Literature

Memorial

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I just stumbled across this — in May 1938 Weird Tales published an “acrostic sonnet” by H.P. Lovecraft:

Eternal brood the shadows on this ground,
Dreaming of centuries that have gone before;
Great elms rise solemnly by slab and mound,
Arch’d high above a hidden world of yore.
Round all the scene a light of memory plays,
And dead leaves whisper of departed days,
Longing for sights and sounds that are no more.

Lonely and sad, a spectre glides along
Aisles where of old his living footsteps fell;
No common glance discerns him, tho’ his song
Peals down thro’ time with a mysterious spell:
Only the few who sorcery’s secret know
Espy amidst these tombs the shade of Poe.

The lines’ initial letters spell out EDGAR ALLAN POE.

Comparative Zoology

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In 1866, writing in the Virginia City Territorial Enterprise, Mark Twain accused San Francisco police chief Martin Burke of corruption, and “some leather-head” misinterpreted the column to suggest that Burke kept a mistress. Twain wrote to the San Francisco Examiner with a clarification:

EDITOR EXAMINER:–You published the following paragraph the other day and stated that it was an ‘extract from a letter to the Virginia Enterprise, from the San Francisco correspondent of that paper.’ Please publish it again, and put it in the parentheses where I have marked them, so that people who read with wretched carelessness may know to a dead moral certainty when I am referring to Chief Burke, and also know to an equally dead moral certainty when I am referring to the dog:

‘I want to compliment Chief Burke — I do honestly. But I can’t find anything to compliment him about. He is always rushing furiously around, like a dog after his own tail — and with the same general result, it seems to me; if he (the dog, not the Chief,) catches it, it don’t amount to anything, after all the fuss; and if he (the dog, not the Chief,) don’t catch it it don’t make any difference, because he (the dog, not the Chief,) didn’t want it anyhow; he (the dog, not the Chief,) only wanted the exercise, and the happiness of “showing off” before his (the dog’s, not the Chief’s,) mistress and the other young ladies. But if the Chief (not the dog,) would only do something praiseworthy, I would be the first and the most earnest and cordial to give him (the Chief, not the dog,) the credit due. I would sling him (the Chief, not the dog,) a compliment that would knock him down. I mean that it would be such a first-class compliment that it might surprise him (the Chief, not the dog,) to that extent as coming from me.’

He added: “I think that even the pupils of the Asylum at Stockton can understand that paragraph now.”

Working Late

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Jack London died in 1916, but he turned up, gamely, in 1920 when psychic Margaret More Oliver tried to reach him through automatic writing. “I am at last attuned to life,” he wrote. “There is no discord — no conflict — the clash of mind and will with heart and impulse of soul has ended.”

She proposed that he write a story through her, and after many false starts they succeeded. “I am getting it over!” he wrote. “I am jubilant! Oh, God! it’s good to be able to do it. My pen is coming back to earth and I shall do wonders yet.”

She sent the manuscript to London’s widow, Charmian, proposing to publish it as “Death’s Sting, by Jack London, Deceased.” But Charmian refused: “If I allowed a book to come out under such ‘authorship,’ immediately every faker in the land — and they are legion — would have perfect right to do the same … the selling value of bona fide work of Jack London’s would be more or less injured, and too much depends on this.”

Oliver pressed her, but Charmian was adamant: “If I should ever be convinced, beyond the flutter of a doubt, I’d eat cyanide of potassium so quickly that I’d be on the Other Side, groping around for Jack, before I had time to think about it!”

The text of Death’s Sting seems to have been lost, but evidently it wasn’t very good — Charmian’s aunt, Netta Payne, wrote, “It has no touch of literary merit, no hint of power or idealistic beauty. It is a tedious detail of sordid facts without the least alleviation of literary artistry.” London’s spirit finally agreed: “I tried to speak with my old tongue, but my old tongue is silenced.”

One person who wasn’t surprised at any of this was Arthur Conan Doyle, who had written to Charmian a year after London’s death to suggest that “a strong soul dying prematurely with many earth interests in its thoughts, would be very likely to come back.”

“Mrs. London received my intrusion with courtesy,” Doyle wrote, “but I am not aware that any practical steps were taken toward this end. They seem now to have come from the other side.”

(Edward Biron Payne, The Soul of Jack London, 1927.)

A Frightful Collaboration

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When M.R. James’ Ghost Stories of an Antiquary appeared in 1904, readers were puzzled to find that it contained only four illustrations, an odd number for a book of eight stories. In the preface, James explained that he’d assembled the collection at the suggestion of a friend who had offered to illustrate it but was “taken away” unexpectedly after completing only four pictures.

