundreds and hundreds of such volumes would need to be read before one could construct a paragraph on, say, the ostentations of the wealthy. But that is how Thomas has worked, and the resulting pages of notes are then cut up and put in envelopes with labels such as “Clothes” or “Dirt”. When he wants to write, he empties out an envelope and begins to arrange the quotations, clipping them into place on sheets of paper.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

"There's often an odd emphasis on headware"

Oliver Sacks interviewed at Wired pre-TED.

I like the interview, but I wasn't going to post it - I post Sacks links frequently enough already - until I spotted an utterly enchanting typographic error! Perhaps it should more properly be thought of as a transcription error - it happens to sum up a generational divide between the author of The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and the editors of Wired!

(Via Bookforum.)

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

"Unisex Richard III isn't always what the occasion demands"

A. L. Kennedy is funny!

Trilling's Sandbags

Belatedly (this comes courtesy of someone who once audited one of my classes and who now regularly sends me appealing little envelopes packed full of clippings that have caught her attention as falling within my purview - also in this particular clutch, for instance, and offered in relation to the satire class I'm currently teaching, was information about a screening of the film Darling! - a biography of Pieter-Dirk Uys - and a couple other bits of that sort, with relevant observations and questions jotted down in the margins!), Stefan Collini on Lionel Trilling in the Nation.

Collini produces an appealing and clever pair of opening paragraphs:
There is, for many of us, something vaguely oppressive about the thought of having to reread Lionel Trilling now. His elegant periods, always in danger of sliding into sonorousness; his confident, familiar invocation of the great names of modern European thought and literature; his cultivated superiority to all that might be tainted by provincialism or pragmatism, which, he concedes with the stoical air of the dutiful mourner at a funeral, amounts to most of American life; and above all, that elusive but pervasive note that runs through his prose--the note of a mind taking stock of its resources and finding that they are, despite their fragility, adequate to its tasks. We can't help feeling that we should be improved by reading Trilling, and this feeling itself is inevitably oppressive.

The previous paragraph, as will have been evident to those familiar with Trilling's writing, deliberately blends characterization with homage and pastiche. His liberal use of the first-person plural to suggest a community of the like-minded was a much criticized mannerism, as was his unembarrassed recourse to cultural name-dropping as a substitute for argument. Then there was the too ready suggestion of rereading, signaling his great storehouse of literary experience. And finally, there was the characteristic structure of a Trilling sentence, with the clauses queuing up to make their restraining or amplifying comment on their predecessors. The blending of homage and pastiche in my tribute may be expressive of the ambivalence Trilling excites. We, I might imitatively say, admire him; we may even sense that we need him; yet it remains true that we have ever so slightly to brace ourselves for a prolonged spell in his company. Reading him keeps us up to the mark, but we can't help but be aware that the mark is set rather higher than we are used to.

Cosmic rays

Joshua Glenn on the supermen of Radium Age science fiction. The dust-jackets are astonishing...

(Via John Holbo.)

"Is the bicycle dead?"

Donald Barthelme, "The Explanation" (pasted in from Jerome Weeks' post on Tracy Daugherty's new biography of Barthelme, but first seen by me in Louis Menand's New Yorker piece):
Q: Is the novel dead?
A: Oh yes. Very much so.
Q: What replaces it?
A: I should think that it is replaced by what existed before it was invented.
Q: The same thing?
A: The same sort of thing.
Q: Is the bicycle dead?

Sunday, February 22, 2009

A diet of Penguins

At the Telegraph, Toby Clements has a delightful piece on Allen Lane and the history of Penguin Books. It is all worth reading, but here's a snippet I especially liked:
Most charming of all, though, is the correspondence with John Wyndham in which Eunice Frost, an editor at Penguin, asks what a triffid looks like. His drawing in reply is a sweet little thing, almost bereft of any threat other than maybe the chance of giving one a slight rash. It shows perhaps that a picture sometimes is worth a great deal less than a thousand words.

English understatement

At the LRB, Eric Hobsbawm on Simon Winchester's biography of Joseph Needham. I loved Needham's history of embryology when I read it, but there's no doubt that it's the colorful biographical details that catch one's eye (Jonathan Spence had a good and rather fuller essay on Needham in the NYRB this fall). Here is a bit of Hobsbawm, in any case:
History was central to the red scientists not merely because they knew themselves to be living in times of extraordinary change. The sense of development and transformation over time, and (especially) the great question of the origin of life, provided both a bond between the sciences and the most exciting problems for biologists. All of them were absorbed by the changing relations, both past and present, between science and society. All memoirs of the period agree on the dramatic impact of the Soviet papers given at the 1931 London International Congress on the History of Science, to which the USSR sent an unusually distinguished delegation, whose Marxist perspective deeply impressed the British, not so much by the quality of their papers as by the new perspectives on the relations between science and society they opened. The 1931 Congress and his discovery of China in 1937 have been suggested as the two events that shaped Needham’s life.

