Tuesday, September 18, 2018

'With a Pious Abstraction'

“It was Johnson’s custom to observe certain days with a pious abstraction; viz. New-year’s-day, the day of his wife’s death, Good Friday, Easter-day, and his own birth-day.”

We passively endure such days, if we recognize them at all. For Dr. Johnson, all were sacred, demanding to be solemnly and privately observed with prayer and meditation. Today his spiritual regimen might be diagnosed as symptomatic of depression or obsessive-compulsive disorder. The observation quoted above is from Boswell, who goes on to cite Johnson’s diary entry from this date, Sept. 18, in 1764. It was his birthday. He was turning fifty-five and had another twenty years to live:

“He this year says:—‘I have now spent fifty-five years in resolving; having, from the earliest time almost that I can remember, been forming schemes of a better life. I have done nothing. The need of doing, therefore, is pressing, since the time of doing is short. O GOD, grant me to resolve aright, and to keep my resolutions, for JESUS CHRIST’S sake. Amen.’”

Johnson was forever resolving and failing to remain resolved. This makes him hopelessly human, like us. He fumbled through life, reproached himself and fumbled again, lending his genius credence. We don’t feel intimidated when listening to him. His failings are ours. Later in the same diary entry, in a ritual repeated throughout his life, Johnson spells out a list of commands himself. Among them:

“To read the Scriptures. In hope in the original Languages. Six hundred and forty verses every Sunday will nearly comprise the Scriptures in a year.

“To read good books. To study Theology.

“To drive out vain scruples.”

The editors of Diaries, Prayers, and Annals (Yale University Press, 1958) note that Johnson’s Scriptural reading plan is “not in itself formidable.” A year earlier on Easter he had read the 879 verses in the Gospel of St. John. We don’t know if Johnson stuck to the plan. Most of the following year was devoted to work on his edition of Shakespeare. Otherwise, he published only two reviews – by his customary standards, an idle year. What impresses me about these diary entries are Johnson’s efforts to sacralize daily living. Anything might provide fodder for spiritual observance. Charles Lamb is a very different sort of writer and man, but I hear a distant echo of Johnson’s commitment in Lamb’s “Grace Before Meat,” one of the Elia essays:

“I own that I am disposed to say grace upon twenty other occasions in the course of the day besides my dinner. I want a form for setting out upon a pleasant walk, for a moonlight ramble, for a friendly meeting, or a solved problem. Why have we none for books, these spiritual repasts -- a grace before Milton -- a grace before Shakespeare -- a devotional exercise proper to be said before reading the Fairy Queen?”  

Monday, September 17, 2018

'The Strange Loves of Martha Ivers'

The Houston Public Library held a book sale Saturday morning at a nearby middle school. I arrived without expectations and thus left without disappointment, untempted by a single title. Strictly bestsellers, textbooks and library rejects. While I was looking at the fiction carts, an Asian kid, about thirteen, was standing next to me. He was seriously examining a boxed edition of Katherine Mansfield’s stories, and I felt a moral obligation to steer him away from a decision I’m certain he would have lived to regret. I picked up a hardcover of Bernard Malamud’s The Fixer and suggested he read it instead of the Mansfield. My meddling didn’t seem to alarm him, and a man I judged to be his father looked on. After much perusing of both volumes, the boy reshelved the Mansfield, kept the Malamud and thanked me. His father smiled and nodded. I may have changed a life.

I ran into John Dillman, the owner of Kaboom Books, which is just a few blocks from the school. He noted that the sale was doubly depressing: there was little worth buying (he took home three volumes) and the library was gutting its collection yet again. I must have been feeling a lingering case of post-traumatic book disappointment because on Sunday I felt the urge to visit John’s bookstore, and my decision proved therapeutic. I found a copy of V.S. Pritchett’s first book, Marching Spain (1927), which I have never read. Next, the Akadine Press reprint of Evelyn Waugh’s Robbery Under Law: The Mexican Object-Lesson (1939), my favorite among his travel books (if it's not Labels, published in 1930, or Remote People, in 1931). And two titles by Rebecca West: A Train of Powder (1955) and a first edition of The Court and the Castle (1957). I’ve read the former, not the latter. West entered my pantheon years ago with Black Lamb and Grey Falcon (1941).

