Tuesday, February 09, 2016

`So Lively, So Enchanting, So Direct and Familiar'

“Yesterday I opened Montaigne by chance (I needed to trace some Latin verse), and I couldn’t put it down. What delights! Not for a very long time—perhaps never—has he seemed so lively, so enchanting, so direct and familiar. Yesterday I read `De l'utile et de l'honnête,’ and today I began `De l'expérience.’ Everything, almost every line, seemed subversive and liable to censorship in today’s world.”

The man who wrote this on July 19, 1942, was a Jewish novelist and playwright living in Bucharest, Romania, a nation described by Hannah Arendt as “the most anti-Semitic country in prewar Europe.” The Iron Guard, Romania’s fascist party, required no coaching from Hitler. By the late nineteen-thirties, most of Mihail Sebastian’s literary circle had been seduced by the lure of fascism and anti-Semitism, including names well-known to readers today -- Mircea Eliade and E. M. Cioran. No one is more credulous, self-serving and fashion-conscious than an intellectual, and little has changed in seventy-five years.

Sebastian’s journal was smuggled out of Romania to Israel by his brother in 1961. The writer had survived the war but was hit and killed by a truck in Bucharest just weeks after Germany’s surrender. Sebastian was thirty-eight. The journal was first published in Romanian in 1996, then in French in 1998. The English translation by Patrick Camiller, Journal 1935-1944: The Fascist Years, came out in 2000. Early portions of the text read like uninspired gossip. Sebastian recounts the inbred doings of Bucharest’s litterateurs and his own struggles with writing and publishing. Slowly the tone changes as his isolation becomes more apparent. What impresses me most about Sebastian is his enduring devotion to literary culture despite the spineless treachery of former friends. Sebastian instinctively turns to books for solace. One day after the passage quoted above he writes: “I have learned with surprise, and with pleasure (from a commentary by Duval), that Shakespeare read Montaigne and was passionately fond of his Essays. I seem to like him all the more now, because I am reading both of them at once.” Ten days later, he is reading an unlikely American novel, though Shakespeare and Montaigne are still on his mind:

“I have read a Dreiser novel with great interest: The Financier [1912]. It is powerful, solid, and large. But he lacks a little poetry, the mysterious magnetism of a Balzac, to be a really first-rate writer. Anyway, it is enough to put me off any novel I have written or may ever want to write. Meanwhile I am getting on with my Shakespeare and Montaigne. Finished Richard II, begun The Comedy of Errors. Also read the last two acts of Hamlet, which I had left unfinished.”

Elsewhere, Sebastian is reading Conrad’s letters, Jane Austen’s Emma (“Graceful, simple, full of humor, but rather slow and too detailed—like a Dutch painting”), De Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium Eater, Jules Renard, Proust, Baudelaire, Tolstoy, La Fontaine and his beloved Balzac. Between August and October 1941 he is reading Sterne: “I finished Tristram Shandy this evening, after a long time spent slowly (too slowly) reading it. Anyway, it is all too long, too uniform, too loose. After the first hundred pages there was nothing more to be learned. And there are still four hundred to go. Pleasant nevertheless. Peaceful reading for a long untroubled winter.”

One of the saddest, most ominous passages in the Journal is not explicitly literary, though it reminds me of Aharon Appelfeld’s Badenheim 1939. This is dated Sept. 25, 1942:

“Yesterday I was in a group with Leni at the Jewish theatre, to see Stroe’s revue. Everything there—stage, actors, theatre, audience—seemed completely crazy. Death is breathing down our necks and we have a Jewish theatre, with girls in low-cut dresses, jazz, verse songs, gags, and knock-about sketches. Where is reality? The specter of the trains heading for Transistria haunts me all the time.”

Monday, February 08, 2016

`All Strange Wonders that Befell Thee'

Having been away from it for so long, I was reminded in Ontario that snow is also a verb. It makes a discernible knock as it hits the windows, pushed by the wind. It crunches with each step. The reflected glare blinds walkers and drivers. It powders the pines and, redundantly, the birches. An inch or so was all that ever accumulated, but its presence, its verbness, was never passive. In his Dictionary, Dr. Johnson offers among his definitions:

“To Snow. v.a. [verb active] To scatter like snow.”

