Tuesday, September 27, 2005

I Get The Irony And You Will, Too

I like being Jewish. I'm not saying I am Jewish, but I'm not saying I'm not, either. But I really enjoy the whole Hebrew thing. The dreidel song, Chrismukkah, Heeb Magazine, the sweet sweet Pentateuch and a shicksa girlfriend. What's not to love? I leave my degree of Jewishness for others to decide.

Reading: By the time I was fourteen, I had read pretty much the entire Golden Age of mystery fiction (we were too poor to afford Monopoly), including Allingham, Marsh, Chesterton, Simenon, Van Dine, Stout, Rohmer and the great trifecta, The Christie, The Carr, and The Sayers. Once a novel was done, I moved on to the next one, rarely returning to the stories I'd already read—with one exception. I have never stopped reading the detective novels of Dorothy Leigh Sayers. As detective novels go, her books are solid and solvable, a lot like a healthy crossword on Sunday morning. There might be some bizarrely phrased clues, but focus on the details, and you'll quickly fill out the spaces. Well, one can do that with any good detective novel, can't one? The reason I keep returning to Sayers is simple; her books are uniformly excellent novels which happen to contain a mystery. And because her novels contain a mystery which will inevitably be solved, which must be solved if her hero is to be vindicated in his choices and lifestyle, the novel always concerns itself not only with crime and justice, but the effect which these two abstracts have upon the public and private individual. Unfailingly, the private individual achieves personal satisfaction by upholding his or her personal code, a code which is harmonious with the public good. Good character creates good citizenship. Sayers' principal creation is Lord Peter Wimsey, a sort of early Bruce Wayne. Like the aristocratic Wayne, Wimsey acts the boffin, spending his huge fortune on this or that opera girl, this or that swift super-car, this or that family servant. And also, like Wayne, Wimsey has a secret identity. Wimsey's soul was severely damaged in WWI, and he suffers from what we today would call shell-shock. Sayers, not content with giving Wimsey the literal authority of the peerage, gives him the authority of his actions: as one of the fighters in the front-lines, Wimsey has achieved a sort of moral authority over his fellow Britons. Naturally, Wimsey becomes an amateur detective. But Sayers, still not content with giving her hero only a hidden character, gives him a literal superhero identity in my favourite of her novels, Murder Must Advertise. But let's face it, the transition between daytime gormless Wimsey and nightime deadly Harlequin is awkwardly done, and if it wasn't for her extremely literary writing style, one would dismiss Sayers as the worst of Chesterton or Stout. But Sayers' skill would come to full flower in later novels like Unnatural Death, which confidently bridges the tricky gap between serious and silly in just a few phrases, and without switching costumes.

[Lord Peter] stretched his hand, and the hand's shadow flew with it, hovering over the gilded titles of the books and blotting them out one by one.

What a beautiful line. The smallest paragraph, and Sayers has successfully transformed the prince of non-sequiturs into a stern and Gothic ghost in the machine. Unnatural Death revolves around the untimely but unremarkable death of Agatha Dawson. The novel, however, is not about Agatha Dawson, but about death without conscience, crime without justice. The novel is about the successful crime, the murder which never made the papers, the theft which nobody missed. Lord Peter Wimsey does not know what he does not know, but he fears it. And he finds blissful ignorance out, and he drags it to the light of the law, and the guilty are punished for the death of the innocent. The last image in this novel is of Wimsey and a policeman making their way through an unnaturally dark June day, cold and raining. "What is wrong with the day?" Lord Peter asks, "Is the world coming to an end?". The policeman replies, "No. It's the eclipse". The world does not neccessarily becomes a better place merely because the wrong-doer is caught and punished. But with the wreckage cleared away like so many briars and thorns, the world now has a chance to become its ideal, to realize the personal code of honour and integrity which every individual owes society and which society, most of all, owes its citizens. The sun will come out again. Unnatural Death is an unnaturally good novel. It also happens to contain a mystery. Unnatural Death + Dorothy L. Sayers

Listening: "And the bears and bees and banana trees / Will play kazoos and tambourines / And Jesus will dance as we drink his wine / With soldiers and thieves and a sword in his side." I can't do better than to quote Sean's words on STG about the easy inevitable nature of the lyrics in this Page France song, especially as I never would have heard this song without his excellent website.

Okay, imagine you have a twig, a good brown twig the breadth of your thumb. And you snap it in half. And you throw the two pieces of twig to either side of a forest. And then a lonely person comes along and picks up one of the pieces of twig. He thinks life's meaningless and lame. He wanders. At the other side of the wood he idly picks up the other piece of twig. And look! Lo! They fit together! Just. Like. That. And for a long moment he's in awe of the way the world can just make things come together in the rightest way

Like everybody else, I first ran into Page France on Fluxblog, and I've been listening to "Chariot" ever since, but this song is better. Why don't you decide for yourself, though? Listen to "Chariot" and then listen to "Jesus" + Page France

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