Tuesday, October 25, 2011

In case you're wondering --

-- where I am, chances are it's here. Do drop by, and have a pisco sour maybe.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Once again ...

... I haven't actually stopped reading. Eight weeks of learning how to live a new life, mid-divorce, have rather interfered with my time and attention span.

But I still have my Kindle. I am immersed in a nineteenth-century biography of Marie Antoinette by Charles Duke Yonge, having already read Madame Campan's Memoirs of the Court of Marie Antoinette, Queen of France.  Why is it that the queen seems to be the very epicenter of the French Revolutionary whirlwind? Perhaps because I read books about her. If I condescended to read books about Danton, perhaps he would seem the very epicenter of the French revolutionary whirlwind.

And was she an "ordinary woman," as Stefan Zweig called her, totally unable to cope with the disasters at the end of her life? (Could anyone?) Or was she quite astute, only tragically thrust onto a ridiculous stage by an accident of birth, and then surrounded, seemingly mid-performance, by a gang of thugs and fools who very much and very simply wanted to kill her? In 1787 she wrote of changes in French politics to her friend, the Duchesse de Polignac, vacationing in England:

The words 'opposition' and 'motions' are established here as in the English Parliament, with this difference, that in London, when people go into opposition, they begin by denuding themselves of the favors of the king; instead of which, here numbers oppose all the wise and beneficent views of the most virtuous of masters, and still keep all he has given them. It may be a clever way of managing, but it is not so gentleman-like. The time of illusion is past, and we are tasting cruel experience. We are paying dearly to-day for our zeal for and enthusiasm for the American war ....

To me this does not sound like the helpless, befeathered, sleepy-eyed flibbertigibbet of the Vigee-Lebrun portraits, nor does it fit in with the sort of popular half-knowledge which understands Marie Antoinette as somehow really ancillary to the whole exciting business, but anyway deserving of her fate because she was rich, or idle, or ignorant, or titled, or a woman. Then again, it's possible that the people around her at the time knew perfectly well she was not a helpless flibbertigibbet, but rather an anti-revolutionary conspirator looking for help from her foreign and imperial relations, and lying about it, up to the very end. This was treason, though to her, queen and daughter of an empress, it was clear she had every right to bring her riotous and misguided people back to "calmness." "What is going on in France," she wrote, "would be an example too dangerous to other countries, if it were left unpunished."

And here we are, two days after Bastille Day. Still apparently unpunished. But I must go on reading.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Dinner at Antoine's by Frances Parkinson Keyes

Oh, dear. I thought the novel was going to be about the famed New Orleans restaurant, or about food in some way. Not so. If you want to find out who murdered the invalid Odile St.-Amant -- was it her estranged husband, Léonce? her sister, Caresse, who is also carrying on with him? -- I'm sorry but you will have to read further than I did. Frances Parkinson Keyes has an atrocious ear for dialogue, despite her prose being good. So atrocious is it that I had to put the thing aside in disgust. And yes, I did struggle manfully past the first chapter, where I had to read things like this (it's Orson Foxworth speaking):

" ...my dear, the fascinating creature clinging to my arm is Amelie Lalande, the envy of all lesser charmers. I see that Odile's already made up for my negligence by introducing herself, and perhaps she's told you which is really her sister and which is really her husband. Yes? Well, I thought so. The Viking-looking chap on the other side of Caresse is Russ Aldridge -- Russell Wainwright Aldridge, Ph.D. -- a fast man with a hieroglyph, a drink, a samba, and a back-to-back pair of Jacks, in the order named! And finally, Dr. Perrault, who painted tonsils for Odile and Caresse when they were only knee-high to a puddle duck. But they don't hold that against him and you needn't either .... Have you had a drink yet? As you see, some of our guests got desperate because we were so late and very wisely started in on Sazeracs." 

And it goes on and on. The worst is when the characters are made to think to themselves, in italics. Parkinson Keyes was very prolific in a time when (and readers of Vellum will recognize a theme) the American publishing industry simply seems to have put out better books than it does now -- so I can only hope that Dinner at Antoine's was an anomaly among her works. If I discover that Blue Camellia or Station Wagon in Spain were any better, I will try to report so as soon as possible.  

