I Wear The Black Hat

Grappling with Villains (Real and Imagined)

By Chuck Klosterman

All Posts Contain Spoilers

Some books are written just for you.

You know what I mean, right?  Something similar happens between people.  There are miracles of chemistry: you meet someone, and both of you experience an instant and reciprocated affinity.  It is as though you were both designed with the other in mind, all the pieces match up.

The same thing can happen with books.  There are books out there, like people, which are just perfect for you.  They were written because there are other people like you, who think like you and care about the other things you care about, and now you’ve found each other and it’s going to be fun.  Maybe moving, maybe life-changing, but definitely fun.

Chuck Klosterman

When I learned that Chuck Klosterman, the morbid, mordant culture critic, had written a book about villainy, I knew without reading it that I loved it.  I’ve always liked Klosterman – he’s dark, and funny, and broadly interested in how the world works, how all the pieces of culture fit together, what they mean synthetically.

And I love villainy.  I love villains, bad guys, wickedness and evil – I’ve been interested in them all my life.  In my experience, this is either something you get or you don’t: some people orient towards heroes, some towards villains.  We two sides will not understand each other; I cannot explain why I think that villainy is more interesting, and more important, than goodness.  I only know that it is.

I Wear the Black HatI Wear the Black Hat‘ is Chuck Klosterman’s loose meditation on villains in culture, on what makes someone seem villainous, on what makes some villains likable and some not, on the factors which inform villainy: context, intention, success (the full title is ‘I Wear the Black Hat: Grappling with Villains (Real and Imagined)‘).  It is arranged into short chapters, essays really, which do not share content but which share structure and orientation.  It’s a quick read, and an easy one, but it’s also a fucking blast.

Klosterman has a lot to recommend him: as I mentioned, he’s funny, but he’s also brave, probably honest, and has a viewpoint which is recognizably his own.  He has a real knack for persuasively connecting things which you had not thought to connect, and the facility of his comparisons does not leave you with the impression (which it might easily have done) that he has not thought deeply about them.  Take, for example, his essay ‘Crime and Punishment (Or the Lack Thereof)’, which begins thus:

‘It’s unfair to write this, but I’m going to do it anyway: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and O. J. Simpson have a lot in common.  We don’t normally lump them together, because certain key contrasts are tricky – for example, one man is a Muslim intellectual and the other more or less decapitated his ex-wife.  This is more than a significant detail.’ (p. 191)

The essay which follows this (and I challenge anyone even vaguely curious about American culture to read that opening and then walk away from the rest of the essay) contains two of the more interesting points about O. J. Simpson that I’ve ever read:

    1. That if, in fact, O. J. were innocent (which Klosterman emphatically does not believe he was) than his post-acquittal public life was the only reasonable and honorable path open to him (up to the publication of ‘If I Did It’, that is).
    2. That “over time, the public will grow to accept almost any terrible act committed by a celebrity; everything eventually becomes interesting to those who aren’t personally involved.  But Simpson does not allow for uninvolvement.  He exceeds the acceptable level of self-directed notoriety and changes the polarity of the event; by writing this book [‘If I Did It’], he makes it seem like the worst part of Brown and Goldman’s murder was what happened to him” (p. 204)

That kind of lucid and yet strange analysis is exactly what characterizes Klosterman’s writing, but here it meets subject matter which sorely needs it.

People rarely examine villainy merely to understand it.  Klosterman isn’t interested in condemning the subjects of his essays (who include Kim Dotcom, LeBron James, Andrew Dice Clay, Batman, and Hitler); when he feels that they deserve condemnation, he merely states that they have got it.  He’s not moralizing; he’s interested in figuring out why we react to different people the way that we do.   He even manages to provide a definition of villainy which is pithy, novel, and servicable:

‘In any situation, the villain is the person who knows the most but cares the least.’ (p. 14)

That’s Klosterman at his best: short, thought-provoking, and quotable.  I don’t always agree with his little epigrams, but I can’t ever dismiss them, and sometimes they hit me upside the head with their novelty and insight.  Take my single favorite quote from the book (from his entire ouvre, probably):

‘Love is significantly less crazy than lust.  Love is a mildly irrational combination of complex feelings; lust is a totally irrational experience that ignores complexity on purpose.’ (p. 128) (This is from the essay on Bill Clinton and the Monica Lewinsky scandal, the movie Basic Instinct, Ted Bundy, and Wilt Chamberlain.  Really.).

For my money, there is more wisdom in that little line than in all of ‘Romeo and Juliet’, whether it is correct or not.  And the kicker is, I can’t tell: I’ve been thinking about it for days, and I don’t know whether or not I agree.

That’s the great joy of reading Chuck Klosterman: you get to see the whole world sparkle with a totally new perspective, one only slightly askew from your own but which nevertheless makes an enormous difference.  That’s what good culture critics do, really – they show you the same old objects stripped of their familiarity.  And ‘I Wear the Black Hat‘ is good cultural criticism: it will show you the same old villains, but with a whole new sparkle.


By Neal Stephenson

All Posts Contain Spoilers

It’s been a long time since a book has upset me this much.

