<= 2014.11.23

I can’t hold attention all the way through these recent Swans double-deckers, but I do love the backing vocals that come into this one at 4:10.

I also remember above all else an occasion—I bring it up because there is something of an engineer’s touch to it—in which during an entire dinner [Benet] torturously held me in suspense over the issue of how to tell me with the most flair that he had enjoyed one of my novels. And on that occasion—on which I remember that Blanca Andreu was present, as well as another friend—he began by telling me “Well then, this novel, yes, it is fine, what’s happened is that you’ve committed a tremendous, truly unpardonable error in this book and, you see, well the book isn’t what it might have been.” I became terrified, because when someone is your mentor and you take his opinion as the most important response to the appearance of your new book, well, you take in every word; and I began to think that he was going to raise an objection to its structure, or its very conception, that he was going to tell me that its style was horrendous, and he said, “There is a serious problem because there is a moment when you talk about a railway bridge”—and that was the only thing he had written down on the note he had in front of him—“a railway bridge, and you go on to describe it in the following way: ‘The wide river of blue waters, broken by the long bridge of diagonally crossed iron’”; he said, “and of course, that cannot be, because, how could you not have realized that this bridge is,” and I am very sorry, I don’t remember exactly what he said, but he said something that was completely incomprehensible to me, let’s say that he said that the bridge was a bridge of policated beams of blecarian misipication, “And of course if you had said that it was a bridge of policated beams of blecarian misipication [un puente de vigas pudeladas de mispiquel a leberquisa], well, then the novel would have been quite different, how great indeed would your novel have been if you had said this.”

—Javier Marías, “Acto de homenaje a Juan Benet,” tr. Benjamin Fraser in Understanding Juan Benet

I started reading the latest from James Salter and had one of these complete failures of cross-generational sympathy; it was Virginia Woolf trying to get through Hilda Lessways all over again.

Myrmecophily for the perplexed

At J.’s job a discussion ran aground on whether to put full stops in the web copy, and her Dutch coworker brought up the word mierenneuker, meaning “ant-fucker,” which I’ve since been delighted to spread around. As Ray points out, it’s a better word than “nitpicker” because picking nits actually serves a purpose.

The punchline is that people get corrected for spelling the word incorrectly, with a single ‘n.’


Helen DeWitt, The Last Samurai

It’s very seductive out of the gate, and might have seriously misled me when I was younger and more invested in precocity. Nowadays I’ll cop that there are more interesting things about John Stuart Mill than his having read the Anabasis at four, or six, whichever it was. When it falls apart, it’s just for the usual reason of novels being long and outlasting the sal volatile of their conceits.

Just like cream! but worse

Ozzy: What is this shape that stands before me??!!?

J: “It’s a triangle, Ozzy.”

R. often points out, about cars, that “they can’t get upset because they don’t have faces and they don’t talk.” Today she leapt without warning to the paraphrase: “They can’t get upset because they don’t have faces or minds.”


As the seventies went ill for America, so for the Fender Electric Instrument Company. Its new masters at CBS, Inc. got right to work shaving away anything that looked like a superfluous cost, and the results were just the operational excellence you’d expect: shoddy machining, warped cuts of wood, wonky intonation and a neck joint that wouldn’t stay in place because they took it down from four bolts to three. Yet love knows no season, and someone, somehow, managed to lure Seth Lover (first genius of our story) into the midst of this mess to design a Fender version of the humbucker he’d invented for Gibson. He came up with a piece of electronics that growled like a Gibson and chimed like a single-coil at the same time, with a ten-thousand-ohm output to drive any rig to its natural eleven. Jonny Greenwood’s Starcaster has them, Lee Ranaldo soldered them into his Jazzblaster, but they’re above all the mark of the seventies Telecaster, along with that cussed three-bolt joint and the narrow, rounded neck with the truss rod protruding in a bullet shape at top. On the merits these are not the best guitars ever made, but they are absolutely my favorites, a flowering of genius in an age of decline. Two of them live in our house: one a careful recreation, the other vintage and older than I am.