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Godfrey of Bouillon, Defender of the Holy Sepulchre by Tom Tozer

This was a new experience. I turned on my Kindle -- bless its heart -- and searched the keyword Godfrey, because I had just encountered a lengthy and rather turbid poem of G.K. Chesterton's which sang, in part,
... the voice that shook our palaces -- four hundred years ago:
It is he that saith not 'Kismet'; it is he that knows not Fate;
It is Richard, it is Raymond, it is Godfrey at the gate!"
The Kindle store promptly found, and offered me the chance to buy, a title called Godfrey of Bouillon, Defender of the Holy Sepulcher, for $2.99. Published in 2005. Well, why not?

I am familiar with the once legitimately-published but now out-of-copyright books hosted at Project Gutenberg, but this was the first time I had bought anything sight unseen from Kindle, only. Was it a reprint of something just as old, or might it be a recent bestseller in a genre that I was ignorant of? 

Neither. The book is a self-published short novel, put out by a vanity press or POD (publish on demand) company -- in this case, PublishAmerica, whose reputation in the bookselling industry seems to be even worse than that of most such places. Red flag to prospective authors: PublishAmerica does not accept returns, from bookstores, of its unsold product. Why does this matter? Because Legitimate Press A would do so. Legitimate Press A invests time and money in a writer because it judges the writer's content is marketable; if it turns out that new author Miss Smith's book doesn't sell, Legitimate Press A does not stick its bookstore clients with stacks of it, but takes the rotten apple back like a good merchant, writes off the loss, and perhaps doesn't deal with Miss Smith again.

Not so PublishAmerica, which has given us Godfrey of Bouillon exactly as Mr. Tom Tozer gave it to them. Godfrey inspires this interest in the workings of the publishing world because the novel itself inspires almost none. Now, to be fair, I read it, I finished it. The prose is acceptable, some passages even rather nice. But as you skim along, without benefit of any information about the book at all, no dust jacket blurbs, no logrolling, no "advance praise," the realization slowly grows that this is an amateur.

The book is very short, for one thing, probably not more than 120 pages in a print version, if that. Short books can be good, and long novels can be bad, but any professional -- no matter how many rejection slips he has gathered -- knows that to be taken seriously he must make his manuscript, for better or worse, a certain length. As to the content, there are people and there are events in the story, but the events roll by as they were culled from popular histories of the Crusades, and the people are little more than names which the writer has learned from the same. There is the battle of Ascalon, there are Godfrey, Eustace, and Ida. No character develops in any way nor has any vital relationship with any other. If this manuscript had remotely got past the first desk in the slush pile at a New York publishing house, any editor (likely a woman) would have immediately insisted at the least on many more women, and much more romance. Our author, bless him, is a man who likes the Crusades, not all that folderol. There are also some outright mistakes. Surely no character in 1096 is going to say " 'The Pope can no more turn bread into the body of God than he can turn a frog into a potato.' " And no, it's not the disrespect shown the Pope that is anachronistic here.    

And yet. There is a curious freshness to the book. I believe it must come from the author's love of the subject and from his creation of a work of art outside the sacred precincts of that New York publishing world, where talent does batter down the doors sometimes, but where a great many submission guidelines also read like instructions for candidates in the Mandarin examinations of imperial China. ("Excellence is really our only criterion. That said, however -- race, class, and gender, etc. -- if you must trumpet your religion, do it with grace and style -- racist or bigoted characters must be seen to be defeated -- children must solve a unisex problem not involving war, death, or illness," etc.) Those guidelines produce books as stale as can be, books which read like examination papers more than stories. Only last night, I tried another sample on Kindle of a new, correctly published and accredited biography of the saints Brigid (early medieval Ireland) and Genevieve (early medieval Paris). Who knew that the people of that far away time would have spent so much time thinking, in the most painfully fusty academic terms, about gender and sacral spaces? Needless to say, I didn't buy that one. By contrast, Godfrey's freshness in the end even has a  medieval feel to it. Mr. Tozer seems to have captured something of what we imagine to be the eleventh century's flaming, personal Christian passion, as well as something of a medieval chroniclers' bland, sometimes maddeningly distant and unreflective voice ("what I have told you is truly what I have seen and heard, and I have no more to add to it").  

