"The bravura passage we miss is a description of Istanbul – a capriccio of Constantinople's ruins...I like to imagine him taken up by the trilogy's cu...more"The bravura passage we miss is a description of Istanbul – a capriccio of Constantinople's ruins...I like to imagine him taken up by the trilogy's culminating noctambulistic smart set, the highest-spirited and most sensuously erudite of the entire journey: after a day lazing in the host's library, hungover yet casually assimilating the corpus of orientalisme, especially relishing Gautier's and Nerval's accounts of the city, he joins and exhorts whiskey-sprung, lantern-lit hijinks in the spooky corridors and vast vaulted magazines of the ruinous seaward walls. He drinks raki with boatmen and learns their songs. Watches a yalı burn to the ground. Dines standing at a fish vendor, loiters on the Galata Bridge, leans from the rails, entranced by ferry traffic as night falls, and Süleymaniye silhouetted on its hill. And I imagine the purple patch he might have based on that unearthed stretch of mosaic pavement – a mythological bestiary, griffons, centaurs, mixed with touching realistic scenes of hunting and husbandry – that once linked the ruined Seaside Palace to the unreachably buried Great Palace (it's under the Blue Mosque). Or the prose poem he might have made of the church of the Holy Savior in Chora, the jewel of Byzantine churches, its interior a glorious mosaic cinema of the genealogy, ministry, crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ; it was the repository of the icon of the Virgin Hodegetria, which monks carried along the Land Walls during the final siege, to inspirit defenders. Neither the pavement nor the church had been excavated in 1935 – but this was a flight of fancy anyway."
Setting out, my girlfriend ribbed me for carrying such an “impractical” guide – that is one concerned almost entirely with art, museums and monuments...moreSetting out, my girlfriend ribbed me for carrying such an “impractical” guide – that is one concerned almost entirely with art, museums and monuments – but it so happened that Freely’s Blue Guide Istanbul contains the clearest and most detailed maps – is eminently “practical.” Freely explicates the half-obliterated mosaics in a Byzantine church better than the clownish hired guide whose dumb, distracting wisecracks raise feebly polite laughs from the gullible and now regretful group; and then he helps you find a hole in the wall shop on some precipitous back street. His restaurant recommendations seem afterthoughts but they aren’t. My favorite was the place just inside the Edirne Gate (through which Mehmet II, “the Conqueror,” entered vanquished Constantinople) whose chefs recreate, as far as is possible, recipes found in the Ottoman archives. The 1469 hummus was a little too pasty and sweet for my taste, but the 1844 pudding, almonds and seasonal fruits in a rosewater syrup, had an unearthly daintiness that reminded me of the Ottoman Rococo writing chests, all tortoiseshell and mother-of-pearl, that I’d admired behind museum glass (word to you potential Goncourts out there: the “Tulip Era” Ottoman court is one of the "eighteenth century wonderlands," and an aesthete could make an emotional home in the study its handicrafts). That restaurant didn’t serve manti, or ravioli alla turca, a favorite dish of Mehmet II, and a temporary obsession of mine.
I also liked Freely’s generous extracts from the vast travel literature – sober merchants’ notes to lubricious orientalisme; and in his own prose Freely frequently mounts from mere instruction to eloquent vistas:
The Byzantine land walls stretch for 6.5km from the Sea of Marmara to the Golden Horn. These fortifications protected Byzantium from its enemies for more than a thousand years, until the fateful day in late May 1453 when they were breached by Mehmet II and his army using a colossal cannon cast by a Hungarian. Today the walls are in ruins, the districts around them prey to dereliction and stray dogs. Nevertheless, they are still an impressive and evocative sight, with their tower-studded battlements marching across what were once the empty plains of Thrace.
Pamuk adds another layer to Istanbul’s proverbial description as “the bridge between east and west” by showing how the major Istanbul modernists – poe...morePamuk adds another layer to Istanbul’s proverbial description as “the bridge between east and west” by showing how the major Istanbul modernists – poet Yahya Kemal and novelist A.H. Tanpinar, new names to me, I have to follow up – derived a poetics of post-imperial ennui and urban decay from the melancholic image of their city recorded or dreamed by travelling French writers in the nineteenth century. “[T]he roots of our hüzün [urban melancholy] are European: the concept was first explored, expressed and poeticized in French,” he writes. And the nineteenth century French, the literary critics will tell you, were dealing with their own post-Napoleonic, post-imperial fatigue, and a Mal du siècle which made for what is called a “Late” Romanticism: dark, sexually anguished and routinely syphilitic (“The day the young writer corrects his first proofs he is as proud as the schoolboy who has just caught his first dose of the clap” - Baudelaire), as well as more perverse and pessimistic than the verdant and Liberty-extolling English variety (outcast, exiled, dark-locked Lord Byron being the founding hero, the revolting Satan for the French Romantics). I love that whole nervous crew; the Horror of Life Club, with their flamboyant despair and macabre brilliance (an 1874 entry of the Goncourt Journal begins, “Dinner at the Café Riche with Flaubert, Turgenev, Zola...We began a long discussion of the special aptitudes of writers suffering from constipation and diarrhea; and we went on to talk about the mechanics of the French language”). For such Istanbul visitors as Gautier, Nerval, and Flaubert melancholy was salutary and decadence authentic, the human norm. They relished the “Orient” for what they saw as its frank spectacles of violence and decay. Flaubert was especially taken with what he saw as the unworried kinship of pomp and squalor; writing a friend from Istanbul in November 1850, he marveled at the “splendid faces, iridescent existences that glisten and gleam, exceedingly various in their riches and robes, rich in filth, in their tatters and finery. And there beneath it all, the old immutable, perennial rascality.” – antiquity and authenticity in contrast to the European bourgeoisie’s fatuous conflation of moral and material progress, its aesthetics of engineering, its religion of convenience. When the Istanbul modernists, like all the other modernists, made their pilgrimages to the French wellsprings, they found their city already a literary image of melancholy – and just in time, what with Istanbul now the defunct capital of a fallen empire, poor, isolated, and afflicted by Westernizing republicans – a virulently progressive form of authoritarian bourgeois, in Pamuk’s picture – eager to raze the old Ottoman mansions and pour concrete Corbusian apartment blocks in their place. I thought of Baudelaire on the demolitions of medieval Paris – “the form of a city changes more quickly, alas! than the human heart.”
My favorite sections of the book were those devoted to Istanbul writers. Kemal and Tanpinar had two interesting associates, bachelor flâneurs like themselves: the Proust-like recluse Abdülhak Şinasi Hisar, and the historian Reşat Ekrem Koçu, compiler of the lurid and idiosyncratic Istanbul Encyclopedia (its entries on Ottoman torture devices and techniques thrilled young Orhan) who lived alone amid ceiling-high piles of nineteenth century newspapers and archival scraps. I love the image of a coterie of urban dreamers engrossed by a city, people for whom the layered landscape of their 2,500 year old home is a complete cosmos, the inexhaustible ground for diverse passions – creative and curatorial, novelistic and antiquarian; sexual, architectural, philosophical. (I think of Joseph Cornell reading Mallarmé after a day rummaging in New York City’s junk shops.) Pamuk is, of course, one of these writers. I was deeply impressed to read that the composition of his latest novel, The Museum of Innocence, was preceded by two decades of collecting hundreds of objects that would “belong” to the characters and figure in the book. And then he opened a real museum to display the collection. Elif Batuman in the London Review of Books:
The inspiration for the Museum of Innocence came to Pamuk in 1982, while he was having dinner with the last prince of the Ottoman dynasty. Exiled after the formation of the Turkish republic, the prince ended up in Alexandria and worked for decades at the Antoniadis Palace museum, first as a ticket collector and then as director. Now, back in Istanbul after a fifty-year exile, he needed a job. The guests discussed the delicate subject of employment for the straitened septuagenarian prince of a defunct empire. Someone said the Ihlamur Palace museum might need a guide: who better than the prince, who had lived there as a child? Pamuk was immediately taken by the idea of a man who outlives his era and becomes the guide to his own house-museum. He imagined how the prince would greet visitors – ‘Ladies and gentlemen! Seventy years ago, in this room, I sat with my aide-de-camp and studied mathematics!’ – before crossing the velvet cordon to sit once more at his childhood desk, demonstrating how he had held the pencil and ruler.
Ten years later, Pamuk came up with an insane plan: to write a novel in the form of a museum catalogue, while simultaneously building the museum to which it referred. The plot of the novel would be fairly straightforward: over many years, an unhappy lover contrives to steal a large number of objects belonging to his unattainable beloved, after whose untimely death he proceeds to buy her family’s house and turn it into a museum. You might think that Pamuk’s first step, as a writer, would have been to start writing. In fact, his first step was to contact a real-estate agent. He needed to buy a house for his future heroine, Füsun. During the 1990s, Pamuk visited hundreds of properties, trying to imagine Füsun and her parents living in them. It was beyond his means to purchase a whole building in Nişantaşi, the posh neighbourhood inhabited by Kemal, the hero of the novel. He could afford a single floor in a stone building in the old Ottoman commercial centre of Galata, but then the remodelling would be difficult...
For the next ten years, writing and shopping proceeded in a dialectical relationship. Pamuk would buy objects that caught his eye, and wait for the novel to ‘swallow’ them, demanding, in the process, the purchase of further objects. Occasionally an object refused to be swallowed, as happened with some carriage lanterns and an old gas meter. Pamuk published The Museum of Innocence in 2008. It resembles less a museum catalogue than a 600-page audio guide. A ticket printed in the back of each copy grants one free entry to the museum. By that point he had already acquired nearly all of Füsun’s belongings, so the museum could, in theory, have opened the next day. But Pamuk was worried about the example of Edouard Dujardin, the French writer sometimes credited with pioneering, in a largely forgotten text called Les Lauriers sont coupés, the stream of consciousness. Pamuk didn’t want to be Dujardin. He wanted to be Joyce. It wasn’t enough just to build the world’s first synergetic novel-museum. The museum had to be a thing of beauty. He hired a team of artists and curators and worked full time in the museum for several months, taking naps on Kemal’s bed in the attic.
