The Drollery of T.E. Lawrence

At loose ends for an hour in a splendid London library, I collapsed into an overstuffed leather chair and pulled the 1927 edition of Revolt in the Desert from a nearby shelf. This edition included a publisher’s note describing the exchanges between the copy editor and Lawrence of Arabia. My favorite concerned Meleager of Gadara.

Copy editor: On page 53, “Meleagar, the immoral poet.” I have put ‘immortal’ poet, but the author may mean ‘immoral’ after all.

Lawrence: Immorality I know. Immortality I cannot judge. As you please: Meleager will not sue us for libel.

Weekend Film Recommendation: Impromptu

Artistic stars of 1830s Paris are brought vividly to life in the high-spirited and entertaining 1991 film Impromptu. Directed by Tony-winning Sondheim collaborator James Lapine, the film stars Judy Davis in a bravura performance as George Sand. She spends the film avoiding prior lovers (including Mandy Pantinkin as Alfred de Musset) and chasing a new one, Frederic Chopin (Hugh Grant, in the sort of gentle and innocent performance that he could credibly give before we all came to know more about him). Liszt (Julian Sands) and Delacroix (Ralph Brown) are also on hand for the frolic, most of which takes place at a French country home presided over by a culture-starved and rather daffy Duchess (Emma Thompson, who is very funny).

If you are one of those film goers who laments the lack of strong, intelligent woman characters in most Hollywood productions, you will find Judy Davis’ performance particularly enjoyable. The screen writer, Sarah Kernochan, is justly known for creating multi-faceted female characters. She and Davis give the audience a George Sand who is complicated, passionate, endearing and also at times maddening. (Not incidentally, in the art imitates life department, Sand here is a brilliant woman absolutely intoxicated by a man’s musical ability, and Kernochan is married to Lapine).

Partly a fictionalized look at high culture and fame and partly a romantic romp, this movie includes not a dull or unappealing moment. The wonderful music and art direction add further pleasure to Impromptu, making it a complete and satisfying piece of cinema.

A dog starved at his master’s gate

An epigram competition in memoriam to Romney’s poor dog.

A dog starved at his master’s gate
Predicts the ruin of the state.

William Blake, Auguries of Innocence, 1803.

The story of Mitt Romney once forcing his dog to travel a long distance in a hutch tied to his car roof has been getting traction. Rightly so, as it encapsulates something peculiar about him. Contrast Newt Gingrich, plainly a very unpleasant man, worse than Romney on most moral dimensions. But consider. Newt is arrogant, selfish, greedy, priapic and hypocritical. But then so am I, and so are you Рhypocrite lecteur, mon semblable, mon fr̬re Рand our worst in-laws, up to a point. We trust that we all either have a weaker temptation to these vices, or better brakes, from our entourage, conscience, prudence, self-awareness or common sense. Still, I can see myself as Newt on a very bad day.

Romney arouses a different reaction. There is simply no way most of us could ever have treated a dog like that. It raises horrid echoes of the childhoods of psychopaths like Ian Brady and Jeffrey Dahmer.

Romney has been getting less popular as he campaigns. Some of this is no doubt due to his relentless opportunism. But isn’t there also a feeling that something was left out of the box when he was assembled? Even Tea Partiers may feel some reluctance to hand over the keys to the football to a high-functioning sociopath.

So: a doggerel competition. Doggy epigrams and verses please, no longer than a limerick (5 lines).

To get you started:


. . . . . . . Continue reading “A dog starved at his master’s gate”

Myshkin the Point

Tyler Cowen is fascinated by cutting-edge communications technology, and by literary criticism. But this is no Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup: the two great things don’t go great together.

Tyler Cowen, who is often a great source of insights on new literature, last night had a post about Dostoyevsky. It largely consists of an account of his own utility function (which, come to think of it, is largely what Facebook consists of: precisely why advertisers love it, though I don’t see why anyone else should). And then this:

If you enter “Dostoyevsky” into the search function of Twitter, you don’t come up with much interesting these days.

Heavens. We’d better just write him out of the canon then. Cowen’s commenter “vanderleun” nails it:

That [sentence] just says so much about so many things not even distantly related to Dostoyevsky that it can be put up as a “Koan for Our Era.”

Precisely. If you meet the Tweeter on the road, kill him.

When there were giants in the earth…

among them was Walt Kelly.  I grew up on Pogo, as my kids did on Calvin and Hobbes.  Finally, here is volume I of something that should have been done a long time ago (all the Amazon reviews seem to say, correctly, “Finally!”) .  My daughter gave it to me for Christmas and after all those decades away, I wasn’t sure it would hold up, but it does, even though I haven’t got to the Simple J. Malarkey episodes with which Kelly protected our national sanity while (for example) Al Capp pusillanimously sat out the bad times safely drawing shmoon.

Young readers, you can now fill in an important gap in your cultural capital.

Christopher Hitchens at His Best, on Anthony Powell

Because Christopher Hitchens’ oeuvre is both enormous in size and uneven in quality, it’s a challenge to sort his finest writing out from the bits that are merely barstool rants or contrarianism for its own sake (Like other people, I was always suspicious that when Hitchens was ripping into Mother Theresa or some other cultural icon it was as much a quest for publicity as a serious intellectual act.). I have developed my own rule for separating Hitchens’ wheat from his chaff: He is best read when he is praising someone or something rather than on the attack. I would cite as Exhibit A for my strategy this review of the work of the great Anthony Powell, whose fans include a number of RBC readers.

