Tuesday, May 24, 2022

'Its Mirth Is Boistrous'

The streets in downtown Annapolis between the Maryland State House and the U.S. Naval Academy are narrow and paved with brick. On Maryland Street, next to Galway Bay Irish Restaurant, where he had dinner Saturday night, is Old Fox Books, a small but carefully curated bookstore. I saw little junk on the shelves and the owner told me all of her books are digitally catalogued – a feat labor-intensive and much appreciated by serious readers. I was hoping to find a good sturdy hardback copy of my favorite Conrad, Nostromo, to replace the beat-up paperback I’ve had for years. No such luck.

However, I did find Literary Studies by Walter Bagehot, whose work I want to know better. This is the Everyman’s Library edition (1911; rev. 1950). In “Sterne and Thackery,” Bagehot makes it clear he’s not fond of the author of Tristram Shandy: “It is a great work of art, but of barbarous art. Its mirth is boisterous. It is provincial.” Well, . . .


I also found a nice first American edition of Literary Distractions (1958) by Msgr. Ronald Knox. Of him Matthew Walther wrote in First Things, with only modest exaggeration:


“The greatest writer of English prose in the last century, P. G. Wodehouse excepted, was not Lytton Strachey or Logan Pearsall Smith or the E. M. Forster of Pharos and Pharillon or Hugh Trevor-Roper. It was certainly not John Updike or William Faulkner, who did not always write English. It was not, alas, Evelyn Waugh. Nor, one is forced to admit, somewhat reluctantly, was it Dom David Knowles, the golden-voiced singing-master of monastic history. It is Msgr. Ronald Knox who must take the silver medal.”

Monday, May 23, 2022

'Mobile and Shimmering With Kinship'

“By the time of my birth, Stalin had been dead for 5 years 1 month and 4 days.”


Robert Chandler, the translator who gave us Vasily Grossman and Andrei Platonov, sent me a copy of The Naked World (MadHat Press, 2022) by Irina Mashinski. The book collects her poems translated or freely adapted from the Russian, and poems and short prose pieces written in English. Mashinski was born in Moscow in 1958, emigrated to the U.S. with her husband and daughter in 1991 and has published eleven collections of poems and essays in Russian. I know her as co-editor with Chandler and Boris Dralyuk of The Penguin Book of Russian Poetry (2015). With Chandler, Maria Bloshteyn and Dralyuk she translated Portraits Without Frames by Lev Ozerov.


The sentence quoted above is from “The Thaw,” the book’s opening piece. It suggests one of Mashinski’s themes: the unwelcome intersection of history and politics with private life. The title refers to the brief period in the Soviet Union following Nikita Krushchev’s secret speech to the 20th Communist Party Congress in 1956. Krushchev denounced the cult of personality surrounding Stalin, and ushered in an easing of oppression and censorship that lasted into the mid-1960s. Mashinski writes:


“I was born in Moscow in the spring of 1958, the year of the impetus. It was during that year that [Yuli] Daniel and [Andrei] Sinyavsky [aka Abram Tertz] started publishing their work in the West, which eventually led to their show trial in 1965-66, which in turn inspired the dissident movement.”


In Mashinski’s poems and prose, history suffuses private life, often quietly, sometimes unpleasantly. Her parents met in 1957 during the Festival of Youth and Students, “when Moscow was, for the first time in decades, flooded with young people who smelled of soap and freedom and strolled and danced in the city’s freshly washed streets. My parents were part of this July whirlwind—and before I knew it, I appeared.”


She recounts the arrest and banishment of relatives – and the pleasures of a Soviet childhood with her family. She recalls a winter day spent skiing at the Architects’ Union resort in Sukhanovo with her father. While there she reads Oscar Wilde’s De Profundis and is “overcome by the pain and sorrow.” She writes:


“I didn’t know back then—and I doubt that even my father knew when we were skiing in Sukhanovo—that tens of thousands of people were shot in those same woods in 1930-50s including the 20,761 executed by the decision of the Troika [three NKVD officials], between August 1937 and October 1938—people whose names are known now.”


