Monday, April 06, 2020

'At the Same Speed as Everything Else'

“I sit / and share their pervigilium. / One Punch and two / Times later comes the call.”

It’s like L.E. Sissman to mingle high-toned Latin with the titles of popular magazines. He was the coolest of poets – suave and knowing without snobbery – and is describing a visit to his doctor’s office – “For once with an appointment.” This is from the first section of the title poem in Sissman’s first collection, Dying: An Introduction (1968). It originally appeared in the June 3, 1967 issue of The New Yorker, less than two years after he was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a cancer that would kill him in 1976. During the writing of the book, Sissman was undergoing multiple hospitalizations, radiation treatments and chemotherapy. In the poem he recounts that first cancer diagnosis, beginning with a lump on his leg. After the tissue sample is taken for the biopsy he writes: “I leave to live out my three days, / Reprieved from findings and their pain.” The diagnosis (“Turns out to end in –oma”) comes on a spring-like day in November.

On Sunday, a November-like day in spring, I took my customary walk to Ella [“Fitzgerald,” I always add] Boulevard and into the empty parking lot of the Disciples of Christ church. Doves were at work in the oaks. The fire ants have been busy. I poke one of their mounds with my cane and watch the swarm. I’m reminded of a computer science professor I knew who now works for Google. Once, on my way to the parking lot I saw him squatting at the far side of the engineering quadrangle. As I approached, I could see he was observing an ant mound. All he said was: “Brownian motion.”

I need the cane for walking. The pain from osteoarthritis in my legs has grown more severe in the last year, and I quickly shed any vanity I once had. Most of the other people I saw on my walk, the dog-walkers, joggers and bicyclists, wore masks. My wife has ordered some, but they haven’t arrived.   

For his epigraph to the poem, Sissman chose two lines by Philip Larkin from “Next,Please”: “Always too eager for the future, we / Pick up bad habits of expectancy.” In his notes to the Complete Poems (2012), Archie Burnett quotes from a 1951 letter Larkin wrote to his girlfriend Monica Jones while working on “Next, Please”:

“I think it’s just another example of the danger of looking forward to things . . . an attempt to capture my feeling on returning here [i.e., Belfast]: a sense of amazement that what we wait for so long & therefore seems so long in coming shouldn’t take a proportionately long time to pass – instead of zipping away at the same speed as everything else.”

No mention of death. In fact, Larkin makes no overt reference to it until the poem’s final stanza:

“Only one ship is seeking us, a black-
Sailed unfamiliar, towing at her back
A huge and birdless silence. In her wake
No waters breed or break.”

Sunday, April 05, 2020

'Much Pleasure as Well as Profit'

“These short essays on the best old books in the world were inspired by the sudden death of an only son, without whom I had not thought life worth living. To tide me over the first weeks of bitter grief I plunged into this work of reviewing the great books from the Bible to the works of the eighteenth-century writers.”

A reader has told me about yet another writer whose name was unknown to me: George Hamlin Fitch (1852-1925). For more than thirty years he worked for the San Francisco Chronicle and for much of that time published a weekly column on its Sunday book page. The volume my reader suggested is Comfort Found in Good Old Books (1911), and the passage quoted above is from Fitch’s introduction. I defy you to read the whole thing without shedding a tear. He continues:

“The suggestion came from many readers who were impressed by the fact that in the darkest hour of sorrow my only comfort came from the habit of reading, which Gibbon declared he ’would not exchange for the wealth of the Indies.’ If these essays induce any one to cultivate the reading habit, which has been so great a solace to me in time of trouble, then I shall feel fully repaid.”

Fitch dissents from the two modes of reading most common in the twenty-first century: 1.) The academic, which is narcissistic, dull and irrelevant. 2.) The escapist, which views books as another home-entertainment option, like video games and Netflix. The former is inexcusable; the latter can be excused as less boring than watching football. In a more somber key, Fitch recasts Logan Pearsall Smith’s quip: “People say that life is the thing, but I prefer reading.” His choices present no surprises: the Greeks, the Bible, St. Augustine, Shakespeare, Dante, Milton, Bunyan, Defoe, Boswell and the rest – the inexhaustible desert-island books. (Extra-credit question: Which books published since 1911 might be added to Fitch’s list without provoking laughter and derision? Besides Proust, I mean.)