We might say grated cheese snowed on the pasta. Or talcum powder snowed on the baby’s bottom. Or we might, more vividly and soberly, say with Donne, as cited by Johnson:

“If thou be’st born to see strange sights,
Ride ten thousand days and nights,
`Till age snow white hairs on thee.”

Donne addresses a woman. In another context he might be speaking to any of us, especially the writers. Here are his subsequent lines:

“Thou, when thou return’st, wilt tell me,
All strange wonders that befell thee.”

Sunday, February 07, 2016

`One Writes to Preserve What's There'

In the travel section of a chain bookstore in Aurora, Ont., I was pleased to find two copies of Zoroaster’s Children and Other Travels (Biblioasis, 2015) by Marius Kociejowski. Long a resident of England, Marius was born in this province. His book’s shelfmates were the usual travel dreck – gracious living in Provence, barefoot mountain climbing in the Dolomites – and I wondered what customer might be seduced into buying a poet’s essays on Tunisia, Toronto and Aleppo. I reread the book on the flight from Houston and was charmed again by the prose, the attention paid to people over place, the comparative absence of the authorial “I,” and Marius’ happy disregard for the conventions of travel writing (“I have my own approach to things, without which I’d be in Palookaville”).

Marius’ collection, one of the best books of 2015, reminds us how good the essay form can be, polished and yet dense with evidence of life lived. Always uncomfortable with the marketing moniker “travel writer,” he writes, “Then again, who among us is not a traveler, stumbling among vortexes, which, like certain dreams we have we try later to give meaning to? Are we not travelers from the day we are born? . . . A traveler goes with what he has, which, one hopes, includes a fair measure of knowledge but which is useful only to the degree that same knowledge does not cloud what is actually in front of his eyes.” Words applicable to any sort of writing.

In his final essay, “The Saddest Book I’ll Never Write,” Marius remembers the Syrian friends he wrote about in earlier books who now are dead or whose fates are unknown. He doesn’t use the word, but he adopts the role of writer as witness, in the Conradian sense, without its religious or forensic associations. A writer must remember, and thus enable readers to remember. In the collection’s first essay, “Some Places I’ve Been To,” he writes:

“Whatever one writes, whenever one writes, it is always on the cusp of disappearance. A photographer told me once that he keeps all his images, even those which he considers failures, because the day will come when even the latter are invested with fresh meaning. One writes to preserve what’s there. So yes, to set down what one sees, this is one of the purposes of writing, to be able to say, as Goya wrote in the corner of one of his drawings, yo lo vi (`I saw it’).”

Saturday, February 06, 2016

`The Greatest Contribution to World Culture'

Gene Lees, Eugene Frederick John Lees (1928-2010), was born in Hamilton, Ont., the son of British expatriates. He grew up in the small city of St. Catherines in the Niagara peninsula, just ten miles from the American border. Lees dropped out of the Ontario College of Art, worked as a newspaper reporter in Canada, and moved to Kentucky in 1955 to become music editor of The Louisville Times. He edited Down Beat magazine from 1959 to 1961, and went on to write fifteen books, the best of which are drawn from his profiles and essays in Jazzletter, the magazine Lees founded in 1981 and published out of his house in Ojai, Calif. In “The Prez of Louisville” (Cats of Any Color: Jazz Black and White, 1994), Lees writes of his boyhood in Ontario:

“But then I thought all black people were gods. This was because most of my idols were black, men named Benny carter, Nat Cole, Duke Ellington, Jimmie Lunceford, Joe Thomas, Ray Nance, County Basie, Lester Young, Coleman Hawkins, Teddy Wilson, Arnett Cobb. Dozens of them. One young friend of mine, who played trumpet and shared my awe of them, said that whenever he saw a Negro (the requisite polite term in those days), he wanted to get his autograph, even if the man was a railway porter.”

