Wharton and James (back seat) on a motoring tour in 1904.
THERE ARE THOSE OF US who spent a not insignificant amount of time in grad school reading the works of Henry James. We trolled through The Ambassadors; we wondered when the golden bowl would finally break, and whether, through the thick of the prose, we had missed the breaking itself; we searched for classmates on the basement level of the library, at hours previously designated for sleep and/or pub-going, all in an attempt to find out exactly what Maisie knew, who married whom, and why these facts were important.
As it turns out, we can thank our lucky stars that we never went on a motoring tour with him, got hopelessly lost, and subsequently had to stop and ask for directions. This did, however, happen to Edith Wharton during one of her trips through England. Nothing can add to her account of this Monty Pythonesque exchange, which she later recounted in her autobiography, A Backward Glance, as it’s transcribed below: Continue reading
“WE MAY AGREE on the premise that each work of art is at least in part perfect, while each critic is at least in part imperfect. We may then look to each work of art not for its faults and shortcomings, but for its moments of exhilaration, in an effort to bring our own imperfections into sympathetic vibration with these moments, and thus effect a creative change in ourselves. These moments will of course be somewhat subjective, and if we don’t see one immediately, we will out of respect look again, because each work contains at least one, even if by accident. We may look at the totality of the work in the light of this moment – whether it be a moment of humor or sadness, an overarching structural element, a mood, a personal association, a distraction, an honest error, anything that speaks to us.”
–Matthew Goulish, 39 Microlectures.
Saffie Monsoon: Major motion pictures are made, huge concerts are put on in stadiums. I mean, five hundred thousand troops were mobilized in the Gulf, and a war fought and won in less time, and without everyone included having a nervous breakdown and being sent flowers! It cannot be that difficult!
Edina Monsoon: Darling, every troop didn’t have to contain Yasmine Le Bon, the generals didn’t require big hugs after every maneuver, and the whole operation did not have to be co-ordinated to rap and Japanese avant-garde pipe music because, you know, Darling, I think if it had, the outcome might have been rather different, don’t you?
WITH COURSEWORK COMPLETED in Statistics, Mathematics, Physics, Egyptology, Creative Writing, Ceramics, Behavioral Biology, and Archeology, it seems that I’ve created the perfect storm of over-education, thereby allowing me to figure out the ending to the show. This is not a joke. What Northrop Frye’s Fearful Symmetry was to William Blake’s poetry, or John Irwin’s Doubling and Incest, Repetition and Revenge was to William Faulkner’s oeuvre, I’m certain these posts will be to the popular television series Lost.
For instance, though some may be able to tell you that the clock from Lost (pictured above) resets to the Middle Egyptian verb “to cause death” by looking in the cloth-bolt section of Raymond Faulkner’s useful though rather basic Concise Dictionary of Middle Egyptian, how many people would be able to tell you that this s-causative verb swd3, written with a stick-determinative at the end, adds the nuance, “to cause the death of one’s enemy/nemesis”, or would be able to provide a specific reference to this interpretation in the Wörterbuch der Aegyptischen Sprache (of Doom!) (IV Band, p. 78-81, for those who wish to examine this information more closely)? Or that the i comes before the e in hieroglyphs? Or that hieroglyph is, in fact, the correct noun form, not hieroglyphics? Not many, I can tell you that. Continue reading
While writing my last Gent o’ Leis column, the very same one I’ve shamelessly hyperlinked here, I wanted to confirm that tobacconalian was the adjective form of tobacco. And so, I turned to your philological friend and mine, the Oxford English Dictionary, where I discovered the following citation for tobacco’s colloquial form, tobaccy:
1989 R. BARR Roseanne (1990) I. i. 6 She wore overalls and chewed tobacky, which in the early 1950′s in Salt Lake City meant that she was something of a social misfit.
And here I thought that the scholars in charge of the English language’s most comprehensive compendium were lexicographers of the Full House/Caroline in the City variety! Thank you, online OED’s quotations box, for clearing this matter up!
The January 11, 2009 New Yorker, in 50 of my words, 13 of their words:
Some people in Chicago were wrong about most everything; indeed, everyone wants everything but nobody fully understands Shakespeare; we won’t know anything about Justice Sotomayor until we know something about her; art stopped existing after February 22, 1987; and fiction containing the phrase, “By the time the group assembles in the bar of the mountain hotel.”
Ad: Big Love premieres on January 10.
The November 30, 2009 New Yorker, summarized in 35 words:
The distinctions between life and death, third-world political parties, and the genders do not exist as we know them—largely because of racism, though somewhat to do with sports named “football.” Story by Don Dellilo.
Comedy relies heavily on the layering principle, meaning that when you take one normal activity or object, and layer it with several more, the layers could potentially lead to a comical situation. A Marx Brothers film brought intrinsic comic layering, with at least three of the five siblings (Zeppo being optional, Gummo never appearing onscreen), the prerequisite harp solo from Harpo, a piano solo from Chico, and the studio-mandated romantic interlude between whatever pair of twenty-somethings happened to be on the MGM lot that day. (See the GB,HR. Guide to the Marxes)
Take a look at the cabin sequence from the Marx Brothers’ 1935 film A Night at the Opera. Please note that being on a boat isn’t funny, having a large trunk isn’t funny, stewards aren’t funny, ordering room service isn’t funny, having the floor mopped isn’t funny, sleeping isn’t funny, getting a manicure isn’t funny, and looking for one’s aunt isn’t funny. But, add all of these elements together, and, voila: Continue reading
Though I’ve already written about the Marx Brothers’ 1935 film Duck Soup, I was re-watching it last week, and realized that, of all the Marx Brothers films, this one might be the closest they came to celluloid perfection. Though some may point to A Night at the Opera as being the Marx Brothers’ best film – to be sure, it is insanely, hysterically funny – it never feels too far off from Vaudevillian stage traditions. (Indeed, the Marx Brothers perfected Opera by taking it on the road as a stage show. Don’t see much of that these days.)
