Friday, September 28, 2012

Conversations with William Maxwell

I've little time tonight, but I do want to share at least a couple of bits from Conversations with William Maxwell (2012), if for on other reason than to try to help spread the word of the book's existence to Maxwell fans who, like me, may have missed it when it was published in the spring.

It's clearly a book that I'll be reading and referring to for a long time; what I have to offer tonight are the merest quick gleanings, a browser's miscellany. Like this exchange with the book's editor (and Maxwell's biographer, Barbara Burkhardt, from 1991, which follows as discussion of the presence of a commenting narrative voice in The Folded Leaf:
Burkhardt: Why did you move away from this type of storyteller in your later works and increasingly use first person?

Maxwell: When I was younger I tried to use the first person and couldn't. The result was inevitably loquacious and without form. I think I learned how not to be loquacious, how to construct a self that would pass with the reader, from reading E. B. White, who is so candid, but so, so disarming. If I had done So Long in the third person I wouldn't have been as close to the painful center of the book, or been able to be a witness as well as an actor.
It shouldn't surprise me, I suppose, that Maxwell drew lessons from White; writers take their models where they find them. And the two do share a commitment to precision, clarity, and sentence-by-sentence quality--but White's lightness of touch, his self-deprecation, the conversational tone of even his most obviously worked over lines nonetheless seem far from Maxwell's seriousness, melancholy, and stateliness.

The best bit I've come across thus far is from an "All Things Considered" interview conducted in 1995, soon after the publication of Maxwell's marvelous All the Days and Nights: Collected Stories. In response to host Linda Wertheimer's statement, "You also write a fair amount about age," Maxwell replies,
I do think being an old man is the most interesting thing that's ever happened to me because of all sorts of strange experiences, the opening up of memory, which I expected, and of the enjoyment of life being progressively greater instead of diminished by age. That was a surprise. And memory is the most remarkable part of all because you live in the past, you live in the present, and you, like everyone, live in the future. Only when you're old, they pass so easily into each other without any effort at all so that the past is quite as real as the present, and the future is, of course, problematical and that's interesting.
Such a satisfying answer, and a heartening one to those of us on our perpetual way, god willing, to being old. That's the goal, isn't it: to hold on to your past while never losing your engagement with the present and your sense of a future.

Maxwell follows that answer with a description of an incident that, for me, raised goose bumps:
I've also had one amazing experience in the night in the dark in bed. I suddenly was able to remember in detail the house I grew up in and left when I was twelve years old. And I went form room to room seeing things that I hadn't remembered for seventy years and more. And being able to look as if I were actually there, as if the house was actually there, I saw that level of the bookcase, I saw pictures, I saw empty rooms, I saw furniture, and could look at it as long as I wanted to. It was as if some shutter had slipped back in my mind and I had absolute, total memory of the past.
Maxwell's description of the experience makes it seem truly uncanny, and it feels as if it ought to carry a hint of dread, of the perils of trespassing, but it doesn't--in fact, his verdict on it is that it was "a marvelous experience," and that it made him believe "that everything is fair, absolutely everything." I suspect that William James might have classed it as a religious experience.

That seems a good way to glide into the haunted precincts of October, with its annual serving of stories of ghosts and ghouls. The coming week may see spotty blogging, but trust me: soon after the spirits will make their presence felt. As the haints put it: have a good weekend--I'll see you on the other side.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Another mysterious missive!

Three weeks ago I blogged about receiving an anonymous postcard in the mail. The card had a postmark from Dallas, my address, and a quote from Anthony Powell's A Dance to the Music of Time. Its mystery made my day.

Like some of the early reviewers of A Question of Upbringing, I seem to have erred, taking as a standalone the first part of a series. For in my mailbox yesterday was the card pictured below.

The image is captioned thus:
The Powder Tower, 1650, and the Revolution Museum of the Latvian SSR
In case you can't read it, what it says beside my address and the same Dallas postmark is simply:
All this, and Mopsy Pontner too.
Powell fans will remember Mopsy Pontner as the most minor of characters (despite sporting one of Powell's best names). She first turns up in Temporary Kings, the lovely wife of a dealer in paintings. Moreland is said to have fancied her, in the days before his marriage to Matilda, but kept away because he liked her husband. As Nick explains, "Moreland tended to keep off his friends' wives." (What a large amount of work that one word "tended" does in that sentence!) It's possible in any case that Moreland's reticence would have been matched; Mopsy does have the relatively rare distinction of having turned down Barnby.

