Wednesday, January 6, 2021

He got up, went downstairs, and hailed a taxi

John Braine in his book Writing A Novel cites advice from Graham Greene:

The best example of how not to write is the one quoted by Graham Greene: ‘He got up, went downstairs, and hailed a taxi.’ You should memorise this and test every sentence against it: if it has that same flat, dead quality, rewrite it or cut it. You must always act on the assumption that one such sentence will ruin the whole novel.


Lawrence Block has also written a book of advice for novelists, one in which he states 

From my earliest beginnings as a writer, it was always a relatively easy matter for me to write smoothly. My prose rhythms and dialogue were good. Just as there are natural athletes, so was I — from the standpoint of technique, at least — a natural writer.
 Writing the Novel from Plot to Print to Pixel

Block in one of his own mystery stories writes: “At 3:30 he went downstairs, walked half a block, and hailed a cab to JFK”

Sunday, April 12, 2020

Back to the Middle Ages?

With social distancing and lockdown measures around the world to combat the spread of COVID19 we shall, I suppose, all be letting our hair grow long for quite some time. 

André Malraux, in the first section of Les Noyers de l’Altenburg (The Walnut Trees of Altenberg) writes of life in the Chartres transit camp (Durchgangslager, or Dulag) for French prisoners of war. “Dès les premiers temps de la guerre, dès l’uniforme eut effacé le métier, j’ai commencé d’entrevoir ces faces gothiques. Et que ci sourd aujourd’hui de la foule hagarde qui ne peut plus se raser n’est pas le bagne, c’est le moyen-âge.”

“In the earliest days of the war, as soon as his uniform had blotted out a man’s profession, I began to see these Gothic faces. And what now emerges from the wild crowd that can no longer shave is not the penal settlement, but the Middle Ages.”  (p.23 of the 1989 translation by A. W. Fielding)

But throughout Europe in the Middle Ages hair length was generally a sign of social status. So Malraux’s idea of the Middle Ages is, like everyone’s, skewed towards those figures who were depicted, who were of course overwhelmingly from the social layer of patronage and benefactors. 

Sumptuary laws in mid thirteenth-century Bavaria decreed that peasants had to cut their hair to their ears. In Wernher der Gartenaere’s poem Meier Helmbrecht, the eponymous hero, the son of an estate manager, after coming across the a splendidly embroidered hood, takes it into his head that work on the farmland is not for him; his family manage to buy him a horse, some armour and a sword, so he can join the service of a knight, and he grows his hair long. The poem portrays the decline of chivalry and the knights are merely a band of robbers. Helmbrecht spends a year travelling around looting and murdering, but homesickness leads him to return home. He greets his family with bad snippets of court French, Czech, and ecclesiastical Latin, showing off his new knowledge. He is arrogant, and gives stolen goods to his family. His father tries to dissuade him from returning to the robber band, but he misses the adventure, and the ‘better life’ they offer. Things go bad when after a series of robberies to fund the celebration of an arranged marriage between Helmbrecht’s sister and one of the gang, the robbers are caught at the wedding breakfast and they are all hanged, except for Helmbrecht who is pardoned according to the custom of freeing one in ten, however his eyes are gouged out and a foot and a hand are chopped off. Helmbrecht returns home but is turned away by his father, and is finally set upon by a five farmers whose lands he had previously looted and whose families he had murdered.  In his punishments Helmbrecht’s long hair is torn out in a show of class hatred.

Short hair was often regarded as a sign of servitude, and was a sign of the humility of monks. In the eleventh century Norman soldiers wore their hair short, so that in 1066 King Harold's scouts mistakenly reported back that the invading army almost entirely consisted of priests. 

Further reading: Robert Bartlett’s ‘Symbolic Meanings of Hair in the Middle Ages’ Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, Vol. 4 (1994), pp. 43-60) and Middle High German text of Meier Helmbrecht.

Saturday, April 11, 2020

Bombing, the Sublime, and the minutiae of life

As a schoolboy during World War II, Walter Kempowski hoped for an Allied bombing raid on his hometown, the Baltic port of Rostock, to save him from having to hand in his Latin homework.

