Monday, 27 April 2015

THE KARMIC REALIGNMENT OF MELODY SWOBE



“Stop crying, Kumiko! It’s quite simple, I can’t understand why you’re having such trouble, two people who are alike may dislike each other or like each other without being alike—to like is not to be alike, just as likeness—to be like something—is different from liking it; likewise, a likeness, like a picture, is unlike alikeness, the state of being alike. Now try again, it’s perfectly straightforward: ‘In the unlikely likelihood you—like me—like me, you may like to be unlike me in not disliking you.’ Now what exactly’s being said there? No, Yumi—no, Aiko—no, Tamiko—I want Kumiko to answer!”

         And he stood with his hands on his hips at the front of the classroom, like an outlaw in a gunfight with a sheriff in an old Western, legs spread, eyes narrowed at his enemy, gnawing a toothpick.

His enemy was an eighteen-year-old Japanese girl sporting, like everyone in this private ESL school, a pleated tartan skirt, white blouse, and matching knee-socks. She was his enemy because she was the cutest girl in the class, with breasts twice the size of the next most amply endowed girl. He desired her and she scorned him, as any girl would scorn a squat, fat, pimply, orange-haired thirty-four-year-old, especially one with bad teeth, an unsightly mustache, a nervous twitch and an irritating way of constantly clearing his throat.


          A classroom of Japanese students suffered en masse when any member of their group suffered—a humiliation to one was a humiliation to all. He knew this, and he knew, furthermore, that by inflicting this pain on these girls he stood even less chance than before of endearing himself to any of them, even the homeliest and loneliest, and was therefore destroying his last hope of getting one or more of them to go out on a date with him after they graduated (a practice which, while not contravening any school rules, disgusted many faculty members and had yet to meet with success). Nevertheless, he persisted, perversely, in shaming pretty Kumiko, who was on the brink of bolting from the room with her face in her hands.

“All right,” he sighed, when he deemed she could bear no more and would fall apart if he waited another second. “Let’s try something simpler, Kumiko. Repeat after me. ‘I like you.’”

The girl, drying her tears with a Hello Kitty-patterned Kleenex, swallowed and inhaled shakily and blinked, fearing a trick from her teacher—whom she knew hated her, and why. “I…rike you.”

“Again.”

“I rike you.”

“I like you a lot.”

“I rike you a rot.”

“With more feeling, Kumiko. I really, really, really like you a lot.” He nodded sternly when she hesitated. She hesitated because she grasped that this was no longer instruction but another piece of cruelty, or creepy flirtation, on the part of her strange teacher. But, like a lot of bullied children, she believed giving in to the bully might satisfy him and make him stop. “I reary, reary, reary rike you a rot.”

“Mr Bogg.”

“Mr Bogg.”

“No, no. Everything you just said—then Mr Bogg.”

            He could hear the tremble in her throat as she inhaled, and sensed the squirming of bums on chairs as everyone endured the slow torture of mass embarrassment. “I…reary, reary, reary rike you a rot, Mr Bogg,” Kumiko managed, in a voice wobbly with tears.

“Well, I really, really, really like you a lot, Kumiko,” he replied in a leering way. “Maybe we could go out to dinner sometime!” And then he burst out laughing—as if this was the punchline to some harmless joke, and any girl who thought otherwise was being too sensitive, and would be described as such to the principal, if anyone dared report this incident. The girls, as bullied as Kumiko, managed some forced laughter. Kumiko tried, but her laughter turned to sobs.

The bell rang. He delighted in the looks of utter relief on the faces of all as they scrambled to get their books in their bags and their feet out the door. Ah, the bitter, corrosive, exalted bliss of revenge! Was there any feeling finer—apart from being happy and not needing to wound people’s feelings because one wasn’t constantly full of spite and resentment? No, thought Lionel Bogg, there isn’t. At least not for me.

The classroom was mostly cleared when he turned to his desk and saw his cell missing. It’d been sitting there seconds before. He slapped his pockets, scanned the floor, felt and saw nothing, and panicked. “Hold on, girls! Hey! Has anyone seen my—?”

The few students still in the room cast him looks of sweetly innocent incomprehension and hurried on. Could one of them have—?

The school P.A. system crackled into life. Rather than the sound of the elderly secretary reading out announcements, he was greeted by the voice of a girl from his class—he couldn’t tell which one; they all sounded alike. “Herro, I am Mr Bogg’s personar assistant, returning your carr—prease give me message for him.”

“Oh,” said a voice that Bogg recognized. Dear God, no! “I…didn’t realize he had a personal assistant now.”

“Yes! Message prease!”

It only took a second for Bogg to realize that a girl had stolen his phone and—somehow privy to his frequent-caller list—selected the name on it most likely to cause him embarrassment if publically exposed. She’d then locked herself inside the school office, where the P.A. microphone was, and was broadcasting her conversation through the school, indoors and out. He fought the need to vomit, and sprinted for the office.

“Uh,” said a slightly timid-sounding voice out of numerous speakers as Bogg ran, “well, I’m secretary-general of W.A.W.A.W.A.W., and Lionel of course is one of our founding members, and so I was just—”

“W.A.W.A.W.A.W.?” The girl giggled. “What is, prease? It sounds rike wawawa—you know, sad trombone sound, when somebody make mistake!” She sang the descending notes, and giggled again.
                                                                 

The man on the other end of the line became even more flustered than he already was. “We’re a support group and political collective, we help men with relationship issues…we’re called Women Are Wonderful And Weird—open bracket—And Worrisome—close bracket.” He sounded sheepish.

The girl was having difficulty not laughing. “Poriticar? How?”

“Look, I—do you really need to know this? For a message?”

“Prease!”

“Well, we organize rallies—anti-Valentine’s-Day rallies, condom boycotts, ban-Victoria’s-Secret-ads petitions, anti-bikini marches, and so on. We’re trying to stop any kind of public encouragement or even mention of sexuality, basically, because—” He’d grown bolder as he spoke and his feelings were evidently driving him to more frankness with a stranger than he felt comfortable with, and now he hesitated, on the brink of blurting deeply held beliefs. A second passed, in which some inner scale tipped, and he grew passionate. “I mean—you women are so sexy! And if we’re ugly—you hate us! You only like handsome guys, or rich ones! You know what that does to us? Have you ever ached for someone, only to have her—” The sound of the girl’s gasping laughter stopped the caller’s speech. He muttered, “Fine,” bitterly, and hung up.

