Sunday, April 21, 2024

'A Twitter of Inconsequent Vitality'

This week I will interview a professor of chemical engineering who is retiring after forty-four years on the faculty. He came to the university straight from earning his Ph.D. He’s neither flashy nor hungry for publicity, and I was surprised he agreed to speak with me. He has a reputation for hard work and dependability – not qualities valued as highly as you might think. He seems to ignore academic politics and is widely if quietly respected, even by his colleagues and the administration. Selfless dedication to the job often goes ignored, as Louis MacNeice suggests in “Hidden Ice” (The Earth Compels, 1938), which begins: 

“There are few songs for domesticity

For routine work, money-making or scholarship

Though these are apt for eulogy or tragedy.


“And I would praise our adaptability

Who can spend years and years in offices and beds

Every morning twirling the napkin ring,

A twitter of inconsequent vitality.”


The theme of unrecognized service, of blindly coming to expect gifts, must have been on MacNeice’s mind at the time. The next poem in The Earth Compels is “Taken for Granted.” The opening stanza:


“Taken for granted

    The household orbit in childhood

The punctual sound of the gong

    The round of domestic service.”

Saturday, April 20, 2024

'We Find It Hard to Read Great Books at All'

A young reader tells me he is unable to read most books written before “about the middle of the 60s. I like Vonnegut. A lot of the stuff before that is like a foreign language to me.” I’m reminded of an English professor who told me more than half a century ago that most of her students couldn’t read anything pre-Hemingway. She was the teacher who introduced me to Tristram Shandy, Don Quixote and A Tale of a Tub. My reader is neither bragging nor lamenting. He seems to sense he is missing something – yet another mutation of presentism -- but unlikely to do anything about it. I encouraged him to try some older books and suggested a few titles. I’m not optimistic and it’s not my job to scold.

F.L. Lucas (1894-1967) was an English literary critic probably best known for Style (1955). In the nineteen-thirties, he was an early critic of appeasement with Hitler’s Germany, warning in 1933 that it shouldn’t be permitted to rearm. In 1939 he published Journal Under the Terror, 1938, a diary of the events leading up to the invasion of Poland and the start of the war, along with personal matters including literary reflections. He eviscerates Chamberlain. He reads Froissart and Shakespeare and follows the news. Not just Germany but the show trials in the Soviet Union and the civil war in Spain. On May 8 he writes: “Walked (lest I catch Carlyle’s dyspepsia).” Later in May he writes (and this is what brings to mind my young reader):


“And we find it hard to read great books at all; easy to read books or articles about them—neat little reflections of them and on them in the pocket-mirror of some bright contemporary mind. Alice forsakes Wonderland for the Looking-Glass; and our decadence tends to live like the Emperor Domitian, in a gallery of mirrors, catching flies.”


To put his distrust of Germany in context, it’s helpful to know Lucas was a veteran of the Great War. He volunteered in October 1914 and served in France in 1915-17 as a lieutenant in the 7th Battalion of the Royal West Kent Regiment. He was at the Somme starting in August 1915 and was wounded by shrapnel in May 1916. He returned to the front in January 1917 and was gassed on March 4. In all, Lucas was hospitalized for seventeen months. He finished the war in the Intelligence Corps, questioning German prisoners of war. The past is ever-present – yet another reason to read the “great books,” a phrase I normally avoid but here I’m quoting Lucas.


Lucas’ Journal is a sort of prose counterpart to Autumn Journal (1939), the book-length poem Louis MacNeice wrote between August and December 1938, in the year of the Anschluss, the annexation of the Sudetenland, Munich, Kristallnacht. To quote Lucas again:


“But above all I think I write , not so much for popularity (I am little likely ever to have it) as for les âmes amies. Life and reading have brought me curious and amusing things that it is natural to wish to share. And one does not know what is in one’s own head (or knows it only untidily), until one has put it down on paper. ‘Writing makes an exact man.’

Friday, April 19, 2024

'The Things That Pass'

Among the books and magazines for sale in our neighborhood library I found the Winter 1985 issue of The American Scholar, which I bought for a quarter. Joseph Epstein was still the editor. On Page 97 is a poem, “Old Man Sitting in a Shopping Mall,” by a writer whose name was unfamiliar to me, David Bergman: 

“When I was young I gave my love

 to what I thought was permanent:

 God, Beauty or Eternal Truth.

 But now the things that pass take hold

 of my affections, and I'm lost

 in you, my dear, who even now

 are turning into someone else.”