So. Here is an example, for history's sake, of what does not batter down the doors, what does not escape the slush pile, what does not pass the imperial Mandarin examinations. We'll let Mr. Tozer end with this: does this deserve never to have seen the light of day? Ida speaks.
"It is all like a vast poem. We know how it begins, and we know how it ends, and we know that all together it is beautiful. But we live in the middle, between the light and the glory. And thus we do not know what lines we write with our own lives every day. But, with God's help, we can write lines with our  lives that deserve a place in His song."  

Monday, April 18, 2011

The Moving Finger by Agatha Christie

Very fun fluff from the mistress of intelligent, if somewhat pedestrian, fluff -- just the thing to devour on a day off, when you have decided to try for the first time that old-fashioned egg-and-mayonnaise treatment supposed to be so good for lustrous hair. This experiment entails a lot of sitting around, with your head swathed in plastic wrap and a towel, so why not read? 

It's a tale of a country village murder, just as Agatha Christie invented it. Well done. Certainly we never see the murderer coming. And it's a Miss Marple tale, too, although that delightful lady, frustratingly, does not show up until the story is five-sixths finished. She is much more visible in the short stories that bear her name, rather than in the novels. As for the romance between Jerry and Megan, that is a little stiff. Bravo to Christie for trying to imagine herself into the mind of a man abruptly in love, but her sensibilities just aren't quite in it. Jerry limping on his "sticks" is too elderly and Megan too childlike for them to be convincing as a pair. Effeminate Mr. Pye is far more fun. (He reminds me of Georgie in the Mapp and Lucia novels.) "And then," he gushes the only time we meet him, "the dreadful old woman died, but of course it was far too late then. They just went on living there and talking in hushed voices about what poor Mamma would have wished."

Christie is at her best with old ladies like Mr. Pye or the five elderly spinsters whom he is gossiping about, or indeed with Miss Marple. I've always liked the way she uses sharp-as-a-tack old women to comment upon the twentieth century's mostly direful social changes. Her old ladies always know the routine of a correctly run country house, or what to wear to what occasions, but more importantly they know how to spot an unscrupulous man, or when to sack an unsatisfactory housemaid and never mind compassion for the lower orders, she's a thief who doesn't deserve a good reference which she would then use to prey on her next employer. The old ladies know "wickedness," and that human nature has not changed no matter that we've freed ourselves from corsets, hats, and (we imagine) bigotry and prejudice, not to mention silly old-fashioned inhibitions on our marvelous self-expression. It's all very refreshing. In one of her gentle arguments with her nephew Raymond, who is a very modern and enlightened and compassionate writer, Miss Marple notes what happens when whole generations decide to chuck most of what their ancestors knew about life. "Young people," she sighs, "say things that were never talked about in my day, but their minds are so terribly innocent ...." 

Sunday, March 6, 2011

A rare find

The Storm, by Frances Sarah Moore (1951)

To surf the gigantic universe of book review blogs is to wonder at the news and opinions of people who read more than I do. ("Loved it loved it LOVED IT!") To saunter about bookstores and libraries is to gape at the stacks of new fiction. All the fresh stiff books are so impressively thick and gorgeously produced, their jacket paintings, lettering, and design absolute works of art. But I open them to meet repeated disappointment.

When it comes to reading perhaps I should allow that my standards might be downright petty. I'm annoyed, for instance, by the gimmick of the novel written in the present tense ("It's daylight. Blood drips down her arm ....") Why use a square wheel for five hundred solid pages when the round one -- the past tense -- has served so well? I'm annoyed by the gimmick of the novel written in bad English, because the narrator is a plucky servant or other uneducated character. Mark Twain could do this; you and I cannot, much. I'm annoyed when a novel, set in the seventeenth century, uses politically correct 21st-century American terms for today's approved grievance groups ("the Romany [gypsy] woman"). I'm annoyed by pointless, laughable vulgarity, and mind you I do read basic, porn-heavy romance novels with good cheer, so it's not a question of prudery. A year or so ago, I came across one very beautiful and interesting-looking new novel, set in Renaissance Florence, which opened with a description of the dead body of a nun, shockingly discovered to be tattooed with a giant snake which curled around her form until its head and tongue reached her private parts. That, my friends, shrieks "lack of talent" on the part of the writer. Anyone with something valuable to say need not begin quite so. Needless to add I didn't buy the book, nor look for it at the library.

