Tuesday, March 02, 2021

'The Inexplicable Variousness of Humankind'

Peter Guralnick is best-known for his biographies of Elvis Presley, Sam Cooke and Sam Phillips. He’s a good solid writer with a deep knowledge of popular American music, especially blues, soul and country. Rock writers have a reputation for being dopey and self-indulgent fanboys. That’s not Guralnick. Some years ago I read an essay by him, “Falling Into Place,” collected in The Oxford American Book of Great Music Writing (2008). He describes resolving at age fifteen to become a writer and casually reveals a couple of surprises:

“When I was fifteen, too, I fell in love with the blues: Lightnin’ Hopkins and Big Bill Broonzy, Leadbelly and Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf and Blind Willie McTell. I lived it, breathed it, absorbed it by osmosis, fantasized it—don’t ask me why. It was like the writing of Italo Svevo or Henry Green: It just turned me around in a way that I am no more inclined to quantify or explain today than I was then.”

Finding the names of Svevo and Green in the prose of a popular music writer was  a shock. It’s not a demographic renowned for adventuresome good taste in literature. That the novelists cited by Guralnick were among my favorites made the surprise even sweeter. “Falling Into Place” now serves as the opening chapter to Guralnick’s latest book, Looking to Get Lost: Adventures in Music and Writing (Little, Brown and Co., 2020). Even better, he includes a chapter titled “Henry Green: A Personal Memoir and Appreciation,” which substantiates my sense that Guralnick is not being a pretentious literary poser.

In 1963, at age nineteen, Guralnick visited England and worked up the nerve to write to Green in care of his publisher. He had already read Green’s nine novels and his memoir, Pack My Bag (1940). The novelist invited him to his home in London. Guralnick describes his reception by the notably eccentric writer as “courteous, animated, deferential, the very model of civility and genuine consideration.” The account is charming and Guralnick works in a bit of literary criticism:

“[A]ll of Green’s work is saved from the sterility of theory by his commitment to the everyday world itself, to the reality of his characters, to the inexplicable variousness of humankind (and human motivation), which is rendered with a brilliance of observation, a warmth of appreciation that cuts across any consideration of style, consistency, or class.”

If you are already an admirer of Green, or have been intimidated by his reputation for difficulty and hesitated to open his books, do read Guralnick’s essay (not to mention his profiles of Solomon Burke, Howlin’ Wolf, Merle Haggard and Doc Pomus). I’ll withhold the unhappy dénouement. Instead, I’ll quote the judgment he makes after having reread all of Green’s books:

“In Henry Green’s case the jauntiness of tone, the jaggedness of style, the graceful lyricism which suggest an almost airy appreciation not only for his characters but for the very participial construction of life, only reinforce the nagging question of why he has not been more widely appreciated.”

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