“Letters to Santa” from Little, Big by John Crowley

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Different families have different methods, at Christmas, of communicating their wishes to Santa. Many send letters, mailing them early and addressing them to the North Pole. These never arrive, postmasters having their own whimsical ways of dealing with them, none involving delivery.

Another method, which the Drinkwaters had always used though no one could remember how they had hit on it, was to burn their missives in the study fireplace, the tiled one whose blue scenes of skaters, windmills, trophies of the hunt seemed most appropriate, and whose chimney was the highest. The smoke then (the children always insisted on running out to see) vanished into the North, or at least into the atmosphere, for Santa to decipher. A complex procedure, but it seemed to work, and was always done on Christmas Eve when wishes were sharpest.

Secrecy was important, at least for the grown-ups’ letters; the kids could never resist telling everybody what they wanted and for Lily and Tacey the letters had to be written by others anyway, and they had to be reminded of the many wishes they’d had as Christmas neared but which had grown small in the interim and slipped through the coarse seine of young desire. Don’t you want a brother for Teddy (a bear)? Do you still want a shotgun like Grampa’s? Ice skates with double blades?

But the grown-ups could presumably decide these things for themselves.

In the expectant, crackling afternoon of that Eve of ice Daily Alice drew her knees up within a huge armchair and used a folded checkerboard resting on her knees for a desk. “Dear Santa,” she wrote, “please bring me a new hot-water bottle, any color but that pink that looks like boiled meat, a jade ring like the one great-aunt Cloud has, for the right middle finger.” She thought. She watched the snow fall on the gray world, still just visible as day died. “A quilted robe,” she wrote; “one that comes down to my feet. A pair of fuzzy slippers. I would like this baby to be easier than the other two to have. The other stuff is not so important if you could manage that. Ribbon candy is nice, and you can’t find it anywhere any more. Thanking you in advance, Alice Barnable (the older sister).” Since childhood she had always added that, to avoid confusion. She hesitated over the tiny blue notepaper nearly filled with these few desires. “P.S.,” she wrote. “If you could bring my sister and my husband back from wherever it is they’ve gone off together I would be more grateful than I could say. ADB.”

She folded this absently. Her father’s typewriter could be heard in the strange snow-silence. Cloud, cheek in hand, wrote with the stub of a pencil at the drum-table, her eyes moist, perhaps with tears, though her eyes often seemed bedimmed lately; old age only, probably. Alice rested her head back against the chair’s soft breast, looking upward.

Above her, Smoky charged with rum-tea sat down in the imaginary study to begin his letter. He spoiled one sheet because the rickety writing-table there rocked beneath his careful pen; he shimmed the leg with a matchbook and began again.

“My dear Santa, First of all it’s only right that I explain about last year’s wish. I won’t excuse myself by saying I was a little drunk, though I was, and I am (it’s getting to be a Christmas habit, as everything about Christmas gets to be a habit, but you know all about that). Anyway, if I shocked you or strained your powers by such a request I’m sorry; I meant only to be flip and let off a little steam. I know (I mean I assume) it’s not in your power to give one person to another, but the fact is my wish was granted. Maybe only because I wanted it more than anything, and what you want so much you’re just likely to get. So I don’t know whether to thank you or not. I mean I don’t know whether you’re responsible; and I don’t know whether I’m grateful.”

He chewed the end of his pen for a moment, thinking of last Christmas morning when he had gone into Sophie’s room to wake her, so early (Tacey wouldn’t wait) that blank nighttime still ruled the windows. He wondered if he should relate the story. He’d never told anyone else, and the deep privacy of this about-to-be-cremated letter tempted him to confidences. But no.

It was true that what Doc had said, that Christmas succeeds Christmas rather than the days it follows. That had become apparent to Smoky in the last few days. Not because of the repeated ritual, the tree sledded home, the antique ornaments lovingly brought out, the Druid greenery hung on the lintels. It was only since last Christmas that all that had become imbued for him with a dense emotion, an emotion having nothing to do with Yuletide, a day which for him as a child had had nothing like the fascination of Hallowe’en, when he went masked and recognizable (pirate, clown) in the burnt and smoky night. Yet he saw that it was an emotion that would cover him now, as with snow, each time this season came. She was the cause, not to whom he wrote.

“Anyway,” he began again, “my desires this year are a little clouded. I would like one of those instruments you use to sharpen the blades of an old-fashioned lawn mower. I would like the missing volume of Gibbon (Vol. II) which somebody’s apparently taken out to use as a doorstop or something and lost.” He thought of listing publisher and date, but a feeling of futility and silence came over him, drifting deep. “Santa,” he wrote, “I would like to be one person only, not a whole crowd of them, half of them always trying to turn their backs and run whenever somebody”—Sophie, he meant, Alice, Cloud, Doc, Mother; Alice most of all—”looks at me. I want to be brave and honest and shoulder my burdens. I don’t want to leave myself out while a bunch of slyboots figments do my living for me.” He stopped, seeing he was growing unintelligible. He hesitated over the complimentary close; he thought of using “Yours as ever,” but thought that might sound ironic or sneering, and at last wrote only “Yours &c.,” as his father always had, which then seemed ambiguous and cool; what the hell anyway; and he signed it: Evan S. Barnable.

