June 2017 Books


A Handful of Dust, Evelyn Waugh

Solid. As always with Evelyn Waugh, I’m scared that I’m missing something essential by not being Catholic and not being of that time, but this is a fun read.

I read the introduction by William Boyd after finishing the book and found that I totally disagreed with his interpretation of the characters; presumably he would know more about Waugh and his intentions than I do, but is there the possibility that he’s just…wrong? To see Tony as a “good man” and a “loving husband” and Brenda as “someone utterly without feeling and casually cruel” when, to me, at least, they both come across as sort of shitty, vapid, judgmental, selfish posh people, but in slightly different ways? Tony ignores Brenda’s feelings about the house, Brenda ignores Tony’s feelings about the London social scene. They both take pleasure in being bad hosts, conspiring to put John Beaver in the least comfortable bedroom in their house in order to ensure a short stay and talking shit about him and his mother behind his back; it’s just that once Beaver actually arrives as a guest, Tony avoids any contact with him and Brenda mockingly plays hostess. Neither of them seems to especially care about their son while he’s alive.

Had I read the introduction as an actual introduction–maybe I would have read the book completely differently. In general, I prefer to read them afterwards to shed light on things than to have my initial interpretations/feelings guided by them. I did find this interesting–I feel like we often think about the influence of novels on film as a media form but not the other way around–and A Handful of Dust does seem like it would be very adaptable to film or TV, especially after the recent BBC Decline and Fall miniseries:

Before the fateful hunt Waugh uses a device that can only be called cinematic: a series of short scenes juxtaposed, sometimes no more than a few lines of dialogue, a method that, in film, would be known as cross-cutting, or even, at its most rapid, montage. Again, it is the absence of interlinking passages that is conspicuous. Often the speakers of lines aren’t identified, neither is their location. Waugh was an avid cinema-goer and he doubtless realized that here was a method of moving narration along without the need for pages of expository prose.

Selected quote:

Although they were both in good health and of unexceptional figure, Tony and Brenda were on a diet. It gave an interest to their meals and saved them from the two uncivilized extremes of which solitary diners are in danger—absorbing gluttony or an irregular regime of scrambled eggs and raw beef sandwiches. Under their present system they denied themselves the combination of protein and starch at the same meal. They had a printed catalogue telling them which foods contained protein and which starch. Most normal dishes seemed to be compact of both, so that it was fun for Tony and Brenda to choose the menu. Usually it ended by their declaring some food ‘joker.’
‘I’m sure it does me a great deal of good.’
‘Yes, darling, and when we get tired of it we might try an alphabetical diet, having things beginning with a different letter every day. J would be hungry, nothing but jam and jellied eels…’

A Writer’s Diary, Virginia Woolf

So yeah, I’m not the target audience for this; I was hoping for more Bloomsbury gossip, and this is very specifically edited to only include Woolf’s diary entries about Writing. The only Virginia Woolf I’d read prior to this was The Waves and a lot of the insights into Woolf’s writing process that A Writer’s Diary provides are probably more interesting if you actually know anything about the relevant novels. The whole cycle of “I hope this book is well-received” to “I don’t care what anyone thinks, I’m writing for myself” to “oh thank god, [insert name here] praised my book” every time she writes a new book is obnoxious and hypocritical but very, very human.

There is still a little bit of gossip to be gleaned, though:

I was beckoned by Forster from the Library as I approached. We shook hands very cordially; and yet I always feel him shrinking sensitively away from me, as a woman, a clever woman, an up to date woman. Feeling this I commanded him to read Defoe, and left him, and went and got some more Defoe, having bought one volume at Bickers on the way.

