I came across this book by chance last week, with its handsome design and wordplay on the title of Nabokov's memoir. (Its original German title is mor...moreI came across this book by chance last week, with its handsome design and wordplay on the title of Nabokov's memoir. (Its original German title is more intriguing: Solus Rex. Die schöne böse Welt des Vladimir Nabokov.) Almost immediately my interest sparked. Maar writes with a quality of passion, critical intelligence and erudition that has no need to advertise itself; it's evident in every sentence and footnote.
Here he engages the riddle of Nabokov, whose novels famously lend themselves to endless decoding. Anyone who's plunged into the wizard's labyrinth knows its pleasures, and how rewarding navigating it can be in the hands of someone like Michael Wood or Brian Boyd. Maar is the best I've read, ready to lay his scalpel to the glittering darkness at the heart of Nabokov's shimmer – his lust for little Liliths (transformed into iridescent art in Lolita, but never resolved) and his negative fascination with homosexuality. This short book illuminates everything it examines. (less)
I'm sorry to say that this book is as dull as its title. I've read almost everything James has written – most recently The Private Patient, with the u...moreI'm sorry to say that this book is as dull as its title. I've read almost everything James has written – most recently The Private Patient, with the usual Jamesian cast of cultured hyper-constipated characters. This book is a rather dutiful, altogether unnecessary survey of (almost exclusively British) detective fiction. It's Wikipedia with a cream tea.
What I really wanted, I realized, was her take on her contemporaries – Gossiping About Detective Fiction. Surely she's possessed of juicy insights that would satisfy the cravings of those of us who read mysteries by the pile. But apparently the Baroness of Holland Park does not permit herself such pleasures, and her conversation never ascends beyond the anodyne. (less)
I picked up Bluebeard's Chamber after finishing Maar's new book on Nabokov. This book focuses on a central mystery in the career of Thomas Mann, when...moreI picked up Bluebeard's Chamber after finishing Maar's new book on Nabokov. This book focuses on a central mystery in the career of Thomas Mann, when the Nazi's briefly had possession of his diaries and he was ready to kill himself if their contents became known. He got the diaries back and destroyed them. The question: what was he so afraid of the world finding out?
Maar's written an eccentrically intelligent book where we know the criminal but not the crime – and I have to say, this is a book better enjoyed for its critical journey than for its conclusion. (I'll also say that it did nothing to elevate Mann's fiction in my opinion; I find him more lugubrious and less rewarding to read every year.)
Michael Maar has been heralded as "Germany's most gifted literary critic of the younger generation." I'm in no position to assess that claim, but I will be looking forward to his next book. He wastes few words, and every page brims with erudition and wit.
Early readers of Proust observed that many of his female characters are men in disguise — and this is the thing that has always disturbed my pleasure...moreEarly readers of Proust observed that many of his female characters are men in disguise — and this is the thing that has always disturbed my pleasure in In Search of Lost Time. For several months I've been stuck in The Prisoner (the 5th of the 6 volumes of the Penguin Proust), irritated by the improbability of the Narrator's jealousy toward Albertine, his ostensible erotic obsession – when (for me) the Narrator's entire sensibility is palpably gay. The whole setup feels false, strained and ridiculous.
Carter's Proust in Love addresses Proust's homosexuality with sophistication and grace. Unlike critics who seem content with providing the scandalous biographical "keys" to Proust's characters (e.g., Albertine = Alfred Agostinelli, Proust's chauffeur), Carter delves into the delicate dynamic of jealousy, eros and loss that troubles the heart of Proust's novel. All the juicy details are abundantly registered, but Carter restores the numinous essence of "time regained" – the mystery by which Proust transformed the tragic comedy of his life into art. I think I'm ready to enjoy the book again.
Harold Bloom described Pessoa "as a fantastic invention (who) surpasses any creation by Borges." With a passion that would embarrass even Kierkegaard,...moreHarold Bloom described Pessoa "as a fantastic invention (who) surpasses any creation by Borges." With a passion that would embarrass even Kierkegaard, Pessoa took his pseudonyms seriously (he called them "heteronyms"), inventing not only names, but biographies and books of poetry written by his inventions. During his life, he published only a fraction of the poetry and prose penned by his multiple personalities, stashing most of it in a trunk discovered after his death. Sometimes it's unclear who was supposed to have written what. Daimonic possession is hard on executors.
