Tuesday, February 28, 2006

O Kay's!

Only once have I worked in retail sales, and that was in a large, musty, chaotic bookstore in downtown Cleveland, in 1975. Kay’s Books occupied three floors of a building that resembled a warehouse but had once been a restaurant, in the days when Cleveland was the home of John D. Rockefeller. The floors and some of the walls were covered with mosaic tiles. I had been shopping for books there since I was a kid, collecting early editions of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ novels with red covers and brown pages.

The autocratic, blue-haired owner, Rachel Kowan, was renowned for retroactively raising the price of books. A customer would hand his selections to Mrs. Kay, who looked at them over her glasses, weighing their worth as though for the first time, and then say something like, “This won’t do. This is worth at least $7.” Then she marked the new price on the cover of the formerly $5 book with a black crayon. Customers usually protested but I don’t remember Mrs. Kay, who stood behind the cash register on a raised platform and literally looked down on everyone, ever budging.

In size and inclusiveness, Kay’s was a rust belt mutation of Borges’ Library of Babel. There wasn’t merely a Metaphysical/Esoterica section; whole shelves were devoted to Madame Blavatsky, Rudolf Steiner, Eckankar (“Religion of the Light and Sound of God”) and another outfit that linked the Great Pyramid to the pineal gland. I was a college dropout and looked upon the sprawl at Kay’s and the people who purchased it as the graduate school I never attended. We sold pulp novels about pimps, penned by Iceberg Slim, and we sold pornography. The Anarchist Cookbook was popular and so were Abbie Hoffman’s Steal This Book and books about con men like “Yellow Kid” Weil.

My job interview was simple: Mrs. Kay randomly pulled a dozen volumes off the shelves and told me to alphabetize them by author’s last name. I passed. My first assignment in the store was to alphabetize thousands of Signet paperbacks in the section of the basement built under the adjoining business, a bar patronized almost exclusively by blacks. From the Domino Lounge came the sounds of people hollering, dancing, flushing toilets and playing the jukebox. Some of the Signets dated from the 1940s. As I lifted a pile of brown paperbacks from the top shelf, they crumbled in my hands and fell, along with cockroach remains, in my face.

On another occasion, the late Tiny Tim and two members of his band visited the store. They were interested in our collection of old sheet music, which was heaped below the stairs between the first floor and the basement. Tiny spent hours digging through the mess and bought a pile of it. Before he left, we had him autograph the wall.

After that, the event I remember most vividly occurred shortly before I left Kay’s in September. A new translation of The Iliad had arrived, and the boxes were carried to the second floor, where I worked. One of my co-workers was Gary Dumm, now a comic book artist and frequent collaborator with Harvey Pekar, creator of American Splendor. Gary said there must be a mistake, because poetry, literature and books about the ancient world were shelved on the first floor. One of the senior clerks, however, said, “No, it’s in the right place,” and pointed to the drawing of the Trojan horse on the cover. “Put it in equine science.”

Kay’s was sold in the mid-1980s to a wholesaler from New Jersey. When I revisited Cleveland last fall after a long absence, I wanted to see the old building on Prospect Avenue. The first floor is now occupied by a store catering to blacks with retro tastes in fashion. The mannequins in the window were dressed in the pimp-chic, proto-Disco, “Superfly” style of some 30 years ago, when I worked at the bookstore. I remember the layout of Kay’s in astonishing detail and still occasionally dream about it.

Monday, February 27, 2006

Happy Birthday

Today is the birthday of Peter De Vries (1910-1993). If you are unfamiliar with that name -- and judging from the small number of his novels in print, I suspect many of you are -- I feel pity and envy for you. Pity, because you have not experienced one of the funniest, wisest novelists in the language; envy, because your enjoyment of his prolific output lies ahead. His novels are not technically graceful. Neither are they svelte. His funniest book, Reuben, Reuben, is overgrown and gangly, like an awkward teenager. De Vries could never resist a pun, particularly the sort I think of as a shaggy-dog pun, in which the punch line follows a logically precise and highly improbable set-up, like one of Flann O’Brien’s Keats and Chapman stories.

His masterpiece is The Blood of the Lamb, which is unlike any other book he, or anyone else, ever wrote. If you have children, beware. The story, based on the death from leukemia of De Vries’ own daughter, Emily, is agonizing. Comedy remains, as it does in Shakespeare’s tragedies, but the book is a chronicle of one man’s experience of the unthinkable and the strength and limitations of his religious faith. When I’ve met readers who knew the book, they’ve always spoken of it as a story they were unable to forget. They remembered it, as I do, with admiration and pain. Here’s how The Blood of the Lamb closes:

"Again the throb of compassion rather than the breath of consolation: the recognition of how long, how long is the mourner's bench upon which we sit, arms linked in undeluded friendship, all of us, brief links, ourselves, in the eternal pity."

Sunday, February 26, 2006

Adult Fiction

Here's how novelist John Williams, in Stoner, describes the inevitable end of a love affair between a middle-aged professor and a student:

"But finally they had to talk, he knew; though the words they said were like a performance of something they had rehearsed again and again in the privacies of their knowledge. They revealed that knowledge by grammatical usage: they progressed from the perfect -- "We have been happy, haven't we?" -- to the past -- "We were happy -- happier than anyone, I think" -- and at last came to the necessity of discourse."

I admire that paragraph immensely, the way Williams uses grammar (and these are academics in the 1930s -- I'm not sure the same device could be used today) and the double meanings built into the names of verb tenses ("perfect," "past") -- to render the sadness and civility of such an impossible love affair. Stoner is among the saddest, bleakest novels I know, and crafted without resort to narrative shenanigans. It is one of those rare books written by an adult for adults, a book that repects the reader's maturity and contains not the smallest suggestion of cynicism or sentimentality.

I finished reading the novel during a three-day trip to upstate New York, reading the final pages during the flight home to Houston, somewhere, I think, over Missouri, where the novel is set.

Saturday, February 25, 2006

Giving It All Away

The ever-thoughtful George Hunka at Superfluities posted an essay on Friday devoted to culling his library. It's a trivial subject to which I devote a ridiculous amount of thought. I'm not an acquistive person. I don't need a lot of props to remain functional and relatively content. I've often thought the ideal dwelling is a clean, well-lighted motel room, where almost everything belongs to somebody else, and I can be packed and on the road in less than five minutes. I happen to be staying in a motel as I write this, in Westchester County, N.Y., and the one flaw in my romantically ascetic logic, the one exception that betrays my hypocricy, is vividly exposed: I miss my books.

After a lifetime of acquisitions and periodic purges, my library (I share George's discomfort with that word, a sense of its pretention) for the last decade or so has reached an equilibrium of about 2,000 volumes. I've wondered how many books I would have if I had never shed even one -- but that's silly, because very few books I have disposed of (sold, loaned, lost, given away) do I wish returned. I can think of only one exception: About 30 years ago I owned a first edition of the late William Gaddis' The Recognitions, perfect but for a missing dust jacket. I didn't own it long enough to become attached to it, the way we do with puppies, and I bought it in part with resale in mind -- a rare example in my life of purchase-as-investment. I sometimes pine for that volume, especially because I later met and interviewed Gaddis several times and had him autograph my copies of all his books, only two of which were firsts.

There are two components to the manner in which I miss my library. First, and more important emotionally than rationally, I have come to think of the contents of my bookshelves as a fragmented and necessarily incomplete autobiography. Who I am and was, selves I have forged and cast off and retained, are reflected in my books. There's the James Joyce self, including my heavily annotated Ulysses, which is only a fraction of my larger Irish self (Yeats, Beckett, Flann O'Brien). There's the Russian self, especially Chekhov and Nabokov. There's Shakespeare and what remains of the postmodern self -- Pynchon, Gass -- and so on. Memories reside densely inside my books, and I can call them up at will, sometimes merely by thinking of their spines on my shelves.

I also miss my library for more pragmatic reasons. My mind is associative -- one thing invariably reminds me of others -- and I cannot track down allusions when my books are absent. I'm still reading John Williams' Stoner, a novel about about an English professor, and I've several times wanted to trace references to Shakespeare, Marlowe and others. My books are linked by unseen connections.

Could I give up all my books? It's like the melodramatic question little boys test themselves against: If I were a prisoner of war, could I withstand torture and not betray my comrades? The answer, ultimately is unknowable because we are weak and blind, and most of us, fortunately, will never face such situations. I think I could, though. I've always relied on libraries, and I'm assuming they will remain in existence in some form even in our digitalized, post-literate age. The worst part of losing my books would be losing one of the better, more cherished reflections of who I am.

