Friday, June 04, 2010

Michael Innes' The Case of the Journeying Boy: Irony, Circa 1949

For those of you who think that irony was invented around 1970, I offer this 1949 description of a cinema billboard advertising a movie:

The Case of the Journeying BoyAcross its monstrous facade sprawled a vast plywood lady. If erect she would be perhaps fifty feet high; she was reclining, however, in an attitude of sultry abandon and equatorial vegetation and in a garment the only prominent feature of which was a disordered shoulder-strap. As a background to the broadly accentuated charms of her person -- pleasantly framed, indeed, between her six-foot, skyward-pointing breasts -- was what appeared to be a two-ocean navy in process of sinking through tropical waters like a stone. One limp hand held a smoking revolver seemingly responsible for this extensive catastrophe. The other, supporting her head, was concealed in a spouting ectoplasm of flaxen hair. Her expression was languorous, provocative, and irradiated by a sort of sanctified lecherousness highly creditable to both the craft and the ardent soul of the unknown painter who had created her. Poised in air, and in curves boldly made to follow the line of her swelling hips, were the words AMOROUS, ARROGANT, ARMED! Above this, in letters ten feet high, was the title PLUTONIUM BLONDE. And higher still, and in rubric scarcely less gigantic, was the simple announcement, ART'S SUPREME ACHIEVEMENT TO DATE.

--from Michael Innes' The Case of the Journeying Boy (1949), p. 54.

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Friday, April 30, 2010

From Dreamland

This morning I had a dream in which my wife and I were architects. We were discussing how one handles criticism, and I deliberately tried to come up with a line to make her laugh. Here's what I said:

If you're lucky, you've got 140 stories of poured concrete howling, "Je suis! Je suis!" into the teeth of the winds of time.
Sounds like literature, don't it?  (And by the way, it did make her laugh -- but I had to wait until she woke up to tell her about it.)

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Wednesday, April 14, 2010

On Character and Writers' Conferences

Poet laureate Kay Ryan writes about attending the monster writer's conference put on annually by Associated Writing Programs (AWP) in 2005:

I have a weak character. I am very susceptible to other people's
enthusiasms, at times actually courting them. I like to sit among people
who feel strongly about a basketball team, say, and get excited with
them. I love to love ouzo with ouzo lovers. These are, of course, innocent
examples. But this weakness concerns me in going to AWP. If I'm
exposed to the enthusiasms of others, I know that I am capable of
betraying my deepest convictions, laughing in the face of a lifetime of
hostility to instruction, horror at groupthink. The only way I've ever
gotten along in this world is by staying away from it; I have had only
enough character to keep myself out of situations that require character.
Now here I am, going to AWP. HOW am I going to remember:
these people are THE SPAWN OF THE DEVIL? They will seem like
individuals, not deadly white threads of the great creative writing
fungus.
From Kay Ryan's "I Go to AWP," from Poetry, 2005.

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Friday, January 01, 2010

The Hart (and Roe) of the Matter

Background: while they are both guests at a country manor, the beefy Stilton Cheesewright threatens to break Bertie Wooster's spine in five places because he imagines Bertie wants to marry his [Stilton's] fiancee. Bertie considers his options:

What to do? I was asking myself. It seemed to me that the prudent course, if I wished to preserve a valued spine intact, would be to climb aboard the two-seater first thing in the morning and ho for the open spaces. To remain in statu quo would, it was clear, involve a distasteful nippiness on my part, for only by the most unremitting activity could I hope to elude Stilton and foil his sinister aims. I would be compelled, I saw, to spend a substantial portion of my time flying like a youthful hart or roe over the hills where spices grow, as I remembered having heard Jeeves once put it, and the Woosters resent having to sink to the level of harts and roes, whether juvenile or getting on in years. We have our pride.
--from P.G. Wodehouse, Jeeves and the Feudal Spirit , p. 80.

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Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Bertie Wooster on Deaf Adders


"Once more I had the sense of not making progress. Her face, I observed, was cold and hard ... and I began to understand how these birds in Holy Writ must have felt after their session with the deaf adder. I can't recall all the details, though at my private school I once won a prize for Scripture Knowledge, but I remember that they had the dickens of an uphill job trying to charm it, and after they had sweated themselves to a frazzle no business resulted. It is often this way, I believe, with deaf adders."

--P.G. Wodehouse, Jeeves and the Feudal Spirit, p. 39.