Down in the study they had gathered with eggnog and their letters. Doc had his folded like true correspondence, its backside pimpled with hard-struck punctuation; Mother’s was torn from a brown bag, like a shopping list. The fire took them all, though—rejecting only Lily’s at first, who tried with a shriek to throw it in the fire’s mouth, you can’t really throw a piece of paper, she’d learn that as she grew in grace and wisdom—and Tacey insisted they go out to see. Smoky took her by the hand, and lifted Lily onto his shoulders, and they went out into the snowfall made spectral by the house’s lights to watch the smoke go away, melting the falling snowflakes as it rose.

When he received these communications, Santa drew the claws of his spectacles from behind his ears and pressed the sore place on the bridge of his nose with thumb and finger. What was it they expected him to do with these? A shotgun, a bear, snowshoes, some pretty things and some useful: well, all right. But for the rest of it. . .He just didn’t know what people were thinking anymore. But it was growing late; if they, or anyone else, were disappointed in him tomorrow, it wouldn’t be the first time. He took his furred hat from its peg and drew on his gloves. He went out, already unaccountably weary though the journey had not even begun, into the multicolored arctic waste beneath a decillion stars, whose near brilliance seemed to chime, even as the harness of his reindeer chimed when they raised their shaggy heads at his approach, and as the eternal snow chimed too when he trod it with his booted feet.

Image: The Magpie (1868-1869), by Claude Monet

“The fire of fall was on them…” from Omensetter’s Luck by William H. Gass

 

Fall Wyeth

“The path took Henry Pimber past the slag across the meadow creek where his only hornbeam hardened slowly in the southern shadow of the ridge and the trees of the separating wood began in rows as the lean road in his dream began, narrowing to nothing in the blank horizon, for train rails narrow behind anybody’s journey; and he named them as he passed them: elm, oak, hazel and chestnut tree, as though he might have been the fallen Adam passing them and calling out their soft familiar names, as though familiar names might make some friends for him by being spoken to the unfamiliar and unfriendly world which he was told had been his paradise. In God’s name, when was that? When had that been? For he had hated every day he’d lived. Ash, birch, maple. Every day he thought would last forever, and the night forever, and the dawn drag eternally another long and empty day to light forever; yet they sped away, the day, the night clicked past as he walked by the creek by the hornbeam tree, the elders, sorrels, cedars and the fir; for as he named them, sounding their soft names in his lonely skull, the fire of fall was on them, and he named the days he’d lost. It was still sorrowful to die. Eternity, for them, had ended. And he would fall, when it came his time, like an unseen leaf, the bud that was the glory of his birth forgot before remembered. He named the aspen, beach, and willow, and he said aloud the locust when he saw it leafless like a battlefield. In God’s name, when was that? When had that been?”

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Images: Autumn by Andrew Wyeth, 1984; Long Limb by Andrew Wyeth, 1998

Every Mention of Boiled Leather in George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire

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A Game of Thrones

 

“He wore black leather boots, black woolen pants, black moleskin gloves, and a fine supple coat of gleaming black ringmail over layers of black wool and boiled leather.”

“Her son was dressed in boiled leather and ringmail, she saw, and a sword hung at his waist.”

“His armor was iron-grey chainmail over layers of boiled leather, plain and unadorned, and it spoke of age and hard use.”

“Under black wool, boiled leather, and mail, sweat trickled icily down Jon’s chest as he pressed the attack.”

Robb was seated in Father’s high seat, wearing ringmail and boiled leather and the stern face of Robb the Lord.

“It was soon revealed that the new recruit had brought his own armor with him; padded doublet, boiled leather, mail and plate and helm, even a great wood-and-leather shield blazoned with the same striding huntsman he wore on his surcoat.”

“There were no heralds, no banners, no horns nor drums, only the twang of bowstrings as Morrec and Lharys let fly, and suddenly the clansmen came thundering out of the dawn, lean dark men in boiled leather and mismatched armor, faces hidden behind barred halfhelms.”

“A round scarred face and a stubble of dark beard showed under his steel cap, and he wore mail over boiled leather, and a dirk and shortsword at his belt.”

“How well would boiled leather jerkins and mailed shirts protect them when the arrows fall like rain?”

“He wore only a shirt of black oiled ringmail over boiled leather, a round steel halfhelm with a noseguard, and a mail coif.”

“The red cloaks wore mail shirts over boiled leather and steel caps with lion crests.”

 

A Clash of Kings

 

“They were clad in shabby skins and boiled leather, with long hair and fierce beards.”

“A scarred face and a stubble of dark beard showed under his spiked steel cap, and he wore mail over boiled leather, dirk and shortsword at his belt.”

“The prospect of food brought other men out of the houses, near all of them wearing bits of mail or boiled leather.”

