Thursday, March 24, 2011

Robert Louis Stevenson and Edinburgh

Edmund Gosse on Robert Louis Stevenson and Edinburgh:

Stevenson was not very happy in Edinburgh, and yet not perfectly happy anywhere else. He was severe on the climate and architecture of Edinburgh, but when Glasgow people rejoiced he told them to wait a while, for he had not written his book about Glasgow yet. Stevenson told me that, as a youth, he used to hang over the Waverley Bridge watching the trains start southward and longing to start too. He shrank from the cold for he was delicate; and he shrank from the somewhat excessive piety that surrounded him. But he loved Edinburgh with a passionate love, and in the tropical atmosphere of Samoa he was always longing to go back to the Gray Metropolis of the North.

(From Rosaline Massin, ed., I Can Remember Robert Louis Stevenson, 1922.)

The book obliquely referred to above is doubtless Stevenson's Edinburgh: Picturesque Notes, one of my favourites. For some choice quotations from it, the city in Stevenson's own words, click here.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Edgar Allan Poe on Charles Dickens

Edgar Allan Poe was well-known as a savage literary critic, but he had high praise for Charles Dickens. Here are a couple of paragraphs from his 1841 review in Graham's Magazine of Dickens' The Old Curiosity Shop:

It embodies more originality in every point, but in character especially, than any single work within our knowledge. There is the grandfather⎯a truly profound conception; the gentle and lovely Nelly⎯we have discoursed of her before; Quilp, with mouth like that of the panting dog (a bold idea which the engraver has neglected to embody), with his hilarious antics, his cowardice, and his very petty and spoilt-child-like malevolence; Dick Swiveller, that prince of good-hearted, good-for-nothing, lazy, luxurious, poetical, brave, romantically generous, gallant, affectionate, and not over-and-above honest, "glorious Apollos"; the marchioness, his bride; Tom Codlin and his partner; Miss Sally Brass, that "fine fellow"; the pony that had an opinion of its own; the boy that stood upon his head; the sexton; the man at the forge; not forgetting the dancing dogs and baby Nubbles. There are other, admirably drawn characters; but we note these for their remarkable originality, as well as their wonderful keeping, and the glowing colours in which they are painted. We have heard some of them called caricatures, but the charge is grossly ill-founded. No critical principle is more firmly based in reason than that a certain amount of exaggeration is essential in the proper depicting of truth itself. We do not paint an object to be true, but to appear true to the beholder. Were we to copy nature with accuracy, the object copied would seem unnatural.


In truth, the great feature of the "Curiosity Shop" is its chaste, vigorous, and glorious imagination. This is the one charm, all potent, which alone would suffice to compensate for a world more of error than Mr. Dickens ever committed. It is not only seen in the conception, and general handling of the story, or in the invention of character; but it pervades every sentence of the book. We recognize its prodigious influence in every inspired word. It is this which induces the reader, who is at all ideal, to pause frequently, to reread the occasionally quaint phrases, to muse in uncontrollable delight over the thoughts which, while he wonders he has never hit upon them before, he yet admits that he never has encountered. In fact, it is the wand of the enchanter.

It counters the standard vision of Poe nicely, does it not, to think of him chuckling over Dickens?

(Poe's review is reproduced in Robert L. Hough, ed., The Literary Criticism of Edgar Allan Poe, 1965.)

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

A Foray into Italian Crime Fiction: Gianrico Carofiglio's Involuntary Witness

(cross-posted from my new blog, law.arts.culture)

A couple of months ago, when I tweeted a link to an article in the Observer that heralded “a new wave of Italian crime writers,” I quickly received a flurry of replies insisting that, of the writers mentioned therein, Gianrico Carofiglio was the one whose work I must sample without delay. One of my correspondents went so far as to dub Guido Guerrieri, the character at the centre of Carofiglio’s series of legal thrillers, “an Italian Philip Marlowe.”

