Quotable Words: Alice James on Memories and Wit

From Alice James’ (1848-1892) Diary, written in 1890, when she was an invalid in England. Recalling a childhood visit to Italy….

Alice JamesIt is very curious how, for the last year or two, I perpetually come across in my reading just what I have been thinking about, curious I mean, of course, because my reading is so haphazard. It reminds me of [William] in the old days when his eyes were bad and I used to begin and tell him something which I thought of interest from whatever book I might be reading, when he would invariably say, “I glanced into the book yesterday and read that.” I wonder what determines the selection of memory, why does one childish experience or impression stand out so luminous and solid against the, for the most part, vague and misty background? The things we remember have a firsttimeness about them which suggests that they may be the reason of their survival. I must ask Wm. Some day if there is any theory on the subject, or better, whether ’tis worth a theory.

I remember so distinctly the first time I was conscious of a purely intellectual process. ’Twas the summer of [18]56 which we spent in Boulogne and the parents of Mlle. Marie Boningue our governess had a campagne on the outskirts and invited us to spend the day, Perhaps Marie’s fête-day. A large and shabby calèche came for us into which we were backed, save Wm.; all I can remember of the drive was a never-ending ribbon of dust stretching in front and the anguish greater even than usual of Wilky’s and Bob’s heels grinding into my shins. Marie told us that her farther had a scar upon his face caused by a bad scald in his youth and we must be sure and not look at him as he was very sensitive. How I remember the painful conflict between sympathy and the desire to look and the fear that my baseness should be discovered by the good man as he sat at the head of the table in charge of a big frosted-cake sprinkled o’er with those pink and white worms in which lurk the caraway seed. How easy ’t would be to picture one’s youth as a perpetual escape from that abhorred object!—I wonder if it is a blight upon children still?—But to arrive at the first flowering of me Intellect! We were turned into the garden to play, a sandy or rather dusty expanse with nothing in it, as I remember, but two or three scrubby apple-trees, from one of which hung a swing. As time went on Wilky and Bob disappeared, not to my grief, and the Boningues. Harry was sitting in the swing and I came up and stood near by as the sun began to slant over the desolate expanse, as the dreary h[ou]rs, with that endlessness which they have for infancy, passed, when Harry suddenly exclaimed: “This might certainly be called pleasure under difficulties!” The stir of my whole being in response to the substance and exquisite, original form of this remark almost makes my heart beat now with the sisterly pride which was then awakened and it came to me in a flash, the higher nature of this appeal to the mind, as compared to the rudimentary solicitations which usually produced my childish explosion of laughter; and I can also feel distinctly the sense of self-satisfaction in that I could not only perceive, but appreciate this subtlety, as if I had acquired a new sense, a sense whereby to measure intellectual things, wit as distinguished from giggling, for example.

Her philosopher brother William was born in 1842. “Harry,”her brother, novelist Henry James, in 1843. He was devoted and attentive to her, if a somewhat scandalized admirer of her diary.

Funny Words: Devastating accretions of correspondence, incident to the festive season

Monroe LetterAt a loss to write in holiday thank you cards, emails, Facebook messages?  Saki got there before you. Happy Boxing Day!

“Down Pens”

By Saki

“Have you written to thank the Froplinsons for what they sent us?” asked Egbert.

“No,” said Janetta, with a note of tired defiance in her voice; “I’ve written eleven letters to-day expressing surprise and gratitude for sundry unmerited gifts, but I haven’t written to the Froplinsons.”

“Some one will have to write to them,” said Egbert.

“I don’t dispute the necessity, but I don’t think the some one should be me,” said Janetta. “I wouldn’t mind writing a letter of angry recrimination or heartless satire to some suitable recipient; in fact, I should rather enjoy it, but I’ve come to the end of my capacity for expressing servile amiability. Eleven letters to-day and nine yesterday, all couched in the same strain of ecstatic thankfulness: really, you can’t expect me to sit down to another. There is such a thing as writing oneself out.”

“I’ve written nearly as many,” said Egbert, “and I’ve had my usual business correspondence to get through, too. Besides, I don’t know what it was that the Froplinsons sent us.”

“A William the Conqueror calendar,” said Janetta, “with a quotation of one of his great thoughts for every day in the year.”

“Impossible,” said Egbert; “he didn’t have three hundred and sixty-five thoughts in the whole of his life, or, if he did, he kept them to himself. He was a man of action, not of introspection.”

“Well, it was William Wordsworth, then,” said Janetta; “I know William came into it somewhere.”

“That sounds more probable,” said Egbert; “well, let’s collaborate on this letter of thanks and get it done. I’ll dictate, and you can scribble it down. ‘Dear Mrs. Froplinson – thank you and your husband so much for the very pretty calendar you sent us. It was very good of you to think of us.’ ”

“You can’t possibly say that,” said Janetta, laying down her pen.

“It’s what I always do say, and what every one says to me,” protested Egbert.

