Across Some Earthly Firmament – David Copperfield

Today, Oomska wishes a very happy 200th birthday to Charles Dickens. Here we present a favourite passage, from a favourite chapter, from a book that’s a favourite of ours, and of the inimitable Mr Dickens himself: none other than ‘The Personal History of David Copperfield’.

“I went on, by passing the wine faster and faster yet, and continually starting up with a corkscrew to open more wine, long before any was needed. I proposed Steerforth’s health. I said he was my dearest friend, the protector of my boyhood, and the companion of my prime. I said I was delighted to propose his health. I said I owed him more obligations than I could ever repay, and held him in a higher admiration than I could ever express. I finished by saying, ‘I’ll give you Steerforth! God bless him! Hurrah!’ We gave him three times three, and another, and a good one to finish with. I broke my glass in going round the table to shake hands with him, and I said (in two words)


I went on, by finding suddenly that somebody was in the middle of a song. Markham was the singer, and he sang ‘When the heart of a man is depressed with care’. He said, when he had sung it, he would give us ‘Woman!’ I took objection to that, and I couldn’t allow it. I said it was not a respectful way of proposing the toast, and I would never permit that toast to be drunk in my house otherwise than as ‘The Ladies!’ I was very high with him, mainly I think because I saw Steerforth and Grainger laughing at me—or at him—or at both of us. He said a man was not to be dictated to. I said a man was. He said a man was not to be insulted, then. I said he was right there—never under my roof, where the Lares were sacred, and the laws of hospitality paramount. He said it was no derogation from a man’s dignity to confess that I was a devilish good fellow. I instantly proposed his health.

Somebody was smoking. We were all smoking. I was smoking, and trying to suppress a rising tendency to shudder. Steerforth had made a speech about me, in the course of which I had been affected almost to tears. I returned thanks, and hoped the present company would dine with me tomorrow, and the day after—each day at five o’clock, that we might enjoy the pleasures of conversation and society through a long evening. I felt called upon to propose an individual. I would give them my aunt. Miss Betsey Trotwood, the best of her sex!

Somebody was leaning out of my bedroom window, refreshing his forehead against the cool stone of the parapet, and feeling the air upon his face. It was myself. I was addressing myself as ‘Copperfield’, and saying, ‘Why did you try to smoke? You might have known you couldn’t do it.’ Now, somebody was unsteadily contemplating his features in the looking-glass. That was I too. I was very pale in the looking-glass; my eyes had a vacant appearance; and my hair—only my hair, nothing else—looked drunk.

Somebody said to me, ‘Let us go to the theatre, Copperfield!’ There was no bedroom before me, but again the jingling table covered with glasses; the lamp; Grainger on my right hand, Markham on my left, and Steerforth opposite—all sitting in a mist, and a long way off. The theatre? To be sure. The very thing. Come along! But they must excuse me if I saw everybody out first, and turned the lamp off—in case of fire.

Owing to some confusion in the dark, the door was gone. I was feeling for it in the window-curtains, when Steerforth, laughing, took me by the arm and led me out. We went downstairs, one behind another. Near the bottom, somebody fell, and rolled down. Somebody else said it was Copperfield. I was angry at that false report, until, finding myself on my back in the passage, I began to think there might be some foundation for it.

A very foggy night, with great rings round the lamps in the streets! There was an indistinct talk of its being wet. I considered it frosty. Steerforth dusted me under a lamp-post, and put my hat into shape, which somebody produced from somewhere in a most extraordinary manner, for I hadn’t had it on before. Steerforth then said, ‘You are all right, Copperfield, are you not?’ and I told him, ‘Neverberrer.’”

- from ‘My First Dissipation’, David Copperfield, by Charles Dickens

Oomska’s occasional literary series, ‘Across Some Earthly Firmament’, is fired by an ambition which vaults no higher than merely sharing some arbitrarily selected prose passages which we feel are worth arbitrarily selecting.

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The Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of

A plea, and a proposal, for a worthwhile book on the films of Humphrey Bogart.

Tom Polhous: “It’s heavy. What is it?”

Sam Spade: “The, uh, stuff that dreams are made of.”

