Thursday, December 31, 2020

Books and things, 2020 edition

Books and other things read:

The Penguin Book of Chinese Verse (Kotewall and Smith, trans.)
Late Renaissance and Baroque Music by Alec Harman and Anthony Milner
"A Christmas Carol" by Charles Dickens
The Brandons by Angela Thirkell
Irisches Tagebuch by Heinrich Böll
The Landed Estates of the Esterhazy Princes by Rebecca Gates-Coon
The Hegel Variations by Fredric Jameson
The Art of String Quartet Playing by M.D. Norton
The Hapsburg Monarchy 1618-1815 by Charles Ingrao
Before Lunch by Angela Thirkell
The Great Fortune by Olivia Manning
The Spoilt City by Olivia Manning
Friends and Heroes by Olivia Manning 
The Mystery of the Blue Train by Agatha Christie 
Lexicon of Musical Invective by Nicolas Slonimsky
Arkady by Patrick Langley
From a Low and Quiet Sea by Donal Ryan 
A High Wind in Jamaica by Richard Hughes
A Mariner's Miscellany by Peter H. Spectre
Marquee Moon by Bryan Waterman
The Seven Madmen by Roberto Arlt
Death Wins a Goldfish by Brian Rea
The Trojan War Museum by Ayşe Papatya Bucak 
Helen in Egypt by Hilda Doolittle 
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight trans by Brian Stone 
The Danger Tree by Olivia Manning 
The Battle Lost and Won by Olivia Manning
The Sum of Things by Olivia Manning 
Miles From Nowhere by Barbara Savage 
Death Comes For the Archbishop by Willa Cather 
Arsene Lupin, Gentleman Thief by Maurice Leblanc 
The Party and Other Stories by Anton Chekhov 
A Midsummer Night's Dream by William Shakespeare 
Absalom, Absalom! by William Faulkner
The Heat of the Day by Elizabeth Bowen 
The Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler 
The Twilight of Equality? by Lisa Duggan 
Letters of Ludwig van Beethoven 
The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Vol 1 by Edward Gibbon 
The Age of Fable by Thomas Bulfinch 
Cheerfulness Breaks In by Angela Thirkell 
A Friend From England by Anita Brookner 
After the Wake by Brendan Behan
Charis in the World of Wonders by Marly Youmans 
The Black Cloth by Bernard Binlin Dadié
The Father Christmas Letters by J.R.R. Tolkien 

This has been a year of non-fiction reading, mostly, or at least more than usual.It's also been a year with a theme of classics, by which I mean myth and writing that spins out therefrom. All of it has been informative, entertaining, and otherwise entirely worthwhile. The semi-fictional WWII series of novels by Olivia Manning was a particular treat, highly recommended. I did not read nearly as much poetry in 2020 as I'd intended, but the HD book was disorienting in all the best ways. I hope to read more poetry in 2021, as well as more collections of letters, folktales, myths, and the rest of Mr Gibbon's Imperial Rome fantasy series.

Marly Youmans' latest novel, Charis in the World of Wonders, is a great book that I hope to write about soon. I confess that for some time I have been--am still, actually--ill and not thinking as clearly as I might like, so writing anything of any length is a bit of a chore at present.  So I'll just say for now that Charis is a rich tapestry of invention, a lovely long song of many overlapping themes. As with so much of Youmans' work, it is a myth writ on human scale, an instruction manual for discovering beauty and love in this fallen world. I do not exaggerate.

Things and other things done:

Novels pitched to publishers and agents. Once again, nobody in the publishing world has shown any interest in my work. I begin to see the vaguest outline of a pattern. I have poked at revisions to my most recent novel, but I have not written anything new this year. Vague plans, etc, for the future. We'll see.

Schubert, Dvorak, Mozart, and Bach played on the violin. Bach et cetera played on the piano. Some dusty old Sor and Tarrega studies played on the guitar. Music is always satisfying labor.

Tuesday, November 17, 2020

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.

Friday, November 6, 2020

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.

Thursday, October 29, 2020

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.

Tuesday, October 20, 2020

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.

Monday, October 5, 2020

No crime if there ain't no law

It starts with Augustus (whom you'll remember as Octavian in Shakespeare's "Julius Caesar" and "Antony and Cleopatra," and when I think of Octavian I think of Roddy McDowall, though when I think of Augustus of course I can't help but see Brian Blessed in "I, Claudius"). But as I say, it starts with Gibbon laying out, in three chapters, the state of the Roman empire during the rule of Augustus, setting the stage for what is to come. Gibbon has a fine sense of dramatic form: these hundred or so pages are full of portents and foreshadowing, staking out the argument that the seeds of the empire's destruction were sown during its very birth, by Augustus himself.

The obvious definition of a monarchy seems to be that of a state, in which a single person, by whatsoever name he may be distinguished, is intrusted with the execution of the laws, the management of the revenue, and the command of the army. But, unless public liberty is protected by intrepid and vigilant guardians, the authority of so formidable a magistrate will soon degenerate into despotism. [...] Every barrier of the Roman constitution had been levelled by the vast ambition of the dictator; every fence had been extirpated [...] the fate of the Roman world depended on the will of Octavianus, surnamed [...] Augustus, by the flattery of the senate. [...] The people of Rome, viewing, with a secret pleasure, the humiliation of the aristocracy, demanded only bread and public shows; and were supplied with both by the liberal hand of Augustus. The rich and polite Italians [...] suffered not the pleasing dream to be interrupted by the memory of their old tumultuous freedom.