Because bookstores with their fresh thick beautiful stacks so uniformly disappoint, I turn to the library for books like the one in the photo above: unadorned, unknown, old. I look for books published before all fiction came out of university writing programs, and before nearly all publishing houses -- it seems -- mass-hired editors who like and expect to promote fiction from university writing programs. This last claim about the weight of university training in the modern market comes from an article I read online just in the last month, which struck me as very pat but which I regret I can't find again. (I hope you'll trust me on this.) The author declared that 13 of the 15 most recent recipients of some prestigious prize or other, or honorees on some bestseller list or other, had all come out of university creative writing departments. We the readers' fond image of the "lone visionary" scribbling private truths was long since passé, this commentator explained.

It shows. So much modern fiction, when it is not being annoying through its gimmickry or its political correctness or its silly vulgarity, has the feel of being competently assembled rather than written. Perhaps that comes from young people being taught, en masse, how to write: not in the necessary sense of being taught grammar, but in the sense of being taught how to "create conflict" or "write compelling dialogue." And the dream of the six-figure movie deal surely hangs over a lot of modern output. So many chapters seem to be framed visually rather than written out by a mind which is trying to describe the visual through graceful language (there's a difference). So much action is painstakingly plodded through as if to make a future set director's instructions perfectly clear. Scene after scene ends with wooden Excitement. "Professor. You've got to get down here. Now." And, cut.

So I turn to old books, when I can find them. The quest is getting difficult even in the library. My local one assiduously purges, eliminating what has not circulated enough and donating it all to the Book Sale room, which does a whopping business at the monthly Friends of the Library extravaganzas. The purging in turn makes space for more of today's fiction which, by the way, you will still be able to spot fifty years from now even if it is all bereft of its opulent jacketing, and looks as humbly intriguing as The Storm. A lot of it will have titles like The Curious Case of the Tree that was Blue, Jumping on Silk Trampolines with Boys Who Paint, or The Secret Life of my Nephew's Glasses. A lot of it will struggle to reach sophomoric (literally, university level) moral conclusions -- and that is especially true of the painfully serious books brooding over academia's approved topics, race, class, and gender. My favorite was a tremblingly meaningful final pronouncement from a best seller of ten years ago, viz., that the Civil War was "fought to decide how we're going to feel about each other." Really. News to the soldiers, I'll bet.

To be fair, if my tastes are so very exalted and I like such old books, I could simply turn only to the profoundest classics, which the library does for the moment keep on its shelves. But a diet of just Dickens and Shakespeare and Conrad, even if anybody could remotely follow it, needs some leavening. Besides, I'm curious. Dickens and Shakespeare and Conrad were once the latest thing. Have they no descendants among us at all? I like to hunt old books to find that out, or to find out at least what good or even yeoman talent was still accomplishing forty and more years ago, before today's gatekeepers took up their stations with such -- well, finality, it seems. It's hard to believe splendid imaginative ability really vanished from the English speaking world around 1975.

Now, enter The Storm. It's a plain-Jane little novel, written in plain-Jane prose and printed in a rather large typeface too, about a young couple who meet and become serious despite both bearing cynical views on marriage. It opens, startlingly, with a view of a bad marriage between an elderly rural minister and his wife -- in 1951. Where did Frances Sarah Moore get the idea? We imagine everybody before us was so innocent, so conformist, so unwilling to explore darkness. And it closes, satisfyingly, with the writer's attempt at honest summings-up on large human topics, as she sees them, not as she and her classmates have been taught to see them. There is a difference, evident in the feeling of truth and private effort that is missing from the final pages of modern fiction.

There is also something very important in The Storm, which I delight to find and which almost never appears in modern books, university-bred as they are. It's the natural, unexplained reference to classic literature, to the fact that bits of Western knowledge were once ingrained in almost every Western person and therefore a normal part of fictional characters' backgrounds, too. Here Julia is speaking with her married lover (in 1951!):

"I love you, Julia. I don't want to hurt you. I am afraid I am taking advantage of you."
"Of my youth?" she jeered. "I am old, Father William."
He smiled a little at Alice's misquoted Young Man.