I mean that as a compliment.  Novels elicit a very few, predictable emotional states from me: intellectual appreciation, amusement, the fun of learning something new, and sometimes, when they are really excellent novels, anger or sadness at the unfairness of the world, the cruelty of people.

But it is rare that a novel makes me feel the way ‘Seveneves‘ has: dreadful, afraid, oppressed, a little grief-stricken, and, I think, even rarer that the novel should be End-of-the-World science fiction, a genre which normally moves me little*.  Most apocalypse scenarios are far-fetched MacGuffins; they have very little emotional resonance in of themselves, at least for me.  You are meant to care about the characters – the apocalypse is there only to put them in extremis.

SevenEvesBut ‘Seveneves‘ is different.  The premise of this novel is that, one day, one normal day, in our world in our reality, a rapidly moving cosmic event, perhaps a small black hole, causes the moon to shatter into seven large pieces.  The pieces have the same center of gravity as the intact moon, and so remain in orbit around the Earth.  As they begin to collide with one another and fragment, astrophysicists figure out that their collision and fragmentation rate will accelerate.  Eventually, the pieces will begin to fall to Earth in an ‘Hard Rain’; they will super-heat the atmosphere, setting it alight, killing all life on Earth and boiling the oceans.  At the time of the initial event, the Hard Rain will begin in approximately two years.

Seveneves‘ is the story of humanity’s preparation for the Hard Rain, its desperate attempts to put as many people on the International Space Station as possible, and the sequelae, in space, of the extinction of life on earth.

Neal Stephenson

I’ve been trying to figure out why ‘Seveneves‘ is so effective.  It isn’t because it’s perfect.  Neal Stephenson has great strengths as a writer, and some weaknesses, most of which are on display here.

For example, he has trouble with endings, and the ending of ‘Seveneves‘ is emblematic: the book wraps up suddenly and anti-climactically after nearly 800 pages of vividly-imagined plot, as though Stephenson, after saying what he wanted to say, got bored and wandered away from his writing desk.

And not all of it is equally well-imagined.  Stephenson loves physics and engineering: there are pages and pages of loving, fastidious descriptions of orbital mechanics and robotics programming, so long and so detailed that they come to feel almost punitive.  No detail of physics is left unelaborated.

However, much of the second half of the book hinges on a small miracle of biology taking place, on a revolution in gene-editing technology which would require that genes work entirely differently than they, in fact, do work in real life.  The future of humanity relies on, and cannot be understood without, this miracle, but it receives only a paragraph of Stephenson’s attention.  He doesn’t even posit a mechanism of action – he simply asserts that genes work this way, and that scientists may manipulate them thus, with such and such results.

It goes like this:

“…the point is that I can get a digital record of its DNA.  Once that’s in hand, it turns into a software exercise – the data can be evaluated and compared to huge databases that shipped up as part of the lab.  It’s possible to identify places on a given chromosome where a bit of DNA got damaged…It is then possible to repair those breaks by splicing in a reasonable guess as to what was there originally…if it’s a disease – something on the books, defined in the medical literature as such – I will fix it…Once all that is done, each of us gets a free one…one alteration – one improvement – of your choice, applied to the genome of the fertilized ovum that will grow into your child.  And your child only….So, Camila, if you think it would improve the human race to get rid of its aggression, why then, I will search through the scientific literature for a way to reach your goal genetically.” (p. 552- 562)

Habitat Ring
A graphic from the novel – you can see that, when he cares to, Stephenson really thinks things through.

Maybe it’s because biology is my day job, but this unevenness bothered me.  The point of hard science fiction (well, one of the points) is the science; to just gloss over the parts you’re not interested in so you can rush back to describing robot movements cheats the reader.  This is especially glaring when they are crucial to the plot, when they represent far and away the most important scientific advance depicted in your science fiction book!

But this unevenness doesn’t blunt the emotional effect of this novel, which springs, I think, from two things:

  1. There is something viscerally upsetting about the disintegration of the moon.  The effect on the reader of imagining a moonless earth is primitive and unsettling and super-effective.  And Stephenson achieves it with very little fuss – there are no long passages of devotional description of the moon, no exploration of its place in our cultural imagination.  The novel begins when the moon ends, and, like the old cliche, you discover that you had been unaware of what you had until it was gone.
  2. According to Stephenson’s premise, humanity has two years in which to confront its own annihilation.  Some authors would have taken that opportunity to show a depraved humanity, a burning, anarchic world, man’s heart of darkness let loose.  Stephenson does not, and the mostly calm manner in which his world walks towards its own destruction is more affecting than mayhem and evil could have been.  Most people continue to live lives which very much resemble their old lives, but why?  What meaning can your routines possibly have when, in the near future, you and everyone you love will die in flames?  For that matter, what meaning do they have now?

I didn’t enjoy this book – that verb is inappropriate.  In fact, I spent much of it in the grips of a morbid agitation, unable to relax or be cheerful.  But I was completely glued to it; all my free time went to reading it.  If you’re looking for a feel-good romp, this is not your book.  But if you’d like to be freaked out, to work hard for the privilege of being unsettled, if you want to spend some time absorbed in a genuinely dark, movingly dark, future, this is your book.