The friend was James McBryde, a student whom James had met in 1893 at King’s College, Cambridge, where James was dean. The two quickly became close, and McBryde was one of the select few to whom James would read a new ghost story each Christmas by the light of a single candle. They remained close after McBryde left Cambridge, traveling together each year to Denmark and Sweden, and eventually they appointed to work together to publish the ghost stories, which now numbered enough for a collection.

In May 1904 McBryde wrote, “I don’t think I have ever done anything I liked better than illustrating your stories. To begin with I sat down and learned advanced perspective and the laws of shadows …” Regarding the collection’s crowning horror, “Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad,” he wrote, “I have finished the Whistle ghost … I covered yards of paper to put in the moon shadows correctly and it is certainly the best thing I have ever drawn.”

Alas, McBryde died only a month later of complications following an appendix operation. James was adamant that no replacement be found, and Ghost Stories of an Antiquary was published with only four illustrations as a tribute to his friend. “Those who knew the artist will understand how much I wished to give a permanent form even to a fragment of his work,” he wrote. “Others will appreciate the fact that here a remembrance is made of one in whom many friendships centred.”

Of the true depth of their friendship, the full story will never be known. James picked roses, lilac, and honeysuckle from the Fellows Garden at King’s College and carried them with him on the train to McBryde’s funeral in Lancashire, where he dropped them into the grave after the other mourners had left. He remained friends with McBryde’s wife and legal guardian of his daughter, and he arranged for the posthumous publication of McBryde’s children’s book The Story of a Troll Hunt. In the introduction he wrote, “The intercourse of eleven years, — of late, minutely recalled, — has left no single act or word of his which I could choose to forget.”

Invisible Man

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In 1888, as he began work on a new story called “The Chronic Argonauts,” H.G. Wells drew up an account of his literary successes to date:

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“Some day I shall succeed, I really believe,” he wrote, “but it is a weary game.”

An Anatomy Lesson

Back in 2008 I mentioned that, as a joke, Mark Twain had slipped the word oesophagus into an otherwise innocent short story in 1902. I wrote at the time that he’d said that few people noticed anything amiss, but apparently a few did. In a letter to the Springfield Republican on April 12, Twain wrote, “I will say privately that I expected it to bother some people — in fact, that was the intention, — but the harvest has been larger than I was calculating upon. … It is time for me to speak up and stop the inquiries if I can, for letter-writing is not restful to me, and I am not having so much fun out of this thing as I counted on.”

He quotes two letters. The first is from a public instructor in the Philippines:

My Dear Sir: I have just been reading the first part of your latest story entitled ‘A Double-barrelled Detective Story,’ and am very much delighted with it. In part IV, page 264, Harpers’ magazine for January, occurs this passage: ‘far in the empty sky a solitary “oesophagus” slept, upon motionless wing; everywhere brooded stillness, serenity and the peace of God.’ Now, there is one word I do not understand, namely, ‘oesophagus.’ My only work of reference is the ‘Standard Dictionary,’ but that fails to explain the meaning. If you can spare the time, I would be glad to have the meaning cleared up, as I consider the passage a very touching and beautiful one. It may seem foolish to you, but consider my lack of means away out in the northern part of Luzon.

The second is from a professor at a New England university:

Dear Mr. Clemens: ‘Far in the empty sky a solitary oesophagus slept upon motionless wing.’ It is not often I get a chance to read much periodical literature, but I have just gone through at this belated period, with much gratification and edification, your ‘Double-Barrelled Detective Story.’ But what in hell is an oesophagus? I keep one myself, but it never sleeps in the air or anywhere else. My profession is to deal with words, and oesophagus interested me the moment I lighted upon it. But as a companion of my youth used to say, ‘I’ll be eternally, co-eternally cussed’ if I can make it out. Is it a joke, or am I an ignoramus?

“Between you and me, I was almost ashamed of having fooled that man,” Twain wrote, “but for pride’s sake I was not going to say so. I wrote and told him it was a joke. … And I told him to carefully read the whole paragraph, and he would find not a vestige of sense in any detail of it.

“I have confessed. I am sorry — partially. I will not do so any more — for the present. Don’t ask me any more questions; let the oesophagus have a rest — on his same old motionless wing.”

(From Gary Scharnhorst, Mark Twain on Potholes and Politics, 2014.)

