Monday, June 25, 2018

'All the Dogs Here Are Going Mad'

“I am so poorly. I have been to a funeral, where I made a Pun, to the consternation of the rest of the mourners. And we had wine. I can’t describe to you the howl which the widow set up at proper intervals. Dash could; for it was not unlike what he makes.”

Charles Lamb, of course. Dash is his dog, a gift from Thomas Hood, the humorist who once described Lamb as “a literary Modern Antique, a New-Old Author, a living Anachronism, contemporary at once with Burton the Elder, and Colman the Younger.” Lamb is writing on July 19, 1827 to P.G. Patmore. Lamb indulges Dash as though he were an amusing and slightly dotty relative. The dog brought out, the painter Benjamin Robert Haydon writes in his Autobiography (1855), “Lamb's most amiable characteristics —that of sacrificing his own feelings and inclinations to those of others.” Dog owners will understand:

“This was a large and very handsome dog, of a rather curious and singularly sagacious breed, which had belonged to Thomas Hood, and at the time I speak of, and to oblige both dog and master, had been transferred to the Lambs—who made a great pet of him, to the entire disturbance and discomfiture, as it appeared, of all Lamb's habits of life, but especially of that most favourite and salutary of all, his long and heretofore solitary suburban walks: for Dash (that was the dog's name) would never allow Lamb to quit the house without him, and, when out, would never go anywhere but precisely where it pleased himself. The consequence was, that Lamb made himself a perfect slave to this dog.”

In a note to the July 19 letter, the editor, E.V. Lucas, describes Dash as “a tempestuous animal.” In September, Lamb, while traveling, writes again to Patmore:

“Excuse my anxiety—but how is Dash? (I should have asked if Mrs. Patmore kept her rules and was improving—but Dash came uppermost. The order of our thoughts should be the order of our writing.) Goes he muzzled, or aperto ore? Are his intellects sound, or does he wander a little in his conversation? You cannot be too careful to watch the first symptoms of incoherence. The first illogical snarl he makes, to St. Luke's with him. All the dogs here are going mad, if you believe the overseers; but I protest they seem to me very rational and collected. But nothing is so deceitful as mad people to those who are not used to them.”

Keep in mind that Lamb himself spent six weeks in an asylum in 1795, and the following year his sister Mary fatally stabbed their mother. She was subject to spells of insanity for the rest of her life, and Charles remained her custodian. That he could joke about madness, even in a dog, suggests something about the intractability of his sense of humor. Nothing so efficiently shields us against the madness of the world. Patmore replies to Lamb, and in the same spirit, with an account of Dash’s latest escapade:

“He was out at near dusk, down the lane, a few nights ago, with his mistress, . . . when Dash attacked a carpenter, armed with a large saw—not Dash, but the carpenter—and a `wise saw' it turned out, for its teeth protected him from Dash’s, and a battle royal ensued, worthy the Surrey Theatre. Mrs. Patmore says that it was really frightful to see the saw, and the way in which it and Dash gnashed their teeth at each other.”

Sunday, June 24, 2018

'A Certain Mellow Wisdom'

In bookman’s argot: “Quarto, original yellow cloth, rough-cut page edges, printed paper spine label, no dust jacket.” More subjectively, the volume has heft yet leaves an impression of modesty, like its author, Max Beerbohm. I think I bought a first edition of his finest work, the essay collection And Even Now (William Heinemann, 1920), for $20. I say “I think” because firsts can be cabalistically difficult to identify, and I’m not among the initiated. Not that it matters, as I’m a reader not a collector, but it’s not a book I ever thought I would own. Like Boswell and Montaigne, it is irreducibly a book, a distillation of bookishness, not to be confused with a text, a bestseller, one component among many of an oeuvre or “a good read.” In one of the included essays, “Books Within Books,” Beerbohm writes with admirable dogmatism and irony:

“But how few, after all, the books that are books! Charles Lamb let his kind heart master him when he made that too brief list of books that aren’t. Book is an honourable title, not to be conferred lightly. A volume is not necessarily, as Lamb would have had us think, a book because it can be read without difficulty. The test is, whether it was worth reading. Had the author something to set forth? And had he the specific gift for setting it forth in written words? And did he use this rather rare gift conscientiously and to the full? And were his words well and appropriately printed and bound? If you can say Yes to these questions, then only, I submit, is the title of ‘book’ deserved.”

