Friday, January 19, 2018

`Chekhov Had Really Written in Yiddish'

Hyphen-mongering by readers and critics is a political, anti-literary act of laziness and myopia. We don’t read and enjoy a book because its author comes USDA-stamped “Irish-American” or “French-lesbian.” We read it and enjoy it because it’s good, to put it in the simplest terms. I’m restating what my late friend David Myers wrote more than a decade ago: “Literature is simply good writing—where `good’ has, by definition, no fixed definition.” That formulation makes some uneasy. I find it useful. We all have bookish prejudices, and I have no interest in defending or questioning mine. I’m almost immune to the charms of German literature. The only books I own written by an African writer are Confessions and The City of God. Science fiction, a species of children’s literature, leaves me cold and indifferent, and I’m too old to care. I won’t read a book because I’m told it’s good for me. Reading is not therapeutic and it’s not like eating kale. Literature is slippery and defies pre-fabricated marketing. By definition it surprises and sometimes offends. I like the spirit in which Irving Howe writes “Strangers,” an essay from 1977:

“I remember Isaac Rosenfeld, the most winning of all American Jewish writers, once explaining to me with comic solemnity that Chekhov had really written in Yiddish but Constance Garnett, trying to render him respectable, had falsified the record. Anyone with half an ear, said Rosenfeld, could catch the tunes of Yiddish sadness, absurdity, and humanism in Chekhov’s prose—and for a happy moment it almost seemed true.”

Chekhov was a Dreyfusard who championed Sholem Aleichem. As Howe notes in his essay, Jewish immigrants to America felt a solidarity with Chekhov and other non-Jewish Russian writers, though not with the “sensationalist and anti-Semite Dostoevsky.” Howe writes:

These Russians formed a moral dike guarding the immigrant Jewish intelligentsia and then their children from the waves of American sensibility and myth. Like the Yiddish culture from which we had emerged, we were internationalist in our sentiment before we were part of any nation, living in the exalted atmospheres of European letters even as we might be afraid, at home, to wander a few streets away.”

As a non-Jewish, non-Russian American, I share a similar affinity for Gogol and Sinyavsky, David Bergelson and Isaac Bashevis Singer. They are “mine,” and I don’t need anyone telling me otherwise. In 1985, Clarence Brown edited The Portable Twentieth-Century Russian Reader, a selection ranging from Tolstoy and Chekhov to Voinovich and Sokolov. In his introduction he says provocatively and correctly: “I now look back on this banquet of words with much pleasure, which I hope nothing will prevent your sharing. These writers, after all continue in our time the tradition that has made Russian, along with English and classical Greek, one of the three supreme literatures of the world.” Nothing to argue about there, and I’m not Russian, English or Greek.

Thursday, January 18, 2018

`Lest the Jails Overflow'

Self-destruction has its charms, especially if you’re not the one doing the destructing. Let me clarify. I’m not referring to alcoholism or drug addiction, subsumed under the clinical label “substance abuse,” which evokes a vision of someone flogging an ingot of molybdenum. Exhibit A is A.J. Liebling and his lifelong over-indulgence in food. Had it stopped there, we wouldn’t be wasting our time. Food is not an inherently interesting subject. The much-ballyhooed works of M.F.K. Fisher, for instance, are almost unreadable. Food – procuring, preparing, consuming -- invites a comic treatment, and that was Liebling’s abiding gift. He is the wittiest of writers, and his masterpiece is Between Meals: An Appetite for Paris (1962). It may be the book I have read most often as an adult.

I’ve returned to it after rereading Joseph Epstein’s “An Older Dude” in Once More Around the Block: Familiar Essays (1987). The occasion of Epstein’s essay is his fiftieth birthday (in 1987 – earlier this month he turned eighty-one). As you would expect, his tone is weighty but light. Epstein takes his subject but not himself seriously. He is amusing but not joking: “While I remain as youthful and beautiful as always, why, I cannot help ask, have so many of my contemporaries grown to look so old?” Then he gets to the heart of it: “It is not always easy to distinguish between the love of life and the fear of death.” Which move him to think of friends who are “slowly but rather systematically eliminating life’s little physical pleasures: cutting out tobacco, alcohol, caffeine, red meat, cholesterol-laden food, all sugar. Soon their meals will be reduced to three dandelions and a nice cup of boiled water.” Such anxiety-driven behavior, Epstein says, seems like “greed for life, as opposed to love of life.” Ascetics, especially self-advertising ascetics, make me nervous, too. Enter Liebling, via Epstein:

“When I think of the distinction between love of life and the greed for duration, I think of the writer A.J. Liebling. With the aid of his fork, Liebling had early joined the ranks of the obese, an army he was never to leave.”

