Monday, January 31, 2011

Peace, but not the world's peace, or, Rumer Godden's In This House of Brede

{Photo by rocketlass.}

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about opening lines to novels, and I cited a couple of books that I think would have been better had their too-writerly opening lines been turned into epigraphs, or even cut entirely.

Had I read Rumer Godden's In This House of Brede (1969) when I wrote that post, I would have quoted its opening paragraph as one that strikes the perfect balance, obviously standing apart from the rest of the novel while just as clearly establishing its tone:
The motto was "Pax," but the word was set in a circle of thorns. Pax: peace, but what a strange peace, made of unremitting toil and effort, seldom with a seen result; subject to constant interruptions, unexpected demands, short sleep at nights, little comfort, sometimes scant food; beset with disappointments and usually misunderstood; yet peace all the same, undying, filled with joy and gratitude and love. "It is my own peace I give unto you." Not, notice, the world's peace.
It's enough to make you feel, instantly, that you're in the hands of a master. The balanced sentences feel so precise, so careful in their description, while the strong, authoritative, voice, markedly honest, is working toward the crescendo of that perfectly rendered closing line.

I knew from the moment I read that paragraph that I would love this novel--but I wouldn't ever have gotten that far were it not for Terry Teachout's praise for the book on his blog*. And I'm so grateful: In This House of Brede is a truly marvelous novel, one that, while focusing on a group of enclosed nuns in an English abbey at midcentury, manages to do what the best and most capacious novels do: make you feel like you're learning great truths about how people live.

The novel's protagonist is Philippa Talbot, a 42-year-old widow who, after making an unusually successful career for herself as a civil servant (unusually successful, that is, for a woman in her era), decides to throw it all up in order to enter the enclosed abbey of Brede. Her journey, from worldly career woman to contemplative, prayer-driven nun, forms the backbone of the book, but really her story is just a way into telling the story of the entire abbey. In the course of the novel, Godden introduces a couple of dozen nuns, some of which we come to know intimately, others more glancingly, but all of which are, by the end of the novel, distinct.

In her brief introduction to the Loyola Classics edition, Phyllis Tickle describes the convent of Brede:
Brede is a holy place inhabited by very human sinners called to a very particular form of service to God. The cloistered nuns have one single, overarching vocation. They are called to the life of prayer. Everything else is subsumed under that one duty: prayer. In choir and away from it, the nuns pray. They know that it is in this way only that the human world is changed.
In the novel, we encounter nuns and monks in service orders as well, who go out into the world doing works--they are the Marthas to the Brede sisters' Marys--and what is perhaps most striking about the novel is that Godden makes the calling of prayer understandable and sympathetic, even in that context, even to a lifelong nonbeliever like me. The nuns may or may not, depending on your belief, be effecting change in the world through their prayer, but there's no question that the atmosphere they create within Brede is different from the outside, different for its silences and its seclusion and its neverending wheel-of-the-years calendar and its relentless focus on contemplation, a place that changes those within. Watching a lark in the garden, Philippa reflects, "I never had time to watch larks before. Odd, one has to leave the world to discover it."

Godden was a recent convert to Catholicism when she wrote the novel, but it's not a novel that assumes or demands belief. As Tickle writes in her introduction, "Godden was a consummate artist long before she became a Christian, and she never betrays her craft, not even to make a doctrinal point." Instead, what we see are real people, with real flaws, trying each day to simply be better. Some succeed; some fail. Sometimes those are the same person. Of a particularly troublesome older nun who has just erupted in selfish anger, the Prioress says to the Abbess, "You know how sorry she will be," to which the Abbess replies, "Yes, I know. It gets a little wearying." And others are weary of the Abbess; that is how life, and human interaction, inherently imperfect, is.

Ultimately, for me, In This House of Brede ended up falling into one of my favorite categories: it's a novel about work, and about the ways that the structure and proximity and demands of work help and hinder us in forming real relationships with our coworkers. Godden's nuns are a mixed bag (old, young, progressive, conservative, down-to-earth, ethereal) but they're all stuck together, for life, in this place, and each in her own way must make the best of it--while also, if she is to be true to her calling, trying to help her fellow nuns make the best of things for themselves, as well. The abbey is contemplative, but it still must be made to function from day to day, and the work that requires--and the agonizing decisions required of its leader, the Abbess--is wonderfully drawn.

The debate among the nuns over Vatican II, which Godden--in her unusual, but effective narrative style of peppering scenes with dialogue from earlier or later discussions, as if overheard or remembered, as if the abbey is one large whispering gallery--stretches out over three or four pages, is a good example of the complexity of the convent's internal life. Conservative nuns fear that all they love is being stripped away; the more progressive nuns believe that more must be done. No consensus is reached, but, without taking a side, Godden notes--and we believe her, because now we know these nuns:
Pope John had announced, "We are going to shake off the dust that has collected on the throne of St. Peter since the time of Constantine and let in fresh air," and the chill of fresh air, blowing in a closed atmosphere, is always painful; new ideas, new thoughts, new changes were blowing through the monastery, not a fresh breeze as perhaps Pope John had intended, but in gusts, damaging storms.
Or take this account, particularly chilling to book lovers, of the enforcement of the order's vow of poverty:
On Ash Wednesday afternoon each nun had to give in her poverty bill, an exact amount of everything she had in her cell, and, if she had one, in her workroom. "We don't want to collect things," Dame Clare explained to her novitiate [class of incoming nuns]. No nun, from the least to the most important, escaped. Abbess Catherine was gentle, if inexorable--"and very thorough," said Dame Veronica feelingly. "Do youreally need all those books? Choose three." "One watch is all you can use," or, "Dear child, you seem to have enough pens for an army." "Everyone should have the same," was the hothead cry of some. "If you pause to think, you could not say that," said Mother Prioress in mildness. "Dame Agnes, for instance, may need twenty books. Dame Perpetua needs one, as she would tell you herself, or perhaps none."
These are the negotiations, the very human, emotional interactions, of a life dedicated to a rule.**

