Sunday, December 05, 2021

'All Adages Are Relative'

“[S]uddenly the clouds would part, and his satiric joie de vivre would reassert itself, and he’d break me up laughing; he had an almost tender regard for human folly, his own included, that I found endlessly funny.” 

This might describe the second-funniest person I’ve known. Like many funny people, words for him were toys, malleable like Play-Doh. Sound and sense were up for grabs. Like me, he loved puns, clichés and platitudes. We once spent an hour riffing on a favorite expression of my mother’s: “I’ll bet you dollars to doughnuts . . .” What we found funniest about such shopworn phrases was the solemnity and conviction with which some people used them.


The other side of my friend’s temperament was a periodic glacial silence. In retreat he became catatonic. This could go on for hours or days. I learned not to take it personally and knew he would return, usually with a joke or a sarcastic wisecrack. At the top, Ben Downing describes his friend, Tom Disch, the mordantly funny poet who committed suicide on July 4, 2008. I remembered it while reading Disch’s “Duelling Platitudes,” a sixteen-stanza collection of linked cliches in About the Size of It (2007). It concludes:


“A queen who tells us to eat cake

may be making

a big mistake,


“But the same advice from our corner baker

is par for the course,

not grounds for divorce.


“All adages are relative; each

will have its season.

So dare to eat your peach,


My friend, but keep it within reason.”

Saturday, December 04, 2021

'A Parallel to Some Misadventure of To-day'

A young woman has written to say she is thinking about starting a book blog, a charmingly old-fashioned endeavor. The Golden Age of Blogging ended in February 2006, a few days after I launched Anecdotal Evidence. I admire her spunk. There’s a heroic quality to dedicating time and energy to a pursuit of interest to a few hundred misfits. What they lack in numbers they make up in eccentricity.

When contemplating this blog, I wrote to six established practitioners, asking for practical advice. I had no marketable digital skills, and still don’t. All assured me your average lunatic could maintain a blog. Two of the people I consulted are still in the business.

I answered the would-be blogger, emphasizing the importance of discipline and time. If she works hard and lives long enough, she will become a better writer and, incidentally, a better reader. She already seems unusually well-read for someone still in her twenties. I stressed attentiveness – to books and to life. It’s a two-way street, as the motto above suggests: “A blog about the intersection of books and life.” I found affirmation of this truth recently while reading portions of Charles Whibley’s Literary Portraits (1920). In his chapter on Montaigne, Whibley writes:

“When Montaigne was at home he betook himself somewhat the oftener to his library. Thence he could survey at a glance his whole household—his garden, his base-court, and his yard. There he could read or write as his fancy led him; or, better still, he could dream undisturbed. Now, he would take a book from its shelf, and find in the wisdom of the ancients a parallel to some misadventure of to-day. Now, from the wealth of his own experience he would illustrate the discoveries of Seneca or Plutarch.”

Friday, December 03, 2021

'Preferring the Master’s Work to the Master'

“As he never tired of saying, he mocked what he loved.” 

Who but a lover has the right, the privilege, to mock the beloved? A mere critic is presumptuous in his carping. He can’t be trusted to mock sensitively, with wit. His mockery is a blunt-force weapon. A lover’s is a paean to the beloved. So it is with Max Beerbohm and his favorite among the novelists of his day, Henry James.


Beerbohm wrote a pitch-perfect parody of James’ prose style in “The Mote in the Middle Distance” (A Christmas Garland, 1912) and drew at least twenty-two affectionate caricatures of him (see here and here). In his copy of The Aspern Papers (1888), given to him by James, Beerbohm drew an image of the novelist doubled over in pain on the title page, with the caption: “Mr Henry James in the act of parturiating a sentence.” His final work in prose, “An Incident” (Mainly on the Air, 1957), is devoted to James. We know from N. John Hall’s Max Beerbohm: A Kind of a Life (2002) that Beerbohm was encouraged by Elizabeth Jungmann, his secretary, literary executor and second wife, and New Yorker writer S.N. Behrman to write down an anecdote he was fond of recalling, dating from the spring of 1909.


