Washington Post Review: ‘Darling Jim’ by Christian Moerk

October 11, 2009

Priority Mail: A Message from the Dead


By Daniel Mallory / The Washington Post

“Accursed who brings to light of day/The writings I have cast away!” So warned Yeats in 1908. A century later, those dusty words are lost on Dublin postman Niall Cleary, as he retrieves from the dead-letter bin a bulging envelope addressed to “Anyone at all.” The signatory: Fiona Walsh, whose ravaged corpse was recently discovered in a prim suburban house alongside the bodies of her sister and aunt — victims, it seems, of a triple homicide. Fiona’s handwriting, ragged and wrought, hurtles across pages stained with blood: “My time is short,” she vows. “We’ll die in this house because we loved a man named Jim.” And so Niall sinks into his chair, sure “he wouldn’t move until he’d reach the last page.”

Neither will the reader of “Darling Jim,” the spellbinding new novel from Danish-born, Brooklyn-based Christian Moerk. Aglow with fairy-tale inflections, this hypnotic, neo-Gothic suspense story unfolds like a hothouse bloom, lush and pungent; it’s a sprig of nightshade, all petals and poison. And it heralds the arrival of an astonishingly gifted storyteller.

Itinerant bard Jim, the lithe, sloe-eyed Casanova prowling the murky margins of Moerk’s tale, has blown into coastal Castletownbere astride a comet-red vintage motorbike. By day, he entrances the Walsh women — first Fiona, then her sisters Aoife and Róisín, and finally their shy maiden-aunt, Moira. At night, he unspools folklore in the village pubs: sinister legends of Celtic princes and deathless wolves, wracked castles and doomed love. “In whatever time I may have left,” remembers Fiona, “I’ll always recall the hush that preceded Jim’s story that night. For, in a sense, it was the last moment of peace the three of us would know.”

Darling Jim Quick, of course, is not what he appears. As the Walsh sisters exhume his murderous past, he romances the besotted Moira; meanwhile, Fiona’s diary leads Niall to Castletownbere, where another journal completes the story.

Two diaries, then, alongside a clutch of spinsters, virgins and villains, all ranged across an Ireland of foamy bays and transistor radios, midnight forests and punk musicians. Time slips and blurs in “Darling Jim,” which fixes its events “not so long ago,” and Moerk tweaks the creaky conventions of Gaelic myth even as he honors them: Niall makes a noble if hapless knight-errant; ghostly voices in the CB ether inform and advise the Walsh girls; a crippled prince of legend returns as an aristocrat in a wheelchair.

Sly, wry and utterly original, “Darling Jim” is the stuff of alchemy, missing only the perfect epigraph: “Take, if you must, this little bag of dreams;/Unloose the cord, and they will wrap you round.”

Mallory researches modernist literature at New College, Oxford.

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NY Times Review: The Wind in The Willows by Kenneth Graeme in two new annotated editions

July 17, 2009

A Second Wind for Toad and his Pals

By CHARLES McGRATH / NEW YORK TIMES

The years between 1900 and the outbreak of World War I, it has often been remarked, were a golden age in Britain for the writing of children’s books. Among the books published then are most of what we remember of Beatrix Potter; several of E. Nesbit’s novels; Kipling’s “Jungle Book” and “Just So” stories, J. M. Barrie’s “Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens,” which became the basis for the stage play; Kenneth Grahame’s “Wind in the Willows”; and “A Little Princess” and “The Secret Garden,” by Frances Hodgson Burnett, who eventually became an American citizen but was born in Manchester, England. In hindsight these books seem to reflect the long, sunny afternoon of Edwardian England, a moment of arrested innocence before the outbreak of the Great War. Many of them also yearn for a rural, preindustrial England that was already vanishing. Part of their appeal is that they’re nostalgic, as we are, for childhood itself, or for a simpler past that seems to embody childhood virtue.

Of all these books “The Wind in the Willows” may be the oddest and most endearing. Too late for the centennial of its original publication in 1908, but a century and a half after the birth of the author, it has been reissued in two large-format annotated editions — one edited by Seth Lerer and published by the Belknap imprint of Harvard University Press, the other edited by Annie Gauger and published by Norton as part of its well-established series that already includes “Alice in Wonderland,” “The Wizard of Oz,” and three volumes of Sherlock Holmes.