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Wednesday, July 15, 2009

The Delights of the British National Anthem

Second verse of the British National Anthem, otherwise known, perhaps, as "God Save the King/Queen":

O Lord our God arise
Scatter his enemies,
And make them fall.
Confound their politics,
Frustrate their knavish tricks,
On thee our hopes we fix;
God save us all.
Confound their politics? Frustrate their knavish tricks? Wonderful!

(Found this in Anthony Powell's The Military Philosphers, p. 226.)

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Anthony Powell on Senior Officers

The incident provoked reflections later on the whole question of senior officers, their relations with each other and with those of subordinate rank. There could be no doubt, so I was finally forced to decide, that the longer one dealt with them, the more one developed the habit of treating generals like members of the opposite sex; specifically, like ladies no longer young, who therefore deserve extra courtesy and attention; indeed, whose every whim must be given thought. This was particularly applicable if one were out in the open with a general.

'Come on, sir, you have the last sandwich,' one would say, or 'Sit on my mackintosh, sir, the grass is quite wet.'

Perhaps the cumulative effect of such treatment helped to account for the highly strung temperament so many generals developed. They needed constant looking after. I remembered despising Cocksidge, a horrible little captain at the Divisional Headquarters on which I had served, for behaving so obsequiously to his superiors in rank. In the end, it had to be admitted one was almost equally deferential, though one hoped less slavish.
--Anthony Powell, The Military Philosophers, p. 143. (Image is a painting of the bookjacket.)

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Anthony Powell on Friendship

Friendship, popularly represented as something simple and straightforward -- in contrast to love -- is perhaps no less complicated, requiring equally mysterious nourishment; like love, too, bearing also within its embryo inherent seeds of dissolution, something more fundamentally destructive, perhaps, than the mere passing of time, the all-obliterating march of events which had, for example, come between Stringham and myself.
--Anthony Powell, The Soldier's Art, pp. 93-94. (Image of bookjacket painting.)

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Anthony Powell on Time and Space

'Seduction is to do and say/The banal thing in the banal way,' said Moreland. 'No one denies that. My own complaint is that people always talk about love affairs as if you spent the whole of your time in bed. I find most of my own emotional energy -- not to say physical energy -- is exhausted in making efforts to get there. Problems of Time and Space as usual.'The relation of Time and Space, then rather fashionable, was, I found, a favourite subject of Moreland's.

'Surely we have long agreed the two elements are identical?' said Maclintick. 'This is going over old ground -- perhaps I should say old hours.'

'You must differentiate for everyday purposes, don't you?' urged Barnby. 'I don't wonder seduction seems a problem, if you get Time and Space confused.'

--Anthony Powell, Casanova's Chinese Restaurant, p. 34. (Image from painting for bookjacket.)

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Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Anthony Powell on Books

"He spoke without a vestige of interest. I was impressed for the ten thousandth time by the fact that literature illuminates life only for those to whom books are a necessity. Books are unconvertible assets, to be passed on only to those who possess them already."
--Anthony Powell, The Valley of Bones, pp. 233-234.

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Saturday, July 04, 2009

Ambrose Bierce's Iconoclast


One of my favorite definitions from Ambrose Bierce's Devil's Dictionary is this one:

Iconoclast, n. A breaker of idols, the worshipers whereof are imperfectly gratified by the performance, and most strenuously protest that he unbuildeth but doth not reëdify, that he pulleth down but pileth not up. For the poor things would have other idols in place of those he thwacketh upon the mazzard and dispelleth. But the iconoclast saith: "Ye shall have none at all, for ye need them not; and if the rebuilder fooleth round hereabout, behold I will depress the head of him and sit thereon till he squawk it."

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Sunday, May 31, 2009

X-Posts on New Yorker Fiction

I've posted reviews on Emdashes of a fair amount of recent fiction from The New Yorker that I've been forgetting to cross-post here. So tonight, I'm making up for it. Here's reviews of:

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John McPhee on the Ambivalent Glories of Using a D9 Cat


From John McPhee's Coming into the Country, pp. 235-239. Ed and Stanley Gelvin are Alaskans who are panning for gold circa 1974:

They had a little Ranger -- a diminutive tractor, like a Cub Cadet -- which they had used to like purpose when they built a cabin on the Charley River years before. Ed cut the Ranger in half. They flew it to the mountains, and he welded it back together. The backhoe before long followed, and when it was at last reassembled they scooped into the center of a stream. Bedrock was eight feet down. Even at six, they panned the colors they had hoped to see.