So far as we know, Needham, a Marxist, never joined or was particularly close to the Communist Party, though his characteristic ‘millenarian fervour’, as T.E.B. Howarth describes it in Cambridge between Two Wars, made him more instinctively radical than the hard-headed left-wingers around him. He urged Haldane to choose the socialist materialism of the future – Haldane joined the Communist Party not long afterwards – and reviewed the Webbs’ Soviet Communism in 1936 with ‘enthusiasm bordering on rapture’. However, his widely advertised fondness for nudism and morris dancing, while giving him an aura of English eccentricity to which the otherwise conservative fellows of Gonville and Caius College assimilated his political heterodoxy, did not help his standing in the politics of the left. Admittedly, the long-lasting ménage à trois of Joseph and Dorothy Needham with Lu Gwei-djen (to whom Winchester ascribes his passion for China) was not yet established before the war, but the advertised sexual emancipation among their admired seniors was tolerated rather than imitated by the Communist generation of the 1930s.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

"It is only an evening"

"The mere consciousness of an engagement will sometimes worry a day away."

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

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

The icing on the cake

I have just e-mailed the novel to my agent - I cannot even say what a relief it is to be done with this (for now - will revisit for revisions sometime later this spring).

In the meantime, a funny little bit to whet the appetite...

I feel that my fiction does not excerpt well, there is never a self-contained episode that can be extracted (and a blog post is not a good way of posting an extract, either!), but I wrote this partly because my former student Julia (whose novel Willow will be out in the very near future) rightly observed that all of the food in The Explosionist is extremely off-putting and asked whether I couldn't write about something delicious for a change!

I was laughing as I wrote this scene, because in fact it is followed only a few minutes later by someone throwing a canister of gas (complete with biological warfare agent) through the conservatory windows, the building being evacuated and everyone present being put into quarantine - but I was kind enough to let Sophie and Mikael eat something delicious first...

Here is the sequence, anyway (the occasion is alternate-universe Niels Bohr's birthday party at the Carlsberg Mansion in alternate 1938 Copenhagen):
The spectacle inside was grand and glittering and glorious. Sophie found herself amidst a throng of new arrivals in the great vaulted hallway, which was painted cream and rose and gold, with enormous vases of flowers everywhere one turned. A servant was taking everyone’s coats and Marguerite Bohr stood welcoming guests; Bohr himself could be seen through the open doorway at the bottom of the mansion’s central staircase, engaged in a passionate conversation with a gentleman whom Mikael identified for Sophie as the German cultural attaché.

“Spy?” Sophie whispered.

“Spy!” Mikael assented, and Fru Petersen gave them a stern look.

There would be no formal dinner this evening. It was more the sort of party where people stood around drinking champagne in flutes; because of the Carlsberg sponsorship, it was also possible to have a glass of beer, and Sophie and Mikael were served little cut-glass mugs of a delicious citrus punch ladled from a crystal bowl with slices of oranges and lemons floating in it alongside the bergs of ice.

She and Mikael had gravitated to the dining room, which held the most astonishing and delicious array of food that Sophie had ever seen. The boards were almost groaning with hams and whole sides of smoked salmon and the most delicious thin slices of brown bread and mounds of fresh salted butter and platters of cheese—in short, everything that Sophie, who liked food to be plain rather than mixed together, found utterly delicious. She and Mikael gorged themselves; Pauli was there, too, eating plateful after plateful of smoked salmon, and several of the young men from the Institute managed to put away more food than one would have quite thought possible. The ‘spies’ were not doing so badly either, Sophie noticed; a whole group of them had congregated near the food and installed themselves around a small table where they could stand and eat and drink without worrying about a servitor potentially whisking away a momentarily-put-down-but-not-yet-emptied glass.

Sophie’s secret plan, and perhaps Mikael’s as well, had been to glutton herself on the savories quickly enough to digest before the true pinnacle of the evening (of course there would be speeches and toasts, but they would be very dull) on the utterly glorious table of sweets that had been set up in the conservatory.

“Let’s just go and look at them,” Sophie said to Mikael, feeling sick to the stomach from having already rather over-eaten and yet with the yen for something divinely sugary still strong in her mouth.

“Oh, yes, let’s,” Mikael agreed. “Even if we’re not quite ready to eat anything else, there’s no reason we shouldn’t contemplate our choices….”

It seemed excessively greedy (though the main point of grown-up parties, if one was not yet a grown-up, was surely the twin benefit of having delicious things to eat and being allowed to stay up past one’s bedtime) to make a beeline for the dessert table. The conservatory was a feast for the eyes in its own right: an enormous vaulted greenhouse with walls of glass and iron, including a glass wall through which one could see the dining room.

“This must be where that macaw hailed from,” Sophie exclaimed, “the one who let out all Hevesy’s cats!”

“Yes,” said Mikael; “I believe it was exiled from Eden because it wouldn’t stop fighting with the other birds….”

