Tuesday, May 31, 2016

`If a Man Has a Mind to Prance'

A reader’s reverie: possessing every book one has owned across a lifetime, not for their monetary worth but as a form of oblique autobiography. One loses, sells and gives away hundreds of volumes. Because I’ve always been a reader rather than a collector, I’ve owned few valuable books. Years ago, purely for their liquidity, I bought several Thomas Wolfe first editions, a first of On the Road, and another first of William Gaddis’ The Recognitions. I turned all into quick cash, and feel as though I didn’t own them so much as briefly rent them. Treating books like so many cases of breakfast cereal still leaves me feeling queasy, and I try to assuage the uneasiness by recalling the books I’ve given to friends, young readers and public libraries. Dr. Johnson is my exemplar. On this date, May 31, in 1769, Johnson writes to Thomas Warton (1728-1790):

“Many years ago when I used to read in the library of your College I promised to recompense the College for that permission by adding to their books a Baskersvilles Virgil. I have now sent it, and desire you to reposite it on the Shelves in my Name.”

 John Baskerville (1706-1775) was not, as I had assumed, Virgil’s translator but a printer of fine editions. His Virgil was published in 1757. Warton was a Fellow of Trinity College and later Poet Laureate. In 1754, while Johnson was at work on his Dictionary, Warton gave the lexicographer permission to use the college library for his research. Fifteen years later, Johnson wished to express his gratitude. Of the presentation copy, Boswell tells us:

“It has this inscription [written by Warton] in a blank-leaf: `Hunc librum D.D. Samuel Johnson, eo quod hic loci studiis interdum vacaret.’ Of this library, which is an old Gothic room, he was very fond. On my observing to him that some of the modern libraries of the University were more commodious and pleasant for study, as being more spacious and airy, he replied, `Sir, if a man has a mind to prance, he must study at Christ-Church and All-Souls.”

My new resolution: cultivating “a mind to prance.”

Monday, May 30, 2016

`Fixed in Reality, as I in Thought'

“Memorial Day. A new notebook. A man wearing a powdered wig and a tricorne carries a bass drum past the liquor store. I do not take my younger son to the parade, as I would have two years ago. I have grown this old, not to say jumpy. Taking Ben to see `The Bridge on the River Kwai’ I think of X, who, suffering from melancholy, walked through the city looking for moving pictures that dealt with cruel and sudden death, torture, earthquakes, floods, and assassinations—with any human misery that would, briefly, make his own burdens seem lighter.”

You needn’t be a writing workshop instructor to recognize the voice, the comic pleasure in peculiar juxtapositions, the all-consuming egotism coupled with a writer’s imaginative empathy, the booze. The passage might almost be lifted from one of John Cheever’s stories, one of the busy ones crammed with incident, such as “The Country Husband,” but you’ll find it in The Journals of John Cheever (1991), the first entry in the section titled “The Sixties.” In a handful of stories, Cheever is one of our best, but at such a cost. He was a machine for generating unhappiness in himself and others, and there were reasons other than alcohol. Even in his final seven sober years, he was a mess. See Blake Bailey’s Cheever: A Life (2009) for details. The meaning of Memorial Day, and much else, is lost in the journal entry. Cheever had joined the Army in 1942 and serviced in the Signal Corps in Astoria, Queens.

In 1943, Yvor Winters attempted to enlist in the Army. He was rejected for medical reasons (Winters had suffered from tuberculosis as a young man and was never robustly healthy) and volunteered as the Citizens’ Defense Corps Zone Warden for Los Altos, Calif. In the November 1944 issue of Poetry, Winters published “Moonlight Alert,” subtitled “Los Altos, California, June 1943.” The poem concludes:

                                                “With care
I held this vision, thinking of young men
Whom I had known and should not see again,
Fixed in reality, as I in thought.
And I stood waiting, and encountered naught.”

Sunday, May 29, 2016

`That So Much Labour Should Be Fruitless'

“Our juvenile compositions please us, because they bring to our minds the remembrance of youth . . .” So writes Samuel Johnson on this date, May 29, in 1750, in The Rambler#21, and for once I disagree with his conclusion. I have just found the review of Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow that I published in an “underground” magazine in 1973. Circulation was small, almost nonexistent, for which I’m grateful. My enthusiasm for the novel embarrasses me, as does the quality of the writing, which I might charitably describe as bombastic. Perhaps I was aping Pynchon’s bloat. What I see is a young writer compensating for having little of interest to say by saying it at great length. I will offer no clues as to the review’s provenance, to spare me additional embarrassment. Flagellation is best conducted at home.

