Saturday, February 28, 2009

Busman's Holiday

There are bookstores, and then there are bookstores. The superiority of some comes from their size; vast temples to publishing, comprehensive, inexhaustible, high-ceilings and long aisles, small scholarly nooks, comfortable chairs, brightly lit and clearly labeled shelves. Such places have all the glamour of memory now, as they go the way of the dodo, replaced by the bland, suburban uniformity of chains, that ape the architecture, reproduce the furniture, but miss the point; "ruined choirs," with too few voices, airy, empty, soul-less places, left for the birds & bees, to cheap reprints, sidelines and souvenirs, snacks and tourist trash.

Others, the neighborhood shops, are if anything, even less likely now, not being a model much copied in the abstractions of corporate boardrooms, but some survive. Out for a postprandial bit of window shopping and reminiscence with an old friend, not seen for more years than we knew, just such a bookshop comes back to us, as if conjured. It is bright and clean; white shelves and white walls, full of corners and short steps. Staff recommendations pepper the stock, the tables are cheerfully loaded with fresh and unusual titles, everywhere there are small choices: unlikely publishers, handsome editions, smut and fun and bits of whimsicality that no chain store could quite allow for without questions coming down from "corporate." (There would be meetings, I do not doubt, on matters of "good taste" and a stern warning to "think of the children," should any chain manager or buyer be bold enough to stock a bit of cock, a taste of tit, or assume an "average" customer adult enough to pass such things by if uninterested.)

My friend and I, so glad of the chance to wander away half of an hour in such an atmosphere of urbane bookishness, feel obliged to buy something, to show our appreciation for a style sustained very much against the odds, and so we do.

I buy the new book from an artist who seems to me to represent exactly the values promoted by the shop, a book that bespeaks the neighborhood now fading all around it, as funky places board-up their windows and disappear, as brand-names assume vacated store-fronts, and condos with tiny false ponds and cookie-cutter balconies displace bars and pipe stores and cheap eats. I buy the new book from Maurice Vellekoop, a Canadian cartoonist of brightly colored, wittily drawn nudes, each one a gay cliche from literature and porn, each drawing both a joke and a fantasy, shamelessly cocky, light-hearted and dirty-minded. It costs too much, this book, though not so much as all that. It's value as either art or commentary is negligible, some of the pictures glide perilously close to simple stereotypes rather than not, but it is fun, amusingly intended, silly and not unaccomplished. I like Maurice Vellekoop's Pin-Ups, Green Candy Press, 2009, if not as much as I did his more clever Maurice Vellekoop's ABC Book. A Homoerotic Primer, New York: Gates of Heck, 1997, enough still to buy the new book, to support the artist, (think Erte at the gym,) the publisher, the bookstore.

That is how one thanks a bookstore for being there, in case anyone might happen to forget the etiquette of retail: one makes a purchase.

Later, my friend and I go to another bookstore, and another. It is what one does in my company, I offer few other attractions even in a city as well-stocked as this. Eventually, inevitably, we arrive at the bookstore I call home. I am justly proud of the place, where my friend has never been. I want him to see the place, see how grand it still is, how diverse, how welcoming, how unlike any college bookstore he might otherwise ever have seen. My friend makes all the right noises; appreciates the size of the store, the good company of my coworkers, the books. His reward? Not the edition of Whitman he intended to read, but the one I like better for being "the deathbed edition" of Leaves of Grass, Modern Library, 1993, still in print, suitable for grazing, satisfyingly fat, but not ungainly. I buy him the book, as he bought me lunch and will later buy us an extraordinary dinner. Later, finding "When Lilacs Last in the Door-yard Bloom'd," my skeptical friend is well satisfied.

That is what a good bookstore does, what the neighborhood bookshop did after our lunch, what my bookstore (as I'm feeling proprietary I think I can be allowed to call it so) does every day, provide satisfactions unanticipated. Gods bless and keep them, the good and great bookstores. How bad a host I would be without them.

Daily Dose

From Of the Proficience and Advancement of Learning, by Francis Bacon


"Men generally taste well knowledges drenched in flesh and blood, civil history, morality, policy, about which men’s affections, praises, fortunes do turn, and are conversant."

from Book Two

Friday, February 27, 2009

Honest in Every Part

When Eliot said, “The most important thing for poets to do is to write as little as possible,” I wonder, did he speak for Milton? Did he speak for Blake? I've liked poets large and small. I've found my preference to be for the complete, the collected and the dead, but read in rather than through. I've liked poets who spoke in volumes as well as I've liked those I've known for just the length of one poem in Auden's Viking anthology. I came to poetry late, inadequately read, easily fatigued, without the wits or discipline required, for instance, to read Eliot in verse with anything but... consternation, frankly, and yet I've read even Eliot, even Pound; great gusty chapters of the stuff, a whole book of him in my more studious days. Byron's Don Juan I rate among my greatest recent pleasures, but others -- Lallah Rookh enters here -- were not so much fun as to make me stay until the end. Truth be told, I haven't the head for Milton nor the patience for Blake, not at any length at least. Coming to read poetry in my laggard and haphazard way, I've found there's pleasure in it, and considerable reward, but I will never be more than a light reader however heavy the books on my shelves.

The days when I might read and read and read a poet, as I did last with Blake for a birthday reading at the store, or before that, Pope, to keep up with the studies of a friend -- a foolish undertaking at which I rightly failed -- are gone. Left to my own devices, I am shamefaced to say, I love the Everyman's Library Pocket Poets. Slim and brightly colored, small, well made and edited to a length appropriate to the likes of me, I find myself collecting these as they are published by Random House. At only $12.50 a pop, and less than three hundred pages per book, they have been no hardship to either my purse or my patience. Stacked collectively on my shelves, they constitute a none too shabby library, of themselves. Looking at them now, I see more poems, and more whole books of poems actually read, than I might ever otherwise have undertaken. They suit me. True, I do wish there might have been room made for notes when it comes to some, but that's a quibble. (If I'm feeling so damned careful in my reading that a dictionary will not suffice, then I ought to have the wherewithal to find myself something more comprehensive, yes? I'm not saying I do or will, but I ought.) For what they are, they are favorites almost to a volume.

Today I bought another, new at least to me. Today's quote I drew from it for no better reason than the unseasonable snow we had yesterday morning. (The anthologies in the series have been uniformly good.) It is such a pretty thing. I've been reading (in) it all this evening, even as I watched, after a fashion, "Hell's Kitchen" with my dozing husband. The Four Seasons will fit right in, somewhere, among the others.

And I still might read Milton properly. With Blake, I fear, I'm done. But wait! "To Autumn," page 152.

Daily Dose

From The Four Seasons: Poems, edited by J. T. McClatchy


"Snow is what fills
the oak, and what covers
the grass and the bare garden.
Snow is what reverses
sidewalk, house and lawn
into the substance of whiteness."

Donald Hall

From The Snow

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Moving Oeuvre

(Thomas Hardy Memorial Window, St. Michael's Church, Stinsford)

In my hand I hold a slim beauty of indeterminate age, measuring roughly four by six, the leather still fragrant and supple, the color of old burgundy. The title is embossed in gold on the spine, the exterior otherwise innocent. The pages are creamy white, the type large and pleasing. It is a tactile satisfaction just handling such a book. The title page reads:

Under the Greenwood Tree
Thomas Hardy
Illustrated by Percy Graves
London & Glasgow
Collins' Clear Type Press

This is early Hardy, the story of the Mellstock Quire, of Dick Dewy & Fancy Day, of the day when the rustics still fiddled and love suffered but only embarrassment. A charming book, and bound as such.

I have a decrepit set of Hardy, the leather gone rusty and bald, but the boards still attached, the pages clean, if not clear for being in a tight and ugly type, the lines not always plumb. If I could find all Hardy in "Collins' Clear Type," I'd be a happier man. And I have Hardy in a contemporary series, with three novels in each of two squat volumes, clumsy to carry and heavy to hold. Guess which of my Hardy is of modern American make?

Just today I priced two fubsy volumes of "unabridged" Twain: leather-bound, barely stitched, each volume the thickness of a de-luxe Red Robin novelty burger and five times as heavy on the stomach. These two monstrous books, printed in a tiny type, are meant to represent the whole of Twain's considerable ouevre, in one inconvenient, nay impossible lump. They are no more meant to be read through than phonebooks. They represent the very worst sort of bulky American ostentation:

"Look here! See the full extent of my leather bound literacy, and know, as all such big books prove, that I am, quite clearly, sumbudy"

The tragedy of such piggish reprinting is that some well meaning soul is likely to inflict just such a set on some unsuspecting young person who might, if given a clean paperback, actually read Pudd'nhead Wilson. Or, for that matter, Under the Greenwood Tree if likewise given a Penguin. The irony of my beautiful little edition is that as a Used Book, it is likely to be overpriced because of it's handsome covers and then sit unclaimed on the shelf for years. The paperbacks would sell quick enough and cheap. And the ungainly great Twains will sell as well. Trust it.

