Posts from November 2012

November 27th, 2012

Catherine Aird!

“There are certain days,” an old friend once said with soft-spoken certainty, “when quite simply nothing else will do but a spot of murder.” This has been one of those days.

A bright, seasonable, obligation-free day calls for slow, hours-long treks with the dogs through forest stands and up along windswept hilltops, with red-tailed hawks idling far overhead. But a raw, rainy, obligation-free day almost necessitates a deep couch, sleeping dogs pressed close, and murder mysteries. And not just any kind of murder mystery; who would want to read something dark and edgy on such a day, when the elements themselves are quite dark and edgy enough?

No, there are days when nothing else will do but a spot of the great Catherine Aird.

That’s the pen name for Kinn Hamilton McIntosh, who was born in 1930 in the Yorkshire town of Huddersfield (perhaps more famous today for its, um, association with one of the stars of YouTube) and took to writing murder stories with the no-nonsense competence that tends to characterize all things Yorkshire. She invented a county called Calleshire with all the stereotypical British trappings – deep streams, fair days, a castle, plenty of idiosyncratic locals, and, in the genre’s one recurring act of science fiction,plenty of interesting occurrences.In short, murder happens in Calleshire – often, and often ingeniously.

To watch over all this mayhem she invented Detective Inspector C. D. Sloan, an unflappable married man with unremarkable features, unremarkable height, and unremarkable ways – but with one unerring trait: he notices things. In fact, he notices so much that it takes a little while for the reader to realize that he’s noticing everything, all the time. And such is Aird’s easy skill as a narrator that this never feels forced or annoyingly Sherlockian, even when Sloan is paired with his somewhat dim-witted sidekick Detective Constable Crosby, who can always be relied upon for a good punch-line, as in this autopsy scene from 1982’s Last Respects:

“His physical identity’s no problem.”

“Good,” said Sloan warmly.

“He’s male,” said Dr. Dabbe, obligingly beginning at the very beginning.

Sloan wrote that down. The Genesis touch, you could say. “And how old, Doctor?”

Surely that did come after sex, didn’t it? “About twenty-three,” said the doctor promptly. “Give or take a year or two either way.”

Sloan looked down at his notebook and wondered what came next in the pathologist’s logical sequence after sex and age.

“As to his race …” began Dr. Dabbe cautiously.

“Yes?” Perhaps a seaman from an alien country had found landfall on an English shore after all …

“Caucasian,” said Dabbe, reaching for his surgical gown.

Detective Constable Crosby jerked his head dismissively. “Oh, he’s a foreigner then, is he?”

See what else is going on in that scene, though, the playful way Aird almost acts like a commentator on her own proceedings, nudging and winking at her readers from the sidelines with those bits about sex and seamen from alien countries. Her Sloan virtually never gives voice to his own most wry speculations, but we the readers spend enough time inside his head to quite like the man – and to feel keenly his own careful, observational view of even ordinary interactions, as when he’s talking with his boss about a fairground murder in 1981’s Passing Strange:

“And she was last seen alive when, Sloan?” asked Leeyes. “Do you know the time for sure?”

“Almost,” said Sloan. There was a subtle distinction in the superintendent’s last sentence that might have been lost on some officers. Sloan had noticed it, though. Superintendent Leeyes hadn’t used the royal ‘We’ yet. The case and all its shortcomings were still Sloan’s.

In fact, it’s the nuances of her dialogue that form the chief pleasure of re-reading Aird. Her talk sparkles – and it does so in some of the least likely places, like when her two bluff, reticent policemen are discussing the deceased’s neighborhood in 1980s crackerjack Some Die Eloquent:

“It’s very respectable up there,” conceded Sloan.

“Exactly,” said Leeyes, who beyond a certain point did not equate money with respectability. Not new money, that is. In the superintendent’s book, His Grace the Duke of Calleshire could have as much as he liked. That was different.

“In fact,” persisted Sloan, “my wife would like us to think of moving that way now that …”

Leeyes grunted. “A nice quiet neighborhood.”

“Decent houses.”

“Trees on the footpath.”

“No through traffic,” said Sloan.

“Grass verges,” said Leeyes.

“Just local vehicles.” Policemen grew to dislike cars.

“Near the tennis club.”

“Good gardens too, sir.” Sloan’s own recreation was growing roses. It was about the only one that went with his sort of working hours. “Clay soil.”

“No trouble up there either.” The superintendent added the ultimate police accolade.

“Not even on Saturday nights,” said Sloan, completing the sketch of suburban delight. A Town and Country Planning Conference on urban housing amenity would have taken two days to get as far.

Once she left Yorkshire as a young girl, Aird spent the rest of her life in the same little village in Kent where she lives today, active in village business, observant of village life, conversant in village history. Her novels are thus as close as we can come to having murder stories written by Jane Marple herself – or perhaps, given their sly humor, by Dame Margaret Rutherford. The books are light, entertaining, scenic, and only mildly complicated – in other words, on certain days, nothing else will do.
 

November 24th, 2012

Penguins on Parade: John Skelton!

