Philip Larkin on the conflict between work and poetry

From now on, when people inquire how I feel about working a day job, I think I’ll defer to Philip Larkin. Asked about his life as a University of Hull librarian, the poet replied:

Taking it all in all, work and I get on fairly well, I think. There are just these occasions when one would like to prove it by not working for a bit.

And to feel that you’re spending your life on the one rather than the other I think is perhaps the most depressing thought that work can bring you — that when I bind up library committee minutes at the end of five years it makes a big fat volume, but it’s not the same as a volume of poetry. They are very good minutes — but the minute as an art form has its limitations.

You can also hear Larkin read “Aubade,” which rightly tops Alex Balk’s Listicle without Commentary: The 94 Best Philip Larkin Poems, In Order. “This is a special way of being afraid/ No trick dispels. Religion used to try, / That vast, moth-eaten musical brocade/ Created to pretend we never die.”

I know, I always get so dramatic when my birthday is approaching.

Tea with Muriel Spark (and not Dostoyevsky)

Muriel Spark’s 1992 autobiography has been characterized as purse-lipped, sterile, and withholding, a manipulative account designed to settle scores and divert attention from anything unflattering.

Curriculum Vitae may be more factual than confessional, but judged on its own terms rather than by the standards of the contemporary tell-all, the book is a charming, idiosyncratic, and closely observed personal history, one that manages to surprise even as it turns out to be almost exactly what you’d expect the author of Memento Mori, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, The Comforters, and The Girls of Slender Means to offer up.

In an early passage, Spark explains the way children made tea in 1930s Edinburgh.

Sixty years ago is a short time in history. As recently as that I made at least one pot of tea for the family every day. It was delicious tea. Every schoolgirl, every schoolboy, knew how to make that exquisite pot of tea.

You boiled the kettle, and just before it came to the boil, you half-filled the teapot to warm it. When the kettle came to the boil, you kept it simmering while you threw out the water in the teapot and then put in a level spoonful of tea for each person and one for the pot. Up to four spoonfuls of tea from that sweetly odorous tea-caddy would make the perfect pot. The caddy spoon was a special shape, like a small silver shovel. You never took the kettle to the teapot; always the pot to the kettle, where you filled it, but never to the brim.

You let it stand, to ‘draw’, for three minutes.

The tea had to be drunk out of china, as thin at the rim as you could afford. Otherwise you lost the taste of the tea.

You put in milk sufficient to cloud the clear liquid, and sugar if you had a sweet tooth. Sugar or not was the only personal choice allowed.

Everyone who came to the house was offered a cup of tea, as in Dostoyevsky. What his method of making tea was I don’t know. (Tea from samovars must have been different, certainly without milk, and served in a glass set in a brass or silver holder.)

Tea at five o’clock was an occasion for visitors. One ate bread and butter first, graduating to cakes and biscuits. Five o’clock tea was something you ‘took’. If you had it as six you ‘ate’ your tea.

Tea at half-past six was high tea, a full meal which resembled breakfast. You had kippers, smoked haddock (smokies), ham, eggs or sausages for high tea. Potatoes did not accompany this meal. But a pot of tea, with bread, butter and jam, was always part of it.

In my continuing quest to set the world record for dullness, tonight I’m picking up some sausages on the way home and following Spark’s instructions with the pretty tea set (above) that Lizzie gave me for Christmas. Too bad I don’t have any darning to do. Afterward, naturally, I’ll go out on the balcony and water my plants.

A hundred years without Mark Twain

Mark Twain, who died a hundred years ago today, entered the world and left with Halley’s Comet. His essays have a permanent place on my bedside table; I read them whenever my own writing stalls. Those perfect verbs, those unexpected but accurate nouns, that distinctive sense of the absurd and limitless ability to evoke it…

We’ve had our difficulties, Twain and I, but no writer, living or dead, is as important to me, the young William Faulkner be damned.

Tonight WFMU offers a musical tribute centered around “the 19th century author’s seemingly contradictory relationship with the keyboard. Twain often publicly claimed a distaste for the piano, yet privately had a particular affection for it and was involved with the instrument and its players his entire life. The [program features] nine piano works connected to Twain, interspersed with readings of Twain’s sardonic observations about the instrument.” (Thanks to Sean and Min Jin; past Twain idolatry resides here.)

On Eisenberg’s stories, and her Bakelite heart

My appreciation of Deborah Eisenberg’s Collected Stories — which explore “people’s most complex and secret feelings, ‘mental states … that are just on the border of expressible’” — is up at NPR. An excerpt:

In an early story, “What it Was Like, Seeing Chris,” a teenager who’s “pale and long” like her little sister but believes she lacks the younger girl’s beauty is afraid to ask the ophthalmologist she visits each week in Manhattan whether she’s going blind. Tired of disappointing her parents and bored by her friends, she begins stopping in at a bar after her eye appointments and meets a golden-faced 27-year-old man whose smiling solicitude causes her to “notice that I was always lonely in my life.” Although he warns her that “there are a lot of strange things about me … I’m really crazy about you, but I can’t ask you to see me,” she arranges to stay at his house.

