Tuesday, October 06, 2015

`Sealed By the Circumstantial'

“Style being the man, you cannot borrow the one without first becoming the other.”

“Escape reading”: A Journal of the Plague Year (1722). I read it first in college, years after Robinson Crusoe. They share the survival theme, irresistible to boys. Early readers mistook it, understandably, for a survivor’s account, and that’s how I chose to read it this time, as did A.J. Liebling and Joseph Mitchell. They judged it a precursor to their own work, which, at its best and like Defoe's, is not always what it appears to be. The contrast with In Cold Blood, the “nonfiction novel,” is instructive. Capote fudged the facts and excused himself in advance by calling it a novel, which also served to tart up the book’s reputation so it looked like something more than a tawdry potboiler. It worked, and people still take it seriously. Defoe told a compelling story, elemental in its appeal to common readers, the sort sophisticates disdain. In his first chapter he interpolates a table of the plague-related burials reported in Holborn, lending it a documentary appearance. Fact or fiction, the book's appeal after three centuries tells us much about human credulity and the love of story.

The passage quoted at the top is from V.S. Pritchett’s “Defoe,” collected in The English Novelists: A Survey of the Novel by Twenty Contemporary Novelists (ed. Derek Verschoyle, Chatto & Windus, 1936). Immediately we sense Pritchett’s affinity for Defoe and his social background. Defoe’s father was a tallow chandler who worked alongside butchers. As a boy Pritchett worked in the leather trade, and religion was problematically central to both of their families. Pritchett writes:

“Unique in his own time, plain but never elegant, Defoe had the devious complexity of a nature whose simplicity and straightforwardness were highly disingenuous. How far simplicity is the result of art and how far of artlessness is always impossible to say . . . He is a weed in English literature, a writer as wiry and prolific as couch grass, growing anyhow and essentially inimitable.”    

I had to look up couch grass, an Old World native and common forage for grazing animals – tough, bountiful source of nutrients. Part of the pleasure in reading Defoe is gauging his loyalty to the facts. Pritchett writes:

“Almost every sentence of Defoe’s fiction is sealed by the circumstantial. There is such gusto in the habit that he is forever seeking opportunities to indulge it, saying the most careless and unlikely things in order more ingeniously to test his skill in making everything credible. It is the habit of the born and congenital liar, the old lag impenetrably stocked with alibis, the spy who has noted every inch of the ground, every movement of the population, as well as the habit of the new, fact-hunting, scientific mind.”

I can’t think of another critic as hungry for the world as he is for books. None so primes us for just the right volume, whether Defoe, Goncharov or Perez Galdos. His generalities have a personalized appeal. It’s no surprise Pritchett is, with Kipling (whose appetite for the world he matches), the best of all English story writers. The passage just quoted serves, with a little jiggering, as a commentary on Pritchett’s story “The Skeleton” (1966). And here, Pritchett lifts off into a philosophical reverie without losing sight of the matter at hand, Daniel Defoe:

“All the time our eyes are looking at a world which the mind’s eye immediately distorts. We walk down a street, we enter a room, we become part of a drama, and the mind turns this seeing and hearing into a stage play of jungles, associations, memories, wishes, fears and fantasies; we become to ourselves, itinerant puppet shows. The realism of Defoe breaks into this private dream world and reminds us of our public reality. We are citizens and taxpayers. We cease to be romantic, absolute centres, and become creatures relative to one another in the business of survival, delighted by the originality of an author who can surprise us with the commonplace of our circumstance.”

Pritchett is describing one of the central obligations and mysteries of great fiction – its power to induce self-forgetting and teleport us into the sensibilities of others. He calls Defoe “the greatest liar in English letters,” and we cherish him for that reason. The best of Defoe is in Robinson Crusoe, Moll Flanders and A Journal of the Plague Year, but follow Pritchett’s lead and sample the rest of his work, especially The Storm.  

Monday, October 05, 2015

`The Word Stirs'

Eva Brann titles the final chapter of Open Secrets/Inward Prospects (Paul Dry Books, 2004) “Leftovers: Variations on No Theme,” dedicating a sub-miscellany within a book that is already a miscellany. What the entries share is the coloration of one person’s sensibility, without straining after a grand summation. Brann is deeply learned, curious, common sensical and remarkably uncynical. One admires her calm and aversion to polite bullshit. Take this:                                      

“If you want to praise acceptably, be very precise. Inattentive praise is almost an insult.” 

