A Voyage Around My Room

I’m sure I’m not the only person who thought, just now, of the small genre of stories of being cooped up. There are several I have encountered over the years, including “Voyage Around My Room” of Xavier de Maistre, written in 1790, while he was house arrest in Turin. Nice Guardian article here, and the opening of the book below. You can read the whole thing on various public domain sites.

What is more glorious than to open for one’s self a new career, — to appear suddenly before the learned world with a book of discoveries in one’s hand, like an unlooked for comet blazing in the  empyrean! No longer will I keep my book in obscurity. Behold it, gentlemen; read it! I have undertaken and performed a forty- two days’ journey round my room. The interesting observations I have made, and the constant pleasure I have experienced all along the road, made me wish to publish my travels; the certainty of being useful decided the matter. And when I think of the number of unhappy ones to whom I offer a never-failing resource for weary moments, and a balm for the ills they suffer, my heart is filled with inexpressible satisfaction. The pleasure to be found in travelling round one’s room is sheltered from the restless jealousy of men, and is independent of Fortune.

The opening of Voyage autour de ma chambre
A rather fancier room than I am traveling around. “Drawing Room of the Plas. Spa” by Julien Muère, and in the Met collection.

Reasonable Words: Modernism

After lots of chatter about Ducks, Newburyport I decided to dive in. Will report on the ride through the 1000+ pages. Meanwhile, some interesting words from the London Review of Books notice by John Day

For modernists, paying attention to what Beckett called ‘the within, all that inner space one never sees’ was intended as much to clear away the old as to make it new. In her essay ‘Modern Fiction’, Virginia Woolf argued that writers should strip away the extraneous stuff that the novel had accumulated around itself, and that marred the work of ‘materialist’ novelists like Wells and Galsworthy. Instead, she argued, they should record the ‘atoms as they fall upon the mind in the order in which they fall’ and ‘trace the pattern, however disconnected and incoherent in appearance, which each sight or incident scores upon the consciousness’. But in replacing externalities with internalities many modernist novels ended up as full of stuff as a Victorian drawing room, even if it was different stuff.

Ducks, Newburyport is full of clutter. There are some long lists that feel like they’ve been transposed from Ellmann’s earlier novels (brand names, cleaning products, types of pie, the contents of a fridge, various ways of cooking shrimp), synopses of films (often musicals) and actors’ careers, descriptions of internet fads, details of how many chickens are killed in America each year, an account of the objects used in a memory game. Halfway through the book the narrator thinks about Marie Kondo, the decluttering guru, who advises her followers to ‘hold every possession in your hands and decide if it gives you joy … if it does, you get to keep it, and if it doesn’t, you dump it.’ This strikes her as a fairly silly way of assessing what’s necessary in a home – ‘Scotch tape doesn’t give me any joy, I don’t think, but sometimes you need some’ – and it’s an equally useless way of deciding what’s important in fiction.

Commonplace Book: Three by Ruskin

Browsing around in John Ruskin’s autobiography, Praeterita, some bits from there and elsewhere in his formidable output.

In order that people may be happy in their work, these three things are needed: They must be fit for it. They must not do too much of it. And they must have a sense of success in it.

About the moment in the forenoon when the modern fashionable traveller, intent on Paris, Nice, and Monaco, and started by the morning mail from Charing Cross, has a little recovered himself from the qualms of his crossing, and the irritation of fighting for seats at Boulogne, and begins to look at his watch to see how near he is to the buffet of Amiens, he is apt to be baulked and worried by the train’s useless stop at one inconsiderable station, lettered ABBEVILLE. As the carriage gets in motion again, he may see, if he cares to lift his eyes for an instant from his newspaper, two square towers, with a curiously attached bit of traceried arch, dominant over the poplars and osiers of the marshy level he is traversing. Such glimpse is probably all he will ever wish to get of them; and I scarcely know how far I can make even the most sympathetic reader understand their power over my own life.

Waves of clear sea are, indeed, lovely to watch, but they are always coming or gone, never in any taken shape to be seen for a second. But here was one mighty wave that was always itself, and every fluted swirl of it, constant as the wreathing of a shell. No wasting away of the fallen foam, no pause for gathering of power, no helpless ebb of discouraged recoil; but alike through bright day and lulling night, the never-pausing plunge, and never-fading flash, and never-hushing whisper, and, while the sun was up, the ever-answering glow of unearthly aquamarine, ultramarine, violet-blue, gentian-blue, peacock-blue, river-of-paradise blue, glass of a painted window melted in the sun, and the witch of the Alps flinging the spun tresses of it for ever from her snow.

