The opposite of showy excess was neatness. Neatness was an utterly positive quality with many nuances of meaning. Indeed, neat emerges as a Georgian keyword of unexpectedly wide social purchase, which could be applied to towns, houses, objects, personal appearance, and even events. […] Neat conveyed a simple elegance of form, finely made and proportioned, free from unnecessary embellishments. Neatness often connoted a spare elegance in keeping with Palladian or Neoclassical architectural ideals. In its emphasis on regularity, proportion and simplicity, neat sat comfortably with classical vocabularies of decorum and harmony.
—Amanda Vickery (Behind Closed Doors, p. 180)
The snow stays on the ground mingling with the dust, not melting even under the sun. Everything is very dry. The dust is the same color and texture of finely ground coffee, as though one could scoop it up into a սրճեփ and enjoy one’s cup of bitterness on the rolling steppe. In the evenings, the smoke from the ger stoves seeps through the town, making everything smell colder. In the sun, though, behind the shelter of a hill, it seems almost warm, if one could ignore the sharp bite of blood in the cheeks and a certain runniness of the nose.
In his text, the writer sets up house. Just as he trundles papers, books, pencils, documents untidily from room to room, he creates the same disorder in his thoughts. They become pieces of furniture that he sinks into, content or irritable. He strokes them affectionately, wears them out, mixes them up, re-arranges, ruins them. For a man who no longer has a homeland, writing becomes a place to live. In it he inevitably produces, as his family once did, refuse and lumber. But now he lacks a store room, and it is hard in any case to part from left-overs. So he pushes them along in front of him, in danger finally of filling his pages with them. […] In the end, the writer is not even allowed to live in his writing.
– Theodor Adorno
(Minima Moralia, p. 87)
on biography (1)
After much consideration of this point, I came to the resolution of writing truly, if I wrote at all; of withholding nothing, though some things, from their very nature, could not be spoken of so fully as others.
(Life of Charlotte Brontë, 396)
Mr. Theroux’s excursion about Gorey is not precisely a biography; rather, it falls into the queasy middle ground of reminiscences, or bloated magazine profiles. The author will keep intruding himself into the text as though he thought himself of equal interest to the reader as his subject. This is satisfactory in the case of Boswell, for he keeps his subject firmly on a pedestal; but Mr. Theroux is always chipping away and digressing and divulging personal details about his own life that in no way clarify Gorey’s own personality for the reader; indeed, he shares so much that one begins to doubt his competence to share anything at all. For example:
He did have close friends, insofar as people like Gorey have friends, but most people in his case, I am fully convinced, were made – kept as – acquaintances. Did he compartmentalize? I was told by several good folk who, having attended his Memorial Service (I myself could not bear to attend), were struck by how many people who claimed to be his best friend did not know each other (30f.)
These few sentences about the ‘compartmentalization’ of Gorey’s friendships is interesting at first glance, but there are two points of irritation: why could Theroux not bear to attend Gorey’s Memorial Service1; and what does is say about the actual closeness of Theroux’s friendship with Gorey (of which much is made throughout the book and in the reportage about the book), that Gorey did not apparently have a circle of friends, but rather a constellation of acquaintances? Theroux goes nowhere with this, and it is a shame. It could merely be a fault of composition;2 even so, even as a rambling assemblage devoid of critical consciousness in which the reader is expected to find his or her own way, and see the connections or inferences the author intends or imagines, the author is still responsible for leaving a path for the reader to follow, as Gorey so exquisitely does in his own work and as Theroux so signally fails to do in this volume. One keeps reading with a stubborn fascination, to see if it really could be such a muddle as the author appears to be making of it – and, yes, it is.3
- And why should the reader care? [↩]
- Indeed, his habit of dropping in colorful vocabulary, in season and out – a flammulated owl making one particularly irrelevant incursion into the text (102) – would suggest this to be the case. [↩]
- This precisely misses the point of the book, which is of course to make money off of Gorey fans by providing them with trivia about his life, and in this regard the book is quite as successful as it deserves to be, I’m sure. [↩]
It was the last day of the fall vacation, and the teachers competed in a talent show. Each of the departments put together as many performances as they could, in the least amount of time. I think the foreign language department started working on their act on Monday. Luckily they were the first to perform, so I didn’t have to wait around all afternoon to see them. Skits, dances, musical performances – and much better than one would have imagined, given the circumstances.
