Saturday, October 31, 2009

Empty Windows

There is an abandoned house, just beyond the trees my father planted forty years ago. No one has lived in that house since I was a child. For a long time, someone kept the house for storage. Boxes filled the windows, though what was in the boxes I never knew. Then the boxes were taken out, the windows broken, and the door came loose from its hinges and stood catawampus, closed with a wedge and locked with a bolted chain. The roof sagged. The small barn behind the house fell in.

When I was little, I stood once with two friends behind what was then just a low hedge and we watched the man who lived in the house as he tended his chickens. We stood amazed as he walked right up to a fat old hen and she took the corn from his palm. Our own chickens would never have done that. The neighbor's hen let him take her up and pet her, let him carry her to a block and sat contentedly when he put her down, stretched out her neck and, with a small hatchet, took off her head. Only then, when her head was off and he'd let loose of the hen did she fly up off the block and run 'round the yard for what seemed to us watching a very long time. None of the other chickens in the yard seemed the least disturbed by this. Amazement turned to consternation, then something like terror when the headless bird seemed to fly directly at us, but we none of us looked away until the hen fell down, her feet still twitching, and the neighbor picked her up by her feet and carried her into his little barn. We tried to remember where the chicken's head had dropped into the grass, but none of us was brave enough to go and look for it. When we noticed the man come into the yard again, still carrying the little hatchet, and he noticed us at last, he lifted a hand to shoo us off and we ran screaming as if he'd brandished the hatchet, as, once we were safe behind my father's barn, we breathlessly told ourselves he had.

That neighbor, as I remember him, lived alone. He may once have had a wife, or a mother, but I do not remember ever having seen anyone about the place but him. He was not the sort of man children got to know, even before we'd watched him kill the chicken. He had no children of his own, that I ever met, and he "kept to himself," as was always said then of lonely people. He was short and thin with a red face and large, red hands and big angry eyes that seemed to skid off you whenever he looked your way, as if in disgust, or as if looking at people, even or specially children, caused him discomfort. He spoke with a stammer, I remember now, and so spoke as little as he might and only when and with whom he needed to, so perhaps what I remember as wrath may have been nothing more than shyness. My father spoke to him, but few others seemed to. I never did. I had decided, I suppose, that he was somehow not to be trusted. I know that I did not like him, that even standing with my father next to him, he frightened me. A ridiculous, childish response to what was I'm sure just a harmless old man, but then, I was just a child. I could not help but remember that hen, and how she'd trusted him. And he always smelled of chickens and stale sweat and of a sourness less easily described, a bitter smell that seems to cling only to country people who live in old, unpainted houses where they walk on dusty old rugs and sit in old, horsehair-chairs with broken seats, and sleep alone in cold iron beds.

Another memory of him, the only other I can claim, is of seeing him on a hot summer day helping beat out a field fire with an Indian blanket. Some old woman, burning her garbage in a barrel, as we did then, hadn't tended the fire and some spark had got loose and fallen in the dry grass. Soon enough, an adjacent hay-field was burning. Everyone ran to the smoke when they saw it, though being daytime and a week day, there were few grown men around, so mostly it was women and a few teenagers who fought the fire. Everyone did this with old rugs and blankets, no one having a hose that could have reached the field and water being too far away to carry. Such fires were common at the end of summer then. Whatever simple thing started such fires: a cigarette tossed from a passing car, kids playing with matches, or some accidental negligence, the fire would move slowly and often undetected for some time through the drying hay, smouldering more than it burned, going to ground in one spot just to smoke up again a yard way. The volunteer firemen always came at last to put the fires out, but usually any real danger of the fire spreading had been kept down with boots and blankets by the time the firemen came. No one seemed to think of any danger but to the fields and the nearest houses, until the firemen came and ordered everyone off. Our silent neighbor was, as I remember, the only man to fight the fire that day until the fire-truck came. I believe my grandmother and I, being nearby at the Grange Hall, for whatever reason that day, beat down the flames with tablecloths we'd soaked at the tap on the side of the Hall. Our neighbor-man yelled -- something I'd otherwise never heard him do -- at all of us to get back, and waded into the smoke himself, stamping the flames under his boots, and smothering the fire with that Indian horse blanket he'd brought. My grandmother and the other women ignored him, as did I. It was too exciting, chasing those little, low flames across the field. When the volunteers came, they ordered him off the field with the rest of us. He seemed reluctant to go, stamping down still smoldering patches of grass as he went. By this time the rest of us were back up on the blacktop road, watching. He was told again to go and went, not joining us on the road, instead just walking off to the end of the field furthest from the firemen and then slowly circling back, watching the fire all the time. I watched him. I saw him smile, not at me but the fire, or so it seemed to me. I'd been enjoying myself, fighting the fire. We'd all been excited by it, I was ashamed to admit to myself at the time, but I thought I saw something else in his smile, something more than excitement, some genuine pleasure in the destruction, and in the ineptitude of the fireman's initial efforts to put it out. His smile may well have just been rueful, but it chilled me at the time. He left before anyone spoke to him.

I must have encountered him again after that, but I don't remember doing so. I've no idea now why he left his house, or if he died there after I'd moved away, or to whom he might have left it, but no one ever lived there after he left. Walking by the ruined house one July night when I was home to visit my parents, I peered into it briefly, by the light of my flashlight, and took a picture. Nothing to suggest it is haunted, though I certainly went no closer to it than the berm of dead-end road that runs in front of it, my curiosity satisfied with that. I don't believe in ghosts, or imagine that our old neighbor, surely dead by now, would have occasion to haunt the place even if he could. The sight of it was sad though, sadder even than I'd remembered it.

The house, along with the trees my father planted forty years ago, will come down soon to make a sweeping drive for the entrance to a new Walmart. No one will miss the house but the rats, I should think, or the raccoons.

I shouldn't think, were I to meet that man's ghost, that I would find even the apparition of him all that frightening, startling surely, but empty, even of memory, like the broken windows. I'd have to assume the ghost was his. There are still, where I grew up, many like him; solitary, less than clean, quiet, furious perhaps, or seeming so, at least in the eyes of children. But then I've no more right to pity his ghost now than I did to fear him then. I did not know the man. Few people, I should think, did.

What frightens me now is not ghosts, or the memory of a red faced old man with a bloody hatchet, or smiling at a fire. What disturbs me now, looking at that abandoned house, is the thought that no one will remember it having been there, in a year's time, or remember the trees my father planted, or anyone that fought that fire in the field that day. Eventually, there will be nobody to remember any of this, save me. It's not ghosts then that frighten me this tonight, but the impermanence, and imperfection, of memory.

Daily Dose

From Notes From the Air: Selected Later Poems, by John Ashbery


"It was love, after all,
that everybody was talking about
and nobody gave a shit for."

From Come On, Dear

Friday, October 30, 2009

A Confederate Clerihew


Allen Tate
Could but hate
All those snooty northern librarians
Who disdained the "southern agrarians."

Daily Dose

From Snapshots in History's Glare, by Gore Vidal


"How is a novelist born? I suspect it is a different story for each novelist. In my case, I never stopped reading, and whenever I read something I liked, I had a tendency to start writing my own novel in competition with the one I had enjoyed. So that is one way it can begin."

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Yesterday's Bestselling Clerihew


James Gould Cozzens,
By the dozens
Collected up all his bad reviews
And drank a toast, in expensive booze.

Daily Dose

From Life is a Miracle: An Essay Against Modern Superstition, by Wendell Berry


"To represent the intimacy of desire or of grief without the art that compels one to imagine these things as the events of lives and of shared lives is actually to misrepresent them."

From Progress Without Subtraction

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

The Latest Thing

I've a new favorite and as unlikely as this will sound, it's a book edited by Greil Marcus! A New Literary History of America, co-edited by Professor Werner Sollars, and recently published by Belknap/Harvard, is an impressive-looking, great brick of a book, weighing in at more than a thousand pages. There's a seriousness to that, an unmistakable gravity, reinforced by the fifty dollar price-tag. I like that the makers of it had such confidence in the value of their efforts -- makes a body think twice about tossing the thing aside casually for the damage it might do. And there can be no question, lifting the thing, but that here is a book with which to stun the average reader, or anyone within range of its trajectory. One feels then almost obliged to treat the book with some respect, if for no other reason than to drop it would in all likelihood break a toe.

And respect the book deserves, from first encounter, if only for its mass. Reading it is then no easy thing, requiring a sound desk, good light, and a certain patience. Such promise though! for them that have the necessary!

