This Boy’s Life (Modern Library Nonfiction #86)

(This is the fifteenth entry in The Modern Library Nonfiction Challenge, an ambitious project to read and write about the Modern Library Nonfiction books from #100 to #1. There is also The Modern Library Reading Challenge, a fiction-based counterpart to this list. Previous entry: A Mathematician’s Apology.)

It is worth recalling that the Boy Scout, that putative paragon of American boyhood virtue, originated in 1909 with a man lost in the foggy haze of a mazy London byway. W.D. Boyce was a recently divorced newspaperman cast adrift in the English mist, until he was guided by a uniformed lad known only as the Unknown Scout. This young whippersnapper, who was no soldier and had no tomb (unless you count a mangy Silver Buffalo memorial that presently stands in Gilwell Park), steered Boyce to his destination and refused Boyce’s tip after that gent hoped to consummate his gratitude. The boy did so not because he was a well-paid German stevedore or a terrified Uber driver hoping to hold onto his job, but because he was merely doing his duty and this was enough recompense, thank you very much. From here, Boyce asked the boy about his coterie, was allegedly led to Boy Scouts HQ like a starry-eyed drifter seeking a new easy access religion, and encountered Chief Scout Robert Baden-Powell, an irrepressible do-gooder who intoxicated Boyce with tales of uniforms and valor and decency and truth and justice and many other nouns etched with ostentatious pedigree and scant subtlety that were later memorialized in a handbook published in six fortnightly parts called Scouting for Boys. Four months later, Boyce returned to the States to found the Boy Scouts of America. He had found his calling. Shortly after this, presumably emboldened by the new youthful virtues flooding through his veins, Boyce would marry a well-connected woman twenty-three years younger. But Boyce’s brio was not enough to preserve this second marriage, which dissolved within two years. The Boy Scouts, on the other hand, have continued to endure, albeit with plentiful dissimulation saddled to the “Be prepared” credo.

This legend, which isn’t nearly as imaginative or as thrilling as Robert Johnson signing away his soul to the devil in exchange for spangling guitar chops, has nevertheless become as accepted and as apocryphal as the birth of the blues or any story of rugged outliers founding tech startups in their garages or, for that matter, the cloying cherry tree myth associated with George Washington, a shrewd political operator who claimed that he could not tell a lie despite deceiving many over a lifetime about his professed lack of political expertise. Boy Scout booster (and sex therapist!) Edward Rowan has pointed out that Boyce outed himself in a February 27, 1928 letter, claiming that he was not floating in the Dickensian murk, but merely standing before the Savoy Hotel while contemplating the question of whether he should cross a street. Moreover, others have suggested that there was no fog during that evening. As one excavates further into W.D. Boyce’s history, one learns that this sanctimonious founder was a racist, even denying African-Americans entry into the hallowed organization. (Boyce also published a journal called The White Boy’s Magazine.) By the late 1980s, the Boy Scouts were forced to establish protective measures in response to countless sex abuse cases later documented by reporter Patrick Boyle in 1991. The Boy Scouts of America, a seemingly sacred institution, had been little more than a seductive shawl disguising the ugly American id. It is thus the perfect metaphor for Tobias Wolff’s This Boy’s Life, a moving memoir about a boy wrestling with the lies, the duplicities, and the hypocrisies of growing up in America. It is an especially cogent volume in an epoch of fake news, covfefe, and thundering Republican men casually asphyxiating the weak and the vulnerable in the name of old school virtue.

For young Tobias (aka Jack, a sobriquet inspired by an altogether different London), the deceptive pose was a way of being and coping through a rough-and-tumble existence. This Boy’s Life opens with Toby and his mother retreating from an abusive man in Florida by way of a dodgy Nash Rambler with an overboiling engine. Their hope was to find fortune through a desperate uranium hunt by way of a poor man’s Geiger counter. Like many Americans before, the westward journey here is one of escape and, as one pores through the memoir’s crisply paced pages, increasingly about assuming roles that bear no resemblance to reality. The cooing pop songs crooning from the radio provide voices for Toby to emulate, perhaps serving as a staging area for transformation. Yet Catholicism, itself a practice just as fraught with frangible self-abengation as the Boy Scouts, also represents the new terrain from which to launch an identity. Toby’s father, telephoning from Connecticut, claims that the family line has always been Protestant or Episcopalian, but Wolff informs us that he learned of his true Jewish heritage ten years after this revelation. Names, identities, veneers, and backgrounds are the melting pot from which to sprout a respectable soul, yet Toby scoffs at the purported innocence of this problematic chrysalis. “Power,” writes Wolff, placing his budding irritation within the context of his later experience in Vietnam, “can only be enjoyed when it is recognized and feared. Fearlessness in those without power is maddening to those who have it.”

Woolf’s Vietnam memoir, In Pharaoh’s Army, would chronicle similar tensions between patriotic duty and survival, and one must observe that the two memoirs are united by Wolff possessing a gun, that priapic symbol of American manhood that has caused so much recent and needless terror. This Boy’s Life sees these uncertain seeds planted in loam long before basic training. I once had the good fortune to interview Wolff in 2008 and he revealed that he was dead set against narcissism’s pathology overtaking any story. Which leads me to believe that Wolff understands, as William Gass has observed in a notable essay on narcissism and writing, that autobiographers turn themselves into monsters, often hiding deceit behind their confessions. To reckon poignantly with a life, a memoirist must never cover up his shame or settle scores with self-serving vigor, for he invites a dishonesty in which the professed act of soul-bearing smudges the more important ink needed for corrupted but authentic memory.

