Wednesday, July 27, 2016

`A Faint-Hearted Formula for Happiness'

In the library I found a copy of Parnassus, Vol. 24, No. 1, from 1999. As with any randomly chosen literary journal, it contains much rubbish, trendy and unreadable, but also good work – a review and poems by Eric Ormsby, an essay on epigrams by David Barber and one on William McGonagall by Thomas Disch. Also, a prose piece by Zbigniew Herbert, “Securitas,” translated from the Polish by John and Bogdana Carpenter, who call it a “fable.” It was collected in The King of the Ants: Mythological Essays (Ecco Press, 1990). Herbert dances along a narrow line. Readers who fear the horrors of the “prose poem” can relax. His prose, in translation, is free of fog and filigree. “Poetic” effects are banished. “Securitas” is no cheap allegory awaiting decryption. Herbert keeps things light and drily comic, more Mozart than Mahler. The nearest cognates are the parables in Kafka’s notebooks. The Carpenters call Herbert’s form “a twentieth-century philosophical parable.”  

In “Securitas,” the Romans “at the beginning of the Empire” conceive a new deity, and soon all the predictable human squabbling, theological and otherwise, takes over. One thinks of Poland and the years of Nazi and Communist rule, the competing demands of security and personal liberty, and the way totalitarian regimes assert the primacy of one over the other. Meanings ripple outward from the central image. Here, Herbert looks at Schadenfreude, that universal human quality:

“The victims of Securitas--more precisely, the half-eaten victims--avoided speaking about her. Why should they? The few who had the courage to make their revelations public met with disbelief and a sense of distaste. The conviction is very strong that the misfortune of another reduces, in a way empties, the reservoir of bad fate--that another's bad luck protects us and increases our chances of survival. This salutary illusion always wins over the simple logic of facts. It will be this way forever.”

Securitas, Herbert tells us, “avoided pomp, ostentation, even publicity. She was severe, and content to have faceless executors.” History concurs. Herbert weighs what to call them, and settles on “attendants,” a word in English that hints at servility without announcing it:

“The Attendants wait in vain for their Proust. Great art is slow in paying them due justice or crowning their labors. These were countless. Rapt attention, speeding up or slowing down of the pace, sudden turns and pirouettes in a metropolitan ballet, floors, corridors, straining of memory, patient standing at street corners, empty hours in a cafe with a newspaper read many times over, fitting proofs of guilt together from overheard whispers, bits and snatches of conversation, papers, even from the flies on the ceiling. But these were not reflected, with a hundredfold echo, in any long roman fleuve, figurative painting, or opera.”

The smooth deployment of irony is bracing, like smelling salts. Herbert gives it to us straight: “Securitas puts us face to face with the cruel alternative: either security or freedom. TERTIUM NON DATUR.” The Latin, literally, means “third is not given”; figuratively, “there is no third option” or “there is no alternative.” For the powers that be, as Herbert knew them, it’s a binary choice. One is reminded of those aging former Soviet citizens who, in the early years of glasnost, yearned for the golden days of Stalin.

This Thursday marks eighteen years since Herbert’s death in Warsaw at the age of seventy-three. Like Montale and Cavafy, he remains one the twentieth-century’s partisans for civilization who celebrate our ever-threatened inheritance. He closes his fable bluntly: “Security, what is security? A faint-hearted formula for happiness. Life without struggle.”

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

`Symmetry and Balance in Sentences'

The Fletcher Henderson Story: A Study in Frustration, which contains sixty-four numbers recorded between 1923 and 1938, is somewhat like reissuing Dr. Johnson’s Dictionary. Both Henderson’s band and Johnson’s work were seminal affairs, both were training schools, both were widely copied, both had serious faults, and both, despite their considerable period appeal, are outdated.”

Well, yes, but Johnson’s Dictionary retains an attractive readability that exceeds “period appeal.” Whitney Balliett, reviewing the Henderson reissue for The New Yorker in 1961, is right on both counts – Henderson and Johnson – but right in a way that is of little consequence. “Outdated” is a vaporous criticism, and implies that “up-to-the-minute” is always a term of praise (the opposite, I suspect, may be true). I still listen to Henderson – “King Porter Stomp” – and still read Johnson because both are reliable sources of pleasure. 

Most often I consult dictionaries for etymologies and occasionally for definitions, and that means the Oxford English Dictionary, which in turn usually means the digital version. The hard copy is cumbersome but reassuring, and I would never discard it. I say “consult,” but most of the time I spend in dictionaries is motivated by something less utilitarian -- a faith in serendipity. You can start an hours-long ramble by looking up a single word. Consider, in the OED, “Johnsonian”:

“Of, belonging to, or characteristic of Dr. Samuel Johnson (1709–84), a celebrated English man of letters and lexicographer; applied esp. to a style of English abounding in words derived or made up from Latin, such as that of Dr. Johnson.”