the doubtful guest
I hope Mrs. Boswell and the little Miss are well. – When shall I see them again? She is a sweet lady, only she was so happy to see me go, that I have almost a mind to come again, that she may again have the same pleasure.
– Samuel Johnson
(quoted in The Life of Samuel Johnson, p. 497)
My wife paid him the most assiduous and respectful attention, while he was our guest; so that I wonder how he discovered her wishing for his departure. The truth is, that his irregular hours and uncouth habits, such as turning the candles with their heads downwards, when they did not burn bright enough, and letting the wax drop on the carpet, could not but be disagreeable to a lady. Besides, she had not that high admiration of him which was felt by most of those who knew him; and what was very natural to a female mind, she thought he had too much influence over her husband.
– James Boswell
(The Life of Samuel Johnson, p. 492, note 3)
- The footman yawning in the background is inexpressibly pleasing. [↩]
Four men in orange vests clean the street. Two men work with overgrown spatulas – or worn down snow shovels – tapping the surface to break up the compacted snow, then scraping it towards the side of the road. They work together, each working on half of a lane (with, meanwhile, a clear lane of traffic rushing by them); they clear five meters or so, then stop by the side of the road and rest. The other two men follow. One has a large shovel, and consolidates the snow they have cleared on the side of the road. A few minutes after he has started, the fourth man sweeps the street with a short handled twig or straw broom1 After the shoveler and the sweeper have cleaned the five meters already cleared, the tappers start again on the next span, while the sweeper and shoveler rest, and so on down the road.
- From the window, I can’t see what the broom is made of, and it is too cold and too early to go and find out now. [↩]
Crambe repetita (20)
Johnson said, that Dr. Grainger was an agreeable man; a man who would do any good that was in his power. His translation of Tibullus, he thought, was very well done; but The Sugar-Cane, a poem, did not please him; for, he exclaimed, ‘What could he make of a sugar-cane? One might as well write the “Parsley-bed, a Poem;” or “The Cabbage-garden, a Poem”.’ Boswell. ‘You must then pickle your cabbage with the sal atticum.’ Johnson. ‘You know there is already The Hop-Garden, a Poem: and, I think, one could say a great deal about cabbage. The poem might begin with the advantages of civilized society over a rude state, exemplified by the Scotch, who had no cabbages till Oliver Cromwell’s soldiers introduced them; and one might thus shew how arts are propagated by conquest, as they were by the Roman arms.’ He seemed to be much diverted with the fertility of his own fancy.
– James Boswell
(The Life of Samuel Johnson, p. 621f. )
A view (33)
Instead of annotating, she rules margins in her notebooks, puts the number of the page she’s referring to in the margin, and writes next to it a quotation or a comment. When she comes to write a review, she will ring the quotations she wants to use, usually in blue pencil. If she’s been reading without her notebook to hand, and making notes on scraps of paper, she will stick these scraps into the notebook. Out of this ‘reading with a purpose’ or ‘reading with pen & notebook,’ she accumulates the many volumes of notebooks, which tell the story of how her mind works when she is reading. These notebooks often breach their self-imposed compartments [….] She makes a pencil sketch of a new bathroom and study addition to Monk’s House on the back of some quotations from Geraldine Jewsbury; she lists the rooms in the house that need painting in the middle of her notes on Henry James’s letters. A good many of her notebooks have the marks of animals’ paws on them, suggesting that they lay about open in the rooms she worked in, were picked up sometimes at random, and were not tidily put away.
– Hermione Lee
(Virginia Woolf, p. 406)