Posts Tagged ‘George Saintsbury’
When I was younger, I wanted to be a man of letters. I wasn’t sure what this meant, or even if such a thing still existed, but based on my vague sense of what the position entailed, it sounded like an ideal job. You’d be a novelist first, sure, but you’d also write short stories, nonfiction, criticism, and more, following your own inclinations, after the example of many of my early heroes, like Norman Mailer. It never entered my head to wonder why a writer might produce a body of work like this—I assumed he did it just because it seemed cool. But the more time passes, the more I realize that the figure of “the man of letters” is really a byproduct of years spent looking for ways to make a living while writing. And it’s been like this for a long time. Speaking of the essayists of the eighteenth century, whom he calls “writers of all work,” the critic George Saintsbury says:
The establishment of the calling of man of letters as an irregular profession, and a regular means of livelihood, almost necessarily brought with it the devotion of the man of letters himself to any and every form of literature for which there was a public demand…It became, therefore, almost necessary on the one hand, and comparatively easy on the other, for the [writer]…to be everything by turns and nothing long.
Strike out the phrase “comparatively easy,” and you have a pretty good description of the contemporary freelance writer, which is essentially what Samuel Johnson, Oliver Goldsmith, and other denizens of Grub Street really were. They worked as essayists, dramatists, poets, and producers of what Saintsbury calls “hackwork or something more”—translations, histories, popular science—as demand and opportunity required. They were, in short, freelancers. And if their work has endured, it’s because of their exceptional talent, productivity, and versatility, all of which were born, not from some abstract ideal of the man of letters, but from the practical constraints of being a working writer, which is something that every freelancer can understand. They just happened to be better at it than most.
Looking at my own life these days, it’s clear that I’ve had to be “everything by turns and nothing long” to an extent that still takes me by surprise. In the past couple of months alone, I’ve seen the publication of my first novel, worked on the copy edit of the second, and pushed ahead furiously on a rough draft of the third. I’ve written a couple of articles, including my debut essay in The Daily Beast, as well as a long Q&A, a guest post on another blog, and thousands of words here. I have a science fiction novelette coming out in Analog in July and I’m preparing a proposal this week for another nonfiction project. In short, as usual, I’m working on a lot of things at once that don’t, at first glance, have much to do with one another, and sometimes the payoff can be hard to see. But this is what being a working writer is all about.
And this sort of multitasking has creative benefits as well. Drew Goddard, talking to the New York Times the other day about Joss Whedon’s wide range of activities, puts it nicely: “Everything became a vacation from other things.” When you get burnt out on one project, it’s nice to have something else to turn to instead, and your various pieces of work can inform one another in surprising ways. I’ve learned a lot about structuring nonfiction from my work as a novelist—a good essay is often surprisingly similar to a well-constructed chapter—and my fiction, in turn, has benefited from the skills I’ve acquired as an essayist and, yes, a blogger. Everything feeds into everything else, if not right away, then somewhere down the line. It keeps me sane. And after forty years of scrounging around, I’ll have a body of work of which I can hopefully be proud. Because in the end, a man of letters is just a freelancer who survived.
I confess myself utterly ignorant what the Grand Style is. It comes sometimes, as it were, “promiscuously” in the vulgar sense of that term. It would, for instance, be exceedingly difficult for the most expert, or the most futile, ingenuity of the commentator to assign an exact reason for the occurrence, where it occurs, of what is perhaps the grandest example of the Grand Style in all literature—the words of Prospero to Ferdinand, when the revels are ended. An excuse is wanted to break off the pretty “vanity of his art”; to get rid of the lovers; and to punish, in defeating it, the intentionally murderous but practically idle plot of Caliban and his mates. Anything would do; and the actual pretext is anything or nothing. But Shakespeare chooses to accompany it with a “criticism of life”—and of more than life—so all-embracing, couched in expression of such magnificence, that one knows not where to look for its like as form and matter combined. An ordinary man, if, per impossible, he could have written it, would have put it at the end; an extraordinary one might have substituted it for, or added it to, the more definite announcement of abdication and change which now comes later with “Ye elves,” etc. Shakespeare puts it here.
—George Saintsbury, Collected Essays
Never judge a critic by your agreement with his likes and dislikes.
—George Saintsbury, A History of Criticism
Yesterday, I returned for the final day of the Newberry Library Book Fair, when all prices are cut in half, and rounded off my haul from last week with a few more finds: a rare paperback copy of Arthur Koestler’s Act of Creation, picked up for fifty cents, which goes for at least fifteen dollars on Amazon; A Short History of English Literature by George Saintsbury, a critic I’d been meaning to check out ever since reading Edmund Wilson’s encomium of him in Classics and Commercials; and The Craft of the Screenwriter by John Brady, with its series of remarkable interviews with William Goldman, Robert Towne, Paul Schrader, and other giants. All in all, it was the most rewarding book fair imaginable, even if I had to restrain myself a bit because of my upcoming move. (Next year, I won’t have any such restrictions.)