In a way, the world conjured up by In This House of Brede feels like the flip side of J. F. Powers's brilliant work: his priests are human, his church mostly secular--though affording the occasional moment of grace; Godden's nuns are also fully human, but even when they are petty and small, the reality of their community, and its power, when carefully managed, to create a different, more contemplative world within the world, shines through. And the novel, like few others--J. L. Carr's A Month in the Country comes to mind, as does Norman Maclean's A River Runs Through It--manages to grace the reader with that world, however temporarily. You come out of this novel with your breathing slowed, your perceptions heightened, your patience with and attendance on the things of this world augmented.

It's a stunning novel, therefore, perfect for these wintry days when the promise of spring seems so unlikely, so far away.

PS Don't be scared off by the 600-plus pages of the pleasantly chunky, small-trim Loyola Classics edition; in the normal-trim library edition I read initially, the book only runs about 350 pages.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Casanova requests the pleasure of our company for one more night . . .

Casanova's History of My Life runs to 3,700 pages in manuscript, so it doesn't seem like overkill to spend one more day on it, and on his life. And by chance, this week when I've fallen once again for Casanova's charms is the same week that Ian Kelly's acclaimed biography Casanova: Actor, Love, Priest, Spy (2009) is being published in paperback. I'm now about 100 pages in--Casanova's twenty-four years old and just coming into his own as a seducer and a roue--and it's already clear that Kelly's created a fine companion to the memoirs, corroborating a surprising number of Casanova's stories and giving useful context about the state of travel, sexual mores, Venice, and more. There's of course no substitute for Casanova's book itself--including, I'd argue, the abridged edition--but if you're not sure yet whether you want to set out on the long road with the Chevalier de Seingalt, making his acquaintance through Kelly's book would be a good test.

Some notes, then, to close out the week:

1 On Wednesday I drew the inevitable comparisons between Casanova and Don Juan, and if I'd had Kelly's book to hand, I could have shared this scene from the first page:
Casanova had preferred Don Giovanni [to Mozart's newest work, La Clemenza di Tito]. He had collaborated on the libretto and attended the premiere in the same theatre. "Seen it?" he was said to have responded to his old friend the Venetian librettist da Ponte. "I've practically lived it."
From there, it's only fair to turn to Da Ponte's own memoirs, in which he records some advice the sixty-seven-year-old Casanova gave him in 1792. Casanova, who already owed Da Ponte money, added a couple of sequins to his debt, saying,
[S]ince I can never return either these, or the others for which I am in your debt, I will give you three pieces of advice which will be worth much more than all the treasures of this world: first, my dear Da Ponte, if you would make your fortune, do not go to Paris--go to London; second, when you get to London, never set foot inside the Caffe degl' Italiani; and third, never sign your name!
Laments Da Ponte:
Happy me, had I religiously followed his advice! Almost all the ills and losses I suffered in that city . . . came from my having frequented the Caffe degl' Italiani, and from having signed my name imprudently and without understanding the consequences.
Also interesting t is the fact that, despite Casanova's age, Da Ponte's wife "had been dazed by the vivacity, the eloquence, the inexhaustible vein, and all the many ways, of that extraordinary old man." She asked for his story, and Da Ponte "entertained her pleasantly for many hours recounting to her what I knew of it." Casanova surely would have been pleased to learn that he'd made such an impression.

2 In May of 1744, the nineteen-year-old Casanova stopped off in Orsara, where he'd been briefly a few months before:
He imagined he would not be recognized, dressed splendidly as a Venetian officer, but the local barber-surgeon remembered him with unexpected clarity and unusual cause: "You communicated a certain love token [gonorrhoea] to Don Geralamo's housekeeper," he recalled, "who gave it to a friend, who shared it with his wife. She gave it to a libertine who distributed it so effectively that in less than a month I had fifty patients whom I cured for a proper fee. . . . Can I hope," he continued, "that you will remain here for a few days and give the disease a fresh start?"
Which serves, to those of us who tend to think about economics, as a reminder that GDP is a crude measure, and that not every boost to GDP is a net gain for society. The scene also calls to mind the novels of John Irving. Surely I'm not the only male who, on reading as a teenager about character after character getting the clap in Irving's books, fearfully wondered if I was being given frightening insights into inevitable side effects of adult sexuality?

3 Kelly tells how, at not quite sixteen, and seeming, as a quick-witted young man of limited means and pedigree, destined for the church, Casanova delivered his first sermon, in Venice:
Casanova delivered the sermon to some acclaim, and a collection plate that profited him "nearly fifty zecchini . . . when I was greatly in need of money . . . together with some love letters all of which made me think seriously of becoming a preacher."
It was a different era, and the combination of the church's ubiquity and relative worldliness meant that the role and expectations of a clergyman then were very different from what we associate with them now, but even knowing that, it remains hard to imagine Casanova as a priest. Make that very hard.

4 Speaking of religion, while in Constantinople as a nineteen-year-old abate, Casanova explained to a Muslim friend and patron that Catholicism offered him an important advantage in his most cherished pursuit:
He even confessed that he could be a philanderer and a good Catholic by means of frequent confession and absolution: "I am a complete man and I am a Christian. I love the fair sex and I hope to enjoy many conquests . . . for when we confess our crimes to our priests they are obliged to absolve us."
I'm no Catholic, but I don't think that's quite how it's supposed to work.

