Saturday, January 31, 2015

`When the Mind Deceives You Be Courageous'

After staying immersed in his work for several years, making him the foreign-language poet I read most often after Montale, I stopped reading Zbigniew Herbert when I heard myself adopting without acknowledgement his clipped way with words. I like concision but prose can borrow only so much from poetry before it turns stylized and fake. I’ve done this before, going cold turkey from Conrad, another Pole. The case with Herbert was more complicated because I rely on translations and because I admire him as a hero who without compromise survived the Nazis and their first-cousins, the communists. 

I picked up The Collected Poems: 1956–1998 (2007) again after reading “A Meeting with Pan Cogito” in Marius Kociejowski’s The Pebble Chance: Feuilletons and Other Prose (Biblioasis, 2014). Born in 1949, Kociejowski is a Canadian poet and travel writer living in London whose father was born in Poland. He met Herbert in 1980 during a reading at Oxford, and concluded the Pole was “a difficult man who made enemies with the greatest of ease.” Kociejowski suggests that Herbert’s touchiness was related to his ill health and fondness for alcohol. While working in England as a book dealer, he often shipped books to Herbert in Poland. The titles won’t surprise Herbert’s readers: 

“Herbert wanted above all the Loeb Library classics, among them Arrian’s Anabasis and Indica, several volumes of Plato, Hesiod’s Homeric Hymns, Lucian, Cicero’s letters to Atticus, Curtius’s history of Alexandria and the letters of St. Jerome. This was the period of Herbert’s late poetic flowering, and also of his terrible mental and physical decline, when he had become like one of his Roman emperors, grandiose and impossible. At the same time he had become the spiritual leader of Solidarity, although its members would no more be able to contain him than could the Communist regime.” 

Kociejowski describes the internecine squabbles in Polish literary circles, the accusations of collaboration with the Stalinists and their puppets. He recalls the visit of a Polish literary editor to England after Herbert’s death in 1998, and his subsequent efforts in an essay to “dismantle [Herbert’s] reputation”: 

“I was in fact rather delighted by the negative portrait he gave of Herbert in his last television interview. When Herbert was asked why he wore a yarmulke, which he did indeed wear to the interview, he replied it was because it kept him warm.” 

Kociejowski tells another story about Herbert’s visit to Israel in 1991 (the year he turned sixty-seven) to receive the Jerusalem Prize. One morning, he disappears from his hotel and a search of Jerusalem’s “drinking holes” commences: 

“Finally, at sunset, he was discovered walking alone, along the edge of the Dead Sea. On what was the hottest of days, somehow he struggled up the slopes of Masada, clutching a bulky volume of Flavius Josephus. Herbert was silent as to how he got there.” 

For so difficult a man (and so great a poet), Kociejowski leaves a fond, generous assessment: 

“When I caught sight of his obituary in The Times, I was not shocked by his death. Actually I was amazed he had survived as long as he did, but I did feel a terrible sense of drift, that gone out forever was one of the stars in my poetic constellation. I will not say he was an excellent poet always—silliness occasionally grabbed hold of his muse—but with such works as `The Envoy of Mr. Cogito’ and `Elegy of Fortinbras,’ he gave us some of the best poems of our times. And, after all, one must thank a man for what he has done and not condemn him for his failures.” 

In “The Envoy of Mr. Cogito,” Herbert writes: 

“be courageous when the mind deceives you be courageous
in the final account only this is important”

Friday, January 30, 2015

`It Would Last for Years'

“…we have made innumerable books
To please the Unknown God. Time throws away
Dead thousands of them, but the God that knows
No death denies not one: the books all count.” 

This amounts to an article of faith for some readers and writers. Even lousy books count, as examples of what to avoid. Look back on the hours we’ve squandered on badly written books. We may be indiscriminate omnivores when young, but one’s palate is there to be exercised and trained. No one is born with discriminating taste and some go on reading science fiction for the rest of their lives. My youngest son, almost twelve, started reading Catch-22 this week. It’s a childish novel (Nabokov called it “anti-American” and Evelyn Waugh had stronger words), but one he should get out of his system early. A reader on Thursday sent me a link to W.H. Auden’s syllabus for a class he taught at the University of Michigan in 1941-42, and asked, “Can you imagine the reaction of students today to a reading list like that?” Who wouldn’t want to read such books, at least once? I’ll never read The Brothers Karamazov again, but I’m glad to have read it when I was younger and had a stomach for such things. I still have never read an opera libretto, even one of Auden’s. 

The passage quoted at the top is from E.A. Robinson’s “Captain Craig” (1902). In his biography of the poet, Scott Donaldson reports Robinson’s parents were enthusiastic readers, with the requisite Shakespeare, Dickens and Thackeray on the shelf. He quotes a letter Robinson wrote in 1929: “When I was young, I read mostly Dickens, Dime Novels (which cost five cents), Elijah Kellogg, Harry Castlemon, Oliver Optic, Horatio Alger, Bulwer-Lytton, Thackeray and Bryant’s Library of Poetry and Song.” Conventional fare for a boy born in the United States in 1869. As an adult he favored the novels of Dickens and Hardy, and the poetry of Arnold, Kipling and Housman. Of George Crabbe he writes: “Give him the darkest inch your shelf allows.” The editor of Uncollected Poems and Prose of Edwin Arlington Robinson (Colby College Press, 1975), Richard Cary, includes a section he calls “Briefs,” selected from the poet’s letters and other prose. Here is Robinson in 1927 as quoted by a reporter for the New York World: 

“When I was younger I used to read all the time. I have come to the age when novels look wrong. Unless it’s a detective story it’s pretty hard for me to read a book 300 or 400 pages long….When I want to read poetry I usually read a play of Shakespeare over again….The dramatic element in poetry always appealed to me. As far back as I can remember the speeches and scenes in Shakespeare always gave me the biggest thrill.” 

Cary also quotes an excerpt from “Edwin Arlington Robinson: A Musical Memoir,” published by Mabel Daniels in 1963: “If I could have only one book, do you know what I’d choose? . . . The dictionary! You’ve no idea how interesting it is to read just as one reads a book. It would last for years.”

