John McPhee is, in my opinion, the world's greatest living writer of nonfiction — which makes his 1994 book The Ransom of Russian Art an enigma. Unlike every other work of his that I've read, Ransom is curiously disorganized in its structure and sporadically clumsy in its language. Perhaps a heavily-edited subset of it would have made a good brief article. Perhaps someone other than the McPhee whose words I worship was responsible for wrestling it into book format.

But in spite of all that, at intervals the McPhee I adore emerges. For example, here's a description of American professor (and Russian art collector) Norton Dodge's home environment:

On top of a small fire extinguisher on the kitchen wall at Cremona Farm are thirteen hats, hung there offhandedly, one upon another, each a sign of fresh arrival, each a distinct moment in epicranial time, as random and as ordered as any stratigraphy, and all belonging to Norton T. Dodge. One ignores, of course, the great formal portico and enters the house through the kitchen — a fairly large room, square, with a professional range, a countertopped island, a refrigerator six feet wide. There is topography in this kitchen — hills, valleys. Mail, for example, on the central island, appears to represent a wedge of time from the present backward two years. Spices in little unracked cans, enough for twenty farms. Bottles, boxes, bags in great profusion, contents half consumed. West of Anatolia, there may be no bazaar denser than Dodge's kitchen. On a corner table is a heap of newspaper clippings and other printed materials that date back — riffling reveals — at least seven years. What is all that? One can't help asking. "Inert stuff that needs to be processed," the owner says. "Meanwhile, the cat lies on it." Posted on the door to the kitchen porch are many bulletins. One lists a hundred and fourteen bird species seen on Cremona Farm in a six-week period twenty years ago.

The kitchen porch is long, narrow, glassed-in, full of canoe paddles and climbing vines. The table where Dodge works and takes his meals requires plowing to get down to surfaces level enough for the meals. Within the eight-year-old stack on a second table is a blackboard eraser, a book called "Self Management and Efficiency — Large Corporations in Yugoslavia," a three-year-old Washington Post, and a seven-year-old letter signed "Vladimir Urban."

Nancy Dodge has said of her husband: "Norton is a collector in all respects. Books. Magazines. Art catalogues. It's like living with the Sorcerer's Apprentice. If you clear a place it fills right back up.

... which reminds me, alas, of my desk!

(cf. SenseOfWhereYouAre (4 Jun 1999), WorldTradeCenter (11 Sep 2001), IndianRiver (30 Jul 2004), MardiGras (5 Oct 2005), ...)

TopicLiterature - TopicArt - 2006-04-26

(correlates: John McPhee, GovernmentJob, Kubota Logo Mystery, ...)