Not only were his heroes black; they were American. Lees goes on:

“Small wonder that so many of us had an identity problem, one symptom of which was that we approached whatever Canadian art or entertainment there was with a conditioned condescension, imposing our own doubts upon it. That problem left me permanently sympathetic to the black-identity problem in the United States.”

In “Sudden Immersion” (You Can’t Steal a Gift: Dizzy, Clark, Milt, and Nat, 2001), Lees continues his exploration of national identity. He was always contentious and increasingly cranky as he aged, happy to criticize, and celebrate, both of his countries:

“Unlike immigrants from the world’s sundry tyrannies, I was not fleeing [in 1955] some hideous dictatorship. Canada was in some ways a more democratic and much freer country than the United States. This was, after all, only five months after Joseph McCarthy had been condemned by the Senate for what, in effect, was a reign of political terror.”

Lees condemns what he calls “a sense of inferiority toward European culture” still felt by many Americans,” especially in music: “To this day, all too many `cultured’ Americans do not  appreciate the genius of Jerome Kern, George Gershwin, Harold Arlen, and others at the upper level of popular music , which very term they transcended. And in general Americans do not have anything approaching an adequate appreciation of the greatest contribution to world culture the United States has made: jazz.”    

Friday, February 05, 2016

`A Monument as Fragile as the Grass'

I was warned to be prepared, like any good Boy Scout. Seasoned bloggers offered cautious encouragement, though I could hear the unspoken message: “He won’t last.” I half-agreed with them. Consistency had never been among my virtues, and I worried about my digital incompetence. Then one Sunday, ten years ago today, almost impulsively, like a kid diving into a quarry for the first time, I posted something. I have just forced myself to read it again, and I shiver in shame. If I have accomplished anything in a decade of blogging, it’s that my writing is tighter, less effusive, more attuned to linking words to thoughts and less devoted to making an impression on imaginary readers. I work hardest at writing, not reading.

At first I envisioned the blog as some variation on a commonplace book, a repository for whatever was memorable in what I happened to be reading. But I have never been a passive reader, though I don't fancy myself a critic. Even a lousy book stirs a reaction, so I soon began using books, or minute passages in books, as grit in the grit-to-pearl metamorphosis. This came naturally, like breathing, and so I have posted something every day for ten years, 3,911 posts as of this morning. I find the germ of this practice in my years as a newspaper reporter. You don’t argue with a deadline. Without an editor I have every writer’s dream – utter independence. On second thought, I do have an editor and he works cheap – Dave Lull — mon semblable, — mon frère! I also thank Helen Pinkerton, Joseph Epstein, Bruce Floyd, Mark Marowitz, R.L. Barth, Bill Vallicella, the late D.G. Myers, Terry Teachout, Nige Andrews, Mike Gilleland and others.

My unscientific impression is that some of today’s finest poetry is written by Canadians, whether by birth, or present or former residency, including Marius Kociejowski, Eric Ormsby, Norm Sibum and David Solway (to list them strictly alphabetically). Likewise in their company is Robert Melançon, author of For as Far as the Eye Can See (trans. Judith Cowan, Biblioasis, 2013). Here is the last of that collection’s 144 twelve-line almost-sonnets, which says something about Anecdotal Evidence and the fate of most writing:      

“I have built up a monument as fragile as the grass,
as unstable as the daylight, as fleeting as the air, and
as fluid as the rain we see running in the streets.

“I’ve contrived it to paper that will dry, and
which may burn, or be splotched by the damp
with a bloom of pink, or green, or grey mildew,

“and give off a pungent earthy odour. I’ve worked
in the transient substance of a tongue that will
cease to be spoken, sooner or later, or be pronounced

“some other way, forming other words to convey
other thoughts. I’ve pledged it to the oblivion certain
to enfold all that this day bathes in its sweetness.”