If the Tuareg had never existed, it would have been necessary for Borges to invent them:
On 1 June  a group of Tuareg joined the caravan, promisi
...moreIf the Tuareg had never existed, it would have been necessary for Borges to invent them:
On 1 June  a group of Tuareg joined the caravan, promising both to supply Vallombrosa with fresh camels (those he had purchased at Gabes were of poor quality) and to escort him through the dangerous regions ahead. Vallombrosa greeted them as fellow warriors. Two days later he was still impressed by their devotion to the cause and, interrupting a conversation that he could not understand but which concerned the time and manner of his death, he invited them to a meal of couscous and tinned fish.
One of their chiefs, a famed deviser of ambushes and deadly ruses, was named Attici ag Amellal—“leopard among the whites.” Their stronghold was the Hoggar, “a massive natural fortress whose mountains rose more than 3,000 feet above sea level on a horseshoe-shaped plateau that was accessible only from the south.” False friendship was a favorite tactic: guides would lead French columns away from wells; a gift of crushed dates would be mixed with the lettuce-like but incredibly toxic efelehleh, which would induce partial paralysis, comas, and terrifying hallucinations.
So, the conquest of the Sahara was, to a large degree, the pacification of these proud and lethal motherfuckers. In this pacification the titular “two men” were vital. Charles de Foucauld and Henri Laperrine formed that classic colonial duo, priest and soldier, “the sword and the cross.” But neither man was a typical specimen. Foucauld was a wealthy, dissolute aristocrat, a comically obese gourmand and womanizer who renounced his ways and became a Trappist monk; unable to find a monastery with a harsh enough regime, a restricted enough diet or a remote enough location—Fleming jokes about “penance to the point of suicide”—Foucauld became a desert hermit, “a sunbaked scarecrow,” and eventually settled among the Tuareg in the rocky fastness of the Hoggar, an area so dangerous and so distant from Europe - it took two months by camel to reach the nearest railway - that he might have been on another planet entirely. In the Hoggar, Foucauld compiled a Tuareg-French dictionary and supplied intelligence to the army. He was esteemed as a holy man — his idiosyncratic Catholicism accorded, at points, with the idiosyncratic Islam of the Tuareg — but he never won a single convert.
Laperrine, for his part, was one of those eccentric misfit soldiers who are most effective operating at the edges of official policy, with negligible supervision. (He wasn’t, however, an insane Kurtz-figure, though the Armée d’Afrique had plenty; Senegal is where officers seemed to really lose their minds; one, a Captain Voulet, in 1898-99 cut a 1,000 mile swath of burned villages, massacred families, and flippantly executed underlings, all the way from the banks of the River Niger to Lake Chad, where he ended up killing a fellow officer sent to bring him in, raving, “I am an outlaw, I renounce my family, my country, I am no longer a Frenchman, I am a black chief!”) Laperrine’s accomplishment was the organization of Chaamba tribesmen (ancient enemies of the Tuareg) and the best French troops into an elite Camel Corps, the méharistes. Their endurance, deep-desert mobility, and ferocity in battle impressed the Tuareg, and others.
The respect that Laperrine commanded was awesome. Shortly after Djanet, Hérisson asked his Arab batman what he would do if there was a holy war between the West and Islam. “Cut your throat,” the man replied. Hérisson then asked him why he served France at all. His answer was that he did not serve France; he served men like Laperrine and Nieger, men who were warriors and who understood the Sahara.
During World War I this regime—so fragile, founded on Laperrine’s presence and the personal respect owed him—fell apart. Laperrine and the best officers were fighting on the Western Front, and the Camel Corps deteriorated. A Turkish-funded group of Muslim fundamentalists, the Senoussi, assassinated Foucauld in 1916 and destroyed a number of French forts. The year of Foucauld's death was the fifth year of no rain in the Hoggar, and Tuareg who might have been loyal to France, or at least to the memory of Laperrine, had fled south to find pasturage for their shrinking herds. Toward the end of the war Laperrine returned to the desert, rebuilt the Camel Corps, and personally hunted down some of Foucauld’s assassins, crossing their names off a list he had copied into his notebook. In 1920 Laperrine’s plane went down in a sandstorm, and he died of injuries sustained in the crash just days before a rescue party discovered the wreckage. Fleming opens the book with France’s blundering into a North African empire in the 1830s, and closes with an account of Algeria’s struggle for independence and the dismantling of France’s desert domains. His final paragraph is odd:
Had Foucauld and Laperrine wasted their lives? Not really. They lived within the circumstances of their age and subscribed to prevailing ideals. Foucald could even be congratulated for manufacturing a creed of self-denial that continued long after his death. [He inspired the Little Brothers and Sisters of Jesus, a religious order with 11,000 members today.] The tragedy of their existences lay not so much in time as in landscape. They had entered a region that defied Western notions of permanence, and they had died there still believing that they had made an impact. But the Sahara was the same after their deaths as before—a vast expanse of sand and rock in which nothing would really change and upon with nothing could leave a lasting impression. Professor Gautier, who had travelled up and down the desert, and had seen both Foucauld and Laperrine in action, gave them an apt, if depressing, epitaph: “The only endemic disease of the Sahara,” he wrote, “is madness.”
Foucauld surely died confident of having made an impact – he dreamt elaborately of future, Christian, French-speaking Tuareg, riding across the deserts in passenger trains – but everything presented about Laperrine suggests a man of realism. His last words – whispered to his companions as they sheltered under the wing of the wreckage – were, “People think they know the desert. People think I know it. Nobody really knows it. I have crossed the Sahara ten times and this time I will stay here.” I would guess no one knew better than Laperrine that the impressive world “Empire” depended on the tact and strength of a very small number of people – on the tribal chiefs who respected him, on the few hundred méharistes whose fighting edge had been dulled once before, and might be dulled once again. Ironically, it is the irreligious Laperrine who emerges as the true ascetic, willing in renunciation, accepting of futility. He spent his strength and his life helping France believe it possessed that which he probably knew to be unpossessable.
The first third of Miami seemed to promise nothing more than amusing reportage—when drug traffickers go house-hunting they look for private water acce...moreThe first third of Miami seemed to promise nothing more than amusing reportage—when drug traffickers go house-hunting they look for private water access; Tony Montana became a mythic hero almost the instant Scarface premiered—but then it began to hit much harder. Didion is so good that any subject she takes up seems her destined one, the exclusive focus of her brooding brilliance; but reading Miami I was tempted to narrow things down and say she’s truly in her element among covert missions and counterrevolutionary conspiracy, and at her very best when relating brutal ops to the amnesiac innocence projected by our actor-leaders, when contrasting the frank machismo of Washington’s surrogates with Washington’s own circular, coquettish language of power—“a language in which deniability was built into the grammar.” Her presentation of the fraught marriage of the “sacrificial and absolutist” Cuban politicos and pragmatic, desultory Imperial Washington makes this book a keeper.
In many ways, Miami remains our graphic lesson in consequences. “I can assure you that this flag will be returned to this brigade in a free Havana,” John F. Kennedy said at the Orange Bowl in 1962…meaning it as an abstraction, a rhetorical expression of a collective wish; a kind of poetry, which of course makes nothing happen. “We will not permit the Soviets and their henchmen in Havana to deprive others of their freedom,” Ronald Reagan said at the Dade County Auditorium in 1983, and then Ronald Reagan, the first American president since John F. Kennedy to visit Miami in search of Cuban support, added this: “Someday, Cuba itself will be free.”
This was of course just more poetry, another rhetorical expression of the same collective wish, but Ronald Reagan, like John F. Kennedy before him, was speaking here to people whose historical experience had not been that poetry makes nothing happen.
Perhaps what I mean to say is that Didion writes particularly well about politics— because, I now see, with a glance back to her famous 1960s-themed collections, she is really a connoisseur of the fantasies fermenting in our rhetoric—rhetoric that can be taken literally or deployed symbolically, instrumentally—and she has a deep appreciation of personalities and subcultures for whom political speech is an exhilaration, a medium of metaphysics.
That the wish to see Fidel Castro removed from power in Cuba did not in itself constitute a political philosophy was a point rather more appreciated in el exilio, which had as its legacy a tradition of considerable political sophistication, than in Washington, which tended to accept the issue as an idea, and so to see Cuban exiles as refugees not just from Castro but from politics. In fact exile life in Miami was dense with political distinctions, none of them exactly in the American grain. Miami was for example the only American city I had ever visited in which it was not unusual to hear one citizen describe the position of another as “Falangist,” or as “essentially Nasserite.” There were in Miami exiles who defined themselves as communists, anti-Castro. There were in Miami a significant number of exile socialists, also anti-Castro. There were in Miami two prominent groups of exile anarchists, many still in their twenties, all anti-Castro, and divided from one another, I was told, by “personality differences,” “personality differences” being the explanation Cubans tend to offer for anything from a dinner-table argument to a coup.
This urge toward the staking out of increasingly recondite positions, traditional to exile life in Europe and Latin America, remained, in South Florida, exotic, a nervous urban brilliance not entirely apprehended by local Anglos, who continued to think of exiles as occupying a fixed place on the political spectrum, one usually described as “right-wing” or “ultraconservative”…Still, “right-wing,” on the American spectrum, where political positions were understood as marginally different approaches to what was seen as a shared goal, seemed not to apply. This was something different, a view of politics as so central to the human condition that there may be no applicable words in the vocabulary of most Americans. Virtually every sentient member of the Miami exile community was on any given day engaged in what was called an “ideological confrontation” with some other member of the Miami exile community…
Reminds me of Nabokov’s complaint that Western Europeans and Americans always pictured exiled Russians as former ladies-in-waiting to the Czarina or reactionary, monocle-wearing counts—when, as just one sample of the complexity of that emigration, Nabokov’s paternal grandfather had been Minister of Justice to one Czar; his father had been imprisoned by the next Czar, and then assassinated in Berlin by royalist fellow exiles; and though descended from a deeply anti-Semitic aristocracy, his wife was Jewish, as was his closest literary associate, an editor prominent in the Socialist Revolutionary party, anti-Lenin. I don’t like Castro and can think of few figures more tiresome than Che Guevara, but I have always found it all too easy to picture many of the first-generation Cuban exiles as rightist goons; but now, perhaps no less facilely, I see them in the long roll of “freedom fighters”—“terrorists” when the wind changes—trained and temporarily utilized by the United States, promised much, and then strung along, diverted, their struggles, causes, and plucky wars of independence supported and fulsomely publicized only while it was expedient to do so: the black soldiers who bled for the Union only to be abandoned to sharecropping and Jim Crow; the Native American scouts and guides who ended up on reservations just like the tribes that resisted; the Cuban and Filipino nationalists whose brief interval of independence from Spain was quashed by their North American allies and “liberators”; the mujahedeen at grips with the Soviets; the Iraqi Shiites and Kurds after the first Gulf War.