*Although, now that I think about it, the only book which has unsettled me in this way in recent memory is, weirdly, also sci-fi: ‘The Reality Dysfunction‘, by Peter Hamilton, which describes a vision of the afterlife which made me want to run screaming into the nearest church.


A Brief History of Humankind

By Yuval Noah Harari

All Posts Contain Spoilers

Why is it that only men write books like this?

It’s never a great idea to deal in generalizations, and I’m sure that there are exceptions, but women usually don’t (to their credit, I think), write books like this one, making global, grandiose claims about the human condition.  A woman might write a book examining, say, the thickness of weft threads of linens woven under the late Egyptian Pharaohs; down the hall, her male colleague will write a book about why humans strive, or some such garbage.

I have just read one of those male-authored garbage books.Sapiens

It’s my own fault, really: I had plenty of warning that it was going to be.  I was informed about what sort of book it was not only by the author, Dr. Harari, himself (the subtitle is, after all, ‘A Brief History of Humankind‘), but by its many adoring readers: ‘Sapiens‘ (and Harari’s next book, the nauseatingly titled ‘Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow‘) have become the latest favorite texts of exactly the sort of male, Silicon Valley hardos who eat up these kinds of superficial, explain-all Theories of Everything.

OK, but, let’s at least try to be fair: a book should never be discounted simply because it has terrible fans.  There are nice things to be said about ‘Sapiens‘, including:

  1. Harari is not a bad writer.  He does tend to the overly-colloquial at times, which makes him sound a little like your dorky history teacher trying to connect with you (‘Finally, people began to make a more careful selection among the sheep in order to tailor them to human needs.  The most aggressive rams, those that showed the greatest resistance to human control, were slaughtered first…Voila! Mary had a little lamb and everywhere that Mary went the lamb was sure to go‘ (p. 92).  It makes you cringe).  But this is a venal sin, and, in general, his arguments are lucid and succinct.
  2. He covers an astonishing amount of material, even if he does it, by necessity, cursorily.  And he is excellent at choosing supporting examples; he draws from an enormous range of historical anecdote, and deploys his anecdotes interestingly and well.
  3. A few of his many, many arguments are thought-provoking and unusual in today’s academic atmosphere.  For example, he makes a pretty spirited case for the idea that bigger, more consolidated governments (i.e. more Federal), and empires in general, are better at promoting peace and prosperity for more people over historical time.  In a time of increasing Balkanization and more focus on local self-determination, it is worth reading an intelligent, measured defense of this idea.
Yuval Noah Harari is a Professor of History at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem

However, these good points do not add up to a successful venture.  The trouble with any project of this kind is that, since the scope is so wide, the conclusions must be glib.  In fact, even when Harari makes perfect sense, you are left with the disconcerting sense that he is making too much sense, that he has dispensed with something complicated and important too quickly and out of hand.  It makes him seem tricky, like he’s rushing through his argument so you don’t notice its holes.  Like he’s selling snake oil, and not waiting around for you to discover that it doesn’t work.

Here is an example:

“Culture tends to argue that it forbids only that which is unnatural.  But from a biological perspective, nothing is unnatural.  Whatever is possible is by definition also natural.  A truly unnatural behavior, one that goes against the laws of nature, simply cannot exist, so it would need no prohibition.  No culture has ever bothered to forbid men to photosynthesize, women to run faster than the speed of light, or negatively charged electrons to be attracted to each other.” (p. 147)

At first read, that paragraph makes perfect sense; more, it seems like rather a good point, doesn’t it?

It isn’t; it’s shallow and pat.  His argument hinges on a deliberately obtuse reading of the word ‘unnatural’.  Harari is insisting that ‘unnatural’ means ‘impossible in nature’, when clearly it means no such thing.  In fact, humans now do things all the time which are ‘impossible in nature’ (to see how disingenuous he is on this point, just substitute ‘faster than the speed of light’ above with ‘faster than the speed of sound’, another ‘impossible’ thing which we now do regularly).  Some formerly ‘impossible’ things have become taboo (genetically engineering children which glow in the dark: totally possible, taboo); some have not (supersonic travel).

More than that, when people indict a behavior as ‘unnatural’, they clearly do not mean that it is impossible – they mean that it isn’t in accordance with the goals of biology (usually stable sexual reproduction) as they understand them.  That may be a stupid standard (I think it is), but deliberately misunderstanding ‘unnatural’ to mean ‘not possible’ so that nothing that can be done can be ‘unnatural’ is equally stupid.  This is a complicated problem of morals and language; it should not be done away with in one paragraph.

FullSizeRender 3.jpg
This is what I’m talking about: a diagram of resource flow during the scientific revolution, with only three nodes (p. 250).

There are many problems like this, places where something thorny and nuanced is dispatched too quickly.  And, to be fair to him, Harari might well answer that that was intentional, that he simply could not cover what he needed to cover and do everything justice.  He would probably be right.  If you’re trying to get from Homo erectus to cyborgs, you can’t stop and smell every rose.

But I question the very project: did we need this book?  I came away with the impression that Dr. Harari is a good thinker; did we really need him to survey human history for us?  Is human history the sort of topic best understood in survey form?  Might his mind have been better tasked with answering one of the many interesting questions that he poses in more depth and, frankly, with more integrity?  Isn’t it almost always better to acknowledge complexity than to gloss over it?  I think so.

