For information about American silver and for slide shows related to my courses, see the Pages listed on the right.
Jane Gardam, God on the Rocks. In this early novel by the author of Old Filth, it is summer on the English shore and the various characters take their turn in a dance in which we must seek clues to explains past events.
Margery Sharp, The Foolish Gentlewoman. It is after World War II and the Foolish Gentlewoman has several unrelated people living in her house. Sharp’s social comedy is just pointed enough to be entertaining, while her human sympathy’s are real enough to be moving.
Julia Glass, The Widower’s Tale. Percy’s wife died years ago, his daughters are grown. He lives alone and likes it that way — or so he thinks. In this thoughtful novel, Percy becomes reconnected with the lives of others. I enjoyed Glass’s social commentary and gentle flashes of humor.
Saul Bellow, Herzog. In this novel, a failed academic addresses the people and troubles in his life in a series of letters. He also visits some of people and places in a an attempt to resolve what’s bothering him.
Peter Ackroyd, Thames: The Biography. Everything you every wanted to know about the River Thames and its importance in English life and literature. The long meditation is rich in detail, well illustrated.
David Lodge, Changing Places. In this first of three campus-based novels, two college teachers, one English and one American, exchange their academic positions and their lives. One of the funniest books I’ve read in a long time.
Thames, by Peter Ackroyd, is not the biography I expected. It is less a chronological account of the river’s existence over the millennia than a meditation on all the aspects of the river. We learn of the river as connector, the river as border, the river as benefactor, the river as hazard – the river of commerce, of folk lore, of poetry, and art. Ackroyd takes broad and romantic views of his subject. In Elizabethan times,
The Thames was seen as the microcosm of the kingdom, incorporating past and present, the world of pastoral and the world of the city, the center of secular as well as of religious activities, the site of sports and carnivals. It was considered to be “another Helicon” where Apollo and his Muses had alighted, so that under its benign influence London surpassed Rome and Athens. The excitement and energy of London were the excitement and energy of the Thames.
The Thames I saw on my several visits to England was the majestic tidal flow through London. I did glimpse it briefly at Oxford, where students punt on the “Isis,” but I did not have time to linger. In London, on the other hand, I strolled along its banks, traveled on it to Greenwich, and walked across many of its bridges. Ackroyd is a London man, writing in loving detail of the changes in the river as it passes through the city and its importance to Londoners. There are hints of regret that London is no longer quite the world center that it once was.
If Ackroyd stepped back for an even wider view, he might muse on river cities generally. Ackroyd speaks of Rome, but what of Paris, of Amsterdam, of New York – of Cincinnati, Ohio? I grew up in Cincinnati, situated on the north bank of the Ohio River, a border between the North and the South, between slave and free. Many river cities, including Cincinnati, are semi-circles. The city expands from its starting point, growing outwards, but cannot form a circle, since the river blocks growth in one direction. Instead it forms a fan, with the river at its base. Ferries and, later, bridges unite with the other shore, but by then many of the civic modes are well established.
Rivers create a special climate for their cities, as Ackroyd observed of London and as I experienced in Cincinnati. The climate is humid in all seasons, subject to mists and floods. An inhabitant who boats on the river moves out of the city, yet knows that the river is still part of it, the basis for its existence. Ackroyd is at his best when demonstrating this with literary examples, most especially from Dickens. His view of the role of the Thames in English literature encompasses all:
What is the song of the Thames? Its endless melody may be glimpsed in all the poetical legends and myths of the river. It is the place where many of the English stories of time and history have their origin – in Spenser’s Faerie Queene, in Drayton’s Polyolbion, in Pope and Milton, in Marvell and in Shelley. In Spenser, the river came to represent the identity of the nation. The Thames conflated genres and forms to create a complete statement. It embodied harmony, and unity. It became a metaphor for poetry itself.
Ackroyd over reaches, but I can see why. The Thames has an unbeatable status compared to the Ohio, or the Hudson, or even the Mississippi. The North American continent has many rivers but they do not flow together. The United States unifies them, making them part of a larger whole. On a small island, a single river – the Thames – can be the heart of the nation.
Saul Bellow wrote many novels and became a Nobel laureate. Herzog, his 1964 novel, was a best seller. I wonder how many readers actually finished the book. Reading it now, I felt like saying, Bellow, you’ve made your point, now let’s move the story along. So what is his point? The principal one is that there is no story to move along, as Moses Herzog cycles again and again though his catalog of complaints like a dog circling on his bed, unwilling to settle down until he has it just right.
Bellow gives us three narrative threads, braided together. We have third person narrative, telling us who, what, where and when. The why we get from Herzog’s letters and memos to all persons living and dead with whom he has been concerned, from Nietzsche to his ex-wife Madeline. These are in italics. Interrupting these communications, we have non-italic text in first person, with Herzog’s comments, addressed sometimes to himself and sometimes to a person or persons unknown.
Herzog’s letters are scholarly and philosophical. To a fellow academic (and competitor):
We love apocalypses too much, and crisis ethics and florid extremism with its thrilling language. Excuse me, no, I’ve had all the monstrosity I want…. You have a taste for metaphors. Your otherwise admirable work is marred by them. I am sure you can come up with a grand metaphor for me.
