Thursday, September 23, 2021

'What Ladies Carry Around in Their Purses'

My chief literary weakness is affection for writers condescendingly labeled “minor.” Everyone loves Shakespeare and Tolstoy. That requires no effort and the peer pressure to have read them (or at least to recognize their names) can be immense. But what about Jerzy Stempowski, Max Beerbohm, Alfred Polgar, Jules Renard, Elizabeth Daryush and Aldo Buzzi? “Minor” here is surely not a qualitative judgment. Rather, these writers have been consigned to a ghetto compounded of snobbery, lousy P.R. and a misguided sense of what constitutes importance. They are usually not topical and their themes are not fashionable. Often they are amusing, which can only mean that they are unserious and unworthy of our attention. Among them, only Beerbohm wrote a novel, and it’s not very good. All worked in small forms – essays, journal entries, reviews, short lyrics, feuilletons. 

For these reasons I was delighted in 2005 when Archipelago Books published Telegrams of the Soul: Selected Prose of Peter Altenberg, translated from the German by Peter Wortsman. Altenberg (1859-1919) was a fin de si├Ęcle Viennese coffeehouse writer, a master of the feuilleton, an urban form that hardly exists in English. It demands concision, a delicate ear, an ironic touch and a serious aversion to didacticism. Stridency is inimical to Altenberg’s chosen form. Here’s a sample that reveals something about his practice:


“For some time now I’ve judged people by the objects they lug around, hold dear and find attractive. These things comprise a ‘biographical essay’ about their entire being! For instance, I am highly suspicious of men who tote around walking sticks with oxidized silver handles that represent something or other, like a dog’s head, a snake of even a ravishing little curly headed damsel.”


I know readers who will find this insultingly silly, a waste of time. The loss is theirs. Here is another self-revealing passage from Altenberg:


“I never dreamed of being Shakespeare or Goethe, and I never expected to hold the great mirror of truth up before the world; I dreamed only of being a little pocket mirror, the sort that a woman can carry in her purse; one that reflects small blemishes, and some great beauties, when held close enough to the heart.”


Altenberg’s reverie reminds me of a passage in Antonina Pirozhkova’s memoir of her husband, At His Side: The Last Years of Isaac Babel (trans. Anne Frydman and Robert L. Busch, Steerforth Press, 1996):


“And then he suddenly said, ‘Would you let me look inside your purse?’


“Extremely surprised, I agreed.


“'Thank you. You see, I’m so interested to know what ladies carry around in their purses.’


“Very carefully, he set out the contents of my purse on the table, examined each thing and then put it back, except for a letter I had just received that day from an engineering institute classmate. This he set aside. He looked at me with a serious expression and said, ‘Would you perhaps let me read this letter too, unless, of course, it’s especially dear to you for some personal reason?’


“’Go ahead, read it,’ I said.


“He read it closely and then asked, ‘Could I make an arrangement with you? I’ll give you a ruble for every letter you receive and let me read.’ All this in complete seriousness. Here I burst out laughing and agreed, so Babel pulled out a ruble and put it on the table.”  


Babel is no one’s idea of a minor writer. Major and minor writers alike are snoops, busybodies, interlopers in the lives of others, voyeurs not exhibitionists, devoted to the trivial and private. Systematically examining the contents of a woman’s purse seems somehow nearly as intimate as sex. Even minor writers know the little things in life are important.

Wednesday, September 22, 2021

'Yet I Ride the Little Horse'

If I bothered to think about it as a kid, I knew a hobby-horse was an already antiquated children’s toy, a rocking chair with a wooden horse replacing the seat. A child with abundant energy and imagination could teeter all day with the Seventh Cavalry. Laurence Sterne taught me otherwise in Tristram Shandy. 

