The Razor's Edge

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Books on Stoops

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My wife and I are moving out of the apartment we’ve rented for the last five years and into another apartment in the same neighborhood. The onerous task of culling through our books has fallen to me – perhaps justly, since I’m the one who collected most of the damned things in the first place. My goal is to discard at least two boxes. I’ve been struck, though, by the number of books on my shelves that I found among other people’s discards.Indeed, hardly a day goes by in Brooklyn that I don’t see a box of cast-off books sitting on a stoop or by a curb, with a “Free – Take Me” sign, or (once) a glow-stick casting its alien light over the offerings. The entire borough, viewed from a certain angle, is like a great rotating library: you take my copy of Mules and Men, I’ll relieve you of your Sense and Sensibility.What follows, in no particular order, is a catalogue of the 30 books I’ve apparently taken from other people’s stoops over the last five years: a sort of portrait of a certain time and place. I’d be curious to hear about your own finds in the comments box below.Baker, Nicholson: Human Smoke: The Beginnings of World War II, The End of CivilizationAckerman, Diane: A Natural History of the SensesMaugham, W. Somerset: The Razor’s EdgeElizabethan Plays (a 1933 anthology; no author)Heidegger, Martin: Being and Time (trans. Macquarrie & Robinson)Baldassare Castiglione: The Book of the CourtierGarcia Lorca, Frederico: Three PlaysBréton, André, ed.: What is Surrealism?Tsvetaeva, Marina: Selected PoemsMitchell, David: GhostwrittenHarvey, David: Spaces of HopeGrimm, Jacob and Wilhelm: Fairy TalesPinter, Harold: The Proust ScreenplayMarlowe, Christopher: Plays and PoemsWoolf, Virginia: Essays, vol. IIFaludi, Susan: Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American WomenMerot, Pierre: MammalsPope, Alexander: The Rape of the LockReed, Lou: Rock & Roll Heart (okay, it’s a VHS tape, but still pretty cool)Marcuse, Herbert: One-Dimensional ManCalvino, Italo: Italian FolktalesThompson, Willie: Postmodernism and HistoryCocteau, Jean: Five PlaysAmis, Martin: Visiting Mrs. NabokovGibbon, Edward: Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, vol. IVBissell, Tom: God Lives in St. PetersburgCalasso, Roberto: KaPortis, Charles: NorwoodDidion, Joan: MiamiSt. Augustine: The City of God[Image credit: steelight]

Modern Library Revue #66: Of Human Bondage


Modern Library Revue is Lydia Kiesling’s irreverent, ongoing treatment of the Modern Library’s 100 best novels of the twentieth century. Lydia is a graduate of Hamilton College. She is an ardent book-lover and has spent the last two years working in the antiquarian book trade. The Modern Library project was recently born at her blog, Widmerpool’s Modern Library Revue.Of Human Bondage is a healing salve for life’s pernicious rash. It is a special shoe for the clubfoot of my mind. I have not always felt this way. First I hated the protagonist Philip Carey with what I now realize was the hatred you can only feel for people you think are nerds, who you then realize are just like you. I’m not some kind of sad weirdo or anything, but haven’t we all been teased by our schoolmates? Haven’t we all thought we were good at something only to learn that we sucked at it? Haven’t we all been sick with love for some unsuitable, puppy-kicking wretch? Haven’t we, I ask you? After this realization I got to appreciating Philip Carey’s modest charms, and I go back to them whenever I have a long train ride or an empty Sunday. So many epochs in orphaned, differently-abled Philip’s life to revisit! Let’s see some highlights:Philip goes to live with his vile uncle, the Vicar of Blackstable. He only gets to eat the top of the hard boiled egg, and mustn’t play on Sundays.Philip goes to school, where the children mock his clubfoot, and the object of his bromantic affection spurns him.Philip goes to Heidelberg and drinks beer with a Byronic nitwit.Philip goes home and gets erotic with a cougar-type person, but it’s a disappointment. Women are a drag. Welcome to the world, chum!Now it’s time to join the middle-class grind, wherein you pay someone to work in their office. Boring!Philip’s off to Paris to learn painting! He wears soft pants and talks to drunkards!Philip is bad at painting. Chuck!Medical school, repeatedly.Philip falls in love with a trashy bit of stuff called Mildred. She’s just not that into him. She’ll do it with literally anyone except him. Misery!Philip spends his tiny inheritance on Mildred and the stock market. He sleeps on a bench.Philip goes hop-picking, an allegedly fun vacation for the impecunious. There he has relations with a veritable infant. She guesses she’ll marry him. Philip is happy! The sun is shining!It’s a huge novel filled with embarrassing truths about the various stages of emotional development, about the people one meets and the ways one tries to kick free from society’s traces. You can imagine a sardonic arch to the author’s eyebrow as he wrote about young Philip’s vagaries. I read Of Human Bondage before I read anything else by Maugham, so when I read The Razor’s Edge shortly after I said to myself, “What is this malarkey?” Of Human Bondage is much earlier, and belongs to the tradition of Thomas Hardy and Samuel Butler and feeling bad and being Victorian, except that Maugham had a superior sense of humor.The Razor’s Edge is later Maugham (1944), written when he was very famous and accustomed to fraternizing with society people and spiritual types. It has the taint of sophistication and of “California Chris” Isherwood. I die for Maugham always, especially the short stories, but his later work can seem rushed and less than fully-realized compared to Of Human Bondage. The Painted Veil, for example, reads as though he thought it up during a short lie-down and wrote it before dinner. It’s not a bad novel and I am certainly not calling William Somerset Maugham a hack; nonetheless, beside the massive achievement of OHB, some of the other things look a touch moth-eaten. Maugham himself wrote that he was “in the very first row of the second-raters,” which evidently made him sad. I think that assertion is way harsh. I just think that Of Human Bondage was his Ultimate Literary Jam.