Friday, February 24, 2006


I write this in the "business center" just off the lobby of the motel where I am staying in White Plains, N.Y. When I travel, I sleep poorly and inevitably develop a stomach ache. I stay up late and read, making use of the relative quiet, away from children. I am reading Stoner, a 1965 novel by John Williams. I read it throughout my Texas-to-New York flights yesterday, and it inspired the self-forgetfulness I associate with good fiction. New York Review Books recently reprinted the book in paperback but I am reading a first edition from the library at the University of Houstion. Judging from the stamped dates on the sign-out card at the back of the book, no one has read this copy since at least 1982, which is a shame because it's a fine, plain-spoken, slightly old-fashioned book about the life of a man born in 1891 on a hard-scrabble farm in Missouri. Williams has the authorly chutzpah to chronicle what I assume will be his character's entire life, literally from birth, all in fewer than 300 pages.

William Stoner is the first in his family to leave the farm and go to college -- in this case, the University of Missouri, in Columbia. At first, he studies agriculture, assuming he will eventually return to run the farm with his father. Instead, he is ambushed by literature. When an instructor asks him to interpret Shakespeare's Sonnet 73 ("That time of year thou mayst in me behold..."), Stoner is stunned into silence. Without telling his parents, he drops his Ag School course and switches to liberal arts. Stoner is intelligent but not emotionally articulate. Here he is in the college library, soon after shifting his focus to literature:

"In the University library he wandered though the stacks, among the thousands of books, inhaling the musty odor of leather, cloth, and drying page as if it were and exotic incense. Sometimes he would pause, remove a volume from the shelves, and hold it for a moment in his large hands, which tingled at the still unfamiliar feel of spine and board and unresisting page. Then he would leaf through the book, reading a paragraph here and there, his stiff fingers careful as they turned the pages, as if in their clumsiness they might tear and destroy what they took such pains to uncover."

That's beautifully modulated prose, richly suggestive but never giving too much away. It captures perfectly the sense of wonder, respect and apprehension I remember feeling on first visiting a university library.

Later, after Stoner himself is teaching English at the University of Missouri and his parents have died, he undergoes a similar epiphany, resolving to be a good teacher:

"The love of literature, of language, of the mystery of the mind and heart showing themselves in the minute, strange, and unexpected combinations of letters and words, in the blackest and coldest print -- the love which he had hidden as if it were illicit and dangerous, he began to display, tentatively at first, and then boldly, and then proudly."

The very form of that sentence -- its protracted, carefully deferred resolution -- echoes Stoner's own slowly articulated realization of what he hopes his life will become. Williams nicely renders the consciousness of an intelligent, thoughtful, conscientious man who is perfectly at home with silence and strong, unexpressed emotion. Published in the decade of V. and Portnoy's Complaint, Stoner must have seemed at the time like a musty anachronism to many readers. In fact, 41 years later, it has aged beautifully.

Thursday, February 23, 2006

`Dictionary' Johnson

The only extravagant gift I received for Christmas was Johnson on the English Language, Vol. XVIII in the protracted Yale Edition of the Works of Samuel Johnson. The volume contains everything implied by its title except the great dictionary itself. I’ve been reading it incrementally, which is not my usual custom. Much of Johnson’s text is dense and devoted to technical linguistic matters I sometimes don’t understand, but his Preface to A Dictionary of the English Language is readily accessible and rich with moral insight. For instance:

“Thus it happens, that in things difficult there is danger from ignorance, and in things easy from confidence; the mind, afraid of greatness, and disdainful of littleness, hastily withdraws herself from painful searches, and passes with scornful rapidity over tasks not adequate to her powers, sometimes too secure for caution, and again too anxious for vigorous effort; sometimes idle in a plain path, and sometimes distracted in labyrinths, and dissipated by different intentions.”

Johnson, as usual, writes from hard experience. His spells of indolence, alternating with periods of Herculean labor, all accompanied by lacerating self-recrimination, are well documented. We observe similar bipolar cycles of sloth and frenzied activity in Coleridge, though his temperament was further complicated by opium addiction. In any case, Johnson deftly diagnoses a significant quirk of my temperament, one I have wrestled with since childhood. Who would expect a preface to an 18th-century dictionary to illuminate, in a very personal manner, one of the less flattering recesses of one’s character?

NOTE: Today I fly to New York on family business, and I’m scheduled to return Sunday. I hope to post some entries from my motel in Westchester County, if technology and my feeble smarts can work out a deal. Either way, I will have more time than usual to read and write without distraction. In the words of Thomas “Fats” Waller: “I don’t stay out late,/Don’t care to go,/ I’m home about eight,/Just me and my radio…” Make that “my books,” and to hell with the rhyme.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Going My Way?

In the spring of 1997, I was doubling (or tripling) as jazz critic at the newspaper in upstate New York where I worked as a features writer and columnist. I received no extra pay for the effort but, besides comp tickets and the privilege of meeting and interviewing musicians whose work I loved – Sonny Rollins, Marian McPartland, Kenny Barron, the late Elvin Jones and Nick Brignola, among others – I also got the chance to write about them while self-consciously working in the shadow of Whitney Balliett, longtime jazz writer for The New Yorker. He remains the only critic in my tight little pantheon of writing heroes, and I consciously aped his impressionistic style when writing about jazz and just about anything else when the approach seemed to work.

Dave McKenna, a pianist with a legendary dynamo for a left hand, was coming to town for three nights. I had seen him perform before but had never met or written about him. In the 1970s, Balliett had written a memorable advocacy piece about McKenna titled “Super Chops.” In it, he called McKenna “one of the hardest-swinging jazz pianists of all time” and “among the best of the post-Tatum pianists.” He described a diffident man with “a tempestuous side.” McKenna seemed to live for music, his family, good food and the Boston Red Sox, and I inferred from Balliett’s piece that, if not for music, McKenna might have been a fatally unhappy man.

McKenna was in town for three nights. I caught both of his first-night shows and got back to the office in time to file my review for the next day’s editions. He performed several of his customary medleys of songs thematically linked by title – say, “How Deep is the Ocean?” followed by “Red Sails in the Sunset” and “The Devil and the Deep Blue Sea.” The club was small and I was seated next to the stage – in effect, a couple of octaves away from McKenna, as measured by his “hot-dog fingers,” as Balliett called them.

Next morning, driving to the office, I passed McKenna walking up Erie Boulevard. He was wearing very white, unlaced sneakers, and he walked as though the sidewalk had been sprinkled with tacks. I stopped, he climbed in and asked me to take him to a nearby convenience store where he wanted to buy newspapers to check on his beloved Sox. Back in the car, four or five papers in his lap, McKenna asked if my review was in that morning’s edition. I told him where to find it, and had the uniquely uncomfortable experience of watching the subject of a review I had written read it while seated three feet away from me. He took his time reading, grunted a couple of times, cleared his throat and exploded into a laugh that I can remember immediately describing, in the writing compartment of my mind, as Rabelaisian. “That’s all right,” he said, and that was the end of it.

I drove McKenna back to his motel, but for the next two mornings I picked up his newspapers early and delivered them to the front desk to spare him the painful walk. In the subsequent eight years, I heard rumors that his health was bad, especially his feet, then I learned McKenna, who turns 76 in May, had given up performing. The thought is deeply unsettling, like a wasted natural resource. Here’s McKenna, without false modesty, as quoted by Balliett: “People are always after you to play hot, but I don’t have super chops. I don’t know if I play jazz. I don’t know if I qualify as a bona-fide jazz guy. I play barroom piano. I like to stay close to the melody. When I play, I just tool along, and the only thing I think about is what I’m going to play next.”

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

`The Best You Are'

Yesterday, I likened Henry David Thoreau to John Ruskin, suggesting both were proto-bloggers. Later, I turned to the authoritative Thoreau biography, Henry Thoreau: A Life of the Mind, by Robert D. Richardson Jr., and found that the author of Walden was a passionate though not uncritical admirer of Ruskin’s work. He died too soon, however, to read Fors Clavigera, Ruskin’s most blog-like creation. This is Richardson:

“Thoreau’s Ruskin is not the social and economic reformer of the years following 1860; he is the early Ruskin who was inspired by Carlyle and fired by Turner, the Ruskin who combined a strong moral sense, a passion for nature, an eye trained for close observation, an equal capacity to put it into words, and a prophetic earnestness and prose style.”

