Monthly Archives: October 2010


Anyone that’s eaten an undercooked bratwurst will feel why the word ‘botulism’ derives from the Latin for sausage.  Similarly dismal results may come of too much drinking.  And yet, in one of the season’s happy conjunctions, the pairing of sausage and beer is universally honored this time of year.

Our local Oktoberfest was celebrated the weekend before last, the main drag closed to all but pedestrian traffic.   It’s only a faint echo at six thousands miles’ distance of the heroic beer halls of Bavaria.  The municipal authorities like to hire Army reservists for security and you’ll find them posted in fatigues around the perimeter of downtown.  It lends the whole thing a martial air that reminds me of Patrick Leigh Fermor’s visit to the Munich Hofbrauhaus in 1933 (from A Time of Gifts):

I squeezed in at a table full of peasants, and was soon lifting one of those masskrugs to my lips.  It was heavier than a brace of iron dumb-bells, but the blonde beer inside was cool and marvelous, a brooding cylindrical litre of Teutonic myth… The gun-metal-colored cylinders were stamped with a blue HB conjoined under the Bavarian crown, like the foundry-mark on cannon.  The tables, in my mind’s eyes, were becoming batteries where each gunner served a silent and recoil-less piece of ordinance which, trained on himself, pounded away in steady siege.  Mass-gunfire!  Here and there on the tables, with their heads in puddles of beer, isolated bombardiers had been mown down in their emplacements.  The vaults reverberated with the thunder of a creeping barrage…  Supported by comrades, the walking wounded reeled through the battle smoke and a fresh gunner leaped into each place as it fell empty.

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Sr Iohn Godsalue

I bought this picture for its frame at a yard sale ten years ago.  I never was sure of the subject.  He looked like a younger Erasmus, I thought, but with a weaker chin and stronger nose.  Whoever he was, I meant to swap him out for a print of Shakespeare or Montaigne, but it’s taken me a decade to get around to it.  It wasn’t an easy eviction.  The frame is really three frames in one and the whole of the back was sealed in brown paper.  Whoever originally put him there had gone to some trouble.  I felt like a thief stealing a god from his temple.  But who was he?  At the top left of the print I could barely make out some lettering: ‘[o]hn G[o]dsal[uc].’  The surname looked vaguely Germanic, but the first name (what there was of it) suggested the English ‘John.’  I consulted the Oracle (Google) and found my answer.  The subject was Sir John Godsalve, merchant and courtier.  The artist was Hans Holbein the Younger.  The original resides in the Royal Collection.

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Marginalia, no.154

There are no chaste minds.  Minds copulate wherever they meet.

~ Eric Hoffer, Reflections on the Human Condition

I offer no thoughtful notes on the mechanics of contemporary fiction, no really dutiful explorations of any particular book or author.  I am a shallow reader, lazy, given more to a moment’s lust than a lifetime’s devotion.  The friction of minds is all that I crave.  This is only the record of my perpetual orgy, my innumerable debasements.

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Marginalia, no.153

Those plangent musical awakenings in his childhood had a lot to answer for.

~ Sarah Bakewell, How to Live: A Life of Montaigne…

Bakewell summarizes the critique of Jules Michelet.  Montaigne’s father ordered that his son should only be awakened in the morning by the sound of soft music.  How much different, I wonder, would the Essays have been if Montaigne were roused each day by an alarm clock or, as I often was, by a father uncommonly skilled in mimicking the sound of a kazoo playing reveille.

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The Experience of Being Human

I honor those bloggers – like the indefatigable Patrick Kurp – cast in the heroic mold, who manage to publish something fresh and vigorous every day.  I am not one of them.  These days the demon Work devours my energies and what little I can hide away needs careful preserving for the nourishment of my other, better-loved demon, Novel.  I still manage to read, but reading refreshes rather than consumes.  Reading is to writing what indulgent recuperation at an alpine spa is to the wasting fevers, writhings and bilateral expulsions of a near-mortal illness.

My son and I are presently forging through Mervyn Peake’s adventurous Letters from a Lost Uncle.  And on the train or after midnight, when the machinery of my mind has burnt up all lubrication and I couldn’t write (or re-write) another goddamn sentence if the lives of a dozen day-old puppies depended on it, I pick up Sarah Bakewell’s luxuriously subtitled How to Live: A Biography of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer.  Of course, no sooner had I ordered the book from the UK and paid my international shipping fees than its stateside release was announced for later this month.