I mean, I know her husband and daughter died, and that kind of thing deserves a memoir, or two, even, and I know she’s frail and aged…but if she published a book on Baghdad or mercenaries or drones or Karzai or anything else in this mess, I’d buy it in a second. I’m an asshole…sorry! (less)
It was difficult to imagine the holidaymakers and commercial travelers who would want to stay there, nor was it easy…to recognize the Albion as the “hotel on the promenade of a superior description” recommended in my guidebook, which had been published shortly after the turn of the century.
Of course this connoisseur of desuetude, this dreamer on oblivion, tramps about with a lapsed guide book. The better to savor what’s disappeared from the landscape. I know now to apply “Sebaldian” to a jaunt I made last month. One Sunday, thinking we had little else to do, my girlfriend and I drove two hours to a town we saw profiled in a boosting local glossy. The magazine had the usual montage of professionally flattering, almost stock, images of the charming diversions awaiting us (a bike path, a tea room; no local brewery though - a bearded hipster in Red Wings, thrusting a growler at the camera, would have completed the montage), but I was really excited by mentions of the town’s dead and preserved stuff, its ideas of the vestigial and the relinquished. The article noted that Litchfield, Minnesota, had been dubbed “the Queen of the Prairies—No Drone in Her Hive, and Every Inhabitant Full of Work and Public Spirit” — a nice sample of the grandiloquence lavished on those little farming and commercial hubs nineteenth century Americans were so proud to have raised, quickly and in a seeming desert, and then linked together with the iron rails on which Progress was grooved to run. The article also mentioned an opera house dating from Litchfield's flush heyday, now being halfheartedly restored, and the meeting hall, now a museum, built by the local post of the Grand Army of the Republic, that once-vast fraternity of Union veterans. The post was probably an essential civic bond for the area’s early, rootless residents, all of them homesteaders from somewhere else.
The post building was stout, turreted, chessman-like structure. Inside there was rack after rack of old rifles, a bust of Grant a local grocer awarded to a woman who had collected fifty ABC soap wrappers in 1890, and a dinner service embellished with the faces of Lincoln, Garfield, and McKinley, the three assassinated Republican presidents. Covering one wall were large portraits of the post members. It was a prosperous, padded, stolid-looking set of farmers and merchants, though stuck into the corners of a few of the frames were small spotty ambrotypes, taken during the war, of the beardless rawboned teenagers, scowling and clutching rifles, that some of the men had been. The biographies were short and perfunctory, but here and there afforded glimpses of eventful lives. One man was born during an Atlantic crossing, to German immigrant parents. The ship foundered off Long Island, the parents drowned but their infant was miraculously saved, and ostentatiously adopted by a wealthy New Yorker. When just a boy he ran away, to Ohio as a hired farmhand, then to the Union army, and then further west to this homestead. One of the post members was black. Most G.A.R. posts were segregated, but the founder of Litchfield’s was a radical editor who had commanded a black regiment at the Battle of Nashville, and he welcomed a black veteran by the name of Van Spence, born a slave in Kentucky. Spence was the town’s lamplighter. He would regale the post meetings with spirituals, accompanied by his daughter on an upright piano that still sat up on the stage. He also oversaw the town’s July 4th barbeque, and in preparation would travel back to Kentucky and to West Virginia for possum, which he seems to have made popular. The museum had a picture of Spence’s son with the high school football team. He wasn’t allowed to play, but served as mascot. Looking at the picture I was unable to make out just what animal, if any, the boy’s costume was supposed to represent. He wore a colorful motley. I hoped he wasn’t simply “our darkie.”
The photographer of the veterans, a post member himself, enjoyed a local renown, and captured the town in the twilight of the nineteenth century. The museum attached to the hall displayed albums of his work. Richly-ringleted, lace-collared little Lord Fauntleroys, cradling spaniel puppies. Family portraits in which the ornately carved chairs and Corinthian pedestals and busy arboreal backdrops seem a kind of forgetful buffer against the windy plains and spectral Sioux. Two of the albums were all that remained of a lakeside resort that flourished a few summers beside a nearby lake, and then went bankrupt in the depression of 1893. Sebald’s spooky inset photo of fishermen posed knee-deep in one of Lowestoft’s fabled herring catches reminded me of these contemporaneous albums, in which a party of young men, grinning under rakishly tilted bowlers, lounge in one of the hired gigs that circuited the grounds; and two girls, already in massive bustled skirts, stroll a lakeside path, heads tilted toward the other, arms around cinched waists.
The museum was hardly to be distinguished from the antique shop down the street — from the antique shops in so many Midwestern towns. It was the same slightly chaotic, slightly morbid display of only recently defunct households. And it presented all the things I usually adore, when I visit my grandmother in rural Iowa and rummage the shops with her: the old uniforms, and the various trophies yanked from German corpses in the two world wars; also and especially, reminders of middle class cultural aspiration like cheap copper busts of Beethoven and Shakespeare, and sheet music, especially four-hand reductions of famous symphonies and operas, to play beside your mother on the parlor upright, when distant neighbors visit (Sviatoslav Richter emerged from rural Ukraine after a youth of parlor piano Wagner and free peasant concerts -- what a combination of the bourgeois and the revolutionary orders! -- and the professors at the Moscow Conservatory sighed that they had nothing to teach him) ; oh, and the books! those anonymously translated encyclopedic sets of the World Classics of Literature…Turgenev and Maupassant and Hugo and everybody else in cheap-looking but self-evidently durable editions ordered from the Sears-Roebuck catalog or bought on subscription from that traveling salesman who smiled so patiently while you wiped your hands on your apron before signing and who was also offering a deluxe edition of President Grant’s Personal Memoirs illustrated with back number engravings from Harper’s Weekly.
So, The Rings of Saturn. I loved this novel (anatomy? travelogue? memoir? dream? nightmare?). I loved it so much that at times I thought it a drug designed for just for me. I loved it so much that I’m content to bask in the memory of it—am in no special haste to get copies of The Emigrants or On the Natural History of Destruction. This book is unusually fortunate to have a cover blurb that perfectly describes the narrative’s eerie and unpredictable apparition of specters. “Stunning and strange…like a dream you want to last forever.” Yep.
Sorry, Ruttle, but you're due back at the library. Though I got over your weird anti-/philo-Semitic fetishism to see the charms of your rueful hangdog...moreSorry, Ruttle, but you're due back at the library. Though I got over your weird anti-/philo-Semitic fetishism to see the charms of your rueful hangdog pose and occasionally stunning descriptive powers, I don't care enough about you, or your saucy, ungraspable, ever-receding mistress to renew (why don't you hang out with that Nazi more? Sure he's a Nazi, but trust me, man, he's by far the most interesting person you know). Perhaps we'll resume someday. I mean, I don't let just anyone ramble on for almost 250 pages. And it's not like there's a plot to forget. You'll be at the bar, waiting for Charlotte? Ok, maybe I'll meet you guys later. (less)
“The marble fly,” the nickname Khlebnikov gave Mandelstam for his compound of vulnerability and righteousness (though sick, homeless and hounded, that...more“The marble fly,” the nickname Khlebnikov gave Mandelstam for his compound of vulnerability and righteousness (though sick, homeless and hounded, that prophet of Logos was unafraid to physically slap the plump well-fed cheeks of the sham Soviet intelligentsia, or to metaphorically tug at Stalin’s “cockroach whiskers”), I will borrow and apply to Yourcenar, who is exquisite and marmoreal even in a posthumous miscellany of reviews, tributes, editorials and responses to questionnaires. Every page—no, sentence—of That Mighty Sculptor, Time shows a graven dignity, and a poetic density of suggestion rare in works of much greater ambition and unity. Other than Borges I can think of no other modern writer whose slightest composition evokes as many landscapes and libraries, or poses so elegantly, and so eerily, the essential mysteries of our planet’s manifold vitality. Her abiding attention to humanity—its ties to other animals and to the earth, its various understandings and enactments of the sacred, the voices of its dead—unify these diverse journeys through time and space: to feudal Japan, for the suicide haiku of vanquished samurai; to India, for the ripeness of Hindu reliefs (“It seems as though, if sliced, these torsos would present a homogenous, fleshy inside to the eye, like the pulp of some fruit. If cut off, these arms and legs would grow again like stalks or roots”); Islamic Andalusia, Tantric Tibet, New England towns on Halloween night; and, in the titular essay, the debris-strewn Mediterranean:
Some of these alterations are sublime. To that beauty imposed by the human brain, by an epoch, or by a particular society, they add an involuntary beauty, associated with the hazards of history, which is the result of natural causes and of time. Statues so thoroughly shattered that out of the debris a new work of art is born: a naked foot unforgettably resting on a stone; a candid hand; a bent knee which contains all the speed of the footrace; a torso which has no face to prevent us from loving it; a breast or genitals in which we recognize more fully than ever the form of a fruit or flower; a profile in which beauty survives with a complete absence of human or divine anecdote; a bust with eroded features, halfway between a portrait and a death’s-head.
