Loads of Learned Lumber

Friday, April 24, 2020

Lydia Davis, _Can't and Won't_

DAVIS IS BEST knownfor her none-more-short short stories, some just a sentence or two long, little needle-bullets of fiction that you barely feel as they go in but somehow leave a crater you notice only minutes later.

There are plenty of those here, a lot of them based on passages from Flaubert's letters or Davis's own dreams, but the most memorable stories here (to my mind) are the handful of longer ones, all slow-cookers, near-plotless gradual accumulations of detail that by the end overwhelm you.      

"Local Obits": probably just what the title implies, sentences pulled from obituaries in the local newspaper, some as banal as possible ("Albert was an animal lover"), some of haunting particularity ("She will also be remembered for her extensive collection of elephant figurines"), but over ten pages somehow teetering perfectly between the idea that each of us is unique and the idea that really we are all the same,

"The Seals": memories of the life and death of an older sister, seemingly in no particular order, without much overt emotion, but by the end, I was shaken.

"The Letter to the Foundation": a foundation that has awarded the narrator some whopping big grant would like to know how it has changed her life. The narrator explains, very diplomatically, and with due gratitude to their generosity, exactly why it is her life has not changed so very much. Samuel Johnson, who also noticed that much-anticipated outcomes often wind up making less difference than we expected them to, would have loved this story.

And my very favorite, "The Cows." Working at a house in the country, the narrator can see from her windows a neighbor's cows. The story is nothing but a series of observations about the cows, e.g., "They are nearly the same size, and yet one is the largest, one the middle-sized, and one the smallest," but as one observation succeeds another, the cows progress from being a distraction from work to being a welcome distraction, even a relief, and then an object of interest in their own right, and eventually a mute testimony to some wide truth:

They are still out there, grazing, at dusk. But as the dusk turns to dark, while the sky above the woods is still a purplish blue, it is harder and harder to see their black bodies against the darkening field. Then they can't be seen at all, but they are still out there, grazing in the dark.

Thursday, April 23, 2020

Compton Mackenzie, _Extraordinary Women_

SO, THIS IS the other English novel focusing on lesbian characters published in 1928. It appeared just a month after Radclyffe Hall's Well of Loneliness, in fact, but did not run into any of the censorship or legal troubles that Hall's novel did. Because Mackenzie was male? Because Extraordinary Women is comical rather than earnest? One wonders.

So far as posterity goes, Mackenzie's novel came a long way short of the fame eventually achieved by   Hall's, but it is a brisk and enjoyable read. It is set shortly after World War I on the island of Sirene (based on Capri) and tracks the alliances, antagonisms, passions, and vendettas of a cosmopolitan group of lesbians, mostly wealthy, or formerly wealthy (in the case of the Russian emigrées), or expecting to be wealthy (in the cased of Rosalba Donsante, who stands to inherit her aunt's fortune).

The dominant characters are Rory Fremantle and Olimpia Leigh, both a little older, both of independent means, both intellectually formidable, and both for the moment intrigued by the impulsive and beautiful Rosalba. She flirts recklessly with both, and with a few other members of the cast. How will this resolve?

Don't worry, I'm not going to tell.

"With the exception of Rory Freemantle, the charcters and events in Extraordinary Women are all based upon real people and actual events," writes Andro Linklater in the introduction to the paperback edition I read, mentioning Romaine Brooks and Renata Borgatti. At least a few people think that Rory is based on Radclyffe Hall. I hope she is, because Rory is a lot more interesting--wittier, more commanding, perhaps even of deeper spiritual resources--than Stephen Gordon, the character in The Well of Loneliness that Hall based on herself. Even though the novel is mainly comic, it has its moments of emotional power, and most of them involve Rory.

Mackenzie apparently got to observe this set from near at hand because many of them were friends with his wife, Faith. And even though he is less than reverential, not even very charitable, and often even willing to mock, the novel is invaluable, I'd say, in giving us a portrait, caricatured though it is, of these women who were, as the title says, extraordinary.

