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About Writing13 Jul 2013 02:07 pm



AGAIN, HARDLY ENOUGH to warrant a mention, but for the last year or so I have taken to using index cards to jot down ideas, big and small, for use in the current book, and often for future projects. They could be language, whole conversations, something as large and overriding as a structural change, or as small as a diagram, but the mobility of the cards and the ease of juxtaposition among them have appealed to me, and never more so than this week.

As I worked on a manuscript, I found myself pausing in the actual line by line revision that usually takes place at this point in the schedule to wonder about changing some bits of the story that required some half dozen or more discrete bits of language and conversation and whatnot, spread throughout the 300-page manuscript. Jotting the things on cards proved so very valuable, as I moved them around on my cleared desk, butted them one up against the other, lining them up exactly, then shifting them up or down depending on when or how the material worked relative to the other card or cards next to it. It was a brilliant and ancient technique, involving pen and card, and it reminded me how some of the old ways are simply easier and more efficient than anything more shiny and recent. I buy cards in bulk now.


About Writing05 Jul 2013 09:32 am


SO, THIS ISN’T MUCH, and hardly a reason to add more to the ocean of words, but the previous post, last December, seems far too long ago, and I feel a need to supersede it, push it down from the top of the page and surface after too long under the water of recent events. Part of the delay was a reworking of the website that happened to toss Friday Book Report to the side, where it got mislaid. It’s now made its way back, intact, and here we are, kneeling, focused, ready to bolt at the sound of the starter’s pistol.



WHAT I’VE BEEN READING is a real hodge-podge of things, all relevant to the current writing—a mystery/thriller/epic that is one-part historical, nine-parts contemporary, all global. My latest find, as those of you who I’ve buttonholed lately will know, is Ian Fleming. In my college years, I read a handful of the books. The Connery films were over by the early seventies, but I remember when the College Theater in Storrs ran Thunderball and You Only Live Twice back to back, and my friend, Bob Rivard, and I stayed through two viewings of each, a total of some nine hours in the theater. The joy of familiarity—knowing exactly the good stuff that was coming and joying in it when it came. In the intervening decades, I’d forgotten much of the books, the brilliant humor and dazzling descriptions of character and place. I guess the Bond stories can be placed among those novels whose deep appeal lies not in the art with which the main character is sketched, but in the people and surroundings that circle him. Bond is all right, as characters go. He thinks, feels, has doubts, gets pretty terribly beaten up, and all that, but the peripheral characters are what stay with the reader.

In Dr. No the Colonial Secretary, a Mr. Pleydell-Smith, is a fellow Bond sees as one of his first Jamaican contacts when he investigates “the Strangways case,” the sudden disappearance of the local secret service agent and his secretary. I don’t know yet if we see the functionary again, but here’s how he comes to us in that early scene: 

After pumping energetically at Bond’s hand and waving vaguely at a chair, Pleydell-Smith walked up and down the room scratching his temple with the stem of his pipe. “Bond. Bond. Bond! Rings a bell. Now let me see. Yes, by jove! You were the chap who was mixed up in that treasure business here. By jove, yes! Four, five years ago. Found the file lying around only the other day. Splendid show. What a lark! I say, wish you’d start another bonfire like that here. Stir the place up a bit.” 

And so on. Pleydell-Smith (who, by the way, is recollecting the earlier Bond escapade of Live and Let Die, published four years earlier) has the stereotypical clipped British colonial way of speaking, but the scratching of the temple . . . so refreshing and visual. Love this stuff. Anyway, back to the thriller epic. Just stretching the old blog muscles. Next up, I’ll be revisiting Thunderball, mainly because of its storyline. Truly, I remember only one line from my reading of it 40 years ago. Something about Bond being underwater.

Christmas20 Dec 2012 12:00 pm


OF ALL THE EARLY Decembers of my childhood, one of the things I remember most is a single, silent ritual by which my father announced the coming of Christmas. Some frosty morning not long after Thanksgiving, but never before December had started, he would pull down from a bookshelf in his study a small battered slipcase, remove a little brown book with a gold holly wreath stamped on its cover, settle into his easy chair, kick up the foot rest, and begin to read to himself.

