Thursday, January 28, 2010

plumbed the world

I have a copy of Louis Auchincloss's The Education of Oscar Fairfax at the bottom of one set of shelves -- I hadn't looked at it for months -- last night I moved it into a box -- and when I read the New York Times website this morning, Auchincloss was dead.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

& the house is

A small thing. At the end of the Ashes years ago when Shane Warne retired, M., American, came home from work carrying three of the promotional stubby holders that speak with Warne's voice when you put a weight on the interior button. He could understand everything the cricketer said, he told me, except -- and the saying was so unfamiliar that I had to work out the words for him. "Sweet as a nut, boys, sweet as a nut." He still didn't understand it, he said. What did sweet as a nut mean? I explained that it means some activity has gone well but when I tried to think of other examples I dried, I paused, I stopped -- my parents never say sweet as a nut, nobody I know says sweet as a nut, I don't say sweet as a nut, and I wouldn't have remembered that the saying existed at all if we hadn't had the stubby holder saying, "Sweet as a nut."

Reading Jenny Uglow's biography of Elizabeth Gaskell today I came across this extract from one of Gaskell's letters --

We have a pleasant sitting room au premier, two double-bedded rooms (one opening out of the sitting room --) breakfast (coffee bread & butter in our room) lunch any time we like … Bougies, wine & fire extra. We are 2 minutes from the sea, & the house is sweet as a nut.

-- and felt a shudder of surprise from my trapezius down, because I could hear Shane Warne saying the words as I read her letter, and also see M. standing in the dim room by his computer holding the yellow foam rubber cylinder, saying that now he knew the words the man was saying, but what did they mean?

Monday, January 25, 2010

retrospective exhibitions

Early last week, British newspapers began publishing articles about a fourth Gormenghast novel, Titus Awakes. I should have written this post then, because I was angry, and now that anger has settled. It would have been easier to write when I was angry, but, "No," I thought, "calm down, Sebastian Peake is only trying to do what he thinks is best for his dead father, he's not a wolf chewing, sucking, lapping at the flank of a corpse, he is not a devil, he is not a demon, only a human being -- be nice, be nice. (The vampire! That ghoul!)"

Mervyn Peake's children found the manuscript written in notebooks after their mother died, Maeve Gilmore; she took a beginning fragment written by her dead husband and continued it, giving it an ending. In her version Titus travels to an island and decides to settle there, merging with the figure of Mervyn, who spent years living with his family on the isle of Sark. Described like this, as it is the articles, Titus Awakes sounds like a therapeutic exercise: death had taken Maeve Gilmore's husband, and so she restored him.

"And it is going to be a fine enough book," I argued, cooling myself. "I think it will. What has the son done, after all, but take on the role the mother had while she was alive, the promoter, the force behind a number of other projects that you're grateful for?" After her husband's death she wrote a memoir and put together Peake's Progress: Selected Writings and Drawings of Mervyn Peake, a good, thick book. "She has helped to organize retrospective exhibitions of his work," says the biography at the front of my Peake's Progress, "and is Honourary President of the Mervyn Peake Society which was founded in 1975. She lives in London and has recently been working on murals and screens." This edition of Progress was published in 1981. The memoir is brief, sweet, all love, no scandal, and gracefully written -- the tone is elegiac, the anecdotes well-told, a deft miniature. This is how I am imagining Titus Awakes. I don't think it will be anything like Peake. He could not have written the memoir and she, if the memoir is any guide, could not have written his books.

The trouble is -- the trouble is -- my trouble is -- that a few years ago Mervyn Peake finally became a coffee table book, a big, expensive thing, glossy, with quotes from celebrities, and it was at this point that the word ghoulish came into my head: this was just grotesque grasping greed, a hermetic, enclosed, eccentric piece of writing being polished into a tidy commercial shape, dulled-down, buffed-up, clipped, shorn, made aspirational. I doted on the Gormenghast books when I was a teenager, and although that doting grew quieter after I discovered Christina Stead and other authors -- big, billowing people who bulged into the spaces Peake had occupied -- other eccentrics -- and he was my first real eccentric, one of those people, like Hodgson, or Eddison, who seemed to have found a piece of themselves that was not like any piece of anyone else -- and who trusted it so faithfully and stubbornly that they pursued it until it took on the shape of a book -- and there it is, now, the nugget left behind -- giving me hope that this was a thing that could be done, in spite of so many books being somewhat similar, in spite of media fretting about branding, marketing, the author-as-franchise -- here was evidence that books like this could appear, and that the unfamiliar could be loved --

Because a thing is difficult for you, do not therefore suppose it to be beyond mortal power. On the contrary, if anything is possible and proper for man to do, assume that it must fall within your own capacity.

