November 20th, 2020
Best. Writer. Ever.

RIP Jan Morris. Here’s a brief post I wrote about her a couple of years ago.

As UD and her fellow Americans grapple with a very long season of cruelty, here’s what matters.

[I]n her [local] life, Morris reported little change [after her sex reassignment]: walking in her town, no one batted an eyelid when she introduced herself as Jan. “I put it down to kindness,” she told the Observer in 2020. “Just that. Everything good in the world is kindness.”

Here is more of her great essay on Bolivia. Page 136 is just some of the finest, most exciting prose ever written.

September 21st, 2020
‘Without having seen a roster, I daresay [Ruth Bader Ginsburg] is the most influential, and most important, person [Vladimir Nabokov] ever taught.’

Maybe. But on that roster you’d have to put Thomas Pynchon.

March 24th, 2020
Terrence McNally, author of the great play, “Love! Valour! Compassion!”…

… has died at 81 of coronavirus.

The play/movie is hilarious, very very angry (AIDS is killing everybody), and supremely human. Here’s the famous monologue by Buzz, a musical theater fanatic (You can watch Nathan Lane perform it here, at 9:40):


Perry, just once I would love to see
a "West Side Story"
where everyone gets it.
The Jets and the Shark
and Officer Krupke, too,
while we're at it.
What's he doing?
Sneaking away from the theater?
Get back here and die
like everyone else, you son of a bitch!
I wanna see a "Sound of Music"
where the entire Von Trapp family
dies in an authentic
alpine avalanche,
or a "Kiss me, Kate" where she's got
a huge cold sore on her mouth.
Oh, God.
"A Funny Thing Happened
on the Way to the Forum."
And the only thing
that happens is nothing!
And it's not funny!
And they all go down waiting!
Waiting for what?
Waiting for nothing,
like everyone I know
or care about is--
including myself.
March 22nd, 2020
‘She had the perpetual sense, as she watched the taxi cabs, of being out, out, far out to sea and alone; she always had the feeling that it was very, very, dangerous to live even one day.’

Mrs Dalloway’s a shaky old dear, burdened by her creator’s sense of the dithery redundant language a brain like hers might kick up (perpetual, always; out, out, out; very, very); but after all she comes by her sense of debility and peril honestly, living as she does in still-traumatized and death-haunted post-war London. Aunt Rosa, in Nabokov’s short story “Signs and Symbols,” shares the same dangerous world, though she doesn’t yet know the half of it:

Aunt Rosa, a fussy, angular, wild-eyed old lady, who had lived in a tremulous world of bad news, bankruptcies, train accidents, cancerous growths—until the Germans put her to death, together with all the people she had worried about.

Philip Larkin, in “The Old Fools,” describes the elderly

crouching below
Extinction’s alp, the old fools, never perceiving
How near it is …

Yet both of these women register, in one way or another, precisely that perception; they simply differ in the ways they cope. Dalloway buys flowers and throws a party, not as death-evasion but as death-defiance; Rosa, like so many people, responds to the unassimilable, appalling fact of the avalanche (see also this recent post about Julian Barnes) with paralyzing anxiety and despair. So does Moses Herzog’s stepmother, in Herzog:

[Tante] Taube, a veteran survivor, … had fought the grave to a standstill, balking death itself by her slowness.

As in, maybe if you don’t live, you won’t die.


With death very much in the spring air, UD returns to the essay “Aes Triplex” (1878), by Robert Louis Stevenson. (It’s short – read the whole thing.) Stevenson begins by noting, drily, that death is the bummer di tutti bummers: The thing stands alone in man’s experience. We propitiate it and the dead by dressing it up in all manner of funerary custom:

The poorest persons have a bit of pageant going towards the
tomb; memorial stones are set up over the least memorable; and, in
order to preserve some show of respect for what remains of our old
loves and friendships, we must accompany it with much grimly ludicrous ceremonial, and the hired undertaker parades before the door.

