Monday, March 31, 2014
"Camus grasped far better than most of his contemporaries that Combat's slogan, 'From Resistance to Revolution' had inspired not just men and women living under the Nazi occupation, but also men and women living under French colonial rule."
From Chapter 3, Measure
Sunday, March 30, 2014
You crash over the trees,
you crack the live branch--
the branch is white,
the green crushed,
each leaf is rent like split wood.
You burden the trees
with black drops,
you swirl and crash--
you have broken off a weighted leaf
in the wind,
it is hurled out,
whirls up and sinks,
a green stone.
-- H. D.
"With sausages or mince-meats rare,
Here crisp-fried smelts, prime herrings there."
From a fragment of Metagenes, translated by F. A. Paley
Saturday, March 29, 2014
(This one doesn't come out until August. I got an advance-reader's-copy from the rep. Couldn't wait.)
Can't dance, don't ask me. I do but I can't, really. I very much wish I could. I was asked once at a party if there was anything; fame, fortune, love, for which I would sell my soul. Didn't hesitate for a second. "To dance like Fred Astaire," was my answer.
Jules Feiffer's cartoons dance like Fred Astaire. At eighty-five, still dancing, he's decided to try a new turn, the modern graphic novel. Kill My Mother is the title and it is unlike anything he's done before, unlike anything period.
Feiffer's been a cartoonist since the age of 16, when he was apprenticed to the great Will Eisner. He got his first strip at 18. His cartoons ran in the Village Voice for 42 years. Been a featured contributor to the New Yorker for nearly as long. He's written successful plays, screenplays, children's books, all sorts, including novels -- and in 1979, an earlier "novel in pictures" entitled Tantrum. He drew the pictures for The Phantom Tollbooth.
If I could draw like any living artist, I would draw like Jules Feiffer. (But I can't. Don't ask me.) His line is loose, fluid, kinetic. I doubt he's ever drawn a straight line, but he's certainly never drawn a lifeless one. No one since Matisse has had such a seemingly easy command of movement, such economy, such delight in constant motion. If anything, again like Matisse and unlike so many cartoonists of his generation, Feiffer has only gotten better; more interesting, never lazy, jazzier, funnier, bigger somehow.
This new book is a tribute to the movies of the artist's youth; dipso private eyes, tough guys and saucy dames, movie-hoofers and brave marines. It's after being a film noir, and also one of those game, WWII musical romances, all swirled together in glorious black and white, smoky grey gouache, and watery inks, but told with all the absurd, mock solemnity of a Luis Bunuel. The plot is a fever-dream of Turner Classic Movies left on all night, violent improbabilities and untrammeled id.
It's a delicious hot mess of a book, and, had anyone other than Jules Feiffer drawn such a thing, I might have loathed it for it's sheer, cranky goof, but he did, so don't. Instead I can only admire the mind that could make something so beautiful and even moving out of such incongruities -- a Feiffer speciality -- and child-like enthusiasm for mayhem and action.
I loved it. it's a masterful mess. I've read it through twice. I'm keeping it to study.
May you never die, Jules Feiffer!
The South wind blows open the folds of my dress,
My feet leave wet tracks in the earth of my garden,
The willows along the canal sing
with new leaves turned upon the wind.
I walk along the tow-path
Gazing at the level water.
Should I see a ribbed edge
Running upon its clearness,
I should know that this was caused
By the prow of the boat
In which you are returning.
-- Amy Lowell
(The poem is taken from the new book, Modernist Women Poets: An Anthology, edited by Robert Haas and Paul Ebenkamp, from Counterpoint. The photograph of cherry blossom is by Elizabeth Whitehead.)
a lyric elixir of death
the spindle spirits of your hour glass loves
on moon spun nights
for corpes of poesy
with roses and northern lights
Where frozen nightingales in ilix aisles
sing burial rites
Friday, March 28, 2014
Everyone seems to like a ruin. Among my books there are at least a couple that address our fascination with the subject, two I can think of without resort to the actual shelves; Rose Macaulay's lovely big book from 1953, The Pleasure of Ruins, and then something similar on the history of follies, hermits, grottoes and the like, though I can't at this moment remember either title or author. It would seem that so long as we've had history to speak of, someone has had the idea of poking around in the physical remains. Archeology as such is a fairly modern undertaking, but as far back as Greece, I seem to remember Thucydides or someone stirring the dirt with a stick and ruminating on the dust of great civilizations.