I dimly recall reading the story of a Greek boatman who when German Stukas dived from the sky in a terrifying attack simply stood on his deck, not seeking cover, but watching the awe-inspiring scene above him. (If anyone knows the source of this let me know).

John Colville, an assistant private secretary to Winston Churchill (and two other Prime Ministers) watched an air raid in the London Blitz from his bedroom window. His diary entry for Sunday September 22nd 1940 concludes: “The night was cloudless and starry, with the moon rising over Westminster. Nothing could have been more beautiful and the searchlights interlaced at certain points on the horizon, the star-like flashes in the sky where shells were bursting, the light of distant fires, all added to the scene. It was magnificent and terrible: the spasmodic drone of enemy aircraft overhead, the thunder of gunfire, sometimes close sometimes in the distance, the illumination, like that of electric trains in peace-time, as the guns fired, and the myriad stars, real and artificial, in the firmament. Never was there such a contrast of natural splendour and human vileness. Later thick palls of smoke rose from the Embankment where bombs had fallen on Dolphin Square — and it went on all night long.”

And this is Charles Simic in the essay ‘Reading Philosophy at Night’ which appeared in 1987 in a special issue of Antaeus: “I remember lying in a ditch and staring at some pebbles while German bombers were flying over our heads. That was long ago. I don’t remember the face of my mother nor the faces of the people who were there with us, but I still see those perfectly ordinary pebbles. “It is not ‘how’ things are in the world that is mystical, but that it exists,” says Wittgenstein. I felt precisely that. Time had stopped. I was watching myself watching the pebbles and trembling with fear.”

Gerald Durrell wrote regarding the autobiographical book Climax on Crete by Theodore Stephanides, the naturalist who loomed so large in Durrell’s autobiographical Corfu trilogy: “Theodore, the most unwarlike of men, was bombed and machine-gunned with the rest by the Germans. Yet who but Theodore would relate how, when the Stukas dived and machine-gunned the road, he flung himself face downwards in a ditch and was ‘interested to note’ two species of mosquito larvae he had not previously noted.”

In his brief piece ‘Spaziergang’ for the Berliner Börsen-Courier of 24 May 1921, Joseph Roth wrote “Nur die Kleinigkeiten des Lebens sind wichtig” ... It's only the minutiae of life that are important.

Friday, February 7, 2020

At least every day

„Der Mensch ist so geneigt, sich mir dem Gemeinsten abzugeben, Geist und Sinne stumpfen sich so leicht gegen die Eindrücke des Schönen und Vollkommenen ab, daß man die Fähigkeit, es zu empfinden, bei sich auf alle Weise erhalten sollte.  Denn einen solchen Genuß kann niemand ganz entbehren, und nur die Ungewohntheit, etwas Gutes zu genießen, ist Ursache, daß viele Menschen schon am Albernen und Abgeschmackten, wenn es nur neu ist, Vergnügen finden. Man sollte, sagte er, alle Tage wenigstens ein kleines Lied hören, ein gutes Gedicht lesen, ein treffliches Gemälde sehen und, wenn es möglich zu machen wäre, einige vernünftige Worte sprechen.” 
- Goethe, Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre. Fünftes Buch, Erstes Kapitel

“Men are so inclined to content themselves with what is commonest; the spirit and the senses so easily grow dead to the impressions of the beautiful and perfect, that every one should study, by all methods, to nourish in his mind the faculty of feeling these things. For no man can bear to be entirely deprived of such enjoyments: it is only because they are not used to taste of what is excellent, that the generality of people take delight in silly and insipid things, provided they be new. For this reason,” he would add, “one ought every day at least to hear a little song, read a good poem, see a fine picture, and, if it be possible to do, to speak a few reasonable words.” 
- Goethe, Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship, Book V, Chapter 

I recently heard the at least every day excerpt of this passage in the film Ballon delivered by an East German headmaster to the assembled school at an end-of-year concert.

