Tuesday, December 31, 2013

One of the drawers in Donald Westlake's filing cabinet was labeled "Are you still here?" Which, I trust, is where, were he still with us, he would right now be filing 2013.

From Henry David Thoreau's journals, the entry for December 31, 1851:
Ah, beautiful is decay!
Or, as Timothy Hallinan in his crime novel Crashed put it,
Hope, the slut, always springs eternal.
Happy New Year, folks--and the gods bless Damion Searls for bringing us the NYRB Classics edition of Thoreau's journals, which are guaranteed to while away many a future day.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Christmas Eve

To carry us into Christmas, a letter from Katherine Anne Porter, sent to Albert Erskine on December 14, 1937:
I’ve been thinking about your Christmas present. It occurs to me that I never heard you say you wanted anything. I know things that you don’t want, for example, a book. So I shan’t give you Audubon’s Birds of America simply bursting with pictures. . . . You’ve got a radio. (Don’t give me one, by the way.) . . . What about a valet rack? It says: ‘The gift of gifts for a man, exclamation point. It saves time and temper by having his clothes all assembled for the morning rush.’ And then shows a picture with sure enough everything assembled. It’s one of the ugliest things I ever saw, though.
And then, for those of you more concerned with a seasonal mood than with shopping, here's Iris Murdoch writing to Frank Thompson on Christmas Eve, 1941:
It is Christmas eve & I in Blackpool. There is the hell of a wind blowing over the house & I feel a bit withered away already. I have just received a box of expensive Turkish cigarettes from Michael. Dear old Michael. A lost soul too. (The problem is, I have been reading Virginia Woolf, the darling dangerous woman, & am in a state of extremely nervous self-consciousness. The most selfish of all states to be in.
Woolf or no Woolf, let us all leave selfishness aside for a few days. Happy Holidays, folks.

Friday, December 20, 2013

My other favorites of 2013

When rocketlass and her team won two (2!) Webbys for their redesign of the University of Chicago's main website earlier this year, she described their place at the awards ceremony as being sort of like that moment on the Oscar telecast where the announcer-voiced announcer says, "In a special ceremony earlier today, Academy Awards were given out for Best Sound Design in a Norwegian Documentary about Fjords."

You'll just have to trust me when I say that, after Monday's and Wednesday's posts about my favorite fiction and nonfiction of the year, today's mish-mash of categories doesn't represent any lesser loves. These are all books I'd vouch for just as powerfully as the ones on the more traditional lists. So here goes.

Favorite poetry of 2013

As Ed Park put it in the San Francisco Chronicle the other day, "If you buy one book of poetry this year - well, you should probably buy more than one, right?" Here's a pair.

Carrie Olivia Adams's Forty One Jane Doe's: I would quote more from this one but I gave my copy to an old bookselling friend, pressed it fervently upon him. It's that sort of book. Carrie--who, like a few others on this week's lists, is a friend--surprises with her images, searches for knowledge in antiquated sciences, and wafts over all a hint of menace. Her lines break unexpectedly, jaggedly, pull to a stop defiantly, even breathlessly. Her Jane Does are like noir heroines, seductive and dangerous, even when (possibly?) dead. "I don't know why this one or that one. But I know desire." "I don't know how to close / a door, but I am sending / the sound of it latching."

Ernest Hilbert's All of You on the Good Earth: Aside from a shade of shared noir sensibility, Hilbert's poetry couldn't be less like Carrie Adams's: where hers is fractured and fragmented, his is regimented and formal. He's that rare thing these days, a sonneteer, but he brings a conversational vibrancy to the form that continually pushes against its constraints even as it draws strength from them. And, oh, the pleasures he takes in sound and rhythm and rhyme! "Taped up, damp now, smeared photo of the stray / On each scratched steel lamppost along the way."

Favorite comic of 2013

Though I greatly enjoyed Jonathan Hickman's wondrously cosmic storyline in the Avengers titles this year, it probably requires far too much knowledge of the Marvel Universe to be a sensible recommendation for outsiders. Matt Fraction and David Aja's Hawkeye: My Life as a Weapon, on the other hand, requires only that you be willing to countenance the idea of a superhero . . . and then to watch that superhero remain heroic while dealing with the ordinary failures of daily life. It's funny and clever and surprising and beautifully drawn. (For those of you who do know the Marvel Universe, I should also recommend Fraction and Michael Allred's FF, the goofiest take yet on the meaning of the Fantastic Four.)

Favorite letters collection of 2013

Oh, J. F. Powers. What more can I say about him? His fiction is funny, moving, perceptive, worldly yet aware of grace. Because his output was relatively meager and he's thought of as "that guy who wrote about priests," he's given short shrift, but there are few writers of the last half of the twentieth century whose work I cherish more. So the arrival of Suitable Accomodations: An Autobiographical Story of Family Life: The Letters of J. F. Powers, 1942-1963 felt like a gift, a wholly unexpected chance to engage once again with Powers's inimitable voice. And what is grace but an unearned, unexpected dispensation? If you've not read Powers, start with Morte D'Urban or the short stories; if you have read Powers, pick up this book. You won't be disappointed.

Favorite daybook for the bedside table

Tom Nissley's A Reader's Book of Days: Opening pages of this calendrical collection of anecdotes at random just now, I found that on July 6, 1953, Michael Straight in the New Republic wrote of Colette that her "preoccupation is of course with women, and she despises all of them but one." And that on August 8, 1920, Katherine Mansfield wrote of E. M. Forster,
So aware is he of his sensitiveness, of his sense of humour, that they are become two spectators who follow him wherever he goes, and are for ever on the look-out for a display of feeling.
And that on October 11, 2007, Doris Lessing, on being told by reporters on her doorstep that she had won the Nobel Prize, sighed, "Oh, Christ." And there are entries for Anthony Powell and Donald Westlake and Barbara Pym and Iris Murdoch and Penelope Fitzgerald and Rex Stout and Norman Maclean and M. R. James and Samuel Johnson, and oh, have you not gone to buy this book already?

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

My favorite nonfiction of 2013

Philip Hoare's The Sea Inside: Hoare's book is ostensibly about the sea, the creatures found there, and our relationship to them. But it's as much about Hoare's mind, and the places its questing takes him, as it is about those subjects. So we learn about St. Mark the Wrestler, who "cured a hyena whelp by spitting on his fingers and signing on its eyes." And about the bad rap that ravens get. And about Hoare's ice-cold ocean swims, and his quiet home, and his memories of family. And of course about whales. It's a meandering, byways and backroads book, and it's mesmerizing.

Lucy Lethbridge's Servants: A Downstairs History of Britain from the Nineteenth Century to Modern Times: A richly anecdotal history of servants in twentieth-century Britain. What more do you need to know? Seriously: it's hard to imagine any fan of twentieth-century British literature who wouldn't enjoy this, if for no other reason than to help them understand the mostly unspoken background to the fiction of the period.

Lee Sandlin's The Distancers: An American Memoir: Lee Sandlin's memoir of a number of his ancestors (great-aunts and uncles, mostly) achieves something admirable: it brings ordinary people from generations before ours to life, locates them in their place and time, and, without setting ourselves or our own times up as better, or more advanced, shows us just how different they were, how truly far away from the familiar you get as you walk back through the decades. At the same time, he tells a moving story of ordinary people (if strange, and even in some cases damaged--driven, as Anthony Powell put it, by their own furies) living quiet lives, destined to disappear from memory were it not that they had a descendant who became a writer, one who cares about what we lose when memories fade.

Terry Teachout's Duke: A Life of Duke Ellington: In a lean year for me for biographies, Duke was a treat. I already knew that Ellington was famously elusive and hard to get to know; what I didn't know is that not that much happened in his life: he formed the band, and while there were ups and downs afterwards, that was basically it. In a certain sense the band was his life. Despite that Teachout manages to keep the narrative compelling, primarily by reliably bringing it back to the music and the players. Maybe no one really knew Ellington, but by the end of Duke we understand his genius, and admire his contribution to our culture all the more.

Carl Watkins's The Undiscovered Country: Journeys among the Dead: A perfect accompaniment to autumn's annual serving of ghost stories, Watkins's book is packed with details of how the English related to their dead--restful and walkabout alike--in past centuries. From it I learned more about the ghost-story-hunting monk of Byland Abbey, discovered that the dead buried beneath the flagstones of churches did indeed sometimes disrupt services with an olfactory reminder of the whole dust to dust bit, and of a nineteenth-century druid who was an early advocate of cremation. I've learned to trust the Bodley Head's sense of a good history--they're always rich in quotation, anecdote, surprises, and analysis--and this is the best of the year of the type.

Monday, December 16, 2013

My favorite fiction of 2013

I don't usually do anything resembling a best-of-the-year post, but because this year I

1 Read more new books than usual


2 Disagreed with the critical consensus more than usual (really disliking a lot of the books that are making best-of-the-year lists),

I decided to go ahead. Today will be my favorite fiction, Wednesday my favorite nonfiction.

Favorite fiction of 2013

Carlene Bauer's Frances and Bernard: A brilliantly realized, wholly convincing epistolary novel. I wrote about it back in February when I first read it, and I've continued to recommend it in the months since.

