Friday, November 30, 2012

`His Stomach Was a Strong One'

“I am reading once more the work I have read oftener than any other prose work in our language [A Tale of a Tub]. I cannot bring to my recollection the number of copies I have given away, chiefly to young Catholic ladies. I really believe I converted one by it unintentionally. What a writer! not the most imaginative or the most simple, not Bacon or Goldsmith, had the power of saying more forcibly or completely whatever he meant to say!”

The writer is Walter Savage Landor, as reported by John Forster in his 1876 biography of the epigrammist, who captures the violent clarity of Swift’s language. In verse and prose, Swift arranges his words with seeming artlessness, like stones in a cold stream, without filigree. As logical as a Euclidian proof, they seem more forcefully there than the words of almost any other writer (the others are also Irish). “Proper words in proper places,” Swift writes, “make the true definition of a style.” 

In 1732, Swift published “An Examination of Certain Abuses, Corruptions, and Enormities in the City of Dublin” (The Prose Works of Jonathan Swift, Vol. XII, Irish Tracts 1728-1733), a pamphlet that begins rather charmingly with a description of the calls of street traders in the Irish capital, where Swift was born. The writer claims the cries are a nuisance because they cannot be readily understood, and that “our Law-makers” ought to regulate such speech so that “a plain Christian Hearer may comprehend what is cryed”: 

“I would advise all new Comers to look out at their Garret Windows, and there see whether the Thing that is cryed be Tripes, or Flummery, Buttermilk, or Cowheels.” 

Seamlessly, Swift moves on to his real subject, the insidious intrusion of politics into private life, and does so in a manner we recognize as quintessentially Swiftian; that is, scatologically: 

“Every Person who walks the Streets, must needs observe the immense Number of human Excrements at the Doors and Steps of waste Houses, and at the Sides of every dead Wall; for which the disaffected Party hath assigned a very false and malicious Cause. They would have it, that these Heaps were laid there privately by British Fundaments, to make the World believe, that our Irish Vulgar do daily eat and drink; and, consequently, that the Clamour of Poverty among us, must be false, proceeding only from Jacobites and Papists. They would confirm this, by pretending to observe, that a British Anus being more narrowly perforated than one of our own Country; and many of these Excrements upon a strict View appearing Copple-crowned, with a Point like a Cone or Pyramid, are easily distinguished from the Hibernian, which lie much flatter, and with less Continuity.” 

The author of the pamphlet reports he has consulted “an eminent Physician” who was “pleased to make Trial with each of his Fingers, by thrusting them into the Anus of several Persons of both Nations.” He could then, “by smelling each Finger, distinguish the Hibernian Excrement from the British, and was not above twice mistaken in an Hundred Experiments; upon which he intends very soon to publish a learned Dissertation.” 

And that’s not the worst, or best, of it. Swift extends his logic one sickening step further, but you’ll have to read the pamphlet for yourself. In his introduction to a selection of Swift’s poems, C.H. Sisson writes: “There is no mincing matters for him. His stomach was a strong one.” No one else has made cloacal revulsion so effective a tool of politics, or anti-politics. Swift was born on this date, Nov. 30, in 1667.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

`Not What We Are, But What We Have Never Been'

Coelacanth: the word held their attention longer than the big bronze-colored fish. When I caught up with them in the Houston Museum of Natural Science, my younger sons and a friend were arguing over proper pronunciation, and not one was even close, all pronouncing the first “c” as a “k.” It’s SEE-la-kanth, a sound nearly as exotic as the fish. My fourth-grade teacher, Miss Gertrude Martin, told us the story of a fisherman in 1938 netting a species thought to have been extinct for 65 million years. She would already have been a middle-aged woman when the “fossil-fish” was discovered, but Miss Martin told the story breathlessly, as though it were a fairy tale and she was a little girl. Ever since, I’ve paid attention to any mention of the coelacanth. 

It isn’t notably pretty but its fate has been fortunate. Not only was it resurrected from extinction – it tastes bad and makes predators sick, which accounts for its rare but ongoing existence. One source reports: “Coelacanth flesh has high amounts of oil, urea, wax esters, and other compounds that are difficult to digest and can cause diarrhea. Where the coelacanth is more common, local fishermen avoid it because of its potential to sicken consumers.” Elizabeth Spires includes “Coelacanth” in The Wave-Maker: Poems (2008). It’s prefaced by fragments attributed to National Geographic: 

Once thought to be extinct…
lives at depths of up to 1500 feet…
dies of shock when brought to the surface…
almost nothing is known about it…” 

“I saw you in a book: bubble-eyed and staring,
mouth spookily aglow with a sourceless yellow light. 

Extinct, you cruised among cold silences
until a hand roughly hauled you out of your element, 

“and for a moment you lived, only to die again,
in shock at a world too bright, too dry, too thin. 

“Mute, you speak volumes: the weight of water pressing
on you like an enormous question, your ancient saucer eyes 

“peering, constantly peering, through ragged curtains of Time.
What, what do you see? O tell me, tell me, tell me. 

“You and I, we live in depths profound and ceaseless,
we swim against cold currents until, netted, 

“and gasping, we are shocked to find out
not what we are, but what we have never been.” 

