Saturday, November 28, 2009

"Up to three idiosyncratic majuscules"

Caleb Crain against camel case! (And more on intercapping).

Belated happy Thanksgiving - I am on the road and shortly about to run a marathon, for which I am truly thankful, only I would not be sorry if it did not always seem to involve getting up so early in the am!

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Still or sparkling?

I am mildly averse to scandalmongering, but I cannot resist linking to this little piece about the death of Alan Bennett's female lover because it represents such a good example of how to deflect (if one were only witty and British!) an intrusive or impertinent question:
After the media furore over Bennett's reverse outing died down in the mid-1990s, portraits of the playwright and photographs of him posing with the painter David Hockney on the walls of Davies's tearoom were the only public clues to the pair's long-term relationship. Bennett, meanwhile, kept outsiders in the dark about his sexual preferences. When asked once by the actor Sir Ian McKellen at an Aids benefit whether he was heterosexual or homosexual, Bennett replied: "That's a bit like asking a man crawling across the Sahara whether he would prefer Perrier or Malvern water."

Tuesday, November 17, 2009


this is so farfetched that I could hardly believe the email in my inbox - but my younger self would never have forgiven me if I did not get a ticket to this, although it will mean missing a talk that I really wanted to attend! Arghhhh, schedule conflicts...


I think I must go to this, it sounds so exactly my cup of tea, although it will have to be squeezed in before meet-up for early family dinner:

November 21 5PM Andrea Rosen Gallery
525 W. 24th St NY (212) 627-6000

Writer Shelley Jackson offers an illustrated lecture in applied necrophysics, with selections from the archives of the Shelley Jackson Vocational School of Ghost Speaking and Hearing-Mouth Children (founded 1898), including early travel writings from the land of the dead and recordings from the school choir’s Music for Stammererers. The mechanics of channelling the dead and the structure of the necrocosmos will be explained, with a brief refutation of certain errors made by fellow thanatomath Matthew Ritchie. Class will conclude with a collective attempt to channel the dead.

Monday, November 16, 2009


Re: sabbatical plans, I am wanting to write two books and do vast amounts of triathlon training in preparation for IMWI!

4 more Mondays

I teach Mondays and Wednesdays this semester, but Monday is my heavy day: so, four more Mondays and then (it is a strange thought - I have a sabbatical coming up!) I will not teach again until January 2011; I would guess I can scrape through the next four weeks somehow?!?

Light reading around the edges: three books of true excellence, and all (curiously) very much the sort of thing I would have liked to write myself in a slightly alternate life: Geoff Dyer's Out of Sheer Rage, which is so funny I was actually regularly laughing out loud as I read it but which makes me also fairly glad I do not live in Geoff Dyer's head (but I am certainly now going to read D. H. Lawrence's book on Thomas Hardy, which David Bromwich was also praising recently); Denise Mina's The Dead Hour, which I do not know why I did not read much sooner (it has been hanging around here for some time, I have loved her previous books - especially the Garnethill trilogy - but had a spate a year or two ago of going slightly off crime fiction - however, it was a happy find on the shelf as I bounced off the walls Friday night with exhaustion and the mental insanity of mid-November in a very busy fall semester); and Daryl Gregory's Pandemonium, which is absolutely the sort of book I most perfectly love and wish I could write, only I am having - not a midlife crisis - a midlife acknowledgment that I will never write the books of Dick Francis, Lee Child, Charlie Huston, Mary Stewart, Charlaine Harris or indeed for that matter Daryl Gregory (the list is quite long, and includes my best-beloved practitioners of the Light Reading genre, with or without demons/vampires/zombies) - I highly recommend it, though...

The sequel

More Barthes:
. . . if you like words to the point of succumbing to them, you exclude yourself from the law of the signified. . . . My body itself (and not only my ideas) can make up to words, can be in some sense created by them: today, I discover on my tongue a red patch which appears to be an abrasion, or in medical terms an excoriation--painless, moreover, which fits in perfectly, I decide, with cancer! But examined closely, this sign is merely a faint desquamation of the whitish film which covers the tongue. I cannot swear that this whole little obsessive scenario has not been worked up in order to use that rare word, so attractive by dint of its exactitude: excoriation.