In our psychology-obsessed age, we might call a hobby-horse, in Sterne’s sense, an obsession, a symptom of obsessive-compulsive disorder. In Sterne’s novel, Walter Shandy obsesses on his prolific, vacuous theories, utterly unattached to reality – a fine parody of intellectuals. Uncle Toby’s hobbyhorse is military strategy and construction of his bowling-green battlefield. His servant, Corporal Trim, revels in the sound of his own voice. Sterne treats hobby-horses as comedy fodder. In real life, they are more likely to be tedious, especially hobby-horses of the political variety, now a virtual plague upon the land.  Sterne concludes his seventh chapter like this:


“Nay, if you come to that, Sir, have not the wisest of men in all ages, not excepting Solomon himself,—have they not had their HOBBY-HORSES;—their running horses,—their coins and their cockle-shells, their drums and their trumpets, their fiddles, their pallets,—their maggots and their butterflies?—and so long as a man rides his HOBBY-HORSE peaceably and quietly along the King’s highway, and neither compels you or me to get up behind him,—pray, Sir, what have either you or I to do with it?”


And begins Chapter 8 like this: “—De gustibus non est disputandum;—that is, there is no disputing against HOBBY-HORSES; and for my part, I seldom do . . .” In other words, cranks are best left alone. When challenged, some can be dangerous and all certainly are boring.


I returned to hobby-horses when reading an 1814 letter Coleridge wrote to John Murray, in which he transforms the noun into an adjective: “a hobby-horsical, superstitious regard to my own feelings and sense of Duty.” I poked a little deeper and realized Tristram Shandy had already applied Coleridge’s coinage to his Uncle Toby: “The generous (tho’ hobby-horsical) gallantry of my uncle.”


Start looking and you’ll find hobby-horses everywhere, even in disguise, and most often among English writers – Shakespeare, Jonson, Milton, Dryden, Darwin. In his final letter, written in Rome on November 30, 1820, to his friend Charles Brown, Keats makes what scholars take as a muted reference to the pun-loving Sterne, a writer he hobby-horsically read:


“I am so weak (in mind) that I cannot bear the sight of any hand writing of a friend I love so much as I do you. Yet I ride the little horse, – and, at my worst, even in Quarantine, summoned up more puns, in a sort of desperation, in one week than in any year of my life.”

Tuesday, September 21, 2021

'He Always Said What He Thought'

Like every red-blooded reader, I love a gratuitously bloody-minded critical assault, the sort of thing Randall Jarrell turned into an art and William Logan has further refined. It’s no coincidence that both men are often very funny in their criticism. If more critics were honest, we would have more such demolitions to savor. Most poets in any era are mediocre, if not worse, and yet the versifying fraternity goes on praising dreck, usually in hopes of circle-jerk reciprocity. In William Hazlitt, Jarrell and Logan had a worthy ancestor specializing in critical honesty and “savage indignation”: 

“It is a tortuous, tottering, wriggling, fidgetty translation of every thing from the vulgar tongue, into all the tantalizing, teasing, tripping, lisping mimminee-pimminee of the highest brilliancy and fashion of poetical diction. You have nothing like truth of nature or simplicity of expression.”


This is from Lecture VIII, “On the Living Poets,” from Lectures on the English Poets (1818). It is so enthusiastically overheated, I laughed out loud yet again. Hazlitt didn’t know the meaning of temperate. His target here is Samuel “Breakfast” Rogers (1763-1855) and his poem “The Pleasures of Memory” (1792). Here’s a sample, so you understand what Hazlitt is getting at:


“And, while the coot her jet-wing lov’d to lave,

Rock’d on the bosom of the sleepless wave;

The eagle rush’d from Skiddaw’s purple crest,

A cloud still brooding o’er her giant-nest.”


I haven’t read a good coot poem in a coon’s age. You may, like me, have tripped over “mimminee-pimminee,” also spelled “miminy-piminy” and “niminy-piminy.” It was a favorite term of critical opprobrium for Hazlitt, and I find he used it at least three other times. As a noun, the OED defines it as “finicky or affected writing; verbosity, prolixity,” and cites Hazlitt twice. Perhaps there’s a genetic predisposition to using the word. The great essayist’s grandson, the critic William Carew Hazlitt, wrote in Offspring of Thought in Solitude: Modern Essays (1884):


“There was no Niminy-pimininess about [Samuel] Johnson. He was a moralist of the most active and thorough-going stamp. If he did not always think what he felt, he always said what he thought.”

