A Straight Story

Most copies of “Tristram Shandy” by Laurence Sterne are about 600 pages long. (It is in public domain, so this varies.) The book is a fictional autobiography in which Tristram, the not-quite hero of a story that is not quite his own, attempts to tell us about his life from birth onward. However, he does not even begin to begin telling us about his birth and his first day on earth until the fourth volume because, like his own conception on page 1, his story is much interrupted.

(On page one, at the very moment Tristram is to be conceived, his mother asks his father if he remembered to wind the clock, an ill-timed interruption that, according to Tristram, produced an author who is incapable of telling a story straight to its end without breaks, questions, and digressions.)
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Love Conquers Some

There was a disagreement about naming a dog. They did not own a dog, but the opportunity to disagree was an enticing one.

“Bob,” he offered. She shuddered and made a flicking gesture. Another professional photo of another white-haired small animal appeared. “The only name for that one is ‘Barney.'”
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The Story with a Twist, or, I’m a Frayed Knot

Every alcoholic in recovery has a collection of anecdotes that can be simultaneously heartbreaking, outrageous, and hilarious. Perhaps they are hilarious only to fellow alcoholics; perhaps they can not even be listened to by outsiders. For an outsider, most alcoholic anecdotes may as well conclude with the same punchline, an interchangeable rubber-stamped ending: “And then I got away with it again.” Or, “I didn’t die that time, either.” And then comes the next hair-raising—or eyebrow-raising—tale.

Every alcoholic in recovery is living a story with a twist ending, if they remain in recovery. It is that two-word pair there, “in recovery,” that provides the surprise, the twist, a period of life as surprising to behold as some of the antics, the many bizarre actions and activities and inactions and inactivities that were surprising for outsiders to watch unfold in the previous life.
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James Joyce and His Birthday

February 2, 2016, is the 134th birthday of James Joyce. In his huge biography, Richard Ellmann notes in several places Joyce’s fascination with his own birthday (he made certain that his novel “Ulysses” was published on his 40th, in 1922) and tells how this affected his relationship with another writer, James Stephens. Ellmann quotes Joyce:

“The combination of his name from that of mine [James] and my hero in A.P.O.T.A.A.A.Y.M. [“A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man”] is strange enough. [The hero of that novel is Stephen.] I discovered yesterday, through enquiries made in Paris, that he was born in Dublin on the 2 February 1882.” (Ellmann, 592)

Ellmann notes that Joyce also found it amazing that he and Stephens were both fathers of a boy and a girl. Either Stephens did not know or did not want to tell Joyce that they did indeed share a birthday but not a birth date, as Stephens was born February 2, 1880.
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Tapping into ‘Echo Spring’

Every alcoholic has a collection of anecdotes that can be simultaneously heartbreaking, outrageous, and hilarious. Perhaps they are hilarious only to fellow alcoholics; perhaps they can not even be listened to by outsiders. For an outsider, most alcoholic anecdotes may as well conclude with the same punchline, an interchangeable rubber-stamped ending: “And then I got away with it again.” Or, “I didn’t die that time, either.” And then comes the next hair-raising—or eyebrow-raising—tale.

There are two standard anecdotes, one usually about outrageous behavior, and another about the pit at the end of the road. Almost everyone who drinks has a few of the first sort of story.

“I thought things were going great and I was happy to be sober and proud to be in recovery, but I kept having these urges. I was in a good mood and I talked about the urges and people helped me understand. And now it’s two weeks later and I don’t remember these two weeks.” That is the second kind of story; I heard it from someone today. The speaker had “picked up,” which is recovery-speak for “drank.” He “went out” is another phrase.

In her 2013 book, The Trip to Echo Spring, Olivia Laing quotes Andrew Turnbull’s biography of F. Scott Fitzgerald (pictured above):

He describes Fitzgerald in his room at the Grove Park Inn making endless lists “of cavalry officers, athletes, cities, popular tunes. Later, he realized that he had been witnessing the disintegration of his own personality and likened the sensation to that of a man standing at twilight on a deserted range with an empty rifle in his hands and the targets down.” The images are drawn from Fitzgerald’s own account in “The Crack-up,” but somehow have more impact here. (Laing, 84)

That is the second kind of story, too.