Effet bienfaisant d'une phrase ~ Beneficent effect of a phrase

From Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes:
X tells me that one day he decided "to exonerate his life from his unhappy loves," and that this phrase seemed so splendid to him that it almost managed to compensate for the failures which had provoked it; he then determined (and determined me) to take more advantage of this reservoir of irony in all (aesthetic) language.

Recap: "I like, I don't like"

From September 2007, the Dizzies challenge and my old response...


Reading Roland Barthes is amazing for many reasons, but the latest one is that by looking up the word decalcomania ("Fiction: slight detachment, slight separation which forms a complete, colored scene, like a decalcomania") I have learned the origin of the term decal!

(And: the decal craze of the late 1800s!)

The final assignment

for the class I've been teaching this semester on style:
In “Notes on ‘Camp,’” Sontag writes, “To snare a sensibility in words, especially one that is alive and powerful, one must be tentative and nimble. The form of jottings, rather than an essay (with its claim to a linear, consecutive argument), seemed more appropriate for getting down something of this particular fugitive sensibility.” Adopting the form or mode of “jottings” – other “jotters” we’ve read this semester include Barthes, Koestenbaum, Sante and to a lesser extent Sebald – write a piece called “Notes on Style.” The notes should be ordered by some principle – numbering, alphabetization by keyword – that is neither chronological nor obviously logic-or-argument-driven. You are welcome to use quotations from Austen, Flaubert, James, Proust, etc. as illustrations, but you are not obligated to do so; examples from other spheres are also welcome. Be as vivid and precise as possible, and include at least one original “maxim” or “aphorism” about style or one of style’s affiliates as a self-standing item in your list of jottings.

Typographic errors

“I think sometimes that being overly type-sensitive is like an allergy.”

Sunday, November 15, 2009


The preamble to Cabinet's Speed Reading event:

(Picture poached from here. And a picture may or may not be worth a thousand words...)

It will be clear to anyone who knows me why I found the following text irresistible - the range of choices included everything from Gilbreth to Virilio - twenty-four of us read various bits and pieces - and in the meantime, a screen with images included an appealing and eclectic mix of stuff on the side (the film of Roger Bannister's four-minute mile, record-breaking Rubik's Cube-twisting, speed stacking, cats running in an exercise wheel, etc. etc.).

Valéry Larbaud, "Slowness" ("La lenteur"; 1930)
for Paul Morand
There is a moving tribute to speed in this quote from Samuel Johnson reported to us by Boswell: “One of the greatest pleasures in life is to travel in a coach moving at full speed.”

Though this tribute seems outdated by today’s standards of speed, it touches us, first, because it brings to mind the image we hold of Doctor Johnson: a very tall man, very fat, very slow, hippopotamus-like, thus the thought is made heavy with eloquence, lexicography, and pomposity; next, because this statement was made in the middle of the 18th century at a time when modern speed only existed in the imagination and in people’s desires, as though they could sense it. A promised land toward which they strove as fast as their horses could carry them, and which they sought in this direction, through means of breeding and selection, hoping perhaps to eventually create a race of quadrupeds with winged hooves . . . Yes, this word from the ponderous Doctor summarizes for us the aspiration of those generations who, relatively close to our own, did not know our speed which we obtained through the domestication of fire and thunder, in creating bulls and soon after bees of bronze (the description of locomotives in Ovid’s Metamorphoses is equally moving).

* * *

Shortly after Doctor Johnson came Napoleon, who dashed toward this future and who still surprises us by the truly imperial speed of his maneuvers, due to the skillful economy of well-prepared stops, fast and well-fed animals, and grooms skilled at unhitching and rehitching in a matter of minutes. Had Caligula done any better? . . . He went away on a sailboat, and here, going round in circles in those remote years, in a place before railroads, riding at full speed on a “hell train,” on the high roads around the capital, the coach that carries, through fog and under the fine Parisian rain, Louis XVIII, aging, weary, and sick, sometimes closing his heavy eyelids on eyes that would never see Canaan.

