Saturday, August 18, 2018

'He Was a Cure for Simple Minds'

“Though a sepulchral inscription is professedly a panegyrick, and, therefore, not confined to historical impartiality, yet it ought always to be written with regard to truth.”

Simple epitaphs are best, preferably composed in complete sentences that avoid sloganeering and inflated claims about the virtues of the departed. Name and dates will do, of course. If more is called for, keep it terse and true, like a J.V. Cunningham epigram. Dr. Johnson’s advice above, from “An Essay on Epitaphs” (1740), is a suitable style guide. V.S. Naipaul died last Saturday, and in his brief City Journal remembrance of the novelist, Theodore Dalrymple composes, in his final sentence, a fitting inscription:

“He was a cure for simple minds.”

A simple mind is already made up. Its thoughts are prefabricated. A simple mind is seldom confused. It already has the answers. Naipaul had none. He was a rare contemporary without ideology. His subject, distilled to essentials, was human nature. In 1990, Naipaul spoke at the Manhattan Institute. His lecture, “Our Universal Civilization,” was published the following year in City Journal. In it he writes:

“I have no unifying theory of things. To me, situations and people are always specific, always of themselves. That is why one travels and writes: to find out. To work in the other way would be to know the answers before one knew the problems; that is a recognized way of working, I know, especially if one is a political or religious or racial missionary. But I would have found it hard.”

Friday, August 17, 2018

'Thin Sewn with Profit or Delight'

Some writers are unreadable. We first try as teenagers. Decades pass. And then, out of guilt or cussedness, we resolve to read them again. We set aside a quiet moment, settle on the couch, adjust the lamp and seize up like an engine without oil. Sentences, words, syllables congeal into impassable sludge. We close the book and put it away until the next doomed session.

One such for this reader is Percy Bysshe Shelley, whose name is still cavalierly coupled with Keats’. Shelley is the template for every subsequent narcissist who fancied himself a bard. No, poets are not “the unacknowledged legislators of the world,” thank God, and I’ll take Johnny Mercer over Shelley when it comes to skylarks. A Marxist professor once tried to set me straight. He made the case for Percy the People’s Poet. No thanks. Shelley and his wife are still hacks and life is short. Charles Lamb agreed, with qualifications. On this date, Aug. 17, in 1824, more than two years after Shelley’s death, he writes in a letter to Benjamin Barton:

“I can no more understand Shelly than you can. His poetry is ‘thin sewn with profit or delight.’”

Lamb concedes that one of Shelley’s sonnets is “conceived and expressed with a witty delicacy,” but adds: “For his theories and nostrums they are oracular enough, but I either comprehend ’em not, or there is miching malice and mischief in ’em. But for the most part ringing with their own emptiness. Hazlitt said well of ’em--Many are wiser and better for reading Shakspeare, but nobody was ever wiser or better for reading Sh----y.”

“Miching malice and mischief” is typical Lamb playfulness and fooling around. About “miching” I wasn’t certain. It’s an old word and the OED gives an alternate spelling, mitching, and a meaning that mutated over time: “Originally: pilfering (obsolete). In later use: skulking, lurking; playing truant. Formerly also (occasionally): pretending poverty (obsolete).” The Dictionary also notes that mitching is etymologically related to the more familiar mooching and mooch.

Thursday, August 16, 2018

'The Honesty Which Is Part of His Difficulty'

“For every kind of experience there is a proper form.”

V.S. Naipaul’s observation in Reading & Writing: A Personal Account (2000) recalls the thinking of a very different sort of writer, Guy Davenport, who titled a 1987 essay collection Every Force Evolves a Form. In his foreword, Davenport explains that the phrase originates with Mother Ann Lee, founder of the Shakers. Then he elaborates: “A work of art is a form that articulates forces, making them intelligible.” For Naipaul, those forms were novels and nonfiction narratives that transcend mere reportage. The forces were colonialism’s legacy, the vagaries of history and human nature. If Naipaul had a homeland, it was the English language, not India, Trinidad or England. On Aug. 11, he died, six days before his eighty-sixth birthday.

There are writers whose prime years coincide with one’s awakening as a reader. I started reading Naipaul’s books as they were published beginning in the early nineteen-seventies. I had to catch up with A House for Mr. Biswas (1961) but read In a Free State (1971) when it came out, and the subsequent middle-period masterpieces, Guerillas (1975) and A Bend in the River (1979). Elsewhere in Reading & Writing, Naipaul describes the nineteenth-century novel as “an extraordinary tool”:

“It did what no other literary form—essay, poem, drama, history—could do. It gave industrial or industrializing or modern society a very clear idea of itself. It showed with immediacy what hadn’t been shown before; and it altered vision.”