April 12, 1919

My first reaction to this–probably unfairly–is “oh, get over yourself, Virginia.” Did Forster have issues with women? I don’t know, maybe? But it’s very easy to get into that super defensive  “Someone doesn’t like me? It must be because they can’t handle A WOMAN WHO SPEAKS HER MIND” mode in order to not be accountable for your potentially offputting behavior. Interesting to compare with Forster’s perspective (a decade later, but still):

The position is that I have got to being bored by Virginia’s superciliousness and maliciousness, which she has often wounded me with in the past, and with this boredom comes a more detached view of her work. A new book of hers affects me like a newly discovered manuscript. One unrolls the papyrus–yes! this time a masterpiece. This too I have told her. I don’t know what she makes of the gap.

To W.J.H. Sprott, December 4, 1931

Also a T.E. Lawrence connection:

[Thomas Hardy] seemed to be free of it all; very active minded; liking to describe people; not to talk in an abstract way; for example Col. Lawrence, bicycling with a broken arm “held like that” from Lincoln to Hardy, listened at the door to hear if there was anyone there. “I hope he won’t commit suicide,” said Mrs. Hardy pensively, still leaning over the tea cups, gazing despondently. “He often says things like it, though he has never said quite that perhaps. But he has blue lines round his eyes. He calls himself Shaw in the army. No one is to know where he is. But it got into the papers.”

July 25, 1926

Selected quote:

And yet oddly enough I scarcely want children of my own now. This insatiable desire to write something before I die, this ravaging sense of the shortness and feverishness of life, makes me cling, like a man on a rock, to my one anchor. I don’t like the physicalness of having children of one’s own. This occurred to me at Rodmell; but I never wrote it down. I can dramatise myself a parent, it is true. And perhaps I have killed the feeling instinctively; or perhaps nature does.

November 30, 1927

Neither Here nor There: Travels in Europe, Bill Bryson

Sure, fine. Not sure if the jokes have aged poorly or if it was considered to be sort of cheesy middle-aged man humor in the ’90s as well, but still, a pleasant enough read. I’ll probably check out one of his other books.

Daisy Miller, Henry James

I…don’t know what I expected, but somehow, not this? Which I guess is often the case with The Classics, where you’ve seen the book mentioned so many times that it feels familiar, and then you realize you don’t have any sense of its actual contents.

Reading this in the 21st century, one wonders: was Roman Fever actually a Thing or is that purely allegorical? (And tangentially, what the fuck is brain fever in modern medical terms?)

Selected quote:

‘My father’s name is Ezra B. Miller,’ he announced. ‘My father ain’t in Europe; my father’s in a better place than Europe.’

Winterbourne imagined for a moment that this was the manner in which the child had been taught to intimate that Mr Miller had been removed to the sphere of celestial rewards. But Randolph immediately added, ‘My father’s in Schenectady. He’s got a big business. My father’s rich, you bet.’

Crome Yellow, Aldous Huxley

Yep, solid.

Selected quote:

Denis was his own severest critic; so, at least, he had always believed. He liked to think of himself as a merciless vivisector probing into the palpitating entrails of his own soul; he was Brown Dog to himself. His weaknesses, his absurdities—no one knew them better than he did. Indeed, in a vague way he imagined that nobody beside himself was aware of them at all. It seemed, somehow, inconceivable that he should appear to other people as they appeared to him; inconceivable that they ever spoke of him among themselves in that same freely critical and, to be quite honest, mildly malicious tone in which he was accustomed to talk of them. In his own eyes he had defects, but to see them was a privilege reserved to him alone. For the rest of the world he was surely an image of flawless crystal. It was almost axiomatic.

On opening the red notebook that crystal image of himself crashed to the ground, and was irreparably shattered. He was not his own severest critic after all. The discovery was a painful one.

Trout Fishing in America, Richard Brautigan

What the fuck. What the actual fuck.

Selected quote:

A little ways up from the shack was an outhouse with its door flung violently open. The inside of the outhouse was exposed like a human face and the outhouse seemed to say, “The old guy who built me crapped in here 9,745 times and he’s dead now and I don’t want anyone else to touch me. He was a good guy. He built me with loving care. Leave me alone. I’m a monument now to a good ass gone under. There’s no mystery here. That’s why the door’s open. If you have to crap, go do it in the bushes like the deer.”

