Saturday, February 25, 2017

`The Great Dream of History'

Some writers turn their work into a long meditation on the past, the vagaries of history and the nature of man. A few of them are formal historians, like Gibbon, who characterized all of history as “little more than the register of the crimes, follies, and misfortunes of mankind.” Others are poets or playwrights, like Homer or Shakespeare, and some are novelists, like Solzhenitsyn. Janet Lewis identifies this quality in the French novelist Marguerite Yourcenar:

“She is as much a historian as a novelist. Elsewhere (in Les Yeux Ouverts) she speaks of the great dream of history, that is to say, the world of all the living people of the past, so that when one loves life one loves the past. She even uses the word vivants, which includes more than people -- animals, plants, the moving air.”

I happened on “The Historical Imagination,” ostensibly a review by Lewis of Yourcenar’s essay collection The Dark Brain of Piranesi, published in the Summer 1995 issue of The Threepenny Review. Lewis, born in 1899, would die at the age of ninety-nine three years after the review was published. She was a poet and author of three novels based on Famous Cases of Circumstantial Evidence with an Introduction of the Theory of Presumptive Guilt by S. M. Phillips (1873): The Wife of Martin Guerre (1941), The Trial of Soren Qvist (1947) and The Ghost of Monsieur Scarron (1959). Lewis published two other novels not part of the Circumstantial Evidence series – The Invasion: A Narrative of Events Concerning the Johnston Family of St. Mary’s (1932) and Against a Darkening Sky (1943) -- and a collection of stories, Good-bye, Son, and Other Stories (1946).

All of Lewis’ work is essential but The Wife of Martin Guerre is one of the last century’s great novels, and ranks, in fact, with Yourcenar’s Memoirs of Hadrian (1954). Lewis devotes much of her review to the first essay in Yourcenar’s collection, “Faces of History in the Historia Augusta”:

“. . . she treats of the six historians of the last three hundred and fifty years of the Roman
 Empire, and shows them in their incompetence, their mediocrity; remote in time often from their subjects -- the twenty-eight emperors -- and yet revealing in that they give unconsciously, unintentionally, each his contemporary view of his historical subject. The effect is like a scene superimposed upon a scene, because out of her own research she can give us the more true background. Hadrian appears here, as seen by the gossip of the times, a portrait corrected and extended by her own knowledge. The passages spent on Hadrian are few, but the whole essay gives us the milieu of research and of the living scene -- the past -- from which the Memoirs of Hadrian emerged. And the images which appear as if by magic in this prose, the anecdotes that are in themselves whole stories.”

If you have access to JSTOR, read Lewis' review here. For those who do not, I’ll reproduce another passage at length. Lewis might be writing of her own approach to writing much of her fiction:

“In this essay the sense of research is great: something of a private investigator, something of an archeologist, invigorating with a sense of perpetual discovery. But beyond this there is always the widening scene, the real scene as she comes to know it from these and other sources, and there is always the sense of all time. The decadence of Rome, unobserved, inconceivable by those who lived in their little segments of it, is it not comparable to our own recent history?”

Yourcenar closes “Faces of History” with a plain and simple sentence: “The modern reader is at home in the Historia Augusta.” Lewis picks up the theme and concludes her review:

“She speaks also of the curious fate of martyrs. `Nothing is more quickly outmoded than a martyr.’ As the causes for which they died are resolved, the plausibility for their suffering disappears. Why, say my contemporaries, did Thomas More let himself perish over so small a difference with the King? How fortunate that Galileo recanted, since all the world can see that he was right! I remember, or rather, I cannot remember all the names of the martyrs of the Civil Rights movement; there are too many. And yet I remember well, almost with a sense of envy, a white woman [Viola Liuzzo?] from the North who was shot and killed as she rode in a demonstration somewhere in the South -- envy of a life well-given for a great and urgent cause. `Each martyr drives out his predecessor; the deviations for which they were sacrificed are not reconciled, but discarded.’ The final page of this essay [“Agrippa d’Aubigné and Les Tragiques”] becomes a passionate declaration of the importance of paying due attention to such tragic -- and noble -- events. And yet this is an essay on the literary quality of a great poem. Well, perhaps there is no difference.”

