Monday, December 07, 2015

`Could I Not Interfere Too?'

In Another Beauty (2000), Adam Zagajewski calls upon literature to “assume, consciously and in all seriousness, the function of a historical chronicle.” Modern historians are, he says, “cold fish” who “write in an inhuman, ugly, wooden, bureaucratic language from which all poetry’s been driven, a language flat as a wood louse and petty as the daily paper.” Instead, Zagajewski proposes a new (or, rather, ancient but resuscitated) species he calls the “historian-poet,” which sounds promising but a little high-falutin’. Put that aside and consider his rather optimistic literary prognosis: 

 “We are in fact witnessing a revival of literature that serves this very purpose, but almost no one’s paid attention: writers’ journals, memoirs, poets’ autobiographies harken back to an archaic literary tradition, the writing of history from the viewpoint of a sovereign individual and not an assistant professor, a slave to modish methodologies, a state employee who must flatter simultaneously both the powers that be and the reigning Parisian epistemology.” 

The digital revolution ought to have made Zagajewski’s proposal realistically attainable, with every man his own Gutenberg. But politics, navel-gazing and a dearth of writing skill have largely scuttled so promising an idea. Theodore Dalrymple is a rare exception who comes close to the Pole’s notion of the independent writerly conscience. With obvious qualifications, he is a legitimate heir of George Orwell. Zagajewski makes his own suggestions, some quite unexpected, mostly from an earlier era: 

. . . the autobiographies of Edwin Muir, Czeslaw Milosz, Joseph Brodsky, among other poets, the essays of Hubert Butler, Nicola Chiaromonte, the notebooks of Jozef Czapski, Albert Camus . . . The sketches of Zbigniew Herbert, Jerzy Stempowski, of Boleslaw Micinski, ill with tuberculosis. Here are people who refused to cheat, who eagerly sought out the truth and shrank from neither poetry nor terror, the two poles of our globe – since poetry does exist in the world, in certain events, at rare moments. And there’s also no shortage of terror.” 

A countryman of Zagajewski’s, the late Ryszard Kapuściński, whose books are compulsively readable, might also qualify, as would C.H. Sisson, Simon Leys and Marius Kociejowski. I’m pleased to see that Zagajewski enlists Hubert Butler (1900-1991), an Irish essayist whose work I have touted for decades with a stunning lack of success. Butler’s only American publication is still Independent Spirit (1997), a fat selection from the four volumes put out by the Lilliput Press in Dublin: Escape from the Anthill (1985), The Children of Drancy (1988), Grandmother and Wolf Tone (1990) and In the Land of Nod (1996). In his introduction to Escape from the Anthill (included in Independent Spirit), the volume that led to Butler’s long-deferred recognition as a major writer, he recounts his decision at age fourteen to remain on his family farm in County Kilkenny. In this he fulfills Zagajewski’s call for a writer who has “seen and experienced what he describes for himself, or has drawn upon a living oral tradition, his family’s or his tribe’s, who does fear engagement and emotion, but who cares nonetheless about his story’s truthfulness.” Butler writes: 

“Though we have long been unimportant people, the Butlers, of whom my family is a junior branch, had ruled the neighbourhood since the fourteenth century, and there is scarcely a parish in Tipperary or Kilkenny that does not bear some trace of our sometimes arrogant, sometimes kindly interference. Could I not interfere too?”

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