Sunday, September 23, 2018

'Emotional Compendiousness'

“Certain books remain forever bound up with the circumstances in which we read them, and a persistent few of these seem to shadow and punctuate our lives according to the inscrutable rules of coincidence; for me, one such is Middlemarch.”

Ben Downing had me by the first comma. The rest of the sentence is a gift. I know him as coeditor of Parnassus: Poetry in Review and author of the poetry collection The Calligraphy Shop (2003) and the biography Queen Bee of Tuscany: The Redoubtable Janet Ross (2013). I’ve read his essays and reviews for years, but only this week discovered “The Water of March,” published in 2002 in the Southwest Review (thank you, Jstor). In five pages, Downing mingles memoir, travel writing and criticism, and moves literature from the classroom and into the heart of our life where it belongs.

Downing first read Eliot’s novel in the nineteen-nineties on a visit to Brazil. He chose a hefty Victorian volume, in part, because it “would keep me from the hideous eventuality of on-the-road booklessness.” We all know that anxiety. In addition, he figured Middlemarch would “prove to be a piquant contrast to all things Brazilian.” He turned reading the novel into an exalted ritual, which I also understand.

Downing’s mind is alert to correspondences, echoes and covert threads of meaning. His title comes from one of my favorite songs, one I linked to on this blog many years ago,Águas de Março(“Water of March”), as performed by Elis Regina and Antonio Carlos Jobim. He begins reading Middlemarch on March 15 – the middle of March. He mentions such linkages not out of pretentious symbol-mongering but because he finds pleasure in “the inscrutable rules of coincidence.” Search out the essay and expect to be entertained and to have your faith in the power of a good book restored:

“How many of our red-letter days arrive out of nowhere, unlooked for and unbidden! The counterpoint of reading and talk; of firm English prose and careless Portuguese banter; of Middlemarch and Minas Gerais—all this, played out against the rolling, pastoral landscape, left me, when after dark I finally got to Caxambu, fairly tingling with exhilaration.”

The essay only gets better after that, deeper and more somber: “Such extremity of feeling is in tune with the emotional compendiousness of the novel itself.”

Saturday, September 22, 2018

'Attentive and Repeated Perusals'

As a boy I was most attracted to reference books, in the broadest sense. I liked dictionaries, atlases, thesauruses, field guides and almanacs. I liked information collected, collated and convenient, and still do. I think this is related to my lifelong fondness for good anthologies. Such books are the autodidact’s friend, the map and compass needed when entering terra incognita. There’s comfort in densely, intelligently packed information. The Anatomy of Melancholy has been one of my favorite books since I discovered it as a college freshman. I can dip in anytime, to any page, and learn something. In his wonderful essay “On Reading” (The Hunter Gracchus, 1996), Guy Davenport writes: “And then I made the discovery that what I liked in reading was to learn things I didn’t know.”

This week I picked up The Practical Cogitator; or, The Thinker’s Anthology (1945), edited by Charles P. Curtis Jr. and Ferris Greenslet, again. I wanted something to read while eating my lunch at my desk. In his preface, Curtis glosses his title: “To begin with, this anthology is for the thinker, and not for the feeler, primarily for the extrovert thinker. Needless to say, it runs over into some of his introverted and intuitive margins.” And he means it. Among his rules of selection:

“Nothing that is not worth re-reading. Some things can be chewed over almost indefinitely. Pieces that are tough enough, juicy enough to chew. Some that are scarcely worth reading only once.”

Early in the book, almost as an endorsement of their project, Curtis and Greenslet include a passage from the letter Keats wrote to his friend John Hamilton Reynolds on Feb. 19, 1818. Here’s an excerpt:

“I had an idea that a Man might pass a very pleasant life in this manner - Let him on a certain day read a certain page of full Poesy or distilled Prose, and let him wander upon it, and bring home to it, and prophesy upon it, and dream upon it: until it becomes stale - But when will it do so? Never - When Man has arrived at a certain ripeness in intellect any one grand and spiritual passage serves him as a starting-post towards all ‘the two-and-thirty Palaces.’ How happy is such a voyage of concentration, what delicious diligent Indolence!”

