The Watcher Cat

The Watcher Cat

Saturday, May 31, 2014

The Comfort Kitty: 1999-2014

When la Caterina and I came together, she had four cats--Mama, Buster, Betty and Elvis. Mama died not so long afterward, but her kittens (actually 7 years old by that time) joined my cats (also around the same age, or a little younger) in the Brady Bunch of the cat world.

Elvis, pictured above (click to embiggen, as they say on the Intertubes), was the friendliest of the Catherine Collection. He and Giles worked out pretty quickly that Giles would be the Sheriff, and Elvis the diplomat. Elvis groomed all the other cats, and liked nothing better than snuggling with his people, or his fellow cats, or both.

We called him "the Comfort Kitty" because he had a sense for who was down, and would move his big, bulky, but inexpressibly soft presence, and snuggle for as long as you wanted. We used to joke that Elvis was like a gas--he expanded to fill all available space.

When we moved from Queens to Brooklyn, and Elvis acquired a set of stairs, he started getting more exercise, and lost a bit of weight. Good, we thought--because he was quite big. Nero Wolfe as a tuxedo cat, with a better disposition.

But a few weeks ago, he seemed to lose more weight. So we took him to the vet--just to be sure. The vet was concerned; she felt a mass in his abdomen that shouldn't be there. So we had an ultrasound done. In the time between appointments, he went from 13+ pounds to 12. He had a large tumor that could have been resected, we were told--but the lymph nodes were already affected. Under those circumstances, and in view of his age, we felt that surgery would be cruel.

The descent was unbelievably quick, though--from May 20 to today, he grew worse daily. As late as Thursday, though, he climbed into bed for a snuggle with me, as I lay doing proofs. This morning, though--we both knew.

The vet tech knew him, though his usual vet was off today, and we stayed with him till he was gone. I write these words having just returned home. The worst part about having pets is that we have to say goodbye so soon. But after eight years of love, I'd rather bear that wrench than deprive myself of the joy the Comfort Kitty brought to my life. And I know that he is gathered to his Maker.

Requiescat in pace, dear friend!

Friday, May 30, 2014

"Hyde" and Seek

Walter Kirn's review of Daniel Levine's new novel, Hyde came out just as I ran across the book at The Mysterious Bookshop, and certainly vindicates my decision to buy a copy:
Robert Louis Stevenson’s “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” is an oblique and artful Gothic tale framed as a detective story. The truth seeker is Jekyll’s lawyer, Utterson, the book’s most prominent character. Jekyll — the ­gentleman who dabbles in chemical self-­transformation — appears only ­intermittently, never fully speaking for himself until the end, when he discloses the details of the disastrous experiments that unleashed his primitive alter ego. The novel isn’t a conventional horror story, lingering on the macabre for its own sake, but an allegory of the divided self, perhaps also a meditation on addiction. Stevenson dramatizes human duality but doesn’t analyze its causes, treating it as pervasive and fundamental. For him, the Jekyll-Hyde split is the split in all of us, between the animals we evolved from and the angels we aspire to be.

“Hyde” is the first-time novelist Daniel Levine’s ingenious revision of this canonical work, an elevated exercise in fan fiction that complicates and reorients the story by telling it from the perspective of the monster, exposing the tender heart inside the brute and emphasizing the pathos of his predicament. Hyde is an outlet for Jekyll’s buried lusts, a manifestation of his banished id, but he is also a person in his own right who longs for acknowledgment and recognition. Far from being the accidental product of Jekyll’s experimental potion, he’s an integral, abiding second self who first emerged during Jekyll’s painful childhood as a defense against severe abuse and then went dormant inside him for decades, until the medicine reawakened him. While Stevenson casts Hyde as purely evil, a creature without a conscience, Levine — by placing him center stage and awarding him a full measure of humanity — portrays him as a wounded innocent, scorned, bewildered and oppressed. He dwells like a squatter in the body that he and Jekyll share, an illegal lodger, without rights.
An interesting notion, and I look forward to reading Levine's execution of the notion.

There's some overlap, certainly, with Steven Moffatt's remarkable sequel to Stevenson's work,Jekyll, in which the duality was always latent, and is a genetic feature of the original Jekyll/Hyde bloodline.

