Monthly Archives: December 2014

A Year in Books: 2014

Best Of

I can count on one hand the books I read in 2014 which were actually published this year. While I appreciate the fact that people still write new books, I don’t feel any special obligation to read them. The best authors are generally dead authors. Only one of the books I most enjoyed this year was written by someone still living. I’m thinking of F. Gonzalez-Crussi’s On Being Born and Other Difficulties. Simon Leys only recently (August 2014) joined the ranks of the deceased, but his Hall of Uselessness was another favorite. Still others include Gilbert White’s Natural History of Selborne, John Aubrey’s Brief Lives, Francis Parkman’s Montcalm and Wolfe, Marguerite Yourcenar’s Memoirs of Hadrian, Robert Louis Stevenson’s Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes, Rose Macaualay’s Told by an Idiot, Hawthorne’s Blithedale Romance, and a long list of Henry James short stories.

Jamesiana and Failed Readings

I try not to feel bad about failing to finish a book, but twice now I’ve tried and failed to finish a late Henry James masterpiece. A few years back the book was The Ambassadors; this year it was The Wings of the Dove. I expected more of myself, because (as mentioned) I read so many James short stories with so much relish in the earlier months of 2014. The Middle Years, The Altar of the Dead, The Liar, The Real Thing, The Patagonia, The Pupil, Louisa Pallant and quite a few others; all of them were wonderful. Long-form James of the later period, however, still has me stymied. Other books I started and gave up on this year include John Barth’s The Sot-Weed Factor, Charles Dickens’ Pickwick Papers, Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, and Balzac’s Pere Goriot.

Books Revisited

I did not renew acquaintance with as many old friends as I had hoped. There was some Dante (Inferno), some Shakespeare (Hamlet), some Robert Louis Stevenson (Virginibus Puerisque), some Charles Lamb (Essays of Elia), some Paul Valery, Plato and Waugh (Dialogues, Theaetetus, and Brideshead Revisited, respectively). I also dipped again into Mencken (Prejudices) Montaigne (Essays), Plutarch (Lycurgus and selections from the Moralia), Chesterton (The Everlasting Man) and, surprising myself, Eudora Welty (A Curtain of Green). The re-reads on my list for 2015 so far include Moby Dick and Tristram Shandy.


In the American history column along with the Francis Parkman title mentioned above, I also read Col. James Smith’s Life and Travels During Captivity, a memoir of the French and Indian War, Pedro de Castaneda de Najera’s Narrative of the Coronado Expedition, and Gabriel Franchere’s Narrative of a Voyage to the Pacific Coast of North America. I also finally read – and thoroughly enjoyed – Lytton Strachey’s Eminent Victorians, plus Will Durant’s The Age of Voltaire, Michael Keevak’s The Pretended Asian (on George Psalmanazar), and Stefan Zweig’s so-so The World of Yesterday. Ronald Knox’s Enthusiasm was a monument of prose as well as history. James Gaines’s Evening in the Palace of Reason (on Bach and Frederick the Great) was lively and compelling. Less impressive, in my opinion, but not bad reading, was Carlo Ginzburg’s The Cheese and the Worms and Stephen Greenblatt’s unconvincing The Swerve.

Belles Lettres

Under this silly heading, for lack of a better catchall, let me praise Jed Perl’s Antoine’s Alphabet (on Watteau), Robert Louis Stevenson’s Selected Letters, and three additional titles by F. Gonzalez-Crussi: On Seeing, Notes of an Anatomist, and The Five Senses. I’ll also mention Rebecca Solnit’s Field Guide to Getting Lost, William O. Douglas’s Of Men and Mountains, W.G. Sebald’s posthumous A Place in the Country, Guy Davenport’s The Hunter Gracchus, Rose Macaulay’s Casual Commentary and Some Religious Elements of English Literature, and Logan Pearsall-Smith’s memorable Unforgotten Years. Other titles that don’t fit elsewhere include Richard Feynman’s Six Easy Pieces, Joseph Mitchell’s Joe Gould’s Secret, Thomas Lynch’s The Undertaking, William Quayle’s A Book of Clouds, E.H. Gombrich’s The Story of Art, and John Ruskin’s Unto This Last. Edging perhaps into memoir, apologetics, and/or devotional literature, there was Richard Rodriguez’s Darling, Christian Wiman’s My Bright Abyss, John Donne’s Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions, and David Bentley Hart’s erudite but unpleasant The Experience of God.

