Dear Match Book

In her New York Times column “Match Book,” Nicole Lamy “connects readers with book suggestions based on their questions, their tastes, their literary needs and desires.” Some of those questions, tastes, literary needs and desires are stranger than others.

1.Dear Match Book,

I
like sympathetic protagonists who become slightly, but not too, unsympathetic
following some kind of loss, then gradually become sympathetic again while
coping with said loss. Close third-person narration preferred, with some epistolary
bits (email only) judiciously sprinkled in. No second person please! A strong
sense of place is a must, though that place need not be named as long as the
protagonist is—or vice versa.

Dear
Anonymous,

My
advice would be to write this book yourself, and then check back in after it’s
published so l can recommend it to you.

2.Dear Match Book,

I love trilogies: Olivia Manning’s Fortunes of War, Evelyn Waugh’s Sword of Honour, and more recently, Rachel Cusk’s Outline trilogy. My problem is I can’t stand quartets! The very thought of four books in a series—or their readers—makes me physically ill. And yet I’ve heard great things about Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet. Help!

Dear
Fourth Wheel,

I am terribly sorry to hear about your tetralogical dysfunction, which is barring you off from experiencing the wonders of Ferrante’s Naples and Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria. Has your therapist already suggested breaking the foursomes into two twosomes? (You do have a therapist, right?)

Alternatively, you could try wetting your feet with books with “four” in the title (e.g., Ian Caldwell and Dustin Thomason’s bibliophile mystery The Rule of Four)? I don’t know. I’m grasping at straws here.

What about Ali Smith’s in-progress Seasonal Quartet? Why don’t you read Winter, Autumn, and the forthcoming Spring, and then pretend that Smith got tired of the project? Next, hole up in a cabin somewhere. After 10 to 15 years, emerge from seclusion, visit a bookstore, and thumb through a copy of Summer. If you don’t retch, you’re cured!  

3.Dear Match Book,

You
up?

Dear
Romeo,

Is this a booty call? If so, this is a first for me at Match Book. I am indeed up, but I’d prefer to keep this professional. I can, however, recommend some saucy books to get you through the night. Philip Roth’s Deception and Nicolson’s Baker’s Vox each are dazzling verbal displays that plumb the depths of desire.

4.Dear Match Book,

I earn $400 a day working from home! Want to learn more? But first, do you have any well-observed family dramas to recommend? I loved the latest Ann Tyler.

Dear
Bot,

Domestic drama has been at the core of literature since Greek tragedy, so there is much to choose from. What about the Eca de Queiros’s 19th-century epic The Maias, which tells of forbidden love in a lively Lisbon? Or for something more contemporary, try Barbara Kingsolver’s Unsheltered, her era-spanning chronicle of two New Jersey families.

I
could think of more, but I’m intrigued by your offer. $400 a day you say? Would
I still have to write this column?
Please advise.

5.Dear Match Book,

A veritable and unrepentant gourmand, I’ve devoured Valerie Luiselli, inhaled Karl Ove Knaussgard, delected Ben Lerner and glutted on Ottessa Moshfegh in the last month alone. I really don’t need a recommendation. I was just writing to communicate how well read I am.

Dear
Voracious Reader,

Barf.

6.Dear Match Book,

Recommending
books is simply a matter of data analysis. For example, with the right
algorithm I could tell you which novel to read based on the kind of paper
towels you buy.

Dear
Bot Book,

You’ll never replace me with a machine, Bezos!

p.s.
Sorry about Queens. And the dick pics.

7.Dear Match Book,

I’m looking for the perfect bathroom read. It doesn’t necessarily have to be thematically related to defecation—though bonus points if it did—just gripping enough to get me through my morning ritual.

Dear Multitasker,

I believe the best time to ingest knowledge is when one is expelling waste. The urbane musings of Joseph Epstein are my favorite companion, but perhaps it’s easiest to tell you what’s in our bathroom here at The Times: Clives James’s Cultural Amnesia, his sharp, sardonic portraits of 20th-century intellectual and artistic figures; Marcel Schwob’s Imaginary Lives, a toilet-friendly collection of mesmerizing biographical vignettes; and The Selected Poems of Kay Ryan, whose whimsical, technically proficient verse helps to move things along, so to speak.

There’s also The Penguin Book of Similes, but that’s in Dwight Garner’s personal stall.

8.Dear Match Book,

I’ve always looked forward to reading the latest from Michael Chabon, whom I believe to be our greatest living author. This is an impossible question, but if you could choose just one masterpiece from his incredible oeuvre, what would it be?

Dear
Michael Chabon,

As I
tell you each week, I am particularly attached to The Yiddish Policeman’s
Union
.

9.Dear Match Book,

We’ve
been hosting a book club on the Victorian novel for several years now. Reading Daniel
Deronda
, Our Mutual Friend, and the Barchester novels has taught us
the indispensability of timeless literature and great friends.

The
problem is I can’t stand one member of the group—let’s call him Uriah. Can you
recommend a “loose baggy monster” that will get him to quit the club?

Dear
(Middle)Marching Orders,

Part of what makes Victorian literature so compelling are its villains, from Alec d’Urberville to Becky Sharpe. Why don’t you try Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White? Embrace your inner Count Fosco to lie, scheme, and gaslight the son of a bitch until the mere sight of a triple-decker sends shivers down his spine.

10.Dear Match Book,

I
recently murdered someone during an unfortunate encounter. I’m coping just
about as well as could be expected and devoting myself to self-care, including
reading literature about the ethics of killing a (former) friend. Any tips?

Dear
Raskolnikov,

N.B. The Times in no way condones murder. Having said that, reading is a great way to begin the healing process. I would start with Albert Camus’s haunting existentialist novel The Stranger. Another book to help you come to terms with your homicidal instincts is Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment. And finally, for a more recent novel to help you cope with brutally ending another life, try Oyinkan Brathwaite’s delightful satire My Sister, the Serial Killer.

If
you don’t like these, don’t shoot the recommender! Please, don’t shoot me. I
have a family and a lot of readers dependent on my help.

11.Dear Match Book,

He
was a world-renowned roller-coaster engineer, but he couldn’t control the
precipitous decline of our marriage….

Dear Thrown for a Loop,

Let me stop you right there. I believe this is a “Modern Love” submission that was sent to me in error.

Image credit: Unsplash/Josh Felise.

The Man Who Couldn’t Scan

The poetry community is looking inward after revelations about the treatment of a 34-year-old subject suffering from an extremely rare condition called aprosodia: the total inability to detect poetic meter. The subject’s identity remains undisclosed for privacy reasons, but officials did reveal that he is a college English professor and that his name is trochaic. “It has a nice tripping lilt to it,” said the lead meter scientist at the National Prosody Center, which bills itself as the world’s most stressful workplace.

The NPC had long been aware of the subject’s existence. His high school English teacher queried the center after the otherwise sharp student failed to grasp the basics of iambic pentameter. “The wóods decáy, the wóods decáy and fáll. Da-dum, da-dum, da-dum, da-dum, da-dum. Nothing. He would just stare at me in utter incomprehension,” said the teacher.

The subject learned to fake the ability to scan during his graduate studies, nodding sagely when a classmate pointed out an inverted foot or a cheeky instance of catalexis. And yet, because he could not hear any of the metrical effects described, he began to think of himself as the victim of an elaborate hoax. His psychological state deteriorated, and he was finally admitted to the National Prosody Center after accusing a colleague of communicating with foreign agents via his metrical notation of Elizabethan verse.

A subsequent MRI revealed that the areas of the subject’s brain
that normally lit up during scansion remained completely dark. Over the next
several months, researchers devised an audacious plan to rehabilitate him that pushed
the bounds of prosodical ethics.

First, they tried animal therapy. The subject received daily
visits from Donovan the Dactylic Duck, a waterfowl trained to vocalize in a
distinctive pattern: “Qúack quack quack, Qúack quack quack.” He enjoyed these
visits but consistently failed to replicate Donovan’s dactyls on a decoy.

Next, NPC researchers attempted sleep deprivation therapy,
locking the subject in a padded room while piping in Anglo Saxon verse day and
night. By the third morning, he seemed to be grasping the basics of the
alliterative-stress meter, but the experiment had to be suspended after he attacked
an orderly he thought was Grendel’s mother. (“A brief caesura until his visions
subside,” a NPC spokesperson noted.)  

The subject was then put on a diet of limericks, the restorative effects of anapestic trimester being well documented. Indeed, he gave researchers hope when he appeared to have correctly identified a pyrrhic foot, but subsequent tests revealed it to have been a lucky guess. (“An ultimately hollow victory,” admitted a NPC spokesperson.)

Stymied, the brass decided to bring in its heavy hitter: U.S. poet laureate Tracy K. Smith. She saw it as her mission not only to spread the love of poetry to the general public, but also to beat the principles of poetic stress into any and all. Meeting the subject in the NPC’s boxing ring each morning, Smith demonstrated flawless pugilistic and poetic technique in pummeling the refractory denier with virtuosic combinations of weak and strong punches—all according to the strictures of various meters.

Preliminary results were promising, as the daily lessons appeared to be penetrating the subject’s thick skull. However, Smith took things too far in one sparring session when, feeling she was nearing a breakthrough, she unleashed a hard thud of a spondee that knocked him senseless.

This time the AMA intervened, calling a halt to any future experiments. Furthermore, the ACLU declared that even mentioning the metrical complexities of Hopkins’s sprung rhythm within the patient’s earshot would violate his civil liberties.      

The failure was a blow to the reputation of the National
Prosody Center, which had earned plaudits for its work with another subject, “The
Ear,” known for her ability to detect over 300 distinct stress levels. (She
currently presides over a metrical review board that resolves disputes between bickering
prosodists.) The controversy also affected the center financially. Owing to the
backlash, sales of the NPC’s footware line, Fresh
Kictus, plummeted.   

The case of the man who couldn’t scan thrust scansion to the forefront of roiling intellectual debates. Some claimed the subject was the ideal poetic reader, immune to the hegemonic structures embedded in both meter and society. “I prefer not to scan” became the rallying cry for those seeking a radical democratization of the heretofore fascistic poetic line. Others took a reactionary stance, arguing that he was a symptom of metrical decadence: His inability to discern the most basic pattern of stresses reflected a larger societal collapse of moral values.