In this short study, Zbigniew Kotowicz provides some insight into the madness – separating the poet from the poets. He's particularly helpful with "Bernardo Soares" – author of The Book of Disquiet, by far my favorite among Pessoa's remains. Pessoa called it "the saddest book in Portugal." Kotowicz says it's "one of the most moving literary testimonies of a tortured twentieth-century soul." For me, it is pure dark comedy, and I can't help but believe it was for Pessoa too. Ennui has never been so exalted; self-torture never so eloquent. That had to feel good.
I've long enjoyed Kundera's literary essays, even more than his novels. He's one of those rare authors worth reading for his opinions alone.
This lates...moreI've long enjoyed Kundera's literary essays, even more than his novels. He's one of those rare authors worth reading for his opinions alone.
This latest collection, however, is a bit slight. Most of the essays are quite short, a précis of Kundera's points of view but little more – as if he's said all he had to say about literature in The Art of the Novel and the excellent Testaments Betrayed. He's at his best when championing authors and artists mostly forgotten.
For me, the best is the final chapter on the astonishing Curzio Malaparte (author of Kaputt and The Skin.) I bought Kaputt a few years ago – one of those books I started the day I bought it, then set aside. Kundera has inspired me to dig it out of the book closet and start again. I suspect I'll always be grateful for the reminder.
This weekend I was reading a few of Nabokov's Collected Stories, and turned back to Wood's inspired reading of Nabokov's novels. According to my inscr...moreThis weekend I was reading a few of Nabokov's Collected Stories, and turned back to Wood's inspired reading of Nabokov's novels. According to my inscription in the front of the book, I first read it in October 1995 - and I seem to have forgotten all of it, which isn't so bad since I got to read it again. After my recent re-read of Pale Fire, I'm impressed by Wood's analysis: he moves beyond the usual marveling at Nabokov's chess-puzzle plots, wicked genius, synesthetic vocabulary, etc. and puts his finger on the pulse of pain, the "demons of pity" that haunt his work. As much as I appreciate Brian Boyd and Michael Maar, Wood's book is a marvel of its own. (less)
For the last 10 years, T. J. Clark's formidable Farewell to an Idea has been perched on a high shelf, regally regarding my room, with only a few of it...moreFor the last 10 years, T. J. Clark's formidable Farewell to an Idea has been perched on a high shelf, regally regarding my room, with only a few of its mighty pages read and re-read. Last week I picked up Josipovici's shorter book on (roughly) the same subject. If nothing else, it's inspired me to tackle Clark's masterwork again.
Josipovici comes off as a curmudgeon, grumbling about the philistines (which include, regrettably, even "false friends" of modernism like Adam Thirlwell and incompetents like Peter Gay). I never quite grasped why he was so grouchy, at least until I came upon a statement that earned a triple set of exclamation marks (a marginal crime I haven't committed since my more easily scandalized undergraduate days). Here's the apothegm: "What is certain is the truth of Barthes' remark that 'to be modern is to know that which is not possible any more.'"
I should have thought, if nothing else, that Modernism entailed a certain skepticism about certainty, especially if advocated by M. Jouissance himself. What seemed certain to me, however, by the time I'd finished this tract, is that what artists actually do and what critics claim artists are doing (and why they're doing it) have only a tangential and perverse connection to each other. This includes also artists who explain themselves - with the possible exception of Francis Bacon. I'm grateful to Josipovici for alerting me to David Sylvester's book of interviews with Bacon. And - although it was quite odd – I was delighted by the polemical use he made of Kierkegaard (a genius misfit who, like Nietzsche, should be re-read every year for his style alone).
In sum: although Josipovici is a tad cranky, I enjoyed his ramble, but I'm still in the dark about whatever happened to Modernism. Something, apparently, ended, again. With a whimper.