Naipaul began writing novels as though that were still the case, as though the world and its literatures had not fractured in the twentieth century. By the time of The Enigma of Arrival (1987), his confidence was flagging. Was it a novel or autobiography? In Reading & Writing, he confesses that novels had begun to “distort the unaccommodating new reality” and “encourage a multitude of little narcissisms.”

The quality of Naipaul’s nonfiction remained high. My favorites are An Area of Darkness (1964), The Loss of El Dorado (1969) and Finding the Center: Two Narratives (1984). Also, the essay “Conrad’s Darkness”(The Return of Eva Perón and the Killings in Trinidad, 1980), in which he writes: “Conrad’s value to me is that he is someone who sixty or seventy years ago meditated on my world, a world I recognize even today. I feel this about no other writer of the century. His achievement derives from the honesty which is part of his difficulty, that ‘scrupulous fidelity to the truth of my own sensations.’”    

Naipaul was our Conrad, forever a grim outsider. The best introduction I know remains Joseph Epstein’s “A Cottage for Mr. Naipaul,” an essay that serves as both a review of The Enigma of Arrival and an overview of Naipaul’s work up to 1987:

“Whatever his appropriate political label, Naipaul is certainly a conservative by temperament. He has a love for order of an intensity that can be held only by a man repelled by the disorder to which he was born. Naipaul’s natural refinement comes through in all his writing—his hatred of crudity, his contempt for the blatant and the coarse. He has a keen, an almost excruciating sense of the perilousness of civilization. He cannot resist underscoring that nearby a golf course laid out in the administrative city of Yamoussoukro in the Ivory Coast crocodiles are kept and fed live chickens [a reference to “The Crocodiles of Yamoussoukro” in Finding the Center.]”

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

'Barbarous Epithets and Wilful Rhodomontade'

In his review of Bryan Boyd’s Vladimir Nabokov: The Russian Years (1990), John Simon refers to Pale Fire as “that gargantuan rodomontade.” The verdict is unjust but memorable. Simon’s use of “rodomontade” may have been my first encounter with the word. I don’t recall looking it up in the dictionary, and I seem to have assumed it meant something vaguely contemptible like “extravaganza” or “stunt.” That’s not entirely mistaken, as the OED makes clear: “extravagant boasting or bragging; bravado; boastful or bombastic language.” Simon is echoing a common complaint against Nabokov: that he is show-off, a clever but cold fashioner of literary Fabergé eggs. It’s useful to remember that in Speak, Memory, Nabokov dismisses all Fabergé objects as “emblems of grotesque garishness.” Pale Fire, in fact, contains a plot rich in “human interest,” a quality Nabokov would have detested. In terms of mournful sadness, Hazel Shade’s suicide ranks with Catherine Sloper’s misuse by her father and her suitor in Washington Square and the death of Rudy Bloom as remembered by his father in Ulysses.

I came upon rodomontade again, with a slightly different spelling, in Hazlitt’s “On Familiar Style” (Table Talk, Essays on Men and Manners, 1822). He begins a paragraph with “It is as easy to write a gaudy style without ideas as it is to spread a pallet of showy colours or to smear in a flaunting transparency.” Hazlitt is condemning empty verbiage, filigree as a stand-in for content. He continues, singling out empty-headed theater critics: “Not a glimpse can you get of the merits or defects of the performers: they are hidden in a profusion of barbarous epithets and wilful rhodomontade.” Hazlitt’s target is not a rich, colorful prose style, as in Sir Thomas Browne and Nabokov (and, at his best, Hazlitt), but writers who substitute overwriting and verbal pyrotechnics for substance. Propose your own florid candidate but I nominate the late William H. Gass.

Not that lush prose is always a substitute for mature style. Nabokov has John Shade say in Pale Fire: “First of all, dismiss ideas, and social background, and train the freshman to shiver, to get drunk on the poetry of Hamlet or Lear, to read with his spine and not with his skull.” Kinbote asks: “You appreciate particularly the purple passages?" Shade replies: “Yes, my dear Charles, I roll upon them as a grateful mongrel on a spot of turf fouled by a Great Dane.”

