Sunday, March 28, 2010


It has been quiet round here this week, I know, mostly because I am in a productive spell of writing and triathlon training and light reading...

I have just finished writing what I commonly think of as quota for the day; quota is measured differently for different projects (if I'm drafting fiction, it's usually 1500 words, and if I'm writing academic stuff or non-fiction it's more conceived of as something like 5-6 coherent consecutive paragraphs in fully realized prose), but it can usually be produced in 2-3 hours, sometimes less if I'm on a roll, and is deliberately set below the maximum that could be written in a day: this so that it remains easy to write the next day as well.

(I have reached the final essay in the little book on style; it should be that I have a rough draft - the introduction is still patchy and needs some more reading and thinking before I can properly finish it - in three or four days, and I'm sort of shooting to send the entire book to my agent at the end of the first week of April.)

Light reading: Jacqueline Carey's first Kushiel trilogy, which I really loved (less complex than Dunnett, and a first-person voice that owes more to Renault than to Walter Scott, but in certain respects surprisingly similar in its themes and geographies - and check out the seriousness of the books' fans!) - thanks to Charlie Jane for the recommendation; David Levien, Where the Dead Lay (excellent); M. R. Hall, The Coroner (not bad, but hewing to a well-worn set of conventions); Martin Edwards, Take My Breath Away (interesting, wholly implausible but well-written); Liz Rigbey, Summertime (very good, but not quite as good as her first, and with a clumsy couple of pages in the middle that ridiculously transparently give away the plot twist - it does not spoil the book for me, I like knowing the ending in advance, but I am not a guesser-of-endings and it was nonetheless crystal clear from this point what was going to happen - a couple of details too pseudo-carelessly noted); Deon Meyer, Dead Before Dying (also quite farfetched in its plotting but very appealingly rendered - I'll look forward to reading the rest of the series).

The major cloud on the horizon: my beloved cat Blackie is suffering a recurrence of the fibrosarcoma that was surgically removed in December. The fact that it's come back so quickly tells me something that I hate to hear. He's spending this sabbatical year at my mother's house (it is cat heaven there!), but I'm going to bring him back here for the next month or two while I'm still in New York so that I can get some time with him while he's still in pretty good fettle. I'd already decided in December that I wouldn't have another round of surgery for him; it took him weeks to get over the anesthesia and surgery the first time, and he is almost seventeen years old, a good honorable old age for a cat. This is hard, though: he has been my constant companion since 1993...

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Lilliputian lounge access

From Susan Stewart, On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection:
[T]here may be an actual phenomenological correlation between the experience of scale and the experience of duration. In a recent experiment conducted by the School of Architecture at the University of Tennessee, researchers had adult subjects observe scale-model environments 1/6, 1/12, and 1/24 of full size. The environments represented lounges and included chipboard furniture as well as scale figures. The subjects were asked to move the scale figures through the environment, to imagine humans to be that scale, and to identify activities appropriate for that space. Then they were asked to imagine themselves to be of "lounge scale" and picture themselves engaging in activities in the lounge. Finally, they were asked to tell the researchers when they felt that they had been engaged in such activities for 30 minutes. The experiment showed that "the experience of temporal duration is compressed relative to the clock in the same proportion as scale-model environments being observed are compressed relative to the full-sized environment."

Parlor games

From Roland Barthes on Roland Barthes, translated by Richard Howard:
The index of a text, then, is not only an instrument of reference; it is itself a text, a second text which is the relief (remainder and asperity) of the first: what is wandering (interrupted) in the rationality of the sentences.

Monday, March 22, 2010

A random thought

In graduate school, I spent (wasted!) much time trying to prepare and send out articles to academic journals. I'm not saying I didn't learn anything doing this, I'm sure I did, and I did publish a couple of articles by the way, but it was not till the end of graduate school or perhaps even the beginning of my professional teaching career that I really understood the difference between a publishable article and a highly competent, even potentially interesting and original article-length piece that is nonetheless not an article and will be very unlikely to be accepted as such.

It has been very much the same thing for other kinds of book, only with a much longer and shallower learning curve. At age 38 I now feel I suddenly understand what makes a really viable commercial book proposal or book project, something I truly haven't felt in the bones until quite recently. I think that while reading and writing are a very good (the only!) way to learn craft (sentences, paragraphs, storytelling), the editors and agents are likely to learn much earlier in their careers than the writers what makes for a good pitch, in the serious rather than the trivial sense.

