Friday, April 25, 2014

Quotations: I'll just let this one speak for itself.

If you can't annoy somebody, there is little point in writing.
Kingsley Amis, Lucky Jim

Thursday, April 24, 2014

The Best Stories in the World: "Bartelby," by Herman Melville

I love this story. It's a very simple thing: Bartleby prefers not doing over doing; chaos ensues.

Bartleby is a scrivener--a person who by hand makes copies of important legal documents, long before the digital age. Is this important? I don't know. Bartleby is described in several ways; first, as "pallidly neat, pitiably respectable, incurably forlorn!" then as possessed of a "cadaverously gentlemanly nonchalance." 

The action begins when Bartleby applies for a job working for the unnamed lawyer who narrates Melville's tale. He is a good scrivener for a successful lawyer, but when the time comes for the lawyer to request certain duties all scriveners perform (such as reading aloud a copy to check for mistakes) Bartleby merely states, "I would prefer not to." This then happens for every request made to Bartleby.

The narrator and his other employees are befuddled. Soon the narrator finds himself using the word prefer a little too frequently.  His frustration with Bartleby grows when he discovers the man pretty much living in the law office. He essentially fires Bartelby, offering compensation, but Bartleby prefers not to leave. Soon Bartleby stops working altogether, though he doesn't leave the office. The narrator can't deal with it anymore, so he up and moves. The new occupants find him complaining that Bartleby is still there. The narrator tries to reason with the man, but nothing works.

Bartleby's taken to prison, where he prefers not to do anything. Soon he is found lying in the yard. But the story doesn't end there. The narrator later hears that Bartleby worked in the dead letter office. He sees some meaning in this.

If you're looking to read more about Bartleby, Dan McCall's The Silence of Bartleby is probably the best place to start. A whole book about Bartleby, in which you'll find that Bartleby is everything and nothing, that every academic theory can be used successfully to illuminate the story, and that none of them encompass the respectable cadaver that is Bartleby the scrivener.

So why is this one of the best stories in the world? I had intended to make a joke about preferring not to tell you, but Bartleby is just so compellingly inscrutable. He reveals nothing. He gives no indication of why he does what he does--or doesn't do, as the case may be. Yet the hints are fascinating. Melville's style isn't always the most accessible, and Bartleby is a long story for so little to happen in it (though still not very long). But it's worth reading. And reading a whole book about just to show how much can be made of so little.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014


Let it be known that I abhor end notes. Can't stand them. I'm a compulsive reader--I feel compelled to read every word in a book. If I'm going to read any of it, I want to go all the way. So I feel uneasy bypassing a note in a book or article. Scholarship is full of them (the scholar Bruce Lincoln once defined myth as scholarship without footnotes, a thought worth exploring), and the trend is to put notes at the end of a book, requiring readers to flip back and forth between the page they're reading and the notes at the end. This drives me nuts, especially when the notes aren't worth while.

Footnotes, on the other hand, can be invigorating. There are a number of books with good footnotes. Stephen King's Danse Macabre comes to mind.

The humorist Christopher Moore puts footnotes to good ends in his book Fool. He uses this device well throughout the book, to gloss archaic terms and insult the French, but on page 6 he gives us the greatest footnote in the history of footnotery. It exists because of this sentence: "Bubble dropped a gutless trout into a bushel of slippery cofishes." And if we're interested in what he means by that final word, all we have to do is glance down to the bottom of the page, to find, "Cofishes--other fish in a group, coworkers, cohorts, etc. Shut up, it's a word."

If, upon reading the first five pages of Fool, you doubted you were beholding a work of greatness, that footnote would exorcise your doubt.

A book full of notable footnotes is Book: A Novel, by Robert Grudin. I don't know where my college roommate Mike Judd got a copy of this, but he thought it was funny so I read it, too. The story is sort of a mystery set in the world of university politics. At one point, the footnotes actually stage a coup and take over the book proper. It's pretty meta, and I appreciate the figurative notion of scholarly apparatus blotting out the ostensible point of the story even more now that I have experienced graduate school.