What is most striking about This Boy’s Life is that Wolff never sugarcoats his life. Nor does he beckon the reader to feel sympathy for him, even as he succumbs to abuse from Dwight, the abominable man whom his mother Rosemary eventually tries to forge a family with. It is the shakiest of new beginnings following an uncertain stint at a West Seattle boardinghouse. There are men who hit on Rosemary, ascribing athleticism to Toby and pledging bicycle gifts that never materialize, and we see only Rosemary’s tears from unseen boorishness. Toby steals and breaks windows with his pals. He puts forth lies. And as Dwight enters Toby’s life, Wolff observes that this minuscule mechanic tries too hard: “No eye is quicker to detect that kind of effort than the eye of a competitor who also happens to be a child.” But Dwight does have a family, including a daughter named Pearl with a prominent bald spot. And just as Rosemary sees possibility in volunteering for idealistic Democratic candidates, she sees an opportunity in Dwight. Much as W.D. Boyce being bowled over by a Boy Scout, effort is enough to plant an acorn for a dubious family tree. Meanwhile, Toby lets loose several “Fuck yous,” memorializing the message into a wall, and gets in trouble with the vice principal. When the vice principal meets with Rosemary, Toby is convinced of his innocence, not unlike Dwight, and the vice principal reveals his own systematic and sanctimonious story of how he quit smoking to buy a Nash Rambler, the very same rickety vehicle that brought Toby and Rosemary to the west.

It is here that the kernel for Dwight’s autocratic adoption of Toby begins to pop with a frenzy of fragile male ego: the belief that laborious effort, even on the most inconsequential acts, somehow makes one a respectable hard-working American. Toby is asked to pick up roadkill. He is asked to wait in a car as Dwight gets plastered in a bar. He is watched as Dwight fuels himself on tugs of Old Crow and Camels. He delivers newspapers and his earnings are pilfered by Dwight. He paints an old Baldwin piano to cover up its chintz. And he is commanded to pluck hard husks of horse chestnuts — a tyrannical tilling with some unspecified life lesson attached in which the product of all this hard labor is never actually used. When Toby gets into a fight with a kid named Arthur Gayle, Dwight coaches him on pugilism, claiming that any defeat is his fault. And throughout all this, there are the weekly Boy Scout meetings. Toby’s plan is to run away from Dwight’s home in Concrete, a Washington hamlet built on shaky slopes that Wolff describes as a graying and dusty landscape with cracking cement banks. It is, like many parts of America even today, a fraying tableau where too much effort gets in the way of existence, disguising the fissures of easily broken lives. One can almost imagine Dwight using the hashtag #MAGA on Twitter had he materialized decades later.

Whether this subjective truth-telling represents a kind of fearlessness or power in its own right is subject to the degree to which you are willing to embrace Wolff’s life story. But it does represent a refreshing alternative to the Horatio Alger grandstanding that too many personal essays wallow in today. (See, for example, most of the material published on Thought Catalog.) David Plotz once chided Dave Pelzer for turning child abuse into entertainment. This Boy’s Life avoids such petty voyeurism, in large part because it nestles Toby’s life and Dwight’s stark assaults by Dwight within the larger American dilemma of how to contend with fakery. And in an epoch where narcissistic dishonesty and “alternative facts” and social media outrage are increasingly the norm, there is a beautiful grace in putting your life out there and not giving a damn how others judge it.

Next Up: Beryl Markham’s West with the Night!

Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (Modern Library Nonfiction #89)

(This is the twelfth entry in The Modern Library Nonfiction Challenge, an ambitious project to read and write about the Modern Library Nonfiction books from #100 to #1. There is also The Modern Library Reading Challenge, a fiction-based counterpart to this list. Previous entry: The Golden Bough.)

“Either this world, my mother, is a monster, or I myself am a freak.” — Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

I was a sliver-thin, stupefyingly shy, and very excitable boy who disguised his bruises under the long sleeves of his shirt not long before the age of five. I was also a freak.

bedroomI had two maps pinned to the wall of my drafty bedroom, which had been hastily constructed into the east edge of the garage in a house painted pink (now turquoise, according to Google Maps). The first map was of Tolkien’s Middle-earth, in which I followed the quests of Bilbo and Frodo by finger as I wrapped my precocious, word-happy head around sentences that I’d secretly study from the trilogy I had purloined from the living room, a well-thumbed set that I was careful to put back to the shelves before my volatile and often sour father returned home from the chemical plant. In some of his rare calm moments, my father read aloud from The Lord of the Rings if he wasn’t too drunk, irascible, or violent. His voice led me to imagine Shelob’s thick spidery thistles, Smeagol’s slithering corpus, and kink open my eyes the next morning for any other surprises I might divine in my daily journeys to school. The second map was of Santa Clara County, a very real region that everyone now knows as Silicon Valley but that used to be a sweeping swath of working and lower middle-class domiciles. This was one of several dozen free maps of Northern California that I had procured from AAA with my mother’s help. One of the nice perks of being an AAA member was the ample sample of rectangular geographical foldouts. I swiftly memorized all of the streets, held spellbound by the floral and butterfly patterns of freeway intersections seen from a majestic bird’s eye view in an errant illustrated sky. My mother became easily lost while driving and I knew the avenues and the freeways in more than a dozen counties so well that I could always provide an easy cure for her confusion. It is a wonder that I never ended up working as a cab driver, although my spatial acumen has remained so keen over the years that, to this day, I can still pinpoint the precise angle in which you need to slide a thick unruly couch into the tricky recesses of a small Euclidean-angled apartment even when I am completely exhausted.

