Wednesday, August 23, 2017

`Reading's Civilizing Effects'

Knowing readers stock a sub-library of reliably consoling volumes that can be opened to any page and read anywhere, under any conditions short of blindness. They are the books Max Beerbohm calls “dippable-into.” Think Burton and Boswell. High on the list is The March of Literature (1938), the last of the eighty books Ford Madox Ford published during his life, a 900-page survey subtitled From Confucius’ Day to Our Own. First, a few samples by the self-described “old man mad about writing.” Here Ford nicely characterizes the best of eighteenth-century English prose:

“In Gibbon we come upon a figure very different in timber from any of the other eighteenth century littérateurs, save only Richardson – and Johnson, if you can persuade yourself to think of him as a writer and not merely as a dancing bear, growling numbers in and out.”

And here, Keats the writer, not Keats the wraith:

“Before Keats alone, of all these poets—except Christina Rossetti—the impatient prose writer must sheathe his scalpel. Before the century closed—and even in the hands of Landor—prose had become the only keen instrument of the scrupulous writer. But the verbal felicities and labors of Keats placed him not infrequently beside any prose writer that you like to name. And in words he was a perfectly conscious and perfectly self-critical artist.”

Even when he’s wrong, Ford is interestingly wrong which is preferable to being boringly right. He spent 1937 and 1938 lecturing at Olivet College in Michigan, and writing The March of Literature. In the second volume of his Ford Madox Ford: A Dual Life (1996), Max Saunders describes Ford’s compendium as “an impressionist textbook, in that it creates the illusion of orderly literary history in order to subvert and detemporalize it.” Well, maybe. It’s too spirited and anecdotal to be a textbook and I don’t think Ford is subverting anything. He’s organizing enthusiasms. Saunders quotes a letter about the book Ford wrote to his English publisher, Allen & Unwin, in which he expresses astonishment at how “readable” the classics now seem to him:

“I found myself for instance reading the Book of Job, Orlando Furioso, or Chaucer’s Palamon and Arcite [The Knight’s Tale] as if they were to say Mrs. Agatha Christie and, trying to rest my mind with light literature, I found myself  turning to Dante’s Paolo and Francesca as being more restful company . . . .”  

During the writing, Ford was sixty-four years old and ailing, but some days he worked at the manuscript for fourteen hours. He was dead thirteen months after publication. Saunders gets The March of Literature, as many readers and critics have not: “Its postures and opinions are less the indulgence of tastes than a captivating demonstration of what it means to read, and of reading’s civilizing effects.”

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

`Lucid or Devious'

“It is not that what happens to writers is more remarkable than what happens to the rest of mankind, merely that through them we may see ordinary events more vividly because we have glimpses of how they appeared to minds exceptionally lucid or devious, and can measure how little separates such minds from our own, when it comes to the ordinary business of living.”

I grew up romanticizing writers, as writer-wannabes do. Few dream of someday becoming septic-tank cleaners, though the work is steadier, the pay sometimes better and you get to work outdoors. We grant writers special powers few of them possess. As a group, it’s impossible to draw general conclusions about them. Some don’t even write. The author of the statement above, C.H. Sisson, suggests writers “may see ordinary events more vividly,” and thus help us do the same. No writer does that consistently, which is a good argument for reading widely and, probably, unsystematically. Take Tolstoy, the scene in War and Peace (trans. Constance Garnett) in which Prince Andrei is wounded at the Battle of Borodino:

“`Can this be death?’” Prince Andrei wondered, with an utterly new, wistful feeling, looking at the grass, at the wormwood and at the thread of smoke coiling from the rotating top. `I can’t die, I don’t want to die, I love life, I love this grass and earth and air . . .’

“He thought this, and yet at the same time he did not forget that people were looking at

“`For shame, M. l’aide-de-camp!’ he said to the adjutant; “what sort of . . .” He did not finish. Simultaneously there was a tearing, crashing sound, like the smash of broken crockery, a puff of stifling fumes, and Prince Andrei was sent spinning over, and flinging up one arm, fell on his face.”

