Posts from August 2016
August 29th, 2016
Our book today is that saddest of all kinds of books, the superseded classic. In this case, we’re talking about The Penguin Book of English Verse – not the massive 2004 version edited in all its splendor by Paul Keegan but rather the 1956 version edited by John Hayward, who had the old-fashioned chutzpah to open his note to the reader by writing: “The chief, if not the only end of poetry, Dryden said, is to delight. It is with this end always in view that the following selection of English poetry has been made.”
To delight! And … Dryden! If the book’s $2 cover price weren’t reason enough for us to suspect we’re far from the fields we know, that would do it. But that’s not the only thing in this old volume (mine is a white-spine musty old mass market paperback, bought at the Harvard Bookstore eight years ago) that feels out of place, out of time; Hayward’s selections are more foursquare and classical than the relatively few variations that appear in the later edition. Both have the same spine and connective tissue, as virtually any big book of English verse must have; there’s always a procession of Chaucer and Spenser and Shakespeare and Pope and Wordsworth and Shelley, and there are always the odd gems from Donne and, in Hayward’s case, George Herbert, with his intensely subversive poem “Love”:
Love bade me welcome; yet my soul drew back,
Guiltie of dust and sinne.
But quick-ey’d Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning,
If I lack’d any thing.
A guest, I answer’d, worthy to be here;
Love said, you shall be he.
I the unkinde, ungratefull? Ah my deare,
I cannot look on thee.
Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,
Who made the eyes but I?
Truth Lord, but I have marr’d them; let my shame
Go where it doth deserve.
And know you not, sayes Love, who bore the blame?
My deare, then will I serve.
You must sit down, sayes Love, and taste my meat;
So I did sit and eat.
Hayward winds his anthology down to Dylan Thomas and Stephen Spender, with the poets and traditions that sprang up in the wake of Auden not yet taken into account as they must be in later anthologies. There’s therefore a rounded-off feeling to this little volume, as artificial a feeling as they no doubt is. Re-reading the book, I found again all the entries that provoked me to bracket or make notes in the margin. I remarked, for instance, on how much I loved the music of John Clare in small doses rather than large helpings, like in his beautiful “Emmonsail’s Heath in Winter”:
I love to see the old heath’s withered brake
Mingle its crimpled leaves with furze and ling,
While the old heron from the lonely lake
Starts slow and flaps his melancholy wing,
And oddling crow in idle motions swing
On the half-rotten ash-tree’s topmost twig,
Beside whose trunk the gipsy makes his bed.
Up flies the bouncing woodcock from the brig
Where a black quagmire quakes beneath the tread;
The fieldfares chatter in the whistling thorn
And for the haw round fields and cloven rove,
And coy bumbarrels, twenty in a drove,
Flit down the hedgerows in the frozen plain
And hang on little twigs and start again.
I wouldn’t dispense with Paul Keegan’s much bigger volume for all the mud in Egypt, but even so, walking around with this earlier book for a few hot summer days and feeling my affection for it rekindle, I found myself wishing there were room in the Procrustean publishing world for both.
August 20th, 2016
Our book today is a pretty little gem unearthed from the bargain carts of my beloved Brattle Bookshop: the 1917 classic Birds Worth Knowing by the American author who wrote under the pen name Neltje Blanchan. This particular edition was issued in 1923 as part of the Little Nature Library put out by Doubleday, and it draws from the many bird-books its author wrote during her busy career as a popular nature-writer, bird-books like Bird Neighbors, Birds That Hunt and Are Hunted, and Birds Every Child Should Know. And as an added bonus, the whole thing is illustrated with charming bird-drawings in full color.
Neltje Blanchan’s narration in all of her books is a fruity mixture of kindly condescension and Edwardian moral certainties – it’s the kind of prose PG Wodehouse so perfectly mimicked in My Man Jeeves, when Jeeves undertakes the writing of a book very similar to Birds Worth Knowing, a treacly-cheerful children’s version of Alexander Worple’s American Birds. These books, with their complacent platitudes in which the animal kingdom is just a dumbshow reflection of the human world, once abounded in bookstores. All such books tended to be written in a lovely prose line, and Blanchan’s are in many ways the best of the type.
