Friday, July 16, 2010

Underbelly's First-ever Friday Cat Blog

While Mrs. B was taking a turn driving yesterday, I indulged myself with a few pages of Randall Jarrell's Pictures from an Institution, often billed as the best-ever academic novel. It is not, not least because it is not a novel: it is a series of tableaux, loosely connected with the barest of plot. Or anecdotes or, better still, one-liners--sharp, witty, carefully crafted, somewhat recherché. Not surprising, therefor that it is often gratuitously mean-spirited, though other parts exhibit a cheery generosity.

Among characters whom Jarrell seems to like best are the Rosenbaums, Gottfried and Irene--he an Austrian, she Russian. He's a musician, a composer in residence on Jarrell's fictional campus, lately arrived from Europe. The unnamed narrator dismisses what must be a tumultuous past with a gauzy indifference, making it clear that they've found their niche here in his little corner of America. The narrator is in general delighted with their (as it seems to him) courtly old-world manners. Here, he arrives to pay a call:
[T]here was a score on the floor, as usual, with two teacups beside it. (The house floated on tea and Rhine wine.) ...Irene and Gottfried shook my hand; like most Europeans, they gave the impression of wanting to shake hands with the cat whenever it came into the room-to shake hands and utter a short formal sentence that would express their genuine pleasure at getting to see Frau Katze again.

--Randall Jarrell, Pictures from an Institution 149
(University of Chicago Press ed. 1986)
For extra credit, address the question whether it is really true that Europeans look like they want to shake hands with the cat.

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