March 2017 Books


The Letters of Lytton Strachey, edited by Paul Levy

Part of the magnificent haul from my visit to the Second Story Books warehouse in Rockville in February; I picked this up semi on a whim, as I happened upon the correspondence section right before checking out. According to the diary entry I made immediately afterwards, my initial thoughts on this particular purchase were: “Who even was Lytton Strachey? Idk. But I’ve seen his name enough in connection w/ the Bloomsbury Circle to suspect that his correspondence will be worthwhile.” And man, was that a good call: it turns out Lytton Strachey was absolutely delightful.

Consider what this book is: 600+ pages of letters from a man you’ve only vaguely heard of, mostly to recipients you’ve only vaguely heard of. How can that be compelling? Well–Strachey can dish.

Conversationally, having the ability and willingness to discuss a mutual acquaintance’s flaws in highly specific detail is such a gift1. And both parts are key–being able to initially perceive and then articulate the flaws, going beyond “I just don’t like him” and of course, not being too “nice” to talk shit about people or to excuse any behavior that’s not, like, explicitly reprehensible. Of course, this is a double-edged sword when it comes to friendship–because, after all, one has to wonder what he’s saying about you behind your back, or even implying in subtext to your face. The qualities that make Strachey such a fun correspondent to read probably also made him a kind of shitty friend to have, at least for a certain kind of support or intimacy. And the egoism that makes for these amazing, divulging (some may say “oversharing”2) letters full of personal details–because examining his own feelings and psychology at any given time and in reaction to any specific event is perhaps the most important thing–probably doesn’t translate that well to a supposedly two-way live conversation.

Interestingly, in a book of letters from Strachey, the editor chose to include a draft of a letter Clive Bell wrote, in which he breaks with Strachey, essentially citing, in more modern relationship parlance, Strachey’s toxicity.

You are so selfish that you have lost the power of seeing what people feel; you are interested in them insofar as they affect you and no further. You are an egoist, and what is worse a decrepit one. How have you dealt with your friends? Petted and patronised them so long as they flattered you, abused them as soon as they began to use their critical faculties. Have you so much to give that one should for ever tolerate your arrogance and selfishness? I think not. You are clever, brilliant even, charming; but you are far from being that genius to whom one could pardon anything.

(Clive Bell to Lytton Strachey, autumn 1911)

According to the editor, the letter was probably never sent, and there is later seemingly friendly correspondence between the two. It’s painful to read, because of certain parallels to my own life; Bell’s probably not wrong about Strachey (or me). On the other hand, maybe Clive Bell really is a boor and a bore, you know?

Also god the Bloomsbury Circle would have been obnoxious on social media. Exactly the sort of friend group who loves flaunting their friendship and, like, performing their social dynamic—the type of group you idolize if you’re younger than them but kind of hate (and are secret jealous of) when they’re your peers. EMF’s take on it—note that this is still going on well past college, when they’re mostly in their 40s and 50s:

Oh the Bells, the Woolves—or rather Virginia, for I do like Leonard! Oh how I do agree, and if to become anti-Bloomsbury were not to become Bloomsbury, how I could become it! But to turn one’s backside to them is the only course–they will never have the grace to penetrate it, their inquisitiveness never had any spunk, that is why one loathes it so. Turned well away from them, let one read their books, which are very good, and look at their mural designs, which may be good too, and that is the end. I am sorry at what you say about Lytton, and surprised–I thought his curiosity was of the pardonable type, and that he was getting both solid and charming.

E.M. Forster to W.J.H. Sprott, 16 July 1931,
from Selected Letters of E.M. Forster: Volume Two 1921-1970

As hoped for, there are a few EMF cameos in the Strachey letters—they were friends, I guess, but Strachey obviously has no issue making some mild digs at him in letters to others. And we get to read Strachey’s response to the Maurice manuscript; he and Forster had way different views on sex and social class, which makes for some interesting criticism (which I totally disagree with).

A few remaining thoughts wrt the (unintentional) effects produced by the inherent structure in chronological collections of letters:

  • The fact that we’re reading through these letters in order from 1900 to 1931 means that we get to see Strachey mature over those 30 years from the callous, narcissistic student to the seemingly kinder and more empathetic (although still definitely capable of bitchiness) middle-aged man.
  • Moving directly from the Strachey letters to Christopher Isherwood’s diaries from 1970-1983 means seeing some of the beautiful young men mentioned by Strachey in the 1930s still featuring as “characters” in Isherwood’s 1970s–no longer so beautiful and young. It’s an interesting effect, if we can call the normal passage of time an effect.
  • As per the usual with these collections of letters, it’s hard to tell what’s sampling bias and what’s actually reflective of the relationship between the correspondents in terms of the volume of letters present. For example, almost every single one of the early letters was to Leonard Woolf, but very few later on. Does this indicate growing distance in their relationship or did Woolf just not preserve the later letters? Or both? (Also, the fact that we’re only seeing Strachey’s outgoing letters means we never really get a sense of whether Leonard Woolf actually wants to hear this much about Strachey’s erections.)