Saturday, January 18, 2020

Ivan Southall

“Ill-adjusted people are by no means a modern invention, even if the techniques for producing them are constantly subject to improvement.”
– Ivan Southall, A Journey of Discovery (1975) p.13

Tuesday, November 5, 2019

The person one wants to become

Ilya Repin: Lev Tolstoy in his Study, 1891
Marcus Aurelius Antoninus begins his ΤΩΝ ΕΙΣ ΕΑΤΟΝ, known in English as Meditations (and in Latin as M. Antonius Imperator Ad Se Ipsum) with a catalogue of the things he has learned from friends, family, and the gods. The longest section is devoted to his adoptive father, Antoninus Pius (whom had himself been adopted by Hadrian). There is a striking passage near the end of the section – ἀλλά πάντα διειλημμένα λελουίσθαι, ὡς ἐπὶ σχολῆς, ἀταράχως, τεταυμένως, ἐρρωμένως, συμφώνως ἑαυτοῖς. The crucial word for me here is σχολῆς a form of the verb σχολάζω which means to have leisure, to have spare time, to have nothing to do. So Marcus Aurelius is saying that his father's good example of how to deal with the demands of being Emperor was to act as if he had nothing to do. I like the phrasing in the Penguin Classics translation by Martin Hammond which reads “everything was allotted its own time and thought, as by a man of leisure - his way was unhurried, organized, vigorous, consistent in all.” The old Loeb translation by C. R. Haines is almost as felicitous: “but everything was considered separately, as by a man of ample leisure, calmly, methodically, manfully, consistently.”

The Emperor is also of course making a statement against the temptation to ‘multi-task’, which puts me in mind of a nice quote from the TV series M*A*S*H: there are a very large number of wounded being delivered to the hospital and there's a hurry to deal with the load, but the newly arrived surgeon from Boston is taking a long time scrubbing up before surgery. When the other surgeons are hurrying him up, he replies, “Gentlemen, I do one thing at a time. I do it very well, and then I move on.”

In the third chapter of two great novels – Resurrection (Воскресение) and Anna Karenina (Анна Каренина) – Tolstoy portrays the morning routine of a member of the Russian ruling class. This excerpt describing Nekhlyudov's morning, after he has lain a while in his crumpled bed, gazing vacantly into space, considering what he has to do that day and what happened the day before:

«Выбрав из десятка галстуков и брошек те, какие первые попались под руку, – когда-то это было ново и забавно, теперь было совершенно все равно, – Нехлюдов оделся в вычищенное и приготовленное на стуле платье и вышел, хотя и не вполне свежий, но чистый и душистый, в длинную с натертым вчера тремя мужиками паркетом столовую с огромным дубовым буфетом и таким же большим раздвижным столом, имевшим что-то торжественное в своих широко расставленных в виде львиных лап резных ножках. На столе этом, покрытом тонкой крахмаленной скатертью с большими вензелями, стояли: серебряный кофейник с пачухим кофе, такая же сахарница, сливочник с кипячеными сливками и корзина с свежим калачом, сухариками и бисквитами. Подле прибора лежали полученные письма, газеты и новая книжка “Revue des deux Mondes”.»

“Picking up from among a dozen neckties and tie-pins the first that came to hand – at one time choosing what to wear had been novel and amusing but now it was a matter of complete indifference to him – Nekhlyudov put on the carefully brushed clothes lying ready on a chair, and, clean now and perfumed if not feeling altogether refreshed, he proceeded to the long dining-room, where three men had laboured the day before to polish the parquetry. The room was furnished with a huge oak sideboard and an equally large extension-table to which widely spaced legs carved in the shape of lions’ paws gave an imposing air. On this table, which was covered with a fine starched cloth with large monograms, stood a silver coffee-pot of fragrant coffee, a silver sugar-bowl, a cream-jug with hot cream, and a bread-basket filled with freshly baked rolls, rusks and biscuits. Beside his plate lay the morning post–letters, newspapers and the latest number of the Revue des Deux Mondes.” This is the Penguin Classics translation by Rosemary Edmonds. I have my quibbles about whether it quite conveys, at least to the modern ear, what is described ... the “rolls” are the round bread circles, the “rusks” are dried or lightly toasted bread, which may be close to the original meaning of rusks but nowadays we probably think of baby rusks, and I guess hot cream is right, literally it says “boiled cream” which was a standard addition to coffee in the 19th Century: according to All About CoffeeCafé à la crème, was made by adding boiled cream to strong clear coffee and heating them together.”

