Wednesday, March 22, 2017

`Do Not Differ About Trifles'

“Opposites often attract each other but the attraction seldom lasts if the full extent of the opposition is ignored. It is as neighbours, full of ineradicable prejudices, that we must love each other, not as fortuitously `separated brethren.’”

Hubert Butler’s “Divided Loyalties” (Independent Spirit: Essays, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1996) is characteristically pithy and commonsensical. Utopians with little experience of human nature will fault it as cynical, a dark slander on humanity. The rest of us hope its optimism is justified. Butler is writing in 1984, deep in the Irish quagmire, and I was reading him on Tuesday when I learned of Martin McGuinness’ death.

Ignoring differences proves as delusory and dangerous as exaggerating them, so Butler’s choice of “neighbours” is shrewd. He might have said “family” or “friends,” but was never naïve. Think of your neighbors, the ones you like and trust, who collect your mail when you’re out of town; the ones you cordially detest, who are loud or dirty; and those about whom your feelings are neutral because you’re hardly aware of their existence. By nature, neighbors are heterogeneous, even when they share an economic niche. Neighbors make demographics seem trivial. Even the most solitary among us make arrangements with neighbors.

The Rev. John Taylor was Dr. Johnson’s friend from childhood, outlived him and read the service at Johnson’s funeral. He was also known to be disputatious. In a letter dated July 31, 1756, Johnson congratulates him for resolving differences with a neighbor, and tells him:

“. . . to have one’s neighbour one’s enemy is uncomfortable in the country where good neighbourhood is all the pleasure that is to be had. Therefore now you are on good terms with your Neighbours do not differ about trifles.”

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

`Young People Should Be Careful in Their Reading'

“The most common form of diversion is reading. In that vast and varied field millions find their mental comfort. Nothing makes a man more reverent than a library.”

Ah, the good old days, when we sat around perusing Proust and amusing our fellows with choice couplets from The Dunciad. Pardon the cynicism. The author quoted above is Winston Churchill (Nobel Prize for Literature, 1953), and I endorse the spirit of his observation if not the historical specifics. Thanks to Terry Teachout I discovered the source of this passage, Painting as a Pastime (1950), originally published as an essay in Amid These Storms (1932; the English edition is blandly titled Thoughts and Adventures). In a 2009 column for the Wall Street Journal, Terry called the slender volume “one of his wittiest and most insightful pieces of writing.” In it, Churchill stresses the importance of a “public man” cultivating “a hobby and new forms of interest.” The object is “the avoidance of worry and mental overstrain.” For Churchill this primarily meant painting, a pursuit he began at age forty. In the book he devotes a three-page digression to the virtues of reading:

“`What shall I do with all my books?’ was the question; and the answer, `Read them,’ sobered the questioner. But if you cannot read them, at any rate handle them and, as it were, fondle them. Peer into them. Let them fall open where they will. Read on from the first sentence that arrests the eye. Then turn to another.”

That was more my style when young. There was a romance about books, a sentimental liking for their look and smell – and surely for the impression book-“fondling” left on the opposite sex: “He’s so sensitive.” Churchill warns us against “read[ing] too many good books when quite young”:

“It is a great pity to read a book too soon in life. The first impression is the one that counts; and if it is a slight one, it may be all that can be hoped for. A later and second perusal may recoil from a surface already hardened by premature contact. Young people should be careful in their reading, as old people in eating their food.”

Advice I never followed. The food analogy is apt: I was an omnivore. How else does one learn to winnow out lousy books. A better metaphor: inoculation. One must ingest a few bad books in order to develop immunity. Churchill gives another caution:

“But reading and book-love in all their forms suffer from one serious defect: they are too nearly akin to the ordinary daily round of the brain-worker to give that element of change and contrast essential to real relief. To restore psychic equilibrium we should call into use those parts of the mind which direct both eye and hand. Many men have found great advantage in practicing a handicraft for pleasure. Joinery, chemistry, book-binding, even brick-laying—if one were interested in them and skilful at them—would give a real relief to the over-tired brain.”

No brick-laying for this reader. Churchill gets perilously close to the crackpot idea of reading (or any hobby) as therapy. Reading is an end in itself, pure pleasure, solace, communion. 

Monday, March 20, 2017

`A Hunter Without a Blank in His Magazine'

“I should like to think that a writer just celebrates being alive. I shall be sorry to die, but the notion of seeing life celebrated from day to day is so wonderful that I can’t see the point of believing anything else.”

Any guesses as to the identity of the speaker? A rare character, surely. No gender or nationality clues apparent. Kvetching, not celebrating, is all the fashion, and only two sorts of writers speak or write this way: Those who work for greeting-card companies and those who are strong, gifted and confident. In this case, the latter, and spoken by a man in his mid-eighties. V.S. Pritchett loved being a writer, and often reminds us that we too should love the privilege.

