Life: What is happiness? edition

“I do not promise happiness, and I don’t know what it is. You New World people are, what is the word, hipped on the idea of happiness, as if it were a constant and measurable thing, and settled and excused everything. If it is anything at all it is a by-product of other conditions of life, and some people whose lives do not appear to be at all enviable, or indeed admirable, are happy. Forget your happiness.”

—Robertson Davies, The Manticore

Life: Egotism and the powerful sense of self consciousness generates

An egotist is a self-absorbed creature, delighted with himself and ready to tell the world about his enthralling love affair. But an egoist, like Sir John, is a much more serious being, who makes himself, his instincts, his yearnings, and tastes the touchstone of every experience. The world, truly, is his creation. Outwardly he may be courteous, modest, and charming—and certainly when you knew him Sir John was all of these—but beneath the velvet is the steel ; if anything comes along that will not yield to the steel, the steel will retreat from it and ignore its existence. The egotist is all surface; underneath is a pulpy mess and a lot of self-doubt. But the egoist may be yielding and even deferential in things he doesn’t consider important; in anything that touches his core he is remorseless.

—Robertson Davies, The Deptford Trilogy. Does this sound like anyone you know?

The whole Deptford Trilogy is weird but marvelous. It’s the sort of book I shouldn’t like yet reread periodically. It’s utterly against the feeling of most contemporary fiction or even the sort of fiction that was commonly written when it was published yet works. Critics don’t know what to do with it because it’s very good without being flashy, or without tying into many common critical hobbyhorses. It’s the sort of book I’m always hoping someone will recommend to me.

The life of the artist: The Salterton Trilogy edition

“Every old hand tells every novice that a life in music is a dog’s life. It’s not really true. If you’re a musician that’s all there is to it; there’s no real life for you apart from it.”

—Robertson Davies, The Salterton Trilogy. Replace “music” with any other art, including writing, and the idea holds.

Questioning the academic enterprise. . .

Here’s Robertson Davies from an interview in Conversations with Robertson Davies:

There are a lot of things in that book [by Elspeth Buitenhuis; the work in question is not named, though it discusses Davies] that I never said and don’t agree with but she must say what she thinks. There’s a lady at McGill who teaches Fifth Business in a course on Canadian literature and she says that the stone which Ramsay carried all his life and which Boy Staunton had in his mouth when he died is the stone of judgment out of the Talmud. I have never read the Talmud. I don’t know anything about the stone of judgment, but when you fall into the hands of academics you’re a gone goose. They will interpret and say what they think and there’s nothing you can do about it. It doesn’t really very much matter unless we take it too seriously.

Sometimes I’ve wanted to pull the stunt Woody Allen does in Annie Hall:

If what literary academics are doing “doesn’t really very much matter,” the question becomes, what then are we doing?

Late December Links: Robertson Davies' stock falls, science fiction, typing speed, Jane Austen meets pornography, censorship, and more

* Does Typing Speed Really Matter For Programmers? Answer: probably not, once you reach a relatively low level of speed. I suspect the same is true for writers: I tend to be more limited by my brain than my fingers.

* Steampunk and the origins of science fiction, which go in directions different than the ones you’re probably imagining.

* Anarcho-Monarchism, Tolkien and Dalí.

* A great comment on blogging:

I think there are two ways to blog: altruistically or narcissistically. If you’re blogging altruistically you’re blogging for others primarily and yourself secondarily. If you’re blogging narcissistically you’re mostly blogging for yourself.

Which am I?

* Possibly NSFW but hilarious: Porn and Penetration, an adaptation of Sense and Sensibility.

* Literary reputations, with Melville falling and Tolkien gaining. Sadly, Robertson Davies is “falling off a cliff,” which I find distressing because I think he might be the most underrated writer I know, and most people I’ve recommended The Deptford Trilogy to love it; they ask why he isn’t better known, but I have no answer I wish to share publicly.

* The [Unjust] war against cameras:

Police across the country are using decades-old wiretapping statutes that did not anticipate iPhones or Droids, combined with broadly written laws against obstructing or interfering with law enforcement, to arrest people who point microphones or video cameras at them. Even in the wake of gross injustices, state legislatures have largely neglected the issue.

