Saturday, August 23, 2014

`He Was, in Fact, My Hero'

Seasoned readers develop secret crushes on writers who, if not exactly obscure or minor, and for whom appreciation will win you no place in the literary popularity contest, are little known and less admired. Think of Hubert Butler, Aleksander Wat and Aldo Buzzi. None was a genius. All make life more interesting. Such is Simon Leys, Pierre Ryckmans, the Belgian sinologist and literary essayist who died Aug. 11 at age seventy-eight. Like many others I encountered him first in 1977 when Chinese Shadows was published in English translation. Many in the West were still denying or tacitly approving of Mao's Cultural Revolution. In nuanced prose rooted in a learned love of Chinese culture, Leys documented its systematic destruction. Other books developing the theme followed: The Chairman’s New Clothes: Mao and the Cultural Revolution, Broken Images: Essays on Chinese Culture and Politics, The Burning Forest: Essays on Chinese Culture and Politics. I never studied Chinese history closely but made an exception for Leys’ books. 

Last year brought good news. New York Review Books published The Hall of Uselessness: Collected Essays and the plump paperback took its place on what L.E. Sissman called the Constant Rereader’s Bookshelf. He returns to China, of course, as Hazlitt inevitably returns to painting and Lamb to the prose masters of the seventeenth century, but also to literary matters – Waugh, Orwell, Chesterton, Balzac and Nabokov, among others. Leys’ prose is measured and pithy, with an aphorist’s pointed concision. Here he is on, of all people, his fellow Belgian Georges Simenon: “An artist can take full responsibility only for those of his works that are mediocre or aborted—in these, alas! he can recognize himself entirely—whereas his masterpieces ought always to cause him surprise.” 

Theodore Dalrymple, himself a crush growing into something more substantial for this reader, has written a fine tribute to Leys: “He combined in his person qualities that are rarely so closely associated or inextricably linked: vast erudition and scholarship, exquisite taste, complete intellectual honesty, coruscating wit and brilliant literary gifts. 

“I admired Simon Leys more than any other contemporary writer. He was, in fact, my hero, in so far as I have ever had one.”

Friday, August 22, 2014

`A Life of Small Disappointments'

A proven reporter’s dodge for loosening up recalcitrant interviewees – get them talking about family or work. If the former, be careful. You can blunder into tender domestic woes – divorce, illness, wayward children, death. Work is safer. If the subject likes his job and is good at it, or thinks he is, he’ll brag. If he hates it, he’s apt to indulge his hunger for grievance. Either way, he’s talking. Even when a misery, work is central and time-intensive, so how peculiar it is that writers today devote so little attention to it, or treat it only as wallpaper. One of the joys of Roth’s American Pastoral is learning about the glove-making trade. L.E. Sissman, an advertising executive, wrote about that business, and Larkin gave us "Toads." Add to the list the late Dennis O’Driscoll’s “The Bottom Line,” a veritable mock-epic of fifty eleven-line stanzas, published in a limited edition in 1994 by the Dedalus Press of Dublin and collected in Quality Time (Anvil Press, 1997). 

Most of the poem is narrated by a nameless business man, not the CEO but a mid-level executive. There’s mention of “sales” but the product is never named, prompting recollections of Lambert Strether’s “little nameless object.” It’s useful to know that O’Driscoll, who died on Christmas Eve 2012, joined the Office of the Revenue Commissioners in Dublin at age sixteen, specializing in “death duties, stamp duties, and customs,” and remained there for almost forty years.  In his memoir-essay “Sing for the Taxman,” O’Driscoll says, “I have always regarded myself as a civil servant rather than a `poet’ or `artist’ – words I would find embarrassing and presumptuous to ascribe to myself.” “The Bottom Line” is not a protest poem, telling truth to corporate power. The narrator is realistic about the compromises he has made, appreciative of the rewards, complaining only mildly about the job’s inevitable headaches. O’Driscoll avoids the vying clichés – “organization man” apologist and anti-corporate “activist.” The tone here, in the fifth stanza, should not be mistaken for arch satire: 

“I am a trustworthy, well-adjusted citizen
at this stage, capable of a commanding
pungency in business talk, good grasp
of office jargon, the skill to rest
phones on my shoulders as I keep tabs,
the ability to clinch a deal convincingly…” 

O’Driscoll knows the turf, the lingo and folkways of the working world. He is the Larkin of the office, minus the looming sense of desolation – almost Larkin Lite. In the 2009 essay “Working Bard” (The Outnumbered Poet: Critical and Autobiographical Essays, 2013) he writes: “Philip Larkin’s mutterings about work, as a `toad’ squatting on his life, did not blind him to the jewel in the amphibian’s head; waxing lyrical, he conceded that his choice of librarianship as a career was, in retrospect, an `inspired’ one.” From O’Driscoll’s sixth stanza: 

“A life of small disappointments, hardly
meriting asperity or rage, a fax
sent to the wrong number, an engagement
missed, a client presentation failing
to persuade: nothing you can’t sweat off
at gym or squash.” 

