Thursday, September 30, 2010

A Miracle Every Way

Having, as it were, opened Pandora's box by opening the yearbooks I brought back with me from my parents' house, I find I can not keep from remembering just what it was to be once so young. How wonderful it was, and how difficult. I ended my reflections of the other night on a rather sour note; remembering some of my better teachers, but then remembering too well the worst. As Austen says, in Mansfield Park somewhere, "The memory is sometimes so retentive, so serviceable, so obedient; at others, so bewildered and so weak; and at others again, so tyrannic, so beyond control! We are, to be sure, a miracle every way; but our powers of recollecting and of forgetting do seem peculiarly past finding out."

That I should find myself writing so bitterly about teachers from whom I learned little good and to whom I would not willingly give another thought, I suppose disproves whatever attitude of either forgiveness or detachment I might have decided to adopt when I took up the subject of my education. In trying to but lightly touch on what pained me as a boy; my disappointment in school and in so many there who might have made it better than it was, I avoided not only the worst of it, as I intended, but also, inadvertently, what was best. In this, I was less than honest. I regret it. I owe something better, both to what was good there, and to anyone still in circumstances not unlike the ones from which I still believe myself lucky in having escaped. I would not even now make too much of my story, knowing so many that might be better suited to the point I would make, but yet I would try, using just what I can not help but remember because I now think, I might tell it to a better purpose if I tell it as true as I can.I thought to include one man more, a history teacher, among my examples of the worst I ever knew, among the real monsters. I don't say he didn't deserve to be on that list. He was a comic type, just to look at him; thick chested and thick headed and every brief inch the little, round emperor on his Elba, as he paced the hallways of our junior high school. He had, when he wanted, a voice to match that self importance, but he used it without discrimination and with such a consistently sweaty enthusiasm as to make his bellicosity ridiculous even to boys of twelve and thirteen. The man had no emphasis; everything he said was equally, ponderously, loudly important. The loss of a hall-pass and the betrayal of Washington by Benedict Arnold were addressed with exactly the same gravity. It was, in it's way, genuinely funny, that unchecked pomposity. Children can appreciate a clown, as such, even one with power over them, and nothing is ever again quite so funny as the eccentricities of one's teachers. With this bristling martinet, one had only to catch the sound of him shouting the Pledge of Allegiance every morning, as if being tortured by imaginary communist Viet Cong, perhaps one manly tear let fall through his beard, to know there was something fundamentally false, something put-on in his loud patriotism and his desperate shouting. He was also rather stupid. This perhaps was the secret he sought to conceal with all that bravado. Wasn't much of a secret though. He wasn't a graceful man, in either word or action, and to be kind, the best that might be said of him was that he seemed more self-consciously clumsy rather than intentionally cruel. I don't know that even the thugs and rednecks that flocked to his Sportsmen's Club -- besides the chance it gave them to play with guns -- didn't do so on the very good chance that he might shoot off a thumb, and so long as it was his thumb, and not theirs, where was the harm then in a bit of sport? Unlike the gym coaches who had the power and impunity to do genuine physical harm, and did, the worst this little man could usually do was shout, or as he once did to my older brother, slam a boy of thirteen into the lockers. (My brother, by the way, no bigger than I would be at his age, but far tougher even then, pushed the fat bastard right back, off his feet, and onto his ass. Nothing came of that unreported humiliation. They were quite alone in the hallway at the time. My brother walked away, and said nothing. The fat man said not another word to my brother the rest of that year.) Now, I don't know that I was ever in the man's classroom -- I had the other idiot for civics -- except on those rare occasions when for whatever reason he was left in charge of someone else's class of which I happened to be unlucky enough to find myself that day. I also knew him from a rare visit to "detention," a duty he seemed uniquely to relish, as I remember it. Like anyone else with any sense who could, I otherwise gave the little sportsman the wide berth he seemed to think he commanded.

The thing about monsters, though, is that they lurk.

There was a deep basement stairwell at the back of my school, scene of many a fumbling, adolescent assignation of a late, after-school evening in my time. Nice children either did not know of it or simply never went down there. So long as no one saw smoke rising from the dark, it was a good place to not be seen. I kissed a boy there. He wasn't my first kiss, or my first boy, for that matter, though he was, I thought at the time, quite special. He let me kiss him. There was a power in that I would be hard pressed now to describe, but in those blessedly far off days, for a boy to let himself be kissed by a boy was a far more telling and dangerous admission of culpability than it would have been to simply let some faggot blow you. The evening it happened, we had just come out from the rehearsal of a play I was in and for which this boy was doing something less obviously suspect; painting sets or hanging lights or some such. True, I'd pulled the kid down the stairs after me, into that dark spot I knew, and while he may well have expected something less shocking to happen there than what did, for whatever reason, I pushed him against the cold bricks and I kissed him, and, as I say, he let me. It hardly reflects my present personal politics or my hard-won sense of self, but I must say, I will always be grateful for that kiss.

I do not know that we were observed. I think not. Nothing else happened, just that one sustained and sustaining kiss, after which we parted. Eventually, he rather nervously ran off, taking the stairs two at a time and disappearing back into the auditorium, or off home, somewhere. I lingered a moment, after. Not only had the fellow not punched me for trying something different, he'd let me, you see. Though I would never have been so reckless as to admit as much even to him, I knew that he had, in fact, kissed me back. It is not saying too much to say I was therefore feeling... triumphant. (Years later, at our tenth high school reunion, I would kiss him a second time, in the men's room, after he unexpectedly caught me by the sinks and insisted on a rather tearful and tipsy heart-to-heart about how much he wished we'd stayed in better touch. It wasn't kind, but finally I kissed him for the second time, and again, he kissed me back, before his wife drove him home and I flew back to my husband in California. Poor thing, the wife I mean.)

When I did finally float up out of the stairwell after I'd kissed that boy the first time, there stood a teacher, and not just anyone, but the bully in the beard, the great white hunter himself. I'm proud to say, I did not panic. I gave a remarkably good imitation, I thought, of a man suddenly struck by an inexplicable peripheral blindness, and squinting furiously in the waning light, I made for the lighted door. Even as I passed him, I appeared to take no notice of the bear in the shadows.

What had he seen? What did he suspect?

As I mentioned, I was not usually in this man's class, so I managed to avoid him successfully for some time. Meanwhile, the usual school bullies had to be avoided as well. The boy I'd kissed did not so much avoid me as return to the safety of his more usual, churchy crowd. I had other friends of course, and other opportunities, and by the end of a week, I imagine, I thought the whole incident past. Rehearsals for the play went forward, so I probably just concentrated on that.

One afternoon, with time to kill before the cast and crew gathered, I sat on the steps of the school, reading a book. I did not go home and come back for rehearsals. I was bused to school, and couldn't expect either of my working parents to take me back and forth. I was content to read and wait. A shadow fell across the page and a surprisingly quiet, but unmistakably adult voice asked me what I was reading. What must I have been thinking, at that moment? He may have asked a second time before I showed him the cover of the book. It was a little paperback I'd bought at a yard-sale, a biography by Hesketh Pearson of Oscar Wilde. Looking at the book rather than at me, the man said,

"People like that, you know," and his voice went quite low, as if sharing a secret with me, "usually they kill themselves."

That was all he said to me, then, or so far as I remember, ever. If I happened to catch his eye later, or he mine, though I tried never thereafter to look at him, he would just scowl and turn away.

The real trouble with monsters is they teach lessons we ought never to have to learn.

