Posts Tagged 'short stories of kingsley amis'

The chain of incomprehension.

With Shakespearean knots on my mind recently, I had my eyes open for other examples of knotty writing.

cormac mccarthy blood meridian

Like this one in Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. Glanton, leader of a gang of American mercenaries hunting Apache scalps in northern Mexico, is brooding over the campfire:

He’d long forsworn all weighing of consequence and allowing as he did that men’s destinies are given yet he usurped to contain within him all that he would ever be in the world and all that the world would be to him and be his charter written in the urstone itself he claimed agency and said so and he’d drive the remorseless sun on to its final endarkenment as if he’d ordered it all ages since, before there were paths anywhere, before there were men or suns to go upon them.

I read that five or six times, getting madder each time, and finally decided it must contain a typo. Swapping in the word “by”, if it didn’t quite unfuddle the meaning, at least resolved the sentence into some kind of syntactical clarity:

…he usurped to contain within him all that he would ever be in the world and all that the world would be to him and by his charter written in the urstone itself he claimed agency and said so…

But it turns out that others had already untangled McCarthy’s knotty grammar. If that offending “be” is assumed to be in the subjunctive mood, the sentence comes smooth:

…he usurped to contain within him all that he would ever be in the world and all that the world would be to him and [though] his charter [be] written in the urstone itself he claimed agency and said so…

Argh. Why not just write that in the first place? Why be deliberately obscure?

…To which a Cormac McCarthy fan might answer (sans quotation marks, of course), why not print the crossword with the answers filled in?

***

Casting around for examples of long-winded drivel to contrast with the Archbishop of Canterbury’s soliloquy on Salic inheritance in Henry V, I thought of Lucky’s speech in Waiting For Godot.

samuel beckett waiting for godot

To summarize the play, two hoboes are waiting in a desolate landscape for a benefactor named Godot, who will never arrive. A self-possessed rogue named Pozzo happens by, whipping along his slave, the elderly and apparently mute Lucky. For his new friends’ amusement, Pozzo instructs Lucky first to dance, and then to “Think!” …at which the slave, at first haltingly, declaims:

Given the existence as uttered forth in the public works of Puncher and Wattmann of a personal God quaquaquaqua with white beard quaquaquaqua outside time without extension who from the heights of divine apathia divine athambia divine aphasia loves us dearly with some exceptions for reasons unknown but time will tell …

…And so on for three pages, to the increasing exasperation of his audience, onstage and off. I remain of the opinion that this speech was scribbled out by Samuel Beckett in a process of free-association, perhaps incorporating snatches of whatever printed matter happened to be at hand, and taking not much longer to compose than it would take to read aloud; i.e., eight minutes or so. But there are scholars who’ve dedicated vast energies to the exegesis of Lucky’s speech, which is, we are assured, “as carefully constructed as the play itself” – which praise may, subject to your view of the rest of the play, be self-cancelling.

kingsley amis collected short stories

There’s a story called “Dear Illusion” by Kingsley Amis. (It’s the inspiration for the ugly cover for his Collected Short Stories, discussed here.) A venerable and beloved poet, doubting whether he’s deserving of the critical adulation that has belatedly elevated him to national fame, dashes off a volume’s worth of poems in a single day, “just putting down whatever came into my head in any style I thought of”, including this Luckyish gem:

Man through different shell all over turns into sea swelling birth comes light through different man all over light shell into sea. Rock waits noon out of sky by tree same turns into rock by noon out of sky underneath tree out of same rock. …

That such half-assed efforts are as widely and vaporously praised as his earlier, sweated-over ones confirms to the poet the worthlessness of his life’s work, which he publicly disavows at a gala dinner in his honour:

“With respect, Sir Robert wasn’t quite right in saying I’ve been neglected. If only I had been. … I probably wouldn’t have wasted my time for thirty-eight years writing what’s supposed to be poetry; I’d have looked round for some other way of coping with the state of mind that made me write those things.”

Later, when a sympathetic journalist tries to convince the poet that his experiment hasn’t definitively proven his lack of talent:

“Not like in geometry, no. Just a very strong presumption. Quite strong enough for me.”

“But…you may still be good even though…”

“You mean God or somebody may think I’m good. I’d certainly respect his opinion. But he’s not letting on, is he?”