(But then their job is to recognize them, not so much to produce them themselves; it's just a different skill set, that's the long and the short of it.)

I have always been the kind of person who assumes that I will never know more in future than I know at the present time. (I am not sure if this is pessimism or over-confidence.) It is nice to know that I am capable of learning new things...

[ED. AFTERTHOUGHT. This sent me off to see if I could find a version of my first real published article online, and indeed it is here, at least the abstract and opening paragraphs. But in fact this piece was based on the senior thesis I wrote as an undergraduate - this one! - and the other two articles I published in graduate school were taken from dissertation chapters, not from seminar papers. What I learned from this: it is relatively unlikely that a paper one writes for an actual class is going to turn into something publishable, because its argument is almost always constructed within the professor's framework, and would necessitate wholesale re-framing in order to be suitable for publication, even if such a thing were possible, which it is usually not. Publishable work is much more likely to come out of the context of an independent project - this is why I am often suggesting to graduate students in the humanities that while publication is quite important, it makes more sense to wait until you've drafted some chapters and then see what couple pieces should come out of those and go out to journals rather than spending a lot of time polishing seminar papers when it really would be more valuable to make tracks on the original work of the dissertation.]

3 other influential books

These three made a huge impression on me starting when I was seven or eight through about eleven or so - I was a precocious reader, but they were topics of serious interest to me! In those days I thought I would be a primatologist when I grew up. Only later did I realize that the most interesting and complex primate is the human being...

1. Jane Goodall, In the Shadow of Man. I read it again and again, and knew the chimpanzee genealogies by heart.

2. Harlan Lane, The Wild Boy of Aveyron. The discussions of language in this book burst upon me like an explosion.

3. Donald Johanson and Maitland Edey, Lucy: The Beginnings of Humankind.

Other influential books at this age, excluding fiction: the D'Aulaires' books of Greek and Norse myths; David Macaulay's castle and cathedral books.

Monday miscellany

A rainy day in New York...

Andrew explores a delightful index ("Eggs, correct handling of") and links to an old piece by Philip Hensher on the pleasures and perils of indexing (via Marginal Revolution).

Jo Walton on why professional writers have to be particularly careful what they write online about other books

Former student Ellen Bar's film NY Export: Opus Jazz has its PBS premiere this Wednesday at 8pm.

Last and least: publicity! (The picture was taken in the reading room at Butler Library - our main concern was to minimize disruption to sleeping undergraduates...)

(Also on the topic of publicity, it sounds as though I will most likely be signing advance copies of Invisible Things at Book Expo on the afternoon of May 26, and will hope to see some of you there.)

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Rabbits redux

At the FT, Angus Watson walks Watership Down (site registration required).

I must confess that I absolutely adored Watership Down as a child - I read it again and again, and found the scenes of rabbit warfare unutterably moving! I was just thinking a few days ago of Richard Adams - I was reading the first installment of Jacqueline Carey's Kushiel series and was very much reminded of Adams' novel Maia, a favorite of mine when I was a teenager.

In the late 70s and early 80s, Adams seemed absolutely central to the (my?) literary landscape - The Girl in a Swing made a huge impression on me as a Young Person, and I was again thinking recently that I should obtain a copy and read it again. But one does not seem to hear of him so much these days - his reputation might be due for a revival...

Friday, March 19, 2010

La disparition/A Void

The French original is by Georges Perec; the translation is Gilbert Adair's.
Anton Voyl n’arrivait pas à dormir. Il alluma. Son Jaz marquait minuit vingt. Il poussa un profond soupir, s’assit dans son lit, s’appuyant sur son polochon. Il prit un roman, il l’ouvrit, il lut; mais il n’y saisissait qu’un imbroglio confus, il butait à tout instant sur un mot dont il ignorait la signification.

Incurably insomniac, Anton Vowl turns on a light. According to his watch it’s only 12.20. With a loud and languorous sigh Vowl sits up, stuffs a pillow at his back, draws his quilt up around his chin, picks up his whodunit and idly scans a paragraph or two; but, judging its plot impossibly difficult to follow in his condition, its vocabulary too whimsically multisyllabic for comfort, throws it away in disgust.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

10 books

Following Tyler Cowen, a list off the top of my head of the 10 books that have most influenced me, more or less in the order I encountered them.