They had intended to spend the whole of the following season ranging with the backhoe around the claims they had made, trying out pieces of seven miles of streams, but early results were so encouraging that they sharply foreshortened the tests. To put it conservatively, a pay streak appeared to be there, and what was needed now -- since the backhoe was just a fifty-seven-hundred-pound shovel -- was a means of moving gravel in a major way. The Caterpillar Tractor Company produces the eponymous Cat in seven sizes -- styled D3, D4, and so on to D9. Most gold miners use something less than the largest, but the Gelvins -- forming a partnership with two friends in Fairbanks -- decided to go all the way. The supreme Cat, twenty-seven feet long, eleven feet high, with a blade of fourteen feet, could sweep forty yards of gravel before it -- possibly a hundred dollars a shove. Ed Gelvin went to Los Angeles to shop for a used D9.

With his partners in Fairbanks putting up the money in return for a half interest in the claims, he paid forty-seven thousand five hundred dollars for a ten-year-old machine -- D9, Series G. In the fleets of general contractors, it had spent its lifetime ripping raw California land, making freeways, and preparing building sites on beaches and deserts. Who, watching it there -- clanking, dozing, wheezing, roaring, grunting like Pete the Pig -- could ever in farthest-fetched imaginings have guessed where it would go? It went to Seattle by train, and by barge to Whittier in Prince William Sound. There the Alaska Railroad picked it up and took it to Fairbanks, where, in early April, a lowboy hauled it up the dirt road north. Forty miles from Central, the haul stopped -- blocked by the still unbroken winter snows. The road had been smothered since October. Ed Gelvin, who was observing from the air, landed on the road and with Stanley put the blade on the Cat. The weather in a general way was warming. Snow was melting. Ice was beginning to rot. If the D9 was going to move up frozen stream beds and climb into the mountains, it had to keep going now. If the road was closed, the Cat would open it.

When Stanley Gelvin was a small boy and did his elementary-school work by correspondence from the kitchen table in Central, he was from time to time required to draw a picture. When the choice of subject was his to make, he always drew a Cat. He operated one before he drove anything else. Now, with a Cat all around him, he knew where things were. He sensed like an athlete the rhythm of the parts -- the tilt cylinders, the blade-lift arms. A good Cat skinner is a Cat mechanic, and from the torque converter to the sun-and-planet gears, he knew what was making the moves. 'I know what's inside the thing -- everything -- and what makes it work. My father knows how the stuff goes together, too. If the thing needs work, we do it.'

The snow-obscured road leading on toward Central was -- even at its best, in summer -- a tortuous trail. In several high places, it traversed the flanks of mountains as a fifteen-foot shelf with no rail of any kind and a precipitous plunge on the outboard side. On the last of these mountain passes, twenty miles from home, Stanley encountered drifts that were thirty feet deep. To keep going, he had to bite into the snow, doze some to the brink, send it avalanching down, then turn and bite some more -- all the while feeling for the road, feeling with his corner bits (the low tips of the blade) for the buried edge where the road stopped and the plunge began. A D9 is in some ways the most difficult Cat to operate. 'You've got so much iron in front of you can't see what you're doing.' It is also his favorite size, because it is so big it does not bounce around. This one weighed a hundred and ten thousand pounds. Its balance point was ten feet back of the blade. Repeatedly Stanley moved the blade eight feet over the edge. He knew where it was. If he had gone off the mountain, he would have raised one fantastic cloud of snow. Instead, he trimly dismantled the prodigious drifts and dozed on down to Central.

To the pads of the track Ed Gelvin welded ice grousers. They would keep the Cat from sliding. They were small pieces of steel, protruding like hyphens from the tracks. Ed and Stanley had built a steel slick plate and a steel sluice box, and Ed had rearranged them as a huge loaded sled -- eight feet wide and twenty-four feet long: I-beams, H-beams, three-sixteenths-inch plate. He had made a thousand-gallon fuel tank. It was full and on the sled. Here and there, he slipped in snowshoes, gold pans, a two-hundred-amp generator, a welding tank and torch. Finally, he secured to the top of the load a plywood wanigan -- that is, a small hut, with three bunks, propane, and a cupboard full of food. The rig, composed, weighed about twelve tons. When it was hooked to the D9, Stanley left for the mountains.

