Saturday, October 3, 2015

Lichtenberg on Good Books

In the course of an email exchange with a friend yesterday evening, a paragraph from Lichtenberg's The Waste Books seemed apposite, but I did not feel like typing it out. Meaning to save the draft message, I sent it, and deferred the typing for this morning. Having typed it out, why not include it here? The paragraph is entry 43 of  Notebook E:
A sure sign of a good book is that the older we grow the more we like it. A youth of 18 who wanted and above all could say what he felt would say of Tacitus something like the following: Tacitus is a difficult writer who knows how to depict character: and sometimes gives excellent descriptions, but he affects obscurity and often introduces into the narration of events remarks that are not very illuminating; you have to know a lot of Latin to understand him. At 25 perhaps, assuming he has in the interim done more than read, he will say: Tacitus is not the obscure writer I once took him for, but I have discovered that Latin is not the only thing you need to know to understand him—you have to bring a great deal with you yourself. And at 40, when he has come to know the world, he may perhaps say: Tacitus is one of the greatest writers who ever lived.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Suitable Accommodations

In reading through Suitable Accommodations, a collection of  letters and some journal entries of J.F. Powers, I found myself thinking of Jasper McIlvaine's remark in New Grub Street :
'Ten years hence,' he said, 'if Reardon is still alive, I shall be lending him five-pound notes.'
Powers's letters acknowledge many small loans and outright gifts, some from his wife's family, some from Fr. Harvey Egan ("the HFXE payroll"). There is a steady discontent with his economic condition; he was not a fast writer, and did much of his work in short stories, which pay only so well. One wonders at times in reading the book whether a semester here or there grading student work would have been worse for him than sitting in an office not writing.

The book is not unrelentingly grim as New Grub Street is. In the years since 1882 many resources had appeared for writers: magazines that paid well, the Ford and Guggenheim Foundations, universities pleased to have a writer in residence to teach their students, retreats such as Yaddo. And Powers did not marry "the kind of person to grumble". Betty Wahl Powers did grumble, but she managed a household eventually including five children, cooked, sewed, and wrote on her own account.

The letters lack the consistent finish of Powers's fiction, being presumably written in one draft and mailed without revision. Still, every now and then there are sentences that recall the fiction
This room is like a dirty bottle, but inside is the vintage solitude which hardly anybody can afford nowadays, and I am sipping it slowly, hoping to straighten out my life as a writer.
(Letter to Harvey Egan, February 27, 1957) and there is the humor
You will not send me a copy of The Disinherited, Jack. I'll buy one--and that is that. If you send me one, I'll return it to you autographed. That is the form failure has taken in my case, Jack. I autograph every book I can lay hands on, this to compensate for the great success I might have had, and am now watched when I enter the public library here. All the textbooks my daughters bring home from school I've autographed. Ever hear of a case like this, Jack? ...
 J.F. Powers
 J.F. Powers
 J.F. Powers
(Letter to Jack Conroy, December 8, 1962)

I would be interested to see his correspondence with Evelyn Waugh, here represented just by one letter from Powers acknowledging Waugh's blurb for Morte D'Urban. Waugh dined with the Powers family in Minnesota in the spring of 1949, and  J.F. and Betty Powers dined with Waugh at Piers Court in the summer of 1952. The two men had in common their Catholicism and their devotion to the craft of fiction; but in background and generally in outlook they were radically different. The index to The Letters of Evelyn Waugh has no listing for Powers, and Waugh's diary seems to have lapsed for a period covering those years.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Directional Michigan Saturday

At the top of this Sunday's Washington Post Sports pages are college football scores. The two leftmost scores are "W. Michigan 12/1 Ohio State 38" and "C. Michigan 10/2. Mich. St. 30". Somehow the third-ranked college team, Texas Christian University, let Eastern Michigan University get away to play Army. One hopes that TCU will not suffer in the polls for playing a strong team, Texas Tech, and winning only 55-52.

I suppose that in the old days the big schools played their share of weaker ones, and that I have just forgotten. Dramatic games stick in the mind, but for the routs I probably left at halftime to play basketball in the driveway or touch football in the yard. Still, Georgia Tech v. Cumberland College seems to be the game the big teams keep trying to schedule.

