Saturday, May 31, 2008


Henry James vs The Dog

An amusing recollection of Henry James that I just came across while reading E.F. Benson's 1930 memoir As We Were:

He talked like a book of his own in the making, just as he used to dictate it, with endless erasures of speech, til he got the exact and final form of his sentence... He avoided, just as he avoided in his writing, any definite and final statement, if what he meant to say could be conveyed in picturesque and allusive periphrasis... I recall, as the simplest instance, how he described a call paid at dusk on some neighbors at Rye, how he rang the bell and nothing happened, how he rang again and waited, how at the end there came steps in the passage and the door was slowly opened, and there appeared in advance on the threshold, "Something black, something canine." To have said a black dog would not have done at all....

Then came a morning when he emerged some half an hour before his usual time, and he took me by the arm and walked me up and down the lawn.

"An event has occurred today," he said, exactly as if he was still dictating, "which no doubt to you, fresh from your loud, your reverberating London, with its mosaic of multifarious movements and intensive interests, might seem justly and reasonably enough to be scarcely perceptible in all that hum and hurry and hubbub, but to me here in little Rye, tranquil and isolated little Rye, a silted-up Cinque-port but now far from the sea and more readily accessible to bicyclists and pedestrians than to sea captains and smugglers; Rye, where, at the present moment, so happily, so blessedly I hold you trapped in the corner, my angulus terrae--"

On and on went the rich interminable sentence... [until] he despaired of ever struggling free from the python-coils of subordinate clauses and allusive parentheses, for he broke off short and said, "In point of fact, my dear Fred Benson, I have finished my book."

Sunday, May 25, 2008


Go, Tommy, Go!

Some terrific news: last fall I mentioned that Tommy Wallach -- one of the earliest McSweeney's contributors, back when he was still in high school -- had a hit on YouTube with this homebrew music video:

Great stuff. And now the Decca label agrees...!


Crashing by Design

This coming Thursday should see an interesting announcement: the Times of London and Harper Collins ran a contest a couple months back calling for cover designs for the upcoming reissue of J.G. Ballard's Crash:

The competition will be judged by Ballard, who will chose the winning design from a shortlist of six selected by the Harper Collins design team. The winner will see their design used on a limited edition of Crash, due to be published in September 2008...

All designs must be 197mm x 129mm in size, and include the book title, the author's name, the Harper Perennial logo and this quote, ‘A work of very powerful originality. Ballard is amongst our finest writers of fiction’ Anthony Burgess.

Designers were then asked to upload their cover design to Flikr. Whether this approach ever becomes more than a novelty as a way to design covers remains to be seen -- but it's certainly a diverting twist.

Saturday, May 24, 2008


Aghhh.... It'th Thuck! It'th Thuck!

Over at The Stranger, Brad Steinbacher and Paul Constant engage in the book critic's equivalent of daring each other to stick their tongues to a frozen flagpole:

Last week, I started reading I Will Fear No Evil, by Robert A. Heinlein. I am reading this book because Brad bet me fifty bucks that I couldn’t do it. Last week, I was 122 pages in. Now, I am on page 283. I hate this book so motherfucking much.... This is atrocious writing. I have never wanted to quit a book more, but I’ll continue because I am going to win this stupid, stupid bet.

Sunday, May 18, 2008


Shave, New World

Think advertising's tin-eared co-opting of lit is new? From the Airminded blog, an amazing 1937 Daily Mail ad that rips off Wells and Huxley to hawk... shaving cream?

What of the future? What shall we wear? Eat? Drink? Shall we live in glass houses? Travel in Gyroplanes and wear Television on our wrists? Who knows? But we do know how we shall shave — for “Field-day” is one of the ‘Things to Come’ that’s here already! Revolutionary! Incomparably better! Different — not only from lather but from other ‘brushless’ creams. Fast — for the age of speed. Blades last longer. Simple and safe, too! Safe because you can see through “Field-day” as you shave instead of blindly guessing! Made with pure Olive Oil .. free from Caustic Alkali (an essential part of lather!) Made for the Future. On sale NOW. Are you going to wait — or be one of the ‘Moderns’? For the sake of your skin and your razor-blades do step out of that rut.

