Monday, June 21, 2010

Food on the shirt

On his most recent trip to New York, the always dapper Levi Stahl bought a copy of Balzac's Treatise on Elegant Living. Here's a bit from Levi's recent post:

It's a lovely little edition, whose translator, Napoleon Jeffries, acknowledges right off the bat one's immediate objection: that Balzac, as evidenced by the photo below, was no dandy. I think there is food on his shirt!--and that's far from the worst of his sins against fashion in this photo!

As Jeffries explains in his brief but solid introduction:

Even those familiar with Balzac's novels may be initially taken off guard by the notion of that giant presenting himself as an expert on elegance--let alone a self-proclaimed originator of, to use his own coinage, the new science of "elegantology." Even more surprising may be the fact that Balzac considered himself something of a practitioner of the science. He was an odd manifestation of early French dandyism: taking his cues in dress from friends such as Eugene Sue and Lautour-Mezeray (both of whom make appearances in this treatise), Balzac proved to be more of a part-time dandy. The dandy memorialist Captain Gronow provided a particularly amusing assessment of the man's elegance in practice: "The great enchanter was one of the oiliest and commonest looking mortals I ever beheld; being short and corpulent, with a broad florid face, a cascade of double chins, and straight greasy hair . . . [he] dressed in the worst possible taste, wore sparkling jewels on a dirty shirt front, and diamond rings on unwashed fingers."

UPDATE: More Balzac (in Nicholson Baker's letter to John Updike, ca. 1985):

Your complete literary man writes all the time. It wakes him in the morning to write, it exercises him to write, it rests him to write. Writing is to him a visit from a friend, a cup of tea, a game of cards, a walk in the country, a warm bath, an after-dinner nap, a hot Scotch before bed, and the sleep that follows it. Your complete literary chap is a writing animal; and when he dies he leaves a cocoon as large as a haystack, in which every breath he has drawn is recorded in writing.

(“Balzac,” quoted in Richard B. Hovey, John Jay Chapman)

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(OK, this is Ed again.) Speaking of things that should be in block quotes: The passage from Devin McKinney's Magic Circles that ends my LAT review of Matt Kindt's Revolver should be set off from my own words. It's still messed up on the website. Which is to say, this passage is pure McKinney:

"Revolver" is multicolored music in a black-and-white wrapper, terse pop songs of dream, escape, cynicism, forebodings… By its exploratory nature an affirmation of life and possibility, a bold and radical advance upon the new horizon, the album was at the same time fourteen kinds of oblivion served on a Top 40 platter: nostalgic about what had been, and paranoid about what it saw coming.

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