Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Killer Queen

Currently having a very happy sojourn in Cayman. Having a Kindle means I can download anything reasonably current instantaneously, and it is a special blessing this year that even though I am not in Paris or New York, I can continue to send lists of library requests to Zack at Butler's Delivery Services, so that when I am back in my office there is going to be a bumper load of books waiting for me! I read Christopher Woodward's excellent In Ruins and it made me "need" about twenty new books.

OF all the amazing Institute things this year, the one that most amazes and delights me - it is by far the most important quality-of-life factor for me - is the system that's been put together to get Columbia books to us. Most amazing of all: "Reid Hall (Paris)" is now available as a delivery option on my beloved BorrowDirect! WHOA! The books go to Delivery Services and then get packaged up with the books that Zack's staff pull from the shelves and check out to us and posted to Paris. We're streamlining as we go along; I think most of the other fellows just send a list to our on-site research officer Grant, but since I am requesting so many it makes more sense for me to do a bit more of the work first, so that I send a list of the books as author and title and the stable URL from Columbia's CLIO catalog for the internal ones; initially I had to email lists of BorrowDirect ones too, but now I can request them directly, which is much preferable.

NB I am relying more heavily on BorrowDirect than usual because of the ways the project touches on architectural history; Columbia has an excellent school of architecture, and accordingly a really superb architectural library in Avery, but it's a non-circulating collection, so anything I want from there (scan and deliver will do me an individual essay from a collection) needs to come through the BD network. Funny note on numbers (imprecise): I was surprised when Grant said that the total number of books received as of early November was under 200, but not so surprised that 50 of those are mine! I think I will continue to be responsible for about 25% of total borrowing (I am one of 15 fellows, about half aren't academics), I just have unusually extensive book needs (it is my way of being in the world).

Mostly I'm in work & exercise mode here, those are 2 great pleasures in my Cayman life, but there have been a few other highlights. Very nice dinner last night at Ragazzi, where we were generously comped as a thank-you to the Cayman Islands Triathlon Association (it was a committee meeting for post-race debrief, really my intention was to say hello and then eat on my own at the bar, but there was an empty seat and I was invited to join properly - I always volunteer at the Stroke and Stride races if I'm not participating myself, so it is not quite as freeloady as it sounds!).

On Saturday we went to the movies. The film was Bohemian Rhapsody, and I thoroughly enjoyed it (would have made it a higher priority if I'd known about the prominence of cat actors!). Not a Queen fan as such (the songs I know are great, I like them a lot, but I don't know that I ever listened to an individual album, I just know the classic rock radio hits), but feedback from friends and particularly having read Daniel Nester's thoughts on the movie at Barrelhouse made me figure I would like it, and I did, very much.

Daniel is my personal Queen guru (here's another recent interview that you might like if you liked the movie); he published two amazing books about Queen, in Soft Skull days (I met him because Richard Nash was publishing us both there c. 2004).

Here is God Save My Queen and its sequel. I highly recommend them both - alas, they are not available digitally, so I will have to wait to reread until I am home in NYC.

I was bemoaning the lack of a good real biography of Freddie Mercury, and got this good recommendation from Daniel: Matt Richards' Somebody to Love: The Life, Death and Legacy of Freddie Mercury. Which I have downloaded and hope to read soon....

Miscellaneous links: a nice story about a beloved eighteenth-century scholar and what it means to be a first-generation college student; at the Guardian, Brian Dillon on our love affair with ruins; Garth Greenwell's new story; the secrets of wombats' cube-shaped poo.

Monday, November 12, 2018

"A mathematician offers the game"

Karr's memoir book also includes a superb list of memoirs (she stars the ones that are exceptional as books as well as personal histories - I find a high degree of congruence between her tastes and my own). One that I hadn't read and immediately obtained and devoured was G. H. Hardy's heartbreaking A Mathematician's Apology, which comes with a wonderful introductory essay by C. P. Snow.