-- wrote Marcus Aurelius, and here was proof, in these books, that things like this could exist, and might one day fall within my capacity -- although so far they haven't.

Now this was being turned into a coffee table book. "Nostalgia branding," I growled -- "my nostalgia" -- and as I type this I think back to my first paragraph and realise: it wasn't his father I felt the new promoter chewing at, it was me.

Friday, January 22, 2010

not sat in his hall

Prompted by Amateur Reader after yesterday's post, I hunted down The Green Man on my shelves (by the end of this digging and scuffling I'd thrown books all over the bed and the floor and discovered that I own twice as many Thea Astleys as I thought I did) and checked my Roman to find out if he was Ovid or not-Ovid. Not only was he not-Ovid but he was not the civil servant I thought he was. The man is a monk. In the prologue he sends a begging letter to a duke, asking for a horse and a mule and a small amount of silver so that he can travel northwards to convert the heathen. "The land northward of Frankish Colonia lies in darkness, and there I would journey (by my Patron's good will) so as to cast Christ's light through that obscurity," he writes. So the superiors I imagined punishing a misbehaving employee do not exist. I imagined them, and I imagined him. I invented him almost completely.

His Christian mission to the northerners comes to a halt when he's picked up by the king who, in Shakespeare's version of the story, will be known as Claudius -- I'll call him Claudius too -- so: illiterate Claudius decides to spare this monk's life because he needs a letter written to King Arthur in Britain. He, Claudius, intends to get rid of his stepson, Hamlet, by sending him to Arthur's court on a ship owned by the pirate named Beowulf. When Claudius gives the monk to Beowulf as a gift he becomes the pirate's war-strategist and multilingual scribe.

"So I would set down the saga of Beowulf. I would tell how he sailed into Heorot, slew the marsh-monster and her son, swam in the cruel sea among the drowned ships, then grew to be a Caesar and slew the dragon of the fiery breath. Yes, I would even claim for him a great funeral pyre with all the folk bewailing him. And so I would set him down for all time, to stand beside the Caesar and the Pharaohs."

He glanced sideways at the Geat-king to see whether he was listening; then he added, louder than before, "God knows what Agammemnon would seem now if the scribe Homer had not sat in his hall with him to write down his life."

Beowulf gives him a gold cup, promises him slaves, and so on. "The rude northern style [of poetry] was almost too much for him," Treece adds. "He cursed the uncouth words, the rough metre." Reading some of these pages again, I'm reminded of the ease with which Treece managed his heightened language. There's always a touch of formality in his prose, enough to lift his characters into a slightly more rarified, simple atmosphere, where their brutality and their faith in gods and sacrifices starts to seem natural. His voice doesn't have the very deliberate sculptural beauty of ER Eddison, that other lover of the Ancients, or the sometimes clumsy combination of middle-class English and saga vocabulary of a Tolkien -- Tolkien, with his ponderous 'smote.' Treece is never ponderous. He doesn't write long, grand passages, instead he'll do as he's done in that quote, above: he'll follow a moment of portentousness with a quick aside, some moment of comedy or earthy human behaviour, greed or smallness: the monk's speech about Caesars and Pharaohs offset by his calculating glance.

I wonder (idly, I have no proof) how much of this he owed to his years as a schoolteacher, how much of his willingness to divert and entertain, how much of his readiness to embrace the ancient world's blood and drama and dirt, came from time spent in front of young children, who would likely be enchanted by a place where everyone was constantly in action, and where you could be an adult, a king, and still get away with burping and punching people in public.

[Claudius] nodded, then belched … [Claudius] got up from his chair and took Gilliberht by the beard and said, "Now, little piglet …" [Claudius] spat upon the rushes.