On my shelves are five Pritchett volumes. Three are modest in bulk: His best novel, Mr. Beluncle (1951); The Gentle Barbarian: The Life and Work of Turgenev, (1977); Chekhov: A Spirit Set Free (1988). The other two are behemoths of industriousness: Complete Collected Stories (1990) and Complete Collected Essays (1991) – more than 2,500 pages of a life’s work. Among English writers, only Kipling wrote a greater number of great stories, though not by many. Of Kipling, Pritchett writes self-revealingly:

“Kipling is not one of those short-story writers who settle on a mere aspect of a subject, a mood, an emotion or a life. He takes the whole subject and reduces it, in form, to the dramatic skeleton.”

Pritchett is especially good on writers of short stories, a species distinct in most cases from novelists, closer to poets. Read his essays on Leskov, Kipling, Chekhov, Babel, Sholom Aleichem and Flannery O’Connor. Here he is on Maupassant, another prolific writer who, I suspect, goes largely unread today:

“When, as a young man, Maupassant sat in the talkative company of writers and was asked why he was silent, he used to say, `I am learning my trade’; and that is what the hostile criticism of his work comes down to in the end. That he learned, and some better writers never have. He is one of the dead-sure geniuses, a hunter without a blank in his magazine.”

His prose is vivid and flecked with unexpected metaphors and word choices, but without the exhibitionism of lesser, more pretentious writers. In his fiction, he is the anti-Updike. He makes the throwaway memorable, without tarting it up. This is from a 1967 story, “A Debt of Honor”: “He had been a bland little dark-haired pastry-fed fellow from the North when they had first gone off together, her fur coat sticking to the frost inside the window of the night train. What a winter that was!”

Has any writer in the history of the language ever described a character as “pastry-fed”? And don’t we know precisely what Pritchett means?

 V.S. Pritchett died twenty years ago today, on March 20, 1997, at the age of ninety-six.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

`Of Uncertain Etymology and Meaning'

More than ever I encounter unfamiliar words I’m unable to decrypt from context or etymology. Perhaps it means I’m reading more, or I’m finally accepting the depths of my ignorance, and it does give me the opportunity to revisit the dictionary. I’m not alone in finding “alamite” a mystery, according to The Making of the Oxford English Dictionary (Oxford University Press, 2016) by Peter Gilliver. Even Sir James Augustus Henry Murray, the dictionary’s first editor, judged the word’s meaning “entirely unknown,” but included it anyway because it was found in a 1458 will left by Sir Thomas Chaworth of Nottinghamshire. In a description of cushions he was leaving to his offspring, Chaworth writes: “Hengyng for ye halle and parlor of tapisserwerk, and alle the kuchyns of tappisserwerk with alamitez.”

It looks like a passage pulled at random from Finnegans Wake but Gilliver tells us “tappisserwerk” means tapestry, though my spell-check software helpfully suggests “patisserie,” which served to make me hungry. The OED entry, with no definition, part of speech, etymology or suggested pronunciation, is a marvel of epistemological legerdemains: “Origin unknown. From the context, apparently denoting something connected with a cushion.” The entry adds “Obs. rare.” Gilliver seems to admire Murray’s completism. I’m reminded of Borges’“Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius.” Gilliver writes:

“Other such entries followed, including aquile, battleage, capoche, and many more. (In later entries it became more usual to be explicit, with a note such as `Of uncertain etymology and meaning.’) Some of these words are well-known cruxes in the interpretation of Shakespeare and other writers; in other cases the original source is little-known.”

The entry for “aquile” is even sparser than alamite’s. As to meaning: “Derivation and meaning unknown. Dr. Morris suggests: To demand, ask, or obtain?” At least the source, Pearl, from the late fourteenth century, is well-known: “Of þe lombe I haue þe aquylde For a syȝt þer of þurȝ gret fauor.”

“Battleage”: suggests a martial meaning, but the OED is refreshingly honest: “Of uncertain etymology and meaning.” It’s a noun, and the dictionary offers a 1526 citation: “Grindeing of Wheate, Messurage, Carridge, and Battleage of Wheat, Bread, and Meale.” Again, Im hungry.

When I saw “capoche,” I envisioned the unholy union of Al Capone, the author of In Cold Blood and poché. After the boilerplate “Obs. Rare” and “meaning uncertain,” the OED adds: “Johnson suggests ‘perhaps to strip off the hood,’ and refers us to capouch (“a hood or cowl”) and “a sportive use of caboche,” which means “to cut off the head of (a deer) close behind the horns.” I’m no longer hungry.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

`The Type That Is Droll and Endearing'

Call it groundless sentimentality. I do, even as I embrace it. It’s like the knitted shamrock my mother pinned to my shirt each St. Patrick’s Day. When I reached a certain age I would take it off it before hitting the sidewalk. By then I sensed it was a demeaningly empty gesture, like lowering your head and remaining silent while everyone else in the room is praying, and I was a stiff-necked prig. For years, each St. Patrick’s Day, I have read something by or about an Irishman. It used to be Yeats, Joyce or Beckett. And then Swift, Hubert Butler or Flann O’Brien (thank you, Jay). Now I range about, breaking the pattern while maintaining it.