By way of making things a bit easier, the editors have kindly pointed out that there will be more than one way to read this book and have gone so far as to suggest that one way need be no better than the next; that to read it straight through from introduction to index -- the least likely reading, considering, -- would do the reader no better than to drop into it wherever fancy might lead, as I now have done. But before I should comment on any of the essays I've so far read, I ought first to describe how I read, with real pleasure, the little part of the whole that I have. This kind of reading being unfashionable, if for no other reason than the time and strength required, I would suggest a method I learned in school for getting quickly the scheme of the thing, and so, knowing as it were the direction intended, being the better able to come into company with any of the party at any point that suits me. From what may now be considered a perverse loyalty to old teaching, I always begin such books at their end, searching the index for familiar names, and here finding nearly every name I might expect, and any number I did not, I was in this way encouraged to read more. Knowing, for example, that Henry James has no less, by my count than a couple dozen mentions in the text, and at least two full essays devoted largely just to himself, the first on his Portrait of a Lady, and the other promisingly titled "Henry James in America," I could with some confidence mark my easiest points of entry into the text. Either would have done, and in the end I read both. Knowing neither of the essayists on James by name though, as preliminary to reading either, I turned back but a few pages from the index to the list of contributors, that I might better understand something of their respective qualifications and or interest in the subject. I was struck not only by the length of the list of contributors -running as it does to no less than nine, closely printed pages -- but by the curious brevity of biography for each: consisting of just the contributor's name, date of birth, and academic affiliation, so about the person writing on James' great novel, I only learned that he or she (?) was one "Alide Cagidemetrio * 1881, January 24 * American Studies, University of Venice." But wait. The date could not possibly be the essayist's date of birth, could it? Surely "American Studies" did not yet exist, let alone in Venice, of all places, at so early a date? I feel a fool confessing that it took me some time to work out that the good professor -- for so they all seem to be -- was not in fact one hundred and twenty eight years old. The date of course refers to the timeline into which the professor's essay has been made to slot, just as the second essayist on James, in his "James in America," one professor "Ross Posnock * 1904, August 30 * English and Comparative Literature, Columbia," is not so venerable as all that. I understand that so many contributors to so large a book, doubtless necessitated some such concision, but I was tickled to find that what the editors thought most useful for the reader was the essayist's name, assigned time, and degree? Some, presumably more accomplished in terms of publication, are allowed a title or two, but many, like my anticipated Jamesians, got only either their skins or employers mentioned, I could not say which.

To really prepare though for my plunge into the book proper, I had then to turn, at last to the beginning, and read the introduction. I could write away the night on just that remarkable contribution to the whole! What fun I had in it! But to limit myself just here to what has become my topic, how best to read this book, I would say the best clue I had was from from the following:

"In 1989 Harvard published A New History of French Literature, edited by Denis Hollier, and in 2004 A New History of German Literature, edited by David Wellbery; this book represents an entirely different sort of challenge."

And indeed it did, for me. What the editors go on from that statement to do, sly buggers, is to suggest that while what those "earlier projects," -- and please note the noun, -- did was to trace the history of "the organic literature of organic societies," the present volume intends to do no such thing. And indeed, it doesn't. By avoiding the most obvious way to do just such a thing, by producing a new history of English literature, of which American literature would naturally be but a pendant on the string, and instead denying by omission any such direct lineage, and thus presumably acknowledging the common language that produces what the editors would call an "organic literature," they may then deny the very idea of literature as a function of language alone and set their contributors loose to roam where the editors would, forward and back, down narrow and neglected byways, into juke-joints and the funny papers, the White House and Bikini Island, round about and up and down the countryside and the cities, gathering rosebuds where they may. By denying the legitimacy of English to claim the loyalty of our literary historians, they can then, brilliantly, change this "project" from a history of a literature, in the apparently rather stodgy model of the Germans and the French, into something much more American: a history of America as told through its native literature. This is genius! This new declaration of independence allows for a fairly straightforward reorganization of our history, and our literature, on very democratic lines indeed. Untethered to that ancestry, our "language" then becomes inclusive not only of other tongues, other traditions, other histories, but of any damned thing we, as a people, might ever have said and by whatever means in whatever medium of expression. Free from any chronology but that which their own eccentricities of taste and preference, or philosophic agenda might decide, the editors have cleverly allowed for a perfect babel of democratic voices, with loyalty only to America as a wholly original and polyglot creation, unique in it's freedom from any standard but originality, inclusion and good clean fun.

What then Greil Marcus and his coeditor have wrought is an absolute riot, and I couldn't like them more for it. Both the essays on James, for example, are full of good and surprising information. I had a grand time reading both. Anyone not already aware of the importance of Henry James would recognize at least that from reading these, though I'm not sure either professor quite goes so far as to claim much more for the man than a place in this book. If no context quite suggests just why Henry James might be more important to literature, or at least an artist different in kind to say Bessie Smith or Todd Haynes, to pluck but two names at random from the randomness, then one would seem to be missing the whole point of this "project," and missing the fun. Greil Marcus made his start as a music journalist, and his name with celebrations of and cerebrations on such icons of popular culture as Sid Vicious and Elvis Presley. Greil Marcus is an awfully clever fellow. Moreover, he would seem to have made his way into better company. Good for him, I say. His is a voice no longer in the wilderness. His kind of cultural criticism would seem to have arrived, been made welcome, and frankly to have triumphed. (Of Professor Sollars, I could not, regrettably, know less.) All culture then being equally interesting nowadays, and anyone with a degree it seems qualified and encouraged to comment on any of it, to use just one short list from the editors' introduction by way of example, "...Washington Irving as well as Charlie Chaplin, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow as well as Walt Whitman, Uncle Tom as well as Ursa Corregidora, Nate Shaw as well as Malcolm X, Henry Adams as well as Queen Lili'uokalani, Mark Twain as well as Chief Simon Pokagon..." etc., etc., it seems best to abandon any thought of a recognizable narrative, and just have a go.

I've read now a dozen or so of the essays collected here, and enjoyed them all, to one degree and another. I will read more, though I can't think I'll be able to borrow the book indefinitely, as the bookstore could not really afford to invest in more than a copy or two and I can't invest in this book at all just now but must wait until its inevitable appearance, perhaps as little as a year hence, on the remainders table, to buy my own copy. I will though, once it has been marked down. There is obviously still so much I might have from the professors that I would otherwise never know. I've already started a list of books I now want to find, including the first Filipino-American novel, and I'm not likely to remember that without reference again to this book.

I can't think of the last time any book of more than a thousand pages of critical writing by esteemed professors from such diverse disciplines has made me smile more. In fact, I suspect this book to be unique in our literature, if not in history. And wasn't that just the point?

Try it. You won't be disappointed.

Daily Dose

From Field Notes on Democracy: Listening to Grasshoppers, Essays, by Arundhati Roy


"It's an old human habit, genocide is. It has played a sterling part in the march of civilization."

From Listening to Grasshoppers

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Some Better Use of History

Having spent some happy hours again in the company of Alexandre Dumas, his Chicot and the rest, I am thinking still about history and how it comes down to us not so much from those that made it, or those that knew them or witnessed the making, as from the artists long after who've picked it up from where it was shelved and made something from it that suits us better for being made over to fit the artists', and our present needs. I include historians among the artists, though some wouldn't take that as much of a complement, and I know it's true that one needn't be one thing to be the other. I suppose the distinction to be made then is between scholar and writer. I can respect the former, but have no real interest in his efforts unless he's achieved something in the other way as well. Thus I'm prepared to admit that I'd rather read Macaulay, for his style, than his critics for all their corrections. This makes me a poor student of history, I know, but an honest reader, I should think. And I would go further in confession and say that much of the little I do know of history, I've had as much from novels as from even the best historians. Whole tracts of human history I know almost exclusively, if I know them at all, from the use to which they've been put by novelists. If I know something of Dickens' London beyond what I've had of it from Dickens, I know the little I do because I've read, after the novels, first about Dickens, then about London, and only then about such things as Victorian political economy, sanitation, prostitution and Christmas customs. Trollope may have led me to further reading about the conditions of marriage among the English aristocracy, but not to any serious study of fox hunting, or the post office. It was from Tolstoy that I took my first measure of Napoleon, and perhaps something of my lingering distaste for the monstrous little Emperor, but I have read further, finding a different, if no less likely Napoleon in Stendhal, Balzac and elsewhere, and have read even so far beyond fiction as to have tried a biography or two, but really, for me, such a titan is still best seen and understood at a distance, in Tolstoy's novel, or if closer up, then as Shaw's comically Shavian hero in The Man of Destiny. There are exceptions. Lincoln I've found better observed in David Herbert Donald's biography than in Gore Vidal's novel, but I did read Vidal's novel first, and still think it among his best.

