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The Uncivil Servant: A Grand Home for Essays

Mitchell Abidor
June 24, 2017

by Mitchell Abidor

Discussed in this article, six books published by Notting Hill: Beautiful and Impossible Things: Selected Essays of Oscar Wilde; Essays on the Self, by Virginia Woolf; Junkspace, by Rem Koolhaas; The William Hazlitt Essay Prize 2013 the Winners; A Eulogy for Nigger and Other Essays; Cyclogeography by Jon Day; Questions of Travel by William Morris.

SINCE IT FIRST hit the scene in 1980, 350 million Rubik’s Cubes have been sold, making a fortune for Tom Kremer, who did not invent it (that was Erno Rubik) but rather first licensed and distributed it, ultimately selling his golden goose to Ideal Toys. Admirably, quixotically, Kremer has invested a chunk of his earnings in the marvelous British-based Notting Hill Editions, a publishing house dedicated to the essay form. Its beautifully produced little volumes, covering topics from architecture to bicycling to neuroscience and everything in between, are little wonders, making available works of some of the best practitioners of the form in the English-speaking world.

Though its catalog is full of contemporary writers, it is also bringing back the classics, and there are few more classic essayists than Oscar Wilde. There are no surprises in the volume Beautiful and Impossible Things: Selected Essays of Oscar Wilde, which doesn’t mean there’s nothing astonishing, for few writers in English had the gift for always finding a witty, striking way of expressing himself as did Wilde. In his essay, “The House Beautiful,” he admonishes us to “[h]ave nothing in your house that has not given pleasure to the man who made it and is not a pleasure to those who use it. Have nothing in your house that is not useful or beautiful; if such a rule were followed out, you would be astonished at the amount of rubbish you would get rid of.” In the house beautiful Wilde includes those who live in it, who are advised on their attire, which allows him to eccentrically opine that “nothing is more graceful in the world than a broad-brimmed hat,” and that, for the perfect melding of form and function, “the only well-dressed men I have seen in America were the miners of the Rocky Mountains.”

Gems like these abound throughout the book, which includes lesser-known essays on “The American Invasion” and artist’s models in London, as well as Wilde’s most famous pieces, “The Decay of Lying” and “The Soul of Man Under Socialism.” In the former essay, written in the form of a dialogue, lying is defended as a form of artifice and thus of art, while nature is abhorred for being artless. But nature is even worse than merely artless, it’s “uncomfortable.” Which in the Wildean world is, paradoxically, a good thing: “If nature had been comfortable, mankind would never have invented architecture.” The detestation of lying even led to the vulgarization of America: “The crude commercialism of America, its materializing spirit, its indifference to the poetical side of things, and its lack of imagination and of high unattainable ideals, are entirely due to that country having adopted for its national hero a man who, according to his own confession, was incapable of telling a lie, and it is not too much to say that the story of George Washington and the cherry-tree has done more harm than, and in a shorter space of time, than any other moral tale in the whole of literature.”

Wilde is equally eccentric in “The Soul of Man Under Socialism,” which proposes a socialism few would recognize as such. In Wilde’s world, “socialism would relieve us from the sordid necessity of living for others.” His socialism would set free an Individualism that, like the vision in his essay on lying, would allow artists and writers to do precisely what they choose, freed from the constraints of popular taste. As in everything Wilde wrote -- or, as we will shortly see, almost everything -- the aim of any society should be the freeing of its artists, “for the past is what man should not have been. The present is what man ought not to be. The future is what artists are.”

In his essay on socialism he delivers an attack on the press and its love for invading privacy, little knowing (it was written in 1891) that when he wrote that “The private lives of men and women should not be told to the public,” his own private life would be on display as a result of his libel trial in 1895.

The prison sentence he received destroyed Wilde financially and professionally. The editor of the Notting Hill volume, Gyles Brandreth, rather than leave us with Wilde’s snappy aphorisms, closes the volume with the changed Wilde of his post-prison life, a heartbreaking 1897 letter-to- the-editor in defense of a prison warder he knew who had been fired for giving a child prisoner a cookie. The letter, published in the Daily Chronicle, is written in a totally different key, and the man who complained that sitting on the ground was terrible because it was bumpy could now write nothing more aphoristic than, “It is not the prisoners who need reformation. It is the prisons.”

Beautiful and Impossible Things is a marvelous collection that reminds readers why, whenever an English language bon mot is unleashed, one can assume it was written by Wilde, or Twain, or Shaw.