Much of that description applies equally to Thoreau, of course. For an academic, Richardson’s understanding of Thoreau is remarkably acute. He also writes well, with vigor and precision, and appreciates Thoreau primarily as a writer, not a social misfit or nature mystic:

“He loved language, loved to play with words. He owned a whole shelf of dictionaries, etymological, historical, pronouncing, dictionaries of Americanisms, of provincialisms, and of obsolete words. This zest and his genius for wordplay have reminded readers of James Joyce. Like Joyce, Thoreau labored at the craft of making language by breaking it down and building it up again. His fondness for paradox was carried so far so often it exasperated Emerson, who grumbled about Thoreau’s trick of always using the opposite of the expected word.”

Richardson’s description makes Thoreau sound like a modernist precursor who treated language as building material, the palpable stuff of his creation. His taste for puns, like Joyce’s, is notorious, and a pun is nothing but compressed linguistic matter. His humor, appropriately, is deadpan. His prose, at its best, is among the most pleasurable I know, and Thoreau worked hard to achieve its dazzling effects: “Nothing goes by luck in composition,” he wrote, “it allows of no trick. The best you can write will be the best you are.”

Monday, February 20, 2006


My favorite blog, strictly speaking, is not a blog at all but selections from the journal of a cranky New England bachelor who died more than 140 years ago. The Blog of Henry David Thoreau is the inspiration of Greg Perry, an indifferent poet but a blogger of genius who daily posts an excerpt from a corresponding date in Thoreau’s 14-volume Journal. Experienced readers know that Thoreau, though he lived most of his life in Concord, Mass., and died at the age of 45, enjoyed an expansive, multiform existence. He was a naturalist, classicist, surveyor, pencil manufacturer, handyman, Transcendentalist, abolitionist, proto-anarchist, poet and, most significantly, writer of great American prose. To his credit, Perry gets around to sampling all of these identities and more. In fact, Thoreau, in his Journal, with its strict attention to the ever-changing details of weather and wildlife, inner and outer life, is one of the two writers I think of proto-bloggers. The other is John Ruskin, especially in his unclassifiable Fors Clavigera.

For months in junior high school, I carried the Signet paperback edition of Walden and “On Civil Disobedience” every day, like a talisman against growing up too responsibly. I underlined and memorized sentences from both works and from his essay “Life Without Principle” – music to the ears of a disaffected 16-year-old usually more attuned to slogans and lyrics, circa 1968, than prose steeped in American orneriness, wordplay and love of paradox:

“The ways by which you may get money almost without exception lead downward. To have done anything by which you earned money merely is to have been truly idle or worse. If the laborer gets no more than the wages which his employer pays him, he is cheated, he cheats himself. If you would get money as a writer or lecturer, you must be popular, which is to go down perpendicularly. Those services which the community will most readily pay for, it is most disagreeable to render. You are paid for being something less than a man.”

I listened to Thoreau and his example for a long time, well into my 20s. His picture hung beside Kafka’s in my freshman dorm room. Then, his Transcendentalism wearied me and he came to seem adolescent. Only in the last decade have I returned to Thoreau, reclaiming him on the grounds of his artistry, his unwillingness to compromise and his increasingly informed love of the natural world. Let the late Guy Davenport (a descendent of Thoreau, by way of Ezra Pound) in his essay “The Concord Sonata,” have the last word:

“This text has been written first with a lead pencil (graphite encased in an hexagonal cedar cylinder) invented by Henry David Thoreau. He also invented a way of sounding ponds, a philosophy for being oneself, and raisin bread.”

Sunday, February 19, 2006

Commonplace Book

"Like Beckett's GOGO, `Don't blame your underwear for the faults of your asshole.'"

My brother's e-mail reaction to reading this blog for the first time.

My Blank Pages

Among the aphorisms of Georg Christoph Lichtenberg I found this fragment: “About the peculiar charm of white paper, bound into a book. Paper which hasn’t yet lost its virginity and still shines in the colour of innocence is always better than after it has been used.” I understand the seductiveness of Lichtenberg’s observation, and probably shared it when I was younger, but now it sounds like Platonic mooning after perfection. We see this literary romanticizing of purity and nothingness in Flaubert, Mallarme and, on a more ridiculous level, John Cage.

I too admire the beauty of fine paper, its silken sheen or textured, canvas-like weave, but I see nothing in it of a sexual nature, as Lichtenberg’s metaphors imply. Stacked on shelves in bookstores and sold as “journals” are thick volumes of blank sheets bound in stamped leather. In the context of a bookstore, they seem like a cynical, Duchampian joke. How many are purchased in a spirit of confident inspiration, only to be abandoned after a few feeble scribbles?

My five-year-old son, a kindergartener on the cusp of reading, keeps a journal consisting entirely of pencil drawings – spiky robots, a crowned King Kong, a devil with a pitchfork, a sperm-like snake, blueprints for gratuitously elaborate contraptions worthy of Rube Goldberg. His pages are dense with detail, like Robert Walser’s manuscripts. I like their clutter. Paper is made to be filled with evidence of our recognition that blankness is a reproach, not an ideal.

Saturday, February 18, 2006

Redemption Songs

Of course, the only correct answer to the question “If you could take only a single book with you to a desert island, what would it be?” is Robert Burton’s magpie nest of learning, wisdom, nonsense and gorgeous prose, The Anatomy of Melancholy. I discovered it 35 years ago by way of digression, appropriately enough, while reading Tristram Shandy, the author of which, Laurence Sterne, helped himself to hefty slabs of Burton while composing his own sport of nature. Burton’s admirers include Samuel Johnson, John Keats and Herman Melville.

I thought of Burton again yesterday while listening to music – Satie’s Gymnopedies. The linkage is not so unusual, for The Anatomy of Melancholy is one of those rare books, a beautiful mess (Moby Dick is another, and so is Coleridge’s Biographia Literaria) in which a digression on virtually any subject, as in a good encyclopedia, could be inserted without damage to the surroundings. In fact, the joy of such books – Boswell’s Life of Johnson is another – is their elasticity. Only the world itself is more elastic.

Satie’s pieces for solo piano are haunting and sad. I remember how Louis Malle’s inclusion of Gymnopedies No.1 at the close of My Dinner with Andre, when Wallace Shawn pensively rides home from the restaurant, seemed so utterly appropriate in an otherwise music-free, talk-filled movie. I started thinking: Why is so much of the music I most enjoy listening to, that most engages me emotionally, melancholy? That’s a better word than depressing, which sounds, oddly, both too clinical and too melodramatic. Another CD I often listen to is Moon Beams by the Bill Evans Trio, the first album Evans cut after the death of his bassist, Scott La Faro. The music is anguished and beautiful. I’m not a musician. I don’t have the vocabulary to describe what I’m hearing, but I recognize its emotional impact

Who better to consult on such matters than Burton? I remembered that he wrote at length about the curative powers of music. After a little digging in my three-volume Everyman’s edition I located “Music a Remedy,” in which, after citing various nostrums “prescribed to exhilarate a sorrowful heart,” Burton offers a traditional frat-boy remedy: “a cup of strong drink, mirth, music, and merry company.” That’s not what I wanted to hear. After much entertaining discursiveness and many Latin tags, I struck gold: “Many men are melancholy by hearing music, but it is a pleasing melancholy that it causeth; and therefore to such as are discontent, in woe, fear, sorrow, or dejected, it is a most present remedy: it expels cares, alters their grieved minds, and easeth in an instant.”

Just now, after transcribing Burton’s words, I put on a compilation CD my oldest son burned for me last year. I knew just what I wanted to hear: the Johnny Cash/Joe Strummer cover of Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song.” Not that I felt so bad, but now I feel so much better.

Friday, February 17, 2006

On Philosophical Style

Night before last I stayed up too late reading a charmingly old-fashioned book by the late American philosopher Brand Blanshard. On Philosophical Style, first published in 1954, is a sliver of a volume, at 69 pages hardly more than an extended essay. Its thesis is that even philosophers can write well, despite the fact that philosophy often works at a very high level of abstraction, and abstraction is generally the enemy of compelling prose. Most manuals and guides purporting to teach the art of writing – and I don’t exempt the Gospel According to Strunk & White – are unintentionally comic, like one robot teaching another robot to dance. Good prose as various as that produced by Herman Melville and Hubert Butler cannot be reduced to do’s and don’ts, like the list of instructions that comes with a bookcase from Ikea. Blanshard knows this and is slyly funny, in the straight-face American manner of Henry David Thoreau or Buster Keaton. His own prose is loose-limbed and a little baggy, more conversational than analytical, and might have been written, despite a single dismissive mention of Heidegger, in the 19th century. He admires, as I do, the writing styles of William Hazlitt, John Ruskin and Henry James, and it shows.