Most of the birds she could see now were lorikeets, their bright plumage matched by the lush green of tropical plants and the brilliant pinks and reds and yellows of the flowers. Every plant had a label, but the mildly improving aura of the scientific-cum-educational was thoroughly mitigated by the lovely profusion of the plants themselves.

Lavish!” Sophie said fervently, touching the leaf of an especially flourishing specimen and feeling her cheeks crinkle up into a huge smile as one of the birds in the enclosed aviary came right up to the screen and looked inquisitively into her face to see whether she might be going to give it something delicious to eat.

The jewel-colored jungle, with its damp earth-smelling air and tropical warmth, was made extraordinarily more striking by the fact that outside it continued to snow heavily enough that even a few feet away from the glass was only a thick blanket of dull whiteness. Just then the headmistress of Sophie’s school hove into view, in intent conversation with Niels Bohr’s sister, so Mikael and Sophie hastily made their way to the darkest corner of the room and took up residence behind a massive rubber plant—it must have been fifteen feet tall—to lie low and digest.

They could hear snippets of this and that—Robert Otto Frisch and Hilde Levi were having a lively argument about the notion of quantum entanglement, Hevesy was rhapsodizing in strongly accented Danish about the Hungarian nursery rhymes of his childhood (his homeland now doubly lost to him, since the Austro-Hungarian Empire of yore had been thoroughly engulfed by Europe), two ‘spies’ chattered in a high-speed Russian of which Sophie could understand just enough to be almost certain they were comparing notes on what laundry did the best job starching shirts for the least amount of money.

“How’s your stomach doing, Sophie?” Mikael asked.

“Surely it couldn’t hurt just to go and look at the sweets,” she said longingly.

They slipped through the dense clusters of partygoers until they were right by the table. There were platters divided into sections with dried apricots and cherries and cashews and candied ginger, and one plate after another of perfect little round chocolate truffles, each in an individual fluted paper cup and with all sorts of different decorations on top. The plainest ones were simply rolled in cocoa, giving them an appealingly Ugly Ducklingesque drabness (but Sophie would not waste her limited remaining stomach capacity on something so plain-looking and densely chocolaty); others were decorated with little caps of white chocolate with a light dusting of cinnamon or with a star-shaped pattern of silver or gold dragées.

There were heaping platters of hothouse fruit: green and purple seedless grapes with the blush still upon them, apricots and peaches and plums, strawberries whose strong scent cut through the competing aromas of chocolate and almond and vanilla and cigars and cognac and women’s perfume and the rich, almost rotting scent of the tropical flowers and earth.

The true glory of the dessert table, though, was the enormous multi-tiered silver cake stand, which was absolutely stuffed full of the most beautiful little cakes and pastries imaginable. They were almost too pretty to eat. There were miniature éclairs, piped full of whipped cream and covered with shiny chocolate icing, with a perfect little squiggle of white icing to adorn them. There were pink macaroons sandwiched together with a light green cream and white ones dusted in coconut. There were tiny fairy cakes iced in the most perfect pale blues and greens and pinks and lavenders like a very beautiful sunset. There were Lilliputian fruit tarts, their delicate custard filling topped with a few raspberries or miniature orange segments or strawberries and glistening with a sugar glaze. There were heart-shaped linzer torte and almond crescents and hazelnut tuiles and black-and-white checkerboard sablés and perfect little rosette butter cookies decorated with glacé cherries.

Sophie agonized over what to have first, but after a long hesitation, she chose a tiny cake iced in robin’s-egg blue and covered with green and yellow sugar confetti. She ate it in two bites, relishing the airy taste of the butter-cream icing and the almost fantastically light sponge base.


Very strange to read this entry in Johnson's Dictionary and suddenly realize as though being hit with a baseball bat that Keats had not yet written the "Ode to a Nightingale".

Other examples of a writer who so strongly puts his or her mark on a particular word?

Monday, February 16, 2009


Correct 'alternateness' can involve making things up or finding obscure 'true' things: the Dewar bulb is what Sophie and Mikael have instead of a Thermos when they drink tea en route from Helsingborg to Stockholm!

Alternative commodities

Also at the FT, a very informative piece by Natasha Degen on Tino Sehgal's "This situation", which I was involved with last year in New York:
Last June, New York’s Museum of Modern Art bought his “Kiss” for a five-figure sum. His prices range from between €25,000, for private works, and €70,000.

Complying with the artist’s insistence that no objects be produced in connection with his work, the purchase was finalised with a spoken agreement. “There was an orally communicated contract,” Klaus Biesenbach, chief curator of MoMA’s Department of Media, explains. “As a curator you have to remember it – I was very happy I wasn’t alone because I was afraid I was going to forget everything – and you have to follow the instructions. We had 12 people around the table, including a lawyer, a notary, gallerists, curators and members of the conservation and registration departments. The meeting went on for hours.”