NO WRITER would seem more distant from the witty and frivolous dandy Oscar Wilde than Virginia Woolf, and yet, reading the collection Essays on the Self, particularly its opening essays, “Modern Fiction” and “Character in Fiction,” underscores just how strangely similar they were, if not formally then ideologically. Though Wilde delighted in the surface of things while Woolf was all interiority, both believed that the writer should enjoy absolute freedom. But the theme running through the essays chosen by Joanna Kavenna in this small volume is that of the importance of examining one’s surroundings, not least the people who inhabit them, and of granting them their full humanity. Woolf reproaches some of the most important writers of the early 20th century, writers she calls “materialists,” for their assumption that in describing a person’s surroundings you’ve described the person. She wants writers to delve into the mind, the endless variability of our consciousness, which “shape themselves into the life of Monday or Tuesday.” Praising (with reservations) James Joyce, she exhorts writers to “record the atoms as they fall upon the mind in the order in which they fall, let us trace the pattern, however disconnected and incoherent in appearance, which each night or incident scores upon the consciousness.”

It goes without saying that Virginia Woolf hardly needs to be advocated for, but as an essayist she is in some ways superior to the novelist. What stands out above all in Essays on the Self is not so much Virginia Woolf the iconic feminist -- though she, too, appears here -- but Virginia Woolf the reader, a reader who, through her genius as a writer, expresses her joy in the books she loves as few ever could. Discussing a 1940 collection of Coleridge’s conversations, she writes, “The truth about Coleridge the talker seems to have been that he rapt some listeners to the seventh heaven; bored others to extinction; and made one foolish girl giggle irrepressibly. In the same way his eyes were brown to some, grey to others, and again a very bright blue. But there is one point upon which all who listened to him are agreed; not one of them could remember a single word.” It is not only the wit of this passage that is stunning, but the rhythm of it, the perfect length of the sentences, the perfect placement and choice of punctuation. Few would want to read Coleridge’s talks (though this passage inspired me to obtain a copy, which waits unread before me), but no one could regret reading this takedown of them.

Similarly, though scholars and fanatics of eighteenth century English literature continue to read Horace Walpole, one is almost tempted to turn to the Castle of Otranto after reading Woolf’s moving review of the author’s correspondence, which reveals, she says, “a man so blessed that he could unfold every gift, every foible, whose long life spreads like a great lake reflecting houses and friends and wars and snuff boxes and revolutions and lap dogs, the great and the little, all intermingled, and behind them a stretch of the serene blue sky.” (It should be noted that Everyman is publishing a new edition of Walpole’s correspondence at the end of June).

To be in the presence of such writing is a privilege.

DUTCH-BORN architect and architectural theorist Rem Koolhaas is unhappy, and he lets fly in Junkspace. Famous for, among others, his book Delirious New York and its celebration of the role of chance in city life, he has grown disgusted with the architecture of daily life and with daily life itself. “If space-junk is the human debris that litters the universe, Junkspace is the residue mankind leaves on the planet.” He delivers himself of a rant worthy of those of the great Austrian master of the genre, Thomas Bernhard, and like Bernhard, Kolhaas’ is executed in one continuous burst: his rage carries along its single paragraph for thirty-seven pages. His insights and juxtapositions are ceaselessly bizarre, ceaselessly fascinating: “Junk Space seems an aberration, but it is in essence the main thing … the product of an encounter an escalator and air-conditioning.” Though he blames fellow architects for Junk Space’s proliferation, those who gawk at it and allow it –- we –- do not get off lightly, “because we never reconstruct or question the authority of these enforced derives.” The people who wander through Junkspace adhere to a dress code, one familiar to us all: “shorts, sneakers, sandals, shell suit, fleece, jeans, parka, backpack,” the nightmare image of the tourists we see everywhere every day roaming through shopping malls and airports "as if the People suddenly accessed the private quarters of a dictator."

Airports, those infernal antechambers to the hell of airplane travel, are a special target. “Only a perverse modernist choreography can explain the twists and turns, the ascents and descents, the sudden reversals that comprise the typical path from check-in (a misleading name) to the apron of the average contemporary airport.”

Koolhaas provides a uniquely dystopian vison of modern life, when, “at the moment of its greatest emancipation, humankind is subjected to the most dictatorial scripts: from the pushy oration of the waiter to the answering gulags on the other end of the telephone, the safety instructions on the airplane, more and more insistent perfumes, mankind is browbeaten into submitting to the most harshly engineered plotline.”

