No blame should attach to telling the truth.

    'You are a good girl; a very good girl. And you are doing everything you ought to do.'
    Lydia turned on him a look of such gratitude that he was abashed to receive so much for so little. They continued to pace the terrace in silence, very comfortably.
    'I wish Mother would get better,' said Lydia, with such a forlorn note that Noel's heart was wrenched.
    'So do I,' he said. 'And if you need me you will let me know, won't you. I could probably manage to get over any time if you needed a bit of comforting.'
    'I'd like it more than anything in the world,' said Lydia, 'but I wouldn't ever, ever ask you, however much I wanted it. Thank you most awfully though.'
    She slipped her hand into Noel's as they walked.

--Angela Thirkell, Cheerfulness Breaks In, 1940  

I forbid myself to remember that it has not always been easy, and I never, ever, blame my parents: that sort of thing is so old hat. I pass lightly through life, without anguished attachments, and this was nearly always the way I intended it to be. I say nearly always because I do sometimes have these odd dreams. The dreams are of no interest in themselves, but they leave me wondering where they came from. In dreams I bear children, sink smiling into loving arms, fight my way out of empty rooms, and regularly drown. I wake up in a state of astonishment, and sometimes of fear, but I banish the memory of the dreams, of which no one knows anything. Telling dreams, like blaming one's parents, or falling in love and making a fool of oneself, comes into my category of forbidden things. And yet ghastly Teddy, who was obviously even more used to this kind of thing than I was, but fortunately rather out of date, had singled me out. I felt almost ashamed until I realized that he was one of those old-fashioned men who think that a liberated woman is fair game and that she will only want a little masculine attention in order to turn back thankfully into the unreconstructed model. He probably thought he was being rather kind. Had I accepted his invitation I should no doubt have been subjected to a certain amount of propaganda, the same propaganda he had been using all his life in order to get women to change their minds, but virtuously backed up by a desire to make me see the light. Seduction to him would always be disguised as conversion, and I had no doubt that somewhere along the primrose path he would utter the words, 'There's a good girl!'

--Anita Brookner, A Friend from England, 1987 

Brookner's narrator, Rachel Kennedy, is an unreliable narrator in the Henry James sense: she is building a web of deceit, but the target of her deception is none but herself. I did not see this clearly until the story moved, in the final chapter, to Venice, which is very much a Jamesian landscape built almost entirely of symbolism and unmasking.

autumn leaves

Today it's overcast and a cold wind is ripping the trees apart, tearing brown and yellow leaves into the air and casting them all over the city. The branches of the ornamentals outside the kitchen windows whip to and fro in an autumnal St Vitus dance, and I can hear the overgrown camellia by the front door beating it's limbs against the porch and scraping away at the siding. The urban animal life--the squirrels and birds and one lone rat we spotted yesterday afternoon--are fighting a protracted war over whatever's edible in the yard. This morning I chased away a squirrel from the flower box outside the window over the kitchen sink, because the burly rodent was drinking all the sugar water from the hummingbird feeder. He is lucky, is Mr Squirrel, that our pugnacious hummingbirds didn't descend on him and poke out his eyes. The annas get pretty shirty when their feeder is encroached upon.

I've been listening to a lot of Bill Evans these last couple of days, mostly stuff from the early 1960s like "Undercurrent," "Waltz for Debby," or "Live at the Village Vanguard." All masterpieces, but there are at least a dozen other albums of Evans and his various combos that are equally great. I don't know what it is about Evans' music that I find so appealing, but possibly it's that no matter the tempo, mood, or volume of the tune, it's always simultaneously complex, highly-organized playing but also beautiful and intimate, as if the world's smartest poet was talking to you and you alone. You should find the documentary on his improvisational process ("The Universal Mind of Bill Evans") on youtube and give it a watch. Good stuff.

Meanwhile I'm working away ever so slowly on revisions to my latest novel, the one about Antarctica that I've been rabbiting away at for the last couple of years. I'm going over the whole thing sentence-by-sentence to see about the language and the clarity of the ideas and expression, but also still working on large-scale issues like character development, fleshing out scenes and writing new scenes. This will be a quite long work when it's done. I do not expect anyone to publish it, but I just need to take care of the writing, take care of the novel itself, and the rest of the publishing world be damned. It will be a good book, even if only a handful of people ever see it.