The concluding lines of that stanza recall Larkin’s “Aubade”: 

“But, in the dark filling
of the night, doubts gather with the rain
which, spreading as predicted from the west,
now leaves its mark on fuscous window panes;
and you wait for apprehensions to dissolve
in the first glimmer of curtain light.” 

There’s no melodrama or Hollywood mayhem in “The Bottom Line.” It’s true to our experience, not revenge fantasy, written by a mature adult for and about his peers. O’Driscoll closes his poem, and the narrator’s day, thoughtfully, peace of mind wrinkled faintly with apprehension: 

“Halogen lights tested, alarm clock set,
I burrow into the high-tog, duckdown quilt;
the number-crunching radio-clock squanders
digital numbers like there was no tomorrow.
Who will remember my achievements when
age censors me from headed notepaper?
Sometimes, if I try to pray, it is with
dead colleagues that I find myself communing…
At the end of the day, for my successors too,
what will cost sleep are market forces, vagaries
of share price, p/e ratio, the bottom line.”

Thursday, August 21, 2014

`His Steady, Baleful, Solitary Gleam'

The old authors did it better, writing about the grimmest of subjects, the death of children, without mush or emotional posturing. There’s a calm deliberation about Jonson remembering his "best piece of poetry" and Herrick his “pretty bud.” Among contemporaries, Peter De Vries managed the impossible in The Blood of the Lamb. For a poet elided from fashionable literary consideration, exiled as a “light versifier,” the subject of the second poem in X.J. Kennedy’s first collection, Nude Descending a Staircase (1961), seems unpromisingly mirthless: “On a Child Who Lived One Minute”: 

“Into a world where children shriek like suns
Sundered from other suns on their arrival,
She stared, and saw the waiting shape of evil,
But couldn't take its meaning in at once,
So fresh her understanding, and so fragile. 

“Her first breath drew a fragrance from the air
And put it back. However hard her agile
Heart danced, however full the surgeon’s satchel
Of healing stuff, a blackness tiptoed in her
And snuffed the only candle of her castle. 

“Oh, let us do away with elegiac
Drivel! Who can restore a thing so brittle,
So new in any jingle? Still I marvel
That, making light of mountainloads of logic,
So much could stay a moment in so little." 

It’s voguish to say poems are about the making of poems, but the good ones normally engage something out there in the big bad world beyond the classroom. They have substance. Kennedy, I would suggest, is writing about a dead newborn, the poem we are reading and the promise of poetry itself in proper hands, and does so without compromising them. How refreshing his injunction to “do away with elegiac / Drivel!” “Jingle” is suitably patronizing and the final line is perfect. In a similar multum in parvo spirit, Yvor Winters wrote “Much in Little.” 

I muster these responses to Kennedy’s poem to remind us of what Auden wrote in 1937 in “Letter to Lord Byron”: “Light verse, poor girl, is under a sad weather. / She’s treated as démodé altogether.” Light verse is left to the hobbyists and misfit autodidacts, the terminally clever and earnestly comic, and this is a shame. In a 1986 tribute, Kennedy writes of the recently dead Philip Larkin that he “achieved a poetry from which even people who distrust poetry, most people can take comfort and delight.” Of how many living poets can we say the same? Of how many Pulitzer Prize winners, especially in recent years? Philip Levine? Sharon Olds? You’re kidding. Kennedy plays with the permeable membrane separating light verse and the rest of poetry. His blurring of boundaries adds to the fun and to the reader’s engagement with the poems: Is this funny? Am I supposed to laugh? Or is this serious? Is funny the same as trivial? Is serious the same as important? In 1978, when reviewing Kingsley Amis’ The New Oxford Book of English Light Verse, Kennedy said poetry “generally speaks with the deep voice of feeling” while light verse “tends to twitter and chirp.” He adds: 

“As in the elderly man’s damnation of the entire human race, a piece of light verse may profess strong feelings. Yet all the while it is affirming them, its jingly form and its verbal playfulness set up an ironic betrayal of that affirmation.” 

Into which camp does “Terse Elegy for J.V. Cunningham” (Dark Horses, 1992) stray?: 

“Now Cunningham, who rhymed by fits and starts,
So loath to gush, most sensitive of hearts—
Else why so hard-forged a protective crust?—
Is brought down to the unresponding dust.
Though with a slash a Pomp’s gut he could slit,
On his own flesh he worked his weaponed wit
And penned with patient skill and lore immense,
Prodigious mind, keen ear, rare common sense,
Only those words he could crush down no more
Like matter pressured to a dwarf star’s core.
May one day eyes unborn wake to esteem
His steady, baleful, solitary gleam.
Poets may come whose work more quickly strikes
Love, and yet—ah, who'll live to see his likes?” 