As I watched his eyes scanning the pages, I could tell that very soon he was not in the room with me anymore. He was in London. It was Christmas Eve. And the year was 1843.

Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol is, in any form, a well-known and well-published seasonal treat. We all know how the old frost-bitten miser Ebenezer Scrooge, “hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire,” is visited by the remorseful ghost of his former partner, Jacob Marley. With the aid of a trio of time-traveling spirits, Jacob offers him “a chance and hope of escaping my fate,” whereupon Scrooge, wanting no more than a good night’s sleep, reluctantly journeys through Christmases past, present, and future on his way to spiritual redemption. By the end of the fable, he has become Uncle Ebenezer, “as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew.”

The Carol is a story full of what Dickens termed the “glorious pageant” of London life, a tale about Scrooge’s poor but contented employee Bob Cratchit, Bob’s hobbled son Tiny Tim, young Scrooge’s kindly old employer Fezziwig, the wretched and wolfish (though decidedly human) creatures Ignorance and Want, fellowship, charity, forbearance, reclamation, and plump, steaming, holly-sprigged plum pudding.

To my father, Dickens’s story was everything that Christmas was about. More to the point, this little brown book was everything that Christmas was about.

While he owned several nicely illustrated editions of Dickens’s fable, including two or three from the early decades of the last century, he never paid much attention to them. They were carefully preserved, unused, on a farther shelf in his library. No. Year after year, he lovingly unsheathed only this one, a drab miniature volume produced sixty years ago by Columbia University Press. And the reason he did was simple.

It was a facsimile of the 1843 first edition.

Although he is rarely given much credit for it, among Dickens’s gargantuan talents was a studied sense of what makes an elegant book. A spat with his publishers Chapman & Hall involving the slumping sales of Martin Chuzzlewit in the fall of 1843 (in a scene lovingly and comically imagined in Calhoun and Heaney’s Dickens’ Christmas Carol After a Hundred Years: A Study in Bibliographic Evidence) caused the author to propose that his new book be published on commission: he would write a short seasonal story, pay all the costs for its production himself, and reap what he felt would be a handy profit, all without incurring further his publishers’ bad feeling. After all, Dickens’s reputation as England’s most popular living novelist ensured a brisk and profitable sale for such a unique holiday item.

So off he went, writing his “little scheme” in October and November. Once done, he supervised the design and printing in early and mid December, including commissioning a set of color plates from the up and coming Punch illustrator John Leech.

The resulting little volume is a bibliographer’s delight. Bound variously in salmon-colored, brown, or cinammon vertically ribbed cloth with gold and blind stamping on the covers and spine, the early editions of the book measured a pocket-sized four and a quarter by six and three quarter inches. The pages were gilt edged all round. Carrying on the metaphor of the carol, the story’s five chapters were named “staves.” With four black and white wood engravings and four hand-colored steel engravings by Leech, this “neat book” sold exceptionally well at newsstands and bookshops throughout London, by various reports selling out its first printing of 6000 copies within days of publication on December 19.

My father’s facsimile was true to most points of the first public issue of that edition. From the red and blue title page, to the tenderly colored engravings, to the quaint “Works of Mr. Charles Dickens” advertisement at the end (which shows us the master in mid-career — it touts only the books from Nickelby up to the thirteenth of twenty projected installments of Chuzzlewit): my father cherished this little book. He knew that the only true way to read Scrooge’s story was as the author designed it to be read.

The lines of text and ornament on the charming two-color title page are not quite parallel. Inside, the handset type, the occasional jerky lines, the misspellings, blobs of ink, alternating lightness and heaviness of impression, spotiness, cracked letters, missing punctuation, broken hyphens: all these imperfections speak not of detatched mechanization and the assembly line, but of inkers and binders and colorers in gaslit printer’s rooms, rushing to get those first six thousand copies to the booksellers, of ink-stained fingers in cold rooms heated only by the toil of workers, and everything suffused with the odor of paint and oil and ink and sweat.

