Notes, 2016

“They are like that.” —Ernest Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises (“they” being homosexuals)

In thinking about revolutions, the usual mistake is to imagine that people decide which side to fight for by looking to their interests. But they don’t, at least not in any long-term way. They look to the immediate advantages or disadvantages, which mostly consist of rewards and punishments that others in their society are willing to inflict, or willing to pay to have inflicted. The few are indeed few, but they are able to buy the services, if not the allegiance, of the many in a pinch.

“But if one wants to be primarily a writer, then, in our society, one is an animal that is tolerated but not encouraged—something rather like a house sparrow—and one gets on better if one realizes one’s position from the start.” —Orwell, “The Cost of Letters,” 1946

At some point, Am I crazy to keep doing this? is no longer the right question to ask, because you have been doing it so long that you no longer have the option of doing anything else. The realization is not necessarily pleasant.

Is growing old more painful for the beautiful, or is it in fact not that hard for them to resign themselves merely to being more beautiful than others their age?

If the super leaves a mirror outside our building, in the spot reserved for furniture that strangers are welcome to take away, it gets shattered by the end of the day. A television’s screen, on the other hand, remains intact for weeks.

By an iron law, probably having something to do with my vanity, I only find men beautiful if they are my age or younger. But every year, as I age, a larger and larger proportion of the men in the world fall into this category. If I live long enough, then by the end of my life, there will scarcely be any man in the world I couldn’t fall for, which might be hardly bearable.

Teenage boys in the park, talking about the strains of marijuana they have recently acquired, are so hobbled by the low waists of their pants that they have the gait of geishas.

To say what you know, without reference to what the powers that be would like to hear, is always a claim to sovereignty.

“I am not with you” is what a writer is always saying.

falcate (adjective): bent or curved like a sickle

In my mind I saw the rainbands of the storm, the falcate concentric arms, reach out across a thousand miles to embrace the coast.

—Greg Jackson, Prodigals

“Unintended baggage may be removed or destroyed.” —public service announcement on the loudspeaker in the Newark Airport

Hypervigilance is not intelligence, though my history has conditioned me to confuse them. Real intelligence would involve a more prudent and thoughtful management of one’s attention.

“It seems in America you can have pederasts in books as long as they are fearfully gloomy and end by committing suicide.” —Jessica Mitford, quoted in Gregory Woods, Homintern

“A revolutionary with taste in wine has come already half the distance from Marx to Burke.” —Norman Mailer, Miami and the Siege of Chicago

“To know how it feels to be a seaweed you have to get in the water.” —Saul Bellow, Seize the Day

“Otters are extremely bad at doing nothing.” —Gavin Maxwell, Ring of Bright Water

Just put your phone over your face is a weird sales pitch.

“I might write of it and subsequent events with a wry dishonesty, a negation of my feeling for that creature, which might disarm criticism, might forestall the accusation of sentimentality and slushiness to which I now lay myself open. There is, however, a certain obligation of honesty upon a writer, without which his words are worthless.” —Maxwell, Ring

spraint (noun): the excrement of an otter

I remember seeing, in that year when the cubs were on Otter Island, a tiny caterpillar of spraint whose deposition must have been an acrobatic feat for the tottering cub.

—Maxwell, Ring

Love is the fart
Of every heart:
It pains a man when ’tis kept close,
And others doth offend when ’tis let loose.

—John Suckling, “Love’s Offense”

Remember, kids: By the end of Miami and the Siege of Chicago, Mailer has come to believe that the republic would be safer with Nixon.

Heard through the window while brushing my teeth: the reassuring gray hyperventilating of the USPS van’s engine, and its even more reassuring sudden death.

I’m worried that you’ve been tone-policing my concern-trolling.

O hateful error, melancholy’s child,
Why dost thou show to the apt thoughts of men
The things that are not?

—Shakespeare, Julius Caesar

When I was young, I thought that Copperfield, in wedding Agnes, was at last marrying someone who was suitably adult, and that Dora had been a mistake, caused by a childish fantasy of what love is. But now I think that Dora, however disappointing, was a real love, and that in wedding Agnes, David wedded only his anima, a fiction of his own feminine nature.