***

C.P. Snow’s The Sleep of Reason deals with the same themes as Blood Meridian – the unfathomable workings of fate; the ever-immanent human lust for depravity and how swiftly it reemerges when societal constraints break down – but in a modest and unfussy style that, to my mind, underlines the central mystery more effectively than McCarthy’s freakshow of bloodstained ruffians muttering curses at the remorseless sun.

c.p. snow the sleep of reason

Toward the end, after getting entangled in the trial of a pair of sadistic murderers whose motives are never fully explained, Snow’s narrator attends a relative’s funeral and has his attention captured by a knotty passage in I Corinthians:

[Our ancestors] must have gone to the funeral services in the village churches, and listened to this Pauline eloquence for at least a dozen generations. Some of that gene-pool was in us. Gone stoically, most of them, I thought. As with us, phrases stuck in their memories. As with me as a child, the rabbinical argumentation washed over them.

Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory? The sting of death is sin: and the strength of sin is the law.

How old was I, when I first became puzzled by that gnomic phrase? We had all listened to it, the whole line of us, life after life, so many lives, lost and untraceable now.

In the unlikely event that C.P. Snow is still being read 400 years from now, our descendants will find much in his novels to confuse them: strange customs, forgotten fashions, obsolete turns of phrase…but perhaps amid the confusion they, like me, will be arrested by the image of a long chain of simple men and simple women half-following the drone of the burial service, their eyes suddenly narrowing in puzzlement, linked across time by a moment of common incomprehension.

M.

Update, July 28, 2020: Added cover images and linked to Bibliography page.

Good books in ugly covers.

I’ve just finished Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast, about his early writing days in Paris.

ernest hemingway a moveable feast

Here’s a passage that made me happy. Hemingway has just been befriended by F. Scott Fitzgerald, who brings him a copy of his newly-published The Great Gatsby to read:

A day or two after the trip Scott brought his book over. It had a garish dust-jacket and I remember being embarrassed by the violence, bad taste and slippery look of it. It looked the book-jacket for a book of bad science fiction. Scott told me not to be put off by it, that it had to do with a billboard along a highway in Long Island that was important in the story. He said he had liked the jacket and now he didn’t like it. I took it off to read the book.

Of course, Hemingway loves the book and decides because of it to forgive Fitzgerald for being a huge pain in the ass.

I did some Googling and this must be the book cover Hemingway was referring to:

The Great Gatsby First Edition 1925

On the blog from which I borrowed this image, Sexuality in the Arts, the author describes the cover as “marvellous”. I tend toward Hemingway’s view, that it’s kind of atrocious.

One pictures Hemingway as one of those guys who doesn’t give a crap what anyone thinks of him. So it’s touching to hear him say he’s “embarrassed” by an ugly book cover. Possibly he means that he’s embarrassed on Fitzgerald’s behalf – embarrassed that Fitzgerald didn’t have the good sense to veto this ugly cover art – but that doesn’t explain why Hemingway removes the book-jacket before reading the book. I think he doesn’t want to be seen in the cafés reading a book that looks like “bad science fiction”. Hemingway is an artiste, after all. He’s got to keep up appearances.

***

Of all the books in my collection, the one I’d be most embarrassed to be seen reading in public is Kingsley Amis’ Collected Short Stories:

Kingsley Amis Collected Short Stories (Penguin 1983)

The illustrator’s name is Arthur Robbins. Robbins illustrated the covers for a number of Amis’ books when Penguin reprinted them in the early 1980s. They’re all more or less ugly:

Kingsley Amis Take A Girl Like You (Penguin 1984) Kingsley Amis What Became of Jane Austen? (Penguin 1981)

Unfortunately these ugly Penguins are the ones that turn up most frequently in secondhand book stores, at least the ones I visit. I’ve been trying to avoid them as I piece together my Kingsley Amis collection.

***

My friend Jenn hates what she calls the “short, fat” paperbacks. By which she means “mass market” paperbacks, thick and wrapped in shiny covers, the kind you find on racks near the checkout counter in Wal-Mart. I gather she finds the Wal-Martish associations embarrassing. I don’t share this particular embarrassment, but I can see where she’s coming from.