And then the girl signed off and unlocked the door and, still laughing uncontrollably, tossed Bogg his phone. A couple of school admin staff, and the principal, stood, glaring in outrage and open-mouthed in disbelief, and pointed the girl toward a room, presumably for a disciplinary meeting that would see her expelled. Or so Bogg hoped. Not that it mattered anymore. The damage was done. She’d humiliated him beyond what he could bear. He thought he might kill himself, if he could just get out of this damn school.

      It was all true, of course. After two decades of bitter sexual frustration, he’d founded a politico-therapeutic collective for the erotically aggrieved—men without women, men without hope, men whose sex lives were all masturbation and hopeless public staring at the pretty and unattainable. They weren’t misogynists. They weren’t a hate group; they were a self-pity group, and the enemy wasn’t women it was the cruelty of sex itself, which invited everyone to the same dance but didn’t let all the dancers take the floor; a miserable minority were ruthlessly snubbed. Lionel remembered his one, traumatic encounter with an actual woman—a plain girl in college, half-drunk—and he’d ejaculated all over her hands as she tried to remove his underpants. Her disgusted laughter still haunted his dreams. He tried a second time to lose his virginity, but when he showed up at the call-girl’s door with a wallet full of cash and a big, terrified grin, she’d wrinkled her nose and turned him away, complaining of “a bad vibe.” It was the final blow to his dignity. Even prostitutes abhorred him! He was worse than a leper! Bitterness entered his soul, and he determined to loathe all women. But this resolve lasted barely a week. Try as he might, he couldn’t blame them for the strange unattractiveness that characterized his personality as much as his appearance—it seemed something inborn, passed down from his ancestors somehow, a genetic flaw, like elephantiasis or dwarfism, and nothing he could do anything about. It felt like punishment and filled him with hate. But at who, and for what?

     He went back to his classroom and loaded papers into his briefcase. Students filed in for the next class, but he didn’t lift his head to acknowledge them. His hands shook so badly he almost couldn’t slot the sheets into the pouches. Revenge? Yes, the clever girl had certainly gotten her revenge on the cruel teacher who’d shamed her friend. It was a masterstroke, and nearly a fatal one. He wandered out into the hall in a daze, like a boxer punched too many times, reeling on the ropes. I need to get out without seeing her, he told himself.

     And who was “her”?

     Only the woman he adored above all others—who made the Kumiko’s of his life mere cute, momentary distractions. The goddess he truly desired was a colleague, a woman of twenty-seven named Harmony Uphill, the gorgeous daughter of two former fashion models named Jack and Jill Uphill—once the poster-persons for a brand of blue jeans that made them momentarily rich, now retirees (and repentant stockmarket speculators) awaiting their first grandchild. Since Harmony was engaged to an engaging young chap—a handsome fitness instructor, as it happened—the prospect of such a thing seemed imminent. Harmony was as kind as she was beautiful, and no less friendly and pleasant with colleagues than they were with her—for her manner won everyone’s immediate and lasting fondness. It broke Lionel’s heart just to look at her. She wasn’t a flirt, she wasn’t cruel, she didn’t flaunt her loveliness or dress to make herself any more stunning than she already was; but even understated and modest, she’d unwittingly put most of the male teachers under her spell. Yet none of them worshipped her as utterly as the ugliest and oddest of them all, Lionel Bogg.

     Who was making for the front door as fast as he could. Had he quit? Would he bolt from the building so he could stride into traffic and get flattened by a semi-trailer? Even he didn’t know. He only knew he had to escape the aghast stares of colleagues, the smirks and points of students, the horror of having to face Harmony in a staff meeting, sooner or later, and know she knew he was an utter loser, a sexual failure on an unprecedented scale. He charged for the front doors.

     Just before he reached them, the staff-room door flew open and Harmony sailed out, nearly colliding with him. He reeled back as if shot. She—with iPod earbuds in her ears—blinked and stared at his crazily disproportionate reaction to their harmless near-miss. “Oh, hi, Lionel,” she said, and smiled.

     “Huhh—” he exhaled, trying to say hi but losing his breath halfway through, and managing merely a sound like a punctured tire.

     “Are you—leaving?” She looked alarmed. Probably because he looked alarming. He knew his face was white and stricken, and he was hunched forward as if at gunpoint, getting marched out to face a firing squad.

     “The parking lot!” he sort of wailed. “Did you hear—the announcement?”

     She blinked rapidly, trying to grasp his panic. “Oh, no. I was on my lunch hour—listening.” And she grinned and gestured at her earpieces, one of which was still in her ear. From the other issued tinny music, a faint rock beat. “It’s this awesome new Canadian band somebody told me about, Adolf Harper and the C-51s, ever heard of them?”

     “No.”

     “Is everything OK? You look—”

     He turned and ran. He didn’t look back. It felt—as he gripped his briefcase like a baton and swung his arms and gathered real speed, sprinting through the parking-lot where more than one car honked warningly—it felt as if he were being pursued, and not by a pleasantly concerned Harmony, either, but something large and terrible. It felt like his own life was following him—his past, his whole history, gathered together in a giant ball, a knotted tangle of upsets and unresolved tensions and despairs, and it was going to land on him like a boulder and crush him, unless he raced as hard as he could.

     How he jaywalked—or jaysprinted—across four lanes of busy traffic without suffering a scratch he wasn’t able to determine later. Not that he was relieved—he would’ve preferred collision with a car to collision with that ball of horror that pursued him—his fate, it almost seemed, in physical form.

     One way or the other, though, he ended up on a bench in a park a few blocks from the school, lying on his back, one arm cast across his face, gasping for breath. Nobody approached—either because the world was a cruel, heartless place with no one in it merciful enough to inquire about the wellbeing of someone sprawled, like him, on a bench in a state of collapse, or else because he was so deranged-looking there was no one brave enough to do so. Maybe it was fate that not a soul seemed to notice his nervous breakdown. Maybe fate subtly, unceasingly steers our lives—mysterious higher forces that manifest themselves as everyday luck and chance.

     By chance, or something, someone sat down beside him. One of Lionel’s legs drooped off the bench, leaving enough space for a bum to fit.  The owner of the bum cleared his throat. “Sit up, Bogg. It’s gone now.”

     These words were said with such quiet conviction—as if obedience would be instantaneous and there was no need to raise one’s voice much above a whisper—that Bogg stopped hyperventilating and removed his arm. A man of maybe sixty—closely cropped hair of gunmetal grey, posture as erect as an athlete’s, face stern as a general’s—was looking at him. He heaved himself up. “I—what? How do you know my name? What’s gone?”

