In the cabinet of the Essex Historical Society, old portraits.–Governor Leverett; a dark mustachioed face, the figure two thirds length, clothed in a sort of frock-coat, buttoned, and a broad sword-belt girded round the waist, and fastened with a large steel buckle; the hilt of the sword steel,–altogether very striking. Sir William Pepperell, in English regimentals, coat, waistcoat, and breeches, all of redbroad-cloth, richly gold-embroidered; he holds a general’s truncheon in his right hand, and extends the left towards the batteries erected against Louisbourg, in the country near which he is standing. Endicott, Pyncheon, and others, in scarlet robes, bands, etc. Half a dozen or more family portraits of the Olivers, some in plain dresses, brown, crimson, or claret; others with gorgeous gold-embroidered waistcoats, descending almost to the knees, so as to form the most conspicuous article of dress. Ladies, with lace ruffles, the painting of which, in one of the pictures, cost five guineas. Peter Oliver, who was crazy, used to fight with these family pictures in the old Mansion House; and the face and breast of one lady bear cuts and stabs inflicted by him. Miniatures in oil, with the paint peeling off, of stern, old, yellow faces. Oliver Cromwell, apparently an old picture, half length, or one third, in an oval frame, probably painted for some New England partisan. Some pictures that had been partly obliterated by scrubbing with sand. The dresses, embroidery, laces of the Oliver family are generally better done than the faces. Governor Leverett’s gloves,–the glove part of coarse leather, but round the wrist a deep, three or four inch border of spangles and silver embroidery. Old drinking-glasses, with tall stalks. A black glass bottle, stamped with the name of Philip English, with a broad bottom. The baby-linen, etc., of Governor Bradford of Plymouth County. Old manuscript sermons, some written in short-hand, others in a hand that seems learnt from print.
With a wildly excited Bendicò bounding ahead of him he went down the short flight of steps into the garden. Enclosed between three walls and a side of the house, its seclusion gave it the air of a cemetery, accentuated by the parallel little mounds bounding the irrigation canals and looking like the graves of very tall, very thin giants. Plants were growing in thick disorder on the reddish clay, flowers sprouted in all directions, and the myrtle hedges seemed put there to prevent movement rather than guide it. At the end a statue of Flora speckled with yellow-black lichen exhibited her centuries-old charms with an air of resignation; on each side were benches holding quilted cushions, also of gray marble; and in a corner the gold of an acacia tree introduced a sudden note of gaiety. Every sod seemed to, exude a yearning for beauty soon muted by languor.
But the garden, hemmed and almost squashed between these barriers, was exhaling scents that were cloying, fleshy, and slightly putrid, like the aromatic liquids distilled from the relics of certain saints; the carnations superimposed their pungence on the formal fragrance of roses and the oily emanations of magnolias drooping in corners; and somewhere beneath it all was a faint smell of mint mingling with a nursery whiff of acacia and the jammy one of myrtle; from a grove beyond the wall came an erotic waft of early orange blossom.
It was a garden for the blind: a constant offense to the eyes, a pleasure strong if somewhat crude to the nose. The Paul Neyron roses, whose cuttings he had himself bought in Paris, had degenerated; first stimulated and then enfeebled by the strong if languid pull of Sicilian earth, burned by apocalyptic Julies, they had changed into things like flesh-colored cabbages, obscene and distilling a dense, almost indecent, scent which no French horticulturist would have dared hope for. The Prince put one under his nose and seemed to be sniffing the thigh of a dancer from the Opera. Bendicò, to whom it was also proffered, drew back in disgust and hurried off in search of healthier sensations amid dead lizards and manure.
But the heavy scents of the garden brought on a gloomy train of thought for the Prince: “It smells all right here now; but a month ago… ”
He remembered the nausea diffused throughout the entire villa by certain sweetish odors before their cause was traced: the corpse of a young soldier of the Fifth Regiment of Sharpshooters who had been wounded in the skirmish with the rebels at San Lorenzo and come up there to die, all alone, under a lemon tree. They had found him lying face downward in the thick clover, his face covered in blood and vomit, his nails dug into the soil, crawling with ants; a pile of purplish intestines had formed a puddle under his bandoleer. Russo, the agent, had discovered this object, turned it over, covered its face with his red kerchief, thrust the guts back into the gaping stomach with some twigs, and then covered the wound with the blue flaps of the cloak; spitting continuously with disgust, meanwhile, not right on, but very near the body. And all this with meticulous care. “Those swine stink even when they’re dead.” It had been the only epitaph to that derelict death.
After other soldiers, looking bemused, had taken the body away (and yes, dragged it along by the shoulders to the cart so that the puppet’s stuffing fell out again), a De Profundis for the soul of the unknown youth was added to the evening Rosary; and now that the conscience of the ladies in the house seemed placated, the subject was never mentioned again.
The Prince went and scratched a little lichen off the feet of the Flora and then began to stroll up and down; the lowering sun threw an immense shadow of him over the gravelike flower beds.