One of the finest pieces in The Naked World, “The Poet and the Child,” appears near the end of the book and, at least on the surface, makes no overt references to politics. It reads as a gentle, nonpoetic, apolitical poetic manifesto. Mashinski relaxes and luxuriates in her understanding of human nature – precisely what Soviet Communism sought to manipulate and ultimately destroy:


“It is rare that a grownup acts by association in everyday life—as rare as a slip of the tongue. How often do we shove a rake into the tableware drawer? For a child, however, a rake and a fork are, basically, one and the same. A child doesn’t deal in labels but in the substance of things. Such deep metonymy requires unconditional faith. And it is faith that breaks down first. This is precisely what happens in adolescence.”


Mashinski recalls a time “when the world was mobile and shimmering with kinship.” She strives to recapture this sense:


“This is why the poetic world, which lacks consistent correlations and is not regulated by the direct logic of concepts—this world of objectified meanings and all-permeating kinship—is off limits to those who’ve become irreversibly grownup, who have traveled too far upon the road at the beginning of which stands the symbol.”


Mashinski’s work has the charm of a gifted child, one undefeated by experience and the crushing weight of history.

Sunday, May 22, 2022

'Ridiculous Enough of Themselves'

Too much time spent Saturday in airports, airborne in a 737 and later in a restaurant. Good thing I packed Jules Renard's Journal 1887-1910 (trans. Theo Cuffe, selected and introduced by Julian Barnes, riverrun, 2020): “The indignation of satire is unnecessary. It is enough to show things as they are. They are ridiculous enough of themselves.” Renard is on the short list of people from the past I wish I could have spent time with. Charles Lamb picked Fulke Greville and Sir Thomas Browne.

Saturday, May 21, 2022

'As War Is the Extremity of Evil'

Among Dr. Johnson’s lesser-known works is a pamphlet, “Thoughts on the Late Transactions Respecting Falkland's Islands,” published in 1771. The previous year, England and Spain nearly went to war over possession of the desolate but strategically positioned islands in the South Atlantic, three-hundred miles east of what is now Argentina. When France declined to back Spain, England and Spain averted war without resolving their claims to the islands. In the words of his biographer, W. Jackson Bate, Johnson was responding to the “opposition [in Britain] clamoring for war.” Bate writes: 

“[H]e speaks of the shocking unawareness with which most of humankind will see a war started. The drab horror and suffering of war is completely beyond their experience. What little they know of it has been picked up from colorful accounts of battles in ‘heroic fiction.’”


Boswell likewise lauds Johnson’s arguments in the pamphlet:


“[E]very humane mind must surely applaud the earnestness with which he averted the calamity of war; a calamity so dreadful, that it is astonishing how civilised, nay, Christian nations, can deliberately continue to renew it. His description of its miseries in this pamphlet, is one of the finest pieces of eloquence in the English language. Upon this occasion, too, we find Johnson lashing the party in opposition with unbounded severity, and making the fullest use of what he ever reckoned a most effectual argumentative instrument, contempt.”


Readers who long ago decided Johnson was a bellicose reactionary may be surprised. He never experienced war firsthand but appreciated its horrors. His rhetoric is breathtaking:   


“As war is the last of remedies, ‘cuncta prius tentanda’ [“try everything first”], all lawful expedients must be used to avoid it. As war is the extremity of evil, it is, surely, the duty of those, whose station intrusts them with the care of nations, to avert it from their charge. There are diseases of animal nature, which nothing but amputation can remove; so there may, by the depravation of human passions, be sometimes a gangrene in collective life, for which fire and the sword are necessary remedies; but in what can skill or caution be better shown, than preventing such dreadful operations, while there is yet room for gentler methods!”


Today we leave for Annapolis, Md., where our son Michael will graduate from the U.S. Naval Academy on May 27 and be commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Marine Corps. Posts will continue, time and internet connection permitting.

Friday, May 20, 2022

'Yes! Among Books That Charm'

Like most humans I flatter myself that I’m in control of every thought and action. I’m the boss. Increasingly, age teaches otherwise. What goes on in consciousness is more like a third-rate vaudeville show than an earnestly delivered TED talk. I seldom know what’s coming next, juggler or baggy-pants comedian. Emotionally, I’m a fairly disciplined guy who resists self-indulgence, until I’m reminded otherwise: 

“There is laughter that goes so far as to lose all touch with its motive, and to exist only, grossly, in itself. This is laughter at its best. A man to whom such laughter has often been granted may happen to die in a workhouse. No matter. I will not admit that he has failed in life. Another, who has never laughed thus, may be buried in Westminster Abbey, leaving more than a million pounds overhead. What then? I regard him as a failure.”