Beerbohm is in London and had just left a luncheon party given by Somerset Maugham. He wishes to go quickly to his club, the Savile, to read James’ just-published story “The Velvet Glove,” when he encounters “a slowly ascending figure that seemed to me vaguely familiar.”  It is, of course, James and “his magnificently massive and shapely brow.” James recognizes the thirty-six-year-old Beerbohm and asks if any art exhibitions in the city are worth visiting. When Beerbohm suggests one, James asks if he would be willing to act as his guide.


“I felt much honoured—and yet, to my great surprise, I heard myself saying instantly ‘Well, I’m afraid I can’t. I have to be in Kensington at half-past three.’ ‘Ah,’ he said, ‘you young men, always entangled in webs of engagements, yes, yes . . .’ and passed on up the slope.”


Beerbohm admits he “fibbed” to the writer he most admired. Why? “It was mainly my aforesaid impatience to be reading ‘The Velvet Glove.’” Beerbohm, in other words, takes the Jamesian themes of art vs. life, young vs. seasoned artist, and makes them his own. “An Incident” concludes:


“And here I was now in the Savile, reading it. It was, of course, a very good story, and yet, from time to time, I found my mind wandering away from it. It was not so characteristic, not so intensely Jamesian a story as James would have founded on the theme of what had just been happening between us—the theme of a disciple loyally—or unloyally--preferring the Master’s work to the Master.”


Beerbohm wrote “An Incident” in 1954 and it was broadcast on the BBC on June 14, 1956, three weeks after his death. The sentence quoted at the top is by Hall, who goes on to note that Beerbohm “positively adored the prose of Henry James.”

Thursday, December 02, 2021

'I Like Things that Make Me Like Them at Once'

A handy, unscientific gauge of literary worth, one most readers can endorse, is pleasure: does this book (poem, story, essay, play) please me? Does it delight? Does it surprise on first reading and after? Does it say something we didn’t know needed saying? Does it interestingly calibrate truth and beauty? Will I read it again? In “The Pleasure Principle,” Philip Larkin reclaims the title phrase from the dour clutches of Freud: 

“[A]t bottom poetry, like all art, is inextricably bound up with giving pleasure, and if a poet loses his pleasure-seeking audience he has lost the only audience worth having, for which the dutiful mob that signs on every September is no substitute. And the effect will be felt throughout his work.”


That dutiful mob is students and faculty. Larkin is writing in 1957, when poetry was already being professionalized. Professors laid claim to poetry and poets turned into professors. Poems were to be “studied,” not enjoyed; dissected like frogs in biology class. Of course, things have grown grimmer in the subsequent sixty-four years. Poems must be strident, unambiguous and instantly accessible. Larkin rather half-heartedly proposes a solution:   


“[I]f the medium is in fact to be rescued from among our duties and restored to our pleasures, I can only think that a large-scale revulsion has got to set in against present notions, and that it will have to start with poetry readers asking themselves more frequently whether they do in fact enjoy what they read, and, if not, what the point is of carrying on. And I use ‘enjoy’ in the commonest of senses, the sense in which we leave a radio on or off.”


Take “To the Sea,” written in 1969 and collected as the first poem in High Windows (1974). Larkin wrote of it: “I am not too keen on it myself – it seems rather Wordsworthian, in the sense of being bloody dull.” This is Larkin’s customary mock-self-revulsion, not to be confused with humility. How is an inland-born Midwestern American to enjoy a poem about English holidays on the shore? It triggers nostalgia and its opposite, memories of the pleasures and tedium of the beach. Ours is an age when humans seem absent from poems, replaced by verbal gestures. Larkin, who started as a novelist, has a fiction writer’s interest in people and their behavior. Here are the poem’s closing lines:


“If the worst

Of flawless weather is our falling short,

It may be that through habit these do best,

Coming to the water clumsily undressed

Yearly; teaching their children by a sort

Of clowning; helping the old, too, as they ought.”