I extract. There are pages and pages of this, interspersed with Herzog’s encounters with significant others, past and present. Herzog’s excess of emotion has disrupted his life; now this excess find a verbal outlet.
Still, what can thoughtful people and humanists do but struggle toward suitable words? Take me, for instance. I’ve been writing letters helter-skelter in all directions. More words. I go after reality with language. Perhaps I’d like to change it all into language, to force Madeleine and Gersbach to have a Conscience. There’s a word for you. I must be trying to keep tight the tensions without which human beings can no longer be called human. If they don’t suffer, they’ve gotten away from me. And I’ve filled the world with letters to prevent their escape. I want them in human form, and so I conjure up a whole environment and catch them in the middle. I put my whole heart into these constructions. But they are constructions.
Herzog’s constructive letters range from pedantic to plaintive to humorous (in the academic mode). He is angry and aggrieved and feels he has been hardly used by ex-wives and others. What his constructions are not is warm or loving. When you construct your own reality in words, tolerance is not required. You don’t have to cut those other people out there any slack.
My mother had trouble with the Book-of-the-Month-Club. For those too young to have experienced it, in the 1930’s and 40’s this mail-order club provided book selections every month. Those were the days before Amazon or Border’s, and many readers had little access to local book stores. My mother was a reader and did visit local book stores, but the Club enticed her to join with the offer of a selection of low-cost books. Then every month she received the Book Club News, with reviews of coming attractions. If she returned the card she could reject the monthly selection or choose an alternate, but she had contracted to purchase some minimum number of books each year.
The system worked smoothly for a while. Then my mother, who had four children and many other concerns, did not reject a selection and received John Steinbeck’s novel The Wayward Bus. I have read many Steinbeck books with pleasure, but have never read this one. Whatever was in the book, it offended my mother. She sent it back and engaged in a fruitless correspondence, asking to resign from the Club and being reminded by them of her minimum purchase commitment. I cannot remember how it was resolved – it may never have been resolved. Both sides probably got tired of the dispute, and it was hardly worth suing my mother over a couple of books. In defense of the Club, I see that they offered a number of good titles in that year 1947, including Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House, Trevor-Roper’s The Last Days of Hitler, and Bill Mauldin’s Back Home.
My mother and the Book-of-the-Month Club were brought to mind by the recent purchase of a used copy of The Foolish Gentlewoman by Margery Sharp. The tattered dust jacket announces “BOOK-OF-THE-MONTH CLUB Selection*”. The hard cover book was published by Little, Brown and Company and on the book itself there is no hint of the Club connection. Did the Club simply add their own dust jacket?
Tucked within my copy of The Foolish Gentlewoman was pamphlet with a Quick Preview by Christopher Morley. He was also a popular writer in his day and best remembered now for his novel Parnassus on Wheels. I bring this up as evidence that the Club engaged well-respected writers. The back of the pamphlet tells us about the author, Margery Sharp.
I was also pleased to find a coupon announcing the next selection.
On the back of the coupon is the bill of $3.15 for The Foolish Gentlewoman, including mailing expenses. Since I now have the bill in hand, I wonder if it was ever paid. I hope the recipient did not have an objection to the book. I found it humorous and inoffensive, not an easy combination to achieve.
I was in the library and found myself thinking of Jane Gardam, now best known as the author of the Old Filth trilogy. I went to see what I could see and found God on the Rocks, published in 1978. The jacket blub calls it a “coming of age” story. It starts out that way, as we see the world through the eyes of eight-year-old Margaret. I was getting a bit weary of Margaret, when Gardam began switching the points of view. The novel becomes a dance, in which we briefly see the movements and feel the rhythms through the minds of a number of characters of different ages. Some of them report what no child could possibly see. Thus, the middle-aged sister who uses religion to replace the intellectual life she gave up to keep house for her ineffectual brother:
She did not endure. She did not readily endure the tyranny of the laundry list, the milk man, the grocery order for the sake of eternal life. She endured it because it was the lesser endurance. It kept her so busy that she need not think. If she stopped for a second to think, then the game would be up. Chaos would take charge. The sea would run in and give up its dead. If she missed the three-fifteen for instance every other Thursday to visit Mother, then she would find that time empty and reason might take over. Real issues might be broached then — such as why are you visiting her anyway?
It just gets better and better, as we look past Margaret and get to know the others. The ending is splendid and came as a surprise, although I realized as I read how well it had been foreshadowed.
John Glasworthy, The Forstye Saga. This edition included the first three novels Galsworthy wrote about the Forstye family: The Man of Property, In Chancery, To Let. We follow the many members of this striving family in Victorian and Edwardian London, from the rivalry between cousins Jolyon and Soames through the marriage of Soames daughter, Fleur, with much in between.
Dorothy Whipple, Someone at a Distance. Here is another example of a novel with real characters and acute social commentary by a mid-2oth century female novelist. The “perfect marriage” requires both love and trust — and a certain amount of maturity on the part of both partners.
