Wednesday, April 01, 2020

The Art of the Literary Anecdote

Ernest Hemingway: The Torrents of Spring (1926)

The story begins with [writer Scripps O'Neill] returning home from the library to find that his wife and small daughter have left him ... O'Neill, desperate for companionship, befriends a British waitress, Diana, at the restaurant where she works and immediately asks her to marry him.
Diana makes an attempt to impress her spouse by reading books from the lists of The New York Times Book Review ... But O'Neill soon leaves her ... for another waitress, Mandy, who enthralls him with her store of literary (but possibly made up) anecdotes.
The Torrents of Spring has found few defenders. Although it is Hemingway's first extended prose work, it's been dismissed as a somewhat juvenile parody of Sherwood Anderson's Dark Laughter (1925). Leslie Fiedler is the one major exception. In his 1968 book The Return of the Vanishing American, he argued for a more generally subversive intent in this aberrant early work of Hemingway's.

Be that as it may, it is rather amusing to read about Mandy's careful deployment of spicy literary anecdotes to ensnare her new man. Not to mention Diana's failure to do the same thing, despite her careful perusal of the book review pages. It does make one wonder, though, just why we seem to have such an insatiable anecdote for such stories - what precisely, in fact, an anecdote is?

I remember once overhearing a young GP (my brother) denouncing an older one (my father) for having "an exclusively anecdotal view of medicine." The older doctor, it is true to say, certainly had a story to fit every occasion, and perhaps relied on them to the exclusion of more quantifiable research results. But this form of codified experience does have its uses, too, at times.

James Sutherland, ed. The Oxford Book of Literary Anecdotes (1975)
His most memorable remark of the day occurred when I asked him if he agreed with the definition that most editors are failed writers, and he replied: 'Perhaps, but so are most writers.'
- Robert Giroux on his first meeting with T. S. Eliot
[Oxford Book of Literary Anecdotes, no. 474]
I often tell my Creative Writing students that the art of storytelling begins with the anecdote. If you can't learn how to tell one of those, then it's most unlikely that you'll be able to interest a reader in a more extended tale.

And now that we're in the process of switching all of our face-to-face teaching to distance, I've been disconcerted to find just how many of my responses to online forum posts take the form of anecdotes of the type quoted above. Is this just laziness on my part - a refusal to engage with abstractions such as 'the true nature of creativity' or 'the best way to organise your writing day'? Or is there a bit more to it than that?

Philip Gooden, ed. The Mammoth Book of Literary Anecdotes (2002)
"In short, my good man, what I want to put to you in a word is this: supposing we have already (as I have reason to think we have) driven past the turn down to the railway station (which in that case, by the way, would probably not have been on our left hand, but the right), where are we now in relation to ....'
At this point James' companion Edith Wharton cut in impatiently, 'Oh, please, do ask him where the King's Road is.'
'Ah -? The King's Road? Just so! Quite right! Can you, as a matter of fact, my good man, tell us where, in relation to our present position, the King's Road exactly is?'
The doddery old man's reply was as short and simple as it could be. All he said was: 'Ye're in it.'
- Henry James asks for directions from an elderly local
[Mammoth Book of Literary Anecdotes, p.353]
I guess, from my point of view, the above anecdote embodies Marl Twain's writing maxim to 'eschew surplusage' more effective than earnest exhortations to that effect. It's therefore the best way I can think of to obey Emily Dickinson's instruction to "tell all the truth but tell it slant."

Of course it does have the effect of reducing certain writers - Samuel Johnson, Oscar Wilde, Dylan Thomas - to essentially emblematic figures. The term 'Henry James' has become shorthand for 'obscure prolixity,' rather than the genuinely enigmatic and mercurial figure he in fact was. And, yes, it certainly has a tendency to encourage the vice of name-dropping: boasting of your own acquaintance with the great in the guise of telling a funny story about them.

