Life of Katherine Mansfield

The Life of Katherine Mansfield

Alpers’ bio from 1980 should be taken with a grain of salt since not all of the notebooks/journals/letters had been released, and (dare I say?)  standards for scholarly biography were a bit lower then. He’s not reluctant about jumping in with bold statements, claiming to have broken KM’s code for who “China” was that the more cautious Margaret Scott claimed not to know in her 2002 epic treatment of the journals. (Alpers claims it’s Orage, Scott notes on p316 “China remains unidentified”) Overall kind of a weird look at Mansfield’s life, I couldn’t tell if he was sneering at her literary ambitions occasionally.

An entire chapter is devoted to the relationship between KM and VW, so I had plenty of pages to raise my eyebrow over. Most egregious, Alpers flat out claims that KM helped VW “break out of the mould in which she had been working hitherto;” his evidence? that VW had only pub’d one long novel when they met, but then pub’d two short pieces. Close on the heels of that stupidity, the pages and pages of ink spilled over VW’s comment that KM stank like a street walking civet cat. He digresses into what others said about KM’s appearance, Lady Ottoline describing her dress as “rather a cheap taste.” And here comes some of that Alpers tone that I grew to hate, that patronizing snoot, “But the further one tries to pursue this matter by authorities, the further certainty recedes. How a woman’s dress strikes other women is one of the greater mysteries.” No, Alpers. The greater mystery is how you have survived as a writer all these years. Why are you so concerned about this question?

There’s also some bullshit about “a little love affair” that Quentin Bell cooked up in V’s feelings for K; nothing comparable to Vita, but “a fascination, all the same, with K’s elusive personality and all her wide experience.”

All this aside, if you have that wad of salt you’re taking this tale with, it does a good service in weaving in some extra detail from LM/Ida Baker’s memoirs/letters to Alpers and fills in the blank on some of the hazier parts of KM’s timeline.

Beginning in the May 1912 New Age, Orage launched a personal attack against KM in a moral fable that ran 6 weeks, in a series “Tales for Men Only” where Orage “intended to expose the disastrous effects of female influence on the masculine mind. It exhibits his own male attitudes at their most illiberal, but it contains the first and for a long time the best attempt in print to describe what it was that made her work unique; and it is the only full-length portrayal of KM in her New Age phase – her masks and her vanishing tricks, her flat with its bohemian décor, her literary small talk, and her tricky little ways with men, whom she keeps in separate compartments. It is full of hostile glimpses of the K we know, or think we know. It is also, with its grating and dangerous tone, a reminder of what risks awaited any vulnerable young woman who chose to reveal her nature and her ambitions to the mainly masculine literary world of 1912.”

Flight out of time : a Dada diary by Hugh Ball

Chris Kraus set me onto Hugo Ball’s diaries, but I’m afraid that I’m not in much of a mood to appreciate this primary source view of 1916-era Zurich & the creation of the Dadaism movement. “What we are celebrating is both buffoonery and a requiem mass” hits just a little too close to home now. But for further study, I would like to dive into Emmy (Ball-)Hennings life a bit more.

Ball explains that Dada is “yes, yes” in Rumanian, “rocking horse”  and “hobbyhorse” in French, a sign of foolish naivete & preoccupation with the baby carriage in German.

Some invaluable advice on writing:

“It is imperative to write invulnerable sentences. Sentences that withstand all irony. The better the sentence, the higher the rank. In eliminating vulnerable syntax or association one preserves the sum of the things that constitute the style and the pride of a writer—taste, cadence, rhythm, and melody.”

On avoiding being a concrete presence:

“It is a mistake to believe in my presence. I am just polite and accommodating. I have difficulty in feigning a real existence to myself. If a salesclerk sells me a pair of suspenders, he smiles smugly in an unmistakable way. My shy tone of voice and my hesitant behavior have long since shown him that I am an ‘artist,’ an idealist, a creature of air. If I take a seat at a party, I can see even from afar that only a ghost is sitting there. Every citizen who is only halfway brave and solid regards me as inferior and suspicious. So I avoid letting myself be seen.”