I wonder if, when my estate, such as it so sorry is, comes to be auctioned, anyone will have the sense to fish out and treasure this perfect little book I hold in my hand? I'd leave it to someone, but the will is already drawn. And who would have it from me without thinking themselves pretty poorly remembered? Still, it's lived, I would guess, near one hundred years and was made to see out another hundred yet, baring fire, flood or the Second Coming. Someone will want it. And by the time they do, I'll be past caring and that is as it ought to be, for I'll not part with it before.

You can have the bulky show of that "unabridged" Twain. Seriously, I priced it to sell.

Daily Dose

From The Lyrics of Noel Coward


"The lilies and the languors of virtue,
Though rather oppressively 'nice,'
As Swinburne implied,
Can be elbowed aside
By the roses and raptures of vice."

From After the Ball

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

"Me sem Djuhli." Part One of an Interview with Carol Miller, Author of "Lola's Luck."

One of my favorite recent books, (and my favorite excuse for interrupting my reading of Villette,) is Lola's Luck: My Life Among the California Gypsies, by Carol Miller. I was lucky enough to get an introduction to the author. Herewith, a brief interview:

Brad Craft: Carol, first let me thank you for your book. It is an amazing story, a very personal memoir of your life with the Machvaia Roma, and a beautifully written look into a fascinating world the non-academic reader would otherwise never see. So to start, why the Machvaia Roma? I mean as opposed to Inuits or Fijians or whatever?

Carol Miller: Why the Machvaia? Well, why Gypsies in the first place. Probably the two articles in The New Yorker by Joseph Mitchell, a fantastic writer, stimulated my curiosity. Then, years later, as a volunteer teaching adults to read, I was assigned a young Gypsy couple as my clients, and my curiosity really took off. At that time, we lived in Oregon and I found the Portland public library had a number of books written by men with little, or no, direct experience and who had imagined their Gypsy stories. Apparently, very little was known about Gypsies, other than their criminal activities that got in the news. I considered Gypsies a mystery to be solved.

As I mention in Lola's Luck, Gypsies were only a short distance away when, as a graduate student, I wanted to study a society that wouldn't take me far away from my not-yet-grown children. Also, the head of my graduate committee, available at UW, was someone who had already studied Gypsies. Professor Edward Harper. There were other reasons, but that is probably enough to mention.

I explain, I think, why I chose Machvaia over the Kalderasha in my book.

BC: You do, very well. Just quickly, before I forget, would you explain the significance of the coins that line the covers of your book and head each section?

CM: In the book, (page 102,) I explain that Katy persuaded me to spend my birthday money on a half dollar gold piece. That same gold piece decorates the book's cover and separates the inside sections.

BC: Your book is a remarkable one, and not at all what I expected frankly. It is a much more personal story that your academic credentials led me to believe the book would be. Was this your intention when you started writing it?

CM: I began writing about Lola when she died in 1975. Then I included all my field notes about her; I was considering a memorial or tribute of some kind. It took me maybe fifteen years of being with the Machvaia, living with them, living among them, to finally understand the society and where Lola was, what she was, in the group. Without that information, you don't really know a person.

In writing about Lola, I began to write about myself -- how else to explain a different culture? Somewhere along the way, I began to long to share the people, the Machvaia, and what they were really are like, not what an Outsider imagined they were like, with the world. So I wrote, rewrote, for decades, in the expectation that when I had learned to write something truly compelling, a publisher would come along.

I didn't initially have the writing skills to succeed, of course. You might say I wrote Lola's Luck for thirty years.

BC: Can you explain what a “djuhli” is and is that a term that is still used in reference to you among the Machvaia Roma?

CM: A djuhli is a female Outsider; it is considerably more friendly than gadji, the Kalderasha term. Djuhli is a what Machvaia used as reference term for me. They seldom used it as a term of address. Those I was close to called me Carol.

When asked, at public events, who I was, I would say, "Me (sounds like may) sem Djuhli."

BC: At the heart of your story is an exceptional relationship with a remarkable older woman, Lola. So many questions come to mind. First and foremost, at what point did you realize you were becoming something other than an anthropologist and a subject?

CM: When did I realize I was becoming something other than an anthropologist with Gypsies as my subject? Before I even started I knew studying them wouldn't be easy. They have built-in structural defenses against anyone knowing their society or becoming intimate with them. A few years earlier, everyone who brought me to a public event -- and that was what I was trying to study, celebrations, weddings, baptisms, slavi, pomani -- would have been outcaste. So Bibi told me in 2000.

Early on, I decided the Machvaia would be my life work. I was required to finance my own fieldwork -- possible in the 60s, 70s, 80s -- with part time employment.

BC: Lola is a very real, physical presence in your book; conjured up for the reader in her own voice, in her dancing, her delightfully outrageous clothes. How much of Lola comes from your original notes?

CM: All of the material about Lola is from field notes or the memories I had in 1975, when she died. I am not an imaginative writer.

Read the rest of this interview, and my favorite quote from Lola, below:

"Me sem Djuhli." Part Two of an Interview with Carol Miller, Author of "Lola's Luck."

And here is the rest of my conversation with Carol Miller, author of Lola's Luck: My Life Among the California Gypsies, new from GemmaMedia.

Brad Craft: Your respect and affection for Lola is tempered, in the book, by your frustration in getting her story from her, though you eventually do. How did you do it?

Carol Miller: Only when I understood the culture did I understand what Lola said, what she did, and why.  She considered herself very American and that is why she adopted me.  Had we lived in Los Angeles, she might have been shunned in the 60s. 
Lola was really a woman of great personal conviction, born before her time.
Initially, I found her adorable, but impossible.  Impossible melted away over time.

BC: Your relationship with Lola, and with her family, seems to me all but unique in my reading of the literature on Gypsies. That unique access also proved to have unique difficulties for you personally. What was the response to your research academically? Have you been criticized for “going native?”

CM: Going native is no longer bad news.  Anthropologists have married the natives and gotten fantastic material.  Cultural anthropologists are dedicated to finding out how the group under study thinks, feels, and believes.  That is its value.

BC: Sounds a very good thing to me. Does your friendship with Lola, and all that it added to your life, still define you professionally? Are you still “the Gypsy expert?”

CM: Soon, there will be no one Machvaia who remembers Lola, except through my book.  The people don't write much down, and after a few generations, the Dead Ones are forgotten.
I am not very professional, having no university affiliation.  At the moment, I consider myself a writer.

BC: Your portrait of all the Roma women you met and came to know in Lola’s world is specially poignant in the book, as you tell your personal story as well; as a young single parent, as a woman for a time of no fixed address, even, hilariously, as an apprentice fortuneteller. Did you set out to study the role of Machvaia Roma women specifically? Did you come to them with a particular agenda in mind -- and here I’m thinking particularly of the issues of ritual purity and the like?

CM: Most societies like the Roma divide contact into male or female by kind, and I was assigned to the female group.  Conversations proceed best between those of like sex and age-group, which is one of the reasons Lola couldn't answer my direct (really insulting) questions.  But I didn't know.     
My interest was in ritual and belief -- that is the subject of Church of Cheese, my next book.

BC: One of the most interesting turns of event in your book is that these women, in a sense, rescue you, provide you with safe haven, friendship, even a place to live at one point. The book seems to me to be, at least in part, a tribute to your friends. Do those you still see see the book as such? How important are these friendships to you still?

CM: They provided a place to live whenever I ran out of money, at least they did for a time.  All of Lola's children are dead, except for Boyd and Pretty Bobby.  As both are in California, I only talk to them by phone -- Boyd, every two weeks, Pretty Bobby every other day.  I see one of Lola's nieces and a grandson when I visit, once or twice a year, the SF Bay area.  Both are runaways and we are very close.

BC: The central relationships in your book are intimately detailed, including your relationship with what would seem from the book to have been the great love of your life. Could you have told this story without those intimate details? (As a reader, by the way, I’m enormously grateful that you didn’t.)

CM: My writing teacher was Ann Lamott and she never tells a story except with the most intimate details.