Thursday, January 29, 2015

`You'll Find Very Interesting Things'

Lists of recommended books can be gifts or rubbish, depending on the author of the list. Bad taste, limited reading and enthrallment to fashion are fatal flaws. But a reader can rely on a good, inspired list-maker to introduce him to new titles and reanimate old ones. I’ve just read The Professor and the President: Daniel Patrick Moynihan in the Nixon White House (Brookings Institution Press, 2015) by Stephen Hess, who served on the White House staffs of Eisenhower and Nixon, and later advised Ford and Carter. Hess begins his story winningly: “I am the only person—perhaps in the world—who was a friend of both Richard Nixon and Daniel Patrick Moynihan before they knew each other.”  Early in his first term, Nixon named Moynihan – a liberal Harvard professor with close ties to the Kennedys – his urban affairs adviser. Hess calls them “the oddest. . . of all the odd couples in American political life.” 

In a chapter titled “Tutorial,” Hess reports the president asked Moynihan for a list of his favorite political biographies, and quotes Nixon as writing in a memo to Moynihan: “As you know, I do quite a bit of evening reading, and I want to be sure that I’m reading the best!” One is touched by Nixon’s earnestness and eagerness to please his staff intellectual. Limiting himself to ten titles, Moynihan leaves out Erik Erikson on Gandhi, Arthur Link on Woodrow Wilson and Catherine Drinker Bowen on Oliver Wendell Holmes. Here is the list Moynihan gives Nixon: 

Autobiography, John Adams (1802)
Abraham Lincoln, Lord Charnwood (1917)
The Education of Henry Adams, Henry Adams (1918)
Talleyrand, Duff Cooper (1932)
Melbourne, David Cecil (1939)
Hitler: A Study in Tyranny, Alan Bullock (1952)
The Republican Roosevelt, John Morton Blum (1961)
Alexander Hamilton and the Constitution, Clinton Rossiter (1964)
Disraeli, Robert Blake (1966)
Zapata and the Mexican Revolution, John Womack Jr. (1969) 

I’m humbled, having read only seven of these books, and only one of them (Henry Adams) more than once, though I’ve already borrowed Cecil’s Melbourne from the library. Moynihan annotates each suggestion. About Charnwood’s Lincoln he writes, “For my money still the best volume on Lincoln,” and on the Henry Adams volume: “I suppose this may be the great American book. Surely it is an astoundingly perceptive account of our times, written decades before they commenced.” Just the other day I returned to a beautiful passage in the first chapter of Adams’ Education that begins: 

“Winter and summer, then, were two hostile lives, and bred two separate natures. Winter was always the effort to live; summer was tropical license. Whether the children rolled in the grass, or waded in the brook, or swam in the salt ocean, or sailed in the bay, or fished for smelts in the creeks, or netted minnows in the salt-marshes, or took to the pine-woods and the granite quarries, or chased muskrats and hunted snapping-turtles in the swamps, or mushrooms or nuts on the autumn hills, summer and country were always sensual living, while winter was always compulsory learning. Summer was the multiplicity of nature; winter was school.” 

Hess reproduces Nixon’s reaction to Moynihan’s list, taken from notes kept by William Safire: 

“Pat Moynihan is somewhat my mentor in telling me what I should read. He doesn’t think I am too well educated, so as a result, a while back he sent me a group of books to read. What surprised him was that I read them. . . .You wake up late at night—1:00-2:00—and then for two or three hours you read. . . .I would urge you some time to, when you wake up in the middle of the night as I do, to pick up Cecil’s Melbourne or maybe Blake’s Disraeli and read it. You’ll find very interesting things. You think we have problems. You should read about the problems in nineteenth-century England!” 

As a human being, as a man amply filled with contradictions, Nixon is, with Lincoln, our most endlessly interesting president, in part because his flawed sensibility is often so like our own. In regard to Moynihan, I defer to Joseph Epstein: 

“With the exception only of Daniel Patrick Moynihan, whom I knew slightly, there has not been a single member of either body of the United States Congress during the past half century whose company I should want even for the duration of a cup of coffee.”

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

`Hard Accents I Will Carry to My Own'

We’re nothing without the dead. Spontaneous generation is a myth, like originality. With every word we echo someone, and it’s only proper that we acknowledge them and give thanks. Geoffrey Hill puts it like this in CXIX of The Triumph of Love (1998): 

“By understanding I understand diligence
and attention, appropriately understood
as actuated self-knowledge, a daily acknowledgement
of what is owed the dead.” 

Seasoned readers carry in their mental libraries a generous anthology of poems honoring departed forebears, starting, in my case, with Auden’s “At the Grave of Henry James.” My newest entry is Henry Taylor’s “At the Grave of E.A. Robinson” (Understanding Fiction: Poems, 1986-1996, 1996): 

“Decades of vague intention drifted by
before I brought small thanks for your large voice–
a bunch of hothouse blooms and Queen Anne’s lace
and four lines from `The Man Against the Sky.’
My poems, whatever they do, will not repay
the debt they owe to yours, so I let pass
a swift half hour, watching the wind distress
the fringes of my fragile, doomed bouquet. 

“I beg your pardon, sir.  You understood
what use there is in standing here like this,
speaking to one who hears as well as stone;
yet though no answer comes, it does me good
to sound aloud, above your resting place,
hard accents I will carry to my own.” 

Robinson is buried in Oakwood Cemetery in Gardiner, Maine, his childhood home and the model for his fictional Tilbury Town. The poem Taylor mentions, “The Man Against the Sky,” was published by Robinson in 1916 in a collection of the same name. The speaker sees the title character and speculates on his identity, and contemplates both suicide and the possibility of faith: “All comes to Nought,— / If there be nothing after Now, / And we be nothing anyhow, / And we know that,—why live?” The poem’s faintest offering of hope comes some eighty lines earlier: 

“Where was he going, this man against the sky?
You know not, nor do I.
But this we know, if we know anything:
That we may laugh and fight and sing
And of our transience here make offering
To an orient Word that will not be erased,
Or, save in incommunicable gleams
Too permanent for dreams,
Be found or known.” 