Ruins have more recently become something of a trending "meme" on the Internet, as not a day goes by that someone in social media doesn't seem to post or re-post a photo essay on a ruined Russian theme park, or the collapsing "McMansions" of the Florida Gold Coast.
I confess I am myself fascinated by nearly all such. I find I enjoy speculating as to the narrative behind boarded or bricked windows, unhinged doors, empty walks up to absent buildings. In childhood I spent many happy hours exploring collapsed barns and out-buildings, spent afternoons in an abandoned brick schoolhouse at the edge of our property, and I returned over and over again to wander among the fallen stones in a neglected graveyard not far from my best friend's house.
There's something quite vulnerable and attractive in any useful thing that has survived it's usefulness, anything that endures, even if now neglected. There's a sense of discovery unique to an encounter with something forgotten.
An architect friend once explained to me the necessity of the door lintel and the elegant innovation of the sash window. It was fascinating stuff, though I can't say that I remember any of it now, leastways not so I could reproduce his explanation. Yet, I remember the conversation. What was both moving and memorable in my friend's description of these things was first his enthusiasm for good design at any scale, and secondly his conviction that well-made things, any and all well-made things, have an aesthetic value that survives their utility. That lesson I'm unlikely to ever forget.
What in my parents' youth had still been an almost exclusively agricultural community was in my youth still a rural place; the landscape defined by the distances between town and house, between farms, from barn to backdoor. Directions were given according to family names; left at the ol' Miller place, right at the Bigelow farm. The townships and villages often as not kept the names of the closed coal-mines and company towns; Number 5, Blacktown and the Irishtown Road. The past was always present then. Some of the history I saw as a child extended back beyond the American Civil War. That event, and others less familiar and well before it, were still indistinctly present to me in some of abandoned buildings I explored, in place names without places attached, even in the woods all around where one might find a chimney in the trees, or cork-stopped bottles in the dirt. I could put my hand in those days directly on the dead, in a way, reading a book propped up against a weathered headstone, Huckleberry Finn as real to me as that unknown "beloved son," or the nameless soul who "fell at Antietam." There were stones there as old as the War of 1812.
(The past was present in another way as well. A silly vogue in the 1960s of my childhood, and one of the uglier affectations I found when I was finally invited into middle class homes as a kid consisted of various "quaint" farm-implements: horse-halters, butter-paddles and the like, hung on the walls of otherwise thoroughly modern kitchens. In the midst of avocado appliances, vinyl wallpapers in plaid or sunflower patterns and wall-to-wall kitchen-carpeting, there might be a weirdly anachronistic tableau of a churn with a crock or two, framed by a tin washboard, or a pickle-barrel full of false flowers. It was all too thoughtlessly rural and precious; nostalgia for a false simplicity, the way of life "lost" having been harder than hell, and dirty, and dim. There might have been something wonderful in the curve of a hoe, but I don't think that had much to do with why it was nailed above the latest Maytag dishwasher.)
I've made something of a study of these odd circular objects, painted over on the wall by a disused back entrance to the bookstore where I work. I'm embarrassed to admit how long it took me to work out their function as door-stops for the doors that don't open anymore. I just liked the look of these now useless knobs, and the fact that no one had felt obliged to pry them out when the door was sealed some time before I started working at the store. I suspect, from other details of the doorway that these little bumpers predate the disused glass doors; the placement is wrong, and there appears to have been a wider arch that's been brought down. Maybe this was a loading-dock. Why there are two door-stops on one wall of the entryway and just one on the other, I couldn't say. I just like that they've been absorbed into the building; like the bricked windows on the alley, and the stoop that stayed after yet another door went away. (The bookstore's present dimensions include not only the original location -- converted in the 1930s from the original pool hall at this address -- but also what were neighbors to either side. The bookstore now extends to fill the better part of the block. Hence, on the alley-side, are all sorts of anomalous features of past tenants.) Whatever their original utility, I like the look of them, the simplicity of the design, the solidity of them, even the way they feel; all rock-hard, weathered rubber in a thick metal ring, all covered now in generations of paint.
