Thursday, July 20, 2017

Thoreau at 200

If you follow me on Twitter, you'll know that I have been ecstatically excited for months now about a book I'm handling publicity for in my day job at the University of Chicago Press: Laura Dassow Walls's new definitive biography of Henry David Thoreau. I've been a Thoreau reader for years--since the publication of the one-volume edition of his journals by the NYRB Classics line a few years back, he's been an almost daily companion--but Laura's book showed me a depth and complexity, and an aliveness, that I didn't think possible. It's an incredible book. If you don't want to take my word for it, take a look at the roundup of praise I put together for the Press blog last week on Thoreau's bicentennial.("Superb," "compelling," "a great service to American letters," "remarkable," "engaging," "every page feels essential," and so on . . . )

This all sent me back to Walden for the first time since I was 19. I knew from having read Laura's insightful chapter on it that it was a more heterogeneous, more strange book than I recalled or than its general reputation might have it, but I still wasn't prepared: it's nothing like a straightforward account of time in the woods. If it were published today, it would be structured carefully, from his decision to set out on this experiment through the moment he returned home, and its observations would be carefully arranged, themes and larger points drawn through the book in a way to maximize their impact.

Instead, it's a grab-bag of Thoreau's thoughts. It's more like reading his journal than I expected. He opens with the idea of moving to the woods, then immediately veers off into extended thoughts on other related topics. It's about 40 pages before he gets back to the details of his experiment in living--and then almost immediately he veers off again. Like everything he wrote, it is driven by his broad and intense interests, by what's engaging him at a particular moment--and, ultimately and most importantly, by his keenly observing eye. He never merely looked at the world: he looked closely, and thought about the meaning and importance of what he saw.

A century and a half after publication, many of Walden's phrases are familiar, repeated so much that they've become barnacled unto cliche. But if you can even briefly see some of them fresh, their power--both of ideas and of phrasing, is undeniable. I'll leave you with one from late in the book. Try to see it as if you've not known these lines before; see if you feel the thrill I did.

I learned this, at least, by my experiment; that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours. He will put some things behind, will pass an invisible boundary; new, universal, and more liberal laws will begin to establish themselves around and within him; or the old laws be expanded, and interpreted in his favor in a more liberal sense, and he will live with the license of a higher order of beings. In proportion as he simplifies his life, the laws of the universe will appear less comples, and solitude will not be solitude, nor poverty poverty, nor weakness weakness. If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.
Happy summer, folks.

Wednesday, July 05, 2017

My mysterious Texan correspondent

After a ridiculously long hiatus (which I'm tempted to explain in sub-Nabokovian style: work, summer), how 'bout I try to ease ever so gently back into this blogging thing?

I've received another missive from my anonymous occasional postcard correspondent from Texas. This one seems to have been inspired by the postcard itself, a scene of colonial punishment that led to thoughts of Sir Magnus Donners. Donners, a major minor character (if you'll allow it) in A Dance to the Music of Time, is known in gossip circles for having unusual sexual tastes--ill-defined, perhaps, but thought to include various forms of domination and bondage. Which gives the moment quoted on the reverse of the postcard, which occurs during a tour of Donners's country house, Stourwater, a frisson of light discomfort.

Always a pleasure to hear from Texas in this fashion. And to receive a missive that clarifies that it's dated according to the New Style.

Sunday, March 26, 2017


Lord Byron is one of those figures about whom I feel compelled to read--yet am very much glad never to have had to meet in the flesh. "He is as remorseless as he is unprincipled," wrote Mary Shelley, who was, let us remember, patient enough to put up with the all but intolerable Shelley. Were we to meet Byron, would his charm charm? Or would our (or my, at least) innate skepticism toward the hearty and demonstrative save us? It seems unlikely; it saved so few. Women, men--everyone fell for Byron. And no one loved Byron more than Byron. As Anthony Powell put it, "Shakespeare had an extraordinary grasp of what other people were like; Byron of what he himself was like."

