Wednesday, March 25, 2015


Those of you who keep up with Twitter (Who can keep up with Twitter? I mean, I love it, and even find it borderline essential for discovering interesting books, but it doth flow past me like the vasty deep unleashed; I'm lucky to snag a few beautifully polished pieces of driftwood as they idle in eddies.) may have caught an announcement recently that, while minor in the scheme of things, was major for me: I've written a foreword to the new edition of Anthony Powell's Venusberg that my employer, the University of Chicago Press, will publish in October.

This is exciting for me for a couple of reasons. First is probably the most obvious: after years of reading, and thinking about, and writing about Powell--probably 40,000 words or more in this space alone--it's a pleasure to get to have some of those words appear in conjunction with Powell's own. The second reason is that in recent years Venusberg, with its Lubitsch-style whirl of counts and ne'erdowells, has risen substantially in my estimation. It now vies with Afternoon Men to be my favorite of Powell's non-Dance novels. (As Powell himself put it in his memoirs, the reviews were "well-disposed," with the "habitual undercurrent of disapproval from those who disliked books being 'modern.'" Several critics, Powell, noted, "commented that the stiff hurdle of a second novel had been satisfactorily cleared." Which is a very Powell way to put it.)

I'll leave more detailed commentary on the book to the foreword itself. Instead, I'll point you to two earlier times when I wrote about it, because both posts include bits from or about the book that I think you'll find entertaining. The first quotes an extended discussion between Venusberg's protagonist, Lushington, and the not wholly self-effacing butler he's saddled with in his new journalistic posting, Pope. It belongs in the upper ranks of butler comedy. The second goes into the publishing history of the book a bit, via a collection of letters between Powell and the New York bookstore owner who decided to bring the book out in the States in 1952. That post is worth reading, I promise, for the quote from a letter from a disgruntled reader.

Up next: the cover, which should be available soon, and is lovely. Stay tuned!

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Boswell and Johnson at the bar

I've been spending a lot of casual, here and there reading time with Boswell and Johnson lately. Three volumes--the Oxford World's Classics selection of Johnson's writing, Boswell's Life, and Boswell's London journal--have been alongside whatever chair I'm reading in reliably for months now, dipped into for a page here, a page there, when I'm between books or need a break. I suspect there are few other trios of books that are so reliably rewarding.

Today it was the London journal, which offers us Boswell unbuttoned, unashamed of what he is even as he continually lays fruitless plans to become better. I opened it at random to a pair of entries that could, in a pinch, stand in for the whole experience of reading the journal. The first is from July 14, 1763:
When we went into the Mitre tonight, Mr. Johnson said, "We will not drink two bottles of port." When one was drank, he called for another pint; and when we had got to the bottom of that, and I was distributing it equally, "Come," said he, "you need not measure it so exactly." "Sir," said I, "it is done." "Well, Sir," said he, "are you satisfied? or would you choose another?" "Would you, Sir?" said I. "Yes," said he, "I think I would. I think two bottles would seem toe be the quantity for us." Accordingly we made them out.

I take pleasure in recording every little circumstance about so great a man as Mr. Johnson. This little specimen of social pleasantry will serve me to tell as an agreeable story to literary people. He took me cordially by the hand and said, "My dear Boswell! I do love you very much."--I will be vain, there's enough.

FRIDAY 15 JULY. A bottle of thick English port is a very heavy and a very inflammatory dose. I felt it last time that I drank it for several days, and this morning it was boiling in my veins. Dempster came and saw me, and said I had better be palsied at eighteen than not to keep company with such a man as Johnson.
A little too much to drink

{Photos by rocketlass.}

The break between days there works as effectively as a comic cut in a TV show: we see Boswell drunk and happy, cut to black, then see him hungover and groaning. I admire him for recalling so clearly--and so convincingly--the drunken finickiness about measuring out the port, and the later descent into maudlin sentiment. We have, most of us, been that exact drunk at some point.

