Tess of the d’Urbervilles

I’m reading Tess of the d’Urbervilles. It’s not bad, but it could use some revision. I think a good editor would have made all the difference.

For example:

In her despair Tess sprang forward and put her hand upon the hole, with the only result that she became splashed from face to skirt with the crimson drops.

This excerpt is taken from the scene where Tess is on her way to Casterbridge by wagon. She falls asleep and, unable to draw rein sharply, is involved in a crash with an oncoming mail-cart, something akin to the bullet train–for mail. Yet the failure to have properly anticipated e-mail (rendering plodding hooves quite unnecessary) shows that the then editor was somewhat out of his depth. And presently we have this little bit of drama: Prince is mortally wounded. This is perhaps a small quibble, but The Horse Formerly Known as Prince would have been a better name for the nonagenarian beast (it’s certainly more trendy)—and it’s hard to know just who blew this one, the tone-deaf author or the distracted, underpaid editor).

The ‘crimson drops!!!!’ Why not just say blood? Shoddy craftsmanship.
Hole!!! Gash, wound… This novel will never sell more than a few copies.

And this is only one sentence! So goes the salt on a seaman’s lips, so goes the ocean.

Do you love me?

The sunset was a long, glowering strip of torrid horizon. I reached for her hand and we began to walk. “Do you love me?” I asked, squinting from the ruddy sun. The waves lashed the shore. Ash-gray gulls soared to harried heights. “Absolutely,” said the raven haired nymph, and we continued to stroll on an endless, iridescent beach. And, with self-shining eyes, she would stop and look back to count my footsteps–hers were invisible (untabulatable steps in the Book of Wickedness mean you are in love). Then I would again stretch out my now steady hand and beckon her to follow me, and in a low susurrus she would gently mouth, “absolutely.”

I will interrupt this dreadful half-start in order to do a little stocktaking. In fiction it is perfectly admissible to create a small world, and thenceforth, out of politeness, follow its small, and petty, dictates. Case in point: the woman only speaks one word: “absolutely.” Are we to take this literally? Is it possible that the man is vacationing and that the woman is a native of some tropical island knowing only one English word? And it goes without saying that the narrator, sometimes little more than a hairsbreadth from the author, has, by the use of the word raven, alluded to Poe’s most famous poem. This is clearly a tipsy, idiosyncratic instance where the author hectors the narrator into applying a telltale adjective—suffusing the voluptuous and featherlight beach beauty’s Aphrodisian hair with stark blackness, and seeking to draw a parallel between the usage of “nervermore” and “absolutely,” both stellar examples of one-word languages. The reader of Poe’s narrative comes to understand, after several candlelight dinners with Cole’s Notes, that “nevermore” is a pliable word that can, like a tailored suit, be made to fit any shape, from the thinness of a lath nail to the pudgy puffiness of a pouter pigeon.

And it should be noted that the unnamed “I”, John as it turns out (funny how that puts rather a different twist on things) is also somewhat inarticulate. He seems to only know four words. A modern love story, to be sure. This cautionary tale subtly exposes, by a very thin, almost imaginary margin, the dangers of how frail modern technologies such as texting stifle the natural floridness of a language (Poe was a visionary with his one word encapsulation of a self-serving plunge into the bathos of remorse). I am certain that some of you may feel that I have crossed the rubicon and landed in the daisy field of didacticism. Not so. Having a severely truncated language may after all be a good thing, as certain writers use by far too many adjectives. But don’t you love them? Don’t you love me.

Mary Shelly

You must be nimble, duck as necessary, and quickly accommodated yourself to the colorless fact that the following brief essay is unaccompanied by a pretty picture of, say, some verdant vista, which, being frank, would be scarcely germane to the presently undisclosed (though easily guessed at, given the Promethean title) subject in hand. This cruel strategy is adopted so that the reader may, as it were, taste and savor, with a clean palate, the forthcoming biographical sketch (there, I gave it away).

I wrote this piece waking from a formidable dream and suddenly realizing that I knew very little about Mary Shelly. Topics such as–if fluoride existed as a food additive in her time, would she have insisted on a fluoride free toothpaste?—have never, during long hours of research, been resolved to my satisfaction. You hear nary a word about certain issues either. Did she, for instance, ever consider becoming a professional boxer? There is scant information on her pugilistic aspirations in the numerous biographies I’ve read (and though I’ve never been one to extol the virtues of speed-reading, the practice has some merit). This type of omission is maddening, for I am certain that she would have had a great left hook, and that a sharp shot to the solar plexus, even when delivered by a petite woman, would have made a great signature punch.

