Monday, April 15, 2024

'Stimulated to Vigour and Activity'

When John Ruskin (b. 1819) traveled as a boy, his father packed in his luggage four small volumes of Dr. Johnson’s Rambler and Idler essays. In his peculiar memoir Praeterita (1885), Ruskin tells us “had it not been for constant reading of the Bible, I might probably have taken Johnson for my model of English,” and continues: 

“I valued his sentences not primarily because they were symmetrical, but because they were just, and clear; it is a method of judgment rarely used by the average public, who ask from an author always, in the first place, arguments in favour of their own opinions, in elegant terms . . .”


Who can imagine the father of an adolescent boy today packing Johnson with his toothbrush and underwear. Even I wouldn’t have done that but it makes sense for an evangelical family of the Victorian era. Johnson’s work might pass as secular scripture. And I agree that most of us can learn from the clarity and forcefulness of his prose.  


Three years after his final Rambler essay was published in 1755, Johnson resumed writing periodical essays in The Idler on April 15, 1758. Boswell tells us his friend wrote some of The Idler essays “as hastily as an ordinary letter.” John Wain in his biography of Johnson says they are “lighter and less ambitious” than The Rambler, which doesn’t seem quite accurate, but he adds: “The firm moral purpose is as evident as it always was, but there is more sense of holiday and fun.” In his first Idler, Johnson writes: “Every man is, or hopes to be, an Idler.” This is written by the man who had already published “The Vanity of Human Wishes,” his Dictionary and the Rambler and Adventurer essays.


I would distinguish idleness from laziness, though I do recognize a lazy streak in myself. The only antidote is more work, sometimes accomplished only through an act of will. Idleness can be a virtue, especially when contrasted with manic busyness. I like Johnson’s summation:  


“The Idler, though sluggish, is yet alive, and may sometimes be stimulated to vigour and activity. He may descend into profoundness, or tower into sublimity; for the diligence of an Idler is rapid and impetuous, as ponderous bodies forced into velocity move with violence proportionate to their weight.”

Sunday, April 14, 2024

'The Amber of His Style'

Isaac Waisberg at IWP Books has digitalized three volumes of Desmond MacCarthy’s essays and reviews -- Portraits (1931), Criticism (1932), Memories (1953) – with a promise of more to come. MacCarthy’s reputation in the U.S. is almost sub-atomic. Devotees of Bloomsbury think of hm as a hanger-on, an outer planet orbiting the Woolf-sun, which is a shame because MacCarthy (1877-1952) is an acute critic who might be thought of as a literary anecdotalist, mingling the lives and works of his subjects. He writes like an enthusiastic reader, not an academic, and his ultimate interest is the muddle of human nature – why people behave so bafflingly or, on occasion, so charmingly. Here, from Memories, is an excerpt from MacCarthy’s essay on one of his friends, Max Beerbohm: 

“His conversation, like his prose, is full of slight surprises. As a talker he belongs to more leisurely days, when the tempo of conversation permitted people to express themselves, and hosts did not prefer emphatic jawing guests, who shift their topic every moment. The art of conversation has passed away. In London to tell a story well is now impossible, for it may take more than two minutes; Oscar Wilde would be voted a bore, and neighbours at dinner would begin talking to each other after his third sentence.”


Note the shift from specific to general, suggesting that in 1946, when MacCarthy is writing, traditional English tolerance for eccentricity is already waning.  MacCarthy, like Beerbohm, was a gifted conversationalist. When he died six years later at age seventy-five, Beerbohm broadcast a brief, touching remembrance of his old friend on the BBC. In “Sir Desmond MacCarthy” (Mainly on the Air, 1946; rev. 1957), Beerbohm recounts the time Virginia Woolf hired a stenographer to surreptitiously record MacCarthy’s inspired, eloquent conversation. When transcribed, however, “the typescript was a disappointment. Without the inflections of the voice, without the accompanying gestures and changes of facial expression, how could it have been otherwise?”


MacCarthy writes with a comparable intimacy about writers dead before he was born. Take his 1942 tribute to Walter Savage Landor, another forgotten figure cherished by some of us:


“He is one of those writers for whom, if you care at all, you care immensely. His prose, apart from its content, gives me more pleasure than that of almost any other writer. The Landorian period is built up of chiseled statements, without conjunctions or transitions; the blocks . . .  are so hard and well-cut that they require no mortar.”