The title of the final poetry collection published during Lewis’ lifetime, put out by R.L. Barth, was The Dear Past and Other Poems 1919-1994 (1994).

Friday, February 24, 2017

`But I Still Don't Know Where I Should Send It'

I’ve learned that Donald Rayfield, author of the best Chekhov biography in English, and of Stalin and His Hangmen: The Tyrant and Those Who Killed for Him (2004), and translator of Gogol’s Dead Souls, is now preparing a new translation of Varlam Shalamov’s Kolyma Tales. John Glad translated a selection of the 147 stories Shalamov wrote in samizdat between 1954 and 1973 as Kolyma Tales (1980) and Graphite (1981). In English we know him, as we know Solzhenitsyn, principally as a chronicler of the Gulag, where he spent fourteen years, but Shalamov is not a literal documentarian. He wrote fiction as artfully poised as Chekhov’s. In him, witness and artist maintain a rare balance. In his 1980 review of Kolyma Tales, Irving Howe writes:

“. . . the tension here between aesthetic and moral standards is good for our souls, if not our literary theories; let it remain, that tension, so that we will not rest too easily with mere opinion. But in the case of Varlam Shalamov it is also worth saying that one reason his work achieves high literary distinction is precisely the moral quality of his testimony. The act of representation yokes the two.”

From The Penguin Book of Russian Verse (2015), edited by Robert Chandler, Boris Dralyuk and Irina Mashinski, I learned that Shalamov was also a poet. Chandler writes in his introduction that Shalamov’s stories are “a masterpiece of Russian prose and the greatest of all works of literature about the Gulag.” Shalamov’s poems are little read, he says, perhaps because “we tend to pigeonhole writers; it is hard to imagine that the author of the bleak and sober Kolyma Tales could also have written poems of such ecstatic joy.” Here is Chandler’s version of “Purple Honey”:

“From a frost-chilled
line of poetry
my anguish will drop
like a ripe berry.

“Rosehip juice will dye
fine crystals of snow –
and a stranger will smile
on his lonely way.

“Blending dirty sweat
with the purity of a tear,
he will carefully collect
the tinted crystals.

“He sucks tart sweetness,
this purple honey,
and his dried mouth
twists in happiness.”

Shalamov often writes about the impulse to write and its futility:

“I went out into the clear air
and raised my eyes to the heavens
to understand our stars
and their January brilliance.

“I found the key to the riddle;
I grasped the hieroglyphs’ secret;
I carried into our own tongue
the work of the star-poet.

“I recorded all this on a stump,
on frozen bark,
since I had no paper with me
in that January dark.”

In one of the Kolyma Tales, “Sententious,” the narrator says: “Little flesh was left on my bones, just enough for bitterness – the last human emotion; it was closer to the bone.” Shalamov’s poems, too, are stripped-down and elemental, and in this, presumably, they resemble life in the camps. As Chandler says, there is joy and even gratitude in the poems, but the more typical note is baffled stoicism:   

“And so I keep going;
death remains close;
I carry my life
in a blue envelope.

“The letter’s been ready
ever since autumn:
just one little word –
it couldn’t be shorter.

“But I still don’t know
where I should send it;
if I had the address,
my life might have ended.”

Shalamov lived his final years in poverty. He was blind, deaf and suffered from Huntington’s disease, but continued composing poems until his final months, when visitors took his dictation. He died in 1982 at age seventy-four. “Somewhat like Paul Celan and Primo Levi,” Chandler writes, “Shalamov seems in the end to have been defeated by the destructive forces he withstood so bravely and for so long. His own life story may be the most tragic of all the Kolyma tales.”

[Chandler writes about Shalamov’s poetry here and here.]