But this is still just history as biography, and yet what history written can equal the pathos, and realism of this, just before Prince Andrew is felled:

"Another time, general attention was attracted by a small brown dog, coming heaven knows whence, which trotted in a preoccupied manner in front of the ranks with tail stiffly erect till suddenly a shell fell close by, when it yelped, tucked its tail between its legs, and darted aside. Yells and shrieks of laughter rose from the whole regiment. But such distractions lasted only a moment, and for eight hours the men had been inactive, without food, in constant fear of death, and their pale and gloomy faces grew ever paler and gloomier."

No statistical description of soldiers arrayed for battle in 1812, no soldier's reminiscence of the day, could better describe the tensions and terrors, and the strange unreality of war, than Tolstoy does with just the fleeting appearance of a small brown dog.

We got an interesting book across the desk awhile ago, Past Imperfect: History According to the Movies, general editor, Mark C. Carnes, from Henry Holt, 1996. What a wonderful idea: various historians, each taking a movie apiece, and then analyzing how well, or ill, history was treated in each. The contributors are many, and some of these so well known that even I've heard of them: Antonia Fraser, writing about Anne of a Thousand Days, for example, and Michael Grant on Julius Caesar, James M. McPherson on Glory, and on and on. I wish someone had taken on my favorite movie, Les enfants du paradis, but others of my favorites are here. Among them, Robert Darnton on the great Andrzej Wajda's Danton.

I'd read not only Darnton's histories of the French Revolution, among others, but also the classic play by Georg Büchner, Danton's Death, before I saw Wajda's film. Before I'd seen the movie, I confess, I hadn't heard of the great Polish director, and I suspect I thought the movie was in fact an adaptation of Büchner's play. It's not. Wajda was a great hero of the Solidarity Movement, and eventually was elected a Senator after the fall of communist rule in Poland. He was also perhaps the greatest of that generation of east European film-makers who managed to make brilliant, and often brilliantly satirical films while all the while under the watchful and oppressive gaze of a totalitarian government. (Thanks in large part to the wonderful people at Scarecrow Video, here in Seattle, I've since been able to see many of Wajda's movies.) I don't know that any film I've ever seen better captures the true horrors of that moment when the Revolution began to eat it's own.

Wajda's Danton, as played by Gérard Depardieu, is a great shell of a man, already facing the loss of his power to, and death at the order of, his former friend and comrade, the ruthlessly fanatical Robespierre (Wojciech Pszoniak.) The film enacts Danton's fall, and the triumph of The Terror over the Revolution that spawned it. The parallels to Poland under the communists are obvious, but the criticism extends to any revolution, and any revolutionary, forgetful of the cost in blood when ambition arms itself with absolutes; sooner or later there will always be rival prepared to go further in the name of fidelity to "the people."

Darnton's essay traces the fascinating controversy, previously unknown to me, the film created on its release in France. Seems the then Socialist government was put in the awkward position of condemning the famous Solidarity film-maker for daring to suggest, as late as 1983, that the French Revolution was an imperfect expression of the people's will. Who knew?

As to the accuracy of Wajda's history, despite Sant-Just's earring, and a few other liberties, and despite the offense given to French patriots, left and right, Darnton does not find much in the film with which to argue. Rather, Darnton's essay uses the film, and the facts, to skewer French politicians, and the Socialists in particular, for their blustering defense of "... an old-fashioned kind of history that no longer seemed tenable to their intellectual avante-garde and no longer existed for their children or grandchildren."

What a wonderful description of the way history is made to serve a purpose that changes as we do. The facts are what they are, but what we do with them, and more importantly, to what use a great artist may put them, in fiction or on film, can not always be left to the judgment of historians, let alone politicians. It's good to know though just how faithful an artist has been to his sources, and reassuring to know that a favorite artist, despite the protest of surprisingly still interested parties, can be truer to the spirit of the past even than those who claim it as an exclusive inheritance or birthright. (A good lesson then in our Republic as well, I should think.)

And for now, I think I'll go back to Dumas' France, trusting his Romance for truth, if not entire, than of a markedly superior kind.

Daily Dose

From Poisoned Pens: Literary Invective from Amis to Zola, edited by Gary Dexter


"Again and again in Vanity Fair you see Thackeray approaching a difficulty whose solution will demand honesty and bravery, and you ask yourself: 'How is he going to get through this?' Well, he doesn't get through it. He curves away from it, or he stops dead. He is a coward."

From Arnold Bennett: The Evening Standard Years, ed. A. Mylett

Monday, October 26, 2009

Needing a Little Romance

Utterly and completely bored with the growing stack of contemporary fiction I have yet to plow through for my committee work, -- can white, middle-class, American life in the 21st Century really be this fraught? -- I started rereading The Forty Five, the last in the trilogy of Dumas' Valois Romances. I love these romances, in many ways the equal of Dumas' better known Three Musketeers, if without the emotional resonance of that masterpiece and its sequels. In the last Valois kings, their adherents, mistresses, favorites, and enemies, and particularly in the character of their extraordinary and deadly mother, Catherine de' Medici, Dumas' unique gift for melodramatic intrigue, brilliantly choreographed violence, and, yes, romance, was given full and glorious scope. Whatever liberties Dumas may have taken with the historical record, no one, even his master, Walter Scott, could match him for his pure pleasure in the sweep and detail of the past, or people so many great novels with such vivid personalities. Reading the best of Dumas then, particularly after reading one dully interior modern crisis after another, is like stepping off a crowded bus full of surly commuters and into the brisk October of 1585, and through the door of that most colorful, and lucky inn, "The Sword of the Brave Chevalier."

Patrice Chéreau's La Reine Margot is a marvelous 1994 French film based on the first of Dumas' Valois books, and my favorite Dumas adaptation to film. I've watched it over and over again, in both its initial, and much mutilated American release, and in the original, and much richer French version. Isabelle Adjani stars as Margaret of Valois, better known as Margot, sister to the last Valois kings, and unwilling bride of the King of Navarre, Henri de Bourbon (Daniel Auteuil.) The film opens with the marriage of the nominally Huguenot Bourbon to the nominally Catholic princess, arranged by the brilliantly awful Queen Mother, Catherine de' Medici, played unforgettably here by the now startlingly unglamorous Virna Lisi. Tensions are high, as France is being torn apart by religious wars, and the royal wedding has brought all the great enemies of the Valois into Paris... where Catherine & Co. can get at them. Wild suspicions, real plots, and appalling bloodshed to follow. It is all ridiculously exciting, beautifully filmed and acted, and very operatic, quite appropriate to the material and no surprise coming from the director, Chéreau, who is perhaps best known for his work in that musical art.

I have a dear friend who shocked me by disliking this movie rather intensely. Like me, I think he was drawn to it initially by the rich detail, the "gooey gowns," and swordplay etc., and by the fabulous and uniformly beautiful cast, including the exquisite Vincent Pérez as La Môle, Margot's doomed lover. But the hectic score, and the crazy pace, and over-the-top insanity of the whole, particularly in the abbreviated American release, drove my friend to distraction. I understood, but I adored the excess of the thing.

That is also what draws me back to Dumas, again and again. So much of what I read in contemporary American fiction is so blandly familiar, so unsurprising, and yet so overblown! The tone tends to be ruminative, the language passively pretty, and then comes some horrible, and horribly inevitable shock: a lost child, an unexpected death, a murder, disease, some trauma so out of keeping with all that came before it, and so cynically assumed to be necessary for seriousness, that I am left rolling my eyes at the cowardly way in which violence -- a simple and accepted fact for much of human history and hence in historical fiction -- is now dropped into novels like a cherry-bomb, and to little more effect. There are contemporary novelists for whom violence is a legitimate subject, or for whom the randomness of violence, and the accidental involvement of otherwise securely complacent characters in a violent situation, can present an opportunity to really explore our society's increasingly naive assumptions of safety, but to do this well requires a subtlety, and a willingness to deal honestly with both consequences and character that is rare. A. G. Mojtabai, Richard Bausch, and Russell Banks all come to mind just here as writers who have succeeded in this, in large measure because each acknowledged their own, and our collective bewilderment with the subject, without spinning useless metaphor and without insisting that anything is to be learned from the experience of pain, loss and injury, beyond endurance.