BC: There is no photograph in your book of Stevo, or of Stevo with his “Djuhli.” I understand your discretion, but I’m curious, do you have such a photograph?

CM: I have great studio photographs of Stevo and Stevo with his Djuhli.  I couldn't get a release for them.  The Machvaia I knew advised me to leave him alone because he is with another woman.

BC: There is a touching discomfort in many of your personal encounters with custom and protocol. Experience presumably lessened the likelihood of sitting on benches that turn out to be alters, but did you ever completely lose that outsider’s awkwardness? Also, there is no more touching scene in the book, for me, than when you review the contents of your wardrobe, noting the occasion of each “gypsy” dress, etc. Do you still have these clothes? Do you still have occasion to wear them?

CM: I no longer go to public events.  Well, I did go to Fatima's one-year pomana a few years back and may, again, if someone I love dies.  No, I don't feel awkward at all.  I feel I have earned respect and the right to be there, whether most of those present are aware of who I am or not.  

Clothes styles changed over the many years I have known the people.  Currently, sumptuous ball gowns are the mode.  I don't have any ball gowns.  My granddaughter who is into the stylish and lives in Manhattan posed for some designer ads and got some good buys on Zelda pants/full skirts, which I combine with various tops.  The Zelda is more recent than the clothes mentioned in the book.

BC: Despite the losses and the disappointments you describe with such candidness in your book, you seem to be quite happy to have lived the story you tell. Is this perspective something you attribute to the Roma, or something you brought with you into their world? And, finally, your relationship with these people was such a consuming one, have you been able to maintain it since? How have you managed to incorporate your experience into your other, more traditionally American life?

CM: I am happy to have lived the story I tell.  It was my life.  I chose it. 
Anyhow, who would want to read about a person to whom nothing ever happened? 
I never had to incorporate Gypsies into my more traditional American life because I never, after my divorce, had to worry about having a traditional American life.

BC: Thanks again, Carol, for talking with me and for writing such a wonderful book.

Daily Dose

From Lola's Luck: My Life Among the California Gypsies, by Carol Miller


"Lola's ideas about living and dying were clearly defined and tersely stated. She said that all you have in this life is 'to get dressed up, live comfortable and have a good time. You should do that and quit.'"

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Giving Popularity

There is class of writer now all but extinct, or rather, specialized nearly into extinction, to borrow a notion from R. Buckminster Fuller. These writers once not only attracted a substantial and varied readership, but also required an inordinately varied card-catalogue cross-reference. ('member card-catalogues?) They wrote on subjects as varied as their interests, ranged over vast historical time, at least in so far as human history may be so described, and were as likely to report the weather at Agincourt as the contents of Dickens' desk. Their origins in English, by my reckoning, can be traced at least as far back as Macaulay in his essays, and their decline to disappearance may not truly be marked until David McCullough sees his last book to press. (May that day be far distant.) The popular historian has been a phenomenon of the golden age of print culture, now supposedly passing, and I can not quite see how the new media will produce his equal. His primary function has been to write history, rather than either make or discover it and while he may be said to serve more than one muse, Clio has always been his first, but not his only love. Others: academics, philosophers, archaeologists, learned societies, professional theorists, may be said to have been more fanatically, narrowly devoted, but none have served history better. The popular historians, whatever the flaws in their method, whatever the failures of their research, however brief their footnotes, have kept history alive for generations. If it ceases to find its next audience, it will be largely because of the passing of those historians who write history to be read popularly, meaning widely, rather than recognized in peer-review, published in professional journals, and flatteringly referenced by undergraduates.

Christopher Hibbert, (1924 - 2008,) was an Englishman, educated at Oxford, decorated in the Second World War, who sold real estate when he came home, and only took up writing professionally in his thirties. We had a book come across the Used Books Desk today, published in 1987, by Methuen, extensively and tastefully illustrated, handsomely made, titled simply The Grand Tour. In it Hibbert tells the story of the "finishing" a certain class of Englishman came to be expected to get from travel on The Continent. It is a charming book.

Hibbert wrote charming books on Queen Victoria, Samuel Johnson, Wellington. He wrote exciting and vivid history about the Gordan Riots, Waterloo, the English Civil War, the Medici, and thoughtful books on evil, scandal, Girabaldi, and yes, Charles Dickens. Hibbert wrote enormously, across five decades, various historical periods, multiple biographical subjects, but he always wrote well; in careful, clear English prose, with great curiosity, undaunted enthusiasm, and no agenda beyond communicating his own pleasure in the subjects he undertook. If he was not a "great historian," I don't know that he ever intended to be, or would have written with that reputation in mind. And yet, as a popular historian, before that term fell to disuse and abuse, he was great. As an individual writing well about history, he begins to look greater as his kind become ever increasingly rare. Oh, there are specialists in everything from Lincoln to the production and migration of wheat, who may write as well or better, but as a writer whose subject was simply history, not the theory of, the correction of, or the minute detail of history, he was among the last of his kind, and all the more to be admired for doing what he did so well and for so long. (His first book was published in 1958, his last in 2004.) Fournier said, "Great individuals are not only popular themselves, but they give popularity to whatever they touch." By that standard, Hibbert was great.

It seems worthwhile, to reproduce here a list of his books. It would be well worth the reader's time to find them, as curiosity leads:

King Mob (Longmans, 1958)
Wolfe at Quebec (Longmans, 1959)
The Destruction of Lord Raglan (Longmans, 1961)
Benito Mussolini (Longmans, 1962)
The Roots of Evil: A Social History of Crime and Punishment (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1963)
Agincourt (Batsford, 1964)
The Court at Windsor (Longmans, 1964)
Garibaldi and his enemies (Longmans, 1965)
The Making of Charles Dickens (Harper & Row, 1967)
Waterloo(New English library Ltd, 1967)
Charles I (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1968)
The Search for King Arthur (American Heritage, 1969)
The Dragon Wakes (Harper & Row, 1970)
The personal history of Samuel Johnson (Longmans, 1971)
George IV (Vol 1 Longman, 1972, Vol 2 Allen Lane
The House of Medici: Its Rise and Fall (Morrow, 1975)
Edward VII: A Portrait (Allen Lane, 1976)
The Great Mutiny: India, 1857 (Allen Lane, 1978)
The Days of the French Revolution (Allen Lane, 1980)
The London Encyclopedia with Ben Weinreb (Macmillan, 1983)
Rome, the Biography of a City (Norton, 1985)
The English: A Social History (Grafton, 1987)
Encyclopedia of Oxford (Macmillan, 1988)
Redcoats and Rebels (Grafton, 1990)
The Virgin Queen: Elizabeth I, Genius of the Golden Age (Addison-Wesley, 1991)
Florence: Biography of a City (Norton, 1993)
Cavaliers & Roundheads: The English Civil War, 1642-1649 (HarperCollins, 1993)
Wellington: A Personal History (Da Capo, 1997)
George III: A Personal History (1998)
The Marlboroughs (Viking, 2001)
Queen Victoria: a personal history (HarperCollins, 2001)
Napoleon: His wives and women (HarperCollins, 2002)
Disraeli: a personal history (HarperCollins, 2004)

Daily Dose

From Max in Verse: Rhymes and Parodies by Max Beerbohm


"How compare either of this grim twain?
Each has an equal knack.
Hardy prefers the pill that's blue,
Houseman the draught that's black."

From Far Oakridge 1915 - 1919

Monday, February 23, 2009

Affectionate Study

Max Beerbohm was that most unusual of caricaturists whose best and most telling likenesses were often his most affectionate. Perhaps his most famous and frequently reproduced series, Rossetti and His Circle, published in 1922 (and handsomely reprinted by Yale University Press in the edition I own from 1987,) depicts the generation previous to his own with a fondness he did not always show for his contemporaries. All the great personalities of the period are rendered, if not gently, warmly, and in particular the great stolid, Pre-Raphaelite beauties are all recognizably posed in attitudes appropriately medieval, however Victorian their costume, delicately drawn, and painted in watercolors intended as much as tribute to the art they inspired as to lampoon the style of the time. The only genuinely unkind drawing in the collection is the last, of Beerbohm's friend, shown in unflattering profile, in knee-britches and pumps, holding a lily, and lecturing a room full booted rubes. The caption reads:

"The name Dante Gabriel Rossetti is heard for the first time in the Western States of America. Time: 1882. Lecturer: Mr. Oscar Wilde."

Wilde was long dead by the time this picture appeared, but Beerbohm drew him many times, living and dead, though seldom with more deadly accuracy than here.