Of course Tolstoy would have been able to write this description from his own direct experience as a member of the Russian nobility, but I also suspect that this is something of an idealised portrayal, a description in some sense of how the nobleman’s life should be. Later Nekhlyudov's way of organizing his To-Do list is described: «Дела, занимавшие в это время Нехлюдова, разделялись на три отдела; он сам с своим привычным педантизмом разделил их так и сообразно этому разложил в три портфеля.» ... “The business at present occupying Nekhlyudov could be divided under three headings: this was what he did, in his usual systematic way, and he accordingly grouped his papers in three portfolios.”

There is an increasingly didactic tone in much of Tolstoy's work, but it has its origins in the approach he took to life even at an early age. I am reminded of his idea of writing down the “Rules of Life” as recounted in his autobiographical Youth (Юность):

«и я пошел к себе на верх, сказав St.-Jérôme'у, что иду заниматься, но, собственно, с тем, чтобы до исповеди, до которой оставалось часа полтора, написать себе на всю жизнь расписание своих обязанностей и занятий, изложить на бумаге цель своей жизни и правила, по которым всегда уже, не отступая, действовать.
Я достал лист бумаги и прежде всего хотел приняться за расписание обязанностей и занятий на следующий год. Надо было разлиневать бумагу. Но так как линейки у меня не нашлось, я употребил для этого латинский лексикон. Кроме того, что, проведя пером вдоль лексикона и потом отодвинув его, оказалось, что вместо черты я сделал по бумаге продолговатую лужу чернил, -- лексикон не хватал на всю бумагу, и черта загнулась по его мягкому углу. Я взял другую бумагу и, передвигая лексикон, разлиневал кое-как. Разделив свои обязанности на три рода: на обязанности к самому себе, к ближним и к Богу, я начал писать первые, но их оказалось так много и столько родов и подразделений, что надо было прежде написать “Правила жизни”, а потом уже приняться за расписание. Я взял шесть листов бумаги, сшил тетрадь и написал сверху: “Правила жизни”.»

“‘Well, it’s all right, too – you wouldn’t understand,’ I said, and then went up to my room after telling St-Jérôme I was going to study, but actually in the hour and a half left before confession to make a list of my own duties and occupations for the rest of my life, and to commit to paper the purpose of my life and the rules by which I should always act without backsliding.

I got out a sheet of paper, wishing first to make a list of my obligations and activities for the coming year. The paper needed to be lined. Since I couldn’t find a ruler, I used a Latin dictionary instead. But besides leaving an oblong puddle of ink on the paper after I drew my pen along its edge and removed it, the dictionary didn’t reach the whole length of the sheet, and the line curved around its soft corner. I got out another sheet and, by moving the dictionary along it, made lines of a sort. Dividing my obligations into three kinds – to myself, to my family, and to God – I started to list those to myself, but they proved so numerous and of so many kinds and subdivisions that I saw that I would first have to write Rules of Life and only then make the list. I got out six more sheets, bound them together in a booklet, and at the top of the first page wrote Rules of Life.”
Lev Tolstoy, Childhood, Boyhood, Youth (Penguin Classics) (p. 225)

There is an interesting psychology involved in envisioning a better way to live, clarifying those ideas by for example writing them down, and then acting in accordance with them. In a sense by pretending to be the person you want to be, you are on the path to becoming the person you want to be.

„Gewiß, es kann auch neurotisch sein, die eigene Verwundbarkeit verheimlichen zu wollen. Das habe ich zweifellos oft getan, am öftesten in den frühen Jahren, in denen man leicht dazu neigt, sich so zu verhalten, als ob man in der Tat schon jener wäre, der man werden will.“ Manès Spreber, Die Vergebliche Warnung. All das Vergangene ... S.37

“Certainly, a desire to conceal one’s own vulnerabilities can also be neurotic. I have no doubt that I have frequently done so, most often in my early years, a time when one tends to behave as though one already were the person one wants to become.” Manès Sperber, The Unheeded Warning, p32.

