Monday, July 31, 2006

Unsaintly Secular Saint

Benjamin Kunkel has published an appreciation of Samuel Beckett, "Sam I Am," in The New Yorker. Despite the silly title it is worth reading. Thanks to Dave Lull.

The Whiteness of the Tale

In his foreward to Masquerade and Other Stories, a collection of Robert Walser’s stories published in 1990 by Johns Hopkins University Press, William H. Gass writes:

"They found Robert Walser’s body in the middle of a snowy field. It was Christmas Day, so the timing of his death was perhaps excessively symbolic. I like to think the field he fell in was as smoothly white as writing paper. There his figure, hand held to its failed heart, could pretend to be a word – not a statement, not a query, not an exclamation – but a word, unassertive and nearly illegible, squeezed into smallness by a cramped hand. It would be a word, if it were a word (such doubtful hesitations were characteristic of Walser), which would bring to an end a life of observant idling, city strolling, mountain hikes, and woodland walks, a life lived on the edges of lakes, on the margins of meadows, on the verges of things, a life in slow but constant motion, at a gawker’s pace: sad, removed, amused, ironic, obsessively reflexive."

As we have come to expect from Gass, the prose is precise, stately, detailed, nuanced, critically shrewd, lovely to hear, and "obsessively reflexive." The passage reminds me of another written by a very different sort of writer, one who inhabited a very different world:

"I dreamed of the paper I am now writing on as of an open field or a forest: oh to be able to lose myself in it, to take off and run on breathlessly and, without reaching the end or even the middle, put down somewhere at the edge or in a corner just a few rapid lines. . ."

He goes on:

"You need paper to lose yourself in its whiteness. Writing means diving into a page and coming up with some idea or word. Blank paper invites you to dip down into its artless expanse. A writer is like a fisherman. He sits and waits for something to bite. Put a blank sheet of paper in front of me and, without even thinking, let alone understanding why, I am sure to be able to fish something out of it."

Many writers are neurotic about the blank whiteness of a sheet of paper or computer screen. All that emptiness to fill induces a sense of vertigo and performance anxiety. The pristine purity poses a reproach to modest gifts. Not so Andrei Sinyasky, who wrote under a pseudonym he took from a renowned Russian-Jewish gangster, Abram Tertz. Historians date the start of the dissident movement in the Soviet Union to the 1966 trial of Sinyavsky and Yuri Daniel. Both writers were charged with smuggling anti-Soviet manuscripts out of the country for publication elsewhere. Both were found guilty. Sinyavsky was sentenced to seven years in a forced labor camp; Daniel, five.

The passages above come from Sinyavsky’s A Voice from the Chorus, based largely on the two letters per month the Soviet authorities allowed him to send to his wife. During his six years in the camp, Sinyavsky was not otherwise permitted to write anything. To him, the whiteness of the page signified unfettered freedom of imagination. There's no fear, no anxiety, no sense of inadequacy. He has already endured the writer's hell of not having the freedom to write.

Sinyasky left the Soviet Union in 1973, settled in Paris, and died in 1997 . The English translation of A Voice from the Chorus was published in 1976. It remains my favorite among all of his books, a ragbag of prison folklore, stray thoughts both mundane and profound, observations on his evolving religious sense and even literary criticism. Among the later, this is my favorite:

"[Isaac] Babel exhibited a trait common, perhaps, to all writers: he was not merely an observer, he was also a snooper. All his life he spied 'through the keyhole' in the hope of seeing something interesting. As an author, he was always himself off stage, looking from outside at the bizarre scenes he picked out from some squalid area of life -- hence his reticence about his own views and the elusive quality of his biography. What kind of views, indeed, can a man have if he is entirely engrossed in the search for outlandish things and subjects buried among the rubbish? And his biography is that not of a living person, but of one seconded to life (his job of clerk in the Red Cavalry suited him admirably), who could fit into any surroundings or situation and look at it without prejudice. He was a spy in the service of literature who ferreted out wonders in everyday existence, a declasse secret agent who once rented a room in the house of a 'finger man' in order to write his Odessa Stories. His non-Russian origins were also a convenience for him."

Sunday, July 30, 2006

'The Prisoner of Guantanamo'

My review of The Prisoner of Guantanamo, a novel by Dan Fesperman, appears in today's Philadelphia Inquirer.

More Les

Saturday afternoon, driving home from the University of Houston where I visited the M.D. Anderson Library, I listened to a cassette of La Pistola y el Corazon, by Los Lobos. I bought it in 1990, on the same day I first saw Martin Scorcese’s Goodfellas, in which pistols also make an appearance. Like Blonde on Blonde and The Band, it’s an album I know almost by heart ("mi corazon"), and that’s peculiar because unlike most of the records produced by David Hidalgo, Cesar Rosas and Co., La Pistola is a collection of songs sung in Spanish, a language I don’t know. Why does one listen to – and respond to emotionally and come to love -- music with lyrics he cannot decipher?

In this case, part of the reason is the band’s musicianship, especially Hidalgo’s guitar and plaintive tenor. The songs are norteno, a form of Mexican acoustic music, mostly ballads, and the themes are timeless and heartbreaking -- lost love, love unrequited, love scorned. In English, the lyrics are clunky and trite. Here’s the final verse of the title song, as translated in the liner notes:

"The kisses that you gave me my love
Are the ones that are killing me
But my tears are now drying
With my pistol and my heart
And here as always I spend my life
With the pistol and the heart"

Canned sentiments, you might say. But in Spanish, the lines are filled with voluptuous long "o’s," 16 in six lines, three in the title words alone. Here, in Spanish, are the end words of the six lines quoted: "amor," "matando," "secando," "corazon," "la vida con," "corazon." Like Italian, Spanish is rich in open-mouthed voicings, ravishing vowels that make them a pleasure to hear and sing even when meaning is absent. They give pleasure to the mouth and ear.

I thought about this because I’ve been reading Les Murray’s Collected Poems and enjoying myself shamelessly even when I’m not certain what is going on. This reminds me that much of the best poetry, before it is anything else, is artfully arranged sound. Sense is not absent but neither does it insist on primacy of importance. Murray is not a hermetic poet, like Celan or Ungaretti, but he often uses Australian idioms and subject matter unfamiliar to many American readers.

Here’s a Murray poem, "Performance," published originally in his 1996 volume, Subhuman Redneck Poems. On the first pass through this sonnet of sorts, listen to the middle portion as music, pure sound:

"I starred that night, I shone:
I was footwork and firework in one,

"a rocket that wriggled up and shot
darkness with a parasol of brilliants
and a peewee descant on a flung bit;
I was blusters of glitter-bombs expanding
to mantle and aurora from a crown,
I was fouéttes, falls of blazing paint,
para-flares spot-welding cloudy heaven,
loose gold off fierce toeholds of white,
a finale red-tongued as a haka leap:
that too was a butt of all right!"

"As usual after any triumph, I was
of course, inconsolable."

The poem contains two words I didn’t know ("fouettes," "haka") and several familiar words used in ways I didn’t recognize. But even on the first read I understood the sense of excitement and celebration contained in language so densely packed it threatens to burst like a rocket from its own energy – music to be listened to with my ears and "mi corazon."

Saturday, July 29, 2006

Spinoza Redux

Thanks to Dave Lull for a link to a piece in today's New York Times by Rebecca Goldstein, author of Betraying Spinoza: The Renegade Jew Who Gave Us Modernity. The occasion was the 350th anniversary, on Thursday, of Spinoza's excommunication.

`Nothing's Free When It's Explained'

Among my favorite living poets is Les Murray of Australia, who dedicates each of his books "to the glory of God." He is bracingly contrary and independent, and a serious Catholic, one of those rare poets who has reinvented poetry and stamped it with his own image, and who periodically jettisons a style and crafts another. He routinely bashes his own most devoted readers – academics and those he condemns as "liberals" – but there’s no need to embrace his politics or faith to recognize you are in the presence of a force of nature as you read his poems.

I discovered Murray only seven years ago, thanks to something I read online that I can no longer recall. Immediately I liked his Shakespearean gusto for life and language. Even his ample carriage is Falstaffian.

I’ve read him piecemeal but now I’m reading, start to finish, the Collected Poems, published in 1998 by Carcanet. Normally I’m indifferent to book cover design, but this volume bears a memorable image: a color photograph, shot from behind, of a seated elephant and, beside it, a little girl seated on a stool. She embraces the massive creature, her head resting on its flank. I read this as a fond and slightly comic reflection of Murray and his devoted readers.
At random, I turn to page 342, on which two brief poems appear. First, "Ariel":

"Upward, cheeping, on huddling wings,
these small brown mynas have gained
a keener height than their kind ever sustained
but whichever of them fails first
falls to the hawk circling under
who drove them up.
Nothing’s free when it’s explained."

And then, "Politics and Art":

"Brutal policy,
like inferior art, knows
whose fault it all is."

These poems give you little sense of Murray’s vast range of subject and technique, but they show his eye for the natural world and his gift for aphorism. Like Whitman he is a supremely sophisticated poet who enjoys playing the primitive.

Friday, July 28, 2006

That Damned Objective Reality Again

In his prose collection, Two Cities: On Exile, History, and the Imagination, poet Adam Zagajewski includes, among the more conventional essays and memoirs, a number of brief, unclassifiable pieces that blur boundaries between fiction and non-fiction, criticism and fable, essay and story. Here’s a example titled "The Two Defects of Literature":

"1. When the writer is preoccupied with only himself, his own weakness, his own life, and forgets about the objective world, the search for truth.

"2. When the writer is preoccupied with only the truth of the world, objective reality, justice, and judging people, epochs, and customs, and forgets about himself, his own weaknesses, his own life."

Neatly, wittily, Zagajewski skewers, first, the solipsists of the world, and then the propagandists. He may be overlooking a third, hybridized group – the solipsistic propagandists? – who seem so loud and ill-mannered. For them, "objective reality," especially its unhappiest face, is a reflection of some inner state, real or imagined. Thus, we have the cult of angry victims and their advocates, for whom literary art, a realm with discrete if not always well defined standards and assumptions, must seem worse than irrelevant – a particularly nettlesome reproach, perhaps.