A conventional enough definition, accurate though shading into disapproval. Other potential synonyms for Johnsonian I might propose: noble, tortured, learned, compassionate, opinionated, argumentative, hard-working, idleness-prone, guilt-wracked, devout, neurotic. In short, thoroughly contradictory and thus, human. The OED gives secondary definitions -- “a student or admirer of Dr. Johnson” – and offers Johnsonism, Johnsonianism and Johnsonise (the last, from Boswell: “I have Johnsonised the land; and I trust they will not only talk but think Johnson.”) Best of all, as is usually the case, are the citations. My favorite, one I quoted here more than eight years ago, is from Ruskin’s Praeterita:  “Johnsonian symmetry and balance in sentences.”

Monday, July 25, 2016

`Neither Sweet Nor Simple'

Again, Chekhov is in Nice, in September 1897, taking a room in La Pension Russe on the Rue Gounod:

“Its attraction, apart from cheapness, was its Russian owner (a Mme Vera Krugloleva). The Russian cook was a former serf who had stayed in France thirty years ago when her owners returned to Russia, and now occasionally made the borshch or shchi her guests pined for. She lent the pension mystery: she was married to a negro sailor and had a mulatto daughter, Sonia, who was seen at night as she plied her trade on Nice’s streets.”

Chekhov had an uncanny gift for inhabiting a Chekhovian world, whether in Russia, the French Riviera or Badenweiler, where tuberculosis would kill him in seven years. Our world too is Chekhovian when we read his stories. That is, he reminds us that life is remarkably sad and amusing, usually without a lesson attached, and always interesting in its excitement and tedium, if we pay sufficient attention. Whatever happened to the negro sailor and Sonia? Chekhov might have written their subsequent fate. Even non sequiturs make sense. His final words were: “It’s been such a long time since I had champagne.” His body was shipped home from Germany to Russia in a crate labeled “oysters.” Because of an error in the train schedule, his brother Aleksandr missed the funeral, as he had missed their father’s. More than four thousand mourners accompanied Chekhov’s body on a four-mile procession across Moscow to the cemetery.

The quoted passage above is from Anton Chekhov: A Life (Henry Holt and Co., 1997) by Donald Rayfield, who says of his subject: “Chekhov’s life was short, but neither sweet nor simple.”

Sunday, July 24, 2016

`I Am Alive and Well'

In the era before antibiotics, the city of Nice on the French Riviera was to Europe as New Mexico was to North America – an open-air sanitarium for patients seeking a cure for tuberculosis. Maupassant took note of the “lungers” in Sur l’eau (1888; translated as Afloat), set along the Mediterranean coast. Chekhov left Melikhovo for Nice in September 1897, and spent eight months there at the urging of his doctors. On Oct. 4 he wrote to his mother from Nice, sounding very much like a dutiful son (he was thirty-seven):

“I am alive and well and lack for nothing; I eat and sleep a lot. It’s warm here, and when
I go out of doors I don’t need an overcoat. I’m staying in a Russian pension, by which I mean a hotel run by a Russian lady. . . . There are orange and Seville orange trees in the garden, as well as palm trees and oleanders as tall as our linden trees. The oleanders are all in bloom. The dogs wear muzzles, and there are all kinds of breeds. A day or two ago I saw a long-haired dachshund, an elongated beast a bit like a hairy caterpillar. The cooks all wear hats; domestic carriages are pulled by donkeys, which are quite small, about the size of our Kazachok [one of Chekhov’s ponies at Melikhovo]. It’s very cheap to have laundry done here, and they do it very well.” [trans. Rosamund Bartlett and Anthony Phillips, Anton Chekhov: A Life in Letters, 2004]

Even in a letter to his mother, Chekhov is Chekhovian. In his notes to Letters of Anton Chekhov (trans. Michael Henry Heim and Simon Karlinsky, 1973), Karlinksy tells us Chekhov settled in the Pension Russe, a boarding house for visiting Russians on Rue Gounod, and that Mikhail Saltykov-Shchedrin, author of The Golovlyov Family (1876), had once lived there. He paid eleven francs a day for a spacious room with a southern exposure. Karlinsky says: “It was owned by a Russian lady and was especially celebrated for its elegant Russian-style cuisine (a typical dinner was: borscht, poisson glace, squab, veal, salad greens, ice cream and fruit).” In the letter to his mother translated by Bartlett and Philips, Chekhov says: “We have a Russian cook, Evgenia; her cooking is like a French chef’s (she has been living in Nice for thirty years) but every so often we have borscht or fried mushrooms.”