My favorite picture is not the Wilde, nor even perhaps the funniest, captioned "Rossetti's Courtship. Chatham Place, 1850 - 1860." which shows the huge artist, elbow on mantel, slippered feet crossed at the ankle, looking rather glumly away from the funereal beauty before him, her limp orange hair and massy blue dress accentuating her thin neck, her pale skin, her hooded eyes and expressionless kisser. My favorite (sadly unavailable to me on the internet, else I'd put it here,) shows Rossetti, his arms spread wide, the room strewn with brilliant fabrics, and his sister glumly before him, all in black, down to her gloves and furled umbrella. The dialogue is as follows:

D. G. R. "What is the use, Christina, of having a heart like a singing bird and a watershoot and all the rest of it, if you insist on getting yourself up like a pew-opener?"

C. R. "Well, Gabriel, I don't know -- I'm sure you yourself always dress very quietly."

It is no easy thing to make a joke as perfect as that. To make not just a joke on each Rossetti, brother and sister, but on a whole period, on its piety, its poetry, it's art, its extravagance... and to do so with such endearing sympathy for the lot, is to elevate amusement to equal satire, even surpass it in its power to pin down the particulars of a period and person in a way that sets forever after what one thinks of when the subject is recalled. It is Beerbohm's Rossetti who stands proudly next to his Beata Beatrix, and the lady from "Rossetti's Courtship" who fascinates the poet in that famous painting. And while it is the beautiful portrait of her by her brother that sets Christina Rossetti in her poetry for me, conjured up in lines such as ""When I am dead my dearest, sing no sad song for me," just as the music of Gustav Holst sets "In the Bleak Midwinter" eternally in my memory, it is Beerbohm's narrow little lady, all in black, who wrote "The Goblin Market," and who became so much the favorite of the feminist critics of my brief college days, long ago.

Had Beerbohm been less interested in his subjects, had he misunderstood or dismissed them, as he did the politics of the post WWI Europe in a series of his least funny and ugliest drawings, or had he meant to simply puncture what he saw as empty vanity, or lampoon stupidity and vulgarity, as he did so effectively when drawing Edward VII or the toffs of his youth, he would not have been so careful about the fuzzy dignity he gives here to Carlyle's face, or the patient skepticism he allows for in Rossetti reclining on a too-small sofa, listening to a tiny Swinburne reading aloud.

Of all the many wonderful drawings Max Beerbohm did, none are as dear to me personally as those he made of himself over the course of a long life. I've puzzled pleasantly over these more than any others from his pencil and pen. Because he is so dear to me as an essayist, and as a personality of letters, I am particularly fascinated by how he drew himself, in words and specially in self caricature. Many greater artists, including Dante Gabriel Rossetti, made self portraits which are beautiful, but I can think of only one other, in my limited experience of art history, that being Rembrandt, who ever captured his own bemusement at and affection for his subject. Just as it will always be Beerbohm's Rossetti I see in every encounter subsequent to my study of Beerbohm's book, it is Beerbohm's Beerbohm I encounter on every page of his writing and stroke of his pencil and brush. Now that, is a very neat trick indeed; perfect self-promotion in perfect self-awareness, and all the more amusing and endearing for the genuine affection expressed.

Daily Dose

From The Collected Letters of Thomas and Jane Welsh Carlyle


"Many blessings be upon the head of Cadmus, or the Phoenicians, or whoever invented books."

Thomas Carlyle

From a letter to R. Mitchell, 1820

Sunday, February 22, 2009

How to Watch the Oscars

I had the pleasure tonight of a long-distance friend on the phone to watch the Oscars with us. He was simultaneously engaged with another friend in yet another city, so we did not have his full attention, but having R., however intermittently with us, made it a party. There was someone to agree when we found the production lovely, Whoopi Goldberg's animal-print mu mu unfortunate, the nominated songs/dance number charmingly, multiculturally colorful. Loved Kate Winslett's frock. Having R. with us -- just during commercials -- allowed for someone else to say just where he wished to seat the adorable Dev Patel, the boy lead of Slum Dog Millionaire, (otherwise no one's favorite film this year in our house.)

In our small way then, we met the queer criteria for watching the Oscars, handed down to us from a queenly past: admire what is lavish, mock what is bad, note the pretty dresses, objectify the pretty boys. Did we miss anything? (Oh, yes. We ought, of course, to have shed a tear during the montage of the lost, but was anyone else distracted by the swooping camera and the unfortunate stitching across Queen Latifah's bust?)

I learned how to watch the Oscars from older friends, just as I learned how and when to tip, (extravagantly but within one's means,) how not to refuse a drink, (one needn't actually drink it,) never to dance alone in public, and to always be prepared to defend yourself and to abandon your opinions. I learned to survive, how to listen and how to view the world critically even from the gutter.

I worry those lessons might be lost with the generation that taught me.

But we are lucky to have the written wisdom of some that came before. I know How to Go to the Movies because masters went, or watched them on TV, and made notes. As my beloved Quentin Crisp said, going to the movies requires not only the capacity to lose oneself, but also a critical eye to be experienced fully. And movies are so much likelier to be enjoyed than almost any other experience because they provide "... an extra pleasure that can never be derived from real life, which has no plot and is so badly acted."

Mr. Crisp was hired by the editor of a long ago magazine called "Christopher Street" to go to the movies. It didn't much matter to me then, as it doesn't at all to me now what he went to see, because in Quentin Crisp the show was always on the aisle, in the cheap seats, wherever he happened to be. On Miss Crawford: "Age could not wither her nor custom stale her infinite monotony." On an art-house theater: "The lobby is as barren as an abortionist's waiting room of old..." On movie scores: "Music is like a dog; the nicest thing that can be said about it is that you wouldn't know it was there." On the superiority of movies to theater: "By comparison with the movies, the stage is as intimate as a football field."

My other guru for watching movies is the late Reverend Boyd McDonald, creator and editor of the groundbreaking "Straight to Hell: The Manhattan Review of Unnatural Acts," and author of Cruising the Movies: A Sexual Guide to "Oldies" on TV. MacDonald was the greatest writer to ever lament our forgetfulness of Johnny Sheffield as "Bomba the Jungle Boy," to recognize the the delicate beauty of Bobby Jordan, the Dead End Kid, and point out the flabbiness of Ronnie Reagan's thighs as a convincing explanation for his later criminality as President of the United States. McDonald was perhaps the greatest radical queer America ever produced, just as Quentin Crisp was the true Twentieth Century Queen of England.

It is important to remember our great teachers, to return to and study their example. It is important to understand how best something might be said, if we're ever to say anything amusing at all. And why else watch the Oscars?

Daily Dose

From The Naked Civil Servant: An Autobiography, Quentin Crisp


"When the war ended and it dawned on me that never again was I likely to play a leading role in the streets of London, I started to live a rich, full life by proxy. I took to the movies."

Saturday, February 21, 2009

"work and bed-clothes"

Another day spent drifting through the house: from book to book, from bed to bed to this chair, from movies to naps. I take down books from the shelves almost at random. The books already piled on my sickbed no longer satisfy. I can't be bothered with Bronte's artful neuroticism, or Chaucer's spelling. Heine's bonhomie does not suit my mood at all. What's wanted is something sharp, something curt and bracing and... French.

And down comes Henry Millon de Montherlant (20 April 1896 – September 21, 1972.) Henry was a closeted French essayist, novelist and one of the leading French dramatists of the twentieth century. He was also, from what I've been able to glean from what I've read, something of a shit. His The Girls: A Tetralogy of Novels, translated by the great Terence Kilmartin, was an experience I will never forget. It is a frankly wicked book; ruthlessly misogynist, ridiculously mean spirited,"for and against everyone." I read it, what? twenty, twenty five years ago? and I can still remember thrilling to Costals, the hero, as he says the most outrageously egotistical nonsense, raging at his women, insisting that he needs nothing, no one. “Most affections are habits or duties we lack the courage to end.” It all seemed terribly brave and shocking.

Later I read some of his more frankly homoerotic, pederastic fiction and, if anything, found it even more curdled with self loathing and self justification. What wonderful stuff! I say that without irony. He was a marvelous writer, even in translation, and his reputation in France seems to be undimmed. I can think of very few men with whom I might have less in common philosophically, morally, or politically. I don't know that that he was quite as loathsome in his personal life as he appears in his fiction, but it really doesn't much matter if he was. Reading him I was empowered by his disdain, his refusal to compromise, his great command of language and argument, his aristocratic elan.