From Giuseppe di Lampedusa’s 1958 novel The Leopard. English translation by Archibald Colquhoun.
Concord, August 5th.–A rainy day,–a rainy day. I am commanded to take pen in hand, and I am therefore banished to the little ten-foot-square apartment misnamed my study; but perhaps the dismalness of the day and the dulness of my solitude will be the prominent characteristics of what I write. And what is there to write about? Happiness has no succession of events, because it is a part of eternity; and we have been living in eternity ever since we came to this old manse. Like Enoch, we seem to have been translated to the other state of being without having passed through death. Our spirits must have flitted away unconsciously, and we can only perceive that we have cast off our mortal part by the more real and earnest life of our souls. Externally, our Paradise has very much the aspect of a pleasant old domicile on earth. This antique house–for it looks antique, though it was created by Providenceexpressly for our use, and at the precise time when we wanted it–stands behind a noble avenue of balm-of-Gilead trees; and when we chance to observe a passing traveller through the sunshine and the shadow of this long avenue, his figure appears too dim and remote to disturb the sense of blissful seclusion. Few, indeed, are the mortals who venture within our sacred precincts. George Prescott, who has not yet grown earthly enough, I suppose, to be debarred from occasional visits to Paradise, comes daily to bring three pints of milk from some ambrosial cow; occasionally, also, he makes an offering of mortal flowers. Mr. Emerson comes sometimes, and has been feasted on our nectar and ambrosia. Mr. Thoreau has twice listened to the music of the spheres, which, for our private convenience, we have packed into a musical-box. E—- H—- , who is much more at home among spirits than among fleshly bodies, came hither a few times merely to welcome us to the ethereal world; but latterly she has vanished into some other region of infinite space. One rash mortal, on the second Sunday after our arrival, obtruded himself upon us in a gig. There have since been three or four callers, who preposterously think that the courtesies of the lower world are to be responded to by people whose home is in Paradise. I must not forget to mention that the butcher conies twice or thrice a week; and we have so far improved upon the custom of Adam and Eve, that we generally furnish forth our feasts with portions of some delicate calf or lamb, whose unspotted innocence entitles them to the happiness of becoming our sustenance. Would that I were permitted to record the celestial dainties that kind Heaven provided for us on the first day of ourarrival! Never, surely, was such food heard of on earth,–at least, not by me. Well, the above-mentioned persons are nearly all that have entered into the hallowed shade of our avenue; except, indeed, a certain sinner who came to bargain for the grass in our orchard, and another who came with a new cistern. For it is one of the drawbacks upon our Eden that it contains no water fit either to drink or to bathe in; so that the showers have become, in good truth, a godsend. I wonder why Providence does not cause a clear, cold fountain to bubble up at our doorstep; methinks it would not be unreasonable to pray for such a favor. At present we are under the ridiculous necessity of sending to the outer world for water. Only imagine Adam trudging out of Paradise with a bucket in each hand, to get water to drink, or for Eve to bathe in! Intolerable! (though our stout handmaiden really fetches our water.) In other respects Providence has treated us pretty tolerably well; but here I shall expect something further to be done. Also, in the way of future favors, a kitten would be very acceptable. Animals (except, perhaps, a pig) seem never out of place, even in the most paradisiacal spheres. And, by the way, a young colt comes up our avenue, now and then, to crop the seldom-trodden herbage; and so does a company of cows, whose sweet breath well repays us for the food which they obtain. There are likewise a few hens, whose quiet cluck is heard pleasantly about the house. A black dog sometimes stands at the farther extremity of the avenue, and looks wistfully hitherward; but when I whistle to him, he puts his tail between his legs, and trots away. Foolish dog! if he had more faith, he should have bones enough.
July 28th.–We had green corn for dinner yesterday, and shall have some more to-day, not quite full grown, but sufficiently so to be palatable. There has been no rain, except one moderate shower, for many weeks; and the earth appears to be wasting away in a slow fever. This weather, I think, affects the spirits very unfavorably. There is an irksomeness, a restlessness, a pervading dissatisfaction, together with an absolute incapacity to bend the mind to any serious effort. With me, as regards literary production, the summer has been unprofitable; and Ionly hope that my forces are recruiting themselves for the autumn and winter. For the future, I shall endeavor to be so diligent nine months of the year that I may allow myself a full and free vacation of the other three.
After many, many false starts, I’ve finished Stendhal’s 1839 cult classic The Charterhouse of Parma. (I read Richard Howard’s 1999 Modern Library translation).
I really, really wanted to quit around Ch. 25 (of 28). I’ll admit at times I broke a rule I’d made nearly two decades ago, now: I allowed my mind to wander. I thought of other things: A variation on a muffin recipe I was planning to make for my kids. A possible review of William Friedkin’s 1977 film Sorcerer. Lunch. What book I might read next as an antidote to Charterhouse.