And with that, let us quietly descend the drainpipe and steal away in silence from Casanova's rooms. Next week I'll be back with . . . nuns. Not, let's be clear, nuns like Casanova's beloved M. M., with whom he ______ and _______ and ______. No, these are upstanding, twentieth-century nuns, with very human problems but very holy ambitions--and nary a Casanova in sight.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Casanova and Don Juan

{Photo by rocketlass.}

In The Mirror of Ideas (1998), Michel Tournier contrasts Casanova and history's other great seducer, Don Juan. Of the latter Tournier writes,
It has been said that he did not like women, that he disdained them. He treats them like prey, and the list of his conquests read by the valet Leporello [in Tirso de Molina's The Seducer of Seville] is no more than a list of kills. Such is the eternity of Don Juan that he lives on among the young toughs of the suburbs whose favorite sport is "scoring with chicks."* But for Don Juan, sex is inseparable from religion. Woman is the great temptress, and the man who succumbs to her evil charms is damned.
Casanova, on the other hand, "a poor commoner, relies on his personal charm to seduce, and
Even though he is not handsome, women cannot resist him because they know from the beginning that he loves them with all his body and all his heart. . . . Wandering adventurer, gambler, cheater, incorrigibly unfaithful, he is nevertheless loved because he loves the whole woman, including her most intimate secrets.
For Casanova, the object of his desire is paramount. It is not, as with Don Juan, about notching another conquest; rather, it is about the fact that women are what interests him most of all the world's glittering beauties, and that, as Stefan Zweig notes in his brief study of Casanova, he loves to make them happy:
To Casanova, the first and last word of enjoyment, and all enjoyment that lies between, is to see women happy, amazed with delight, rapturous, laughing, carried out of themselves. As long as he has money left, he lavishes presents on the woman of his momentary choice, flatters her vanity with luxurious trifles, loves to deck her out splendidly, loves to wrap her in costly laces before he unclothes her that he may enjoy her nakedness, loves to surprise her with gifts more expensive than she has ever dreamed of, loves to overwhelm her with the tokens of his extravagant passion. He is like one of the gods of Hellas, a bounteous Zeus, that thereafter he speedily vanishes into the clouds. "I have always loved women madly, but I have always preferred freedom even to them." This increases his attraction, for the stormy phenomena of his appearance and disappearance enshrine him in their memory as something unwonted which has brought them rapturous delight, so that association with him is never staled by habit.

Every one of these women feel that Casanova would be impossible as a husband, as a faithful Celadon; but as a lover, as a god of a passing night, they will never forget him.
That is what makes Casanova so delightful, reading his memoirs so relatively guilt-free. Oh, when you get right down to it, no, of course Casanova can't be defended; no matter how convincing his portrait of himself as Don Juan's opposite, he surely left some damage in his wake.** But he is never caustic, never cruel, never inattentive; his whole existence is built on attention to the present moment (and the lady of it). The future is unknowable, the past negligible, the present all--and the verve implied by such a worldview is irresistible.

I sought out Tournier's thoughts on the pair of seducers because, by coincidence, the book I read last week right after Zweig's Casanova, Steven Millhauser's The King in the Tree (2003), features a novella about Don Juan. Millhauser's Don Juan, like so many of his characters, is weary, a bit confused, and beginning, against his wishes, to suspect that the very foundations of his life might be cheap constructs of paste and muslin:
In his brief life he had bedded more than two thousand women and killed fourteen men--five in duels, eight in self-defense, and one by mistake, through a curtain at which he was thrusting in sheer high spirits. He feared no man, mocked the machinery of heaven, and was heard to say that the devil was a puppet invented by a bishop to frighten children in the nursery. Men envied him, women of stainless virtue stood in the window to watch him ride by. And yet this man, who walked the earth like an immortal, who did whatever was pleasing to him and who satisfied his every desire, felt that a darkness had fallen across his spirit. . . . He was not bored. Don Juan didn't know whether he loved women,but he knew that he loved the pursuit and conquest of women, loved the feeling that he was following pleasure to the farthest edges of his nature. No, he felt restless in some other way, dissatisfied deep in his blood; and he began to feel that he was looking for something, though he didn't know what it was, exactly, or where he might find it.
Millhauser's Don Juan has, to put it crudely, lost his mojo, and that loss--the exploration of vaguely understood loss being Millhauser's metier--transforms him into, for the first time, a sympathetic character. The love triangle into which Millhauser leads Don Juan is wonderfully imagined and rendered, and the denouement (which perhaps shouldn't surprise either Don Juan or us, but does) is perfect.

So for these dark and wintry months, I prescribe some Casanova, leavened with Millhauser. The former will be like opening a window and breathing deep the air of spring; the latter will be like remembering a spring from your youth, when you did . . . something . . . something . . . something marvelous.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Seduced yet again by Casanova

Having cut my teeth in independent retail, I'm about as loyal a customer of my local bookstore, 57th Street Books, as it's possible to be. But loyalty to a store can stand the occasional infidelity . . .and last week in New York I found myself, like a lonely businessman eyeing the lady with the Cosmopolitan and the Blackberry down the bar, casting my eyes over the wares at the lovely little Three Lives and Company.

The infidelity metaphor is appropriate here, for the book I bought--all tarted up by a face-out placement--was Pushkin Press's edition of Stefan Zweig's Casanova: A Study in Self-Portraiture. I've written before of my love of Casanova's memoirs, with their unapologetically hedonistic glimpse into eighteenth-century life, and Zweig nails their appeal:
Imaginative writers rarely have a biography, and men who have biographies are only in exceptional instances able to write them.