That scene is as vivid as any in fiction and has stuck with me since I read it as a kid (in the Maude translation). It shapes how I think about trauma (say, an automobile accident), the way we sometimes experience a sense of calmness, clarity and neutral remove (“an utterly new, wistful feeling”) in the middle of it. Tolstoy confidently enters Andrei’s consciousness and shares it with his readers, and confirms Sisson’s observation that some writers enable us to “see ordinary events more vividly because we have glimpses of how they appeared to minds exceptionally lucid or devious.” Most of us will never experience war first-hand, but we all know the “ordinary business of living.” So much for the lucid Tolstoy. That leaves the “devious” Tolstoy, riding one of many hobbyhorses, preaching, lecturing, needling readers like a soapbox crank on his cause du jour -- vegetarianism, vows of poverty, pacifism, sexual abstinence. The later Tolstoy is most often annoying and unconvincing. As Sisson puts it, “how little separates such minds from our own.” Sisson is profligate with insights. In this case he is reviewing volumes of letters by Cowper and Hardy, and two other volumes, and formulates an interesting, no-nonsense approach to collections of letters:    

“In the end letter-writing is valuable less for its clues to the supposed personality of the author than as a form of literature in itself, subject to the same tests: Does it please us? Is it elegant? Does it appear to enlighten us as to a world beyond itself? – questions which I dare say are not allowed those who credit theories, political and otherwise, as to exactly how ‘texts’ should be read. The more fumbling reader would no more think of having theories about how to read books than about how to understand his friends.”

Monday, August 21, 2017

`Not Without a Good Deal of Resistance'

“One’s literary taste probably always begins in prejudice and instinctive allegiances.”

How does one move from obsessive reading and rereading of Edgar Rice Burroughs, to uncomprehendingly consuming the pornography of William Burroughs, to violently rejecting both in favor, at age sixteen, of a new but lasting devotion to Chekhov and Henry James, all in the span of less than four years? Hormones are part of the explanation. An evolving capacity for pleasure and a willingness to challenge one’s stubborn laziness and ignorance. In short, a general maturation, involuntary and otherwise. The evolution I describe is mine but some readers will recognize in it their own readerly rites of passage.

The excerpt quoted at the top is from a letter Anthony Hecht wrote on Aug. 21, 1992, to Alan Hollinghurst, then deputy editor of the Times Literary Supplement. The subject is Tennyson but the name of almost any writer with whom we have a history might be substituted. My own dealings with Tennyson reflect Hecht’s in a funhouse mirror. “Like many others of my generation in America, I was initially put off by my sense of Tennyson as the `representative’ and `approved’ Victorian poet, whom the Queen herself admired—a fact that filled me with complete distrust.” After all, nothing is more dubious when it comes to books (and most everything else) than official approval. With an early interest in the Arthurian legends (now mercifully extinct), I discovered Idylls of the King. Then “The Charge of the Light Brigade,” “Break, Break, Break” and other anthology warhorses. Then, with the onset of a bad case of Modernism, I chucked Tennyson and others of his supposed ilk. Today, Tennyson is pure musical pleasure, ripe for out loud recitation, a maestro of sound in the same orchestra as Milton, Pope and Keats. Call it informed hedonism. How literary taste and tastes can evolve across a reading lifetime is nicely limned by Hecht:

“[Tennyson’s] poems, accordingly, seemed to me not quite human, and the music seemed full of Romantic virtuosity, a sort of extended work of Brahms conventionalized by Elgar. . .. It was Auden and Ransom who taught me respect for Hardy [for me, it was Larkin], and by that route I eventually made my way back to the Tennysonian domain. But it was not without a good deal of resistance.”

Hecht’s letter is useful in understanding how today’s judgments have a history and may be less than eternal. Only a thinking reader, one whom Nabokov called a “creative reader,” understands fashions in reading, the tyranny of critics and how some writers elude final understanding.