Dustin Long used footnotes in his novel Icelander. Here is one of the finest: 37. Hubert Jorgen in conversation: "Forgery, I think, is perhaps the pinnacle of self-expression, paradoxical as it sounds. There's a school of thought that says the more constraints put upon a piece of art--rhyme and meter, say, in the case of poetry, or photo-realism in the case of painting--the more impressive that artwork is if executed successfully. Well, what could be more constraining than forgery? And if you manage yet to express yourself within that rigorous framework, what, then, could be more impressive?"

These are but a few examples of footnotes that are worthwhile, even necessary parts of the books they supplement.

There are, I must say, some cases of acceptable and even magisterial endnotes. The first one that comes to mind is Henry Glassie's The Stars of Ballymenone. After checking a few as I read through the book, I decided to just wait and read them all at once after I finished. It was worth it. Sometimes I flipped back and read the relevant passages in the main text, too.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Unemployed Philospher's Guild

Just thought this was funny, from the Unemployed Philosopher's Guild:

One of many available.

And yes, I'm aware of what πίθος really means in Greek.

Monday, April 21, 2014

The Best Stories in the World: The Nose by Nikolai Gogol

So this guy, Kovalev, wakes up one morning to discover that his nose is missing. He sort of freaks out, because it's his nose and whatnot. He tries to go about finding his nose by going to the police, but on the way he sees his nose. I'll let Nikolai Gogol, by way of translator Andrew R. MacAndrew, describe the vision:

Suddenly he stopped dead near the entrance door of a house. An incredible sequence of events unrolled before his eyes. A carriage stopped at the house entrance. Its door opened. A uniformed gentleman appeared. Stooping, he jumped out of the carriage, ran up the steps and entered the house. A combination of horror and amazement swept over Kovalev when he recognized the stranger as his own nose.

So the nose dresses as some sort of state official and his going about town doing various things. Kovalev confronts the nose, but gets nowhere with that, what with the nose denying that it is his nose. ("Don't you realize that you are my nose?" The nose looked at the major and frowned slightly.) Kovalev then goes to the newspaper to try to put out a notice for help finding the nose, which has eluded him. That
doesn't go well for him, but we are treated to this paragraph:

The reception room in which all these people waited was quite small and the air was getting stuffy. But the smell didn't bother Collegiate Assessor Kovalev because he kept his face covered with a handkerchief and also because his nose happened to be God knew where.

Kovalev then goes to the police, with whom he has even more trouble. Kovalev has lots of anxiety about going through life without a nose. He becomes quite paranoid, assuming that the mother of a young lady Kovalev has been flirting with might have stolen it in the night. He sends her a vague but harshly worded letter, after which she replies in confusion that she would like for him to marry her daughter. Kovalev removes her from his suspect list.

It's not really a mystery. Readers are made aware from the very beginning that Kovalev's nose was in the possession of his barber, who found it in a breakfast roll that very morning, though the barber didn't remember cutting it off. He then threw it over a bridge into a river, though he was accosted by a policeman and accused of suspicious behavior. The point of the story isn't what happened to the nose, it's what happens to Kovalev because of the missing nose. And Kovalev becomes desperate and crazy.

Soon enough the policeman who confronted the barber arrives at Kovalev's house with the nose. Kovalev is grateful, but is now presented with a new problem. Not knowing how the nose was removed, he can't figure out how to get it back on his face. It won't simply stay there when he pushes it into the right place.

Meanwhile, rumors have spread around town, and people tell all sorts of tales about the nose going out for walks and the like. People crowd around places where the nose is said to be strolling, and they generally cause quite a nuisance. Then...

The world is full of absolute nonsense. Sometimes it is really unbelievable. Suddenly, the very nose that used to go around as a state councilor and caused such a stir all over the city turned up, as though nothing had happened, in its proper place, namely between the cheeks of Major Kovalev.

Kovalev is quite happy about this turn of events. He even lets that same barber shave him, though cautioning the barber not to pinch his nose while doing so. And that is the only observable change wrought by this story, which ends with the narrator musing about how strange it all ways, which leads to this conclusion:

But the strangest of all, the most incomprehensible thing, is that there are authors who can choose such subjects to write about. This, I confess, is completely inexplicable, it's, no, I can't understand it at all. In the first place, there is absolutely no advantage in it for out mother country. Secondly...well, what advantage is there in it at all? I simply cannot understand what it is...
 However, when all is said and done, and although, of course, we conceive the possibility, one and the other, and maybe even...Well, but then what exists without inconsistencies? And still, if you give it a thought, there is something to it. Whatever you may say, such things do happen--seldom, but they do.