Kendrick Smithyman (1922-1995)

One writer who made a speciality of the embodied anecdote in his work was the poet Kendrick Smithyman. Kendrick was himself a marvellous anecdotalist (do I speak from personal experience? Why yes I do!) Almost all of his later poems hinge on stories of various kinds, but - as anecdotes - their 'slant' approach generally takes a fair bit of unpacking.

Take. for example, his wonderful 1971 poem "Hitching":

Fellow of jest!
Infinite variety steps up from the scrub,
desiring to take your hands in his
to confide that he is, however priestly,
spoilt by the old Adam, by skull
aching doggedly under tanned skin.
First he introduces us to the subject: the protagonist, his jester's (or would-be Yorick-like) demeanour - as well as 'the old Adam': his carnal preoccupations.
He is pitchpine, claypatch, highcountry
scree. Shitwood, and knotty offcut.
Clothed, like one of our mountain men
with parka, pack and cutdown .303.
Stinking, like deerhide,
countryman of a horned god, himself horny
he is warlock out to conjure
a licklipping housekeeper at one of the motels
along the highway by the Lake.
Next he fills in the background: the Barry Crump-like demeanour of this 'mountain man' - 'countryman of a horned god, himself horny.'
I’ll put him down this side of
the store.
Near the stream, where trout are for tickling,
where a private sybil-mouthed pool fumes
like a woman on heat. You can’t blame them,
it’s nature (he assures me) if a man
with a hard on puts the hard word
to her, she’ll come across.
For the next mile or two, looks thoughtful.
We carry on, between folk tales.
Finally, after some rather more intense Smithymanian psychogeographical specifications of time, space and locale, we end with the nub of the matter: the hitcher's insistently urged theory that nature requires of woman that 'if a man / with a hard on puts the hard word / to her, she’ll come across.'

Which would, of course, be quite a crass and unpalatable conclusion to the story were it not for that detail about how he 'For the next mile or two, looks thoughtful.' In other words, even he cannot believe his own bullshit, much though he undoubtedly wishes it was true.

And thus the two "carry on, between folk tales."

Margaret Edgcumbe: The Empty Desk (1996)

Would you call it a good yarn? There's not that much to it, really. And yet it's very revealing of character, both the mountain man's and his relentlessly observant interlocutor. Thus men do talk. Sometimes. Some of them. And just so do they look thoughtful, at times, in the midst of their confident brag.

It's an oblique and sharp-edged insight, not claiming any particular wisdom or universal applicability, but telling nevertheless. It's a way of communicating ideas without ever stating them directly. And that has been - I suppose, continues to be - its function within our society: a body of oral lore, handed down from parent to child, from mentor to apprentice, in equivocal succession.

I was brought up by an anecdotalist - saw him in action, often, with his peers and contemporaries - have his stories codified in my skull, willy-nilly, whether I like it or not. I wouldn't want to argue that New Zealand has any particular lien on the art of the anecdote, but we certainly once were an almost exclusively anecdotal culture.

Any other type of conversation was, I suppose, considered unsafe: loud expressions of political (or religious) opinion were too dangerous to venture upon in untested company - stories, by contrast, could communicate more obliquely, more deniably.

'Not everything is an anecdote!' is the most cutting thing the uptight Steve Martin character can think of to shout at the more homespun John Candy in Planes Trains and Automobiles. Yes, there can be few things more lethal than being caught in the company of a truly insistent and ruthless storyteller.

At its best, though, in the hands of a master such as Kendrick Smithyman (or, for that matter, Ernest Hemingway) the art of the anecdote can act as a crystallised version of the art of fiction.

Kendrick Smithyman: Collected Poems 1943-1995 Kendrick Smithyman
ed. Peter Simpson & Margaret Edgcumbe (2004)


Fellow of jest!
Infinite variety steps up from the scrub,
desiring to take your hands in his
to confide that he is, however priestly,
spoilt by the old Adam, by skull
aching doggedly under tanned skin.

He is pitchpine, claypatch, highcountry
scree. Shitwood, and knotty offcut.
Clothed, like one of our mountain men
with parka, pack and cutdown .303.
Stinking, like deerhide,
countryman of a horned god, himself horny
he is warlock out to conjure
a licklipping housekeeper at one of the motels
along the highway by the Lake.

