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House of Mirth

Updated: 2016-10-21T01:43:34.288-04:00


The dignity of decay


Here's Joseph Brodsky chatting with Sven Birkerts back in 1979. The subject is Venice, whose ample and aqueous charms the poet would later chronicle in Watermark. The main thing about Venice, explains Brodsky, "is that the place is so beautiful that you can live there without being in love." He goes on to explore the diminishing effects of all that beauty, which is intertwined with the city's perennial, time-lapse decay:
It is interesting to watch the tourists who arrive there. The beauty is such that they get somewhat dumbfounded. What they do initially is hit the stores to dress themselves--Venice has the best boutiques in Europe--but when they emerge with all those things on, still there is an unbearable incongruity between the people, the crowd, and what's around. Because no matter how well they're dressed and how well they're endowed by nature, they lack the dignity, which is partially the dignity of decay, of that artifice around them. It makes you realize that what people can make with their hands is a lot better than they are themselves.



Ever since I came across this tremendous photo, I've been on a Django Reinhardt jag (the latest one, anyway). It dates from 1946, when the Gypsy wizard made his only visit to the United States and toured with the Duke Ellington Orchestra. In the photo, Reinhardt watches several of the band's virtuosi play cards, while the great Johnny Hodges works on his patented expression of boredom. As a guest artist, Reinhardt wasn't obliged to don the white jacket and playful tie. Nor, supposedly, could he handle the colorful boxer shorts worn by his American colleagues. Discovering these florid undergarments during a train trip with the band, he dropped by Ellington's compartment to ask about them--and found the maestro sporting an even gaudier pair.Reinhardt expected to be greeted as a celebrity in America. For that reason, he didn't bother to bring one of his trademark Selmer Modèle Jazz guitars with him--surely he would be showered with instruments by American manufacturers. He was not. The disappointed Reinhardt made do with borrowed Gibson L-5, an amplified hollow-body whose fat sound was worlds away from the cutting, silvery Selmer. He considered the American guitar a giant step down, and practically swooned with gratitude when his manager showed up with the Selmer several weeks later: "At least it's got tone, you can hear the chords like you can on the piano. Don't talk to me any more about their casseroles--their 'tinpot' guitars! Listen to this, it speaks like a cathedral!" (The latter quote, along with the anecdote about the undies above, comes from this fascinating site.)In any case, Reinhardt worked wonders with the casserole. Two of his performances with the Ellington orchestra were recorded onto acetate disks, and one of them--at the Civic Opera House in Chicago on November 10--is unusually crisp and vivid for the era, thanks to the use of overhead microphones. You can hear Django's entire four-song set on Duke Ellington: The Great Concerts, Chicago 1946 (Nimbus). But his scintillating take on "Honeysuckle Rose" is also available on this YouTube video. Listen to him adapting his style to the amplified instrument, with much less vibrato and a stripped-down approach to harmony (on the acoustic, he's always buttressing his single-note fireworks with chordal accents). Check out the roller-coaster runs at 1:01, and the sheer suavity of his sound. Reinhardt hung around Manhattan for a couple of weeks when the tour was over, performing at Cafe Society Uptown, and expressed interest in playing with the bebop vanguard, including Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker. Neither were in town at the time (just imagine Parker and Reinhardt trading fours, not to mention the cloudy acetates that would have long since become a jazz collector's Holy Grail.) A number of promised engagements in California fell through. And meanwhile, Reinhardt had found America itself wanting. Charles Delaunay, the guitarist's manager and eventual biographer, put it this way:When I asked him later for his impressions of America, Django seemed to me to have lost most of his illusions. He was far from impressed by the American mentality, above all that of the women. Even the cars no longer had their old appeal for him; they were all too much alike.The bit about the cars is particularly poignant. Clearly the Art Deco curves and chrome accents of the previous decade had turned Django's head. If he had stuck around two more years, he could have seen the sui generis 1948 Tucker Torpedo roll out of the showroom. Instead the disillusioned guitarist sailed back to France in early 1947, never to return.[...]

Occupational hazards


Just as there is no reason to start blogging, there is no reason to stop. So I'll get rolling again with two savory snippets. First, an observation: there are moments when the writing life seems like a parade of small degradations. Can any other profession take such a toll on the ego? Well, yes. This is from William Knoedelseder's I'm Dying Up Here: Heartbreak and High Times in Stand-Up Comedy's Golden Era. The year is 1977, and Richard Lewis is on the road, opening for Sonny and Cher. The golden duo is paid up to $175,000 per night, while Lewis is on a weekly salary of $500. No, that's not the degrading part. This is:At the state fair in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, he had to perform outdoors at 4:00 PM with a roller coaster running full bore behind him and circus animals being paraded around a race track between him and the audience. He was supposed to do thirty minutes, but the distractions were so extreme that he raced through his routine and bolted from the stage after ten minutes, sure that it meant the end of his career. He was consoled by a grizzled patron who told him, "Trust me, kid. Bill Cosby was here last week, and he only did fifteen minutes."Next up, E. Howard Hunt. To be honest, I'm not shedding any tears for this fixture of Richard Nixon's Praetorian Guard and goon squad. I don't really care about his self-esteem. Yet I experienced just a hint of fellow feeling when I read about his 1972 visit to ITT lobbyist Dita Beard, who had implicated the Nixon Administration in some antitrust monkey business. Beard was in a Denver hospital, being "treated for a heart ailment" (if you believe Time) or simply keeping her head down. Hunt's mission was to pressure her into retracting her story. Here's the account from Mark Feldstein's Poisoning the Press: Richard Nixon, Jack Anderson, and the Rise of Washington's Scandal Culture:Hunt was warned to approach Beard in a physical disguise with a phony ID because "we don't want you traced back to the White House." To pay for his expenses, he was handed an envelope filled with cash from Nixon's reelection campaign: his flight to Denver was booked by a White House secretary. Hunt arrived at Beard's hospital room near midnight wearing makeup and an ill-fitting reddish brown wig, his voice disguised by an electronic alteration device provided by the CIA. The not-so-covert operative looked "very eerie," Beard's son remembered, with his hairpiece on "cockeyed, like he put it on in a dark car."Actually, the cockeyed toupee would seem to be the most normal part of Hunt's outfit. Reading about these Keystone Kops antics, you don't know whether to be amused or horrified--this was the so-called unitary executive in action. Hunt went on to serve 33 months in prison for his role in the Watergate burglaries, then wrote a gazillion spy novels after his release. (Gore Vidal reviewed a baker's dozen of Hunt's novels in this 1973 essay, along with, uh, related titles by Arthur Bremer and Tad Szulc. NYRB subscribers only, alas.)And now for something completely different. My review of We Were There: An Eyewitness History of the Twentieth Century recently appeared on the The Book, a literary blog launched last year by The New Republic. I enjoyed this composite portrait, but grumbled about the editor's U.K.-flavored favoritism:It is also no surprise that Fox views the century through a British lens. There is no need to complain about the preponderance of English voices, not when the likes of Robert Graves, Evelyn Waugh, Robert Byron, Ronald Blythe, Gertrude Bell, George Orwell, and James Fenton are in the choir. Still, it is a little strange to see Britain’s reconquest of the Falkland Islands in 1982 trotted out as a major event of the century and "the last of the British imperial wars." Why not include the American invasion of Grenada the following year, or the toppling of Manuel Noriega and his capture as part of Operation Nifty Package (really) in 1989?You can read the whole thing here.[...]

