Friday, June 23, 2017

`Reread, Reread'

Taste in books must be fickle before it can be enduring. Few of us fall lastingly in love with anything (sheer numbers are against it), and infatuation is overrated. The reading life more closely resembles a string of one-night-stands than long-term commitment, especially for those who read a book once and throw it away. It takes some of us forever to spurn Hemingway and set up house with Henry James. Here is James Michie’s “Good Books, Bad Times” (Collected Poems, Sinclair-Stevenson, 1994):

“Good books in bad times (for all loyalty ends)
Can turn their backs on you, like close friends
Who don’t know half the truth, and from the shelf
Cut dead the miserable anorexic self
That’s lost its appetite for words, that finds
Print inflicts snow-dazzle, and the mind’s
Capsized by logic, and one paragraph
Of the funniest man on earth can’t raise a laugh.
To stop loving, or being loved, is to stop
Reading, is to stop. Woodland becomes backdrop
And weather mere performance. Then books stare
Like stuffed predators with a blameless air
Of enmity.
        Men, women, you dog-eared lovers
With wine-stained pages and much drabber covers
Than when you were brightly bought, before you secede
From the old union, reread, reread.”

I knew James Michie (1927-2007) as the translator of Martial and Horace but he was a poet in his own right, a friend and colleague of Kingsley Amis. I’ve remained immune to the malady he describes. I’m often fed up with individual writers and books but never with reading (sheer numbers are against it). No, not all loyalty ends. Some has hardly started. I read William James’ The Principles of Psychology many years ago (at the suggestion of Steven Millhauser), but have hardly scratched at the twelve volumes of his letters. And I still haven’t gotten around to Browning’s poetry and The Tale of Genji. As Michie reminds us: “reread, reread.” Fourteen years have passed since I last read The Golden Bowl.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

`A Yearning for World Culture'

From Jörg Baberowski’s Scorched Earth: Stalin’s Reign of Terror (Yale University Press, 2016):

“Maxim Gorky, writer of the proletarian revolution and despiser of rural Russia, had been dreaming of reeducating the man of old long before the revolution. He shared Lenin’s belief that peasants and workers were a malleable mass that could be shaped by the hands of enlightened educators. But how, they both asked, could communism be built with a `mass of human material’ that had been `tainted by slavery, serfdom and capitalism’ for centuries? Their answer, which left no room for ambiguity, was that if barbarians were to become New Men then their environment needed to be turned into a disciplinary machine.”

Gorky was not the first writer who longed to transcend mere literature and impose his schemes for betterment on the world, and his successors are still with us, scolding and biding their time. As early as Oct. 22, 1901, Chekhov, in a letter to Alexi Peshkov (Gorky’s given name), suggested that the younger writer avoid stereotyping the “wavering, high-strung intellectuals” among the characters in his play The Philistines. On the other hand, Gorky romanticizes Nil, his single-minded revolutionary hero. Chekhov argues that all the characters are “equally valuable human beings." In his note to the letter in The Letters of Anton Chekhov (1973), Simon Karlinsky writes: “But this idea was quite foreign to Gorky.” One of his intellectual characters in The Philistines, Tatyana, attempts suicide when her romantic longing for Nil is not reciprocated. Her unhappiness should not arouse pity or sympathy, Gorky replied to Chekhov, “but something else, much less attractive.” Karlinsky writes:

“Gorky’s anti-intellectualism became more pronounced in subsequent years. One of its ugliest manifestations is described in Nadezhda Mandelstam’s Hope Against Hope, in which we find Gorky using his august position in the post-revolutionary literary life to deprive the freezing and starved poet Osip Mandelstam of the pair of trousers he needed to survive through the winter. `The trousers themselves were a small matter,’ wrote Mandelstam’s widow, `but they spoke eloquently of Gorky’s hostility to a literary trend that was foreign to him.”