- The Maltese Falcon, 1941

Whatever the secret ingredient was that fuelled the Hollywood dream factory, Humphrey Bogart had it, in spades. Like the eponymous Falcon, he was a rare bird, remarkable in too many ways to list. Maybe the most fascinating aspect of the Bogart story lies in the fact that he was out of synch with his own success: stardom came late, death arrived early, and he can have had no inkling of the hugely powerful cultural force his name would come to represent. For, while other legends of the Golden Age – many of whom were bigger hitters at the box office – have faded with the passing years, Bogart’s star has continued to shine, until he now seems one of the most iconic figures ever to have come shimmering off the silver screen and into our collective consciousness.

Let’s not mince words. Bogart was a genius. Where could you find a comparable figure? Not in his own field: there was no actor ‘like’ Bogart. Not in another era, because even Bogart couldn’t have become Bogart in any other time or place than 40s Hollywood. If pushed, the closest you might get would be someone like Picasso, Muhammad Ali, or Bob Dylan: a figure so singular that they transcend any sense of being the best at what they do; instead, what they do becomes defined by them.

Like Bob Dylan, Humphrey Bogart is a subject most people probably expect has been more than adequately documented over the years: after all, the man has been dead for over half a century, and he’s one of the best-known, most blazingly iconic movie stars of all time. Surely there are hundreds of Humphrey Bogart books? And who on earth could see any need for another one? Well, the reality is very different: there’s a surprising dearth of Bogart books in general, and an even more remarkable scarcity of good Bogart books. Worse still, if you were looking for a good Bogart book that does a good job of covering the films of Humphrey Bogart in any depth, you’d have to look even harder. In fact, you’d have to write it yourself.

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Across Some Earthly Firmament – ‘Against the Day’

Today, Oomska begins an occasional literary series, ‘Across Some Earthly Firmament’, fired by an ambition which vaults no higher than merely sharing some arbitrarily selected prose passages which we feel are worth arbitrarily selecting.

We start with – and pinch the name for this series from – a short but pungent dollop of genius from Oomska’s favourite living author, the incomparable Thomas Pynchon. This passage, from Pynchon’s colossal 2006 novel, ‘Against the Day’, employs Pynchon’s gentle humour, rolling rhythms, and poetic elegance, to document the moment when the ‘Chums of Chance’, a group of dime-store ‘boy’s own’ story adventurers come to life, navigate their hot-air balloon down towards the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893. This will be the boys’ first encounter with a pioneering photographer who will come to play a key role in their story, just as photography itself will provide a central theme for Pynchon’s omni-faceted novel. Thus we felt this passage was a doubly apt way to begin the series, as this week saw both the launch of Oomska’s ‘Future of Photography’ Q&A feature, plus the sad news that Kodak – a name synonymous with photography for much of the 20th Century – have declared bankruptcy.

“Across the herbaceous nap below, in the declining light, among the brighter star-shapes of exploded ballast-bags, running heedless, as across some earthly firmament, sped a stout gentleman in a Norfolk jacket and plus-fours, clutching a straw “skimmer” to the back of his head with one hand while with the other keeping balanced upon his shoulder a photographic camera and tripod. Close behind him came the female companion Blundell had remarked, carrying a bundle of ladies’ apparel, though clad at the moment in little beyond a floral diadem of some sort, charmingly askew among masses of fair hair. The duo appeared to be making for a nearby patch of woods, now and then casting apprehensive looks upward at the enormous gasbag of the descending Inconvenience, quite as if it were some giant eyeball, perhaps that of Society itself, ever scrutinizing from above, in a spirit of constructive censure. By the time Lindsay could remove the optical instrument from the moist hands of Miles Blundell, and induce the consequently disgruntled youth to throw out grapnels and assist Darby in securing the great airship to “Mother Earth,” the indecorous couple had vanished among the foliage, as presently would this sector of the Republic into the falling darkness.”