Boswell was, to be fair, at a disadvantage. Though Johnson in later life gave up drinking, he is thought to have had (in part based on his own claims) an impressive capacity in his early life. One bottle may have been enough to wreck Boswell's head, but in the Life Johnson boasts that he would face no such risk:
Talking of drinking wine, he said, "I did not leave off wine because I could not bear it; I have drunk three bottles of port without being the worse for it. University College has witnessed this." Boswell: "Why then, Sir, did you leave it off?" Johnson: "Why, Sir, because it is so much better for a man to be sure that he is never intoxicated, never to lose the power over himself."
Johnson's line of argument jibes with another discussion of alcohol in the Life, this one involving Sir Joshua Reynolds, the painter:
We discussed the question whether drinking improved conversation and benevolence. Sir Joshua maintained it did. Johnson: "No, Sir: before dinner men meet with great inequality of understanding; and those who are conscious of their inferiority, have the modesty not to talk. When they have drunk wine, every man feels himself happy, and loses that modesty, and grows impudent and vociferous: but he is not improved; he is only not sensible of his defects."
That calls to mind an anecdote from after Johnson gave up drinking, found in Boswell, but retold in the version I'm quoting here by Reynolds's biographer Frederick Sanders Pulling. Pulling leaves out Johnson's opening sally, as reported by Boswell, who at the time was (briefly) sticking to water: "Boswell is a bolder combatant than Sir Joshua: he argues for wine without the help of wine; but Sir Joshua with it." From there, however, Pulling offers a good summary:
Never did he tire of inveighing against wine, and any one who ventured to argue the point with him got a severe rebuff. Witness the poor man who innocently suggested that at all events drinking made one forget disagreeable things. "Would you not," he mildly inquired, "allow a man to drink for that reason?" "Yes, sir," grunted Johnson, "if he sat next you." To such an inveterate hater of wine, even Reynolds's moderation was excess; and on one occasion, when the painter had urged that "to please one's company was a strong motive," Johnson, having no answer ready, retorted rudely with "I won't argue any more with you, sir--you are too far gone." Reynolds's rebuke is calmly dignified: "I should have thought so indeed, sir, had I made such a speech as you have now done." This was enough. Johnson, "drawing himself in, and I really thought blushing," says Boswell, "replies, 'Nay, don't be angry--I did not mean to offend you.'"
The rare sight of Johnson realizing he's gone too far, and embarrassed by it, I find deeply touching, a reminder of the powerful humanity and unexpected gentleness and even vulnerability that truly do seem to have been hidden deep beneath his obstreperous, self-confident presentation.

Since port is what we first poured in this post, it would be wrong not to close with Johnson's most famous words on that drink, also found in Boswell's Life:
Johnson harangued upon the qualities of different liquors; and spoke with great contempt of claret, as so weak, that "a man would be drowned by it before it made him drunk." He was persuaded to drink one glass of it, that he might judge, not from recollection, which might be dim, but from immediate sensation. He shook his head, and said, "Poor stuff! No, Sir, claret is the liquor for boys; port, for men; but he who aspires to be a hero (smiling) must drink brandy. In the first place, brandy is most grateful to the palate; and then brandy will do soonest for a man what drinking can do for him. There are, indeed, few who are able to drink brandy. That is a power rather to be wished for than attained."
I do not need my readers to be heroes, so you should feel free to raise a glass of whatever suits your fancy: here's to Boswell and the Doctor. May they be read for centuries more.

at the violet hour

Monday, March 16, 2015

A genius for friendship

Vera Brittain's memoir of Winifred Holtby, Testament of Friendship, achieves what any biographer wants--and even more, what any biographer of a friend wants: it makes us believe that we know what it was like to be around its subject, to feel that we've encountered her actual life force. In Holtby's case, it seems to have been a potent, energetic, effusive life force, extinguished by disease far too young. This is a book that earns the term of its title: while far from a hagiography, it's nonetheless a true testament, a tribute as much as a portrait.

Tonight I'll share a few paragraphs that succinctly show Brittain's approach while at the same time revealing a key aspect of Holtby's character:
Since Winifred died, many people have wondered where exactly her genius for friendship lay. It came, I think, from an instinctive skill in the art of human relationship which most of us acquire only after years of blunder and quarrelsome pain. St. John Ervine has said that she saw her radiance in other people, and this is undoubtedly true. But it is also true that few individuals are jet black or even neutral grey; most of them possess their own radiance, their peculiar glamour, if the beholder's eye is benevolent enough to discern it. Winifred realised that the desire to "be good" is a fundamental part of each normal person's make-up. It may be overlaid by pessimism, camouflaged by cynicism, transformed by bitterness, but the observer who perceives it beneath the trappings can usually count on a gracious response.

Winifred had an infallible consciousness of the other person's standpoint; usually she put her friends' wishes first and her own second. When she wrote letters she invariably began by referring to her correspondents' interests and problems. If she answered the telephone she always replied, however disastrously the call had interrupted her, as though the speaker at the other end were the one person whom she wanted to hear. In conversation she seldom discussed her own troubles; she encouraged other people to talk about theirs. She was never offended; she seemed to be quite without the apparatus of sensitive pride and vulnerable dignity used by the person who lacks confidence to defend his ego against a world of which he is deeply suspicious. Meanness and irrationality were the only qualities that she feared, and she always took for granted that people were generous and rational until they had proved beyond doubt that her trust was misplaced.

