La Torre Guinigi - photo by Juliet Clark
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Dying is easy. Comedy is hard.

The Warm South by Paul Kerschen

“God knows how it would have been — but it appears to me — however, I will not speak of that subject.”
- John Keats to Charles Brown, November 30, 1820

Fiction begins in mean-spirited gossip, and the fictional career of “John Keats” began in 1818 when Blackwood’s Magazine cast him as little Sirrah Aguecheek, sticky sidekick to Leigh Hunt’s insolent Master Belch. Three years later, Keats’s death provided Percy Bysshe Shelley with Adonais, whose preface described a fluffy duckling skewered mid-peep, ne’er to reach full-fledged quackery.

These two accounts largely (and inaccurately) agreed on the facts of the case, differing by the tone in which they pronounced it “pathetic.” The magazine’s Keats was a bad poet who published bad poems, received bad reviews, and died badly; Shelley’s Keats was a promising poet who did the same. As Blackwood’s and Lord Byron feared and Matthew Arnold lamented, Shelley’s deflected self-pity won undisciplined hearts and minds, and the Martyrdom of Saint Mawk supplied a low-impact model for sad underbred poetic youths until punk duckling Rimbaud finally edged it out.

In post-Victorian fiction, Rudyard Kipling’s Medium-is-the-Medium short story “Wireless” transmitted Keats’s voice to 1902, but all it could find to do was recite a bit of “The Eve of St. Agnes” before fading into static. At much greater length at the other end of the century, Dan Simmons used Keats as the props department for a series of super-science space sagas, and a Keats-shaped token made the midpoint shit-is-getting-real sacrifice in The Stress of Her Regard, Tim Powers’s Lives of the Poets with Vampires. Anthony Burgess’s more delicate reinterpretation of literary history, ABBA ABBA, hung a series of elaborate set-pieces from Mr. Finch’s account of the dying Keats’s uncooperative mood and the dying Keats’s own account of compulsive punning. More recently, Andrew Motion mulled a drowsy muddle of reincarnation and/or transmission and/or alternative history in The Invention of Dr. Cake.

None of these “Keats” characters resembled the “Keats” in my head; none of these Keats stories satisfied me as storytelling. And that bothered me not at all; I didn’t particularly expect or crave a believable Keats in a satisfying fiction. Writers are people so extraordinarily dull that they need to put themselves through the ridiculous fuss of writing and publishing merely to make anyone notice them at all. Why should we turn to a pillow-bellied mimic of Henry James when the original had so much more incentive to hold our attention? Gluing a fake nose on Nicole Kidman is its own reward; why drag poor Virginia Woolf into it?

The Warm South taught me what was missing from the previous two hundred years of John Keats stories and why I should have missed it.

All of them shared at least one characteristic besides the nominal presence of “Keats”: immobility. Their Keatses consist of funeral orations, Royal Academy paintings, quotations, checklists, and holographic freeze-frames of that-living-hand. Blackwood’s goofus was hopeless from the start; the hottest action in Adonais was Shelley flipping the Mourn / Don’t-Mourn switch. Tim Powers drew a loopy narrative line, but it connected the dots which had been printed long before. And Motion’s heavy concentric Victorian frames unleashed all the narrative force of an after-dinner speech at the Keats-Shelley Association. To repurpose Jeffrey C. Robinson’s summary of a hundred verse tributes, they were “driven not by Keats’s life or by his poems but by his death; Keats is that poet who by definition died young.”

It’s true enough that John Keats was besieged by death from childhood, and in good sad underbred poetic youth fashion he indulged occasional suicidal fantasies (Chatterton being the definitionally dead poet of his generation). But he was never une nature morte; allowing for the constraints of wealth, health, and family, he careened and caromed as wildly as Byron or Shelley, and, lazy though the Keats children might have been by nature, he refused to stay still when it would be the wisest course of inaction. You might be certain that he wouldn’t follow good advice or accept assistance gracefully, but past that all bets were off. “He would not stop at home, he could not quiet be.”

The Keats in my head was, if anything, that poet who by definition made mistakes. Of course, many of us have made more and larger mistakes than Keats could manage. But Keats seemed unusually enthusiastic about the prospect and more determined to be content with the result. It was a way to go adventuring on the cheap, to elevate unprovisioned circumstances into self-earned manly independence.