- Thomas Pynchon, ‘Against the Day’

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A Glass of Ginger Ale with Jesus

A Glass of Ginger Ale with Jesus: JD Salinger’s ‘Franny and Zooey’

Part 1: A Brief Appreciation of Salinger’s Writing Career

by Michael Lee Bailey

Tenderness. I think that’s what people return to Salinger’s books for. It’s a pretty rare quality in these times of sensationalism, graphic horror, depictions of sex without love, the enshrinement of greed, and of ideology over civility, rampant naysaying, and triumphal scoffing at non-commercial values…but we all have a tender streak that’s being underserved. Salinger served it well.

His very early stories are simply good glossy magazine fare. The one that sticks in my mind is ‘The Heart of a Broken Story’, published in Esquire in 1941. It parodies the love story format by considering a possible romance between a young man and woman who meet on a bus, while making it clear that it isn’t going to happen. In a quiet way, it makes a point about possibilities in life and plays with

Appropriately for the wartime years, he did write some morale-building things about soldiers – for instance, ‘The Hang of It’ and ‘Personal Notes of an Infantryman’ demonstrate heartfelt patriotism and commitment and a reader-friendly surprise twist at the end.

But other stories during that time consider what goes on in soldiers’ minds, and draw a distinction between patriotism and jingoism. ‘Last Day of the Last Furlough’, for instance, builds to a scene where a soldier emphatically tells a friend’s father – a WWI veteran – that his generation will not, and should not, look back with any kind of affection on their military time.

An even more moving story in this category is ‘For Esme, with Love and Squalor’, which focuses not on battlefield deeds – the only such deed mentioned is the shooting of a cat – but on a correspondence between an American soldier and a very young English girl he met on leave – and not even really so much on that correspondence as on how reading her letter relieves him from hellish desolation.

It’s exciting to watch Salinger’s talent developing in these stories, and then in the postwar stories to see him spin his themes out larger and tie them together. Notably, soldiers named Caulfield and Glass appear in the war stories, and characters with those surnames also populate the interconnected and longer tales that appeared in the 50s and 60s.

‘The Catcher in the Rye’ (1951) dealt with the tribulations of Holden Caulfield, who was of a generation too young to fight in WWII. His emotional responses to life in postwar society show a turning away from materialism and martial values in favor of the impulses of the heart.

It was a shocker for me to read even in the mid-60s, when the postwar mindset had receded quite a bit. I think it’s fair to say that in America in the 60s, boys tended to read World War II stories, spy stuff, Sherlock Holmes, Johnny Tremaine, ‘West Point Plebe’, biographies of Frank Woolworth and Thomas Edison and Lawrence of Arabia: heavily action-oriented, character-building, and devoid of existential questioning. Encountering Holden Caulfield tended to disarm one, to cut through the Social Darwinism implicit in a lot of “improving” literature. He wasn’t somebody you would emulate in order to hop on the fast track to fame and fortune, but he was much funnier and sadder, and more real, than most of those hero types.

Salinger followed the strongly emotional statement of ‘The Catcher in the Rye’ with a number of stories with a variety of viewpoints, messages and emotional inflections, many of which are loosely but compellingly interrelated by virtue of the fact that they concern members of the Glass family.

The back story is brought out gradually throughout the sequence. Les Glass, the Jewish father, and Bessie, the Irish mother, after a career in vaudeville, have raised seven offspring, all of whom were precocious young radio quiz show stars. The incidents in the stories occur after their quiz show heyday when the siblings are mostly all grown up.

Three Glasses show up in the first collection. ‘Nine Stories’, from 1953, depicts, in ‘A Perfect Day for Bananfish’, the preternaturally (some might say, incredibly, or even intolerably) gifted and tormented eldest son, Seymour, killing himself. ‘Uncle Wiggily in Connecticut’ shows another deceased Glass sibling, Walt, through the eyes of a woman who had loved him (this was made into the movie ‘My Foolish Hear’ which Salinger disliked, but really wasn’t half bad if you ask me. The theme song is great!) ‘Down at the Dinghy’ features Boo Boo Glass, the eldest daughter and perhaps the most likeable of the bunch. The other six stories aren’t overtly Glass-ful, but they are at least Glass-compatible: especially ‘Teddy’, which explores the pitfalls of being young and freakishly gifted.