And here is how he closes “The Pleasure Principle”: “[T]he following note by Samuel Butler may reawaken a furtive itch for freedom: ‘I should like to like Schumann’s music better than I do; I dare say I could make myself like it better if I tried; but I do not like having to try to make myself like things; I like things that make me like them at once and no trying at all (Notebooks, 1919).’”


Larkin died on this date, December 2, in 1985, at the age of sixty-three.


[“The Pleasure Principle” is collected in Required Writing: Miscellaneous Pieces 1955-1982 (1982.]

Wednesday, December 01, 2021

'A Small Piece or Amount (of Anything)'

A longtime reader and I met for the first time on Monday and had dinner together. A retired aid worker who spent years in Africa, he lives in the Texas Hill Country. Gary is a confirmed reader, a book hound, the sort who keeps a pen and a list in his pocket. Conversation was effortless. He mentioned recently reading a book that brought tears to his eyes. A few movies and some music have done that to me but never a book. Of course, I’m an insensitive brute, though I immediately thought of the writer who has given us more sad scenes than any other: Henry James. I tried to quote from memory the final sentence of his short novel Washington Square (1880). I had the rhythm but not all of the words in their proper order:

“Catherine, meanwhile, in the parlor, picking up her morsel of fancy-work, had seated herself with it again – for life, as it were.”


Catherine Sloper’s naïve, rather dull goodness is abused by the charming fortune hunter Morris Townsend and even more painfully by her father, Dr. Sloper, who, ironically, sees through Townsend’s scam. Loyalties torn, innocence betrayed, a life unlived – “for life, as it were.” That final sentence is devastating. One of the reasons it works, apart from the halting cadence, is James’ choice of morsel. Every other usage I know refers to food.


The word in English is old, dating from the days of Anglo-Norman and Old French. Its principal meaning is what you would expect: “a bite or mouthful; a small piece of food.”

Dr. Johnson uses it comically in the August 19, 1758, issue of The Idler. Jack Whirler, a dervish of busyness, “always dines at full speed. He enters, finds the family at table, sits familiarly down, and fills his plate; but while the first morsel is in his mouth, hears the clock strike, and rises.”


The OED gives several shades of meaning. Here is the one closest to James’ usage: “a small piece or amount (of anything), esp. one cut or broken from a mass; a fragment.” Something small and broken, not unlike Catherine’s life. “Fancy-work” is embroidery, purely ornamental.

Tuesday, November 30, 2021

'The First Requisite of Literary Criticism'

In last weekend’s Wall Street Journal, Joseph Epstein celebrated one of the major publishing events of the twenty-first century, the eight-volume Complete Prose of T.S. Eliot. The parting sentence in Epstein’s review suggests its significance and the poignance of its appearance at this time: “Reading in it, one longs for the time to return when the detritus of the digital age disappears and literature once again occupies a central place in our culture.” I first read Eliot’s poetry shortly after his death in 1965, and his critical essays several years later, and even my unformed mind recognized the earned authority of his voice. I immediately wanted to memorize some of his lines. You could argue with particulars -- especially his anti-Semitic slurs -- but ignoring Eliot was impossible. 

Recently I reread Eliot’s elegiac essay on Charles Whibley (1859-1930), the English literary journalist and friend to such writers as Stéphane Mallarmé and Paul Valéry. Eliot is commonsensical and free of snobbery and academic condescension:


“The distinction between ‘journalism’ and ‘literature’ is quite futile, unless we are drawing such violent contrast as between Gibbon’s History and tonight’s evening paper; and such a contrast itself is too violent to have meaning. You cannot, that is, draw any useful distinction between journalism and literature merely in a scale of literary values, as a difference between the well-written and the supremely well-written: a second-rate novel is not journalism, but it is certainly not literature.”