(I'm sticking to non-fiction because I have much more often done lists of top-ten favorite novels, many of which may well have influenced me as much or more deeply as any of the books on this list.)

1. Anthony Burgess, 99 Novels. A book that sent me, at age 15 or so, to read the 99 novels that Burgess (highly idiosyncratically) deemed the best published in English since 1945, thus introducing me to Pynchon, Ballard and a host of others.

2. Paul Fussell, The Great War and Modern Memory. I can't remember who recommended this to me - some high-school English teacher, possibly Deborah Dempsey, must have put it into my hands, and I was certainly an enthusiastic reader of British WWI poetry and memoirs - and I haven't revisited it in adulthood, so I have no idea how it would stand up to adult levels of professional scrutiny, but this may have been the first book I ever read (excluding books by Anthony Burgess!) which showed me that the ways of reading I was already interested in exploring on my own might actually be constituted as something like an actual professional field in the world at large.

3. Orwell's essays. I first read them my senior year of high school, and fell absolutely in love with the voice and the mode of analysis. This has never worn off. I associate bits of Thucydides' History of the Peloponnesian Wars with this period of reading, and both are things I continue to come back to in my reading, teaching and research.

4. Roland Barthes, S/Z. Not at all my favorite work by Barthes (that would be Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes, or some of the essays), but the book I plucked off the shelf at my friend Sara's house the summer after we both graduated from high school (her stepmother had done a master's degree in literature) and read, utterly entranced, when I should have been having a sociable sleepover!

5. Roman Jakobson, "Two Types of Aphasia and Two Types of Linguistic Disturbances" - an essay rather than a book, but it stands here as the perfect instantiation of a kind of structuralism that I absolutely love and that I think I am about to devote myself to reviving in the world. A cluster of other essays also make me think of the intellectual excitement of undergraduate days studying literary criticism: Derrida's "Signature Event Context," bits of Peter Brooks's Reading for the Plot, Genette and Todorov.

6. Simon Schama, Dead Certainties, Unwarranted Speculations. Again, not my favorite book of his, but the one he'd published most recently when I took a life-changing class with him on reading and writing narrative history. In fact, making this list has made me contemplate the extent to which it's my teachers who have influenced me the most (Elaine Scarry, for instance, more by way of herself in person than by way of The Body in Pain - or even Harold Bloom, though I was just one of the masses in that case, not a student with a real working relationship with the prof!) rather than the books per se.

7. Judith Shklar, Ordinary Vices. I actually can't remember when I first read this - possibly not until graduate school - but as an undergraduate I took Shklar's class on political obligation in order to fill the so-called "moral reasoning" core requirement they had in those days at Harvard. It was an excellent class, and I particularly remember her readings of Shakespeare's Richard II and Kleist's Friedrich von Homburgh. The essay on hypocrisy was extremely important for my dissertation/first book.

8. Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France. A choice I explained more fully some time ago at Normblog. More generally, the graduate seminar on Burke that I took with David Bromwich in my second year of graduate school had a huge influence on subsequent choices about ways of reading, thinking and teaching.

9. Derek Parfit, Reasons and Persons. A book that showed me how philosophy (the only other major philosophical work I feel this way about is Hume's Treatise of Human Nature) can have not just the intellectual heft but also much of the playfulness and magical qualities of a significant novel.

10. Erving Goffman, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. Nothing to say here except that #9 and this one are possibly the two most intellectually charismatic and lively works of recent(ish) years that I can think of; both this one and Reasons and Persons cause me to ache with pain at not having written such a book myself.

Sample bias

At the TLS, Mary Beard considers two new books on the ancient Romans. Here, a description of Estelle Lazer's work on the bones of the dead of Pompeii:
Apart from some celebrity skeletons and plaster casts of dead bodies on display to the public, most of the human remains that survived the Allied bombing raids on the site during the Second World War were piled up in two main stores, each in an ancient bath building not normally accessible to ordinary visitors. Lazer spent most of her research time, months on end over seven years, in these depots – ill-lit (she worked for part of the time with a hand-held bicycle light) and infested by wildlife. The identifying labels once attached to the bones had long ago been eaten by rodents; many of the skulls had provided convenient nesting boxes for the local birds (covering the bones and what Lazer calls the key “skeletal landmarks” with bird lime); in one store a “cottage industry” had been established, which used the human thigh bones to make hinges to restore the ancient furniture on the site. “This has contributed”, as Lazer writes, with deadpan understatement, “a novel source of sample bias to the femur collection.”