“The deliberate manipulation of anachronisms to produce an appearance of eternity.” —Borges, pronouncing judgment on T. S. Eliot, quoted in James Gleick, Time Travel

“She liked Victorian novels. They were the only kind of novel you could read while you were eating an apple.” —Stella Gibbons, Cold Comfort Farm

“One of the disadvantages of almost universal education was the fact that all kinds of persons acquired a familiarity with one’s favorite writers. It gave one a curious feeling; it was like seeing a drunken stranger wrapped in one’s dressing-gown.” —Gibbons, Cold Comfort Farm

“They always say, she says, that my writing is appalling but they always quote it and what is more, they quote it correctly, and those they say they admire they do not quote.” —Gertrude Stein, Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas

“. . . translating heartache into delicate, even piercing observation . . .” —Saul Bellow, Mr. Sammler’s Planet

But then Mr. Arthur Sammler took a picture of it with his cell phone and by the time he got upstairs it had gone viral on gay porn Tumblrs.

“In explaining his unhappiness he told Gertrude Stein, they talk about the sorrows of great artists, the tragic unhappiness of great artists but after all they are great artists. A little artist has all the tragic unhappiness and the sorrows of a great artist and he is not a great artist.” —Stein, Toklas

“In the lecture, Martha Nussbaum described how the Roman philosopher Seneca, at the end of each day, reflected on his misdeeds before saying to himself, ‘This time I pardon you.'” —Rachel Aviv, “The Philosopher of Feelings”

“One person with a belief is equal to ninety-nine who have only interests.” —J. S. Mill, Representative Government

The downside of reading G. H. Hardy is that if you’re not a mathematician you end up fairly well convinced that you’ve wasted your life.

The process of memory is abrasive and skins a little of the nap off of what is remembered.

And art made tongue-tied by authority
And folly (doctor-like) controlling skill,
And simple truth miscalled simplicity,
And captive good attending captain ill

—Shakespeare, sonnet 66

One’s memories fading before one has written one’s novels from them—like a photograph fading in a box before it can be rediscovered and reproduced.

One almost gets the sense this year that there are people who don’t care whether they’ll turn out to be on the wrong side of history, morally speaking.

Dude, I’m part of the mainstream media. I’m not likely to believe your conspiracy theories about it.

“It fareth with sentences as with coins: In coins, they that in smallest compass contain greatest value, are best esteemed: and, in sentences, those that in fewest words comprise most matter, are most praised.” —Lancelot Andrewes, quoted in Drury, Music at Midnight

“As an historian he had the fatal inhibition that he would not begin to write until he had read all the sources.” —footnote about Lord Acton, in One Hundred Letters from Hugh Trevor-Roper

“Perhaps the mere effort to convert any one to a theory involves some form of renunciation of the power of credence.” —Oscar Wilde, “Portrait of Mr. W. H.”

“He only seemed to have most pre-eminence that was most rageful.” —Phlip Sidney, The Old Arcadia

“But let me tell you that the delight of political life is altogether in opposition. Why, it is freedom against slavery, fire against clay, movement against stagnation! The very inaccuracy which is permitted to opposition is in itself a charm worth more than all the patronage and all the prestige of ministerial power.” —Trollope, Phineas Finn

In Shane Carruth’s movies, the problem of incarnation takes the form of a discovery that you’re involved in an almost mechanical process that’s much larger and more powerful than you are.

Winning doesn’t seem to be enough for the comments. It looks like they won’t be content until they’ve exterminated the articles.

Notes, 2015

Food is not improved by looking like a Calder mobile that has collapsed onto a plate.

nimrod (noun): a person fond of hunting

By hunting at all she had estranged the goodies, and by deserting she must scandalize the nimrods.

—Sylvia Townsend Warner, Summer Will Show

suther (verb): to sigh, to sough, to make the sound of wind in trees

. . . only the wise and timid pigeons, . . . leaving the green seclusion in which they had been “listening to the pleasant sutherings of the shade” . . .

—T. H. White, The Goshawk, quoting John Clare’s “The Woodpigeon’s Nest”

“The honourable estate of matrimony allowed one to read Don Juan in honour and ease, rather than by snatches in a cold bedroom.” —Warner, Summer Will Show

Pomegranate seeds gone opaque, like eyes with cataracts.

law (noun): an allowance in time or distance made to an animal that is to be hunted, or to a competitor in a race

He now had about seven yards law in what he was tied by.