I'm fresh off Fiona MacCarthy's excellent biography of the poet, which succeeds at the not simple task of making us see, at least to some extent, Byron's appeal, while never denying the ways in which he could be high-handed, unthinking, and cruel. She also helps us imagine his fame--which, rooted in a combination of class, scandal, a sense of generational change, and propelled by an epic poem published at the right moment, can be hard to grasp. Obviously no poets are parallel figures today--perhaps a particularly flamboyant film star? A Jude Law who also was the author of Infinite Jest? Yet however much we push ourselves to imagine a different era, when we open Childe Harold to its first lines we are instantly reminded of how vast is the gulf between then and now:
Oh, thou, in Hellas deemed of heavenly birth,
Muse, formed or fabled at the minstrel's will!
Since shamed full oft by later lyres on earth,
Mine dares not call thee from thy sacred hill:
Yet there I've wandered by thy vaunted rill;
Yes! sighed o'er Delphi's long-deserted shrine
Where, save that feeble fountain, all is still;
Nor mote my shell awake the weary Nine
To grace so plain a tale—this lowly lay of mine.
That's the poem that was such a sensation as to catapult its creator to stardom overnight. The later work Don Juan, at least, does open more promisingly--it's hard to top Byron's first lines there:
I want a hero, an uncommon want,
When every year and month sends forth a new one,
Till after cloying the gazettes with cant,
The age discovers he is not the true one.
But even it quickly descends into unpromising territory, its second and third stanzas dense with names of figures of contemporary fame. (To be fair, it does get much livelier.)

One reads about Byron today, however, not so much for himself--for the balance between his charm and his self-obsession is ever precarious, even in his truly wonderful letters and journals)--as for his place in his circle and his cultural moment, and for the way that everyone around him weighed in at some point. Mary Shelley's take is above; here's Claire Clairmont, writing a bitterly creative mock obituary:
He dead extended on his bed, covered all but his breast, which many wigged doctors are cutting open to find out (as one may be saying) what was the extraordinary disease of which this great man died--His heart laid bare, they find an immense capital I carved on its surface, and which had begun to pierce the breast--They are all astonishment. One says, "A new disease." Another: "I never had a case of this kind before." A third "what medicines would have been proper" the fourth holding up his finger "A desert island."
Then there's Byron's own takes on his contemporaries. Keats's poetry was "a Bedlam vision produced by raw pork and onions"; after Wordsworth published Poems, in Two Volumes, he wrote, "I reviewed Wordsworth's trash of the time." And there's his incessant baiting of Southey. This comes rom a letter to James Hogg: "Southey should have been a parish-clerk, and Wordsworth a man-midwife--both in darkness. I doubt if either of them ever got drunk, and I am of the old creed of Homer the wine-bibber." Then there was the very public assault in Don Juan:
Thou shalt believe in Milton, Dryden, Pope;
Thou shalt not set up Wordsworth, Coleridge, Southey;
Because the first is crazed beyond all hope,
The second drunk, the third so quaint and mouthey.
Though I think we have to note that "mouthey" is little but a lazy answer to a thorny problem of rhyme, the charge of quaintness at least seems fair.

Now that I've finished MacCarthy's biography, and seen poor Byron safely dead in Missolonghi, I'm left with two outcomes: first, a desire, which I will probably act on this month, to read Don Juan for the first time in nearly twenty years, and, second, the list below, which I am beginning to think may be my greatest contribution to literary culture:
Mary Shelley: Kanga
Percy: Rabbit
Wordsworth: Owl
Keats: Piglet
Byron: Tigger
Charles Lamb: Pooh
My Twitter friend Hannah Hedgehog and my actual friend Caleb Crain both astutely noted that William Hazlitt can serve as Eeyore, at which point our Romantic Hundred Acre Wood is fully populated. As Anthony Powell wrote of some of the more scabrously satirical verses of Don Juan, "It surely must be admitted that this is the right sort of stuff."

Monday, February 13, 2017

Of Wars, Secret and Civil, the Marvel Way

Marvel Comics launched the twelve-issue Secret Wars miniseries on an unsuspecting public in 1984.