That is, I presume, not extinct, though dead, which reminds me of this.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

`To Make the Eye of Childhood Glisten'

My maternal grandmother, Jewel McBride Hayes, gave me the copy of The Pilgrim’s Progress (1678) she had been given by her brother, Harris McBride, my great-uncle, almost half a century earlier. It was an inexpensive edition with a blue cover and brittle, brown pages. Our family was not religious but the appeal of John Bunyan’s story is timeless (Slough of Despond, House Beautiful, Doubting Castle) and nonsectarian. In plain, sturdy prose, the first sentence recalls Dante and Grimm’s Fairy Tales: “As I walked through the wilderness of this world, I lighted on a certain place where was a den, and laid me down in that place to sleep; and as I slept, I dreamed a dream.” The book, in 334 years, has never gone out of print. I read it first as an adventure story, which it is and which the subtitle suggests: from This World to That Which Is to Come. I lost the book years ago, I can’t remember when or where, and that is part of my private allegory. In 1773, Boswell reports:

“Johnson praised John Bunyan highly. `His Pilgrim's Progress has great merit, both for invention, imagination, and the conduct of the story; and it has had the best evidence of its merit, the general and continued approbation of mankind. Few books, I believe, have had a more extensive sale. It is remarkable, that it begins very much like the poem of Dante; yet there was no translation of Dante when Bunyan wrote. There is reason to think that he had read Spenser.’” 

A more surprising admirer is William Hazlitt. In Lectures on the English Poets (1818) he writes: 

“I will mention three books which come as near to poetry as possible without absolutely being so, namely, the Pilgrim’s Progress, Robinson Crusoe, and the Tales of Boccaccio…If it is of the essence of poetry to strike and fix the imagination, whether we will or no, to make the eye of childhood glisten with the starting tear, to be never thought of afterwards with indifference, John Bunyan and Daniel Defoe may be permitted to pass for poets in their way. The mixture of fancy and reality in the Pilgrim’s Progress was never equaled in any allegory.”    

Hazlitt and his fellow Romantics seem to have read Bunyan as I first did – like children, judging it a grand adventure tale, as I also read Jules Verne and Kipling. “His pilgrims walk above the earth, and yet are on it," he writes. "What zeal, what beauty, what truth of fiction!” Hazlitt’s friend Charles Lamb sprinkles his letters and essays with references to Bunyan, as in this letter to Bernard Barton on Oct. 11, 1828, in which he criticizes a new illustrated edition: 

“A splendid edition of Bunyan’s Pilgrim—why, the thought is enough to turn one’s moral stomach. His cockle hat and staff transformed to a smart cockd beaver and a jemmy cane, his amice gray to the last Regent Street cut, and his painful Palmer’s pace to the modern swagger. Stop thy friend’s sacriligious hand. Nothing can be done for B. but to reprint the old cuts in as homely but good a style as possible. The Vanity Fair, and the pilgrims there—the silly soothness in his setting out countenance—the Christian idiocy (in a good sense) of his admiration of the Shepherds on the Delectable Mountains—the Lions so truly Allegorical and remote from any similitude to Pidcock’s. The great head (the author’s) capacious of dreams and similitudes dreaming in the dungeon.” 

As he lay dying, Keats wanted John Severn to read aloud to him. Severn obliged with Don Quixote and some of Maria Edgeworth’s novels, but when Keats asked for The Pilgrim’s Progress, Severn said it was “not in Rome.” John Bunyan was born on this date, Nov. 28, in 1628, and died on Aug. 31, 1688.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

`To the World's End I Thought I'd Go'

As usual, the dream was tantalizing in what it left out. The landscape was Northern and autumnal, obscured by fog or heavy mist. The trees were bare, the ground muddy. I sensed I was behind a farm house, walking toward the barns and sheds. I opened the door to one on my left and on a shelf I found a row of bird nests, each about the size of a child’s birthday cake. They were built of twigs and grass but also of mud, like a swallow’s. They seemed in disrepair and I saw no birds or eggs, yet I sensed they were inhabited, despite the door having been closed. The dream ends there, and it left me with a disproportionate impression of desolation. 

I enjoy dreams the way I enjoy most movies – I don’t make much of them and I don’t expect them to tell me anything about me or the world. They’re like the lost and found, a jumble of castoffs. Analysis seems redundant and pretentious, and seldom can I trace a dream’s origin to the previous day’s events. Most feel like collages assembled from all periods of my life. This one was different. Sunday evening I’d been reading John Clare, who knew more about the natural world, in particular plants and birds, than any of the other Romantics. Clare was unschooled but deeply learned. 

Like many boys, he collected eggs and nests, a pastime now properly condemned, though I did the same. One could assemble a substantial anthology of poems by Clare devoted at least in part to bird nests. One that I read on Sunday is “The World’s End”: 

“To hunt birds' nests on summer morns,
So far my leisure seemed to run,
I've paused to wonder where I'd got
And thought I'd got beyond the sun;
It seemed to rise another way,
The very world's end seemed as near;
Some strange bush pointed where it lay,
So back I turned for very fear
With eager haste and wonder-struck,
Pursued as by a dreaded spell,
Till home—Oh, could I write a book,
I thought, what wonders I could tell!
And when again I left the town
To the world's end I thought I'd go
And o'er the brink just peep adown
To see the mighty depths below.” 

I had read this poem before, though it hadn’t left a lasting impression. Something about the ending is horrifying. Consider the distance traversed in sixteen lines, from a fond boyhood memory to the abyss. To a mind like Clare’s, so tormented, gentle and observant, everything might turn abruptly to nothing.