Throughout the film, the Marx Brothers remain a force of willful chaos directed against the old guard, with Groucho delivering a barrage of one-liners, any one of which could power the USS 30 Rock from here to Timbuktu. The big musical number, “We’re going to War!” would best be described as a cross between yodeling, line-dancing, tongues-speaking, head-standing and xylophone playing, capped off with the four brothers singing the spiritual song “All God’s Children Got Wings,” the lyrics aptly changed to, “All God’s Children Got Guns.” Continue reading
The use of color in landscape and setting is a curious, dangerous, oftentimes inaccurate tool. When used incorrectly, these passages read like one of those kiddy menus they hand out at restaurants — sloppily crayoned in by a four-year-old, gummed at the edges, and smattered with marinara sauce. Let me be clear that by no means do I excuse myself from these sins. I am as guilty as any four-year-old out there, and am in frequent need of re-tooling my inner spectrometer. Whenever I do, I look at the following passage, the opening paragraph of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night. Continue reading
From Eudora Welty’s “Worn Path“:
It was December — a bright frozen day in the early morning.
This morning, I’m looking at the beginning sentence of “A Worn Path” because of its lack of specificity (in O’Connor-speak, its mysteries and manners). Note how the only specific elements mentioned are that it’s December, and it’s morning. Elements that aren’t given:
- The specific time or day,
- The specific December,
- The specific setting,
- How early is “early”,
- How bright is “bright”,
- How frozen it was.
And yet, from these lack of elements, we are able to draw our own picture. Also note the curious backtracking of order: Continue reading
I once asked a poet how she writes poems. Her answer: very, very carefully. For some reason, this response always brings me back to Nathanael West‘s Miss Lonelyhearts. I first heard about this book when Flannery O’Connor mentioned it in her collection of essays, Mysteries and Manners. For a short story writer of her supreme ability and persnickety tastes to say that she admired the quality of someone else’s work, and someone so outside the cannon, certainly did pique my interest.
Nathanael West only wrote three novels, and none of them were all that commercially successful. As many writers did back then, he moved out to Hollywood in the 1930s – this backdrop serving as inspiration for West’s Day of the Locusts, which, in turn, is where Matt Groening got the name for Homer Simpson. West became very good friends with F. Scott Fitzgerald. In fact, West, a notoriously bad driver, died the day after Fitzgerald succumbed to a heart attack, having run a stop sign on the way to attend the funeral. Continue reading
A few passages from the beginning of EL Doctorow‘s 1975 novel Ragtime, transcribed for landscape and setting purposes, with all materials pertaining to matters outside the realm of landscape/setting segregated by double brackets. I feel like a troglodyte for even saying this, but if you haven’t done so yet, you must read and own this book; and then, you must go out and read Heinrich von Kleist‘s 1811 novella Michael Kohlhaas, which you should own as well. Trust me.
In 1902 Father built a house at the crest of the Broadview Avenue hill in New Rochelle, New York. It was a three-story brown shingle with dormers, bay windows, and a screened porch. Striped awnings shaded the windows. The family took possession of this stout manse on a sunny day in June and it seemed for some years thereafter that all their days would be warm and fair.
Sea birds started and flew up. This was the time in our history when Winslow Homer was doing his painting. A certain light was still available along the Eastern seaboard. Homer painted the light. It gave the sea a heavy dull menace and shone coldly on the rocks and shoals of the New England Coast.
The afternoon was a blue haze. Tidewater seeped into [[his]] footprints. [[He bent down and found]] a perfect shell specimen, a variety not common to western Long Island Sound. It was a volute pink and amber shell the shape of a thimble, and what [[he]] did in the hazy sun with the salt drying [[on his ankles was to throw his head back and drink]] the minute amount of sea water in the shell. Gulls wheeled overhead, crying like oboes, and behind [[him]] at the land end of the marsh, out of sight behind the tall grass, the distant bell of the North Avenue streetcar tolled its warning.
Several months ago, I wrote Susan Orleans (author of The Orchid Thief, whom Meryl Streep portrayed in the book’s film adaptation Adaptation) a brief note, asking her if she had ever encountered the man who bred the Brassocattleya “Mt. Hood Mary”, a very rare orchid (picture above) that I mentioned in a holiday essay about gift-giving, and that my family is fairly obsessed with. Turns out that she hadn’t, but she did Continue reading
Over the years, more than a few friends have asked me what I thought of The DWP (Ed Note: I’ve decided to use the first initials of any books whose authors earned enough advance money, 1. to hire very large people who could inflict bodily harm upon my person, and, 2. to not suffer any repercussions for the aforementioned.) Continue reading