Intrigued as I was by this description, it initially struck me as unlikely, given how thoroughly a product of 1930s and 40s Los Angeles Raymond Chandler’s Marlowe seems to me to be. But even if Marlowe is rooted in his time and place, noir certainly travels. The success of Akashic Books’ marvelous noir anthologies which serve up hardboiled crime stories from every corner of the globe amply demonstrates that point. It was undoubtedly the noir quality of Carofiglio’s books which my correspondent was lauding and, having now read Involuntary Witness, the first book featuring world-weary criminal defense lawyer Guido Guerrieri, I can echo the recommendation of him as a most intriguing noir antihero.

At the beginning of the book, Guerrieri’s wife leaves him and, despite the fact that he hadn’t seemed particularly invested in his marriage, this provokes something of a breakdown. It’s an existential crisis. Guerrieri hasn’t lost his life’s purpose so much as the illusion that he had a purpose in life. Work provides no counter-balance to his unraveling personal life for, there too, he realizes he has long been deluding himself. He had not become a lawyer out of a passion for justice as he had sometimes tried to convince himself. Rather, he “had become a lawyer by sheer chance, because [he] had found nothing better to do or wasn’t up to looking for it.” He had just been marking time in practice, “waiting for [his] ideas to clarify.” His wife’s departure brings a now unwelcome clarity: “Then the lid blew off and from the pan emerged a lot of things I had never imagined and didn’t want to see. That no one would want to see.”

But in the end, it is his work as a lawyer that brings him back to himself and into the world, when he is engaged to defend Abdou Thiam, a 31-year-old Senegalese pedlar who has been charged with the murder of a 9-year-old Italian boy. Thiam had been seen speaking to the boy on the beach on a number of occasions, and has been found to have a photo of him as well as some children’s books among his possessions. A bar owner has said that he witnessed Thiam walking towards the boy’s grandparents’ home on the day in question, and one of his fellow pedlars has said that he saw Thiam washing his car the day after. This tissue of circumstantial evidence, through the lens of the racism of witnesses, police, lawyers, and judges, is thought to add up to an airtight case. Guerrieri has no faith in his capacity to counter it, and initially advises Thiam to opt for “the shortened procedure” which would rule out an acquittal but perhaps lead to something less than a life sentence. But Thiam protests his innocence and wants to fight for an acquittal. Guerrieri’s growing belief in and sense of responsibility to his client, and the challenge of the trial gradually bring him back to life.

This is not a mystery novel. No attempt is made to get to the bottom of the question of who committed the murder. All of the suspense relates to the outcome of the trial. Following the process from beginning to end offers some fascinating glimpses into the Italian legal system. (The author served for many years as an anti-mafia prosecutor in Bari, the same southern Italian city in which the novel is set, so I’m confident that the depiction of the operation of Italian criminal law is an accurate one.) One facet of the novel that I particularly appreciated that Carofiglio has in common with some of my favourite Scandanavian crime writers is that he eschews the Hollywood version in favour of what seems a more realistic portrayal of the progress of a case through the justice system, adeptly conveying its plodding pace and bureaucratic nature without thereby producing a plodding read.

I was quickly caught up in Guerrieri’s life, and in Thiam’s fate, and found Involuntary Witness overall to be an always interesting, sometimes riveting, and ultimately very satisfying read. Carofiglio has written four novels featuring Guerrieri as the central character, three of which have so far been published in English translation, with the final one due out later this year. I am very much looking forward to continuing on to read the rest.

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Lawyer-Writers: Louis Auchincloss's Compromise

(Cross-posted from my new blog, law.arts.culture)

The first fiction that I assign in my Law and Literature class each year is a couple of stories by lawyer-writers. I do this partly to provide inspiration to students who are writers and who fear that embarking on a legal career will mean abandoning their literary aspirations. But mostly, because it seems to me that one of the best ways to begin an exploration of the connections and tensions between law and literature is in the company of guides who straddle the boundary. On both counts, Louis Auchincloss fits the bill perfectly.

