By day, among other tasks, I edit a magazine about the University of Chicago’s undergraduate college and its alumni, one of whom is the painter Wolf Kahn. In our last issue, Terry, who is (like me) a fan and (unlike me) an owner of Kahn’s work, interviewed the artist for the magazine. When the interview happened last winter, I dreamed at my desk in Chicago of being a fly on the wall in Kahn’s Manhattan studio while the two of them met, talked, and looked at Kahn’s recent paintings of the Chrysler Building. Terry’s story (and Dan Dry‘s photographs) are the next best thing. Read all about it here.
“‘Everyone minds here. They mind so much, they mind all the time, they mind like anything. They mind the step and they mind the door, and they d’you mind if I just. And there they were, poor dears, minding like mad. Everyone minds; but no one understands. They cannot understand what could have possessed such an odd couple to behave so curiously; it’s all too hopeless, clueless, fatal, futile. The opposite from us Americans. We understand everything. We’re always understanding. It’s the thing to do. We can immediately see why the poor kid flipped after the raw deal she got. And what’s more, when you come right down to it, we understand his compulsions too.'”
Elaine Dundy, The Old Man and Me
Last week I linked to a finely reported and beautifully written story by Tom French, “Elegy for the King and Queen.” Devra Hall, whose site Devra DoWrite has long graced our blogroll, responded by posting links to several additional stories by French, who was her teacher. Devra reveals that French followed “Elegy” with a nine-part series on zoos and animals, “Zoo Story” (linked in her post) and she has sobering reflections on the demise of long-form narrative journalism like French’s.
Read her welcome post and follow her links to additional work by “a masterful narrative writer.” I spent part of last weekend reading the Pulitzer-winning “Angels and Demons,” which absorbed me almost beyond reach, and I’m now halfway through “The Hard Road.” Great stuff–thanks for the trove of links, Devra.
I don’t read many biographies outside of those written by co-bloggers. Most times I’ve tried, I’ve not gotten past the person’s adolescence. It seems to me the genre’s fatal flaw that, for the most part, biographers are stuck beginning at the beginning. People’s early lives are seldom the part of their story that makes you want to read about them. As for literary biography, give me another journey through Middlemarch over a life of George Eliot any day. It’s vanishingly rare to find a writer’s biography that’s half as interesting and revealing as the works of the writer himself–which brings us directly to the subject of the biography that I am, uncharacteristically, now reading.
I’m not reading Boswell, though. Instead I’m ankle-deep in Walter Jackson Bate’s 1975 biography Samuel Johnson. Despite having majored in English lit and spent several years studying it as a graduate student, I never got much exposure to Johnson beyond the anthologized standards. He was a gentle giant looming just beyond my ken, still unexplored…deliberately? I may have taken some comfort in knowing that there was a vast, uncharted, by all accounts fantastic territory for me still to discover.
But last week a wave of curiosity washed over me and I pulled down the Bate volume that’s been gathering dust on a bookshelf for years. I might do better to cut to the chase and read Boswell first; I don’t know. But this was the book in the room with me when the urge struck; I know and like Bate’s work on Keats; and Samuel Johnson did make a clean sweep of the National Book Award, National Book Critics Circle Award, and Pulitzer.
So far, so good. Even the story of Johnson’s childhood, which is only sparsely documented, has a draw. The distinctive personality asserted itself early on. At this early stage, the aspect of that personality I’m most interested in is what Bate calls the inclination to indolence and this account of what sounds like the story of every paper I ever wrote in school, and most of my blog posts (hold your fire, I’m likening process, not results!):
One [quality] is the extraordinary, almost pathological “indolence” (to use his own word) into which he could increasingly fall–a subject of fundamental importance for understanding him psychologically…If it is not yet present in the degree we see later, it is on its way. In trying to overcome these rebellious lapses into indolence, he could work with extraordinary bursts of speed, which–in their result–would more than compensate for the delay. (Compensate, that is, in the eyes of others, not in his own; for he himself; judging these bursts of effort by motive rather than result, realized that they were primarily the product of impatience to get a thing over with and out of the way.) This was always to be true of him. One of the finest short discussions in English of idleness and procrastination (Rambler 134) was rapidly written in Sir Joshua Reynolds’s parlor while the printer’s boy, who had come to pick up copy of a new essay for the periodical, waited at the door.
It has not taken long for me to start adoring this man.
One of the best pieces of writing I’ve read all year starts like this.
Let us pay respect to fallen royalty.
His early life unfolded like something coauthored by Dickens and Darwin. As an infant he was taken from his mother – he almost certainly saw her die trying to protect him – then sold in an orange crate for $25 and a thumbprint.
