Sunday, August 31, 2014
From The Poetical Works of William Cowper, Volume III
"Haste -- lest a friend should grieve for thy delay --
And the gods grant nothing thwart thy way!"
From Elegy IV, To His Tutor Thomas Young, translated by Cowper from the Latin of John Milton
Saturday, August 30, 2014
And what preoccupies me, instead of the things I should be worried about, like printing my airline tickets and booking my shuttle?
My next public reading is not until the Fall, and already there's a problem, though not the problem you might think. William Cowper?! Yeah, I know, but that's not the problem, not mine anyway. Who reads William Cowper? Well, I do, and will do, aloud, the last week in October. I realize that this makes even my evenings of Edward Lear and Ogden Nash sound like barn-burners by comparison. Still, there were nice little crowds for both of those, so I suppose I'm counting on what might blushingly be called "my fans," meaning mostly my friends, and a few of their mothers. But, William Cowper? The poet's reputation, as opposed to his once considerable popularity, remains secure, I should think, so long as he manages so much as a poem in The Norton Anthology of English Poetry (a book I refuse to open on principle, and now for fear of what I might not find.) Meanwhile, to the extent that the poet's fame has continued outside academia, it is in a form for which I have little sympathy and less interest; as a hymnodist, or better say, a specifically Christian poet. William Cowper wrote the words for quite a lot of hymns. We're not talkin' rockin' Gospel music here, either. These would be the rather stately, rather grim hymns one may or may not remember from church, or at least church as I remember it; slow, stiff, bloody-minded, dull. But even that is not quite the problem per se, so much as it's most obvious expression.
To put the problem baldly, the whole context of William Cowper is Christianity. His life, his work and his tragedy are all of a piece with his faith. In terms of his biography, his religious conversion and his mental illness all but coincide, or put it another way, almost from the moment he is "saved," he is both lost and found. As a writer, no one but scholars might now know of him had he not written so well about and in the service of his faith. His religious enthusiasm was very much of the moment in securing his first and lasting popularity with readers in his lifetime. He might never have written a thing anyone would now remember, had he not been encouraged to do so, as means of occupying his troubled mind, by his many friends, nearly Evangelicals all. It was with his friend, the Anglican clergyman, John Newton, author of "Amazing Grace," that Cowper wrote the Olney Hymns. The friends who took Cowper in, the Unwin family with whom he lived the rest of his life, were a clergyman and his Missus. Cowper's Evangelical, but also rather more aristocratic relatives saw his poetry and translating as not only the best way of keeping him both productively occupied and relatively sane, but also as a way back to God for a man who, inexplicably believed himself to be outside of Grace. God is everywhere in Cowper's life then, and his work.
Nevertheless, there are ways, as it were, of reading 'round Cowper's faith. That is something very like the point for me of doing a public reading of Cowper, and the point I hope to make with same, come the day. Cowper's place in the history of English poetry was secured not so much by his specifically religious verse as by the then refreshingly new and direct way in which he wrote about nature, country life, and what might be called the common communion with creation; God in the garden and the Gospel revealed on a walk in the woods. While he is still considered to be the major transitional figure between the Classical tradition of the late 18th Century and the Romantics of the next, that, to my purpose is as may be. I don't mean to lecture or preach. I'm not qualified to do either. All I want to do is to read Cowper out loud, and hopefully by doing so, encourage others to go and do likewise. My idea is to emphasize the domestic; his letters, and his "minor" poems, his pet hares and his country neighbors, his humor and his wit.
Nevertheless, I can't avoid his God altogether, nor do I intend to. I will read some of his religious verse, of course. Quite beautiful, much of it. I've also asked a talented coworker, a great singer who happens also to be my immediate supervisor, if she might sing a hymn or two. That's what's worrying me most, just now, before I go off on vacation, the damned hymns. Not that dear S. can't or won't sing them. She can sing anything. (Witness the fact that she will be singing a Bruno Mars song at a friend's wedding soon, even though she is no fan of the song or the artist, specially. She is, as they say, a trouper. That proves it before-hand, right there.) But how?
It's not the music that worries me. Cowper didn't write the tunes. Many of Cowper's hymns were actually set to music after the poet's death. I have no issue with anyone doing whatever they like with the music, so long as the words are his. But those words!
Perhaps his most famous hymn is called "God Moves in a Mysterious Way." Here it is:
O God, in a mysterious waygreat wonders you perform.
You plant your footsteps in the sea
and ride upon the storm.
Deep in unfathomable mines
of never-failing skill,
you treasure up your bright designs
and work your sovereign will.
O fearful saints, fresh courage take.
The clouds you so much dread
are big with mercy and shall break
in blessings on your head.
That's not so bad, is it?
Well, here's the other that's most performed still. It's called "There is a Fountain Filled with Blood." Here's the first verse of five:
There is a fountain filled with blood
Drawn from Immanuel's veins;
And sinners, plunged beneath that flood,
Lose all their guilty stains:
Lose all their guilty stains,
Lose all their guilty stains;
And sinners, plunged beneath that flood,
Lose all their guilty stains.
Believe me, it does not get better, despite the rather endearing directions, "Sing joyfully."
Explaining the particulars of bloody Evangelical Christian imagery is not what I intended the evening to be, brothers and sisters, no indeed. What choice will I have though? I must make reference to the hymns, as that is the one thing that has kept Cowper's name alive in America -- though admittedly not so much with a Seattle audience.