Monday, November 26, 2012

`A Map of Busy Life'

“When I Was a Child,” the almost-title essay in Marilynne Robinson’s When I Was a Child I Read Books (2012), quickly moves on to address the West and the fate of American individualism, among other things, but it begins beguilingly with a memory of her Idaho childhood: 

“When I was a child I read books. My reading was not indiscriminate. I preferred books that were old and thick and hard. I made vocabulary lists.” 

I’m beguiled because Robinson is describing the way I read as a boy and, in general, continue to do so. The only difference is one of degree. My taste in books was and is, I suspect, more indiscriminate than hers. My reading has always been serendipitous and without plan, though strongly loyal to favorites. Robinson continues: 

“Surprising as it may seem, I had friends. Some of whom read more than I did. I knew a good deal about Constantinople and the Cromwell revolution and chivalry. There was little here that was relevant to my experience, but the shelves of northern Idaho groaned with just the sort of dull books I craved, so I cannot have been alone in these enthusiasms.” 

We’re defined by our tastes, though they can evolve and sometimes regress. Mine as a boy included the American Civil War (still a fixation), entomology (ditto), field guides of any sort (ditto, again) and the Battle of the Little Big Horn – all bookish fancies not unusual for a boy of my time and place. Books are reliable supplements to a less-than-optimal reality. I appreciate Robinson’s understated dismissal of “relevance,” the bane of true reading. The only relevant books are the ones that hold us. In Book IV, “The Winter Evening,” of his masterwork, The Task (1785), William Cowper describes the arrival of the postman, “the herald of a noisy world.” This is England in the second half of the eighteenth century. Among his deliveries is a book, a precious gift:        

“This folio of four pages, happy work!
Which not ev'n critics criticise; that holds
Inquisitive attention, while I read,
Fast bound in chains of silence, which the fair,
Though eloquent themselves, yet fear to break;
What is it, but a map of busy life,
Its fluctuations, and its vast concerns?” 

Robinson and Cowper were born on this date, Nov. 26, in 1943 and 1731, respectively.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

`Him Who Interests Himself in Everything'

“The greater part of Travellers tell nothing, because their method of Travelling supplies them with nothing to be told.” 

The nagging anxiety I’ve always felt when traveling – that I’m missing something essential, that I’m a dubious fraud and the experience is being wasted on me – has eased with the years. I read in advance about the places I’ll visit, pay attention while there, walk a lot, talk to people and keep a notebook. In Poland last spring I encouraged myself to enjoy my foreignness and the exotic familiarity of new people and landscapes. Also, for the first time, I used a digital camera, which pushed me to be even more attentive to my surroundings because I knew family members awaited my documentation.    

“Why should he record excursions by which nothing could be learned, or wish to make a show of knowledge which, without some power of intuition unknown to other mortals, he never could attain?” 

I understand that the anxiety I describe is self-fulfilling. If my head is full of worry, I’m certain to miss much of what I might otherwise enjoy. Think of travel, true travel, as a form of protracted meditation. Focus the mind on the present, empty it on occasion, pay attention and write about it. Experience, for this traveler, is incomplete until articulated. 

“He that would travel for the entertainment of others, should remember that the great object of remark is human life.” 

We’re thinking about a visit next year, my first, to England. Already I fret about what I might miss. England, for this American, is the imaginative and literary pole star. I navigate by Chaucer, Shakespeare, Jonson and Johnson, Sterne and Lamb. That’s not a glib metaphor. These English writers formed me. The quoted passages above are Dr. Johnson’s, from The Idler #97 (1760). Shall we make a side trip to Lichfield? Sterne writes in A Sentimental Journey Through France and Italy (1768): 

“What a large volume of adventures may be grasped within this little span of life by him who interests himself in everything, and who, having eyes to see, what time and chance are perpetually holding out to him as he journeyeth on his way, misses nothing he can fairly lay his hands on…I pity the man who can travel from Dan to Beersheba, and cry, ’Tis all barren—and so it is; and so is all the world to him who will not cultivate the fruits it offers.”

Saturday, November 24, 2012

`We Can Literally See the Ending Coming'

In 1760, a twenty-year-old Scottish newcomer to London penned a poem:

“By Fashion’s hands completely drest,
He’s everywhere a wellcome Guest:
He runs about from place to place
Now with my Lord, then with his Grace
And mixing with the brilliant throng,
He straight commences Beau Garcon.
In Randelagh’s delightfull round
Squire Tristram of is flaunting found
A buzzing whisper flys about,
Where’er he comes they point him out;
Each Waiter with an eager eye
Observes him as he passes by:
That there is he, do, Thomas! look
Who’s wrote such a damn’d clever Book.” 

The callow, ambitious, envy-ridden author of “A Poetical Epistle To Doctor Sterne [,] Parson Yorick [,] And Tristam Shandy” is James Boswell, still three years from meeting Dr. Johnson. He wasn’t alone in being star-struck by Laurence Sterne. One year earlier, at age forty-five, Sterne published the first two volumes of The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman. Seven more followed in the next seven years. This most eccentric of novels, at once learned, salacious, philosophically sophisticated and playful (Schopenhauer loved it; Nietzsche claimed it was his favorite novel and said Sterne was "familiar with everything from the sublime to the rascally"), the unlikely offspring of Rabelais and Burton, made Sterne a celebrity in London society. Dr. Johnson later told Boswell, “Nothing odd will do long. Tristram Shandy did not last,” and the book still has its grim detractors (whose objections sound remarkably like those expressed by Nabokov’s early and late critics). Since I first read it more than forty years ago, Tristram Shandy,  with Ulysses, Moby-Dick and Pale Fire, has remained one of my favorite works of fiction, one I reread every few years. 