Auchincloss, who died last year at the age of ninety-two, spent forty years practicing law in a Wall Street firm, and also published more than sixty books in his lifetime, including forty-seven works of fiction. His star has never burned as brightly in the literary firmament as those of fellow New Yorkers Edith Wharton and Henry James, but his work garners sufficient respect that his name is sometimes mentioned alongside theirs.

As he revealed in his 1964 memoir, A Writer’s Capital, by virtue of his family, Auchincloss felt himself situated at the intersection of law and literature almost from birth. His father practiced corporate law at a single New York firm for fifty-seven years, and his mother was “an omnivorous reader” whose “literary opinions were pungent, incisive, always interesting,” and she was a skilled storyteller besides.

That’s not to say that law and literature fell into an easy accord for Auchincloss in adulthood. He spent many years zigzagging between the two pursuits. Initially, he doubted his literary powers, and was all but resigned to the idea that it was his destiny to follow his father into the legal profession: “I believed … that a man born to the responsibilities of a brownstone bourgeois world could only be an artist or writer if he were a genius, that he should not kick over the traces unless a resounding artistic success, universally recognized, should justify his otherwise ridiculous deviation. The world might need second-class lawyers and doctors; it did not need a second-class artist.” Perhaps it's not surprising then that when his first novel, written as a Yale undergraduate, was rejected, he promptly enrolled in law school.

Auchincloss found, to his surprise, that he enjoyed the study of law: “For what was a case but a short story? What was the law but language?” For a time, his duties on law review served as a satisfying substitute for fiction writing. But once he’d graduated and taken a job in practice, the fiction bug bit again. He spent all his spare time writing and before long he had a couple of published novels under his belt. It didn't interfere with his legal work and the partners at his firm regarded his writing good-naturedly as an interesting quirk. But if the writing didn’t interfere with his legal work, he feared that the same could not be said in reverse: “I was increasingly bothered by a nagging apprehension that I might be slighting my literary muse by not devoting myself full time to her.”

Once again, Auchincloss felt he must choose and this time he chose literature. He resigned from the firm to write full time. But after only a couple of years, he realized that this was a failed experiment: “To sum up the account of my nonlegal years, they added nothing to my stature as a writer. The main thing about them, of course, was to have been time, but even that proved an undependable friend. My writing hours increased, but both the quantity and quality of my writing remained the same.”

Auchincloss continued to write but also returned to practice: “People ask me how I manage to write and practice…. All I can say is that a great step was taken when I ceased to think of myself as a ‘lawyer’ or a ‘writer.’ I simply was doing what I was doing when I did it.” He termed this a “compromise” but it seems to me that it was something more than that. For it wasn’t simply a matter of allowing the two to co-exist, but of recognizing that both were of central importance to him and that, ultimately, they fed each other. He chose to practice in an area of law rich in human drama that offered inspiration for his fiction: "It is probably not a coincidence that my work has been largely with people and personal problems: planning of wills, of estates, setting up trusts, handling marital separations, divorces, as opposed to the more impersonal matters of corporate or municipal financing." And in several of his novels and stories, he shone a light back on his legal milieu, creating incisive portraits of law firms and lawyers.

Much of Auchincloss's fiction has no overt legal content, including the novel that many critics regard as his best, The Rector of Justin. (Although even here there is a legal footnote, as Auchincloss once revealed that he based the main character on Judge Learned Hand⎯yes, he of the formula that still lies at the heart of negligence law.) If you've not yet encountered Auchincloss's work, you may wish to start there. But if you're interested in his legal stories, I recommend the suite of stories in Tales of Manhattan about the firm of Arnold and Degener; the "loose-leaf novel" The Partners; and his final novel, Last of the Old Guard.

* The photograph of Louis Auchincloss that heads this post is taken from the cover of his posthumously published memoir, A Voice From Old New York.