Posts from September 2015
September 25th, 2015
He had the hair, the Mona Lisa smile, the subtle hands, the loudly fashionable clothing, the bad-boy attitude – it’s little wonder that Christopher Marlowe has been an extremely popular subject for fiction-writers over the years (especially blossoming after 1952, when the portrait we all so badly want to be a 21-year-old Marlowe was discovered). My own personal library has two shelves devoted to Marlowe books, and one whole shelf of those are novels rather than biographies, although the two genres symbiotically share the same skinny 61 known facts of Marlowe’s life, including the key ones: that the young man was to become a flashy, enormously popular playwright, that he was purported to have scandalous, heretically opinions, that he performed some kind of service for the Crown while still in college, and of course that he was stabbed to death in Deptford.
You can see immediately the appeal for novelists: there are so many tantalizingly open mysteries! What did Marlowe do for the Crown? What were his real controversial opinions, if any? And maybe most of all, what prompted his murder, if we discount the possibility that it was all a drunken brawl? These are the kinds of questions novelists were born to answer, and dozens and dozens of them have taken up the challenge. I’m fairly certain I’ve read all the resulting books, give or take one or two, and here I’m presenting just a smattering of those:
Prove a Villain by K. C. Warwick (2010) – Since one of the things a friend-then-enemy of Marlowe’s gossiped that he once said dealt with a partiality for boys, the playwright has very, very often been adopted as a kind of neck-ruffed patron saint of outed homosexuality. The writers who’ve embraced that version of Marlowe aren’t especially interested in learning that public accusations of buggering were very popular in Shakespeare’s day, a slander chosen for its stickiness rather than its factual accuracy. No, these writers want a gay hero who’s not hiding – indeed, who’s not only open but famous and formidable, and Marlowe (rather than fawning, opaque Shakespeare, several of whose sonnets actually are openly homosexual) is their man. K. C. Warwick is one such author, and in Prove a Villain, tailor Hugh Seaton, back in London after an absence of two years, is happy to return to the acting troupe he used to work with, even though it might mean more encounters with his former lover-boyfriend, you guessed it:
He stood for a moment, resting his hand on the curved wooden wall as it it were the flank of a favorite hound – but that was a mistake because it brought to mind the last time he had stood there, his shoulder blades pressed against the hard wood by the weight of Kit’s body. The other man’s breath had been warm against his cheek as he whispered angrily, “Don’t tell me you care more for some woman than you do for me! That’s a falsehood!” Even though it was two years ago, Hugh could remember exactly how it had felt. How, despite his anger, he had enjoyed being pinned with Kit’s warm strength holding him …
Prove a Villain absolutely must carry on as an explicit fantasy, naturally. Gay men couldn’t hope for open happiness in Elizabethan times (there’s some real historical doubt that they could have had even private happiness, psychologically), and Marlowe can’t hope for happiness in any case. As we’ll see with upcoming books on this little list, that brick wall in the narrative, that looming doom in Deptford, bedevils almost all attempts to dramatize this dramatist.
Tamburlaine Must Die by Louise Welsh (2004) – The fragmentary nature of Marlowe’s life – those tantalizing gaps at key points and key periods – prompts some writers of Marlowe fiction to mirror the terrain in their books, and Louise Welsh’s pretty little novella is the best of that impressionistic lot. It’s raw and raunchy, wasting no time plunging its readers into both Marlowe’s mind and the seedy, back-stabbing nature of his age:
I am of an adventurous nature. I have often invited danger and have even goaded men to violence for the sake of excitement. I like best what lies beyond my reach, and admit to using friendship, State and Church to my own ends. I acknowledge breaking God’s laws and man’s with few regrets. But if I die tomorrow, I will go to my grave a wronged man. Were this fate of my own doing, I would greet it not gladly, but with a nod to virtue’s victory. As it is, if I meet death tomorrow I promise to face him cursing man and God.
In fact, Tamburlaine Must Die was at times so telegraphic and sensory that I often wanted it to be more fragmentary, not less, a full-blown fantasia rather than anything connected to plot. As a result (no doubt unintended by the author), I always find the actual plot of the story a bit silly, especially in its concluding scenes. But the bulk of this slim volume is composed of scenes and flashes that will stick in your memory.
Blood and Ink by D. K. Marley (2010) – Some Marlowe novelists, as noted, opt for what essentially amounts to a bells-and-whistles fictional version of the straight-up biographies historians like Park Honan produce; they ransack the registers of famous Elizabethans and crowd them all into as many street-and-tavern scenes as possible. Marley’s tale is one such, lavishing the outline of Marlowe’s life with a 21st-century version of the purple overwriting that made the playwright a star:
Kit looked over his shoulder. Through the haze of the candlelight, Richard Burbage entered, and following him, another man in a simple brown doublet and worn boots. Marlowe recognized him straightaway as the man whom he had seen with Burbage near the Curtain theatre, yet not only then; before him stood the boy from Kenilworth and the Stratford actor, William Shakespeare. Kit felt an illness creep about his heart.
As is the case with many Marlowe novels, there’s a good deal to overlook in Blood and Ink; its excesses can be wretched indeed, and it too often opts to omit the kinds of subtlety for which Marlowe even today doesn’t quite get his due. As an adventure story, it’s very Edwardian-style arch, which will prevent it from being everybody’s cup of sack.