How nice to be judged a success. The other night my youngest son showed me a Richard Prior clip and I laughed till I cried. Same reaction when not long ago I watched The Bank Dick for the twenty-seventh time and reread Charles Portis’ Masters of Atlantis. There’s a species of laughter akin to blissful inebriation and certain advanced spiritual states. The self is briefly forgotten. In fact, it disappears. Such moments are dependent to some degree on unexpectedness. Comedy is rooted in surprise. Preachiness kills it.


Max Beerbohm is author of the passage cited above, from his essay “Laughter” (And Even Yet, 1920). Ours is a world in which stridency and volume are mistaken for honesty. Beerbohm’s voice is hushed. Irony lies coiled, ready to spring from his soft-spoken manner. He is among those who, Joseph Epstein suggests in his appropriately titled Charm: The Elusive Enchantment (2018), “find life delightful and through their own charm bring delight to  others!”   


In “Diminuendo” (The Works of Max Beerbohm, 1896), Beerbohm writes:


“Yes! among books that charm, and give wings to the mind, will my days be spent. I shall be ever absorbing the things great men have written; with such experience I will charge my mind to the full.”


Beerbohm died on this date, May 20, in 1956, at age eighty-three.

Thursday, May 19, 2022

'More Friends in the Other World'

“On Wednesday, May 19 [1784], I sat a part of the evening with him, by ourselves. I observed, that the death of our friends might be a consolation against the fear of our own dissolution, because we might have more friends in the other world than in this.”

Whether or not this represents his heartfelt conviction, we can admire Boswell’s attempt to console his ailing friend. In Dr. Johnson’s final months, he suffered from general circulatory disease, made obvious the previous year by a stroke; chronic bronchitis and emphysema, accompanied by increasing breathlessness; congestive heart failure, the cause of Johnson’s fluid retention; and rheumatoid arthritis. Boswell continues in his Life:

“He perhaps felt this a reflection upon his apprehension as to death; and said, with heat, ‘How can a man know where his departed friends are, or whether they will be his friends in the other world? How many friendships have you known formed upon principles of virtue? Most friendships are formed by caprice or by chance, mere confederacies in vice or leagues in folly.’”

Contrary to the end. This is more cynical about the nature of friendship than was customary with Johnson, as when he wrote, “Life has no pleasure higher or nobler than that of friendship.” Death and the torments of the afterlife, like the fear of imminent madness, plagued Johnson throughout his life. Boswell goes on:

“We talked of our worthy friend Mr. [Bennet] Langton. He said, ‘I know not who will go to Heaven if Langton does not. Sir, I could almost say, Sit anima mea cum Langtono.’ [May my soul be with Langton].’ I mentioned a very eminent friend as a virtuous man. Johnson: ‘Yes, Sir; but —— has not the evangelical virtue of Langton. ———, I am afraid, would not scruple to pick up a wench.’”

Nicely ironic, knowing what we know about Boswell the wench-picker-upper (and V.D.-picker-upper). Boswell continues: “He however charged Mr. Langton with what he thought want of judgement upon an interesting occasion. ‘When I was ill, (said he) I desired he would tell me sincerely in what he thought my life was faulty. Sir, he brought me a sheet of paper, on which he had written down several texts of Scripture, recommending Christian charity.’” Leslie Stephen, in his biographical sketch of Bennet, describes the Biblical citations as “texts enjoining mildness of speech.” In other words, what Coleridge described as Johnson’s “bow wow manner.”