And here, a few paragraphs later, MacCarthy demonstrates his gift for aphorism: “He wrote many a page that was as lifeless as it was flawless. The amber of his style also embalmed mere flies and straws. Like several others who have mastered a manner of pronounced aesthetic quality, he sometimes ceased to observe its unfitness to the matter in hand; yet how frequently, both in prose and verse, Landor triumphed in the controlled expression of tenderness and solemnity!” 


MacCarthy’s prose is often so vivid, so unexpectedly and tastefully thrilling, that even familiar judgments sound novel and definitive. Here he is, also from Memories, on Kipling:


“Kipling has been the most wide-flung combustion in the sky of English letters since Byron and Dickens. . . . Kipling is a writer whose phrases must be allowed to soak a moment in the mind before they expand, like those little Japanese pellets which blossom into flower only when they have lain awhile on the surface of a cup of water. Yet with all his ostentatious word-craft, he remained a favourite author of thousands upon thousands of readers who are ordinarily impatient of that kind of writing.”


Something similar might be said of MacCarthy. It’s likely you have never read his work or even heard his name, so you can thank Isaac Waisberg for the generous introduction.

Saturday, April 13, 2024

'Probity Was Perhaps the Highest Good'

As a newspaper reporter I covered only one capital murder trial. This was in rural Indiana in 1983. At the age of eighteen, William Spranger had fatally shot a town marshal, William Miner, in the back with the officer’s service revolver. The jury found Spranger guilty and Judge James C. Puckett sentenced him to death.

I knew the judge the way reporters often know public figures. The relationship was genial but guarded. After the sentencing I asked the bailiff if I could see Puckett in his chambers. The bailiff passed on my request and, to my surprise, the judge agreed. I knew Puckett as a man of great dignity, always conservatively dressed and groomed, serious and scholarly, tall with a Lincolnesque manner. The judge was sprawled in the chair behind his desk, disheveled, sweating, tie undone, hair out of place. He could hardly speak and gave me a few brief answers to my questions, which I no  longer remember. I left the courthouse with a single word in my head, one we seldom hear anymore: probity. I think of the judge when I encounter the word.     


Puckett gave the lie to the stereotype of the “hanging judge.” Clearly, his decision had disturbed him severely. I saw a man who had wrestled with his conscience and his obligations as a judge. There was nothing cavalier or vindictive about him. He did what he was obliged to do, and it took something out of him.


Dr. Johnson in his Dictionary defines probity as “honesty; sincerity; veracity,” qualities we seldom associate with judges and other public officials. The meaning has shifted with the centuries. The OED gives us “the quality or condition of having strong moral principles; integrity, good character; honesty, decency.” Among the citations is one from Willa Cather’s O Pioneers! (1913): “In a few years his unprincipled wife warped the probity of a lifetime.”


I recently reread Joseph Conrad’s Nostromo (1904), my favorite among his novels. I remembered a brief essay Theodore Dalrymple wrote a decade ago about the great writer. He doesn’t mention Nostromo but he does examine probity, a quality that distinguished Judge Puckett:


“In finding something for his hand to do, and doing it with all his might, Conrad always kept morality in view. For Conrad, probity was perhaps the highest good, the moral quality he admired most; for him, very distant goals diluted probity and finally dissolved it utterly. The good that resulted from doing something with all one’s might had therefore to be tangible or immediate, and not so far removed that it entailed or permitted the doing of evil in the name of the eventual good that it would supposedly produce.”

Friday, April 12, 2024

'Where I Went and Cannot Come Again'

A brief return to the Russian word toska mentioned in Thursday’s post by Gary Saul Morson in reference to Chekhov. Dave Lull alerted me to Nabokov’s explication of the word in his translation of Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin. In the second of the four volumes, Nabokov writes: 

“No single word in English renders all the shades of toska. At its deepest and most painful, it is a sensation of great spiritual anguish, often without any specific cause. At less morbid levels it is a dull ache of the soul, a longing with nothing to long for, a sick pining, a vague restlessness, mental throes, yearning. In particular cases it may be the desire for somebody or something specific, nostalgia, lovesickness. At the lowest level it grades into ennui, boredom, skuka.”