John and I had our usual rambling conversation. It started with one of his favorite novels, Dino Buzzati’s The Tartar Steppe (1940) -- he has the first edition of the English translation priced at $350 -- and shifted into Svevo, Lampedusa, Calvino, Levi and Elsa Morante. I asked if he was related to the actor Bradford Dillman, who died last January and turns out to have been his cousin. We moved on to Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas, and the latter’s work in The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, followed by a discussion of the word “milquetoast” and, for some reason, the history of barbed wire and its use by the Italians during World War I.

Sunday, September 16, 2018

'A Good Night for Mothing'

Friday morning around 6:45, on the sidewalk outside the entrance to the building where my office is located, was an exquisitely beautiful moth, so colored and finely grained I might have mistaken it for a small wooden ornament, polished and painted like a broach or toy. I went inside and asked a colleague, Doni Soward, to photograph it:

It was a tersa sphinx moth (Xylophanes tersa), a nectar-feeder several hundred yards from the nearest flower, nearing death, presumably attracted by the lobby lights shining through the glass doors. I remembered the beautiful final paragraph of Nabokov’s Bend Sinister (1947), which loops delicately back to the novel’s opening paragraph:

“Across the lane, two windows only were still alive. In one, the shadow of an arm was combing invisible hair; or perhaps it was a movement of branches; the other was crossed by the slanting black trunk of a poplar. The shredded ray of a streetlamp brought out a bright green section of wet box hedge. I could also distinguish the glint of a special puddle (the one Krug had somehow perceived through the layer of his own life), an oblong puddle invariably acquiring the same form after every shower because of the constant spatulate shape of a depression in the ground. Possibly, something of the kind may be said to occur in regard to the imprint we leave in the intimate texture of space. Twang. A good night for mothing.”

Nabokov tells us an editor questioned whether “mothing” was a typo for “nothing.” It was not. Otherwise, the novel would have had a most un-Nabokovian finish.

Saturday, September 15, 2018

'Vessels of Very Limited Content'

I haven’t shaken the notion that Robert Louis Stevenson was a writer of children’s books. I read Kidnapped, Treasure Island and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde as a boy, around the time I first read Robinson Crusoe and Gulliver’s Travels, though I’ve never thought of the latter as books written for kids. Perhaps it’s a matter of marketing or of Defoe and Swift’s essential seriousness. Neither thought he was writing for children. I’ve tried several times to read Stevenson’s other work, including his letters. I hated none of it and don’t recall boredom, but somehow Stevenson never took. I question my judgment because Henry James befriended him, admired his work and called him “an indispensable light.” James and Stevenson started as mutually admiring correspondents. They met at Bournemouth in 1885. Two years later, Stevenson left England for the last time, and in 1894 he was dead at age forty-four.

I’ve made another effort to work up enthusiasm for Stevenson. At least in the abstract, my favorite literary form is the essay, so I returned to a little brown volume published by Charles Scribner’s Sons in 1911, Essays of Travel and in the Art of Writing, and read “Books Which Have Influenced Me” (1887). For Stevenson – not surprisingly for a novelist – most influential are works of fiction:

“They repeat, they rearrange, they clarify the lessons of life; they disengage us from ourselves, they constrain us to the acquaintance of others; and they show us the web of experience, not as we can see it for ourselves, but with a singular change—that monstrous, consuming ego of ours being, for the nonce, struck out.  To be so, they must be reasonably true to the human comedy; and any work that is so serves the turn of instruction.”

Stevenson’s experiences echo my own and his observations are remarkably similar to something Joseph Epstein writes in “A Literary Education: On Being Well-Versed in Literature” (A Literary Education and Other Essays, 2014):

“. . . if any inkling about the way the world works and the manner in which human nature is constituted were to be remotely available to me during my stay on the planet, I should have the best chance of discovering it through literature, and perhaps chiefly through the novel. The endless details set out in novels, the thoughts of imaginary characters, the dramatization of large themes through carefully constructed plots, the portrayals of how the world works, really works—these were among the things that literature, carefully attended to, might one day help me to learn.”

Stevenson offers Shakespeare perfunctory praise, but how do you say anything original about your debt to him? About “works of art,” Stevenson writes, “little can be said; their influence is profound and silent, like the influence of nature.” He rightly describes Montaigne’s Essays as “a book not easily outlived,” and the list continues: the New Testament, Leaves of Grass, Herbert Spencer (!), The Story of Goethe’s Life by George Henry Lewes (Mr. George Eliot), Martial, Marcus Aurelius, Wordsworth and George Meredith. As an afterthought he adds Hazlitt, Thoreau and William Penn’s aphorisms.