Keats precisely captures the pleasure of reading when he oxymoronically couples “concentration” with “delicious diligent Indolence.” Based on my experience, there is no contradiction. Later, Curtis and Greenslet quote Edward Gibbon’s “Abstract of My Readings”: “Let us read with method, and propose to ourselves an end to what our studies may point. The use of reading is to aid us in thinking.” The passage, as printed, is deceptive. Gibbon’s two sentences, as he wrote them, are separated by two paragraphs. A subsequent passage from the same essay is pertinent:

“But what ought we to read? Each individual must answer this question for himself, agreeably to the object of his studies. The only general precept that I would venture to give, is that of Pliny, ‘to read much, rather than many things’; to make a careful selection of the best works, and to render them familiar to us by attentive and repeated perusals.”

Friday, September 21, 2018

'It Is Simply Not Helpful'

Why Do I Write? is a slender volume published in 1948 by Percival Marshall of London. It collects an exchange of letters, each a digressive essay, among Elizabeth Bowen, Graham Greene and V.S. Pritchett, on the writer’s presumed responsibility to “society,” whatever that means. As Pritchett writes in his preface, “What a horrible word ‘society’ is.” Though written seventy years ago, Pritchett’s words, in one of his letters to Bowen, seem particularly pertinent:

“I do not write for the reader, for people, for society. I write for myself, for my own self-regarding pleasure, trying to excel and always failing of the excellence I desire. If no one ever read me, would I write? Perhaps not; but I would not be able to stop writing in my head.”

Pritchett speaks for every honest writer. High-mindedness doesn’t suit us. Watch your back (and your wallet) when a writer proclaims his dedication to the cause du jour. We pride ourselves on independence of thought, but most of us are as free-thinking as a nest of fire ants. Writers ought to be no more engagé than pipefitters, who probably know more about politics anyway. Pritchett begins his preface like this:

“If we are asked what, from the social point of view, writers are for, one answer seems to be that they exist to show the inconvenience of human nature; just as from the private point of view, they enlarge human nature's knowledge of itself. But do we ask more of writers in a time like the present? Ought they not, perhaps, be putting their shoulders to some wheel or other? And which one? After all (the cliché runs) ‘this is a time of crisis, this is an age of revolution, transition, despair.’ . . . The cliché is not necessarily untrue because it is conventional; it is simply not helpful.”

Thursday, September 20, 2018

'Or Not Untrue and Not Unkind'

“. . . we should
Not believe fairy stories if we wish to be good.”

Stevie Smith’s faith was a wavering thing. She paid her religion the highest compliment by thinking about it often, agonizing and vacillating from faith, to doubt, to bleak unbelief and back. The lines above are from “I Was so Full . . .” (Selected Poems, 1962).  The poem’s first two stanzas parody God’s summoning commands in the first chapter of Genesis:

“I was so full of love and joy
There was not enough people to love,
So I said: Let there be God,
Then there was God above.

“I was so full of anger and hate
To be hated was not enough people,
So I said: Let there be a Devil to hate,
Then down below was the Devil.

“These persons have worked very much in my mind
And by being not true, have made me unkind,
So now I say: Away with them, away; we should
Not believe fairy stories if we wish to be good.

“Think of them as persons from the fairy wood.”

Smith’s narrator blasphemes, ridiculously. God and the Devil are “persons” but are not “true.” Her closing lines apply acutely to politics and ethics. If our values are nonsense, our judgment is already compromised. Behavior rooted in “fairy stories” is unlikely to accomplish much of value. Can one be “good” when holding patently ridiculous beliefs? On occasion, probably. Over the long haul, probably not. In Philip Larkin’s 1962 review of Selected Poems (Required Writing, 1984), he characterized Smith’s voice as “fausse-naïve,” called her an “almost unclassifiable writer” and famously concluded: “Her poems speak with the authority of sadness.” Clearly, Larkin hears Smith and responds sympathetically. He sees through her silliness to something more essential. Two years later he published The Whitsun Weddings, including “Talking in Bed”:

“Talking in bed ought to be easiest,
Lying together there goes back so far,
An emblem of two people being honest.
Yet more and more time passes silently.
Outside, the wind's incomplete unrest
Builds and disperses clouds in the sky,
And dark towns heap up on the horizon.
None of this cares for us. Nothing shows why
At this unique distance from isolation
It becomes still more difficult to find
Words at once true and kind,
Or not untrue and not unkind.”

