Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Improperly packed postcards

In Nancy Mitford's delightfully lightweight wartime espionage novel Pigeon Pie (1940), at one point her heroine writes to her paramour about their mutual friend Olga, who has in recent months taken on a deliberate air of mystery, built around artlessly dropped hints about her secret war work for "my Chief" as B.F.S., or Beautiful Female Spy:
I'm afraid I was rather rude to her but really I'm getting tired of Olga in the role of beautiful female spy--it's becoming a bore. I've just sent her a telegram saying "Proceed John o' Groats and away further instructions. F.69." Hope she proceeds, that's all.
When I read that passage today, I laughed, but it also made me remember to do something I'd forgotten: my mysterious Texan correspondent.

Longterm readers may remember earlier appearances of my correspondent: over the past couple of years, he (or she!) has sent anonymous postcards with memorable quotes from A Dance to the Music of Time (This one, dealing with the unforgettable Mopsy Pontner, is the best of the batch) or, another time, some interesting context for one of Mark Twain's autobiographical anecdotes. The correspondence has always been the best sort of surprise: irregular, varied, and utterly enjoyable.

What Mitford's spy nonsense reminded me of is that I am two postcards behind! Back in the late spring, I received a pair. One, if I recall correctly, featured a quote from Proust; the other--perhaps?--a quote from Maupassant. They arrived as we were in the midst of packing and dealing with all the stress and frustrations of moving and buying property, and they were an extremely welcome distraction.

But oh, packing. Packing a stuffed-full condo after fourteen years. Ninety boxes of books alone. The postcards . . . are somewhere. And until Mitford reminded me, I had forgotten that I had failed even to acknowledge receipt. So please, mysterious Texan correspondent, accept my apology and gratitude--and, if my delinquency hasn't soured you on this project, click through to the Annex for my new address. To quote Mitford, I hope he/she proceeds, that's all.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Robert Graves

One of the books that carried me through the twenty-one hours, door-to-door, of my return from Slovenia earlier this month was Robert Graves's Goodbye to All That. I've long been an enthusiastic dabbler in Graves--a fan of the delectable I, Claudius, a timid peeper at the labyrinthine obsessions of The White Goddess, and a prurient, if casual, collector of anecdotes about his life.

On that last point, the best stories tend to revolve around the malevolent power of his longtime love Laura Riding. Michael Dirda, in Bound to Please, relates one of the most shocking. After a different lover rejected her, Riding:
sipped some Lysol, tootled, "Goodbye, chaps," and leaped out of a fourth-floor window. Robert immediately rushed down the steps; but realizing that his muse must surely be dead, he stopped on the third floor and jumped out a window after her.
Astonishingly, both survived, though with substantial injuries. Riding would go on to dominate Graves's life for many years; there's an often harrowing account of her power in Once As It WasGriselda Jackson Ohannessian's memoir of the years she spent as their neighbor in rural Pennsylvania when she was a girl. She tells of how Riding quickly brought all the nearby adults under her spell, and her descriptions of Riding's dominance are convincingly uncanny. As Dirda notes, Graves once remarked, "You have no idea of Laura's holiness"; if Ohanessian is to be believed, her holiness was more that of the pagan deity inexorably demanding sacrifice than of the sort that honors and rewards purity and goodness.

A much more gently amusing Graves anecdote entered my store this winter via Albert Vigoleis Thelen's magnificent, enormous novel The Island of Second Sight. It's a thinly veiled--though beautifully, inventively, and hilariously stylized--account of the years Thelen spent on Mallorca in the run-up to World War II. Among the modest European expatriate community is Graves, who enlists Thelen to translate some of his work into German. The amusing bit, though, is how Thelen tells us Graves introduces himself to everyone he meets: shaking the person's hand vigorously, he says, "Robert Van Ranke Graves, Goodbye to All That." No use courting confusion, I suppose.

Which leads us to the book that made Graves's name, and for which he's still best known, Goodbye to All That. Published in 1929, it was one of a wave of memoirs of the Great War, and, along with Siefried Sassoon's and Edmund Blunden's memoirs, it has remained one of the key documents of the experience of the trenches. So imagine my surprise when I realized how much comedy was in it--this is no All Quiet on the Western Front. Oh, there are horrors aplenty, and much of the humor is of the nihilistic black sort that, it seems likely, has always been part of the soldier's experience. But there is also the occasional bit of pure, if savagely ironic, comedy, as in this passage from Graves's first extended leave, in 1916. Home with his parents, he allows himself to be badgered into attending church in the morning--his mother taking "no active part in the argument, just looking sad"--rather than catching up on months of lost sleep. Church is to be at 9:30, which Graves thought "unusually early for matins," but attributed to "the new wartime principle of getting things over quickly." Then comes a knock at the door:
The proprietor of a neighbouring bath-chair business was waiting with a bath-chair. He explained that, as he had previously told my mother, they could not spare a man to take it to church, being seriously under-staffed because of the war--his sole employee, the only one left, had a job pulling the aged Countess of I-forget-what to the Parish Church, a mile or so in the opposite direction. For the moment I thought that it had been a very generous thought of my mother's on my behalf, but, ill as I felt, I could surely manage to reach the church, about half a mile away, without such a parade of infirmity. I forgot my father's gout, and also forgot that passage in Herodotus about the two dutiful sons who yoked themselves to an ox-cart, pulled their mother, the priestess, to the Temple, and were oddly used by Solon, in a conversation with King Croesus, as a symbol of ultimate human happiness.
Had Solon tried to make the same example of Graves, I expect he would have received some choice words in return. In reality, though, Graves "could only laugh" and take up the "beastly vehicle." The church, as you've surely already assumed, was up a hill.