This is why Taylor acknowledges that visiting Robinson’s grave and addressing “one who hears as well as stone,” despite its common-sense futility, “does me good.” Taylor is making a contract with the dead, upholding his end of the bargain. He is also closing another circle and silently returning to his own apprenticeship as a poet. In Taylor’s first collection, The Horse Show at Midnight (Louisiana State University Press, 1966), he includes “Things Not Solved Though Tomorrow Came,” which carries an epigraph from Robinson, “four lines from `The Man Against the Sky’”: 

“For whether lighted over ways that save,
Or lured from all repose,
If he go on too far to find a grave,
Mostly alone he goes.”

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

`I Know a Baby from a Blunderbuss'

I like catalogues and lists and the sense they give of the world’s bounty. Here is a poem by R.H.W. Dillard, “Loading a Shoebox” (Just Here, Just Now, 1994): 

“With scraps, stuffing it
Tight, bits of paper
With instructions to look
In the glove compartment,
Three lines of a poem
Given to you in a dream,
A message you found
On your answering machine
That makes your flesh crawl,
Skin creep, three tissues,
Three separate kisses,
Your annoyance at a day
Filled with betrayal
And true understanding,
A handstand in a cold corner,
A handshake, a handsaw,
A hawk (you can tell
The difference), this day,
Another day like every day
Like no other.” 

My first thought was to remember Mike Stinson’s “Box I Take to Work,” with the lines “I can fix bruises and blisters, cuts and scrapes, / To go with the pain I got George Jones tapes.” The mention of the fragmentary poem given “in a dream” brings to mind Robert Herrick’s epigram, “Dreams”: 

“Here we are all, by day; by night we’re hurl’d
 By dreams, each one into a several world.” 

“Several” here is an adjective meaning discrete, distinguishable from others of its kind – a precise description of a dream’s hermetic allure. Best of all is the Shakespeare allusion in “A handshake, a handsaw, / A hawk (you can tell / The difference).” See Hamlet, Act II, Scene 2, in which the prince says: “I am but mad north-north-west. When the wind is southerly I know a hawk from a handsaw.” He’s speaking to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, suggesting that his recent eccentric behavior may be a ruse to conceal his plans. In the vernacular, Hamlet is saying, with comparable alliteration, he knows shit from Shinola, or chalk from cheese. 

The passage has spurred much scholarly speculation. Hitchcock may or may not have taken the title of his 1959 film North by Northwest from Hamlet. “Handsaw” may be a corruption of heronshaw – a small or young heron – which develops the avian metaphor with hawk. But then, hawk may refer to the plasterer’s tool. Others give a simpler, more literal explanation – nobody would confuse a handsaw with a hawk, a tool with a bird (or even two different birds). This is G.K. Chesterton’s understanding in “Shakespeare and the Germans”: 

“…even a boy who had any flavour of literature, or any guess at the kind of man that Hamlet was supposed to be, could see at once that it was a joke. Hamlet said it as a piece of wild alliteration ; as he might have said: `I know a baby from a blunderbuss ,” or, `I know a catfish from a croquet-hoop.’” 

Also, in a play Shakespeare wrote six years before Hamlet, Henry IV, Part I, Falstaff says, “My buckler cut through and through, my sworde hackt like a handsaw ecce signum [literally, “behold the sign,” as in “the proof’s in the pudding”].” Dillard assures us: “(you can tell / The difference).” In a poem about differences and similarities, even among the odds and ends in a shoebox, Dillard concludes with mundane reality: “this day, / Another day like every day / Like no other.”

Monday, January 26, 2015

`Darkness Evenly Underlying the Brightness'

“A slight motion caught my eye, and I glanced up at the darkened corner of the window, to be fixed with horror. There, standing on the air outside the window, translucent, a few lines merely, and scarcely visible, was a face, my face, the eyes fixed upon my own.” 

Poe? Lovecraft? Some other neo-gothic hack? No, a very different sort of writer, one who respected the seductive power of madness and the irrational without succumbing to their Romantic charms. On these two sentences pivots Yvor Winters’ only published work of fiction, “The Brink of Darkness,” published in 1932 (collected in Selected Poems, ed. Thom Gunn, Library of America, 2003), soon after his repudiation of  free verse and embrace of poetic form. One suspects Winters’ story is deeply autobiographical, though not in the banal sense. His friend Hart Crane, whom he called “a saint of the wrong religion,” took his life that year, and Winters dedicated the rest of his life to a critical and poetic project he summed up in In Defense of Reason (1947): “The poem is a statement in words about a human experience.” 

An essential quality of sanity is recognition of its proximity to madness. Like Dr. Johnson, Winters was never complacent when it came to soundness of mind, especially his own. As Winters puts it in “The Brink of Darkness”: “It was as if there were darkness evenly underlying the brightness of the air.” In his introduction, Gunn says of his teacher’s story, “the emotional impact of the events described exceeds any rational explanation.” One wishes Winters had written more fiction. The theme of sanity and its absence is central to our post-Romantic era. A statement he made in In Defense of Reason seems more apt than ever: “A psychological theory which justifies the freeing of emotions and which holds rational understanding in contempt appears to be sufficient to break the minds of a good many men with sufficient talent to take the theory seriously.” 

Winters, born on Oct. 17, 1900, in Chicago, died on Jan. 25, 1968. Gunn concludes his introduction with a moving tribute to his friend, a poet unlike himself: “For all his respect for the rules of poetry, it is not the Augustan decorum he came to admire but the Elizabethan, the energy of Nashe, Greville, Gascoigne, and Donne, plain speakers of little politeness.” Winters remains one of the few essential poets and critics of the twentieth century.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

`No Ink in the World, or No Blood in His Flesh'

“`...your self is always evolving,’ says Desan. `He doesn’t believe in the frozen self. ... As Montaigne tells you, what I say today is different from what I say tomorrow. But that does not mean that what I say tomorrow is better than what I say today.’” 

