Notes, 2016

“They are like that.” —Ernest Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises (“they” being homosexuals)

In thinking about revolutions, the usual mistake is to imagine that people decide which side to fight for by looking to their interests. But they don’t, at least not in any long-term way. They look to the immediate advantages or disadvantages, which mostly consist of rewards and punishments that others in their society are willing to inflict, or willing to pay to have inflicted. The few are indeed few, but they are able to buy the services, if not the allegiance, of the many in a pinch.

“But if one wants to be primarily a writer, then, in our society, one is an animal that is tolerated but not encouraged—something rather like a house sparrow—and one gets on better if one realizes one’s position from the start.” —Orwell, “The Cost of Letters,” 1946

At some point, Am I crazy to keep doing this? is no longer the right question to ask, because you have been doing it so long that you no longer have the option of doing anything else. The realization is not necessarily pleasant.

Is growing old more painful for the beautiful, or is it in fact not that hard for them to resign themselves merely to being more beautiful than others their age?

If the super leaves a mirror outside our building, in the spot reserved for furniture that strangers are welcome to take away, it gets shattered by the end of the day. A television’s screen, on the other hand, remains intact for weeks.

By an iron law, probably having something to do with my vanity, I only find men beautiful if they are my age or younger. But every year, as I age, a larger and larger proportion of the men in the world fall into this category. If I live long enough, then by the end of my life, there will scarcely be any man in the world I couldn’t fall for, which might be hardly bearable.

Teenage boys in the park, talking about the strains of marijuana they have recently acquired, are so hobbled by the low waists of their pants that they have the gait of geishas.

To say what you know, without reference to what the powers that be would like to hear, is always a claim to sovereignty.

“I am not with you” is what a writer is always saying.

falcate (adjective): bent or curved like a sickle

In my mind I saw the rainbands of the storm, the falcate concentric arms, reach out across a thousand miles to embrace the coast.

—Greg Jackson, Prodigals

“Unintended baggage may be removed or destroyed.” —public service announcement on the loudspeaker in the Newark Airport

Hypervigilance is not intelligence, though my history has conditioned me to confuse them. Real intelligence would involve a more prudent and thoughtful management of one’s attention.

“It seems in America you can have pederasts in books as long as they are fearfully gloomy and end by committing suicide.” —Jessica Mitford, quoted in Gregory Woods, Homintern

“A revolutionary with taste in wine has come already half the distance from Marx to Burke.” —Norman Mailer, Miami and the Siege of Chicago

“To know how it feels to be a seaweed you have to get in the water.” —Saul Bellow, Seize the Day

“Otters are extremely bad at doing nothing.” —Gavin Maxwell, Ring of Bright Water

Just put your phone over your face is a weird sales pitch.

“I might write of it and subsequent events with a wry dishonesty, a negation of my feeling for that creature, which might disarm criticism, might forestall the accusation of sentimentality and slushiness to which I now lay myself open. There is, however, a certain obligation of honesty upon a writer, without which his words are worthless.” —Maxwell, Ring

spraint (noun): the excrement of an otter

I remember seeing, in that year when the cubs were on Otter Island, a tiny caterpillar of spraint whose deposition must have been an acrobatic feat for the tottering cub.

—Maxwell, Ring

Love is the fart
Of every heart:
It pains a man when ’tis kept close,
And others doth offend when ’tis let loose.

—John Suckling, “Love’s Offense”

Remember, kids: By the end of Miami and the Siege of Chicago, Mailer has come to believe that the republic would be safer with Nixon.

Heard through the window while brushing my teeth: the reassuring gray hyperventilating of the USPS van’s engine, and its even more reassuring sudden death.

I’m worried that you’ve been tone-policing my concern-trolling.

O hateful error, melancholy’s child,
Why dost thou show to the apt thoughts of men
The things that are not?