In Moffatt's telling, the modern day Tom Jackman and his alter ego--both superbly realized by actor James Nesbitt--come together when Jackman's wife and children--whom Hyde feels bonded too as well--are kidnapped by the shadowy project that seeks to exploit Hyde:

It's interesting how the Victorians won't let us rest, isn't it? The spate of Jane Austen sequels (and I do mean a spate, including eminent author P.D. James among the writers), should perhaps give Kirn pause is describing Levine's novel as "an elevated exercise in fan fiction"; but (not to go all Mandy Rice-Davies on you), I would say that, wouldn't I? After all, my own book, Phineas at Bay, could be described the same way. I think it's that we live in the world that the Victorians created, even now, and are only beginning to emerge from their long shadows. My maternal grandfather met Theodore Roosevelt, a High Victorian if ever there was one. He lived to see me graduate college, though not law school. So their world is not so far from ours, their stories the basis of many childhoods of those not yet old. And we find their stories resonate, as we face the implications of their choices, and the world they made.

But beyond my fellow-feeling for Levine, what looks interesting about his take is that it's not (like Moffatt's) a sequel that uses the time that has lapsed since the original to create complications, and explore the humanity of the monster, but rather makes the rather Trollopean point that everybody, even the villain, has his own point of view.

I look forward to reading Levine's novel, and wish him well with it.

The Never-ending Story

My editor and friend Karen Clark has a powerful,personal reaction to the misogynistic murder spree in Isla Vista a week ago. Others have explored the unrepentantly entitled, misogynistic community of which the killer was a part, and its continued embrace, or at least justification, of him even after the mayhem, and how that community may have shaped the killer.

I have--nothing. Just sorrow, for the the victims, their families, and a kind of weary disgust at the subculture that the killer and his defenders found themselves a home in. Oh, I've waited a week for some enlightenment, some shaft of something. It hasn't arrived. Except.

Except maybe this one isn't for me to opine on. I've been reading the burst of hard truths, prying open of hearts and minds and sometimes shocking statements on--of all things--Twitter: #YesAllWomen. Somehow the stream of tweets--not all of them; there's always the odd troll or two who has to butt in--seem hopeful to me, an avalanche of truths countering the blithe assumptions of what is normal that I get to make in my life but that women don't.

Maybe this is one for me to listen on, and to learn from others.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Memorial Day, 2014

My father's stepfather fought in World War II, and helped liberate a concentration camp. What he saw there clearly changed my "Uncle Fred"--so my sister and I called him, as he married my grandmother long after we came on the scene. He had an extraordinary gentleness, and an awareness of what mattered that I admired then and even more so now. But many who survived that trauma were marked differently than my Uncle Fred, and suffered for years after they come home, as do their successors.

From Herman Wouk's The Winds of War:
Victor Henry turned his face from the hideous sight to the indigo arch of the sky, where Venus and the brightest stars still burned: Sirius, Capella, Procyon, the old navigation aids. The familiar religious awe came over him, the sense of a Presence above this pitiful little earth. He could almost picture God the Father looking down with sad wonder at this mischief. In a world so rich and lovely, could his children find nothing better to do than to dig iron from the ground and work it into vast grotesque engines for blowing each other up? Yet this madness was the way of the world. He had given all his working years to it. Now he was about to risk his very life at it. Why?

Because the others did it, he thought. Because Abel’s next-door neighbor was Cain. Because with all its rotten spots, the United States of America was not only his homeland but the hope of the world. Because if America’s enemies dug up iron and made deadly engines of it, America had to do the same, and do it better, or die. Maybe the vicious circle would end with this first real world war. Maybe it would end with Christ’s second coming. Maybe it would never end.
In War and Remembrance, Wouk wrote (through the fictitious correspondent Alistair Tudsbury), that in World War II, "Men fight as far away from home as they can be transported, with courage and endurance that makes on proud of the human race, in horrible contrivances that make one ashamed of the human race." We seem mired in that paradigm still. Brave soldiers, women and men now, are taking terrible risks and paying prices up to including their lives. These veterans, under both Republican and Democratic presidents, receive woefully inadequate support and treatment.

