Sunday, February 28, 2010

Swings, roundabouts

It is with a great sense of loss that I close the covers of the last of Dorothy Dunnett's Lymond Chronicles.

It has been more than a month since I read the first of the House of Niccolò books; I have been living in the world of these novels, I do not want to come back to real life!

(Jo Walton happened to post something earlier today about the joy of reading an unfinished series.)

In less emotionally equivocal literary news, I started writing the little book on style this past Monday, in the grip of a feverishly strong delusion that it could be done in three weeks. Now that I've taken the weekend off, and now that I think about the fact that the week of May 14-21 is designated for private life rather than for work, I have scaled up the likely production time to six weeks, but it still seems to me genuinely possible that I might have a whole draft of the thing by the end of March!

(Can it be?!? It might indeed not be - but it is at least possible that the outcome of a lifetime of obsessive reading and writing has led me to a place where an entire book - a little book! - can be written in six weeks. It's based on the lectures I gave this fall, so really it's a question of making something out of things that are already there...)

The little book on style still doesn't have a real name, but in a productive sleepless couple of hours a few nights ago I had some (to me) thrilling insights into the bread-and-butter-of-the-novel book. It has a new title and a clear organizational scheme, both of which I find so secretly delightful that I think I must cherish the details to myself in private for a little while longer before announcing them to the world via Light Reading - but I won't start working on this until I have sent the little book on style to my agent (and there is an essay on Austen and Flaubert and aphorisms, with which the book begins, that I will send out separately).

Bonus link: the song I couldn't get out of my head while reading the last installment of Lymond; we used to sing it in my high school choir.

These books have also reminded me of how much I loved the late fifteenth and sixteenth centuries between the ages of 10 and 14 or so - it was a feature of the school I went to that younger children especially were asked to enter into historical periods with an intellect infused with imagination, and I vividly remember the account of the death of Savonarola from the point of view of a young Italian nobleman I wrote the year I was in fifth grade.

A favorite book at the time was Elizabeth Marie Pope's The Perilous Gard, which I still think is pretty much a perfect novel for children, but I was also already at that stage beginning to read T.S. Eliot and Dorothy L. Sayers and Nicholas Blake and through them to discover the beauties of Elizabethan and Jacobean drama. In sixth grade I wrote a half-hour adaptation of Twelfth Night for our class to perform; I was steeped in the language and mythos of Shakespeare...

I said to Brent the other day, regretfully, that much as I still somewhat aspire to write airport thrillers in the vein of Dick Francis, my gifts as a writer are not really in the direction of that minimalist leave-everything-out-but-the-essentials intelligent storytelling that you see in the best of Francis or of Lee Child. I do not know, either, that I could possibly write a series of the scope of Dunnett's or of those of Susan Howatch, which I also love, partly because I am keeping a lot of my imagination in reserve for intellectual writing, but I would think that a very fully imagined historical series would be a better fit with my actual strengths and preferences than a series of stripped-down thrillers about men and women of action...

I have had several conversations recently (it has partly been prompted by walking the ramps at the Guggenheim) about a very happy insight that has struck me in the last year or so, and that seems to me in great part a function of being age 38.

Options close down - the infinite range of possibilities that seemed open to me at age twenty (at least if I was in an argumentative mood) is now significantly narrower - but unlike what I would have thought if you had been able to persuade me of it at that age (which you would not), this is a good thing.

We are constrained by our individual temperaments in ways that are very difficult to understand when we are eighteen or twenty or indeed thirty - it comes upon us gradually, though, at least if we are lucky, that we were right not to go in the direction of being (implausibly) fighter pilots or investment bankers or (more plausibly) epidemiologists or chemists - that our lives have to be governed by what will suit us best as well as by what we think we should be able to do...

Friday, February 26, 2010

Squeeze machines

Bari Weiss interviews Temple Grandin at the Wall Street Journal on Aspergers, autism and the cattle handling systems Grandin devises:
Ms. Grandin wondered what made the animals moo and balk. Kneeling down to see things from a cow's eye view, she took pictures from within the chutes.

