I was thinking of following up my post on Stargate SG-1 with my long-contemplated disquisition on Qui-gon Jinn: The Essential Man. But then Mrs Norman Maine made another one of her welcome and too infrequent appearances in my comments section to snap me out of it.
"You are spending, way, WAY too much time and bandwidth thinking this stuff through," she wrote.
She should know. She spends way too much time thinking about these kinds of things herself, which she admits, although her over-thinking focuses on Bertie Wooster and Lord Peter Wimsey. Mrs Maine is a far classier and more sophisticated nerd than I am.
But her well-intentioned warning, while stopping me before I nerd-ed again, had the unfortunate effect of sending me into a spiral of self-doubt and self-loathing that threatened to bring on an attack of blogger's block.
Suddenly I realized that without Star Wars and Stargate and Star Trek I didn't have anything else to think about, that there was nothing else I wanted to think about. I sunk into a slough of despond. I closed the bar early and retreated to a back table with a bottle of bourbon.
"Say it, Sam," I ordered my piano player.
"What's that, Mr Lance?"
"You know what I'm talking about. You said it for her, you can say it for me. If she can take it, so can I. Say it."
And he did, softly.
"Space...the final frontier...these are the voyages of the Starship Enterprise..."
Then my eyes teared up, my vision swam, mercifully the booze kicked in, and I dropped my head and slept, dreaming of Paris.
What happened to me? I used to be a grown up. I used to be able to think about important things, art, music, literature, philosophy and the meaning of Life as taught by philosophers who weren't three feet high, green, and prone to invert their sentence structures.
Then she walked in.
Our Girl in Chicago.
At About Last Night OGIC put up a post about Henry James as a sly humorist.
...James isn't famed for making people laugh, but when he's guarding his turf an evil sense of humor can rear its toothy head. For example, in the sections of his famous "Art of Fiction" essay where he is responding directly to Walter Besant's lecture of the same name, James is hilariously withering...
From there OGIC goes on to give an example of the Master cutting up in Death of the Lion.
My first thought after reading about how the author of Wings of the Dove, The Golden Bowl, and Turn of the Screw was a comic as well as an ironic realist was, "There's no telling where some people will find their their yuks," and I remembered my old teacher, Leslie Epstein, saying to me once, "The Russians think Dostoevsky's a gas."
But my second thought was, Wait, I know this! I know James is funny! I find him funny! I love Henry James! Well, I used to. Back when I was a literate and sophisticated nerd. I've read and re-read many of his novels and short stories and I know he's funny, especially in his short stories, but even in his novels. Not Wings of the Dove, maybe, although Kate Croy's early scene with her no good father has moments. But Washington Square, The Bostonians, What Masie Knew, even Portrait of a Lady, even The Golden Bowl have characters and scenes and passages and lines of dialogue as funny as any in Dickens. Most of James' novels were comedies, after all, although they were comedies in the same way Shakespeare's problem comedies were comedies---they don't all end with a laugh and happy marriage.
But it was not just Dickens and Shakespeare I was reminded of when I read James. I suddenly remembered a short story called A New England Winter that contains--and you'll like this Mrs Maine---lines I think P.G. Wodehouse cribbed from when he was thinking up Bertie Wooster and his pals at the Drones Club.
Florimond Daintry had stayed at home for three days after his arrival; he had sat close to the fire, in his slippers, every now and then casting a glance over his shoulders at the hard white world which seemed to glare at him from the other side of the window-panes. He was very much afraid of the cold, and he was not in a hurry to go out and meet it. He had met it, on disembarking in New York, in the shape of a wave of frozen air, which had travelled from some remote point in the West (he was told), on purpose, apparently, to smite him in the face. That portion of his organism tingled yet with it, though the gasping, bewildered look which sat upon his features during the first few hours had quite left it.
In the little artistic circle in which he moved in Paris, Florimond Daintry was thought to have a great deal of eye. His power of rendering was questioned, his execution had been called pretentious and feeble; but a conviction had somehow been diffused that he saw things with extraordinary intensity. No one could tell better than he what to paint, and what not to paint, even though his interpretations were sometimes rather too sketchy. It will have been guessed that he was an impressionist; and it must be admitted that this was the character in which he proceeded on his visit to Miss Daintry. He was constantly shutting one eye, to see the better with the other, making a little telescope by curving one of his hands together, waving these members in the air with vague pictorial gestures, pointing at things which, when people turned to follow his direction, seemed to mock the vulgar vision by eluding it.
He was of course very conscious of his eye; and his effort to cultivate it was both intuitive and deliberate. He spoke of it freely, as he might have done of a valuable watch or a horse.
A little bit of tweaking, a little relaxing of the formal diction, and Florimond could take his place right along side some of Wodehouse's artistically pretentious young men. Like the poet Rockmettler Todd:
Constitutionally the laziest young devil in America, he had hit on a walk in life which enabled him to go the limit in that direction. He was a poet. At least, he wrote poems when he did anything; but most of his time, as far as I could make out, he spent in a sort of trance. He told me once that he could sit on a fence, watching a worm and wondering what on earth it was up to, for hours at a stretch.
