Tuesday, April 16, 2024

'The Most Intense Enthusiasm for Good Literature'

I was reading an interview with X.J. Kennedy when this remark touched me unexpectedly: “He was, of all the people I ever met, the one who had the most intense enthusiasm for good literature.” Spoken by another, this might amount to glibly rendered bullshit, the sort of thing junior faculty say about their seniors on the tenure committee. Kennedy is referring to Randall Jarrell, whom he knew when both taught at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. I can apply Kennedy’s tribute to three people I’ve known, and only two were academics. 

Jarrell’s poetry means little to me but his sole novel, Pictures from an Institution: A Comedy (1954), and a handful of his celebratory reviews, especially those devoted to Kipling, Christina Stead, Marianne Moore, Walter de la Mare and A.E. Housman, constitute a piece of my critical infrastructure. Jarrell likewise understood that mockery is the most potent negative criticism. Laughter hurts more than rational argument, and no critic is funnier. Consider his dismissal of the nearly unreadable Stephen Spender:


“It isn’t Mr. Spender but a small, simple -- determinedly simple -- part of Mr. Spender that writes the poems; the poet is a lot smarter man than his style allows him to seem. (If he were as soft and sincere and sentimental as most of his poems make him out to be, the rabbits would have eaten him for lettuce, long ago.)”


Back to Kennedy’s characterization of Jarrell. On July 24, 1965, less than three months before his death, Jarrell published “Speaking of Books,” ostensibly a list of suggestions for summer reading in The New York Times Book Review. In fact, it’s a distillation of a lifetime engagement with books. Read with the knowledge of Jarrell’s imminent death, it’s a poignant human document but we shouldn’t allow poignancy to diminish its worth as a paean to passionate reading:


“May I finish by recommending . . . some books for summer reading? Giradoux's Electra; Bemelman’s Hotel Splendide; Kim; Saint-Simon’s Memoirs; Elizabeth Bishop’s North and South; the new edition of A.L. Kroeber's textbook of anthropology, and Ralph Linton’s The Study of Man; Turgenev’s A Sportsman’s Sketches; Colette’s Julie de Carneilhan and The Last of Cheri; Pirandello’s Henry IV; Freud’s Collected Papers; Peter Taylor’s The Widows of Thornton; Isak Dinesen’s Out of Africa; Goethe’s aphorisms; Blake’s ‘The Marriage of Heaven and Hell’; Gerard Manley Hopkins’ Letters to Robert Bridges; Rilke’s The Notebooks of Malte Laurid Brigge, and Chekhov’s plays, stories, letters -- anything.”


I can hear the serious readers out there assessing Jarrell’s list: “Read that. Hated that. Didn’t read that. Want to read that. Would never read that.” I’ve read roughly half the titles. I can take Jarrell’s list seriously because I know how seriously he read good books, not what’s fashionable or carries the imprimatur of a bien pensant critic. The only bookish things that leave me more indifferent than “best-of” lists are the winners of literary awards. But I enjoy reading lists like Jarrell’s. I want to know a serious reader’s favorite books, the ones he would suggest to other serious readers, the ones he rereads himself. I like the variety of his choices. How many poet’s today, assembling a comparable list, would recommend so few poets? I love Saint Simon, Colette and Taylor. Kim. And Chekhov, of course – “anything.”


I might add Parade’s End, Ronald Knox’s Enthusiasm, Zeno’s ConscienceMemoirs of a Midget, Arabia Deserta, Imaginary Conversations, Memoirs of Hadrian, London Labour and the London PoorBarbarian in the Garden, The American ScenePale Fire, The Lives of the Eminent Poets, The Leopard, Isaac Babel’s stories, Daniel Deronda, “Master and Man,” Between MealsLife and Fate. Tristram Shandy, Nadezhda Mandelstam’s memoirs,  J.V. Cunningham’s and William Hazlitt’s Essays . . .


Gary said...

A treasure trove indeed. Thank you for sharing. You've given us much to consider.

Tim Guirl said...

I'm looking forward to reading Joseph Epstein's newly published memoir, although I think he claimed at one time that he wouldn't write one. Your list reminded me that I need to have a go at 'Daniel Deronda'. I've read 'Middlemarch' twice, but that's it for George Eliot.

Don said...

Thanks for the tipoff to Speaking of Books. This is priceless: And recommending Kant's "The Critique of Judgment," reader, is its own reward. A fresh, candid tone is best. Strauss told conductors to play "Elektra" "as if it were 'A Midsummer Night's Dream' -- like fairy music"; that is how I recommend "The Critique of Judgment."