From The Adorations:
“I must move out of this city,” he was wont to say, in spurious despair. “Hüüüüm! How can anyone live in such a climate?”
“You’ll never move, Uncle,” Stefanie would reply, in a kind of pantomime argument. “And the climate isn’t so bad.”
For her, the climate was perfect; she loved the damp chill of the alluvial plain, the frosty breath on the cheek on an autumn morning (in Vienna even well into late spring a melancholy wisp of winter lurks), the billowing steam-clouds emanating from the kitchens and laundries in the still morning when the tramcars rattled down the Ringstrasse and the delivery horses clip-clopped by, billowing tusks of nose-vapor, and students trudged their thoughtful (or fearful or lovelorn or hungover) way through the city, in Stefanie’s case briskly walking the length of Johannesgasse as far as the Kartnerstrasse and the glorious baroque pile of the Augustiner Church, passing by the somber gray enigma of the Hofburg (where one morning she saw the Archduke again, this time driving himself in an open motorcar, no Sophie at his side) and so down the Herrengasse to the Schottentor and past the slender linden trees of the Schottenring to the entrance to the University, where 32 statues of great men of the ages dominated, with a fustian air of venerable masculinity, the main courtyard, as at a gentleman’s club. Although women were admitted, just (she was once asked at high volume by a steely-eyed veteran doorman for her papers and “a telephone number where your father can be reached”), life in the distaff column was rigorous in the Theology faculty, most masculine sanctum sanctorum of the great institution’s venerable departments. In fact, in the first trimester, Stefanie’s ambition to qualify as a Doctor of Theology was thwarted by mockery and double entendre—and, on one or two occasions, hostility (“A girl should be a wife or a cabaret dancer, nothing else”; “As if we hadn’t enough whores in this town already!”; “Did you make the coffee yet, meine kleine schmetterling?”)—-but Stefanie von Rothenberg was of the mold of greatness, and greatness wavers not. The study of God and His relations with His creatures was Stefanie’s passport to wisdom. In her first trimestrial exams she scored three 10s, top marks grudgingly but respectfully given by the two Ancients, Herrn Doktoren Professoren von Schnitzl and Braun. Indeed, Herr Professor Braun succumbed to the ailment common to aging men: the need, with or without sexual undertones (with, in the professor’s case), to take under their wings female fledglings. Fortunately, confusingly allied as they were with strong feelings of fatherhood, Professor Braun’s urges led nowhere more daring than the Café Landtmann, once, for a kaffee mit schlagober and a slice of Indianer cake.
Posted by Roger Boylan.
This seems to be my season for interviews. Here's another, in our distinguished local journal of record, the San Marcos Mercury.
San Marcos Mercury: You were raised, I’ve read, in Ireland, France and Switzerland. How has that influenced your literary tastes?
Roger Boylan: I had the privilege of growing up in two languages, English and French, and, living in the cosmopolitan environment of Geneva, becoming somewhat familiar with others: German, Italian, and Russian, mainly. I loved discovering Swiss writers –there are many, some great: Chessex, Ramuz– and great French writers—Proust, Flaubert, Zola, Maupassant—in their native tongue. From there it was a short hop to bilingual Beckett, and the rest of modern Irish literature, a discovery that was a profound experience from which I’ve never recovered; indeed, it made me into an Irish novelist.
Mercury: You’ve said that your favorite writers include Nabokov, Joyce, Tolstoy, Beckett and Mark Twain, among others. How does one’s reading matter influence one’s writing do you think?
Boylan: One strives to imitate one’s betters, or should. Eventually, an
original style will emerge.
Posted by Roger Boylan.
Boston Review, that excellent publication based in that excellent city, has allowed me to vent and opinionate in its pages for over 13 years, and I’ve appreciated the opportunity more than I can say. And I’m happy to say our association continues, despite some stumbles on my part. One of their more generous gestures, among many, was to throw open their columns for me to blather on about my novel The Great Pint-Pulling Olympiad, still my favorite of my (five) novels, and still seeking the audience it deserves. Well, kudos to BR for letting me wave my little banner, and also to Grove Press for keeping the dear old Olympiad stubbornly in print, because you never know….
Farce, declares the Encyclopædia Britannica, is “a form of the comic in dramatic art, the object of which is to excite laughter by ridiculous situations and incidents.” I would go further: farce is life, only more so. Life, with its disregard for human dignity, may be tragic, comic, majestic, or mundane, or all at once, but farce is always there: la farce, according to the French, who gave us the word (from farcir, to stuff, as a turkey with chestnuts), “est toujours au rendezvous.”