I thought about this after I received a riot of e-mails and comments on a subject I viewed as literary and surely above mere politics, but which was contorted instantly into politics by some readers. I’m not unusually naïve, but such sputtering vehemence – sentence fragments, faulty grammar, ad hominem rants – took me by surprise and seemed to imply deep, delicious wells of self-righteous anger, more addictive than heroin.

In another brief essay, "The Untold Cynicism of Poetry," Zagajewski writes satirically of poets and their presumptuous "inner worlds," but he might speaking of those petulant, impotently anonymous readers:

"It pretends that it is interested, oh yes, very interested, in external reality. A great state is in decline? The inner world is ecstatic: it has a subject! Death appears on the horizon? The inner world – it thinks itself immortal – quivers with excitement. War ? Terrific. Suffering? Excellent. Trees? Overblown roses? Even better. Reality? Bravo. Reality is simply indispensable; if it did not exist, one would have to invent it.’

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Authorial Dominance

Kate's Book Blog, by way of Terry Teachout, prompted me to consider "Which authors dominate your bookshelves?" Kate defines "dominate" as owning at least five books by or about an author. Here’s my list:

W.H. Auden
Isaac Babel
Whitney Balliett
Samuel Beckett
Saul Bellow
Walter Benjamin
John Berger
Thomas Bernhard
John Berryman
Jorge Luis Borges
Italo Calvino
Elias Canetti
Anton Chekhov
Guy Davenport
Charles Dickens
William Gaddis
William H. Gass
Witold Gombrowicz
Zbigniew Herbert
Geoffrey Hill
Henry James
Samuel Johnson
James Joyce
Fraqnz Kafka
Primo Levi
A.J. Liebling
Christopher Logue
Osip Mandelstam
Greil Marcus
Joseph McElroy
Herman Melville
Steven Millhauser
Czeslaw Milosz
Vladimir Nabokov
Flann O’Brien
Cynthia Ozick
Fernando Pessoa
Marcel Proust
Thomas Pynchon
Philip Roth
Gershom Scholem
W.G. Sebald
William Shakespeare
Baruch de Spinoza
Christina Stead
Henry David Thoreau
Leo Tolstoy
Evelyn Waugh
William Carlos Williams
Ludwig Wittgenstein

The list is pleasing, surprising and somewhat misleading. Several writers I prize highly
(even more highly than some on the list) are under-represented or absent from my shelves: Dante, Edward Gibbon, Leopardi, Montale, William Maxwell and Stephen Dixon (three volumes each); Jonathan Swift, Charles Darwin and T.S. Eliot (two each); Pope, Keats, Whitman and Yeats (one each); Faulkner (none). I’m pleased by the near-parity between American writers and those from Eastern Europe, and surprised by the relative paucity of English writers. I own nothing by an Asian or African (unless you count St. Augustine). Only six writers occupy spots on Terry’s list and mine – James, Liebling, Nabokov, Proust, Shakespeare, Waugh.

I like to think my library has been distilled to essentials, though it will always remain a work in progress. I hold on to books because I love them, find them useful or both. When a book no longer meets at least one of those criteria, I give it away. Sometimes, after I have given away a book, I reevaluate my need for it, perhaps years later, and acquire another copy. The book I’ve had the longest is a Bible I was given in 1960. The newest, dating from earlier this month, is a collection of interviews with Czeslaw Milosz.

I own 25 volumes each by Beckett and Berger, making them the largest presences on my shelves, followed by Chekhov with 23 and Davenport with 19. Nothing on the list (or my shelves) embarrasses me, and I think it stands as a fair representation of my interests and tastes, and probably constitutes an oblique autobiography

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Robert Walser

In Tuesday’s quiz, the first two sentences were written by Robert Musil, the Austrian author of The Man without Qualities. The writer whose work he was reviewing, and the author of the third excerpt, is Robert Walser, a strange, unclassifiable, utterly lovable Swiss writer whose work may or may not be undergoing a revival in the English-speaking world.

Since 2000, at least four Walser titles in English have been published or re-published, including his incomparable short novel Jacob van Gunten, translated by poet Christopher Middleton, a veritable one-man lobby for Walser in English. Walser, however, has always had notable, enthusiastic admirers, including Kafka, Elias Canetti, Walter Benjamin, Guy Davenport and William H. Gass. In his 1914 review, Musil even refers to Kafka as "a special case of the Walser type."

The Walser sentence I chose – and Walser is one of those rare writers whose sensibility is stamped like a watermark on every sentence – comes from "A Sketch," translated by Michael Hamburger and dated 1928-29. Only 12 paragraphs long, about a page and a half, it concludes like this:

"The garden somewhat resembled a thought fortunately not thought to a conclusion, and, without having any idea where I get the effrontery to do so, I compare my sketch with a swan singing with unheard of ardor and screechingly giving voice to unmediated things."

The final destination of a Walser story can never be surmised from its starting point. The tone of a Walser story is playful and gentle, composed in the voice of a man for whom the mundane is always strange and interesting. They never descend into self-conscious whimsy, and they often carry a subterranean resonance of fear and sadness.

Walser, born in 1878, entered a mental hospital in 1933, when he stopped writing, and remained there until he died in 1956. This Christmas will mark the 50th anniversary of his death. Walser was an inveterate walker – many of his stories begin as walks – and his body was found that day in the snow. He had suffered a heart attack. A visitor, who had asked why he no longer wrote, quoted Walser as saying, "I am not here to write but to be mad."

Guy Davenport inserts Walser as the querulous narrator of his story "A Field of Snow on a Slope of the Rosenberg," published in Da Vinci’s Bicycle. It concludes like this:

"There are the tracks of the rabbit. I think they said at the table that today is Christmas. I do not know.

"But let us desist, lest quite by accident we be so unlucky as to put these things in order."

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Name That Writer!

Who wrote this sentence about the work of what writer?

"These thirty little stories will seem overly playful to people with a practical bent and to women with strongly charitable inclinations."

For another clue, here’s the next sentence:

"These people will accuse the stories of lacking character, of being quirky, of flirting with life, perhaps even of being heartless and of letting themselves be impressed by the bewildering determination with which insignificant things, say a bench in the garden, fill out their place in the world."

For a final clue, here’s a sentence from a story by the writer whose work is being described:

"I tremble less at the whims and oddities of others than at my own which lead me to a house, whose appearance I know not whether to describe or leave undepicted."

Monday, July 24, 2006

Let's Do an Experiment

When a critic describes a work as "experimental," it usually is a term of praise and it usually ought to be decoded by the wary reader as a synonym for "self-indulgently tedious." This is a shame, for true experiment, in literature as in science, is a venture into uncertainty, when the outcome cannot be known in advance. Much can be lost and much is at stake, including coherence and the reader’s indulgence. Most experiments fail, to be followed by more experiments. Etymologically speaking, to experiment is to try, to attempt, with no guarantee of success. Ulysses is a grand experiment that succeeded grandly. Finnegans Wake, though often beautiful and funny, is a failure.

In an essay titled "The Bugbear of Experimentalism," poet-translator Christopher Middleton usefully suggests that we distinguish experiments from other sorts of imaginative writing according to the element of risk:

"In other words, what counts is the outcome of the experiment. It matters hardly at all whether or not you were telling yourself ‘here goes with an experiment.’ The fact is that higher degrees of ‘intensity’ in the imaginative act of writing create, at immense risk, the real thing, and that the lower degrees risk less and merely produce a placebo. Here I distinguish between creating and producing. My model for the analogy is medical experiments with drugs: subjects take pills, some loaded with the real thing, but some – placebo pills – loaded with nothing. What counts, I repeat, is the outcome."

Using this standard, Herzog is as much a successful experiment as Pale Fire. By allowing the title character to write real and imaginary letters to living and dead correspondents, Bellow risked ridiculousness. Instead we wrote his best novel, one of the best written by an American, yet critics are content to pigeonhole Bellow as "traditional" or "naturalistic," and Nabokov as "postmodern," "metafictional," or "experimental." It’s easy to forget that Nabokov was an experimental writer because his rate of success was so consistent. Middleton reminds us of the excitement that accompanies true experiment:

"Insofar as a high-intensity experimental creation in the arts fathoms and provokes real doubt as well as real imagination, its very radiance must be constantly tested by fresh doubts, fresh imaginings, across decades, across centuries. Here perhaps ripeness really is all. What counts is the sovereignty of the creation, its naked truth, the seminal dynamism and fertile integrity of the new structure as and in which you’ve delivered, out of the unknown, your new spirit or old intractable demon.

"If the thing works, then people may say: Yes this is like life itself. Or they may say: Yes, that’s a real outrage. Or: Yes, this is life itself as I’ve not yet conceived of it. So the creation doesn’t explain anything. Only its beauty relates it to explanatory scientific theorems. What a creation says may remain in the protection of that beauty forever an enigma."

Sunday, July 23, 2006

What and Whom

Samuel Beckett, like the best poets, packs meaning and resonance into each word, and does it without seeming to do so. The density of his language and its compressed meanings are disguised. His best critic, Christopher Ricks, notes that when Beckett uses "mew" in Murphy rather than the conventionally correct "mews," he is exploiting the archaic meaning of the former: "cage." No reader needs to know this, but knowing it increases our understanding of the work and our pleasure in Beckett’s virtuosity.

This morning in our local newspaper, I read a book review by a writer identified as an English professor and poet. What attracted me was the reviewer’s pedantically proper use of "whom" three times in a brief review: "doesn’t know whom to trust," "doesn’t know what or whom to believe," "what and whom to trust." My reaction is mingled. I admire proper usage but scorn leaden repetitions, which imply indifference to the sound of words – a fatal defect in a putative poet. The reviewer writes:

"And although each of the characters in this complex book comes fully alive, the reader is left with more questions than answers, a powerful reminder of the ways in which our knowledge is always limited."