The monk's second letter to the duke, which is also the book's afterword, starts with the flourish of titles I remembered. The monk is still trying to convert people to the true religion (now it's, "Odin, Thor, Freyja and Frigg look with pity upon you"), and the up-yours is there ("I will say no more but leave you humble, I hope, before my revelation"), but everything else I thought I remembered has changed. The odd thing is that this new man hasn't wiped out the Roman in my head, he hasn't replaced or evicted him: he's still there, I can feel the shape of him as clearly as I did on the beach. Where did I find him?

Thursday, January 21, 2010

selected stories

Feeling sad I went to the sea. With me I had Alice Munro's Selected Stories, which was not the most perfect choice for depressed evenings, I realised, as I read it, for in the space of one hundred and ten pages we had one person dying of cancer, one murder-suicide, one drowning, one near-drowning, one death from a paralytic illness, two children dying of a fever, their mother dying of sorrow, the father dropping dead in his store one morning for undisclosed reasons, the remaining daughter perishing in a chair, and two more miscellaneous deaths.

Everyone who wasn't dead was melancholy or rueful, which seemed fair enough, swamped by corpses as they were, although it wasn't corpses that made them melancholy but ghostishly encroaching thoughts about the muddled complexity of Life. (Munro handles all of this with great & delicate restraint and a stippling effect, that is, an accumulation of discrete incidents not necessarily arranged in chronological order. Elizabeth Jolley stipples too.)

I spent a lot of time in the sea when I was little, and being near it made me think of the books I'd read when I was somewhere under ten; my father gave me Enid Blyton, G.A. Henty, and Henry Treece. Treece's Man with a Sword had the most memorable ending of any book I read when I was that age. I call it memorable because I've remembered it, where I don't remember others. Roald Dahl's endings are easy to remember because the books are being reprinted, talked about, turned into films, and so on, but is anyone reprinting Man with a Sword? I don't think so.

It wasn't until years after Man with a Sword that I came across The Green Man, one of Treece's adult works, and the strangest book he ever wrote - at least I haven't read any that were stranger. Treece was the co-founder of a forgotten 1940s poetry movement named the New Apocalyptics but his fiction was superior to his poetry. (He was responsible for the first book-length assessment of Dylan Thomas, Dylan Thomas: Dog Among the Fairies. Thomas hated it. "Stinking book," he said.) As I sat there on a rock looking at the sea, the sand, a school of small fish, and the usual dead transparent jellies, an idea came to me. "I could write about Green Man in Pykk. What would I say? The Hamlet thing," I thought, "and the Gertrude-character in a cage being eaten by pigs at the end - and the hall on fire - and the tone - that outré combination of realism and over-the-top, that circus garishness told with a straight face. What could I compare it to?" Only one thing, the kitchen scene in Evil Dead II, Bruce Campbell beating himself unconscious with plates and then cutting off his possessed hand with a chainsaw. "Hamlet and Beowulf. Was it Beowulf? A legendary ancient hero. I forget exactly who." Turning it around in my head I wasn't sure if it was Beowulf, but the book wasn't nearby and I couldn't check, so for convenience I thought of this character as Beowulf.

(I am going to tell you all of this from memory.)

So. The Green Man is a book about Hamlet and Beowulf, although neither of them are called by those names. This Hamlet is a tribal prince in an imagined Ancient Denmark, a dark, smelly, coarse place ruled by tribal customs. Shakespeare's prince mucks around in marshes. The author never tells you that this is Hamlet. You're left to notice the similarities yourself, slowly working it out until the penny drops. Once this happens it becomes a joke between the two of you. This is one of the things that makes the book so strange. Treece, who was an excellent history teacher (we have quotes from librarians praising his effect on students), constructs his setting with solemn and bloody fidelity, but you know and he knows that it's built over a monstrous goofy joke.

Beowulf in this story is an Anglo-Saxon (I think) pirate (was he? A brute of some kind: I'll stay with pirate) captain with a lone Roman on his ship. The Hamlet narrative takes up most of the book, but every now and then we read a letter from this Roman to his employers in Rome. Sitting on my rock (igneous, black, and rough with the ghosts of dead bubbles), I tried to remember what led to this part of the story. "Why was he on the ship? I think his masters sent him there. To punish him? Did they owe Beowulf a favour? Did the pirates capture the Roman's ship? No, I think he was there on purpose. It was a punishment. He'd been exiled." At first the Roman is disgusted and disdainful, finicky, a pest, a snob, complaining because he's been sent away to hobnob in the wilderness. Please let me come home, he begs his employer, who seems to be getting a mean pleasure out of his suffering. As the book goes on he finds a purpose for himself - he begins to write heroic verse about this pirate. The Roman becomes a PR man - he creates the legend of Beowulf, or whoever it was, and the pirate rewards him for it. By the end of the book he's fallen so in love with his new role that he sends his employers a big fat gloating up-yours letter and signs off with his new Anglo-Saxon pirate name and a flourish of titles.