No fewer than three delightful chapters (16-18) are devoted to a party at Rory's villa, and I will close with Mackenzie's philosophy of parties:

A great party should be a world within a world, not a world temporarily outside it. It should effect a heightening and a concentration of ordinary life, so that in retrospect one may perceive the quintessential selvcs of the guests; and when those guests meet each other for the first time after such a party they should feel a kind of sacred elation such as we may suppose was felt by those who had been initiated into the Mysteries.

Tuesday, April 21, 2020

Stacy Schiff, _Cleopatra: A Life_

IS STACY SCHIFF related to Sidney Schiff? I know Sidney had some American cousins.

To move to a more pertinent question: does Stacy Schiff read ancient Greek and Latin? Presumably, a biographer of Cleopatra would at least know his or her way around the tongues in which the primary sources were written, but it's hard to tell here. Schiff thanks Inger Kuin, "who untangled awkward phrasings [in the translations] and reconciled contradictory ones"--that is, Schiff consulted Kuin about the passages where translations diverged?

Schiff obviously made a deep dive in the secondary literature on Cleopatra, her world, and her times, but I found myself wondering about her access to the primary texts because she reads them mainly against the grain, as it were. The surviving accounts of Cleopatra from her own day (or from within a few centuries of her own day) take a Roman perspective--dismissive of Cleopatra's character and abilities, viewing her defeat with relief and a bit of Roman self-congratulation. A classic illustration of the old saying that the winners write the histories.

Schiff isn't buying it. Rather than the femme fatale who came within a hair of dominating Rome by seducing its rulers, Schiff's Cleopatra is well-educated, a skillful adminstrator, a shrewd strategist, a devoted mother (even while being a sister on whom one should not turn one's back).

This sounds credible--but I wish Schiff had said more about where she found this Cleopatra. By reading against the grain in the Cassius Dio, et alia? In archeological findings? In the secondary sources?

This is a biography more for a general readership than for specialists, so my questions may not matter. Schiff certainly sounds credible, even though the grounds for her conclusions are not always spelled out, and the writing is as brisk and enlivening as a spring wind.

Sunday, April 19, 2020

Jessa Crispin on Ben Lerner

BONE TO PICK, number 1,017:

Jessa Crispin, formerly of Topeka, took issue with Ben Lerner's The Topeka School in Baffler 50, writing, "The Topeka School's Topeka is not a Topeka I recognize, at least culturally." Oddly, the specifics she cites to illustrate the non-Topeka-ness of Lerner's Topeka are drawn from Lawrence and Kansas City, not Topeka, but let's leave that aside for now and simply consider the proposition, "This author's X is not an X I recognize." What does it mean?

Does it mean "This book would be a better book if it better reflected my own experience of X"? But that's silly, isn't it? Do two people ever have quite the same impression of any place? If you want a book that better reflects your own sense of X, why don't you write it?

Does it mean "This book is not fair to X and will give readers the wrong idea of X." This might be a fair objection if the book were non-fiction. But are novels supposed to be fair? Joyce's Buck Mulligan, we could say, is hardly fair to Oliver St. John Gogarty, from whom Joyce appropriated several characteristics in creating Mulligan. Does that matter? Plenty of people would say (have said) Joyce was not fair to Dublin, either. Sinclair Lewis was not fair to Sauk Centre. Jane Austen was not fair to Bath. Novelists are under no obligation to be fair.

And assuredly no novelist writing about Topeka is obliged to be fair to Lawrence or Kansas City.

Crispin's piece is a Baffler "Outburst," and hence supposed to be grouchy and intemperate, so it's a success in that respect, but "This author's X is not an X I recognize" is a formula overdue for retirement.

Ben Lerner, _The Topeka School_

THREE FOR THREE--Lerner is batting 1.000 as a novelist, and this one tries some new tricks. The character circumstanced much like Lerner himself is called Adam Gordon this time, but in a swerve from Leaving the Atocha Station and 10:04 the story is set in the past, when Adam was in high school, rather than in the near-present, and we get the point of view not just of Adam, but also of his parents Jonathan and Jane, both of whom are psychotherapists at a famous clinic located in Topeka (as were Lerner's own parents).

