Tuesday, August 25, 2015

`Remoteness Can Be Confused with Imperviousness'

“Autobiography is not in my line and my life has to the outside eye been uneventful.”

The words are Ivy Compton-Burnett’s as quoted by Frank Baldanza on the first page of the monograph he devoted to the English novelist and published in the Twayne Author Series in 1964. Six years later I arrived as an immature and bookishly cloistered freshman at Bowling Green State University in Ohio, where Baldanza had been teaching in the English department since 1957. People I trusted spoke highly of him and suggested I enroll in one of his classes. As a sophomore I signed up for Baldanza’s “Modern Japanese Novel,” an unlikely subject about which I knew nothing, but thanks to the class I came to admire Natsume Sōseki and detest Yukio Mishima.

Baldanza wore a beautifully tailored suit and tie to class, which made him an anachronism. His shoes gleamed, his silver hair was razor-cut and he wore gold-framed glasses. He was perhaps the first man I ever met who might fairly be described as “dapper.” We assumed he was gay but that wasn’t a subject anyone dreamed of investigating forty-five years ago. While I was still a junior, Baldanza permitted me to enroll in his graduate seminar devoted to James Joyce. Twice a week we met in a library conference room, six or seven students and the professor, and the only work by Joyce we did not read in its entirety, only in excerpts, was Finnegans Wake. The most precious book I own is the Random House Ulysses I annotated for the class. Unlike the other students I had already read the novel while in high school, and had some grasp of its scheme. I concentrated on identifying allusions, and had to tape additional pages into the volume to accommodate my notes. It was the most demanding (even more than organic chemistry) and rewarding (even more than “Eighteen-Century British Novel”) experience I had at the university.

I remember trying to thank Baldanza for the privilege of working with him, but he seemed uninterested in (or made uncomfortable by) gratitude. In appearance and manner he was vain and almost aristocratic in bearing, but seemingly indifferent to praise (at least from a self-conscious undergraduate). While looking for something else in the library this week I came upon his Compton-Burnett volume. I don’t think I was previously aware of it, or of the book he devoted to Iris Murdoch and published with Twayne in 1974. That would have been the last year I saw or spoke with him. I seem seldom to have a sense of what intersections with other lives will prove memorable. I looked him up online and discovered he had died more than thirty years ago of an apparent heart attack. He was sixty, two years younger than I am today. Almost all of the information in the obituary is new to me. Here are the final sentences in his survey of Compton-Burnett (a writer I admire very much but never discussed, as best I remember, with Baldanza):

“She is herself as removed from the ephemeral literary preoccupations of her day as the Gothic sculpture on a cathedral overlooking a busy thoroughfare. While this remoteness can be confused with imperviousness to time, P.H. Newby’s assertion that she is the only writer since Joyce who is likely to be read one hundred years from now is as safe a statement as any contemporary could risk.”

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