He had his scheme of life worked out to a fine point. About once a month he would take three days writing a few poems; the other three hundred and twenty-nine days of the year he rested. I didn't know there was enough money in poetry to support a fellow, even in the way in which Rocky lived; but it seems that, if you stick to exhortations to young men to lead the strenuous life and don't shove in any rhymes, American editors fight for the stuff.
Or Corky Corcoran, the painter:
I'm bound to say New York's a most sprightly place to be exiled in. Everybody was awfully good to me, and there seemed to be plenty of things going on: so, take it for all in all, I didn't undergo any frightful hardships. Blokes introduced me to blokes, and so on and so forth, and it wasn't long before I knew squads of the right sort, some of who rolled in the stuff in houses up by the Park, and others who lived with the gas turned down mostly around Washington Square---artists and writers and so forth. Brainy coves.
Corky, the bird I am about to treat of, was one of the artists. A portrait painter, he called himself, but as a matter of fact his score up to date had been nil. You see, the catch about portrait painting---I've looked into the thing a bit---is that you can't start painting portraits till people come along and ask you to, and they won't come and ask you to until you've painted a lot first. This makes it kind of difficult, not to say tough, for the ambitious youngster.
Or Bertie Wooster's novelist pal, Boko Fittleworth:
Well, I could readily understand Boko falling in love at first sight with Nobby, of course, for she is a girl liberally endowed with oomph. But how she could have fallen in love at first sight with Boko beat me. The first sight of Boko reveals to the beholder an object with a face like an intellectual parrot. Furthermore, as is the case with so many of the younger literati, he dresses like a tramp cyclist, affecting turtleneck sweaters and grey flannel bags with a patch on the knee and conveying a sort of general suggestion of having been left out in the rain overnight in an ash can.
So, once upon a time, I was able to think about other things. In fact, I thought way, WAY too much about them. Not only did I see foreshadowings of Wodehouse in James, I could compare and contrast their work, to Wodehouse's advantage!
I could even bring Zola into the act.
This is from a letter I wrote to a writer friend back when. I'd just finished reading James' The Tragic Muse and my recommendation to her was to:
Steer clear of it. There's too much really good stuff by James to bother with what was essentially a long letter to himself saying, Buck up, Hank, and keep writing, nevermind the slow sales and the maddening successes of the lady novelists!
What really bugged me about the book was that it's a story about actresses and painters---young actresses and young painters---in which no one has sex or even takes their clothes off. I know James could be a little prissy but come on, he wasn't a prude. I moved on to a novella, A London Life, and he's got as many people hopping in and out of as many different beds as Georges Feydeau. So it all happens offstage? It happens. In the Tragic Muse the artists all behave like a...
I was going to say a gang of exceptionally saintly Buddhist monks in a Tibetan temple, but the Dali Lama's more worldly and sensual than James made Miriam Root and Nick Dormer.
Just for the contrast I picked up Zola's The Masterpiece, his book about painters, and voila! Takes Emile a page and a half to get the heroine out of her clothes, and in three pages the hero's sketching her nude. Of course he does it with an amount of contrivance that would make a Hollywood screenwriter blush for shame.
I don't need sex and nudity, I just need to know that the young artists in question are capable of both. All of James' artists are a bloodless crew and all of them are old no matter what age he makes them. (I've never read Roderick Random, though.) In this regard P.G. Wodehouse is actually more realistic than James. All his young writers and painters and playwrights are having a high old time, mixing it up regularly with actresses and chorus girls, staying up until dawn, guzzling champagne and bootleg whiskey till the cows come home. James' artists retire by nine, taking nothing more stimulating than a mug of warm milk and an improving book with them to bed.
In everything critical I've read on Wodehouse---which is not much, since fortunately there isn't much---the critic being critical always seems to feel a need to instruct me that Wodehouse's world is not a realistic one. (Usually there's also a footnote explaining that the moon is not made of green cheese and the stork does not deliver babies.) And one of the proofs the critic offers to show that Blandings and the Drones Club are not real places is that no one has sex.
Besides this being a showing up of the critics' own prurience (which is really just an ingrown Puritanism) it's also a display of their literal-mindedness. Wodehouse's young lovers are alive to each other's sexual attractiveness and they are robust in their demonstrations and declarations of desire (even the milksops), they just are never explicit. For them it goes without saying. But because they don't talk about it the critics think it's not there. Which brings me to a real point: despite TV and movies, despite a five hundred year tradition of theater going and realistic painting, despite glossy magazines and advertising, I think the crowd of people that has collected around books in the last 70 years or so is a singularly non-visually oriented collection of human beings. In a nutshell: I think there are an awful lot of readers and writers of serious fiction who can't PICTURE what the characters are doing. So when Boko folds Nobby in his arms or Florence Craye turns sideways to Bertie they don't see what's happening or the goods that are on display.
Probably I'll still get around to my thesis on why the Star Wars universe falls apart when Qui-gon dies. But it won't be today. Today, thanks to OGIC's influence, I feel almost smart again.
Not brilliant. But smart enough to take on this news from Shakespeare's Sister. Turns out that, 135 years after he died, Alexandre Dumas is coming out with a new novel.