An illuminating interpretation of Shakespeare's tragedies. Bell makes much of the relationship between the Renaissance skepticism of Montaigne and Sha...moreAn illuminating interpretation of Shakespeare's tragedies. Bell makes much of the relationship between the Renaissance skepticism of Montaigne and Shakespeare, a supposed affinity that I am maybe too ready to entertain. I found her commentary most interesting as she reflected upon other commentators and performances, although she does not displace John Bayley (Shakespeare and Tragedy, 1981) as my favorite interpreter of these plays.(less)
Harold Bloom has come a long way from the hermetic, unreadable Anxiety of Influence, published almost 40 years ago, bristling with an anxiety-inducing...moreHarold Bloom has come a long way from the hermetic, unreadable Anxiety of Influence, published almost 40 years ago, bristling with an anxiety-inducing array of critical terminology – Clinamen; Tessera; Kenosis; Daemonization; Askesis, Apophrades – that earned it a celebrated, withering analysis in Howard Nemerov's Figures of Thought: "the effort to render English unintelligible is proceeding vigorously at the highest levels of learning." Twenty years later, in his two magni opi on the canon and Shakespeare, Bloom became, in turn, a Blakean Ancient of Days, the thundering scourge of Theory and inept "resenters" who would impoverish the classics for ideological ends.
In the "Praeludium" to this book, Bloom informs us that it is his "final reflection upon the influence process" and (as Samuel Johnson remarked of Paradise Lost) no one would wish it longer. As much as I appreciate his Bardolatry, the first hundred pages of adulation had me groaning with surfeit. Bloom inserts an authoritative aperçu in almost every paragraph, some more than once. Or twice. Yet for all the hot sermonizing on Shakespeare's ineffable superiority to everyone including God, there's little primal light. By comparison, Frank Kermode's book on Shakespeare's language provides more illumination than the whole of Bloom.
But anyone who's read Bloom knows all this in advance. I did. I still bought the book, and I enjoyed it the way I would a brilliant old boozer at a holiday party who repeats himself and stands too close, who knew everyone we ever wanted to, overwhelming and delighting us with his incredible associative conversation. Yes, there's far too much of everything, but Bloom is a character richly entertaining, passionate and endearing, even under the Influence. (less)
This small handsome volume of Eco's Richard Ellmann lectures turned out to be something of a disappointment. In Eco's novels, imagination is at the se...moreThis small handsome volume of Eco's Richard Ellmann lectures turned out to be something of a disappointment. In Eco's novels, imagination is at the service of erudition – which isn't a fatal flaw – but I often have the feeling he's more interested in impressing than in entertaining his readers. In these "confessions" (which aren't confessions at all) he runs the risk of boring them, particularly in the last and longest chapter entitled "My Lists," which lists the types of list. Like a celebrated guest who doesn't know when to stop showing off, Eco illustrates his arcane typology by long listless passages of lists from his own books. Although myself a fan of lists (like the Guardian's Top 10s), I soon wearied of his distinctions among enumeration, accumulation, incrementum, gradatio, panegyric, encomiastic, asyndeton and polysyndeton. (These from just the first few pages.)
However, every once in a while something wonderful would pop up, such as the lyrics from a Cole Porter song or the poem "Possibilities" by Wisława Szymborska –
I prefer movies. I prefer cats. I prefer the oaks along the Warta. I prefer Dickens to Dostoyevsky. I prefer myself liking people to myself loving humanity. I prefer keeping a needle and thread on hand, just in case. I prefer the color green.
– which is an example of anaphora, the repetition of the same word or phrase at the beginning of each item. Which in turn reminded me (and this is your reward if you've read this far) of the unique, delightful book I Remember by Joe Brainard, any page of which has more ordinary enchantment than the whole of Eco's numbing enumeratio. (less)
A few weeks ago I picked up John Ashbery's celebrated translation of Rimbaud's Illuminations and as I was browsing through it I realized I had only th...moreA few weeks ago I picked up John Ashbery's celebrated translation of Rimbaud's Illuminations and as I was browsing through it I realized I had only the sketchiest notion of Rimbaud's life – essentially a few mangled fragments from Enid Starkie's 1968 doorstop and some noxious images from Total Eclipse. All I knew was that he'd written a handful of iconoclastic poems, had filthy sex with Verlaine, then pitched it all aside and wandered off to Africa to die.