I was thirteen the first time I thought seriously about killing myself. I was alone in the house. I took a kitchen knife into the bathroom and locked the door. I put the blade against the base of my right palm, just at the edge of my wrist, and I made a small, deep cut. The blood surprised me. When I pulled the knife away, blood shot out in a thin, fast spray that missed the sink entirely. A thin line ran down the mirror and when I turned my hand away, blood splashed the good guest towels that no one in the family ever actually used. I panicked then. I'd ruined the towel. I thought what an awful thing it would be for my mother to find, that nice white towel, ruined, so I held my wrist under the tap and then wrapped it in my shirt. I carefully laundered first the towel, and then, when the bleeding stopped, my shirt. I put a bandage on my wrist. I said, "I fell."

I still have a small white scar, just at the base of my right palm.

What was said to me that day on the stairs didn't drive me to do what I did. That nasty, foolish little man wasn't responsible. He was not my only bully. He wasn't even the worst of them. Certainly, he lacked the persistence of some of the others. For instance, there were the boys much later, in high school, who stuffed me in a trash can and rolled me down the hall. There were those other boys who drove me off the road and into a fence on Bessemer Street, the very night I road my bike into town to attend my first Passover Seder at the home of my first non-Christian friends. Pitiable, petty little figure, that teacher seems, compared to these, doesn't he? I don't know that I was thinking about that teacher, or even remembered at that moment what he'd said to me about "people like that," the day I took the knife from the block hanging on the kitchen wall. He wasn't responsible. That seems the kindest thing I can think now to say for him, or perhaps the most damning. I know I never forgot what he said to me.

The real trouble with most bad teachers is that that is all they are.

The trouble with monsters? They're memorable, aren't they?

I won't leave it at that. It isn't the monsters I choose to remember. It is the friends that saved me I remember best. After trying to write this more than once, I realized that was why I was not satisfied with what I'd written. I'd left the best out of it.

In that same school there was a sanctuary, for the odd and other, for the unlike and the less popular, for the queers and the kids who might not otherwise find safety anywhere, even at home. In a shabby old classroom on, I believe the second floor, there was a place where the blackboard was covered with clippings and posters, the walls hung with tatty bunches of raffia, the tables stained with paint and smeared with clay. Behind a hopelessly cluttered desk at the front, her feet propped on a drawer, a teacher, one of the ones who saved me, held court. Another art teacher that I knew less well and who taught in a similar space just the other side the blackboard, Mr. Grazetti, might wander in now and then for a cup of coffee and a chat. Various other relatively friendly adults came and went. One who came in and stayed awhile almost every day, the band director, Tony Naples, was a particular friend, to my favorite teacher and ultimately, to me. The atmosphere in that room tended to be noisy and not a little anarchic. So long as no one actually set fire to the place or spilled into the hall and called attention to the chaos, no one in charge seemed to much mind. Art, I came to understand there, was sometimes a rather messy business; not always pretty or perfectly made, seldom respectful of rules, and not a matter just of paints and brushes and careful study so much as a place to which one might return and never find the same experience twice. It was in that room that I learned what I might do without pleasing anyone, at first, but myself and how, should I try to do whatever it was well, consistently, and honestly, I might make something interesting. It was in that room that I first learned that something I might do might actually have value, might matter to other people -- that I might. In that room, I learned there would be nothing more satisfying in life, save love, than that. I learned there that admiration might be genuine, and criticism helpful. I learned that I need not court every adult for their approval and admiration, but win it honestly, by doing and thinking and talking honestly, and that I might actually interest other people and be taken seriously, be listened to, without condescension and despite my inexperience of things. That one room was where I finally found someone who would willingly teach me not only how to look at the things around me in a new way, but to think about things for myself.

I will always be grateful to my teacher, my first "Mz.", Carole Starz, for all she taught me in that room and outside it, but mostly just sitting on the edge of that disastrous desk of hers, about art, and expression, about conversation and passion and politics and culture, high and low, and about authenticity, integrity, wit. She explained and exemplified tolerance to me too -- still a quite new idea to me in that place, at that time. And she was just good company, some of the first I'd ever really known, and she kept it too.

Not long after I'd stuck a knife into my wrist, I had yet another day I could not quite imagine surviving. I don't remember just what had happened. I do remember having been cornered that day in the hall by yet another of my monsters, the bald bully in tight, white shorts who made every gym class hell for anyone who wasn't quite his kind of all-American-boy. I'd made some remark, or looked the wrong way, or done something that failed to conceal my disrespect, and so this adenoidal ape pinioned me to the wall with one hairy paw while he shook the other threateningly in my face. Let loose when the bell went, I thought first that I should just run, just go and be done with it. What, after all was the worst they could do to me? Not let me come back? How bad could that be? All I really wanted at that moment was to be elsewhere, anywhere, nowhere.

That day, I didn't run. I don't remember thinking about it, or even walking up the stairs, but I do remember walking into the art room. There, at her desk was my favorite teacher, and there on a chair next to her, chatting, was the one gay man I thought I knew, the only one at least that I hadn't felt I had to sleep with to get near. Sweet Tony Naples, the dear man to whom I and my best friend, dressed in old band uniforms and marching with toilet plungers, would prove a regular annoyance, interrupting his band practice to bring him amusing notes from his friends in the art room. Shy, quiet Mr. Naples may not have known why, but that day I went straight to him, and sat on his lap. I curled into him and sunk my head against his chest. Not one word did he say, and neither did I. He let me. I didn't explain myself. I didn't ask permission or consider the consequences, for either of us, I simply went, instinctively, to my own.

I didn't stay long. I may have made some joke, by way of an excuse, when I got up, then I probably just ran off. I don't wonder he found the whole thing passing strange, even a little disturbing. What Mz. Starz might have made of the business I've never asked.

I knew, however, strange as it was to me then, that these two people would still like me, just as I was, odd as I was, and oh, how I loved them.

I always will.

What mattered then, what matters now, is that there was someone, that there was some place safe, for that boy I was to go. I wasn't in the band. I never had a class with Tony Naples. He was none the less, one of my best teachers, from whom I learned what it is to be decent in the highest sense, to be kind, to be present. He was, with Carole Starz, one of the teachers who saved me. That day, every day, in a real way, they saved my life. That I survived, that I got out of that place alive and came away to find other people like myself, better places, sanity, love, it is not too much to say that in some measure I owe to those two people and to the place they made for me when I thought there was no place for me, anywhere.

So if I owe my monsters nothing but now but a pity I can't quite feel, mixed as it seems it will always be with no little bitterness, how much do I owe to that room and the good teachers I found there?

It is was just from such teachers I learned. They taught me perhaps more than they knew or intended. How do I thank them for that?

"We are, to be sure, a miracle every way." I must remember that.

Daily Dose

From Bell Call: A Novel, by Sylvia Ashton-Warner


"I never saw a season wait for me until my mood caught up with it, or pause while my life caught up with it. Tide and season wait for no man... they didn't wait for me."

From Chapter Nine

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Just Waiting for Recess, Mostly

Bad teachers just now are very much in the media. I've watched and listened to quite a bit of the promotion for a new feature documentary on the subject, though I have no plans to see the film. To summarize the hoopla, for any who've missed it:

A rich, middle aged filmmaker, who matriculated at the Sidwell Friends School and Brown, who's children likewise attend private school, has made a new movie that asks the burning question, why aren't American public schools just as good as the ones to which the right people go? (One wonders he didn't just ask the maid, but then I haven't seen the film, so perhaps he did.) The answer, as I understand it, turns out to be, in large part, those damned unions. Shocking. That anyone working in the United States still has a union, I grant you, is unexpected. It seems, good or bad, teachers in America's public schools are still entitled to collective bargaining, seniority and the like. This revelation has, unsurprisingly, been loudly and roundly condemned by those champions of the common people, Oprah Winfrey & Bill Gates, among other billionaires. (You have to watch for the moment someone tells Oprah that there might be someone in America she couldn't fire. Priceless.)