—Shakespeare, Julius Caesar

When I was young, I thought that Copperfield, in wedding Agnes, was at last marrying someone who was suitably adult, and that Dora had been a mistake, caused by a childish fantasy of what love is. But now I think that Dora, however disappointing, was a real love, and that in wedding Agnes, David wedded only his anima, a fiction of his own feminine nature.

“The deliberate manipulation of anachronisms to produce an appearance of eternity.” —Borges, pronouncing judgment on T. S. Eliot, quoted in James Gleick, Time Travel

“She liked Victorian novels. They were the only kind of novel you could read while you were eating an apple.” —Stella Gibbons, Cold Comfort Farm

“One of the disadvantages of almost universal education was the fact that all kinds of persons acquired a familiarity with one’s favorite writers. It gave one a curious feeling; it was like seeing a drunken stranger wrapped in one’s dressing-gown.” —Gibbons, Cold Comfort Farm

“They always say, she says, that my writing is appalling but they always quote it and what is more, they quote it correctly, and those they say they admire they do not quote.” —Gertrude Stein, Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas

“. . . translating heartache into delicate, even piercing observation . . .” —Saul Bellow, Mr. Sammler’s Planet

But then Mr. Arthur Sammler took a picture of it with his cell phone and by the time he got upstairs it had gone viral on gay porn Tumblrs.

“In explaining his unhappiness he told Gertrude Stein, they talk about the sorrows of great artists, the tragic unhappiness of great artists but after all they are great artists. A little artist has all the tragic unhappiness and the sorrows of a great artist and he is not a great artist.” —Stein, Toklas

“In the lecture, Martha Nussbaum described how the Roman philosopher Seneca, at the end of each day, reflected on his misdeeds before saying to himself, ‘This time I pardon you.'” —Rachel Aviv, “The Philosopher of Feelings”

“One person with a belief is equal to ninety-nine who have only interests.” —J. S. Mill, Representative Government

The downside of reading G. H. Hardy is that if you’re not a mathematician you end up fairly well convinced that you’ve wasted your life.

The process of memory is abrasive and skins a little of the nap off of what is remembered.

And art made tongue-tied by authority
And folly (doctor-like) controlling skill,
And simple truth miscalled simplicity,
And captive good attending captain ill

—Shakespeare, sonnet 66

One’s memories fading before one has written one’s novels from them—like a photograph fading in a box before it can be rediscovered and reproduced.

One almost gets the sense this year that there are people who don’t care whether they’ll turn out to be on the wrong side of history, morally speaking.

Dude, I’m part of the mainstream media. I’m not likely to believe your conspiracy theories about it.

“It fareth with sentences as with coins: In coins, they that in smallest compass contain greatest value, are best esteemed: and, in sentences, those that in fewest words comprise most matter, are most praised.” —Lancelot Andrewes, quoted in Drury, Music at Midnight

“As an historian he had the fatal inhibition that he would not begin to write until he had read all the sources.” —footnote about Lord Acton, in One Hundred Letters from Hugh Trevor-Roper

“Perhaps the mere effort to convert any one to a theory involves some form of renunciation of the power of credence.” —Oscar Wilde, “Portrait of Mr. W. H.”

“He only seemed to have most pre-eminence that was most rageful.” —Phlip Sidney, The Old Arcadia

“But let me tell you that the delight of political life is altogether in opposition. Why, it is freedom against slavery, fire against clay, movement against stagnation! The very inaccuracy which is permitted to opposition is in itself a charm worth more than all the patronage and all the prestige of ministerial power.” —Trollope, Phineas Finn

In Shane Carruth’s movies, the problem of incarnation takes the form of a discovery that you’re involved in an almost mechanical process that’s much larger and more powerful than you are.

Winning doesn’t seem to be enough for the comments. It looks like they won’t be content until they’ve exterminated the articles.