Double trouble: Jalopy clip, Please Please Me


The clip below, expertly shot and edited by Jay Irani, captures the very first (and rather rickety) song in the set, "My One And Only Love." Karen is right on target, spreading her mystic charms. The rest of us are taking a freestyle approach to tempo, as if we all just finished reading I'm Okay, You're Okay. Things did get a little tighter in subsequent songs--really. The highlight for me is my panicky look right before my two solo choruses. The routine I had worked out, a simple paraphrase of the melody, had vanished from my brain. I got through it anyway.

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Since this other clip is already a worldwide smash over on Facebook, I thought I would add it here as well. I was trying for a solemn, sweet, Mormon Tabernacle Choir effect. There's some poetic justice at work, since the Beatles originally conceived of this song as slow ballad, in the ripe-but-not-rotting manner of Roy Orbison. George Martin told them to speed it up: a smart move. Still, I like this approach as well. Every man his own glee club, is my motto.

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Jalopy gig, Ives: Part the Second


With alarming frequency, I have dreams in which I'm prepping for a musical performance, then show up for the actual event with no idea what I'm doing. This is, of course, just one more variation on the panicky, deer-in-the-headlights dream that most sentient human beings have from time to time. But I have it often, and in fairly grandiose forms. Sometimes I'm supposed to have composed an entire symphonic piece, something dense and gnarled and Mahlerian, with a long orgasmic adagio at the end. I have, in the dream, a very detailed sense of the music and am looking forward to conducting it, scrunching up my face in that Leonard Bernstein fashion during the big brass fanfares but mainly smiling. On other occasions I'm playing in a rock band. At least once that I can remember, I was in the Beatles. Sadly, I can't recall whether I was a fifth Beatle, in an intrusive, parasitical, Murray-the-K kind of way, or whether I was being welcomed aboard with full Fab Four privileges. (Come to think of it, there's a third option: I could have been a temp, a white Billy Preston.) But at the moment of truth, when the audience has filed in and the lights have gone down, I realize that I've screwed up. I can't do it. Either I fudge my way through the opening bars or wake up with a powerful sense of disappointment. Oh, I'm often partially dressed or naked during that final sequence. I never said I was subtle.Anyway, I kept my clothes on during the Jalopy gig last night. And despite the lack of rehearsal, and the sometimes mushy groove, and my failure to cue Seth Fahey for his clarinet solo on "Mistress and Maid" with a brisk, whiplash-inducing snap of my head, it was still pretty fun. I got through my vocal performance with only one botched line (I think). In the photo, I'm looking at some sheet music on the floor, trying to figure out exactly where we are. Karen has her hands locked together in a prayerful, Mahalia Jackson manner and is probably punching out "My One and Only Love"--the kind of song I would have considered sheer treacle in my foolish youth but now adore. It's funny, that softening of sensibility, which comes from an increasing sense that people are delicate constructions and that you don't need to poke them in the ribs to communicate. I'll get back to that. The brief film clip below is from "Dream A Little Dream of Me." Again, the Mamas and the Papas recorded this Thirties chestnut as a campy frolic, and something odd happened: it came out straight and strangely heart-lifting, with its wistful adumbration of fading stars and sunbeams and sycamore trees. We did it faster, and the clip includes just a little bit of my guitar solo.And what, you ask, does Charles Ives have to do with this? Well, last night, after beating a quick retreat from the theater, and after Nina and Nat and Caroline and Kerry told me it really hadn't gone that badly after all, I opened up Jan Swafford's biography again. I was hoping to find some more material about the hidden charms of amateur performance. Screwing up is good, right? ("A man of genius makes no mistakes," wrote Joyce, in a passage I memorized as a teenager, never imagining it would come in so handy as I pondered the daisy chain of mistakes that more or less makes up my life, forgetting that this get-out-of-jail-free card applied only to men of genius. "His errors are volitional and are the portals to discovery.") Instead, what I found in the Ives was this paragraph from the introduction the composer wrote to 114 Songs. Some of the items in this collection are virtually impossible to sing. Even Yma Sumac would have bowed her head and cried at the impacted tone clusters of "Majority." But Ives, his tongue firmly in cheek, defends the right of a song to be unsingable:A song has a few rights, the same as other ordinary citizens. If it feels like walking along the left-hand side of the street, passing the door of physiology or sitting on the curb, why not let it?... Should it not be fre[...]

Jalopy gig, Ives


Despite my shy and reclusive nature, I'll be appearing at 6:00 PM this Sunday, April 25, at the Jalopy Theater in Brooklyn. The stars of the show are David Hajdu, reading selections from Heroes and Villains, and Karen Oberlin, doing the vocal voodoo that she does so well. But I'll be supplying grace notes on the electric guitar and lap steel, along with my fellow sideman Seth Fahey on bass and clarinet. God willing, I'll also be singing on one song--something not heard in public since the early days of the Reagan administration. You can see three-quarters of the ensemble in this photo, taken by the very able Tom Stoelker, on a zany rooftop construction of girders and water pipes that resembled a set for Love, American Style.

If you're concerned about my singing (I certainly am), just bear in mind this bit from Jan Swafford's Charles Ives: A Life in Music. As a child, Ives was urged by his father to appreciate the rough-hewn aspect of amateur performance. Referring to an acquaintance's tuneless bellowing at a camp meeting, George Ives told his son: "Watch him closely and reverently, look into his face and hear the music of the ages. Don't pay too much attention to the sounds--for if you do, you may miss the music. You won't get a wild, heroic ride to heaven on pretty little sounds." Swafford goes on to add:
His father's cues turned those experiences of amateur music, especially hymn singing, into some of the elemental impressions of Charles Ives's boyhood. He could not separate the music on the page from the way people sang or played it. Even the coarseness of amateur performance seemed to Ives a sign of authenticity. The mistakes were part of the music; sometimes the mistakes were the music of the ages.
Perhaps I'm raising the bar too high here. In any case, come one, come all! It should be fun.

