Sunday, December 15, 2019

'A Gluttonous Omnivore Like a Dog'

I seldom think of reading as work unless the book is lousy. Researching a project for my day job often involves reading equation- and jargon-heavy technical papers, and that is definitely work, though occasionally rewarding. Otherwise, reading is so pleasurable I feel guilty not feeling guilty about it. One exception to the reading-is-not-work principal is reading a bad book for review. You’re obliged to see it through to the last page, though there’s consolation in the demolition work ahead. In Simon Leys: Navigator Between Worlds (trans. Julie Rose, La Trobe University Press, 2017), Philippe Paquet quotes an article by Leys (Pierre Ryckmans):

“I like a library where you can waste your time . . . You can only know after the event whether the time was wasted or gained. Without wasted time, what would there be? Newton’s apple is the fruit of wasted time. It is wasted time which invents, creates. And there are two kinds of literature: the literature of wasted time, which gives us Don Quixote, and that of time put to use, which gives us Ponson du Terrail. The literature produced by wasted time is the good kind.”

Pierre Alexis, Viscount of Ponson du Terrail (1829-1871) was the Joyce Carol Oates of nineteenth-century France. In twenty years he wrote some seventy-three books. He was a factory. His readerly counterpart consumes Harlequin romances by the board foot. Leys was fond of quoting Schopenhauer: “A precondition for reading good books is not reading bad ones: for life is short.” Paquet paraphrases Leys: “So, if we can’t know whether a book is good or not before we’ve read it, we may as well also realise that we read for ourselves first.”

An obvious point but one seldom acknowledged. Guilt- or duress-driven reading (as in schools and book clubs) turns the consumption of books into an onerous form of labor. Leys described himself as “more of a gluttonous omnivore like a dog,” whereas his wife was “more of a reflective gourmet like a cat.” Paquet quotes him again:

“The study of literature is of no practical use whatsoever – unless one would wish to become, of all things, a professor of literature.”

Asked at the turn of the century to name a twentieth-century book deserving of salvage, Leys selected three vastly different gems: Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday, Natsume Sōseki’s Kokoro and Frank Worsely’s Shackleton’s Boat Journey.

Saturday, December 14, 2019

'With His Own Eyes, and Nobody Else's'

A reader shares my love of Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, and recommends the essay devoted to them by Paul Johnson in The Humorists (2010). I read Johnson’s book when it was published and found it, sorry to say, rather disappointing. For one thing, Johnson is not a funny writer. And too often he attempts to define humor and analyze why his figures are funny, which is a sure way to throttle comedy. But Johnson performs a useful service by keeping alive the memory of Stan and Ollie, Samuel Johnson, Charles Dickens, G.K. Chesterton and W.C. Fields. How many young people are familiar with these names or, if they know them, associate them with humor? Johnson writes on his final page:

“A[ll] jokes are liable to provoke discomfort if not positive misery among those laughed at. Hence any joke is liable to fall foul of hate laws. The future for humorists thus looks bleak, at the time I write this. The ordinary people like jokes, often crude ones, as George Orwell pointed out in his perceptive essay on rude seaside picture postcards. But are ordinary people, as opposed to minor officials, in charge anymore? Democracy doesn’t really seem to work, and people are insufficiently dismayed at its impotence.”

Johnson (Paul, not Samuel) overrates Charlie Chaplin, Damon Runyon, James Thurber and Noel Coward, and loses me entirely by including the artists William Hogarth, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and Thomas Rowlandson. That’s not to condemn those figures. Hogarth’s Gin Lane is grimly amusing. But corralling them as humorists is a stretch. Johnson omits all stand-up comics, including the funniest, Don Rickles and Jonathan Winters, as well as Jonathan Swift, Flann O’Brien, Buster Keaton, Thomas Berger, Kingsley Amis and Richard Pryor. What Johnson says of Chesterton is true of most funny people: “He was a total individualist, seeing everything, as if for the first time in history, with his own eyes, and nobody else’s.” This reminds me of something Mark Helprin (not a notably funny novelist) writes in his introduction to The Best American Short Stories 1988:

“One of the best things about writing and writers is the affinity of the profession and its adherents to anarchy and individualism. . . .Literary anarchy is good because a good writer addresses questions over which no human authority can ever hold sway, and therefore he must be able to resist the organizational impulse, that gives rises to ministries of culture, writers’ unions, academies, and cliques.”