After recovering from his Tracy K. Smith tutorial, the subject seemed baffled by the buzz surrounding his strange affliction and expressed an eagerness to return to his normal life. One sympathetic NPC researcher slipped a copy of Pope’s An Essay on Criticism in his bag as he was being discharged. In the hopes that the shoddy treatment wouldn’t turn the metrically challenged man off poetry for good, she had highlighted the following passage:

But most by numbers judge a poet’s song;And smooth or rough, with them is right or wrong:In the bright Muse though thousand charms conspire,Her voice is all these tuneful fools admire,Who haunt Parnassus but to please their ear,Not mend their minds; as some to church repair,Not for the doctrine, but the music there.

The subject
has adjusted to life outside the center and resumed teaching. He still has
weekly visits with Donovan the duck.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

In Memoriam: Anthony “One-Take Tony” Hollander

The audiobook community audibly mourns the passing of one of its giants, Anthony Hollander, or “One-Take Tony” as he was known in the business. Whether narrating an epic, farce, or cozy mystery, his recordings all started the same: a clearing of the throat, a deep breath, and then the gruff-but-good-natured command to Scop, his dog, to vacate the studio. Hollander would then set to work reading, without interruption, one of the thousands of books he recorded over his career.

“I’ve been reading since I was four years old. So why would
I need multiple takes?” he told an interviewer in 2010.

The sound of his gravelly baritone has transported readers from
Hardy’s Wessex to Garcia-Marquez’s Macando. A more controversial figure than
Flo Gibson, his longtime rival (and, some rumored, lover), he will be
remembered not only for his recordings—including the definitive version of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn—but also
for the narratorial intrusions that delighted and frustrated audiences in equal
measure. There was a Rabelaisian energy to Hollander’s recordings, and indeed
his eructations (frequent), flatulence (intermittent) and snores (rare) were as
recognizable to devoted fans as his voice.

Hollander was an unpredictable reader, a narrator-as-critic. He grunted upon reading overwrought sentences, paused to deride mixed metaphors, and, in one particularly infamous episode, launched ad hominem attacks: “Who wrote this crap?” he could be heard on the recording of [redacted]’s latest novel. “Look at this author photo. Figures.”

He permanently alienated David Foster Wallace fans by interrupting Infinite Jest to take a phone call.  “Hello? No I haven’t thought about solar panels. Oh? I can sell my excess electricity back to the power company? That’s interesting. Look, I’m narrating a book right now but can I get back to you? OK, send along the info. Now where I was? Oh yes…”

Hollander once claimed that, had audiobook fame not been thrust upon him, he would have been a detective. Mystery fans did not appreciate his tendency to breezily dismiss clues (“Obvious red herring”) and to identify, often accurately, the killers before they were revealed (“Murderer written all over him”). The Crime Writers’ Association, incensed after Hollander had ruined one too many P.D. James plot twists, sponsored a short-story contest in his (dis)honor: the prize going to the most ingenious mystery imagining his murder.


In Hollander’s defense, he offended across genres. Henry James scholars bristled at his vulgar commentary on Isabel Archer and Caspar Goodwood, “Just fuck him already,” which earned his recording of The Portrait of a Lady a rare NC-17 rating.

According to his autobiography, Sounding Myself, Hollander discovered the transfixing power of his voice during grade-school reading exercises. “My stentorian delivery put the other toddlers to shame, their snotty fingers inching along the page as they hazarded one quavering syllable at a time,” he wrote in his memoirs, the audio version of which was read by Jeremy Irons. (“The one mortal whose voice I envy.”)


An audiobook talent scout discovered Hollander after hearing him summon a waiter for the check in his local North Carolina diner. His first taping was of Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, during which he got up and said, “I’ve got to take a piss” about 10 pages in. The director, feeling the interruption jibed with Wolfe’s freewheeling gonzo journalism, kept the tape rolling, thus ingraining in One-take Tony his lifelong habit.

Hollander was an autodidact, and some critics held it against him. They snottily observed that it was all well and good to record a book in one take, provided one could actually pronounce the words. Though many an author, editor, and listener attempted to correct him, Hollander never could quite master pronouncing “bough” or “draught” in the heat of the moment, and consistently mangled all French words—emboinpoint and décolletage causing him particular consternation. And yet these flubs endeared him to listeners, who saw in Hollander a relatable everyman: “Ama-nu-ensis? What the hell is an amanuensis? I know I’ve seen that word somewhere.”

Hollander’s vocal range could accommodate several character
types—dainty, dangerous, homespun—but differentiation wasn’t his strong suit. Minor
characters confused him. “Wait, who is that guy again? Is that the cousin or
the friend from college? No, the cousin died. Or was he the gardener?”

In a controversy that threatened to derail his career, Hollander could be heard pleasuring himself while reading Philip Roth’s Sabbath’s Theater. (Thankfully he was alone in the studio, having long served as his own producer, director, and sound engineer.) The stigma lingered for years. During negotiations to narrate 50 Shades of Grey, he was forced to agree to the humiliating stipulation that he record the erotic thriller with his hands tied behind his back. (“All the kinkier,” he would write in Sounding.)

Certain authors refused to have their novel read by Hollander, especially during his later years, when, having “become allergic to nature scenes,” he started derisively glossing over descriptive passages: “Sky, weather, pathetic fallacy, yada yada yada.”

Hollander died where he belonged, in the recording studio,
narrating a debut novel that, judging from the absence of naps, bathroom breaks,
and crusty asides, he seemed to thoroughly enjoy. Perhaps too thoroughly. On
his final recording, the fatal heart attack—a disturbing, yet still mellifluous,
groan—can be heard in the middle of Chapter 5, right before Jeremy Irons
graciously takes over.

Image credit: Unsplash/Claus Grünstäudl.

A Year in Reading: Matt Seidel

It could be this Love Actually earworm that afflicts me this time of year, but I’m feeling love in my fingers, my toes and my year-in-reading list. And since love is supposedly a universal language, the following highlights are eros-themed works in translation.

When we first see the titular governesses in Anne Serre’s The Governesses (translated from the French by Mark Hutchinson), they have unbuttoned their blouses to combat the heat: “Even in a state of semi-undress, they’re a model of discretion, as smooth-skinned as infants fresh from the tub.” Set on the country estate of a well-heeled family, the novel generates its energy from this sense of decorous abandonment. The three women are less traditional caretakers than “mistresses of games and pleasures,” pleasures that include the occasional bout of murderous Bacchic frenzy: “This one will be tackled head-on, licked, bitten and devoured in a ladylike manner,” we read of one stranger lured onto the estate. (The governesses are great with the children, though.) The novella, Apollonian in its composition, pays homage to the Dionysian wellspring of life.

Over in Italy, Paolo Volponi’s The Javelin Thrower (translation by Richard Dixon) begins with a traumatic scene: a young child sees his mommy kissing not Santa Claus but a fascist officer. The officer is never seen without his gleaming silver dagger dangling from his belt; he even brings it to his trysts, highlighting the combination of virility and violence extolled by Il Duce. The boy soon reaches for a phallic object of his own, taking up the javelin, where under the tutelage of the officer he excels. Nonetheless, his beautiful mother’s adulterous liaison predictably haunts the child, and as we follow him through his adolescence and early adulthood, his sexual education, and view of women, is colored by the revulsion, shame and fascination of those spied upon encounters.

Whereas The Javelin Thrower is a slow burn of a novel, Elsa Morante’s Arturo’s Island, newly translated by Ann Goldstein, bursts with fervor. Arturo is a creature of excess—excessive in his self-reliance, fantasy-life, intensity of emotions and bravado. Left largely to look after himself on a small island off the coast of Naples while his father roams, he alternately desires and disdains his new stepmother, only a few years older than he is. His father seems more interested in the fate of a male convict held on the island’s penitentiary. Both stepmother and prisoner are rivals for his father’s affection and their mere existence gnaws at the ardent Arturo, prone as he is to “opposing and intertwined jealousies, the many-sided passions, that were to mark [his] destiny.”

Next on our Italian tour is Vitaliano Brancati’s The Beautiful Antonio (trans. Patrick Creagh), whose Sicilian, Adonis-like protagonist inspires outsized lusts his diminished libido can’t satisfy: “There’s a dead man in the midst of your life,” Antonio explains of his impotence, “a corpse so placed that whatever move you make you’re bound to brush up against it, against its cold, fetid skin.” His innocent wife eventually discovers that there is more to marriage than “chaste and fraternal embraces,” leading to an annulment and anguish that seems to be felt more keenly by Antonio’s father than himself. “…at his age he ought to be lifting rocks without using his hands…He died, my son, he died. I had a son, but he died.”
Like The Javelin Thrower, The Beautiful Antonio is set in Fascist Italy, and behind the comic depictions of masculinity lies a darker statement about the allure of potency. When Antonio’s elderly uncle, who returns to a bombed-out Catania from a concentration camp to find his nephew still stewing in self-pity, he loses it:

For anyone in any other country it would have been a piddling little mishap. But for us? Oh, we have to make a Greek tragedy of it! Because all we can think of is the one little thing, and that’s it! In the meanwhile along comes a despotic gangster. One kick in the pants from him and we go flying into this war…


If these Italian novels—especially Volponi’s and Morante’s—have an overwrought intensity, Christina Hesselholdt’s deploys a cooler, more ironic approach to human passion. “We are still miserable, and again we are rambling in the realm of a powerful love,” says one of the six narrators of Christina Hesselholdt’s mosaical Companions while visiting Haworth Moor (Bronte country) with her husband. A few pages later, we find ourselves in less romantic climes, a German strip club, and in the hands of another, equally well-read narrator: “Ohhh, the human, oh-so Zizekian need to make sense of thing where none exists,” she muses while analyzing her surroundings. In this literate novel—inspired by the multi-perspective structures of Virginia Woolf’s The Waves and Lawrence Durrell’s The Alexandria Quartet—chronicles a group of Danish friends approaching middle-age. Translated by Paul Russell Garrett, Companions is a fascinating story about friends, lovers, and the pleasures and perils of intimacy.
Happy holidays, boun Natale, joyeux Noel, glædelig jul!