X.J. Kennedy was born on this date, Aug. 21, in 1929, in Dover, N.J. Happy eighty-fifth birthday, Mr. Kennedy.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

`Nothing is Negative; Nothing is Commonplace'

“The writer, unlike his non-writing adult friend, has no predisposed outlook; he seldom observes deliberately. He sees what he did not intend to see; he remembers what does not seem wholly possible. Inattentive learner in the schoolroom of life, he keeps some faculty free to veer and wander. His is the roving eye.” 

While trying to maintain a light touch and resist the urge to nag, I encourage my kids to look closely at things, to study and appreciate surfaces but not to be seduced by them. Be skeptical but not arrogant and dismissive. Look for patterns and connections. Ask questions but don’t assume you'll get satisfactory answers or even understand them. Don’t rush to self-congratulation. Looking at things is never passive but neither should it be indiscriminately all-consuming like a goat. 

“[The writer] must (like the child who cannot keep silent) share, make known, communicate what he has seen, or knows. The urgency of what is real to him demands that it should be realized by other people.” 

So, talk about it. Conversation is embryonic text, even in a child. I worked with a reporter who was a raconteur of oral narrative. Returning from an assignment, he would recount his adventures and have the desk in stitches. Then he sat at the keyboard and choked. A facile talker, he was a hobbled writer. He left journalism and became a lawyer. For some of us, an experience isn’t quite resolved until we’ve put it into words. 

“Temperamentally, the writer exists on happenings, on contacts, conflicts, action and reaction, speed, pressure, tension. Were he a contemplative purely, he would not write.” 

Name one great Zen Buddhist novelist. 

“Unsuspected meaning in everything shines out; yet, we have the familiar re-sheathed in mystery. Nothing is negative; nothing is commonplace. For is it not that the roving eye, in its course, has been tracing for us the linaments of a fresh reality? Something has been beheld for the first time.” 

Among the chronically bored, those who are not merely depressed are, by choice, selectively blind. 

The quoted passages are drawn from “The Roving Eye” by Elizabeth Bowen, published in the New York Times Book Review in 1959 and collected in Afterthought: Pieces about Writing (Longmans, 1962). In her foreword she writes: “For the writer, writing is eventful; one might say it is in itself eventfulness.”

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

`A General Philosophy of Books'

“He had a general philosophy of books—all the classification that mattered was good books and bad books…” 

Do people still read the novels of R.K. Narayan (1906-2001)? I discovered him belatedly, in the nineteen-eighties, thanks to one of his champions, Graham Greene, and read my way through most of the dozens of stories and novels he sets in the fictional South Indian town of Malgudi. The plots are never world-historical and Narayan studiously avoids politics. His seemingly artless fiction, recounted in plain prose, makes for unlikely thesis-fodder. In aggregate, his works form an alternate world that cunningly resembles our own. His people are teachers, merchants, beggars, doctors, laborers, taxidermists and mail carriers. The passage quoted at the top refers to Raman, the title character in The Painter of Signs (1976), which I’ve just reread. He’s a college graduate who paints commercial signs for a living, not a surrogate for the cliché of the struggling artist. His room is bare except for a mat and bed roll, and his books: 

“His cupboard overflowed with the books he cherished since his college days—Plato to Pickwick Papers, some of them in double-column editions, with paper turning grey, yellow, and brown and etching that transported him.” 

Raman befriends a second-hand book dealer in the town market, paints a sign for him and is paid in books. The antiquarian is “a pessimist reveling in pessimism,” “gloating over his frustrations,” and endlessly fascinated by the behavior of bookworms – not the human sort like Raman but the generic category of beetles, booklice, roaches and moths that consume paper. The book dealer says: 

“`Book-worms possess a sense of design,’ he would explain. `Some books are tunneled end to end, some they give up with the preface, in some they create a perfect wizardry of design but confined to the end-papers, never an inch beyond. A real masterpiece must be read only in an ancient edition and you could easily recognize it by the fact that the book-worm has already gone through it end to end and left its testimonial in its own code.’” 

Insect as book critic – a representative sample of Narayan’s dry humor. Only then do we learn Raman’s admirably simple critical theory: 

“For browsing in the afternoon Raman hardly cared what book he chose; it might be Gibbon’s Decline and Fall or Kural—that tenth-century Tamil classic. He had a general philosophy of books—all the classification that mattered was good books and bad books, and the antiquarian could be depended upon not to nurture bad books. Raman’s practice was to put his hand into the cupboard and take out the first book that his finger touched.” 