“’My brothers are long dead, and my sister . . . well, they say Asha’s favorite gown is a chain-mail hauberk that hangs down past her knees, with boiled leather smallclothes beneath.'”

“‘I wonder if I still have that chain-mail gown I like to wear over my boiled leather smallclothes?”

“‘You have fewer than four hundred horse, my scouts tell me—freeriders in boiled leather who will not stand an instant against armored lances.'”

“Like Davos, the king was plainly garbed in wool and boiled leather, though the circlet of red gold about his temples lent him a certain grandeur.”

“Catelyn had ordered garments sewn to her measure, handsome gowns to suit her birth and sex, yet still she preferred to dress in oddments of mail and boiled leather, a swordbelt cinched around her waist.”

“A jerkin of boiled leather and a pot-helm at his feet were his only armor.”

“The men stood in their mail and fur and boiled leather, as still as if they were made of stone.”

“Beneath his black surcoat and golden mantle was a shirt of well-oiled ringmail, and under that a layer of stiff boiled leather.”

“About half of them hid their faces behind crude helms of wood and boiled leather.”

“The rider’s helm was made from the broken skull of a giant, and all up and down his arms bearclaws had been sewn to his boiled leather.”

 

A Storm of Swords

 

“Chett felt it too, biting through his layers of black wool and boiled leather.”

“Jon took their measure with a glance: eight riders, men and women both, clad in fur and boiled leather, with here and there a helm or bit of mail.”

“Elsewhere two bearded youths in boiled leather were sparring with staffs, leaping at each other over the flames, grunting each time one landed a blow.”

“With his own eyes Jon had beheld the Hornfoot men trotting along in column on bare soles as hard as boiled leather.”

“Ygritte slammed the heel of her hand into his chest, so hard it stung even through his layers of wool, mail, and boiled leather.”

“No shield, no breastplate, no chainmail, not even boiled leather, only pink satin and Myrish lace.”

“And under the roughspun was boiled leather and oiled mail, Arya knew.”

“Satin, they called him, even in the wool and mail and boiled leather of the Night’s Watch; the name he’d gotten in the brothel where he’d been born and raised.”

“The Thenns carried shields of black boiled leather with bronze rims and bosses, but theirs were plain and unadorned.”

“Almost every wagon had its guards; men-at-arms wearing the badges of small lordlings, sellswords in mail and boiled leather, sometimes only a pink-cheeked farmer’s son clutching a homemade spear with a fire-hardened point.”

“Beneath the trees were all the wildlings in the world; raiders and giants, wargs and skinchangers, mountain men, salt sea sailors, ice river cannibals, cave dwellers with dyed faces, dog chariots from the Frozen Shore, Hornfoot men with their soles like boiled leather, all the queer wild folk Mance had gathered to break the Wall.”

“On either side of the giants came a wave of horsemen in boiled leather harness with fire-hardened lances, a mass of running archers, hundreds of foot with spears, slings, clubs, and leathern shields.”

“Beneath that would be boiled leather and a layer of quilting.”

“The point punched through mail and boiled leather.”

“He wasn’t wearing mail or even boiled leather, so it went right in, the same way Needle had when she killed the stableboy at King’s Landing.”

“When he turned, they were all around him; an ill-favored gaggle of leathery old men and smooth-cheeked lads younger than Petyr Pimple, the lot of them clad in roughspun rags, boiled leather, and bits of dead men’s armor.”

 

A Feast for Crows

 

“Tarly wore mail and boiled leather, and a breastplate of grey steel.”

“Even in mail and boiled leather, she felt naked.”

“His ringmail was old and rusted, worn over a stained jack of boiled leather.”

“Payne seemed as comfortable in his silence as in his rusted ringmail and boiled leather.”

“They wore mail and boiled leather, with here and there a bit of dinted plate.”

“His armor was a studded brigandine and a cap of boiled leather.”

“Underneath his steel and wool and boiled leather Jaime Lannister was a tapestry of cuts and scabs and bruises.”

“This one still has her maidenhead, I’ll wager, Cersei thought, though by now it’s hard and stiff as boiled leather.”

“’Armed men in mail and boiled leather, and yet the beasts had no fear of them.’”

 

A Dance with Dragons

 

“Jon could feel her heat, even through his wool and boiled leather.”

“The rest of him was wrapped in layers of wool and boiled leather and ringmail, his features shadowed by his hooded cloak and a black woolen scarf about the lower half of his face.”

“The other had a stiff roof of boiled leather to keep the wind off.”

“Next came Rattleshirt in clattering armor made of bones and boiled leather, his helm a giant’s skull.”

“Ser Rolly shrugged into his mail and boiled leather.”

“’Boiled leather will suffice,’ said Ser Godry.”

“Both were clad in boiled leather and mottled cloaks of brown and green and black, with branches, leaves, and brush sewn about their heads and shoulders.”

“She pushed her dirk into a northman’s chest through fur and wool and boiled leather.”