mlnf89These two maps seemed to be the apotheosis of cartographic art at the time, filling me with joy and wonder and possibility. It helped me cope with the many problems I lived with at home. I understood that there were other regions beyond my bedroom where I could wander in peace, where I could meet kinder people or take in the beatific comforts of a soothing lake (Vasona Lake, just west of Highway 17 in Los Gatos, had a little railroad spiraling around its southern tip and was my real-life counterpart to Lake Evendim), where the draw of Rivendell’s elvish population or the thrill of smoky Smaug stewing inside the Lonely Mountain collided against visions of imagined mountain dwellers I might meet somewhere within the greens and browns of Santa Teresa Hills and the majestic observatories staring brazenly into the cosmos at the end of uphill winding roads. I would soon start exploring the world I had espied from my improvised bedroom study on my bike, pedaling unfathomable miles into vicinities I had only dreamed about, always seeking parallels to what the Oxford professor had whipped up. I once ventured as far south as Gilroy down the Monterey Highway, which Google Maps now informs me is a thirty-six mile round trip, because my neglectful parents never kept tabs on how long I was out of the house or where I was going. They didn’t seem to care. As shameful as this was, I’m glad they didn’t. I needed an uncanny dominion, a territory to flesh out, in order to stay happy, humble, and alive.

The maps opened up my always hungry eyes to books, which contained equally bountiful spaces devoted to the real and the imaginary, unspooling further marks and points for me to find in the palpable world and, most importantly, within my heart. I always held onto this strange reverence for place to beat back the sadness after serving as my father’s punching bag. To this day, I remain an outlier, a nomad, a lifelong exile, a wanderer even as I sit still, a renegade hated for what people think I am, a black sheep who will never belong no matter how kind I am. I won’t make the mistake of painting myself as some virtuous paragon, but I’ve become so accustomed to being condemned on illusory cause, to having all-too-common cruelties inflicted upon me (such as the starry-eyed bourgie Burning Man sybarite I recently opened my heart to, who proceeded to deride the city that I love, along with the perceived deficiencies of my hard-won apartment, this after I had told her tales, not easily summoned, about what it was like to be rootless and without family and how home and togetherness remain sensitive subjects for me) that the limitless marvels of the universe parked in my back pocket or swiftly summoned from my shelves or my constant peregrinations remain reliable, life-affirming balms that help heal the scars and render the wounds invisible. Heartbreak and its accompanying gang of thugs often feel like a mob bashing in your ventricles in a devastatingly distinct way, even though the great cosmic joke is that everyone experiences it and we have to love anyway.

So when Annie Dillard’s poetic masterpiece Pilgrim at Tinker Creek entered my reading life, its ebullient commitment to finding grace and gratitude in a monstrous world reminded me that seeing and perceiving and delving and gaping awestruck at Mother Earth’s endless glories seemed to me one one of the best survival skills you can cultivate and that I may have accidentally stumbled upon. As I said, I’m a freak. But Dillard is one too. And there’s a good chance you may walk away from this book, which I highly urge you to read, feeling a comparable kinship, as I did to Dillard. Even if you already have a formidable arsenal of boundless curiosity ready to be summoned at a moment’s notice, this shining 1974 volume remains vital and indispensable and will stir your soul for the better, whether you’re happy or sad. Near the end of a disastrous year, we need these inspirational moments now more than ever.

* * *

“Our life is a faint tracing on the surface of mystery.” – Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

Annie Dillard was only 28 when she wrote this stunning 20th century answer to Thoreau (the subject of her master’s thesis), which is both a perspicacious journal of journeying through the immediately accessible wild near her bucolic Southwestern Virginia perch and a daringly honest entreaty for consciousness and connection. Dillard’s worldview is so winningly inclusive that she can find wonder in such savage tableaux as a headless praying mantis clutching onto its mate or the larval creatures contained within a rock barnacle. The Washington Post claimed not long after Pilgrim‘s publication that the book was “selling so well on the West Coast and hipsters figure Annie Dillard’s some kind of female Castaneda, sitting up on Dead Man’s Mountain smoking mandrake roots and looking for Holes in the Horizon her guru said were there.” But Pilgrim, inspired in part from Colette’s Break of Day, is far from New Age nonsense. The book’s wise and erudite celebration of nature and spirituality was open and inspiring enough to charm even this urban-based secular humanist, who desperately needed a pick-me-up and a mandate to rejoin the world after a rapid-fire series of personal and political and romantic and artistic setbacks that occurred during the last two weeks.

For all of the book’s concerns with divinity, or what Dillard identifies as “a divine power that exists in a particular place, or that travels about over the face of the earth as a man might wander,” explicit gods don’t enter this meditation until a little under halfway through the book, where she points out jokingly how gods are often found on mountaintops and points out that God is an igniter as well as a destroyer, one that seeks invisibility for cover. And as someone who does not believe in a god and who would rather deposit his faith in imaginative storytelling and myth rather than the superstitions of religious ritual, I could nevertheless feel and accept the spiritual idea of being emotionally vulnerable while traversing into some majestic terrain. Or as Pascal wrote in Pensées 584 (quoted in part by Dillard), “God being thus hidden, every religion which does not affirm that God is hidden, is not true, and every religion which does not give the reason of it, is not instructive.”

Much of this awe comes through the humility of perceiving, of devoting yourself to sussing out every conceivable kernel that might present itself and uplift you on any given day and using this as the basis to push beyond the blinkered cage of your own self-consciousness. Dillard uses a metaphor of loose change throughout Pilgrim that neatly encapsulates this sentiment:

It is dire poverty indeed when a man is so malnourished and fatigued that he won’t stoop to pick up a penny. But if you cultivate a healthy poverty and simplicity, so that finding a penny will literally make your day, then, since the world is in fact planted in pennies, you have with your poverty bought a lifetime of days. It is that simple. What you see is what you get.

