Monday, September 21, 2020

'Worth Causing Trouble for Trifles'

 My youngest son, a senior at a boys’ boarding school in Ontario, has been named global affairs editor and senior copy editor of its broadcast team. The first title sounds grand, the second rather lowly but likely carries more authority. I worked formally as a newspaper copy editor for a mere six months but I think every writer worthy of the title is the first copy editor of his own work. I learned early to “editor-proof,” especially when you work under an editor who fancies himself a writer. Don’t give him an opportunity to botch the previously un-botched.


I warned David that editing the work of friends can be tricky. Your job is to produce excellent copy, which can put a strain on the hardiest friendship. Some writers accept their limitations and are compliant with editorial suggestions. Others, whether gifted or abysmally untalented, are prima donnas. Their every adjective is precious. Honest editing can be fraught with moral dilemmas. In 1974, C.H. Sisson freely translated Horace’s Epistle II.3, Ars Poetica, as The Poetic Art. He writes, in part:


“The man who can actually tell when a verse is lifeless

Will know when it doesn’t sound right; he will point to stragglers,

And equally put his pen through elaboration;

He will even force you to give up your favourite obscurities,

Tell you what isn’t clear and what has got to be changed,

Like Dr. Johnson himself. There will be no nonsense

About it not being worth causing trouble for trifles.

Trifles like that amount in the end to disaster,

Derisory writing and meaning misunderstood.”


Copy for a high-school radio station and its podcasts isn’t poetry. At least it shouldn’t be. But it’s never too early to learn the importance of clean, clear, concise, precise prose. It is “worth causing trouble for trifles.”

Sunday, September 20, 2020

'A Man in Love with the Sound of Words'

Only after her death on Friday did I learn that Supreme Court Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg had been a student of Vladimir Nabokov as an undergraduate government major at Cornell from 1950 to 1954. Ginsburg credited Nabokov and a professor at Columbia Law School with her career-long “caring about writing.” She told an interviewer: 

“[Nabokov] was a man in love with the sound of words. He taught me the importance of choosing the right word and presenting it in the right word order. He changed the way I read, the way I write. He was an enormous influence.”


In 1948, Nabokov was hired as an associate professor of Slavic literature at Cornell. He taught Literature 311-312, “Masters of European Fiction,” and Literature 325-326, “Russian Literature in Translation.” Ginsburg would have been enrolled in the former.  Nabokov’s Cornell Lectures on Literature (ed. Fredson Bowers) was published in 1980, three years after his death. The novels Nabokov required his students to read, including Mansfield Park, Dead Souls and Ulysses, have attained the status of a sub-canon within the canon.     


What’s surprising is that Ginsburg credits Nabokov with teaching her to be a more exacting writer, which is not the subject he was formally teaching. In his introductory chapter to Lectures on Literature, “Good Readers and Good Writers,” he writes:


“There are three points of view from which a writer can be considered: he may be considered as a storyteller, as a teacher, and as an enchanter. A major writer combines these three – storyteller, teacher, enchanter – but it is the enchanter in him that predominates and makes him a major writer.”


Perhaps Ginsburg thought of Nabokov as a writer-teacher. His grading of student papers was notably tough. Perhaps the future justice learned something about writing from reading his books, which for some of us are a master class in prose. In 1953 alone, along with teaching fulltime, Nabokov had five writing projects under way. Lolita was nearly finished. He was outlining Pnin, translating from Russian into English The Song of Igor’s Campaign and Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin, and from English into Russian Conclusive Evidence, the memoir he revised and retitled Speak, Memory.


The interviewer asks Ginsburg, “Did you stay in touch with him after you left Cornell?,” and she replies: “Not after he wrote Lolita, a huge success, and went off to Switzerland to catch butterflies.”

Saturday, September 19, 2020

'The True Pleasure in Writing'

 “Here I am nearly ninety, prepared as few to enjoy delicately with or rather through my eyes, my ears, my touch. I should give myself up to looking and seeing, to listen to sweet voices and beautiful sounds. I should cherish and reread all the Classics with my present understanding. I should help to form the young for the pure pleasure of it. I should live disinterestedly, as a kind of spectator.”