A word layered with nuance for Russian speakers. No wonder it’s tough to translate. Later in the same volume Nabokov writes: “The vocabulary of ennui also includes toska (a preying misery, a gnawing mental ache).” Among English-language writers whose work is suffused with a toska-like sentiment, I think first of Housman, as in XL from A Shropshire Lad:


“Into my heart an air that kills 

  From yon far country blows: 

What are those blue remembered hills, 

  What spires, what farms are those? 


“That is the land of lost content,

  I see it shining plain, 

The happy highways where I went 

  And cannot come again.”


Housman’s lyrics often teeter between the lachrymose and the genuinely toska-like, an honestly earned sadness, not cheaply sentimental. Given his themes, it’s remarkable how gracefully he approaches but avoids the maudlin. I think of John Williams’ novel Stoner (1965), and stories and novels by Edith Wharton, William Maxwell and John McGahern. In its cumulative power and sadness, Stoner reminds me of nothing so much as Henry James’ final, hopeless sentence in Washington Square (1880): “Catherine, meanwhile, in the parlor, picking up her morsel of fancy-work, had seated herself with it again – for life, as it were.” And I think toska is frequently encountered in Japanese literature, what little I know of it -- Natsume Sōseki's Kokoro, for instance.


[Dave also supplies a link to a 2017 thesis by Jason Scott Jones, “The Concept of Toska in Chekhov’s Short Stories.”]

Thursday, April 11, 2024

'We Live Missing Something'

Four years late, I’ve read Gary Saul Morson’s “Poet of Loneliness,” his review of Fifty-Two Stories (Knopf, 2020), a Chekhov translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. I ordered the collection early in the COVID-19 lockdown and will always associate it with the other books I read or reread during those baffling months – Malamud’s The Assistant, the three Library of America volumes of Isaac Bashevis Singer’s collected stories, Arabia Deserta, Nathaniel Rudavsky-Brody’s translations of Paul Valéry. In my experience, books, especially good books, the sort one is likely to reread, carry with them an aura of a time and place, like a disembodied supplement to the text. That aura becomes a filter through which we can return in memory to such volumes and such a time. 

Morson looks at a favorite of mine, one of Chekov’s finest early stories, written in 1886, the year he turned twenty-six, translated by Pevear and Volokhonsky as “Anguish.” I’m without Russian but that title seemed to me a little overheated, un-Chekhovian. Morson writes:


“The title of this story—the Russian word toska—has no exact English equivalent, but it is the emotion that characterizes much of human life as Chekhov saw it. The story itself could stand as an extended definition of the word. Constance Garnett translates it as ‘misery,’ Pevear and Volokhonsky turn up the volume to ‘anguish,’ but the sense is closer to ‘longing.’ In Russian, when you miss someone, you toska (toskovat’) for him. We live missing something, longing for something, though we do not always know what.”


That distils the mood of many Chekhov stories -- mood, not meaning. Often his people are passively bewildered, baffled, unable to find solace. That, and the muted sense of comedy he often generates, are what keep some of us returning across a lifetime to Chekhov’s stories. The humor isn’t intended as a palliative for the characters or the readers. Rather, it reflects Chekhov’s understanding of human nature and the essential contradictions that suffuse it. Presumably there are supremely confident, autonomous people who never experience loneliness, not just in the social sense but in what we might call the metaphysical sense. Most of us have known moments of floating alone in outer space, without tether or means of communication, like the doomed astronaut in 2001: A Space Odyssey.


For my money, the most lastingly good book published in 2023 was Morson’s Wonder Confronts Certainty: Russian Writers on the Timeless Questions and Why Their Answers Matter. In it he writes:


“The special sadness readers experience when reading Chekhov derives, in part, from the shadow cast by the sense of happiness lost and opportunities missed. By intimating possible plots as well as narrating an actual one, apparently simple tales achieve great depth. For character or many, each story is shadowed by others, and the shadows cast by all these could-have-beens accumulate in a pattern of poignant possibilities. The combination of real and possible stories into a seamless whole defines Chekhov’s narrative art.”