She found cattle were highly sensitive to the same sensory stimulants that might set off a person with autism, but were inconsequential to the average handler. They were shockingly simple revelations: light and shadow would stress the animals, as would grated metal drains. Prodding and hollering from cowboys, intended to move cattle along, only alarmed them further.

Her designs reflected these insights. A curved, single-file chute mimicked the cattle's natural tendency to follow each other. She replaced slated walls with solid ones to prevent cattle from seeing the handlers and cut down on light and shadow.

Performative sentences

At Bookforum, Jim Shepard reviews Sam Lipsyte's superb new novel The Ask:
Milo's world disappoints him even more, though, and happily for us, he's the scourge of the upwardly mobile everywhere. Lipsyte provides him with firebombing rants about everything from alternative day cares ("They had a smug ideological tinge about them, a minor Red Brigades vibe") to perhaps that fattest of sitting ducks: the self-importance of the hypereducated (his art school classmate won the student prize "for shitting on a Rand McNally atlas to interrogate hegemony"). None of this captures the performative brio of Lipsyte's sentences, which exhilarate by providing a sense of just what's possible when it comes to unbridled thought, unbridled meaning not only startlingly associative but transgressive as well. A paternal pessimist, Milo assesses his young son's prospects: "It was hard to imagine the boy completing kindergarten, remarkably easy to picture him in a tangle of fish knives and sailor cock under some rot-soft pier." There's a surreal giddiness to the resourcefulness of the perversity here, in the face of failure's crushing banality, as if all the mastery unmanageable in life is on display in this secret life: these utterly performative messages in a bottle to the reader.

A currency of cigarettes

An amazing story about a British prisoner of war who broke into Auschwitz and survived. (Link courtesy of Brent, who got it here.)

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Scrambled and skimble-skambled

At the TLS, Patrick O'Connor reviews Andrew McConnell Scott's biography of the clown Grimaldi. On Grimaldi's farewell performance:
Barely able to stand, he chose a favourite old routine which “called for Clown to be seated while a barber worked busily around his chops”. Grimaldi held the basin of soapy water between his knees and sang one of his most famous songs, “Hot Codlins”, about an apple-seller who gets drunk on gin. Each verse would end with a double entendre, but Grimaldi would not utter the word; instead the audience shouted it out, at which he would turn to them, and cry in mock outrage, “For shame”. And there it is, that London humour that found its way down to the likes of George Robey, Nellie Wallace and Max Miller. Robey – “The Prime Minister of Mirth” – once he had his audience roaring with laughter, would turn to them with the admonishment, “Please, remember where you are – kindly temper your hilarity with a modicum of reserve”, while Wallace (always billed as “The essence of eccentricity”) would wag her finger, and say, “Ah, I don’t mean what you mean”.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Stained-glass language

At the LRB, Richard Hamblyn offers a delightful account of Richard Shelton's book on the Atlantic salmon:
‘Smolt’, ‘grilse’: as Richard Shelton observes, salmon are spoken of in a ‘stained-glass language’ of their own, their life stages marked by an ichthyological lexicon unchanged since Chaucer’s time. Born in a ‘redd’, a shallow, gravel-covered depression dug by the female in the days before spawning, newly hatched salmon begin life as ‘alevins’, tiny, buoyant creatures with their yolk sacs still attached. Once the yolk has been absorbed, the fast-growing fish, now known as ‘fry’, are able to feed for themselves, turning instinctively to face the current in order to graze on drifting insect larvae. Some months later, the juvenile salmon, now known as ‘parr’, move downstream to deeper water, where their markings grow darker and their shapes more distinctively salmonoid. By the following spring, most parr have begun the first of the transformations that will enable them to cross the hydrological boundary from the river to the sea: once their kidneys have been primed to reverse their usual function of taking in salts and excreting dilute river water, their skin colour brightens to reflective silver through a microscopic coating of guanine crystals, and their body shapes fill out in anticipation of the long voyage ahead. It is then that the ‘smolts’, as the fish are now known, are ready to head downriver to the sea.


Hilary Mantel remembers the feeling of the happiest day of her life.