My violin teacher chided me earlier this week about how I've been failing to work on the technical challenges of one of the pieces she's assigned, and she was right to do so and I am properly chagrined. I had more or less given up trying to improve how I play the piece on a basic mechanical level and had switched my focus to expression. My teacher pointed out that no matter how nice my phrasing and vibrato, I still needed to work on intonation and rhythm. Craft, in other words. I understand craft, I understand working in small sections and making incremental improvement; it's what I spend years doing to my novels, after all. I also continue to work on the Schubert sonatinas, which are very fine pieces, and if someday it's possible to play with other musicians in person again, I may see about a performance. There are some fine Dvorak pieces for violin and piano as well. The "romantic pieces" for example, are well worth playing and hearing.


we can go when we want to, the night is young and so am I

The COVID tests came back negative, so it's just plain old bronchitis. Which is a strange disappointment but also a relief of course. Still, I continue to feel as if someone is sitting on my lungs and that I will never get enough sleep. That did not stop me from attempting a five-mile run this morning. I will tell you that mile four was rough, and somewhere around mile four-and-a-half I thought that lying down on someone's lawn and going to sleep sounded like a fine plan. I did not follow that plan, though, and made my way home at a slow trot, a sort of victory I suppose.

What I was going to talk about was Edward Gibbon, as I am now deep in the throes of the second volume of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Gibbon's book is less a history of the Roman empire than it is a sustained battle on several simultaneous fronts. There were lively public disputes in Gibbon's England about Christianity, miracles, imperialism and the rise of popular governments, and with the Colonies getting uppity there was serious talk about the fall of the British empire. Gibbon had his hands quite full, casting about to attack his philosophical and political enemies, by whom he no doubt felt benetted 'round.

The main thrust of Decline and Fall is this: England, O England, is (in 1776) the legitimate descendant of the Roman Empire. London, after all, was founded by the emperor Claudius in the year 47, and Britain was a Roman province for centuries after that. When Constantine (so Gibbon's argument goes) became sole emperor of Rome and made Christianity the official religion of the empire, he betrayed the manly Roman spirit and turned his back on the graceful beauty of the old religion, elevating a jumped-up foreign slave superstition and taking on the trappings of unmanly Eastern emperors. That was it for Rome; Constantine spent most of his reign outside of Italy, and moved the imperial seat to the new city of Constantinople (which, in Gibbon's telling, was a sham of a city and a pale shadow of the greatness of Rome). The empire was gradually taken over by papists, and you know all about them, O England they are The Enemy. Rome, via some Byzantine infection, became the Whore of Babylon. All of the empire was corrupted. Except, somehow, for England, which had chased out the plague of Catholicism and, despite some setbacks, had consolidated a more perfect empire upon which, you know, the sun never sets. The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire is, I tell you, a work of propaganda. Which, I suppose, all history books are.

For the past couple of years, whenever I read non-fiction, there always comes a point when I begin to distrust the writer. Most of the nonfiction published in America (at least) for the last few decades has been written by non-experts, for popular audiences, and are less explorations of interesting subject matter than they are arguments in support of certain worldviews. I manage to avoid most of this stuff nowadays, though once in a while I stumble accidentally across Malcolm Gladwell or a similar person on NPR. Most of the time I can just ignore the non-expertise of non-experts who don't seem to understand the facts they present to what I must assume is an easily beguiled reader. These people who don't know what they're talking about are not reliable sources of information.

When I began reading a lot more literary criticism a few years back, I began to see how much art criticism attempts to illustrate not the art alleged to be under discussion, but the critic's worldview, and many critics give themselves full rein to fill in the ambiguous portions of novels (for example) with whatever theories they like. If you happen to be familiar with the works discussed, you might easily find yourself falling into a disagreement with the critic, sputtering, "what about this, or what about that, and why haven't you noticed all the counterarguments to your theory that are clearly on the page before us both?" The more one knows about any particular work of art, the more objectionable one might find critical writings about that work. I suppose that's because one has--or rather, because I have filled in  the ambiguities of the novel with my own pet theories, and I will brook no insurrection from a dissenting voice. I have just argued myself out of my original argument, because I must assume that we all read into what we're reading. Huh. But no: my point remains. Very often, nonfiction is not what it appears to be on the surface; it is often an extended argument about something else. Like so much else in life, I suppose. But I digress.