 

Critical Words: Frankenstein

A recent TLS has a knockout review by Frances Wilson of three new books about Frankenstein, a text now at its 200th birthday.  Whole thing behind a paywall, but here’s the lead

Frankenstein’s metaphor

The world’s most rewarding metaphor is now 200 years old. Since his dull yellow eye first opened on January 1, 1818 Victor Frankenstein’s creature has been compared to the Irish mob, the lumpen proletariat, the wandering Jew, and the UK Independence Party. Today he is spokesman for minority rights – including gay and lesbian and those born with disabilities and disfigurements – while his creator is patron saint of Artificial Intelligence, nanotechnology, robotics, bio-hackers, body-shaming and bad parenting. In English departments, where Mary Shelley has a dual identity as the celebrated author of a canonical novel and a woman writer excluded from the canon, Frankenstein is one of the five most commonly assigned texts. Linguistically, we talk about (genetically modified) Frankenfoods, Frankenstorms (stitched together from different weather systems), Frankenbikes (built from different parts) and Frankenbabies (born of three-parent IVF). The books under review here – in which the various Frankensteins are discussed in terms of cultural and textual history, political philosophy, and the life of the author – form a motley crew we might call Frankentexts.

 

Our celebration of the birth of Frankenstein follows the baby shower held in June 2016 to commemorate the wet weekend two centuries earlier when Mary Shelley first conceived of her story. Another flurry of publications will doubtless appear five years hence, to cash in on the creature’s first stage appearance at the Lyceum Theatre on July 28, 1823, in a dramatization by Richard Brinsley Peake called Presumption; Or, The Fate of Frankenstein which ran for thirty-seven nights and inspired, over the next three years, fourteen further English or French plagiarisms (with names like Frank-in-steam; Or, The Modern Promise To Pay, and Humpgumption; Or, Dr Frankenstein and the Hobgoblin of Hoxton). The tone was set for Bride of Frankenstein, Son of Frankenstein, House of Frankenstein, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Robocop, Blade Runner and The Fly. Frankenstein’s capacity to reproduce is seemingly endless; like aphids, he was born pregnant.

Project Gutenberg has the whole thing, but unclear which version (the original 1818, or the one, in Wilson’s words, the author ratted out on…)

Commonplace Book: The Way of All Flesh

Enjoying Samuel Butler’s The Way of All Flesh, no doubt he would approve of not giving it a try before age 50, as it is full of hard-won personal wisdom. Three bits among many I like…

“My boy,” returned my father, “you must not judge by the work, but by the work in connection with the surroundings. Could Giotto or Filippo Lippi, think you, have got a picture into the Exhibition? Would a single one of those frescoes we went to see when we were at Padua have the remotest chance of being hung, if it were sent in for exhibition now? Why, the Academy people would be so outraged that they would not even write to poor Giotto to tell him to come and take his fresco away. Phew!” continued he, waxing warm, “if old Pontifex had had Cromwell’s chances he would have done all that Cromwell did, and have done it better; if he had had Giotto’s chances he would have done all that Giotto did, and done it no worse; as it was, he was a village carpenter, and I will undertake to say he never scamped a job in the whole course of his life.”

“But,” said I, “we cannot judge people with so many ‘ifs.’ If old Pontifex had lived in Giotto’s time he might have been another Giotto, but he did not live in Giotto’s time.”


“I tell you, Edward,” said my father with some severity, “we must judge men not so much by what they do, as by what they make us feel that they have it in them to do. If a man has done enough either in painting, music or the affairs of life, to make me feel that I might trust him in an emergency he has done enough. It is not by what a man has actually put upon his canvas, nor yet by the acts which he has set down, so to speak, upon the canvas of his life that I will judge him, but by what he makes me feel that he felt and aimed at. If he has made me feel that he felt those things to be loveable which I hold loveable myself I ask no more; his grammar may have been imperfect, but still I have understood him; he and I are en rapport; and I say again, Edward, that old Pontifex was not only an able man, but one of the very ablest men I ever knew.”