Sticking up for hubby


I've written before about the potential pitfalls of the Amazon customer review system: namely, the opportunities for logrolling, anonymous attacks, and nepotistic boosterism. Back in 2004, when the company's Canadian's site temporarily (and accidentally) disclosed the identities of its citizen critics, I noted:A fairly large number of authors had gotten glowing testimonials from friends, husbands, wives, colleagues and paid flacks. A few had "reviewed" their own books. The novelist John Rechy, among those caught in flagrante, pleaded the equivalent of self-defense: He was simply fighting fire with anonymous fire. Other miscreants cited the ancient tradition of self-puffery, practiced by both Walt Whitman (who wrote not one but three unsigned reviews of Leaves of Grass, and quoted them all in the second edition) and Anthony Burgess (who paid for the stunt with his job).None of these practices, which exist to a lesser degree in the archaic world of ink-and-paper journalism, will bring the world crashing down on our heads. And caveat lector is always a useful mantra to keep in mind when reading anonymous comments on any website or blog. Still, according to these pieces in the Guardian and the Telegraph, a British attorney and senior law lecturer at Cambridge University has now set the bar just a wee bit higher when it comes to customer-reviewing pratfalls. The perp, Stephanie Palmer, is married to the distinguished historian Orlando Figes. In an excess, perhaps, of conjugal zeal, she has made a habit of praising her husband's books on Amazon's UK site, signing these assessments as "Historian." Of The Whisperers: Private Life in Stalin's Russia (2008), for example, she writes: "The opportunity to hear these Russians speak of these things as individuals, in their own voices, is overwhelming, and a gift to all of us. Orlando Figes visits their ordeals with enormous compassion, and he brings their history to life with his superb story-telling skills. I hope he writes forever." On Amazon's American site, "Historian" supplied a different but no less glowing review, which included plugs for her husband's earlier books: "Figes is a great writer--anyone who has read Natasha's Dance or the multi prize-winning A People's Tragedy will tell you that." (The British reviews were promptly scrubbed from the Amazon site, but can still be seen on this cached page. For the moment, the American review remains on the site.)If Palmer had limited herself to puffing her husband's books, she probably would have gone undetected. And really, who would have blamed her for fending off his equally anonymous detractors? Unfortunately, she took to drubbing books by his academic rivals, including Robert Service, whose history of world communism, Comrades, she flicked away as impenetrable dross: "This is an awful book. It is very poorly written and dull to read." Turning to the same author's Stalin: A Biography, she engaged in a similar round of ankle-biting before recommending some alternate choices to consumers: "This is not a book that places Stalin in the context of his times, or makes his rise to power, his terror and his cult, understandable. For that it is better to go to Montefiore and to Figes's The Whisperers."Well, she got busted. For the full details, see the articles mentioned above--the short version is that after several of Palmer's victims complained, and suggested that Figes himself was the culprit, she confessed. Her husband supposedly knew nothing of her online advocacy. Amazon pulled the actual reviews off the site. No doubt some very interesting conversations have been going on in the Figes-Palmer breakfast nook. Meanwhile, the Telegraph quotes critic, novelist, and Mahler fiend Norman Lebrecht on the outcome: "This cuts to the heart of the shady pseudonymous culture of Amazon reviews. This is a real breakthrough, an unprecedented triumph for truth and transparency online." I [...]

Recording the Duke, gravity


If I start messing with YouTube videos again, I'll never stop, but I'm making an exception for this 1937 Paramount short, "Record Making With Duke Ellington." It's a delicious document for two reasons. First, it offers a rare glimpse of a stellar ensemble in the studio, rehearsing the train-whistle mimesis at the beginning of "Daybreak Express." Ellington had made his classic recording of this piece four years earlier for RCA Victor, not long before his fraying relationship with the label unraveled completely. In his notes to the Centennial Edition, Steven Lasker recounts the coup de grace: "A recording supervisor had inadvertently left the talk button on in the control booth. Not realizing that this enabled the musicians to hear him, the executive advised the engineer to get set for 'some Saturday night nigger music.' The band packed up and left." Having temporarily parted ways with RCA Victor, Ellington spent the next few years as something of an artistic itinerant, recording for a smorgasbord of small and large labels, including two set up by his manager, Irving Mills: Master and Variety. Which brings us back to the short, a promotional vehicle for Variety. I wish there was more footage of the rehearsal, with Ellington chiding the band ("This is not a freight train!") and Johnny Hodges and Freddie Guy vying for the most bored facial expression. Still, it's a precious glimpse of history--and the pep-rally narration of the recording process is nothing to sneeze at. I like the moment at 4:04, when a blob of "special plastic material" is placed into the waffle-iron-like stamping press:Given the date, the recording technology looks surprisingly spiffy. Thirteen years later, when a young George Martin began his career at EMI, he was surprised to discover the Dickensian apparatus under the hood:The routine of another recording take began again. Charlie Anderson, the engineer, began winding a large crank, and a heavy weight rose slowly to the ceiling. As he did so, Oscar walked through to tell the musicians that he wanted another performance, murmuring a few words of encouragement to them. In the control room a fresh warm wax disc was taken from the cabinet and placed on the turntable, and the engineer checked his settings. Then he shut his little window, released a brake, and spun the turntable. Slowly the weight began to fall....To my new and untutored eye, the whole set-up seemed incredibly crude. I had thought, for instance, that the use of falling weights for motive power had gone out with Galileo. The answer, it seemed, was that electric motors in those days were not reliable enough to guarantee a completely steady and "wow-free" 78 revolutions a minute. Gravity, on the other hand, knew no hiccups.The manufacturing process was even cruder, Martin recalls. Now, the factory pictured in the video is hardly a high-tech clean room. There were probably enough chemical spills and environmental hazards to give a latter-day OSHA official the cold sweats. But Oliver Twist could have worked in the facility Martin describes:Before I visited the works where the records were pressed, I expected immaculate, white-coated operatives standing by stainless steel, plastic-topped counters, pressing buttons and watching the automatic moulding of the discs. How wrong I was. Reality was a hot and dirty factory, with men stripped to the waist, bathed in sweat and forever grimy with the black carbon dust which hung in the air.[...]

Debenedetti affair


I'm late to this particular party, which has already been thoroughly explored by Judith Thurman at The New Yorker (here and here), but it's an irresistible scenario: a young Italian journalist publishes controversial interviews with a host of big names, including Philip Roth, John Grisham, Gore Vidal, Toni Morrison, Gunter Grass, and Nadine Gordimer. In several cases, these interviews include ideological spitballs aimed at American political culture in general or Barack Obama in particular. And then, lo and behold, it appears that the journalist, Tomasso Debenedetti, was making up these conversations out of whole cloth. Roth and Grisham immediately denied ever having met him, and since then, numerous other interview subjects have denounced his work as pure ventriloquism.Thurman contacted Debenedetti in Rome via cell phone. In the course of their exchange, he engaged in some hilarious ducking and weaving, while insisting that the interviews were all genuine:Debenedetti said he was completely "shocked and saddened" that all these writers would have denied the veracity of his reporting. When I asked him about the interviews with Roth and Grisham, he flatly denied having invented them, and told me that Roth and Grisham were lying for "political" reasons--because their views on Obama would make them unpopular with left-leaning intellectuals. Roth, he added, might have decided that it was impolitic to express hostility toward Obama because it might spoil his chances for the Nobel.I then read the list of other writers who had denied or questioned his conversations with them. In every case, Debenedetti asserted that he had invented nothing. When I asked if he could produce any recordings or notes from his interviews, he laughed and, admitting that it sounded like a "tired" excuse, told me that he had lost the tapes in some cases, and in others had "thrown them away."That's right, the dog ate his homework. What's most interesting to ponder at this point is Debenedetti's motive for this journalistic crime spree. He was paid peanuts for the interviews, so we can rule out filthy lucre as a driving force. There is also the modest (unless you're Oriana Fallaci) fame that accrues to an interviewer of the high and mighty, or at least extravagantly talented. But no, Thurman pointed to more fertile ground when she noted that Debenedetti represents the third generation of an Italian literary dynasty. His grandfather, Giacomo Debenedetti, was a celebrated critic, translator of Proust, and an editor at Meridiano di Roma, whose two short books on the deportation of Roman Jews by the Germans are still in print. (He was also an early booster of the poet Umberto Saba, whose daughter kept this photo of the critic in a subsequently destroyed diary.)Next came the fabricator's father, Antonio Debenedetti, the author not only of several works of fiction but of a highly regarded memoir of his own father, Giacomino. His fiction wears its postmodernist heart on its sleeve, with such titles as Monsieur Kitsch and In the Absence of Mister Plot. But he is also a regular contributor to Corriere della sera, where the prose tends to be less puckish, and may have actually offered his son a paradoxical role model in the course of this 2002 interview in Italia Libri. How, the interviewer asked, did he first get interested in writing?You could say that I began to write before I knew how to write. That will sound like a curious statement--but at the age of five, I was already assembling little notebooks out of folded paper, which I clipped together and pretended were my own books.... I dreamed of becoming a writer: in an essay I wrote in the third grade, I foresaw my own literary glory in the guise of a future Pascoli or Carducci, the authors I knew at the time. I still remember this episode well, because my essay was published in the school magazin[...]

