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.

Monday, July 21, 2014

`My Efforts at Their Best Are Negative'

“I look and look, / As though I could be saved simply by looking,” says Anthony Hecht’s speaker near the end of “The Venetian Vespers,” the long title poem (more than eight-hundred lines) from his 1979 collection. The speaker is an aging American expatriate living in Venice. In a letter written in 1977 to the poet Howard Moss, poetry editor of The New Yorker, Hecht describes his speaker as “a man in a deeply troubled and turbulent state of mind, whose chief torture is that his troubled mind can never be set at ease and satisfied.” Without detailing the family hell he has inherited, it’s sufficient to say we’ve known people like him, and perhaps we ourselves resemble him, and such people will never know the more banal sorts of happiness or even rest. The best they can hope for is to not inflict misery on others. 

One of our neighbors, a middle-aged woman who works in corporate middle-management, lives alone and keeps to herself. On the rare occasions we see her outdoors, her conversation is affable but terse. Her wit is sharp and she appreciates a tart tongue in others. She likes acidic quips. They amuse her and are quickly done with, so she can move on. She has little tolerance for happy talk, what passes for conversation in many quarters today. None of this I report critically. In fact, I like her. People make accommodations with life. We can’t hope to fully understand them because we hardly understand ourselves. Sunday morning, our neighbor’s car – a new and expensive model -- was parked in the street, not in her driveway, as is her custom. Both tires on the driver’s side were flat. More than flat, they were shredded. She drove home on the rims. No explanation, and we never saw her all day. Her newspaper remained on the sidewalk. The neighbors talked, as neighbors will. Concern, potentially juicy gossip, but no ill will. In the sixth and final section of Hecht’s poem he writes:

“My efforts at their best are negative:
A poor attempt not to hurt anyone,
A goal which, in the very nature of things,
Is ludicrous because impossible.” 

Hecht goes on to quote the final three lines of Swift’s “Description of a City Shower,” and writes: “At least I pass them on to nobody, / Not having married, or authored any children, / Leading a monkish life of modest means…”

Sunday, July 20, 2014

`To Enchant or at Least Entertain Myself'

Among living novelists are only three whose entire body of work I have read, in part because their writing lives have closely overlapped my reading life, and because I admired and enjoyed all of them from the start – Philip Roth, Cynthia Ozick and Thomas Berger. The first two will surprise no one. The third, if remembered at all, is associated with a single title, Little Big Man (1964), and the lousy movie adapted from it. Unlike Roth, Berger has never published a bad or mediocre book. His career has been steady, single-minded and utterly independent. His twenty-three novels are among the funniest ever written, though Berger has steadfastly defied pigeonholing as a humorist. He has identified his favorite novelists as Anthony Powell, Barbara Pym, Proust and Frank Norris, making him as uncategorizeable a reader as writer. His humor is in his prose, a supple, American instrument. Though paid critical lip service, often laced with condescension, he remains insufficiently appreciated and understood, as do such comparably gifted and taken-for-granted writers as Janet Lewis and Evan S. Connell. 

For the uninitiated, I recommend starting with Little Big Man, followed by the Carlo Reinhart tetralogy -- Crazy in Berlin (1958), Reinhart in Love (1962), Vital Parts (1970) and Reinhart’s Women (1981). Move on to Sneaky People (1975), The Feud (1983) and Meeting Evil (1992), and then graze contentedly at will among the other fifteen titles. Berger speaks for many of us when he tells David Madden in an interview collected in Critical Essays on Thomas Berger (1995): 

“As a child I always loved to read and exercise my imagination. I have a vague memory of wanting to grow up to be a foreign correspondent, but that had to do almost entirely with wearing a trench coat, and I think that before I got too old I understood the difference between journalism and fiction and came to prefer the latter as being more likely to serve the truth: I mean, of course, using Pascal’s distinction, the truth of the heart and not of the reason, which is to say the serious truth as opposed to that of expedience and vulgarity. I regard myself as a teller of tales that are intended primarily to enchant or at least entertain myself. Only by living in the imagination can I successfully pretend I am a human being.” 

Berger was born in one America’s great cities, Cincinnati, on this date, July 20, in 1924. Happy ninetieth birthday, Thomas Berger.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

`The Long-Awaited Conversation'

When I borrow books from my university library I check the card at the back stamped with the last date of circulation. On Friday, for instance, I took out Mavis Gallant’s first novel, Green Water, Green Sky, published in 1959. The last prior due date was April 4, 1980, a mere thirty-four years ago. On occasion I’ve taken out books that collected dust for almost a century. I never borrow a book because it hasn’t circulated in a long time, but I feel a tingle of pride when I revive one from its long dormancy, and a sense of kinship with an anonymous, long-ago reader. We share something, however attenuated, for there is a fellowship of true readers and the membership rolls are secret, even to members. Jeff Worley begins “Unlocked, 2047” (A Little Luck, Texas Review Press, 2013) with an unsourced sentence from Marianne Moore: 

“Life is energy, and energy is creativity. And even when individuals pass on, the energy is retained in the work of art, locked in it and awaiting release if only someone will take the time and the care to unlock it.” 

