Saturday, January 29, 2022

S. S. Van Dine's The Garden Murder Mystery

 "Chacun à son cheval"

Since I can't be reading Edmund Wilson all the time...

In The Garden Murder Case, Floyd Garden is playing the ponies. He's a rich dilettante and he's set up an off-track betting station in his elaborate New York home with a direct line to a bookmaker and a speaker system that reveals the results of the races. He invites a bunch of friends to join him for the Riverton Stakes and Philo Vance wangles an invitation after he receives an anonymous phone call suggesting trouble.

And trouble there is. Woode Swift, Floyd's cousin, is in over his head, laying out ten thousand dollars on Equanimity to win, money he doesn't have, and money he desperately needs. But after Equanimity fails to even show, Woody (to his friends) is found dead, with a bullet to the head. It looks like suicide.

But, of course, you didn't fall for that, and neither did Philo Vance, who immediately announces it's murder. 

Various romantic entanglements and inheritance questions supply the needed number of suspects for this one. Floyd's mother is also murdered before Vance solves it. One suspect falls in love with Vance and another tries to murder him. Or are they the same suspect?!

Philo Vance may very well be best known nowadays because Ogden Nash said, "Philo Vance needs a kick in the pance." 😉 At one point I tried to figure out where and when that Nash quote came from, but never succeeded. But now I do know when Van Dine first read it: as he was writing this 1935 novel. He alludes it four times over the course of the novel... (I think it may have got to him.)

"She shrugged and then added: 'I'm beginning to think that maybe Ogden Nash had the right idea.'"

That's the suspect who fell in love with him. 

I finished the novel a week or so ago. I was going to watch the movie, which is available-ish on YouTube, but, alas, is geo-blocked out of Canada. Which is too bad because the preview looks pretty amusingly crazed:

Is this the only classic mystery I will read this year? Will it be the best? Certainly not, and quite probably not. But it was fun and it was the first, so I'm counting it for:

A Mystery/Detective/Crime Classic!

Does Philo Vance need a kick in the pance?

Thursday, January 27, 2022

W. B. Yeats' The Stolen Child (#poem)


The Stolen Child

Where dips the rocky highland
Of Sleuth Wood in the lake,
There lies a leafy island
Where flapping herons wake
The drowsy water-rats;
There we've hid our faery vats,
Full of berries
And of reddest stolen cherries.
Come away, O human child!
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world's more full of weeping than you can understand.

Where the wave of moonlight glosses
The dim grey sands with light,
Far off by furthest Rosses
We foot it all the night,
Weaving olden dances,
Mingling hands and mingling glances
Till the moon has taken flight;
To and fro we leap
And chase the frothy bubbles,
While the world is full of troubles
And is anxious in its sleep.
Come away, etc.

Where the wandering water gushes
From the hills above Glen-Car,
In pools among the rushes
That scarce could bathe a star,
We seek for slumbering trout
And whispering in their ears
Give them unquiet dreams;
Leaning softly out
From ferns that drop their tears
Over the young streams.
Come away, etc.

Away with us he's going,
The solemn-eyed:
He'll hear no more the lowing
Of the calves on the warm hillside
Or the kettle on the hob
Sing peace into his breast,
Or see the brown mice bob
Round and round the oatmeal-chest.
For he comes, the human child,
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
From a world more full of weeping than he can understand.

-W. B. Yeats

Wilson discussed the poem in Axel's Castle as representative of Yeats' early verse. (Yeats wrote it in 1886.) It's been a bit of an ear-worm for me since then, especially the chorus.

It's been set to music several times. I know the Waterboys' version pretty well (from Fishermen's Blues), but in looking for it, I came across this lovely version by Loreena McKennitt:

Tuesday, January 25, 2022

Edmund Wilson's Axel's Castle

"[These writers] break down the walls of the present and wake us to the hope and exaltation of the untried, unsuspected possibilities of human thought and art."

The six main writers of Wilson's Axel's Castle are W. B. Yeats, Paul Valéry, T. S. Eliot, Marcel Proust, James Joyce and Gertrude Stein. So, you know, a pretty serious bunch. For Wilson, these are the representative Symbolists and his book is a study of 'imaginative literature of 1870 to 1930'. 