Natural History and Travel

Why these make a pair in my mind, I don’t know, unless it was my reading of William Bartram’s Travels which suggested it, but Gilbert White took the prize in this category. Other notables include RLS’s aforementioned Travels with a Donkey, Mark Twain’s Roughing It, Patrick Leigh Fermor’s The Broken Road, and the terrifically fun Travels of Sir John Mandeville.


I think I managed more fiction in 2014 than in 2013. Among those titles read this year, I thought Richard Hughes’ In Hazard was awful and Muriel Spark’s Ballad of Peckham Rye scarcely better. Tove Jansson’s Fair Play was simple but charming. William Beckford’s gothic monstrosity Vathek was intolerable while Horace Walpole’s Castle of Otranto was just barely tolerable. Jorge Luis Borges’s Book of Sand was mildly disappointing, but the medieval soap-opera of Njal’s Saga was terrific. I read André Gide’s The Immoralist and Strait is the Gate, and two of Chesterton’s Father Brown collections, The Innocence of Father Brown and The Wisdom of Father Brown, which were each a pleasure. Rose Macaulay’s They Were Defeated was well done but overlong. P.G. Wodehouse’s Thank You, Jeeves was stellar. William Giraldi’s Busy Monsters was disappointing. H.G. Wells’ The Croquet Player was a strange and distressing page-turner.

In Closing

Speaking of Wells, the narrator of The Croquet Player complains that “reading crowds the memory and prevents one thinking.” I find it quite otherwise. I’m not sure I’d be able to think at all without books. At any rate, my mental life would be very different and, I think, poorer. But don’t mistake me. Books are not the most important thing in life. I will not pretend otherwise. They are, however, a choice accompaniment to those things which come before them. For another year of reading and another year of life, therefore, I’m very grateful. Merry Christmas, dear reader, and happy New Year. See you in 2015.

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Marginalia, no.347

Each of us in his own person feels that a high-hearted indifference to life would expiate all his short-comings.

~ William James, Varieties of Religious Experience

It certainly helps – but there’s a difference between pretending not to care about things you really do care about and not caring overmuch about things you cannot change. The former is culpable; the latter, I think, is only healthy. It’s difficult sometimes to know which failings are fixable and which are permanent features of your character. Once your chronic short-comings are identified, however, it’s better (in most cases) to forgive yourself and take refuge in some high-hearted indifference. A perfectly earnest life is perfectly unlivable.

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Two by Gide


The Immoralist, André Gide

I expected something along the lines of Huysmans’ A Rebours, but Gide’s tale is really very different. Both protagonists are – or, in the case of Gide’s Michel, become – rank sensualists. But these are different forms of sensualism. Huysmans’ Des Esseintes makes a fetish of aesthetic decay; Gide’s Michel lusts after freedom and vitality, in a Nietszchean mode. Huysman’s is a sensualism which, as the title suggests, runs “against nature” while Gide’s is, in certain respects, a rough embrace of nature. The books differ too inasmuch as Gide succeeds in making his protagonist sympathetic, while Huysmans doesn’t even try to do so. I want to say that Huysmans’ book describes an end-game of Catholic intellectual retreat while Gide’s describes a triumph of Protestant nihilism, but I’m not sure I can argue either case successfully. I will say that I think Gide’s book is better. The Immoralist is a stark narrative descent. I also read it as a fairly damning indictment of the instinct it describes. To my mind, Michel is a monster. Gide himself, however (for reasons which aren’t hard to divine if you know a bit about his life), famously refuses to pass any final judgment on his protagonist.