That's it. The only reason I recognize this is because I saw the Disney movie Alice in Wonderland about a million times when my children were younger, and I think it fairly faithfully mirrors the book. Tweedledum and Tweedledee sing " 'You are old, Father William,' the Young Man said" -- and from there you can walk the reference back, and see why Frances Sarah Moore has someone "smile a little at Alice's misquoted Young Man."

Even though The Storm is a completely ordinary book, this small point is a far more worthy and even exciting indication of a forgotten, sincere ability quietly at work, than all the pasteboard details shoveled into a new novel, whose bulk nevertheless bores with its drab language and its human emptiness. My own favorite, historical fiction, seems especially impoverished. So, a medieval child might wear a necklace made of hedgehog's teeth? That's good research -- and good research is lavishly praised on the backs of book jackets -- no one could make that up. I'm glad to know it. And right on page 1, too. Someone's been told to capture the reader's attention right away. But beyond the hedgehog's teeth, what is it about this particular subject of this huge novel, this king's mistress, what is it about retelling her life that has fulfilled this writer's need to express the truths he knows? When Frances Sarah Moore writes about the elderly couple salvaging their marriage, or about what it means for a life's work to be obscure or not, valuable or not, I sense that she has sat alone, maybe in a room resounding with the din of a driving ice storm just like the one she describes, and has thought out some important things to her own satisfaction, which she then tenders respectfully to the reader. Any reader. Even sixty years on. Today's vetted writers have not done that, nor would it occur to them to try. They've been trained to dazzle, with competent arrangements and striking anecdotes, people trained to be dazzled by them. It's all so remarkably dull.   

Now the clever reader might point at me and say, "It's all sour grapes. Nobody wanted your novel and you've never done the digging needed to write a paying historical or romantic sizzler, so you're mad."

Maybe. It's true that I find nothing particularly feeding to the soul in making up fiction. I admire those who do it well, and I even admire the energy of those who do it poorly. Maybe some of us are born diarists, for what that's worth. (Maybe we can flatter ourselves that, as Marcus Aurelius instructed, we "write for the gods.") But I'm also still a would-be consumer of modern books, and in that humble role I'm still confused by the vast sunlit desert wastes before me. Where is the talent? And you wonderful bloggers who devour a dozen books a month, exulting how you "loved it loved it LOVED it." What exactly are you loving?

Sunday, January 30, 2011

A Versailles Christmas-tide by Mary Stuart Boyd

A pleasant little book. I downloaded it from Project Gutenberg without any of its illustrations, to save memory on my Kindle, but that may have been a mistake; judging by the space allotted them, half the point of the memoir seems to have been the  pictures. They were drawn by the author's husband A. S. Boyd, whose art appeared in Punch and who himself appeared in the Who's Who of 1900.

Even bereft so, it's a pleasant little book. The Boyds, an English couple, receive word that their teenaged son, away at school in Versailles, has come down with scarlet fever. They set out at once -- "it was full noon when the news came, and nightfall saw us dashing through the murk of a wild mid-December night towards Dover pier" -- and after about a day and a half, a boat, a train to Paris, a drive across the city, and another train bring them "jolting in a fiacre over the stony streets of Versailles."

The following nine chapters gently tell the story of the parents' observations and small adventures while they winter unexpectedly in this eerily forgotten corner of France. Only twelve miles from Paris, "Versailles is not ancient; it is old, completely old. Since the fall of the Second Empire it has stood still. Most of the clocks have run down, as though they realised the futility of trying to keep pace with the rest of the world." The Boy recovers, as we know he will (this is not a writer to stun us with a tragedy at the end). Since he is being nursed by the Soeur of the Red Cross hospital in town, who only seems to allow parental visits at mealtimes, Mr. and Mrs. Boyd simply wait, and knock about Versailles for the better part of a month. They watch the goings-on among their fellow hotel guests, or at the vegetable market, where they buy and decorate a Christmas tree as a surprise for the invalid. Because it is Christmas, they watch the goings-on at the local Notre Dame, where silent worshipers contemplate a crèche, or attend to private spiritual needs.