But I'm older now, and don't spend much time in the company of writers I find personally disagreeable. When one is young, bad men are best met in their books. One can walk in their company without corruption, and imagine one's self as the object of their attentions, be the beneficiary of their experience and cynicism, without having to actually go down of the nasty old buggers. Now I fear I would find the whole experience, even in a book, embarrassingly sad rather than romantic and delinquent.

(One marvels at the French for their great respect for the language and it's great practitioners. When Montherlant was an old party, cruising for underage boys, refusing interviews and to have his photograph taken for fear he'd be recognized, and presumably be blackmailed or have to pay more than the going rate for boy-whores, the gendarmes looked away. Henry still got kicked to pieces once, losing the sight in one eye, a few years before he took cyanide and a bullet at his desk. )

So, being in a foul mood tonight, feeling achy and ugly and old, I first reach for The Bachelors, but think better of committing to any long spell in the old reprobate's company, and instead I take up his Selected Essays, edited by Peter Quennell, and read "Work." And it is a wonderful thing and much gentler than I remember Montherlant being, perhaps because it's made up mainly of his conversations with working-class boys. I chose it because I'm missing my own work at the bookstore. In the essay I'm informed just how shocking it is to the aristocrat's sensibility to find working and middle-class children enthusiastic to take up a common trade. He finds the idea touching, but also depressing, even mystifying. It suggests a failure of imagination, a lack of inner resources, a tragedy. He's encouraged to see at least one boy without a badge in his buttonhole, uncommitted to any dreary future. (I'll just bet he was.) He quotes the boy: "When you're working, you're not miserable." and then adds parenthetically, "(What a definition of happiness!)" Ah, "the tragedy of the proletariat." Later, the essayist approvingly quotes "a poor Marsielles prostitute" who once suggested an alternative remedy for unhappiness: "You forget your poverty under the bed-clothes." (Motherlant seems not to notice the irony of suggesting a prostitute at rest in her bed, or perhaps he's just too subtle for me.) He ends on a weary sigh, quoting Gobineau (a truly vile man, the father of master-racism): "There is work, then love, and after that nothing..."

And here I was, pining to price books and chat with customers. I'm thoroughly ashamed of myself. Thanks, Henry, old darling, what was I thinking?

And now I think I'll just scuttle back into my sickbed and return to the road to Canterbury, and the company of the decent and and only mildly indecent English.

Daily Dose

From The Portable Chaucer, by Geoffrey Chaucer


"For oute of olde feldys, as men sey, Comyth al this newe corn from yere to yere; And out of old bokis, in good fey, Comyth al this newe science that men lere."

From The Parlement of Fowles

Friday, February 20, 2009

A New King (temporarily) In the Cave

Tonight I had to move five books from my desk just to see the computer screen. This is typical, both of my present state of mind, and of my habitual untidiness. I might want Heinrich Heine later, or Dryden, or Woodforde, or the O'Reilly computer book I bought with great resolve but can not understand. Honestly though, everything here on my desk is here on my desk because I had cause to want it, today or a week ago, whenever it was that I did, and, as I so seldom can be bothered to put anything back where it ought to go once I've done with it for the night, the moment, or, in the instance of the O'Reilly book, in
all likelihood, forever, here it will stay until displaced by some other book, or until the cleaners come because we're having guests. We seldom have guests. As I'm home with the mumps, we are unlikely to have any visitors soon, save from the Health Department. (They seem to have taken a disquieting interest in me and my mumps, by the way, sending a car to pick up my blood sample from my doctor today. I do feel ever so special, in a creepy way. Perhaps I should tidy up, in case the men in hazmat suits are just around the corner? Will photos of my library, and this entry be used on the news to show just how precipitous was the zero-patient's decline into incoherence, immediately post-diagnosis? I will practise John Hurt's cornered scream from The Elephant Man, just in case I'm afforded a close-up before being spirited away to the CDC: "I am a human being! An indifferent housekeeper, and somewhat slovenly in my appearance since becoming ill, I admit, but I am Not an animal!") Whatever my intentions, owning these books means I have the use of them -- when I can remember where they are -- anytime I choose. Mine is not so much a library then, lacking as it does a proper purpose or any but the most rudimentary organization, so much as it is a private hoard. I sit in the pirate's cave, atop the miser's pile, my uncounted treasure spilling all about me.

I suppose my subject here, to the extent I can be said to have one, is my library/hoard, the relation of book to book and books to me, and the ways and means by which my books have come into my life, into this room, and onto my desk. Working in a bookstore, I have access to entirely too many books, and I only too obviously have entirely too little self restraint. I have only to look around me for proof. True, all but two of the books on my desk just now came from Magus, or some other used bookshop. The computer book I'll never use I bought at full price, minus my employee discount, but atop the lot sits a remainder; a book sold off by its publisher to be got rid of, and sold in the bookstore at a dizzying discount when compared to its original price. The greatest danger in the bookstore to me is, as I've mentioned here before, the Bargain Books tables the length and breadth of the bookstore's lobby. History, biography, science... all those lovely hardcover books, marred only by a black Sharpie dot, or even, when I'm specially lucky, unmarked, and all priced to tempt the poorest book-obsessive. My manager, M., is also the remainder books buyer, and he is a devil. He knows just what will tempt impecunious but acquisitive magpies like me. Damn and bless him. History most often snags me.

The Fears of Henry IV: The Life of England's Self-Made King, by Ian Mortimer, a handsome British book, on a subject largely unknown to me otherwise than in Shakespeare, is the latest prize from those damned Bargain tables to find its way into the cave and onto my desk. Read only to page 75 to date, it sits now waiting to be picked up again from the stack and carried off to my sick-bed. I know just why it caught me, I've been reading Marchette Chute's biography of Chaucer, saved from a Clearance Sale, and this other is quite serious history on the same period. And I bought the Mortimer book because it is a handsome brute of a book, read well at lunch one day, and seemed, somehow, necessary in that moment of temptation. As in so many moments of temptation, I yielded. Now, here it is.

In an earlier post, I praised Margaret Lane for serving her biographical subjects without dismissing her predecessors. Mr. Mortimer's introduction, now I look at it again, might be the model of exactly what Lane didn't do, as he dispatches his rivals in it, one by one, as his Henry dispatched his; enemies and otherwise, they all go to the block. I do not say Mortimer is unjustified in this, or that Henry IV was for that matter, as I have never read the books or authors disposed of in this way, or needed to assert so strong a claim to either expertise or the throne of England. I trust that King and biographer were both well within their rights. And Mortimer is, after all, not writing of gentle times or of a gentle subject, as Lane and Gaskell were. Mortimer is telling the story of one bloody great king, from the look of him by page 75, and a certain bloody-mindedness would seem to serve his subject admirably. Perhaps that explains why I've nearly finished the Chute book, and read but so far in the Mortimer. One tells the story of a man, contemporary to the King, but otherwise unlike him to the extent of having given to our Language it's first masterpiece, while repeatedly, habitually and amusingly remaining deprecatory of his own considerable intellect, his person and his talents. Geoffrey Chaucer is a delightful companion, as met in Chute's biography. Henry IV, as met at least in Mortimer's biography, is a right bastard, however impeccable his lineage. Which would be likelier to be a welcome companion to me as I suffer with the mumps? Which would be the better friend to my future reading? Which book has the ring of real treasure to it? Which is likelier to find a permanent place in my cave?

It is no reflection on the value of Mortimer's research, or on the felicities of his style, to say that, like so much of the history and biography that tempt me to take them up from off the Bargain table, I ought to have put his book right back after my lunch. Instead, it may be read again -- after all, it is right here -- but ultimately, like so many books I've bought on impulse, it will probably end up in a box, waiting for a trip to Bellingham, to be sold for something likelier to be wanted again hereafter. That is, if it doesn't end up at the bottom of some stack, undisturbed for years. And so it goes.

Daily Dose

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Home, Sick

Interesting the difference made by a comma and a space, isn't it? I am, in fact, home, sick. I am likely to be so for some time yet. By means that have now baffled my doctor, the director of personnel at my place of employment, and state and county health officials, I have contracted an embarrassingly childish disease, mumps, and sit with it now, half of my face painfully distorted, my neck sore down one side, and exhausted by the effort of remaining upright, but unable to sleep. I've been examined, prodded, pricked, swabbed, interviewed and made to fill out forms. I've been back and forth to my doctor twice in this one day, and while he's a lovely man and an excellent physician, I have no intention of or interest in seeing him in any but a social way soon again. It is on the best advice I am home rather than elsewhere. In my present state, I would be welcome nowhere else. I am, it seems, diseased, and all too obviously so.