Nothing tangible was acquired with the transaction – no written contract, instructions, script, or receipt. What MoMA gained was the right to reproduce the installation forever, and to loan the piece to other institutions. “Kiss”, an edition of four, was also bought by the Art Gallery of Ontario and the Fond National d’art contemporain, France; it is now sold out. The Walker Art Center in Minneapolis is currently in the process of acquiring Sehgal’s “This objective of that object”, and the Tate purchased “This is propaganda” in 2005, for €39,950.

Private collectors have also bought pieces, though, according to Sehgal, they generally enact the situations themselves. One piece, for example, requires a pair of collectors (usually a couple) to host a dinner party. When the main course is served, the first host leaves, followed by the second host a minute or two later. After several minutes, the two return but switch places. As they begin to eat each other’s food, the guests are provoked to ask what happened. The title of the work – “Those thoughts” – refers to the guests’ confusion and speculation.

"Lurid pastries and curled sandwiches"

I have been working too hard to blog - it is almost unprecedented, and I hope that the situation shortly returns to normal!

(Shooting right now for e-mailing the novel out around 11:30 tomorrow morning - if I can't get it out by then, it's probably all over till the next morning...)

But I will indulge myself in a brief blog post, courtesy of my father. The "Lunch with the FT" feature always appeals to me most when there is also some sort of drama concerning the food! Gideon Rachman had a very good one this week with Abhisit Vejjajiva, Prime Minister of Thailand in a "jollied-up" basement room at the Davos resort where the World Economic Forum is held:
Abhisit, immaculately dressed in a grey suit and waistcoat, with a pale blue shirt and black tie with white stripes, looks slightly doubtful at the array of lurid pastries and curled sandwiches placed before him. I explain that our conversation is meant to take place against a background of eating and drinking. “OK. I will comply,” he says. But he makes no movement towards the food.
(Hmmm, I would eat a lurid apricot Danish pastry if someone gave me one right now!)

The tally:
The Congress Centre
Davos, Switzerland

Apricot Danish pastry (untouched)
Apple tart (neglected)
Ham sandwich (forgotten)
Cheese sandwich (half-eaten)
Coffee x2

Free of charge

Mazes of literature

Courtesy of a student of mine whose initials are distinctive enough that they would constitute no useful pseudonym, Washington Irving's "The Mutability of Literature" (the whole of The Sketchbook of Geoffrey Crayon can be found here, including a story which captivated me as a child, "Rip Van Winkle" - for some reason the detail I especially loved was the inn sign that had changed from depicting the head of King George to that of George Washington):
"Language gradually varies, and with it fade away the writings of authors who have flourished their allotted time; otherwise the creative powers of genius would overstock the world, and the mind would be completely bewildered in the endless mazes of literature. Formerly there were some restraints on this excessive multiplication. Works had to be transcribed by hand, which was a slow and laborious operation; they were written either on parchment, which was expensive, so that one work was often erased to make way for another; or on papyrus, which was fragile and extremely perishable. Authorship was a limited and unprofitable craft, pursued chiefly by monks in the leisure and solitude of their cloisters. The accumulation of manuscripts was slow and costly, and confined almost entirely to monasteries. To these circumstances it may, in some measure, be owing that we have not been inundated by the intellect of antiquity--that the fountains of thought have not been broken up, and modern genius drowned in the deluge. But the inventions of paper and the press have put an end to all these restraints. They have made every one a writer, and enabled every mind to pour itself into print, and diffuse itself over the whole intellectual world. The consequences are alarming. The stream of literature has swollen into a torrent--augmented into a river-expanded into a sea. A few centuries since five or six hundred manuscripts constituted a great library; but what would you say to libraries, such as actually exist, containing three or four hundred thousand volumes; legions of authors at the same time busy; and the press going on with fearfully increasing activity, to double and quadruple the number? Unless some unforeseen mortality should break out among the progeny of the Muse, now that she has become so prolific, I tremble for posterity. I fear the mere fluctuation of language will not be sufficient. Criticism may do much; it increases with the increase of literature, and resembles one of those salutary checks on population spoken of by economists. All possible encouragement, therefore, should be given to the growth of critics, good or bad. But I fear all will be in vain; let criticism do what it may, writers will write, printers will print, and the world will inevitably be overstocked with good books. It will soon be the employment of a lifetime merely to learn their names. Many a man of passable information at the present day reads scarcely anything but reviews, and before long a man of erudition will be little better than a mere walking catalogue."

Friday, February 13, 2009

Literature sausages

Via the Dizzies, artist Dieter Roth's Literaturwurst. Here's a photograph and description of one ("Book of cut-up novel, water, gelatin and spices in sausage casing, overall: 20 11/16 x 16 3/4 x 4 ¾ in (52.5 x 42.5 x 12 cm)").

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

"Where's the secret code?!"

The secret grammar of comics. I loved this one - it made me think about how accustomed we grow to the conventions for presenting dialogue in regular old prose fiction, and how useful it is now and again to look at them as though one has come from Mars and knows nothing about human story-telling conventions...