Perhaps the best way to put it is this: I do not regret reading ‘Sapiens‘, and I might even recommend it to other readers of certain tastes.  But you’re going to have to put a gun to my head to get me to read ‘Homo Deus‘.

In the Land of Invented Languages

Adventures in Linguistic Creativity, Madness, and Genius

By Arika Okrent

I have always had a weakness for books like this, books which provide a wealth of specific information on topics so esoteric you did not even know you were ignorant of them.  My love of this sort of non-fiction has lead down very strange paths, and I now know more than I ever thought I would about rats and Scrabble and poison* and a host of other subjects for which I have no need of expertise.  Despite the uselessness of this information to me, I’ve never regretted reading one of these arcane texts.

In the Land of Invented LanguagesI knew that I wanted to read ‘In the Land of Invented Languages‘ as soon as I knew it existed.  I first encountered it in a New Yorker piece on Ithkuil; I bought it immediately, and socked it away on my ‘To Read’ shelf like a little treat I was saving for later, something thoroughly fun to read after I had waded through some dense history or mind-dumbing bit of classical literature.  Earlier this month, after I had quite virtuously re-read, and been re-disappointed by, ‘The Aeneid’, I decided it was time for a reward.

Arika Okrent is a linguist, and ‘In the Land of Invented Languages‘ is exactly what you would expect: her exploration of all the languages which people have designed, created from scratch, invented.  She begins with John Wilkins, who created his Philosophical Language in the 1660s, and ends with Klingon, which she herself attempts to learn.

Arika Okrent, from TheWeek

Okrent’s great gift is that, despite being a linguist herself, she understands that her subject is just as much the language inventors as the languages themselves, and, probably because she loves language so much, she genuinely sympathizes with the impulse that drives these souls on their quixotic task.  This sympathy does not, however, mean that her readers are deprived of any gratifying stories of their oddness, their bad behavior, or their self-defeats.

And there are many of these.  The main takeaway of ‘In the Land of Invented Languages‘ seems to be this: language inventors are not a relaxed group of highly normal people.  In fact, the urge to prosthelytize a new language seems to arise in individuals (men, almost exclusively) who, having discovered some profound flaw in the world, are willing to subject themselves and the people around them to enormous hassle in order to correct it.  Sometimes, the flaw is real, but sometimes they are the only ones who perceive it; it makes no difference.  More idiosyncratic still, these men have decided that this global flaw is best addressed through a complete overhaul of language.

But the men themselves are totally bananas; even if you didn’t care at all about language, this book would be fun to read just as a catalog of weirdos:

We learn, for example, about Paulin Gaugin, who created Monopanglosse, and was “well-known in Paris for, among other things, proposing that the French help out the famine-struck Algerians by donating their own bodies for food (or just and or leg, if one preferred not to die for the cause” (p. 12)

And about C.K. Ogden, the creator of Basic English, who “believed that much of the world’s troubles could be traced to the negative effects of what he called ‘Word Magic,’ the illusion that a thing exists “out there,” just because we have a word for it.  When we are under the spell of Word Magic, we fail to see that “sin” is a moral fiction, “ideas” are “psychological fictions,” “rights” are “legal fictions,” and “cause” is “a physical fiction.” (He also feels compelled to pick on “swing” by pointing out that it is a “saxophonic fiction.”)” (p. 139)

And about Count Alfred Korzybski, who wrote ‘Science and Sanity’, and who founded a “Institute of General Semantics, where he promoted techniques for overcoming the thinking errors caused by language – beware of the verb “to be” (“Is-ness is insanity,” he liked to say)”. (p. 201)

Language, my own and others, is something that I love.  I see it as the paramount human achievement, bar none, and I take great delight in the idiosyncrasies of individual languages, in the things that they reveal about the people who speak them and the way those people interact with the world.  I don’t see language as a distorter, a pernicious tool, but many (most?) of the figures in this book did.  It was so interesting to inhabit that idea, to think about the language which has shaped my mind and my life as limiting and malevolent, rather than as what it has been for me: the medium through which I experience the world and the vehicle for my best self.

The Klinzhai Klingon alphabet (because, yes, there are multiple ones).

And, of course, it made me want to make a new language.  How could it not?  So much of the project is the blending of your favorite elements of your language and others, a sort of linguistic cherry-picking – how could anyone resist that project?  Of course, it also persuaded me of the fruitlessness of the task, and the enormity, but this book has had me going around in circles in my mind about what I would want in my language, what I wouldn’t, things I need to express but can’t, things I wish I could express more easily.

My favorite part of the whole book had to do with this problem: the easy expression of things normally unexpressed.  Láadan is a language constructed in the early 1980s by a woman named Suzette Haden Elgin.  It was designed to be a “woman’s language”, to express easily the world from a woman’s point of view.  It contains some words which are obvious to the point of obnoxiousness, as though they came from a mean cartoon about first-wave feminism (“radiidin: non-holiday, a time allegedly a holiday but actually so much a burden because of work and preparations that it is a dreaded occasion; especially when there are too many guests and none of them help”), but also words which are sublime and lovely, like bala: “anger with reason, with someone to blame, which is futile”, and aazh: “love for one sexually desired at one time, but not now” (p. 245).