I note five cliches in language or thought in those 35 words. A review is not a novel, poem or play. It is a popular, bastard form, but language deserves our respect, as readers and writers, regardless of context. A reader-writer who does so is Derek Mahon, whose haunting poem, "An Image from Beckett," is rooted in 32 words spoken by Vladimir in Waiting for Godot:

"Astride of a grave and a difficult birth. Down in the hole, lingeringly, the grave-digger puts on the forceps. We have time to grow old. The air is full of our cries."

Here’s Mahon’s poem:

"In that instant
There was a sea, far off,
As bright as lettuce,

"A northern landscape
And a huddle
Of houses along the shore.

"Also, I think, a white
Flicker of gulls
And washing hung to dry –

"The poignancy of those
Back yards – and the gravedigger
Putting aside his forceps.

"Then the hard boards
And darkness once again.
But in that instant

"I was struck by the
Sweetness and light,
The sweetness and light,

"Imagining what grave
Cities, what lasting monuments,
Given the time.

"They will have buried
Our great-grandchildren, and theirs,
Beside us by now

"With a subliminal batsqueak
Of reflex lamentation.
Our knuckle bones

"Litter the rich earth
Changing, second by second,
To civilizations.

"It was good while it lasted,
And if it only lasted
The Biblical span

Required to drop six feet
Through a glitter of wintry light,
There is No One to blame.

"Still, I am haunted
By that landscape,
The soft rush of its winds,

"The uprightness of its
Utilities and schoolchildren –
To whom in my will,

"This, I have left my will.
I hope they have time,
And light enough, to read it."

Mahon manages to sound grimly hopeful in Beckett’s landscape of life-in-death. I like "grave/Cities," and "a subliminal batsqueak/Of reflex lamentation." Mahon unpacks Beckett’s meanings and re-packs his own, and we, as readers, know what and whom to trust.

Saturday, July 22, 2006

Pretending to Listen

I know nothing about business. The idea bores me and at some level probably frightens me. I associate most talk of money with that part of being a complete adult I will never achieve. I thought of this aphorism by Karl Kraus while pretending to listen to someone explain the meaning of "holding company":

"The most incomprehensible talk comes from people who have no other use for language than to make themselves understood."

This comes from Half-Truths & One-and-a-Half Truths: Selected Aphorisms, translated by Harry Zohn, Carcanet.

Friday, July 21, 2006

Apologia: `Insensible Transitions'

". . . he who professedly delivers the elements of a science is more obliged to method and system, and tied down to more rigorous laws, than a mere essay writer. It may, therefore, be pardoned if this rude Essay doth, by insensible transitions, draw the reader into remote inquiries and speculations, that were not, perhaps, thought of either by him or by the author at first setting out."

George Berkeley, Siris, No. 297. Works, edited by A.C. Frazer. Oxford 1901, Vol. III, p. 267. Used by Christopher Middleton as an epigraph to Jackdaw Jiving: Selected Essays on Poetry & Translation, Carcanet, 1998.

Stopping at the White Page

Beckett Remembering Remembering Beckett: A Centenary Celebration, edited by James and Elizabeth Knowlson, has the stitched-together-and-filled-with-sawdust feel of a rag doll assembled from scraps. I suspect that James Knowlson saved the best scraps for his biography of Beckett, Damned to Fame. The ''remembering'' parts consist mostly of interviews Knowlson conducted with Beckett between July and November 1989. Beckett died the following month, on Dec. 22, but he remains in remarkable form for an ailing 83-year-old whose wife, Suzanne Deschevaux-Dumesnil, had died July 17. Most of the material will be familiar to old Beckett hands. A brief remembrance by Avigdor Arikha, an artist and friend of Beckett's for 40 years, begins:

''In spite of his great erudition, Beckett refrained from theorizing -- even concerning Dante. Unlike erudition, theorizing stops at the white page."

This is an intriguing observation. The first sentence is straightforward and accurate, though I'm uncertain exactly what Arikha means in the second. Does "the white page" mean a page without words, Beckett's aesthetic culmination, the goal of creation through annihilation? Or, does he mean Beckett did not theorize beyond what he had written, that his work was its own best critique of itself? Or, did Akhira intend the ambiguity?

I enjoy reading Beckett, in part, because he redefined "minimalism" and jettisoned the superfluous. His mature work has the solid, inevitable feel of a sculpture by his friend, Giacometti. What is on the page has endured the acid bath of Beckett's sensibility. It's dense, like an iron-nickel meteorite that has survived a fiery passage through the atmosphere. Here's how he wrote by the time of Company:

"Better hope deferred than none. Up to a point. Till the heart starts to sicken. Company too up to a point. Better a sick heart than none. Till it starts to break. So speaking of himself he concludes for the time being, For the time being leave it at that."

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Bugged Again

Our home computer is out of commission and one of my wife's colleagues, after listening to a description of the symptoms, diagnosed the problem as "catastrophic." We'll resort to American ingenuity.

James Marcus at House of Mirth, commenting on my most recent post regarding Eugenio Montale, mentioned in an e-mail that I had neglected "one of the most celebrated and sinister uses of insects in his poetry -- the moths circling the lanterns at the beginning of "Primavera hitleriana," and the bodies of the dead ones crunching underfoot like sugar. Very memorable and icky. The first translation I read of this poem, in the old New Directions anthology, translated falene as mayflies, which is wrong. [Jonathan] Galassi and [William] Arrowsmith get it right. But the Italian word for mayfly is itself a tiny bit of poetry: efemera."

If you know anything about mayflies, the Italian word is precise and beautiful. See Richard Wilbur's poem on the same insect.

Here's the opening lines of "Hitler Spring" as translated by Robert Lowell:

"A dense white cold of maddened moths
swaggers past parapet and lamp,
shaking a sheet upon the earth,
crackling like sugar underfoot."

And here is Bernard Wall's translation, also taken from Montale in English, edited by Harry Thomas:

"Thickly the whitened cloud from the maddened moths
whirls round the pallid standards and on the embankments,
spreads on the ground a pall that crackles
like sugar underfoot..."

Grazie, James, for the reminder and for deepening my insight into Montale's mastery.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Two Sams

I am reading Loving Dr. Johnson, by Helen Deutsch, who writes the way you would expect an associate professor of English at the University of California, Los Angeles, to write, or perhaps a little better. Her book is often over-written in a cute, show-off way and it is, of course, clotted with academic jargon, which is unfortunate in a book devoted to a master of English prose. But when I noticed that Deutsch devotes considerable space to Samuel Beckett’s use of Johnson, I skipped ahead and found a few insights into one Sam’s interest in the other. In Beckett’s Disjecta: Miscellaneous Writings and a Dramatic Fragment, published in 1984, editor Ruby Cohn wrote of his 12-page Human Wishes:

“Although Beckett filled three notebooks with material for a play on the relationship of Dr Samuel Johnson and Mrs Thrale, only this scenic fragment of 1937 was actually composed. Pauses, repetitions, and formal patterns are strikingly prophetic of his drama to come.”

Beckett was especially devoted to Johnson’s Prayers and Meditations – an unlikely devotion I share, as I share Beckett’s unbelief. Despite obvious differences in religious faith, class, nationality and historical context, I’ve always recognized the philosophical and temperamental kinship between Johnson and Beckett. Deutsch cites a letter Beckett wrote on July 11, 1937, to Mary Manning that James Knowlson quotes in his invaluable biography of the playwright, Damned to Fame:

“There won’t be anything snappy or wisecracky about the Johnson play if it is ever written. It isn’t Boswell’s wit and wisdom machine that means anything to me, but the miseries that he never talked of, being unwilling or unable to do so. The horror of annihilation, the horror of madness, the horrified love of Mrs Thrale, the whole mental monster ridden swamp that after hours of silence could only give some ghastly bubble like `Lord have mercy upon us.’ The background of the Prayers and Meditations. The opium eating, dreading-to-go-to-bed, praying-for-the-dead, past living, terrified of dying, terrified of deadness, panting on to 75 bag of water, with a hyrdacele on his right testis. How jolly.”

The sympathy between two minds, two lives, is obvious. Here’s how Johnson defined “melancholy” in his Dictionary of the English Language: “A disease, supposed to proceed from the redundance of black bile. Quincy. A kind of madness, in which the mind is always fixed on one object. Milton. A gloomy, pensive, discontented temper. Sidney.”

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

`Comfort and Restore'

Yesterday, my first day as a university science writer, I produced nothing of worth and went home exhausted from nerves, sinus infection and Houston in July. I worked in a brief visit to the campus library, which is undergoing renovation so books are scattered all over the building, but I managed to find everything I wanted: Loving Dr. Johnson, by Helen Deutsch; Collected Poems 1943-1995, by Gwen Harwood; The Last Jew, by Yoram Kaniuk; Autobiographies, by R.S. Thomas. Walking back to my car, under the live oaks, through the long shadows and the whirring of cicadas, I was tired and headachy but pleased with the burden of good books in my briefcase. Here’s a Harwood poem, “On Books”:

“As the hymn says, a thousand ages
can vanish like an evening gone.
Time takes away the saints and sages,
the sinners too. We travel on
with time itself, awake or sleeping,
knowing we have no means of keeping
from time one single night or day.
But some things time can’t take away:
Our language, our imagination.
A world beyond the fugitive
world we must lose can wake and live
for this and any generation.
It’s there: you only have to look
inside the cover of a book.

“Books have their live: you leave them lying
at night in their accustomed place,
then find that they’ve been multiplying –
no bookshelf has sufficient space.
Leave an unwanted book behind you –
Useless! It travels back to find you.
Sometimes in trouble or despair
You look for solace, and it’s there:
The book you need is right before you,
and opens up as if it knew
what it was meant to offer you.
A book can comfort and restore you,
But need one just to prove you’re right
And it will linger out of sight.

“An infant in my cradle, beaming
at Farmyard Friends, -- just yesterday
it seems – I saw the magic gleaming
from books, and still they light my way.
Though I don’t want to sound alarmist
I’ve heard the stern words of the psalmist
And soon will have a birthday when
I reach the dread three score and ten.
Pray that my goose-quill find employment.
As long as I have wits and eyes
may I record the things I prize.
And for this time of pure enjoyment,
this luncheon in the Albert Hall,
my host, my friends, I thank you all.”