I won't belabor the obvious analogy to most of the books I've been reading lately, though I will say I saw it as soon as I decided to go out and take these snapshots of those useless knobs. I've been reading more history than otherwise for months now; all of it old, none of it, I should imagine of much use anymore as history, if by history one imagines the best contemporary scholarship on the past, but then, that isn't the kind of history that I've wanted: Parkman, Prescott, Carlyle, James Anthony Froude, Schiller's history of the Thirty Years' War, and most recently, a two volume history of The Venetian Republic, by Hazlitt's grandson. Truth be told, I seem to have gone off fiction a bit in recent months, so instead I've been reading narrative history. I've enjoyed it all immensely, but until I thought about it a bit more today, I might have had considerable difficulty in justifying all these historians if challenged.
For example, there's my most recent acquisition from the used bookstore down the street, William Carew Hazlitt's The Venetian Republic: Its Rise, its Growth, and its Fall, 421 - 1797, in two volumes, published by Adam and Charles Black, London, 1900. Just to confirm my thesis, I checked the indexes of four current books on Venice we happen to have new at the bookstore, and not one mentioned the Hazlitt. Whatever the gentleman's contribution to the field one hundred and fourteen years ago, clearly the students of the subject have moved on. I've never been to Venice and have no plans to go. The Republic's history as such was not something I felt the want of. So why read these two big volumes -- if in the end I do?
Why read Carlyle or Froude? Both were serious, if much maligned scholars, particularly Froude; ridiculed in his own day for researches that were actually very near the modern standard; reading original sources, traveling to study the actual ground and the like. High retrospective marks there, but obviously scholarship has long since passed them by in nearly every respect, whatever their subjects. Carlyle at least was a philosopher of some repute, and Froude his official biographer and follower, but whatever original thought there was to be had from either was all but entirely negative; more damning than daring, and even at their best, as touched with ashes as flame. Froude's style was much criticized at the time, though Santsbury and others sometimes defended it, and for the most part it runs smoothly enough to the reading now. Carlyle himself regularly denied having any style at all, though he most obviously does and that among the most eccentric in all of English letters. Neither historian do I find in the least sympathetic as to politics, nor does either seem to reach any conclusion from the facts they so admirably collected, many for the first time, but that it tends to be the wrong one in nearly every instance, at least from where I sit.
You get the idea. For me then it comes to this, I read these writers for the quality of their story-telling, their wit and their power, whatever it may have once been in aid of. I read Parkman and Schiller because they were great writers, because Carlyle and Macaulay and Prescott wrote great books, masterpieces of narrative history, some of 'em, because what they wrote and the way they wrote is still beautiful and interesting even if it no longer has much use, if use is to be narrowly, blandly and boorishly defined in the modern sense as "information." What I learn from reading these once popular historians is not just more than I actually wanted to know about Carlyle's Frederick the Great, or Froude's Tudors, but something of the minds that wrote our history in the late 18th to the early 20th Century.
I glory in their confidence, even as I sometimes blush at their conclusions. I read the historians as much or more than I find interest in the history. And I admire the often amazing things they made from a past that had yet to be digitized and collated, codified and tamed. Great writers needn't have been right always to now be read.
And yes, part of me still loves both the impeccably made object now past it's original purpose. The first volume of Macaulay's History, whatever it's faults as history, is still one of the monuments of 19th Century English prose. Carlyle's French Revolution is still among the most thrilling narratives in the language. Even in translation, Schiller's history still has the passionate rhetorical force of the new reviewing and revising the old. So yes, I still like exploring the ruins, and sitting with the dead. There is still value in what was, and what survives of what was once made of the past by men of even the most imperfect genius. Better that than dull utility; I don't accept "information" as a reason to read anything other than newspapers and pill-bottles. Give me writers first, the facts I can find on my own.