After that first reading in 1971, I was assigned to write a lengthy paper about it on a subject of my choice. I had noted, despite its relentless comedy, the book’s death-haunted quality. Like his creator, Tristram Shandy was dying. The later volumes read like a race with death, an endlessly digressive prevarication to hold off the inevitable. I had discovered Hugh Kenner around this time and read for the first time The Stoic Comedians: Flaubert, Joyce and Beckett (1962). He noted that Joyce considered Sterne an Irishman. Elsewhere, I read that Joyce said Swift and Sterne ought to have switched names. Kenner writes in passing in his Joyce chapter: 

“Laurence Sterne availed himself of a hundred devices totally foreign to the storyteller but made possible by the book alone: not only the blank and marbled pages, the suppressed chapters represented only by headings, the blazonry of punctuation marks and the mimetic force of wavy lines, but also the suppression of narrative suspense—a suspense proper to the storyteller who holds us by curiosity concerning events unfolding in time—in favor of a bibliographic suspense which depends on our knowledge that the book in our hands is of a certain size and that the writer therefore has somehow reached the end of it—by what means? Nothing more completely separates typographic from oral narrative than the fact that, as we turn the pages, we can literally see the ending coming.” 

In my paper, I quoted this passage out of context, though I still suspect Kenner was also referring to the race-with-death theme when he says “we can literally see the ending coming.” Sterne died on March 18, 1768, at age sixty-four. The author of the most protracted birth in literary history was born on this date, Nov. 24, in 1713. 

[Today is bountiful. Also born on Nov. 24 are Baruch Spinoza, 1632; Scott Joplin, 1868; Teddy Wilson, 1912; and William F. Buckley Jr., 1925.]

Friday, November 23, 2012

`Like Words You Had Never Heard Before'

In life and on the page I most enjoy the company of knowledgeable people, not trivial pursuers but those with a ready grab bag of bright shiny bits. I mean generalists, hunter-gatherers of fact, proudly messy non-specialists, foxes over hedgehogs. On the writing of one such: 

“It is, in a beautiful sense, thinking aloud, at its most congenial, conversational, richly anecdotal, and always observant. He is the world’s best companion for looking at a Venetian building or Gothic carving. He can tell you that the stone flowers that seem to be mere decoration at the top of a cathedral column grow wild in the fields round about. He takes nothing for granted; his readers are children to be taught, to be beguiled into learning.” 

This is Guy Davenport on John Ruskin, and on Guy Davenport, and I number myself among the children to be taught. An amateur Davenportian digression: Pedagogy, from the Greek παιδαγωγέω (paidagōgeō), literally “to lead the child.”

I met Guy only once and exchanged letters with him, but he remains my most lasting teacher, the one who shared not only what he knew but how he knew it. No mere professor of English, he lived and taught omni-directional curiosity. The night before I visited his home in Lexington, Ky., in June 1990, I shared a campground with several busloads of young Mormon musicians. When I relayed this information to Guy, he digressed on Joseph Smith, the fecundity of religion in upstate New York in the nineteenth century, and the geology of Utah, among other things. With some people, such a disquisition would quickly have turned pointless, pedantic and ponderously boring. Guy conveyed it with the pointed efficiency of a one-liner. The rest of the paragraph on Ruskin (The Death of Picasso: New and Selected Writings, 2003): 

“For one of his Oxford lectures he brought a plow, to make certain that his students knew what one looked like. (The lecture was on sculpture.) He could make passages from the Bible sound like words you had never heard before. A lecture that began with Michelangelo ended with the proper shoes for little girls; one on landscape painting ended with the industrial pollution of rivers and what to do about it.” 

Guy Davenport was born on this date eighty-five years ago, on Nov. 23, 1927, and died Jan. 4, 2005.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

`There Always Seems So Much to Guard Against'

“To Holy Communion—with B.—where I think of how we obscure our self-knowledge with anxiety; that it is not what we desire but what we fear and dread we may desire that impedes us—a look at the poor quality of my devoutness and at the desirability of the posture of prayer, the attitude of solemn thanksgiving.”

No, not Dr. Johnson. That’s John Cheever in yet another self-flagellating fit of alcoholic remorse in his Journals, a passage from December 1959. Everything is tainted, everything blessed, in Cheever, which makes him, problematically, a religious writer. Guy Davenport said Cheever possessed “a fine, forgiving sense that grace can emerge out of the most wayward darkness of the heart.” In the previous journal entry, set on Christmas morning, Cheever writes:
“There is something like a nightmare in this excess of presents—crystal glasses, velvet robes, a shrimp dish, trucks and cars—but somehow, not soberly. I grope from some other, less bewildering, meaning in this nightmare and I think that with these foolish excesses we struggle, intuitively, to express our convictions about the abundance of life.”

How self-satisfying it is, and has always been, to scorn the profligacy of American bounty and "commercialism." I, too, start thinking like a prig when I pass stacks of artificial Christmas trees in August, forgetting to cherish what Tom Wolfe called “this wild, bizarre, unpredictable, Hog-stomping Baroque country of ours.” I like Cheever’s effort to find something admirable, something good, in shameless consumption. In Daily Horoscope (Graywolf Press, 1986), Dana Gioia includes a fourteen-stanza meditation, “In Cheever Country,” in which the speaker rides north out of New York City through Westchester County, home to Cheever’s fictional places:
“The town names stenciled on the platform signs—
Clear Haven, Bullet Park, and Shady Hill—
Show that developers at least believe in poetry
If only as a talisman against the commonplace.
There always seems so much to guard against.”