Monday, September 20, 2021

'A Resonance of Emerald'

Four hummingbirds took turns at the nectar-feeder in our front garden – a new record. When not sucking up sugar water, they sipped at the flowers and seemed especially pleased with our Calliandra californica, commonly called fairy duster, an airy pink puff of a flower. All are ruby-throats, though only the males live up to their name. Before the coming of fall and their migratory return to Mexico and Central America, their feeding behavior appears frantic. Some will be flying five-hundred miles or more, often across the Gulf of Mexico, without food or rest. 

A friend tells me charm is the collective noun used to describe a gathering of hummingbirds. For once, our language shines (I could never accept a murder of crows). The OED doesn’t specify hummingbirds but offers this second definition of charm: “The blended singing or noise of many birds; the blended voices of school-children, and the like.” Sorry, but I have to say it: that is charming. The Dictionary cites Michael Drayton’s “The Owle” (1604): “The small Birds warbled their harmonious charmes.” The best poem I know about hummingbirds never identifies its subject. Emily Dickinson writes as though the bird were too speedy and elusive to pin down with a mere word:


“A Route of Evanescence

With a revolving Wheel--

A Resonance of Emerald--

A Rush of Cochineal;

And every Blossom on the Bush

Adjusts its tumbled Head, --

The mail from Tunis, probably,

An easy Morning’s Ride.”

Sunday, September 19, 2021

'The Very Spectacle of Crowding, Hungry Life'

Oh, yes, I like the finished, formal work of art – the sonnet or crisply Chekhovian short story – but increasingly I favor casual, off-the-cuff work closer to the writer’s mundane being – diaries, letters, autobiographical fragments, blog posts and other nonce forms. I like reading the evidence of life lived. Such writings, William Maxwell tells us, “do not spring from prestidigitation or require a long apprenticeship. They tell what happened – what people said and did and wore and ate and hoped for and were afraid of, and in detail after often unimaginable detail they refresh our idea of existence and hold oblivion at arm’s length.” 

On this date, September 19, in 1966, Maxwell’s friend Louise Bogan begins a letter to her friend Ruth Limmer: “It is difficult to see the world run by anything but a demon (the universe, too). The only hope is: that there must be an edge (a sort of selvage) of good, that holds and defines.”


Selvage is an old word meaning the strip of material sewn on the edge of fabric to prevent unraveling. Bogan’s usage suggests a dubious stay against entropy. She continues:


“And, of course, the very spectacle of crowding, hungry life, crowding into every crack and cranny of the material situation (cracking the Manhattan schist with an oak tree, as well as the spectacle of a piece of lichen accumulating in a crack of same) should continually excite, if not reassure us.”


I too am reassured by the presence of clinging, swarming scrounging, opportunistic life – the weed in the sidewalk, the silverfish in the bathtub.


[Bogan’s letter is in A Poet’s Prose: Selected Writings of Louise Bogan (ed. Mary Kinzie, Swallow Press/Ohio University Press, 2005). The passage by Maxwell is from his introductory note to The Outermost Dream: Literary Sketches (Knopf, 1989)].

Saturday, September 18, 2021

'A Noble Unconsciousness Is in Him'

“On the whole, a man must not complain of his ‘element,’ of his ‘time,’ or the like; it is thriftless work doing so. His time is bad: well then, he is there to make it better!” 

Few would identify these cheery words as the work of Thomas Carlyle, the least cheery of men. Dr. Johnson brought out something beyond mere admiration in Carlyle, a deeply moral identification. The passage is drawn from his 1840 lecture “The Hero as Man of Letters,” in which Carlyle lauds the absence of fuss in Johnson, the indifference to impressing his fellows and polishing his image. Making the world better is too often the slogan of those who would destroy it. Johnson had no interest in utopia-building:


“Mark, too, how little Johnson boasts of his ‘sincerity.’ He has no suspicion of his being particularly sincere, — of his being particularly anything! A hard-struggling, weary-hearted man, or "scholar" as he calls himself, trying hard to get some honest livelihood in the world, not to starve, but to live — without stealing! A noble unconsciousness is in him.”