Whatever we think of any given war, we should hold our veterans, living and dead, in high esteem. One last quote, from T.H. White, depicting a despairing King Arthur, written in the darkest days of WW II:
But here and there, oh so seldom, oh so rare, oh so glorious, there were those all the same who would face the rack, the executioner, and even utter extinction, in the cause of something greater than themselves. Truth, that strange thing, the jest of Pilate's. Many stupid young men had thought they were dying for it, and many would continue to die for it, perhaps for a thousand years. They did not have to be right about their truth, as Galileo was to be. It was enough that they, the few and martyred, should establish a greatness, a thing above the sum of all they ignorantly had.
Our veterans deserve better of us. Remember the fallen, and care for the living.

Sunday, May 25, 2014


There is a lot going on. First, I am halfway through proofreading Phineas at Bay, despite serious damage done to the proofs by a cat who decided to do literally what some critics do figuratively over new authors. As the cat involved is not one of my more literary ones, however, I remain undaunted. I am indebted to CreateSpace for sending me a new set of proofs, without charge, even though the damage is solely due to my own carelessness in leaving the first set out where the critics, um, cats, could get at it. I join Philip Sandifer in his praise for the company--and let me strongly recommend his excellent site, combing superb analysis of Doctor Who with other cultural history-critical content.

Second, I have finished my second year of postulancy for the vocational diaconate, and will be entering my final term come September. More later of this.

More later also of the third development…

Finally, the site is being redesigned to reflect the increased literary/cultural content along with the content regarding Anglicanism, and my own development into the diaconate. There will still be law-related posts where relevant, or where I feel moved, but right now, the spiritual and the literary are where I am finding my greatest satisfaction, and that is where I plan to focus.

As ever, come along on the prowl!

In Memoriam, the Rt. Rev. E. Don Taylor

I am sorry to see that the Rt. Rev. E. Don Taylor has died, at 77 years of age.

From Bishop of New York, the Rt. Rev. Andrew Dietsche, per Canon K. Jeanne Person:
May 24, 2014

My dear brothers and sisters,

The Right Reverend E. Don Taylor, retired Vicar Bishop of the Diocese of New York, died this evening after an illness of several months. I am profoundly grateful for the number of clergy and people of this diocese who have surrounded him with their love through this vigil. Please pray tonight for the repose of his soul, and that God might comfort his daughter Tara in her grief. And please remember him at your altars tomorrow. Within twenty-four hours a fuller notice will come to you about the life and passing of this our dear brother and Father in Christ. May his soul, and the souls of all the departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace.
-The Rt. Rev. Andrew M.L. Dietsche
Bishop Taylor received me into the Episcopal Church in 1995; I remember his brio, kindness and enthusiasm. I still have, and treasure, my little BCP, which he kindly inscribed for me.

I only knew him briefly, but he played a key role in my spiritual journey, and did so with élan, and genuine kindness. God bless his memory, and comfort his daughter Tara.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

The Joys of Live Theater

So, in proofreading, I need music, but not music that is too challenging or so engrossing that it pulls me out of the weird zen state--something a little frivolous, say. Pandora served up some interesting varieties, and that led me to discover this:

Yeah, the chorus-singer takes over the female lead for the ailing Barbara Dickson, and nails it.

The clip reminds me of something that happened to my old friend known on the blog as Athos. In the days before I came to Fordham, and Athos was an undergraduate, he was cast as Tranio in The Taming of the Shrew. Now, Tranio is the servant of Lucentio, and they open up the play-within-the-play, with Lucentio's monologue about why they are arriving in Padua in the first bloody place. Well, the production dropped the frame story, and just opened up with Lucentio and Tranio, who came out on stage.

On opening night, they made their entrance, and Lucnetio drifted moodily about the set, taking out his sword, swishing it about, but ….not saying the opening lines. After a few minutes, Athos prompted him, asking "Whyfor, my lord, fairest we to Padua?"


Lucentio: Oh, I don't know.