Beerbohm refers to Lamb’s “Detached Thoughts on Books and Reading,” another bit of essential reading for consumers of genuine books. Beerbohm is a dandy without prejudice or snobbery. He enjoys life and likes good things. He is the rare sort of writer who makes good company. He is a sharer by nature. His sense of irony can be so rarefied as to be mistaken for nonexistent. He has no case to prove, ax to grind or followers to accumulate. You can’t stomach so quiet and subtle a sensibility? No harm done. You won’t hurt his feelings. In “Laughter,” the final essay in And Even Now, he tells us:

“Come to me in some grievous difficulty: I will talk to you like a father, even like a lawyer. I’ll be hanged if I haven’t a certain mellow wisdom. But if you are by way of weaving theories on some one who will luminously confirm or powerfully rend them, I must, with a hang-dog air, warn you that I am not your man. I suffer from a strong suspicion that things in general cannot be accounted for through any formula or set of formulae, and that any one philosophy, howsoever new, is no better than any other. This is in itself a sort of philosophy, and I suspect it accordingly; but it has for me the merit of being the only one that I can make head or tail of.”

Saturday, June 23, 2018

'But You Do It, That's the Queerness!'

The letters William and Henry James exchanged late in life make for fraternal and writerly drama worthy of Henry’s late fiction. In April 1903, Henry suggests he might make his first visit to America after an absence of twenty years. William tries gently to discourage his brother, fearing he would be shocked by the decline in American manners and speech, but he underestimates Henry’s appetite for new experience. On May 24, Henry replies:

“Simply and supinely to shrink—on mere grounds of general fear and encouraged shockability—has to me all the air of giving up, chucking away without a struggle, the one chance that remains to me in life of anything that can be called a movement: my one little ewe-lamb of possible exotic experience, such experience as may convert itself, through the senses, through observation, imagination and reflection now at their maturity, into vivid and solid material, into a general renovation of one’s too monotonised grab-bag.”

Henry wishes to reclaim his native land, which had become at once familiar and thoroughly alien. There’s something stirring about such enthusiasm and defiance in a sixty-year-old novelist. He spent nearly a year in the U.S., from August 1904 to July 1905, and in 1907 published the fruit of that visit, one of his finest books, The American Scene. In its preface, he distinguishes his effort from mere journalism or op-ed sociology:

“There are features of the human scene, there are properties of the social air, that the newspapers, reports, surveys and blue-books would seem to confess themselves powerless to ‘handle,’ and that yet represented to me a greater array of items, a heavier expression of character, than my own pair of scales would ever weigh, keep them as clear for it as I might.”

The American Scene remains the single best book devoted to one man’s understanding of the nation. Auden called it a “prose poem” and “no more a guidebook than the ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ is an ornithological essay.” It is not “travel writing,” a demeaning label.  Was William pleased? On May 4, 1907 he writes to Henry and says the book is “in its peculiar way . . . supremely great,” then adds:

“'You know how opposed your whole ‘third manner’ of execution is to the literary ideals which animate my crude and Orson-like breast, mine being to say a thing in one sentence as straight and explicit as it can be made, and then to drop it forever; yours being to avoid naming it straight, but by dint of breathing and sighing all round and round it to arouse in the reader who may have had a similar perception already (Heaven help him if he hasn’t!) the illusion of a solid object mad (like the ‘ghost’ at the Polytechnic) wholly out of impalpable materials, air, and the prismatic interferences of light, ingeniously focused, by mirrors upon empty space. But you do it, that’s the queerness!”

William adds, even more condescendingly: “In this crowded and hurried reading age, pages that require such close attention remain unread and neglected.”  William is no philistine. His own prose is masterful, but here he sounds like one of our contemporary apologists for illiteracy.

Friday, June 22, 2018

'As Entertaining as His Indisposition Allowed'

Some of the saddest events are recognized only retrospectively. Few of us know the date of our death, and each year we pass it happily unaware. Boswell, unsuspecting at the time, relates an evening in 1784:

“On Tuesday, June 22, I dined with him at THE LITERARY CLUB, the last time of his being in that respectable society. The other members present were the Bishop of St. Asaph, Lord Eliot, Lord Palmerston, Dr. Fordyce, and Mr. Malone. He looked ill; but had such a manly fortitude, that he did not trouble the company with melancholy complaints. They all shewed evident marks of kind concern about him, with which he was much pleased, and he exerted himself to be as entertaining as his indisposition allowed him.”