Elsewhere in Hope Against Hope, Nadezhda Mandelstam reports that when informed of the poet Nikolay Gumilyov’s pending execution, Gorky did nothing. With Osip Mandelstam and Anna Akhmatova, Gumilyov was founder of the poetic movement called Acmeism. In his 1913 essay “The Morning of Acmeism”, Mandelstam defines it as “a yearning for world culture.” On Aug. 26, 1921, as Guy Davenport puts it in “The Man without Contemporaries” (The Geography of the Imagination, 1981), Gumilyov “crumbled under the volleys of a Soviet firing squad, clutching a Bible and a Homer to his heart.” Sixty others died with him. His crime: membership in the nonexistent Tagantsev conspiracy, an entrapment scheme devised by Feliks Dzerzhinsky, founder of the Cheka. In 1932, Gorky was decorated with the Order of Lenin, as were, later, Fidel Castro, Erich Honecker, Tito, Nelson Mandela and Stalin. Baberowski writes:

“The rhetoric the regime used to justify its misdeeds spoke of cold calculation but also of pure and simple hatred. The hatred was for the `wretched, stubborn reality,’ as Maxim Gorky, the wordsmith of Communism, had described the peasant world. This was a world, he wrote, that should be torn out at the roots `from the memory of the human soul’ and made to disappear forever.”    

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

`A Mode of Writing I Did Not Understand'

“Poets are more tiresome than entomologists.”

Lousy or mediocre poets, that is, though even some of the good ones prove tedious when speaking ex cathedra. Entomologists devote attention to the small and easily overlooked. Nabokov, poet and entomologist, spent years taxonomizing butterflies according to the arrangement of their genitalia. In such minds, art and science, mutual reflections, converge. In 1990, the journal Salmagundi devoted its summer issue to the work of poet Ben Belitt (1911-2003), best known for translating poems by Pablo Neruda, winner of the Stalin Peace Prize. Among the contributors to the Festschrift is C.H. Sisson (1915-2003), who writes about Belitt’s “The Hornet’s House.” Sisson begins by retelling an anecdote related by the great French entomologist and writer Jean-Henri Fabre (1823-1915) in The Mason-wasps (1914). Sisson writes:

“The insects come and go, and we are at the start of one of those marvellous series of observations which the modest schoolmaster recorded so lucidly, seated at his minute writing-table. This is the advancement of knowledge, in its least questionable form: one might speak of objectivity, without risk of being misunderstood.”

Sisson next quotes a passage by Fabre regarding the “fierce hornet,” Vespa crabro (or Vespa maculata), and concludes this is the species Belitt writes about in his poem. In it, Sisson sees “an element of objective hardness,” adding: “It is a compliment one would not pay to a poet concerned only with his own subjectivities. Belitt is evidently the artist for whom the visible world exists.” Sisson is probably remembering Pound’s Canto LXXXIII: “Brother wasp is building a very neat house.” He makes a rare admission for a critic: “it was less clear than with Fabre what [Belitt] was doing.” He quotes the first stanza of the poem:
“Upside-down on their millstone, the hornets had already begun
That labor for slaves, oblique
Under balancing weights, where their universe hung by a wick,
Till the will of their species was done.”

Belitt has probably observed hornets building nests. “Wick” is precisely chosen and he understands the relation of individuals to colony among social insects (a state known to biologists as “eusociality”). “Belitt seems to wish to enter a strange world, but he cannot do so without carrying with him the recollection of another strange world, that of human beings.” Belitt, we can conclude, is not a member of that that dubious species, the nature poet. “One has the impression,” Sisson writes, “that he is all the time trying to pull back the curtains of the visible [Ahab: “All visible objects, man, are but as pasteboard masks.”], as if he could discover more proximate purposes, and in doing so finds himself somewhere nearer to human intelligence.”

Sisson confesses ignorance of the science (“my amateur entomology”), and suspects it may hinder his understanding of the poem. Such humility before a work of art is unusual and thrilling. Sisson isn’t too proud to admit, “I like this poem but I’m not sure I thoroughly understand it.” Sisson’s humor, characteristically, is self-deprecating:

“I, certainly, am under-informed. Perhaps the poem needs notes. All poems may need notes, at a certain distance in time and/or culture, but should it need such notes? This is not, as some questions are, a disguised assertion. Perhaps it is only my pride, as an Englishman who knows nothing of vespa maculata, that is injured. And that is itself only a face-saving hypothesis.”