Sunday, August 18, 2019

Vale David Berman (1967 – 2019)

David Berman 1988
Very very sad news recently that David Berman has died at the age of 52, followed by distressing reports that he had hanged himself.

It took me a while to find my copy of his 1999 book of poems Actual Air, where on every page you see a sharp and feeling intelligence grappling with the clearly observed details of our contemporary life.

Then she brought something black up to her mouth,
a plum I thought, but it was an asthma inhaler. 

I reached under the bed for my menthols
and she asked if I ever thought of cancer.

Yes, I said, but always as a tree way up ahead
in the distance where it doesn't matter

And I suppose a dead soul must look back at that tree,
so far behind his wagon where it also doesn't matter.
from ‘Imagining Defeat’

Photo used on back of 1999 book Actual Air
The sound of lawns cut late in the evening
and the memory of a push-up regimen he had abandoned.
Nothing had changed. He had retained his tendency
to fall in love with supporting actresses
renowned for their near miss with beauty.
from The Homeowner's Prayer

David was a sporadic blogger at mentholmountains. The latest post was made twelve days before his suicide, and contains quotes from Thomas Bernhard, and in particular his Correction, Extinction, and the autobiographical Gathering Evidence.

A post a month earlier also quoted from Gathering Evidence and speaks to how the contemporary real world of business disturbs and destroys the sensitive mind:
“With its population made up of two categories of people, those who do business and those upon whom they prey, the city has only a painful life to offer the young person who goes there to learn and to study; for sooner or later anyone who lives there, whatever his constitution, becomes disturbed and is eventually deranged and destroyed by the city, often in the most deadly and insidious manner.”

David with wife Cassie
Davids confrontation with the world of business was deeply personal: in a post to his bands bulletin board immediately after announcing the dissolution of Silver Jews, he revealed his “gravest secret. Worse than suicide, worse than crack addiction.” (He had attempted suicide in 2003, and was struggling with addiction). The post, entitled ‘My Father My Attack Dog,’ goes public with the fact that his father was Richard Berman. My father is a despicable man,” he wrote: “Even as a child I disliked him.”

David included a link to the now defunct which explained / alleged:  “Richard ‘Rick’ Berman is a longtime Washington, D.C. public relations specialist whose lobbying and consulting firm, Berman and Company, Inc., advocates for special interests and powerful industries. Berman and Co. wages deceptive campaigns against industry foes including labor unions; public-health advocates; and consumer, safety, animal welfare, and environmental groups. Nicknamed “Dr. Evil” by his critics, Berman’s targets range from the Humane Society of the United States to Mothers Against Drunk Driving. Berman founded seven tax-exempt non-profits and at least 40 other distinctly named linked projects. Although these groups present themselves as unbiased experts in their fields of research seeking to inform the public, in reality they are little more than front groups for Berman’s industry clients, run out of Berman’s offices in downtown Washington by Berman and Co. staff, most of whom hold different titles at several of the nonprofits”.

In a 2005 interview conducted over email, David mentioned the defining events of his childhood: “When I was seven my parents divorced. My father went to Dallas. My mom fled to the shelter of my grandparents in a strange central Ohio town of 22,000, Wooster. When it looked like I was growing up to be a wimp I was forced to live with my father, which I did not want to do.”

Way back when it first begun
Starting when I first was young
Self portrait aged 6
Through all the years that were to come
I loved being my mother's son

When she was gone, I was overcome
The simple fact left me stunned
I wasn't done being my mother's son
Only now am I seeing that being's done

‘I Loved Being My Mother’s Son’, Purple Mountains, 2019

David's mentholmountains blog quotes several writers, including Robert Walser, but most frequently Thomas Bernhard.

Bernhard himself survived a traumatic childhood where he was subjected to a repressive school system run by Catholic priests and Nazis, and had to join the Deutsches Jungvolk. Bernhard never met his natural father, who committed suicide when Thomas was nine.