Those words make me doubt my premise: I have never believed that language limits my thinking, but those are feelings which I have had, but have not had the word for, and so did not understand coherently.  Now, I will.  That language will have changed how I think.  It’s rare that books are fun to read and good for you; this book was both.

*Rats: Observations on the History & Habitat of the City’s Most Unwanted Inhabitants, by Robert Sullivan; Word Freak: Heartbreak, Triumph, Genius, and Obsession in the World of Competitive Scrabble Players, by Stefan Fatsis; Molecules of Murder: Criminal Molecules and Classic Cases, by John Emsley.

The Warden (The Chronicles of Barsetshire)

The Chronicles of Barsetshire: First Volume

By Anthony Trollope

All Posts Contain Spoilers

I have been longing for a project lately.  I want a long, slow walk through a complete world.  I want to immerse, to invest, in something.  I want to climb a mountain, literarily speaking.

And so, recently, when I was in my favorite used book store in Boston, Brattle Books, and saw a complete Folio Society printing of Anthony Trollope’s ‘Chronicles of Barsetshire’, you may appreciate how I felt: as though my mountain had chosen me.

BarsetshireThere are six Barsetshire novels: ‘The Warden‘, ‘Barchester Towers‘, ‘Doctor Thorne‘, ‘Framley Parsonage‘, ‘The Small House at Allington‘, and ‘The Last Chronicle of Barset‘.  Anthony Trollope is right in my sweet spot: prim, English authors whose novels satirize polite society in impeccable prose (don’t I sound fun?).  Once one of the most famous authors in the English-speaking world, he seems to have been largely forgotten.  When I told even my bookish, nerdy friends what I was planning to read next, the modal response was, ‘Who?’.

Anthony Trollope

Part of the problem is that he wrote a lot – something north of 45 novels – and they all tend to blur together.  He is most famous for his two series, ‘The Chronicles of Barsetshire’ and the Palliser novels, and for the single novel, ‘The Way We Live Now‘.  ‘The Chronicles of Barsetshire’ are the thing for which he was first known, and ‘The Warden‘ therefore his first commercial success.

The Warden‘ is our introduction to Mr. Septimus Harding.  He is the warden of Hiram’s Hospital, which is an almshouse endowed hundreds of years before by one John Hiram.  The endowment (this is important) is meant to support 12 bedesmen which the community selects.  It also provides for the wardenship, which when the novel begins supports Mr. Harding very comfortably, to the tune of 800£ per annum plus his lovely house, where he lives with the younger of his two daughters, the cherished Eleanor.

The WardenTrouble arrives on the scene in the person of John Bold.  Bold is a handsome young man whose independent means allow him to zealously pursue the interests of the poor, and he has decided that it is a scandal that the warden of Hiram’s Hospital should have 800£ a year – surely, Hiram intended his bequest to be split more equitably between the warden and his bedesmen.  To that end, Bold initiates a legal examination of Hiram’s will.

This is deeply distressing to the clerical residents of Barsetshire.  The archdeacon, who is Septimus Harding’s son-in-law by his elder daughter, feels that the entire Church of England is under assault, and wades into very polite battle.  Mr. Harding, on the other hand, is upset not by the threat to his living, but by the idea that he has been profiting by that to which he was not entitled.  He is sent spinning into a moral crisis which is only exacerbated by the fact that his daughter Eleanor is in love with John Bold.

What an orderly little world.

The second loveliest thing about ‘The Warden‘ is the way in which the stakes feel simultaneously so low and so high.  Barsetshire is a fictional place, but it is deeply plausible.  It is also completely coherent: the people within it are imperfect but well-meaning.  They may be officious, misguided, or bombastic, but they will never be evil.  It is an impossibility here.  Thus, while our protagonists experience this kerfuffle over Hiram’s bequest as a moral emergency, and while you feel for them in their extremis, you are aware that it is not an emergency, not really, that whatever the outcome, Barsetshire will endure.

The first loveliest thing about the novel is the language.  Trollope is especially good at wielding that peculiar weapon of English satirists: parsimony, the gift of saying a great deal in very few words.  It allows him to describe people or situations perfectly, as here:

“Dr Grantly is by no means a bad man; he is exactly the man which such an education as his was most likely to form; his intellect being sufficient for such a place in the world, but not sufficient to put him in advance of it.” (p. 40)

Or here:

“And with a volley of impassioned love, John Bold poured forth the feelings of his heart, swearing, as men do, some truths and many falsehoods; and Eleanor repeated with every shade of vehemence the ‘No, no, no,’ which had had a short time since so much effect; but now, alas! its strength was gone.  Let her be never so vehement, her vehemence was not respected; all her ‘No, no, no’s’ were met with counter asseverations, and at last were overpowered…and so at last, all her defences [sic] demolished, all her maiden barriers swept away, she capitulated, or rather marched out with the honours of war, vanquished evidently, palpably vanquished, but still not reduced to the necessity of confessing it.” (p. 137)

I’ll throw down this bet: fifty bucks says that there is no better, pithier encapsulation of the tricky ardor of men than “swearing, as men do, some truths and many falsehoods”.  Or a better description of the moment you know you’re going to say Yes and not No than that you “marched out with the honours of war, vanquished evidently, palpably vanquished, but still not reduced to the necessity of confessing it.”