“The wildling wore a sleeveless jerkin of boiled leather dotted with bronze studs beneath a worn cloak mottled in shades of green and brown.”

“Obara, rusted nails and boiled leather, with her angry, close-set eyes and rat-brown hair.”

“Before them marched the clansmen from the hills; chiefs and champions astride shaggy garrons, their hirsute fighters trotting beside them, clad in furs and boiled leather and old mail.”

“Even in sleep she wore ringmail under her furs, boiled leather under that, and an old sheepskin under the leather, turned inside out for warmth.”

“Wooden clubs, stone axes, mauls, spears with fire-hardened points, knives of bone and stone and dragonglass, wicker shields, bone armor, boiled leather.”

“Some dressed in fine soft furs, some in boiled leather and oddments of armor, more in wool and sealskins, a few in rags.”

“Across their backs they bore round wicker shields covered with hides and boiled leather, displaying painted images of snakes and spiders, severed heads, bloody hammers, broken skulls, and demons.”

“For all her layers of wool and fur and boiled leather, Asha felt naked standing there.”

 

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If you decide to buy the A Song of Ice and Fire books on the strength of this post, please consider purchasing them from a local used or new bookstore, or from an independent bookstore’s online storefront.

28 Separate Impulses

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Haven’t read much this week, but I’m on the verge of finishing Suldrun’s Garden. I have just under 100 pages left; once I get under the 100 page demarcation, the next time I pick up the book I almost always commit to reading to the end in one go.

Naturally, I’m going to read The Green Pearl next. But there’s been an oversight: I thought I had a copy of it already, thought I picked it up in my first rush of enthusiasm for Jack Vance back in – it might’ve been as far back as 2010 or 2011. I was buying any Vance books I could find and a copy of Madouc, the third volume, has been sitting on shelf since then. One of my strange book-hunting peccadilloes is that I won’t usually buy volumes out of order, even if find volume 4 before volume 2; so I assumed that because I had Madouc, I must also have The Green Pearl.

But I don’t have The Green Pearl, so when I finish Suldrun’s Garden there’s going to be a short but tantalizing mercenary time frame wherein I can’t read what I intend to be reading next, and so can read anything while I wait.

These little lacunae are intoxicating, but also daunting and almost always ultimately futile, because they mean my mind will be buffeted by the thousand contrary winds of moment-to-moment reading impulses, like a sad pennant in a strong storm. In the short span of time since I became aware of this impending gap, I’ve had to watch an endless parade of desires to read this book, this book, no this book, wait this book…..

I want to read Imperial by William T. Vollmann, and I want to read his climate change book Carbon Ideologies. Basically I want to start reading Vollmann generally, and refuse to start doing so on any but the grandest scale.

And I want to read The Path to Power by Robert Caro, while simultaneously not feeling obligated to immediately continue with the volumes that follow it.

Desperately I want to read Ka: Dar Oakley in the Ruin of Ymr by John Crowley. Finding this book was the golden moment of my recent book-rich excursion to Charlotte, and I really am getting late summer/early fall vibes from this one, so I want to fit it in after Lyonesse and before October when I switch over to a meat, blood, and shadow diet of horror novels.

But that doesn’t mean I don’t, also, want to read those horror novels now: I was so happy to get a copy of The Fisherman by John Langan, and I’ve been slowly accumulating interest in The Cabin at the End of the World by Paul Tremblay. I couldn’t finish Disappearance at Devil’s Rock but A Head Full of Ghosts is still the scariest book I’ve ever read. Also I paid for $15 fucking dollars for a pleasantly soft and worn mass market paperback copy of The Ceremonies by T.E.D. Klein. That’s not the book’s fault, and I’d do it again, but it was the first thing that came to mind after I remembered I want to read it too.

Silence by Shusaku Endo was one of the best books I read in 2018; I want to read two of Endo’s other works in particular: The Samurai and Deep River.

Listening to the audiobook of The Stand by Stephen King has replanted an interest in post-apocalyptic fiction in me. So I want to return to an indelible classic, Riddley Walker by Russell Hoban, and also finally check out Earth Abides by George R. Stewart. My interest in the post-apocalypse comes and goes like an eclipse so I feel an especial drive take care of this one while the innate enthusiasm is there.

A Tomb for Boris Davidovich by Danilo Kiš. Found this recently in Coventry in a cover so bland and nondescript that it borders on deeply charismatic.

Peru by Gordon Lish. Don’t know much about Lish other than that he was Carver’s (controversial?) editor; but I’ve read only one Carver story (a fight, a baby) so that fact doesn’t move me one way or the other. I did read the opening paragraph of this one and loved it so I’m intrigued.

My Struggle Vol. 1, by Karl Ove Knausgaard. I’d seen the spine of this book many times – it’s a definite regular in second-hand shops, the same way you always saw copies of Mark of Kri in used game stores – before I dug any deeper, read anything about what, precisely, it is. And now that I have, it seems like something I’d be very interested in, but I’d have to pick this one up being demiready to commit to the whole six-book sequence.