A Year in Reading: Brad Gooch


Brad Gooch is the author of the acclaimed biography of Frank O’Hara, City Poet, as well as other nonfiction and three novels. The recipient of National Endowment for the Humanities and Guggenheim fellowships, he earned his Ph.D. at Columbia University and is Professor of English at William Paterson University in New Jersey. His biogrpahy of Flannery O’Connor, Flannery, will be released in February.A perk of writing biographies is the stack of must-read books that pile up during research. I have my subject Flannery O’Connor to thank for two that I finally got around to in the past year: Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer, an almost medieval tale of conversion in a thoroughly modern setting – and mindset – that is unrivaled, except perhaps by W. Somerset Maugham’s The Razor’s Edge; and William Faulkner’s novella Spotted Horses, an account of a horse auction in a small town that somehow builds to an eye-popping scene of accidentally freed wild horses galloping in a blur of manic verbal energy through a Southern widow’s otherwise tidy parlor floor.More from A Year in Reading 2008

Short Story Week: And May We Also Recommend


Recommended Collections:The Coast of Chicago and I Sailed with Magellan by Stuart DybekDybek owns a specific part of the literary universe, a several square-block section of the south side of Chicago. He focuses on that, hones it, and reproduces it beautifully. His stories – sentimental (but not sappy), funny, and moving – describe a world where cultures and generations rub against each other, sometimes producing sparks. If you don’t read collections in order, or if you happen upon Dybek’s stories in an anthology, start with “Hot Ice,” “Pet Milk,” or “Orchids.”Sixty Stories, by Donald Barthelme and In the Heart of the Heart of the Country by William H. GassBoth of these are challenging collections, or at least they were for me, yet both are also adventurous and mind-altering. Barthelme, who has experienced a renaissance of late, did more with the form of the story than anyone I can think of. His stories – brief, wild, audacious – will cure whatever boredom might have possessed you. Gass’ stories, typically quite long, describe the emotionally bleak and unforgiving Midwest, with its brief moments of untold beauty buried within quotidian horrors. At one moment, a Gass character might be counting the peas in his pot pie; in the next, he’s contemplating freedom in the backyard. The titular story contains what is, at the moment, my favorite sentence: “It’s true there are moments–foolish moments, ecstasy on a tree stump–when I’m all but gone, scattered I like to think like seed, for I’m the sort now in the fool’s position of having love left over which I’d like to lose; what good is it now to me, candy ungiven after Halloween.”Recommended Stories:”The Christian Roommates” from Early Stories by John UpdikeAn ode to the classic freshman double. This story pretty much was my first year of college. I played it pretty straight in high school, and had my mind completely blown open by all the nuts I met in school, including my freshman roommate [God bless you, Glen, you beautiful bastard]. Updike captures that so well that the first time I read this, I couldn’t believe it had been written before I was born.”The Fall of Edward Barnard” from The Collected Stories of W. Somerset MaughamSort of a precursor to The Razor’s Edge, this is the story of a man who goes to Tahiti to find his best friend, Edward Barnard, who’s fallen off the grid and who also happens to be engaged to his best friend. I spent two years of my life trying to adapt this story for the screen to no avail. If I were pressed, I’d say this is my favorite story.

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