“Yet when a man is very fond of his money it is not easy for him at all times to be very fond of his children also. The two are like God and Mammon. Lord Macaulay has a passage in which he contrasts the pleasures which a man may derive from books with the inconveniences to which he may be put by his acquaintances. “Plato,” he says, “is never sullen. Cervantes is never petulant. Demosthenes never comes unseasonably. Dante never stays too long. No difference of political opinion can alienate Cicero. No heresy can excite the horror of Bossuet.” I dare say I might differ from Lord Macaulay in my estimate of some of the writers he has named, but there can be no disputing his main proposition, namely, that we need have no more trouble from any of them than we have a mind to, whereas our friends are not always so easily disposed of. George Pontifex felt this as regards his children and his money. His money was never naughty; his money never made noise or litter, and did not spill things on the tablecloth at meal times, or leave the door open when it went out. His dividends did not quarrel among themselves, nor was he under any uneasiness lest his mortgages should become extravagant on reaching manhood and run him up debts which sooner or later he should have to pay.”


To me it seems that youth is like spring, an overpraised season—delightful if it happen to be a favoured one, but in practice very rarely favoured and more remarkable, as a general rule, for biting east winds than genial breezes. Autumn is the mellower season, and what we lose in flowers we more than gain in fruits. Fontenelle at the age of ninety, being asked what was the happiest time of his life, said he did not know that he had ever been much happier than he then was, but that perhaps his best years had been those when he was between fifty-five and seventy-five, and Dr Johnson placed the pleasures of old age far higher than those of youth. True, in old age we live under the shadow of Death, which, like a sword of Damocles, may descend at any moment, but we have so long found life to be an affair of being rather frightened than hurt that we have become like the people who live under Vesuvius, and chance it without much misgiving.

Library Battles

Enjoying Part of Our Lives: A People’s History of the American Public Library, by Wayne A. Wiegand.

In addition to documenting the value libraries have for their communities, Wiegand describes the perennial battles in libraries over their collections and what literature is suitable, particularly for children.

In the 1850s, the director of the Astor Library in New York was railing against the tastes of the youth of his era, who, in his view, preferred “the trashy…like Scott, Dickens, Punch, and The Illustrated News,” presumably instead of serious improving works like the classics. No Tale of Two Cities on the shelf for you.

Series fiction, be it Horatio Alger in the 19th century or the wildly popular Nancy Drew novels first published in the 1930s, have always been particularly vexing. Children clamored to read them,  caring not one whit whether they were literature, but librarians were undecided about whether to offer them.

Wiegand relates,

“Not censorship, but selection” masked other traditional cultural and literary biases within the profession. Despite the fact that the ALA revised the Library Bill of Rights in 1967 to include “age” as another group having the right to access all public library collections, many children’s and young adult librarians persisted in shunning series fiction. Those who did otherwise sometimes paid a price. For her first major acquisition as Rhinelander, Wisconsin children’s librarian in the mid- 1970s, Kris Wendt, who read Nancy Drew as a child, purchased three complete sets of Nancy Drew, Hardy Boys and Bobbsey Twins mysteries. Word of her transgression spread quickly. Several months later a forceful colleague—”incensed that Rhinelander broke ranks to acquire such ‘trash,’ … accosted me in the ladies room during a regional children’s services workshop… Arms folded across her ample monobosom and glowering as though she would like to alphabetize my internal organs,” she “cornered me against the sinks. In a voice like a silver dime she declared, “You have lowered the standard of children’s literature for the entire Wisconsin Valley!’ ” Wendt held her ground; Nancy stayed in the stacks much to the delight of Rhinelander’s children.

I’m glad she and many others held her ground. Nancy and the Hardy Boys were not my series, I read “Alfred Hitchcock and the Three Investigators” and the Encyclopedia Brown ones. Great literature they weren’t, but they were part of a habit that paved the way thereto–and the ability to enjoy the occasional trashy mystery to this day.

Editors, We Hardly New Ye

Rediscovered an old, but still insightful paean to editors by the poet and memoirist Blake Morrison.

Novelist Thomas Wolfe, whose mammoth manuscripts were transmuted into literature by the great editor Maxwell Perkins.