“Fuck you,” I said to the outhouse. “All I want is a ride down the river.”

Liberation: Diaries: 1970-1983, Christopher Isherwood

Mostly a fun read–so much name-dropping (although since this was Isherwood’s personal diary, I guess it’s just name-listing) and such variety in those names–David Hockney, Igor Stravinsky, Leslie Caron, Truman Capote, Rita Hayworth, etc. E.M. Forster in his final months. And famous friends aside, just a lot of fun/interesting observations about people, books, movies, day-to-day life.

Some scattered thoughts/comments/excerpts, since this is a massive book (~700 pages, excluding the extensive glossary):

Christopher Isherwood vs Moustaches

It’s weird to think of Christopher Isherwood reading Philip Roth–particularly that Philip Roth–and yet here we are:

Have just finished Philip Roth’s The Breast. I only read it because the publisher sent me an advance copy and because it is short. It stirs up my worst prejudices. I find it “disgusting” because it is a heterosexual fantasy and because it is so Jewish in its boring gallows humor and its delight in misfortune. But why doesn’t Kafka make me feel the same? Because he’s Kafka and Roth is Roth. Even so, the Kafka thing isn’t really my thing and never has been. I don’t delight in him.

September 2, 1972

He’s not wrong, but at the same time, The Breast (and its amazing one-line dust jacket summary, “The story of the man who turned into a female breast.”) is one of those pieces of media for which the sheer reminder that it is, in fact, a Thing that Exists brings me some amount of joy. Isherwood’s mild anti-Semitism–well. It’s a recurring theme in these diary entries and it’s a little hard to let slide for the author of The Berlin Stories, and yet, I can sort of understand where he’s coming from; it’s hard to articulate, but I buy that the Jews he’s encountering socially, in liberal intellectual circles, might play up certain stereotypically Jewish behaviors, as a sort of camp thing. Is it anti-Semitic to be annoyed by that? Well, is it homophobic to be annoyed by the behavior of flamboyant gay men? I don’t really know. Particularly re: Roth–this has been discussed to death:

Ever since some of my first stories were collected in 1959 in a volume called Goodbye, Columbus, my work has been attacked from certain pulpits and in certain periodicals as dangerous, dishonest, and irresponsible. […] Among the letters I received from readers, there have been a number written by Jews accusing me of being anti-Semitic and “self-hating,” or, at least, tasteless; they argue or imply that the sufferings of the Jews throughout history, culminating in the murder of six million by the Nazis, have made certain criticisms of Jewish life insulting and trivial. Furthermore, it is charged that such criticism as I make of Jews–or apparent criticism–is taken by anti-Semites as justification of their attitudes, as “fuel” for their fires, particularly as it is a Jew himself who seemingly admits to habits and behavior that are not exemplary, or even normal and acceptable.

Philip Roth, “Writing About Jews”

Isherwood discusses identifying with Heathcliff in his youth, which struck me as somehow odd and noteworthy. Is it actually? I guess odd because now, at least, we tend to (fairly or not) group Wuthering Heights in the Romances Beloved by Middle-Aged Women genre with Austen novels, Jane Eyre, etc. and it’s hard to imagine a man reading those others and identifying with Mr. Darcy or Mr. Rochester or whomever, right? It’s not that those characters are poorly written or undeveloped, but they are sort of objects seen through the female protagonist’s eyes. It’s been 10+ years since I actually read Wuthering Heights and maybe that’s not quite the case there–not sure who would even be classified as the protagonist: Catherine? Nelly? Cathy? The house itself? And which character does the “typical” reader tend to identify as or aspire to be? Still, it seems to me that Heathcliff’s whole Deal as a character is that he’s shrouded in mystery–his parentage, his motives, his fortune–so to think of young Isherwood not only feeling that he’s solved the mystery, but also that (Nelly,) he is Heathcliff (!)–well, let’s hand it over to him:

When I took on the fantasy role of Heathcliff, the “hopeless” love wasn’t incest but homosexuality; which was all very well while I was very young and inhibited. Later, when the love turned out to be not in the very least hopeless, I had to drop that part of the Heathcliff role.
But Heathcliff has another aspect. Like Byron, he is a mysterious traveler; he has been away somewhere, “in foreign lands,” but he won’t say where. And then he returns. That part of the role was what really appealed to me—the returning traveler from romantic journeys and that part I still play whenever I go up to Disley on visits.
Heathcliff wasn’t visiting, however. He came back to stay. And this stay was tragic and ended in death. This suggests that what I have latterly made out of the role is a Heathcliff who refuses to stick around and get involved in the tragedy. After enjoying the emotions of the returned native son, he leaves again while he still can, and returns again and leaves again, over and over.

August 27, 1970

Man, that 1970s California setting. It’s so weird to imagine Isherwood existing in one of those old English country houses and also the Los Angeles of my parents’ youth. It’s not like he was the only one who made that move, but still–there’s something ridiculous about the combination of that pre-WWI British boarding school background and then the New Age/Hollywood stuff.

After hearing all this from Don, it struck me that analyzing a horoscope, when it’s done by someone with Jack Fontan’s perceptiveness and empathy, is really quite as good or better than a session with a psychologist. Don strongly agreed, saying that he had got far more out of talking to Jack than he ever got from Oderberg. I suggested that this is because the psychologist is fundamentally dealing with your hang-ups, inhibitions, phobias and other weaknesses, while the astrologer is helping you to create your life myth, to see your life in terms of poetic significance and creative potentiality, so that even your weaknesses are exciting, like obstacles and hazards on a knight’s quest, and even impending dangers only stimulate you to make a greater effort to struggle through them. “Why,” I said, “Jack makes our getting together sound like the meeting of Tristan and Isolde!” “Well, and so it was,” said Don.

August 2, 1970

But this in particular stood out to me as a crazy juxtaposition:

Gluttony is truly the vice of old age. The latest temptation, Doritos taco chips.

September 20, 1973

Words to shit by:

I’ve nearly finished reading right through [Ezra Pound’s] Cantos. I only read them on the toilet seat. They are perfect for making you shit, because they give you a feeling of pleasant apprehension.

June 28, 1974

Am now reading the fourth volume of Byron’s letters. I really cannot say why I keep on at them. I hardly remember anything I have read—any phrase or any fact—but I somehow like to breathe in his ambiance. Particularly while I am shitting.

December 31, 1975

Shed tears as I read Masefield’s poem “Biography” this morning while shitting.

August 28, 1978

Do I like Christopher Isherwood as a person? Hard to say. Isherwood’s obsessive recording of his weight is annoying, and the religious stuff is a bore. The whole Animals thing–that is, Isherwood and Bachardy’s domestic identities as Dobbin and Kitty–weirds me out for the borderline furry-ness of it, but there are a lot of apparently normal aspects of couplehood (and pet names are high up on that list) that make me uncomfortable so I think that’s just on me.

Not super shocking: people probably come across as more likable in their letters than in their diaries. What would EMF’s diaries read like, I wonder?

Selected quotes:

The have now adopted a second Dalmatian, one of those problem dogs. It was allegedly thrashed by a wicked U.S. sergeant at the air base, which made it for a long time impossible to put on a leash. Then various trial ownerships ended because people didn’t like the way it broke things. So someone conned the Beesleys into taking it on. It jumped up on me and put its muddy paws on my precious Swami’s scarf, so I was not charmed. (Whenever I see people like the Beesleys, whose “dog love” is really a blind spot of utter insensitiveness toward the feelings of other human beings, I start by feeling very affectionate toward their dogs and then begin to hate them; very soon I was flinging this one away from me with actual brutality. Dodie registered this and said to herself, for the one thousandth time, “Chris doesn’t like dogs.” And when, later, I really drooled over their four adorable little donkeys, I could see that Dodie found this a bit hysterical and an indirect insult to the dogs!)

April 5, 1970


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