Strait is the Gate, André Gide

Simon Leys in his “Little ABC of Gide” quotes the author as saying that each of his new titles was specially designed to “upset those readers who enjoyed the preceding one.” Strait is the Gate did not follow precisely on the heels of The Immoralist but it may as well have, the two are so clearly linked. Where the earlier book trades in the excess of sensualism and self-indulgence, Strait is the Gate trades instead in the excess of asceticism and self-denial. Parting from one another at a theoretically balanced middle, both these paths will be seen to curve round until they mirror each other’s trajectory and finally embrace. The plot: Alissa Bucolin is in love with Jerome Palissier and there is no reason in the world they shouldn’t marry except for the fact that it would make them happy. Unfortunately, you see, Alissa’s God did not make man for happiness – the way of the Lord is too narrow for two to walk abreast, she says – and so she crucifies her heart (and the hearts of those around her as a side-effect) for a mystical solace which, of course, proves elusive. The final scene of the novel is devastating. …Once in college a girlfriend dumped me “for God” too; it was more forgivable than Alissa’s case, however, because I knew that rather than creating a divine prohibition for the sake of self-glory she was inventing a divine sanction for what she really wanted all along. Weakness, I think, is always more sympathetic (and perhaps more renderable into holiness) than flexing your muscles.

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Marginalia, no.346

I believe that happiness wears out in the effort made to recapture it; that nothing is more fatal to happiness than the remembrance of happiness.

~ André Gide, The Immoralist

If the “effort made to recapture it” involves, say, rearranging the furniture, wearing the same clothes, and repeating the same words and gestures, then, yes. But to merely remember a happy moment takes no effort at all. Joys are like children: you don’t wear away your affection by thinking of them or love one less for having another.

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Marginalia, no.345

Hither comes the ventriloquist, with all his mysterious tongues; the thaumaturgist, too, with his miraculous transformations of plates, doves, and rings, his pancakes smoking in your hat, and his cellar of choice liquors, represented in one small bottle. Here also the itinerant professor instructs separate classes of ladies and gentlemen in physiology, and demonstrates his lessons by the aid of real skeletons, and mannikins in wax, from Paris. Here is to be heard the choir of Ethiopian melodists, and to be seen, the diorama of Moscow or Bunker Hill, or the moving panorama of the Chinese wall. Here is displayed the museum of wax figures, illustrating the wide catholicism of earthly renown by mixing up heroes and statesmen, the Pope and the Mormon Prophet, kings, queens, murderers, and beautiful ladies…

~ Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Blithedale Romance

The New England village lecture hall of the middle 1840s was apparently identical to the Internet.

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The Dabbler has republished a brief remembrance of my dearly missed great-grandmother today.

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Travels: Sir John Mandeville & William Bartram

Illustration of alligators on the St John River of Florida by William Bartram
My wife will tell you that I am a poor travel companion. I like the idea of travel but the facts of it do, at least briefly, bring out the worst in me. I fall sometimes into stupors of indecision over questions of where to stay, how to get there, where to park, and what to eat. I also dislike being out at night. The happiest part of travel, in my opinion, is the rediscovery of home comforts, but I acknowledge that this pleasure is available only to those who leave home in the first place.

Travel of the arm-chair variety I am more comfortable with. Travel writing is allegedly a form of non-fiction. Under scrutiny, however, most travel books will be seen to edge now and then into fiction. This should upset no one. Some effort of mind is necessary to synthesize and represent any experience whatever through the medium of language. I do not require perfect factuality from authors of travelogues.

Someone (it might have been Nicolas Bouvier in The Way of the World) once called travel itself a creative act. This is a fairy notion, if you ask me. Traveling, I suppose, is no less “creative” than any other act is creative, but it’s hard for me to see why it should be more so. If travel were essentially creative, however, this might further explain why travel writers so often slip into otherwise unlicensed imagination.

