Friday, May 18, 2018

`An Entire Part of Man That Escapes Reason'

One of the chief pleasures of reading notebooks, diaries and journals is the spontaneous kindling of themes among adjoining or nearby entries. When a work is not otherwise formally organized, except by the author’s sensibility, juxtaposition itself becomes an organizing principle. Even when they clash or seem to ignore each other, entries generate currents of meaning. Take the French poet Philippe Jaccottet’s The Second Seedtime: Notebooks, 1980-1994 (trans. Tess Lewis, Seagull Books, 2017). On Page 142, in an entry from March 1990, Jaccottet quotes without comment a passage from the letter Keats wrote to James Rice on Feb. 20, 1820, one year before his death:

“Like poor Falstaff, though I do not ‘babble,’ I think of green fields; I muse with the greatest affection on every flower I have known from my infancy—their shapes and colours are as new to me as if I had just created them with a superhuman fancy. It is because they are connected with the most thoughtless and the happiest moments of our lives. I have seen foreign flowers in hothouses, of the most beautiful nature, but I do not care a straw for them. The simple flowers of our Spring are what I want to see again.”

Hardly unusual thoughts, especially in February in London. Keats mingles a consumptive’s bittersweet nostalgia with a scientist’s love of detail. Unlike Dr. Johnson, he numbers the streaks of the tulip. No event in nature seems as miraculous as the return of wildflowers in the spring. In the next notebook entry Jaccottet writes: “The fig tree: its branches, in places, truly look like musical instruments.” In context this sounds like a Keatsian observation, though Jaccottet does not cite this miniature tour de force from the first book of Endymion:

“O thou, to whom 
Broad leaved fig trees even now foredoom 
Their ripen’d fruitage; yellow girted bees 
Their golden honeycombs; our village leas 
Their fairest-blossom’d beans and poppied corn;            
The chuckling linnet its five young unborn, 
To sing for thee; low creeping strawberries 
Their summer coolness; pent up butterflies 
Their freckled wings; yea, the fresh budding year 
All its completions—be quickly near,            
By every wind that nods the mountain pine, 
O forester divine!”

In the next notebook entry, from June 1990, Jaccottet writes:

“The marvelous letters written to Pasternak by Marina Tsvetaeva’s daughter, Ariane [or Ariadna] Efron recall, in their bitterness and courage, [Varlam] Shalamov’s Kolyma Tales. The horrifying absurdity of such fates defies reason. But there is an entire part of man that escapes reason.”

Pleasing serendipity: I am reading for review Donald Rayfield’s new translation of Shalamov’s Kolyma Stories. Efron’s younger sister died of malnutrition in Moscow in 1920. In 1939, Efron, known as Alja or Alya, and her father were arrested by Stalin’s goons. Two years later her father was executed. Her mother hanged herself in 1941. Alja remained in the Gulag until 1947. She was rearrested in 1949, exiled to Turuchansk in Siberia. There she began her correspondence with Pasternak, who sent her the first manuscript of Doctor Zhivago. She was rehabilitated in 1955 and died twenty years later.

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