Never off my coffee table. This book reminds me what Lindergh is capable of--capable of when he's not photographing, for Harper's Bazaar, whatever med...moreNever off my coffee table. This book reminds me what Lindergh is capable of--capable of when he's not photographing, for Harper's Bazaar, whatever mediocore actress has a romantic comedy coming out this month. Julia Roberts and Catherine Zeta-Jones get the watered-down, occasionally color-film (blasphemy!) version of the style he forged in the editorial pages of Paris Vogue: gritty, dark-toned, noir-ish, Rodchenko-like, perfect for studies of a ferocious-looking Helena Christensen's tanned, coppery nakedness. (less)
"In the morning Sherman imposed full discipline, rounded up his stragglers, issued one hundred rifles to such civil authorities as remained, and march...more"In the morning Sherman imposed full discipline, rounded up his stragglers, issued one hundred rifles to such civil authorities as remained, and marched on, to the next stop of what O’Connell aptly calls the 'roadshow' of emancipation. Sherman’s culminating performance was the Grand Review of the returning armies, May 23 and 24, 1865. Two hundred thousand troops paraded down Pennsylvania Avenue, past the boxed dignitaries of Washington and seventy-five thousand cheering citizens. Sherman’s forces marched on the second day. Whitman, then clerking at the Indian Bureau, noted that divisions were preceded by pioneer battalions of 'real Southern darkies, black as tar,' marching smartly with shouldered axes. They had felled forests and laid the log roads on which the army had crossed the Carolina swamps. And taking up the rear, the families of freed people who had followed Sherman’s army out of bondage, and into an uncertain future. Black residents of Washington would also trail President Grant’s second Inauguration Day parade, and be jeered. With Lincoln killed, these generals were their hope."
A disappointment in the same line as Bliss Broyard’s One Drop. The same sense of intimate access muddled by so-so writing, of strange people incomplet...moreA disappointment in the same line as Bliss Broyard’s One Drop. The same sense of intimate access muddled by so-so writing, of strange people incompletely rendered. The book never quite rose above the level of those “Nostalgia” columns that run in US Vogue wherein the children of forgotten icons share bittersweet memories of their parents' lives off-stage. These brilliantly twisted people deserve a better biographer than their daughter. Worth skimming, though, if you’re obsessed, as I am, with stories of aristocratic Russian émigrés, traumatized but proud, making their way in the literary, artistic, and fashionable circles of the West, dazzling and scandalizing with their weird erotic verve, severe manners, hermetic emotional privacy, and strong, archly accented opinions. (less)
Re-reading this has primed me for some more Austen. For six months Persuasion has been a brick in my bedside to-read tower, and at no point of that ti...moreRe-reading this has primed me for some more Austen. For six months Persuasion has been a brick in my bedside to-read tower, and at no point of that time have I found myself in the mood to read the novel. I’m in the mood now. In the lofty ironic style with which he traced the dissipation of Roman dynasties and the dispersion of Roman power, Gibbon recounts the household anxieties – and squalors and disasters – of three generations of precarious English gentry. There’s a general background of mercantile humiliation, cruel entail, and mortgaged rural seats. Gibbon’s father was a well meaning but hopelessly improvident patriarch who squandered much of his inheritance paying down lifelong debts contracted in a few short seasons of fashionable metropolitan appearance. His mother was one of those wives constantly impregnated until she died of it. Gibbon had a ghost family of siblings dead in their first months. Six male infants were successively christened “Edward” in hope that one might survive to carry his father’s name; and one did. “My five brothers, whose names may be found in the Parish register of Putney, I shall not pretend to lament…”
This is one of the great literary testaments (it exists in a number of incomplete manuscripts, combined differently by various editors; I think I first read Sheffield’s, in a textbook; this one was made by Georges Bonnard). Through sickliness and neglect and straitened finances Gibbon struggled to get an education, and beyond that a classical command of Greek and Latin; through abortive experiments to find his subject, to master the sources, and to find a style that had “the proper tone, the peculiar mode of historical eloquence,” “the middle tone between a dull Chronicle and a Rhetorical reclamation”; to build his library, and fund his independence (“I might say with truth that I was never less alone than when by myself”). Love and marriage are breezily, and probably sincerely dismissed. Studious bachelorhood was his perfect state.