Here a pretty girl returned thanks for evident blessings received; there an old spinster, the narrowness of whose means forbade her expending a couple of sous on the hire of a chair, knelt on the chilly flags and murmured words of gratitude for benefits whereof her appearance bore no outward indication.

Most interesting for the modern reader are the Boyds' leisurely tours of the palace of Versailles in the days before it was -- I should think -- a full-on, cleaned-up tourist destination, as crowded and lockstep with routines and défendus as it probably ever was when the Sun King's court adored him there. Early on in her book, Mrs. Boyd quickly sketches memories of a previous, rubberneck visit -- "a palace of fatiguing magnificence" -- but now in the off season while she is living in the town, she goes there again and really explores. Now she is given a private tour of the hidden staircase, "dark, narrow, and hoary with the dust of years," by which Marie Antoinette fled the invading crowds in October, 1789, and she claims to have asked to see it only after surmising, all on her own, that it must exist. ("... I was puzzling over the transparent fact that either of the apparent exits would have led her directly into the hands of the enemy, when the idea of a secret staircase suggested itself.") She visits the hameau, the queen's little fake dairy farm, and records it still abandoned and unkempt because its previous owners had been dragged away. Her writing is very pretty, and deserves quoting at length.

About the pillars supporting the verandah-roof of the chief cottage and that of the wide balcony above, roses and vines twined lovingly. And though it was the first day of January the rose foliage was yet green and bunches of shrivelled grapes clung to the vines. It was lovely then; yet a day or two later, when a heavy snowfall had cast a white mantle over the village, and the litle lake was frozen hard, the scene seemed still more beautiful in its ghostly purity.

At first sight there was no sign of decay about the long-deserted hamlet. The windows were closed, but had it been ealy morning, one could easily have imagined that the pseudo villagers were alseep behind the shuttered casements, and that soon the Queen, in some charming déshabillé, woudl come out to breathe the sweet morning air and to inhale the perfume of the climbing roses on the balcony overloking the lake, where gold-fish darted to and fro among the water-lilies ....

The sunset glamour had faded and the premature dusk of mid-winter was falling as, approaching nearer, we saw where the roof-thatch had decayed, where the insidious finger of Time had crumbled the stone walls. A chilly wind arising, moaned through the naked trees. The shadow of the guillotine seemed to brood oppressively over the scene, and, shuddering, we hastened away.

I'm sure I don't know why, but perhaps some psychiatrist could explain why middle class, middle aged women, perhaps particularly Anglo women, stand ever fascinated by Marie Antoinette. Do French or for that matter Austrian women swoon over her quite as much? Do we recognize her as one of our own, though shrouded in far more than the glamor of mere foreignness? Stefan Zweig subtitled his biography of her "Portrait of an Average Woman," in keeping with his thesis that her fate and the fate of those around her might have been less tragic had she possessed any outsize abilities. Perhaps we like her because we see her as wife, mother, interested in friends, parties, rehabbing the house, elevated as a teenager to the highest and richest and most delightful sphere -- first Dauphine, then Queen of France! -- above all, innocent. Mrs. Boyd's book on visiting her ill son would have been far shorter had she not included two whole chapters on this woman and a great many of her compeers ("to me the Palace of Versailles is peopled by the ghosts of many women"). But her fascination with the queen fascinates also because, as a practical matter, from this witness in 1900 we enjoy the ghoulish little thrill of seeing the hameau as it can never be again. For her it was a crumbling but living thing. With her we can look at the rotting thatch and murmur inwardly, "just a little more than a hundred years ago ... not even repaired." I doubt it's quite so authentically, "oppressively" ghostly today.


Image from chateauversailles.fr, the official website of the Château de Versailles.

Yes, the Boy recovers. Like the boy in the (oppressive) children's story The Velveteen Rabbit, his things all have to be burned once he is well -- which is why his parents, in all their hurry, took care to bring him only old outgrown toys from his playroom at home anyway. It was 1900. No antibiotics. Apparently time, luck, emotional succor, and a boiled milk diet saw him through. At the end of it he is able to say, in the speech patterns only a Victorian thirteen-year-old could muster, " 'Do you know, I've rather enjoyed it!' " And so have we.