Monday, January 31, 2011

`In Those Ways He Becomes Part of Your Soul'

About five years ago I read John Jeremiah Sullivan’s Blood Horses: Notes of a Sportswriter’s Son (2004) and laughed so helplessly and often my wife threw me out of bed. Sullivan’s humor can be grim and Irish, and he’s funniest writing about his father, Mike Sullivan, a doomed, charming, funny man who drank and smoked too much and made everyone laugh or cry. In 2008, Sullivan published in Harper’s a portrait of another self-destructive artist, guitarist John Fahey, a musical enthusiasm of mine more than forty years ago. “Unknown Bards: The Blues Becomes Transparent About Itself” has been collected in Best Music Writing 2009, edited by Greil Marcus.

Sullivan redefines memoir and reportage. He avoids self-absorbed hagiography and never turns his father or Fahey into victims. They’re given whole, the admirable and repellent, and Sullivan laces his work with learning as a sort of counterpoint to the central human stories. In Blood Horses he digresses entertainingly on thoroughbred racing, the Kentucky Derby, equine evolution, and Kentucky history and geology, all woven through his father’s story. Sullivan visits Guy Davenport in Lexington, in Bluegrass country, and the writer reminds him of a favorite Davenportian theme:

“All art is a dance of meaning from form to form.”

At the website of Hot Metal Bridge, a literary magazine published by the University of Pittsburgh, I found an interview with Sullivan. He brings up Davenport again after marveling that some people think they can write without first being “compulsive readers”:

“That said, how do you get to be a better reader? I asked Guy Davenport this question one time, because talking to him could really make a person despair; he just knew so much, he’d read so much in many languages, but not in a pedantic or scholastic way, in a really passionate way. He gave me what I thought was very solid advice, which was: first of all, start reading and don’t stop. The other thing is to follow your interest. He said there ought to be a phrase, `falling into interest,’ to go with falling in love.

“Follow your interest; follow the writers who energize you, not the ones who exert a sense of obligation on you. The books that do the one or the other will change, as time gone on. The landscape shifts. Don’t adhere to systems unless that feels good.”

Davenport said similar things to me in letters and during our one meeting at his home in Lexington, and of course his essays and stories embody this notion that every book is a covert conversation with at least one other book, a conversation any reader can join. Had he lived longer -- he died six years ago this month -- Davenport might have become a rare and precious citizen of the blogosphere. He would have loved how some of us “start reading and don’t stop,” as Sullivan says.

Here’s a recent example of the phenomenon Davenport and Sullivan describe: I’ve often written about John Williams’ Stoner (1965), a novel one tends learn about in the most pleasing fashion, by word of mouth. I know at least a dozen people who learned of the book from Anecdotal Evidence and were intrigued enough to read it. My former boss at Rice University wrote me on Sunday:

“I just finished Stoner, by the way, and loved the book. I read it over a weekend and a few days—something that’s unusual for me. I found it so compelling that I ignored many of the things that keep me from reading at other times.”

Three days earlier, Elberry had written:

“And i just read Stoner, many thanks for recommending it on your blog. It is a great work … [because] my tendency is for full-on, lavish baroque intensity i found Williams' understated power an interesting corrective…i was going to write a post about Stoner but seem in the grip of an almost total lack of interest in that kind of `public’ writing.”

Both of my friends are Davenport’s bookish offspring, reading what stirs, sometimes unaccountably, their interest. Sullivan adds:

“If you follow your interest, you’ll be adding to the store of things, examples, that make up your ideas. Read Plutarch because a list you read said he was important, and what if you get asked about him at a party, he’ll wash off. Read Plutarch because you’ve fallen in interest with him—because you’ve followed his successors back to him or his influences forward, or because you need him now to understand better some other writer whose work you love, however it happens, maybe a book of his falls open to a page and you’re fixed—in those ways he becomes part of your soul.

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