Thursday, March 27, 2014
Wednesday, March 26, 2014
"The abolitionists, we are told, were nasty, power-hungry men and sex-starved women seeking notoriety; everything would have worked out all right and slavery have died a 'natural death' if they had been shut up. But it is perfectly clear that slavery was too firmly rooted in Southern society to die otherwise than by violence."
From XXXIII, Ferment and Culture in the North, 1820 - 1850, 2. Abolition, Antislavery, and Utopia
Tuesday, March 25, 2014
"Few books are duller than books of Aphorisms and Apophthegms. A Jest-book is, proverbially no joke; a Wit-book, perhaps, worse; but dullest of all, probably, is the Moral-book, which this little volumes pretends to be. So with men: the Jester, the Wit, the Moralist, each wearisome in proportion as each deals exclusively in his own commodity. 'Too much of one thing,' says Fuller, 'is good for nothing.'"
From Preface to Polonius
Monday, March 24, 2014
"...Brodsky compares her to Jane Austen ('... her syntax resembles English. From the very threshold of her career to its very end she was always perfectly clear and coherent') but the point is an exceptionally shrewd one. Neither cared in the least about originality, or even about being an 'artist'; they just were so."
From Poems with a Heroine
Sunday, March 23, 2014
"He knew Cervantes by heart, and Gil Blas too."
From Chapter XIV, Irving and Cooper Abroad
Saturday, March 22, 2014
"Diligence is the beginning of scholarship, not the end point."
From Kinsey's Urethra
Friday, March 21, 2014
"I have, in fact, made a living for many years by thrusting myself upon the attention of strangers, most of them reluctant."
From The Ruin of an Artist
Thursday, March 20, 2014
YOUR MAN OF LETTERS
"Your man of letters thinks he can get Bunyan's or Shakespear's style without Bunyan's conviction or Shakespear's apprehension, especially if he takes care not to split his infinitive."
From Growing Old
Wednesday, March 19, 2014
Tuesday, March 18, 2014
Monday, March 17, 2014
WE HAVE ALL
"We have all murdered, in thought; and been murdered. We have all seen the ridiculous in estimable persons and in ourselves. We have all known terror as well as enchantment."
From Preface to Three Plays: Our town, The Skin of Our Teeth, The Matchmaker
Sunday, March 16, 2014
Here's an unhappy indication of the state of things, I must say. Less than a year ago -- May 14th, 2013 to be precise -- All the Great Prizes: The Life of John Hay, from Lincoln to Roosevelt, by John Taliaferro was published in hardcover by Simon and Schuster. The retail price was $35.00. The book was widely and respectfully reviewed, including a somewhat mixed notice in the Washington Post and good one from historical novelist Thomas Mallon in the New York Times. John Taliaferro is the author of four previous books, including well reviewed and popular biographies of the American cowboy painter, Charles M. Russell, and another of Edgar Rice Burroughs. We sold this new biography at the bookstore where I work. In fact, we still have a hardcover copy on the shelf. The paperback edition is scheduled to be released on May 27th of this year. A year and a day, basically, that's how long a hardcover book now seems to have to sell. All of which would seem a perfectly predictable progression in these all too hectic times, were it not for the arrival, in advance of the paperback, of a remainder hardcover.
Then there was the hardcover edition of Bill Clinton's memoirs a few years back that showed up as a bargain book everywhere before the ink was dry on the new paperbacks and pretty effectively killed the paperback dead. At the time, everybody I knew in the book business professed to be shocked, even if we none of us felt the least surprise that a) that book was headed the way of all such political memoirs, the remainder-tables or b) that the publisher would seem to have been, shall we say, overly optimistic as to the size of the audience for all 900+ pages of Bill.
Just a bit of anecdotal history might not be amiss here. Remainders, like the poor, are always with us. I won't trouble my fellow bibliophiles with all the sad stories of Fitzgerald's first edition of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam found in a bargain bin by Browning, was it? or the pulped first editions of Moby Dick, etc. But, to play the old elephant, I remember when it took months at the very least and more often years for publishers to off-load their remaining, unsold stock -- hence, "remainders,." New, or at least unread books, offered by bookstores to their customers as bargain books has always been part of the business then, but never so much so as now. It's actually not all that long ago that the hardcover editions of most books remained in print and available to be purchased at full-price well after the same had been published as paperbacks. (One of the real refinements of being a book-collector in even a modest way, back in the day was waiting to see if a book might ever be remaindered at all.)