Chekhov kept busy in Nice. He wrote “In the Cart,”Home," “Ionych,’ and three masterpieces: “The Man in a Shell,” “Gooseberries” and “About Love.” He renewed his commitment to Alfred Dreyfus and support for Emile Zola, and found time to improve his French. Chekhov argued with his friend and editor Alexi Suvorin, a notorious anti-Semite and anti-Dreyfusard. On Jan. 4, 1898 he wrote:

“The Dreyfus case has gotten up steam and is on its way, but it’s still not going full power yet. Zola is a noble soul, and I (I belong to the syndicate and have already received a hundred francs from the Jews) am delighted by his outburst. France is a wonderful country and has wonderful writers.”

Here is Karlinsky’s footnote to the second sentence: “A sarcastic reference to the repeated assertions of New Times [Suvorin’s newspaper] that anyone offering proof of the innocence of Dreyfus was in the pay of an international Jewish syndicate.”    

Saturday, July 23, 2016

`Read and Write Without a Shadowed Care'

I’ve become the old guy who would sit on the park bench in the afternoon sun, feeding the pigeons and squirrels, except I have to work and don’t have time for idleness. Nor do I understand the notion of retirement. Golf? You’re kidding. I’m happiest when working, even if only pulling weeds or writing about faculty retirements. I’m fortunate: I enjoy my own company (a rare gift among humans) and enjoy what David Solway in Installations (Signal Editions, 2015) calls “The Art of Thinking”:

“. . . never disappointing the admiring gaze
and the confident patience
of the one who waits and watches.”

Solway’s poems often begin in observation and contemplation. He is not a notably meditative poet – probably too easily riled -- but certainly is more spectator than actor, which is only right for a poet. He uses lines from Book III of Keats’ Endymion as the epigraph to his own poem of the same name: “But the crown / Of all my life was utmost quietude: More did I love to lie in cavern rude.” Solway’s “Endymion” sent me back to Keats’, where I found this a few lines later:

“I would watch all night to see unfold   
Heaven’s gates, and Aethon snort his morning gold  
Wide o’er the swelling streams: and constantly          
At brim of day-tide, on some grassy lea,
My nets would be spread out, and I at rest.”

Aethon snorts because the Greek aithôn can mean “burning” or “shining,” but as an epithet it usually is applied to horses. Solway’s poem is a drawn-out double entendre, and not his best work. Better is a poem addressed to another Canadian poet, “A Letter to Robert Melançon on His Retirement.” Solway pays homage to Melançon’s Le Paradis des apparences (2004), translated into English by Judith Cowan as For as Far as the Eye Can See (Biblioasis, 2013). Melançon taught at the University of Montreal for thirty-five years and retired in 2007. In the poem’s final lines, Solway writes:

“And then, when time can spare you for the task,
you’ll pledge your lines beside the wooden shrine
of our Lady of Abundance, and find
you need not trade the freedom of your days
for all Arabia’s wealth or all the tomes
of Pergamum and Alexandria,
once self-sufficient on your Dunham farm,
once in your element of pastoral
where you may school the clamour of the age
and quell the dictates of eternity,
to plough and seed and reap without a hitch
and read and write without a shadowed care.”

Friday, July 22, 2016

`A Summer Afternoon’s Supreme Iambic'

Reading outdoors in Houston this time of year invites melanoma, heat stroke and, of late, the Zika virus. According to the semi-mythological heat-index, the temperature at noon Thursday was 110° F. Even skinny people in repose were sweating. A woman I know was waiting for the campus shuttle bus, in the sparse shade of a live oak. Normally proper and demure, she whispered, “Even my underwear’s dripping,” which was far more than I wanted to know. But I was returning to my office from the library and found a bench in the shade of a building, and decided to defer the afternoon’s work for a few minutes. I’d felt an urge to read L.E. Sissman again. He was a favorite of mine and of my late friend D.G. Myers, who, like Sissman, died of cancer, though I haven’t been able to read his poems since David’s death almost two years ago. In Sissman’s first collection, Dying: An Introduction (1968), I read “Dear George Orwell, 1950-1965 [Sissman was well aware that Orwell died in 1950],” including these lines:
  
“But always in the chinks
Of my time (or the bank’s),
I read your books again.
In Schrafft’s or on the run
To my demanding clients,
I read you in the silence
Of the spell you spun.
My dearest Englishman,
My stubborn unmet friend.”