So, some time between now and the end of October, not only does my dear S. have to figure out how to sing these hymns, I need to figure out how to talk about them with a secular audience to whom I will be reading letters and poems mostly to do with the simple joys of English country life. I will need to be both reverent, for want of a better word, and honest. I just do not like all this blood. Still, I set myself the problem, didn't I?
I've decided to take at least one volume of Cowper's poems with me on vacation after all. It's going to take me some time, I fear, to find my way 'round this one, or through it. Meanwhile, I'm on vacation. Sigh.
Those that do, feel free to pray.
"In the evenings there was no way to avoid intellectual games, which gave the greatest advantage to a large vocabulary. Every time my limpid contribution was read. I wanted to sink behind my chair rather than face the condescending stares of the Mitchison women. To my relief, the large number of house guests never permitted my turn to come often, and I made a point of sitting near the evening's box of chocolates, hoping no one would notice that I never passed it."
From Chapter 15
Friday, August 29, 2014
I still have much to do before I go to the airport on Monday, but at least this much is done. An update, then:
I've added two Simenon novels; one Maigret, one not. (Truth be told, I've already nearly finished the Maigret. Couldn't wait.) Also, a Josephine Tey, and one volume of Cowper's poems, from a three volume set I bought this week at Magus Books, and the latest issue of The New York Review of Books.
I will not even mention the e-books on my iPad.
Oh, and clean handkerchiefs. Can never have too many clean handkerchiefs.
From Sentimental Education, by Gustave Flaubert, translated by Robert Baldick
"And as they exhumed their youth, they asked each other after every sentence:
'Do you remember?'"
From Part 3, Chapter 7
Thursday, August 28, 2014
There's been yet another social-media-meme that's been buzzing about my ears for a week or more. Try to ignore these things as one might. Me? I actually enjoy such fluff, some of it. When asked which actress should star in my life-story, I do not hesitate to suggest (the late) Shirley Booth. Last meal? My beloved husband, A.'s chicken-livers and gravy over rice. Which city should I live in? Fine where I am, though San Francisco will always be my favorite. Harmless fun. Not all of it, of course. "Which Kardashian Are You?" is not a question I'm either qualified or inclined to answer.
Questions about books I am best prepared to answer, natch. These tend to be numerical challenges: ten best books of last year, twenty-five favorite novels, five over-rated writers, how many have you read of the "100 Best Books"? If I've been "tagged" once, I've been tagged every time. I like the perennials as much as the next fellow, though my answers by now might be a bit stale. Favorite novel? The Golden Bowl, by Henry James. Favorite children's book? The Wind in the Willows, by Kenneth Grahame. Favorite "series"? Oz. Etc.
Sometimes all it takes to make these things new is a change in the phrasing.
"Name The Ten Books That Most Influenced You."
Now, "influence" is an interesting word, isn't it? I'm no more a writer than to the extent of this, so that's not how I read the question. (I suspect the influence of great writers on my writing has all been bad, come to that. Henry James indeed.) Whatever the question meant when it was posed, I've taken it as a question of character, specifically mine. I needn't love them. They need not be ten books I've reread, or plan to reread. They need not necessarily be ten books I finished. These things always come with an instruction to "not think too hard about it," to just list "the first ten titles that come to mind." So, I did. The result was surprising, and more interesting -- at least to me -- than I'd anticipated.
What are the ten books that made me? Let's see. In just the order they occurred to me then:
Like pretty much everyone else my age, I watched Carl Sagan's "Cosmos" when it first aired on PBS in 1980. I was sixteen? Seventeen? Thereabouts. And like a lot of people my age now, I watched the new version with Neil DeGrasse Tyson with real pleasure, but also a certain wistfulness for the innocence -- mine and ours -- of the original broadcast. I'd never seen anything like it. Don't know that anyone had. In that television show, Sagan explained a good part of the world to me for the first time. It was a revelation, though I don't know how many of the specifics I retained. Still. So, I should not have been surprised that the first title that came to mind for my list was Sagan's. The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark was originally published in 1995, though I didn't read it until much later. I was nearer forty than sixteen when I finally realized not only how little I knew -- perfectly predictable, that -- but also how little I'd read to arrive at the opinions I already held. I was a grown man. I'd read serious books. I didn't believe in gods and monsters anymore, the life eternal, the power of prayer, the origin of the species in a man named Adam and a woman named Eve. At thirty, and forty, and despite the best efforts of Carl Sagan and the one or two competent science teachers I'd had in school, I knew very little indeed about the universe. My thinking was still more defined by what I didn't or had ceased to believe, which is fine, even admirable in youth, but plain embarrassing as I drifted toward middle-age. Science, as such, was all but unknown to me. I set about correcting that deficit as best I could. Sagan's book, and all the other books to which it led me, gave me a context, a way of understanding and articulating ideas I'd come, more or less to accept before I knew quite what they were. More, Sagan showed me there was joy in the discovery of the knowable. "... nature is always more subtle, more intricate, more elegant that what we are able to imagine." Just so.
However, it was Oliver Sacks who showed me first that I might read about science without being able to "do" science. Add to my list, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, an unexpected bestseller, when it was published in 1985. I read it because everyone seemed to be reading it then. It was perhaps the first serious book about the workings of the mind that I'd read since being undone in high school by the likes Sigmund Freud and B. F. Skinner, Carl Jung and R. D. Laing. "A" for effort, I suppose, but what a muddle! No wonder I didn't feel the need again for years thereafter. But where those ol' boys all spoke from absolute, if conflicting and scientifically questionable authority, Dr. Oliver Sacks was curious and invited curiosity, not conversion, not subscription. Moreover, Sacks wrote bright, clean prose, discussed genuine science, and most importantly, said what he, and we don't know as well as what we do about the mysteries of the brain and the human experience. Let me emphasize this point: what we don't know -- yet. That's optimism, and without God.