Pindar dates from 1972, the first year of humbucker Teles in various styles, including the Thinline. A couple of years earlier Fender had noticed that their wood stock was starting to get heavy, and Roger Rossmeisl (second genius of our story, luthier trained like his father in Mittenwald) had proposed to them that a solid-body could be made lightweight and beautiful by carving out the left side like a violin. Forty-odd years later, his invention came to us. In the dark decades between someone in Massachusetts had sanded off the finish, dressed the frets down to nearly nothing, warped the pickguard in the sun or next to a radiator, let the case rust in a barn, and as a final insult given it strings one gauge too light. But on playing a first few notes I got such a look on my face, J. tells me, that she consigned me the guitar straightaway, never mind that we’d actually bought it for her. Then I tried to pull a plastic knob off the pickguard and ended up taking the entire instrument apart, in the process assaulting the knob with every tool in the house, including plumbing and gardening tools, and gouging the hell out of my hand. I ended up snapping the knob to bits with tin snips and discovered a) a rusted-on nut that would absolutely not detach and remains under the new pickguard to this day, fused to a bit of the old pickguard; and b) the senseless, skill-less, unmotivated chiseling that the person in Massachusetts had done along the control cavity. We will never know why.

R. was very worried about the irremovable knob and wanted to help pull it off. We consoled her with the news that the stripped body, now picked clean of its parts, would be going to a local “guitar painter.” “Maybe white?” I said to the guitar painter. “What Fender called Olympic white. A little aged?” He got it.

Paisano began life with less distinction, as a right-priced Mexican reissue of the 1972 Tele Custom. This was a hybrid design, putting Seth Lover’s masterpiece in the neck and a standard Tele pickup in the bridge, that slanted single coil in a metal plate that first put the world on notice that Leo Fender was more than an amp tech. That is to say it’s the ideal Telecaster; that is to say it’s the ideal electric guitar. (See Richards, Keith; Yorke, Thom.)

It came in as a successor to my old blue Tele, after I came to acknowledge the hollow left by trading that Tele away. A friendly, elfin hipster brought it over from San Francisco and explained that his new style of music (something with bloops—whatever the kids do) didn’t require “such a complicated guitar.” So began one of the more intense and difficult relationships of my life. It was the feel of its neck in my left hand—perfect line and arc, a handle you’d trust to pull yourself back from a cliff—that seduced me into putting Catullus and a roadrunner on it, and naming it “Paisano,” which a guy sitting on a street corner in Guatemala used to crack himself up by calling me. But having done that, I had to admit that the sound out of the speakers was either too sharp or too dull, never warm enough, however tweaked. I put new pickups in bridge and neck both, rewired it with higher-output potentiometers, installed brass bridge saddles, experimented with a different bridgeplate, all because putting the roadrunner on it had contracted an obligation to make it the guitar it should have been, instead of just trading it away and starting over. In the end I sent the neck out to a luthier in Denton for his secret-sauce refret, and entirely swapped out the body for an American-made ash slab. That did the trick; it came back last week and it sounds perfect. Naturally it’s the ship of Theseus now. Of its original substance, all it has kept is the pickguard, bridgeplate, switches and knobs, along with the all-important wood of the neck; but its form has persisted throughout, guiding the transubstantiation. That is how a guitar becomes what it is.

As to the nature of the perfect sound: there’s a lot of space in it, the space you can hear in any fifties country arrangement with a Telecaster on top. A wide, dry plain with a couple of stretched-out clouds above, and the treble spike shooting up like a jagged rock ridge. The mineral alloys in the pickups—AlNiCo, CuNiFe—give the rocks their colors, just like they streaked the edges of the open-pit mines I used to drive past on my old job, listening to Luther Perkins’s boom-chicka or something British with a lot of echo, whatever it was that day. It’s a prickly fruit with sweet pulp inside. It’s the calling card I’d like to be known by.

Hotel register 2014.010

Jan Morris, Last Letters from Hav; Hav of the Myrmidons (1985; 2006), is a bagatelle but a sly one; I can’t tell if it’s subtly intimating that it’s more than a bagatelle, or subtly intimating that it’s not.