Too often critics usurp the artist’s role, asserting a sovereignty not theirs. Seasoned readers admit they often feel attraction or even love for poems long before they understand them, if ever. Art trumps critique. Sisson, one of the great and under-appreciated poets and critics of the last century writes:      

“I am not, habitually, an explainer of poems -- as may be only too evident to those who are practised in the art -- and one of the considerations which led me to accept the editor’s invitation to join in this celebration of Ben Belitt’s work was the consciousness that here was a writer, obviously of great talent, who had plodded through the world for a mere three years longer than I had myself and with, apparently, something of the same prolonged interest in poetry and in translation, and who had arrived at a mode of writing I did not understand.”

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

`You Have Again No Sense of Reading'

What follows is a paragraph I wish I had written:

“The writer was once presented with a verbal picture that has for many years been one of his most treasured possessions. It is that of an elderlyish, comfortable gentleman, seated in an old-fashioned first-class railway carriage, his feet up on the cushions of the opposite seat, the brim of his hat well down, shading his eyes. He has provided his nephew who is travelling with him with a bath bun, some acidulated drops and a copy of The Boys’ Own Paper.”

The “elderlyish, comfortable gentleman” in question is Anthony Trollope, occupied with finishing The Last Chronicles of Barset (1867). The prose is crystalline but may require annotation, especially for American readers. A “bath [or Bath] bun” is an English sweet roll made from yeasty dough with sugar sprinkled on top or a lump baked into it. Jane Austen reported an aunt in 1801 “disordering my stomach with Bath Bunns.” “Acidulated drops” (also “acid drops”) is not a hallucinogenic substance but, the OED reports, “a kind of boiled sweet flavoured with tartaric acid and having a sharp, sour taste.” In Sketches by Boz (1836), Dickens writes, “Ma, in the openness of her heart, offered the governess an acidulated drop,” which suggests Ma was less than enamored of the governess. The Boys’ Own Paper, published in England from 1879 to 1967, was a tabloid-format newspaper aimed at young men and boys – adventure stories, games, puzzles. In its pages, Lord Baden-Powell urged readers to live “clean, manly and Christian lives.”

The author of the passage cited above is Ford Madox Ford in the last of the more than eighty books he published during his lifetime, The March of Literature (1938). Nominally a history of world literature (subtitled From Confucius to Modern Times) written by a self-described “old man mad about writing,” the volume is one of those extravagant grab bags, like Montaigne’s Essays and The Anatomy of Melancholy, in which almost any scrap of learning might find a home. A reader can open it to any page and idle away an hour or two. Ford works in many forms, from traditional close reading to reimagined scenes from literary history. Even when silly or outrageous, Ford’s opinions are interesting, a rare quality among writers. One page before Trollope he writes: “Jane Austen stands alone—with Christina Rossetti—as being the one consummate artist that the English nineteenth century produced.” (George Eliot?)

Ford’s imaginative portrait of Trollope at work in the railway car inevitably recalls the great opening scene in Some Do Not . . . (1924), the first novel in his Great War tetralogy Parade’s End:

“The two young men — they were of the English public official class — sat in the perfectly appointed railway carriage. The leather straps to the windows were of virgin newness; the mirrors beneath the new luggage racks immaculate as if they had reflected very little; the bulging upholstery in its luxuriant, regulated curves was scarlet and yellow in an intricate, minute dragon pattern, the design of a geometrician in Cologne.”

The effect those sentences and all that follow have on the attentive reader is described by Ford later in The March of Literature, when he writes of his friend Joseph Conrad’s “Youth”: “The language is again so low-keyed, so of the vernacular, so just, so fluid that when you read you have again no sense of reading.”

Monday, June 19, 2017

`Long Shelves Brim'

All reading is personal, sometimes explicitly so. I’ve stumbled on references to Cleveland, my home town, in Thoreau, Dreiser, Sherwood Anderson, Edward Dahlberg and Herbert Gold (another native). I knew Adam Zagajewski taught for several years at the University of Houston, but how much can a Polish poet wrapped in an academic cocoon observe of his alien surroundings? What is Houston compared to Kraków, Zagajewski’s birthplace and home to Jagiellonian University, founded in 1364? His first impression of Houston, as described in Slight Exaggeration (trans. Clare Cavanagh, 2017), is identical to mine (during my first visit, in 2004):

“. . . I saw gigantic trees, evergreen oaks overgrown with Spanish moss, like ancient bison. I quickly realized that Houston was a very green city, and that those evergreen oaks were its claim to fame. And that little prefix ever! Azaleas began blooming in February, larger than in Europe, but even the word spring didn’t make much sense in this climate. The evergreen oaks [primarily live oaks and water oaks] behaved like cautious rentiers: they never lost all their leaves even for an instant, they renewed them systematically, new leaves grew beneath the previous year’s leaves and after a moment mercilessly pushed the old ones out – the battle of the generations crystalized in pure, clinical, horrifying form – so that the trees were never naked.”