This is not too far removed from Thoreau’s faith in seeds: “Convince me that you have a seed there, and I am prepared to expect wonders.” The smug and insufferable Kathryn Schulzes of our world gleefully misread this great tradition of discovering possibilities in the small as arrogance, little realizing how their own blind and unimaginative hubris glows with crass Conde Nast entitlement as they fail to observe that Thoreau and Dillard were also acknowledging the ineluctable force of a bigger and fiercer world that will carry on with formidable complexity long after our dead bodies push against daisies. Faced with the choice of sustaining a sour Schulz-like apostasy or receiving every living day as a gift, I’d rather risk the arrogance of dreaming from the collected riches of what I have and what I can give rather than the gutless timidity of a prescriptive rigidity that fails to consider that we are all steeped in foolish and inconsistent behavior which, in the grand scheme of things, is ultimately insignificant.

Dillard is guided just as much by Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle as she is by religious and philosophical texts. The famous 1927 scientific law, which articulates how you can never know a particle’s speed and velocity at the same time, is very much comparable to chasing down some hidden deity or contending with some experiential palpitations when you understand that there simply is no answer, for one can feel but never fully comprehend the totality in a skirmish with Nature. It accounts for Dillard frequently noting that the towhee chirping on a treetop or the muskrat she observes chewing grass on a bank for forty minutes never see her. In seeing these amazing creatures carry on with their lives, who are completely oblivious to her own human vagaries, Dillard reminds us that this is very much the state of Nature, whether human or animal. If it is indeed arrogance to find awe and humility in this state of affairs, as Dillard and Thoreau clearly both did, then one’s every breath may as well be a Napoleonic puff of the chest.

Dillard is also smart and expansive enough to show us that, no matter where we reside, we are fated to brush up against the feral. She points to how arboreal enthusiasts in the Lower Bronx discovered a fifteen feet ailanthus tree growing from a lower Bronx garage and how New York must spend countless dollars each year to rid its underground water pipes of roots. Such realities are often contended with out of sight and out of mind, even as the New York apartment dweller battles cockroaches, but the reminder is another useful point for why we must always find the pennies and dare to dream and wander and take in, no matter what part of the nation we dwell in.

Another refreshing aspect of Pilgrim is the way in which Dillard confronts her own horrors with fecundity. Yes, even this graceful ruminator has the decency to confess her hangups about the unsettling rapidity with which moths lay their eggs in vast droves. She stops short at truly confronting “the pressure of birth and growth” that appalls her, shifting to plants as a way of evading animals and then retreating back to the blood-pumping phylum to take in blood flukes and aphid reproduction more as panorama rather than something to be felt. This volte-face isn’t entirely satisfying. On the other hand, Dillard is also bold enough to scoop up a cup of duck-pond water and peer at monostyla under a microscope. What this tells us is that there are clear limits to how far any of us are willing to delve, yet I cannot find it within me to chide Dillard too harshly for a journey she was not quite willing to take, for this is an honest and heartfelt chronicle.

While I’ve probably been “arrogant” in retreating at length to my past in an effort to articulate how Dillard’s book so moved me, I would say that Pilgrim at Tinker Creek represents a third map for my adult years. It is a true work of art that I am happy to pin to the walls of my mind, which seems more reliable than any childhood bedroom. This book has caused me to wonder why I have ignored so much and has demanded that that I open myself up to any penny I could potentially cherish and to ponder what undiscoverable terrain I might deign to take in as I continue to walk this earth. I do not believe in a god, but I do feel with all my heart that one compelling reason to live is to fearlessly approach all that remains hidden. There is no way that you’ll ever know or find everything, but Dillard’s magnificent volume certainly gives you many good reasons to try.

Next Up: Richard Feynman’s Six Easy Pieces!

Melbourne (Modern Library Nonfiction #100)

(This is the first entry in The Modern Library Nonfiction Challenge, an ambitious project to read and write about the Modern Library Nonfiction books from #100 to #1. There is also The Modern Library Reading Challenge, a fiction-based counterpart to this list.)

mlnf100History has produced such a rich pile of devious political figures who spend every spare minute scheming and plotting their rise that today’s aspiring aristocrats, who can be found working every connection to get their kids into bright educational citadels and reliable sinecures, cannot come close to such cutthroat monomania. Yet there are also those who blunder into top office like bumpkins crashing high-class weddings through the simple repetitive act of placing one foot in front the other. William Lamb, aka Lord Melbourne, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom for eight years (1834, 1835-1841) and the subject of Lord David Cecil’s generous biography, was one such man.

Melbourne was a ponderous speaker, a bookish man who reportedly dozed off in the middle of a conversation, a leader largely blind to the way people beneath his station lived, and a cautionary tale for any soul who avoids conflict. “He pondered, he compared, he memorized,” writes Cecil of Melbourne in middle age, just before his improbable political career begins, “the Elizabethan drama, for instance, he knew so well that he could repeat by heart whole scenes not only of Shakespeare but of Massinger; the margins of his books were black with the markings of his flowing, illegible hand.” Melbourne was so mind-bogglingly passive in his actions that he not only refused to intervene in his wife’s adulterous affairs, but he believed that each infidelity would pass with the fleeting speed of a common cold.