In my experience, it’s rare to be taken by surprise by a previously unknown piece of writing, unaccompanied by context, and for it to give immediate pleasure. What struck me was Bergman’s ability to condense a life, or at least what was most important in it, into seven lines. The person in the poem moves from a Keatsian faith in the permanent things  -- “all ye need to know” – to an acceptance of transitoriness. The things that mutate and fade – almost everything – now stir his affection. A lucky old man sitting in that shopping mall -- an appropriately mundane American scene.


The forty-year-old credit line in The American Scholar says Bergman “teaches English at Towson State University. His forthcoming volume Cracking the Code won the George Elliston Prize.” A cursory search reveals he was born in 1950 and is still around, is gay and Jewish, and has Parkinson’s disease. In a 2016 Kenyon Review interview, Bergman says:


“I have been thinking for a while about the kinds of pleasures that have gone out of style in poetry, including gorgeousness and whimsy. I read poems because they give me pleasure but I think we increasingly teach poems and literature as social documents.”

Thursday, April 18, 2024

'And Here the Nothingness Shows Through'

I watched an old favorite, Laurel and Hardy’s 1933 short Me and My Pal. It’s Oliver’s wedding day and his best man, Stanley, gives him a jigsaw puzzle as a wedding gift. Oliver dismisses it at first as “childish balderdash” and promptly gets hooked putting it together along with, eventually, a taxi driver, Ollie’s butler, a telegram delivery boy and, of course, Stanley. Oliver’s father-in-law-to-be, Peter Cucumber, played by the great Jimmy Finlayson, shows up, as do the cops. Mayhem ensues. 

Jigsaw puzzles encourage that sort of obsessiveness. I remember this with our sons. We always gave them a puzzle for Christmas (two-thousand pieces in the later days), and there went the rest of the holiday. At the risk of pushing it too far, puzzles are convenient metaphors for life itself. We’re always looking for the missing piece, blah, blah, blah. Stanley finds it in the end but it’s too late. The wedding’s off, the visitors are on their way to jail and Oliver throws Stanley out the door.   


Samuel Beckett loved Laurel and Hardy. In them we can see Didi and Gogo in Waiting for Godot, also in bowlers and baggy pants. They make cameo appearances in Watt and Mercier and Camier. In Hugh Kenner’s words: “one of them marvelously incompetent, the other an ineffective man of the world devoted (some of the time) to his friend’s care” (A Reader’s Guide to Samuel Beckett, 1973). Kenner goes on:


“They journeyed, they undertook quests, they had adventures; their friendship, tested by bouts of exasperation, was never really vulnerable; they seemed not to become older, nor wiser; and in perpetual nervous agitation. Laurel’s nerves occasionally protesting like a baby’s, Hardy soliciting a philosophic calm he could never find leisure to settle into, they coped. Neither was especially competent, but Hardy made a big man’s show of competence. Laurel was defeated by the most trifling requirement.”


In “Jigsaw Puzzle” (Olives, 2012), A.E. Stallings basically recounts the plot of Me and My Pal and turns puzzle-making into philosophy:   


“First, the four corners,

Then the flat edges.

Assemble the lost borders,

Walk the dizzy ledges,


“Hoard one color—try

To make it all connected—

The water and the deep sky

And the sky reflected.


“Absences align

And lock shapes into place,

And random forms combine

To make a tree, a face.


“Slowly you restore

The fractured world and start

To recreate an afternoon before

It fell apart:


“Here is summer, here is blue,

Here two lovers kissing,

And here the nothingness shows through

Where one piece is missing.”

Wednesday, April 17, 2024

'As Sensitive As Anyone Else'

“In common with James Jones, Gina Berriault knows that ill-educated or inarticulate people are as sensitive as anyone else. She renders their speech with a fine and subtle ear for the shy or strident inaccuracies, for the bewilderment of missed points and for the dim, sad rhythms of clichés; but when she takes us into the silence of their minds, their thoughts and feelings come out in prose as graceful, as venturesome and precise as she can make it.” 

That’s Richard Yates (1926-92), author of the novels Revolutionary Road and The Easter Parade, in “The Achievement of Gina Berriault,” published in Ploughshares in 1979. Yates was a pitiless anatomist of human fallibility. The revival of interest in his novels and stories, thanks in part to the 2008 film version of Revolutionary Road, seems to have faded. Berriault (1926-99), who was especially gifted at writing short stories, seems to have faded even more.