Afterward, she contemplates, as Eisenberg’s characters often do, the confusing nature of existence, the seeming randomness of events and their paradoxical inevitability: “every moment is all the things that are going to happen, and every moment is just the way all those things look on their way along a line.”

You can hear her discuss the collection on Leonard Lopate, and don’t miss Jean Thompson’s review, or Eisenberg’s 2007 conversation with Christopher Frizzelle, in which she jokes that “beneath this sort of warm and even ardent exterior beats a heart of pure Bakelite.”

Wit, precision, uppers, and God: the Muriel Spark bio

My review of Martin Stannard’s Muriel Spark biography appears at Barnes & Noble Review (and is reprinted at Salon). One of the things that struck me while reading is just how easily Spark — one of the finest and funniest novelists of the last century, or of any century — could have continued to write poetry and criticism and not tried her hand at fiction at all.

She composed her first story at thirty-three, almost by accident; she needed money and the Observer was sponsoring a contest. After publishing her first novel at thirty-nine, though, she completed the next few books astonishingly quickly, at half-year intervals, as though some part of her mind had been readying itself.

Despite its sprawl, Stannard’s biography is a fascinating read for Spark fans. And if you haven’t read Spark yet, please get cracking. I recommend starting with The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, The Girls of Slender Means, or my personal favorite, Memento Mori. Or maybe with her first book, The Comforters, or her last, The Finishing School… Just plunge in; it’s hard to go wrong.

Now that my thoughts are in the can, I look forward to reading The New Yorker’s recent Spark appreciation, and Dwight Garner’s New York Times review. Also, worth returning to: James Wood on Spark’s omniscience and Brock Clarke on her ruthless authorial manipulation.

Coming up: Future of criticism, and Chapters

This Saturday, April 17, I’ll be discussing the future of criticism as part of the Center for Fiction’s Conference in Honor of Roger Shattuck. Other participants in the panel discussion are Granta editor John Freeman and New Republic critic Jed Perl, and it will be moderated by National Book Critics Circle President Jane Ciabattari. I’m also excited to attend Lorin Stein’s conversation with Michel Braudeau, editor of Nouvelle Revue Française, on “Shattuck, Proust, and The Future,” and I hope to hear Daniel Mendelsohn’s thoughts on the state of criticism now. All the events are free, but (due to limited space) reservations are required.

Friday, April 23, also at the Center for Fiction, I’ll be introducing Lizzie Skurnick to read along with the talented young writers of Girls Write Now, as part of our new Chapters series. (For the uninitiated, Girls Write Now pairs professional writer mentors with at-risk teen girls. We received the Coming Up Taller Award from Michelle Obama earlier this year.)

NYC apartment living conducive to electronic books; or, where possible, please send galleys for iPad

a couple months' work of books

At night, when I get home from work, or from whatever I’ve done after work, I open packages from publishers. Then I stack most of the books* along this wall, behind the dining room table and next to the liquor credenza. Classy, I know. But it’s an improvement.

At our old place, when the galleys piled up, Max and I had trouble getting to the pots and pans. The tower quickly grew into a fat square structure taller than our kitchen table that the cats enjoyed sunning on. We needed to rent or borrow a van before inviting guests over for dinner. Or, really, before inviting guests over at all.

When we fled Greenpoint rents and cramped quarters and bought a co-op two years ago, we chose a building with a part-time doorman, as a concession to the galley tidal wave. (Someone has to be around to sign for books while we do the things that actually pay the bills.) Luckily this apartment is huge** by New York standards, so it would take at least a year’s worth of accumulation to impede our meals or the preparation thereof. Friends can eat sitting down and stand to put on their coats afterward even if we let the stacks grow, as we have recently, for a couple of months.

Evidently the old place is still getting slammed, too. Someone recently wrote to say: “I wanted to let you know that tons and tons and tons of packages come to our building every week, and piles of it collect.” For the sake of those who who now live at my former address — and trust me, they need our sympathy for many reasons — let it be known far and wide that I no longer reside on Dupont Street.

See the glowing screen at left of the photo at the top of this post? It’s a (poorly-lit) shot of my new iPad. I’m hoping to reduce some of the tsuris by going galley-digital.

I know many reviewers want to receive everything in hard copy, and under different circumstances I might prefer that, too, but it would be a great help if publishers could send me ebooks whenever possible from now on. Sometimes I might want a physical book, for one reason or another. But if I do, I can ask for it.

For the record, the Maud household has plenty of shelved volumes, too.


* The fact that a book is haphazardly shoved against the wall does not mean I have not read or will not read it.

** And has a terrace! If you’re willing to move this far out, the living is easy.