Friday, December 28, 2007

Rebecca West on the Importance of Narrative

More from Black Lamb and Grey Falcon.

As we grow older and see the ends of stories as well as their beginnings, we realize that to the people who take part in them it is almost of greater importance that they should be stories, that they should form a recognizable pattern, than that they should be happy or tragic. The men and women who are withered by their fates, who go down to death reluctantly but without noticeable regrets for life, are not those who have lost their mates prematurely or by perfidy, or who have lost battles or fallen from early promise in circumstances of public shame, but those who have been jilted or were the victims of impotent lovers, who have never been summoned to command or been given any opportunity for success or failure. Art is not a plaything, but a necessity, and its essence, form, is not a decorative adjustment, but a cup into which life can be poured and lifted to the lips and be tasted. If one's own existence has no form, if its events do not come handily to mind and disclose their significance, we feel about ourselves as if we were reading a bad book. We can all of us judge the truth of this, for hardly any of us manage to avoid some periods when the main theme of our lives is obscured by details, when we involve ourselves with persons who are insufficiently characterized; and it is possibly true not only of individuals, but of nations. What would England be like if it had not its immense Valhalla of kings and heroes, if it had not its Elizabethan and its Victorian ages, its thousands of incidents which come up in the mind, simple as icons and as miraculous in their suggestion that what England has been it can be again, now and for ever? What would the United States be like if it had not those reservoirs of triumphant will-power, the historical facts of the War of Independence, of the giant American statesmen, and of the pioneering progress into the West, which every American citizen has at his mental command and into which he can plunge for revivification at any minute? To have a difficult history makes, perhaps, a people who are bound to be difficult in any conditions, lacking these means of refreshment (55-56).
I love how West will veer without warning into the deep waters of generalization. This habit used to be more common among writers than it is now, and one can see why the practice would have been abandoned, since there is such obvious arrogance in it, and potential for error. Yet watching West generalize is breathtaking, because even when the details don't work, she's usually onto something. (How could she not be, when she's got so many interesting observations scattered across the landscape at one time?)

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Thursday, December 27, 2007

Rebecca West: Black Lamb, Sharp Teeth

Rebecca West, discussing the law's ancient pedigree in eastern Europe:

It is a thing to be noted, the age of legalism in these parts. It is our weakness to think that distant people became civilized when we looked at them, that in their yesterdays they were brutish.
This is from her 1150-page tome on Yugoslavia published in 1941, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon.Worth reading? Well, I'm only on p. 49 so far (which is where the quote above comes from), but so far, I can tell you that critics call it one of the greatest books of the 20th-century, and that the prologue is worth the price of admission. Nobody today writes with such final authority, casual erudition, or unexpected battiness.

Writing about the Emperor Franz Joseph (of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, for those of you who slept through European history), she observes,
He was certain of universal acclamation not only during his life but after his death, for it is the habit of the people, whenever an old man mismanages his business so that it falls to pieces as soon as he dies, to say, "Ah, So-and-so was a marvel! He kept things together so long as he was alive, and look what happens when has gone!" It was true that there was already shaping in his court a disaster that was to consume us all; but this did not appear to English eyes, largely because Austria was visited before the war only by our upper classes, who in no country noticed anything but horses, and Austrian horses were good.
That's from p. 10, in the prologue, and is soon followed by this from p. 14, after she discusses the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to Franz Joseph, whose death was used as pretext for the war that soon became World War I:
Of that assassination I remember nothing at all ... I was then very busy being an idiot, being a private person, and I had enough on my hands. But my idiocy was like my anaesthetic. During the blankness it dispensed I was cut about and felt nothing, but it could not annul the consequences. The pain came afterwards.
By her "idiocy," West means her infamous, 10-year affair with the much-older-and-married H.G. Wells, by whom she had a son. She sets up this metaphor at the start of her prologue, when she mentions the wonders of modern surgery: "[t]hey had taken me upstairs to a room far above the roofs of London, and had cut me about or three hours and a half, and had brought me down again ..." -- as well, obviously, as the pain of her breakup with Wells, and the horror brought by the Great War. Absolutely killer.

