Friday, April 24, 2015

It Will but it Doesn't

Most springs since I have lived in this area, there has been a day in early spring when I have gone running and  found myself thinking, In July or August this will feel refreshing. The corollary of course is, But right now I'm uncomfortable. Last Saturday was one of those days.

The day's high temperature was about 80 F and the humidity was low. However, the trees looked to me to be maybe a quarter in leaf, so the shade was sparse, even where soon it will be dense. At Sheridan Circle I looked around to pick which side of Massachusetts Avenue to take up the hill, and conclude that it didn't matter. Nor did it seem to, for I saw no more shade on the side where I ddin't run than on the side where I did.

The humidity was low enough that I got home with a mostly dry shirt. Perhaps I gained a little in acclimation for the summer that is coming soon.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Read Before

When our book club read A Hologram for the King by Dave Eggers, I told the neighbor who picked it that I had read the book before, as one of Malcolm Bradbury's novels, in which a civilized but ineffectual man ventures into the world of the less civilized but forceful. At the time, I had in mind Stepping Westward (with the less civilized being Americans) , though the only Bradbury I had recently read and which fit the pattern was Cuts, where a writer ventures into the world of made-for-TV movies.

Last week I found a copy of Rates of Exchange at Second Story Books. Partway through, I realized that I had read some of this novel thirty years ago. I may not have read it all, for I remembered only the concluding incident. It does not quite fit the pattern of A Hologram for the King, though it has some similarities: the ineffectual man in a  tougher society; the ineffectual man who is for some reason, not clear to the reader, curiously attractive to women; too much alcohol; cultural misunderstanding.

The original pattern for Rates of Exchange may be Candide. More recent example of the pattern would be Evelyn Waugh's Decline and Fall or Scoop, novels that take an innocent through all manner of incidents but leave him essentially unchanged--reading theology at Oxford or writing about the great crested grebe at Boot Magna. Bradbury's Angus Petworth loses in the concluding incident of the book, the one I had remembered, the main artifact his travel to Slaka has brought him. He is left like the man in The Third Policeman who must leave underground all of the remarkable goods he has acquired there. The protagonist of A Hologram for the King, Alan Klay, is changed--he is thinking of staying in Saudi Arabia.

And Eggers's Clay is more plausible as a man changing, for he has a history. Bradbury's Petworth has a CV, as authority on ESL and traveling expert for the British Council.  Yet there isn't much too it that we see: a lecture on English as a global language, a lecture on the uvular R, mentions of a wife back home with a handful of attributes. History intrudes more on A Hologram for the King,  the decline of American industry and the rise of Chinese. In Rates of Exchange there is a mention of a recent royal wedding, and the background of the Cold War; but that wedding left little impression on this American, and that phase of East-West relations could have been any time in two decades.

Having said that, I did enjoy Rates of Exchange. One of these days I will probably find a copy of Stepping Westward, read that again, and enjoy it. And whether or not I find and read The Russian Interpreter again, I will remember that it is by Michael Frayn, not Malcolm Bradbury.

Monday, April 13, 2015

The Tidal Basin

From our office, one can walk down to the Tidal Basin, around it, and back in about an hour and twenty minutes. For many years, two or three of us have done so at least once when the cherry blossoms are near their peak. Today was the day for the 2015.

Last week, the blossoms were not quite all out, for one thing. For another, the middle and end of the week were damp and cool to cold. But today we had excellent weather, about 70 degrees Fahrenheit, with a blue sky and low humidity. The crowds had thinned some, I think; probably more tourists were here last week or the week before, when in many years the blossoms would have been out. But this year a cold late winter and early spring delayed the blossoms..

I noticed on the way one complication introduced by cell phones: the posture employed in taking a picture across the Tidal Basin is the same as that employed in taking a selfie against the background of cherry blossoms. One doesn't know whether the polite route is on the water side or the land side of the picture taker. We dodged many photographers, and I hoped interfered with only very few of their pictures.

Saturday, April 4, 2015

His World Fails Him

I noticed the other day in Sketches From a Life by George Kennan, a passage from 1959:
A man's life, I reflected, is too long a span today for the pace of change. If he lives more than a half century, his familiar world, the world of his youth, fails him like a horse dying under its rider, and he finds himself dealing with a new one which is not really his. A curious contradiction, this: that as medicine prolongs man's span of life, the headlong pace of technological change tends to deprive him, at an earlier age than was ever before the case, of the only world he understand and the only one to which he can be fully oriented. For it is only the world of one's youth, the nature of which is absorbed with that tremendous sensitivity and thirst for impression that only childhood and early youth provide--it is only this world that answers to the description. The Western world, at least, must today be populated in very great part by people  like myself who have outlived thier own intellectual and emotional environment, and who are old not only in the physical and emotional sense, but also in relation to the time.  We older people are the guests of this age, permitted to haunt its strange and somewhat terrifying halls--in a way part of its life, like the guests in a summer hotel, yet in a similar way detached from it. We sometimes talk with the hotel staff. We are listened to with interest, amusement, or boredom, depending on the relevance of our words.
A look at the front matter showed that Kennan was then 54 or 55, a bit younger than I am now. It does not say that in a couple of years he would again be an ambassador, this time to Yugoslavia.

I don't think that the pace of change increased that substantially in the twentieth century. Think of the revolutions, not simply in government but in technology and thought, that an American born in 1795 or a Frenchman born in 1782 would have seen in seventy years. John Lukacs makes such a case in his Confessions of an Original Sinner:
Well before the Sixties I found that in the twentieth century--surely after 1945--we were living in a world of intellectual near-stagnation, that the movement of ideas had slowed down, something that Tocqueville observed and predicted in a chapter of Democracy in America with the title: "Why Great Revolutions Will Become Rare." What I saw in the Sixties was that the stagnation was now near-complete, with the pendulum moving back and forth without advancing at all--something that people  obsessed with superficial appearances (and with words such as "progressive" or "revolutionary") mistake entirely, unable as they are to distinguish between motion and direction, or between position and tendency, their very seeing and hearing having  been impaired by public spectacle and public noise.
As for the world I live in, I am used enough to being heard with amusement or boredom. I have to say that the the world that we live in remains largely understandable. Many of its features I would not have imagined, but I think that I understand the principles by which they developed, and see their seeds in an earlier time. Now, I never had at all the hand in my world that Kennan did in his, and so my loss of touch should be relatively the less. But I think he overstated the matter.

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.