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

Other people’s flowers

Here are a few quotations that I copied into my notebooks, in some cases as long as four years ago but in one case as recently as last week:

It is as though an orange tree refused to flower for fear of committing a sin.

—Stendhal, On Love

The traditional British struggle with macaroni brought her down sharply from tragedy to farce.

—Elizabeth Bowen, The Hotel

And even though the tall giraffes were tough,
And even though the tough giraffes were tall . . .

—dream poem of John Chamberlain, cited by Edmund Wilson

"But it was nice while it lasted," Charlie said. "We were a sort of royalty, almost infallible, with a sort of magic around us. . . ."

—Fitzgerald, "Babylon Revisited"

If it's important to be sublime in anything, it's surely in evil.

—Diderot, Rameau's Nephew

"Mais quoi! Toujours le roman! Hélas!"

—La duchesse de Sanseverina, La Chartreuse de Parme

We made no more provision for growing older, than we did for growing younger.

—Charles Dickens, David Copperfield

In that same spirit of improvement, which was so busy everywhere, I could discern something like a shadow, that showed it was not altogether of that pure advantage, which avarice led all so eagerly to believe.

—John Galt, Annals of the Parish

He was not a particular person, but a sample or memento—reminding one of certain "goods" for which there is a steady popular demand.

—Henry James, The Reverberator

Historical-mindedness is so much a preconception of modern thought that we can identify a particular thing only by pointing to the various things it successively was before it became that particular thing which it will presently cease to be.

—Carl Becker, The Heavenly City of the Eighteenth-Century Philosophers

I remember when I was abroad, the trees, and grass, and wet leaves, rustling in the walks of the Thuilleries, seemed to be as much English, to be as much the same trees and grass, that I had always been used to, as the sun shining over my head was the same sun which I saw in England; the faces only were foreign to me.

—William Hazlitt, The Round Table

With bloudy mouth his mother earth did kiss,
Greeting his grave . . .

—Edmund Spenser, The Faerie Queene

Part of our existence lies in the feelings of those near to us. This is why the existence of someone who has lived for days during which man was merely a thing in the eyes of man is non-human.

—Primo Levi, If This Is a Man

You see Englishmen, here in Italy, to a particularly good advantage. In the midst of these false and beautiful Italians they glow with the light of the great fact, that after all they love a bath-tub and they hate a lie.

—Henry James, Letters

A pleasurable feeling of blind love,
The pleasure which there is in life itself.

—Wordsworth, "Michael"

I could observe, in little pieces, as it were; but as to making a net of a number of these pieces, and catching anybody in it, that was, as yet, beyond me.

—Charles Dickens, David Copperfield

Beauty, strength, youth, are flowers but fading seen.

—George Peele

I regard the march of history very much as a man placed astride of a locomotive, without knowledge or help, would regard the progress of that vehicle. To stick on, somehow, and even to enjoy the scenery as we pass, is the sum of my aspirations.

—Henry James, Letters

It is the ongoing—i.e., the "becoming"—of the world that produces its sadness. If the world stood still at a felicitous moment there would be no sadness in it.

—Thomas Hardy, Early Life, qtd. in Aaron Matz, Satire in an Age of Realism

I had already found that it was not good to be alone, and so made companionship with what there was around me, sometimes with the universe and sometimes with my own insignificant self; but my books were always my friends, let fail all else.

—Joshua Slocum, Sailing Alone Around the World

Against nicety in the popular cause

According to the front page of the New York Times, Republicans have said the word “Kerry” in the first three days of their convention more than twice as many times as Democrats said the word “Bush” in the first three days of theirs. In his speech accepting the nomination, Kerry called for restraint from ad hominem attack, but Cheney’s speech last night crescendoed into and spent itself in Kerry-bashing.

It’s asymmetric warfare, and it isn’t new. William Hazlitt explained the nature of it in his 1820 essay, “On the Spirit of Partisanship.”

Conservatives and liberals play the game of politics differently, Hazlitt wrote, because they have different motivations. Liberals are motivated by principles and tend to believe that personal honor can be spared in political combat. They may, in fact, become vain about their highmindedness. Hazlitt condemns the mildness as a mistake, both in moral reasoning and in political strategy. “They betray the cause by not defending it as it is attacked, tooth and nail, might and main, without exception and without remorse.”

