Stuff I’ve Been Reading: May 2007
- In My Father’s House: Elegy for an Obsessive Love—Miranda Seymour
- Collected Memoirs—Julian Maclaren-Ross
- Light Years—James Salter
- The Perfect Thing: How the iPod Shuffles Commerce, Culture, and Coolness —Steven Levy
- Tropic of Cancer—Henry Miller
- Essays—George Orwell
- [some of] The Perfect Thing: How the iPod Shuffles Commerce, Culture, and Coolness—Steven Levy
- Ironweed—William Kennedy
- Naples ’44: An Intelligence Officer in the Italian Labyrinth—Norman Lewis
I have been listening to my iPod on “shuffle” recently, and, like everyone else who does this, I became convinced that my machine was exercising a will of its own. Why did it seem to play Big Star every third song? (All iPod users come to believe that their inanimate MP3 players have recondite but real musical tastes.) And how come, if you shuffle for long enough, the initial letters of the artists picked spell out the names of your children? Confused, as always, by this and most other matters, I remembered that an English magazine had extracted a book about the iPod in which the author had dealt with the very subject of the non-random shuffle. The book turned out to be Steven Levy’s The Perfect Thing, a cute (of course) little (naturally) white (what else?) hardback history of the iPod—or at least, that is how it’s billed. (The [British] subtitle of the book is “How the iPod became the defining object of the twenty-first century.”) What the book is actually about, however—and maybe most books are these days—is my predilection for 1980s synth-pop.
I am not speaking metaphorically here. In an early chapter of the book, Mr. Levy describes, for reasons too complicated to explain, how a fellow writer was caught listening to “a pathetic Pet Shop Boys tune, the sort of thing Nick Hornby would listen to on a bad day.” Now, I’m almost certain that this is supposed to be me, even though I don’t recognize my own supposed musical tastes. (The Pet Shop Boys are a bit too groovy for my liking, and their songs don’t have enough guitar on them.) I am relieved to hear, however, that I have good days and bad days, which at least opens up the possibility that on a good day I might be listening to something a little more au courant—Nirvana, say, or early Britney Spears.
Aren’t people rude? It’s something I don’t think one can ever get used to, if you live a semipublic life—and writers, by definition, can never go any more than semipublic because not enough people are interested in what we do. It doesn’t happen often—I don’t seem to have cropped up in Orwell’s essays, for example—but when it does, it’s always a shock, seeing yourself in a book, listening to music you don’t listen to (not, as Jerry Seinfeld said, that there’s anything wrong with the Pet Shop Boys), put there by someone you have never met and who, therefore, knows nothing about you… And what has the band done to deserve this, to borrow one of their song titles? They were mentioned in my newspaper this morning, in a diary piece about their plans for a musical adaptation of Francis Wheen’s brilliant biography of Marx; that, like so much they have done, sounds pretty cool to me. Unnerved, I skipped straight to his chapter about whether the shuffle feature is indeed random. It is, apparently.
The annoying thing about reading is that you can never get the job done. The other day I was in a book-store flicking through a book called something like 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die (and, without naming names, you should be aware that the task set by the title is by definition impossible, because at least four hundred of the books suggested would kill you any-way), but reading begets reading—that’s sort of the point of it, surely?—and anybody who never deviates from a set list of books is intellectually dead anyway. Look at the trouble Orwell’s essays got me into. First of all there’s his long and interesting consideration of Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer, a novel that I must confess I had written off as dated smut; George has persuaded me otherwise, so I bought it. And then, while discussing the Orwell essays with a friend, I was introduced to Norman Lewis’s astounding Naples ’44, a book which, my venerable friend seemed to be suggesting, was at least a match for any of Orwell’s nonfiction. (Oh, why be coy? My venerable friend was Stephen Frears, still best known, I like to think, as the director of High Fidelity, and an endless source of good book recommendations.)
I think he’s right. The trouble with the Orwell essays is that they are mostly of no earthly use to any-one now—and this is perhaps the first book I’ve read since I started this column that I can’t imagine any American of my acquaintance ploughing through. If you really feel you need to read several thousand words about English boys’ weeklies of the 1930s, then I wouldn’t try and stop you, but these pieces are mostly top-drawer journalism, Tom Wolfe, as it were, rather than Montaigne; Orwell is dissecting bodies that actually gave up the ghost eighty-odd years ago. This problem becomes particularly acute when he’s dissecting bodies that gave up the ghost ninety or a hundred years ago. “In 1920, when I was about seventeen, I probably knew the whole of [A. E. Housman’s] A Shropshire Lad by heart. I wonder how much impression A Shropshire Lad makes at this moment on a boy of the same age and more or less the same cast of mind? No doubt he has heard of it and even glanced into it; it might strike him as rather cheaply clever—probably that would be about all.”
If you try and do Orwell the service of treating him as a contemporary writer, someone whose observations make as much sense to us now as they did in 1940, then that last sentence is merely hilarious—how many bright seventeen-year-old boys do you know who might have glanced into A Shropshire Lad and found it “cheaply clever”? So even when Orwell is talking about things that he knows haven’t lasted, he is unable to anticipate their complete and utter disappearance from the cultural landscape. How was he to know that the average seventeen-year-old boy is more likely to have sampled his sister’s kidney than Housman’s poetry? It wasn’t his fault. He couldn’t see 50 Cent coming.