     “You know what. And do you know why it’s gone?”

     He felt mild panic but held it down. “No. Do you?” There was a weird enough mood to the encounter for him to ask such a question. He thought, for a second, he might be hallucinating. That at least would make the situation comprehensible.

     “I do. It’s gone because I’m here.”

     “You’re…here…?”

     “That’s right. I’m it.”

     “You’re it?”

     “I’m it. You know what it is? I mean—are you prepared to admit to yourself that you know what it is, what I am?”

     “I—”

     “You’re not sure. I get it. It’s a bit of a shock. That these things happen. But let’s get real. You’ve been running from your fate. You’ve been running from certain laws of the universe. But you’ve run out of energy. You can’t run anymore. Which means—what?”

     He shook his head. “I feel so weird. What’s happening to me?”

     “You’re happening to yourself. I’m happening to you. You have two options. Would you like to know what they are?”

     He nodded, weary, terrified, confused.

     “You know what the options are, but you don’t want to tell yourself that you know what they are, just like you don’t want to tell yourself a lot of things. That’s why I’m here. The options are, one, you listen to me, two, you refuse to listen to me. The only way you can refuse to listen to me, since I’m here now, and you can’t get rid of me—is to kill yourself. Those are the options. Which would you like?”

     “I…” He tried to assert himself, somehow, against all this weirdness. “I could kill you!” he cried, in a voice he tried to make bold, but wasn’t

     “You can’t kill me,” the man said.

     “Why not?”

     “You know why. Now which option is it going to be—suicide, or a listening ear?”

     He inhaled, shakily. “Go ahead. Say what you came here to say.”

     “What I came here to say is: I know who you are. And I know who you’ve been.”

     He frowned. “I’m Lionel Bogg. And, yeah, sure, I’m not proud of myself, but you try living my life, man, and you’d see—”

     “I don’t mean I know who’ve you been before today. I mean I know who you’ve been before you were Lionel Bogg. The only reason you’re Lionel Bogg is because you used to be Lucille Zone, and then, of course, the infamous Melody Swobe.”

     Lionel stared. This was much worse than getting hit by a car—this might even be worse than getting laughed at by Harmony. Now he was being harassed by a large, sinister individual—an agent of some kind, since he knew his name—but an agent for what, or who?—and he was messing with his head. Lionel had been taunted, abused, ridiculed, threatened, over the course of his thirty-four years—who hasn’t?—but he’d never been subjected to this kind of abuse. The guy’s stare, voice, and manner were like a hypnotist’s—and he was making him believe, damn it, he was making him believe what he was saying. He hadn’t realized, till this moment, how psychologically fragile he was, how vulnerable to a determined, intelligent harasser. He had no answer to it—he nodded, as if spellbound.

     “You remember, right, a little—now that I mention it? I am your fate, Lionel, I am the thread of your personal karma, personified. I know your past lives, the lives that brought you to your present one. I know the depths of you, which a single life can’t contain. I’m your friend, your enemy, your double, your conscience, your id, your intuition. I’m not a hallucination, I’m right here, physically present, a person. These things happen, though not often. You’re a rare case. Which option would you like now? Listen some more, or kill yourself?”

     The spell had deepened. Things were beginning to make sense which shouldn’t have made sense, that didn’t seem possible, but which he accepted, at least in a provisional way. “Go on,” he said.

     “You were Lucille Zone. You were born in Arizona in 1850, lived your whole life there, and died in 1890, of suicide. It’s a habit of yours. That’s why I asked if you were interested again. If you’re not, well, maybe we’ve made some progress. Anyway. You were a farm girl, kind of. Daughter of a rancher. His eldest, his prettiest, and he had four very pretty daughters. Every cattleman within a hundred miles of the Zone ranch wanted you for his son. You refused them all. You accepted them, one after the other, from the your fifteenth birthday on, but then you kept turning them down—toying with them, driving them crazy, sending some of them to their graves with self-inflicted wounds, and never taking anyone’s hand in marriage. I could show you a picture of you but you might not believe it, it’s a worn daguerreotype, but your looks still shine through—uncommon beauty would be putting it mildly. Your were painted by Ezekial Shroud, a leading portrait-painter of the day, though the picture was lost in a fire in the 1940s. John Singer Sargent proposed to paint your likeness when he happened to see you holidaying one summer in Boston, but his wife and rich friends dissuaded him, though only after bitter feuding—you weren’t a society lady, after all, you lived on a ranch. Your French tutor left his wife and six children to throw himself at your feet. You laughed at him. He hung himself. I could go on. Do you remember any of this?”

     He was in a trance. Or that’s what it felt like. He was sitting upright, palms calmly laid on his thighs, looking straight ahead—but the park’s trees and flowerbeds in front of him seemed only a reflection overlaying a setting altogether different, of oaks and elms and shaded lawns and tall wrought-iron fences, beyond which stretched grassy prairie, herds of moving cattle, high cloud in cerulean sky. “I would sit on the verandah, with Sally our coloured maid, and watch them come—carriage after carriage, sending up clouds of dust as they plied the prairie road, carrying shy fathers and sheepish sons from all the best families of Arizona. It was like being paid homage to, as if I were an empress receiving booty from the four corners of the empire. Men would stare, speechless. I could make hardened generals, with sabre and bullet scars from the Civil War, drop their eyes, abashed, by merely fixing them with a steady gaze for a few seconds. Men who wrestled bulls to the ground or fought Indians, I reduced to tears. They shook, from their great shoulders to their boots, and pleaded, why, why, like little boys slapped by fathers, when I refused them. Sly old Sally would rock in her chair, her knitting needles unceasing, and snicker, ‘More sacrificial victims, miss,’ as  those carriages came.”

     “And how did that make you feel?”

     He inhaled—and seemed to smell not the city that surrounded this small greenspace but watered lawn, wet topsoil, mown hay, horse manure, alfalfa bales, oiled leather, endless fields of phlox and wild rose, and air fresher than any he’d ever breathed. It filled him with a strange exaltation. “I felt so powerful,” he murmured. “Power is a physical feeling—a tingle on your skin and a throb that matches your pulse. Every soft thing you touch feels a thousand times softer, everything delicious you taste has its savour multiplied a thousand times, every perfume is more heavenly when you inhale it than it would be for anyone else. Music transports like a drug. Laughter oozes through you in liquid spasms. There’s no need for sex when the simplest pleasures are like orgasms. Power is the supreme joy of life. Oh, God, how I once rejoiced to be alive.” Grief overcame him, the momentary apprehension of a past existence fading faster than a snowflake on a hand, and he wept, covering his face and shaking.