[The Selected Letters of Anthony Hecht, ed. Jonathan F.S. Post, The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013]

Sunday, August 20, 2017

`Both Incite a Chuckle'

“I was at church as the grave Father, and behaved tolerably well, except at first entrance when Emma in a whisper repressed a nascent giggle. I am not fit for weddings or burials. Both incite a chuckle.”

Who comes to mind as the likely author of this confession? Hardy? Hardly. Carlyle? Don’t be ridiculous. No, this admission has “Charles Lamb” stamped all over it. He is writing on this date, Aug. 20, in 1833, to Louisa Badams, née Holcroft (whom Lamb addresses elsewhere as “Badman”). Her husband, John Badams, was a friend of Carlyle (who two years earlier had written that Lamb was “in some considerable degree insane. A more pitiful, ricketty, gasping, staggering, stammering Tom fool I do not know.”) The editor of Lamb’s letters, E.V. Lucas, tells us in a footnote that John Badams was “a manufacturer and scientific experimentalist of Birmingham, with whom the philosopher [Carlyle] spent some weeks in 1827 in attempting a cure for dyspepsia.” It didn’t work, at least on Carlyle.

 “Emma” is Emma Lamb Moxon, née Isola, the orphaned daughter of Charles Isola, who was adopted by Charles and his sister Mary Lamb. On July 30, Emma had married Lamb’s friend Edward Moxon. Lamb continues in his letter to Louisa Badams:

“Emma looked as pretty as Pamela, and made her responses delicately and firmly. I tripped a little at the altar, was engaged in admiring the altar-piece, but, recalled seasonably by a Parsonic rebuke, `Who gives this woman?’ was in time resolutely to reply `I do.’ Upon the whole the thing went off decently and devoutly.”

Devoted readers of Lamb may recall something comparable had happened twenty-five years earlier, at another wedding -- William Hazlitt’s. Lamb’s chuckles were encouraged by the conspicuous fact that Hazlitt’s bride, Sarah Stoddart, was pregnant. Seven years after that ceremony, Lamb wrote in a letter to Robert Southey:

“. . . I am going to stand godfather; I don’t like the business; I cannot muster up decorum for these occasions; I shall certainly disgrace the font. I was at Hazlitt’s marriage, and had like to have been turned out several times during the ceremony. Anything awful makes me laugh. I misbehaved once at a funeral.”

Saturday, August 19, 2017

`So They're All Tough Guys'

“Takes getting used to, three foxed S-O-B’s
Whose best lines run across the page like scars
Carved in the tree of us healing crookedly
Over the dead foliage of who we are.”

In real life, “foxed S-O-B’s” are not my type but I’m a sucker for them in print. Our author plays with “foxed.” In books it means the brownish-yellow stains left by time on the page. And beer turned sour is said to be foxed, and a drunk is foxed. Wyatt Prunty’s trio can’t be read without leaving a reasonably indelible mark. How many writers stick in memory, if not whole verbatim lines then phrases or vivid impressions? “Extravagant Love” showed up among the new poems in Wyatt Prunty’s Unarmed and Dangerous: New and Selected Poems (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000). His three were newly dead – J.V. Cunningham and Philip Larkin in 1985, Howard Nemerov in 1991. Each, especially Cunningham and Larkin, was intolerant of cant, the lubrication of our lives, and of the lazily sentimental. Each played the role of lie-detector and truth-teller. Prunty refers to Larkin’s “The Old Fools,” with its indictment of the old with their “air of baffled absence.”

In an interview Prunty gave William Baer, published in The Formalist in 2001, he says of the poets named in “Extravagant Love”: “Those writers used an acid bath to distill their subjects and get down to what’s essential and truthful. They wanted each of their poems to hold up in the way that Howard [Nemerov] describes in `Lion & Honeycomb’ when he says:

“Just for the sake of getting something right
Once in a while, something that could stand
On its own flat feet to keep out windy time . . .”