(Who knew that thought balloons have fallen out of fashion in recent years and been largely replaced by narrative captions?!? Interesting...)

Via BoingBoing.

"It is like finding a needle in a haystack"

Narwhal! (Courtesy of Amy.)

Saturday, February 07, 2009

Jelly, glass and all

A lovely piece about the history of an extraordinary school. Hmmm, I wonder how much of the magic comes from the book itself and how much from the reviewer?

(NB I want to read the pair of risqué novels written by T. H. White and published under the pseudonym James Aston!)

Pastry anatomy

What the title says! Set up in a way so as to thwart direct linking or the poaching of pictures, but you can click through to the photographer's site and look at the series in question, and you will see that the pictures are very lovely...

(Link courtesy of Nico.)


Though I do not share his enthusiasm for shad, and though I am finding the magazine's new site registration policy (and the limits it puts on linking) somewhat irksome from a blog-related standpoint, I liked John McPhee's piece about magazine fact-checking in the latest issue of the New Yorker:
In a freight train a mile and a half long, there is a vital tube of air that runs the full length and controls the brakes. In "Coal Train" (2005), I felt a need for analogy and guessed at one:
The releasing of the air brakes began at the two ends, and moved toward the middle. The train's very long integral air tube was like the air sac of an American eel.
Before long, the checking department was up to its chin in ichthyologists, and I was informed by Josh Hersh that the air sac of an American eel is proportionally a good deal shorter than the air sac in most ordinary fish.

"Who says so?"

"Willy Bemis."


Willy Bemis is to the anatomy of fishes what Eldridge Moores is to tectonics. Willy was the central figure in a book of mine that had been published three years before, parts of which appeared in The New Yorker. He had since left the University of Massachusetts to become director of Shoals Marine Laboratory, the offshore classrooms of Cornell University and the University of New Hampshire. I called him in Ithaca to ask what could be done. Ever accommodating, Willy at first tried to rationalize the eel. Maybe its air sac was up to the job after all. Maybe the analogy would work. I said the eel would never make it through the checking department, or, for that matter, past me. We were close to closing, and right offhand Willy was unable to think of a species with a long enough sac. What to do? What else? He called Harvard. The train's very long integral air tube was like the air sac of a rope fish.
Also: Rogue eel on the loose! (Via Nico.)

Opus 111

Uncle Vanya: solid but not great. Denis O'Hare, playing the title character, seemed to me to be working at a much higher level than anyone else in the cast. Good set. Slightly overobtrusive sound design, including a very annoying cricket-type surge at the opening that reminded me of Jerome Groopman's New Yorker tinnitus piece, which I had read on the subway on the way downtown. I devoutly hope I never have tinnitus, I think it would drive me fairly crazy!

(What a play, though! I love Chekhov.)

An aside: the translation was by my mother's old friend Carol Rocamora, the mother of my brother J.'s friend David Katowitz.

David Katowitz was a frequent visitor to our household in the late 1970s, almost like a member of the family for a few years there. I will not rehearse all the details, only observing 2 things I always remember when I think of him:

1. During the 1980 presidential election, we got a voting machine at school (to learn about democracy!) and my fourth-grade class organized a mock 'election' for kindergartners through sixth-graders. Given the nature of the school, it was inevitable that the vast majority of children registered Democratic votes - I can't at all remember the numbers, but it was as dramatic as something like "465 Democrat, 3 Republican, 5 Other" when we tallied it up. My brother (I cannot honestly remember which brother, but possibly M.) came home from school and announced, "David Katowitz voted for Ronald Reagan!" "Why?" someone asked (perhaps our mother, perhaps slightly surprised). My brother: "Because he wanted to see what it would be like if there was a nuclear war!"

2. A year or two later, M. wrote for some classroom assignment that asked for an account of what had happened over the weekend, "David Katowitz came over to play." His teacher, who was a funny and warm-hearted person who knew us all well, wrote as her comment in the margin: "Is the house still standing?"

Carol Rocamora was also the instigator of an exciting event in our childhood, our mother actually taking days off from her teaching job (unheard-of!) to play the piano backstage, in rehearsals and in performances, for a play titled "Opus 111" - I cannot reconstruct, even with the help of the internet, the name of the playwright and theater, but the play (could it have been part of a series of one-acts, one of the others being by Romulus Linney?) involved a piano lesson and Carol had decided that it would be more theatrically effective with someone playing a real piano backstage.

The performance of the Beethoven sonata in the play continually broke off after not too many measures, so my mother's practicing was disproportionately devoted to the very difficult stretch that was the only bit featured. Whenever I hear this piece (here is a YouTube version - the bit that was used in the play starts around 1:45), I think of her very strongly, and remember those times!