It got worse from there:
By half-past ten the service did not seem to be getting on as fast it should have, and I grew dreadfully bored, longing to sneak outside for--well, anyhow, I wanted to sneak outside.

I whispered to my mother: "Isn't it nearly over?"

She answered: "My dear, didn't your father tell you that it would be a three-hour service? And, of course, since you couldn't get up to pull him to church for the early service, he'll want to stay for Holy Communion at the end. That will make it a little longer."
Welcome home from the trenches, son! We've missed you terribly!

One question before I wrap this up: Does anyone feel confident about what Graves was planning to sneak out of church to do? Smoke or drink, one would assume, but if that's it, why not just say so explicitly? Any other ideas?

Monday, July 21, 2014

The absent Edwardian father

If my earlier posts have failed to convince you to pick up Slightly Foxed's paperback of Diana Holman-Hunt's memoir My Grandmothers and I, well, there's probably little more I can do. You clearly aren't into Edwardian eccentricity, which is a way of approaching life that makes me shudder to contemplate. Next you'll tell me you're not amused by Lord Byron's keeping a tame bear while at college, in protest at the rules against dogs!

Nonetheless, in hopes that it may convince you to mend your ways, I'm drawing on the book one last time today. This time, it's the character of Holman-Hunt's father, a sportsman and man-about-town in India at the time, who provides the entertainment. Early in the book, young Diana receives a letter from her father, which her more staid grandmother reads aloud to her:
"'My dearest Diana,

'I am posting this letter a month before your birthday to make sure it arrives in time.'" She looked at the date on the post mark.

"Well, get on with it, Mamie!" My grandfather crossed his feet on his stick.

"'Under separate cover I am sending you the skin of a young leopard I shot in the jungle. It will make a good rug for your room, if you get it properly mounted and lined.'" She cleared her throat. "'Some people make the claws into broaches . . . ' How extraordinary, do let me see."

"For God's sake get on with the letter! You're not a savage! Brooches indeed!"

She read on: "'I enclose some snapshots of me and my--'" she hesitated and spelled out a word, "it looks like 'CHIPRARSIES.' I wonder if they can be orchids?"

"Of course not," he grunted.

"'Also of me and my new polo ponies. Their names are Hasty-Hussy, Hot House'--and something I cannot decipher." She peered into the envelope. "There are no photographs as far as I can see."

"Perhaps they were in the parcel." He poked at the paper with his stick.

"Here's one," I said, "of a very big man on a very small horse, wearing a white hat."

"I presume the very big man is wearing the white hat," he said.
It goes on like that, the letter slowed and filtered by the grandmother, huffed over by the grandfather, and impatiently awaited by Diana, until finally the end is reached:
"'I wish you many happy returns and I am your affectionate father. Postscript. It is time you knew it is all rot about fairies and Father Christmas.'"
Happy birthday, indeed!

It is perhaps no surprise that when Diana's father does eventually turn up, he's rackety and fast and unreliable, spending most of his time either hungover or getting that way, while introducing his daughter to ladies of questionable virtue. But all that pales beside his one great accomplishment: fulfilling every unhappy boarding school child's dream, he arrives unexpectedly at the school and, with a dramatic flair that leaves the headmaster fuming, up and removes Diana from the school for good. For a father of that period, I think that probably leaves his performance well to the good, on balance.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

The evil Edwardian

One of the bits that most amused me in Diana Holman-Hunt's charming memoir of her Edwardian girlhood, My Grandmothers and I (1960)--about which I've written here and there over the past couple of weeks--was a passing mention by a friend of Holman-Hunt's bohemian grandmother of one of her neighbors. The young Diana relates it in conversation:
"Out of the window we saw a black dog. Mrs Swynnerton said it belonged to her neighbour--she called him Mr Creepy Crawley--she said the dog was possessed by an evil spirit and that this Mr Crawley was a black magician."
Though Holman-Hunt doesn't gloss the passage at all, the conclusion is obvious: Mrs. Swynnerton's neighbor was Aleister Crowley. And of course his more upright neighbors called him "Creepy Crawley"!