Unlike so many of the current crop of historical novels, written it seems to provide modern, middle-aged women with a legitimate excuse to indulge now forbidden fantasies of submission while identifying with the anachronistic spunk of ridiculously accomplished and outspoken heroines, Dumas romances accept the times in which they are set and while he likewise glories in pageantry and excitement, he accepts also the cruelty and brevity of life, the necessity of death, the foolish joy of passion and the limits of fidelity, intelligence and wit to ultimately satisfy or even save any but his most outlandish heroes from, say, an unlooked for betrayal, or a disfiguring disease, or inevitable old age. Dumas relishes the martial character of the societies he anatomized, seldom intruding with pat, modern judgments, but he does bring a Romantic's sensibility to his historical enterprise, so that even when he laughs with his roistering cavaliers or shouts in triumph at a battle, he is always more mindful of the cost than his players, his admiration tinged always with a thoroughly modern distrust of the confidence his heroes have in glory, love and pomp. His is not Balzac's subtle psychology, but it isn't without complexity. Dumas did not write for children, or their stay-at-home moms.

Dumas' confidence is what I find so refreshing after so many tentative, pretentious and jaundiced modern novels. He was an artist who believed in his stories, was unabashedly happy with his devices, tricks and turnabouts, and he loved the puppets in his playhouse. I do too.

Daily Dose

From Still to Mow: Poems, by Maxine Kumin


"Reading in bed before sleep, the luxury
of entering another world as if from above..."

From On Reading The Age of Innocence in a Troubled Time

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Curious Emotion: Gore Vidal's Snapshots in History's Glare

Gore Vidal, now sadly declining physically, if his recent appearance on Bill Maher's show is any indication, at roughly the same pace as the American Empire against which he has so wittily railed for decades, has released yet another memoir, of a sort, this being Snapshots in History's Glare, a photographic album with appropriate captions provided by the writer's only remaining subject; himself. For readers of Vidal two previous memoirs, Palimpsest, and Point to Point Navigation, this new book, and the autobiography that connect the pictures, may be all too familiar, but no less a pleasure for that. However much old age has dimmed his strength, Vidal's sharp wit remains acid bright, and perhaps is now best suited to just this kind of exercise in unsentimental nostalgia. The author has always been a perfect talk-show guest; mischievously serious about things usually taken lightly in America, like friendship, politics, history and literature, and hilariously cavalier about the things his countrymen insist on treating seriously, like sex, marriage, politicians, money and celebrity. This style suits him perfectly to such a brisk retelling of his life and times. This book then is less another volume of memoir, than a visual supplement to his earlier efforts, the text more a familiar, running commentary than a renewed consideration. And that's fine. Vidal's is just the point of view one wants, looking at Gore Vidal. Relieved of the necessity of prolonged reflection, he seems just to be having an awfully good time, providing, just here, an anecdote already highly polished by use, and, just there, a judicious modifier to define one of the supporting players in the pictures: the publisher of Screw Magazine, for example, here described as "the moralist Al Goldstein," or the un-named but immediately recognizable Tom Wolfe, caricatured with Vidal in an episode of The Simpsons, and referenced in the text only as "a white suit."

There can be, at this point, very little that Gore Vidal has not already said, at least as regards his life and career, that he seems unwilling to say again. What remains unsaid would seem to be nobody's business but Vidal's, but one can't help hoping. In this book, begun as a record, for the most part, of his life with his partner Howard Austen -- who took many of the photographs included -- and finished by Vidal as a tribute to the friend he lost several years ago, the novelist comes, again, as close as he is ever likely to to admitting anything like love. Not much to his liking, such sentimental stuff. And yet, this album is full of friends and lovers, and it is the glimpses provided of these that make this book a unique contribution to Vidal's published autobiography.

Not to rehearse again the details, but Vidal's childhood, as quickly reviewed here, reminds me of nothing so much as that of Winston Churchill. Like Churchill, Vidal had one revered parent, glamorously famous and largely absent from the son's life at the best of times, and probably not nearly so good a father, or a man, as the son would have him, and a monstrous mother who never expressed the slightest interest in her child until he became "interesting," meaning famous in his own right. Vidal detests this kind of amateur, psychological speculation in biography, so I will drop it quickly, but it does seem to me that, like Churchill, Vidal grew up to see life as a contest; for respect, fame, notoriety, renown, even perhaps affection. And again like Churchill, Vidal seems to have been determined, and assumed himself destined, from his earliest days, to win. In the present volume, however intimate and less rancorous the mood than in much of his other writing, Vidal even now can not resist reviewing many previously recorded slights, often from critics long forgotten, and correcting yet again the record, even as to screen credit for entirely forgettable films. Evidently, in the contest that is Vidal's long life, it is not only not enough that one's enemies lost, or even that one may have outlived not only them, but even their memories; graves must be danced on to the end.

That said, Vidal, unlike Churchill, would seem to have a great gift for genuine and lasting friendships. He has known, and known well, many of the more interesting personalities of his time. More importantly, he has made and kept friends, and this book records many of these, famous and otherwise, and over quite a long and seemingly satisfying life. There is a two page spread near the end of the book, showing Vidal facing his great friend Paul Newman, Joanne Woodward smiling between them. This pose is reproduced in two more photographs, all three together showing a long, lasting and evidently delightful association. At the front of the book, there are stunning pictures of a lovely young Gore, posing with various lovely lovers, including a beautiful ballet dancer, and these speak bravely for happy memories in an unfriendly time for, as Vidal would have us, "homosexualists."

Finally, it is the few photographs and reproduced notes and letters, of Howard Austen, largely in the middle of the book, that left me curiously emotional. Perhaps it is Vidal's notorious reticence on the subject, but for whatever reason, even having read all Vidal's memoirs to date, and Kaplan's biography, Vidal's partner Howard has always remained something of a cipher. Now here he is, handsome, relaxed, ever present. Here at last, I felt the evident affection, indeed, the deep and abiding love, about which Vidal has said so eloquently little. This I was a little surprised, and enormously glad to see.

Bless then the memory of Howard Austen. I'm glad he was there. Gore Vidal, and his readers, are the better for it.

Daily Dose

From Essays, by Wallace Shawn


"In contrast to the African miner who works underground doing painfully difficult labor in terrifying conditions and then receives a minuscule reward, I have a life that is extremely pleasant."

From Morality

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Wrestling With Bret Harte

One of the many things my good coworkers at the Used Books buying desk do is keep me from temptation. At least they try. When a new release of Library of America classics comes all at once, and an employee shopping day, when our discount goes up, is but a month away, dear J. returns my stack of same to the shelf, reminding me that the books will still be there when I can better afford them. Sometimes, after a good talking to, I have even been persuaded to wait. Not often, you understand, but sometimes. When some beautiful boxed sets from a subscriber to the British Folio Society come in, dear T., while never actually discouraging me, has been know to gently wonder how I plan to get the ones I've set aside home. It's really very sweet. Neither imagines I can be talked out of acquiring more books than I can possibly ever read, but they both do their best to urge a cooling-off-period, now and then, before I again max-out my store-charge.

Having other, trusted buyers working with me at the desk, I am seldom inclined to second guess what is put back into boxes and rejected. But if I happen to be there, without meaning any disrespect to their judgments, I will occasionally be unable to resist having a peek. My only thought is selfish: I don't worry either might be rejecting salable stock, I'm only worried some marvelous old treasure for my personal collection might be passed over. My coworkers know me, and often as not, should they see some venerable but unfamiliar corpse at the bottom of a box, they will bring it to my attention, just on the chance I might squeal with delighted recognition, "Ooooh, Edmund Gosse!" or something like. But then there are the books I don't know but that I might want even without having elicited any squealing on my part, books that look good, but that aren't quite my usual kind of thing, or by an author I've never collected, but might be curious enough about to warrant a second or third look. In other words, book for which I have no earthly reason to insist we buy since I'm not sure we will be able even to sell them to me. How will I know though, unless we buy them and I have a few days to paw and peruse them?

Bret Harte is not the sort of American author for whom I've ever had much use. I remember him only from the one story American school children used always to read, The Luck of Roaring Camp, and that I remember none too fondly. Gold prospectors, wasn't it? I do remember cracker dialect, a western setting, and the kind of bluff, masculine, 19th Century American humor that has always made me cringe, from Tall Tales to Ring Lardner. Even Twain, in many an early story, when he's seated on the barrel with the straw in his teeth, his foot on a spittoon, can be too redolent of the shabby town square, the county fair cow-sheds and horse auctions of my childhood for my taste and present comfort. I don't much like knee and back slapping men. Perhaps I remember too well what such men traditionally made of sissies. Bret Harte then, to my mind, represented just such sly heartiness.