In the first chapter, Adam walks into what he thinks is his girlfriend's family's lakefront house, only to realize slowly that it some other family's house, a mistake enabled by the identical floor-plans and nearly identical furnishings of the neighborhood homes. The vertiginous moment when Adam imagines all the lakefront living rooms superimposed on each other, eerily one and many at the same time, establishes a leitmotif of the novel--but the leitmotif usually functions not in space, but in time, the present uncannily nearly-matching the past. For instance, here Jonathan is on his way to New York, on his way back to Topeka, and in the middle of infidelity, all seemingly at once:

He [Adam] hung up the phone, collected his keys and cigarettes, and left his room on the ninth floor, its windows open to the storm Without noticing, he passed the doorway in which Sima and I were going at it, and got in the elevator. I was traveling furiously toward him in the dark. I was in the plane, cleared to land, flash of distant lightning. The metal doors shut, the landing gear unfolded, and we made our descent, first person and third, together through the clouds. Jane had talked us down. 

Spaces rhyme, moments in time rhyme. Does the novel rely on one of the insights of psychotherapy, that we unconsciously re-trace past patterns, keep re-enacting our past?

Even psychological crises rhyme, as different characters react to fear of being left behind. Jane's publishing a book that makes her famous precipitates some trust-violating intimacy between Jonathan and Jane's mentor Sima; Adam's and friends' imminent departures for prestigious colleges precipitates a terrible assault by Darren, their friend from pre-school who dropped out of high school. And Darren's abruptly throwing a cue ball at a girl's head in someone's basement rec room somehow imposes itself on Adam, now a parent himself, as he writes the novel:

This is 1909; this is 1983; this is early spring 1997 seen from 2019, from my daughters' floor, dim glow of the laptop, "Clair de lune" playing in a separate window [of the building? of the laptop?], as Bone Thugs-N-Harmony plays in the basement.

This superimposition of the similar--this rhyming--is all the more effective in that Lerner does not particularly underline it until the story's coda, when an episode in which he challenges another man for being a negligent parent gives way to a scene in which he is challenged for being a negligent parent. Or--given that the coda is titled "Thematic Apperception"--is the parallel just a readerly projection?

When we say a novel is poetic, we usually (and unfortunately) mean it has extended, eventless passages of description, but this one is poetic in its structure, in the way it uses juxtaposition to create meaning.

Friday, April 17, 2020

Gregory Woods, _Homintern: How Gay Culture Liberated the Modern World_

THE SUBTITLE IS misleading, I would say, insofar as it suggests the book has a central argument along the lines of "Gay culture liberated the modern world by...," along with definitions of "gay," "modern," and "liberated." This is not that book (though Woods could write that book, I expect). This is something more like a survey of LGBTQ presence in and contribution to a variety of artistic and cultural milieus in (mainly, but not exclusively) Europe during (mainly, but not exclusively) the years  from World War I to the 1960s.

Was the subtitle the publisher's idea, I wonder?

Well, whoever does write a book about gay culture liberating the modern world will definitely profit from keeping this book at their elbow. There's been nothing like it since Jeffrey Meyers's serviceable but long outdated Homosexuality and Literature, and Woods's book is not only more up-to-date, but also more detailed, more comprehensive, and better grounded in the culture it studies. It is a great complement to Louis Crompton's Homosexuality and Civilization, which only gets as far as about 1800; Woods's scholarship rivals Crompton's but his style (thankfully) is not as dry.

As someone particularly interested in Anglophone literature between the world wars, I can only say the book is a goddamn goldmine.

Anyone out there wondering what "Homintern" means? It's a British joke dating to the 1930s, authorship disputed (as Woods discusses). The "Comintern" was shorthand for the Third Communist International, supposedly the master committee for international co-ordination among Communist parties, but in fact Moscow-dominated and eventually little more than another instrument of Soviet foreign policy. It had a reputation for being a network of manipulation of unguessable extent, and some wit (Auden? Connolly?) adopted the word to express the idea that literary homosexuals too had a kind of support network of unguessable extent, manipulating who reviewed what, who got which editorial post, etc.

Sounds insidious, right? Because straight male writers never indulge in log-rolling, or give their friends hyperbolic blurbs, or nudge grants and appointments in certain ways, or abuse their privileges in any way whatsoever. Yep, everything fair and above board.

