Re-reading this has primed me for some more Austen. For six months Persuasion has been a brick in my bedside to-read tower, and at no point of that ti...moreRe-reading this has primed me for some more Austen. For six months Persuasion has been a brick in my bedside to-read tower, and at no point of that time have I found myself in the mood to read the novel. I’m in the mood now. In the lofty ironic style with which he traced the dissipation of Roman dynasties and the dispersion of Roman power, Gibbon recounts the household anxieties – and squalors and disasters – of three generations of precarious English gentry. There’s a general background of mercantile humiliation, cruel entail, and mortgaged rural seats. Gibbon’s father was a well meaning but hopelessly improvident patriarch who squandered much of his inheritance paying down lifelong debts contracted in a few short seasons of fashionable metropolitan appearance. His mother was one of those wives constantly impregnated until she died of it. Gibbon had a ghost family of siblings dead in their first months. Six male infants were successively christened “Edward” in hope that one might survive to carry his father’s name; and one did. “My five brothers, whose names may be found in the Parish register of Putney, I shall not pretend to lament…”
This is one of the great literary testaments (it exists in a number of incomplete manuscripts, combined differently by various editors; I think I first read Sheffield’s, in a textbook; this one was made by Georges Bonnard). Through sickliness and neglect and straitened finances Gibbon struggled to get an education, and beyond that a classical command of Greek and Latin; through abortive experiments to find his subject, to master the sources, and to find a style that had “the proper tone, the peculiar mode of historical eloquence,” “the middle tone between a dull Chronicle and a Rhetorical reclamation”; to build his library, and fund his independence (“I might say with truth that I was never less alone than when by myself”). Love and marriage are breezily, and probably sincerely dismissed. Studious bachelorhood was his perfect state.
Freedom is the first wish our heart; freedom is the first blessing of our nature: and, unless we bind ourselves with the voluntary chains of interest or passion, we advance in freedom as we advance in years.
As English stylists I have always associated Gibbon and Santayana. And now as men. Gibbon’s book made me slightly pity Santayana, who from the evidence of Persons and Places (published in 1944 by Scribners whose editors arranged to have the manuscript smuggled out of Axis Rome, where the middle-aged Santayana had settled in 1912 “after the fashion of the ancient philosophers, often in exile, but always in sight of the marketplace and the theatre”) had a much longer journey through family obligation and wage-earning to “solitude and independence,” “philosophic freedom,” worldly hermeticism.
I laughed when Gibbon revisited Lausanne. As a youthfully rebellious Catholic convert he had been confined to and deprogrammed in the house of a Protestant pastor there. There he had also mastered French, prepared his first compositions, and cut a respectable figure among the locals. During his second sojourn, drinking habits picked up in the army during the Seven Year’s War
betrayed me into some riotous acts of intemperance; and before my departure, I had deservedly forfeited the public opinion which had been acquired by the virtues of my better days.
There is much more to say about this book but I am tired.
On France: But upon the whole I had reason to praise the national urbanity which from court has diffused its gentle influence to the shop, the cottage and the schools.
On the linguistic empire founded with England’s military-commercial one: The conquests of the language and literature are not confined to Europe alone; and the writer who succeeds in London is speedily read on the banks of the Delaware and the Ganges.
On cutting a figure: The miseries of a vacant life were never known to a man whose hours were insufficient for the inexhaustible pleasures of study. But I lamented, that at the proper age, I had not embraced the lucrative pursuits of law or of trade, the chances of civil office or India adventure, or even the fat slumbers of the Church…
On immortality: In old age, the consolation of hope is reserved for the tenderness of parents, who commence a new life in their children; the faith of enthusiasts, who sing Hallelujahs above the clouds; and the vanity of authors, who presume the immortality of their name and writing.