Any time I encounter Crowley in a book, I'm reminded of Anthony Powell's account of his mother's sole meeting with him, found in the first volume of his memoirs, Infants of the Spring. It happened when she was on her way to a lunch party on the outskirts of London:
At the station my mother noticed getting into one of the compartments a man whose appearance made her feel a sudden sense of extreme repulsion. At her destination, this man reappeared on the platform. She found herself almost praying that he would not be her fellow-guest at luncheon. Needless to say he was. It was the magician, Aleister Crowley--to use his own preferred style--The Beast 666. Asked what he talked about at lunch, my mother simply replied, "Horrors."
Which leads me to share my own Crowley story--not one of a meeting, of course, nor, to be perfectly honest, much of a story at all. But it amuses me and may do the same for you. My first encounter with Crowley was, of all places, in a Dynamite magazine article about Andy Gibb that I read when I was probably six or seven years old. Gibb, if I recall correctly, told of working a session at a Ouija board when planchette spelled out "ALEISTER CROWLEY." Gibb, not unreasonably within the deliberately unskeptical context, assumed that he was communing with the spirit of the long-dead black magician. I don't remember what Crowley said, or what lesson Gibb drew from it, but that name, and the fact that there had at one time existed a man who identified himself as an evil magician, stayed with me over the twenty or so years between that moment and my first encounter, in books, with the historical Crowley in his full Edwardian context.

Like I said, not much of a story, but I like to think that Powell, a fan of planchette, would have at least appreciated the tenacity of Crowley's spirit as it made its way, with impressive inappropriateness, into the pages of a children's fan magazine.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Three Westlake tidbits

We are now less than two months away from the moment when Donald Westlake's The Getaway Car arrives and starts shipping out to stores! Can you feel the excitement building?

I'm being silly, but the nice thing is that the excitement actually is building, at least in a small way. The starred review in Publishers Weekly was followed last week by a rave in the newest issue of Kirkus:
University of Chicago Press promotions director Stahl thinks this collection of Westlake’s nonfiction will please his fans; it’s likely these sharp, disarmingly funny pieces will also create new ones. . . . Westlake kept a list of possible book titles [which is included in the book], the last of which was Read Me. It would have been just the right one for this bright, witty book.
Can't ask for much better, can you? On top of that, both Ed Gorman and Bill Crider had nice things to say on their blogs, which you can find at the embedded links. And now I wait, as patiently, I hope, as I've counseled authors I've worked with to do.

I've got two more Westlake tidbits to share with you tonight as I attempt to ease back into reliable blogging now that my summer of travel is finally finished. The first came to me from that Omnipresent Wisconsin Librarian Dave Lull: a quote from the Dortmunder novel Jimmy the Kid is used as an opening example in a delightful piece at the Dabbler on Pavement Panto. What, you ask, is Pavement Panto? I'll let Brit, the author of the post, explain:
Pavement Panto refers to those contrived actions one performs to mask, disguise or somehow ‘cover for’ any public behaviour about which one feels awkward or obscurely embarrassed, often for an entirely imagined audience.
Brilliant, no? Is there anyone who isn't guilty of a bit Pavement Panto once in a while? And Westlake, as the example from Jimmy the Kid shows, had a great eye for it:
Well, he couldn’t keep walking north forever. At the next corner he stopped, looked indecisive, then patted himself all over, pantomiming a search for some small but necessary object. In a large elaborate movement, he snapped his fingers, suggesting the sudden realization that the small but necessary object had been left behind; at home, perhaps. He then turned around and walked the other way.
Last thing for today comes from my ongoing trek through all of Westlake's work. I'm down to four or five, and over the weekend I read Philip (1967), a book that's always intrigued me simply because in lists of Westlake's work, it occupies its own category: Juvenile. And that's actually what it is: a children's book, with illustrations by Arnold Doblin. It's a gentle story (perhaps unexpectedly so, given its author) about a boy in a Manhattan apartment who gets a new dump truck and is looking for some dirt to play with. While grime may be plentiful in Manhattan, dirt, however, is relatively hard to come by. Hijinks--of a muted, kid-friendly sort--therefore ensue. It's a charming book, one that I could easily imagine kids and parents enjoying.

The best moment for a Westlake fan, however, is the following paragraph. Read it and see if you don't hear Westlake's voice coming through clear as ever:
But something was wrong. And Philip knew what it was.


The main point about a dump truck, it's supposed to carry dirt. You put it down on the ground, and the scoop picks up big mouthfuls of dirt and fills up the truck, and then you push the button and the truck drives across the yard to where you want to move the dirt, and then you push the other button and the back of the truck lifts up and all the dirt slides out. That's what a dump truck does.
It's all there: a preference for order and function and suitable work, in the midst of a slightly exasperated realization that what the world is in reality is one big mess of mismatches and problems. Westlake to a T.