<= 2014.11.02


Helen DeWitt, The Last Samurai

It’s very seductive out of the gate, and might have seriously misled me when I was younger and more invested in precocity. Nowadays I’ll cop that there are more interesting things about John Stuart Mill than his having read the Anabasis at four, or six, whichever it was. When it falls apart, it’s just for the usual reason of novels being long and outlasting the sal volatile of their conceits.

Just like cream! but worse

Ozzy: What is this shape that stands before me??!!?

J: “It’s a triangle, Ozzy.”

R. often points out, about cars, that “they can’t get upset because they don’t have faces and they don’t talk.” Today she leapt without warning to the paraphrase: “They can’t get upset because they don’t have faces or minds.”


As the seventies went ill for America, so for the Fender Electric Instrument Company. Its new masters at CBS, Inc. got right to work shaving away anything that looked like a superfluous cost, and the results were just the operational excellence you’d expect: shoddy machining, warped cuts of wood, wonky intonation and a neck joint that wouldn’t stay in place because they took it down from four bolts to three. Yet love knows no season, and someone, somehow, managed to lure Seth Lover (first genius of our story) into the midst of this mess to design a Fender version of the humbucker he’d invented for Gibson. He came up with a piece of electronics that growled like a Gibson and chimed like a single-coil at the same time, with a ten-thousand-ohm output to drive any rig to its natural eleven. Jonny Greenwood’s Starcaster has them, Lee Ranaldo soldered them into his Jazzblaster, but they’re above all the mark of the seventies Telecaster, along with that cussed three-bolt joint and the narrow, rounded neck with the truss rod protruding in a bullet shape at top. On the merits these are not the best guitars ever made, but they are absolutely my favorites, a flowering of genius in an age of decline. Two of them live in our house: one a careful recreation, the other vintage and older than I am.

Pindar dates from 1972, the first year of humbucker Teles in various styles, including the Thinline. A couple of years earlier Fender had noticed that their wood stock was starting to get heavy, and Roger Rossmeisl (second genius of our story, luthier trained like his father in Mittenwald) had proposed to them that a solid-body could be made lightweight and beautiful by carving out the left side like a violin. Forty-odd years later, his invention came to us. In the dark decades between someone in Massachusetts had sanded off the finish, dressed the frets down to nearly nothing, warped the pickguard in the sun or next to a radiator, let the case rust in a barn, and as a final insult given it strings one gauge too light. But on playing a first few notes I got such a look on my face, J. tells me, that she consigned me the guitar straightaway, never mind that we’d actually bought it for her. Then I tried to pull a plastic knob off the pickguard and ended up taking the entire instrument apart, in the process assaulting the knob with every tool in the house, including plumbing and gardening tools, and gouging the hell out of my hand. I ended up snapping the knob to bits with tin snips and discovered a) a rusted-on nut that would absolutely not detach and remains under the new pickguard to this day, fused to a bit of the old pickguard; and b) the senseless, skill-less, unmotivated chiseling that the person in Massachusetts had done along the control cavity. We will never know why.

R. was very worried about the irremovable knob and wanted to help pull it off. We consoled her with the news that the stripped body, now picked clean of its parts, would be going to a local “guitar painter.” “Maybe white?” I said to the guitar painter. “What Fender called Olympic white. A little aged?” He got it.

Paisano began life with less distinction, as a right-priced Mexican reissue of the 1972 Tele Custom. This was a hybrid design, putting Seth Lover’s masterpiece in the neck and a standard Tele pickup in the bridge, that slanted single coil in a metal plate that first put the world on notice that Leo Fender was more than an amp tech. That is to say it’s the ideal Telecaster; that is to say it’s the ideal electric guitar. (See Richards, Keith; Yorke, Thom.)

It came in as a successor to my old blue Tele, after I came to acknowledge the hollow left by trading that Tele away. A friendly, elfin hipster brought it over from San Francisco and explained that his new style of music (something with bloops—whatever the kids do) didn’t require “such a complicated guitar.” So began one of the more intense and difficult relationships of my life. It was the feel of its neck in my left hand—perfect line and arc, a handle you’d trust to pull yourself back from a cliff—that seduced me into putting Catullus and a roadrunner on it, and naming it “Paisano,” which a guy sitting on a street corner in Guatemala used to crack himself up by calling me. But having done that, I had to admit that the sound out of the speakers was either too sharp or too dull, never warm enough, however tweaked. I put new pickups in bridge and neck both, rewired it with higher-output potentiometers, installed brass bridge saddles, experimented with a different bridgeplate, all because putting the roadrunner on it had contracted an obligation to make it the guitar it should have been, instead of just trading it away and starting over. In the end I sent the neck out to a luthier in Denton for his secret-sauce refret, and entirely swapped out the body for an American-made ash slab. That did the trick; it came back last week and it sounds perfect. Naturally it’s the ship of Theseus now. Of its original substance, all it has kept is the pickguard, bridgeplate, switches and knobs, along with the all-important wood of the neck; but its form has persisted throughout, guiding the transubstantiation. That is how a guitar becomes what it is.