Some Penguin Classics front such a great story that you feel irresistibly compelled to open with it: a rector of stern and upright countenance mounts the lectern of the old church of Diss in Norfolk, his broad, rough face blackened with barely suppressed rage. He has lately come from a dressing-down given to him by his old friend the Bishop of Norwich on a very particular subject, and he strongly suspects he knows where the bishop got his information – from the rector’s own tattle-tale parishioners. He grips the lectern and glowers at those parishioners now and gets right down to business:

You have complained of me to the bishop, that I do keep a fair wench in my house. I do tell you, if you had any fair wives, it were somewhat to help me at need. I am a man, as you be. You have foul wives, and I have a fair wench – of the which I have begotten a fair boy, as I do think, and as you all shall see.

Then he raises his voice and calls out: “Thou wife, that hast my child – be not afraid! Bring me hither my child to me!” Whereupon the lady in question brings the awestruck naked infant to his father, who proceeds to wave the child at his appalled congregants, still ranting:

How say you, neighbours all? Is not this child as fair as is the best of yours? It is not like a pig, or a calf, nor like a foul nor no monstrous beast. If I had brought forth this child without arms or legs, or that it were deformed, I wouldn’t have blamed you for complaining of me to the bishop. But to complain without cause! I say as I’ve said before, Vos estis: you be, and have been, and will and shall be knaves, to complain of me without a reasonable cause!

The vigor, the inappropriateness, the weird cluelessness, the hilarity – these things belong so thoroughly to the early Tudor poet John Skelton that even if the anecdote isn’t true (it’s posthumous, alas), it couldn’t speak more accurately of the man. Skelton was born around 1460, educated at Oxford and Cambridge, created a poet laureate at Oxford, Louvain, and Cambridge, and around 1498 became a distant advisor to Henry VII and tutor to his son (and the future king) Prince Henry. He got his rectorship at Diss in 1502 as an almost explicitly worldly preferment, for although he took Holy Orders he was very much a creature of the Court, a public intellectual, friend and rival to other literary-political figures like Thomas More (and friend also, in a contentious and not unwary way, with the greatest humanist of the age, Erasmus, who blurbed him as the “incomparable light and ornament of English letters” mainly because he wanted to stay in good graces with the job-dispensing Court; he couldn’t have despised Skelton’s learning, although his coarseness would have rankled the refined Dutchman) – and at times a very public enemy to the supremely powerful Cardinal Wolsey, who’s the butt of some of Skelton’s most scathing verse satires.

Such a man – vain, active, utterly worldly – must have been bewildered indeed by his parishioners’ complaint about his keeping a “musket” in his private chambers and getting children on her. “See?” we hear him bellowing, red-faced, “It’s not deformed! What the Hell is wrong with you people?”

Those verse satires – but not, alas, the hilarious anecdote – are on full display in our present Penguin Classic, the Complete English Poems edited by Trinity’s John Scattergood in 1983. Professor Scattergood is too circumspect for dangling bastards – he largely dispenses even with the more secular dissipations of a General Introduction, preferring to present his scrupulously annotated versions of the poems as quick as possible.

Here we get all the fairly typical stuff Skelton wrote as a young man, but we also get the increasingly smart, free, and remarkable works that came bubbling out of him the more he wrote (and of course we get his famous “Skeltonics” – not, as it sounds, the name of a 1960s rock group but rather the term, coined in his lifetime, for the strange, utterly distinct verse form he used, so close to today’s rap music that it’s briefly disconcerting:

Nowe let me se about
In all this rowte
Yf I can fynde out
So semely a snowte

Among this prese-
Even a hole mese-
Pease, man,pease!
I rede we sease.

As Skelton grew more confident, his poems grow more delightful and scathing, finally crowned with such masterpieces as Phyllyp Sparowe, or the wonderful mock-pastoral Colin Clout, and the anti-Wolsey broadside Speke Parott, with its snide warnings against birds who preen in borrowed plumage:

For that pereles Prince that Parrot did create,
He made you of nothing by His majesty.
Point well this problem that Parrot doth prate
And remembre among, now Parrot and ye
Shall lepe from this life, as mery as we be.
Pomp, pride, honour, riches and worldly lust,
Parrot saith plainly, shall tourn all to dust.

Wolsey, contrary to popular legend, knew how to take a pasting as well the next butcher’s cur, and Skelton was very nearly impossible not to like (if he wasn’t your rector, that is); the two ended up becoming friends, and it’s doubtful if either one of them ever learned Parrot’s wise lessons about the wheel of fortune.

Fortune hasn’t been generally kind to Skelton, despite Erasmus’ encomium, despite the shouted praise of his day’s best book critics, despite the esteem of E.M. Forster (who honored Skelton in a famous lecture but considered him weird), despite even the great James Russell Lowell, who surveyed vast pastures of English poetry from Chaucer onwards and found almost nothing prior to Spenser that merited anything but contempt. Writing in the 1870s, he made one exception:

One genuine English poet illustrated the early years of the sixteenth century, – John Skelton. He had vivacity, fancy, humor, and originality. Gleams of the truest poetical sensibility alternate in him with an almost brutal coarseness. He was Rabelaisian before Rabelais. But there is a freedom and hilarity in much of his writing that gives it a singular attraction. A breath of cheerfulness runs along the slender stream of his verse, under which it seems to ripple and crinkle, catching and casting back the sunshine like a stream blown on by clear western winds.