—White, The Gowhawk

“On a retrospect, I observe that my long letter carries with it a quaint and magisterial air, and is very sententious.” —Gilbert White, A Natural History of Selborne

jink (verb): change direction quickly, dart, dodge

But the old buck jinked in a grass furrow.”

—White, Goshawk

One of the challenges that Twitter poses to information hygiene: it isn’t the same from day to day, and is qualitatively unlike itself from month to month. Is it good for you to read it? Past performance tells almost nothing, because it’s so protean.

rode (verb): of a woodcock, to perform a regular evening territorial flight during the breeding season

“I saw the long downward-pointing bill and the blunt, owl-like wings, and heard the thin whistle and throat croak of its roding call; a strange thing to hear in the cold November dusk.”

—J. A. Baker, The Peregrine

sporran (noun): a Scottish Highlander’s purse, worn at the front of the kilt

He carried on his study of pubic fig leaves (vine leaves in Rome, in Naples they were positive sporrans).

—Sylvia Townsend Warner, T. H. White

“. . . suitable to the composure of an animal said to be a whole month in performing one feat of copulation.” —G. White, in Selborne, on his tortoise

People talking on their cellphones while pooping in public restrooms is really the worst thing in the modern world.

“The rooms where I was born, the furniture which has been before my eyes all my life, a book case which has followed me about (like a faithful dog, only exceeding him in knowledge) wherever I have moved—old chairs, old tables, streets, squares, where I have sunned myself, my old school—these are my mistresses. Have I not enough, without your mountains? I do not envy you. I should pity you, did I not know, that the Mind will make friends of anything.” —Charles Lamb to William Wordsworth, 30 January 1801

“The first duty of an Author, I take it, is never to pay anything.” —Lamb to Wordsworth, 26 June 1806

On the enslavement of authors to booksellers: “Those fellows hate us. The reason I take to be, that, contrary to other trades, in which the Master gets all the credit (a Jeweller or Silversmith, for instance), and the Journeyman, who really does the fine work, is in the background: in our work the world gives all the credit to us, whom they consider as their Journeymen, and therefore do they hate us, and cheat us, and oppress us, and would wring the blood of us out, to put another sixpence in their mechanic pouches.” —Lamb to Bernard Barton, 9 January 1823

The simple catalogue of things
That reason would despise
Starts in the heart a thousand springs
Of half-forgotten joys.

—John Clare, “Childhood”

“I do not know that she was at all points a lady, but had Fate so willed it she would have been a thorough gentleman.” —Anthony Trollope, Can You Forgive Her?

I felt that I’d a right to song
And sung—but in a timid strain
Of fondness for my native plain

—John Clare, “Progress of Rhyme”

zarf (noun): a cup-shaped holder for a hot coffee cup, used in eastern Mediterranean, usually made of metal and with an ornamental design

He brought steaming conical cups in plastic zarfs, two by two, to the craving, sobering hands all around him.

—Jonathan Franzen, The Twenty-Seventh City

The nineteenth century admitted that the immortality of the soul was a fairy tale. The twenty-first will have to admit that the eternity of nature is one, too.

Dream: To someone who accused me of writing a book review that was too critical, I replied, “When I go to a bullfight, it’s to kill the bulls.”

Where ceneme becomes plereme.

“Yet now despair itself is mild . . .” —Shelley, “Stanzas Written in Dejection near Naples”

“In much wisdom is much grief, and he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow.” —Ecclesiastes

“‘It seems to me that if a man can so train himself that he may live honestly and die fearlessly, he has done about as much as is necessary.’ ‘He has done a great deal, certainly,’ said Mr. Palliser. . . . He knew very well that he himself was working for others, and not for himself; and he was aware, though he had not analysed his own convictions on the matter, that good men struggle as they do in order that others, besides themselves, may live honestly, and, if possible, die fearlessly.” —Trollope, Can You Forgive Her?

Peter thinks the rear windshield wiper says, “Hawn-hawn,” and the front ones say, “Needles-eewee.”

