As our planet has rotated once again around the sun in a nearly perfect circle, I will now highlight several books from this year’s reading that move in more eccentric orbits. Each proves that Ambrose Bierce’s withering definition of eccentricity — “a method of distinction so cheap that fools employ it to accentuate their incapacity” — has its limitations.
I picked up Edith Sitwell’s The English Eccentrics from a tucked-away shelf in a used bookstore, which struck me as fitting given that the book’s mission is to reanimate long-buried “mummies lying under the ruins of time.” This nonpareil work opens with a tableau of “The Battlebridge Dust and Cinder-Heap,” a mountain of debris that was removed in 1850 to make way for London’s King Cross Station. Sitwell conceives of the pile as a heap of stories and memories speaking to us through the muttering dust:
We may seek in our dust-heap for some rigid, and even splendid, attitude of Death, some exaggeration of the attitudes common to Life. This attitude, rigidity, protest, or explanation, has been called eccentricity by those whose bones are too pliant.
That is, Sitwell’s eccentricity is less a deviation than a heightened state of the human, a protest against submitting to any greater, inhuman system: “Any criticism of the world’s arrangement, if expressed by only one gesture, and that of sufficient contortion, becomes eccentricity.”
Attuned to the “articulations rising from the dust,” Sitwell passes these tales of past eccentrics on to us: ornamental hermits, bearded men paid to reside in the grottos of country estates; Celestina Collins, a miserly woman who dined nightly with her favorite rooster and a humungous rat (until she kills the latter while breaking up a fight over their respective rations); the “amphibious” Lord Rokeby, known for the pathological “frequency of [his] ablutions;” Jemmy Hirst, a retired tanner who conducted his beloved hunts on the back of a “bull of ample proportions and uncertain temper” and preferred “a crowd of vivacious and sagacious pigs” to hound dogs; and the “loving and gay saint,” naturalist Charles Waterton, a rider of crocodiles who “was seized by a strong wish to have his big toe sucked by the Vampire Bat, just once, so that he could say that this adventure had befallen him.”
There is a note of elegy in each of her portraits, regardless of whether they chronicle a life of ebullience or despair:
…although the dusty world is too deafened by the sound of the machines that it has made for the trapping and murdering of time to listen to those sounds that are clear as the song of angels.
I also greatly enjoyed Simon Winders’s Danubia, a wonderful book written by a man finely attuned to the oddness of history. It tracks the course not of the river Danube, but of the Habsburg line, the “catastrophically inbred and unlucky family” that finally lost power when the Austrian-Hungarian Empire collapsed in the First World War. Remarkable about them is how very unremarkable they were:
To us the Habsburg rulers — many quite mediocre or merely dutiful — can seem as specialized and helpless as koala bears and their claims to grandeur and the highest place in Europe an obvious try-on.
There are exceptions of course, such as Maximilian I, an “unusual Habsburg in being both a convincing man of action and an intellectual.” And there are other strange birds literally and figuratively on display: notably Rudolph II, a collector of exotica, including a dodo and a cassowary. He was obsessed with “glyptics, the art of carving on precious stone;” patronized the fruit-crazed painter Arimboldo, the “Milanese oddball,” and allowed a lion and tiger to roam his castle at will, occasionally mauling or killing terrified servants.
But generally, the book can’t therefore rely on the personalities of its subjects to generate interest. After Leopold II dies in 1792, Winder gives a typically candid assessment of what’s to come in the remainder of his book: “His successors were a narrow dullard, a simpleton, a narrow dullard and a non-entity, and those four get us to 1918.”
What makes the parade of dullards interesting is the Winder’s own eccentricity. While Danubia is not a personal history per se, it is a work of history in which personality shines through. For instance, in explaining his preference for the “sheer, wild ungovernability” of the Danube over the Mediterranean and environs, Winder recounts an anxiety-ridden trip to Italy:
I felt trapped in the sort of novel in which a young curate sits on his own in his hotel room, leafing through his fine edition of Robert Browning, while his beautiful wife hands out with dockside minotaurs, feeling their deltoids.
Throughout, Winder demonstrates an unalloyed, boyish enthusiasm for his subject. When he visits a small museum of in the Czech town of Cheb, he is “hardly able to control [his] excitement,” futilely attempting to focus on the ground floor exhibits before bounding up the stairs to see the main attraction: the bedchamber in which Albrecht von Wallenstein, a Bohemian warlord during the 30 Years War, was assassinated.
The book always comes back to the Hapsburgs but never passes up a diverting detour. On the fate of hippos loosed from zoos during various conflicts, Winder contemplates composing a “parallel history of Central Europe seen through the endurance of one brave African artiodactyl family.” Another fascinating aside delves into the satirical implications of a Guinea-Pig village wherein the furry inhabitants inhabit a scaled representation of a Hungarian town. (He calls it a “genuinely frightening, brilliant piece of work.”) In a tome that spans half a millennium, Winder knows when to drop the doctrinal disputes and battles over succession to focus on history’s long-neglected subjects: scurrying rodents.
While we’re on the subject of autocrats, there’s Frances Fitzgibbons, the indomitable heroine of Raymond Kennedy’s Ride a Cockhorse, an immensely entertaining New York Review of Books reissue I finally got around to reading. Fitzgibbons, a mild-mannered, widowed loan officer in her mid-40s, undergoes a transformation in which she rediscovers her “gift for persuasive speech” and experiences a “sudden quickening of her libido.” She beds a “resplendent young drum major” from the high school marching band, then rapidly seizes control of the bank where she has worked for years, the oldest in the small New England town. Frances accomplishes this coup through chutzpah, media savvy, sexual magnetism, swift firings, brute force, and outrageous assertions that are nonetheless immediately accepted as truth.
One could read the novel as a portrait of female empowerment — a demented Lean In — or as a statement about the amorality of capitalism set during a national financial crisis: “Sentiment has its place in bed, not on the dotted line of a home mortgage.” But Ride a Cockhorse is more accurately about the seductive lure of fascism, both the “pure egoistic excitement” enjoyed by those in power and the comically abject desire to submit to them. “Chief” Fitzgibbons is a “brooding tyrant” with a cobbled-together, and priceless, retinue of toadies that include a secretary-turned-enforcer, a hair-dresser, and Frances’s smitten, Peeping Tom son-in-law. As she ascends to power, Fitzgibbons, who in the novel’s first scene admires the “martial beauty” of a passing parade, begins to dress more and more like a New England version of Il Duce.
Though we can’t help but cheer her on as she runs criminally roughshod over the “gutless” executives in her way, we also recognize the truth about her best expressed in an anonymous bit of bathroom graffiti: “Frankie Fitz is a fascist pig.”
Because concluding the year with a bathroom stall scene seems depressing, I’ll briefly mention Ari Goldman’s The Late Starters Orchestra, an uplifting chronicle of a journalist’s “middle-aged musical obsession” with the cello. As opposed to other shopworn works in the same genre, Goldman’s strikes the perfect balance of unselfconscious devotion (he proudly joins in his son’s youth orchestra), nuttiness (his used cello has a bullet hole in the front), and spirituality. Goldman ultimately performs a Bach minuet and “Mimkomcha,” a Shlomo Carlebach melody inspired by Hebrew prayer. Though the setting is only a small birthday, he makes us believe that he has reached his own “musical promised land.”
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