Saturday, October 18, 2008

John Stuart Mill and P.G. Wodehouse

I had to chuckle when Adam Gopnik used a character from P.G. Wodehouse's Blandings Castle books to make a point about John Stuart Mill in a recent review of a biography about Mill:

"When someone says that proof of God's existence can be found in Nature, [Mill] doesn't say it's bosh. He asks what this would actually entail if it were true, and infers that such a creator would have to be limited, inept, well-meaning, forgetful, and in a daily contest with another power: 'A Being of great but limited power ... who desires, and pays some regard to, the happiness of his creatures, but who seems to have some other motives of action which he cares more for, and who can hardly be supposed to have created the universe for that purpose alone.' What natural theology, taken seriously, shows is not the great Watchmaker or the All-Seeing Jove but the absent-minded Landlord, a sort of eternal Lord Emsworth, who, though he helps the young lovers, cares mainly about his pig."


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Sunday, September 14, 2008


David Foster Wallace is dead at 46.

My feelings about his writing have always been, I admit, clouded by my jealousy: though my age, Wallace was smarter, more talented, more knowledgeable, and more successful than I. Nevertheless, he could have been better still, more disciplined, less derivative; I knew it, and now I'm afraid he did, too.

My guess? He had the writer's disease -- perfectionism -- so that whatever heights he scaled, they were never high enough, what he wrote never good enough. No doubt he struggled with depression most of his adult life (the episode in the mental ward we now know about, if we didn't before) ... but it shouldn't have ended this way. I'm so sorry to hear this news. DFW was among the most admired writers of his generation, and it wasn't enough for him. That's depression, not narcissism, and it killed him. (Don't let it take you the same way -- even if it means giving up writing. I speak from experience on this one.)

Weirdly, in the week leading up to Wallace's death, I received a statistically unlikely number of submissions to The King's English from fans who cited him as one of their favorite writers. Usually, authors submitting to the journal choose from a broad and eclectic band of authors, but not this week. This week, it was evenly divided between Faulkner's Absalom! Absalom! and David Foster Wallace. Who knows why? It's just a coincidence, but now of course it feels like an anticipatory tribute, so I want to share it. Here's what our authors had to say:

"Best novella? I'm inclined towards Salinger... but truly I have to go with the so way ambitious early work of David Foster Wallace, "Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way". It's in his first story collection, Girl with Curious Hair, and it's the high point of the collection. The other is his short story "Little Expressionless Animals," which features Alex Trebec and the silent Merv Griffin as characters. Freaking brilliant." -PR

"Favorite personal essays: David Foster Wallace understands and conveys the complexities of human subjectivity so well, I love when his essays move in the direction of memoir. If his 'Roger Federer as Religious Experience' can be counted as a personal essay, I might call it my favorite. - SFP

"My favorite collection of personal essays is, by far, David Foster Wallace's A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again. It's what got me into non-fiction, even though I write nothing like him. The title essay and the one on the state fair are the best." -- KB

RIP, Mr. Wallace.

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Saturday, July 12, 2008

How to Get Published

Today's homily proves that word-of-mouth is the best way to get your book published -- it even works if your book doesn't exist. Case in point: a hoax perpetrated in the 1950s, when a radio DJ named Jean Shepherd encouraged his listeners to go into bookstores and ask for a fictitious book. He gave them an invented title -- I, Libertine -- author, and plot outline ... and he sent people into the streets to talk about it.

Somebody decided that it made sense to publish a book fitting its description, because noted sci-fi author Theodore Sturgeon wrote it, and you can get it here. And here's a brief entry about the hoax and a link to an MP3 of Jean Shepherd recounting the whole hoax (verrry slowly) on the radio in 1968.

UPDATE: I now see that Boing Boing posted about this, which is sort of like being scooped by the New York Times.

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Thereby Hangs a Tail

In Emily Pecora's recent profile in Polite magazine of two Pennsylvania philanthropists -- two brothers -- I found a story so ripe with implication that I had to share it:

In October of 2004, a federal grand jury indicted Jeremy Sommers, Lansford’s K-9 officer, for planting narcotics during searches utilizing the drug-sniffing dog the brothers had donated. The Lansford city council, which had never been sure the town needed a drug-sniffing dog in the first place, [my emphasis] placed an ad in the classified section of the Times News announcing the dog’s sale.