Madness from boundless desire to be different:

“With all the passion at my disposal I am trying to put aside certain paths and possibilities (e.g., career, a bourgeois existence, etc.) completely and forever. My present life is likely to give me substantial support in this intention. From time to time, whenever the suspicious ‘harmony’ of my nature breaks through, I smell a rat and instinctively try to commit some foolish act, an error, an offense, to bring myself down again in my own eyes. I cannot let certain talents and abilities appear. My higher conscience and my understanding forbid it.

‘Know thyself.’ As if it were so simple! As if only good will and introspection were needed. An individual can compare himself, see himself, and correct himself wherever an eternal ideal is firmly anchored in closely knit forms of education and culture, of literature and politics. But what if all norms are shaky and in a state of confusion? What if illusions dominate not only the present but also all generations; if race and tradition, blood and spirit, if all the reliable possessions of the past are all profaned, desecrated, and defaced? What if all the voices in the symphony are at variance with each other? Who will know himself then? Who will find himself then?

I notice that I am falling into a slight madness that comes from my boundless desire to be different.”

Avoid defenestration!

“Remove yourself as far as possible from the times in order to assess them. But do not lean so far out of the window that you fall out.”



Miss Lonelyhearts

Miss Lonelyhearts

This weekend, a bookstore clerk was ranting about how much she loved reading Miss Lonelyhearts, so I figured I could give it a re-read, since it’s been a few decades since I perused it. Unfortunately, my opinion of Nathanael West still stands— I classify him in the grimy bucket along with Norman Mailer of filthy modern slop that remains unappetizing to me at the moment. Viewed completely objectively, the story is a wonder, pub’d in 1933 and well ahead of its time for darkness, bleakness, hopelessness. But I have little tolerance for books that suggest women authors need a “good rape” after complaining about the number of female writers. The story is an acidic bath of lemonade without the sugar, propped up on the flimsy prospects of an advice columnist in NYC.

Blue of Noon

Hmm. A reminder that not all that is shouted about by others turns into gold-plated reading material. Bataille is beloved by many, including Chris Kraus, but I found this “erotic” novel rather humdrum and bland. Written in 1935 on the cusp of the Spanish Civil War, there are odd scenes of Henri Troppmann carousing with his girlfriend, “Dirty” (Dorothea), ignoring his wife and his mother-in-law, tooting about with prostitutes and raving like a madman. Thankfully slim at under 150 pages, I could consume without guilt and toss aside shaking head wondering what the big deal is.

Greenery Street

Greenery Street

Another Persephone title, but this one a bit humdrum compared to the tight packages of delight I’ve been devouring. “A bit uneven” as my least favorite critical phrase would attest, but I can think of nothing closer to say. Perhaps the discord is because this is written by a man? Parts are great, clever and witty, but then parts inflate and drag and the narrator becomes the Voice of God as if in a movie, telling Felicity that yes, Oxford was a rather silly place after all. The story is mainly about Greenery Street, a quiet London street with identical townhomes that newly marrieds move into and bust out of when they start having children and don’t fit anymore. The street itself is sentient, approving or disapproving of specific tenants.

We follow a couple, Felicity and Ian, who fall into the loving arms of Greenery Street and thus can proceed with their marriage, Felicity spending too much money and Ian not earning enough. The improvements made to the home cost them a pretty penny and they went into debt, Felicity sells her grandmother’s pearls to put a dent into it and Ian sells his father’s watch. They have servant troubles, of course, and Felicity’s sister almost runs off with another man except her husband. Ian and Felicity go away for the weekend and intend to dismiss their maid for drinking their whisky, via letter, while they’re gone. Ian’s letter “was defamatory, inaccurate, impolite, reckless, actionable, ungrammatical and vitriolic, all to the last possible degree. Occasionally a spurt of vicious humour gave an added tang to its philippic periods. It did not stop short of repetition, which, as the greatest masters have taught us, is one of the most powerful forms of emphasis. It employed both the alternative spellings of the word ‘whisky.'”