Graham Robb's biography, as I expected after reading Strangers last summer, is superb. Robb embraces the full context of Rimbaud's short life, reaching beyond the mythic Satanic adolescent to include the equally intrepid imperialist/explorer. "I have tried at least to allow Rimbaud to grow up," Robb begins. Whatever your aesthetic or political investment, Rimbaud's brilliant brutal life (and death) is astonishing, disgusting and grimly funny. Robb is also quite funny, especially when he's dissing all the Rimbaud biographies which preceded his own.
My only complaint with this mostly well-designed book is the abysmal quality of the photographs, which look like copies made from copies on a cheap office machine. Someone at Norton should be slapped.
Anyway, our life is misery, endless misery! So why do we exist? Send me your news. Best wishes. – Rimbaud writing from the Marseilles hospital where he died. (less)
After posting a couple grumbling reviews, I owe the world of authors some gratitude. I first read Calvino's little book in 1988 and periodically I pic...moreAfter posting a couple grumbling reviews, I owe the world of authors some gratitude. I first read Calvino's little book in 1988 and periodically I pick it up and read parts of it again. Six Memos are actually five lectures – illuminating the qualities Calvino most valued in fiction: lightness, quickness, exactitude, visibility and multiplicity. What's almost miraculous is that Calvino's lectures are perfect examples of the virtues he celebrates – graceful, amused, lustrous with civilized intelligence. Criticism practiced as delight.
Here's one of my favorite snippets, from the chapter "Quickness":
I would like to edit a collection of tales consisting of one sentence only, or even a single line. But so far I haven't found any to match the one by the Guatemalan writer August Monterroso: "Cuando despertó, el dinosauro todavía estaba allí" (When I woke up, the dinosaur was still there.) (less)
Unlike many writers who trash post-structuralism, Merquior knows exactly what he's writing about. He studied under Claude Lévi-Strauss in the heyday of deconstructionism, and his long chapter on the maître is the most engaging summary I've read on Lévi-Strauss's contribution to contemporary thought. The commonplace (at least when I was in graduate school) is that post-structuralism is revolutionary in its essence. Merquior paints a different picture, illuminating the regressive impulse behind its anti-historical nihilism: "textual theory, with all its talk of crisis, shows no grasp of new realities." Nor is its record impressive when it comes to literature itself.
"Disappointment is hard to avoid: thanks to the formalist binge, structuralism and post-structuralist criticism has never lived up to the challenge of deciphering the moral import of so much of the best contemporary literature. The 'obsédés textuels' never wrote a memorable word about Svevo or Musil, Canetti or Solzhenitsyn, Sciascia, Handke or Milan Kundera. And this is perhaps the worst indictment of structuralist criticism and its sequel."
Merquior's intellectual history may tackle exhausted controversies, but his analysis is still exciting to read. If you like this kind of thing… (less)
When I was 12 I cooked a whole tray of Rice Krispie Candy Treats and carried it back to my room, where it sustained me over the days required to read...moreWhen I was 12 I cooked a whole tray of Rice Krispie Candy Treats and carried it back to my room, where it sustained me over the days required to read The Complete Sherlock Holmes in a small print, cheap edition. I suspect there are several thousand other readers who could tell a similar story – the adolescent discovery of and addiction to the archetypal detective. Dirda's short study of Conan Doyle brought that pleasure back to me.
Dirda's book is worthy not only for its musings on the history of Sherlock Holmes, but for its interest in Conan Doyle's other bits of fiction (although I doubt he meant his books on spiritualism to count as such). I particularly appreciated Dirda's list of favorite tales, the kind of passionate annotated bibliography I always hope to find in a book critic's book. (The master in this mode is, of course, Alberto Manguel, to whom I owe hundreds of hours of happy reading.)
Unfortunately, On Conan Doyle derails midway when Dirda gives us way too much information about the various Sherlock Holmes societies and his starring role within. The last third of the book reads like an after-dinner speech that didn't know when to stop.
