Saturday, March 28, 2015

Memoirists: Wilfrid Sheed, Again

About a year ago, I wrote of my intention to find Wilfrid Sheed's Frank and Maisie: A Memoir with Parents. This past Wednesday I found a copy, "advance uncorrected proofs", at Idle Time Books, and it has occupied much of my time since.

Frank Sheed and Maisie Ward were the proprietors of Sheed & Ward, a Catholic publishing house that had a brief but remarkable career covering most of the half century after 1927. They were writers and lecturers--for pay at colleges and parishes, for free in Hyde Park, Pimlico, and Philadelphia with the Catholic Evidence Guild--and active in various Catholic social movements of the time. She was the daughter of William Ward, a friend of Newman's, and like Newman once in Anglican orders. He was an Australian, son of an alcoholic Marxist (and lapsed Presbyterian) and an Irish immigrant. Both had quick and powerful minds. I have not read any of Frank Sheed's books, but I believe that I have read Maisie Ward's biography of G.K. Chesterton.

The most interesting part of the book, on my first reading, was the sociology of American Catholicism in the 1930s and 1940s as it must have appeared to Frank Sheed: heavy on clericalism, with the laymen not encouraged to think about much beyond business and sports; laywomen indulgently allowed to think, because thinking counted only for so much. Bits of this are recognizable from some of J.F. Powers's stories (his two novels are about the 1950s and 1960s). It was something of an insular world, to be sure, but was it the desert that Sheed depicts?

A few of the stars and problem children of mid-century American Catholicism make cameos: Fulton Sheen (as author and employer), Claire Booth Luce, Allan Tate and Caroline Gordon, and Leonard Feeney, S.J. Sheen is most fleshed out, for Wilfrid Sheed worked for him. Tate and Gordon he has written about elsewhere, considering them in their roles as demanding critics.

Wilfrid Sheed could be counted on for good sentences; here he both comes through and shows where he got the knack, as in discussing the 1930s
Households varied in their degrees of pliancy, but very few Americans ever told a priest that he didn't know beans about politics or constitutional law, or, as Frank remarked after a sermon on marriage, "I was edified, Father, tha you seemed to know so little about it."
and from much later
Let me transpose a line of conversation from another session of the same period to catch his flavor. Guest: "What do you do in Australia when you're not throwing the boomerang?" Frank: "Oh, nothing, nothing at all. The boomerang ruins you for everyting else. [Pause] Of course--everything else ruins you for the boomerang." 
That the copy I bought is an uncorrected proof shows in a few details--footnotes mid-page and sometimes unfinished, a few delightful typos ("every conversation was a mind field").The designer chose a type for the title and the chapter headings that has a "d" with a crossed ascender, so looking like an Anglo-Saxon "eth", and in a book about Sheed and Ward, there are many "d"s in the chapter headings.

Friday, March 27, 2015

Classic and Romantic, According to Santayana

The Last Bookstore of Los Angeles turned up a copy of The Last Puritan, where I found a vaguely remembered passage in Part V, Chapter IV. In the novel, the passage forms part of a letter from the cosmopolitan Marius (or Mario or Vannie) Van der Weyer, now an officer of the FC convalescing at Oxford, to Oliver Alden, the puritan of the title, now an officer of the AEF serving in France:

You remember those two poplars at the entrance to the little tea garden? They were particularly solemn and graceful that afternoon, swaying in the breeze, now intertwining and now separating their branches, as if two green spires all composed of pinnacles, like Saint Mary's, had begun to dance, locking arms and touching cheeks in time to the windy music. "If my Latin weren't so rusty," I said to Cooly, "and my Greek so inadequate, I should compose an epigram about those two poplars. Quite classic, that straightness of theirs, that amplitude, that murmur, and that sadness."

