Monthly Archives: October 2008

A Guide to Lost Colors

Ella (of Box of Books) has released her latest Absent Classic installment, A Guide to Lost Colors, and it’s another delightful creation.  It’s the story of Augustus Pigeon and his apprenticeship to art scholar Dr. Voorhies.  Voorhies was known for his work in colors and had written the Voorhies Register, a complete catalogue of all colors in use in Dutch art between 1500 and 1700.  It becomes Augustus Pigeon’s job first to compare laboratory-created colors to those used in paintings and then to investigate possible new colors, ones left out of the register.  This quest for lost colors takes him to some odd and unexpected places and requires that he confront an entire cast of interesting characters.  In each episode he discovers a new color and in each one that color proves more elusive than he expected.

The story itself is wonderful, written in what I think of as Ella’s trademark amusing and gently ironic tone.  But as always with these Absent Classic books, the ancillary material — the introductions and notes and illustrations — provide their own pleasure.  The introduction to this book tells us that poor Augustus Pigeon, in spite of his early promise as an art scholar and the success of his book The Encyclopedia of Manufactured Pigments, came to somewhat of a bad end.  A scandal erupted when it was revealed that his encyclopedia was written after his eyesight had begun to degenerate.  How could an expert in color not be able to see?  After the scandal, Pigeon refused to allow his encyclopedia to be reprinted, but, in the hope that it might salvage his reputation, he did agree to let the Absent Classic series editor publish an appendix to the great work, and this is what is available to us today.

The introduction casts Pigeon’s story in an entirely different light.  The book is no longer the story of a young man at the beginning of a promising career, but instead is a sad tale of hopes dashed and promise lost.  But the fact that The Guide exists offers some consolation. As the introduction says:

Pigeon’s work on color theory and pigment analysis may well be discredited forever, but in this Guide we have a treasure — an Edwardian coming-of-age memoir, lightly sketched, full of absurd and delightful little stories.

The book’s footnotes, written by Dr. Yardlie, author of Was Rembrandt Colorblind?, offer an amusing counterpoint to the main tale.  My favorite note explains that:

…the immediate and most widespread use of the Voorhies Register was in art forgery.  Within five years of its publication, a formal complaint was filed with Scotland Yard, linking the Register with a sudden glut of forged Vermeers and Rembrandts.

The Guide to Lost Colors, with all its examples of good plans gone awry, seems to be saying that things never turn out as one expects and that life is sure to be a jumble of missed opportunities and lost chances.

The illustrations are wonderfully done, each one looking a little like the illustrations you might see in certain editions of nineteenth-century novels; in fact, they look like the illustrations in the Oxford edition of the Trollope novel I’m reading now.  They are dark with heavy crosshatching, and they reinforce the mood of earnestness and seriousness that can be so charming in earlier literature.

If you are interested in the project, make sure to check out Ella’s blog.  I’m already looking forward to the next installment!

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A Very Literary Day

Yesterday was a very lovely, very literary day.  Hobgoblin and I spent the day with four friends (three of whom have blogs, here, here, and here), eating in restaurants, visiting bookstores, and making our way to our final destination: Edith Wharton’s home, The Mount, in Lenox, MA.  She lived there from 1902 to 1911, when she moved to Europe for the rest of her life.

We started off meeting for lunch (well, some of us did — others were out running in races and joined us later) in one of those railroad diners filled with locals.  We aren’t locals, but we were made to feel welcome anyway.  And then we were off to a used bookstore, the Berkshire Book Company, an absolutely fabulous place that has a surprisingly varied selection of books for its size.  We entered the place thinking it would be a quick stop, but all of us were sucked in and didn’t made it out of there without spending more time and money than we had intended.  It’s the kind of place where you will find your favorite obscure author and be utterly charmed to see not only one but several books by that person.  The store had, for example, three or four books by Rose Macaulay, whom I haven’t yet read, but whom I recognized because of Emily’s enthusiasm for her.  I also found a great selection of Barbara Pym and Mary McCarthy.  I forgot to look for books by Josipovici, but I wouldn’t be surprised to find him there — a writer whom I never seem to find anywhere.