Farce has been acknowledged as a powerful force at least since the time of ancient Greece, when it ruled the satire-dramas of Aristophanes and Menander. The Roman satirists Terence and Plautus had their own stock language of farce that we still recognize today: the glutton, the lecher, the clown. Medieval morality plays often threw in a set of donkey ears, or a swift kick in the britches. The Elizabethan age, with its daily contrasts of splendor and squalor (such contrasts being the essence of farce), was ripe for farcical drama, and Shakespeare embraced the form in The Comedy of Errors, and many other works, including such ostensibly serious plays as Measure for Measure.
And consider the enduring appeal of the 20th century’s farceurs: Charlie Chaplin, the Marx Brothers, Jacques Tati, Peter Sellers, and Monty Python. The language of things going wrong, identities getting mixed up, pretensions demolished by a pie in the face, the turd in the punch bowl: a universal language indeed. Nor is it just the comics and buffoons who live by farce. Consider Dostoevsky’s towering grandeur that so often turns ludicrous in a moment; the prolonged and quite ridiculous birth of Sterne’sTristram Shandy; Fellini’s alternately rollicking and sentimental dramas of sad clowns, whores, and gluttons; Mahler’s sweeping strings that yield to burlesque hurdy-gurdy tunes: this is farce as great art, but the spirit of farce pervades everyday life. As one of the novelist’s duties is to capture the evanescent in everyday life, capturing the spirit of farce is one way to ensure that posterity will relate, just as today’s playgoers laugh at the buffoon antics in Plautus and Aristophanes.
So, with an (ever hopeful) eye on the future, I subtitled my novel The Great Pint-Pulling Olympiad “A Mostly Irish Farce,” just as its predecessor Killoyle was subtitled “An Irish Farce” (the difference is in the immigrants, mostly Indian, in the dramatis personae). Now, the antecedents of Irish farce are ancient indeed, as ancient as the habitation of Ireland. Among modern Irish writers the distinguished firm of Joyce, Beckett, and O’Brien, in particular, pays dutiful homage to the forbears of the genre, the myth-makers and shanachies of the great epic age of heroism (Finn MacCool, Cu Chulainn) and farce (mad Sweeney, the pooka). I in turn hope to pay homage to all these, especially to Ireland itself.
Mind you, if Ireland were pure invention—to quote Oscar Wilde’s very Irish comment on Japan: “There is no such country, there are no such people”—it would be a tremendous help to the novelist writing about the place. In The Great Pint-Pulling Olympiad, as in Killoyle, I would have had no competition from the “real” world against which my made-up city and county of Killoyle must be ruthlessly judged. (Read the rest here.)
Posted by Roger Boylan.
I was distressed to hear recently from my old friend Mark Halle, who lives near Geneva, that the house I grew up in there had been demolished and replaced by a hideous box-like structure. I was distressed, but not surprised; when my daughter and I visited in ’09, the house was vacant and condemned. You can see it in the photo above, behind my snarling visage. I’m lucky I got to see it one last time, for it occupies a precious place in my memories, a childhood idyll that gets more idyllic with the passage of the years. Here’s an excerpt from my memoir Run Like Blazes.
Our house in Geneva was called an “English villa.” What made the house English was not so much the fact that an “artistic” Englishwoman had lived and died in it as its English-style garden, with gooseberry bushes, strawberries, raspberries, a couple of cherry trees, an apple tree producing wizened crab apples, and gravel walkways that meandered about and doubled back on themselves, like the ground plan of a maze that was never built. It was a laboratory for kiddie introverts. Bruno Bettelheim, who mandated that children must have magic in their lives or they’d turn nasty later on, would have approved: My garden was a magical Eden where I retreated from the world into the tall grass at a fork in the garden path to read Tintin, or Nordic legends, or D’Aulaire’s Greek Myths, and dream of cars and airplanes and of make-believe places like Norway and Greece and Nepal.
Overlooking me during those dreamy moments, at the top of a short, steep slope that was perfect for a short, sweet sled ride in a snowy winter, beneath a precipitous roof designed so that snow would slide off in such winters, was the house itself, of gray stucco, with two floors, an attic, and a balcony. An apricot bush swarmed up the side and in the spring yielded soft, pulpy, sweet fruit. (The bush was sturdy enough for me to use as a ladder to the living room window. I did this with annoying frequency until Mum had the bush trimmed back.) Upstairs, beneath the eaves, were: My parents’ room; my bedroom/sanctum; a long, low-ceilinged, well-lit bathroom, containing a clawfooted bathtub in which I soaked for many a long dreamy hour; and a narrow attic with skylights that opened out onto the roof.