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

`I Hope That You Won't Think Me Plain Ungrateful'

If, in June, I were to think of Thanksgiving Day, the train of associations would run from snow, to the warmth of the kitchen, to the smells of cooking, to the living room couch, to everyone with a book on/in his/her chest/lap. On this quintessential American holiday, let’s give thanks for the luxury of fat books, stocking feet and no obligations except not drying out the turkey. The day commemorates our foundational myth, of course, but it’s also a reminder that the harvest is in. Already, a month before Christmas, we have all the gifts we’ll ever need and more than we deserve. The day gently reminds us not to whine, to share the plenty, to know gratitude and cast out self-pity as unworthy of “the better angels of our nature.” In his Dictionary, Johnson defines “thanksgiving” as “celebration of mercy.” 

The Thanksgiving associations I described are a memory-collage, sixty years of scraps superimposed on a single canvas. There’s no snow in Houston and we’ll read on Thursday – what a gift, midday reading on a weekday! – but also watch a movie or two. This, too, is a ceremony – of comfort, closeness and no need to worry. Dana Gioia reminds us in “Autumn Inaugural” (Pity the Beautiful, 2012) that change is inevitable and not always to be feared or scorned:  

“Praise to the rituals that celebrate change,
Old robes worn for new beginnings,
Solemn protocol where the mutable soul,
Surrounded by ancient experience, grows
Young in the imagination's white dress.” 

Of all Thanksgiving poems, my favorite is Anthony Hecht’s “The Transparent Man” (The Transparent Man, 1990), a dramatic monologue spoken by a thirty-year-old woman hospitalized with leukemia. Whenever I reread the poem I think: I wish I could have known her. She recognizes the impact her fatal illness has on others and doesn’t wish to burden them. 

“…I feel
A little conspicuous and in the way.
It's mainly because of Thanksgiving.  All these mothers
And wives and husbands gaze at me soulfully
And feel they should break up their box of chocolates
For a donation, or hand me a chunk of fruitcake.
What they don't understand and never guess
Is that it's better for me without a family;
It's a great blessing.  Though I mean no harm.” 

“Donation” gently, politely camouflages scorn, and that last sentence is heartbreaking. She thinks of the difficulty her illness causes her father, who doesn’t visit. Is she making excuses for him? Hecht leaves it unresolved. His nameless speaker, in what might be mistaken for self-pity, redefines gratitude: 

“I care about fewer things; I'm more selective.
It's got so I can't even bring myself
To read through any of your books these days.
It's partly weariness, and partly the fact
That I seem not to care much about the endings,
How things work out, or whether they even do.” 

Instead, she studies the winter trees visible outside the window in her hospital room. There’s a Southern cast to some of her phrasing. She meditates not on her illness but on the world. She seeks clarity, knowing it’s not likely to come: 

“It set me on to wondering how to deal
With such a thickness of particulars,
Deal with it faithfully, you understand,
Without blurring the issue.” 

She concludes, a little indirectly, which is her way, with thanksgiving: 

“So I hope that you won't think me plain ungrateful
For not selecting one of your fine books,
And I take it very kindly that you came
And sat here and let me rattle on this way.”

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

`Graceful Uncompromising Language'

Our finest critic addresses our finest novelist on his announced retirement:

“A man may write at any time, as Dr. Johnson told Boswell on their tour of the Hebrides, if he will set himself doggedly to it.  Plenty of men and women have written doggedly without much to show for it.  Yours was the struggle to accept the moral obligation to write well.  From the beginning of your career, you understood that a good writer shoulders a double burden.  Not only must he, like the research scientist, make sure that what he says corresponds to experience.  This is only one sense of getting it right. He must also, and this obligation the scientist need not undertake unless there is an extraneous literary dimension to his research, get it right in graceful uncompromising language.”

`A Book Worthy of Human Veneration'

In Execution Eve and Other Contemporary Ballads (1975), William F. Buckley Jr. reprints a letter from his friend Hugh Kenner, author of The Stoic Comedians: Flaubert, Joyce, and Beckett (1962) and The Counterfeiters: An Historical Comedy (1968), both illustrated by Guy Davenport. In the letter, Kenner describes something he calls the “Jane Chord,” named for the wife of avant-garde filmmaker Stan Brakhage. You calculate it by combining the first and last words of “any book by any mortal,” and if it is “a book worthy of human veneration these words combined will state the book’s quality in a phrase.” A parlor game, of course, but one surprisingly useful. Kenner notes the “Virgilian chiaroscuro” of the Aeneid: “arma/sub umbras.” Ulysses renders: “Stately/yes.” His own The Pound Era: “Toward/labyrinth.” And La Divina Commedia: “nel/stelle” – in the stars. I've calculated a few others among my favorites: 

Invisible Man: “I/you?”

The Unnamable: “Where/on.”

My Ántonia: “Last/past.”

Boswell’s Life of Johnson: “Had/Johnson.”

The Wings of the Dove: “She/were!”

The Golden Bowl: "The/breast."

The Ambassadors: "Strether's/Strether"

Wise Blood: “Hazel/light!”

Tristram Shandy: “I/heard.”

Herzog: “If/word.”

Moby-Dick: “Call/orphan.”

The Geography of the Imagination: “The/Dictionary

Transparent Things: "Here's/son."

Seize the Day: "When/need."

Gulliver's Travels: "My/sight."