     The palm on his shoulder was roughly corrective, not commiserating. “You got older. You looked lovelier at forty than many girls do at twenty-five, but the real force of your attraction had spent itself. You were beautiful, yes, but not in the commanding way you’d been—men didn’t fatally succumb to your smiles, throwing away their lives and wives and friends if you lured them on. Suitors still vied for your hand, but, when you scorned them, as you always did, they recovered—and sometimes they recovered within the day, and you heard of them paying visits to other ladies, younger ones, with whom they thought they had a better chance of success. It galled you—it vexed you to the bottom of yourself, because it was all you’d ever had, that lust to rule, to play with lives, to drink desire as drunkards do liquor. You could see your future and it was a barren prairie. You sweet-talked a doctor into prescribing you laudanum, then horded your doses, for one fine day.”

     “Late September,” he groaned, his face in his hands. Then he lowered them, inhaled, and stared, in a resigned way, straight ahead. “Always the worst time of year for me. You can feel the warmth and light leaving, the days start to shorten, and you know an endless gloom of fall and winter will interpose between you and a distant spring. Oh, God, I want to kill myself!” He clutched his chest as if stabbed, and canted sideways. “I want to kill myself!” he screamed across the park. A stroller or two turned their heads, but kept on.

     “You did, Lucille. You’re gone now. Come back, Lionel.”

     Lionel came back, but his face was a cramp of anguish. “So…this is karma, this life of mine, a punishment for…that’s why I’m me now, a monster…?”

     A shrug. “Nothing’s so simple—it’s all tendencies, percentages, likelihoods, but harm always hurts both ways, and you’d spread a lot of damage, steered a lot of lives toward darkness, when they could’ve sought the light. But you were given another chance.”

     “Melody Swobe?”

     “Melody Swobe!” sighed Fate, his face lifted and lit up with a faraway look, a mild smile, mystified and marvelling at the same time. “1891 to 1939, her dates! A young German-Italian adventuress in the thick of the Belle Époque, at its extravagant, outrageous epicentre, Paris, and joie de vivre oozing from your every pore—opera houses, casinos, cabarets, bistros and music halls your haunts, and a great troop of smitten fools, young and not-so-young, fawning over you, begging for a night, nay, an hour, in your bed.”

     “Every man in Paris at my feet?”

     “You specialized in seducing women. Then you blackmailed them. Decent aristocratic ladies, respected socialites—mothers and daughters of the haute-bourgeoisie or the nouveau-riche, married or engaged to industrialists, bankers, and landowners, and very few of whom ever entertained a single lesbian thought before you got your hooks into them. Afterwards, with those who fell to scandal and ruin, they couldn’t conceive what’d come over them—they didn’t desire women, they said, they still loved their husbands or sweethearts, they were not, they insisted (to themselves and any friends they might still have), members of that depraved species of female hinted at in the ancient Greek stories of Sappho and her intimates on the Isle of Lesbos.” He laughed. “Ah, you were a force of nature, Melody, and introduced many a young girl and married madame to pleasures no man had ever quickened in her before. In the thick of their brief, doomed passions for you, ladies would protest that you acted on them like absinthe or Vin Mariani—like some drug they longed to overdose on. They’d abscond with you—hustling you into private railway coaches and whisking you off to Biarritz, Deauville or the Riviera, to make love to you in grand hotels.”

     He was nodding. “I remember the smell of the sea. We’d leave the balcony doors open and watch the guaze curtains dance in the breeze and drink wine in bed and kiss. What a sweet fate that was for a while—a pair of wine-wet lips on yours, and salt spray tickling your skin, and the chatter of crowds down on the boulevard, innocent of what we did two stories above them!…a thin curtain alone interposing between our audacity and their naiveté…ah, the thrill of it! All the sex a girl could want without the risk of pregnancy! How I miss those days.”

     “And then what did you do—you cold-hearted harlot?”

     He shrugged, smirked. “I would leave in the night, steal out a side way, hire a carriage, buy a train ticket…leaving only a letter behind, in which I noted that I’d copied down the names and addresses of loved ones…mothers, fathers, husbands, children…and would tell all, if I didn’t receive a large sum by the end of the month, in a bank account in Paris. I ensured the sum wasn’t utterly ruinous—merely exorbitant. I learned my lesson on that score from the Princess des Cygnes, who drank poison when I betrayed her, and drove both her mother and father to do the same. The news rocked the city. I spent two summers in St Petersburg as a result, laying low. The Hermitage was lovely but Russian ladies proved a little less seducible, I’m not sure why. I was getting older.”

     “The Princess was just nineteen, a woman of immense intelligence—she was destined, had you not crossed her path, to marry a French scientist and produce three children, the eldest of whom would follow in his father’s footsteps and make certain discoveries in biochemistry which would open the door, decades later, to the cure of all cancers. Are you still nostalgic for your glory days, Melody?”

     Lionel curled up in a ball on the ground. Waves of pain went through him that might, he imagined, rival childbirth in their brutal intensity. Was it grief for past sins, or just the agony of passage between worlds, the throes of rapid transformation back and forth between selves? He struggled to sit up at last, sweating, his mouth agape, shedding a thread of drool. “I feel horrible.”

     “A spot of epilepsy, my dear? Or are you remembering the prussic acid you drank in Petersburg? You can only be young so long, you said, and poured some in your champagne—your last words were au revoir, jolie jeu, characteristically flippant and shallow. Bodies sometimes bear traces of previous lives which can be reactivated by hypnotic suggestion, but don’t worry, it’ll soon pass. Karmic indigestion, call it.”

     “Have you hypnotised me? Is that why I…revert?”

     “Ah, but how do you know I’m even here? Notice nobody looks at me when they pass.”

     “You said you were here—repeatedly.”

     “I repeatedly said something like that. But it depends how I’m here, doesn’t it?”

     “You said you were physically present.”