It’s easy to ridicule Melbourne and the people of that time (as the bitterly judgmental Carrie A.A. Frye and Philip Ziegler, another Melbourne biographer, have). Melbourne was cuckolded by Lord Byron. When Byron would no longer plant his flagpole in Lady Caroline Lamb, Melbourne’s wife gradually traded down in her boys on the side until she tapped Edward Bulwer-Lytton (best known today for inspiring a writing contest for wretched writing). Caroline would go on to write Glenarvon, an awful roman à clef which exposed the Byron episode and left the Lambs open to disgrace and derision. When his wife died, the lonely Melbourne sought solace with another Caroline (the remarkable Caroline Norton, a tireless crusader who would go on to campaign successfully for legislative acts rectifying the second-class status of women), there was an attempt at blackmail. When Queen Victoria ascended to the throne, Melbourne became her unlikely tutor and constant companion, wasting a good chunk of his late years because the young Queen required constant attention (much of it documented in Victoria’s journals, which are now digitized and accessible through arrangement with your library; Cecil is good enough to quote from many of these entries).

When I learned from Paul Douglass’s Lady Caroline Lamb just how abhorrently Melbourne had treated the largely forgotten badass Isaac Nathan, I began to grow less tolerant of Melbourne’s nonplussed nature. Nathan — a Jewish composer who wrote the groundbreaking Hebrew Melodies and suffered from the Jewish exclusion laws which denied him the ability to vote, run for office, or pursue justice in the courts against the scabrous opportunists who stole his lyrics, often without credit or compensation — befriended Caroline and set many of her words to music. Despite Nathan defending Caroline when she was disgraced (to the lively extent of fighting duels and even publishing a defense of her character in Fugitive Pieces after her death), Melbourne refused to pay Nathan for services rendered to the Whigs when Nathan really needed the cash, leaving Nathan humiliated and bankrupt and forced to flee to Australia, where he was to write Don John of Austria (the first opera composed and performed in Australia), became the first to research indigenous music and the first settler in this new and exciting country to be killed by a tram. (Don’t worry. Nathan died at 74. It was an accident.)

Melbourne’s clueless cruelty also emerged as organized labor became a more vocal part of British life. In March 1834, a group of laborers in Dorset started a trade-union and it was discovered that these men had administered secret oaths as part of the membership. Several of these men were arrested and sentenced to seven years of penal transportation. At the time, Melbourne was Home Secretary. Instead of overturning this remarkably harsh punishment, Melbourne asked the local magistrates about the temperament of these men. He was informed by these tendentious adjudicators that they were scoundrels. Melbourne, strictly on this point of secret oaths, confirmed this inhumane sentence. And during the next month, a group of thirty thousand marched to Whitehall to demand redress. He refused to see these leaders. And this austere decision set back the trade-union movement for years. As Cecil writes:

“So far from being criminals and revolutionaries, they were sober, respectable men enough, driven into lawless courses largely by ignorance and hunger and by the struggle to hang up their families on wages lately reduced to seven shillings a week. Melbourne was not to blame for not realizing their true characters. He was not there, and he had to trust to the reports of his subordinates.”

Melbourne also did not intervene when the revolting laborers of 1830 (during the Swing Riots) were sent to the gallows. Even Cecil is forced to accept the “painful and disturbing” prospect of an ostensibly kind-hearted man who wished to uphold the death sentence even when prisoners were not intended to be executed. Yet as callous as these consequences were, contributing to great unrest in the immediate years that followed, one has to remember that these terrible measures emerged in response to fears over recent turmoil in France and while parliamentary reform was being hashed out at a frustratingly glacial pace. There was a palpable anxiety that events across the English Channel would be reenacted at home.

How did such a man ascend to Prime Minister? Largely because there was nobody else. In 1834, King William IV needed someone who could keep variegated political factions together and, although the King didn’t care much for Melbourne, he liked him better than the other candidates. After all, this wasn’t exactly a position that you could leave open because you didn’t care for the present spate of résumés. Melbourne almost didn’t take the job. (Indeed, near the end of his stint as Prime Minister, he drifted forward with listlessness and exhaustion. Obligation seemed to be the only quality that kept him going.) An opportunistic little creep named Tom Young, who ensconced himself into Melbourne’s administrative circle through skillful cunning, was the one who played to Melbourne’s vanity and love for the classics, securing Melbourne’s commitment with the following words: “Why, damn it all, such a position was never held by any Greek or Roman: and if it only last three months, it will be worth while to have been Prime Minister of England.”

Melbourne was a weird Prime Minister. His strategy involved ridding himself of loud and querulous colleagues and keeping the new Government as calm as possible, even as he remained obdurate in his decision making. This approach did not sit well with some of the more boisterous statesmen. In a moment that could almost be pulled out of a David Lynch movie, Cecil describes Lord Henry Brougham visiting Melbourne’s house just after learning that he would not have a place in the new government. “Do you think I am mad?” shouts Brougham over and over again, his tone and gestures rising with violence as he repeats this question, almost anticipating the charismatic psychosis of Blue Velvet‘s Frank Booth. Yet the highly avoidant Melbourne could not fend off the King, assorted radicals, and any number of people who beseeched him for attention. “Damn it!” he cried to himself. “Why can’t they be quiet?” (In 1836, the aforementioned Norton blackmail episode went down, with Melbourne emerging largely unscathed even while living at Downing Street.)

I can’t entirely pardon Melbourne for some of his asshattery, but Cecil’s careful touch allowed me to understand and even empathize with some of Melbourne’s flaws, for he was also quite idiosyncratic. He stuffed his coats with endless notes. He would emit several strange sounds before beginning to talk. He would shout at random servants and ask them what time it was rather than consult a watch. These quirks allowed him to be liked by the right people, or, perhaps more accurately, tolerated because his actions were so endearingly inexplicable. Perhaps they felt sorry for him because of the Glenarvon episode, although Cecil doesn’t really address how that scandal besmirched his later life, long after Caroline was gone.