Judging from a potted biography I found online, Blanshard was an appealing character -- a philosophical and social outsider from the start, a realized example of that American ideal, the self-made man not born to privilege or wealth. He was born in a small town in Ohio in 1892, the son of a Congregationalist minister. His parents were Canadians, and both were dead by the time Blanshard was 12. He was raised by his grandmother, a rather forbidding figure, in Ohio and Michigan, studied Greek and philosophy at the University of Michigan, went to Oxford as a Rhodes scholar, met T.S. Eliot, served in the British army during World War I, traveled throughout Asia and studied under John Dewey – a rather extraordinary life for a poor kid from Ohio. He taught philosophy at Yale for many years and his summa appears to be a trilogy consisting of Reason and Analysis, Reason and Goodness and Reason and Belief. I want to read more of Blanshard, whom one writer calls “the sanest voice in all of philosophy, and possibly the ablest exponent of reason and reasonableness the world ever had.” He died in 1987.

The pleasure in reading On Philosophical Style derives from Blanshard’s assumption that any subject, even philosophy, can be written about clearly and interestingly. Taking swipes at the clotted verbiage of Kant and Hegel, he identifies theirs as “the method of the Teutonic sentence, the method of making each sentence into a miniature paragraph.”

Here’s how Blanshard satirizes the way various writers and philosophers would describe the death of Major John Andre, Benedict Arnold’s partner in espionage: “Swift, Macaulay, and Shaw would say that Andre was hanged. Bradley would say that he was killed. Bosanquet would say that he died. Kant would say that his mortal existence achieved its termination. Hegel would say that a finite determination of infinity had been further determined by its own negation.”

Blanshard writes admiringly, with reservations, of a philosopher-writer I value highly – George Santayana: “To read him is to be conducted in urbane and almost courtly fashion about the spacious house he occupies, moving noiselessly always on a richly figured carpet of prose.” In other words, Santayana is a joy to read, a lesson I learned almost eight years ago, when my wife and I were married in Nova Scotia and we spent several days honeymooning in Halifax. All that week I was reading and luxuriating in The Realms of Being, a book that now reminds me how manifold happiness and pleasure can be. But Blanshard adds, regarding Santayana: “The style is not, as philosophic style should be, so transparent a medium that one looks straight through it at the object, forgetting that it is there; it is too much like a window of stained glass which, because of its very richness, diverts attention to itself.”

I recommend On Philosophical Style as brief visit to a livelier, more civilized way of life. Blanshard is a good-humored, well-mannered, well-read, clubbable companion. Here’s my favorite line in the book: “Persistently obscure writers will usually be found to be defective human beings.” In our enlightened Age of Sensitivity, that’s heresy, of course, but good readers intuitively recognize its truth.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

A Man of Provocation

In October, after many years without a visit, I spent four days in Cleveland, my hometown. Specifically, I spent most of my time in Parma Heights, a suburb on the west side of the city. That’s where I grew up, in a house my brother and his family now occupy. Parma Heights and the adjoining, much larger suburb of Parma, were solidly white enclaves in the 1950s and 1960s, inhabited almost exclusively by Slavs and Italians. My parents (a mixed couple: Polish and Irish) were conventionally contemptuous of blacks and most other racial and ethnic groups, and I never knew African Americans with any degree of intimacy until I went to college.

I had lunch one day during my visit with one of my high school English teachers, Suzanne Murphy, who has since retired from teaching but who, almost 40 years ago, branded in my cerebrum this rule of usage: “Roasts are done. People are finished.” I’ve never made that mistake again. I had heard, the way one hears so many unsubstantiated things that with time turn into fact, that another of my English teachers, Tom Dunford, had long since died. When I mentioned this, Suzanne replied, “Oh my, no. Tom is quite well, though I haven’t heard from him lately.”

When I was a senior at Valley Forge High School, in the fall of 1969, Dunford offered a one-semester course that was controversial and revolutionary (for one student, at least) for its time and place: Afro-American Literature. Dunford obviously enjoyed being provocative. I remember him as short, slender and balding, with big horn-rim goggles. He was the only teacher in the school with facial hair – mustache and goatee – and the only one I can remember even mildly cursing in the classroom or bringing up the names of writers not part of the immediate curriculum, like Hemingway and Faulkner.

Our reading list is still impressive: The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Richard Wright’s Black Boy and Native Son, James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time, a collection of Langston Hughes’ Jess B. Semple stories, and Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. The only title on the list I continue to read and enjoy is Ellison’s, but for a 17-year-old dedicated to books and pissing off his parents, that modest shelf of titles was dynamite. Never before had I considered that blacks might shape thought into language. I didn’t deny it was possible but never devoted much thought to the idea. This will seem extraordinary to young people living in a post-Civil Rights world, but almost the only blacks I, never a sports fan, knew anything about were musicians or criminals, though Carl B. Stokes was elected mayor of Cleveland in 1967.

I wrote a research paper about Invisible Man, and I dimly recall an argument between Dunford and a boy in the class – something about the worthiness of the Civil Rights cause and weren’t they, after all, just a little too uppity? Otherwise, the classroom itself is mostly a blank. What I remember is the sensation of reading books by people whom: A. I was not aware could write. B. Lived lives very different from my own. C. Seemed to anger a lot of white people, who were also unaware they could write. That’s a potent message for a young person to learn about the threat sometimes posed by the written word, and probably one of the reasons for my sustained commitment to reading and writing.

I called Dunford while I was in Cleveland. He, too, has retired from teaching. He’s in his 70s, still reads a lot, especially fiction and history, and enjoys taking road trips with his wife. He remembered me and also remembered my father, who was an auxiliary police officer and often worked dances and other events at my high school. He remembered the Afro-American Literature class well – and this surprised me – because he taught it only a couple of times. The interest just wasn’t there, he said, though I suspect there were other reasons. It couldn’t have been easy job, even for a white guy in the suburbs who enjoyed provocation.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Modern Immaturity

The first synonym for maturity that occurs to me is “equipoise,” with its suggestion of cool-headed balance, which may explain why children in possession of emotional equilibrium and the ability to exercise judgment are so rare and disturbing. They seem freakish not because they are prodigies of temperament but because they remind us of unhappy adults we have known. Something about them has been thwarted, like the yellow grass that grows under rocks. They have leaped from infancy to unhappy middle age without having ever grown up.

One of the unforeseen gifts of being a parent of young children is seeing our own worst behavior reflected back at us – impulsiveness, greed, impatience, spontaneous anger, a total lack of gratitude, and disregard for whatever displeases or inconveniences us; in a word, selfishness. Children are not nice, and neither are we, at least most of the time. From children we are given another chance to finally learn how inappropriate, how utterly abhorrent, childish behavior is in an adult, and for that we can be grateful. Anyone who romances childhood as a time of innocence and virtue inhabits a universe I hope never to visit.

So, let us imagine a world in which immaturity is widely admired as acceptable adult behavior and the right of every citizen. Most likely you are way ahead of me, dear reader, and so is the British writer Theodore Dalrymple, the pen name of Dr. Anthony Daniels. That is our fallen world, of course, and it is Dalrymple’s delight to expose its vulgarity and savagery. Dalrymple comes by his 20/20 moral vision the old-fashioned way, by earning it. He seems to have practiced medicine in much of the Third World, and until recently worked as a prison doctor and psychiatrist in Birmingham, England. Some liken Dalrymple to George Orwell, and both writers share a reverence for honesty, fearlessness about cultural pieties and a mastery of the plain style of writing. One of Orwell’s books was titled Down and Out in Paris and London; one of Dalrymple’s, Life at the Bottom. The good doctor, however, is a moralist, a lineal descendent of writers as various as La Rochefoucauld (about whom he has written a fine essay) and Samuel Johnson, and much of his prolific output, happily, is available online at The New Criterion, City Journal and The Spectator, among other places.

I don’t wish to give the impression that Dalrymple is just another scold, the literary counterpart of the red-faced guy at the end of the bar muttering about kids and taxes, though his most recent book is titled Our Culture, What’s Left of It. Some of his best work examines books, especially Russian classics and most especially Anton Chekhov, his fellow doctor-writer. His single most moving and memorable piece appeared in The Spectator two weeks before Christmas in 2003. It carries the headline “Reasons to be cheerful,” which would have sent me running in the opposite direction above the byline of any other writer.

