Monday, February 06, 2017

`The Man Who Wants to Tell the Truth'

For years I have periodically borrowed C.H. Sisson’s The Avoidance of Literature: Collected Essays (Carcanet, 1978) from my university library. Sisson was indelibly English and has only fitfully crossed the Atlantic. His books don’t often show up on U.S. shelves, and I know few American readers familiar with his work. Via I ordered the volume from Greener Books Inc. of London, and it arrived on Friday.

The title page is stamped in red: “Withdrawn from Haringey Libraries.” Haringey is a borough of London in the north central part of the city. I had never heard the name. The page preceding the title page has been torn from the binding, and on the obverse of the title page is another stamp. By hand someone has written inside of it: “Central Library,” various letters and numbers and what I take to be its Dewey Decimal System call number, 804.515, which puts it in the Literature and Rhetoric category. On the book’s last page someone has written in pencil:

“Gavin Douglas Eneados
Golding Metamorphoses”

This seems to refer to a sentence on Page 304, the tenth page of Sisson’s essay “Ezra Pound.” In discussing Pound’s How to Read, Sisson writes: “Pound quite rightly rates the first-class translation above most so-called original work, and anyone who has been sent by him to [Arthur] Golding’s Metamorphoses or Gavin Douglas’s Eneados—which Pound called `better than the original’—will see what he means.”
Marks, annotations and exclamations in books are often baffling. Why would a reader deface a volume (granted, in pencil) with names already noted by the author? Part of the pleasure of owning a pre-owned book (to use a word favored by used-car dealers) is in reading the traces of prior readership – a free-of-charge, multi-authored palimpsest, a book within a book. The only other marks I find in my new copy of The Avoidance of Literature are checks beside the titles of three essays in the table of contents: “Vauvenargues and Les Liaisons Dangereuses,” “James Joyce” and “Max Weber.” Someone, like Sisson, had eclectic tastes. I’ve saved the worst for last. The library copy I’ve used has no dust jacket, so I am seeing the cover for the first time. The color might be described as murky turquoise. It’s one of the ugliest books I own, and one of the best.

In 1965, Sisson published an essay on the prolific Dorset poet William Barnes (1801-1886), who often wrote in dialect. The piece is included in the collected essays. Sisson says Barnes was “not a local poet except by accident,” one who “exploited the natural speech of his boyhood,” and writes:

“His use of dialect probably enabled him to maintain his liberty of feeling amidst the uncomprehending pressures he must have faced from his social superiors. Barnes is not there to encourage a factitious oddity, but on the contrary to demonstrate that the poet has to develop in a straight line from his origins, and that the avoidance of literature is indispensable for the man who wants to tell the truth.”

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