Caleb Crain's Necessary Errors: I happened to take this brilliant debut novel with me on a work trip to Prague this summer, only to discover when I opened it that it's about young American expatriates . . . living in Prague. Over the course of more than 400 pages, not much happens--except that Crain manages to takes us back to that moment in life when we're poised between youth, with its structures and deadlines, and adulthood, with its terrifying wide-openness. Our time horizons then were so short, our experience (despite what we told ourselves) so limited, that every single thing, person, and event seemed of outsized, at times monumental, importance, and Crain--with neither too much irony nor false naivete--makes us feel that again in all its self-involved glory. It's an incredible achievement.

Gaito Gazdanov's The Spectre of Alexander Wolf: It seems like an extra treat when you happen upon a favorite book of the year in early December--and you find it because the single line on the back cover convinces you to pick up:
Of all my memories, of all my life's innumerable sensations, the most onerous was that of the single murder I had committed.
A young man who killed an opposing soldier during the Russian Civil War happens upon a book of short stories in which one of the stories tells of the killing--and which could only be the work of the dead man. That sets him off on an investigation, and along the way the story turns and shifts, interpolating other stories with a narrative confidence and storytelling fecundity that reminds me of nothing so much as Roberto Bolano. The book was first published in 1948 in Russia, its author a taxi driver, but it feels as fresh as any of the new books on this list. Pushkin Press seems to have increased their presence in the States substantially this year, which is all to the good for readers, and this is the best yet.

A. L. Kennedy's The Blue Book: A novel that tries to wrong-foot the reader from the very start, full of tricks and misdirections, appropriate for a story of people who work in the borderlands between magic and con artistry. It's clever, engrossing, funny, dark-hearted, and ultimately moving. I'd not read Kennedy before, but this book will send me to the rest of her work.

Sam Lipsyte's The Fun Parts: With the possible exception of my friend Ed Park, there's no comic writer working today whose sentences I enjoy more. Not every story in this collection is wholly successful, but even the lesser ones offer finely honed sentences--sonically and rhythmically rich and brilliantly funny.

Matthew Specktor's American Dream Machine: I wrote about this one very briefly in the summer, calling it a cousin to Steve Erickson's Zeroville. But it's better than Zeroville, trading Erickson's distance for empathy. Specktor tells a story of Hollywood success (and the problems it brings), and it's that relatively rare multi-generational story where both generations are wholly believable, their different worlds and worldviews fully realized.

Thursday, December 05, 2013


Work leaves me behind-hand this week, and possibly next, so blogging may be spotty. Today, though, I've at least got this photograph, kindly taken for me by rocketlass.

The book on the right? It's Carl Watkins's The Undiscovered Country: Journeys among the Dead. Well played, Bodley Head. Well played. {P.S. All three of these books--the other two being Jerry White's London in the Eighteenth Century and Emily Cockayne's Cheek by Jowl: A History of Neighbours--are quite good and well worth your time.}

Monday, December 02, 2013

Christmas crime

{Photos by rocketlass.} I've become a big fan the "Big Book of" anthologies that Otto Penzler (and, one presumes, his small team of Oompa-Loompas) has been editing the past few years for Black Lizard. The Big Book of Ghost Stories has whiled away October nights for two years now, with many more to come, while The Black Lizard Big Book of Pulps makes great reading to accompany Donald E. Westlake's reflections on the history of the private eye in "The Hardboiled Dicks." (What's that you say? Oh, right, sorry--you'll have to wait until next September to read that, when The Getaway Car comes out to read that essay. It's a present for next Christmas. Meanwhile, however, the Big Book of Pulps is, as its name suggests, big, so you can get started now without qualms.)

This year brings the volume that is at the same time the most unexpected and most useful: it's The Big Book of Christmas Mysteries. As a fan of holiday episodes--there's nothing like Jack Benny shopping, or trimming the tree with bubble gum bubbles--I've always appreciated a seasonal story, but in these fallow days for magazine stories, I'm unlikely to run across a Christmas mystery. Otto Penzler has solved that problem with 650 pages of stories from the past century. Like Penzler's other anthologies, it's a nice mix of old chestnuts and less-expected names: Agatha Christie stories bookend the volume, and Conan Doyle, G. K. Chesterton, Edgar Wallace, Ellery Queen, and Rex Stout all make appearances, but so do Donald Westlake, John D. MacDonald, Sara Paretsky, Ed McBain, Max Allan Collins, Thomas Hardy (really--that Thomas Hardy), Stanley Ellin, Isaac Asimov, and John Mortimer. The stories are a mix of charming and hard-boiled, and while I expect that none of them will change your life (even your reading life), the ones I've read thus far have all offered the unmatched pleasure of a well-told tale.

I'll close tonight with the beginning to the Ellery Queen story, "The Adventure of the Dauphin's Doll" (1948). I'll quote at a bit more length than usual to get you through the whole opening:
There is a law among storytellers originally passed by Editors at the cries (they say) of their constituents, which states that stories about Christmas shall have children in them. This Christmas story is no exception; indeed, misopedists will complain that we have overdone it. And we confess in advance that this is also a story about Dolls, and that Santa Claus comes into it, and even a Thief; though as to this last, whoever he was--and that was one of the questions--he was certainly not Barabbas, even parabolically.

Another section of the statute governing Christmas stories provides that they shall incline towards Sweetness and Light. The first arises, of course, from the orphans and the never-souring nature of the annual Miracle; as for Light, it will be provided at the end, as usual, by that luminous prodigy, Ellery Queen. The reader of gloomier temper will also find a large measure of Darkness, in the person and works of one who, at least in Inspector Queen's harassed view, was certainly the Prince of that region. His name, by the way, was not Satan, it was Comus; and this is paradox enow, since the original Comus, as everyone knows, was the god of festive joy and mirth, emotions not commonly associated with the Underworld. As Ellery struggled to embrace his phantom foe, he puzzled over this non sequiter in vain; in vain, that is, until Nikki Porter, no scorner of the obvious, suggested that he might seek the answer where any ordinary mortal would go at once. And there, to the great man's mortification, it was indeed to be found: On page 262b of Volume 6, Colbe to Damasci, of the 175th Anniversary edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica. A French conjurer of that name--Comus--performing in London in the year 1789 caused his wife to vanish from the top of a table--the very first time, it appeared, that this feat, uxorial or otherwise, had been accomplished without the aid of mirrors. To track his dark adversary's nom de nuit to its historic lair gave Ellery his only glint of satisfaction until that blessed moment when light burst all around him and exorcised the darkness, Prince and all.

But this is chaos.

Our story properly begins not with our invisible character but with our dead one.
And off it goes. I'd actually never read Queen before, and I was so pleasantly surprised by the light, even effervescent tone of the opening, the obvious fun that Queen was taking in the crafting of sentences that while the rest of the mystery can't quite live up to the fun of its entrance, that was a small matter.

I think I may adopt "But this is chaos!" as a refrain in all sorts of writing.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Thanksgiving with Twain and Thoreau

{Photo by rocketlass.}

In his autobiography, Mark Twain--in one of the rambling asides that, taken together are the autobiography--writes briefly of Thanksgiving:
The original reason for a Thanksgiving Day has long ago ceased to exist--the Indians have long ago been comprehensively and satisfactorily exterminated and the account closed with Heaven, with the thanks due. But from old habit, Thanksgiving day has remained with us, and every year the President of the United States and the governors of all the several states and the territories set themselves the task, every November, to advertise for something to be thankful for, and then they put those thanks into a few crisp and reverent phrases, in the form of a Proclamation, and this is read from all the pulpits in the land, the national conscience is wiped clean with one swipe, and sin is resumed at the old stand.
Twain can always be counted on to prick self-regard, be it national or personal. But even a pricked Thanksgiving can be a source of joy: even family sans illusions remains family, and seeing them a pleasure. The holiday falling late this year, you might, if you remember, follow your meal, and football, and shopping, with a toast on Saturday to Twain himself, who, had he the physical immortality to match his literary life, would be turning 178.

Thoreau is another to turn to as Thanksgiving approaches; for all his grumbling and unsociability, gratitude was an emotion he understood. On December 12, 1851, the thirty-four-year-old Thoreau wrote in his journal,
Ah, dear nature, the deep remembrance, after a short forgetfulness, of the pine woods! I come to it as a hungry man to a crust of bread.

I have been surveying for twenty or thirty days, living coarsely even as respects my diet,--for I find that will always alter to suit my employment,--indeed, leading a quite trivial life; and tonight, for the first time, had made a fire in my chamber and endeavored to return to myself. I wished for leisure and quiet to let my life flow in its proper channels, with its proper currents; when I might not waste the days, might establish daily prayer and thanksgiving in my family; might do my own work and not the work of Concorde and Carlisle, which would yield me better than money.

(How much forbearance, ay, sacrifice and loss, goes to every accomplishment! I am thinking by what long discipline and at what cost a man learns to speak simply at last.)
For those on the East Coast, facing a storm that dealt Chicago but a glancing (if frigid) blow, a more prosaic entry may be in order, like this one from November 24, 1857:
Cold Thanksgiving weather again, the pools freezing.
Freezing it may be, overblown and self-regarding it may be, contemplative and restorative it may never wholly be--but ever since 1996, when I spent my one and only Thanksgiving out of the country, and thereby fully realized for the first time how much I appreciated the simple pleasures it offers of family and food, I've been a devotee, if not an evangelist. Have a good Thanksgiving, folks. May your family be well, and your life flow in its proper channels.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Mark Twain and Satan!

Now how's that for a headline?