So here’s what I came home with: two nonfiction books by Mary McCarthy, her collection of essays On the Contrary and Ideas and the Novel, a book of literary criticism.  Also I found Jeanette Winterson’s novel Sexing the Cherry which I’ll be reading for Slaves of Golconda in January.  And then I grabbed Barbara Pym’s No Fond Return of Love, and finally (for something completely different), Georges Perec’s Life: A User’s Manual.  I could easily have come home with many more books, but the time came to move on.

Next we were on to the highlight of the day, Edith Wharton’s house.  It’s a lovely place on beautiful grounds; it’s got gardens and lawns, but what I liked most about it was that the deep, dark, and fragrant Massachusetts forest was never very far away.  The house is elegant and fashionable, but I’m realizing as I think about it now that it’s also a good place for a nature lover.  Not only is the forest — and also a creek and a small lake — right nearby, but the house is designed to let as much light and air in as possible.  There are a number of rooms where you can open doors to terraces outside so that indoors and outdoors mix.

It’s a summer home, which meant that it was designed to house the Whartons and only a few guests, but that doesn’t mean the place is small — there is an entire wing devoted to servants’ quarters.  But it has a comfortable, simple feel to it, even with its classical Italian and French influences, as the website says.  Interestingly, Wharton herself designed the place; she was a devotee of architecture and gardens and knew precisely what effect she wanted to create.

Unfortunately, the house is in danger of closing as the organization that maintains it is deep in debt.  It would be a real shame for the place to close; it’s interesting for Wharton fans but also for anybody who likes to tour houses and gardens; really, it’s such a charming spot I think anybody would enjoy a visit there.

After strolling around the gardens for a while, we said goodbye to two of the people in our group and headed out to dinner with the others.  We stopped in Great Barrington, one of those very cute, very New Englandy towns and almost got ourselves in trouble when on our way to a restaurant we found another used bookstore.  Fortunately the place was about to close or we might have come home with even more books.  Dinner conversation was all about books and bicycles — perfect, right? — and then we all went home.

I was tempted to take the day off of work today, just to stay in the happy mellow mood I enjoyed yesterday, but I was dutiful and went to class.  It was great, though, to have the kind of day that makes me forget all the usual work and life worries for a while.  I need those kinds of days now and then.

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Ramblings

I’ve never before lived in a town that I could walk to from home and have the fun of meeting people I know as I do it.  I’ve lived in cities where I knew hardly anyone in the neighborhood, in rural areas where I couldn’t get anywhere by walking, in towns where I never got to know anybody, and in towns where there wasn’t anywhere in particular to walk to.  But now I can take a stroll around town, run errands, and see friends and acquaintances.  It’s fun.

So today I walked to the library to drop off my latest audiobook (Laura Lippman’s What the Dead Know) and picked up a new one (P.J. Wodehouse’s Hot Water).  While I was there, I saw that my library was holding a booksale, a little one with just a few tables of mystery novels.  Of course I had to buy something — to support my local library, of course!  I found Barbara Vine’s No Night is Too Long for 50 cents, and chatted with the woman in charge of book sales, whom I know because I volunteer to work at them now and then.  She asked me if I would help out in December, and I said I would.

And then, because my town was having some kind of Halloween street festival, which was news to me, and which hadn’t yet started but was about to, I stopped at the tent where the local Democrats were setting up their table to see if I could get a sign for my friend who is running for State Senate.  They didn’t have any on them at the moment, but promised me I could come back later for one.  They also told me about an election night party I can go to if I want.  This is not the sort of thing I usually go to, but … maybe.  Why not?

And then I was off to the drug store where the people there know my name (which may say as much about the number of medications I take as anything else) and then to one of the town’s used bookstores to see if they have a copy of the latest mystery book club pick.  We’re reading Ian Rankin’s novel The Falls.  I’ve never read Rankin, so I’m excited to read someone new whom I’ve heard very good things about.  The shop didn’t have a copy of the book, but they will order one for me.

Then I was off to buy coffee at a local shop that roasts its own beans; the shop’s owner is a big fan of Muttboy and makes sure to send him greetings every time I’m in there.