He crossed low terrain at first. His mother rode with him. His father hovered in the air. Then he changed passengers, taking on a friend named Gary Powers, and they began to move up Woodchopper Creek. His altitude at the start was nine hundred feet. The highest point on the trip was well above four thousand. They travelled five days, fourteen hours a day. There was plenty of wind. The highest temperature they experienced was zero. They stopped to cut their way through trees with a chain saw (fearing to doze them because the wanigan might be crushed). The Cat fell twice through rotting ice. With no difficulty, it climbed out of the water. There was some luck in the conditions, but not much. With less ice in Woodchopper Canyon, Stanley might have been stopped. But successive overflows on the creek had built the ice thickness in places to thirty feet. Nearing the head of Woodchopper, he moved the Cat slowly up a steep slope of ice, slid back, crept again, slid back, and thought for a while he wouldn't make it. Without the grousers, the big rig would have been stopped, but they held just enough, and gradually he crawled out of the head of the creek -- only to move into snow so deep the D9's steel tracks spun out. Stanley thought it wise to stop for the night. For one thing, all this was happening in a blizzard. Next day, the sky was clear, the air colder, and Stanley moved on a contour, through the deep snow until he found an uphill route. Steadily, he climbed ridges, sometimes in little snow, sometimes in seven-foot drifts. At one point, the going was so steep that he disengaged the sled and tried first to clear a trail. 'I knew that ridge was too steep to go over, because it was almost vertical. So I went around to the right. Without them ice grousers, the machine would have slid sideways and straight to the bottom as if it was on skates. Gary was scared to death. I went real slow now, and slipped some, and then went down to a dead crawl. I had it idled as low as it would go. I went on half a mile or so. When I saw it was possible, I went back for the sled.'

Landing on skis, his father would fly him out, and the D9 would sit idle in the mountains until summer. Meanwhile, there was one last ridge to cross. 'One side was sheer, and the other had deep snow and was very steep. It must have been forty-five degrees. A guy could have maybe gone around one side -- if you'd left the wanigan, dug the snow, and plowed a road. But I didn't want to make a horrible-looking mess. I moved slowly up. The track did spin a bit. I couldn't go straight up. It was too steep. I couldn't go sideways too well. I couldn't go back, because I had the sled. I'd have been afraid to back down. You can cut a road into the side of a mountain if you want to with a Cat like that, but I just inched up the thing, and over. I didn't want to dig up the country.'

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Joan Acocella on the Crusades

Joan Acocella, in her usual incisive and entertaining manner, reviewed two books on the Crusades in the December 13, 2004 issue of The New Yorker. She liked both, but she had one reservation:

[Thomas] Asbridge praises the "inspired and audacious" tactics of the leaders of the First Crusade, their "military genius"; [Jonathan] Phillips roots for the men of the Fourth Crusade as, with their boats swaying beneath them and with scores of Greek bowmen firing at them, they climb their ladders and jump out onto the walls of Constantinople. Later, the authors bemoan the slaughter, but what did they think the audacious tactics were for? There is a curious amorality here. It may be endemic to military history. (What an exciting battle! Oops, what a lot of dead people!)

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Sunday, May 17, 2009

Transit of Hardship

In the 18th-century, scientists were trying to measure the passage of Venus across the Sun. If correctly measured from multiple places on Earth, one could then work out the distance to the Sun and other planets. However, these "transits of Venus" only happen "in pairs eight years apart, but then are absent for a century or more." So when the first of a pair of such transits came around in 1761, scientists from all over the world set off to take measurements.

Many suffered disasters of various kinds, but among the unluckiest of these observers was a Frenchman named Guillaume Le Gentil:

Le Gentil set off from France a year ahead of time to observe the transit from India, but various setbacks left him still at sea on the day of the transit -- just about the worst place to be since steady measurements were impossible on a pitching ship.

Undaunted, Le Gentil continued on to India to await the next ransit in 1769. With eight years to prepare, he erected a first-rate viewing station, tested and retested his instruments, and had everything in a state of perfect readiness. On the morning of the second transit, June 4, 1769, he awoke to a fine day, but, just as Venus began to pass, a cloud slid in front of the Sun and remained there for almost exactly the duration of the transit: three hours, fourteen minutes, and seven seconds.

Stoically, Le Gentil packed up his instruments and set off for the nearest port, but en route he contracted dysentery and was laid up for nearly a year. Still weakened, he finally made it onto a ship. It was nearly wrecked in a hurricane off the African coast. When at last he reached home, eleven and a half years after setting off, and having achieved nothing, he discovered that his relatives had had him declared dead in his absence and had enthusiastically plundered his estate.
--from pp. 54-55 of Bill Bryson's A Short History of Nearly Everything.