* * *

The generation that was already born then enters the scene. The first steps were difficult, and the Poets sang that Man had mounted the bronze monster too soon. But in a few more years, the Emperor would sharpen the fine points of his mustache, waxed before the mirrors of the railcar-salon-throne-room that would transport him in twelve hours from Saint-Cloud to Vichy. His pretty train—which must have been blue, white, and pink, or blue, white, and mauve like the uniform of the Cent-Gardes cavalry—preceded, and for us, followed, Waltman’s snowplow locomotive, Jules Verne’s Transcaucasian railway, and Rudyard Kipling’s Compounds.

* * *

But the railway cars and the car compartments, especially the first-class compartments, the sleeping cars, and the salon cars, grew weary—one always wants more than one has—of politely following behind the monster, who had become all too familiar and who smoked too much. Like city dwellers and the high and mighty, they felt nostalgia for the country and for pastoral life. They wanted freedom, anonymity, adventure, and horizons without cities or train stations. One night, toward the end of the 19th century, taking advantage of an unexpected stop in the middle of a field and close to a railway junction that someone had forgotten to close, the first-class compartments—which were brand new but without a hallway, and displeased with having been created based on an old model—escaped, scattered, and—finally!—took to the Open Road; the road with neither tracks nor railway switches, the road that branched out in all directions, through all of Europe’s shrubberies, and through the path of school children walking home chewing their crust of bread.

Some died from it, but the others were much the better for it, and increased in strength and speed, and had many children, even more vigorous and fast than their parents, and some of which would grow until they reached the dimensions of the original railway car. The species proliferated and grew into new varieties: there was a flying race, a warrior race, an amphibious race. But it is the road race that reproduces most easily today—too easily, in fact, for our tranquility.

For the automobile’s greatest days were those when the machine already had all of its organs, which functioned without risk for man who steered it, but the species had not yet multiplied to the point of creating the traffic jams we endure in large cities. Back then, the Limousines and Landaus were coaches that had plenty of space, found the street free before them, and ruled the road.

At that time, the encounter with another automobile in the middle of nowhere—“Hey, some comrades!”—was a genuine event, like the encounter of two ocean liners on the high seas. Back then, in the cities in which one stopped in the course of a journey in an automobile, one visited train stations with a sense of scorn.

Friday, November 13, 2009

"Drives superb"

At the Guardian, Hilary Mantel on where ideas come from.


An absolutely heavenly evening of theatergoing last night, though I am at this point in the week now so tired that I am looking at the time and wondering whether I might not go to bed at eight o'clock!

The play was Tarell Alvin McCraney's In the Red and Brown Water, and it was extraordinarily good in every respect. McCraney has invented his own idiom - it is hilarious, it is touching, it is mythic, it is altogether delightful - interesting, too, to see how this one picks up some tricks from the in certain respects quite tonally different Wig Out! I of course especially love it that he has invented a way to include third-person stage directions as part of the words spoken on stage - honestly, though, if you see only ONE thing this fall, go to the Public Theatre and see one or both of these plays (I loved The Brothers Size when I saw it two years ago - with Brent! - but if anything this one is even better - the contrast to the Robert Wilson production the night before is especially painful to contemplate, not least because the use of music and dance in this one is so superb).

And a divinely good meal afterwards, too, at Indochine (spicy beef salad, an entree special of grilled striped bass with sauteed greens, a ridiculously tasty dessert of steamed Vietnamese coffee cake with bourbon ice-cream and coffee granita): a two-for-two night, which does not happen as often as you might think!

"I used to have a map"

At the Washington Post, Neely Tucker profiles Edward P. Jones (link courtesy of The Millions).

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Brain food

"Nutritious brains"!


Went with my Clarissa students to see Quartett at BAM this evening. Some lovely moments: Isabel Huppert is a sight to behold, and I am fascinated by this notion of transforming Laclos's portrait of eighteenth-century libertinism for the modern stage (but can it really be that Heiner Müller never finished reading the whole of Dangerous Liaisons, as the program suggests? It is not a long novel!). But I found the music utterly awful. Embarrassingly awful! That spells ruination for the production as a whole, since it so much depends on the successful evocation of a sensibility.