She tours her readers through a few dozen of the most colorful and charismatic American birds, from bluebirds and chickadees to catbirds and warblers. The whippoorwill, the woodpecker, the kingfisher, the loon, the shrike, the screech owl, the crow, the blue jay … these and many more emblematic birds are given evocative profiles, and there are verdicts as well, as in the case of the Cooper’s Hawk:
Here is no ally of the farmer, but his foe, the most bold of his robbers, a bloodthristy villain that lives by plundering poultry yards, and tearing the warm fresh from the breasts of game and song birds, one of the few members of his generally useful tribe that deserves the punishment ignorantly meted out to his innocent relatives.
This book, like all of its source books, is liberally studded with instructions as well, instructions aimed at the then-burgeoning industry of amateur bird-watching. The suburbs were growing exponentially while Blanchan’s books were selling briskly in city bookstores, so there are tips for those new semi-rural enthusiasts:
Perhaps no one thing attracts so many birds about the house as a drinking dish – large enough for a bathtub as well, for birds are not squeamish and certainly no bird delights in the sprinkling of water over his back more than a robin, often aided in his ablutions by the spattering of other bathers. But see to it that this drinking-dish is well raised above the reach of lurking cats.
And what of that most vilified of all standard American birds? Mercifully, our author has a broad mind:
When it came to a verdict on the English sparrow, after the most thorough and impartial trial any bird ever received, every thumb, alas! Was turned down. But having proven itself fittest to survive in the struggle for existence after ages of competition with the birds of the Old World, being obedient to nature’s greatest law, it will defy man’s legislation to exterminate it. Toilers in our overpopulated cities, children of the slums, see at least one bird that is not afraid to live among them the year round … Like the poor, sparrows are always with us. A forced familiarity with mischief-making members of the class has bred contempt for them, even among many bird lovers.
The book’s illustrations are blurry, bygone-delightful things, complete with the usual gestures at locational signals – a marsh for the marsh birds, a twilit barn in the background of a Barn Owl, riotous foliage for the bright warblers, snow falling around the chickadees – and the combined effect is the creation of a world of such innocent wonder that it’s easy to understand why Neltje Blanchan was such a popular author. Even now, finding this book a full century after it first appeared, in a world that’s no longer innocent and whose bird-books now bristle with scientific specifics, it’s easy to fall under the spell again.
August 18th, 2016
Our book today is surely one of the all-time classics of the Ink Chorus: Claud Cockburn’s 1972, er, bestseller Bestseller, in which our author subjects a dozen bygone bestselling novels to a forensic examination that’s both erudite and often hilarious, biting but also oddly sympathetic. He takes a tour through some of the bestselling novels in England from 1900 to 1939, taking advantage of the passage of time to see some reading standards of the previous generation with a more clinical eye, and although the entire book is absolutely invigorating, by far its most enjoyable aspect is also a bit surprising: Cockburn respects the phenomenon of the bestseller itself. It’s true that he liberally spreads snarky aspersions on the books he’s examining, but he doesn’t for a single paragraph seem to doubt the validity of examining them in the first place, not only as works of (admittedly often wretched) prose but also as invaluable bellwethers:
The bestseller lists are an indispensable guide to problems here arising. You cannot quarrel with them. You can say that they are not an index of literary merit. You can claim the best people did not read the bestsellers. But you cannot deny that if Book X was what a huge majority of book-buyers and book-borrowers wanted to buy or borrow in a given year, or over a period of years, then Book X satisfied a need, and expressed and realized emotions and attitudes to life which the buyers and borrowers did not find expressed or realized elsewhere.
He writes engaging, thought-provoking inspections of such old stand-by hits as The Broad Highway by Jeffery Farnol, When It Was Dark by Guy Thorne, The Beloved Vagabond by W. J. Locke, The Blue Lagoon by H. deVere Stacpoole, and If Winter Comes by A. S. M. Hutchinson. And along the way, he makes one ice-sharp aside after another about the nature of the book market, the moods of the book-buying public, and some of the assumptions attending wide-demographic works of fiction just in general:
In the Middle Ages drama was based upon the commonly known Christian story, or on other Biblical myths such as the story of Adam and Eve. At that time everyone had a pretty good idea what that serpent was up to. In Athens everyone knew who murdered or was going to murder Agamemnon. Everyone knew that Oedipus was going to kill his father and marry his mother. Nobody was sitting agape in the audience waiting for the moment when someone would rush on stage shouting, ‘Don’t marry her, she’s your mum!’