Cooly tossed his dyed plumes, as a bird does when drinking, and slowed for a moment, above his loose low collar, a prodigious Adam's apple moving up and down. The man actually seemed inspired, only, as a lyric Apollo he is rather a barebones, and looks too much like Abraham Lincoln. After a moment he began chanting:
    "Ambigua Zephyro Geminae dum fronde susurrant
       cedit ab immemori muta sorore soror."
"Hear, hear", I cried, "but please say it again. In Latin you have a slight English brogue. I'm not sure I've caught it all."

"Impossible, impossible. Not good enough. Not worth remembering. But I'll say it in English."

Again Apollo shook his ambrosial locks, again Adam's apple moved up and down, and the words flowed irresistibly: 
"Poplars, twin sisters, whispering side by side:
The winds unite them, and the winds divide."
"Really, mes compliments. But the modern version is not quite faithful. There is more and less in it than in the original."
"Inevitable," he rejoined, still liturgically and under the spell of the Muse. "Poetry can never say the same thing twice."

"Granted. But will you explain this. Why is your English epigram classical and your Latin epigram romantic?"

"Because," he replied without the least hesitation, "when we move upward from chaos, we aspire towards truth, perfection, and simplicity: but when we reflect and turn inwards from the highest achievement, we find sorrow and disillusion and a murmur of the winds."
The passage has stayed in my memory for a good thirty years or more (though I must have had the classic/romantic pairing switched), but I would hesitate to say that I wholly understand it.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Salt, Again

It is not only the city that has distributed salt freely this winter. We took a walk in late afternoon, and here and there saw salt lying thickly on concrete pitted from such applications, whether this winter or another one. The worst case I did not see, but heard of. A neighbor paid one of the men who walk around with shovels to clear his walk. He or his wife set out on the porch a twenty-five pound bag of salt, expecting the man to scatter a few handfuls. The shoveler used it all, on what could hardly be thirty yards of walk. The walk from the porch to the city sidewalk is slate, painstakingly cut and laid by the neighbor himself. The grout comes up as if it were loose sand. Some of the slate will flake off, too.

Well, we have overdone it. One winter fifteen or twenty years ago, there was much ice. We were in a row house in a series that got no winter sun on the walks, and we used too much salt. When the weather warmed up above 40 F, I was able to scrape up the ice, but many chips of the concrete came with it. Clearly we weresn't the only one who did so, for contractors laid a new surface on most of the development's sidewalks. Perhaps in the snow belt the knowledge of proper salt application is handed down generation to generation. Here we forget between snowy winters.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Broch and Saki

In Chapter LXIV of "The Realist", the third book of The Sleepwalkers, Hermann Broch writes
"Ah," says the romantic, drawing on the cloak of an alien belief system, "ah, now I am one of you and am no longer lonely." "Ah," says the aesthete, drawing on the same cloak, "I am still lonely, but this is a lovely cloak." The aesthete is the serpent in the romantic Garden of Eden.
In "Reginald at the Theatre" by Saki, I find
"And equally of course you are quite irreligious?"
"Oh, by no means. The fashion just now is a Roman Catholic frame of mind with an Agnostic conscience: you get the mediaeval picturesqueness of the one with the modern conveniences of the other."
Saki's young men often enough are aesthetes, and seem adequately serpentine, but in Saki's stories romanticism tends to be a self-conscious imitation, and the romantics chumps. On the other hand, under his civilian name of H.H. Munro, Saki enlisted in 1914 and died in late 1916 as an NCO, though he could have had a commission for the asking; that suggests an element of romanticism.

In the "The Romantic", the first book of The Sleepwalkers, the ex-officer Eduard von Bertrand seems to be the serpent in a couple of the romantic Joachim von Pasenow's relationships. He brings, that is, the knowledge of good and evil to Pasenow's dalliance with the actress Ruzena; Ruzena perceives presently via Bertrand that her relationship with Pasenow is doomed.  Bertrand makes a declaration of love to Pasenow's fiancee Elizabeth von Baddensen, but  one carefully crippled with irony. Is he an aesthete? His ironic view of his military service and of his present business suggests so. Yet he is, in this book and the next, a sound businessman.