... Jeremy Sommers was sentenced to twenty-three months in prison and a $4,000 fine and my hometown of Hazleton put in a bid to buy the dog.
Now, this is purely a flight of fancy, but what if Jeremy Sommers took a real shine to the unnamed K-9? Perhaps the dog was good and true and loyal, at a time when Mr. Sommers' personal life (I'm making all this up) was a shambles? Let's say his mother, his sole surviving parent, had advanced Alzheimer's and his girlfriend had betrayed him, and his buddies down at the bar had been giving him the cold shoulder ever since he became a cop ...

And now he's assigned to the dog, who turns out to be smart enough to star in the movies, a helluva partner. They're a great team -- except, see, there's no drugs for the pooch to find! What then?

The Chief starts breathing down the cop's neck because the City Council wants stats on the dog's success rate, and the mayor needs to send a report to the brothers who put up the money for the dog in the first place, so they feel like they did the Right Thing, that the money was well-spent, and now everybody's coming down like a ton of bricks on this poor cop, who only wants to hang on to the dog, that good dog that's been doing its job well but with absolutely no drug busts to show for it ... What then? He plants the drugs, so he can keep the dog ...

All fancy, I'm sorry to say, based on the fragments of news accounts I can find online, but I like my version better. It's heartwarming -- that is, if you're not the poor sap who got framed. But notice how, with only a few details, I automatically created an explanatory narrative? We human beings do love our stories.

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Thursday, July 03, 2008

Arthur Phillips on the British Museum

Just read - or skimmed, actually - Arthur Phillips' The Egyptologist. (You may recall that his debut novel, Prague, got quite a lot of publicity.) It opened fine, but one of the novel's main narrators got to be quite a bore (as several of the other character correctly complain). His delusional, self-centered world is appropriate enough - required, actually, for the novel's story logic to work - but even Nabokov (Phillips' model here) couldn't do much to retain one's interest in such characters. They're shrill, I find, and largely unsympathetic. (Not that Nabokov would've cared a Christly fig for a reader's sympathy, which would explain why Nabokov is (I suspect) more admired than read, Lolita notwithstanding.) Although the final ironic turns of The Egyptologist cast everything that has gone before in a tragic and moving light, the fact that it's obvious from very early on that one of the main characters is masquerading under a false identity (and I'm not good at deducing such things) rather undermines the impact.

But I took great delight in the mini-essay Phillips wrote for the "reader's guide" that appears at the back of the paperback edition of my copy of The Egyptologist, in which he praises the invaluable assistance he got from an expert at the British Museum, courtesy of the internet, answering questions that were often arcane:

If you should decide to write a novel about a topic you know almost nothing about, a scholarly discipline requiring years to master, if you feel compelled to set the story in a land you've scarcely visited, during an era you can only dimly conjure from childhood reading and yellowed clippings, if you have followed your hyperactive and petulant imagination down a rabbit hole and there gazed at glowing, magical projections of inverted pyramids and pith-helmeted lunatics and pharaohs with unconventional appetites, but found little by way of actual knowledge, rest easy, because at the British Museum you will make a new friend: an expert who not only knows everything, but who is required -- yes, required -- to answer all your e-questions, no matter how many, how foolish, how wrong-headed, fantastic, or just downright dirty.

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Thursday, June 26, 2008

Bleak House. Moody. Noir-ish.

Ever read Dickens' Bleak House? Me neither. I've wanted to, ever since my mother told me that someone in the book dies of spontaneous combustion. Being aware that my one-time literary hero Vladimir Nabokov admired the book and wrote about it in his Lectures on Literature, (something else I never got around to reading) only added fuel to the fire.

