Wednesday, January 31, 2007

`Pain, Bewilderment and Sorrow'

The man who wrote the supreme novel of World War II didn’t live to see the book into print. In 1964, Vasily Grossman died of stomach cancer among the non-persons of the Soviet Union, an unhappy category that presented one consolation: It placed him in excellent company. In 1960, Grossman completed the manuscript of Life and Fate, submitted it for publication, and waited. Grossman was unaware that his editors were terrified. The novel depicted not only Nazi brutality but also the ineptness and butchery of the Soviet regime. Stalin himself makes a memorably frightening appearance in the novel via a telephone call.

On Valentine’s Day 1961, three senior KGB officers seized the manuscript from the apartments of Grossman and his typist. They took the carbons and the ribbons from the typewriter. The Politburo’s ideology czar, Mikhail Suslov, told Grossman the novel could not be published for at least 200 years – a brilliant stroke of literary criticism, attesting to the power of Life and Fate.

Grossman had given another copy of the manuscript to a friend who left it in a canvas satchel hanging under coats in his dacha. The papers were later discovered and copied onto microfilm, apparently by Andrei Sakharov. The novelist Vladimir Voinovich smuggled the microfilm out of the USSR into Switzerland, where Life and Fate was published in 1980, 16 years after Grossman’s death. Robert Chandler’s translation into English was published in 1985, and New York Review Books returned it to print in paperback last year.

Grossman modeled his novel, even its title, on War and Peace. He claimed to have read Tolstoy’s novel twice during the war, when he served as a reporter for the Red Army newspaper, The Red Star. Grossman spent more than 1,000 days at the front, between 1941 and 1945. He covered the battles of Moscow, Stalingrad, Kursk, and Berlin. He also covered the ethnic cleansing of the Ukraine and Poland and the liberation of the Treblinka and Majdanek concentration camps, writing some of the earliest eyewitness accounts of the Holocaust.

Much of Grossman’s nonfiction, taken from his notebooks, letters and journalism, is included in A Writer at War, edited and translated by Antony Beevor and Luba Vinogradova. Beevor, by the way, is the author of the excellent Stalingrad and Berlin: The Downfall, 1945. In October 1941, as the Nazis advanced on Moscow, Grossman found himself in Tula, 100 miles south of Moscow, when he noticed a sign for Yasnaya Polyana, Tolstoy’s estate:

“I suggested we take a look at it. The Emka turned off the panic-stricken highway, and the Noah’s Ark followed. One could see the green roofs and white walls of the houses amid the curly gold of the autumnal park. The gate. Chekhov, when he first came here, only managed to walk up to this gate and then turned away, intimidated by the thought that he would meet Tolstoy in a few minutes. He walked back to the station and returned to Moscow. The road leading to the house is paved by countless red, orange and yellow leaves. This is so beautiful. The more lovely the surroundings, the sadder one feels in times like these.

“There’s an angry, pre-departure confusion in the house. Piles of boxes. Bare walls. Suddenly I feel with a terrible intensity that this place has turned into Lysye Gory, which the old and sick Prince is about to leave [Prince Bolkonsky in War and Peaces flees his house, Lysye Gory, as Napoleon’s army approaches]. Everything has combined to produce an entirely new image, the events that occurred a century ago and those happening today, and what the book tells with such strength and truthfulness about the old Prince Bolkonsky now seems to refer to the old Count Tolstoy himself and has become inseparable from reality.”

Grossman meets Sofya Andreevna, Tolstoy’s granddaughter. She frets over the fate of Yasnaya Polyana, and they reminisce about Moscow and old friends. Grossman writes:

“Then we discuss the theme that everyone is now talking about with pain, bewilderment and sorrow: the retreat.”

Later, Grossman adds: “Tolstoy’s grave. Roar of fighters over it, humming of explosions and the majestic calm autumn. It is so hard. I have seldom felt such pain.” The next occupant of Yasnaya Polyana (“bright clearing” or “clear glade”) was General Heinz Guderian, commander of the XXIV Panzer Corps.

A detour to Tolstoy’s estate in the face of the German army must have seemed like insanity to Grossman’s colleagues. For him it was a literary and patriotic pilgrimage, a paying of respects to a master, and probably an obligation. Critics have often noted that Grossman, in Life and Fate, while echoing Tolstoy in terms of epic scale, also owes a debt to Chekhov. The monumental sweep doesn’t compromise Grossman’s attentiveness to individual lives, sad and funny, humble and looming. A character in the novel seems to speak for Grossman when he says:

“But Chekhov said: let's put God, and all these grand progressive ideas, to one side. Let's begin with man. Let's be kind and attentive to the individual man - whether he's a bishop, a peasant, an industrial magnate, a convict in the Sakhalin islands or a waiter in a restaurant ... That's democracy, the still unrealised democracy of the Russian people.”

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

`He Will Be the City'

I’ve been reading Zbigniew Herbert for a month or so and will post my review of The Collected Poems: 1956-1998 when it’s published, but I’m still analyzing the reasons I esteem his work. It’s humane yet almost never sentimental. It’s learned and draws from history, painting, music, mythology and philosophy, as well as literature. Herbert’s preoccupations are ethical and he has a Pole’s sensitivity to history. He seems to view it as an endless series of interchangeable templates – different players, different geography, same nightmare. Moral progress, the notion that we as a species learn long-term lessons from the past, is a naïve, dangerous delusion. In an interview published in The Manhattan Review in 1984, Herbert was asked when he lost his faith in reform:

“I have known this since September 20, 1939. When I came into contact with the Soviets in Lwów, as a boy. I cannot stop wondering at certain intellectuals. I had my revelations ab oculos. And not through Marx or Lenin. The city was changed within a few days into a concentration camp. This system attacks a European through smells and tastes; while I am a partisan of goodness and beauty, I don't have a model for the happiness of humanity. My advice is: compare the smell, the state of the street, people's eyes, as I did in 1939.”

Two volumes of Herbert’s essays in English have been published -- The Barbarian in the Garden and Still Life with a Bridle. In the former is “Albigensians, Inquisitors and Troubadours,” which seems as pertinent to the 21st century as to the 13th and 20th. Here’s the essay’s concluding paragraphs:

“Soldiers built a huge stake at the foot of a mountain, in a place now called `Cramatches’ – from prat dels crematz, the field of those who were burned. Dry wood at that time of year is scarce, so instead of the usual construction of twigs and poles to which the condemned were tied, they built a palisade strewn with a thick layer of brushwood. They pushed the chained Albigensians into this horrible enclosure. The palisade was set alight from all sides. The wounded and the sick were thrown inside. The heat was so intense that witnesses had to retreat from the pyre. The singing of the clergy and the moaning of the dying merged.

“At night, when human bodies still smouldered, three Albigensians hiding in the cellars of Montségur sneaked out and lowered themselves down the vertical cliff. They carried away the remaining treasure, the holy books, and their testimony to martyrdom.

“Heavy, nauseating smoke descends into the valleys and spreads across history.”

The slaughter of the Cathars (also known as Albigensians) occurred in southern France, near the Pyrenees, on March 16, 1244. Herbert’s essay was published in book form in 1962. It was written by a poet who was 15 in 1939, when the Soviets invaded Lwow, which later was captured by the Nazis, then re-captured by the Soviets. Herbert fought in the underground. The holocaust in which some 200 Cathars were slaughtered echoes with Herbert’s knowledge of the infinitely great crimes of the Holocaust and the Soviet murder of millions. If there is any hope in Herbert’s account, any sense that something of value survived, it’s in his mention of the three Albigensians who escape with “the remaining treasure, the holy books” – that is, with the gifts of civilization. This echoes three lines from Herbert’s great poem, “Report from a Beseiged City,” written after Wojciech Jaruzelski’s neo-Stalinist crackdown in December 1981. The hope is attenuated but real:

“and if the City falls and one man survives
he will carry the City inside him on the paths of exile
he will be the City”

Monday, January 29, 2007

A Boy in a Barbershop

I took my youngest sons to the barbershop Sunday afternoon and, as usual, my 6-year-old brought a book. While the 4-year-old was getting his hair cut, Michael knelt on the footrest of an empty barber’s chair. He propped the book on the seat and, with perfect obliviousness, rotated the chair by pushing against the floor with one foot. In that unlikely posture, he read Strange Museum for the 10 minutes it took the barber to cut his brother’s hair.

I would have been crippled had I done what Michael could do without thinking. His body and mind are elastic. Story enters his consciousness and fills it to the exclusion of sore joints and a too-loud radio. He is open to words and narrative in ways I can no longer imagine. Story displaces cares and conventions – a gift of which he is unaware, that he will some day lose. Remember the wistful opening lines of Randall Jarrell’s “A Girl in a Library”:

“An object among dreams, you sit here with your shoes off
And curl your legs up under you; your eyes
Close for a moment, your face moves toward sleep . . .
You are very human.
But my mind, gone out in tenderness,
Shrinks from its object with a thoughtful sigh.”

Sunday, January 28, 2007

`A Man's Companion for Life'

Among the last century’s most affecting memoirs is The Noise of Time, by Osip Mandelstam. Guy Davenport described it and the Russian poet’s other prose as “delightful, lapidary, bright narratives,” though Mandelstam was fated to live in a mad age, in a country with little delight or brightness. We think he died late in 1938, anonymously in Siberia, one of millions. Davenport writes:

“A page of Mandelstam’s prose is a kind of algebra of ironies over which the same hand has drawn comic furniture and objects with a life of their own à la Chagall. The Noise of Time is a spiritual inventory of the mode of life swept away by the Revolution – men condemned to stations on the moon might write such books about life on earth: a book that would teach us that the usual and the routine look like miracles once you have lost them forever.”

Mandelstam published The Noise of Time in 1925, when he was 34 and before the Stalinist noose was pulled fatally tight. Its atmosphere of nostalgia is bittersweet, like Nabokov’s in Speak, Memory (both attended the Tenishev School in St. Petersburg), but not yet shadowed by the future. In Chapter IV, “The Bookcase,” he writes:

“The bookcase of early childhood is a man’s companion for life. The arrangement of its shelves, the choice of books, the colors of the spines are for him the color, height, and arrangement of world literature itself. And as for books which were not included in that first bookcase – they were never to force their way into the universe of world literature. Every book in the first bookcase is, willy-nilly, a classic, and not one of them can ever be expelled.”