Freedom is the first wish our heart; freedom is the first blessing of our nature: and, unless we bind ourselves with the voluntary chains of interest or passion, we advance in freedom as we advance in years.
As English stylists I have always associated Gibbon and Santayana. And now as men. Gibbon’s book made me slightly pity Santayana, who from the evidence of Persons and Places (published in 1944 by Scribners whose editors arranged to have the manuscript smuggled out of Axis Rome, where the middle-aged Santayana had settled in 1912 “after the fashion of the ancient philosophers, often in exile, but always in sight of the marketplace and the theatre”) had a much longer journey through family obligation and wage-earning to “solitude and independence,” “philosophic freedom,” worldly hermeticism.
I laughed when Gibbon revisited Lausanne. As a youthfully rebellious Catholic convert he had been confined to and deprogrammed in the house of a Protestant pastor there. There he had also mastered French, prepared his first compositions, and cut a respectable figure among the locals. During his second sojourn, drinking habits picked up in the army during the Seven Year’s War
betrayed me into some riotous acts of intemperance; and before my departure, I had deservedly forfeited the public opinion which had been acquired by the virtues of my better days.
There is much more to say about this book but I am tired.
On France: But upon the whole I had reason to praise the national urbanity which from court has diffused its gentle influence to the shop, the cottage and the schools.
On the linguistic empire founded with England’s military-commercial one: The conquests of the language and literature are not confined to Europe alone; and the writer who succeeds in London is speedily read on the banks of the Delaware and the Ganges.
On cutting a figure: The miseries of a vacant life were never known to a man whose hours were insufficient for the inexhaustible pleasures of study. But I lamented, that at the proper age, I had not embraced the lucrative pursuits of law or of trade, the chances of civil office or India adventure, or even the fat slumbers of the Church…
On immortality: In old age, the consolation of hope is reserved for the tenderness of parents, who commence a new life in their children; the faith of enthusiasts, who sing Hallelujahs above the clouds; and the vanity of authors, who presume the immortality of their name and writing.
This half-memoir half-history is one of those bleak books that illustrate Sartre’s remark that a victory described in detail is indistinguishable from...moreThis half-memoir half-history is one of those bleak books that illustrate Sartre’s remark that a victory described in detail is indistinguishable from a defeat. On June 4, 1942, US Navy dive-bombers sank four Japanese aircraft carriers – all of which had been present at the attack on Pearl Harbor seven months prior – in one of the most spectacular naval revenges in history. But at other points of the battle, the American “Wildcat” fighters were found to be useless against the Japanese Zero, and the three squadrons of “Devastator” torpedo bombers were obliterated – 41 planes took off, 6 returned, and none scored a single hit on a Japanese ship. The crews of the Devastators flew obsolete aircraft, carried faulty torpedoes, and used terrible tactics: they flew straight at the Japanese carriers, low and slow, in tight formation; many were shot down by Japanese fighters before they could release, and those that did release “belly-flopped” their torpedoes into the waves, probably damaging the delicate propulsion and guidance innards. The destruction of the torpedo squadrons is always justified by the fact that their attacks kept the Japanese fighters off the American dive-bombers (the real hit men, lurking high above), and disrupted flight operations so much that the Japanese were unable to launch their own planned strike, and so hundreds of veteran Japanese pilots, waiting to take off, were incinerated in their cockpits.
Kernan, author of the completely engrossing memoir Crossing the Line: A Bluejacket’s Odyssey in WWII, was a member of one of those torpedo squadrons, not a flier but an eighteen-year-old ordinance trundler and torpedo-attacher aboard the carrier USS Enterprise. He reminds us that accidents and snafus complicate victories, that the early clashes of any war are fought by clumsy combatants desperately trying to learn their business while under fire. (The fighter and dive-bomber squadrons from the USS Hornet, nearly one-third of the American strike force, flew away from the battle, on a mistaken heading, under a commander whose navigation was rusty, and played no part.) I thought of Shiloh, in 1862, another momentous battle early in a long war, whose victor made fewer mistakes than the vanquished, where Grant and Sherman, future war masters, didn’t even think to have their troops entrench, and were surprised and nearly routed when the rebels attacked out of the dawn mist.