The end of the novel is an utter slog. No duels, no escapes. Just courtly intrigues and courtly romances. And ironic sermons. Then, in the last chapter, a new character shows up! Some dandy named Gonzo! Out of nowhere! To move the plot along! (Stendhal pulls a similar stunt in the back half of the novel, when it first starts to really drag—he brings in a lunatic-bandit-poet-assassin named Ferrante).
And then—okay, maybe this is something close to a spoiler, but I don’t think so—and then, Stendhal seems to get bored with his novel. In the last chapter, he skips a few years in a few sentences (this, in a novel where every damn decision each character frets over goes on and on for paragraphs) and then kills everyone (not really. But really, sorta. I mean, the last chapter of The Charterhouse of Parma almost feels like season six of Game of Thrones, where the action is accelerated at a pace that seems to ironize all the previous scheming and plotting).
Stendhal supposedly dictated Charterhouse over 50-something days (I think I read that somewhere…I’ve yet to read Howard’s afterword to the novel, or Balzac’s study…I’ll save those for later, after I remember the best bits of the novel more fondly). But where was I? Oh, yeah: Stendhal supposedly dictated Charterhouse over a two-month period, and I get the feeling he was getting bored with it there at the end. Which is in some ways appropriate, as The Charterhouse of Parma is all about boredom. Phrases like “boring,” “bored,” and “boredom” pop up again and again. There’s something wonderfully modernist (or Modernist) about that.
Of course all that boredom is punctuated with moments of wonderful action—battles and duels! Indeed, Charterhouse never really surpasses its fourth chapter, a strikingly modern depiction of the Battle of Waterloo.
Stendhal is great at conveying action and violence while stripping it from Romantic illusions—and at the same time, he presents those Romantic illusions, making them ironic (again—this is probably one of the first Modern novels, and I’m sure someone has already said that somewhere, but hey).
Stendhal is also wonderfully adept at capturing a human mind thinking. Whether it’s the Machiavellian machinations of Count Mosca, or our (ever)greenhorn hero Fabrizio, or the real hero of Charterhouse, Fabrizio’s aunt Gina, Stendhal takes pains to show his characters thinking through their problems and schemes. Not only do the heroes and villains of The Charterhouse of Parma think, they think about what other characters will think (about what they have thought…). The novel in some ways is about metacognition. But thought about thought may be a product of boredom. And it often produces boredom.
Balzac was a great admirer of Charterhouse, as was Italo Calvino, and countless writers too. Indeed, the novel is, I suppose, a cult favorite for writers, which makes sense: Stendhal crowds each page with such psychological realism, such rich life, that every paragraph seems its own novel. I’ll admit that by page 400 or so I was exhausted though.
I’ve noted here a few times that Charterhouse is a “Modernist” novel; perhaps “proto-Modernist” is the term I need. (Again—I’m sure that countless lit critics have sussed over this; pardon my ignorant American ass). And yet Charterhouse also points back at the novels before it, the serialized novels, the epistolary novels, the romances and histories and etceteras of the seventeenth and sixteenth centuries. My favorite lines of the novel were often our ironic narrator’s brief asides like, “Doubtless the reader grows tired…” or “The conversation went on for hours more in trivial detail…” or “The letter went on for pages more after the same fashion…” (These aren’t actual quotes, dear reader, but I think I offer a fair paraphrase here). Stendhal’s modernism, or Modernism, or prot0-Modernism, or whatever, is his wily irony, his winking at the novel’s formal characteristics. My own failing, then, is to perhaps want more of this. As I wrote last time I riffed on it, what I suppose I want is a postmodern condensation of The Charterhouse of Parma, such as Donald Barthelme’s 1968 story “Eugénie Grandet,” which parodied Honoré de Balzac’s 1833 novel Eugénie Grandet.
How much of Balzac’s novel is lovingly leapt through right here?!
This wish of mine is of course my failure, not the novels.
The Charterhouse of Parma is undoubtedly an oddity, a work of genius, often thrilling, and often an utter slog. I suppose I’m glad that I finally finished it after so many years of trying, but I’m not sure if I got what I wanted out of it. The failure is mine.
I’ll close with the novel’s final line though, which I adore:
Evidently, in a world where philological education has almost completely disappeared, where critics are no longer attentive to style, the decision not to be present as an author generates ill will and this type of fantasy. The experts stare at the empty frame where the image of the author is supposed to be and they don’t have the technical tools, or, more simply, the true passion and sensitivity as readers, to fill that space with the works. So they forget that every individual work has its own story. Only the label of the name or a rigorous philological examination allows us to take for granted that the author of Dubliners is the same person who wrote Ulysses andFinnegans Wake. The cultural education of any high school student should include the idea that a writer adapts depending on what he or she needs to express. Instead, most people think anyone literate can write a story. They don’t understand that a writer works hard to be flexible, to face many different trials, and without ever knowing what the outcome will be.