friendship, goose eyes


A while back I was reading Phillip Lopate's Notes On Sontag, a compact mixture of criticism (some of it fairly critical, especially when it comes to Sontag's fiction) and personal reminiscence. It was the latter that really grabbed me. I had a single encounter with Susan Sontag in January 2000, about five years before she died. It was in the midst of an extraordinary cold snap in Manhattan, and her publicist had given me the incorrect address, so I found myself wandering the frigid blocks to the west of her apartment building. There were loading docks, parking lots, a factory that made products out of injected plastic--surely Sontag couldn't live in such a place? Feeling increasingly anxious, I located a pay phone, whose square metal buttons were frozen and non-responsive. I took my gloves off, warmed the buttons with my hand, dialed the publicist, and was directed to the correct address. And there Sontag, who I imagined to be a forbidding figure, was kind and welcoming. Within a few minutes, in fact, I was thoroughly irradiated by what I can only call charisma. She made you want to be her friend. This didn't mean you were her friend--only that you felt an irresistible urge to become one. And that brings me back to Lopate, who was repeatedly hit by the same urge, then left out in the cold:Over the years, whenever I would read an essay of hers praising some writer or filmmaker I loved, I would think, "My God, we have so many tastes in common! We both care about the same things! Wouldn't it be nice if we could be friends?" I would fantasize having our dinners around town or dropping in at her apartment and comparing notes on the latest cultural doings. But of course any friendship would have to be predicated on mutual respect, since I could never bring myself to play the flunky. On my end, I would also have to surrender some of my own judgmental wariness about her and trust her more. Above all, you look into the eyes of an acquaintance and see permission to take it further, or not; I never saw that permission in Sontag's eyes. I don't think she was even looking for it in my eyes. So a friendship between us never came to pass.He's correct. There is a moment in any embryonic friendship when things change. A subliminal signal is passed back and forth. You drop your guard, you feel an instinctive and possibly foolish affinity for a person who, after all, you hardly know. It's a rare and beautiful sensation. I would call it a painless version of falling in love--love plus Novocaine--except that the end of a friendship can be very rough.I was sure that Diana Athill had described something similar in Stet, her superb memoir of life in the editorial trenches. But where? I scanned the entire book in a mindless way, trying to read and not read at the same time. To my annoyance, I kept getting detained by paragraphs like this one, which details the acquisition of a stuffy British publishing operation by Athill's own firm:One of the more burdensome books we inherited from [the old firm] was a pointless compilation called Memorable Balls, a title so much tittered over that we thought of leaving it out when we were arranging our stand at The Sunday Times's first book fair. Finally one copy was shoved into an inconspicuous corner--where the Queen Mother, who had opened the fair, instantly noticed it. Picking it up, she exclaimed with delight: "Oh, what a tempting title!"Priceless. Still, I couldn't afford to read the whole book, I didn't have time, and redoubled my efforts to stop latching onto particular bits of text. I was, as I discovered in William Langewiesche's Fly By Wire: The Geese, The Glide, The Miracle on the Hudson, behaving like a goose--at least an aspiring goose. The author (who I once interviewed) reports:[B]ecause geese lack foveae (the part of the eye in humans and birds of prey[...]

plunging, Kincaid


I noted yesterday that I couldn't cut my finger without thinking of Randall Jarrell cutting his finger. For better or worse, I seem to be constant (and sometimes reluctant) communion with the books I've read. There's that great line of Milosz's: "[F]or our house is open, there are no keys in the doors, / and invisible guests come in and out at will." Interviewing the poet in 2000, I asked him about that very line, and he replied: "When writing [Milosz's ABC's], I tried to be as passive and open as possible to the haphazard appearances of persons who are no longer alive. In other words, I treated myself as an instrument that would serve to mark their existence." This is a little different from what I'm describing--he's allowing the honored dead to use him as a megaphone--but many of those departed voices are writers, so I suppose it comes to the same thing.In my previous post, for example, I mentioned my father plunging the drain in our shower. It is impossible for me to picture that scene without a passage from Nicholson Baker's A Book of Matches flitting through my brain. The drain in the narrator's shower has clogged. He grabs the nearby plunger and goes to work, with results that are almost sensually gratifying:It made the most wonderful deep squirting noises--huge sucking, bubbling gulps and gasps and noggin-snorts as several pounds of water were thrust down into the drain and forced up in a foul fountain out the overflow valve higher up on the top. I began working with the water, as if I were rocking a car when it's stuck in the driveway, sucking, pushing, sucking, pushing. At one point the drain seemed even worse, and I found that all the turbulence had caused the drain lid to turn and fall shut. When I opened it again and was more careful to center the plunger over the mouth of the drain, I got real results: after one blast, to which I gave the full might of my arms, a supernova of black fragments came up, God, and then more with a second plunge, and I knew that without chemicals, without rooting snakes, with only strength and cunning, I had made that water move. I held still for a second to listen: yes, the purling of water curving away into the pipes. Later there was even a brief vortex, like a rainbow after a storm."Noggin-snorts" might be my favorite touch here: a noggin is a person's head, of course, but also a small quantity of booze. It's one of those multiplex metaphors, staggering around with its shirttails out. The drain is a drunk; no, the drain is a drink. I also like the rooting snake and the rainbow--bits of biblical frosting. But why should this scene have stuck in my head, along with the narrator's earlier, shower-related disclosure that he likes to sing "Eight Days A Week" to the drone of the ceiling fan? It's not logical. Nor is the fact that I've been haunted by the first sentence of Jamaica Kincaid's The Autobiography of My Mother ever since I read it in 1996: "My mother died at the moment I was born, and so for my whole life there was nothing standing between myself and eternity; at my back was always a bleak, black wind." The first half, up to the semicolon, is bad and sad. The second half is frightening, both for what it says and how it says it. What I mean is, there's a formal perfection to those words: "bleak" and "black" have an almost familial relationship, very appropriate to the matter at hand, while the rhyme of "back" and "black" seals up the sentence in a kind of sonic casket. None of this would matter if Kincaid hadn't cut right to the heart of a scary, permanent emptiness. Beyond repair. At moments of major or minor desolation, the sentence tends to float into view.[...]