So the book's title is a joke on the joke. Did 20th century gay writers know each other, network with each other, support each other? Yes, sometimes, and we're all the better off because they did.

Sunday, April 12, 2020

James McCourt, _Queer Street: The Rise and Fall of an American Culture, 1947-1985: Excursions in the Mind of the Life_, part the second

SO, AS I was saying, Queer Street does not seem like the history of a culture, or the history of a milieu, since its co-ordinates align almost point-for-point with those of James McCourt's own personal history. The narrative goes to England when McCourt goes to England, to Hollywood when he goes to Hollywood.

For all that, it does not seem like a memoir, either. For one thing, McCourt studiously avoids first person singular pronouns. He  refers to himself only as "the author," or as "Queer Temperament," as though he was the milieu's embodiment.

Perhaps Queer Street is like those middle volumes of Á la recherche de temps perdue, Le côté de chez Guermantes and Sodome et Gomorrhe? Those volumes are likewise about a specific scene or milieu at a certain moment in history, but likewise also definitely from the viewpoint of one particular participant observer.

What is not at all like Proust, though, is the heterogeneity of the text, which includes a Browning-esque dramatic monologue in blank verse, essays on Douglas Sirk and Raymond Carver (whom McCourt valued well before those two figures were safely canonical), and an interview with Bette Davis.

Perhaps it is Proustlike in that Queer Street is partly about McCourt's enthusiasm--save that instead of Berma we hear about Holly Woodlawn, instead of Bergotte we hear about Dennis Cooper.

No--I have to stick with my earlier view (Loads of Learned Lumber, 1/17.2020) that McCourt is quite a bit more like Joyce than he is like Proust. Impenitently allusive, encyclopedically knowledgeable about all sorts of arcana, with more syntactic resources at his command than any other dozen writers. And Irish. And Catholic.

Actually, maybe it is most like Whittaker Chambers's Witness--? An utterly sui generis American classic about a particular historical milieu at a particular historical juncture, from the point of view of a highly unorthodox intelligence who happens to be a born writer, deeply and regrettably unlikely to find its way onto any course's syllabus.

Saturday, April 11, 2020

James McCourt, _Queer Street: The Rise and Fall of an American Culture, 1947-1985: Excursions in the Mind of the Life_, part the first

THIS SEEMS LIKE a classic to me, but the question "a classic what?" would be hard to answer.

The first of its two subtitles suggest it is a cultural history, but that would not be an adequate answer.

The book does not so much describe as conjure up, recreate, gay male culture between the end of World War II and the worst days of AIDS. But the geographical focus is much more specific than the phrase "an American culture" evokes, since apart from a section on England and a section on Hollywood, the whole book is about New York City--or just Lower Manhattan, really.

So, 1947-85, lower Manhattan, Stonewall and Gay Liberation loom large, no? No. McCourt was at the Stonewall Inn on that famous night, but went home early, and the handful of times he mentions Gay Liberation he sounds skeptical.  For instance, McCourt admired and admires Mart Cowley's Boys in the Band, which drew a lot of criticism from more movement-oriented critics:

This opus he [i.e., McCourt] had found it necessary to defend passionately against virulent accusations in the community ("Ha, ha, hah, Blanche!) of its author's selling out to heterosexual fag bashers by painting a "down" picture of a life they were so very committed to publicizing as happy, joyous, boundless, and free--without so much as a nod either to old Harry Hay or old Leo Lerman or old Tobias Schneebaum or anybody else except that darling old wanker Dennis Pratt, out in full regalia with a television play all about him under the nom de theâtre Quentin Crisp. 

(By the way, the syntactical and referential demands that sentence makes on the reader are typical of the whole book.)

McCourt is not much concerned with being historically thorough. There is a paragraph on post-Stonewall gay men's fiction that does not mention Edmund White; McCourt decides Larry Kramer does really need to be mentioned, but at that point hands the narration over to Robert Weil, as though he would rather just not say anything about the famous AIDS activist and playwright..

In Queer Street, Sontag's "Notes on Camp" is of more moment than Stonewall, the Metropolitan Opera a more crucial institution than Act Up.