This book is all about a thing made, and in it my father saw what the facsimile publishers over the years must have seen: that a reader of this edition would be ineluctably drawn back through the intervening decades to the Christmas of 1843 — its penetrating foggy air, the icy, wheel-rutted streets and narrow courts of the great black-bricked, black-skied city — to the ghost story Dickens wrote, and finally to Dickens himself. Through the type and the engravings, you become as close to each character “as I am to you,” writes Dickens, “and I am standing in the spirit at your elbow.”

When I open the book to the first page, I learn what my father learned when he purchased the book in 1956: that the full effect of the facsimile begins with Dickens’s very first line.


Marley was dead : to begin with.


No matter how often you read it, the oddness of the line’s punctuation cannot fail to stop you in your tracks. Read silently or aloud, the effect is stunning, even quickening, in a dead sort of way.

Modern editions, many of them, change that colon to a comma, as if to imply that Dickens really didn’t know what he was doing. My father knew, and taught me to know, that by altering that one simple thing, you already begin to lose the essence of the book; modern minds — so certain of their intelligence — begin to pull you into their time and away from Dickens’s.


Year after year, my father brought out this book. Year after year, I was intrigued by it. I remember asking him more than once for permission to read  it. “Only if you promise to be careful,” he said. I did. I was. I like to think my early interest caused him to search for a copy of my own. Sadly, the 1956 Columbia was by then out of print, so he bought me instead a sort of “training” facsimile. Inexpensive, though handsome, it was a bright-red copy produced by the J. G. Ferguson Publishing Company of Chicago.

After my father died, eleven years ago this past January, my mother asked if I wanted any of his books. It’s the way with all of us, I suspect: sorrow mingling with greed that rises at such a statement. Yes, of course. I wanted the Carol.

I little imagined when I pulled the little brown book from his shelf and took it home with me that something quite private and different would begin to work on me.

Apart from the usual scent of all old books, over the seasons and years that it was landlocked in my father’s study, the book’s pages had soaked up the smell of his pipe smoke and the room’s aura of claustrophobia and must, until it was imbued with its own distinctively sweet, intoxicating fragrance. Like the cooped-up air that I imagine pours from the genie’s bottle when you invoke it, this aroma enveloped my senses. Eleven years after the last pipe was smoked, the smell still permeates the pages and haunts me in an almost physical way. It resets the parameters of my present world, and it moves me into the London of 1843, with Scrooge, with Marley, with Bob, and with Dickens.

And also with my father. It’s no irony for me that the book is about reanimating the dead.


Reviewers at the time, many of them, cited the story’s ability to soften the reader to a greater appreciation of the world’s poor and needy, falling in with Scrooge’s nephew’s testament about Christmastide: “though it has never put a scrap of gold and silver in my pocket, I believe that it has done me good, and will do me good; and I say, ‘God bless it!’”

Despite all the “good” being tossed around the season, my father loved the unreconstructed Scrooge best. He made no secret of it; telling us, my mother, brother, and I, that the miser, the growler, the skinflint, the threatener of small carolers — he was the hero of this story. The congealed, facetious old man was hands down far more interesting before the spirits changed him and made him more or less normal. If the earlier Scrooge is cruel, misanthropic, heartless (attributes doubtless admired by certain mid-century fathers), he is also energetic, purposed, and fun as only a nasty creature can be. Maybe my father saw in the raw Scrooge a sense of possibility: after all, the potential of perfection can only exist in an imperfect thing. Maybe he just liked bad Scrooge’s sense of mischief.


If immersing himself in the Carol each year was for my father something of a retreat from the world (and no doubt he loved this little book for that), in a larger sense the story is Dickens’s most eloquent and natural call to embrace the world. The author wants us to search all around, voraciously, for poverty, homelessness, anger, ignorance, want, and greed, and he wants us to do something about them.