Tonight I'll share a couple of additional little bits from Mark Twain's autobiography, and this time, they'll involve Satan! Or at least his name. Having grown up in a small town on the northern edge of the Bible Belt, I'll admit to still getting a bit of a charge out of silly blasphemies. It's something one ought to grow out of, certainly, but I can still get a good chuckle out of a "Christ on a crutch!" or John Hodgman leading his audience in a chant of "Hail, Satan!"--as, it seems clear, Mark Twain would have as well.

The Autobiography includes a couple of jokey references to Satan. The simplest and most charming is this one:
At one time when the children were small we had a very black mother-cat named Satan, and Satan had a small black offspring named Sin. Pronouns were a difficulty for the children. Little Clara came in one day, her black eyes snapping with indignation, and said,

"Papa, Satan ought to be punished. She is out there at the greenhouse, and there she stays and stays, and his kitten is down stairs crying."
The more amusing reference comes when Twain is railing against newly restrictive postal regulations that, he says, have snarled up mail all over the east coast because the addresses on the envelopes don't conform to the tightened specs. Arguing for looser interpretations, and more diligence on the part of the postal service, he points out that he once received a letter addressed only to:
Mark Twain.


(Try Satan.)
As Twain puts it, "That stranger's trust was not misplaced. Satan courteously sent it along."

This next bit doesn't have any satanic content--unless you're more down on Teddy Roosevelt than, for all his faults, I can ever bring myself to be--but I can't pass up a chance to share it, too: Twain also once received a letter that had been addressed to:
Mark Twain

c/o President Roosevelt

The White House




Seriously, folks: this book is so much fun that I could pass along entertaining bits from it every day until spring and not run short. And that's taking into account that, unlike a letter sent care of Satan, a Chicago spring can't in any way be counted on to arrive in a timely fashion.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

If you've got an unread copy of Mark Twain's autobiography on your shelf, read it!

For decades, the title of Most Unread Book was held, with the blithe confidence of a late Romanov, by Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time. Of the approximately forty billion copies that book sold, I believe at last count twenty-nine had been read all the way through.

I suspect, however, that it may now have a rival. In the fall of 2010, the University of California Press pulled off a publishing coup capped by a publicity coup: the publication of the The Autobiography of Mark Twain, Volume 1. By pitching the story of Twain's wish that the book be embargoed until a century after his death, a provision that, he argued, would free him to offer unvarnished accounts of his life and similarly honest opinions of those he knew, California landed an incredible amount of publicity--then sold a commensurate number of books.

Which, let's be clear, is a good thing. But it's also a trick worthy of Twain himself: most of the coverage emphasized Twain's embargo, while the fact that a not insubstantial portion of this material had already been published--a lot of it under that very same title, The Autobiography of Mark Twain--was missed. I don't think I'm an unreasonable example: I pay a lot of attention to books and publishing, and it wasn't until right before I got my copy that I learned that the embargo was more sizzle than steak. In a sense, Twain got to play one last joke on the American people, a century beyond the grave.

So something like half a million people got the book . . . and, wow. It's huge: 7-1/2" x 10-1/2", 760 pages, and nearly 5 pounds in weight. And it's daunting. Twain's text is buttressed by what Booklist, in a rave review, mildly called "substantial editorial apparatus": 20 pages of acknowledgments, a 60-page introduction, and 200 pages of notes at the back end. Once you wade through the prefatory material, you get to . . . a bunch of short, disconnected bits of memories and memoir, interspersed with clippings from newspapers, none of which at a glance seem to be taking anything like the form of an autobiography. So you flip through it, and, finally, on page 201, you get to a section called, straight up, The Autobiography of Mark Twain. Whew.

But even that starts out with fragments. "So much for the earlier days, and for the New England branch of the Clemenses." Autobiographies are not generally supposed to start in media res. So you flip ahead a few more pages, and what you find is more fragmentation: entries labeled with progressive days in 1906, tied to no obvious chronology or plan.

I suspect that's where a lot of people stopped reading. It just appears to be asking too much.

But if you're one of those people--as I was until last week--I urge you to try again. As the reviews from 2010 all tried to tell us, there's a great book hiding in there! Twain's method--to eschew chronology in favor of dictating stories from present and past as they came to mind--is the method of a man too old and unsystematic to write a proper autobiography, and that lack of system is responsible for a lot of the initial confusion you encounter on opening the book. Fragment of memory leads to current anecdote leads to reflections on old friends and so on, and at no point can you say, "Here is where I am in Twain's life."

The method may be suspect (and lazy?), but surprisingly it pays off: rather than run us through the by-now familiar paces of Twain's life story, the book instead ends up absolutely chock-full of stories, jokes, anecdotes, opinions, ephemera, and nonsense. Page after page after page simply glows with Twain's inimitable, indomitable personality and humor. I'm absolutely astonished at how much I enjoyed this book, and I'm so grateful to Maud Newton, whose long-ago praise for it lingered in my mind and kept me going back to my shelves every once in a while to give it a heft and consider diving in.

I've rambled long enough already, but I don't want to leave this post without giving you a taste of the pleasures of the book. So here is a passage, utterly inconsequential in the scheme of Twain's life, but wholly typical of the sort of wit, digressions, and character sketches the book offers on nearly every page. Twain is telling of a meeting of a discussion group he was once part of in Hartford, the Monday Night CLub, and of the speech of one Colonel Greene on the topic of dreams:
Colonel Greene discussed the Dream question in his usual way--that is to say, he began a sentence and went on and on, dropping a comma here and there at intervals of eighteen inches, never hesitating for a word, drifting straight along like a river at half bank with no reefs in it; the surface of his talk as smooth as a mirror; his construction perfect, and fit for print without correction, as he went along. And when the hammer fell, at the end of his ten minutes, he dumped in a period right where he was had stopped--and it was just as good there as it would have been anywhere else in that ten minutes' sentence. You could look back over that speech and you'd find it dimly milestoned along with those commas which he had put in and which could have been left out just as well, because they merely staked out the march, and nothing more. They could not call attention to the scenery, because there wasn't any. His speech was always like that--perfectly smooth, perfectly constructed; and when he had finished, no listener could go into court and tell what it was he had said. It was a curious style. It was impressive--you always thought, from one comma to another, that he was going to strike something presently, but he never did. But this time that I speak of, the burly and magnificent Rev. Dan Burton sat with his eyes fixed upon Greene from the beginning of the sentence until the end of it. He looked as the lookout on a whaleship might look who was watching where a whale had gone down and was waiting and watching for it to reappear; and no doubt that was the figure that was in Burton's mind, because when at last Greene finished, Burton threw up his hands and shouted, "There she blows!"
That "dimly milestoned"; the sense of appreciation, bordering on awe, for a rare skill; the precise and effective choices of words and images ("burly and magnificent," "dropping" a comma, "a river at half bank with no reefs in it," "staked out the march"); and the pleasure of the Reverend Burton's silly joke, preserved forever because it caught Twain's fancy. What fun this book is!

Now I can't wait to read the second volume, which arrived in stores last month. If Volume 1 is on your shelf keeping Hawking company, you could do a lot worse with your Thanksgiving than to take it down and chuckle over it while your relatives watch football.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Barbara Pym for a Friday

I've spent my week with three of my favorite comic writers: Mark Twain, whose mess of an autobiography I've finally sunk happily into; Donald E. Westlake, whom I'm sort of always reading; and, this morning, Barbara Pym, who earned her place in my shoulder bag by writing novels that weigh approximately infinity less than Twain's gargantuan book.

And what a good choice! The novel is the posthumously published An Academic Question, one of the very few I still have to read, and it was such pleasant bus-and-train reading. I'll just quickly share a couple of perfectly Pym scenes. First, a brief discussion between Caro Grimstone, a bored academic housewife, and her (presumably gay) fancy male bachelor friend, Coco:
Coco, in whom I had unwisely confided one evening when he took me out for a drink, advised me to acquire a lover.

"That's what people do," he said, as if I had no knowledge of the world.

"Yes, of course," I agreed. "But who, or whom, come to that--who is there in a place like this?"

Coco became vague. He had nobody definite in mind, and I certainly wouldn't be satisfied with just anybody. A distinguished artist or writer, or even a member of a noble family or an exiled royal--perhaps there was one such living in the town. After all, it was the kind of place people like that come to--witness the example of himself and his mother.

"But an exiled royal would probably be decayed and moth-eaten," I protested, "and I want better than that."

"A pity," Coco sighed. "It would have been amusing--I should have liked acting as a go-between."
So much of Pym's particular eye and voice are on display here: all confidences, in Pym, are "unwise," are they not? And who but a Pym character stops midsentence to clarify that her imagined lover is the object ("whom") rather than the subject ("who") of her sentence?

Later, Caro attends a tea at the home of her friend Dolly, who runs a second-hand shop that spills its wares into her living quarters:
We finished the meal and moved into Dolly's sitting room, finding seats as best we could while she made coffee. There was an uneasy silence while she was out of the room, for to settle ourselves at all comfortably various books and objects had to be moved and there was nowhere to put them. To have to do this at all seemed like a criticism of our hostess and I think only Dick Merrilees and I, who knew her best, were unembarrassed.

"Did you see the play about John Aubrey?" Dick asked. "That stage set reminded me of Dolly's room."

Evan Crannon held up what looked like a dried hedgehog's skin which he had moved from a corner of a sagging sofa where he had been about to sit.

"What shall I do with this?" he asked.

"Oh, that's nasty," said Menna in a low voice. "Some old skeleton."