Imagine. You see, while those damned unions are busy protecting the bad teachers, the good ones go unrewarded, even as they try so very much harder than the rest. While the bad'uns go home after only working a single shift, the good'uns seem to be available twenty-four-seven; happy to give out their private phone numbers to any ten-year-old with a question about their homework, or have a chat with your mum after bedtime. The good'uns, you see, never stop. That's what makes 'em so damned good. Public school teachers then should be more like, well, one's dear old Nanny, or a proper governess or private tutor, for the older nippers; always ready with a bit of French, or the odd square root, or a comforting word, that sort of thing, as needed. Simple. And when the old thing gets a bit unsteady on her pins or goes a bit dotty, well, then the family really ought to find her a room somewhere. Least they could do for dear old party, no?

(So why has nobody thought of this before?!)

The most amusing aspect of this "crisis," at least as portrayed in the popular media, has been the reflexive insistence with which everyone: billionaire and union rep, talk show host and street interview, upper and lower, has hastened to concede that many, if not most public school teachers are really just grand; selfless, devoted, effective, -- under appreciated, etc., but really, just swell, for the most part. Wouldn't want anyone to think anyone was suggesting otherwise. Ever.

That, to my mind, was the most interesting point inadvertently made in the whole gassy chat on education just now. Now, I had some bad teachers in my time. Had a few good ones too. On balance? More bad than good, though mostly not so bad as all that. Now, can my experience really have been so very different from the rest of America's?

I grew up in a rather old fashioned small town, quite some time ago. I don't say my experience speaks to much, but I should think it was more typical than not.

How harshly then can I really judge the majority of the people who ostensibly taught me whatever it was I learned in school? Who doesn't remember fondly most of the dear old mother-substitutes of of elementary school days? Those who nursed one through simple sentences and the times-tables? True, some showed a prettier cursive at the blackboard than others, and some were perhaps less kind or encouraging than they might have been, but not a bad lot by and large. Some did their hair more carefully than they did their lesson-plans, but I don't remember most as being anything much but neither better nor worse than they should have been. Truth be told, I don't remember most of them at all. (Who was that woman that taught my third grade? Name escapes me now, but she was alright.)

And later? In what's now called middle school, and later still in high school, there was the battalion of simple souls, men and women, tenured and tired, who taught just to the edge of their competence, relying on the printed questions in their threadbare textbooks, on film-strips, and faded mimeos that dated to their apprentice days, to see them through to their pensions. Pitiable examples of pedagogy, no doubt, but then I don't know that Socrates could have made me pay attention to some of that stuff, on a brisk Autumn day, with the sun blazing away, just the other side of the window. As the town I grew up in was rather at an apex of a number of small local colleges of various Protestant affiliation, these teachers were often aided by various exhausted and or ill-prepared graduate students, like the relentlessly cheerful gals just out of the Presbyterian teachers' college who rather mindlessly distributed stickers like confetti at a perpetual birthday party, or the great, oafish Methodist boys who still blushed when asked a direct question by a girl. (Now and again, one of the latter, I remember, would get himself in trouble paying too much attention of just the wrong kind to some high school sophomore girl, and not be asked back.)

Mustn't forget a mention for the largely anonymous substitutes who, when called on, taught auto-mechanics on Monday, English composition on Tuesday, and sex ed. on Wednesday, all with an equal and undisguised despair.

Now none of the above were necessarily bad people, or very good teachers. They just did their jobs, as best they could, which wasn't always very well. The suggestion that each and every one ought to have been better isn't without merit, but it does strike me as statistically unlikely. Largely unexceptional teachers teaching largely unexceptionable children sounds, to me, about the likeliest outcome of mandatory eduction in any roughly democratic society, no?

What then could be sillier than suggesting that these people, teachers and students, parents and neighbors, all ought to have been somehow better than they were ever likely to be? But then, I grew up in the days before every child was thought to be "exceptional" and every teacher "great." What balls.

Who remembers much of what was taught in school days, anyway?

The best teachers I had, all had something to say that may or may not have had anything much to do with the curriculum. Some, like Miss Joan Stuck, gave me genuinely useful information, like how a sentence might be made, and why it mattered. A few others directed me to books I might like, though these weren't the ones required. Some of the best teachers I saw in my day, weren't necessarily mine. I remember the patience with which some of them helped kids who were struggling. I struggled too, of course, but usually with what I would never need again, could not be made to see the point of, or was quite rightly convinced, even then, they'd somehow got wrong. I'd hazard a guess, for example, if I'm to be generous, and say half of the history I was taught was true. Not entirely the teachers' fault, I should think, as they may not have known any better themselves. Mr. Flynn introduced William Manchester at one one. That was rather a surprise.

It isn't really the well-intentioned or the competent though that I remember best. Who does? Other than the ones who actually made something memorable, like Ms. K. Gilliland, in her whirling peasant skirts, whirling her way through Shakespeare's tragedies as if, from somewhere, she heard a lute, mostly who one remembers are the cranks and the loonies, and the bullies, of course, can't forget them. Like the 9th grade science teacher and religious fanatic who "skipped" human evolution, and once told me, "privately," that Catholics went to Hell, or the mad war veteran who might forget a scheduled quiz and instead demonstrate between the rows of desks how to escape a submarine filled with smoke, or the militant Libertarian who taught the Civil War as the "War of Northern Aggression," and called Social Security, "a tragedy."

I don't know that any of those last three deserved employment in a public or any other kind of school, but realistically, they were rather a cross section of the community. I doubt it was their union cards alone that kept them on the payroll.

Now that this fascinating media "discussion" is underway, I find myself almost sentimentally defensive of the general run of my school teachers. Most were no better, and no worse, than most of the adults I encountered as a kid. Strikes me as both hypocritical and frankly more than a little ridiculous -- to say nothing of the underlying political agenda involved -- to hold teachers to a standard higher than that to which any or all of the ministers and priests I ever met subscribed, to say nothing of the scout leaders, the school administrators, the PTA, or most of the parents I've ever known, other than my own of course. I was lucky there.

And it must be a specially thankless job, teaching. Oh, I know, it is now the rule evidently that teachers must all be either great or nothing, but while that's obvious nonsense, I wonder how most people do it. I, for one, would be an awful teacher. Shiver to think. Never contemplated even the possibility. I've know some of my contemporaries who did, and then thought better of it. I know more than one brilliant student, now my age, who once taught for a bit, usually in graduate school, and then had the sense to become a librarian.

But I don't mean to defend the worst, either. I'm thinking of the truly memorable villains, not just the drunks and depressives, the dogmatists and the fanatics, but the real monsters. Everybody remembers the villain, no? The truly bad teachers I have in mind, were, quite frankly, just awful people.

All my monsters, or most of them, I should think, are dead. I can think of few human beings better remembered, or ironically enough, likely to be less lightly mourned, than one's worst teachers. Bad bosses, bad lovers, bad roommates, none but bad parents, I should think, come quite so quickly back to mind, or haunt whole areas of enquiry or endeavor so effectively, down even into the dignity of an otherwise contented middle age. I know many a competent, confident matron who can still be made blush passing a mirror by some thoughtless cruelty tossed off as a joke by some lumpen, hormonal lady-coach, and many a strong man who still can't figure a fraction without remembering the sting of a ruler across his palm. Literature is full of heartless masters thrashing their pupils into unconsciousness, wicked marms humiliating their tearful charges... worse. That my eighth grade algebra teacher has long since salted whatever sorry plot of earth into which she was finally felled, does not mean I can keep from still catching an echo of her insufferable rasp in every old woman who questions my competence to calculate the tax on a special order at the bookstore where I work. "What are you, stupid?" That my junior high school gym coach should by now at least be beyond the vengeance of any but the nursing home orderlies who -- one can only pray -- he also pinched and mocked in "special" gym, does not compensate me for my irrational horror of locker-rooms, communal showers and anyone for whom "fitness" may best be judged by completed laps and a stop-watch. (I suppose I might be grateful for the traumatic distrust of even the most seemingly safe and clean bath-houses he unwittingly instilled in me, as this may have inadvertently saved my life at the dawn of the dangerous eighties, but no, even that I refuse to put to the old brute's credit. May he rot.)