(The only other Robert Wilson production I have seen, also at BAM, was much more effective - it was the 2002 Woyzeck - what was happening on stage was quite similar, and Isabel H. is the superior actor, quite mesmerizing at moments - but the Tom Waits music, performed live by a real orchestra, was so lovely in that case that it really brought the whole thing to life for me in a way that worked. The techno moments in this current production really made me squirm, but more generally even the snippets of classical stuff seem banal and thinly imagined - live music, for me, would have made a huge difference, as what was happening on stage was highly watchable, and the language and concept are engaging.)

I have hardly read any books recently! Or, rephrased, I am reading a lot for work stuff and between that and the Worm Triathlon's brain-tunneling effects plus marathon training obsessions, there has not been a lot of Light Reading going on round here. Sebastian Faulks's A Week in December was slight, a disappointment to me as I really loved his last one; William Boyd's Ordinary Thunderstorms was better (and tapped into standard academic's fantasy of walking away from current life for something completely different and under the radar), but not his best. My Columbia colleage Mark Taylor's Field Notes from Elsewhere: Reflections on Living and Dying is an unusual and interesting book that really caught my attention, despite the fact that I am not its ideal audience (too pragmatic, more on the ethical and less on the metaphysical/existential end of intellectual pondering).

There is a passage on idleness that particularly resonated, and that I will share here (I was going to say "that I will share when I am less fatigued," but in fact it is precisely the things that make the passage speak to me that mean I am now unable not to transcribe it given that I have mentioned it!):
Nothing is harder for me to do than nothing. The issue is not merely psychological -- it is metaphysical, ethical, even religious. I guess my problem with doing nothing shows how deeply Protestant I remain. I have never been able to forget my grandmother's severe warning to me when I was a child: "Idleness is the devil's workshop." For her the idle person was not merely lazy but shiftless, useless, worthless. As the work of the devil, idleness, I was taught, is sin and sin, of course, breeds guilt. Even today I never feel more guilty than when I am doing nothing. I doubt I will ever completely overcome this sense of guilt and, indeed, sometimes I'm not even sure I want to do so.

What makes idleness so dangerous and thus so tempting is its purposelessness. Idleness, like play, has no end other than itself. If you can explain why you are idle, you are not idling. Redemption from this sin, my grandmother drilled into me, comes from work. That is why she always kept me busy--sometimes working, sometimes playing, or what she thought was playing. The problem was that my grandmother never really understood how to play. Forever suspicious of idleness, she had the remarkable ability to transform play into work, and she somehow managed to pass on this talent to her daughter, who in turn passed it on to me.

Monday, November 09, 2009

"Put to bed in felts"

If I were a true book collector, this would be a book I would think I must have! (As I am, though, really I just covet the linotype machine! But I might order a copy anyway - does the non-deluxe edition have thumb tabs?)

(Link courtesy of Matthew Battles.)

On curiosity

I just learned, in an email from my department chair, of the death of a much-valued colleague, Karl Kroeber. Karl has been seriously ill for some time, and I heard at the end of last week that he was in hospice care at his home, but the news still comes as a blow.

If you have a few minutes, go and read this wonderful interview that Adam Katz and Josh Schwartz did with Karl for Columbia's Bwog a few years ago - it really gives the flavor of his interests and character and his wonderful restless roving intelligence...

Karl made a very lovely gesture upon his retirement last spring. It is common in such circumstances for the university to host a lavish but exclusive party, usually for an elect group of senior colleagues. But Karl observed that the people he'd learned the most from at Columbia were in fact his junior colleagues, that reading their work for various reviews (tenure and otherwise) was what kept him abreast of interesting new developments in various fields and that really he would much prefer to take his younger colleagues out for a really lavish lunch at Terrace in the Sky! And that was what happened - it was a true valediction.

"The same goes for the bed"

From Georges Perec, Species of Spaces and Other Pieces (translated by John Sturrock):
We generally utilize the page in the larger of its two dimensions. The same goes for the bed. The bed (or, if you prefer, the page) is a rectangular space, longer than it is wide, in which, or on which, we normally lie longways. 'Italian' beds are only to be found in fairy tales (Tom Thumb and his brothers, or the seven daughters of the Ogre, for example) or in altogether abnormal and usually serious circumstances (mass exodus, aftermath of a bombing raid, etc.). Even when we utilize the bed the more usual way round, it's almost always a sign of a catastrophe if several people have to sleep in it. The bed is an instrument conceived for the nocturnal repose of one or two persons, but no more.

