Tuesday, June 03, 2008

A Real Find

The bad news is, this will be a long post. The good news is, much of it will be written by Wilfrid Sheed, not me.

I first heard of Sheed (or first noticed hearing of him) last year, when Allen Barra wrote about him at Critical Mass. (I use the same photo of Sheed that Barra did, because it’s a great one. I also, like Barra, include a laundry list of Sheed excerpts below, because he speaks for himself better than we ever could.) Barra wrote: "No other American critic – and certainly no other American-English-Australian-Irish critic -- of my generation has had such catholic (small c intended) tastes and range as Wilfrid Sheed. No other critic approaches his ability to synthesize the vast literature on a subject or to illuminate a writer’s oeuvre in a short starburst of words."

I’m almost done with Essays in Disguise, a collection that is one of the best things I’ve ever read. I’ve already bought six more of his books (two more collections of criticism and essays, a memoir about his parents, a book about his life as a baseball fan, a novel, and a book of two novellas -- much of his work is out of print, so this windfall was thanks mostly to the world’s best bookstore). The confidence of my early opinion is strengthened by the fact that the essays in Disguise are drawn from different years and various sources. If this was just one stretch of a book, I might attribute its sustained brilliance to freakish luck. But it’s obvious that Sheed can write about anything, anytime.

Most of the pieces are terrific from start to finish, so it’s misleading -- but ultimately too tempting -- to lead with his one-liners. Here’s a sample:
To batter his way up through Harvard and the world he needed vanity, and vanity displaces humor in precise ratio.

It seems (Lowell) was strictly a line poet, string them as you will, so that his poems are like all-star teams that haven’t practiced together.

(Berryman) and Schwartz had once talked with contempt of writers who drown their talent in booze, but both would now proceed to do so themselves, having badly misjudged the undertow.

In general, comic essayists tend to work with the same worn deck of cards, getting their effects with small variations of patter and style.

The area around a skinflint’s wallet is like an inflamed rash that he has been warned not to touch.
He’s also consistently wonderful with openings. Here are five:
Sad things can happen when an author chooses the wrong subject: first the author suffers, then the reader, and finally the publisher, all together in a tiny whirlpool of pain.

Jean Stafford’s memorial service was almost as ironic as she was.

As with God in the late Middle Ages, all that there is to know about the Mafia seems to be known by now except whether it actually exists.

Prejudices are probably bad things to have, however much fun they seem at the time.

“Pride, Anger, Lust . . . no, I mean Envy, Covetousness, Lust . . . and (pause for mind to empty completely) did I mention Lust? That makes seven, doesn’t it?” Naming the deadly sins is uncannily like trying to remember the seven dwarfs. The first person to say “Doc” three times figures he’s made it.
But here are three examples of slightly longer excerpts, to even things out.

On reading James Thurber:
Looking back, I can see now that any one of a dozen books would have done the trick as nicely -- just as any one of a dozen girls would have done for the Perfect Affair (if you hadn’t met Maud first). But The Thurber Carnival had the great virtue of being there: a routine case of “the time and the place and the loved one together.”

I can’t even remember our first meeting -- probably in the back of some little bookstore, the two of us surrounded by dust beams and old men reading with umbrellas between their knees. But I remember my predicament very well indeed. I was looking desperately for an antidote to England, particularly to the sound of England.
On one of those deadly sins:
Sloth, like the other deadly no-no’s, becomes acutely uncomfortable after the first fine flush, and -- sure proof of its sincerity -- frequently works against your own interests. It not only won’t pay your bills, but it won’t fill in applications for grants or phone up appropriate women. It won’t even close windows when you’re freezing to death. It is stoical because it is too lazy to be anything else.
On the autobiographical work of S.J. Perelman:
Years of writing the Mock-Ornate had left him almost as ill at ease with the straight sentence as W.C. Fields. “He (Nathanael West) openly disliked the swollen dithyrambs and Whitmanesque fervors of orgiasts like Thomas Wolfe, and the clumsy, unselective naturalism of the proletarian school typified by James Farrell repelled him equally” -- that’s quite a swollen dithyramb in its own right, reminding one of what’s supposed to happen to children who make faces. Perelman’s prose was distorted like a pitcher’s elbow from unnatural use.
It's a shame that Sheed isn't around as a regular critic anymore. At 77, and after suffering various illnesses over the years, I get the impression that he's on the verge of full retirement. His most recent book did just come out in paperback, but it was his first in more than a decade. It seems his most prolific years were from the mid-1960's to the late 1980's, and I suppose Sheed's OK with that. After all, he wrote the following, in an essay called "The Twenty-Year Itch":
Kurt Vonnegut gives writers twenty years of prime, and it’s dismayingly hard to think of exceptions. Whether they start the meter late, like Shaw or Conrad, or early, like Fitzgerald, or even stop it in the middle, like Tolstoy, it runs for about the same twenty years.

Which means that one’s prime is not a function purely of age but of some finite source of energy inherent in the profession itself.


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