Saturday, December 10, 2011

   "Did it really never happen before that? Before 1973?"
   Aparicio breathed in and out - a kind of ethereal idea of a shrug. He waited a very long time before answering, as if registering a dignified protest against the demand Affenlight had placed on him. "How many times does something happen before we give it a name? And until the name exists, neither does the condition. So perhaps it happened many times before, but was never named.
   "And yet. Baseball has many historians, including among its players. There are statistics, archives, legends, lore. If earlier players had experienced similar troubles, it seems likely the stories would have been passed down. And then the name would be applied in retrospect."
   1973. In the public imagination it was as fraught a year as you could name: Watergate, Roe v. Wade, withdrawl from Vietnam. Gravity's Rainbow. Was it also the year that Prufrockian paralysis went mainstream - the year it entered baseball? It made sense that a psychic condition sensed by the artists of one generation - the Modernists of the first World War - would take awhile to reveal itself throughout the population. And if that psychic condition happened to be a profound failure of confidence in the significance of individual human action, then the condition became an epidemic when it entered the realm of utmost confidence in same: the realm of professional sport. In fact, that might make for a workable definition of the postmodernist era: an era when even the athletes were anguished modernists. In which case the American postmodern period began in spring 1973, when a pitcher named Steve Blass lost his aim
   Do I dare, and do I dare?

- Chad Harbach
The Art of Fielding
   He was becoming more substantial in other ways. "My good man is so very fat that I am lean as a rail," Abigail bemoaned to her sister Mary. He acquired more and more books, books being an acknowledged extravagance he could seldom curb. (With one London bookseller he had placed a standing order for "every book and pamphlet, of reputation, upon the subjects of law and government as soon as it comes out.") "I want to see my wife and children every day," he would write while away on the court circuit. "I want to see my grass and blossoms and corn...But above all, except the wife and children, I want to see my books."

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

   Paris booksellers soon found they had an American patron like no other. In the bookshops and stalls along the Seine were volumes in numbers and variety such as Jefferson had never seen, and his pleasure was boundless. To Madison he would describe the surpassing pleasure of "examining all the principal bookstores, turning over every book with my own hand and putting by everything related to America, and indeed whatever was rare and valuable to every science." There were weeks when he was buying books every day. In his first month in Paris, he could not buy them fast enough, and ran up bills totaling nearly 800 francs. Nor was the book-buying spree to end. The grand total of books he acquired in France was about 2,000, but he also bought books by the boxful for Washington, Franklin, and James Madison.

- David McCullough
John Adams.
   "I'm a playful fellow - it's my artistic nature. Look, I know them: they're swine. I supply them with troughs. It amuses me; many things do. I like to see them prating about Liebe and Schonheit - and coming to the trough in the end. Did you notice, my inattentive friend, how many of the faces are familiar? They start out at the Zaubertheater and end up at the Schwarzen Stiefel: yes, it pleases me to make certain experiments, I won't deny it. Let me tell you something. When I was a lad of sixteen I went about with a blue-eyed maiden from a cultured family. Or to be more precise: the father was the owner of a pork butcher shop and the mother read Kleist and Nietzsche and Baudelaire and played Liszt and Wagner on the pianoforte. She took an interest in me, lent me books, and was in every way so superior to her empty-head daughter that I soon dropped every pretense of caring about the girl and looked forward only to my next dose of spiritual food from the lips of the mother. I wasn't by any means unaware of the more material charms of my maternal Beatrice, but I no more thought of violating that shrine than I thought of attempting to discuss the Ubermensch with her daughter. Need I say more? One twilit afternoon, as I turned the pages of a Chopin nocturne while she played, she seemed to grow faint as she neared the end of the piece, and as the last chords died away I was astonished to feel her head against my shoulder. Like a nice young idiot I asked her if she wanted a glass of water. She asked me to lead her to the couch. She was very direct. One detail I remember quite vividly: at the moment all youth dreams of - I had never been with a woman before, and had to be shown how to make her wet - but at that famous moment I saw, not far beyond her tense, flushed face, which appeared to be the strangely distorted mask of the woman whose soul I adored - I saw, lying upon a little mahogany table, a copy of volume two of Dichtung und Wahrheit, from which she had earlier read me a passage in order to compare it unfavorably to the nervous prose of Kleist. It was then I realized that art is nothing but a beautiful cool hand placed by a woman, sometimes not very carefully, over her hot pudendum. She spoke to me of beauty and the soul, but she really meant to speak of less rarefied matters. During her orgasms, which she herself compared to the Liebestod, she was fond of sighing out "Beautiful...oh, beautiful..." - a chant varied by the frequent interpolation of choice obscenities. Our meetings grew less and less artistic until one day - but that, my friend, is a story I shall save for my memoirs. i still have a dread of pork butchers. And so at the tender age of sixteen I learned an important secret: all words are masks, and the lovelier they are, the more they are meant to conceal. If it pleases me to be an unmasker - why, all to the good, I serve the fatherland in my own generous way. They chatter about the soul, I give them what they really want, and in the process I satisfy a sense of world-irony and a love of truth. Yes, I drag them down, the swine - I drag them down."