Had I the time, or was it my purpose tonight to call out all the martinets and bullies that ruled and ruined for me so many of the schoolrooms in that little town I've tried to forget, I could go on. If called on, I could provide a list. But I'm already weary of the topic, so perhaps another time.

Meanwhile, anyone with children really needn't pay any attention to me on this subject at all. I'm sure it matters very much, to you. Perhaps, given the publicity generated by this new film, something might actually be done to get the worst of them gone, but as for making all that great majority "great," well... I'm sure your children deserve no less. Good luck with that.

Daily Dose

From The Forty Five, by Alexandre Dumas


"Henri III, together with his mother. alone remained standing, and bent a last look, full of pride, upon those around him. Chicot observed this look, and murmured in a low tone of voice, 'Dejiciet potentes de sede et exaltabit humiles' ('He will put down the mighty from their seat, and will exalt the humble')."

The last line of the novel.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

"ventre de bische!"

And so, all good things must come to an end. Damn it. Despite various diversions, interruptions and other, more pressing demands made on my reading, I've done the last page of The Fort-Five. I did not want the book to end. I could just pull another volume from my shelf of Dumas, and go on, and I will, but not yet. One of the best things about acquiring old books not individually, but in these great, neglected sets: no mater how long one has owns such a thing, no matter how much one has already read, it seems there's always another, and another, and yet another volume as yet unopened, the pages yet to be cut. If used judiciously, my shelf of Dumas, with my shelf of Scott, my shelf of Guy de Maupassant, my shelves of Dickens, etc., should see me through to whatever end I come. Were I to lose every other book I own, and be left with just my sets, -- heaven help me -- I might read away the rest of my days. (I'm greedy though, and wouldn't like to think I might not always add to what I have. I'm inspired by one of our regular customers at the bookstore where I work; an old gentleman, quite bent, who must balance his acquisitions on one frail arm so as to have the other free to use his stick. He shops and buys our used books nearly every week, buying history, and fiction, and whatall by the basket. Just the sight of the dear man gives me hope.)

One can never really come to the end of Alexandre Dumas. Obviously, I'll read The Count of Monte Cristo again, but even if I didn't, there are so many other Dumas novels, and so many I've yet to read, or reread. Whatever else might be said of the old boy, good and bad, there will always be another Dumas. That, of course, is one of the reasons for the failure of his reputation: he wrote too much, or rather, he put his name to too many books, whether he wrote them, in the strictest sense, himself or not. Dumas worked from collaborators outlines, wrote up what others wrote for him first, did not always acknowledge what he used, and so on. Who cares? Matters now only to scholars and fussbudgets, frankly. And Dumas' work can be uneven, tedious at stretches, ridiculously plotted, even sometimes silly. What of it? Is Balzac any less bombastic, any less dependent on coincidence, etc.? Not everything from the pen of either Frenchman's a masterpiece, but then, who else wrote so much so well, and then who wrote only masterpieces? Name one major author without minor work. Besides, I've always been fond of my favorites even in their minor turns. Half a Dumas might yet be better than none, or a whole Scott, in some books, for that matter.

Another reason he came so late into the Pantheon? Dumas wasn't important. Sounds silly, but that argument's been made. Dumas might have given us immortal fiction, his Edmond Dantès and his d'Artagnan might be better known and loved than any other characters in the whole history of French literature after Gargantua and Pantagruel, but Dumas wasn't serious, somehow. Romance was not thought the proper stuff of literature. Dumas wrote only for popularity and money. Dumas' books were the sort of thing read just by boys. It's all been said about Twain, too.

The bones of Alexandre Dumas, now however white, belonged to a man who wasn't, quite. That may well have been another reason they were left so long in a provincial grave.

"The basis of these theories was an idea which in our opinion was quite as good as any other; it was as follows: chance is God's reserve." -- That's Dumas, explaining the philosophy of Chicot, near the conclusion of The Forty Five. Dumas might have smiled to find that more than chance would ultimately determine his place in literature, and in France.

There's not, for me, much to admire about Jacques René Chirac. Had he not done this one noble thing, I don't know that as an American, I would now give the old bastard a thought, but I am grateful to him for what he did for Dumas. On the 30th of November, 2002, the then President of France brought Dumas back to Paris. Calling the great novelist one of France's, "most turbulent children, one of its most talented and one of its most creative geniuses," Chirac presided as Alexandre Dumas was reinterred in the Panthéon of Paris. His coffin draped in a blue velvet cloth on which was written, "tous pour un, un pour tous", -- "One for all, and all for one," carried by an honor guard dressed in the uniform of The Musketeers, Dumas, at last, was laid to rest with Voltaire, Rousseau, Victor Hugo, Émile Zola...

"With you, it is childhood, hours of reading relished in secret, emotion, passion, adventure and panache that enter the Pantheon. With you we dreamed. With you we still dream," Chirac said, and then bowed to Dumas.

As Dumas père himself famously said, "All generalizations are dangerous, even this one," yet some things are true, no matter who says them, and worth saying, even late.

I add my thanks again, to all the rest.

Daily Dose

From In a Free State, by V. S. Naipaul


"Everything she said was accurate; everything was wounding; and though to everything there was a reply, he couldn't explain himself."

From In a Free State, Chapter 7

Monday, September 27, 2010

An Incoming Freshman Doodle

Another Communications Major heard from, unless I'm very much mistaken.

Daily Dose

From Scoop, by Evelyn Waugh


"A major in Wales challenged him categorically to produce a single authenticated case of a great crested grebe attacking young rabbits."

From Chapter Two, The Stitch Service

Sunday, September 26, 2010

More Incoming Freshman Doodles

Daily Dose

From A Month in the Country, by J. L. Carr


"And this steady rhythm of living and working got into me, so that I felt part of it and had my place, a foot in both present and past; I was utterly content."

Saturday, September 25, 2010

An Evening Spent in Proust's Overcoat

I get compulsives, I really do. There but for... what have you. I've never been trapped endlessly washing my hands or checking the locks, but I can see something within myself that doesn't trust much to chance, that might have a greater need someday of comforting rituals, personal superstitions, unthinking repetitions. I certainly understand what it is to build a fortress from possessions, valuable if only to me. Just look at this room. I'm not suggesting that what I do requires the intervention of professional organizers and a TV crew to shame me into letting things go, but I do recognize that my acquisition of books is neither entirely normal, nor quite sane. I'm not really even a collector, or rather, I'm not what could be called serious; I never search for variant editions, though I own some books in more than one, I can't be bothered hunting rare firsts or that sort of thing. I've been but twice to a book show of the antiquarian kind, and left considerably shocked. Silly business, some of it. But I do collect books, obviously, and far too many of them for my budget, had I one, or this room, or my actual needs. I've read about serious collectors and frankly they frighten me a little; so few seem to ever read the books they buy. The British novelist, Geoff Nicholson, with great sympathy and good humor has chronicled the lives of all sorts of obsessives, with nothing much in common but their adoration of Volkswagen "bugs," for instance, or women's feet, or guitars. I've enjoyed reading Nicholson's novels, every one of them. I'm strangely proud, however, to point out that I haven't one of his books in the joint. Sold 'em. Ages ago. So, see? I'm not that bad, right?