This little book still has the power to change, and to change fundamentally. I know, because it has changed me.

The November after my father died, someone I knew was in a severe financial situation. It’s barely an exaggeration to say that it was a matter of life and liberty, but it was compounded by moral issues as severe as the need. Day and night I was tormented about how to deal with it. Reading this little book was like conversing with Dickens. In the absence of my father it gave me, at least, his answer.

Near the end of Stave I, Marley floats “out upon the bleak, dark night” to join his fellow phantoms crying “piteously at being unable to assist a wretched woman with an infant, whom it saw below, upon a doorstep.” Among the spirits is an old ghost with “a monstrous iron safe attached to its ancle [for ankle; a quaint, old spelling not modernized during Dickens’s lifetime].” The more I read this scene and saw the tortured phantom in Leech’s engraving, the more I felt the weight of that heavy safe on my own ankle. Could this spirit, chained to the cashbox, impotent to help in death what it might have helped in life, be myself?  Would I learn “that no space of regret can make amends for one’s life’s opportunities misused”?

Adding to the terror and frustration of Dickens’s original scene is that, given the severity of street life in London at the time, it’s fairly likely that either or both the wretched woman and her infant would soon die, perhaps that very night, Christmas Eve. In fact, the harsh potential remains. For when the book ends neither Scrooge nor anyone else has sought out and helped that woman and child. This has always bothered me. It seemed a loose end in a tale so masterfully absent of them.

I’ve come to believe, though, that this incompleteness is part of Dickens’s mastery of his subject. Squeamishness is what he precisely wants us to feel here. Leaving the scene open-ended, leaving the loose end loose, he forces the reader to come away from the story with a sense of something still to be done. Ever after, we look, or should look, for chances to rectify injustices like this one, to exercise pity, to become less ghostly and more substantially human. And because Dickens is more present in the pages he designed, the message of the Carol is more potent. I had my answer; I knew what to do.

Money was paid and liberty achieved.


According to bibliographers, buyers of the Carol’s fourteenth edition issued in 1860 got essentially the same book as the first buyers seventeen years earlier — though with some forty-odd typographical errors corrected (and others introduced). When it had been so painfully determined that the hand-colored illustrations had severely limited his profit, (Dickens expected L1000 income but netted by various estimates only L130 to L230)  you might say that any of the thirteen subsequent editions past the first that still carried the expensive colored engravings and the two-color title page were actually the first in a long train of  facsimiles.

In 1870, the year of Dickens’ death, Chapman & Hall finally reset the book in a different form, but reverence for its original look surfaced a scant three years later, when all five of his Christmas Books were reissued in “stereotype” editions, creating the first acknowledged facsimiles. Another appeared in 1890 or so. From then on, it was never very long before another more or less faithful imitation was produced on both sides of the Atlantic. H. S. Nichols (New York) published one in 1914, which was followed in 1920 by The Atlantic Monthly Press/Little Brown & Co. (Boston), in 1922 by Cecil Palmer (London), in 1924 by Charles E. Lauriat (Boston), in 1956 by Columbia University Press, sometime in the 1970s by J. G. Ferguson of Chicago, and finally one from Bradbury & Evans and another from Nottingham Court Press, both in 1987. A few of these (certainly the Ferguson and the 1922 Palmer) actually reproduced later corrected editions. Some facsimiles have doubtless eluded me, but as far as I can tell, there are none in print now; a shame.


Nearly every book about Dickens or the Carol repeats one story until it has entered legend: when the daughter of an apple seller in Drury Lane heard the news of the great author’s death in 1870, she asked, “Then will Father Christmas die too?”

The answer, of course, is no.

In part what Dickens himself did with this small book — creating nearly singlehandedly what we have come to view as the modern Christmas — has helped ensure that the traditional familial holiday and all its secular trappings continues to this day. Because of that, neither Father Christmas nor Dickens will die.