Towards the end of my drinking, but really, nowhere near the end, I remember extemporizing for several hours straight about NASCAR to a friend. Now, I am a racing fan so I have a fan’s knowledge base, but I remember feeling like I had turned into an obsessed young boy who has discovered the backside of his baseball cards and wants to read off every single statistic out loud to everyone. And the moment came from nowhere. It was possibly a symptom of delirium tremens, but I recall feeling safe in settled facts and unsafe in the open field of conversation. The subject matter of the facts was chosen at random, by me, and could have been any other topic area, but I cleverly picked one that none of my friends shared enthusiasm for. There could be no conversation. For my friend, it must have felt like what Turnbull described about watching Fitzgerald as I rattled off lists of winners and possible routes to the championship for certain race teams. For hours. (“Cavalry officers, athletes, cities.”) I also remember that I detected an intervention in my future and I figured that if I spoke continuously, no intervention could happen. Instead, I probably hastened one.

That is the second kind of story. My brain was firing blanks, a lot of them in rapid succession, as confidently as my brain had ever fired off substantive thoughts in graduate school classes or in front of classrooms, but blanks anyway. A line from a Robert Lowell poem, “Eye and Tooth,” haunted me: “I am tired. Everyone’s tired of my turmoil.”

Laing’s book mixes travel narrative, expository journalism, and literary biography in pursuit of a personal answer to a large question: “I wanted to know what made a person drink and what it did to them. More specifically, I wanted to know why writers drink, and what effect this stew of spirits has had upon the body of literature itself.” She picks six male, American, Twentieth-century, writers—Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Tennessee Williams, John Berryman, John Cheever, and Raymond Carver—as her biographical subjects, even though she is young, British, female. These figures give her sufficient distance to look more closely at the subject; she alludes to being raised in a house “under the rule of alcohol.” She adds, “There are some things that one can’t address at home,” and decides to travel to America.

What I wanted was to discover how each of these men—and along the way, some of the many others who have suffered from the disease—experienced and thought about their addiction. If anything, it was an expression of my faith in literature, and its power to map the more difficult regions of human experience and knowledge. (Laing, 12)

(The ‘Echo Spring’ of her title comes from Williams’ “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” in which Brick, to get away from Big Daddy, excuses himself. Big Daddy asks, “Where you goin’?” and Brick replies, memorably, “I’m takin’ a little short trip to Echo Spring.” Echo Spring is his brand of bourbon and the nickname for the liquor cabinet holding it.)

It is the first kind of story, the outrageous anecdote, the prurient tale, that Laing says that she wants avoid, and she successfully does; the hair-raising bits are kept to a minimum, and, when seen, sketched very deftly, as on page 82: “Once, in the 1920s, he stripped to his underclothes in the audience of a play.” That was Fitzgerald at his hijinks-loving “best.” Fitzgerald’s fellow famous Baltimoran appears in the next sentence, at his most pruriently judgmental. “According to Mencken, [Fitzgerald] shocked a Baltimore dinner party ‘by arising at the dinner table and taking down his pantaloons, exposing his gospel pipe.'”

Laing finds and expresses the empathy that can be found in Fitzgerald’s apparent fondness for drunkenly dropping trou, though, and writes about the mask that baldly revealing oneself can prove to be: “Undressing is an act of concealment sometimes. You can yank down your pants and show off your gospel pipe and still be a man in mortal terror of revealing who you are.” An alcoholic will shock to prevent a embarrassing conversation about his drinking.

It is that mortal terror that animates much addiction and certainly contributed to the art these six writers created; to her credit, Laing’s empathy is clear-eyed and clear-hearted and she does not look for redemption where there is none. That second kind of story is too heart-breaking, after all, and each of her six writers lived it. Fitzgerald, Hemingway, and Berryman did not survive theirs.

The WordPress Daily Prompt for January 14 asks, “Open your nearest book to page 82. Take the third full sentence on the page, and work it into a post somehow.” This was it: “Once, in the 1920s, he stripped to his underclothes in the audience of a play.”