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Orwell's Still Got Our Number

Sound familiar? The more things change, the more they stay the same. This is from an Orwell essay on Kipling, from 1942, 65 years ago:

All left-wing parties in the highly industrialised countries are at bottom a sham, because they make it their business to fight against something which they do not really wish to destroy. They have internationalist aims, and at the same time they struggle to keep up a standard of life with which those aims are incompatible. We all live by robbing Asiatic coolies, and those of us who are "enlightened" all maintain that those coolies ought to be set free; but our standard of living, and hence our "enlightenment", demands that the robbery shall continue.
--George Orwell, p. 400 of his Essays.

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Friday, December 21, 2007

Oxford Symposium on Food & Cookery

Back in 1988, Dan Hofstadter published a meandering essay about the eighth (I think) meeting of the Oxford Symposium on Food & Cookery, which sounds like a great place for brainiac foodies. At that meeting, Dr. Max Lake lectured on the "resemblance between sexual smells and the smells of cheese and wine:"

I have been fortunate enough to have access to a sexual-odor library [Lake said], which, believe it or not, consists of little bottles in a laboratory. One of the most important human pheromones is isobutyraldehyde, which is the next relative in the carbon chain to the odor of bean sprouts. Great champagne has many aldehyde tones. There are also definite cheesy and sweaty notes. These middle-range fatty-acid smells characterize, in higher apes and human beings, the pheromones of the female in mid-cycle, and are also found, believe it or not, in several of the world's most delicious and expensive cheeses ...
Another lecturer, Charles Perry -- "accomplished Arabist, a former editor at Rolling Stone, and a restaurant critic for the Los Angeles Times" -- lectured about "Medieval Near Eastern Rotted Condiments."
[Perry] had set out loaves of barley dough to rot in various ways, in accordance with instructions in old Arabic cookbooks. After forty days, each smelled unique. The most suitable were wrapped in grape leaves in a loosely lidded container. They were to be used with a rotted whole-wheat flat bread from a health-food store to make bunn. The loaves of barley dough "were surprisingly white throughout most of their volume, and smelled faintly but not unpleasantly of rot," he reported. "The bread had rotted vigorously, and in the end looked like a furry black kitten with pink patches." These rots Perry then ground and sifted to make the bunn, which "developed a curious richness of aroma, like that of a ripe salami, after a week," he said. "It had a loathsome appearance but was agreeable to taste, if not a delicacy by my standards." Perry concluded by wondering aloud why these condiments had disappeared. Much of his audience was apparently wondering why he had not disappeared, and one listener rose to congratulate him on his survival.
Hofstadter marvels at the adventuresome tastes of the lecturers:
Many of these foods were not only strange but also unpalatable -- even, in some cases, inedible ... Past and present symposiasts had trumpeted their consumption of -- among other items -- bear's paw, "properly rancid" yak butter, fermented fish liquid, viper in chicken broth, house cat, fox, owl, ground bats' wings, pressed lizards, pangolin, Spanish fly, and frog's ovaries, not to mention sheep's-tail fat and medieval Arab rotted-grain condiments. Was there nothing they wouldn't put in their mouths?
Apparently not.

--Quotes from Dan Hoftstadter's "Omnivores." The New Yorker, April 25, 1988.

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The Mysterious East

Just read a long and very boring essay about China's "Long River," the Yangzi. The two things that stuck out:

[My Chinese wife] had warned me that the more conservative Chinese -- particularly those in the countryside -- would look askance at any public show of affection or solicitude, such as my holding her arm when we crossed a street. Though she promised not to walk behind me, in traditional Chinese fashion, she did make me agree not to help her up if she slipped and fell, explaining that it would be far more appropriate for me simply to stand by and laugh.
More amusing was a passing reference to one of the categories into which people in China were classified during the Cultural Revolution (and probably before then as well, as the categories may have predated it). In the 1980s, as economic reforms took hold, the reputations of various categories, such as "capitalists," were being "rehabilitated." They were able to "recover former assets and properties as a result," but not so for "the 'stinking ninth class' -- the intellectuals, who possess little beyond what's in their heads ..."

Stinking ninth class. How's that for a résumé-builder?

--Quotations from "The Long River," by Robert Shaplen. The New Yorker, August 8, 1988.