This year it was Dublin: A Portrait (Harper & Row, 1967), an oversize album of photos by Evelyn Hofer, with text by V.S. Pritchett. Earlier they had collaborated on London Perceived (1962) and New York Proclaimed (1965). Hilton Kramer observed that Hofer practiced a “very classic art -- flawless in its eye for form, tireless in its ability to `become saturated,’ as Pasternak said, in its subjects.” Hofer remains, as photographers should, out of her pictures. Her interest is the real, not the self. My favorite photo in Dublin is probably “Gravediggers, Glasnevin.” On a related theme, Hofer will also show you Joyce’s death mask.

In most such books, the text is an afterthought, filler, but Pritchett’s prose rivals Hofer’s photos for memorability. Here he welcomes you to the book:

“Dublin as it is; Dublin as it was. I must declare my interest. It is very personal. If I were to write an account of my education the city of Dublin would have to appear as one of my schoolmasters, a shabby, taunting, careless, half-laughing, reactionary.”

Pritchett is master of the modulated adjective array. He strings them like a necklace of different colored stones. He recalls Dickens’ vividness of language and characterization, without the cartoonish bent. See how he backs into a description of Oliver Goldsmith:

“Goldsmith’s case is even more interesting, if far less dramatic and effective, than Swift’s, in what it reveals of the Anglo-Irish mind of the time. `There he is, the poor fellow,’ the old fraud of a guide used to say, donkeys’ years ago, his eyes watering and his testy voice going soft, when taking one to look at the array of busts in Trinity College Library. He would stop for half a tear before Goldsmith’s innocent and comic face. A disastrous undergraduate, ugly, with a pointed nose—loving to dress up in gaudy clothes, incoherent in talk, over-fond of cards, reckless with money, but good at playing the flute, a sweet singer of Irish ballads and a wit when he wrote. Goldsmith is the type of all that is droll and endearing.”

Reading Pritchett, one often stops and says: I wish I had written that. Late in the book he writes: “Dubliners are still shocked by the wickedness of England and go there for a holiday from virtue.”

Friday, March 17, 2017

`But His Mind Was Not In It'

“When Keats was dresser almost every wound was or quickly became a foul-smelling, festering sore, the dressing of which had to be frequently changed, often more than once a day.”

A dresser was a surgeon’s assistant whose job it was to dress and bandage wounds. Long before Semmelweis, Pasteur and Lister – that is, from 1811 to 1815 -- John Keats apprenticed at Guy’s Hospital in London. Keats was fifteen when he went to work for the surgeon Thomas Hammond. Sir William Hale-White explains in Keats as Doctor and Patient (Oxford University Press, 1938):

“In those days a medical student was apprenticed for four or five years to a practicing doctor to whom a fee was paid. The apprentice was provided with board and lodging, he helped the doctor in his work, he picked up what knowledge he could, he compounded pills and other medicines, he drew teeth, he vaccinated and he bled patients.”

Hale-White (1857-1949) had an advantage denied most biographers and literary scholars.  He was a doctor, and was appointed assistant physician at Guy’s Hospital in 1886, promoted to physician in 1890 and consulting physician in 1917. Hale-White walked the same wards as Keats, a century later. In ninety-six pages he details Keats’ training as a physician, his abandonment of that calling to write poetry, his tuberculosis, failure of diagnosis and treatment, and death at age twenty-five. Hale-White’s prose, in its clarity, precision and absence of embellishment, gives evidence of his medical training on every page. Dismissing the notion that Keats was sickly from youth and showed signs of being the “consumptive type,” Hale-White writes:

“We may safely picture Keats as having had good health in boyhood and youth. He was very good looking, had beautiful eyes and hair, he walked well, fought well [he trained as a boxer], and could work hard. [Keats’ friend] Cowden Clarke says he was active, athletic, and enduringly strong . . . He was generous, loyal and affectionate, particularly fond of his sister and brothers, sometimes quick-tempered, and especially he became indignant at injustice.”

Hale-White’s medical diagnosis, substantiated by later scholarship, sweeps away two centuries of myth-making:

“He caught consumption almost certainly from [his brother] Tom, with whom he lived for months before it killed Tom in December 1818. From this date until February 1820 Keats occasionally complained of not feeling well—he did not bathe for this reason. Whether this was owing to tubercle bacilli in his lungs, or to some other cause, we do not know; the tubercular disease of his lungs first showed itself on the 3rd of February 1820 when, fourteen months after Tom’s death, he coughed up blood. The disease then progressed in Keats in the usual way until it killed him in February 1821.”