Natural History: A Selection

Natural History: A Selection (Penguin Classics)

Pliny the Elder has some interesting observations about the world in first century AD. This is a simplified version of his work, and I bopped around to various sections finding bits of interest instead of reading cover to cover.

Re: wine in Book XIV. Here we find proof that wine was combined with water.

  • Homer states that Maronean wine was mixed with water in the proportion of 1:20 (Iliad, XI 639 and Odyssey, X, 235).
  • Mucianus discovered on a recent visit to Thrace that it is the practice to mix this wine with water in the proportion of 1:8, and that it is dark in colour, has a bouquet, and improves with age.

Women were not allowed to drink wine; a husband was acquitted of murdering his wife for drinking from a large jar of wine. Overindulging in wine leads to all sorts of trouble, like telling the truth (in vino veritas).

There’s a whole section on hangovers: “Even in the most favorable circumstances, the intoxicated never see the sunrise and so shorten their lives. This is the reason for pale faces, hanging jowls, sore eyes and trembling hands that spill the contents of full vessels; this the reason for swift retribution consisting of horrendous nightmares and for restless lust and pleasure in excess. The morning after, the breath reeks of the wine-jar and everything is forgotten – the memory is dead. This is what people call ‘enjoying life;’ but while other men daily lose their yesterdays, these people also lose their tomorrows.”

Book XX is about drugs obtained from the garden. He suggests that onions provide a cure for poor vision through tears caused by their smell; “even more effective is the application of some onion-juice to the eyes.” Hmm, no thanks. The praises of cabbage are sung briefly. There are several other sections on medicines made from plants and trees, magic, incantations, benefits of sex and asses’ milk. Oysters “are extremely good for bad colds.”

The Nix

The Nix: A novel

This is a terrible book. I sped through 600 pages out of curiosity, looking to articulate exactly why I hated it.

Long-winded, interminable descriptions. The boy needs an editor. Someone to shape this lumpy sack of clay into a slenderized version that has the necessary tension that makes us want to turn the pages.

Cardboard characters. I think I was 500 pages into the book before I met a single character I cared about, which ended up being the radical hippie, Alice.

Saccharine-induced loopy unbelievable happy endings tied with a giant red bow. What a miracle that Faye (the mother who walked out on her son) winds up at the bedside of her father (who had abandoned a separate family in Norway before having Faye). How perfect that the judge from 1968 was also the judge in charge of the 2011 case against Faye. And of course Periwinkle (Samuel’s editor) ends up being Sebastian from 1968. Perhaps the most unbelievable tie-up at the end is when Samuel asks Bethany for a place to stay for awhile in NYC and she hands over the keys to her 8 bedroom apartment.

Books like this make me mad because it showcases the downward trajectory of publishing standards. The fact that this is mentioned as a great book, and even whispered as “DFW-esque,” is a tragedy. There is nothing clever here, no good writing, only a monkey doing donuts in the empty cul-de-sac of an abandoned suburb. We clap because we’re surprised that a monkey can do this.

The Heart of Boswell: Six Journals in One Volume

The Heart of Boswell: Six Journals in One Volume

Perhaps this should be called The Genitals of Boswell instead of The Heart. I’d forgotten that Jamie Boswell was such a distasteful horny cad/ spoiled trustfund kid and that Samuel Johnson was an idiotic misogynist (“a woman’s preaching like a dog walking on hind legs… not done well but surprised to find it done at all”). Thank god for this distillation of his six volume diary into one, although perhaps the editor Mark Harris only wanted to include his racier bits, through which I have developed an antipathy towards Bos. This book covers the 12 years between 1762 and 1774, beginning with Bos as a 22 year old who matures under our very eyes, the result perhaps of rubbing elbows with so many illustrious men like Johnson, Rousseau, Voltaire? He ends by settling down in Scotland, marrying, and practicing law, all while continuing the journal and grabbing bits for the Life of Johnson (and the Hebrides journal) he’d later publish.