Thursday,July 13th.–Two small Canadian boys came to our house yesterday, with strawberries to sell. It sounds strangely to hear children bargaining in French on the borders of Yankee-land. Among other languages spoken hereabouts must be reckoned the wild Irish. Some of the laborers on the mill-dam can speak nothing else. The intermixture of foreigners sometimes gives rise to quarrels between them and the natives. As we were going to the village yesterday afternoon, we witnessed the beginning of a quarrel between a Canadian and a Yankee,–the latter accusing the former of striking his oxen. B—- thrust himself between and parted them; but they afterwards renewed their fray, and the Canadian, I believe, thrashed the Yankee soundly–for which he had to pay twelve dollars. Yet he was but a little fellow.
Coming to the Mansion House about supper-time, we found somewhat of a concourse of people, the Governor and Council being in session on the subject of the disputed territory. The British have lately imprisoned a man who was sent to take the census; and the Mainiacs are much excited on the subject. They wish the Governor to order out the militia at onceand take possession of the territory with the strong hand. There was a British army-captain at the Mansion House; and an idea was thrown out that it would be as well to seize upon him as a hostage. I would, for the joke’s sake, that it had been done. Personages at the tavern: the Governor, somewhat stared after as he walked through the bar-room; Councillors seated about, sitting on benches near the bar, or on the stoop along the front of the house; the Adjutant-General of the State; two young Blue-Noses, from Canada or the Provinces; a gentleman “thumbing his hat” for liquor, or perhaps playing off the trick of the “honest landlord” on some stranger. The decanters and wine-bottles on the move, and the beer and soda founts pouring out continual streams, with a whiz. Stage-drivers, etc., asked to drink with the aristocracy, and my host treating and being treated. Rubicund faces; breaths odorous of brandy-and-water. Occasionally the pop of a champagne cork.
Returned home, and took a lesson in French of Mons. S—- . I like him very much, and have seldom met with a more honest, simple, and apparently so well-principled a man; which good qualities I impute to his being, by the father’s side, of German blood. He looks more like a German–or, as he says, like a Swiss–than a Frenchman, having very light hair and a light complexion, and not a French expression. He is a vivacious little fellow, and wonderfully excitable to mirth; and it is truly a sight to see him laugh;–every feature partakes of his movement, and even his whole body shares in it, as he rises and dances about the room. He has great variety of conversation, commensurate with his experiences in life, and sometimes will talk Spanish, ore rotundo,—sometimes imitate the Catholic priests, chanting Latin songs for the dead, in deep, gruff, awful tones, producing really a very strong impression,–then he will break out into a light, French song, perhaps of love, perhaps of war, acting it out, as if on the stage of a theatre: all this intermingled with continual fun, excited by the incidents of the passing moment. He has Frenchified all our names, calling B—- Monsieur Du Pont, myself M. de L’Aubépine, and himself M. le Berger, and all, Knights of the Round-Table. And we live in great harmony and brotherhood, as queer a life as anybody leads, and as queer a set as may be found anywhere. In his more serious intervals, he talks philosophy and deism, and preaches obedience to the law of reason and morality; which law he says (and I believe him) he has so well observed, that, notwithstanding his residence in dissolute countries, he has never yet been sinful. He wishes me, eight or nine weeks hence, to accompany him on foot to Quebec, and then to Niagara and New York. I should like it well, if my circumstances and other considerations would permit. What pleases much in Mons. S—- is the simple and childlike enjoyment he finds in trifles, and the joy with which he speaks of going back to his own country, away from the dull Yankees, who here misunderstand and despise him. Yet I have never heard him speak harshly of them. I rather think that B—- and I will be remembered by him with more pleasure than anybody else in the country; for we have sympathized with him, and treated him kindly, and like a gentleman and an equal; and he comes to us at night as to home and friends.
I went down to the river to-day to see B—- fish for salmon with a fly,–a hopeless business; for hesays that only one instance has been known in the United States of salmon being taken otherwise than with a net. A few chubs were all the fruit of his piscatory efforts. But while looking at the rushing and rippling stream, I saw a great fish, some six feet long and thick in proportion, suddenly emerge at whole length, turn a somerset, and then vanish again beneath the water. It was of a glistening, yellowish brown, with its fins all spread, and looking very strange and startling, darting out so lifelike from the black water, throwing itself fully into the bright sunshine, and then lost to sight and to pursuit. I saw also a long, flat-bottomed boat go up the river, with a brisk wind, and against a strong stream. Its sails were of curious construction: a long mast, with two sails below, one on each side of the boat, and a broader one surmounting them. The sails were colored brown, and appeared like leather or skins, but were really cloth. At a distance, the vessel looked like, or at least I compared it to, a monstrous water-insect skimming along the river. If the sails had been crimson or yellow, the resemblance would have been much closer. There was a pretty spacious raised cabin in the after part of the boat. It moved along lightly, and disappeared between the woody banks. These boats have the two parallel sails attached to the same yard, and some have two sails, one surmounting the other. They trade to Waterville and thereabouts,–names, as “Paul Pry,” on their sails.