I haven’t finished reading Fitch’s book but what most impresses me about his essays is that they were written by a newspaper man. I worked as a reporter for almost twenty-five years and never once met a well-read journalist. Those who did read seemed mired in the present. I have no reason to believe that has changed since I left the business. There’s nothing uppity or elitist about reading the books that matter, the ones that helped form us and our values. I differ with Fitch on at least one point: book clubs. He likes them. But I admire his sturdy matter-of-factness. In recommending Boswell’s Life of Johnson he writes:

“Read the book in spare half hours, when you are not hurried, and you will get from it much pleasure as well as profit. It is packed with amusement and information, and it is very modern in spirit, in spite of its old-fashioned style.”

Saturday, April 04, 2020

'Warmth of Heart and Incandescence of Mind'

A reader writes:

“Several months ago I read a wonderful post about Lamb on your site. I searched for all the posts you’ve written about Lamb and I got something like 244 results. I printed out each post, punched holes in them, and put them in a thick binder. That binder has been with me for the past 3 or 4 months and I just finished the last post today. What a pleasure! Your love for Lamb is infectious. I now own the three-volume set of Lamb’s letters and the Penguin collection of Lamb’s selected prose. Thanks for turning me onto one of the most companionable authors I’ve read.”

That’s a relief. It means I’ve accomplished the goal I set for Anecdotal Evidence: to share enough enthusiasm for a writer to move at least one reader to read him. Ours is an aliterate age. Reading is an outrĂ© hobby, like collecting dental floss. I’m always gratified to discover someone reading, and doubly so when the book in question is a good one. In a time of social distancing I appreciate my reader’s use of companionable. That’s how I think of the books that mean the most to me. The OED’s definition – “sociable, friendly; pleasant or agreeable as company” – fits the books and magazines on my bedside table – Tolstoy, Eric Ormsby, Rebecca West, The New Criterion. I think too of Henry Van Dyke’s Companionable Books (1922) and George Stuart Gordon’s More Companionable Books (1947). The latter includes a chapter devoted to “The Humour of Charles Lamb.”

In the spirit of companionability, let me share an article by Peter Baehr in National Review devoted to two of my most companionable writers, “Whittaker Chambers Through the Eyes of Rebecca West.” Chambers reviewed West’s The Meaning of Treason in the Dec. 8, 1947 issue of Time (collected in Ghosts on the Roof: Selected Journalism of Whittaker Chambers 1931-1959; ed. Terry Teachout, Regnery Gateway, 1989), and West reviewed Chambers’ Witness in the June 1952 issue of The Atlantic (collected in Alger Hiss, Whittaker Chambers, and the Schism in the American Soul; ed. Patrick Swan, ISI Books, 2003). Here is the conclusion of “Circles of Perdition,” Chambers’ review, which was featured on the cover of Time:

“For all her warmth of heart and incandescence of mind, she is seldom averse to a good brawl. She listens, calmly poised for pouncing, when she is called a Fascist, a Communist, an anti-Semite, though she is none of those things. The root of the misunderstanding is that in a world racked by partisan passion, which more & more insists on viewing men in black & white, as caricatures of good or evil, she finds them blends of both. Her view asserts the faith that what distinguishes men, not so much from the brutes as from their more habitual selves, is the fact that however tirelessly they pursue evil, their inveterate aspiration, invariable even in depravity, is never for anything else but for the good.

“This faith Rebecca West tries to express with a tonality equal to its meaning. Thus, in a prosy age, her style strives continually toward a condition of poetry, and comes to rest in a rhetoric that, at its best, is one of the most personal and eloquent idioms of our time.”

Friday, April 03, 2020

'Much Surer Than Our Art is Sure'

“Doubtlesse our plagues and plentie, peace and warres
Are there much surer than our art is sure.”

The poem is George Herbert’s “Providence.” Plague is not a metaphor. In July 1625, when the disease raged in London, Herbert fled to the house of his mother and stepfather in Chelsea. That December, John Donne stayed there with Herbert and his family. Two years earlier, when Donne believed he had contracted the disease, he composed “Hymn to God, My God, in My Sickness,” which begins:

“Since I am coming to that holy room,
         Where, with thy choir of saints for evermore,
I shall be made thy music; as I come
         I tune the instrument here at the door,
         And what I must do then, think here before.”