Lovely writing, no? Playfully alliterative (poorest persons pageant preserve parades) in a tonal – and maybe philosophical – counterpoint to the deadly serious subject… And there are other hints here that the author himself takes a lighter (counsels taking a lighter?) approach to this ultimate heaviness: a bit is gently slangy; memorials for the least memorable is funny; the oxymoron grimly ludicrous captures beautifully the tragicomic nature of many final rituals.

His next paragraph expresses his amazement, given this terror of death, that so many human settlements happily locate themselves right next to volcanoes and earthquake zones, with the people living there having no care in the world:

There are serenades and suppers and much gallantry among the myrtles overhead; and meanwhile the foundation shudders underfoot, the bowels of the mountain growl, and at any moment living ruin may leap sky-high into the moonlight, and tumble man and his merry-making in the dust.

The same playful alliteration (here mainly about the letter M); some wonderful rhyme (bowels/growl); some assonance (sky-high into the moonlight) – this writer is enjoying himself, bringing detached wit and amusement to the strange denialist ways of human beings. Inviting us to laugh at ourselves for our contradictions.

He then deepens the denialist point, noting that catastrophe-adjacent living is only the most dramatic instance of what we all in any case experience – the awareness of/repression of how dangerous it is to live even one day.

And what, pathologically looked at, is the human body with all its organs, but a mere bagful of petards?

Strange indeed how we, with “unconcern and gaiety… prick on along the Valley of the Shadow of Death.” This is not because we have some developed philosophy or theology on the subject of Life; on the contrary, we just enjoy the business of living, of sensate existence, and we enjoy keeping it going.

[W]e are so fond of life that we have no leisure to entertain the terror of death… [We give our whole hearts to] the appetites, to honour, to the hungry curiosity of the mind, to the pleasure of the eyes in nature, and the pride of our own nimble bodies.

Stevenson concludes that this is for the best; we should “stop [our] ears against paralyzing terror, and run the race that is set before [us] with a single mind.” Here his essay’s title comes into play – we need enormous mental strength – triple brass strength – to ignore our fear of death and live a full life. “Intelligence… recognize[s] our precarious estate in life, and the first part of courage [is] to be not at all abashed before the fact.” Don’t reach for philosophies, clarifications, consolations – just live. Dig in. Be engrossed. And then:

In the hot-fit of life, a-tiptoe on the highest point of being, [one] passes at a bound on to the other side. The noise of the mallet and chisel is scarcely quenched, the trumpets are hardly done blowing, when, trailing … clouds of glory, this happy-starred, full-blooded spirit shoots into the spiritual land.

January 31st, 2020
‘There is no reason, literary or otherwise, to challenge an author’s legitimacy to tackle any topic, much less based on her ethnicity or nationality. In both literature and journalism, examples abound of brilliant authors who have illuminated countries and themes that were, initially, outside their familiar milieu. (Under the Volcano is just one of many great ones.)’

Ah, UD‘s beloved Malcolm Lowry gets a mention in the big ol’ dustup about American Dirt. Here are her Lowry posts.

January 12th, 2020
“Even when it turns its thoughts to death, true art…

… seeks a path to affirmation. Schubert’s meditations on death, in the last piano sonata, D960, the slow movement of the String Quintet in C, D956, and the incomparable String Quartet in G major, D887, are among the profoundest testimonies in art to the beauty of life and the pain of losing it; they are also true gestures of acceptance – since that which is accepted is neither sentimentalized nor set aside, but confronted in all its unspeakable darkness.”


[A] man of extraordinary intellect, learning and humour, a great supporter of central European dissidents, and the kind of provocative – sometimes outrageous – conservative thinker that a truly liberal society should be glad to have challenging it. Timothy Garton Ash


Roger Scruton, 1944 – 2020

December 19th, 2019
“Impeachment! One third of the alphabet!”

Just wondering what my beloved Nabokov would say this morning.