Would be geniuses

From Gertrude Stein, The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (required reading, in my opinion, for stylists aspirational and otherwise):
Before I decided to write this book my twenty-five years with Gertrude Stein, I had often said that I would write, The wives of geniuses I have sat with. I have sat with so many. I have sat with wives who were not wives, of geniuses who were real geniuses. I have sat with real wives of geniuses who were not real geniuses. I have sat with wives of geniuses, of near geniuses, of would be geniuses, in short I have sat very often and very long with many wives and wives of many geniuses.
Also: antique typewriters! (Courtesy of my father.)

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Workload breakdown

At the Times, a delightful piece by Alicia DeSantis on "This Progress" in light of its being done. Some very funny quotations in there, many of which I endorse (I was much less grumpy than usual on the last day because the break room was full of donut holes, mini-cupcakes and possibly the most delicious chocolate-chip cookies I have ever eaten in my life, baked by a teen who I happened to see on campus the next day as I hurried into Schermerhorn for a meeting - she was forlorn, the show was over!):
The schedule could be grueling even for much younger interpreters, who, unlike their elders, were unpaid. (They did receive a hat, bag and a museum membership; adults were paid $18.75 an hour, teenagers $7.25 an hour.) Solomon Dworkin, an 11-year-old sixth grader at the School at Columbia University who was one of the oldest children in the piece, said many of the younger ones had trouble with the pace of 40 to 50 interactions a day, 60 to 70 on weekends.

“They had a workload breakdown,” he said. “They would have liked more snacks.”

Some of the problem may have had to do with the intellectual rigors of the job. The younger children were “all pretty smart for their age,” he said, but “I’ve never met a 7-year-old who can match an 11-year-old in a conversation about philosophy.”

The young and the restless

A public service announcement...

The Dylan Thomas Prize is offered by the University of Wales to a writer under 30 whose published book (it can be a novel, a collection of poems, a travel book, a play, etc. but I believe it needs to have been published in the last year - go and look at the specs for more details) is deemed by the prize committee most worthy of recognition. It need not have anything to do with Wales, and is open to writers of all nationalities! It is a large cash prize, and they are eager for submissions, so please forward this announcement widely if you know of anyone who might be interested.

Entries must be received by 30 April 2010.

In the pipeline

The conundrum of light reading is that one always needs a good supply of it, but that the times when it would most be a balm (busy, stressful regular life) are also the times when one is least likely to have the attention to secure a sufficient supply, especially in times of frugality (i.e. no non-essential Amazon purchasing while on half-pay sabbatical)!

I am still harping on Dorothy Dunnett and the way that having those two series stacked on the floor of my living room, with many volumes left to read, made me feel calm and happy, so I figured I'd better sink a bit of attention in securing a really good supply of light reading for the next couple months. I have put out the call for suggestions, and got some good ones (I have always avoided Jacqueline Carey's books, for instance, due to trashy covers and the suspicion that they were perhaps not quite what I most enjoy, but Charlie Jane's recommendation has now caused me to obtain as much of the Carey oeuvre as I could lay hands on), but the really obvious thing to do was to go and trawl through the archives of Maxine's truly excellent crime fiction blog Petrona.

One of my favorite things in the world is the amazing Borrow Direct, which has basically been the gateway to all sorts of amazing reading for me since the service was initiated in 1999. I am in love with Borrow Direct! (And I feel certain that if they keep statistics, I must be in the top 100 users, if not top 10...) So I had an absolutely maniacal fit of BorrowDirecting the other night, and then on Wednesday I returned a cartload of books to the library and went to the circulation desk to pick up the volumes I had requested.

I told the girl at the desk that I had requested quite a lot of books (otherwise they don't know if they're just looking for one book for you or many), and she looked at my ID card and said "You sure did!" It was a good thing I had the cart with me - I had not quite imagined the sheer bulk...