On his liaisons with prostitutes
“I had now been some time in town without female sport. I determined to have nothing to do with whores as my health was of great consequence to me… I was really unhappy for want of women. I picked up a girl in the Strand; went into a court with intention to enjoy her in armour. But she had none. I toyed with her. She wondered at my size, and said if I ever took a girl’s maidenhead, I would make her squeak.” A few days later, he’s entertaining lewd thoughts in church: “what a curious, inconsistent thing is the mind of man! In the midst of divine service I was laying plans for having women, and yet I had the most sincere feelings of religion.”

He then lays his plans to entrap an actress, woos her for a few weeks, loans her money, has several missed opportunities for consummation but the actress’s landlady or brother approaches, then lies to a friend and says he’s married and that he’s bringing his wife to the inn. They eventually have a night of it at the inn, and a few days later his old friend Gonorrhea is back. He storms into the actress’s house and accuses her of giving it to him, then writes a letter demanding his loaned guineas back. This is his third bout with it, and he’s lain low for weeks recovering; his doctor bleeds him as part of the treatment. Then he’s up and about, a few weeks later taking to prostitutes again, for the first time with “armour” (protection?) which he “found but a dull satisfaction. She who submitted to my lusty embraces was a young Shropshire girl, only seventeen, very well-looked, her name Elizabeth Parker. Poor being, she has a sad time of it!” After this he’s gathering up “little girls” for rendezvous all the time, “dipping his machine in the Canal,” and “gaining entrance.” He dresses up like a miscreant and attends to various prostitutes sometimes trying not to pay them. Someone steals his handkerchief (“I was shocked to think that I had been intimately united with a low, abandoned, perjured, pilfering creature”). Walking home, he’s tapped on the shoulder by a “fine fresh lass” who he went home with, excusing his behavior since she was already an abandoned woman. All of these liaisons are carefully detailed, and surprise surprise, a bastard son is born who later dies when he’s in Utrecht. There, a doctor convinces him that once you’re used to having sex  then it’s necessary, otherwise “retention will influence the brain.”

While he’s hatching his plans for sex, he’s busy nosing into drawing rooms of the upper class, scouting out potential widows to have assignations with, and plotting on how to get a commission to the Guards because he doesn’t want to study law. He calmly takes his allowance of £200 a year and saunters around town.

On journaling
“I do think the keeping of a journal a very excellent scheme if judiciously executed.” Later, he determines to show respect to the journal, to “never set down the mere common trifling occurrences of life, but say nothing at all, except when I have something worth while.” Hilariously, his next entry is “I just read, eat, drank, and walked.”

“I had sitten up all night to journalize. As usual I felt myself immediately bettered by it.”

Odds and ends

  • Another word found appropriate for our time: rhodomontade (or rodomontade) – bragging speech, a vain boasting or bluster.
  • Sometimes there are clever bits: “I got up as dreary as a dromedary…”
  • One of his dress suits is a “suit of flowered velvet of five colours” which I wish desperately for a photo of.

The Diary of a Nobody

Diary of a Nobody

Although I’m knee-deep in reading about diaries that Virginia Woolf read or kept in her early years, I randomly began reading this book when it cropped up in Family Roundabout, Mrs. Fowler deciding to spend the afternoon reading George Grossmith’s Diary of a Nobody. It’s a slender volume that I wish had shrunk even more—the joke is prolonged and becomes shrill over all the extraneous pages. It’s the tiresome recounting of an average London clerk’s life with friends who take advantage of his hospitality and a son (Lupin) who’s kicked out of school and comes to live at home again while stirring up mischief. The title headings are the best bits, summarizing the contents within and usually containing some self-praise like “I make one of the best jokes of my life” or “I make another good joke.”