And, in a very particular sense, neither can my father. At this time “in the long calender of the year” he visits me again like Marley. Scrooge was saved from the weary journeys of the damned by his old partner’s intervention. For me, opening my father’s little gold-stamped book and rediscovering its clotted, wobbly type and engravings are also a kind of redemption, not least for the particular fragance of its pages.

No doubt, sometime soon — next year, or the year after that, or five years from now — when I open the book and turn its pages once more, I’ll be shocked to find how little of my father’s aura remains. The pages will have taken on more of the blander smell of my study. Soon the perfume of his life will be gone entirely.

But if that happens, if, in my reading, he will become an ever more intellectual presence rather than an emotional one, the book itself will be our connection.

Dickens knew how to wrench tears and laughter in quick succession from his reader. Like last year, like twenty years ago, and twenty years from now, I’ll feel that tug of wonder and joy from the story’s very first line, and know again my father’s Christmas legacy to me: when I open this book, he is there as close to me as Dickens himself is, standing right there in the spirit at my elbow.


Appreciations29 Sep 2012 10:24 am



I BUY A LOT OF BOOKS, probably a hundred a year. I suppose I am building a library, though I don’t have nearly enough room, so in addition to a couple of hundred feet of built-in shelves I economize table, floor, and desk by stacking books in piles. Though the piles  rarely go higher than two feet, a footprint of 6 x 9 inches can accommodate as many as twenty books. Not a bad tradeoff for the danger of these towers near my head.

All of which is to say that when selecting the next book to read, I have a large collection within reach, and if I want a war story or a comedy or a biography, all I have to do is slip it out of its stack, and I’m on my way. Sometimes I’m not sure what I want to read, or read about. Maybe it’s a setting. Maybe it’s a genre. Maybe it’s a biography of an artist. Or a collection of essays. So I pore over the stacks and slip one out and “test” it, by flipping it to a random page, reading a few paragraphs, and if I find what I’m looking for, it becomes my next or one of my next reads.

Setting lately has been a purchase incentive. Cuba, Key West, the islands — these wafted across my brain recently, and I bought or dug out some volumes: Thomas McGuane’s Ninety-two in the Shade, Hotchner’s Papa Hemingway, Walker Evans’s Cuba photographs (see below), and Hemingway’s To Have and Have Not and Islands in the Stream.

While these yens for particular books come and go with alarming frequency, I did get into the last four of that list. Islands in the Stream is not considered vintage Hemingway by many, a posthumous publication  (1970) written in the early 1950s (as recounted by Hotchner), but it does contain some good material, here and there. I’m not deep in the book by any means, but there occurred a couple of really strong paragraphs that I want to call out. They occur on page 144 of the Scribner paperback. This is Thomas Hudson, the protagonist, rendered in third person and, annoyingly, always called “Thomas Hudson” rather than one or the other of his names, an odd effect. Nevertheless . . .

What a miserable, selfish way to be thinking about people that you love, he thought. Why don’t you remember the day and not analyze it and tear it to pieces? Go to bed now, he told himself, and make yourself sleep. The hell with anything else. And pick up the rhythm of your life in the morning. You don’t have the boys for much longer. See how happy a time you can make for them. I’ve tried, he said to himself. I’ve tried truly and for Roger, too. And you have been very happy yourself, he told himself. Yes, of course. But something about today frightened me. Then he told himself: truly, there is something about every day to frighten you. Go on to bed and maybe you’ll sleep well. Remember you want them to be happy tomorrow. 

What I find astonishing here is how Hemingway renders this self-conversation in first, second, and third person, with such strength and simplicity, and how its crisscrossing patterns of speech and thought mimic the mind’s bedtime rush. You can almost hear the final settling breath as the guy tries to leave it all behind.

Following this is just a lovely description of the world around Hudson’s bed:

A big southwest wind came up in the night and by daylight it was slowing with almost the force of a gale. The palms were bent with it and shutters slammed and papers blew and a surf was piling on the beach. 