     “Physically present to you. A sunrise is physically present to a blind man, but only in the form of the light he feels on his face, not as a visible phenomenon. Everyone has a fate, Lionel. It follows them through their life—across their lives—and sometimes it even leads them. It’s your fate, now, to see your fate. To speak to it like a friend. You don’t have any friends, except a few fellow kooks in that club of yours, and things are taking a dire turn, Lionel. Choices must be made this very hour that determine your future, your futures.” He took out a notepad, whose pages he flipped. “We’re at a pivot, and those can be tricky—if you channel dark energies into your life, they’ll sweep you toward some pretty ghastly fates. Zone and Swobe were dark pivots, and you owe your present unhappiness to them. Not that they’re your only recent incarnations—you were also a schoolboy in Morocco who died of polio at the age of ten. He was sweet-tempered, dutiful, kind to a crippled cousin, and taught a younger brother to read. You were also a five year old boy in India who was hit by a train in Calcutta, but harmless enough before that. You have those two lives to thank that you’re still human, and not a cow awaiting conversion into meat in a commercial ranch somewhere, or a woolly hare clinging to life on the frozen plateaus of Nepal—or a centipede, or a bacterium, or a virus. You can always fall lower, and you’re falling now. Worse or better’s up to you.” He clapped the notebook shut and stood. “That’s about it.”

     “What? Where are you going?”

     Fate laughed at him. “That’s a pretty funny question! Don’t ask why. Look, Lionel, the solution is as plain as it ever was—basic acceptance of who you are, wretched or otherwise, breeds a calmness that can inspire kindness, and kindness is how you rise. Cruelty’s how you fall. The rest of the universe is a mystery but the principles of karmic realignment aren’t.” He brought his palms together in front of his chest and half-bowed from the waist. Then winked and walked off.

     “Hey!” Lionel called.

     Fate turned. “What?”

     “Who was Harmony Uphill—did I know her before?”

     “Her name was James Brushwood, one of your suitors when you were Lucille Zone. You broke his heart when he was twenty but he refused to let it destroy him and eventually he met a nice girl, married, had a family, lived a decent life and ended up kind and resigned, not bitter. He never forgot you but he accepted his fate—not to get the girl of his dreams. It takes a large heart.”

     He nodded, and Fate, unhurried, strolled out of sight. Lionel Swobe picked up his fallen briefcase and started collecting together the papers that had scattered from it. He heard urgent Japanese chatter long before he saw Kumiko and a half-dozen friends stroll into view, laughing and clamouring around a smartphone she was holding. When they saw him—dishevelled, red-eyed from crying, frozen in panic and shame—they stopped and stared, uncertain. But then their faces hardened and—it started with Kumiko—they smirked.

     “Rook,” she said, and thrust out her phone at him, “you.”

     And he watched the video she played—him racing through the parking lot, howling and looking back over a shoulder, chased by some unseen horror.

     “You posted me on YouTube.”

     “Yes.”

     “You don’t like me, do you, Kumiko?”

     “No.” She was a kind girl, he could tell, but hurt, and determined, despite herself, to hurt back, to spread as much pain as possible. It was a strategy he knew well.

     “I don’t like me, either. I’m not a nice teacher or a nice man. But you’re a nice girl, Kumiko, and I’m sorry I embarrassed you. I won’t be mean again. I hope you’ll forgive me eventually—not for my sake but for yours.” He got his briefcase shut and was ready to leave, and go back to school—back to the acceptance of his fate. He realized, after a couple of lopsided strides, that he had only one shoe. The girls laughed at him scornfully, and he laughed too, which made them stop. “Could you do something for me, Kumiko?”

     She frowned, suspicious. “What?”

    “You don’t have to like me. Just don’t be like me.”  







    

  

  

Saturday, 17 January 2015


On Concentration


 

When Saul Bellow delivered the Romanes Lecture at Oxford in 1990, the Internet was a dubious prophecy of tech specialists and mobile phones resembled military walkie-talkies; they took ten hours to charge, functioned for thirty minutes, and weighed two pounds. His talk was called “The Distracted Public” and, despite a pre-digital absence of smartphones, Twitter feeds or even e-mail, he could still worry about what was happening to the average person’s—the average reader’s—attention span. TV was the culprit,  “the principal source of the noise peculiar to our time—an illuminated noise that claims our attention not in order to concentrate it but to disperse it. [W]hat we really look to it for is distraction—distraction in the form of a phantom or an approximate reality.”  

            Although it was a far-from-original point (he quoted Orwell in his defence: “we have now sunk to a depth at which the restatement of the obvious is the first duty of civilized men”), he believed it worth making for all those technology-jaded lecture-hall listeners sunk glumy in their Information Revolution (to dust off an antique phrase…the Cold War was still in progress!).  He reminded them that they were being “overrun by a variety of forces—political, technological, journalistic, agitational. Vast enterprises described as the communications industry inform, misinform, or disinform the public about politics, wars, and revolutions, about religious or racial conflicts, and also about education, law, medicine, books, theatre, music, cookery. To make such lists gives a misleading impression of order. The truth is that we are in an unbearable state of confusion, or distraction.”

            Unbearably distracted—before BlackBerries, iTunes and Facebook? So what the hell kind of state are we in now? Johann Hari’s review of The Lost Art of Reading: Why Books Matter in a Distracted Time (2010) by David Ulin, which appeared in the London Independent in 2011, offers an updated version of Bellow’s agony of distraction, all that “inner confusion and centrelessness of our understanding…[that] state of dispersed attention”:

 

All his life, [Ulin] had taken reading as for granted as eating—but then, a few years ago, he “became aware, in an apartment full of books, that I could no longer find within myself the quiet necessary to read.” He would sit down to do it at night, as he always had, and read a few paragraphs, then find his mind wandering, imploring him to check his email, or Twitter, or Facebook. “What I’m struggling with,” he writes, “is the encroachment of the buzz, the sense that there’s something out there that merits my attention.”

 

A not unfamiliar scenario, surely; but what’s really going on in this all-too-representative anecdote? In Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life (2009), Winifred Gallagher ventures a deeper diagnosis of twenty-first-century distraction:

 

It’s not a coincidence that the term distracted once referred not just to a loss or dilution of attention but also to confusion, mental imbalance, and even madness. It’s all too easy to spend much of your life in such an unfocused, mixed-up condition, rushing toward the chimera of a better time and place to tune in and, well, be alive. It’s the fashion to blame the Internet and computers, cell phones and cable TV for this diffused, fragmented state of mind, but our seductive machines are not at fault. The real problem is that we don’t appreciate our own ability to use attention to select and create truly satisfying experience. Instead of exercising this potential, we too often take the lazy way out, settle for less, and squander our mental money and precious time on whatever captures our awareness willy-nilly, no matter how disappointing the consequences.