I will admit to a greedy curiosity to read everything that I might, but I needn't own everything I read... only the good ones, or only my favorites, past and present, and any that might yet be. Doesn't really narrow the perimeters much, does it? Well, I know what I mean, anyway.

The very nature of this kind of behavior, compulsion, eccentricity or whatever one ought to call it, is generally inexplicable, I should think. But to whom is an explanation owed? My husband doesn't have to understand it, so long as he's willing to tolerate it, bless 'im. Can't think of anyone else. I have wondered what might become of my library after me, but since most of my books were bought secondhand, I know I wasn't the first person to want them so I don't imagine I'll be the last. There's little enough here that wouldn't do just as well on the market piecemeal, which is after all exactly how it came together. Mine is a library in no way representative of anything but me. The value of the thing, to me, is just that.

But such is not the case with every such collection. Some collections, indeed, some rooms, are worth preserving and failing that, painstakingly reassembling; book by book, by bed, by notebook, by garment . An Italian journalist, Lorenza Foschini, ably aided by her translator, Eric Karpeles, has written an exquisite little book that provides a perfect example, perhaps the perfect example of this. Proust's Overcoat: The True Story of One Man's Passion for All Things Proust, is a love story. Jacques Guerin was the illegitimate son of a wine merchant with a taste for art and a most exceptional mother. Even when the lady finally divorced her impotent husband, and might have married her lover, Guerin's father, the boy's unconventional parents chose to maintain their separate lives, preferring to just go on as they were. The lovers saw each other every day for the rest of their lives and raised two very beautiful, very gifted and very gay sons together. After her divorce, Guerin's mother became a very successful businesswoman in her own right, at a time when such things were not done. Jacques inherited, along with his mother's perfume business, which he in turn ran quite successfully the rest of his life, a considerable fortune, and, from both parents, passion and very good taste.

Jacques Guerin loved Proust. Poor Marcel had already written "finis" in his cork-lined bedroom and passed to immortality by the time the handsome, gay businessman became obsessed with the novelist. Guerin, though only as a patient, did meet Marcel's brother, Robert, who was an entirely respectable surgeon. The doctor showed his brother's young admirer a stack of the novelist's notebooks and manuscripts, stacked in a case Guerin was later to rescue from the junk man, after the doctor's own death. Thus are obsessions born.

Proust's family, unlike Guerin's, was an eminently respectable, meaning a rigidly conventional bunch, with the obvious, and hence painfully disconcerting exception of that one great genius in their midst. After his death, Marcel's brother did his best to see the novelist's memory properly honored -- though in a telling anecdote, retold in Foschini's book, when asked, the well connected doctor had been unwilling to help his brother secure a medal he very much wanted. Marcel forgave him, though not without mentioning, just in passing, "My book The Guermantes Way, will be coming out the first week in October. It's only half as long as the others, but I'm sure you won't read it... " Foschini aptly describes that line as a "small and bitter revenge."

The doctor's bitter widow had her revenge on her embarrassing brother-in-law; selling off Marcel's possessions and furniture, and burning much of what her husband had rather carelessly preserved of his brother's papers, until Jacques Guerin convinced the junk dealer who'd already sold him some of these precious things to intervene and save the rest. Finally convinced of the potential value, if only in francs, of what hadn't already been tossed into the flames or the bin, the rather horrid woman eventually let the collector have the lot. Guerin cultivated relationships with both the doctor's widow and her junk dealer, and spent a considerable fortune in the process. This proved to be well worth whatever it cost the collector. "It would take him many years of desperate searching," Foschini tells the reader, "before he could rest, confident he had done everything possible to preserve what remained of Proust's earthly possessions." In the end, almost everything that still exists of Proust's material existence, even that overcoat, everything we now have of that famous room that became for Marcel Proust the world, only survives because of the passionate interest of the prescient and covetous perfumer.

For a long time, much of this stuff: letters, photographs, manuscripts, Proust's walking stick, his hat, even his bed, Guerin kept to himself. When the time came and the rest of the world caught up with him, Guerin would tantalize his guests with the promise of a glimpse into the his collection, but the host, being French, would usually insist on a proper meal first, and perhaps a cigar, and then where had the time gone? Next time, perhaps. I can understand this. The things he'd collected had been Proust's, but the collection was Guerin's. After the collector's death, everything went to a museum. Plenty of time for the Proust scholars and other admirers to poke about among his things now.

How many times have famous artists insisted that biographies, as Twain put it, "are but the clothes and buttons," of a person and not the person proper? True enough, but from even such stuff as a fur-lined overcoat, the buttons moved so as to make it fit more snugly a Parisian junk dealer who wore it out fishing, eventually giving it to a collector as a present, in thanks for years of good business, may retain something of the reality of it's original owner. There is hardly a recorded anecdote by the friends and contemporaries of Marcel Proust that fails to mention that coat, which he wore everywhere, even to dinner, the coat he buttoned on over layers of shirts and sweaters and knitted mufflers, in the belief that in this way he might preserve his frail person long enough to finish his great work. Having read his masterpiece, who would not be moved, as Foschini was, to stand in the back room of a Paris museum while this extraordinary and now fragile object was lifted from it's box and layers of tissue-paper so that those misplaced buttons might remind the onlooker of the man that wore this coat while he wrote what for a long time only he could see would be À la recherche du temps perdu?

As Leigh Hunt says in his autobiography, the muse is "sometimes an awful divinity." Can we not appreciate the cost to one of her most accomplished servants just a bit better because of an old overcoat?

"Hero-worship exists, has existed, and will forever exist, universally among Mankind," Carlyle insisted in his Sartor Resartus, and much as the consequences of that fact may have many dubious and dangerous results, it can also give us history we would not otherwise have: an overcoat, a letter, the manuscript of a masterpiece, a photograph found in a hatbox in a junk shop, a photograph of two little French boys, loving brothers who would grow up to be very different men, one of them the greatest novelist of the 20th Century. As Foschini's book so beautifully explains, we only have these things because of one gay businessman, an obsessive collector, a hero, in a small way, in his own right.

As for me and my accumulation, there's no comparison, of course. No one will owe my memory much when the dealer comes to cart away my library. I rather hope though that someone in a bookshop somewhere, long after I'm gone, finds Foschini's little book, pays the price marked inside, and carries it home to read in a night, as I did. It is a little treasure. I'm keeping it.

Daily Dose

From Seven Plays, by George Bernard Shaw


"The more ignorant men are, the more convinced are they that their little parish and their little chapel is an apex to which civilization and philosophy has painfully struggled up the pyramid of time from a desert of savagery."

From Notes to Caesar and Cleopatra: Cleopatra's Cure for Baldness

Friday, September 24, 2010

An Incoming Freshman Doodle

It is Fall, and that means the Freshmen are incoming, and the latest in fashionable hairdos may again be seen about the bookstore. Ah... youth.

Daily Dose

From The Belly of Paris, by Emile Zola, translated by Brian Nelson


"All day long she wandered about with her empty bag, pretending that she was shopping, but in reality buying nothing, since her sole purpose was to peddle gossip and keep herself informed about the most trifling event."

From Chapter 2

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Good Gnus

Daily Dose

From The Yellow Wallpaper & Other Stories, by Charlotte Perkins Gilman


"There is one marked peculiarity about this paper, a thing nobody seems to notice but myself, and that is that it changes as the light changes."