‘Franny and Zooey’ (1961) focuses on the two youngest Glass siblings, and builds the “family drama” idea up around the pain caused by Seymour’s suicide in his survivors, although it doesn’t stop there but continues on with a picture of family life, philosophical ruminations about art and the meaning of life, several belly laughs, and culminates in a very idiosyncratic Christian inspirational message.

In 1963, Salinger published ‘Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters’ and ‘Seymour: an Introduction’, two longish stories in one volume. In ‘Raise High’, the second-eldest brother, Buddy, appears in uniform on leave from the Army trying to attend the doomed Seymour’s wedding day. In ‘Seymour’, the adult Buddy, having grown (or at least, aged) into a reclusive writing instructor at a girl’s school, reminisces heartily and at rather great length about Seymour.

Finally, in 1965, further delving into the Glass family, Salinger published ‘Hapworth 16, 1924’ in the New Yorker. This long epistolary story met with some critical objections. That isn’t surprising: page after page of a letter from a seven-year-old camper, who we already know is doomed, including literary criticism and a great many precocious, prescient, and sometimes rather precious observations on most any conceivable subject, including the likelihood of his own early demise.

However, it has its fascinations!

Whether because of critical objections, his own reclusive nature, or possibly the fact that he had a decent income for life from his previous work, Salinger never published again. There’s one more story available, but you have to go to the Princeton library, show two picture IDs, and read it there in a special proctored reading room:

‘The Ocean Full of Bowling Balls’

A tale hangs thereby, certainly… not just the story, which I hope to read myself someday, but how it came to be there. Why Princeton, among other questions?

By all accounts he did keep writing and socking the stories away, but it would seem indecorous to dwell on that right now.

Among those of us who are susceptible to his sort of tenderness (and there are a lot of us! ‘Franny and Zooey’ rose to the top of the New York Times bestseller list in 1961) there is at least one who remains, without exaggeration, eternally grateful for what he did see fit to publish.

In part two, Michael will take a closer look at ‘Franny and Zooey’

Point Omega

‘Point Omega’

by Don DeLillo. Published by Picador; pp224; £14.99

by Bekah Lindroos

From the confines of a New York viewing gallery to the wide open spaces of the desert and then back to the gallery, this book is more philosophical than Delillo’s prior works – and it’s shorter, too. He’s talking about time and film and intimacy and death. There’s a certain suspense factor in the main part but it’s doubled because of the book-end type first and last sections.

The unnamed main characters of the New York chapter become more anonymous and isolated within the darkness of the gallery and the violence of the film, a 24-hour showing of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. (Apparently DeLillo viewed parts of this and that played a part in his writing the book.)

But when film maker, Jim Finley (the viewer in the gallery?) goes to visit Richard Elster in Arizona (or somewhere in a remote southland desert) his projected stay of a few days goes on for weeks and he becomes involved on a personal level.

Elster is a 73 year-old academic who years earlier participated as a “concept” consultant in a war council regarding Iraq. He left that, as well as family in the east, to be a sort of recluse. Now Finley wants to make an “up-close-and-personal” interview type film of Elster talking about his experience in the war machine. The idea (“concept”) is that Elster would be isolated on the film, with only a blank wall behind him. The narrative is tight and tense and very word is vital.

The movie Psycho movie and the Iraq war room provide similar violent and somewhat unreal atmospheres for the two basic sections (gallery and desert) of the book. The concepts of the two films are similar in that they both want very close and detailed examinations. No broad
overviews in these flicks.

During Finley’s stay Elster’s grown daughter, Jesse, comes for a visit and the isolated characters become very connected in some complex personal way. But DeLillo keeps his narrative minimal which increases the suspense (yes!) in this section.

For the most part, DeLillo’s works since Underworld, his magnum opus, have been less than his readers expected. The Body Artist had only a smattering of positive comments and Cosmopolis virtually none. Yes, those books were definitely disappointing. Last year’s Falling
Man fared better and seemed to me a return to the Delillo of old, The Names, Mao II, etc. but with a post-9/11 American flavor.

Now Point Omega seems to hit the target getting those fine, fine sentences shaved to the minimum while maintaining a great story-line.