"Yes, I found it in a drain," said Dolly coming into the room and taking it from him. "Goodness knows how long it had been there--see, it's quite dried, all the flesh gone. What happened to that poor creature? That's what we must ask ourselves."

"Perhaps it got run over and somebody flung it over your wall," Alan suggested.

"It may have died of natural causes," I said hastily, feeling that Dolly was becoming distressed.
I promise I didn't quote that scene for the mention of John Aubrey, but because it's amusing on its own terms and because, combined with the conversation above about adultery, it brought to mind Iris Murdoch, and how easily the situation and setting that Pym is creating for her characters could be repurposed for a Murdoch novel. But oh, how different the tone. The playfulness wouldn't be entirely shed, nor would the humor, but the adultery would be undertaken and immediately begin spinning off casualties, while the mess of Dolly's house would be portrayed not as gentle eccentricity but as squalor, uncomfortably unsettling and indicative of a deeper disorder.

Murdoch is another personal favorite, like Pym, and I take great pleasure in reading and rereading her books. But for a Friday morning's commute, I was glad that my companion was the more gentle, more forgiving of the two.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

More Anthony Powell on John Aubrey

Monday's post on Anthony Powell's John Aubrey and His Friends led to a Twitter exchange with John Wilson, Powell fan and editor of Books and Culture. John kindly pointed me to a passage in the third volume of Powell's autobiography, To Keep the Ball Rolling: Faces in Our Time, wherein Powell identifies precisely what drew him to Aubrey:
Antiquary, biographer, folklorist, above all a writer in whom a new sort of sensibility is apparent, the appreciation of the oddness of the individual human being. Aubrey's real originality in this respect is often dismissed as trivial observation, dilettantism, idle gossip, by those who have skimmed through his writings superficially. . . . Aubrey, it is true, was incapable of running his personal affairs in a coherent manner, accordingly, as he himself pointed out, never had an opportunity to work consistently for a long period at any of the subjects which preoccupied his mind. That did not prevent him from contributing to English history a very fair proportion of its best character sketches and anecdotes. . . . Aubrey's essentially new approach was vested in the manner in which he looked at things with an unprejudiced eye; an instinct for what his contemporaries, or historical figures, were like as individuals; his mastery of the ideal phrase for describing people.
John pointed out that the criticisms Powell cites as inappropriately made of Aubrey are not dissimilar to those levied by readers only casually acquainted with Powell's work. And indeed, Powell's entire description of Aubrey reveals him as more than merely a biographical subject; rather, he is a kindred spirit, his approach to people and life lining up almost perfectly with Powell's own.

Elsewhere in the book, while writing about Aubrey, Powell makes a case for the pleasures, and value, of archival research:
People who have never undertaken this sort of first-hand research perhaps miss something in life, a peculiar magic which makes time-travelling practicable. As one becomes increasingly steeped in a period like Aubrey's, one acquires for the moment a strangely intimate acquaintance with a crowd of deceased persons. After such burrowings into the past come to an end, so equally does the sense of existing in another century; the names of Aubrey's friends hard to remember like those of some wartime colleagues.
Which leads me to two thoughts:

1. The only thing close to research I've done in the past twenty years was working on The Getaway Car: A Donald Westlake Nonfiction Miscellany. And while that was, in research terms, a very modest project, the materials being all fairly recent and for the most part discoverable via contemporary library tools, at the same time I recognize the "peculiar magic" Powell describes. I felt it as Ethan Iverson and I were going through Westlake's files, examining each piece of repurposed hotel stationery and typewritten note to see if this one, or that one, might yield a surprise discovery. (Enough of them did to even now, seven months later, leave me excited when I think about it.)

2. As for living with the characters you unearth, that calls to mind Powell's own fiction, and the way that any fan will eventually mention to a new reader that once you're steeped in Dance, you will start to see its characters everywhere in your life. You know them so well, and they're drawn from such inexhaustible human patterns and drives, that they populate not just your imagination, but your toolkit for understanding the world. Unlike wartime comrades, they don't seem to ever fade.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Anthony Powell on John Aubrey, far from "bloody boring"

Graham Greene, following an argument with Anthony Powell over delays in the publication of his John Aubrey and His Friends on the part of Greene's firm, Eyre & Spottiswoode, famously called Powell's biography "a bloody boring book."

He's not entirely wrong. The life of Aubrey offers an irresistible opportunity for Powell to indulge in two of his favorite pastimes, heraldry and genealogy. And while, given what we know from his fiction of how he saw the structures of society and their relation to the individual, it's easy to understand why he finds the two subjects of such interest, it's hard for the rest of us to work up a similar enthusiasm, especially when it comes to minor cousins and manservants of little-known acquaintances of Aubrey. (To be fair, such attention to peripheral matters does occasionally pay off, as when Powell points out that the offer of a favor from a fourth cousin, once removed, "is a good illustration of seventeenth-century acceptance of remote family ties.")

Add in the fact that Aubrey's life has to be reconstructed from a small, quite messy amount of source material--in his biography of Powell, Michael Barber points out  that
the few scraps of autobiography he completed were prefaced by the instruction that they should be interposed "as a sheet of wast paper only in the binding of a book"
--and that the unsettledness of seventeenth-century English life around the Civil War makes parsing people's social, religious, and political positions both essential and difficult, and you've got a recipe for, well, a "bloody boring book."

Ah, but it's Powell, and it's Aubrey, and just often enough, throughout the book, there is a moment that makes it all worth the trouble. It's easy to see why Powell chose Aubrey as a subject: they share a catholic interest in every facet of human behavior and the stories they generate. Especially the odd ones. Aubrey's life work was the lives of others, and even in his own biography he takes a back seat regularly to the stories of those around him, Nick Jenkins–style. We get the occasional ever-so-Powellian observation, like this, from his explanation of how Aubrey and the prickly Oxford antiquarian Anthony Wood (who was "at odds with almost everyone with whom he came in contact"*) were able to maintain a friendship for decades despite being of wildly different temperaments: It was because of their
unworldliness, a quality whose various forms can bind into some sort of affinity widely divergent types of men.
Sady, unworldliness could only do so much, and once they fell out, Wood blasted Aubrey as
a shiftless person, roving & magotie-headed & sometimes little better than crazed.
We also get a memorable line on the academy, which Powell, though never truly a scholar, was astute in assessing: It is plagued by
those uninviting pedants who at any period form a scarcely avoidable ingredient of academic life.
Then there's Powell, who wouldn't turn diarist until late in life, pointing out the problem with Anthony Wood's otherwise quite useful diaries: Wood, he fears, fell victim to
the besetting frailty of the diarist, that is to say "touching-up" passages at a date later than that of the original entry.

Ultimately, however, it's Powell's liberal use of quotation from the letters of Aubrey and others that bring Aubrey, the book, and the seventeenth-century world, to life. Take this letter, from November 28, 1671, from Aubrey to Wood, on the perpetually difficult theme of Aubrey's family:
I have a great desire to see my honest brother Tom well settled, marryed to a good discreet wife with about 800li or 1000li which his estate (Chalke farme 250li per annum) does very well deserve. I wish you could find [such] another as your sister-in-law or neice if she were big enough. My great-grandmother was of Oxfordshire: and I like the people mighty well. About Chalke are no wives nearer than Salisbury, prowd and all gamesters, and unknowing or unfit for a country gent., turne and in North Wilts they will be drunken. Is it not an odd thing to send to a monk and an antiquary about such a question, but how can I tell what may happen. Some of your acquaintances may hint.
Troubles of that sort were never far from Aubrey, who lived the last half of his life as a roving guest in the country homes of friends and patrons, often living secretly to hide from his creditors. As he writes in another letter, "New troubles arise from me like Hydra's heads," and
This yeare all my businesses and affaires ran kim kam. Nothing took effect, as if I had been under an ill tongue.
In a letter to Wood, he tells of putting his books in a trunk,
but dare not trust my brother with the key, for my books would be like butter-flies, and fly about all the country.
In a later letter to Wood, he worries about the fate of his papers, which he has given to Elias Ashmole for eventual deposit in the new museum Ashmole was founding in Oxford:
My heart is almost broke and I have much adoe to keep up my poore spirits. . . . I sent 4 or 5 yeares since (upon the threatening of my brother to throw me into Gaole [to avoid it himself, for debt]) those Things to Mr Ashmole in a Deale-Box, which was bigger than the thing required: but about a yeare since Mr Ashmole had occasion for a Box of that bignes, and tumbled out my things into that lesser box I sent downe: but I find it like a transfusion of Chymicall Spirits out of one glass into another, they wast by it: and some papers I am sure are miscarried. . . . all my Bookes at Mr Kent's; so that if I had leisure I cannot enjoy them.
As someone who at one point had most of his books packed up for a year in vain service to the gods of real estate, I sympathize deeply.

The letters are also full of dashed-off notes of encounters and marvels, as when in Orleans Aubrey met, writes Powell, "a young man whose left cheek had been gnawed by a werewolf." Aubrey explains that the man knew it had been a werewolf,
for, he sayd, had it been a wolfe he would have killed me outright and eaten me up.
On hearing music coming from a French church, he comments that
the French have much better, stronger, and clearer voices than the English.
Of clothiers, he remarks,
They steal hedges, spoil coppices, and are trained up as nurseries of sedition and rebellion.
Wandering London, he saw oddities:
On the day of St John the Baptist, 1694, I accidentally was walking in the pasture behind Montague House. It was 12 o'clock. I sawe there about two or three and twenty young women, most of them well habited, on their knees very busy, as if they had been weeding. I could not presently learn what the matter was. At last a young man told me that they were looking for a coal under the root of a plantain, to put under their head that night, and they should dream who should be their husbands. It was to be sought for that day and hour.
Alas, aspiring brides: that pasture now is covered by the British Museum; I fear your future husbands have flown.