Johnson, of course, has a bigger point to make. Rationalization is vanity’s readiest tool. Pride is resourceful.  We can flatter ourselves with the flimsiest evidence. In the passage cited above, we transform ineptitude into youthful charm and prodigality. Johnson spells out alternative strategies:

. . . our later performances we are ready to esteem, because we are unwilling to think that we have made no improvement; what flows easily from the pen charms us, because we read with pleasure that which flatters our opinion of our own powers; what was composed with great struggles of the mind we are unwilling to reject, because we cannot bear that so much labour should be fruitless. But the reader has none of these prepossessions, and wonders that the author is so unlike himself, without considering that the same soil will, with different culture, afford different products.”


Readers and critics are ruthless. That is their job. Our job as writers is to be equally ruthless, or more so, well before the reader.

Saturday, May 28, 2016

`Low-Grade Industrial Usquebaugh'

Here’s a beautiful and peculiar word: usquebaugh. Though never much of a whiskey drinker, I should have known it long ago. The OED traces it to the Irish and Scottish Gaelic uisge beatha, literally “water of life.” It means “whiskey” and entered English in Shakespeare’s time. It’s exotic enough to dazzle a word-minded drunk, and it would have come in handy forty years ago. I found usquebaugh in the letter Swift wrote to Pope on May 2, 1730:

“As to virtue, you have more charity than I, who never attempt to seek it, and if I had lost all my money I would disdain to seek relief from power. The loss would have been more to some wanting friends and to the public than to myself. Besides, I find that the longer I live I shall be less expensive. It is growing with me as with Sir John Mennis, who, when he grew old, boasted of his happiness to a friend that a groat would make him as drunk as half-a-crown did formerly; and so with me, half-a-pint of wine will go as far as a pint did some years ago, and probably I shall soon make up an abstemious triumvirate with you and Mr. [John] Gay. Your usquebaugh is set out by long sea a fortnight ago.”

We know from his diary that Samuel Pepys reported to Mennis (1599-1671), who served as Controller of the Navy. Like many in subsequent years, Mennis fancied himself a wit and poet. Among his works I’ve been unable to trace Swift’s anecdote, though Mennis is credited with having written “Upon a Surfeit Caught by Drinking Bad Sack at the George Tavern in Southwark” (and the timeless “Upon a Fart Unluckily Let”). Two Scots, Burns and Scott, use usquebaugh, the former in “Tam o’ Shanter”:

“Inspiring bold John Barleycorn!
What dangers thou canst make us scorn!
Wi’ tippenny, we fear nae evil;
Wi’ usquabae, we'll face the devil!”

In his chapter on Burns in Lectures on the English Poets, Hazlitt, not a notable drinker, finds room for  usquebaugh: “He might have traced his habit of ale-house tippling to the last long precious draught of his favourite usquebaugh, which he took in the prospect of bidding farewel [sic] for ever to his native land.” But I was most gratified to discover on my own that Myles na gCopaleen, in his “Cruiskeen Lawn” column in the Irish Times on March 25, 1957, had likewise used my favorite new word. The context is too convoluted to explain:

“Weeds and other snaggings are automatically extracted from the sool gayr’s rejects by ingenious electrically-powered antennae known as lawva fawda and conveyed to a complex of secret `secondary hopsitals’ where the material is converted into Irish tweed, low-grade industrial usquebaugh, carpenter’s scantlings, newsprint, plastic hurley sticks, cut-glass eggcups and ingots of radioactive turf.”

The Irish Times, to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of Flann O’Brien’s death on April Fools’ Day 2016, posted a selection of the great man’s columns.

Friday, May 27, 2016

`It Is Merely a Peculiar Honesty'

“Miss Smith wanted happiness to exist where it possibly could.”

She sounds rather prim, this Miss Smith, doesn’t she? Not exactly a cheer leader or life of the party. “Where it possibly could?” What could this mean? Can’t happiness not merely exist but blossom across creation? Aren’t we obligated to be happy? Isn’t unhappiness a sort of treason against life? Here is “Happiness” from Stevie Smith’s second collection, Tenderly to One (1938):

“Happiness is silent, or speaks equivocally for friends,
Grief is explicit and her song never ends,
Happiness is like England, and will not state a case,
Grief, like Guilt, rushes in and talks apace.”

Things are different today. Happiness is desperately loquacious, as is aggrievement. No, Miss Smith was right after all, and would have concurred with Dr. Johnson: “Terrestrial happiness is of short continuance. The brightness of the flame is wasting its fuel; the fragrant flower is passing away in its own odours.” The observation at the top is from one of Smith’s most sympathetic critics, D.J. Enright, writing in “Did Nobody Teach You?: On Stevie Smith” (Man Is an Onion: Reviews and Essays, 1972). Enright takes his title from “Valuable” (The Frog Prince and Other Poems, 1955):    

“Why do you not put some value on yourselves,
Learn to say, No?
Did nobody teach you?
Nobody teaches anybody to say No nowadays,
People should teach people to say No.”