Reflections

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More maxims of La Rochefoucauld:

  • “Those who are deceived by our Cunning don’t appear near so ridiculous to us, as we seem to ourselves, when deceived by the Cunning of others.”
  • “The World oftner rewards the Appearance of Merit than Merit itself.”
  • “The Calm, or Disquiet, of our Temper depends not so much on Affairs of Moment; as on an agreeable, or disagreeable, Disposition of the Trifles that daily occur.”
  • “In Misfortunes we often mistake Dejection for Constancy; and we bear them, without daring to look on them; as Cowards suffer themselves to be kill’d, without Resistance.”
  • “How brilliant soever an Action may be, it ought not to pass for Great when it is not the Effect of a Great Design.”
  • “There are Crimes which become innocent, and even glorious, thro their Splendor, Number, and Excess: Hence it is, that public theft is call’d Address; and to seize on Provinces unjustly, to make Conquests.”
  • “‘Tis easier to appear worthy of the Employments we have not, than of those we have.”
  • “‘Tis difficult to love those we don’t esteem; but ’tis no less difficult to love those we esteem much more than ourselves.”
  • “Every body speaks well of his Heart, but no body dares speak well of his Head.”
  • “Flattery is a sort of bad Money to which our Vanity gives Currency.”
  • “Those who are incapable of great Crimes don’t readily suspect others of them.”
  • “Fortune breaks us of many Faults, which Reason cannot.”
  • “We easily excuse in our Friends the Faults that don’t affect us.”
  • “None are so happy, or unhappy, as they imagine.”

A One-Sided Story

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Gabriel Josipovici’s 1974 short story “Mobius the Stripper” is subtitled “A Topological Exercise.” The text is written in two strips, which tell two ostensibly different stories.

The first strip tells the story of Mobius, a man of uncertain origin who feels a metaphysical need to strip, “to take off what society has put on me” and discover his true self. He takes a job at a London club, where he talks as he performs and feels his essential self emerging. In the end, though, he comes to an existential crisis, unable to find any ultimate meaning, and shoots himself in his room to provide “an example to all.”

The second strip describes the troubles of an unnamed writer who shuts the world away, eager to write something new but overcome with writer’s block and intimidated by the writers of the past. His friend Jenny urges him to see a stripper named Mobius. “It’ll change your ideas,” she says. “Give it a break and you’ll all of a sudden see the light.” In the end, desperate to overcome the block, he begins to write a story about Mobius, whom he has never seen. “Perhaps it was only one story, arbitrary, incomplete, but suddenly I knew that it would make its own necessity and in the process give me back my lost self.”

If these tales are written on either side of a strip of paper, and one end of the strip is given a half-turn and then attached to the other, they create one unending story in which Mobius’ example frees the writer, who in his story gives new fictional depth to Mobius’ struggle, which lends it greater meaning and inspiration, and so on. Mobius is described differently in the two stories, suggesting that the Mobius of the first story is largely an invention of the writer in the second story. So where does the inspiration come from?

No Answer

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In 1890 the editor of the New York World invited Mark Twain to offer a message of holiday goodwill to its readers. He sent this:

It is my heart-warm and world-embracing Christmas hope and aspiration that all of us — the high, the low, the rich, the poor, the admired, the despised, the loved, the hated, the civilized, the savage — may eventually be gathered together in a heaven of everlasting rest and peace and bliss — except the inventor of the telephone.

Mark Twain
Hartford, Dec. 23

“To a Baby Born Without Limbs”

From Kingsley Amis’ 1966 novel The Anti-Death League:

This is just to show you whose boss around here.
It’ll keep you on your toes, so to speak,
Make you put your best foot forward, so to speak,
And give you something to turn your hand to, so to speak.
You can face up to it like a man,
Or snivvle and blubber like a baby.
That’s up to you. Nothing to do with Me.
If you take it in the right spirit,
You can have a bloody marvelous life,
With the great rewards courage brings,
And the beauty of accepting your LOT.
And think how much good it’ll do your Mum and Dad,
And your Grans and Gramps and the rest of the shower,
To be stopped being complacent.
Make sure they baptise you, though,
In case some murdering bastard
Decides to put you away quick,
Which would send you straight to LIMB-O, ha ha ha.
But just a word in your ear, if you’ve got one.
Mind you DO take this in the right spirit,
And keep a civil tongue in your head about Me.
Because if you DON’T,
I’ve got plenty of other stuff up My sleeve,
Such as Leukemia and polio,
(Which incidentally your welcome to any time,
Whatever spirit you take this in.)
I’ve given you one love-pat, right?
You don’t want another.
So watch it, Jack.

Misspellings in original. In his memoir Experience, Martin Amis says Yevgeny Yevtushenko asked Kingsley in 1962, “You atheist?” He answered, “Well yes, but it’s more that I hate him.”