I regret I can’t apply Mandelstam’s pronouncement literally to my life. The few books in my childhood home were my mother’s, mostly bestsellers from the nineteen-thirties and –forties. I haven’t preserved any books from those years, though my brother has, and I don’t remember having my own bookcase until I was 11 or 12. We did have a set of Childcraft Books, and the volume I remember most clearly and that was most worn from use contained poetry for children – Lear, Carroll, Stevenson, McGinley.

I can recall a book of potted biographies of historical figures, and others about the American presidents, Davy Crockett and butterflies. Also, I have three studio portraits of myself, probably taken around my first birthday, displayed in a cardboard triptych supplied by the photographer (“Frances Foster Studio: Tiny Tot Portraits”). In the middle picture I’m holding a book titled Baby Animal Friends, of which I have no memory.

In other words, my bookcase is less literal and more figurative than Mandelstam’s, but fairly predictive of the future. I’m being only slightly fanciful when I say that the three categories of childhood books I have identified – poetry, history, nature – remain strong pleasures. The Noise of Time includes elements of all three, and much else. Of it Davenport wrote:

“Mandelstam’s economy with words was Spartan. He envied the mediaeval philosophers their clarity and precision. Fragmentary and capricious as his prose seems, it has a sense of wholeness.”

Saturday, January 27, 2007

`Sacred Passion, Practice and Metaphysic All the Same'

I spoke with a chemical engineering professor working on ways to manufacture electrical transmission lines from carbon nanotubes. Nature at the nano-scale behaves in bafflingly counter-intuitive ways. Carbon nanotubes of a certain configuration conduct electricity millions of times more effectively than copper – an unimaginable idea. Determining if such super-conductivity works on the mundane macro-scale is the focus of the professor’s research, which calls for painstaking experimentation.

I remembered the mythology surrounding Thomas Edison’s efforts to find the ideal substance for the filament in incandescent lights. Supposedly he tried thousands, from platinum to carbonized bamboo and human hair, before settling on tungsten. The professor, an Italian, didn’t share my fund of American folklore.

“More like Pasteur,” he said, and he was not merely being Eurocentric. Pasteur is a hero of science. He confirmed the germ theory of disease, inspiring Joseph Lister to develop antiseptic surgical techniques. Pasteur’s work with chickens and anthrax led to immunization and pasteurization. I first learned about Pasteur from the 1935 movie with Paul Muni, and about Edison from the movies starring Spencer Tracy and Mickey Rooney. The finest tribute I know to the great bacteriologist is Edgar Bowers’ “For Louis Pasteur.” Read the whole thing here, please, but I’ll give the concluding stanza:

“I like to think of Pasteur in Elysium
Beneath the sunny pine of ripe Provence
Tenderly raising black sheep, butterflies,
Silkworms, and a new culture, for delight,
Teaching his daughter to use a microscope
And musing through a wonder--sacred passion,
Practice and metaphysic all the same.
And, each year, honor three births: Valéry,
Humbling his pride by trying to write well,
Mozart, who lives still, keeping my attention
Repeatedly outside the reach of pride,
And him whose mark I witness as a trust.
Others he saves but could not save himself –
Socrates, Galen, Hippocrates -- the spirit
Fastened by love upon the human cross.”

Bowers’ friend, the English poet Clive Wilmer, wrote his obituary for the Guardian after Bowers’ death on Feb. 4, 2000. Wilmer elegantly glosses Pasteur’s importance for Bowers:

“The title poem of his 1990 collection, For Louis Pasteur, announces his key loyalties. He confessed to celebrating every year the birthdays of three heroes: Pasteur, Mozart and Paul Valéry, all of whom suggest admiration for the life of the mind lived at its highest pitch -- a concern for science and its social uses, and a love of art that is elegant, cerebral and orderly.”

Gerald L. Geison, on the final page of The Private Science of Louis Pasteur (1995), explicitly links Edison and Pasteur:

“As in the case of Edison, whose legend has gone through several transformations in keeping with wider cultural and economic changes in American culture, so too will each age get the Pasteur it deserves.”

I’ve only browsed through Geison’s book, around which hangs a whiff of deconstructionism (read: hip irreverence and iconoclasm), but to his credit he does quote two stanzas of Bowers’ poem.

Friday, January 26, 2007

His Life and Thoughts

Alexander Herzen had a gift for illuminating the universal by minutely observing and describing the provincial. Born in Czarist Russia, dead 137 years ago last Sunday, he chronicles people and events I have witnessed this week. In Chapter 14 (“Vyatka”) of My Past and Thoughts (Vol. I, pp. 236-237), he begins by describing the temperamental shenanigans of Tyufyayev, a provincial governor:

“I must observe that I had done absolutely nothing to deserve first his attention and invitations, and afterwards his anger and disfavour. He could not endure to see in me a man who behaved independently, though not in the least insolently; I was always en règle with him, and he demanded obsequiousness.

“He loved his power jealously. He had earned it the hard way, and he exacted not only obedience but and appearance of absolute submission. In this, unhappily, he was typically native.

“A landowner says to his servant, `Hold your tongue; I won’t put up with your answering me back!’

“The head of a department, turning pale with anger, observes to a clerk who has made some objection, `You forget yourself; do you know to whom you are speaking?’

“The Tsar sends men to Siberia `for opinions’, does them to death in dungeons for a poem – and all these three are readier to forgive stealing and bribe-taking, murder and robbery, than the impudence of human dignity and the insolence of a plain-spoken word.”

The people and scenes Herzen cites here feel distinctly Russian, and we recall similar events in the fiction of Saltykov and Chekhov, but all of us have been plagued by pathological power-mongers, whether in our families or on the job. It’s a critical cliché to observe that certain nonfiction writers possess the sensibility of novelists. Usually, the critic is referring to the writer’s gift for characterization or drama. As I read Herzen and forget myself within a few sentences, I find I am in a place I associate with my first reading of Dostoevsky as a teenager, when I entered a new realm of truth known as fiction.

My enjoyment of Herzen is probably eccentric and self-centered in the extreme. I read his memoir not so much for its documentary worth, as a reflection of Russian liberal thought in Czarist times (though that is certainly interesting), nor as the observations of a humane man enduring an inhumane era, but for the joy of Herzen’s storytelling. He is an enlightened raconteur of narrative, with an instinct for revealing the personal in the seemingly alien.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

The Poet of `In-Betweenness'

Yesterday’s post was a trick question and I won’t apologize for it. I wished to draw attention to a common assumption made about American presidents, especially current and recent ones, and also about our tendency to think cynically and in a self-congratulatory manner. The author was Alexander Herzen (1812-1870), the greatest Russian writer not known for fiction or poetry (though he dabbled in both). He was a journalist and political writer, who lived in embattled exile in England for 12 years. All the right people hated him, including Marx and Lenin, and even the narcissistic Tolstoy was grudgingly impressed.

The passage comes from Herzen’s masterpiece, My Past and Thoughts: The Memoirs of Alexander Herzen. I’m reading the four-volume work as translated by Constance Garnett, revised by Humphrey Higgens, and with an introduction by Isaiah Berlin. Knopf published this edition in 1968.

Herzen’s subject in the passage I quoted (which appears in Vol. I, page 165) is not an American president but Mikhail Fedorovich Orlov, a minor figure in 19th-century Russian political history. Herzen describes him as “one of the founders of the celebrated League of Welfare, and that he had not found himself in Siberia was not his own fault, but was due to his brother, who enjoyed the special friendship of Nicholas and had been the first to gallop with his Horse Guards to the defence of the Winter Palace on December the Fourteenth.”

Even from this brief excerpt you get a suggestion of Herzen’s incisively ironic style (“not his own fault”). He typically views a person or situation from all sides simultaneously, at the same time admitting the inadequacy of his knowledge. His is the old-fashioned liberal spirit of tolerance and open-mindedness, a spirit characterized by Keith Gessen in his article about Herzen in The New Yorker last October as “the crisis of in-betweenness”:

“Alexander Herzen, the most noble, humane, passionate, and touching figure of the Russian nineteenth century, gets dusted off every fifty years or so, when liberalism feels that it is in crisis. This happened in 1912, his centenary, when Lenin fought over him with those he called `the knights of liberal verbiage,’ and again in the nineteen-fifties, when Isaiah Berlin produced the essays about Herzen that later formed the core of his classic Russian Thinkers. And this is fair enough: Herzen was one of the first to experience fully, in both his personal and his political life, the crisis of in-betweenness that was to characterize the best of progressive thought for the next century and a half.”

We can see this characteristic in-betweenness in the passage I quoted yesterday. When I read the paragraph beginning “Careless and incontinent of speech, he was continually making mistakes…,” I thought immediately of our current president (who delivered his State of the Union Address on Tuesday) and many of his predecessors, especially his father and his father’s predecessor. But Herzen won’t let us congratulate ourselves on our superiority of speech, thought and education. He considers the other sides of Orlov and reminds us that “people are so superficial and inattentive that they look more to words than to actions, and attach more weight to separate mistakes than to the combination of the whole character.”

This is not Herzen making excuses for Orlov or me making excuses for inarticulate presidents. One reader guessed the quote was penned by H.L. Mencken on one of his favorite bete noirs, Warren G. Harding, but Herzen’s prose contains none of the savagery Mencken reserved for “Dr. Harding,” “Dr. Hoover” and their ilk. Even when Mencken is right in his assessment, he enjoys his own inarguable superiority, of intellect and expression, a little too much. I never get that feeling from Herzen. He’s no powderpuff but somehow he mingles irony with humility. It’s a rare combination of human qualities. Isaiah describes him aptly as “civilized, imaginative, self-critical,” and continues:

“He had an acute, easily stirred and ironical mind, a fiery and poetical temperament, and a capacity for vivid, often lyrical writing…”

Herzen has recently gained currency from his appearance in Tom Stoppard’s trilogy of plays, The Coast of Utopia. I first saw his name in The Adventures of Augie March, where Saul Bellow’s title character works as a book thief in Chicago and steals volumes by Herzen. A few years later, after reading that Edward Dahlberg found him an essential writer, I read an edition of My Past and Thoughts abridged by Dwight Macdonald and published in 1973. I pegged him, wrongly, as a mere nonfiction addendum to Tolstoy and the other Russian fiction writers of his century.