The essay, barely three pages in the printout I saved, appears no longer to be available online. It opens reasonably and matter-of-factly, which is a perfect strategic feint for a Jeremiah who wishes to court, not repel, his readers: “In my line of work, it is rather hard to think of reasons to be cheerful. On the contrary, it requires a lot of concentrated intellectual effort: one has the sensation of scraping the bottom of one’s skull for thoughts that just aren’t there. Of course, since lamentation about the state of the world is one of life’s unfailing pleasures, the world is a greater source of satisfaction than ever.”

That final, quiet punch line is quintessential Dalrymple, who proceeds to justify the headline: “Thanks to the fact that I write, my life is satisfactory: I can inhabit gloom and live in joy. When something unpleasant happens to me, provided only that it is potentially of literary use, my first thought is `How best can I describe this?’ I thereby distance myself from my own displeasure or irritation. As I tell my patients, much to their surprise – for it is not a fashionable view – it is far more important to be able to lose yourself than to find yourself.”

Beautiful, and that brings us back to immaturity. I’m not certain young children – say, under seven or eight – are equipped to feel or express genuine gratitude, though they certainly know how to fake it. Nor do they possess the emotional grace to distance themselves from “displeasure or irritation.” Many adults do not, of course, in an age when no sports event seems complete without at least one attention-grabbing temper tantrum.

As an act of homage, one is tempted to type out the essay in its entirety, it is so dense with wisdom and precision of thought and expression. I hope eventually Dalrymple reprints it between hard covers. I keep my printout in my desk for those times when I need a quick moral and stylistic tonic. Here’s another excerpt:

“I’m never bored. I’m appalled, horrified, angered, but never bored. The world appears to me so infinite in its variety that many lifetimes could not exhaust its interest. So long as you can still be surprised, you have something to be thankful for (that is one of the reasons why the false knowingness of street credibility is so destructive of true happiness).”

And another:

“I try to infuse my patients with the glory of the world, with indifferent success, I must admit. It is almost as if they wanted to be boring, to justify their own lack of interest in it. To be bored and disabused is taken by many people nowadays as a sign of spiritual election or superiority, as if the world does not quite come up to their exacting standards. With the right attitude, though, very small things, such as an inscription in a second-hand book, can kindle enthusiasm and joy.”

Those are inspirational words one can respect because they come from the pen of a grownup, a man with equipoise.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

If a Poet Falls in the Woods...

No matter what happens in the remaining 10 and a half months, 2006 has already been redeemed by the appearance of a new book of poems by Geoffrey Hill.

Ours is an impoverished era for poetry, precisely when we need it most – so much solipsism, so many tin ears. Most of what gets published is either dogmatically incoherent or so self-obsessed it threatens to suck the reader into a black hole formerly occupied by a poet. In the first camp we find the so-called Language Poets, including Ron Silliman and Clark Coolidge, who take a smirking, political pride in crafting ugliness and making no sense whatsoever. Almost 18 years ago, I interviewed Coolidge at his home in western Massachusetts. I wanted to meet him after a reviewer in Ohio had called him “arguably the worst poet currently writing in English.” For a newspaper reporter with a love of books, I felt a moral obligation to meet such a person, like a guy with eczema making a pilgrimage to a leper colony.

Coolidge had a drum set and, with the aid of earphones, played along with Elvin Jones and Art Blakey. He seemed to be unusually well off for a poet, with a big house and lots of books and music. Here’s an example of a Coolidge poem that I cited in the profile I wrote for my newspaper: “time coal hum base/treat south admit/low the dissolve add/owl.” A little weak in forward momentum and linguistic intensity, you say? Isn’t the rhythm, from a drummer/poet, rather obscure? (It reminds me of a line I heard from the late baritone sax player Nick Brignola: “So many drummers, so little time.”) That was early Coolidge. Here’s a sample of late-middle-period Coolidge:

“How could I have come to the deck in my life
where the music goes on even especially when I’m not
listening to it? Listening’s maybe only
a matter of the time you think you’re listening?”

The lines are longer, and the rudiments of subject-verb-object grammatical structure are mostly in place, but the rhythm still needs works.

What I remember best about Coolidge was the patrician hauteur he attempted to conceal with a show of hipster bluff. Dismissing readers who came to poetry with expectations of beauty and coherence, he said, “It’s not TV. It’s not the Carson show. A poem never stands in any one place. The delight is in the way the poem changes. It’s not going to sit still and answer your questions.” He went on: “In the popular mind, they still think of Robert Frost, Joyce Kilmer, Rod McKuen, greeting card verse.” In effect, he was saying, most readers are too conventional, too bourgeois to appreciate his gifts. The hidden shame of the avant-garde, besides its nagging puritanism, is so often the human-all-too-human sin of snottiness, exclusivity or – dare I say it? – elitism.

I closed my profile with another Coolidge quote: “There’s no other reason to write poetry except for the ecstasy of it. I don’t have a choice. I do it. I can imagine doing it if nobody read it.” If a poet falls in a forest, does he make a sound?

About the second group of poets, the monsters of self, we can be comforted with the knowledge that soon only pedants will remember the contributions of Tony Hoagland, Billy Collins and the rest of their clan. They are simply too trifling, without the saving grace of wit we enjoy in light verse, to survive.

Recent years have been tough on poets. In the new century we have already lost Edgar Bowers, Thom Gunn, Czeslaw Milosz, Donald Justice and Anthony Hecht. I intend to write more about Hill’s Without Title, after I further digest it. Hill will turn 74 in June. Since 1996 he has published six volumes of poetry and one of very knotty prose. This late eruption of creativity is less reminiscent of Yeats than of Henry James, who published three of his greatest novels, as well as The American Scene, stories, essays and letters in and around his 70th year.

Commonplace Book

"Henry James would have relished such intricate footwork."

Whitney Balliett,
on a 1974 performance by pianist Bill Evans

Monday, February 13, 2006

I Can Get It For You -- Cheap

To readers who shun The Wall Street Journal for political reasons, let me point out that you are missing some of the best arts writing in any American newspaper and, of course, the finest journalism devoted to any subject. I have small interest in politics and none at all in business and finance, but it’s in the Journal that I first encountered the pre-blogging Terry Teachout, writing from a musician’s inside perspective, without artistic or racial blinkers, about jazz.

Any notions you may have of the Journal’s reputed stodginess will be dispelled by a look at its recently added Saturday/Sunday edition. See page P18 of this past weekend’s edition for a typically quirky and readable juxtaposition of stories. On the upper left is a piece by a scholar of French literature, Mary Ann Caws, about Proust and his masterpiece. No new ground is broken here, but Caws’ enthusiasm for one of literature’s supreme sources of pleasure is contagious. Next to it is a CD Roundup by Jesse Drucker, five brief reviews of recent releases of vintage recordings made at the famed studio in Muscle Shoals, Ala. In Drucker’s words, these CDs represent the work of “virtuoso musicians, largely country-reared white boys who played the meanest soul.”

This single page – and I didn’t mention a third story, about the Tour de France, because I didn’t read it – illustrates why I have always considered newspapers a species of collage, though less visually haunting than, say, Max Ernst’s. Over-familiarity blinds us to the true, jarring, unlikely weirdness of newspapers. Wildly disparate material – sports scores, horoscopes, classifieds, stock listings, brassiere ads, news of gangland killings and Brad and Jen – are blithely packaged in a single container. I suspect their ragbag quality was even more apparent in the days before zoned editions and the practice of heavily demarcating newspapers, like Berlin, into sections. But the recent appearance of relative homogeneity is deceptive. Working in journalism for almost 27 years, with most of that time spent in daily newsrooms, has left me with the conviction that newspapers, despite the hubris of editors and reporters, are anything but monolithic models of efficiency. Even the most highly organized newspaper usually works by the seat of its unpressed pants. Contingency is everything, from hung-over reporters to computers crashes and the rising cost of newsprint. Newspapers are at their best when anarchy tempers humorless rectitude.

Newspaper boosters (publishers, promotion managers) like to say their industry is the only one that turns out an entirely new product daily. This is both true and misleading. Every newspaper story is written according to formula or in reaction to formula. Some stories are formulaic by their nature but also for reasons of taste. No one wants to read a “gonzo,” first-person account of children dying in a house fire. The best stories often turn formula inside-out, though that, too, can quickly turn formulaic.