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A Year in Reading: Matt Seidel

I tend to buy used books in bunches, which means the haul from some expeditions stays buried for weeks, months, years even. For this entry, I highlight three finds that, breaking custom, I bought and read almost immediately this year: Hugo Charteris’s The Tide Is Right, Cyril Connolly’s The Rock Pool, and A.J.A. Symons’s The Quest for Corvo. Given that I opened each without delay, I was tickled to find a common thread—postponement—running through all three. The publications of the first two novels were deferred for different reasons—libel, indecency—while the biographical “quest” sought to unearth the out-of-print or never-published works of a singular, and singularly impossible, writer who died penniless and unrecognized. All are urbane works shadowed by a sense of life’s and art’s precariousness.

Upon hearing that The Tide Is Right, his 1957 novel about the squabbles of a Scottish aristocratic family, would be dropped by his publisher for its libelous potential, Charteris considered changing the setting to Wales. The house still balked, and it wouldn’t be until 1991 that the novel found its way ashore.

The Tide Is Right, opens with an early morning tableau set along an icy bay that is as chilling as it is mystifying. This initial sense of inscrutable menace persists throughout, even as the scene shifts from wild landscapes to drawing rooms. The plot concerns the Mackeans, whose patriarch, a “sort of archetypal Highland god-figure,” has died. The new laird is Alan Mackean, whose myopia and “partiality for rubber-shoes, big soft concealing chairs” produces an effect “of almost hermetic escape and indifference.” That indifference largely extends to his wife, Augustine, whose “capacity for silence when any normal person would have spoken sometimes came as near to gaining his attention as anything in which he had no vested interest ever did.” Alan is heirless, and the next in line is his more spirited cousin, Duncan, a spendthrift with an inferiority complex. Alan intuits, if not acknowledges, the danger Duncan represents: “Two hundred years ago do you know what Duncan would have [done]? He would have rubbed me out. Like that.”

But in modern Scotland? Such an action seems unlikely in these less rugged times, and yet its possibility hovers over every guarded utterance. When a visiting Londoner claims to grasp the family dynamic clearly, he is quickly disabused: “…if you tried for forty bloody blue moons you couldn’t see—except like a sort of aerial photograph taken through pink fog.” As that outsider (and stand-in for our readerly ignorance) will later realize, “whoever he spoke to seemed to know, guess, feel more.”

One never quite gets one’s footing in this elemental novel of half-voiced thoughts, a dizzying reinforced by the setting, with its “deserted footbridges…double planks suspended on iron hawsers [that] remained motionless and fragile above pressures and pace which could have crushed them inaudibly in black jaws of granite.” Don’t look down.

Our second waylaid work is Cyril Connolly’s only novel—originally planned as part of a trilogy on English snobbishness. It was to be published by an English house until a senior partner intervened, supposedly ruffled by the book’s lesbian characters. The Rock Pool did come out in France (in 1936), but wouldn’t appear in England until a decade later, prompting Connolly to chide: “…I think that the chill wind that blows from English publishers, with their black suits and thin umbrellas, and their habit of beginning every sentence with ‘We are afraid,’ has nipped off more promising buds than it has strengthened.”

Like the heroes of most thwarted bildungsromans, The Rock Pool’s Edgar Naylor is a vague creature, “neither very intelligent nor especially likeable.” He is delineated only by borrowed affects: “Oxford had fostered, the one through the dons, the other through the undergraduates, two separate veins of pedantry and lechery, which, united when drunk and when sober divided, were the most definite things you noticed about him.” An apprentice stock-broker and would-be writer—he is contemplating a biography of Samuel Rogers, the banker-bard of St. James’s Place—he travels to Trou-sur-Mer, (literally hole-on-the-sea) on the French Riviera, “a microcosm cut off from the ocean by the retreating economic tide.” There Naylor hopes to “derive a pleasant sense of power” by “looking down knowingly into his Rock Pool, poking it and observing the curious creatures he might stir up.”

Instead, attracted to and repulsed by the town’s bohemian clan—its artists, drunks, eccentrics, frauds—he falls headlong into the hole. He experiences a coming-of-age on steroids: “Here life was too crude, too brutal, he had run in a couple of weeks the course in dissolution which for the ordinary eupeptic professional man is spread over a period of years.” Connolly depicts the sordid exaltedness of Trou’s inhabitants, who “rather resembled beautiful cave-dwellers supporting in hieratic and traditional raggedness a dying religion while underneath them when on nothing but bribery, politics, and the making of money.” Despite Naylor’s ardent participation in the debauch, his best efforts to ascend the squalid heights, he remains firmly rooted to the world below. In the saddest part of the bleak comedy, Trou’s true denizens instinctively sense in  him “some ancient enemy of youth and spirit.”

Without further delay, we come to The Quest for Corvo. Symons’s hunt for the dubiously titled Baron Corvo (or Frederick Rolfe) begins when a friend (and rare book dealer) gives him a copy Hadrian the Seventh, Rolfe’s self-portrait as a pope: “How was it that I had never heard of a man who had it in his power to write such a book as Hadrian the Seventh?” It turns out that the writer had other, darker powers. Symons’s friend shows him letters from Rolfe’s last years, in which the destitute author attempts to lure a well-heeled debauchee to Venice, where he will guide him, for a fee, through the city’s depravity:
What shocked me about these letters was not the confession they made of perverse sexual indulgence: that phenomenon surprises no historian. But that a man of education, ideas, something near genius, should have enjoyed without remorse the destruction of the innocence of youth; that he should have been willing for a price to traffic in his knowledge of the dark byways of that Italian city; that he could have pursued the paths of lusts with such frenzied tenacity: these things shocked me into anger and pity.
But they also intrigued Symons even more. Thus begins an “experimental biography” in which he relates both the story of Rolfe’s life and  that of his dogged investigative efforts.

Rolfe, who died in Venice in 1913, was an entertaining, strange novelist; historian of medieval Italy; and failed priest. He was also a penurious spendthrift who, once funded, would engage in an expensive and “elaborate idleness;” a sponger, certainly, but one who endured long periods of abject poverty; a paranoid convinced that “others, far less gifted than he, were enjoying the pleasant fruits of a world in which he had no share.”

Before the inevitable falling out, he would entertain his friends and patrons with his erudition and outlandish tales of being buried alive, pursued by Jesuit kidnappers, or communicating with cats in their secret language. Like Saul Bellow’s Herzog, he composed acidic letters to any and all—he thought of these missives, “whether to a publisher or to a cobbler” as literature. “I’m going to flick that gentleman with my satire,” he would crow to a friend before undertaking such an endeavor, a collaborator who attested that Rolfe was never “happier than when he had to answer an unpleasant letter.”

This aggression masked a profound vulnerability, as the following passage about Nicholas Crabbe, the protagonist of The Desire and Pursuit of the Whole, makes clear:
Have you, o most affable reader, ever dissected a crab? If not, pray do so at once, if possible, plunging him first into boiling water for five whole minutes and evitate unnecessary barbarity. Life the lid of his shell, and look inside. You will find it filled with a substance like new cheese; and a magnifying-glass will shew you that this is held together by a network ramification infinitely closer and finer than spiders’ webs. Under his shell, in fact, your crab is soft as butter, and just one labyrinthine mass of the most sensitive of nerves. From which pleasing experiment you should learn to be as merciful as. God to all poor sinners born between the twenty-first of June and the twenty-fourth of July…They are the cleverest, tenderest, unhappiest, most dreadful of all men.
That is first-class horoscope writing.

Symons’s quest culminates in a sad irony. Towards the end of the biography, we find Symons sharing sumptuous meals with a wealthy admirer of Rolfe’s who is willing to expend considerable resources to track down any surviving manuscripts. The munificent, Renaissance-style patron whom Rolfe searched for all his life arrives too late.

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Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005

That Glorious Syllable: On ‘On’

Whether introducing a charming essay or slim monograph, a witty epigram or stately sonnet, on is the most accommodating of words: the eternal handmaiden, the chivalrous cicisbeo, the dutiful emcee welcoming the main topic on stage. Though it plays this obliging, some might say servile role impeccably, it is high time that on emerge from the syntactical shadows to bask in the light of its lapidary splendor.

To be on is to be alive, energetic, aflame, to display one’s best self. Similarly, on is language’s best self, demonstrating how much can be done with so little. Compact, suggestive, manifold, on is the preposition that launched a thousand idioms.

Derived from the Proto-Germanic ana, on conjures up Iron Age images of unruly beards and makeshift encampments: the terse utterance of a culture hardened by the elements. These rude forbears, emerging from their mist-shrouded forests to rampage across Europe, were not prone to reflection. No Teutonic Hazlitt composed his lucid thoughts in essay form (e.g., “On Pillaging”). Rather, these restless warriors were in thrall to their wanderlust. On, on! we hear their guttural voices echoing through the millennia.

And yet we would be neglecting on’s suppleness were we to focus solely on its muscular genealogy. In its imperative form — on! — it is certainly a spur to action, but when reversed, a brake: no! Moreover, on displays a nobility of spirit, charitably lending its services to other nouns (onlooker) or prepositions in need, either supporting them from behind — “onto” — or lighting the way forward—“upon.” It can introduce the most heartbreaking of topics, such as Ben Jonson’s elegy to his son, or, from the same pen, a Rabelaisian bibelot: “On Gut.” (The poet was even said to have written a jeering missive to a deceived husband, “On Thy Wife,” but that bit of doggerel has been lost to time.)

A preposition wrapped in an adverb wrapped in an enigma, on is a tiny word, yet it contains multitudes. Its deceptive modesty could even be said to conceal the most fundamental of our drives. After all, what is the coupling of one vowel and one consonant but a chaste replication of the sexual act? And lest I be accused of overanalysis — as I often have been by blinkered partisans of under or beneath — consider on’s entanglement with the mating ritual: courtship is initiated with a come-on, which, if accepted, leads to both parties being turned on, and, if all goes well, a hard-on, and then…but enough. In the interests of decency, I won’t go on.