“I always think that worldliness and sentimentality are rather like brandy and water. I don’t like either of them separately, but taken together they make a very nice drink.” —Trollope, Can You Forgive Her?

tessitura (noun): the range within which most tones of a voice part or melody lie

With its long runs and jagged melodic line, it made great demands on the singer, but Hubert Anvil was more than equal to them, hitting every note in the middle, moving from top to bottom of the wide tessitura with no loss of tone or power.

—Kingsley Amis, The Alteration

flaw (verb): to ruffle, as a gust of wind does

Every now and then a gust stooped and flawed the creek, brushing up a fine spray.

— Sylvia Townsend Warner, The True Heart

“My guess is that writers probably make fun, skilled, satisfactory, and seemingly considerate partners for other people. But that the experience for them is often rather lonely.” —David Foster Wallace, quoted by David Lipsky

There are two arts of photography. There is the manufacture of images with light, lenses, and other physical equipment. And then there is the selection and presentation of those images. In the early twentieth century, the first of these arts had great prestige and the second was largely invisible. But by the end of the century, photography had done to itself what it had previously done to painting, and merely technical prowess was too common to command attention. The prestige now goes to those with ideas about what images are, or can be.

“The new rebels might be the ones willing to risk the yawn, the rolled eyes, the cool smile, the nudged ribs, the parody of gifted ironists, the ‘how banal.'” —David Foster Wallace, quoted by D. T. Max in Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story

A resurrected Roman would find a great deal familiar if he visited Prospect Park on a summer weekend: shirtless men presiding over the burning of meat on portable tripods, to the accompaniment of music. But he would wonder why the sacrifices were being made without priests and without temples.

liceity (noun): legitimacy of a human action, e.g., of the administration of a sacrament; not the same as validity; used in a Roman Catholic context

There are two separate issues in the Filioque controversy in Christianity, the orthodoxy of the doctrine itself and the liceity of the interpolation of the phrase into the Nicene creed


metheglin (noun): spiced mead

Where metheglin was making he would linger round the tubs and vessels, begging a draught of what he called bee-wine.

—White, Selborne

The schoolteacher, gravelled by his schoolteaching mind: “Nothing comes to him, not spoiled by the sophisticating medium of moral uses.” —Lamb, “Old and New Schoolmaster”

privity (noun): the fact of being privy to something

They affirmed that what the Irish rebels did was done with my privity at least, if not by my commission.

—Charles I and John Gauden, Eikon Basilike

“I had grown to my desk, as it were, and the wood had entered into my soul.” —Lamb, “The Superannuated Man”

cantle (noun): a section or segment cut out of anything; a thick slice or cut of bread or cheese

I can spare to go to church now, without grudging the huge cantle which it used to seem to cut out of the holiday.

—Lamb, “The Superannuated Man”

“But the display of married happiness . . . is throughout pure, unrecompensed, unqualified insult.” —Lamb, “A Bachelor’s Complaint”

“I had imagined that the world’s end was at the edge of the orison and that a day’s journey was able to find it. So I went on with my heart full of hopes, pleasures, and discoveries, expecting when I got to the brink of the world that I could look down like looking into a large pit and see into its secrets the same as I believed I could see heaven by looking into the water. So I eagerly wandered on and rambled among the furze the whole day till I got out of my knowledge when the very wildflowers and birds seemed to forget me and I imagined they were the inhabitants of new countries. The very sun seemed to be a new one and shining in a different quarter of the sky. Still I felt no fear. My wonder-seeking happiness had no room for it. I was finding new wonders every minute and was walking in a new world and expected the world’s end by and by but it never came often wondering to myself that I had not found the end of the old one.” —Clare, “Autobiographical Fragments”

“People who have tried it, tell me that a clear conscience makes you very happy and contented; but a full stomach does the business quite as well, and is cheaper, and more easily obtained.” —Jerome K. Jerome, Three Men in a Boat

“She measured out consideration as if it had been a yard of pretty ribbon.” —Henry James, The Outcry

“Remember.” —Charles I (his last word)

Say, maiden, wilt thou go with me
Through this sad non-identity?