Smith writes:

“These persons have worked very much in my mind
And by being not true, have made me unkind.”

Larkin writes:

“It becomes still more difficult to find
Words at once true and kind,
Or not untrue and not unkind.”

Smith was born on this date, Sept. 20, in 1902, and died on March 7, 1971 at age sixty-eight.

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

'I'd Arrived in a Rather Special Place'

Nige reports a bumper crop of conkers this year, and I wondered what he was talking about. It seems to be another word that never crossed the Atlantic. My American-made spell-check software doesn’t recognize it. I know conk (Pierce Egan’s Boxiana: “Spring however conked his opponent, when they closed”) and “conked out,” as in exhausted to the point of losing consciousness. And when I read The Autobiography of Malcolm X in 1969, I learned that conk refers to the painful chemical hair-straightening procedure some black people underwent (“my first really big step toward self-degradation,” Malcolm calls it). From context, I understood that Nige is referring to horse-chestnuts, but the folklore and etymology eluded me. Coined by English boys, the word began as a homonym of “conquers,” according to the OED:

“A boys’ game, played originally with snail-shells but now with horse-chestnuts, in which each boy has a chestnut on a string which he alternately strikes against that of his opponent and holds to be struck until one of the two is broken.”

The Dictionary cites a reference Robert Southey makes in his remembrance of schooldays in the 1780’s in Corston: “One very odd amusement, which I never saw or heard of elsewhere, was greatly in vogue at this school. It was performed with snail shells, by placing them against each other, point to point, and pressing till the one was broken in, or sometimes both. This was called conquering . . . A great conqueror was prodigiously prized and coveted.”

In Children’s Games in Street and Playground (1969), Iona and Peter Opie make conkers sound like a ritual deeply rooted in the culture of English children:

“For a brief spell in early autumn this game is as much a part of the English scene as garden bonfires, and hounds cubbing at break of day. The boys are out searching for conkers, throwing sticks and stones up into the chestnut trees (the best conkers are believed to be at the top of the tree) and, with or without permission, invading people’s gardens. They meet with little opposition. The youthful pleasure of prising a mahogany-smooth chestnut from its prickly casing is not easily forgotten; and when a vicar wrote to The Times complaining about the depredations of small enthusiasts, readers’ sentiment was clearly against him.”

Compare the Opies’ account with Nige’s:

“It was at just this time of year that I first arrived, at the age of nine, in the suburban demiparadise I still call home. After the first day of school, I joined a gang of boys heading straight to the park to climb trees and harvest conkers. We had to throw sticks – there was nothing like this year’s easy largesse – but that only made it more fun. I looked around me at the park, lit by a mellow September sun, and knew I'd arrived in a rather special place.”

I note that the fun police are as vigilant in England as they are in the U.S. See “School bans ‘nut allergy’ conkers.”

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

'With a Pious Abstraction'

“It was Johnson’s custom to observe certain days with a pious abstraction; viz. New-year’s-day, the day of his wife’s death, Good Friday, Easter-day, and his own birth-day.”

We passively endure such days, if we recognize them at all. For Dr. Johnson, all were sacred, demanding to be solemnly and privately observed with prayer and meditation. Today his spiritual regimen might be diagnosed as symptomatic of depression or obsessive-compulsive disorder. The observation quoted above is from Boswell, who goes on to cite Johnson’s diary entry from this date, Sept. 18, in 1764. It was his birthday. He was turning fifty-five and had another twenty years to live:

“He this year says:—‘I have now spent fifty-five years in resolving; having, from the earliest time almost that I can remember, been forming schemes of a better life. I have done nothing. The need of doing, therefore, is pressing, since the time of doing is short. O GOD, grant me to resolve aright, and to keep my resolutions, for JESUS CHRIST’S sake. Amen.’”

