Thursday, April 26, 2012

Breathing Lessons, by Anne Tyler

I recently read two articles in the Guardian, possibly both on the same day. The first article reported that the Pulitzer Prize Committee will not give an award for fiction in 2012.  In the history of the fiction prize, this is the 11th occasion on which this has happened, but it still ruffled some feathers. The three novels on the short-list were Karen Russell's Swamplandia!, Denis Johnson's Train Dreams, and the late David Foster Wallace's The Pale King, left unfinished at the time of his suicide and completed, I believe, by his editor. I read and enjoyed the first, but I didn't think it worthy of the Pulitzer. I never cared for Denis Johnson's short stories so never picked up his novels, and although I find Foster Wallace's writing brilliant, his books often leave me feeling the depth of despair that ended his life. Although the three judges charged with producing this short list defended their unanimous selections, the Committee passed on all of them.

Almost simultaneously, Anne Tyler, whose Breathing Lessons won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1989 and who is said to be nearly as reclusive as Salinger, suddenly decided to give a long, leisurely interview to the Guardian. Providence (and the Guardian) seemed to suggest that it was time to read this novel.

Breathing Lessons strikes me as a contemporary, American version of Mrs. Dalloway  -- a stream-of-consciousness account of a single day in the life of Maggie Moran. Maggie is by many accounts an ordinary middle-aged woman. Her teenaged daughter, Daisy, petulantly demands, "Mom? Was there a certain conscious point in your life when you decided to settle for being ordinary?" In the care of a good author, however, we realise that there is no such thing as an ordinary person, and both Woolf and Tyler reveal their characters' strengths, flaws and foibles.  Maggie has foibles galore.

On the given day, Maggie and her husband Ira are driving to the funeral of a schoolmate's husband. The book opens with Maggie collecting their car from the garage and immediately getting into a fender-bender with a truck because she was startled by something she heard in a radio interview. It was with her former daughter-in-law, Fiona, who announced that she would be remarrying soon. *crash!* Fiona leaves the irate truck driver fuming in the street as she races home to tell Ira, who is far more interested in the fresh dent than he is in Fiona's impending remarriage.  Ira reminds her that their son, Jesse, was an immature, irresponsible rock star wannabe and that the marriage had been doomed from the start. This is not what Maggie wants to hear; she defends her children as staunchly and unreasoningly as a mother bear. This, she reflects, may not always have been to their benefit.
Sometimes, deep down inside, Maggie blamed herself too. She saw now that there was a single theme to every decision she had made as a parent: The mere fact that her children were children, condemned for years to feel powerless and bewildered and confined, filled her with such pity that to add any further hardship to their lives seemed unthinkable. She could excuse anything in them, forgive them everything. She would have made a better mother, perhaps, if she hadn't remembered so well how it felt to be a child.
Flashing back to the beginning of Fiona's and Jesse's marriage, Maggie expresses the frustrations of mothers everywhere. How to be in several places at once and to keep everything running properly? While Fiona is in labour in hospital, Maggie frets about Ira's inability to keep things in order at home, about Jesse's immaturity as his child is about to be born, about... well, about everything. Maggie's maternal anxieties are downright palpable.  
She considered going home for a while (it was nearly five o'clock) but she knew she would only fret and pace, so she stayed where she was and kept in touch by telephone. Daisy reported that Ira was fixing a pancake supper. "No green vegetable?" Maggie asked. "Where's the green vegetable?" Ira got on the phone to assure her that he was serving spiced crab-apple rings on the side. "Spice crab-apple rings are not green, Ira," Maggie said. She felt herself growing weepy. She ought to be at home supervising her family's nutrition; she ought to be storming the labor room to comfort Fiona; she ought to take Jesse in her arms and rock him because he was nothing but a child still, much too young for what was happening to him. But here she stood, clutching a salty-smelling receiver in a public phone hutch. Her stomach felt all knotted and tight. It hadn't been so long since she was a patient in the labor room herself, and her muscles recalled it exactly.
Part of Maggie's task as a mother, she believes, is to get the family back together and keep it so, despite its nearly entropic tendency to fly apart. Ira has accepted that Jesse and Fiona were too young to be married with a child; he sees their individual failures quite plainly. He remembered that when Fiona had moved into their house, there had been clear signals of impermanence from the start. I admire how Tyler deftly uses toiletries to forecast the instability of the young marriage.
Wasn't it odd that for almost a year now she had borne off to the bathroom twice daily a tortoiseshell soapbox, a tube of Aim toothpaste (not the Morans' brand), and a toothbrush in a plastic cylinder? And that her toilet supplies were continually stored in a clear vinyl travel case on the bureau? She might as well be a guest. She had never meant to settle in permanently.
On their way home from the funeral, Maggie convinces Ira to stop at Fiona's mother's house, just for a visit. Ira's not fooled for a moment -- he knows full well that Maggie is scheming to reunite Fiona and Jesse. Wearily he shakes his head and makes the detour. After sending Ira out to play frisbee with their granddaughter, Maggie proceeds to tell Fiona how much Jesse still loves her. She knows she's stretching the truth, but it's just a small distortion, and it's for a good cause, right? Fiona had agreed seven years before to bear the child (as opposed to aborting it) and marry Jesse after Maggie had told her that Jesse had come home with plans to build a cradle. Fiona was sceptical but touched nonetheless, and no one but Maggie was surprised when the baby slept in a bureau drawer.  Finally, Ira stepped up as the good grandfather and hammered together a makeshift crib.
Leroy [the granddaughter] learned to crawl and she crawled right out of her bureau drawer, and the next day Ira came home with a crib. He assembled it, without comment, in his and Maggie's bedroom. Without comment, Fiona watched from the doorway. The skin beneath her eyes had a sallow, soiled look.
Still, Fiona falls once again for Maggie's stories and agrees to return with them to their house to meet Jesse for dinner. We know vaguely what will happen, and yet we're still as surprised as Maggie when it plays out as Ira had predicted it would.

