In memory, some writers never quite come into focus, which is not the same as dismissing them critically. It’s more like no longer knowing your way around a city where you lived long ago. I checked, and I have read four books by Francis Steegmuller (1906-94), not counting his translations of Flaubert’s letters. I have no solid memories of his Apollinaire biography – not a fact, phrase or novel insight. It’s a hefty book, nearly four-hundred pages, and I must have spent a week with it fifty years ago, but nothing sticks, only a vague sense of scholarly thoroughness. What conclusions should I draw from this failure, if it is a failure? And if it is, whose?
I don’t mean to single out Steegmuller. I know the same is true for other writers, some of whom I’ve read more recently. I thought of him when a reader sent me a link to a brief memory/tribute written by his widow, Shirley Hazzard (1931-2016), the year after his death. Hazzard’s work I know well and have squarely in focus, unlike her husband’s. They were dedicated readers, and Hazzard’s piece is titled “Our Reading List.” In their house on Capri they kept some two-hundred books in three languages:
“Books in a second home abroad begin with essentials: with what is privately essential. Our Homer, Horace, Shakespeare, our anthologies and novelists were there for life and love, and not as Great Books. There were period pieces: The Oxford Book of English Verse, my childhood copy. A fine old Racine from Francis’s first stay in Paris, volumes of Hawthorne from his parents’ home. Orange Penguins ran from Defoe to Dickens, Wodehouse and Waugh, with Woolf, Conrad and James in gray. There were single favorites: William Gerhardie’s Futility, Henry Green’s Concluding, Patrick White’s Voss.”
Clearly, their library was a collaboration: “Francis had his own talismans: Geoffrey Scott’s Portrait of Zelide, which had influenced him toward biography; and novels by Willa Cather, who had first directed him to Flaubert’s letters.” To a serious reader, their marriage sounds idyllic:
“In early mornings we read aloud: Shakespeare, Gibbon, Byron’s Don Juan, Clough’s Amours de Voyage, Thucydides, Seneca, Auden; Delacroix’s journals, Leopardi’s Canti. We took books on our walks and read them in silence by the sea. In an outdoor restaurant, Francis once read an entire novel, Muriel Spark’s Robinson, while I finished Conrad’s Victory. He said, ‘Curious that both books are set on islands,’ and, as we named other ‘island’ works, mentioned Melville’s poem ‘To Ned,’ about the coming doom of desert islands.”
Hazzard closes her piece with a passage from another passionate reader:
“Last summer, Vladimir Nabokov was remembered in the press as having told his students: ‘You have to saturate yourself with English poetry in order to compose English prose. . . . You must study the poets.’
“I read this to Francis, and he said: ‘Exactly. Still, one cannot truly do it for a purpose. Only for love.’”