I can't say that that impression was entirely wrong. I haven't been able to turn up a single story of his at the bookstore. The only copies we've stocked in years would all seem to have been used books, sold on the cheap and none now in stock. Harte hasn't made it into the Library of America yet either.

What we did get across the buying desk was an attractively bound copy of The Letters of Bret Harte, edited by his son, Geoffrey Bret Harte, 1926. This T., I think it was, had already returned to the seller's box when I plucked it out again, drawn always to that word, "Letters," and admiring the dun cover, embossed with a brown Pan playing his pipes. I decided we might look the book up on the Internet. Not worth much, as it turned out. It would seem school kids stopped reading The Luck of Roaring Camp some time ago. No one seems much to care anymore about Mr. Harte. I decided to research a little further though.

It didn't take much to learn though that he was something of a dandy, a quality I appreciate in others, that he was a snob, which even the best people sometimes are, and that he preferred to live in England, something I've come to like in American writers generally.

But it seems Mark Twain, having been in youth a friend to the elder writer, then still but a youngster himself, though a successful San Francisco magazine editor, eventually decided that Bret Harte was a drunken scoundrel; was ashamed of his Jewish heritage, wrote inauthentically for years about the westerners that made his name, quarrelled with his every friend, and eventually abandoned his family to take various diplomatic postings and live abroad like a lord on borrowed money. A thoroughly bad character, said Mr. Twain, and few it seems would have disagreed. Yet here was a book full of charming, funny letters -- when I began to read a few -- and many of these to the wife and children he avoided for twenty, liquored years. That was interesting. And then there was the story, previously unknown to me, of Harte, while still a green newspaperman, getting temporary charge of his paper, and running a brutally accurate account, with a stinging editorial, of a massacre of Indians by white settlers and being promptly fired and barely escaping from town with his skin. Very interesting indeed, specially for such a reprobate.

And then, almost by chance, I came across a poem Harte wrote. In 1870, Harte was the editor of The Overland Monthly, and learning of the sudden death of his idol, he held the piece he'd written and the magazine's presses, while he wrote the poem reproduced here as a separate entry, "Dickens in Camp." Reading that lovely, perfectly sentimental poem, I had to think there was something about Mr. Harte I liked very much, might even learn to love. And Dickens admired Harte's writing, had in fact written to the brash, young American inviting him to write for Dickens' own magazine. Harte never had the chance. Dickens' letter to him came after Dickens' sudden death, and obviously after Harte's tribute had already been published. Harte might well have been a dipsomaniac and a bad loan, and he may yet prove not to my taste as a humorist, but no one who could write so of Charles Dickens could really be such a thoroughly bad character.

We took the book of letters, though it hasn't been priced yet, and I've not yet bought it. Seems Bret Harte is more interesting than I remembered. I've decided the matter needs some more thought. I think that admirable restraint on my part.

A Poem

Dickens in Camp

Above the pines the moon was slowly drifting,
The river sang below;
The dim Sierras, far beyond, uplifting
Their minarets of snow.

The roaring camp-fire, with rude humor, painted
The ruddy tints of health
On haggard face and form that drooped and fainted
In the fierce race for wealth;

Till one arose, and from his pack's scant treasure
A hoarded volume drew,
And cards were dropped from hands of listless leisure
To hear the tale anew;

And then, while round them shadows gathered faster,
And as the firelight fell,
He read aloud the book wherein the Master
Had writ of "Little Nell."

Perhaps 'twas boyish fancy,--for the reader
Was youngest of them all,--
But, as he read, from clustering pine and cedar
A silence seemed to fall;

The fir-trees, gathering closer in the shadows,
Listened in every spray,
While the whole camp, with "Nell" on English meadows,
Wandered and lost their way.

And so in mountain solitudes--o'ertaken
As by some spell divine--
Their cares dropped from them like the needles shaken
From out the gusty pine.

Lost is that camp, and wasted all its fire:
And he who wrought that spell?--
Ah, towering pine and stately Kentish spire,
Ye have one tale to tell!

Lost is that camp! but let its fragrant story
Blend with the breath that thrills
With hop-vines' incense all the pensive glory
That fills the Kentish hills.

And on that grave where English oak and holly
And laurel wreaths intwine,
Deem it not all a too presumptuous folly,--
This spray of Western pine!

- Bret Harte

Daily Dose

From The Letters of Bret Harte, assembled and edited by Geoffrey Bret Harte


"... they are one and all exceedingly gentle and singularly diffident in their opinions; and certainly never visibly astonished at anything. It may seem a dreadful thing to say, but their manner is that of persons who might be in the habit of living with mad people, or attending some kind of reformatory."

From a letter dated, " Trewsbury, Cirencester, September 15, 1889"

Friday, October 23, 2009

Cranky Ol' Clerihew


Remember Malcolm Muggerige?
He used to get great coverage,
Decrying the use of "pot and pills,"
And other so-called "social ills."

Daily Dose

From Morgan: American Financier, by Jean Strouse


"H. G. Wells said she sat on England like a great paperweight, and after her death things blew all over the place."

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Wynken, Blynken and Nod

Working in a bookstore, there are so many authors whose names one knows as one might the names of old classmates, or the former spouses of coworkers, or retired local assemblymen; the familiarity of the name is just enough to produce a nod but not enough for a smile. Sometimes a title can set the nod oscillating, and that's enough, but no endorsement is implied. Tricky business, nodding. Too often it can be mistaken for agree to more than the facts. Someone asks me for the new book by an economist, the name not quite right, the title unfamiliar, but a more familiar book by the same man is referenced and all is suddenly clear to me and we are off to find Thomas Sowell. I've never read a book by Thomas Sowell. I am unlikely to ever read a book by Thomas Sowell. I am happy to help someone find the books of Thomas Sowell, but I am not prepared for the assumption to be made by my customer that I have read Thomas Sowell, that I think or know anything much about him, or that I necessarily endorse any of the opinion my customer insists Thomas Sowell represents. It is worth mentioning that my customer may have read no more of Thomas Sowell than have I, having, after all, not quite got the man's name right, suggesting that my customer may only know the writer by way of a talk radio program, or a conversation with a brother-in-law, but this, in my experience, is no guarantee that my customer will not want to tell me all about Thomas Sowell. All well and good. Listening is a part of the job. Should my customer then assume -- again the dangerous, unsmiling and silent nod -- not only what I'm being told must be obvious to any thinking person and that I will of course agree that it all sounds eminently sensible, there is still the possibility of a sale and a graceful escape. There are always neutral things to be said in even this situation that need not challenge any of the assumptions being made: that the fellow certainly seems to have lasted, that his publisher is eminently respectable, etc., etc. Should all else fail, one can always apologize and rush off to answer the phone that may or may not be ringing.

There is however a persistence in some people that, having already presumed too much on our brief acquaintance, can not be satisfied until actual agreement has been reached, or until a disagreement is admitted, or at least until the bookseller's will to live is exhausted. An admission of ignorance, I've found, is no help. Rather this tends only to encourage elaboration. The only thing for it then, when asked at last one too many times if something isn't obvious, or how can anyone doubt, or surely one must agree, is to refuse everything but a respectful insistence that books will not shelve themselves, that the desk needs dusting, or that one's opinion on urgent matters is desperately needed in an office elsewhere in the building; in short, one must simply run away.

What one must never do in retail, unless every avenue of polite appeasement has failed and no escape is possible, is to finally, flatly disagree. And yet one does occasionally have to.

This is, after all what was expected, often as not. I've found that there are people not satisfied with anything less. It is not a service to anyone, but sometimes things simply must be said -- as quickly and politely as possible -- but said nonetheless.

So, no, I will not be reading Thomas Sowell, but I sincerely hope my customer enjoys the book.

No, I do not think it a pity that more African Americans aren't Republicans, but not being either myself, I hardly feel my opinion should much matter to anyone who is.

No, I do not know that I do agree, but then I can't imagine why my agreement is necessary, as my only purpose in the circumstances is to sell a book about which my customer so obviously already feels so passionate.

There is an unhappy population that can not seem to distinguish between attention and interest, that seems to require if not proof of my loyalty to opinions I do not mean to pretend to hold, then at least a fight. I blame my unfortunate habit of nodding. I have never quite mastered the neutral stillness that allows for no hint of any but the most professionally circumscribed interest in the topic to hand. I do try though. I do try.