Herzen was the bastard son of a Russian landowner, Ivan Yakovlev, and a German woman, Henriette Wilhelmina Luisa Haag. His mother christened him with a surname rooted in Herz, the German word for heart – we might say “love child.” He was born in Moscow shortly before the city was occupied by Napoleon’s troops. His father met with Napoleon, and he and his family were permitted to leave Moscow in exchange for agreeing to deliver a letter to the Russian emperor. The first sentences of his great memoir evoke those cataclysmic events as a species of family history, and inevitably recall War and Peace:

“`Vera Artamonovna, come tell me once more how the French came to Moscow,’ I used to say, rolling myself up in a quilt and stretching in my crib, which was sewn round with canvas that I might not fall out.

“`Oh! What’s the use of telling you? You’ve heard it so many time; besides it’s time to go to sleep. You had better get up a little earlier to-morrow,’ the old woman would usually answer, although she was as eager to repeat her favourite story as I was to hear it.

“`But do tell me a little bit. How did you find out? How did it begin?”

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Name That Prez

Who wrote the following about which American president?

“Careless and incontinent of speech, he was continually making mistakes; carried away by his first impression, which was always chivalrously lofty, he would suddenly remember his position and turn back half way. He was an even greater failure in these diplomatic countermarches than in metaphysics and nomenclature; and, having got his legs tangled in the traces once, he would do it two or three times more in trying to get clear. He was blamed for this; people are so superficial and inattentive that they look more to words than to actions, and attach more weight to separate mistakes than to the combination of the whole character.”

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

`A Web of Sense'

On July 2 we will observe the 30th anniversary of Vladimir Nabokov’s death, a reality that remains unacceptable. I have never fallen so hard for a writer as I did for Nabokov in 1970, when I started reading all his available books, out of order, early self-translated Russian titles mingling promiscuously with the American and post-American masterpieces. One of the reasons I fell in love with Tristram Shandy was that I read an essay by Frank Kermode in which he likened Nabokov’s Bend Sinister to Sterne’s masterpiece. Nabokov was never a systematic critic of literature but his influence on my tastes was lasting. Dostoevsky remains “Dusty,” and Freud, more than ever, is the “Viennese quack.” The aim of reading and writing, he taught us, is “aesthetic bliss.”

I learned of his death on a warm summer night outside Youngstown, Ohio. I was the passenger in the front seat of a car. I was drunk and I froze up when I heard the news of his death on the radio. The next day I started re-reading Ada, specifically waiting for that passage about the shadows cast by leaves. Now I am re-reading the sad, funny, tricky Pnin. Early on, the narrator tells us:

“I do not know if it has ever been noted before that one of the main characteristics of life is discreteness. Unless a film of flesh envelopes us, we die. Man exists only insofar as he is separated from his surroundings. The cranium is a space-traveler’s helmet. Stay inside or you perish. Death is divestment, death is communion. It may be wonderful to mix with the landscape, but to do so is the end of the tender ego.”

Almost 20 years later, in his final novel, Look at the Harlequins! Nabokov’s hero writes “Death is silly, death is degrading,” -- a rhythmic and thematic echo of “Death is divestment, death is communion.”

Death and its vulgar finality were always an affront to Nabokov. He dabbled in the afterlife, especially in Pale Fire but at least as early as Invitation to a Beheading. After the death of his daughter, Hazel, John Shade writes in his poem “Pale Fire” that gives its title to the novel:

“Not flimsy nonsense, but a web of sense.
Yes! It sufficed that I in life could find
Some kind of link and bobolink, some kind
Of correlated pattern in the game,
Plexed artistry, or something of the same
Pleasure in it as they who played it found.”

Shade hints that consciousness survives after death, and finds evidence for it in blessed coincidence, “the correlated pattern in the game.” In Speak, Memory, Nabokov expresses his metaphysical chutzpah:

“I confess I do not believe in time. I like to fold my magic carpet, after use, in such a way as to superimpose one part of the pattern upon another. Let visitors trip. And the highest enjoyment of timelessness -- in a landscape selected at random -- is when I stand among rare butterflies and their food plants. This is ecstasy, and behind the ecstasy is something else, which is hard to explain. It is like a momentary vacuum into which rushes all that I love. A sense of oneness with sun and stone. A thrill of gratitude to whom it may concern -- to the contrapuntal genius of human fate or to tender ghosts humoring a lucky mortal.”

If time does not exist, can death? Elsewhere in his memoir, Nabokov writes:

“I witness with pleasure the supreme achievement of memory, which is the masterly use it makes of innate harmonies when gathering to its fold the suspended and wandering tonalities of the past.”

W.G. Sebald learned much from Nabokov, who is a ghostly presence in The Emigrants. In "Dream Textures: A Brief Note on Nabokov," collected in Campo Santo, Sebald writes:

"Nabokov also knew, better than most of his fellow writers, that the desire to suspend time can prove its worth only in the most precise re-evocation of things long overtaken by oblivion. The pattern on the bathroom floor at Vyra, the white steam rising above the tub at which the boy looks dreamily from his seat in the dimly lit lavatory, the curve of the doorframe on which he leans his forehead—suddenly, with a few well-chosen words, the whole cosmos of childhood is conjured up before our eyes."

Monday, January 22, 2007

`I Am as American as April in Arizona'

Generalities about national, ethnic and religious groups are always suspect, but based on experience I conclude that some are better company than other. I’ve always enjoyed myself with Cubans, Poles, Italians and Jews. That’s not to say these groups are without their share of bores, boors and sociopaths, or that I dread the company of all others. Like the Russians I have known, people in the groups I just named have nearly always been smart and animated, with a gift for enjoying life and generous in sharing their enjoyment with others. It’s Aldo Buzzi’s theory – and I suspect his Italian gift for enjoying life is bottomless – that Russians and Americans have much in common, and perhaps that commonality is the source of the pleasure I take in Russians. Here’s what Buzzi writes in “Chekhov in Sondrio,” a delightfully stitched-together quilt of an essay included in Journey to the Land of the Flies:

“In 1861, Czar Alexander II abolished serfdom. Two years later, in 1863, Abraham Lincoln abolished slavery. Both nations are ignorant of the bidet and rightfully consider the ground floor of a building to be the first floor... Other similarities: a ban on selling alcohol near a church; the importance of firefighters, given the frequency of fires (`As everyone knows,’ says Turgenev, `our provincial towns burn down every five years’); finally, both Americans and Russians build in the country little wooden house in a neoclassical style. Both love picnics and stuffed turkey, and both have a generic name for cats: the Americans Pussycat, the Russians Vaska, the diminutive of Vasily (Basil), the blessed one of Red Square.”

Buzzi adds that our paper moneys are different. The Russians color-code theirs. Ours are called “greenbacks,” though the recent re-design of our currency has added a touch of minimalist whimsy – stray reds, blues and yellows. Buzzi quotes Mayakovsky:

“And you who, through work and melancholy, have a face crumpled and green like a three-ruble bill.”

Later in the essay Buzzi quotes Gogol, who might be writing of Americans:

“In Russia, everything loves to present itself in grand proportions, everything without exception: mountains and forests, and steppes, and faces, and lips, and feet.”

Who told an interviewer: “I am as American as April in Arizona.”

That great Russian-American, of course, Vladimir Nabokov.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Book Review

My review of Guy Davenport and James Laughlin: Selected Letters appears today in the Philadelphia Inquirer.


In case we needed further evidence of the demise of civilization, on Saturday I noticed two vanity license plates of complementary offensiveness: “IM SVD,” which I translate as “I’m Saved,” and “LV AU,” or “Love Gold.” Speaking of vanity, here are some appropriate lines (they’re all appropriate) from Samuel Johnson’s “The Vanity of Human Wishes”:

“But scarce observ'd the Knowing and the Bold,
Fall in the gen'ral Massacre of Gold;
Wide-wasting Pest! that rages unconfin'd,
And crouds with Crimes the Records of Mankind,
For Gold his Sword the Hireling Ruffian draws,
For Gold the hireling Judge distorts the Laws;
Wealth heap'd on Wealth, nor Truth nor Safety buys,
The Dangers gather as the Treasures rise.”

The poem I first thought of was “The License Plate” (from Of No Country I Know), by David Ferry:

“On the way back from the hospital we saw
A message on the license plate of a car.

“It said GOD HAS. Has what?
Decided finally what to do about it?

“The answer to the question that you asked?
The whole world in His Hands? Fucked up? Again?

“Apologized? Failed to apologize?
The car went on its way ahead of us.”

Saturday, January 20, 2007

`His Rare Wan Smiles'

“All I want to do is sit on my ass and fart and think of Dante.”

True even if apocryphal, this crack is attributed to Samuel Beckett in the 1930s. True because it distills three Beckett obsessions in 16 words: Oblomovian lassitude, Swiftian scatology, and Dante. The last is first in importance. He thought a lot about Dante for more than 60 years.

He studied Italian and first read Dante at Trinity College, Dublin – “a discovery which came with the force of a revelation,” says Anthony Cronin in The Last Modernist. Beckett’s first publication was “Dante...Bruno.Vico..Joyce,” an almost unreadable essay in Our Exagmination Round His Factification for Incamination of Work in Progress (1929), a festschrift for James Joyce and the work later to become Finnegans Wake. He wrote a novel, Dream of Fair to Middling Wife, published only posthumously, in which Belacqua Shuah appears. Belacqua was a dead friend of Dante’s, who shows up in Canto IV of Purgatorio. He was renowned for indolence and sloth, and Dante finds him sitting in the shade of a rock, head between his knees, indifferent to the ascending path to salvation. “Shuah” is Hebrew, usually translated as “depression.”

Beckett recycled pieces of the novel, including Belacqua, in More Kicks than Pricks (1934). The first story in the collection is “Dante and the Lobster.” If the pimp who stabbed Beckett in Paris in 1938 had had a better aim, we would remember none of this. Beckett might survive as a footnote in a biography of Joyce. He published Murphy that year, also irradiated with Dante and also forgettable, of interest only to Beckett completists. Only in Watt, where the Dante presence is artfully remote and resonant, does Beckett become Beckett.