Her sole appearance in the sequence is at a recollected dinner party that she attended as part of the sale of an Augustus John drawing to American film magnate Louis Glober, a sale by chance brokered by Nick, who thus also ends up at the party. Moreland, too, is there, "in poorish form, absent in manner, probably weighed down with a current love affair gone wrong." He isn't alone: the dinner's cast never quite clicks, and overall it turns out to be "heavy going." A year or so later, however, having gotten to know Mopsy Pontner a bit better, Nick has this exchange with her about that night:
"Glober did me on the table."

"Among the coffee cups?"

"We broke a couple of liqueur glasses."

"You obviously found him attractive."
But the showstopping revelation--the reason Glober sticks in readers' minds despite being a tad bland in general, is still to come. Mopsy tells Nick:
One rather odd thing about Glober, he insisted on taking a cutting from my bush--said he always did that after having anyone for the first time. He produced a pair of nail-scissors from a small red leather case. He told me he carried them round with him in case the need arose.
Nick, the epitome of English unflappability, drolly replies:
We all have our whims.
At a party years later, the merest mention of that dinner is enough to send an ailing Moreland into paroxysms of nostalgic giddiness--he imagines the headline "Musician Dies of Nostalgia." Then, rambling through all the old memories that the current night's guest list has brought to the fore, he caps it with, "All this, and Mopsy Pontner too." The nostalgia gets so thick and ridiculous that he tells Nick,  only half joking, "You shouldn't have told me about Mopsy Pontner. It wasn't the act of a friend."

Sending mysterious Dance-related postcards, however? Oh, that is unquestionably the act of a friend.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Rebecca West on The Fountain Overflows

At the suggestion of Will Schofield of Fifty Watts, I've recently been dipping into Rebecca West's letters. West was a fierce writer of strong opinions, and the letters are full of unforgettable (and often troubling) scenes from her life, a life vexed by difficult relationships with family and friends. But the letters are also full of great lines and fascinating scenes, like this wonderfully ridiculous account of a drunk Irish playwright at a party, sent to George Bernard Shaw in late 1917:
“To this [party] entered Frank Harris, in a very new dress suit, which one felt was part of an outfit which he had procured from some spinster by fraudulent representations, and delivered a lecture on Style. I admit it was plucky of him, for he was very drunk, His manner was foully offensive: a barking arrogance with oily declensions at the points where he was moved to speak of the necessity of the artist to feel pity and love—awful passages as though the Sermon on the Mount had kittened and there were its progeny. But the thing that really horrified me was that his lecture considered entirely of a criticism of an incident in Madame Bovary which that book does not contain.
I laughed out loud at the "kittening" of the Sermon on the Mount; that's a Wodehouse-level word choice.