I had to go hunt through the house for the trio of Hildafolk comics by Luke Pearson because my kids keep swapping them around. We’ve read them a bunch of times now and they are very good and sweet and charming and you can get them from Nobrow. Hilda is going to be a Netflix series, by the way, which I told my kids and they were psyched. (They ten went on Netflix and looked for it. I had to explain production schedules).
W.D. Clarke’s White Mythology (which may or may not take its title from Derrida’s essay of the same name) is actually two novellas, Skinner Boxed and Love’s Alchemy. I finished the first novella before July 4th; Skinner Boxed is about psychiatrist Dr. Ed, who juggles a bunch of maguffins including a detached (and missing) wife, a returned bastard son, and a clinical anti-depressant trial. The novella begins with epigrams from Gravity’s Rainbow and A Christmas Carol, the latter of which it (somewhat perhaps ironically) follows. I finished the second novella Love’s Alchemy yesterday. Its tone is not as zany as that of Skinner Boxed, but both stories require the reader to put together seemingly disconnected events for the plot to “resolve” (if resolve is the right word). Good stuff.
…many young people will be smitten right from the opening pages, and will be instantly convinced that this has to be the best novel ever written, recognising it as the novel they had always wanted to read and which will act as the benchmark for all the other novels they will read in later life. (I’m talking particularly about the opening chapters; as you get into it, you will find that it is a different novel, or several novels each different from the other, all of which will require you to modify your involvement in the plot; whatever happens, the brilliance of the opening will continue to influence you.)
I finished Stanley Elkin’s The Franchiser and then the novel that chronologically preceded it (and arguably birthed it), The Dick Gibson Show. I need to write a whole Thing on these two novels, but I enjoyed them, and can’t believe it took me so long to read Elkin (although I’m glad I read Pynchon, Gaddis, and Gass first). I preferred the riffing polyglossia of TDGS a bit more than The Franchiser, which occasionally seemed to let its satire tip over into a kind of bathetic melancholy. Both novels diagnose an obsession of nostalgia (or, more directly: an obsession of obsession) that continues to grip America.
Yesterday I picked up Vladislav Vančura’s novel Marketa Lazarova, new in a sharp English translation by Carleton Bulkin from Twisted Spoon Press. Twisted Spoon had sent me the book a few weeks ago, and I’d meant to read it over the week of July Fourth but drank too many beers instead. Anyway, I picked it up yesterday and read the first two chapters (50 pages—the first third, that is) gripped in wonder and laughter, and a bit of happy shock even. A strange and often violent tale of multiple kidnappings and medieval intrigues, Marketa Lazarova reminds me of Le Morte D’Arthur, Nanni Balestrini’s Sandokan (both in its evocations of brutality and in its marvelous poetic prose), Aleksei German’s film Hard to Be a God, Bergman’s film The Virgin Spring, Bolaño’s sweetly ironic narrators, and yes, hell, Game of Thrones. I’d rather be reading this book right now than writing about it in this silly blog post, actually. And no, I haven’t seen the František Vláčil film adaptation—yet.
James Hill’s illustration for “The Happy Prince” by Oscar Wilde. From The Short Stories of Oscar Wilde, Heritage Press, 1968.
“The Happy Prince”
High above the city, on a tall column, stood the statue of the Happy Prince. He was gilded all over with thin leaves of fine gold, for eyes he had two bright sapphires, and a large red ruby glowed on his sword-hilt.
He was very much admired indeed. “He is as beautiful as a weathercock,” remarked one of the Town Councillors who wished to gain a reputation for having artistic tastes; “only not quite so useful,” he added, fearing lest people should think him unpractical, which he really was not.
“Why can’t you be like the Happy Prince?” asked a sensible mother of her little boy who was crying for the moon. “The Happy Prince never dreams of crying for anything.”
“I am glad there is some one in the world who is quite happy,” muttered a disappointed man as he gazed at the wonderful statue.
“He looks just like an angel,” said the Charity Children as they came out of the cathedral in their bright scarlet cloaks and their clean white pinafores.
“How do you know?” said the Mathematical Master, “you have never seen one.”
“Ah! but we have, in our dreams,” answered the children; and the Mathematical Master frowned and looked very severe, for he did not approve of children dreaming.
One night there flew over the city a little Swallow. His friends had gone away to Egypt six weeks before, but he had stayed behind, for he was in love with the most beautiful Reed. He had met her early in the spring as he was flying down the river after a big yellow moth, and had been so attracted by her slender waist that he had stopped to talk to her. Continue reading “Illustration for Oscar Wilde’s “The Happy Prince” — James Hill”→
He could not depend upon his listeners; he had no notion of them. They were as faceless to him as he to them. (They didn’t even have a voice.) His panels, his Special Guests were more real. As for his listeners, he guessed they were insomniacs, cabbies, enlisted men signed out on leave at midnight driving home on turnpikes, countermen in restaurants by highways, people in tollbooths. Or he saw them in bed—they lived in the dark—lumps under covers, profiles on pillows, their skulls beside the clock radio (the clock radio had done more to change programming than even TV) while the dialogue floated above their heads like balloon talk aloft in comic strips. Half asleep, they would not follow it too closely. No, he knew little about his listeners. They were not even mysterious; they were there, but distant as the Sioux.