Sunday, November 08, 2009

Two by Perec

The first image is from Portrait(s) de Georges Perec; the second is from Ian Monk's translation of "The Exeter Text" in Three by Perec.

"He that writes of himself, not easily tir'd"

From Colley Cibber, An Apology for the Life of Mr. Colley Cibber, Comedian:
It often makes me smile, to think how contentedly I have sate myself down, to write my own Life; nay, and with less Concern for what may be said of it, than I should feel, were I to do the same for a deceas'd Acquaintance. This you will easily account for, when you consider, that nothing gives a Coxcomb more Delight, than when you suffer him to talk of himself; which sweet Liberty I here enjoy for a whole Volume together! A Privilege, which neither cou'd be allow'd me, nor wou'd become me to take, in the Company I am generally admitted to; but here, when I have all the Talk to myself, and have no body to interrupt or contradict me, sure, to say whatever I have a mind other People shou'd know of me, is a Pleasure which none but Authors, as vain as myself, can conceive.

Saturday, November 07, 2009

"Dance capsules"

At the Times Magazine, Arthur Lubow on the fragility of modern dance:
Unlike drama and music, which also unfold in time, dance is not dictated by a written script or score. Although choreographers may sketch out a work for themselves with notes, dance is still taught primarily by one dancer to another, “body to body,” as the saying goes, the way the arts were transmitted in ancient cultures. A sculptor’s blocks of stone or a painter’s pigments are paragons of stability compared to the human clay that the choreographer molds.

Friday, November 06, 2009

"The habits and the aura of a student"

At the Rumpus, Jeremy Hatch provides wonderful excerpts from Sigrid Nunez's memoir about Susan Sontag. Nunez's thoughts on Sontag's contempt for teaching strike me as very perceptive (I come at it, of course, from quite a different point of view!).

(NB I was teaching Sontag's "Notes on Camp" in class this week, together with the demented style miscellany - it is truly a bravura performance...)

(Further thought: I was party to a recent discussion about Kenneth Koch that included the suggestion that he must have been one of the most influential teachers of his generation, not least though also not exclusively in terms of significant writers thinking of themselves as his students after having officially or unofficially studied with him at Columbia - it gave me cause to think about how influence passes strongly through contact inside and outside the classroom as well as through published books - I think that I have sometimes undervalued teaching as opposed to writing, but that the two are in a best-case scenario truly complementary. Of course, student-teacher relationships at Columbia or otherwise are often complex! The letter in which Trilling expresses his dislike for his former student Ginsberg's Howl was described to us very vividly last week [we were having a session for the seminar I'm teaching this semester on Richardson's Clarissa] by the Curator for Literature at the Rare Books and Manuscripts Library at Columbia, which is what caused me to look for that piece just now....)

"Nothing of the costly showiness of Proust and Virginia Woolf"

At the Guardian, Stefan Collini has a very good piece on the new volume of Eliot letters:
Much of Eliot's editorial correspondence deals with what, to anyone who has any experience of literary journalism, will be bound to appear as the familiar constants, almost the universals, of the trade. Here, over and over again, is the desperate last-minute scramble to meet (or sometimes not quite to meet) the deadline for the current issue, followed by repeated resolutions to have the material ready in good time for the next issue. Here, in dispiriting quantity, are examples of the various ways of sucking up to eminent potential contributors, of well-meant evasiveness with lesser supplicants, and of tactful dealings with imposssibly difficult authors (Wyndham Lewis wins the prize). Here, too, are the familiar grumblings about the inefficiency of printers, the usual unrealistic fantasies about circulation and the vehemently expressed regrets at ever having taken on such a doomed and life-destroying enterprise in the first place.

Apologising to one contributor for the fact that, a year after being accepted, his article had still not been published, Eliot tried to enlist his sympathies: "I can only say that there are others – in fact nearly all of my contributors at one time or another – whom I do not dare to meet in the street. Conducting a review after 8pm in the back room of a flat, I live qua editor, very much from hand to mouth, get myself into all sorts of hot water and predicaments, and offend everybody. At the end, the review is squeezed together somehow, and is never the number that I planned three months before." In this case, he promised the article would be published "early next year"; in the event, it never appeared.