Ultimately, however, it is as much Aubrey's relationship to time as it is his love of oddity and anecdote that makes him such a good subject for Powell. As Powell wrote in an introduction to a 1976 edition of Aubrey's Brief Lives published by the Folio Society,
He was there to watch and to record, and the present must become the past, even though only the immediate past, before it could wholly command his attention.
We can't help but tell our stories from the moving train, with all the distortions and biases that entails. But the genius of Powell as a fiction writer and Aubrey as a chronicler lies largely in their preference for looking back a few cars, for giving people and events and anecdotes time to sort and settle and find their level. To allow time to help interpret, as time will.

Friday, November 08, 2013

John Aubrey and the problems of servants

Some recent e-mail exchanges with critic and nonfiction writer Lee Sandlin--who has a new memoir of his family out--have sent me yet again back to Anthony Powell. Lee is re-reading A Dance to the Music of Time, and while that is what's tempting me--there's nothing more autumnal than to embark on yet another re-reading of those novels--I've thus far staved it off by dipping back into Powell's notebooks and, tonight, his biography of John Aubrey.

From which I draw the following amusing incident. Aubrey has been summoned by his patron, Lord Thanet, whom Powell describes as "pompous, facetious, and perhaps rather pathetic with his personal preoccupations and his scurvy." Courteously, Lord Thanet has sent a horse and groom; uncourteously, he has also sent some unusual instructions via letter:
By this Groome I have sent a horse and your Portmantue, and I hope your returne hither on him will be not faster than when we went hence to Folkestone, the horse being at grasse, and since myne, neaver used to hard rideing. Some two days since, the Groome being sent with my Coachman upon some business of mine, very fairely that day went to an Alehouse and there stayed most part of the day, for which fault I enjoyne him this pennance, being to have him retourne upon his faire feet without a Launce from Coldham hither, without soe-mutch as allowing a Jugge of beer by the way. Of this keep him in ignorance till you are on horseback, else disgusted with the penance, and by way of revenge, he may neglect it lookeing to the horse as he ought, and being ready to come out, then open the commission and show him.
As Powell points out, it would have been the better part of both honor and staff management for Lord Thanet to have handled the discipline himself rather than farm it out to Aubrey without so much as a by your leave,
especially when the latter [was] suffering financial embarrassments, which were certainly a matter of common knowledge; while for Aubrey, unusually benevolent to servants (often to the extent of being imposed upon) such instructions could have been nothing but disagreeable.
How could anyone with Aubrey's wide-ranging curiosity (to say nothing of laziness and disorganization) be anything but generous to servants? I like to assume that Aubrey read the letter, sized up the situation, and came to some sensible agreement with the groom, one that involved food and beer and sensible discretion.

Wednesday, November 06, 2013

The early Nancy Mitford

What better way to emerge from the ghosts and gloom of October--and distract oneself through the drizzle and sleezing rain of the opening of November--than to dive into the frothy nonsense that is an early Nancy Mitford novel? While I've long been a fan of Mitford's best-known, most-respected novels, Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate, until this week the only one of her early books I'd read was Wigs on the Green. It's funny, if slight, but it didn't lead me to her others--I suspect because Mitford herself was so dismissive of them, at least in her letters to Evelyn Waugh. In a letter of November 5, 1951, Mitford told Waugh that Hamish Hamilton had just come over to convince her to let him reprint Wigs and Christmas Pudding, and "I gave way, though I know unwisely." Three days later, she was on the topic again:
I'm in a great state about my early books. I think I told you Jamie came over specially to ask me for them to be reprinted, which softened me. Then I read them. Well Wigs on the G. which isn't too bad, I find, is a total impossibility. Too much has happened for jokes about the Nazis to be regarded as funny or as anything but the worst of taste. After all, it was written in 1934. I really couldn't quite have foreseen all that came after. So that is out. Xmas Pudding is pathetic, badly written, facetious & awful. I can't conceive why he wants it & the fact that he does has shaken my faith in his judgement.
Mitford's embarrassment likely contains at least an element of performance: throughout the correspondence with Waugh, you get the sense that she views herself as a distinctly inferior talent, which results in wide-ranging, mostly comic self-deprecation. But given that her only real complaint about Wigs is its inappropriateness, and that later in the month she calls Pigeon Pie, her fourth novel, "better than the others," I'm willing to take her assessment  of Christmas Pudding mostly at face value.

Waugh's response is entertaining:
You could write a most amusing & interesting and popular work in this way: Describe yourself in 1951 taking up Wigs on the Green and rereading it for the first time since its publication. Print 2/3 or half of the original text with constant interruptions from your 1951 self asking: "Why did I say that?" or saying "This still seems funny, why?" So in the easiest & most informal way possible you could write your reminiscences & the history of the deteriorating world and the improving authoress.
Don't you wish she'd run with that idea?

With more distance, both in person and in time, Christmas Pudding looks much, much better than Mitford would have you believe. It's arch and artificial and light, but it also has the pleasantly anarchic heedlessness of '30s English comic novels, the sense that the old things of the world have lost their attraction and the new ones are mostly meant to throw around and smash up. What in Waugh is sour and in Anthony Powell is a bit confused in Mitford is a source of simple entertainment: having no responsibilities and no reason to prefer one action over another, the Bright Young Things simply do--they party and propose and pilfer and play, and Mitford show us how silly they are as they do it all. Eighty years later, for a few hours at a time, it can be wonderfully entertaining.

Much of the fun comes in simple descriptions of characters, and their limitations. Take this discussion of an eligible bachelor who proposes to a couple of different women in the course of the novel:
"I gather that Michael made a mess of everything as usual. He had only to go about it with a little ordinary sense and she'd have been crazy about him by now. Really that young man, I've no patience at all with him; he behaves like a very unconvincing character in a book, not like a human being at all."

"Yes, doesn't he. The sort of book of which the reviewers would say, 'the characterization is weak; the central figure, Lord Lewes, never really coming to life at all; but there are some fine descriptive passages of Berkshire scenery.'"
Or this riff on Lady Bobbin's confused love of Merrie England:
Lady Bobbin was always most particular that the feast of Christmas should be kept by herself, her family and dependents at Compton Bobbin in what she was pleased to call "good old-fashioned style." In her mind, always rather a muddled organ, this entailed a fusion of the Christmas customs brought to his adopted country by late Prince COnsort with those which have been invented by the modern Roman Catholic school of Sussex Humorists in a desperate attempt to revive what they suppose to have been the merrieness of England as it was before she came to be ruled by sour Protestants. And this was odd, because Germans and Roman Catholics were ordinarily regarded by Lady Bobbin with wild abhorrence. Nothing, however, could deter her from being an ardent and convinced Merrie Englander. The maypole on the village green, or more usually, on account of pouring rain, in the village hall; nocturnal expeditions to the local Druid stones to see the sun rise over the Alter Stone, a feat which it was seldom obliging enough to perform; masques in the summer, madrigals in the winter and Morris dances all the year round were organized and led by Lady Bobbin with an energy which might well have been devoted to some better cause. This can be accounted for by the fact of her having a sort of idea that in Merrie England there had been much hunting, no motor cars and that her bugbear, socialism, was as yet unknown. All of which lent that imginary period every attribute, in her eyes, of perfection.
You can imagine Jim Dixon drinking straight from the bottle about ten words into that description. Later, we get a bit more detail on Lady Bobbin's holiday spirit:
Christmas Day itself was organized by Lady Bobbin with the thoroughness and attention to detail of a general leading his army into battle. Not one moment of its enjoyment was left to chance or to the ingenuity of her guests; these received on Christmas Eve their marching orders, orders which must be obeyed to the letter on pain of death. Even Lady Bobbin, however, superwoman though she might be, could not prevent the day from being marked by a good deal of crossness, much over-eating, and a series of startling incidents.