Casanova is a splendid, almost unique exception. In him at length we find a man afire with the love of pleasure, a man who plucks at the fleeting hour, grasps at the skirts of happy chance, and is endowed by fate with the most extraordinary adventures; a man with an amazingly good memory, and one whose character knows nothing of inhibitions. This man tells us the tremendous story of his life, tells it without any moral restraints, without poetical adornments, without philosophic embroidery; he gives us a plain, matter-of-fact account of his life as it actually was, passionate, hazardous, rascally, reckless, amusing, vulgar, unseemly, impudent, lascivious, but always tense and unexpected. He is moved to tell his story; not by literary ambition, not by boastfulness or penitence, or an exhibitionist urge toward confession; but by a straightforward desire to tell it. . . . Here the narrator is not a fabulist, an inventor, but the master of poesy of life itself, life whose world is richer than any world of fancy. All Casanova need do is satisfy the most modest of the demands made upon the artist; he must render the almost incredible, credible.
"A straightforward desire to tell it"--yes, that's it. That's the genius of Casanova's memoirs: in an autobiography that is, in a certain sense, the world's biggest brag, the reader never gets the sense that that's how Casanova sees it. Rather, he is infinitely curious, and he expects us to be as well; in fact, his whole bed-to-bed life could be boiled down to an insatiable curiosity. Zweig picks one example out of hundreds, which begins with Casanova rushing to Naples on important business:
At the inn where he has halted for a brief space, he catches sight of a woman in a neighbouring room, in a stranger's bed (that of a Hungarian captain). Nay, what makes the matter more absurd is that he does not yet know whether she was pretty or not, for she is hidden under the bedclothes. He has merely heard laughter, a young woman's laughter, and thereupon his nostrils quiver. He knows nothing about her, whether she is attractive or the reverse, likely to be compliant or not, whether she is a possible conquest at all. Nevertheless he casts aside all his other plans, sends his horses back to the stable, and remains in Parma, merely because this off-chance of a love adventure has turned his head.

Thus does Casanova act in the manner of his kind anywhere and everywhere. By day or by night, in the morning or the evening, he will commit any folly in the hope of spending an hour with an unknown woman.
This is what he lived, and he thinks it might interest us because it interested him. Little to nothing else matters: morality, respectability, religion--what are those next to chances seized, gambles won? He is a mountebank and a cad and a seducer, and he thinks we enjoy reading about his life because of that.

And he's right. If you love the eighteenth century, if you love raconteurs, if you love truly singular personalities, you owe it to yourself to read History of My Life.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Colonel Roosevelt

I'm hip-deep in Edmund Morris's Colonel Roosevelt (2010), the third and final volume in his biographical portrait of Theodore Roosevelt, which began all the way back in 1980 with The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt. The first volume is absolutely stunning, with scene after scene that had me gasping aloud at Roosevelt's audacity, vivacity, and strangeness, while the second volume flagged a bit; the presidential years simply can't compare to Roosevelt's racketing about the Wild West and clawing for power back in Albany. But this volume--despite its being the third I've read on Roosevelt's post-presidential years (including Candice Millard's gripping tight-focus account of an Amazonian adventure, River of Doubt, and Patricia O'Toole's empathetic and detailed account of the period from 1909 on, When Trumpets Call)--has been a treat from the start.

It's full of scenes like this one, from a 1912 convention to nominate Republican delegates in Oklahoma:
The local committee chairman, Edward Perry, was a Roosevelt man who hoped to create a progressive stampede for the Colonel. A letter from Gifford Pinchot reminded him that, as yet, La Follette was Taft's only official challenger. Perry read the letter to the convention, but made plain that he still favored Roosevelt. This infuriated the rank and file supporting Taft. Pandemonium ensued, with Perry roaring "Slap Roosevelt in the face if you dare!" over contrary shrieks and howls. A posse of fake Rough Riders invaded the hall. For fifteen minutes they tried to storm the stage, but found it harder to take than the Heights of San Juan. Cigar-smoking Taft forces repelled them. One cavalryman got through on a miniature pony: the young son of Jack "Catch-'em-Alive" Abernathy, a friend of Roosevelt's famous for seizing wolves by the tongue. The boy shrilled "I want Teddy!" to the crowd, touching off further furor. But then the organization men suppressed him, and the convention endorsed Taft over La Follette by a vote of 118 to 32. Perry, locally known as "Dynamite Ed," showed his displeasure by going outside and detonating five hundred pounds of explosives.
The scene brings to mind the great moment in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence when a horseman mounts the stage at the nominating convention and proceeds to do lariat tricks, to the loud (and drunken) approbation of the assembled.

And there are countless other vividly described moments worth sharing. Like this one, in which the national nominating convention in Chicago proves that it can be just as rambunctious as Oklahoma's:
But then rhythmic cries of "Teddy, Teddy--we want Teddy!" developed in the uproar, like the drumbeat of a coming fanfare. Attention began to divert from Hadley on the floor to a pretty woman sitting in a high gallery. She wore a white dress, with a bunch of pinks at her waist. Whatever mysterious force focused fourteen thousand pairs of eyes on her, she was thespian enough to revel in it. She blew kisses at the crowd, then, leaning over the balustrade, unrolled a portrait of Theodore Roosevelt. The noise became deafening. Unfazed, she began to yell, and proved to have the lungs of a Valkyrie. "Boys--give three cheers for Teddy!"