The conservatives, on the other hand, start with a personal interest in the conflict. Not wishing to lose their hold on power, they are fiercer. “We”—i.e., the liberals, or the “popular cause,” in Hazlitt’s terminology—“stand in awe of their threats, because in the absence of passion we are tender of our persons.

They beat us in courage and in intellect, because we have nothing but the common good to sharpen our faculties or goad our will; they have no less an alternative in view than to be uncontrolled masters of mankind or to be hurled from high—

“To grinning scorn a sacrifice,
And endless infamy!”

They do not celebrate the triumphs of their enemies as their own: it is with them a more feeling disputation. They never give an inch of ground that they can keep; they keep all that they can get; they make no concessions that can redound to their own discredit; they assume all that makes for them; if they pause it is to gain time; if they offer terms it is to break them: they keep no faith with enemies: if you relax in your exertions, they persevere the more: if you make new efforts, they redouble theirs. While they give no quarter, you stand upon mere ceremony. While they are cutting your throat, or putting the gag in your mouth, you talk of nothing but liberality, freedom of inquiry, and douce humanité. Their object is to destroy you, your object is to spare them—to treat them according to your own fancied dignity. They have sense and spirit enough to take all advantages that will further their cause: you have pedantry and pusillanimity enough to undertake the defence of yours, in order to defeat it. It is the difference between the efficient and the inefficient; and this again resolves itself into the difference between a speculative proposition and a practical interest.

It is not fair play, and Hazlitt thinks that liberals who decline to fight fire with fire are fools. “It might as well be said that a man has a right to knock me on the head on the highway, and that I am only to use mildness and persuasion in return, as best suited to the justice of my cause; as that I am not to retaliate and make reprisal on the common enemies of mankind in their own style and mode of execution.”

Uptown Girl

A review by Caleb Crain of My Misspent Youth by Meghan Daum. Originally published in The Nation, 30 April 2001.

“These pieces are not confessions,” Meghan Daum declares in the foreword to My Misspent Youth, an anthology of articles she wrote for The New Yorker, Harper’s, and other magazines. Nonsense. Maybe, as she claims, “a few of the stories I tell never even happened,” but the first time I read her book, I read it in a single afternoon, mesmerized and spluttering, because all the essays have the flavor of confession.

They taste, that is, like a hot fudge sundae: salty sweet. Or more exactly, they taste like an inside-out hot fudge sundae: sweet, then salty. The surface is chilly, pale, slick, sugary. Beneath is a dark hot goo, like half-coagulated blood. The difference, in texture and temperature, is exhilarating and probably not good for you.

Just over thirty, Daum has been anthologized in The KGB Bar Reader and championed by Thomas Beller, the novelist-scenester-editor of the literary journal Open City. Until she decamped last year to Nebraska (she writes about her new life there in the latest issue of O), Daum was as urbane a writer as they come. Like Joan Didion, to whom she is often compared, she is a nonfiction switch-hitter: an empathetic reporter and a provocative autobiographer. The reported essay on flight attendants reprinted here, which Open City rescued after a men’s magazine killed it, is a gem. She owes her fame, however, to her confessions. In print she has admitted to unsafe sex, inventoried her debts and spending habits, and chronicled her waitership at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, much the way David Sedaris chronicled his elfhood at Macy’s Santaland. In the first person lies her weakness—and her strength.

In “Creative Writers and Daydreaming,” Freud explained that the egotism of most daydreams repels everyone except the person who dreamed them up. In successful literature, however, the same fantasies manage to be pleasing, because great writers are able to short-circuit or neutralize the reader’s envy and contempt—to trick readers into identifying with daydreams they would ordinarily roll their eyes at. When Charles Dickens or Jane Austen share their fantasies, you enjoy them as if they were your own.