In 1971, he published Le Depeupleur, which appeared in his English translation the following year as The Lost Ones. On page 14 of my Grove Press first edition (I remember buying it at the BG Bookstore in Bowling Green, Ohio) appears this sentence:

“Fourthly those who do not search or non-searchers sitting for the most part against the wall in the attitude which wrung from Dante one of his rare wan smiles.”

The most photogenic of writers, Beckett patented the wan smile. Seldom in his later work does he allude so baldly to a precursor. You can find Milton, Keats and Yeats if you look hard enough, but not by name. Only Dante earns an overt homage. Cronin reports that in his final, failing year, Beckett was again rereading La Divina Commedia “and yet another biography of his lifelong hero, Samuel Johnson.” This is touching and reassuring.

Friday, January 19, 2007

Belle Lettres

My favorite new blog is Today in Letters, the happy spawn of Brian Sholis, managing editor at Each day, Brian posts a new letter or diary entry corresponding to the date of the posting. Yesterday’s letter, for instance, was written by William Faulkner on Jan. 18, 1956, to his literary agent, Harold Ober. It deals with a piece Faulkner had written about the Emmett Till case and was trying to get published:

“I am not trying to sell a point of view, scratch anybody’s back, NAACP or liberals or anybody else. I am simply trying to state, with compassion and grief, a condition, tragic, in the country where I was born and which I love, despite its faults.”

Here we are privileged to watch a Nobel laureate and one of America’s greatest writers negotiating to get an article in a mass-market magazine. In the end, Harper’s bought it – for $350. Long past his prime as a novelist, deep in his alcoholism, Faulkner manages to sound impassioned, principled and a little cantankerous. Such are the pleasures Brian brings us daily.

His selection is eclectic, almost always surprising, and not chosen according to some political or literary formula. His recent authors, in regressive order, include Alan Bennett, Robert Browning (writing to Thackery), Hermann Hesse (writing to Thomas Mann), Marcel Proust, and William Blake. Here’s an excerpt from the Blake, who sounds, as always, like a blissed-out hippie with brains:

“O foolish Philosophy! Gratitude is Heaven itself; there could be no heaven without Gratitude. I feel it & I know it.”

My only disappointment in Today in Letters is the near-absence of Brian’s own writing. He sticks strictly to the letter or diary excerpt, adding only discrete footnotes. I admire his modesty, but I know from the private e-mails we have exchanged that Brian, though young, is an impressive writer. His prose is elegant and lively, always a pleasure.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Bad News in the Mail

Deep near the bottom of an Ohio winter, months after we had last seen greenery, a promise of spring more reliable than the first robin would arrive in the mailbox – the rose catalogs. As best I can remember, my mother killed nearly everything she tried to grow, but the colorful catalogs came as a welcome spring tease. I’m no gardener, but the Library of America’s spring catalog has arrived, and the news is mostly as bleak as an endless Northern winter.

Pictures of five writers appear on the cover, starting at the top with a gloomy-looking Saul Bellow. Considering some of the company he has to keep, I sympathize. The good news is that the LOA is publishing his Novels 1956-1964, dating from the years when Bellow was in his peerless prime: Seize the Day, Henderson the Rain King and Herzog. The new volume, like the first, is edited by James Wood.

Next, moving clockwise, comes a striking oil portrait of Thornton Wilder. My high school, of course, staged Our Town. That’s my only first-hand exposure to Wilder’s work. LOA is publishing his Collected Plays & Writings on Theater. Next is a tinted engraving of Capt. John Smith, whose Writings is scheduled to be published in March. Historically, the book is essential, but like the Wilder it’s not something I would read.

Now for the bad news, in ascending order of badness. Also coming in March is John Steinbeck: Travels with Charley and Later Novels 1947-1962. One of the first “adult” novels I read was The Grapes of Wrath, in an early edition preserved from my mother’s younger years. I liked the novel, as I liked Of Mice and Men, but I was 11 or 12 years old and I also liked Isaac Asimov. The clumsiness of the Dreiserian prose (unanimated by Dreiser’s gift for primal characterization) and Steinbeck’s ham-fisted sentimentality soon made him unreadable. In a junior-high English class, we were assigned The Pearl, which I also found unreadable. Teachers are still using Steinbeck to inoculate students with Noble Feelings and a Social Consciousness, a practice probably rooted in homeopathy. Literature is not good for your health.

To save the worst for last, the LOA in June will publish Philip K. Dick: Four Novels of the 1960s. I suppose their earlier publication of H.P Lovecraft signaled the opening of the floodgates to any species of pulp-trash. Dick is unreadable, so of course he has accumulated an academic cheerleading squad. He must have hated language, or was at least indifferent to its charms, which seems perverse in a writer. Is it technically possible to say that a writer is illiterate?

About 25 years ago, when Dick partisans (so to speak) were rallying in the wake of his death and the appearance of Blade Runner, I tried unsuccessfully to read The Man in the High Castle and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? It was a forced march I was never able to complete. Even by the compromised standards of science fiction and other genre fiction, Dick’s books were awful and left me feeling unclean for having tried to read them.

I guess two (or three) out of five is better than wretched. No wonder Bellow looks so disconsolate.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

`Everyone Reads Chekhov'

On Tuesday, my boss called in the afternoon to say a professor was in her office who wanted somebody to edit something he had written “in real time.” In other words, now. I walked downstairs, not knowing what to expect, and met an engineering professor with a Slavic accent clutching a pile of papers. We retired to the coffee room and sat at a table across from two young men who appeared to be students. The professor wanted me to edit about 250 words of copy on the subject of carbon nanotubes. He was flying to a conference in Colorado in a few hours and needed an immediate rewrite. His grasp of English articles – a, and, the – was a little uncertain but the piece required only minor surgery and very little time. I complimented his command of written English and asked where he came from. “Russia, of course,” he said, and I mentioned that I loved his country’s literature and had recently written something about Chekhov.

In unison, the professor and the two students sitting at the table smiled, raised their arms like orchestra conductors about to deliver the down beat, and said, “Ah, Chekhov!” Seldom have I seen so spontaneous and synchronized an expression of pleasure. “These guys, they are from Russia, too,” the professor said, and we all shook hands like old friends. “So, you’ve read Chekhov?” I asked, knowing that if I asked two American engineering students and their professor if they had read, say, Melville, I would be unlikely to get an affirmative answer. “Of course,” the professor said. “Everyone reads Chekhov.”

Just like everyone reads Melville.

As we were walking down the hall, glowing with our mutual love of Chekhov and all things Russian, I told the professor I thought he resembled the late Russian poet Josef Brodsky – balding, prominent cheekbones, steel-rimmed glasses. He blushed and said, “Oh, no, no, no. I have no talent.”

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

`Being Without You is Like Being Without Hands'

Dave Lull asked me to recommend a translation of Chekhov’s stories, and I regret having flooded him with a surfeit of information. Normally, I keep such things brief. Too much enthusiasm can scuttle the enthusiasm of others. Consider the Jehovah’s Witnesses. My excuse is that Chekhov is one of those rare writers one loves equally for his life and work. Without falling for the biographical fallacy, you accept the two as inextricable compliments. You wish to read everything by such writers and most things about them. On my list: Montaigne, Samuel Johnson, Thoreau, Henry James, Samuel Beckett, John Berryman.

To Dave I suggested the Pevear/Volokhonsky translation of 30 chronologically arranged stories, titled Stories, published by Bantam in 2000. Let’s hope they put out more. Inevitably, we English-language readers owe a debt to the industrious Constance Garnett who, between 1916 and 1922, translated and published 201 of Chekhov’s stories in 13 volumes. In the nineteen-eighties, the Ecco Press reissued them and I acquired the entire set, even though the order of the stories remains random and you get little sense of Chekhov’s development as a writer. Someone has created a website where all 201 stories can be read in order. Garnett’s slightly fusty English has a charm many of us find inseparable from the charm of Chekhov himself.

She must have been a remarkable woman. While studying Greek and Latin at Cambridge, she also learned Russian from friends. In 1893, she visited Russia, met Tolstoy and resolved to translate the bounty of 19th-century Russian literature. Beside Chekhov and Tolstoy, she translated Dostoevsky, Gogol, Goncharev, Ostrovsky, Pushkin and Turgenev, among others. It’s jarring to think that Garnett was born in 1861, one year after Chekhov, but died in 1946, 42 years after his death. On Jan. 29, we celebrate Chekhov’s 147th birthday.

I also recommended that Dave read Donald Rayfield’s Anton Chekhov: A Life, the standard biography in English. Chekhov ranks almost in the letter-writing pantheon of Keats, Flaubert and Flannery O’Connor. I suggest Anton Chekhov: A Life in Letters, edited by Rosamund Bartlett, and translated by Barlett and Anthony Phillips. Penguin published it in 2004. For lovers of Chekhov, and lovers of romance and human devotion, I recommend Dear Writer, Dear Actress: The Love Letters of Anton Chekhov and Olga Knipper. Translated and edited by Jean Benedetti, the biographer of Stanislavski, Ecco Press published the volume in 1997. The letters begin in 1899, when Knipper and Chekhov were already lovers, and Knipper was a leading member of the Moscow Art Theater. She appeared as Elena in his Uncle Vanya, Masha in Three Sisters, and Ranevskaya in The Cherry Orchard. The couple married in 1901, three years before his death from tuberculosis at the age of 44. From Yalta, on Oct. 14, 1903, nine months before his death, Chekhov wrote to Knipper:

“[…] I sent for Altschuler as I was sick of having the runs. He ordered me to eat up to eight eggs a day and minced ham. […] Being without you is like being without hands. I’m on a desert island […]”

For two months after Chekhov’s death, Knipper kept a diary of letters addressed to him. It makes for heartbreaking reading. On Aug. 19, 1904, she wrote:

“At last I am able to write to you Anton, my dear, my sweet, so near and yet so far! I don’t know where you are now. I’ve been waiting a long time for the day when I could write to you. Today, I went to Moscow and visited your grave…”

Monday, January 15, 2007

Ask the Poet

Only a writer and critic I respect as thoroughly as Terry Teachout could have nudged me into reading Ask the Parrot, the latest novel by Richard Stark, one of several names used by Donald Westlake, a prolific writer of mysteries. For more than 40 years Stark has been producing a series about Parker, a thief without a first name. I was skeptical. I don’t read mysteries, except for Raymond Chandler. Their prose usually is tone-deaf and awful, and I don’t care who done it. Stark, based on the one-half of a Parker novel I’ve read, is a pleasant exception.