The Marlowe Conspiracy by M. G. Scarsbrook (2010) – Scarsbrook opts for a plain old rather than arch adventure story: this Marlowe, both a famous working playwright and a busily-working spy, comes under official suspicion of atheism and sedition and has only a small window of time to clear himself. He’s helped by his friend and colleague William Shakespeare, and Scarsbrook does a very attentive job in helping readers to see the dramatis personae:
Kit was tall, with lithe arms and compact shoulders. Oval of face, he wore his long brown hair pulled back from his brow, and he grew a faint moustache over his lip and a thin beard on his chin. Dark, sun-stained eyes stared back at him from the looking glass. Between his slanted eyebrows lay a small crease worn into the skin through frowning. In his late twenties, he was a man fully in his prime. He was also a man of hidden tension: focused yet undisciplined: alert but frustrated; confident yet racked by anxiety.
The Marlowe Conspiracy is inevitably bottlenecked by its own premise, as are so many Marlowe novels (but not our next one!): we know that no long life of happy endings awaits our hero. But Scarsbrook is a talented enough author to make us temporarily forget.
The Marlowe Papers by Ros Barber (2014) – Some Marlowe novels are, of course, more ambitious than others, and this one by Ros Barber is doubly so: not only does it commit itself fully to the idea that Marlowe faked his death in Deptford, moved to the Continent, and wrote all the plays we now attribute to William Shakespeare, but it tells that story in verse! Verse that’s fluid and always readable, even if it won’t give either Marlowe or Shakespeare much cause for envy:
From all this, I am dead. Reduced to ink
that magicks up my spirit from the page:
a voice who knows what mortals cannot think of;
a ghost, whose words ring deeper from the grave.
Corpse-dead. A gory stab-hole for an eye;
and that’s what they must think. No, must believe,
those thug-head pursers bent on gagging speech,
if I’m to slip their noose and stay alive.
Now I’m as dead as any to the world,
the foulest rain of blackened corpses on
the body that is entered in my name:
the plague pit where Kit Marlowe now belongs.
Barber has since gone on to mount some very good, very exhaustive assaults on the validity of Shakespeare’s authorship of the works we read under his name, and this novel-in-verse is clearly her Iliad along those lines. It stands out in every way from most other Marlowe novels, which is, as we’ve seen, high praise on its own.
Entered from the Sun by George Garrett (1990) – Nothing stands out quite so well or so naturally as genius, however, and that word certainly applies to George Garrett’s greatest historical novel, a Marlowe story in which Marlowe never appears and is long since dead – though no less present in the recollections of Garrett’s smart, troubled main character, Joseph Hunnyman:
It is true that I am … or, more truthfully, that I have been from time to time a player. And I think it would be truly remarkable to find any player alive in England who s altogether ignorant of Marlowe’s plays. Is there any company, large or small, celebrated or obscure, which has not, one way or another and in one version or another, performed his plays and earned both profit and general applause for their efforts? I doubt it. Is there a living poet in England who has not flattered Marlowe and honored his memory by trying to imitate the matter of his plays and the thunder and lightning, the drums and trumpets and gunpowder blasts of his words? Not to my knowledge. There was a time, believe me, sir, and it has not yet fully dissipated, either, when all that the managers wished to see and to consider for performance was something or other, anything really, which had at least the counterfeit sound and echo of Marlowe in the lines and some shadowy copy of the astonishing spectacle of his fables.
Garrett’s novel is the pinnacle of his life-long immersion in Elizabethan times; it rings with the poetry of the age and strides and swaggers and staggers like the age. And like all of Garrett’s books, its plotting is deceptively laconic, revealing its steel and snapping closed only toward the very end (in the case of this book, in part in the very last paragraph). In the realm of fiction, Christopher Marlowe has inspired hundreds of books but only one real masterpiece, and this is it.
September 24th, 2015
Any batch of new romance novels will certainly feature a few whose narratives are grounded not on people but on places. Their covers feature landscapes and promise to be “A [Location X] Novel,” and a newcomer to the phenomenon might wonder at the appeal. When we look at three of them chosen at random, that appeal ends up seeming curiously elusive:
One of These Nights by Kendra Leigh Castle – In this third volume in the Harvest Cove series, after For the Longest Time and Every Little Kiss, Castle’s main character, Zoe Watson, moves from Atlanta, Georgia, to the idyllic small New England town of Harvest Cove, where she runs an art gallery and seeks to soak up the small-town peace and quiet of the place … until her new life is upended when ultra-handsome park ranger Jason Evans breaks his leg and suddenly needs her help despite irritating her:
Even now, laid up with one leg in a clunky cast and wearing a pair of ragged old cargo shorts and a T-shirt that had seen better days, Jason was too appealing for his own good. Nasty, miserable, inappropriately attractive dirt farmer. He lifted his face from his hands to look at her, and it was hard not to feel sorry for him. Well, a little sorry. The rest of her was too busy being furious with him right now.
Castle does a peppy job with the sparks that fly between Zoe and and Jason, and that chemistry carries the book, with Harvest Cove itself, its nature as a place, fading almost completely into the background – to the point where a newcomer to the series might wonder why the whole series is centered in one place at all.
All of Me by Kelly Moran – This is the second volume in Moran’s series set in Covington Cove on the beautiful North Carolina coast, and here the location seems to move much closer to center stage. Novelist Alec Winston is living in New York City and banging his head against a crippling case of writer’s block and yearning for some small-town mystique:
He had to admit, people recognized him wherever he went. He brushed elbows with producers and screenwriters. Booksellers and editors and marketing people, all willing to bend over backward to accommodate him. Adoring fans with blogs and websites and Facebook pages. But there was no one he could tall at two a. m. just because. No one to argue with over a bad call in the Yankees game or grab a beer to discuss their day.
Naturally, the simplicity he’s hoping for gets complicated – in this case, in the person of Faith Armstrong, who’s likewise come to Covington Cove in hopes that the small-town comforts of the place will help her reinvent herself. All of Me is a bit somnolent, but at least it works a bit harder to justify the prominence of its geography than One of These Nights.