I don't mean to suggest that this kind of bullying surmise is made only by the readers, or potential readers, of Hoover Institute intellectuals. If that seems more frequently to be the case, that is perhaps because I am in fact less likely to nod intentionally or meaningfully when addressed by same. They are not wrong altogether in suspecting my disinterest in the opinions of the defenders of laissez-faire capitalism. I am, as it happens, just as disinclined to listen, at first or secondhand, to a disquisition of Noam Chomsky's media criticism, or participate in an exchange on the finer points of Catherine McKinnon's understanding of the law.

And I frankly don't think it much matters to anyone who would take a nod from a book-clerk as an invitation to deeper discourse, what my opinion actually is on any book. One comes to recognize the type, even if I have yet to find a good way of avoiding them altogether. Can't be done, in a bookstore. I've tried.

I do find my neck stiffening quite purposefully nowadays though when anyone asks for the latest book by Glenn Beck. Better safe than sorry.

Daily Dose

From Fifty Gay and Lesbian Books Everybody Must Read, edited and introduced by Richard Canning


"Chickenhawks can get awfully longwinded describing their beloveds."

From Christopher Bram's essay on Death in Venice (Tod in Venedig) by Thomas Mann

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

A Remembered Visitation

Many years ago I managed, or mismanaged, considering the eventual outcome of my tenure there, a venerable queer bookstore in West Hollywood, CA. Even then, the world was spinning faster than we realized: new technology, online bookselling, new assimilationist-politics, the first effective AIDS treatments and a frank exhaustion of what could then still be described as "the movement," had all contributed in their different ways to the decline or at least diffusion of the gay books, gay retailers, gay writing, publishing and culture. We were indeed by then, "everywhere," and fewer and fewer customers seemed to feel the need of our books and readings, of the open space and our company, of a neighborhood and of the businesses, the commercial and cultural centers that had defined for a generation at least, the bricks & mortar manifestation of community. Indeed, the community the bookstore served and had once represented seemed increasingly not to need or want anything much to do with books at all. This wasn't true of course. Books, and sex, and community for that matter, could now simply be had virtually, cheaper and more conveniently, elsewhere. The kind of community-based, comprehensive, and inclusive bookstore that A Different Light, West Hollywood, had always been, it frankly ceased to be while I was working there. The intention was still there, but the money wasn't. On the bookstore went, for a time, even after my time, but with new owners I never had the opportunity to know. What the bookstore had been and continued however haphazardly to be, was perhaps already an anachronism before I left. That store only ceased to exist a short time ago, but really it's business was over even before I was so gently, if unceremoniously informed that my services, thanks very much, were no longer required. I went out with the old business, the old owners, and the old ideals. Not a bad way to go, looking back now, but no easier for that at the time. I never went back.

Managing that bookstore was one of the highlights of my working life. It also rather broke my heart.

My memories then of the place are mixed. But for one afternoon there at least, managing that bookstore was the fulfilment of a childhood fantasy. Because I was there, and had the perfect excuse to play the host, I met one of my heroes.

In 1975, a British television adaptation of Quentin Crisp's autobiography, The Naked Civil Servant, premiered in England, to uniformly good reviews, some controversy, and a surprisingly large popular audience. It made quite a celebrity, at last, of the book's author, and a star of the young if already accomplished actor who played him so perfectly from youth to middle age. I watched a broadcast, a year later, when the film came to America & PBS. I was all of twelve or thirteen. I watched that movie, as I watched all such thrillingly queer things in those days, (Brideshead Revisited, I Claudius, Soap,) on a tiny, black & white "portable" that my father had rescued from a dump. I sat on the floor of the bedroom I shared with my older brother, kept the sound turned very low, and, holding the antenna and my breath, spent the first of many evenings with Quentin Crisp, at least, in this instance, as brilliantly portrayed by John Hurt. Changed my life, that evening.

It should be remembered that at that time, in such a place as the one in which I was growing up -- more representative then than it is now, one hopes, of the whole country -- there were then only the first distant echos of Stonewall. Anita Bryant rampaged through the country, and my nightmares, soon thereafter. The only information on the subject of homosexuality to which I had any access was already so archaic, and wrong-headed, if not actually barbaric, that I had little opportunity to imagine my life as likely to be anything other than a brief and unhappy struggle with my nature. The idea that anyone gay might or had ever not simply survived or learned to accommodate themselves to themselves, but accepted himself entirely, and triumphed, was still so new as to be at best more a hope than a fact, so far as I could find in the library. The lesson I'd already learned by this time from books was that Oscar triumphed indeed, but that Oscar fell. True, I'd heard of others since, living dangerously exciting lives in far off places like New York and San Francisco, but like those all but imaginary places, for one of Harvey Milk's lost, possibly otherwise rhetorical boys trapped in a small place, such lives were still largely abstractions. Oscar I'd studied, knew and admired, and I'd learned, I thought the lesson of his life and the lesson was in his fall.

Then I saw a small figure on a very small television screen, a ridiculous and embarrassing, if not actually impossible, person swaying down the streets of London, denying the possibility of further hurt from the familiar young thugs that taunted him by simply raising a bejeweled hand and confidently informing them that they could no longer touch him as he had already survived worse and was now, one of the stately homos of England. He had accepted himself entirely, even exaggerated those eccentricities he felt he could not help, conceded the possibility of the truth in every criticism and insult offered, refused neither beatings nor bigotry, disclaimed any superiority to even the worst and lowest of us, and to any truth beyond his own, had embraced and even celebrated his outcast state, and he had survived. Moreover, he had made from his life less a philosophy than a statement of fact, and he had done this with such brave wit as to be finally celebrated in time as a pioneer, a revolutionary even, and done so, uniquely, by simply being honest, not only about himself, but to himself. I was mesmerized, inspired, and frankly, saved I think, by just that glimpse of possibility.

Thirty three years later, An Englishman in New York (available at Logo Online), continues the story begun in that first remarkable film. It is a story now so familiar to me from Quentin Crisp's other books and media appearances that I know it almost by heart. And knowing the man as I feel I do, I can say, seeing him alive again if only at secondhand and in a fictionalized form, I am if anything fonder of his memory, having met him but once, than I am of almost any of my other ancestors in the life. Quentin Crisp remains the hero he was to me at thirteen, and how many of the heroes of our youth can be said to still be that when we reach middle-age? So what a pleasure to see John Hurt again take up the role that endeared him to me all those years ago! What a thrill to see the great actor again suggest, with the simplest, and therefor most difficult and beautiful acting, all the rich humor and pathos between and behind the witticisms. John Hurt's remarkable portrayal plumbs all the depths of emotion in this difficult role without compromising his subject's integrity, subtly conveying Crisp's underlying and quite genuine humility, even as he says the many practiced, provocative and outrageous things that made his reputation as a writer and entertainer, and even something of a sage. Quentin Crisp, in the latter part of his life, maintained an ironclad integrity that did not always serve him well with his adored and once, briefly, adoring public, and his sometimes seemingly naive, or at least misguided insistence on never saying anything he did not mean and intend to say, and his refusal to retract anything once said, had lasting and unfortunate consequences for him. The new film unflinchingly shows this. Yet Hurt's remarkably subtle and sympathetic performance shows us this sometimes maddeningly stubborn, even rather inflexible personality, and allows us to examine his failures and flaws, without once losing the thread of his profound humanity. In what was a long but in many ways intentionally, if ironically modest life, Quentin Crisp was never less than true to himself, even when he was wrong. John Hurt's mature performance is a rare opportunity to experience again all the wonderful and contradictory charms that made Quentin Crisp such a complicated, and undeniably sad, if ultimately admirable and even lovable man. What a gift to have him back! And to have John Hurt again assume him for us!

This second telling includes much that is painful to remember. Crisp came to New York and stayed, embracing everything he found there, from the brash and noisy life of the city's busy streets, to the new celebrity that his writing and the first film brought him, as the most glorious fulfillment of his fondest wishes. He once said, when I was present to hear him, that only in America, and with Americans, had he ever understood what it was to be loved, as "Americans seem to love so indiscriminately, one need only be present to be included." That he lived to find himself excluded, yet again, this time from the gay society he had himself sacrificed so much to make possible, was an irony he obviously found painful, but refused to think exceptionable, or unfunny. And then, in the midst of a devastation he could not possibly have foreseen and frankly did not understand before he made an unfortunate joke about it, saying publicly that "AIDS is a fad," and thus ruining himself with his beloved audiences for years thereafter, Quentin Crisp again experienced a rejection to equal any he'd ever known. He survived that too, as the new movie so movingly shows, and lived to find himself again, if more modestly, celebrated. Much I did not know, much he never said himself about the later years of his long life, I learned from this new movie; his secret charity, his devotion to and promotion of younger artists, his deep and abiding, if not untroubled friendship with his American editor, the truly painful degeneration into very old age that he accepted, as he accepted everything, very much on his own terms, insisting at the end on dying in Britain, where "less fuss" was likely to be made about the corpse.