Anyway, the first volume I read was one to which Maxine had given an especially good recommendation, Liz Rigbey's Total Eclipse. I found it absolutely gripping - it is not exactly like Tana French, but it has the same quality that French's novels do of being both very much like and at the same time infinitely superior to the common fare in the genre. Then I read David Levien's City of the Sun, which I also found excellent. Only trouble is, crime novels are mostly so short! But this pile will tide me over for the next month or so...

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Sweat, dust, romance

At TNR, a stirring review by Anthony Grafton of Louis Menand's new book on the American university. Here's the bit I especially liked:
Menand describes the university in generalities. Many of them strike one as true, but some of them seem to reflect a much narrower experience even than he has had, and imply a surprisingly reductionist perspective. Early on he notes that, once upon a time, being a professor meant having a vast fund of esoteric knowledge that the ordinary person could not match--but now, Menand smugly observes, “most of that esoterica is available instantly on Wikipedia.” What?! If the esoterica in question have to do with Britain and America in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries (and even there I have my doubts), maybe. But how many humanities professors and students are prepared to make do with Wikipedia’s “esoterica”? They interpret Chinese classics that have to be pieced together from bamboo strips, or they reconstruct Greek texts from fragments preserved in garbage dumps and mummy wrappings, or they record and interpret religious ceremonies in India and Nepal. You cannot do those jobs without esoteric knowledge. You cannot Wiki them.

Such slips are not minor. They are not even slips. They reveal an error of principle. Menand’s statement that graduate students do not need specialized knowledge is an astonishing and terrible concession: taken literally, it defines the humanities as a realm of simple problems simply solved. No sweat, no dust, no romance, no struggle. But the great humanists are furious, passionate giants who heave one mountain onto another as they stage their attacks on Olympus. At its Faustian and demonic peaks, the tradition of modern humanism includes Benjamin on the Paris arcades and Scholem on the Kabbalah, Fraenkel on Greek and Latin literature and Weinreich on the Yiddish language, Neugebauer on ancient science and Kantorowicz on law and political symbols and Klemperer on the language of the Third Reich, Wittgenstein and Curtius, Kristeller and Panofsky, Syme and Momigliano, Arendt and Colie. Merely to mention these names is to see the inadequacy of Menand’s analysis.

Most of us, and most of our students, are in no danger of performing at that august level. But when we enter on our studies, we take unto ourselves these and other masters, and we sprinkle ourselves with their dust. Anyone who has watched humanists work over the last generation or two has seen new masters take the places of the ones who came before them, and has marveled as they restored new ideas, voices, songs, and images to our records and our canons. We still climb the mountain, or at least we try.
(Link courtesy of Rohan Amanda Maitzen; an excerpt of Menand's book appeared last year in Harvard Magazine.)

Saturday, March 06, 2010


An arts-oriented day yesterday with my father, who was visiting from Philadelphia - we went to walk through Tino's Guggenheim show as visitors, then had a tasty dinner at O'Neal's (I had French onion soup and a delicious seafood salad [mussels, shrimp, squid, lobster over mixed greens with parsley and a lemon vinaigrette], my dad had Manhattan clam chowder and steak au poivre with scalloped potatoes and spinach, then we gluttonously shared a traditional ice-cream sundae - vanilla ice-cream, hot fudge sauce and whipped cream, with cookie-crunch topping) before going to see the rather excellent Shostakovich opera The Nose at the Met.

It is a minor opera, I think - the music is locally appealing (beautifully well-performed, and it's an attractive idiom) but it doesn't add up to anything much - certainly not a patch on the Gogol short story. But the Kentridge production is absolutely lovely! I do not think I have ever seen such a delightfully well-integrated visual spectacle on the operatic stage (well, I do remember a long-ago transparent illuminated cube in a City Opera production of Handel's Rinnaldo that I liked very much!) - quite beautiful.

I flew back from Cayman on Wednesday evening with an extravagantly purchased supply of light reading, having found over the years that travel passes very quickly if I have suitable books with me and not if not - first, Sara Gruen's Riding Lessons (purchase spurred by my feeling the loss of Dick Francis!), then Penny Vincenzi's trashy but highly readable An Absolute Scandal (her books are all the same as each other, and not exactly what I like - also I am sure that I have read at least one other novel about Lloyd's Names, but cannot now remember title or author - but you need good long books for plane flights, and hers are highly engrossing!), and finally (this one I finished when I got home) Thomas Perry's Silence.