As in Crossing the Line, Kernan is here a keen military sociologist. Later in the war enlisted service personnel like young Kernan were permanently assigned to a carrier or a naval air station; early on, however, they were members of the squadrons, which moved about like the old baggage-laden British infantry regiments, microcosmic households with aristocrats (the pilots), scullions (junior grease monkeys like young Kernan), and several grades of variously skilled, variously privileged technicians (radiomen, armorers, metal smiths, parachute-riggers) falling in between. This household quality made the aftermath of Midway eerie for the torpedo bomber squadrons: they remained, but most of the planes were destroyed and most of the pilots dead. I dated this girl whose father was a deeply traumatized Vietnam vet, but he wasn’t the former grunt you always picture – he had been ground crew at an Air Force fighter-bomber base in Thailand, and he spoke of the horror of having to witness the steady attrition of the aircrew, week in and week out, each rotation of fresh faces containing a statistically inevitable – and often predictable - number of dead men. (less)
This account of Grant’s long dying, of the lucid lingering in which he composed his Personal Memoirs, made me think many times of Memoirs of Hadrian - especially the short opening section in which the emperor begins to discern, after a life of warfare and perilous travels, his quiet, domestic death, and in which he describes the abdications of his failing body:
To give up riding is a greater sacrifice still…if the choice of my condition had been left to me I would have decided for that of a centaur. Between Borysthenes and me relations were of almost mathematical precision; he obeyed me as if I were his own brain, not his master. Have I ever obtained as much from a man? ... My horse knew me not by the thousand approximate notions of title, function, and name which complicate human friendship, but solely by my just weight as a man. He shared my every impetus; he knew perfectly, and perhaps better than I, the point where my strength faltered under my will.
“Horses seem to understand Ulysses,” said his mother, perhaps hinting only horses could. From his cadet years he was acknowledged the finest horseman in the army, and the mastery of large, spirited, unmanageable-looking mounts was one of the few personal demonstrations this shy man allowed himself. Tellingly, he chose to smoke his doctor-decreed last cigar with a Hudson Valley horse breeder, on a fine autumn day, while they were out having a look at the colts.
Flood’s book is blandly written and strangely organized, but the latter chapters quote a wealth of contextual detail. The get-well letters from schoolchildren, the condolence telegrams from former rebel generals and lodges of Confederate veterans, all the funereal logistics of Manhattan crowd control and mourning fashion (by 4:00pm on the day Grant died Bloomingdale’s was sold out of black crepe; the New York Times noted that “in the narrow streets and the tall crowded buildings where the poor make their homes the sign of grief is nearly on every door post…in many cases it is nothing but a narrow strip of cheap black cambric fluttering in the breeze from the topmost story of some tenement house or a small flag bordered with a piece of folded crepe from a wornout bonnet”) allow the reader to sense the nature and magnitude of Grant’s fame in the twenty years he lived after the war. He was the foremost living symbol of peaceful unity – the nation was locally fraught, but generally at peace; its unity mocked, beset, but not fatally endangered by labor strife in the North, racial terrorism in the South, and, out West, amid the piecemeal settlement, sporadic warfare and nigh-genocidal dispossession. A society traumatized and confused but mostly functional, its injustice and inequality somehow borne, its ideals regularly betrayed but still vital enough to inspire immigrants and the young, its citizens ever-hopeful of adapting, rising, overcoming; a country always, said Bernard DeVoto, in the process of becoming something it had not been; a welter of souls strangely channeled, by force, by whim, and deposited somewhere. The semblance of community, and frequently the substance.