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James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist, Sitting

For most of 1928, James Joyce’s attention was unequally divided among many projects and complications: He was keeping a wary watch over German and French translations of “Ulysses,” his 1922 novel; readying sections of his next novel, which was still officially titled “Work in Progress” (published as “Finnegan’s Wake” years later, in 1939); defending “Work in Progress” from negative reviews and letters from friends who were urging him to quit his experimental writing; explaining to his patrons when new sections of “Work in Progress” could be expected so that he could have an income; and losing his eyesight.

He was 46 years old, living in Paris with his partner, Nora, and their two children, and life was complicated. He was engaged in writing the novel that became “Finnegan’s Wake,” and his artistic ambition for it and its effect on him were both unsparing. “Ulysses” tells a story of a single day, June 16, 1904, in a particular place, Dublin, using as many types of storytelling and modes of rhetoric as he could use. Joyce intended “Work in Progress” to do the same thing but for the idea of nighttime; it is entirely inside the sleeping and dreaming mind of some unknown person, and it is written in a sort of pidgin English animated by puns.

His letters to his patrons tended to obscure matters even further and made it more challenging to continue funding his project. In one 1927 letter to his most important supporter, Harriet Shaw Weaver, he wrote something with “the intention of enlightenment,” as his biographer Richard Ellmann cheerfully puts it, but what he sent read:

I am making an engine with only one wheel. No spokes, of course. The wheel is a perfect square. You see what I’m driving at, don’t you? I am awfully solemn about it, mind you, so you must not think it is a silly story about the mooks and the grapes. No, it’s a wheel, I tell the world. And it’s all square. (Ellmann, 597)

Weaver tried to get in the spirit of his constant riddling and urged him to square the wheel, a suggestion for which he thanked her but further explained that he was doing something different than that. By 1928, financially and artistically discouraged, he declared to one friend

Critics who were most appreciative of “Ulysses” are complaining about my new work. They cannot understand it. Therefore they say it is meaningless. Now if it were meaningless it could be written quickly, without thought, without pains, without erudition; but I assure you that these twenty pages now before us cost me twelve hundred hours and an enormous expense of spirit.” (Ellmann, 598)

Thus, Weaver traveled from London to Paris in 1928 to see for herself how things were going, on the occasion of Joyce’s 46th birthday. The visit reassured both parties and later that year he received word of an advance payment from two American publishers.

This is the James Joyce captured in Berenice Abbott’s famous portrait of the artist: At rest and a bit more confident in his world. The left lens in his eyeglasses is shaded, evidence of the ongoing battle to save his sight. It is one of the two or three most famous photos of the author, the one fondly parodied on the album cover for “If I Should Fall From Grace with God”:

james-joyceAbbott was an American who became more famous in later years for her portraits of New York City during the Great Depression. She spent the decade of the 1920s learning her craft, working with the photographer Man Ray, and opened her own studio in 1927. She had photographed Joyce before, in 1926, and that photo session saw the author wearing an eye patch after surgery (and a soul patch under his lower lip):



joyce sans hatJoyce apparently liked sitting for Abbott, as there are several other photos from the 1928 session, without the stylish fedora and cane, but obviously from the same session, as he is wearing the same striped necktie. I think the one at left captures Joyce with more feeling; perhaps without the protection the hat and cane afforded him he let his guard down. The iconic photo of an iconic literary figure is followed by a photo of a weary, but not wary, momentarily confident, 46-year-old artist.

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James Joyce died 74 years ago today, January 13, 1941.

The WordPress Daily Prompt for January 13 asks, “Pick a random word and do Google image search on it. Check out the eleventh picture it brings up. Write about whatever that image brings to mind.” When one searches Google Images for images of the great author, the famous Berenice Abbott photo, the one at the top of this column, is number 11.

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No Man Is an Island

Daniel Defoe is officially credited as the author of 28 titles, but it is likely that he was the author of twice that, if one counts the pamphlets, essays, and other works he published under pseudonyms.