Any scholar of Shakespeare’s sonnets will gladly explain the equally bawdy potential of on’s chief rival, in, which the perceptive reader has noticed I have avoided mentioning till now. While the two words do occasionally tolerate proximity — e.g., come on in, in on it — tolerate is all. How it pains me even to type those shoddy combination of letters, so similar and yet vastly inferior to the virtuous one under review. Replacing on’s lovely o, a perfect form, with i, that impudent, egotistical erection, in is boorish, vulgar, so denotatively and connotatively crass that the mouth seems to resist pronouncing it. Compare the generous, open pronunciation of on, the mouth expanding to greet the world — all its marvels and follies — in blissful communion. “Come one, come all, and feast,” it seems to say, “dinner’s on me.”

On, on! The next time you encounter on beginning a title, ignore what follows. Recite the glorious syllable to yourself in stentorian tones, revel in its wondrous reverberations. Let your eyes linger on its elegant appearance, take in its curves, appreciate its eternal form and endless content. Soon your own love affair with the sublime word will commence, a romance that, unlike ephemeral passions, will go on and on, powering an inner light that will never turn off.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

The League of Extraordinary Critics

Before the summer onslaught of comic book movies featuring X-Men, Avengers and Justice Leaguers, let us pay homage to a cadre of merely human, though still valiant, book critics who have attained something like superhero status themselves.

Though they adopted radically different methods, and were bickering among themselves more often than not — and one of them is currently incarcerated — so strong was their shared devotion to the sacred duty of criticism that future generations will surely say of them:
Such once were Criticks, such the Happy Few
Athens and Rome in better Ages knew.

Rex Hume: The Highbrow Hound
Rex Hume, the famed allusion-hunting critic known as “The Highbrow Hound,” “The Tweedy Truffler,” and “Causabon 2.0” has been universally praised for his “near-sensuous pedantry.” Whereas some of our more conscientious critics take it upon themselves to read the whole of an author’s oeuvre before reviewing his or her latest, Hume, lest he miss one literary reference, thematic reworking, or subtle resonance, re-reads the whole of the Western Canon.

Famously averse to new works, the reactionary Hume cultivates an irascible persona. Nearly every publicist has received one of his dreaded form replies to notices touting a debut effort: “If it were that good, wouldn’t I have seen it alluded to elsewhere?”

Hume’s allusive obsession stems from an adolescent trauma. One spring, that season when a young man’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love, he asked a young lady, handsome, clever, and rich, to the prom. She curtly referred him to “Bartleby the Scrivener.” The prancing, yellow-stockinged swain hurried home, hoping to find in the story an invitation to come live with her and be her love. When instead, he read those devastatingly demurring words, his eyes burned with anguish and anger. He awoke the next morn a sadder and a wiser man and vowed to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield in his quest to shore each and every fragment against his ruined ego.

The path was not easy. Medical setbacks dogged the bookish lad from his college years, when Hume’s brain literally exploded — or so his detractors quipped — after Planet Joyce first swam into his ken. (Though his doctors maintained that it was nothing more than an “Oxen of the Sun”-induced aneurism.)

Hume’s mania has also landed him in legal trouble. He was sued after putting George Plimpton in a chokehold, convinced that one of the dilettante’s witticisms was cribbed from a Martial epigram. Hume wouldn’t release him until two Commentary editors and William Styron assured him that the bon mot was most definitely a Plimpton original.

Hume’s dogged sleuthing lent his reviews, essentially scorecards of real or imagined literary references, a bizarre quality. One cannot, though, argue with the lapidary precision of his assessment of Bonfire of the Vanities: “Dickens (42), Trollope (28), Fitzgerald (11), Dostoyevsky (8.33), Baudelaire (p), Dumas (1)…” After readers began to demand more expansive considerations, Hume’s editor steered him away from covering allusion-rich literary novels and towards romance fiction. However, these peppery tales only stimulated the Hound’s nose, detecting as he did the soupçon of a Rabelais, a pinch of Rochester, a tang of Sade, a dash of Nin, or the perverse wafting of Jonathan Edwards in each concoction.

And so Hume was finally assigned to his current post, covering children’s picture books. He has yet to produce a review, as he immediately enrolled in the Columbia Art History graduate program. But colleagues report, whether with dismay or eagerness is unclear, that he has been holed up for weeks with Ernst Gombrich’s The Story of Art, a Biblical concordance, and Go Dog Go.

Sydney Duff: A King on His Throne
Blessed with incredible stamina and a prodigiously broad backside, Sydney Duff has never reviewed a book he couldn’t read in one sitting. He burst onto the scene with his review of The Corrections — “I read it in one sitting” — which he finished while riding the A train end-to-end throughout the night. Another one of his famous pieces came during a 100-mile charity bike ride through the Hudson Valley — White Teeth perched on the handlebars — in support of deep vein thrombosis research. “I read it in one sitting,” he raved, “and raised money for a great cause!” And who could forget the scathing review of Don DeLillo’s Underworld: “I read it in one sitting, though at times I was tempted to put it down and stretch my legs.”

The young Duff could be brash and insensitive, universally reviled for once accusing a wheelchair-bound colleague of impinging on his brand. In another notorious incident, he was so enraged at the mere sight of his assistant’s standing desk that he threw it out the fifth-story office window. Such anecdotes reveal the latent dynamism of the sedentary creature.

Then there was Duff’s daredevil affair with Rex Hume’s wife. Having cracked open a novel shortly after their adulterous afternoon assignation, he refused to leave his lover’s bedroom until he had finished it. Hume, who had been out hunting truffles, eventually returned home, but luckily headed straight to his study to reacquaint himself with Flaubert. When Duff snuck out that night, the Highbrow Hound was none the wiser.

Duff mellowed with age, perhaps drained by his near-continual feats of biblio-endurance. The ravages of time lent an introspective air to his work as Duff grappled with his own mortality. Consider the terse pathos of his reassessment of Proust: “Though the bed sores almost derailed me, I read it in one go. For a long time it was painful.”

Those curious about what the photo-shy Duff looks like need only visit the Tate Modern, which houses the portrait Lucian Freud painted of the corpulent critic, toilet-bound and reading a copy of The Portrait of a Lady. As Duff put it in a rare cross-disciplinary review that demonstrated the full range of his aesthetic judgement: “Both the novel and the portrait were completed in one session.”

Duff retired some years ago to fully devote himself to activism. He is not fond of marches or picket lines — or progressive causes truth be told — but whenever a group of young idealists gathers at a statehouse or university president’s office, they can count on the old lounger, book in hand, for support at their sit-ins.

Aristophocles: Two-Faces, One Name
Some swear that the one-named critic Aristophocles is the merriest man alive. Indeed, many a witness could testify — and many a review confirm — that the one-named critic never sat in a café, enjoyed a sunny day in the park, or infuriated fellow passengers in the Amtrak quiet car, without his distinctive cackle echoing round. And yet similarly upstanding citizens aver that at the same cafés, on the same country greens and in the same quiet cars, could be heard the guttural sobs of a profoundly moved reader. So which is it? Does Aristophocles, who emotes so fulsomely in public spaces, wear a tragic or a comic mask? Identify with l’allegro or il penseroso?

Simple questions for a complex man, torn between vain deluding joys and loathed melancholy. The hint of a pun produces peals of mirth, and the mere premonition of loss cues the waterworks. He is a creature supremely attuned to the jollity and sorrow of literature, and didn’t hesitate to show it. As he put it once in his full-throated defense of affective criticism, “I Laughed, I Cried, Then Criticized: “If one emotes in the forest, and no one hears it…[sobs]…Excuse me, the mere thought of a lone emoter emoting on his own brought tears to my eyes. How silly of me. [giggles]”

He never chortled but guffawed, never teared up but wept, for such beings as he were made for more intense feelings, and there were so many feelings. (It must be noted that some cynics doubted his overzealousness, claiming that he never left home without an onion in one pocket and a nitrous oxide canister in the other.)

Aristophocles does not do well at poetry readings; unsure whether to laugh or cry, he merely ejaculates strangled whimpers from time to time. He likes his genres well-defined. Family and friends, seeing him swing so violently between giddiness and agony, had him institutionalized when he attempted to review a tragicomedy. Fortunately, he was released shortly thereafter, greeting his fans with tears of joy.

His performative antics have rubbed more than one colleague the wrong way, Sydney Duff among them. In one encounter, Aristophanes and Duff squared off in a hotel lobby at the Frankfurt Book Fair. Duff, so the story goes, had been in the lobby for hours with a copy of The Wallcreeper, but was having trouble finishing the last chapter because Aristophocles, reading the same novel, had taken the seat across from him.

“I read the novel in one sitting, despite the tittering simpleton impeding my best efforts,” read Duff’s subsequent piece.

As for Aristophocles’s competing review: “I laughed so much reading this rollicking debut that Sydney Duff almost got off his ass for once in his career.”

Quentin Dent, Proud Blockhead:
To have one’s book reviewed by Quentin Dent is, as any author will attest, a gratis psychotherapy session, an X-ray of one’s creative soul. Other critics might describe, explain, and contextualize the work, tease out patterns of imagery, grapple with its philosophical claims, or delve into the author’s biography. Worthy endeavors all, but how much cleaner (naysayers would say lazier) was Dent’s method: let the text speak for itself.

Having taken his mentor Cleanth Brooks’s coinage “the heresy of paraphrase” rather literally, he steadfastly refused to paraphrase, or analyze, or do much of anything really. Dent’s reviews even dispensed with the author name and book title. He filled his column instead with three well-chosen block quotations, which were typically introduced with “To wit,” “Consider,” or, “Regard.” At the end of each passage would follow a closing statement, perhaps “Indeed,” “Hmm,” or, were he in a gushing mood, “Quod erat demonstrandum.”

A sample essay, on Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park:
Take:
Maria’s notion on the subject were more confused and indistinct. She did not want to see or understand
Quite.
Ergo:
“How kind! How very kind! Oh! Mr. Crawford, we are infinitely obliged to you. Dearest, dearest William!” she jumped up and moved in haste towards the door, crying out, “I will go to my uncle…”
Und so weiter.
To conclude:
“It was a silver knife.”
Sharp.
A cult of fervent believers, the Blockheads, extolled Dent’s mystical abilities to see into the heart of things. They would pore over Dent’s passage selections like ancient priests sifting through entrails. Why these three? Were they merely chosen to hit the requisite word count — or could some deeper insight be divined? If one could only uncover the secret, so the ephebes thought, one could eventually learn to sustain the fevered pitch throughout the whole book.