Yates’ point is an interesting one. When portraying poorly educated, lower-class or simply inarticulate characters, writers will often treat them condescendingly and even make fun of them (as do others, of course). This seems not only unfair but a lazy indulgence in clichés. I’m reminded of the author’s note to McSorley’s Wonderful Saloon (1943), in which Joseph Mitchell, the nonfiction writer for The New Yorker, complains about journalists referring to “the little people”: “I regard this phrase as patronizing and repulsive. There are no little people in this book. They are as big as you are, whoever you are.”


Consider Ryabovitch, a young officer in Chekhov’s story “The Kiss” (1887) who must attend a party hosted by his commander, a lieutenant-general. He is self-conscious and uncomfortable: “While some of his comrades assumed a serious expression, while others wore forced smiles, his face, his lynx-like whiskers, and spectacles seemed to say: ‘I am the shyest, most modest, and most undistinguished officer in the whole brigade!’  who attends a party.” Instead of joining a dance, he invites two other officers to play billiards. In modern terms, Ryabovitch is a hopelessly backward nerd.


Unexpectedly, a woman embraces Ryabovitch and kisses him. She realizes she has mistaken him for someone else and both shriek. “He quite forgot,” Chekhov writes, “that he was round-shouldered and uninteresting, that he had lynx-like whiskers and an ‘undistinguished appearance’ (that was how his appearance had been described by some ladies whose conversation he had accidentally overheard). When [General] Von Rabbek’s wife happened to pass by him, he gave her such a broad and friendly smile that she stood still and looked at him inquiringly.


“‘I like your house immensely!’ he said, setting his spectacles straight.”


There’s humor here, as usual in Chekhov’s depictions of even the saddest of human beings, but Ryabovitch is not turned into an easy punching bag. We’re amused, in part, because we understand his social incompetence. It’s possible he has never before been kissed by a woman. He remains obsessed with the memory, and the following day, while mildly drunk, works up the courage to share his experience with several other officers. They seem uninterested. Near the end of the story, Chekhov writes:


“And the whole world, the whole of life, seemed to Ryabovitch an unintelligible, aimless jest. . . . And turning his eyes from the water and looking at the sky, he remembered again how fate in the person of an unknown woman had by chance caressed him, he remembered his summer dreams and fancies, and his life struck him as extraordinarily meagre, poverty-stricken, and colourless. . . .”


Sadly mild comedy, characteristically Chekhovian. Other writers treat dim, inarticulate characters differently. Yates suggests James Jones, whose enlisted men in From Here to Eternity are often unable to express their bafflement with the world. So too in the fiction of Theodore Dreiser, Sherwood Anderson and James T. Farrell, among others. Continuing his description of Berriault’s treatment of inarticulate characters, Yates writes:


“That’s a rare ability, and reflects a rare degree of insight. It may well be one of the most valuable skills a writer can learn -- which makes it disappointing to discover, time and again, how few of the most celebrated novelists have bothered to learn it at all.”


[The Constance Garnett translation of “The Kiss” is collected in The Party and Other Stories (1917); Ecco Press, 1984.]

Tuesday, April 16, 2024

'The Most Intense Enthusiasm for Good Literature'

I was reading an interview with X.J. Kennedy when this remark touched me unexpectedly: “He was, of all the people I ever met, the one who had the most intense enthusiasm for good literature.” Spoken by another, this might amount to glibly rendered bullshit, the sort of thing junior faculty say about their seniors on the tenure committee. Kennedy is referring to Randall Jarrell, whom he knew when both taught at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. I can apply Kennedy’s tribute to three people I’ve known, and only two were academics. 

Jarrell’s poetry means little to me but his sole novel, Pictures from an Institution: A Comedy (1954), and a handful of his celebratory reviews, especially those devoted to Kipling, Christina Stead, Marianne Moore, Walter de la Mare and A.E. Housman, constitute a piece of my critical infrastructure. Jarrell likewise understood that mockery is the most potent negative criticism. Laughter hurts more than rational argument, and no critic is funnier. Consider his dismissal of the nearly unreadable Stephen Spender:


“It isn’t Mr. Spender but a small, simple -- determinedly simple -- part of Mr. Spender that writes the poems; the poet is a lot smarter man than his style allows him to seem. (If he were as soft and sincere and sentimental as most of his poems make him out to be, the rabbits would have eaten him for lettuce, long ago.)”