Plagued with fears of idleness and madness, Johnson often self-prescribed work as the cure. Carlyle calls the attitude “rude stubborn self-help.” And we are its beneficiaries: “Had Johnson left nothing but his Dictionary, one might have traced there a great intellect, a genuine man. . . . There is in it a kind of architectural nobleness; it stands there like a great solid square-built edifice, finished, symmetrically complete: you judge that a true Builder did it.”


David Ferry, now ninety-seven years old, writes in “That Evening at Dinner” (Of No Country I Know: New and Selected Poems and Translations, 1999):


“The books there on the bookshelves told their stories,

Line after line, all of them evenly spaced,

And spaces between the words. You could fall through the spaces.

In one of the books Dr. Johnson told the story:”


Johnson endlessly reiterates his theme: books alone are not enough. At best, they are less than half a life. They are riddled with lacunae, gaps, spaces. Ferry rounds out his stanza with lines from Johnson:


“‘In the scale of being, wherever it begins,

Or ends, there are chasms infinitely deep;

Infinite vacuities . . . For surely,

Nothing can so disturb the passions, or

Perplex the intellects of man so much,

As the disruption of this union with

Visible nature, separation from all

That has delighted or engaged him, a change

Not only of the place but of the manner

Of his being, an entrance into a state

Not simply which he knows not, but perhaps

A state he has not faculties to know.”


The start of the quoted passage, preceding the ellipsis, is drawn from Johnson’s review of Soame Jenyn’s A Free Inquiry into the Nature and Origin of Evil (1759). The balance is from The Rambler #78, published Dec. 15, 1750. The sentence preceding it, and filling in the antecedents, is:


“Milton has judiciously represented the father of mankind, as seized with horror and astonishment at the sight of death, exhibited to him on the mount of vision.”


The reference is to Paradise Lost, Section XI, lines 461-465. Two paragraphs later in the Rambler essay Johnson writes:


“[A] perpetual meditation upon the last hour, however it may become the solitude of a monastery, is inconsistent with many duties of common life. But surely the remembrance of death ought to predominate in our minds, as an habitual and settled principle, always operating, though not always perceived; and our attention should seldom wander so far from our own condition, as not to be recalled and fixed by sight of an event, which must soon, we know not how soon, happen likewise to ourselves, and of which, though we cannot appoint the time, we may secure the consequence.”


Johnson was born on this date, September 18, in 1709.

Friday, September 17, 2021

'Little Drops of Subversion'

“Comedy has a specific thing about it. I don’t really like satire. I think it’s very minor; I think parody is very major comedy. Like, Nabokov to me is the highest form of parody. But that stupid Jonathan Swift thing that everybody talks about — I read that. It sucked.” 

The speaker is Norm Macdonald, the comedian who died this week at age sixty-one. That anyone reads worthwhile books and talks about them without guilt or grandstanding is always a surprise and a pleasure. That Macdonald seems to understand the distinction between satire and parody is flabbergasting. Cervantes, Fielding, Austen, Melville and Beerbohm practiced parody with varying degrees of success. In the wrong hands it can come off as heavy-handed or self-preeningly cute. Nabokov excelled at it and made it the foundation of his greatest book, Lolita. Parody ought to be a minor, occasion-driven genre, and in most cases it is. Nabokov made it sublime


Macdonald may even have known what Nabokov told an interviewer in 1966: “Satire is a lesson, parody is a game.” I agree with Macdonald on satire but disagree with what he says about Swift. Satire tends to disappoint when it is most didactic. It scolds and presumes to tell us how we ought to think. It wants to teach us something, without earning the right to do so. I love Swift not for his lessons but for the clarity and concision of his prose and verse, his fearlessness and his gift for reliably amusing me.

Until his final years, Swift was the sanest of men, though always difficult and unclubbable. He reminds us that mental health has a social dimension. His charm was intellectual. A biographer who understands this is Victoria Glendinning in Jonathan Swift (1998):


“It is a truism that those who make us laugh most are frequently prey to melancholy. Turning everything to wit or humour is a strategy for survival and a redeeming route to acceptance and popularity. Swift’s wit is often shocking. It has a lash. He challenges the hypocrisies and received opinions which enable people to rub along together.”


I’ve seen little of Norm Macdonald’s work. He strikes me as funnier, subtler and more intelligent than most comics. I like his approach: “You just want little drops of subversion.”