His prose is without fat yet his economy of means doesn’t call attention to itself in an astsy-fartsy way. It’s without pretensions, yet intelligent, minus the reverse pride of a “literary” writer gone slumming. Stark, like his protagonist, is a professional who, above all, values competence. Parker is cool, aloof and malevolent only in a practical way, when he needs to be. He takes little pleasure in being bad and hurting people, but neither does he lose sleep over it. His code is pragmatism. Like another one-named character, Odysseus, Parker survives by his cunning. So does Stark.

While casing a racetrack in the middle of the night, Parker’s unlikely, unprofessional partner bumps into a plate of breakfast leftovers sitting on a desk, causing the mess to fall to the floor:

“Lindahl stooped to pick up the plate, but the omelet stuck to the black linoleum, which was now a black ocean, and that omelet the sandy desert island, with the solitary strip of bacon sticking up from it, slightly slumped but brave, the perfect representation of the stranded sailor, alone and waiting for his cartoon caption. On the floor, it looked like what the Greeks call acheiropoietoi, a pictorial image not made by a human hand.”

This is not a typical passage in Ask the Parrot. The Greek word is the only “highbrow” touch I’ve noticed, and the digression is uncharacteristically long and comic. But Stark’s sense of pacing is superb. He knows when to distract us, briefly, from the action, but then note the next passage:

“`I ought to clean that up,’ Lindahl said, frowning down doubtfully at the new island.

“`A mouse did it,’ Parker told him. `Drop the plate on it and let’s go.’”

Parker: cool, fast-thinking, economical with time and energy. Ditto for Stark, plus he prolongs the humor with “the new island,” then reminding us of Parker’s cunning. One little-noted, little-appreciated strength of fiction is its value as inadvertent documentary (Joyce boasted that 1904 Dublin could be recreated if Ulysses were used as a map). Stark is alert to details of American landscape, language and customs (omelet on a green plastic plate). Here’s a failing shopping mall in upstate New York:

“… a smaller older place with only one of its two anchor stores still up and running. The shops down the line between the living major retailer and the dead one made an anthology of national brand names. The parking area was a quarter full, so they could leave the car very close to the entrance, just beyond the empty handicapped spaces.”

Journalism is seldom written with such useful, off-hand detail. Nothing is italicized for cheap irony, and “anthology” is priceless. Tom Wolfe is praised for this sort of thing but his name-dropping is invariably arch and feels like showing off. Zola did it especially well in The Belly of Paris and Joyce, of course, did it in Ulysses. A century from now, if people are still reading, they could salvage a good core sample of early-21st-century American reality by reading Stark. I’ve been re-immersed lately in T.S. Eliot, and one of the unexpected pleasures of his poetry is just such homely detail. In The Annotated Waste Land, editor Lawrence Rainey, traces much of the poem’s gritty texture, especially in describing the “Unreal City,” to Eliot’s tenure as a clerk in the Lloyd’s Bank (1917-1925). Rainey writes:

“The sense of inhuman desolation which suffuses The Waste Land, its depiction of the City as haunted terrain in which `a spectre stops the passerby in full daylight, (note to line 60), owes much to this perceptible dwindling of living inhabitants, their homes consumed by a voraciously expanding commercial life.”

Here’s the section Rainey cites, though the seediness he discusses is found throughout The Waste Land and in many of Eliot’s other early poems:

“Unreal City,Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,
A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,
I had not thought death had undone so many.
Sighs, short and infrequent, were exhaled,
And each man fixed his eyes before his feet.
Flowed up the hill and down King William Street,
To where Saint Mary Woolnoth kept the hours
With a dead sound on the final stroke of nine.
There I saw one I knew, and stopped him, crying:
'Stetson!'You who were with me in the ships at Mylae!
'That corpse you planted last year in your garden,
'Has it begun to sprout? Will it bloom this year?
'Or has the sudden frost disturbed its bed?
`Oh keep the Dog far hence, that’s friend to men,'
Or with his nails he'll dig it up again!
`You! Hypocrite lecteur! – mon semblable, -- mon frere!”

Put aside the Dante and Baudelaire allusions, and you have a vision of urban decay that Stark (and Parker) would recognize. In fact, his depiction of rural upstate New York, I can testify after having lived there for almost 19 years, is another peculiarly modern wasteland. Small farms have disappeared, Wal-Mart has gutted the old downtowns, and young people have moved south. Here’s Parker’s late-night walk around a small town:

“There were two tall streetlights at diagonal corners of the intersection down to his left, but otherwise the road was dark, with here and there the dull gleam of light inside houses. Parker walked first to his right, past a dark house, then a house where an older couple played some sort of board game in a brightly lit living room, then another dark house, a boarded-up house, and then the last on this side, where a woman muffled up in robes and blankets as though she were on a sleigh in Siberia sat alone to watch TV.”

Stark is not Eliot. I’m not blurring distinctions between high and low. That’s not my point. Rather, in their radically different forms, with their radically different aims and audiences, they share comparable visions of modern life, and both use their acute eyes for quotidian detail to bolster it. I’m a grateful reader: I’ve read all of Eliot, but Stark has written 26 other Parker novels since the first one in 1963, and I haven’t read even one of them.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

`Catching the Signals from a Whole Life'

Years ago I heard someone read a poem about Franz Schubert on the radio. I had tuned in mid-poem, and in that infuriating way announcers often have he never identified the title or author. In those pre-Internet days, tracking down such information was laborious and often impossible, but I had enjoyed the poem and it stuck with me – not specific lines but its sense of cosmic wonder, of communion across time and space. Much later, after occasional searches, I identified the poem as “Schubertiana,” by the Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer. Here’s the English translation by Robin Fulton:


In the evening darkness in a place outside New York, an outlook point
where one single glance will encompass the homes of eight
million people.
The giant city over there is a long shimmering drift, a spiral galaxy
seen from the side.
Within the galaxy coffee-cups are pushed across the counter, the
shop-windows beg from passers-by, a flurry of shoes that leave
no prints.
The climbing fire escapes, the lift doors that glide shut, behind doors
with police locks a perpetual seethe of voices.
Slouched bodies doze in subway coaches, the hurtling catacombs.
I know too – without statistics – that right now Schubert is being played
in some room over there and that for someone the notes are
more real than all the rest.


The endless expanses of the human brain are crumpled to the size
of a fist.
In April the swallow returns to last year’s nest under the guttering of
this very barn in this very parish.
She flies from Transvaal, passes the equator, flies for six weeks over
two continents, makes for precisely this vanishing dot in the land-mass.
And the man who catches the signals from a whole life in a few ordinary
chords for five strings,
who makes a river flow through the eye of a needle,
is a stout young gentleman from Vienna known to his friends as `The
Mushroom,’ who slept with his glasses on
and stood at his writing desk punctually of a morning.
And then the wonderful centipedes of his manuscript were set in


The string quintet is playing. I walk home through warm forests with
The ground springy under me,
curl up like an embryo, fall asleep, roll weightless into the future,
suddenly feel that the plants have thoughts.


So much we have to trust, simply to live through our daily day without
Sinking through the earth!
Trust the piled snow clinging to the mountain slope above the village.
Trust the promises of silence and the smile of understanding, trust
that the accident telegram isn’t for us and that the sudden
axe-blow from within won’t come.
Trust the axles that carry us on the highway in the middle of the three
hundred times life-size bee swarm of steel.
But none of that is really worth our confidence.
The five strings say we can trust something else. And they keep us
company part of the way there.
As when the time-switch clicks off in the stairwell and the fingers –
trustingly – follow the blind handrail that fins its way in the


We squeeze together at the piano and play with four hands in F minor,
two coachmen on the same coach, it looks a little ridiculous.
The hands seem to be moving resonant weights to and fro, as if we
were tampering with the counterweights
in an effort to disturb the great scale arm’s terrible balance: joy and
suffering weighing exactly the same.
Annie said, `This music is so heroic,’ and she’s right.
But those whose eyes enviously follow men of action, who secretly
despise themselves for not being murderers,
don’t recognize themselves here,
and the many who buy and sell people and believe that everyone can
be bought, don’t recognize themselves here.
Not their music. The long melody that remains itself in all its
transformations, sometimes glittering and pliant, sometimes
rugged and strong, snail-track and steel wire.
The perpetual humming that follows us -- now –
the depths.

The long prosy lines, at least in translation, remind us of Whitman, but the voice is more modern, more skeptical, more aware of danger and the temptation to romanticize our better impulses. Tranströmer’s poem is a hymn to the dogged power of art to “catch the signals from a whole life.” On Jan. 31, we celebrate Schubert’s 210th birthday. Michael Henderson’s "Schubert teaches us the folly of despair," based on his recent visit to Schubert’s grave in Vienna, was published last month in the Telegraph:

“In Chekhov's world, sadness and gaiety are different sides of the same coin. Schubert finds a similar thread linking joy (often expressed in a minor key) and melancholy (which sometimes takes the major). Always he delights you, always he surprises you. To borrow a phrase from another great Viennese, the writer Stefan Zweig, he expresses `that mood of serene exaltation in which everything seems good and rapturous.’”

Samuel Beckett, too, loved Schubert, used his music in several radio plays and used the composer’s Winterreise as a source for his late play What Where. According to James Knowlson in Damned to Fame:

“Beckett adored Franz Schubert’s song cycle Winterreise (Winter Journey), based on twenty-four melancholic poems by Schubert’s contemporary, Wilhelm Müller. He used to listen spellbound to Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau’s stunning recording of the songs, marveling at Gerald Moore’s sensitive accompaniment.”

Earlier in his biography, Knowlson mentions that Beckett and James Joyce shared a love of Schubert’s Lieder.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

`The Artist and the Derelict'

The great cartoonist and illustrator Saul Steinberg was a long-time friend of the Italian writer, architect, filmmaker and buongustaio Aldo Buzzi. About him, see much more at James Marcus’ House of Mirth, though I can recommend three of his books available in English: Journey to the Land of the Flies, A Weakness for Almost Everything and The Perfect Egg and Other Secrets. In 2002, Buzzi published Reflections and Shadows, an edited transcription of conversations he and Steinberg had in the 1970s. The book is disappointingly slender and includes only Steinberg’s end of what must have been exceedingly interesting talks between these two men of the world. Even so, it represents the sort of wide-ranging, discursive grab-bag volume I enjoy.

