Loads of Learned Lumber

Monday, November 26, 2018

Jill Lepore, _The Story of America: Essays on Origins_

THE TITLE IS misleading, suggesting as it does a comprehensive, continuous narrative of the history of the United States like that Lepore has just published, These Truths. Then again, there is little sense in titling a book A Collection of my New Yorker Pieces, Most of Which You Have Probably Already Read. When, when, when will I learn to check the copyright page before dashing to the checkout counter, brand new book by a favorite author in my perspiring hands, in a frenzy to part with $27.95?

Well, no harm done. Lepore's New Yorker essays (and the one from American Scholar) are brilliant, well worth re-reading, and I am happy to have them all here in one place, now that the New Yorkers in which they first appeared were recycled long, long ago.

The subtitle is quite accurate--would have made a great title, actually. Lepore is deft at uncovering origins, especially the origins of those things so familiar that they seem to have always been here exactly in the form we know them now, having emerged intact from the brow of history. Longfellow's poem about Paul Revere, bankruptcy laws, ballots, Charlie Chan--there's a story behind each, and Lepore knows not only how to find it but also how to tell it.

And I must add: brilliantly retro cover, which seems to have been whisked via time warp from some 1940s popular history, right down to the curvy little banner bearing the subtitle. Kudos, Karl Spurzem!

Sunday, November 25, 2018

Zadie Smith, _Feel Free_

A GREAT BIG collection (400+ pages, thirty essays plus the Harpers columns) of Smith's essays and occasional prose since Changing My Mind (2009), largely from New York Review of Books, New Yorker, Harpers, with a few unpublished pieces...why do I love Zadie Smith so much? I mean, I had already read most of these, but I went ahead and read them all again, enjoyed them every bit as much. It must be the perfect poise of her prose, partly--the agility with which she can go from the familiar and light to the thundercloud dark. That she can be funny without being shallow, intellectual without being ponderous. That she always conveys something of the living voice without ever being just chatty. That literature runs in her veins, but she can respond so tellingly to music (Blue), film (Anomalisa), painting, dance. That she can find a way to meet even the worst, most challenging occasions ("Fences: A Brexit  Diary") and also write "Joy" with its happy interjection, "Blessed Q-Tip!" That she always sounds like herself, and herself is an infinite variety.

Saturday, November 24, 2018

Henry Green, _Nothing_

PUBLISHED 1950--this is the fourth Green novel I have read, but the first from after World War II. Centerstage is the same generation Green had always been writing about, the Bright Young Things as they are sometimes remembered, the Children of the Sun as Martin Green put it, the Brideshead Generation according to Humphrey Carpenter. Now, though, they have adult children with careers and marital prospects of their own.

These adult children are living in the time of austerity and Attlee, however, and are not having the high old times their parents had at the same age. "They had such a lot of money once and we've never seen what that was," says Philip Weatherby to Mary Pomfret, to whom he is about to become engaged. In some moods, Philip and Mary are glad to be making their way without the privileges their grandparents' wealth created for their parents; when Mary complains of her job, Philip reminds her, "You wouldn't want to go back to the bad old times, Mary [...]. Not when we're making this country a place to live in at last."

"You'll forgive me but your whole generation's hopeless I must say it, so there!" according to Jane Weatherby, Philip's mother--love that "you'll forgive me." The younger set returns the sentiment:

   "They all ought to be liquidated," he said obviously in disgust.
   "Who Philip?"
   "Every one of our parents' generation."

Did I mention that Mary's father, John, had a pre-war extra-marital fling with Philip's mother, Jane? The slender, unspoken, but apparently not negligible possibility that Mary and Philip are half-siblings may account for Jane's immediate and intractable opposition to their engagement. Can she thwart it? Yes, she can, and she does, so much as to say,"we may be creaky and corrupt and contemptible but we got through the Slump and won the war and we can still beat you at any game you propose." The greatest generation!

I have yet to hit a dud novel by Green. Best 20th century English novelist not named Woolf, perhaps.

Heidi Julavits, _The Folded Clock: A Diary_

TRUTH TO TELL, even though I enjoyed the two novels by Julavits I have read, I picked this up mainly because I was curious what I might learn from it about her husband, Ben Marcus--probably the living American fiction writer I am most intrigued by now that Roth is gone.

Nothing particularly startling about Marcus comes up, though--he doesn't wrap household items in cloth, or continually check wind speed, or mutter darkly about Thompson in his own home life, I guess. As far as one can tell from this, he's a reasonably ordinary person.

Julavits herself comes across as stressed, distracted, likely to fixate on inconsequential matters, tending to be overmatched by circumstances--none of which is all that believable, really. Julavits has published four well-received novels, co-edited an influential magazine, and taught at an Ivy League institution while raising a couple of kids and maintaining property in both New York City and Maine, all of which suggests she is much better at staying on top of things than she here presents herself as being.