Back up a bit. This wouldn't be anything like an accurate list were I to not acknowledge my debt to the dead gentlemen who translated the King James Bible. I did not grow up in a religious household, but I did grow up surrounded by The Bible. How, in the United States of America, does one not, even now? It informs not only our politics but our prose. I read "The Bible," and then read it again, in everything from the Revised Standard to the little red, Gideon New Testament they gave us in Cub Scouts. I've read it since, one way and another, and I am, I should think, the better for it. I've no more faith in it now, as either oracle or history, than I have in the collected works of L. Frank Baum, but that doesn't mean "The Book" isn't in me. Seems to me, inescapable, if not for want of trying.
If it ever came to such an unhappy choice -- God forbid -- I'll admit I'd rather read The King James Bible straight through, begats and all, before ever again reading Being and Nothingness: An Essay of Phenomenological Ontology. Jean Paul Sartre's most ponderous, philosophical tome makes my list none the less. Why? This was the first work of modern philosophy I made myself read, and read, and read until I finished the damned thing. Took me months. (All that, I see now, just to drag us out of Plato's cave!) I include it here not because I went on to study phenomenology, but simply because reading such a book taught me that I could.
Likewise, in a way, my next. With considerably more regret, I must admit to never really warming to Charles Darwin and On the Origin of the Species. More than once I've done my Darwin, or tried. If importance is the measure rather than size, and as the Really Big Books go, Charles Darwin did nothing wrong. The fault is entirely mine. I am just not up to ideas, however exciting in themselves, however elegantly reasoned, when expressed with such relentless sobriety. Alas. Still, I'm glad I did it, and I am almost ashamed to have to add that I am of course grateful.
(I should note just how ridiculous it is proving to be to discuss such important books in such a narrowly personal sense, but here we are. It's not as if I have anything more serious to contribute, so on I'll go.)
More directly effective in making me, would be yet another popular science writer who not incidentally was a good if not, as I understand it, a great scientist himself, Stephen Jay Gould, and specifically his book, The Mismeasure of Man. That book cured me of any lingering misapprehensions regarding biological determinism I might have otherwise retained from having grown up in America when and where I did. Again, as with Sagan and Sacks, (and James Trefil, and Alan Lightman, and Martin Gardner,) Gould gave me more than facts, more than the best argument. He gave me hope.
William Manchester (1922 - 2004), is now remembered mostly I should think for his great, unfinished life of Winston Churchill, but first and foremost for me, he was the author of The Glory and the Dream: A Narrative History of America, 1932-1972. Those two, huge volumes, begun in a sophomore "Social Studies" class and then read straight through on my own, taught me how to read history; to read for what changes us, and who, and how such things are possible. The book would doubtless now be thought old-fashioned in it's use of pocket-biographies of largely forgotten figures like socialist Eugene V. Debs to point the progress of the American mission to make a better world. (I'm afraid the book has in fact passed out of print.) Still, for me, before I'd ever heard of Howard Zinn, William Manchester showed me a past I'd never heard of, and yes, gave me heroes when I needed them.
I read Auden because I read Isherwood. I read both because they were gay. Only after I no longer needed to find my kind to find my place did I really read Auden, the poet. I don't know that I understood his importance as a poet, and to me as a reader until I'd read my way through The Collected Poems in my thirties. By then I knew a poet and had read more widely in poetry because of that friendship than I might otherwise ever have done on my own. My friend made me brave. The abundance and beauty, the fun in Auden came to me late then, well after I knew his story and "Musee des Beaux Arts," and "Funeral Blues," and "September 1, 1939." Reading Auden, almost as much as knowing my dear friend, R., opened me to reading Elizabeth Bishop, to reading Shelley, to trying Chaucer, to Eliot at last and all.
Which leads me to my only real cheat on this list. My next-to-last book is really the five fat little volumes of Auden's anthology, edited with Norman Holmes Pearson, Poets of the English Language. More even than the various volumes of the Oxford Anthology of English Verse, edited by Q. et al, this book has been my best education, point of departure and the place in poetry to which I find I most return, even now, years after I first read my way through it. Auden's introductions have been a classroom to me, the selections have lead in more directions in my reading than any other single title I can think of. I owe it, and Auden, so much.
I recognized no more than half way through the making of this list that fiction seemed not to figure. Strange indeed as I read more novels than anything else. More of the writers I most love are novelists than are poets, essayists or historians, to say nothing of scientists! I can't explain it. It was not a conscious decision to avoid fiction, honestly. Perhaps the novelists were just too much associated in my mind with all those other lists, of favorite books, and most reread and so on. Maybe that one word, "influence," bumped me out of my more usual groove. If so, good. Made me think. That's as close as I can come to the point of this exercise and this list; made me think.
I think I can be forgiven one sentimental favorite with which to end, which is not to say I haven't learned a great deal from the book. The Life of Samuel Johnson, by James Boswell is a book I will read all my life. Because of it, I've read Johnson. (And Goldsmith, and Fanny Burney.) I didn't really read the book until a decade ago, when I bought a disreputable looking edition in six grubby volumes from the used bookstore where I first worked when we moved to Seattle. Whatever I'd read of Boswell before, it was ersatz, abridged or amended in some stupid way. Only when I finally read the book as it was written did I come to appreciate that it too would be a book that had changed me in some fundamental way I can't explain so easily as most of these others. Maybe it's just age. Maybe I had to be in my forties before I could love Dr. Johnson. Now I've read the essays and the poems, Hell, even the prayers. Maybe I had to learn how to love people I might not have much liked. It's certainly possible I had to be old enough to need the company, and the conversation.