Eliot examines the notion that a journalist’s work is “of only passing interest, intended to make an immediate strong impression, and destined to eternal oblivion.” Journalism is “ephemeral” when it is written ephemerally. Eliot goes on:


“Those persons who are drawn by the powerful attraction of Jonathan Swift read and re-read with enchanted delight The Drapier’s Letters; and these letters are journalism according to my hint of a definition, if anything is. But The Drapier’s Letters are such an important item now in English letters, so essential to any one who would be well read in the literature of England, that we ignore the accident by which we still read them. If Swift had never written Gulliver’s Travels, and if he had not played a striking  and dramatic part in political life, and if this amazing madman had not supplemented these claims to permanence by a most interesting private life, what would be the place of The Drapier’s Letters now? They would be praised now and then by some student of Anglo-Irish history . . .”


Epstein, Eliot and Whibley are all, among other things, literary journalists. Today they represent an endangered species, which is a shame. Consider the wit and intelligence with which Whibley writes of Sir Thomas Browne in his Essays in Biography (1913):


“Whatever was marvellous lay within his heart and brain. Such adventures as he met with were the adventure of his soul. The castles whose walls he had battered were the castles of error. That he followed Erasmus and Montaigne in marvelling at the miracle of his life suggests that intelligence knows as keen a triumph as political cunning or warlike courage. His victories, like theirs, were books.”


Whibley is equally gifted at opprobrium. Here he is on Rousseau in Political Portraits (1923):


“The reason why the views of Rousseau are acceptable to the democrats of to-day is that he was the apotheosis of the half-baked. For wit and learning he had a profound contempt. He had read Plutarch and la Calprenède, and little else. . . . His intelligence was warped and scanty. He was almost incapable of reason.”


Anyone interested in English prose, critical thought or good books in general can enjoy Eliot’s essay on Whibley, a writer whose name they are unlikely to have otherwise known. I know him thanks only to Eliot (and the late John Gross). His essay could have been a rote recitation of titles, dates and platitudes, as most literary obituaries and tributes are. Instead, Eliot gives us twelve pages (in my copy of Selected Essays 1917-1932) of more history, witty prose and juicy critical judgments than you’ll find in a year’s subscription to the New York Review of Books. Eliot writes of Whibley:


“The first requisite of literary criticism, as of every other literary or artistic activity, is that it shall be interesting. And the first condition of being interesting is to have the tact to choose only those subjects in which one is really interested, those that are germane to one’s own temper.”


[See also Epstein’s “T.S. Eliot and the Demise of the Literary Culture” in the November 2010 issue of Commentary.]

Monday, November 29, 2021

'Too Daunting Because Too Dazzling'

“I should confess here that there are some books, in every genre and in every period, that I find too daunting because too dazzling, in intellect or execution, to be as easily reread.”

I’ve often meditated on L.E. Sissman’s confession in his essay “The Constant Rereader’s Five-Foot Shelf” (Innocent Bystander: The Scene from the 70’s, 1975), but it doesn’t seem to apply to me. I can recall dozens of books I would never consider rereading, and I’m certain I’ve forgotten hundreds more, but that was because they disappointed me the first time around. They were boring, unrewardingly difficult or just plain lousy. But none comes to mind that was “too dazzling” to read again. It helps to quote Sissman’s subsequent sentences:


“Shakespeare is almost too rich, in his insistence on ultimates in diction, wordplay, characterization, and dramatic event, to reread meditatively; he alarms and excites the reader into understandings each time new, and to reread him is for me not a casual revisiting but an expedition up Everest, crampons, pitons, oxygen, rations, rope, and all. Ditto Milton, in another sense. Ditto Pope, in still another.”


I don’t return to Milton and Pope very often but never find them off-putting, requiring premeditated preparation. Shakespeare is in high rotation – most obviously the Greatest Hits, but lately some of the more modest, less accomplished plays – Timon of Athens, for instance.


I’d like to hear from readers who share Sissman’s tic. Are there books you have already read, perhaps when you were a student, that you don’t return to because they are “too dazzling,” whatever that might mean?