“A graduate student of mine at Goldsmiths College expressed similar nostalgia in an email: “I have a notion of editors in days of yore,” he wrote, “being straight-backed and terrifying, all integrity and no bullshit, responding to a vocational calling and above all driven by a love of the word, brave enough not only to champion the best but also to tell their authors whatever might be needed to improve the work. And that now such personalities are as distant a myth in publishing as yer Shanklys and yer Cloughs are to football, that sharp-dressed corporate beasts run the show, reluctant to make decisions of their own, and ill-equipped to challenge those who rule a star-led system, so that everyone from JK Rowling to David Eggers suffers from the lack of scissors that might have been to their benefit.”

and later…noting that some writers don’t hesitate to knock editors, he calls T.S. Eliot to the stand,

“Those who can, write; those who can’t, edit – that seems to be the line. I prefer TS Eliot. Asked if editors were no more than failed writers, he replied: “Perhaps – but so are most writers.”

This article is now more than a decade old, and editors and editing standards have declined even more precipitously. (Newspapers being a particularly baleful example.) At a time that everything I read (or write for that matter) seems to need them urgently.

Commonplace Book: William Trevor

Reading William Trevor’s After Rain, had avoided the late Irish short story writer and novelist, as he was often paired with Chekhov, something which seemed overblown to me. (When any writer gets heaps of adulation, and friends clutch your elbow and say “you must read this” my default reaction is resistance. )

But the Chekhov comparison is not overblown. Trevor explores similar themes, subtle but devastating moments of personal choice, and the cadence of the his prose, (also like Chekhov’s or at least Constant Garnett’s translation thereof) is quiet, but musical in its restraint. No detail is extra. Here’s family dinner at the Leesons in “Lost Ground,”

after_rainHaving paused while the others were served– that, too, being a tradition in the family– Milton began to eat again. He liked the champ best when it was fried. You could warm it in the oven or in a saucepan, but it wasn’t the same. He liked crispness in his food– fingers of a soda farl fried,  the spicy skin of a milk pudding,  fried champ. His mother always remembered that. Milton sometimes thought that his mother knew everything about him and he didn’t mind: it made him fond of her that she bothered. He felt affection for her when she sat by the Esse on winter’s evenings or by the open back door in the summer, sewing and darning. She never read the paper and only glanced up at the television occasionally. His father read the paper from cover to cover and never missed the television News. When Milton was younger he’d been afraid of his father, although he’d since realized that you knew where you were with him, which came from the experience of working with him in the fields and the orchards. ‘He’s fair,’ Mrs. Leeson used to repeat when Milton was younger, “Always remember that.” 


Trevor was also a master of crafting a  deft, quietly devastating last move in a short story. Novels mostly need ‘finales’; short stories can end with a stab to the heart. (Nothing better in this line than the end of “The Lottery.” Annie Proulx is no slouch either, “There was some open space between what he knew and what he tried to believe, but nothing could be done about it, and if you can’t fix it you’ve got to stand it.”)

Part of what makes these endings possible is that stories are quick glances, not synoptic panoramas. From the obit for him in the Guardian.

“…In a 1989 interview, Trevor compared writing short stories to impressionist art. “I think it is the art of the glimpse. If the novel is like an intricate Renaissance painting, the short story is an impressionist painting. It should be an explosion of truth. Its strength lies in what it leaves out just as much as what it puts in, if not more. It is concerned with the total exclusion of meaninglessness. Life, on the other hand, is meaningless most of the time. The novel imitates life, where the short story is bony, and cannot wander. It is essential art,”

Commonplace Book: Dinu Lipatti’s last concert

Today, an excerpt From Paul Bailey’s quiet, moving and beautifully controlled novel Uncle Rudolf. The narrator recollects being taken to a life-changing concert the pianist Dinu Lipatti. (The uncle in question, a fellow Romanian, is a successful tenor in light music, and rueful for an operatic career that never quite arrived.)

 

It was no spectre who began to play Bach’s First Partita. The apparition became on the instant radiantly animated. Were we aware of the perseverance, and superhuman fortitude, that propelled him that September afternoon? If we were, that would have been our sentimental illusion, since his undoubted fortitude was kept hidden by the pianist behind a necessary mask of civility. It was afterwards – after we had listened in coughless silence to the Mozart Sonata in A minor, two Schubert sonatas and a captivating string of Chopin waltzes – that we realized what an Olympian event we had been privileged to attend. We had not been watching a showman display his skills, nothing so predictable or commonplace. Lipatti was above display and superficial cleverness. He had played for us exactly what the composers had intended us to hear.