There are several jokes in this. (I sat on the rock, sorting them out.) One, a snob embraces the thing he despised. Two, an abused employee turns the tables on his bosses. Three, the man at the end is still the same as he was at the beginning, only now he's a barbarian pirate snob instead of a Roman snob. His lack of moral progress mocks the idea that experience makes a person wiser, and that advancement is the proper reward for wisdom. He advances without improving a bit. Four, the sheer pompous glee of that up-yours I-quit. Five, this failed gentleman had to travel to the outer reaches of civilisation to find himself a job in that most urban of fields, advertising. Six. Anachronisms are funny. Seven, the heroic legend we know today was the creation of a prissy and unheroic moaner. Eight, our hero was a shabby thug. By the time I'd worked all of this out I realised that I'd distracted myself so much that I wasn't miserable any more, so I walked home and read another Munro (a man's head got whisked off by a saw).

Monday, January 18, 2010

a pair of drawers given to me

When I started typing that post yesterday I didn't think it was going to veer off onto the subject of Radclyffe Hall. I began my list of library books with George Eliot because I thought I was going to talk about Eliot. Why was I going to talk about Eliot? I was going to talk about Eliot because I looked at the cover of my new secondhand Mill on the Floss and thought, "That boy isn't wearing any pants."

(The red rectangle is a library sticker)

But no, you can see the edge of a pocket away to the right, and the crease is hanging too low for those to be his buttocks, although the length of his leg as it crosses behind the plank makes me imagine that anatomical accuracy was not this artist's strength, so maybe … but I think the pocket clinches it; also, I think Eliot wrote all of her male characters with pants. "The Victorian age was a time when men in England always had their trousers on," I reminded myself, and then I remembered the Rev. Francis Kilvert pelting naked down the beach in his Diary and reconsidered: "Oh no they didn't."

Bathing clothed irritated him.

Friday 12 June 1874

At Shanklin one has to adopt the detestable custom of bathing in drawers … To-day I had a pair of drawers given to me which I could not keep on. The rough waves stripped them off and tore them down around my ancles. While thus fettered I was seized and flung down by a heavy sea which retreating suddenly left me lying naked on the sharp shingle from which I rose streaming with blood. After this I took the wretched and dangerous rag off and of course there were some ladies looking on as I came up out of the water.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

peers and posterity

My local library is too small for book sales, but the larger branch about half an hour's walk away is not. Yesterday I was lucky enough to be there while they were shedding three slightly elderly George Eliots, two volumes of the Thomas Wolfe quartet that begins with Look Homeward, Angel, a biography of Radclyffe Hall, a paperback book with a salmon cover called The Temperament of Generations: Fifty Years of Writing in Meanjin, Naguib Mafouz's The Harafish, and various other books, bought by me, who was especially glad to find the Eliots after coming to the end of Middlemarch weeks ago and realising that I had thrown away my old Mill on the Floss in Japan.

Quentin Bell mentions the Radclyffe Hall court case so briefly in his biography of Virginia Woolfe that the index only lists a single page number under her name. Hall's fifth book, the story of a lesbian aristocrat, had been judged obscene; Woolfe was willing to testify in its favour, but, "The difficulty," Bell writes

was that Miss Hall wanted her witnesses to declare that The Well of Loneliness was not only a serious, but a great work of art. This seemed too large a sacrifice in the cause of liberty.

However, the matter was compromised. Virginia went to testify at Bow Street but the magistrate, Sir Charles Biron, ruled literary evidence out of court and the novel, a sincere though feeble effort, was condemned as though it had been any other piece of cheap pornography.