Thursday, February 23, 2017

`I Always Made an Awkward Bow'

John Keats, whose letters surpass in brilliance and sheer readability most of his poetry, at least in the judgment of some, wrote his final letter to his friend Charles Brown on Nov. 30, 1820. It begins:

“’Tis the most difficult thing in the world [for] me to write a letter. My stomach continues so bad, that I feel it worse on opening any book,--yet I am much better than I was in Quarantine. Then I am afraid to encounter the proing and conning of any thing interesting to me in England. I have an habitual feeling of my real life having past, and that I am leading a posthumous existence.”

One month earlier, Keats had turned twenty-five. He arrived in Rome on Nov. 15, after spending ten days in quarantine on a ship in the Bay of Naples. The sentence beginning “I have an habitual feeling . . .” is the saddest in all of literature. Three sentences later – “There was my star predominant!” -- he rallies sufficiently to quote Shakespeare, his ever-present tutelary spirit: “a bawdy planet, that will strike / Where ’t is predominant.” (The Winter’s Tale, Act I, Scene 2). He declares his love for Brown – and for wordplay:

“I cannot answer any thing in your letter, which followed me from Naples to Rome, because I am afraid to look it over again. I am so weak (in mind) that I cannot bear the sight of any hand writing of a friend I love so much as I do you. Yet I ride the little horse, – and, at my worst, even in Quarantine, summoned up more puns, in a sort of desperation, in one week than in any year of my life.”

The clear-sightedness and absence of self-pity in the former medical student is inspiring: “Servern is very well, though he leads so dull a life with me. Remember me to all friends . . .” Try reading the letter, right through these final lines, without tearing up: “I can scarcely bid you good bye even in a letter. I always made an awkward bow.” Keats’ loyal friend Joseph Severn, who accompanied the poet to Rome, described his final moments:
 
“The poor fellow bade me lift him up in bed—he breathed with great difficulty—and seemed to lose the power of coughing up the phlegm—and immense sweat came over him so that my breath felt cold to him—`dont breath on me—it comes like Ice’—he clasped my hand very fast as I held him in my arms—the mucus was boiling within him—it gurgled in his throat—this increased—but yet he seem’d without pain—his eyes look’d upon me with extrem[e] sensibility but without pain—at 11 he died in my arms.” 

Keats died on this date, Feb. 23, in 1821.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

`I Wish Them Literature'

“Fifty years ago . . .”

That year I turned fourteen, as my youngest son did on Tuesday. I was reading indiscriminately in that uncharted no-man’s-land between boyhood and what passes for young American manhood. Tolkien and Kafka, Dickens and Bellow, Shakespeare and Roger Tory Peterson. I was an omnivore, without critical standards, without a reading “mentor,” Hoovering the literary landscape. If I started reading a book, I had to finish it – an obsessive tic I overcame many years later. I had only recently shed science fiction and Edgar Rice Burroughs. I was learning that a quality shared by all bad books, no matter how highly touted, is tedium. Good books give pleasure. Those are slippery concepts, I know, but dedicated readers learn what they mean and aren't interested in laying down the law for others. One of my all-time favorite books, Ronald Knox’s Enthusiasm: A Chapter in the History of Religion, will bore the tears out of most readers, which is precisely what James Baldwin’s novels do to me.     

“. . . we opened books not just to learn about the content of a writer’s mind but to hear the right words in the right order telling us things we sensed to be true.”

Our author proposes three reasons why we read, which, when combined, come close to defining that elusive thing, the good book: 1.) The writer has something worthwhile and interesting to say. 2.) He deploys words artfully. (Hear the echo of Jonathan Swift: “Proper words in proper places make the true definition of style.”) 3.) He tells the truth. He’s not just not lying. His truth can be tested against our own experience.

“To read Donne, Herrick, Keats. Yeats, Dylan Thomas, Fitzgerald, Proust, James, and Joyce was like hearing Miles or Louis on the horn or Art Tatum or Bill Evans on the keyboard.”