Snow on Hardy: "His life remained the life of a brilliant young man until he was old: so did his spirit: his games, his interests, kept the lightness of a young don’s. And, like many men who keep a young man’s interests into their sixties, his last years were the darker for it." And this striking description of the relationships Hardy had with a handful of young men over the years:
These were intense affections, absorbing, non-physical but exalted. The one I knew about was for a young man whose nature was as spiritually delicate as his own. I believe, though I only picked this up from chance remarks, that the same was true of the others. To many people of my generation, such relationships would seem either unsatisfactory or impossible. They were neither the one nor the other; and unless one takes them for granted, one doesn’t begin to undertand the temperament of men like Hardy (they are rare, but not as rare as white rhinoceroses), nor the Cambridge society of his time. He didn’t get the satisfactions that most of us can’t help finding: but he knew himself unusually well, and that didn’t make him unhappy. His inner life was his own, and very rich. The sadness came at the end.
The charm of Hardy's style of thought: “The proof is by reduction ad absurdum, and reduction ad absurdum, which Euclid loved so much, is one of a mathematician’s finest weapons. It is a far finer gambit than any chess gambit: a chess player may offer the sacrifice of a pawn or even a piece, but a mathematician offers the game.”

Here is Hardy on the morality of mathematics:
... there is one purpose at any rate which the real mathematics may serve in war. When the world is mad, a mathematician may find in mathematics an incomparable anodyne. For mathematics is, of all the arts and sciences, the most austere and the most remote, and a mathematician should be of all men the one who can most easily take refuge where, as Bertrand Russell says, ‘one at least of our nobler impulses can best escape from the dreary exile of the actual world’. It is a pity it should be necessary to make one very serious reservation—he must not be too old. Mathematics is not a contemplative but a creative subject; no one can draw much consolation from it when he has lost the power or the desire to create; and that is apt to happen to a mathematician rather soon. It is a pity, but in that case he does not matter a great deal anyhow, and it would be silly to bother about him.

"A stubborn little bulldog of a reviser"

Thinking memoir these days - Mary Karr's The Art of Memoir was helpful not least because of how much it encourages you to write bad pages in the wrong voice first and worry later about how it is all going to come right! "Carnality" is her term for what makes memoir come alive - can you feel it through the five senses? My own personal carnality (yes, of course there are sounds and smells and colors as well) is overwhelmingly in words and ideas....

Some highlights:
Each great memoir lives or dies based 100 percent on voice…. The secret to any voice grows from a writer’s finding a tractor beam of inner truth about psychological conflicts to shine the way. While an artist consciously constructs a voice, she chooses its elements because they’re natural expressions of character. So above all, a voice has to sound like the person wielding it—the super-most interesting version of that person ever—and grow from her core self…. However you charm people in the world, you should do so on the page.

A memoirist’s nature—the self who shapes memory’s filter—will prove the source of her talent. By talent, I mean not just surface literary gifts, though those are part of the package, but life experiences, personal values, approach, thought processes, perceptions, and innate character.
There's a good account of why Karr couldn’t write the story of her childhood in the form of a novel, and how and why The Liars' Club only came to life when she admitted that it had to be nonfiction (I heard Robert Polito tell this story, they were in the same writing group during those years, but it is nice to have a citable version from the author herself!). Maybe the most useful stretch for teaching would be Chapter 14: “Personal Run-Ins with Fake Voices.”

Karr writes extremely well about the psychological shift she experiences, with each book project, of finally finding the right voice: “The images in my head suddenly had words representing them on the page. And accompanying the words was a state of consciousness. It almost felt like I’d walked into some inner room where my lived experiences could pass through and come out as language.” Her sequel thought (and why she is a memoirist rather than a novelist, this wouldn't be true for many writers of fiction): “If the voice worked as a living contract with the reader, it also strangely bound me to candor. To make stuff up would somehow have broken the spell the voice cast over me.”

She is also particularly good on revision:
I always circle my own stories, avoiding the truth like a pooch staked to a clothesline pole, spiraling closer and closer with each revision till—with each book—my false self finally lines up eye to eye with the true one.

On the most basic level, bad sentences make bad books. Poet Robert Hass taught me you can rewrite a poem by making every single line better. I revise and revise and revise. Any editor of mine will tell you how crappy my early drafts are. Revisions are about clarifying and evoking feelings in the reader in the same way they were once evoked in me.

... other than a few instances of luck, good work only comes through revision ....

... those early pages I threw away were somehow necessary, even if I wrote past them. They were way stations I needed to visit to eliminate them from the final itinerary.

For me, the last 20 percent of a book’s improvement takes 95 percent of the effort—all in the editing. I can honestly say not one page I’ve ever published appears anywhere close to how it came out in the first draft. A poem might take sixty versions. I am not much of a writer, but I am a stubborn little bulldog of a reviser.