My one encounter with Quentin Crisp, I owe to A Different Light Bookstore, where he came one day, surrounded by attentive friends, to sign some books, have a cup of tea with the dazzled staff of the bookstore, and indulge all too familiar questions with all too familiar answers. He was impossibly frail by then. He shuffled in on the arms of two attendants and asked for a chair almost immediately. He wore carpet-slippers and old clothes into which he threatened to disappear entirely once seated. The little knot that held the last of his long hair aloft shifted dangerously forward and back when he nodded politely to every suggestion made. His famously resonant, nasal voice was faded to a still distinctive whisper. The huge rings on his impossibly delicate hands by now weighted his gestures and often as not, he kept a finger at his chin while he talked, or let his hands rest in his lap.

He was good enough to sign a drawing I'd made of him years before, and another I made while he sat there. He was kind enough, predictably, to admire them both, though I don't know that he could see either of them, or the artist all that well, even with the relentless California sun blazing in through the window. (Both drawings were subsequently stolen from the store -- a theft I can never forgive, not because of any value in the things themselves, but for the autographs and brief comments he'd put to each.) More even than his kindness though, I remember most his patience. That was what he'd taught me long before, that life, and the endurance of it, need not be a contest with the world so much as an ongoing opportunity for reflection, no less profound or painful for bemusement, and that acceptance must be practiced rather than demanded to be won. There was a stillness in him that came from more than age. His was a disciplined serenity that allowed for engagement, but expected and assumed nothing but indifference if not hostility, that he lived for the company of his fellow beings, but met and returned their affection always with pleasant surprise. It seemed to me, sitting with him for an hour, that he refused nothing, even flattery, but never expected a thing, and that he might have been just as content to sit alone in a corner and watch the day go by as he was to have so many younger men, a few of them quite accomplished in their own right, sitting at his feet. When asked for his signature, in his books, or on my sketches, he simply said, each time, "If you think that would be useful."

His was a life of unusual, even unique utility. I don't know that he ever fully understood the good he'd done. Even if he did, I doubt he would ever have admitted it. Like so many younger men, I tried that day in the bookstore to tell him something of what he'd done for me, for all of us present, for everyone represented by that bookstore, and for the generations that seemed even then not to need the bookstore, or his example, anymore. I don't remember what I said to him. I doubt I said anything even as well as what I've said here. I do remember his response to everything I and others said that day:

"How kind of you to say so."

Manners from Heaven, indeed, as he titled one of his books.

"Formality should be maintained from the cradle to the grave -- and beyond," as he stated in the introduction to that book.

Very well then. Thank you again, Mr. Crisp, for a lovely afternoon, and, as always, your example.

Daily Dose

From The Lost Origins of the Essay, edited and introduced by John D'Agata


"The question that I think we ought to ask our friends is whether there is room in this genre for its namesake, for experiment."

From 315 South Africa

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

In Threes

With all the books there are to be read in this world, hell, in this room, I should not think I would still find new books so much a distraction as I daily do. Working in a bookstore, there is an inevitability to this, but even if I didn't work where I do, I think I would seek them out, if only just to read the jacket copy, page through the photo inserts if any, read a bit of the introduction, or the first paragraph of the text, and want then to read more, even of what I probably wouldn't finish if I actually bought the book. Not all books have this power over me of course, but there are categories, subjects, even styles of presentation, that draw me like a moth to the flame, and would do if I worked on the docks, flew an airplane or performed in a kick-line at Radio City Music Hall. That I earn my living by books is no accident, but even if I didn't, I would need new books to be happy. It is better then that I work where I do. (Consider the accidents to which I would be prone if distracted by a book while loading freight, sitting in a cockpit blithely unaware of my destination passing below, or missing a step and ruining the choreography and line for the other girls in the big Christmas number.)

One such kind of book I have no business even thinking of borrowing, let alone buying, is that heavy single volume of history that would require weeks to read and the kind of sustained interest in the subject of which I am really no longer much capable. I am thinking just here of the new book by the great American historian, Gordon S. Wood, Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic, 1789 - 1815, a new volume in the Oxford History of the United States. Winner of of the Bancroft and the Pulitzer prizes for history, Wood is exactly the kind of historian, writing exactly the kind of thoughtful, and exciting narrative history to which I am most drawn. His earlier book, The Radicalism of the American Revolution, was perhaps the most persuasive sustained argument I've ever read for America, in Lincoln's famous words, as "a new nation;" not simply in rebellion against a distant and indifferent monarchy and government, but as the boldest experiment to that date in a wholly new kind of society: unapologetically commercial, capitalist, rationalist and enlightened, by the standard of the day, and not only willing, but eager to experiment with republican democracy on a scale previously untried in human history. Wood's interpretation of the Revolution challenged many of my assumptions about the character not only of the rebellion, but of the men who made it, and whetted my curiosity about a period in our history in which I had until then taken only the most cursory interest, assuming I knew all there was worth knowing from the rather shopworn history I'd been taught in school. Now Professor Wood has written an even bigger book about a period of which I know even less, and argued persuasively, at least in the introduction I read, that no period in our history deserves more consideration or has been given less. Damn. I can't quite imagine undertaking such a long book anytime soon. But then, I can't quite imagine walking past a stack of it every day between now and Christmas without wanting to own and read the thing.

I did not resist the urge this week to pick up a copy of another history, less consequential than the Wood, but more immediately appealing as something of a necessary (?) pendant to my reading of Dumas' Three Musketeers and it's sequels. From Da Capo, The Man Who Outshone the Sun King: A Life of Gleaming Opulence & Wretched Reversal in the Reign of Louis XIV, by Charles Drazin, tells the fascinating story of one of the ancillary heroes in that great and favorite series of historical novels. Nicolas Fouquet was a brilliant financier and minister to the King, who fell, as the title of Drazen's book suggests, through no fault but superior taste, enviable personal wealth, and the bad luck to call attention to both while loyally serving one of the greatest, most self-indulgent and paranoid cockscombs in European history. Reading in Drazen's good book, I've found Dumas yet again to be a better historian than he is usually given credit for being, and if the historical record does not in this instance as in many others entirely support the romance Dumas made from Fouquet's life, the reality came damned close to being just as interesting.

Charles Drazin's book is exactly the kind of thing I try not to notice until, inevitably, it ends up on a Bargain Books table, but that I seem unable always to avoid altogether when new. Likewise another new title in French history, this of a different period and kind entirely, but no less attractive to me for that. From Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Gilded Youth: Three Lives in France's Belle Époque, by Kate Cambor, promises an equally fascinating tale, or rather three such, in her three protagonists, all children of privilege and famous and accomplished families: Léon Daudet was the son of novelist Alphonse Daudet, Jeanne Hugo the granddaughter of Victor Hugo, and Jean-Baptiste Charcot the son of neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot. Each of these three would see the world of their fathers explode, and each would respond to the new times in unanticipated ways, and in the case of Léon Daudet, with reversion to a horrifying, reactionary antisemitism that would seem to have betrayed all the optimism of the previous generation's humanism. I know little or nothing about any of this later generation, so Cambor's book tempts me strongly with the excitement of the unknown, even as the lure of so familiar a name as Hugo's caught my eye. Damn. Again.

These things do seem to come in threes, which is a problem not only insofar as I need to be reading other things just now, but because the cubby under my desk where I squirrel such books away before I read and or buy them is already crowded, still, with some of the enthusiasms of just a month ago.

Oh for a long life, and the hours to read all I want to.

Daily Dose

From Armadale, by Wilkie Collins


"No is the strongest word in the English language, in the mouth of any man who has the courage to repeat it often enough."

Monday, October 19, 2009

John D'Agata's Guided Tours of Unlikely Places

The Essay section in the bookstore being more usually populated with books of a traditionally modest size and length, the appearance on those shelves of so Brobdingnagian a book as John D'Agata's The Lost Origin of the Essay is something of a freak. Just shy of 700 pages, and nearly as thick as a Norton Anthology, D'Agata's second miscellany of a projected trilogy is of course meant to be nothing like those venerable surveys. Rather this is a willfully eccentric, alternate history of the form, with the editor impishly beginning, as it were, at the beginning, with the birth of the written word in Sumerian cuneiform, and then skipping down the centuries, picking the occasional quintessential, but more often gathering such curiosities, curios and anomalies as seemingly catch his fancy. At first glance, D'Agata would seem to simply have a preference for the exotic, but better say, he has a plan. As in his first anthology, The Next American Essay, published in 2002, this is an exercise in anti-canonical mischief, from the title on, and one either enjoys the editor's romping -- hopefully appreciating some, if not all of his often unlikely, if not just as often downright perverse selections, and the wittily reductive heresies, historical and literary, in his brief introductions, -- or not.