Boswell goes on quoting Johnson:

“‘And when I questioned him what occasion I had given for such an animadversion, all that he could say amounted to this, — that I sometimes contradicted people in conversation. Now what harm does it do to any man to be contradicted?’ Boswell: ‘I suppose he meant the manner of doing it; roughly, — and harshly.’ Johnson: ‘And who is the worse for that?’ Boswell: ‘It hurts people of weaker nerves.’ Johnson: “I know no such weak-nerved people. Mr. [Edmund] Burke, to whom I related this conference, said, ‘It is well, if when a man comes to die, he has nothing heavier upon his conscience than having been a little rough in conversation.’”

 Johnson’s friend and first biographer, Sir John Hawkins, reports his final coherent words were Iam moriturus (“I who am about to die”), an echo of the gladiators’ salute to Caesar: “Ave, Imperator, morituri te salutant.” In Samuel Johnson: The Life of an Author (1998), Lawrence Lipking describes the scene shortly before his death:

“Bloated with dropsy [edema], Johnson tries to discharge the water by stabbing his legs with a lancet and scissors until the bedclothes are covered with blood. He even reproaches his surgeon for not daring to delve far enough.”

Johnson was dead seven months after the conversation recounted by Boswell, on December 13, 1784. Boswell died on this date, May 19, in 1795.

Wednesday, May 18, 2022

'A Kitten Who Doesn’t Wish to Be Caught'

“Both Hemingway’s tight style and D.H. Lawrence’s sloppy one are now in the attic. Neither had any sense of humor whatsoever; this tells a lot. The Terribly Serious writer is serious in relation to his age, and the eternal verities wear very different clothes from one age to the next.” 

We seldom get a chance to congratulate our younger selves. More often they stir embarrassment but part of growing up is forgiving our former callowness and learning from it. I’m proud to have seen through Hemingway and Lawrence from the start. Their reputations, as understood by this adolescent reader, were for manliness and borderline smut, respectively. I hadn’t expected their gifts for dullness. Some of Hemingway’s early stories were worth reading once, but his style – the subject-verb-object flatness of the prose, so many sentences strung together with and’s, the gross sentimentality – quickly wore thin. I hadn’t expected to find The Sun Also Rises so boring, and I’m with Max Beerbohm when it comes to the author of Lady Chatterley’s Lover: “Poor D. H. Lawrence. He never realized, don’t you know — he never suspected that to be stark, staring mad is somewhat of a handicap to a writer.”


Guy Davenport is writing to James Laughlin on this date, May 18, in 1993. The letter begins with Davenport’s mention of Delmore Schwartz, “who had a great deal of originality as well as a heaping measure of the poets of his time.” He continues:


“It’s curious how differences and resemblances stand out only after an epoch is over. The famous patina of ‘period’ or junk (which can become charmingly Antique). There’s no way of getting Aesthetics out of history. Art of the highest order is exempt from aging—Joyce, Proust, EP [Ezra Pound], [Gerard Manley] Hopkins.”


That’s debatable. Pound’s Cantos are a disordered junk shop of archaisms, undigested learning and incoherence, and very much of their time. The self-consciously modern tends to age badly. Then consider, for instance, Laurence Sterne and Charles Lamb. In a blindfold taste, a seasoned reader could readily date them, yet their humor, their appreciation of sheer silliness, their psychological acuity and the texture of their prose often feel “modern,” even contemporary. Hemingway, father of the so-called hard-boiled school, comes off as corny and stilted, and Lawrence is the sort of guy we’re warned not to make eye contact with. In contrast, Davenport writes:


“The most interesting trajectories in time are those whose initial shine goes dull in a generation (I’m thinking of Kipling, Booth Tarkington, and O. Henry), lies low, and then emerges bright and fresh.”


I can’t speak for Tarkington but the others remain endlessly rereadable, the finest writers of short stories after the Russians and Isaac Bashevis Singer. One of the qualities I most admire in Davenport is his dismissal of fashion, literary or otherwise. He doesn’t recognize it. It might as well not exist. He writes elsewhere:


“We trust seriousness to be the firm ground beneath our feet while knowing full well that it is ultimately dull and probably inhuman. . . . Comedy is a free spirit, full of fun, and has no intention of explaining herself. In fact, much of her charm is in her mystery, in eluding the serious as successfully as a kitten who doesn’t wish to be caught.”


[You can find Davenport’s letter in Guy Davenport and James Laughlin: Selected Letters, W.W. Norton & Co., 2007.]