Such a rarity, a French-born academic who gets Montaigne. Speaking is Philippe Desan, a professor in Romance languages and literature at the University of Chicago and general editor of Montaigne Studies. His audience is a class of students at the Center in Paris, the University of Chicago’s base in Europe. The writer, Carrie Golus, notes: 

Of the 108 essays Montaigne wrote during his life—`As Montaigne tells you,’ says Desan, `he will only stop when there will be no ink in the world, or no blood in his flesh’—the students were assigned four for today’s class, `To the Reader,’ `Of Books,’ `Of Giving the Lie,’ and his final work, `Of Experience.’” 

In darker moments, I weaken and come to suspect that the essay as a form has been all downhill since Montaigne invented it in the sixteenth century. I can’t think of another literary form that started at so high a level of accomplishment (I know, I know, Plutarch, Seneca and Yoshida Kenkō are wonderful, but something else entirely). But for three or four conspicuous exceptions, the essay today when not brain-dead is prostituted. Sad that a form so elastic, so accommodating of varied gifts, so perfectly expressive of the human species, is permitted to rot from within. Of course, progress of any sort is always a flattering fallacy. Montaigne writes in “Of Books” (trans. Donald Frame): 

“If this book wearies me, I take up another; and I apply myself to it only at moments when the boredom of doing nothing begins to grip me. I do not take much to modern books, because the ancient ones seem to me fuller and stronger.” 

As Desan says of Montaigne, “He doesn’t believe in the frozen self.” He writes as our contemporary and as the contemporary of Plutarch and Seneca. Never chaotic, never arbitrary in the flow of his thought, Montaigne’s prose mirrors his sensibility. The membrane between books and life, his and ours, is highly permeable. Writing in 1918 in his journal, The Gray Notebook (New York Review Books, 2013), the Catalan writer Josep Pla (1897-1981) observes: 

“I never tire of reading Montaigne’s Essays. I spend hours and hours with them at night in bed. They have a calming, sedative effect and usher in a delightful rest. Montaigne’s wit almost never runs dry; he is endlessly full of surprises. One source of surprise derives from Montaigne’s precise estimation of the insignificant position man occupies on earth.”

Saturday, January 24, 2015

`One Place in the World'

“Libraries are not made; they grow. Your first two thousand volumes present no difficulty, and cost astonishingly little money. Given £400 and five years, and an ordinary man can in the ordinary course, without undue haste or putting any pressure upon his taste, surround himself with this number of books, all in his own language, and thenceforward have at least one place in the world in which it is possible to be happy.” 

In “Book Buying” (Obiter Dicta, Second Series, 1896), Augustine Birrell speaks not of the institutional but the personal library, the books on the shelves in our home. To call them a library today sounds pretentious, a nouveau riche striving after culture, though etymologically correct. The snob appeal of books can never be underestimated. I once interviewed a bookstore owner who sold bulk orders of volumes to two sorts of customers – movie production people seeking books as props, a sort of classy-looking wallpaper, and home owners who wanted that Bookish Retro Modern look. Silly but perfectly understandable. Most pleasing in the Birrell passage is his equation of books and happiness, a library as a sanctuary. It sounds romantic or sentimental but I share the sentiment. Birrell goes on: 

“It is no doubt a pleasant thing to have a library left you. The present writer will disclaim no such legacy, but hereby undertakes to accept it, however dusty. But good as it is to inherit a library, it is better to collect one. Each volume then, however lightly a stranger's eye may roam from shelf to shelf, has its own individuality, a history of its own. You remember where you got it, and how much you gave for it; and your word may safely be taken for the first of these facts, but not for the second.” 

Most of my books I acquired one or two at a time across more than half a century. Just this week a reader here in Texas mailed me a copy of The Kolyma Tales by Varlam Shalamov, a book I haven’t read since soon after it was published in 1980. When I read it again, it will be as though the volume carried an addendum, a supplemental chapter, because along with Shalamov’s chronicle of life in a Soviet labor camp I’ll think of my friend in Dallas. Each book on my shelf, in addition to its printed contents, is a story in itself, some of which I no longer clearly remember. Birrell suggests further that our books, in turn, assume a collective identity, just as the inhabitants of an ant colony function as a sort of mega-organism. To use Birrell’s example, Shakespeare chats with Milton – until our library is dispersed, probably with our deaths, and is pulped, sold piecemeal or gratefully (or otherwise) inherited. He writes: 

“They will form new combinations, lighten other men's toil, and soothe another's sorrow. Fool that I was to call anything mine!”

Friday, January 23, 2015

`It Makes Me Feel Light and Free'

“There is nothing which has yet been contrived by man, by which so much happiness is produced as by a good tavern or inn.” 

I remembered Dr. Johnson’s happy thought, as reported by Boswell, while reading The Gray Notebook by the Catalan writer Josep Pla (1897-1981). I had never heard of Pla before this week nor have I read any other work translated from Catalan. New York Review Books in 2013 performed a service to English-language readers and published Peter Bush’s translation of the journal Pla began keeping on his twenty-first birthday, on March 8, 1918, and maintained for twenty months until he became the Paris correspondent for a Barcelona newspaper. In his first entry he writes: “I’ll write whatever happens — simply to pass the time — come what may.” Pla revised his journal throughout his life, adding layers of thought and recollection, and polishing the prose, and didn’t publish it until 1966, as part of the forty-five volumes of his complete works. Most of his work consists of journalism, travel writing and other nonfiction. In the passage that reminded me of Johnson’s observation, Pla writes of his home town, Palafrugell, on Spain’s northeastern coast: “Gervasi’s on plaça Nova is one of the most pleasant taverns in town to drop by. The wine is usually good and the company is agreeable.” 

Pla goes on to describe the central role taverns play in Catalonian life, and while doing so reveals his pride in being a provincial. He betrays no sense of cultural inferiority, though neither is he a nationalist, Catalan or otherwise. Even as a young man, Pla seems without pretensions: 

“To write the history of Gervasi’s tavern would be to write the history of my beloved birthplace. It would be a peculiar history because, apart from being very short, all that would stand out would be the absence of glorious deeds or famous people. Many people, I suspect, would find this lack of brilliance depressing. Personally, I am delighted to have been born in a town that has produced no redeemer, no connoisseur of exotic sensations, no stentorian preacher. It makes me feel light and free.” 