Despite all this, I’ve managed to find time to do a few things aside from scrounging for books. As noted before, I recently delivered a revised draft of the cover copy for The Icon Thief, a preview of which can be seen on my updated novel page. I’ve just finished a science fiction novelette called “The Voices,” which I plan to submit to Analog shortly. (I’ve also completed a secret project, neither short story nor novel, that I’m hoping to talk more about soon, once all the pieces fall into place.) Perhaps most importantly, my break from House of Passages, the sequel to The Icon Thief, ends today. In a few minutes, I’m going to read through the rough draft for the first time in two weeks, hopefully with an open mind, which will allow me to begin planning the rewrite. It’s going to be an intense couple of months, but I look forward to sharing it with you here—assuming I can tear myself away from these books.
Today’s AV Club Q&A centers on a subject lovingly calculated to bring up all kinds of nostalgic nerdery: the works of art that we still keep in obsolete formats, whether cassette tapes, reel to reels, Nintendo cartridges, or any other medium consigned to history’s dustbin. Looking at the responses is enough to make me wistful for all the media I’ve lost: the mix tapes, the VHS copies of X-Files episodes (especially the beloved “Jose Chung/Pusher” combo), the Twin Peaks finale taped off its original airing, and, more than anything else, my own adolescent novels and short stories, which were saved on 5 1/4″ floppy discs and now lost forever. Everyone of a certain age, I imagine, has a similar list, which is something that the next generation will probably never understand, once all physical media have become obsolete by definition.
Of course, there’s one form of obsolete media I haven’t mentioned yet, and all of our houses are full of them: books. And my own shelves look particularly obsolete. Probably half of the books I own were picked up at secondhand bookstores, with their inimitable smell of must and mildew, and I can’t look at them now without smiling at so many old friends: The Road to Xanadu, The Campaigns of Napoleon, an incomplete set of The Story of Civilization (missing only Our Oriental Heritage and The Reformation, neither of which I feel especially inclined to track down), The Next Whole Earth Catalog, The Plan of St. Gall in Brief, Philippe Duboy’s Lequeu, bound copies of the Skeptical Inquirer, Patridge’s Slang (stuffed with clippings and a red carrying cord by its previous, unknown owner), and, of course, the Codex Seraphinianus.
These days, it’s especially bittersweet to regard these shelves, because I’ve just done something that would have seemed unthinkable even a few months ago: I’ve given in and ordered an iPad. (It won’t arrive for another three weeks, but Apple, rather cruelly, cheerfully informs me that the cover has already shipped.) I’m planning to use it mostly for web browsing, but there’s no avoiding the fact that by purchasing it, I’ve essentially bought an e-book reader as well. And while I don’t expect to cut down on my bookstore visits anytime soon, on the occasions when I do buy a new book, it seems likely that I’ll be going the digital route. It’s cheaper, more convenient, and, as my wife will tell you, our shelves at home are already overstuffed. It makes sense—but it also makes me sad. Because I love physical books more than almost anything else in the world, and I feel as if I’m betraying them a little.
That said, there’s one place where the iPad is going to be invaluable, which is for reading books that are out of print and not in my local library, but available for free on Google eBooks. And the list is longer than you might think—in fact, it’s close to infinite. Just looking over the digitized books I’ve found recently, I see the works of George Saintsbury, random volumes of James Frazer’s original Golden Bough, Eckermann’s complete Conversations with Goethe, and such oddball classics as Frédéric Masson’s Napoleon at Home. Thanks to Google, a world of treasures in the public domain has been placed at my disposal, limited only by my ingenuity and desire to explore, and I’m excited about diving into it with my Codex Ipadianus as a guide. (Also: Angry Birds.)
The publication of the fifth edition of David Thomson’s New Biographical Dictionary of Film, the best book ever written on the movies, is cause for celebration, and an excuse for me to talk about one of the weirdest books in all of literature. Thomson is a controversial figure, and for good reason: his film writing isn’t conventional criticism so much as a single huge work of fiction, with Thomson himself as both protagonist and nemesis. It isn’t a coincidence that one of Thomson’s earliest books was a biography of Laurence Sterne, author of Tristram Shandy: his entire career can be read as one long Shandean exercise, in which Thomson, as a fictional character in his own work, is cheerfully willing to come off as something of a creep, as long as it illuminates our reasons for going to the movies.