A wonderful and surprising thing Morson does near the end of his review is acknowledge how bad Pevear and Volokhonsky’s translations of Chekhov’s stories are:


“[O]ne should never read any translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. They translate literary masterpieces word by word, with no appreciation of what the author is trying to accomplish or what makes a great work extraordinary. If Pevear and Volokhonsky had done the King James Bible, Cain would have asked whether he was his fraternal sibling’s custodian. With Chekhov, their approach is especially unfortunate. He is all nuance, and they are all bluntness.”


Morson endorses my old reliables, Constance Garnett’s more-than-a-century-old translations of Chekhov’s stories, which remain, “despite some lapses, impressive in their sensitivity to tone.”

Wednesday, April 10, 2024

'I Wish He Would Explain His Explanation'

On this date, April 10, in 1816, Coleridge and Lord Byron met for the only time, at the latter’s house in Piccadilly. Earlier, Coleridge had a friend deliver to Byron a copy of his latest and last play, Zapolya, and a letter explaining that for the previous fifteen years he had been an addict – “I refer to the daily habit of taking enormous doses of Laudanum” – though he vowed to soon take the cure with “a respectable surgeon and Naturalist” [Dr. James Gillman] at Highgate. In the second volume of his Coleridge biography, Richard Holmes mentions that the letter includes “a learned note on Werewolves,” an interest of Byron’s. Holmes writes: 

“Byron was at his most winning: he flattered, praised and joked, making remarks – not recorded – that Coleridge said were ‘enough to make one’s hair bristle.’ He convinced Coleridge to do what he had put off for a decade, to publish ‘Christabel’ [written in 1797, 1800] in its unfinished state.”


During their meeting, Byron got Coleridge to recite his “Kubla Khan.” Though the author  dismissed it as ”a psychological curiosity,” Byron urged him to publish it also. Unbeknownst to Coleridge, Leigh Hunt was in the next room, eavesdropping.


Coleridge in turn was charmed by Byron. He later gushed in a letter, “[Y]ou could scarcely disbelieve him – so beautiful a countenance I scarcely ever saw – his teeth so many stationary smiles – his eyes the open portals of the sun – things of light, and for light  -- and his forehead so ample, and yet so flexible, passing from marble smoothness into a hundred wreathes and lines and dimples correspondent to the feeling and sentiments he is uttering . . .”


Two days after their meeting, Byron arranged for Coleridge to land a publishing contract with John Murray for a sixty-four-page octavo volume to include the two poems mentioned above and “The Pains of Sleep.” Byron convinced Murray to pay Coleridge £80, up from the initial offer of £60. Such graciousness is not customary among poets.


My late father-in-law left me a small library of books, including those he had won as prizes while a student at St. Andrew’s College in Aurora, Ontario. Among them is the Oxford edition of The Poetical Works of Lord Byron, the 1952 reprint, which he was awarded four years later. I’m using it to catch up with Byron, whose work I don’t know well. I do love Don Juan (1819-24). In the second stanza of its “Dedication,” Byron writes:  


“And Coleridge too has lately taken wing,

    But like a hawk encumbered with his hood,

Explaining metaphysics to the nation.

I wish he would explain his explanation.”

Tuesday, April 09, 2024

'An Obscuration of the Luminaries of Heaven'

In 1963, our street in a suburb on the West Side of Cleveland was still unpaved and the city periodically coated it with tar. Rain fell on the morning of July 20 but by late afternoon the skies had cleared and all that remained of the rain were puddles in the water-proof street. As kids we loved to argue, not unlike adults. We’d been warned not to look directly at the total solar eclipse scheduled that afternoon, so all the junior ophthalmologists on the block commenced debating whether we could safely look at the reflections of the eclipse in the puddles. I, who would turn eleven in three months, voted yea, and that’s the image I retain in memory: a shimmery halfmoon on a black background. One kid peeked at the eclipse and briefly claimed he had gone blind.


Heavy cloud cover and a bit of rain made Monday’s eclipse in Houston mostly a bust. In the early afternoon, the air looked like 5:30 p.m. in December. Wearing those silly glasses, late in the eclipse’s passage, we stepped outside and saw the darkly orange crescent. It felt like looking through the wrong end of a telescope. Our dog ignored it. Nothing apocalyptic about the event, only mild disappointment. I consoled myself with Dr. Johnson’s definition of eclipse in his Dictionary: “An obscuration of the luminaries of heaven; the sun is eclipsed by the intervention of the moon; the moon by the interposition of the earth.”