Here I love the combining of inside and outside sounds in the second part of the second sentence, how he went from papers to the beach so effortlessly.

Appreciations16 Aug 2012 05:06 pm



WE’VE BEEN TALKING LATELY about a program in which student writers and illustrators can feed off each other’s work in mutually beneficial ways. The obvious form of the collaboration in children’s literature is the illustration of a (mostly) pre-written text, resulting in a picture book or a story book. There are examples of books for older readers that work along these same lines, and some experimentation with other collaborative or self-collaborative works, like those of Brian Selznick and Clive Barker.

What has interested me for a very long time is that form of writing which results from contemplation of previously existing art of all kinds, particularly photography. Catalog copy is, say, the basic example of this, but there are huge variations in creativity among that large segment of writing, from a sort of photographic word-painting of the object to a kind of poetic riffing inspired by images. An example of the latter reaching high art is Remains of Elmet, with poems by Ted Hughes on an assortment of Fay Godwin’s photos of the north country.

I have just finished reading — if “reading” is the right word — Walker Evans’ photographs of Cuba from 1933. These were taken in assignment to illustrate a topical book about the injustices of contemporary Cuban politics by a fellow named Carlton Beals, a book all but forgotten except among historians. The photos survive as do all of Evans’ work because of the brilliance and depth of his vision. A handsome 2001 reissue of his photos by the Getty Museum, which holds many of the original prints, includes a new introductory essay by Andrei Codrescu. It’s the sort of creative text that I love that is all too rarely commissioned. Art critics I suppose get to do this thing all the time. A friend of mine, the poet Michael Coffey, was once paired with an installation artist and their collaboration produced a unique object, more than the art alone, more than the text alone. Something new.

There should be a path for writers to explore this kind of multi-art collaboration. I’ve just begun to look at the reissue of Evans’ American Photographs, the 75th anniversary edition of the catalog of his MOMA exhibition from 1938, a book that, if you knew it before, was often very expensive and hard to find. It carries, in nearly facsimile style, a very similar typography to the original publication, and Lincoln Kirstein’s essay on Walker’s place in the history of American photography. What’s lovely is that his text survives as an afterword the photographs; it’s been honored as an essay 75 years after its publication, too. So, just a roundabout way of saying that introductory essays, critical essays, poetic essays of art are so infrequently asked for but can allow for the creation of a beautiful, unique, and lasting text.





About Writing16 Jun 2012 11:18 am


SOME BOOKS YOU WANT TO SAVOR, page by page, paragraph by paragraph and Richard Ford’s Canada is one of those novels. I’m moving through it delicately, slowly, and happened to come across this paragraph on page 43 and am drawn back to it from the succeeding pages, probably because I’m not ready to let it be swallowed by the mass of memory a novel creates as you read it to the end. It’s too human and comforting for me not to want it fresh in my mind.

What I know firsthand about bad things—seriously bad things—was that late in the first week of August my father came home one evening, and though I didn’t see him, I knew something unusual was going on in the house. You become sensitized to such things by the sound of a porch door slapping closed too hard, or the thump of someone’s heavy boot heels hitting the floorboards, or  the creak of a bedroom door opening and a voice beginning to speak, then that door quickly closing, leaving only muffled noises audible. 

Two sentences. And it’s not that Ford is writing about what hasn’t been written about before; I’m sure it has. The thing that comes out of this paragraph, however, is how precise an aural observation it is, twined with the dread of something unusual and unsettling beginning, and all combined with language that manages to be both clinically and psychologically exact and idiomatically lyrical. It’s common language. It’s a first-person narrative told by a sixty-something-year-old man remembering his fifteen-year-old self, so it has an element of spoken reminiscence to it, but its force and directness, the power of the story it is telling, come from its unhurried tone, the voice of a novel that appears not to edit its words but whose words are just right. One lesson for writers from such an excerpt might be to study how to drive (if that’s the right word) the common observation into the resonating lyrical. I’m going to read it again now. Shh.