In Moondance Beach, Susan Donovan’s new “Bayberry Island” novel, we zing right back to New England, in this case Bayberry Island off the coast of Massachusetts, where Navy SEAL Duncan Flynn returns home to recuperate from an injury. Donovan does a good job consistently touching back to the Nantucket-style atmosphere of the place:
It was a recent June evening on Bayberry Island. Shop lights flickered. The old-fashioned gas streetlamps cast a warm glow over the bricks of Fountain Square. A crescent moon peeked over the horizon. And right on schedule, the last passenger ferry of the day made its unhurried approach toward the public dock.
But once again, once Flynn meets reclusive painter Adelena Silva and they begin a fairly standard romantic give-and-take, the island setting itself (and its wacky Mermaid Festival) becomes increasingly irrelevant to the story. It’s a strange thing – a rhetorical gesture that quite a few romance writers feel they need in order to start their books but not that they need in order to keep those books going. On one level, it’s predictable and understandable: locations anchor memories and quite often put a floor under nostalgia, and nostalgia powers so many romance novels in the bookstores today. But on another level, I almost always find it puzzling; I don’t quite understand why Zoe Watson can’t find satisfying romance in Atlanta, or Alec Winston in New York, or even crusty Duncan Flynn back at his base’s hospital. There’s a low-key delusion of Eden running through these books, a persistent implication that urban complexity is antithetical to emotional health – and that where you are can overcome who you are. Personally, I’m not holding out much hope for any of these couples.
September 23rd, 2015
How could I not make mention of the fact that Esquire, one of my most steadfast glossy lad-mags, hits its 1000th issue this month? To put it mildly, it’s not every magazine that reaches one thousand issues – hell, there aren’t many writing endeavors of any kind that reach such a milestone (blushing modesty prevents me from dwelling on the fact that over at the “Weekly” section of Open Letters Monthly, I recently ran my 1000th signed book review).
The issue features a blizzard of quotes and excerpts from pieces dating all the way back to 1933, some arranged by topic (war, sex, etc.), others arranged alphabetically, and all accompanied by an eye-popping selection of the artwork and photos that have filled the magazine every month for all that time. There’s the famous quote from Gay Talese’s 1966 piece “The Silent Season of the Hero”:
“Joe,” said Marilyn Monroe, just back from Korea, “you never heard such cheering.” “Yes I have,” DiMaggio answered.
And there’s Chris Jones writing a brief paragraph about famous NFL cheater Tom Brady:
The ultimate survivor. Tom Brady will always win. I don’t mean that as a compliment. I mean it in the sense that if Lucifer walked the earth, he would be someone very much like Tom Brady and he would be impossible to kill.
We get an excerpt from “The Shooter,” the deplorable first-hand account of the Navy SEAL execution of Osama bin Laden in 2012:
There was bin Laden standing there. He had his hands on a woman’s shoulders, pushing her ahead, not exactly toward me but by me, in the direction of the hallway commotion. It was his younger wife, Amal …
He looked confused. And way taller than I was expecting … he was holding her in front of him. Maybe as a shield, I don’t know …
In that second, I shot him, two times in the forehead. Bap! Bap! The second time he was going down. He crumpled onto the floor in front of his bed and I hit him again, Bap! Same place. That time I used my EOTech red-dot holo sight. He was dead. Not moving. His tongue was out. I watched him take his last breaths, just a reflex breath.
And the always-dependable Stephen Marche turns in “The Ghost of Hemingway,” an original – and haltingly sad – quick profile of the patron saint of Esquire‘s founding, Ernest Hemingway:
Of all the great modernist writers, Hemingway is the least admired but the most imitated. Serious readers worship James Joyce. They worship Kafka. They worship Borges. But nobody tries to write like them, not in America, anyway. And yet every section of the bookstore shows Hemingway’s influence. “When you find a good line, cut it, “ was Hemingway’s advice to writers of the future. In his lack of metaphors, strong active verbs, and masses of dialogue, he has had more influence on someone like Elmore Leonard than on even Raymond Chandler or Jim Thompson. Two of the greatest film noir novels of all time – The Killers and To Have and Have Not – are Hemingway stories.
Of course, despite the rather uncanny extent to which Esquire has remained true to its men’s-men ethos over the decades even while that ethos was in some ways warping out of all recognition of its former self, some things have definitely changed. I couldn’t help but notice, for example, the full-page ad featuring young director-hottie tobacco addict Xavier Dolan and a new Louis Vuitton “Cartable” leather satchel. A quick consultation with the Louis Vuitton website confirms that the bag sells for $4,850 – roughly four times the annual income of the average American man in 1933. I guess the high culture messenger bags will cost around $13,000 when Esquire hits issue #2000. I’ll report back.
September 22nd, 2015
Our book today is On the Vineyard, a 1980 collection of short essays and reflections about Martha’s Vineyard, accompanied by stunning black-and-white photos by Peter Simon, and the impulse that drove me to take it down from my shelf is akin to the impulse that always makes me think of Cape Cod at summer’s end. The “summer’s end” part has been exceedingly grudging here in Boston, which has had two separate heat waves in September and where, here in the last week of the month, the days just routinely warm up into the mid-80s. But it’s an illusion, naturally – winter will come, although we can hope it’ll be gentler than last winter – and the gathering chill in the early mornings when I’m standing outside with two sleepy old dogs, well, that early-morning chill speaks more clearly about the changes coming than any aberrant daytime high temperature could do. The summer is ending, and that always makes me think of the Cape and the islands.
The Vineyard has always been, for me, the third in rank – behind Nantucket, and behind the Cape itself – and I don’t really know why. I’ve had many wonderful experiences at the Vineyard, walked its wildernesses with many friends and many, many dogs, even attended two weddings there (my final two such attendances, I’ve gradually come to realize), and yet I’ve always found Nantucket the more beautiful and the more inviting, and even exotic Nantucket has always paled for me beside the quiet glories of Cape Cod, where I have sailed and trekked and napped and laughed and lounged and gorged on sea-shack food so many times that its towns and inlets and scrappy woods feel like a part of me.
