Monday, July 28, 2014

`He Took a Cold Bath Each Morning'

“By his early twenties his knowledge of literature and history was so impressive that his Piccolo cousins dubbed him il monstro, the monster. Nearly all his reading, except for Russian novels, was done in the original language. As a child he had learnt to read Italian, French and German, and later on he had acquired English: he had read all of Shakespeare before visiting England in the twenties and must have been one of the first Italians to penetrate Joyce. Giuseppe later compared literature to a forest where it was important to investigate everything, not just the large trees in isolation but the undergrowth and wild flowers as well.” 

The reader in question is Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedua (1896-1957), as described by David Gilmour in The Last Leopard: A Life of Giuseppe di Lampedusa (1988). His only novel, Il Gattopardo (The Leopard), was published in 1958, the year after his death, and became both a bestseller and recognized as one of the great historical novels of the twentieth century. Luchino Visconti’s film version came out in 1963. 

Lampedusa’s father was the Prince of Lampedusa and Duke of Palma di Montechiaro. He was an aristocrat and his grand theme was the decline of the Sicilian aristocracy and the rise of the lower orders. Lampedusa wrote other works but The Leopard, based largely on the life of his great-grandfather, Don Giulio Fabrizio Tomasi, also a Prince of Lampedusa, sustains his literary reputation. As the quoted passage above suggests, Lampedusa was devoted to literature and read widely. The Leopard is often compared not to Joyce or Proust – writers he much admired – but to the cool realism of Stendhal and Tolstoy. One way to think about The Leopard is as a pan-European Italian novel. 

Lampedusa was thoroughly familiar with English literature and judged Jane Austen the greatest of all female writers. He admired Dickens, Emily Brontë, Hardy, Thackeray, George Eliot and Disraeli. Gilmour tells us “the quality he liked most about the English was their sense of humour. Once again this was a characteristic of their literature which ran all the way from Chaucer to Evelyn Waugh. He thought nonsense verse very funny and argued that `anyone incapable of laughing at a limerick basically understands nothing about England and its literature.’” Unexpected is Lampedusa’s valorization of Dr. Johnson. Gilmour reports that “one of [Lampedusa’s] favourite pictures” was Sir Joshua Reynolds’ 1756 portrait of Johnson in the National Portrait Gallery in London. The biographer reports: 

“We know that he saw London not as a tourist in Trafalgar Square but as a reader of Dickens and Dr. Johnson. For Giuseppe, Johnson was the quintessential Londoner, `a countryman in exile’ who each Sunday went out to the country, had a picnic on the grass and returned to the City with a bunch of wild flowers.’ [Gilmour is quoting a lecture on England prepared by Lampedusa].” 

Of all the Englishmen Lampedusa admired, the two who “incarnated their country” – interesting pair – were Johnson and Isaak Walton (in particular the latter’s biographies of Donne and Herbert). The Italian thought Johnson’s character “embraced all the country’s national peculiarities.” Lampedusa was praising England when he called it “the country least governed by logic,” a quality offset by an innate capacity for common sense. Keep in mind these words were written by a Sicilian. Gilmour paraphrases Lampedusa when he writes: 

“He was also humorous, scrupulous and unconcerned with appearances; he might have dirty fingernails or forget to polish his shoes, but he took a cold bath each morning and changed his shirt every day. Above all he was phlegmatic and…a master of understatement. Lampedusa once recounted to friends how Johnson, after being robbed and injured by thieves, had described the affair as a lively exchange of opinions. `Any of us Sicilians,’ he commented, `would have screamed, “They have killed me!’”

Sunday, July 27, 2014

`His Step was Plantigrade'

Early One Morning in the Spring trails one of those long, extravagantly explicit subtitles more characteristic of books today and in the eighteenth century than in 1935: Chapters on Children and on Childhood as It Is Revealed in Particular in Early Memories and in Early Writing. The contents of the volume are likewise anachronistic by contemporary standards. One can hardly imagine a publisher in 2014 bringing out a light-hearted but serious six-hundred-page anatomy of childhood combining elements of essay, encyclopedia, anthology and literary criticism. Walter de la Mare’s book is a ramble, not a treatise. The Faber and Faber edition I borrowed from the library is the sixth impression, from 1949, and the book remains in print. Someone has been reading it (though, in my library edition, not since 1956, the year of de la Mare’s death). He takes children seriously, as few adults do. The obvious explanation for his gift is that the poet retained some essential child-like component in his adult nature, a component that passes away in most of us, like baby teeth or a cowlick. He published thirteen volumes of poetry for children and some thirty story collections. In his introduction to Early One Morning, de la Mare writes: 