You or I, Gentle Reader, might have acted reasonably. Turned on our heel and left, say, or sung some Elizabethan ditty with a lot of hey-nonny-nonnies, and hoped to God that the blockhead would snap out of it. Not Athos. I am informed (and not by him) that what he did was this:

My lord, hastthou not oft expressed the great desire thou hadst
To see fair Padua, nursery of arts,
We are arrived for fruitful Lombardy,
The pleasant garden of great Italy;
And by thy father's love and leave are arm'd
With his good will and my good company,
thy trusty servant, well approved in all,
Here let us breathe and haply institute
A course of learning and ingenious studies.
Pisa renown'd for grave citizens
Gave thee thy being and thy father first,
A merchant of great traffic through the world,
Vincetino come of Bentivolii.
Vincetino's son brought up in Florence
It shall become to serve all hopes conceived,
To deck his fortune with his virtuous deeds:
And therefore, my lord, for the time you study,
Virtue and that part of philosophy
Will thou apply that treats of happiness
By virtue specially to be achieved.
Tell me thy mind; for thou hast Pisa left
And art to Padua come, as he that leaves
A shallow plash to plunge him in the deep
And with satiety seeks to quench his thirst.
A good save, no?

Alas, the next passage belonged to Tranio, so Athos continued:
And indeed, gentle master mine,
I am in all affected as yourself;
Glad that you thus continue your resolve
To suck the sweets of sweet philosophy.
Only, good master, while we do admire
This virtue and this moral discipline,
Let's be no stoics nor no stocks, I pray;
Or so devote to Aristotle's cheques
As Ovid be an outcast quite abjured:
Balk logic with acquaintance that you have
And practise rhetoric in your common talk;
Music and poesy use to quicken you;
The mathematics and the metaphysics,
Fall to them as you find your stomach serves you;
No profit grows where is no pleasure ta'en:
In brief, sir, study what you most affect.
If only Luecentio had not replied, "Well said!" and feinted an attack on on stage fern. But, alas, he did. Athos nobly went another round:
Perhaps, Master, we could at once put us in readiness,
And take a lodging fit to entertain
Such friends as time in Padua shall beget.
But stay a while: what company is this? Surely some show to welcome us to town.
Thereby winning the Karin Glenmark Award, some years before the lady herself created the title….

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

The Proof is in the Proofing

When I received my proof of Phineas at Bay, I expected to sail through the proofreading stage.

After all, I have a talented and meticulous editor,we've been through three drafts after the first draft (following the F. Scott Fitzgerald rule).


Yes, I'm finding a handful of small errors here and there. I expected that. It's a long novel, weighing in at just about 500 pages (not counting the short essay about why the novel and sources I added along with the acknowledgments). And, as I must confess--not that's a surprise to my patient readers here--I'm a crap typist. No, really, I am. These blog entries, squeezed in when I can do them more often than I'd like to admit, suffer from that more than work for more formal publication, but I need to watch my writing like a hawk to weed out typos. So, really, my editor has done the lion's share of that protection against writerly self-harm. And, really, no editor-writer team is going to catch every typo, or infelicity.


The trick in proofing is not to second guess aesthetic decisions at five-minutes-to-midnight. I chose, for example, not to use British spelling, even though that made the Labour Party the Labor Party. That particular usage does feel weird. (Although, equally weirdly, I have "grey" not "gray" throughout--I must have had John Grey from Can You Forgive Her? on the mind. Was I wrong? But if I change that, do I have to try to adopt British spelling throughout?

Proofing is the most horrid part of writing; you really can't make much in the way of substantive changes but the ability to do so is still there--unwise though such last minute feints in a new direction may be (Are. Almost always are.)

As Stephen King has said, “I’m convinced that fear is at the root of most bad writing." Proofreading is the last chance to catch mistakes, but also the last chance to lose your nerve.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

"Five Rounds Rapid"

I'm proofreading, and so the blog must take a backseat.

But it occurred to me that in fiction, our ends often mirror our beginnings. So too with episodic television, as demonstrated in Doctor Who, courtesy of the Brigadier:

The tactic doesn't work, although the scene is wonderful, thanks to the sheer sublime perfection of Nicholas Courtney's laconic air. (It's even a trope namer). But in his last appearance in Doctor Who, he gets a replay:

Unflappable as ever, (I love that "Probably. I just do the best I can"), but a little more jaded, a little more relaxed. Still willing to consider himself expendable as compared to his friends.

Narratively speaking, too, a nicely handled call back to the Brig's early days--and this time, crowned with success. A satisfying echo, but with the Brig warmer, more humane, then he let himself be seen in prior appearances,

As for the Destroyer--come now, the effect is better than that for Bok, surely?

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Phineas on Deck

I just received the proofs of my novel, Phineas at Bay. The cover page is represented above.