When in such a sorry state -- and this not but a day after having recovered from a long-lasting and disgusting head-cold! -- I grow quickly weary of my own company, of wearing my pajamas all day, of watching television, of discomfort, pain, of pills and pillows and propping my head up, oh so gently, to read. I am, by nature, a sedentary man, but that is not to say I do not willingly work, and miss if not my labors, very much the company of my coworkers and customers. I miss my work-wife and work-husband, my laughing companions, my sad friend, my Thursday breakfast appointment, my bosses, my book-scouts, my elderly phone-orders, the wandering students and the bright, cheerful babies. Hell, I even miss the regular dogs. I miss the daily variety of human faces, conversation, new books. I do not "study health," but I miss it when it goes.

And while I am extraordinarily lucky to have a man who cares for me, who pampers me when ill or otherwise, and tends me as one good would a cranky child, I must confess, being home, sick, I am made homesick and nostalgic for the company of my good mother, now three thousand miles or more away. I do not doubt this is a common, a natural response, and I make no claim to originality or on any one's sympathy in saying so here. I am ill. I have "monarchal privileges" and would, at this moment use them to no better purpose than to have again a TV tray set next to the horse-hair sofa, a black & white game-show crackling like a warm fire before me, a knitted blanket 'round my knees, and my own little mother, bustling in to press her cool palm on my hot head and bring me tepid ginger ale and study me with worry, as much that I might be again malingering as possibly dying. As a child I was a weak and puny thing, halt and feverish and melodramatically eager to avoid school. I treasured up a real fever as other, healthier children, of better character might relish summer daylight for playing ball.

As a grown man, I've come to despise a little that whining brat I was, always happiest when not quite sincerely indisposed. I do not advocate for a longer life, like Oscar I would do anything to regain my youth but take regular exercise or change my diet, but I have developed a more active conscience, a better work ethic, and a genuine distaste for any failure of my body to do what it must as unnoticed as it might. To be off work is sovereign, to be unoccupied, to be ill, disgusting.

Nostalgia I consider but a symptom. I confess it as I might acknowledge a congested chest or dripping nose: because it can not be concealed. And so, today, between phone calls and consultations and unwelcome interest in my glands from government administrators, I miserably doze, read The Patchwork Girl of Oz, break down and call my elderly Mother in far-off Pennsylvania, and shamefacedly close my eyes with relief as she tells me, "mind you rest."

Sainted lady. Silly son.

Daily Dose

From The Last Essays of Elia, by Charles Lamb


"To be sick is to enjoy monarchal prerogatives."

From The Convalescent

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Friends of Friends

Reading Charlotte Bronte's Villette, I am reminded just how important it can be to have friends. I know, to anyone who has read Bronte, how trite that must sound; was there ever a woman more solitary than Charlotte by the time she wrote her last novel? mother long dead, brother, sisters all dead, romantic attachments dead, all but the last (if so her brief marriage can even be described,) with only her irascible, eccentric old father, dining alone, just across the hall in that horrid cold stone house. Villette is the story of a profound loneliness. But even poor Charlotte had friends. A life-long friend from childhood, and not her only such, kept her letters, or we would know so much less than we do. And Miss Bronte was the author of the famous Jane Eyre, and was well known to be, by the time her last novel was written. Must not forget, she was famous. She'd conquered London, after a fashion; Thackeray, George Eliot, all the great lions knew the little miss from the moors. But where Charlotte Bronte was luckiest, literally, was in having made a friend of Mrs. Elizabeth Gaskell.

Gaskell was, in many ways, exactly the woman Bronte was not; happily married, the mother of a brood, like Bronte, a novelist of great talent, but also a novelist of great social relevance -- something Bronte envied but knew herself not to be. They met through a mutual friend, only five years before Bronte's death at 39. Gaskell was curious, warm hearted, companionable. Bronte was uncharacteristically forthcoming. They were genuine friends from that moment. Gaskell even went to stay at the forbidding Haworth, twice or more.

And Charlotte Bronte's father, amazingly, asked Mrs. Gaskell to write his daughter's biography. It was a request that proved to be troublesome to all parties, but very fortuitous for readers. Mrs. Gaskell wrote a great book.

But there are other friends -- other friends of mine, met in books --that I meant in the title of this brief entry. Margaret Lane, the Dowager Countess of Huntingdon (no less) was a 20th Century novelist, traveler and, most significantly, a great biographer. Her two books on Beatrix Potter, The Tale of Beatrix Potter: a Biography(1946,) and The Magic Years of Beatrix Potter (1978,) are perfect little books. I love those books. Her Samuel Johnson and His World (1975,) is among the best modern books on Johnson that I ever read. And I have now The Bronte Story, by Margaret Lane, with charming and accomplished illustrations by Joan Hassall, from 1953, my copy a third reprint from 1961. What this book does that is proving such a boon to me, now reading Charlotte Bronte somewhat reluctantly again, is take Mrs. Gaskell's great biography, and interlace modern scholarship into it, in Margaret Lane's equally accomplished and accessible style, while relying on Mrs. Gaskell's original to tell what she told better than any since. It is a surprisingly humble, even reverent, and laudable undertaking, that honors both 19th Century authors, and by so doing, makes Lane's book that most unusual of literary associations, quite literally, a friend to the friend of the author. Lane's biography is as much the story of Mrs. Gaskell's book as it is a version of Mrs. Gaskell's book. It is a wonderful thing to read. It is the perfect help for me reading Bronte.

How many such friends of friends are likely to be found in literature? The inclination of modern biography, perhaps of all biography, no matter how famous any previous biography may have been or might still be, is to acknowledge quickly, seldom uncritically, and then dismiss. Margaret Lane can be critical of Mrs. Gaskell, but she is never dismissive. I can think of few other examples in all the many years of my reading, and none better or more deferentially accomplished.

(So, just to close with a familiar lament, why isn't Margaret Lane in print?! For once I may have an answer. Imagine being a contemporary biographer of Beatrix Potter and doing for Miss Lane's Miss Potter what Miss Lane did for Mrs. Gaskell's Miss Bronte. Hard to imagine, ain't it? Moreover, Lane's style is from another era of biography: gentle, charming, concise, enthusiastic, and never meant to be any of the things most highly prized by contemporary scholars and publishers: bloated, verbose, censorious, superior, unintelligible and or mean. No. It is no wonder at all dear Margaret Lane couldn't even get a reissue when the makers of the movie decided, presumable because Renée Zellweger looks rather like Peter Rabbit's mother, but is a "serious," Oscar winning actress indeed, to associate their production with a newer, bigger, darker and considerably less accomplished if more important looking book. I wondered, watching that movie, if anyone other than the designers of the sets and costumes actually read a word of even Jemima Puddleduck, let alone Margaret Lane.)

Daily Dose

From The Essays of Sir Richard Steele


"It was verily prettily said that we may learn the little value of fortune by the persons on whom Heaven is pleased to bestow it."

From The Tatler, #203

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

A Shrug

Charlotte Bronte makes me crazy. I know from Mrs. Gaskell's biography, with it's many letters, what a brilliant woman she was; resourceful, compassionate, supremely intelligent, a good sister and daughter, a true friend and a great and dedicated artist. I know from my many attempts to read Jane Eyre what a remarkable writer she was. But I can not like Jane Eyre, not because of her circumstances and suffering -- what great heroine does not suffer? -- but because her forbearance, her resourcefulness, her intelligence and fortitude, her character, in short, is so balefully, insufferably admirable as to be exhausting. Reading Jane Eyre is like watching someone being made to swim the English Channel alone, in mid-winter, at night, in boots. Charlotte Bronte drives me crazy because she put her there, laced her boots on, and then felt compelled to constantly call to my attention the frigid temperature, the moonless night, the solitude of the sea, the uncomplaining girl in the water.