* New York Magazine’s Chris Rovzar speciously asks of Taylor Swift and Jake Gyllenhaal, Why Must We Pretend It Is Not Strange When Adult Celebrities Date Underage Celebrities? There are a couple obvious answers:

1) Taylor Swift, at 20, is nowhere near underage; the fact that she “isn’t old enough to legally drink alcohol” (emphasis in original) says more about U.S. law than what it means to be an adult.

2) Most women appear to want to date men of higher status than themselves. If you’re a celebrity, the only way you can effectively do this is by dating another celebrity.

This assumes the post is serious, which it might not be, or that it’s not merely trolling, which it might be.

* Eminent domain now effectively has no limits, and that’s definitely a bad thing.

* Arizona State makes 30 Rock.

* Amazon’s Kindle censorship. This is a great danger, since we’re moving toward a world in which a handful of companies (Amazon and Apple, most probably) may effectively control the vast majority of electronic books.

(See too the Ars Technica take.)

* Shortage of Engineers or a Glut: No Simple Answer. The real answer: there is always a shortage of smart, motivated people at the top of their field and a glut of people at the bottom of any field.

* Not Really ‘Made in China’: The iPhone’s Complex Supply Chain Highlights Problems With Trade Statistics. The short version: beware trade statistics, especially those related to manufacturing.

Late December Links: Robertson Davies’ stock falls, science fiction, typing speed, Jane Austen meets pornography, censorship, and more

* Does Typing Speed Really Matter For Programmers? Answer: probably not, once you reach a relatively low level of speed. I suspect the same is true for writers: I tend to be more limited by my brain than my fingers.

* Steampunk and the origins of science fiction, which go in directions different than the ones you’re probably imagining.

* Anarcho-Monarchism, Tolkien and Dalí.

* A great comment on blogging:

I think there are two ways to blog: altruistically or narcissistically. If you’re blogging altruistically you’re blogging for others primarily and yourself secondarily. If you’re blogging narcissistically you’re mostly blogging for yourself.

Which am I?

* Possibly NSFW but hilarious: Porn and Penetration, an adaptation of Sense and Sensibility.

* Literary reputations, with Melville falling and Tolkien gaining. Sadly, Robertson Davies is “falling off a cliff,” which I find distressing because I think he might be the most underrated writer I know, and most people I’ve recommended The Deptford Trilogy to love it; they ask why he isn’t better known, but I have no answer I wish to share publicly.

* The [Unjust] war against cameras:

Police across the country are using decades-old wiretapping statutes that did not anticipate iPhones or Droids, combined with broadly written laws against obstructing or interfering with law enforcement, to arrest people who point microphones or video cameras at them. Even in the wake of gross injustices, state legislatures have largely neglected the issue.

* New York Magazine’s Chris Rovzar speciously asks of Taylor Swift and Jake Gyllenhaal, Why Must We Pretend It Is Not Strange When Adult Celebrities Date Underage Celebrities? There are a couple obvious answers:

1) Taylor Swift, at 20, is nowhere near underage; the fact that she “isn’t old enough to legally drink alcohol” (emphasis in original) says more about U.S. law than what it means to be an adult.

2) Most women appear to want to date men of higher status than themselves. If you’re a celebrity, the only way you can effectively do this is by dating another celebrity.

This assumes the post is serious, which it might not be, or that it’s not merely trolling, which it might be.

* Eminent domain now effectively has no limits, and that’s definitely a bad thing.

* Arizona State makes 30 Rock.

* Amazon’s Kindle censorship. This is a great danger, since we’re moving toward a world in which a handful of companies (Amazon and Apple, most probably) may effectively control the vast majority of electronic books.

(See too the Ars Technica take.)

* Shortage of Engineers or a Glut: No Simple Answer. The real answer: there is always a shortage of smart, motivated people at the top of their field and a glut of people at the bottom of any field.

* Not Really ‘Made in China’: The iPhone’s Complex Supply Chain Highlights Problems With Trade Statistics. The short version: beware trade statistics, especially those related to manufacturing.