Rather lofty aspirations. Not a conventional retirement scheme, which is likelier to include fishing and playing golf, if not hearing aids and colostomy bag. Only recently have I even dared to think about retirement. I turn sixty-eight next month. I always assumed I would work until I dropped, comfortably shod in my boots. I learned early, from Great Depression-era parents, that life is very much about work.  

The author of the passage quoted above, art historian and connoisseur Bernard Berenson (1865-1959), is writing in his diary on this date, Sept. 19, in 1954, three months after his ninetieth birthday (Sunset and Twilight: From the Diaries of 1947-1958, 1963). He sets us up by aligning all those shoulds, only to bring us down abruptly:

“Not at all. I am possessed by the demon of productive work. I spend my ever diminishing moments when I am still really alive on study of photographs, with a view to compiling a new catalogue of Italian paintings, with a view to perpetuating my own attributions, my own errors. I bother and worry about publishing. I read for information and seldom for pleasure. I get cross over the ways of the world, particularly over the art productions and art appreciation of today. This last is so absurd, seeing that if they do what I do not care for, they do me no personal harm.”

Except for the part about seldom reading for pleasure, I’m with Berenson. I’m fortunate. All of my adult life I’ve earned my living by writing. Even purely utilitarian writing brings satisfaction. I don’t look into such things too closely. I’m grateful for the alignment of my abilities, sources of pleasure and what life has handed me. Joseph Epstein is eighty-three and remains very much a writer by inclination and profession. This week alone he has published at least two essays -- “Fame” in Commentary and “Style Reveals the Man” in First Things. In the former he writes:

 “For me the true pleasure in writing is found in the work itself: in the delight in amusing phrases, well-turned sentences, rhythmical paragraphs, conclusions I had little or no idea I would arrive at until my composition was complete. I have long subscribed to E.M. Forster’s remark, when asked his opinion on a subject, that he didn’t really know what he thought until he had written about it. Writing, in this view, is an act of discovery, and so it has been for me.”

Friday, September 18, 2020

'Wide Enough to Hold Both Thee and Me'

Titus Andronicus is Shakespeare’s cheesiest work, a sub-Tarantino bloodbath and the play I read least often. I read it again after watching Titus, the 1999 film adaptation with Anthony Hopkins reprising the role of Hannibal Lecter. As is usually the case with Shakespeare, I salvaged a few scenes and lines from the surrounding gore. Take the banquet in Act III, Scene 2. Titus’ brother Marcus strikes at a fly on the table with his knife. Titus – who has Tamora’s sons baked in a pie which he serves to their mother -- replies: “Out on thee, murderer! thou kill’st my heart / . . . . A deed of death done on the innocent / Becomes not Titus’ brother: get thee gone.” One recalls that Hitler liked dogs and was a vegetarian.

Marcus defends himself by responding, as many of us would, “Alas, my lord, I have but kill’d a fly,” to which Titus lays it on even thicker:

“But how, if that fly had a father and mother? / How would he hang his slender gilded wings, / And buzz lamenting doings in the air! / Poor harmless fly, / That, with his pretty buzzing melody, / Came here to make us merry! and thou hast kill’d him.”

Shakespeare takes for granted human complexity. Nothing we do surprises him. Live long enough and we encounter every possible coupling of qualities within a single soul. Remember Gloucester in King Lear: “As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods; / They kill us for their sport.” I recalled a happier cameo appearance of a fly in English literature. The narrator of Tristram Shandy (Vol.2, Chap. XII) tells us his Uncle Toby “had scarce a heart to retaliate upon a fly”:

“Go, says he, one day at dinner, to an overgrown one which had buzzed about his nose, and tormented him cruelly all dinner-time, and which, after infinite attempts, he had caught at last, as it flew by him; I’ll not hurt thee, says my uncle Toby, rising from his chair, and going across the room, with the fly in his hand, I’ll not hurt a hair of thy head: Go, says he, lifting up the sash, and opening his hand as he spoke, to let it escape; go, poor devil, get thee gone, why should I hurt thee? This world surely is wide enough to hold both thee and me.”