What is of most interest to me in the book--and the place I first turned in the index (after Powell, Anthony, an entry that sadly doesn't appear)--is anything she has to say about my favorite of her books, the autobiographical novel The Fountain Overflows. Her most in-depth treatment of the book comes in a letter to TLS editor Arthur Crook of December 24, 1973, in which she took to task for a bad review of the novel. One point in particular that she argued against was Crook'scontention that the mature conversation of the children was unbelievable. West wrote,
As for The Fountain Overflows, you are quite wrong. When my sister Winifred and I were young, we were full of such ideas about childhood, which was a subject constantly discussed, as serfs might discuss serfdom while fond of their masters, and I can assure you that the book understates the musical preoccupations of thehousehold. I don't think a single line of the children's conversation could not have taken place, and many of them did take place.
From the specific familial evidence she proceeds to her larger point:
But nobody else has written about such people. You are penalising me for keeping an unconventional eye. It seems to me now a source for pride that all my books are different. I was looking at something fresh each time. I don't think I should be judged as failing because what I saw was not the same as people without my experience do not recognise as familiar. But again I am not with my age.
Later in the letter she addresses a similar theme from a slightly different angle:
By the way, in your mention of The Fountain Overflows, you accept a modern canon which I think quite inacceptable: that one should not write about exceptionally gifted people. I see no sense in that at all. Scientists do not refrain from investigating the habits of the dolphin because it is the most intelligent of the big-brained sea beasts.
West's example feels weak, but the point is a good one--and one I remember a writing teacher making years ago when I was an undergrad: it's relatively easy to write about people with less knowledge, understanding, and apprehension than ourselves. It can be interesting and useful to do so, but it also can too easily settle reader and writer into an unpleasantly self-congratulatory compact, presenting people and situations where we know oh so much more about what's going on than the characters do. The writer who always comes to mind for me when I think of that is Raymond Carver: it's in some sense an unfair criticism, as he was by all accounts writing about a people and a life that he knew intimately even as he'd transcended it in some ways, but I still find his stories uncomfortable on those grounds. (And never more so than when Robert Altman reshaped them--Short Cuts is on the surface a very good movie, but on longer acquaintance its misanthropy is hard to ignore.) What's harder--and potentially, I think, more interesting--is to write about people who are smarter, quicker, more talented than ourselves. How can we convey the nimbleness and quality of their minds, their dedication, their willpower, in ways that will be comprehensible to us and our readers who have less of all those qualities?

West couldn't chose a more suitable example than The Fountain Overflows to make her case, as the novel is above all convincing. I wrote a brief review of it years ago, on spec, but it was never published--looking it over now, I find I still think it strikes the right note and gets at what's so remarkable about the book:
The Fountain Overflows, Rebecca West’s largely autobiographical novel, set in early twentieth-century London, is narrated by a twelve-year-old girl who, along with her twin sister, is a piano prodigy. It’s a dense, enveloping story of growing up in a financially precarious household headed by a brilliant father whose political pamphlets make Cabinet ministers tremble, but whose undependability and heedlessness are so deeply ingrained as to make every new disaster seem almost intentional. At one particularly difficult point, the girls’ mother--eccentric in her own way and the true heart of both novel and family--mutters, “How can I compete with death and disgrace, which is what he really desires?” Much of the dialogue is that way: thoughtful, considered, tracing and retracing the outlines of ideas, conversation that seems apt for this insular, talented family.

A major theme of the book is the difference between real and false art, the consolations available in the former that cannot be supplied by the latter, and the way such abstract ideas can thread through family life as seen by a perceptive child. The twins have an older sister who plays the violin with polish and emptiness; they and their mother are astonished that she doesn’t herself realize her playing is essentially artless and false. The characters that sweep through the family’s life--including a violin teacher, a cousin, a murderess, and the father’s erstwhile boss--vary in their degrees of understanding of art and people, but the progress of the novel shows that genius does not prevent cruelty, while a lack of understanding does not preclude instinctive kindness.

The circumscribed world of the family is so absorbing, convincing, and hypnotic that even the appearance of poltergeists, invisible bunnies, and imaginary horses comes to seem a natural outgrowth of the several personalities. The novel--and especially the character of the harried, deeply caring mother--is suffused with a rare combination of clear-eyed judgment and inquiring magnanimity, as if the greatest desire of the narrator and her relations is to learn about people, to remind themselves that considered attention to others, even those initially disliked, can lead to the sympathy and caring that are essential to all family--and all human--relations.
We firmly believe in these characters, their thoughts and their lives--to the point that their casual revelations of encounters with the spirit world don't even cause us to raise an eyebrow. This, we feel, is what happens when a family of very smart, very talented people is forced by poverty and failure to be more tightly knit than is probably healthy.

West, in her letter to Crook, sounds more resigned (if combative) than upset about the review. "I was also handicapped because you are right," she writes, "I do care above all for reality. What chance did that give me in a world dominated by Eliot, who did not care for reality, who only cared to give out passes that certified the holder to be respectful to reality." West's desire to present the world and its people as she saw them shines through The Fountain Overflows; a dozen years after I first read it, I still find myself thinking about it all the time.