He quotes a letter in which Woolfe calls Well "a meritous dull book." Sally Cline's biography of Hall admits it, but quotes another letter in which Woolfe told her sister, "I think much of Miss Hall's book is very beautiful" and refers to the shooting, in the Well, of a horse. "Her reaction to Hall's novel was ambivalent and changeable," the biographer suggests. According to Cline, Hall's desire to have people "declare that The Well of Loneliness was not only a serious, but a great work of art" began when she saw the draft of a letter that Woolfe, along with E.M. Forster, Arnold Bennet, Leonard Woolfe, and others, were proposing to send out in her support.

Despite Bennet and Forster's hard work, [Hall] was distressed at the draft letter which stressed the legal aspects of literary suppression rather than the merits of her book. Always over-sensitive to criticism, she now saw traces of it everywhere.

None of the authors who were willing to protest the banning of the book wanted to call it a worthwhile piece of literature. (Even Alison Hennegan, who wrote a favourable introduction to my copy of Well, says that it is "often unwieldy," although, she adds, "always courageous.") Cline sums up the clash between Hall and her supporters.

Although Hall and the Bloomsbury writers believed in many of the same principles, their methods of dealing with them, even of thinking about them, were diametrically opposed. Bloomsbury's writers and philosophers held most things at bay with an amused and abstract detachment. They liked spinning ideas, juggling truths, catching evasions … Hall … was by comparison simplistic and straightforward. The notion of overlapping truth did not interest her. The barbarity of suppressing 'the Truth' did.

Woolfe's Orlando was published a month before the court case began.

Hall [writes Cline] must have puzzled at length as to why Orlando … did not come under the censor's ban … it was an overt Sapphic portrait which even included photographs of the author's lover. But the difference between Woolfe's sexual presentation and Hall's was that although same-sex desire in the form of eroticized relationships between women is fundamental to Woolfe's writing, it is always emotional, elusive, imaginary, or symbolic. For Hall realism is the core … Woolfe was a satirist, a fantasist, an experimentalist. Authority left her alone. They allowed her to be judged by her literary peers and posterity.

Interesting, the difference in perspective between the two biographies: the same court case that occupies dozens of pages in one book appearing, in the other book, as not much more than a quick prelude to the appearance of a better novel by somebody else.

In another part of his biography Bell lets the reader know that his aunt was more cheerful than the public idea of her as a straitened nervous wreck would suggest, a point of view supported by the Guardian's recent interview with his half-sister Angelia Garnett: ninety-one and she's published a new book.

Of Virginia Woolf she says: "I was very fond of her and she was a very charming and delightful aunt to have. Most people seem to think she was somebody who was always on the edge of a nervous breakdown, but she wasn't. She was enormous fun."

Thursday, January 14, 2010

secours | response

A frequently updated website about the Haiti earthquake: what's going on, where, and how to help.

"What was that?" said Olaf

A coincidence. Last night I read Anne Fadiman's Ex Libris. Fadiman is the woman whose critic father Clifton thought The Salzburg Tales better than the Decameron. Anyone who's read Ex Libris will know that in one of the essays she mentions Longfellow's Tegner's Drapa.

When I was thirteen or fourteen, I read C.S. Lewis's recollection of the central epiphany of his childhood, the moment he stumbled across a Norse-influenced poem by Longfellow that began with the line

I heard a voice, that cried,
"Baldur the Beautiful
Is dead, is dead!"

"I knew nothing about Baldur," wrote Lewis, "but instantly I was uplifted into huge regions of northern sky …"

Ex Libris is a short book. I finished it, and decided to start on Alberto Manguel's memoir, About Borges, which I'd borrowed the night before from the library. On page thirty-eight I found this:

His breath would stop when he came to the line the Norwegian sailor says to his king as the mast of the royal ship cracks: "That was Norway breaking/from thy hand, O king!" in a poem by Longfellow (a line, Borges pointed out, then used by Kipling in 'The Most Beautiful Story in the World').

The line comes from one of Longfellow's other Norse-influenced poems, Einar Tamberskelver.

"What was that?" said Olaf, standing
On the quarter-deck.
"Something heard I like the stranding
Of a shattered wreck."
Einar then, the arrow taking
From the loosened string,
Answered, "That was Norway breaking
From thy hand, O King!"