David quotes an interview with Bernhard where Bernhard describes an altercation in Salzburg with Jean Améry a few days before Améry's own suicide in 1978, a couple of years after the publication of his book Hand an sich Legen. Diskurs über den Freitod (translated as On Suicide: A Discourse on Voluntary Death). 

Améry had chosen his French-sounding name after the Second World War, in part to express his abandonment of German culture; he had been born Hanns Chaim Mayer in Vienna in 1912.  

Améry suvived the Gurs internment camp, then Auschwitz, Buchnewald and Bergen-Belsen. In At the Mind's Limits he wrote of his time in Auschwitz and mentions Primo Levi who was in the same barracks. Améry describes how Levi had the rare opportunity for an educated man to be spared hard labour by gaining a position to work as a chemist for IG Farben. Améry by contrast, having no ‘useful’ skill like the plumbers and electricians had, was assigned to work on the construction of an IG Farben factory, part of the foreign labour forces that the German economy first got used to at that time (to quote W.G.Sebald citing Hans Magnus Enzensberger on p.12 in the translated version of Luftkrieg und Literatur which was given the English title On the Natural History of Destruction). Améry took his own life two weeks before his 66th birthday. Primo Levi took his own life at the age of 67.

David 2016. Source
Amanda Petrusich writing for the New Yorker recalled a meeting with David: “We met at a hotel bar in Greenwich Village. His wife, Cassie, was next to him; they seemed so happy. The three of us grinned the entire time. Berman was thrilling to talk to—loquacious and weird. A ten-word question might generate several paragraphs of rumination. Language just seemed to come so easily to him.”

In an interview published by The Poetry Foundation three and a half weeks before his suicide, David relates how the book Actual Air came into existence only because of the relentless encouragement of Rob Bingham, the founder of Open City. Rob died of a heroin overdose in 1999, the year Actual Air was published, at the age of 33, echoing his own father's death at the age of 34 when Rob was three months old. David said “hanging out with Rob was one of the funnest times in my life. He was hilarious and headstrong and extravagant in his ways. That opened my life to chaos.  And my whole art-ideology shifted. I became a heavy drug user and toxic party animal, meaning, I became a man of action; disastrous action.”

When David's close friend Dave Cloud died in 2015 he changed his middle name from Craig to Cloud.

David and Cassie had, according to The Guardian, separated fairly recently, and he had moved into a room above the offices of his record label. David said: “It’s sad. We love each other and never fight. But the way we’d like to spend out next 10,000 nights are completely different. And saying that out loud, when you don’t have kids, it naturally follows..... But being in the middle of it is painful. We own our house together. When I come home, like I am now, she is my family. We’ve been here 20 years in Nashville. (the grotesquefiction of Nashville over the last seven years, makes leaving easier). It hurts most when you fall into a sentimental frame of mind. I’ve had to stop going to the nearest grocery store that seems to play Shania Twain’s “Forever and For Always” whenever I’m there.  It’s hard to shop for frozen entrees through cold-air blasted tears. Feels good on a flushed face though.”
No one is at the playground, DB Age 6

And when I see her in the park
It barely merits a remark
How we stand the standard distance
Distant strangers stand apart
from ‘Thats just the way that I feel, Purple Mountains, 2019

Course I've been humbled by the void
Much of my faith has been destroyed
I've been forced to watch my foes enjoy
Ceaseless feasts of schadenfreude
And as the pace of life keeps quickening
Beneath the bitching and the bickering
When I try to drown my thoughts in gin
I find my worst ideas know how to swim

from ‘Thats just the way that I feel, Purple Mountains, 2019

Well, I don't like talkin’ to myself
But someone's gotta say it, hell
I mean, things have not been going well
This time I think I finally fucked myself
You see, the life I live is sickening
I spent a decade playing chicken with oblivion
Day to day, I'm neck and neck with giving in
I’m the same old wreck I've always been

from ‘Thats just the way that I feel, Purple Mountains, 2019

His friend and Silver Jews bandmate Stephen Malkmus tweeted: “He was a one of a kinder the songs he wrote were his main passion esp at the end. Hope death equals peace cuz he could sure use it.”