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Wednesday, December 19, 2007

John McPhee on Stopping Volcanic Lava

In 1988, McPhee published a two-part essay on what was the only successful human intervention to divert flowing volcanic lava (to that date, at least - don't know if this has changed): a battle waged in 1973 by Icelanders to keep lava flowing out of a new volcano from filling up a key harbor. They did this by spraying the flowing lava with water. Cooled lava formed hard walls, which would direct, to some extent, new lava flows.

And if that sounds easy, it wasn't. McPhee is clear that the victory was equivocal -- though they saved the harbor, they lost much of the town (buried under many feet of new, cooling rock); many inhabitants fled the island, never to return; and in many ways they were just plain lucky.

There are some amazing descriptions though, of what it was like to be up on top of the flow, working on a thin skin of barely-cooled lava with pipes, hoses, and bulldozers amid clouds of steam-fog, while being pelted with falling ash (think hot pea gravel that can cut skin and leave burns) and lava "bombs" -- just-solidified rock with molten cores that often exploded -- falling around them that sometimes weighed as much as a third of a ton.

A large part of these operations -- including, eventually, the coordination of the pumping crews -- was directed by the Icelandic fire chief of the American base at Keflavik ... This was a slender man of deceptively mild aspect, vaguely professorial, appearing like a genie through his own pipe smoke. He sometimes wore a uniform, with stripes that suggested military rank, but he was an Icelander, not a soldier, and in any case, no width or number of stripes could ever have conveyed the status he acquired on the island. Sent by the Civil Defense to help in the emergency, he quickly assumed command of one unit after another, until his de-facto rank had outflown eagles and was far into the stars. His name was Sveinn Eiriksson, but no one much used it. On Heimaey, in the battle, he was known universally as Patton.
--From John McPhee's "The Control of Nature: Cooling the Lava." The New Yorker, February 22, 1988, p. 51, later collected in The Control of Nature.

The essay was originally published in two parts, in the February 22nd and February 29th issues of The New Yorker. The second half is much weaker than the first, as the narrative falters and McPhee includes random anecdotes that appear to be taken straight from his unedited notes. (Hard as it is to imagine, somebody at The New Yorker fell asleep at the wheel.) Reading this piece reminded me that as much as I admire McPhee for his restless curiosity, and the way in which he's able to make the unusual, obscure, and mundane interesting and educational, he's not a very good editor of his own work. The guy blurts it onto the page, shapes some of it, and then he's off to the next assignment. That said, I'll keep reading him -- I rather welcome his periodic eruptions.

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Sunday, December 16, 2007

The Limits of Author Interviews

The usual practice, when invited to write the introduction to an anthology, is to praise its contents. How refreshing to come across an introduction that finds most of the volume under discussion wanting (and manages also to achieve resonance well beyond the book under discussion):

Some of the Americans in this book are perhaps a little too eager to explain themselves. All that has ever really happened to them, one feels, is the experience of being writers. When they talk about themselves, these "selves" become sacred objects. As so often happens with Americans, the terror of failure hangs over them ... By contrast, Blaise Cendrars seems carelessly bountiful of everything, and recounts his life, his friends, his many countries and adventures simply as anecdote and observation, for the pleasure of talking about them. His interview makes an extraordinary impression on us who are saturated in literature: this is not merely a writer seeking to be a writer, this is a man who has lived.
-Alfred Kazin, in the introduction to Writers at Work, The Paris Review Interviews, Third Series, 1967.

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Didion the Slow Learner

A while back, I praised Joan Didion's style, which led me to catch up on some of her recent writing and her interviews (in 1978 and 2006) from The Paris Review. The thing about Didion is that she seems to have sprung, like Athena, from the brow of Zeus. Everything she's published is so clearly, distinctively hers, that it's hard to believe she ever suffered a moment's doubt about her craft.

I suppose I should find it encouraging or heartwarming to read that Didion does suffer such doubts, but oddly, I find it merely ... doubtful. But see for yourself. Here she is, from the 1978 interview, talking about her novel, Run River:

It's got a lot of sloppy stuff. Extraneous stuff. Words that don't work. Awkwardness. Scenes that should have been brought up, scenes that should have been played down. But then Play It As It Lays has a lot of sloppy stuff. I haven't reread Common Prayer, but I'm sure that does, too. [It doesn't.]
Actually, I didn't much care for either Run River or Play It As It Lays when I attempted them years ago, but to suggest that Book of Common Prayer is sloppy --!