Pla would make ideal company in a tavern. His mind is practical, not given to theory. He is amused by life, not outraged. He pays studious attention to his surroundings and the way people speak. In all of this he reminds me of Sir John Hawkins’ report in his Life of Johnson (1787): 

“In contradiction to those, who, having a wife and children, prefer domestic enjoyments to those which a tavern affords, I have heard [Dr. Johnson] assert, that a tavern-chair was the throne of human felicity.—`As soon,’ said he, `as I enter the door of a tavern, I experience an oblivion of care, and a freedom from solicitude: when I am seated, I find the master courteous, and the servants obsequious to my call; anxious to know and ready to supply my wants: wine there exhilarates my spirits, and prompts me to free conversation and an interchange of discourse with those whom I most love: I dogmatise and am contradicted, and in this conflict of opinion and sentiments I find delight.’”

Thursday, January 22, 2015

`This Business of Books'

“We honor none but the horizontal: why not write a fan letter today to the literary idol of your choice? Don’t be shy: I do not believe that the eminent object to receiving letters from total strangers provided they are couched in sufficiently flattering terms.” 

More than forty years ago a friend and I tested this thesis and found it to be true. Eric Korn is writing in 1983 in the Times Literary Supplement after the suicide of Arthur Koestler and his wife. Korn’s columns for the TLS are collected in Remainders (Carcanet, 1989), a book that in a blindfold test might be mistaken for the manically punning work of Myles na gCopaleen. Korn regrets having never thanked Koestler for writing Darkness at Noon and the best of his other books: “It was never possible to read him with indifference, without enthusiasm.” 

My friend was Greg Morris, now professor emeritus of American literature at Penn State Erie, then working on his B.A. in English at Bowling Green State University. Both of us admired the novelist John Gardner, then at the height of his popularity and influence. One drunken Sunday evening in the spring of 1974, we took a hint from Holden Caulfield: “What really knocks me out is a book that, when you're all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it.” Gardner then was teaching at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale. Greg called him and talked to Gardner’s wife, who told us her husband would be speaking soon at a luncheon in Cleveland sponsored by the now-defunct Cleveland Press. We made a date, drove to Cleveland, listened to Gardner’s talk and got drunk with him afterwards. At the time, I was one of the editors of an obscure journal appropriately called Exit. In the next issue, Greg reviewed Gardner’s latest, Nickel Mountain, and wrote a profile of Gardner based on our hours spent together in a bar. 

Even before Gardner’s death in a motorcycle crash in 1982, I had lost interest in his work (as I had even earlier in J.D. Salinger’s). I still haven’t read Freddy's Book (1980) or Mickelsson's Ghosts (1982), and the donnybrook over On Moral Fiction (1979) left me feeling, to adapt Korn’s words about Koestler, “indifference, without enthusiasm.” Call my earlier enjoyment a youthful folly, a humbling reminder of uncertain tastes and critical standards. In 1984, the University of Georgia Press published Greg’s A World of Order and Light: The Fiction of John Gardner, one of the first books about Gardner’s work. I didn’t know about it for more than twenty years. In his preface, Greg thanks five people, including my old Chaucer professor, Virginia Leland, and me, for “making this sort of thing—this business of books—appealing and promising to me in my years as a beginner.”  Some of us have never stopped being beginners, Greg.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

`The Only Thing in the World That Matters'

“To some of us, the wresting of beauty out of language is the only thing in the world that matters.” 

This is from Anthony Burgess’ least-read book, English Literature: A Survey for Students (1958, rev. 1974), a characteristically overachieving undertaking in which Burgess presumes to read everything written from Beowulf to Kingsley Amis. It’s the only book he published under his given name, John Burgess Wilson. Seasoned readers will learn little about the history of English literature but Burgess, a literary raconteur, will often keep them amused: “The English are sometimes said to be mad: this is certainly a tradition in some European countries. It is hard to say what this means, but possibly it refers to impatience with restrictions, dislike with anything which interferes with personal liberty.” 

Burgess shares the sentiment, and favors writers who are waywardly sui generis – Swift, Sterne, Joyce. Like them, Burgess, who was born in Manchester, carries a strong Irish taint. I still associate him with that bunch, along with Flann O’Brien and Samuel Beckett, all of whom I was reading while an undergraduate more than forty years ago. One of my nagging regrets is not having spent more time talking to Burgess when he visited our campus in April 1971. I attended his reading and talk (his novel M/F and Kubrick’s film of A Clockwork Orange were soon to appear), which were entertaining, and crashed the author’s reception, getting drunk (at age eighteen) on free English Department liquor. But I was intimidated by his fame and didn’t wish to appear a sycophant, so mostly I remained a spectator. In a 1973 interview published in Studies in the Novel (collected in Conversations with Anthony Burgess, 2008), Burgess sized up the university students of that era: 

“I am curious as to what people write, and I am prepared to be sympathetic to students whose velleities I understand for the most part, but they don’t make any effort to meet me. They won’t read the books that I’ve read, although I read the books they’ve read. They will not bring to a course I give the requisite background. They don’t think it is necessary. They don’t think any preparation is necessary. They will not read the books of the past. You must read them before you reject them. You must know what you are rejecting.” 

Burgess goes on to condemn the era’s flourishing drug culture and the literary trash du jour among students – Hesse, Vonnegut, Tolkien. “All these idols disappear [at least two of them haven’t, I’m sorry to say],” he goes on. “They look for the wrong things in a book. They look for content rather than form, and they honestly believe the world can be changed.” They are (we were), in short, nearly as sub-literate as most students today. I sense that even Burgess, who was never a great writer but almost always a good, entertaining writer, is largely unread, despite the ongoing popularity of Kubrick’s film. Here is the larger passage from which the line quoted at the top was excerpted: 

“The story of English literature, viewed aesthetically, is one thing; the story of English writers is quite another. The price of contributing to the greatest literature the world has ever seen is often struggle and penury: art is still too often its own reward. It is salutary sometimes to think of the early deaths of Keats, Shelley, Byron, Chatterton, Dylan Thomas, of the Grub Street struggles of Dr. Johnson, the despair of Gissing and Francis Thompson. That so many writers have been prepared to accept a kind of martyrdom is the best tribute that flesh can pay to the living spirit of man as expressed in his literature. One cannot doubt that the martyrdom will continue to be gladly embraced. To some of us, the wresting of beauty out of language is the only thing in the world that matters.”