In other news:

Sam Lipyste offers the aptest answer I've ever seen to the question about a typical day in one's writing life.

The Cinderella solution!

Mr. Cube says "Leave it to private enterprise"... (FT site registration required).

Theatrical things I'm looking forward to: A Behanding in Spokane (if you are a CU affiliate and haven't been checking out the Arts Initiative offerings, you should - I am always a skeptic about these institutionally sanctioned arts programs, but the discounts are really substantial and if you have flexibility on scheduling, they seem to have seats at pretty much all the big stuff you might want to see - the tickets for The Nose were only $25 apiece, and it was a sold-out show, with all the cheap seats gone very quickly and early on); and Jay Scheib's Samuel R. Delany extravaganza Bellona, Destroyer of Cities (I loved the previous piece in the trilogy, Untitled Mars (a few thoughts here)).

Friday, March 05, 2010

Panama 1910

At the Telegraph, a piece on parasols by my friend and former student Julia Hoban.

(The picture is from the Beinecke Library's lovely blog; it is a bridal photo of Grace Nail Johnson, the wife of James Weldon Johnson, in Panama in 1910.)

Thursday, March 04, 2010

Cover models

There is an Invisible Things page in the HarperCollins catalog! I have been looking every few days to see if there would be an image of the cover somewhere online, and now I can share it with you - I am laughing, don't say it, it is true that Sophie of this book looks nothing like Sophie on the cover of the last book (and probably her hair should be darker!), but it is a very nice cover, isn't it?

The book is available for pre-order at Amazon - official publication date is November 23 - but it was when it first went up some weeks ago at Amazon that I felt that it really was all happening - it is not quite so stunning as when I published my first novel, but there is still the glorious thought I have an ISBN!

Breaking news

I was at the library just now checking a few quotations in the diary of Samuel Pepys...

Usually I am very tough about including all footnotes from the get-go, but these are some opinions Pepys expressed on several plays by Shakespeare (Romeo and Juliet: "the play of itself the worst that ever I heard in my life"; Midsummer Night's Dream: "the most insipid ridiculous play that ever I saw in my life"; Twelfth Night: "one of the weakest plays that ever I saw on the stage") that I have had in my 18th-century drama lecture notes since time immemorial, and I did not have library access in Cayman as I finished the essay in January (it is a piece on Shakespeare adaptation for the forthcoming Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare in the Eighteenth Century).

It has been on my mind, due to Dunnett-reading and the pondering of Dick Francis's mortality, the question of what sort of popular fiction I really would be best suited to write. In fact there are others better suited by intellect and sensibility to write Franciscan thrillers, as sad as it makes me to admit it; but on the other hand I am almost uniquely well-suited to undertake a massive historical narrative of the scope of Dunnett's.

Earlier this morning I was reading a piece in this week's TLS about Louis XIV and thinking what a delightful milieu it would be for a grand historical series, only I am too lazy to read so many sources in French - but handling Pepys reminded me of the true delights of England in the 1660s and 1670s...

I should write a huge series, at the sweet spot between Dorothy Dunnett and Neal Stephenson, set over the first decade of the Restoration! There is theater, there is science, there are political shenanigans and financial developments of great interest, there is the Court and the City - there is Pepys as a source, and Andrew Marvell can be a character - there are all sorts of other delightful sources that I would love to be spending my time reading - there is the fact that my utter deepest passion has always been historical fiction as practiced by Mary Renault, Robert Graves, Gore Vidal - it is moot, because my next year of writing is pretty much already spoken for (the little book on style, the bread and butter of the novel) but it might be that this is my true literary calling!

My heart is pounding in my chest, it seems so momentous!...

What I can do right now: order the eleven volumes of Pepys's diary with the dollars remaining in this year's research budget!

(This edition was attractively reprinted by HarperCollins a decade ago - it may be that I have to order it from the UK, though...)

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

The dime of the sentence

Wayne Koestenbaum on Susan Sontag (in an essay titled "Perspicuous Consumption" and published in Artforum in March 2005):
Sontag was a shameless apologist for aesthetic pleasure. Accordingly, I revere her essays not only for what they say but for how they say it. The essay, in Sontag’s hands, became perilously interesting, governed by caprice masquerading as commentary. Her capriciousness, like foppish fiction-maverick Ronald Firbank’s, turned on the dime of the sentence, that unit of fidelity to the “now,” to contemporaneous duration. Sentence maven, she enmeshes me still: In her prose’s hands I’m a prisoner of desire, yearning for a literary art that knows no distinction between captive and captor. Such art can be sadomasochistic in its charm, its coldness, and its vulnerability.