What I can say is that Cecil does such a classy job conveying the shenanigans of these often loutish patricians — the rampant adultery, the tolerated insane behavior, the strange manner that all this infiltrated British poetry and politics — that I was placed in the unusual position of fighting strong desires to throw my mind into the mire of the French Revolution, parliamentary protocol, and numerous other subjects. In the last two years, we have seen wild ideological sentiment (exacerbated by Twitter) and staunch stylistic preference (e.g., any polemical book on the lyrical essay) erode the possibilities of understanding human nuance. Melbourne reminds us that the more receptive we are to factual details that trouble or intrigue us, the more willing we are to commiserate with a person’s embarrassing qualities. Perhaps this was one reason why Melbourne was one of John F. Kennedy’s favorite books.

Cecil found both a subject and a tone that recalls John P. Marquand’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 1937 novel, The Late George Apley, published just two years before Cecil’s first half of Melbourne. He tells us baldly at the end that Melbourne’s death caused no great stir during the nineteenth century’s rampantly changing atmosphere. It is a crushing realization. Like Apley, Melbourne outlived his time and took in his personal and professional regrets with a resigned agreeableness. Melbourne’s life is often a sad portrait, yet we are somehow won over by him. Cecil’s book is a welcome reminder that if we’re going to judge someone, maybe we should buffet the impulse to castigate them with a smidgen of kindness, reserving our wrath for the real monsters. Without that vital flexibility that allows us to evolve, there may come a point when we outlive our time too. Sooner than Melbourne.

Next Up: Anne Lamott’s Operating Instructions!

Kim (Modern Library #78)

(This is the twenty-third entry in the The Modern Library Reading Challenge, an ambitious project to read the entire Modern Library from #100 to #1. Previous entry: A Room with a View)

Three years ago, my jocular compadre Lydia Kiesling pointed out that Kim‘s festering reputation as an imperialist watermark had hindered her from a serious plunge. She rightly identified a “Post-Colonial Burn Index” for this type of literature, whereby enduring high and mighty white males braying in turgid and self-congratulatory sentences about their entitled position was an experience about as pleasant as being repeatedly kicked in the teeth by a herd of Thoroughbred racehorses that had been paddocked too long without option of rotary gallop.

While Lydia found Kim to be a pleasant surprise, I felt Kipling’s “masterpiece” to be largely repugnant: the kind of pernicious slog that turns good people into Aryan crusaders if they don’t move on quickly to something else. The book’s enticing aesthetic of geography, esoteric terminology, Arabic names, Jainist neologisms, and now commonplace food wasn’t enough to shake the deeply unsettling feeling that Kipling, despite his welcome overtures, really wanted all of India to remain subservient to the Anglo way, perhaps because this was the only way he could reckon with his nostalgia for a time long passed. This novel was his swan song to India. And while the book is sometimes an engaging adventure, it is too fraught with covert condescension.

Among many disgraceful stereotypes, Kim is a novel which describes how “Kim could lie like an Oriental,” how “[a]ll hours of the twenty-four are alike to the Oriental” and describes both “the Oriental’s indifference to mere noise,” how “Orientals understand speed,” and how a project “[falls] back, Oriental-fashion, on time and chance.” There is a Russian agent who announces late in the book, “It is we who can deal with Orientals.” (This sentiment of “dealing with Orientals” is later echoed by Hurree.) But the fun doesn’t stop there. There’s an odious drummer-boy from Liverpool who badgers Kim when he “[talks] the same as a nigger.”

This is far more insidious than Kingsley Amis writing of Kim‘s problematic meticulousness, “if he says coriander when he means cardamum I will let it go.” As my homeboy Edward Said wisely observed in Culture and Imperialism:

…yes, Kipling can get into the skin of others with some sympathy. But no, Kipling never forgets that Kim is an irrefragable part of British India: the Great Game does go on, with Kim a part of it, no matter how many parables the lama fashions. We are naturally entitled to read Kim as a novel belonging to the world’s greatest literature, free to some degree from its encumbering historical and political circumstances. Yet by the same token, we must not unilaterally abrogate the corrections in it, and carefully observed by Kipling, to its contemporary actuality.

The depictions of residents from the Far and Near East as lesser beings have been held up as criticisms of racism by some Kipling scholars. But given that the novel goes out of its way to grant thirteen-year-old Kimball O’Hara, “burned black as any native,” the luxury of swinging both ways as sahib and a boy capable of disguising himself in “native-fashion,” there’s a decidedly privileged feel to Kim’s picaresque adventures which gives any 21st century reading experience a sour and regressive taint.

So what is Kim‘s appeal? For me, the lama is the novel’s high point. He finds Kim in Lahore. He sets out with the boy to seek the physical manifestation of their respective visions (for Kim, a Red Bull in a green field; for the lama, “The River of the Arrow”). He serves as a remarkably patient patriarchal figure throughout. The novel felt more honest when Kim used the lama’s otherness to skimp out on train fare or when Kim was free to get into wild adventures without obligation or mimesis.

The sympathetic socialist critic Irving Howe is perhaps the closest in describing why the novel is still worth a soupçon of consideration. Howe observes that Kipling was “a jingo and a bully, or defender of bullies,” but identifies Kim as a work that involves seeing the world “as an apprehension of things as they are” and “accepting, even venerating sainthood, without at all proposing to surrender the world, or even worldliness, to saints.” But one of the chief frustrations about Kim is that, for all of Kipling’s erudition about India, he is blind to his own inherent prejudices.