I once worked with an editor who, like Beckett’s Watt, “had never smiled, but thought that he knew how it was done.” His wit was dehydrated. He once said that if he paid $1 for a newspaper and he read one story in it that amused him or educated him or inspired a flash of righteous anger, he got his money’s worth. By his standards, that was boosterism, but how often have you read the paper and remembered nothing 10 minutes later?

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Occasional Doggerel

Select a slender volume of contemporary verse,
A chapbook, zine or what is surely worse,
Screw up your courage for a slam or open “mic,”
And contemplate the spectacle of Erato out on strike.
The lyric’s usurpation by environmental rant
And the introspections of an insensate sensitive plant
By the spawn of good, gray Walt, leave us fading hope.
As for me, I’ll stick to Horace, Catullus, Swift and Pope.

Saturday, February 11, 2006

All You Need Is Love -- and a Good Prose Style

I have just finished reading a profound and elegantly written little book by Harry G. Frankfurt, a philosopher and author of the best-selling and even smaller On Bullshit. I read that volume, with dimensions only slightly larger than a commemorative postage stamp, last September in Virginia, where my family and I fled a hurricane that never arrived (at least not here in Houston). I enjoyed On Bullshit for its clarity, lack of pretension, common sense and good humor – qualities rare in the writing of almost every philosopher since David Hume, and certainly necessary qualities for a productive examination of bullshit.

Frankfurt’s earlier book, The Reasons of Love, is even deeper and wiser, and reads like a lifetime’s distillation of learning and living. Each of its 100 pages is worthy of quotation, but when did you last read a footnote you wanted to copy and save in your commonplace book? This, from page 21:

“The inner lives of human beings are obscure, not only to others but to themselves as well. People are elusive. We tend to be poorly informed about our own attitudes and desires, and about where our commitments truly lie. It is useful to keep in mind, then, that a person may care about something a great deal without realizing that he cares about it. It is also possible that someone really does not care in the slightest about certain things, even though he sincerely believes that he considers those things to be extremely important to him.”

To encounter such clarity on the subject of obscurity is a rare blessing. I accept that final sentence as a personal reproach, especially to my younger self, though my middle-aged self is hardly blameless. The effort I exerted to be knowledgeably and enthusiastically hip about various things I thought I should admire and enjoy – say, the music of Cecil Taylor or the poetry of Charles Olson – was exhausting but effective. I thought I liked them and convinced myself I did. I certainly wanted to like them, and I suspect that’s the way many people, who have internalized post-modern peer pressure, feel about much of the avant-garde in general.

But that’s a digression, and Frankfurt has more significant issues to explore, though it’s a measure of his book’s richness that even seemingly casual asides never end in cul-de-sacs but rather open broadly on vast landscapes of thought and feeling. His real focus is an examination of self-love as the basis of true human existence, the species of love in which all other expressions of love are rooted. Summarized thus, you might mistake Frankfurt for a pudding-headed preacher of self-esteem, but his insights, if assessed with open eyes, will never be mistaken for the bromides of pop psychology.

On the subject of our love for our children, Frankfurt’s words moistened my eyes: “I can declare with unequivocal confidence that I do not love my children because I am aware of some value that inheres in them independent of my love of them. The fact is that I loved them even before they were born – before I had any especially relevant information about their personal characteristics or their particular merits and virtues.”

Frankfurter philosophizes with his entire being, not merely with the part that is forever whispering, “Doubt! Question!”

The philosophers Frankfurt – himself an emeritus professor of philosophy at Princeton -- cites most often are Plato, Aristotle, St. Augustine and Kierkegaard. The absence of Heidegger, Derrida and their fashionable ilk is bracing. I detected no hot air in his pages – no bullshit, to return to that other object of Frankfurt’s attention – nor is a technical knowledge of Western philosophy necessary for appreciating his text, which started as lectures he delivered at Princeton and University College London. His words embody clarity of thought and expression, which are themselves, I think, a form of love.

Friday, February 10, 2006

The Case of the Fickle Reader

My wife recently started rereading our two-volume edition of the complete Sherlock Holmes. I gave it to her several years ago and she downed it like ice water on a July afternoon here in Houston. Most of Conan Doyle’s stories are brief enough to be read conveniently before sleep, at the end of the workday, and that’s how she takes them -- in prescribed, soporific doses. About the time she recently re-immersed herself in the Victorian twilight, my oldest son underwent an emergency appendectomy. He’s 18 and a college freshman in upstate New York, many states away. He’s recovering uneventfully, but the confluence of these events – one trivial, the other nerve-wracking – revived the memory of the most intense reading experience of my life, an event so involuntarily violent it reminds me of falling in love, and yet it involves a book which no longer interests me. .

I was in ninth grade. This was early in 1967, a transitional time in my reading life. I was already reading Beckett and Sartre but was still a waning fan of science fiction. I collected Doc Savage reprints and Edgar Rice Burroughs, but my favorite poet was Karl Shapiro. How such incompatible tastes coexisted surpasses my understanding. I had another of my recurrent earaches, coupled with fever and persistent coughing. I stayed home from school and started reading the Holmes stories, which I knew only through the Basil Rathbone/Nigel Bruce movies on Saturday afternoon television. Maybe it was the fever or Holmes’ icy ratiocination. Whatever it was, I entered and chose to dwell in another -- and in many ways preferable -- reality. I could not stop reading the stories. When I started to feel better after a day or so, I feigned symptoms so I could stay out of school for a full week and not interrupt my obsessive reading. I stuck a pencil up my nose to make myself sneeze and complained of ersatz headaches and chills.

These memories are weirdly visual. I can see myself propped on pillows and wrapped in blankets in my childhood living room, but somehow I’m also in Holmes’ cozy lodgings on Baker Street. I remember almost nothing of the plots of the four novels and 56 stories. What I recall is a sense of comfort, an optimistic hunch that this is what life as an adult would be like – not the danger or adventure, but setting things right in the end. Sherlock Holmes as a model of domestic maturity? I could have done worse – say, Tarzan.

Despite the comfortable glow I still associate with the Holmes corpus – a symptom I’ve come to recognize, with great skepticism, of middle-age nostalgia -- I have never reread it in toto. Several years ago I took from the library a Holmes selection with illustrations by Barry Moser, a master illustrator (see his Arion Press edition of Moby Dick). I enjoyed the pictures more than the text. Not since my teenage years have I felt the attraction of genre fiction, except for the novels of Raymond Chandler. I don’t much care who killed whom -- and neither did Chandler, for that matter. I don’t read fiction with the expectation of suspense, and mystery seems tedious. I’ll go to a movie for those sorts of things. This is not snobbery but a recognition of what compels me and what leaves me bored. But how I wish I could recapture that sense of self-forgetting enchantment Conan Doyle gave me, briefly, almost 40 years ago.

And what was my son reading in the hospital? Kafka’s stories.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

On the Bench, Part 2

What is the significance for Henry James of a bench? How is a bench different from a chair, a couch or a tree stump? Why does James return so often to what is, after all, a mere piece of furniture? Part of the answer, surely, is practical and realistic. Most often, a bench is a public place where people, especially couples, could in his day meet without drawing attention or censure. It was safe, neutral, even genteel.

But James’ literary tic seems too obsessive, even predictable, for its significance to be exhausted by literal-minded explanation, and his aesthetic strategies are never the result of inadvertence. On a symbolic level, benches suggest leisure time, the freedom to drift without purpose. Somehow, people seated seem more vulnerable than those who stand. Benches serve as the resting place of choice for people of a contemplative cast of mind; in James’ case, often invalids of various sorts (physical, emotional). They are built for spectators, not participants, and James’s work filled with people who observe life rather than dive into its messy swelter. Ironically, as detailed above, they often provide the setting for some of James’ most emotionally wrenching scenes.

Poor Herbert Dodd, the subject of “The Bench of Desolation”, James’ penultimate story. All he wishes is to marry well, preferably to a woman of means and refinement. Instead, Kate Cookham, with the ferocity of a “vindictive barmaid,” threatens to sue him for breach of contract when he breaks their engagement. Each party suspects the other, wrongly, of infidelity, though one can hardly imagine Herbert Dodd, whose very name echoes “dud” and “dead,” in the role of philandering lady’s man.

“The Bench of Desolation” is unusual in several ways. The setting is lower middle class, a shabby-genteel English world of clerkships and patched trousers. James had seldom visited this scene, the likelier purview of George Gissing or Arnold Bennett among his contemporaries, since writing “In the Cage.” In this milieu, closer to the “lower” than the “middle” end of the class ladder, money is important not merely for the sake of social appearances or self-esteem. It means survival, as Dodd painfully learns.