NickD’s indictment needs no additional count, so I will only register this novel’s activation of a collegiate boredom, a tedium I associate with a cur...moreNickD’s indictment needs no additional count, so I will only register this novel’s activation of a collegiate boredom, a tedium I associate with a curricular corpus of films—mostly French, half-remembered, all untitled—in which chance couplings play out in an atmosphere of languorous tension and momentous triviality, silences and shrugged ouis. But, much like the boredom of those films, the boredom of Dean and Anne-Marie’s liaison (as distinct from the narrator’s other activities, inventions and observations) becomes, with the passage of chapters, tolerable, even at times habitable under the bracing formal cool of Salter’s writing. I like to think that the composer Ned Rorem, an admirer of A Sport and a Pastime, found in Salter’s style what he found in Debussy and Ravel—“a sound paradoxically opulent and lean…sumptuous bones.” I also like that this novel, unlike, say, Guy Davenport’s Bordeaux-set “Some Lines of Virgil,” keeps aloof from sun-drenched sexual pastoral, the slicked and sweltering afternoon of the faun, and instead eroticizes a wintry drizzly France. Salter gives us an erotics of refuge, of shelter—strangers driven into each other’s warmth:
It’s a bitter night. Flats of rain are passing. Heavy drops ring in the gutter outside their window, but they are in a dovecote, they are pigeons beneath the eaves. The rain is falling all around them. Deep in feathers, breathing softly, they lie. His sperm swims slowly inside her, oozing out between her legs.
This is the first book I’ve reviewed but not rated. Awareness of its longueurs and indifference to its lovers cannot cancel the afterglow of its style, or the faint itch to read it again.
As for the car, it's a curious thing--it's registered in the name of Pritchard, 16 bis rue Jardin, and they know him. He's off in Greece for the summer, they think, but they'll handle that, too. Perhaps. It's parked under the trees near the house and locked, but like an old man fading, it has already begun crumbling before one's eyes. The tires seem smooth. There are leaves fallen on the hood, the whitened roof. Around the wheels one can detect the first, faint discoloring of chrome. The leather inside, seen through windows which are themselves streaked blue, is dry and cracked. There it sits, this stilled machine, the electric clock on the dash ticking unheard, slowly draining the last of life. And one day the clock is wrong. The hands are frozen. It is ended.
Ripellino was a poet, Slavicist, translator of the great Russian Symbolists and Silver Agers (Bely’s Petersburg into Italian! A transmutation as heroi...moreRipellino was a poet, Slavicist, translator of the great Russian Symbolists and Silver Agers (Bely’s Petersburg into Italian! A transmutation as heroic as any of Ulysses, I hear tell), and a servant of Czech letters whose devotion extended, in one instance, to the patient chaperoning of Věra Linhartová during her cognac-confused dipsomaniacal descent on Rome. Ripellino lived in Prague for some years after WWII, became a student of its various hauntings and urban demonology, its “lugubrious aura of decay…smirk of eternal disillusionment,” and married a Czech woman. Denied visas after the Soviet crackdown in 1968, he joined the émigrés in a sympathetic semi-exile, and under an exilic gloom compounded of ill-health and nostalgia, “despair and second thoughts,” composed Magic Prague—wistful anatomy, elegiac bricolage, “itinerary of the wondrous”:
How then can I write an exhaustive, well-ordered treatise like a detached and haughty scholar, suppressing my uneasiness, my restlessness with a rigor mortis of methodology and the fruitless discussions of disheartened formalists? No, I will weave a capricious book, an agglomeration of wonders, anecdotes, eccentric acts, brief intermezzos and mad encores, and I will be gratified if, in contrast to so much of the printed flotsam and jetsam surrounding us, it is not dominated by boredom…I will fill these pages with scraps of pictures and daguerreotypes, old etchings, prints purloined from the bottoms of chests, réclames, illustrations out of old periodicals, horoscopes, passages from books on alchemy and travel books printed in Gothic script, undated ghost stories, album leaves and keys to dreams: curios of a vanished culture.
That Magic Prague is consistently passionate, that Ripellino never succumbs to boredom, is remarkable when one considers that most of the book is devoted not to Kafka or Hašek or Apollinaire—subjects of inherent interest—but to a vast corpus of forgotten crap, an unread library of “mawkish novelettes” harboring “all the lachrymose resources of the nineteenth century,” all “the hackneyed devices and trite horrors of late Romanticism.” (Some titles: Spawn of Satan, The Crucified Woman, The Cremator.) Ripellino boldly gambled that his summaries of “Prague horror-tale kitsch” would be fun to read, and profound. He’s obsessed with the mutation of motifs, the process by which Prague’s traumatic and macabre history, like St. Petersburg’s, gave rise to a demonic mythos—the golem legends, rabbinic esoterica, alchemist cabals, fabled dungeon languishers and eerily ecstatic religious statuary; the brooding, self-sequestered princes, the closed caste of intermarried executioners; the “monsters and infernalia,” storied massacres and famous ghosts that thrilled and nourished the Gothic romancers of middle Europe, as well as their assorted twentieth century progeny: Decadents excited by infamy and decay, Surrealist students of obscenity, a duo of Dadaist clowns. The Romantic agony is just one thematic cluster, one path through Magic Prague, but the morbidity of the nineteenth century occasions, I think, Ripellino’s most compelling insights into the way memory emerges from history, culture from circumstance, writing from life. In a representative passage, Ripellino examines the literary figuration of the Baroque churches and statuary propagandistically imposed on Prague by the forces of Catholic reaction after the Thirty Years’ War:
Lvovic ze Karásek transformed every church into a melancholy Panoptikum, dwelling on the decay of the altar flowers, the languor of the statues outlined by garments of glossy creased silk, the infirm penumbra of the sanctuaries and the White Mountain dirges. When the Decadents used churches to exalt the corruption of the flesh, the ecstasy of martyrdom and the rapture of sainthood, they were simply indulging in a predilection for the Baroque, a Prague constant…Karásek painted the mystery of Prague’s sanctuaries in even bleaker colors in the novel Gothická duše (A Gothic Soul). The hero, the last scion of a noble line with a long history of insanity, is a Rudolf-like hypochondriac. Fearing he too will go mad (he does in the end—and dies in a mental hospital), he retreats into solitude, his greatest delights the smell of incense and wilted flowers, the sight of “glass coffins containing embalmed cadavers atop the altars.” He also feels drawn to the Barnabites or Discalced Carmelites, who live like moles in the darkness of mystical reclusion. Their lugubrious cloister near the Castle was shrouded in wildly imaginative legends. People said that before taking vows each novice had to remove the ring from the shriveled hand of the terrifying mummy of the Blessed Electa at midnight. During mass the faithful heard the chanting voices of those buried alive coming from the bowels of the church and saw the flickering of troubled eyes behind its rusty gratings. “The altars rose like shapeless catafalques.” “Only the main altar, covered with candles beneath the image of St. Theresa, fervent in her devotion to Christ, shone like a great pyramid of liquefied gold, glowed like an immense castrum doloris.” The church deranges the Gothic Soul; it drives him mad. The by-then jejune motif of the haunted basilica acquires new vigor in the myth of a lifeless, funereal Prague.
Barbarian that I am, my knowledge of the central Latin poetry, excepting Ovid’s exilic Epistulae, and what bits of the Metamorphoses an English major...moreBarbarian that I am, my knowledge of the central Latin poetry, excepting Ovid’s exilic Epistulae, and what bits of the Metamorphoses an English major meets in footnotes to the Fairie Queene, has never amounted to more than names on a timeline. Poets in a Landscape is the introduction I needed. It’s graceful, engaging, conversational; dense with learning, but fluent and fleet. Scottish classicist Gilbert Highet was one of the great teacher-critics on the Columbia faculty, alongside Lionel Trilling, Jacques Barzun, and Mark Van Doren. Brilliant scholars and critics, travelers “to the most exalted, and often the most problematical, stations of art and ideas and manners” (Cynthia Ozick, once a student of Trilling’s), they were also energetic and unforgettable classroom presences. Highet’s written style has a personal, pedagogic presence. Someone—I forget who, perhaps a Roman poet whose quips have passed into commonplaces—defined good writing as “cultured talk.” Poets in a Landscape meets that standard.
Highet works on a few levels simultaneously. First, biographical criticism—with each poet Highet, said Cyril Connolly, another devotee of sensuously contemplative Latinity, “succeeds in finding the man in the style.” Next, Highet invokes the consequent canon. He shows Goethe and Byron, Browning and Baudelaire, Eliot and Pound as they summon, echo and emulate the poets of the early empire. And as its title suggests, the book is also travelogue. In 1956 Highet and his wife, the spy thriller writer Helen MacInnes, made a tour of the conjectural birth-villages, spurious tombs and excavated villas of the poets under discussion. (The couple's fine snapshots illustrate the book.) I like Highet’s archeological capriccio: churches built upon pagan temples; villas annexed to monasteries; crypts and ossuaries planted in the once-genial baths. Our learned cicerone surveys the layered landscape, comments on the additions and alterations of so many centuries:
As we pick our way along the cobbled streets, it becomes more and more evident that this is a medieval town. It is not the Roman town at all. Juvenal’s home was a flourishing township with twenty thousand inhabitants, lying on a plain near the river Melfe. This is a cowering village of two thousand people at most, crusted along rocky slopes, comfortless and sad. Juvenal’s Aquinium was destroyed in the Dark Ages by German invaders—the tough Lombards who pushed down the Italian peninsula from the Alps, dominated some of the country for a time, and gave their name to the northern province of Lombardy. The survivors of the catastrophe built a new Aquinum some miles to the east, near a castle where they could take refuge in any later invasion; and this is now Aquino. Again and again in Italy, we see how the peaceful prosperity of the Roman empire was followed by the dangers and disasters of the Dark and Middle Ages. In a peaceful valley, among fertile fields, lie the ruins of a Roman town, often traceable only by the faint lines of its market-place or a few pillars built into a farmhouse. High above it, on the peak of a hill, wedged into the topmost crags and slipping nervously down the gentler slopes, like a cat that has run up a tree and clings there spitting at the savage dogs, is its medieval successor. The snarling face of the cat is usually a castle, on the loftiest peak of all. Rome fought many wars, but during the five centuries when she had no foreign enemies to threaten her heartland, the towns and cities of Rome grew and prospered in the rich Italian plains, unfortified and happy and secure.