Friday, December 13, 2019

'A Chartered Libertine, and a Law Unto Himself'

To us the prose style reads a little stilted, sometimes sentimental, even moralistic, but I love the way certain English profs used to write. The time, 1914, was Edwardian but the sensibility at work remained Victorian in the best sense: “Lamb’s friends loved him and admired him; and yet they had more than a suspicion that in the weightier matters they were his superiors. They were not. Lamb was, among other things, one of the wisest men of his time.” Today, this would never do. With-it academics don’t speak of wisdom.

Hugh Walker is writing in The English Essay and Essayists (J.M. Dent & Sons, 1915). He was born the year of the siege of Sevastopol and died just months before Hitler invaded Poland. In his introduction Walker tries with little success to define the essay, though he does cite Dr. Johnson’s attempt, which is still my favorite: “a loose sally of the mind.” For three and a half pages he rambles about, trying out definitions, finding none comprehensive, which seems appropriate to so idiosyncratic a form. But he does teach me a new word: “It is the literary form of the pococurante.” News to me, but the OED proves him right: “a careless, indifferent, or nonchalant person.” It probably derives from Seigneur Pococurante, “a fictional apathetic Venetian senator in Voltaire’s Candide.”

Walker refers to “essays more strictly so called in which we do detect a special literary form.” He names Montaigne and Lamb as the embodiment of this quality. Modern scholars would find his taxonomy flabby and inexact, but essays seem to be the formless form – not chaotic but answering in a very private way to a writer’s sensibility. No one ever wrote like A.J. Liebling, V.S. Pritchett or Hubert Butler. They make their own rules and cavalierly violate them when it serves their purpose. Walker nicely quotes his fellow Scot, Alexander Smith (1830-1867), in his “On the Writing of Essays”:

“The essay, as a literary form, resembles the lyric, in so far as it is moulded by some central mood—whimsical, serious, or satirical. Give the mood, and the essay, from the first sentence to the last, grows around it as the cocoon grows around the silkworm. The essay-writer is a chartered libertine, and a law unto himself.”

The essay today is enduring a dry spell. We have Joseph Epstein and – who? Guy Davenport is dead. Who is our Swift, Hazlitt or Beerbohm?

Thursday, December 12, 2019

'We Saw Literature Growing Out of Life'

A friend reminds me that I dropped out of a large state university in the Midwest, where I was majoring in English, in 1973, just in time to avoid the plague of theory that was already lapping at the shore of literary studies. I had come as a freshman armed with two convictions: I wanted to read and wanted to write. Nothing I encountered in my three undergraduate years persuaded me otherwise. All of my professors, even the less gifted among them, assumed there was a body of books to be read and cherished. One told me I should forget Saul Bellow and embrace Jerzy Kosinski, but even he seemed to have read everything. Thanks to him (he is now a writer of unreadable novels) I first read Joyce Cary and Ford Madox Ford. Voluntary illiteracy was not yet fashionable. V.S. Pritchett writes in his brief preface to A Man of Letters: Selected Essays (Chatto & Windus, 1985):

“We saw literature growing out of life and the common experience. I had fortunately read such books when I was a youth. I had also earned my living in trades that brought me close to people more diverse than the literary. I was not a product of Eng.Lit. I had never been taught and, even now, I am shocked to hear that literature is `taught.’”

I don’t wish to romanticize the life of a dropout. Most of my motives were less than admirable but, like Pritchett, I earned an education outside the academy. My first job after dropping out was making submarine sandwiches. I worked in a car wash, a bookstore and a library before landing my first newspaper job. My idea of career planning was reading the Help Wanted ads. But that was a different world – less professionalized, less rooted in vocational training – that is, in having a bachelor’s degree. The autodidact willing to work hard still had a fighting chance. And all the while I was reading.

The friend who reminded me of this distant world called on Sunday to say he was culling his library for reasons of space and indifference. I have known Mike for more than fifty years and we roomed together as freshmen. Among the books he offered to ship were five novels by John Gardner, all first editions in mint condition, which raises another story. I was briefly a Gardner enthusiast in the early Seventies. I even interviewed him in 1974, a year after dropping out, and published a profile in an “underground” magazine. (For the same publication I reviewed, among other things, Gravity’s Rainbow.) I don’t think I’ve read a word by Gardner in forty years but I told Mike I would love to have the books. I wasn’t lying nor was my motive resale greed – more like curiosity. How will it feel to hold those once-familiar volumes again? Might I be moved to reread one or two of them? Would I feel embarrassed for my younger self or sympathize with him? Earlier in his preface, Pritchett writes of the reader/critic’s role:

“We do not lay down the law, but we do make a stand for the reflective values of a humane culture . . . . And we know that literature is rooted in the daily life of any society but that it also springs out of literature itself.”