D'Agata is such a charming writer, so full of fine things, japes, surprises and genuinely clever misreadings of the established order, and the historical record, it is impossible not to like him. Reviewing his work to date, I found myself delighting not only in this latest effort, but also in his earlier collection, and his own book of essays, aphorisms and various noodlings, Halls of Fame. He is a very clever fellow. As an anthologist, he is a completely original and utterly unconvincing critic, but what of that? Doesn't mean he can't be enjoyed as an artist, though clearly he's not to be trusted as a librarian.

Arguing from an entirely false, in fact ludicrous, premise that insists the personal and philosophic essay has traditionally precluded, or at least restricted formal and personal idiosyncrasy, the "impulsive exploration," or what he comically insists on calling the "lyric" element in prose -- his highest abstract and ill-defined value -- he nimbly sidesteps any example from the canon that might show how silly his idea of the rigidity of the accepted essay is. He makes straw-men out of everyone from Bacon, bizarrely represented here not by one of his more famous essays, but by a list, to Addison, Steele, Johnson and Dickens, none anywhere present to speak for themselves*. The editor insists that this last disparate collection of names "regularly proffered the commerce of prose's usual conventions," as if Addison & Steele had never invented Sir Roger, Johnson hadn't argued himself into and out of doubt time and again, and, presumably in his "Uncommercial Traveler" or his journalism, Dickens somehow claimed a place among the essayists he didn't deserve. Skipping right over Lamb and Hazlitt to get to De Quicey in 1849, I suppose a more congenial spirit to his thesis, though I can't quite see in what way beyond his addiction to opium, and then bustling off after a truly obscure, and suitably purple, though doubtless worthy, Belgian previously unknown to me, named Aloysius Betrand, D'Agata shakes the dust of England from his sneakers and doesn't set foot again in English until 1941, when Virginia Woolf brings him briefly back from translations, poetry and other excerpted matter. Such is his globetrotting, and his careful avoidance of any history or chronology but his own, the casual reader of D'Agata would be left with an astonishingly scant understanding of just what it is he is arguing against.

What he is arguing for only really becomes clear when the reader, after being led a very merry chase indeed, finally arrives with him in the the latter end of the last century and is finally introduced to the modern, and post-modern practitioners on whom D'Agata has most clearly modeled his own style. Turns out, the essay he has been arguing for is no more an essay as such than the essayists he has been arguing so amusingly against are really guilty of the sins against lyricism he has insisted they committed, to a man. It is that word, "essay," D'Agata wants, but without all that annoying history attached. Having tried elsewhere to make it his own with just "lyric" applied as a modifier, he must not have been satisfied with the response he received for his efforts, though I certainly don't grudge him his curious griffins, or see why or where anyone else has either. Clearly quite erudite, in his own fun and funny way, he has insisted now on recasting the past to suit himself, and done a dazzling job of it, insofar as entertainment, if not actual scholarship, goes. (His selective history reminds me very much of Will Cuppy, an older comedian in the genre.) And again, why not?

It's all a bit precious, but it isn't as if he's likely to do much damage to anyone other than his students at the University of Iowa, and he might do them good, for all I know or much care. They're presumably young and can see for and to themselves. As for me, I'm looking forward to his next collection of oddments and I do not doubt it will be just as entertaining as his others. I can skip the bits that disagree with me. Why not? John D'Agata seems to, and it hasn't done him a bit of harm.

*As aren't, to make a quick list just from memory: Cowley, Pope, Leigh Hunt, Carlyle, Thackeray, Arnold, Stevenson, Beerbohm, Chesterton, Orwell, Hubert Butler, E, M. Cioran, Edward Hoagland, Wendell Berry, Gore Vidal... Such lists being pretty pointless here, as traditional anthologies, like traditional essays, are of course generally what are being dismissed, or ignored, as well beside the point.

See Page 253

Daily Dose

From City Boy: My Life in New York During the 1960s and '70s, by Edmund White


"The Gotham was one of the great bookstores of my life. At the very rear of the store was a huge fiction department, where I would dip into dozens of books... The store was an oasis from the philistine world all around it."

Sunday, October 18, 2009

With Nounou and Nada and Nell

Back I went, tonight, to yet another gathering of the locally bookish, the latest iteration of Paul Constant's "Get Lit," this time held at the wonderful Richard Hugo House. The bar there now accepts credit cards, so a good time was had, at least by me, on a tab. The premise of these regular congresses of booksellers, journalists, librarians and authors is rather simple, the idea being that any and all that earn their living from books might and ought to get to know one another. As with any such simple idea, it seems that too many think too much about just what this might actually entail and fail to come at all for fear of being asked to do or say something. Timid creatures, it seems, the bookish. In reality, the atmosphere is so casual as to be easily mistaken for a drink after work with the usual crowd. So it is, and not a bad thing either.

I had a cocktail called a "Winter Woo Woo." It was delicious. Friends had various beers and soft-drinks, red wine and a share of the cheese and crackers at our table, as well as a bowl of wasabi peas.

Various coworkers from the bookstore, and one writer and reviewer, a great friend to us at the Used Books Desk, joined our table and we all chatted merrily enough about books, our personal lives and disappointments, the upcoming Seattle Bookfest, and various sundry other things all to do or not with books.

I stepped out a few times, to smoke and admire the boys playing soccer in the park across the street. It was a beautiful night, if already a little colder than it has been so far this October, and I was delighted to witness two handsome young men pull their wreck of a car into a very narrow parking place indeed, then step out of the car and into the cold, where they proceeded to strip down to just the thinnest T-shirts and the tightest jeans, tossing their coats and scarves behind them into the car, before shivering off down the block, presumably to the nearest dance bar. When I related this story to someone at the party inside, as an example of the ongoing commitment of gay men to fashionable discomfort, even when faced with what might have been a long cold walk back to their car, it was pointed out to me that teenage girls might well be the only other population so committed to suffering for beauty's sake. Later, starving, I stopped for a burger at Dick's and saw this observation confirmed by half a dozen nymphets with quivering, ice-white bare midriffs, all their little boyfriends sensibly bundled in coats and scarves.

The topic most on the minds of those present at Hugo House seemed to be the potential move of The Elliott Bay Book Company to new digs. This story had been first mentioned publicly by Mr Constant in The Slog, and then reproduced, and sourced rather rudely in the Seattle Times Sunday Edition, as having come from a "tabloid." Rumors of this move had evidently been circulating for some time, though I hadn't heard of it until I read Mr. Constant's piece. Before I left, some employees of that admirable bookstore came in, and the topic revived, though I don't know that anything was said on the subject that hadn't been said earlier. Evidently, those that know anything much more about this business have yet to be heard from.

I can't say that any such change of location sounds a very good thing to me, as it's present home is a lovely and welcoming space, and in my experience the only reason any such move is undertaken is usually because of financial pressures, a lost lease and such like difficulties. Everyone present clearly wished the bookstore well, but there was some discussion of the wider implications should such a linchpin of the local trade be forced into a less attractive and historic location.

Thoughts and prayers, as would be said back home, are with them.

There was one note in the conversation I did not much like. When reference was made to the somewhat excessive language in the Times story, which referred to the bookstore as "a local institution" and, as I remember it now, "an icon," not only the reporter's choice of words, but the idea of a bookstore qualifying as a landmark was dismissed as risible. "It's a business," someone present said, as if those two things were mutually exclusive, and then someone said, "It's not like we're talking about the Space Needle." The difference, to my mind, between The Elliott Bay Book Company and the Seattle Space needle is the difference between a beautiful, working, commercial and cultural venue that has served our community for better than thirty five years and a piece of, yes, iconic local kitsch. I would miss the latter, useless thing terribly should it disappear tomorrow, but the potential loss of a great independent bookstore should give all of us considerably more pause than it seemed to do in a room full of men and women who make their livings from books. Should the landscape some day soon be without such independent bookstores, great or small, the effect would be far worse, as I see it, than if the city failed to maintain it's more famous architectural follies, no? I don't remember much in the way of literature, art or poetry finding a public by way of amusement parks.