Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘George Saintsbury

Scatter my ashes at the Newberry Library

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The Newberry Library Book Fair

“I have always imagined paradise as a kind of library,” Borges writes, and I’d happily agree, with one small revision. To me, heaven is a library book sale, despite the fact that the library itself seems to offer a better deal, at least at first glance. In any decent library, the books are organized in a way that allows you to quickly find the one you want, and even if a copy isn’t available at that particular branch, it’s often just an interlibrary loan away. Libraries are kind of miracle, and like all good miracles, we tend to take them for granted. People these days love to enthuse about having all of the world’s information available at their fingertips, but really, that’s been the case for a long time: the only difference is that the library imposes transaction costs—the journey to the nearest branch, the search through the card catalog or computer system, the retrieval of the book, and the location of the page you need—that are probably beneficial in the long run. This isn’t to dispute the wonders of Google book search, which has transformed my life as well. But information has greater value when uncovered as part of a more considered process, and the net result is that we aren’t any more informed now than when we had to rely on more old-fashioned methods.

Yet if I had the choice between spending eternity in a library or at the Newberry Library Book Fair, which just concluded here in Chicago, I’d choose the latter without hesitation. A library book sale takes the contents of a well-stocked library—the Newberry event offers upward of 100,000 volumes each year—and jumbles them just enough to make the search more interesting. Ideally, the books have been arranged in rough categories, with a big table devoted to each one, but in practice, the classifications can be a little arbitrary. (Having just volunteered for an afternoon of sorting at this coming weekend’s book fair in Oak Park, I’m all the more aware of how many tricky judgment calls, and human error, go into which book ends up where.) As a result, looking for any one book or author means that you need to poke your nose everywhere. If I want a book on Napoleon, say, it might be in Biography, History, or Military History, and Will Durant’s The Age of Napoleon is likely to be over in Reference. Even if I’m pretty sure that a particular book will be on one table and nowhere else, it’s still a crapshoot, both because the books are haphazardly arranged and because there’s no guarantee the one I want will be there at all.

The Newberry Library Book Fair

This can lead to moments of frustration, especially when you’re positive that a certain book has to be on this table somewhere, just out of sight. (A year ago, I found Volume II of George Saintsbury’s A History of Criticism and Literary Taste and spent many minutes searching in vain for Volumes I and III. This year, I found Volumes I and II, but not III. And I fully expect the entire set to be waiting there for me when I go back twelve months from now.) It can also lead to a heady combination of excitement and regret, especially as the time to leave draws near. I spent three hours at the Newberry sale on Friday, and as the clock ticked closer to my scheduled departure, I experienced a feeling that a lot of browsers must know: the conviction that there’s got to be one more book here that I’ve always wanted but haven’t seen, and I only have ten minutes left to make the rounds one more time. In a perfect world, you’d be able to browse forever, and even if you ended up going over the same tables again and again, you’d find that you’ve been subtly changed in the meanwhile. I often see the same books at the Newberry from year to year, and sometimes I’ll discover that one I’d passed over twice before suddenly speaks to me now. And at three dollars or so, it’s worth taking the risk.

That’s the real joy of browsing: not only do you find the books that you never knew you wanted, but you sometimes discover that you’re no longer the person—or more than the person—you always thought you were. I’ve been shaped in profound ways by chance discoveries at book sales that never would have occurred if I’d simply followed the Dewey Decimal System to the titles I had in mind. And it’s a little reassuring to find that no matter how many books I’ve bought or read, there are always serendipitous discoveries to be made. (This year, my big find was an original edition of The Times Atlas of World History, which I picked up for only five dollars. It was first published in 1975, so it isn’t entirely up to date, but that still leaves nine thousand useful years, or 99.6% of all recorded history, which strikes me as a pretty good percentage.) So if I end up with any kind of choice in the matter, I’ve decided that this is where I want to spend eternity. The Newberry, like all beautiful old libraries, is already crowded with ghosts, and if I end up haunting the tables one day, I hope you’ll give me a wave. And if I seem too busy to wave back, it’s only because I’m still looking for Volume III.