The good news is that in making this list, it seems I'm as unfinished at fifty-one as I was at sixteen. The difference, I imagine, is that now that seems like good news to me.
For the last word, as it were, I turn this over to the late Carl Sagan:
“Books, purchasable at low cost, permit us to interrogate the past with high accuracy; to tap the wisdom of our species; to understand the point of view of others, and not just those in power; to contemplate--with the best teachers--the insights, painfully extracted from Nature, of the greatest minds that ever were, drawn from the entire planet and from all of our history. They allow people long dead to talk inside our heads. Books can accompany us everywhere. Books are patient where we are slow to understand, allow us to go over the hard parts as many times as we wish, and are never critical of our lapses. Books are key to understanding the world and participating in a democratic society.”
From The Wonderful Wizard of OZ, by L. Frank Baum
"'Why do you wish to see the terrible Oz?' asked the man.
'I want him to give me some brains,' said the Scarecrow, eagerly.
'Oh. Oz could do that easily enough,' declared the man. 'He has more brains than he needs.'"
From Chapter X, The Guardian of the Gate
Wednesday, August 27, 2014
"There is little ground, either from reason or observation, to conclude the world erternal or incorruptible."
From Of the Populousness of Ancient Nations
Tuesday, August 26, 2014
I suppose sensible people count out their underwear and socks first, or charge their phones, or work out their itineraries. Well, I haven't any itinerary per se. I go home to Pennsylvania every year, about this time, to see the old people. Our itinerary runs something like this:
"Where do you want to eat?"
"Up to you."
That goes on for roughly two weeks.
As for clean under-things, I've got plenty. I'm going to try this trip to pack fewer clothes I'll never wear. Nix the dress-pants. Stick to just the one pair of shoes. I can borrow a tie, come to that, from Dad or my brother if I need one -- though the mind boggles, both at the available selection and just what the occasion might ever prove to be.
Phone, iPad, camera, I've charged them all, but I'll wait to bag the lot on the weekend. I'll have to renew the service for the iPad I haven't used since the last trip. (Must remember to do that.)
Two weeks, visiting. There you have it.
So really, the only pressing question now is what to read while I'm away. The flight, or flights I should say, will be long and loathsome. Air-travel nowadays is more akin to confinement than flight. I always pack a neck-pillow, ear-plugs, and a night-mask. I buy water and crackers at the airport now, as one must for fear of terrorist hydration schemes. I play by the rules. This is not my first trip. But now, books, books are what matter. I may buy a magazine or two for the trip, to be left in back-seat-pockets along the way; the New Yorker, usually, and maybe Entertainment Weekly, perhaps the New York Review of Books. And for books? Here's what I have so far.
First, my old, EBM edition of Cowper's Letters. Though I have the complete edition in four volumes, hardcover, I thought I'd take this ugly old darling along so as to mark up passages for my Cowper reading in October. With a better edition at home, this one can now be a working copy. No shame in annotating that.
So far, just the one Agatha Christie, The Pale Horse, though I hope to find at least one other, unfamiliar title to take with me as well. No shame in admitting, I usually can manage at least two or more of these each trip, if I manage nothing else. The airports alone may be enough to polish one off, or certainly on the planes. (We'll see if I can sleep at all. I usually can't, now they've made the seats the size of postages stamps and as comfortable as bleacher-seats at a ballgame.) Maybe, if I'm lucky, I'll find a nice Ngaio Marsh as well yet.
The Selected Poems of T. S. Eliot was an impulse. I always take some poetry, for bedtime reading, and I've been lucky in finding nice old, paperback anthologies before, full of things I'd never read. When I saw this slim volume though, some instinct told me the time had come to give the old boy another go. It's been years. Why not? When I opened it, I happened on "We are the hollow men" and thought, "perhaps we are, indeed." Not exactly traditional vacation reading, but then what other than the thrillers ever qualifies as such on my list? Done.
For reliable pleasure of a more familiar kind, this charmingly dowdy Modern Library edition from the 1930s of Lytton Strachey's Eminent Victorians came across the Used Books Desk. As it was the right size for packing, and a book I loved, I thought it fit the bill rather better than last year's selection in this category, Thomas Carlyle's The Life of John Sterling. Oh dear. Oh dear. Let this be a warning to you all. I was deep in Carlyle last Fall, but that proved to be not nearly such a good excuse as it seemed at the time for putting Carlyle in my bag. I read it. It was... remarkable. 'nough said.
And finally -- so far -- and most unlikely of the litter, a friend at work gave me a copy of William Goldman's The Princess Bride. I am too old to remember the movie as much of anything, though I've noticed that with lots of people younger than myself that film has become a touchstone of childhood. They quote it all the time; in conversation, on social media, etc. To me, Mandy Patinkin is Che, or Georges Seurat, rather than "Inigo Montoya." I remember the movie as amusing, but nothing more. Well, my young friend is of a different generation and a fan of William Goldman's novel, which I've never read. He bought me a copy when I told him this. Very sweet. I was skeptical that I would ever read it, but I took it to lunch one day, read the first chapter and found it charming. Into the bag it goes then! (I have read with pleasure Goldman's memoirs of screenwriting in Hollywood. I remember them as quite funny. So, it would seem, is this, his most beloved book. I now have high hopes.)
And that's it, so far.