“The Wind in the Willows” is probably most famous for a single line, Rat’s remark to Mole: “Believe me, my young friend, there is nothing — absolutely nothing — half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats.” But the boating adventures, charming as they are, are the least of what makes the book so singular. “The Wind in the Willows” is a children’s book that, unlike most, doesn’t describe a world without grownups; instead, it parodies the grownup world. The characters — Rat, Mole, Badger, Otter, Toad — aren’t just woodland creatures with a few anthropomorphic traits. They’re of indeterminate scale — Toad is toad-size in some scenes but in others big enough to disguise himself as a human — and they have full-blown adult personalities, more nearly Edwardian clubmen than rodents, burrow-dwelling mammals or amphibians. Toad, who has certain traits in common with the overweight, fun-loving King Edward, even parts his hair in the middle, a detail that Beatrix Potter famously took exception to. “A frog may wear galoshes,” she wrote. “But I don’t hold with toads wearing beards or wigs!”

The adventures depicted in the book include the famous riverine idylls and a couple of almost equally well-known scenes of cozy underground bachelor life, which Mr. Lerer says owe something to Ruskin’s ideal of British domesticity. There are also the much wilder episodes of Toad’s manic car theft and car smashing; a Bolshevik takeover of Toad’s great manor house, Toad Hall, by the lower-class stoats and weasels; and, most bizarre of all, a moment of sexual and religious ecstasy when Mole and Rat behold, in the silvery, creeping light of dawn, no less than a naked, shaggy-flanked goat god, Pan himself, taking a break from his piping.

This scene is so charged that Ms. Gauger detects an element of homoeroticism. But then she, by far the more extensive and detailed of the two annotators, is quick to find an erotic subtext throughout a work that Grahame declared to be “free of the clash of sex.” After Toad and Mole companionably spend the night together, she notes, “If this were a novel for adults, Mole and Rat would perhaps consummate their relationship amorously.”

This kind of observation is indicative of the problems inherent in annotating a classic text, even one as well known as this. On the one hand, parts of the cultural landscape that inspired the book are already lost to us, and there are echoes and allusions that we remain deaf to even after having them pointed out, others that we are apt to misinterpret from our habit of seeing sex everywhere. On the other hand, the book is still perfectly readable without pedantic notes or explanations, and Ms. Gauger’s edition, in particular, is so laden with commentary that it sometimes resembles the Talmud, with more commentary than text on the page.

Both editors devote vast amounts of space to defining words like “panoply,” “repast,” “provender,” “vouchsafe,” “sniffy,” “fusty,” “hummocky” that are all in the dictionary and whose meaning hasn’t changed much, if at all, since 1908. And neither is entirely reliable: both think that a “well-metalled road” is one literally paved with metal when a glance at Google would have told them that the term is a synonym for what we think of as tarmac.

Both editors, to be fair, are very good at picking up echoes of Romantic poetry, huge chunks of which were clearly swirling inside Kenneth Grahame’s head while he was writing “The Wind in the Willows,” and both illuminate the text by suggesting, among other things, that Toad — blusterer, aesthete, jailed prisoner — was inspired in part by Oscar Wilde. He probably also owes something to Horatio Bottomley, a flamboyant, gasbag journalist and politician of the time. Mr. Lerer further suggests that Toad’s mania, his grandiosity, his compulsive lies and self-deceptions may derive from Grahame’s reading in Krafft-Ebbing’s “Textbook of Insanity.” A simpler explanation of Grahame’s understanding of wild, unpredictable personality may be that he grew up with an unreliable, alcoholic father who eventually abandoned his two sons.

In general Ms. Gauger is more willing than Mr. Lerer to find the roots of “The Wind in the Willows” in Grahame’s biography, and though she sometimes overdoes it, or explains the parallels at tedious length, her commentary nevertheless provides a sad and illuminating subplot of sorts. In many ways Grahame resembles A. A. Milne, who in 1929 dramatized the Toad sections of “The Wind in the Willows,” which always remained his favorite book. Both, though they had little use for women, were married to remote, difficult wives (Grahame courted his by writing to her in baby talk), and each had a single son whom he both doted on and neglected.

