Begins here a list of memory lapses, items I reach for mentally before drawing a blank. I am not counting things I forget because I was incapacitated. (E.g., stuff I buy on Amazon when drunk or sleepwalking.) I put an asterisk after anything I actually went and Googled, or otherwise hunted around for.
Stuff I Forget
- Name of resort town near Rimini, where I was for WMA in Sept. 2007. (Riccione*)
- That 1910s recording star and performer who sang ‘Over There.’ (Nora Bayes*)
- 18th century German homosexual art historian and Italophile. (Winckelmann)
- The bibulous ‘red brick don’ with mustache in ‘Tinker Tailor.’ (Roy Bland)
Stuff I Forget: Addendum, May 23, 2017
- 5. What was the number on my last mailing address in London? 305? 503? (405)
- 6. Chicagoland guy now in Oxon at SoftPress? Richard Morgan? (Richard Logan*)
Our colleague over at mmetroland.wordpress.com has a draft critique of the ongoing Jane Austen/Alt Right controversy, which should shortly be published elsewhere. While the article is exhaustive, not to say tiresome, I’ve noticed that a few press references from March 20-26 escaped MMetroland’s eye.
Most of these are little more than copypastas of what appeared in the New York Times and Chronicle of Higher Education, but each has its own little quirk. The Huffington Post gives the kicker “She’s the Pepe of Regency-Era Fiction,” which is strangely witty for HuffPo, just as the writeup, by Claire Fallon, is unusually fair-and-balanced (though she sinks to using the 1950s Daily Worker/Civil Rights Congress expression, “white supremacist” to indicate anybody right-of-left-of-center).
Contrariwise, the formerly witty and balanced Independent (London) is now lost forever to the fever-swamp Left. “Jane Austen has alt-right fans who have clearly never read her work properly, scholar suggests,” goes the Indy’s hed, but the story describes no such scholar, nor in fact anyone else, making such a statement. The Daily Telegraph (London) isn’t much better, basing its writeup entirely on the original Chronicle story and its expansive endorsement by Jennifer Schuessler in the New York Times.
The Times’s (London) coverage, picked up in The Australian (Sydney), is even worse. Hack Ben Hoyle arranged his sensationalist bilge to showcase an old throwaway remark from Andrew Anglin that does not all pertain to the issue at hand. No doubt the fact that it’s a quote from America’s highly entertaining “top hater” made it irresistible:
In a post for The Daily Stormer, which has been called the “top hate site in America” by The Southern Poverty Law Centre, a white-supremacist approvingly described pop star Taylor Swift as “a secret Nazi”, whom he imagined “sitting at home with her cat reading Jane Austen”, while her contemporaries indulged in loose sexual behaviour “with coloured gentlemen”.
Following the local style-book to spell “Southern Poverty Law Centre,” though it’s a proper name, is also a funny touch, as is the respelling of “coloured” which should not be Briticized since it’s in a direct quote.
The Guardian’s Danuta Kean, despite her piece’s Commie jargon, is breathtakingly original by comparison. She actually did a little research on this one, and got some entertaining quotes:
Fellow Austen scholar Bharat Tandon, who edited the Harvard University Press edition of Emma, is sceptical that Austen’s fans on the far right have actually read her books. Citing Ayn Rand, another of the far right’s favourite female writers, he said: “[Austen] would have had Rand for breakfast. That rootsy post-Randian demagoguery that they all follow would have been completely alien to the society Austen chronicled.”
According to Tandon, the only character in Austen’s work who could possibly have voted for Donald Trump would be Mrs Norris, Fanny Price’s cruel and snobbish aunt in Mansfield Park. “She’s a nasty, greedy and abusive piece of work,” says Tandon. “Trump would speak to her.”
Claire Tomalin, whose biography, Jane Austen: A Life, revealed a woman more radical in her roots than her popular image allows, doubts the writer would find anything in common with white supremacists. “[Austen] loved the poetry of William Cowper, who was opposed to hunting and shooting,” she says.
We hadn’t thought about Philip Roth in some years, so it was with some delight, and a few misgivings, that we ran into him recently in the pages of The New Yorker (Jan. 30 issue). Actually it was just a Philip Roth e-mail, or portions of e-mails, extracted for a Talk of the Town “casual” by Judith Thurman.
Thurman had sent a note to the 83-year-old Roth because she wanted to pick his brains on the only subject anyone wants to talk about these days, Our New President. Some years back Roth wrote a darkly satirical fantasy, The Plot Against America, in which Charles Lindbergh gets into the White House and commences a pro-Nazi regime, complete with Nuremberg-style laws restricting the Jews. (The whole concept sounds like a lurid exercise in Jewish paranoia, but Roth mostly got around that by telling it as faux-autobiography, thereby making such paranoia the implicit theme of the book.)