The description of Augustus stripping the senate and local authorities of all their power and putting on a public show of grudgingly accepting those responsibilities as his own, is fascinating and terrifying. Feigning modesty and supposedly bending to the will of the people, the emperor gathers together for himself complete control of legislation, treasury, and military, while declaring himself the father of his country.

To resume, in a few words, the system of the Imperial government, as it was instituted by Augustus, and maintained by those princes who understood their own interest and that of the people, it may be defined as an absolute monarchy disguised by the forms of a commonwealth. The masters of the Roman world surrounded their throne with darkness, concealed their irresistible strength, and humbly professed themselves the accountable ministers of the senate, whose supreme decrees they dictated and obeyed. [...] The tender respect of Augustus for a free constitution which he had destroyed, can only be explained by an attentive consideration of the character of that subtle tyrant. A cool head, an unfeeling heart, and a cowardly disposition prompted him [... H]is moderation was inspired by his fears. He wished to deceive the people by an image of civil liberty, and the armies by an image of civil government.

Augustus ruled the empire for 41 years, only giving up the throne when his third wife, Livia, poisoned him (figs from Augustus' own garden, if one believes that story) so that her son Tiberius could at long last become emperor. Augustus got off easy; most of the Roman emperors were stabbed to death while out leading military campaigns. One can't stop thinking, quite often as one reads this blood-soaked history, that Brutus and his co-conspirators had not only seet the pattern for removing an emperor, but had also been correct in trying to nip the whole imperial enterprise in the bud. This excerpt discloses yet another way to end an imperial career:

Marseilles might have sustained as long a siege as it formerly did against the arms of Caesar, if the garrison, conscious either of their fault or of their danger, had not purchased their pardon by delivering up [to the emperor Constantine] the city and the person of Maximian [who was Constantine's father-in-law and twice emperor of Rome]. A secret but irrevocable sentence of death was pronounced against the usurper [Maximian]; he obtained only the same favour which he had indulged to Severus, and it was published to the world that, oppressed by the remorse of his repeated crimes, he strangled himself with his own hands.

Like you do. How many times have I read of men with guilty consciences strangling themselves to death? Oh so many. Maximian had been named co-emperor by Diocletian. Here, in brief, is Diocletian's sudden rise to power:

[The emperor Numerian's corpse has been discovered in his tent, and Praetorian praefect Arrius Aper has probably murdered him and kept his death a secret.] Yet, even in the transport of their rage and grief, the troops observed a regular proceeding, which proves how firmly discipline had been re-established [...] A general assembly of the army was appointed at Chalcedon, whither Aper was transported in chains, as a prisoner and a criminal [...] and the generals and tribunes formed a great military council. They soon announced to the multitude that their choice had fallen on Diocletian, commander of the domestics or bodyguards, as the person the most capable of revenging and succeeding their beloved emperor. [...] Conscious that the station he had filled exposed him to some suspicions, Diocletian [...], assuming the tone of a sovereign and a judge, commanded that Aper should be brought in chains to the foot of the tribunal. 'This man,' said he, 'is the murderer of Numerian;' and without giving him time to enter on a dangerous justification, drew his sword, and buried it in the breast of the unfortunate praefect. A charge supported by such decisive proof was admitted without contradiction, and the legions, with repeated acclamations, acknowledged the justice and authority of the emperor Diocletian.

Diocletian, I remind you, was one of the good emperors. The bad emperors were very wicked indeed. I can imagine Gibbon's amusement while writing the many such passages he includes in The Decline.Jesus wept.

What else does Gibbon give us? He offers a short and pithy history of the German tribes (lazy, violent, and drunk on inferior beer), an essay on Zoroastrianism ('a bold and injudicious attempt of Eastern philosophy to reconcile the existence of moral and physical evil with the attributes of a beneficent Creator'), a disdainful and very English view of the Persian empire (effeminate and disorganized, but also fearless and attuned to the fine arts), and of course running commentary on politics and society ('It was scarcely possible that the eyes of contemporaries should discover in the public felicity the latent causes of decay and corruption.'). All good stuff, but I will give you something more amusing: a brief history of alchemy:

At the same time that Diocletian chastised the past crimes of the Egyptians, he [...] caused a diligent inquiry to be made 'for all the ancient books which treated of the admirable art of making gold and silver [out of base metals like lead], and without pity committed them to the flames; apprehensive, as we are assured, lest the opulence of the Egyptians should inspire them with confidence to rebel against the empire.' But if Diocletian had been convinced of the reality of that valuable art, far from extinguishing the memory, he would have converted the operation of it to the benefit of the public revenue. It is much more likely that his good sense discovered to him the folly of such magnificent pretensions, and that he was desirous of preserving the reason and fortunes of his subjects from the mischievous pursuit. It may be remarked that these ancient books, so liberally ascribed to Pythagoras, to Solomon, or to Hermes, were the pious frauds of more recent adepts. The Greeks were inattentive either to the use or to the abuse of chemistry. In that immense register, where Pliny has deposited the discoveries, the arts, and the errors of mankind, there is not the least mention of the transmutation of metals; and the persecution of Diocletian is the first authentic event in the history of alchemy. [...T]he present age, however desirous of riches, is content to seek them by the humbler means of commerce and industry.