Friday, September 21, 2012

"Waitress, there's a fly in the ointment that is my drink!", or, The Cocktail Waitress Fatale

It's been a fantastic couple of months for crime fiction fans, from Gillian Flynn's breakout, Gone Girl, to another solid Tana French novel, Broken Harbor, and Megan Abbott's Dare Me, maybe the best of the bunch. But the book I'd most looked forward to didn't arrive until this week, and it turns out to have been worth the wait. James M. Cain's The Cocktail Waitress, which had lain buried, in overlapping drafts, in Cain's papers since his death in 1977, would be a reason for excitement even if all it did was resurrect, however briefly, Cain's distinct storytelling voice--that toxic mix of desire, desperation, and bad choices--but it goes one better: it gives us that voice, but this time it's the voice of the femme fatale herself, new widow Joan Medford.

Hard Case Crime editor Charles Ardai notes in his afterword that
Of course, no femme fatale thinks she is one, or admits it if she does.
And therein lies the chief pleasure of the novel: deciding how much to believe the mostly-innocent-girl-wronged story it tells. After all, how else can a reader respond to an account whose first chapter includes this explicit self-justification:
So what's the fly in the ointment, and why am I taping this? It's in the hope of getting it printed to clear my name of the slanders against me, in connection with the job and the marriage it led to and all that came after--always the same charge, the one Ethel flung at me of being a femme fatale who knew ways of killing a husband so slick they couldn't be proved.
Ardai glosses the passage in his afterword:
It's the inherent contradiction in any work of fiction, the one we all conveniently ignore each time we sit down to enjoy a novel: Can we believe what this narrator is telling us? Well, no, of course not--it's all lies, it's all made up, that's what fiction is. But within the fiction, you say, if we imagine ourselves inhabitants of the characters' world instead of our own, can we believe what we're being told then . . . ? Most of the time you assume the answer is yes: You can trust what Huck Finn tells you; Ishmael isn't lying to you about what went on between Ahab and Moby-Dick. But why do you believe that? How in the world do we know that Ishmael didn't kill all his fellow seamen and then wreck the Pequod himself to cover his tracks?
What's particularly fascinating about Cain's book is that he doesn't play games--there are no half-hidden clues, the sort that you're supposed to see if you read closely and that would fatally undermine the narrator; in their place is nothing but uncertainty, and a vague sense that, as one character says of Joan, "Something about you doesn't quite match up."

What's most interesting about that narrative uncertainty is that, according to Ardai, the first draft of The Cocktail Waitress was written in the third person. Cain was a good enough writer that I wouldn't want to say he couldn't have made it work that way, but there's no question that the point of view is crucial to the book's success now--the plot itself creaks just a tad here and there, and what renders that unimportant is Joan's voice, and the niggling doubt we can't ever quite let it push away.

To raise our uncertainty but refuse to definitively settle the question, even obliquely, and to manage despite to present a couple of quite surprising plot twists is quite an achievement. The Cocktail Waitress may not be up to the level of Cain's best (for my money the odd, nearly picaresque novel of sexual malleability and artistic ambition Serenade), but its resurrection is nonetheless something crime fiction fans should celebrate.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Powell on friendship old and young

One thing I've been particularly enjoying this time through Hearing Secret Harmonies is when Nick Jenkins distills the fruit of his years of experience into general pronouncements on life. Like this one about friendship:
In any case the friendships of later life, as contrasted with those negotiated before thirty, are apt to be burdened with reservations, constraints, inhibitions. Probably thirty was placing the watershed too late for the age when both parties more or less begin to know (at least think they know) what the other is talking about, as opposed to those earlier friendships--not unlike love affairs, with all sexual element removed--which can exist with scarcely an interest in common, mutual misunderstanding of character and motive all but absolute.
The overarching point is hard to argue with, but at first glance Powell's explanation seems off: the friends of our youth we misunderstand? Seems wrong, no?

