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Matthew Schmitz

As I rode the train to DC for Yuval Levin’s lecture last week, I read Haunted Castles, a volume of gothic stories by Ray Russell. The volume includes his famous sibilant tales, Sardonicus, Sagittarius, and Sanguinarius, as well as Comet Wine, the story of the world’s greatest unknown composer. All are memorable and finely wrought (one of Russell’s characters says “my preferences, as you know, have always been for the baroque”; so too with the author). Russell was also the author of The Case Against Satan, a thriller that turns on questions of faith and doubt that has been newly reissued by Penguin Classics. Look for a review in First Things.

When I got back on the train to New York the next day, I opened the book that Matthew Walther had just given me at the end of a long lunch. The Chatto Book of Cabbages and Kings, edited by Francis Spufford (have you read his article in the November issue of First Things?), is a strange and delightful proposition: a compendium of lists in literature drawn from Cardinal Newman, the SCUM manifesto, and, well, I won’t list them all.

On Friday I flew home to Nebraska for the opening day of deer season. On the plane, I read Barbara Pym’s Excellent Women, a book that a certain twitter guru has long urged on her followers (in the fullness of time, she will expound her cult's esoteric mysteries in the pages of First Things). It is, in fact, a pretty good book. Many of the characters seem to object to the plot—they want it to end in a marriage involving the protagonist; she demurs. Who needs a wedding when there's ever drier and darker humor to carry one to the end?

While I flew home to New York, I read Sarah Ruden’s Paul Among the People. It’s been years since I’ve read a book that has made me this excited about scripture. She compares each of Paul’s most problematic statements—on slavery, women, marriage, homosexuality—with what other Greco-Roman authors has to say on those topics. The contrast that emerges is stark. Abusive systems of prostitution, pederasty, and slavery that other authors only wink at, Paul joyfully upturns. Just how did women wearing a headcovering in church advance what is now drearily called “social justice”? You’ll have to read Ruden to find out. Oh, and you’ll soon have the chance to read Ruden on other matters in First Things.

Back in Manhattan, I cozied up with Martin Mosebach’s The Heresy of Formlessness. It’s an unfortunately harsh title for what is a charming and good-humored (though definitely opinionated) book on the nature of worship. Mosebach is mainly concerned with the uneven fortunes of the Catholic liturgy after the Second Vatican Council, and he builds his case for a return to the Latin mass by admiringly discussing his Bible-reading Protestant father, the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, and even the insights of a Mongolian shaman. Mosebach is a novelist, and his prose shines in the more narrative items here, particularly “Tradition’s Avant Garde” and the excerpt from A Long Night. I’m dismayed that no New York bookstore has a copy of the first novel of his to be translated into English, What Was Before. Amazon, deliver it, and me!

Alexi Sargeant

Did you hear the one where . . . ? Paul Menzer has heard it. He's heard the one with the drunk Richard III, the one with the fat Ghost of Hamlet's Father stuck in the trapdoor, the one with the father-daughter pair playing Romeo and Juliet, the one where Othello's makeup rubs off on Desdemona's face to give her a beard. In fact, he's probably heard several variations on any given Shakespearean anecdote, a handful verifiable, but most patently recycled, exaggerated, or apocryphal—yet somehow, in Menzer's paradoxical view, no less true. 

What he's set out to do in his Anecdotal Shakespeare: A New Performance History is not simply catalogue these scurrilous or whimsical bits and bobs of backstage gossip. Instead, Menzer's subtitle proclaims his hope that he can erect A New Performance History out of this “fugitive chronicle of exploding wigs, loutish drinking, petty rivalries, and priceless put-downs.” For Menzer, the anecdote is a subtle breed of theatre criticism, a way for actors to say what plays come close to but never quite say about themselves: tales of incestuous Romeo and Juliet casting make the couple as shocking to us as they'd be to the Montagues and Capulets; stories of ghosts that are too, too solid give us a humorous version of Hamlet's disgust with the flesh.

Moreover, he notes that anecdotes repeatedly deal with productions going off the rails, as actors break character and characters break the fourth wall. Menzer points out there's a million variations on a story where Guildenstern goes off-script by relenting to Hamlet's repeated request that he “play upon this pipe” and trills out “God Save The Queen”—which of course causes the English audience to rise from their seats. Disrupting the play's progress is the point of many anecdotes, because “no one lives more teleologically than actors, obligated by their occupations to live out the whole journey every Tuesday throughSunday night, and twice on Saturdays.” Anecdotes seem to cluster mainly around tragedies, and thus serve as comic miracles defeating (or at least delaying) the fated, bloody end. “Every anecdote is a bleat of protest, a resistance against the dramatic death wish. And if that sounds overly melodramatic, we're talking about actors.”

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