As a fellow Northerner, I shared Zagajewski’s wonder at the Texas autumn, which is little more than a rumor by Northern standards. Next, Zagajewski gets even more personal:

“I also discovered the Rice University campus, located near my apartment, and above all its wonderful library, in which I spent blissful hours, hours borrowed from life when I forgot about Texas; only after leaving did I rediscover the old oaks’ arabesques and remember where I was. Rice University is better known for engineering than the humanities, it’s true, but its library has splendid holdings in the European literatures. Long shelves brim with books of largely forgotten authors, who labored their whole lives.”

Zagajewski’s description is vividly precise. I work for the George R. Brown School of Engineering at Rice, and almost every day I visit the Fondren Library. The poet says he “spent a great deal of time in the comfortable, nearly empty library at Rice.” He also learned to deal with Eastern prejudice about living in Houston. Whenever he would meet Roger Straus, the publisher would “ask jokingly if we were certain that Texas was in fact part of the United States of North America. On the East Coast they see Houston as a kind of black hole, antimatter. My East Coast friends treated me with sympathy—I had to return to the Southern jungles.” I hear the same lame jokes. But Zagajewski respects more than just Texas and its superb libraries. It’s good to hear a European express qualified admiration for America and its culture:

“American libraries are far better than their European counterparts, perhaps because memory infiltrates the structure of European cities, urban development, even rural fields and meadows, are shaped by archaic models, layers of memory shape the light, under naked skies, laid open to the rain and wind, they’re inscribed in the layout of streets, in the architectural details of old houses, whereas in the United States memory is preserved chiefly in libraries and museums, since the cities mostly suffer from amnesia, old buildings are laid waste and gleaming new buildings  take their place every couple of decades.”

Sunday, June 18, 2017

`A Faith Too Brave for Dogmatists'

A young reader writes to report he has overcome his fear and is reading Moby-Dick for the first time. Critics and even misguided common readers have mythologized Melville’s book into a fearsome monolith, not unlike the harpoon-acupunctured White Whale himself. Moby-Dick is what used to be known as a “rollicking good read.” (The OED suggests “rollicking” may derive from a blend of “romp” and “frolic.”) Constance Rourke in American Humor: A Study of the National Character (1931) says “comedy mapped the outlines of Moby-Dick and shaped its forms. Passages of comic fantasy are strewn through the narrative.” Consider the meeting of Ishmael and Queequeg. Consider the fart and penis jokes. Consider Ishmael, the voice of the novel. Consider a sonnet by David Levin, “To a Moral Navigator, Observed on His Way to Class,” written “For Yvor Winters” and included in Poems in Memory of Yvor Winters on the Centenary of his Birth (edited and published by R.L. Barth, 2000):

“Solemn as Queequeg, porting an old harpoon,
You march in sunshine, stepping forth to teach
Young navigators how to haul, to reach
The mystery of Melville, whale, typhoon.
You have not flung your quadrant at the moon,
Or thrown away your pipe, or scorned the beach,
Or, with some captains of demonic speech,
Followed dumb feeling to a blind lagoon.

“Yet reason must be brought to your defense.
You reach a faith too brave for dogmatists.
Unable to receive the Holy Ghost,
And knowing what your unbelief has cost,
You use dead reckoning, and meet white mists
In the pure style of grave intelligence.”

Levin likens Winters to Queequeg, the master harpooner, not mad Ahab. In “The Quadrant,” Chapter 118 of Moby-Dick, Ahab curses the navigational instrument and smashes it on the deck, vowing to navigate the Pequod with “the level ship's compass, and the level deadreckoning, by log and by line” -- typical self-destructive bravado. Instead, Winters shares with Queequeg “the pure style of grave intelligence.”