In that series, for the first time, nearly the whole universe of Marvel heroes and villains was brought together in a single story, a story that--though it took place in between issues of all the regular monthly books (despite the miniseries itself taking a year to run its course)--had immediate consequences, some major, for a number of long-running characters. The Thing left the Fantastic Four to go walkabout in space; Spider-Man suddenly had a new, alien costume. Secret Wars was a big, big deal.

For more than thirty years now, Marvel and DC have been trying to replicate that excitement, and the sales it generated. By the time the second Secret Wars series arrived in 1985, Marvel had figured out that they should run the events concurrently with the timeline of the monthlies, and explicitly tie in as many of them as possible. That's the formula they've repeated nearly every year since. Sometimes the scale is smaller--a series will be confined to the X books, or the Avengers-affiliated titles--but the concept is the same: make a big Event that readers will feel they can't miss, which will lead them to buy more comics.

The closest Marvel has come to repeating that success was with its Civil War series in 2006.

In that series,the accidental destruction of a whole town and its inhabitants by a relatively young, little-trained superhero team leads Congress to pass a superhuman registration act, requiring anyone with superpowers to register, and to essentially become a military or policing agent of the government. This splits the heroes, and that split is embodied in the rift that develops between longtime best friends Tony Stark, who supports registration, and Steve Rogers, who views it as un-American.

I was largely on a hiatus from reading comics when Civil War was published, and its obvious political incoherence kept me away for years. The biggest problem with superhero comics is that they rest on a concept of vigilante justice that is insane; though occasionally comics have taken that question seriously, for the most part if you're going to read superhero comics, you have to basically pretend it's not an issue--no series will hold up if you give that question serious thought. But that problem is at the heart of the dispute in Civil War. Tony Stark is right: you can't have superpowered vigilantes running around. Cap's position is indefensible. Yet the way the government uses the registration act, which includes secret prisons and "rehabilitated" criminals put to nefarious uses, makes Stark's position impossible as well.

Read today,  as I did (including every crossover--98 comics in all!) over the summer, Civil War remains almost wholly incoherent in its politics. What's most striking a decade on is how powerfully the issues bring back the air of America during the George W. Bush administration, to which the story is all but explicitly a reaction. For all the problems of the premise, and for all that the parallels are at times overplayed, the way it captures the inchoate, ambient fears and excesses of that period is striking.

What's most important, however, and what makes the story interesting despite its flaws, is that the central question is one that would divide heroes, along lines by which any fan could roughly sort them, and that say something interesting about the characters. Luke Cage, for example, is never going to trust the government, whereas Peter Parker can be coopted by Stark's authority and attention. It's a fundamentally interesting divide, and one that, especially when embodied by Steve and Tony, rests on, and draws power from, decades of storytelling.

For fans of long standing, watching Steve and Tony fight over a principle is painful, both because we've watched their friendship develop over decades and because we see how they each represent different aspects of heroism. They're at their best when they're working together; when they're irreconcilable, heroism feels imperiled to a degree that a villain like Doctor Doom can never threaten.

This past year, Marvel went back to the well for Civil War II. And while the politics of it are more interesting, the dividing question more legitimate, the results weren't nearly as good. The question? If you've got a hero whose power brings him visions of future crimes and disasters, how should you use that power? Can you ethically detain (or worse) people who have yet to commit a crime? Well, of course you can't. But what if he sees that the person in question is going to kill thousands and thousands of people?

Not an uninteresting dilemma, right? The problem, however, is that it's not a dilemma that naturally sorts people. It doesn't quite speak to a person's character or background the same way that registration did. (You could ally it to racial profiling, certainly, and get somewhere in sorting some characters, but that doesn't end up playing a big part for many characters in this story, in part perhaps because even today, after strenuous (and I think honest) efforts, the Marvel Universe remains pretty white.) The key antagonists this time, rather than Captain America and Tony Stark, are Captain Marvel and Tony Stark--and you could imagine either one on the other side without a lot of trouble. (Want to guess? OK: Captain Marvel is pro-precog crime prevention, Tony against.) The same goes for nearly every other character. So rather than a battle of ideologies, we get, well, just battles.