Downstairs was the living room, containing a soot-blackened fireplace and a well-stocked bookcase (all Mum’s books, heavy on Waugh, Galsworthy, F. Scott Fitzgerald, very light on the French, except Simone de Beauvoir and Camus). The living room was furnished in—to put it politely—a shabby-genteel style that grew shabbier and less genteel as the years went by: a wing chair, for example, that stayed in the family long after its inner stuffing started dribbling out through a rip in the side; and a sofa with collapsed springs that sagged like a hammock when sat upon. Through French doors from the living room one entered the dining room furnished in the same lackadaisical style, including a scuffed-up dining table at which, when we were a family, we ate together, watched by our Siamese cat, Pete Toy, from the windowsill. Mum, who was a good cook in a heavy-sauce-and-cream way typical of the American ‘40s, made our meals on a stove of similar vintage in the antiquated and dimly lit kitchen, a cozy place. The small, cold, mysteriously flushing toilet next door was not, and it acquired a special place in my nightmares…speaking of which, the door next to the spectral toilet opened onto a steep staircase that spiraled downward into an unused cellar strongly redolent of the olfactory ghosts of long-dead apples grown by the artistic Englishwoman, and possibly inhabited on and off by her ghost or others,’ too.
From Run Like Blazes, © 2011 by Roger Boylan.
Posted by Roger Boylan.
A book by John Derbyshire is always a pleasure--well, I can't speak for his books on mathematics, being a near-total innumerate and therefore unlikely to appreciate them. I'm referring to his social criticism and fiction, notably the excellent We Are Doomed, a truculent treatise on contemporary culture, hilarious in parts, sobering in others, that almost makes being a pessimist fun again; and Seeing Calvin Coolidge In a Dream, a remarkable little novel that manages to be both an emotional tour de force and a serious meditation on Chinese and American culture (and immigration). So when word came out that he was publishing another book called From the Dissident Right, I hastened me to the mighty Amazon and duly downloaded it (it's in e-book format only, so far) and tucked in. Derbyshire, for those unfamiliar with his writing, is an iconoclast and permanent thorn in the side of both wings of The Establishment, Left and Right. He's his own man, sui generis to a fault. He reminds me, as I've said in a previous post down below somewhere, of his ex-countrymen (British-born, he's now a U.S. citizen) Samuel Johnson, William Hazlitt, and George Orwell, men hard to categorize, men whose sensibilities and keen awareness of the limitations of human nature place them above the mainstream of ideologues. H. L. Mencken, on whom Derbyshire has written, is a rough American equivalent, although there's a hint of the carnival barker in Mencken entirely absent in Orwell and Johnson--and in Derbyshire, because he's a scientific rationalist, a self-described "stone-cold empiricist," beholden only to the facts, ma'am, the facts. His new book chronicles the price he paid for this heresy; in April 2012, hard on the heels of the Trayvon Martin--George Zimmerman debacle, he wrote a piece for Taki's Magazine called "The Talk: Nonblack Version," an open letter to his kids about perfectly banal topics like why they shouldn't venture into the ghetto, and why there are open tensions between the white and black races, and tragic imbalances in relative achievement that need to be acknowledged, facts agreed upon by people of good will of both races and well chronicled in statistical studies. Derb wields no billy clubs; he doesn't care about identity politics. "As with any population, . . . there is great variation among blacks . . . . There are black geniuses and black morons. There are black saints and black psychopaths. In a population of 40 million, you will find almost any human type. . . ." Well, for a brief not-so-shining moment--his allotted 15 minutes of fame--Derb became the Jan Hus of 2012, fed to the burning faggots (sorry) of an auto-da-fe. National Review, a magazine for which he'd been freelancing, canned him pronto. "It was thus that I found myself being pursued through the thickets of the Internet by a howling mob of leftists," he says. The sorry tale played itself out in a chorus of bleating indignation from both wings of The Establishment and a universal desire to silence the apostate.
Happily, they failed, as this book attests. The only slight letdown was that I'd read most of it already, in Taki's, Vdare.com, and other outlets such as The New Criterion that didn't cave to the howling mob and continued to provide Derb with a forum. But reading these pieces again was hardly a disappointment; I felt anew the connection with the Hazlitts and Johnsons and Orwells of the brave English past. In the 2008 piece "Flashman, Ron Paul, James Kirchik, and Liberty," for example, Derb, who is deeply nostalgic for the vanished England of his youth, mourns the passing (as did I, downstairs somewhere) of the pre-eminent satirical historical novelist, George MacDonald Fraser, while conceding that the old curmudgeon might have been a tad too curmudgeonly in his paean to the past; but there's so much to miss that a little exaggeration hardly matters.