Led astray

Laura Miller on Anthony Lane:

Reading this much of a critic’s work will also alert you to his tics. Lane has only one that annoys me: He will cross the street, walk around the block, catch a cross-town bus and wait in line for an hour to make a dopey pun, and unfortunately we are forced to go with him. For the pun-averse this can sometimes feel like engaging in one of those seemingly straightforward conversations that turns out to be the wind-up for an evangelical pitch or an obscene phone call; you wonder if Lane has enticed you through a whole paragraph on “Braveheart” solely so he can hit you with a groaner like “Fast, Pussycat! Kilt! Kilt!”

Samuel Johnson on Shakespeare:

Shakespeare with his excellencies has likewise faults . . . A quibble is to Shakespeare, what luminous vapours are to the traveller; he follows it at all adventures; it is sure to lead him out of his way, and sure to engulf him in the mire. It has some malignant power over his mind, and its fascinations are irresistible. Whatever be the dignity or profundity of his disquisition, whether he be enlarging knowledge or exalting affection, whether he be amusing attention with incidents, or enchaining it in suspense, let but a quibble spring up before him, and he leaves his work unfinished. A quibble is the golden apple for which he will always turn aside from his career, or stoop from his elevation. A quibble, poor and barren as it is, gave him such delight, that he was content to purchase it, by the sacrifice of reason, propriety and truth. A quibble was to him the fatal Cleopatra for which he lost the world, and was content to lose it.

Notes, 2014

Maybe the conception of a novel has to come during the dying of a year—a new world created out of the sorrow of losing the one you’re in.

No one will share an e-cigarette, so the habit will die out. Also, if one is allowed to smoke them inside, they’ll be deprived of cigarettes’ other great attraction: the pretext for a break outdoors.

“People are like butterflies. . . . But a butterfly under a magnifying glass is a monster.” —Jiří Mucha

“If there had been many of us and we could have found each other out, there’s no knowing what we mightn’t have done.” —Kate Croy’s disreputable father, in Henry James, The Wings of the Dove

All things are busy; only I
Neither bring honey with the bees,
Nor flow’rs to make that, nor the husbandry
To water these.

—George Herbert, “Employment (I)”

Why does the dog follow the vacuum cleaner around with such a stricken look?

The god Internet is hungry, and demands to be fed with a master key to all Brooklyn-literary-scenester romans-à-clef.

About halfway through Wings of the Dove one catches a distinct whiff of The Sacred Fount: Can Milly be cured by fucking?

“Something whispers us that we have no right to make a mock of calamities like these, or to turn the truth of things into the puppet and plaything of our fancies.” —Hazlitt, on King John

My one hope is that when civilization finally starts to dissolve, there will be a few weeks when I can get away with bringing my dog to the movies.

The beginning of corruption is when one is given a secret.

Is it possible to have meaningful oversight of a secret organization without compelling it to reveal the truth about itself to people it doesn’t necessarily trust?

You may my glories and my state depose,
But not my griefs; still am I king of those.

—Shakespeare, Richard II

“Let greatness go, so it go without thee.” —Isabel to Richard II, in Samuel Daniel, Civil Wars

“I am Richard II, know ye not that?” —Elizabeth I

I tried just awfully hard. But that’s the fascinating thing about art, anyhow; that good intentions and praiseworthy industry don’t count a damn. If they did, it wouldn’t be much more interesting than bookkeeping.” —Willa Cather, Letters

“If you should marry the handsomest, and most accomplished and superficially agreeable man in the world, you little know the misery that would overwhelm you, if, after all, you should find him to be a worthless reprobate, or even an impracticable fool.”

“But what are all the fools and reprobates to do, aunt? If everybody followed your advice, the world would soon come to an end.”

—Anne Brontë, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall

“. . . and my hair—only my hair, nothing else—looked drunk.” —Dickens, David Copperfield

“And you are one of the fortunate ones who can?” said Miss Ridley, using a dry tone.

“I am one of the unfortunate ones who do. That is how I should put it.”