It's an extraordinary feeling; I remember when I received the proof of my first book, back in 2000, the feeling that this was going to be a real thing in the world. Under my name. For literally anyone to read and judge.

How exciting!

Phineas at Bay, though, is on a whole different order of things. It's a work of fiction, a novel--the very thing I wanted most to do in all the world when I was a young man--yes, be a lawyer, but this, this too--write fiction.

When I tried, in college in law school, I wrote one short story that was good (I still believe), one that was interesting but flawed, and a third light comic turn. And then I dried up. I had nothing to say, yet.

Here's a secret: Every time I sit down to write an article, I wonder: is this the time when the gift leaves me? When I can no longer come up with a fresh, new perspective, and am reduced to rehashing my old pieces? That's why I haven't written anything at length on free speech since 2007--I've covered everything I have to say in the field. (I may have one left in me, more of a memoir about an unusual case, but, seriously--the doctrine has been, except in campaign finance, relatively steady since the second edition of First Amendment, First Principles. I haven't anything jurisprudentially significant to add, for now.)

So, when I decided to have a go at a novel, I did it with no purpose but to write a story for my wife. No pressure, no expectations. I planned to self-publish, and keep the experience fun for me. And then the book wrote. It was exhilarating to do it, and addictive.

It wrote, though, as a third piece in the diptych created by Trollope regarding Phineas Finn (thanks to Nicholas Birns for that metaphor--and for a great blurb on the book.) And to do a Trollope-style novel commits you to a certain scope, one which requires completely blowing by the word count thresholds most literary agents set, let alone the publishers to whom they would pitch it. And, although a dear friend pointed me in the direction of some first rate agents--well, the book is written to an audience that wants a chronicle of some scope. The hard core of the audience--the Anthony Trollope reader, especially, but also the modern analogue--fans of Hillary Mantel, or A.S. Byatt--would feel cheated with a book lacking the capaciousness of the original. I couldn't meet the word count thresholds without cheating the very people who would be most enthusiastic about the work. (In fact, Phineas at Bay is significantly shorter-- 100,000 words shorter--than either of the two original novels, and clocks in at over 170,000 words).

So, a long novel--with a cliffhanger at the end of "Volume I" that I rather fancy, and some good comedy along the way. I was blessed to have a first rate editor, Judith Cummins to design the cover, and the design and marketing team from CreateSpace, who are patient, kind, but best of all, enthusiastic about their work.

We're not quite there yet, but pretty soon, there's going to be an e-book and a hard copy book available for purchase, and I hope a lot of you will visit the author site and store, and shell out for this thing, in one format or the other. Because I hope--no, I think--you might like it.

I hope to have, as Simon Raven memorably put it, arranged words in a pleasing pattern for your enjoyment.

But that will, quite soon now, be for you to decide.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

C.P. Snow and Anthony Powell: Friendly Enemies?

According to the Dance to the Music of Time list of character models of the Anthony Powell Society, the character of J.G. Quiggin is
"A conflation of Powell's two enemies, CP Snow, author of Corridors of Power, and FR Leavis, the implacably influential literary critic and don".
[AN Wilson, London Evening Standard, 24 Sept 1997]
There are some remarkable similarities also to AP's nephew-in-law, Harold Pinter, the gloomy left-wing dramatist, although AP has denied that he is the main source.
I read this, and was rather puzzled. There are a fair amount of differences between Snow and Quiggin that are quite striking; most importantly, where Snow was a prolific author (his own novel sequence Strangers and Brothers falls only one volume short of the 12 volume Dance, and was started earlier). Quiggin--well, let Professor Sillery speak for me:
JG's abandoned the pen, I hear, perhaps wisely. A literary caesarian was all but required for that infant of long gestation Unburnt Boats, which I often feared might come to birth prematurely as a puling little magazine article. Now JG's going to promote literary works, rather than write them himself. In brief, he's to become a publisher.
(Books Do Furnish A Room (1971))

More to the point, while Snow leaned left in his politics, he was quite comfortable with many moderate conservatives, of the type Powell strikes one as--Snow dedicated The Light and the Dark to Sydney Grose, the model for the avuncular, conservative Arthur Brown, political fixer extraordinaire in the unnamed Cambridge College where narrator Lewis Eliot is a fellow, and other sympathetic conservatives are to be found throughout the series. Snow was, as his Francis Getliffe might say, "a man of the Left," but hardly as hard-left as Quiggin.