Fortress of Solitude by Jonathan Lethem. I group Lethem with Franzen, Eggers, and Chabon, whether right or wrong – and I suspect it’s wrong, although I also don’t entirely know what this grouping indicates about any of them, or who it’s bad or good for. I just want to read this book at some point.

The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, the Haymarket Books edition with excellent notes and commentary by Phil Gasper. I’ve been dipping into this in an ambient and rambling fashion, and want to do a minor extended study of it.

Callahan’s Crosstime Saloon by Spider Robinson. I’ve actually been reading this one for a bit now, dipping in when I need to be cheered up. There’s something intensely therapeutic, almost supernaturally serene and calming, about these stories. There’s definitely, eventually, going to be a full-length piece on Callahan’s from me because it deserves it.

A-and I still want to read Spring Snow by Yukio Mishima.

And The Makioka Sisters by Junichiro Tanizaki.

A Dark Night’s Passing by Naoya Shiga.

Buddha by Osamu Tezuka. Phoenix by same.

Berg by Ann Quin.

I was supposed to read Crime and Punishment last winter. And The Magic Mountain in the spring.

I absolutely have to reread The Tunnel this year. And read Omensetter’s Luck for the first time. I lent it to you, and you read it in that industrious focused way you had, that way I always admired. You read my copy of Anna Karenina in the same way.

Which I also want to read…

 

Image Credit: The Green Pearl by Jack Vance. Cover art by Thomas Canty.

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If you decide to buy any book on the strength of this post, please consider purchasing it from a local used or new bookstore, or from an independent bookstore’s online storefront.

My Favorite Chapter of Moby-Dick

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Today is Herman Melville’s 200th birthday. Melville, of course, wrote Moby-Dick, which is probably the best single piece of American art ever created, and quite possibly the best novel ever written in English. In the years since I read it, nothing else has quite approached its sweep, its lambent strangeness, the bright white cosmic godlike fingers of its prose, grasping and bringing up the deep-down viscera of reality like fistfuls of fat gold coins.

I remember lots of favorite passages from books, but I don’t remember where I was when I read most of them; I do remember where I was when I read chapter 96 of Moby-Dick, “The Try-Works.” It was in Johnson Hall at KSU, on the upper floor lounge between Johnson and Stopher. The lounge had big windows looking down on the hill that slopes gently towards the edge of campus and Main Street. I wasn’t an Honors student and didn’t live in Johnson, but my then-girlfriend did, and I was waiting for her to get back from something, I don’t remember what. It was dark and when I looked up from Moby-Dick toward the windows, what I mostly saw was the reflection of the brightly-lit room behind me, laid on the glass like a silkscreen: a second, wavering, diaphanous,  not correct counterimage, interposing.

I was laying on the couch, reading Moby-Dick, mostly oblivious to the comings-and-goings of the Honors students in transit to evening plans, friends’ dorms, to their cars for weekends at home, because I was galvanized by Melville’s book in that sheer, full-body way that only happens a handful of times in your life if you’re lucky; it was like something blue and electric and lancelike was pinning me to the couch, right through a secret heart I was only dimly aware I had.

That memory might be incorrect. For sure, I read Moby-Dick in that lounge that night, but it may have been another chapter that moved me. The book is full of incomparable stuff. It’s a briny trove. But the “Try-Works” has always been my favorite chapter and that night has always been my strongest recollection of reading Moby-Dick, and these two figments have been welded together in my head for years, and it’s a memory now whether or not it ever happened exactly so.

Here’s the chapter in full, thanks to Gutenberg:

Besides her hoisted boats, an American whaler is outwardly distinguished by her try-works. She presents the curious anomaly of the most solid masonry joining with oak and hemp in constituting the completed ship. It is as if from the open field a brick-kiln were transported to her planks.

The try-works are planted between the foremast and mainmast, the most roomy part of the deck. The timbers beneath are of a peculiar strength, fitted to sustain the weight of an almost solid mass of brick and mortar, some ten feet by eight square, and five in height. The foundation does not penetrate the deck, but the masonry is firmly secured to the surface by ponderous knees of iron bracing it on all sides, and screwing it down to the timbers. On the flanks it is cased with wood, and at top completely covered by a large, sloping, battened hatchway. Removing this hatch we expose the great try-pots, two in number, and each of several barrels’ capacity. When not in use, they are kept remarkably clean. Sometimes they are polished with soapstone and sand, till they shine within like silver punch-bowls. During the night-watches some cynical old sailors will crawl into them and coil themselves away there for a nap. While employed in polishing them—one man in each pot, side by side—many confidential communications are carried on, over the iron lips. It is a place also for profound mathematical meditation. It was in the left hand try-pot of the Pequod, with the soapstone diligently circling round me, that I was first indirectly struck by the remarkable fact, that in geometry all bodies gliding along the cycloid, my soapstone for example, will descend from any point in precisely the same time.