When, very occasionally, someone did her a service, she promptly expressed her delighted appreciation; her very surprise (for she was not without her own brand of cynicism) added to its spontaneous sincerity. Although, especially in her last years, she had a marked capacity for trenchant criticism, she seldom criticised individuals for their conduct, and only then after the most thorough search for extenuating circumstances. She never committed the deadly sin of undermining another person's self-confidence, for she knew that self-confidence takes half a lifetime to build up but can be destroyed in half an hour.
Most of this is far from complicated--it's what we try to remind ourselves to do: listen, ask questions, pay attention, care about the people we careen about with in this life. But all too often we fail to do so; the self is too seductive and distracting. Holtby, it seems, managed it, and did so with a grace and ease that made it seem natural. To do that and while managing to write several novels, be a well-regarded journalist, and be politically active (and effectively so), well, that's the mark of a rare person. No wonder Brittain felt her loss so keenly.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Books at the bus stop

It's not fair to winter to blame it for our woes, but woes we have and winter we have, so I'll fall in line and let it take the blame. Blogging has suffered along with overall morale. But today . . . today we saw sun, and temperatures such that a coatless walk to the library at lunch brought no Boswell-style self-recriminations for impulsiveness. So perhaps hope is reasonably in order?

That said, I'm still a bit behind-hand in almost everything, so I'll place-hold for a few more days. I spent much of last week falling under the spell of Winifred Holtby's 1936 novel of English village life and government, South Riding, on the recommendation of Proustitute and Rohan Maitzen. Dog-eared pages remind me that I intend to write properly about it soon, but for now I'll just share a pleasant moment: as I was standing at the bus stop reading the novel--which I think it's fair to say is all but unknown in the States--another of the regular habitues of my stop saw it, and, smiling, said, "It's not common to come across another Winifred Holtby fan."

To top off this brief, cheering moment of transit communion, a few days later he lent me Vera Brittain's book about her friendship with Holtby, Testament of Friendship. And as I flipped through it, a passage in Carolyn Heilbrun's introduction brought things back around to the writer who has probably drawn my thoughts most frequently through the winter, Virginia Woolf:
Holtby admired the work of Virginia Woolf, still, of course, in progress when Holtby died [in 1939]. Her criticism is notable for being the work of a contemporary woman; it is considerably more intelligent than most of the Woolf criticism produced before 1960. Holtby, for example, recognized, as no one was to do again for many years, that Jacob's Room was a war book: "It is as much a war book as The Death of a Hero or Farewell to Arms; yet it never mentions trenches, camps, recruiting officers, nor latrines. It does not describe the hero's feelings on the eve of battle; not an inch of barbed wire decorates its foreground. . . . She could not know in what terms Tommies referred to their sergeant-major nor what it feels like to thrust a bayonet through a belly. What she did know, what she could imagine, was what life looked like to those young men who in 1914 and 1915 crossed the Channel and vanished out of English life forever."
And now I want to go read some of Holtby's criticism . . .

Monday, March 02, 2015

Old style, James Laughlin goes above and beyond.

I know the default stance among publishing people is to look back at the early-to-mid-century golden era and lament what's been lost, but then I read a passage like the following from Ian S. MacNiven's new biography of New Directions founder James Laughlin, and I think, good god, I'm glad that my job has boundaries:
He argued over Fascism and anti-semitism with Pound, and scolded Henry Miller for his obscenity and his pecuniary fecklessness; he was raucously denounced by Kenneth Rexroth for publishing "fairies like Tennessee Williams," and cursed by Edward Dahlberg for printing nearly everyone but himself; he sought advice from paranoiac Delmore Schwartz, bought ballet shoes for Celine's wife, paid Kenneth Patchen's medical bills, went to the morgue to identify Dylan Thomas, helped Nabokov with his lepidopterology, meticulously arranged into the acclaimed Asian Journal the chaos of notes that his friend Merton left behind after his tragic electrocution, dined with Octavio Paz at the Century, and discovered Paul Bowles, Denise Levertov, and John Hawkes.
Now, to be clear, some of the activities on that list are close to ordinary, while others are honorable, and contributed substantially to the good of readers. But oh, how glad I am not to be in a position where someone I'm working with thinks it reasonable for me to buy his wife ballet shoes!