Some will read “Valuable” as a cold moralist’s sermon, or a self-esteem salesman’s pitch, but Smith won’t be pinned down like a butterfly in a museum drawer. She doesn’t write manifestoes. Critics, at a loss, invariably liken her to other poets, most often Blake, Dickinson and Mother Goose, but Smith is that rarest of writers, a home-grown original, a poetic mutation. No one could set out to write the way she does in her poems and novels. New Directions recently published All the Poems of Stevie Smith (ed. Will May), including more than one-hundred previously unpublished and uncollected poems. One hopes young readers discover Smith, who died in 1971. Twentieth-century poetry in English largely belongs to the English (Auden, Smith, Sisson, Larkin, Hill), and American poets (and readers) have much to learn.

That “death” (often “Death”) should appear so often in her poems is no surprise. With Beckett she is the great comedian of Death (or “death”). But the frequency of “happy” and its variations comes as news. Here, from the unpublished poems, is “I thank thee, Lord”:

“I thank thee O Lord for my beautiful bed
Have mercy on those who have none
And may all the children still happier lie
When they to thy kingdom come.”

Smith is half in love with death, easeful or otherwise. It represents sanctuary, rest from the strife of life, a beautiful bed, yet her poems are seldom morbid in a vulgar way. This untitled poem is on the next page:

“He preferred to be a hearthrug sage
To risk the cold opinion of the world,
Somewhere within him there had been
A lack of courage, a nerve failed.
He was not happy: but then he was not miserable,
He had money. Sometimes he wrote.
You might say his character was cast upon him,
And with it that luck’s lot.”

In “Mabel,” again, death the friend:

“In her loneliness Mabel
Found the hiss of the unlit gas
Companionable
And in a little time, dying
Sublime.”

All the Poems is a great celebration of a great poet who eludes our strident pigeonholing. Enright gets her right: “She can be grim—but she won’t stand for any nonsense about abandoning hope. That would be ignoble. In what looks like steps in a campaign against received `enlightened’ opinion, she shows something of the terrifying honesty which Eliot ascribed to Blake.” Here is Eliot on Blake:

“It is merely a peculiar honesty, which, in a world too frightened to be honest, is peculiarly terrifying. It is an honesty against which the whole world conspires, because it is unpleasant.”

[Go here for a fine review by Hermione Lee of All the Poems.]

Thursday, May 26, 2016

`What Answers to an Old Desire'

“I have also been reading Paul Valéry’s collection of aphorisms, Analects: many of them are sublime. From so much brilliance however it is difficult to retain much. Malraux’s art criticism is like that.”

Analects was the first book by Paul Valéry I read, in 1970 or 1971, during my freshman year in college. The timing was perfect. The fifteen-volume Collected Works of Paul Valéry was then being published incrementally, having started in 1956 and concluding in 1975, by Pantheon/Princeton University Press. Analects was Vol. XIV in the series and contains aphorisms and other brief bits of prose, many taken from the notebooks Valéry kept throughout his life, and an introduction by W.H. Auden.

The passage quoted at the top is from a letter the late Thomas Berger wrote to his friend and fellow novelist Zulfikar Ghose in October 1974. Of all the novelists at work during my lifetime, Berger is the one who most inspired my loyalty, starting when I read his third novel, Little Big Man (1964), while in high school, then read retroactively back to his first, Crazy in Berlin (1958), and forward as subsequent books appeared, beginning with Vital Parts in 1970 and concluding with Adventures of the Artificial Woman in 2004.

Berger is correct when he says it is “difficult to retain much” when reading Analects, as the brilliance remains consistent across 622 pages. One wishes to remember nearly every pared-down thought, and ends up remembering none, which is why we keep commonplace books. An aphorism is dense matter of little weight, thought concentrated into the fewest syllables. As I’ve gotten older, the appeal of concision has grown while the allure of bloat has withered. The volume’s title is perfect. Most often associated with the thought of Confucius, “analects” is defined by the OED as “the choice part; the select essence,” and as “literary or philosophical fragments or extracts.” Valéry’s analects inspire contrary impulses in a reader. The beauty of one aphorism stimulates impatience to read the next, but also a desire to linger and savor the first. One is left engaging in a quiet, readerly tug-of-war. Auden writes in his introduction:

“For Valéry, all loud and violent writing is comic, like a man alone in a room, playing a trombone. When one reads Carlyle, for instance, one gets the impression that he had persuaded himself that it takes more effort, more work, to write fortissimo than piano, or universe than garden.”