"They're speaking in a moron language"

Writers' habits (courtesy of TEV).

Birds of Brazil

At the Times, a lovely obituary for self-taught ornithologist William Belton:
Mr. Belton’s recordings, many of which can be heard online, embrace the firm boink-boink-boink of the dark-billed cuckoo, the amiable squik-squik of the white-eyed foliage-gleaner, the wistful rising halftone — D sharp, E — of the solitary tinamou, and much else. On most recordings, the voice of Mr. Belton can also be fleetingly heard.

The bird names alone read like found poetry. Mr. Belton recorded, among others, the variable screech-owl and the southern screamer; the freckle-breasted thornbird, the sooty-fronted spinetail and the rufous-browed peppershrike; the cattle tyrant, the masked yellowthroat and the piratic flycatcher; the squirrel cuckoo, the laughing falcon, the pectoral sandpiper and the gilded sapphire.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

"No one has lived a more useful seven years"

The smell of rubber cement hangs about these pages - I lack a sense of proportion, I am cramming a whole semester's worth of reading into a single day's xeroxed style miscellany in class today - I might dole out some more of these bits and pieces over the next few days, though...

Selection and juxtaposition

I linked to this piece some years ago, but it bears repeating, I think; at the TLS, Alan Hollinghurst on the novels of Ronald Firbank:
where Proust, at just the same time, was expanding the novel to unprecedented length to do justice to his narrator’s complex world and his complex consciousness of it, Firbank had arrived at an aesthetic which required almost everything to be omitted. Where Proust, a fellow observer of upper-class society and sexual ambivalence, worked by the endlessly exploratory and comprehensive sentence, the immense paragraph, the ceaselessly dilated book, Firbank laboured to reduce – not merely to condense but to design by elimination. “I am all design – once I get going”, he wrote. “I think nothing of filing fifty pages down to make a brief, crisp paragraph, or even a row of dots.” He constructed in fragments, juxtaposed without any cushioning or explanatory narrative tissue. Both Proust and Firbank loved describing parties, but where Proust’s parties are occasions for infinitely fine analysis and profound digression, Firbank’s are an abstract mosaic of impressions, in which human intercourse is enacted as a kind of coruscating nonsense. One of his most striking inventions was the depiction of a party as a montage of unrelated fragments, picked up as if by a roving microphone: “Her dull white face seems to have no connection with her chestnut hair!” “ . . . with him to Palestine last spring. Oh, dear me, I thought I should have died in Joppa!” “You mix them with olives and a drop of cognac.” [. . . .] “The only genuine one was Jane.” “. . . poison.” “. . . fuss . . . .” “My husband was always shy. He is shy of everybody. He even runs away from me!”.


Firbank worked in fragments all the way through, amassing phrases in notebooks, and supposedly compiling his early novels on narrow horizontal strips of paper, which could be shuffled and rearranged in a way that sounds prophetic of much later experiments with the cut-up. Everything depended on the instinct for selection and juxtaposition. The Jamesian challenge of “free selection – which is the beautiful, terrible whole of art” has not been abandoned, but the terms that govern that selection have been radically revised. There is a paradoxical feeling, especially in his earlier and more experimental novels, that almost everything on the page is irrelevant and yet that nothing could be omitted. The exclamatory inconsequence of social conversation is deployed as a kind of screen, through which the attentive reader will discern hinted patterns, the intermittent unfolding of an anecdote or a joke. As a means of depicting social life in which any contact is transient and any shared understanding unlikely, the technique is wittily appropriate. Had James read Vainglory, when it came out on his seventy-second birthday, he would have found it to infringe almost every canon of Jamesian law – no centre of consciousness, no unity of effect, no “action” – though he might have hesitated to call it loose and baggy when it was so agile, so indirect, so evidently if so mysteriously “designed”.

Professional development

From Oscar Wilde, "Phrases and Philosophies for the Use of the Young":
There is something tragic about the enormous number of young men there are in England at the present moment who start life with perfect profiles, and end by adopting some useful profession.