A chopper dragonflies away from a crater
where seismic survey gear is freighted
for vulcanologists intent to exorcise
preAdamite nature. Science is
so far it’s nearly out of sight,
but one gross burly cloud smokes
resistance. Otherwise, skies are clean,
far enough for him to pick out
unbroken ponies herded by native
will, a line of descent from
guerrilla bands of the Sixties and Seventies.
With Old Testament in one hand,
millenarian carbine in the other
they shot from rock to rock extravagant
and spent like so many rounds,
not forsaking the old Adam
who cantered ahead, wives and all.

Who, like us, liked to hang on to the skirts
of Mystery. Who (they say) giving or taking
half a chance, liked to get his hand up,
countryman of a horned god,
homing on deerhide, catskin, beard of the goat?
I’ll put him down this side of
the store.
Near the stream, where trout are for tickling,
where a private sybil-mouthed pool fumes
like a woman on heat. You can’t blame them,
it’s nature (he assures me) if a man
with a hard on puts the hard word
to her, she’ll come across.
For the next mile or two, looks thoughtful.
We carry on, between folk tales.

12. 10. 71

Monday, March 30, 2020

Top Ten Pandemic Classics

It's just very hard to think about anything else at the moment. New Zealand went into full COVID-19 lockdown on Wednesday night (25th March 2020, for the history books), and everyone immediately started broadcasting their impressions of the event, starting new blogs to record their daily thoughts, and (so we're reliably informed) working on their long-deferred novels.

There's nothing very original about this list, then, but it does include the main 'plague' books I've read and been impressed by over the last few years. It's bound to be a burgeoning genre over the next wee while, and it's generally a good idea to go back to your roots before launching your own raid on the inarticulate.

The fact is, epidemics are generally quite boring to read about. Once you've got past detailing the symptoms and totting up the ever-mounting grim statistics of dead and dying, you really have to do something quite original with your narrative to make it at all memorable. Each of the books below have succeeded in doing that, I think.

  1. Giovanni Boccaccio: Il Decameron (1353)
  2. Albert Camus: La Peste (1947)
  3. Daniel Defoe: A Journal of the Plague Year (1722)
  4. Shelby Foote: 1918 (1985)
  5. Stephen King: The Stand (1978 / 1990)
  6. William Rosen: Justinian's Flea: Plague, Empire, and the Birth of Europe (2006)
  7. Randy Shilts: And the Band Played On: Politics, People and the AIDS Epidemic (1987)
  8. Thucydides: The Peloponnesian War - Book 2: The Plague of Athens (430-426 BCE)
  9. Barbara Tuchman: A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century (1978)
  10. Philip Ziegler: The Black Death (1969)

Of course it's rather difficult to define just what precisely a pandemic classic is. If it were simply a matter of writing about confinement and hardship - as in a siege (often accompanied by disease, after all) - I would go immediately to Lidiya Ginzburg's magisterial account of the 1,000-day siege of Leningrad during the Second World War:

Lidiya Ginzburg: Blockade Diary (1984)
Lidiya Ginzburg. Blockade Diary. 1984. Trans. Alan Myers. Introduction by Aleksandr Kushner. London: The Harvill Press, 1995.

I have, in any case, written about this book before. A long time ago I put together a couple of imaginary online courses intended to serve as background for a novella in my 2010 collection Kingdom of Alt. The second of these was called "Crisis Diaries," and still subsists on the internet somewhere. It includes a range of diaries kept under the stress of various crises, including siege, plague, civil war, addiction and other forms of personal and political turmoil.

I suppose, then, that I define a pandemic text by virtue of its focus on the nature and progress of a disease of some sort. Otherwise, I should certainly have included Cecil Woodham-Smith's terrifying book on the Irish potato famine of the 1840s:

Cecil Woodham-Smith: The Great Hunger: Ireland 1845-1849 (1962)
Cecil Woodham-Smith. The Great Hunger: Ireland 1845-9. 1962. London: Readers Union Ltd. (Hamish Hamilton), 1962.