But with more thought, I found myself agreeing with him. When we're young and ill-defined, thinking taste more important than character, we tend to assume that anyone our age who has chosen a broadly similar approach to dress and affect surely shares our outlook on life--and the potent combination of our inexperience, ignorance of the world's multiplicity, and solipsism enables us to rush headlong into friendships that in later life caution would halt at the handshake.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Hearing autumnal harmonies

The streets having, as Zelda Fitzgerald put it, "once more assumed their academic context," I find the recurrent patterns of life, seemingly dormant amid the possibilities of summer, beginning to stand in sharper relief once more, as they do annually when September brings thoughts of school, never, it seems to be banished despite the accumulation of post-graduate years. Which means it's time once again to pick up where last I left off with my perpetual re-reading of A Dance to the Music of Time.

This turn through the Dance, which I believe is my fifth, has brought me to the final volume, Hearing Secret Harmonies. It's regarded by many readers as the least of the series, the moment when Powell's age and success insulated him just enough from changes in the culture (and especially the growth of the counterculture) as to render his observational, ironic manner ineffective. Christopher Hitchens called the final volume an "extreme disappointment," writing,
Here, the shortcomings of the preceding novels appear condensed and intensified. Confronted by what he would doubtless call “the Sixties,” Powell sounds less and less like a stoical and skeptical observer and instead takes on the lineaments of a vaporing old bore. The book supposedly concerns the cult of youth and the traps that this cult will set for the trend-crazed older person who needs or desires to appear contemporary. But it is no longer informed by experience and curiosity, well-recollected and hard-won and wrought over in reflection. Rather, it resembles the plaintive tone of a beached colonial retiree, convinced that all around him is going to the dogs.
Though I wouldn't claim that Hearing Secret Harmonies is the Dance at its best, I've written before of my disagreement with the assessment of it as a failure. Despite a few mis-steps here and there, I think it achieves what Powell aimed for it to achieve: bringing the series to a close without offering closure, asserting the primacy of pattern and repetition and reminding us that the different starting and ending points of all our separate sprints through life mean that the finality offered as a matter of course by most novels is at best a chimera, at worst a lie.

Today, as I started into the book again, I was struck by how much of Powell's style, technique, and concerns make themselves known within just the first few pages. The opening passage gives us his precise, even fussy descriptions and convoluted, even antiquated syntax, festooned with clauses to the point that nearly every assertion feels like a reticent aside:
Ducks, flying in from the south, ignored four or five ponderous explosions over at the quarry. The limestone cliff, dominant oblong foreground structure, lateral storeyed platforms, all coral-pink in the evening sunlight, projected towards the higher ground on misty mornings a fading mirage of Babylonian terraces suspended in haze above the mere; the palace, with its hanging gardens, distantly outlined behind a group of rather woodenly posed young Medes (possibly young Persians) in Mr Deacon's Boyhood of Cyrus, the picture's recession equally nebulous in the shadows of the Walpole-Wilson's hall.
If we were coming new to the books, that passage would suffice to establish narrator Nick Jenkins, and by extension Powell, as a close observer, someone who takes the necessary time to look--and then, having looked, to describe with care what he's seen. It's Jenkins's characteristic role throughout the series: he is more than anything else a watcher, our window to the panoply of lives, hopes, ambitions, and adventures of his generation. His primary mode is meditative, and returning to his narration is a reminder of how dismayingly rare that quality is in fiction.

A few paragraphs on, we get to see how that interest in description and observation can be turned to humor, in an account of a crayfishing expedition:
The single crayfish emerging from under the stones was at once followed by two more. Luck had come at last. The three crayfish, swart miniature lobsters of macabrely knowing demeanour, hung about doubtfully in a basin of mud below the surface. The decision was taken by the crayfish second to enter. He led the way with fussy self-importance, the other two bustling along behind.
Again, it's the precision--bordering on finickiness--that makes the passage work. "Swart"(an archaic version of "swarthy" with an extra valence of malignance), "fussy self-importance," the characterization of the most intrepid crayfish as the second in a duel, setting out to examine the ground for the contest--all this may be pointless, but it's funny, and, moreover, it gives us a sense of the kind of eye we're looking through. A man who troubles to describe crayfish so carefully will not fall down on the job when his fellow humans enter the picture.