I resisted until I saw the recent BBC adaptation (excellent, except for a bizarre use of melodramatic jump-cuts) via Netflix, which inspired me to overcome my lifetime of Bleak House-related sloth. I mooched an old hard-bound copy from someone in Australia (it was originally owned, according to the pencil signature on the flyleaf, by one A. Beange in Wellington, New Zealand, who bought it in September 1918). Once I finally started it, I was startled to discover that Dickens opens the book with reams of incomplete sentences:

London. Michaelmas Term lately over, and the Lord Chancellor sitting in Lincoln's Inn Hall. Implacable November weather. As much mud in the streets, as if the waters had but newly retired from the face of the earth, and it would not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn Hill. Smoke lowering down from chimney-pots, making a soft black drizzle, with flakes of soot in it as big as full-grown snow-flakes -- gone into mourning, one might imagine, for the death of the sun. Dogs, undistinguishable in mire. Horses, scarcely better; splashed to their very blinkers ... Fog everywhere.
I almost felt I was reading a moody contemporary thriller. Was Dickens deliberately pushing the form, or was he writing fast, in shorthand, and decided later it could stand? Either way, I sure wish I could've used it in my never-ending arguments with my high school English teacher, who was trying to force me to abandon sentence fragments. (Never did. Loved 'em.)

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Saturday, June 07, 2008

Hilton Als on Jean Stafford

Following closely on the heels of my earlier Emdashes post singing the praises of Jean Stafford's "In the Zoo," The New Yorker featured a story of hers in May's fiction podcast with Hilton Als. It wasn't one of her stronger stories, in my opinion, though The New Yorker seems to like it, since they not only published it the first time, but they reprinted an excerpt in the June 27, 1994 issue, and now feature it on a podcast. De gustibus non est disputandum.

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Shirley Hazzard - When Transit of Venus Was Young

Catching up with my Emdashes posts: I've commented before now on how much I enjoyed re-reading Shirley Hazzard's Transit of Venus. More recently, over on on Emdashes I performed a detailed review of four of Hazzard's stories from The New Yorker which later made up a good chunk of Transit. If I haven't convinced to read it yet, I hope this will do it.

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Lorrie Moore, Read by Louise Erdrich

Catching up with my Emdashes posts: I strongly recommend that you check out the fiction podcast. In particular, I can't say enough good things about Louise Erdrich's reading of Lorrie Moore's story, "Dance in America." Phor phun, phollow the link!

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Catching Up

I've been remiss about cross-posting from Emdashes. So the next few will be re-posts of recent things I've done over there. For those of you who've already seen them, I apologize for the repetition.

I've been consumed with reading a fantasy series by Steven Erikson, which begins with Gardens of the Moon. (Pictured is the second volume in the series, Deadhouse Gates.) It's not up to the mark set by George R. R. Martin, but it's pretty good, if you like the grim stuff. Erikson's not nearly as casual about offing major characters as Martin is, but the bodies pile up by the thousands, and his characters all have a tendency to muse on mortality -- in fact, they all sound like TheSilver Surfer. Still, this is a series where the backstory grows more complex with each succeeding volume, and Erikson's imagination is epic in scope and grandeur. Once he gets going, he's a lot of fun, provided you have stomach for martial epics, and every other person seems to herald new and terrible forces unleashed upon the land. (I keep giving him left-handed compliments, but the fact is, I'm closing in on p. 900 of volume 3 of his 10+ volume epic, so the guys' got something going for him.)

Anyhow, all this to explain why, in part, my posts have been even scarcer than usual.

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Thursday, June 05, 2008

The King's English in Top 12 Online Literary Journals

... at least if you rank them by the number of stories nominated for the Million Writers Award. Congratulations to the other journals on that list; on behalf of the editors of The King's English, however, I want to let out a dignified, cultured, "Wahoo!"

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Saturday, May 24, 2008

Muriel Spark Sparks

I've been re-reading Muriel Spark's Loitering with Intent and discovering (after an interval of perhaps 20 years), that it's not at all the sweet confection I remember it. Or rather, it is full of all those sharp edges Spark is known for, odd word choices and original (or just plain odd) ideas.