In 1978, ten years after Winters’ death, Levin published a remembrance of his teacher, “Yvor Winters at Stanford,” in the Virginia Quarterly Review. Levin confirms that Winters each year carried a harpoon to his lecture on Moby-Dick. He writes: “Just as the intensity of his passion must sometimes have moved his fingers over keys that expressed more anger than the occasion deserved, so his perfect ear for the language and his scorn of circumlocution must occasionally have brought reasonable indignation closer to the sound of fury.” The title of Levin’s poem alludes to the title of Winters’ “Herman Melville or the Problems of Moral Navigation” in Maule’s Curse (1938), republished in In Defense of Reason (1947). In it, Winters refers to the novel as “essentially a poetic performance.”

[See the late Turner Cassity’s reference to Ahab and Moby Dick in “Energy Crises” (Devils & Islands: Poems, 2007).]

Saturday, June 17, 2017

`Books on Concrete Subjects, and Old Books'

Roy Newquist was a syndicated reviewer who wrote a book column for the long-defunct Chicago American in the early nineteen-sixties and later worked for the New York Post.  His specialty was interviewing writers. Transcripts of sixty-three such conversations are collected in Counterpoint (Rand McNally, 1964). Most of his interviewees are trifling – William Peter Blatty, Dwight Macdonald, Howard Fast, Harper Lee. Others have been blessedly erased from cultural memory – Eileen Bassing, Hoke Norris, Maurice Dolbier, Morris L. West. It’s salutary to be reminded that fame and influence in any realm are fleeting, though Newquist does speak with a few writers of lasting worth, including Louis Auchincloss, Peter De Vries and best of all, A.J. Liebling.

I never knew of the Liebling interview and Raymond Sokolov makes no reference to it in The Wayward Reporter: The Life of A.J. Liebling (1980). Newquist spoke with Liebling shortly before The New Yorker writer’s death in December 1963, though no mention is made of his multiple illnesses. Liebling comes across as an enthusiastic conversationalist:

“Reporting, by and large, is being interested in everyone you meet. It’s surprising how often the most casual meetings turn up fascinating material. This goes for Egypt or a fight club in London. If you don’t consider anybody as being beneath consideration, it’s rewarding and it’s fun.”

When I worked as a newspaper reporter I frequently repeated a remark attributed to Liebling, though I’ve never identified the source: Good reporters report with their feet. That is, they get out of the newsroom and walk their beat, meet people and talk to them. The Liebling passage quoted above is a natural corollary to this idea. Everyone you meet is potentially a story if you listen and observe long enough. Liebling, a congenital introvert, was a gifted listener.

Newquist asks Liebling what he “admire[s] and deplore[s] in today’s literary world,” and the writer answers, “. . . I can’t regret the mere absence of more good books, of more good novels in particular. I think this is the age of the journalist and the historian.” That idea, often self-fueled by its practitioners (Mailer and Capote in particular), was in the air in the nineteen-sixties. None wrote as well as Liebling, who continues:

“There’s very little humor being written now. I think everyone will agree with me on that. Again, it may be the times we live in, but as terrible as times may be, I don’t see the need for the let’s-dance-on-the-casket sort of humor that does pop up.”

I suspect he refers to the vogueish school of black humor flourishing at the time, epitomized by Joseph Heller’s seditious cartoon of a novel. Liebling, who covered World War II for The New Yorker, was a patriot. He was also the wittiest of American writers, not the sort to dance on a casket. Among writers from his day he praises his dearest friend, fellow New Yorker reporter Joseph Mitchell, and Katherine Anne Porter (though not his wife, Jean Stafford). “But I guess it doesn’t matter greatly what I think of the troubled area of fiction [written when when Nabokov and Bellow are at the height of their powers],” he says. Most of my interest lies in reading historical books, books on concrete subjects, and old books.”

I thought of Liebling recently when noticing that some of the most tedious conversation and writing I’ve heard or read of late had food as their subject. Everyone feels qualified to talk about it (“We all eat”) but few have anything interesting to say. Listen to Liebling in Between Meals: An Appetite for Paris (1959):

“The primary requisite for writing well about food is a good appetite. Without this, it is impossible to accumulate, within the allotted span, enough experience of eating to have anything worth setting down. Each day brings only two opportunities for field work, and they are not to be wasted minimizing the intake of cholesterol.”