Like any true reader, Stevenson’s tastes are varied and inconsistent, and offer other true readers plenty to argue about. His conclusion is humble and humbling:

“. . . after all, we are vessels of a very limited content.  Not all men can read all books; it is only in a chosen few that any man will find his appointed food; and the fittest lessons are the most palatable, and make themselves welcome to the mind.  A writer learns this early, and it is his chief support; he goes on unafraid, laying down the law; and he is sure at heart that most of what he says is demonstrably false, and much of a mingled strain, and some hurtful, and very little good for service; but he is sure besides that when his words fall into the hands of any genuine reader, they will be weighed and winnowed, and only that which suits will be assimilated; and when they fall into the hands of one who cannot intelligently read, they come there quite silent and inarticulate, falling upon deaf ears, and his secret is kept as if he had not written.”

Friday, September 14, 2018

'Verbal Felicity is the Fruit of Ardor'

“Now is there such a thing, I would like to ask, as intrinsic attraction that can surmount indifference to technique? I doubt it. Rigor here is essential, and not the mortuary kind, but the studious kind, can be our salvation.”

Without peeking, what’s your best guess as to who wrote these sentences? Henry James? Makes sense. Rhythmically paced, tricky syntax, a little finicky. Guy Davenport? “Not the mortuary kind” sounds like him. Clearly we’re dealing with a writer given to precision, wit and attention to musicality – prose written like poetry without turning “poetic” in the purple sense. Does this, from the next paragraph, help?: “I want to talk about words, and about how one can hold people’s attention.” The author in question is the poet Marianne Moore, one of my favorite writers of prose, whose acknowledged model was James. Elsewhere in The Complete Prose of Marianne Moore (ed. Patricia C. Willis, 1986) she refers to “the geometrically precise snow-flake forms of Henry James,” and I assume Moore is admiring James’ prose exactitude and elegance.

The quoted passage at the top is from Moore’s contribution to Harvard Summer School Conference on the Defense of Poetry (1951). The previous year, Moore had attended the event alongside, among others, John Crowe Ransom, Robert Lowell and Theodore Roethke. Her title is written in mock-eighteenth-century style: “Impact, Moral and Technical; Independence Versus Exhibitionism; and Concerning Contagion.” She talks about her current project, translating La Fontaine’s fables (to be published in 1954), and translation in general, and then ruminates on something Peter Viereck had said:

“I have a very special fondness for writing that is obscure, that does not quite succeed, because of the author’s intuitive restraint. All that I can say is that one must be as clear as one’s natural reticence allows one to be.”

Moore is cunningly reticent while commenting on her own reticence, and perhaps James’. “Terseness,” she writes, “and that simultaneous double meaning of the pun have been irresistible to writers always.” A customary quilt of quotes follows: Robert Bridges, Stendhal, Katherine Anne Porter, Paul ValĂ©ry, Auden, Shaw. And then she concludes: “My observations cannot be regularized, but I might summarize them by saying that I believe verbal felicity is the fruit of ardor, of diligence, and of refusing to be false.”

Thursday, September 13, 2018

'Grazing Idly in a Literary Pasture'

For no good reason I’ve read very little by Donald Hall, who died recently at age eighty-nine. Partly out of guilt I resolved to read at least one of his books. Almost at random I took Principal Products of Portugal: Prose Pieces (1995) from the library shelf, because I liked the title’s non sequitur. He explains his choice of title like this:

“. . . code for things miscellaneous, unrelated, boring, and probably educational. The title should please not only for its prodigious procession of p’s but for its metrical Longfellowship, bringing back memories of ‘This is the forest primeval, the mur- ’—and rote recitation standing in the third grade doing the multiplication tables, 7s maybe, or maybe the principal products of Portugal.”

This is a man who ought to have run a blog. The thought is confirmed by a number of Hall’s essays, which usually avoid academic mummification on one side and folksy jolly-good-fellowism on the other. Hall’s voice is casual and conversational but he never whispers the lousy writer’s lament: Love me. Love me. Take “Long Live the Dead,” originally published in that well-known scholarly journal the Boston Globe. From the title you would never guess it was devoted to Hall’s love of Edward Gibbon. He starts with this:

“Really, disinterested reading—reading by whim or chance, without conscious purpose—contributes most to a writer’s interest. Grazing idly in a literary pasture, we discover manners of language alien to our habit, which allow us new invention. If we stick to what we already know, we stick to what we already do.”