About Borges is a short book too, only seventy-four pages long, and when I reached the end I went to a bookshelf to search for something else. "Look," I said to M., who was in the room. "I have a book of poems by Matthew Arnold." My Arnold is a small blue hardback, printed in 1940, with an introduction that I like for the scolding tone the writer takes toward his famous poet - he sounds like a teacher about to give him a bad mark -

We suppose that no English poet before or since has so overworked the interjection "Ah!" But far worse than any number of ah!s is Arnold's trick of italic type -

How I bewail you!
We mortal millions live alone

In the rustling night-air comes the answer:
"Wouldst thou be as these are? Live as they!"

- a device almost unpardonable in poetry.

I opened the book and stumbled almost immediately across this poem:




So on the floor lay Balder dead; and round
Lay thickly strewn swords, axes, darts, and spears
Which all the Gods in sport had idly thrown
At Balder, whom no weapon pierc'd or clove;
Bu in his breast stood fixt the fatal bough
Of mistletoe, which Lok the Accuser gave
To Hoder, and unwitting Hoder threw

Arnold was longwinded. I went away to read Portrait of a Lady instead.

Currently I am on page nine and men are drinking tea.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

his deficiency serves

It would be easy to enumerate many important and splendid gifts in which Butler as a novelist was deficient; but his deficiency serves to lay bare one gift in which he excelled, which is his point of view. To have by nature a point of view, to stick to it, to follow it where it leads, is the rarest of possessions, and lends value even to trifles.

This is Virginia Woolf, writing about Samuel Butler's The Way of All Flesh in 1919, and she's articulating an idea that comes to me whenever I try to explain to myself my liking for a writer like ER Eddison, someone "deficient" in "many important and splendid gifts" but hedgehoglike able to do one thing very well, to produce a piece of work that is particular to themselves, and is remarkable not for its intelligence, or its insight into character, or any of the other things that people commonly draw on when they want to praise a book, but for its apparent fidelity to the writer's - I don't know what to call it. Perspective, perhaps, with 'perspective' encompassing voice as well as subject matter. These writers seem to embody themselves in their mistakes as well as their successes; in some cases the two are indistinguishable. Here I'm thinking of someone like William Hope Hodgson, whose characters are so thin they're almost nonexistent, whose settings are rudimentary pulp, whose plots are often borrowed and shaky (The Night Land excepted), but whose point of view, which, in Hodgson's case, is one of raw fear, is so strong and apparently genuine that it heats the reader through this weak façade like fire behind a sheet of cloth, like UV through a cloud. The flimsiness of the façade helps to remind the reader that it is a façade, and the storyteller who keeps interrupting himself throughout Hodgson's short story The Hog to ask his friends, "Do you understand?" "I wonder whether you can understand" "Can you understand?" "I wonder if I make it clear to you?" seems to be the author himself, struggling to smash a hole through the feebleness of words. The writer is wrestling with language; language is getting away from him, and at any moment he might give up the struggle and collapse into a gibberish of which the only comprehensible words will be "Outer Monstrosities," "Black void," and, "It was yellow."

If Hodgson seemed to be doing this on purpose you could call his writing Brechtian, the work of a man who never lets you forget that the actors are acting, but no, there's nothing to suggest that he's anything but an author whose passions outstripped his ability to articulate them. He died of a bullet in World War I, a simpler fate than anything he imagined for his characters, but maybe not less horrifying.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

the one with whom we are concerned

Nothing much, but I've been reading the Virginia Woolf biography written by her nephew Quentin Bell and this anecdote seemed worth passing on:

M de l'Etang entered and died in the service of the Nawab of Oudh; he left three daughters. Adeline, the one with whom we are concerned, married a James Pattle who was, we are told, a quite extravagantly wicked man. He was known as the greatest liar in India; he drank himself to death; he was packed off home in a cask of spirits, which cask, exploding, ejected his unbottled corpse before his widow's eyes, drove her out of her wits, set the ship on fire and left it stranded in the Hooghly.

Bell adds,

The story has been told many times. Some parts of it may be true.

Bell's tone, which is simultaneously open, cheerful, sympathetic, and firm, glad to tell an amusing anecdote but also willing to check sources (the reader can see this in the footnotes and in occasional qualifications - as above), gives this biography its charm. Hazel Rowley, Christina Stead's biographer, said that a friend of hers went through her manuscript helping her to cross things out, tighten it, make it shorter, more exciting, but a rapid pace is not the solution, I think, to the problem of making a biography interesting. (I mean, aside from its subject matter. But this is not always enough. I was once bored by a biography of Edward Lear, a thing that should have been impossible. The subject was not boring; the voice was flat.)