Like many Americans, I think of Italian hill towns as adorable specimens of a romantic impracticality. It’s therefore chastening to learn they are medieval legacies of precipitous and paranoid resettlement, of scrambling for the hills ahead of an invader. Highet also mentions that during the Early Middle Ages, with Roman engineering lost, Italian peasants believed the ruins to be the magical handiwork of visitant devils. Outside of the literate covens of monks, the memories of the Roman poets, too, underwent fanciful mutations, persisted in strange tales. In the folklore of the lands around Naples, Vergil figured as a benevolent sorcerer, able to relight cold hearths with flame summoned from his mistress’s vagina; and Ovid, in the legends of his native Abruzzi, became an avaricious wizard who lived underground, guarding his barrels of silver and gold.
So, Highet has definitely piqued my curiosity. Juvenal, the street-level satirist venerated by Flaubert, cannot but head the list. Catullus and Propertius, laureates of erotic suffering, their short lives and shorter careers marked by subjection to cruel mistresses, sound interesting as well. Tibullus is memorable for this contrast: a stoical soldier whose poetry wallows in masochism Highet finds excessive even when measured against the obsessions of Catullus and Propertius. Horace’s Odes, like Pushkin’s verses, sound untranslatable, their perfection a matter of nuanced rhythmic effects and subtly inspired diction; translated, both poets are platitudinous. I would be uninterested in Vergil, but for the fact that his song of the dutiful abstentions and public destiny of Aeneas, and of the rustic Romans who embraced him, seems to offer a perfect foil to Ovid, ever-charming in his role as the “most sensual and sophisticated of the Roman poets.” Vergil’s focus on the imperially-approved legendary prehistory is countered (and, on same pages of the Metamorphoses, burlesqued) by Ovid’s absorption in the urbane, luxurious manners of contemporary Rome—its indoor adventures, droll feats, boudoirs and billet-doux—its promiscuous, even voracious, upper-class women, so recently the veiled matrons of a rustic republic (Highet finds in many of the poets registers of that change). Ovid was a suave rhetorician, full of lush wit and mercurial effrontery. He’s the quintessential ladies’ man, l’homme à femmes, displaying a subtle kind of virility, and quite at home in the more intricate, feminine reaches of psychology. I want to read the Amores, comic monologues in which sophistical avowals of fidelity alternate with adulterous asides; and the Heroides, verse letters voiced by Greek heroines pining for departed lovers, entreating future ones, and brooding upon mythological trysts. The day I finished Poets in a Landscape I chanced upon a selection from the Zibaldone di pensieri—the “hodge-podge” or waste-books—of the nineteenth century Italian poet Giacomo Leopardi. An entry of September, 1820, nicely captures Ovid’s aloof and sportive charm:
Homer, Virgil, and Dante...pour forth incredibly vivid imagery and description yet never seem to notice that’s what they’re doing; they make a show of having a much higher purpose, which in fact is the only one that truly matters to them, the one they are actually always pursuing, namely the narrating of actions, their unfolding and final outcome. Ovid does the opposite: he doesn’t dissemble, doesn’t hide anything, he demonstrates and more or less confesses what is in fact the case—he has no higher or more serious aim, really no aim at all other than to describe, to arouse and frame images, little pictures, to figure things forth, to represent, unstintingly.
In my ideal library Mark Twain wrote Around the World with General Grant. On earth, however, the General commenc...moreCross-posted on http://soapboxing.net/
In my ideal library Mark Twain wrote Around the World with General Grant. On earth, however, the General commenced his travels before he and Twain were well acquainted, and even if they had been Twain was a famous author with a schedule of lucrative lectures, not at all what Grant needed and found in John Russell Young – a pure correspondent, an instrumental reporter whose lively dispatches from the epic world tour (Liverpool to Nagasaki, May 1877 to September 1879) would keep Grant in the domestic eye and impress the American voter (who might be asked to consider a third Grant administration) with the honors Europe and Asia were showering on the ex-president. Young notes that while cruising between Malta and Naples on an American warship, Grant read and enjoyed Twain's Innocents Abroad
This edition is an abridgement of the popular two-volume coffee table book – or parlor piano-top book – Young published after he got back. Around the World with General Grant was a lavishly illustrated atlas-cum-gazetteer that allowed Americans to glimpse exotic geography, culture and politics over the shoulder, as it were, of a national hero and nominal Everyman. In the engravings Grant is familiar and repeated, Gorey-like, talismanic; the beard, the cigar, and the frock coat, though his headgear varies: a bowler while strolling European streets, a pith helmet in the desert and in the tropics, a glossy top hat in official receptions.
“Smooth twaddle” is what Henry James would have called Young’s narrative. But Young’s glibness is overpowered by the interest of the historical moment - a moment in which Grant, as the voice of a young New World power whose recent consolidation and display of military prowess has stymied British and French designs, preaches anti-imperial idealism to Asians oppressed by European powers - and by the drama of the witnessed scenes, which show Grant discussing the cares of state with Bismarck; blushing before the dancing girls summoned by the Majaraja of Jeypore; mediating a Sino-Japanese dispute (the chapter on Grant in China is amazing); candidly talking shit about colleague and opponent generals in the American Civil War; and much more.Young’s account for the most part presents an officially masked, phlegmatic and platitudinous Grant, but there are glimpses of the spirited solitary and restless horseman later biographers have revealed:
We had an escort of lepers as we took our places in our wagons, and were glad to hurry away. We kept our journey, our eyes bent toward Jerusalem, and looking with quickened interest as Mr. Hardegg told us that the blue mountains coming in view were the mountains of Judea. Our road is toward the southeast. The rain falls, but it is not an exacting shower. The General has found a horse, and when offered the affectation of an umbrella and urged to swathe his neck in silk, says it is only mist, and gallops ahead.
One reaches the end of this idiosyncratic travelogue to find Mayakovsky straightfacedly declaring that the aim of the foregoing sketches “is to induce...moreOne reaches the end of this idiosyncratic travelogue to find Mayakovsky straightfacedly declaring that the aim of the foregoing sketches “is to induce study of America’s weaknesses and strengths, in anticipation of the prolonged struggle ahead.” Huh? My Discovery of America (1925) has its Communistic boilerplate (some of it very funny), and on a jaunt out to Coney Island Mayakovsky plays the glum Comrade—
On my way out, I decided that it was not the thing to leave Luna Park without even trying a single amusement. They were all the same to me, and I began a melancholy slinging of rings at the twirling figures of dolls.
—but the idea that this book—a sensibility on tour, full of the poet’s peculiar lyric wit and comic braggadocio—could function as some sort of strategic fact-finding report is just ridiculous. Mayakovsky’s attempts to serve the state with art, to league the artistic and political avant-gardes, tended to backfire. He completely alienated Lenin with his verse epic 150,000,000 (1921), which attacked Anglo-American meddling in the Russian Civil War. Lenin was repulsed by the poem’s bizarre climax, in which a superman peasant named Ivan, who has 150,000,000 heads (the population of the USSR about 1920) wades across the Atlantic to grapple, Godzilla vs. Ghidorah-like, with an equally colossal Woodrow Wilson, whose top hat (the cartoon iconography of capitalism!) is the size of the Eiffel Tower.
Mayakovsky embarks at Le Havre. Various Spanish ports, then Cuba. While the ship is coaling at Havana, he wanders the docks, and during a sudden downpour shelters in a warehouse stocked ceiling-high with British whiskey awaiting secret shipment to the dry States (he also mentions that during Prohibition international liners were forbidden to serve alcohol while in US territorial waters). Landing at Vera Cruz, Mexico, he’s shocked to learn that the majestic literary Indians of James Fenimore Cooper and Thomas Mayne Reid are downtrodden coolies. Diego and Frida show him samples of pre-Columbian art. He marvels at Mexico City’s chaotic traffic, recreational gunplay, incessant revolution and yearly, monthly presidents. He crosses the border at Laredo, Texas. Stops in St. Louis and Philadelphia don’t fully prepare him for the “technological fantasyland” of New York City, the Metropolis-cityscape of electrified skyscrapers, elevated trains, and façades whose “evenly chiseled windows are like a stenciled advertizing poster.”
I like this jerky, variegated Vertov-like reel of New York works and days:
Up until one o’clock, typewriters chatter, jacketless people sweat, columns of figures lengthen on paper.
At one o’clock comes a break: an hour for the office workers, and fifteen minutes for the laborers.
Everyone’s lunch is dependent on the weekly wage. The fifteen-dollar people buy a dry snack in a paper bag for a nickel and munch away with the full zest of youth.
The thirty-five-a-week lot go to a huge mechanized eating point. Having shoved in their five cents, they press a knob, and an exactly measured quantity of coffee splashes out into a cup. And for another two or three nickels they can open one of the little glass doors to the sandwiches on the huge shelves piled with comestibles.
The sixty-dollar types eat gray pancakes with golden syrup and eggs in the countless Childses-Rockefeller cafés—as white as any bathroom.
The hundred-dollar-and-plus people go to restaurants of all the nationalities—Chinese, Russian, Assyrian, French, Hindu—anywhere except the tasteless American ones which guarantee you gastritis with Armour tinned meat that’s been lying around almost since the War of Independence.
After New York he trains back into the heartland. In Chicago he tours slaughterhouses amid “squealing, mooing and bleating” “the like of which will not be heard again until the end of the world, when people and livestock get squashed between merging rock faces.” Like Nabokov two decades later, he’s horrified by the gaudily hand painted neckties—“of a color like a cross between a canary, a fire and the Black Sea.” In Detroit he considers the absurdities of driving and parking; the inadequacy of newsreels to represent the Ford assembly line; the workers financing bourgeois amenities with credit; the provisional, “bivouac structure” of American architecture, in which each building “looks contrived, hastily converted from whatever it might have been, and due for demolition upon the rapid completion of its moment of indispensability.” On the voyage back, a group of footloose young Americans consumes the ship’s entire store of champagne.