“I refused to visit Shelley, that I might have my own unfettered scope.”

“I will write independently. I have written independently without Judgment. I may write independently, and with Judgment, hereafter. The Genius of Poetry must work out its own salvation in a man: It cannot be matured by law and precept, but by sensation and watchfulness in itself.”

“I feel that I make an impression upon them which insures me personal respect while I am in sight whatever they may say when my back is turned.”

Paul Kerschen’s Keats convinced me by making Keatsian mistakes in a Keatsian manner. And although it might sound odd, his Keats carried even more conviction for having changed. Death should be, after all, a life-changing experience, and one rarely survives one’s mid-twenties without some self-definitional trait being revealed as ballast; it’s the age when, for example, most sad poetic youths stop writing poetry.

In pre-posthumous Keats’s letters and his circle’s memoirs, we encounter an instantly charming young man: warm, forthright, engaged, generous, even pretty in a peculiar way. Byron and the Keatses’ icy guardian, Richard Abbey, were immune, or allergic, to his appeal, but more appear to have been susceptible. And we also encounter a moody, thin-skinned abandoned child: distrustful, paranoid at times, misanthropic and misogynistic, and quick to break his most fervent attachments.

During his last summer, Keats began to note his own role in this repeated drama: “I am in the wrong, and the world is in the right, I have no doubt. Fact is, I have had so many kindnesses done me by so many people, that I am cheveaux-de-frised with benefits, which I must jump over or break down.”

The benefactors responsible for his Italian trip and Roman residence would have piled such chevaux past overlooking or misinterpretation. But rather than letting this new clarity break his established cycle, the novel’s post-posthumous Keats redirects his distrust inward: he’s not so manic, not so prone to gush puns and bouts-rimes and fill all available verbal space to sustain engagement between those abrupt retreats.

Environmental changes, also, would put adaptive pressure on Kerschen’s subject. Rebirth drops Keats into an impoverished, repeatedly conquered and divided land, with little command of the language, no family, no funds, and a great deal of debt — albeit the countable debts of a middling sort rather than the transfinite debts of the rich. Counter-revolutionary reaction blankets Europe; science is sedition; incarcerations and executions are frequent and fast; and by year’s end democratic movements in Italy and Spain are as dead as Napoleon. The insecure upper crusts fail to imagine how life might be managed without servants; on the other side of that unfathomable gulf, the division between those who hire laborers and those who wait to be called, between beggars and those who pass by beggars, is very thin indeed.

One might reasonably ask if this is the sort of world to bring a new (or renewed) life into. The novel’s most experienced resurrectionist, Mary Shelley, was less than sanguine about the procedure’s prognosis. Having tended the deathbeds of mother, brother, and utter strangers, Keats himself rejected heroic measures, and the final horror of his short nonfictional life came when Joseph Severn overrode his advance directive.

Presume then, for the sake of review-reading, that Kerschen’s machinery works and Keats Lives. Should Keats live?

A third into The Warm South, we reach a “Is he really...? Did he really...?” sort of passage and feel generic ground shift a bit. Nothing that breaks the surface, mind; Keats doesn’t don a domino to thwart the reactionary terrorism of the Scarlet Pimpernel, or collaborate on a prophecy titled Content-Purveyor “K” Anno CCXXVII. Aside from one spontaneous remission of end-stage pulmonary tuberculosis, Kerschen sticks to the rules of well-researched historical fiction; the closest we come to meta is Lord Byron’s public denunciation of well-researched historical fiction.

Instead, as pages turn and narrative focus glides, an increasing sense of artifice rises from the arrangement of incidents. Some situations which might find simple resolution instead become more complex — which, I admit, in the context of the Lives of the Second-Gen Romantic Poets remains strictly naturalistic. Less predictably, situations which might resolve tragically do not always do so, and some tragedies we vaguely recollect seem delayed, or have we passed them by entirely?

And mistakes? Mistakes all the way down. In certain times and places — maybe most times and places, maybe even all — success is out of the question. At best, we might have a choice of failures.