Tristram tells us he was ten when he witnessed Toby’s act of mercy and that it “instantly set my whole frame into one vibration of most pleasurable sensation.”

Thursday, September 17, 2020

'We Moderns Are But Slovens in Composition'

To Sir William Jones (1746-94), the Anglo-Welsh philologist, we owe the word Indo-European. He noted similarities among Latin, Greek and Sanskrit, and suggested they share a common root. Here is Walter Savage Landor in an 1809 letter to Robert Southey:

“I have read everything Oriental I could lay my hands on, and everything good may be comprised in thirty or forty lines. There is a prodigious deal of puckering and flouncing and spangles, but nothing fresh, nothing graceful, nothing standing straight upwards or moving straight forwards on its feet.”

Ignorance of the subject at hand never slowed down Landor. If you are sufficiently familiar with his work in poetry and prose, you know he’s just warming up:

“I would rather have written the worst page in the Odyssea than all the stuff Sir William Jones makes such a pother and palaver on; yet what volumes would it fill! what libraries would it suffocate! God forbid that I should ever be drowned in any of these butts of malmsey! It is better to describe a girl getting a tumble over a skipping-rope made of a wreath of flowers.”

Landor is one of the masterful practitioners of invective in our language, up there with Swift, Carlyle and Mencken. Can you think of a major writer less fashionable, less amenable to acceptable thought in 2020? Nor can I. He belongs to that elite class who, even when we vehemently object to their message, we wish to celebrate their medium. His frequent unfairness is exhilarating. His words are vividly Shakespearean. Here is a brief selection from Landor’s Imaginary Conversations that I copied several years ago into a commonplace book:

“A word of honour is but the gaseous and volatile part of honour, which would blow up a true Frenchman if he tried to retain it within him.”

“This impudicity seems to have always been a characteristic of the Italian race.”

“. . . a loosish man and slippery in foul proclivities.”

“Your pediculous [OED: “lice-infested”] friars and parti-coloured bald-coot priests.”

“Milton shrivelled up the lips of his revilers by the austerity of his scorn.”

“It must be conceded that we moderns are but slovens in composition.”

“At first we were tickled, at last we were triturated [OED: “to reduce to fine particles or powder by rubbing, bruising, pounding, crushing, or grinding”].

“The smoky, verminous, unconcocted doctrine of passive obedience.”

And this, in a celebratory mode, quoted by John Forster in his biography of Landor (1869): “I am reading once more the work I have read oftener than any other prose work in our language [Swift’s Tale of a Tub]. I cannot bring to my recollection the number of copies I have given away, chiefly to young Catholic ladies. I really believe I converted one by it unintentionally. What a writer! not the most imaginative or the most simple, not Bacon or Goldsmith, had the power of saying more forcibly or completely whatever he meant to say!”

And here is Landor on another of his enthusiasms among earlier English writers:

“The grandest writer of late ages
Who wrapt Rome up in golden pages,
Whom scarcely Livius equal’d, Gibbon,
Died without star or cross or ribbon.”

Landor was born on January 30, 1775, and died on this date, September 17, in 1864.

Wednesday, September 16, 2020

"To Facilitate Motion and Unite Levity with Strength'

Among the most heavily annotated, underlined and otherwise defaced volumes I own is a Penguin paperback of Dr. Johnson’s The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia (1759), his only novel or novel-like creation. What we think of as novels were still in a fluid state, though quickly solidifying. Tom Jones had been published a decade earlier and Robinson Crusoe thirty years before that. Call Rasselas a philosophical romance or an Eastern fable if that makes you happy. The taxonomy isn’t interesting unless you’re an especially unimaginative grad student in English lit. I bought my copy of Rasselas and read it for the first time in 1971 and have probably read it a dozen times. It's held together with a rubber band.