The opening paragraph quoted above also introduces another key aspect of Jenkins's approach to life, one that's closely tied to his meditative stance: his constant use of culture to help him understand the lives and events around him. His mention of Mr Deacon's painting is particularly rich because it refers to the imaginary artistic world of the novel itself, but in the opening chapter he also finds room for an apposite Shakespeare quote and draws on knowledge of local archaeology and legend. None of the references seem a stretch; rather, their emergence feels like the organic workings of a mind that is forever remembering, judging, comparing, considering. At the opening of chapter two, Powell writes of the small consolations of getting old:
The other mild advantage endorses a keener perception for the authenticities of mythology, not only of the traditional sort, but--when such are any good--the latterday mythologies of poetry and the novel.
In the face of the typical fourteen-year-old's dismissal of culture as irrelevant ("Why do we have to learn all this old crap?"), I would put forth the workings of Jenkins's mind: because the more we know of what came before, the greater our ability to understand what we see before us now, to detect similarities and patterns, and--perhaps most important--to understand that, while Ezekial's "nada y nada y nada" may have been a tad too gloomy, there certainly isn't a lot new under the sun, and that, rather than something wholly new and different (and, as is usually implied, better), we are but another link in a long chain. One of the great glories of Dance is that it contains such multitudes that it creates the very conditions that Nick so enjoys: its fans find themselves using its memorable characters to help them understand the people they meet in everyday life.

Knowing of Jenkins's tendency to view events through the lens of art also helps us catch a good moment in these first pages with his wife, Isobel. As she explains to her niece and others how to catch crayfish, she says,
The trap must be hauled up gently, or they walk off again. The frustration of the Old Man and the Sea is nothing to it.
Jenkins is remarkably close-mouthed about his marriage--he says at one point, "What can one say about one's marriage?" and mostly sticks to that position. But the glimpses we do get of Isobel's mind--for example, when Nick is able to sneak a weekend pass during the war and she fills his ear, gleefully, with exactly the sort of gossip that he has most been hungering for--enable us to understand the basis of their connection. Her line here is little more than a joke, but it's a good one, one that reveals a fundamental, satisfying affinity.

This, all this, the distinctiveness of Nick Jenkins's voice and worldview, is why returning to the Dance feels like an imperative every fall: there's nothing else quite like it, and it feels like going home. When the consolations of the summer--the sun, the long days, the baseball games on the radio into the night--are being taken away one by one, the familiar is your friend, always there to be leaned on.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Zelda for your autumn evening

The world, as my favorite Wordsworth line would have it, remains too much with me, late and soon, so tonight all I have is a quotation for the autumn and a photo to accompany it.

I've mentioned before that I include snippets from writers' letters in the weekly publicity roundup I create at my office, which gives me an excuse to spend time with my shelves and Google Books every week, looking for bits worth sharing. Today's came when it occurred to me that surely Zelda Fitzgerald had written something suitably autumnal to Scott at some point over the years. I was pleased to discover that in September of 1940 she had:
To-night is the first fall night. The moon is bright and cool and dispassionate and the shadows are remote and impersonally admonitory and the children have started to school; so the streets once more assume their academic context.
What I love about this passage is that its language is beautiful in much the same way that Scott Fitzgerald's language tends to be: its word choices are precise and memorable, its sentences balanced and rhythmic. I don't think I'll be able to navigate an autumn night for the rest of my life without thinking of the leaf-laden shadows as "remote and impersonally admonitory."

Which brings me to the photo, discovered on BoingBoing today:

You've figured out by now that that's Zelda. But did you realize that it's a cake?

Enjoy your reading this weekend, folks.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Reading around James

Time has escaped me this week like the right bastard it is, so all I have tonight--byproducts of my continuing happy engagement with The Portrait of a Lady and Michael Gorra's Portrait of a Novel--are a couple of brief passages to share.