From The Yellow Wallpaper

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

More Handbag Doodles

Daily Dose

From Tales of Edgar Allan Poe


"By this time what little doubt I might have entertained of my poor friend's insanity was put finally to rest."

From The Gold Bug

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Handbag Doodles

Daily Dose

From Cousin Pons, by Honoré de Balzac


"And he must combine his role of listener with a second part: he must applaud continually, smile on everyone, accuse nobody, defend nobody; from his point of view, everyone must be in the right. And so, in the house of his kinsmen, Pons no longer counted as a man; he was a digestive apparatus."

From Chapter One

Monday, September 20, 2010

Advanced Clerihew


In the memoirs by either Blair,
There is one thing the authors share:
The stuff, it seems, of great romance?
A million pounds, in advance.

Daily Dose

From The Oxford Authors: Alexander Pope, edited by Pat Rogers


"Tho' fortune change, his constant spouse remains,
Augments his joys, or mitigates his pains."

From January & May

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Clerihew of a Dull Journey


In case there's someone who should care,
We've got the book from Tony Blair.
(No matter how one tries to spin it,
There's very little interest in it.)

Daily Dose

From The Oxford Authors: Francis Bacon, edited by Brian Vickers


"If he be compassionate towards the afflictions of others, it shews his heart is like the noble tree that is wounded itself when it gives balm."

From Goodness and Goodness of Nature

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Wonder Woman Clerihew


Go on, have a go
At Jodi Picoult!
Her prose, it's true, is hardly deathless,
But trust me, it may leave you breathless.

Daily Dose

From The Oxford Authors: Alexander Pope, edited by Pat Rogers


"Farthermore, it were great cruelty and injustice, if all such authors as cannot write in the other way, were prohibited from writing at all."

From Peri Bathous, Chapter III, The Necessity of the Bathos, Physically considered

Friday, September 17, 2010

Defensive Clerihew


There is no one keener
Than Jennifer Weiner
To defend the popular novel.
(Do not you find that simply awful?)

Daily Dose

From The Oxford Authors: Oscar Wilde, edited by Isobel Murray


"And there was silence in the House of Judgment."

From Poems in Prose

Thursday, September 16, 2010

An Uncommon Talent: Kevin Sampsell's A Common Pornography

I pause to recommend a new book I didn't like.

This, given what I do for a living, is not actually all that uncommon. Do it all the time. Were I in the bookstore where I work just now, I'm confident I could recommend books on any of the following subjects about which I could not actually be made to care:

Curt Cobain
Lithuanian poetry

Okay. Maybe not that last one. (Not even Google or Nancy Pearl could help me there, I think.) But I would try.

The point being that, as a bookseller, it is a substantial part of what I do; connecting readers unlike myself with books I need not like. It would disingenuous to suggest I'd read every book I might recommend in the course of the day, or that I had any intention of ever knowing more than the little I may have inadvertently come to know about Antarctic exploration, for example, which to my mind is just the unappetizing story, repeated entirely too often, of people going where they really ought not and getting, frankly, just what they deserved. Doesn't mean there's anything wrong with me recommending books about this to the people who enjoy reading that kind of thing. Hardly an ethical quandary for someone in retail. Doesn't mean there's anything wrong with those readers, either. A particular favorite of mine, the English novelist, Nancy Mitford, adored reading books about Captain Scott, Ernest Shackleton and the like. That would be something I only know because I've read all her published letters, which happen to be very much more to my taste than, say, Heart of the Antarctic. Doesn't matter. In Heretics, Chesterton famously said, "There is no such thing on earth as an uninteresting subject; the only thing that can exist is an uninterested person." When it comes to gentlemen dying heroically or otherwise on ice, fair to say, I am uninterested. Doesn't mean I can afford to be wholly disinterested though. So, I read a little at least what I don't like. Part of the job. Necessity. I've certainly sold more people on Caroline Alexander's Endurance than I ever convinced to read Mitford's letters. I'd like to think I haven't done anyone a disservice by only finishing one of those two books. That's what bookselling allows me to do, if I'm any good at it; read things I otherwise never would so that I might talk to people who ought to, learn something of people unlike myself, and make a very modest living at it. What matters is knowing what's good, even what's best, even if it isn't something I like.

Kevin Sampsell, the author of A Common Pornography: A Memoir, being a bookseller himself, would understand this. I don't know Mr. Sampsell, though I may well have encountered him at some point, as he works in one of my favorite bookstores, Powell's, in Portland. No reason I'd know that about him, or anything else, had I not had occasion recently to read his new book. I'm glad I did, though as I've already suggested, I didn't entirely enjoy the experience.

Kevin Sampsell likes things I clearly don't. He likes music to which I would never willingly listen, he reads books, presumably, it would never occur to me to read, and what's more, he publishes, at his own press, Future Tense Publishing, authors of whom I would never otherwise have heard. I've actually read some of these now, because I read Sampsell's book. He knows what he's about. His taste, while not mine, is clearly admirable.

Taste. As a memoirist, Kevin Sampsell could be accused of having very bad taste indeed, or at least of being indiscreet in a shockingly unappetizing, even heartless way. No one in his new memoir, which is almost all to do with his childhood and immediate family, on the evidence of this one book, could be described as having any taste that wasn't bad, even the author. There's not a room, not a meal, not a song, not a relationship, not a conversation that doesn't sound godawful. There isn't one ugly thing that might have been overlooked in the author's life, or his sister's, or his sister's living room, for that matter, that escapes mention. In fact, I can't remember the last time I read a book with more ugliness in it.

And yet, Kevin Sampsell has written a beautiful book. I can say that, having read the book straight through now, twice, without apology for not having liked the book. It isn't, I suspect, the kind of book one is meant to like. Doesn't mean it isn't good.

Wilde said, "There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written or badly written." Kevin Sampsell's memoir, whatever else it is, is well written, though even here, I should amend that statement by adding that the book is written in a style I can not like. Seventy-some years ago, the British critic, Cyril Connolly, wrote a very influential book called Enemies of Promise. In it, he described the triumph of modernism and the vanquishing of what he brilliantly and brutally dubbed the "Mandarins," meaning the fussy insincerity and affectations of style that had dead-ended English literature in a kind of bloodless, drawing-room politeness. Dishonesty, Connolly felt, was the only natural result of a discretion that had come to stifle sincerity all but entirely, and a style that had become so refined as to end by saying nothing of the slightest importance or relevance to modern readers. Neither Connolly nor the modernists might have anticipated a time when nothing might not be said just because it probably shouldn't be, or the popularity of a style, the most admired aspect of which would be the flat philistinism of the prose. Yet, here we are.

If I were to write about the faux wood panelling in my parent's double-wide, I would feel an obligation to at least defend the aspirational triumph represented by my parent's first and only "new" house. What's more, I should probably do so in just such a clumsy, pendulous sentence as this. The most obvious reason to do so would be to spare something of my family's feelings, though it is unlikely that anyone in my family would ever read this. Then there might well be some shallowness of character on my part that would need to reassure my readers that I know perfectly well how aesthetically doubtful even the most expensive prefab is likely to be. Finally, I should be genuinely afraid of boring anyone with what might seem a careless description of an ugly fact, unalleviated by either humor or at least the suggestion of something of interest about that plywood environment beyond my personal experience and or my own distaste.