The footnotes in Gibbon continue to be entertaining, informative, maddening, misleading, or hilarious. Sometimes all at once. Gibbon rivals Nabokov in saying one thing but meaning another, casting dismissive shade on those with whom he disagrees, or defending himself for making stuff up. There are whole historical episodes that Gibbon reports, for which--as the editor of the 1912 edition points out--there are no historical sources at all and no other historian but Gibbon makes these claims. Gibbon was not above simply lying about his enemies. As I say, Decline and Fall is a work of propaganda. An amusement park ride of propaganda, to be sure, great fun when it's not highly irritating.


In Consulatu honos sine labore suscipitur.

It's election season once again, not just in sunny Seattle, but all over America. Mighty Reader and I have been engaged in national politics this year like never before and frankly, I am exhausted. Here is a photo of not only our ballots in their fetching red-and-white envelopes, but also a pile of letters that Mighty Reader has written and mailed to registered voters in certain districts of, I think, Pennsylvania and Ohio. Two years ago we wrote and sent out a gigantic pile of postcards to voters in Texas (was it Texas? it was probably Texas). Anyway, that's democracy in action for you.

Here Mighty Reader, in fetching cycling garb, deposits our ballots into a dropbox up the hill from our house. Ballot boxes this year are filling up at record speed, I'm told. That's a very good thing. Everyone vote now if you can. I hear that there were lines at the ballot boxes all over Seattle this weekend. Hurrah for voters!

I lied above when I said that Seattle is sunny. It's been quite overcast, cold and wet lately. I guess it's really autumn. When I get up at 7:00ish to go running these days, it seems quite dark and I have a difficult time convincing myself to get out of bed and do my miles. I am telecommuting for work, as I've been doing since the last week of March, and yesterday afternoon the kitchen (where I sit at a laptop all day) was pretty dark by 4:30, which was quite a surprise.

Why am I working from home when I have a perfectly good office some seven miles away? Because we live in the middle of a pandemic, in case you haven't heard. Mighty Reader and I are going to be trying out a couple of home testing kits for COVID-19 this evening (courtesy of King County Public Health's Greater Seattle Coronavirus Assessment Network (SCAN) Study) because we are, as they say, showing symptoms. Nothing serious I'm sure, but one has a duty to one's neighbors to be careful and keep one's filthy virus to oneself.

Meanwhile, I continue to read Gibbon. Right now he is describing the state of the Roman empire under Diocletian, Constantine, and that lot. Gibbon digresses briefly on the subject of the legal profession:

The noble art, which had once been preserved as the sacred inheritance of the patricians, was fallen into the hands of freedmen and plebeians, who, with cunning rather than with skill, exercised a sordid and pernicious trade. Some of them procured admittance into families for the purpose of fomenting differences, of encouraging suits, and of preparing a harvest of gain for themselves or their brethren. Others, recluse in their chambers, maintained the dignity of legal professors, by furnishing a rich client with subtleties to confound the plainest truths, and with arguments to color the most unjustifiable pretensions. The splendid and popular class was composed of the advocates, who filled the Forum with the sound of their turgid and loquacious rhetoric. Careless of fame and of justice, they are described, for the most part, as ignorant and rapacious guides, who conducted their clients through a maze of expense, of delay, and of disappointment; from whence, after a tedious series of years, they were at length dismissed, when their patience and fortune were almost exhausted.

The rise of plebians and the fall of the nobility is a real sore spot for Gibbon. He was a terrific snob. One of his primary difficulties with Christianity is the low (and foreign) birth of Christ:

the folly of a sect, which styles a dead man of Palestine, God, and the Son of God.

The Messiah, of course, would never show Himself anywhere but Rome, unless it were in London, speaking English without an accent. And He'd have been from a good Church of England family, too. You know I'm right. I was quite put out with Gibbon for about 200 pages, but I have managed to read past the ranting and am enjoying myself again. I'll have to remember to ask my friend Sal, a lawyer from a plebian family, if he's read Gibbon. Sal, like me, works for a government agency. Gibbon would not have approved.