Sunday, November 29, 2015


The other day I noticed a passage, copied out from George Kennan's Memoirs 1925-1950 a while back. Kennan writes of beginning to learn Russian during his time in the consular service in Tallinn in 1928:
My teacher was an impoverished Ukrainian. He knew nothing about teaching languages, but he had the virtue of speaking, aside from his native Ukrainian, no word of anything but the language he was purporting to teach. He brought me, as teaching aids, the first-grade readers used in the Russian-speaking province just referred to [i.e., extreme southeastern Estonia]. I admired and cherished these slender volumes, with their beautiful unreformed Cyrillic script, their little vignettes and passages from Russian folklore and the classics, their naive drawings of barnyards and animals and peasant children sledding. I learned by heart some of the poems and jingles they included. And I conceived then and there a love for this great Russian language--rich, pithy, musical, sometimes tender, sometimes earthy and brutal, sometimes classically severe--that was not only never to leave me but was to constitute in some curious way an unfailing source of strength and reassurance in the drearier and more trying reaches of later life. Russian seemed to me from the start, a natural language, in  which words sounded the way they ought to sound,  and might be expected to sound, as though one had once known in it in some dead past and as though the learning of it was some sort of rediscovery. I turned to it with such real enjoyment and excitement that by the end of the year I could get around a bit in it.
Elsewhere Kennan quotes the advice of a friend when he was about to take examinations at the Seminary for Oriental Languages in Berlin, "If you have any choice, speak Russian with them, not German. When you speak Russian, you are yourself; when you speak German you are nothing at all."

German does not seem to elicit the same sort of affection from those raised to speak English. William James spoke of it as a language with "none of the modern improvements." Mark Twain was moved to write an essay "The Awful German Language." My father, with three German grandparents, said that he was astonished to hear a record of Lotte Lenya's disclose the possibility that German could sound anything but military. On the other hand, Coleridge puts in a good word or two for it in Biographia Literaria, and Anthony Burgess cites Robert Graves in defense of his own preference for bad German over accurate French.

And finally, there is Flann O'Brien, in Further Cuttings from the Cruiskeen Lawn:
And, I know of only four languages, viz: Latin, Irish, Greek and Chinese. They are languages because they are the instruments of integral civilizations. English and French are not languages: they are mercantile codes.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Henry Adams on the Senses

While looking for examples of plain American prose, I had a look at The Education of Henry Adams, and found, not as plain as I had remembered, but vivid enough:
Boys are wild animals, rich in the treasures of sense, but the New England boy had a wider range of emotions than boys of more equable climates. He felt his nature crudely, as it was meant. To the boy Henry Adams, summer was drunken. Among senses, smell was the strongest--smell of hot pine-woods and sweet-fern in the scorching summer noon; of new-mown hay; of ploughed earth; of box hedges; of peaches, lilacs, syringas; of stables, barns, cow-yards; of salt water and low tide on the marshes; nothing came amiss. Next to smell came taste, and the children knew the taste of everything they saw or touched, from pennyroyal and flagroot to the shell of a pignut and the letters of a
spelling-book--the taste of A-B, AB, suddenly revived on the boy's tongue sixty years afterwards. Light, line, and color as sensual pleasures, came later and were as crude as the rest. The New England light is glare, and the atmosphere harshens color. The boy was a full man before he ever knew what was meant by atmosphere; his idea of pleasure in light was the blaze of a New England sun. His idea of color was a peony, with the dew of early morning on its petals. The intense blue of the sea, as he saw it a mile or two away, from the Quincy hills; the cumuli in a June afternoon sky; the strong reds and greens and purples of colored prints and children's picture-books, as the American colors then ran; these were ideals. The opposites or antipathies, were the cold grays of  November evenings, and the thick, muddy thaws of Boston winter. With such standards, the Bostonian could not but develop a double nature. Life was a double thing. After a
January blizzard, the boy who could look with pleasure into the violent snow-glare of the cold white sunshine, with its intense light and shade, scarcely knew what was meant by tone. He could reach it only by education.
When I must first have read this passage, around forty years ago, I had not read Adams's novel Democracy, with the excursion from Washington to Mt. Vernon:
Lord Skye, too, a little intoxicated by the brilliancy of the morning, broke out into admiration of the noble river, and accused Americans of not appreciating the beauties of their own country.
"Your national mind," said he, "has no eyelids. It requires a broad glare and a beaten road. It prefers shadows which you can cut out with a knife. It doesn't know the beauty of this Virginia winter softness."
Nor his remarks to Elizabeth Cameron in a letter of June 27, 1889,
The world has some slight compensations for its occasional cruelties. I suppose, for instance, that in gradually deadening the senses it cuts away the unpleasant as well as the pleasant. As I walk in the garden and the fields I recall distinctly the acuteness of odors when I was a child, and I remember how greatly they added to impression made by scenes and places. Now I catch only a sort of suggestion of the child's smells and lose all the pleasure, but at least do not get the disgusts.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Stoner, Again

