"It's always so difficult to know what to do for the best," Fyne assured me. It is. Good intentions stand in their own way so much. Whereas if you want to do harm to any one you needn't hesitate. You have only to go on. No one will reproach you with your mistakes or call you a confounded, clumsy meddler.
A man who has had his way is seldom happy, for generally he finds that the way does not lead very far on this earth of desires which can never be fully satisfied.
from A Murder is Announced by Agatha Christie, 1950
What do you get when you kiss a guy?
You get enough germs to catch pneumonia.
After you do, he'll never phone ya,
I'll never fall in love again.
"I write mostly positive reviews. I don’t write about places that don’t interest me. I’ve been doing this long enough, and I’ve closed enough restaurants. It’s very strange that forty people can be put out of work because I make an aesthetic judgment."
from Interview with Jonathan Gold, food critic. The Believer, Sept 2012
The best New Yorker sentences of the summer appeared in John McPhee's piece "Editors & Publisher" (July 2, 2012).
Editors of every ilk seem to think that titles are their prerogative -- that they can buy a piece, cut the title off the top, and lay on one of their own. When I was young, this turned my skin pink and caused horripilation. I should add that I encountered such editors almost wholly at magazines other than The New Yorker -- Vogue, Holiday, the Saturday Evening Post. The title is an integral part of a piece of writing, and one of the most important parts, and ought not to be written by anyone but the writer of what follows the title. Editors' habit of replacing an author's title with one of their own is like a photo of a tourist's head on the cardboard body of Mao Zedong.
I chose this passage for the wonderful outlandish simile that nails it down and because I agree with McPhee in principle. He is certainly right about editors' sense of entitlement, to use the apt word. When I wrote for Newsweek, I rarely got to title any of my pieces, though I must admit that my senior editor very often improved on whatever I had proposed. The late Ken Auchincloss was especially gifted at headlines. And these are important. I have called headlines and captions the haiku of journalism, and I remember being pleased (though some associates grumbled) when Ken ordered writers to write the captions under photos illustrating their articles. (I forget what embarrassment provoked this change.) Among my favorite headlines: the sublime "Rose is a Red" (which was on the cover of Sports Illustrated when Pete Rose returned to Cincinnati in the 1980s). The Newsweek caption I enjoyed writing most was "Laurels for Mr. Warren's Profession" when Robert Penn Warren was named the nation's first official poet laureate in 1986 (if memory serves).
That takes care of the good. As for the bad, well, sometimes the bad is so bad it's good ("Though a strapping five-nine today -- closer to five-nine and a half, really -- in the prepubescent days of my love affair with sports I was a shrimp"), or it's bad on purpose ("A little history is always useful"), or it's just bad when stripped out of its context when that context consists of banal word-clusters (e.g., "in a world characterized mainly by mobility, change, and uncertainty"). The quotes come from Louis Menand's pre-Olympics navel-gazer, "Glory Days," in the issue of August 6. The last is followed immediately by this:
No matter what happens to us next year, there will be a Super Bowl.
The statement, while not nearly as funny in context as out of it, should have an admonitory effect on writers who value their sentences as much as their paragraphs. Perhaps the magazine might use "there will always be a Super Bowl" as a tag for odd witticisms on the order of "there will always be an England." Was it the same author who, in an earlier piece, characterized his father as a snob on the grounds that he favored good grammar and correct usage? -- DL
Hope is the feeling you have that the feeling you have isn't permanent.
-- Mignon McLaughlin
The Neurotic's Notebook, 1960
via The American Scholar (Summer, 2008)
Henry James and Edith Wharton often went "motoring" together. Wharton wrote about one such trip in A Motor-Flight Through France (1908). Here, she describes an experience with James while traveling in England:
From A Backward Glance by Edith Wharton
The most absurd of these episodes occurred on another rainy evening when James and I chanced to arrive at Windsor long after dark. […] While I was hesitating and peering out into the darkness James spied an ancient doddering man who had stopped in the rain to gaze at us. ‘Wait a moment, my dear—I’ll ask him where we are’; and leaning out he signalled to the spectator.