Paging through On the Vineyard therefore served as a very good reminder to me of all the memories that come from there as well, that rise from its marshes and lakes and farm pastures and shade-dappled forest floors and endless beaches. There’s an undeniable magic to taking the Port Authority ferry to the island (I’ve only reached it three times by other means) and then watching the passengers scatter each to their separate havens, for however long they’re lucky enough to be staying.
The essays in On the Vineyard capture quite a few of those havens, from sybarite author Vance Packard’s evocation of Chappaquiddick, a beautiful little island whose name is now tarnished forever by one act of panicked cowardice:
Most of Chappaquiddick is covered with dense woodland: scrub pine and oak. Near the shore there is much sea grass, wild grapes, beach plums, blueberries, wild roses. A few dozen deer roam the interior. The alarmed flutter of ring-necked pheasants is a common sound. Along the beaches, in addition to the gulls and the terns, are egrets, yellowlegs, and great blue herons. In the fall the waters fill with squadrons of diving ducks.
To columnist and ex-paratrooper Nelson Bryant’s ode to Chappaquiddick’s Cape Poge:
In winter, when a northwest gale shrieks across the bay, piling whitecaps, eelgrass, codium, scallops, quahogs and other shells on the shore, and carrying the indescribable aroma of the salt flats when the tide is down, the first ranks of cedars shudder and reel. But beyond them, deeper in the grove, so dense and intricate in their design, no wind invades. Often the outer trees are killed, but their writhing and sun-bleached forms stand for many years.
Chickadees and other songbirds hide in that sanctuary all winter, and deer are also frequent sojourners there.
To the great Boston bookman Stan Hart, who’s here given the honor of the last word even over Vineyard legend Henry Beetle Hough, and whose life-long love of the Vineyard extends to all havens in all seasons:
And beauty there was. The up-Island South Beach, as an example, was heavy with beach grass and Sahara-like with its dunes and hollows. The upper and lower Chilmark ponds were connected by a navigable stream, which I used to canoe on moonlit nights. Slipping along those still waters right inside the edge of the ocean, I could hear the plangent thud of surf breaking on hard sand to my left and the rustling of herons in the marsh grass on my right. The mosquitoes could be awful but it was like finding a Northwest Passage slipping along those lambent waters. And when I entered Chilmark Pond it was always a discovery, consumed with raw nature, each ripple of the pond picking up the moonbeams, and the ocean white from the light above. I used to think then that I could never leave the Island no matter what.
Many of the short recollections in this book lament how ‘built up’ the Vineyard is becoming, and in the thirty years since this book was on the New Books display in the Edgartown bookstore, that process has only accelerated (back in the 1990s, one New York investment broker was confronted by locals about his plan to build an enormous, landscape-blotting mansion and his announced intention to use it only two or three weeks a year; when the locals complained that his mansion – the very first of the so-called ‘McMansions,’ if I recall correctly – would blight the beautiful natural surroundings, he said, “I want it to be ugly”). But even in reading these old complaints, there’s a perverse element of comfort: I’ve visited the Vineyard many times since the year this book was published, and I’ve been relieved every time to discover that its soul is untouched. It’s still easily possible to sit at a shady pine-smelling picnic table with an old friend; still easily possible to walk the long beaches in the late afternoon when the sky is a deeper blue than the sea; still easily possible to bike along quiet broadlands and watch a hawk lazily circling up on the sky.
Peter Simon’s photos catch quite a bit of that soul, and like so much of the best photography, they don’t need color to work their magic. And in On the Vineyard there’s an extra bit of magic for me personally: this is certainly the book that contains the most photos of people I actually knew myself – by uncanny coincidence (or maybe not quite coincidence – maybe it’s an unintended token of how much time I spent on the Vineyard in the 1970s), the book’s photos contain five people I knew personally, laughed with, walked with, and four of whom I later corresponded with for years (the fifth wasn’t lazy – just not human). It adds an element of sweet melancholy to the book, especially since I knew so many of those people in the thinning light of late summer.
September 18th, 2015
Our book today is Arthur Conan Doyle’s immortal The Hound of the Baskervilles,which brought back, in 1901, the beloved character of Sherlock Holmes who’d been killed off nearly a decade earlier by an author who was both bored by his formulaic stories and jealous of his international fame. The events of The Hound of the Baskervilles take place well before Holmes’s seeming demise in “The Final Problem,” but to long-deprived fans of the Holmes & Watson stories, it hardly mattered: their team was back in action.
I’ve loved the book for a long, long time (paradoxically, as a long succession of friends have pointed out, since one of the key gimmicks of the whole story hinges on the torture and death of a dog), and it’s been a haven to me on many occasions when the real world just got too tawdry or trying. It was both tawdry and trying in massive amounts the other night during the second Republic Party candidate group commercial, when one candidate after another tried to exceed all the others in narrow-minded xenophobic pettiness. I watched the thing as long as I could, then I watched it just a little longer, and then I retreated to The Hound and never looked back.
It’s the now-famous story of the cursed Baskerville family of Baskerville Hall in Devon, on the verge of the great Grimpen Mire. The head of that family, Sir Charles Baskerville, is found dead out on the grounds of his property, face-down in the dirt, the victim of a heart attack brought on by his headlong flight from …something, something that scared him so much he tossed aside all caution about his weak heart and ran for his life. And near his body could be seen the footprints of an enormous hound – leading quite a few of the superstitious Dartmoor folk to suspect the work of the legendary Hound of the Baskervilles, a creature that’s haunted the men of the family for centuries.