Take that, savages.

Volume I ends with the reign of Constantine, the first Christian emperor of Rome, and a long chapter about the rise of the Church and the place of the faithful within the Roman world. This is the chapter that brought a storm of condemnation down upon Gibbon, the chapter that so scandalized his English fellows. Maybe I'll write about that. In the first edition of The Decline, this first volume ended with what is now the opening chapter of Volume II, so I might delay my typing (should I be so moved) until I've read that bit.

Tuesday, September 29, 2020

The emperor, in his turn, viewing every rank of his subjects with the same contemptuous indifference, asserted without control his sovereign privilege of lust and luxury.

Because the world of classical music live performance has been mostly suspended of late, I've been spending too much time on youtube, watching chamber music performances. While I tell youtube quite explicitly that I am looking for chamber music, the algorithm insists that not only am I interested in violins and pianos, I am also certainly interested in "reaction videos," which are recordings of people looking at other youtube videos. Despite the exhortations of youtube's viewer-satisfaction-programming, I have not actually watched any of these reaction videos, and I confess that I rather sneer in their general direction, more than once catching myself thinking along the lines of, "why would anyone care how anyone else feels about this crap?" and then, predictably, having the epiphany that these reaction videos are essentially just reviews, and they are not all that different from what Frank Kermode or Lionel Trilling, for example, were about in their heyday. Some distinctions, yes, and I do believe there is such a thing as expertise, but the root matter is something I don't much care to examine because for me at least it swings into Beckettesque comedy, which is never so comfortable. If you see what I mean.

Nonetheless. I've been meaning for some time to write a word or two about reading The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Volume I, by Edward Gibbon. This post is a reaction video, as it were. I attempt to forgive myself in advance, or in medias res, as the case may be. Off we go.

Gibbon's book (really two separate books, each in three volumes but considered a single work by most people) is famous; I've known about it since my childhood and have stumbled across references to it for decades. It's one of those things that I've long told myself I'd read "someday" given time and opportunity. I don't really have more time or opportunity these days than I've ever had, but I do have the six-volume Everyman Library edition on the shelf (not four feet from my head as I sit typing this), and as one is always reading something, it may as well be six volumes of 18th-century historical writing about ancient Rome. Having always assumed that Gibbon's book would be difficult, writ in stilted dusty academic prose that would induce headaches and then sleep, I am delighted to discover that the book is, frankly, great. It's The Stuff, really it is, lively and witty and opinionated and penned with tremendous verve. The footnotes alone are worth the price of admission. I open the book at random:

Though the author of the Life of Alexander mentions the sedition raised against Ulpian by the soldiers, he conceals the catastrophe, as it might discover a weakness in the administration of his hero. From this designed omission, we may judge of the weight and candour of that author.
Gibbon tells us how to read history carefully, and of course there was a contingent of his readers who judged the weight and candor of him as author. Gibbon's royalist bent, his northern European provincialism and bigotry, and his scorn for organized religion are all quite visible on the page. During his own lifetime, only that last quality was noticed by English readers, and their attacks on Gibbon were met with a spirited and withering defense. I see that I continue to talk around the book, not so much directly about it.

Gibbon has a particular aim in mind with The Decline and Fall. It is to promote the idea of empire, and to reassure his English reader that the Imperium Brittanica will not suffer the fate of Rome.

Whatever evils either reason or declamation have imputed to extensive empire, the power of Rome was attended with some beneficial consequences to mankind; and the same freedom of intercourse which extended the vices, diffused likewise the improvements of social life. In the more remote ages of antiquity, the world was unequally divided. The east was in the immemorial possession of arts and luxury; whilst the west was inhabited by rude and warlike barbarians, who either disdained agriculture, or to whom it was totally unknown. Under the protection of an established government, the productions of happier climates, and the industry of more civilized nations, were gradually introduced into the western countries of Europe; and the natives were encouraged, by an open and profitable commerce, to multiply the former, as well as improve the latter.

I recognize those arguments. But many of Gibbon's observations and theories of government point in different directions. He mourns, with the Roman senate, the loss of the republic. "Civil governments, in their first institutions, are voluntary associations for mutual defense. To obtain the desired end, it is absolutely necessary that each individual should conceive himself obliged to submit his private opinion and actions to the judgment of the greater number of his associates." Gibbon tells us that the vanity and greed of the Roman emperors, and more especially as time went on that of the Roman legions, was the root cause of the fall of Rome. Once the machinery of government was taken away from the citizens, they became little but a source of revenue for the emperor and his family and the armies, and were encouraged in their laziness and ignorance of current events. I recognize that, too. Huh.