Charles Darwin = Travis Bickle, cut, stato d'animo


Last night I was walking down the hallway, and for no particular reason I grabbed The Autobiography of Charles Darwin off the shelf. Well, perhaps there was a reason: I had recently watched Master and Commander with a feverish teenager, and the scenes in the Galápagos Islands--shot, to my amazement, on location, with authentically freaky lizards and flightless cormorants--must have stuck in my head. I opened the Darwin to page 10, and found this recollection of the author's trigger-happy youth:When at Cambridge I used to practice throwing up my gun to my shoulder before a looking glass to see that I threw it up straight. Another and better plan was to get a friend to wave about a lighted candle, and then to fire at it with a cap on the nipple, and if the aim was accurate the little puff of air would blow out the candle. The explosion of the cap caused a sharp crack, and I was told that the tutor of the college remarked, "What an extraordinary thing it is, Mr Darwin seems to spend hours in cracking a horse-whip in his room, for I often hear the crack when I pass under his windows."As any musket geek will tell you, this Victorian Travis Bickle was firing his weapon with a percussion cap, but no ammunition. The nipple is a hollow metal passage at the rear of the barrel, through which the flame from the percussion cap would ordinarily travel and ignite the main powder charge. Sigh. Later in life, a disgusted Darwin gave up hunting. It wasn't the sight of blood that turned him off. It was the discovery of a small bird on the forest floor, which had been shot the day before and was now just barely hanging on. Hope was not the thing with feathers. Darwin, who loved nothing better than to gun down an entire posse of snipe in one go, resolved to hunt no more.For me, on the other hand, the sight of blood is an ongoing problem. Two weeks ago, I gashed my right pinky while washing out a drinking glass. The glass was an old one, from the Fifties, and came apart very neatly into two sharp-edged fragments. I bled and bled, even as I applied pressure with dozens of paper towels and tried to quell my racing, wimpy heart. A phrase from one of Randall Jarrell's letters came to mind--he had cut his own finger, and exclaimed at the cheerful red color of the blood. Do I live so vicariously through books that I really needed to borrow my reaction from somebody else? Perhaps. (I just thumbed through Randall Jarrell's Letters, and couldn't find the passage: drat. But I was floored once again by his 1951 letters to Mary Von Schrader, who he would marry the following year. Such love! Such elation! A small blaze of wit and metaphor-making seems to be burning continuously in his head--maybe an inspirational flame was traveling through a nipple at the base of his hypothalamus. It's a self-portrait of a happy man. You don't encounter so many of them. Plus this penetrating sentence, which made me wonder about myself: "Really complete egotism is so hard on you because you feel that everybody else is, essentially is or should be, like you--so you're alone, really alone.")Anyway, I applied pressure. The bloody towels accumulated in the wastebasket. Nina got me to sit down, dabbled an antibiotic ointment on the gash, then dressed the whole thing very professionally with gauze and tape. A subsequent trip to the doctor was anticlimactic: no sutures necessary, the cut would close on its own (and it has, there's a pink, innocent, V-shaped patch of skin on my finger.) For a few days, however, I wasn't allowed to get the dressing wet. I showered with a plastic bag wrapped around my right hand, which I held aloft at all times, resembling a cranky, hirsute Statue of Liberty. And for some reason this ridiculous image began to strike me as meaningful. Representative of [...]



(image) I'm immersed in NBCC reading, but every now and then this cheating heart picks up a non-NBCC title for some spiritual refreshment. This morning it was Elif Batuman's The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them, which looks right up my alley (maybe in March). I was relishing a passage about Tolstoy and Chekhov, the two mighty poles of Russian letters, roughly representing wild-eyed spirit and unflappable matter, when I came across this gem:
The last meetings between Tolstoy and Chekhov took place in Yalta, where Chekhov had gone to die. One day in Yalta, Tolstoy put his arm around Chehkov. "My dear friend, I beg of you," he said, "do stop writing plays!" Another time, when the two writers were gazing at the sea, Tolstoy demanded, "Were you very profligate in your youth?" Chekhov was speechless with embarrassment. Tolstoy, glaring out at the horizon, announced, "I was insatiable!"

A little more on Salinger


I'm not actually a Salinger obsessive and don't have much to add to my previous post. However, the New Yorker round-robin of Salinger pieces did include this very interesting paragraph, in Lillian Ross's brief remembrance:
At one point during the more than half century of our friendship, J.D. Salinger told me he had an idea that someday, when "all the fiction had run out," he might try to do something straight, "really factual, formally distinguishing myself from the Glass boys and Holden Caulfield and the other first-person narrators I've used." It might be readable, maybe funny, he said, and "not just smell like a regular autobiography." That main thing was that he would use straight facts and "thereby put off or stymie one or two vultures--freelancers or English-department scavengers--who might come around and bother the children and the family before the body is even cold."
It's a tantalizing thought: Salinger Unplugged, with all the deflector shields down and the inconvenient facts to wrestle with. Of course it's possible that this very manuscript exists, stowed down in the bombproof vault with the hundreds of unpublished stories and the author's own, proprietary sequel to Catcher in the Rye, in which the middle-aged hero teaches English and Industrial Arts at a Connecticut high school. I hope it does.

When you think of it, Salinger's recipe isn't so different from what Philip Roth dreamed up for The Facts. The problem in that case was that Roth (for whom the fiction had at least temporarily run out) couldn't quite find the right tone. His sworn testimony sounded oddly sedated--only Zuckerman's acerbic afterword got the electricity flowing again, meanwhile muddying the very waters this "factual" account was supposed to clarify.

Finally: for an interesting take on Salinger's work (and Spike Milligan's) as a reaction to post-WWII shell shock, stop by Baroque in Hackney.

Palms, Logan


I just flew in from Abu Dhabi, and boy, my arms are tired. Before Abu Dhabi it was Mumbai, where the long list of forbidden weaponry on the plane included not only bazookas and hand grenades but pickles and pickling spices. Before Mumbai it was a resort on the Arabian Sea. As we approached the resort in a rented car, the terrain grew more and more tropical, and the road itself reverted to loose gravel, then dirt. The vegetation was thick but much of it seemed desiccated and drooping--strange, since there had been no drought. I saw, for the first time, somebody using a small elephant as a domestic animal, to move what looked like construction supplies. We approached a low wall of cinder blocks. Beyond it, we assumed, would be a South Indian Club Med. But no, beyond the wall was the exact same vegetation, and a row of bamboo bungalows, in one of which we watched Robocop later that night, as the rain pattered on our bamboo roof and the movie was interrupted by numerous commercials for skin-lightening compounds.The next morning, in the hazy sunlight, I studied the ferns, the low deciduous trees I couldn't identify, and especially the palms. Despite the rain last night, they looked thirsty, in need of assistance--they brought to mind Bellow's famous line in Humboldt's Gift, where "the very bushes might have been on welfare." Yet in some odd way, they compelled your respect. And just the other day, I came across a perfect, metaphor-mad description of them by Henry James, who was discussing the Florida variety in The American Scene. Buckle your seatbelts, folks:I found myself loving, quite fraternally, the palms, which had struck me at first, for all their human-headed gravity, as merely dry and taciturn, but which became finally as sympathetic as so many rows of puzzled philosophers, dishevelled, shock-pated, with the riddle of the universe.Human-headed gravity--exactly what I have been aiming for all these years. Now, I cannot tell a lie: I didn't encounter that Henry James quote in The American Scene itself. It occurs in "The State with the Prettiest Name," from William Logan's latest, Our Savage Art: Poetry and the Civil Tongue. I know what you're thinking: more critical mayhem. But what struck me, as I read through the tongue-lashing assessments of our wittiest critic, is that many of Logan's best lines are directed at poets who have earned his exasperated admiration. Take John Ashbery. Logan has sometimes grumbled about Ashbery, whose playful convolutions of the American language have poured out, with hardly a pause for station identification, since the appearance of Turandot and Other Poems in 1953. It's like one long, sad, waking dream; it's like a game of tiddlywinks that goes on for fifty years. But in a single paragraph, Logan nails his signal strength (his absolute mastery of the American idiom, which he plays like a pipe organ) and his weakness (he can't stop playing, like E. Power Biggs with a stash of pep pills). I will now yield the floor to Logan:John Ashbery was born when Pola Negri was still box office, yet his poems are more in touch with the American demotic--the tongue most of us speak and few of us write--than any near-octogenarian has the right to be. He has published more than a thousand pages in the last fifteen years, almost twice as many as Wallace Stevens wrote in half a century--and Stevens was no slouch. Ashbery's poems are like widgets manufactured to the most peculiar specifications and in such great numbers the whole world widget market has collapsed.It's that final sentence that kills me: perfect. I will quote just one more, on Frederick Seidel, whose elegant, icky verse would sooner die than beguile the reader. Write[...]