He was carried across an ocean, installed inside a cage, taught to depend on the imperfect love of strangers. He charmed Jane Goodall, threw dirt at the mayor of Tampa, learned to blow kisses and smoke cigarettes, whatever it took to entertain the masses. Although he was afforded the sexual privileges conferred by rank, he never chose a mate. He had no interest in females of his own kind. He preferred blonds in tank tops.
Tom French’s 2006 St. Petersburg Times story about the deaths of two animals at a Tampa zoo is riveting, heart-lifting, and heartbreaking. It’s pretty long, too–probably one to print out and take home to read. But arm yourself with a hanky and read it.
Sorry to have been so scarce. Lowell’s younger brother, Bob, died on Monday. It was unexpected, and it’s been a sad time. Bob was a good and amiable soul, more outgoing and jovial than Lowell on the surface but with a similar sense of thoughtfulness underneath. Same quick humor, same gentleness — whatever the opposite of grasping is, their mother managed to raise two sons with that same generous quality. They grew up in Reidsville, a little tobacco town a few hours east of Asheville. Lowell left; Bob stayed. On a trip home a few years ago, he and Bob stayed up drinking beer on the porch of their mom’s old house. That house, which by then had passed along to Bob, looks out on an old highway. I asked Lowell what they had stayed up so late talking about and he said space and time and loop quantum gravity.
This picture is one of my favorites of Lowell’s. It’s of the kitchen at their aunt Mildred’s. Mildred was one of their father’s older sisters and a much beloved person. She used to make pancakes on her woodstove every morning for Lowell and Bob to pick up on their way to school.
A great, cool thing happened this morning. Lately, before I get started with work in the morning, I’ve been doing this exercise meant to improve my “precision of natural description” — which means, basically, I stare at some point in the yard and try to describe what I see as fully as I can without lapsing into metaphor. It’s all very low stakes. Just something to do while waking up and drinking coffee. But last night I was reading Martin Chuzzlewit before bed and was struck by this description of a landscape near Salisbury:
On the motionless branches of some trees, autumn berries hung like clusters of coral beads, as in some fabled orchards where the fruits were jewels; others, stripped of all their garniture, stood, each the centre of its little heap of bright red leaves, watching their slow decay; others again, still wearing theirs, had them all crunched and crackled up, as though they had been burnt; about the stems some were piled, in ruddy mounts, the apples they had borne that year; while others (hardy evergreens this class) showed somewhat stern and gloomy in their vigour, as charged by nature with the admonition that it is not to her more sensitive and joyous favourites she grants the longest term of life.
The passage is precise about the different stages of the berries (maybe too precise), but it’s the line about the evergreens as “stern and gloomy in their vigour” that leapt out — because it’s impressionistic but true. That is how evergreens come across in a crowd. And so this morning I was staring particularly hard at the trees in our backyard trying to describe them a little less lazily than usual. It was early and still dark out. There’s been rain so it was misty, especially around the woods, and as I was staring at the trees (“tall, green, leafy”) a snout materialized in the mist, then some strong shoulders — and well, it was not a dog, it was a bear (“big and brown”).
Bears frequent our neighborhood — as I’ve mentioned, we live near the forest, and there’s an orchard up the street that the bears are also fond of — but I haven’t seen one in a couple years. The neighborhood itself is fairly Southern suburban: a lot of ranches and split-levels, school buses and pick-ups, a couple bouffants, one excellent mullet, several aged beagles and a pit bull named Ashanti. I took a walk the other week and the two most pronounced scents in the air were fabric softener and cigarette smoke, which just about sums it up. So it’s still surprising, even though it shouldn’t be, whenever a bear comes ambling through. What I was mostly surprised about, though, is how electric I went on seeing it, even though I was inside the house. Also surprising — and this amazes me every time I’ve seen one — is how fast a bear can clip along, despite its size, even when, as this one was, it’s in no particular hurry. You want to say a bear “lumbers” but it doesn’t.
One last link to Martin Chuzzlewit. Last week I finished Great Expectations and was casting around for which Dickens to read next. I chose MC because of this line that I had read somewhere: “For there is a poetry in wildness, and every alligator basking in the slime is in himself an Epic, self-contained.” Which if it is true of alligators is also true of bears.
• Laila Lalami weighs in on The Kindly Ones for the LA Times. Over at The Literary Saloon, they’ve been tracking the novel’s antipodal reception in the press; if you’re at all interested you’ll particularly want to read Daniel Mendelsohn’s essay in the New York Review of Books. Also noteworthy and via the Lit Saloon: Translator Charlotte Mandell describes the process she followed to translate the novel from the French.
• “Read Cecil’s Life of Cowper. … Very bad. But what a life! It depressed & terrified me. How did he ever manage to write such bad poetry?”