Which tempts us to call any move, any sign of life, worthless, pointless. But having been placed in a game whose outcomes exclude lasting worth, its non-attainment can’t reasonably be considered a loss of points: by definition, we can only lose what’s at stake and build with what’s available. Therefore the game at hand, overhead, underfoot, in our blood and in our bellies, beyond reach of resignation, calls for a different scoring system. How well were our failures intended? How immediately damaging were our attempts? In the past, or elsewhere, what happened when failed attempts were not made?

Closing a fannish review, twenty-two-year-old Keats apostrophized Edmund Kean, “Cheer us a little in the failure of our days! For romance lives but in books.”

Unlike our days, our books have the benefit of choosing their end. Adjust the trim, and a self-cast Hamlet or Timon might be revealed as Telemachus, or Viola’s brother. And The End may determine the genre: death delimits a proper biography, for example.

A proper comedy begins in sorrow and ends with a hat trick of happiness. As for its sequel — well, we learned how that goes when John Marston checked in on the rom-com marriage of Antonio and Mellida and found the bridegroom on a killing spree. We know the chorale of forgiveness which ends The Marriage of Figaro won’t prevent further transgressions and retaliations, and if we didn’t, Beaumarchais reminded us in a third play. To reference the lore of my own rustic childhood, when Luft Stalag 13 survivors convene, they don’t analyze Colonel Hogan’s fatal sexual drives or Frenchie’s Algerian atrocities — they retell that time they really put one over on Klink.

The Warm South ends, in a chorus of forgiven indebtedness, where its characters would have ended their retold story.

I’m grateful to Kerschen for telling it the first time. It comes as a balm in the failure of our days; not a cure, but a welcome tonic. As Edmund Kean, I think it was, said, “Infirmity, that decays the wise, doth ever make the better fool.”


I wrote the above to work some things out. For Music & Literature, I wrote this review. I thank editor Daniel Medin for the opportunity and his guidance.

. . .

Twenty Years of Hot One-on-One Action cum grano salis

The first photograph showed a naked ameba, fat and replete with food vacuoles, splashing lazily and formlessly at the bottom of a metal tank in the completely relaxed state that precedes reproducing.

The second was like the first, except that a trickle of salt water had begun down one side of the tank and a few pseudopods had lifted toward it inquiringly. To leave nothing to the imagination, a sketch of the sodium chloride molecule had been superimposed on the upper right corner of the photograph.

In the third picture, the Gtetan was ecstatically awash in the saline solution, its body distended to maximum, dozens of pseudopods thrust out, throbbing. Most of the chromatin had become concentrated in chromosomes about the equator of the nucleus. To an ameba, this was easily the most exciting photograph in the collection.

- from "Party of the Two Parts" by William Tenn (AKA Philip Klass)

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Gosh, I like the Internet: Mr. Waggish surveys the past twenty years from a different vantage point (and incidentally alerts us to two new translations of the Musil work I reread most often). Jessie Ferguson shares lovingly bitter gleanings from a twenty-year gaze into Ingeborg Bachmann's Malina. Two Dutch translators present a convincingly anti-scholarly argument for a revised Finnegans Wake (which was published eight years later, very affordably, by Oxford). My favorite institutionally-funded "blogs" (nasty jargon for "weblogs," which one would have thought nasty-jargon enough as is) compare swallows and strangles among Ibsen translators. At the Public Domain Review, Jé Wilson relates the long history of French male delight in female decapitation and skull-hammering. Justin E. H. Smith considers the beaver. The Neurocritic triggers a bloom of cognitive sparks. Matt Cheney knocks around one of those west/burst years. Michael Peverett hits the road and British rails with Paul Simon and Terrance Hayes. ("America" is one of the three Paul Simon songs I like, but it always embarrasses me too. Puerility well-conveyed remains puerile. [PULL IN YOUR HEAD - WE'RE COMING TO A MISE EN ABYME])

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Big business monkeys: Hoping to get lucrative stock options from a computer science degree is like hoping to get rich parents from an M.B.A.

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A Valediction of his carbon footprint

Since thou and I sigh one another’s breath,
Whoe’er sighs most is cruellest, and hastes the other’s death.

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Our Motto: If you build it, they will route the highway around it.

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In production: Leopold & Loeb: The Birth of Modernist Epic from the Classicism of Amateurs

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She's only a bird in a feathered cage.

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Theme from The Vanishing

He was a grave digger
One way passage, oh
It took me so long
To find out
But I found out

(The best story in the anthology which published my first story was a "don't believe in Beatles" affair. I guess that's not very interesting but at least the story was.)