Living on paper

At the Observer, Adam Mars-Jones on Iris Murdoch's wartime diaries:
[A]nything that can go wrong with the book editorially has done so. A single sentence can contain an erroneous correction ("Ruisdael" is an accepted spelling of the painter's name) and an uncorrected error ("Ruben's"). A better title might have been Living on Paper, a phrase Murdoch uses when her dealings with David go back to being epistolary after an interlude in the flesh. In 1945, they decided to marry, but David had second thoughts, broke off with Iris and rapidly married someone less complicated.

The reason he gave, in the 1946 letter which closes the book, was partly that she was "formidable" – "You used to write that you wanted to be subdued, but I couldn't picture it somehow." There's some corroboration of this in a phrase of Murdoch's which has either escaped the editor's attention altogether or been garbled by a spell-checking demon. She refers to David as having "nine leaves" in his hair. Shouldn't this actually be "vine leaves"? The phrase is famously applied by Hedda Gabler, an intense, restless woman with a destructive streak a mile wide, to a weak man she mistakenly thinks is capable of behaving heroically. So perhaps the jilting Mr Hicks, who was happy in his second marriage, if not his first, was doing the right thing.
Also: Arthur Koestler always wore a hairnet in bed. (That one's also a morality piece about the inadvisability of signing an advance contract for a book that's not yet written!)

Tea and toast

At the Sunday Times, Antonia Quirke reviews a new memoir by Orson Welles' oldest daughter:
The author’s eye is frequently magical. She recalls, for example, her father’s delicate ankles. Or the restless way he chomped toast in a London tea room while around him musicians struck up, impromptu, the zither music to The Third Man. His noisy delight when she bought him a miniature dancing bear for Christmas, or the afternoon walk along the Seine when they spotted Bogart and Bacall in a cafe and joined them. Could it be any more romantic?

Headline news

Can we please have a ban on the formulation "----- whisperer"?!?

Friday, February 19, 2010

Filthy Austen

At TNR, Ross Posnock on Terry Castle's The Professor and Other Writings:
Castle learned mock-heroism the hard way—above all, as the title essay recounts, by surviving a humiliating, scalding, passionate affair as a graduate student with a self-intoxicated, regal, promiscuous female professor—a “connoisseur, a sensualist, skilled in the arts of homosexual love,” a wounding eventually and partially healed by abundant reading in eighteenth-century satire. The books taught that “[n]othing was sacred…even the grandest and most imposing monuments might be defaced. We were all rolling around in the muck.” She dove in to join her already filthy teachers—Austen, Pope, Swift. Inspired by the “rococo lightness and drollery” of their tutelage, and of Watteau’s paintings and Mozart’s operas, in all “a deep moral seriousness humming away at the core,” she accepted the loss of her “Bambi” innocence and relished the plain facts of survival: “I was fat; I was mean; but I was alive.”
(Plus a question: Harriet Klausner's Amazon review of the book - authentic or parody?!?)

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Monosyllabic puberty

John Crace on how Dick Francis's books helped him survive his adolescence. (Alison Flood calls the Francis corpus "chick lit for men.")

I have been haunted all week by the conviction that I must come up with a concept that will let me seamlessly execute Franciscan thrillers on an annual basis...

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Pluto platters

Frisbee inventor dies.

I was very sorry to come to the end of the House of Niccolò books. At roughly 600+pp. per volume, the total narrative clocks in at close to 5,000 pages - reading through the series has very much lubricated my passage, in the last couple of weeks, through various bits of the New York public transportation system and the insomniac's couch.

I now am wedged halfway into the first volume of the Lymond chronicles, but it is a bit too Scott-ish for my tastes - I believe, however, that subsequent volumes take us out of Scotland/Border raid territory etc. I have just gone and checked the remaining five volumes out of the Barnard library - it takes a certain amount of trouble to identify and secure a suitable supply of light reading!

Sunday, February 14, 2010

New York living

In my regular New York teaching life, I am often so frazzled and stressed out that going anywhere to do anything, no matter how interesting or enjoyable it promises to be, provokes a near panic-attack on the subway platform as I fight the grip of the feeling that I should be at home working. I am making an effort to see that part of my sabbatical is spent refamiliarizing myself with the pleasures of the city, and on that note I saw a very good show last night at BAM, the Magnetic Fields. I love miniature things, and the songs are definitely along marzipan-museum Faberge-egg lines - occasionally it verges on depths of whimsy, but it is very lovely stuff, and they have an unparalleled sense of how to put together a set list with connecting banter.