The Warden‘ is the shortest of the six volumes; some of the later volumes could easily be used to club someone to death.  But I’m excited – I think I’ve chosen my project well.  Barsetshire is low stakes, but it suits me: a small, ordered, and lovely world, where the troubles of men are worked out under an unsparing, and yet ultimately forgiving, eye.

The Man in the Iron Mask

By Alexandre Dumas

Translated by Jacqueline Rogers
All posts contain spoilers.

The Man in the Iron MaskThis book is badly named.

For starters, it is not about a man in an iron mask.  A man fitting that description makes a brief appearance, but he is largely peripheral to the plot of this book.

Also, ‘plot’ is perhaps too strong a word for the structure of this novel.  If a plot is a central story which involves and therefore justifies the characters and which resolves in a climax, then this book lacks one.

French-CoverThis is partly because ‘The Man in the Iron Mask‘ is not meant to stand alone as a work of literature; it is actually the novel-length epilogue of ‘The Three Musketeers‘, and rather than tell the story of a man in an iron mask, it is meant instead to wrap up the tales of the four men who formed the heart of that story: Aramis, Athos, Porthos, and D’Artagnan.

This novel opens in the Bastille with Aramis, who is meeting with Philippe, a young man who had been imprisoned eight years earlier but committed no crime.  Aramis, now the Bishop of Vannes, tells this young man that he is the secret and identical twin brother of King Louis XIV of France, imprisoned and doomed for his resemblance to the King and, crucially, for his equal claim to the throne of France.

Aramis proposes to spring this young man and replace Louis.  Philippe understandably agrees, and, with very little effort, Aramis effects the miraculous escape.  The King is at Vaux for a party thrown by his minister Fouquet.  There, the switch is accomplished with no trouble whatsoever, via a bed which can be levered down through the floor into a cave (sure, of course).  Louis is sent to the Bastille; his brother put on the throne, no one the wiser.

So far, this will all be at least somewhat familiar to anyone who has seen the movies.  But, now, things take an odd turn, pacing-wise.  Aramis tells Fouquet his plan; Fouquet is appalled, loyal to the old King, he rushes to the Bastille, frees Louis, and reveals the imposter.  Louis comes face to face with his brother, quails, and orders him banished to an island prison and locked in an iron mask.  D’Artagnan himself bears the prisoner thus.

You are now about 50% of the way through the novel.  If you are like me, you will spend the rest of the book waiting for D’Artagnan to realize that he has chosen wrong, supported a wicked king, and finish what Aramis started.

Man in the Iron Mask
Perhaps you were expecting something like this.  This is a completely different story.

You will wait in vain.  The rest of the novel will be spent following the four musketeers to their deaths, both dismal and heroic.  Nothing more will be heard of the imposter King after his fresh imprisonment; he will presumably spend the rest of his wretched life in the iron mask.  It is weird, and anti-climactic, and, frankly, sort of pointless.

Perhaps the least satisfying part, from a narrative point of view, is the character of Louis himself.  I longed for him to be a villain, but he wasn’t – he was merely a king.  He has moments of juvenile, petty vindictiveness, but he also moments of strength, maturity, and mercy, and is eventually reconciled even with Aramis, who had him imprisoned overnight in the Bastille.

All this ambivalence of plotting would be easier to bear if ‘The Man in the Iron Mask‘ were beautifully written, but it isn’t.  Of course, it’s never really fair to judge a book’s language by its translation, but ‘The Man in the Iron Mask‘ is so ornate and highfalutin that it’s really quite arduous to read.  There are a lot of exchanges like this:

“You intend to look after me, then?”

“Yes, monseigneur; I do, upon my honor.”

“Upon your honor? Ah! that is quite another thing.  So I am to be arrested in my own house!”

“Do not say such a thing.”

“On the contrary, I will proclaim it aloud.”

“If you do so, I shall be compelled to request you to be silent.”

“Very good! Violence toward me, and in my own house, too!”

“We do not seem to understand each other at all.  Stay a moment; there is a chessboard there; let us play, please, monseigneur.”


“Monsieur D’Artagnan, I am in disgrace, then?” (p. 161)

And these are meant to be normal conversations – this is everyday discourse.  The whole book is like this!

Things are made even less clear by the fact that all the major characters (except the King) have about eight names.  Aramis, for example, is the Bishop of Vannes, Monsieur d’Herblay, and the General of the Jesuits.  Add to this that they all refer to each other not by their names but as Monsieur and you’ll see that much of the dialogue is incoherent.

Alexandre Dumas: Doesn’t he look verbose?

One does begin to suspect that Dumas is being paid by the word – nothing that could be said in ten words is said in fewer than a hundred, and there are entire sub-plots which are no more than cul-de-sacs, and therefore completely unnecessary (and, as with Moliere and the artists’ house, completely unintelligible).