I would add Errol Garner.  Otherwise, the comparison is precise. I’m more articulate about books than music, but the feeling of exaltation and gratitude is nearly identical.

“By God, back then we listened when we read, and if on occasion our ears needed readjustment, we read the same words again and again until we heard what we were supposed to hear.”

Writers and readers collaborate. A new word, an old word newly deployed, a subtle brushstroke of irony, a seductive rhythm, an intriguing metaphor, an allusion recognized – literary libertines lives for such things. The passage quoted incrementally above is from page xii of Arthur Krystal’s This Thing We Call Literature (Oxford University Press, 2016). He closes his “Author’s Note” with these words: 

“So it comes down, as it must, to one reader reading, one person who understands that he or she, while alone, is still part of a select society, a gallery of like-minded readers who, though they may disagree about this or that book, know that literature matters in a way that life matters. Such readers, I believe, still exist. I wish them well. I wish them literature. And I wish them solitude.”

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

`What a Necrology of Notability!'

Last week, Andrew Rickard at Graveyard Masonry posted a passage from “Library of Old Authors,” an essay collected in James Russell Lowell’s My Study Windows (1871). The first sentence – “What a sense of security in an old book which Time has criticised for us!” – echoes my own suspicion that critics are superfluous, and discerning readers are the legitimate arbiters of literary worth. My library’s copy of Lowell’s book is the twenty-third edition, published in 1886, which suggests his one-time popularity. “Library of Old Authors” is eighty-four pages long. Lowell’s style will remind readers of Charles Lamb. Detractors will find it fulsome or fusty. His pacing is leisurely and conversational, more like a storyteller’s than a stiff-necked academic’s. His sentences can be enormously (and comically) long. Lowell is an entertainer as well as a man of letters, and style is a means of charming, not dazzling, offending or boring the reader.

Lowell’s essay is ostensibly a review of Library of Old Authors, a series of reprints published by John Russell Smith of London between 1856 and 1864. Lowell is not uncritical, and he writes in a manner not seen since the triumph of Modernism a century ago:

“It is not easy to divine the rule which has governed Mr. Smith in making the selection for his series. A choice of old authors should be a florilegium [OED: “a collection of the flowers of literature, an anthology”], and not a botanist’s hortus siccus [“an arranged collection of dried plants; a herbarium”], to which grasses are as important as the single shy blossom of a summer. The old-maidenly genius of antiquarianism seems to have presided over the editing of the Library.”       

The Latin tags, elevated vocabulary and stringent whimsy are borrowed straight from Lamb. When Lowell writes, “We confess a bibliothecarian avarice that gives all books a value in our eye,” we recall “Detached Thoughts on Books and Reading” and Hazlitt’s “On Reading Old Books.” Lowell preaches respect for his old authors, and condemns the sloppiness of editing he finds in the series: “It is impossible that men who cannot construct an English sentence correctly, and who do not know the value of clearness in writing, should be able to disentangle the knots which slovenly printers have tied in the thread of an old author’s meaning.” Lowell gives a remarkably close and learned reading of many texts, with emphasis on scholarly incompetence, and reaches new heights of invective. Of writers whose work is “mainly bibliographic” (that is, not literary) – a distinction all but evaporated today -- Lowell writes:

“As literature, they are oppressive; as items of literary history they find their place in that vast list which records not only those named for promotion, but also the killed, wounded, and missing in the Battle of the Books. There are hearts touched with something of the same vague pathos that dims the eye in some deserted graveyard. The brief span of our earthly immortalities is brought home to us as nowhere else. What a necrology of notability!”