I have not really gotten to the good stuff, the character sketches, the dramatic irony, the comedy, the endless assassinations of emperors who have served a year, a few months, a few days. Centuries of generals being elevated to the throne by the army, who not long after get second thoughts and murder their beloved emperor at midnight on some barbarian frontier, declaring a new emperor minutes later to begin the cycle anew. The new emperor wastes no time in declaring the allies and relatives of the just-murdered predecessor to be traitors to Rome, and the army exacts vengeance. A very backward-looking way of living. Restituere maiestate Roma, etc.

The most worthless of mankind are not afraid to condemn in others the same disorders which they allow in themselves; and can readily discover some nice difference of age, character, or station, to justify the partial distinction.
Maybe in a day or so I'll talk about the actual people and events with whom Gibbon concerns himself.

Tuesday, August 18, 2020

so shall ye reap

In Octavia Butler's The Parable of the Sower, the protagonist is an eighteen year-old girl who leads a group of mixed-race survivors along California highways in search of a safe haven as the world collapses, avoiding gangs of thieves, pyromaniacs, and cannibals.When Cormac McCarthy wrote a version of this book, he made the protagonist a middle-aged white man, a widower leading his son to Florida. McCarthy's terse and sentimental novella won a Pulitzer Prize, and McCarthy was interviewed by Oprah Winfrey. Huh.

Friday, August 7, 2020

Was this the war's doing?

It was to be seen how, each time he came back like this, he was at the beginning physically at a loss; until, by an imitation of her attitudes he supplied himself with some way to behave, look, stand--even, you might say, be. His body could at least copy, if not at once regain, unsoldierly looseness and spontaneity. And he traced his way back by these attitudes, one by one, as though each could act as a clue or signpost to the Roderick his mother remembered, the Roderick he could feel her hoping to see.
London, September 1942, during the blackout, during the bombing. A soldier comes home on leave to visit his mother. Real life has estranged them, as it has estranged everyone during the war, not only from each other but from themselves. Everyone in London, even as they pack into bomb shelters or into basement cafes after dark or into dark bedrooms hidden behind blackout curtains, is alone. Even reunions are strange, because the world has become an alien place.
It is the music of the familiar that is awaited, on such an occasion, with most hope; love dreads being isolated, being left to speak in a void--at the beginning it would often rather listen than speak. Even lovers can feel this--how many passions have not been daunted by the hotel room? [...]both, in their different ways, felt this evening to be beyond the powers of living they now had. [...] Wariness had driven away poetry: from hesitating to feel came the moment when you no longer could. Was this the war's doing? By every day, every night, existence was being further drained--you, yourself, made conscious of what was happening only by some moment, some meeting such as tonight's.
Everyone in Bowen's wartime London is confounded by life, lacking the power to really live it. Characters drift, make vague plans, do not seem to come fully awake, but is this the war's doing? Is the war simply revealing a hidden truth? An exhausted, pessimistic book, this. Not quite a tragedy, at least not of Shakespearean proportions, though like Shakespeare, Bowen gives us comic characters. Louie, the principle comic foil, is a young wife whose husband has been called up. She is from the country and finds herself in London, at sea, seeking solace from whoever comes along. One day she discovers the media.
With the news itself she was at some disadvantage owing to having begun in the middle; she never quite had the courage to ask anyone how it had all begun--evidently one thing must have led to another, as in life; and whose the mistake had been in the first place, or how long ago, you would not care to say. Left to herself she had considered that anything so dreadful as this last year could only in some way have been her own fault--Singapore falling the week Tony went away; the Australians right off even where they were getting that bad fright from the Japs; us getting pushed right on top of the Egyptians in spite of everything; the Russians keeping nagging at us to do something; the Duke of Kent killed who had been so happy; even those harmless ancient cathedrals not to speak of Canterbury getting bombed also; and us running right out of soap and sweets till they had to go on coupons--one more headache...But once you looked in the papers you saw where it said, nothing was so bad as it might look. What a mistake, to have gone by the look of things! The papers knew Britain had something up her sleeve--Britain could always, in default of anything else, face facts. And for the newspaper's sake, Louie brought herself to put up with any amount of news--the headlines got that over for you in half a second, deciding for you every event's importance by the size of the print.
Louie and her growing relationship with newspapers gave me a good laugh. There's a good deal more of it in the novel, and it's all delightful. But Louie is not just comic relief; she provides one of the most poignant moments late in the novel, complaining that it is impossible to express herself, aware that she is full of feelings she can't let out, because, she has never had need to articulate what she feels, and has never developed any such language.
"It isn't you only. It's the taking and taking up of me on the part of everyone when I have no words. Often you say the advantage I should be at if I could speak grammar; but it's not only that. Look the trouble there is when I have to only say what I can say, and so cannot ever say what is is really. Inside me it's like being crowded to death--more and more of it all getting into me. I could more bear it if I could only say....At home where I used always to be there never used to be any necessity to say; neither was there with Tom, as long as they let him stop here. But now look--whatever am I to do, now there's the necessity? From on and on like this not being able to say, I seem to get to be nothing, now there's no one. I would more understand if I was able to make myself understood...
Elizabeth Bowen began writing The Heat of the Day in 1944, while the bombs were once again falling on London. Many of the streets her fictional characters walk had already been reduced to real-world rubble by then. Bowen's novel, gestating in this dark city under siege, has a strong current of pessimism running through it, doubts about not only identity, but about loyalty in all its forms, and the obligations of families, lovers, citizens.