Harwood dedicates the poem “To the Tasmanian branch of the National Book Council, April 1990.” She was born in Australia on June 8, 1920, and died on Dec.9, 1995.

Monday, July 17, 2006

Back to Work

I go to work today as a science writer for a university here in Houston. For four and a half years I have worked as a freelance writer, mostly in the areas of science and medicine. Freelancing offers the solace of self-employment in exchange for the anxiety of irregular paychecks. As James Marcus at House of Mirth wrote to me last week, “Alas, there are no listings for Man of Letters in the employment section.”

I'm uncertain what impact fulltime employment will have on Anecdotal Evidence, except to say I plan to continue posting daily. The posts may become shorter and some days they may resort to the form of a commonplace book drawn from my reading, depending on available time and energy. Along with the more conventional benefits, I will also have unlimited access to a first-rate university library. On the subject of work, here is “Toads,” by Philip Larkin, who worked most of his life as a university librarian:

“Why should I let the toad work
Squat on my life?
Can't I use my wit as a pitchfork
And drive the brute off?

“Six days of the week it soils
With its sickening poison –
Just for paying a few bills!
That's out of proportion.

“Lots of folk live on their wits:
Lecturers, lispers,
Losels, loblolly-men, louts –
They don't end as paupers;

“Lots of folk live up lanes
With fires in a bucket,
Eat windfalls and tinned sardines –
They seem to like it.

“Their nippers have got bare feet,
Their unspeakable wives
Are skinny as whippets -- and yet
No one actually starves.

“Ah, were I courageous enough
To shout Stuff your pension!
But I know, all too well, that's the stuff
That dreams are made on:

“For something sufficiently toad-like
Squats in me, too;
Its hunkers are heavy as hard luck,
And cold as snow,

“And will never allow me to blarney
My way to getting
The fame and the girl and the money
All at one sitting.

“I don't say, one bodies the other
One's spiritual truth;
But I do say it's hard to lose either,
When you love both.”

Sunday, July 16, 2006

`To Unriddle the Job-Like Vagaries of the Human Heart'

The most dispiriting book I can remember reading is While Europe Slept, by Bruce Bawer, an X-ray of a continent’s cowardice, hypocrisy and moral confusion. Bawer’s subtitle tells the tale: How Radical Islam is Destroying the West from Within. Bawer is an American writer who moved to the Netherlands in 1998 and later to Norway. These are nations I, like Bawer, grew up thinking were civilized, sophisticated, liberal-minded democracies – in short, like us. Bawer demolishes our naïve image by documenting patterns of knee-jerk anti-Americanism, anti-Semitism and capitulation to Islamic thugs. Out of fear of offending barbarians (ponder that phrase for a moment), the French, Germans and others have given their tacit approval to female genital mutilation, wife beating, murder and routine Jew-baiting. It’s that last point I want to look at. Here’s Bawer:

“…since 2000, anti-Semitism in France has been epidemic. Synagogues have been burned down, schools vandalized, shops attacked, rabbis beaten, children assaulted, school buses shot at, gravestones knocked over and defaced with swastikas and the name of Hitler. At Muslim demonstrations, shouts of `Death to the Jews’ have become common. (one thing I’ve noticed is that while Americans speaks of `Jews’ or, more often, `Jewish people,’ Europeans usually say `the Jews.’)”

One day before I started Bawer’s book, I ordered a copy of The Last Jew, a novel by the Israeli Yoram Kaniuk, published in 1982 in Hebrew and this year in English. I learned of the book at, which published an interview with Kaniuk – a writer I had never heard of before. Sara Ivry, its senior editor, says to the novelist, “I could argue, though stretching's involved, you're not all that pessimistic. If there's always a last Jew, that means somebody endures,” and Kaniuk responds:

“Yes, but it's slowly becoming less and less. The world without Jews will not be the same. We produced Christianity and Judaism and philosophy and music, Mahler, and Schoenberg, the theater, we enriched the world in so many ways for centuries. So why do they hate us so much? Scholem Aleichem said, `Why didn't you choose someone else once? What harm did we do?’

Growing up in suburban Cleveland, I knew few Jews. None lived in my immediate neighborhood and I knew two or three Jewish girls at school. My father routinely denigrated Jews (and most every other group), casually dropping the conventional libels about greed and treachery. Once, after mowing the lawn, I was sweeping grass off the sidewalk. Angrily, he said, “Stop sweeping like a Jew.” He meant I was moving the clippings toward me with the broom rather than pushing them away – a gesture, in his mind, that echoed Jewish avarice.

My real education – books, especially, but television, too – had rendered me immune to my father’s prejudices. I started reading seriously at precisely the right time to appreciate the Jewish contribution to Western culture – and American literature. In the sixties I read Bellow, Malamud, Philip Roth, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Karl Shapiro, Edward Lewis Wallant, Henry Roth, Stanley Elkin, Herbert Gold, Isaac Babel and Kafka, among others. Soon I added Spinoza, Marx, Freud, Proust, Joseph Roth, Wittgenstein, Edward Dahlberg, Hermann Broch, Paul Celan, Simone Weil, Elias Canetti, S.J. Perelman, Allen Ginsberg, Delmore Schwartz, Howard Nemerov, Anthony Hecht, Primo Levi, Cynthia Ozick, Bob Dylan and so on. No literate person, no person who values literature as the expression of humanity’s worthiest gifts and aspirations, can be an anti-Semite. I once heard Ralph Ellison say in a lecture that all Americans, culturally speaking, are African Americans. Likewise, we are Jewish Americans, and let’s be proud of both inheritances.

After I finish writing this, I want to read Ozick’s story, “What Happened to the Baby?” in the current fiction issue of The Atlantic Monthly. But first, let me encourage you to read While Europe Slept, dispiriting though the experience will be for thoughtful readers. Also, read the following passages – the first, from the Kaniuk interview; the second, from Ozick’s “Tradition and (or Versus) the Jewish Writer,” collected in The Din in the Head:

“I'm in love with Jewish culture. I read the Bible and the Mishneh and the Talmud and the kabbalah, but without belief, I don't believe any of these things. I don't believe in anything so I cannot be religious. I don't have faith—not in human beings, not in democracy, not in God, not in anything. I like Hasidic stories. In The Last Jew there are many things that I took from the Hasidic background of my father's family. I have all kinds of meshichim, all kinds of messiahs.”

“What is a Jewish book? A narrow definition – but also conceptually the widest – would include the Torah and the Talmud (the Hebrew Bible and the ocean of ethically transformative commentaries), and all other texts that strive to unriddle the Job-like vagaries of the human heart while urging it toward the moral life. A Jewish book is liturgy, ethics, philosophy, ontology. A Jewish book speaks of the attempt to create a world in the image of God while never presuming to image God.”

Saturday, July 15, 2006

Happy Birthday

We know Robert Conquest best as the great scholarly dissector of Stalinism. In The Great Terror: Stalin’s Purge of the Thirties, The Harvest of Sorrow: Soviet Collectivization and the Terror-Famine and other books he meticulously dismantles lingering Western shibboleths about Communism. No longer can Soviet apologists claim ignorance.

Conquest celebrates his 89th birthday today (why has Elton John been knighted but not Conquest?), an appropriate occasion to remind ourselves he is also a considerable poet, best known for limericks and other light verse, and was a friend of Philip Larkin and Kingsley Amis. With Conquest’s gift for limericks in mind, Philip Larkin, the great Pound/Eliot hater, inscribed historian’s copy of High Windows like this: "For Bob Il Miglior Fabbro (or whatever it was) - at least over 5 lines Philip." Here’s one of his limericks:

“There was a great Marxist called Lenin
Who did two or three million men in
That's a lot to have done in
But where he did one in,
that grand Marxist Stalin did ten in.”

I have a copy of Between Mars and Venus, a slender volume of Conquest’s poems published by Hutchinson of London in 1962. The rhymes and metrics are traditional and readers will be reminded of Hardy and Auden, especially by way of Larkin, and perhaps a touch of Empson. The sensibility is spiky and skeptical and there’s a surprising amount of sex for its time and place. Here is “The Virtues of Poetry”:

“I read in passing, or with killing thirst.
I take a draught of freedom or a sip.
The stiff dichotomies may slur and slip,
The faulty neural currents be reversed.

“The tongue could be too salty or the tang:
It all dissolved beneath an actual sweetness.
Teaching no law and claiming no completeness,
It opened what we said to what we sang.

“For it disbands all false habituation
That carves life up with language; it will not
Disrupt one brilliance into think and feel.

Body-and-mind's a fracture it can heal
In such a rush of luck and liberation
As grips a gambler when the dice are hot.”

Conquest’s poems are a tonic. One feels like a grown-up while reading them and they tend to linger. I often think about that line: “It opened what we said to what we sang.” In the December 2004 issue of The New Criterion, Conquest published an essay, “The Whys of Art,” that also respects us enough to treat us like adults. Here’s a sample:

“One of the ways to give the impression of an aesthetic performance to those lacking the organ of taste is indeed to put into a work of art the political, religious, or other extraneous satisfactions popular with one or another audience. Particularly, of course, if strongly held. As Paul Valéry wrote, `Enthusiasm is not an artist’s state of mind.’

“Few poets have had much experience of the political. They have generous impulses, no doubt, and concern for humanity. These can be expressed in various ways and are not sufficient for a poem involving facts. On political issues, it is extremely rare for the facts to be so clear, and the human involvement so direct and simple, as to approach the immediacy and undeniability of experience. Still, there can be few comments as inept as that of William Carlos Williams, in his introduction to Allen Ginsberg, that this Beat poet had gone `into his Golgotha, from that charnel house, similar in every way, to that of the Jews in the past war.’”

Because of his vigorous respect for truth, Conquest, bless him, is no respecter of soft-headed pieties.