In addition, Dodd is frightened of women, easily cowed by them, but he has no male friends or associates. The homoerotic element, for once in James’ work, is absent. Dodd seems sexless, almost a neuter. He is a man too timid and malleable to feel much of anything but a passive, masochistic ache he has learned to savor: “Thus, from as far back as he could remember, there had been things all round him that he suffered from when other people didn’t; and he had kept most of his suffering to himself – which had taught him, in a manner, how to suffer, and how almost to like it.”

Dodd owns a marginally solvent second-hand bookshop inherited from an uncle. Rather than risk a scene in open court, he agrees to pay Cookham (“cook ’im?”) 500 pounds to settle her claim. He considers the arrangement blackmail but never seeks an attorney’s counsel: “He shouldn’t get out without losing a limb. The only question was which of his limbs it should be.”

In widely spaced increments, Dodd scavenges 270 pounds for Cookham before he gives up paying her. He loses his bookshop and accepts a “squalid clerkship” at the Gas Works. He marries “the penniless Nan Drury,” who dies along with their two young daughters. James coolly dispatches them all in a sentence and suggests that Cookham is an accessory to their murder.

Years later, seated on the seaside “bench of desolation” where he retires to brood on the setting sun, Dodd is horrified to see Cookham approaching his solitary perch. Ever shrewd to evidence of wealth and social distinction, he perceives she has become “a real lady: a middle-aged person, of good appearance and of the best condition…So this mature, qualified, important person stood and looked at the limp, undistinguished – oh his values of aspect now! – shabby man on the bench.”

Confused, he accepts her invitation to tea at her hotel the following day. There, in posh surroundings, Cookham reveals that she has never stopped loving Dodd and would never have taken him to court. In fact, she invested the 270 pounds he had paid her so many years before and turned this modest sum into 1,260 pounds. “I’d have loved you and helped you and guarded you, and you’d have had no trouble, no bad blighting ruin, in all you easy, yes, just your quite jolly and comfortable life,” she says, offering him the windfall.

Typically, though tempted by the money (“It’s enough!” Dodd tells her), he meets her two more times before he makes a decision: “He began to look his extraordinary fortune a bit straighter in the face and see it confess itself at once a fairy-tale and a nightmare.” Dodd accepts Cookham’s generous offer but no weddings bells sound, as they might at a comparable moment in Austen or Dickens. The ending, not a happy one, is grim comedy tempered by the memory of all those wasted years: “He leaned forward, dropping his elbows to his knees and pressing his head on his hands. So he stayed, saying nothing; only, with the sense of her own sustained, renewed and wonderful action, knowing that an arm had passed round him and he was held. She was beside him on the bench of desolation.”

Dodd, like Dencombe, is finally touched by another, in this case a woman, but James subverts the potential pathos of the moment, even with his grammar. The passive voice emphasizes Dodd’s helpless, child-like quality. This is not mature love between a man and a woman, but morbid dependency. This final scene is oddly reminiscent of similar unequal pairings in the work of Samuel Beckett. Dodd is unlikely to find lasting relief from the tedium and squalor of his life.

Part of my devotion to James’ work is rooted in its faithfulness to the human tangle. No thought or impulse is simple. We are forever deceiving ourselves, especially when most convinced of the acuity of our self-knowledge. For all these reasons, my attraction to James’ poor, sensitive gentlemen troubles me.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

On the Bench, Part 1

I returned to college in 2002, almost 30 years after dropping out at the end of my junior year. I was 50 years old and ready, I hoped, to read Henry James systematically, without distraction. Besides independent study in James, my only other class was Human Genetics. For six months, except for a genetics text I read nothing but James and some of his biographers and critics.

I have always been an energetic, self-centered, pleasure-seeking reader. I follow my taste, and in fact I had already read most of James on my own, starting when I was a teenager, but my grasp of his work more closely resembled an album of photographs than the sequential sweep of a movie. I knew a writer who claimed to have read all of Shakespeare and Melville chronologically, without interruption, as though he were taking an antibiotic and feared compromising its potency. I don’t mind a little fever if my reading keeps me happy.

For a thesis, I was unenthusiastically considering a look at James’ “Americanness,” largely based on my regard for The American Scene (Auden called it “a prose poem of the first order”). After several weeks, however, I found myself drawn to a class of characters James himself identified – in a mock-apologetic tone, I think -- as “poor sensitive gentlemen.” They are life’s spectators, too timid or passive to do other than live an unlived life. James is the supreme anatomist of human unhappiness, of the manifold ways we devise to make ourselves and others miserable, and with few exceptions James’ gentlemen have sabotaged any hope of pleasure or contentment. In Cynthia Ozick’s words, in one of her lovely essays on James, they endure “a life of mishap and mistake and misconceiving.”

Given my exclusive immersion in his work, I also began to notice the peculiar regularity with which benches appear in his novels and stories, often as a refuge for his poor, sensitive gentlemen. This sounds like thesis-fodder, I know, but I make no grand claims for my discovery.

Madame de Mauves, in her eponymous story, occupies a bench on the terrace at Saint-Germaine-en-Laye when she is introduced to Longmore. Frederick Winterbourne is seated on a bench outside the hotel at Vevey when he first meets Daisy Miller. Isabel Archer takes her place on a bench at Gardencourt during her final, wrenching scene with Caspar Goodwood in The Portrait of a Lady. For their only meeting outside her workplace, the unnamed heroine of “In the Cage” sits with Captain Everard on a park bench in London and announces her secret, unacknowledged devotion. Dencombe, the doomed, doubt-wracked novelist in “The Middle Years,” faints and comes under the care of Dr. Hugh while on a bench at the seaside. Stransom suffers his apparently fatal attack on a chapel bench in front of his altar at the conclusion of “The Altar of the Dead.”

John Marcher twice takes his seat on a bench in “The Beast in the Jungle,” James’ greatest story. The first time, the scene is a London park at the Jamesian hour of twilight, in the Jamesian month of April. The day before, his friend May Bartram has told him he has already suffered his fate. His long wait is over and yet he is oblivious to its arrival. Bartram is too ill for a visit. In the park, on his solitary bench, Marcher concludes that her impending death and his subsequent solitude are his great fate. But the horror of this realization has not yet pierced Marcher’s egotism. After May’s death and Marcher’s yearlong trip through Asia, he returns to her grave and sits on the “low stone table that bore May Bartram’s name.” The sight of another mourner -- “one of the deeply stricken” – awakens Marcher to his own “arid end.” Alone on his stone bench, Marcher perceives “the sounded void of his life.” He has not loved, unlike the other mourner with “the deep ravage” so visible on his face. Marcher’s twin insights, both made while seated – nearly prostrated – on a bench, come too late. Like many of James’ protagonists, Marcher has failed to live, and as Dencombe says on his death bed, “A second chance – that’s the delusion.”

(More tomorrow)

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Commonplace Book

"To bless this region, its vendages, and those
Who call it home: though one cannot always
Remember exactly why one has been happy,
There is no forgetting that one was."

W.H. Auden
from "Good-Bye to the Mezzogiorno"

(Non)fiction II: Taylor-Made

To break my six-week sequestration from fiction, I chose to read Peter Taylor’s “What You Hear from ‘Em?” It was a great favorite of his friend, Randall Jarrell, and I remembered its depiction of a black servant, Aunt Munsie, sharing some of the same qualities of Faulkner’s rendering of Dilsey.

Taylor is never a tour de force writer. He shuns grand technical effects and his prose never hollers to draw attention to itself, but neither is it catatonic like Raymond Carver’s. Instead, Taylor softly modulates the conversational style: “Aunt Munsie’s skin was the color of a faded tow sack. She was hardly four feet tall. She was generally believed to be totally bald, and on her head she always wore a white dust cap with an elastic band. She wore an apron, too, while making her rounds with her slop wagon.”

In this seemingly transparent passage, the key phrase is “generally believed.” The story is set in a small Tennessee town before the Civil Rights Era, when a public consensus, an agreed-upon body of information, still existed. It’s hard to imagine a story like this being written today. Aunt Munsie is not a helpless victim of racism, a sentimental figure of faux nobility, or a mocking caricature. She is thoroughly human, at once sympathetic and repellent.

My choice of a Taylor story was impulsive but informed. I wished to enter an alternative world I had once found sympathetic, conjured by a craftsman who respected his characters (and readers) enough to make them as confoundingly complex as our family and neighbors. I plan to remain awhile among The Collected Stories of Peter Taylor.