Yesterday's Washington Post carries a bracingly negative review of Stoner by Elaine Showalter, professor emeritus of English at Princeton. I agree with about half of it. It seems to me that some of what she takes as a "lack of ironic self-awareness" is simply the endurance of someone who began life as a dirt farmer, and seems never to have expected much from life.  I think that Stoner was right to give the graduate student a bad time at his orals, and I have to doubt that Showalter would extend more mercy to a faker in such a case. She is entirely correct to say that the depiction of the wife, Edith, is a weakness in the novel.

The theme of Stoner is the worth of a life spent teaching literature. As Showalter says, this flatters the reviewers and the professors. She believes that the pinched condition of the humanities makes the audience particularly susceptible to the message now. I suspect that they were pretty susceptible then; or at least the graduate students were said to be, for I have read of the ones at the University of Denver passing around copies of Stoner as if they were samizdat (the author's description, not mine).

Monday, November 9, 2015


The rain started about  seven o'clock Friday evening. I remarked that Saturday morning was likely to be quiet, with no lawn mowers or leaf blowers running. I returned from my Saturday morning run to discover that I was wrong. A crew with leaf blowers was clearing a lawn down the block. No doubt the clearing took longer than it would have in dry weather.

On Sunday morning, on my way up 16th St., I heard a leaf blower running. It was an electric model and so quieter, but I'm not sure that the neighbors would have found it easy to sleep through its noise; on the other hand, the fellow running it may know their habits. This was a row house, with a yard that looked to be about eight yards by ten. It occurred to me that using the leaf blower might save five minutes over using a rake, and ten over using salad tongs.

On Sunday afternoon we spent about three and half hours raking and hauling leaves: from the alley, from the back yard lawn, from the flower beds. And here I have to say that I wouldn't have minded using a leaf blower on the flower beds: it would pull up fewer flowers, and probably bring along less mulch. But do we want to clutter the garage with a tool we might use five times a year?  Given the weather, I didn't mind spending the time outside.

Oaks are slow to drop their leaves, so there will be at least two more afternoons spent raking this fall. We'll see how the weather and my attitude hold up.

Friday, November 6, 2015

You Could Do That Then

At the last meeting of the neighborhood book club, we discussed Stoner. This week, I happened to think of the episode in which Stoner and his mistress manage an idyll in the Ozarks. It occurred to me that the privacy in which they spent their week would be hard to manage now. Ignoring the whole question of identification, and police (as they do in some places) checking motel ledgers, think of the ubiquity of cameras. Should a professor in 2015 spend a quiet week with his mistress, how long would it be before they showed up in the background of someone's Instagram picture?

That led to the thought of other things hard to manage now.