Johnson was sick and would be dead in less than six months. Perhaps he suspected his visit to The Club would be his last. He had a terror of being alone and described solitude as “a state dangerous to those who are too much accustomed to sink into themselves.” To be clubbable, for Johnson, was to maintain sanity. He and Sir Joshua Reynolds founded The Club in 1764. It met weekly at The Turk’s Head on Gerrard Street in Soho. The original nine members included Edmund Burke and Oliver Goldsmith. New members could be elected only by unanimous vote, and later additions included Boswell, Adam Smith and Edward Gibbon. Walter Jackson Bate called the club “the most remarkable assemblage of diverse talents that has ever met so frequently for the sole purpose of conversation.”

Thursday, June 21, 2018

`Easiness and Gaiety'

In no other writer are the qualities of genius and nasty little boy so inextricably joined as in Jonathan Swift. His mastery of prose remained unrivalled in English until the arrival of Evelyn Waugh, and his verse, still insufficiently appreciated, might almost have been written with modern sensibilities in mind. In his “Life of Swift,” Dr. Johnson devotes a mere two paragraphs to the poems and concludes, rather limply, that they are “often humorous, almost always light, and have the qualities which recommend such compositions, easiness and gaiety.” Let’s qualify that: Swift’s verse is formally perfect and usually funny, though in Swift’s hands humor can unexpectedly shade into savagery and disgust. Take the best-known couplets in his best-known poem, “The Lady’s Dressing Room,” written in 1732:

“Thus finishing his grand survey,
Disgusted Strephon stole away
Repeating in his amorous Fits,
Oh! Celia, Celia, Celia shits!”

Swift’s masterpiece of scatology was instantly popular and soon printed as a pamphlet and reprinted in newspapers in England and Ireland. While reading in The Muse Strikes Back: A Poetic Response by Women to Men (eds. Katherine McAlpine and Gail White, Story Line Press, 1997), I discovered “The Gentleman’s Study, In Answer to The Lady’s Dressing-Room,” a poetic retort to Swift published soon after the original, written in tetrameter couplets. The editors note: “It is interesting that an 18th-century woman was able to match (perhaps even outdo) Swift in scatological bad taste. Though the author’s identity is still unknown, there has been no evidence to suggest that the poem was not written by a woman.” Swift and the anonymous author run neck and neck in the race to revulsion:    

“For there some stocks [necktie] lay on the ground,
One side was yellow, t’ other brown;
And velvet breeches (on her word),
The inside all bedaubed with t—d,
And just before, I'll not desist
To let you know they were be-pissed:
Four different stinks lay there together,
Which were sweat, turd, and piss, and leather.”

And that’s even before Strephon returns to his room, literally stinking drunk. The narrator conceals herself behind a screen, and the show begins:

“Then, in a moment, all the room
Did with the smell of ulcer fume,
And would have lasted very long,
Had not sour belches smelled as strong,
Which from her nose did soon depart,
When overcome with stink of fart,
And after, then came thick upon it
The odious, nauseous one of vomit,
That pourèd out from mouth and nose
Both on his bed, and floor, and clothes;
Nor was it lessened e’er a bit,
Nor overcome, by stink of s–t,
Which, in the pot and round about
The brim and sides, he squirted out;
But when poor Tom pulled off his shoes,
There was a greater stink of toes,
And sure, a nasty, loathsome smell
Must come from feet as black as hell.”

One hopes the author was female, not in the spirit of affirmative action or gender parity but because it’s instructive to be reminded that men have no monopoly on foul-mouthed wit. In “A Brief and Inadequate History of Female Comic Poets,” Mike Juster makes a suggestion that had already occurred to me:

“The seamless insertion of two Latin lines suggests that, if the poem was indeed the work of a woman, it had to have been one of the limited number of female poets highly trained in Latin who wrote light verse. One has to wonder whether this poem, suspiciously published first in the Dean’s hometown of Dublin, is another example of Swift both having fun and raising his literary profile by anonymously attacking himself.”