The first comes from a book I've drawn on before, Simon Nowell-Smith's collection of Henry James anecdotes, The Legend of the Master, a book whose slimness belies its riches. This scene, related by James's friend Violet Hunt, is more amusing than meaningful, but as I sit here with my cats I find the delivery, along with Hunt's patience in holding back the payoff, makes it satisfying:
Settled in for the afternoon, surrounded by adoring ladies, the recluse of Rye sat complacent, holding my last new Persian kitten between his open palms, talking animatedly to the Beauty [Hunt's niece], who could not talk but looked. He quite forgot the poor beast, which was too polite and too squeezed between the upper and the nether millstone of the great man's hands to remind him of its existence, and I dared not rescue it until the sentence on which Mr. James was engaged was brought to a close--inside of half an hour.
Another book that Gorra's study of Portrait led me to pluck from my shelves is the NYRB Classics edition of the journals of Edmond and Jules de Goncourt. I was surprised to find that no mention of James had made its way into the NYRB's selection; James didn't spend that much time in their circle, but I assumed he would pop up somewhere in their journals nonetheless, and, if so, that editor and translator Robert Baldick would have included it in his selection.

The chief charm of the Goncourt Journals, however, is that it's nearly impossible to turn to any page and not find something that you want to share, James or no James. Like this anecdote told by one of James's literary heroes, Turgenev, from April 9, 1881:
After dinner we talked about love and the strange tastes women have in love. Turgenev told us that in Russia there was a charming woman, a woman with curly hair of the palest blond imaginable and a slightly cafe-au-lait complexion in which the undissolved coffee grains formed a crowd of little beauty spots. This woman had been courted by the most intelligent and most famous of men. One day Turgenev asked her why, out of all her suitors, she had made a perfectly inexplicable choice, and the woman replied: "Perhaps you are right, but then you have never heard the way he says: 'Really? You don't say!'"
I hope Anthony Powell came across that entry at some point; I expect he would have been delighted by it.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Isabel Archer and Caspar Goodwood

Last week, excited about Michael Gorra's new book on Henry James and the writing of The Portrait of a Lady, Portrait of a Novel, I put a question out there via Twitter: should I read Gorra's book, then re-read the novel--last read fifteen years ago, or vice-versa?

Cardinals baseball writer Dan Moore offered a third suggestion, rooted in his ADHD: read both at once. That's not really my style--but it turns out to be exactly the right way to go. Gorra, though offering much, much more in his book than a simple recounting and analysis of the novel, does organize his biographical investigations around developments in the book, and it's easy (and rewarding) to go back and forth, a section or so at a time in each one. The combination enriches both books, and I'd highly recommend it to any James fan.

I'm about halfway through both books now. (Is it possible to spoil the plot of such a well-known novel? If so, I'm about to do some of that, so be warned.) Isabel has just announced, via letter, to her earlier, rejected suitor Caspar Goodwood that she's engaged to Gilbert Osmond. It's also the first we readers have heard of it, and, as Gorra notes, it comes as a shock:
[T]e news fills us with the same sense of surprise and dismay as it does the book's other characters. It makes us feel that Isabel had better explain herself.
Even though we've seen this coming, we've allowed ourselves to be fooled by Isabel's declarations of independence into thinking it might not happen--or at least won't happen soon. Yet there it is, an established fact, presented defiantly. Delivering the news this way is an impressive narrative decision on James's part, and it's incredibly effective at unmooring us, reminding us of the limits of our knowledge, and making us feel that we're experiencing the story as it happens rather than looking back on something already known--or, worse, watching a familiar type of tale round into its expected form.

I want to focus, however, not on the delivery of that information itself, but on the way that Goodwood responds. Isabel's letter has prompted him to rush to Florence to confront her, and when he arrives he is flustered and tired from travel and, while controlled, clearly upset:
His jaw showed the same voluntary cast as in earlier days; but a crisis like the present had in it of course something grim.
After the merest of preliminaries about travel, Isabel introduces the topic of her engagement (of which we at that point still know nothing) with a forced joke, saying, "[Y]ou must have felt as if you were coming to bury me!" She follows it with a forced "smile of encouragement to an easy view of their situation," which leads to this exchange:
"No, I didn't feel that; I couldn't think of you as dead. I wish I could!" he candidly declared.

"I thank you immensely."

"I'd rather think of you as dead than as married to another man."
Goodwood, I should be clear, has to that point shown no inclination to violence. There are no Dickensian clenched fists or simmering brows--he's no Bradley Headstone. But even so, such a bald statement of violent desire is a shock, and should be frightening.