But, of course, amidst all these words, it is almost a statistical inevitability that there would be moments of sublimity, and there are certain high emotions which are, perhaps, best expressed in fruity, Baroque French. Take, for example, the moment when Athos bids farewell to Raoul, his son, forever:

“Athos sat on the mole, stunned, deaf, abandoned.  Every instant took from him one of the features, one of the shades of the pale face of his son.  With his arms hanging down, his eyes fixed, his mouth open, he remained one with Raoul – in one same look, in one same thought, in one same stupor.  The sea, by degrees, carried away boats and faces, until men were nothing but dots; loves, nothing but memories.” (p. 285)

For some authors, these lovely moments are worth bad plot.  And it may be that Dumas in his stronger books is also worth it.  I really enjoyed ‘The Count of Monte Cristo‘ (even though that also had some odd plot choices) and I would want to read ‘The Three Musketeers‘ before I form a firmer opinion.  But ‘The Man in the Iron Mask‘, at least, is emphatically not worth it.

A Handful of Dust

By Evelyn Waugh

All posts contain spoilers.
Waugh Collection
My Waughs

Evelyn Waugh has always epitomized, for me, the kind of arch, precise English literature which I love most in the world.  His best books, ‘Brideshead Revisited‘, ‘Scoop‘, or ‘The Loved One‘, are masterpieces of dry, unsparing social observation.  ‘Scoop‘, for example, is satire, dark and snide, but ‘Brideshead‘ is more complicated, and more melancholy, a story about love and its slow dissolution.

It’s my opinion that ‘A Handful of Dust‘ is not one of Waugh’s best, but Waugh is like sex, or Graham Greene: even when he’s mediocre, he’s still the best thing going.  It’s the story of the happy but boring marriage of Tony and Brenda Last, which becomes disrupted when Brenda begins an affair with the deeply ordinary and romantically unconvincing John Beaver (who lives with his ghastly mother).A Handful of Dust

A Handful of Dust‘ is a novel of social and moral derangement.  Set after the First World War, the population of this novel have lost an essential decency, and so, under their lovely English manners, they act with complete ethical incoherence.  Waugh often imbues his novels with this sense of polite dissonance, which, when it works, makes them bleak and devastating in the best possible way, but, when it doesn’t work, makes me feel vaguely panicky.

My sense of foreboding is learned, because in many (most?) Waugh novels, people meet terrible ends, and they meet them unremarked and unmourned.  Waugh, better than anyone else, captures for me the sense of unreality which must have characterized life in Europe after World War I: all the daily motions, the little rituals of life, undercut by a sense that you might be swallowed up at any time by a chaos unimaginable by your father’s father.  People pretended to get back to normal, but how can you be normal when you know that life is meaningless?  And how can life be anything but meaningless, when you have watched most of the young men of your generation ground into muddy, disintegrating death by the machine of total war?

Waugh communicates this meaninglessness by the juxtaposition of his fine manners with the complete amorality of his universe, all of which is explicated in his punctilious prose.  His characters inflict grave injury on each other in the calmest manner, and I think it is this calm which makes me so anxious when it goes awry.  I’m not sure that the characters in ‘A Handful of Dust‘ are well-elaborated enough to carry his nihilism, so their bad behavior simply feels unrelenting.

However, at the end of the day, I don’t read Waugh for his characters; the point of Waugh is his beautiful language, and he can always be counted on to serve up some consummate prose.  And, in fact, the same emotionlessness which makes his characters hard to bear makes his writing effective and funny; his flat affect is what makes him so droll.

For example:

“Aunt Francis, with acid mind, quickly discerned the trouble and attempted to reassure her, saying, ‘Dear child, all these feelings of delicacy are valueless; only the rich realize the gulf that separates them from the poor.'” (p. 71)


“The fourth weekend after Brenda’s departure from Hetton was fixed for Tony’s infidelity.  A suite was engaged at a seaside hotel (“We always send our clients there.  The servants are well accustomed to giving evidence”) and private detectives were notified.  “It only remains to select a partner,” said the solicitor; no hint of naughtiness lightened his gloom.  “We have on occasions been instrumental in accommodating our clients but there have been frequent complaints, so we find it best to leave the choice to them.'” (p. 157)

Evelyn Waugh: It would be difficult to look more English.

Or, in what is my favorite sentence from the novel:

“All over England, people were waking up, queasy and despondent.” (p. 16)

Sentences like that, presented almost entirely without context and yet elegantly encapsulating an entire worldview, are why I love Waugh, why I will always read him, and re-read him.  For dismal precision, he has no equal.

The Aeneid

By Virgil

Translated by Robert Fagles

All posts contain spoilers.

AeneidI know that I’m not supposed to admit this, but I don’t like ‘The Aeneid‘.

Obviously, this is my problem; I am aware that this qualifies me a philistine.  The great minds have, through the ages, cherished Virgil.  Propertius, another Roman poet, wrote upon the publication of ‘The Aeneid’, “Give way, you Roman writers, give way, Greeks/Something greater than the Iliad is being born” (2.34).  Dante included Virgil as his guide in ‘The Divine Comedy‘.  Dryden dedicated his own translation of ‘The Aeneid’ to “those Readers who have discernment enough to prefer Virgil before any other Poet in the Latine Tongue”.