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

`Delicious Twin Certainties'

Clive James turns his entry on Eugenio Montale in Cultural Amnesia (2007) into a meditation on memory and reading. The former, James stresses, is always unreliable. When I say, “Yes, I’ve read The Golden Bowl. Several times, in fact,” what am I saying?  What do I remember of a novel so light on plot in the conventional sense and so densely packed with nuance and indirection? I remember the four main characters, their overt relationships and the gradual unfolding of the true nature of their relationships. Also, the crack in the bowl, the allusion to Ecclesiastes, and the small but crucial role played by the amusingly named Fanny Assingham. What I retain of the novel itself – one I’ve read three times – is like a handful of close-ups taken of a vast and various landscape, coupled with a general impression of the story mediated by time and thought. In detail, I recall very little. Yet were I to begin rereading the book today, I would sense a homecoming, not entry into to an alien residence. And this is precisely Clive James’ point: 

“Without the capacity to forget, we would not be able to go back to something we love with the delicious twin certainties that it will yield a familiar quality, and still be new all over again.” 

That’s a useful and attractive description of the best books, of the truest literature. If we read fiction strictly for plot, for the sole satisfaction of figuring out “who done it” – a quality that applies, incidentally, not exclusively to mysteries and thrillers but to novels as great as Janet Lewis’ The Return of Martin Guerre (1941) and Christina Stead’s The Man who Loved Children (1940) – lesser works are lost on us in subsequent readings. I’ve known many people appalled by the thought of returning to a book they’ve already read, whereas I’ve grown skeptical of reading anything for the first time. That leaves me in a happier position than some, given that I’ve been an ambitious reader since my youngest days, and thus I’ve unknowingly organized my life to maximize opportunities for rereading. James’ aside clarifies another made by Nabokov. His Lectures on Literature (1980) opens with “Good Readers and Good Writers,” an introductory lecture delivered to his students at Cornell University. Prof. Nabokov writes: 

“Curiously enough, one cannot read a book; one can only reread it. A good reader, a major reader, an active and creative reader is a rereader.”

Monday, January 19, 2015

`The Unexpected Reversibility of Things'

“What a cemetery of memories a secondhand store is! If all the junk collected there could speak, if the Paris marché aux puces [“market with fleas”] had a voice, we would know the scandal of the past flowing back into the present, an occurrence which history excludes by the very laws of its nature.” 

Our equivalent in English is a literal reading of the French: flea market. A humbler name is junk dealer; a grander, curio shop. They were, and perhaps still are, a Paris institution, a place where the classes mingled (Zola writes about them). The writer is Eugenio Montale in a column from 1962, “Man in the Microgroove,” originally published in Corriere della Sera and translated by Jonathan Galassi in The Second Life of Art: Selected Essays of Eugenio Montale (The Ecco Press, 1982). Montale, too, seems to have been fond of mercatino delle pulci. In a 1953 essay translated by Galassi, “A Visit to Braque,” the poet writes: 

“An `accelerated course’ in French taste for tourists who are still in need of it ought to begin, in my opinion, with a visit to the marché aux puces and end with a visit to the studio of Georges Braque [1882-1963]. On the one hand the odds and ends, coffee pots, cast-off rags, the secondhand goods, in short, produced by several centuries of a unified and centralized culture; on the other, the same objects interpenetrated and flattened out in compositions that have little to do with the well-known genre of the nature morte [literally, “dead nature”; a still life], although they deserve the name much more legitimately than, for example, those by Chardin or Cézanne, which are so much more alive.” 

In Georges Braque: A Life (2005), Alex Danchev calls Braque “the painter of the dustbin” and writes: “His canvases are composts.” He pioneered, with Picasso, the the use of collage and papier collé. His was often an art of metamorphosis, seeing likenesses between disparate objects, turning one thing into another, a device both ancient (Ovid) and modern (Joyce).  Danchev cites another affinity:

“During the Occupation [Braque] had read Moby Dick [translated into French by Jean Giono in 1941] and been much taken with Melville’s delight in the unexpected reversibility of things. One of the characters, not knowing any better, carries a wheelbarrow which someone has lent him to carry his belongings. A tomahawk pipe kills and soothes with equal facility. A coffin becomes a lifebuoy. The narrator’s encounter with an albatross anticipates Braque’s encounter with the birds of Camargue.”

Sunday, January 18, 2015

`Persons Gathered Together in Crowds'

Gregarious is one of those positive-sounding adjectives that makes one wary. Granted, I know people I would describe as gregarious who are generously gifted with good humor and cheer, and make excellent company. But the character type is easily adopted as camouflage by a more sinister and fraudulent species, the exemplar of which is the unctuous used-car salesman, all smiles and bonhomie. In other words, an ingratiating con man. Dickens makes frequent use of both types.
My investigation was prompted by an unfamiliar word in Johnson’s Dictionary: grégal. He defines it as “belonging to a flock,” and the OED broadens its zoological implications to include the human: “pertaining to a flock, or to the multitude.” It also describes the word as “rare” and gives its root as gregālis, “flock, crowd, multitude.” The most recent usage cited dates from 1873. Johnson next gives us the word we recognize, gregarious: “going in flocks or herds, like sheep or partridges.” The OED’s first definition is similarly biological: “living in flocks or communities, given to association with others of the same species.”Only secondarily do we get “Of persons: Inclined to associate with others, fond of company.” A further definition is also human but neutral: “of or pertaining to a flock or community; characteristic of or affecting persons gathered together in crowds.” 