By the time Maggie and Ira fall into bed at the end of the day, we realise, with copious thanks to Anne Tyler, that we never really change. We grow in some regards as years pass, but our motivations and personalities are the same from one decade to the next. Maggie is also living proof that although others may label her 'ordinary' and 'common', we are sadly blind if we fail to see that everyone has a wealth of quirky individuality.  Our common experiences are no less profound and poignant.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

My Antonia, by Willa Cather

Here's another classic that I'm reading for the first time, but I suspect that I appreciated it much more at mid-life than I would have in secondary school, which is when most readers find it on assigned reading lists.  This is a tale of nostalgia, and frankly, teen-agers haven't got enough years under their belts to work up a proper sense of nostalgia.

Say the name Willa Cather and I think of the great open prairies of America's mid-west. When I was a younger woman, the mere thought of this landscape was insufferably boring. Grass. Sky. When I visited the desert southwest, I saw a bigger sky than I'd ever seen in my life, having grown up in a forested landscape. I suddenly understood the drama of light, clouds and massive fields of stars. After reading My Antonia, I can appreciate the beauty of vast, unbroken fields of grasses and grains under that tremendous sky. That landscape, I expect, is becoming increasingly rare nowadays. The idea of Nebraska being a destination for rugged pioneers is long past. 

The story's narrator, Jim Burden, arrives in Nebraska as a young boy, and the prairie clearly seizes his heart straight away. 
As I looked about me I felt that the grass was the country, as the water is the sea. The red of the grass made all the great prairie the colour of winestains, or of certain seaweeds when they are first washed up. And there was so much motion in it; the whole country seemed, somehow, to be running.
I wanted to walk straight on through the red grass and over the edge of the world, which could not be very far away. The light air about me told me that the world ended here: only the ground and sun and sky were left, and if one went a little farther there would be only sun and sky, and one would float off into them, like the tawny hawks which sailed over our heads making slow shadows on the grass.
I also had the good fortune to grow up in the country in a time before consumer electronics were the main source of entertainment for kids. Regardless of the season, my mother was quick to urge me out of the house to either do chores or find some other way to amuse myself. I remember certain moments of doing nothing but looking around myself at the natural beauty of Maine and simply being. It's much harder for me to do that nowadays, more challenging to ignore the distractions, especially in a city. I imagine few children of the 21st century experience 'pumpkin' moments like this.
I kept as still as I could. Nothing happened. I did not expect anything to happen. I was something that lay under the sun and felt it, like the pumpkins, and I did not want to be anything more. I was entirely happy. Perhaps we feel like that when we die and become a part of something entire, whether it is sun and air, or goodness and knowledge. At any rate, that is happiness; to be dissolved into something complete and great. When it comes to one, it comes as naturally as sleep.
Antonia's family migrated from Central Europe to Nebraska and, like so many others, fought to survive the brutal winters living in sod houses, worked like draft animals to make a living from their farms, struggled to learn English from their neighbours. Pushed by his wife to migrate to America, Antonia's father never overcame his homesickness and despaired of adapting to this harsh new life. His suicide consigned his daughter to work the farm alongside her dictatorial older brother. She, however, seemed to take pride in her strength and endurance, boasting that she could accomplish as much as any man. Many of the adults in the area, especially the American ladies, shook their heads at this state of affairs, worried that she would never live a decent life. Antonia does come into the town for a while to work as a domestic for a good family, but when a marriage falls through and she returns disgraced and pregnant, it is back to her family's farm she goes.

The story sees the children, Jim and Antonia included, progressing through adolescence and into adulthood. Jim goes to the state capital and then to Harvard to study law. While in Lincoln, he meets up with a Swedish girl from his town, Lena, who has become a successful dressmaker. Another feisty young Swede, Tiny, goes west and makes a fortune in the Klondike gold rush (losing some toes to frostbite in the process).  The local people see them as success stories, but Antonia's choices seems to disappoint all those who knew her and had rather hoped she might amount to something more.  Antonia, after bearing her beloved but illegitimate daughter, married another Bavarian farmer and bore him ten children.

Eventually, in their middle age, Jim finds that Lena and Tiny, both single and prosperous businesswomen have returned to their home town, where they share lodgings. Lena's concern that Tiny might become a Nebraskan Hetty Green made me smile.