First, an example of odd word choice. The narrator, speaking about her name, "Fleur," says:

"Not that I looked bad, it was only that Fleur wasn't the right name, and yet it was mine as are the names of those melancholy Joys, those timid Victors, the inglorious Glorias and materialistic Angelas one is bound to meet in the course of a long life of change and infiltration; and once I met a Lancelot who, I assure you, had nothing to do with chivalry."
Um, a long life of ... infiltration? This reveals, I believe, the narrator's view of herself with regard to others. Like Spark, she is a writer, and seems to view others solely as exhibits, opportunities to plunder for her art. Still, it's a bizarre word to see in this context, and it takes a while for it to make any sense.

And here's an example of an idea I found striking:
... [W]hat I found common to the members of Sir Quentin's remianing group was their weakness of character. To my mind this is no more to be despised than is physical weakness. We are not all born heroes and athletes.
I've never decided on an attitude about people's flaws, whereas Fleur appears to have considered the question and come to a point of view. True to life or not, I find it fascinating whenever I encounter a character or author who seems to have consciously arrived at an opinion about something which I've left unexamined. (Since I leave a lot unexamined, this isn't difficult.)

UPDATE: Here's a couple more instances where Spark inserts material into her story that, well, stands out:
He gave me what he said was the usual form of contract, on a printed sheet, and it wasn't such a bad contract nor was it a good one. Only, I found later by personal espionage that his firm ... had a private printing press on which they produced "the usual form of contract" to suit whatever they could get away with for each individual author.
"Personal espionage" is an odd phrase to begin with (one must take a moment to decide that "espionage" alone wouldn't have done, because it would have connoted a shadowy network of hirelings, but it's a pause a reader shouldn't need to make use of), but what's odder about the phrase is what it says about the narrator. In the course of the story, it becomes clear (or seems to) that the narrator's publisher and several other people are conspiring to suppress her first novel. In these circumstances, one can imagine why she might be driven to "espionage," though it's never made clear when she might have done this, or why she bothered. One is left with the suspicion that our narrator is paranoid and sneaky, and Spark intended this. What she seems to have had in mind was a roman à clef in which she modeled the ruthlessness that had been necessary to her own development as a writer.

Here's a short passage that hints at this:
When people say that nothing happens in their lives I believe them. But you must understand that everything happens to an artist; time is always redeemed, nothing is lost and wonders never cease.
At a minimum, it seems to reveal her narrator's self-centeredness; it's a tempting leap to assume the same was true of Spark herself.

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Sunday, May 11, 2008

Shirley Hazzard On Being Caught In Flagrante Delicto

Here's the set-up: one afternoon in the 1950s, Paul Ivory, who is engaged to marry Tertia Drage, has just bedded Caroline Bell (and she him) on a lazy afternoon when they think no one will be about. Their idyll is disturbed, however, when Tertia drives up to the house and calls out for him. To forestall her from entering the house, Paul leaps to the window and speaks to her, pretending he is alone.

Paul was at the window now. He was leaning out, laconic. "Good God." He was smiling and leaning and making room for his casual elbows. 'Anything up?' There was the hard intimacy of tone, the naturalness with which he did not use her name. If he had even added so much as "Tertia."

Tertia Drage came right below the window: a pink dress, an upraised face. Perhaps she had not expected Paul to appear at once, but showed no surprise and, despite the standing down there, no sense of disadvantage. Any more than Paul did -- standing easy in, merely, the shirt and tie; and, as far as Tertia was concerned, fully dressed ...
Tertia says it's a beautiful afternoon, they should do something, Paul asks what they should do.
She raised a derisory hand. "You know the possibilities as well as I."

...Out of sight below the window Paul Ivory's bare feet had crossed themselves, negligent as his folded arms. Small fair hairs curled on his naked thighs. "Nothing too arduous," he said, or was saying, when from the fixing of Tertia's limbs he knew that Caro stood beside him.

He knew that Caro had come up behind him and was by his side at the window. Her bare shoulder, perfectly aloof, touched his own. He did not turn, but, as if he himself were Tertia Drage, saw Caro standing naked beside him at that high window and looking down; looking down on the two of them. It was he and Tertia, and Caroline Bell looking down on them. Caro's hand rested on the sill. She was wearing nothing but a small round watch.