I could not have read this at a better time. I’m contentedly becalmed in Guy Davenport’s Da Vinci’s Bicycle, constantly re-reading the Victor Hugo-in-...moreI could not have read this at a better time. I’m contentedly becalmed in Guy Davenport’s Da Vinci’s Bicycle, constantly re-reading the Victor Hugo-in-exile story and marveling at Davenport’s dramatically piquant retelling of the record. (If I were master of a dream-of-history style I would write “General Grant Goes Around the World.”) I love it when books coincide and I loved Angela Carter’s gallery of Lizzie Borden (“The Fall River Axe Murders”), Edgar Allan Poe (“The Cabinet of…”), and the Adam and Eve of modern alienation, Charles Baudelaire and Jeanne Duval (“Black Venus”). Carter and Davenport have magic time-piercing eyes, and pungent erotic styles. Davenport seems generally homoerotic - lots of Puckish fauns with “piss-burnt” drawers and uncontrollable erections; Carter ranges everywhere: Baudelairan voyeurism and interracial fetishism; physically chaste but mentally morbid Romantic idealism; the “whorled flesh” of a feral wolf-girl’s unconsciously exposed sex (Dr. Itard and Victor “the wolf-boy of Aveyron” loom behind the professor-and-ward couple in Davenport’s “The Death of Picasso”); and the changeling child from A Midsummer-Night's Dream imagined as a glimmering hermaphrodite yogi holding a tree pose behind Titania’s force field, “provoking desire on all sides yet myself transcendent, the unmoved mover, the still eye of the tempest, exemplary and self-sufficient, the beginning and the end.” (less)
"There," said Wellington, sitting in the park at Brussels two weeks before Waterloo, and answering Creevey's question about how well he hoped the comi...more"There," said Wellington, sitting in the park at Brussels two weeks before Waterloo, and answering Creevey's question about how well he hoped the coming campaign would go, "it all depends upon that article whether we do the business or not." He had seen a private soldier of one of the infantry regiments enter the park, gaping about at the statues. "Give me enough of it," he went on, "and I am sure." (John Keegan)
The Mad Minute was a pre-World War I term used by British Army riflemen during training at the Hythe School of Musketry to describe scoring 15 hits onto a 12" round target at 300 yards (270 m) within one minute using a bolt-action rifle (usually a Lee-Enfield or Lee-Metford rifle). It was not uncommon during the First World War for riflemen to greatly exceed this score. Many riflemen could average 30+ shots while the record, set in 1914 by Sergeant Instructor Alfred Snoxall, was 38 hits. During the Battle of Mons, in August 1914, there were numerous German accounts of coming up against what they believed was machine gun fire when in fact it was squads of riflemen firing at this rate. (Wikipedia)(less)
Three Wogs is the work of a verbal sorcerer and deep-seeing satirist unafraid of prolixity or obscurity in the pursuit of a complex effect: the grotes...moreThree Wogs is the work of a verbal sorcerer and deep-seeing satirist unafraid of prolixity or obscurity in the pursuit of a complex effect: the grotesque real, the dusklight under which social aversions reveal erotic fears and fantasies – the depths where "horror and pleasure coincide” said Leiris. The important physical spaces are liminal or subterranean. The theater where the Sinophobe and refugee-tormenter Mrs. Proby goes to be deliciously alarmed before giant projected scenes of Fu Manchu's lubricious villainy:
The theatre, with its smell of weak lilac and cheap caporal, was the perfect hush in soft red lights that Mrs. Proby loved: funereal, anonymous, the nethermost retreat where the tired, amorous, and lonesome could sleep or fondle or expatiate in ones or twos or threes, far from the madding crowd and unbothered in the reliquary of pure imagination.
The nocturnal depot under Victoria Station where the troglodytic lout Roland McGuffey washes buses before emerging to menace an Indian student asleep on bench awaiting his train:
The sound of water was coming from some sourceless spot, a broken aqueduct, perhaps, or maybe some conduit water spilling out of an ancient furrow or some lead Roman leakage of Londinium. Roland blinked his eyes to adjust them to the darkness, then disappeared into a stairway like a bit of dirt into a Hoover—and stepped into the damp cellar. The cold light of tiny bulbs, blue and pennysized, strung out between eerie shadows and revealed a hushed ash-grey tomb, a cell of must, cannibalized, as if by Mulciber, into a warehouse for those who work by night – the dark, witching hours that slowly pass, soured, it always seems, by those deep and unassignable final causes that desperately remind us of our odd naked frailties and whisper to us we owe God a death.
The “dark labyrinth of shale-colored stone and traceried windows” where Reverend Which Therefore, a foppish ghoul of a clergyman whose bookplate is a “ferroprussiate reproduction of one of Rouault’s mauled Christs, with Which Therefore’s name in ten-point type substituted for Pilate’s inscription,” reluctantly officiates at the marriage of the African choirmaster with whom he is besotted to a girl who he can only picture “performing jack-flips on a runway in Great Windmill Street at a half-crown a go, a Salomé who’d divest down to the bone for a posy bag of shillings”:
Next to one of the columns sat a small table where one could purchase, for a shilling each, leather bookmarks embossed in pinchbeck, shiny postcards of the Family Windsor, and small pamphlets which stapled together the church’s history…and prose accounts of various legends more than willingly enlarged upon, as was usual in these churches all over London, by little pie-faced but dedicated shawlies who sat lost in their mufflers, blueing in the cold, chatting with Japanese businessmen and troops of German girl scouts, and recommending this or that with chirps of delight and sad smiles—grumbling mercilessly only in the off chance they should be locked in overnight, a not infrequent hazard for the napping octogenarian placed in the same corner with long dead ladies and snipenosed, marmoreal queens.
I’ve quoted Three Wogs at its most scenic-atmospheric, but dialogue and indirect discourse are just as important in the book. Theroux creates comedy from the immigrants’ accents and pedantically precise diction (especially in contrast with the grunts and growls of their tormentors), and elaborates the racists’ fantasies with astounding rhetorical verve. Every page is rich and weird. Asked in the Bookslut interview why he incorporates “a multiplicity of narrative forms” into his novels, Theroux answered: “Pedantry. The delight in living. Brio. The chance to act, to mime, to mock, to mimic.” A wonderful credo. I am very excited to read Darconville’s Cat. (less)