What I love about this ad is that apparently the future is based on olive oil. Which surely was futuristic in... I don't know, maybe 1000 B.C.?


Poet Cage Match!

An amusing Ezra Pound anecdote from yesterday's Guardian:

Enemy ranks were stuffed with "third-hand Keats, Wordsworth, heaven knows what". The focus for his ire was the group known as the Georgians, which included John Masefield, Rupert Brooke, JC Squire, Lascelles Abercrombie and others. Tilting sombrero to top hat, Pound challenged Abercrombie to a duel, on the basis that "stupidity carried beyond a certain point becomes a public menace". Permitted a choice of weapons, Abercrombie suggested the two poets attack each other with unsold copies of their own books.

Saturday, May 17, 2008


Seize the Daylight

I'm in the latest New Scientist with a piece about a brilliant Victorian "daylighting" technology that competed with then-expensive light blubs and dangerous gaslighting:

IN CHICAGO and other industrial cities of the American Midwest, modern building facades and false ceilings often conceal a Victorian secret. In many old buildings, curiously shaped glass tiles known as Luxfer Prisms lie just a few centimetres behind the paint and plaster. Scattered through old drugstores and boarded-up banks from Madison to Fort Wayne, Luxfers were one of the 19th- century’s greatest innovations in lighting, and an idea that’s beginning to make a comeback in our own energy-conscious times....

Ordinary windows admitted plenty of light – but while there was a pool of bright light close to the window, only the dimmest haze reached the back of the shop. What if there were a series of prisms on the interior of windows, carefully angled to refract the wasted sunlight away from the front of the store, and into those dimly lit corners? You wouldn't need to redirect an entire window's worth, just the light coming through the top portion of the pane.... [Inventor] Pennycuick joined Chicago investors to establish what became the American Luxfer Prism Company. Two professors from nearby Northwestern University were retained to determine the best way to measure brightness and prism placement. Architects were then invited to submit prism-friendly building designs, while a young Frank Lloyd Wright was hired to design ornamental exteriors for the tiles...

"Stop Wasting Daylight," proclaimed newspaper ads. "Daylight Your Store...Dispense With Artificial Light. Daylight Costs Nothing."

That's Wright's design pictured above. Since daylighting can't go around corners, and is dimmed considerably by dark walls, Luxfers also fostered a decidely un-Victorian aesthetic of light-colored walls, open planning, and lots of interior glass. Something, in short, that starts looking an awful lot like Modernism. All of which goes back to my constant suspicion that aesthetic movements can sooner or later be traced back a technological development.

I happened to be visiting Kansas City a couple months ago, and I when I decribed Luxfer Prisms to a KCAI art student he pointed and said: "Oh, you mean like those over there?" They're all over the place in old Midwestern commercial buildings.

Here's a recently discovered and restored Luxfer installation in Madison, Wisconsin; the glass tiles along the top are Luxfers:

You can see Pennycuick's original patent here at Ian Macky's terrific Prismatic Glass website. The notion of prismatic daylighting is actually being revived by, among others, an Australian firm using laser-cutting and acrylic panes.


Snakes on a Mise en Scéne

An actual letter to the editor that I found in the New York Times for June 18, 1922:

Rats and Mice in Movies.
May I ask why it seems necessary to feature rats and mice so conspicuously in moving pictures? They are as repulsive to many as reptiles, yet snakes are seldom seen in pictures.

Longmeadow, Mass., June 8, 1922

Sunday, May 11, 2008


Tome Raider

Getting translated can be a uniquely unsettling experience: an unexpected package arrives with customs stamps and the word "libri" or some such neatly written on it -- and inside, a pile of perhaps ten unrecognizable books with your name inexplicably printed on the cover. And you can't read a word of what's inside. My books could be switched with recipes for venison and I'd never know it.

And thus, Stuart Kelly's own venison moment in the Scotsman today...

I received a pleasant, if curious, surprise last week – the Chinese translation of my first book, The Book Of Lost Books. The ideograms, though beautiful, are completely incomprehensible to me, with only a few words in English peppering the text.

