We spent the morning at the storage unit, consolidating earthly possessions, contemplating a smaller space, haggling, poking in boxes. Outside, I watched the swallows harvest insects. At random I opened a drawer in a file cabinet and found a folder labeled “Books.” On a whim I took it home and browsed through a hodgepodge of newspaper reviews and stories, mostly mine, the earliest from 1985. Here was the column I wrote when Beckett died almost 20 years ago -- “Beckett’s artistry was based on compression and exactitude of phrase.” -- that isn’t sufficiently compressed or exact. And here was the far superior column Christopher Ricks published in New York Newsday on the same occasion: “Beckett marveled at `the haze of our smug will to live,’ at `the crass tenacity of life and its diligent pains’ – all the pains we take to go on being in pain.”
And here was the feature from 1995 I wrote about Harry Staley, then 71, a retired professor of English who had just published a volume of poems. I quoted him as saying, “I love the demands and inspiration of form. Form is wonderful to help you find the truth of the matter.”
And my 1996 review of Steven Millhauser’s Martin Dressler, recipient the following year of the Pulitzer Prize for fiction: “Millhauser is almost unique among contemporary American writers in having a prose style that is instantly recognizable.” [I also found my reviews of Millhauser’s The Barnum Museum (1990), Little Kingdoms (1993) and Enchanted Night (1999).]
In a 1990 review of Stanislaw Baranczak’s Breathing Under Water and Other East European Essays, I quote with approval Baranczak saying: “A poet who is offended by the course of modern History doesn’t even have to write political poetry to find an appropriate response to it. It’s enough that he write his poems well.”
In a 1991 review of A Neutral Corner, a posthumous collection of boxing pieces by A.J. Liebling, I write: “Liebling, like any writer worth his prose, was an inveterate prickly individualist. He lived up to one of his own sentences, now taped to the Cartier-Bresson photograph of Liebling hanging above my desk: `The way you write is well, and how is your own business.’”
In a 1999 profile of Russian-American writer Mikhail Iossel, I quote him as saying: “I wanted to limit the scope of my self-expression. Samuel Beckett said he began to write in French because he knew too many words in English. In Russian, I’m too fluent, too many words, too much emotion.”
And in a 1990 review of A Balthus Notebook by Guy Davenport (which I mailed to Guy, and he claimed to enjoy), I write: “He is the Ezra Pound of our age, in the sense that he reanimates our cultural inheritance and makes it new. Thanks to Davenport we can read, among others, Sappho, Fourier, Welty and Beckett with a new mind.”
I hope this isn’t nostalgia. I find reading old work instructive. I look back in mingled disgust and relief, as though it could have been much worse. The themes survive the years. My values in literature and life remain essentially the same but my ability to articulate them has improved. What I write today doesn’t embarrass me nearly so often as what I wrote then.