The book first appeared as a series of articles in The New Republic before coming out in book form in 1931. Keep that year in mind because it's crucial to Wilson's read of these authors.

What is Symbolism? "It was the tendency of make poetry even more a matter of of the sensations and emotions of the individual than had been the case with Romanticism..."

"...the symbols of the Symbolist school [unlike the cross for Christianity or the Stars and Stripes for the USA] are usually chosen arbitrarily by the poet to stand for for special ideas of his own--they are a sort of disguise for these ideas." 

The book is full of sharp and unexpected insights on his subjects; on Proust, for instance: 

"These latter scenes, indeed, contain so much broad humor and so much extravagant satire that, appearing in a modern French novel, they amaze seems plain that Proust must have read Dickens and that this sometimes grotesque heightening of character had been partly learned from him."

Not what one thinks of when mentioning Proust, and yet it's true. 

But it is 1931. Is this the literature the world needs? Wilson doesn't use the phrase art for art's sake, but maybe art should also be a bit for society's sake? He says Valéry's and Eliot's criticism is engaged in 'an impossible attempt to make aesthetic values independent of all other values.' He finds The Vision--Yeats' attempt to create a universalizing set of symbols--unserious and unhelpful, not to metion Yeats' experiments in automatic writing. He quotes disapprovingly, twice I think, Eliot's declaration from his essay 'For Lancelot Andrewes', that he is "a classicist in literature, an Anglo-Catholic in religion, and a royalist in politics." Wilson is distinctly none of those things.

I also found this on Valéry amusing:

" cannot help rebelling against what appears to be Valéry's assumption that it is impossible to be profound and to write as lightly and lucidly as [Anatole] France did."

A goal I suspect dear to Wilson's heart...

After the crash on Wall Street in 1929, Wilson was drawn to Communist ideas, though never becoming an actual Communist. But he did travel to the Soviet Union in the summer of 1935; once there he was put off by the increasingly totalitarian atmosphere, and certainly would have nothing to do with the Soviet Realist idea of art for politics' sake. Wilson doesn't fully construct his middle ground in this, and probably it can't be precisely defined. But technique matters and engagement matters, too. For that the book is applicable now as well, but maybe that's a perennial question. I do find it a very great work of criticism.

And one I tried to read some point in my 20s I started this, but the only authors I'd then read were Yeats (whom I didn't know well) and Eliot (whom I knew only a little better). I thought, well, before I read this, I should read some of these authors. Now, (ahem) a few years later..., it was time to try again. One of Karen's categories this year was 'Classic on your TBR the longest'. Is this absolutely the one? I don't know, but it's been there a long time...

"What!" says Humpty, "I need to read all those books just to read the one?"
Well...maybe not entirely...

Thursday, January 20, 2022

Beowulf (tr. Seamus Heaney) #Poem


Then twelve warriors rode around the tomb,
chieftain's sons, champions in battle,
all of them distraught, chanting in dirges,
mourning his loss as a man and a king.
They extolled his heroic nature and exploits
and gave thanks for his greatness; which was the proper thing,
for a man should praise a prince whom he holds dear
and cherish his memory when that moment comes
when he has to be convoyed to his bodily home.
So the Geat people, his hearth companions,
sorrowed for the lord who had been laid low.
They said that of all the kings upon the earth
he was the man most gracious and fair-minded,
kindest to his people and keenest to win fame.
-Anonymous, tr. Seamus Heaney

That's the closing of Beowulf in Seamus Heaney's translation, lines 3169-3182.

(The picture, though, is the opening, which is what I could easily snag from Wikipedia. Hwæt!)

Thursday, January 13, 2022

Millay's To Love Impuissant (#poem)


To Love Impuissant

Love, though you riddle me with darts,
And drag me at your chariot till I die,--
Oh, heavy prince! Oh, panderer of hearts!--
You hear me tell how in their throats they lie
Who shout you mighty: thick about my hair
Day in, day out, your ominous arrows purr,
Who still am free, unto no querulous care
A fool, and in no temple worshiper!
I, that have bared me to your quiver's fire,
Lifted my face into its puny rain,
Do wreathe you Impotent to Evoke Desire
As you are Powerless to Elicit Pain!
(Now will the god, for blasphemy so brave,
Punish me, surely, with the shaft I crave!)