As to the nature of the perfect sound: there’s a lot of space in it, the space you can hear in any fifties country arrangement with a Telecaster on top. A wide, dry plain with a couple of stretched-out clouds above, and the treble spike shooting up like a jagged rock ridge. The mineral alloys in the pickups—AlNiCo, CuNiFe—give the rocks their colors, just like they streaked the edges of the open-pit mines I used to drive past on my old job, listening to Luther Perkins’s boom-chicka or something British with a lot of echo, whatever it was that day. It’s a prickly fruit with sweet pulp inside. It’s the calling card I’d like to be known by.

Hotel register 2014.010

Jan Morris, Last Letters from Hav; Hav of the Myrmidons (1985; 2006), is a bagatelle but a sly one; I can’t tell if it’s subtly intimating that it’s more than a bagatelle, or subtly intimating that it’s not.

I spent Christmas in a northern state where the sun sets early. It was already sinking behind a hill as we drove out to a barn so that my daughter could meet her grandmother’s horse; the ruddy half disc glinted through bare woods at the summit and shifted its beams as the car moved. Firebird, ready to take flight from the canopy. But it didn’t, it went to sleep, and at dusk we met the horse. It snorted and steamed at the nostrils, R. petted its side and sat behind its shoulders, gripped the coarse mane, laughed in delight as its great tongue lapped a candy cane—

Unusually, I’m spending time by myself in airports, in part because of my grandmother’s unexpected death over the holiday. The first encounter in a long time—years?—with the loneliness that leads to writing, that used to lead to writing all the time. Whatever else has gone on these years, I haven’t been lonely. This round of goodbyes was especially hard; one never wants to be lonely and yet it’s a spur.

Read without haste E.R. Curtius, European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages. Curtius thinks that the Classic-Romantic distinction is unworkable in practice and suggests the Classic-Mannerist distinction as an alternative. I’m surprised I haven’t seen that before; I like it because it’s a matter of pure technique, and seems to have cropped up independently or not in many places, even the MFA workshop where Frank Conroy used to say: “On the one hand, the plain style, on the other, the rococo….”

It’s useful as context for Dante, a corrective to the assumption that Dante appeared out of nowhere after a millennium of nothing—an assumption which makes it seem that the Divine Comedy could not have been written by a human. Which is not to say Curtius doesn’t love Dante; everyone loves Dante, except the young Goethe. Walking home the other day from signing documents for my new job, I had the thought that his heaven, which starts out radiating and then converges, could be modeled as the surface of a hypersphere, and unsurprisingly lots of people over this last century have had the same thought. Not that “Dante anticipated Riemann,” but (I think) he might have taken the earth’s surface as an analogy and drawn a path from pole to pole so that both God and the Earth could occupy central positions, one high, one low.

The casket was heavy, and bearing it from point to point with my cousins—I on the right, using my weaker left arm—I wondered how much was mortal flesh and how much was superstructure, ceremony. At the church entry they had a framed photo with her sixteen or so local great-grandchildren and a separate photo of R., the only great-grandchild to live in a different city, whom I had never managed to bring there; and if I had brought her, it would have been the opportunity for another group photo of children, an hour in arranging and me fidgeting the whole time, forgetting the point of such photos is to be placed, in time, at church entries—then the Mass, hymns, responses to which I still remember the words. Lift up your hearts: we lift them up to the Lord. 1 Thessalonians 4:13: But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. The resurrection of the flesh specifically, and often, insisted upon.

They had me kneeling in the first pew, but declining Communion was not so awkward since the conditions were clearly stated: married in the Church, if married…. The smoke out of the censer, the splashes of holy water were seductive, as was the talk of God’s eternal foreknowledge: Dante again. But why my grandparents’ 65-year marriage should be held up as a rebuke to “a fifty percent divorce rate, and men marrying men, and women marrying women”: well, let the differences not be obscured. I can’t write about my grandmother herself, in part because of those differences. Early closeness, music lessons, distance, a sense of virtues not altogether congruent with the virtues I came to recognize.

Police on motorcycles flanked our procession through red lights. Garages, American flags, cold midday at the crypt. Dante prepared for death in his way, the Romans in theirs. Sometimes I think mine is the Egyptian practice, investing decades in painting the walls of a tomb.

When I get back I will start work. I am testing the hypothesis that it might not be so bad to be part of an endeavor, to be useful at least for a while; that it certainly beats getting devoured.