I'm not giving you any sense of the story of the novel, about the families, the secret agent trying to sexually blackmail a woman whose lover may be a Nazi sympathizer, the widow who chooses to be mad enough to stay in a posh madhouse. Nor does this post contain much in the way of analysis. The Heat of the Day is a fine novel. I wish I had the wherewithal to do it justice in this wee blog.

Tuesday, April 28, 2020

Prayers should be said during the day, when if-there-is-a-God is awake. Stories should be told at night, the time of dreams.

I just read The Trojan War Museum by Ayşe Papatya Bucak, a collection of recent short stories. The stories show a lot of variety, but the overall vibe is sort of Kafka and Chekhov relate tales they learned from Scheherezade. Which is a pretty good vibe. I am also reminded of John Keene's Counternarratives, in that Ms Bucak has her eye on issues of gender, race, history, and war. The title story, which covers several thousand years of history (from a few centuries after the fall of Troy and projecting into our future), wonders how we and our gods should think about war:
Apollo sat in the garden, backward upon the horse, for half a day. He did not like how Homer had made him screech like a a lust-for-blood cheerleader: Kill, you Trojans, kill. It hadn't happened. Not like that. Had it? He did not like that he could not remember. It had seemed so important at the time. He disliked, too, how the gods seemed such ill company. If they were not friends to each other, what friends did they have?
Another story is set in the Turkish Village at the 1893 Chicago World's Fair. After the exhibits close down for the day, the Turks gather in a cafe where they eat their first meal of the day and tell each other "folktales, family tales, tales of the fair," all beginning in the traditional Turkish way.
Once there was and once there wasn't, in the time when genies were jinn and camels were couriers: An elderly British man fell in step alongside Mehmet Bey and Ahmet Bey as they carried his daughter, a solid woman of middle age, in their sedan chair. "I have heard the Orientals have a weakness to their legs," the old man said to one or the other or neither of them. "That is why they are so often seen sitting or lying down. In your case," he continued, turning first to Mehmet Bey and then to Ahmet Bey, "this does not appear to be true." "Perhaps," Mehmet Bey said. "Perhaps not," Ahmet Bey said as he pretended to buckle at the knees and the British man's daughter let out a small scream as the back end of the closed-in sedan chair dipped down and her whole self tilted backward with the bend of Ahmet Bey's legs. There was quiet for a moment as the British man stood staring and astonished, and then came a call from inside the chair: "Please. If you would. Do it again."
It's not all fun and games, though. There is a good deal of sadness as well, damage done to the lives of innocents and not-so innocents, and a steady motif of confusion and the utter unknowableness of the future, or maybe even of the present.
 In the desert, Mejnun met an old woman and asked her to bind him in chains, to pretend they were beggars--to be beggars--so they could approach Leyla's house unnoticed. But when the old woman did as he asked, and they entered Leyla's house as beggars, and he glimpsed the object of his love, all Mejnun could do was break his chains and run to the desert, where his love was housed.

A pretty damned good book, I tell you. When I finished The Trojan War Museum, I thought about reading The Iliad again, but then I remembered that I still had yet to read H.D.'s Helen in Egypt, which I picked up a few months ago. The book-length poem, based on a fifty-line fragment from a Sicilian poet named Stesichorus (640-555 BC), as well as on the better-known myths and legends surrounding the Trojan War, is--how to put it--absolutely gripping. Great stuff. It took me about twenty pages to really get comfortable with the structure (short episodic poems with brief prose introductions, the introductions making me wonder if H.D. didn't trust the strength of the poetry to let it stand on its own), but by the time the shade of Achilles is arguing with Helen about what really happened, and why, I had stopped caring about any of that.
You say, I could not see,
but God had given to me,
the eyes of an eagle;

you say, I could not know
how many paces there were
from turret to turret;

there was bitter discussion and hate,
she could leave by a secret gate,
and the armies be saved;

why does she hold us here?
the winters were ruthless and bleak,
the summer burnt up the plain

and the army with fever;
they fell as the ears of wheat
when a reaper harvests the grain;

is this the harvest?
year after year, we fought
to enter a prison, a fortress;

was she a prisoner?
did she wanton, awake?
or asleep, did she dream of home?

an arrow would settle it,
but no man dared aim at the mark
that taunted and angered us
et cetera, just brilliant. The arrow remark reflects on Achilles' other thoughts, that he was killed by an arrow because his leg armor had a defective buckle, and for no other reason. Helen knows it was not the buckle that did Achilles in, but rather the gods. Achilles and Helen dispute, and then he is gone:
who are you? where are you?
I call Achilles but not even an echo
answers, Achilles:

Achilles, Achilles come back,
you alone have the answer;
the dream? the veil?

is it all a story?
a legend of murder and lust,
the revenge of Orestes,

the death of my sister,
the ships and the Myrmidons,
the armies assembled at Aulis?
I will be happy to get back to this book later tonight.