The potato blight was a disease, mind you - just not one that affected humans directly. Perhaps another way of saying it, then, would be to link the texts to one of the great pandemics of history:

World Economic Forum: A Visual History of Pandemics

That's what I've tried to do, then - though of course the result remains very subjective and undoubtedly excludes large numbers of excellent texts which I happen not to have come across or read as yet.

Giovanni Boccaccio: The Decameron (1353)
Giovanni Boccaccio. Il Decameron. 1350-53. Ed. Carlo Salinari. 1963. 2 vols. Universale Laterza, 26-27. 1966. Torino: Editori Laterza, 1975.

This seems like an excellent place to start. It's often forgotten that the motivation for the ten days of collective storytelling that constitute Boccaccio's Decameron is the need for various noblemen and women to isolate themselves from the Black Death, at that point rampaging through Florence.

Seen this way, there's a certain cruel frivolity about these stories of love, lust, cuckoldry and other subjects dear to the human heart. Pasolini's 1971 film does a good job of bringing out these ironies, and subverting their apparent 'joyousness' with some sense of the unpleasant realities their tellers are working so hard to conceal.

Pier Paolo Pasolini, dir.: The Decameron (1971)

Albert Camus: La peste (1947)
Albert Camus. La Peste. 1947. Ed. W. J. Strachan. 1959. Methuen’s Twentieth Century Texts. London: Methuen and Co. Ltd., 1965.

This is the great-grandaddy of all 'Plague' narratives. I reread it recently - last year, in fact - before any of the COVID-19 events were even in prospect. It was a little more ponderous than I remembered it, though of course my command of French may have deteriorated since then.

In any case, it remains as telling now as it ever was. I have to confess that I didn't realise, when I first read it as a teenager, how closely it was based on real events. Now I see that as a strength - its allegory of moral degradation and human torpor when faced by genuinely challenging events remains as true as ever. And it's no longer necessary to read it solely as an allegory of the Second World War.

The plague seems as present to us now as the war was for its first readers in 1947.

Albert Camus: La Peste (1947)

Daniel Defoe: A Journal of the Plague Year (1722)
Daniel Defoe. A Journal of the Plague Year: Being Observations or Memorials of the Most Remarkable Occurrences, as well Public as Private, which Happened in London during the Last Great Visitation in 1665. Written by a Citizen who Continued all the while in London. Never made Public Before. 1722. Ed. Anthony Burgess & Christopher Bristow. Introduction by Anthony Burgess. 1966. Penguin English Library. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1978.

But then again, perhaps I'm wrong. Maybe this is the quintessential plague narrative against all others must be measured. It was, apparently, Elizabeth Bishop's favourite book, and there's something about the cool precision of her own writing which does remind one of Defoe's marvellously offhand and deadpan account of the horrors of one of London's many plague years - which seems to have been literally burned out of the city by the Great Fire of London.

Things are rarely that simple, though. It came back, as plagues are wont to do, but never with quite the same virulence as during this first major outbreak.

For a long time it was thought to be a genuine eye-witness account, but - while Defoe definitely collected a large number of such stories from his older contemporaries - he was five at the time, so is unlikely to have had many experiences of his own to contribute.

Daniel Defoe: A Journal of the Plague Year (1722)

Horton Foote: Three Plays from the Orphans' Home Cycle: Courtship / Valentine's Day / 1918. 1987. New York: Grove Press, 1994.

It's hard to find good accounts of the 1918 influenza epidemic. This rather subdued play chronicling the progress of the epidemic in a small town in the USA started life as a 1985 film, but can now be read in its proper place as part of Horton Foote's immense chronicle of Southern life in the early twentieth century.

Foote, probably best known for his original screenplay Tender Mercies (1983) and the teleplay The Trip to Bountiful (1953), has a tendency to stress the uneventful. It could be argued that this is the best tone to take when writing about this cruellest of epidemics, spreading like wildfire both among returning servicemen and the families that awaited them.