It interested me, after so many years, to see the two women together. Tiny audits Lena's accounts occasionally, and invests her money for her; and Lena, apparently, takes care that Tiny doesn't grow too miserly. 'If there's anything I can't stand,' she said to me in Tiny's presence, 'it's a shabby rich woman.' Tiny smiled grimly and assured me that Lena would never be either shabby or rich.
Jim summons his strength, rents a horse and cart and drives out to Antonia's farm. He finds her much as she always was -- strong, good-humoured, and loving toward her husband, children and the land they work.  She tells him that she couldn't imagine living in a town, much less a city.

I was startled that other characters shook their heads sadly when talking about 'poor Antonia', bemoaning her fate. In fact, she seemed enormously content with her life. Surely, early 20th century Nebraskans still respected and admired farmers, I'd have thought, but they seem to have placed a higher value on those who took up more urbanised and white-collar careers. And there is Antonia, standing strong and fecund and bold, much like the prairie itself, not caring what others think.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Hetty: The Genius and Madness of America's First Female Tycoon, by Charles Slack

When I was a child, I remember looking at this photograph of the woman who topped the list of the world's greatest misers in The Book of Lists: Mrs. Hetty Green, AKA 'the Witch of Wall Street'. She is remembered largely for her eccentricities and parsimony, but this biography revealed a much more complex and competent woman, and one for whom I now feel tremendous respect.  Hetty Green has crossed my path in  a number of ways through the years, and I'm glad to finally know of her from a more sympathetic source.

The first thing Mr. Slack points out is that Hetty's financial acumen started very early in her life. Her father first made his fortune in the Massachusetts whaling industry (as my ancestors had), and when his vision began to fail, he called upon sharp-witted little Hetty to help him
Perhaps the only thing about Black Hawk Robinson that could be described as weak was his eyesight. And so from a young age Hetty read the financial news to her father, and to her maternal grandfather, Gideon Howland, a partner in the firm. She read shipping statistics, tariff news, currency debates, the latest on securities and investments, and trade news from New York. She absorbed everything. By the time she was fifteen, by her own reckoning, she knew more about finance than many financial men.
The Robinsons were Quakers, and with this came stern discipline, principles, and self-sufficiency.
Looking back on her childhood many years later, Hetty would recall, “My father taught me never to owe anyone anything. Not even a kindness." ...
They refused to doff their hats to other men, saving this as a sign of respect for God, and dressed in conspicuously plain garments. These habits made the Quakers seem exotic and strange, but at heart theirs was a rather simple and lovely idea—that God lives within each person. They sought a closer communion with their Maker by stripping away the bureaucratic layer of priests, bishops, ministers, and other holy middlemen represented by organized religion. They met as “Friends,” each individual sharing his or her experiences with God. Detractors misconstrued this as a Quaker claim that every individual was God, hence free to ignore Scripture if so moved. In fact, Quakers adhered closely to the established scriptures, and members could be evicted for straying too far in their personal beliefs.
The New England Quakers' work ethic paid off, but their success created a bit of conflict, and this clash of values explains so many of Hetty's lifelong contradictions:  She was a woman of great industry, but she never used her wealth to buy herself a life of comfort and pleasure. It just wasn't the Quaker way.
...first at farming, then at fishing, and finally at whaling. As their fortunes rose, they lived a peculiar contradiction of their own making. They believed in humility, thriftiness, hard work, plain dwellings and furnishings, and modesty in both dress and behavior. They had no idea what to do when, applying these godly virtues to whaling, they found themselves becoming as rich as sin...
... Hetty's accumulation of money and her seeming inability to enjoy spending it, her arch disapproval of those who did spend their money, her ability to claim poverty and humility while hording a fortune of epic proportions—all of these things can be traced back to that small world, at once drab and colorful, of the New Bedford Quakers.
I was not raised a Quaker, but I was raised by parents who had grown up during the Great Depression, and they taught me from a very young age to save money. For security. For a rainy day. A penny saved is a penny earned. I received my first coin bank as a gift before I started school, and I vividly remember counting its contents and adding to them every coin that came to me. I also remember opening my first bank account when I was too small to see over the counter. My mother never paid me a half-dollar not to bite the dentist, but Hetty and I had plenty in common as little girls. 
If most children’s natural inclination is to spend any booty immediately on candy or toys, Hetty showed no such urges, even as a child. Chances are that the half-dollar she earned at the dentist’s office went into a box in her room for safekeeping. She received an allowance of $1.50 per week, but, unlike other children with money in their pockets, she showed no desire to spend it. When she was eight, she later claimed, she marched down to a local bank, savings in hand, and opened her first account.
Most portrayals of Hetty are of a grim, humourless woman so consumed with the accumulation and hoarding of wealth that she had no friends nor social skills. Before her marriage, when she was still living in her parents' home, she attended a ball at which the guest of honour was the Prince of Wales. Hetty had no qualms about speaking to him.  She simply introduced herself as "the Princess of Whales".