It all points up the importance of intellectual honesty, and how little prized it is in today's ideological Gulag, and how many have been marginalized, without knowing it. In Derb's 2013 piece "Today's Forgotten Men--The American White Working Class," we read, some of us with a deep pang of recognition, "The Forgotten Man is the hapless middle- or working-class schmuck who ends up paying for the grand schemes and social improvement foisted on a nation by politicians, political entrepreneurs, ideologues, and do-gooders."
Who else is saying these things? Damned few, left or right. True independent thinking is hard to come by. But it was ever thus. In the words of Doris Lessing, who would probably not be among the premier fans of Derb's work, "Think wrongly, if you please, but in all cases think for yourself." Hear, hear. Derb does so--and rightly.
Posted by Roger Boylan.
As Brad Leithauser says, "If Marianne Moore's poems seem odd to us even now, more than 80 years after the appearance of her first book, this is partly because they are literally -- mathematically -- odd. Far more than any English-language poet before her, she experimented with lines containing an odd number of syllables." A perfect example is her remarkable poem about the ostrich, "He Digesteth Hard Yron." (Hat tip: Nigeness.)
He Digesteth Hard Yron
Although the aepyornis
or roc that lived in Madagascar, and the moa are extinct, the camel-sparrow, linked
with them in size--the large sparrow Xenophon saw walking by a stream--was and is a symbol of justice.
This bird watches his chicks with
a maternal concentration-and he's been mothering the eggs at night six weeks--his legs
their only weapon of defense.
He is swifter than a horse; he has a foot hard as a hoof; the leopard
is not more suspicious.
How could he, prized for plumes and eggs and young used even as a riding beast, respect men
hiding actor-like in ostrich skins, with the right hand
making the neck move as if alive and from a bag
the left hand strewing grain, that ostriches
might be decoyed and killed!
Yes, this is he whose plume was anciently the plume of justice;
he whose comic duckling head on its great neck revolves with compass-needle nervousness when he stands guard,
in S-like foragings as he is
preening the down on his leaden-skinned back. The egg piously shown as Leda's very own
from which Castor and Pollux hatched, was an ostrich-egg.
And what could have been more fit for the Chinese lawn it
Grazed on as a gift to an
emperor who admired strange birds, than
this one, who builds his mud-made nest in dust yet will wade
lake or sea till only the head shows. .
. . . . . .
Six hundred ostrich-brains served
at one banquet, the ostrich-plume-tipped tent and desert spear, jewel- gorgeous ugly egg-shell
goblets, eight pairs of ostriches in harness, dramatize a meaning always missed by the externalist.
The power of the visible
is the invisible; as even where no tree of freedom grows, so-called brute courage knows.
Heroism is exhausting, yet it contradicts a greed that did not wisely spare the harmless solitaire
or great auk in its grandeur;
unsolicitude having swallowed up all giant birds but an alert gargantuan
little-winged, magnificently speedy running-bird. This one remaining rebel is the sparrow-camel.
Posted by Roger Boylan.
One of my favorite modern intellectuals, and there are precious few, is George Steiner, the Paris-born scion of Viennese scholars who became a Cambridge professor and polymath and commuted to Geneva for 25 years, there to teach one of the world's seminal courses on Comparative Literature. Trilingual at birth, he has added, I believe, three more languages to his native German, French and English: Italian, the better to read Dante and Ariosto; Spanish, for the sake of Cervantes and Lope de Vega; and Russian, for you-know-who (think beards). An observer of life for most of his 84 years (and, incidentally, the author of one of the best Hitler novels: The Portage to San Cristobal of AH), he mourns the passing, ironically, of the ideologies that so marked the 20th Century, and left so much of it in ruins, but also aroused the young to visualize greater issues than themselves. To be young without wanting to belong to some larger cause is to be condemned to a wasted youth. And what's on offer today? Hi-tech gizmos and CGI entertainment--in a word, entertainment. You don't go out and join a Marxist demo, or a Fascist one, or even Greenpeace, if you're young and restless; you post on Facebook and angle for the best price cuts on the next Apple super-phone. But there's nothing grander, no March on Washington, no storming the barricades, no promised land. And let's not even talk about religion. Humans need ideologies to escape from the prison of their egos. They need to think their way through ideological conundrums; how many acquaintances of mine were fiery Marxists in their twenties and now lead lives indistinguishable from their parents'? As Churchill said, "Show me a young Conservative and I'll show you someone with no heart. Show me and old Liberal and I'll show you someone with no brains." I would quibble with that. Brains are no substitute for passion. And as Steiner says, "There is something terribly wrong with a culture inebriated with noise and gregariousness." But maybe he, and I, are simply old curmudgeons indulging in the oldest of human pastimes: Nostalgia for a past that never was.