Reading James Joyce's Ulysses for plunder

There’s a wonderful Paris Review interview with Robertson Davies, and the Interviewer says:

Bruce Chatwin once remarked that there were two ways of reading, reading for love and reading for plunder, in other words, reading to learn how writers accomplished certain effects, solved certain technical problems, or just in general went about doing their work. That’s a legitimate means of being influenced.

I’m precisely reading Ulysses (as previously discussed) for plunder. I find it hard to believe I will ever love Ulysses, but the number of technical effects (and the emotions they create) are astonishingly large and varied. More so perhaps than any other novel I’ve ever read. The amount of stuff worth plundering in Ulysses is tremendous, and its ability to convey a great deal in a small number of words through incomplete thoughts is showing me how to loosen up some in my own writing. At a few moments in the novel I’m working on now, I’ve come across sentences that make me say, “Yeah, that’s Ulysses‘ influence.”

Many of the novels I’ve read for grad school—The Crying of Lot 49, for instance—merely feel tedious. Ulysses, although I resisted it at first, feels like a trove of novelistic effects.

Note, however, that I’m not saying Ulysses is only good for those effects, as the kinds of emotional powers those effects create are equally impressive. But I’m reading much more for plunder.

Reading James Joyce’s Ulysses for plunder

There’s a wonderful Paris Review interview with Robertson Davies, and the Interviewer says:

Bruce Chatwin once remarked that there were two ways of reading, reading for love and reading for plunder, in other words, reading to learn how writers accomplished certain effects, solved certain technical problems, or just in general went about doing their work. That’s a legitimate means of being influenced.

I’m precisely reading Ulysses (as previously discussed) for plunder. I find it hard to believe I will ever love Ulysses, but the number of technical effects (and the emotions they create) are astonishingly large and varied. More so perhaps than any other novel I’ve ever read. The amount of stuff worth plundering in Ulysses is tremendous, and its ability to convey a great deal in a small number of words through incomplete thoughts is showing me how to loosen up some in my own writing. At a few moments in the novel I’m working on now, I’ve come across sentences that make me say, “Yeah, that’s Ulysses‘ influence.”

Many of the novels I’ve read for grad school—The Crying of Lot 49, for instance—merely feel tedious. Ulysses, although I resisted it at first, feels like a trove of novelistic effects.

Note, however, that I’m not saying Ulysses is only good for those effects, as the kinds of emotional powers those effects create are equally impressive. But I’m reading much more for plunder.

Summary Judgment: The Island of the Day Before, The Salterton Trilogy, and The Brief History of the Dead

“Summary Judgment” is a new and occasional feature not unlike the “Books Briefly Noted” section in the New Yorker.

* The more I read of Eco, the more I think of him as an author of extremes in terms of accomplishment: his great books have the shock, astonishment, inevitably, and beauty that make them great, while his weaker ones can descend into bland self-parody or simple boredom. The Island of the Day Before rests firmly in the latter camp. Like Robert Penn Warren or Melville, Eco’s best novels, like The Name of the Rose and Foucault’s Pendulum, more than excuse The Island of the Day Before. In this case, Amazon’s 448 used copies of the hardcover edition are available starting at $0.01 for a very good reason.

The unnamed “I” narrating the Island of the Day Before says that Roberto, a man cast on a dream-like abandoned ship in the mid-seventeenth century; Roberto is about to explore the dream ship, and on the verge of his exploration we are interrupted:

Or, rather, he does not set out at once. I must crave indulgence, but it is Roberto who, in telling this to the Lady, contradicts himself—an indication that he does not tell in complete detail what has happened to him, but instead tries to construct his letter like a story or, more, like a sketch for what could become both letter and story, and he writes without deciding what things he will select later; he drafts, so to speak, the pieces of his chessboard without immediately establishing which to move and how to deploy them.

Eco is describing the author’s troubles here, but its self-consciousness is more irritating than enlightening: save such disquisitions for literary essays rather than literature, where action should propel the reader to care before metaphysical blathering lulls him to sleep. It’s an intensely annoying affectation that continues throughout at least the first hundred pages. Who is the Lady ostentatiously mentioned? By midway through the novel, when I gave up, we hadn’t learned, and she remained a cloying illusive presence. Some novels use the layered story structure well—including The Name of the Rose, Heart of Darkness, William Goldman’s The Princess Bride, and some of John Barth’s novels—but The Island of the Day Before among them.