When her father died, he seemed to give way to convention, as if he'd forgotten that he'd reared a daughter who was every bit as fiscally savvy as he. His only heir, Hetty found her bequest held in trust for her, managed by others.
But she was a woman, and Robinson followed the conventions of the day and kept some 80 percent of his fortune in trust for her, so that she would not fritter it away. Hetty could interpret the will as nothing other than a deep and burning insult. She would carry anger over her father’s will throughout her life, transferring her rage from her father to the men he had selected to administer the trust.
Mr. Slack makes sure to point out at the end of the book who was the more competent financial manager. At the time of her death, Hetty was the richest woman in America, and only a small portion of her wealth had been inherited.
The trust of Hetty’s father had barely increased in value in all those years. Hetty’s own money, meanwhile, had exploded in a literal embarrassment of riches.
Although known for her miserliness, Hetty did give generously to certain charities, but very quietly. If she became known as a philanthropist, she knew she would be overwhelmed by demands.
For her efforts on behalf of Catholic charities, in particular to help the children of poor Catholic immigrants, she would be named a papal countess.
I found it interesting that she chose Catholic charities, being a Quaker herself, but Hetty was above all pragmatic. If she felt the Catholic charities got the job done most effectively, that's where her donations would go. (I believe Hetty and Rose Kennedy -- who was actually a Catholic -- are the only American women ever given this title.)

This biography made clear that Hetty acquired much of her wealth by a studious, steady and conservative programme of investing. Hers was hands-on money management, and men of finance -- both her peers and her enemies -- admitted great respect for her ability.
“Mrs. E. H. Green is well known, by reputation at least, in Wall-street,” the Times reported. “She is believed to be the richest woman in America, a title earned by her own business sagacity, energy, and watchfulness.” The article added later: “She has lived a frugal life, exercised extraordinary keenness in her investments, and by embracing every good opportunity that the stock market afforded she has more than quintupled her inheritance. Old Wall-street operators give Mrs. Green credit for having as intimate a knowledge of railroad securities as any person they know.”
I had read accounts of the humble lodgings in which Hetty chose to live with her two children after her estrangement from her husband. Less kind accounts suggest that she forced them to live in squalor, but it wasn't that grim. They simply moved around from one simple apartment to the next. As with so many other aspects of Hetty's seemingly eccentric behaviour, there was an excellent reason for this nomadic roaming.
In order to collect personal property taxes, collectors first had to establish proof of residency. By paying monthly rent and moving frequently, Hetty preserved the ability to deny that she lived in any given city or state whose tax collectors became too persistent. During the course of her life she would be a resident of Bellows Falls, New Bedford, New York, and New Jersey, all of them and none of them at the same time.
Having accumulated so much wealth, it's only natural that Hetty would be distrustful of others' motives. Fortunately for her, she seems to have been emotionally and functionally self-sufficient. Her suspicions, however, meant that her daughter married very late in life -- much too late to bear children -- because Hetty scared off what she feared to be gold-digging suitors. She herself had very few close acquaintances, and perhaps only one friend, Annie O'Leary. At times, later in her life, she said things that suggested a deep paranoia and fear for her life, but generally, Hetty was just a stolid, self-reliant individual.
The friendship with Annie notwithstanding, Hetty lived her life convinced that, as a businesswoman, if not as a woman, she was fundamentally and completely alone. Nobody else would watch out for her interests. She mistrusted all forms of alliances and cabals. Where other investors sought the safety of numbers, the soothing ring of consensus, Hetty felt most comfortable on her own, trusting her own judgment and instincts. She was a free agent in the truest sense of the term, and anyone going into a deal assuming he had Hetty Green in his corner, or that she could be pushed, harassed, or cowed into going along with a crowd, learned difficult and expensive lessons to the contrary.
Hetty found one bank in New York that she trusted to hold her wealth, and the courtly banker, Mr. Williams, set up a desk for Mrs. Green at the back of the bank. She went there nearly every day to attend to her business. It might be tempting to refer to Hetty as ruthless, but that does not mean she was unethical. Quite the contrary, she insisted upon honourable behaviour, and this banker's values suited her to a tee.
To Williams, politeness was more than just kindness; it was sound business. “Politeness pays,” he would tell his employees. “A grain of politeness saves a ton of correction. No institution is too important to ignore the laws of courtesy.”
His staff knew better than to raise their eyebrows or titter as Hetty came into the bank each day, often wearing frayed and unfashionably old clothing.
They made no issue about her old clothes, or about her ways of economizing, which at times included arriving at the bank with a metal pail containing dry oatmeal, to be mixed with water and heated on a radiator for lunch, so as to avoid a restaurant tab.
Although Hetty's philanthropy may have been a secret to the common man, her peers -- both in government and finance -- turned to her to avert a range of bankruptcies and collapses. Her wealth acted as an independent branch of the national treasury.  During one looming crisis, all the nation's wealthiest men met secretly in New York to discuss an emergency bail-out. One woman, dressed all in black, was seen slipping into the building. No one was certain that it was Hetty, but who else... ?
At any rate, it is difficult to imagine any other woman of the time being called in by J. P. Morgan and his associates to discuss a national financial crisis...
[She became] a sort of one-woman Federal Reserve, whose decisions on interest rates were followed the way investors today await word from Fed chairman Alan Greenspan. “Hetty Green Cuts Rates,” the Times reported.
 Journalists dubbed Hetty 'the Witch of Wall Street' during her lifetime, and many went on at great length about her niggardly and unhappy life. They could not comprehend that anyone might possess such wealth, fail to spend it, and still be happy. To me, her contentment makes perfect sense.
This notion of her unhappiness owed itself in part to the tenor of the times. How could a woman be happy whose thoughts were so dominated by business and finance? Her preoccupation with money must be covering for some huge gap in her domestic life. Certainly, nothing Hetty said supported the notion that she was unhappy. Virtually every public comment she made regarding her own life reinforced the idea of a woman living her life contentedly, according to a few simple rules. “I really have nothing to say,” she told a New York Times reporter in November 1905, “further than to be thankful for my continued health and interest in general affairs. I know of but very few people who are busier than myself or who are better trained to combine business with pleasure.” Asked if she planned to retire, Hetty responded, “Why should I give up work? I was never more capable of handling my affairs.” 
In the end, her principal crime seems to have been that the rules she chose to live by were her own rather than society’s.
Hetty enjoyed managing her money, and she continued very actively as she aged. I love this image of finance in the days of paper coupons and stock certificates.
Hetty still put in full days. She occupied a Spartan office furnished with an old roll-top oak desk and three chairs. Often her days consisted of sitting next to enormous piles of coupons for bonds coming due. Patiently, steadfastly she worked her way through mound after mound of coupons, cutting with a pair of large shears. She kept a grindstone nearby for sharpening the shears when they became dulled by the ceaseless tide of her wealth.
After her death, at least one commentator passed what seems to me a fair judgement.
The most perceptive assessment may have been this: “Probably her life was happy. At any rate, she had enough of courage to live as she chose and to be as thrifty as she pleased, and she observed such of the world’s conventions as seemed to her right and useful, coldly and calmly ignoring all the others.”
I am an alumna of Wellesley College, a women's college in Wellesley, Massachusetts (also the alma mater of Hillary Clinton, Madeleine Albright, and many other luminaries who have achieved greater heights than I).  The grand brownstone administrative hall at the center of the campus with its gothic arches, leaded windows and square carillon tower is Green Hall. I remember learning that it had been built with funds donated by Ned Green, Hetty's son. At the time, I blurted out something about what little I knew of Hetty -- namely her infamous miserliness -- and was greeted with blank stares by my classmates, none of whom had ever heard of her. It was often wrongly reported that Hetty's children disbursed her entire estate in a frenzy of charitable giving, perhaps as a way to make up for the deprivations they'd suffered as children. This, as it turns out, is rubbish.
Because of this connection with Wellesley, Ned in 1923 talked his sister into joining him in a $500,000 donation to the college. They agreed to give $50,000 each per year for five years, toward the construction of an administration building. The building, with a tower rising 185 feet high from Norumbega Hill, was constructed of brick and Indiana limestone; it was and remains the most prominent building on campus. It also bears the distinction of being the only edifice or monument to Hetty Green. It is called Hetty H. R. Green Hall.
It grieves me that I never in my Wellesley years or since heard this glorious building called anything but Green Hall. It was only by coincidence that I learned of its' connection to the Green family, and I never once heard Hetty's name mentioned in conjunction with it. Wellesley is a women's college; its mandate is to educate women to think and live independently and boldly, and Hetty Green was nothing if not a role model for strong, self-reliant women. If I had my way, this book would be required reading for every freshman during the orientation period. 