Now, F.R. Leavis, was much more of a Quiggin-style provocateur; his bust-up with Snow, whom he gratuitously attacked in terms that even those who agreed with his critique found offensive, led Snow to the attack). Indeed, as Timothy Sandefur points out, Snow turned Leavis's argument turtle by using Lawrence against him:
The dispute over modernity that gave rise to “The Two Cultures” began, of course, in the Industrial Revolution itself, when Romantic writers like Matthew Arnold, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Edgar Allen Poe led a reaction against the rational and systematic philosophy—as well as the technological progress—of the Enlightenment. That reaction had been carried forward into the literary culture in the works of D.H. Lawrence, T.S. Eliot, and others. In one especially effective passage, Snow illustrated the brutal reality beneath romanticism by drawing from Lawrence, Leavis’ favorite writer. In a commentary on Richard Henry Dana’s Two Years Before The Mast, Lawrence defended the flogging of a seaman which Dana, firmly rooted in Enlightenment rationality, recalled with indignation. For Lawrence, Dana’s disgust revealed a failure to appreciate the spiritual value of the master-servant relationship, which, “like love,” is “essentially a polarized flow…a circuit of vitalism which flows between master and man and forms a very precious nourishment to each, and keeps both in a state of subtle, quivering, vital equilibrium.” But for Snow, Lawrence’s attitude was a disgusting indulgence by a comfortable onlooker who did not feel the wrong end of the whip. “That illusion is open only to those who have climbed one step up and are hanging on by their fingernails.” Lawrence’s, and Leavis’, lyrical view of a social hierarchy based on force and servitude was the ultimate expression of anti-rationalism, the same anti-rationalism that looked upon poverty as charming and which retarded the progress of both material and spiritual growth.
While Snow is out of fashion these days, I will say that I have read his works with great enjoyment, and, in his own way, I consider him to be among the "first rate second-raters" I deeply love--the novelists who, without the flash and dazzling style of some, excel in patient, detailed excavation of character. Think Trollope as opposed to Dickens; Powell as opposed to Proust. I don't mean to suggest that they are not great writers--Trollope, Snow, and Powell are among my very favorites. But they are not showy, or headline grabbing in the way Leavis's beloved D.H Lawrence is. But I digress.

While Leavis was dyspeptic, left-wing, and disagreeable, Powell appeared to have a pretty decent rapport with Snow. In "Anthony Powell and C.P. Snow," (Anthony Powell Newsletter, No. 46 at 7-11 (2012)), Keith Marshall summarizes the evidence of their dealings. They seemed to get on well enough when traveling together to Sofia, Bulgaria, discussing books together, Powell quotes Snow as denying that he was a Dickensian, but admitting "if required to nominate the writer in English next to Shakespeare in stature, he would find difficulty in thinking of any other than Dickens." Powell comments "That struck me as a sound appreciation; one that defined my own feelings."

When Snow was made a life peer, Powell wrote him a teasing note suggesting the heraldic possibilities of the Supporters for his arms--"Do not rule out a stranger or a brother, which would tax the artist's invention, and have enigmatic charm as that part of the achievement." Snow wrote back in a similar tone, opening his letter with "It was like you to write so generously."

Of course, as Nicholas Birns points out, Quiggin isn't portrayed as an enemy of Powell's narrator, Nick Jenkins; "Quiggin is represented as an individual--one with the wrong politics, with a reverse-snobbish personal myth that in many ways masks conventional snobbery, but still an individual Jenkins likes, whose presence in Jenkins's lfe is, despite all, to the good.) (Birns, Understanding Anthony Powell at 128) Indeed, Quiggin's "rare and unpredictable grace catalyzes the moment in which Jenkins is able to achieve personal grace" by clicking with Isobel Tolland, who becomes his wife. (Id. at 129-130) So, the identification of Snow with Quiggin, leaving out the suggestion of enmity between Powell and Snow, may have some heft to it after all. It's just that--well, as a reader of both authors, Snow just doesn't feel Quiggin-like to me.

Friday, May 9, 2014

Did We See The Same Show? [The Rivals]

I had initially planned to write up my most recent play-going experience, but my partner in crime beat me to it. So I didn't. There, that'll teach you, hmmm….? Quonk? (OK, that's more Sir John Tresize than William Hartnell, but what would you?)