Cockburn is hypnotically encyclopedic, although he’s more vulnerable than he seems on the surface. Take that initial assertion of his I quoted above, about how you just can’t quarrel with the bestseller list of any day or era being an accurate X-ray, a sure indication of what was satisfying a need with the general reading public: he’s absolutely sure when he’s making that assertion, but he’s almost certainly mistaken, because he’s making the fundamental mistake made by so many amateur students of demography: he’s assuming that if Phenomenon X doesn’t apply to him, it probably doesn’t apply to anybody. Cockburn was a brilliant thinker and an original prose stylist (it almost goes without saying that his entire body of work is out of print in the US, right?); it simply doesn’t occur to him that the vast majority of readers who buy a bestseller are buying it after they already know it’s a bestseller – his assertion fails to take simple lemming-like biddability into account. Books become bestsellers because they answer a need in the reading public, yes; but they also become bestsellers because the reading public is and always has been weirdly desperate for recommendations. Cockburn never needed a book recommendation in his life – most dyed-in-wool book people never do. Which might make it tougher then usual for them to comprehend the fogged-in groping that the vast majority of readers do every time they walk into a bookstore.
But on one aspect of the bestseller as a kind of book, Cockburn is spot-on, and this acuity is seen most clearly in the most famous chapter of Bestseller, the one devoted to E. M. Hull’s enormously successful novel The Sheik, about a proper young lady who’s abducted by a savage-yet-suave wealthy desert warlord. Cockburn makes some fascinating points about out-and-out pornography in the marketplace, and no reader in 2016 will see those points without noticing how little things have changed:
“Would it not be wiser, after what you have seen today, to recognize that I am master?”
“You mean that you will treat me as you treated that colt this afternoon?” she whispered.
“I mean that you must realize that my will is law.”
“And if I do not?”
“”Then I will teach you, and I think that you will learn – soon.”
She quivered in his hands.
One quick search-and-replace, and you’ve got Twilight, or Fifty Shades of Grey. Satisfies a need indeed …
August 10th, 2016
I clearly wasn’t the only reader of the mighty TLS who was disappointed by Julian Baggini’s cover article about the ethics of eating animals! I went into the piece with high hopes, which in retrospect I see now was a bit foolish, and Ingrid Newkirk of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals felt the same way, writing a letter of objection with a rousing finish:
It is invariably our own often embarrassingly supremacist species that is unaware of what goes on in other animals’ minds. While we send probes into space to search for intelligent forms of life, we are oblivious to the ones all around us, right here on Earth and in Earth’s oceans. Far from making it “difficult” to grapple with the “complex” issue of not eating the other bright sparks in our sphere of interaction, as Baggini posits, it’s actually not only an obligation but also terribly easy to to learn to relate to those whose misfortune it was to end up on humans’ plates; to recognize that when wearing fur or leather, one is in another’s skin; and to stop pretending that mice and monkeys are test tubes with whiskers. The complexity, as amply demonstrated in the books Baggini reviewed, lies in having to craft arguments to avoid the inconvenience of taking that simple decision to stop eating animals. To say that taking animals’ lives is not problematic because once they are dead they feel neither suffering nor loss, as easily applies to snuffing out people you might run into on the street. The adage “No harm, no foul” is shown to be phoney baloney.
And that was just to start things off – the rest of the issue was typically fantastic. Thomas Meaney turned in a tough but ultimately favorable review of Thomas Laqueur’s richly rewarding The Work of the Dead; Timothy Tackett approved of John Hardman’s excellent The Life of Louis XVI, an although the requisite Victorian-themed review wasn’t written by Rohan Maitzen (as all TLS Victorian-themed reviews rightfully should be), it was nevertheless passably readable.