Written by nevalalee

July 29, 2014 at 9:44 am

The one question, revisited

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Byzantine necklace

Yesterday, I quoted the architect Christopher Alexander on the one overriding question you can always ask when presented with two alternatives: “Which of the two is a better picture of my self?” It’s a test that can be used to make choices in life, art, and architecture, and in many ways, it’s the best and only question worth asking. At first glance, however, it seems to fly in the face of what I’ve said numerous times on this blog about the importance of objectivity and detachment. I’ve argued to the point of redundancy that art of all kinds has something of the quality that T.S. Eliot identified in poetry: “Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality.” David Mamet goes further: “A good writer gets better only by learning to cut, to remove the ornamental, the descriptive, the narrative, and especially the deeply felt and meaningful.” I suspect that Mamet—who often uses architectural metaphors when he writes about craft—would initially be a little suspicious of Alexander’s test, and that he’d say that the real question isn’t “Which of the two is a better picture of my self?” but “Which of the two gets the job done?”

But if you were to ask me whether I believe Alexander or Mamet, my only answer would be: I believe in both. When Alexander asks us to look for a true picture of the self, he’s not speaking in autobiographical terms, or even about personality. (Hence the more depersonalized version of the same question: “Which one of these two things would I prefer to become by the day of my death?”) It’s more an issue of the deeper response an object evokes of naturalness, rightness, or life—which are all qualities that can be found in objects in which the self of the maker seems all but absent. You can think of it as the difference, say, between a personalized necklace from SkyMall and the Byzantine necklace pictured above: one of them seems to have more of me in it, but when I ask myself which one I’d prefer to become when I die, the answer is obvious. On a much higher level, it’s the difference between Shakespeare’s sonnets and something like Prospero’s speech to Ferdinand, which, as George Saintsbury points out, is placed in The Tempest almost arbitrarily. At first, the sonnets seem to have more of Shakespeare the man, but I don’t think there’s any question about which is the truer portrait.

SkyMall necklace

Poets, like Eliot, have always been at the leading edge of objectivity, and from Homer onward, the greatest poetry has been that in which the authorial “I” never appears but is somehow everywhere. In Zen in English Classics and Oriental Literature—which, like Alexander’s A Pattern Language, is one of the two or three essential books in my life—R.H. Blyth provides a useful list of examples of objective and subjective poetry, the latter of which he calls “a chamber of horrors.” On the objective side, we have:

A certain monk asked Hyakujo, “What is Truth?”
Hyakujo said, “Here I sit on Daiyu Peak!”

And on the subjective side, a passage from Yeats:

I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.

Comparisons, as John Gardner says in The Art of Fiction, are odious but instructive, and it’s hard not to read these two passages and conclude that the first not only has more of Hyakujo in it, but more of Yeats.

In fact, you could even say that the essence of art lies in finding objective, impersonal images that also serve as a picture of the self. If that sounds paradoxical, that’s because it is, and it goes a considerable way toward explaining why real art is so elusive. It’s a simple matter to write subjectively, acting as if your own thoughts and feelings were the only important thing in the world; it’s less simple, but still straightforward, to construct objective, technically considered works in which the self never appears; and it’s hardest of all to write, as Wordsworth did: “A violet by a mossy stone.” And the test has wider applications than in poetry. In software design, we’re hardly asking programmers to write code to serve as a self-portrait in letters: we’re happy enough if it runs smoothly and does the job it was meant to do. Yet I feel that if you were to show a good programmer two blocks of code and ask him to pick which one seemed like a better picture of himself, we’d get a meaningful answer. It wouldn’t have anything to do with personal expression, but with such apparent intangibles as concision, elegance, ingenuity, and clarity. It’s really a way of asking us to think intuitively about what matters, when the external trappings have been stripped away. And the answers can, and should, surprise us.

Writers of all work

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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.

Written by nevalalee

April 18, 2012 at 10:48 am

Shakespeare and the grand style

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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

Written by nevalalee

April 15, 2012 at 9:50 am

Quote of the Day

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Written by nevalalee

January 17, 2012 at 8:00 am

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A book fair haul and an update

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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.

Literary obsolescence and the Codex Ipadianus

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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.)

In praise of David Thomson

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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.

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