It is not clear that Pasenow, the romantic of the title, recognizes that the belief system in which he works is alien. He does appear to find the rules of his caste awkward, though without an ability to question them in any articulate way. He does not take up the military career without wondering whether he should be happy, yet he is reluctant to leave it for the life of a landowner. He cannot keep a lower-class mistress with good or no conscience. He cannot marry for land and children without uncomfortable self-consciousness. Yet he carries on, and turns up in the third book, "The Realist" as a town commandant in the Moselle valley, a major, father of a family, but still confused.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Coincidental Reading, Again

On Saturday the last stop of our errands was at a drugstore on Connecticut Ave., NW. While I walked about looking for this or that, I listened to the pop music playing  and reflected that the inventor of canned music for public places was no benefactor to humanity.

Once home, I happened to look into Sketches from a Life by George Kennan, looking for I know not what--probably something about the Baltic or Russia--and finding a passage from February 19, 1950:
On the train from St. Louis to Texas the lounge car had canned music ("Ave Maria") emerging from somewhere in the roof. We used to say: "The customer is always right." But what of the man today who doesn't like "The Rustic Wedding" or "Rose Marie" or "Ave Maria," or has heard them too often, or who doesn't like music at all through loudspeakers, or who just doesn't like music at all? I raised this question in my mind as I fled back to the sleeping-car; and the wheels of the train, which used to clatter in so friendly and reassuring a way o the railroad voyages of my boyhood, seemed to be clicking off the words: "That-to-you; that-to-you; that-to-you."

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Coincidental Reading

The other week, I picked up a copy of Kaputt by Curzio Malaparte from Kramerbooks. Some days later, when I was about halfway through Kaputt, I happened to pull The Ice Age, by Margaret Drabble, off the shelf here. I opened it at random, but then quickly found what I had half remembered, a passage running
After that, Anthony found Tim's stories increasingly dull and increasingly unreal. He had never gone much for the theory that good storytellers never have any respect for the truth; on the contrary he tended to think that only the truth could possibly be interesting. However dull the truth, it was more interesting than a fantasy. Anthony began to evolve for himself, while listening to Tim, a new theory: that bores ar not necessarily people who talk too much, or who talk too much about themselves, they are people who do not tell the truth, either about others or about themselves.
 And that is one of my objections to Kaputt, that Malaparte weaves fictions around real persons and presents them as if he were writing memoir or history. That would make for uncomfortable reading, even were the events indifferent, or the other parties to the conversations of little fame. But when the other parties are Hans Frank, Himmler and Antele Pavelic, and the events are pogroms in Romania or murders farther east, the discomfort intensifies. Dan Hofstadter's afterword to the book makes just this point
... but the waffling between genres, the implausibility, the scant regard for fact--all grow more and more troubling as they come to bear on the most terrible atrocities of the last century. Readers have a right to feel puzzled, and to wonder what merit a book may have that values the truth so lightly.



Friday, February 20, 2015

Salt

When in grade school I used to buy a box of Indian brand pumpkin seeds now and then for two cents. Pumpkin seeds are yellow when raw and golden brown when roasted, but Indian brand seeds were white from the coating of salt on them. When in my early twenties I found that one could still buy them, but for twenty-five cents a box. I also found that I must have had a very high tolerance for salt in my childhood.

Now I think of those pumpkin seeds rarely. I thought of them this week, for many of the streets in Washington are covered with a fine dusting of salt. It is not as opaque as the salt on the pumpkin seeds, but for coverage it comes closer than any culinary application I can think of. Here and there cars leave faint salt clouds behind them as they go. I think that the urge to apply salt has increased since I have lived here. I do walk more and have more time to look than I sometimes have had, so that accounts for some of the increase in what I see. On the other hand, I can remember driving about 200 yards of 16th St. NW with a car that was not entirely in my control, with cars before, beside, and behind me that had no more traction than mine did. That was between ten and fifteen years ago; it would not happen with salt applied to the roads the way it is now.

It might not happen with salt applied more sparingly. Perhaps the experience of a few more winters will help the local authorities find a sufficient but lower level.