Monday, April 16, 2012

Money: A Suicide Note, by Martin Amis

When you really hate a book, you can a) tear it to bits, b) feed it to your neighbour's rabbit, c) burn it, d) gift-wrap it and send it to the "friend" who gave you a spatula for Christmas last year, etc. Alas, I am willing to do none of the above with my Kindle, so I will just say that I despised Martin Amis' grubby, repellent novel.

I don't remember now why I selected this book. I think I'd just read a glowing plaudit from someone or other. Some reviewers embraced it as a bold new realism when it came out in 1984. I agree that it exemplifies what the New York Times called "the new unpleasantness", but in my opinion, it doesn't do nearly as well as, for example, Bret Easton Ellis' American Psycho when it comes to parody of the materialism and greed of the early '80s.

John Self is all about self-gratification, whether it comes in the form of alcohol, money, or pornography. Flitting between London and New York, he is ostensibly in the process of producing a film, so he's also schmoozing with actors, actresses and their neuroses. Self has left his blue-collar British town, but rolling in money has done nothing to elevate his tastes. 
Eleven o'clock. What can a grown male do alone at night in Manhattan, except go in search of trouble or pornography? Me, I spent an improving four hours on Forty-Second Street, dividing my time between a space-game arcade and the basement gogo bar next door. In the arcade the proletarian ghosts of the New York night, these darkness-worshippers, their terrified faces reflected in the screens, stand hunched over their controls. They look like human forms of mutant moles and bats, hooked on the radar, rumble and wow of these stocky new robots who play with you if you give them money. They'll talk too, for a price. Launch Mission, Circuit Completed, Firestorm, Flashpoint, Timewarp, Crackup, Blackout! The kids, tramps and loners in here, they are the mineshaft spirits of the new age. Their grandparents must have worked underground. I know mine did. In the gogo bar men and women are eternally ranged against each other, kept apart by a wall of drink, a moat of poison, along which mad matrons and bad bouncers stroll.
Money is dirty. Self knows this. You wallow in it with the same slavering lust as you feel for sex.
I roved out into the foaming malls. My mission? To buy champagne. Selina, she likes a lot of outlay. You cannot do pornography by halves. Pornography and money enjoy a dose concordat, and you have to pay your union dues...
Self makes up for the dearth of wealth during his childhood by grasping at it as an adult. The catch is, he doesn't have very good ideas on how to enjoy it once he's got it. You can only spend so much on food and booze, and when he goes to a slightly higher-class strip club, he resents being overcharged. Self eats and drinks so prodigiously that readers are likely to find themselves feeling queasy and drunk as they flip the pages, following him from one over-indulgent bout of immediate gratification to the next.
You know, the thing I want more than anything else — you could call it my dream in life — is to make lots of money. I would cheerfully go into the alchemy business, if it existed and made lots of money ... We travelled on through air and time. Still four hours to kill. Drinking and smoking, alas, do not claim one's undivided attention. That's the only fault I have to find with these activities.
Self does have a relationship (after a fashion) with a woman in London, Selina. He suspects she wants him solely for his money. One struggles to find any other use she might have for him.
...the only way I can make Selina actually want to go to bed with me is by not wanting to go to bed with her. It never fails. It really puts her in the mood. The trouble is, when I don't want to go to bed with her (and it does happen), I don't want to go to bed with her. When does it happen? When don't I want to go to bed with her? When she wants to go to bed with me. I like going to bed with her when going to bed with me is the last thing she wants. She nearly always does go to bed with me, if I shout at her a Jot or threaten her or give her enough money. It works well. It is an excellent system. Selina and I get on like a house on fire.
It is a clever bit of money vs. class contrast that Charles and Diana's wedding is occurring on the same summer that Self is pondering a future, if there is one, with Selina.

I admit, Amis has a deft way with words, and although I've never been to Los Angeles, I suspect this paragraph is picture-perfect.
You walk left, you walk right, you are a bank rat on a busy river. This restaurant serves no drink, this one serves no meat, this one serves no heterosexuals. You can get your chimp shampooed, you can get your dick tattooed, twenty-four hour, but can you get lunch? And should you see a sign on the far side of the street flashing BEEF-BOOZE—NO STRINGS, then you can forget it. The only way to get across the road is to be born there. All the ped-xing signs say DON'T WALK, all of them, all the time. That is the message, the content of Los Angeles: don't walk.
I'm not a reader who feels the need to like a protagonist, but I don't have much tolerance for one who bores me. Heaven knows, American Psycho's Patrick Bateman was loathesome, but Ellis managed to use humour as a relief valve. Self is too thick to be funny. I just wanted to scuttle away from him and have a bath.