The death of Sir Charles makes his nephew Henry Baskerville, a farmer in Canada who’s spent a good deal of time in America as well, heir to the Baskerville estate – and heir to a staggering amount of money. Word is sent to young Henry to come to England, and Holmes asks the faithful Watson to accompany the new lord of Baskerville Hall to windy, rainy Devon, to safeguard him from harm while Holmes remains in London to carry on his own investigation of both the death of Sir Charles and the identity of the person who sent Henry Baskerville an anonymous note warning him to not live at the Hall. And since the book is really on one level simply the story of the repatriation of a wayward colonial, Doyle has Watson lay on the ancestral-magic business with gusto:
Over the green squares of the fields and the low curve of a wood there rose in the distance a grey, melancholy hill, with a strange jagged summit, dim, and vague in the distance, like some fantastic landscape in a dream. Baskerville sat for a long time, his eyes fixed upon it, and I read upon his eager face how much it meant to him, this first sight of that strange spot where men of his blood had held sway for so long and left their mark so deep. There he sat, with his tweed suit and his American accent, in the corner of a prosaic railway-carriage, and yet as I looked at his dark and expressive face I felt more than ever how true a descendant he was of that long line of high-blooded, fiery, and masterful men. There was pride, valour, and strength in his thick brows, his sensitive nostrils, and his large hazel eyes. If on that forbidding moor a difficult and dangerous quest should lie before us, this was at least a comrade for whom one might venture to take a risk with the certainty that he would bravely share it.
This is the story in which Holmes famously says to Watson: “It may be that you are not yourself luminous, but you are a conductor of light. Some people without possessing genius have a remarkable power of stimulating it” – but every time I read the book, I’m struck afresh at how much better Watson comes off than Holmes throughout the length of it. There’s virtually none of the great detective’s signature near-miraculous powers of deduction, and even when he stumbles upon an important clue as to who might be behind the re-appearance of the Hound on the moor – it happens when he chances to look up at one of the many family portraits hanging on the walls of Baskerville Hall, where he’s rejoined Watson, and even though Doyle gives the thrill of the moment to Holmes, he’s not particularly interested in making Holmes seem attractive in his moment of insight:
“This chance of the picture has supplied us with one of our more obvious missing links. We have him, Watson, we have him, and I dare swear that before tomorrow night he will be fluttering in our net as helpless as one of his own butterflies. A pin, a cork, and a card, and we add him to the Baker Street collection!” He burst into one of his rare fits of laughter as he turned away from the picture. I have not heard him laugh often, and it has always boded ill to somebody.
I loved reading it again, even though I can practically recite it verbatim by now. I savored the atmosphere of it, the deceptive straightforwardness of its narrative, and of course I loved the Sidney Paget illustrations liberally scattered throughout my edition. At one point early in the story, while Holmes is still in Baker Street, he tells Watson that by studying maps of Devon he feels he’s spent the day there in spirit, and I was relieved to find that the novel, too, can effect this transportation. The other night, I may have needed the relief of it nearly as much a Holmes on a boring afternoon.
September 15th, 2015
Our book today is a big fat thing called Akhenaten: King of Egypt by Cyril Aldred (when reading pretty much any history on pretty much any subject, you should, if possible, hold out for a historian named Cyril Aldred), and in addition to being a fantastic soup-to-nuts historical and archaeological account of ancient Egypt’s infamous heretic pharaoh, the book is also a stark illustration of the dangers of the Brattle Bookshop’s wonderful sale lot and its abundance of $1, $3, and $5 books. As long-time Stevereads readers will know, I haunt the bargain-book lot of the Brattle (where, ahem-hem, kindly strangers can call in gift certificates in any amount for their hard-working book-blogger), and on my less-controlled days, I sometimes hoover up goodies with less balance and discretion than I exercise in, say, picking out new clothes.
Akhenaten is a perfect case-in-point. The Brattle buys book collections far and wide, and quite often those collections end up more or less intact on the bargain carts, so you can see that so-and-so built up a substantial collection of Napoleonic sailing lore, or hardcover mystery novels, or, in this recent case, ancient Egypt: book after book after book on ancient Egypt – big picture books of the pyramids, chronologies of the pharaohs, “Life on the Nile”-type overviews. I saw the collection come in, and week after week I watched as its treasures scattered into the eager hands of dozens of different browsers. And just recently I saw this big hefty paperback volume on Akhenaten – a character who’s always fascinated me when I’ve encountered him in various novels, the 18th-dynasty successor to the great pharaoh Amenhotep III who changed his reigning name and then, about five years into his rule, tried to break with the hugely powerful priestly caste that effectively ruled huge chunks of Egyptian life.
It’s a very dramatic little interruption in the sprawling history of ancient Egypt. As one historian put it, it’s “a chance bivouac in the march of history, filled for a moment with all the movement and colour of intense life, and then was abandoned to a deeper silence, as the camp was hurriedly struck and the course of Egyptian history relapsed again into more wonted highways.” This characterization has always bothered me; the more you know about the lives of the pharaohs, the more unfair it seems that showboating oddities like Akhenaten grab so much attention (the same thing happens in spades to the relatively obscure and unimportant pharaoh Tutankhamen).