The national tributes Grant received in his illness, especially those from old rebels, gave a calm to the “Conclusion” of his Personal Memoirs. “The expressions of these kindly feelings were not restricted to a section of the country, nor to a division of the people.” A prospect of felicitous integration – what he called “a commingling of the people.” The styles of Grant and Yourcenar’s Hardrian intersect at a lyrical legalism, a civic sublimity:
Prior to the rebellion the great mass of the people were satisfied to remain near the scenes of their birth. In fact an immense majority of the whole people did not feel secure against coming to want should they move among entire strangers …This is all changed now … The war begot a spirit of independence and enterprise. The feeling now is, that a youth must cut loose from his old surroundings to enable him to get up in the world. There is now such a commingling of the people that…the country has filled up “from the centre all around to the sea”; railroads connect the two oceans and all parts of the interior; maps, nearly perfect, of every part of the country are now furnished the student of geography.
I desired that the might and majesty of the Roman Peace should extend to all, insensibly present like the music of the revolving skies; that the most humble traveler might wander from one country, or one continent, to another without vexatious formalities, and without danger, assured everywhere of a minimum of legal protection and culture…
Yourcenar said that in her wartime hiatus from work on the novel, the emperor, “the most official yet the most hidden form of all,” had gradually emerged from Hadrian’s other selves – “The fact of having lived in a world that was toppling all around us taught me the importance of the Prince.” Grant’s memory was for a long time obscured in his nation’s era of general peace, when unity was assumed, order assured, and rebels romantic; what does his memory mean for us now that the Federal political system of the United States is again broken, again at an impasse? (less)
It can be objected that I am speaking of political freedom in spiritual terms, but the political institutions of any nation are alw...moreDated? Not at all.
It can be objected that I am speaking of political freedom in spiritual terms, but the political institutions of any nation are always menaced and are ultimately controlled by the spiritual state of that nation. We are controlled here by our confusion, far more than we know, and the American dream has therefore become something much more closely resembling a nightmare, on the private, domestic, and international levels. Privately, we cannot stand our lives and dare not examine them; domestically, we take no responsibility for (and no pride in) what goes on in our country; and, internationally, for many millions of people, we are an unmitigated disaster. (less)
The Kingdom of this World was a charred little fable of revolutionary violence – vengeful voodoo, conspiratorial caves, signal drums in the night; a r...moreThe Kingdom of this World was a charred little fable of revolutionary violence – vengeful voodoo, conspiratorial caves, signal drums in the night; a revolt of slaves, “senseless and merciless” – and I sought out Explosion in a Cathedral hoping for something in that line. The novel’s scope is broader, embracing, as Carpentier writes in his afterward, “the whole area of the Caribbean” in a time of revolution, abolition, piracy and war. Explosion in a Cathedral (the original Spanish title is pointedly ironic: El Siglo de Las Luces – The Age of Enlightenment) definitely has its longueurs, but there are plenty of terrifyingly effective episodes, festive orgies of iconoclasticism, abortions of ideals.
And since the whole island must learn its lesson, the guillotine was removed from the Place de la Victoire, and began to travel, to go on journeys and excursions.
The scenes of re-enslavement, of expeditions to recapture runaways in their jungle strongholds, of reversion to the regional order despite the proclamations of the distant Republic, are especially fucked-up. Of the novel’s the fourteen epigraphs, thirteen are titles of etchings from Goya’s The Disasters of War, and one is a long extract from the book of Job. So that’s the kind of book this is.
And it’s right up my alley: little dialogue; casual violence; descriptive catalogues of frightful plants and beasts; mordant political reflections. The New World is seen not as a new start for humanity but the theater of Europe’s racist cruelty, its outsourced exploitation; its sweat shop, abattoir, lions’ den, “Rape Room”; the anus mundi, as a Nazi doctor called occupied Poland, where kidnapped peoples are exterminated or worked to death for small profit. The translation is occasionally entrancing, and suggests that behind it lies an interesting Latinate style, a morbid, tropically warped classicism, an incipient baroque, elegant and oppressive.