Liebling possessed the grace of the guiltless. He seldom seriously agonized over what he was doing to himself. Years ago, Tony Hiss told me he remembered walking as a young reporter beside Liebling, and barely having enough room on the sidewalk. Yet he was happy to be taking the budding writer to lunch. Here is where Epstein rises to the occasion:

“Doubtless he would have lived longer [Liebling died at fifty-eight] had he lived more carefully. But had he lived more carefully – eaten less, drunk less – he would not have been A.J. Liebling . . . My own preference would be to live like Liebling and last until age ninety-seven. There is a contradiction here, I realize, but then, fortunately, the law of contradiction is not enforced, lest the jails overflow.”

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

`While Someone Else is Eating'

We read an old chestnut so often we can no longer read it. Take “Musee des Beaux Arts,” written by Auden in Brussels in 1938. I first encountered it as a teenager in an Oscar Williams anthology. The poem’s conversational plainness, the way Auden illustrates the bland ubiquity of human suffering – “how it takes place / While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along” -- make it instantly memorable. But familiarity breeds blindness. I have just noted the date of the poem’s composition: December 1938.

Hitler has Austria and the Sudetenland. A month earlier: Kristallnacht. In the Soviet Union, the Yezhovshchina rages on (and would soon claim Yezhov). As many as 1.75 million people have died in Stalin’s Great Terror (1936-38). Some 5,200 miles to the east of Brussels, a poet is dying. Osip Mandelstam was arrested a second time in May 1938, for “counter-revolutionary activities.” On Aug. 2 he was sentenced to five years in correction camps. Half-mad, starved and sick, he dies in a transit camp near Vladivostok on Dec. 27, 1938.

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

`Your Mind Knew the Intent'

The following is from an email the late Helen Pinkerton wrote to me in July 2011, shortly after I had returned to Houston. I was reading her 1987 volume Melville’s Confidence Men and American Politics in the 1850s:

“The Melville book took 10 years of my life, which I much enjoyed, traveling East to find the illustrations, and reading countless biographies of American politicians. Melville’s mind I found almost endlessly fascinating, and reading about the period made it even more so. Today, we think we have political problems. We should try dealing with an issue of the magnitude of slavery. Melville grew intellectually enormously in pondering the problem. He also grew into a philosophical pessimist about human nature and a political conservative, which the current PC Melvillians refuse to recognize.”

When she wrote this, Helen was eighty-five. Whenever she described working on a project, whether poetry or scholarship, she spoke of excitement, focus and pleasure, even when the job was difficult and protracted. Her mention of “PC Melvillians” still makes me laugh, as I’ve had run-ins with that crowd, who seem to think the whale – or was it Ahab? -- represents capitalism. If you read only one volume by Helen, make it A Journey of the Mind: Collected Poems of Helen Pinkerton 1945-2016 (Wiseblood Books, 2016). Here are the middle stanzas from “Coronach for Christopher Drummond.” Read them with Helen in mind:

“Whether Jonson’s grieving prayers,
Or Milton’s rich designs,
Or Melville’s rugged verse,
Or Winters’ densest lines,

“Your mind knew the intent,
Your voice wakened the sound—
The sleeping beauty pent
In chambers underground.”

Helen’s daughter, Erica Light, sent this announcement:

“A memorial gathering of Helen’s friends, caregivers and family will be held on Saturday, February 24, from 1:00 to 4:00pm, at the historic Holbrooke Hotel, 212 West Main Street, Grass Valley, California. All are welcome to join us in remembering Helen’s life and honoring her many contributions to the study of English literature, poetry, and of Civil War history.