But even so! I snapped up this hefty 1991 paperback and settled in with reading it. And I was struck by how good Cyril Aldred is at what he does – unlike so many writers on ancient Egypt, he’s not only very imaginative but open to wonder, as when he writes about the remains of the great temple at Luxor:
The temple was once gorgeously decorated with gold, silver, lapis lazuli and coloured opaque glass, and furnished with sculptures in hard and soft stones; but only a few dispersed and usurped examples of the statuary bear some witness to its former magnificence. Despite its ruinous state, however, and the alterations it has suffered, its grandeur is still impressive particularly at sunrise, the moment of the temple’s awakening, when the Theban luminescence gives an almost translucent effect to the stone. The contrast between the rows of clustered papyrus-bud columns, where the diagonal shadows fall thick, and the broad areas of light in the open courts, the elegant balance of the proportions between the main structure and the soaring colonnade with its huge campaniform capitals, make it evident that within the rigid requirements of the Egyptian temple as a cosmological myth translated into stone, Amenophis III was able to call upon the services of a great architect whose work, however, was left unfinished at the end of the reign.
And Aldred also very calmly clarifies some of the standard misconceptions about Akhenaten, including the misconception that’s most visually obvious to casual museum-goers, the dramatic break that he made with the very rigid style of public illustration:
But actually Akhenaten did not alter a single convention of Egyptian drawing. The human figure continued to be rendered by the artist in the same visual terms as had persisted from archaic times when Egyptian art crystallized out at a conceptual state of its development in the service of the divine king, and adhered to the same conventions for as long as kingship lasted. Akhenaten’s innovations were mostly in the choice of subject-matter: style remained unchanged in its fundamentals, though the proportions of the human figure were adjusted to suit a canon which departed from the traditional, and, though varying, tended mostly to elongate the upper part of the body, particularly in the early part of the reign. These innovations are limited to the representations of the royal family.
All of which is so juicy and intelligent that you might wonder what could possibly be the danger I mentioned. Well, the danger comes from the sheer unending torrent of books rushing through the bargain carts – because about a week after I finished reading this 1991 paperback, I happened to notice a mention in my book-journal of the same book … but dating from July. So I shifted a sleeping basset hound off my pancreas, got up, and went on a little book-hunt. And sure enough, there it was: the original 1988 hardcover of Cyril Aldred’s Akhenaten book, hoovered up during some earlier visit and shelved in a hurry for later consumption.
Patrons of used bookshops in benighted places like Colorado don’t have this kind of problem. Their stock doesn’t change often enough to make it possible.
I’d rather have the bounty … and I’ve got a spare copy of this wonderful book.
September 12th, 2015
Our book today is Shakespeare, which Anthony Burgess wrote one morning in 1970 after a 40-pint evening. The morning was raw and scratchy, one imagines, and our author, not at his best, needed some task to distract him before his four-course breakfast and pick-me-up whiskey was ready. The afternoon was already planned: a TV show appearance talking about Truffaut’s cinematic legacy. And the evening was locked up as well: dash off a treatise on pornography and then attend a Jonathan Cape literary soiree and get to work on the night’s 40 pints. But all that still left the pre-breakfast window open, and hence: Shakespeare.
As with virtually everything Burgess wrote, the resulting work is half rubbish and half genius – and even the rubbish half is so good you’ll want to re-read it periodically for the rest of your life. In fact, the process of re-reading Burgess rubbish can act as a kind of barometer of one’s own progress as a reader: when you encounter his bloated, rattly, off-the-cuff pomposity as a teenager, it strikes you as the most worldly and profound stuff any writer has ever written – it glows with that particularly Burgessian quality of feeling like it was written solely for you. Then as your reading widens and deepens and you revisit those passages (or whole books, or whole trilogies) now knowing a bit about St. Augustine or diacritical marks or the philosophy underpinning Gotthold Lessing, you start to squint a bit and pick a bit – you start, in other words, to wonder if Burgess quite knows what he’s talking about, whether he’s trying to fool himself or only his readers. And finally your life and your reading sharpen to actual expertise on some subject or other (not as many expertises as Burgess managed to accumulate, probably, because not many people manage to do that even without the 40 pints, but some) and you revisit those blunderbuss passages fully armed to tear them to pieces. But you don’t tear them to pieces, because by then, if you’ve got a soul at all, you’re so well aware of how much you owe this author that you’re willing to smile with pure affection when you see him bluffing or misunderstanding or hustling for a paycheck. You end up hoping you’re able to do any of those three things as magnificently as he always did. It’s only those people who don’t continue growing as readers who can ever attack Burgess in earnest, and he’s invulnerable to their attacks, because he’s having more sheer fun than they ever will, and his certainty of that shines in every word he wrote.
There’s a great deal of bluster and rubbish in Shakespeare, although here at least it’s all got a very long provenance. The sum total of what we know about Shakespeare could be written comfortably on one blank sheet of paper, so any 300-page book about him is going to consist of one part biography, four parts historical background, and five full parts rubbish. The problem is unavoidable; the question is only ever: how well done is the rubbish?
So Burgess can give us lines of complete fiction, such as “Will was now sixteen, well set-up physically, with a beard coming. His jerkin, trunks and hose were not new, but his gloves were. His brothers and sisters must also have had a look of shabby gentility.” But he can also give us a picture of London in Shakespeare’s time that’s not only a very good evocation of the place but also a hilariously self-revealing one:
It was a city of loud noises hooves and raw coach-wheels on the cobbles, the yells of traders, the brawling of apprentices, scuffles to keep the wall and not be thrown into the oozy kennel. Even normal conversation must have been loud, since everybody was, by our standards, tipsy. Nobody drank water, and tea had not yet come in. Ale was the standard tipple, and it was strong. Ale for breakfast was a good means of starting the day in euphoria and truculence. Ale for dinner refocillated the wasted tissues of the morning. Ale for supper ensured a heavy snoring repose.