The plague swept through London in three waves during Donne’s decade-long tenure as dean of St. Paul's Cathedral. With each recurrence it killed tens of thousands.

“Providence” is among Herbert’s longest, most discursive poems, a hymn to God’s beneficent ordering of the universe. Darwin can’t touch our appreciation of the poem:

“Sheep eat the grasse, and dung the ground for more:
Trees after bearing drop their leaves for soil:
Springs vent their streams, and by expense get store:
Clouds cool by heat, and baths by cooling boil.”

Herbert seems to intuit the functioning of the nitrogen cycle and the physics of condensation. In Music at Midnight: The Life and Poetry of George Herbert (University of Chicago Press, 2014), John Drury says bluntly: “It is an enjoyable poem.” He quotes the third stanza–

“Beasts fain would sing; birds dittie to their notes;
Trees would be tuning on their native lute
To thy renown: but all their hands and throats
Are brought to Man, while they are lame and mute.”

--and writes: “Praise, the expression of harmonious fulfillment, rings through ["Providence"] as jovially as through Haydn’s Creation.”

Herbert was born on this date, April 3, in 1593.

Thursday, April 02, 2020

'We May Sink Totally Into Idiocy'

“For this was a kind of sickness which far surmounted all expression of words and [. . .] exceeded human nature in the cruelty wherewith it handled each one . . .”

During the second year of the Peloponnesian War, in 430 B.C., an epidemic invaded Athens. Thucydides writes not only as a witness, the historian of his time and place, but as a sufferer. He contracted the disease and survived, though as many as 100,000 of his fellow Athenians did not. It killed Pericles and his family. The exact nature of the illness is still debated, though modern scholars favor typhus or typhoid. The war continued for another twenty-six years after the outbreak, which probably contributed to the eventual defeat of Athens, and changed subsequent European and world history. I remembered Thucydides while reading Zbigniew Herbert’s “Why the Classics”:  

“in the fourth book of the Peloponnesian War
Thucydides tells among other things
the story of his unsuccessful expedition

“among long speeches of chiefs
battles sieges plague
dense net of intrigues of diplomatic endeavours
the episode is like a pin
in a forest”

Among twentieth-century poets, only Cavafy, Hill and Montale rival Herbert in the deft integration of historical events into their work. In 424 B.C., Thucydides commanded seven Athenian ships but arrived too late to save his native city, Amphipolis, from the Spartan general Brasidas. For this, Herbert writes, Thucydides “paid his native city / with lifelong exile.” The Greek included a description of his failure to relieve Amphipolis in his history. The Polish veteran of Nazi and Communist repression adds: “exiles of all times / know what price that is.” Herbert writes in the poem’s concluding lines:

“if art for its subject
will have a broken jar
a small broken soul
with a great self-pity

“what will remain after us
 will it be lovers' weeping
 in a small dirty hotel
 when wall-paper dawns”

For Herbert, all history is contemporary history. The walls between eras are permeable. In a 1994 interview he writes: “I am afraid we may sink totally into idiocy. Maybe it already is too late, but I think we need to start a process of national education and get rid of our complexes. . . Our major enemies are now our national shortcomings: hypocrisy, self-love, megalomania.”

Herbert is speaking of Poland in the immediate post-Soviet era but his observations suggest a broader relevance. I read Herbert when I want an astringent cleansing of the shallower regions of my thinking. He goes on to say in the interview:

“I have not encountered absolute evil except in men.”

“Practice shows that sooner or later, the dark spots on history's map show up from under the gilded surface. Western countries, from France to USA, are examples. One has to fight the dark tendencies of one's past, like Germany did after World War II.”

“Nations seldom receive from History political leaders who also possess moral authority.”

Wednesday, April 01, 2020

'A Speck of the Motley'

“And take my word for this, reader, and say a fool told it you, if you please, that he who hath not a dram of folly in his mixture, hath pounds of much worse matter in his composition.”