In 1826, a daring heist, the likes of which had not been seen, organized by a reserved church organist, known to a ragtag bunch of page-turners as Two Tone Mary, made a splash in the then press. But that was another Mary Shelly–from Tennessee, I think. But now put yourself ringside, it’s the 7th round of a prize fight, and Mary Shelly famously states, after spitting up globs of blood and bubbly saliva, that “poetry is the emasculation of obsession.” Fracturing thoughts are born of fracturing blows, and those following the career of the spindly-legged sportstress were shaken by such revolutionary spittle.

She survived controversy and the Mary Shelly School of Self Defense was opened in 1843, and again in 1846, as a tribute to the great lady of boxing. A decade later, a fire in the small library, next to the fancy and somewhat menacing high-tech hydraulic gym equipment, where incendiary poems and ardent billets-doux were improperly stored, forced the institution to cease its operations.

Please excuse the minor inaccuracies in this short biography (modern gym equipment is clearly anachronistic, sportstress isn’t really a word, etc), but sometimes an author must bend historical fact in order to create an authentic yet rapturous picture, such as the one of the verdant vista you sorrily missed a few fidgety moments ago.

Holy Basil


I obtained Holy Basil seeds from my neighbors, Mr. and Mrs. Slabs. Apparently the Slabses had a family relation (Virginia Slabs’s brother, so I was told) that frequently visited India, where the basil originates. The story was that, unable to hold down a job, the intrepid explorer had scurried off to the misty depths of Asia in search of elephant graveyards, in the belief that he would find there an elixir, or some incunabulum foretelling the future, or, offering direct proof of his business acumen to those that doubted, return to civilization with a bezoar that he could sell for a handsome profit. But it was all hush-hush, a pilgrimage of uncertainties—though he called it a banishment. This may sound a little unusual to you, and it did to me.

Anyhow, it’s not the sort of thing that you just blurt out over coffee and cakes, yet one Saturday afternoon, Mrs. Slabs invited me to her home in order to thank me for the geometric stacks of rutabagas I had a habit of sequestering near her doorstep, part of the rich bounty from a mad garden determined to overburden my graceful hands, the hands that one bluish morning planted seeds there, on its giddy soil. We sat in a pearl-white garden gazebo and had tea (with digestive biscuits). She insisted that I call her Virginia, and her hair, having the the color and luminosity of corn silk, gleamed in the afternoon sun. This is when I learned more of Polynices Albss and his strange trips to India. She related to me that at first the trips were of short duration, never more than a couple of months, but soon they lasted for small eternities (his term). Polynices would often return with a trunk full of old maps—she pulled various exhibits from a stash under the table–nearly obscene curios (actually the dried roots of some potato relative, having the hue of a marten’s underbelly and featuring wild but anatomically correct bifurcations, probably a sort of mandrake, and yet my instinctual probity–quite rare in a magician–demanded that I seek not to extend the conversation in a lubricious direction), various tabla drums, unplayable stringed instruments, and, on one occasion, but a fortnight ago, an ivory jewel box containing small packets of seeds and malodorous incense-like peelings in pretty muslin bags, tied with ghostly drawstrings. And now I had my Ocimum tenuiflorum seeds, formerly known as Ocimum sanctum (formerly known as: and now you may experience for yourself the syphilitic madness that grips so many botanist). Yet in common parlance, these were Holy Basil seeds.

Virginia Slabs told me that if I planted the seeds near my house I would be able to feel the heavy vibrations of an elephant herd going off to die. She had no doubt heard this chestnut from Polynices. It was getting late and I asked Virginia to give my regards to Mr. Slabs. He was a director at the Institute of Mental Wellness, and was away on business, as was frequently the case.

The next day I planted the seeds. My high expectations were generously rewarded months later when the plants spread, overtaking the rutabagas. There was something oddly Darwinian about this, but I preferred to leave the speculation to employment-seeking botanists desirous of fame and fortune in the publishing business.

Yet on a particularly balmy night, I swore I could feel deep, earth-moving vibrations, but these were after sober reflection the epileptic convulsions of an ancient air-conditioner dying a solitary death.