Remember Erma Bombeck, whose newspaper column presented her as the neighborhood's most hapless mom, always behind, always losing track of things? This despite her having a widely successful syndicated column, speaking engagements, television appearances? Or Lucille Ball, who in her television incarnation never found herself in a situation she could not turn into a total fiasco, while her actual self was running a prosperous media empire. (See Todd Haynes's Dottie Gets Spanked.)

I read The Folded Clock slowly, about an entry a day, so it took me about a year finish--which is perhaps what suggested the Erma Bombeck comparison to me. I always found Erma highly likable, and I likewise became very fond of The Folded Clock. I find myself hoping for a sequel, actually. As in Brian Blanchfield's Proxies, the entries got a little longer toward the end, more thoughtful, more affecting, downright moving when Julavits was writing about her marriage and children. I'm ready for more, even without any Ben anecdotes.

Friday, November 23, 2018

Paul Williams, _Outlaw Blues_

I AM WORKING through Shake It Up, the Library of America anthology of rock-&-pop music journalism, with a student who is doing a "directed readings," and one of the volume's first items is "Outlaw Blues," the first chapter of Williams's first book, which is mainly a collection of his pieces from Crawdaddy!, founded by Williams, often cited as the first U.S.A. periodical devoted to rock music.

Re-reading Williams's tripped-out excursus on the Rolling Stones' Satanic Majesties Request and Jefferson Airplane's After Bathing at Baxter's was a Proustian madeleine for me, as I had read Outlaw Blues when I was in high school, probably 1970 or 1971 (it was published, a "Dutton Paperback Original," in 1969). Back then, I devoured Outlaw Blues, reading it in a day or two and then re-reading it--the most enlightening, stimulating, and original thing I had yet read about the music that was occupying an ever-growing domain of my mental landscape. In fact, it has had only a few rivals for me since. Now, nearly fifty years on, seemed like an opportune time to re-read it.

Most of the pieces date from 1966 and 1967, a time of soaring confidence in the power of popular music to shape culture. Williams writes:

   At this stage of its history, rock is bursting forth from restrictions placed on it in childhood, and I suppose we can say it is having a brilliant, though difficult, adolescence. It is discovering, in new ways every day, just what is really going on out here; and every new discovery is heralded as the final, unassailable truth. And perhaps (I hear it in the most recent music of the Kinks, the Who, the Byrds, the Beach Boys, Dylan) rock is just now beginning to discover that there are no unassailable truths, there is only greater and greater awareness of the universe. And of oneself.

This extravagant hope had already gone rancid around the edges by the time I read the book, post-Manson, post-Altamont, post-Beatles breakup, post-Self Portrait, but it still spoke to me, somehow. The artists listed in the parenthesis are all in my own pantheon, as are most of the other groups Williams discusses elsewhere in the book--Love, Buffalo Springfield, the Rolling Stones--and I think the music of 1966-67 and Williams's way of talking about it remained foundational for me ever after. It was because of Williams that I bought Blonde on Blonde, fell in love with such unlikely projects as Their Satanic Majesties Request, and became obsessively curious about what Smile sounded like.

Williams died in 1995. I never read another book of his--apparently he became a kind of New Age seer, as the above reference to "awareness of the universe" pre-figures. But I owe him an immense debt, which I gladly acknowledge here.

Thursday, November 22, 2018

Stephen Greenblatt, _Tyrant: Shakespeare on Politics_

THE SUBTITLE MAY as well have been "Shakespeare on Trump." Even though the current POTUS is not even mentioned once, this is a book called forth by the urgencies of the hour. Greenblatt goes through the plays and turns up example after example of power illegitimately gained and grievously abused, and in each case finds one or more eerie similarities to He Who Is Not To Be Named.

For instance, Jack Cade, whose brief career as leader of a peasant uprising is represented in 2 Henry VI:

Cade himself, for all we know, may think that what he is so obviously making up as he goes along will actually come to pass. Drawing on an indifference to the truth, shamelessness, and hyperinflated self-confidence, the loudmouthed demagogue is entering a fantasyland--"When I am king, as king I will be"--and he invites his listeners to enter the same magical space with him. (38)

Or (obviously) Richard III, who gets three chapters:

He is pathologically narcissistic and supremely arrogant. He has a grotesque sense of entitlement, never doubting that he can do whatever he chooses. He loves to bark orders and to watch underlings scurry to carry them out. He expects absolute loyalty, but is incapable of gratitude. The feelings of others mean nothing to him. He has no natural grace, no sense of shared humanity, no decency.
   He is not merely indifferent to the law; he hates it and takes pleasure in breaking it. He hates it because it gets in his way and because it stands for a notion of public good that he holds in contempt. (53)

Or Leontes from The Winter's Tale:

That is part of the point: once the state is in the hands of an unstable, impulsive, and vindictive tyrant, there is almost nothing that the ordinary mechanisms of moderation can accomplish. Sensible advice falls on deaf ears; dignified demurrals are brushed aside; outspoken protests only seem to make matters worse. (131)

Even Coriolanus--who essentially, it seems to me, has nothing important in common with Trump--gets pulled into the book for his "overgrown child's narcissism, insecurity, cruelty, and folly, all unchecked by any adult's supervision and restraint," even though Trump fluttered no dovecotes and has no aristocratic disdain for mixing with the masses. (By the way, this account of Coriolanus is the first I have come across with a charitable view of the tribunes.)

