Sunday, November 30, 2003

The eternal student. "Differences were leveled; courses were regarded with a cynical, practical eye; students of both sexes had the wary disillusionment and aimlessness of battle-hardened marines... To teachers with some experience of the ordinary class-bound private college student, of the quiet lecture-hall and the fair duteous heads bent over the notebooks, Jocelyn's hard-eyed watchers signified the real." -- Mary McCarthy, The Groves of Academe.
"I'm reminded of [the failings of American higher education] the first day of each new academic year when students take turns trying to stare me down after class, while threateningly telling me 'I really need an A in this course, man'." -- Chris Semansky, Illustrated London News relaunch issue, Dec 2003.
I can't help feeling this is the same stare. The students in The Groves of Academe don't seem to get automatic A's, though.
[The Groves of Academe, by Mary McCarthy, Heinemann, 1953. For a book (a) by Mary McCarthy and (b) about academic politics, rather restrained in its bitchiness.]

Self-help with Samuel Beckett. "And yet it is useless not to seek, not to want, for when you cease to seek you start to find, and when you cease to want, then then life begins to ram her fish and chips down your gullet until you puke, and then the puke down your gullet until you puke the puke, and then the puked puke until you begin to like it. The glutton castaway, the drunkard in the desert, the lecher in prison, they are the happy ones. To hunger, thirst, lust, every day afresh and every day in vain, after the old prog, the old booze, the old whores, that's the nearest we'll ever get to felicity, the new porch and the very latest garden. I pass on the tip for what it is worth." -- Samuel Beckett, Watt.
Just typing that cheers me up.
[Watt, by Samuel Beckett, Olympia Press, 1953. More demonstrative fun than his later work, but the same quantity of plot.]

Selection, England, 1958. "There are, admittedly, some initial steps by which the total may be reduced. The formula 'Reject everyone over 50 or under 20 plus everyone who is Irish' is now universally used..." -- C. Northcote Parkinson, Parkinson's Law.
He's being funny, of course. But I doubt he was trying to be all that shocking. Compare the antisemitic bit on p71, if you have a copy of the book to hand.
[Parkinson's Law, by C. Northcote Parkinson, John Murray, 1958. Suffers somewhat from the fact that its best gags are now proverbs.]

Tuesday, November 18, 2003

Conflicting influences. "Working on a farm is a healthy life. The work is hard but good. But when I grow up I mean to be an astronaut." -- Amy, nine-year-old Pentecostal narrator of David Malouf's short story 'Closer'.
[Dream Stuff, by David Malouf (Chatto & Windus, 2000). Full of landscape and damaged childhoods. In the second-to-last story, a dead boy says of his father: "I don't know when I first begun to see he wasn't always in the right."]

A proper commonplace. "Truth lies at the bottom of the well; we drink water from the surface in its place, especially when relying on the testimony of others to scoop it up." --'Augsburg patrician and polymath' Markus Welser, quoted in Anthony Grafton's The Footnote.
I wish I could buy that done in pokerwork.
Incidental note of surprise: The most amusing thing in The Footnote isn't the footnotes, although an expert could probably derive some fun from them. I prefer Anthony Grafton's sportive metaphors -- he describes Gibbon's Decline and Fall as a "great neoclassical country house and witty gazebos" -- and his catty way with parenthesis.
[The Footnote, by Anthony Grafton (Faber, 1997). Books not from 1997 soon, I promise.]

Sunday, November 16, 2003

Music criticism. "The people really liked us -- I know, because one customer turned the jukebox on while we were playing, and somebody else threw him down the stairs." -- Billy May, in David Hadju's Lush Life, on an early Pittsburgh gig of Billy Strayhorn's.
[Lush Life, by David Hadju (Granta, 1997). In the next chapter Duke Ellington descends and sweeps Strayhorn off to affluence, and from then on every quote contains either 'darling' or 'wonderful'. But the book doesn't slacken.]

The Game Laws. This is a blast of oratory from the usually comic Sydney Smith, found in Hesketh Pearson's The Smith of Smiths. Before reading, you will need to know that the game laws reserved to certain landlords the exclusive right to hunt certain animals, and the right to protect that right by means of man-traps and spring-triggered guns. But you already did, no?
"There is a sort of horror in thinking of a whole land filled with lurking engines of death -- machinations against human life under every green tree -- traps and guns in every dusky dell and bosky bourn -- the ferae naturae, the lords of manors, eyeing their peasantry as so many butts and marks, and panting to hear the click of the trap and to see the flash of the gun. How any human being educated in liberal knowledge and Christian feeling, can doom to certain destruction a poor wretch, tempted by the sight of animals that naturally appear to him to belong to one person as well as another, we are at a loss to conceive. We cannot imagine how he could live in the same village, and see the widow and orphans of the man whose blood he had shed for a trifle. We consider a person who could do this to be deficient in the very elements of morals -- to want that sacred regard to human life which is one of the corner stones of civil society." -- Sydney Smith, Edinburgh Review.
Bonus link: Smith's Writings in favour of Catholic emancipation -- a counterintuitive position in a 19-century Anglican priest -- which are all I can find in full online.
[The Smith of Smiths, by Hesketh Pearson (Hamish Hamilton, 1934). Amusing, oddly camp, not very narrative biography.]

Saturday, November 15, 2003

Saint Joan contains clumsier exposition than you would think possible in a play of such good reputation. Knight to Bishop: "It is the protest of the individual soul against the interference of priest or peer between the private man and his God. I should call it Protestantism if I had to find a name for it." This is meant to be before 'Protestantism' is a common term. It comes in here solely because the audience is lost.
On the other hand, the jokes are good. And the end moves from the ridiculous to the sublime with speed and grace. It caught me, anyway.
[Notes for pedants: Saint Joan by Bernard Shaw, 1923; now published by Penguin. Quote taken from 1934 Odham's Press collected Shaw. The knight, Warwick, is actually an earl. But the bishop, Cauchon, actually is a bishop. There.]

What is this? Mainly a reading diary, mainly intended for me. It's public to give me the illusion that there is a reason for not stopping, and to keep me from being too lazy or too honest. The agenda, so far as there is one, is to quote from sources outside the web and use these as an excuse for commentary. If I appear to have violated your copyright, please tell me and I will erase the offence. If I've offended you for other reasons, it's probably best to ignore me. Everybody else will.