In Valery’s piano mode: “If everybody wrote, where would literary values be?” To weigh his judgment, just look around. Everyone writes; almost no one writes well. Reading Valéry, I frequently find myself testing his judgments against reality, in a manner almost mathematical, and usually find them solid. Consider this, with its literary and political implications: “The new has an irresistible appeal only to minds that get their maximal stimulus out of mere change.” Immediately followed by this: “What’s best in the new is what answers to an old desire.” And this, urgently pertinent in politics, literature and our daily lives:

“An attitude of permanent indignation signifies great mental poverty. Politics compels its votaries to take that line and you can see their minds growing more and more impoverished every day, from one burst of righteous anger to the next.”

Reading Analects, one feels simultaneously energized for living and humbled by the modest worth of one’s own insights, as when we realize Valéry has been there before us: “To reread what one has written proves how little one knows oneself.”

A comparably lively collection of aphorisms and assorted bon mots might be gleaned from Berger’s letters. Here he is sounding like La Rochefoucauld in a 1977 letter to Ghose: “Envy, my dear fellow, is more operative in the affairs of men than is lust or greed—indeed it might be said that greed and lust are merely among the masks that envy assumes.” And this of George Bernard Shaw from 1975: “It’s his tendentiousness, I think, that keeps him trivial. He’s always out to solve social problems—the sure sign of a superficial practitioner.”

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

`The Old Story Glowed with Fresh Color'

Recently on the radio I heard a well-known dupe eulogizing an even better-known dupe, Henry A. Wallace (1888-1965), the thirty-third vice president of the United States, unsuccessful presidential candidate and sometime apologist for the Gulag. Wallace is a parody of the “useful idiot,” a fellow traveler happy to commend the latest totalitarian scheme. Wallace shows up late in Within the Whirlwind (trans. Ian Boland, 1981), the second volume of Yevgenia Solomonovna Ginzburg’s memoirs of the eighteen years she spent in Stalin’s prisons and camps, and in internal exile.

In 1937, Ginzburg (1904-1977) was a teacher, a writer for the newspaper Red Tartary, an enthusiastic Communist, the wife of a Kazan Party Secretary and mother of two boys. She was arrested by the N.K.V.D. and charged with belonging to a “counter-revolutionary Trotskyist group” – a rubber-stamp accusation during Stalin’s Great Purge (1936-1938), when more than a million people, many of them, like Ginzburg, members of the Communist Party, were murdered. She received a ten-year sentence and was transported to a labor camp in Kolyma, in northeastern Russia, where she became a dokhodya, a “goner,” a prisoner consigned to death by overwork and malnutrition.

Released from the Gulag in February 1949, she was forced to remain in exile for another five years in Magadan, a camp near Kolyma that had been visited in 1944 by then-Vice President Henry Wallace. He likened the slave-labor camp to “a combination Hudson’s Bay Company and TVA [Tennessee Valley Authority].” Ginzburg was arrested again in October 1949 and returned to Kolyma. She worked secretly on her memoirs and was released from the Gulag in June 1955. In Part II, Chap. 13 of Within the Whirlwind, Ginzburg recounts the story of Engineer Krivoshei, a fellow exile and flamboyant storyteller whose “best piece” was titled “Wallace’s Monologue”:

“We were all familiar with the story of how the American Henry Wallace had managed to travel through Kolyma and observe only the Potemkin villages that the authorities had decided to show him. But Krivoshei, when he delivered `Wallace’s Monologue,’ impersonated the perspicacious traveler and imitated his accent so well that the old story glowed with fresh color.”

Ginzburg’s quotes Krivoshei quoting Wallace: “The tall sturdy boys from Central Russia are determined to conquer this wild region,” “Pioneers of progress. The founders of new cities,” and more proletarian platitudes. The following morning, Ginzburg learns of the “Doctor’s Plot,” another of Stalin’s inventions. In January 1953, he accused nine Moscow doctors, six of whom were Jews, of plotting to poison the Soviet leadership. After Stalin’s death in March, the charges were dismissed and the doctors exonerated.

Ginzburg was released from exile two years later and returned to Moscow, where she worked on the first volume of her memoirs, Journey into the Whirlwind. The English translation was published in 1967, though the book was not published in the Soviet Union until 1989. In Russian, the volumes are titled Krutoi marshrut I and Krutoi marshrut II -- Harsh Route or Steep Route. Ginzburg’s son was the novelist Vasilii Pavlovich Aksyonov (1932-2009), who was expelled from the Soviet Union in 1980 and settled in the U.S. During Ginzburg’s time in the Gulag, her older son Alyosha had died of starvation during the siege of Leningrad. Ginzburg died on this date, May 25, in 1977.