 

Really? Our gadgets aren’t to blame for our tendency to waste time? The accelerated, indiscriminate, superficial consciousnes of the average laptopper or iPaddist is the product not of time-wasting technologies but of his own worst impulses? His capacity for idleness, his antipathy toward seriousness, concertedness, commitment, effort, personal responsibility? Isn’t this a rather moral position to take? Doesn’t it sound preachy to say so? But Carl Jung was no churchman, and he once said, “Hurry is not of the devil; it is the devil.” And if we’re all mentally hurrying about, where does the deeper restlessness come from? Maybe restlessnes is all we are. But if so, why indulge in Luddite daydreams of happier times, when people were supposedly calmer and more focused? If Gallagher’s right, our ancestors were only less scatterbrained than us because they lacked the means to become as distracted as we are. In other words, seventeenth-century Puritans, spending hours in church every Sunday, and hours more in private prayer or frowning through the latest Cotton Mather bestseller (Magnalia Christi Americana; or, The Ecclesiastical History of New England in seven volumes, anyone?), did so only because they couldn’t spend whole weekends scrolling joylessly through eBay, MySpace, Instagram, YouPorn, CraigsList, reddit, Yahoo and LinkedIn. A depressing thesis. Do we want to be distracted; is it delicious relief from our own company? Bellow certainly thought so:

 

I have suggested that distraction is…inviting. It can be seductive. It is often flattering. Pascal, a great observer of such things, said that the happiness of highly place persons was due to their having a crowd to amuse them. “A king,” he wrote, “is surrounded by men who take wonderful care never to let him be alone and think about himself.” So in a sense we are all highly placed persons—kings even—or treated as such by those who control (but is control really the word for it?) the electronic instruments that disseminate information-entertainment-opinion in hypnotic words and images.

 

 

Great. So we’ve devised technologies that perfectly pander to our perennial wish for effortless pleasure, just as we’ve designed fatally delicious fast food that targets our tastebuds’ weakness for salt, fat and sugar. Now what?

 

Bellow, a writer of serious novels, thinks reading serious novels can help, and talks at length about a state of mind he calls “aesthetic bliss,” total absorption in a fictional narrative. Which is fine, but the problem is, as he himself just pointed out, more and more people find it impossible to succumb to that particular spell. Another novelist, Philip Roth, even predicted that the novel would nearly die out in a few decades (in an October 2009 article in the Guardian), a victim of “the screen.”

 

According to Winifred Gallagher, who’s concerned about concentration in general and not just readers’ attention spans, a basic adjustment of attitude is called for, from the passive to the active: you have to choose what to target with your attention, and the cost of concentration, the effort involved, will be repaid, with many subjective benefits collectively defined as “quality of life.” Much neuroscientific data is marshalled to make her point, which is that personal well-being is closely dependent on becoming attentive to present experience, or what Buddhists would call mindfulness. It’s an interesting book but I mention it mainly for her point that distraction must be actively resisted. It’s a choice, and maybe a moral one. 

 

Because let’s say now that in the future technology is going to increasingly crowd, cajole and complicate our consciousness, and that thrilling new methods of pleasantly wasting time will pile up on top of each other in ways we can’t imagine at present. At some point, in that context, reading a book will become a very deliberate undertaking, a quite willful act, of implicit criticism, of dissent, of absconsion, of resistance, almost a political act. Screen-era citizens will stare and whisper, pity and despise the page-turner. Determined book readers may need encouragement, an example of how it can be done; mentors and models, if you will. And, nice guy that I am, I’ve gone and kindly supplied them with several, in the heroes of my new book, The Concentrationsts, set a hundred years ago, but addressed to readers a hundred years hence, if there are still any, as well as to you, who have read this far (if there are any of you). Give it a try. You might like it. It repays concentration.

 

 

           

Renaissance Man.

A rewiew of Duncan Fallowell’s How to Disappear: A Memoir for Misfits, published by Terrace Books, 2013.

I got excited when I discovered the subtitle of Duncan Fallowell’s book, How to Disappear: A Memoir for Misfits, concealed an anagram—memento mori—until I realized I’d badly misspelled the Latin. It doesn’t matter. The mortal warning (“remember you must die”) is, along with its sunnier counterpart, carpe diem, implicit in the title. The title, though, is ironic, since this is no manual for recluses but a proposition on how best to make use of that disappearing thing called a life, how to rage against the dying of the light…how, almost, not to disappear, but to leave traces of oneself behind, and to find and appreciate those left by others. It’s also a lesson in, as Fallowell puts it at one point, “how not to be shy of the heart.” It’s advice dispensed to misfits, as if the level-headed conventional majority might miss what’s implied in this message from the margins.  

A memoir is a piece of personal curation, a selection and arrangement of details rescued from the tendency of everything in one’s life, mental or material, to degrade or disappear over time. There is a sort of background hiss in the book, the sound of time passing (“a crunchy noise, like that of a death beetle”), which manifests itself in frequent references to demolished hotels, destroyed grand villas, vanished villages and defunct academies. But museums and archives also abound, symbols of a counter-entropic effort, an effort to spare specimens of memory from the universal slippage; as are the excavations at Herculaneum and Pompeii, whose funerary monuments, for Fallowell, “remind us once again of the oblivion which awaits us all.” Not that awareness of what awaits makes for a gloomy tone—rather for frankness. If the grave gapes there’s no time for subterfuge or not facing facts. This is a book of unveilings, of searches and researches into personal oblivions, both the inevitable, unsought variety and the self-imposed sort pursued by those “shy of the heart” who “stew and hide.” A couple of these Fallowell tries to track down; but he’s a tactful, at times almost tender, detective. If he unmasks (in “The Curious Case of Bapsy Pavry”) the private misery behind the outlandish public pretensions of an Indian socialite, it’s done commiseratingly, not to mock; nor does he (in “Who Was Alastair Graham?”) buttonhole and then belittle the man who was once, to his great retrospective embarrassment, the boyfriend of Evelyn Waugh. Disappearance seems synonymous with dishonesty for Fallowell in this chapter, a sin he elsewhere can’t forgive, but his posthumous reconstruction of a lifestory its owner wanted kept secret isn’t undertaken in order to punish, as in many a recent biography specialising in digging up dirt and debunking the dead. It’s an exercise in nostalgia, which he defines, quite wonderfully, not as sentimentality but as rediscovery, almost restitution, of lost truths:

 

[C]uriosity and the pursuit of novelty does not exclude the past. Far from it. Nostalgia is often the route to rebirth. That is what the word ‘renaissance’ means, rebirth, and the Renaissance in Europe was the rediscovery of the old classical world, a discovery which enabled Europe to escape from the suffocation of the Middle Ages into a healthier light. Nostalgia isn’t a hankering for the past as such, but the desire to retrieve a loss. 