All very true, and even so respectable a soul as Professor Scattergood must have felt the breath of that cheerfulness, to prompt this definitive Penguin edition. If readers happen upon it (perhaps at the outside carts of my beloved Brattle Bookshop), they’ll feel it too. Skelton never fails, when even his much more august literary descendants, Spenser and Sidney, sometimes do.

 

 

November 20th, 2012

Merman: An Autobiography

Our book today is that 1978 classic, Merman: An Autobiography, about, obviously, that inimitable Broadway legend, Ethel Merman.The book has one of those ‘with’ side-credits for which show-business autobiographies are justly notorious, ‘with’ usually signalling that the star in question was either illiterate, drunk, drugged, or droolingly stupid (or all of the above) and that the ‘co-writer’ was responsible for all the writing. In this case, the co-writer was a lovely and courtly old industry hack named George Eells, a writing coach (the funniest of his celebrity subjects once referred to him as a “penabler”) who could occasionally be short-tempered, was usually in very good spirits, and was unflaggingly enthusiastic for the work. Even though he tried never to turn down work, ‘his’ stars almost always felt they were lucky to get him, and that happiness tends to show even in his most heavily ghost-written books (that happiness compensates for what can be a surprising amount of work – ghosting any kind of fact-heavy piece of exposition can be a slog).

Merman: An Autobiography wasn’t one of those most heavily ghost-written books (although it might still have constituted a slog – mum’s the word, if so). Ethel Merman would have been the first to admit she was no wordsmith, but when she signed on to a project, any kind of project, she committed herself, not just her name. She helped Eells at every stage of the book’s development, from concept to sentence-by-sentence, and the result is one of the most enjoyable entertainment memoirs ever written (a friend in the book-world recently came across a first edition and wondered if I had it already – which is much akin to coming across a textbook illustration of a human heart and wondering if I have one already, but I didn’t pounce – after all, to most people alive today, “Ethel Merman” belongs to a past as distant as “Ellen Terry”).

Certainly the subject is big enough. Merman was a force of nature on the stage, where she commanded audiences for decades. George Gershwin told her never to go near a singing coach; Cole Porter said she sounded like “a band going by”; Irving Berlin warned, “You’d better not write a bad lyric for Merman, because people will hear it in the second balcony.” Annie Get Your Gun, Call Me Madam, Gypsy – these and half a dozen other big shows owed a large measure of their popularity to Merman hammy, brassy, indomitable presence on stage. She and Eells had an embarrassing wealth of material at their disposal for the book, whether about her unlikely (and temporary) transformation from Broadway star to Denver wife and mother:

In the beginning, of course, I was something of an oddity around the neighborhood. Ethel Jr. came home from bicycle riding one day and told that while she and another child were tooling around the girl said, “I hear Ethel Merman lives around here.” Ethel Jr. replied, “Yeah, she’s my mom.” I asked what her friend had said. “Nothing,” Ethel Jr. told me. “She just fell off her bicycle.”

… to her celebrated string of marriages (famously, the account of her month-long marriage to Ernest Borgnine consists of one blank page), to her nearly endless roll-call of colleagues, about each one of whom she seems to have the perfect anecdote – like this priceless one about Tallulah Bankhead:

I remember her telling of going into a public ladies’ room and discovering there was no toilet tissue. She looked underneath the book and said to the lady in the next stall, “I beg your pardon, do you happen to have any toilet tissue in there?” The lady said no, she was sorry but she didn’t. So Tallulah said, “Well, then, darling, do you have two fives for a ten?”

In addition to being funny and talented and charismatic, Merman was also grand – a tough quality to capture in words (and apparently a rare quality just in general, since hardly any Broadway stars have exhibited it since) but nonetheless omnipresent in this book. An autobiography must deal with all kinds of sordid stuff, from contracts to marital breakups to bouts of the flu, and in these pages, thanks in large part to Eells, all those sordid things ring true with Merman’s personality. But like all natural-born performers, she approached closest to the heart of her own essence when she was up on stage, at the peak of her powers, handling the audience like a toy. She and her co-writer capture plenty of those moments in this autobiography:

On Gypsy’s closing night in New York when Jack Klugman and I sang “Together Wherever You Go,” the audience demanded more. And for once I broke professional discipline. I held up my hand to silence them and asked, “Do you really want more?” The clamor was deafening. “Okay, boys, let’s take it from the top,” I told the orchestra – and that’s what we did.

Readers of this nifty book will know just how those audiences felt. They’ll want more.

 

November 19th, 2012

Boxed Sets!