Anti-Blockheads wryly pointed out it that his selection of key passages was less insightful than haphazard — a case bolstered by the high percentage of selections from page 22 of the books in question.

For longer pieces on multiple works or multiple works by the same author, Dent would simply lay out more quotes, the theory being that to butt in with an attempt at synthesis would merely interrupt a mellifluous conversation in progress. A much-anticipated comparative study of the novel has been delayed for years because of fair-use problems.

Valerie Plume: Critical Agency
Quentin Dent’s longtime wife, Valerie Plume, has led the most novelistic life of any of the aforementioned superstar-critics. As a spy rising through the ranks of the CIA during the Cold War, she drew on her English major background to funnel money to literary magazines through the Congress for Cultural Freedom. She was in line to make station chief somewhere, but was burned after the Paris Review accepted a poem of hers and ran the following bio: “A cultural attaché living in Paris, Plume is the author of thousands of classified memoranda.”

Plume was livid but ultimately relieved, since having her cover blown allowed her to pursue her true passion: poetry criticism. The Paris Review, sheepish after the faux-pas, was all too happy to launch her career with a column. At the outset, she relied on her close reading skills to confront the often thorny works under review. But Plume was incapable of remaining content with half knowledge, as Keats put it, and she soon decided to dust off her old spy-craft toolkit for her new mission.

And why not? Espionage and criticism are both, broadly speaking, intelligence work, and in intelligence work of any kind, one cultivates assets and secures information. An offhand remark, discarded draft, pilfered dream journal, or juicy bit of gossip could unlock a hidden symbolic world. Therefore she had the Yaddo retreat bugged; placed one mole on the Iowa Writers’ Workshop faculty and another as an assistant librarian working under Philip Larkin; had an intern root through Anne Carson’s dumpster; and tailed Czesław Miłosz through the streets of Berkeley, though the wily Lithuanian, no stranger to such solicitude, quickly dropped her.

Such methods were bound to catch up with Plume. She was excoriated by PEN America  after she scooped John Ashbery off the street, shot him up with truth serum, then grilled him about the meaning of his work in an abandoned squash court. Despite the outrage, she justified her tactics as necessary when interrogating refractory postmodernists. In Plume’s defense, however, it must be said that even during the excesses of the Bush administration, she was firmly opposed to waterboarding poets.

Plume’s career came to an ignominious end after it was revealed that she had returned to spywork, this time for the enemy. It was alleged that she was using her husband’s book reviews to pass coded messages to the Russians. Authorities couldn’t get anything out of the steely Plume, but Quentin Dent buckled almost immediately, admitting that his wife had chosen his block quotation passages for years.

Epilogue:

Hume, Duff, Aristophocles, and Dent visit Plume in prison every week to discuss literature and debate whether “greater Want of Skill / Appear in Writing or in Judging ill.” The lively gatherings, whose attendees are known in publishing circles as “The League of Extraordinary Critics,” only rarely necessitate intervention from the jailhouse guards.

Illustrations courtesy of Zane Shetler, who lives and works in Durham, N.C. He specializes in drawing fictional book critics in their bathrobes.

Poetry in Motion

“Running, friends, is boring,” to tweak a line from John Berryman’s The Dream Songs. I’ve been boring myself — that is, running regularly — for more than 20 years now, competitively, then somewhat competitively, then by-no-stretch-of-the-imagination competitively. It’s a generally invigorating but lonely endeavor. Gone are the days when I hit the trails with boisterous teammates, and only rarely do I jog with running companions (otherwise known, somewhat euphemistically, as friends). And as for musical accompaniment? Never, not so much for purist reasons — “Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard are sweeter,” etc. — but because I fear that if I rely even once on an up-beat song to get me through a run, I’ll never be able to lace up without an iPod again.

Thus deprived of the pleasurable distraction of conversation, as well the pulsating beats of pop music, I’ve had ample time over the course of thousands of runs to think. Or not to think. Or, as I’ve started doing over the past couple years, reciting poetry to pass the time.

There is a tradeoff involved. Moving fast is surprisingly difficult while sputter forth spondees between gasps for air. Some verses, though, causes me to drag my feet more than others. Reciting the metaphysical poets costs me about a minute per mile, not to mention attracting some strange looks from passersby, especially when John Donne is involved: “It sucked me first, and now sucks thee,/ And in this flea our two bloods mingled be.” Gerard Manley Hopkins easily trips up the tongue and brings all progress to a halt: “Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings.” Wallace Stevens lifts my spirits but lowers my speed: “Call the roller of big cigars, the muscular one/ And bid him whip in kitchen cups concupiscent curds.” Hard to dip under seven-minute pace reciting that. (Then again, the record for running a mile while chugging a beer before each lap is currently 4:39, so anything’s possible.)

But speed and prosody can go hand in hand, or rather foot over foot. Extolling the beauty of a bonnie lass in ballad meter (Robert Burns’s “A Red, Red Rose”); or giving oneself over to the pulsating majesty of William Blake’s “The Tyger” or the laconic stoicism of Robert Frost’s traveler (“And miles to go before I sleep”); or eulogizing A.E. Housman’s young athlete in sprightly tetrameter — “Smart lad to slip betimes away,/ From fields where glory does not stay” — only costs me about 20 to 30 seconds per mile. (Still too slow, sadly, to win my town the race.)

I reserve John Keats for long runs on secluded trails, when I can take my time with the great odes. What pleasant running companions are satiated (if a tad lethargic) Autumn, “sitting careless on a granary floor,/ Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind;” the cheerleading nightingale, “pouring forth thy soul abroad/ In such an ecstasy!”; alluring Melancholy, whose “sovereign shrine” is in the “very temple of delight;” and the frustrated Attic youth in his perpetual mad pursuit: “Bold lover, never, never canst thou kiss/ Though winning near the goal…” I give a little performance of “La belle dame sans merci” as well, usually at the end of a 14-miler when, haggard and woebegone, I most resemble those “pale kings and princes too/ pale warriors…their starved lips in the gloam/ With horrid warning gaping wide.”

I should clarify that both to avoid attention and the psych ward, I generally mutter rather than sing the words. Only rarely do other people notice the impromptu plein air reading they are unwittingly attending. Yet at times I do unleash my inner scop in all his stentorian glory. I generally restrain the juvenile urge to taunt a runner I’ve passed with a nonsensical reworking of George Herbert’s “Love (III)” — “Sit down and taste my meat!” — but I can never resist hamming it up in Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan,” specifically when the speaker plunges from the serenity of the “gardens bright” and “sunny spots of greenery” down into the darksome sublime:
But Oh, that deep romantic chasm which slanted
Down the green hill athwart a cedarn cover!
A savage place!
Such lines demand to be read with the same intensity as woman wailing for her demon lover.

And once, when caught in a terrifying summer thunder storm — the kind where you frantically try to remember whether you should seek shelter under a tree, as far away from a tree as possible, or just sprint through the ankle-deep puddles as fast as possible and hope that your sneakers will absorb any electric charge — I bellowed Lear’s heath speech:
Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks!
You cataracts and hurricanoes, spout
Till you have drench’d our steeples, drown’d the cocks!
You sulphurous and thought-executing fires,
Vaunt-couriers to oak-cleaving thunderbolts,
Singe my white head!
The performance slightly mitigated my terror, though, unlike Lear, I taxed the elements with plenty of unkindness.

In calmer climes, my recitals are more private affairs. A little Richard Lovelace gets me into the questing spirit and out the door:
…a new mistress now I chase,
The first foe in the field;
And with a stronger faith embrace,
A sword, a horse, a shield.
Settling in to my pace, I shift from a martial to pagan mindset, indulging in Andrew Marvell’s pastoral visions or William Wordsworth’s flash mob of daffodils: “Ten thousand I saw at a glance,/ Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.” In colder months, Thomas Hardy (“The ancient pulse of germ and birth/ Was shrunken hard and dry”) strangely invigorates the bleak landscape. If Hardy’s frail warbler can “fling his soul upon the growing gloom,” then I can drag my blast-beruffled ass over a barren hill.

Returning home, I usually cover a roughly 400-meter stretch reserved exclusively for Emily Dickinson poems. If I’m feeling in a good mood, “I taste a liquor never brewed;” burdened, “There’s a certain slant of light/ Winter afternoons/ That oppresses like the heft/ Of cathedral tunes;” or hurting, “After great pain, a formal feeling comes.” I call it the Dickinson quarter-mile, and the world record is 1:49 with three poems recited. More impressive, in my view, than the beer mile.

Speaking of beer, I wish I had some poetry memorized in college, especially during that transition from the shorter distances and weaker fields of high school cross country. One quickly learns that “the art of losing isn’t hard to master.” Perhaps Sir Thomas Wyatt’s bitterly erotic reverie, “They flee from me that sometime did me seek,” would have been à propos, or more to the point:
Whoso list to hunt, I know where is an hind,
But as for me, helas, I may no more.
The vain travail hath wearied me so sore,
I am of them that farthest cometh behind.
One especially fitting occasion for a dramatic poetic recitation would have been my first 8K race in Van Cortland Park, during which I collapsed on the top of the aptly named Cemetery Hill and, like Dante Alighieri upon hearing the pitiful tale of Paolo and Francesca, “caddi come corpo morte cade.” Given, however, that I was in no state to channel a foreign tongue, a terse bit from The Waste Land would have been more realistic: “And down we went.”

That head-thumping fall might explain why these days I forget poetry as quickly as I memorize it. Short lyrics vanish just as suddenly as longer pieces like Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach,” whose lines I lose and regain as regularly as the waves “draw back, and fling” the pebbles on the shore. “When to the sessions of sweet silent thought,/ I summon up remembrance of things past,” I can’t always summon up that remembrance. Despair not, though, for time flies when you are sifting through memory’s bric-a-brac and trying to reconstruct a poem. I once ran a three-mile stretch on a canal path while reassembling William Butler Yeats’s “The Wild Swans at Coole.” By the time I had seized it once again, I felt some of the poet’s pleasure upon viewing Coole’s mysterious, beautiful creatures return
Unwearied still, lover by lover,
They paddle in the cold
Companionable streams of climb the air;
Their hearts have not grown old;
Passion or conquest, wander where they will,
Attend upon them still.
That pleasure was tempered by the melancholy realization that I myself would awake some day to find that the lines, like the swans, had flown away.