Dinner was quite nice, in that way that makes one grateful to live in a city like New York where one can walk into a random restaurant off the street at 11 at night and have a delicious dinner! The restaurant is Friend House; I had shrimp shu-mai and sushi, G. had thai-style duck with hot basil. Nothing, perhaps, to make anyone's mouth water in the description, but it was very nice....

Disappearing acts

Jenny Uglow has a very good piece at the Guardian Review on Josiah Wedgwood and the history of British ceramics:
He also opened showrooms in London, cleverly designed so that visiting them became a fashionable thing to do, in line with attending public art exhibitions. He wanted a "Large" room, he said, in order to "do the needful with the Ladys in the neatest, genteelest and best method. And besides room for my Ware, I must have room for my Ladys for they sometimes come in very large shoals together."
Also of interest: Will Self's Sebaldian progression.

"Hail the wale"

At the FT, Miles Rohan on the founding of the Corduroy Appreciation Club:
People join every day. During the corduroy-wearing season – the autumn and winter months – I easily get 10 or 12 applications a day from all over the world. At the moment we have about 4,000 members.

We have membership cards made from corduroy. I sell them for $11.11c, which is annoying because it means that I only end up making about a cent on each one. The number 1 is very important to us.

At the Corduroy Appreciation Club’s annual meeting, on November 11, members are required to wear a minimum of two items of clothing made from corduroy.

I see a lot of hats, some three-piece suits, and there is even a woman who has a corduroy brassiere. There is a member who has made an entire monk’s robe, complete with hood, from a very wide wale cord. I’ve even seen corduroy earrings. People push it.

Recently we’ve had a lot of corduroy shoes. I’m not sure how I feel about this as I think it is somewhat disrespectful to have corduroy that close to the floor.

Thursday, February 05, 2009

"That is what I need to learn"

Rather belatedly, a bit that struck me in Laura Secor's New Yorker piece a few weeks ago on the dissident Iranian economist Mohammed Tabibian (not sure about the current situation vis-a-vis reading electronically, but I think the article is available online only to subscribers who have also registered at the site):
One day, on his way to school, Tabibian noticed in a bookstore window a thick new book for sale titled "Economics." It was a word he had never heard before. Tabibian asked his literature teacher what it meant. "He said it meant using your money wisely," Tabibian told me. "I thought the phrase he expressed was more often true by default. Everybody knows how to use their money wisely if they've got some." When he went home that night, Tabibian put the question to his father, who said he wasn't sure but he thought that economics had something to do with the creation of wealth.

The next day, Tabibian went to the bookstore and pulled the book from the shelf. "It was full of graphs, tables, formulas, and lengthy arguments," he said. "I noticed that the subject of creation and distribution of wealth is no simple matter. I thought, That is what I need to learn."

Tabibian later realized that the book was a translation of the 1948 introductory-economics textbook by the American neo-classical economist Paul Samuelson. By then, Tabibian was majoring in the subject at Shiraz University. He went into the field, he told me, "hoping that someday I would help find solutions for the misery and deprivation of many around me."
It is an interesting anecdote in itself, but I am especially intrigued by the clarity and intensity of the thought That is what I need to learn.

(It is like an Augustinian call - take up and read!)

I think it well recalls childhood moments experienced by anybody with a fundamentally analytic or academic orientation towards the world - it is in my experience quite different in kind from the feeling one has when encountering a magically transporting novel, or even a novel that gives indispensable insights into some particularly relevant aspect of human nature.

I would say I had glimpses of this as a quite young child (it was not the way I went eventually in terms of field, but books about mathematics and logic were favorites with me at that stage!), perhaps eleven or twelve, reading Martin Gardner's delightful Aha, Gotcha! - it showed me not so much how to do things as a way in which one might think about things, a way that was uniquely appealing to the point of being almost indispensable!

But certainly the reading experience that quite literally made me think That is what I need happened the summer after I'd graduated from high school. I was sixteen turning seventeen - I had read a huge amount of literature and quite a lot of older literary criticism (I had thoroughly immersed myself in the critical prose of Anthony Burgess and Ezra Pound!), and had been intrigued by the rather ambivalent New York Times-type coverage of work by Derrida and the deconstructionists and so forth - I had yet to encounter it directly, but I already had a very strong suspicion that this was exactly that I wanted to learn about.

I was spending the night at my friend Sara's, at her dad and stepmother's house, and her stepmother had done a master's degree in English - her books were on shelves in Sara's room. As if in a trance, I snagged Roland Barthes's S/Z and was subsequently deaf to the calls of ordinary social interactions...

"It's not a narcissistic bath"

Johann Hari interviews Hanif Kureishi at the Independent. A strange and long and interesting piece...

On the feeling of accomplishment

Ugh - day of uselessness and exhaustion. Let us hope tomorrow will be significantly more productive!

In the meantime, an interesting essay by Sue Erikson Bloland on the power and costs of the fantasy of fame. It was published in 1999 in the Atlantic, and I learned about it via Lowebrow; I liked the essay enough to get hold of a copy of Bloland's book In the Shadow of Fame: A Memoir by the Daughter of Erik H. Erikson.