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Your link to "I buried Paul" on on your "Bobbettes" page of 2003/04/28 must be changed to the official site for Paul and Jane Bowles as the site is NOT accurate and does not have the endorsement of the official site, which also serves as the official Jane Bowles site. The site is but one of numerous domains bought up by an English couple who never even wanted to meet Bowles during the 20 years they have visited Morocco. No one who knew the Bowleses personally, nor any other authoritative site, links to

Thank you for changing this to, which was established by the literary and musical heirs of the estate of Paul Bowles.

Best wishes,
administrator and webmaster for

We regret any inconvenience.

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Ba-lue Mun-deii Ur-rah-tah: Reggie Hall says Perry Mason sold shoelaces. But that's not so. He sold Sweetheart Soap.

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I've at least ensured that my wasted life was no great loss. If 'tweren't done, 'tweren't best done cheaply.

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Critics rave

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"Pleasure is no fun."

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Maxwell's Noodge

Much light may be thrown on some of these questions by the consideration of stability and instability. When the state of things is such that an infinitely small variation of the present state will alter only by an infinitely small quantity the state at some future time, the condition of the system, whether at rest or in motion, is said to be stable; but when an infinitely small variation in the present state may bring about a finite difference in the state of the system in a finite time, the condition of the system is said to be unstable.

It is manifest that the existence of unstable conditions renders impossible the prediction of future events, if our knowledge of the present state is only approximate, and not accurate.

It has been well pointed out by Professor Balfour Stewart that physical stability is the characteristic of those systems from the contemplation of which determinists draw their arguments, and physical stability that of those living bodies, and moral instability that of those developable souls, which furnish to consciousness the conviction of free will.

Having thus pointed out some of the relations of physical science to the question, we are the better prepared to inquire what is meant by determination and what by free will.

No one, I suppose, would assign to free will a more than infinitesimal range. No leopard can change his spots, nor can any one by merely wishing it, or, as some say, willing it, introduce discontinuity into his course of existence. Our free will at the best is like that of Lucretius's atoms,—which at quite uncertain times and places deviate in an uncertain manner from their course. In the course of this our mortal life we more or less frequently find ourselves on a physical or moral watershed, where an imperceptible deviation is sufficient to determine into which of two valleys we shall descend. The doctrine of free will asserts that in some such cases the Ego alone is the determining cause. The doctrine of Determinism asserts that in every case, without exception, the result is determined by the previous conditions of the subject, whether bodily or mental, and that Ego is mistaken in supposing himself in any way the cause of the actual result, as both what he is pleased to call decisions and the resultant action are corresponding events due to the same fixed laws. Now, when we speak of causes and effects, we always imply some person who knows the causes and deduces the effects. Who is this person? Is he a man, or is he the Deity?

If he is man,—that is to say, a person who can make observations with a certain finite degree of accuracy,—we have seen that it is only in certain cases that he can predict results with even approximate correctness.

If he is the Deity, I object to any argument founded on a supposed acquaintance with the conditions of Divine foreknowledge.

[...] But singular points are by their very nature isolated, and form no appreciable fraction of the continuous course of our existence. Hence predictions of human conduct may be made in many cases. First, with respect to those who have no character at all, especially when considered in crowds, after the statistical method. Second, with respect to individuals of confirmed character, with respect to actions of the kind for which their character is confirmed.

If, therefore, those cultivators of physical science from whom the intelligent public deduce their conception of the physicist, and whose style is recognised as marking with a scientific stamp the doctrines they promulgate, are led in pursuit of the arcane of science to the study of the singularities and instabilities, rather than the continuities and stabilities of things, the promotion of natural knowledge may tend to remove that prejudice in favour of determinism which seems to arise from assuming that the physical science of the future is a mere magnified image of that of the past.

- from "Does the progress of Physical Science tend to give any advantage to the opinion of Necessity (or Determinism) over that of the Contingency of Events and the Freedom of the Will?" as delivered by James Clerk Maxwell to the Eranus Society at Cambridge on 11th February 1873

My preferred analogy for the power of conscious agency is a single voter in a US presidential election, but I guess that wouldn't work in the U.K.

. . . before . . .. . . after . . .