Friday, July 14, 2006

Saved from Oblivion

If only more of us, and not merely the poets, could speak with the orphic clarity of Czeslaw Milosz, a representative 20th-century man who sometimes shares a voice with Swendenborg or, closer to our own tradition, Blake or Whitman. Milosz had every excuse to turn lazy and bitter, and surrender to the fashionable nihilism of the age. Instead, he outlived the Third Reich, became an American of sorts, outlived the Soviet Union, survived as a poetic master into the new millennium, and never seemed to lose hope. If I remember correctly, even Susan Sontag in the opening section of her final novel, In America, made a veiled allusion to Milosz (who died in 2004) as the greatest living poet.

Now we have a fitting reminder of Milosz the man and poet in the form of Czeslaw Milosz: Conversations, the latest installment in the Literary Conversations Series published by the University Press of Mississippi. The book includes 18 interviews Milosz gave after he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1980. Among them is a brief e-mail conversation the poet had in 2000 with James Marcus, of House of Mirth, when he worked for Here’s how the exchange concludes:

“ Finally: In another poem from the same year [1985], `In a Jar,’ you allude to the preservative powers of poetry, which can confer immortality on the humble newt: `I address you, I give you existence --/Even a name and a title in the princedom of grammar --/to protect you by inflection from nothingness.’ You have granted a great many such titles. Might that even be the primary goal of your poetry?”

“Milosz: Yes, I believe that one of the functions of poetry is to save as many beings as possible from oblivion. I prefer the word oblivion to the word nothingness.”

On one level I marvel at a man, born three years before the start of World War I, sitting in Krakow after decades of exile in the West, exchanging e-mails with an American writer in Seattle. On another level, I marvel at a poet who admits to “saving beings” with mere words – a divine quality, surely – and yet somehow remaining humble.

The prize of the collection is a 24-page conversation between Milosz and Joseph Brodsky, two years after the latter won his own Nobel Prize and almost seven years before his death. The friendship and mutual esteem is obvious, like a couple of veterans swapping war stories, which in a sense they were. The talk is digressive, informal and joshing, and conducted in English – a language in which it has never before been published (it has seen print in Polish and Italian). Brodsky asks, “Do you have any strong loves in poetry in English? Something that, well, just…”

“CM: You see, in English, in English, I must say that it’s Whitman. For me Whitman is a poet like those painters of old who can take one part of the big canvas –’’

“JB: Ya. And live in it.”

“CM: --take, cut, and you see, modify that, and you see a world in that little margin.”

“JB: Ya, exactly.”

“CM: And that’s, for me Whitman. Extremely…this gives me a kick. And it corresponds precisely to that gluttonous attitude, omnivorousness, toward reality.”

“JB: Perhaps you also find Whitman congenial precisely because of that statement in the `Ars Poetica’: `gravitation to the spacious form.’”

“CM: Precisely. Precisely.”

Ah, to have been a fly…. Czeslaw Milosz: Conversations is a rich cassoulet of thoughts, emotions, history, memories, jokes and charm – in short, excellent talk.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

`To Defend Even the Guilty'

Too late, I learned Wednesday was the centennial of the acquittal of Alfred Dreyfus, the Jewish army officer falsely convicted of treason whose case because an international cause celebre. For a detailed look at the Dreyfus story, see Ronald Schechter’s “The Ghosts of Alfred Dreyfus” in Wednesday’s Forward. Like most Americans, I first learned of the Dreyfus case not from history class but from The Life of Emile Zola, the 1937 movie with Paul Muni as the novelist whose impassioned indictment, “J’accuse,” implicated the French army and politicians in the anti-Semitic scandal in January 1898. The Dreyfus case attracted international attention and sparked acrimonious debate across Europe and beyond. Among the opposing partisans were Anton Chekhov and his closest friend, Alexy Suvorin.

On Feb. 6, 1898, Chekhov wrote a letter from Nice to Suvorin, editor of the influential, conservative St. Petersburg newspaper Novoye Vremya. Chekhov had been publishing stories in the paper for six years. Both men were the grandsons of serfs. Despite differences that might have made friendship between others impossible, Chekhov and Suvorin reveled in each other’s company. They enjoyed fishing, canoeing and discussing literature. Both were the grandsons of serfs. Suvorin was by nature a reactionary, a bigot obsessed with wealth and power, and he and Novoye Vremye had grown increasingly anti-Dreyfus and anti-Semitic. Still, he befriended Chekhov and published some of his best stories. By the time Chekhov wrote his letter, Zola had had already fled to England to avoid being jailed for libel, and would remain there for 11 months. Chekhov wrote to his friend:

“You write that Zola has begun to disappoint you, but I must tell you that over here the general feeling is that he has been reborn as a new and improved Zola. Like turpentine, the trial has cleansed him of the stains which had previously sullied his reputation, so that he now appears before the French in all his true shining radiance, demonstrating a purity and moral grandeur that no one suspected he possessed.”

What’s noteworthy about Chekhov’s letter is its cool, evidence-mustering tone. Chekhov uses logic to dismantle Suvorin’s essentially illogical pronouncements. For almost five pages, in Penguin’s A Life in Letters (translated by Rosamund Bartlett and Anthony Phillips), he marshals evidence gleaned from reading stenographic transcripts of the case, not newspaper accounts:

“It is quite clear to me what lies behind Zola’s stance. The main thing is that he is acting honestly, by which I mean his judgements are based not on the chimeras of others but on what he has seen for himself. It is, of course, possible to be both sincere and wrong, but the errors of the sincere do less harm than the consequences of the deliberately insincere, the prejudiced or the politically calculating. Even if Dreyfus is guilty, Zola is still right, because the writer’s task is not to accuse or pursue, but to defend even the guilty once they have been condemned and are undergoing punishment. The question will be asked: what about politics, or the interests of the state? But great writers and artists should have nothing to do with politics except insofar as they themselves need protection from it.”

Their differences over the Dreyfus case effectively ended the friendship of Chekhov and Suvorin. Dreyfus was finally pardoned in 1899, after spending four and a half years on Devil’s Island. He petitioned for a retrial and on July 12, 1906, his verdict was formally annulled. Zola had died in 1902, Chekhov in 1904. Suvorin would die in 1912. Dreyfus lived until 1935.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Star Gazing

For Michael’s sixth birthday last week we game him a telescope – a 76-mm reflector mounted on a tripod. I assembled it Tuesday morning but still can’t figure out how to use it. It was manufactured in China and the instructions are composed in a species of pidgen English I had assumed was unique to menus in Chinese restaurants:

“2. Connect each leg and mount base (15) wity [sic] long screw and wing nuts (see fig 2a) but not tightening.”

“Wity long screw” is especially pleasing. When we figure out how to operate it, I’ll take my son some evening to the fringes of Houston, past the shopping malls, where light pollution is less compromising. He wants to see the moon, of course – the craters and, because he’s six years old, evidence of the man in the moon. He wants to see Mercury, Venus, Mars and the rings of Saturn and, on a grander scale, he wants to see galaxies so he can prove beyond argument the Big Bang Theory.

Children recapitulate early man’s wonder and fear at the celestial spectacle. Peering at the sky on a clear night is intoxicating. It is humbling and induces a sense of metaphysical vertigo. Within us, awe and reason wrestle for dominance. I remember, about 15 years ago, lying on my back on at the end of a wooden dock in a lake in the Adirondacks. It was mid-August, about 10 p.m. The sky was more stars than not-stars, a milky wash of star matter and gas, punctuated by meteors. One feels insignificant, of course, yet somehow linked to something greater. We are, after all, nothing but highly evolved star-matter, walking, thinking carbon. The experience reminds me of lines from R.S. Thomas’ The Echoes Return Slow:

“He looked over
the world’s edge and nausea
engulfed him.”

Nausea, like Pascalian horror, is akin to awe. I remember an English professor who characterized Shelley’s and Keats’ differences this way: If you took a walk with Shelley, he would look upward and rhapsodize the cosmos, singing the praises of planets and stars, stoned on creation. Keats’ gaze would be turned downward, observing in minute detail the flowers, grasses and insects along the path. I’ve always felt closer to the Keats end of that wonder spectrum, but Shelley’s vision is not entirely alien. I hear that mingling of science and poetry – never an absolute dichotomy -- in “The Astronomers of Mont Blanc,” by Edgar Bowers:

“Who are you there that, from your icy tower,
Explore the colder distances, the far
Escape of your whole universe to night;
That watch the moon’s blue craters, shadowy crust,
And blunted mountains mildly drift and glare,
Ballooned in ghostly earnest on your sight;
Who are you, and what hope persuades your trust?

"It is your hope that you will know the end
And compass of our ignorant restraint
There in lost time, where what was done is done
Forever as a havoc overhead.
Aging, you search to master in the faint
Persistent fortune which you gaze upon
The perfect order trusted to the dead.”

In the second stanza, Bowers seems to acknowledge the reality of an expanding universe, and the paradox of far-away stars remaining visible to us millions of years after their annihilation – “done/Forever as a havoc overhead.” R.S. Thomas shares with Bowers’ astronomers a vision of the merely human in the infinitely distant, cold, empty space. Here’s a passage from Thomas’ “Autobiographical Essay”:

“The problem I have always had difficulty in coming to terms with is the majesty and mystery of the universe and the natural world as a kind of symbol of God over against the domesticating urge of man. To kneel in my furnished room with its chairs and books, and then to look out and see Orion and Sirius rising above the bay makes it difficult to hold the two in proportion. I know that mind in the case of exceptional human beings is capable of a range beyond Orion…it would seem that the deity has chosen to mediate himself to me via the world, or even the universe, of nature.”

After Ursa Minor, the first constellation I could recognize was Orion, with his conspicuous belt. Michael can already find them in the night sky, up there with the Man in the Moon and the Big Bang.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

No Little People

As a reporter, I have often interviewed and written about people who had never before spoken with a journalist and who probably never would again. Their names will not appear a second time in the newspaper, except if someone cares to write their obituary. If you were to “Google” their names, you would find no matches. They have done nothing deemed noteworthy, for good or ill, and most greet their brief intersection with “fame” in a manner that mingles suspicion, mock humility and a flattered sense of pride. In an age of celebrity-worship, when otherwise negligible human beings become famous for being famous, the people I interview generally lead obscure, anonymous lives and thus, in the marketplace of fame, being neither movie stars nor serial killers, will remain forever losers. I thought about such things while reading some poems by Irving Feldman, particularly “The Biographies of Solitude” (in Collected Poems: 1954-2004). It’s not a great poem but it has several good lines:

“And who will say these lives have been?
“Solitude has no biographers.”