Now that's how you end a story.

So why is this one of the best stories in the world? Do I even have to answer that question? It's about a nose that dresses up like a state official and tries to take a train to Riga, for reasons never revealed. Isn't that enough?

No? Very well then. I love this story because I love absurdity. And no matter how serious you are of countenance, how grave you are in your daily doings, if you read this story you can't help but picture what a nose dressed up like a state official (a Russian state official, no less) would look like. The nose goes about its business without any comment by all but that police officer, who wouldn't have said a thing if he hadn't had his glasses on at the time. The nose speaks. It denies its identity as a nose. And, knowing apparently that the game is up, it tries to flee. This was written in 1836 or so.

This is the first story I've put into this series that exists in, really, only one form. Aside from translation, there are no particular variants of this story--a literary creation (though it seems to have been adapted for the stage). I've included no pictures this time, because for me much of the magic of the story lies in imagining what the nose would look like as it saunters about town.

Much of what I have used as criteria for greatness has had to do with malleability, with whether or not the core of the story could be held while the surface details can be put to use in new contexts and new tellings. With Nikolai Gogol's "The Nose," I hope that you see the same sort of malleability; the only difference being a malleability of interpretation rather than of retelling. What is the nose? It's a piece of a person, and can stand for any number of neuroses or worries or anxieties. It's phallic, if you want it to be. It's also the only part of a person's face that's visible to the person without a reflective surface. Thus it's as semantically rich as the reader wants it to be. It's something that we lose, some essential part of ourselves that, growing older--perhaps without accomplishing those things that we had hoped for during our youth (there's a lot in the story about Kovalev's worries in what I interpret as this sense)--we didn't even realize had been gone until it's too late. We might find it again, or not. Or finding it, it might not fit quite how we thought it would.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Quotations: Still on writing

It’s probably true that the writer’s thoughts and the reader’s thoughts never tally exactly, that the image the writer sees and the image the reader sees are never 100 percent the same. 
We are, after all, not angels but were made a little less than angels, and our language is maddeningly hobbled, a fact to which any port or novelist will attest.  There is no creative writer, I think, who has not suffered that frustrating crash off the walls that stand at the limits of language, who has not cursed the word that just doesn’t exist.  Emotions such as grief and romantic love are particularly hard to deal with, but even such a simple operation as starting up a car with a manual transmission and driving it to the end of the block can present nearly insurmountable problems if you try to write the process down instead of simply doing it.  And if you don’t believe this is so, write down such instructions and try to them on a nondriving friend…but check your auto insurance policy first.
Stephen King, Danse Macabre, 362


In the beginning of something, its ending is foretold.
Steve Martin

One of the most difficult things to teach people outside 
the arts…and in the arts as well…is that the important ingredient in the artist is not talent, technique, genius or luck—the important ingredient is himself.  What you are must color everything you do.  If what you are appeals to your public, you’ll be successful.  If what you are communicates with all publics through all time, you’ll become an immortal.  But, if your personality attracts no one, then despite all crafts and cleverness, you’ll fail.  Perry Lafferty, who directs the Montgomery Show, sums it up bitterly. Perry says: “I’m in the Me business, is all.”
            Actually this isn’t limited to the arts.  It extends all through life, and one of the milestones in the maturation of a man is his discovery that technique with women is a waste of time.  No matter how he dresses, performs, and displays himself, it’s only what he really is that matters. 
            Hamlet, speaking to the player king, suggests that the goal of the actor should be to hold the mirror up to nature.  Actually, no matter what any man does, he holds a mirror up to himself.  He continually reveals himself, especially when he tries hardest to conceal himself.  All literature reveals authors and readers alike…and especially science fiction.
Alfred Bester, “Science Fiction and the Renaissance Man,” Redemolished 32

Most authors spend so much time inside their heads—or as we used to say in West Virginia, “down in the mine”—away from the company or thoughts of others, away from social intercourse, that they have become just a bit deranged.
Lawrence Kasdan, “POV”