(A brief interpretive water stop: Having a poem by heart lets one explore its construction in a looser, less dutiful way than close-reading. After repeated recitals, this particular poem’s spatial dynamics rose to the fore. “The Wild Swans at Coole” is the first, and most oblique, of the three consecutive poems eulogizing Maj. Robert Gregory, an Irish fighter pilot killed in WWI. In the first two lines, we move from the treetops to the woodland paths; then from still sky to the “brimming” water. “Under” and “upon” (used five times throughout) begin lines in this first stanza, and the rest of the poem dramatizes the constantly shifting relationship between the earth-treading poet, weighed down by his loss, and the nine-and-fifty swans, either drifting on the still water or climbing the air. The action, imagery and even prepositions reinforce the latent symbolic connection between the departing swans, “wheeling in great broken rings/ Upon their clamorous wings,” and the departed fighter pilot, once aloft and now, tragically, underground. And off we go again…)

Many of the poems I have floating around my head in various states of repair are amorous, memorable instances of courtly and not-so-courtly love. These naturally come to mind when passing, being passed, or crossing paths with other runners. I wouldn’t describe myself as a lecher necessarily — “Down, wanton, down!” — but then again, few people would. So I’ll simply grant that from time I notice the female form in motion and fiddle with my stock of verse accordingly: “Whenas in performance fabric my Julia goes, / Then, then (methinks)/ How sweetly flows/ That liquefaction of her clothes.” Or if I’m feeling more romantic, some altered Lord Byron: “She jogs in beauty, like the night/ Of cloudless climes and starry skies.” Theodore Roethke’s “I Knew A Woman,” however, needs no such tinkering: “Ah, when she moved, she moved more ways than one: The shapes a bright container can contain!”

During one run, I stumbled upon two ardent lovers in flagrante delicto within what they thought was a secluded grove. These encounters are just as embarrassing for the discovered as the discoverer. The pair looked to be doing a perfectly fine job, but annoyed by being thus importuned, I grumbled A.R. Ammons’s aspersive lines: “One failure on/ Top of another.”

That could just be the bitterness of middle-age talking. I am now in the middle of life’s journey. I’ll only get slower, and, if the last five years are any indication (three ankle sprains, calf heart attack — it’s a thing — bad hamstring, plantar fasciitis), I can look forward to new and exotic running injuries. But if you should ever come across me on the path and see in my halting stride and grim-faced muttering a defeated man, know that the “viewless wings of poetry” are transporting me and my aching feet to a better place:
And altogether elsewhere, vast
Herds of reindeer move across
Miles and miles of golden moss
Silently and very fast.
Image Credit: Pixabay.

Mark O’Connell Doesn’t Want to Be a Cyborg: The Millions Interview

According to a recent Washington Post article on so-called Twitter “cyborgs,” political activists are increasingly using automated “schedulers” to blast out wave after wave of pre-written posts, allowing a single user to tweet thousands of times a day. “My accounts will be tweeting long after I’m gone,” one such “cyborg” said. “Maybe in my last will and testament, I should say, ‘Load up my recurring queue.’” Hell is other people’s tweets.

The visionaries Mark O’Connell profiles in his latest book, To Be a Machine: Adventures Among Cyborgs, Utopians, Hackers, and the Futurists Solving the Modest Problem of Death, would not be satisfied with so modest a version of immortality. Adherents of a movement called transhumanism, they dream on a grander scale, marshaling technology in their “rebellion against human existence as it has been given,” an existence constrained by physical and intellectual limitations and needlessly curtailed by death.

O’Connell travels to the Alcor Life Extension Foundation, a cryopreservation facility in Arizona that houses Ted Williams’s head — take that, Cooperstown — where the CEO informs him that “cryonics…is really just an extension of emergency medicine.” He chats with Anders Sandberg, a research fellow at Oxford’s Future of Humanity Institute, who argues that “biomedical cognitive enhancements would facilitate improved acquisition and retention of mental ability.” (Making the world a little less dumber one upload at a time!) A gerontologist seeking to radically extend lifespans describes aging as “a human disaster on an unimaginably vast scale,” and a Buddhist transhumanist prepares for the Singularity by practicing “mind-filling…a daily techno-spiritual observance, whereby you upload some measure of data about yourself.” Finally, O’Connell views the scars of Tim Cannon, who implants technological devices into his body and espouses his deterministic views in a memorably paradoxical way: “The problem is, most people make the mistake of anthropomorphizing themselves.”

Fascinated, charmed, and occasionally repelled by these characters and ideas, O’Connell tries to make sense of a world in which humans are becoming more robotic and robotics more human. The Millions spoke with O’Connell, a Millions staff writer and Slate book critic, over Skype.

TM: What are the goals of the transhumanist movement?

MO: Their goals are blindingly simple, almost farcically simple. They want to never die. They want to be as powerful intellectually and physically as it’s possible to be within the limits of the technology of the future. They want the same thing that we, as humans, have always wanted, which is to find some kind of a release valve for our mortality, some idea for a way out, which is obviously what religion provided, and still does for most people.

They want it all, but the difference of course for them is there’s the distinct possibility that this might be achievable through technology. That’s the interesting thing to me. You can’t really dismiss it as complete nonsense, because there’s always the logical possibility that it could happen. I spent a lot of time when I was writing and reporting the book being really stuck on this idea that nothing that I was hearing was completely illogical. Everything seemed to satisfy basic demands of rationalism, and yet the end result was always completely insane.

TM: You call their philosophy the “event horizon” of the Enlightenment, the reductio ad absurdum of rationalism.

MO: Well, you’re familiar with Beckett, so you know that rationalism is often the handmaiden of complete insanity, a tool of madness in its own way.

TM: Didn’t Hugh Kenner translate a Beckett passage [from Watt] into Pascal?

MO: I didn’t know that! I wish I had this conversation while I was writing the book.

TM: Then there’s Lucky’s speech in Waiting for Godot.

MO: Exactly, I kept thinking of that. I actually made several attempts to work Beckett and Flann O’Brien into the book, and I kept thinking there was something uniquely Irish about this idea of rationalism as a means towards insanity. But I could never quite figure out what that meant, or if I was merely being jingoistic.

TM: How does a mere user of technology evaluate these claims that technology can be used to direct human evolution, improve the “suboptimal system” of human existence, and achieve “longevity escape velocity,” that is, defeat death? As you point out, the claims are both perfectly logical and perfectly lunatic.

MO: That’s another thing I spent quite a lot of time thinking about, because, as made apparent early in the book, I don’t have a background in science. And I was tormented for a while that I didn’t really have grounds to judge the lunacy or otherwise of this stuff. I could approach it on a gut level — This can’t be true. What this man is telling me is insanity — but didn’t have the skill set to rationally pick apart these arguments. To use computer language, hopefully this is a feature of the book rather than a bug.

I was fascinated by the topic, but part of me felt that I was the last person who should be writing this book, that it needed someone more scientifically literate. It took me a little while to come around to the idea that, well, maybe actually I’m the best person to write the book because I don’t know anything about it. It sounds slightly self-serving, but perhaps a more literary sensibility is what that topic needs.

TM: If only to push back against the mechanistic or deterministic caricature of humans and human consciousness, which, as you point out, is generated partly by language, “a cluster of software metaphors that had metastasized into a way of thinking about what it meant to be a human being.” To what extent does language shape how we conceive of the human?

MO: I think it’s always metaphors. All of language is metaphorical, and any way that we can conceive of ourselves and who we are is unavoidably going to be through metaphor. So in one sense, the idea that we are a machine or a computer is as good as any we have of thinking about ourselves. Even the “human spirit” is a kind of metaphor.

One of the ideas I touch on is that our latest or most pervasive technology is what serves as the metaphor for our minds. For example, in the Renaissance with clockwork, or the Victorian period with steam engines. Psychoanalysis was full of steam metaphors…

TH: Releasing pent-up pressures and all that.

MO: Exactly. And those might not make sense anymore, but even if we don’t necessarily subscribe to that way of thinking about ourselves, we do tend to accept certain notions of the brain as computational. I instinctively reject those ways of thinking about what the mind is, but at the same, time, I’m obsessed with notions of productivity and getting the most out of my time. Even though I’m a really inefficient mechanism, I can’t help thinking of myself in that way.

TM: You bring up [the Swedish philosopher] Nick Bostrom’s thought experiment about a computer tasked with producing paper clips most efficiently. The computer turns the entire universe into one giant manufacturing facility — a nightmarish vision of productivity.

MO: If we’re going to think of ourselves in that way, if we’re going to measure ourselves computationally, think of ourselves as having value in so far as we can compute info and figure things out and be “intelligent,” then we’re always going to lose to machines in the end. And I think that is part of why the logic of capitalism is so disturbing. That idea is not front and center in the book, but it’s running in the background. There’s another computational metaphor.

TM: I’m keeping a running tab.

MO: It’s a tab that’s open, I’m sure.

TM: While the transhumanists speak in utopian terms, there is this dystopian aspect to a ruthlessly efficient, techno-capitalist future.

MO: That is a dystopian idea, but I’m not a prognosticator of the future. The book’s message is not, We have to prepare for this. But it seems to me inevitable that the automation revolution is coming, and it’s going to be much bigger than the original Industrial Revolution where machines were obviously replacing a lot of workers. I think that artificial intelligence, when it comes — and it will come, I believe — is going to displace huge numbers of workers. And that’s a crisis, but it’s also a crisis that’s inherent in the logic of capitalism. That’s one of the contradictions of capitalism, that it’s striving for the replacement of labor with mechanization. The ownership of the labor force and the means of production seems to be what capital wants, to put it in a slightly mystical way.

I don’t see anyone trying to prevent that politically at the moment. Watching your election in the States, it’s apparent to me that the whole idea of bringing jobs back to America, industrial jobs — it’s so obvious that’s not going to happen. Or if does happen, production will come back from China eventually, but only when automation allows for cheaper labor.

TM: To pivot away from economics to aesthetics, in the book you describe some of the artistic efforts of computers. If poetry is that which can’t be paraphrased, can it (or other art forms) be coded?