This may not be a final list. I may yet find other things I'd rather. And then there is the unhappy problem of having no access to a bookstore while I'm back in PA, unless by some miracle I manage a trip to Pittsburgh this time. I have an old friend there who runs a grand, used bookstore of national reputation. I keep meaning to go. I keep not managing to get away for the day. Not the point of the trip, of course, come to that. I don't get back but once a year. It's not enough. I miss the old folks. It's them I go to see.
Still, when the last buffet is closed out and the last snack consumed before bed, I will need something with which to fill my head, something other than regret, memories and missing my beloved husband, A., back here in my real home.
I believe I may need another book. Or two.
"What is so attractive about so-called 'lens histories' of salt, trout, or whale oli?"
From How to Be Popular, by Melissa Flashman
Monday, August 25, 2014
From Casa Gudi Windows, by Elizabeth Barrett Browning
"... Each man pays a price
For what himself counts precious, whether true
Or false the appreciation it implies."
From "I wrote a meditation and a dream"
Sunday, August 24, 2014
"If you use a colloquialism or a slang word or phrase, simply use it; do not draw attention to it by enclosing it in quotation marks. To do so is to put on airs, as though you were inviting the reader to join you in a select society of those who know better."
From III A Few Matters of Form
Saturday, August 23, 2014
Friday, August 22, 2014
From Fear & Trembing, by Soren Kierkegaard, translated by Alastair Hannay
WAS IT NOT
"Was it not a fearful thought that this man who walked among others was God? Was it not terrifying to sit down to eat with him?"
From Problema I
Thursday, August 21, 2014
Wednesday, August 20, 2014
To begin when writing about Josephine, there would seem to be two triumphs from which to choose; first and last, beginning and end. Matthew Pratt Guterl, the author of the new book, Josephine Baker and the Rainbow Tribe chose the former, and I'll get to that in a minute, but he might as easily have started at the end, so I will.
April 12th, aged 68, the great entertainer has returned to Paris in a musical review of her life and career, Joséphine à Bobino, 1975. The show is a hit, indeed, a triumph. From Guterl's book: "After two straight nights of Josephine (the show ran two and a half hours), Baker was exhausted. (Journalist Jacqueline) Cartier found her staring into the mirror at one point, assessing a face that was no longer young. Determinedly, Baker worked out the kinks in her hair, donned a simple black wig and sunglasses, and -- 'the picture of casual elegance' -- walked across the street from the Bobino to a little cafe, where she ordered a plate of spaghetti and a glass of beer, a 'favorite' meal. Then she adjourned to her hotel room, where she donned a flowered robe, opened up the early reviews of Josephine, and lay in bed, enjoying the universal adoration in black-and-white print. At some point -- lying there just like that, surrounded by the voice of her public -- she slipped into a coma. She'd had a massive cerebral hemorrhage." Hours later, she was dead. A documentary I watched once quoted a friend of Josephine's to the effect that whatever the medical diagnosis, he believed that she had in fact, " died of joy."
That's one way to start the story anyway, at the end. That's how the documentary I watched did it; Josephine's all-but-state funeral, the flower covered hearse winding it's way slowly through the streets of Paris, as Guterl puts it, "more like a parade" than a funeral. But this new book is not yet another sentimental star-biography. No, indeed. This is a much more serious, and important book. Instead, the author, a professor of Africana studies and American studies at Brown University, starts his Prologue back at the beginning, or better say, the moment Freda Josephine McDonald, becomes the iconic Josephine Baker:
"She wore a skirt made of bananas."
And, there we are; at the beginning. In barest outline, Baker's life reads like movie, or a musical review, come to that. She was born into poverty in St. Louis, Missouri in 1906, and abandoned by her father at birth. Out of school, homeless on the street, and married by the time she was thirteen, as improbable as it sounds, at 19, she would conquer Paris. Dancing in that famous costume in "La Revue Nègre" on October 2, 1925, she was a sensation; the "inventor" of the Charleston, the "Bronze Venus," etc. She would go on to become an international star, and the first African American woman to star in a major motion picture, Zouzou (1934).
In the more usual tellings, Josephine Baker's biography hangs between those two triumphs, with her decorated work in the French Resistance the high point between. (After the war, she received Croix de guerre and the Rosette de la Résistance, and was made a Chevalier of the Légion d'honneur. That would be remarkable in any life.)
It makes for a good story, all this, genuinely inspiring. As an admittedly rather casual fan of the lady -- read a biography or two, watched a couple of her films, own a boxed set of the recordings -- I will admit to a sentimental fondness for both the performer and the myth. But, as with any out-sized personality, the reality, both of Baker's biography and her career, was of course considerably less straight-forward than what is conjured for me when I listen to contentedly again to "J'ai deux amours".
Professor Guterl's new book is neither the standard hagiography nor a critical biography as such. Instead, by focusing on one of the most difficult and least understood episodes in Baker's life, the author does the great service to his subject of not only trying to get at the truth of her life, but also -- a very rare tribute indeed -- taking the woman seriously.
In 1947, Josephine Baker bought the castle she'd been renting in the Dordogne, Château des Milandes. In the next decade, she would populate it with a dozen adopted children from various ethnic and religious backgrounds, the "Rainbow Tribe." It was, by any measure a unique, and very public social experiment. At a time of growing racial tension in Baker's country of origin, indeed, at the dawn of the modern American Civil Rights Movement, perhaps the most famous black woman in the world basically proposed a "French Disneyland" where the public and the press were encouraged to come and see this new family at work and play. She would prove a point -- and charge a fee -- to see an enchanted castle where "children of different ethnicities and religions could still be brothers." Nothing about this enterprise, or this family, proved to be as simple as that. As Guterl puts it, Château des Milandes became in fact something of "an intimate domestic imaginary where routine practice carried extraordinary weight, where a family dinner was a media spectacle, and where a little act performed together was a global miracle."