-Edna St. Vincent Millay

Take that, Cupid!

I came across this in reading Edmund Wilson's The Shores of Light. It first appeared in the magazine Dial in 1920, where Wilson read it. Millay would have been 28 at the time, and she lived on until 1950.

Wilson hadn't at that time met Millay, but knew her poetry and liked it and says he hoped maybe he would be the one she would fall in love with. It wasn't to be...

Sunday, January 9, 2022

Reading the fatuous policeman: Edmund Wilson's Shores of Light

He arrives full of excitement and high expectations; eagerly he gets to know everybody who is writing, as he already knows everything they have written. He rushes about from one group to another. He attends all the literary teas, the publisher's luncheons, the theatrical openings, the miscellaneous drinking parties. And he brings to it all his shrewdness, his audacity, his humor, his extraordinary memory and his undiscourageable enthusiasm for literature. He makes us feel, as we read this record, that there is something really important in the air, that the work of all these people is interesting, that their opinions deserve attention.
Edmund Wilson's The Shores of Light came out in 1952, but it's largely a collection of his literary journalism in the 20s and 30s.  It's a fascinating history of the American cultural scene of the time. That quote above is from Wilson's review of Burton Rascoe's A Bookman's Daybook, but it could have been about Wilson himself.

Wilson really was in the center of everything. He was the managing editor of Vanity Fair for two years starting in 1920 (he was only 25!) and then later the literary editor at the New Republic for five years. He reviews the first publication of 'The Waste Land'. He's reading André Malraux in French before Malraux has appeared in English. He's involved in the controversy over James Joyce' Ulysses. (Demolishing the criticism of the New Humanist critic Paul Elmer More.) He's praising Hemingway and Dos Passos when those authors are nobodies.

Still, on the whole, I wouldn't go to this book for actual literary criticism, especially in the earlier sections. There's better literary criticism out there. Wilson himself wrote better criticism--I'm reading Axel's Castle at the moment. Think of this as history or chronicle. As I noted earlier, he's not very good on Willa Cather. He writes a series of columns about the state of American poetry that are simply swingeing takedowns and not very insightful: [of Robert Frost, for example] "I find him excessively dull, and he certainly writes very poor verse." 

But the book was assembled in the fifties, and he's aware of his limits. In a footnote to one of those poetry assessments, he notes:
"Maxwell Bodenheim [the Chicago, later New York poet] described me in some such phrase as 'a fatuous policeman, menacingly swinging his club.' In rereading this essay...I have sometimes been reminded of this."
Wilson later told his future biographer Lewis Dabney that he didn't really learn to write until about 1925. This is...kind of true, and represents about a quarter of the book. It's interesting to see him get better in something approaching real time.

The book is at times touching. It's framed by essays written in the 50s, the first, at the death of Christian Gauss, the Princeton professor whom Wilson had studied under; the last, at the death of Edna St. Vincent Millay, which was especially good, remembering life in Greenwich Village in the 20s--Wilson had proposed to Millay at the time, but she turned him down. (I also learned from Dabney's biography that Wilson lost his virginity to Millay, which may have added a little extra poignancy to his recollection.)

Willa Cather aside, Wilson is actually quite good on female authors, praising them, but also treating them seriously. Millay, in particular, who is, of course, a major poet, but also Louise Bogan, Elinor Wylie, Edith Wharton.

The book can be paired with Wilson's The American Earthquake, a similar collection of his journalism covering the 20s and 30s, but on political topics. I read that a couple of years ago. Two 800-page books, representing a mere fragment of what he wrote in the period. The man kept busy.

Also there was this, amusing for bloggers:
"I have recommended lenience toward reviewers who use the books they are supposed to be reviewing as pretexts for expressing themselves; but only in cases where their articles--what happens comparatively rarely--are interesting in themselves. There is no excuse at all for an uninteresting review that tells nothing about the book. The reviewer, at the very least, should be expected to supply information. The retelling of the story of a novel, the summary of an historical or philosophical book, the selection of representative passages and the attempt to communicate the quality of a poet, is the most boring part of the reviewer's business, but it is an absolutely essential part."

And it left me with a bunch of new books I want to read. What more can a book about books do? 