Wednesday, December 11, 2019

'Poetry Should Be Great and Unobtrusive'

“An intelligent reader finds a sort of insult in being told: I will teach you how to think upon this subject.”

That’s about the time I close the book and put it back on the shelf. What bothers me most about bullies is their presumption that not only am I wrong but it’s their divine right to set me straight. It was drummed into me as a newspaper reporter that you never sermonize readers, never instruct them in how to sanitize their thoughts and clean up their opinions. Present the facts and walk away. Readers are big boys and girls who don’t need a nanny.

The sentence quoted above is from a chutzpah-laced letter Charles Lamb wrote to William Wordsworth on Jan. 30, 1801. Lamb had read the recently published second edition of Lyrical Ballads, and generally likes the new poems Wordsworth has included. But he objects to “The Old Cumberland Beggar”: “[T]he instructions conveyed in it are too direct and like a lecture: they don’t slide into the mind of the reader while he is imagining no such matter.”

Wordsworth, of course, disregarded Lamb’s observation. His later, longer, meditative poems are often marred by an enthusiasm for preaching. Lamb goes on:

“This fault, if I am right, is in a ten-thousandth worse degree to be found in Sterne and many many novelists and modern poets, who continually put a signpost up to show where you are to feel. They set out with assuming their readers to be stupid. . . . There is implied an unwritten compact between author and reader: I will tell you a story, and I suppose you will understand it.”

Lamb’s criticism of Wordsworth’s pushiness is hardly unique. In his Feb. 3, 1818 letter to John Hamilton Reynolds, Keats asks:

"It may be said that we ought to read our contemporaries, that Wordsworth, etc., should have their due from us. But, for the sake of a few fine imaginative or domestic passages, are we to be bullied into a certain Philosophy engendered in the whims of an Egotist? . . . We hate poetry that has a palpable design upon us, and, if we do not agree, seems to put its hand into its breeches pocket. Poetry should be great and unobtrusive . . .”

Tuesday, December 10, 2019

'Pot-Boiling Shodiness'

Admittedly, iconoclasm, depending on the icon, can be irresistible. Every adolescent knows the exhilaration of butchering a sacred cow, especially within the hearing of one’s parents. But because one man’s trash is another’s icon, and because many icons are worthy of veneration, I prefer my iconoclasts to also be iconodules – icon keepers if not exactly worshippers.

Fifty Works of English (and American) Literature We Could Do Without (Stein and Day, 1967) is designed to spark argument and outrage among readers. I dare you to look at the table of contents and not start mentally checking off the titles that deserve to be pounded into powder and those being treated unfairly. The book’s editors – Brigid Brophy, Michael Levey and Charles Osborne – embody the Sixties spirit of selective irreverence. They begin their introductory “Address to the Reader” with a reasonable question:

“Before you let fly with a scream at our iconoclasm, pause and play fair: do you really like, admire and (most important criterion of all) enjoy the works in question, or do you merely think you ought to?”

Especially when we’re young and view ourselves as rigorously freethinking and independent in our tastes, we don’t want to be thought of as philistines, and make every effort to appear sophisticated or at least not entirely illiterate. Anyone who has spent time in a university English department know its atmosphere most resembles a fashion show – an especially vicious fashion show. All of us have pretended to savor works we secretly detested. Here’s Brophy & Co. on a novel sanctified in the subsequent half-century, Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse:

“No, no, is one’s reaction to the title. And, indeed, to the whole book. All that quivering, shivering, semi-luminous fabric which is not life but serves to drape in artistic fold over life. Virginia Woolf’s work is like some beautifully painted, delicately tinted old parchment which has been made into a lampshade after a labour of several years.”

Then comes the first line from the novel to be quoted: “‘There it was before her – life. Life: she thought but she did not finish her thought.’ This is not parody. It might come from any of the novels (probably does) but may be read in To the Lighthouse which is usually considered one of Virginia Woolf’s finest achievements.”