In his new book -- in my reading, for the first time -- what Professor Guterl has done is to examine this part of Baker's life with a scholarly attention to not just the facts, not just the myth, but also to the consequences, for Baker, her children, and the wider culture she, at least in part, sought to change by her example. As the author points out, too often what we know of Baker's life, and in particular at this period, comes from her own invention, from contemporary publicity, and from the self-serving memoirs of ex-husbands and various hangers-on. Sorting through all this to the truth underneath proves to be not just a matter of finding the facts at the bottom of the trunk, as it were, but also, in Guterl's reading, sitting with what he's discovered, and what it may mean.
This is the most thoughtful, and challenging book I've ever read or am likely to read now about La grande Joséphine, her place in history, in the Civil Rights Movement, in our memory and in the memories of her children. It is not an untroubled reflection. Nonetheless, I am certainly glad of the author's extraordinary effort. I'm glad I read it. It is a remarkable book, on a difficult subject, and about damned time.
On dit qu'au-delà des mers,
Là-bas sous le ciel clair,
Il existe une cité, au séjour enchanté.
Et sous les grands arbres noirs,
Vers elle s'en va tout mon espoir.
J'ai deux amours
Mon pays et Paris.
Par eux toujours,
Mon coeur est ravi...
Tuesday, August 19, 2014
"And indeed there reigned between his various parts great harmony and concord, and it could be truly said that his face was worthy of his body, and vice versa. And if I could have seen his arse, I do not doubt I should have found it on par with the whole."
From Malloy, page 144, this ed.
Monday, August 18, 2014
From The Anti-Social Behaviour of Horace Rumpole, by John Mortimer
"'I don't know what Mr. Rumpole is suggesting.' This interruption came from the prosecutor.
'Then sit quietly and you'll find out.'"
From Chapter 22
Sunday, August 17, 2014
"If you approach these books with passion, with an eye to their symmetries and harmonies and violent dissonances, you will not necessarily learn how to write. But you will certainly come nearer an understanding of what it is, gloriously, to read."
From A Reading List for Young Writers
Saturday, August 16, 2014
From The Stricken Deer: The Life of William Cowper, by David Cecil
"It was because their world was so small that they could touch so many sides of it, because they took the facts of existence for granted they could cultivate its graces, because they never doubted they were born to rule that they could say with Pitt, 'I believe I can save the country, and no one else can.'"
From, A Prologue
Friday, August 15, 2014
Here then, a tale of two books, ordered from two vendors, through one source, to two different purposes, though both in a way, work related. First, I think, the good news.
The Stricken Deer: The Life of William Cowper, by David Cecil, published in this US edition in 1930, by The Bobbs-Merrill Company, Indianapolis. It is a book I've wanted for a long time and finally felt myself justified in buying because I can call it "research" now without blushing, as I will be doing a public reading of Cowper come October. By then, it will be the third biography of Cowper I will have read; the first being a short life in the English Men of Letters series which I had reprinted for me some years ago on the bookstore's Espresso Book Machine. The series is an old one, and one I like, of brief biographies by eminent critics of the day. (The original run was from 1878 to 1892, and included Anthony Trollope on Thackeray, and Henry James on Nathaniel Hawthorne, both from 1879. No small beer there.) The life of Cowper was written in 1880 by one Goldwin Smith, one time regius professor of Modern History at Oxford. It was entirely adequate to my purpose at the time, and no more. More recently, I found The Life of William Cowper, by Thomas Wright, 1921, Second Edition, at my other favorite bookstore, Magus Books, just down the road from work. The book required some repair, and remains a rather homely object, but better than the first, certainly, and well worth the time and the glue. This latest was actually on my list of hunted books for years, not because of Cowper, but because I collected David Cecil, or more properly, Lord Edward Christian David Gascoyne-Cecil, CH, author of The Young Melbourne (1939), A Portrait of Jane Austen (1978), A Portrait of Charles Lamb (1983), etc. He's very good. If I was ever going the shell out the thirty five dollars plus shipping for Cecil's Cowper, now was the time. I'm already glad I did. The book arrived in very good shape for it's age, and in less than a week from the time it was ordered. I've read the first two chapters already.
I ordered the book through AbeBooks.com, something I haven't done much of since the company was acquired by the you-know-who. Still, beggars and choosers and all that. I'd never seen a copy in a bookstore in all the years I had the title on my hunting list. So, I ordered it. My copy came from, of all places, Leiper's Fork, TN, with an elegant brochure from the seller, "Yeoman's in the Fork: A Rare Book & Document Gallery." Check out the link. Classy, in fact, just the sort of antiquarian operation that usually scares the Hell out of me. I'm just a guy who reads old books because the books I want happen to be out of print. I'm not the kind of collector who can usually afford to patronize such lovely places. Still, they clearly know their business, and I'm grateful.
Very much on the other hand would be the vendor from whom I just today received the other book I ordered that same day, two weeks ago. At the Used Books Desk at the bookstore where I work, we recently bought a very nice set of the definitive edition of The Diary of Samuel Pepys, edited by Robert Latham and William Matthews and published in eleven volumes in the United States by the University of California Press between 1970 and 1983. Or rather, we bought every volume but one. As sold to us, the set was missing Volume 11, The Index. That missing volume makes our set incomplete. That makes something that might be worth hundreds of dollars worth... not so much. I asked the seller to look for the missing volume. He did. He didn't find it. I bought his books anyway. They are are very good hardcover copies; clean and bright and tightly bound hardcovers, with nice clean dust-jackets. Then I did something I've rarely done, I went online and looked for an equally nice copy on the missing volume (#11, remember) to complete the set. I found a listing at a very reasonable price and ordered the book.