McCourt is not uninterested in politics--see his Delancey's Way--but he does seem to resonate more deeply to the gay culture of the old open-secret days, when homosexuality, at least in Lower Manhattan, was hidden in plain sight, as it were: a vital, complex culture that flourished gloriously but was visible only to its participants. I don't suppose he is actually nostalgic for getting arrested or being blackmailed or assaulted, but he does seem to prefer the nuanced to the broad, the indirect to the direct, the coded to the explicit. Style matters.

Is it a memoir, then? Not exactly. I can see we will have to take this up later.

Friday, April 10, 2020

Andrze Gasiorek, _Wyndham Lewis and Modernism_

IF YOU ARE looking for a relatively compact overview of Wyndham Lewis's writing career, there is Hugh Kenner's book from 1954 (excellent) and William Pritchard's from 1968 (very good), both titled Wyndham Lewis, which turn up in most research libraries. If you can find a copy, though, Gasiorek's book would be your best bet. Much more recent (2004), it draws on a more complex conversation about Lewis, for one thing, and it addresses the tricky topics (Hitler, misogyny, racism) much more squarely than either Kenner or Pritchard does. The book is short--165 pages, 35 of which are notes, which by the way you ought not to skip--reads well, and is deeply acquainted with both the primary texts and the secondary literature.

I found a copy via that amazing institution, interlibrary loan. Thank you, University of Wyoming library!

Gasiorek's main topic is situating Lewis in relation to Modernism, but Gasiorek does not have a set paradigm of modernism that he seeks to fit Lewis into, thank goodness. Lewis is the most idiosyncratic of modernists, and Gasiorek does justice to the ways Lewis defined and adhered to his own terms. Gasiorek's grasp of Lewis's uniqueness is particularly apparent in the detailed and forthright chapter on Lewis's politics. The topic can too fatally lead to awkward apologetics or blinkered accusations, but Gasiorek finds a golden mean.

I particularly appreciated Gasiorek's willingness to take closer looks at Left Wings over Europe and Count Your Dead--They Are Alive!, two of Lewis' polemics of the 1930s. They are usually dismissed as Lewis's worst books, which, yes, they may well be, but there is still a lot to talk about in them, As Gasiorek demonstrates.

One complaint: a book on Lewis's modernism, and no analysis of The Childermass?

Excellent discussions of Tarr, The Revenge for Love, and Self-Condemned, though, which Gasiorek connects in an insightful and convincing way.

Saturday, April 4, 2020

_The Complete Stories of Leonora Carrington_

LEONORA CARRINGTON (1917-2011) was a painter as well as a writer. Born in England, she lived the larger part of her life in Mexico, and was for a few years in a relationship with Max Ernst, the surrealist. The book contains twenty-five stories, most quite brief, three of them not published before. Thirteen were originally written in French, two in Spanish. About half date from the late 1930s and early 1940s, the time of her involvement with Ernst.

Generally, these stories could be described as fairy tales, but fairy tales before their Victorian domestication. Angela Carter's The Bloody Chamber might be a useful point of comparison, but Carrington's stories are a little stranger and fiercer and crueler (especially about intra-familial relations) than even Carter's, while all the time maintaining a calm, imperturbable sangfroid.

Surreal touches abound. The narrator of "The Three Hunters" is resting in a forest when "a heavy object fell on my stomach. It was a dead rabbit, blood running from its mouth." Moments later a man, "about ninety," lands beside her:

He was wearing a hunting jacket the color of Damascus rose, a bright green hat with orange plumes, and very long black boots trimmed with summer flowers. He wore no trousers. He looked at the rabbit with interest.

I kept thinking a set of illustrations from Edward Gorey would be just about perfect. His subtle whimsy was just about the same shade of dark as Carrington's (bruise-purple, ochre at the edges), he had the same knowingly antique air, and he had a gift for the macabre.

Friday, April 3, 2020

Mark Perrino, _The Poetics of Mockery: Wyndham Lewis's The Apes of God and the Popularization of Modernism_

I HAVE READ a good many critical discussions of The Apes of God, and I would say this is the best. It is the most detailed, for one thing, a full-length book, while the others I have read are chapters or articles. (This may be the only full-length book on any text by Lewis, it occurs to me--I can't think of another off the top of my head, at least.)

