Tuesday, April 13, 2004

no good deed goes unpunished

A couple years ago, my sister and I started giving my dad shit about his reading material. Although he was still doing pretty good by volume, he had sunk into an intellectual torpor by buying books almost exclusively at gas stations. It actually went downhill from Tom Clancy. To our amazement, the harassment worked, and he began to read more interesting books.

The unanticipated corollary of this was that he started send us books -- a lot of books. And the selection was, shall we say, spotty: the wrong Billy Bean[e] book, the execrable Da Vinci Code. It was, I hasten to add, a "nice thought," and of course I appreciated the attention, but it was based on the flawed premises that I somehow didn't have enough to read, and that my spacious apartment had room for more bookcases. But I bore my new affliction with good grace, accepting it as a suitable punishment for forcing my father to think about something besides the NCAA tournament.

Last week, perhaps inspired by Christ's suffering, he sent me Jardine and Stewart's 600-odd page biography of Francis Bacon; bizarrely, it turns out to be fascinating. I'm no fan of the genre (it is possible that the only biographies I've read have been Robert Moses and Saint Augustine), nor for that matter the period/country; but Elizabethan prose is the most marvelously impenetrable language I've ever come across. The latin passages are easier to dechipher than the english (and believe me, my latin is not impressive). It is clear, at least, that Bacon did not write Shakespeare's plays. Anyway, those of you with an interest in the period or the language should steel yourself to wade through it.

Also, in the unlikely event that you're interested in the history of baseball, I second the Post critic's recommendation of Jim Brosnan's 1960 The Long Season. It is more boring, and therefore more interesting than Ball Four. If you don't know what I'm talking about, you probably aren't interested in baseball anyway.

And as long as I'm droning on about books, prompted by Maud, and in honor of my dad, who first made me read it, I present my favorite first sentence ever:

When he stepped off the straight and narrow path of his peculiar honesty, it was with an inward assertion of unflinching resolve to fall back again into the monotonous but safe stride of virtue as soon as his little excursion into the wayside quagmires had produced the desired effect. It was going to be a short episode -- a sentence in brackets, so to speak -- in the flowing tale of his life: a thing of no moment, to be done unwillingly, yet neatly, and to be quickly forgotten.
OK, that's 2 sentences, but you see why I can't stop. The rest of the paragraph:
He imagined that he could go on afterwards looking at the sunshine, enjoying the shade, breathing in the perfume of flowers in the small garden before his house. He fancied that nothing would be changed, that he would be able as heretofore to tyrannize good-humouredly over his half-caste wife, to notice with tender contempt his pale yellow child, to patronize loftily his dark-skinned brother-in-law, who loved pink neckties and wore patent-leather boots on his little feet, and was so humble before the white husband of the lucky sister. Those were the delights of his life, and he was unable to conceive that the moral significance of any act of his could interfere with the very nature of things, could dim the light of the sun, could destroy the perfume of the flowers, the submission of his wife, the smile of his child, the awe-struck respect of Leonard da Souza and of all the Da Souza family. That family's admiration was the great luxury of his life. It rounded and completed his existence in a perpetual assurance of unquestionable superiority. He loved to breathe the coarse incense they offered before the shrine of the successful white man; the man that had done them the honour to marry their daughter, sister, cousin; the rising man sure to climb very high; the confidential clerk of Hudig & Co. They were a numerous and an unclean crowd, living in ruined bamboo houses, surrounded by neglected compounds, on the outskirts of Macassar. He kept them at arm's length and even further off, perhaps, having no illusions as to their worth. They were a half-caste, lazy lot, and he saw them as they were -- ragged, lean, unwashed, undersized men of various ages, shuffling about aimlessly in slippers; motionless old women who looked like monstrous bags of pink calico stuffed with shapeless lumps of fat, and deposited askew upon decaying rattan chairs in shady corners of dusty verandahs; young women, slim and yellow, big-eyed, long-haired, moving languidly amongst the dirt and rubbish of their dwellings as if every step they took was going to be their very last. He heard their shrill quarrellings, the squalling of their children, the grunting of their pigs; he smelt the odours of the heaps of garbage in their courtyards: and he was greatly disgusted. But he fed and clothed that shabby multitude; those degenerate descendants of Portuguese conquerors; he was their providence; he kept them singing his praises in the midst of their laziness, of their dirt, of their immense and hopeless squalor: and he was greatly delighted. They wanted much, but he could give them all they wanted without ruining himself. In exchange he had their silent fear, their loquacious love, their noisy veneration. It is a fine thing to be a providence, and to be told so on every day of one's life. It gives one a feeling of enormously remote superiority, and Willems revelled in it. He did not analyze the state of his mind, but probably his greatest delight lay in the unexpressed but intimate conviction that, should he close his hand, all those admiring human beings would starve. His munificence had demoralized them. An easy task. Since he descended amongst them and married Joanna they had lost the little aptitude and strength for work they might have had to put forth under the stress of extreme necessity. They lived now by the grace of his will. This was power. Willems loved it.
Conrad, An Outcast of the Islands.


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