Nemerov’s poet aspires to leave behind “words that would / Enter the silence and be there as a light.” All three of Prunty’s poets did it more than once. He goes on in the interview:

“Cunningham did it with an economy of wit. Howard would shock you not only with wit, but also with harsh statements, humor, and all kinds of other things, to shake up sentiment and the reader’s expectations. As for Larkin, he often seems so scathing and contemptuous, but in fact, I think he’s actually quite compassionate about the people he’s discussing, but he’s absolutely determined not to be sentimental in any way. So they’re all tough guys, and they all applied a tough, intellectual rigor to their subjects that often seems a kind of harshness towards others. But I think it was a conscious aesthetic method they used to avoid sentimentality, not an indication of disdain for their subjects.”

J.V. Cunningham’s fifteen-poem sequence To What Strangers, What Welcome (1964) is subtitled A Sequence of Short Poems. It forms elliptical narrative which he elsewhere distills like this: “A traveler drives west; he falls in love; he comes home.” It’s probably the best verse he ever wrote, and begins like this:

“I drive Westward. Tumble and loco weed
Persist. And in the vacancies of need,
The leisure of desire, whirlwinds a face
As luminous as love, lost as this place.”

The operative phrase is “vacancies of need.” Cunningham fashions a westbound film noir travelogue, as in the sixth poem:

“It was in Vegas. Celibate and able
I left the silver dollars on the table
And tried the show. The black-out, baggy pants,
Of course, and then this answer to romance:
Her ass twitching as if it had the fits,
Her gold crotch grinding, her athletic tits,
One clock, the other counter clockwise twirling.
It was enough to stop a man from girling.”

The speaker, back home in the East, concludes the sequence with this:

“Identity, that spectator
Of what he calls himself, that net
And aggregate of energies
In transient combination—some
So marginal are they mine? Or is
There mine? I sit in the last warmth
Of a New England fall, and I?
A premise of identity
Where the lost hurries to be lost,
Both in its own best interests
And in the interests of life.”

The sequence chronicles, for adults, the journey of a middle-aged man. This is what Prunty means by “an economy of wit.”

Friday, August 18, 2017

`Scarcely Readable by Women'

“Despite his accesses of feverish emotionalism, the face that he showed for the most part to the world was humorous and cynical, the face of a man who was both well aware of, and perhaps capitalized, his oddity, with a sardonic smile wrinkling his hollow consumptive cheeks.”

Pardon the surfeit of adjectives. The author is Peter Quennell, writing about Laurence Sterne in Four Portraits: Studies of the Eighteenth Century (the other three being Boswell, Gibbon and Wilkes), published in 1945. Sterne’s stance is a familiar one. The jolly-good-fellow mask is useful, especially when fitted with the sardonic smile option. Like Keats and Chekhov, Sterne spent much of his life dying of consumption. The composition of Tristram Shandy (1759-67), begun at a late-blooming age of forty-six, transformed Sterne’s life. Soon after the early volumes were published and became bestsellers, Sterne was the toast of society, a sought-after and very amusing guest. Quennell describes Sterne’s discovery of his gift for language and story:

“Once he had begun, it was as if he were transcribing or remembering pages he had already written; and indeed there was little in the subject-matter of the book he had to fetch from outside, since it was the progress of his own mind and the history or legends of his own family that he was recording upon paper.”

Sterne understood he was in a race with death. Like oxygen-rich blood in the arteries, only the ceaseless flow of words could keep him alive. As Quennell puts it, “Sterne always heard the rush of the time-stream, carrying himself and his personages towards extinction, and made haste to pin down the impression made by one instant before it blurred into the next.” This accounts for the uncannily modern feel of Sterne’s novels (including A Sentimental Journey Through France and Italy). Reading Melville, Ford, Joyce and Nabokov before Tristram Shandy had given me a more elastic sense of what a novel could be, and prepared me for reading Sterne. “His plan, therefore, was to have no plan,” Quennell tells us, which has encouraged legions of neo-Sterneans to write planlessly and tediously, unburdened with Sterne’s genius. As Tristram explains:  “. . . but, in my opinion, to write a book is for all the world like humming a song—be but in tune with yourself, madam, ’is no matter how high or how low you take it.”