Patrick Leigh Fermor relied on a Rhine barge, the odd lorry lift and his own two legs to carry him through Holland, Germany, Austria, Czechoslovakia a...morePatrick Leigh Fermor relied on a Rhine barge, the odd lorry lift and his own two legs to carry him through Holland, Germany, Austria, Czechoslovakia and Northern Hungary. Now, he’s crossing the Great Hungarian Plain on horseback:
Whenever he got the chance, Malek broke into a canter, and one of these bursts turned into a long twilight gallop...
Back in Budapest, Leigh Fermor had fallen in with a “noctambulistic” smart set (cellar nightclubs, scotch-and-soda, American jazz) whose country-housed, horse-lending cousinage extended deep into Hungary and Romania, along the still-twitching nerves of the old empire. With these connections, much of the eight months of 1934 recollected in Between the Woods and the Water (1986) pass in summery sojourn among the old Hapsburg nobility, our erudite wanderer pausing for weeks at a time to sample the “learning, munificence, and douceur de vivre” of that soon-to-be-swept-away class. Suddenly, the crushing hike described in this book and its predecessor, A Time of Gifts, seems doable when each stretch is recouped with picnics, tournaments of bicycle polo, and undisturbed hours in manorial libraries in which the lore and languages of the dominions just crossed can be learned from the lord’s own incunables and troves of ancient parchment.
Leigh Fermor makes all kinds of friends (gold-panning Gypsies, bawdy village crones, sun-brown reapers, a Transylvanian shepherd, even an impenetrably reserved Orthodox rabbi), but it’s his reports from within the “manor houses harbouring over-civilised boyars up to their ears in Proust and Mallarmé” that define this book. Marooned on reduced estates, strapped for cash, the Hapsburg grandees regale Leigh Fermor with memories of the Parisian belle époque, of Edwardian regattas out of Portsmouth, and bemoan the provinciality of the new nations in which they find themselves—all in “fluent and marvelously antiquated English.” Leigh Fermor is not an explicit imperial nostalgist like Joseph Roth, but encountering his long view of the movements of people and customs across geography, of the migrations, exiles, conversions and conquests that compose Middle Europe—“[Turkish:] victories long eclipsed, but commemorated here and there by a minaret left in their lost possessions like a spear stuck in the ground”—one cannot help but feel the ridiculous imposture of nationalism, and the futility and pettiness of tribal purity as a pretension of statehood.
This rapport with the displaced was also a feature of A Time of Gifts. He carries into the marches of Transylvania a “beautiful little seventeenth-century duodecimo Horace from Amsterdam,” the gift of a Baltic grandee exiled to Germany:
It was bound in stiff, grass-green leather; the text had long s’s, mezzotint vignettes of Tibur, Lucretilis and the Bandusian spring, a scarlet silk marker, the giver’s bookplate and a skeleton-leaf from his Estonian woods.
Closing out the decade of the 1930s as the lover of a Moldavian princess, and residing with her “old-fashioned, French-speaking, Tolstoyan, land-owning” family, Leigh Fermor was one of the rare Western Europeans appreciative of the Nabokovian political position—that is, he had equal contempt for the frank murderousness of Fascism and for the humanitarian pretentions of the Soviet Union:
From the end of these travels to the War, I lived, with a year’s interruption, in Eastern Europe, among friends I must call old-fashioned liberals. They hated Nazi Germany; but it was impossible to look eastwards for inspiration and hope, as their Western equivalents—peering from afar, and with the nightmare of only one kind of totalitarianism to vex them—felt able to do.
“Old fashioned liberals” is exactly the phrase Nabokov used to describe his family.
Leigh Fermor’s wartime exploits include parachuting into Nazi-occupied Crete dressed as a shepherd. He hid out in the mountains, organized the resistance and, famously, coordinated the moonlight ambush, kidnapping and speedboat removal to Egypt of the island’s German commander.
He’s 95 now, living in Greece, in a house he designed and built (that casual English omni-competence! A brilliant prose stylist and daring commando, I bet he’s a great cook, too), and working busily on the third volume, which will take him through Bulgaria, Greece, and on to the goal of it all, Istanbul.
Ah, these English travellers and their amazing prose--prose equal, fitted to their feats. Virginia Woolf on Hakluyt's Early Voyages:
...moreAh, these English travellers and their amazing prose--prose equal, fitted to their feats. Virginia Woolf on Hakluyt's Early Voyages:
These magnificent volumes are not often, perhaps, read through. Part of their charm consists in the fact that Hakluyt is not so much a book as a great bundle of commodities loosely tied together, an emporium, a lumber room strewn with ancient sacks, obsolete nautical instruments, huge bales of wool, and little bags of rubies and emeralds. One is for ever untying this packet here, sampling that heap over there, wiping the dust off some vast map of the world, and sitting down in semi-darkness to snuff the strange smells of silks and leathers and ambergris, while outside tumble the huge waves of the uncharted Elizabethan sea.
During 1933-35, the eighteen year old Patrick Leigh Fermor, recently expelled from school after an innocent, unconsummated townie flirtation, walked, barge-floated, rode horseback, hitckhiked (lorries, Bugattis, woodcutter sledges), but mostly walked from Rotterdam to Constantinople. A Time of Gifts (1977) gets Leigh Fermor as far as the verge of Hungary, and his lumber room is packed with the loot of Central Europe.
There's his passport, "crammed with the visas of vanished kingdoms." And a peasant table, with "raw knuckles of enormous hands" amid "the cut onions and the chipped pitchers and a brown loaf broken open." Heavy steins, a chandelier of interlocked antlers, a cask of Rhine wine. Horace and Hölderlin in scholar gypsy-size, pocket portable editions plucked from baronal libraries and bestowed in parting on the hobnail-booted, putteed, greatcoated Leigh Fermor as he prepared to step off into the snows once more. An Augusburg choir stall, specimen of Germany's blunt realism in woodcarving, showing "highly polished free-standing scenes of Biblical bloodshed,"
On the first Jael, with hanging sleeves and hatted like a margravine, gripped a coal hammer and steadied an iron spike among the sleeping Sisera's curls.
Leigh Fermor is really into the Thirty Years War, so the curio emporium must include a composite warlord portrait:
The polyglot captains of the multi-lingual hosts hold our gaze nilly-willy with their grave eyes and Valesquez moustaches and populate half the picture galleries of Europe. Caracoling in full feather against a background of tents and colliding squadrons, how serenely they point their batons; or, magnanimously bare-headed and on foot in a grove of lances, accept surrendered keys, or a sword! Curls flow and lace or starched collars break over the black armour and the gold inlay; they glance from their frames with an aloof and high-souled melenacholy which is both haunting and enigmatic.
And to stand for the strange political ruin of the lands in which Fermor wandered, there's the symbolic gold key once worn on the uniform of a Hapsburg court chamberlain--
But now the Empire and the kingdom had been dismembered and their thrones are empty; no doors opened to the gold keys, the heralds were dispersed, the regiments disbanded and the horses dead long ago.
With one book, Leigh Fermor makes an easy leap into my "favorites." A Time of Gifts is magical, Pale Fire-, Speak, Memory-magical, richly responsive to nature, art, people and history, and with a style so perfectly evocative that you think of sorcery. On to its sequel, Between The Woods and The Water! He's on a borrowed horse, cantering across the great Hungarian plain, thinking of the Magyar and other migrations.
Ondaatje’s family is as mythically crazy as Garcia-Marquez’s fictional Buendia clan. His father in particular—an epic binger, gin hole, naked hijacker...moreOndaatje’s family is as mythically crazy as Garcia-Marquez’s fictional Buendia clan. His father in particular—an epic binger, gin hole, naked hijacker of trains, and participant in elaborate, picturesque feuds:
And there was Lalla too, like a bee attracted to the perfume of any flower, who came up every other week solely to ransack the garden and who departed with a car full of sprigs and branches. With hardly any room to move or stretch, she rode back to Colombo, still as a corpse in a flower-packed hearse. In his last years my father was a founding member of “The Ceylon Cactus and Succulent Society” and this interest began during his time in Kuttapitiya—all because of his devious and defensive nature. He loved ordered gardens and hated to see beds ravaged by Lalla’s plundering. Gradually the vegetation at Kuttapitiya took on a prickly character. He began with roses, then Lalla wore gloves, and so he progressed to the cactus. The landscape turned grey around us. He welcomed the thorn bush, experimented with gnarled Japanese figs, retreated to pragmatic vegetables or spears of the succulent. His appreciation of growing things became more subtle, turned within a more limited spectrum and gradually Lalla’s visits tapered away. Her journeys were in any case made solely for the effect of arriving at friends’ houses in Colombo bearing soft rain-grown flowers.
Running in the Family (1982) is a family photographic collage, an album of lyrics, an archive of island gossip, a travelogue of its author’s visits to ancestral parishes and childhood sites. (A salad of Tamil, Portuguese, Dutch, Sinhalese and English ancestors makes for wonderful Firbankian names: Shelton de Saram, Sammy Dias Bandaranaike, Lalla Gratiaen.) I love the lore held in the honey-bright amber of his prose:
Most of the events in the erotic literature of Asia, one suspects, must take place in the mountains…
She loved the thunder; it spoke to her like a king.
On my brother’s wall in Toronto are the false maps. Old portraits of Ceylon. The result of sightings, glances from trading vessels, the theories of sextant. The shapes differ so much they seem to be translations—by Ptolemy, Mercator, Francois Valentyn, Mortier, and Heydt—growing from mythic shapes into eventual accuracy. Amoeba, then stout rectangle, and then the island as we know it now, a pendant off the ear of India.
