Thursday, July 19, 2018

'Thoughts and Emotions Akin to Your Own'

We inhabit a fallow literary backwater, one that will be of middling interest to future readers and scholars. Little of enduring worth is being created, but there’s no need to panic. This has happened before. Think of the late nineteenth century, with literature on the cusp of Modernism. But, of course, that era had James, Conrad, Kipling, Tolstoy and Beerbohm. Think of Russia before Pushkin and Gogol, or Poland before Mickiewicz, though none of these comparisons is quite accurate because each was a period of relative dormancy followed by a burst of efflorescence. No, our literary future, though notoriously difficult to forecast, based as it is on the serendipitous appearance of individual talent, looks unpromising. If gifted writers are sparse, so are gifted readers and critics, those equipped to sift merit from mediocrity. There are exceptions:

“Although the audience for poetry in America was never large, today even that audience has diminished, and the only people who seem to read contemporary poetry are those who write it or write about it. Are there substantial numbers of people awaiting the next novels of Michael Chabon, Jonathan Lethem, or Jonathan Safran Foer as they once eagerly anticipated the next novels of Bellow, Malamud, Katherine Anne Porter, and others? I don’t believe there are.”

The voice is Joseph Epstein’s in “The Cultured Life,” an essay published last year in The Weekly Standard. Retitled, it is now the title essay in Epstein’s latest collection, The Ideal of Culture (Axios Press, 2018). If I’m gauging Epstein’s reputation correctly, he is judged a literary stockman charged with thinning the writerly herd. True, his taste is commendable and he is unburdened with tolerance for shoddy goods, but I think of him as more of a celebrator, an enthusiast for good writing with little use for the merely fashionable. In the new book he extols longtime favorites – Cather, Larkin, Waugh, Yourcenar, Boswell, Proust – while introducing a few surprises, including Meyer Levin’s The Old Bunch, Ronald Syme, Michael Oakeshott and Lord Charnwood’s Lincoln. At eighty-one, Epstein is still discovering and rediscovering worthy books. His literary appetite is more adventuresome than most readers half his age. Here he is on I.J. Singer’s novel The Brothers Ashkenazi (1936), which I read as a teenager before I had read anything by his better-known and even more gifted brother Isaac Bashevis Singer:  

“Strikes, World War I, the Russian Revolution, the invasion of Lodz first by the Germans, then by the Russians -- all are described by Singer, with pitch perfect artistry and pace. Lenin makes a cameo appearance in the novel, as Napoleon does in War and Peace, and so do the hapless Czar Nicholas and his Czarina Alexandra.”

Epstein calls The Brothers Ashkenazi “the best Russian novel ever written in Yiddish.” When his essay first appeared in the Wall Street Journal in 2009, he moved me to read Singer’s novel a second time after more than forty years. Which brings up a mixed blessing inherent in The Ideal of Culture: most of its contents I had already read in their original newspaper or magazine appearances. What you lose in novelty you make up in happy reacquaintance.

Epstein is never guilty of the nunc pro tunc fallacy – now for then. He never imposes today’s trendy standards on yesterday’s art and artists. When it comes to history, we’re all provincials and have a lot to learn. In his title essay Epstein writes:

“Culture is continuity with the past: A cultureless person knows only about, and lives exclusively in, the present. Few things are as pleasing—thrilling, really—as reading a classical author and discovering that he has had thoughts and emotions akin to your own. So I have felt, at times, reading Horace, Montaigne, William Hazlitt, and others who departed the planet centuries before my entrance upon it.”

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