Two literarily-engaged figures with large heads

I got Lewis Dabney's Edmund Wilson: A Life in Literature (2005) from the library to go with this; I've only read it so far through the period in question, but I will finish it. That's where I got the skinny on Wilson and Millay. Dabney also edited the Wilson Library of America volumes. 

The biography is pretty good, but editing, even, it seems, at a prestige publisher like Farrar, Strauss, is a lost art. The phrase 'shores of light' as Wilson tells us, comes from the Latin 'in luminis oras'. Wilson got it from Virgil, (Georgics, Bk II.47) though it appears a few other places as well. In Virgil, it's a comment about the heliotropism of plants; prosaically I might translate the line: "On their own plants grow toward light sources." Wilson romanticizes the line a bit in a poem he wrote (I'm quoting the end of his poem which appears in the essay on Millay):

    My stubborn heart to-night
Divines the fate of souls who have not died,
Buried in sullen shadows underground--
That reach for ever toward the shores of light.
I guess that's his sense of New York artists in the 20s and 30s.

Well and good. But Dabney quotes the tag twice, once as 'ad liminas oras' and once as 'in liminas oras', neither of which are what Virgil wrote and also not what appears in my beat-up Wilson paperback. They're not even good Latin. Argh!

I'm willing, possibly, to let Dabney slide on this: editing and typesetting are no longer processes over which authors have much control. In any case FSG should have done better. But then Dabney calls Robert Service an 'inspirational' poet! I'm not sure I'd even want to meet the folks for whom 'A bunch of the boys were whooping it up in the Malamute saloon' was inspirational. And anybody who found 'The Cremation of Sam McGee' inspirational would be just downright creepy. 😜

The Shores of Light was the first book of the year for me, though it took me a week to write about. A good start! How's your reading year going?

Friday, January 7, 2022

Back to the Classics Challenge 2022 Signup

Karen's Back to the Classics challenge is on again for this year. (Yay!) Since my radical paring down of challenges a while back, this is one of the two I continue to do. You likely know the drill, so let's proceed directly to the categories and my predictions therefore. Which I will (almost!) immediately start to ignore...

19th Century Classic

Sir Walter Scott/Count Robert of Paris

 -This was in the same slot last year and got pushed off. But this year for sure!

20th Century Classic

Willa Cather/A Lost Lady

 -Been on a bit of a Willa Cather binge lately. I'm going to try to read this one soon.

A Classic by a Woman Author

Virginia Woolf/The Waves

 -Another one from last year's list that fell away...

A Classic in Translation

Honoré Balzac/Cousin Bette

 -Another...uh, oh, am I sensing a pattern here?

Classic by a BIPOC author

James Baldwin/Notes of a Native Son

 -Whew! This time let's change things up.

Mystery/Crime/Detective Classic

 -So many choices here...Karen suggests Brothers Karamazov, which I've read, but could read again, or In Cold Blood, which I haven't ever read. But it's likelier to be Agatha Christie, Ellery Queen, or Rex Stout. Or I could obsessively blog about Edwin Drood one more time!

A Classic Short Story Collection

Thomas Hardy/Wessex Tales

 -Ooh, a new category! Or is that 'a different kind of failure'? (T. S. Eliot, Four Quartets, 'East Coker')

Pre-1800 Classic

 -Likely to be an ancient Greek play. Tom at Wuthering Expectations is hosting a readalong.

Nonfiction Classic

Edmund Wilson/The Shores of Light

 -A ringer: I just finished this on Monday. Now I need to write it up. But this is the reason I won't immediately start to ignore my plans.

Classic That's Been on your TBR List the Longest

Edmund Wilson/Axel's Castle

 -Ahem. Records from the ancient mists of time may be unreliable and in any case are incomplete. But I started this in my early 20s before realizing I just possibly oughtn't read a book about Proust, Joyce, and Stein, before I had read any of Stein, Joyce, or Proust...

Classic Set in a Place You'd Like to Visit

 -Hmm. Hav isn't old enough, nor is Orsinia. Maybe it will end up being some place a bit more reachable.

Wild Card

 -Well, you can't expect me to plan that in advance!

Which ones would you pick? 

Thanks to Karen for hosting this again!