 That said, the series did lead to two comics that I'm quite grateful for, and that demonstrate almost to a T the potential of endless serial narratives that continue for decades. Both are mostly about characters talking, with little to no fighting; they're about people coming to terms with themselves and their relationships to each other. In one, Invincible Iron Man #14, by Brian Michael Bendis and Mike Deodato, Tony goes to an AA meeting to get his head straight and focus on something other than the battle with Captain Marvel.

At the meeting, however, is . . . Captain Marvel, Carol Danvers, who is also a recovering alcoholic.

Their dialogue, constrained initially by the setting, which they both respect, is tentative, difficult, tense.

It feels real, and it feels like an actual place where these characters, with their backstories, together and apart, might have ended up.

The other is Scarlet Witch #9, by James Robinson and Joelle Jones, in which Wanda's brother, Pietro, the speedster known as Quicksilver, arrives to basically order her to sign up with Captain Marvel.

Pietro has been a persistent difficulty Wanda's whole life, in the way of siblings but taken a bit further. He's always been a domineering hothead, ready to give orders and judge and condemn while rarely looking at his own actions.

This time, for a number of  reasons, Wanda has had enough. Watching Pietro realize that something has changed, that this relationship is now what it was, is wonderful for anyone who's been reading about these characters for decades.

Each of these stories is only twenty-two pages. The total word count can't be more than a couple thousand. But because these stories rest on nearly fifty years of earlier stories, we get so much from every panel, every word of dialogue; we see its refractions back through time and memory. It ends up bearing so much more weight, so much more power, than any standalone story could.

Month to month, reading superhero comics as an adult can be frustrating. No other medium with which I'm involved is as clearly deformed by the needs of the marketplace (like in its endless crossovers, to take but one example). So often it fails to realize its potential, brought down by simplicity, pathology, or the low and narrow expectations of its fan base. But every once in a while you get a comic like these two, and you remember why you're drawn to this medium, the connection it makes between your long-gone childhood self and the adult you who knows better but still looks to stories of people and events that are larger than ourselves but nonetheless, time and again, resolve to the human.

Tuesday, February 07, 2017

Rachel Cusk's Transit

Sometimes a novel captures you from the first lines, and it takes you a while to figure out quite why. Here's Rachel Cusk's Transit (2016):
An astrologer emailed me to say she had important news for me concerning events in my immediate future. She could see things that I could not: my personal details had come into her possession and had allowed her to study the planets for their information. She wished me to know that a major transit was due to occur shortly in my sky. This information was causing her great excitement when she considered the changes it might represent. For a small fee she would share it with me and enable me to turn it to my advantage.
I was sold. Part of what drew me in is obvious: the audacity of opening with a spam e-mail; the matter-of-fact prose; the simple past tense of the first sentence, refusing as it does to offer any temporal or physical scene-setting beyond "this happened," and thereby throwing us right in the stream of "this is happening."

It was only once I got well into the novel, and flipped back to reread the opening lines, that I realized the deeper attraction: Cusk, through her protagonist, was giving someone else the floor. That the person was lying, that their lie was banal, commercial, mattered not. They were speaking, and Cusk's protagonist was listening.

That, I realized, is why reading Transit is such a thrilling, engulfing experience. It's a novel about listening. Cusk's protagonist, Faye, is a writer who has recently returned to London after a divorce and is juggling a remodeling of her new flat with the responsibilities of divided parenthood. But that's what we get in the interstices. Most of the novel consists of other people telling stories about what's going on in their lives, and telling them with typical solipsism and self-dramatization. They're largely unremarkable stories of contemporary London life, but Cusk imbues them with the interest and drama of a story told you by an old friend.