This turned out to be an expensive book for me. Before I'd finished, Dirda had incited my purchase of the hefty, handsome 3-volume The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes, edited by Leslie Klinger. I started off with the Christmas goose tale, "The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle." (less)
For the past few months I've dipped in and out of Gass's latest collection of essays until I've read them all. There were only a few doldrums (the ess...moreFor the past few months I've dipped in and out of Gass's latest collection of essays until I've read them all. There were only a few doldrums (the essay on Malcolm Lowry) and disappointments (the essay on Kafka). And yes I could live happily without ever reading another word by or about Henry James.
But Gass is impressive whatever his subject. His essay on Nietzsche is the best meditation on that vexing, fearless and pitiable philosopher that I've ever read. "Kinds of Killing" – beginning as a review of Richard Evans's The Third Reich at War – is stunning in its survey of the horror inflicted by Hitler's patriots, which concluded for the Nazis in "a vast wave of suicides without precedent in modern history," and sadly included survivors of the camps who "would kill themselves because they were alive." Despair (and its summation) doesn't get any darker.
The book concludes with brighter reflections on the art of literacy: on form (eidos); mimesis (which Gass finds overrated – "Falsehood and error have played a far larger role in history than truth and correctness, for falsehood always finds a way to be convenient and of use."); and the structure of the sentence.
I've been collecting Gass's remarkable essays ever since I came across On Being Blue in the late 70s. Those collections are still on my shelves – alongside my favorite, Reading Rilke. The writing is strong, the philosophy as bitter as bright metal, and the measured wisdom certain. (less)
Christopher Bram's new book falls somewhere between gossip and literary history. It's an eminently readable account of a handful of gay writers who, i...moreChristopher Bram's new book falls somewhere between gossip and literary history. It's an eminently readable account of a handful of gay writers who, if they didn't change America, definitely impressed two or three generations of gay readers. I can still remember the excitement of discovering Glad Day Bookstore in Boston in the late 1970s; and in the early 80s the thrill of visiting Unabridged Bookstore in Chicago every few days to see what was new and (I hoped) shocking. Now, in 2012, the landmark gay bookstore in San Francisco has disappeared; it simply became irrelevant. Assimilation has its costs, one of which is indifference. I can't remember the last time I sought out a "gay fiction" section in any bookstore.
Both the strength and weakness of Bram's history is its concentration on a few literary lions – Vidal, Baldwin, Capote, Isherwood, White, Holleran, Kramer, Maupin and Kushner. Compared to even dated studies like Gregory Wood's A History of Gay Literature (1999), Eminent Outlaws is thin stuff. Actual outlaw writers (at random: James Purdy, Dennis Cooper) are completely ignored at the expense of dull expositions of White's "trilogy and a half" or the overstuffed outbursts of Angels in America or – unforgivably – anything by Larry Kramer. The gossip is mostly old hat. Bram's judgments are generous and gentle, as you'd expect of the author of the novel that became Gods and Monsters.
I finished the book with a sense of anticlimax. Had any of these books really mattered? Well, yes, at least when they appeared – and that's enough to ask of any writer. (less)
O'Brien streamlines the Faustian pandemonium of Byron's erotic and poetic life into a swift, sometimes moving, narrative. I've had Fiona MacCarthy's m...moreO'Brien streamlines the Faustian pandemonium of Byron's erotic and poetic life into a swift, sometimes moving, narrative. I've had Fiona MacCarthy's magisterial biography weighing down my nightstand for a couple months, but the print's too small for tired eyes. Then I found O'Brien's book in a used bookstore. Her account is convincing, if impossible – a larger than life genius, heartless, polysexual, extravagant, an Adonis with a clubfoot whose friends literally fought over pieces of his corpse. I recall William Pritchard's summary of Hart Crane: "a fine messed-up life." Byron makes Crane look tame and small; he makes everyone look tame and small.