Pace helps, but the biographer's voice is even more helpful, and this voice, if it's off, can't be fixed in the way that the length can be fixed, by trimming or reshaping: if it's wrong, it's wrong, and the only thing the biographer can do is get reborn as a different person and try to write the book again. One of the things that tickled me about Graham Robb's biography of Victor Hugo, was his ongoing grumble about the insufficient researches of past Victor Hugo biographers. He was dirty on them. How dare they laze around! This is Victor Hugo (Robb all but thundered). Important Victor Hugo! This was a biographer with character; he was also, obviously, in love with his subject. I liked Robb. I like Bell. I like Peter Ackroyd's biography of Dickens, which, in its manic accumulation of facts, reminds me strangely of the Anatomy of Melancholy. I'm looking forward to the Jenny Uglow biography of Elizabeth Gaskell, discovered at St. Vinnies for a dollar on Thursday, thick enough that when it fell off a shelf two evenings ago there was a thud that echoed through the house. "Long, exhilarating, and written with a recklessness that springs from affection for her subject," claims Fiona McCarthy of the Guardian, quoted on the back cover.

At the opposite extreme you have Sir John Hawkins, who must have thought he was going to go down in history as the first man to publish a substantial biography of Samuel Johnson but who instead became the ogre Boswell complained about in the introduction to his biography of Johnson, which is the one everybody knows.

Sir John Hawkins's ponderous labours, I must acknowledge, exhibit a farrago, of which a considerable portion is not devoid of entertainment to the lovers of literary gossiping; but besides its being swelled out with long unnecessary extracts from various works … what is still worse, there is throughout the whole of it a dark uncharitable cast, by which the most unfavourable construction is put upon almost every circumstance in the character and conduct of my illustrious friend; who, I trust, will, by a true and fair delineation, be vindicated … from the injurious misrepresentations of this authour

When the Hawkins biography was republished recently a review by Henry Power in the Times agreed.

Hawkins’s style is awkward, and the biography often reads as though it is being delivered from the Bench … He is sometimes insanely digressive, always “glad to escape to scenes more congenial to his disposition”, as the Critical Review put it. To give one example, an account of Johnson’s love of tea prompts Hawkins to wonder “what were the viands of a morning meal for people of condition, for which tea with its concomitants is now the substitute”. He is happily able to resolve the matter instantly, by reproducing the menu of a sixteenthcentury breakfast …

Which might not be so bad if not for this:

Hawkins … conveys an air of disapproval.

The kiss of death for a biography.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

vanity is, I take it

On Tuesday afternoon I stopped by a secondhand bookstore where I found a row of dull-red George Meredith hardbacks the size of my hand - my hand with the fingers spread out very slightly - not right out, and not held together, but just relaxed and settled like a spider. Some of them had covers raised in vertical hard pinstriped ridges; these ones made a zipping noise when I ran a fingernail across the stripes. I bought The Shaving of Shagpat and went home. After that, a wave of covetousness, because I wished I'd bought The Egoist as well.

My Shagpat opens with this dedication.

G. Nora Young
George D. [?] Young
November 1906

"Age cannot wither her,
nor custom stale
her infinite variety."

"Antony & Cleopatra"

Why covetous? I'd never read Meredith before, I didn't know if I'd like him or hate him, so why covetous? The books were attractive, but there were other attractive books in the shop; I didn't want to buy them. The books were old, but there were other, older books there. I picked Meredith off the shelf in the first place because I'd read an essay by someone who called him a great forgotten Victorian, quoting Oscar Wilde, "His style is chaos illuminated by flashes of lightning."* Still, I'd read other books that people praised, and I hadn't liked them, I knew this, I knew this, so why did I feel that I must have Meredith? I was irritable the next morning, short-tempered, distracted, I kept thinking of The Egoist, I was in a knot of anxiety because I was afraid that someone else would buy it. Eventually I went back and picked up the set, carried them around the shop, thought about putting them back on the shelf, didn't: paid for them - not only The Egoist but Beauchamp's Career, Diana of the Crossways, Rhoda Fleming, and The Ordeal of Richard Feverel. Once I had them in my hands I felt calm. The covetousness had been switched off as suddenly as a light.