Selected quote(s):

In case we’ve been tricked into thinking that the letter is a noble art form reserved for serious matters, behold the early 20th century equivalent of the drunk-dial:

I am completely drunk—having absorbed the greater part of a bottle of Chablis. I cannot walk, speak, or think. Turner and I have sat down to absorb. We are drunk [underlined several times]!

I have been to the dress rehearsal of the Gk. Play. Quel horreur! A scene of desolation and dirges, crucifixions, moans and general Cornfordisms, Notre vie est comme ça. Turner thinks I’d better stop: why be drunk? Il y a toujours quelque chose. I hope you’re better and that you’ll return before the week is out. If Turner and I are left nose to nose on Saturday Evening I shall piss into the fire from the hearthrug, and the whales will be uneatable.

[…] Turner thinks I’ll never stop, Can he still think I’m not drunk? My point is that it’s so curious that people who are drunk should pretend to be drunker. He thinks it’s only natural—because they want to show that they’re not drunk at all. But I don’t want to show anything—except my bare arse [the writing here slides off the page].

(To Leonard Woolf, 11/24/1903)

Contrast w/ T. E. Lawrence’s attitude towards posterity (later letters show that Srachey preserves and rereads his old letters, even):

Pray observe the admirable rhythm of this paragraph; it has been composed entirely for the sake of our future Editor, who will doubtless be more charmed with it than you.

(To Leonard Woolf, 6/13/1905)

I now know way more about J.M. Keynes’s sex life than his economic theories, although to be fair, all I know about the latter is that Keynesian economics is a phrase that people use. Ah, the pettiness:

As for poor old Keynes, he’s quite absolutely sunk—it’s really remarkable, the unveiled collapse. If ever a human soul were doomed, it’s he. And by God I think he deserves his fate. Looking back I see him, hideous and meaningless, at every turn and every crisis, a malignant goblin gibbering over destinies that are not his own. The moral is—never put your penis into a french letter that’s cracked. Those sorts of compromises always end in abortions. But when one’s utterly lonely and stranded, and utterly disappointed too, how can one avoid seizing on the only piece of india-rubber handy, and using that? What’s curious is that he, at this moment, must be imagining—if he imagines anything—that he’s reached the apex of human happiness—Cambridge, statistics, triumphant love and inexhaustible copulations—what more could anyone desire? His existence is the thinnest shell, and he believes it’s solid, and will go on believing so, until one day it shivers into splinters, and even then he’ll believe it can be patched. He’ll end a spiritual Nixon, with a whole internal economy of metal makeshifts for lungs and lights and heart and genitory organs; but he’ll never know; he’ll never hear the clank.

(To Leonard Woolf, 2/5/1909; for context, this is maybe all re: the Duncan Grant/Maynard Keynes relationship?)

Jurgen, James Branch Cabell

This had been on my to-read list for a while, but I have no idea how it got there initially.

Something about the structure/concept/general ambience reminds me of The Phantom Tollbooth and Candide and probably other things? I feel like I haven’t encountered this type of story in a while–man visits various strange lands supplied with only his wits and charms and amasses various magical objects and affiliations along the way. Basically, it’s a weird one. Lots of delightful double entendre but then also…existentialism? So it ends up being both a fantastical sex comedy and a take on aging/mortality/the compromises one makes in one’s life (in love and career).  With some mythological deep cuts, I feel like, unless the expected early 20th century audience was just much more well-read than I am.

I’m not sure what the ultimate takeaway is–I’m always reluctant to assume that books can be boiled down to a moral or The Point, but it seems like, from the legendary style of this, it’s meant to? Your wife may be a nag, and your job may not be the one you dream of, but any other path would end in disillusionment as well, and eh, is that so bad? All men think that their wives “don’t understand” them?

Anyway, some funny scenes; the papal infallibility thing was especially cute. I would like to see a Ken Russell movie made of this.

Fun fact: Cabell was born in the same year as EMF but in Virginia (!)

Selected quote:

Now the appearance of Guenevere, whom Jurgen loved with an entire heart, was this:–She was of middling height, with a figure not yet wholly the figure of a woman. She had fine and very thick hair, and the color of it was the yellow of corn floss. When Guenevere undid her hair it was a marvel to Jurgen to note how snugly this hair descended about the small head and slender throat, and then broadened boldly and clothed her with a loose soft foam of pallid gold. For Jurgen delighted in her hair; and with increasing intimacy, loved to draw great strands of it back of his head, crossing them there, and pressing soft handfuls of her perfumed hair against his cheeks as he kissed the Princess.

The head of Guenevere, be it repeated, was small: you wondered at the proud free tossing movements of that little head which had to sustain the weight of so much hair. The face of Guenevere was colored tenderly and softly: it made the faces of other women seem the work of a sign-painter, just splotched in anyhow. Gray eyes had Guenevere, veiled by incredibly long black lashes that curved incredibly. Her brows arched rather high above her eyes: that was almost a fault. Her nose was delicate and saucy: her chin was impudence made flesh: and her mouth was a tiny and irresistible temptation.