Small Blog Enhancement

I added an index here, which will also be regularly available from the upper right.

If I'd thought about this in advance I suspect I could have made it happen automagically. But I didn't and I didn't... That is all. 😉

Thursday, January 6, 2022

Ogden Nash (#poem)


Portrait of the Artist as a Prematurely Old Man

It is common knowledge to every schoolboy and even every Bachelor of Arts,
That all sin is divided into two parts.
One kind of sin is called a sin of commission, and that is very important,
And it is what you are doing when you are doing something you ortant,
And the other kind of sin is just the opposite and is called a sin of omission and is equally wrong in the eyes of all right-thinking people, from Billy Sunday to Buddha,
And it consists in not having done something you shuddha.
I might as well give you my opinion of these two types of sin as long as, in a way, against each other we are pitting them,
And that is, don't bother your head about sins of commission because however sinful, they must at least be fun or else you wouldn't be committing them.
It is the sin of omission, the second kind of sin,
That lays eggs under your skin.
The way you get really painfully bitten
Is by the insurance you haven't taken out and the checks you haven't added up the stubs of and the appointments you haven't kept and the bills you haven't paid and the letters you haven't written.
Also about sins of omission there is one particularly painful lack of beauty,
Namely, it isn't as though you had a red-letter day or night every time you neglected to do your duty;
You didn't get a wicked forbidden thrill
Every time you let a policy lapse or forgot to pay a bill.
You didn't slap the lads in the tavern on the back and loudly cry Whee,
Let's all fail to write just one more letter before we go home, and this round of unwritten letters is on me.
No, you never get any fun,
Out of the things you haven't done,
But they are the things that I do not like to be amid,
Because the suitable things you didn't do give you a lot more trouble than the unsuitable things you did.
The moral is that it is probably better not to sin at all, but if some kind of sin you must be pursuing,
Well, remember to do it by doing rather than by not doing.

-Ogden Nash

There's been a bit of Ogden Nash in the air lately, and I just couldn't resist...

This is from his book Many Long Years Ago, which came out, many long years ago, in 1945.

Tuesday, January 4, 2022

European Reading Challenge 2022 Signup


As far as I'm concerned one of the best challenges going is Gilion's European Reading Challenge and she's hosting again in 2022--it's now the 10th year. The idea is to visit Europe by reading books set there; for full details see her signup post here. I'll pledge for the Jetsetter level (5 books) but I suspect I'll go over the top again, as I have every year I've done this one. 

I never know what books I will read this for one, so I won't even speculate...

It's a fun one: join in!

Sunday, January 2, 2022

European Reading Challenge 2021 Wrapup


Well, another year is done and that means I'm done going over the top on another European Reading Challenge. It turned out to be a very good year for book. Here's my final list:

1.) Helen MacInnes' North From Rome. Italy
2.) Howard Pyle's Men of Iron. UK
3.) Georgi Gospodinov's The Physics of Sorrow. Bulgaria
4.) Mary Wollstonecraft's Letters Written in Sweden, Denmark, and Norway. Sweden
5.) Alex Ross' Wagnerism. Germany
6.) R. L. Stevenson's Travels With a Donkey. France
7.) Robert Kanigel's Hearing Homer's Song. Montenegro
8.) Ivo Andrić' The Bridge on the Drina. Bosnia
9.) Patricia Moyes' Death on the Night Ferry. Netherlands
10.) Halldór Laxness' Independent People. Iceland
11.) Tacitus' Annals. Armenia
12.) Amélie Nothomb's Tokyo Fiancée. Belgium
13.) Sholem Aleichem's In The Storm. Ukraine
14.) Josef Skvorecky's Lieutenant Boruvka. Czechia
15.) Mateiu Caragiale's Rakes of the Old Court. Romania
16.) Eça de Queirós' The City and the Mountains. Portugal
17.) Longus' Daphnis and Chloe. Greece
18.) Jenny Erpenbeck's The End of Days. Austria
19.) Emma Lathen's Double, Double, Oil and Trouble. Switzerland

If I'd written about just one more, I could have gotten it up to a round 20. Oh, well...

This is one of the best challenges going for me. Thanks again to Gilion for hosting. The signup for the new version is out. I need to do it!