In a fractionally more hopeful mood Lowell writes, “There is scarcely any rubbish-heap of literature out of which something precious may not be raked by the diligent explorer,” which has always been one of the working assumptions here at Anecdotal Evidence.
Lowell is amusingly merciless with one of the editors in the series, William Carew Hazlitt, grandson of the great essayist:

“We are profoundly grateful for the omission of a glossary. It would have been a nursery and seminary of blunder. To expose pretentious charlatanry is sometimes the unpleasant duty of a reviewer. It is a duty we never seek, and should not have assumed in this case but for the impertinence with which Mr. Hazlitt has treated dead and living scholars, the latchets of whose shoes he is not worthy to unloose, and to express their gratitude to whom is, or ought to be, a pleasure to all honest lovers of their mother-tongue.”

Monday, February 20, 2017

`Find Them As Strange As You Do'

My oldest son finished the Austin Marathon with a sore right foot. His time was superb until mile-18, when he felt a pain that alternately burned and stabbed. Around mile-21 he contemplated quitting but persevered. He walked and ran, and for the home stretch tore out of sheer Kurp cussedness to the finish line. A doctor diagnosed a stress fracture, and swore him off running for at least  two weeks, which has Josh steaming, of course. I couldn’t be prouder.

Austin update: the hipster-to-civilian ratio in our capital has peaked at 30-to-1. Visible tattoo density is higher still. I borrowed from my daughter-in-law her beat-up hardback copy of the posthumously published Meyer Berger’s New York (Random House, 1960). The volume collects samples of his column, “About New York,” published in The New York Times between 1953 and 1959. Berger was a great American writer who never stopped being a great reporter. Apropos of Austin, Berger writes in his preface “Our Town: Open Letter to a Visitor”: 

“If you wander into Greenwich Village and come across men and women who affect Bohemian dress and Bohemian manner, don’t go away with the impression that they alone represent New York. The visitor from Flatbush and from Hunt’s Point in the Bronx find them as strange as you do.”  

Sunday, February 19, 2017

`Things One Must Not Leave Undone'

Today we are in Austin to watch my oldest son run his first marathon. Few settings could be more alien but I’m curious to see how Josh will run 26 miles, 385 yards. He’s twenty-nine, and started running only a year ago, but is gifted with an ironclad work ethic. If he does something, he does it. No skimping, no half-measures, no distractions. I wish I had been like that at twenty-nine. The run in Austin reminds me of a poem by Guy Davenport -- “At Marathon” (Thasos and Ohio: Poems and Translations 1950-1980, 1986) -- just as Josh reminds me of Pheidippides, who ran from Marathon to Athens to announce the victory over the Persians at the Battle of Marathon in 490 B.C.:

“Marianne Moore saluted the battlefield.
Her frail hand at the brim of her hat
round as a platter, she stood at attention
in her best Brooklyn Navy Yard manner,
or as years before she and Jim Thorpe
raised the school flag at Carlisle.
Here in long scarlet cloaks the ranks
advanced with ashlared shields, singing
to the thrashed drums and squealing fife
the pitiless hymn of Apollo the Wolf,
spears forward, horsetails streaming
from the masked helmets with unearthly eyes.
The swordline next and the javelineers,
More red cloaks, Ares wild in their blades.
The javelins whistled up like partridges
flushed in a brake and fell like sleet.
The Persians bored in, an auger of hornets.
The Greeks flowed around their thrust
as fire eats a stick. Wise to the ruse,
the Persians pulled back to the sea
and made hard in their ships for Athens,
which, the Greek army there on the plain,
lay naked to their will, tomorrow’s victory.
But the Greeks were there on the morrow
to cut them back. They had run all the way
from Marathon, twenty miles, in bronze.
Two thousand, four hundred and fifty-five
years ago. There are things one must not
leave undone, such as coming from Brooklyn
in one’s old age to salute the army
at Marathon. What are years?”

Moore visited Greece in 1962 with her Bryn Mawr classmates Frances and Norvelle Browne. She stopped at Marathon. Davenport would admire the reverence of such a gesture. He refers in his final line to Moore’s poem “What Are Years?” in which she says “how pure a thing is joy. / This is mortality, / this is eternity.”