Friday, April 13, 2012

The Etymologicon, by Mark Forsyth

Mark Forsyth is a obsessive-compulsive English etymologist, and short of a house-guest who can't control his impulse to mop all my floors, this may well be my favourite variety of nut.  I knew I was going to adore this book right from the preface, in which Forsyth relates the incident of the man who, whilst nibbling on a biscuit, innocently asked the author if he knew the word's origin. He tried to flee when the stream of etymological knowledge passed from 'biscuit' through 'masochism' and into 'Kafkaesque', but there was no escape. How can there be, when one word always leads to another?
It was at this point that he made a dash for the door, but I was too quick for him. My blood was up and there was always something more to say. There always is, you know. There’s always an extra connection, another link that joins two words that most of mankind quite blithely believe to be separate, which is why that fellow didn’t escape until a couple of hours later when he managed to climb out of the window while I was drawing a diagram to explain what the name Philip has to do with a hippopotamus.
Escape?! I couldn't get enough. The Etymologicon was a few thousand pages too short for my liking, but I suppose the author's family or editor stepped in once again and imposed some sort of limit.

Mr. Forsyth is English, which has two implications: First, he must delve into all the other countless languages from which we have swiped words, and second, he sneers at the French.
From braca came the early French brague meaning trousers, and when they wanted a word for a codpiece they decided to call it a braguette or little trousers. This is not to be confused with baguette, meaning stick. In fact a Frenchman might brag that his baguette was too big for his braguette, but then Frenchmen will claim anything. They’re braggarts (literally one who shows off his codpiece).
In Malaysia, dealing with public agencies can often feel like trying to untangle a skein of yarn that the cats have jumbled, but I had no idea that sensation had an etymological root.
Wool gets everywhere in language. Muslim mystics are called Sufis because of the woollen, suf, garments that they wore. Burlesque dancers on the other hand are taking part in a nonsensical or trifling show named after the Latin burra meaning a tuft of wool. Burras were used as coverings for desks, and that gave us bureaus and then bureaucracies.
Forsyth credits the field of psychology with all its contributions to our language. Freud, Jung and their associates gave names to all our idiosyncrasies which their predecessors had simply termed 'madness' as they tossed us into the asylum. They began to label all of our various sexual proclivities, too.
Krafft-Ebing was born sixteen years before Dr Freud and 35 years before Jung. He was, essentially, the first doctor to start writing case histories of people whose sexual behaviour wasn’t entirely respectable. The book that resulted, Psychopathia Sexualis (1886), was so scandalous that large chunks of it had to be written in Latin, in order to keep it out of the hands of the prurient public. The idea was that if you were clever enough to understand Latin, you couldn’t possibly be a pervert (something that nobody mentioned to Caligula).
Besides, I'm sure Europe's fishmongers and chimneysweeps and so on had plenty of their own vocabulary for such things. But hey, man, this is not a Eurocentric book. Forsyth pops across the Atlantic for a bit of American slang.
In the United States, before the Civil War had finally established the idea that slavery isn’t completely compatible with the Land of the Free, slave-owners used to call their slaves boy. The Battle of Gettysburg freed the slaves and produced a memorable address, but it didn’t, unfortunately, come with a socio-economic plan or a new language. Slave-owners weren’t allowed to own slaves any more, but they continued to be rather nasty to their ex-slaves and kept calling them boy in a significant sort of way that annoyed the hell out of the manumitted. All over America, infuriating white people would address black men with the words ‘Hey, boy’. And it grated. It really grated. That’s why, in the 1940s, black Americans started taking the fight the other way and greeting each other with the words ‘Hey, man’. The vocative was not inserted for the purposes of sexual identification, it was a reaction against all those years of being called boy. It worked. White people were so confused by ‘Hey, man’ that the sixties happened and everybody, of whatever race, started calling each other man, until the original significance was lost. This is an example of Progress.
Forsyth of course pays fitting homage to dictionaries. Well, some of them.
It’s absolutely necessary and fitting that a book such as this should devote a chapter to Samuel Johnson’s dictionary. So we won’t. After all, Johnson didn’t write the first English dictionary. There were plenty before him and there have been plenty since...
He does give Johnson credit, though, for including "words of indescribable beauty like wamblecropt (afflicted with queasiness) that have since vanished from the language." Personally, I think we should bring that one back. It's the perfect word for calling in sick with a hang-over: 'Dreadfully sorry but I won't be coming to the office today. I'm feeling a bit wamblecropt.'