Steinberg’s imagination is intensely visual. He sees everything in pictures and seldom mentions music or the other sounds of the world. It’s fascinating to be in the company of a thoughtful person who perceives reality so differently from one’s self. Here he is on traveling across the United States by bus:

“Traveling by bus, if you manage to sit in the front row, you enjoy the ideal view, the rarest and most noble one, the view of the man on horseback. Now, unfortunately, they’ve started tinting the windows against the sun and you see a sad crepuscular landscape, even if there’s bright sunlight. Or else they color the windshield blue, shading it toward the bottom, and thus the panorama is transformed into a Japanese print.”

Steinberg, a native of Romania and former resident of Italy, views America with bemused European eyes:

“Here there is every sort of felicità, including the horrendous happiness of Florida, concentration camps for old people, the happiness of the rich, who want only to buy things, and the happiness of the bums, the human wrecks.”

This prompts a digression on skid row and its residents, which leads to an interesting (and very visual) observation on one of our presidents:

“On the Bowery you see many noble faces, marked by life’s sufferings, but without the degradation of vulgarity and cunning. There are artists there, painters (I’m not talking about musicians or writers, who don’t belong to the same family), defenseless, childish creatures who use their intelligence and courage not for survival, who are primarily concerned with their integrity; who don’t exploit anyone, or live on this earth like those born with a specific purpose and think of life as something from which to gain the greatest possible advantage. The face of Ulysses S. Grant, president of the United States, which appears on the fifty-dollar bill, to me represents, in a moving way, the artist and the derelict.”

Steinberg is oddly and unexpectedly right about Grant, who was from Ohio, as I am, and who lived briefly in Galena, Ill., where my family and I stayed for several days while visiting friends in the summer of 1966. Nine Civil War generals, counting Grant, lived in Galena, as did Herman Melville. Grant’s popular reputation as a drunken, hapless schlemiel is belied by his military prowess and his memoirs, one of the great American autobiographies, written while the ex-president was dying of throat cancer. Mark Twain, of course, had it published shortly after Grant’s death in 1885, and called it “the best purely narrative literature in the language.” Sherwood Anderson’s father, who served under Grant during the Civil War, sold the memoirs by subscription in Ohio, door to door. Henry James, Matthew Arnold and Henry Adams got it wrong, but surprisingly Gertrude Stein, who said she couldn’t think about Grant without weeping, got it write and wrote a long, eccentric portrait of him in Four in America (the other three are Wilbur Wright, Henry James and George Washington). Compare Stein’s “Grant” to Steinberg’s Grant:

“He is heavier and thinner, he is taller and yellower, he is older and redder he is a leader. Nobody comes when he calls.

“He wears a beard, perhaps he is drunk every day perhaps, perhaps he needs where he goes if not, perhaps, who thinks of wills and willing or moon and sun and is he willing. He is not willing to stop and he is not willing except when he is working and he never shakes a hand not when he is willing. He is willing to come alone, or not.

That is what he is not willing.”

Friday, January 12, 2007

`One True Sentence'

Apparently I’m not the only reader to judge Ernest Hemingway a benighted sentimentalist. For a cold gust of reality, you can always count on Hugh Kenner. This comes from Joyce’s Voices:

“As much as Daisy Miller, Hemingway died of the American belief in sincerity: of believing there was such a thing as One True Sentence. But truth is multiple, and the whole truth about even a circumscribed situation is probably incommunicable.”

On Eliot

In his introduction to a selection of Wordsworth’s poems he edited in 1971, R.S. Thomas, the Welsh poet-priest, writes:

“We have become accustomed to a dichotomy between the life and work of artists. To what extent this is aggravated by modern conditions, I am not sure. Daily life grows ever more artificial and superficial.”

Thomas champions Wordsworth’s life and works as a resounding refutation of this conventional wisdom. I’ve been thinking of Thomas’ words while reading and enjoying T.S. Eliot, by Craig Raine, the latest addition to the Lives and Legacies series published by Oxford University Press. Raine is an unapologetic admirer of Eliot and his work, in an era when it’s hard to conceive of a poet less likely to be admired by most contemporary arbiters of taste. His religion, his respect for tradition, his essentially classical defense of “impersonality,” and even his reputed sex life, make him the subject of smirking, self-righteous derision. Raine will have none of it:

“Given that the main events of Eliot's life are so sensational, even lurid, it may seem odd that the central focus of his oeuvre should concentrate on the life not fully lived, `buried,’ avoided, side-stepped. It is conceivable, though, that these dramatic decisions in Eliot's life were provoked by the fear of not living fully - of opting for insurance rather than risk…. This contradiction - between the risks Eliot took in his own life and his dominant theme of debilitating caution - makes it difficult to equate biographical events with the poetry.”

Later in his Wordsworth introduction, Thomas says, “Wordsworth is with Tennyson, perhaps, the supreme poet of atmosphere.” I would nominate Eliot for that title. His poems, especially the early ones, first attracted me in my early teens, long before I knew anything of Eliot’s life, because of their atmosphere, the characteristic mingling of desolation and shabby-genteel seediness, as in the second of his “Preludes”:

“The winter evening settles down
With smell of steaks in passageways.
Six o'clock.
The burnt-out ends of smoky days.
And now a gusty shower wraps
The grimy scraps
Of withered leaves about your feet
And newspapers from vacant lots;
The showers beat
On broken blinds and chimneypots,
And at the corner of the street
A lonely cab-horse steams and stamps.
And then the lighting of the lamps.”

Thirty years later, in “Little Gidding,” the third of his Four Quartets, his masterpiece, Eliot writes:

“In the uncertain hour before the morning
Near the ending of interminable night
At the recurrent end of the unending
After the dark dove with the flickering tongue
Had passed below the horizon of his homing
While the dead leaves still rattled on like tin
Over the asphalt where no other sound was
Between three districts whence the smoke arose
I met one walking, loitering and hurried
As if blown towards me like the metal leaves
Before the urban dawn wind unresisting.”

Eliot is a serious poet who writes of serious things, an unimaginable project in an age which takes frivolous poets like John Ashbery seriously. I’ve only just started reading Raine’s book, but I can already recommend it as a serious and reliable introduction to a great poet. Raine writes:

“There aren't any easy equations. Gerontion is a character in a dramatic monologue, not a transparent disguise for the poet.

“In the end, we are left with the poetry. It speaks to any attentive reader.”

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Vocational Counseling

A young man who writes to me anonymously resolved several years ago to become a poet, but he finds himself unable to write poetry. He complains that he’s at a loss for “subject matter,” that he’s unable to compose more than two or three consecutive lines, and that all of them remind him of lines written by other poets. He is not yet prepared to renounce the poetic vocation, but the realization that a poet is a person who writes poetry has shaken him mightily. Of course, this hasn’t stopped Billy Collins, but my young friend is cut from more scrupulous cloth than our former poet laureate.

We have yet to shake off the Romantic notion of writing as a calling, an indulgence in lyrical subjectivity having nothing to do with “vocational skills” and the interests of “the marketplace.” How many young and not-so-young people torment themselves with writerly dreams only to end up working at the dollar store or in media relations? We tend to write what others have already written – this is both inevitable and not always a bad thing. How often are new genres created or old ones revived? Samuel Johnson embodies my notion of “the writer” as hardworking professional, a view elaborated on by Paul Fussell in Samuel Johnson and the Life of Writing. Fussell sets out Johnson’s heroic adaptability:

“During his long career he exercised himself, often anonymously, in more of the various literary `kinds’ than perhaps any other writer has ever done. Consider: he worked in tragedy, biography, the periodical essay, the oriental tale, the travel book, the political tract, the critical essay, and the book review; in the oration, the sermon, the letter, the prayer, the dedication, the preface, the legal brief, and the petition to royalty; in the poetic satire, the Horatian ode, the elegy, the theatrical prologue and epilogue, the song, the Anacreontic lyric, the epigram, and the epitaph. He was a master even of the advertisement, the political handbill, and the medical prescription. Few friends who needed anything written were ever turned away, so long as what they wanted was in a genre in which Johnson felt comfortable.”

Fussell cites the contemporary forms in which Johnson declined to work – the novel, stage comedy, the Pindaric ode, and the pastoral. All were genres to which he had ethical objections or was temperamentally unsuited. Fussell continues:

“If it is true that he could not write everything, it is also true that no other writer of his time wrote in so many forms. One reason he was able to do this is that he was working before the widespread belief that writing is necessarily a self-expressive act verging on confession.”

That’s the heart of it. How many writing careers have been scuttled by the inability to see beyond the confessional mode? I would point my friend toward the example of Johnson himself, and his numerous observations on the writing life. Boswell reports what is probably Johnson’s best known observation: "No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money." And in Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides, Boswell has him saying: "A man may write at any time, if he will set himself doggedly to it.” Even stronger is this, on the lack of “subject matter,” from The Adventurer, No. 95, published Oct. 2, 1753:

"The complaint, therefore, that all topicks are preoccupied, is nothing more than the murmur of ignorance or idleness, by which some discourage others, and some themselves; the mutability of mankind will always furnish writers with new images, and the luxuriance of fancy may always embellish them with new decorations."

In other words, my friend, don’t worry about being a poet. Just write – poetry and anything else, derivative or buck-naked new-to-the-world. Of course, read everything, and don’t forget to live. And don’t forget that reading and writing are essential parts of living, at least for readers and writers. I just read a pertinent interview with Roger Kimball, the editor and publisher of The New Criterion, published at FrontPage magazine. Ignore your politics and your preconceptions about his politics, and just read it:

“Yes, reading is the best propaedeutic for anyone wishing to write—that and, of course, the habit, the discipline of writing. I have always admired Anthony Trollope in this regard. He said that it wasn't genius that underwrote his immense productivity but rather his habit of pulling his chair up to his desk and writing. He arose every day at 5:30, was at his desk by 6:00 a.m., and got off a good 2,500 words before he left for his real job at the Post Office. But nurturing that salutary discipline was another habit: the habit of careful reading. I myself think we are probably too promiscuous in our reading habits. It is good to be well informed on a broad range of topics, of course, but it is better to read 6 serious books carefully than 25 books breezily. In an important sense, the most important, the most fertile reading is re-reading: coming back to something a second, third, or sixth time. It is important to make some books a part of oneself: to internalize their arguments, their rhythms, their emotional and intellectual weather. That is one reason that I believe it is important to memorize poems and other literary passages: "rote learning" is much deprecated today, but actually there is a lot to be said for it. It stocks one's intellectual larder with nourishment that is thereafter instantly available.”