—Clare, “An Invite to Eternity”

“‘Oh, they know things in the States,’ Hugh cheerfully agreed, ‘so independently of their happening!'” —James, The Outcry

A lesser-remarked sign of age: One’s fingernails used to be smooth curves, and are now polyhedra.

“The community included a nudist and a man who refused to eat tubers because any vegetable that grows downward displays questionable tendencies.” —Chris Jennings, on Fruitlands, in Paradise Now

“He seemed not to speak, but to be spoken from.” —Charles Lamb, “A Quakers’ Meeting”

caudle (noun): a drink of warm gruel, containing spice, sugar, and wine, given to invalids

On the twentieth day of her lying-in, she died of kindness and caudle.

—Robert Bage, Hermsprong

“Chastity, they say, is like unto time, which, being once lost, can no more be recovered.” —Mercy Harvey to Lord Surrey, her would-be seducer, quoted in Virginia Woolf’s “Strange Elizabethans”

“Good memories, good memories,” the old men in the gym say to each other, as a greeting.

“Authors in general know money does not make their happiness; and thence conclude, rather too hastily, it could not make that of other people.” —Bage, Hermsprong

“The beauty of his work consisted in the skill with which he evaded questions of principle.” —Henry Adams, Democracy

“There were so many spare hours that on looking back it would almost seem as if our planet must have made slower revolutions then.” —Georgiana Bruce Kirby, Years of Experience

The hipsters were sulky about the dogs frolicking in the park’s off-leash meadows this morning. They had got up early to photograph their drone, and now dogs might get, uninvited, into the pictures.

Fortune is most and strangest evermore
Where least foreknowing or intelligence
Is in the man; and, son, of wit or lore
Since thou art weak and feeble, lo, therefore
The more thou art in danger and commune
With her that clerks clepen so fortune.

—James I of Scotland, The Kingis Quair [The King’s Quire]

Practical freedom from prediction and manipulation by others (psychologists or dictators or whomever) is best achieved by the acquisition of knowledge in general. The more you know, the harder you are to control.” —Daniel Dennett, Elbow Room

“I am a straw upon the surface of the deep, and am tossed in all directions by the elephants.” —Mr. Micawber

habergeon (noun): a sleeveless jacket of armor

Hard by the lilied Nile I saw
A duskish river-dragon stretched along,
The brown habergeon of his limbs enamelled
With sanguine almandines and rainy pearl.

—Thomas Lovell Beddoes, “A Crocodile”

“I know what really goes on inside me. I’ll let you in on something. There isn’t a man living who doesn’t. All this business, ‘Know thyself’! Everybody knows but nobody wants to admit.” —Saul Bellow, The Victim

After taking the previous note, on the subway, I looked up to see a boy across the car staring at me as if he’d just seen a ghost. I guess the taking of notes by hand isn’t a very common sight any more.

The key to The Martian (the movie): It’s how the Internet makes us feel—alone on a desert planet. It’s an entire movie about talking to oneself and about sending and receiving text messages. Inner desolation, exteriorized.

“We don’t seem to hear nothing about the unpardonable sin now, but you may say it was not uncommon then.” —Sarah Orne Jewett, The Country of Pointed Firs

“Translating oneself is writing in fetters.” —Pierre Legouis, Andrew Marvell

“Spirits and fairies cannot be represented, they cannot even be painted—they can only be believed.” —Charles Lamb, The Tragedies of Shakespeare

“But to live in past ages is very expensive; you can’t do it on less than two thousand a year.” —George Orwell, A Clergyman’s Daughter

“It was only now, after becoming aware of most of the things about her, that she became aware of herself. Hitherto she had been as it were a pair of eyes with a receptive but purely impersonal brain behind them. But now, with a curious little shock, she discovered her separate and unique existence; she could feel herself existing; it was as though something within her were exclaiming, ‘I am I!'” —Orwell, A Clergyman’s Daughter, deftly describing the little “click” that does not happen when one wakes up into the depersonalization of a panic attack

The closing of the American heart: In the Middle Ages, people saw hangings, beheadings, and disfigured corpses often, and sympathy was sharply limited and rarely went beyond one’s intimates. In the eighteenth century Voltaire proposed that sympathy could be an instrument of virtue and reform, inducing people to feel injustice done to others. By the nineteenth century, sympathy had become a faculty to be nurtured and developed, especially in children, whose sensibilities needed to be shielded from the gratuitous sight of people in extremis, which would coarsen and jade (it’s meant to be progress for Oliver Twist to move from a vivid life of street crime to the eventlessness of Victorian propriety). The delicacy was not for its own sake; it was to preserve a moral fineness. Today, once again, the sight of torture and death has become common, and we have lost the idea that one ought to protect one’s sensibility in order to preserve one’s faculty of doing good. Sympathy, correspondingly, is receding.