Monday, April 13, 2020

The kiss of death, the embrace of life

I recently read Bryan Waterman's Marquee Moon, one of those books in the "33 1/3" series about pop albums. I've been aware of this book series for decades, I suppose, but Marquee Moon is the only volume I've read. I picked it up because Mighty Reader and I were waiting at Easy Street Records for a table to open up in their cafe side, and as I wandered past the very large display of "33 1/3" publications, the book caught my eye. "Marquee Moon," I thought. "That was a pretty good album."

The book--and I propose the single-case theory that all of the books in this series follow the same formula--gives a history of the band Television, situates them within their contemporary cultural and musical world, and then discusses the album "Marquee Moon", track by track. Waterman, who seems like a nice guy, is not a musician (as far as I can tell), nor is he a music critic. He teaches American literature and culture at NYU. Waterman was not part of the New York scene that gave rise to Television; he was about five years old and living in Arizona when Marquee Moon was recorded.

I mention this because I became interested while reading Waterman's book in the idea that some historians, possibly especially cultural historians (if there is such a thing, and if it's a different sort of historian than, say, Edward Gibbon or Tacitus), seem to be following the lure of false nostalgia, seduced by the idea of an era they did not witness, and driven to chronicle that era in what appears, at least in Waterman's book, to be an attempt to create a sort of prehistory of themselves. Waterman, after all, occasionally writes himself into the Television narrative (inserting a passage of himself cycling through lower Manhattan, and later recommending wandering through the Bowery while listening to "Marquee Moon" on headphones). Waterman states in his introduction that "The authentic past eludes us precisely because we ritually sacrifice memory to create mythical accounts of origins--and endings." Waterman's book is a ritual sacrifice of memory, though he has no memories of his own; the book is a quilt of interview excerpts from the rock press of the mid-1970s. Waterman picks through what he's read about the early days of the NY punk scene in order to create an origin myth. And also, as he hints at in the passage I just quoted, a myth of the End of Time. I have noticed that many cultural historians seem to be convinced that the end of something they love (the cancellation of a TV show, the death of a rap singer, the closing of a theater, etc) must be a tragedy, which makes the telling of histories a form of grieving as well as myth-making. Perhaps myth-making, I wonder, is after all a kind of grief? A grand form of false nostalgia, where what could've been is positioned as what should've been, had the world been a better place. The band Television, in Waterman's showing, was the historical locus that led to the birth of punk rock, and also new wave and post-punk music. Television should've been famous, man. So a yearning not only for an imagined past, but also for an imagined present in which the author's heroes have attained widespread legendary status.

But I am too hard on Waterman, because I understand this sort of nostalgia, and reading Marquee Moon carried me back to my own days in bands. Which remembering led me to my second observation about this book and books like it: whenever I read a description of an art scene as written about by someone who has never been in an art scene, the resulting writing never feels like a scene. Mighty Reader, over lunch today, asked me what the hell I mean by that. What I mean, I think, is that there is no passion, no idea that anyone was pursuing ideas that really interested them; there is neither drive nor desire of any form. There is merely a sequence of events and commentary made by participants at the time. There is no aboutness; only a list of characters and sets. Maybe this is a problem with journalism; I don't know. Maybe it's a problem with language itself.

I will say that Waterman's subject, the Television album "Marquee Moon," is a work with which I'm pretty familiar. I've been listening to some of those songs for decades. I could probably grab my guitar right now and play "See No Evil" for you. Not that I will, but I will say that Television's debut album is uneven, but it still kills. Go listen to "See No Evil," "Friction," and especially "Marquee Moon." Terrific stuff, and timeless. It's hard to believe this was all written in the mid-70s. Someone should get Franz Ferdinand to cover a Television song.

Though I was a fan of Television, I probably only ever knew all the lyrics to a handful of their songs. There's a variety of reasons for this, not the least being Verlaine's singing, but in general I've listened to rock primarily for the guitars, the beat, and the arrangements rather than for the words. Once I learned how to write rock songs--once, that is, I learned that there are forms or templates, fill-in-the-blank structures--I really only heard a song's first lines, the chorus, and how the sounds of the words (not the words themselves or any alleged meaning behind them) fit with the sounds of the music. I was not one of those young men who sat up until dawn, listening over and over to one track on a record, trying to figure out what the singer meant, what it was all about. The sound itself was the meaning, to me. Television had a great sound, both on and beneath the surface.

Most good rock songs have an interesting first couplet or verse, a catchy chorus, and a whole lot of filler by way of bad rhymes and incoherent argy-bargy to pad for length. You may disagree, but in my opinion, the lyrics to a rock song don't much matter. And Television, for me, was always about the guitars, the intertwined riffs and melodies that eventually informed bands like Throwing Muses, possibly the Belew/Fripp incarnation of King Crimson, and my own little bands. Two electric guitars and a bass playing counterpoint over solid but shifting drums, some asshole shouting over the top of it: my kind of music. Even with my first primitive trio, I tired to make my one guitar sound like more than a single instrument. A lot of the time that meant playing long lines against drones as in this piece. Sometimes it meant playing suspended chords over moving bass lines, as in this other piece. Sometimes it just meant a lot of arpeggios and as much digital delay as the atmosphere could bear.