About Writing and Appreciations06 Apr 2012 10:09 am

I don’t know how many of you watched the American Masters episode about Harper Lee this past week, but I am deeply bothered by its snide rendering of Truman Capote — to my mind a far smarter and better writer than Lee — and the all-too-common portrayal of the “sad last years” of his life, as if they in any way expunged his literary achievement.

To my mind, Capote is simply one of this country’s finest novelists and essayists, at a time of many first-class writers. He was a keen, comical observer and a meticulous craftsman who produced a lengthy shelf of literary masterpieces: Other Voices, Other Rooms, The Grass Harp, “The Diamond Guitar,” “House of Flowers,” In Cold Blood, “Breakfast at Tiffany’s, to say nothing of his sparkling travel essays, interviews, and letters.

When Lee’s older sister trots out the odorous canard that Capote broke with Lee because she won a Pulitzer and he didn’t, I wretched. As if grand old age has now canonized the slight. From all accounts, including his own, Truman’s childhood was a fairly wretched affair, salvaged only by his cousin, Souk Faulk. He rose to literary esteem quickly and was undoubtedly seduced by its accompanying fame, but in no way should that fact be confused with or diminish the beauty and insight of his broad and long bibliography.

It’s almost as if American Masters — and its Capote-belittling commentators — want us to make a choice between Lee and Capote as exemplars, respectively, of “job well done” and “sad decline.” Fine. To Kill a Mockingbird is a good book, but I would sacrifice it in an instant, no question, to keep Capote’s voice in my ears and his books on my shelf.

About Writing11 Mar 2012 11:33 am

Well, a grand allusion to an insignificant issue, certainly, and my apologies to Pound and the myriad, but sometimes you arrive at conclusions so very long after being presented with mountains of evidence that you gasp and choke back a kind of disbelief (while all around you shift pencils) and strike the board and cry, “No more!” — bolting up from the table, storming room to room around the house, wondering for how long you have been ill-used and hoping that not too many have grasped it before you (but knowing that they have, mountains of them), until you understand that making stories out of nothing is not nothing and should not be seen as nothing and finally say, “Enough! I will not waste myself on silence!”

Dots and Dashes24 Feb 2012 03:54 pm

My memory is getting worse. In Exit Ghost the narrator, Nathan Zuckerman, talks in loving terms about his secluded house in the Berkshires somewhere near Lenox, and describes himself — to himself and others — as a recluse. Among its other benefits, Zuckerman claims that reclusivity is particularly good for listening to willfully difficult music with something like the proper attention; he mentions by way of example (and here is where memory cannot confirm the exact page), a Bartok quartet.

A couple of times a week I go down the mountain into Athena, eight miles away, to shop for groceries, to get my clothes cleaned, occasionally to eat a meal or buy a pair of socks or pick up a bottle of wine or use the Athena College library. Tanglewood isn’t far away, and I drive over to a concert there some ten times during the summer. I don’t give readings or lectures or teach at a college or appear on TV. When my books are published, I keep to myself. I write every day of the week—otherwise I’m silent. I am tempted by the thought of not publishing at all—isn’t work all I need, the work and the working?

The farther along life’s road I am, the more I find myself looking up to the hills, wondering whether the retreat is some kind of — perhaps the only kind of — victory. A place and time when we will finally be able to listen to Bartok’s quartets without the background noise of life, buzzing and hashing and whining its way into our ears.

I remember in an interview a few years back Maurice Sendak mentioning that he was becoming more and more of a recluse, adding that the desire to retreat was increasing as he got older. He said this is a tendency usual to recluses. Several parts of this were comforting. That it’s all right for writers for young people to want to get the heck away from the world. That there are tendencies usual to recluses, as if it is a state that can be . . . studied. We joke, my wife and I, that I am less a recluse than a reclusionist — a practitioner of reclusionism. What’s comforting about this is that practice might make perfect. Or perhaps it’s reclusionisme. The practice does have a vaguely Continental sensibility, an allure of Gallic superiority.