Logically, the very idea of boxed sets of books should be off-putting to any serious reader. Boxed sets are constricted affairs, after all, hemmed in on five sides, when books themselves are famously near-fluid things, not only physically (I’ve had them fit into virtually any shape, often unpredictable ones brought on by shameful neglect) but conceptually (what kind of monster would think of The Duke’s Children as “one of a set”?). A boxed set of books seems to want to warn off the riff-raff, to sternly patrol the associations of its inmates; I once knew a reckless free spirit who use to swap out the titles in her boxed sets, putting four Star Trek novels into the middle of Churchill’s history of the Second World War, and such like antics. She claimed she liked to design her own color schemes, but you could practically hear the boxes themselves scowling in outrage at the violation of their clearly-printed order. Boxed sets like things just so, and if a series of books continues to grow, the boxed sets of that series studiously expand themselves to keep up, often to the dismay of their orderly souls (Twilight and Harry Potter have finally stopped expanding – for now – but A Song of Fire and Ice is still growing like yeast, requiring a new boxed set once every ten years when a new volume appears).

Despite this rather fascist leaning, however, there’s something ineffably appealing about these little book-modules. One part of the appeal is purely practical: boxed sets are easy to put places – unlike all other books in your library, these come with their own bookends. Hell, they come with their own book-shelves. Storage-wise, boxed sets are worlds unto themselves, disdainful of shelf-space, strangers to the toy-soldier domino effect of falling-over that can strike simple shelved books at any time. Boxed sets know what they’re about.

And boxed sets can be stacked on top of each other without the whole manuever feeling somehow disrespectful to the individual books involved. For the serious book-accumulator, stackable books are a very near approximation of paradise.

Perhaps most intuitively of all, boxed sets are chunky little badges of accomplishment. They signify a series – whatever kind of series – conquered (or at least they once did, back when book-accumulators actually read their books, instead of glaze-eyed gazing at them during quiet moments in “Call of Duty”). The whopping huge Penguin boxed set of the great David Womersley Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire speaks, um, volumes about the sheer physical courage of its owner, as does the pretty new heavy boxed set of Shelby Foote’s Civil War trilogy, or, less elevatedly (but even more massively), the Complete Calvin and Hobbes, weighing in at something like ten pounds. Boxed sets like these don’t just furnish a room – they loudly assert a reputation. They warn unsuspecting visitors that when it comes to reading, you don’t you-know-what around. This impression is prized in inverse relation to how true it is, so it’s mighty popular (intimidated readers who bought Penguin’s old two-volume boxed set of War & Peace tended to hide it when snooty company came calling).

And it’s a lucky thing boxed sets have these factors in their favor, because to be quite honest, they tend not to work very hard. It’s not just that the boxes themselves are poorly made, although they are (if you politely drop a boxed set onto the floor from waist-height, it will neatly split apart on impact into its component segments, like an orange). And it’s not the grubby matter of price, although it’s been a good twenty years since even the most generous publisher offered an actual financial savings for buying the boxed set as opposed to the individual volumes (long-suffering book clerks must still explain this fact to bewildered shoppers every holiday season – “What’s the price if I buy the boxed set?” Sigh. “The price of all the books inside it. The box is free”).

No, it’s that typically when you buy a boxed set, you get nothing extra for your hard-earned money. The boxes themselves long ago stopped sporting any original illustrations, although sometimes, in rare instances, the cover-design of the component volumes will be arranged in such a way that all the spines together comprise a picture – the very nice Patrick O’Brian set from ten years ago was an example of this  (rumor has it that an equally nice large Chekhov set did likewise, but that remains unverified). The boxed set of Samuel Eliot Morison’s Oxford History of the American People came with a handy timeline-pamphlet wedged in with the three volumes, but that kind of munificence is all but unknown today.

Indeed, the boxed set has fallen on harder times than it’s ever known in its scrappy century of popular usage. Publishers once produced them by the dozens, especially at the year-end holiday season (it was once common practice for bookstores to designate a table and pile it high with boxes), but nowadays they’re chary of asking too much from potential buyers. Anniversaries and special occasions will always warrant the boxed treatment – this season, for instance, William Manchester’s epic Winston Churchill biography will finally warrant it (and someday Robert Caro’s Johnson run will join it?). But the days of the old standbys showing up like clockwork – The Dragonriders of Pern, The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, even The Gulag Archipelago – appear to be over, and the boxed sets of the new digital world will be unrecognizable, governed by their own eccentricities.

And in the meantime, all those great colorful – and oddly inviting – old boxed sets can be stacked and re-stacked according to the feng shui of any old place.

November 12th, 2012

Through the Magic Door!

Our book today is Arthur Conan Doyle’s lovely little 1907 ditty Through the Magic Door, which is organized along the conceit of Doyle taking readers on a tour of his book-lined study – pointing out first this title, then that one, and letting the reminiscences and digressions bubble forth just as they would in a face-to-face encounter. The whole thing is artifice of the archest sort, of course, but Doyle owed a great deal of his success to his ability to make the arch seem impromptu, and the illusion cast here of sitting in the great man’s library while talking books is very pleasantly convincing. Even when Doyle later attached a preening and self-conscious preface to a reprint of the volume, the spell still isn’t broken: we’re still transported into the company of a busy man who counted reading as his life’s greatest pleasure and support and liked nothing more than talking about books. Through the Magic Door amounts to one thumping long monologue. I’d pay good money to watch Robert Hardy perform it, as I once paid good money to see Eileen Atkins perform its close cousin of a book, A Room of One’s Own. What Doyle lacks in Woolf’s shimmering brilliance he makes up in the friendliness she so conspicuously lacks.