Helen MacInnes, Above Suspicion. Here is a spy thriller of the old school. Two naive spies from Oxford penetrate Nazi Germany in the last months before World War II started. We have puzzles and mountain climbing and some very gentlemanly behavior.
Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five. I didn’t expect to like this book, but I did. Yes, it is about the firebombing of Dresden, but that is just one incident in a life full of incidents which are just as bewildering, even is less deadly.
Barbara Pym, A Glass of Blessings. This is a Pym novel I had missed until now. It is even and sweet, with just a touch a sour to make the Church of England clerics and their female hangers-on memorable.
Michael Connelly, Nine Dragons. Harry Bosch’s ex-wife Eleanor and daughter Maddy live in Hong Kong. In this novel from the series featuring a Los Angeles homicide detective, Harry also goes to Hong Kong on a mission which is both personal and professional.
Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States. This is not the political and social history you learned in school, but an indignant telling of the story from the point of view of “the people,” who mostly experienced the consequences of the policies of the rich and powerful.
Mary Beard and John Henderson, Classics: A Very Short Introduction. It is short and very readable, but not an introduction to specific classics, rather a meditation on the various meanings and implications of classics and classicism. It seems we are all involved and will continue to be.
Lauren Belfer, A Fierce Radiance. This historical novel, set in New York City during World War II, uses a combination and real and fictional characters to tell the story of the development of penicillin as a weapon of war. We have science, governmental deception, corporate espionage — and the obligatory dollop of romance.
I have just seen the movie Selma. Called controversial because of its portrayal of Lyndon Johnson, what is not disputed are the facts of the marches over the Edmund Pettus Bridge, as the demonstrators attempted to leave Selma, Alabama, to march to the State Capitol at Montgomery. Two attempts were turned back with violence (“Bloody Sunday”), one was aborted by the civil rights leaders; the fourth succeeded, as many did march to Montgomery.
Howard Zinn, in A People’s History of the United States, would tell us that the picture above, a mural showing the leaders of the march on the bridge, is misleading. The march would not happen – would not be able to be led by anyone – if the people concerned did not wholeheartedly support it. In the case of Selma, the people were there.
Zinn sees change as coming only when the people – not the elite – will it and struggle for it. Whereas Martin Luther King says in the film, “We negotiate, we demonstrate, we resist,” Zinn writes more in the spirit of “We negotiate, we demonstrate, we fight.” Time and again he cites examples of presumably-justified violence as people actively resist the injustices of their lives. Again and again, he reports that violent or even non-violent movements are put down by the rich and powerful. He does not see voting as a solution to the problem, but rather a distraction from it.
The civil rights bills emphasized voting, but voting was not a fundamental solution to racism or poverty. In Harlem, blacks who had voted for years still lived in rat-infested slums.
In the film, the civil rights leaders argue about what to do next. They understand the inter-relatedness of systematic degradation of human dignity, denial of the exercise of established rights like the right to vote, and the economic power of the ruling class. Where to begin? They begin where the people are, and they understand that only with their participation can anything be done. King explained it in his Letter from Birmingham Jail.
You are quite right in calling for negotiation. Indeed, this is the very purpose of direct action. Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored. My citing the creation of tension as part of the work of the nonviolent resister may sound rather shocking. But I must confess that I am not afraid of the word “tension.” I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth. Just as Socrates felt that it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal, so must we see the need for nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood. The purpose of our direct action program is to create a situation so crisis packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation.
The “nonviolent direct action” in the film is a simple one: demonstrators want to walk across a bridge on the way to Montgomery. They want to do it now, today, not tomorrow. Timing is important. It is debated by the civil rights leaders and argued about by King and Johnson. The timing is King’s timing, not Johnson’s. Again, in his letter from jail, King stated the priorities of his people.
We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct action campaign that was “well timed” in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word “Wait!” It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This “Wait” has almost always meant “Never.”
That, I think, is the essential truth of the Lyndon Johnson in the film. It was overstated perhaps, but Johnson was a man of good will with his own priorities. King should wait his turn, but King could not wait. He had to create the tensions which changed Johnson’s priorities.
We know now how it all turned out, but I was alive and conscious during those years. We did not know from day to day what would happen, we could only hope. In incident after incident, black American citizens were denied the protection of their government. Getting the vote – a right still under assault in many jurisdictions – did not make life better for everyone, but it was an important acknowledgement of the standing of black citizens. Even more, it was a demonstration of people power when it is well focused and well led.
Reading the almost-700 pages of Zinn’s People’s History was demanding. I would read a chapter, then take a day off. The serial succession of injustices to American Indians, slaves, women, factory workers and laborers could only be absorbed a little at a time. Zinn explains,
As for the subtitle of this book, it is not quite accurate; a “people’s history” promises more than any one person can fulfill, and it is the most difficult kind of history to recapture. I call it that anyway because, with all its limitations, it is a history disrespectful of governments and respectful of people’s movements of resistance.
I see too little of that sort of respect in today’s news coverage of issues and events. We need another Zinn to explain the issues and another King to unite us to negotiate, demonstrate and resist as we try to create a better world.