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Reading Tolstoy, Again

Having hurried through a reading of War and Peace in order to have the leisure to go back and reread it, it seems to me that

  • The fiction is champagne, the historical reflections are the hangover. Fortunately, the proportion of the historical reflections to the fiction is fairly small.
  • Tolstoy's power diminishes in proportion with his contempt for a character. He is excellent on his five leading characters, not that good on the Kuragins, and a bit tedious on Napoleon.
  • What are we to make of the epilogue? By this I mean that:
  • Natasha occupies herself wholly with her marriage and family, and Tolstoy writes of this as admirable. Yet part of this is her understanding of Pierre as a powerful mind and force in affairs. What one knows of the course of Russian history suggests that the latter cannot be so. As for the former, Pierre favors establishing something like the German Tugenbund of the war years; at the time, the Prussian minister Stein spoke of the Tugenbund's activities as "the rage of dreaming sheep". That being so, is is really just for Pierre to condescend to his brother-in-law intellectually?
  • Nikolai is less changed than his sister or Pierre. Once the hussar who knew horses, now he is the landowner who knows muzhiks. His notions seem otherwise to be an officer's notions. Marya may be least changed. She has her children to see to, and her husband to love and, to the extent possible, manage. The young woman of 1805, patroness of "God's people" and disciple of the Gospels, is recognizable in the matron of 1822; Natasha has gone through at least three metamorphoses in that time, though to be sure she is some years younger.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Reading Tolstoy

An acquaintance, the friend of friends, has decided to reread War and Peace with an on-line group. He was willing to have me join. Last month, I stopped at Kramerbooks to pick up the Pevear and Volokhonsky translation the group will use. I had read War and Peace before, but in Anne Dunnigan's translation.

The most obvious difference is the new translation's way of rendering French and German passages untranslated, with the English in footnotes. Dunnigan was content to give one the occasional "Eh bien, mon prince." In this edition, on the pages 92 through 96, the correspondence of Julie Kuragin and Marya Bolkonsky, there are about fifteen lines of English main text. One could argue that the sensibility of the former at least is better revealed in the original language. On the other hand, I don't know what the tactical dispositions for Austerlitz gain by remaining in German.

One thing that struck me at once is the inverse correlation between beauty and fortune in the young women introduced early in the book. Lise Bolkonsky and Elena Kuragin, the beauties of opening reception, will die miserably. The beautiful Vera Rostov will marry Berg, a pedant and bore. Natalya Rostov, at thirteen plain with a big mouth and broad neck, will fare much better than her prettier cousin Sonya. Marya Bolkonsky, plain at best, will marry well. Her prettier friend Julie Karagin will marry Boris Trubetskoy, climber and dud.

I have also noticed that the problem is less finding time to read War and Peace than it is finding the will to set the book aside. I have encountered few incidents that I didn't remember at all--some of the Rostovs' relations with Dolokhov had slipped my mind--yet it is hard to reach the end of one chapter and not continue on. I did have to take a break for vacation. The book would be excellent for long trips by airplane or train, but is too heavy, combined with everything else, to haul through airports and railroad stations.

Saturday, September 12, 2015


On the front page of The Washington Post's Metro Section for Friday, September 11, there were adjacent headlines:
  • At the top of a caption showing the NASCAR driver Danica Patrick, Revving up girls' dreams
  • Above a story just right of the picture, Girls are in majority at D.C.'s top high schools
The top high schools in this case are public high schools with competitive entry, namely Benjamin Banneker (math and science), School Without Walls (humanities), and Duke Ellington School of the Arts.

What does it all mean, the high school part? I don't know. The statistics quoted show boys graduating from high school at anywhere a rate anywhere from 10 percent to 25 percent lower than girls in their ethnic groups, so something is going on. But as far as the selective high schools, I wonder. A family on our street has a daughter who graduated from Banneker and another who graduated from Walls. Their two sons tested in to Banneker, then chose Wilson, a good school but one that admits by boundary or lottery. Their mother teaches in the DC public schools and must have regarded the choice as reasonable.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

It Will Be on the Quiz

This morning while the rest of the family slept, I went out and walked around some of the old city of Lubeck. On an early pass by the town hall, I saw a circle of about twenty high school students. I noticed how few boys were in the group, maybe three, but didn't otherwise think about what this might be. I went on my way.

Somewhat later, I was in the same area when three young women of about 16 stopped me and asked if I had few moments. I said (in English) Yes, with the qualification that I am an American and that the questions and answers would have to be in English. All clearly knew some English and one spoke it well, so this was not a problem. They wanted to ask me a few questions about Thomas Mann; they had notebooks and a list of questions. Fortunately, we had visited the Buddenbrooks House yesterday, and I was not entirely unprepared.

So: Where was Thomas Mann born? Lubeck. When? I thought 1878 (1875). What did his father do? His father was a merchant and senator. (Here there was a bit of confusion, and I came up with Kaufmann.) Was Thomas Mann pro- or anti-Nazi? He was opposed to the Nazi regime, and emigrated shortly after it came to power. (Again, a bit of confusion, and I said, "anti-Nazi".) Did he have any children? I thought five, and was able to name Klaus, Elisabeth, Golo, and Michael; I knew that I was missing the name of one daughter, but in fact missed two (Erika and Monika). When did he die? 1955. Where? Switzerland.

Later on I saw two more trios with notebooks, but I did not see anyone answering questions. I suppose that I should have asked what school they attended, and whether its web site will offer a statistical summary of what people knew. If we see them later on when out and about, I will ask.