And then, I read yesterday's review by David Rooney of The Pearl Theatre's production of Richard Brinsley Sheridan's play The Rivals. Quoth Mr. Rooney:
Restoration comedy, however, is tricky, requiring a canny balance of theatrical artifice and delicacy to animate its wit, wordplay and satirical irreverence. Push too hard, as this cast tends to do, and it lands with a thud. This is language to be savored for its playfulness, not bellowed with declamatory bluster.


Mr. Donaldson deploys droll charm in the central role, and Ms. Love has an amusing way with a petulant flounce. There are also lonely notes of understatement from Ms. Botchan and Mr. McNall. But for the most part, the buoyancy is pummeled out of the play by all the shouting, straining and busy gesticulating of the colorfully outfitted and bewigged cast.
Now, I am no Sheridan expert, but I was an English major, and studied Eighteenth Century literature with Verlyn Klinkenborg (who deplored my going to law school, kindly saying he thought I'd make a literature scholar), and I can tell you this: For once, Wikipedia is right: Restoration comedy spans 50 years, 1660-1710, that is, from the Restoration of the Monarchy (that'd be Charles II, in 1660, d'ye see) to 1710. The Rivals (1775), is a Georgian comedy of manners.

That said, Eighteenth Century comedy could be excessive in its love or wit and wordplay, and sometimes was done in an artificial manner utterly disconnected from human life--Blackadder had some fun with the notion:

--and, several rather irritating people behind us expressed themselves displeased with the play because "Sheridan should be more mannered."

Absolute rubbish. Sheridan in fact fought two duels in 1772 with a rival suitor for his wife, and was seriously wounded in the second duel. That experience colors The Rivals, staged less than three years later. The theme does not concern, as Rooney's review hints that it does, the harms of too much novel-reading (a theory limited to women as expressed by Sir Anthony Absolute in the play, and he's not exactly an oracular figure in the text), but is rather best summed up by its most sensible character, Julia, who replies to her over-romantic friend Lydia's declaration that "our happiness is now as unalloyed as general," with a caution:
Then let us study to preserve it so : and while
Hope pictures to us a flattering scene of future bliss,
let us deny its pencil those colours which are too bright to be lasting.
When hearts deserving happiness would
unite their fortunes, Virtue would crown them with an
unfading garland of modest hurtless flowers : but ill-
judging Passion will force the gaudier rose into the
wreath, whose thorn offends them when its leaves are
Julia's words (and not the frivolous epilogue the author tacks on at the end) makes the point surely--in this play, "ill-judging passion" creates a series of potential, all too unnecessary, tragedies, whether that passion be the arbitrary "frenzy" of Sir Anthony Absolute--a sort of infantile temper tantrum done to indulge his own desire to be at the center of all things, the morbid pre-disposition of Faulkner to find betrayal and calamity at every turn, the fire-eating desire for dueling, on any pretext, of Sir Lucius O'Toole, Lydia's romantic desire for dramatic martyrdom, or the intellectual pretensions of Mrs. Malaprop. None of these characters is, at bottom, presented as evil--they all have charming moments. But each in his or her own way invites tragedy by rejecting the good in life that is offered to them, in preference of giving way to ill-judged passion.

Sheridan nearly lost his life to just such passion, in a situation not too different from that in which Jack Absolute finds himself; the notion that this play should be played in a brittle, artificial manner is, frankly, at odds with the text. By bringing life into the play without losing the elements of farce,the Pearl Theater Company did Sheridan justice, and should be proud.

As Karen noted, I tried to start a standing ovation. It was well earned.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Bisy Backson

Sorry, May has not been a good month for blogging. Alas, I am not having anywhere near as much fun as Vanessa Redgrave did with the month, so I'll leave her (and you) to it:

Much happening, soon--announcements re Phineas at Bay and over matters are in the offing, but first I must actually overcome a few obstacles.

Romp in Camelot, while I read copy, finalize an article, and otherwise gather some rosebuds.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

"I Believe in Gef!"

OK, not really. Not at all, in fact. But I still think that this is the most awesome article the WSJ has ever published:
The University of London's Senate House Library is one of the finest academic research institutions in England. On a recent day, a lecture room in the imposing Art Deco building was filled with the world's pre-eminent authorities on a talking mongoose named Gef.