MO: My instinct is that no computer can make art, but I don’t necessarily trust that instinct because there are so many suppositions. What do we mean by art? If we define art as something made by humans, then no. But have you heard any music or the Google AI art that came out a year ago? Google made this machine-run algorithm that was able to make pictures of dogs and various standard scenes, and they’re incredibly weird. They’re like nothing else you’ve ever seen in terms of imagery. You’re obviously looking at a picture of a dog, but they’re deeply uncanny.

And the same is true of the music that’s been created by AI. There was a musical that came out in the West End in London, and the lyrics and the music were both written by a machine. And it wasn’t terrible, but it was just off. The same is true for any music I’ve heard composed by a machine. I would’ve expected music composed by computers to sound like Aphex Twin or something, but way more austere. But it doesn’t sound like that at all. It all sounds like ad jingles or radio stings. The music reflects some cheesy vision of ourselves back at us in a way that’s deeply unsettling.

But could a machine can ever make art? Who knows? Would you want that? I’d be interested, but I don’t know if I’d want to read a book written by a machine.

TM: Or literary criticism generated by a machine? Franco Moretti has claimed that the only way to understand the novel is to stop reading them. We don’t have the computational power to get the full picture.

MO: Yes, stop wasting time reading novels!

TM: As a literary critic, which contemporary novels do you think fictionalize the human condition vis-à-vis technology most astutely?

MO: Most of what I read that fed into the book was genre stuff, sci-fi, which is not an area I was that familiar with. Weirdly the book that clicked that I read close to the end of writing the book is Zero K, which is amazing. Obviously, DeLillo’s a genius, but he’s 80 and not immersed in technology in the lived sense. But I think he gets this stuff in the way that so few contemporary writers of so-called literary fiction anyway do. And I also read White Noise while writing the book.

TM: Some of the transhumanists express lyrical visions of immortality in the Singularity. They want to exist as pure consciousness, “a being of such unimaginably vast power and knowledge that there was literally nothing outside…[part of] an interconnected system of interlocking nodes.”

MO: Such a weird thing to want. I could never get to the point where I could really emphasize with it, which was one of the challenges in writing the book. I didn’t want to just have my skepticism borne out. I wanted to be won over. And in some ways, these people seemed way more human to me than they were at the start, but I never got to the point where I could say, yeah, I could see why you would want to be data, disembodied information in the cloud. That seemed to me a fate literally worse than death.

TM: Especially if you don’t like your disembodied neighbors.

MO: Right. We’ll be dealing with the same problems we’re dealing with now.

TM: The characters do come across as human, especially a questing soul like Roen, a monkish rider on the “Immortality Bus,” [a coffin-shaped recreational vehicle touring the U.S. and spreading the transhumanist message]. He abstains from alcohol and sex to preserve his body for future bliss.

MO: Roen, yes. If I were writing a novel, and he were a character, I’d probably want to tone it down a bit. Too on the nose. But that’s something you don’t have to worry about as a nonfiction writer. Who cares if it’s too ridiculous? The more ridiculous the better.

TM: What did you make of this devotional aspect to the movement?

MO: That is a huge dimension to the book. And weirdly, when I was writing, I spent quite a bit of time hanging out with Catholic priests in Ireland for a different project that never saw the light of day. I guess because I was doing this other project at the same time, I saw the connections between the two.

TM: And then in contrast, you have the “practical transhumanists” at Grindhouse Wetware outside of Pittsburg, who implant devices into their flesh to livestream their vitals, open car doors, etc.

MO: Those guys are intense. And that’s why I think what they’re doing, as fascinating and grotesque as it is, is a gesture, a provocation about the future of ourselves and technology. What they’re doing is actually really low tech stuff. What it allows you to do is fairly minimal. I guess I can see the use value of not taking my keys out of my pocket [to open a car door] and having an implanted ID chip, but it’s minor stuff. In a way, it’s closer to screen body modification than actually becoming a cyborg.

But their endpoint is the Singularity. Becoming a cyborg is only a step along the way for them. I could never really figure out whether that is a viable future for humans. Most people would not want that or anything close to that, but there are ways in which tech is already very much under our skin already, metaphorically.

TM: It’s interesting how transhumanist goals are often framed in the broadest of humanitarian terms, that we all need fixing and thus are all in a sense “disabled;” that we are all trapped in the wrong bodies because all bodies are fundamentally wrong. One transhumanist even attempts to find common cause with the transgender movement using that logic.

MO: Yes, though transgender people would look at the claim differently.

TM: As would a disabled person.

MO: For sure.

TM: Zoltan Istvan, the transhumanist presidential candidate whom you profile, suggested that the money allotted to make Los Angeles’ streets more wheelchair accessible would be better spent on robotic exoskeleton technology.

MO:  And Zoltan got into pretty hot water over that. It was a slightly dumb thought experiment that I don’t think he thought through the implications of, but was happy enough with the backlash because it got people thinking through his ideas. And in a way, there’s a weird blinkered rationalism to it. Yeah, if you’re going to look at things in a completely, rigorously rational way, then maybe we should be improving all of our bodies and not spending money putting wheelchair ramps around L.A., but that’s not how the world works. That might be how a computer network system might approach it, but it’s not how humans work.

TM: There also seems to be a fascist element to this thinking, which reminds me of the slightly creepy spectacle of the DARPA [Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency] Robotics Challenge, “Woodstock for robots” as The New York Times called it. It’s the military industrial complex as family-friendly spectacle.

MO: That was one of the must fun things I did on the trips. I went with a friend from Ireland, and the experience itself wasn’t creepy. It was weird and interesting. But it was only thinking about it seriously after that it did seem to say something quite disturbing about America and American’s sense of itself in regards to power and violence and technology.

TM: You mentioned earlier that there might be something Irish about logical absurdity, but is there a distinctly American aspect to transhumanism and its audacious drive toward self-betterment.

MO: I can’t ignore the fact that so many of the prominent transhumanist are European or Russian, but I also can’t ignore the fact that so many end up in the Silicon Valley. In a way, then, there’s something uniquely American about it, but unique in the sense of America as welcoming of eccentrics and dreamers from all over the place. But there is also a connection culturally to American’s strange optimism about the possibility of technology and progress and individualism.

TM: And what about transhumanism’s politics or ideology?

MO: There are various strains politically within transhumanism — various liberal and socialist bents — but it seems to me that is a fundamentally individualistic, basically libertarian philosophy. And that maps very clearly onto America’s sense of itself, I think. It’s not coincidental that it’s taken hold so firmly in Silicon Valley.

It did feel to me when I was writing that I was writing a book about America as much as anything else. In a very oblique, quite idiosyncratic way, it was a way for me to come to grips with how strange I find America. I didn’t put my foot down about a lot of things, but when my American publisher was doing the audiobook, they had initially suggested a bunch of American actors to do the narration. I was very specific about not wanting an American voice to do my narrative voice, because I think a huge dimension of the reader’s experience is my bafflement [as an Irishman] about transhumanism specifically but also about American culture in general. And I think that would not come across in an American accent.

TM: I’m hearing Stephen Fry in my head.

MO: Perhaps too British, but there is a whole tradition of specifically British writers and being comically baffled by American stuff. And that is an element of the book, but I also wanted to avoid that, “Hey, look at that American. He’s fucking weird. Bunch of lunatics over here.”

TM: Like Evelyn Waugh in The Loved One in his satirical take on American death culture. Speaking of death culture, or death avoidance culture, when maverick multi-millionaires describe death as a humanitarian crisis, is this just a Silicon Valley spin on their own desire for immortality?

MO: The whole project grew out a kernel of identification with this idea. I started becoming interested in transhumanism 10 or 12 years ago when I wrote about it for a little magazine in Dublin called Mongrel after college. I talked to Steve Coll, who is a New Yorker staff writer, and he told me about this party he was at in Silicon Valley with a bunch of people who had been in on the ground floor of Google and were multi-gajillionaires in their early 30s. They had made all their money and were wondering what to do next. And they all said some version of, “Well, the thing we all want to do is to figure out how to stay alive long enough to spend all our money. So the next frontier for technology, as we see it, is immortality or radical life extension.”

That really got me interested in this, because, as I write in the beginning of the book, becoming a father made me start to think about the frailty and precariousness of life. They’re right, it sucks that we have to die! That’s what almost everything is about. Almost all of human culture and religion is a channeling or a sublimation of this fear of death, which we’re all thinking about in one way or another all the time. I know I am, anyway, not directly thinking about it all the time but…

TM: Oh, it’s usually in the back of my mind.

MO: So I totally identify with that. It’s bullshit that we have to die. Who designed this?

TM: Right, this a crisis!

MO: So I get it, but I also feel like it’s a really a strange way to approach death, to roll up your sleeves and say, we’re going to sort this. We throw enough man hours and intel units at this thing, and we’re gonna solve it.

TM: Or show up at Google HQ with a sign, “GOOGLE, PLEASE SOLVE DEATH” as one transhumanist does.

MO: One of the things I didn’t go into in the book was all the potential problems that would arise from solving the central problem of death. Obvious things, like overpopulation, what do you do with your eternal life. I did think about that stuff, it just didn’t make it into the book because it wasn’t what I was most interested in.

TM: One of the things you were interested in was how transhumanism — with its instrumental view of the human — made you aware of your own body, your own flesh as a “dead format.”

MO: Jesus, that’s horrible.

TM: Sorry.

MO: Yeah, all the reading and grappling with mechanistic ideas and talking with people who thought in that way definitely had an effect on how I experienced my fleshy humanity. I’m not sure how differently I feel about being a human now. I’m not sure I have an answer now about what it means to be a human, but I do think it has something to do with not being a machine. That’s not a great answer to arrive at after two or three years of writing a book on the topic, but I know I don’t want to be a machine.

TM: Not even a little?

MO: I may change my mind. It’s funny, I’ve noticed that younger people see the immortalism of transhumanism as an out-there, whacky idea, whereas older people find it fascinating. I remember talking to my dad about it, and he said, “Well, I think maybe they’re onto something.” He’s 73 now. Life extension doesn’t seem so crazy when you’re up against the limit of your own natural lifespan.

But I fundamentally don’t think Peter Thiel is going to save us.