“A variety of hors d’oeuvres and beverages will be shared, and Helen’s ‘well-lived’ life and her poetry will be celebrated.

“Please RSVP by Monday, February 5, by email as shown above, telephone at (530) 292-1365, or USPS at P.O. Box 2746, Grass Valley, CA  95945. Accommodations may be found at the Holbrooke Hotel,, or at the nearby Gold Miners Inn,, or Grass Valley Courtyard Suites,, both in walking distance of the Holbrooke.”

[ADDENDUM: Go here to read Helen's obituary.]

Monday, January 15, 2018

`This Is a Beautiful Day'

It always comes as a surprise to be reminded that George Keats, the poet’s younger brother, lived the last twenty-three years of his life in Louisville, Ky., operated a sawmill there, worked in property development and even served on city council. It’s like being reminded that Robert Frost, the Ur-New Englander, was born in San Francisco. George married Georgiana Wylie in May 1818 and the couple arrived in the U.S. in August. The poet was fond of his sister-in-law, and George and Georgiana were the recipients of his longest and most ebullient letters, often written over the course of several days. This week in 1820, a year before his death at age twenty-five, Keats addressed a ten-page letter to Georgiana, dated Jan. 13, 15, 17 and 28. George had returned to England in December 1819 after the death of his brother, Tom Keats. The couple had been staying in John James Audubon’s home in Henderson, Ky. Keats’ tone, as in this excerpt from Jan. 15, is gossipy and buoyant. George is still in England:  

“This is a beautiful day. I hope you will not quarrel with it if I call it an American one. The sun comes upon the snow and makes a prettier candy than we have on twelfth-night cakes. George is busy this morning in making copies of my verses. He is making one now of an `Ode to the Nightingale,’ which is like reading an account of the Black Hole at Calcutta on an iceberg.”

That is Keats the comedian. Here, two paragraphs later in the same letter, is Keats the moralist, echoing Swift:

“The more I know of men the more I know how to value entire liberality in any of them. Thank God, there are a great many who will sacrifice their worldly interest for a friend. I wish there were more who would sacrifice their passions. The worst of men are those whose self-interests are their passion; the next, those whose passions are their self-interest. Upon the whole I dislike mankind. Whatever people on the other side of the question may advance, they cannot deny that they are always surprised at hearing of a good action, and never of a bad one.”

On the cusp of his final, “posthumous” year, Keats shows he has done a lot of growing up, of necessity. Two days later, Keats enacts a comic tour-de-force that doubles as a taxonomy of human types. He writes to Georgiana of his friends James Rice Jr., John Hamilton Reynolds and Thomas Richards:   

“I know three witty people all distinct in their excellence — Rice, Reynolds, and Richards. Rice is the wisest, Reynolds the playfullest, Richards the out-o’-the-wayest. The first makes you laugh and think, the second makes you laugh and not think, the third puzzles your head. I admire the first, I enjoy the second, I stare at the third. The first is Claret, the second Ginger beer, the third Crême de Byrapymdrag. The first is inspired by Minerva, the second by Mercury, the third by Harlequin Epigram, Esq. The first is neat in his dress, the second slovenly, the third uncomfortable. The first speaks adagio, the second allegretto, the third both together. The first is Swiftean, the second Tom-Crib-ean [a reference to Thomas Moore’s Tom Crib’s Memorial to Congress, 1819], the third Shandean. And yet these three Eans are not three Eans but one Ean.”

Keats was many things, and certainly not what we were taught.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

`No, It's for Me to Thank You'

A book to look forward to this year: Portraits Without Frames by Lev Ozerov, to be published by NYRB Classics, with translations from the Russian by Maria Bloshteyn, Robert Chandler, Boris Dralyuk and Irina Mashinski. Ozerov (1914-1996) was born Lev Adolfovich Goldberg in Kiev. Like Vasily Grossman, he served as a front-line journalist during the German invasion, and after the war published a long poem about the massacres at Babi Yar. In six months the Nazis shot at least 100,000 people, most of them Jews, in a ravine near Kiev.