I would delete “almost.” This has applications to everything from workplace ethics and etiquette to book reviewing. In an age when everything is “awesome,” nothing is good. “Inattentive” is precisely the word for polite, empty ass-kissing – a gesture of acceptance rather than an expression of admiration. And here she is on another symptom of our time:                                                       

“It is very profitable to advertise your psychic infirmity. No one will dare to make any demands, and the usual duties of humanity are cancelled.” 

She is diagnosing pathology (real, imagined or fraudulent) as an all-purpose excuse for being lazy, stupid, impatient or angry. And this, on another mistakenly valued virtue: 

“Spontaneity requires complex arrangements to produce and lots of help to clean up after.” 

Often people admired for their spontaneity are arrested adolescents (of any age) who have arranged for Mom and Dad to be close by with a credit card and health insurance. Related to this aper├žu in a subterranean fashion is another: 

“Living single has invigorating aspects that are the exact obverses of the obvious downsides: guiltless freedom, unnegotiated leisure, and the sharp, pure air of independence—not for everybody.” 

Those who most desire unfettered independence are often the ones least able to handle it. This is about as close as Brann gets to La Rochefoucauld-like cynicism (or realism): 

“People say they like people. But they seem to mean new ones, not the ones at hand.” 

Not “No Theme.” Her theme is childishness persisting across a lifetime and encouraged by the culture. Here is the idea as applied to politics in 2015 (as you read it, think of the people in your life who come to mind): 

“Adult fanaticism as observed in me: tunnel vision and wild generalization; bug-eyed credulity and balking at counterevidence; paranoid cocooning and dreams of domination; manic mentation and mindless proscriptions: a prolonged Walpurgis Night of the soul.” 

And a fine refutation of multiculturalism: 

“It is a touching but strange notion that to know each other better is to love each other more. Why should a maxim hold for all cultures when it is manifestly untrue for many couples? And yet it’s the premise of globalist education.” 

And here is Brann’s final entry, which contains a rare allusion to a recent writer: 

“Here’s a closing thought from [James] Merrill’s `The Broken Home.’ 

“`I have thrown out yesterday’s milk
And opened a book of maxims.
The flame quickens. The word stirs.’ 

“Might that happen?”

Sunday, October 04, 2015

`Respect for Our Common Learning'

Think of what Eva Brann does in Open Secrets/Inward Prospects (Paul Dry Books, 2004) as polishing a seemingly oxymoronic form, the discursive aphorism, to a pleasing gleam. They are aphorisms because they are brief and focused on a central core of thought, like electrons around a nucleus, and discursive because most are not that brief, they leave room for subsequent thoughts and a little embellishment, and because most are not barbed. In these ways they recall Pascal more than La Rochefoucauld, though she is more charming than either of them (one doesn’t read aphorisms for their charm). Few possess the Martial-like lethal thrust of R.L. Barth’s “Don't You Know Your Poems are Hurtful?” (Deeply Dug In, 2003):

“Yes, ma’am. Like KA-BAR to the gut,
Well-tempered wit should thrust and cut
Before the victim knows what’s what;
But sometimes, lest the point be missed,
I give the bloody blade a twist.”
Brann is less bloody and more sanguine. She has been a tutor at St. John’s College in Annapolis, Md., since 1957, and published a dozen books suffused with Greek thought. Open Secrets/Inward Prospects gathers more than thirty years’ worth of what Brann calls, in Greek, skariphemata – “scribblings.” In her preface she offers these instructions for use: “Open anywhere and if it irks you try another page. This book can be long or short—As You Like It.” This is not an irksome book, though Brann herself is not above getting charmingly irked:
“Innocence at home: Some of our students read their Nietzsche assignments as if that author was as indefeasibly nice as they are. Oh, the wicked pleasure of hearing all that nervously nasty transatlantic subtlety neutralized by the all-American balm!”
With her Greek and Latin (especially Greek), Brann thinks etymologically. She is, in this sense, an amateur of philo-sophia:   “There’s business and there’s work. Business is as the Romans say, neg-otium, `non-leisure,’ and is to be disposed of. That gets you to base level, leisure, and thence to real life.” [See Josef Pieper’s Leisure: The Basis of Culture (1952).] And unpack this lesson in medieval epistemology and writerly advice: “They say that truth is adaequatio intellectus rei, `the fitting of thought to thing.’ Writing is the adaequatio linguae rei, `the fitting of speech to thing.’ So pick a good thing and your writing will be good." In Brann’s case, what is a “good thing”? Her book should not be confused with a diary. We learn much about Brann, none of it day-to-day banal. She offers a clue when explaining her choice of title. The book, she says, can be divided in “a rough but ready way” into two categories: “1. observations about our external world well known to all but not always openly told, and 2. sightings of internal vistas and omens, looking at myself as a sample soul.” Brann relishes particulars while seeking general truths, and this would seem to be a lesson drawn, at least in part, from a lifetime spent teaching young people:
“It’s a mark of good teachers that students trust but don’t confide in them, that they speak in hypothetical, general, third-person terms—in the case of our students that they convert personal problems into philosophical issues. It’s their way of showing respect for our common learning: They want from us not coddling warmth but serious reflection on their concerns.”
In a dense nutshell, that tells us everything we need to know about the disastrous state of public education in the United States, without once mentioning money or computers. Brann’s book will remain on my bedside table. I’ll return to it the way we sometimes visit the barber less for a haircut than for a quick, restorative trim. Brann writes (and this one has already set up housekeeping in my brain):
“Later on it might look like `one’s own style.’ But it surely never began by `finding oneself’ but by imitating the finest models—which proved, thank God, to be inimitable.”