A golden bear materialized beneath her, in the shape of the mascot of the California delegation. She reached out and cuddled it as it rose on the top of a proffered totem, whereupon the poles of other Roosevelt delegations joined in and jiggled up and down in phallic rivalry. The woman in white vanished for a minute. When she reappeared on the floor, it seemed improbable that the Coliseum could contain more sound. She marched up the main aisle, flushed with excitement, followed by stampeding delegates in an unconscious parody of Delacroix's Liberty Leading the People. . . . [S]he was hoisted giggling onto a shelf of shoulder and carried to the rostrum. Elihu Root tolerantly let her take control of the proceedings.
Then there's this moment, which makes my ears hurt just to read about--it would almost make a person wish for vuvuzelas:
One of the strangest [sounds in the hall], accompanied by whistles and screams of "Toot, toot!" was the spine-stiffening hiss of sheets of sandpaper scraped together. It was meant to express the conviction among Roosevelt Republicans that an organization "steamroller" was under way, intent on flattening their spirit of revolt.
But I find myself partial to this moment, when Roosevelt, newly arrived in Chicago to try to manhandle the convention, greets the crowd on Michigan Avenue from his hotel balcony:
Far to his left and right, a flotsam of faces swirled. The smoky, coppery sky seemed to press down on the city, concentrating its heat and noise. Waving his hat for quiet, he yelled in his high voice, "Chicago is a mighty poor place in which to try and steal anything."
Really? I'm disappointed to learn that our reputation hadn't already been properly established by 1912.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Gravitational anarchy

A recent podcast from WNYC's "Radiolab" featured actress Hope Davis reading long passages from an absolutely fascinating--and at times freaky--account of a long-undiagnosed illness that afflicted a Manhattan librarian in 1957. The account, which is told for the most part in the woman's own words, comes from a collection of midcentury New Yorker writer Berton Roueche's The Medical Detectives (1980). As I tend to do with podcasts, I listened to this on while running . . . late on a snowy evening along the deserted lakefront path, lit only by the chilly moon . . . and the effect was powerful, and even scary.

It starts simply:
I got up to join [my husband, Frank], and as I did--as I started across the room--I felt the floor sort of shake. It only lasted a moment--less than that, I suppose. Just an eyeblink. But the floor very definitely moved. "Good heavens!" I said. "What was that?" Frank just looked at me. His face was a perfect blank. It was obvious he didn't know what I was talking about.
It happened again. And again. And it got worse:
Sometimes it was though I were sinking into the floor. The room would tilt and I'd take a step, and the floor was like snow. It would give under my foot and I'd sink what felt like an inch, and other times it was the reverse--the floor would rise to meet me. . . . By then, it wasn't simply the floor that moved. When the floor tilted, the walls of the room tilted with it.
For the reader (or the listener), the instability culminates in an absolutely terrifying trip through an underground pedway that reads like a nightmare out of Bolano; for the poor woman who suffered through this, it eventually culminates in a diagnosis, and, fortunately, remission. But I'll leave that part a mystery for now. The essay is short, and the podcast, even shorter, is available at the "Radiolab" site. If what I've quoted creeps you out as much as it did me, you definitely should check out the rest.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Martin Luther King Jr.

Every year on this holiday, I feel I should recommend Taylor Branch's truly amazing three-volume biography-and-history, America in the King Years. I've written about it before, and those posts probably tell you all you need to hear from me about it. Suffice it to say that it's as dramatic and well-told as it is important, and I have trouble imagining attempting to understand American life and culture from the 1950s on without it.

Rest in peace, Dr. King.

Friday, January 14, 2011

The (non) ghost stories of Edith Wharton

As I was reading The New York Stories of Edith Wharton over the weekend, in anticipation of a trip to (a, um, somewhat different) New York, I encountered a couple of passages that made me pause and, figuratively, look around, wondering whether Vincent Price or Christopher Lee might be about to make an appearance.

This one, for example, from "Autres Temps," which finds a disgraced divorcee visiting her newly engaged daughter's country house of the first time. Try reading it with fogs and mystery on the brain, as a cousin tries to keep the mother in her room . . . at all costs!:
"Yes; it's too bad." Miss Suffern's gaze grew vague. "You do look tired, you know," she continued, seating herself at the tea-table and preparing to dispense its delicacies. "You must go straight back to your sofa and let me wait on you. The excitement has told on your more than you think, and you mustn't fight against it any longer. Just stay quietly up here and let yourself go. You'll have Leila to yourself on Monday."

Mrs. Lidcote received the tea-cup which her cousin proffered, but showed no other disposition to obey her injunctions. For a moment she stirred her tea in silence; then she asked: "Is it your idea that I should stay quietly up here until Monday?"

Miss Suffern set down her cup with a gesture so sudden that it endangered an adjacent plate of scones. When she had assured herself of the safety of the scones she looked up with a fluttered laugh. "Perhaps, dear, by to-morrow you'll be feeling differently. The air here, you know--"

"--What was that?!"

"What was what, dear?"
Okay, so I added that last exchange. But it didn't seem out of place, did it?

For these purposes, the next story, "The Long Run," is even better. Here's the key passage, introducing an old friend of the narrator; try not to imagine a rediscovered acquaintance in an M. R. James story as you read this description:
I was glad to see them all . . . but I was most of all glad--as I rather wonderingly found--to set eyes again on Halston Merrick.