Hitchens quotes Powell judiciously and to great effect in his review, expertly diagnosing the author’s approach to writing and his connection to broader historical and literary trends. It’s a small classic of book reviewing, and gains from Hitchens’ warm tone throughout. Last but not least, I cannot wait to steal the line that a certain anecdote is “quite untrue but well worth repeating”.

Miss Jane offers advice to Italy

Lessons from Britain in 1815, with a debt burden twice as high as Italy´s.

The Reinhart-Rogoff paper on the history of debt crises has been boiled down to a self-fulfilling bond-vigilante creed that countries with a debt-to-GDP ratio of over 100% (like Italy and Greece today) have entered a zone of trouble.

Maybe so. But how then did Britain in 1815 manage a postwar debt-to-GDP ratio that is now estimated at anything from 260% to 290%?

Contemporaries did not of course have any number for GDP, hence the uncertainty in the retrospective ratio. But they did know exactly how large the nominal debt was – £854m – and how much the annual interest burden was – almost 60% of the peacetime budget. SFIK they managed it perfectly well. There were regular banking crises and panics in the following half-century, but the debt interest was paid like clockwork, and default was not on the agenda. Since the government ran a primary budget surplus, and kept out of big new wars and new borrowing, so the economic growth of Britain. industrial hegemon of the world, made the debt less and less of a problem – until 1914.


How come? Continue reading “Miss Jane offers advice to Italy”

Best Thriller Writer You’ve Probably Never Heard Of

Elmore Leonard said that a book or a chapter should never open with a description of the weather. That’s generally good writing advice, but from the moment I read “The skies over Gatwick were an insipid grey” I was hooked by the writing of Robert Goddard. He is enormously popular in the UK but for some reason his books have not leapt the pond.

He writes intricately plotted thrillers and mysteries, some set in the present day and some in the past. My favorite is Past Caring, but of his 20 books there are very few that wouldn’t qualify as a “thumping good read” (The name of one of the awards he has won).

In addition to wickedly surprising plots, no Goddard book is without some turns of phrase that stay with you: “Tintagel is a strange looking place, and it’s stranger than it looks”, “It was one of those moments where the aimless ramble of my life took on the fleeting dignity of a plan”. Many of Goddard narrators are flawed people, which heightens the suspense. Rather than being guided along by a Sherlock Holmes-type who illuminates everything for the reader, you can never tell when the protagonist has understood what is really going on, or just thinks he has.

If you are in the UK, you can find a well-thumbed Goddard paperback in virtually any of the charity shops. It will be a pound more than well spent. Otherwise, that’s why God gave us

Reading a Popular Classic: The Worm Ouroboros

Laxus and those sons of Corund walked on an afternoon in Krothering home mead. The sky above them was hot and coloured of lead, presaging thunder. No wind stirred in the trees that were livid-green against that leaden pall. The noise of mattock and crow-bar came without intermission from the castle. Where gardens had been and arbours of shade and sweetness, was now but wreck: broken columns and smashed porphyry vases of rare workmanship, mounds of earth and rotting vegetation. And those great cedars, emblems of their lord’s estate and pride, lay prostrate now with their roots exposed, a tangle of sere foliage and branches broken, withered and lifeless.

The above passage is actually less florid than many that appear in a real curio of a novel, The Worm Ouroboros. I am posting about it to share my reactions, but moreso to hear what RBC readers think of this remarkable book.

I searched the Internet some time ago and found two lists of the “Greatest 100 English-language novels” (which I can now no longer find and link to, sorry). One list was based on the votes of literary critics and the other was based on the votes of Internet users. Both lists contained some great books (e.g., “The Heart is a Lonely Hunter”) some overrated ones (e.g., “A Separate Peace”) and in what I assume was an error, some novels not written in English (e.g., “Absalom, Absalom”). But what caught my eye was that the Internet readers gave a very high rating to a book called “The Worm Ouroborus”. It wasn’t on the critics’ list and I hadn’t heard of the book or the author (An English civil servant named E.R. Eddison), which was precisely what made me curious enough to give it a read. Continue reading “Reading a Popular Classic: The Worm Ouroboros”

Establishing a Character: Powell Gives a Clinic

Amidst all the meaty, important, political posts by other RBCers, I am afraid this one is solely intended to share some very fine writing by Anthony Powell (Yes, I am *still* reading Dance to the Music of Time...)

In the sixth novel, the protagonist’s father is limned in a few priceless sentences that are evocative and funny at the same time. It takes more than a little skill for a writer to create such a vivid image of a character and to establish an emotional tone around him using so few words:

He used to read in the evenings, never with much enjoyment or concentration. “I like to rest my mind after work”, he would say. “I don’t like books that make me think”. That was perfectly true. In due course, as he grew older, my father became increasingly committed to this exclusion of what made him think, so that finally he disliked not only books, but also people – even places – that threatened to induce this disturbing mental effect.

He hid in his heart a hatred of constituted authority. He did his best to conceal this antipathy, because the one thing he hated, more than constituted authority itself, was to hear constituted authority questioned by anyone but himself.