Burgess takes us through the standard outline of Shakespeare’s life and times: his marriage, his children, his acting, his plays, his contemporaries, his career success, his retirement, his death, his legacy, and along the way he touches on all the customary side-questions, including whether or not a boy possibly educated no further than a Stratford grammar school could have written the plays we ascribe to Shakespeare, or whether we might be wiser to attribute them to a hyper-educated writer like Sir Francis Bacon or the Earl of Oxford. Burgess is very firmly a Stratfordian, and he indulges in a swipe at the intellectual timidity of people who aren’t:
The Baconians and the rest of the heretics are deluded into thinking that a work of art is of the same order as a work of scholarship; this play shows a knowledge of the law, therefore the playwright must have studied the law; that play is set in Upper Mongrelia, therefore the playwright must have travelled thither. There are no Baconians among the practising literary artists, and there never have been: they knew too much about the workings of the mind of professional writers.
And littered all throughout Shakespeare are the moments Burgess-readers come for, the moments of brilliance that dogged this writer even at his most hurried or derivative. Those moments crop up often in this book in connection with comments about the individual plays, but they’re by no means confined to such catechisms. On the subject of what Elizabethan audiences actually heard when they attended a Shakespeare play, for instance, Burgess the linguist briefly elbows aside Burgess the raconteur:
See and sea were not homophones; love and above rhymed with prove and move; the r-sound was always pronounced; a word like noble carried a noble round low vowel, not the pinched high-dipthong of today. A provincial-sounding language, then, but one, as Hamlet shows, capable of bearing a limitless burden of cosmopolitan complexity.
As with so much of Burgess, you want such stuff to go on forever. But alas, the book soon wraps to its end, and the author is out of bed and off to the BBC studios, chain-smoking and constantly talking the whole time, thoughts turning always to the next item on the writing docket. When you read his throw-off line in Shakespeare about the 1593 outbreak of plague in London, you want to wince away from the words: “This plague was a great nuisance but, like cancer of the lung, it was probably only there to kill other people.”
Not always other people, no, but at least we’ve got his 500 books to keep him among us, and re-reading this one always perks me up.
September 9th, 2015
Our book today is Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass – and only Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, here presented in a hefty green-jacketed 1931 hardcover from the old Aventine Press, whose editors decided to present the author’s 1892 edition of his great work entirely without critical apparatus of any kind. I found this Aventine volume (at my beloved Brattle Bookshop, of course)(where they’ll be happy to make out gift certificates in any amount over the phone, should any of you wish to give Steve a pleasant surprise) and snapped it up even though I already have both the Penguin Classic and the Oxford World’s Classic, but those volumes come laden with notes, and sometimes, perversely, I feel the need to approach a work bare, without intermediaries. It’s perverse because of course I love critical annotation and have been known to buy duplicate volumes of some classic or other on the strength of the Introduction alone.
But in the run-up to Labor Day, in these long days where every evening draws down a bit earlier than the one before it and where the pre-dawn mornings have begun to whisper about the coming cold, sometimes I want the classics themselves, just their piping voices, with no clarifications however intriguing. I instantly liked the way the Aventine Press got out of Whitman’s way, and I spent a languorous afternoon reading through this gaudy, self-indulgent work of genius I used to despise – including, appropriately enough for Labor Day, his weird, delirious “Salut au Monde!”:
I see the menials of the earth, laboring,
I see all the pensioners in the prisons,
I see the defective human bodies of the earth,
The blind, the deaf and dumb, idiots, hunchbacks, lunatics,
The pirates, thieves, betrayers, murderers, slave-makers of the earth,
The helpless infants, and the helpless old men and women.
I see male and female everywhere,
I see the serene brotherhood of philosophs,
I see the constructiveness of my race,
I see the results of the perseverance and industry of my race,
I see ranks, colors, barbarisms, civilizations, I go among them. I mix indiscriminately.
And I salute all the inhabitants of the earth.
There’s the gentle, glinting companionability of the work, which I once hated as addle-pated pandering but now see for something very close to what it’s inscrutable author might have intended, a kind of chanting deep honesty that takes a few readings to feel out completely, especially if the reader, like me, is fighting the process the whole time (as I was recently reminded, there’s a great line in An Experiment in Criticism by C. S. Lewis: “The first demand any work of art makes upon us is surrender”). The other day, opening this green Aventine volume on a hot late summer evening, I was perfectly ready to encounter something like “A Song of the Rolling Earth”:
I swear the earth shall surely be complete to him or her who shall be complete,
The earth remains jagged and broken only to him or her who remains jagged and broken.
I swear there is no greatness or power that does not emulate those of the earth,
There can be no theory of any account unless it corroborate the theory of the earth,
No politics, song, religion, behavior, or what not, is of account, unless it compares with the amplitude of the earth,
Unless it face the exactness, vitality, impartiality, rectitude of the earth.
I swear I begin to see love with sweeter spasms than that which responds love,
It is that which contains itself, which never invites and never refuses.
I swear I begin to see little or nothing in audible word,
All merges toward the presentation of the unspoken meanings of the earth,
Toward him who sings the songs of the body and of the truths of the earth,
Toward him who makes the dictionaries of words that print cannot touch.
I still love annotated editions of everything, of course, but I have a strong feeling the next time I’m compelled to pull down Leaves of Grass, it’ll be this Aventine one.
September 4th, 2015
Our book today is Twelve Days of Terror, Richard Fernicola’s 2001 history of the famous series of shark attacks that happened at the Jersey Shore in 1916, when four people were killed in July by a shark – probably a single shark, probably a bull shark, since it was able to travel up-river quite a distance in order to wreak some of its havoc. In fact, it was seen swimming up the Matawan creek away from the ocean, seen in the very act of heading inland, seen by seasoned old mariner Captain Cottrell, who was standing on a bridge over the creek when he saw a shadow he recognized well:
When he arrived at the bridge, the captain was surprised to see Mother Carey’s chickens (stormy petrels) resting on the railing of the overpass. The bridge workmen heard him say that he had never see this particular variety of offshore bird so far inland. Looking down toward the flowing creek water, the captain spotted a shape that forced a double take. His aged eyes refocused, and he was frightened to realize that the heat was not playing tricks on his mind or his vision. Cottrell sighted a formidable dark gray shape, approximately eight feet in length, making its way west, up the creek, with the incoming tide. Cottrell recognized the silhouette immediately because he had seen the same kin in the open sea many times before. The object was a shark, and a large one at that.