Here's a bit, anyway, on Laurence Olivier, a figure Bloland came to write about as she underwent analytic training and became interested in a cluster of traits she saw in her father also:
Writing of his boyhood, Olivier confesses that "the wish for this treacherous glory . . . has been obsessive all my life." Along with this ferocious appetite, he had a penchant for grandiose fantasy regarding the stardom he craved. He says quite simply of his early ambition, "My will was granite. I was determined to be the greatest actor of all time."

Many would claim that Olivier achieved this lofty goal. But within the account of his extraordinary success as an actor is evidence that his spectacular career failed to provide him with the sense of accomplishment that he so desperately longed for - accomplishment sufficient to free him from his deepest feelings of unworthiness. He reports having experienced great happiness during periods in his life when he was working at a frenetic pace - a pace he seems to have required to ward off feelings of depression. But he was rarely able to feel happy doing anything other than work. It was only in the exercise of his magical talent that Olivier experienced even momentary freedom from feelings of self-loathing.


At the LRB, an absolutely fascinating piece by Clancy Martin on the forgery of lost Fabergé masterpieces. In the next (and last!) installment of The Explosionist, Sophie ends up in St. Petersburg having a kind of apprenticeship at the Fabergé workshop - I will have to read some of these books...

Songs After Dark

And I did go to the Doveman Footloose show and am extremely glad that I did, it was an unusual and quite moving show...

(Also I am glad to say that I heard the voice of reason - I had dinner with training partner S. and his lovely wife beforehand, and resolutely told 'em that I could not meet S. this morning for our projected 9am run because of a deep psychological need for a morning without having to set the alarm! In fact between cat and insomnia I am well up already, but it was the right thing, made for a much less stressful later part of the evening! I will run tomorrow instead...)

This project actually involves Thomas Bartlett a.k.a. Doveman covering the songs from the album accompanying the 80s film Footloose. It was spurred by Thomas's friend Gabriel, who writes as follows:
When I was very young, my half-sister Jenny died tragically. She was a teenager, and it was the 80's. She left behind a wardrobe of brightly colored clothes, rainbow stickers, life-size paintings, doodles on lined paper, and hundreds of tapes. These constitute most of my memories of her. It's sad for me to look at these things, and usually I don't. But a couple of summers ago I found a tape of hers with a startling cover photograph - this was Footloose. I couldn't stop listening: it was a portrait of 80's love, desire, pain, freedom, and frenzy; of being a teenager in a time of change.
He described the tape, when he spoke before the show last night, as a message in a bottle, and it's an interesting notion. I think in some ways that the project/performance/album is a failed experiment, but that the partial failure itself becomes part of the magic of hearing the music played live - it's very lovely to listen to, because all of Thomas's music is, but in fact the Footloose songs do not speak directly and immediately to the audience, so that the music prompts thoughts about absence and loss and the ways in which an emotion might be forcibly reproduced or remembered without being anchored to anything one can really hold onto.

The medium of the cassette tape is the perfect way of thinking about this stuff, too. I don't think it's really because of high-culture things like Krapp's Last Tape - it's more just that Beckett saw exactly the thing about the medium that others would also later see and muse upon. What I was most strongly reminded of: the use of the tape in Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go.

I will cannibalize my own blog post on that book, given here in slightly redacted form, having long since given that copy (and several others - but the book and the tape are two quite different media, in my opinion!) away:
A prized possession--in this case, the narrator Kathy H.'s cassette tape of Songs After Dark by Judy Bridgewater--remains prized in spite of the fact that "the music has nothing to do with anything. It's an object, like a brooch or a ring, and especially now Ruth has gone, it's become one of my most precious possessions." .... The "students" at Hailsham misunderstand a teacher's casual reference to Norfolk as England's "lost corner," conflating it with the fact that the "lost corner" is where lost property is kept at the school: "Someone--I can't remember who it was--claimed after the lesson that what Miss Emily had said was that Norfolk was England's 'lost corner', where all the lost property found in the country ended up. Somehow this idea caught on and soon had become accepted fact virtually throughout our entire year." Kathy's precious tape is lost, but she finds another copy years later (this may sound clunky, but it's actually an extremely subtle counterpoint to the cloning stuff): "Norfolk came to be a real source of comfort to us, probably much more than we admitted at the time, and that was why we were still talking about it--albeit as a sort of joke--when we were much older. And that's why, years and years later, that day Tommy and I found another copy of that lost tape of mine in a town on the Norfolk coast, we didn't just think it pretty funny; we both felt deep down some tug, some old wish to believe again in something that was once close to our hearts."

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Elegant fibs

At the Guardian, Shirley Dent blogs on poetry and mathematics. She quotes an example of a new verse form created by Gregory Pincus:
Spiraling mixture:
Math plus poetry yields the Fib.