Uncle Rudolf was too moved to speak, and so was I. In the years to come, he would often refer to the miracle that had taken place in Besançon, for Lipatti never performed again in public, and died on the second of December that same year.

Lipatti is, at least to music lovers of a certain age, a cult figure of the piano–a transcendent talent, who died young, and left recordings that like Callas’s are instantly recognizable, The word NYTimes critic Harold Schonberg used to sum up his playing was virility, but an aristocratic virility, not brawn rather a strength in reserve inbued with sovereign elegance.

Uncle Rudolf and his nephew are not wrong…and Paul Bailey has written an unusual thing, a novel about a life in music that has a sotto voce ring of truth. (Perhaps because it is shot through with regret…)

Commonplace Book: Rabih Alameddine’s “An Unnecessary Woman”

Tipped by a NYPL blog entry on world literature, I’m engrossed in An an-unncessary-womanUnnecessary Woman, a novel in the first-person about a reclusive reader and translator, Aaliya, holed away in an old apartment building in Beirut who starts out every Jan 1 on her new translation project. Something, when complete, she just shoves in a box and stores.

The novel is a love letter to reading and listening: full of references to books, writers, composers and musicians whose works make up Aaliya’s real world.  In this passage, she has just put on an LP of Bruckner’s Third Symphony:

Here’s a charming tale about Bruckner that I love, though I believe it

Anton Bruckner
Anton Bruckner

must be apocryphal. When he conducted the premier of this same third symphony, the audience abhorred it. Personally, I can’t imagine why. Not only is it beautiful, but if it has a flaw, it may be that it’s a little melodramatic and kitschy, two attributes that audiences tend to love. But who can account for tastes? The audience booed violently and stormed out of the hall. I imagine the composer looking back in abject sorrow at the honeycomb of heads in the theater before exiting and locking himself in the conductor’s room, alone as he would always be. Forlorn and forsaken. Bruckner remained by himself until everyone had left the building, at which point he returned to the pit for a last farewell. He saw a young man still sitting in his seat, a young composer so overcome that he’d been unable to move a muscle since the symphony began, not a twitch. The young Mahler had been cemented in his seat for more than two hours, weeping.

I am not a young Mahler. Today the music doesn’t move me, and I do not find it soothing.

Wave after wave of anxiety batters the sandy beaches of my nerves. Oh, that’s a bad metaphor if there ever was one. Just horrible.

Nothing is working. Nothing in my life is working.

Giants of literature, philosophy, and the arts have influenced my life, but what have I done with this life? I remain a speck in a tumultuous universe that has little concern for me. I am no more than dust, a mote—dust to dust. I am a blade of grass upon which the stormtrooper’s boot stomps.

I had dreams, and they were not about ending up a speck. I didn’t dream of becoming a star, but I though I might have a small nonspeaking role in a grand epic, an epic with a touch of artistic credentials. I didn’t dream of becoming a giant—I wasn’t that delusional or arrogant—but I wanted to be more than a speck, maybe a midget.

I could have been a midget.

All our dreams of glory are but manure in the end.

I used to imagine that one day a writer would show up at my door, someone whose book I had translated, maybe the wonderful Danilo Kiš (The Encyclopedia of the Dead), before he died, of course. He the giant, me the speck with midget dreams, but he would come to thank me for caring about his work, or maybe Marguerite Yourcenar would knock on my door. I haven’t translated her, of course, because she writes in French. And what French. In 1981 she was the first woman inducted into L’Académie française because of her impeccable language. She would appear to encourage me, to show solidarity, us against the world. I, like you, isolated myself. You in this apartment in this lovely but bitter city of Beirut, I on an island off the coast of Maine. You’re a forsaken, penniless translator who’s able to remain in your home by the grace of your landlord, Fadia, while I am an incredible writer whose girlfriend, heir to the Frick fortune, owns the entire island. I am respected by the world while you are mocked by it. Yet we have much in common.

 I had dreams. …