Well all right, then: may all writers be cursed with such messiness.

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What's Wrong with The Bonfire of the Vanities

I'm a fan of Tom Wolfe's, if by that you mean a fan of his classic journalism - The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, and The Right Stuff, both of which I read in high school. And though I don't agree with his anti-Modernist ranting in The Painted Word and From Bauhaus to Our House, I enjoy his brio.

What soured me on his work was The Bonfire of the Vanities, in part because I found his ideas about what novels should be terribly limiting. What with all the hoopla over his Harper's essay on this topic that presaged the appearance of "Bonfire," and the subsequent barrage of publicity that accompanied the book's eventual publication, I began to realize that Wolfe was an aesthetic and moral bully. And truth be told, when I read the book in 1988, I wasn't terribly impressed: it was engrossing, but it was populated with thinly-drawn characters, mere counters to be moved around the board in the service of Wolfe's satire. It didn't stick with me.

How satisfying, then, to learn that I wasn't alone in my feelings about it when I ran across Terrence Rafferty's respectful demolition of Bonfire, which came out at the time. Rafferty begins his review by addressing the bold panache with which Wolfe debuted as a novelist:

... he's not about to come on all insecure and timid and terrified of committing a gaffe, as if he were just another eager arriviste. Bearing this gigantic book, he crashes the novelists' party, and it's as if a professional wrestler in full signature regalia had suddenly appeared, waving his arms and declaiming and hurling people to the floor: he makes a big impression.
The book, Rafferty says,
... allows Wolfe to show off his talents as a listener and an observer: he knows how to cram scenes full of visual and verbal details without slowing the momentum of the narrative, so the novel seems rich and generous while we're reading it. But why does it feel so thin when we're done with it? Dazzled by the flamboyant performance, we may still wonder, when the wrestler has finally left the room, what the hell that was all about.
Aye, laddie. Done and dusted.

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Origin of "Honesty is the Best Policy"

Just read a long biographical essay/review by John Updike about Benjamin Franklin -- worth reading in its own right -- and ran across this interesting tidbit:

Among the assertions of Poor Richard is not "Honesty is the best policy;" this saying dates from the sixteenth century and appears in the "Apophthegms" [sic] of Archbishop Whately of Dublin, with an interesting second thought: "Honesty is the best policy; but he who is governed by the maxim is not an honest man."
--From "Many Bens," by John Updike, The New Yorker, February 22, 1988.

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Sunday, December 02, 2007

Vicki Hearne on Cats

I used to hear older experimenters advising younger ones about working with cats. It seems that under certain circumstances if you give cats a problem to solve or a task to perform in order to find food they work it out pretty quickly. But, as I heard, "the trouble is that as soon as they figure out that the researcher or technician wants them to push the lever they stop doing it; some of them will starve to death rather than do it."

That result fascinated me -- I would have dropped everything in order to find out what the cats were trying to do or say to the researchers. After all, when human beings behave that way we come up with a pretty fancy catalogue of virtues in order to account for it. But, of course, I was stupidly supposing that the point of these efforts was to understand animals, and it wasn't at all. The point was simply to Do Science, or so I began to suspect when I heard one venerable professor tell a young researcher, "Don't use cats. They'll screw up your data."

-from Vickie Hearne's "Questions about Language," Part II. The New Yorker, August 25, 1986.

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Vicki Hearne on Language about Animals

... [I]n the trainers' world different kinds of animals exist from the ones that I heard and read about in the university. For the trainer, there are hot working Airedales, dutiful and reliable German Shepherds, horses with intense, fiery, and competitive temperaments, other horses who are irredeemably dishonest. In the universities, there were more or less Cartesian creatures of uncertain pedigree, revised by uncertain interpreters of Freud and Jung, which may be why animals are invoked in the world of letters in general to mark "primitive" and usually unsavory impulses, while in the trainers' world they are more like characters in James Thurber, who insisted that in his work dogs represented "intelligence and repose." The trainers' language was ... the right language, the philosophically responsible language.
--"Questions about Language," by Vicki Hearne, The New Yorker, August 18, 1986, p. 38.

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