—Ivy Compton-Burnett, The Present and the Past

bonze (noun): a Japanese or Chinese Buddhist teacher

How strange Untermensch looked, small and dark, gripping his briefcase, the sign of the undefeated intellectual, and looking in his eagerness like some bonze of an unknown religion, approaching the source of his devotion!”

—Penelope Fitzgerald, The Golden Child

beriozka (noun): a hard-currency shop in Russia, during the Communist era (like Tuzex shops in Czechoslovakia)

Everyone else had gone, during the two days they had just spent in Leningrad, to the berioska shop, and had bought themselves a large fur hat with ear-flaps.

—Fitzgerald, The Golden Child

auguste (noun): a circus clown wearing ill-fitting clothes

“Incidentally, in the interests of accuracy, I did not appear as a clown, but as an auguste, who does not speak.”

—Fitzgerald, The Golden Child

ait (or eyot) (noun): a small island in a river

But what struck me most was, that, from the time they began to congregate, forsaking the chimneys and houses, they roosted every night in the osier-beds of the aits of that river.

—Gilbert White, The Natural History of Selborne

cere (noun): the skin at the base of a bird’s beak

Its cere and feet were yellow, and the circle of its eyelids a bright yellow.

—White, Selborne

He was old enough that sometimes, at a distance, he mistook the yoke in the wires of an Iphone headset for a crucifix.

cassone (noun): a large Italian coffer, to hold a bride’s trousseau

She was standing by herself, looking at the painting of a mythological subject on the cassone.

—Penelope Fitzgerald, Innocence

It was late capitalism again, so late that the children of the rich had given up the wish to be artists of anything but retail.

“. . . the smug laboratory of her afterthought . . .” —Henry James, The Golden Bowl

mort (noun): a large amount, a great deal

“We have had a mort of talk, sir,” said Mr. Peggotty to me.

—Dickens, Copperfield

“The moment was to come—and it finally came with an effect as penetrating as the sound that follows the pressure of an electric button.” —James, Golden Bowl

“The ordinary detective discovers from a ledger or a diary that a crime has been committed. We discover from a book of sonnets that a crime will be committed.” —G. K. Chesterton, The Man Who Was Thursday

“There were times when lust felt like a kind of idealism.” —Damon Galgut, Arctic Summer

A category: people in the city whose names you aren’t expected to know and who don’t know yours but who recognize you and whom you recognize.

“I belong to an unfortunate generation, swung between the old world and the new, and I find myself ill at ease in both.” —Giuseppe di Lampedusa, The Leopard

“Nothing could be decently hated except eternity.” —Lampedusa, Leopard

America promises never to torture again unless it feels like it has to.

“I am not a young man in a novel.” —Joseph Conrad, Under Western Eyes

poke (verb): to aim one’s gun at a moving target, rather than swinging and firing

The necessity of wasting no time and of killing with certainty had a terrible effect upon the shooting, making me poke out of anxiety.

—T. H. White, The Goshawk

eyas (noun): a young hawk, not yet fully trained [it’s etymologically the same word as the French niais, but it swapped its n with the indefinite article, the way an eft and a newt did]

It must have been a family, the parents and two or three eyases already well grown but not yet driven out.

—White, Goshawk

vinaigrette (noun): a bottle or box holding a sponge soaked with smelling salts

Apparently the presence of a clergyman of the Church of England in her morning-room was consolation enough, as though, like some moral vinaigrette, he had but to be filled by a bishop, introduced, unstoppered, and gently waved about the room, to diffuse a refreshing atmosphere.

—Sylvia Townsend Warner, Summer Will Show

spinney (noun): a small clump of trees, planted or preserved in order to shelter game birds

. . . the portrait of grandpapa Aspen, . . . paused on the brink of his spinney and listening with contemplative pleasure to the footsteps of the poacher within.

—Warner, Summer Will Show