He and I had been at Harvard together, for one thing, and had shared there curiosities and ardors a little outside the current tendencies: had, on the whole, been more critical than our comrades and less amenable to the accepted.
The two fell out of touch for an interval, during which Merrick inherited an iron works and was forced to retreat from society:
During that long interval I heard of no new phase in Merrick's evolution, but this did not surprise me, as I had never expected from him actions resonant enough to cross the globe. All I knew--and this did surprise me--was that he had not married, and that he was still in the iron business. All through those years, however, I never ceased to wish, in certain situations and at certain turns of thought, that Merrick were in reach, that I could tell this or that to Merrick. I had never, in the interval, found any one with just his quickness of perception and just his sureness of response.
All that's needed now is an unexpected awkwardness of manner (and perhaps a pallor) on Merrick's part, an invitation to his remote house, and the revelation of some quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore that he's been diligently studying lo these twelve years.

Alas, the only ghosts in these two stories are those spirits of past mistakes and misfortunes that populate so many of her stories. Fortunately for ghost story fans, however, one of the later stories in the collection does end up turning on a ghost, which, were it October rather than snowy January, I just might have decided to interpret as Edith Wharton gently tweaking me . . . . from beyond the grave!

Wednesday, January 12, 2011


Elif Batuman wrote an entertaining blog post over the weekend about Republican National Committee chairman Michael Steele inadvertently mixing up his Tolstoy and his Dickens: after citing War and Peace as his favorite book, apparently he started in on, "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times." Batuman points out, sympathetically, that War and Peace doesn't really open memorably; its first words are in French, for one thing, and they're dialogue, for another. Rather than announce that The Book is Beginning, Tolstoy merely draws back the curtain and invites the reader inside.

That got me thinking about opening lines. Unlike War and Peace, Anna Karenina does open memorably, with the famous aphorism:
All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.
Unforgettable, certainly . . . but tell me, does it ring true to you? It's so familiar that I've always taken it as a commonplace, but the more I actually attend to it, the more I doubt. It strikes me as more a flourish than a thought, an overly writerly phrase rather than a genuine observation about human character. It's the sort of phrase that a writer lays down in the fervid inspiration that accompanies the beginning of work on a novel . . . and then should be sure to go back and cut.

It simply doesn't fit, either with what immediately follows or with the long rest of the novel. If Tolstoy hadn't already had such a strong epigraph--"Vengeance is mine. I shall repay."--he would have been better off relegating his opening to that status and beginning the book with the second paragraph instead:
All was confusion in the Oblonskys' house. The wife had found out that the husband was having an affair with their former French governess, and had announced to the husband that she could not live in the same house with him. This situation had continued for three days now, and was painfully felt by the couple themselves, as well as by all the members of the family and household.
Wouldn't it be better to be plunged directly into that irony and bustle, rather than being given Tolstoy's solemn pronouncement first? Isn't that paragraph far more true to the feeling of Tolstoy's world, in all its particularity?

Not that Tolstoy's alone in falling for his own beauties. Take L. P. Hartley, whose similarly well-known lines that open The Go-Between I adapted for the title to Monday's post:
The past is a foreign country. They do things differently there.
Those lines work better than Tolstoy's with what's to come: in the immediate moment, the discovery by an adult of a journal he kept as a boy; in the course of the novel, his realization that his youthful self was missing, or misunderstanding, key elements of a drama in which he had played an unwitting part. But even so, those lines stand out as too chiseled, too separate; they'd do much better as an epigraph--that's the proper place for such an overarching, guiding observation.

And what about Dickens, and his (apparently Tolstoyan, per Michael Steele) "best of times, worst of times"? Those lines, bombastic as they may be, at least are tied to the book's theme of duality (overplayed though it may be in this weakest of Dickens novels)--and, because the passage is rarely quoted in full, it's easy to forget that Dickens intentionally deflates the tone by the end, a reminder that his true genius lay in his eye for the comic and self-important:
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way--in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.
Steele, it's only fair to say, is far from the first politician to fail to read far enough into a quotation to reach the sting in its tail. Methinks Dickens would have put him solidly into that category of "noisiest authorities."

For my money, however, Dickens's best opening lines come from the book of his that has been most effaced, as a piece of writing, by its many adaptations--A Christmas Carol:
Marley was dead: to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. The register of his burial was signed by the clergyman, the clerk, the undertaker, and the chief mourner. Scrooge signed it: and Scrooge's name was good upon 'Change, for anything he chose to put his hand to. Old Marley was as dead as a door-nail.
Is there a better way to open a story that's to begin with the visit of a ghost?

In fact, as far as setting a tone and giving the reader a sense of what's to come, I can only think of one line that beats it:
When the phone rang, Parker was in the garage, killing a man.
That's from Richard Stark's Firebreak. What more do you need to know, other than how much time you've got left for reading before you have to drag yourself away to bed?

Monday, January 10, 2011

The past is a foreign country. They had far, far less to do there.

When I hear people lamenting the proliferation of entertainments--TV, video games, text messages, the Internet, etc.--that abound in our relentlessly modern world, distracting us from ye olde contemplative life, I often find myself shaking my head. Really? Would you really want to go back to the days when, outside big cities, almost all your entertainment options involved hitting someone with a stick? (See, for example, the two games--jingling and backswording--described in these posts about Tom Brown's Schooldays.)

I know that I'm oversimplifying the case nearly as much as the knee-jerk nostalgists are, but my reading over the weekend added a couple more entertaining arrows to my quiver. First, from Frans G. Bengtsson's The Long Ships (1954), I learned--to no surprise--that when it comes to brutal games, Tom Brown's classmates had nothing on the Vikings. When the warriors engage in a celebratory session of tests of strength, such as "finger-tug, wrestling, and flat-buttock lifting," as well as "the difficult sport known as knot-lifting," a translator's note explains that the last of these is:
A sort of invitation to break one's neck, played by strong, drunken men after a feast. One (the weaker) sits on the ground, while the other (the stronger) kneels on his hands and knees. The latter is the man who risks his neck. The weaker man sits with his knees drawn up and wide apart, puts his arms outside his thighs and locks his hands under his knees. The strong man then puts his head forward between the other man's knees and into his locked hands, and tries to rise to a standing position, while the victim does his worst by pressing his knees and his locked hands round the strong man's neck. It was (says the author, in a letter to the translator) "a frightful game, only played by drunken men."
Fun stuff!