This is not, however, how confessions work. Memoirists don’t convince you to overcome your envy and contempt; they expect and plan for those reactions. You can’t read Meghan Daum’s essays without becoming enraged. If someone tells you that she has been financially compelled to move from New York City to Nebraska because she only earned $40,000 in 1997 and $59,000 in 1998, you will roll your eyes. (In my case, patience lapsed when Daum claimed that financial anxiety had blocked her writing by rendering her unable to think “about anything other than how to make a payment on whatever bill was sitting on my desk, most likely weeks overdue.” “Weeks”? And she calls herself a writer?) She can’t hope that you will sympathize; there is another game afoot. Arousal to indignation is in fact one of the pleasures Daum is offering. Of course she’s infuriating. In real life, people always are.

Like all real people, Daum has unexamined, often self-serving ideas about herself. Unlike most real people, she writes about them uncensored. When they hurt her and those around her, the reader feels anger, as if she were a friend who needs a talking-to. But if he’s honest with himself, the reader may also recognize a few of his own self-serving ideas among Daum’s—particularly if he too is a freelance writer who has found it hard to support himself in New York City. This is the hot goo. We all know it’s wrong to believe that just because you are a writer, you deserve a high-bourgeois lifestyle and boundless love. And we know it is wrong to think that if you haven’t received these prizes yet, it is because you don’t yet write well enough. But if you are a writer, this is the sort of nonsense you believe, or used to believe until you were disillusioned. Disillusionment may have improved you, but to spend a little stolen time with the old cheats is nonetheless a sticky, high-calorie pleasure.

If it were up to me, everyone who aspired to make a living as a writer would be obliged, at an early age, to read Thoreau’s “Life without Principle,” Fitzgerald’s “The Crack-up,” Gissing’s New Grub Street, and Connolly’s Enemies of Promise. “My Misspent Youth,” the title essay in Daum’s collection, may belong in this canon, not for Daum’s insight, which is no better than Fitzgerald’s, but for her lyricism, which rivals Connolly’s.

This is the chilly, pale, slick, sugary surface. Daum says she learned how to write sentences from her father, a music composer. And on the evidence of her prose style, I have no trouble believing her claim that she was in her day the second-best high school oboist in New Jersey, even without practicing. She has the ease of a natural. Note the rhythms in the opening lines of her essay “Toy Children”:

Though I had a stuffed-animal collection that rivaled the inventory of a Toys “R” Us, I was a child that hated dolls. By hate, I’m not talking about a cool indifference. I’m talking about a palpable loathing, a dislike so intense that my salient memory of doll ownership concerns a plastic baby whose duty among my playthings consisted solely of being thrown against the wall repeatedly and then smudged with a combination of red lipstick, purple Crayola, and, when available, spaghetti sauce. This was done in an effort to simulate severe injury, possibly even internal bleeding, and this doll, who, if I recall correctly, had eyes that opened and shut and therefore had come preassigned with the name Baby Drowsy, spent most of her time in a shoe box in my closet. This was the intensive care unit, the place where, when I could no longer stand the sight of Baby Drowsy’s fat, contusion-ridden face, I would Scotch tape a folded Kleenex to her forehead and announce to my mother that Baby Drowsy had been in yet another massive car wreck.

The sentences here start off compact and declarative. The first two bring to mind the humorously flat disavowals in Frank O’Hara’s poem “Autobiographia Literaria”: “I hated dolls and I / hated games, animals were / not friendly and birds / flew away.” But then, like a beetle lifting its chitin to reveal gossamer wings, out from under these assertions Daum unfolds subordinate clauses full of color and ambivalence, linked with a delicacy that requires the reader’s attention but never flummoxes him. She segues from aphorism to excursus as gracefully as Hazlitt, who loved hate in similar cadences: “Is it pride?” Hazlitt wondered. “Is it envy? Is it the force of contrast? Is it weakness or malice? But so it is, that there is a secret affinity, a hankering after evil in the human mind, and that it takes a perverse, but a fortunate delight in mischief, since it is a never-failing source of satisfaction.”

But let’s get back to the hot goo. Nearly every piece in My Misspent Youth contains an understanding of Daum and the world that is appealing and false. She succeeds in wrecking some of them; others resist her. For a reviewer to set forth exactly why and how Daum has failed to undeceive herself would be a bit like doing the crossword puzzle as a public service. Not quite taking her at her word is part of the reader’s fun. But I can’t resist a brief look at two issues: love and money.