The Wife of Martin Guerre: "One/long."

The Man Who Loved Children: "All/bridge."

Enthusiasm: A Chapter in the History of Religion: "The/L'enthousiasme!"

Gilead: "I/sleep." 

Try it yourself. Beware of translations. Beware of preliminary (copyright, dedications, acknowledgements, etc.) and ancillary (appendices and indices) matter. What to do with Pale Fire? Kenner cites Stéphane Mallarmé’s sonnet (“Le virge/cygnet”) as precedent for his “precious principle,” then gracefully lauds Buckley’s most recent volume (as of 1972), Inveighing We Will Go: 


Monday, November 19, 2012

`The Objects of My Ardent Interest'

“Allow me therefore to repeat once again with delight: how he built me up, how he strengthened me. In my melancholy literary life I have gotten my share of shabby treatment, but I have also met people who would favor me, out of the blue, with the lavishness of a padishah—no one, however, was more generous than Bruno. Never, before or since, have I bathed in such crystalline joy on account of my every artistic attainment.”

Here, in the third volume of his Diary (Northwestern University Press, trans. Lillian Vallee, 1993), Witold Gombrowicz, the most bitter and self-pitying of writers, forever staring in the mirror, shocks us with his generosity of spirit. “Joy” out of Gombrowicz’s pen packs the unlikely wallop of “perky” out of Kafka’s. The object of this rare gratitude is Bruno Schulz, the Polish author of The Street of Crocodiles, a story collection I first read around 1978, when Philip Roth was editing the Writers from the Other Europe series for Penguin. The pages of my old paperback have turned brown and brittle, so it’s no longer a reading copy, but I find one passage in the book underlined from an earlier reading. It’s from the story “Cinnamon Shops” and suggests how Schulz revels in the arcane and exotic in the midst of mundane reality. You might find such a scene in a story by Steven Millhauser:
“These truly noble shops, open late at night, have always been the objects of my ardent interest. Dimly lit, their dark and solemn interiors were redolent of the smell of paint, varnish, and incense; of the aroma of distant countries and rare commodities. You could find in them Bengal lights, magic boxes, the stamps of long-forgotten countries, Chinese decals, indigo, calaphony from Malabar, the eggs of exotic insects, parrots, toucans, live salamanders and basilisks, mandrake roots, mechanical toys from Nuremberg, homunculi in jars, microscopes, binoculars, and, most especially, strange and rare books, old folio volumes full of astonishing engravings and amazing stories.” 

On the same shelf as the Schulz volumes are Cynthia Ozick’s, including The Messiah of Stockholm (1987), about a Swede convinced he is Schulz’s son and has found a copy of Schulz’s final lost manuscript, The Messiah. Ozick signed the book when I met her, the day I also met Raul Hilberg and Aharon Appelfeld. On this date seventy years ago, on Nov. 19, 1942, in his home town of Drohobych, while walking home with a loaf of bread, Schulz was murdered by a Gestapo officer.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

`Let Us Be Ocular Athletes'

"Senescence never curbed his griggish gratitude for existence itself; history for him occurs in the now, and the joy undimmed in his lifetime reads brightly still, in ours. `He is something far more convincing, far more comforting, far more religiously significant than an optimist: he is a happy man.’” 

These are the concluding sentences of G.K. Chesterton (Northcote House Publishers, 2012) by Michael D. Hurley. The quote within the quote is from Robert Browning, the monograph Chesterton published in 1903, his first proper book. I share Hurley’s taste for alliterative phrasing and “griggish gratitude” is awfully good even though I didn’t know the meaning of “griggish.” The Oxford English Dictionary is ungriggishly laconic with its definition -- “merry” – and gives two citations, both from letters written by Gerard Manley Hopkins: “The more griggish the piece [of music] the more we clapped it” and “I seem to be in a griggish mood; it must be because holidays have begun.” The noun “grig” is a rather griggish word, meaning a dwarf, a young eel, a farthing, common heather, a short-legged hen, a cricket or grasshopper, and “an extravagantly lively person, one who is full of frolic and jest.” As a verb it means to irritate or annoy. Clearly, a word Chesterton would have loved. 

Before consulting the OED, I looked into Webster’s Third and found a griggish grande fête. On page 999 of my thirty-nine-year-old dictionary I stumbled on griffonage (“a crude or illegible scrawl”), griggles (“small or inferior apples left on a tree after picking”), grike (“an opening in rock widened by natural forces”) and grimalkin (“an old and usu. cantankerous or otherwise unpleasant woman”). Pretty soon my two younger sons joined me, and we had a good time on the same page with grilse (“a young mature [?] Atlantic salmon returning from the sea to spawn”), griege (“a variable color averaging a grayish yellow green that is yellower and paler than average sage green, mermaid, or palmetto and yellower and less strong than celadon”) and griffone (“a woman of three-quarter Negro and one-quarter white blood”). Hurley quotes a passage from Chesterton’s essay collection Tremendous Trifles (1909): 

“Let us exercise the eye until it learns to see startling facts that run across the landscape as plain as a painted fence. Let us be ocular athletes. Let us learn to write essays on a stray cat or a coloured cloud. I have attempted some such thing in what follows; but anyone else may do it better, if anyone else will only try.”

Saturday, November 17, 2012

`I Gather Myself Up for the Old Things'

“Their importance is from the past.”