I've seen people write about this kind of behaviour as if it's laudable, beautiful, joyous, exciting - I'm a bookaholic! - I must have books! - I love books! - the books are falling off my shelves yet I buy more! - books books books! - but mine was a barbaric compulsiveness, reason couldn't budge it. I know that if this had been a collection of mismatched editions, some modern paperbacks, some older books, one from the 1930s, let's say, and one from 1900, a TV-tie-in from the 1990s, a Signet Classics edition with the smudged-looking Signet cover, I might have bought The Egoist out of curiosity, remembering that it was his most famous book, but the rest wouldn't have seemed interesting. But I knew in the shop that if I left one behind I would fret over it. It was as if there was a charm over the books, marked out by the boundary line of George or G. Nora Young's signatures inside the covers.** I'd been reading about this kind of spell in the Anatomy of Melancholy. Burton identified love as a cause of melancholy, and spells as one cause of love, telling us that Charles the Great once fell in love with a woman "of mean favour and condition" because she kept a magic ring in her mouth.

The bishop went hastily to the [woman's] carcass, and took a small ring thence; upon the removal the emperor abhorred the corpse, and, instead of it, fell as furiously in love with the bishop.

Eugene Field in his little Love Affairs of a Bibliomaniac, makes a comparison with love.

Just as a man who takes pleasure in the conquest of feminine hearts invariably finds himself at last ensnared by the very passion which he has been using simply for the gratification of his vanity, I am inclined to think that the element of vanity enters, to a degree, into every phase of book collecting; vanity is, I take it, one of the essentials to a well-balanced character -- not a prodigious vanity, but a prudent, well-governed one.

But Fields is too whimsical for me: this inclusion of "prudent, well-governed," seems to mask the pointlessness of walking around a bookshop with half of George Meredith's oeuvre in my hands, wrestling against the feeling that I must buy these books that I might never read. I didn't feel prudent or well-governed - I felt disgusted, and closer to Burton:

"For love," (as Cyrus in Xenophon well observed) "is a mere tyranny, worse than any disease, and they that are troubled with it desire to be free and cannot, but are harder bound than if they were in iron chains."


* I don't remember who wrote this essay or where I found it. Paging through Aspects of the Novel today for a different reason I discovered that E.M. Forster thought Meredith was bad at character, that his descriptions of nature are "too fluffy and lush," that the social values in his books are "faked," but, "He is the finest contriver that English fiction has ever produced, and any lecture on plot must do homage to him."

** It looks like her first name was Gladys. The dedication inside Beauchamp's Career reads:

With love from G.D.Y.
19th Sept: 1920

Friday, January 1, 2010

the colour of black grapes

Yesterday evening, that is, New Year's Eve, I was on the platform of the local railway station waiting to go into the city when an immense dark storm rolled in and we were all soaked. The boys in white going to the Sensation rave were soaked and the man with a curly brown beard who stood in the open eating an ice cream in the rain was soaked and the older private-smiling Lebanese woman in the grey-blue dust-coloured coat by the fence was soaked and oh we were all soaked soaked soaked - it was glorious - I was dripping - and after the train reached the city I spent the new few hours being even more soaked until it was impossible to be soaked any more without actually dissolving, and by the time I took my shoes off at half past twelve that night, fireworks over, waiting at a different station for the train to take us home, my toes were white and shrivelled as little sets of fetuses waiting for their jars and the formaldehyde bath.

Anyway, I mention this because tonight, reading E.R. Eddison's The Mezentian Gate for the first time, I came across - a storm.

That way thunder-storms were brewing. A murky darkness of vapours, which, leaden-hued, and oily, swoll and shouldered and mounted and spread upward till that whole quarter of the sky, east and south-east up to the zenith, was turned to the colour of black grapes ...

There was no wind now in the lower air, but a great heat and stillness: and, with the stillness, a silence. It was as though all sound had been emptied out till not even (as in ordinary silences) the unemptiable exiguous residue remained: fall of leaf, or, immeasurably far away, in immeasurably faint echo, the unsleeping welter and surge of the sea, or stir of the market-place below. Even such shadows of sound had drowsed away to nothingness. There was left but that simulacrum of audability born of the pulsing of living blood in the hearkening ear as it strains to catch the extreme unvoiced voice of the silence.