Checking Out: Dispatches From the Sea-Cave Suite and Elsewhere

1.
I awoke one morning inside of a giant oyster shell, dimly made out a treasure chest overflowing with precious jewels, then turned to see a pair of comely mermaids beckoning from the wall. I briefly thought I had dreamt myself into “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. (“We have lingered in the chambers of the sea…”), but soon realized that I was in a much stranger place: the Sea-Cave Suite in a Pocatello, Idaho, hotel.

I suppose it could have been worse. Gay Talese’s necktie could have dangled through one of the heating — er, hydrothermal vents — indicating that he was on the case of yet another voyeuristic ethnologist-cum-motelier. Or one of the mermaids could have emerged from the wall and exacted her revenge for some past depredation of her ocean realm. As Colin Dickey puts it in Ghostland, his sharp, enjoyable study of the repressed past expressed in American ghost stories, “…all hotels are haunted. You’re kidding yourself if you don’t see this, if you don’t recognize that you sleep with ghosts.” If all hotels are haunted, they are also all strange, even if less outwardly so that the Sea-Cave Suite. Again, to quote Dickey: “There’s something uncanny about the very nature of a hotel, its endless, involuntary repetition of home-seeming spaces, rooms that could almost be home but are always somehow slightly off.” After a nice long think in the grotto shower, I resolved, once back on dry land, to conduct a survey of recent, or recently reissued, novels that make their home, so to speak, in hotels.

2.
“It’s an odd thing about the guests in a big hotel. Not a single one goes out through the revolving doors the same as when he came in,” writes Vicki Baum in Grand Hotel, the 1929 novel (and basis for the famous 1932 film) reissued last year by New York Review Books. This maxim may or may not hold true for guests of limited duration, but it certainly does for the Russian Count Alexander Rostov, who in Amor Towles’s A Gentleman in Moscow is sentenced to house (or rather hotel) arrest at the Metropol Hotel. Beginning in 1922, he stays there for over three decades, though this confinement is not as restrictive as it initially seems: “Within the Metropol there were rooms behind rooms and doors behind doors.”

Grand Hotel depicts the exhaustion, loneliness, and alienation of the luxury life. “The whole hotel is only a rotten pub,” scoffs its most cynical habitué. Even the guests’ footwear seem to be tortured souls: “Some wedded pair of boots and shoes that stand outside the doors at night wear a distinct impression of mutual hatred on their leather visages.” Its most memorable character, the aging dancer Grusinksaya, wears “trodden-down slippers” covering “weary, unutterably weary” feet. Adventures galvanize the vigorless cast, but the enlivening enchantments, in an out of the “mass-produced” beds, are always fleeting. What remains once the revolving door turns once more is a nightmarish scene of soulless luxury: “an endless perspective of hotel bedrooms with double doors and running water and the indefinable odor of restlessness and homelessness.”

A Gentleman in Moscow, by contrast, demonstrates indefatigable wonder at the variety and whimsy of the grand hotels. Towles’s novel, as if protesting of its own straitening conceit, resolves to be big. The six-foot-three-inch hero, Count Rostov, cannot stand up to his full height in the attic room to which he is assigned, though his spirit is not similarly cramped. In Soviet Russia size doesn’t necessarily matter: “For if a room that exists under the governance, authority, and intent of others seems smaller than it is, then that which exists in secret can, regardless of its dimension, seem as vast as one cares to imagine.”

The novel contains delightful touches worthy of inclusion in the feuilletons on interwar hotel life filed by Joseph Roth (collected in The Hotel Years). The barbershop is “a land of optimism, precision and political neutrality…the Switzerland of the hotel.” The hotel restaurant, the Boyarsky, wages an epic struggle to maintain its standards, “a battle that must be waged with exacting precision while giving the impression of effortlessness, every single night of the year.” And the bored international journalists congregating in the hotel bar devise ploys to attract summonses from the ever-vigilant Commissariat of Internal Affairs. One conspicuously drops a letter “that included descriptions of troop movements and artillery placements on the outskirts of Smolensk.” He is called in by the authorities, only to explain that he has copied out the description of the Battle of Borodino from War and Peace.

Rostov conspires with the restaurant staff against a villainous hotel manager; becomes enamored of a silent film movie star; roams the hotel with an adorably precocious girl; scares off a young man sniffing around his adopted daughter in a typically mannered way (“So that’s your game, is it? Seducing young women with jitterbugs?”); is enlisted to school a Red Army Colonel in the cultural traditions of the West; and chuckles approvingly over the farcical scene of three geese scurrying about and terrorizing a Swiss diplomat, Uzbek fur traders, and a Vatican representative (“How I love this hotel”). It’s all very light — even the Count’s momentary resolution to hurl himself off his balcony doesn’t dampen things terribly — but after nearly 500 pages, the airiness becomes curiously stifling. I found myself in odd sympathy with the Soviet interrogator at the beginning of the novel, who is somewhat exasperated by the Count’s winning archness. “History,” the Bolshevik chides the nobleman, “has shown charm to be the final ambition of the leisure class.”

3.
If A Gentleman in Moscow is a big novel that ultimately feels small, Yusuf Atilgan’s reissued Motherland Hotel is a small novel that feels big. Motherland Hotel, originally published in Turkey in 1973, is the story of a private space made public, then made private again when its clerk unravels and shut himself, and the hotel, off from the outside world. The sign directing passersby “points downwards giving the impression that the hotel lies underground,” thus inadvertently indicating the trajectory of the novel’s protagonist.

“Son, when I’m dead and gone I don’t want you giving this room to just anyone who comes along. Every hotel needs a room like this.” Zeberjet, the phlegmatic clerk “of not quite average height” — compare another taller, but still deficient hero, Joseph Conrad’s Lord Jim, “an inch, or perhaps two, under six feet” — follows this paternal advice. He reserves the special room for special guests, like the glamorous woman from Ankara, whose arrival wakes Zeberjet from his sleepy existence.

We learn that the hotel was converted from a manor house, one of the few structures standing after the fleeing Greek army set fire to the town in 1922. Its name, The Motherland Hotel, is a relic of the “shamefaced patriotic zeal encountered, during the years just after Liberation, in those towns and cities where very little had been done about the enemy.” The gesture gives the modest establishment a slightly ridiculous air, and adds to the sense that for the unanchored Zeberjet, the town and nation are similarly full of bluster.

The transformation from manor house to “true hotel” takes years, not until “that small-town-hotel odor seeped into walls and woodwork.” But to someone who was born in one of its rooms, that transformation can never completely take place, no matter how many travelers, businessmen, couples, or prostitutes find lodging there. The hotel is a domestic inheritance, having come down to Zeberjet from his well-to-do merchant ancestors. That family, with its Faulknerian history of madness and suicide, is a ghostly presence in the novel. The room in which Zeberjet’s lecherous, senile grandfather was locked up in is now the third-floor bathroom, and tales of the sexual escapades between and among masters and servants work their way into Zeberjet’s erotic imagination, as do tantalizing overheard snatches from the hotel’s guests. (Zeberjet is an auditory voyeur, as it were.)

Motherland Hotel, which depicts the gradual disintegration of a mind, begins in a relatively orderly fashion. After a mildly disorienting opening passage, the narrative resets and proceeds with a series of labeled sections (“The Hotel,” “The Town,” etc.), as if to stave off the coming chaos. The principal actors are similarly introduced: Zeberjet, who carries out his duties in zombie-like fashion; the languorous maid whom he accosts each night in her sleep (“Sometimes he’ll be a nipple and she mumbles ‘Ow’ or ‘Scat’”; the glamorous woman from Ankara, who stays for one night and whose room Zeberjet keeps free in the hopes that she will return; and the mysterious “Retired Officer” who loiters for days on end in the lobby and seems as obsessed with the Ankaran woman as Zeberjet. Even the cat and a pair of bath towels — one belonging to the hotel, one left by the woman from Ankara — are included in this dramatis personae. In a novel full of somnolent characters, inanimate objects become charged.

Zeberjet fetishizes the traces of the woman from Ankara, keeping her room as a shrine, one which he honors, or profanes, with masturbatory visits. But he seems to take a greater sensual pleasure in the commonplace words uttered in their brief interaction (“Never mind the change”) or in calculating the number of cups she poured from the tea kettle he brought to her room, how many lumps of sugar she used. When he breaks her teacup one night, the accident shatters the sanctified atmosphere and his hopes for her return: “The room had been violated. Now she would not come back.”

No matter. The nameless woman (she claims to carry no ID) spawns nameless desires, setting off an unpredictable chain of reactions in the affectless man for whom the hotel has become a kind of prison over the years. (Zeberjet hardly gets out more often than Count Rostov.) He shaves his moustache and buys new clothes; turns away new guests; thrillingly, but timidly, flirts with a young man; and roams aimlessly about the small town.

Once out in the world again, he witnesses a world of action and contests starkly different from the purgatorial torpor of the Motherland Hotel. He watches a cockfight in which one of the birds (sporting the same color as the towel left behind by the woman) is killed in the ring, to the dismay of the onlookers: “Maybe they were afraid of going all the way. Of seeing the end.” He sees a movie, a typical Western in which a lone hero takes on corrupt town bosses. It rings false to him, though he grants that “it gave the illusion that something could be accomplished single-handed, and you went along.” Finally, he attends the murder trial of a young man who, for reasons he doesn’t divulge, strangled his wife on their wedding night. The hunger for a motive exasperates him: “Why a motive at all they need a story either insult or a slap silence or obedience something to fit a little box…”

These scenes of violence — ritualized, heroic, inexplicable — foretell Zeberjet’s own surrender to his darker impulses, a necessary surrender, according to him: “He felt embarrassed, ashamed actually, before all those people who thought of themselves as innocent, who failed to realize that only crime — some kind of crime — could keep you alive on earth.” Such half-baked Nietzschean sentiments are less indicative of his madness, though, than the cooly rational, and illogical, summation of his own crack-up:

Basically the running of a hotel was no different from running an institution, managing a large business, or governing a country. Just when you began to know yourself and understand what the means at hand might be, that’s when you slipped and broke down. Luckily the managers of government didn’t realize this, or they could do much more harm than the manager of a small hotel.

Here is the madman’s tendency to see his particular condition as universal. All the word’s mad, and the center cannot hold for the motherland’s statesmen and hoteliers alike.

Image Credit: Pexels.