“Most adults...are at least friendly to childhood and to children. With a benevolent eye they watch their gambols, are amused at their primitive oddities, give what they suppose to be the countersign, and depart. A few take children as they take one another, just as they come, welcome them for what they are, refrain from making advances, and are gladly admitted on these terms into the confraternity. The very few—as few in books as in life—have the equivalent of what the born gardener is blessed with—a green thumb. He can pluck up a plant and without the least danger examine its roots. However delicate his specimen may be, his cloistered wizardry will succeed in bringing it into flower.” 

De la Mare frequently skirts sentimentality, the obvious risk a writer runs when writing about children. But sentimentality is merely the obverse of contempt, a quality almost absent in de la Mare. He likes kids, often understands them, and would seem to enjoy their company. He accepts that some children are nearly as rotten as adults. He devotes a chapter to “Bullies,” a familiar feature of every childhood (and adulthood) from every era, a type as abidingly human as liars and thieves. He begins: “Queer-looking or eccentric children, of looks or ways, that is, not acceptable to their contemporaries—long noses, shock-hair, `carrots,’ prominent ears, tallow skin, the knock-kneed, the bow-legged, the splay-footed—are liable to a preliminary handicap.” In our newly sensitive era, we’re not supposed to notice that some people, including children, are peculiar or unpleasant looking. We’ve outgrown all that. After he notes that Oliver Goldsmith was “jeered at for his ugliness,” de la Mare continues: 

“Charles Lamb was in this respect, at least, an exception. He had a peculiar plantigrade walk, eyes differing in colour, and what has become the most famous stutter in literature. But he was also amiable, sensible and keenly observant, and was indulged on account of his stutter by both boys and masters.” 

De la Mare senses a kinship with Lamb, another benevolent, child-like soul (a sort that shows up frequently in English literary history), though childless and a lifelong bachelor. The letters and Elia essays are laced with children and childhood memories. As a boy he attended Christ’s Hospital in Newgate Street, where he befriended Coleridge. In “Christ’s Hospital Five-and-Thirty Years Ago,” he describes the whipping of a boy by a master, “after the old Roman fashion, long and stately.” Lamb is neither bitter nor nostalgic, and even corporal punishment, justly applied or not, is chronicled with a hint of comedy: 

“These solemn pageantries were not played off so often as to spoil the general mirth of the community. We had plenty of exercise and recreation after school hours; and, for myself, I must confess, that I was never happier, than in them.” 

In his description of Lamb, de la Mare borrows “plantigrade” from zoology and anatomy. The term refers to mammals (bears, badgers, raccoons) that walk on the soles of their feet. In Origin of the Species, Darwin refers in passing to “the plantigrades or bear family.” They are distinguished from mammals (cats, dogs, weasels, mongooses, ballet dancers) that walk on their toes and are known as “digitigrades.” The word evolved a more mundane meaning in the human realm: flat-footed. A school mate of Lamb’s, Valentine La Grice, told the essayist’s friend and biographer Thomas Talfourd (Final Memorials of Charles Lamb, 1849-50): 

“Lamb was an amiable, gentle boy, very sensitive and keenly observing, indulged by his schoolfellows and by his master on account of his infirmity of speech. His countenance was mild, his complexion clear brown, with an expression which might lead you to think that he was of Jewish descent. His eyes were not each of the same colour, one was hazel, the other had specks of grey in the iris, mingled as we see red spots in the bloodstone. His step was plantigrade, which made his walk slow and peculiar, adding to the staid appearance of his figure.”

Saturday, July 26, 2014

`An American Literary Giant'

Brooks Landon has a fine remembrance of Thomas Berger in the Los Angeles Review of Books: 

“From Tom I received an invaluable education, the intellectual joy of my life, an attitude toward the language that constructs the world, and maybe even a smattering of secondhand wisdom. Tom is gone, but his gift to us remains, wrapped between the covers of his 23 novels, waiting patiently in the amazing and frequently serpentine syntax of his exquisite sentences, promising to introduce or reintroduce us to the unique sensibility of an American literary giant.”