Moments passed, or did not pass. Tertia stood impassive. Only that arm stayed raised, her gloved fist clenched and extended like a falconer's. She was looking straight up at Paul; not staring but looking hard and fast at him only. She said, "It's up to you."

"I"ll come down."

For perhaps the first time they met each other's eyes.

At the window Caro did not move. Paul withdrew and took up the rest of his clothes. His departure exposed completely the upper part of her body. Flesh-coloured light was striking her shoulder and making reddish streaks in heavy hair that fell over the collar-bone. Below, Tertia was walking round the car and opening the door. She got in, leaving the driver's seat free. In the room above, the bed creaked as Paul pulled on his canvas shoes. With no more than normal haste he took his own watch from the top of the bureau, glancing at it as he strapped it on. He might have been late for an appointment.
Yeow! I love the charged atmosphere of this confrontation, the heart-stopping moment when Caro appears at the window, and the utterly casual way in which Tertia and Paul indirectly seal their cynical union, and Caro's claim on Paul is obliterated.

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Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Richard Price on Masterpieces of Dread

The walls of the waiting room were hung with black-and-white cautionary posters, encircling Strike with admonitions, the subjects ranging from AIDS to pregnancy to crack to alcohol, each one a little masterpiece of dread. Strike hated posters. If you were poor, posters followed you everywhere -- health clinics, probation offices, housing offices, day care centers, welfare offices -- and they were always blasting away at you with warnings to do this, don't do that, be like this, don't be like that, smarten up, control this, stop that.

--From p. 403, Richard Price's Clockers.

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Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Million Writers Award - My Personal Top 10 Online Short Stories for 2007

This year, I was honored to serve as a preliminary judge for the annual Million Writers contest run by storySouth. The initial list of "notable" stories of 2007 has been posted. I highly recommend you check it out.

Each of the judges was asked to pick 10 stories from the 500+ stories nominated by editors and readers, and I thought I'd share my list with you. (I had to leave out the stories I nominated for
The King's English, of course. Here they are, in no particular order:

“Arms Akimbo: A Gest,” by Corey Mesler, Menda City Review

"The Teacher," by Paul Tremblay, ChiZine

“The Beacon,” by Darja Malcolm-Clarke, Clarkesworld Magazine

Steiner Requests His Hole Be Dug in Poland," by D.E. Fredd, Eclectica

“Oma Dortchen and Pillar of Story,” by David J. Schwartz, Farrago’s Wainscot

"Notes on the Necromantic Symphony" by Yoon Ha Lee, Farrago’s Wainscot

"Janet, Meet Bob" by Gavin J. Grant, Lone Star Stories

“Intellectual Property,” by Angela Woodward, Monkeybicycle

Malibu,” by Spencer Dew, Thieves Jargon

“Bones,” by Jon Michaud, Fawlt

“The Home Front,” by Paul Silverman, Eclectica

---Happy reading!

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Saturday, April 12, 2008

Translations from the British

Got a new post up over on Emdashes. There's been a fair amount of fiction published by Brits in The New Yorker lately, with a certain amount of lingo I'd not come across before. I'm fairly Anglophilic in my reading tastes, so that's saying something. Figured I'd help make the world all tickety-boo by translating for the masses. Enjoy.

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Thursday, April 10, 2008

How Would Books Look to a Culture Built Entirely on Videogames?

From a review of Steven Johnson's Everything Bad is Good for You:

It doesn't seem right, of course, that watching "24" or playing a video game could be as important cognitively as reading a book. Isn't the extraordinary success of the "Harry Potter" novels better news for the culture than the equivalent success of "Grand Theft Auto III?" Johnson's response is to imagine what cultural critics might have said had video games been invented hundreds of years ago, and only recently had something called the book been marketed aggressively to children:

"Reading books chronically understimulates the senses. Unlike the longstanding tradition of gameplaying--which engages the child in a vivid, three-dimensional world filled with moving images and musical soundscapes, navigated and controlled with complex muscular movements--books are simply a barren string of words on the page....