The big question the interviewer posed here was, approximately: Do you see a parallel here between the fictional President Lindbergh and Donald Trump, who seemed to echo Lindbergh with his calls for “America First” in his Inaugural address?
Roth’s answer was scathing on the subject of Trump. He said he much preferred Lindbergh, who—quoting Roth’s reply here—“despite his Nazi sympathies and racist proclivities, was a great aviation hero who had displayed great physical courage and aeronautical genius in crossing the Atlantic in 1927. He had character and he had substance . . . Trump is just a con artist. The relevant book about Trump’s American forebear is Herman Melville’s ‘The Confidence-Man,’ the darkly pessimistic, daringly inventive novel—Melville’s last—that could just as well have been called ‘The Art of the Scam.’”
There is so much shallow glibness in this reply that it’s probably easiest to begin by pointing out a couple of factual errors. Like a bumptious, conceited grad student, Roth cites an obscure Melville novel and suggests it’s a prophetic allegory about Donald Trump. The problem here is, Roth almost certainly never read The Confidence-Man past its title. Because it is actually not the tale of a flim-flam artist who seduces a gullible public, as Roth apparently imagines. It’s an experimental, absurdist, rather self-indulgent exercise, with only a scant semblance of a plot. Set on a Mississippi steamboat, it describes a vast array of passengers, depicting a cross-section of American “types” of the 1850s. Some of them are snake-oil salesmen or charity-hucksters, others are eager investors looking looking for get-rich-quick schemes. Moving among them is a nameless character who changes his disguise from chapter to chapter.
The full title of the novel is The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade, and the title character’s shape-shifting is the real point of the story, inasmuch as it has one. Whatever else one thinks of Donald Trump, he is the diametrical opposite of a mysterious shape-shifter. One of the oddest and most striking things about Trump, in fact, is how little his persona has changed in forty years of public life. You have to figure Roth just found the name, “The Confidence-Man” too good to resist. If it wasn’t a book about a Trump-like character, then it should be. Few people would be the wiser.
Roth’s other blunder was calling the book Melville’s last novel, which is not quite true, unless you leave out the far better known and posthumously published Billy Budd.
Roth’s snooty, false erudition in the field of American literature is much of a piece with his cartoony ideas about President Trump. He levels at Trump every tiresome insult, every dismissive characterization that Washington Post columnists and cable-news commentators have been reciting since Trump first entered the political arena. As in his comparison of Trump with Lindbergh, Roth tries hard to appear fair and judicious by mentioning other Republican Presidents he didn’t like but weren’t nearly as bad as Trump:
I found much that was alarming about being a citizen during the tenures of Richard Nixon and George W. Bush. But whatever I may have seen as their limitations of character or intellect, neither was anything like as Trump is: ignorant of government, of history, of science, of philosophy, of art, incapable of expressing or recognizing subtlety or nuance, destitute of all decency, and wielding a vocabulary of seventy-seven words that is better called Jerkish than English.
He follows this with a dire warning that the Trump Administration may lead to “a genuine assault upon [writers’] rights” in “a country drowning in Trump’s river of lies.”
Roth’s philippic against President Trump has nothing new or insightful in it. It would read like the ravings of a senile madman if we hadn’t already seen this sort of thing, time after time, in a hundred other places. What’s noteworthy here is that Roth is a not a political columnist, or someone with unique insight into Donald Trump, yet he’s eager to recite the main talking-points of the extreme anti-Trump factions, as well as embellish them with whatever random insults come to mind. Trump is ignorant; he knows no art or history or philosophy; he is indecent, threatens freedom of speech, and lies unceasingly. In all likelihood no one’s ever quizzed Mr. Trump on his knowledge of art or history or philosophy. These are just rote denunciations, decoupled from any need for factual basis, and considered beyond challenge. Mere ritualistic signaling that one belongs to Anti-Trump Party .
There is a paradox here. In his long literary career (c. 1959-2009) Roth’s persona was that of a cranky controversialist who wouldn’t follow the herd and never feared to offend. At the start of his career, his closely observed stories of middle-class Jews were thought to be too revealing, bad PR for the Jewish people. Effectively “anti-Semitic,” in fact: an accusation that dogged Roth for decades. His most successful novel, Portnoy’s Complaint (1969), set the bar for bestselling raunch, combining an obscene sex satire with a manic, breathless, interminable parody of a Jewish stand-up-comic act.
