Monthly Archives: January 2010

Marginalia, no.99

Martinis, antagonistic effect on literary skill of, 186

~ Kingsley Amis, Index entry from Everyday Drinking

Turn to the page indicated for this admission: ‘I personally find that after half a dozen large Dry Martinis my customary skill with the commas and semicolons becomes a little eroded.’  There are no like entries for straight gin, whisky or vodka.  That receptivity to the Muses is helped by lubrication is a point insisted on by many, by example if not by recommendation.  Balzac, I think, had the better idea when he substituted coffee for alcohol, but he still drank himself to death.


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Marginalia, no.98

I have always kept ducks, he said, even as a child, and the colors of their plumage, in particular the dark green and snow white, seemed to me the only possible answer to the questions that are on my mind.

~ W.G. Sebald, The Rings of Saturn

According to that old parable of Bede’s, we pass like birds through the open doors of the mead hall, from darkness to light and then to darkness again.  The light is the life of sense and memory, the hands and words and sights that shepherd our mortal days.  The darkness is our ignorance of what comes before and what follows – prior to birth, after death.  We make trouble for ourselves when we abstract our minds from the light of the mead hall to peer in from outside, as if darkness shed a light of its own.

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Marginalia, no.97

[A]nd while Mrs. Saunders declaimed over her onion bed such portions of the slang dictionary as are permitted by the Nonconformist conscience to be said or sung, the Vasco da Gama fowl was waking the echoes of Toad-Water with crescendo bursts of throat music which compelled attention to her griefs.

~ Saki (H.H. Munro), ‘The Blood Feud of Toad-Water’

Some pencil-brandishing would-be editor of a patron crossed out the above sentence (the best in the story) from my local library’s copy of Saki’s Complete Works.  He apparently thought it superfluous.  The villain further improved the original by substituting (in a childish scrawl) ‘tired,’ ‘poor’ and ‘birds’ for ‘wearied,’ ‘contemptible inadequacy of’ and ‘chaffinches,’ respectively.  The strange compulsion that must have seized him is probably explained by a too-strict adoption of that grim creed of high school composition teachers according to which one should always get to the point immediately, and use bland, general terms whenever more colorful ones suggest themselves.  It’s an abuse of the democratic spirit, really.  The best is always unnecessary.

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Book Porn, no.2

Bicentennial facsimile edition of the original Encyclopedia Britannica (1771), 3 vols.  These are big heavy books bound in chocolate leatherette with gilt lettering on the spine and paper foxing retained.  A winning combination of superannuated data and authoritative heft.  I picked them up for a tenth their value at a Seattle Public Library book sale a number of years ago.  Includes fold-out charts and tables and over 150 copperplates by Andrew Bell, who at four-foot-six rode the tallest horse in Edinburgh (with a ladder to reach the saddle) and got in bad odor with George III for his anatomically correct illustrations in the Midwifery article.


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Why read Amazon customer reviews of 19th-century literary masterpieces?  In order not to miss out, I suppose, on enlightened comments like this anonymous reader’s response to Moby Dick:

For readers of good fiction (Rushdie, Conrad, Steinbeck etc.) this outdated and outmoded novel is an arduous and pointless effort. There are many better books on sea adventure.

(Rushdie, Steinbeck… Really?)

People tend to feel strongly about Moby Dick one way or the other.  I keep a picture of Melville on the wall in my office where he rubs genial shoulders with Shakespeare and Cervantes.  Passersby who manage to recognize him will either burst into applause or pretend to vomit.  The book works like an incantation, conjuring up spirits from across the full angelicodemonic spectrum to possess readers with fierce adoration or hellfire spite.  To steal a phrase from the author, most responses “partake more of significant darkness than of explanatory light.”  For some it’s the One and Only Great American Novel, for others a messy, damnable abortion of a book.  Finding Melville’s humor inaccessible, persons forced to read it prematurely – in high school, say, or for an undergraduate survey course – are among the most painfully scarred.  On the other hand, it was his shame at not having read Moby Dick that launched Leonard Zelig on his troubled career.

It’s not that lovers of Moby Dick love it for reasons overlooked by detractors, or vice versa.  Those who love Moby Dick tend to love it for precisely the same reasons others hate it.  Some among the latter would split the book into two separate volumes: one for the rollicking whale story, the other for the lunatic metaphysical ravings.  But Moby Dick has a schizophrenic unity.  The pleasure and the pain of the book are one: it’s a churning tropic sea of prose that scorches and stings, or warms and refreshes, according to the flesh of the bather.

In 2007 Orion Books in the UK (Phoenix in the US) infamously printed an abridgment of the novel, Moby Dick in Half the Time.  The point was to strip it down to bare plot and make it accessible to the general reader. Adam Gopnik of The New Yorker quipped: “All Dick, no Moby.”  Last year Damion Searls jumped into the fray with the ironical publication of ;or, the Whale, another abridgment, this one made up only of those elements (punctuation, words, phrases, whole chapters) left out by Orion – which I suppose makes Searls’ version (forgive me) Dickless, by contrast.

Abridging Moby Dick for an imaginary ‘general reader’ – trimming out all digressions on symbology, cetology and the mechanics of cutting tackles and try-pots – is a terrible idea, of course.  But no matter how you slice it, it’s not going to be the “book on sea adventure” the Amazon reviewer was apparently hoping for.  Melville is only superficially concerned with superficialities and Moby Dick has less to do with front-and-center elements of plot and action than with Melville’s own restless quest for “the surrounding infinite of things.”

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Marginalia, no.96

It is significant that the condor used my father’s chamber pot.

~ Bruno Schulz, The Street of Crocodiles

We used to make long summer road-trips to Iowa for family reunions.  My father bought a CB radio to keep us entertained through the purgatorial stretches of desert highway.  We each had to choose a handle, an alias to identify ourselves by.  My father’s was ‘Timberwolf.’  It made me think of that scene from the movie version of Never Cry Wolf (1983) when Tyler dreamt he was killed and eaten by a pack of wolves – a dream that forged a spiritual bond between himself and the animal, according to Tyler’s Inuit friend Mike.  I always wanted a familiar, something like Prince Rupert’s dog.  I never had one, unless it was the little songbird that frightened me by landing on my head, or the moth that flew out of my mouth after I pretended to drink from the toy kettle in the back yard.


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Marginalia, no.95

…One of those grotesque ironies that are too strong for the delicate stomach of Art but in which reality abounds, as though life itself enjoys laughing down the aesthetic proprieties.

~ Peter De Vries, The Blood of the Lamb

Cf. ‘truth is stranger than fiction’ – the same sentiment, with a change of inflection.  The would-be Realist pinches his nose at the merest fleeting odor of unlikelihood, as if art were subject to a law of averages.  But every hour contains its exceptional minute, and perfect plausibility is perfectly implausible.  Chance, dreams and (if all else fails) the cosmic fact of something rather than nothing render the most mundane existence a catalog of marvels.

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