He ends with a final note of dread. Junkspace outside us, in our buildings, our airports, our stores, is bad enough, but “Will Junksapce invade the body? Through the vibes of the cell phone? Has it already? Through Botox injections? Collagen? Silicone implants? Liposuction? Penis enlargements?”

NOTTING HILL also awards prizes for the best essays of the year submitted to them, and has published two collections of William Hazlitt Prize Winners. The volume for 2013 is a mixed bag. It opens with a mildly informative essay on Raphael Lemkin, the man who invented the word "genocide," then an unsparing portrait of working-class life by J.T. Barbarese. It then hits a lull, with two self-indulgent essays, one by Belle Boggs on her attempts to get pregnant, and one on an abortion by Leslie Jamison. Both are uninformative, whining, and represent all that is worst in the essay form. Then the book closes with two simply brilliant essays, one by Andrew O’Hagan on the culture of child molestation at the BBC and how the public attitude toward popular entertainment and entertainers encourages it, and a fascinating essay by Sameer Rahim on the attempts to prove the actual existence of Mohammed and the need for Islam to engage in the search for the real Mohammed in the same way Christians did with the search for the historical Jesus in the 19th century. Rahim's analysis of the various scholars and schools of thought and their opinions on the matter, on the strengths and weaknesses of the cases for the prophet’s existence and even the actual location of Mecca, which some think was actually located in or near Palestine (!), caused me to miss my subway stop.

The same cannot be said for A Eulogy for Nigger, the collection of 2015 prize-winning essays. Other than the provocative title and title essay, inspired by the NAACP’s symbolic burial of the word, little in this volume was of any especial interest, the essays overwritten when not pedantic when not overwritten and pedantic. Pages into most of them I had no idea what they were about or what their point was. Nor did I care.

JON DAY'S Cyclogeograpy recounts the life of a London bicycle courier, providing insights into the life of a dying and brutal trade. Largely replaced now by email (after going into decline with the arrival of the fax), bike messengering remains a tough way to make a buck, and, given the nature of the work, attracts a particular type of person, usually male, always interested in the freedom of the work, the ability to show up drunk or stoned and able to get by. Day was between steps of his university and post-grad life when he plied the trade, and so his reflections are not that of the typical messenger.

Given Day’s academic background, it’s not surprising that the theoretical underpinning of bicycling according to the Futurists and the French playwright Alfred Jarry, or the interpenetration of bicycler and bicyclist according to the great Irish writer Flann O’Brien, feature prominently. Bicycle commuting gets short shrift, and the harshness of the messenger’s life is matched up with the hardness of the bicycle racer. Day is warned by his peers that three years is about all the bike messenger can do, after which “knees start to creak, legs seize up. Skin, weathered by the city’s mercilessness, tightens about the skull. After a while it seemed as if their bicycles were the only things keeping these riders together.”

Even if the book focuses on a specific (and frankly unattractive) breed of bicyclist, Cyclogeography also takes the bicycle into the countryside and on more leisurely excursions. As Day so aptly puts it, “cycling [is] the perfect compromise between the tyranny of the automobile and the slowness of walking.” And as we are also reminded, in cities like London it beats the slowness of the automobile as well, where the average speed is 8 mph, while Day clocks 20 on his bike.

WILLIAM MORRIS was one of the great figures of 19th century British socialism and art, and had a great interest in Iceland and its legends. Questions of Travel is an account of his voyage to the land of his dreams, and its mixture of humor, nature description, and character study is irresistible. As summer approaches, it will do quite well as an ersatz vacation for those who will not be wandering far in July and August.

Mitchell Abidor, a contributing writer to Jewish Currents, is a translator and writer living in Brooklyn. He has published many books of translations from the French, his articles have been translated into German and French, and his Voices of the Paris Commune has just appeared in a Turkish edition, put out by Kafka Kitap of Istanbul.

Mitchell Abidor, a contributing writer to Jewish Currents, is a writer and translator living in Brooklyn. Among his books are a translation of Victor Serge’s Notebooks 1936 – 1947, May Made Me: An Oral History of My 1968 in France, and I’ll Forget it When I Die, a history of the Bisbee Deportation of 1917. His writings have appeared in The New York Times, Foreign Affairs, Liberties, Dissent, The New York Review of Books, and many other publications.