I had to look it up, too: “Propaedeutic,” as a noun, means “preparatory instruction;” in other words, essential background information. Get to it.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

`A Picture of Language'

Miss Gertrude Martin, my fourth-grade teacher, taught us how to diagram sentences. I was already lazy and resentful of authority, but this arcane art appealed to my puzzle-solving nature. I liked its finiteness and certainty, its assumption that a scaffold of logic underlies language. Gratuitously anarchic writing – surrealism, Kurt Schwitters, the so-called Language poets – has always seemed like intellectual slumming. It’s also boring. Why write nonsense when making sense with language, learning its rules and how to bend them, is so much fun?

Miss Martin must have been born early in the 20th century. Unfortunately, she invited the nickname “Hatchet Face.” Her nose and chin almost touched, and she wore billowy flowered blouses and too much rouge. She was large and adamant but never unfair. She expected much of her 9-year-olds. I hear tough teachers likened to the pedant Edward Casaubon in Middlemarch, with his “plodding application, rows of note-books, and small taper of learned theory exploring the tossed ruins of the world,” but Miss Martin was not like that. She may have believed that teaching was a species of highly demanding love. You wanted to excel for her, and one way I could do that was by standing at the blackboard and drawing schematic diagrams of sentences. Miss Martin comes back to me as I’m reading Sister Bernadette’s Barking Dog, by Kitty Burns Florey, subtitled The Quirky History and Lost Art of Diagramming Sentences. Florey’s first sentence grabbed me:

“Diagramming sentences is one of those lost skills, like darning socks or playing the sackbut, that no one seems to miss.”

That’s an admirable sentence – forthright, transparent, balanced like an equation. It also contains one of my favorite English words – “sackbut,” referring to the ancestor of the trombone. When I lived in Albany, N.Y., I always enjoyed driving along Hurlbut Street, which gave me the identical sense of lexical titillation. Miss Martin probably would not have approved. Florey was taught to diagram sentences in the sixth grade by the Sister Bernadette of the title, and immediately was hooked. The first sentence she diagrams is rudimentary, “The dog barked,” but it serves to illustrate the appeal of diagramming:

“The thrilling part was that this was not a picture of the animal but of the words that stood for the animal and its noises. It was a representation of something that was both concrete (we could hear the words if we said them aloud, and they conveyed an actual event) and abstract (the words were invisible, and their sounds vanished from the air as soon as they were uttered). The diagram was the bridge between the dog and the description of the dog. It was a bit like art, a bit like mathematics. It was much more than words uttered, or words written on a piece of paper: it was a picture of language.”

That’s a beautifully concise explanation of why some of us enjoyed diagramming sentences, thus mingling art and math. It’s also a common-sense explanation of how language works. Florey goes on to give a history of diagramming, dating it to1877 and the publication of Higher Lessons in English, a textbook by Alonzo Reed and Brainerd Kellogg. I hope her obvious fondness for the practice encourages its re-introduction into the American curriculum:

“I remember loving the look of the sentences, short or long, once they were tidied into diagrams – the curious geometric shapes they made, their maplike tentacles, the way the words settled primly along their horizontals like houses on a road, the way some roads were culs de sac and some were long meandering interstates with many exit ramps and scenic outlooks. And the perfection of it all, the ease with which – once they were laid open, all their secrets exposed – those sentences could be comprehended.”

Florey is a copy editor and writer. Her clarity of expression is admirable. Her sentences are always limber and never grow tangled. The first sentence I just quoted contains 61 words, and not one is extraneous or uncertain of its proper role. How much of her verbal dexterity can be credited to Sister Bernadette? Florey dodges the question a little by answering like this:

“In the end, I think the important thing was not what we learned from diagramming in Sister Bernadette’s class, but simply the fun we had doing it. Diagramming made language seem friendly, like a dog who doesn’t bark, but, instead, trots over to greet you, wagging its tail.”

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

`Go Plumbing'

As I get older, I’ve come to recognize a sort of memory I might called faded or attenuated. I can’t say a memory “flashes” – that’s too emphatic. Rather, it’s more like hearing a sound from several rooms away, and being fairly certain you didn’t imagine it. I know something is there, and I’ve learned it’s best to relax, and wait, and see if the circuit will be completed. Let me illustrate. Late the other night I was reading Philip Larkin’s Collected Poems, one of the books I read most often, and I re-read “Friday Night in the Royal Station Hotel”:

“Light spreads darkly downwards from the high
Clusters of lights over empty chairs
That face each other, coloured differently.
Through open doors, the dining-room declares
A larger loneliness of knives and glass
And silence laid like carpet. A porter reads
An unsold evening paper. Hours pass,
And all the salesmen have gone back to Leeds,
Leaving full ashtrays in the Conference Room.

“In shoeless corridors, the lights burn. How
Isolated, like a fort, it is –
The headed paper, made for writing home
(If home existed) letters of exile: Now
Night comes on. Waves fold behind villages

This is typical Larkinesque finesse masquerading as slice-of-life glumness. It’s a masterpiece of music – listen to all those “l’s.” And note the way the first line starts with “Light” and the final lines starts with “Night.” This time, something about the poem reminded me of something else I had read not long ago but, as with my cell phone, the signal was poor. Rather than force it, I tried to forget it and kept on reading, and my strategy seems to have paid off. The following morning, the connection came to me, rising to the surface like the first bubbles in a boiling poet: Emily Dickinson. I’d been reading her a week or so earlier, just a few poems, so I quickly found the linkage, which turned out to be a single word – “loneliness.” Here it is:

“The Loneliness One dare not sound –
And would as soon surmise
As in its Grave go plumbing
To ascertain the size –

“The Loneliness whose worst alarm
Is lest itself should see –
And perish from before itself
For just a scrutiny –

“The Horror not to be surveyed –
But skirted in the Dark –
With Consciousness suspended –
And Being under Lock –

“I fear me this -- is Loneliness –
The Maker of the soul
Its Caverns and its Corridors
Illuminate -- or seal –”

There’s another linkage, I see -- “corridors” – but that’s not what echoed. Both poems address loneliness, but it’s the sound that remained and served to remind me – proof of sound becoming sense, and proof that even a fallible memory, with a little patience, remains serviceable.

Monday, January 08, 2007

Lynch on Johnson on Language

Jack Lynch, professor of English at Rutgers University and CEO of Samuel Johnson Industries Ltd., has published a belated but worth-waiting-for review of Johnson on the English Language in The Weekly Standard. This is Vol. XVIII of The Yale Edition of the Works of Samuel Johnson, a scholarly enterprise in the works for more than 50 years. The latest installment includes not Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language, which was published in two immense volumes in 1755, but drafts of “The Plan of a Dictionary of the English Language” (1747), the great “Preface,” and much of the editorial paraphernalia that accompanied the dictionary. Lynch rightly stresses the broad human appeal of Johnson’s work:

“…while Johnson was a serious scholar…he wasn't writing only for other academics. Johnson once said he `rejoice[d] to concur with the common reader,’ and this `common reader . . . uncorrupted with literary prejudices,’ was his ideal audience. Johnson has a reputation for being a difficult, even a forbidding, writer; but he could be admirably direct and powerful when he chose to be.”

To use a word defined in his dictionary as “relieving,” but which has subsequently been turned into a synonym for trivial and politically correct, Johnson is eminently “relevant.” In his hands, even lexicography, dismissed as a recondite academic specialty, offers suggestions of how we might live our lives. This comes from the “Preface”:

"If the changes we fear be thus irresistible, what remains but to acquiesce with silence, as in the other insurmountable distresses of humanity? it remains that we retard what we cannot repel, that we palliate what we cannot cure. Life may be lengthened by care, though death cannot be ultimately defeated: tongues, like governments, have a natural tendency to degeneration; we have long preserved our constitution, let us make some struggles for our language."

Sunday, January 07, 2007

`We Used the Language As If We Made It'

Thirty-five years ago today, back in school after the holiday break, I sat in the first meeting of my Victorian Poetry class. I have forgotten the professor’s name but remember him discussing Robert Browning when he asked if we had heard about the death of John Berryman. It was late afternoon, the sky was dark and the room was cloyingly hot from the old steam radiators. It was winter in northwestern Ohio, not really so far from Minneapolis, where Berryman had thrown himself from the Washington Avenue Bridge that morning.

Already, The Dream Songs was a sort of poetic Bible for me. I read the poems furiously until their music and wit were second nature. Berryman had patented a style of raffish despair in which the humor usually counteracted his instinct for self-pity. No one could render desolation with such color and American energy, turning Hopkins on his head, as in the first stanza of “Dream Song 29”:

“There sat down, once, a thing on Henry’s heart
so heavy, if he had a hundred years
& more, & weeping, sleepless, in all them time
Henry could not make good.
Starts again always in Henry’s ears
the little cough somewhere, an odour, a chime.”

In “For John Berryman I,” his friend and rival Robert Lowell wrote:

“I feel I know what you have worked through, you
know what I have worked through – we are words;
John, we used the language as if we made it.”

With Berryman, as with Shakespeare, Keats and Geoffrey Hill (though not Lowell), I’m in the company of a poet who, in the act of reinventing the language and staking it as his own, eclipses contemporaries and leaves them mumbling. Inevitably, their accomplishments are measured against his. Love and Fame, published less than two years before Berryman’s suicide, was savaged by misguided critics. It’s not The Dream Songs, no, but nothing could be. So near the end, when he could neither drink nor not drink – no sermons, please – he crafted “Eleven Addresses to the Lord.” In the first he wrote:

“Master of beauty, craftsman of the snowflake,
inimitable contriver,
endower of Earth so gorgeous & different from the boring Moon,
thank you for such as it is my gift.”