In her first essay, “On the Fringes of the Physical World,” and in her last, “Variations on Grief,” Daum describes relationships with men who loved and disappointed her. The first, a sportswriter she calls Pete, failed to live up to the promise of his email courtship, when he wooed her under the America Online moniker PFSlider. The second, a rich, idle aesthete she calls Brian, died of a respiratory infection at age twenty-two without having made anything of his life.

Though the men are different, their relationships with Daum are strangely alike. Both surprised Daum by spoiling her. “He gave me all of what I’d never realized I wanted. . . . I’d never seen anything like it,” she writes of Pete/PFSlider. “I have never in my life allowed a person to cater to my whims the way he did,” she writes of Brian. Daum is aware of the lopsidedness. “I slurped up his attention like some kind of dying animal,” she writes of Pete/PFSlider. “I liked him because he didn’t hold me in contempt for refusing to reciprocate the romantic aspects of his affection for me,” she writes of Brian. But in both cases, she is reluctant to relate her longing for attention to the phoniness she experiences later, when she meets Pete face-to-face and when she tries to mourn Brian. Instead she blames the internet for disguising Pete’s nature (when, in fact, his first email, “is this the real meghan daum?” perfectly reveals the nature of his seduction), and she somewhat mystically links Brian’s death to his lack of interest in hard work (when, in fact, Brian had at least one difficult achievement to his credit: he loved a writer unrequitedly).

Compliant phoniness—and its unfailing sidekick, imperfectly muffled rage—is an occupational hazard for writers. They are, after all, people who have made a profession out of saying whatever it takes to get attention. But it is for her commentary on another hazard of the striving writer’s life that Daum has become almost famous: unsecured debt—and its unfailing sidekick, a rampaging sense of socioeconomic entitlement.

In “My Misspent Youth,” Daum explains that at age seventeen she visited a music copyist’s prewar apartment at West End Avenue and 104th Street in Manhattan. The copyist had oak floors, “faded Persian rugs . . . and NPR humming from the speakers.” I imagine he had a subscription to The Nation, too. At that moment, Daum imprinted the style of life she wanted, and like the hero of Knut Hamsun’s novel Hunger—the one who needlessly starves himself—she insisted on procuring it by writing.

It can’t be done, of course—not today, not on the Upper West Side, not without the innovative credit-card use that Bush and Congress are about to consign to the dustbin of history. (Memo to Vince Passaro: Cash out now.) This is no surprise. What redeems Daum’s essay from mere self-pity (I failed) or backhanded boast (If I couldn’t make it, no one can) is an embarrassing insight, which can be phrased as a question: Would you live in Thoreau’s Walden shack if it had wall-to-wall shag carpeting?

Daum would not. “When you get to a certain age you learn what the deal breakers are,” she writes. “I was never interested in being rich. I just wanted to live in a place with oak floors.” Beneath the humor is an unbecoming truth, rarely spoken aloud. Suffering for art brings socioeconomic compromise, which, in a culture stratified by market segment, looks cheap rather than austere. Literature is a high-bourgeois taste. Even if it only brings in a petty-bourgeois salary, to accept petty-bourgeois taste would feel like giving up hope on it as a profession. Thus carpet, dust ruffles, pantyhose, Maxwell House, and Billy Joel give Daum the heebie-jeebies. When she finally runs, it’s to Nebraska. She can’t afford to stop in Jersey City.

Except for the scorn of Billy Joel, I sympathize. A writer as gifted as Daum deserves to live in a prewar UWS 1BR fully reno w/ hdwd flrs & EIK. I can’t, however, agree with the conclusion she draws from her exile. (It may, after all, be temporary. Despite “Good-Bye to All That,” Joan Didion has not made it a point of pride to stay away.) Wanting to live in a place with oak floors is an interest in being rich. There’s nothing wrong with that. As Samuel Johnson said, “no man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money.” But if Daum thought it would be evident to a seventeen-year-old’s glance how a writer could pursue wealth with integrity, or combine ambition with gentility, she must have been living in an uptown world.