For one thing, Perrino does a great job with the messy story of the publication and initial reception of The Apes. He also has a good, sturdy thesis: that the book belongs to the tradition of Menippean satire, a cudgelling of all and sundry in a mobile, taking-on-all-comers spirit, without having a fixed moral basis.

The book's greatest strength, though--seems odd to say this--arises from its having started out as a dissertation. Perrino has obviously lived with The Apes of God, knows it inside, outside, upside down and sideways. Plenty of folks know Ulysses or Moby-Dick or Paradise Lost this well, because they teach them year in and year out, but does anyone teach Apes year in and year out? I doubt it--too long, too weird, not on many exam lists. So only someone writing a dissertation on Apes would have gone in for a good long soak the way Perrino did. (Or someone editing it, like Paul Edwards, another trustworthy authority on the novel.) Every page in Perrino's book turns up one or another detail or connection that no reader of The Apes would have caught on the first pass, and one pass is often all Apes gets, even from people interested in Lewis.

Also noteworthy, though, is how well Perrino writes, and what balanced judgement he has. (This perhaps shows some serious post-dissertation work on the book, since dissertations often are neither well-written nor balanced, but I don't know in this case.) He understands and appreciates the novel, but he does not overstate the claims for it, recognizing how deeply uncharitable it is, but he is still persuasive on how uniquely powerful it is.

If Apes ever does become required reading, Perrino should be the go-to authority.

Thursday, April 2, 2020

Lucy Ellmann and Jack Green's _Fire the Bastards!_

ODDLY ENOUGH, I had always assumed that Lucy Ellmann was likely not related to the twentieth century's greatest literary biographer, Richard Ellmann, until I decided to take the plunge with Ducks, Newburyport and found this on p. 4:

[...] what we loved best was going to the Big Building, where Daddy worked, because sometimes you got a free pencil, the fact that we loved climbing on the big rock outside, the fact that I don't know if somebody dragged the thing there or it was just there when they built the university and they couldn't get rid of it, the fact that the paint was interestingly chipped and you could see how many layers it had, blue, red, white, yellow, green[...]

What I instantly saw in my mind's eye was the big seven- or eight-foot tall rock situated outside University Hall on the Northwestern University campus, which was in fact painted every time a sorority or fraternity or other campus organization decided to advertise themselves. I saw that rock every day all the time I was in grad school. Seeing the rock in my mind's eye, I remembered that yes, Ellmann had taught there, years before I got there as it happens, but I wondered if Lucy Ellmann might actually be the daughter of Richard and recalling her own childhood in Evanston, Illinois. Turns out, yes, she is.

Not that the rest of the book is all that autobiographical, for all I know. Lucy Ellmann is not married to an engineering professor in Ohio, nor does she have a home baking business, nor did she teach Ohio state history as an adjunct. But whenever the narrative turns to her parents, I think, hmm, is that her father? Her mother?

Ducks, Newburyport is thus far (I'm on p. 162) living up to its notices. It's really good. But I also found myself wondering about those notices as I skimmed them in the fron pages of the book. Do hard-working book reviewers--or for that matter, members of juries of prestigious prizes--really have time to read through these 1000-page experimental novels before deadline? Or do they have to, you know, skim, dip, guess?

If you can find a copy, Jack Green's Fire the Bastards! is still illuminating. Green recounts being fascinating by William Gaddis's daunting debut novel, The Recognitions, looking up some reviews, and realizing that most of the reviewers, whether dismissive, neutral, or politely praising, had not actually read much of the book at all, relying instead on publicity info provided by the publisher.

There are a lot fewer newspaper book reviewers (and a lot fewer newspapers) than in Green's day, but you wonder how many of the people doing online reviewing or sharing opinions on Goodreads or blogs like this one actually read the book in question.

Tell you what, though--the opening pages of Ducks, Newburyport also includes, right alongside the snippets from Los Angeles Review of Books and Cosmopolitan, blurbs from the owners of independent bookstores. You know what? Those people I trust. God bless them.