This is such a friendly book! Doyle isn’t talking here about any of the new stuff that came to him in the mail every day, the unknown authors, the experiments, the writers hoping for a favorable nod from one of the best-selling authors of his day. No, he’s talking about the books that shaped him, the books he turns to when he needs things consoled, or reaffirmed, or simply stated better than he could state them himself. This is necessarily a melancholy framework, and Through the Magic Door is an intensely melancholy book in its way – it’s clear that no Doyle won’t allow any books he might read in the future to equal these that fill his past, books written by his heroes (his heroes by virtue of the fact that they wrote these books), by mighty idols like Oliver Wendell Holmes, whom he almost met: “It was one of the ambitions of my lifetime to look upon his face, but by the irony of Fate I arrived in his native city just in time to lay a wreath upon his newly-turned grave.”

Macaulay is here (Doyle wishes he’d written historical novels!), and Boswell (Doyle wonders if we’d remember Johnson at all if it weren’t for his biographer’s “Scotch persistence”), and Pepys  – George Borrow is here, author of the now-forgotten Wild Wales, a strange man full of miscellaneous hatreds who excites a strange sympathy from our gregarious author. Hazlitt is here, and Richardson, and Fielding. Of course there’s Walter Scott, whose Ivanhoe is rated the second-best historical novel ever written (#1 isn’t explicitly named, but knowing Doyle it’s not hard to guess). Edward Gibbon is praised to the rafters – or rather, the work is. The man himself is sacrificed on the altar of his enormous book:

Some men are greater than their work. Their work only represents one facet of their character, and there may be a dozen others, all remarkable, and uniting to make one complex and unique creature. It was not so with Gibbon. He was a cold-blooded man, with a brain which seemed to have grown at the expense of his heart. I cannot recall in his life one generous impulse, one ardent enthusiasm, save for the Classics.

As might be expected in a recollection of lifetime’s reading, Doyle’s opinions are blasted all over the book, delightfully, on every page. Some of them are eerie (in that later Preface, penned at the end of the First World War, he calmly mentions “the certainty that the old cycle will come round once more”), but the vast majority of them are pugilistically hopeful:

I confess to having a a strong belief in the critical discernment of the public. I do not think good work is often overlooked. Literature, like water, finds its true level. Opinion is slow to form, but it sets true at last. I am sure that if the critics were to unite to praise a bad book or to damn a good one they could (and continually do) have a five-year influence, but it would in no wise affect the final result. Sheridan said that if all the fleas in his bed had been unanimous, they could have pushed him out of it. I do not think that any unanimity of critics has ever pushed a good book out of literature.

Doyle must certainly have believed all that, especially when thinking about his own writing. He disliked those amorphous critics (those fleas!) in part because he had a life-long animation against the variety of snob he was convinced they were, but those critics were by-and-large very happy with The White Company and Sir Nigel (and so would Scott have been, and so would you be), which have all but vanished from literature, while Sherlock Holmes sails along, stronger (albeit less recognizable) than ever. That kind of unpredictability is sternly banished from Through the Magic Door; here, the reading mind is urged only back, into reflection, into appreciation, into savoring. Doyle’s contention – one of them, anyway, was that every reader has a core-group personal library filled with just such past glories, the books we already know can never disappoint us. And he was right about that.

 

 

November 10th, 2012

A Stroll with William James!

Our book today is that strange wonder from 1983, Jacques Barzun’s A Stroll with William James, and of course it’s down off the shelf for the saddest of reasons, the one kind of re-reading no author covets: Barzun recently died. We compulsively reach for the books of recently-dead authors in part, I think, to reassure ourselves that the books aren’t going anywhere, that the immortality their authors sought has, in fact, commenced; here are some of the best parts of their selves, kilned to a finer durability. Barzun wrote many books and was such a deep thinker that none of them feels at all improvised – he really did seem to be writing always with one eye on that steely eternity that enshrines shoddy work but never forgives it, so he was careful. And it helped that from very early on in his preternaturally long career, he wrote only about things that actually mattered to him. There’s so little in his writings of the workaday dross that’s otherwise inevitable in the life-work of any professional writer.

He tended to write about what he cared about, and in the realm of literature, he cared for few authors as much as William James, the Harvard professor, older brother of novelist Henry, and author of Pragmatism and The Varieties of Religious Experience. Barzun states right at the outset the huge debt he owes from ‘keeping his account open’ with James, and the book that results – this chatty, immensely erudite, entirely remarkable book – is one of the most inviting intellectual tributes on writer ever paid to another.