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

'Not to Have Lived Quite in Vain'

“I have more confidence in the dead than the living.”

With a few exceptions, I concur. Hazlitt is speaking of authors and books, and the superiority of older ones. A reader, Mark Marowitz, sent me a link to “The Hedonism of Reading Good Books,” in which E.J. Hutchinson looks at Hazlitt’s well-known “On Reading Old Books.” I have no doubt Hazlitt’s thesis was sincere and sound, but also that he was being true to his nature; that is, provocative. By celebrating old writers and snubbing the new, he was thumbing his nose at contemporaries, which is always a pleasant diversion.

Hutchinson’s reading of Hazlitt is sympathetic but not uncritical. “[T]he best old books,” he writes, “are both aesthetic masterpieces and good to think with.” Nicely phrased. Hazlitt differed violently with Burke’s understanding of the French Revolution but admired his writing extravagantly. Hutchinson writes:  

“He did not like Burke on politics but he respected him and saw him as a genius. ‘I took a particular pride and pleasure in [Burke’s Reflections], and read it to myself and others for months afterwards. I had reason for my prejudice in favour of this author. To understand an adversary is some praise: to admire him is more. I thought I did both: I knew I did one.’” That’s a quality found only among the best readers and critics. Hutchinson takes Hazlitt’s thinking on books a step further:

“What Hazlitt is really driving at, it seems to me, is the obligation of the thinking individual to form a personal canon of favorite authors and texts. Just as we differ as individuals, our personal canons will differ. But we should all nevertheless have one, and not take anyone else’s word for it. It is to be made, not borrowed. The reasons given are frankly somewhat epicurean: the pleasure of time well spent; the pleasure of memory; the pleasure of watching a master at work—and it bears repeating that we should include some masters whose ideas we do not like.”

Late Sunday night we returned from four days spent in Annapolis, Md., where my middle son is completing his Plebe Summer at the U.S. Naval Academy. On the trip I read two old(er) books for a second time -- Robert Liddell’s Elizabeth and Ivy (1986) and Rose Macaulay’s A Casual Commentary (1925) – and a new one for the first time: Roger Scruton’s Conservatism: An Invitation to the Great Tradition (2018). Two to one, old to new, is a respectable ratio. Scruton writes of Dr. Johnson that “he was and remains a towering intellectual presence in British national culture, an example of the rooted loyalty to ‘things by law established’ that has been, among so many Anglophone conservatives, their substitute for abstract argument. What Johnson believed he also exemplified, which was a firm moral sense combined with a robust eccentricity of manner and a deep respect for aesthetic values.”

Nice to be in the company of grownups, old and new.

We visited three bookstores in Annapolis. I found nothing but Michael got lucky: a Penguin Herodotus; a deeply discounted hardback, bilingual edition of Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations (1953); and a math text from Dover Books, Introduction to Analysis (1968) by Maxwell Rosenlicht. He’s taking a statistics class in the fall. Hazlitt writes:

“To have lived in the cultivation of an intimacy with such works, and to have familiarly relished such names, is not to have lived quite in vain.”

Monday, August 13, 2018

'To Reveal My Bias at the Start'

William H. Pritchard in his review of The Life of Ivy Compton-Burnett by Hilary Spurling (The Hudson Review, Summer 1985):

“To reveal my bias at the start, I would quite willingly forsake any future reading of Virginia Woolf’s The Waves or The Years in favor of any single novel by Compton-Burnett.”

Might as well add the rest of Woolf’s stillborn oeuvre.

Sunday, August 12, 2018

'Making Fine Furniture or Making Fine Books'

Yvor Winters writing to the editor/publisher Harry Duncan in 1950:

“You seem to resent my Airedales especially. Why, in God's name, should you resent my enjoying the company of five of God’s most charming little creatures? Breeding and showing Airedales is a minor art; quite as much so as making fine furniture or making fine books. You may not realize this, but that is doubtless because of your ignorance of animals. I have two dogs on the place who are beautiful to watch in every movement and position and I have two others who are almost as fascinating; and the fifth is not bad. I would rather have these dogs than, say, masterpieces of furniture or silver -- as works of art they are quite as admirable and quite as serious and much more to my taste.”

Note that Winters evaluates and ranks even his beloved Airedales, as though they were beloved poems.  

[The Selected Letters of Yvor Winters, ed. R.L. Barth, Ohio University Press/Swallow Press, 2000.]