Feldman concludes the poem like this: “How America is immense and filled with solitudes!”

Melville recognized this truth. In chapter 27 of Moby Dick, “Knights and Squires,” he writes: “They were nearly all Islanders in the Pequod, Isolatoes too, I call such, not acknowledging the common continent of men, but each Isolato living on a separate continent of his own.”

Self-reliance and stoically keeping one’s own counsel were once judged characteristically American virtues, not social diseases. Today, one is expected to be a “team player” (beware of those who use sports metaphors unironically) and to radiate “school spirit.” As a writer, I have tended to sympathize with genuine outsiders, cranks, misfits and eccentrics, usually benign, sometimes nasty, who will never be romanticized or championed by partisans of bohemian chic. Most of them go to work, pay their taxes and walk an invisible line parallel to our own. We don’t often intersect. They want to be left alone – a fundamental human right.

Take the final paragraph of Middlemarch, in which George Eliot writes of Dorothea Brooke’s "full nature, like that river of which Cyrus broke the strength, spent itself in channels which had no great name on earth. But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffuse: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs."

Most of us lead “hidden lives” and are fated to “rest in unvisited tombs.” If not noble, such a life can at least be honorable. What’s the alternative? To be embalmed and put on display like Lenin’s corpse? In an author’s note to McSorley’s Wonderful Saloon, Joseph Mitchell, the nonfiction writer for The New Yorker, complained about journalists referring to “the little people”:

“I regard this phrase as patronizing and repulsive. There are no little people in this book. They are as big as you are, whoever you are.”

Monday, July 10, 2006

Off the Plinth

The most potent cocktail is one dram of anger, three drams of self-righteousness and a dash of ignorance, shaken violently, not stirred. The imbiber experiences a pleasing sense of moral superiority and limitless power accompanied by the guilt-free willingness to use it. The critics who swarmed over the reputation of Philip Larkin after the posthumous publication of his letters and Andrew Motion’s biography were unmistakably under its influence. It’s easy for me to think of Larkin as a difficult older brother I can’t help but love and admire, one I choose to judge not by his least admirable moments but by a lifetime of sustained poetic achievement. To say Larkin, in personal correspondence, made racist and sexist remarks, is a fair and accurate observation. He said things I can’t imagine saying. But to conclude that his poetry should, as a result, be dismissed, is stupid. Larkin was attacked, often viciously, for reasons of political correctness having nothing to do with artistry.

Thanks to Peter Nicholson, an Australian poet and columnist at 3 Quarks Daily, for supplying me with links to his work, in particular “Philip Larkin: Hull-Haven,” a column he published at that blog in April. Peter says more persuasively what I have been trying to say:

“Pulling people off their plinth is a lifetime task for minor minds that never get around to understanding that some writers say more, and more memorably, than they can ever do. Also, they don’t seem to understand that writers are just like everyone else, only with the inexplicable gift, which the said writer understands least of all, knowing that the gift, bestowed by the Muse, can depart in high dudgeon without notice. Larkin knew this, and lamented the silences of his later years.”

Peter, in an especially useful passage, contrasts the work of Larkin and Gerard Manley Hopkins. Fortunately, no one is compelled to embrace one of these poets while rejecting the other. I love both, and so, clearly, does Peter:

“Hopkins makes us feel the beauty of nature, he makes us confront God’s apparent absence in the dark, or terrible,’ sonnets. It is committed writing in the best sense. The language heaves into dense music, sometimes too dense. But you always feel engaged by his best poetry. Larkin is dubious about the whole life show. The world is seen from behind glass, whiskey to hand, or in empty churches, or from windswept plains. Sediment, frost or fog lapping at football.”

Well done, Peter. As a bonus, Peter includes “Larkin Letters,” the first part of a two-part poem he wrote in 1993, at the time of the Larkin brouhaha. Again, well done. And, in a recent e-mail, a poet in Edinburgh, Scotland, Rob Mackenzie, told me Larkin appears to be undergoing a revival of appreciation in Great Britain.

Sunday, July 09, 2006

Undone by Politics

R.S. Thomas, the Welsh poet and Anglican priest, was difficult, especially in his later years, the way John Brown and Isaiah, no doubt, were difficult. Their vision, if not single-minded, was more laser-focused than yours or mine. Thomas, a Welsh nationalist, condoned the burning of English vacation homes in Wales, even at the risk of their owners perishing in the fires. Like many artists, intellectuals and more than a few clergy, he was undone by politics. When writing poetry, he could be an angel; in politics, he seems often to have been a fool. I’m reminded of a lecture the Austrian novelist Robert Musil delivered in Paris in 1935 (reprinted in Precision and Soul: Essays and Addresses, 1990). Musil made the mistake of likening Bolshevism and fascism – not a deft rhetorical strategy at a conference dominated by Stalinists and their sympathizers. Here’s part of what he said, phrased with Musil’s customary gift for irony:

“All my life I have stayed away from politics because I feel I have no talent for it. I cannot understand the objection that politics has a claim on everyone because it is something that concerns everyone. Hygiene too concerns everyone, and yet it is not something I have ever expressed myself about in public, because I have no more talent as a hygienist than I do as an economic leader or geologist.”

Thomas gave an interview titled “Probings” that was first published in the journal Planet and later appeared in Miraculous Simplicity, edited by William V. Davis and published by the University of Arkansas Press in 1993. In his conversation, Thomas displays both sides of his personality. On the subject of Welsh nationalism and politics, he is shrill and often irrational. When he speaks of poetry, he becomes a better man:

“Literature has to do with speech. It is the communication of thought and emotion at the highest and most articulate level. It is the supreme human statement. You remember Wallace Stevens’s stanza in `Chocorua to Its Neighbor’:

“`To say more than human things with human voice,
that cannot be; to say human things with more
than human voice, that, also, cannot be;
to speak humanly from the height or from the depth
of human things, that is acutest speech.’

“We must remain articulate to the end, with all the overtones that articulation may imply from the drama of Sophocles to that of Beckett….I like to think of man, even on his last day on this planet, gazing out into the universe and speaking words of love and of beauty in his native tongue.”

Thomas’ words are so moving, his emphasis on the human impulse to speech and articulation (I thought at once of Lear) and his inspired linkage of Stevens, Sophocles and Beckett. (Who knew Thomas read Beckett?) How can the same man, earlier in the same interview, defend the use of “force,” rationalizing it as an attempt “to provoke a debate.” Politics has a way of compromising and demeaning even the best among us, making us stupid and mean. Here’s Thomas at near his best, “Truly” (from Experimenting with an Amen, 1986):

“No, I was not born
to refute Hume, to write
the first poem with no
noun. My gift was

for evasion, taking
cover at the approach
of greatness, as of
ill-fame. I looked truth

in the eye, and was not
abashed at discovering
it squinted. I fasted
at import’s table, so had

an appetite for the banal,
the twelve baskets full left
over after the turning
of the little into so much.”

Saturday, July 08, 2006


On Thursday I checked out a copy of The Second Life of Art, a selection of essays by Eugenio Montale, from the Doherty Library at the University of St. Thomas, here in Houston. I’ve read it several times and always find it useful as a supplement to Montale’s principle work, his poetry. What a pleasure watching a great artist work outside his customary bailiwick – imagine Glenn Gould playing the harmonica. I really should buy a copy, and have resolved to do so given what happened that evening.

I took the book from my nightstand and laid on the bed, preparing to browse, when something fell out of the volume onto my chest. It was brown and shiny, the size of an arrowhead, and for some reason I thought of amber – that wondrous fossilized resin that turns hapless insects into works of art. I got the insect part correct: It was a flattened, desiccated cockroach, virtually intact, with legs and antennae in place. I’m not squeamish but my wife is sickened by roaches, so I ran to the bathroom, flushed it away and didn’t tell her about it.

The roach hadn’t bored or burrowed, weevil- or termite-fashion, into the book. Clearly, an earlier reader had slammed the cover shut and left the roach as a bookmark between pages 168 and 169. I know this because of the reddish-yellow stains and scab-like bits of roach-matter left at the middle of each page. That marks the midway point of Montale’s “Chinese Poems 1753 B.C.-1278 A.D.,” first published in 1943 as the introduction to an anthology of Chinese poetry. I see no mention of roaches or other insects in the text, though just below two bits of roach-matter arranged on page 169 like a colon (the mark of punctuation, I mean), I find this phrase: “…these poems of nearly two thousand years leave us with a sensation in which admiration verges on dizziness or seasickness.” This precisely describes my own inordinate admiration for Montale’s poetry.

To my knowledge, there is no Montale concordance, at least in English, but I skimmed all the translations I have – Galassi, Arrowsmith, Harry Thomas’ Montale in English – and found no mention of roaches. However, in 1966, Montale published a poignant elegy, “Xenia I,” to his wife, Drusilla Tanzi, who had died three years earlier. She had the unflattering nickname of Mosca, meaning “fly” (Linnaeus himself named the house fly Musca domestica). Here’s a link to the entire poem, as translated by William Arrowsmith and published in Agni, but let me cite some relevant lines. Here are the first two sections of the 14-section poem:

“Dear little insect
nicknamed Mosca, who knows why,
this evening, when it was nearly dark,
while I was reading Deutero-Isaiah,
you reappeared at my side,
but without your glasses
you couldn’t see me,
and in the blur, without their glitter,
I didn’t know who you were.

Minus glasses and antennae,
poor insect, wingèd
only in imagination,
a beaten-up Bible and none
too plausible either, black night,
a flash of lightning, thunder, and then
not even the storm. Could it be
you left so soon, and without
a word? But it’s crazy, my thinking
you still had lips.”