He delves deeply and exhilaratingly into James’ works, which I’ve always found as stimulating and incomprehensible as those of his brother, but any long-time Barzun reader will be here at least as much for the inimitable asides as for any strictly literary analyses. And A Stroll with William James doesn’t disappoint! Popping up every dozen pages or so are the oh-so-mannered little jeremiads we expect, on everything from feckless human nature to Barzun’s bete noir, the current day’s careless idiom:

The ladder of increasing generality is traveled up and down by the mind a dozen times in an hour without one’s noticing it. If from love of abstraction new conceptual terms are substituted for common ones, it often happens that the power of words to direct thought approaches zero. “Serious love affair” used to be a good enough phrase to indicate a whole range of feelings and actions. We have substituted “meaningful relationship,” which is so indefinite that it could cover the association of a hunter and his dog – or even that of oxygen and hydrogen in water.

In his mandarin refinement (when he writes something absurd like “One can suffer rhythmical indigestion from misconducted music and physical distress from daubs or muddy prose,” we actually believe him), he’s far more spiritually akin to Henry James than to William – indeed, in many ways this book is the closest we’ll ever come to reading the one brother on the other; there’s the same mixture of penetrating insight and snobbish digressions. And some of the roots of William’s pragmatism are probed with Barzun’s typical brisk brilliance:

Does this not mean that the end justifies the means? Yes. Horrors! No formula arouses greater indignation in moralists; it is the mark of the Evil One; it is the reason given for regarding avowed pragmatism as suspect. Anybody ho subscribes to the wicked notion in so many words has to explain himself, offer some excuse. Well, for a start, everyone without exception acts on it in ordinary life. For instance: a man takes a sharp knife and slashes a child. He is a brute, a monster. But just a minute! The man is Dr. X, about to remove the inflamed appendix. Immediately the cut in the abdomen becomes desirable, praiseworthy, highly paid. The end – and nothing else – has changed the moral standing of the violent act. The end justifies the means.

William James earned fame as much for being a psychologist as for being a philosopher, and the odd coruscations of his mind have attracted writers for a century. Here was a man who periodically withdrew from society, whose surviving siblings came to consider in many ways fragile, and yet was likewise famously bluff and no-nonsense. He’s a complex, shuttered lantern, and later biographers have tended to shine their own reflections onto him in their claims of kinship. In this Barzun – ever unruffled – is no different in principle, although in practice he’s of course ten times more readable than anybody less handy with an apothegm:

The surprise is that a facade-free personality should also be sensitive and possessed of genius. Long habit makes us want our geniuses scarred. The sign of their authenticity is their affliction. They must be disagreeable, self-centered, dissolute, unscrupulous, maniacal, enslaved to alcohol or drugs. The festering wound, like Philoctetes’, must be there or they can’t draw the bow.

It takes a considerable amount of will power to read as much about William James as Jacques Barzun did and then imply he wasn’t scarred, but Barzun was a great thinker, and as he writes: “Great thinkers are so confusing!” – so it’s his prerogative. It certainly doesn’t lessen the friendly majesty of A Stroll with William James, which I opened after Barzun’s death to find all my old marginalia – and to add more, for ninety blissful minutes fully and unaffectedly in the company of these lost mighty thinkers. This, too, is a variety of religious experience, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

November 9th, 2012

Penguins on Parade: Little Women!

Some Penguin Classics, as noted, represent matches made in Heaven, and surely one of those is the 1989 edition of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women in which the publisher got the mighty Elaine Showalter to do the editing-and-introducing.

Alcott’s 1868 runaway bestseller – the story of the young March sisters Amy, Meg, Beth, and Jo – would once upon a time have seemed an unthinkable addition to the Penguin canon – it was a book for children, or worse, an “improving” book for girls, and certainly didn’t belong in the same company as the books by those great men who knew Louisa May Alcott when she was growing up, stalwart Penguin canon-members like Emerson, Hawthorne, and Thoreau. Alcott herself had no illusions about the literary merits of her work – she filled it with robust regionalisms, kept its plots decidedly small-scale and domestic, and, at the behest of her imperious father and her imploring publisher, tacked on an ending that wrapped everything up in a patriarchal package. “I will do something by-and-by,” she wrote. “Don’t care what, teach, sew, act, write, anything to help the family; and I’ll be rich and famous and happy before I did, see if I won’t!” But the success of Little Women semi-trapped her into writing similar stuff more often than not, for a reading public that couldn’t get enough of it. The author of Little Women could write “Never liked girls,” but she stuck to writing about them, at least when she was writing under her own name.

Re-reading Little Women, however, is a perpetual surprise. It’s easy to see what would attract a critic of Showalter’s power and insight to the book: there’s so much going on in these pages, such unbounded vigor coming at the reader from all directions. Even the tossed-off vignettes are still funny 150 years later:

“Sit down and rest while I put these things away; then I want to consult you about a very serious matter,” said Amy, when she had shown her splendor and driven Polly into a corner. “That bird is the trial of my life,” she continued, removing the pink mountain from her head, while Laurie seated himself astride of a chair. “Yesterday, when aunt was asleep, and I was trying to be as still as a mouse, Polly began to squall and flap about in his cage; so I went to let him out, and found a big spider there. I poked it out, and it ran under the book-case; Polly marched straight after it, stooped down and peeped under the book-case, saying, in his funny way, with a cock of his eye, ‘Come out and take a walk, my dear.’ I couldn’t help laughing, which made Polly swear, and aunt woke up and scolded us both.”