The editors eviscerate other overrated works – Rupert Brookes’ 14 Sonnets (“frankly awful”), Jane Eyre (“like gobbling a jar-full of schoolgirl stickjaw”), Leaves of Grass (“garrulous old bore”), A Farewell to Arms (“a footnote to the minor art of Gertrude Stein”), Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (“a nice, wholesome, dull book”), Wuthering Heights (“a psychological-historical curio [,] high old rumbustious nonsense”) and The Sound and the Fury (“pot-boiling shoddiness,” “the pretentious tarting-up of the simple into the significant”).

They do get things wrong. On The Essays of Elia: “The essay form is one of the weakliest plant’s in literature’s garden.” On A.E. Housman: “This meagre-talented poet of adolescence, thread-bare of style, cliché-ridden in content, and as rhythmically monotonous as Brahms or Dixieland jazz, is seen at his worst in A Shropshire Lad which is simply one huge pathetic fallacy.” Sometimes when the editors are wrong they are at least amusing. Of Moby Dick: “He’s a mere inflated pretend-whale, inflated by the sheer wish that American literature should run to profundity.”                                                                                                        
The point of Fifty Works is not the wholesale destruction of literature. Rather, it encourages readers to question their complacent assumptions. If you last read Tess of the D’Urbervilles as a sophomore in high school, and found it a wretched bore (or a spicy read), what is the value of that judgment forty or fifty years later? Might you have matured a touch? Are you better equipped to handle Hardy today? Describing a hypothetical young reader who finds parts of the canon “blatant tripe or unreadable,” and who is in danger of coming to the same conclusion about all of English (and American) literature, the editors write:

“[I]f he finds [Thomas] Gray insipid, he is the more likely to take fire from Donne, Crashaw, Marvell and Pope; if he’s irked by the emotional and imaginative feebleness of Ivanhoe or The Vicar of Wakefield, he is probably – but without knowing it – crying out for the adult, imaginative vision of Henry James, Shaw [!], Jane Austen, the Thackeray of Vanity Fair, Gibbon and George Eliot.”

Monday, December 09, 2019

'Insolence and Arrogance Beyond Measure'

“God’s world is good. Only one thing in it is bad: we ourselves.”

Chekhov is always pithy and to-the-point. In both stories and letters, even those addressed to family and friends, there are few if any preliminaries. He is in Moscow, having just returned from his journey by train, horse-drawn carriage, river steamer and ocean-going freighter from the katorga, or penal colony, on Sakhalin Island, north of Japan, 4,000 miles east of Moscow. He is writing to his friend, editor and sometime-antagonist Alexi Suvorin on this date, Dec. 9, in 1890:

“While I was living on Sakhalin, I felt nothing more than a certain bitterness in my innards, the sort that comes from rancid butter, but now, when I think back on it, Sakhalin seems to me like hell itself. For two months I worked strenuously, giving myself no rest, and during the third the bitterness I’ve just spoken of became more than I could stand, the bitterness and boredom and the thought that cholera was on its way to Sakhalin from Vladivostok and that I might therefore risk spending the winter quarantined in the penal colony.”

Chekhov is thirty years old and already suffering from the tuberculosis that would kill him fourteen years later. He has entered his mature phase as a writer and within the year had published “Gusev” and “A Dreary Story.” Over the next three years he would publish his Sakhalin findings in journals, work that would result in 1895 in Sakhalin Island, a nonfiction masterpiece still without an audience in the West. (I recommend the Oneworld Classics edition translated by Brian Reeve which comes with notes, biography and bibliography of Chekhov, photographs, a selection of pertinent letters and the text of the first chapter in Russian.) This passage follows the sentences at the top:

“How little justice and humility there is in us, and how poorly we understand patriotism! A drunken, frazzled, dissolute husband may love his wife and children, but what good is his love? The newspapers tell us we love our great homeland, but how do we express our love? Instead of knowledge we have insolence and arrogance beyond measure, instead of work – indolence and swinishness; we have no sense of justice, our conception of honor goes no farther than honor for one’s uniform, a uniform that usually adorns the prisoner’s dock in court. What is needed is work, and the hell with everything else. We must above all be just, and all the rest will be added unto us.”

Chekhov might be writing of our time and place.

[The translators of the quoted passages above are Michael Henry Heim and Simon Karlinsky (Letters of Anton Chekhov, 1973).]