I’ve seen pictures of Mosca, and her small face and head, and oversized, goggle-like glasses give her a house fly-like appearance. Still, to be named for an insect that moves from dung to birthday cake without blinking its many-lensed eyes cannot have been a comfort. Nor do I know if Montale gave her the nickname or if it came with her, grandfathered in, as it were. Montale’s poem suggests that their relationship (they met in the 1930s but didn’t marry until 1958, after Mosca’s husband died) was complicated and unconventional. Mosca seems to have served as both Muse and anti-Muse. Here’s the concluding section of “Xenia I”:

“They say my poetry is one of non-belonging.
But if it was yours, it was someone’s:
it was yours who are no longer form, but essence.
They say that poetry at its peak
glorifies the All in flight,
they say the tortoise
is no swifter than lightning.
You alone knew
that motion and stasis are one,
that the void is fullness and the clear sky
cloud at its airiest. So your long journey
imprisoned by bandages and casts,
makes better sense to me.
Still, knowing we’re a single thing,
whether one or two, gives me no peace.”

I found passing references to crickets in other Montale poems (“After a Flight,” “Thrust and Riposte”), and ants show up in the latter, but while Montale often used images drawn from nature, especially birds, he largely ignored the order Insecta. Why would a patron of the library at a Catholic university flatten a cockroach in a volume by Montale, then return it with the corpse in situ? To have chosen Montale implies some degree of taste and cosmopolitan literacy. Could this have been a Dada-inspired act of literary criticism, like the time some idiot took a sledge hammer to the Pieta?

Friday, July 07, 2006

From the Other Europe

Yesterday I wrote about Aleksander Wat and his memoir, My Century, and failed to mention a biography of the great Polish poet, Aleksander Wat : Life and Art of an Iconoclast , by Tomas Venclova. Thanks to Mark Thwaite at ReadySteadyBlog for reminding me. As I told Mark, the book is a bit academic and, as a result, brittle, but it remains an essential book for anyone interested in Wat, his work, Polish literature or the fate of the writer under Stalinism.

Venclova’s poetry is another matter. The book I know, Winter Dialogue, was published in 1997 and contains a forward by Joseph Brodsky, about 90 pages of Venclova’s poems translated from Lithuanian into English, and “A Dialogue About a City,” an exchange between Venclova and Czeslaw Milosz on the city they share – Vilnius (in Lithuanian) or Wilno (in Polish) – the capital of Lithuania. Since 1977, Venclova has lived in the United States. He is 68 and a professor of Slavic Languages and Literatures at Yale University. Brodsky provides a useful orientation to a writer from so little-known a European culture:

“In Venclova’s poems the reader will not find the slightest sign of hysteria or the slightest insistence on the uniqueness of the author’s fate, an insistence that logically presume’s the reader’s compassion. On the contrary, if his poems postulate anything, it is the awareness of despair as a habitual and exhausting existential norm, which is temporarily overcome not so much by an effort of will as by the simple elapse of time.”

And further:

“The lyrical quality of his poetry is fundamental, for as a poet he begins where normal people give up and where the great majority of poets, at best, switch to prose: he begins at the depth of consciousness, at the limit of joylessness.”

In other words, Venclova’s poems are not whimsical, lighthearted, amusing or glib. Be forewarned: He’s no Billy Collins. His sensibility is distinctly Eastern European. History is the great scourge. The human is dwarfed. Hope is never a promise. In “To the Memory of a Poet. Variation,” translated by Diana Senechal, Venclova links himself to another victim of Communism, and pays homage:

“In Petersburg we will come together anew.”
Osip Mandelstam

“Did you return to the once promised place,
The city’s skeleton, reflection, trace?
A blizzard swept the Admiralty away,
The geometric hue fades into gloom
Upon the surface.
Turning off the electric
Current, a shadow rises from the spectrum
Of ice, and rusty steam engines, like specters,
Near Izmailov Prospect rise and loom.

“The same tram, the very same threadbare coat…
The asphalt makes a shred of paper float
Above it, and the nineteenth-century cold
Submerges train and station.
Wailing skies
Enclose themselves. The decades turn to mist,
The murky cities pass, like storms adrift,
The gestures are repeated, like a gift,
But from the dead a man does not arise.

“He retreats into a February morning,
Which has encompassed Rome, sluggish and northern,
Into another space, choosing a rhythm
Approximated to the hour of snow.
He’s summoned to the she-wolf’s lair, now frozen,
The mental institution, filth and prison,
The black, familiar Petersburg, arisen
In someone or other’s speech some time ago.

“Not harmony, nor measure, once they’re quelled,
Returns to life, nor the crackling, nor the smell
Inside the hearth, which time has kindled well;
Yet there exists a timeless hearthlike focus
And optics, mapping destiny, whose essence
Consists of fortunate coincidences,
Or simply meetings and continuations
Of what is neither temporal or local.

“No image, but a breach in what is known,
An island, grown into the current’s foam,
The substitute for paradise unshown
Arise in living language. In the shower
Of clouds, above the stem of a ship afloat,
The pigeons move in a giant circle, not
Presuming to distinguish Ararat
From any ordinary hill in flower.

“Forsake this shore. It’s time. We will embark.
The lie runs dry, the stones are split apart,
But there remains a single witness: art,
Bringing light into the nights of winter’s depth.
The blessed grasses overcome the ice,
The mouths of rivers find the bays at night,
And a word, as meaningless as it is light,
Resounds, almost as meaningless as death.”

The poem retains Venclova’s distinctive sensibility and music, but is steeped in Mandelstam, his themes and images. Guy Davenport heard Rimbaud in Mandelstam’s verse, and explained, “By Rimbaud I mean the gnarled image which suggests a chord of meanings rather than a simple metaphor or simile, a classical form together with a bold originality, a hardness of poetic phrasing that defies translation into prose.” All of that applies to Venclova who, unlike Mandelstam, survived the Communist terror.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Dark Age, Luminous Words

One relies on certain books the way some believers look to the Bible -- not as divinely inspired, intended for literal understanding, but as sources of dependable wisdom. At the kitschy end of the wisdom spectrum we find the self-help genre, books designed as mood-elevating delivery systems, books that assure us we are O.K. despite conclusive evidence to the contrary. Publishers and booksellers label this stuff “inspirational,” but serious readers have always assembled their own eccentric libraries of true wisdom, whether sacred or secular.

Chief among such volumes for me – few surprises here for faithful readers -- are The Anatomy of Melancholy, Montaigne’s essays, Samuel Johnson’s collected works, Thoreau’s Walden and his journals, and scattered passages in Simone Weil, Czeslaw Milosz and Guy Davenport, among others. What the writers in this heterodox gathering share is an inspired seriousness about the world – not humorlessness (though Weil is not exactly lighthearted) but gravity tempered by an elusive humility.

Also in this informal pantheon is a name less familiar, with a vaguely comic sound in English -- Alexander Wat, one of the 20th century’s representative men, whose posthumous memoir, My Century, was assembled from recordings of conversations he had late in life with Milosz, his friend and fellow Polish poet. As a young man, Wat became a Communist, yet after fleeing the Nazi invasion he was arrested by the Soviets and spent more than two years in various jails and prisons in Poland and the Soviet Union. During this period Wat, who was Jewish, converted to Catholicism. While describing his confinement in the notorious Lubyanka prison in Moscow, he relates how prisoners were able to buy extra rations with money sent by friends and family. Instead of complaining about inadequate food, Wat wrote:

“I limited myself to onions, garlic, bread, and especially lump sugar. It’s a wonderful thing, lump sugar. I still have a weakness for it. Even in cafes I’ll catch myself, completely unconsciously, slipping some lump sugar into my pocket. I’m not a cheap person; it’s just that since Lubyanka I’ve loved lump sugar. Those lumps of sugar are beautiful. You have to admit they have a certain beauty. And you can see by their very form that they contain sweetness. They’re well constructed; there’s nothing superfluous about them. Those lumps of sugar were a delicacy for me, and here of course the beautiful and the useful were united – not as they are in constructivism, which I detest, but as they are in human life. A primeval unity. The naïve unity of the beautiful and the useful, the enormously useful. I was sparing with those lumps of sugar; I built up a reserve in case things became worse.”

I find that passage breathtaking and declare it, without embarrassment, inspirational. How many people could respond to terror with such a mingling of gratitude, wonder, practicality and intellectual vibrancy? For me, Wat’s witness is what it means to be a true intellectual and a complete human being.

On Easter, while still in Lubyanka, he overhears Bach’s St. Matthew’s Passion on the radio, and this prompts both joy and a marvelously wandering digression, only part of which I’ll quote:

“In Bach’s music I also hear an earthly joy, dignified, like Bach’s family life, where people eat and drink – and like to eat and drink – a sense of life, life lived with decorum. Bach is religious music, but in Bach’s work, even in the Passion, religion and faith are hemmed in by all sorts of doubts. Anyway, all our problems and troubles certainly are better expressed in music than in words.

“It seems to me that music, generally speaking, is the proper language for philosophy. I’m not talking about today’s scientific philosophy, logic, but what lies beyond logic, metaphysical philosophy…. Schopenhauer’s definition of music as architecture in time. Metaphysical philosophical thought is speculation in the good sense of the word, not speculation occurring in space but in time. Logic is rather spatial, but traditional philosophy is temporal; music is a better language for human thought; it expresses what words cannot.”

Remember, these sentences were not composed as prose but transcribed from recordings of Wat’s conversation. His fluency, the articulation of his memories and intellectual linkages, his gift for sheer storytelling, are phenomenal for a man in his sixties in chronically ill health, ravaged by the century he endured. Wat died in 1967.

In section XV of The Triumph of Love, Geoffrey Hill writes:

"Flamen I draw darkly out of flame.
Lumen is a measure of light.
Lumens are not luminaries. A great
Polish luminary of our time is the obscure
Aleksander Wat."

Wat illuminates our dark age with luminous words. Let's be grateful to New York Review Books for returning My Century, an obscure and essential volume, to print.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Old-Fashioned, in the Best Sense

On the flight home to Houston on Tuesday I started reading Beware of Pity, Stefan Zweig’s only novel, recently reissued by New York Review Books. First published in 1938, the year of the Anschluss in Zweig’s native Austria, the book is old-fashioned in the best sense, immediately engaging and full of foreboding for the cataclysm already overtaking Europe and the world. Fortunately, a Zweig revival in the English-speaking world seems to be underway, just as the great Joseph Roth has been returned in the last decade or so to his rightful eminence, at least in England and the United States.