Showalter – whose 2009 book A Jury of Her Peers should be read by every serious student of literature – tells the whole story of Little Women‘s gestation and birth in he densely-packed Introduction and comes down squarely on its side as a text that belongs in that canon:

In my view, Little Women has survived because it is both convincing and inspiring. Alcott’s novel of female development dramatizes the Transcendentalist dream of sexually egalitarian lives of love and work. Seen in this context, Jo’s literary and emotional career is a happy one, even if it does not conform to our contemporary feminist model of a woman’s artistic needs. Furthermore, despite the haste with which it was written, Little Women is more tightly constructed and more stylistically controlled than any of Alcott’s other books. … In Little Women, she managed to do what she had never achieved in the sensation-stories; create vivid, credible, and enduring characters, and write about them in a memorably American and personal voice …

In the end, the combination of the world’s most popular ‘girls book’ and the world’s best feminist literary critic is unbeatable. Showalter defiantly picks the original 1868 text of the novel rather than the subtly but tellingly different 1880 revision Alcott undertook on her publishers’ advice – the original version has angles and oddities aplenty and is by far the better reading experience, and here it is, in all the glory of a Penguin Classic. And Showalter should have the last word:

Through all the Jos of the future who will continue to read their own lives in the story of Alcott’s Little Women, the independent Jo lives and writes, not as the unattainable genius, Shakespeare’s sister, but as a sister of our own.

November 9th, 2012

Pugs of Wisdom!

This week’s New York magazine (featuring the most arresting cover image they’ve run all year, Iwan Baan’s haunting shot of a Sandy-struck lower Manhattan shrouded in darkness) begins with responses from readers to last week’s story on the work-recycling scandal of Jonah Lehrer. Brian Platzer, of that august literary journalThe Rumpus, writes, “What did he do so bad?”

To which the only possible response is, “Me not know, Brian. Me just not know.”

November 7th, 2012

The Craft of Fiction!

Our book today is something of a prissy little doozy: Percy Lubbock’s 1921 well-mannered bombshell, The Craft of Fiction, which started causing heated coffee-house arguments practically before its ink was dry. Lubbock relished the conception of himself as the last of a vanishing breed of well-educated literary men of leisure (he took paid writing work from time to time, but there was never a point in his life when he wasn’t buttressed by generous parents and ample personal investments – he was free to live, eat, and breathe literature in a way not generally given to the less solvent). He had most of the accoutrements: the slippers, the hesitant drawl, the intermittent fondness for calfskin binding. But unlike the handful of his contemporaries (he was born in 1879 and attended King’s College in full regalia), he had credentials to back up his literary loafing: he did serious work – during the Edwardian years, he wrote a very insightful biography of Samuel Pepys, and turned out a good many strong, inquiring book reviews (both anonymously for the TLS and – gasp! – pseudonymously for various other literary journals of the day) – and he had serious friends (including, at one point or another, Edith Wharton and Henry James). His friends loved him for his vaguely Gussie Fink-Nottle air of thorough-going bookishness, and his readers (and he always had more readers than he thought he did) loved him because he took seriously every work of literature that crossed his path, at a time when many of the great experiments in new styles of fiction were being met mainly be scorn from the critical establishment.

He attempts in The Craft of Fiction to anatomize a profession and its priorities – the book takes readers on a nuts-and-bolts tour of a small handful of literary classics (Clarissa, Madame Bovary, Anna KareninWings of the Dove), all the while attempting to pontificate on what they do right, what they do wrong, and, almost fatally, what they should be doing even when they, poor things, wander off-path. He comes at his work almost entirely from the proving-ground of those early TLS reviews, in which he tested his critical patience and adaptability against dozens of books a year, always trying to ‘clear his springs’ and take each one one as a world unto itself. Trying maybe a little too hard, as his repeated nonsense about ‘cooperative agency’ hints:

The reader of a novel – by which I mean the critical reader – is himself a novelist; he is the maker of a book which may or may not please his taste when it is finished, but of a book for which he must take his own share of the responsibility. The author does his part, but he cannot transfer his book like a bubble into the brain of the critic; he cannot make sure that the critic will possess his work … the writer of the novel works in a manner that would be utterly impossible to the critic, no doubt, and with a liberty and with a range that would disconcert him entirely. But in one quarter their work coincides: both of them make the novel.

Others took issue with The Craft of Fiction for other reasons, but for me, the sticking point has always been this absurd relativism, this air of slightly humble exasperation that overtook many professional book-critics in his day and continues to be their preferred tone in print even in the 21st Century. With some of his more plaintive outbursts, Lubbock could be speaking for half the current critical establishment:

And after all it is impossible – that is certain; the book vanishes as we lay hands on it. Every word we say of it, every phrase I have used about a novel in these pages, is loose, approximate, a little more or a little less than the truth. We cannot exactly hit the mark; or if we do, we cannot be sure of it. I do not speak of the just judgement of quality; as for that, any critic of any art is in the same predicament; the value of a picture or a statue is as bodiless as that of a book. But there are times when a critic of literature feels that if only there were one single tangible and measurable fact about a book – if it could be weighed like a statue, say, or measured like a picture – it would be a support in a world of shadows. Such an ingenious confession, I think it must be admitted, goes to the root of the matter – could be utter our sense of helplessness more candidly?