Remainders themselves looked very different, back when I started buying them myself. Before I even knew what they were, I would occasionally buy books with a small stamp on the bottom page-edge; a Random House colophon, or little pictograph of, yes, a rather random house, for example, or more commonly, an inky black or blue star. It's only been since I've been in the business myself that the slovenly slash with a marker became the industry standard.
There were bookstores, and even one or two national chains like Crown Books, whose business model was founded on the remainder business. I can still remember a rather flyblown operation in the downtown Pittsburgh of my youth that may have been the first such operation I ever encountered. I bought my first Proust there, and yes, each volume was stamped with a star on it's bottom. What I remember mainly about the store though are the mountainous, ill-assorted tables of dusty, dreary academic books, always the same yellowing stacks of crossword puzzle books, and Anais Nin novels in paperback, with a hole-punched circle clipped from the front cover where the original price had been printed. (That was another convention of the day for remaindering books, and one I can happily say would seem to have disappeared altogether.)
Returns from the once all-powerful chain-bookstores to the publishers unleashed the new era, back in the eighties and nineties. What publisher could or would want to keep older, or "backlist" titles as they are known in the trade, sitting in warehouses when a quarter or half of their sold stock could come rolling back on them at any time, seemingly all in a week or a day from Barnes and Noble and or Borders, etc.?
Then Amazon.com happened.
Nowadays it seems every major publisher is run more like an entertainment studio, and nearly every hardcover book, novel or nonfiction, is launched like some new movie or television pilot, to sink or sell, bomb or bestseller, basically on the "opening weekend." Reviews, radio, even more rarely television can send a book up the list, but not even the best reviews or promotion can save a book from being remaindered or destroyed entirely in less than a year now. 56 "customer reviews" on Amazon.com, but still only number 13,016 on the list -- however that works? Remainder. Or, pulp. Done.
I happen to have read something of John Hay. Anyone with even a passing interest in reading about Abraham Lincoln will inevitably know something of Hay, his secretary and official biographer. Likewise, read about Theodore Roosevelt and there's John Hay, his Secretary of State. I've read Hay's letters, because there was a time when I was reading Henry Adams' histories and loads of Adams letters. I've read more than one biography of Henry Adams, come to that and Hay was his dearest friend. So, yes I did read John Taliaferro's All the Great Prizes when it came out, a little more than a year ago. Meant to write a review, but never did. I genuinely enjoyed the book. I thought the reviews I read at the time more than a little unfair to the author, as he wrote a very good biography, not the incomplete history of the Republic most of the reviewers seemed to criticize. (Newspapers and magazines will insist on hiring rivals, historians and academic specialists to review popular biographies, much to my frustration as a reader of same. Too tedious. I read history and biography as literature, an admittedly old fashioned notion everywhere but with the reading public, and I do wish such books were more regularly reviewed as such, but that is perhaps a fight for another day.)
My appreciation of this book contributes to my disappointment then in seeing it so quickly consigned to discount and oblivion. What chance does the paperback edition have really at the admittedly outrageous price of twenty bucks when we are already offering the only slightly defaced hardcover at $9.98?
To my mind, the lesson here should be something to do with publishers offering their wares at more realistic prices from the get, or not insisting that every book find an audience faster than a Fox sitcom, or perhaps, in a more perfect world, returning to some of the values of an earlier model of the business; one not patterned so much after the brothers Weinstein, as the brothers Harper, though that may just be so much nostalgia and moonshine on my part.
All I do know is that I could neither afford the new hardcover, priced thirty-five dollar plus tax, nor look upon the $9.98 remainder as anything other than a disappointing sign of the times.
"Once a strong degree of male arousal occurs, only the most blatant maladaptive emergencies can trigger the erotic kill switch."
From Chapter Two, Damn Dirty Apes