I wore out the grooves (as they say) in my copy of "Marquee Moon," but I never got very familiar with the rest of Television's catalogue aside from the song "Little Johnny Jewel" (the live version of which I listened to as I typed this post, and O my God but what a terrific extended tapestry of guitar noise in the middle of an innocent pop tune). Over the years I bought four of Verlaine's solo albums, which are good but they did not move me the way "Marquee Moon" did. I won't be writing any books about those records.

Monday, March 30, 2020

up next: rain of toads

It's hailing. We can hear the stones hammering away at the walls and roof. I look out my window and watch the raised beds whiten over with thousands of pellets of ice. Fifteen minutes ago, the cat and I were in the back yard, warming ourselves in the sun. Okay, Jehovah, we get it. We get it.

Friday, March 27, 2020

Wonders in the post

Today's mail brought a treat, which I hope to begin reading this weekend. Go to Marly's website to learn more about the novel. No, I mean now. Go on, git.

Thursday, March 26, 2020

et ego in the Ark

The brothers are hungry and tired. At dusk, once the sky turns powder-blue with ragged gashes of ember-red, they cycle northwest in search of food. A swarm of black asters hangs low in the sky, haunting the streets with the roar of their blades. People walk briskly, gripping their bags to their chests. Blackvest vans skip red lights. Teenagers stand in groups on street corners, swigging beers, smoking, laughing, listening to tunes.
The mood of Patrick Langley's novel Arkady is a little Lord of the Flies, a little A Clockwork Orange, and a little bit of Graham Greene's "The Destructors." Also, possibly, some strong hints of High-Rise. But Arkady mostly lacks the violence of these novels, and Langley seems uninterested in the grotesqueness of Ballard's vision. All of which is to say that Arkady is a dystopian novel, set in a parallel London in the present age, a London where there are riots in the street, where the army forcibly turns residents out of blocks of flats, where the noise of police drones is ever present, where towers of glass are surrounded by crumbling and abandoned suburbs. Something has happened here, but we never know what. "They've broken the economy," one character says, referring to the televised scene of a horde of white-collar workers being chased from an office building. A tottering police state with riots organized over social networks. Construction cranes fill the downtown skyline, abandoned factories and equipment fill the regions at London's edge.
There are cities within the city. Unofficial districts have appeared in public parks and empty yards. Dwellings, assembled from scraps of fabric, metal, wood and wire, hunker and lean against brick walls and mesh fences. Plywood shacks spring up in a matter of minutes, bashed together with gaffa and nails: the rickety mansions collapse under heavy rain and are repaired within hours. Tents flourish overnight like nocturnal flowers, dusted with the exhaust of passing cars until the colors fade like someone turning down the saturation.
The book follows two brothers through this London: Jackson and Frank, orphans of a sort (their mother disappears in Spain--maybe--when the boys are quite young, and their father is arrested--maybe--for her murder) who attend a miserable public school and live in a tiny flat with an old man named Leonard. We never learn who Leonard is.
He saw the boat a short while later. Something about the angle at which it rested, not quite flush with the wall, intrigued him. He had passed other boats already, barges with protruding ribs and rotten boards, boats with busted hulls and gaping sides. But this particular boat looked different, promising, and oddly familiar, like a face he dimly remembered but could not put a name to. As he edged towards the boat, step by slow step down the wall, Jackson was overcome by the sensation that he was walking towards his own death. By stepping into the lightless void of the boat's interior, he would enter a kind of Hades: a dark inversion of the city he hated and loved, around which he would drift like a pale, forgotten thing, a shadow of a shadow of a shadow. He liked the idea of oblivion. If this boat was his tomb, so what? Nothingness would be a relief.
Jackson and Frank, and the humane portrayal of their relationship, is what connects Langley's work to that of Golding and Burgess. Intelligent boys on the verge of adulthood, sorting out the rubbish ideas of both their own minds and the mind of the world, inhabiting their little marginal lives while immense and violent forces move all about them (in the second half of the book, a community of squatters is evicted from an abandoned property in a long fire-lit chapter that reads like a battle scene from the Iliad). Jackson and Frank are heroes and they are nonentities. They matter to nobody and nothing except each other. It occurs to me that Arkady is written in the long tradition of the Odyssey, a story of lonely travelers seeking home, crossing foreign lands while encountering strangeness and danger along the way. Life as incomprehensible unsettledness, our steps tracing a path toward, we hope, a place to rest.

Monday, March 16, 2020

prevention is better than cure

Light rail station, Seattle, Monday morning during rush hour. Usually there are fifty to a hundred passengers waiting. Today there were fewer than twenty.

Seattle is not exactly on lock-down, not exactly under a curfew, but restaurants have closed for all but carry-out and delivery orders, public assemblies have been forbidden, and everyone who can work from home is being urged to do so. I am sitting at my desk in my office at the university as I write this, because I can't work from home very efficiently, though this morning I'm setting up my laptop with a VPN so that, possibly, I'll be able to stay home tomorrow. Not that I mind being at the office. It's quiet during this epidemic and I've been able to get a lot more done than I usually can. I do not so much miss the pitter-patter of tiny feet. I do wonder where I'll eat lunch, seeing that the on-campus food services are all closed (though thank heavens for the still-open espresso cart).