One admires a doctor or writer who acknowledges the limits of what he knows and sticks to demonstrable facts. Keats was never formally diagnosed with tuberculosis because, in a sense, it didn’t exist. The bacillus that causes the disease was not identified until 1882 by the German physician Robert Koch, and a fairly reliable immunization was not developed until 1906. The treatment was not widely accepted until after World War II.

Hale-White sounds angry when he describes the treatment the poet received – frequent bleeding, malnutrition, indoor confinement. Doctors went on treating him (and millions of others) when they had no idea what they were doing: “They had no thermometers with which to see if the patient was feverish, no microscopes with which to investigate the expectoration, and no X-rays with which to examine the chest visually. They were like extremely short-sighted people trying to grope about without glasses.”

Hale-White partially forgives the doctors of Keats’ day:

“They suffered from the additional disadvantage that their instruction had been the traditional teaching stretching back for centuries, hence they bled and starved their patients. This teaching was founded upon doctrines which had proceeded from the imagination, and as these were wrong, the treatment was wrong. It is the old, old story that mankind will not be content with saying we do not know. Rather than do this they imagine.”

Little has changed, of course. Among the things Hale-White admits he cannot understand are why Keats so readily gave up medicine and why medicine plays so small a role in his poetry. He cites lines 221-226 from “I stood tip-toe upon a little hill,” written shortly after Keats left Guy’s Hospital:

“The breezes were ethereal, and pure,   
And crept through half closed lattices to cure  
The languid sick; it cool’d their fever’d sleep,  
And soothed them into slumbers full and deep.          
Soon they awoke clear eyed: nor burnt with thirsting
Nor with hot fingers, nor with temples bursting.”

The passage “suggests he was describing what he must often have seen in fevered patients.” Perhaps, but other poets who never studied medicine could have drafted those lines. In his closing paragraph, Hale-White is more convincing:

“It is clear that his medical studies influenced his writing so little as to be negligible. This is remarkable, for, although he had for five years out of his short life studied medicine and had been in daily contact with possible medical subjects for writing, he did not use them. His native industry made him work hard at medicine but his mind was not in it.”

Thursday, March 16, 2017

`To Be Sheltered from Many of the Griefs of Age'

“There are certain books, differing widely the one from the other, that are almost universally beloved and before which criticism suspends itself. They are innocent without being contemptible; virtuous without being of an insupportable puritan-hypocrisy; admirably conceived without formal perfection. And, without being amongst the great masterpieces, they are necessary to a world that would be poorer without them.”

I’m fairly certain no book is “universally beloved.” In fact, some of the books that once approached that description – The Bible, The Pilgrim’s Progress, Huckleberry Finn – are widely if not universally detested, or at least ignored, but that’s rooted in mere fashion, not love or critical rigor. What Ford Madox Ford is getting at in The March of Literature (1938) is the category of books fixed by every serious reader one notch below the Homer-Dante-Shakespeare axis. It’s a private and autonomous realm, though it overlaps with the equally private realms of other readers. The first book with a home in this reader’s bookish sanctuary is Kipling’s Kim.  I’ve read it every few years for the last half-century in the spirit Randall Jarrell said he read it: “at whim: not to teach, not to criticize, just for love.” That’s the point: selfish, undefendable, non-canon-minded pleasure.

What else? Robinson Crusoe. O. Henry’s stories. Rasselas. The Man Who Loved Children, much loved by Jarrell. The Man Who Was Thursday. As for nonfiction, Ronald Knox’s Enthusiasm: A Chapter in the History of Religion. A.J. Liebling, especially Between Meals. Josef Pieper’s Leisure: The Basis of Culture. Beerbohm’s essays. Santayana’s The Realms of Being. All are books, once read, made for rereading. No two such lists will be identical. Ford’s has nothing in common with mine – Hardy’s stories, The Scarlet Letter (a book I enthusiastically detest), Paul et Virginie, Manon Lescaut, some Trollope and more. He writes:

“Such a list is the moss that we rolling stones gather as we pass through life. It will be thicker in our youths; indeed our lives will be rich according as it was thick or thin then, for to have the young mind plentifully stored with books of that type is to be sheltered from many of the griefs of age. From the masterpieces one gains strength, assurance, composure. From these others one is enriched by the memories of the days when one first read them. One renews, with those remembrances, one’s youth.”

This leads Ford to Manzoni’s I Promessi Sposi (The Betrothed), a novel I have never read that moves Ford to remember “halcyon days he passed when the world was better.” That’s how I remember the first time I read Proust.