Not everyone is amused. Dr. Johnson, in 1776, huffed: “Nothing odd will do long. Tristram Shandy did not last.” In Specimens of the Table Talk of Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1836), in an entry for this date, Aug. 18, in 1833, Coleridge offers a curiously mixed appraisal:

“I think highly of Sterne--that is, of the first part of Tristram Shandy: for as to the latter part about the widow Wadman, it is stupid and disgusting; and the Sentimental Journey is poor sickly stuff. There is a great deal of affectation in Sterne, to be sure; but still the characters of Trim and the two Shandies are most individual and delightful. Sterne's morals are bad, but I don't think they can do much harm to any one whom they would not find bad enough before. Besides, the oddity and erudite grimaces under which much of his dirt is hidden take away the effect for the most part; although, to be sure, the book is scarcely readable by women.”

Thursday, August 17, 2017

`Literary Tastes Peculiar to Myself'

The Library of America has just published the Diaries of John Quincy Adams in two volumes. I know Adams as a learned man, well-read and curious, and if his name turned up in a trivia game I could report that he was the first U.S. president to be photographed and that he believed the president could single-handedly abolish slavery using his war powers (as the union was in danger of dissolution over the issue). I also knew Adams, like many educated men and women of his time, judged Dr. Johnson a sage or moral authority.

You can gauge a reader’s true commitment to a writer less by the number of overt citations (which may be nothing but showing off) than by unsignaled allusions. In October 1812, during Napoleon’s invasion of Russia, Adams was in St. Petersburg as the first U.S. minister to that country. Adams expresses confidence in Napoleon’s defeat and writes: “—Or rather Providence, (such is my belief) after using him for the purposes he is destined to answer, will exhibit him like another invader of Russia, `to point a moral or adorn a tale.” The tag is from “The Vanity of Human Wishes,” and was also a favorite of Stevie Smith’s. The Diaries are peppered with such casual references.

In March 1835, Adams tells us he walks to Capitol in the afternoon. This follows his term as president (1825-1829) and comes during his time as a Congressman from Massachusetts (1830-1848). He found two volumes of Swift’s work in the Capitol library, and looked for “the passage cited in Johnson’s Dictionary under the word Executive, but could not find it – I found however several references to Hobbes’s opinions, and examined the Folio Volume of Hobbes’s Works, till 3 O’Clock when I was obliged to leave the Library, which is closed at that hour . . .”

In March 1837, Adams pays another visit to the Capitol library, where he “took up the second Volume of Matthias’s Edition of [Thomas] Gray’s works, and wandered over it till the clock struck three and warned me to depart.” He finds in Gray an analysis of Plato (“which I had no time to examine”), moves on to the poet’s letters and considers Gray’s “Ode on the Spring.” Here he pauses to make a point that will puzzle some dedicated readers: “I have literary tastes peculiar to myself, and the correctness of which I distrust, because they differ from the general voice.” He assesses his fondness for Gray:

“There is no Lyric Poet of antient [sic] or modern times, who so deeply affects my feelings as Gray – Every one of his Odes, is to me an inestimable jewel, and nothing in all Dr. Johnson’s writings is so disgusting to me, as his criticisms upon themthe progress of Poesy and the Bard are the first and second Odes that were ever written—Dryden’s Alexander’s feast, Horace’s Carmen Seculare and Collins’s Passions pari passu come after—Pindar’s Pythics are admirable and Anacreon is charming as a songster—But the progress of Poesy, is the point of the Pyramid—the first of Odes—as the Church yard is the first of Elegies—Yet I have read scarcely any thing of Gray, except the very small collection of his Poems, and these two thick Quarto’s of his works are almost all news to me—Why is it that I must reproach myself for an hour given to them as wasted time?”