A favorite: "The Nun's Litany" (sound quality not good, but it gives the flavor).

The death of an author

Alas, I was greeted as I checked my email this morning by an email from Sarah Weinman letting me know that Dick Francis has died. It is a great loss!

(Reading the Telegraph obituary has just made me feel a terrible pang that I have not made for myself a career writing thrillers in the Franciscan mode, they have always seemed to me so much the most desirable kind of book - a new Dick Francis novel has always been to me something that makes the heart soar.)

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Triffid-like co-tenants

At the Guardian Review, Iain Sinclair on J. G. Ballard.

Out late tonight for a pair of literary things: first of all, a tour by the curators of the quite amazing Jane Austen exhibit at the Morgan Library. Then I met up with G. to see the Pearl Theatre Company's adaptation of Hard Times. It is not at all bad, acting and adaptation both quite good (it is far from being my favorite Dickens novel, it is overly schematic), only the whole thing feels undermotivated - especially in comparison with the really imaginative and fresh integration of third-person narration and dialogue by Tarell Alvin McCraney, which is still very much in my mind. Even with a 7:30 curtain time, it wasn't over till 11 - my stomach was terribly rumbling!

We then had a truly lavish meal at Milos. Our initial order was kindly but summarily rejected by the waiter ("Of course, the money is not an issue - but if one person orders the whole fish by the pound, it will cost $70, $80 for a single portion - you must order the prix fixe!"), and so we both signed on for the prix fixe dinner: I had grilled octopus, tomato salad, grilled loup de mer and a very nice dessert of walnut cake with lavender-vanilla ice-cream. Delicious...

Monday, February 08, 2010

Facts, fragility of, passim

At TNR, Anthony Grafton considers Oxford don Mary Beard's blog-to-book odyssey. (Courtesy of Ian Corey-Boulet.)

Drops of water

From Denis Diderot, Jacques the Fatalist and his Master, trans. David Coward (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1999):
Jacques. Me, sir, drink water! Jacques on holy water! I’d rather have a thousand legions of devils take up permanent residence in my insides than touch a drop of water, holy or unholy. Haven’t you ever noticed that I’m hydrophobic?

Just a moment! ‘Hydrophobic’? Jacques said ‘hydrophobic’?
No, reader, he didn’t. I confess the word wasn’t his. But if you want to apply such high critical standards, I challenge you to read any scene from a comedy or a tragedy, one dialogue, however well-written, and not detect the voice of the author in the mouth of his characters. What Jacques actually said was: ‘Haven’t you ever noticed, sir, that the mere sight of water makes me jump backwards like a mad dog?…’ There it is. In expressing it differently from him, I was true but more succinct.


For a few weeks in January, I was almost certain that for the first time since c. 1996 or so I was only going to be working on one book this year.

Alas, it does not seem temperamentally feasible - the bread and butter of the novel book is an ambitious project that must be executed thoughtfully and slowly over the process of a few years, it will need to be complemented by a little book that I (no doubt wildly unrealistically) feel I might be able to dash off in a matter of weeks - a little book on style in which I pretty much just write exactly what I taught in my lecture class this fall!

I would like to get it out there more widely, that is the thing, it is the fruit of much reading and many years of thought on the matter of sentences and voice in the novel, it is a pity not to transform it into something that will sit on bookshelves here and there...


From the OED, 2nd ed. (1989):
bread and butter

(Often written with hyphens, esp. when used attrib.)