- Steven Millhauser
"August Eschenburg"

Friday, December 9, 2011

   At a picnic on the Chesapeake shore one Fourth of July, he fell in love with a sister of one his friends. She was a tall, heavy-moving, handsome girl. With his eyes, he followed her in the steady, fiery sparkle of the bay when she climbed to the dock from the excursion boat and started arm in arm with her brother toward the grove and the spicy smoke of the barbecue clouding in the trees. Later he saw her running in the women's race, her arms close to her sides. She was among the stragglers and stopped and walked off the field, laughing and wiping her face and throat with a handkerchief of the same material as her silk summer dress. Leventhal was standing near her brother. She came up to them and said, 'Well, I used to be able to run when I was smaller.' That she was still not accustomed to thinking of herself as a woman, and a beautiful woman, made Levanthal feel very tender toward her. She was in his mind when he watched the contestants in the three-legged race hobbling over the meadow. He noticed one in particular, a man with red hair who struggled forward, angry with his partner, as though the race were a pain and a humiliation which he could wipe out only by winning. 'What a difference,' Leventhal said to himself. 'What a difference in people.'

- Saul Bellow
The Victim
Tante Claire loves birds. Here geese with red beaks recognise me as soon as I come home from school, as soon as I turn into our little road. She hears them squawking and she comes out to talk to me. They are always there, the geese, they wake up every morning, they guard the house, they lay eggs, they never forget to look up twice every minute to see who's coming next and to quack, and if the grass is too tall and they can't see over it, they flatten the grass down with their feet which are like flatirons. If one of her feet is hurting, a goose limps like I do when my foot hurts.

- John Berger
To the Wedding
   In the small hours, Edward suddenly called Emily in his sleep.
   She woke up: "What is it?"
   "It's rather cow-catching, isn't it?" he asked anxiously, his eyes tight shut.
   "What's the matter?"
   He did not answer, so she roused him - or thought she had.
   "I only wanted to see if you were a real Cow-catching Zomfanelia," he explained in a kind voice: and was immediately deep asleep again.
   In the morning they might easily have thought the whole thing a dream, if John's bed had not been so puzzingly empty.
   Yet, as if by some mute flash of understanding, no one commented on his absence. No one questioned Margaret, and she offered no information. Neither then nor thereafter was his name ever mentioned by anybody: and if you had known the children intimately you would never have guessed from them that he ever existed.

- Richard Hughes
A High Wind in Jamaica
   My bedroom was nearly empty; all the traces of my habitation, the posters and little bits of crap from my travels, my mother had stowed away in carefully labeled boxes in the closets. I reveled in the smallness, the coziness of an upstairs bedroom in a traditional American Cape Cod house, the half-floor that forces you to duck, to feel small and naive again, ready for anything, dying for love, your body a chimney filled with odd, black smoke. These square, squat, awkward rooms are like a fifty-square foot paean to teenage-hood, to ripeness, to the first and last taste of youth. I cannot begin to tell you how much the purchase of this house, of each tiny bedroom, had meant to my family and to me. I still remember the signing at the real-estate lawyer's office, the three of us beaming at one another, mentally forgiving one another a decade and a half worth of sins, the youthful beatings administered by my father, my mother's anxieties and manias, my own teenage sullenness, because the janitor and his wife had done something right at last! And it would be all okay now. There was no turning back from this, from the glorious fortune we had been granted in the middle of Long Island, from the carefully clipped bushes by the mailbox (our bushes, ABRAMOV bushes) to the oft-mentioned Californian possibility of an above-ground swimming pool in the back, a possibility that never came true, because of our poor finances, but which could never be decisively put to bed either. And this, my room, whose privacy my parents had never respected, but where I would still find a summer's hot sanctuary on my glorified army cot, my little teenaged arms doing the only nonmasturbatory thing they were capable of, hoisting aloft a big red volume of Conrad, my soft lips moving along with the dense words, the warped wood-paneled walls absorbing the occasional clicks of my tongue.
   Out in the hallway, I caught sight of another framed memento. An essay my father had written in English for the newsletter of the Long Island scientific laboratory where he worked (it had made it onto the paper's front page, to our family's pride), and which I, as an undergraduate NYU English major, had helped to proofread and refine.

                       THEY JOYS OF PLAYING BASKETBALL

                                   BY BORIS ABRAMOV
   Sometimes life is difficult and one wishes to relieve oneself of the pressures and the worries of life. Some people see a shrink, others jump in a cold lake or travel around the world. But I find nothing more joyful than playing basketball. At the Laboratory we have many men (and women!) who like to play basketball. They come from all over the world, from Europe, Latin America, and everywhere else. I cannot say I am the best player, I am not so young anymore, my knees hurt, and I am also pretty short and this is a handicap. But I take the game very seriously and when a big problem comes up in my life and I feel like I do not want to live, I sometimes like to picture myself on the court, trying to throw a ball from a great distance into the hoop or maneuvering against an agile opponent. I try to play in a smart way. As a result, I find that I am often victorious even against a much taller or faster player, from Africa or Brazil, let's say. But win or lose, what's important is the spirit of this beautiful game. So if you have time on Tuesday or Thursday at lunchtime (12:30), please join me and your colleagues for a good, healthy time in the physical education center. You'll feel better about yourself and the worries of life will "melt away"! Boris Abramov is a custodian in the Buildings and Grounds division.

- Gary Shteyngart
Super Sad True Love Story
Alan Moore on Harvey Pekar:

"We developed a friendship, because of a mutual love--an obsession, really--of old books," says Moore. "Harvey loved looking around the old tomes in my library, and Joyce told me I only enabled Harvey. They hadn't got a spare inch of space, and Joyce would blow a fuse if he brought home a slim volume of poetry. He would smuggle them into the house by stealth. He'd slip them in among the old dusty books, and leave them there for about six weeks, then one day, walk over to the shelf and open them like they were cherished artifacts. The fact that this would take weeks showed his level commitment to great literature. He did everything short of wrapping them in plastic and hiding them in the lavatory."