I'll give you one extended example, which I suspect won't carry a lot of weight outside the context of the book, but will at least let me try out one theory of how Cusk makes them, in toto, so compelling. Here, an acquaintance at a dinner party tells Faye about her childhood and her own experience of parenting:
Her own parents, she said, had been a real love story: they had never wavered in their attention to one another through all the years of their marriage, despite the fact that they were bringing up five children so close in age that in the family photo albums her mother had appeared to be continuously pregnant for several years . They were young parents, she added, and tirelessly energetic: her childhood had been one of camping trips and sailing expeditions and summers in the cabin the had built with their own hands. Her parents never went off on holiday on their own, and treated all family occasions with great ceremony, eating with their children every night around the kitchen table, to the extent that she could not remember a single evening meal when they were absent, which must have meant that they rarely, if ever, went out to dinner together. While Jonathan and I, she added, eat in restaurants nearly every night. She left for work so early and returned to late, she went on, that she almost never aw Ella eat at all, though of course the nanny fed her the correct food, as Jonathan and Birgid had instructed her to. To be perfectly honest, Birgid said, I actually avoid Ella's mealtimes--I find myself things to do in the office instead. Since Ella's birth Jonathan had started to make roast meat and potatoes for lunch on Sunday, as it was a tradition in his family and he thought they should repeat it for Ella's sake.

But I don't really like to eat at lunch, she said, and Ella is fussy, so Jonathan ends up eating most of it on his own.
See what I mean? There's not much to it: this is a story of contemporary parenting being told to us by someone it's been told to. But when you pile story on story, when you realize that Faye is actively listening to everyone she meets, each of the stories gains interest, power. And Faye's occasional pressing and stray responses ("It was an interesting thought, that stability might be seen as the product of risk.") remind us that one of the ways we test our apprehension of the world is by listening to, and pushing against, the way that others apprehend and attempt to explain it.

Then there's the quality of judgment. We justly prize empathy in artworks--the "Everyone has his reasons" of The Rules of the Game--admiring the ability of writers like Tolstoy to show us each person, in his error, without damning him for it. It's weak novels that judge.

But we are judging beings. We may fight it, but it's there. And as Faye tells us these stories, even though she utters nary a word of explicit judgment, we realize that she, too, is judging. These people, time and again, are failing in key ways. Life and limitations make it inevitable, and we teach ourselves to acknowledge that, to cut people slack, but the judging faculty never wholly atrophies. What makes Faye's implicit judgment so bracing is, in part, simply that Cusk is acknowledging it. But more than that is the second layer: Faye is judging herself right alongside these people. Her own story barely takes shape in this book, told in asides and responses, but it has its own failures, the biggest involving parenting: her sons appear primarily as troubled voices down a phone line, offering up problems she's too distant and distracted to solve. It's that dual, or maybe even treble, vision that elevates Transit to greatness: we are reading Cusk's account of a woman who has taken up listening, in part, perhaps, to defer thinking about her own life, and who finds herself unable to stop shadowing others' stories with her own, setting their actions alongside hers, judging herself as she's judging them. "How often people betrayed themselves by what they noticed in others," Faye thinks at one point.

That scrim, that remove, that sense that we are in Faye's mind while its foreground is being given over to listening to someone else, makes reading Transit an unusually absorbing experience. Attending closely to another mind even as some part of our own mind is weighing, assessing, judging what we're hearing--in a sense, Transit replicates the reading experience itself.

Monday, January 23, 2017

The Caine Mutiny

The first book I read this year was a Herman Wouk's 1952 Pulitzer Prize winner The Caine Mutiny, a Christmas gift from a friend of discerning reading taste. Wouk's novel had the misfortune to be published a year after James Jones's From Here to Eternity, which won the National Book Award, as Wouk explained in a foreword to a 2003 paperback:
Early in 1951 there appeared a gigantic army novel, From Here to Eternity, at once beautiful and brutal. . . . It won critical hurrahs and instant vast popularity, and my book came out in its shadow to a discouragingly poor start.
However, in a reminder that the early 1950s were a different, distant era, Wouk goes on to say that sales began to perk up a bit, and then one particular retail decision fanned them into a flame:
The Doubleday people . . . advised me to go and see for myself at Macy's, which was having a price war on the two books with Gimbel's. . . . It was indeed a once-in-a-lifetime sight, people lining up through the department store and out into the street just to buy my novel, or From Here to Eternity, or both.
What also speaks powerfully of another era is what Wouk says he was told about early attempts to sell film rights: "Nobody is interested in World War II anymore." Just a bit more than five years after victory, another war--in which staggering numbers, by our contemporary standards, of American soldiers would be killed--quietly underway in Korea, and what people wanted, if the movie scouts were to be believed, was to move on.