But the highlight of the issue was a blast from the past: a 1982 Kingsley Amis review of John Gardner’s James Bond pastiche novel For Special Services. Amis had a long association with the Bond industry, and he confesses that history right up front – and then beautifully brings the hammer down on the poor book under review:
Quite likely it ill becomes a man placed as I am to say that, whereas its predecessor was bad enough ty any reasonable standard, the present offering is an unrelieved disaster all the way from the aptly forgettable title to the photograph of the author – surely an unflattering likeness – on the back of the jacket. If so that is just my bad luck. On the other hand, perhaps I can claim the privilege of at least a momentary venting of indignation at the disrepute into which this publication brings the name and works of Ian Fleming. Let me get something like that said before I have to start being funny and clever and risk letting the thing escape through underkill.
He goes on to roast the book over an open fire in paragraph after delightful paragraph, often with hilariously-done asides like when he mentions the fate of one of the book’s villains:
Nobody really cares when she gets thrown among the pythons on the bayou. Well, there are pythons on this bayou.
It’s an acid-etched performance, one that left me desperately wishing for a thousand-page collection of the Kingsley Amis deadline-prose and book reviews. Maybe someday …
August 6th, 2016
Our book today is a wonderful little classic of popular natural history: David Lack’s The Life of the Robin from 1943, in which Lack takes everything known about robins from literature, poetry, and science and pulls it all together to craft a portrait-in-the-round of one of England’s most common birds. “Into the world of the robin we cannot penetrate,” he writes, but his own book – which sold briskly and was reprinted many, many times – comes as close to doing just that as any book could hope to do.
Lack’s prose is clear and smooth; his book reads effortlessly, and his low-key delivery can sometimes downplay the contentious nature of some of the insights he conveys. Watching robins for hours and days and months on end disabused him, for instance, of any idea that these little creatures were mere automata. He noticed personalities, as all bird-watchers do, and he grounded everything in enormous amounts of first-hand observation:
While the sight of red breast feathers normally elicits threat display from the owning cock robin, there is one particular set of red breast feathers which does not produce this effect, namely the red breast feathers belonging to the bird’s own mate. Similarly the hen possesses the shape of a robin but is not struck, and flies away but is not pursued. She has even sung occasionally in her mate’s territory without evoking any hostile demonstration. Clearly the cock distinguishes his hen individually, which is a warning against interpreting his behaviour too rigidly …
The Life of the Robin is a generous little book, often ranging far and wide from its strict subject. In its own quiet, buttoned-up way, it’s also a boisterous book, Lack’s first foray into the publishing world where he would go on to write a small shelf of classics, almost all of them showing a blend of analysis and anecdote that always manages to be both authoritative and fascinating:
Once when I was trying to catch an elusive robin in the house-trap the bird burst into song as it ran about the ground, and it continued to sing for a little after I had caught it and was holding it on its back in my hand. It is well known that other birds will occasionally sing or display when alarmed. A sudden thunder-clap or bomb often starts them off. As a more spectacular example, when in an Imperial Airways machine over the Kenya Game Reserve, we on several occasions flew close to a male ostrich, at which the latter would go down in the sand, spread its white plumes, and rock gently from side to side in display at the aircraft.
This is the kind of natural history gem that’s truly timeless, stepping outside even the natural fluctuations in population and conservation that happen to any species (even any urban species) in this new epoch of “the Anthropocene.” As a tribute to the combative complexity of the robin, it can’t be beat, and re-reading it always makes me wish equivalent volumes existed for every single species of bird. Where’s the magnum opus for Passer domesticus, one might plaintively ask?
August 1st, 2016
Our book today is a clear, clean classic showing hardly any sign of floorboard decay, a good example of stages in a literary hack’s via dolorosa from griping underdog to griping Grand Dame: it’s Homage to Daniel Shays, Gore Vidal’s smashingly good 1972 volume collecting essays and book reviews from a neat 20-year span, from 1952 to 1972. This book is less than half the length of the career capstone United States, which came out twenty years later – i.e. twenty years closer to the ranting wine-soaked crackpot sage the author would become in his final decade or so.