“The Wind in the Willows” began as a bedtime story and evolved over a series of letters (reproduced in the Gauger edition) that Grahame wrote to his son, Alastair, during the long months when he was farmed out to a nanny. Alastair Grahame was born part blind (an inspiration for Mole?) and appears to have been emotionally disturbed. After a miserable experience at school he lay down on some train tracks while an undergraduate at Oxford and was decapitated.

Kenneth Grahame’s own early life was scarcely much happier. His mother died when he was 5, his father ran off, and he was raised by relatives who were too stingy to send him to university. Like P. G. Wodehouse, another aspiring writer with a blighted childhood, Grahame went into the banking business. Unlike Wodehouse, he stuck it out, and by the age of 39 had risen to become secretary of the Bank of England, a post that doesn’t seem to have required him to do a whole lot.

His ostensible life was that of a proper Edwardian gent, with lots of male bonding and messing about in boats, and yet privately he burned to write, to live in his imagination. For all its apparent celebration of neatness and domestic orderliness “The Wind in the Willows” is really a book about letting go. It begins with Mole, tired of spring cleaning, putting aside his whitewash brush and taking to the road, and its true hero is Toad, who is anarchy incarnate.

Officially the text seems to disapprove of him: vain, swaggering and boastful, Toad is reprimanded and briefly chastened, and at one point the other characters even stage what we would call a full-scale intervention to confront him with his car-wrecking addiction. But he nonetheless runs away with the book, just as he runs away from prison disguised as a washerwoman, and supplies most of its narrative energy.

Though Rat is supposed to be a poet, Toad’s Song of Himself, sung to an imaginary audience near the end, is the novel’s most exuberant creation. To say that he is Grahame’s alter ego is too simple. More likely he’s the alter ego Grahame wished he could have but was also a little afraid of. Like a surprising number of stuffy-seeming Edwardians, Grahame was half in love with, and half terrified of, the idea of Pan, who never grows old, never goes to the office, never even bothers to put on clothes, and yet embodies all that is magical about the world we imagined we grew up in.

New Art Books

June 24, 2009

Sign of the times: The three headlining art books of the season are as much about commerce as they are about art.

  • Cynthia Saltzman’s Old Masters, New World examines the acquisition of art by western oligarchs;
  • Jonathan Lopez’s The Man Who Made Vermeers looks at a master-forger seduced by the Nazis and by the opportunity to fake-for-a-buck;
  • Edward Dolnick takes on the same topic in The Forger’s Spell, which Peter Schjeldahl says in the New Yorker is just a lesser version of the Lopez book. (Incidentally: Gawker noticed that the NYTimes seems to be, er, incestuously boosting Dolnick.)IrwinWeschler2.jpgThe Saltzman book is pretty directly about the market and the other two less so. But I think there’s a pretty common theme running through a lot of art-related journalism and publishing: The zeitgeist is about the market first, and art last. If the art world decides that’s an unfortunate focus, it’s going to have to do something to change it. University press to the rescue: The University of California press is releasing an updated version of Lawrence Weschler’s classic book on Robert Irwin, complete with a new cover picture that seems to be from Irwin’s recent MCASD exhibition. [via] The hardcover will retail for $50 (!), but you can pre-order the paperback for under $17. (Also from UC Press: A quarter-century of Weschler’s conversations with David Hockney.)

    From Tyler Green’s Modern Art Notes

  • Review: ‘South of Broad’ by Pat Conroy

    June 23, 2009

    From Booklist
    An unlikely group of Charlestonian teens forms a friendship in 1969, just as the certainties and verities of southern society are quaked by the social and political forces unleashed earlier in the decade. They come from all walks of life, from the privileged homes of the aristocracy, from an orphanage, from a broken home where an alcoholic mother and her twins live in fear of a murderous father, from the home of public high school’s first black football coach, and from the home of the same school’s principal. The group’s fulcrum, Leopold Bloom King, second son of an ex-nun Joyce scholar, who is also the school’s principal, and a science-teacher father, is just climbing out of childhood mental illness after having discovered his handsome, popular, athletic, scholarly older brother dead from suicide. Over the next two decades, these friends find success in journalism, the bar, law enforcement, music, and Hollywood. Echoing some themes from his earlier novels, Conroy fleshes out the almost impossibly dramatic details of each of the friends’ lives in this vast, intricate story, and he reveals truths about love, lust, classism, racism, religion, and what it means to be shaped by a particular place, be it Charleston, South Carolina, or anywhere else in the U.S. –Mark Knoblauch