That’s the concluding sentence from the first of Charles Lamb’s Essays of Elia (1823), “The South-Sea House,” published in London Magazine in August 1820. Not yet fifteen years old, Lamb had dropped out of school and gone to work as a clerk for Joseph Paice, a London merchant. A year later he took a similar position with the South Sea House and in six months joined the Accountant’s Department at the East India Company, where he remained for thirty-three years. On retiring in 1825, Lamb was earning £730 a year.

In that first Elia essay, written when he was only forty-five, Lamb’s gaze is already instinctively retrospective. He writes less about the sweep of his career as a clerk (neither Lamb nor Elia is Bartleby) than about the South Sea House forty years earlier, in the distant wake of the “South Sea Bubble.” His subject, typically, is an undistinguished period in the history of a company long past its prime. Consider, too, his strategy in starting the essay. He addresses the reader directly like an old friend, speaking familiarly of London geography, and launches into a long, ornately serpentine sentence that concludes, to our surprise, with a question:

“READER, in thy passage from the Bank - where thou hast been receiving thy half-yearly dividends (supposing thou art a lean annuitant like myself) to the Flower Pot, to secure a place for Dalston, or Shacklewell, or some other thy suburban retreat northerly, -- didst thou never observe a melancholy looking handsome, brick and stone edifice, to the left -- where Threadneedle- street abuts upon Bishopsgate?”

Two sentences later, he sets another pleasant trap, crafting a sentence that begins “Here are still to be seen stately porticos…” and concludes almost two hundred words later with “…that famous BUBBLE.” Lamb has cunningly ushered us into a time machine of prose. Readers in 1820 recognized the mustiness of the sentences, their self-conscious antiquity, the homages to Burton and Browne, and the refusal to be up-to-date. And that was their charm. Lamb was no revolutionary. He habitually looked to the past for what was good and interesting, while simultaneously making fun of himself for doing so, just as he poked fun at his oh-so-earnest friend Hazlitt for lionizing Napoleon and dabbling in radical chic. In another Elia essay, “Oxford in the Vacation,” he writes:

 “Antiquity! thou wondrous charm, what art thou? that being nothing art everything? When thou wert, thou wert not antiquity - then thou wert nothing, but hadst a remoter antiquity, as thou calledst it, to look back to with blind veneration; thou thyself being to thyself flat, jejune, modern! What mystery lurks in this retroversion? or what half Januses are we, that cannot look forward with the same idolatry with which we for ever revert! The mighty future is as nothing, being everything! the past is everything, being nothing!”

When an editor rejects one of his sonnets, Lamb declares to Bryan Waller Procter in an 1829 letter: “Damn the age; I will write for Antiquity!” Twenty years earlier, long before the birth of Elia, in a letter to his childhood friend Coleridge, Lamb had said: “I am out of the world of readers. I hate all that do read, for they read nothing but reviews and new books. I gather myself up unto the old things.” 

With age, one’s sympathy for Lamb/Elia grows. Sometimes, one feels nostalgia for times and places that never existed.

Friday, November 16, 2012

`It's Just Not the Way I Work'

Reading a poet who lives to age eighty-seven only after his death feels shoddy and disrespectful. I’d heard Jack Gilbert’s name but it floated in the ether of things I don’t know and never pursued. After he died on Tuesday I borrowed his Collected Poems (2012) from the library and spent a couple of hours reviewing a man’s life in the lines he chose to leave behind. Much has been made of Gilbert’s unconventional poet’s life, the way he frequently moved, shunned academia and some of the trappings of the poetry industry, and periodically disappeared from view like Sonny Rollins. I read his Paris Review interview and found things to admire:

“I didn’t want to stay in New York and go to dinners. I was also puzzled by the fact that so many of the established poets didn’t like each other. There’s competition, naturally—and naturally you relate to someone who can promote you. That’s not awful; that’s the way the world works. It’s just not the way I work. But don’t get me wrong, what they’re doing—these meetings where they give each other prizes—I think it’s wonderful.”
The interviewer questions this apparent approval of business as usual among American poets (is he being ironic?), and Gilbert goes on: 

“The people who are famous have earned it; they’ve earned it to an extraordinary degree. They’ve given their lives to it, they’re professionals, they work hard, and they raise families. And they’re very smart, they stay at their desks all the time—they send out everything. They teach, which is not easy. What they do is important, but there’s no way that I would use my life for that.” 

I admire Gilbert’s apparent equanimity. Few of us can reject a way of life, or anything else for that matter, without bad-mouthing it. I like his detachment, his ability to separate act from actor, and to praise people whose lives he chooses not to emulate. At least in these matters, Gilbert behaves like a rare grownup. So I wish I could say I was smitten by Gilbert’s poems and that I’d posthumously discovered a new favorite, but that’s not the case. Gilbert’s poems, from early to late, feel slight and casual like notes left on the kitchen counter. Their affect is flat, reminding me of Joan Didion’s prose. They’re bloodless anecdotes, like the small stories we swap with family and friends – sometimes pleasant or amusing, but not really poems. They’re under-developed snapshots, an impression heightened by general formlessness and rhythmic slackness. I understand that he wishes to sound emotionally cool and understated, not to break a sweat or rant. In the Paris Review interview he talks about the centrality of heart to his work, but the vital signs are so faint it’s difficult to detect a beat. Here’s the final poem in the new book, “Convalescing”: 

“I spend the days deciding
on a commemorative poem.
Not, luckily, an epitaph.
A quiet poem
to establish the fact of me.
As one of the incidental faces
In those stone processions,
Carefully done.
Not claiming that I was
at any of the great victories.
But that I volunteered.”