Saturday, October 03, 2015

`Sweet Are the Uses of Gentility'

Twenty-six issues of the paperback magazine New American Review, edited by the late Ted Solotaroff, appeared between 1967 and 1977. I caught up with it at Issue #10, published in August 1970, one month before I started my freshman year in college. The big attraction in that issue was Philip Roth’s story “On the Air,” which shared pages with “You,” a translation of a poem by Borges. This was heady stuff for a book-drunk seventeen-year-old. My tastes were still indiscriminate, and I consumed a lot of ephemerally fashionable stuff (Barthelme, Gass, Barth) among the magazine’s nuggets. One such can be found in the previous issue, #9 (April 1970), in which the editors launch a symposium portentously titled “The Writer’s Situation.” It sounds like an invitation to narcissism, and most of it is, especially considering four of the contributors – Hayden Carruth, Russell Banks, Frank Kermode and Robert Lowell – blowhards all. One contributor is a surprise, considering the company he is keeping and his reputation for tersely phrased contempt – J.V. Cunningham, one of the premier American poets of the last century.

The six questions posed to the participants, each trailing a litter of undergrown follow-up questions, are predictably pretentious: “Do you feel yourself part of a rear-guard action in the service of a declining tradition?” To that one Cunningham replies: “Rear-guard and advance are, like their analogues in politics, the terms of a past situation. The alignments of the present are so far undefined.” I suspect that went over a lot of heads. In 1970, Cunningham’s quip articulated a total banishment of the Zeitgeist, which could be distilled to a single word: politics. The late David Myers, a one-time student of Cunningham’s, quoted one of my cracks with embarrassing frequency: “Politics has destroyed more writers than vodka.” The destruction was well underway forty-five years ago. Asked about politics, Cunningham replies:

“You can write on politics or not. I do not. But is politics meant here? Or is it, rather, ideology? The latter is religious, not political, though religion has awesome political consequences. Politics is negotiation, accommodation, controlled power. It is achieving consensus without agreement, defeating a zoning change, voting for Harry Truman. It is being chairman. It is irrigation and not a flood. It is effective and corrupt in a settled society, the Old Adam. It gets another generation through to the grave with tolerable illusions and half-beliefs. I have finally written on politics.”

That envoi, a nose-thumbing Q.E.D., is a hoot, and almost redeems the rest of the symposium. Cunningham endorses common sense in a year of self-serving madness. When asked, “What are the main creative opportunities and problems that attract and beset you in your work?” he replies: “Forms. An interest in a form is an invitation to realize it.”

Asked, “Has there been a general collapse of literary standards in recent years?” he answers: “Well, we have gone from gentility to impudence, and in an age of impudence sweet are the uses of gentility.” Those familiar with Cunningham’s poems and essays will be amused.

[Go here to read the class notes kept by D.G. Myers when he was enrolled in a seminar on the history of literary criticism taught by Cunningham at Washington University in 1976.]    

Friday, October 02, 2015

`A Part May Be Equal to the Whole'

“Were you reading this book from the last page to the first some six or eight billion years ago? And did the people of that time produce fried chickens from their mouth, put life into them in the kitchen, and send them to the farm where they grew from adulthood to babyhood, finally crawled into eggshells, and after some weeks became fresh eggs?”