Setting whatever motive aside, what Sampsell does, something that I never could, is trust in the story he's decided to tell, to the interest of his readers in the experience of a not all that unusual or interesting boy growing up in a profoundly uninteresting time and place, and in a family one can hardly envy, and in the seemingly neutral, even artless voice in which he has chosen to write. That last of course is what makes Sampsell's book so good, and what I actually like least about it. I find the facts of Sampsell's memoir all too boringly familiar, when they aren't actually horrifying or distasteful. I find his willingness-- even eagerness -- to expose his family's darkest secrets and dysfunctions less shocking, having watched more than my share of daytime TV talkshows, than depressingly inappropriate in a man nearly my own age, whose poor old mother is still alive. What I can not but admire, and yes, even envy, is the skillful, even masterly concision of the writer's prose. There's no other word for, at least that comes to mind tonight, but delicacy.

That one could write so gracefully, seemingly without affectation or obvious reference to his own, adult judgement and experience, so exactly in the voice of childhood, that the reader, this reader anyway, might never have had cause to doubt the veracity not only of the vignettes and short, anecdotal chapters from which the author has fashioned his book, but also the honesty of the writing, and the writer, is flatly amazing in a book of this kind. I know there is art in this. I can almost smell it. Take just his description of the day in the brief chapter, "Mt. Saint Helens," in which, without a wasted word, or a single beautiful phrase, Sampsell writes what could easily stand as a perfect, perfectly American, prose poem. Want to know what it was to be a boy living in Washington the week the top came off the mountain? There it is. Every detail, down to the named Gerber baby food jars in which the narrator and his classmates gathered ash from the sidewalks and car hoods, is right, even magical because, "Someone said the bottles would be worth money someday." That is exactly the logic of boys and how a source of astonishment is made understandable, commodified and sustained by childish aspirations to bottle the ineffable. The whole moment is then made more touching and true for the charmingly deflated conclusion:

"It was spring break when this happened, and when I went back to school the next week, everyone had bottles of ash to show."

What I can't do is recommend just these scenes of harmless, even sentimental wonder, because they do not occur in isolation from either the brutal reality of Sampsell's family life, or the author's determination to treat everything, good and bad, with the same careful, regretful passivity. Shit happens. I can't imagine the discipline required to break neither character nor mood and comment directly, as an adult, on what did. Kevin Sampsell the writer does comment, of course, on the pathetic mess his father in particular made of not only his life, but the ruin he left all around him, but the son only comments in the selection, the organization and the subtle cool with which he writes. It's disquieting, even disturbing, that cool.

But then, I've never known or really aspired to cool. I don't understand it. I fundamentally distrust it as a value. It is a kind of sophistication that has always seemed to me antithetical to either the good or the sustainable. Cool, to my mind, requires an isolation, most obviously from other people's judgements, but just as certainly from any sincere emotion other than the most visceral, a wariness of sentimentality and affectation that all too easily can become an affectation every bit as crippling and wearisome as ostentation and extravagance. There is no room, it seems to me, in all that blunt, brutal, fuck 'em-if-they-can't-take-the-truth honesty, for forgiveness; not of other people's sins, as it seems part and parcel of cool to barely acknowledge the capacity of other people to really affect, let alone undo cool, but forgiveness of self, of one's own sins. To whom would one's repentance be addressed?

Cool would seem to be the one thing in search of which the boy Kevin, like so many boys of roughly my generation and after, spent his youth. The writer, Kevin Sampsell, has it. No question. From what can be gleaned just from the memoir, he learned a certain cool from his best brother, or at least he admired in the elder boy what the younger still so obviously lacked. And Kevin just as clearly came to cool by means of a kind of trial and error common to all kids, but was lucky enough, or smart enough I suspect, to see music as the likeliest and quickest path to his goal. It is music that would seem to have saved him. Clearly, the boy had an ear. ( Just as clearly, from the sureness of his prose, he still does.) Once an aspiring musician and lyricist, Sampsell listened to the right stuff, and would seem to have read the right stuff, though he mentions this less frequently, to make a style that works so well as his.

(If, by the way, any young person should be confidently informed by anyone of of my generation that they did indeed listen to The Clash in high school, much as one would with someone of my husband's generation who insists he or she was at Woodstock, the youth should feel free to demand some kind of proof. At best, your dad probably had "Frampton Live" pounding his brains out through his giant headphones, while trying to master the chords on his unplugged electric guitar. And to be brutally frank, it's likelier Pops probably just had an acoustic guitar and the John Denver Songbook.)

So, my recommendation? I still can't say that A Common Pornography is not a good book. I've tried in fact to explain why I think it is, even if I don't like the damned thing. It isn't just that it is yet another exploration of suburban horrors, or that I can't be made to read suburban horrors. I've been reading a lot of that lately, actually, and not all of it looking for things that might give grown ups a bit of the old thrill of Halloween, come our October readings at the bookstore. The suburbia of Matthew Simmons, for example, can be pretty horrible, but at least in all the things of his I've liked best, it is weighted with a kind of allusive, folkloric nuttiness -- mom, being a golem dad made in the garage, for example, doesn't talk much -- so that what might otherwise be merely uncomfortable or uninterestingly proverbial, instead has a wonderfully weird, and childlike horror. Like Sampsell, I'd have to say that Simmons would seem to feel being at last all-grown-up as something of a shock. Neither still youngish writer would seem to have survived their adolescence without a certain terror of the oncoming adult world, and a persistent fondness for the lost innocence of magical thinking -- yet both would seem to share an enviably acute memory for the actual confusions, and joys, of childhood. That said, while Simmons' rhetoric can be every bit as blunt as Sampsell's, his writing seems tempered by a less self-consciously serious dignity. For me, reading Simmons, the pleasure of the thing has almost everything to do with the wit and aptness of his seemingly goofiest choices, his evident pleasure in the whole enterprise of invention, and finally, something of that that same cool confidence as a writer I admire so much in Sampsell. Obviously, Simmons shares Sampsell's, and perhaps their whole generation's fetish for economy, but with Simmons, there is a surprisingly happy propensity to giggle now and then, to break in as an entertainer, and run a little patter, or do a little, awkward white boy dancin', even as he proves he's quite the clever dick, too. Simmons' first novel, A Jello Horse, for all it's grim, 2010 hipness, in tones at least, might almost be an audio abridgment of On the Road as read by Fred Allen or Robert Benchley.

So it isn't just the fucked up, quotidian nastiness of Sampsell's family that makes me not like the book I'm recommending. I'm a big boy. I can take it. Really, it's that cool.

But, as I do know at least a few cool characters, including the afore mentioned Matthew Simmons, I can without hesitation recommend A Common Pornography, at least to them.

Daily Dose

From A Common Pornography: A Memoir, by Kevin Sampsell


"I went home immediately after throwing my graduation cap into the air. I locked myself in my bedroom and listened to music on my headphones, wondering what to do next. My mind was blank."

From Vodka and Squirt

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

A Caricature

Daily Dose

From The Best Known Works of W. S. Gilbert


Ruth: It is a delicate question to answer, but I think I am a fine woman.

Fred: That is your candid opinion?

Ruth: Yes, I should be deceiving you if I told you otherwise.