One of his titles keeps his name famous almost three centuries after he published it: “Robinson Crusoe.” Its full title on publication in 1719 was longer (ahem): “The Life and Strange Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, Of York, Mariner: Who lived Eight and Twenty Years, all alone in an un-inhabited Island on the Coast of America, near the Mouth of the Great River of Oroonoque; Having been cast on Shore by Shipwreck, wherein all the Men perished but himself. With An Account how he was at last as strangely deliver’d by Pyrates.”

Defoe did not attach his name to the book; after that long title a single line of type is set aside with a dark line above and one below and “Written by himself” between.

Thus, from the birth of the novel in English, one of its creators started toying with the basic concept of fiction. It is the truest conceit of all fiction writing and it is there from the beginning: “This is a true story, I swear.” (“A guy told it to me once,” provided the next variation.)

Defoe was no castaway, although more than once in his life he might have desired a desert island life away from creditors and the crown. A dissenter, he was once put in the pillory and sent to Newgate Prison for writing a satirical pamphlet; a lifelong merchant who was sometimes on the unscrupulous side of unscrupulous deals, he spent time in debtors’ sanctuaries and on the run. He even died on the run, aged 70 or so. (His birth date, even the year, was not recorded.) He added the Francophilic “de” to his plain-sounding birth name of “Foe” to give himself a name redolent with upper-classiness.

And he wrote what many consider the first novel in English.

Sir Thomas Malory’s “Le Morte d’Arthur” was written and published more than two centuries before “Robinson Crusoe” and is a work of prose fiction that was popular enough to have been read by Defoe and his contemporaries, but its tales are interlocked, not interwoven. It is a collection of semi-separate tales. “Robinson Crusoe” is a first-person account of events that never happened to someone who never existed written by someone who was not that (fake) person. It is an adventure and it is a novel.

Within two decades, other types of novel were added to the fiction shelves: Samuel Richardson’s “Clarissa” and “Pamela” (picture for yourself modern-day romance novels with Fabio on the cover), Henry Fielding’s “Joseph Andrews” and “Tom Jones” (endless, convoluted plots and comic characters), and Laurence Sterne’s “Tristram Shandy” (a story about how impossible it is to tell a straight story), and most of the elements that make the novel as we still read it to this day were in place. (The mystery novel and police procedural came along later and complete the picture.)

By 1719, ships had been sailing between the Old World and the New for more than two centuries. The Caribbean was well-mapped, America was colonized by multiple countries, and the South Pacific was being explored, but the idea of a ship running aground on a previously unknown island was no mere fantasy: it was a reality and the story of a shipwrecked sailor long thought dead returning home would have been a familiar one to 18th Century readers.

One such sailor had returned home to London in 1711 after spending the years 1704–1709 alone on an island off the coast of Chile. His name was Alexander Selkirk, and while literary scholars still debate whether Defoe was writing a version of Selkirk’s story or that of one of the many other shipwrecked European sailors, it appears most likely that Robinson Crusoe’s tale is an amalgam of Selkirk’s remarkable story and the others. Crusoe was shipwrecked in the Caribbean and Selkirk had been marooned by his own request in the South Pacific; Crusoe made a friend of a local cannibal and named him Friday, and Selkirk spent more than four years utterly alone. (Why was Selkirk marooned by his own request? Rather than sail any further on what he considered a compromised and not seaworthy ship, he asked to be let off. His request was complied with, and, indeed, the ship sank further on.)

After his return to London, Selkirk was the subject of many books and gazetteer articles about his life alone far from home, but he quickly returned to his pre-maroon life of continuous bar fights interrupted by brief jail stays and took to the sea again, where he died of yellow fever in 1721. In 1966, the government of Chile renamed the island on which Selkirk had resided, Isla Más a Tierra, Robinson Crusoe Island and one of its companion islands, Isla Más Afuera, as Alejandro Selkirk Island.

The imagined life of a solitary shipwrecked sailor, far from the madding crowd and free to read his Bible (as Selkirk said he spent his days), retains its hold on readers, almost three centuries after Defoe fictionalized what was already a remarkable tale.

The WordPress Daily Prompt for December 1 asks, “We’ve all been asked what five objects we’d take with us to a desert island. Now it’s your best friend’s (or close relative’s) turn to be stranded: what five objects would you send him/her off with?”

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