All of this comes as etymological news, though I’m not surprised. I’ve always been allergic to collective activities, anything associated with crowds, whether softball or a cross burning. Much of my distaste for politics and suspect religion involves immersion in the herd. Whether synchronized swimming or the chanting of slogans, I want nothing to do with it, though writers, always worrying about how affectionately they are regarded, and forever wishing to be seen as au courant, are particularly susceptible to herd-think. Orwell nailed it in his essay on Swift and Gulliver’s Travels: “Public opinion, because of the tremendous urge to conformity in gregarious animals, is less tolerant than any system of law.”

[A reader in New York City writes: "It has stuck in my mind ever since high school Latin class with Miss Rosebrook, an excellent teacher: egregious coming from ex gregio -- `out of the flock.'  Its a word I've always liked."]

Saturday, January 17, 2015

`The Sombre Debits of Maturity'

“World is suddener than we fancy it.” 

A month-long cold snap in Houston. Women in boots, mittens and scarves, the annual excuse for dress-up. Homeowners wrap flowering shrubs and water pipes in towels and blankets. You can trace the sun’s ascending angle as it melts the glaze on the grass in the morning. The breath of kids at the bus stop condenses in clouds and disappears. Into the love of complaint they inject pride in collective hardiness, as though 30 degrees Fahrenheit were harrowing. That’s why Louis MacNeice’s early “Snow” came to mind. Three days after MacNeice’s death at age fifty-five in September 1963, Philip Larkin published a brief tribute to the Irishman in the New Statesman (collected in Further Requirements: Interviews, Broadcasts, Statements and Book Reviews, 2001). He calls MacNeice “a town observer” (rather like a town crier) and says 

“his poetry was the poetry of our everyday life, of shop-windows, traffic policemen, ice-cream soda, lawn-mowers, and an uneasy awareness of what the newsboys were shouting. In addition he displayed a sophisticated sentimentality about falling leaves and lipsticked cigarette stubs: he could have written the words of `These Foolish Things.’ We were grateful to him for having found a place in poetry for these properties, for intruding them in `the drunkenness of things being various.’” 

“These Foolish Things” is a 1936 standard with words by Eric Maschwitz and music by Jack Strachey. Larkin is thinking of this line: “A cigarette that bears a lipstick’s traces.” (Go here for Ella Fitzgerald’s recording and here for Frank Sinatra’s.) Larkin quotes from the second stanza of “Snow”: 

“World is crazier and more of it than we think,
Incorrigibly plural. I peel and portion
A tangerine and spit the pips and feel
The drunkenness of things being various.” 

The memorable phrase, the one that corroborates everything I know about the world, is “incorrigibly plural,” and Larkin plays with it in the rest of his encomium to MacNeice: 

“Now we are older, some of these qualities have faded, some seem more durable. Against the sombre debits of maturity that his later poetry so frequently explores – the neurosis, the crucifying memory, the chance irrevocably lost – he set an increased understanding of human suffering, just as against the darkening political skies of the late Thirties he had set the brilliantly quotidian Autumn Journal. In what will now be his last collection, The Burning Perch, the human condition is shown as full of distress. If it is described not too solemnly, the chances are, he seems to be saying, it will become easier to bear.” 

With allowances for the fifteen-year differences in their ages, Larkin might have been writing about himself – “the somber debits of maturity.” In connection with MacNeice and his “poetry of our everyday life,” he mentions "lawn-mowers."

Friday, January 16, 2015

`One Ambrosial Result, or Common Substance'

One of life’s sublime pleasures is offending the readily offendable, a species reproducing at alarmingly exponential rates. Most of us learn by age nine or 10 that the world is crawling with the sort of people nicely characterized by T.S. Eliot in The Cocktail Party (1949): 

“Half the harm that is done in this world is due to people who want to feel important. They don't mean to do harm; but the harm does not interest them. Or they do not see it, or they justify it because they are absorbed in the endless struggle to think well of themselves.” 

Eliot’s observation, spoken by a psychiatrist, applies today to both offenders and offendees (effendis?). The former, sometimes, can be pardoned, depending on motives; the latter, almost never. Being offended is now a socially sanctioned means of feeling transcendentally important. In junior high school we had a simple, time-saving way of dealing with someone who said something to offend us: we kicked him in the balls. It wouldn’t have occurred to us to whine about it or rat out the offender. 

The latest declaration of preemptive inoffensiveness comes from, of all places, the Oxford University Press, which has asked its writers of books for children to refrain from mentioning “pigs plus sausages, or anything else which could be perceived as pork.” A Tory MP, Philip Davies, commented with astonishing acuity for a politician: “How on earth can anyone find the word `pig’ or `pork’ offensive?  No word is offensive. It is the context in which it is used that is offensive.” In response, OUP issued a brief statement, including this: “OUP does not have a blanket ban on pigs or pork products in its titles, and contrary to reports, there have been no recent changes to our guidelines in this area.” One wishes to inquire further about pigs in a blanket. One is also tempted to work gratuitous references to ham hocks, chitlins, tonkatsu, headcheese, kielbasa and BLT’s into one’s copy. OUP ought to mind its own back list. Consider Jonathan Swift’s always reliable cookbook (1729): 

“Many other advantages might be enumerated. For instance, the addition of some thousand carcasses in our exportation of barrel'd beef: the propagation of swine's flesh, and improvement in the art of making good bacon, so much wanted among us by the great destruction of pigs, too frequent at our tables; which are no way comparable in taste or magnificence to a well grown, fat yearly child, which roasted whole will make a considerable figure at a Lord Mayor's feast, or any other publick entertainment. But this, and many others, I omit, being studious of brevity.” 

And Boswell reports in his Life of  Johnson: “An anecdote from Miss Seward: `I told him (says Miss Seward) in one of my latest visits to him, of a wonderful learned pig, which I had seen at Nottingham; and which did all that we have observed exhibited by dogs and horses. The subject amused him.’ `Then, (said he,) the pigs are a race unjustly calumniated. Pig has, it seems, not been wanting to man, but man to pig. We do not allow time for his education, we kill him at a year old.’” 