`It's No Good Just Writing It Down'

“I like to say that form is not about having control, but giving up control, allowing other forces into the poem.  Absolute liberty is paralyzing for me.” 

The latter sentence, I suppose, has political applications, but A.E. Stallings in her interview with the Tupelo Quarterly is delivering the coup de grâce to vers libre. “Other forces” means meter and rhyme, the happy disciplines that distinguish poetry from prose, though not necessarily good poetry from bad. “Absolute liberty” is a state sought after by adolescents of all ages. Adults understand that no such state exists. Like art, life is a compromise with reality. Formlessness means surrender, the coward’s way out, and anarchy is tiresome. The speaker in one of Stallings’ poems, “Prelude” (Hapax, 2006) tries to account for the powerful emotions art elicits in her. In the final stanza she concludes: 

“No, no. It is something else. It is something raw
That suddenly falls
Upon me at the start, like loss of awe—
The vertigo of possibility—
The pictures I don't see,
The open strings, the perfect intervals.” 

Asked what poets she reads when “in a rut,” Stallings answers: “Housman (not necessarily when in a rut, but when feeling down) and Larkin, to a lesser extent Heaney, Dickinson, Bishop, the Oxford Anthology of English Verse.” No surprises there, all respectable choices. Nice of her to acknowledge her envy when reading poems by an American contemporary, Joshua Mehigan. And best of all: “Larkin’s greater poems strike me as having almost an unapproachable perfection.” Mehigan too has declared his admiration for Larkin, a “formalist” – meaningless term – for whom form is a way to organize emotion and reproduce it in others. Larkin says: 

“I read poems, and I think, Yes, that’s quite a nice idea, but why can’t he make a poem of it? Make it memorable? It’s no good just writing it down! At any level that matters, form and content are indivisible. What I meant by content is the experience the poem preserves, what it passes on. I must have been seeing too many poems that were simply agglomerations of words when I said that.”

Friday, July 25, 2014

`Art Endures, or So the Masters Say'

Like the rest of us, poets are egotists, only more so. Most you would never invite to dinner, loan money or leave alone in the company of your children, so we’re gratified to hear the story of a poet behaving selflessly or generously. This is even truer when the recipient of the kindness is another poet. 

The poems of Agnes Lee (1868-1939), a native Chicagoan, were never widely read even during her lifetime. In 1903 she published a translation of Théophile Gautier’s Enamels and Cameos and Other Poems, and five volumes of her own poems followed. She was associated with Poetry magazine from its earliest days, and Yvor Winters, also born in Chicago, was a friend and admirer. In the September 1939 issue of Poetry, Winters published a remembrance of Lee who had died July 23. As we would expect of Winters, the tribute is generous but whitewashes nothing. Winters was congenitally allergic to bullshit, even when writing a eulogy. The Gautier translation, he says, “is not successful, but the task of translating Gautier must resemble that which a foreigner would encounter in rendering Herrick: it is really hopeless.” Then he singles out one of her poems, “A Statue in a Garden,” for praise, saying it contains “unyielding grandeur,” and goes on: 

“This quality is characteristic of all her best work, and sets her off sharply from all the women poets of our time whether good or bad. It is not that her work was unfeminine, but that it was impersonal and absolute. She was a great lady, and would have been at home in the court of Louis XIV.” 

This is extraordinary but believable praise for a minor poet, and not unique in Winters’ criticism (Tuckerman, Daryush). He raises the stakes by adding that, “among American writers, regardless of medium, her spiritual quality seems to me closest to that of Mrs. Wharton.” As always, Winters’ judgments are careful, shrewd and blunt: 

“She is the author of a handful of separate but beautiful poems, an anthology poet, essentially, but one of the finest. No American poet of her generation except Robinson is comparable to her.” 

Keep Winters’ evaluation in mind as you read Lee's “Convention”: 

“The snow is lying very deep.
My house is sheltered from the blast.
I hear each muffled step outside,
I hear each voice go past. 

“But I'll not venture in the drift
Out of this bright security,
Till enough footsteps come and go
To make a path for me.” 