It sounds like late-period Moore, from the Brooklyn-Dodgers-Ford-Motor-Company era, when the great poet had evolved into a great celebrity, and she uses that odious word “creativity,” a sure sign of mental slippage. But the trope is a pleasant one, a writer’s essence lodged in his books, to be released only with the aid of the reader, like the genie from his lamp. Here is Worley’s poem: 

“I imagine it will be early evening,
light prisming through a tall window. 

“A young woman prowls
the shelves of a library, hunting 

“and gathering books the old way.
Thousands of us old literary soldiers 

“are lined up, stiff at attention
in our true final resting spots. 

“She traces our spines with the delicate
tips of her fingers. She’s not in a hurry. 

“She’s humming some popular tune,
some hard to dislodge music… 

“Williams, Worley, Wrigley. Wait a minute.
Worley. Funny name. What kind of stuff 

“did he write? She slides me out and into
her warm palm. I’m hers now. 

“She creaks the book open, settles onto
A pillowed window seat, and we begin 

“the long-awaited conversation.” 

A book unread dwells in a torpid state, not dead but giving the appearance of death – benumbed, the OED suggests, like a patient on the surgeon’s table. Open Tristram Shandy to Book II, Chapter XI (page 79 in my old Everyman’s Library edition), and read: 

“Writing, when properly managed (as you may be sure I think mine is) is but a different name for conversation. As no one, who knows what he is about in good company, would venture to talk all; -- so no author, who understands the just boundaries of decorum and good-breeding, would pressure to think all: The truest respect which you can pay to the reader’s understanding, is to halve this matter amicably, and leave him something to imagine, in his turn, as well as yourself.”

[Dave Lull points out that Worley misattributes the quotation. The speaker is not Marianne Moore but Joyce Carol Oates. See the final sentences in Oates' Paris Review interview. Now the sentiment's semi-insipidity makes sense.]

Friday, July 18, 2014

`Direct Oppugnancy to the Good'

What follows is a brief digressive detour illustrating the way one reader reads and suggesting how everything seems to be connected, at least to those who try to pay attention. Coleridge is a long-standing interest, as writer and man. He is sad and often infuriating, and his example reminds us how even genius is prey to self-sabotage. Richard Holmes’s biography, The Early Visions, 1772-1804 (1989) and Darker Reflections, 1804-1834 (1998), is the urtext for this long, sorry story. That Coleridge wrote anything coherently readable is a miracle, as is the sheer volume of work (sixteen titles in twenty-three bulky volumes in the collected edition from Princeton University Press) he managed to accumulate. It says something that the scholar who wrote a brief critical biography of Coleridge in 1968 (and co-edited the Princeton Biographia Literaria), W. Jackson Bate, also wrote the great modern biography of Dr. Johnson. 

Aids to Reflection (1825) contains the poet’s musings on religion. The prose is dense, the theological references often obscure and the arguments recondite, and I confess to doing some skimming. It’s one of those volumes I had read about but never in. Occasionally, the narcotic mists will part and Coleridge will write with pithy tartness. Here, from the section titled “Aphorisms on Spiritual Religion,” which is seldom aphoristic, is a focused point of light (characteristically, in parentheses): “(And whatever is placed in active and direct Oppugnancy to the Good is, ipso facto, positive Evil.)” 

Three things impress me: 1. The anomalous terseness of the sentence, by Coleridge’s customary standards. 2. Its bracing certainty of tone. 3. Oppugnancy. The word spelled love at first sight for this reader. By context and etymology I gauged its meaning -- from oppugnantia, resistance or opposition. Its power as a word in English is amplified by echoes of repugnance and pugnacity. It sounds like the name of a stage Irishman – Kevin O’Pugnacity. In comparison, the OED is disappointingly sober: “opposition; antagonism; conflict.” But the dictionary also reminds us that Shakespeare put the word to memorable use in Ulysses’ rousing speech in Troilus and Cressida, Act I, Scene 3: 

“O, when degree is shaked,
Which is the ladder to all high designs,
Then enterprise is sick! How could communities,
Degrees in schools and brotherhoods in cities,
Peaceful commerce from dividable shores,
The primogenitive and due of birth,
Prerogative of age, crowns, sceptres, laurels,
But by degree, stand in authentic place?
Take but degree away, untune that string,
And, hark, what discord follows! each thing meets
In mere oppugnancy.” 

This is one of the great articulations of the conservative spirit, the will to preserve order and dwell within an honored tradition, the opposite of what what the death-cultists are trying to do to Israel. Ulysses' speech recalls Evelyn Waugh in Robbery Under Law (1939): 

“Civilization has no force of its own beyond what is given it from within. It is under constant assault and it takes most of the energies of civilised man to keep going at all. There are criminal ideas and a criminal class in every nation and the first action of every revolution, figuratively and literally, is to open the prisons. Barbarism is never finally defeated; given propitious circumstances, men and women who seem quite orderly, will commit every conceivable atrocity. The danger does not come from merely habitual hooligans; we are all potential recruits for anarchy. Unremitting effort is needed to keep men living together at peace; there is only a margin of energy left over for experiment however beneficent. Once the prisons of the mind have been opened, the orgy is on.”