That’s how we read certain writers, just as we seek the company of certain friends for reasons we may not understand. Few human capacities are more important than friendship, with its mingling of intimacy and trust, reliance and autonomy, and I know from experience that writers frequently grow into unmet friends. Reading Sissman again felt like the impulse to renew a friendship that had grown a little stale from disuse. As Johnson told Boswell: “A man, Sir, should keep his friendship in constant repair.” Another book I had with me was Robert Melançon’s For as Far as the Eye Can See (trans. Judith Cowan, Biblioasis, 2013), one of my favorite recent poetry collections. Here is 120 from that collection:

“The reader who’s lifted his eyes from his book
perceives the sky above as the true ocean,
the immense expanse of blue enclosing

“the whole earth, at whose end we might tumble
out of everything, should we ever find that end.
An enormous white cloud appears as

“the crest of foam on a wave; it breaks and
streams in tatters while a pair of gulls fly through
the hollow space where blue ebbs and flows.

“Before picking up the thread of the sentence
Where he left off, this reader will have scanned
A summer afternoon’s supreme iambic.”

Melançon identifies that magical moment when, after being lost in a book, consciousness returns to our immediate surroundings and everything looks a little different, at once familiar and strange. The power of a book to induce self-forgetting ought to frighten us.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

`The Languor of the Heart and the Pang of Thought'

Wednesday’s post included a fleeting mention of Yevgeny Abramovich Baratynsky (1800-1844), a Russian poet praised and befriended by Pushkin and admired by Mandelstam, Zabolotsky, Shalamov and Brodsky. Wednesday morning, Norm Sibum wrote to me: “Say, in your travels, did you ever come across a Russian poet named Baratynski? Just wondering. He’s supposed to have been the Russian Leopardi and roughly contemporary to him.” When I wrote back, I assumed Norm was joking but I was wrong. He hadn’t yet read the post, and replied: “Christ, more synchronicity at work: I hadn't heard of Baratynski until last night.” Nor had I, but it appears to be a good time to discover a poet who remained a complete blank to us until two days ago.

Last year, Arc Publications brought out a slender edition of Baratynsky’s Half-light and Other Poems, translated by Peter France, and this year Ugly Duck Presse published the 584-page A Science Not For for the Earth: Selected Poems and Letters, translated by Rawley Grau. France in his introduction confirms Baratynsky’s kinship with Leopardi, saying: “. . . there is much in the clear-sighted, bleak vision of man and society in the Canti that reminds one of the poet of Half-light: the historical pessimism, the noia (something like Baudelaire’s spleen), the awareness of human fragility and ephemerality, but also the idealism and the vital honesty and magnanimity.”

Superficially, based on a single reading of France’s versions, Baratynsky seems like a stiffer, more formal and classically minded poet than Leopardi. The Russian’s world is muted and melancholy, less profoundly bleak than Leopardi’s. An English-language cognate might be Keats (“glut thy sorrow on a morning rose”). Here is France’s version of an untitled 1828 poem:

“My talent is pitiful, my voice not loud,
but I am living; somewhere in the world
someone looks kindly on my life; far off
a distant fellow-man will read my words
and find my being; and, who knows, my soul
will raise an echo in his soul, and I
who found a friend in my own time,
will find a reader in posterity.”

That’s the best any writer can hope for. The most fruitful writer/reader connections tend to be occult, after all, defying ready explanation. Why do some writers – often a wildly divergent assortment – elicit a tingling sense of kinship? Leopardi certainly does that for me. Go here to see Peter France’s coupling of Baratynsky’s “Autumn” and Pushkin’s poem of the same name. For a reader of English, the echo of Keats is inevitable. In his preface France writes:

“Pushkin is irresistibly attractive, Baratynsky is probably more of an acquired taste. When I first started to read him, he wasn’t exactly my type of poet -- too bleak, too aloof. Yet I began to feel (the translator's abiding illusion?) that I could find my way into his vision, his voice. I'm not sure now why I was originally drawn to translate his poems. Perhaps at first it was partly the challenge of the new.”

Encountering a new poet from another time and place can be disorienting. Am I getting Baratynsky or France, or some indeterminate mingling of both? How much am I missing? What remains of the original? What France gives me I like. There’s a clarity and occasional plain-spokenness about Baratynsky’s lines that’s attractive. I can’t say how “major” Baratynsky is. I’m too removed from the original. I’ll defer to Nabokov’s assessment in the commentary to his four-volume translation of Eugene Onegin (1964):

“If in the taxonomy of talent there exists a cline between minor and major poetry, [Baratynsky] presents such an intermediate unit of classification. His elegies are keyed to the precise point where the languor of the heart and the pang of thought meet in a would-be burst of music; but a remote door seems to shut quietly, the poem ceases to vibrate (although its words may still linger) at the very instant that we are about to surrender to it. He had deep and difficult things to say, but never quite said them.”