At least the Vikings had the excuse of being drunk. The participants in the other game I came across this weekend didn't even have that. Here's a note to the Oxford World's Classics edition of George and Weedon Grossmith's Diary of a Nobody explaining a parlor game, "Cutlets":
Patrick Beaver, in Victorian Party Games, describes this as a variant of "Quakers' Meeting," which he explains thus: "The company arrange themselves on the floor in a straight line, all kneeling on the right knee while on the other nee they rest their hands and twiddle their thumbs. It is forbidden to smile--any player detected doing so having to pay a forfeit. The following conversation is then carried on, each line of which must be repeated in turn by every player before the next line is said.

Well friend, and how art thou?

Hast thou heard of Brother Obadiah's death?

No, how did he die?

With one finger up (As each player repeats this line he stops twisting his thumbs and holds up his right forefinger),

With one eye shut (Each closes his right eye),

And shoulder all awry (Each does this).

How did he die?

In this way.

At this point the player at the top of the row give his neighbour a mighty shove and the whole company goes over like a pack of cards."
Oh, those wacky Victorians!

Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm going to go . . . do any of a vast number of activities that are right at my fingertips--and that don't involve shoving, breaking necks, or hitting with sticks.

Friday, January 07, 2011

Tips to file away for next year's holiday parties

{Photo by rocketlass.}

I wish I had read Frans G. Bengtsson's odd and endlessly entertaining novel The Long Ships (1954) before the holidays. I'm fortunate enough to be part of a more or less strife-free family, but for those of you who aren't, I think I could have drawn on Bengtsson's account of tenth-century Viking adventures to offer some familiar scenes, or even some guidance, as you embarked on the holiday gauntlet.

You may, for example, recognize a particularly acute example of the resentful guest:
Great men from all over the north came to Jellinge to celebrate Yule with King Harald. . . . The principal guest was King Harald's son, King Sven Forkbread, who had arrived from Hedeby with a large following. Like all King Harald's sons, he was the child of one of his father's concubines; and there was little love lost between him and his father, so that in general they avoided each other as much as possible. Every Yule, though, King Sven made the journey to Jellinge, and everybody knew why. For it often happened at Yule, when the food was richer and the drink stronger than at any other time in the year, that old men suddenly died, either in bed or on the drinking-bench. This had been the case with old King Gorm, who had lain unconscious for two days after a surfeit of Yuletide pork and had then died; and King Sven wanted to be near the royal coffers when his father passed over. For many Yules now he had made the journey in vain, and each year his impatience increased.
And, as those from disputatious families can surely attest, when you've got guests who insist on taking a heaping helping of insult as a part of their entree, it's best to have explicit ground rules:
When everyone was in his place, the groom of the bedchamber announced in a gigantic voice that the peace of Christ and of King Harald reigned in the hall, and that no edged implements might be used except for the purpose of cutting up food; any cut, thrust, or open wound caused by weapon, ale-tankard, meat-bone, wooden platter, ladle, or clenched fist would be reckoned as plain murder, and would be regarded as sacrilege against Christ and as an unpardonable crime, and the miscreant would have a stone tied round his neck and be drowned in deep water.
However, ven the best planning, and the most selfless forbearance, cannot always avail you:
In the evening a man from Halland told them about a great wedding that he had been present at in Finnveden, among the wild people of Smaland. During the celebrations a dispute had broken out concerning a horse deal, and knives had quickly appeared; whereupon the bride and her attendant maidens had encouraged the disputants to settle the matter there and then. However, when the bride, who belonged to a well-known local family, saw her uncle's eye gouged out by one of the bridegroom's kinsmen, she had seized a torch from the wall and hit her bridegroom over the head with it, so that his hair caught fire. One of the bridesmaids, with great presence of mind, had forced her petticoat over his head and twisted it tight, thereby saving his life, though he screamed fearfully and his head, when it appeared again, was burned black and raw. Meanwhile the first had caught the straw on the floor, and eleven drunken or wounded men lying in it had been burned to death; so that this wedding was generally agreed to have been one of the best they had had for years in Finnveden, and one that would be long remembered.
In other words, the one true lesson of The Long Ships? Don't invite Vikings to your holiday parties.

Wednesday, January 05, 2011

Sinatra and "Lush Life"

One of the questions that I had hoped James Kaplan's new biography of Frank Sinatra would answer was why Sinatra never recorded Billy Strayhorn's beautiful song of world-weary cafe society, "Lush Life," one of my favorite American standards. I'd seen a passing reference in another Sinatra book--Friedwald's, perhaps?--to one early 1950s attempt, aborted when an Ava emergency arose, but I hadn't ever happened across another mention or explanation..