Removing the fire-board from the front of the try-works, the bare masonry of that side is exposed, penetrated by the two iron mouths of the furnaces, directly underneath the pots. These mouths are fitted with heavy doors of iron. The intense heat of the fire is prevented from communicating itself to the deck, by means of a shallow reservoir extending under the entire inclosed surface of the works. By a tunnel inserted at the rear, this reservoir is kept replenished with water as fast as it evaporates. There are no external chimneys; they open direct from the rear wall. And here let us go back for a moment.

It was about nine o’clock at night that the Pequod’s try-works were first started on this present voyage. It belonged to Stubb to oversee the business.

“All ready there? Off hatch, then, and start her. You cook, fire the works.” This was an easy thing, for the carpenter had been thrusting his shavings into the furnace throughout the passage. Here be it said that in a whaling voyage the first fire in the try-works has to be fed for a time with wood. After that no wood is used, except as a means of quick ignition to the staple fuel. In a word, after being tried out, the crisp, shrivelled blubber, now called scraps or fritters, still contains considerable of its unctuous properties. These fritters feed the flames. Like a plethoric burning martyr, or a self-consuming misanthrope, once ignited, the whale supplies his own fuel and burns by his own body. Would that he consumed his own smoke! for his smoke is horrible to inhale, and inhale it you must, and not only that, but you must live in it for the time. It has an unspeakable, wild, Hindoo odor about it, such as may lurk in the vicinity of funereal pyres. It smells like the left wing of the day of judgment; it is an argument for the pit.

By midnight the works were in full operation. We were clear from the carcase; sail had been made; the wind was freshening; the wild ocean darkness was intense. But that darkness was licked up by the fierce flames, which at intervals forked forth from the sooty flues, and illuminated every lofty rope in the rigging, as with the famed Greek fire. The burning ship drove on, as if remorselessly commissioned to some vengeful deed. So the pitch and sulphur-freighted brigs of the bold Hydriote, Canaris, issuing from their midnight harbors, with broad sheets of flame for sails, bore down upon the Turkish frigates, and folded them in conflagrations.

The hatch, removed from the top of the works, now afforded a wide hearth in front of them. Standing on this were the Tartarean shapes of the pagan harpooneers, always the whale-ship’s stokers. With huge pronged poles they pitched hissing masses of blubber into the scalding pots, or stirred up the fires beneath, till the snaky flames darted, curling, out of the doors to catch them by the feet. The smoke rolled away in sullen heaps. To every pitch of the ship there was a pitch of the boiling oil, which seemed all eagerness to leap into their faces. Opposite the mouth of the works, on the further side of the wide wooden hearth, was the windlass. This served for a sea-sofa. Here lounged the watch, when not otherwise employed, looking into the red heat of the fire, till their eyes felt scorched in their heads. Their tawny features, now all begrimed with smoke and sweat, their matted beards, and the contrasting barbaric brilliancy of their teeth, all these were strangely revealed in the capricious emblazonings of the works. As they narrated to each other their unholy adventures, their tales of terror told in words of mirth; as their uncivilized laughter forked upwards out of them, like the flames from the furnace; as to and fro, in their front, the harpooneers wildly gesticulated with their huge pronged forks and dippers; as the wind howled on, and the sea leaped, and the ship groaned and dived, and yet steadfastly shot her red hell further and further into the blackness of the sea and the night, and scornfully champed the white bone in her mouth, and viciously spat round her on all sides; then the rushing Pequod, freighted with savages, and laden with fire, and burning a corpse, and plunging into that blackness of darkness, seemed the material counterpart of her monomaniac commander’s soul.

So seemed it to me, as I stood at her helm, and for long hours silently guided the way of this fire-ship on the sea. Wrapped, for that interval, in darkness myself, I but the better saw the redness, the madness, the ghastliness of others. The continual sight of the fiend shapes before me, capering half in smoke and half in fire, these at last begat kindred visions in my soul, so soon as I began to yield to that unaccountable drowsiness which ever would come over me at a midnight helm.

But that night, in particular, a strange (and ever since inexplicable) thing occurred to me. Starting from a brief standing sleep, I was horribly conscious of something fatally wrong. The jaw-bone tiller smote my side, which leaned against it; in my ears was the low hum of sails, just beginning to shake in the wind; I thought my eyes were open; I was half conscious of putting my fingers to the lids and mechanically stretching them still further apart. But, spite of all this, I could see no compass before me to steer by; though it seemed but a minute since I had been watching the card, by the steady binnacle lamp illuminating it. Nothing seemed before me but a jet gloom, now and then made ghastly by flashes of redness. Uppermost was the impression, that whatever swift, rushing thing I stood on was not so much bound to any haven ahead as rushing from all havens astern. A stark, bewildered feeling, as of death, came over me. Convulsively my hands grasped the tiller, but with the crazy conceit that the tiller was, somehow, in some enchanted way, inverted. My God! what is the matter with me? thought I. Lo! in my brief sleep I had turned myself about, and was fronting the ship’s stern, with my back to her prow and the compass. In an instant I faced back, just in time to prevent the vessel from flying up into the wind, and very probably capsizing her. How glad and how grateful the relief from this unnatural hallucination of the night, and the fatal contingency of being brought by the lee!