From The Pirates of Penzance

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Nor Iron Bars a Page

Appearance to the contrary, I do read contemporary writers. I say this not defensively, I hope, but simply because I understand how, reading this ongoing record of my reading life, or even in conversation, one might think otherwise. I even, if one were to look carefully, quote quite a few not-yet-dead authors right here, on this blog. It's true that in the past few years my reading has led me further from the scene than I ever anticipated, but this has had less to do with any disaffection with contemporary writers than with an inadequate formal education and my growing embarrassment at having reached an age at which I ought to have read so many things I hadn't, couldn't remember much of what I had, and realized that I ought to have a better grasp of what I did than I did. So many of the books I'd admired most, I hadn't read again since I was a boy. Shocking, that. When was the last time I'd read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn? The Three Musketeers? The Life of Dr. Johnson? Anthony Trollope? Henry Green? George Orwell? I'm a bookseller. What I do every day, at least on good days, is recommend books, old and new. I realized that I was still making recommendations based on opinions I'd formed twenty and thirty years ago. Did I still think Henry James our greatest novelist? (I do.) Having reached, at least by all outward signs, an obvious maturity, I was a little abashed to think that I was still confidently expressing the opinions of a boy of twenty, opinions with which I was not sure a man in his forties would or should agree. I hadn't liked Austen before I was thirty, couldn't read Beckett until I was forty, so what of all the other books I'd once dismissed or misunderstood -- to say nothing of the books I'd loved? I am, in a humble way, as I said, in the book business. I read as much or more than most. I've never been shy of talk. Being afforded the opportunity to tell people about good books is one of the real pleasures in my life. The question then was, did I still endorse every literary judgement I'd made when I still had so much hair it had to be "styled?" Who knows what nonsense I might have been saying all these years? I feared, in short, being something of an old fraud, a callow critic of fifteen still, behind my gray beard.

That was how I would have justified myself anyway, had anyone asked me.

So I've read, and reread, this past decade or so, nearly all my old favorites. I've read at least some of what I hadn't by the authors of whom I'd always meant to read more. (It still amazes me, what I've yet to read -- how had I missed so much?) I won't dwell just now on all the books I've come to appreciate more for the years it took me to pick them up again, or on the books I've dropped, or reread without the pleasure I remembered. Were I to draw any obvious conclusion from the experience, it would have to be that not every book was meant to be read when I did, but that nearly as many ought not to have been tried again so late. But to step away for a moment at least from such personal banalities, allow me one more caution, no less lacking in originality, but perhaps better worth repeating here:

No book is worth reading a second time, through a second pair of glasses and in a strong light, just because it once required neither to think it wonderful.

Hardly the wisdom of a Solomon, I know. However, there is a corollary to this rule:

The books best remembered, unlike almost any other happy memory, are still there.

I recently heard the novelist Scott Spencer say something on the radio that has bugged me ever since. The thought was hardly original to him, but he said it with such authority, I wondered for a long while if I wasn't wrong in taking such exception to what he said. Spencer has taught creative writing nearly all his career and seems to have enjoyed doing it, though I can't myself imagine why anyone should. Be that as it may, he pointed out that very young writers, not having experienced much else, all but invariably write books about their families, and he implied at least, that most, however talented or bright, hadn't much very interesting yet to say about even that subject. Fair enough, perhaps. The argument could of course be made that Austen did much the same; write just about family and the narrow world she knew, as did the Brontes for that matter, just to draw big names from the air. Would anyone say they wrote any the worse for this? Surely Spencer didn't mean to say the subject was inherently dull, but rather that the writers he usually teaches are too inexperienced yet to write well about anything, even the little they know? Not the point I would dispute, just yet, so I'll come back to it. Spencer would know better what gets written in classrooms, and as he's paid to read it, I leave him to his fate. What Spencer then went on to say was that the best teaching experience he'd ever had was with the convicted felons he taught in a maximum security prison; thieves and murderers and rapists the lot. This was not because, he hastened to add, his exposure to these violent criminals contributed anything to the plots of his own novels, but because these men at least had some experience from which to draw as writers. It may seem a commonsensical idea, but I couldn't help thinking that the teacher had taken quite the wrong lesson from his experience. It bothered me.

I don't begrudge either the inmates or their teacher whatever good came of that class. I can see easily enough how exciting it must have been to teach men for whom words had come to matter so much in the absence of really having much of anything else. I can only imagine how wonderful it must be to give a book to a student and know he will read it, if for no other reason than for want of anything else to do but push-ups or make a shiv out of a toothbrush. And imagine the thrill of assigning a personal essay to a classroom full of tattoos that actually mean something!

But to take up the point I abandoned earlier, Jane Austen's novels would not, to my mind, have been much improved by the author having knocked over the local at gunpoint, or Charlotte Bronte's Villette have been made better by the introduction of a first-hand account of the finer points of identity theft. More realistically though, is Genet a better novelist than Gide for having been to prison? I'm pretty sure both would have found the comparison odious. Neither man's biography suggests a less than broad experience, to say the least, but I'm not sure either would have envied the other's history as grist for the mill. I've recently reread both of these great French writers for the first time since I was a teenager, and was surprised to find, on the one hand, how dated the former's style, and masochism, now seemed to me, and on the other, how contemporary, both in structure and philosophy, specially in The Counterfeiters, was dusty, dull ol' Andre Gide. Go figure. My point being, Scott Spencer's definition of experience and my own, and what kind of experience might best be used to make interesting reading, would seem to be very different.

I know I'm probably being a little unfair to Scott Spencer. I know he never said murderers make better novelists, or anything like that. But I would argue that what probably makes so much of what a creative writing teacher has to read so dull, and I don't doubt that it is, isn't what the students have yet to do, but how badly they've been taught to read and think and to write -- that, and teachers who suggest their students' writing might improve if they would just pistol-whip the clerk in the 7/11 once and spend a little quality time in the state pen, carefully reviewing their reading assignments. Must be a fairly common fantasy among teachers, students doing hard-time with The Grapes of Wrath.

I certainly don't remember having less to say at eighteen than I do now, do you? If anything, experience, at least my own, has taught me nothing much but that I shouldn't have said half of what I have. But what my reading and rereading has taught me, what good conversation, and better teachers than any I ever had in school have taught me, is how much better off I would have been, and how much better I would now be as a writer even of something such as this, if the teachers I did have had spent less time either encouraging me to "express" myself, or to write what I knew, and more time showing me all that I didn't yet but might know someday, and how I might, by reading.

I happen to know a couple of contemporaries, both of them excellent writers in their own right, who, like Scott Spencer, still earn their livings teaching creative writing in one form or another. We don't talk about their jobs much. They might well endorse Scott Spencer's theory of experience. They might not. I wouldn't presume to tell any of them how best to go about doing what they do. As I've already said, a complete mystery to me why anyone should want to do such a thing. I have however, on the rare occasions when my opinion has been solicited, suggested that someone, before they try to teach these youngsters how to write a short story, or an essay, let alone a novel, really ought to see to it that the wretched kids had read one or two. This always gets a good laugh, so I've probably said it too often already.

I remember reading and rereading The Golden Bowl, amazed that no one had ever thought to even suggest that English could be made to do such things, that the language of Henry James was my language -- put to better use than I might ever do, or am likely ever to do, but none the less, mine all the same. Henry James was a revelation to me. Still is. The first time I read him, I could no more understand what I was reading than why I kept on, but I did. What I did understand, perhaps instinctively -- certainly not because of anything I'd learned in a classroom, and certainly not anything I learned in a writing class where I never learned a damned thing -- was that James knew something I didn't and that I wanted to learn what I could from him, even with all the impatience and frustration of a boy reading a man. As I say, I've kept on.

That's why I'm glad of the chance to read and reread so much that isn't necessarily new, even to me. That, I've discovered, is what I missed most when I wasn't reading James, and Wharton, and Dickens, and Lamb; that sense of possibility in English, in my language, and in my own understanding, that can only really be had, I've found, for me at least, by reading, as it were, backwards. I don't think that it's what I have or haven't done, where I've been or how long I've lived, but what I've read that makes me want to read more, understand better, and yes, even write a little again, however badly. That's the only experience I recognize as necessary to the enterprise.

Of course, had I spent a little time in Walla Walla, I might have written a novel by now. The question would be though, would anyone, even the author, ever want to read the thing -- and more than once?

Daily Dose

From The Far Fields, by Theodore Roethke


"I learned not to fear infinity."

From the second stanza of The Far Field