This was a nice walk, a good way to break up my day full of grading and preparing for class, but it was made even nicer when I found a box full of books waiting for me at home.  Stefanie sent me my grand prize winnings from the contest she held over at her blog a couple weeks ago.  And is this ever a grand prize!  I got a signed copy of Don DeLillo’s Falling Man, a book on translation by Gregory Rabassa (If This be Treason), a collection of short biographical essays by Javier Marias (Written Lives — exactly my kind of thing!), a book about “Dewey, “The Small-Town Library Cat Who Touched the World” (I wonder if my library book-sale organizing friend knows about this book?), and a CD of Adrienne Rich reading her poems.  Very cool, isn’t it?  I’m looking forward to reading/listening to all of these.

And tomorrow I have a big literary day planned … but more on that later.

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Riding and reading update

Just having gotten back from swim class, I’m a little tired.  I swam 2400 meters, which is something like a mile and a third, in about an hour.  That’s not fast at all as far as competitive swimming goes, but I’m improving.  I do love starting out new in a sport because it’s so easy to improve in the beginning.  You have to work much harder to improve once you’ve been at it for a while.

Riding is going fine, but the weather has been such that I’ve had to drag out all my winter gear and remember what it’s like to pile on layer after layer in order to stay warm.  Today it was cold and windy, so the ride was extra exciting — in addition to all the usual fun a ride can be, I got knocked around by the wind and was in danger of getting hit by falling branches.  In spite of the cold and danger, I had a great time up until the last 20 minutes or so, at which point I just wanted to be home.

As for reading, I realized today that I’m a bit of an idiot.  I was in the mood for 19C fiction and picked up a Trollope novel (The Eustace Diamonds), a novel that’s nice and fat, which is part of the appeal.  I checked the page numbers and saw that the book ends at around 380 pages.  That was a surprisingly low number for such a fat book, but I didn’t think much of it and thought I could read the thing pretty fast.  So I’m reading along today and I noticed I was up to 180 pages, which is pretty close to the 380 page total, but I wasn’t anywhere near the halfway point of the book.  I spent a little more time flipping through the pages and realized that there are two volumes, each with their own pagination, each one at about 380 pages.  Oops!  The book is twice as long as I thought it was.  Although I should have been able to figure that out just by looking at the thing …

But that’s fine — I’m happy to be reading something long and so far the story is quite good.  Why, though, would a publisher restart the pagination halfway through the book?  I can see restarting the chapter numbers at the start of the second volume, especially as many books were originally published that way.  But to start the page numbers over again?  I don’t like that.

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Tom McCarthy’s Remainder

Tom McCarthy’s novel Remainder was a bit of a puzzle for me; I felt lots of conflicting emotions as I read.  Underlying all of it was pleasure in the reading — let me make it clear that I enjoyed this book very much — but it was difficult to know what to make of it.  The book made me feel wonder and horror at the same time, if such a thing is possible, and also joy and disbelief and amazement, and I don’t know what else.  It was confusing, but in a good way.

But enough of generalities.  The book is about a man who has had something, we never learn what, fall from the sky and hit him.  When he comes to, he has lost his memory, and slowly regains only some of it.  He finds himself with £8.5 million as a settlement from the accident and now must figure out what he wants to do with it.  He has little idea until he has a vision of what might be a memory, although he’s never sure where the memory came from.  It’s a vision of an apartment building that comes to him with vivid details — the smell of liver cooking in the kitchen downstairs, the sound of a pianist practicing, the noise of a motorcyclist tinkering with his bike outside.  He now knows what he wants to do — recreate the vision exactly as he experienced it.  He buys a building, redesigns it from top to bottom, hires actors and buys props to fill the space, and then he relives the vision or the memory or whatever it was over and over and over again.

The problem he struggled with before he settled on this bizarre way of spending his money was that after the accident he began to realize just how inauthentic and unreal he had always felt, as though he weren’t really living out his life, but were an actor acting it.  He couldn’t really inhabit his body and his actions and the world around him but always lived at a remove from it.  He thinks about actors he has seen, Robert De Niro, for example, who can move around the world with complete unself-consciousness, doing what he is doing single-mindedly:

I’d always been inauthentic. Even before the accident, if I’d been walking down the street just like De Niro, smoking a cigarette like him, and even if it had lit first try, I’d still be thinking: Here I am, walking down the street, smoking a cigarette, like someone in a film.  See?  Second-hand.  The people in films aren’t thinking that.  They’re just doing their thing, real, not thinking anything.