The battle opened, as it were, with the Christmas stockings. These, in thickest worsted, bought specially for the occasion, were handed to the guests just before bedtime on Christmas Eve, with instructions that they were to be hung up on their bedposts by means of huge safety pins, which were also distributed. Lady Bobbin and her confederate, Lord Leamington Spa, then allowed a certain time to elapse until, judging that Morpheus would have descended upon the household, they sallied forth together (he arrayed in a white wig, beard and eyebrows and red dressing-gown, she clasping a large basket full of suitable presents) upon a stealthy noctambulation, during the course of which every stocking was neatly filed.
As you might imagine, their prowling is not particularly welcome:
Forewarned though they were, the shadowy and terrifying appearance of Lord Leamington Spa fumbling about the foot of their beds in the light of a flickering candle gave most of them such a fearful start that all thoughts of sleep were banished for many hours to come.
Mitford also offers more than a few barbed aphorisms, most centered on marriage (a state she'd yet to experience at twenty-eight, when she wrote the novel, but which would, in her case, bear out her skepticism). There's the acid of
Oh, I don't expect to be her first husband, naturally.
The fact of being in love with somebody is a very good reason for not marrying them.
Then there's the question of money:
"If I had a girl I should say to her, 'Marry for love if you can, it won't last, but it is a very interesting experience and makes for a good beginning in life. Later on, when you marry for money, for heaven's sake let it be big money. There are no other reasons for marrying at all.'"
Mitford's best, most piercing line comes in the center of this reflection:
"Oh, dear," said Paul gloomily, "it really is rather disillusioning. When one's friends marry for money they are wretched, when they marry for love it is worse. What is the proper thing to marry for, I should like to know?"
To which his friend Amabelle replies,
The trouble is . . . that people seem to expect happiness in life. I can't imagine why, but they do.
I started this post with Mitford's epistolary friendship with Evelyn Waugh, and that exchange leads me back to them. In April of 1952 Waugh wrote to Nancy,
Just had a letter from a group of American school girls asking me the Secret of Happiness. Me. I wrote back sharply that they were not meant to be happy but if they thought they were, you were the one to consult.
Indeed. It doesn't get more perfect Evelyn, more perfect Nancy.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Haunting monks and Pepys

{Photos by rocketlass.}

Earlier this month, I drew on the tales of the unnamed monk of Byland Abbey, who collected ghost stories from the surrounding countryside. I imagined the monk, alone in his cell on the quiet, wintry moors, spooking himself as he took pen in hand--so I was pleased to gather some more context for my imaginings last week from Carl Watkins's The Undiscovered Country: Journeys Among the Dead (2013):
The open country of the Vale of York lies to the south of this place but the moors rise steeply above it to the north. Although modest in height, they attract early winter snows, which make them a world unto themselves when the valley below is green. To medieval eyes this landscape was not beautiful but terrifying. Long before the abbey was built, the Venerable Bede thought these "steep and remote hills" more suitable for "dens of robbers and haunts of wild beasts than for men." Generations later, Bede's successors agreed. The monks who colonised the moors in the twelfth century entered "a place of horror and vast solitude," but they did so by choice, alighting on the place precisely because this was wild country, where minds could be bent to God free from distraction.
The exposure and isolation proved too much even for monks, however, and the abbey was eventually moved from the moor to the slightly more sheltered and accessible vale. But my imaginings of the spooky confines of an isolated abbey seem to have been on the mark nonetheless, at least by the fifteenth century, when the nameless monk began to collect his stories:
The heyday of the monasteries was in the past then. Outbreaks of plague and other epidemic disease had whittled away numbers at Byland and fewer recruits came forward to take their places. By 1400, a dozen or so monks were rattling around the cloisters. It was a good place to tell ghost stories and, as the abbey emptied of monks, the land round about was full of spirits.
And the monk had good reason to write down the stories he heard from the people of the surrounding country:
Stories about apparitions could not lightly be set aside and, since the chronicle of Byland warned that things not written down "slip away and wither as the sin of forgetfulness triumphs," there was reason to commit them to writing.
So the monk wrote, and so we know of a tailor named Mr. Snowball who fought a ghostly raven; and of James Tankerlay, a bad priest who walked after death and "blew out the eye" of his mistress; and of the fact that, as Watkins writes,
A soul detained [in Purgatory] suffered for its sins but could and should be helped through prayer and masses undertaken in its name. To write it off, to forget it, was a terrible thing. It was a sin. It was to rob the soul of the prayers that were its right. When a ghost walked, the living must harken to it. They must conjure it, let it speak, discover what it wanted, for it was likely to be suffering and in need of aid and deserved the benefit of the doubt.
Ghosts, however, change as we change, which makes the thumbnail history offered by Roger Clarke in his A Natural History of Ghosts: 500 Years of Hunting for Proof (2012) particularly useful:
Medieval ghosts were reanimated corpses or holy apparitions; Jacobean ghosts, demons pretending to be human.

Post-Restoration ghosts returned to correct injustices, right wrongs and supply information about lost documents and valuables. Regency ghosts were gothic. In Victorian times, ghosts were to be questioned in seances, and ghost-seeing became far more associated with women. Late Victorians embraced paranormality, seeing the ghostly as a manifestation of as yet understood laws of nature. The 1930s found the poltergeist.
And today? Perhaps unsurprisingly, it's more vague:
In one study in 1999, a group of Manchester women thought that hauntings were more to do with malign presences--in other words, a bad feeling--rather than the soul of someone who is dead making themself known.

Ghosts are no longer souls. Ghosts are now an emotion field.
As for me--still a skeptical enthusiast despite having, I'm told, seen a ghost when I was a boy--well, I think it right to end the month with Pepys. The diarist, Watkins tells us, was
an affirmed sceptic about wandering spirits. But he still relished a good story about them. And his scepticism, under the right conditions, might be a fragile thing. Several times he whiled away a dark evening talking with friends about ghosts.
Watkins goes on to mention a time that Pepys stayed in a reputedly haunted house and managed to spook himself. A bit of digging locates the incident on April 8 and 9, 1661. In his diary entry for the 8th, Pepys tells of traveling to the Hill House at Chatham, where:
Here we supped very merry, and late to bed; Sir William telling me that old Edgeborrow, his predecessor, did die and walk in my chamber, did make me some what afeard, but not so much as for mirth’s sake I did seem. So to bed in the treasurer’s chamber.
Mirthful exaggeration or not, his sleep was not untroubled, as he reveals in the next day's entry:
And lay and slept well till 3 in the morning, and then waking, and by the light of the moon I saw my pillow (which overnight I flung from me) stand upright, but not bethinking myself what it might be, I was a little afeard.
Nonetheless, Pepys, that most earthbound, most familiar, most untroubled of men, is not bothered for long, as "sleep overcame all."

As October closes, howling wind and spitting rain and swirls of blowing leaves and all, would that we all could lay our ghosts so easily.

Friday, October 25, 2013

The pleasures of the midcentury professional genre story

{Photos by rocketlass.}
You who sit in your houses of nights, you who sit in the theatres, you who are gay at dances and parties--all you who are enclosed by four walls--you have no conception of what goes on outside in the dark. In the lonesome places. And there are so many of them, all over--in the country, in the small towns, in the cities. If you were out in the evenings, in the night, you would know about them, you would pass them and wonder, perhaps, and if you were a small boy you might be frightened . . . frightened the way Johnny Newell and I were frightened, the way thousands of small boys from one end of the country to the other are being frightened when they have to go out alone at night, past lonesome places, dark and lightless, sombre and haunted. . . .
That's from August Derleth's "The Lonesome Place," a brief, effective little scary story from 1948 that I read this week. One of the reasons I enjoy my October reading is that it's almost the only time all year that I read any examples of stories like "The Lonesome Place"--what I think of as the midcentury professional genre story. If you've ever read any of the Robert Arthur–––edited Alfred Hitchcock anthologies, you know what I mean: twenty pages or less, written in straightforward, declarative prose that quickly sets a scene and a problem (and, often, a distinct first-person voice), then delivers a satisfying twist at the end. These are the kind of short stories that Ray Bradbury wrote, the kind that inspired the early work of writers like Donald Westlake and Lawrence Block, and that they very quickly turned to writing themselves. And they're the stories that mostly disappeared when the magazine fiction market dried up.

While I'm sure there was a lot of dross in the pages of those magazines, the winnowing of time means that when you do encounter one of those stories today, it's usually a good one--otherwise it wouldn't be in the anthology or single-author collection you've picked up. And the good ones are so good. There's satisfaction in the simple professionalism of it all, the idea of the writer sitting down to turn out a compact story that hits certain markers (a crime, or a ghost, or a sci-fi surprise), and simply doing it, month after month. There's no messing around, no extraneous nonsense. These are stories written to fill a need, and they do that: they while away a half an hour and leave you with a surprise you'll remember later.

October always finds me reading anthologies of ghost stories and weird tales, so I end up filing away a number of new favorites. I started this month a bit off target subject-wise (no ghosts), but right on in terms of feel, with Jerome Bixby's Space by the Tale. Bixby is best known for "It's a Good Life," a terrifying little story about a boy with mental powers that became the basis of one of the most memorable Twilight Zone episodes. Space by the Tale is Bixby writing mostly in a sci-fi vein, and while none of the stories contained within it is as memorable as "It's a Good Life", they're nonetheless satisfying, offering the basic pleasure of the sci-fi short story: watching an inventive idea spun out to its logical (if unexpected) conclusion. If you enjoyed the recent NYRB Classics reissue of Robert Sheckley's stories, Store of the Worlds, you should dig up some Bixby.

{Side note: I'm beginning to think that Charles Yu may be the heir to the Sheckley/Bixby tradition--and in some sense, to the midcentury professional genre story, period. Whereas Sheckley's stories are almost all about hubris, about our tendency to convince ourselves that we know everything and the bad places that leads us, Yu's sci-fi stories (both his novel, How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe and his collection of short fiction, Sorry Please Thank You) are about the opposite: being paralyzed, physically and emotionally, by the knowledge that our knowledge is incomplete, that our actions have unknown consequences, that anything we decide to do will probably be wrong. They're what happens to Atomic Age tales in the post-confidence present, and they're wonderful.}

Two new anthologies have also provided a lot of satisfactions in this genre. The first is suited for October: American Supernatural Tales, edited by S. T. Joshi for the new Penguin Horror line. It covers a broad span of time, but its midcentury American selections are very good--August Derleth, Fritz Leiber, Ray Bradbury, Robert Bloch, and Richard Matheson all offer sterling examples of the genre. The second you should get and set aside for November, in the wake of the ghosts and ghouls: Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives: Stories from the Trailblazers of Domestic Suspense, a new anthology edited by Sarah Weinman that collects stories from women writing crime stories whose transgressions are seen from a distinctly female perspective. Few people know crime fiction as well as Sarah does, and she's picked some great stories from Dorothy B. Hughes, Shirley Jackson, Patricia Highsmith, and a lot of less familiar names.