“Earth-worms, though in appearance a small and despicable link in the chain of Nature, yet, if lost, would make a lamentable chasm.” —White, Selborne

Forgive us our micro-aggressions, as we forgive those who micro-aggress against us.

“Worms . . . are hermaphrodites, and much addicted to venery, and consequently very prolific.” —White, Selborne

“When he was puzzled or in difficulties, his moustaches seemed to bristle forward, giving him the appearance of a well-meaning but exceptionally brainless prawn.” —Orwell, Clergyman’s Daughter

All studium and no punctum makes Jonny a dull boy.

henway: a nonexistent tool that a novice worker is asked to go fetch, leading to the question, “What’s a henway?” Answer: About two and a half pounds. Cf. “Maybe we could touch base next week via Updog?”

How calculated the sentiment looks when one watches over the shoulder of a woman frenetically sampling the options for updating her Facebook profile picture so that it will express solidarity with victims of last night’s atrocity.

Does the revolt of Micawber against Heep (“Because I—in short, choose”) prefigure Bartleby’s “I would prefer not to”?

“The fact that many of us resent injuries on behalf of others is generally a convenient way of indulging our resements with an appearance of justice.” —Charles Williams, quoted in Grevel Lindop, The Third Inkling

doggo: without moving or making a sound, doing nothing to draw attention

The inhabitants lay doggo.

—Sybille Bedford, A Visit to Don Otavio

A robot’s meditation: I’m thinking, therefore I’m on.

“Constanza says that the novel plays such a part in shaping social behaviour. Perhaps the novel has not caught up?” —Sybille Bedford, A Compass Error

The saddest 7 words in the English language: I hope we can still be friends
The saddest 4: First in a series
The saddest 2: What party?
The saddest 1: carob

“But I made the unfortunate mistake, for a writer, of first having been Mr. Jake Barnes. So it is not going to be splendid and cool and detached after all.” —Ernest Hemingway, in a deleted second chapter of The Sun Also Rises

“Editors are troubled with nice amendings and if Doctors were as fond of Amputations as they are of altering and correcting the world would have nothing but cripples.” —John Clare, journal, 30 April 1825

“The cycle of manic enthusiasm, then fear, then Partei solutions of a desperate type—well, the point he got across was that all this tends to bring the most irresponsible and reckless aspirants to the top.” —Philip K. Dick, The Man in the High Castle

“I believe that when a scholar traffics in antihumanist theories for purposes of professional advancement, his or her private self stands in the doorway, listening in.” —Lisa Ruddick, “When Nothing Is Cool”

“Did I tell you about my discovery in Larkin Studies?” —Philip Larkin to Monica Jones, 21 November 1971

“I could have written longer notes, for the art of writing notes is not of difficult attainment.” —Samuel Johnson

A review, two interviews, an essay, and a meme

Lauren Christensen, writing for Vanity Fair’s VF Daily, has noticed parallels between Necessary Errors and Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, and argues that the center of both books is in “the psychological events of each well-crafted character.”

In Actuary Lit, I am interviewed by Evan Bryson, who has read a lot of my old writing and is correspondingly dangerous. He asked about the differences between the novella “Sweet Grafton” and the novel Necessary Errors, and we talked about Spark, Isherwood, Sontag, Hollinghurst, and Fitzgerald.

For the Paris Review Daily, Anna Altman has asked me about D. W. Winnicott, L. P. Hartley, and the function of the precinct in TV shows.

I’ve written a guest essay for Barnes & Noble’s Discover Great New Writers program about whether the critical half of one’s brain is at risk of eating the creative half.

And my novel’s place in literary history is secure now that Maris Kreizman has mash-upped it into a meme for her site Slaughterhouse 90210.