I work at a medical school, and students in their third and fourth years have all been pulled from clinical training, meaning that hundreds of interns are, even as I write this, returning home from healthcare facilities over a five-state region, a sort of reverse diaspora if you will, that will last until at least the end of April. Medical schools across the country are all wondering how to continue educating students during this COVID-19 event, with an eye to making sure no student graduates late. There is a whole post-graduate resident education machine that depends on the academic calendar being kept, an international pipeline that feeds physicians into the healthcare system.

Someone, maybe one of the physicians at the CDC, referred to the epidemic as a war, and I am reminded, on my travels around this now-very-quiet self-quarantining city, of scenes in Olivia Manning's Fortunes of War novels, images of exhausted citizens behind closed doors in Budapest and Athens on the eve of German invasion: shops boarded up and streets still as death, nowhere to go and nothing to do but wait, yet the trams are still running, empty.

To take my mind off of all this, I'm reading an Agatha Christie detective novel, The Mystery of the Blue Train. Yes, again with the trains. Blue Train is an early novel, unevenly written but with an interesting narrative structure built around a shifting point of view in each chapter. It's in many ways a very 18th-century sort of book, with a lady's companion character who could've stepped out of a Jane Austen novel. Poirot, as usual, is testy and delightful.

Monday, March 9, 2020

knowing everything's nothingness

I first saw Max von Sydow in "The Greatest Story Ever Told," which I watched on television with my family, probably in the early 1970s. I first noticed von Sydow in "The Seventh Seal," which I watched at a theater on the UCD campus as part of a Bergman festival. During that same week I also watched "Through a Glass, Darkly," and "Wild Strawberries." Good stuff. I've seen von Sydow in any number of films since then, but whenever I see or hear his name, I always first think of that exhausted knight, making his way home through a plague-ridden Europe.

Here in Seattle, it is not exactly a plague-ridden landscape but the freeways, trains, and buses were all sparsely populated during this morning's commute. My office, which at full capacity holds more than forty staff, is down to seven people today, the rest all working from home. Classes are being held remotely, meetings are being canceled or held by video or phone. Since there are no students on campus, there are no student workers at the espresso carts. Don't you worry: I managed to survive the morning because I Am Very Brave. After all, walking a half a block to a different coffee stand and waiting longer in line is not exactly playing chess with Death.

Mighty Reader and I are both now in the third book of Olivia Manning's The Balkan Trilogy. Harriet and Guy have fled Bucharest for Athens, arriving only a few days before Italy declares war upon Greece. There are no ships nor planes to evacuate British citizens, so the Pringles are trapped and allegedly (one never knows what news to trust) the Italian army has already crossed the frontier and is marching upon Athens. Out of one frying pan and into a different but similar fire, in other words. Guy Pringle continues to be annoying. He is no Antonius Block. But then neither are any of the rest of us.

"I shall carry this memory carefully in my hands as if it were a bowl brimful of fresh milk."

Thursday, March 5, 2020

patient n-1

Subway station mural at closed platform in Westlake Center, Seattle WA

Seattle, as you may have heard, has had an outbreak of COVID-19, also known by the charming name of the coronavirus. I keep expecting COVID-19 patients to have halos, but that's not happening. Transit drivers turned up wearing face masks today, despite the WHO advice that a mask is only sensible if you are either caring for an infected person or believe you are an infected person. Mostly, you should keep your hands sanitized. Here at my office, we all have bottles of hand sanitizer and sanitizer towelettes. The conference rooms are stocked with sanitizer dispensers. The place smells like alcohol and artificial fragrance, which makes me sneeze, which alarms my coworkers, which perversely amuses me.

Seconds ago, I received an email that begins as follows: 

Dear staff, we are excited to announce the opening of a COVID-19 testing clinic for employees.

It's as if the university has opened a new staff lounge. I'm awfully excited about this new employee benefit. I am attempting not to be cynical, but if I'm truthful, I believe that my colleagues and I will all come down with the virus, all suffer from moderate-to-severe flu symptoms, and all recover from it. Lost work time and productivity, misery all around, but probably not the end of the world. Though I am no physician. But I work surrounded by physicians, who are not walking around in latex gloves and surgical masks.

Even so, it feels as if COVID-19 is one more sign of the Apocalypse, with earthquakes and tornadoes and wildfires going on all around us. Mighty Reader and I are reading Olivia Manning's Fortunes of War series, which books early on establish a sense of growing dread and manage to keep up that sense of rising crisis for hundreds of pages without relief. Our protagonists sit waiting in Bucharest as the Nazi forces prepare to invade Romania, telling themselves that when the invasion inevitably comes, they will have enough time to escape. Meanwhile, the local fascist elements are on the rise and the king has abdicated. It's all very tense. Fortunes of War was a poor choice in the way of escapist literature. It is, however, quite good.