Kaplan doesn't have anything to say about the song except for a quick aside in the acknowledgments. After explaining that the book's origins lie in an evening of dinner and drinks with a bunch of musicians who had worked with Sinatra, he writes that the anecdotes retailed at that table included one from Vinnie Falcone,
who was Sinatra's conductor and accompanist toward the end of the singer's career[. Falcone] spoke of his fruitless efforts to get Frank to record the great and legendarily difficult Billy Strayhorn classic "Lush Life." "Come on, Boss, just you and me and a piano," Vinnie said. Sinatra shook his head. Even the gods know their limits.
Oh, but think how much even a weak try at that one, with its languid introductory verse and slowly cascading climax, would have enlivened Sinatra's late output! To hear that worn voice intone those enervated lines . . . . Gods may know their limits, but that needn't stop us mortals from wanting to see them tested.

Kaplan's anecdote doesn't clear up the question of the earlier attempts at "Lush Life," however--but fortunately, a coworker came to my rescue, lending me Charles L. Granata's beautifully illustrated, fascinating Sessions with Sinatra: Frank Sinatra and the Art of Recording (1999). Granata worked on the reissues of many of Sinatra's albums, and his book combines accounts from session principals with information gleaned from the unedited tapes of session after session, from the blown takes to spoken instructions to the banter among Sinatra, his arrangers, and the musicians. Granata notes in his introduction,
To sit in a modern studio and eavesdrop, fifty years after these moments occurred, is a delightfully eerie experience. In some cases, the conversations are so absorbing and the fidelity so true that you feel as though you are sitting among the musicians in the orchestra.
It's a book to sit with before and after you listen to Sinatra's greatest albums; it's hard to imagine any Frank fan who wouldn't come away richer for the experience. To take just one example: in recording "Nice and Easy," Sinatra at first had trouble with the little rhythmic jog that closes the song, "Nice and easy does it / [beat] every time." "Ah, ya dirty mother! That quarter rest is murder!" he exclaimed. And of more import: Granata discovered that the song's signature pre-coda homage to Basie, "Like the man said, One more time," turns out to be Sinatra's own idea. Along the way, he also experimented with closing tags, including "Just put your hand on it baby, that's all," "Slowly, baby," and "Isn't that better, baby?", all of which seem more suited to Jim Backus's "Delicious" than to the slow seduction of "Nice and Easy."

To return to "Lush Life": Granata confirms that it was planned as the eighth song at a May 29, 1958 session for Only the Lonely, but was scrapped, "possibly owing to the fatigue of such a long session." But Granata also makes the strong point that the intricate, out-of-meter piano introduction wouldn't have meshed well with the elegant, late-night simplicity of Bill Miller's playing on the album's standout track, "One for My Baby." Add in the complexity of the vocal line--Granata quotes Nelson Riddle saying, "It's a rather complicated song, and I think Frank would have been momentarily put off by all the changes that had to go on."--and it seems like it was just too much for the tired singer. A few failed takes and the song was tabled:
"Put it aside for a minute," someone (possibly [Leonard] Slatkin says, and Sinatra sarcastically retorts, "Put it aside for about a year!"
And thus, through, it seems, no fault of Ava after all, ended Sinatra's attempts at "Lush Life."

Mine, however, are ongoing. I've been practicing it in the shower for years, and one of my few (always modest) goals in life is to get to where I can play it on the piano and sing along without making friends and spouse too obviously want to leave the room. I'm young yet . . . and despite my love of the song's alcohol-soaked ennui, far from weary enough to give up.

{Photos by rocketlass.}

Monday, January 03, 2011

Singing in the rain

I've really had my legs knocked out from under me by a flu today, and I find my brain's not really up to a proper post, so I'll just share a passage from James Kaplan's new biography of Frank Sinatra. This scene comes in 1952, when Frank was near rock bottom: he'd been dropped by his agent, dropped by his studio, and was damn near to being dropped by his record label. Worse, the public seemed to have turned away, to other singers and other styles. Oh, and his running battle of a marriage to Ava Gardner was at its fiercest pitch.

Desperate, Frank booked a gig on Kauai . . .
playing a county fair in a tent. A leaky tent.

He pulled aside a flap and peered out at the audience. It was just a couple hundred red-faced tourists and hicks in aloha shirts and jeans and muumuus. Jesus Christ. The rain was drumming on the canvas, dripping on the ground. There was no orchestra, just an upright piano on a wooden platform. He closed the flap and looked at Bill Miller sitting on a folding chair, lean as a spider and pale as death--in Hawaii!--and sipping a cup of tea. Miller raised his eyebrows. Sinatra shook his head. Soon he'd be playing revival meetings.

Miller's thin lips formed into something like a smile.

Suddenly two brown-skinned girls in grass skirts came in, carrying flowered garlands, beaming. They dropped the leis over Frank's head, one by one, giggling, covering his cheeks with little kisses, and even as he grinned, his eyes grew moist

Frank turned to Miller. Should they do it?

Miller nodded and rose. Frank pulled the canvas aside and walked out onto the little stage, the garlands around his neck. The small crowd went nuts the second they saw him, clapping over their heads, whistling, stamping the ground. For a minute you couldn't even hear the rain on the tent. Sinatra was still smiling, the first time he'd been happy in weeks. He sat on the edge of the stage, dangling his legs, and said, "What do you want to hear?"
Kaplan's book--which only goes up to 1954, a fact that Doubleday's marketing crew ably buries in a line of copy--is completely absorbing, in part because I don't know Sinatra's life the way I know his music. My reading about Frank in the past has been almost entirely limited to books that turn to the facts of his life only in order to explain his music. (And of those, you still can't do better than Will Friedwald's Sinatra! The Song Is You.) And while there's a certain "you are there!", overly novelistic quality to Kaplan's writing that at times I find frustrating, at other times, as in the scene above, his technique works perfectly. In that scene, he takes an utterly unimportant, throwaway concert date and makes us feel what it must have been like--and makes us wish, rain and muumuus and all, that we had been there.