How many books that we read as children remain readable today, and on their own merits, not merely as nostalgic indulgences? My list: Robinson Crusoe, Gulliver’s Travels, The Bible, Kim, some Stevenson. Not one American product among them, and that surprises me but confirms my sense that writerly England from Chaucer to Larkin is my true home. But let me add another title, written by a latter-day American, a Russian Jew born in Odessa (like Isaac Babel, but ten fortunate years later): One, Two, Three.. . Infinity: Facts and Speculations of Science (1947) by the theoretical physicist and cosmologist George Gamow. I read it as a Signet paperback with a gold-colored spine while in the seventh grade, in 1964 or 1965. At the time, I hardly distinguished between literary and non-literary, high culture or low. It’s not irrelevant that I was still reading science fiction but would soon put it away with other childish things.

The passage quoted above – part cartoon, part Borges -- is drawn from Gamow’s final paragraph. Often while reading Gamow again I’ve been reminded of Borges and his fascination with infinity (as in “The Library of Babel”). Gamow adapts his title from Georg Cantor’s theory of multiple infinities, which he explains with a mathematician’s matter-of-fact coolness: “According to our rule of comparing infinities we must say that the infinity of even numbers is exactly as large as the infinity of all numbers. This sounds, of course, paradoxical, since even numbers represent only a part of all numbers, but we must remember that we operate here with infinite numbers, and must be prepared to encounter different properties.” I admire the sangfroid of that final clause, and suspect Borges would have as well. His story “The Aleph” is probably an allusion to Cantor’s use of the Hebrew letter aleph to represent transfinite sets. Gamow himself is not above Borgesian pranks, as when he notes that “in the world of infinity a part may be equal to the whole!” Then he tells an anecdote attributed to the German mathematician David Hilbert, with this footnote attached:

“From the unpublished, and even never written, but widely circulating volume: `The Complete Collection of Hilbert Stories’ by R. Courant.”

I’ve never bought the idea that science and math are on one side (of the brain, of the universe), and art on the other. They overlap like a Venn diagram and share a common source in the imagination. Gamow consistently gives the impression that he’s having a good time playing with mathematical ideas without trivializing them, and that he’s happy sharing his enthusiasms without dumbing them down (yes, he includes some equations). Gamow rekindles my interest in topology, recreational mathematics and the work of the late Martin Gardner (who was much appreciated by Nabokov). Here is the sentence that follows the one quoted above and closes One, Two, Three. . . Infinity:

“Interesting as they are, such questions cannot be answered from the purely scientific point of view, since the maximum compression of the universe, which squeezed all matter into a uniform nuclear fluid, must have completely obliterated all the records of the earlier compressive stages.”

Thursday, October 01, 2015

`Anecdotal, Amusing, Instructional, Farcical'

It’s best to avoid books marketed as “Travel.” Most are written by non-writers for non-travelers, and often turn out to be non-books. And yet, some of the best writers, usually those better known for other sorts of writing, have written the best books of travel. Among them are Herodotus, James Boswell, Alfred Russel Wallace, Anton Chekhov, Evelyn Waugh, Rebecca West, Patrick Leigh Fermor, Zbigniew Herbert, V.S. Naipaul and Marius Kociejowski. With the exception of Fermor (whose travel books, in fact, are a heightened species of memoir), none is known principally as a travel writer but rather as a historian, biographer, biologist, short-story writer, playwright, novelist or poet. This may be significant. Perhaps it’s important to know something about the world other than the name of the maitre d’ at Harry’s.

The best-known living travel writer is probably Paul Theroux, author of some fifty books almost evenly split between travel and fiction. I had never read even one of them until I picked up, despite the silly title, The Tao of Travel (2010), which has an even sillier sub-title: Enlightenments from Lives on the Road. Sophisticates might call it a meta-travel book, as Theroux doesn’t give us a sequential narrative but rather a grab bag that combines elements of commonplace book, literary criticism and bull session. The best parts consist of other writers’ words, as when he quotes a favorite passage from the epilogue to Rebecca West’s Black Lamb and Grey Falcon (1941):

“Only part of us is sane; only part of us loves pleasure and the longer day of happiness, wants to live to our nineties and die in peace, in a house that we built, that shall shelter those who come after us. The other half of us is nearly mad. It prefers the disagreeable to the agreeable, loves pain and its darker night despair, and wants to die in a catastrophe that will set back life to its beginnings and leave nothing of our house save its blackened foundations. Our bright nature fights in us with this yeasty darkness, and neither part is commonly quite victorious, for we are divided against ourselves and will not let either part be destroyed.”