There's a story that Guillaume Apollinaire, lying sick of the 'flu in a Paris hospital in 1918, heard the crowds outside chanting "À bas Guillaume" [Down with William]. They were of course referring to Kaiser Wilhelm, who'd just been forced to abdicate, but the poet took it personally. He died shortly afterwards, so this rather mordant bon mot is one of the last things recorded about him and his extraordinary life.

Horton Foote: 1918 (1985)

Stephen King: The Stand (1990)
Stephen King. The Stand: The Complete and Uncut Edition. London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1990.

Did Stephen King predict it all? Well, it's true that his 1978 novel The Stand (reissued in a revised and greatly expanded form in 1990) does imagine most of the population of the earth being wiped out by an aberrant strain of the 'flu to which only a very few turn out to be immune.

After that, however, things become distinctly more apocalyptic - which may be disappointing to genuine epidemophiles (if that's a real word ...) It's certainly among his most memorable works, and might arguably be the finest of all.

We're promised a new filmed version soon to replace the rather disappointing 1994 TV miniseries. Whether it can be adequately filmed remains to be seen, especially given the recent debacle of the intensely disappointing Dark Tower movie.

Stephen King: The Stand (1978)

William Rosen. Justinian’s Flea: Plague, Empire and The Birth of Europe. 2006. London: Pimlico, 2008.

This is a truly fascinating book, which attempts to plot the progress of the Byzantine emperor Justinian's Mediterranean campaigns alongside the parallel conquests of the Bubonic plague bacillus.

That might sound a little gimmicky, but the author's decision to try to compare epidemiology with social and military history results in a intriguing mixture of the familiar and the arcane which is guaranteed to inform virtually any reader, no matter how specialised he or she may be.

The accounts of the plague itself are horrific beyond measure, and give considerable backing to the author's contention that it may have been vitally instrumental both in the spread of Islam and the subsequent growth of the nation states of Europe.

Randy Shilts: And the Band Played On (1987)
Randy Shilts. And the Band Played On: Politics, People and the AIDS Epidemic. 1987. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1988.

If you've seen the film, you know the story - how the inertia of governments, societal prejudice against homosexual lifestyles, and jealousy among scientists combined to delay any concerted response against the AIDS virus until it was far too late to prevent its spread.

It's very much worth reading the book, though, even if you think you know what happened. It's too early to say as yet, but there are some indications - as in the article here - that some of the same processes may be playing a part this time round, again.

Roger Spottiswoode, dir.: And the Band Played On (1993)

Robert B. Strassler, ed.: The Landmark Thucydides (1996)
Robert B. Strassler, ed. The Landmark Thucydides: A Comprehensive Guide to The Peloponnesian War. Trans. Richard Crawley. 1874. Introduction by Victor Davis Hanson. 1996. Free Press. New York: Simon & Schuster, Inc., 2008.

Thucydides' account, in Book II of his grim history of the follies and hubris of Athens in its twenty-year war with Sparta, of the plague that afflicted his native city in the second year of the conflict, remains an indispensable source on the effects of such outbreaks in the pre-scientific era.

Thucydides employs his customary understatement when chronicling the effects of the illness, which unfortunately means that he failed to provide enough detail for a final identification of the pathogen to be confirmed.

It was generally regarded, until recently, to have been the earliest recorded outbreak of bubonic plague, but more recent suggestions include typhus, smallpox, measles, and toxic shock syndrome.

Thucydides (c.460-400 BCE)

Barbara W. Tuchman: A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century (1978)
Barbara W. Tuchman. A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century. 1978. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1980.

JFK's favourite historian, Barbara Tuchman, developed a huge reputation as a sage due to the fact that the former is reliably claimed to have used the latter's Pulitzer-prize winning book about 1914, The Guns of August, as a guide to his conduct during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Some of her later titles - such as The March of Folly (1984), a study of political and military incompetence throughout history - may have suffered from an excess of ideology and editorialising, but A Distant Mirror (1978) still has its fans, myself among them.