That later Vidal wore his accumulated grievances like a body armor, every year more layered until, by the end, the man himself had all but vanished inside it. Anger-fueled alcoholic dementia didn’t help matters any – his resentments gradually morphed into a landscape, an alternate reality that struck him as eminently more sensible than the one he was so rudely forced to live in every day. His book won the Pulitzer – they just gave the award to somebody else. He won all the elections – they just gave the offices to somebody else. Throughout most of his life, he fought a successful rearguard action against his besetting mortal sin, envy, but sins are patient stalkers, and Vidal’s consumed him in the last fifteen years of his life, when he almost continuously showed the excruciating bad grace to be a very, very lucky man who whined to be luckier. Interviewing him became indistinguishable from psychoanalyzing him.
But during the years covered by Homage to Daniel Shays, there’s very little overt sign of that later Vidal. In fact, the closest hint comes right at the beginning, in the collection’s first words:
These essays are arranged in chronological order. The first was written twenty years ago, in another world; the latest was written a few months ago. Reading them from first to last, I had the sense of reliving month to month two decades not only of my life but of our most unserene republic turned empire, now turning into something else again. As themes come and go, are developed or abandoned, as politics replaces literature replaces politics again, there is a logical (and sometimes illogical) progression. There are also ironies. As the mandarin author of the first essay surveyed the state of American letters in the forties, he had no idea that he was about to give up the novel for a decade of television, theater, movies, criticism and politics, while the engaged polemicist of 1962 would have been appalled to know that he was soon to abandon actual politics in order to become again (what he had been all along?) a novelist.
You can already see the beginnings of the monumental vocational rifts that will later determine the tripartite structure of United States (the sad pun of the title being, of course, the fact that the various states of Vidal’s being were never united but rather constantly at war); the “mandarin author” (one of the only times anywhere that Vidal inches close to self-criticism, and even here, it’s not exactly meant in a negative sense, is it?) is shifting from one calling to another, brilliant in all of them but rootless, almost homesick. In these razor-sharp essays, Vidal could still use those inner longings, shaping them like a virtuoso into tools he could use to pry secrets out of the writers he examines (most of whom he knew), as in the “Writers and the World” piece he wrote in 1965 for the TLS:
To be outside the World is not necessarily a virtue. To be in the World does not necessarily mean a loss of craft, a fall from grace, a fatness of soul. William Faulkner’s thirty years as a movie writer affected his novels not at all. He could do both. Finally, it is truly impertinent to speculate as to whether or not the effect of this or of that on a writer’s character is good or bad. What is pertinent is the work he does. Mary McCarthy is not less intelligent a literary critic because she plays games on television. But even if her work should shown a sudden falling off, only the simplest moralist would be able to link her appearances as a talking writer to her work as a writing writer.
And slowly, incrementally, we know that the array of critical tricks at his disposal would concentrate and dwindle to one: himself. The Vidal of 1960 was still every bit as narcissistic as extreme good looks can make a man, but he was still very much capable of hustle in a piece, to say nothing of dutiful exposition. And he’s still capable of it a decade later, but he’s much less willing to be bothered, especially if the “review” at hand is one in which he can make himself the star, shoving the book in question off to one side for as long as possible. In “The Fourth Diary of Anais Nin,” which he wrote for the Los Angeles Times Book Review in 1971, Nin has an assiduous co-star:
Warning to literary historians. Deal warily with Anais’s “facts.” Small example: at our first meeting, she says, I introduced myself as Lieutenant Vidal. First, I would never have used a military title; second, I was plainly a Warrant Officer, in uniform. When I pointed this out to her in the bar of the Punt Royal, she laughed gaily. “You know I never get those things right.” Nor does she correct them. Best of the lines I was not shown (and the one most apt to give pleasure to the employees at Time): “Gore has a prejudice against Negroes.” Oh, dear. Well, I was brought up by my grandfather, a Mississippi-born senator. I have since matured. I now have a prejudice against whites.
It’s very much possible to read blissfully through Homage to Daniel Shays hitting isolated notes like these and willing yourself to forget that in time they would fuse into a grand symphony of solipsism. In these full-power years before United States, a whole variety of Vidals was still possible. The vibrant voice in these pieces might never have become shrill and querulous; the future might never have become the enemy; the past might never have become a forest of sharp-pointed lies and betrayals. As unlikely as it seems even in retrospect, this author might have aged gracefully.