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Marie Curie Took Her Work Home with Her


For a long time it was assumed that anything so miraculously energetic as radioactivity must be beneficial. For years, manufacturers of toothpaste and laxatives put radioactive thorium in their products ... Radioactivity wasn't banned in consumer products until 1938. By this time it was much too late for Madame Curie, who died of leukemia in 1934. Radiation, in fact, is so pernicious and long lasting that even now her papers from the 1890s -- even her cookbooks -- are too dangerous to handle. Her lab books are kept in lead-lined boxes, and those who wish to see them must don protective clothing.
--from A Short History of Nearly Everything, by Bill Bryson, p. 111.

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Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Leslie Thomas' Last Detective and Napoleon's Unmentionable


In the following excerpt, "Dangerous" Davies, a police detective, interviews a doctor with an interesting collection:

Around the walls were showcases containing items of human anatomy. Davies could see a library through another door with an encased skeleton grinning at nothing. There were other skulls, bones and nameless things in jars. The death mask of a bald man occupied another container. 'Unusual room,' mentioned Davies, accepting the doctor's Scotch.

'An unusual facet of dockland development,' smiled Kinlock. 'It's not all fancy former warehouses.' He was a small Scot with ginger eyebrows. 'It's been a fine opportunity to gather interesting specimens from medical history. I'm adding to it all the time. The death mask is of Mikhail Bakunin, the father of modern anarchy, one of only twelve made. One day, I would love to buy Napoleon's testicle.'

'That,' agreed Davies vaguely, 'would be worth having.'

--from Leslie Thomas' Dangerous in Love: a Dangerous Davies Novel [1987], p. 101.

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Robert B. Parker on the Big "Aha"


In the following section, the first-person narrator is Spenser, a private detective, who is interviewing the madam of a high-end prostitution ring.

***

"Who else?"

"He never said, but he was quite odd [...]"

"Tall and slim? Chewed gum?"

"Yes."

I said, "Aha."

"Aha?"

"Yeah, like Aha I see a connection, or Aha I have discovered a clue. It's detective talk."

[...] She sipped some more Campari. I drank some Heineken. "Among my enterprises," she said, "is a film business. This gentleman had apparently seen Donna in one of our films and wanted the master print."

"Aha, aha!" I said. "Corporate diversification." The waiter came for our order. When he was gone, I said, "Start from the beginning. When did you meet Donna, what did she do for you, what kind of film was she in, tell me all."

"Very well, if you promise not to keep saying Aha."

--Robert B. Parker, Mortal Stakes (1975), pp. 146-147.

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Sunday, March 01, 2009

Mervyn Peake on Comprehension


Who can say how long the eye of the vulture or the lynx requires to grasp the totality of a landscape, or whether in a comprehensive instant the seemingly inexhaustible profusion of detail falls upon their eyes in an ordered and intelligible series of distances and shapes, where the last detail is perceived in relation to the corporate mass?

It may be that the hawk sees nothing but those grassy uplands, and among the coarse grasses, more plainly than the field itself, the rabbit or the rat, and that the landscape in its entirety is never seen, but only those areas lit, as it were with a torch, where the quarry slinks, the surrounding regions thickening into cloud and darkness on the yellow eyes.

Whether the scouring, sexless eye of the bird or beast of prey disperses and sees all or concentrates and evades all saving that for which it searches, it is certain that the less powerful eye of the human cannot grasp, even after a life of training, a scene in its entirety. No eye may see dispassionately. There is no comprehension at a glance. Only the recognition of damsel, horse, or fly and the assumption of damsel, horse, or fly; and so with dreams and beyond, for what haunts the heart will, when it is found, leap foremost, blinding the eye and leaving the main of Life in darkness.
--from Chapter 20 of Mervyn Peake's Titus Groan.

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Saturday, February 28, 2009

A.J. Liebling on Proust's Appetite


The Proust madeleine phenomenon is now as firmly established in folklore as Newton's apple or Watt's steam kettle. The man ate a tea biscuit, the taste evoked memories, he wrote a book ... In the light of what Proust wrote with so mild a stimulus, it is the world's loss that he did not have a heartier appetite. On a dozen Gardiners Island oysters, a bowl of clam chowder, a peck of steamers, some bay scallops, three sautéed soft-shelled crabs, a few ears of fresh-picked corn, a thin swordfish steak of generous area, a pair of lobsters, and a Long Island duck, he might have written a masterpiece.
--from A.J. Liebling's Between Meals.

Also of interest: in Paris circa 1955, Liebling writes that he "received a note from Mirande by tube next morning ..." Anyone know what "by tube" means in this context?

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