Monday, June 20, 2016

Wodehouse on Wodehouse

I'm grateful to the Overlook Press for publishing a complete set of P. G. Wodehouse not merely because my growing collection of hardcovers look lovely on my shelves, but also because it means some of the less well-known books are regularly brought to my bookstore browsing attention. This week, what caught my eye was the memoir (of sorts) that Wodehouse published in 1956, Over Seventy.

You need not have read Robert McCrum's biography to realize that Wodehouse was not likely to reveal himself to any significant degree on the page, and that is the case: the book, structured as a response to some questions about his life and work put by an American magazine, is mostly a series of extended comic riffs on various subjects. As you read it, you feel sort of like you're dipping in and out of various of his novels--there's an exchange between two American heavies here, a discussion of the pains of the musical theater there. Some bits are less that wholly successful, with the air of the after-dinner speech hanging about them, but most work, and the book offers many pleasures.

Unexpectedly, amid the comedy we here and there get a glimpse of what seems to be genuine feeling. The following bit, though presented in the same light tone as the rest of the book's material, feels honest, and, by the time the last line arrives, even poignant:
I am a mass of diffidence and I-wonder-if-this-is-going-to-be-all-right-ness, and I envy those tough authors, square-jawed and spitting out of the side of their mouths, who are perfectly sure, everytime they start a new book, that it will be a masterpiece. My own attitude resembles that of Bill, my foxhound, when he brings a decaying bone into the dining-room at lunch-time.

"Will this one go?" he seems to be saying, as he eyes us anxiously. "Will my public consider this bone the sort of bone they have been led to expect from me, or will there be a sense of disappointment and the verdict that William is slipping?"

As a matter of fact, each of Bill's bones is just as dynamic and compelling as the last one, and he has nothing to fear at the bar of critical opinion, but with each new book of mine I have, as I say, always that feeling that this time I have picked a lemon in the garden of literature. A good thing, really, I suppose. Keeps one up on one's toes and makes one write every sentence ten times. Or in many cases twenty times. My books may not be the sort of books the cognoscenti feel justified in blowing the 12s. 6d. on, but I do work at them. When in due course Charon ferries me across the Styx and everyone is telling everyone else what a rotten writer I was, I hope at least one voice will be heard piping up, "But he did take trouble."
Were Wodehouse with us today, I would reassure him that Charon--who, having held the same job for eternity, with no suggestions heard from any quarter of slacking, or that another ferryman could perform its duties with more vim, appreciates, one assumes, hard work and craftsmanship--surely has whiled away one of the long, dark nights of the soul (the only kind on offer down there) with a story or two of Bertie and Jeeves. He might even tip his cap at the Master as he disembarks.

Tuesday, June 07, 2016

Twilight thoughts, twilight haints

On a recent visit to my parents in the twice-failed utopia of New Harmony, Indiana, I experienced something I'd not seen for a long time, yet not really realized I'd lost: true, nearly unadulterated shimmery blue-dark summer twilight. "As daylight recedes," A. Roger Ekirch writes in At Day's Close: Night in Times Past,
color drains from the landscape. Thickets grow larger and less distinct, blending into mongrel shades of gray. It is eventide when, say the Irish, a man and a bush look alike, or, more ominously, warns an Italian adage, hounds and wolves. The darkness of night appears palpable. Evening does not arrive, it "thickens."
Winter twilight, Thoreau observes, is white; summer's is a "fading world of slate-blue, smoke, and umber," as Peter Davidson calls it in The Last of the Light: About Twilight.

When in that advancing obscurity, it is best to be with those you know, your family and friends--who, visible and audible near you, help you orient yourself and your ancient fears in that neither dark nor light world. Even more so when that is walk through the streets of New Harmony--streets that have seen some of the most unusual history in all of America ("Almost every citizen is aware of New Harmony's strangeness," wrote Marguerite Young in 1945). It's not a place of violent death or dark secrets, but any community with a history of enforced celibacy and religious fervor can't help but generate some residual shivers when the darkness begins to rise and spread from the surrounding fields.

All of that perhaps primed me for my encounter with the following account of a creepy twilight experience related by Harold Owen, brother of the famous war poet Wilfred Owen, in his 1963 memoir, Journey from Obscurity, which Peter Davidson shares in The Last of the Light.


Doesn't that have everything one wants in a creepy twilight story? Inexplicable sights and movements, a feeling of another world encroaching inexorably on our own, the recourse to companionship as the only solace. Wonderful.

For all but the most recent era of human history, "daily experience," Davidson writes, "would have included the slow fall of the light, an awareness of the slow process of twilight." We've all but lost what Nabokov (via Davidson) called the "gradual and dual blue" which "At night unites the viewer with the view."

I am a morning person, at my best in the gentle yet vigorous light of the earliest summer hours. But I see the value of twilight, and I can't argue with Thoreau:
For what a man does abroad by night requires and implies more deliberate energy than what he is encouraged to do in the sunshine. He is more spiritual, less animal or vegetable, in the former case.
Hie thee to your campsites and fields and wildest parks sometime this summer, folks. Watch the buzzing dragonflies at dinner give way to the dramatic swirl of the swallows, then the awkward swoop-drop-recovery of the bats, and the sleek stealth of the nighthawk. Watch the light fade, and see what it reveals.