Clean lines, no muddle or posturing, echoes of Robinson and Frost. The poem honors tradition, our dependence on forebears. None of us writes without first reading. We’re not blazing trails but following paths. The poem is homage, not an admission of weakness. To “A Dedication in Postscript,” Winters, a deeply tradition-minded writer, adds as a subtitle: “Written to Agnes Lee shortly before her death”: 

“Because you labored still for Gautier’s strength
In days when art was lost in breadth and length;
Because your friendship was a valued gift;
I send these poems—now, my only shift.
In the last years of your declining age,
I face again your cold immortal page:
The statue, pure amid the rotting leaves,
And her, forsaken, whom Truth undeceives.
Truth is the subject, and the hand is sure.
The hand once lay in mine: this will endure
Till all the casual errors fall away.
And art endures, or so the masters say.”

Thursday, July 24, 2014

`A Secret Influence on the Understanding'

Had my reader been physically present, his voice, surely, would have trembled. I might have asked him to take a seat and offered an aspirin or glass of water. Clearly, he was making an effort to control his emotions, like a man about to deliver momentous news. He had a book he wanted me to read, one that has changed his life. “I know how important books are to you,” he wrote, and recalled my cardiac scare of several years ago. “I know you probably think you’re a happy and healthy person, but you’re really not. That’s just your mind giving you the wrong message.” To clear things up, he urged me to read You Are the Placebo: Making Your Mind Matter (Hay House, 2014) by Joe Dispenza, a chiropractor. 

Of my reader’s good intentions I have no doubts; of his understanding of my bookish bent, I’m skeptical. My idea of self-help is keeping Charles Lamb handy, though I’m touched and impressed when people find power in a book. Perhaps all dedicated readers harbor the notion that some book, some day, if they persist, will transform them – reading as a form of human alchemy. In The Adventurer #137, Dr. Johnson is remarkably sanguine about the benign sway of books over readers: 

“Books have always a secret influence on the understanding; we cannot at pleasure obliterate ideas: he that reads books of science, though without any fixed desire of improvement, will grow more knowing; he that entertains himself with moral or religious treatises, will imperceptibly advance in goodness; the ideas which are often offered to the mind, will at last find a lucky moment when it is disposed to receive them.”

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

`A Vine that Survives in the Ruins of Skill'

ZMKC is reading Les Murray again, as I often do – he writes for grownups – and I was impressed by the line she singles out for attention in “Driving to the Adelaide Festival 1976 via the Murray Valley Highway”: “Romance is a vine that survives in the ruins of skill.” Murray likes to use familiar words in unfamiliar settings without descending into cheesy surrealism. His language is sometimes private but never hermetic. It sounds right and overlaps generously with ours, though laced with Australian words we already know (“billabongs”) and those we don’t (“footy”: the OED calls it a diminutive of “football” in Australia and New Zealand). This isn’t like writing in dialect, which can be condescending and incoherent. Above all, Murray prizes energy -- linguistic, emotional and intellectual – and he dedicates all of his books “to the glory of God.” 

Fifty year ago I had a pen pal, a girl in New South Wales, Murray’s home turf. I’m ashamed to say I don’t remember her name. I thought of her again last week when my middle son and I watched the film Tomorrow, When the War Began, a Red Dawn remake set in New South Wales. The movie doesn’t improve on John Milius’ original (which was a good boy’s adventure story, out of Kipling and Stevenson) but features achingly beautiful Australian landscapes. Growing up in Cleveland, the romance of Australia mingled with the romance of the American West, another place I had never visited. To this adolescent it signified vast open spaces, self-reliance, freedom and a code of honor: “Romance is a vine that survives in the ruins of skill.” 

Go here to read the other poem mentioned by ZMKC, “The Buladelah-Taree Holiday Song Cycle.” Read him aloud: 

“Now the ibis are flying in, hovering down on the wetlands,
on those swampy paddocks around Darawank, curving down in ragged dozens,
on the riverside flats along the Wang Wauk, on the Boolambayte pasture flats,
and away towards the sea, on the sand moors, at the place of the Jabiru Crane;
leaning out of their wings, they step down; they take out their implement at once,
out of its straw wrapping, and start work; they dab grasshopper and ground-cricket
with non-existence... spiking the ground and puncturing it... they swallow down the outcry of a frog;
they discover titbits kept for them under cowmanure lids, small slow things.”