Reading Villette, I am encouraged to find Lucy Snowe already wrecked. This is a survivor's story, told in seemingly pretty bitter retrospect. Clearly, things did not go well, and this time I've only to be told how, if never quite why. Good. I can respect a bit of furious obfuscation in an entirely less agreeable old body, reflecting on her unhappy youth. And if there is still a creeping simper, the reflexive romantic twinge or two, I can, here, it seems, trust that that will all be knocked out of poor Lucy by the time she comes to the end of her telling. Because just when I begin to think I'm doomed to spend another eternity sitting with the poor benighted creature, feverish and alone in an empty boarding school, pining for life, but afraid to go for a walk in the park, Lucy gets to go to an exhibition and describe the main attraction in the picture gallery thus:

"It represents a woman, considerably larger, I thought, than the life. I calculated that this lady, put into a scale of magnitude suitable for the reception of a commodity of bulk, would infallibly turn from fourteen to sixteen stone. She was, indeed, extremely well fed: very much butcher's meat -- to say nothing of bread, vegetables, and liquids -- must she have consumed to attain that breadth and height, that wealth of muscle, that affluence of flesh. She lay half-reclined on a couch: why, it would be difficult to say; broad daylight blazed round her; she appeared in hearty health, strong enough to do the work of two plain cooks; she could not plead a weak spine; she ought to have been standing, or at least sitting bolt upright. She had no business to lounge away the noon on a sofa. She ought likewise to have worn decent garments; a gown covering her properly, which was not the case: out of abundance of material -- seven and twenty yards, I should say, of drapery -- she managed to make inefficient raiment. Then, for the wretched untidiness surrounding her, there could be no excuse. Pots and pans -- perhaps I ought to say vases and goblets -- were rolled here and there on the foreground; a perfect rubbish of flowers was mixed among them, and an absurd and disorderly mass of curtain upholstery, smothered the couch and cumbered the floor. On referring to the catalogue, I found that this notable production bore name 'Cleopatra.'"

How hilarious is that?! And how marvelous that Charlotte Bronte's Lucy could tell that of herself without apologizing either for her youthful Philistinism or her opinion? Jane Eyre, caught out a moment later by a man, would have blushed. Lucy Snowe shrugs. I am so thankful for that shrug. So on I go.

Daily Dose

From The Life of Charlotte Bronte, by Elizabeth Gaskell


"I have read Tennyson's In Memoriam, or rather part of it; I closed the book when I had got about half way. It is beautiful; it is mournful; it is monotonous."

From a letter of Charlotte Bronte to Mrs. Gaskell

Monday, February 16, 2009

A Far, Far Better Thing

And so I end my convalescence with the last of the movies I taped, and I'm glad of my choice, if not of my return to work, and the clearancing of unsold stock, tomorrow. A Tale of Two Cities, from 1935, starring the truly extraordinary Ronald Coleman as Sydney Carton and the exquisite Elizabeth Allan as Lucie Manette. There have been many versions of this Tale, but none comes close to spectacle and size of this, and none was ever led by a better actor, more perfectly cast than Coleman. He is riveting in his every scene. His handsome face, freed of his signature pencil mustache, is beautifully expressive, his voice unmistakable, but here, used to powerful effect; carefully modulated, less clipped, full of drunk self-loathing one moment, then hilariously tart the next, and, in his final transformation from cynic to sacrifice, genuinely moving.

As with other great films of the period, the supporting players are uniformly first rate, though none could be better than the grand Edna May Oliver as Miss Pross. What other American actress, from her time or since, was ever so perfectly suited to be Aunt Betsey, Pross, Lady Catherine de Bourgh? Would she'd had a crack at Lady Bracknell! She had the face of a supercilious old mare, a strong tendency to mug, and a voice like a hot tea kettle, and she is simply delightful in every movie, good or bad that she ever made. When wonderful Blanche Yurka as the malevolent Madame DeFarge tries to pursue her victims through the house, and Pross bars the door, piping "I am a Briton!" Edna May Oliver is as grand as any Dame that ever held a spear and shield.

But this is Coleman's picture. He fought for the role, wanting to play it for years, and his devotion to the text, and his skill in playing, have never been bettered. When I read Dickens' novel, it will always be Coleman's voice I hear on that famous last page,

"It is a far, far better thing I do..."

Beyond the Hunter's Reach

My father hunts. My brother hunts. All the men in my family, presumably back as far as the first poacher of some Ducal deer lost in the mists of the anonymous history of the English peasantry, hunted. My father took me with him once. I was little. I did not, as I remember, carry a gun. I got water in my boots. I don't doubt I cried. I got pneumonia. I was brought home and left there with my dolls and my books.

The instinct is still in me though. I still remember with a mouth-watering vividness the smell of frying venison in my grandmother's kitchen. I wasn't averse to killing you see, I was simply disinclined, as I still am, to being out-of-doors in the cold when I might be indoors reading. My hunting has been turned. Going to the movies this afternoon, to see The Reader (quite good) and to celebrate my head-cold abating sufficiently to allow for an outing, I made the patient A. stop at the little chain used bookstore out by the mall. This is a part of any outing that takes us that way, just as is shopping in the Big Box store for toilet tissue and the pillow-sized bag of peanut M&Ms. The stop at the not very good bookstore became part of our established way years ago, when I found one very good thing there, a copy of the Essays of Montaigne, in two volumes, from Oxford University Press, translated by E. J. Trenchmann. The volumes were handsome, the translation is now my favorite, the price, as they say, was right. Finding that Montaigne marked the rather awful little store for me, put it in my range.

That is the problem hunting books. One is likely to find but one treasure in any one shop. Going back, however much later, does not mean another will have turned up. But the hunter must to the trail, must follow the scent, must be patient above all things.

And so today, after a quick and pointless look through the "Collectible" shelves, where I've never found anything, and a quick track through the fiction, I sniffed around the boxes of unshelved books dumped in front of "Fine Letters" and found Perdita: The Memoirs of Mary Robinson, (1758 - 1800,) "Poet, novelist, feminist, first mistress of George IV." Edited by M. J. Levy, and published by Peter Owen, in a rather hideous striped dustjacket (an inexplicable tradition with Peter Owen,) this looks to be very much my usual prey; obscure enough, very English indeed, and by a woman I know if at all, only glancingly and by way of other books. Five dollars and ninety-eight cents, she was.

Also, in another box, I found The Death and Letters of Alice James: selected correspondence, edited, with a biographical essay by Ruth Bernard Yeazell, University of California Press, for six dollars and forty-eight cents. Now Alice is, to a degree, my least favorite James, simply because too much has been made of her, academically, and this at the expense of other more accomplished James siblings, to say nothing of her female contemporaries who did not spend their adult lives on sofas, lamenting their unhappy lot as invalids. But Alice really isn't to blame for the uses to which her diary has been put. Her letters and her diary are quite good, when loosed from the accumulated ivy of her 20th Century elevation to Feminist Sainthood. So to have a little book of just her letters, sadly only "selected," ought to be treat. The biographical essay may be the price to be paid for having a nice little hardcover collection to call my own. Remains to be seen. (There's often offal to be discarded when one takes home even small game.)

So, a hunter I am, if not of game, then of bookish bargains. And if I can not find anywhere in this benighted city a decent plate of venison at a reasonable or unreasonable price, I will content myself with a ham sandwich, great fist-fulls of peanut M&Ms, and two new books.

Daily Dose

From The Poetry & Short Stories of Dorothy Parker


"Who call him spurious and shoddy
Shall do it o'er my lifeless body.
I heartily invite such birds
To come outside and say those words!"

From A Pig's-Eye View of Literature

Sunday, February 15, 2009

"What's the row?"

And so the latest Oliver Twist -- Part the First -- has been watched tonight on PBS. This being the BBC, the production is, if not lavish, at least, predictably, colorful. And that's the first problem, but by no means the only, nor mine with it. Oh, the streets are grimy enough, as are the strangely active locals. (A note to producers on a budget: never give an elderly lady extra a distinctively filthy hat and a clay-pipe if in her passing and passing the camera again she's meant to suggest a crowd.) The palate is the traditional one for color television; grays and browns for poverty, white walls and floral frocks for the "posh." One of the things spared the viewer by black and white, is the otherwise clumsy and improbable suggestion that for the poor it is always overcast and for the rich a sunny day. The sun, I believe shone equally, when it could be seen through the smoke, on rich and poor alike, even in the midst of the Industrial Revolution. No matter, save that already in this adaptation, one is being told too much and shown too little. Another example comes to mind in the score, which is rambunctious to a degree clearly meant to tell what fun all this might be, with banjos and tympani, even as Oliver battles the undertaker and Bumble for his freedom. Not being shown anything particularly dignified in the first man or frightening in the other, both here being played as clowns, there's little at stake in the fight, and hardly a laugh in their fall. Mrs. Sowerberry's hat being crushed by a coffin is the nearest the scene comes to either a punchline or an impact.