“We sent them something on the twenty-second,” said Janetta, “so they simply HAD to think of us. There was no getting away from it.”

“What did we send them?” asked Egbert gloomily.

“Bridge-markers,” said Janetta, “in a cardboard case, with some inanity about ‘digging for fortune with a royal spade’ emblazoned on the cover. The moment I saw it in the shop I said to myself ‘Froplinsons’ and to the attendant ‘How much?’ When he said ‘Ninepence,’ I gave him their address, jabbed our card in, paid tenpence or elevenpence to cover the postage, and thanked heaven. With less sincerity and infinitely more trouble they eventually thanked me.”

“The Froplinsons don’t play bridge,” said Egbert.

“One is not supposed to notice social deformities of that sort,” said Janetta; “it wouldn’t be polite. Besides, what trouble did they take to find out whether we read Wordsworth with gladness? For all they knew or cared we might be frantically embedded in the belief that all poetry begins and ends with John Masefield, and it might infuriate or depress us to have a daily sample of Wordsworthian products flung at us.”

“Well, let’s get on with the letter of thanks,” said Egbert.

“Proceed,” said Janetta.

” ‘How clever of you to guess that Wordsworth is our favourite poet,’ ” dictated Egbert.

Again Janetta laid down her pen.

“Do you realise what that means?” she asked; “a Wordsworth booklet next Christmas, and another calendar the Christmas after, with the same problem of having to write suitable letters of thankfulness. No, the best thing to do is to drop all further allusion to the calendar and switch off on to some other topic.”

“But what other topic?”

“Oh, something like this: ‘What do you think of the New Year Honours List? A friend of ours made such a clever remark when he read it.’ Then you can stick in any remark that comes into your head; it needn’t be clever. The Froplinsons won’t know whether it is or isn’t.”

“We don’t even know on which side they are in politics,” objected Egbert; “and anyhow you can’t suddenly dismiss the subject of the calendar. Surely there must be some intelligent remark that can be made about it.”

“Well, we can’t think of one,” said Janetta wearily; “the fact is, we’ve both written ourselves out. Heavens! I’ve just remembered Mrs. Stephen Ludberry. I haven’t thanked her for what she sent.”

“What did she send?”

“I forget; I think it was a calendar.”

There was a long silence, the forlorn silence of those who are bereft of hope and have almost ceased to care.

Presently Egbert started from his seat with an air of resolution. The light of battle was in his eyes.

“Let me come to the writing-table,” he exclaimed.

“Gladly,” said Janetta. “Are you going to write to Mrs. Ludberry or the Froplinsons?”

“To neither,” said Egbert, drawing a stack of notepaper towards him; “I’m going to write to the editor of every enlightened and influential newspaper in the Kingdom, I’m going to suggest that there should be a sort of epistolary Truce of God during the festivities of Christmas and New Year. From the twenty-fourth of December to the third or fourth of January it shall be considered an offence against good sense and good feeling to write or expect any letter or communication that does not deal with the necessary events of the moment. Answers to invitations, arrangements about trains, renewal of club subscriptions, and, of course, all the ordinary everyday affairs of business, sickness, engaging new cooks, and so forth, these will be dealt with in the usual manner as something inevitable, a legitimate part of our daily life. But all the devastating accretions of correspondence, incident to the festive season, these should be swept away to give the season a chance of being really festive, a time of untroubled, unpunctuated peace and good will.”

“But you would have to make some acknowledgment of presents received,” objected Janetta; “otherwise people would never know whether they had arrived safely.”

“Of course, I have thought of that,” said Egbert; “every present that was sent off would be accompanied by a ticket bearing the date of dispatch and the signature of the sender, and some conventional hieroglyphic to show that it was intended to be a Christmas or New Year gift; there would be a counterfoil with space for the recipient’s name and the date of arrival, and all you would have to do would be to sign and date the counterfoil, add a conventional hieroglyphic indicating heartfelt thanks and gratified surprise, put the thing into an envelope and post it.”

“It sounds delightfully simple,” said Janetta wistfully, “but people would consider it too cut-and- dried, too perfunctory.”

“It is not a bit more perfunctory than the present system,” said Egbert; “I have only the same conventional language of gratitude at my disposal with which to thank dear old Colonel Chuttle for his perfectly delicious Stilton, which we shall devour to the last morsel, and the Froplinsons for their calendar, which we shall never look at. Colonel Chuttle knows that we are grateful for the Stilton, without having to be told so, and the Froplinsons know that we are bored with their calendar, whatever we may say to the contrary, just as we know that they are bored with the bridge-markers in spite of their written assurance that they thanked us for our charming little gift. What is more, the Colonel knows that even if we had taken a sudden aversion to Stilton or been forbidden it by the doctor, we should still have written a letter of hearty thanks around it. So you see the present system of acknowledgment is just as perfunctory and conventional as the counterfoil business would be, only ten times more tiresome and brain-racking.”