1. a. Bread spread with butter; also attrib. Also attrib. and comb., as bread-and-butter pudding; bread-and-butterless adj.
1630 WADSWORTH Sp. Pilgr. iii. 15 Euery one hath..a peece of bread and butter. 1711 ADDISON Spect. No. 323 {page}6 Eat a slice of Bread and butter, drank a dish of Bohea. 1729 E. SMITH Compl. Housewife (ed. 3) 81 A Bread and Butter Pudding... Take a two-penny Loaf..spread it in very thin slices [etc.]. 1817 BYRON Beppo xxxix, The Nursery still lisps out in all they utter{em}Besides, they always smell of bread and butter. 1822 W. KITCHINER Cook's Orac. 449 Bread and Butter Pudding. 1849 [see TEALESS a.]. 1853 MRS. GASKELL Cranford i. 14 He..lessened the pretty maid-servant's labour by waiting on empty cups, and bread-and-butterless ladies. 1883 ROE in Harper's Mag. Dec. 50/2 She likes bread and butter and..realities.

b. dial. A slice of bread and butter.
1853 W. D. COOPER Gloss. of Provincialisms in Sussex, Bread and butters, slices of bread buttered. 1927 W. E. COLLINSON Contemp. Eng. 54, I well remember the disgust we children felt at a lady..who always said a bread and butter, where we used a piece of bread and butter.

2. Taken as a type of every day food; the means of living; hence attrib. in many elliptical and allusive expressions. See also QUARREL v. 1a.
1732 SWIFT Let. 12 Aug. (1965) IV. 60 Your quarrelling with each other upon the subject of bread and butter is the most usual thing in the world. 1738 {emem} Polite Conv. I. 17, I won't quarrel with my Bread and Butter for all that: I know when I'm well. 1836-7 SIR W. HAMILTON Metaph. (1859) I. i. 6 By the Germans, the latter [i.e. the professional or lucrative sciences] are usually distinguished as the Brodwissenschaften, which we may translate, ‘The Bread and Butter Sciences’. 1844 H. TWISS Life Ld. Eldon I. vi. 119 Young man, your bread and butter is cut for life. 1870 LOWELL Among my Bks. Ser. I. (1873) 222 Life lifted above the plane of bread-and-butter associations. 1884 Harper's Mag. Dec. 92/2 Industries were not so plenty..that men could quarrel with their bread and butter. 1886 Contemp. Rev. May 663 Journalists who frankly avow what is called the bread-and-butter theory of their craft. 1929 Publishers' Weekly 30 Nov. 2588/1 The old stand-bys, the bread-and-butter books in every department. 1939 A. CHRISTIE Murder is Easy xii. 128 One musn't quarrel with one's bread and butter. 1955 Times 11 May 6/1 Providing furniture for new houses was the bread and butter of the industry.

3. no bread and butter of mine: no matter affecting my material interests, no business of mine.
1764 FOOTE Mayor of G. I. i, However, it is no bread and butter of mine.

4. a. attrib.; spec. Of or pertaining to the age when bread-and-butter is extensively consumed; boyish, girlish; esp. (cf. quot. 1817 in 1) school-girlish.
a1625 BEAUM. & FL. Hum. Lieut. III. vi, Ye bread-and-butter rogues, do ye run from me? 1807 W. IRVING Salmag. (1824) 180 These little, beardless, bread and butter politicians. 1861 TROLLOPE Barchester T. xli. (D.) A lady at any rate past the wishy-washy bread-and-butter period of life. 1865 Pall Mall G. 13 May 4 Would feel that they were tittered at as bread-and-butter Misses.

b. bread-and-butter letter orig. U.S., a letter of thanks for hospitality; cf. COLLINS. Also ellipt.
1901 HOWELLS Pair of Patient Lovers 82 His prompt bread-and-butter letter. 1933 N. STREATFEILD Tops & Bottoms xxiv. 308 Please never write me bread-and-butter letters. 1964 E. BOWEN Little Girls III. i. 164 Rude? Should have written a bread-and-butter?

Hence (with reference to sense 4) bread-and-butterhood, -butterishness, bread-and-buttery a.
1884 LADY MAJENDIE Out of Element III. xxiv. 321, I think the ties of bread-and-butterhood are stronger than any later ones after all. 1843 Blackw. Mag. LIII. 80 They..emerge..into the full and perfect imago of little..gentlemen, and little ladies, without any of those intermediate conditions of laddism, hobble-de-hoyism, or bread-and-butterishness. 1859 G. MEREDITH R. Feverel xiii. (1885) 90 His future bride is now pinafored and bread-and-buttery. 1882 MRS. J. H. RIDDELL Struggle for Fame xxvi, You [an authoress] are rather bread-and-buttery still.

