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Reading Chatwin, Gide, and Connolly

The Songlines, Bruce Chatwin

It makes sense that Bruce Chatwin and Werner Herzog were friends. Of course they were. According to Herzog, the two of them met in 1984 in Australia’s Northern Territory. Chatwin was doing research for the book that would become The Songlines and Herzog was working on his film Where Green Ants Dream. They spent two full days talking to each other. Chatwin on his deathbed supposedly gifted Herzog with the leather rucksack he’d used on so many of his travels. Parallels both of style and substance can be drawn between the two artists, but I suspect that Chatwin must have been the happier person. Curiosity in Herzog seems most of the time to serve his melancholy. Chatwin is no less curious, but more sanguine. In The Songlines Chatwin’s curiosity turns toward the roots of human language, early human evolution, and the origins and meaning of wanderlust. The book is in part a travelogue (though one should never take Chatwin’s reportage at face value) and in part an essay in speculative anthropology. Fascinating and great fun at the same time.

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Lafcadio’s Adventures, André Gide

Diverting, satirical, but nothing very deep, despite the fact that it reminds me of a Dostoyevsky novel in some respects. I mean that it deals with questions of faith and corruption and the peculiar allure that some people feel for motiveless crime. But this is not Gide at his best and Lafcadio’s Adventures is only a cheap-shot, bitter-at-heart version of Dostoyevsky.

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The Unquiet Grave, Cyril Connolly

Connolly made his name as a critic and so when he opens his book with the statement that “the true function of a writer is to produce a masterpiece and no other task is of any consequence,” it serves both as a jab at fashionable contemporaries and an announcement of his intention to make his own “assault on perfection.” The book was written during WWII and is part journal, part commonplace book, and part philosophical essay. There are lengthy quotations from French authors which, unfortunately, I was usually unable to decipher without help, but Connolly’s own prose is engrossing, his ideas engaging. He was exorcising some personal demons here: his marriage was falling apart at the same time the world around him was falling apart, and the general sense of catastrophe is strong. The Unquiet Grave may not be quite the masterpiece Connolly hoped for, and I can’t endorse certain of his Freudian obsessions and conclusions. Nonetheless, the book is highly quotable, bright if only with a fractured light, and in the end it makes a powerful meditation on the significance of love and of art and of being human in a world that is often short on all three.

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Marginalia, no.353

There are two hotels in Djang: the Hotel Windsor and, across the street, the Hotel Anti-Windsor.

~ Bruce Chatwin, The Songlines

The choice in this case is less clear than the choice my wife and I conceived on seeing one day that the retail space next to Super Donut was vacant. How could we fail to succeed, we thought, if we rented the spot and opened Super Duper Donut right next door? Who would settle for a merely super donut when he could have a super duper donut instead?

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Loss and Raptors

H is for Hawk, Helen Macdonald

Your father dies unexpectedly. You wrestle your grief by training a goshawk, a temperamental, bloodthirsty, half-mad sort of bird. It’s natural enough – inevitable, almost – if you’re Helen Macdonald. It’s inevitable, too, that you’ll spend half the book you’re writing about it trying to explain your fascination with T.H. White’s troubling, unintentional masterpiece – The Goshawk – about failing utterly to train the same sort of bird. Sharing Macdonald’s interests in raptors and in White, I waited impatiently for H is for Hawk to arrive in the States. The British reviews were so gushing it was embarrassing to read them. I special ordered the book from a distributor who, by an oversight, had no hold placed on the title, and so I received my copy a few weeks before its official American publication date. It mostly lives up to the hype, though I do have a few complaints. For one, Macdonald is overfond of the word “indeed.” And two or three chapters might have been excised entirely. Macdonald makes awkward transitions sometimes from the choppy, poetic, descriptive language that shows her at her best to a slangish informality (“And I was all, bloody hell…”) that rings comparatively hollow. Her anguished emoting at the loss of her father was sometimes hard for me to slog through, but there really is an alchemy to her book. As you read it the image of Macdonald herself and of Mabel (the goshawk) blur and overlap in surprising ways, ways that alternately challenge and invite sympathy. When she’s writing from her eye (i.e., from a point of observation, either of Mabel or herself or White) rather than from her heart, Macdonald is compelling and you won’t want to put the book down. Her engagement with White and the strange appeal of his book is also well done and makes an excellent counterpoint throughout.

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Marginalia, no.352

When men are free to do as they please, they usually imitate each other.

~ Eric Hoffer, The Passionate State of Mind

Should we find this dismaying? Our habits of imitation may be explained on the one hand by the uniformity of human desires and, on the other, by the diversity of human interests. Nature in each of us wants the same things. Food, shelter, sex, influence, books; the catalog isn’t long. And no matter how far afield our curiosity moves us (even so far as the gut flora of dust mites), we can be sure that someone else has already cut a path. We inevitably find company, even when we don’t want it.

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Marginalia, no.351

“I’ve got a couple skulls down in the crypt,” he said, “come and see those. Oh, do come and see the skulls! You are a young man out for a holiday, and you want to enjoy yourself. Come and see the skulls!”

~ Jerome K. Jerome, Three Men in a Boat

My idea of a good time generally does not involve skull viewing, but perhaps that’s only because the opportunity so rarely presents itself. And who wouldn’t, deep down, like a human skull for his work desk, where he can sit alas-Yoricking to his heart’s content rather than slave away at that damned presentation?

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Marginalia, no.349

We wot never whom God loveth & whom God hateth.

~ The Travels of Sir John Mandeville

The Internet was supposed to bring people together in a warm fraternal embrace of global dimensions. That’s what they told us back in the mid-’90s. Instead, it’s made it easier to hate, and be hated by, people on the other side of the world whom, in the old days, we never knew existed.

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Marginalia, no.348

That human life must be some kind of mistake is sufficiently proved by the simple observation that man is a compound of needs which are hard to satisfy; that their satisfaction achieves nothing but a painless condition in which he is only given over to boredom; and that boredom is a direct proof that existence is in itself valueless.

~ Arthur Schopenhauer, Essays and Aphorisms

I’m convinced that we have Schopenhauer to thank for all those over-serious European films where people mope around wintry granite cities and have loveless relationships and opine about how suicide is the only really logical option. I don’t appreciate his general philosophy but there are some colorful vistas on the way to hell, and reading Schopenhauer is (like watching those awful movies) a sick kind of fun.

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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.

Historical

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.

Fictions

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

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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.

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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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