Look not too long in the face of the fire, O man! Never dream with thy hand on the helm! Turn not thy back to the compass; accept the first hint of the hitching tiller; believe not the artificial fire, when its redness makes all things look ghastly. To-morrow, in the natural sun, the skies will be bright; those who glared like devils in the forking flames, the morn will show in far other, at least gentler, relief; the glorious, golden, glad sun, the only true lamp—all others but liars!

Nevertheless the sun hides not Virginia’s Dismal Swamp, nor Rome’s accursed Campagna, nor wide Sahara, nor all the millions of miles of deserts and of griefs beneath the moon. The sun hides not the ocean, which is the dark side of this earth, and which is two thirds of this earth. So, therefore, that mortal man who hath more of joy than sorrow in him, that mortal man cannot be true—not true, or undeveloped. With books the same. The truest of all men was the Man of Sorrows, and the truest of all books is Solomon’s, and Ecclesiastes is the fine hammered steel of woe. “All is vanity.” ALL. This wilful world hath not got hold of unchristian Solomon’s wisdom yet. But he who dodges hospitals and jails, and walks fast crossing graveyards, and would rather talk of operas than hell; calls Cowper, Young, Pascal, Rousseau, poor devils all of sick men; and throughout a care-free lifetime swears by Rabelais as passing wise, and therefore jolly;—not that man is fitted to sit down on tomb-stones, and break the green damp mould with unfathomably wondrous Solomon.

But even Solomon, he says, “the man that wandereth out of the way of understanding shall remain” (i.e., even while living) “in the congregation of the dead.” Give not thyself up, then, to fire, lest it invert thee, deaden thee; as for the time it did me. There is a wisdom that is woe; but there is a woe that is madness. And there is a Catskill eagle in some souls that can alike dive down into the blackest gorges, and soar out of them again and become invisible in the sunny spaces. And even if he for ever flies within the gorge, that gorge is in the mountains; so that even in his lowest swoop the mountain eagle is still higher than other birds upon the plain, even though they soar.

If you decide to buy Moby-Dick on the strength of this post, please consider purchasing it from a local used or new bookstore, or from an independent bookstore’s online storefront.

Happy Birthday William T. Vollmann

9780143118404

Today is the birthday of William T. Vollmann, one of the primal demiurges of contemporary American literature.

I haven’t read much at all of Vollmann’s work. Not more than few pages. For a long time he occupied the margins of my awareness, a name that always came up alongside others that I was reading: Pynchon, Gaddis, etc. I’ve been thinking a lot more directly about Vollmann this year. I admire him, or at least I admire my conjured perception of him; admire the things that everybody admires about him; I’d like to hang out with him sometime and talk about The Tale of Genji. I’ve semi-committed myself to reading Imperial this year and if I hadn’t been unsuspectingly pulled into reading the entire Lyonesse trilogy I would be starting it today, as originally planned.

Here are a few selections from the very beginning of Imperial that I liked. I’d bet it’s a more relevant book than ever, in these hellacious times.

Shrine

Now we arrived at a little shrine to the Virgin and a cross. Someone had died, perhaps a solo [defined by WTV as “A person who attempts to cross the border illegally and alone”]. Juan read the inscription. Yes, he said, the man had drowned trying to cross into America, where everything was wider, cleaner, safer, more expensive, more controlled and more homogeneous. And by this shrine we parked the car and ascended the levee of crumbling mud-dust to gaze at the United States, where of the three of us only I could legally go. It was hot and thorny and dry on the Mexican side with all those American fields appearing so cruelly green like Paradise, because the water belongs to America, as Juan put it. Beside us, a skinny horse browsed in garbage.

Alpha and Beta

In the clipped lingo of the Border Patrol, American sentinels were called Alpha, while their Mexican counterparts were Beta. Accurate as they undoubtedly were in their depiction of the power relation between the two nations, those designations scarcely overwhelmed with their tact. Alpha pursued Beta’s nationals whenever, like Carlos, they tried to breach Northside [the United States]; Alpha’s nationals swaggered around Southside [Mexico] like lords.

The Fence

Yes, they slithered up and down the fence with ominous grace, like the floor-show girl in her summer dress who flew around the catpole at the Miau-Miau Club on the Mexican side, spreading her legs to show each sector of her audience in turn that she wore no underwear; she did pull-ups, flashing her bottom in the red rotisserie-light that turned her into meat; then she somersaulted naked up the pole and descended it upside down, her hands outstretched, gripping it between her thighs solely, until her long hair was sweeping the floor and the men shrieked in triumphant admiration. And the aspirants flowed paley up and down that metal fence in strange and elegant ways which should have elicited equal applause; but they were men who mopped their forehead with bandannas and who stank of swaet which is our humanity; maybe they’d earn a hundred dollars somewhere before Border Patrol caught them. They became bodies.