His vision seems to rescue him, then, because in that vision he realizes he felt perfectly authentic.  It was a memory of a time he wasn’t distanced from himself, wasn’t hyper self-aware, and could just do what he was doing, without thought.  He thinks that if he can recreate the exact circumstances of that memory, he can recreate the experience of authenticity.

And he succeeds in doing this, at least for short periods of time.  He runs a reenactment of the vision again and again — which is a huge production, with a large staff to watch over all the details — living out one part of it and then another and another, lingering over brief moments and moving through them in slow motion.  He’s happy, at least for a while.  But then he moves on to another reenactment, and another and another, all in his quest to try to capture reality and live in it authentically.  Eventually these reenactments take him in some bizarre and deranged directions.

What was so puzzling about this book, causing all of my mixed emotions, is that I both admire this quest for authenticity and find it profoundly disturbing.  I think we all know what it’s like to feel inauthentic, to feel estranged from ourselves and as though we aren’t really living out life but are acting it out on a stage or with a narrator in our heads telling the story as we live it.  It’s a wonderful thing to be able simply to do something, without the self-awareness and without the narrator in our heads.

And yet this man is incredibly selfish and self-absorbed. He wants to lose himself in the moment, but to do so requires that he become even more wrapped up in himself.  Rather than do something useful with his money like donating to charity organizations, as another character suggests to him that he might, he spends massive amounts of money on buying buildings, creating sets, and hiring actors and staff to create his fantasies.  He loses the few friends he formerly had and comes to live in a bubble, surrounded only by those who will pander to his increasingly outrageous whims.

And losing himself in the moment to gain that elusive feeling of authenticity comes to mean losing himself in more profound ways — he starts to fall into trances that come to last for days, where he will simply stare at the wall or a spot on the ground and lose consciousness.  He starts to lose a sense of what it means to be a human being and what it means that other people exist, outside of his mind.

So as much as the idea of living without self-consciousness and self-awareness is intensely appealing, McCarthy seems to be saying that living with a sense of inauthenticity and distance from ourselves is part of what it means to be human.  The narrator never seems to realize that Robert De Niro, as much as he appears to be moving about with complete unselfconsciousness in his films, is an actor, and is intensely aware of what he is doing at every moment.  What he is doing is the opposite of living in the moment — he is pretending to live in the moment.  Losing that sense of inauthenticity is a hopeless dream that takes the narrator to nightmarish places.

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Virginia Woolf’s Nose

Hermione Lee’s collection of essays on biography, Virginia Woolf’s Nose, has a number of good stories to tell about the disagreements and controversies that crop up when biographers try to piece together people’s lives.  The more I read about biography, the more I realize just how hard it is to write one — not just because of all the painstaking research involved, but because of the many, many decisions a biographer must make about what to emphasize, what to put in and leave out, how to interpret facts that can have multiple meanings, what to do with the legends that crop up about famous people that might have little to do with reality.  Really, accurately telling the story of someone’s life is impossible — accurately telling your own life story is impossible too, I suppose.

Lee’s essays describe controversies that have sprung up about Percy Shelley (with a brief anecdote about Samuel Pepys), Jane Austen, and Virginia Woolf, and she closes the book with a chapter on the ways biographers narrate the story of their subjects’ death.  The stories are fascinating, including various versions of what happened to Shelley’s corpse as it was burned on a beach in Italy (his heart supposedly did not burn; Edward Trelawny plucked it from the flames and it ended up with Mary Shelley who kept it in a glass jar).  The story about Jane Austen concerns uncertainty about whether she fainted when learned she would have to leave her beloved home and move to Bath.  Lee charts the way versions of this story have changed over time and the way they reflect beliefs and biases of each biographer.