There were silent houses, hidden in the woods, where columns from some Greek temple rose up to meet pediments obliterated by ivy…
Halfway through I posted a status update recommending this to people who enjoyed the pace and texture of The Radetzky March, and I stand by that. Carpentier’s characters are not intricately conflicted – this is no Woolfian kaleidoscope of memory and desire – and they are defined by their relation to the French Revolution, as Roth’s three generations of von Trottas are defined by relation to the different stages of Austro-Hungarian decay. Especially read this if you’re interested in the revolutionary type of “hard man,” the rationalist who revels in the supposed necessity of his murders. The heyday of Robespierre and Saint-Just was short, but the orator of caustic blasphemy survived as a French style. More than a few times while reading I thought of this glimpse of Baudelaire in the Goncourt Journals:
Baudelaire had supper at the table next to ours. He was without a cravat, his shirt open at the neck and his head shaved, just as if he were to be guillotined. A single affectation: his little hands washed and cared for, the nails kept scrupulously clean. The face of a maniac, a voice that cuts like a knife, and a precise elocution that tries to copy Saint-Just and succeeds.
The Wikipedia entry on Carpentier says that soon after reading Explosion in a Cathedral (1962), Garcia Marquez destroyed the first draft of One Hundred Years of Solitude and started anew. That entry also notes that Carpentier’s “magic realism” (a phrase Carpentier coined) is not fantastic, and his characters do not defy physical laws; the history and politics of the Caribbean are sufficiently surreal. I wonder if Garcia Marquez realized Carpentier had already made the history strange, and the only place to go was pure fantasy.
#4 is as hard to rate as the rest, being like them wildly uneven. At least to my taste. In Mother's Milk the characters around Patrick Melrose are no...more#4 is as hard to rate as the rest, being like them wildly uneven. At least to my taste. In Mother's Milk the characters around Patrick Melrose are no good at all, vague, phoned-in, not-quite-there; boring. But from Patrick's point of view St Aubyn's prose rockets into Cioran-ish heights of nihilist lyricism. The "sardonic harmonies" of the stupid generations are ever more obvious to our extending lifespans and bored, self-devouring domestic over-analysis. Vistas of futility, illuminated further and further behind.
"Aren't you reading rather too much into those two words?" "What else is there to do but read too much into things?" said Patrick breezily. "What a poor, thin, dull world we'd live in if we didn't. Besides, is it possible? There's always more meaning than we can lay our hands on."
#5, At Last, isn't a high priority, but I do need to see where Patrick ends up. (less)
"There," said Wellington, sitting in the park at Brussels two weeks before Waterloo, and answering Creevey's question about how well he hoped the comi...more"There," said Wellington, sitting in the park at Brussels two weeks before Waterloo, and answering Creevey's question about how well he hoped the coming campaign would go, "it all depends upon that article whether we do the business or not." He had seen a private soldier of one of the infantry regiments enter the park, gaping about at the statues. "Give me enough of it," he went on, "and I am sure." (John Keegan)
The Mad Minute was a pre-World War I term used by British Army riflemen during training at the Hythe School of Musketry to describe scoring 15 hits onto a 12" round target at 300 yards (270 m) within one minute using a bolt-action rifle (usually a Lee-Enfield or Lee-Metford rifle). It was not uncommon during the First World War for riflemen to greatly exceed this score. Many riflemen could average 30+ shots while the record, set in 1914 by Sergeant Instructor Alfred Snoxall, was 38 hits. During the Battle of Mons, in August 1914, there were numerous German accounts of coming up against what they believed was machine gun fire when in fact it was squads of riflemen firing at this rate. (Wikipedia)(less)
A staff officer’s readable and occasionally absorbing memoir of Grant’s patient, painstaking, year-long destruction of Lee's army. Porter says “Grant’...moreA staff officer’s readable and occasionally absorbing memoir of Grant’s patient, painstaking, year-long destruction of Lee's army. Porter says “Grant’s combativeness displayed itself only to the enemy” – a remark reflected in the book’s structure, in which anecdotes of Grant’s uxoriousness, easy relations with difficult subordinates, and courtesy to hostile Southern women alternate with accounts of his predaceous cunning in the field – the feints, the bluffs, the savage pounces! Porter is the source of many of the stories I’d read about Grant.
Edmund Wilson overstated things when he recommended Porter’s memoir as an essential supplement to Grant’s Personal Memoirs, the style of which Wilson found too sagely and imperturbable to admit much piteous blood-and-guts detail. Grant was incapable of the lurid Gericault manner in which Porter painted the aftermath of the battle at Spotsylvania Courthouse –
Below the mass of fast-decaying corpses, the convulsive twitching of limbs and the writhing of bodies showed that there were wounded men still alive and struggling to extricate themselves from their horrid entombment.