I'll leave you with a passage from another great example of the genre that's included in American Supernatural Tales, Robert Bloch's "Black Bargain":
That night, walking home, I looked down the dark street with new interest. The black houses bulked like a barrier behind which lurked fantastic mysteries. Row upon row, not houses any more, but dark dungeons of dreams. In what house did my stranger hide? In what room was he intoning to what strange gods?

Once again I sensed the presence of wonder in the world of lurking strangeness behind the scenes of drugstore and high-rise civilization. Black books still were read, and wild-eyed strangers walked and muttered, candles burned into the night, and a missing alley cat might mean a chosen sacrifice.

That's what the midcentury professional genre story does at its best: twitches the curtains in the oh-so-quiet windows of the houses on our oh-so-ordinary street, and gets us thinking again--could it be . . . just maybe . . . what if?

Monday, October 21, 2013


{From the window of Shake, Rattle, and Read bookstore in Uptown, Chicago.}

A letter sent by A. E. Housman to Grant Richards on August 24, 1909:
My dear Richards,

I shall be very pleased to dine with you on Thursday, if you are not then dead of ptomaine poisoning, in which case please appear as a ghost and cancel the engagement.
My favorite thing about this letter comes in the notes, where the editor admits to having no idea what put the idea of ptomaine poisoning in Housman's head.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Sergio De La Pava writes of ghosts

I'm re-reading Sergio De La Pava's second novel, Personae, in advance of seeing him this weekend--and this afternoon I was surprised to find that it hadn't, after all, derailed my annual October ghost hunt. To wit, from the bleakly comic play that makes up the middle third of the novel:
CLARISSA But what could be more consoling than a ghost? Proof, as it is, of human transcendence and meaning?

ADAM Credit not its words, though, as death terminates all responsibility to the living and their notion of truth.
Which is an interesting thought. Our instinct is to assume that the dead speak the truth--after all, what now inhibits them? And why would they appear if not fired by an urgent need to communicate--a need that we naturally don't associate with dissemblance? Yet why not? What, as De La Pava's characters point out, could possibly tie a ghost to us so securely that it would adhere to our notion of truth and responsibility? Why would not a person who spread mischief and malice continue to do so after death?

Later, a character asks,
Is there a greater gap we feel than between living and dead? Take an orderly century's progression through life, from bulbous infant to vital adult until ravaged ersatz corpse. The subject may marvel at what he sees in the mirror, the family may gather in secret wish for the release that comes with resolution, but when the wholly expected comes it still shocks in its finality, doesn't it? That so much can instantly devolve into a nullity.

That gap again. Try bridging it but how? Memory's a poor substitute for presence and though I may chant their names into eternity their eyes won't alight, their lips won't curl.

Then am I damned to be both reflective chanter and sole recipient?
Thus we turn, century after century, to ghosts--but not to ghosts as that undeniable gap might create them, wholly different from us, inexplicable and untrustworthy, but rather as pallid reflections of ourselves, comforting even as they frighten. A message from beyond means not only that there's a beyond, but that our here and now is important enough to still matter there. It's a seductive idea as the nights lengthen and the chill sets in, the year draws in with nary an assurance that we'll get another.

Monday, October 14, 2013

A monk hears a different sort of confession

At the start of October, I shared a story that I found in Andrew Joynes's Medieval Ghost Stories, a collection of retellings of accounts found in a number of medieval sources. The one I shared, "The Howling Ghost," from the collection of a Cistercian monk at the Abbey of Byland, reminded me of M. R. James--and it turns out that there's a reason: Joynes reveals in his headnote to that group of stories that James was one of the antiquaries who transcribed the Latin versions of the tales.

Joynes also goes into a bit more detail about the whole collection:
At the end of the fourteenth century, a monk at the Cistercian abbey of Byland in Yorkshire wrote down a series of stories concerning ghosts and spirits which he had been told by local people, and set them in the villages and ales of the countryside around his monastery. The stories were written on a few blank pages in a collection of manuscripts dating from the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries, and the anonymous monk must have intended them to be used as exempla in the tradition of Caesarius of Heisterbach.
The monk may have had heavenly intentions, but, as Joynes points out, that didn't keep him from attending to the stories' more earth-bound details:
The monk of Byland seems to have been more concerned to record the eerie, grotesque, and fantastic details of ghostly occurrences than to draw moral conclusions from his stories. In that sense, these fragments of popular legend, written down by the person to whom they were recounted in the neighbourhood where the various spirits supposedly appeared, bear a basic resemblance to the modern notion of a ghost story as an entertaining narrative which can be both frightening and enjoyable.
I just love the image that conjures up: a quiet monk talking with the people of the area, and perhaps the occasional traveler, hearing their stories, asking questions, and then in the wan light of a northern winter afternoon painstakingly writing them out as part of the essential record of the region.

And that night, come the starry winter darkness, amid the silence of the abbey's seclusion, perhaps he found that that writing them down proved to be no banishing force, as they returned to trouble his sleep. "It is said that downy cobwebs hung in strands from her right hand . . . "

Friday, October 11, 2013

Looking devilish

Just in time for October reading, the good people at NYRB Classics have published a new translation of Jeremias Gotthelf's 1842 novel, The Black Spider, complete with horrifying Renaissance waxwork cover art. It's mostly a lurid Christian morality tale: peasants in a rural village in Switzerland, suffering under a ruthless lord, make a deal with the devil, with results that are predictable if pleasantly surprising in their execution. Unexpected, however, is the level of grotesque detail, and even gore: the way the black spider of the title sets about his dark work, you can imagine John Carpenter reading it and immediately getting his creature team on the phone.

What I'll remember longest, however, is Gotthelf's portrayal of the devil, who appears at the moment of the peasants' greatest despair at their lord's impossible demands for labor:
[A] tall, spindly huntsman, dressed in green from top to toe. Upon his jaunty cap swayed a red feather, a little red beard blazed in his swarthy face, and, nearly concealed between curving nose and pointy chin, like a cave under an overhang, a mouth opened and asked, "What is the matter, good people, that you sit here wailing so piteously as to drive the very stones from the earth and the branches from the trees?"

Then the green man's face grew even blacker, the red beard so red it seemed to crackle and spark like fir twigs on the fire, the mouth contracted to an arrow-like point.
The devil, I think, should be jaunty. And, as he does later in The Black Spider, he should show pity: he sees your plight, and he wants above all else to help you!

All of which calls to mind my favorite screen devil, from the 1941 adaptation of The Devil and Daniel Webster: Walter Huston's Ol' Scratch.

Who could refuse that face?

Wednesday, October 09, 2013

Dr. Johnson tells a ghost story

I've written before that it's hard to imagine a much better writer to choose for an encounter with a ghost than Samuel Johnson. He has the appropriate mix of openness to experience and inherent skepticism, as well as an unusual (and gratifying) blend of empiricism and belief in the world beyond. (Who can forget his explosive response to the question of what he meant when he spoke of his fears of being among the damned? "Sent to Hell, Sir, and punished everlastingly.")

There are a handful of references to ghosts and contemporaneous ghost stories scattered throughout Boswell's Life, though most of them involve Johnson dismissing an account as lacking sufficient evidence. Skepticism on this front really does seem to have been his mode: though it is barely mentioned in Boswell's book, Johnson was part of the commission that determined that the famous Cock Lane Ghost was a fraud, and he played a role in publicizing that fact afterwards.

{Photos by rocketlass.}

There is one ghost story in Boswell's book, however, that is both more extended and treated with more credulity, and thus seems worth sharing in this ghostly month. Boswell, seeing Hogarth's engraving Modern Midnight Conversation, asks Johnson what he knows of Parson Ford, "who makes a conspicuous figure in the riotous groupe," then mentions that he thought he'd heard that the Parson's ghost had once been spotted. "Sir, it was believed," replies Johnson. He continues:
A waiter at the Hummums, in which house Ford died, had been absent for some time, and returned, not knowing that Ford was dead. Going down to the cellar, according to the story, he met him; going down again, he met him a second time. When he came up, he asked some of the people of the house what Ford could be doing there. They told him Ford was dead. The waiter took a fever, in which he lay for some time. When he recovered, he said he had a message to deliver to some women from Ford; but he was not to tell what, or to whom. He walked out; he was followed; but somewhere about St. Paul's they lost him. He came back, and said he had delivered the message, and the women exclaimed, "Then we are all undone!"
I'll admit to not being entirely sure how to interpret the women's reaction. Are they assuming that the delivery of a secret message to a secret--female--recipient means that Parson Ford had a hitherto unknown illicit life, and thus they are "undone" in a moral sense? Or are they simply reacting to seeming proof of supernatural forces at work?

Johnson, obviously intrigued by this story, goes into the evidence for its veracity:
Dr. Pellet, who was not a credulous man, inquired into the truth of this story, and, he said, the evidence was irresistible. My wife went to the Hummums; (it is a place where people get themselves cupped.) I believe she went with intention to hear about this story of Ford. At first they were unwilling to tell her; but, after they had talked to her, she came away satisfied that it was true. To be sure the man had a fever; and this vision may have been the beginning of it. But if the message to the women, and their behaviour upon it, were true as related, there was something supernatural. That rests upon his word, and there it remains.
Is that Johnson's wife, Tetty, out investigating? It certainly seems like it--and the spunk the story suggests makes a nice counterpoint to the lingering sense we still get of Tetty as an unpleasant invalid.