That’s a practice that works only if one has good taste and sound judgment, and keeps only good books in one’s cupboard.

Monday, August 18, 2014

`The Still-Existing Part of Life'

In her introduction to The Norton Book of Friendship (1991), Eudora Welty explains why readers find insight and charm in personal letters and, by implication, such extra-literary works of literature as diaries, marginalia and commonplace books: 

All letters, old and new, are the still-existing part of a life.  To come upon a personal truth of a human being however little known, and now gone forever, is in some way to admit him to our friendship. What we've been told need not be momentous, but it can be as good as receiving the darting glance from some very bright eye, still mischievous and mischief-making, arriving from fifty or a hundred years ago.” 

It’s the human spark. We slip complacently into the conceit that literature is a mausoleum, not evidence of life on the page. Letters remind us that every text started as a throb in someone’s consciousness – a whim, a gripe, a connection. It’s heretical in some quarters, but I would gladly sacrifice Keats’ poems if that were the only way I could hold on to his letters. The same is true for William Cowper and even Flannery O’Connor, whose letters I turn to more often than her fiction. It’s more complicated with the other great letter-writer in English, Charles Lamb, whose letters and essays merge on the page and in memory, often one a rehearsal for the other. 

In the case of Marianne Moore, her letters are often dry and formal affairs, without the elegance, wit and half-concealed revelations of her best poems. Only rarely does she flash in her correspondence. Edward McKnight Kauffer was an artist and designer who befriended both Moore and Welty. He seems to have been chronically depressed, feeling unappreciated for his art while well-paid for his advertising work. He died in 1954 of alcoholism at age sixty-four. Two years earlier, Moore gave him a pep talk in a letter, and it’s a magnificent gesture of compassion and a fine piece of writing:
 
“To speak is to blunder but I venture, for I know the bewilderment one experiences in being misapprehended. We must face it, as you said. When we do well – that is to say, you – in designs of yours which are standard – the Ethyl horse-power, the Gilbey’s port, the Devon downs, the girl in the helmet with the star and effect of velvet darkness, the tall hat on the Victorian table, the door with the keyhole made dramatic, -- there is a flash of splendour apart from the pretext; and when a thing snares the imagination, it is because of a secret excitement which contributes something private – an incontrovertible to admire afresh at each sight, like the bloom and tones of a grape or the glitter of Orion as one emerges into the dark from the ordinariness of lamplight.” 

It seems not to have worked on Kauffer but I feel better just reading it, for its form and sentiment. As William Maxwell says at the close of a letter he wrote to Welty in 1954 (What There is to Say We Have Said: The Correspondence of Eudora Welty and William Maxwell, 2011): “Well it’s wonderful to be alive. Wonderful to be a writer. Wonderful to grow roses. Wonderful to care. Isn’t it?” 

[In 2012, Ronald Sharp, co-editor with Welty of The Norton Book of Friendship, published in The Georgia Review a remembrance of working with her on the anthology. He points out that they included “Ithaka” (Da Vinci’s Bicycle, 1979) by their mutual friend, Guy Davenport. The story, Sharp says, “was one of the initial suggestions Eudora had when I first talked to her on the phone that day. (She loved telling the story about how she and Guy had gone off to the movies together to see the Beatles’ Yellow Submarine when she was giving a reading at the University of Kentucky. They both loved it.)”]

Sunday, August 17, 2014

`An Incomparable Way of Living Life'

Because of the attention it pays to the details of work and place, and its human sympathy (“Men’s ordinary lives / measured out on a scale alien / to that on which its life was measured”), one of the best poems in Joshua Mehigan’s Accepting the Disaster (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014) is “The Cement Plant.” Now we learn Mehigan is describing a real place a few miles from where I lived for almost four years. I moved from Schenectady to Selkirk, N.Y., in the summer of 1988, and rented a house on Old Ravena Road. That same summer, Mehigan took a job as a laborer at the cement plant in Ravena where his father worked for thirty-five years as a welder. There’s another unintended resonance. Whenever I saw the cement plant with its smokestack and silos I remembered the Municipal Electric Light Plant in Cleveland, always known as Muny Light, where my father, also a welder, worked for thirty years.

What’s important here is that none of this autobiographical subtext is necessary for appreciating Mehigan’s poem. It adds a new layer of connections for me but “The Cement Plant” remains autonomous, requiring no personal scaffolding. Mehigan’s poem is the opposite of confessional. The novelist Howard Jacobson writes in his most recent column for The Independent:
“To lose oneself in making art – all questions of quality apart – is an incomparable way of living life. Never mind self-expression. The truly wonderful thing about being a painter, a writer or a musician is escaping self. You light the touch paper, step back, and watch the pages or the canvas explode.”