‘My good man, if you’ll be good enough to come here, please; a little nearer—so,’ and as the old man came up: ‘My friend, to put it to you in two words, this lady and I have just arrived here from Slough; that is to say, to be more strictly accurate, we have recently passed through Slough on our way here, having actually motored to Windsor from Rye, which was our point of departure; and the darkness having overtaken us, we should be much obliged if you would tell us where we now are in relation, say, to the High Street, which, as you of course know, leads to the Castle, after leaving on the left hand the turn down to the railway station.’
I was not surprised to have this extraordinary appeal met by silence, and a dazed expression on the old wrinkled face at the window; nor to have James go on: ‘In short’ (his invariable prelude to a fresh series of explanatory ramifications), ‘in short, my good man, what I want to put to you in a word is this: supposing we have already (as I have reason to think we have) driven past the turn down to the railway station (which in that case, by the way, would probably not have been on our left hand, but on our right) where are we now in relation to…’
‘Oh, please,’ I interrupted, feeling myself utterly unable to sit through another parenthesis, ‘do ask him where the King’s Road is.’
‘Ah—? The King’s Road? Just so! Quite right! Can you, as a matter of fact, my good man, tell us where, in relation to our present position, the King’s Road exactly is?’
‘Ye’re in it’, said the aged face at the window.
Leslie McGrath's recent post about the similarities between writing and cooking reminded me of this passage, by Charles Simic:
If not in bed, my next writing-place of choice is the kitchen, with its smells of cooking. Some hearty soup or a stew simmering on the stove is all I need to get inspired. At such moments, I‘m reminded how much writing poetry resembles the art of cooking. Out of the simplest and often the most seemingly incompatible ingredients and spices, using either tried-and-true recipes, or concocting something at the spur of the moment, one turns out forgettable or memorable dishes. All that’s left for the poet to do is garnish his poems with a little parsley and serve them to poetry gourmets.
-- Charles Simic, New York Review of Books, February 10, 2012
You can love both, of course, and we do, but it is fun to compare these peerless singers, and one of our friends may have nailed it. "Billie makes me feel like things are only going to get worse," he said. "Ella makes me feel like things are looking up." The reflection occurred to us today while driving on a spidery network of roads that have "High" in their name -- Highland, Highgate, with different suffixes, "place" and "road" and "avenue" -- and we were in no hurry and were trying out the new Siirus-XM satellite car radio. And then we heard Lady Day's cover of a happy Irving Berlin song from Top Hat, "Isn't This a Lovely Day to Be Caught in the Rain?" She made this cheerful tune sound like a dirge, albeit one with a kick -- DL
"Venus will look like a dark pea drifting across a bowl of carrot soup."
Robert Siegel, Senior Host NPR's All Things Considered, June 5, 2012
Democratic literatures are always crawling with authors who see literature as nothing more than an industry, and for every great writer there are thoiusands of retailers of ideas.
Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America (trans. Arthur Goldhammer)
I remember a poet's writing to me several years back, You are the most underrated poet in the country. But then, he added, that's better than being the most overrated poet in the country. I was and remain impressed by the short distance between the two extremes.
-- Howard Nemerov, Journal of the Fictive Life (1963)
“The point is not so much to understand the poems (for when we understand something, we don’t need it anymore, and we don’t read it again); the point is to inhabit the poems. By doing so, we recognize that our humanity is not constituted by our ‘mastery’ of something. It is constituted by our willingness to humble ourselves to the ‘mystery’ of something.”
Read the entire post here.
From "Out the Window" by Donald Hall in the New Yorker, January 23, 2012:
[My mother] died a month short of ninety-one. Her brain was still good. A week before she died, she read "My Antonia" for the tenth time. Willa Cather had always been a favorite. Most of the time in old age she read Agatha Christie. She said that one of the advantages of being ninety was that she could read a detective story again, only two weeks after she first read it, without any notion of which character was the villain.
New poems no longer come to me, with their prodigies of metaphor and assonance. Prose endures. I feel the circles grow smaller, and old age is a ceremony of losses, which is on the whole preferable to dying at forty-seven or fifty-two.
I left it
on when I
left the house
for the pleasure
of coming back
ten hours later
to the greatness
of Teddy Wilson
"After You've Gone"
on the piano
in the corner
of the bedroom
as I enter
in the dark
from New and Selected Poems by David Lehman
THE RULE OF THUMB
Ringfinger was nervous
when they learned
that Hand might succumb
to the rule of Thumb.