The novel opens with a brief prologue written in the first-person by a nameless narrator. This is the creaky but pleasingly Conradian device of the frame-tale. The rest of the narrative is related by Lt. Anton Hofmiller, an Austro-Hungarian cavalry officer, to the first narrator. Hofmiller meets him in 1937, but tells a story set in 1914, on the eve of World War I. Here’s a passage from the narrator of the frame-tale, describing the reaction of others to his pessimism about the likelihood of war:

“Of course, they were all against me, for, as is borne out by experience, the instinct of self-deception in human beings makes them try to banish from their minds dangers of which at bottom they are perfectly aware by declaring them non-existent, and a warning such as mine against cheap optimism was bound to prove particularly unwelcome at a moment when a sumptuously laid supper was awaiting us in the next room.”

The passage immediately reminded me of Theodore Dalrymple, who, as it happens, wrote an essay about Zweig, “A Neglected Genius,’ later collected in Our Culture, What’s Left of It. Beware of Pity, he writes, “explores the disastrous consequences that flow from sentimental and insincere pity. Of Zweig’s work in general, Dalrymple writes:

“In the realm of personal morality, Zweig appealed for subtlety and sympathy rather than for the unbending application of simple moral rules. He recognized the claims both of social convention and of personal inclination, and no man better evoked the power of passion to overwhelm the scruples of even the most highly principled person. In other words, he accepted the religious view (without himself being religious) that man is a fallen creature who cannot perfect himself but ought to try to do so.”

As of Tuesday evening I had read only 100 pages of Beware of Pity, but Dalrymple’s diagnosis, as usual, is reliably acute. In addition, the translation, by Phyllis and Trevor Blewitt, reads like good, solid English prose, though I wonder about the original German idiom corresponding to "before you could say Jack Robinson."

Monday, July 03, 2006

`One Clear Stanza'

Blogging has encouraged me to seek themes and linkages where none seemed to exist before. It has sharpened my eyes for continuities that transcend time and space, and serves as an antidote to intellectual and aesthetic laziness. While reading The Poets' Dante, a gathering of 28 responses by poets to the author of La Divina Commedia, I felt like an old-time telephone operator sitting in front of her board, pushing buttons, plugging in wires, connecting callers. I found this in an essay by Jacqueline Osherow, "She's Come Undone: An American Jew Looks at Dante":

"Of course every reader of poetry knows the miraculous experience of reading what seems utterly necessary or revelatory, or simply, true, and spontaneously hearing its ideal musical fit -- this is, of course, the value of rhyme: the way it lifts what needs to be said to an exalted realm, where it seems inevitable, perfect, even divine."

Later in the same volume, in "Words and Blood," by Rosanna Warren, we find this:

"When we try to tell the truth, whoever we are, of whatever faith or non-faith, the best we can do, often, is to sputter. We will be fortunate if the truth we spit out is not entirely self-concerned. Poetry heals nothing. But by placing its lowercase communion upon our tongues, it can draw us into imaginative relation with truths beyond our own, and can place the personal pronoun -- subjective or objective -- in the neighborhood of far greater words."

Both poets dare to speak of truth, however tentatively -- an audacious enterprise in an age of arrogantly unreflective relativism. I had Osherow's words in mind ("reading what seems utterly necessary or revelatory, or simply, true") later in the day while reading "Preface" in Czeslaw Milosz's A Treatise on Poetry, and yet another connection flashed:

"First, plain speech in the mother tongue.
Hearing it you should be able to see,
As if in a flash of summer lightning,
Apple trees, a river, the bend of a road.

"And it should contain more than images.
Singsong lured it into being,
Melody, a daydream. Defenseless,
It was bypassed by the dry, sharp world.

"You often ask yourself why you feel shame
Whenever you look through a book of poems.
As if the author, for reasons unclear to you,
Addressed the worst side of your nature,
Pushing thought aside, cheating thought.

"Poetry, seasoned with satire, clowning,
Jokes, still knows how to please.
Then its excellence is much admired.
But serious combat, where life is at stake,
Is fought in prose. It was not always so.

"And our regret has remained unconfessed.
Novels and essays serve but will not last.
One clear stanza can take more weight
Than a whole wagon of elaborate prose."

What this poem and the preceding prose extracts share is a faith in poetry's capacity to tell us truths, however incomplete, about the world. I remain hopeful enough to agree. When we can see and hear truth and beauty, when the music of artfully arranged words can set the mind to dancing, who wants to read the noodlings of a nihilist?

Sunday, July 02, 2006

Yesterday's Bestsellers

Is anything sadder than yesterday's bestsellers? Once they were shiny and unblemished, promising pleasure without risk, at once virginal and passionate, like the latest actress or new cars in the showroom. Now, ranked on dim shelves, they look faded, not entirely resigned to being forgotten. New books are odorless. Old bestsellers seem shamed by the must they emit when you riffle their pages. They remind me of Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard.

My in-laws own thousands of books, arranged without order in almost every room. On Sunday, while cleaning the closet under the stairs leading to their basement, pulling out luggage, sleeping bags, a wicker picnic basket, Christmas decorations, a baby stroller and boxes of old Life magazines, I found another pile of books. Among them was Lake Woebegone, by Garrison Keillor, already in its 17th printing in the year of its publication, 1985.

Here are some of the authors, spanning two or three generations of bestsellerdom, whose names I noted on their shelves: Thomas B. Costain, Jimmy Breslin, R.F. Delderfield, Taylor Caldwell, Ernest K. Gann, Irwin Shaw, Mary Stewart, Leon Uris, Pierre Salinger, James Michener, Nevil Shute, Herman Wouk, Elia Kazan and the Irvings (Stone, Wallace). Each of these names is familiar to me, like brands of discontinued laundry soap, yet the only work by any of them I can remember reading are some newspaper columns by Breslin and a story by Shaw, "The Girls in Their Summer Dresses."

Sharing shelves with the bestsellers are some of the books my father-in-law accumulated in his student days -- 23 volumes of Rudyard Kipling in leather bindings, nine volumes of George Meredith and eight of Robert Browning -- evidence of an admirably Anglocentric sensibility now as extinct as the antimacassar.

I also found a copy of The Oxford Book of English Verse 1250-1918, edited by Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch and awarded to my father-in-law in 1953 for coming in first in his class at a boarding school in Canada. It's a beautiful volume, with binding the color of ox blood, gilded end papers and a sewn-in marker. It's compact but dense, with the heft of a paving stone. The first poem is the anonymous "Cuckoo Song," famously parodied by Ezra Pound: "Sumer is icumen in,/Lhude sing cuccu!" Today it reminds me of the old Clarence Ashley song, "The Coo Coo Bird."

The last poem, after selections from Sassoon, Owen and Blunden, the Great War Poets, is "Dominus Illuminatio Mea," by a poet I have never heard of, Richard Doddridge Blackmore. Its final stanza begins like this:

"For even the present delight may pall,
And power must fail, and the pride must fall..."

That's a fitting epitaph for yesterday's bestsellers.

Saturday, July 01, 2006

Another Tongue

Like most Americans I am shamefully monolingual. I studied Latin and German but was a lazy, distracted student. My brain is a magpie's nest of hundreds of words from other languages (reading Finnegans Wake was an intensive tutorial) but virtually no grammar, a jumble of pieces from a dozen jigsaw puzzles. I enviously admire I.F. Stone's resolve to learn Greek in his seventies. The product of that effort was The Trial of Socrates.

As a sort of parlor game in my head, I often consider which language I would choose to study today if I had the time and commitment. For practical reasons, Spanish is an obvious choice. My wife was born in Peru, and she and her parents are fluent. We live in Houston and hear Spanish spoken and see signs, newspapers and books in that language every day. But the bookish part of me rebels. Whose work in Spanish offers enough incentive for me to work that hard? Only Borges. He is dear to me in a way Cervantes well never be. When younger I was caught up in the English-speaking world's enthusiasm for El Boom -- the explosion of Latin American writing in the fifties and sixties associated with Cortazar, Fuentes, Vargas Llosa, Garcia Marquez and others. They have not aged well, though I still admire Juan Carlos Onetti and Ernesto Sabato.

Ancient Greek is appealing -- to read Homer in the original is a worthy ambition. Today, however, I would probably pick Italian, simply for the number of writers whose work in that language is important to me, starting with Dante, of course. Then Leopardi, Verga, Montale, Lampedusa, Morante, Calvino, Levi, Sciascia, Buzzi and Natalia Ginzburg. I can't think of another language -- except for English, of course -- that boasts so many writers essential to me, though Russian comes to mind. Here's Buzzi, in an essay titled "Notes on Gastronomy":

"The writer who never mentions eating, or appetite, or hunger, or food, or cooks, or meals inspires me with distrust, as if he were lacking something essential."

In "A Self-Interview" (also from A Weakness for Almost Everything) he writes:

"There are the Muses, and without their help it is useless to try to write, nothing good will come out. Comforts, conveniences, even a beautiful view keep the Muses away. When Goethe was writing he deliberately sat in an uncomfortable chair, as he explained to Eckermann."

Ginzburg, in her essay about a favorite novelist of mine, Ivy Compton-Burnett, writes:

"I could never grasp where, in such novels, the poetry might reside, and yet I felt it must be somewhere if, dry and airless as they were, one could breathe and drink in them in, and feel, in their midst, a profound, comforting and redeeming happiness. Then I understood that poetry was present the way nature was present: the poetry, totally invisible, totally unwilled, neither offered nor intended for anyone, was there in the same way as the dull, limitless sky that stretched behind those malicious, isolated strokes. And so a diligently constructed mechanism was miraculously transformed into something in which any casual observer could recognize his own face and his own fate."

Each language, I suspect, possesses its own peculiar genius. In English, we are freely given the gift of Shakespeare, Pope, Keats and Beckett. It's probably an idle pipe dream but sometimes I think I would like to possess another shelf of gifts, another way of enjoying the world.