Johnson was forever resolving and failing to remain resolved. This makes him hopelessly human, like us. He fumbled through life, reproached himself and fumbled again, lending his genius credence. We don’t feel intimidated when listening to him. His failings are ours. Later in the same diary entry, in a ritual repeated throughout his life, Johnson spells out a list of commands himself. Among them:

“To read the Scriptures. In hope in the original Languages. Six hundred and forty verses every Sunday will nearly comprise the Scriptures in a year.

“To read good books. To study Theology.

“To drive out vain scruples.”

The editors of Diaries, Prayers, and Annals (Yale University Press, 1958) note that Johnson’s Scriptural reading plan is “not in itself formidable.” A year earlier on Easter he had read the 879 verses in the Gospel of St. John. We don’t know if Johnson stuck to the plan. Most of the following year was devoted to work on his edition of Shakespeare. Otherwise, he published only two reviews – by his customary standards, an idle year. What impresses me about these diary entries are Johnson’s efforts to sacralize daily living. Anything might provide fodder for spiritual observance. Charles Lamb is a very different sort of writer and man, but I hear a distant echo of Johnson’s commitment in Lamb’s “Grace Before Meat,” one of the Elia essays:

“I own that I am disposed to say grace upon twenty other occasions in the course of the day besides my dinner. I want a form for setting out upon a pleasant walk, for a moonlight ramble, for a friendly meeting, or a solved problem. Why have we none for books, these spiritual repasts -- a grace before Milton -- a grace before Shakespeare -- a devotional exercise proper to be said before reading the Fairy Queen?”  

Monday, September 17, 2018

'The Strange Loves of Martha Ivers'

The Houston Public Library held a book sale Saturday morning at a nearby middle school. I arrived without expectations and thus left without disappointment, untempted by a single title. Strictly bestsellers, textbooks and library rejects. While I was looking at the fiction carts, an Asian kid, about thirteen, was standing next to me. He was seriously examining a boxed edition of Katherine Mansfield’s stories, and I felt a moral obligation to steer him away from a decision I’m certain he would have lived to regret. I picked up a hardcover of Bernard Malamud’s The Fixer and suggested he read it instead of the Mansfield. My meddling didn’t seem to alarm him, and a man I judged to be his father looked on. After much perusing of both volumes, the boy reshelved the Mansfield, kept the Malamud and thanked me. His father smiled and nodded. I may have changed a life.

I ran into John Dillman, the owner of Kaboom Books, which is just a few blocks from the school. He noted that the sale was doubly depressing: there was little worth buying (he took home three volumes) and the library was gutting its collection yet again. I must have been feeling a lingering case of post-traumatic book disappointment because on Sunday I felt the urge to visit John’s bookstore, and my decision proved therapeutic. I found a copy of V.S. Pritchett’s first book, Marching Spain (1927), which I have never read. Next, the Akadine Press reprint of Evelyn Waugh’s Robbery Under Law: The Mexican Object-Lesson (1939), my favorite among his travel books (if it's not Labels, published in 1930, or Remote People, in 1931). And two titles by Rebecca West: A Train of Powder (1955) and a first edition of The Court and the Castle (1957). I’ve read the former, not the latter. West entered my pantheon years ago with Black Lamb and Grey Falcon (1941).

John and I had our usual rambling conversation. It started with one of his favorite novels, Dino Buzzati’s The Tartar Steppe (1940) -- he has the first edition of the English translation priced at $350 -- and shifted into Svevo, Lampedusa, Calvino, Levi and Elsa Morante. I asked if he was related to the actor Bradford Dillman, who died last January and turns out to have been his cousin. We moved on to Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas, and the latter’s work in The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, followed by a discussion of the word “milquetoast” and, for some reason, the history of barbed wire and its use by the Italians during World War I.