There is simply no way, however, to write a book on etymology without genuflecting before the OED (Oxford English Dictionary). I suppose it sounds vaguely pathetic to read books about dictionaries, but anyone who has ever used the OED will understand. It's simply a magnificent, amazing resource which includes not only the present definitions of a word, but the history of its usage throughout time. To have produced this marvel in the days before computers was a monumental feat well documented in Simon Winchester's The Professor and the Madman.  Forsyth gives a highly abridged version.
The Oxford English Dictionary is the greatest work of reference ever written, and it’s largely the result of a Scotsman who left school at fourteen, and a criminally insane American. The Scotsman was a former cowherd called James Murray, who taught himself Latin, German, Italian, Ancient Greek, French, Anglo-Saxon, Russian, Tongan … well, nobody’s quite sure how many languages he knew. It’s usually estimated at 25. Murray became a schoolteacher and then in the 1860s he moved to London for his wife’s health and became a member of the Philological [word-loving] Society...  Minor [the American] had a lot of time on his hands, and also the advantage of being criminally insane, which is always a plus in lexicography.
Minor, after serving as a surgeon in the Civil War, had suffered what we would probably diagnose as PTSD today. When in London, he had an unfortunate paranoid episode and murdered a man in a dark alley, and the authorities locked him up in Broadmoor. Recognising that he was a gentleman, however, they gave him comfortable quarters and every book he requested. Prof. Murray didn't know for years that his number one contributor was a patient in the asylum. Although he sent reams of historical philology to the Professor, the madman was still a tad unstable.
Murray tried to give Minor emotional support but it didn’t really work, as Minor, in 1902, deliberately sliced off his own penis. This is called an autopeotomy and should not be attempted without due consideration.
Mr. Minor isn't the only psychologically impaired character in The Etymologicon. I'd always assumed that the thing running up the back of my calf had been called the Achilles tendon since classical times, but no -- it was actually named by an insane anatomist who found a lower leg to dissect uncomfortably close to home.
Verheyen was a very intelligent boy who started out as a cowherd (like the editor of the Oxford English Dictionary), but became an anatomist. Verheyen was one of the great dissectors, so when his own leg had to be amputated, it was partly a tragedy and partly a temptation. Verheyen was an ardent Christian who believed in the physical resurrection of the body. He therefore did not want his leg to be buried separately from the rest of him, as this would be a great inconvenience at the Day of Judgement. So he preserved it using chemicals, kept it with him at all times, and after a few years began to very carefully dissect his own leg. Carefully cutting up your own body is probably not good for the sanity.
Speaking of ardent Christians, you wouldn't be incorrect to call them cretins, though it might incur some righteous wrath.
Christians are all cretins, etymologically speaking, and cretins are all Christians. If this sounds unfair, it’s because language is much less kind than religion. The original cretins were deformed and mentally deficient dwarves found only in a few remote valleys in the Alps. These days their condition would be called congenital iodine deficiency syndrome, but the Swiss didn’t know anything about that. All they knew was that, though these people had a problem, they were still human beings and fellow Christians. So they called them Cretins, which means Christians.
And if a wrathful Christian were to punch your lights out, he or she might regret it.  Or not. Some Christian cretins nowadays are terribly, truthfully ruthless.
If something is true, it’s the truth. If you rue your actions, you feel ruth. If you don’t rue your actions, you feel no ruth and that makes you ruthless.
Some Christians might also go ballistic over a skimpy bikini, but that, too, is etymologically appropriate.
Bikini Atoll was put on the map (and almost removed from it) by America in 1946 when they tested their new atomic bombs there. Atom is Greek for unsplittable, but the Americans had discovered that by breaking the laws of etymology they were able to create vast explosions, and vast explosions were the best way of impressing the Soviets... the French saw what the French always see: sex. A fashion designer called Jacques Heim had just come up with a design for a two-piece bathing costume that he believed would be the world’s smallest swimsuit. He took it to a lingerie shop in Paris where the owner, Louis Réard, proved with a pair of scissors that it could be even more scandalously immodest. The result, Réard claimed, would cause an explosion of lust in the loins of every Frenchman so powerful that it could only be compared to the tests at Bikini Atoll, so he called the new swimwear the bikini.
When Columbus reached the lands on the far side of the Atlantic, he believed he'd reached India, the land of the Great Khan. He had, of course, discovered the Americas, which would provide silver and potatoes and lots of new words.