Books are also tragically isolating. While games have for many years engaged the young in complex social relationships with their peers, building and exploring worlds together, books force the child to sequester him or herself in a quiet space, shut off from interaction with other children....

But perhaps the most dangerous property of these books is the fact that they follow a fixed linear path. You can't control their narratives in any fashion--you simply sit back and have the story dictated to you....This risks instilling a general passivity in our children, making them feel as though they're powerless to change their circumstances. Reading is not an active, participatory process; it's a submissive one."
--From "Brain Candy," by Malcolm Gladwell, The New Yorker, May 16, 2005, p. 89.

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Friday, March 14, 2008

New Post on Louise Erdrich's Demolition Derby

Okay, so I've been AWOL. I've been invited to be a guest columnist on Emdashes, a classy fan site for The New Yorker, covering New Yorker fiction. My latest post, on stories by Louise Erdrich, Haruki Murakami, Thomas Meehan, and William Gaddis, went up a few days ago. I've also done posts on Jean Stafford's awesome story, "In the Zoo"; another on three not-so-awesome stories by John Updike, E. L. Doctorow, and T.C. Boyle; one on who's published the most stories in The New Yorker; and another linking to some audio/video of the delightful essayist Adam Gopnik and short story master Mavis Gallant.

(Incidentally, if you're wondering why the column's called "The Katherine Wheel," it's because Katherine White was the first fiction editor at The New Yorker, and of course Catherine Wheel has the dual meaning of being an instrument of torture and a kind of firework, which aptly describes the possibilities inherent in any piece of fiction ... )

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Sunday, March 02, 2008

Isaac Babel on Good Writing

From one of my favorite short stories:

"A phrase is born into the world both good and bad at the same time. the secret lies in a slight, an almost invisible twist. The lever should rest in your hand, getting warm, and you can only turn it once, not twice."

--Isaac Babel, "Guy de Maupassant," trans. by Walter Morison. From The Collected Stories of Isaac Babel.

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Thursday, February 28, 2008

The King's English in the Top 25 Online Literary Journals

As you may know, Jason Sanford of storySouth runs The Million Writers Award every year to bring attention to the best fiction being published online. The King's English has won its award for Best Online Publisher of Novella-Length Fiction three years in a row.

Recently, Jason posted an analysis of the results of the last four years of the contest -- and The King's English came in 24th on the list. Not bad, I think; proud to be in the company of so many other distinguished journals.

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Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Charles Bock's Novel, "Beautiful Children" - Download for Free

No idea if first-time author Charles Bock's novel, "Beautiful Children," deserves the hype it's been getting. (In fact, I've not seen any actual hype, just reports of hype -- meta-hype, if you will.) But Random House has done a very interesting thing: they're making the entire book available free for download for a short time -- the offer ends Friday.

I think this is a very smart move; indicative of a media company figuring out that sharing things for free, even for a short time, helps people try it out and recommend it to others. I can only imagine this will increase sales of the book. (Because very few people are going to read the entire thing on-screen.)

Download Beautiful Children here.

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Sunday, February 17, 2008

New Essay Posted on The King's English

We're slowly accumulating material for a new issue of The King's English. Rather than do it the Old Media way, and wait for everything to come in before posting any new material, we've decided to "get with it," as the young folks say (which emoticon signifies self-deprecating irony, again?) and start publishing new fiction, essays, and poetry as we ready them for publication. Haven't decided to do away entirely with the concept of "issues" yet, but we might get there.

In the mean time, you've got a treat: James Francis' highly amusing brief essay, "Drawing Lesson." Pencils ready, class!

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Wednesday, February 13, 2008

A Few More Bon Mots from Shirley Hazzard

As I mentioned, I've been re-reading Shirley Hazzard's The Transit of Venus. She's not note-perfect, but damned close. Her densely allusive, imagistic narrative is haunting and compelling. A few more bon mots:

Having been at someone's else's mercy suggests that mercy may matter (60-61).
The pain was an extension of experience, so new and astonishing as to have intellectual interest (207).

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Shirley Hazzard Has My Number

I don't of course fall into the category of critic described below, but all the same: Ouch!