J.D. Salinger is gone


I just heard the news about the death of J.D. Salinger at 91. The author of The Catcher in the Rye and one of my favorite portraits of callow self-fabrication, "De Daumier-Smith's Blue Period," had been in seclusion so long that I tended to forget he was still alive: he seemed to occupy some silent Purgatorio in Cornish, N.H., to which the occasional plucky journalist ventured in hopes of ambushing him at the general store. Yet he never vanished from the public consciousness. His detractors wrote him off as a precious purveyor of "New Yorker fiction." (Even John Cheever, often lumped in the same group, let fly at Salinger during a bad hair day in 1961, ranting at William Maxwell's proposed cuts to a recent story submission: "You cut that short story... and I'll never write another story for you or anybody else. You can get that Godamned sixth-rate Salinger to write your Godamned short stories but don't expect anything more from me." In his journal, however, Cheever was quick to recant, noting that "I admire Salinger... and I think I know where his giftedness lies and how rare it is.") In more recent years, memoirs by Joyce Maynard (the author's teen concubine in the early 1970s) and Margaret Salinger (the author's daughter) have smudged his reputation further. The New York Times has conveniently compressed these disclosures, along with Salinger's spiritual dabblings, into a single, savory paragraph:Mr. Salinger pursued Scientology, homeopathy and Christian Science, according to the daughter. He also drank urine, and sat in a Reichian orgone box, Ms. Salinger wrote. He spoke in tongues, fasted until he turned greenish and as an older man had pen pal relationships with teenage girls.So much for the life (and let's recall that Saul Bellow and many other heavy hitters did their time in the orgone box during the Fifties). That leaves the work. Salinger's books have never stopped selling--especially Catcher in the Rye, which remains a touchstone for chafing adolescents worldwide. And he continues to earn praise from other quarters, too, some of them quite unexpected. When I covered an appearance by J.M.G. Le Clezio last April, I was surprised to hear that the Hermit of Cornish had a prominent spot in the Noble laureate's pantheon:At this point the two writers shared a moment of lexicological bliss (Gopnik indicated a preference for the big illustrated Larousse). Then they moved on to another of Le Clézio's early infatuations: J.D. Salinger, who Gopnik described as "one of the local gods" at The New Yorker. What the French author loved about Salinger was, in a sense, what he loved about the dictionary: an accumulation of luminous details, and the feeling that "each word is a world by itself." He had particular praise for "A Perfect Day for Bananafish," which he called "one of the best short stories ever written."ADDENDUM: My pal David Shields has been working on a secret biographical project for some time. Now Nikki Finke has finally revealed his subject (which turned out not to be David Hasselhoff after all): yes, folks, it's J.D. Salinger. The book has been assembled in tandem with an equally hush-hush documentary by 37-year-old screenwriter Shane Salerno. You can get all the details here.[...]

Card trick


My piece on Vladimir Nabokov's The Original of Laura has been posted over at the Los Angeles Times Book Review. I found the book something of a damp fizzle. I'm glad Dmitri Nabokov didn't accede to his father's wishes and destroy the manuscript (actually a pile of index cards), since it's fascinating to see what was on Nabokov's mind during his final months: death and its opposite, sex. But to my mind, Chip Kidd's lavish design has the strange effect of diminishing The Original of Laura. You pick up the 277-page volume expecting it to contain an actual book, and what you find is a fragment: a toothpick pretending to be a tree. I began this way:
(image) In the fall of 1976, a newspaper contacted Vladimir Nabokov in his Swiss refuge and asked him which books he had recently read. He responded with three typical titles: Dante's "Inferno" (in Charles Singleton's deliciously literal translation), a big, fat book about butterflies and his own work-in-progress, "The Original of Laura."

The latter project had preoccupied him over the summer, despite a serious illness. It was, he told his correspondent, "completed in my mind." The revisions went on while he was confined to a hospital bed, a febrile process he describes in some detail in his "Selected Letters": "I must have gone through it some fifty times and in my diurnal delirium kept reading it aloud to a small dream audience in a walled garden. My audience consisted of peacocks, pigeons, my long dead parents, two cypresses, several young nurses crouching around, and a family doctor so old as to be almost invisible."
You can read the rest here. To judge from this handy roundup in the paper's Jacket Copy blog, most critics seem to share my disappointment. Aleksander Hemon, who reviewed the book in Slate, went one step further, characterizing the very publication of the TOOL as a barrel-scraping betrayal of its author: "It is safe to say that what is published as the novel titled The Original of Laura (Dying Is Fun) is not a result Nabokov desired or would welcome.... [The book] can't escape the musty air of an estate sale: The trinkets that piled up in the attic; the damp books from the basement; the old man's stained cravat; the lonely figurines that used to be part of a cherished set; the mismatched, overworn clothing -- all are brought out in the hope that there might appear a buyer for those sad objects, someone blinded by literary nostalgia and willing to rescue the family possessions from the waste basket."

My three minutes, my two cents


The NBCC threw itself a nifty 35th anniversary bash a few weeks ago. The highlights were speeches by two of the earliest winners, John Ashbery (antic) and E.L. Doctorow (gloomy), as well as shorter addresses by a cavalcade of former board members. I was among that cavalcade, toward the end, when there was no time left. That obliged me to speak very quickly, with no pauses between the words, like the man disclosing the side effects on the Viagra commercial. (If you have an erection lasting longer than four hours....) My remarks have now been posted over at Critical Mass, along with those of many other board members. I'll paste in the mini-speech here, but I urge visitors to check out the proceedings of the entire evening, including video of Ashbery and Doctorow:
According to tonight's program, I'm batting for the 21st century. In fact I was on the NBCC Board back in the storied Nineties. I left the board in 2001, spent some time in detox, and have now fallen off the wagon again. So here I am.

Anyway, I think this positions me nicely to note the sea change that has taken place here over the past decade. During my first tenure on the board, things had gotten a little sleepy. This is no criticism of my excellent and energetic colleagues of that era. But I think we all had a premonition that the old world of print and Sunday book supplements was about to go the way of the dodo. None of us knew exactly how fast that transformation would take place. Nobody operating a butter churn foresees the advent of margarine, either. Before we knew it, the Age of Margarine was upon us--not golden, but bright yellow, and full of suspicious adulterants.

Now, I know that sounds awfully negative. So I will change tack, retire the margarine metaphor, and argue that the NBCC is now a much more vibrant organization than it was ten years ago. The Internet, which was supposed to torpedo what was left of our trade and leave us on par with thimble makers, has given the conversation about books a massive shot in the arm.

