Obscure Birds #1

solsbury_eagleOn the left is Solsbury Hill, as viewed through the author’s bedroom window. On the right is an adornment to an 18th-century house in Batheaston, on the eastern slope of aforementioned hill. Yes, it looks like a turkey, but the building is called Eagle House. The imagination need not stretch to picture Peter Gabriel, circa 1977, passing the second item before climbing the first and later writing:

“Climbing up on Solsbury Hill

I could see the city light

Wind was blowing, time stood still

Eagle flew out of the night”

Love song

Last night I dined with SNAPPER scholar Ian Berlin, his wife Kim, and their dog G. Over an exquisite sausage casserole, Kim said:

“To me, SNAPPER is a love song in a country mode. The pickup truck breaks down, the dog won’t shut up, and the leading lady keeps running around. The object or muse or beloved of this song is the state of Indiana, and if she’s insulted on every other page, that’s just a convention of the form. The author can’t really be held responsible for that.”



‎”…American folk tales usually end with a “snapper” — that is, after starting with the plausible, they progress through the barely possible to the flatly incredible, then wait for a laugh. Magazine fiction used to follow — and much of it still does — a pattern leading to a different sort of snapper, one that calls for a gasp of surprise or relief instead of a guffaw. [Sherwood] Anderson broke the pattern by writing stories that not only lacked snappers, in most cases, but even had no plots in the usual sense. The tales he told in his Midwestern drawl were not incidents or episodes, they were moments, each complete in itself.”

— Malcolm Cowley, Introduction to Winesburg, Ohio (Penguin Classics)

More from Berlin

Ian Berlin, Director of the Centre for SNAPPER Studies, directs us to this item from a letter Mark Twain wrote to Joseph Twichell in 1898:

“Everytime I read “Pride and Prejudice” I want to dig her up and beat her over the skull with her own shin-bone.”

Mr. Berlin does not explain the relevance to SNAPPER. Personally I find it disconcerting that Twain and Austen might not be getting along up there, or wherever they are. So I was pleased to read, on Mr. Berlin’s recommendation, this VQR essay suggesting that given time, Twain and Austen would be sort of like Bogart and Hepburn in The African Queen.

Songs harmed in the making of SNAPPER

With 11 months until publication, we have a lot of blog space to fill here. Fortunately SNAPPER scholar Ian Berlin has gotten in touch to suggest periodic updates on his research into what he calls the “densely allusive texture of the work, ranging from Milton to Shakespeare to ZZ Top.” In what is either an example of outstanding critical acumen or inspired guesswork he has compiled a playlist of popular songs referred to either directly or obliquely in the text. He has promised to “unearth and elucidate the meanings and messages of the less obvious examples” at a later date, and to cover the more literary plagiarisms allusions as well. In the meantime, here are the results of his intensive research.

  1. LOLA, The Kinks
  2. MEET ME IN THE MORNING, Bob Dylan [note: Mr. Berlin draws your attention to the line “you know I’ve even outrun the hound dogs / honey, I’ve earned your love…” –Ed.]
  4. BANG BANG, by Cher, covered by Nancy Sinatra and later by Paul Weller
  5. APEMAN, The Kinks [note: presumably this is a Tarzan / Jane joke which Mr. Berlin will illuminate at a later date. –Ed.]
  6. PAINT IT BLACK, Rolling Stones
  7. BACK IN THE USSR, The Beatles
  8. MAMA TRIED, Merle Haggard
  9. MAMAS, DON’T LET YOUR BABIES GROW UP TO BE COWBOYS, written by Ed & Patsy Bruce, performed by Willie Nelson & Waylon Jennings [Within the SNAPPER text the first word of the title is dropped; Mr. Berlin does not comment on whether this is authorial sloppiness or what. — Ed.]
  11. I FOUGHT THE LAW (AND THE LAW WON), by Sonny Curtis, covered by The Clash
  12. I DON’T WANNA PLAY HOUSE, Tammy Wynette
  13. AIM HIGH, Paul Weller
Mr. Berlin kindly appended a link to Mr. Weller performing the last tune:


What is it like to be a bat?

Here is Thomas Nagel’s 1974 essay, What Is It Like To Be A Bat?, which I love.

Tim Birkhead has written a book called Bird Sense — What It Is Like To Be A Bird, and he riffs on Nagel here.

Nagel:Our own experience provides the basic material for our imagination, whose range is therefore limited. It will not help to try to imagine that one has webbing on one’s arms, which enables one to fly around at dusk and dawn catching insects in one’s mouth; that one has very poor vision, and perceives the surrounding world by a system of reflected high-frequency sound signals; and that one spends the day hanging upside down by one’s feet in an attic. In so far as I can imagine this (which is not very far), it tells me only what it would be like for me to behave as a bat behaves.”

Birkhead: “He [Nagel] chose bats because they are mammals and we share a lot of physiology and neurobiology with them, and because bats possess a sense most of us don’t have: echolocation. I suspect Nagel thought that no human can echolocate, but in fact some blind people do so extremely well, in some cases well enough to go mountain biking without serious injury.”

Kimberling: No, we can’t extrapolate what a bat’s experience is like, or another person’s for that matter; that is what fiction is for! When extrapolation and reason fail we tell stories. The alternative is giving up. Birkhead does a very nice sleight of storytelling hand above by suggesting that a blind person’s echolocation and a bat’s echolocation are similar. I suspect that phenomenologically that bird won’t fly. I look forward to reading his book, though.

Apparently great pianists divide most of their time between concert venues and hotel rooms. I had the great privilege of conveying Jeremy Denk from one to the other in 2009, with an hour’s detour through a dark and smelly Cornish pub. It had been fifteen years since we talked Henry James over a pool table in a dark and smelly Indiana bar. I told Jeremy that I was planning to write a book about a piano tuner. He suggested that I read Watt by Samuel Beckett, because it involves a couple of piano tuners. Fortunately I did not write the book I intended to write — I wrote Snapper instead. Unfortunately I did read Watt by Samuel Beckett. It feels like a book written by someone who hates books and hopes, by writing one, to sully the whole enterprise for everyone*. Now suppose Henry James kept a blog. We’re going in the other direction here. Henry has been magically transported to the Age of Bullet Points — slugs of hot info designed to penetrate the thickest skull, and pretty much the antithesis of every line he ever wrote. They’re the Dirty Harry of punctuation. Henry has read some blogging guides exhorting him to be concise, include pictures, charts, interactivity! To his calibrated sensitivities it is as though he has entered a semantic abattoir wherein shade, echo and implication have been hacked off and discarded heedlessly underfoot. Naturally he would attempt to blog in such a way that nobody after him would ever wish to blog again. Like Samuel Beckett torturing old forms to create new ones, Henry James would mangle and conflate new media into some older, richer and more ambiguous form of expression. I am ambivalent about this blog, and I don’t know what it will look like a year from now. It could be full of cat videos or it could be littered with semicolons. I do know that Jeremy’s blog Think Denk contains long lucid essays of the kind the internet is supposed to discourage, and enlightening musical samples that must be very time-consuming to make, and other delights — it’s a paragon of innovative blogging. This does not mean that my blog will resemble his blog in any way. But it’s where I’ll take my cue.

* “An unsatisfactory book, written in dribs and drabs,” wrote Beckett of Watt. Glancing through it again just now, it occurs to me that read in dribs and drabs it might be tolerable. Who can say no to six pages of convoluted legalese regarding six famished dogs?