And that's my problem with what I watched tonight. What makes Dickens the greatest comic novelist in English, is in his English, which is Fielding's English, and Smollett's, but Dickens' English is not his all. The circumstances of Oliver Twist, the situations, even the majority of Dickens' famously comic supporting characters, at least after the second half of Pickwick, are often painfully real. The poverty is real poverty, the danger dangerous, the hunger sincerely hurtful. Where the reader learns early that Tom Jones is likely to escape the gallows and triumph, never fear, and that the worst pratfall in Peregrine Pickle, or the cruelest joke, will do no more actual harm than a frying pan in the face of Warner Brothers cartoon character, in Dickens the peril is, if not realistic by contemporary standards, all too real to those whose stories Dickens tells. Children die, not comically, but from starvation, disease, neglect. Prostitutes may be murdered for "grassing" on their pimps. Villains are hanged, as they were before him, but are met in Dickens' books not repentant but driven mad in their terror in the cell the night before. The targets of traditional comedy; hypocrisy, pomposity, venality, pride, are the same, but Dickens has more to say than his ancestors about where and in whom these vices are to be found, who is to be mocked, and who is to be pitied. If Dickens is far and away the most consistently funny and inventive of our great comic novelists, he is also, as was Twain in America, the most radically democratic, not only in his humor, but his anger. If this, only Dickens' second novel, is funny, and it is, it is in the ingenious telling. If it is great besides, it is in the author's anger.

In tonight's Oliver Twist, as in any film adaptation, there can be little of Dickens' subtlety of language, so there must be some visual and narrative subtlety to compensate. David Lean's film, and even Roman Polanski's, recognize the loss in moving the novel to the screen, and compensate where they can; in an amusing bit of business for The Artful Dodger as he moves about his work, in a happy bit of comic bluster from the Bumbles, in Nancy's assumed airs when called "Miss," and of course in Fagin's elaboration of what might be called family values, and his demonstration of the proper means of acquiring pocket handkerchiefs. Oliver's smile, like the audience's, must be earned if it isn't to seem incongruous. Likewise the anger must be translated into scenes, rather than telegraphed by glum faces, in sad surroundings, in dark and windowless rooms. If the targets of the author's indignation and mockery are reduced to harmlessness buffoons, as they are here, and Nancy made nought but Sykes' doxy, if Fagin is but an unfunny bit of oily exploitation, and, worst of all, if Oliver is made not a harmless, sensitive boy, but a tough little bastard, all fight and fortitude, then all that's left of the balance that made the book is a grim polemic, and a dour story played out to a weirdly dancing measure.

So many things are lost in this version; fat people are thin here, tall men made short, beauty coarse, and in Tom Hardy's Bill Sykes, a brute is made beautiful. Really now, should Sykes be prettier than Nancy? London itself, a central character in much of Dickens, is here given only a glance, and that, like the seventy miles Oliver walks to reach it, both too short and too pretty. Fagin's treasure is here but a coin dropped in a box.

What's wrong here is not just the crudity of the execution, or even the deliberately broadened and indulgently acted misinterpretations of the text. What's wrong with this Oliver Twist is not that it isn't Dickens', it's that this isn't any body's, or rather it is any body's, from the weird choices in casting, to the tired cinematography, to the violently unlike acting, to the humorless dialogue, to the jangling banjo score, anybody and everybody made this mess, wasted these actors, this expense, in the service of, what? Certainly not Dickens. Certainly not any potential new audience (no, nor any admirer of the novel or earlier, better films.) Just such a waste.


Oliver Twist, after A Christmas Carol, has to be the most adapted of Dickens' novels, I should think. How many Olivers have I seen? How many Fagins? Ron Moody may have been my first Fagin, in the movie of the musical "Oliver!." Clive Revill the first I saw on stage, in a revival of the same. I've a recording of Stanley Holloway in the part. Who else? Jonathan Pryce? And in straight adaptations, George C. Scott, Ben Kingsley, Richard Dreyfuss, Alec Guinness...

I've seen Oliver Twist in South Africa, as a Canadian boy-hustler, and as an animated puppy...

While the musical holds a special place in my heart, there is for me no better version than David Lean's 1948 film. The black and white photography is exquisite, all the characters drawn to the life, the scenes set perfectly, and even the slightly tinny score seems thrillingly right. Alec Guinness may well be a caricature in his putty nose, but he is a brilliant and sinister Fagin, and too often contemporary actors, in avoidance of being charged with antisemitism one assumes, or having been influenced by the gentler kinder Fagin of the musical, seem disinclined to menace in the role. Not Guinness, his lisping, guttural croak when he prepares the gloriously explosive Bill of Robert Newton to hear the truth, that Nancy "peached," is as chilling as it ought to be, and ratchets up the tension as he sends Sykes out, urging him not to be "too violent." And it is Nancy's murder, in Lean's film, that captures the real horror of that most famous and famously horrible scene.

And Lean does it, that scene, with a dog. It's wonderfully cinematic, Bill's brute of dog, anticipating the blows, scratching wildly at the door to escape, the sound of the dog's whining and scratching building as Nancy screams. And after, with Newton shocked and sweating in a chair, haunted by voices, Lean cuts to the dog, shaking and cowering under the table that blocks the door. It's the dog, released into the streets when Sykes finally leaves the room, who first cries murder as he bolts away. None of this could be bettered.

I've only just watched Lean's movie again. Tonight on PBS, yet another version will be broadcast, this from 2007 and staring Timothy Spall as Fagin -- evidently, from the press, a rather plump, beardless, and crossdresing Fagin (!) and Tom Hardy, one of the most beautiful British actors now working, as Bill Sykes. I'll watch it, of course, how could I not? But it will be difficult, having watched Lean's movie just today, not to judge this new production by an almost impossibly high standard.

Daily Dose

From Angels and Ages: A Short Book about Darwin, Lincoln, and Modern Life, by Adam Gopnik


"Lincoln (...) had mastered the sound of the King James Bible so completely that he recast abstract issues of constitutional law in biblical terms, making the proposition that Texas and New Hampshire should be forever bound by a single post office sound like something right out of Genesis."

From Chapter One, Lincoln's Mind

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Another Spell in Black & White

My second selection for my hunker-down with movies was not everythingDavid Copperfield proved yet again to be, but interestingly, where it failed it failed for much the same reason that that film succeeded so well. Made in 1931, Rouben Mamoulian's film of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, is acted in much the same style as Cukor's 1935 film. The supporting players, from butlers to gentlemen, from cabbies to whores, are just as good, but the principles, particularly Frederick March as Henry Jekyll, are sometimes painfully theatrical, the acting of a style, that while it suited almost perfectly Dickens' story from 1850, looks disproportionately broad and old fashioned in Stevenson's story from just 1886. Curious.

Miriam Hopkins, as Ivy, the prostitute controlled, abused and eventually murdered by Hyde, is quite sexy, with a still rather shocking pre-code show of nudity and desire in her first big scene, and she's quite good later on as she shakes apart under the pressure of being beauty to the beast, but her accent is laughably bad, particularly in contrast to some of the minor players, more obviously part of the British community in Hollywood. (Why did no one seem to mind in the audiences of the thirties and forties when the American leads so seldom sounded as English as their obviously English butlers, maids and landladies?)

But it is March, in his Oscar winning dual role, who is most jarring, because his performance as Hyde is still one of the most remarkable jobs of acting ever filmed. He is genuinely weird, thrillingly so, particularly in his first transformation scene. He stretches and gibbers and barks from his first moment as Hyde, and when he looks in the mirror and shakes his fist and shouts "Free!" he is completely convincing, and genuinely frightening, still. In fact, all of March's scenes as Hyde are riveting, just as almost every moment he has as the romantic Jekyll is embarrassing. In the second half of the film, when Jekyll is tormented by what he has become, March is better. His confession of murder to his friend, though brief, suggests a naturalness and sincerity that might still move an audience. But such moments are rare. March's Hyde is so very good, one wonders how the same actor could be playing both parts. March is handsome as Jekyll, and even charming in some early scenes, and convincingly kind and troubled when Ivy comes to ask for Jekyll's protection, but in his opening lecture to the medical school, and particularly making love to an affect-less leading lady, he looks ridiculous.

And yet... no one has ever been a better Hyde. Hyde's seduction of Ivy in the theater, if such a violent scene can be called by that word, and his grotesque sadism in both scenes later on with Ivy, are among the most wildly theatrical, and absolutely riveting I've ever seen in film. There certainly have been better Jekylls, but I'm forced to say again, there was never a better actor as Mr. Hyde than Frederick March.