Thursday, November 15, 2012

`They Are My Refuge From a World'

“For how many of us—avid readers, that is—has the printed page been a means of avoidance of the sheer messiness, the intractability, of life, to no other purpose than the avoidance itself?”

Well, yes – and no. For some of us, sometimes. At age twelve, plowing through the overheated oeuvre of Edgar Rice Burroughs, I was avoiding a lot of things, including growing up, and were I reading Burroughs with comparable avidity today, almost half a century later, I would probably have succeeded in avoiding most of adult life. The demands of maturity, biological and otherwise, have seen to it that I put aside childish things. When a nominal adult gushes over sci-fi, I squirm a little.

Like Anthony Daniels (aka Theodore Dalrymple) in “The digital challenge, I: Loss & gain, or the fate of the book,” I’m addicted to printed matter and recognize the symptoms of withdrawal: “…we grow agitated and begin to pine, by which time anything will do: a bus timetable, a telephone directory, an operating manual for a washing machine.” Like the drunk who resorts to chugging Aqua Velva, I found myself recently reading the list of ingredients on a bottle of Worcestershire sauce. Is this a strategy for avoiding unpleasantness? Daniels writes:

“We gorge on the printed page to distract ourselves from ourselves: the great business of Doctor Johnson’s life, according to Boswell and Johnson himself.”

Johnson rightly advises Boswell that “it is better if a man reads from immediate inclination,” which would seem to include diversionary and time-killing reading. But I would argue that serious reading, which sometimes begins in a spirit of escapism, represents not a proxy but a true engagement with life. Whether Tolstoy, Babel or Beckett, the lasting writers are truth tellers and offer messiness and intractability galore, including the messiness and intractability of truth. As Johnson reminds us, “the only end of writing is to enable the readers better to enjoy life, or better to endure it.” Normally, I would never read something titled “The Digital Challenge” or “The Fate of the Book.” Too portentous and self-important sounding, like anything with “manifesto” or “theory” in its title. But Daniels, characteristically, writes from experience. When he looks at the books on his “laden shelves,” he says: “They are my refuge from a world that I have found difficult to negotiate.” He has written an elegy for a gift that has not quite left us:

“Whether the book survives or not, I am firmly of the opinion that it ought to survive, and nothing will convince me otherwise. The heart has its beliefs that evidence knows not of.”

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

`So That He Could Have It to Say'

It amounts to an adolescent game, a variation on the Robinson Crusoe fantasy, but proves itself useful in distinguishing the sustaining from the merely diverting: Marooned on an island, confined to a hospital bed, what books would you make certain to bring? Now let’s up the ante: What books or passages would you commit to memory, à la Fahrenheit 451, if you knew you would be denied access to printed matter? My first thought is poetry, more Shakespeare and Housman, for their music (itself a consolation) and graceful density of feeling and thought. In Bernard Malamud’s The Fixer (1966), Yakov Bok is imprisoned for the blood-libel murder of a Christian boy. The setting is Tsarist Russia in the early twentieth century. In prison, Bok is given strips of newspaper for wiping and is not permitted to read them, but does so surreptitiously. Malamud writes:

“During the endless empty days, to forget his misery a little, the fixer tried to remember things he had read. He remembered incidents from Spinoza’s life: how the Jews had cursed him in the synagogue; how an assassin had tried to kill him in the street, for his ideas; how he lived and died in his tiny room, studying, writing, grinding lenses for a living until his lungs had turned to glass.”

One thinks of Dr. Nahum Fischelson in Singer’s “The Spinoza of Market Street,” for whom Spinoza is a saintly figure, doubly an outsider, a reliable source of inspiration. But the inspiration for Bok gets him nowhere: 

“Necessity freed Spinoza and imprisoned Yakov. Spinoza thought himself into the universe but Yakov’s poor thoughts were inclosed in a cell.” 

Bok tries to remember what he studied of biology and history, and that too backfires: “They say God appeared in history and used it for his purposes, but if that was so he had no pity for men. God cried mercy and smote his chest, but there was no mercy because there was no pity.” He remembers scraps in Yiddish of stories by I.L. Peretz (1852-1915) and Sholem Aleichem (1859-1916), and some in Russian by Chekhov. Bok is an intelligent, thoughtful man but not well educated. He doesn’t think of himself as devout but neither is he a defiant unbeliever. Malamud said in an interview after he published The Fixer: "I am always interested in the irreligious man's unrelenting concern with God." Malamud writes of Bok:

“He recalled things from the Scriptures, in particular, fragments of psalms he had read in Hebrew on old parchment. He could, in a sense, smell the Psalms as well as hear them. They were sung weekly in the synagogue to glorify God and protect the shtetl from harm, which they never did. Yakov had chanted them, or heard them chanted, many times, and now in a period of remembrance he uttered verses, stanzas that he did not think he knew. He could not recall a whole psalm, but from fragments he put together one that he recited aloud in the in the cell in order not to forget it, so that he could have it to say.” 

Malamud reproduces Bok’s fragmentary memories of the Psalms, twenty-seven lines, a collage drawn mostly from the King James translation: 7:14-15, 6:6, 102:3-4, 35:11, 31:13, 10:12, 10:15, 21:9, 18:9, 18:14, 18:37. Their themes, from false accusation to retribution, comment on Bok’s plight. Many of us, Jews or not, locked up or free, hold in memory scraps of Psalms 23 and 100, and the speech in The Merchant of Venice in which Shylock emerges greater than the play that imprisons him.