Surely the most toothsome item in the porcine canon is Charles Lamb’s “A DissertationUpon Roast Pig,” a rare essay that causes one to salivate: 

“There is no flavour comparable, I will contend, to that of the crisp, tawny, well-watched, not over-roasted, crackling, as it is well called—the very teeth are invited to their share of the pleasure at this banquet in overcoming the coy, brittle resistance—with the adhesive oleaginous—O call it not fat—but an indefinable sweetness growing up to it—the tender blossoming of fat—fat cropped in the bud—taken in the shoot—in the first innocence—the cream and quintessence of the child-pig’s yet pure food—the lean, no lean, but a kind of animal manna—or, rather, fat and lean (if it must be so) so blended and running into each other, that both together make but one ambrosian result, or common substance.”

Thursday, January 15, 2015

`He Had a Way with Words'

On the day I finished writing an obituary for a chemical engineer who died shortly before Christmas, two friends, neither of whom knows the other, sent me obituaries they thought I would enjoy. Obits should always be taken seriously by their writers because they are read seriously by survivors. Often, the only public notice of a life, not to mention a death, is an obit. The first piece I wrote on my first day as a newspaper reporter almost forty years ago was an obituary for a farmer whose surname was Miller. From the start, I was taught to emphasize concision and scrupulous accuracy. That leaves little room for bathos or sentimental retrofitting of nonexistent virtue. 

Ian Jackson, an antiquarian book dealer in Berkeley, Calif., and a longtime reader of Anecdotal Evidence, sent me the obituary he wrote for the English polymath Eric Korn and published in the Winter 2014 issue of The Book Collector (not available online). Korn was a childhood friend of Dr. Oliver Sacks, who writes about him in Uncle Tungsten: Memories of a Chemical Boyhood (2001). Jackson quotes Sacks: 

“`We were much of the same age,’ wrote Sacks, `and would both be taken to Brondesbury Park to play by our nannies.’ They attended St Paul’s School, where Jonathan Miller was soon added to the equation: `He and Jonathan and I formed an inseparable trio, bound not only by personal but by family bonds. Our fathers, thirty years earlier, had all been medical students together, and our families remained close.’ It was a delightful and apposite combination, worthy of a nursery rhyme: corn, sacks and miller.” 

Jackson’s obit is no hagiography. He makes it clear Korn could be difficult and often exceeded the more genteel bounds of eccentricity. But he must have been autodidactically brilliant in a way almost extinct in this Age of Ph.D.’s: 

“Like many persons of scientific bent and humanistic inclinations, Korn was not a man of letters but a man of languages. For all the Kipling, Chesterton, Eliot and Browning he had memorized, literature remained for him essentially a wonderful game, a form of parallel play with words, not that such an approach (in the hands of Queneau or Perec or Joyce) cannot embody literary dimensions. Korn was not above showing off in several tongues, but it was the words that he savoured.” 

Another friend sent another sort of obituary, this one for Celene McInerney Siedlecki and published in the Chicago Sun-Times. Siedlecki was the matriarch of a mortuary dynasty, Thomas McInerney’s Sons Funeral Home, established in 1873 in Chicago’s Canaryville neighborhood. The writer, Maureen O'Donnell, works in a reference to Mike Royko’s Boss: Richard J. Daley of Chicago (1971) and a roll call of neighborhood names worthy of Studs Lonigan: 

“At one point, a representative of a conglomerate pitched to Rosemarie Barry the possibility of buying the family funeral home. But he didn’t grasp that McInerney’s is an establishment where amateur genealogists come to study logs that go back 141 years. He didn’t understand tight-knit Canaryville is where birth names permanently succumb to nicknames with long-ago neighborhood narratives, like Sailor, Muscles, Slugs, Chickie, Mixie and Ducky.” 

The obit I wrote this week is more strictly bare-bones factual, though I’m pleased that one of the professor’s friends, himself a retired chemical engineer, comes up with the best line: “Students liked him and he had a way with words.”

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

`Guides in the World, Companions in Retreat!'

Less than two months before his death, David Myers posted as a comment on Anecdotal Evidence twelve lines from a poem by Samuel “Breakfast” Rogers (1763-1855), “Epistle to a Friend”: 

“Selected shelves shall claim thy studious hours;
There shall thy ranging mind be fed on flowers!
There, while the shaded lamp's mild lustre streams,
Read antient books, or woo inspiring dreams;
And, when a sage's bust arrests thee there,
Pause, and his features with his thoughts compare.
—Ah, most that Art my grateful rapture calls,
Which breathes a soul into the silent walls;
Which gathers round the Wise of every Tongue,
All on whose words departed nations hung;
Still prompt to charm with many a converse sweet;
Guides in the world, companions in retreat!” 

Only now have I read the entire poem, published by Rogers in 1798 and dedicated to his friend Richard “Conversation” Sharp, and it reads like a posthumous message of indeterminate meaning. David was anti-Romantic and largely unsentimental. Last February, after a grim report from his oncologist (“The doc gives me 18 months, 24 if I’m lucky” – he had seven), he wrote to me: “Prayers, at this point, are probably useless. Financial advice for my kids--that's what I need now!” In his verse letter to Sharp, Rogers is describing what we would call the good life, drawing up a prescription for happiness. In his prose preface to the poem, in which he acknowledges Horace, Pope and Boileau as models, Rogers writes: 

“It is the design of this Epistle to illustrate the virtue of True Taste; and to shew how little she requires to secure, not only the comforts, but even the elegancies of life. True Taste is an excellent Economist. She confines her choice to few objects, and delights in producing great effects by small means…” 

David was contemptuous of taste as a serious arbiter of literary matters. He was after something less likely to shift on a whim. Everyone has opinions (the least important and most tedious things we can know about each other), and most are trifling expressions of vanity. I like the image in the second line of Rogers’ poem quoted above – books as flowers on the “selected shelves.” This hints at νθολογία, “a collection of flowers,” our notion of an anthology. Even better is the final line, Rogers’ metaphors for the books we keep on those shelves, the volumes that sustain us: “Guides in the world, companions in retreat!” David probably would have approved of that much.