My friend Olin likes the smell of book glue, and he always subjects his books to a sniff test before purchasing. I don’t have an olfactory response to my literature – or if I do I’m not conscious of it – but again, I can see where Olin is coming from.

Some book collectors collect first editions. Others collect “sets”, preferring to display a uniform, monochrome shelf of hardcover Dickenses or Jane Austens. Me, I don’t like hardcover books; they can’t be comfortably held open to the light while lying on one’s side in bed, which is how I usually read.

There are a handful of authors that I like well enough to wish to own all their works: Philip Roth, Evelyn Waugh, Graham Greene, Kingsley Amis. But I prefer to put together my collection from used paperbacks bought for a few bucks apiece. Greene and Waugh can both be acquired cheaply in handsome orange-bound Penguins. Roth’s novels from the ’50s through the ’70s are easily found used in Bantam paperbacks, while his more recent novels are published by Vintage in trade format.

Amis has given me more trouble. I believe all his books are available in Penguins, but unlike the Waughs and Greenes, the Penguin Amises aren’t handsome at all. Depending on when they were printed, many of these Penguins are too ugly to own.

Panther published a number of Amis’ novels in the ’70s, often with naked or half-naked girls on the covers. Although they look a little like stroke books, these are less embarrassing than the Penguins. Unfortunately they’re also harder to find:

Kingsley Amis I Like It Here (Panther 1975) Kingsley Amis I Want It Now (Panther 1969)

I own Amis’ most famous novel, Lucky Jim, in the baby-blue Penguin Classics edition:

Kingsley Amis Lucky Jim (Penguin 1992)

At least I’m not ashamed to be seen reading it. But I don’t like the baby-blue Penguin Classics. There’s something stuffy and uninviting about them. The covers murmur, “I’ve been accepted into the canon. I deal with serious themes and may be taught as part of a college curriculum.” This studious dressing looks particularly wrong on a light comic novel by Kingsley Amis. At least the naked girls on the cover of the Panthers seem to go with the contents of the books. Even the Arthur Robbins drawings on the ugly Penguins are a better fit.

***

As gaudy as the first edition of The Great Gatsby is, I would have no problem reading it in public. Why? Because everyone knows Gatsby is “literature”. Even people who’ve never read it. Even people who couldn’t tell you who wrote it. It doesn’t matter what they put on the cover. Anyone who sees you reading The Great Gatsby knows you’re a Reader of Serious Books.

It was different for Hemingway back in 1925. Fitzgerald was a new writer, not well-known outside of America. If Hemingway wanted to preserve his rep among the arty denizens of the Left Bank, they couldn’t get the idea that he read (ugh) science-fiction.

As for Kingsley Amis, the name might be vaguely familiar to literate people, but what are the odds that the waitress at the coffeeshop, or the cute girl sitting across from you on the train, will recognise I Want It Now, with its photo of a nude blonde girl sprawled across the cover, as a Serious Book? Sorry, buddy, but you’re going to have to find some other way to differentiate yourself from the ballcap-wearing herd with their iPods and Maxim magazines. Better pull out a Penguin Classic and save Kingsley Amis for when you’re at home alone.

M.

Update, Nov. 19 2017: I was reminded of this old post while re-reading Nicholson Baker’s 1988 debut novel The Mezzanine. In an aside about how novelty coffee mugs have been supplanting dainty cup-and-saucer sets in people’s kitchen cupboards, Baker observes that

you develop a fondness for each mug as an individual, and you try to give even the ones you like least a chance to contain your coffee once in a while – you feel about ugly mugs that you have been given the way you do about bad book-cover designs on paperbacks whose insides you really like – you begin to cherish that slight grit of ugliness and wrongness.

I need to cultivate a Nicholson Bakeresque affection for my ugly paperbacks. The cover of my Vintage trade edition of The Mezzanine is neither ugly nor pretty enough to summon up any emotional response.

nicholson baker the mezzanine

Update, July 26, 2020: Redirected a dead link to Archive.org, added cover images for A Moveable Feast and The Mezzanine, and linked to Bibliography page.


Michael A. Charles is a writer, animator, and musician currently living in the Vancouver area. He used to be the singer and guitarist for the band known as Sea Water Bliss.

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