Literature flies so high and is so hotly spiced, that our notes may seem hardly more than breaths of common air, or draughts of water to drink. But...more
Literature flies so high and is so hotly spiced, that our notes may seem hardly more than breaths of common air, or draughts of water to drink. But that is part of our lesson. (Specimen Days, “New Themes Entered Upon”)
Intensely artful, intensely vernacular—some draughts of the tipsy-making water Emerson talks about in the essay by which young Whitman was called (“The Poet”). But Whitman’s waters do not flow in the clear stream of a style that refuses to call attention to itself—the bizarre ideal of those dismayed at the demanding perceptual detours and little linguistic renewals that constitute “good” writing, truly readable writing, “poetry”—in any case, “language in its aesthetic function.” (Jakobson’s definition will always serve.) Whitman recoiled from what he called “the sickliness of verbal melody,” and the prose of Specimen Days is among the most casual and colloquial in English—but the style still calls and holds one’s attention. Because that’s the point. Style, Flaubert insisted, is an “absolute way of seeing,” and Whitman wants to see what he sees, in the way he sees, with all the corporeal contours and spiritual subtleties apparent to him.
And did he see! The guy was everywhere. Metropolitan man of ferried crowds, omnibus flaneur and opera-goer in the booming Astoria of midcentury New York City—an ink-stained bohemian, arguing politics over sudsy steins in rowdy fireman taverns—a stroller of Broadway, where he sees Andrew Jackson, Dickens, and “the first Japanese ambassadors.” In 1861 he goes down to fort-belted wartime Washington (“her surrounding hills spotted with guns”) to nurse the wounded and watch over the dying—meets the bloody boatloads down at the wharf, dresses wounds, reads the Bible at bedsides, loans books, distributes money, stamped letters and writing paper—soda water and syrups when Lee is repulsed at Gettysburg—and pens letters home for the illiterate and the too-weak. He doesn’t know how much good he does but he cannot leave them, stays on in the embattled, cemetery- and hospital-environed capital through the four years of carnage. When not in the wards, he loafs in army camps, observes and notes the goings-on, chills with the pickets through their watches, and clerks part-time in a government bureau until its indignant head realizes he’s employing an “indecent poet.” He stands in the street all night as the endless columns file past to the front, savoring unseen the jokes and songs that waft through the dark. He and Lincoln nod to each other when they pass in the street. He chats with Rebel prisoners and Union deserters; compares eastern and western, northern and southern soldiers, speculates about regional types, local moldings, the looks of future Americans. The war—“the most profound lesson of my life,” with “the marrow of the tragedy concentrated in those Army Hospitals”—breaks his health, and the lusty rambler is confined paralyzed for a time. He regains much of his strength later, enough to resume “gaddings-about in cities” and even to manage “a long jaunt west”—to the “distances join’d like magic” by the railroad—and there to eyewitness the course of empire, to see America planting the prairies with world-feeding wheat, tunneling railways through mountains, feeding forests into steam-powered sawmills, the sublime statistics of this titanic industry yet dwarfed by the continent itself, by the tinted canyons and empyrean peaks, the melted snows thundering through gorges.
Whitman on Abraham Lincoln:
Earlier in the summer I occasionally saw the President and his wife, toward the latter part of the afternoon, out in a barouche, on a pleasure ride through the city. Mrs. Lincoln was dress’d in complete black, with a long crape veil. The equipage is of the plainest kind, only two horses, and they nothing extra. They pass’d me once very close, and I saw the President in the face fully, as they were moving slowly, and his look, though abstracted, happen’d to be directed steadily in my eye. He bow’d and smiled, but far beneath his smile I noticed well the expression I have alluded to. None of the artists or pictures has caught the deep, though subtle and indirect expression of this man’s face. There is something else there. One of the great portrait painters of two or three centuries ago is needed.
On New York harbor:
…the mast-hemm’d shores—the grand obelisk-like towers of the bridge, one on either side, in haze, yet plainly defin’d, giant brothers twain, throwing free graceful interlinking loops high across the tumbled tumultuous current below—(the tide is just changing to its ebb)—the broad water-spread everywhere crowded—no, not crowded, but thick as stars in the sky—with all sorts and sizes of sail and steam vessels, plying ferry-boats, arriving and departing coasters, great ocean Dons, iron-black, modern, magnificent in size and power, fill’d with their incalculable value of human life and precious merchandise—with here and there, above all, those daring, careening things of grace and wonder, those white and shaded swift-darting fish-birds, (I wonder if shore or sea elsewhere can outvie them,) ever with their slanting spars, and fierce, pure, hawk-like beauty and motion—first-class New York sloop or schooner yachts, sailing, this fine day, the free sea in a good wind. And rising out of the midst, tall-topt, ship-hemm’d, modern, American, yet strangely oriental, V-shaped Manhattan, with its compact mass, its spires, its cloud-touching edifices group’d at the centre—the green of the trees, and all the white, brown and gray of the architecture well blended, as I see it, under a miracle of limpid sky, delicious light of heaven above, and June haze on the surface below.
Specimen Days made me think of Nabokov—Whitman’s attempt to discover the germs of his individual consciousness and destiny in ecological phenomena, historical patterns, and the designs of fate reminded me of Speak, Memory. Also, Whitman is an arch-aesthete guised as loafer, near-bum, democratic mingler and perceiver; a common narrator of Nabokov’s Russian novels and stories is the down-at-heel but delicately dreamy émigré poet (or poet manqué) whose exuberant consciousness cannot but perceive inspiriting marvels and fated correspondences in the grimy Berlin and Prague districts to which he is relegated. The narrators of “A Guide to Berlin” and “The Letter That Never Reached Russia,” as well as Fyodor in The Gift, might say with Whitman,
The glories strung like beads on my smallest sights and hearings, on the walk in the street and the passage over the river…
(“Crossing Brooklyn Ferry”)
Whitman felt the import of, and renovated English poetry to sing, the democratic transformation and ungenteel energy of nineteenth century America (particularly the boom and rush of 1850s New York City), and Nabokov was similarly concerned with Russian literature’s assimilation of the hitherto unhallowed realities encountered by its now-wandering poets (he found translating Lolita into Russian very difficult because not even his inclusive and flexible literary Russian, forged in the 1920s-30s, could at first accommodate all the gadgets and devices invented since then; if there was going to be a Russian word for jukebox, he had to coin it). A recurring theme of Nabokov’s letters to his younger brother Kirill, an aspiring poet, and of his polemical sparring with Georgi Adamovich and the “Paris School” of émigré Russian poetry, is an insistence that the poet’s removal to an exilic, demotic-industrial landscape isn’t the end of the Russian poetic tradition born amid neoclassic palatial façades. He tells Kirill not to shun warehouses and factories, blasts with scorn and contradicts with the example of his own classically grounded modernism (so darting, filmic) Adamovich’s gripe that Pushkin is useless to the émigré writer and the Pushkinian tradition of verbal artistry powerless to accommodate the political and nervous dislocations of interwar Europe.
Once in America, Nabokov fell out of the Russian milieu partly because he did not, could not as an evolving artist with a new tongue and a new milieu to master, share the easy, enclaved contempt many émigrés felt for “barbaric” America. They were worn out, he tired but ever-responsive; and with butterfly net in one hand, and a stack of note-cards penciled with the germs of Lolita and Speak, Memory in the other, he hit the road—Véra behind the wheel, of course—to net and name new species, to clamber the continent’s mountains and immortalize its roadside humanities. Updike said Nabokov had every excuse for exhaustion once he reached these shores—but as he had poetically assimilated Europe, he set about doing the same for America. Think of the first two chapters of Lolita’s second part, the Whitmanesque catalogue that begins, “It was then that began our extensive travels all over the States.”
Whitman and Nabokov are superb landscape colorists; spooky naturalist-animists; all-perceiving enchanters sensually-primitively attuned to and obsessed with birdsong, light effects, arboreal personalities, stars, mountains, sex; and Whitman is really into butterflies, too. Both mark the point at which the highest artistry grades into mysticism and gnosis. The New World, they recognized, was not to be dismissed, especially its landscape, flora and fauna. The Rocky Mountains were a fascination to both. Whitman fell in love with Colorado’s “delicious atmosphere” and mountain tops “draped in their violet haze,” thought it "the most spiritual show of objective Nature [he:] ever beheld," and even conceived a wish to spend his last years there; while Nabokov wrote Edmund Wilson that some part of him must have been born in Colorado, for while butterfly hunting on its slopes, he was “constantly recognizing things with a delicious pang”—the Baltic contrast of “the dark velvet of fir trees against a blue of extraordinary intensity,” the appearance of the Boloria freija, a circumpolar species he had pursued as a boy through the bogs on his family estate.
We follow the stream of amber and bronze brawling along its bed, with its frequent cascades and snow-white foam. Through the cañon we fly—mountains not only each side, but seemingly, till we get near, right in front of us—every rood a new view flashing, and each flash defying description—on the almost perpendicular sides, clinging pines, cedars, spruces, crimson sumach bushes, spots of wild grass—but dominating all, those towering rocks, rocks, rocks, bathed in delicate vari-colors, with the clear sky of autumn overhead...I get out on a ten minutes’ stoppage at Deer creek, to enjoy the unequal’d combination of hill, stone and wood. As we speed again, the yellow granite in the sunshine, with natural spires, minarets, castellated perches far aloft—then long stretches of straight-upright palisades, rhinoceros color—then gamboge and tinted chromos.
Distant mountains. Near mountains. More mountains; bluish beauties never attainable, or ever turning into inhabited hill after hill; south-eastern ranges, altitudinal failures as alps go; heart and sky-piercing snow-veined gray colossi of stone, relentless peaks appearing from nowhere at a turn of the highway; timbered enormities, with a system of neatly overlapping dark firs, interrupted in places by pale puffs of aspen; pink and lilac formations, Pharaonic, phallic, "too prehistoric for words" (blasé Lo); buttes of black lava; early spring mountains with young-elephant lanugo along their spines; end-of-the-summer mountains, all hunched up their heavy Egyptian limbs folded under folds of tawny moth-eaten plush; oatmeal hills, flecked with green round oaks; a last rufous mountain with a rich rug of lucerne at its foot.