The essay on Virginia Woolf was my favorite; it describes what happens to her image and reputation and to her masterpiece Mrs. Dalloway in the hands of Michael Cunningham, who wrote the novel The Hours, and in the movie version of that novel where Nicole Kidman puts on a fake nose to play Woolf.  She charts what happens to the political content of Mrs. Dalloway in the later novel and movie, and also describes the dismay of Woolf’s critics and biographers at the way Woolf and her life and death are portrayed.  Lee expresses her own reservations about the movie, particularly its sentimentalization of Woolf’s death, but she realizes there is little to be done about it:

Does it matter if the film’s version of Virginia Woolf prevails for a time?  There is no one answer.  Yes, because it distorts and to a degree misrepresents her, and for any form of re-creation, of any significant life, in any medium, there is a responsibility to accuracy.  No, because she continues to be reinvented — made up, and made over — with every new adapter, reader, editor, critic, and biographer.  There is no owning her, or the facts of her life.  The Nose is her latest and most popular incarnation, but she won’t stay fixed under it for ever.

The book is short, at 120 pages, but it is rich with ideas about how biographies get written and reputations shaped.  She is particularly good on the ways stories take on a life of their own and become requirements for any biographer to deal with, even if the story has little to do with the facts.  And her closing chapter has a fascinating argument about the way biographers can’t resist becoming novelists at the moment they write the story of their subjects’ death: they find ways of turning the deathbed scene into highly significant and metaphorical moments, moments that sum up the subjects’ life or reflect on the work they have done.  Given a widespread loss of religious belief, we might expect modern-day biographers to take a more practical view and see death as simply another incident that is part of the life, but they persist in seeking out a larger meaning.

As far as books about biography go, I must say that I am more excited about and moved by books that have a more personal element than this one does; Janet Malcolm’s The Silent Woman and Richard Holmes’s Footsteps take up issues similar to Lee’s, but the personal aspect of these books makes them, in my view, richer and more compelling.  As much as I enjoy thinking about biography on an intellectual level, which Lee’s book expertly invites readers to do, I enjoy even more thinking about it on an intellectual and personal level both.  I want to see and feel what it’s like to grapple with the problems of biography rather than just contemplate the finished product.

But I don’t want to accuse this book of not accomplishing something it doesn’t ever claim to do, and it does what it does excellently well.

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Audiobooks: The Dancer

Those of you who listen to audiobooks, what do you think about multiple readers reading one book?  I finished listening to Colum McCann’s The Dancer recently and had  mixed feelings about the quality of the reading.  I’m not sure about the quality of the novel itself, as it’s hard to tell if I would have liked it if I had read it in the usual way.  But on audio I found it slow and a little dull.  And their choice to have multiple readers reading various parts irritated me.

This is a book where having multiple readers makes sense, in a way, because the novel switches point of view a lot, moving from character to character and place to place, telling the story from a whole range of voices and perspectives.  Having different readers read each part makes it easier to figure out that a new section has begun.  I could remember the reader’s voices, too, and figure out which character the narrative was then following.

And yet I prefer to stay with one reader, no matter how varied the novel’s point of view is.  What I like about audiobooks is the sense that there is one person reading a story to me; that reader becomes kind of like a character him or herself, someone I want to spend time with.  Switching readers feels too jarring.

It didn’t help that several of the readers have irritating voices — too often overly dramatic, with every word over-enunciated.  Some of the readers were really loud and others were really quiet, so I could never get the volume set right.  It seems hard enough to find one reader who can read well; trying to put a book together with half a dozen good readers seems impossible.

The book is about Rudolf Nureyev, covering most of his life, from his very poor childhood in Russia to his international success as a ballet dancer, which brought wealth and fame.  It captures life in the Soviet Union very well, as well as the pressures that are placed on a strong-willed, spirited young man who finds himself with more money and attention than he knows what to do with.  He becomes friends with all sorts of famous people including Andy Warhol and John Lennon, and it was fun to read about the artistic, bohemian circles Nureyev moved in.

But overall, there were only parts of the book that really intrigued me; unfortunately, I spent more time cringing at the readers rather than getting much out of the book itself.  I probably would have stopped listening to it if I listened to books anywhere but in the car, but I have plenty of time there (unfortunately), so it seemed to make sense to keep on with it.

Now I’m listening to Laura Lippman’s What the Dead Know, and it’s working much better for me.  Maybe when it comes to audiobooks I should stick to mystery novels?

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