 

“Nostalgia,” in fact, is a Homeric word, a compound of the Greek roots “nostos,” meaning homecoming, and “algos,” meaning pain, and a journey homeward in pain is what Odysseus makes in the Odyssey, which ends in ugly confrontation, not sentiment. Fallowell, traveling the literal Mediterranean as well as Mediterraneans of memory, is unabashed about not prettifying the past, his own or anyone else’s, and is more argonaut than antiquarian. Although the ancients are his guide throughout, it’s their attitude more than their artefacts that interest him—specifically the sort of sanity summed up in those complimentary mottoes I mentioned, which try to balance a frank acceptance of death with a frank relish for life. These are attitudes which, Fallowell feels, have today largely disappeared or been marginalised:

 

The ancients did not veil sexuality and are at home with it in a way that the Christian world never is, nor the Muslim or Jewish worlds. Sex in Pompeii was simply everywhere, openly displayed in pictures, household objects, public statues, graffiti, brothels and books, surviving testimony to the ruthlessness of sexual repression by the religions which came after…. Something goaty and awe-inspiring trembles in the air and one cannot help feeling that in the arts of congress the Pompeian would find modern man a curiously worried child. Modern European psychology and art has largely been devoted to repairing this rupture from the elemental which was master-minded in private life by the Church and in public life by the indsutrial revolution.

 

With his unsentimental curiosity about the past, cleansed of Christian criticisms, Fallowell is almost a sort of latter-day Renaissance man himself, with a penetrating,  idiosyncratic eye. “I am describing the place in some detail,” he says of a hotel room at one point, “because it is a rarity, an example of a kind of sanctum which has almost disappeared from the world.” He is, in these pages, a collector and commemorator of rarities, drawn to, and delighting in, the eccentric, misprized, unofficial, and overlooked; the clichéd (notably touristy Venice) repels him. At one point he quotes Horace Walpole (“one hates writing descriptions that are to be found in every book of travels”) and appears to follow this example. His journeys take in Welsh fishing villages, Indian hilltowns, and the fringes of Europe—the Hebrides and a remote Maltese island called Gozo. This last place features in “Sailing to Gozo” (yes, an ironic echo of Yeats’s “Sailing to Byzantium”; the chapter titles form a playful bricolage of references, from Beckett to Brad Pitt). If it begins with a storm at sea and features a Prospero-like wiseman on a lonely island (a polymath of an American professor who paints, recites Pope, and devises a private language), it’s not a teacup-sized Tempest, it’s a Calypso-like epsiode. Gozo is believed to be the site of that story from the Odyssey and here Fallowell encounters the same tendency to paralysis that afflicted Odysseus for seven years. All around him is a sense of stalled life, suppressed purpose, a dour Christianity hiding older impulses, pagan preferences. He sees through it, in a surprising epiphany at the end of the chapter, and this jolts him into his journeys elsewhere—and us into the book which follows. Which is a pleasure to read, and won the 2012 PEN/Ackerley Prize. One can see why.  

 

 

ADVERTISEMENTS FOR MY BLOG

“Of making many blogs there is no end,” the author of Ecclesiastes might have written, if the Iron Age had been online. Wikipedia says there are 150 million of them. Here’s one more. Sorry. An apologia for something few people are likely to read seems hardly worth making, but a systematic rationalization to myself—and blogs are nothing if not forums (or maybe only echo-chambers) of the “self”—is more apropos. Throw in Samuel Johnson’s centuries-old sneer at amateur scribblers, which never fails to deflate me, and it’s even more so. Here goes.

 

The earliest known blog was of course G.K. Chesterton’s wife (pictured). Just kidding. But, yes, that hideous neologism was, is, first a surname. Pity the possessor thereof, unless it’s a Tolkien character coiled in a crevasse in Mordor. (With Mrs Chesterton it was a case, notes biographer Ian Kerr, of   “[t]he original Huguenot French surname ‘de Blogue’ ha[ving] been unfortunately anglicized into ‘Blogg’.”) To me ‘blogger’ as job-description suggests something rank, a cesspit drainer or sewer mender in nineteenth-century London, an ugly word for a filthy trade—but does the connotation suggested by the sound of the term actually fit? Conceive of the blogosphere as a city and it’s clear the blogopolis has districts of intelligence and useful information as well as slums of virtriol, vanity and trivia. ‘Blogger’ doesn’t always or even usually mean ‘windbag,’ “bore,” “crackpot,” “narcissist,” “poseur,” “pedant” or “hack” but it does often enough that I think something of the cesspit, a faint reputational reek from all the awful others out there, does adhere to anyone publishing on a personal website. The taint of the utterly irrelevant, the unofficial, the unvetted and so potentially fifth-rate, hangs over everything you write without a publisher’s imprimatur. The preconception is hard to shake that the average blog resembles a ramshackle kiosk in a street crowded with hundreds like it, all offering doubtful wares, or even a pile of roadside junk hung with a cardboard FREE! sign. While much interesting writing certainly coexists with the logorrhoeic kooks and pointless online Pepys’s, it’s hard to find. The Internet offers the world’s first forum of the totally unmediated Individual, uncensored but also unsolicited, an ocean of Johnsonian amateurs: “take it or leave it, hit or miss, here I am,” could be a collective tag-line for the whole blogosphere. Caveat lector never seemed a fitter proviso for the prospective blog-reader. But for the prospective blogger? Maybe Mark Twain: “It is better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to open one’s mouth and remove all doubt.”