A Passage from Darconville’s Cat

As I round the corner on J R, I’ve been weighing up which book I want to read next. A strong contender is Darconville’s Cat by Alexander Theroux, a novel that wrecks Ford Maddox Ford’s tried-and-true Page 99 Test. It’s an 800-page basket of oddities, with strange words, musical lists, incantatory passages, huge burning swathes of satire, all folded denser than protein and pressed into service in order to tell a story of love, rejection, and – if the book itself’s narrator, Augurello, who describes himself as a “personal jurisconsult and theological wiseacre,” is to be believed – murder . Flip it open to any page and you’ll find something interesting – interesting even without the context of what came before or after, independent of the usual narrative incentives. Unforgettable tchotchkes and one-liners crop up everywhere. Every chapter kicks off with a quote from another author. On page 99 itself one character whispers something “as if she were breathing on glass;” looking up at the chapter titles you’ll see such ones as “The Deipnosophists,” “Chantepleure,” “A Digression on Ears.” It goes on and on, brilliantly, in all directions.

I opened Darconville one day recently and found the following, a description of – I believe – a particular kind of person living in rural Virginia:

“It’s a kind of club—300-pound dipshits, always named something like ‘Hawg,’ Clayton, or Orval—who drink flask bourbon, have chigger-bites on their arms, and wear their hair either short or slicked back (the comb tracks are always visible) to reveal faces like those reversible trompe-l’oeil funheads you snip from the Sunday paper to fool someone with. They have no chins, are inclined to be goitral, and are always chewing down on a blade of grass fiercely and absentmindedly. They are given to wearing suntans, white socks, work boots, and cheap acetate shirts, the sleeves of which are always rolled up to a point higher than the triceps brachii in tight little knots. They like whiskey with good bead, respect Shriners, whistle a lot, drive with one hand, slide crotch-first onto barstools, and—just ‘funnin”—love to hang around butt-slapping and goosing each other, punctuating certain remarks of course with that significant nudge just before they’re going to fart. They like to wade into swamps and jacklight rats, are big lodge-joiners, and know everything about guns which they handle, silently, with phallic reverence. They have hands like cowhorn, with nails bitten to the quick. They have spools of rusting cable in their backyards, nail coons to the walls, adore rodeos, and their execrable grammar is half informed by protective coloration, half by rank stupidity.

They loathe sentiment but thrive on sentimentality, violently beat their women with pony-leads on Saturday night but weep with guilt at Sunday-Go-to-Meeting during the singing of ‘The Old Rugged Cross,’ their favorite. In groups, they’re dangerous; each, alone, is a simpleton. Fanatically patriotic, they’re all knee-jerk defenders of state sovereignty and go blubbery at the mere sight of the Confederate Battle Flag. They’re either whispering sideways about Jesus or bawling obsceneties, georgic in imagery, with stentorophonic might. They’re handy, can always tell one car from another, know the right weights of oil, love to use the word ‘ratchet,’ and always know when to use bailing wire and when to use bagging wire. They know everything about loggerheads, trace-chains, and hames and can always be found driving the backroads in trucks, filled with wood, wedged with chocks, toward a sawmill shed in the mountains. They all smoke, snite from the nose with the forefinger, and suffer from very particular ailments: Basedow’s Disease; gleet; fishskin itch; furunculosis; rodent ulcer; pyorrhea of the gums; Walking Typhoid; mucous patches; and tic douloureux. They all know shortcuts through the woods. They lurk.” (Pages 164 – 166)

My copy, which I found miraculously at a thrift store in Colorado at precisely the time I was looking for it, belonged to somebody else before me, a person named Diane; she has tidy, curvicular handwriting and annotated extensively as she went, often saving me the legwork of looking up definitions for the many obscure, outmoded, or self-fashioned words Theroux infamously employs throughout, but sometimes just apostrophizing her frustration in the margins: on the page with the above passage there’s a frustrated outburst: “rambling descriptions – over my head!”

I understand her vexation, and naturally this kind of writing, Theroux’s Gothic cathedral maximalism, is even more “Not for Everybody” that most things – but I eat it up, and I read and reread this passage with relish. It’s rife with the violence of specificity, pinning something real to the page with hilarious, necessary exactitude. It also, naturally, goes way overboard; it’s insensitive, and there’s a heavy snobbery throughout; also I detect aggression towards homosexuality in the “just funnin'” bit and. actually, omitted a middle paragraph that made distasteful accusations along those lines.

But this passage, it’s like a song I can’t get out of my head, and Darconville is the strong favorite for my next book – even though it could be too much, or overstep too many lines; and even though I’ve been spending some time on the side with Lonesome Dove and am – whoops – already 100 pages in…

By the way: it doesn’t look like Diane made it all the way through Darconville. Her notes burn out ’round page 400. She also listed her five favorite books on the fly-leaf:

Love in the Time of Cholera

One Hundred Years of Solitude

Rain of Gold

The Big Sky

The Alchemist

I’m deeply interested in three of the five.