Yes, the dust is still settling. The shrinkage or outright disappearance of the old reviewing outlets is painful to watch. The drastic redefinition of those cherished terms, professional and amateur, has given many a seasoned critic a bad case of the psychological bends. But the audience has multiplied, and gone global, and the barriers to entry for a young critic have fallen. So I'm going to look on the bright side, and argue that the best work still rise to the top--like cream, or margarine. I promise.
Afterwards, while I fought my way toward the wine-and-cheese area, a member of the audience told me margarine was a very, very bad substance. I countered with a fact I had just learned from Nicholson Baker's The Anthologist (I think): unsalted butter often has butter flavoring in it. And with that, the War of the Condiments was over.

"We long for each other...."


Last night I had a delightful conversation with Lore Segal. We sat before a small but attentive audience (including the author's grandson, who looks to have inherited her curly hair) and she patiently fielded my questions, which I read like an automaton from the sheet of paper on my lap. I loved hearing her voice. Segal has said she was "naturalized" in Manhattan, and of course she spent much of her childhood in Britain, but to my ear there is always a hint of Vienna in her inflections. At the back of the room, Kelly Burdick from Melville House shot this video clip. The audio isn't so great, but you'll get the gist of it.

(object) (embed)

I wanted to transcribe just one tiny bit, about six minutes into the clip, where we're talking about the abundance of parties in Lucinella. The characters, mostly literary types, spend much of this slender book tramping from one small, crowded, inebriated party to another. It's a natural setting for satire--how else do you write about a herd of poets in their peculiar corral?--but Segal was at pains to establish that her aims were not entirely satirical. She began with a comical quote about party-going from Emma, but then continued: "And yet, our desire for each other... well, the reason we go to parties is that we long for each other. Which is not a satirical point: that's for real. That's true. And it's funny."

Chatting with Lore Segal


Certain writers are easy to characterize. They're quotable. What they do, they do in every paragraph, every phrase--you could clone the entire novel from a stray syllable. Others are more elusive. Their quicksilver charms make it hard to pin them down, and to get the real flavor of the novel, you have no choice but to read the whole thing. No substitutions accepted. Anyway, Lore Segal belongs to the second group. On at least one prior occasion I've written about her work--the fluid, funny, heartbreaking Shakespeare's Kitchen--and am now reading Lucinella, an earlier novella that Melville House has just reprinted. It's about poetry, parties, herd behavior, sex, and the infinitely fragile human ego. (To write about such things, of course, you must have a sturdier ego than you think.) Here's a bit about Zeus, who's just a guy but also a god, at least when you're in love with him:I used to laugh at gods and kings. I'd imagined Zeus muscle-bound, stupid with power, rattling his enormous thunder, unable to control the whims and spectacular tempers of his oversized relations, but in my bed his mind moves feelingly. It's just that mine, being Jewish and from New York, leaps more nimbly, which he enjoys. I sense his smiling in the darkness. When I get silly he reaches out laughingly to fetch me home to good sense and we make love again, sleep awhile, and more love and more talking.More love, more talking: maybe that was Segal's original title. The narrator is happy and in a hurry to convey her happiness, hence the missing verb in the last clause. Who needs it? But two pages later she's less happy, anticipating the end, making a clumsy stab at defensive irony, which never works when you need it most:I'm crying for the day when Zeus will not be holding me like this, or will be holding me like this while I am scheming to inch myself out of the constriction of his arms. He doesn't ask me what's the matter. Think of all the women, mortal and the others, who've wept in Zeus's arms and he perhaps, when he was young, in theirs. He strokes my hair and keeps holding me. My tears grow cozy. For sophistication's sake I'll tell you the nature of ardor is to cool, but I can't believe it.Aside from the sheer, elliptical speed of her narratives--Segal simply leaves out whatever isn't interesting--her brand of irony may be the most distinctive thing about her work. Her nimble, Jewish, New York-by-way-of-Vienna mind inclines her toward gentle mockery. Yet her ardor is genuine: she treats love as fact, not delusional fiction, and three cheers for that. This is all by way of saying that I'll be chatting with Lore Segal this coming Monday night at McNally Jackson Books in Soho. Well, mostly she'll be reading and taking questions from the audience, but in the brief interlude between those activities, I'll be asking her about Lucinella and other more general matters. More details here. Come one, come all--not for my questions, but for her answers![...]



(image) Walking home this morning after a meeting, I came across this splendid specimen stuck to the sidewalk. There were plenty of leaves to choose from, heaped up in their damp, golden anonymity, but this one caught my eye. I liked its air of indecision. Not quite red, not quite yellow, clinging to its last-ditch quotient of green. Mostly dead, but incrementally alive. Or perhaps not, I'm probably projecting there. It's hard to avoid the temptation with leaves, they're metaphorical magnets. And by coincidence, I just came across an excellent example of leafy metaphor-making on Patrick Kurp's Anecdotal Evidence. He's quoting from a poem I've never read, R.S. Thomas's "Autumn," which is actually an argument against the sort of anthropomorphic mischief I've just been engaging in:
Happy the leaves
burnishing their own
downfall. Life dances
upon life's grave.
It is we who inject
sadness into the migrant’s
cry. We are so long
in dying -- time granted
to discover a purpose
in our decay?

With a grain of salt


When a writer dies, you look at the work and see valedictory notes everywhere. Last week I picked up Aldo Buzzi's A Weakness for Almost Everything (a great title, especially for a man who could become downright rhapsodic about the correct way to dress a salad) and stopped when I came to this passage about his mother, a painter who kept her talent under wraps:Some small paintings of hers keep me company at home, although it's painful to recall that while she was alive she was not appreciated as she deserved. Who knows where those paintings will be in a few years, I think, if they still exist--in what houses, entrusted to whose hands. Best not to think about it.One painting shows the window of the room in Via Santo Garovaglio, in Como, where I was born, open onto the looming face of the mountain of Brunate, in shadow, where some black swallows are flying.I must have seen some of those paintings during my visit. There were small landscapes on the wall in the living room, and more in the bedroom, but it didn't occur to me to ask who had painted them. Meanwhile, that brings me to another paragraph in the same book, where he bids his native city goodbye as a passenger on a celestial locomotive, ending (as must we all) in silence:The train leaving Como travels slowly along one of the main streets of the city, as if it were in America; the jolts are muffled by the red velvet of first class, with the embroidered cover for the head. Farewell, royal city of missoltitt, and town of the onions. Farewell, my fellow citizens, freshwater sailors and mountaineers of the plain. The Palazzo Terrragni, rationalist dream of the Como architect Terragni, passes wavering before my eyes; rising steeply behind it is the mountain of Brunate, Como's arcropolis, where the place of the Parthenon is occupied by the former annex of the Hotel Milano, whose facade, faded by the distance, sticks up continuously above the roofs of the city. The duomo goes by, and the famous frog, carved in the fifteenth century by the brothers Tomaso and Jacopo Rodari (by which of the two we will never know) and decapitated by a fanatic with a hammer in 1912; which should be seen not, as some believe, as a mark of the level reached by the lakewater during a big flood, or as a descendant of the large tadpole carved at the bottom of one of the holy-water basins in the duomo, but, as the back legs, which seem to be extended in a spasm, clearly indicate, as the prefiguration of the frog of Galvani, who was to open the way to the artificial electric organ, later called appareil a colonne, then appareil a pile, and finally pile. And here again are the white neon lights of the ancient Cinema Plinio (the Elder), and, almost at the end of the street, the mysterious sign of the Silenzio restaurant: as if the blessed god of silence himself, the boy Arpocrates, were to suddenly appear among the laid tables in his usual pose, with the index finger of his right hand on his lips.The passage is beautiful. Perhaps it wanders too far afield during the froggy bit, and Ann Goldstein, who has done an otherwise elegant job, introduces an error when she talks about the "artificial electric organ"--an image that made me think of a lounge player hunched over his B-3. Here's the deal: Galvani's experiments led his occasional adversary Alessandro Volta to invent the first electric battery. Volta had based his design on the shock-inducing apparatus of the torpedo fish or ray, which he considered to possess an organe electrique naturel--h[...]

