Wednesday, June 20, 2018

'His Spites Were Candied with Good Nature'

Reader’s lament: discovering a writer who sounds interesting but whose work has not been translated into a language he can read. In this case, Alfred Polgar (1873-1955), a Viennese feuilletonist who shows up in Clive James’ humanistic portrait gallery, Cultural Amnesia (2007). What little I can learn of Polgar appeals to my taste for tart wit, aphoristic concision and enlightened disregard for politics. This is where James hooked me:

“In his home ground, Polgar had made German the ideal instrument for a body of prose so charged with the precision of poetry that it gives a picture of his era no other writer could match for wealth of registered detail and subtlety of argument. His every essay forms a rhythmic unit from start to finish: ‘Many attempt without success to make up for their lack of talent with defects of character.’ He could afford to say so because his strength and depth of character were in everything he said. ‘A commonplace soul is often uncommonly spirited. But dreck is still dreck, even when phosphorescent.’ He could afford to say that, too, because he was never flashy.”

Not long ago I looked into a book of poems and aphorisms by a contemporary American poet. The aphorisms were not aphorisms but Tweet-like punch lines dripping with pop culture and crowd-tested sentiments. The little of Polgar I have read in English suggests he was a master of nuance, an Austrian Chamfort who turns particulars into universals in the smallest of spaces. An aphorist must sound as though his words are revealed truth unburdened with proofs. I found “A Great Dilettante,” an article Polgar published in 1950 in the Antioch Review devoted to Egon Friedell, another Austrian writer included by James in Cultural Amnesia. Here’s a sample:

“Egon Friedell was a big, corpulent man, slow and heavy, with a voice and gestures that filled any room he entered. The bright eyes below the heavily modeled brow shone with intriguing enjoyment of, and all-around love for, men and things. His spites were candied with good nature.”

That final sentence cinches it. To amuse with minimal means while stating a truth is worth more than most novels.

[Go here to read a piece by John Knowles about Polgar.]

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