Strange days

Well, it is a strangely anticlimactic moment (if I could celebrate, it would be by going back to bed, but that is unfortunately not an option!), but it seems to me that as of about half an hour ago I was writing the last words of the last scene of The Snow Queen...

I have had a thirty-day writing streak. I wrote in the region of 1500 words a day. I did not skip a day. This is the way to get big things written, but it takes a toll, I will hope not to have to do this again any time soon!

The elephant in the room: I have been writing by hand, I now have c. 45,000 words to type and edit in the next nine days, the manuscript is due on Friday the 13th!

(Good thing I have a black cat to give me moral support.)

It is not really finished, even aside from the typing question.

Though I am a firm believer in writing things straight through from beginning to end, I had to skip some conversations and bits of description in the last section of the book (Lapland!) when I realized (a) that I had only the vaguest idea about the logistics of travel from Karasjok to Spitsbergen, (b) that it would be a good idea, before putting words in the mouth of alternate-universe George Orwell (who is traveling with the same herd of reindeer that Sophie is!), to dip into some journals and biographies of real-world Eric Blair, and (c) that I could not afford to stop and do the research when I could press through and reach the end.

I also need to go back and reconcile some plot set-up in the opening sections with the way things work out later on, and do a bit of pondering and re-writing to have it all make more sense.

And of course there are always the queries - here's a sample list of what I always think of as "fact-checking" points, even when I am writing fiction, from the first third of the book, and I will certainly have another page or two of similar points for what I've written in the past month:

But I am now going to have a blessed twenty-four hours off from everything to do with novel-writing, and though I must dig in and get started on the monstrous typing job tomorrow, I have also just had a quick stop at the library, where I was able to pick up a bunch of really lovely stuff I had requested from the offsite storage facilities.

Here is the pile of books I am going to delve into to sort out Spitsbergen issues - in fact a pile of books like this is probably the prospect that most fills me with joy of all sights in the world, so my spirits lift at the thought of this part of the job:

(I am not sure it is the best book of the bunch, but surely the prize for best title goes to The Trottings of a Tenderfoot!)

It is a strange ending, and a strangely proportioned book. I was having some musings the other day about the way the shadow of the atomic bomb (the mushroom cloud!) darkens the children's fantasy literature of the early twenty-first century: it is very strong in Garth Nix and Philip Pullman, and certainly in my books also. My closing scenes, in the Snow Queen's palace, are highly and intensely literary - aside from the obvious precedents in Hans Christian Andersen and Pullman, I was thinking of Susan Cooper's Silver on the Tree, and Madeleine L'Engle's Camazotz, and a scene set in a castle in Dorothy Dunnett's Dolly and the Nanny Bird (those books are an intense guilty pleasure of mine, only I have read them so many times that I have leached all the pleasure out of the rereading exercise), and Malvolio's prison in Twelfth Night.

(Of course the Snow Queen is much like the White Witch of the Narnia books also.)

The force-field that keeps Mikael inside his ice chamber is from Star Trek: The New Generation, and the color and quality of the light that glances off the force-field is like the purple stuff emitted by those weird automatic fly-catching devices!

Sunday, February 01, 2009


Regretfully I observe that the dictates of novel-writing, work, marathon training, etc. will prevent me from going to see a show I'd really been hoping to get to this Wednesday, Thomas Bartlett's Footloose at Joe's Pub.

Ugh, it pains me to miss this one - maybe I should just take the plunge and get a ticket? But the show doesn't start till 9:30, and I have a 9am run scheduled the next morning, and a novel to hand in to the publisher in a week's time...

(OK, that is insane, the pang of regret was so strong that I bought a ticket anyway - it is only $15, even with the service charge - and will see how tired I am that night & whether it can be managed!)

Anyway, here's a link to one of my favorite songs of Thomas's, "Dancing" ("My life reads like a book now, a Harlequin romance").

"Oh Print Wo nih"

Courtesy of EEBO and Joanne van der Woude's interesting talk here last week on the poetry of New Netherland (and what a strange alternate-historical feeling to contemplate those seventeenth-century Dutch fellows writing poetry in a physical location that is exactly where I live and work now), a instance of the amazing genre (hitherto unknown to me) of the acrostic/anagrammatic broadsheet elegy:

Click to enlarge to the point of readability.


After some pencil frustration abroad, I got two excellent pencils at the local stationery store in mid-January and have superstitiously clung to them, sharpening them frequently with a tiny children's pencil sharpener - but now I have written them down into stubs! I thought they would just about do me for this book, but I have a few more days' worth of story left to tell, so I took the plunge this morning and bought a new pair...

When I was little, I was often writing with a very short stubby pencil - I like the feel and look of a very soft dark pencil [ED. And stubbiness is the price one pays for this preference!].

More generally, in adulthood, I prefer to write with something whose physical substance can be strikingly perceived as it transfers from the writing implement to the page: the Gelly Roll pens are very good, they leave a lovely thick glistening three-dimensional trail like a snail's!