He tried to raise the alarm and was told “You have a better chance of seeing an elephant cooling off down there than a shark.” Which effectively doomed young Lester Stillwell, who was swimming with some of his friends at their favorite deep-water channel of the creek and had just taken a big dive into the water when the dark shape Captain Cottrell spotted surfaced among them:
Before the airborne water had a chance to rejoin the brown creek, the boys heard a short screech and an even greater splash behind them. The children were momentarily entranced by what they originally believed to be a dark old plank surge toward Lester. Then they saw the dorsal fin and tail fin of the shark and in unison shouted, “Lester’s gone!” As the phantom engulfed Lester’s slight upper body, Lester’s mouth filled with water. The fear-frozen boys saw at once that the beast was not all black but had a white underside and gleaming teeth. Poor Lester struggled briefly amid the reddening water, gurgled a scream once more, and was dragged beneath the surface.
Fernicola rehearses the whole story (the original inspiration for Peter Benchley’s Jaws) expertly and spends a large chunk of his book placing the Matawan shark attacks in their larger historical context of the Wilson presidency and the looming shadow of the First World War. That larger historical canvassing originally hampered my first reading of the book, mainly because that larger historical canvassing is mostly absent from Michael Capuzzo’s Close to Shore, a far more exciting and slimmer book on the Jersey Shore shark attacks, published at the same time as Twelve Days of Terror. That kind of unholy doubling sometimes happens in the publishing world, and although it can sometimes guarantee a double header-style review (assigning editors being feeble, biddable creatures for the most part), it just as often causes one of the two books to fall into shadow – and I worry that something like that happened in this case.
And if so, that would be quite a shame! In re-reading Fernicola’s book, I was more and more impressed not only with his wider view of things, his consistent decision to avoid mere sensationalism, but also with the vivid way he tells this familiar story – and the sure-handed way he has of grasping the essentials, including the most essential element of all:
Of all the predators implicated in man-eating events, none conjures up more intense dread than the shark. It is certainly terrifying to be confronted by a bear deep in the woods, or a tiger in some remote village in India, but it is, perhaps, of some small comfort to know that a single shot from a rifle can thwart the danger from such a visible terrestrial predator. It is quite another issue, however, to imagine being a shipwrecked sailor, a surfer, or a beach bather about to be attacked, dismembered, and consumed by a dark, black-eyed monster with razor-sharp teeth, viselike jaws, and sandpaper-like skin.
2015 has been another “summer of the shark” – there’ve been several attacks off the coast of Florida, and the number of attacks off the coast of Australia has been quadruple what it was last year. Even sainted Cape Cod has been haunted by record-breaking shoals of great white sharks, one of which had the bad manners to spit out a chomped seal onto shore at the feet of sun-bonneted overprivileged tourists. And when you’re reading Fernicola’s book, you see from his careful study how the whole mental framework, the whole idea of the marauding shark, entered the world’s mind frame.
September 1st, 2015
Our book today is This Quiet Place, a 1971 book whose author, seasoned journalist and biographer (and Martha’s Vineyard native) Everett Allen subtitled “A Cape Cod Chronicle” – so naturally, on the first of September, my eyes found it on my shelves, since it’s always at this time of year that I find myself thinking about – and particularly missing – that tiny, magical speck of Earth that is the Cape.
I don’t really know why this association should be so strong. As I’ve written here at Stevereads before, I’ve known and loved the Cape (and the Vineyard, and especially Nantucket) in all seasons and all weathers, with all kinds of people and all kinds of dogs. My visits there and stays there haven’t at all been confined to late summer, and yet something about late summer – the barely-noticeable creep of chill around the corners of pre-dawn mornings, the first arrows of migrating birds crossing the sky, and – in purely Cape terms – the mass exodus of the crowds of tourists who fill the place from Sandwich to Provincetown during the summer months and who pack up their plastic souvenirs and vanish like magic over the Labor Day weekend – something about this time of year invariably turns my thoughts to the wonderful Cape Cod times I’ve had.
Allen repaired to the Cape as often as his busy career would allow, and This Quiet Place is his attempt to capture not only the small-town personality of the place but also, of course, its natural moods in all seasons and times of day:
Now over all is morning quietness, except for the sad and raucous two-toned laughter of a gull; or perhaps he is not laughing, I do not know. How bright is the coming sunlight on white boats; on smooth wood it sparkles, and on the sea’s face it is dappled and interspersed with the darkening wind ripples.
He can be a bit of a pompous writer, and he can forget what far too many nonfiction writers of his generation were apt to forget, that is, that there’s only one E. B. White. But his still snapshots of essential Cape Cod moments are sharpened by a reporter’s eye:
Not one bird is flying; there is not one cloud in the smoky pearl of the winter sky, which is the color of a coachman’s glove. Halfway to Boston, there is a tanker that also seems motionless on the bright gray bowl of the sea, and the black plume from its stack rises like a thin rod in the windlessness.
Despite the hubbub of tourists for which the Cape is famous, Allen clearly associates it with moments of stillness, and I do too; even my most raucous visits there (for which it’s stately old Orleans and not strutting tomcat Provincetown that should blush for shame), such still moments would offer themselves with happy regularity. This Quiet Place captures many of those kinds of moments perfectly, and it feels nice to experience them, even vicariously, even forty years later, and even so far from Wellfleet.