April Fools’ Day is the most democratic of holidays, the one most deserving of observance. It celebrates us. We are born into eligibility. The man who claims immunity from foolishness is – here it comes – a fool. Read “Gimpel the Fool.” Read “I’m a Fool” and “The Triple Fool.” Consult social media. Read King Lear. Shakespeare uses fool 400 times; fools, 108; foolish, 95. Hermione says in The Winter’s Tale: “Do not weep, good fools; / There is no cause.” The Urtext is cited above – Charles Lamb’s “All Fools’ Day,” one of his Essays of Elia. He is the most gracious of fools:

“Many happy returns of this day to you -- and you --and you, Sir -- nay, never frown, man, nor put a long face upon the matter. Do not we know one another? what need of ceremony among friends? we have all a touch of that same -- you understand me -- a speck of the motley.”

Tuesday, March 31, 2020

'Merry with Her Easy Laughter'

Terry Teachout’s wife Hilary, his beloved “Mrs. T,” died tonight at the age of forty-nine. In his biography of H.L. Mencken, The Skeptic (2002), Terry quotes a passage Mencken wrote in 1936 for inclusion in a collection of stories written by his wife Sara. She had died a year earlier at the age of thirty-seven. Mencken writes:

“I find it hard, even so soon after her death, to recall her as ill. It is much easier to remember her on those days when things were going well with her, and she was full of projects, and busy with her friends and the house, and merry with her easy laughter.”

'Because I Cannot Hear a Human Voice'

In 1985, the year the Politburo elected Mikhail Gorbachev the General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, Clarence Brown edited The Portable Twentieth-Century Russian Reader, a selection ranging from Tolstoy and Chekhov to Voinovich and Sokolov. In his introduction Brown writes:

“I now look back on this banquet of words with much pleasure, which I hope nothing will prevent your sharing. These writers, after all, continue in our time the tradition that has made Russian, along with English and classical Greek, one of the three supreme literatures of the world.”

That will provoke the French but even the resolutely monolingual and jingoistic among us will agree that no self-respecting reader can judge himself literate without a grounding in the Russian classics, beginning at least with Pushkin in the nineteenth century. We can hardly claim to know ourselves without them. For this gift we owe thanks to generations of translators, from Aylmer and Louise Maude and Constance Garnett to Boris Dralyuk and Irina Mashinski. We live in an era of lively Russian translation. Prominent among its practitioners are Donald Rayfield (Varlam Shalamov) and Robert Chandler (Vasily Grossman, Andrey Platonov). In a conversation between them published in Cardinal Points Journal, Chandler admits he falls asleep during the uninspired reading of lectures, and adds:

“It is the same with books; if I cannot hear the intonations of a living voice, I quickly get bored. I find many translations of classic novels unreadable — not because they are especially clumsy, but simply because I cannot hear a human voice.”

The conversation followed Rayfield’s 2008 translation of Gogol’s Dead Souls (1842), which amounts to a chorus of human voices. For this reader, it has become the standard version and is available in paperback from New York Review Books. Take Rayfield’s rendering of the famous closing to Part One:

“Russia, where are you hurtling to? Give an answer! There is no answer. The bell peals with a wonderful ringing; the air, ripped to pieces, roars and becomes wind; everything that exists on earth flies past, and other nations and empires look askance and stand back to make way for the troika.”
Don’t mistake the tone of the passage for patriotic piety. The adventures of Pavel Ivanovich Chichikov are raucous and funny. Gogol’s imagination is wilder than any postmodernist's. He is no stolid realist or chronicler of downtrodden peasantry. In his “Author’s Note” to Up in the Old Hotel (1992), Joseph Mitchell turns the Russian writer’s name into an adjective meaning something like blackly humorous:

“It was the kind of humor that the old Dutch masters caught in those prints that show a miser locked in his room counting his money and Death is standing just outside the door. It was Old Testament humor, particularly the humor in Proverbs and Ecclesiastes. Gogolian humor.”

Appropriately, Gogol was born on April 1 (Old Style) or March 20 (New Style), in 1809, though some sources give today’s date, March 31 (Old Style) or March 19 (New Style), as his true birthday.

[In his introduction to Dead Souls, Rayfield recommends Nabokov’s Nikolai Gogol (New Directions, 1944), the book that introduced the indispensable Russian word poshlust to the English-speaking world. Nabokov writes: “I can only place my hand on my heart and affirm that I have not imagined Gogol. He really wrote, he really lived."]