– but Porter isn’t always lurid nor Grant evasive. For instance, Grant acknowledges his disastrous mistake of ordering a suicidal second assault at Cold Harbor, a disaster Porter glosses over – though he helpfully clarifies that the strange name of the Virginia village, for me the spookiest Civil War battle/place-name after “Wilderness Tavern” and “Antietam” (which is Algonquian but sounds like a precinct of Milton’s Hell, a rebarbative Hebrew-Latin portmanteau coined by an learned Puritan divine), “had been taken from places frequently found along the highways of England, and means ‘shelter without fire.’”
At times comparison with Porter only shows how modern, how suggestive Grant’s style could be - the style that captivated Stein, Anderson, and through them influenced Hemingway. Quite often Porter takes two tedious pages to tell a story Grant compresses in an uncanny paragraph; Porter calls Grant’s dispatches “epigrammatic without his being aware of it." But the dated grandiloquence of Porter’s style, and his touching faith in White Anglo-Saxon cultural continuity (Buchanan Read’s poem on Sheridan’s ride to Winchester has made the exploit “famous for all time,” to quicken the hearts of schoolboys hence, etc.), have their own interest, at least for me, and are less conspicuous for the book’s period-ish printing. Campaigning with Grant was a volume of Century Magazine’s 1890s series Battles and Leaders of the Civil War (Stephen Crane read many of them on a couch in a painter friend's studio above Broadway and resolved to supply the genteel lacunae with a story of his own) re-issued by Time-Life in the 1980s with gilt edges, red-ribbon markers, decorative endpapers, and original type and illustrations. The book is uncomfortably hefty. Carrying it down the street wearing shorts I felt like a youth group minister with his Bible. Grant's foremost lieutenants, Sherman and Sheridan, appear not in wartime photographs, with lean and hungry looks, but in reproductions of the official postwar portraits made when they were successively General-in-Chief, and both are bald, their chests hung with medals, their portly stomachs crossed by sashes. After destroying the Plains Indians, both retired to New York, became theater-going gourmands and banquet speakers, wreathed in cigar smoke and young actresses. In his quickie cash-in 1892 biography of Sherman, dead the year before, the ink-stained hack James Penny Boyd says that as a “raconteur and man-about-town” the general ranked with the likes of “Chauncey M. Depew and General Horace Porter.” That made me laugh. Appropriately, Campaigning with Grant opens a vista onto the Gilded Age Power Elite (Wikipedia tells me Porter was a vice-president at Pullman).
Three Wogs is the work of a verbal sorcerer and deep-seeing satirist unafraid of prolixity or obscurity in the pursuit of a complex effect: the grotes...moreThree Wogs is the work of a verbal sorcerer and deep-seeing satirist unafraid of prolixity or obscurity in the pursuit of a complex effect: the grotesque real, the dusklight under which social aversions reveal erotic fears and fantasies – the depths where "horror and pleasure coincide” said Leiris. The important physical spaces are liminal or subterranean. The theater where the Sinophobe and refugee-tormenter Mrs. Proby goes to be deliciously alarmed before giant projected scenes of Fu Manchu's lubricious villainy:
The theatre, with its smell of weak lilac and cheap caporal, was the perfect hush in soft red lights that Mrs. Proby loved: funereal, anonymous, the nethermost retreat where the tired, amorous, and lonesome could sleep or fondle or expatiate in ones or twos or threes, far from the madding crowd and unbothered in the reliquary of pure imagination.
The nocturnal depot under Victoria Station where the troglodytic lout Roland McGuffey washes buses before emerging to menace an Indian student asleep on bench awaiting his train:
The sound of water was coming from some sourceless spot, a broken aqueduct, perhaps, or maybe some conduit water spilling out of an ancient furrow or some lead Roman leakage of Londinium. Roland blinked his eyes to adjust them to the darkness, then disappeared into a stairway like a bit of dirt into a Hoover—and stepped into the damp cellar. The cold light of tiny bulbs, blue and pennysized, strung out between eerie shadows and revealed a hushed ash-grey tomb, a cell of must, cannibalized, as if by Mulciber, into a warehouse for those who work by night – the dark, witching hours that slowly pass, soured, it always seems, by those deep and unassignable final causes that desperately remind us of our odd naked frailties and whisper to us we owe God a death.