 

Then again, maybe Norman Mailer’s a better guide in this matter. Because if ever a book resembled a blog in spirit and style, it is Advertisements for Myself (1960). Notorious at the time, now more of a curiosity for American literature students, it’s a miscellany-cum-memoir of musings, manifestoes, half-finished novels, excerpts of scripts and stories, appalling poetry, execrable juvenilia, grandiose pronouncements on sundry (no longer) topical matters, angry rambles at enemies, unoriginal insights presented as brilliant new discoveries, and much else in a similarly deranged vein. It’s risible and bathetic as often as it’s stylistically sublime, and I highly recommend it, but my point is that it’s like a large percentage of the blogosphere or social media in general. It’s not that it’s unpolished or uniformly poor—Mailer was a fine novelist and his reputation as such stands—it’s that it’s so willfully unseemly, it’s so blatantly, unapologetically bad-mannered and makeshift: again, like online writing. Mailer boasts about (and prints parts of) books he hasn’t finished—actually, hardly started—and which never do get written, he explains at length why the bad books he wrote weren’t entirely his fault (and then reprints long passages). In the essays he is often polemicising for positions he hasn’t fully worked out, because his ideas are still in progress but he’s damn well publishing them anyway—better to send a half-baked idea to the printer in the white-hot, existential instant of inspiration, than to wait and let effete second thoughts and revisions spoil his style. Style—or the search for one in a time and place he feels has none—is the essence of the book. The horrors of the Second World War (which informed The Naked and the Dead, one of the works on which his reputation rests) and the atomic anxieties that follow it have made 1950s America a colourless, spiritless place, where “one could hardly maintain the courage to be an individual, to speak with one’s own voice…. No wonder then that these have been the years of conformity and depression. A stench of fear has come out of every pore of American life, and we suffer from a collective failure of nerve. The only courage, with rare exceptions, that we have been witness to, has been the isolated courage of isolated people.” Mailer determines to be one such brave solitary, and to speak with his own voice, even if it’s found by endless crowing. Better that than conformist silence.

 

He speaks loudest and clearest in “The White Negro,” an essay likely to be left off many a university syllabus for years to come because, like much of the book, it fails the test of political correctness—as it was meant to. The political correctness of Mailer’s time, less finetuned and multifaceted than ours, was the stark Us-Them thinking of the Cold War, and Mailer was on the side of neither corporate capitalism nor socialism: both bred totalitarianism, he argued, and the American form of it was no better than the Soviet, only harder to spot, dressed in veils of patriotism and Red-scare paranoia. His advertisements are ironic anti-advertisements which deliberately set out to do the opposite of what ads normally do, namely flatter and entertain while insinuating their subtext into our unconscious. Mailer is blunt, rude, ridiculous, and bottomlessly self-regarding to a purpose. He wants to shock a generation out of its thrall to the pleasing messages of its own propaganda. He presents himself, the Self set free, ugly and unreconstructed, as the example to be followed by the brave few, the bands of hipsters who will balk at the values of military-industrial America and bring rebellion to the land of the formerly free. He offers, in all seriousness, the anarchic possibilities of the “nihilism of Hip,” a (dangerous, totally implausible) ethos of moral unrestraint, in place of the dull, killing stasis of mass conformity. His advertisements, his posturing and pontificating, are to be the poetry the spirit of the new age models itself on, like Whitman’s verses in a simpler time. As unbuttoned and full of gusto as Whitman, he replaces the poet’s optimism and fellow-feeling with a rousing, risky appeal to the id as the last answer to the despair of the millions of chronically repressed and alienated:

 

[T]he nihilism of Hip proposes as its final tendency that every social restraint and category be removed, and the affirmation implicit in the proposal is that man would then prove to be more creative than murderous and so would not destroy himself. Which is exactly what separates Hip from the authoritarian philosophies which now appeal to the conservative and liberal temper—what haunts the middle of the twentieth century is that faith in man has been lost, and the appeal of authority has been that it would restrain us from ourselves. Hip, which would return us to ourselves, at no matter what price in individual violence, is the affirmation of the barbarian, for it requires a primitive passion about human nature to believe that individual acts of violence are always to be preferred to the collective violence of the State; it takes literal faith in the creative possibilities of the human being to envisage acts of violence as the catharsis which prepares growth.

 

What would bring a bright writer living in middle-class comfort to make this kind of lunatic appeal to anarchy and “barbarism”? Mailer claims (as Herbert Marcuse would more systematically in “Repressive Tolerance” (1965) and One-Dimensional Man (1964)), that industrialized society limits the possibilities for human freedom and confines the heart in such a narrow preordained compass that the slavery under which the Negro suffered for centuries can be said to have overtaken the rest of society—even if the chains now are merely psychological. As a result, one must turn to the Negro to locate the resources that will keep one’s spirit from being crushed by the State. These turn out to be jazz, sex, violence, and a certain style of language—all of a specifically “Hip” variety, defined in detail in the text, and characterized by an anti-social swagger and menace. Hipsters, leaving the “Square” majority, join the ranks of the outlaws, the traditionally despised and suspected blacks, and drink in the raw uncorrupted vigour of the underclass, adopting the law of the street and making it their own, thereby becoming “White Negroes.” The soul of the contemporary intellectual is thus saved (though he may wind up dead or in jail in the attempt), and the lies of the Squares are exposed and civilization is revitalized. It seems silly if not insane sixty years on, but the malaise Mailer identifies so exactly was very real at the time, as was the influence of this book on the counter-cultures of the next decade, not to mention on Mailer’s own rich if irregular subsequent oeuvre. The Armies of the Night, Why are We in Vietnam? and The Prisoner of Sex, for example, owe their bold style and ideas to the directions his thought took in his Advertisements period.

 

So if you’re online thinking you might find something really interesting to say, if you just keep talking long enough, Mailer is probably your man, not Twain. Twain lacked the nerve to publish his “War Poem” and other pieces excoriating America’s imperialist takeover of the Philippines, c. 1900, which surely makes him, posthumously, the bigger fool, and Mailer the stout foe of aggressive American foreign policy, for all his irresponsible railery, well-advised in retrospect to have risked appearing an ass in order to go with his instincts and speak his mind.

 

So there. I’ve convinced myself. I shall blog, and Johnson take the hindmost. I shall be doubly, deliberately a blockhead—a very bloghead. Down with Künstlerschuld! Down with prevaricating, pusillanimous common sense and a plain style! I dare “the lash of the old Legislator, the Vulgar”(Cervantes)! I defy “the ill-placed cavils of the sour, the envious, the stupid, and the tasteless”(Swift)! I ignore the fact that, though I’m a scribbler named Martin, Martinus Scriblerus is one of the greatest satirical butts in English literature! Quod scripsi, scripsi shall be my cry.

 

More will follow in this space, mostly on books, because what else do I know? In the spirit of Mailer, I announce now these not-yet-even-started projects: a review of Bleeding Edge by Thomas Pynchon; an essay on some of Ruyard Kipling’s late stories; and an essay on a certain species of character in the novels of Anthony Burgess.

 

Until next time (if you ever return), caveat lector.