First, a word about the book’s shortcomings. As in previous editions, instead of revising the entries for living subjects in their entirety, Thomson simply adds another paragraph or two to the existing filmographies, so that the book seems to grow by accretion, like a coral reef. This leads to inconsistencies in tone within individual articles, and also to factual mistakes when the entry hasn’t been updated recently enough—like the article on George Lucas, for instance, in which the latter two Star Wars prequels still evidently lie in the future. And the book is full of the kind of errors that occur when one tries to keep up, in print, with the vagaries of movie production—as when it credits David O. Russell with the nonexistent Nailed and omits The Fighter. (Now that this information is readily available online, Thomson should really just delete all of the detailed filmographies in the next edition, which would cut the book’s size by a quarter or more.)
And then, of course, there are Thomson’s own opinions, which are contrarian in a way that can often seem perverse. He’s lukewarm on Kurosawa, very hard on Kubrick (The Shining is the only movie he admires), and thinks that Christopher Nolan’s work “has already become progressively less interesting.” He thinks that The Wrestler is “a wretched, interminable film,” but he loves Nine. He displays next to no interest in animation or international cinema. There’s something to be outraged about on nearly every page, which is probably why the Dictionary averages barely more than three stars from reviewers on Amazon. And if you’re the sort of person who thinks that a critic whose opinions differ from your own must be corrupt, crazy, or incompetent—as many of Roger Ebert’s correspondents apparently do—then you should stay far, far away from Thomson, who goes out of his way to infuriate even his most passionate defenders.
Yet Thomson’s perversity is part of his charm. Edmund Wilson once playfully speculated that George Saintsbury, the great English critic, invented his own Toryism “in the same way that a dramatist or novelist arranges contrasting elements,” and there are times when I suspect that Thomson is doing the same thing. And it’s impossible not to be challenged and stirred by his opinions. There is a way, after all, in which Kurosawa is a more limited director than Ozu—although I know which one I ultimately prefer. Kubrick’s alienation from humanity would have crippled any director who was not Kubrick. Until The Dark Knight and Inception, Nolan’s movies were, indeed, something of a retreat from the promise of Memento. And for each moment of temporary insanity on Thomson’s part, you get something equally transcendent. Here he is on Orson Welles, for example, in a paragraph that has forever changed how I watch Citizen Kane:
Kane is less about William Randolph Hearst—a humorless, anxious man—than a portrait and prediction of Welles himself…As if Welles knew that Kane would hang over his own future, regularly being used to denigrate his later works, the film is shot through with his vast, melancholy nostalgia for self-destructive talent…Kane is Welles, just as every apparent point of view in the film is warmed by Kane’s own memories, as if the entire film were his dream in the instant before death.
On Spielberg and Schindler’s List:
Schindler’s List is the most moving film I have ever seen. This does not mean it is faultless. To take just one point: the reddening of one little girl’s coat in a black-and-white film strikes me as a mistake, and a sign of how calculating a director Spielberg is. For the calculations reveal themselves in these few errors that escape. I don’t really believe in Spielberg as an artist…But Schindler’s List is like an earthquake in a culture of gardens. And it helps persuade this viewer that cinema—or American film—is not a place for artists. It is a world for producers, for showmen, and Schindlers.
And, wonderfully, on what is perhaps my own favorite bad movie of all time:
Yet in truth, I think Kevin [Spacey] himself is the biggest experiment, and to substantiate that one has only to call to the stand Beyond the Sea, written, produced and directed by Kev and with himself as Bobby Darin. The result is intoxicating, one of the really great dreadful films ever made, worthy of an annual Beyond the Sea award (why not give it on Oscar night?), as well as clinching evidence that this man is mad. Anything could happen.
The result, as I note above, is a massive Proustian novel in which nearly every major figure in the history of film plays a role. (Thomson has already written a novel, Suspects, that does this more explicitly, and his book-length study of Nicole Kidman is manifestly a novel in disguise.) Reading the Dictionary, which is as addictive as Wikipedia or TV Tropes, is like diving headfirst into a vast ocean, and trying to see how deep you can go before coming up for air. Although if it really is a novel, it’s less like Proust than like Pale Fire, in which Thomson plays the role of Kinbote, and every article seems to hint darkly at some monstrous underlying truth. (In that light, even the book’s mistakes seem to carry a larger meaning. What does it mean, for instance, that Thomson’s brilliant article on Heath Ledger, in which he muses on “the brief purchasing power” of fame, was “inadvertently dropped” from the fifth edition?)
And what monstrous truth does the Dictionary conceal? It’s the same truth, which applies as much to Thomson himself as it does to you and me, as the one that he spells out, unforgettably, at the end of Rosebud, his study of Orson Welles:
So film perhaps had made a wasted life?
One has to do something.