The “dark labyrinth of shale-colored stone and traceried windows” where Reverend Which Therefore, a foppish ghoul of a clergyman whose bookplate is a “ferroprussiate reproduction of one of Rouault’s mauled Christs, with Which Therefore’s name in ten-point type substituted for Pilate’s inscription,” reluctantly officiates at the marriage of the African choirmaster with whom he is besotted to a girl who he can only picture “performing jack-flips on a runway in Great Windmill Street at a half-crown a go, a Salomé who’d divest down to the bone for a posy bag of shillings”:
Next to one of the columns sat a small table where one could purchase, for a shilling each, leather bookmarks embossed in pinchbeck, shiny postcards of the Family Windsor, and small pamphlets which stapled together the church’s history…and prose accounts of various legends more than willingly enlarged upon, as was usual in these churches all over London, by little pie-faced but dedicated shawlies who sat lost in their mufflers, blueing in the cold, chatting with Japanese businessmen and troops of German girl scouts, and recommending this or that with chirps of delight and sad smiles—grumbling mercilessly only in the off chance they should be locked in overnight, a not infrequent hazard for the napping octogenarian placed in the same corner with long dead ladies and snipenosed, marmoreal queens.
I’ve quoted Three Wogs at its most scenic-atmospheric, but dialogue and indirect discourse are just as important in the book. Theroux creates comedy from the immigrants’ accents and pedantically precise diction (especially in contrast with the grunts and growls of their tormentors), and elaborates the racists’ fantasies with astounding rhetorical verve. Every page is rich and weird. Asked in the Bookslut interview why he incorporates “a multiplicity of narrative forms” into his novels, Theroux answered: “Pedantry. The delight in living. Brio. The chance to act, to mime, to mock, to mimic.” A wonderful credo. I am very excited to read Darconville’s Cat. (less)
“Note You really have to use bourbon. The Rye Old-Fashioned is not too bad; the Irish version just tolerable; the Scotch one not worth while.” Exactly...more“Note You really have to use bourbon. The Rye Old-Fashioned is not too bad; the Irish version just tolerable; the Scotch one not worth while.” Exactly. And never mind the rye snobs suddenly all about, I was once twitted by my best friend’s wife for not specifying brandy – because that’s how the Old-Fashioned was made in 1890s New Orleans, you see. She has a meaty ass, big long-toed feet, and she paints. I loathe her in an amiable, intermittently lustful, sitcom-like way.
There’s not much to do but quote him. This passage decided my purchase:
You get hold of a half litre of vodka and what’s probably harder to come by in a socialist county, three paper cups. Perhaps the grocer will let you stand in his shop, anyway you find someplace where the wind isn’t blowing and you drink the vodka, quite fast I expect, and then you go home. And that’s your night out with the lads.
In its way I find the thought of that almost as depressing as anything to do with the Gulag or mental hospitals. Remember it when the juke box in the pub is too loud or they can’t do you a Harvey Walbanger.
When me and the aforementioned best friend are trudging through snow drifts toward a bar, heads down, breasting the Arctic blast, grapeshot by ice pellets, one of us will inevitably cry out – and the other will sustain his fellow by shouting “Stalingrad, [those fuckers had it so much worse at] Stalingrad.” And then we laugh and punch shoulders. We’re dorks – but men love challenges, tests of fortitude. Surveying my current situation, I see that the challenges I have chosen are: the weather (the Northern pedestrian-busgoer is congeneric with the Homeless Guy; stout boots, sturdy packs, with negligible nuances of cost); booze (consoling yet treacherous); a long-term relationship (the Ikea-floorlamp-shadowy dim domestic stalemate); and the infinite mutability of the English sentence. Kingsley and Martin clashed over style. Kingsley is unimpeachable, but safe.