All of this on the eve of a book release. Actually two books. On Tuesday, the first two volumes of a new series, Goofballs, are released, both raucously hilarious and both as far from silent hilltops as I can imagine. I will go out and booster them on streetcorners, at railway stations, in bars and restaurants, because I love the books so.

There’s more to say, but right now I have to practice.


Dots and Dashes05 Feb 2012 05:20 pm

After an execrable showing — one entry these past two months — we’re getting our sea legs once again. The title above refers to a question I was asked just yesterday by a young reader: “ . . . themes in one or more of your adventure stories appear reminiscent of scenic and/or structural elements in the Star Wars films; are you an appreciator?”

I responded that, yes, I am, though I can profess familiarity with only the best of the films, by which I mean the first three, beginning in 1977, when I was twenty-one, with “Episode IV: A New Hope.” I must have seen that movie, oh, three or four times while it was still in the theaters. From the parking lot afterwards, my Plymouth dipped on its squishy tires not unlike the Millennium Falcon, at least until the first traffic light. But the title resonates with any old number of things we envision for the coming year; thus, a new hope on many fronts.

I read a nifty bit in Nabokov’s Lectures on Literature that I want to share. It’s in his introduction to discussion of Bleak House, which comes in the book as it must have come in his lecture sequence, just after his analysis of Mansfield Park, about whose author he has just admitted, “I am sure that some readers have a better ear for Miss Austen than I have.” He is much more in his element with Dickens. “In our dealings with Jane Austen we had to make a certain effort in order to join the ladies in the drawing room. In the case of Dickens we remain at table with our tawny port.”

This is not the quote I want to share, but it’s probably good to pause here and reflect for a moment on the writer’s approach to literature, because it is very much summed up in the structural imagery he gives us. There is a physical delight, a geographical reality to the joy, that great literature gives us. There is the comfort of our haunches remaining in the chairs about the table where Mr. Dickens sits, telling us his story. Nabokov famously dismissed “great ideas” from his analysis of great novels. Ideas come and go, are timebound, anachronistic, ephemeral, inelegantly voiced by even the best artist. What remains when you take the nonsense away is the artistry of structure, the structure of artistry. And that is a physiological truth, as he explains in the bit I do want to share.

“All we have to do when reading Bleak House is to relax and let our spines take over. Although we read with our minds, the seat of artistic delight is between the shoulder blades. That little shiver behind is quite certainly the highest form of emotion that humanity has attained when evolving pure art and pure science. Let us worship the spine and its tingle. Let us be proud of our being vertebrates, for we are vertebrates tipped at the head with a divine flame. The brain only continues the spine: the wick really goes through the whole length of the candle. If we are not capable of enjoying that shiver, if we cannot enjoy literature, then let us give up the whole thing and concentrate on our comics, our videos, our books-of-the-week. But I think Dickens will prove stronger.”

We often approach Nabokov, and certainly we do as students when we first are introduced to him, as cryptographers, bloodlessly connecting the dots of his plots and characters in order to “understand” the text. This was his game, to craft a surface shiny and exotic, a well-built box, which all too often as students we might decide was all there was to be discovered. He was a master at that. And may have been as cold a man himself as a box would be, though a box resounding with great humor.

But here, in his appreciation of writers’ masterworks, he folds himself into a burnished chair at the old table. He listens, objects, stares, laughs, and passes the port, hour upon hour, as his spine tingles with every imperishable line. For myself, when I read something extraordinary, a line that, say, knocks the top of my head off, the physical sense is foremost — chills, a kind of breathlessness, a desire to pace around, sit, read it again, and, maybe above all, to collar someone and read the whole thing out to him. With the helpless exclamation: “Do you see?”

Let’s not forget, while we’re at it, to send a rousing birthday cheer to Mr. Dickens, 200 and never stronger.



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