Here's Byron at the end, when he realizes his fabled allure is no longer working with his final fascination:
I watched thee on the breakers, when the rock Received our prow and all was storm and fear, And bade thee cling to me through every shock; This arm would be thy bark, or breast thy bier. … Thus much and more; and yet thou lov'st me not, And never wilt! Love dwells not in our will. Nor can I blame thee, though it be my lot To strongly, wrongly, vainly love thee still.
"For all his swagger and bravura, Byron's real theme was love." George Gordon Byron, 6th Baron Byron, later George Gordon Noel, 6th Baron Byron, did not go gentle into the dying of the light. He was one of the most spectacular ragers of the 19th century.
Now I add Maureen McLane to that shelf. I stumbled on her book a week or so ago; it instantly became my favorite morning reading; it brought me back to that whirl of enthusiasm I felt when I first discovered Poetry. Some argue that there are only poems, not poetry, but for me poetry means the whole shifting inner world of poems felt and remembered, inscribed or buried in our bones, shaded, gleaming with intransigent significance; poems shared at Important Moments with Important Others. Without (to choose wildly) Cavafy, Pessoa, Gunn no doubt my life would lose its armature.
(This burst of intemperate enthusiasm, which should embarrass me, is testimony to the McLane effect – or to the caffeine of an iced latte I finished with her book, I can't say.)
McLane has accomplished something wonderful, claiming kinship, ownership, of a small group of poets who are intertwined with her biography. This is something that anyone who lives by poetry will immediately appreciate, although most of us would only make a mess of it (see above). A few of her favorites (Marianne Moore; HD) move me not at all, but I was happy to entertain her rhapsody. For me the most unexpected treat was her abecedary of "My Translated" – of which a sample few:
My Akhmatova is Judith Hemschemeyer. My Alberto Caeiro is Fernando Pessoa. My Archilochus is Douglas E. Gerber and Guy Davenport. My Beowulf is Seamus Heaney. My Cavafy is still Rae Dalven. My Federico García Lorca is a vast field of devotion including W.S. Merwin, Stephen Spender, and Lysander Kemp. My Li Po is sometimes Ezra Pound. My Pessoa is Richard Zenith. My Pushkin does not exist. My Wang Wei is David Hinton.
This is an excitable list I immediately want to extend and argue with. I was also delighted by her centos (poems constructed from lines from other poems), in which familiar verse rings out among the more obscure. As with the translations it made me want to return to known poets (of whom of course we never know enough) and to discover the unfamiliar.
And there I just used the word, the only right word for this book: delight. (less)
Last week I was saddened to read the obituary of Charles Rosen. I've been reading his essays in the New York Review of Books for decades, with pleasur...moreLast week I was saddened to read the obituary of Charles Rosen. I've been reading his essays in the New York Review of Books for decades, with pleasure and astonishment. How can one man know so much about so many things? Rosen was celebrated first as a pianist and musicologist, then as an acerbic essayist. A composer friend of mine called him "a brilliant crank with many enemies" (a description partly meant, I think, as a compliment). The first essay by him I remember reading was The Ruins of Walter Benjamin.* At the time I was taking a seminar on Benjamin at U of Chicago, and Rosen's essay struck me as the most intelligent appreciation of Benjamin I'd ever read.
Unfortunately I've never been able to appreciate Rosen's masterworks The Classical Style and The Romantic Generation, because despite three years of piano lessons, I can't understand music by simply studying the score.** Thus I mostly skipped the essays in the "Mostly Mozart" section of Freedom and the Arts – but I made the most of the rest.
The essays here encapsulate a staggering amount of careful reading. Rosen is infamous for his salty reviews of the multi-volume The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians. In this book he reviews the 29 double-column volumes of the 2001 edition. He also weighs in on publications from the oeuvres completes of Rousseau, de Sade, Montaigne, and Mallarmé as well as Richard Taruskin's 4272 pages of The Oxford History of Western Music.
Such assiduity may suggest a crippling completeness, impressive but boring. In fact these essays are anything but dull, beautifully structured, laced with learned insight and savage nuggets of wit. Preoccupations naturally travel from one (independently-composed) essay to the next: Montaigne ("Philosophy as Process") reappears in essays on the fables of La Fontaine and Richard Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy. Rosen's strictures are exact and fair: Adorno's "use of of pejorative terms to express ordinary developments as if they were a failure of ethics" or "the presence of forces in [Auden's] artistic and personal psyche that were beyond the reach of his extraordinary intelligence." (Rosen takes the scalpel to what I've always considered Auden's most irritating essay, "A Playboy of the Western World, Saint Oscar, the Hominterm Martyr.")