An essay titled “Bookshop Memories,” about Orwell’s experiences working in a secondhand bookstore, notes that the three best-selling authors were Ethel M. Dell, Warwick Deeping, and Jeffrey Farnol. “Dell’s novels, of course, are read solely by women”—well, we all knew that—“but by women of all kinds and ages and not, as one might expect, merely by wistful spinsters and the fat wives of tobacconists.” Ah, those were the days, when popular novelists were able to rely on the fat wives of tobacconists for half their income. Times are much harder (and leaner) now. Many is the time that I’ve wished I could tell the size-zero wives of tobacconists that I didn’t want their rotten money, but I have had to button my lip, regrettably. I have a large family to support.
One of the most bewildering lines comes in “Inside the Whale,” the long essay about the state of literature, first published in 1940, that begins with the appreciation of Henry Miller. “To say ‘I accept’ in an age like our own is to say that you accept concentration-camps, rubber truncheons, Hitler, Stalin, bombs, aeroplanes, tinned food, machine-guns, putsches, purges, slogans, Bedaux belts, gas-masks, submarines, spies, provocateurs, press-censorship, secret prisons, aspirins, Hollywood films, and political murders.” Is it possible to accept, say, tinned food, Hollywood films, and aspirin without accepting Stalin and Hitler? I’m afraid I am one of those cowards who would have happily invaded Poland if it meant getting hold of a couple of pills to alleviate a hangover. And what was wrong with tinned food, that all those guys banged on about it so much? (Remember Betjeman’s poem “Slough”? “Come, bombs, and blow to smithereens / Those air-conditioned, bright canteens /Tinned fruit, tinned meat, tinned milk, tinned beans /Tinned minds, tinned breath.”) It’s true, of course, that fresh fruit is better for you. But one would hope that, with the benefit of hindsight, Orwell, Betjeman, and the rest would concede that Belsen and the purges ranked higher up the list of the mid-twentieth century’s horrors than a nice can of peaches. Mind you, when in fifty years’ time, students examine the intellectual journalism of the early twenty-first century, they will probably find more about the vileness of bloggers and reality television than they will about the destruction of the planet. There are some brilliant lines. How about this, from Orwell’s essay on Dickens: “What people always demand of a popular novelist is that he shall write the same book over and over again, forgetting that a man who would write the same book twice could not even write it once.” There’s a great little essay called “Books v. Cigarettes,” although some will find his conclusion (books) controversial. And of course his prose is beyond reproach, muscular, readable, accessible.
Naples ’44, however, is something else altogether. Norman Lewis, who lived to be ninety-five and who published his last travel book in 2002, was an intelligence officer for the Allies; what he found when he was posted to Naples beggared belief. The Neapolitans were starving—they had eaten all the fish in the aquarium, and just about every weed by the roadside. An estimated 42,000 of the city’s 150,000 women had turned to prostitution. And yet there is so much in this short diary other than sheer misery, so many tones and flavors. You might wish to point out that Lewis wasn’t one of the starving, and so accessing flavors wasn’t a problem for him, but the variety and richness and strangeness of life in what remains one of the maddest and most neurotic cities in the world clearly demanded his attention. This is a long-winded way of saying that this book is, at times, unbearably sad, but it is also very funny and weird too. There are the doctors who specialize in the surgical restoration of virginity (although before you book your flights, ladies, you should check that they’re still working), and there are the biannual liquefactions and solidifications of the blood of saints, the relative speeds of which presage either prosperity or poverty for the city. Vesuvius erupts in the middle of all this; and of course, there’s a war going on—a war which is occasionally reminiscent of the one Tobias Wolff described in In Pharaoh’s Army. It allows for strange, pointless, occasionally idyllic trips out into the countryside, and the enemy is all around but invisible.
My favorite character, one who comes to symbolize the logic of Naples, is Lattarullo, one of the four thou-sand or so lawyers in Naples unable to make a living. Much of his income before the war came from acting as an “uncle from Rome,” a job which involved turning up at Neapolitan funerals and acting as a dignified and sober out-of-towner, in direct contrast to the frenzied and grief-stricken native relatives. Paying for an uncle from Rome to turn up showed a touch of class. During the war, however, Lattarullo was denied even this modest supplement because Rome was occupied, and travel was impossible. So even though everyone knew Roman uncles came from Naples, the appearance of a Roman uncle at a Neapolitan funeral before the liberation of Rome would have punctured the illusion, like a boom mic visible in a movie. This is Orwell via Lewis Carroll, and if I read a better couple of hundred pages of nonfiction this year, I’ll be a happy man.
If, at the moment, you happen to be looking for a book that makes you feel good about sex, though, then I should warn you that this isn’t the one. There are too many devout Catholic wives selling themselves for a tin of fruit, and way too many sexual diseases. William Kennedy’s Ironweed is beautiful—haunted and haunting, thoughtful and visceral. But, like Naples ’44, it is entirely without aphrodisiacal qualities. The people are too sick, and drunk, and cold, but they try it on anyway, some-times just so they can get to sleep the night in a deserted car full of other bums. None of this matters so much to me anymore. By the time you read this I will have turned fifty, so I can’t reasonably expect very much more in that department anyway. But you—you’re young, some of you. I don’t want you to feel bad about your bodies. Yes, you will die, and your bodies will decay and rot way before then anyway. But you shouldn’t feel bad about that just yet. Actually, on second thought, the truth is that Ironweed is exactly the sort of book you should be reading when you’re young, and still robust enough to slough it off. And it’s a truly terrible book to be reading in the last few months of your forties. Is this really all that’s left?