Saturday, February 06, 2010

Brother of the more famous Jack

At the Guardian, Colm Tóibín on Jack Yeats. I remember the first time I saw an extensive array of (reproductions of) the pictures of Jack B. Yeats - they are some of the loveliest and most haunting things I have ever seen...

Bonus link: James Lasdun on Chekhov's stories.

Museums of marzipan

At the Sunday Times, Christopher Clark reviews Simon Winder's Germania. Sounds very appealing - I love provincial museums and confectionery...

Closing tabs

I have spent much of the last week in a pleasant haze, in subway cars or during the later-evening couch hours mandated by the anti-insomnia protocol which forbids computer time at night, induced and maintained by the first five books of Dorothy Dunnett's House of Niccolo series.

There is something very comforting about knowing how many of them there are - eight books in this series, and then a whole other six-book series. I love multi-volume series (also very pleasant is discovering a crime novelist of excellence who has already published six or seven volumes in his or her series which can then be consumed at a steady but more or less voracious pace over the course of four or five days); I think that these are not in the end up to the standard of Patrick O'Brian on the one hand or Susan Howatch on the other, but I am now very much looking forward to reading the Lymond books once I finish with these.

Further link miscellany:

This year's "oddest book title" contest. (A number of these books inevitably sound to my ears highly worthwhile!)

Shackleton's whisky excavated from beneath floorboards of polar hut!

At the New Yorker, Macy Halford on the importance of e-mail to romance (with commentary by Abigail Adams) (courtesy of Amy).

On Thursday I saw Parsons Dance at the Joyce. The dancing was excellent, the music perhaps to a somewhat lower standard (though not as dire as I feared - it is a truly bizarre endeavor, though, with famous opera arias set as lavishly orchestrated pop songs - "La donna e mobile" as torch song really made me want to laugh! - it is the East Village Opera Company and their music can be sampled here if you are curious).

By far the highlight of the evening was the short prelude before the main piece. It is called "Caught," and it is truly spectacular - it takes advantage of the kinds of theatricality and athleticism one associates with Cirque du Soleil, which seems to me a very good idea indeed. The combination of strobe lighting and unbelievable jumps and timing truly makes it seem as though the dancer is flying through the air due some occult power - it is very "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," I loved it! There is a link here which gives some of the flavor of it, but the essence is exactly what cannot be captured on film or digital media - the staggering part of it is the way that after the flying sequence you suddenly see the dancer standing quietly at the back of the stage, only the sheen of sweat and the heaving ribcage speaking to the effort that has just been expended. Really magical!

(A good dinner afterwards, too, at the Viceroy Cafe. I had a steak salad - slabs of rare beef served on a heap of mesclun salad with balsamic vinaigrette and roquefort cheese, with cucumber, tomato and avocado laid out delicately around the plate - and a truly delicious helping of tiramisu.)

"Sous les pavés la plage"

A striking bit from Tony Judt's latest installment of short memoirs in the New York Review of Books (subscription required):
Without question, the 1960s were a good time to be young. Everything appeared to be changing at unprecedented speed and the world seemed to be dominated by young people (a statistically verifiable observation). On the other hand, at least in England, change could be deceptive. As students we vociferously opposed the Labour government's support for Lyndon Johnson's war in Vietnam. I recall at least one such protest in Cambridge, following a talk there by Denis Healey, the defense minister of the time. We chased his car out of the town—a friend of mine, now married to the EU high commissioner for foreign affairs, leaped onto the hood and hammered furiously at the windows.

It was only as Healey sped away that we realized how late it was—college dinner would start in a few minutes and we did not want to miss it. Heading back into town, I found myself trotting alongside a uniformed policeman assigned to monitor the crowd. We looked at each other. "How do you think the demonstration went?" I asked him. Taking the question in stride—finding in it nothing extraordinary—he replied: "Oh I think it went quite well, Sir."