Saturday, December 16, 2017

`His Sentences Are Like Little Excursions'

Thanks to Barton Swaim for reminding us today is the centenary of Murray Kempton’s birth. Swaim captures the essence of Kempton’s charm, especially for those of us with little or no interest in politics:

“His word choice is never quite what you would have predicted; his sentences are like little excursions, sometimes resolving in the ordinary way, sometimes fading into grammatical uncertainty or trailing off into a marathon dependent clause. It doesn’t always work, but it’s evidence of a mind steadfastly refusing to think or express anything in the usual tired old way.”

That’s close to the lesson I learned incrementally from Kempton. To imitate his prose would be fatal, but the notion of systematically thinking through each sentence, assaying word choice, keeping the rhythm in mind, avoiding the lazy and predictable word or phrase without resorting to cheap tricks – those are the lessons absorbed. Kempton was never afraid to be articulate, despite warning that newspaper subscribers read at the fifth-grade level. His goal was precision, a quality that in itself is elegant. I once worked for a newspaper editor who described Kempton as “flowery” and “too literary.” He preferred Jimmy Breslin. We have grown so accustomed to journalists who are unable to write and do so at great length that Kempton reads like Gibbon.

Starting in the eighties I clipped and saved Kempton’s three-times-a-week column in Newsday and his occasional pieces in the New York Review of Books. I still have thick stacks of them in a file cabinet. Here is a favorite piece from 1990 on Chekhov, Conrad and the fall of the Soviet Union:

“Chekhov had been dead for eighty-five years when first I took notice of his credentials as an analyst of Soviet society. I had glimpsed his authority earliest when I read `My Life,’ the long story whose protagonist learns that he has been abandoned by his wife in a letter in which she tells him that she has prepared herself to begin again by buying a ring like the one that King David had engraved `All things pass.’

“If I wanted a ring myself,” Chekhov’s hero reflects, “the inscription I should choose would be ‘Nothing passes away.’”

In conclusion Kempton writes:

“The cruelty and indifference of misgovernment explain the bandits of Conrad’s Costaguana, and perhaps the same things explain the FMLN in El Salvador’s hills today. We must look to the novelist if we hope to understand. His is the matter of fact. Social science and intelligence reports are the mere poor stuff of an unadorned imagination.”

Here is Kempton on the pointless question of whether Duke Ellington was “the twentieth century’s greatest composer”:

“There are representative lives and they are generally deplorable. There are also exemplary lives like this one. They are lived without lament or self-pity. They neither meditate alone nor unite with support groups in search of self-esteem. They just build it on the road in the community of work. It is a waste of breath to argue whether Duke Ellington was more or less than Bach or Beethoven or Haydn. All that counts is that he was like them in knowing what matters, and that, when all are dead who heard those horns live, there will be children to discover and hear them again.”

In a column written in the waning days of the 1960 presidential campaign and collected in America Comes of Middle Age: Columns 1950-1962 (1963), Kempton musters sympathy for a dispirited Richard Nixon:

“He is not a man I cherish, but there is in the sight of him the painful recognition that something human somewhere is being cruelly violated and humiliated. The gestures are the gestures of someone trapped five fathoms deep; when he stands on a platform and makes a fist, it is a piece of mush; the forearm no longer jabs for emphasis; it merely flounders. There are the movements of a drowning man.”

Kempton knew Alger Hiss was a liar and Whittaker Chambers was an unfashionable, unphotogenic truth-teller, and wrote movingly of both men in the first chapter of Part of Our Time: Some Ruins and Monuments of the Thirties (1955). Fifteen years later, in his review of Chambers’ letters to his friend William F. Buckley Jr., Kempton not only sympathizes with Chambers but finds amusement in his enigmatic personality:

“Perhaps it was Chambers’s loneliness, the experience of having to begin life again so often as a stranger in new surroundings, which explains his need always to carry the aura of an ambassador from some Other Shore: the Hisses, he says, were drawn to him because they thought him a Russian, which, to the extent that the will could conquer an origin in Lynbrook, L.I., he certainly was and remained.”    

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