“And so on, and so on! But indeed there is no sense at all in describing this lovely girl as though I were taking an inventory of my shop window,” said Jurgen. “Analogues are all very well, and they have the unanswerable sanction of custom: none the less, when I proclaim that my adored mistress’s hair reminds me of gold I am quite consciously lying. It looks like yellow hair, and nothing else: nor would I willingly venture within ten feet of any woman whose head sprouted with wires, of whatsoever metal. And to protest that her eyes are as gray and fathomless as the sea is very well also, and the sort of thing which seemes expected of me: but imagine how horrific would be puddles of water slopping about in a lady’s eye-sockets! If we poets could actually behold the monsters we rhyme of, we would scream and run.”

Bit Rot, Douglas Coupland

A lot of the essays feel sort of half-assed (and a lot of the stories were already in Generation A), but as always, there are some very poignant quotes that articulate my feelings on modern life much more efficiently and cleverly than I could. Still, probably nothing that Coupland hasn’t touched on better in his novels or the surprisingly great Kitten Clone: Inside Alcatel-Lucent.

Coupland served as artist in residence at the Google Cultural Institute in Paris in 2015; in theory, the outcome of this residency was a book of lists of the most common searches including various words, but I don’t think the book itself can actually be acquired–my own Google search just results in this blurb in the New York Times Sunday Book Review, which itself includes this link to a talk he gave on the subject. Anyway, Bit Rot includes a few of those lists–just pages with lists of the most common Google searches from February 2015 starting with “how”, “why”, etc. And on the one hand, one feels like Coupland could have done more with formatting or annotations or commentary in these rather than just literally printing out the list. But on the other hand, it really does capture something about the humanity in search engines: the not-alone-in-this-world feeling one gets from seeing the autocompleted search and knowing that other people have been looking for the same thing. E.g. from these lists in particular, it’s comforting to know that I’m not alone in never remembering how to take a screenshot on Mac. Also “how to write a cover letter”–not super surprising that that makes the list in various forms, I guess–and “how to tie a scarf”–def something I have searched for and been embarrassed about having to search for.

Selected quote:

Do you sometimes see people talking and you can tell it’s not even them doing the talking—they’re merely channeling their internal professor? Does this activate your own internal professor? Do you call them on it? No, you don’t. Nobody ever does. It’s why things largely don’t change. It’s really boring to listen to two people channeling their internal professors. Inside their heads they’re getting an A+ on a nonexistent essay. It’s beyond predictable.

(from “Shiny”)

It is incontestable that we are collectively rebuilding the way we process information. For example, notice that when we tell people about an idea we want them to research later, we don’t focus on the idea so much as how to search for it. Search words establish future locatability. “When you get home, just Google Mother Teresa, topless, and lawsuit. You’ll find what I’m talking about right away.”

The way we’re collectively redefining searchability is indeed a reflection of the way we now collectively file away information in our brains—or the way we don’t. One of the great joys of life is that we’re all getting much better at knowing what it is we no longer need to know. Freedom from memorization! Having said this, there’s a part of me that misses being able to bullshit people at dinner parties without having an iPad come out before dessert to sink an urban legend or debunk a stretched truth.

(from “Future Blips”)

1. On the Value of Gossip: well, okay, I’m unbearable, I know, and everything that follows will be obnoxious, probably. Still: it often seems to me that it’s not super worthwhile to discuss TV and movies with real-life acquaintances, because, thanks to the Internet and information overload and blah blah blah it’s become so obvious that we’re all just, consciously or not, regurgitating opinions and theories from other sources. Even worse for “intellectual” or political discussions, where we’re all pretending to be more informed than we actually are and, specifically, more informed than each other, and actually we’re all just bullshitting or, again, badly parroting things we’ve read. BUT: you won’t be able to find a Buzzfeed article listing the 23 Most Cringeworthy Things We Collectively Witnessed That Guy Tom Do, or think-pieces analyzing our friend Jim’s newly revealed sexual preferences or how, specifically, Jenny was an irritating little shit last night. These are judgments and observations that we genuinely had to come up with ourselves and that very few others would be qualified to make, which is why gossip about mutual acquaintances is so precious and irreplaceable. ^
2.To me it’s much better than the alternative–being too guarded, and reserving your secrets for…whom, exactly? But say it’s 1906 and you receive a letter from your BFF from undergrad ending with “I want to eat nothing but omelettes and cafe au lait, I want never to go out, I want to dream about copulations in the night, and write about them in the day, or vice versa, or both at the same time. I want to remember everything, and hope for nothing, and I want to die a hundred years hence, with a volume of Voltaire under my pillow, and the ghost of an erection still lingering between the sheets.” To be clear–the erection isn’t aimed at you; it’s just a general erection. Still, are you like, “bro, that’s amazing” or “bro, TMI?”  ^


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