The introduction to the exhibition catalogue had been written by a leading -- or major, or brilliant -- critic. Caro read out a sentence and asked, "What does it mean?"

Vail looked over her shoulder. "They come to think they've had something to do with painting the pictures."

--Shirley Hazzard, The Transit of Venus, p. 191.

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Shirley Hazzard on Mass Production

Been re-reading Shirley Hazzard's exquisite The Transit of Venus (1980) again, aproximately 22 years after I first read it and inexplicably shrugged it off as insufficiently impressive. (What was I thinking? All I can say is that I hadn't read enough, and certainly hadn't experienced enough. I was callow.) Here's her inimitable description of Australian children confronting mass-produced junk for the first time:

One morning a girl whose father had been in America for Munitions came to school with nibless pens that wrote both red and blue, pencils with lights attached, a machine that would emboss a name -- one's own for preference - and pencil sharpeners in clear celluloid. And much else of a similar cast. Set out on a classroom table, these silenced even Miss Holster. The girls leaned over, picking up this and that: Can I turn it on, how do you work it, I can't get it to go back again. No one could say these objects were ugly, even the crayon with the shiny red flower, for they were spread on the varnished table like flints from an age unborn, or evidence of life on Mars. A judgment on their attractiveness did not arise: their power was conclusive, and did not appeal for praise.

It was the first encounter with calculated uselessness. No one had ever wasted anything. Even the Lalique on Aunt Edie's sideboard, or Mum's Balibuntl, were utterly functional by contrast, serving an evident cause of adornment, performing the necessary, recognized role of extravagance. The natural accoutrements of their lives were now seen to have been essentials -- serviceable, workaday -- in contrast to these hard, high-coloured, unblinking objects that announced, though brittle enough, the indestructibility of infinite repetition.
--Shirley Hazzard, The Transit of Venus, p. 47.

Can you imagine a more poetic description of mass-produced objects? Counter-examples will be considered; I await your favor.

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Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Rebecca West - Tart and Acid

More evidence in Black Lamb and Grey Falcon of Rebecca West’s dry wit and acid tongue. First, the dry (or tart). Speaking of the emperor Diocletian, she observes,

It would have been easier for him if what we were told when we were young was true, and that the decay of Rome was due to immorality. Life, however, is never as simple as that, and human beings rarely so potent. There is so little difference between the extent to which any large number of people indulge in sexual intercourse, when they indulge in it without inhibitions and when they indulge in it with inhibitions, that it cannot often be a determining factor in history (145).

(She goes on to add, wisely, “The exceptional person may be an ascetic or a debauchee, but the average man finds celibacy and sexual excess equally difficult.”)

The acid comes into play when West goes on to describe the abuse and bloody violence to which Diocletian’s daughter was eventually subjected after her brutish husband died. She refused to marry another powerful man, who then brought “fraudulent legal proceedings against her. All her goods were confiscated, her household was broken up, some of her women friends were killed, and she and the boy Candidianus were sent into exile in the deserts of Syria. It is only in some special and esoteric sense that women are the protected sex” (147-8).


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Monday, January 21, 2008

Bonfliglioli's Wit - Redux

I just got my hands on another volume by Kyril Bonfiglioli, whom I quoted at length a while back. Nobody beats this guy for sly wit. Here’s an example.

After being violently chased from the scene of a romantic assignation, Karli – the peerless rogue and star of Bonfiglioli’s 1978 All The Tea In China– meets up with the object of his second assignation of the night:

“Karli,” she murmured as we drew apart after our first frantic embrace, “why does your heart thump so?”

“For love of you,” I lied valiantly. “It always thumps so when you are near, dearest one.”

“I am so happy that you feel so,” she said, still murmuring, “because I have such a wonderful piece of new for us.” My heart missed a thump. I cocked an ear for the baying of [pursuing] hounds but there was only the rustle of magnolia leaves, and two hearts beating as one, though for different reasons.

