WRB—Dec. 6, 2023
“to call again and again”
ODE TO THE ANGELS OF D.C. WHO MOVE PERPETUALLY TOWARDS THE DAYSPRING OF THEIR YOUTH
In the new Salmagundi [About which more at the bottom of the email. —Chris], Jeffrey Meyers surveys James Salter:
Salter repeatedly emphasized that novels were much more difficult to write than nonfiction, and it took courage to continue. He could not force himself to write on schedule every day and explained, “it’s either because of the press of affairs or I just haven’t brought myself to a position where I’m ready to write anything down.” He always felt a crisis of irresolution before starting to work. He began without ego or expectation, and waited like Hemingway for something true to come. He didn’t have writer’s block, but was constrained by a more subtle impediment: “I have failure to write, or am too distracted to. I have occasional lack of belief. If I really feel futility, I read something like The Iliad.” When composing a story he had to “gather every resource, prepare for a struggle of weeks, even months, and every moment the danger of giving up, giving in.” Alluding to Samuel Beckett’s “You must go on. I can’t go on. I’ll go on,” he found writing as hard as rock climbing and exclaimed: “you come to these places and say to yourself, I can’t do this, I know I can’t do this, I’m certain I can’t do it, but I have to do it. I know I have to.”
[A reader once texted me that Salter’s Light Years (1995) was “my shit” because it’s “a very good book about a collapsing marriage.” Having a strong personal brand is more important than ever in our information age. —Chris] [I guess that falls in the category of “the illegibility of desire.” —Steve] [More on this, as always, later in the email. —Chris]
Lynch chose not to detail in the novel the precise circumstances that led the ruling party to claim emergency powers. “The politics is not the point,” he reiterated. “If I had articulated the crisis, the book would then have been about the crisis. It would appear as if I’d had a specific agenda relating to that particular politics.” He paraphrased the nineteenth-century French writer Stendhal: “‘Politics is the millstone around the neck of literature, and drowns it in less than 15 or 30 minutes.’ And he’s completely right about that. Nothing will kill a book quicker than a writer with a message . . . Politics is deeply interesting, but it’s only one lens.”
In the Atavist, Katya Cengel on Bruce Champagne, cryptozoologist, and the sinking of a boat in which his father may have died or may not:
The Navy tried to flip the hull upright. A rope was slipped under the bow and the other end was attached to a chopper. Three times an attempt was made to lift the wreckage, without success. Shovels came out, and men loosened the sand around the hull. On the fourth try, the helicopter was able to lift the hull and then slam it back down, right side up.
It was now 12:40. The tide was coming in, the ocean lapping at the men’s ankles. From the hull they pulled a waterlogged suitcase, a pillow, and a dented teakettle. Scouring the beach once more, they found a sleeping bag and a tabletop. But there was no body.
There never would be. Which was strange.
Art Kavanagh on what the thoughts of Jane Austen’s independently wealthy female characters on marriage indicate about the marriage market at the time:
There is therefore a tension between, on the one hand, the frantic competition among young, marriageable women for the scarce resource of eligible bachelors and, on the other, the requirement that there should be “affection” between the intending couple, without which, as Fanny insists, a marriage would be “wretched” and “wicked.” Affection can’t simply be willed into existence, which must lengthen the odds against finding a suitable spouse in the available pool. Austen’s novels demonstrate a kind of double vision by which the reader is enabled to hold these inconsistent ideas of marriage in view at the same time. This is an important aspect of her much-admired “irony,” according to Empson’s idea of irony (that it must be true to some degree in both senses).
[Steve, I assume you’ll have something to say about this. —Chris] [Besides that you should finish reading her novels? I understand why Austen saying she would “take a heroine whom no one but myself will much like” while working on Emma confuses Kavanagh, since it doesn’t describe Emma. He likes her, and I like her. Then again, I was once in a used bookstore with a dear friend of mine where I saw a copy of Emma and pressed it on her, saying, “This is about you.” (If you’re reading this, hi! You know who you are.) —Steve]
More about Jane: In our sister publication in New York, Kathryn Hughes reviews a recent university press book (Jane Austen’s Wardrobe, by Hilary Davidson, September) about the novelist’s clothes:
Austen was twenty-eight at the time of the blue dress painting, which confirms Davidson’s broader point that the requirement for a middle-class woman to look fashionable was not lifted once she passed the age at which she was assumed to have withdrawn from the marriage market. Not that being settled into spinsterhood was a license to continue dressing like an ingenue either: satirists were quick to scorn middle-aged women who flaunted flesh that should long since have been tucked away under a higher neckline, or the all-important longer sleeves. (Gillray’s three graces should have taken note.) Nonetheless, the obligation for a woman to continue advertising her family’s financial credentials endured. To appear like a stereotypical “old maid”—drab and shabby—was to let everyone down. Davidson points to the comprehensive dress diary compiled by Barbara Johnson, a contemporary of Austen’s and, like her, a provincial clergyman’s daughter. Miss Johnson kept an album of fabric scraps from her dresses throughout her long—and single—life. This remarkable document reveals that even in her fifties she was still uncommonly fond of the color pink.
[I did not realize Jane Austen was taller than I am, and I do not know what to do with this information. —Steve]
Behind the paywall: in addition to more links to hand-selected reviews, commentary, and notes, the Managing Editors banter about mouthfeel, dating, Lunchables, and the correct time to run “Year in Review” pieces. If you like what you see, why not subscribe?