Good book--written in a bit of a rush, I guess, and slips into cliché and easy targets more often than Greenblatt's books normally do, but well worth reading. Hard to tell how interesting it will be when Trump is long gone, but we can be glad Greenblatt went to the trouble.

...I wonder if he thought of looking at the narrative poems as well? I'm thinking of The Rape of Lucrece, of course, given our chief executive's well-known grabby proclivities.

Lisa Wells, _The Fix_

HER FIRST BOOK, and arrives with noteworthy recommendations: the Iowa Poetry Prize and blurbs from D. A. Powell, Brenda Shaughnessy, Timothy Liu, and Shane McCrae.

It's a drilling-down kind of book, reminding me a bit of Heaney's North in its short lines, its one-word titles, its willingness to peer into the abyss.

It's also a book of close shaves. In "1989" the speaker recalls the time "I attempted to defect // to the lion enclosure, stuck neck-deep in the bars / the pride stirred, rose upon their haunches," a memory juxtaposed with that of a moment of brinksmanship on a subway platform, "When the ravening out of the darkness speeds / and the bad star advances in the channel [...]".

The speaker has spent some times on the margins--"I've come to kneel / on the filthy kitchen floor / of the punk squat"--and gone in for some high-risk behavior: "we feel the subcutaneous lace / of strychnine unstitching in fitful / intervals." Things have at times appeared to have gone irretrievably wrong--"Deep in my circadian clock / the seasons wheel / but something stays / / displaced." But perhaps not utterly irretrievably:

Mother, in your hands
my head
is not such a bad creation.

I mean, the fault's not
in your fingers.

If I could just retrace
my steps and

find the fix.
Knock it in me.

In a few spots some kind of fix seems to have been found. Two different poems are titled "Revelations," two more titled "Resurrections," and images of germination and growth recur: "To the tightly wound stem / pushing through dark earth / / unfurling when finally you feel the sun" ("BEAST"), "A seed is a box water opens" ("Resurrections II").

Maybe something is going to work out after all. Just as Heaney's line opened up in Field Work, so Wells's line does in more recent work (which I've only heard read aloud, but the lines sounded longer). There's a thin, bright ribbon of hope dangling down in the abyss, not enough to hang onto, but one is glad it's there.

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Jonathan Littell, _Les Bienveillantes_, interim notes ii

I STARTED THIS five years ago--five and a half, actually--and am only halfway through it, but since that means I am now on p. 710, I feel entitled to record some notes.

--Littell must have done a power of research for this project, but some passages are so clotted with acronyms that I find myself wishing he had not (as it appears) decided to use every last bit of it. An appendix to which I have frequent recourse is there to help me remember that an SS-Obersturmführer is equivalent to an Oberleutnant in the Wehrmacht and that the RSHA is the Reichssicherheitshauptamt (central office for the security of the Reich)--but when I have to flip back to it four or five times to read a paragraph, I think, sheesh. Of course, it does make sense that Max Aue would routinely refer to such things in his memoirs, and it even makes sense that the SS was, among much else, a classic modern bureaucracy with its own classic modern bureaucratic arcana.

--World War II lore was part of my growing up; the war was only nine years over when I was born, so all through my school years I heard about Pearl Harbor, Midway, Guadalcanal, D-Day, the Battle of the Bulge, and so on--not just through history classes, but through television, comic books, movies, and so on. But only rarely did I hear about what was going on in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, which, it turns out, was absolute unshirted hell. I had learned a lot about this in recent years from Timothy Snyder's Bloodlands and William Vollman's Europe Central, but Les Bienveillantes presents it even more vividly. Aue is present at both at Babi Yar and Stalingrad, as well as a lot of more routine scenes of horror in Ukraine and the Caucasus. The novel is doing a lot to dislocate me from my western perspective on the war, and I'm grateful.

--the Oresteia parallel is emerging more saliently as the novel proceeds, and it getting more disturbing   as we go.

--The further I go, the more persuaded I am that the novel is just as brilliant as so many of its original reviewers said all those years ago. The Stalingrad scenes are unforgettable, and the hallucination with which the wounded Max's stint in Stalingrad ends may be the most amazing thing I have read this year--the Lee Scoreby episodes from Phillip Pullman's Golden Compass as written by L.-F. Céline.