But the weirdest thing was the introduction, which was entitled "Lost and Found and Something Inbetween", and had an epigram ("Everything lost wants to be found") attributed to Tomb Raider's Lara Croft. The weird thing is that I didn't write any of that – and since the rest is in Chinese, I have no idea what it says.
The definitive work of mistranslation remains, of course... Jimmy James, Macho Donkey Business Wrestler.

Saturday, May 10, 2008


Lost Book

A letter in today's Guardian notes yet another possible Lost Book, this one by novelist Nigel Dennis:

In the 1930s, Dennis wrote Chalk and Cheese under the pseudonym Richard Vaughan. Legend has it that, before publication, every copy was destroyed in an air raid on a warehouse; if anybody has a copy that escaped the flames, there are plenty of people who would be delighted to read it.

Google only notes one other online reference to this mysterious volume, by the way. It's in an old Village Voice supplement!

Update: a reader directs me to a Worldcat listing showing one -- one! -- surviving copy. It's at the New York Public Library...

Monday, May 05, 2008


Oh! Ill-Fated Bridge of the Silv'ry Tay...

The Scotsman notes an Edinburgh auction house is auctioning manuscripts by the man many consider the most wonderfully awful poet ever, William Topaz MacGonagall.

The self-taught son of an Irish cotton weaver, Mc Gonagall was born in Edinburgh in 1825. From there, his family moved to Dundee, where he worked most of his life as a handloom weaver in the jute mills.

He did not begin writing until the age of 47, but went on to pen poems about everything from famous Scottish battles to Queen Victoria's Golden Jubilee.

Among the works being sold at auction next month are an ode to Robert Burns, his tribute to "beautiful Glasgow", a poem about the Battle of Waterloo and another about a fire at the People's Variety Theatre, in Aberdeen. But McGonagall – probably best remembered for his poem commemorating the Tay Bridge disaster of 1879 – was paid just once for his work, for a Sunlight Soap commercial.

It's a sign of MacGonagall's greatness that in 1974 Spike Milligan (an incorrigible McG quoter, going back to his Goon Show days) and Peter Sellers both starred in The Great MacGonagall, which imagines the poet haplessly attempting to become Poet Laureate.

And yes -- that is Peter Sellers playing Queen Victoria.

MacGonagall's works can be found at MacGonagall Online, and I'd be remiss if I did not include the glorious concluding stanza of The Tay Bridge Disaster:

It must have been an awful sight,
To witness in the dusky moonlight,
While the Storm Fiend did laugh, and angry did bray,
Along the Railway Bridge of the Silv'ry Tay,
Oh! ill-fated Bridge of the Silv'ry Tay,
I must now conclude my lay
By telling the world fearlessly without the least dismay,
That your central girders would not have given way,
At least many sensible men do say,
Had they been supported on each side with buttresses,
At least many sensible men confesses,
For the stronger we our houses do build,
The less chance we have of being killed.

Sunday, May 04, 2008


Mr Langshaw Takes a Bow

From a review in yesterday's Guardian of the newly released Mr Langshaw's Square Piano by Madeline Goold:

It was a serial number inside an antique piano which launched Madeline Goold on the quest to discover its first owner. Having become interested in historical keyboard instruments, she bought a "square" piano in an auction.... squares had a fairly short lifespan, and if they survived into the 20th century, central heating often hastened their end. Some were converted into dressing tables or writing desks - even, as Goold relates, into a chicken incubator with a light installed inside the lid.... Goold's piano, serial number 10,651, was made by Broadwood... [which] still has most of its archive records of sales from the 1770s onwards. By searching through those records Goold was able to trace her piano's first owner, John Langshaw, a Lancaster organist, who bought it in 1807.

Langshaw might have felt uncomfortable to know that his chance possession of a piano would lever him into the limelight. He was a professional musician, turning his hand to all sorts of things in order to achieve a modest living. As well as being a church organist, he taught, composed and acted as a "country friend" of Broadwood, distributing pianos on their behalf and earning commission.... Goold uses many historical sources to construct a speculative portrait of life for such a musician, his family and friends. She tells us about prices, incomes and the struggles of musicians to find their social niche.

As you might guess, I'm a sucker for this sort of thing -- but no sign of a US publisher, I'm afraid.

Here, incidentally, is an 1822 Broadwood Square at work:

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