He knew more about the passionate extremists who used his microphones in the groundless hope of stirring those sleepers, and winning over the keepers of the booths—the wild visionaries, opponents of fluoride, palmists, astrologers, the far right and far left and far center, the dianeticians, scientologists, beatniks, homosexuals from the Mattachine Society, the handwriting analysts, addicts, nudists, psychic phenomenologists, all those who believed in the Loch Ness Monster, the Abominable Snowman and the Communist Conspiracy; men beyond the beyond, black separatists who would take over Idaho and thrive by cornering the potato, pretenders to a half-dozen thrones, Krebiozonists, people from MENSA, health-food people, eaters of weed and soups of bark, cholesterolists, poly-unsaturationalists, treasure hunters, a woman who believed she held a valid Spanish land grant to all of downtown San Francisco, the Cassandras warning of poison in the white bread and cola and barbecued potato chip, conservationists jittery about the disappearing forests and the diminishing water table (and one man who claimed that the tides were a strain on the moon), would-be reformers of a dozen industries and institutions and a woman so fastidious about the separation of church and state that she would take the vote away from nuns and clergymen, capital punishers, atheists, people who wanted the abortion laws changed and a man who thought all surgery was a sin and ought to carry the same sentence as any other assault with a knife, housewives spooked by lax Food and Drug regulations, Maoists, Esperantoists, American Nazis, neo-Jaegerists, Reichians, juvenile delinquents, crionics buffs, anti-vivisectionists, witches, wizards, chief rabbis of no less than three of the twelve lost tribes of Israel, and a fellow who claimed he died the same year Columbus discovered America.
From Stanley Elkin’s 1971 novel The Dick Gibson Show.
The report has come back. It’s official. HIC SUNT DODOS!
The dodo is an extinct species of ungainly, flightless bird of the genus Raphus or Didus. Its incubation ground and later its world was the island of Mauritius. It was closely related in habit and aspect to a smaller bird, the solitaire, also extinct but once indigenous to the island of Réunion. It has long been held by ornithologists that the dodo—both the dodo proper and the solitaire henceforward will be subsumed under the pseudo-generic term ‘dodo’—was related to the pigeon, but this is only an hypothesis since the bird has not been available for study since 1680, the year that the last known dodo died. Although the dodo was sent to European museums, no complete specimen exists, and today only the foot and leg of one specimen are preserved at Oxford. The representations one sees, even in the Mauritius Museum of Art itself, are merely restorations, little more than cunning dolls constructed on skeletal frames. Nevertheless, the skeletons, the scattered bones of which are to be found abundantly even today in the Mauritian fens and swamps, have been painstakingly reassembled by Mauritian dodo artisans—the best in the world—and give an accurate picture of what the bird was like.
He was large, slightly bigger than the American turkey whom he in no mean way resembles. In silhouette the dodo is not unlike a great scrunched question mark. For detail we may refer to the paintings from life that have been made of the bird, many of the best of which are still here in the Mauritius Museum of Art and Dodo Reconstruction. Most of the artists seem to be in agreement that the animal possessed an enormous blackish bill which, together with the huge horny hook in which it terminates, constituted the shepherd’s crook of the question mark. Its cheeks, partially bare, seem oddly weather- beaten and muscular, like the toothless cheeks of old men who have worked out in the open all their lives. Black except for some whitish plumage on his breast and tail and some yellowish white the tint of old piano keys on his tail, the dodo was somewhat formal in appearance, if a trifle stupid looking. This formal aspect is attributable also to his wing, foreshortened as a birth defect, which in repose flops out and down from his body like an unstarched pocket handkerchief.
Dodos are said to have inhabited the Mauritian forests—this is the style of information, of certain kinds of fact; I find it relaxing—and to have laid a single large white egg which they mounted high in a setting of piled grass. Hogs, brought in by the settlers, fed on the dodo eggs and on the dodo young, and in one or two generations the birds were extinct.
From Stanley Elkin’s 1971 novel The Dick Gibson Show.