The Jews in The Plot Against America (2004) are transgressive in yet another way. Based on his family and neighbors in Newark, New Jersey, c. 1940, they are flawed, weak, full of denial, hoping to find a way to accommodate themselves to the new Nazi-sympathizing government of President Lindbergh. There’s even a Conservative rabbi who attaches himself to the Lindbergh regime, cajoling his fellow Jews to put their fears at ease. In his e-mails to the New Yorker’s Thurman, Roth explained that he didn’t conceive the book as a “warning,” rather he was just trying to imagine realistically how his family and those around him might have behaved in such a situation. “I wanted to imagine how we would have fared, which meant I had first to invent an ominous American government that threatened us.”
As it happens, the invented political history is mostly claptrap, full of unlikely plot twists that scarcely work even within the context of a fantasy. Charles Lindbergh might conceivably have become a GOP nominee and even President someday, but not in 1940. (He didn’t even enter the public arena as spokesman for the America First Committee until 1941.) Moreover, even Roth could see that the notion of Lindbergh as a full-on Nazi-sympathizer was a bit much. Accordingly the author “lampshaded” his way out of that problem by offering the harebrained explanation that Lindbergh was being blackmailed all along. The Nazis had kidnapped his infant son, it seems, and they were holding the boy hostage in order to force Lucky Lindy to implement a Final Solution in America.
Historical-political imagination is not Roth’s long suit. This comes out clearly at the end of the e-mail interview, when Thurman asks him “how Trump threatens us.” Having given that rich litany of anti-Trump clichés earlier, Roth now comes up almost blank. He offers the feeblest, most shopworn worry in the book: “What is most terrifying is that he makes any and everything possible, including, of course, the nuclear catastrophe.”
In my grandparents’ house on Green Hill Lane, there was a vast attic at the top of a rickety flight of wooden stairs. When we visited we were not supposed to go up there, and so of course we would, whenever our grandmother wasn’t nearby. When she discovered us (as she would) she was invariably cross, although if there was anything compromising or untoward up there, it eluded me entirely.
Mainly it was old boxes, old furniture, some splendid Philadelphia Inquirers from 1957 with Sunday Rotocomics of Dick Tracy, Little Iodine, etc.; and an adult-size promotional figure of Reddy Kilowatt (“Your Electric Servant”) from the Philadelphia Electric Company. I have no idea what it was doing there. It’s the sort of thing one might find in an antiques shop today, but it certainly wasn’t brought in by my grandparents as a valuable curio in the 1940s or 50s. A gag gift, maybe? Maybe, not likely.
I did think, when I was 5, 6, 7, that Reddy Kilowatt was a bit frightening to look at. Maybe my grandmother thought it was scary, monstrous. Or apt to tip over and kill a small child. In the end I formed the vague idea that I wasn’t to go up into the attic because of Reddy Kilowatt.
Of course it could just be she thought the slippery, narrow attic stairway was treacherous. I don’t think either grandparent visited the attic very often. Although the house had only been built in the 1930s, it was quirky, designed by my grandfather after some old English country houses he had studied. He was a mechanical engineer rather than an architect, and his emphasis was on antiquarian cleverness rather than utility and safety. The house had things like a witch’s-hat turret with no functional purpose, and ground-floor stairway-ceiling so low that anyone over six feet would need to duck.
Outside, a weird, curving stone staircase wound up from the driveway to the front door. This was never used, as it was unusable; the flagstones were crooked and the steps were tiny. I gather this was meant to look like the detail of a 300-year-old habitation, preserved solely for antiquarian purposes. Anyway the front door of the house was the only entrance (of four) that was almost never used. There was a “sanitation” receptacle sunk into an outside walkway near the kitchen, and I was long grown before I realized this was another useless holdover installed just for period authenticity. A hundred years before this was the thing where people would dump the contents of chamberpots, and other unmentionables, to be collected each day by the nightsoil man.
My grandmother finally sold the house in the 1970s and moved back to her homeland of western Ohio, having first deposited with my parents anything that might possibly have some meaning of value— photo albums, furniture oddments, and boxes of 19th century memorabilia. What became of Reddy Kilowatt I never found out.
And that’s it, fam.
(Say, what was the name of Evan McMullin’s political party, again?)
Making this from scratch (ie Photoshop) I forgot to remember to put a stroke around the letters (font: Impact). It looks okay but it doesn’t pop out.
I didn’t do this one but Pepe GOP is one of my favorites.
This may have been the first Twitter meme I ever made. It’s a favorite, since it’s so upbeatedly transgressive. Early 2016, I believe. Done at the Meme Generator, which either gives an excellent result…or it doesn’t.