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

The electric trephine

Last night I read the first hundred pages or so of The Swarm (one of the last couple left of the January Humane Society haul), but Dorothy Dunnett has spoiled me: it is not at all bad, I guess, but the proportion of 'fact' to fiction was not what I found myself in the mood for ("You see, depending on the isotope -- you do know what an isotope is, don't you?" "Any two or more atoms of a chemical element with the same atomic number but with differing atomic mass." "Ten out of ten! So, take carbon" - real actual dialogue!).

So I put it aside and delved through the miscellany and came up with a book I've been meaning to read ever since I first read Oliver Sacks's piece about it in the NYRB (open-access PDF), Frigyes Karinthy's A Journey Round My Skull. It is an extraordinary little memoir about Karinthy's experience undergoing surgery to remove a tumor from his brain. This is a bit I especially liked (it gives the feel of the book's texture):
Incidentally, I have often noticed that my gestures are not original. I hold a cigarette exactly as my father did, and I have a way of turning my head that reminds me of a certain ex-Prime Minister of Hungary who once looked round in Parliament with an expression of surprise when some of us shouted a protest from the journalists' gallery. It is only when I am alone that I become conscious of these unnatural gestures, and once recognized I find them embarrassing. It amuses me to recall my first flight in an old-fashioned, pre-war aeroplane. I was alone with the pilot, who sat in front of me. Not a soul could see what I was doing, yet I found myself sitting in a rigidly conventional attitude. Carefully placing my hand in front of my mouth, I gave an embarrassed little cough. Then I tried to find the correct position for my hands. First I laid them carelessly on the sides of the 'plane, but I soon let them fall on to my lap and began strumming absent-mindedly with my fingers, as I had seen a fashionable actor do on the stage.

"'Swill milk' scandals"

An appealing story at the Times on the newfound popularity of condensed milk:
Sweetened condensed milk came on the United States market in 1856, the brainchild of Gail Borden, a chronic culinary inventor. (He had already patented a prototype of a complete nutrition bar, which he called a “meat biscuit.”) Mr. Borden began experimenting with sterilized milk after a series of “swill milk” scandals that revealed the true contents of much of the milk then for sale in American cities: chalk powder, molasses and vermin.

Hatched band motifs

60,000-year-old etched ostrich shells (courtesy of Adela, who knows that I like pictures of eggs!).

The face of marmalade

Paddington Bear signed to represent Robertson's Golden Shred.

Monday, March 01, 2010

Experiments in reading

Candide 2.0.

The mirror and the light

Anna Murphy interviews Hilary Mantel at the Telegraph (I am hoping, of course, that she will 'fall into the pit' of a 10-year Civil War novel - that is exactly what I would love to read!):
A self-proclaimed slip of a thing when she was young, her struggles with severe endometriosis – the pain of which has often debilitated her – followed by a thyroid problem, led to her body 'rising like a loaf left in a warm place’. In the past she has written of how 'ignorable you become when you are fat – like a piece of furniture. I’m like a comic-book version of myself. My body is intent on telling the story, so my mind had better go along with it and write the memoir.’ And yet, as these words suggest, this body that has again and again betrayed her has also empowered her as a writer.

Indeed, she credits her ill health with getting her to write in the first place. She studied law at university but by her early twenties, 'My options were closing off, because the things I felt I might do, I clearly wasn’t going to be able to do. I was still without diagnosis, but I knew something was wrong with me. I felt really marginalised, and that what I needed was a project under my control.’ As she once wrote, 'Illness forces you to the wall, so the stance of the writer is forced on you.’

And so, while Mantel still struggles through days and weeks when she feels too ill to work, paradoxically her illness also seems to be her hardest and therefore her most loyal task master. As she puts it now, 'You can’t get away from dire health, but you may as well get some use out of it. It is not a question of making sense of suffering, because nothing does make sense of it. It is a question of not… sinking into it. It is talking back to whatever hurts, whether that is physical or psychological, so that it doesn’t submerge you.’