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

'His Spites Were Candied with Good Nature'

Reader’s lament: discovering a writer who sounds interesting but whose work has not been translated into a language he can read. In this case, Alfred Polgar (1873-1955), a Viennese feuilletonist who shows up in Clive James’ humanistic portrait gallery, Cultural Amnesia (2007). What little I can learn of Polgar appeals to my taste for tart wit, aphoristic concision and enlightened disregard for politics. This is where James hooked me:

“In his home ground, Polgar had made German the ideal instrument for a body of prose so charged with the precision of poetry that it gives a picture of his era no other writer could match for wealth of registered detail and subtlety of argument. His every essay forms a rhythmic unit from start to finish: ‘Many attempt without success to make up for their lack of talent with defects of character.’ He could afford to say so because his strength and depth of character were in everything he said. ‘A commonplace soul is often uncommonly spirited. But dreck is still dreck, even when phosphorescent.’ He could afford to say that, too, because he was never flashy.”

Not long ago I looked into a book of poems and aphorisms by a contemporary American poet. The aphorisms were not aphorisms but Tweet-like punch lines dripping with pop culture and crowd-tested sentiments. The little of Polgar I have read in English suggests he was a master of nuance, an Austrian Chamfort who turns particulars into universals in the smallest of spaces. An aphorist must sound as though his words are revealed truth unburdened with proofs. I found “A Great Dilettante,” an article Polgar published in 1950 in the Antioch Review devoted to Egon Friedell, another Austrian writer included by James in Cultural Amnesia. Here’s a sample:

“Egon Friedell was a big, corpulent man, slow and heavy, with a voice and gestures that filled any room he entered. The bright eyes below the heavily modeled brow shone with intriguing enjoyment of, and all-around love for, men and things. His spites were candied with good nature.”

That final sentence cinches it. To amuse with minimal means while stating a truth is worth more than most novels.

[Go here to read a piece by John Knowles about Polgar.]

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

'An Ugly Version of Scott Fitzgerald'

We like our villains ugly or at least grotesque. It makes life tidy and simple to understand. Outer and inner ugliness ought to correspond. Call it truth in advertising. Recent reading has turned up two reassuring examples. In his History of England, Macaulay describes Titus Oates, who fabricated the “Popish Plot” of 1678, the fictitious Catholic conspiracy to kill King Charles II. At least fifteen innocent men were executed as a result. Here is Macaulay’s portrait of Oates in the courtroom:

“A few years earlier his short neck, his legs uneven, the vulgar said, as those of a badger, his forehead low as that of a baboon, his purple cheeks, and his monstrous length of chin, had been familiar to all who frequented the courts of law. He had then been the idol of the nation. Wherever he had appeared, men had uncovered their heads to him. The lives and estates of the magnates of the realm had been at his mercy. Times had now changed; and many, who had formerly regarded him as the deliverer of his country, shuddered at the sight of those hideous features on which villainy seemed to be written by the hand of God.”

One of my favorite collections of journalism is Rebecca West’s The Meaning of Treason (1949; rev. 1965). In it she writes of William Joyce, derisively known in England as Lord Haw-Haw, the American-born Anglo-Irish traitor who fled to Germany days before the Nazis invaded Poland. He broadcast propaganda to Great Britain, urging its people to surrender. Joyce was captured weeks after Germany’s surrender, tried for treason and executed by hanging on Jan. 3, 1946. West covered the trial for The New Yorker. Here is part of her description of Lord Haw-Haw in the courtroom:

“The strong light was merciless to William Joyce, whose appearance was a shock to all of us who knew him only over the air. His voice had suggested a large and flashy handsomeness, but he was a tiny little creature and not handsome at all. His hair was mouse-coloured and sparse, particularly above his ears, and his pinched and misshapen nose was joined to his face at an odd angle. His eyes were hard and shiny, and above them his thick eyebrows were pale and irregular. His neck was long, his shoulders narrow and sloping, his arms very short and thick. His body looked flimsy and coarse. There was nothing individual about him except a deep scar running across his right cheek from his ear to the corner of his mouth. But this did not create the savage and marred distinction that it might suggest, for it gave a mincing immobility to his small mouth. He was dressed with a dandyish preciosity, which gave no impression of well-being, only a nervousness. He was like an ugly version of Scott Fitzgerald, but more nervous. He moved with a jerky formality, and when he bowed to the judge his bow seemed sincerely respectful but entirely inappropriate to the occasion, and it was difficult to think of any occasion to which it would have been appropriate.”

[Whittaker Chambers (an unattractive man who testified against a treasonous Adonis) reviewed The Meaning of Treason for Time. He concludes: “Thus, in a prosy age, her style strives continually toward a condition of poetry, and comes to rest in a rhetoric that, at its best, is one of the most personal and eloquent idioms of our time.”]