For example, I worked with a young man with many good qualities, but with a habit of disregarding the traffic laws. The habit brought him many traffic tickets, enough to get a license suspended. However, his family was all from around Washington, and there were enough grandparents and uncles with addresses in other jurisdictions that he could manage three driver's licenses, District of Columbia, Maryland, and Virginia, and always have at least one not suspended.  I last worked with him in the middle 1990s. I'm sure that shortly after 2001 this became much harder to manage.

For another example, one weekend in 1999 I left my driver's license in Pennsylvania. I discovered this some hours before we were to get on a flight overseas. It would almost have been practical for me to drive up to Pennsylvania and retrieve the license. However, it was then possible for me to drive up to a Motor Vehicle Administration station in Glenmont, fill out a form, get a new license, and be home in forty minutes rather than four hours. On my next visit to the Maryland MVA a few years later, the lines were long and slow; the MVA had learned, I suppose at the federal government's teaching, that more documentation is better, and that every applicant is a suspect.

I have no desire to run off to the Ozarks with a mistress. I drive too little to pile up the traffic tickets that would make three licenses useful. And the household where I left my driver's license is gone. But I do miss the world in which it was easier to live unnoticed or unsuspected.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Books by the Numbers

In the essay "The Malice of Witlings", collected in The Leafless American, Edward Dahlberg writes
To come closer to our times ten copies of Thus Spake Zarathustra and seventeen of Stendhal's De l'Amour were sold when they first issued.
Since the second paragraph above that ends
Thoreau's A Week on the Concord and the Merrimack is our meal just as much as lentils and potatoes.
Dahlberg might have remarked that A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers was no commercial success on its publication in 1849. In an entry of October 28, 1853, Thoreau records getting back
706 copies of an edition of 1000 which I bought of Munroe four years ago and have ever since been paying for, and have not quite paid yet.... Of the remaining two hundred and ninety odd, seventy-five were given away, the rest sold.
In "Writers and Money", collected in The Hall of Uselessness, Simon Leys quotes Jacques Chardonne and Chardonne's sometime boss:
His old boss, who was a notorious gambler, formulated an original philosophy of the trade: "on every book you publish, you are bound to lose money; therefore, the secret of a good publisher is to publish as few books as possible--ideally, none at all." From his own experiences, Chardonne himself concluded: "Any truly good book will always find 3,000 readers, no more, no less..."
which figure Leys says "does not seem to have varied significantly over the last 400 years.

In "The Traffic in Words", a review of Gilbert Sorrentino's novel Mulligan Stew, collected in Historical Fictions, Hugh Kenner writes
Apart from [the Joyces, Eliot, Becketts], avant-garde writing is almost exactly as perishable as is Reading Public writing, from which it differs chiefly in soliciting the approval of a smaller group, ranging in size from a group of one, the writer, up to a group of perhaps 1,100, say five per million of the U.S. population. (I derive this figure from the normal circulation of literary quarterlies, the typical press runs of small houses like Jargon and Black Sparrow, the confidences of itinerant publisher-editors, and the observation of the moss on the north sides of trees.)
How many such partially overlapping groups of up to 1,100 there may be is anybody's guess....

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Our Game Was Last Night

Two of the ushers are runners, one younger, one much younger than me. Making conversation, I asked the younger if he had been running lately, and the older remarked that today was the day of this year's Marine Corps Marathon. I asked whether the numbers of marathon runners had fallen off since the 1980s. He thought that the number had not, but that the distribution of times had shifted. A time that I, as a decent recreational runner, might have run in 1981 would be much closer to the front now. I remembered a story in Herbert Simon's memoirs, Models of My Life, and managed to recount it more or less accurately:
One evening I played [Arpad] Elo and lost as usual, playing White in the Giuco Piano. When I got home, I analyzed the game and found that I could have beaten him easily if I had made the correct aggressive move with my Bishop--on the seventh move, I believe. The next evening I pointed this out to him. "Oh," he said, "but our game was last night."