Dream house


In my never-ending battle with the torrent of books, I was about to take the major step a few days ago of throwing out a galley: Letters of Ted Hughes. I've got the finished book, and disposing of the galley would free up a few extra inches of floor space in my office. Alas, I started skimming: mistake. First I came across this, from a 1961 letter to the newly married Daniel Weissbort: "Marriage is a nest of small scorpions, but it kills the big dragons. I'm an advocate, so have nothing but congratulations & good wishes, my very best wishes, for both of you." Hmmm. With advocates like these.... On the opposite page, he's trying to make up with Leonard Baskin, who illustrated many of his books. (Which reminds me, I recently declined to throw away a copy of Baskin's Figures of Dead Men, which had been sitting in my old bedroom at my parents' house since 1978. Oh boy.) Anyway, Baskin, who's seen here with the poet, clearly had a rocky visit to the Hughes-Plath menage:Ever since you went I've been wondering if you'd write, since that last day was unpleasant for us too. If you're still curious to know the cause--or what was probably the main cause--it was that Sylvia hadn't been able to do any work all week in the middle of her first longish work which had been going like gunpowder up to that point, and she was upset at the same time at taking no part in your visit except to cook and so on. So your sharp remarks to her on that Friday hit her with a special irony.Just a little later in the same letter, Hughes explains that he and Plath have fled the literary life in London (which he elsewhere defines as "a chance juxtaposition of individuals who wish to be known as 'writers' held in a semblance of community by the watchfulness of their mutual envy and malice.") Where they have fled to is a property in Devon. Yes, the two poets have pooled their resources and bought a house with 6 bedrooms, a stable with 3 stalls, a spare 2 room cottage, a big vegetable garden, an extensive orchard and 2 1/2 acres of land. Also a thatched roof. It's an old farm--part of it 11th Century. There's a prehistoric tumulus or fort-mound in the orchard. It's a knock-out. We're having the owner clear out the population of woodworm and death-watch beetles before we move in, this weekend.I know, I know, the place was probably tumbling down, and the insect population had been breeding in the beams for the last millennium. Still, it sounds like quite a retreat, doesn't it? They even got a tumulus at no extra charge. The description made me envious, as it must every New Yorker, grateful for every miserable square foot of living space. It also made me ponder my own dream house, which is not nearly so extensive. It seems to be located in a pine grove, simply because I like the smell of pines and the springy feeling of walking on the fallen needles. No stable. An orchard would be nice--pears and apples--as would a flat grassy area in back, cleared of deer ticks and other pests by the Army Corps of Engineers. I could write sestinas at the kitchen table. The living room, the biggest in the house, would be rustic but also modern and comfortable, like the interior of Davy Crockett's cabin with high-speed Internet access. I sound like I'm joking, but I'm not. Outside at night I would be spared the shouting and high-decibel flirtation from the singles bars out on Second Avenue. Just quiet, and velvety darkness, and a solid complement of stars on cloudless nights, which I could [...]

Aldo Buzzi 1910-2009


I was terribly sad to learn that Aldo Buzzi died earlier today in Milan. The news shouldn't have surprised me--he was a very old man, less than a year shy of 100, and he had grown weaker over the last few months. I met him only once, a meeting I described not long ago on this blog. As I said then, it was a privilege to chat with him, a privilege to receive his letters in their spidery, errant, characteristic script. Most of all I felt lucky to have read his work, and to have translated a tiny fraction of it. I will miss him. I will miss, too, the reassuring sensation that he was alive and reasonably well on Via Bassini, still relishing the small things he chronicled so beautifully during his last three decades as a self-described "young writer."

ADDENDUM: The Washington Post has run a lovely and informative obituary by Emily Langer. It includes a comment from me (heartfelt, if none too eloquent) and one of the photos Nina took during our visit. I was especially touched by this final paragraph. Six years later, I found his apartment simply furnished but not sparse: it seemed to contain those objects that mattered to Aldo and not much else. Anyway:
As Italian newspapers noted after his death, Mr. Buzzi was appreciated less at home than abroad. A reporter for the Rome-based La Repubblica recalled meeting Mr. Buzzi at the author's home in Milan and finding the 91-year-old Buzzi living in unexpectedly sparse surroundings. "This is a house that has been emptied out a little at a time," he told the visitor, "... full of holes, like the memory of an old man."

Blogging: my two cents


Earlier this month, I participated in a kind of virtual seminar, "The Function of Book Blogging at the Present Time." The moderators, Patrick Kurp and D.G. Myers, were very tolerant of my lollygagging ways, and eventually posted my thoughts at A Commonplace Blog, cheek-by-jowl with responses from Terry Teachout, Frank Wilson, Mark Athitakis, and various other worthies. Here's a sampling of what I had to say:
Q: How do you respond to this statement? "Blogging is just another hobby, like stamp collecting or hockey."

A: Or like fishing, chess, cooking, sex, music, scrimshaw, gardening.... The statement is quasi-true but its assumptions are pathetic: that anything you do outside of your professional life is trivial. Many people are at their happiest and most fulfilled when practicing their so-called hobbies.

Q: How has the experience of blogging changed the way you write?

A: It hasn't.

Q: What about the sometimes vicious nature of the beast?--the ad hominem attacks, and the widespread tendency to confuse harsh disagreement with such ad hominem attacks.

A: The Internet is real life on steroids--unless it's not. I don't think people are any kinder or more vicious online than they are in real life, but the remote nature of their interactions, and the absence of adult supervision, turns many human beings into assholes. Even Pericles might have behaved like a frat boy under such circumstances. The great thing is that you can delete comments, trash emails, and generally ignore the stuff that bothers you. I was on a panel with Lee Siegel a couple of years ago, and he was complaining about the coercive nature of the Web. I said that I didn't find it any more coercive than the radio. If you don't like it, pull the plug.

Q: Some say the golden age of blogging has already passed, that blogging has failed to fulfill its early promise; and the evidence which is given is that no one becomes famous from blogging any longer. Do you agree?

A: This question made me smile. Blogging is in its infancy, still (as my father likes to say) on the nipple. In fifty years, to pass the time in our warren of underground, climate-controlled fallout shelters, we can muse over whether blogging lived up to its delightful promise. Hell, we can blog about it. As for the fame thing--outside of gossip, gadgets, and porn, the mighty Internet trifecta, bloggers tend to address a small audience. The level of fame is minuscule. So the lack of fame is meaningless.
You can read my entire thing here. And please do check out the entire series of thoughtful, mostly non-ornery responses.