You can find good explanations of what Eco is attempting in Barth’s The Friday Book and Further Fridays, and when the explanation is better than the specific work of art manifesting a phenomenon, you know that work of art—in this case a novel—has failed its greatest test: to make you feel. If the ghost ship interruptions had been removed and the sections about Roberto streamlined into something more conventional but, for this material, probably more appropriate, I think The Island of the Day Before would’ve worked much better.

* I re-read Robert Davies’ The Salterton Trilogy, which tended to reinforce my initial impression of it being the least of his works, though still quite good. He doesn’t really find his legs until the second half of A Mixture of Frailties, the novel in which provincial Canadian Monica Gall ends up in England, discovering what art she had and how to free herself through music. She’s the most developed character in the trilogy, and if she is at times more passive than she should be, it’s at least forgivable.

The other two novels are mixed: the first, Tempest-Tost, is clever but has a tendency to interrupt the main story too often for elaborate backstory on characters, and this kind of thing is much more organic in The Deptford Trilogy. With Tempest-Tost, a community theater—er, excuse me, theatre—is performing The Tempest, which unleashes mini teapot tempests among many members of its conniving cast, most notably the floppy, self-satisfied math teacher Hector Mackilwraith, a man who is about forty but, as one character, says: “Spiritually—if one may use the word of Hector—he’s been seventy for years.” For that reason he’s one of the more interesting characters, a study in premature maturity. That he doesn’t realize it makes him officious, hilarious and pathetic at the same time. There’s a great speech about Mackilwraith that’s somewhat misplaced and also indicative of the novel’s problems:

I think it’s [I leave the “it” blank intentionally] the logical outcome of his education and the sort of life he has led. He’s vulgar. I don’t mean just that he wears awful suits and probably eats awful food: I mean that he has a crass soul. He thinks that when his belly is full and his safe, he’s got the world by the tail. He has never found out anything about himself, so how can he know anything about other people. The condition of the vulgarian is that he never expects anything good or bad that happens to him to be the result of his own personality; he always thinks it’s Fate, especially if it’s bad. The only people who make any sense in the world are those who know that whatever happens to them has its roots in what they are.

All of that is true, but it’s also somewhat awkward to have long, play-like soliloquies spout from characters in novels like . If this were an isolated example, one could let it pass, but the whole The Salterton Trilogy is filled with them. Davies’ later work has similar long commentaries, but they’re better integrated with the characters’ personalities and with the plot. This one is particularly noticeable because the sentiment expressed is interesting, but it’s easy to pass it as the scene it’s embedded in goes from person to person, each of whom diagnoses Mackilwraith’s psychological problems. Still, The Salterton Trilogy is fun, but read The Deptford Trilogy and the Cornish Trilogy first, both of which show Davies’ powers at their zenith.

* Kevin Brockmeier’s The Brief History of the Dead isn’t so much a narrative as a series of vignettes about two worlds: that of the living, which has been swept by a plague that’s a convenient but not overly ostentatious metaphor for corporate greed (“The ice cap was already melting, after all, pouring into the ocean by the tankerload, and the corporation might as well take advantage of it while they still could”) and zombification, while the other follows an almost pastoral city world or holding chamber for those heading from one zone—life—to another, which is left to the reader’s imagination.

It’s a clever set up, but one narrative thread should have predominated over the other; the switchbacks make it feel too dead, too abstract, like the world of the dead who are stuck in their strange city. Although there’s space for anti-corporate screeds in novels, this one is particularly blatant. Coca Cola is, if not the bad guy, then at least a vector for the bad guy, implying that Coca Cola executives are, if not evil in and of themselves, are at least the somewhat witting agents of evil. Save it for your alt-weekly column and give us more story and less ideology.

* Mordechai Richler’s St. Urbain’s Horseman remains mostly confusion around page 100, but it doesn’t have quite the amusement needed to propel me to read on. The novel lacks a discernible backbone running through, while the tedium of continuing to track what, if anything, is happening outweighs the pleasure of occasional jokes. It’ll remain shelved next to Barney’s Version because it feels like it might have buried promise that I’ve yet to unearth.

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