July 4th.–A very hot, bright, sunny day; town much thronged; booths on the Common, selling gingerbread, sugar-plums, and confectionery, spruce beer, lemonade. Spirits forbidden, but probably sold stealthily. On the top of one of the booths a monkey, with a tail two or three feet long. He is fastened by a cord, which, getting tangled with the flag over the booth, he takes hold and tries to free it. He is the object of much attention from the crowd, and played with by the boys, who toss up gingerbread to him, while he nibbles and throws it down again. He reciprocates notice, of some kind or other, with all who notice him. There is a sort of gravity about him. A boy pulls his long tail, whereat he gives a slight squeak, and for the future elevates it as much as possible. Looking at the same booth by and by, I find that the poor monkey has been obliged to betake himself to the top of one of the wooden joists that stick up high above. There are boys going about with molasses candy, almost melted down in the sun. Shows: A mammoth rat; a collection of pirates, murderers, and the like, inwax. Constables in considerable number, parading about with their staves, sometimes conversing with each other, producing an effect by their presence, without having to interfere actively. One or two old salts, rather the worse for liquor: in general the people are very temperate. At evening the effect of things rather more picturesque; some of the booth-keepers knocking down the temporary structures, and putting the materials in wagons to carry away; other booths lighted up, and the lights gleaming through rents in the sail-cloth tops. The customers are rather riotous, calling loudly and whimsically for what they want; a young fellow and a girl coming arm in arm; two girls approaching the booth, and getting into conversation with the folks thereabout. Perchance a knock-down between two half-sober fellows in the crowd: a knock-down without a heavy blow, the receiver being scarcely able to keep his footing at any rate. Shoutings and hallooings, laughter, oaths,–generally a good-natured tumult; and the constables use no severity, but interfere, if at all, in a friendly sort of way. I talk with one about the way in which the day has passed, and he bears testimony to the orderliness of the crowd, but suspects one booth of selling liquor, and relates one scuffle. There is a talkative and witty seller of gingerbread holding forth to the people from his cart, making himself quite a noted character by his readiness of remark and humor, and disposing of all his wares. Late in the evening, during the fire-works, people are consulting how they are to get home,–many having long miles to walk: a father, with wife and children, saying it will be twelve o’clock before they reach home, the children being already tired to death. The moon beautifully dark-bright, not givingso white a light as sometimes. The girls all look beautiful and fairy-like in it, not exactly distinct, nor yet dim. The different characters of female countenances during the day,–mirthful and mischievous, slyly humorous, stupid, looking genteel generally, but when they speak often betraying plebeianism by the tones of their voices. Two girls are very tired,–one a pale, thin, languid-looking creature; the other plump, rosy, rather overburdened with her own little body. Gingerbread figures, in the shape of Jim Crow and other popularities.
In the old burial ground, Charter Street, a slate gravestone, carved round the borders, to the memory of “Colonel John Hathorne, Esq.,” who died in 1717. This was the witch-judge. The stone is sunk deep into the earth, and leans forward, and the grass grows very long around it; and, on account of the moss, it was rather difficult to make out the date. Other Hathornes lie buried in a range with him on either side. In a corner of the burial-ground, close under Dr. P—-‘s garden fence, are the most ancient stones remaining in the graveyard; moss-grown, deeply sunken. One to “Dr. John Swinnerton, Physician,” in 1688; another to his wife. There, too, is the grave of Nathaniel Mather, the younger brother of Cotton, and mentioned in the Magnalia as a hard student, and of great promise. “An aged man at nineteen years,” saith the gravestone. It affected me deeply, when I had cleared away the grass from the half-buried stone, and read the name. An apple-tree or two hang over these old graves, and throw down the blighted fruit on Nathaniel Mather’s grave,–he blighted too. It gives strange ideas, to think howconvenient to Dr. P—-‘s family this burial-ground is,–the monuments standing almost within arm’s reach of the side windows of the parlor,–and there being a little gate from the back yard through which we step forth upon those old graves aforesaid. And the tomb of the P. family is right in front, and close to the gate. It is now filled, the last being the refugee Tory, Colonel P—-, and his wife. M. P—- has trained flowers over this tomb, on account of her friendly relations with Colonel P—-.
It is not, I think, the most ancient families that have tombs,–their ancestry for two or three generations having been reposited in the earth before such a luxury as a tomb was thought of. Men who founded families, and grew rich, a century or so ago, were probably the first.
There is a tomb of the Lyndes, with a slab of slate affixed to the brick masonry on one side, and carved with a coat of arms.
July has been a strange month. The other day I went to the beach and I saw a woman of about thirty, pretty, wearing a black bikini, who was reading standing up. At first I thought she was about to lie down on her towel, but when I looked again she was still standing, and after that I didn’t take my eyes off her. For two hours, more or less, she read standing up, walked over to the water, didn’t go in, let the waves lap her shins, went back to her spot, kept reading, occasionally put the book down while still standing, leaned over a few times and took a big bottle of Pepsi out of a bag and drank, then picked up the book again, and, finally, without ever bending a knee, put her things away and left. Earlier the same day, I saw three girls, all in thongs, gorgeous, one of them had a tattoo on one buttock, they were having a lively conversation, and every once in a while they got in the water and swam and then they would lie down again on their mats, basically a completely normal scene, until all of a sudden, a cell phone rang, I heard it and thought it was mine until I realized it had been a while since I had a cell phone, and then I knew the phone belonged to one of them. I heard them talking. All I can say is that they weren’t speaking Catalan or Spanish. But they sounded deadly serious. Then I watched two of them get up, like zombies, and walk toward some rocks. I got up too and pretended to brush the sand off my trunks. On the rocks, I watched them talk to a huge, hideously ugly man covered in hair, in fact one of the hairiest men I’ve ever seen in my life. They knelt before him and listened attentively without saying a word, and then they went back to where their friend was waiting for them and everything went on as before, as if nothing had happened. Who are these women? I asked myself once it was dark and I had showered and dressed. One drank Pepsi. The others bowed down to a bear. I know who they are. But I don’t really know.