I'd begun to wonder just how long it was going to take to get the damned thing, since the Cowper biography showed up so promptly and it had been at least a week since then. Today I came home, found the package from this other vendor, and opened it with the anticipation that at last I would be able to complete our set and maybe sell it. Inside the rather flimsy packaging I found no invoice, no wrapping, and the wrong book. Same edition of Pepys -- though the British from Bell & Hyman rather than the University of California Press -- but Volume One, which I didn't need instead of Volume 11, The Index, which I'd ordered. Then I noticed this:
That's right, in addition to being the wrong book, the book they sent as "very good" in fact had a front cover that had completely detached from the front endpaper; in other words, it was busted as well as wrong.
In the business, we call that, "not as described."
I realize this may not exercise the reader quite so much as it does me, and I have in fact already initiated a refund through the website and will mail the book back promptly as soon as I get to work tomorrow, but... what the bloody, blue-blazing Hell is wrong with people?!
Look, we sell our used books online as well at the bookstore where I work, and we have certainly made our share of mistakes and had plenty of shipping mishaps and the like. I understand that things can simply go wrong. I'm glad to say that we are always prompt to admit our errors and do our best to rectify them when and where we can, and to refund what we can't fix. Sometimes our best isn't good enough, but there we are.
That said, when I compare the two orders, the two books as and how they arrived, and the level of service from one order to the other, I must say I am drawn up short by the truly glaring disparity between what is obviously a very professional, smart shop and what I can only assume is some kind of third party, "virtual" dealer.
I'm not going to use the vendor's name as it is listed on Abebooks. (Though I'm happy to tell any friend who asks.) We'll see how prompt they are about a refund first, shall we? I will say that, now that I've looked, it is very strange that the name and address in Texas listed for the vendor is not the return address on the package which came from a different company altogether in Toledo, Ohio. When I searched either name and address, I found nothing for the address in Ohio, and nothing for the vendor from whom I ordered the book beyond links to their identical profiles on three separate used books sites, including the one on Abebooks.com So...
It seems safe to assume that this business is not a traditional bricks-and-mortar bookstore. (I suppose I should say, "businesses," since I would seem to have been dealing with at least two in this transaction, not counting Abebooks.) Whatever this operation is, it seems to exist, at least in public, only online. I am not reassured, may I say, by this fact. Nor am I much moved by the following, copied from the vendor's page at AbeBooks:
"I've been selling books for a long time and have achieved more than 99% positive feedback on eBay and amazon.com. I always strive to achieve best customer satisfaction and have always described books accurately. I will ship book within 12 hours of confirmed payment. We have more than three new and used million books list for sale on ABE, including a huge selection of affordable textbooks for college."
That use of the first person seems rather suspect, does it not? I mean for a dealer who lists a book on what looks like a residential street in Texas (I peeked) and then ships it from a Post Office Box in Toledo, Ohio. (To say nothing of the frightful English.)
All I know for sure at the moment? I think we can trust the booksellers in an actual bookstore "in historic Leiper's Fork, Tennessee,"more than we might the un-named "I" in that paragraph above. We'll have to wait and see.
Meanwhile, I will read my Lord Cecil and be grateful.
FOR IT IS
"For it is curious to observe, in contrast with our poets who sing of green country all the time, what a disproportionate mass of our prose is urban, and how rarely it contrives, at its best, to get off the pavement."
From Q's Preface
Thursday, August 14, 2014
GENERAL GORDON'S PASSION
"There were moments when his passion became utterly ungovernable;and the gentle soldier of God, who had spent the day in quoting texts for the edification of his sister, would slap the face of his Arab aide-de-camp in a sudden access of fury or set upon his Alsatian servant and kick him till he screamed."
From The End of General Gordon
Wednesday, August 13, 2014
"The tendency of popular discussions to take an ethical form has a cause. It springs from a law of the human mind; it rests upon a vague and instinctive recognition of what is probably the deepest truth we can grasp. That alone is wise which is just; that alone is enduring which is right."
From Book VII, Chapter 1, The Injustice of Private Property in Land
Tuesday, August 12, 2014
Monday, August 11, 2014
"Some seek so far for outlandish English, that they forget altogether their Mother's language."
From Inkhorn Terms, by Thomas Wilson
Sunday, August 10, 2014
If they knew what they were about, Ben Macintyre's publishers would do well to try and get a book out of him at least every other Father's Day. I can think of very few nonfiction authors who have produced such a string of consistently readable -- and saleable -- popular histories, or come to that, books better suited to what might be called the Dad Market. While not a parent myself, I would seem to have settled comfortably into the recliner reading group. Our motto might be something on the lines of, "Tell me something I didn't know about something I'm pretty sure I know all about." Macintyre's our guy. He has a nose for those dusty corners of the historical record wherein evidently may still be found neglected narratives from seemingly exhausted subjects like WWII and yes, now, the Cold War. We love that. What's more, he knows how to write for a popular audience without resort to speculative fictionalization and or any faddish or ahistorical contemporary intellectual agenda. No wizards. No theory. No woo woo. Damn straight, Ben. Clearly, he enjoys finding a good story to tell rather more than making hay from whatever he might have hoped to find. He's reasonably skeptical of the official version of events, yes, but he never seems to be out to prove or disprove anything, so much as to get as near the truth as an examination of the available evidence will allow. Sound man. And what stories he finds! Fascinating stuff. Obviously, he's the kind of guy you'd hope to meet in a dull bar and almost never do. I've read every book Ben Macintyre's written from his first, Forgotten Fatherland: The True Story of Nietzsche's Sister and Her Lost Aryan Colony (you wouldn't believe me if I told you, but trust me,) down to this latest biography of one of the most charming, and duplicitous shits in recent history. (That's nine books in roughly twenty years, or a new book every two and a half years. My alternating Father's Days scheme just might work then, with just a bit of a push from Macintyre -- not to nag.)