Poor souls who have spent any time whatever in my virtual company will know that I am a great admirer of Montaigne.  I am not as much an admirer of Ms Bakewell, but my complaints with her method or style (or subtitle) are mostly trivial and her book has been a pleasure.  Early in an opening chapter – and periodically throughout her 350 pages – Bakewell describes the queer sensation so many readers experience on first acquaintance with Montaigne: the sense that he is writing about them as much as himself.  In his frank self-portraiture and embrace of amor fati, the happy acceptance of all the foibles and inadequacies that make him as an individual different than anyone else, Montaigne somehow helps us to better see what we all have in common, ‘the experience of being human.’

I don’t know that he was any great lover of Montaigne, but I’m reminded of a passage from Thoreau’s journals (February 12, 1851) describing the discovery – or rediscovery – of such communion:

I think that we are not commonly aware that man is our contemporary, – that in this strange, outlandish world, so barren, so prosaic, fit not to live in but merely to pass through, that even here so divine a creature as man does actually live.  Man, the crowning fact, the god we know.  While the earth supports so rare an inhabitant, there is somewhat to cheer us.  I think that the standing miracle to man is man.

Let’s not wax too poetical about this.  Montaigne accomplishes something remarkable in the Essays by his honesty, his curiosity and his habitual suspension of judgment, but thankfully he’s no magician, no demigod.  The point is his – our own – humanity.  The waking from intellectual isolation and the reminder, by a punch in the gut as often as a caress, that we all share and partake in a single, immutably mutable human nature – that is, to my mind, the point.

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Marginalia, no.152

Provincial American cities evoke in me a terrible feeling of desolation as evening falls… Whereas in Manhattan at any hour of the night one can step into the street and encounter a werewolf or at least a derelict who will vomit on one’s shoes. How can I exist in a place in which I am not reminded incessantly that only man is vile?

~ Thomas Berger, in a letter

Everyone suffers the occasional failure of imagination.

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Serious Frivolity

In a box at my parents’ house is a photograph of me and my brother with our faces painted like Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley from Kiss.  It must have been Halloween, 1979 or ‘80.  As I recall, the question of what to be for Halloween was never easily resolved.  It could plague or delight us for weeks on end.  It could consume the entire month of October.  It was a very seriously considered bit of frivolity.
This year my son shouldered the burden of choosing Halloween costumes for everyone in the family.  All four of us, he said, would be Charlie Chaplin.  His sister agreed to it.  So, this past weekend we found ourselves at a costume and party supply store buying bowlers and moustaches and bamboo canes.  I don’t think the vampire working the cash register – gore dripping down her chin and neck – was especially impressed.

I was reading to my son the next day from Dino Buzzati’s The Bears’ Famous Invasion of Sicily and came to the chapter where the morally ambiguous Professor Ambrose leads King Leander and his unwitting bears to Demon Castle.  Like a holiday haunted house, the place is just bursting at the seams with ghosts.  Ambrose hopes the simple-minded bears will be literally frightened to death at Demon Castle, but it doesn’t work out that way.

Instead, thanks to their animal simplicity, the bears aren’t frightened at all, merely amused.  They laugh and puzzle at the floating sheets, queer vapors, and spooky voices that rise from dark corners, assured by instinct that there’s no real threat.  Then one of the ghosts – the ghost of a bear, it turns out – recognizes King Leander.  Others crowd around.  There is a general reunion as the bears embrace, or attempt to embrace, the spirits of comrades fallen in a recent battle with the Grand Duke’s army.  Wine is fetched from the cellar and bears and ghosts dance and sing together all night.

My son enjoyed the first half of the book: the conquering of Sicily, the overthrow of the Grand Duke, and King Leander’s reunion with his kidnapped son.  The latter half of the book, however, was more difficult for him.  Thirteen years later, we see that the bears have adopted human ways – even dressing and accessorizing like men: with top hats, suit jackets, monocles, and canes.  They’ve lost something of their wild nature and, to King Leander’s dismay, prove thoroughly corruptible.  The king himself is not immune.  Then, in the midst of defending his subjects from an outward threat, there comes a mortal betrayal from within.
Before he dies and goes to join his ghostly friends, King Leander begs the bears to throw off their human clothes, leave everything, and march back to the mountains.  He reminds them, frightened as they are at his loss, that no one is really indispensible.  Looking at my son, I thought, that must be a hard idea for a seven-year-old.  It’s hard enough for an adult.  But maybe there’s freedom in being unnecessary.  Even if life is a cosmic frivolity, we can still strive to choose our costumes wisely.

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