No matter how liberated Kim may be, he is still identified by how he is seen or how he is “suited”:

The pallor of hunger suited Kim very well as he stood, tall and slim, in his sad-coloured, sweeping robes, one hand on his rosary and the other in the attitude of benediction, faithfully copied from the lama. An English observer might have said that he looked rather like the young saint of a stained-glass window, whereas he was but a growing lad faint with emptiness.

Is not Kipling complicit in how his characters are seen by the reader, who may be an “English observer” of another sort? In the gnarly opening chapters, we see Kim “flat on his belly” while a tall man stands “erect as an arrow.” And this is hardly the first time the novel resorts to a descriptive style where “erect” positioning is so closely identified to social station or caste.

Unlike Edmund Wilson, who complained about how the novel doesn’t live up to “what the reader tends to expect,” I don’t have any particular problems with the book’s inconclusive finale. Fiction has no obligation to answer everything. Kipling’s efforts to reconcile the book’s spiritual side (the Buddhist idea of the Wheel of Things, as introduced by the lama) with its espionage side (the Great Game of geopolitical conflict “that never ceases day and night”) smack of a desperate effort to sandwich disparate ingredients into a luncheon that cannot possibly satisfy everybody, let alone account for the complexities of a massive nation. It is fundamentally impossible for either Kipling or Kim to make a dichotomous choice when there is, quite literally, so much territory covered on the Great Trunk Road, on board the “te-rain,” and along the “long, peaceful line of the Himalayas.” (In deference to the lama’s portent, there are quite a number of “rivers” in this book, often through rail and road.) The Middle Way may be the “path to freedom,” but the river that the lama does eventually find cannot be found on any map.

But I am with Wilson in calling out Kipling’s failings to confront a very real crisis. I am hardly alone. Even the enthusiastic biographer Martin Seymour-Smith was to confess, “Kim is not, for me, quite the masterpiece that it is for many critics,” believing the problem to stem from the novel being simultaneously a children’s book and an adult’s book. Seymour-Smith also posits the interesting theory that Kipling’s failure to return to India and confront its considerable change is one of the reasons it is not quite right.

Kim lacks the imagination and the deft command of Kipling’s shorter fiction. But this novel was such a despondent read that I don’t think I’ll be reading this blustery Nobel laureate again for at least another decade. If I want a Great Game, I’ll drag out Cranium or Twister from the closet.

Next Up: James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake! (This will take a very long time!)

A Bend in the River (Modern Library #83)

(This is the eighteenth entry in the The Modern Library Reading Challenge, an ambitious project to read the entire Modern Library from #100 to #1. Previous entry: The Death of the Heart)

There are so many unpardonable cruelties collected in Patrick French’s gripping (and authorized!) biography, The World Is What It Is, that it’s difficult to know where to start in condemning V.S. Naipaul’s boorish behavior, while also praising his prowess on the page. And yet I can’t quite do that either. I’ve read A Bend in the River twice, and I have to conclude that the book’s pat pronouncements about colonialism, even with the adept take on self-deception and willful naïveté, aren’t especially staggering. By the time the shopkeeper Salim shows his colleague Indar around the African town where he lives and reveals how little he knows (“All the key points of the town I knew could be shown in a couple of hours, as I discovered when I drove him around later that morning”), it was abundantly clear to me that he would never know.

Perhaps the mid-career rise of Naipaul’s rep was all in the timing. French suggests that “[a] rising disillusion with the post-colonial project in many countries lead to Vidia being projected as the voice of truth, the scourge who by virtue of his ethnicity and his intellect could see things that others were seeking to disguise.” But Naipaul does deserve props for depicting how a revolutionary leader (referred to as “the Big Man”), even after the aloof establishment of a McDonald’s-like Bigburger restaurant and a dubious university, steers an unnamed African nation to the same scorched earth which existed before. And this, along with a sad and desperate historian named Raymond and the many ruined monuments seen from previous regimes, makes Bend a rock-hard reading experience for the strident geopolitical junkie. (When I first read Bend, I had this image of Wolf Blitzer shouting aloud passages on CNN, demanding reader responses from Romney and Santorum. I did my best to shake off this terrifying vision of the dreaded bearded bloviator. But my imagination revolted. Because not long after this, I had a weird dream where Blitzer kidnapped me and ordered me to burn all books aside from Naipaul. Blitzer then set himself on fire and began laughing like a psychotic, refusing to let me extinguish the conflagration. And I woke up. This may explain, in part, why it’s taken me many weeks to get to this essay.)

The Andrew Seal types will tell you that the novel’s appeal involves how Naipaul has demonstrated how order is not necessarily in opposition to complexity. And the academic Fawzia Mustafa has rightly suggested that Bend is very much about how one’s relationship to Africa is determined through a misread. (Miscerique probat populus et feodera jungi, a commemorative plague at the dock, is deliberately misread throughout the book.)

But this still doesn’t make up for Naipaul short-changing the African people, who are little more than crude caricatures serving this allegorical exercise. There are marchandes like Zabeth, who pick up supplies from Salim’s store and have “a special smell” that is “strong and unpleasant.” There is the houseboy Ildephonse, who becomes an ad hoc restaurant manager who turns “vacant” when his bosses leave. This leads Salim to conclude:

I noticed this alteration in the African staff in other places as well. It made you feel that while they did their jobs in their various glossy settings, they were only acting for the people who employed them; that the job itself was meaningless to them; and that they had the gift — when they were left alone, and had no one to act for — of separating themselves in spirit from their setting, their job, their uniform.