Saturday, January 06, 2007

`A Real Place Where Something Unreal Had Happened'

As conspicuous as a vein of coal, the slender black volume stood among the pale history books on a shelf in the library. It was On European Ground, a collection of black and white photographs by Alan Cohen, who teaches at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. His title is literal. Cohen’s pictures contain no people or animals, no trees, buildings or skies. He photographs the ground of World War I battlefields, Nazi death camps and the Berlin Wall: dirt, stones, concrete, bricks, occasionally grass or a manhole cover. At work, he must look like a man praying or looking for something he lost.

His pictures are recognizable yet resemble abstractions. At Dachau he photographed the slabs of stone, the size and shape of railroad ties, that outline the foundations of the barracks where inmates were housed. The Nazis razed the buildings as American troops approached in April 1945, in a frantic effort to erase evidence of their crimes. I visited Dachau in July 1973, and remember those stones. The crematoria remained, with their sliding trays used to push bodies into the ovens, but the barracks and other buildings were ominous in their absence.

I was in Munich less than a year after the Palestinian terrorists had murdered the Israeli athletes, and for the first time I saw soldiers patrolling with machine guns. To visit Dachau, we waited on a Munich street corner for a tourist bus to drive us 10 miles to the camp. Seated in front of us were two histrionically boisterous teachers from Chicago who announced their gayness, their Jewishness, and their intention not to be sentimental or reverent. They had brought a Frisbee to throw at the camp. Years later, re-reading Beckett’s Malone Dies, I came across a passage that unexpectedly reminded me of them:

“A great calm stole over him. Great calm is an exaggeration. He felt better. The end of life is always vivifying.”

These guys were so vivified, some of the other visitors wanted to kill them, and I have remained offended by their behavior. The camps are sacred places – sacred to the memory of the victims – and to prance about like spoiled children was not “transgressive,” to use a cant term for violating decency, but immature and deeply disrespectful to other visitors, some of whom were weeping.

The subject of artistic representations of the Holocaust is painful and contentious, and I suggest you read Berel Lang on the subject. Cohen’s aesthetic sense is modest and thoughtful, and he works through absence and indirection. On European Ground includes an interview with Cohen conducted by Roberta Smith, an art critic with the New York Times. About his visit to Dachau, he says:

“Once we were there – this is so difficult to convey because the experience was such a profound one. Until then I had never been in a place that had experienced such unregulated, systematic, and intentional violence, where the earth had absorbed such pain, where there had been such horror loosed, just within the confines of this place, and I was there now. It was amazing to me to be there. And being there made me aware of the vast discontinuity of the site. Within camp walls, more than thirty thousand people had been destroyed, but there was no evidence, nothing, in the present tense, to verify my understandings or feelings. I was in a real place where something unreal had happened and that, to me, was like travel to and being on the moon.”

Cohen visited Dachau in 1992, and two years later he photographed Sachsenhausen, Bergen-Belsen, Ravensbrück and Buchenwald. One inmate at Buchenwald was Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the dissident German pastor who was transferred to Flossenburg and hanged there on April 9, 1945, just weeks before the Allies liberated the camps. Geoffrey Hill wrote “Christmas Trees” about him:

“Bonhoeffer in his skylit cell
bleached by the flares’ candescent fall,
pacing out his own citadel,

“restores the broken themes of praise,
Encourages our borrowed days,
By logic of his sacrifice.

“Against wild reasons of the state
His words are quiet but not too quiet.
We hear too late or not too late.”

Friday, January 05, 2007

`Sit Back and Allow the Words to Wash Around You'

For the last three nights I have been reading Matilda, by Roald Dahl, to my 6-year-old son. I knew the book only through the 1996 film version, with Mara Wilson perfectly cast in the title role, and which I took my oldest son, now 19, to see. As a writer for both children and adults, Dahl bypassed me entirely. That’s a shame because I’m enjoying Matilda, and I feel a temperamental affinity with Dahl and his heroine – an affinity I once felt with Charles Dickens and his plucky young heroes and heroines. It’s easy to see Dahl as a self-conscious successor to Dickens, and he makes the reading of books (including those by Dickens) seem like a subversive act in a barbaric age.

In Matilda, he confirms the suspicion entertained by all bright, thoughtful children that most adults are casually malevolent beings, never to be trusted and always to be outwitted, which seldom proves difficult. Matilda’s parents are vulgar, self-centered brutes who chastise their daughter for her preternatural mathematical and linguistic gifts. While her father cheats customers at his used-car lot and her mother plays bingo, 4-year-old Matilda visits the town library. After reading all the children’s books, she asks Mrs. Phelps, the librarian, for “a really good [book] grown-ups read. A famous one.” The wise Mrs. Phelps gives her Great Expectations.

“Over the next few afternoons Mrs Phelps could hardly take her eyes from the small girl sitting for hour after hour in the big armchair at the far end of the room with the book on her lap. It was necessary to rest it on her lap because it was too heavy for her to hold up, which meant she had to sit leaning forward in order to read. And a strange sight it was, this tiny dark-haired person sitting there with her feet nowhere near touching the floor, totally absorbed in the wonderful adventures of Pip and Miss Havisham and her cobwebbed house and by the spell of magic that Dickens the great story-teller had woven with his words.”

Within a week Matilda finishes Great Expectations, and asks Mrs. Phelps if Dickens has written other books. Over the next six months, under Mrs. Phelps’ enlightened tutelage, Matilda reads 15 novels, beginning with Nicholas Nickleby and Oliver Twist (my first Dickens), and including The Sound and the Fury and Brighton Rock. The notion of a 4-year-old making sense of Benjy’s idiot monologue is a scream, and I think Dahl is having fun with the reputations of some renowned writers, four of whom are Nobel Laureates.

Dahl published Matilda in 1984, six years before his death. Were he writing it today, I’d like to think Mrs. Phelps would still encourage Matilda to read Kipling and Faulkner and not the badly written, politically correct pap (Heather Has Two Mommies) often served prescribed for children today. We’re not doing kids a favor when we force-feed them moralistic tracts. Listen to Dahl:

“`Mr Hemingway says a lot of things I don’t understand,’ Matilda said to her. `Especially about men and women. But I loved it all the same. The way he tells it I feel I am right there on the spot watching it all happen.’

“`A fine writer will always make you feel that,’ Mrs Phelps said. `And don’t worry about the bits you can’t understand. Sit back and allow the words to wash around you, like music.’

“`I will. I will.’”

Matilda’s parents, of course, are appalled by her devotion to reading. Each night, they sit before the television, ritualistically eating TV dinners, and compel their children to join them. Matilda demurs:

“She knew it was wrong to hate her parents like this, but she was finding it very hard not to do so. All the reading she had done had given her a view of life that they had never seen. If only they would read a little Dickens or Kipling they would soon discover there was more to life than cheating people and watching television.”

Is Dahl’s ethical schema and narrative strategy a tad cartoonish? Of course. So was Dickens’, at least most of the time, and I think this perfectly appropriate in books aimed at bright children we wish to encourage. My six-year-old has started reading “chapter-books” on his own, and would zip through Matilda if I let him but I want his first reading of the book to be mine as well. E.M. Forster said many of Dickens’ characters are flat but vibrating very fast, and that certainly describes Mr. and Mrs. Wormwood, Matilda’s parents. Consider James Wood in his notorious essay “Hysterical realism”:

“Dickens makes caricature respectable for an age in which, for various reasons, it has become hard to create character. Dickens licenses the cartoonish, coats it in the surreal, or even the Kafkaesque (the Circumlocution Office). Indeed, to be fair to contemporary novelists, Dickens shows that a large part of characterization is the management of caricature.”

Thursday, January 04, 2007

`A Kind of Latterday Dr Johnson'

John Heath-Stubbs, who died the day after Christmas at the age of 88, was only a name to me until I read a sweet remembrance of the English poet-critic by Jay Parini, the American writer and teacher. Heath-Stubbs began losing his sight in the nineteen-sixties, and was entirely blind by 1978, putting him in the company of Homer, Milton and Borges. He claimed to have accepted his loss of vision with stoic resignation, but lamented no longer being able to troll London’s second-hand book stores. Parini writes:

“ I loved going to see John, who struck me as the embodiment of English poetry, a kind of latterday Dr Johnson, with his London seediness, his erudition and his stubborn Christianity, all of which I admired.”

I regret not having known Heath-Stubbs’ work while he was alive, so I performed the truest tribute we can give a writer and took five of his books from the library. Obviously, I had missed a lot. He seems to have been a sweet-natured contrarian who prized Dryden’s definition of poetry as “articulate music.”

In The Torriano Sequences (1997), Heath-Stubbs included six poems collectively titled “Cats’ Parnassus,” each devoted to the cats (real and poetic) of six English poets, and each written in imitation of the poet’s style: Samuel Johnson’s “Hodge,” Christopher Smart’s “Jeoffrey,” Horace Walpole’s “Selima” (already immortalized by Thomas Gray in “Ode on the Death of a Favorite Cat Drowned in a Tub of Goldfish”), Edward Lear’s “Foss,” Matthew Arnold’s “Atossa,” and T.S. Eliot’s “A Jellicle Cat.” Here is “Hodge,” in Johnsonian rhyming couplets:

“Where Arts, where Sciences, their reign extend,
One truth is clear – the cat has been man’s friend.
In all the feline race – the humble tabby,
The alley Tom, with coat adust and shabby,
Cats sprung from fruitful Egypt’s nobler breed
(Honours divine were once for these decreed),
Cats whiter than the snow, cats black as night,
Cats formed to be a Persian queen’s delight,
The tailless Manx, the blue-eyed cats of Siam –
You’ll nowhere see a finer cat than I am:
Old Hodge, whom learned Johnson chose, to share
His plain commodious mansion in Gough Square.
By night I, vigilant, patrol the house,
Swift to repress each sly, invading mouse,
Who might with scrabblings mar his wonted rest,
Or in his papers build her procreant nest;
By day, while he is poring on his book,
I sleep contented, in the ingle-nook,
Till Anna Williams shall dispense the tea –
I hope there’ll be some oysters too for me.”

On a more somber note, here is “A Few Strokes on the Sand,” from Heath-Stubbs’ Collected Poems: 1943-1987:

“Old men, as they grow older, grow the more garrulous,
Drivelling temporis acta into their beards,
Argumentative, theoretical, diffuse.

“With the poet, not so. One learns
To be sparse of words; to make cold thrusts
Into the frosty air that comes.

“The final message – a few strokes on the sand;
A bird’s footprints running to take off
Into the adverse wind.”