In Macintyre's fresh telling of what must by now be an awfully familiar story to anyone with an interest in either espionage or the Cold War, he quite cleverly avoids the more usual tack of either touting Philby as the ultimate "master spy" or making heroes of the purblind clubmen who, all but against their will, were eventually forced to expose him. Instead, Macintyre patiently, and rather wittily picks apart the legend of the late Harold Adrian Russell "Kim" Philby (1 January 1912 – 11 May 1988) by pricking up Philby's betrayal of his best friend and fellow MI6 officer, John Nicholas Rede Elliot (15 November 1916 -- 13 April 1994.) The pair of them were, in all but that most important point of divergence, cut from the same cloth; privileged, well-educated, convivial, and coldly cosmopolitan gentlemen of a certain class who happened to find their line in espionage. Perfectly natural they should have been chums. That Nicholas Elliott should have been the interrogating officer for Philby's rather disappointing "confession" in Beirut in 1963, just before Philby's defection to the Soviet motherland, is only surprising until one's read Macintyre's book. Now that too seems the most natural thing in the world, indeed, an almost inevitable finishing stitch in what was, in Macintyre's telling, a tapestry of false assumptions, left and right.
Philby's justification for having been a double-agent for the Soviets even as he rose ever higher in British intelligence service was that he betrayed not his country, but rather his class and the corrupt and unjust system to which they owed their privileges. Couple of logical fallacies, to say nothing of breathtaking personal, professional and historical ironies there, but let all that for the moment stand. What Macintyre's book shows in a carefully researched and tellingly detailed account of the facts is that the most shocking revelation to come from any objective review of Philby's career is found in neither his motives nor his actions -- keeping in mind that Philby helped the Russians kill a lot of people -- but rather the network of misplaced loyalties that allowed Philby to go on betraying his friends and his country for so long and to get away in the end. "Kim," it seems, was always "one of us," right up until the moment he fled. He was protected, promoted, excused, explained away and defended on no better basis than that. It is this that most intrigues Ben Macintyre and what he found best personified in the person of Nicholas Elliott and his disastrous friendship with Philby.
It's a wonderful device for reducing the mythology of the Cambridge spies, et al to the actual dimensions of their all too human frailties. Philby was indeed a clever fellow, and, any way one looks at it, rather an exceptional spy. Great fun at parties too, for awhile anyway. In his Janus-faced way, it must be said, a good friend; thoughtful, funny, supportive. He was also a raging alcoholic, a fanatic, and terrible husband to, what was it? three? no, four wives. From the moment he was invited into British intelligence, until well after he'd officially left, he did more damage to the efforts and intelligence organizations of his country and their allies -- by his lights, the enemies of his Soviet masters and "the Revolution," -- than anyone on what one might still call "our side" in the history of the Cold War. Among other things, he sent not just agents, but even friends to their certain deaths.
And his best friend, Nicholas Elliott, seemingly every bit his equal in both intelligence and expertise, Philby supposedly fighting right at his side against a common foe, was just one of the men who unwittingly helped the double agent do his dirty worst; telling him everything they knew, trusting him implicitly, refusing to be believe the truth even when it was all too obvious to anyone with eyes to see.
How and why that happened is Macintyre's story.
Finally, there is some small satisfaction in the unexpected coda to this Wodehousian tragedy, this comedy of manners and murders, old-school-ties and broken trust, in the delectable description -- only available to Macintyre and his Western readers because of the collapse of the senile Soviet Empire after Philby's death-- of just how frequently Kim Philby was disbelieved by his Communist bosses (wait for it) simply by being too good to be true. Ah! The perfect logic of the Paranoid State!
That Kim Philby chose to subvert the corrupt system that made him in order to serve an even more corrupt system that didn't quite know what to make of him, is one of the better surprises here. Ben Macintyre is good at surprises. What's more, he's so good at what he does that not even reading yet another book about the sordid and sorry business of spies, Communist agents and double-agents, traitors and twits would I describe, in this case, as anything short of a pure pleasure.
The only question now is can I wait another two and a half years For Macintyre's next one? (And what will we get Dad for Christmas, damn it?)
MOTTO TO 'HISTORY'
There is no great and no small
To the Soul that maketh all:
And where it cometh, all things are;
And cometh everywhere.
Saturday, August 9, 2014
Colette à la guerre
"Twin concerns dominated her pieces: winter cold and the paucity of good nourishment. Colette suffered from an arthritic hip that kept her inside her apartment. She could barely navigate the steps down to the shelter during air raid warnings and rarely ventured into the Metro because of the stairs down to the tracks. Yet she maintained, at least in her columns, an optimism that would, a friend said after the war, be seen as a sort of heroism, keeping one's sangfroid during difficult times. She repeated her commonsensical mantra: despair, sorrow, and penury teach us to live better than do joyous moments, and things would get better. 'I have known happy Paris too well to worry about unhappy Paris.'"
From Chapter 3: Minuet 91940 - 1941)