Back to Kennedy’s characterization of Jarrell. On July 24, 1965, less than three months before his death, Jarrell published “Speaking of Books,” ostensibly a list of suggestions for summer reading in The New York Times Book Review. In fact, it’s a distillation of a lifetime engagement with books. Read with the knowledge of Jarrell’s imminent death, it’s a poignant human document but we shouldn’t allow poignancy to diminish its worth as a paean to passionate reading:


“May I finish by recommending . . . some books for summer reading? Giradoux's Electra; Bemelman’s Hotel Splendide; Kim; Saint-Simon’s Memoirs; Elizabeth Bishop’s North and South; the new edition of A.L. Kroeber's textbook of anthropology, and Ralph Linton’s The Study of Man; Turgenev’s A Sportsman’s Sketches; Colette’s Julie de Carneilhan and The Last of Cheri; Pirandello’s Henry IV; Freud’s Collected Papers; Peter Taylor’s The Widows of Thornton; Isak Dinesen’s Out of Africa; Goethe’s aphorisms; Blake’s ‘The Marriage of Heaven and Hell’; Gerard Manley Hopkins’ Letters to Robert Bridges; Rilke’s The Notebooks of Malte Laurid Brigge, and Chekhov’s plays, stories, letters -- anything.”


I can hear the serious readers out there assessing Jarrell’s list: “Read that. Hated that. Didn’t read that. Want to read that. Would never read that.” I’ve read roughly half the titles. I can take Jarrell’s list seriously because I know how seriously he read good books, not what’s fashionable or carries the imprimatur of a bien pensant critic. The only bookish things that leave me more indifferent than “best-of” lists are the winners of literary awards. But I enjoy reading lists like Jarrell’s. I want to know a serious reader’s favorite books, the ones he would suggest to other serious readers, the ones he rereads himself. I like the variety of his choices. How many poet’s today, assembling a comparable list, would recommend so few poets? I love Saint Simon, Colette and Taylor. Kim. And Chekhov, of course – “anything.”


I might add Parade’s End, Ronald Knox’s Enthusiasm, Zeno’s ConscienceMemoirs of a Midget, Arabia Deserta, Imaginary Conversations, Memoirs of Hadrian, London Labour and the London PoorBarbarian in the Garden, The American ScenePale Fire, The Lives of the Eminent Poets, The Leopard, Isaac Babel’s stories, Daniel Deronda, “Master and Man,” Between MealsLife and Fate. Tristram Shandy, Nadezhda Mandelstam’s memoirs,  J.V. Cunningham’s and William Hazlitt’s Essays . . .

Monday, April 15, 2024

'Stimulated to Vigour and Activity'

When John Ruskin (b. 1819) traveled as a boy, his father packed in his luggage four small volumes of Dr. Johnson’s Rambler and Idler essays. In his peculiar memoir Praeterita (1885), Ruskin tells us “had it not been for constant reading of the Bible, I might probably have taken Johnson for my model of English,” and continues: 

“I valued his sentences not primarily because they were symmetrical, but because they were just, and clear; it is a method of judgment rarely used by the average public, who ask from an author always, in the first place, arguments in favour of their own opinions, in elegant terms . . .”


Who can imagine the father of an adolescent boy today packing Johnson with his toothbrush and underwear. Even I wouldn’t have done that but it makes sense for an evangelical family of the Victorian era. Johnson’s work might pass as secular scripture. And I agree that most of us can learn from the clarity and forcefulness of his prose.  


Three years after his final Rambler essay was published in 1755, Johnson resumed writing periodical essays in The Idler on April 15, 1758. Boswell tells us his friend wrote some of The Idler essays “as hastily as an ordinary letter.” John Wain in his biography of Johnson says they are “lighter and less ambitious” than The Rambler, which doesn’t seem quite accurate, but he adds: “The firm moral purpose is as evident as it always was, but there is more sense of holiday and fun.” In his first Idler, Johnson writes: “Every man is, or hopes to be, an Idler.” This is written by the man who had already published “The Vanity of Human Wishes,” his Dictionary and the Rambler and Adventurer essays, among much else.


I would distinguish idleness from laziness, though I do recognize a lazy streak in myself. The only antidote is more work, sometimes accomplished only through an act of will. Idleness can be a virtue, especially when contrasted with manic busyness. I like Johnson’s summation:  


“The Idler, though sluggish, is yet alive, and may sometimes be stimulated to vigour and activity. He may descend into profoundness, or tower into sublimity; for the diligence of an Idler is rapid and impetuous, as ponderous bodies forced into velocity move with violence proportionate to their weight.”