Six of Ozerov’s poems, translated by Chandler, are included in The Penguin Book of Russian Poetry (2015). In his introduction to Ozerov, Chandler says Portraits Without Frames was published posthumously and “comprises fifty accounts, told in a variety of tones and with deceptive simplicity, of meetings with important figures, many – though not all – from the literary world.” Among the subjects are Boris Pasternak, Nikolai Zabolotsky, Isaac Babel, Shmuel Halkin and Varlam Shalamov. The poem about Shalamov (1907-1982), author of the brilliant Kolyma Tales, describes a man still “battered by Kolyma.” Ozerov meets with Shalamov in a café, and asks him to read his poems. Shalamov, who spent fourteen years in the Gulag, opens his knapsack:

“Inside it a wooden spoon
hobnobs with crusts of bread,
and documents—
death, after all,
can creep up
on you any moment.”

On an American street, we might mistake Shalamov, one of the last century’s great writers, for one of the faceless, homeless mentally ill. Shalamov reads his poems and Ozerov thanks him. Shalamov replies:

“`No, it’s for me
to thank you. Who
nowadays asks anyone
to read poems?’ he says
hoarsely, with feeling.”

When they are finished in the café, Shalamov puts away his manuscript. “Out we both go / into the winter outside. / `It’s a cold day,’ I say. / `What do you mean?’ he says. / `It’s warm.’” Here is one of Shalamov’s poems, translated by Chandler:

“Snow keeps falling night and day.
Perhaps some god, now turned more strict,
is sweeping out from his domain
scraps of his old manuscripts.

“Sheaves of ballads, songs and odes,
whatever now seems bland or weak –
he sweeps them down from his high clouds,
caught up now by newer work.”

Saturday, January 13, 2018

`Now for the Crescendo'

Humor is famously time- and place-specific. Like cut flowers, it doesn’t travel well. It’s a perishable product. Thirty years ago I worked with a reporter who remains the funniest person I have ever known. John had perfect pitch for comedy. His timing was flawless. He remembered jokes and they were always funny, the kind you want to remember and claim as your own. He was a mimic with a good ear for accents. His humor wasn’t the stagey, attention-grabbing sort. He was deadpan and never laughed at his own gags. You sensed he was fitted with a set of lenses that enabled him to see the essential silliness of everything, and he was just reporting what he saw. While hardly trying, he reduced me to incapacity from laughter. He was an ideal companion, always entertaining but never demanding to be appreciated. Here’s the punch line: John would routinely return from an assignment, recount his adventures to the city desk, crack them up, sit at his computer and – nothing. His writing was flat, perfunctory, never funny. He soon left journalism, went back to school and became a lawyer.

John came to mind while I was reading “Sydney Smith 1771-1845,” a 1934 profile by Desmond MacCarthy collected in Humanities (MacGibbon & Kee, 1953). Smith was a well-known wit who disappoints me because he’s not funny, though Guy Davenport called him “a master of glorious nonsense.” MacCarthy explains the likely reason: “Print destroys the spontaneity which accounts for the joy-bringing potency of Sydney Smith’s improvisations.” Smith died more than thirty years before the first sound recordings, and even the most accurate transcript leaves out the comic’s art – rhythm, changes in tempo and volume, body gestures and facial expressions. MacCarthy reproduces a classic Smith routine, stage directions added, that conveys some of his ebullience:

“`Going to marry her!’ he once cried on hearing that a young man was about to wed an enormous widow twice his age, `Going to marry her! Impossible! You mean part of her; he could not marry her all’ (imagine the dubious shake of the head) `himself. It would be a case, not of bigamy, but’ (imagine the rising voice) `trigamy. The neighbourhood or the magistrates should interfere. There’s enough of her to furnish wives for a whole parish.’ (Louder). `One man marry her!—it’s monstrous!’ (Now for the crescendo). `You might people a colony with her--or give an assembly with her! Or’ (now for the climax) `you might read the Riot Act and disperse her! In short, (he roars with laughter and subsides into chuckles) `you might do anything with her but marry her!”

This recalls a contemporary “yo-Mama’s-so-fat” routine. It reads like inspired jazz improvisation. You can sense Smith feeding off his audience’s response. MacCarthy says Smith’s transcribed performances have “lost some piquancy but not all their point.”