Like some of the other writers cited above, West here is about as far from conventional travel writing as can be imagined, and that is perfectly appropriate. Travel itself is an uneasy compromise between itinerary and contingency, so a satisfying travel book ought to have a form elastic enough to contain almost anything, except dull writing. In his preface, with the Larkin-esque title “The Importance of Elsewhere,” Theroux describes a readable travel book as “anecdotal, amusing, instructional, farcical, boastful, mock-heroic, occasionally hair-raising, warnings to the curious, or else they ring bells like mad and seem familiar. At their best, they are examples of what is most human in travel.”

Though Theroux speaks well of the odious Paul Bowles, and too often quotes his own books, he gathers enough good writers and writing to make his book worthy of a concerted browse. He quotes with approval Boswell quoting Johnson: “. . . in travelling, a man must carry knowledge with him, if he would bring home knowledge.” And he says that Evelyn Waugh “knew better than most people that there is a great deal of pleasure to be derived from a travel book in which the traveler is having a bad time.” To prove his point he quotes from Waugh’s first travel book, Labels (1930):

“I do not think I shall ever forget the sight of Etna at sunset; the mountains almost invisible in a blur of pastel grey, glowing on the top and then repeating its shape, as though reflected, in a wisp of smoke, with the whole horizon behind radiant with pink light, fading gently into a grey pastel sky. Nothing I have ever seen in Art or Nature was quite so revolting.”

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

`More or Less a Substitute for Nail-Biting'

Without comment, an unknown reader suggested I read Chapter 13 of An Autobiographical Novel (1966, the year Capote published his own “non-fiction novel”) by Kenneth Rexroth (1905-1982), a once popular Beat fellow traveler, prolific follower of fashion and arrested adolescent read largely by others of his kind. Think Thomas Wolfe with brains. My reader’s suggestion struck me as unlikely enough to follow. I knew only that Doubleday appended Novel to the title to forestall libel suits. In Chapter 13, the narrator is still a teenager and living in Chicago, which means Rexroth has already devoted 110 pages to the life of a child. This is unforgivable unless you are Marcel Proust or Anne Frank. I almost gave up after three or four pages, until I came upon this:  

“. . . somewhere around my twelfth year I acquired the questionable accomplishment of being able to read absolutely anything.  Perhaps this is a vice or neurosis, the symptom of some serious lack in real life. Maybe, but I still have it.”

The polite word for Rexroth is “garrulous.” He reminds me of Henry Miller, another self-besotted teller of tall tales. He loves the sound of his own voice, and one is forever assaying the veracity of his words, Novel or no Novel. But what impressed me was that I acquired a similar “vice or neurosis” around the same age, and had never heard anyone else self-diagnosis the malady. I’ve been in partial remission since my mid-twenties. Today, I’m eager to not read many of the books I encounter, and have no compunction about closing volumes prematurely. But back then I was an omnivore and largely uncritical, guilt-ridden when I failed to finish reading a book. I no longer regret this, because it’s an efficient way to develop and hone critical standards and skills – through application, not theory. Then Rexroth makes a curious observation:

“This omnivorous appetite for reading things in sets and subjects [he has just described reading books of science and psychoanalysis] stood me in good stead, because it meant I got most of the world’s important fiction out of the way in adolescence where it belongs. I would take the Constance Garnett Chekhov, Turgenev, or Dostoevsky, the Archer Ibsen (a dreadful translation), the New York Edition of Henry James, or the mail-order sets of Joseph Conrad and Jack London, start with Volume I, and read straight through. I’m not proud of this. It seems to me now to be more or less a substitute for nail-biting.”

Why would one wish to get fiction “out of the way in adolescence where it belongs?” That’s a serious undervaluing of novels and stories. Not all fiction is science fiction. Most of the fiction I read today I’ve read many times before (including James, Chekhov and Conrad). One reading is never sufficient with a good book, fiction or otherwise. Rexroth starts sounding like a compulsive womanizer or competitive eater trying to break the hot dog-swallowing record. The notion of a book deepening across time, maturing with its reader, seems utterly alien to him. In his next sentences, Rexroth gives us a clue as to his real motivation:

“However, it purged me of a taste for nondescript fiction and indiscriminate light reading. I have read very little fiction except detective stories and science fiction since. A few years later, when I began to frequent bohemia, I discovered that I was marvelously well equipped for impressive name-dropping and deep critical analysis of the Russian masters in perfect studio-party style.”

There’s Rexroth’s big secret: chicks dig Goncharov. If you require further insight into Rexroth’s sensibility, try this:

“When I meet friends today who teach American literature and who are capable of long articles in PMLA, or even whole courses, on the moral problems of James Fenimore Cooper, I always feel like I’m being kidded. American fiction, even Hawthorne, even Melville, to this day seems to me to be absolute trash.”