In 1956, Raymond Queneau edited Pour Une Bibliothèque Idéale. Among the contributors was Marianne Moore, who compiled a list of essential books. One of her selections was Johnson’s Lives of the Poets. In her Paris Review interview, when asked by Donald Hall about the influence of prose on her poetry, Moore says:  

“Prose stylists, very much. Doctor Johnson on Richard Savage: ‘He was in two months illegitimated by the Parliament, and disowned by his mother, doomed to poverty and obscurity, and launched upon the oceans of life only that he might be swallowed by its quicksands, or dashed upon its rocks…it was his peculiar happiness that he scarcely ever found a stranger whom he did not leave a friend; but it must likewise be added that, he had not often a friend long without obliging him to become a stranger.’”

In other words, Moore was deeply read in Johnson. I’m reading her again and find this in the opening lines of “The Frigate Pelican” (1934): “Rapidly cruising or lying on the air there is a bird / that realizes Rasselas’s friend’s project / of wings uniting levity with strength.” The allusion is to Chap. VI, “A Dissertation on the Art of Flying.” The prince invites to the Happy Valley a man we would think of as an engineer or inventor. Johnson calls him both an “artist” and “a man eminent for his knowledge of the mechanic powers.” He assures Rasselas he can devise a flying machine. Moore refers in her poem to this passage:

“The Prince promised secrecy, and waited for the performance, not wholly hopeless of success.  He visited the work from time to time, observed its progress, and remarked many ingenious contrivances to facilitate motion and unite levity with strength.”

We think of levity as lightness of spirit, good humor, frivolity. It is those things but through the nineteenth century it more often meant “the quality or fact of having comparatively little weight; lightness” (OED). The inventor was attempting to copy the engineering of a bird – light and strong – misguided reasoning discredited by the Wright Brothers, among others. Chap. VI closes with these words:

“The artist was every day more certain that he should leave vultures and eagles behind him, and the contagion of his confidence seized upon the Prince.  In a year the wings were finished; and on a morning appointed the maker appeared, furnished for flight, on a little promontory; he waved his pinions awhile to gather air, then leaped from his stand, and in an instant dropped into the lake.  His wings, which were of no use in the air, sustained him in the water; and the Prince drew him to land half dead with terror and vexation.”

Tuesday, September 15, 2020

'The Disapproval of the Dietarily Correct'

No one can be too dedicated to the cause du jour. Fanaticism is mere prudence. Ideological purity – in politics, in religion, in lunch – demands that the wayward be exposed, berated and erased. The logic is cannibalistic. Some time ago I mentioned in passing that I had lost the taste for eating meat. I eat chicken and fish as a convenience, beef almost never. It’s not a subject that interests me. Well, I’m paying the price for my carelessness. In the last week, a reader has sent me three emails of growing stridency condemning my failure to live ethically and answer her. “Do you want to have a heart attack?” she asks, Socratically. “Do you know what meat does to your arteries?”

Rather than answer in detail the questions she asks, I direct her to Turner Cassity’s “Vegetarian Mary and the Venus Flytrap” (The Destructive Element: New and Selected Poems, 1998), which poses philosophical questions of a related nature:

“It is not edible, but if one ate it . . .
For the paradox it poses should one hate it?
Where upon the food chain to locate it?

“Would a salad of it or a souffle
(Soufflé lacking egg white) be at one removal
Eating meat, and have the disapproval

“Of the dietarily correct?
Would Fundamentalist teetotalers be wrecked
If Pitcher Plants should drown their prey in Sekt?

“(Insekticide: destroying bugs in bubbly.)
To think of eating meat unknowing troubles doubly.
I shall sew my lips up and starve glubly

“(Glumly; I am writing with a cold)
One-upping native Ecuadorans of old
Who only sewed the lips of others, sold

“To ethnocentricists as shrunken heads.
Not all species are those protected by the Feds.
The franchise is a Panama Club Med’s.

“Med-Sea-Born Goddess into insect trapping,
Permit that a grain of irritation, capping
My career of vegetary flapping,

“I seed your natal shell: the inner, all
Encompassing correctness—amnesty-in-general—
 Where, pure pearl, I end as mineral.” 

Cassity poses questions that call for Thomistic rigor. Pitcher plants feature a rolled leaf shaped like a bowl, containing a soup of digestive enzymes waiting to dissolve careless insects. Sekt is German sparkling wine; thus, Cassity’s coinage, “Insekticide.”