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 siècle 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.