Bleak House

Bleak House (Penguin Classics)

It’s been awhile since I do-ie-do’d with Dickens, and I’d forgotten his propensity of peppering the pot with characters, tossing a handful of new ones in each passing chapter like a drunk chef with spices. In the first third of the book alone, we encounter (in addition to main characters Esther Summerson, Ada Clare, and Richard Carstone): Skimpole, Jellyby, Pardiggle, Quale, Gusher, Jarndyce, Krook, Flite, Turveydrop, Guppy, Badger, Boythorn, Tulkington, Leicester, Snagsby, Rouncewell, Blinder, Gridley, Neckett, Captain Swosser, Professor Dingo, Woodcourt, Chadband, Smallweed, Jobling -> Weevle, Bucket, Wisk, Piper, Perkins, Swills, Mevilleson, Bogsby, Squod, Vholes.

There’s a lot of how terrible the law courts are, how one they get their teeth into a case, it’s about prolonging it to squeeze as much cash out of the proceedings as possible. The case at the heart of the book is Jarndyce vs. Jarndyce, and right at the moment when they believe a discovered Will will resolve the case, the case is dissolved in court because the entire fortune at stake had been dissolved by the ongoing court costs (years and years worth). A cautionary tale worth assigning to all incoming law students.

The book has all the ingredients of a successful Victorian novel: baby born out of wedlock to a woman who goes on to attain wealth and prominence while her daughter is brought up in secret by her sister, ragamuffin Jo who haunts the East End and is constantly being told to “move on” by the cops, horse and carriages predating the railroads that were marching towards them, and a whodunnit mystery of the murder of insufferable lawyer, Tulkington.

It’s a pleasure to come across Dickens being Dickens:

He perceives with astonishment, that supposing the present Government to be overthrown, the limited choice of the Crown, in the formation of a new Ministry, would lie between Lord Coodle and Sir Thomas Doodle – supposing it to be impossible for the Duke of Foodle to act with Goodle, which may be assumed to be the case in consequence of the breach arising out of that affair with Hoodle. Then giving the Home Department and the Leadership of the House of Commons to Joodle, the Exchequer to Koodle, the Colonies to Loodle, and the Foreign Office to Moodle, what are you to do with Noodle? You can’t offer him the Presidency of the Council; that is reserved for Poodle. You can’t put him in the Woods and Forests; that is hardly good enough for Quoodle. What follows? That the country is shipwrecked, lost, and gone to pieces because you can’t provide for Noodle!

On the other hand, the Right Honorable William Buffy, M.P., contends across the table with someone else, that the shipwreck of the country – about which there is no doubt; it is only the manner of it that is in question – is attributable to Cuffy. If you had done with Cuffy what you ought to have done when he first came into Parliament, and had prevented him from going over to Duffy, you would have got him into alliance with Fuffy, you would have had with you the weight attaching as a smart debater to Guffy, you would have brought to bear upon the elections the wealth of Huffy, you would have got in for three counties Juffy, Kuffy, and Luffy; and you would have strengthened your administration by the official knowledge and business habits of Muffy. All this, instead of being, as you now are, dependent on the mere caprice of Puffy!

Occasionally Dickens shows some self-restraint, or at least self-awareness. Chapter 9 starts, “I don’t know how it is, I seem to be always writing about myself. I mean all the time to write about other people, and I try to think about myself as little as possible, and I am sure, when I find myself coming into the story again, I am really vexed and say ‘Dear, dear, you tiresome little creature, I wish you wouldn’t’ but it is all of no use.”

I actually don’t recommend getting the Penguin Classics edition of this, because it includes annoying footnotations throughout the text. Page 1 of chapter 1 has 13 notations explaining various things that need not be notated so closely. My preference is a notes section that lingers in the back without numbers in the text, and if you’re curious about something, you go digging to see if there is backup info.