Thursday, February 04, 2016

`That Beautiful Soloist that I Had Heard'

The pianist Oscar Peterson (1925-2007) was born in Montreal, son of a father from St. Croix in the Virgin Islands and a mother from St. Kitts in the British West Indies. His father worked as a porter for the Canadian Pacific Railway. The most interesting passages in his autobiography, A Jazz Odyssey: The Life of Oscar Peterson (Continuum, 2002), are brief glimpses of family and teachers, and of life on the road. Sad to say, Peterson’s book is over-written when it’s not under-written, and always under-edited. An editor presumably would have discouraged him from including his poetry, most of it written in rhyming couplets, like this:

“I once knew a man who taught me to hate him—
Musically, that is; for I loved Art Tatum.”
Peterson discovered jazz thanks to his father, who listened to the radio late at night. The first name he hears during a broadcast is Benny Goodman. Later that week, with his father at work, the boy clandestinely turns on the radio in the living room:

“With my ear pressed tightly against the speaker so I would not have to play it too loudly and waken everybody in the house, I ever-so-slowly started moving the dial, searching for the sound of that big band, for the announcer had said that they would be broadcasting all week from the hotel. Suddenly my search came to an end. Here without doubt was that beautiful soloist that I had heard just nights before. He was in the middle of a tune that I was hearing for the first time: `Where or When.’”

Whitney Balliett described Peterson’s playing as “a pudding made of the leavings of Art Tatum, Nat Cole and Teddy Wilson.” He writes, “The arts have long come in two grades—the original and its popularization. Jazz is no exception,” and drew up a list to prove his point. Positing Art Tatum as an original, he pegged Peterson and Andre Previn (a wonderfully odd couple) as popularizers. This is not a blanket dismissal. Balliett concedes that popularizers are often “better technicians and steadier performers (read: mechanical).” That’s a complaint that dogged Peterson throughout his career. “At the same time,” Balliett says, “they are less inventive, less high-minded about their work, more ostentatious, and perhaps because they are borrowers, less sure of themselves.” The Peterson recording I listen to most often is Ben Webster Meets Oscar Peterson (1959), and mostly because of Webster. 

Wednesday, February 03, 2016

`The Courtesy of Clarity'

In his essay on Paul Valéry, Joseph Epstein formulates what we might characterize as an etiquette of writing:

“One of the keenest pleasures of reading derives from being in the close company of someone more thoughtful than you but whose thoughts, owing to the courtesy of clarity, are handsomely accessible to you.”

What we do at home in our notebooks is strictly private, and there we can behave as vulgarly and self-indulgently as we wish. But when we take the next logical step and presume to share what we’ve written with the world, the rules change. Good manners oblige us to exercise discipline, respect for readers and what Epstein calls “the courtesy of clarity.” In short, to write well. Mystification, whether intentional or through incompetence, is rude, among other things. If intentional, it suggests an ego-driven striving after obscurity, a desire to cull one’s readership to an elite worshipful few (think: Gertrude Stein); if unintentional, a willingness to strive after mediocrity or worse, coupled with a blithe disregard for readers (think: Joyce Carol Oates). Epstein’s observation came to mind as I read “Confucian Confusions,” Eric Ormsby’s review in The New Criterion of A. David Moody’s biography of Ezra Pound, the poet who epitomizes both sorts of mystification as described above:
“He will probably not be long remembered for The Cantos, his baggy, rambling and tedious `epic,’ the tutelary spirit of which is the hapless Confucius. Discontinuous flashes may work in a brief lyric but they tend to sputter out in a long poem, and The Cantos runs to over 800 pages. Or, if remembered as other than a miscalculation of colossal proportions, it will probably be as a monument to ungovernable eccentricity, a sort of Watts Tower of modern verse.”

Should I weep or laugh when contemplating the hours I spent as a young man pretending to understand and even enjoy The Cantos? So much of Modernism and what came after is an exercise in mass hypnosis. I’m too old for that.

Today we fly to Canada, where my middle son already attends St. Andrew’s College in Aurora, Ont., and where my youngest son is scheduled for an interview on Thursday. An internet connection is unreliable, so I will post some Canada-related material in advance for the rest of the week, and perhaps add my two cents later.