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Sunday, January 13, 2008

Rebecca West on d'Annunzio and Male Privilege

You don't have to know what Italian writer Gabriele d'Annunzio did in Fiume after World War I to enjoy Rebecca West's scorn for him, but if you do, you'll share her disgust (and she has a point, besides):

I will believe that the battle of feminism is over, and that the female has reached a position of equality with the male, when I hear that a country has allowed itself to be turned upside-down and led to the brink of war by its passion for a totally bald woman writer. Years ago, in Florence, I had marvelled over the singular example of male privilege afforded by d'Annunzio. Leaning from a balcony in the Lung' arno I had looked down on a triumphal procession. Bells rang, flags were waved; flowers were thrown, voices swelled in ecstasy; and far below an egg reflected the rays of the May sunshine. Here in Fiume the bald author had been allowed to ruin a city: a bald-headed authoress would never be allowed to build one.
--from p. 124 of Black Lamb and Grey Falcon.

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Saturday, January 12, 2008

West's Voice of Authority

I've mentioned before, in a previous post on Rebecca West's Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, that West is authoritative in a way we don't see anymore. Her cultural references and some of her witticisms are built upon certainties about what she shares with her audience, certainties no one writing today could possibly share -- but also on an apparent confidence that she knows everything required for the subject, and what she doesn't know, she can learn so thoroughly that there will be no room (or need) for disagreement.

I've been enjoying that voice of hers as I make my way through her book, while at the same time musing on its variability, the way it will suddenly downshift from history lesson to making tender fun of someone, then climb swiftly to scorn for the Hungarians (who had so recently been overlords in Croatia). Consequently, I found Cynthia Ozick's observations on T.S. Eliot's voice particularly relevant:

That charm of intimacy and the easy giving of secrets which we like to associate with essayists -- Montaigne, Lamb, Hazlitt, George Orwell, and Virigina Woolf when the mood struck her -- was not Eliot's. As in what is called the "familiar" essay, Eliot frequently said "I," but it was an "I" set in ice cut from the celestial vault: uninsistent yet incontestable, serenely sovereign. It seemed to take its power from erudition, and, in part, it did. But really this power derived from some proud inner figuration or incarnation -- as if Literature itself had been summoned to speak in its own voice ...

Who could talk back to that? Such sentences appear[ed] to derive from a source of knowledge -- a congeries of assumptions -- indistinguishable from majesty.
What Ozick is describing is a voice of great remove, of a sort I find dry and immensely unappealing. I like West precisely because she is familiar at times (in fact, her notional assumption that her readers share her erudition draws them closer); after all, who wants to tour Yugoslavia with Literature, forever making drearily icy pronouncements? I'd rather go with a human being, someone who can be out of countenance; someone who's amused, sharp and passionate; someone who will do me the courtesy, however undeserved, of pretending that she's providing me with summaries of medieval Balkan history merely to get me up to speed on a subject I used to know a lot about but have since had to neglect in favor of my efforts to sort out the war in China ...

So shove over, Tom Eliot, you old fraud. When Rebecca West says she's driving us somewhere, I call shotgun.

--Quotation from "T.S. Eliot at 101," The New Yorker, November 20, 1989, p. 138.

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Most Amusing Metaphor of the Week - Rebecca West

From (where else?) Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, in which Rebecca West discusses the daughter of couple she knows:

There was also a daughter, very short, very plump, very gay, an amazing production for the Gregorievitches. It was as if two very serious authors had set out to collaborate and then had published a limerick (118).

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How to Be Certain Your Living Goddess is the Real Thing

Nepal has a 10-year-old living goddess -- the "incarnation of the powerful Hindu deity Taleju." The post rotates among young girls. Selected at a very young age from among the children of a specific village of goldsmiths, the goddess is taken off to live in seclusion until the onset of menses, at which time she returns to normal life, and a new goddess is selected.

I learned all this from an article in a local paper on the current goddess, in which the following fascinating information was included:

"At the age of four, a panel of judges examined her in a series of ancient ceremonies -- checking her horoscope, searching for physical imperfections, and, as a final test, seeing if she would be frightened after a night spent in a room filled with 108 freshly decapitated animal heads. She was not."

--The Asian Reporter, January 1, 2008, p. 5.

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