“Your plan would certainly bring the ideal of a Happy Christmas a step nearer realisation,” said Janetta.

“There are exceptions, of course,” said Egbert, “people who really try to infuse a breath of reality into their letters of acknowledgment. Aunt Susan, for instance, who writes: ‘Thank you very much for the ham; not such a good flavour as the one you sent last year, which itself was not a particularly good one. Hams are not what they used to be.’ It would be a pity to be deprived of her Christmas comments, but that loss would be swallowed up in the general gain.”

“Meanwhile,” said Janetta, “what am I to say to the Froplinsons?”

Happy Mongrel Holiday!

Hope whatever your combatant status in the War on Christmas, you’ve had a jolly holiday.

Here’s my holiday greeting, a Yiddish version of “Rudolf the Red-nosed Reindeer.” Full on Klezmer joy, and a wonderfully strange video.

And courtesy of Jonathan Anker practical Yiddish for Christmas.

Merry Christmas in Yiddish

Beautiful Music: Britten for Harp

ceremonyJust heard a lovely performance of Britten’s “Ceremony of Carols” given in DC by the Washington Bach Chorus. (Good Britten weekend all around, fine performance of his opera of Midsummer Night’s Dream on the Met b’cast Saturday.)

In this anniversary year for him, I haven’t noticed a lot of news about Britten and the harp, but there is a story there–apparently a lot of his magical writing for this instrument was inspired by a harpist named Osian Ellis. (A name to add to the small list of instrumentalists that inspire great composers. We have Mühlfeld to thank for Brahms’ late, and gorgeous, chamber works for clarinet and strings.)

Osian played the harp solo in the first performance of “Ceremony;” it’s the 7th movement, marked “Andante Pastorle,” and draws from chant,  tapping Britten’s feel for ostinado patterns, and being, like the complete piece, both ancient and crystal clear. It is also for me, perhaps because I first encountered it so long ago, the essence of the season, right up there with Bing singing White Christmas. YouTube has a performance of this movement:

And there are many fine full performances of the entire work on YT; it makes for a nice bit of seasonal contemplation.

Reasonable Words: “They don’t make movies about philosophers”

Sophie's World

A best-seller, but no Harry Potter.

A very sweet interchange between an academic and his 9-year-old daughter.

This actually happened earlier this week.

The Girl and I were in the car, driving home after a school event. She’s nine, and she was in the back seat.

TG (unprompted): How do philosophers make a living?

DD (laughs): Where did that come from?

TG: Well, if I want to be a philosopher, how will I make a living?

Hit the link for the full dialogue:


Remembering Peter O’Toole

The actor has died at 81 and the Times’ Benedict Nightingale has a nice obit, including this (perhaps self-mythologizing) explanation of how the young Irish boy turned to acting:

Peter was an altar boy at the local Roman Catholic church and displayed a gift for creative writing, but he left school at 13 and became a warehouseman, a messenger, a copy boy, a photographer’s assistant and, eventually, a reporter for The Yorkshire Evening News. A poor journalist by his own admission, he was fired by the editor with the words, “Try something else, be an actor, do anything.”

He also mentions a memorable performance of his as the daffy Lord Emsworth in a film of P.G. Wodehouse’s “Heavy Weather.” Some priceless bits on YouTube.

Quite a distance from his performance of Lawrence of Arabia, something I grew up hearing about but am glad I first encountered as an adult, better able to tune into the ironic contradictions under the epic sweep of the story. And my were his eyes blue.

Lawrence of Arabia One Sheet

Quotable Words: On Jack London

Great lead to a TLS review of a new bio of Jack London.

White Fang, First EditionWhat he sought was an impassioned realism”, Jack London wrote of his alter ego, the striving novelist Martin Eden. “What he wanted was life as it was, with all its spirit-groping and soulreaching left in.” One often wishes that London himself had left out the groping and reaching. For all the wide-eyed breathlessness of his characters and the hurtling momentum of his prose – “To live! To live! To live!”, says Wolf Larsen in The Sea-Wolf (1904) – he was a better writer when he slowed down and even stood still, overcoming his fear that inertia meant creative death. Only then could he abstain from the romantic posturing and philosophical maundering of “London the amateur Great Thinker” (as H. L. Mencken called him) and register the undramatic, minor-key world around him – everything that other writers of the Strenuous Age were too exhausted to notice. He might declare, at the height of liquor-fuelled self-regard, “I have ten thousand august connotations” (as he does in his memoir John Barleycorn [1913]), but he is more convincing when he sharpens his observational skills against the one irreducible fact of life named in White Fang (1906): “They were meat”, London writes of two Klondike travellers monitored by a hiding wolf, “and it was hungry”.

Nice work by Marc Robinson. (Full review behind pay wall, sorry). I particularly love that “amateur Great Thinker” jibe by Mencken. A widely applicable term, methinks.)