Columbus was therefore terribly pleased when he landed in Cuba and discovered that the people there called themselves Canibs, because he assumed that Canibs must really be Khanibs, which was a rare triumph of hope over etymology. At the next island Columbus came to, they told him they were Caribs, and at the island after that they were Calibs. This was because in the old languages of the Caribbean, Ns, Rs and Ls were pretty much interchangeable...  The sea got named the Caribbean after one pronunciation. But it was also believed in Europe that the islanders ate each other, and this gastronomic perversity came, on the basis of another pronunciation, to be called cannibalism.
Of course, we use the term 'discovery' somewhat loosely. The islands were only news to Columbus.
European explorers loved to name the places that they discovered, a habit that didn’t always endear them to the natives, who felt that they must have discovered the place first as they were already living there.
After the OED, Forsyth gives some notice to that other big book, which has had a rather erratic history of translation into English. This detail may give some pause to modern-day Anglophone Bible literalists. Or not.
It’s certainly true that the King James Version was a lot more accurate than Myles Coverdale’s attempt of a hundred years before. Myles Coverdale was an early Protestant who believed in principle that the Bible should be translated into English. He decided that, as nobody else seemed to be doing it, he had better get on with the job himself, and he didn’t let the tiny detail that he knew no Latin, Greek or Hebrew get in his way. This is the kind of can-do attitude that is sadly lacking in modern biblical scholarship.
When I reached what appeared to be the end of The Etymologicon (furiously pressing the 'next page' button on the Kindle to no avail), I was very sad, bordering on wamblecropt. I recovered a bit when I discovered that Mr. Forsyth goes on etymological rambles on a regular basis on his blog, The Inky Fool.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, by David Mitchell

This was my first return to audio books after a long while, and it was an undiluted joy. Mitchell's language is ear-catching, and the book simply glows when read aloud. The two narrators, Jonathan Aris and Paula Wilcox, are both British actors, and they hit the book's tone just right. It was a spectacular 19 hour performance.

A map of the Dutch trading post on Dejima, Nagasaki.
[Courtesy the  University of  Texas map collection]
David Mitchell simply refuses to be wedged into a pigeonhole, and he steps with incredible agility into new genres. Ghostwritten and Cloud Atlas share the quality of switching between centuries past, present and future in different parts of the world; Black Swan Green is a coming-of-age novel set in contemporary England. The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is a temporally contiguous historical novel set in early 19th-century Japan. It's a more stylish, latter-day Shogun -- Clavell spun a great yarn, but Mitchell's story just splashes verve at every turn.

"This is bliss," I thought to myself a number of times while listening to this book. I'm sitting or lying somewhere, very comfortably, while insanely skillful English actors are bringing this splendid book to life for me. There's no denying that listening to an audio book is a more passive activity than reading. Some books are better suited to audio than others, and morever, the narrator(s) can make or break the experience. The Thousand Autumns... passed much too quickly.

I wonder if David Mitchell is a poet. I mean, is does he consider himself a poet? He constructs sentences as a craftsman selects the various components of windchimes, his ear attuned to all the combinations of sounds. Listening to this text, I started to remember all those terms for linguistic sound harmony -- alliteration, consonence, assonence -- from my school days. I doubt they'd come through as well if I were reading the text. This book, like poetry, benefits from reading aloud.

When Mitchell tells of "a pewter sky", I picture not the polished Selangor pewter gleaming in Kuala Lumpur shop windows today, but the 18th-century pewter mugs and pitchers that stood on my parents' shelves when I was a child. Much higher content of lead, lower of tin, a somber, dull, heavy grey. I see that pewter sky as if I were looking at a photograph, and I know that heavy raindrops will splatter down momentarily.

I often thought to myself, Oh, that's so good -- I should get up, find a pen and jot it down, but I was loath to break the rhythm, the continuity of the book.

I happened to have a pen at hand when a group of the Dutchmen were lounging about drinking and discussing life with their Japanese interpreters. The young and earnest clerk, Jacob, asks one of the Japanese about the basis for marriage in Nagasaki.

'What about,' Jacob speaks with sake-inspired frankness, 'What about love?'
'We say when husband love wife, mother-in-law loses best servant.'

Jacob discovers, however, that the Japanese men are capable of enormous love. Love, perfidy, courage -- all emotions are writ large in this book, but they still retain a sense of decorum and elegance. Opening with one character's birth and closing with another's death, the story spins the reader through thousands of seasons in its characters' lives. It was an amazing trip.