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Thomas Berger, R.I.P.

I was wrong on Sunday. Thomas Berger did not live to see his ninetieth birthday. He died July 13, age eighty-nine, though his death was not made public until Monday. There's only one true way to commemorate the passing of a writer: read his books.

`Discontent Seeks for Comfort'

In my own drinking days I enjoyed the novels of Donald Newlove, in particular Leo & Theodore (1973) and The Drunks (1974), the story of alcoholic Siamese twins who are prodigious drinkers and musicians playing traditional jazz. The novels were reprinted in a single paperback volume in 1978 under the title Sweet Adversity. On a visit to New York City in 1981, several years after Newlove and I had sobered up, I found an autographed copy of his newly published Those Drinking Days: Myself and Other Writers. At the same time I bought a first edition of Guy Davenport’s The Geography of the Imagination (later autographed by the author), also just published, and a collection of Colette’s stories (she wasn’t available for an autograph) – perhaps my single most successful visit to a bookstore, though I didn’t know it at the time. A few years earlier I had read W. Jackson Bate’s Samuel Johnson (1977), so I wasn’t surprised when Newlove writes: “One of the most striking recoveries from excessive drinking was made by Dr. Samuel Johnson two centuries ago.” In the familiar roll call of literary drunks – Dylan Thomas, Malcolm Lowry, John Berryman, et. al. – Johnson’s name is seldom included, perhaps because he slowed down and eventually stopped. To his credit, Johnson never preached against the evils of demon rum. He was too subtle a psychologist and too empathetic a man to do so. Boswell reports him saying: 

“Sir, I have no objection to a man’s drinking wine, if he can do it in moderation. I found myself apt to go to excess in it, and therefore, after having been for some time without it, on account of illness, I thought it better not to return to it. Every man is to judge for himself, according to the effects which he experiences.” 

A small anthology of drinking wisdom could be drawn from Johnson’s writing and conversation. In his “Life of Addison,” Johnson writes: “In the bottle discontent seeks for comfort, cowardice for courage, and bashfulness for confidence.” And again, in Boswell: 

“Talking of drinking wine, he said, `I did not leave off wine because I could not bear it; I have drunk three bottles of port without being the worse for it. University College has witnessed this.’ Boswell: `Why then, Sir, did you leave it off?’ Johnson: `Why, Sir, because it is so much better for a man to be sure that he is never intoxicated, never to lose the power over himself.’” 

As a boy, in some forgotten book, I was horrified by a reproduction of William Hogarth’s Gin Lane (1751). The woman in the foreground, her face moronic with gin, her legs covered with syphilitic sores (Hogarthian shorthand for prostitution), drops her baby off the stone stairway. The inscription over the doorway in the lower left reads: “Drunk for a penny, dead drunk for two pence, clean straw for nothing.” To this day I find human monsters more disturbing than the monsters of fantasy. In Dr. Johnson’s London: Life in London 1740-1770 (2000), Liza Picard begins her chapter titled “Amusements” with a quote from Johnson: 

“`To amuse: to entertain with tranquility’: Dr. Johnson’s Dictionary. Perhaps amusement is not the right word for what the poor did in their free time. Tranquil it was not.” 

Picard gives a three-page history of what she calls the gin “mania” that swept London beginning late in the seventeenth century. The word’s etymology is amusing, from the French eau de genièvre, “juniper water.” English soldiers couldn’t pronounce it and anglicized it to geneva, which soon became gin. Picard gives us a review of folk poetry: 

“Before leaving it, here are some synonyms for gin: cock-my-cap, kill-grief, comfort, poverty, meat-and-drink, washing, lodging, bingo (also used to mean brandy), diddle, heart’s ease, a kick in the guts, tape, white wool and strip-me-naked. If you had been hicksius-doxius (drunk) you might well feel womblety cropt (hungover) the day after.” 

Hogarth and Johnson met in 1739 and became friends. When Hogarth died in 1764, Johnson wrote four lines about him, quoted in a footnote by Boswell:

“The hand of him here torpid lies,
 That drew the essential form of grace;
 Here clos’d in death the attentive eyes,
 That saw the manners in the face.” 

Having read that, look again at the unfortunate mother in Gin Lane.