Saturday, July 19, 2014

`The Long-Awaited Conversation'

When I borrow books from my university library I check the card at the back stamped with the last date of circulation. On Friday, for instance, I took out Mavis Gallant’s first novel, Green Water, Green Sky, published in 1959. The last prior due date was April 4, 1980, a mere thirty-four years ago. On occasion I’ve taken out books that collected dust for almost a century. I never borrow a book because it hasn’t circulated in a long time, but I feel a tingle of pride when I revive one from its long dormancy, and a sense of kinship with an anonymous, long-ago reader. We share something, however attenuated, for there is a fellowship of true readers and the membership rolls are secret, even to members. Jeff Worley begins “Unlocked, 2047” (A Little Luck, Texas Review Press, 2013) with an unsourced sentence from Marianne Moore: 

“Life is energy, and energy is creativity. And even when individuals pass on, the energy is retained in the work of art, locked in it and awaiting release if only someone will take the time and the care to unlock it.” 

It sounds like late-period Moore, from the Brooklyn-Dodgers-Ford-Motor-Company era, when the great poet had evolved into a great celebrity, and she uses that odious word “creativity,” a sure sign of mental slippage. But the trope is a pleasant one, a writer’s essence lodged in his books, to be released only with the aid of the reader, like the genie from his lamp. Here is Worley’s poem: 

“I imagine it will be early evening,
light prisming through a tall window. 

“A young woman prowls
the shelves of a library, hunting 

“and gathering books the old way.
Thousands of us old literary soldiers 

“are lined up, stiff at attention
in our true final resting spots. 

“She traces our spines with the delicate
tips of her fingers. She’s not in a hurry. 

“She’s humming some popular tune,
some hard to dislodge music… 

“Williams, Worley, Wrigley. Wait a minute.
Worley. Funny name. What kind of stuff 

“did he write? She slides me out and into
her warm palm. I’m hers now. 

“She creaks the book open, settles onto
A pillowed window seat, and we begin 

“the long-awaited conversation.” 

A book unread dwells in a torpid state, not dead but giving the appearance of death – benumbed, the OED suggests, like a patient on the surgeon’s table. Open Tristram Shandy to Book II, Chapter XI (page 79 in my old Everyman’s Library edition), and read: 

“Writing, when properly managed (as you may be sure I think mine is) is but a different name for conversation. As no one, who knows what he is about in good company, would venture to talk all; -- so no author, who understands the just boundaries of decorum and good-breeding, would pressure to think all: The truest respect which you can pay to the reader’s understanding, is to halve this matter amicably, and leave him something to imagine, in his turn, as well as yourself.”

[Dave Lull points out that Worley misattributes the quotation. The speaker is not Marianne Moore but Joyce Carol Oates. See the final sentences in Oates' Paris Review interview. Now the sentiment's semi-insipidity makes sense.]

1 comment:

Buce said...

It's a plot point in Nabokov's Pnin. On the off chance that you haven't read it, I won't spoil it.