June 18th.–A walk in North Salem in the decline of yesterday afternoon,–beautiful weather, bright, sunny, with a western or northwestern wind just cool enough, and a slight superfluity of heat. The verdure, both of trees and grass, is now in its prime, the leaves elastic, all life. The grass-fields are plenteously bestrewn with white-weed, large spaces looking as white as a sheet of snow, at a distance, yet with an indescribably warmer tinge than snow,–living white,intermixed with living green. The hills and hollows beyond the Cold Spring copiously shaded, principally with oaks of good growth, and some walnut-trees, with the rich sun brightening in the midst of the open spaces, and mellowing and fading into the shade,–and single trees, with their cool spot of shade, in the waste of sun: quite a picture of beauty, gently picturesque. The surface of the land is so varied, with woodland mingled, that the eye cannot reach far away, except now and then in vistas perhaps across the river, showing houses, or a church and surrounding village, in Upper Beverly. In one of the sunny bits of pasture, walled irregularly in with oak-shade, I saw a gray mare feeding, and, as I drew near, a colt sprang up from amid the grass,–a very small colt. He looked me in the face, and I tried to startle him, so as to make him gallop; but he stretched his long legs, one after another, walked quietly to his mother, and began to suck,–just wetting his lips, not being very hungry. Then he rubbed his head, alternately, with each hind leg. He was a graceful little beast.
I bathed in the cove, overhung with maples and walnuts, the water cool and thrilling. At a distance it sparkled bright and blue in the breeze and sun. There were jelly-fish swimming about, and several left to melt away on the shore. On the shore, sprouting amongst the sand and gravel, I found samphire, growing somewhat like asparagus. It is an excellent salad at this season, salt, yet with an herb-like vivacity, and very tender. I strolled slowly through the pastures, watching my long shadow making grave, fantastic gestures in the sun. It is a pretty sight to see the sunshine brightening the entrance of a road which shortly becomes deeply overshadowed by trees on both sides.At the Cold Spring, three little girls, from six to nine, were seated on the stones in which the fountain is set, and paddling in the water. It was a pretty picture, and would have been prettier, if they had shown bare little legs, instead of pantalets. Very large trees overhung them, and the sun was so nearly gone down that a pleasant gloom made the spot sombre, in contrast with these light and laughing little figures. On perceiving me, they rose up, tittering among themselves. It seemed that there was a sort of playful malice in those who first saw me; for they allowed the other to keep on paddling, without warning her of my approach. I passed along, and heard them come chattering behind.
Boston, 1943. I am about to go down to the submarine base to test out for the school there. I have come into possession of the Liveright Black and Gold edition. (What a wonderful series. I loved them all. There was Jules Romain’s The Body’s Rapture, a kooky, overwrought book, I know now, but it was sex, and it was French. There was Remy de Gourmont’s The Natural Philosophy of Love, more sex, more French. There was Balzac’s The Physiology of Marriage, more sex, more French. There was Stendhal’s own On Love, ditto. There was The Collected Works of Pierre Loüys, double dots, double ditto. There was Alexandre Dumas’s The Journal of Madame Giovanni, which was simply French, a disappointment. And The Red and the Black, like checker squares.) Anyway, I am lining up New London in my train table’s sights, and scanning the novel I have bought because of the series it is in, thinking that I’m not going to like climbing a rope through all that water, and thinking that the first chapter, a description of a small town, is commonplace, ho-hum, and will I be put in a pressure chamber at sub school like a canned tomato? When suddenly, I am suckered into Stendhal, and no longer read words (against all the rules of right reading I will later give myself), but barrel along like my own train, a runaway, holding my breath oftener and oftener, aware only of a insistently increasing tension, and it is not because I am underwater; it is because I am inside the magic of this narrative master. The Charterhouse of Parma would do exactly the same thing to me, except that I didn’t let a sub school come between us, but covered its lengthy length as nearly in one sitting as might be managed, snacking at the edge of it as though it were on a TV tray. That sort of gluttonous read is rare, and never happens to me now, when I read, because I read to write or teach or otherwise to talk, and not because I am a reading madman about to lose his soul to the seductions of a sentence.
From William H. Gass’s “Fifty Literary Pillars,” part of A Temple of Texts (2006). The essay in question is not so much an essay as it is/was a catalog to “inaugurate the International Writers Center” at Washington University.
The last sentence is what matters most to me; when I read it I nodded, or maybe didn’t nod, maybe just acquiesced in some other way, physically.
Who wouldn’t love to read like that again?
(Maybe persons young enough to not know that they are in fact reading like madpersons, seduced, etc.).
I tip my glass for gluttonous reads.
I would love to be a reading madman again, and not one who reads to write or read or otherwise talk.