Stop the clocks: how Twain celebrated Thanksgiving

This cartoon — found in Mark Twain Himself: a Pictorial Biography, thanks to Macy Halford — exposes my beloved Twain as a fellow noise-intolerant freak. Evidently he rose on Thanksgiving night at the cartoonist’s house “to stop the clocks that were interfering with his sleep.”

I myself have gotten out of bed to silence clocks in other people’s houses. I do this so customarily, in fact, that by now my sister would probably be surprised if I left the batteries in her guest room ticker intact. Even in my own apartment, I keep my midcentury-atomic model unplugged more often than not because once I become aware of its ticking I can’t concentrate on eating, talking, writing, or sleeping. Or anything else. I start to feel like a Poe character — I believe it was his timepiece. Yes, his timepiece!

The aversion runs in the family; my father once became so agitated at the sound of a clock in a hotel room that he tore the cord from the wall with such force, we couldn’t get it to restart the next morning. This kind of intolerance is often said to be learned rather than hereditary, but I am actually very distantly related to Twain through both of my dad’s maternal grandparents, who were his fifth cousins once-removed (grandmother) and twice-removed (grandfather), and maybe on my mom’s side too, so who knows?

As for Thanksgiving, Twain described the holiday as “a function which originated in New England two or three centuries ago when those people recognized that they really had something to be thankful for–annually, not oftener–if they had succeeded in exterminating their neighbors, the Indians, during the previous twelve months instead of getting exterminated by their neighbors, the Indians. Thanksgiving Day became a habit, for the reason that in the course of time, as the years drifted on, it was perceived that the exterminating had ceased to be mutual and was all on the white man’s side, consequently on the Lord’s side; hence it was proper to thank the Lord for it and extend the usual annual compliments.”

See also: Twain and turkeys, via Lizzie; Thanksgiving menus from Twain’s day; Donald Barthelme on Thanksgiving (“Thank you, O Lord, for what we are about to receive. This is surely not a gala concept”); Morgan Meis on Nathaniel Hawthorne as antidote to the triteness of the holiday (“It takes Satan to bring out the true spirit of Thanksgiving”); and Jenny Diski on noise.

Reading at Second Pass party Wednesday, Nov. 10

The Second Pass is throwing a party at Melville House Bookstore this Wednesday night, and I’ll be reading a very brief excerpt from the novel I’m finishing up.

The other contributors reading are Carlene Bauer (Not That Kind of Girl), Will Blythe (To Hate Like This Is to Be Happy Forever), and Jason Zinoman, theater critic for the New York Times, who’s working on a book about ’70s horror films. After the readings “conclude with an entertaining excerpt from a largely forgotten work, in keeping with the site’s preoccupations,” we drink and toast to Second Pass mastermind John Williams. All this begins at 7:30 p.m.

I’m going to bring a pile of these booklets (above) to give away. I made them last year, to send to people who seemed disappointed that they didn’t win my novel excerpt/Narrative Magazine giveaway, but for some reason I decided to print extra ones that have now been sitting around so long, I just need them out of my life. The contents are my doubt reading list for Bookforum and a little bit of “When the Flock Changed” (a novel excerpt which you can read in full by following that link to the Narrative site). You should know that I’m nobody’s idea of a book designer; I completely mangled Bill Ectric’s Photoshop handiwork on the cover.

If you make it out to celebrate with us, you’re welcome to a copy. And I’ll eventually give away any leftovers here.

Is Muriel Spark too funny to get the respect she’s due?


My mystification that Muriel Spark isn’t more widely read has continued to grow, but last week her editor, New Directions publisher Barbara Epler, offered a theory in email that echoes what Howard Jacobson has said about the devaluation of comedy in literature.

“The fact that she is so unbelievably and witchily entertaining,” Epler argues, “has kept her from her full share of glory as the greatest British writer of the 20th century. Humor has never been the long suit of most critics.”

Spark really is hilarious, and her humor, like Twain’s, is the kind that doesn’t date. As my (new, thanks to Jessa) friend Elizabeth Bachner observed after I pressed Memento Mori on her as she headed to the train last week, she’s also incredibly sly.

“I advocate the arts of satire and of ridicule,” she once said. “And I see no other living art form for the future. Ridicule is the only honourable weapon we have left.” In 1993 she told The New Yorker, “You don’t know why the things that happen happen… You have to live with the mystery. That’s the answer in my books.”

Spark returned Epler’s admiration, praising her “wisdom, charm, humour and intuition, [which] must be the envy of every author.” And reading Epler’s remarks on editing, it’s easy to see that she and Spark, who resisted all but the smartest and most intuitive edits, would have had a natural affinity.

In 2008, Epler said, “Your job is just to worry, to check and double-check. One study pointed out that the difference between competent people and incompetent people is that competent people know they might be wrong and double- and triple-check; incompetent people know they’re right. (Or, as a Brazilian publisher joked, What’s the difference between ignorance and arrogance? ‘I don’t know and I don’t care.’) Editing doesn’t seem to be a process of knowing but of asking.”

And last year she spoke with Powell’s about, among other things, New Directions’ mission: “We really just try to find the best writing we can, albeit in a somewhat narrow bailiwick. (We are now owned by a trust and one of its provisions is that we continue to publish the kind of books J. L. wanted: a sort of baggy category, but with an emphasis still on experimental or what used to be called avant-garde writing.)”

New Directions has just republished Spark’s Not to Disturb, and will soon bring out her charming, idiosyncratic, stripped-down autobiography, Curriculum Vitae, which serves as a kind of preemptive corrective to Martin Stannard’s sprawling biography.

My personal Spark hierarchy starts like this: Memento Mori, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, The Girls of Slender Means, Curriculum Vitae, but I basically recommend her whole library (apart from a few of the early stories, and even those are worth reading just to see her storytelling talents ramping up).

Click through to the BBC website from the image at the top of this post to watch Spark being interviewed in her Rome apartment. See also Why Muriel Spark switched publishers, Brock Clarke on Muriel Spark’s genuine artifice, the Spark riffs in my Paris Review Daily diary, and her handwritten diary entry from Rome and more of the scraps of paper she kept.