I spent Christmas in a northern state where the sun sets early. It was already sinking behind a hill as we drove out to a barn so that my daughter could meet her grandmother’s horse; the ruddy half disc glinted through bare woods at the summit and shifted its beams as the car moved. Firebird, ready to take flight from the canopy. But it didn’t, it went to sleep, and at dusk we met the horse. It snorted and steamed at the nostrils, R. petted its side and sat behind its shoulders, gripped the coarse mane, laughed in delight as its great tongue lapped a candy cane—

Unusually, I’m spending time by myself in airports, in part because of my grandmother’s unexpected death over the holiday. The first encounter in a long time—years?—with the loneliness that leads to writing, that used to lead to writing all the time. Whatever else has gone on these years, I haven’t been lonely. This round of goodbyes was especially hard; one never wants to be lonely and yet it’s a spur.

Read without haste E.R. Curtius, European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages. Curtius thinks that the Classic-Romantic distinction is unworkable in practice and suggests the Classic-Mannerist distinction as an alternative. I’m surprised I haven’t seen that before; I like it because it’s a matter of pure technique, and seems to have cropped up independently or not in many places, even the MFA workshop where Frank Conroy used to say: “On the one hand, the plain style, on the other, the rococo….”

It’s useful as context for Dante, a corrective to the assumption that Dante appeared out of nowhere after a millennium of nothing—an assumption which makes it seem that the Divine Comedy could not have been written by a human. Which is not to say Curtius doesn’t love Dante; everyone loves Dante, except the young Goethe. Walking home the other day from signing documents for my new job, I had the thought that his heaven, which starts out radiating and then converges, could be modeled as the surface of a hypersphere, and unsurprisingly lots of people over this last century have had the same thought. Not that “Dante anticipated Riemann,” but (I think) he might have taken the earth’s surface as an analogy and drawn a path from pole to pole so that both God and the Earth could occupy central positions, one high, one low.

The casket was heavy, and bearing it from point to point with my cousins—I on the right, using my weaker left arm—I wondered how much was mortal flesh and how much was superstructure, ceremony. At the church entry they had a framed photo with her sixteen or so local great-grandchildren and a separate photo of R., the only great-grandchild to live in a different city, whom I had never managed to bring there; and if I had brought her, it would have been the opportunity for another group photo of children, an hour in arranging and me fidgeting the whole time, forgetting the point of such photos is to be placed, in time, at church entries—then the Mass, hymns, responses to which I still remember the words. Lift up your hearts: we lift them up to the Lord. 1 Thessalonians 4:13: But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. The resurrection of the flesh specifically, and often, insisted upon.

They had me kneeling in the first pew, but declining Communion was not so awkward since the conditions were clearly stated: married in the Church, if married…. The smoke out of the censer, the splashes of holy water were seductive, as was the talk of God’s eternal foreknowledge: Dante again. But why my grandparents’ 65-year marriage should be held up as a rebuke to “a fifty percent divorce rate, and men marrying men, and women marrying women”: well, let the differences not be obscured. I can’t write about my grandmother herself, in part because of those differences. Early closeness, music lessons, distance, a sense of virtues not altogether congruent with the virtues I came to recognize.

Police on motorcycles flanked our procession through red lights. Garages, American flags, cold midday at the crypt. Dante prepared for death in his way, the Romans in theirs. Sometimes I think mine is the Egyptian practice, investing decades in painting the walls of a tomb.

When I get back I will start work. I am testing the hypothesis that it might not be so bad to be part of an endeavor, to be useful at least for a while; that it certainly beats getting devoured.

Software is the service. It reclines within the soft arms of a university, and also pays “grown-up money”, an expression which seems to be identical with “top decile”; things are that warped. I didn’t want to need it, but since starting a family, need has become an elastic concept. Four days away and I miss the metropolis. I miss the sea air, the daydream that particles of Japan or the Danube could wash up in the surf, circulation.

<= 2014.11.23

What goes on