Nevertheless, despite these excellent references, I just don’t like ‘The Aeneid‘.

virgil1I hadn’t read an English translation of ‘The Aeneid’ since high school, and I’d been wondering whether, perhaps, my initial aversion to it was a maturity problem, whether ‘The Aeneid’ is something only adults enjoy, like drinking espresso or discussing property values.  It’s not uncommon for me to find that, upon re-reading, I really like authors or books I loathed when I was younger, and I hoped that ‘The Aeneid’ might be one of these.

It isn’t.  I’ve just re-read Fagles’ translation, and I didn’t enjoy it any more this time around than I did when I was sixteen, and I think I’ve figured out why.

1. Aeneas is lame. 
The Aeneid‘ is often paired with the two great Homeric epics, ‘The Iliad‘ and ‘The Odyssey‘.  It really shouldn’t be: it has a different author, writing from within a different civilization, in a different language.  The comparison is particularly invidious when it comes to main characters: Achilles and Odysseus are much richer and more complex than Aeneas, who is ever-noble, ever-handsome, ever-brave, ever-pious, and ever-victorious.  All his misfortune is the result of the personal animus of the goddess Juno, who doesn’t dislike him per se, but all Trojans (since Paris dissed her way long ago); he is essentially a victim of divine racism.  But he himself is personally flawless and so narratively dull.

2. Virgil is unsexy.  
One of the perks of taking Latin in school is that you get to read more dirty poetry than the kids who take Spanish.  Almost all of the Roman poets wrote about sex; many of them went out of their way to cram raunch into verse where it wasn’t necessary. Horace, for example, wrote about 9,000 odes that all go approximately like this:

Spring is here, the young tree is all green.
New buds are springing out everywhere.
Its flowers bloom; birds sing in its branches.
But soon it will be winter; the leaves will shrivel and brown,
and no one’s going to want to fuck that tree then.


Virgil is the exception: there is depressingly little sex in Virgil.  In the entirety of ‘The Aeneid‘, there’s only one sexual encounter, and Virgil can’t even bring himself to describe it – he describes a metaphorically significant thunderstorm instead.  His prudishness is a real joy-killer, especially in light of the fact that…

3. The plot of ‘The Aeneid‘ is boring. 
I’m sure that I’m coming across as something of a blunt instrument, but this third point is incontrovertible.  The plot of ‘The Aeneid’ is not scintillating – it isn’t character-driven, it isn’t sexy, the conclusion is announced at the beginning, and the pacing is atrocious.  The most interesting section, Aeneas in Carthage and the tragic fate of Dido, is elbowed into one book (not coincidentally, the book with the only sex).  Several books, however, are given over to the battles for Italy, which sounds interesting but aren’t.  Instead, the battles read like a very violent roll call: Bob cleaves the head of Sam, and is then stabbed by Frank, who is in turn disemboweled by Andrew, who falls off his horse and is smooshed by John, &c.  It’s difficult to make extreme violence boring, but Virgil manages it.  It’s not all, perhaps, his fault (‘The Aeneid’ is, of course, unfinished; Virgil died before he could complete it), but that doesn’t make it any more fun to read.

There are wonderful parts; there are parts which are transcendent, but they are almost all short sections of incredible linguistic beauty or rhetorical power.  For example, when, before she kills herself, Dido curses Aeneas’ descendants:

Cayot Death of Dido
‘The Death of Dido’, by Claude-Augustin Cayot, from the Louvre

“And then to any Power above, mindful, evenhanded,
who watches over lovers bound by unequal passion,
Dido says her prayers.
…”That is my prayer, my final cry – I pour it out
with my own lifeblood. And you, my Tyrians,
harry with hatred all his line, his race to come:
…No love between our peoples, ever, no pacts of peace!
Come rising from my bones, you avenger still unknown
…Shore shall clash with shore, sea against sea and sword
against sword – this is my curse – war between all
our peoples, all their children, endless war!” (Book IV, 651 – 784)

Two thousand years later, every person who has had their heart broken will still understand this passage.

Or Virgil’s description of the gates of Hell:

 “There, in the entryway, the gorge of hell itself,
Grief and the pangs of Conscience make their beds,
and fatal pale Disease lives there, and bleak Old Age,
Dread and Hunger, seductress to crime, and grinding Poverty,
all, terrible shapes to see – and Death and deadly Struggle
and Sleep, twin brother of Death, and twisted, wicked Joys
and facing them at the threshold, War, rife with death,
and the Furies’ iron chambers, and mad, raging Strife
whose blood-stained headbands knot her snaky locks.” (Book VI, 312-320)

(If you doubt the mighty influence of Virgil, perhaps this second passage reminded you of another:

 “Spirit, are they yours?” Scrooge could say no more.

“They are Man’s,” said the Spirit, looking down upon them. “And they cling to me, appealing from their fathers. This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom.” (‘A Christmas Carol‘, Charles Dickens))

It is for passages like these Virgil is so beloved, and they are magnificent.  But there’s a lot of dry, poetical bullshit to get through to achieve them, a lot of Aenean virtue, a lot of sailing, lots of lists of dying men you’ve never met and won’t remember.

And I know that the failing is mine, but I wish I’d re-read ‘The Iliad‘ instead.