You can understand it, certainly. Read any good memoir or novel that encompasses V-E Day and the weariness that underlies the relief is palpable. But at the same time, looking back at the literature from the period, we realize that while the men who served may have wanted to leave the war behind, it wasn't quite done with them yet.

The Caine Mutiny is an interesting example of that. It's in a lot of ways a distinctly untroubled book, given the subject, but at the same time it's about how the war years turned a whole lot of callow boys into men. Wouk's main character, Willie Keith, sees the Navy simultaneously as his duty and, once he gets there, as a job. Through the course of the book's 500+ pages, he'll struggle with the central fact of military service: that it's designed to strip you of your individuality in order to serve a larger goal, and that to do so it has to in many ways be a dumb, brutal, machine-like system. But whereas James Jones's Robert Prewitt is determined to fight that machine, even if it costs him everything, Willie Keith is focused on living through the experience, and helping his shipmates do the same. Reading about Prew is a bracing, troubling experience; reading about Willie Keith's service is like watching a version of the growth and maturation we all (one hopes) experienced in our early adulthood. As a portrait of that process, and its acceleration in wartime, The Caine Mutiny is wholly convincing.

What remains most interesting about it after all these decades, however, is the turn it takes partway through. (Given the prominence of the film version, I'll assume there's little that can surprise you, but if you've not read or seen it, you might want to stop reading here.) Up through the titular mutiny, we've more or less been on Willie Keith's side. We see his flaws, and we do get some other perspectives, but he's our focal point and the character who most readily draws our sympathy. So when the mutiny occurs, and Keith plays a major part, we blow right past our nagging questions about its propriety. The moment is dramatic, and our protagonist has chosen a side, so we align. But then . . . the trial comes, and Wouk does something remarkable: he shows us how Keith was wrong--and therefore, by extension, so were we. Neither side is clear-cut, but the very fact that Wouk is able to upend our understanding, push against our sympathy, is impressive, and  would in itself be enough to recommend the book. It's a feat of storytelling.

These days, The Caine Mutiny still lives to a large extent in the shadow of From Here to Eternity. Wouk is seen as a craftsman, Jones more like an artist; Jones's story of individuality and self-torment draws more interest than Wouk's tale of men setting out to do a difficult job. But both novels are worth reading, and both, I think, belong, with James Gould Cozzens's Guard of Honor and Irwin Shaw's The Young Lions, in the small group of essential novels about the war.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

The post has arrived, or, We begin to read Clarissa

"The first impression the reader receives from Samuel Richardson's masterpiece is of its great length."

That's Angus Ross, opening his introduction to the Penguin Classics edition of Samuel Richardson's Clarissa, which, indeed, impresses by running to 1,499 oversized pages. And while I've long since been convinced by friends who have sung the novel's praises (including in this space) that Ross's next line--"and rightly so, since that is an integral part of the work's reach and meaning"--is true, and that the novel is worth reading, I've never been willing to make the commitment. As my friend Maggie put it:
I read nine other books while working my way through this one, and I'm haunted by what I could have read instead. Three Dickens! The entire works of Graham Greene!
I simply could never bring myself to commit the time. Even with as much and as quickly as I read, it would likely be a month's labor.

Enter my Twitter friend Stephanie Hershinow, scholar of eighteenth-century literature and  Richardson fan. At breakfast in New York last month, she revealed a scheme for reading Clarissa that seemed eminently manageable: read this epistolary novel by reading each letter on the date it carries, beginning with the first letter, dated January 10, and finishing with the last on December 18. A year of broken-up reading--this would do!

Now it is January 10, and I am embarking. You're welcome to join me, and some other folks who've been caught. There will be some posts here throughout the year, and if you're on Twitter you can find us at #Clarissa. The first letter is a mere two pages! Join us!

"I am extremely concerned, my dearest friend, for the disturbances that have happened in your family . . . "