In a nation long fascinated by the supernatural, the case of Gef the talking mongoose stands out as one of the most bizarre in British paranormal history. Though he is largely forgotten, a small but obsessive band of researchers refuses to let Gef go.

Gef (pronounced "Jeff") was a furry animal who is said to have skulked around the remote house of a poor farming family, the Irvings, on the Isle of Man in the 1930s.

He appeared to the family one night in 1931 making typical animal sounds. Next, the mongoose—a small carnivore rarely seen in the British Isles because it is native to Southern Asia and Africa—allegedly recited simple nursery rhymes.

Soon he was having entire conversations with the farmer, his wife and daughter and singing along to hit songs of the day such as "Carolina Moon," according to reports by the Irvings and a few other witnesses.

Frequently irritable and foul-mouthed, Gef nevertheless developed a relationship with the family, who left food out for him. He "eats sausages and kippers and the lean of uncooked bacon. He does not touch eggs," James Irving, father of the family, wrote in one of dozens of letters to various paranormal investigators about Gef.

The mongoose, Mr. Irving said, would prowl around neighbors' properties, delivering gossip about them back to the Irvings. Occasionally, Gef sounded like a new-age guru or a cult leader, exclaiming: "I am the fifth dimension! I am the eighth wonder of the world!"

Gef became a minor media sensation, drawing hordes of journalists to the Isle of Man seeking a glimpse of this talking mongoose. Only one ever claimed success in communicating with Gef, writing a 1932 article headlined: "'Man-Weasel' Mystery Grips Island: Queerest Beast talks to 'Daily Dispatch' reporter."
Now, when a friend showed this to me, I immediately remembered the story, which I read at nine years old, as recorded by Nandor Fodor in my grandmother's copy of Haunted People. I read that book over and over when visiting; some of the stories were just dull, obvious fakes. Some, like the Bell Witch were deliciously creepy, and fascinated as they chilled. Hey, I was nine.

But then there was Gef. Nothing to be afraid of, there. And if a hoax, a thoroughly awesome one. A cute little animal who cursed people out, and occasionally sang to you. Fodor describes him as shrieking at an unwanted visitor "Go away! Clear to Hell!"; the WSJ recounts that "At one point, Gef is quoted as shouting out to Mr. Irving as he opens a letter:'Read it out you fat-headed gnome!'" To my nine year old self, Gef was all kinds of awesome.

Academics think so too, it seems; from the WSJ:
Richard Espley, the director of the library's English-language collection, who had never heard of Gef before he started at the library two years ago. "At some level I think I was humoring a colleague when I started reading into it," Mr. Espley says, "and now I'm sitting there with my piles of handwritten-notes and photocopied articles."

Mr. Espley, who wrote his Ph.D. thesis on the representation of animals in the novels of the American modernist writer Djuna Barnes, delivered a paper at the symposium that tried to make sense of why Gef becomes enraged by the act of reading. At one point, Gef is quoted as shouting out to Mr. Irving as he opens a letter: "Read it out you fat-headed gnome!'"

"The resistance to text and the preference for orality is fundamental to Gef's nature," Mr. Espley said, speaking to the group.

"I'm going to go further, and, uh, hopefully you'll follow me," Mr. Espley continued. "I'd like to encourage you to think of Irving as a bardic singer of tales and Gef as a partly described, partly-curiously-present aspect of a living, definitely oral tale of exactly the kind which is found in the Panchatantra, the mongoose Ur-narrative."
With classic understatement Christopher Josiffe confronts the evidence:
Josiffe has been looking at it for seven years using the resources of the Senate House Library, the world's main repository of primary source material on Gef thanks to a bequest from the famous British paranormal researcher Harry Price. The collection includes Mr. Irving's extensive letters about Gef and a sample of hair allegedly snipped from Gef by the Irvings that appears to be in fact from a dog. "This is where it gets a bit dodgy, I'm afraid," Mr. Josiffe says.
Yeah, that's one way to put it. A hoax? Well, sure. But a great one.

Gef, eighty years on, remains awesome. Luring academics into his world, making them rationalize his charm, all while the self-described "little extra, extra clever mongoose" stalks the edges of imagination and reality--and academia as well.

Gef was Honey Badger before the Internet.