Posted by Roger Boylan.
Just a short rant tonight. I've some Bushmills that needs processing. Earlier today I was in a local department store, engaged in the dreaded quest for new trousers. About halfway through my ordeal--long enough, but too tight around the waist; loose around the waist, but absurdly short on the shins; loose and the right length, but baggy enough to be bellbottoms; etc.--I took a break and was assaulted en route to the cafeteria by the inevitable scratchy PA system announcing a series of heavenly discounts, incentives, shampoo, and other delights. It went on for far too long, and provided some relief when it ended; but then it began again, just as I was heading back into the fitting room clutching another tangle of trousers, and this time it was in Spanish, obviously read out by someone incompetent in the language. My first thought was, Why don't you get an actual Spanish speaker to read it? My second, more apposite thought, was : Shut up! Why was I being forced to listen to a speech in Spanish? I doubt there was a single person in the entire store who couldn't understand English; and even if there were the odd Mexican tourist or migrant, or itinerant professor of Andalusian poetry, so what? I've been to Mexico and Spain, and thoroughly enjoyed myself, and thoroughly enjoyed the opportunity to use my cracked and feeble Spanish in their splendid countries. It's their national language, and deserves respect. Just as here, our national language--practically the only glue that holds us together as Americans--is English. I don't understand this patronizing and self-defeating endeavor to translate everything into the language of an immigrant group whose first duty, if they want to settle here, is to learn English. It certainly doesn't help them if we rush in and translate every warning and coupon and traffic sign into their own language; it sends the message, Never mind, you don't really need to learn our language, we'll just write it down for you in Spanish. It's a lame and condescending bureaucratic effort promoted by (who else?) self-seeking politicians eager for the "Hispanic" vote. Unfortunately, it's more serious than that, and represents an attempt at the Balkanization of the United States, carving up voter blocs into neat ethnicities and language groups to suit local ward politicians and "actitivst" groups. At a time when English is becoming the lingua franca of the world, from India to China to Estonia, it's being trivialized in its main home country as just the palaver of the rich gringo. This whole phenomenon is a disgrace, and I'm not going to take the easy route by finishing my little rant in Spanish. (Not that I couldn't.) I will say adieu, however.
Oh--I ended up with pleated navy-blue dress slacks, size none of your business.
Posted by Roger Boylan.
The first Instrument of Surrender was signed at Reims at 02:41 Central European Time on 7 May 1945. The signing took place in a red brick schoolhouse that served as the Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force (SHAEF). It was to take effect at 23:01 CET on 8 May.
US diplomat Robert Murphy claims that EAC approved surrender documents were not signed on 7 May because an exhausted From Wikipedia: General Smith had thought that EAC had never approved a surrender agreement. He had filed away in his personal top-secret cabinet the folder containing the EAC text. The surrender documents of 7 May had been prepared on miscellaneous reference material. Although the documents had been certified by General Susloparov as the Soviet liaison officer, Moscow quickly protested that the surrender terms were not the EAC agreement which had been endorsed by the Soviets.
The unconditional surrender of the German armed forces was signed byGeneral Alfred Jodl on behalf of the Wehrmacht and as the representative for the soon-to-be =-defunct Reich. Walter Bedell Smith signed on behalf of the Western Allies, and Ivan Susloparov on behalf of the Soviets. French Major-General Francois Sevez signed as the official witness.
Posted by Roger Boylan.
Some facts and figures to explain what happened in May and June 1940 (hat tip to Henry Copeland): World War I cost France 1,357,800 dead, 4,266,000 wounded (of whom 1.5 million were permanently maimed) and 537,000 made prisoner or missing — exactly 73% of the 8,410,000 men mobilized, according to William Shirer in The Collapse of the Third Republic. Some context: France had 40 million citizens at the start of the war; six in ten men between the ages of eighteen and twenty-eight died or were permanently maimed.
Posted by Roger Boylan.