Granted, the matryoshka-like idea here is that Salim, the Indian émigré who has set up shop and plays squash at the Hellenic Club and is often clueless about how much he is reviled by apparent pals and locals, is the imperialist mirror image to what he sees. The Africans — especially the family servant Metty (nicknamed this because of his interracial background) — develop sentiments that Salim refuses to see. Even outright revolution is beyond his scope. There’s one stirring moment in which Salim visits a school with Indar and is challenged by a student: “Would the honourable visitor state whether he feels that Africans have been depersonalized by Christianity?” Yet Salim refuses to ken these kernels of discontent, later remarking, “I thought how far we had both come, to talk about Africa like this.”

So Naipaul’s novel made for a frustrating experience. On one hand, he wants to expose Salim’s inherent hypocrisy and nastiness. But I have good reason to believe that Naipaul himself embraces it, which is probably why this ugliness smoulders off the page. So while I can admire Naipual’s hard-hitting imagery (“smooth white lips of bread over mangled black tongues of meat”) and his knack for myopic maxims (“We make ourselves according to the ideas of our possibilities” and “The airplane is faster than the heart”), I’d be lying if I didn’t say that I’ve been eagerly anticipating a reading life without Naipaul. (Not quite. Like a Romero zombie, A House for Mr. Biswas is on the Modern Library list at #72.)

A Bend in the River isn’t a bad book. It isn’t as overrated or as desperate to please as Midnight’s Children.* But I don’t think I would call it a classic. While one should take care to separate the author from his work, I have learned that Naipaul has largely drawn from his life. (Indeed, if you read French’s book, it can be handily argued that “V.S. Naipaul” is Naipaul’s favorite subject.) I’ve really wanted to understand why so many people would refuse to question such a flagrant sociopath. Naipaul is a good writer, but he’s certainly not great if we stack the smug scamp against Conrad, Doris Lessing, Chinua Achebe, or Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o. All could easily clean Naipaul’s clock.

How has Naipaul mined from his life? One monstrous moment bubbles to the brim. Here’s Naipaul writing his mother in 1956, remarking upon a fellow boat passenger:

Poor thing, she was so frightened at the thought of travelling alone for the first time out of Trinidad at the age of thirty-five. She palled up with me and begged me in case of any alarm or trouble to come and look after her. The red nigger woman is really delightfully simple. You know, in ships, the chairs and tables are all chained to the floor to prevent them from rolling about the place when the sea gets rough. I told the woman that the tables and chairs were chained to prevent people stealing them. And, she believed it. ‘Eh, eh,’ she said, “But look at that, eh.” And again: passengers in different parts of the ship are assigned to different lifeboats (there are 6 on the Golfito). I told her that she had to find out which lifeboat was hers because, in case of any trouble, they were not going to let her get into any old lifeboat. In fact, if they found her in the wrong boat they were going to throw her into the sea. It was, I told her, the origins of the phrase ‘to be in the wrong boat.’

It is already mind-boggling enough to consider anyone who would practice such unmitigated spite towards a woman who was harming nobody. It is another thing altogether to boast about such baleful behavior to your own mother. Naipaul is clearly a man whose central pleasure involves terrorizing any figures “who are nothing” or “who allow themselves to become nothing,” to invoke, as French has with his biography title, A Bend in the River‘s famous opening.

As we read Bend, we learn that the writer and his antihero aren’t terribly different. Here’s Salim responding to poor Ferdinand, when the latter expresses a desire to find a better life studying in America:

I said, “Why should I send you to America? Why should I spend money on you?”

He had nothing to say. After the desperation and the trip through the rain, the whole thing might just have been another attempt at conversation.

Was it only his simplicity? I felt my temper rising — the rain and the lightning and the unnatural darkness of the afternoon had something to do with that.

I said, “Why do you think I have obligations to you? What have you done for me?”

The same question might likewise be addressed to the vile Vidia.

* * *

“I love you because you are so mean,” wrote Eve Babitz to Naipaul shortly after Bend‘s publication. But why should we celebrate an author who offers little more than meanness in life and in art? I ponder the type of blindsided reader who would only pine for the negative. Because it sure as hell isn’t me. Sure, I may have been seduced by Elizabeth Bowen’s brand of cruelty in the last installment, but there was enough carefully orchestrated character flinging to keep me intrigued. With Naipaul, the prose was often so slick that I felt my soul being clogged up by a BP-sized oil spill. I haven’t even brought up the unintentionally hilarious affair with Yvette, which is so rooted in preposterous male fantasy that one wonders if Vidia has ever understood women. (This is the same man who has the audacity to claim that women cannot write.)

“Carrying on” may help you negotiate the frontier, but that passive place doesn’t help you connect with other people or overcome your assumptions. That’s certainly Naipaul’s point. Yet I came away from this novel thinking that Naipaul was just as much monstrum horrendum, informe, ingens, cui lumen ademptum as his characters.

* — And since I’m being a little hard on Rushdie, in the interest of balance, I should probably relate this remarkably insensitive Naipaul anecdote. Naipaul has remained so committed to steely misanthropy that he refused to sign a petition supporting Salman Rushdie after Khomeini issued his fatwa, adding (according to the French bio), “I don’t know his books, but I’ve been aware of his statements. I found them usually left-wing and trivial and antiquated.” And he didn’t stop there. Naipaul would call the fatwa “an extreme form of literary criticism.” It’s one thing to dislike Rushdie’s books. It’s another thing to employ one’s literary sensibilities as justification for murder.

Next Up: Wallace Stegner’s Angle of Repose!