As an undergraduate, Hall had tried to read Gibbon, he says, “but I never took him in.” In late middle age he tried again, and everything was different: “I took him in whole, headlong, in an ecstasy of disinterested reading. I read nothing for months but Gibbon, poleaxed by rhythms, by syntax that branched like a maple, by irony administered through sentence structure.” Hall’s experience with Gibbon resembles my own. I tried when young, succeeded at age forty-seven. Now I periodically revisit, using the notes I took as a guide. Hall and I share another late-life revelation:

“Reading Gibbon I discovered the pleasure of reading two books at once. While I studied the decline and fall of Rome, I also attended to the mind of the later eighteenth century.”

And, of course, as is always the case when rereading, another book is added to the stack, for you will recall scraps of your previous readings, and the sort of person you were. Every book in the hands of a thoughtful reader is a palimpsest. Hall says Gibbon sent him back to the Greek and Roman historians, and then to Hume, Macaulay (“whose gorgeous prose expends itself in sentimental pursuit”) and Henry Adams. Perhaps history is an old person’s preserve after all. Hall credits Gibbon with “drawing my attention to neglected possibilities of language, especially long controlled sentences in which syntax (enforcing its own drumbeat or rhythmic dance) provides or enables judgment. And Gibbon encouraged me to depart from the imitation of common speech. . . . The tone of a vocabulary establishes a vocabulary of tone.”

I enjoy reading what a poet has to say about prose. We like to assume his awareness of language and its potentials and limitations is informed, perhaps privileged. Not always the case, of course, but here’s something Hall writes in another essay in Principal Products of Portugal, devoted to Henry Adams:

“Among the great historians, Henry Adams’s style does not call attention to itself so much as the styles of Gibbon, Macaulay, and Parkman—not to mention (as I suppose) Tacitus or Thucydides. But it is no glass of water.”

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

'Within the Bounds of Your Beliefs'

Anthologies have always served as the private tutors I never had. A good anthology is suffused with its editor’s virtues and peccadillos, both of which are valuable. Comprehensive and yet personalized, it includes material you would expect alongside surprises. Every anthology I’ve ever read had something wrong with it, some galling omission, and I’ve come to think of that as a virtue. It makes you appreciate what you’ve already read and often sends you back to it with a renewed sense of gratitude.

In the case of Mark van Doren, who edited The Oxford Book of American Prose in 1932, his most blatant failure is leaving out Ulysses Grant, whose Personal Memoirs are written in the plain style by a former soldier who valued precision and concision. After Lincoln, he is the finest writer who ever served as U.S. president (I’m not forgetting the Founders). Van Doren includes Lincoln’s well-known letter to Grant written on July 13, 1863, with its magnanimous closing sentence: “I now wish to make the personal acknowledgment that you were right, and I was wrong.”

Among his laudable and unsurprising choices are three chapters from Moby-Dick, one from Twain’s Life on the Mississippi, one from Henry Adams’ History of the United States, and one from Henry James’ The American Scene. The last is the chapter devoted to Charleston, S.C., in which James asks, in some of the grandest prose written by an American:

“How can everything so have gone that the only ‘Southern’ book of any distinction published for many a year is The Souls of Black Folk, by that most accomplished of members of the negro race, Mr. W. E. B. Du Bois? Had the only focus of life then been Slavery?--from the point onward that Slavery had reached a quarter of a century before the War, so that with the extinction of that interest none other of any sort was left.”

In his preface, van Doren tells us he purposely included no selections from writers born in the twentieth century. He includes passages from Willa Cather’s The Song of the Lark (1915), George Santayana’s Reason in Society (1905) and Mencken’s Prejudices series. There’s no Hemingway, Faulkner or Fitzgerald but you’ll find Eliot’s “Tradition and the Individual Talent” and Ring Lardner’s “I Can’t Breathe.” The names of several contributors were new to me. Most interesting is Edgar Watson Howe (1853-1937), an Indiana-born journalist who edited a magazine, E.W. Howe’s Monthly. Van Doren includes a selection of aphorisms excerpted from Ventures in Common Sense (1919), with an introduction by Mencken. Howe writes like a slightly anemic Mencken:

“No man may write interestingly and keep within the bounds of your beliefs. He must occasionally go so far as to pleasantly shock you, and cause the uncomfortable feeling that a good man cannot follow him all the way. The author who aims to write nothing offensive to anyone presently writes only hymns and leaflets explaining the Sunday school lesson; and then only children read him; and they read him because they will be scolded if they do not.”

Well, yes, but Mencken wrote it more colorfully. Van Doren’s anthology is about prose, not poseurs.