She admits to tracing Didion’s sentences as Didion admitted to tracing Hemingway’s – much of this is Didionish, personal-historical, my neurosis inter...moreShe admits to tracing Didion’s sentences as Didion admitted to tracing Hemingway’s – much of this is Didionish, personal-historical, my neurosis intersects the vastness – but three of the essays, "Time and Distance Overcome," “Is this Kansas,” and “No Man’s Land,” are distinctive and strong. You can read them on her site and you should. I liked the shoutouts to Marilynne Robinson and the fighting abolitionists of the Middle Border. The blurbs oversell her; if Biss tells you a “story of our country” that you “never saw coming” – then you ig’nant. Or were. Or are a teenager - this is an ideal book to assign to undergraduates. I say that without snark – her’s is a young, “relatable,” approachable, wise and stylish voice telling Americans what they need to know and what Faulkner – and Louis CK– have also told: “the past is never dead; it’s not even past.” (less)
A core of three intense near-manifestoes – “The Artist as Critic,” “The Scholar as Critic,” “The Critic as Artist” – surrounded by occasional essay-re...moreA core of three intense near-manifestoes – “The Artist as Critic,” “The Scholar as Critic,” “The Critic as Artist” – surrounded by occasional essay-reviews which show us Montaigne’s Italian journey (a “medicine-and-book-laden coach set out for Rome…”), the props and repertoire of third-century Alexandrian mimes, Nabokov teaching Don Quixote at Harvard (“Nabokov was lecturing in the hotbed of Spanish romanticizing. Lowell and Longfellow had invented a Spain which has stuck in the American imagination”); Balthus, late Beckett, the automotive deformation of the small American city; and so much more. In his Paris Review interview Davenport called himself “an obscure and experimental writer” – or I would say one of those mandarins Updike neatly sketched as “beyond commercial hopes, beyond the general earthbound sensibility,” with no rousing tale to tell or public thesis to prove, but a “rare sensibility and a curious found of information.” I love Davenport like I love Marguerite Yourcenar and Guido Ceronetti. He’s such a surprising and unpredictable writer that he can repeat all the most ig’nant shit ever said about Ulysses Grant in an essay that is nonetheless one of the best things I’ve read on the American Civil War. This is good:
What Olmstead shows us is a culture in the raw, capable of a high civilization in Charleston drawing rooms and in a few private homes, but for the most part not working, clumsy, perhaps purposeless to those who took stock of what they thought they were doing. In their most idealistic picture of themselves, Southerners looked back to Greece and Rome (a decade or so after the century of the Enlightenment!) for a model, but many of them must have seen that they were awkwardly out of phase, that they were maintaining a feudal society in the dawn of the Age of Steam. Slavery gave them the opportunity to be idle, demoralized, and vain. The beautiful irony is that it was a man bored with being idle [Grant], for whom war was something to do, who fought them to the death over an ideal which perhaps both North and South, each in their own way, had betrayed.
When I read J.F.C. Fuller’s Grant and Lee a few years ago I was shocked by the evidence of Lee’s carelessness and fatalism, his ineptitude as an administrator and indifference to high strategy, his seeming failure to grasp the nature of the war he was fighting, and by the aristocratic arrogance that let him believe that to chasten a Federal army was to destroy it. Perhaps Lee was simply an inferior general who didn’t “know his business,” but sometimes I wonder if he knew he was wrong and his heart just wasn’t in it. He did say before the war that slavery harmed Southern society, and he had spent his life in the US Army, and his father had been one of George Washington’s trusted lieutenants. The North’s superiority is always described as one of men or material, less frequently of morale; the North retained a far larger portion of the country’s mystic nationalism, the evangelical certainty that God created the United States to redeem humanity from dark centuries of class tyranny and sectarian oppression. Lincoln and Sherman wrote like melancholic ironists but acted like fanatical warlords; muted Grant, in whom Davenport weirdly finds no ideals, writes of Providence guiding his armies. Beside such certainty Confederate nationalism seems like bravado and duelist pique. At the outbreak of war Grant and many others thought the slaveholders were committing suicide.