She’s fly, she’s fresh, she’s def

In 1979, after he met Jackie O, Bruce Chatwin wrote to his wife, Elizabeth,

Escorting Mrs Onassis to the opera next Thursday. Met her again with the John Russells, and my God she’s fly.1

Best description of Mrs. Onassis ever? I think so. I was surprised to learn that this connotation of “fly” was of so early a vintage, but a writer in a discussion at Metafilter found an even earlier occurence in an O. Henry story of the first decade of the 20th century.

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[The Mysteries of Udolpho] is a kind of mystery-machine, of course, full of local puzzles and conundrums.

»Terry Castle, in her introduction to Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho. Oxford World’s Classics. Oxford, 1998.

Given that the solution to one of the novel’s puzzles is straight out of an episode of Scooby Doo, “mystery-machine” is an apt choice of phrase.

Le furryisme

One evening, I suddenly took a fancy to possess her in the middle of the drawing-room, with the chandelier and candles lit, the fire in the hearth, the chairs set out in a circle as if for a grand soirée, and with her in evening dress with her bouquet and fan, and all her diamonds on her fingers and round her neck, a headdress of plumes, the most splendid costume imaginable, and myself dressed as a bear. She agreed to it.

»Théophile Gautier. (Joanna Richardson, trans.) Mademoiselle de Maupin. Harmondsworth, Penguin Books, 1981.

Why, look at that! It’s a 175 year-old instance of furry sex!

Nice work, if you can get it

But most of the work he did on his own, just by putting himself in the right place and being smart, genial, attractive, and rich.

»Joan Acocella on Lincoln Kirstein. “Heroes and Hero Worship” in Twenty-Eight Artists and Two Saints : Essays. New York : Pantheon Books, 2007.

Goethe on Etna

… walks on foot through the most astonishing landscape in the world; treacherous ground under a pure sky; ruins of unimaginable luxury, abominable and sad; seething waters; caves exhaling sulfur fumes; slag hills forbidding all living growth; barren and repulsive areas; but then, luxurious vegetation, taking root wherever it can, soars up out of all the dead matter, encircles lakes and brooks, and extends its conquest even to the walls of an old crater by establishing there a forest of noble oaks.

»Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe. (W.H. Auden and Elizabeth Mayer, trans.) Italian Journey : 1786-1788. San Francisco, North Point Press, 1982.

Another kind of crowd

Of course it probably helped that Harold [Brodkey] went to almost every literary party and spent hours on the phone every day with Don DeLillo, Harold Bloom, Dennis Donoghue. DeLillo told him the way to stop worrying about death was to watch a lot of television.

»Edmund White. City Boy : my life in New York during the 1960’s and ’70s. New York : Bloomsbury, 2009.

Sturrock on Queneau

[Queneau] was a great reader and a great maker of lists, given from childhood on to the pleasures of tabulation. In January 1945, a month like any other, he records having read thirty-three books in thirty-one days, on literature, history, art, mathematics, physics, travel, plants and other subjects besides. There was more to this gluttonous programme, however, than the replenishment of an unusually encyclopaedic mind, for in the objectivity that reading demanded he looked to find relief from the anxious self-concern that otherwise afflicted him. There was, as he recognized, a strong, and uncomfortable, element of willed mental distraction in this piling up of impersonal knowledge.

»John Sturrock on Raymond Queneau in The Word From Paris : Essays on Modern French Thinkers and Writers. London: Verso, 1998.