There is one West Pointer, I think in Missouri, little known, and whom I hope the Northern people will not find out. I mean Sam Grant. I knew him well...moreThere is one West Pointer, I think in Missouri, little known, and whom I hope the Northern people will not find out. I mean Sam Grant. I knew him well at the Academy and in Mexico. I should fear him more than any of their officers I have yet heard of. (Rebel Gen. Ewell, May 1861)
Grant’s Personal Memoirs (1885) define understatement but not modesty. Grant shows rather than tells what a badass he is. In recounting the war, Grant rarely quotes himself or relates his conversation but to a drop some tough guy quip or poised martial-arts musing. That kind of thing may have sounded self-effacing in times given to martial speechifying and self-praise in the third person, but nowadays we expect the Hero to be a man of few but compelling words (Hemingway learned his craft under Gertrude Stein, who as a Grant-venerator once planned to co-write the general’s biography with Sherwood Anderson). Here’s Grant shooting the breeze with the third-in-command of a rebel fort he’s just taken:
I had been at West Point three years with Buckner and afterwards served with him in the army, so that we were quite well acquainted. In the course of our conversation, which was very friendly, he said to me that if he had been in command I would not have got up to Fort Donelson as easily as I did. I told him that if he had been in command I should not have tried in the way I did.
Grant as usual understates his point: when he says he “knew” Buckner he really means that he had sized him up while they were fighting Indians and Mexicans together. Grant mentions that while at West Point he “got to know” many future rebel officers; it was a while before I realized this bland statement amounted to saying they’d already measured dicks and he wasn’t afraid of them. Grant knew his opponent at Vicksburg, Pemberton, to be a waffling martinet, and correctly gauged what gambits he could get away with. It’s all very macho, but with none of the overt theater of machismo. Grant is white guy macho: the strong silent type, the unheroic hero, unconscious greatness…all that Gary Cooper shit. After a century of westerns and noir, Grant’s mud-spattered impassivity and hardboiled laconism are pretty familiar, even thought befitting a solider; but his contemporaries strove to appear splendid. Grant’s predecessors in the high command carefully trimmed their Napoleon III goatees, stuck their hands in their coats like Napoleon I (Grant’s doing that on the Penguin cover, alas; at the prompting of Matthew Brady, we’ll say), and believed mastery of military science to inhere in officers who had published cribs of French tactical manuals.
Grant’s heroic citizenship appeared more citizenly than heroic. But for subtle signs (the way he wore his hat, the gleam in his eye) Grant looked what he had been, a tannery clerk and hardscrabble farmer. He was not a physically or sartorially distinctive man. Upon promotion to Lieutenant-General and Commander of the Armies of the United States, an exalted rank last held by George Washington, he made no concession to pomp beyond having the gold-braid shoulder bars sewn to his “traveling suit,” a dusty private’s uniform. Analogously, Lincoln ascended the national Valhalla, the Washingtonian realm of togas and fasces, with little significant softening of his gangly hillbilly mien. Matthew Arnold reviewed Grant’s memoirs and spoke for the times when he said that to foreign observers Robert E. Lee was the heroic figure in the picture—Lee the pious aristocrat, son of Old Virginia and of George Washington’s trusty lieutenant “Lighthorse Harry,” his manner a Castiglionian gloving of aggressive power in courtly self-control and tender sentiment. To Arnold and other Europeans, says Trilling, Americans only made sense as transplanted Englishmen, and so gravitated to Lee and others of cultured colonial stock. But the nation’s animating political genius Lincoln, and its greatest warlord Grant, emerged from demotic obscurity in the middle-west; as did the men of Grant’s and Sherman’s Army of the Tennessee, “tan-faced” settlers’ sons who proved the champion fighters of the war. Mars Robert and the Planter-Cavaliers were being phased out. At Harvard in the tense 1850s, Henry Adams, great-grandson of John, found an unlikely friendship with Lee’s second son Roony, himself later a general of the Rebel cavalry. Their affinity struck Adams, after a lapse of years, as the fraternity of dying eighteenth century dynasties, the last of the mandarin statesmen embracing the last of the commanding Virginians. “As an animal, the Southerner seemed to have every advantage, but even as an animal he steadily lost ground.” (Replace the Southerner with the Indian and it still works.)
Herman Melville toured the front in 1864, even rode with Union cavalry pursuing the Confederate guerilla Mosby. In his poem “The Armies of the Wilderness,” Grant appears as “the silent General,” ominously still, “like a loaded mortar.” Melville’s is an accurate wartime impression of this taciturn man who restricted his self-expression to plainspoken summons of earth-shaking industrial firepower; but the image is inadequate in light of the Personal Memoirs, a work in which policy statement, social observation, and the driest of dry wit combine to make Grant, in the words of a recent biographer, “the historian of the Union cause.” Grant--plainstyle chronicler to Lincoln’s refulgent poet.
Grant articulates the North’s optimistic ideals and progressive prospect, the 19th century American Dream his people brought to the fight. He’s elated by greater speed, better communication, settlement, urbanization, technology, growth, progress, mobility. The military academy that educated him was a cutting-edge realschule; other colleges were founded on Latin and Greek, West Point on engineering and chemistry; instruction in the humanities took the form of lectures on Christian Ethics; graduates bridged rivers and laid railroads across the expanses. A bootstraps meritocrat like Lincoln, Grant beheld with horror the degradation of the slave, and with perhaps greater horror the kinky warping of the master and the feudal immobility of the poor white. The South’s neglect of public amenities like good roads and free public schools seemed, to Grant, as reprehensible as the enslavement of blacks. To Grant the war accomplished two ends, moral and imperial: slavery was wicked, was rightly abolished; also the South was rescued for America, whereas independent, he thinks, it would have in time wilted to an enervated, troglodytic banana republic squatting on exhausted soil, the Sutpen household of Absalom, Absalom! writ large, barren of enterprising whites, vulnerable to Haitian-style revolution, and prey to the incursions of European powers. To Grant the course of empire demanded Union, and I like that the first edition used Grant’s initials in the title, The Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant. U.S. Grant: federal impersonality joined to a personal name, like G.I. Joe; and having “U.S.” for initials is way better than being called Captain America. I wasn’t surprised when Grant concluded the book with suggestions for American power, in particular urging a strong navy. The fleet thus built in the 1890s came in handy when America bum-rushed the remains of overseas Spain and established itself as a Pacific and an Atlantic power. As pater patriae, Grant is no Washington--but he’s close.
Nowhere does he mention his surrenders to bourbon; but I heard he drank when bored, so whenever he mutters about the loss of momentum during lulls in campaigning, I assume he’s coping with the frustration of inactivity by getting wasted. I like Grant. Magnanimous and unselfish in life; reliable and clear-headed in war; subtle and funny in prose. A solid guy, indispensable like Lincoln. He’s touchingly curious and keen on travel. A restless and wondering boy, he spent his free time away from the plow on horseback, exploring. His chapters on the Mexican War are an adventure story like The Voyage of the Beagle or In Patagonia. Leaving the White House in 1877, he launched upon a world tour. Joyce has the British army brat Molly Bloom remember the thunderous salute that greeted Grant’s flotilla, when it touched at Gibraltar.
It is also impressive that he emerged unbroken from the humiliating hardscrabble prewar decade to lead the nation’s armies in its most desperate struggle. When I read about Grant pawning his watch to buy Christmas presents for his kids one bleak prewar December, I understand Gertrude Stein’s remark that the thought of Grant made her weep, though she probably had his drawn-out death from throat cancer in mind. Grant commenced these memoirs for money, after a Ponzi scheme ruined his family; in same month, he received the terminal diagnosis; he wrote racing death. It is one of the great pictures of American history, the cancer-wracked old man, writing all day out on the porch, under blankets, his throat sealed after decades of cigars, unable to speak or eat, and refusing morphine in order to keep his mind clear for writing (he didn’t refuse the cocaine-laced ice water, though). Meanwhile press and public keep vigil over the former president’s deterioration…newspapers fill with the tributes of former comrades and former foes.
But Grant was always his best under pressure; the Union is the proof. A staff officer once saw a shell explode over him as he sat on a log writing out an order; Grant continued writing; when he handed the order over, its perfect flow of penmanship betrayed no sign of the shellfire interruption. If any dying pauper was to write a cool, calm, lucidly funny memoir, it was Grant; and he must have been heartened by the 400,000 prepublication orders gathered by Mark Twain, his publisher. Twain hired on thousands of Union veterans who dressed in faded uniforms and old medals to canvass the North for subscriptions. Grant died a week after putting down his pen, and posthumous bestsellerdom gathered a fortune to his widow.
You shall not be The grave of your deserving. Rome must know The value of her own. ‘Twere a concealment Worse than theft, no less a traducement, To hide your doings and to silence that Which, to the spire and top of praises vouched, Would seem but modest. Therefore, I beseech you— In sign of what you are, not to reward What you have done—before our army hear me.
Coriolanus, I, ix
Grant more nearly impersonated the American character of 1861-65 than any other living man. Therefore he will stand as the typical hero of the great Civil War in America.
The truly fine-grained books are always impossible to review or describe. Even dragged-out praise leaves most of the best things unnoted. Certainly th...moreThe truly fine-grained books are always impossible to review or describe. Even dragged-out praise leaves most of the best things unnoted. Certainly this is true in the case of In Patagonia, one of those unclassifiable mandarin anatomies whose summarized “action” but barely suggests the innumerable felicities of perception that make the book. A copy of In Our Time packed in his rucksack, Chatwin busses from Buenos Aires into Patagonia, tramps around, meets people and collects their stories--much as Ishmael “goes whaling” or Bloom “runs some errands and thinks about stuff.” Updike, in his reviewer-guise of the Common Reader, on the occasion of Brodsky’s Venetian capriccio Watermark marvels at those writers “beyond academic conventions, beyond commercial hopes” who depart from, dispense with or otherwise transcend plot (or the story hooks of “travel writing”) to regale us with their “rare sensibility and curious fund of information; we are flattered to be in his or her company” (readers who complain that cetological lore trammels their breeze through Moby Dick miss the point: the prose of that long chapter is splendid). A truly picaresque narrative sensibility (rare enough) and a curio-cabinet of odd learning Chatwin indeed has, plus an enriching assimilation of those masters of unsettling concision, Mandelstam and Borges. Who knew a desert at land’s end would offer such a mad dream of the world? Chatwin has the magic eye. (less)