December 16th, 2019
“I can see the paragraphs I’m writing as little jail cells, penning me into perspectives, conceits, ideas, jokes, and memories – stories! Not an original type of anxiety, for a writer.”

Writers can only be so conscientious about truth before becoming paralyzed…

We have lousy memories. Proust had a lousy memory. (There is no “little patch of yellow wall” in Vermeer’s “View of Delft.”). Memory is a liar. It’s a heap of dog-eared, smudged, incessantly revised fictions. The stories make cumulative lies – or, give us a break, conjecture – of our lives…

Meaning is so much better than nothing, in that it defines “nothing” as everything that meaning is not. Meaning prevents nothing from being only nothing.


The spectacular writer and art critic Peter Schjeldahl thinks about life as he approaches death.


On meaning and nothing, see also John Cheever:

Fiction is art and art is the triumph over chaos (no less) and we can accomplish this only by the most vigilant exercise of choice, but in a world that changes more swiftly than we can perceive there is always the danger that our powers of selection will be mistaken and that the vision we serve will come to nothing.

October 31st, 2019
Lines Written at Seventy-One.

Scathing Online Schoolmarm howled with laughter through this wonderful essay. But she’s a mere sixty-six. Your mileage may differ.


But this, by Roger Angell, is even better. I’ve mulled over this paragraph for years.

“My list of names [of dead friends] is banal but astounding, and it’s barely a fraction, the ones that slip into view in the first minute or two. Anyone over sixty knows this; my list is only longer. I don’t go there often, but, once I start, the battalion of the dead is on duty, alertly waiting. Why do they sustain me so, cheer me up, remind me of life? I don’t understand this. Why am I not endlessly grieving?”

October 10th, 2019
As for Peter Handke, the other Nobel recipient: A long time ago, UD read A Sorrow Beyond Dreams…

… and I suspect she did so because of her father’s suicide. It’s a meditation on Handke’s mother’s suicide. I don’t own the book, but Jeffrey Eugenides’ introduction brought the thing back to me:

[This is] … a rigorous demonstration of the failure of language to express the horror of existence. The American postmodernists gave up on traditional storytelling out of an essentially playful, optimistic, revolutionary urge. Handke despairs of narrative out of sheer despair.

… There is something funny about nihilism, and about super-depressing artworks by German members of the Generation of ’68. But this darkness arises directly out of German and Austrian history, a welter of grief and guilt that is only now, half a century after the German genocide, beginning to lift.

October 10th, 2019
‘As public intellectual, [and] feminist vegetarian, she has frequently rankled the conservative edges of Poland.’

Oh good.


Lots of good stuff about Tokarczuk here.

September 11th, 2019
Hitchens on Orwell

What [Orwell] knew … was that there was a filthy secret at the heart of power, and that secret was in a sense a pornographic secret – that some people don’t even need [an] excuse to wield power – they won’t even say we’re doing it for your own good or to civilize your colony, or to save you from communism, or to save you from fascism or to liberate you from capitalism… We’re in power because we like it. We’re in power because we enjoy punishing people. We’re in power because we enjoy owning people. We enjoy telling them what they can do. We enjoy telling them when we feel like having sex with them and when we don’t. We do this for its own sake. The pornography element of power is a very important thing to understand… It’s an exercise of sheer cruelty, and I think it was a tremendous advantage to Orwell as a writer to have understood this from the start…

May 2nd, 2019
“I’m living rent-free inside of Donald Trump’s Brain.”

What a great line. I wonder if Hillary came up with it herself. Who cares. Great line.

April 30th, 2019
‘”Abdication! One third of the alphabet!” coldly quipped the king…’

Everyone’s trying to get excited about the Japanese guy; but as is so often the case, UD finds literature much more amusing and interesting than life.

(The only fun the actual abdication story has afforded UD so far is the phrase “the declining ratio of male imperial members.”)

April 22nd, 2019
Funny, subdued, detailed, and true.

Read it once for enjoyment, and a second time to learn how to write well.

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