On this theme, I offer below some brief reading notes for two very different books, both admixtures of fiction and non-fiction, and both titled Travels.

The Travels of Sir John Mandeville

Dear reader, eschew all modern “translations” of this book. The true original seems to have been written in Latin or some kind of mongrel Romano-French, but English texts of The Travels of Sir John Mandeville survive from circa 1400. You will not regret this older version of the book for all its sithens and clepes and y-bornes or for all the lovely, impossible spelling variations of Middle English. If you managed Chaucer in college, you’ll do fine. In fact, the 1920s Everyman’s Library edition I read was easier than Chaucer. The bulk of Mandeville’s travelogue is utter hogwash, of course, and Mandeville himself was very likely a fiction, but this Mandevillian hogwash is hogwash of the best sort. Where else are you going to learn how Seth (third son of Adam) buried his father with seeds from the Tree of Knowledge (a cypress) in his mouth, which sprouted the trunk which was felled for the wood of the cross of Christ? Or where else will you learn that gold-mad Christians are strangled by invisible devils in the Valley Perilous, or about those islands bordering the Kingdom of Prester John where a tribe of men perish if they lose the smell of apples and another tribe grow feathers over their faces and dine only on raw flesh? Herodotus, Pliny the Elder, and Marco Polo offer their own tall tales, but the English Mandeville’s charm lies in the diction and pace of his story, and the besmudged clarity of the medieval world’s reflected self-image. To read Mandeville is to lovingly pore over an antique mappa mundi, tracing a path from the relatively familiar districts of western Europe step by step into the outer circles of the world, where strange monsters rise from mountaintops and men order their lives by incomprehensible rites on the shores of alien seas.

Travels, William Bartram

About the time the American colonies were forcibly dissolving the political bands which had connected them to England, William Bartram was running around the wilds of South Carolina, Georgia and Florida looking for undiscovered plants and making sketches of alligators and Indian sachems. His father, the Quaker John Bartram of Philadelphia, was a noted amateur naturalist and proprietor of a nursery that supplied New World trees, shrubs and flowers to Old World gardens (read more about him in Andrea Wulf’s The Brother Gardeners). As the youngest son, William had struggled through several failed ventures before finally determining (to his father’s dismay) to seek fortune as a writer on natural history. Travels is the fruit of that determination. It would seem from all this that Bartram’s book should be a very different sort of thing than Mandeville’s had been. But while it’s undisputed that Bartram was a real person who really visited the places he describes, an honest examination of his narrative (as provided, for instance, in the lengthy historical introduction of the Lakeside Press edition) reveals the extent to which Bartram’s interests and disinterests, his temperament, and his clearly artistic goals shaped the final product. He was a romantic who painted in the colors of Eden, and he found in the world of men and nature a single fathomless index of wonders. In fact, Bartram very conveniently discovers in the anciently unsuspected western hemisphere something very like the exotic cultures of men, the natural curiosities, and the terrifying monsters of the wilderness that Mandeville and his contemporaries imagined resident in the farthest east. A telling sketch made by Bartram of two alligators at the St John River of Florida looks suspiciously like a sketch of two dragons. He even gives them smoke issuing from their nostrils.

I don’t know why anyone should require a definitive unraveling of truth and fiction in travel literature. It would spoil the fun. Besides, if we’re going to have anything to do with them, even real places must be imagined, and even purely imaginary places must own a sort of reality to the minds in which they are conceived and to which they are communicated.

Allow me to note in closing that the microscopic type of my two-volume OED grudgingly admits the fact that “travel” and “travail” are, etymologically speaking, the same word, so perhaps there’s something after all to that fairy notion I derided above. Travel really is toil, suffering, the labor of childbirth. Travail is to journey from one place to another. At any rate, the writing of travels will constitute a creative act even if the trek itself does not.

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