Software is the service. It reclines within the soft arms of a university, and also pays “grown-up money”, an expression which seems to be identical with “top decile”; things are that warped. I didn’t want to need it, but since starting a family, need has become an elastic concept. Four days away and I miss the metropolis. I miss the sea air, the daydream that particles of Japan or the Danube could wash up in the surf, circulation.

Hotel register 2014.008

Cambio de armas

Sex and power are usually a cold brew, no matter how many French herbs you stir in; writing with desire can lead anywhere at all, but writing about desire is a bad-faith invitation to get hot and bothered over a lab report. So what makes this book different—why is Luisa Valenzuela so obviously the real thing? The claustrophobia of state repression rendered as in an exacting horror movie, by what it leaves out, avenues closed. That desire still exists, a familiar beating heart, and has only these channels to pump through is as sickening as it should be. Something of Cortázar’s precise play, and a vocabulary that kept sending me to the dictionary to find out it was perfect.

At the studio, an olive tree became his friend. ‟When he had had a good session in his studio at Les Lauves,” reported Gasquet, ‟he would go down at nightfall to stand outside his front door, watching the day and the town go to sleep.

‟The olive tree was waiting for him. He had noticed it immediately, on his first visit there, before buying the land. While the building was being done, he had a little wall put up around it, to protect it from any possible damage. And now the old twilit tree had an air of vigor and fragrance. He would touch it. He would talk to it. When he parted from it at night he would sometimes embrace it.... The wisdom of the tree entered his heart.

‟‘It’s a living being,’ he said to me one day. ‘I love it like an old friend. It knows everything about my life and gives me excellent advice. I should like to be buried at its feet.’”

—Alex Danchev, Cézanne: a life

Proposition Q would require an immediate seismic event on the Hayward Fault with a Richter magnitude of no less than 7.0 and a Mercalli intensity of no less than VIII, with certain districts authorized to experience shaking up to Mercalli X, at the discretion of the Alameda County Board of Supervisors. (Source: California Legislative Analyst’s Office.) The fiscal impact would be considerable. Yet the logic is persuasive. Assuming that the quake has to come at some point—and no one is about to deny that, everyone concedes that certain fundamental structural forces are out of our hands—there might be considerable benefit in dictating its circumstances. To the extent that they can be dictated. There are bound to be unforeseeables. But would this not be preferable to absolute uncertainty? Opinions don’t split cleanly along party lines. Some Democrats advocate taking our lumps now, lest we burden future generations; others counter that while a major earthquake might serve the interests of certain groups, this is hardly the time for so draconian a measure. Some feel that the debate throws into relief the irrationality of the popular initiative system, and that the proposal ought to have come through the proper legislative channels. The Republicans, for their part, are on the far side of the hills, burning their usual effigies—you can see the smoke plumes—and nobody wants to actually get on the web to find out what they think. So along comes the day of decision, and early in the morning, or on lunch break, we stand in line at the church reception hall or the middle school gymnasium to cast ballots, nodding pleasantly at our neighbors; and that evening we curl up together on the couch, hitting refresh on the browser every few seconds, with our five-gallon water jug and battery-operated radio waiting beside us on the floor, just in case the foundation starts to slide.

Hotel register 2014.007

La última niebla / La amortajada

The jacket claims to collect “la totalidad de la obra narrativa en castellano de María Luisa Bombal,” which is untrue. Many later stories are missing, an especial shame because they get more haunting as they go. It starts with that thirties Spanish-American sense of both author and milieu finding their feet, an immediate talent for evoking the dreamland and some uncertainty about what to do with it. In the short tales of unhappy marriages, gender is very essential (nature-woman: society-man); the longer pieces give it more room to complicate, all to the good since an unhappy marriage is nothing if not complicated and Bombal, who once tried to shoot herself in her lover’s house and later on tried to shoot her lover, knows the facts on the ground.

In 1937, when she was writing “La Amortajada,” Borges told her that a deceased narrator was a bad idea because she would have to combine the realistic and supernatural. It works, of course; the broad view of life anchors the mystery of death. The innocent, destructive beauty in “La Historia de María Griselda” seems to come out of a Kleist tale, though without the Kleist sentence structure. Bombal’s sentences and paragraphs are short, powered by adjectives, sometimes ending three phrases in a row with the same adjective; this works too. (Los cipreses se recortaban inmóviles sobre un cielo azul; el estanque era una lámina de metal azul; la casa alargaba una sombra aterciopelada y azul.) On the misadventures of a submarine pirate ship: “Furiosos pulpos abrazábanse mansamente a sus mástiles, como para guiarlo…”

In sum, it’s probably worth trying to track down those uncollected stories.

<= 2014.11.02

What goes on