Certainly it's an ambitious project - to parallel the tumultuous events of the twentieth century with those of the distant fourteenth - but the result is certainly intriguing. I wouldn't say that it succeeds in convincing me of the validity of the comparison, but it does give a very interesting picture of those times, dominated - in Western Europe at least - by the twin scourges of the Black Death and the Hundred Years War.

With these few provisos, it's a book I would highly recommend. Mind you, the title 'popular' or 'narrative' historian to me seems more of a badge of honour than a pretext for academic sneering - other, more professional readers may be less convinced.

Barbara Tuchman (1912-1989)

Philip Ziegler: The Black Death (1969)
Philip Ziegler. The Black Death. 1969. A Pelican Book. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1970.

I'm sure that many histories of the Black Death have been published since this one by Philip Ziegler. He displays a touching faith in the medical science of his time, and its decoding of the basic facts of the epidemic. The more recent Benedict Gummer book pictured at the top of this post calls that and many other aspects of his narrative into question.

Despite all that, there's a certain directness and lack of pretension about Ziegler's writing which makes it still well worth reading after 50 years.

Mind you, any real study of the epidemic would have to take into account the large amount of revisionist scholarship which has appeared since then, but you have to start somewhere, and Ziegler seems a very good place to begin.

United Agents: Philip Ziegler

So there you go. Those are the main exhibits in my list, anyway. Feel free, if you wish, to add any suggestions of your own. I'd rather think of this post as a pretext for conversation than as any kind of last word on the subject.

World Economic Forum: A Visual History of Pandemics

Sunday, March 15, 2020

Christchurch Mosque Attack - First Anniversary

Christchurch, 15th March 2019

Du mußt dein Leben ändern
– Rainer Maria Rilke

Do we have to feel that pixilated head
burning behind our eyes?the media
keep broadcasting a manacled muscular
torso signalling triumph over the dead

his fingers cocked to a smirkthe score
perhapsJacinda Ardern’s face
caught in a rictus of grief
can’t quite displace
the bluntness of his semaphore

on this darkest of days it feels like our worst fears
were always justifiedour impotence
out in the open for all to seeour pain

trumped by the old familiar reptile brain
but scrolling down those flowers those faces those tears
I can’t see them as nothingaren’t they us?


Louvre: Louvre: Male Torso (4th-5th century BCE)

I thought that now might be the time to post this poem I wrote shortly after the terrible mosque shootings in Christchurch, exactly one year ago today. In form it's a very loose adaptation of Rainer Maria Rilke's great sonnet about Apollo. Something about that picture of the suspect in the dock reminded me of the statue Rilke was referring to - but in a very different way ...

Archaïscher Torso Apollos
Archaic Torso of Apollo

Wir kannten nicht sein unerhörtes Haupt,
We never knew his unheard-of head
darin die Augenäpfel reiften. Aber
where the eyeballs ripened. But
sein Torso glüht noch wie ein Kandelaber,
his torso still glows like a candelabra
in dem sein Schauen, nur zurückgeschraubt,
in which his gaze, only half-illuminated

sich hält und glänzt. Sonst könnte nicht der Bug
holds and dazzles. Otherwise the bow
der Brust dich blenden, und im leisen Drehen
of the breast wouldn’t join in, and the light twist
der Lenden könnte nicht ein Lächeln gehen
of the loins couldn’t lend a smile
zu jener Mitte, die die Zeugung trug.
to that centre, which holds fertility.

Sonst stünde dieser Stein enstellt und kurz
Otherwise this stone would be shut and cut short
unter der Shultern durchsichtigem Sturz
under the shoulders’ transparent fall
und flimmerte nicht so wie Raubtierfelle;
and would not flicker like a predator’s skin;

und brächte nicht aus allen seinen Rändern
and would not burst out on all sides
aus wie ein Stern: denn da ist keine Stelle,
like a star: since there’s no part
die dich nicht sieht. Du mußt dein Leben ändern.
which doesn’t see you. You must change your life.

For more translations of Rilke's poem, you can check out the multiple versions collected here.

Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926)