Tuesday, December 08, 2015

`I Only Ever Valued Writers'

My roommate freshman year was a friend from high school, son of a Slovak father and an Austrian mother, a trilingual fellow (now quadrilingual: he later taught himself Spanish) who listened almost exclusively to classical music in our room while the rest of the hall boomed with Hendrix and Cream. This was 1970 and Mike, without snobbery, preferred Janáček, Dvorak and, in his single concession to American taste, George Gershwin. He made me aware of my American-ness, a defining quality that had never occurred to me.

One evening while I was studying at my desk, Mike drew our room, including my hunched-over back and Remington typewriter, in a sketch book. He mailed me the drawing several years ago and the scratchy lines conform almost precisely to my memory, which automatically fills in the colors and detail (a can of Barbasol on the dresser). Above my desk hang my sole contributions to the walls, at a time when most dorm rooms were papered over with rock posters: Joyce and Kafka. In a crude sense, they were my rock stars, the writers I idolized above all others. My literary tastes have modified and broadened but I’m rather proud, for once, of my younger self, who could, and not infrequently, be insufferable. I remembered the drawing while reading an interview with the English novelist Howard Jacobson:

“We were too clever at my school to be interested in pop music—we weren’t interested in pop music, so while other boys had pictures of footballers on their walls, I swear this to you, or they had pictures of, you know, musicians on their walls, I had a picture of George Eliot, had a picture of Jane Austen, I had a picture of Ben Jonson, a copy of Sargent’s portrait of Henry James, which was in the national portrait gallery, that’s what I had—they were my—I only ever wanted to be a writer, and I only ever valued writers, and it hasn’t changed, I only ever value writers, every time I meet a writer, I don’t value them so much, but in the abstract, writing is the only thing, absolutely nothing else, never been anything else, never.”

No one outside my family and friends do I love as much as I love the great writers, and this was already the case when I was seventeen and hero-worshipping Joyce and Kafka, the Modernist Duo I turned into a Trio about a year and a half later when I finally read Proust. Today on my bookshelves I have postcards of another trio --Chekhov, Dr. Johnson and Louis Armstrong, heroes all.  

“I think the English novel finds its voice, not in Sterne but in Dr. Johnson, who criticizes Sterne, who says, `Nothing odd will last long,’ Dr. Johnson says when he reads Sterne, and people go, `ha ha, you got that wrong, Dr. Johnson, Sterne did last.’ Well, he got it wrong, Sterne did last, but for all the wrong reasons. Someone once wrote that Marx was influenced by Sterne. Now is this a great thing, that Sterne is to blame for the Berlin Wall, is that what we’re proud of? Whereas in Johnson we get an entirely different tradition—of moralizing that doesn’t—that looks as if it’s taking itself too seriously, but doesn’t take itself too seriously. Of a kind of melancholy, of plagency and disappointment.”

I don’t quite agree but that’s not important. How often does someone move you to reconsider the writers you most admire? In a recent column in the Independent, Jacobson returns to the subject of Johnson, proposing to celebrate the 250th anniversary of A Dictionary of the English Language by giving a copy to every child between the ages of eight and eighteen: “Call me a sentimentalist, but in my mind’s eye I see their little faces illuminated with the joy of spotting Johnson’s emendations and exchanging opinions on their felicity.”

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