Fortunately, those book-critics who feel no such helplessness, those critics who relish the endless oncoming tide new matter, who never find themselves groping for one thing, just one tangible and measurable thing, about all those new and forthcoming books that pile up on their tables and floors, those critics who feel no ‘predicament’ in putting forward their own judgement of a work as a battle-cry rather than a tentative guess, still have plenty of good stuff before them in The Craft of Fiction, because the book’s strongest element is, overwhelmingly, the actual point-by-point discussions of the books Lubbock takes up to discuss. Although he loved it dearly, theorizing was never really his strength (hence the arguments this slim book sparked, once upon a time) – but to read him on Richardson or Flaubert or especially his good friend Henry James is to learn something every single time about the mechanics of how fiction works. Plenty of readers (back then, that is – nobody reads Percy Lubbock now) came to The Craft of Fiction for the controversy – but the stuck around for the invigorating discussion of writers who were still alive and working. Then as now, really good critics on such writers are tough to find.

November 6th, 2012

Sharp Eyes!

Our book today is William Hamilton Gibson’s lovely 1891 nature-book Sharp Eyes, one of half a dozen such books he wrote and illustrated in the course of his relatively short life, starting with 1880’s utterly wonderful Pastoral Days (anybody who’s ever enjoyed any time out-of-doors in New England should own a copy) and including Highways and Byways and Strolls by Starlight and Sunshine- the latter of which brought him an unprecedented amount of fan-mail, most of it from very serious, very studious young boys and girls who’d been given the book for Christmas or as a school prize and had fallen under the gentle spell of Gibson’s infectious, unpretentious curiosity for going out and seeing the natural world. Gibson was fond of complaining about this “battalion of boys” who bombarded him with letters and breathless accounts of their own adventures out exploring nearby parks and streams, but he wouldn’t have missed the camaraderie, and he never failed to write back to anybody who asked him questions about nature – or who sent him some oddity plucked from the forest floor. Gibson was a perfectionist (and what we would now call a workaholic), often crafting and re-crafting his sketches and engravings half a dozen times before he was satisfied with them – but he could always be convinced to put down his pencils, pick up his hat, and head out on a ramble … not forgetting his spectacles, of course:

He’d been in love with nature from his earliest childhood, and even when twenty years or more had passed and he was a busy columnist and illustrator (he was also much in demand as a lecturer, possessing that rarest of lecturer strengths, the ability to be extemporaneously funny), that love of rambling never dimmed in the slightest, as he explains in our present book:

Sharp Eyes is, moreover, a plea for the rational, contemplative country ramble. It is a messenger to that thoughtless host to whom Nature is a closed book – not only unopened, but with leaves uncut – to those who would take a “walk,” perhaps, but to whom, it would seem, the only virtues of a walk are comprised in the quickening pulse, the expansion of lung, and the cultivation of brawn. To such, a walk may be an exhilaration and a positive benefit, but scarcely the means of grace which is implied in the stroll or ramble. I woul lay open a few, a very few, of these uncut pages, which I have learned by heart, that a “little may be read,” even as we run. I would give at least one worthy motive for a stroll for every day of the year – storm or shine, summer or winter – conscious that in thus seeing through my spectacles my proselytes will surely rejoice in their conversion.

His books often follow a year through those courses of storm, shine, summer, and winter – the better to let him point out specific wonders that are often as evanescent as they are fascinating – like the phenomenon at hand on August 11th:

Can we really claim to know our evening primrose? Night after night, for weeks, its pale blooms have opened, and shed abroad their sweet perfume in the darkness in every glen and by every road-side; and yet how few of us have ever stopped to witness that beautiful impatience of the swelling bud, the eager bursting of its bounds, and the magic unfolding of the crinkly yellow petals?

This book, like all Gibson’s books, is an exquisitely beautiful reading experience. The chapters are mostly short enough to be the very thing they most resemble: dashed-off letters to science-curious boys, and on every page the words and the images skillfully support each other:

There’s a great deal in Sharp Eyes about insects and plants, those two easiest ramble-trophies to collect and examine. But Gibson’s walking welcome (like that of his hero, Emerson) extends to all the living things he might encounter, even on January 26th in what used to be the heart of a snowy Connecticut winter:

One of the most welcome occasional companions of the winter walker is the gray squirrel. On almost any genial day we are sure of him if our eyes are sharp enough, and our manner sufficiently decorous. His eccentric doings are written in his footprints everywhere upon the new-fallen snow, connecting tree with tree and keeping one’s eye ever on the lookout for the whisking tail.

We may never know how many future naturalists, when they were still eager little boys and girls, learned all about that decorum from so gentle and friendly a teacher as Gibson. Certainly his lovely books outlived him, if only for a few seasons, and bookish children have long memories for the bestowers of their first enchantments.