Yet in the context of the novel, it's simply a passing statement of passionate, if deluded, love. Isabel seems barely bothered by it:
"That's very selfish of you!" she returned with the ardour of a real conviction.
Presumably that means that James attaches as little importance to it as well--which, I suspect, is why Gorra, too, mostly lets it pass, addressing it only in the context of the revelation of the engagement itself, writing, "The words are like a slap--a slap not to her but to us."

But I was brought up short, even chilled. It's as good a reminder as any of the way society changes--of, in this case, our growing awareness of and concern about violence against women by those who claim to love them--that what strikes us as horrifying and beyond the pale seems to have been perfectly allowable within the range of passionate expression at the time of the novel. And that fact by itself makes as clear as almost anything else in the book how different Isabel's world and era are from ours, and just what forces she's up against in her attempt to chart her own unfettered fate.

Friday, September 07, 2012

Harry Mathews

If you've not yet checked out the new issue of the Quarterly Conversation, by all means do so. In addition to the usual spate of strong reviews (including one from the always-worthwhile Patrick Kurp), the issue features a symposium on one of the most interesting living American writers, Harry Mathews.

I've written about Mathews and his strange, funny, linguistically and structurally experimental fiction before. If you've not read those posts, you should at least go check out the one that draws on his Paris Review interview and features a perplexed Bennett Cerf saying, about Mathews's novel The Conversions, "Mr. Mathews, I don’t know what the hell you’re up to and I think you owe it to Random House readers to explain!"

In the TQC symposium, Dan Visel takes a crack at explaining the book that baffled Cerf. Jeremy Davies writes about Mathews's most conventional novel, the surprisingly moving Cigarettes, as does A. D. Jameson, who focuses on the novel's complicated plot. Laird Hunt writes about another of my favorite Mathews novels, the dryly funny and playful My Life in CIA, John Beer addresses the poetry, and Daniel Levin Becker writes about Mathews's book of fractured proverbs, Selected Declarations of Dependence. Sadly, no one attends to Matthews's Singular Pleasures, a goofy book of microfictions that are all about masturbation. I guess that one's less appropriate for group analysis than for solo study.

And on top of all that there's my favorite piece, a memoir of discovering Mathews by none other than my fellow Invisible Librarian, Ed Park. After reading a few of these essays, you'll have a pretty good idea, I suspect, whether Mathews is for you--and if so, you'll be incredibly grateful, for he's a truly singular writer, one whose work, despite an often rebarbative surface, stays with you for a long time after reading.

Wednesday, September 05, 2012

The mail brings a greeting, and a mystery

From what I've been given to understand, if you're ever walking down the street and a passerby says to you, "Magic magic ninja what?", the proper response is, "Magic magic ninja what!" That's how you'll both know that you're fellow members of the Juggalo Nation. (If, that is, you are and want to be taken for a member of the Juggalo Nation, which, um, you may not be.)

I thought of that yesterday when I received the postcard pictured below:

The image on the front is of the Transit Synagogue in Toledo, Spain. But that's not the important part. What's important is what's on the back:

"The Essence of the All is the Godhead of the True." Anthony Powell fans will know that there's a proper response to that statement, which is "The Vision of Visions heals the Blindness of Sight." It's the ritual greeting that Dr. Trelawney, a guru and mystic in A Dance to the Music of Time exchanges with adherents and fellow travelers in the occult sciences. Nick Jenkins first learns it at his initial meeting with Trelawney, just days before the outbreak of World War I, when Trelawney, wandering through the country with a band of followers, delivers it "in a low clear voice, almost in accents of one whose very perfect enunciation indicates the English is not his native tongue." To Nick's surprise, his family's old friend General Conyers, with "an almost imperceptible nod," offers the response. It's not the last indication Jenkins will get of Conyers's unexpectedly broad outlook on life, nor is it the last time that Trelawney's appearance will signal the onset of a worldwide conflagration: on the eve of World War II, Nick himself will unexpectedly find occasion to make use of his knowledge of the phrase, to almost magical effect.

This is definitely one of the best postcards I've ever received. The problem I face now is this: I know how to reply, but to whom? Should I send a postcard to General Delivery, Dallas? Or can this post suffice to, in itself, begin healing the blindness of sight?