So chalk one up for the ghosts, sayeth Dr. Johnson. Oh, what I'd give for a whole book of Johnson's analyses of tales of hauntings--imagine teaming him up with John Aubrey's (too credulous) ear for rumor!

I'll close with a line from a story found in Otto Penzler's great anthology The Big Book of Ghost Stories, Joseph Shearing's "They Found My Grave." The story itself has nothing to do with Dr. Johnson--it's about seances and table-turnings in the late Victorian era--but this description of the most prominent of the spirits conjured at the sittings struck me as quite Johnsonian:
"Oh," smiled Mr. Lemoine, rising to indicate that the sitting was at an end. "He is a common type, a snob. When he was alive he boasted about his distinctions, visits to court, and so on; now he is dead he boasts of having seen God, being in Heaven, and the marvels of his grave."
A merciless analysis of character, a hint of ironic amusement, an eye for the power of vanity--doesn't that sound like the good Doctor?

Monday, October 07, 2013

Defoe on apparitions

These days Daniel Defoe is remembered almost solely for Robinson Crusoe--oh, Journal of the Plague Year is in print, which, centuries after its publication, any of us would surely accept as a legacy, but it's read primarily by specialists and students. (Though I recommend it--it's fun!) But he made his living by his pen for decades (with the occasional bonus paycheck for spying; 'twas a good era for spying), and while he's not inexhaustible the way, say, Dr. Johnson or Hazlitt are, his body of work nonetheless offers plenty of pleasures for the browser.

Which is why it perhaps shouldn't surprise us to learn that he is solid on the topic of ghosts, as I learned on a recent visit to Los Angeles's Museum of Jurassic Technology, whose modest but satisfying bookshop features a limited edition hardcover of a 1999 reprint of Defoe's 1729 compilation The Secrets of the Invisible World Disclosed (An Essay on the History and Reality of Apparitions). There's something rewarding on almost every page. Here, let's play a bit of sortes defoeiana--page 223:
Thus if the invisible Spirits give a due alarm, they do their part; if they jog us and awaken us in a deep sleep, and pull us again and again, and give us notice that something is coming, that some Danger is at the Door; if we will sleep on 'till it comes, if we will go on, happen what happen may, the kind Spirit has done its Duty, discharg'd its Office, and if we fall into the Mischief, the fault is our own, we can by no means blame the insufficiency of the Notice, and say, to what purpose is it? feeling we had due and timely warning, but would not take the hint; we had due notice of the danger, and would not step out of the way to avoid it; the fault is wholly our own.
Two important notes to help you enjoy that passage to the utmost:

1 Remember that in the facsimile of the 1729 edition, every "s" that isn't capitalized or ending a word looks more like a cursive f.

2 Stop for a moment to think about just how uncannily like Javier Marias's inimitable style the back-and-forth run-on of that narrative self-argument sounds.

Anyway, today what I've happened on is the tale of an apparition sent, it seems, to warn James IV of Scotland not to continue to make war on England. The entreaty failed; the outcome was the Battle of Flodden, which cost James his life and Scotland its last real hope of independence. Defoe writes that James was at his palace in Linlithgow when an "antient" man with "Hair the Colour of Amber, (some Accounts would represent it as a Glory painted round a head by the Limners)" forced his way through the crowd, and
came close up to the King, and, without any Bow or Reverence made to his Person, told him with a low Voice, but such as the King could hear very distinctly, That he was sent to him to warn him, not to proceed in the War which he had undertaken at the Sollicitation of the Priests, and in Favour of the French; and that if he did go on with it he should not prosper. He added also, that he should abstain from his Lewd and Unchristian Practices with wicked Women, for that if he did not, it would issue in his Destruction.

Having deliver'd his Message, he immediately vanish'd, for tho' his pressing up to the King had put the whole Assembly in disorder, and that everyone's Eye was fix'd upon him, while he was delivering his Message to the King; yet not one could see him any more, or perceive his going back from the King; which put them all into the utmost Confusion.
After reiterating that the people and the king were convinced that the speaker was an angel because they didn't see or feel him making his way out after delivering his message--which is entertaining because of the way it calls in physical evidence to support a claim for the supernatural--Defoe laments that James ignored the warning, pressing ahead with his army to the Tweed, the traditional boundary between the kingdoms.

But the angel wasn't through with James, Defoe tells us. As the king sat drinking wine "very plentifully" in a hall in Jedburgh, he was accosted by the messenger yet again,
tho' not in the Form which it appear'd in Lithgo; but with less regards or respect to the Prince, and in an imperious Tone told him, he was commanded to warn him not to proceed in that War, which if he did, he should lose not the Battel only, but his Crown and Kingdom: and that after this, without staying for any Answer, like the Hand to King Ahasuerus, it went to the Chimney, and wrote in the Stone over it, or that which we call the Mantle-piece, the following Distich,

Laeta sit illa dies, Nescitur Origo secundi
Sit labor an requies, sic transit gloria Mundi.
I was raised, like Shakespeare, with little Latin and less Greek, so I'm forced to turn to Google Translate for help on the Ahasuerus-style mantlepiece warning:
Proud to be that day, do not know the origin of the second
Let there be toil or rest, so passes the glory of the world.
I'm going to guess that "do not know the origin of the second" really means something like "does not think of the life to come."

Alas, the warning was not heeded: as Defoe writes,
that he marcht on, fought the English at Flodden-Field, and there lost his Army, all his former Glory, and his Life, is also recorded; I need say no more of it.
Defoe goes on to speculate a bit about the spirit's origins, building his speculation on his accumulated store of tales of apparitions:
Had it been a Heavenly Vision, 'tis more than probably it would have laid hold of the King's Hand, as the Apparition of Angels did to Lot, and as it were dragg'd him away, and said You shall not go forward, that you may not be defeated and slain, both you and your Army.
After offering a few reasonably convincing arguments as to why the spirit couldn't be the devil (the devil loves war and death and thus wouldn't send an emissary to prevent them), Defoe essentially throws up his hands: It's a spirit, probably of someone deceased with some sort of stake in the outcome, and we can't know more.

As a fan of Dorothy Dunnett, and particularly of her House of Niccolo series, I can't help but come up with a different answer. The eight books of the House of Niccolo series end in 1483, five years before James IV took the throne. But throughout the series Niccolo spends substantial time and energy on James's father and his dangerously wild siblings and family, trying to instill in him the wisdom and control required of a good king. Is it so hard to imagine that Niccolo, though essentially retired from meddling in affairs of state, saw the disaster of Flodden approaching and came up with one of his typically convoluted schemes in hopes of preventing it?

Saturday, October 05, 2013

The Haunted L

Creative writing instructors in Chicago learn quickly that you need to lay down at least one ground rule right off the bat: no stories set on the L. If you don't . . . good god, the stories you'll get of Highly Significant encounters between sensitive twenty-year-olds and representatives of the Other--emotionally charged scenes of cross-racial understanding (or misunderstanding), encounters with the aged or the homeless or the mad, unprompted confessions from the unappreciated wife of a coked-up commodities trader. A young Midwesterner with pretensions to creativity usually finds his first encounter with the forced proximity of the L so bracing that he dive-bombs right at the nearest mountain of cliches, and the casualties tend to be legion.

In fact, until tonight I would have said it's not possible to write a good story about the L, period. Then--as I made my way through Otto Penzler's consistently rewarding Black Lizard anthology The Big Book of Ghost Stories, I encountered Robert Weinberg's "The Midnight El" (1994), which is so good I'll forgive not only the setting, but also his (all too common) misspelling of L.

Like most ghost stories, it depends significantly on surprise, so I won't share too much beyond the premise. Chicago-based psychic detective Robert Taine, a character about whom Weinberg wrote regularly, sets out late one winter night to catch the Midnight El, a perhaps mythical ghost train that picks up dead souls. It starts its run at exactly midnight every night, from the station nearest the most deaths that day. Taine is after the wife of a client, a woman whom he--like his client--is convinced shouldn't be dead. It won't hurt the story if I tell you that the train does arrive, and Taine, having employed a potion, slips aboard, where he finds a conductor who totes an anachronistic pocket watch of unusual powers. Taine appeals to the conductor:
"The Greeks considered Charon the most honorable of the gods," said Taine, sensing his host's inner conflict. "Of course, that was thousands of years ago."

"Spare me the dramatics," said the conductor. A bitter smile crossed his lips.
Who has earned the right to a bitter smile more thoroughly than Charon? I'll admit to not knowing that he was regarded as highly honorable, though it makes sense: for life and afterlife to remain in balance, the ferryman must be ready to accept his due payment, but be proof against bribery or histrionics.

Ultimately, it's the honor of the conductor on which the story turns, used by Weinberg to bring about a resolution that feels appropriately myth-based and ancient, even as the story's trappings are the screeching and rumble of the L. It's a great ghost story, well worth seeking out.

The most unbelievable aspect--in a story built around a train car full of the dead? That the L arrives right on time and operates properly throughout its run. In reality it would be ten minutes late and then run express, leaving legions of reanimated corpses fuddled on the platform to horrify the early commuters the next morning.