I met Taylor once, around 1971, and the memory shames me. Writers often visited the campus. I remember meeting and occasionally drinking with such one-time worthies as John Hawkes, Jerzy Kosinski and Anthony Burgess. A professor suggested we attend Taylor’s reading and reception. I had never heard of him. I cannot remember what he read, and recall only my ostentatious show of boredom at the words of a white Southerner in a jacket and tie. Taylor seemed impossibly square, formal, polite and courtly. I was ignorant and boorish and proud of it. I didn’t discover Taylor’s work for another decade or so. One of my favorite story collections is The Old Forest, which he published in 1985 at the age of 68. Taylor died nine years later.

Monday, February 06, 2006


Lately, I have had little taste for reading fiction. Instead, I’ve been reading history (especially books on the Holocaust and World War II), philosophy, travel (Redmond O’Hanlon’s Trawler) and poetry. I feel impatient with most fiction, and for me this is a new and uncomfortable development. I have always relished the sensation of surrender I experience early in a good novel, sometimes in the first paragraph (see John Berger’s G., Christina Stead’s The Man Who Loved Children, J.F. Powers’ Morte d’Urban). I willingly trade my sordid little world for another that may be no less sordid but is never less than compelling. Is this "escapism," the painless promise of genre fiction? I don’t think so. Rather, it is an act of aesthetic, moral and intellectual seduction performed by a first-rate writer, -- that is, a magician – on me, a willing subject. Such writing is authoritative and convincing. It fosters in the reader a profound identification with character. We forget ourselves and become Isabel Archer. Her pain, her nobility, is ours, and this is a capacity, at once sophisticated and primitive, we share with very young children as they listen to stories. A great book induces self-forgetting. It displaces and, on rare occasions, changes us.

The last time I read fiction was in December, when I re-read three novels by Richard Stern – Stitch, Other Men’s Daughters and Natural Shocks. Stern is a writer I have privately coveted for more than 30 years, though my covetousness feels less private since James Marcus over at House of Mirth published an interview with Stern and has generally championed his work. Stern has the braininess and linguistic panache of Saul Bellow and an obsession with the aching politics of family life. He is funny and unafraid of honest sentiment. Natural Shocks ranks among the unacknowledged masterpieces of postwar American fiction.

There was a time in the 1970s when I felt as though I had to read everything worthwhile being published, just as I had to see every good movie. I was an omnivore with fairly indiscriminate taste, and was cursed and blessed with an obsessiveness that compelled me to finish reading every book I started. Add that to a gift for reading quickly, and I was able to plow through acres of print. How else could I have endured James Baldwin and Jerzy Kosinski?

Even before I temporarily (I hope) lost my appetite for fiction, I was mostly reading old favorites, seldom new work. Only a few of contemporary writers compel me to read everything they publish – Philip Roth, Cynthia Ozick and, until their recent deaths, W.G. Sebald, Guy Davenport and Saul Bellow. That’s about the limit of my loyalty. Otherwise, it’s James, Chekhov, Babel, Waugh and Co. for me, and I suspect this is yet another symptom of middle age. Rereading, I’ve noticed, compounds my pleasure. I’m enjoying not only the work itself but the recollection of my earlier, youthful encounter with the book. The two times I have reread Proust revived my 18-year-old self sitting in the clubhouse of the miniature golf course I managed for three summers in suburban Cleveland, wrestling with the old C. K. Scott Moncrieff translation. I mostly enjoyed meeting the young aesthete I thought I was, and I admired his sweaty perseverance. Wendy Lesser touched on this in Nothing Remains the Same, her collection of pieces on rereading:

“You cannot reread a book from your youth without perceiving it as, among other things, a mirror. Whenever you look in that novel or poem or essay, you will find a little reflected face peering out at you – the face of your own youthful self, the original reader, the person you were when you first read the book.”

But the mirror will always remain one-way, like the mirrors in police interrogation rooms. How I wish my younger self could turn and talk to me and tell me what he thinks of what he is reading. Our selves overlap. There is a tenuous continuity, but we are not identical. Any reading of any substantial text is necessarily incomplete and tentative, but he must have had some spark compounded of innocence, brains and enthusiasm to have remained with Proust to the end. What did he (I) make of Odette? I wish I could remember.

I just had a thought: As an experiment in discipline and hope, I will read a short story tonight, chosen from my shelves, something I have not read in a long time but something I enjoyed enough to buy and keep. The object will be, first, to enjoy myself, then to share my reactions.

Sunday, February 05, 2006

Invitation to the Feast

More than 30 years ago, at a state university in Ohio, I briefly shared a dorm room with a French horn player. He confined his reading to two writers – Shelley and Wilde – and I remember him laughing hysterically at a drawing of Mormons that Wilde had scrawled in a letter written during his visit to Salt Lake City. From the university library my roommate borrowed a complete 19th-century edition of Shelley’s works. The volumes were bound in dark green leather and had the heft not of books but building materials. I entered our room one day and found him sitting in the corner, cackling over one of Shelley’s verse dramas and eating confectionary sugar from the box with a long ice tea spoon.

I was already a dedicated reader, but that moment crystallized in me an intense and lasting distaste for literature conceived or consumed in a hothouse, and for any other misuse of books, whether puritanical or hedonistic. I was an earnest, self-righteous young man, certain of my flimsiest convictions, but in this case I still endorse most of my callow self’s reaction. My roommate loved music dearly, but he had a gift for unhappiness and seemed older than his years while remaining essentially childish. Literature ought to infuse us with delight, an effect Nabokov termed “aesthetic bliss.” My roommate used Shelley not as consolation -- Geoffrey Hill has written that a poem ought to be “a sad and angry consolation” -- but as distraction. In effect, he mistook Shelley for sugar.

To Hill add Henry James, Isaac Babel and Samuel Beckett. They form an unlikely and almost random quartet of writers who delight me endlessly, though none could be mistaken for an inspirational, “feel-good” writer. Literature written or read as Camp, propaganda or as a soothing act of narcissism strikes me as repellent. While many of my reading tastes have evolved over the years, and some of my early enthusiasms leave me blushing (Robert Coover? Doris Lessing? William Burroughs?), my contempt for dilettantes and philistines has remained consistent. Since my college days, the abuse of books, literacy and literary tradition has accelerated and mutated into institutional dogma. Despite this, the common reader, who reads with uncommon acumen and devotion, is thriving, in the blogosphere and in contented isolation. I know a woman in Connecticut, now in her 90s and never an academic, who every year rereads Austen, James and Proust, and there’s a newspaper copy editor in upstate New York who owns and rereads most of S.J. Perelman, P.G. Wodehouse and Whitney Balliett. Both read exclusively and without apology for pleasure. A lecture on “the death of the author” or fashionable politics would provoke in them bewilderment followed by laughter.

The name of this web log calls for explanation. Anecdotal evidence – truth bolstered by example -- is humanly persuasive but not objectively verifiable. In law and logic it is anathema, but in life and literature it is the final test of worthiness. I make no pretense of scientific rigor. I can’t prove to you that Toni Morrison is a lousy writer and Cynthia Ozick a great one, and it occurs to me that I have no wish to do so. You’ll find no system here, few axes to grind, no striving after a grand unity, no theory or politics, all of which tend to corrode whatever they touch. Instead, you’ll find an enthusiastic chronicle of delight that has lasted a lifetime.

Let me cite one of the tutelary spirits of this blog, Samuel Johnson: "I love anecdotes. I fancy mankind may come, in time, to write all aphoristically, except in narrative; grow weary of preparation, and connection, and illustration, and all those arts by which a big book is made. If a man is to wait till he weaves anecdotes into a system, we may be long in getting them, and get but a few, in comparison of what we might get."

Anecdotal Evidence will never be a “big book.” Its aspirations are humbler and, I’m confident, will find ideal expression in the web log format. Literature is sustenance, best enjoyed meal by meal, in the company of comparably hearty fellow diners. An ornithologist once shared with me his conviction that birds often sing for the sheer arbitrary pleasure it gives them, not merely to defend turf or attract a mate. An aesthetic capacity, he speculated, has evolutionary value. Who can conceive of a life lived without beauty, whether making it or enjoying it? Come, join us at the table.

Commonplace Book

“…we agreed to adjourn to my lodgings to discuss measures with that cordiality which makes old friends like new, and new friends like old, on great occasions. We are cold to others only when we are dull in ourselves, and have neither thoughts nor feelings to impart to them. Give a man a topic in his head, a throb of pleasure in his heart, and he will be glad to share it with the first person he meets.”

William Hazlitt
“The Fight”