Night Work, Reading by Nose, The Master

In fact, I write for a living – or that’s mostly what I do. Of course, the sorts of things I get paid to write aren’t generally my idea of literature. They’re press releases, talking points, media pitches, byline articles, company reports, strategic messaging documents – that sort of stuff. I like to say that I’ve been quoted in most of America’s major newspapers but never under my own name. I generally keep a strict division between office life and home life. Work, however, has been bleeding into every corner these past few weeks. The size of our team has been reduced by two thirds, but our work load not at all. I hardly notice the robins and juncos out my office window anymore, or the fact that the magnolias are blooming. I barely find time to read, much less to write for pleasure. Most nights I dream about work, about drafting FAQs and bullet points and policy analyses. Years ago at the salmon cannery in Alaska, a Mexican coworker named Lenin told us that this sort of dream work has a name in Spanish: trabajo de la noche.

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James Duval Phelan, who had a glorious moustache, was mayor of San Francisco from 1897 to 1902. He later served as a U.S. Senator for California. Between these two assignments, in 1912, Phelan built a country manse on the slopes of the Santa Cruz Mountains above Saratoga. Though born to an Irish immigrant who had made his fortune in the Gold Rush, Phelan named his county residence Villa Montalvo and laid out an “Italianate garden” on its grounds. When he died in 1930, Phelan gave the property to Santa Clara County. Today it’s a public park and an arts center with an artists’ residency program. Not long ago I was hiking with the wife and kids through a grove of second-growth redwoods above Phelan’s Villa when I caught a familiar, very specific odor. It took a moment to place it, but I finally did. Beneath the trees, the orange blanket of rotting needles gave off a musty aroma that precisely reproduced the smell of my 1946 Viking Press edition of Saki’s Complete Stories, the one with the brittle, yellowing pages.

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I never had much use for the Henry James titles (Daily Miller, The Portrait of a Lady) that we read in college. In fact, I never had much use for James until I was in my late thirties and read The Aspern Papers and The Beast in the Jungle and attempted (twice) to read The Ambassadors. I’m presently making a continental tour of his novellas and shorter stories. From the handsome Library of America edition covering the period from 1884 to 1891 I’ve especially enjoyed The Pupil, The Liar, The Patagonia, and The Lesson of the Master. Why is it that James suddenly works for me? His “supercivilised” world of upper-crust Victorian socialites and moneyed ex-patriots might as well be the Japanese Middle Ages for all the likeness it bears to my own life and milieu. But his language is surely a factor, a potent mingling of cool precision and warm ambiguity. It works on me like a drug. James’s main appeal, however, may be his capacity to see into the complexities of his own characters, to make them so perfectly transparent to us while preserving a core of personal mystery. After an hour reading Henry James, I find that I look at others around me with refreshed curiosity.

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