These are indeed the essays of a polymath, a book that puts its readers in the presence of some of the richest episodes in art, literature and music, as it makes its argument for "the freedom from coercive interpretation." Rosen will be missed. _____________________ * You may need a digital membership to NYRB to read this article, but the wealth of material available in its archive will more than compensate you.
** For readers similarly afflicted, I highly recommend the spectacular app "The Orchestra" from Touch Press. It would be marvelous to watch/listen to the scores in Rosen's and Taruskin's books in the way this app makes possible. Anyone who mourns the "death of print" will have to modulate their sorrow when confronted by the brilliance of apps like those offered by Touch Press (The Wasteland; Shakespeare's Sonnets; and the amazing presentation of da Vinci's Notebooks). (less)
If you married the sharp sensibility, intelligence and humor of Maureen McLane's My Poets with Howard Nemerov's elegant Figures of Thought, you'd get...moreIf you married the sharp sensibility, intelligence and humor of Maureen McLane's My Poets with Howard Nemerov's elegant Figures of Thought, you'd get something (at least in my imagination) like Mary Ruefle's Madness, Rack, and Honey. Reufle's new book has been my favorite café reading over the past couple weeks and probably the most fun I've had reading a book since, well, My Poets.
This book is apparently a bunch of lectures. "Lectures for me are bad dreams," she writes, but most of these begin with a pop that merrily echoes her name:
I don't know where to begin because I have nothing to say, yet I know that before too long I will sound as if I'm on a crusade.
Nobody wants his grave spray-painted and then vomited on…
I suppose, as a poet, among my fears can be counted the deep-seated uneasiness that one day it will be revealed that I consecrated my life to an imbecility.
The first lecture is entitled "Poetry and the Moon" and it's a beauty. "The moon is the very image of silence," she says, then quotes Simic, "The great lunacy of most lyric poems is that they attempt to use words to convey what cannot be put into words." Which is I suppose the whole point of poems and why poets go crazy.* Toward the end of the book, Ruefle says, "I remember, on the first Tuesday of every year, that I became a poet for a single, simple reason: I liked making similes for the moon." This from a composition in the form of anaphora, which for me recalls Joe Brainard's I Remember, but for Ruefle echoes (these lectures are full of echoes) Philip Larkin's I Remember, I Remember, which concludes "Nothing, like something, happens anywhere."
Memory, poetry, lunacy – or madness, rack, and honey.
The book isn't perfect.** Sometimes it's playfully stupid.
April is the cruelest month. The secret of poetry is cruelty.
Really? With so many secrets to tell, I doubt that's The One. Later she writes, "Even a bitter poem is a small act of affirmation." (See Larkin above.)
The lapses are few and forgivable. At its core is the passion of reading itself. In the chapter with the splendid title "Someone Reading A Book Is A Sign Of Order In The World" (echoes of Wallace Stevens), Ruefle remarks
In one sense, reading is a waste of time. In another sense, it is a great extension of time, a way for one person to live a thousand and one lives in a single life span, to watch the great impersonal universe at work again and again, to watch the personal psyche spar with it, to suffer affliction and weakness and injury, to die and watch those you love die, until the very dizziness of it all becomes a source of compassion for ourselves, and for the language which we alone created, without which the letter that slipped under the door could never have been written, or, once in a thousand lives — is that too much to ask? — retrieved, and read. Did I mention supreme joy?
Yes, Mary, you did – on every page. ___________________________________ * "According to the research of Arnold Ludwig, among all persons of all professions mental disorders appear most among artists. Among all artists, mental disorders appear most among writers. Among all writers, mental disorders appear most among poets." (306)
** The weakest essay, ironically, is "My Emily Dickinson" which echoes not only McLane's book (unintentionally) but (intentionally) the one by Susan Howe. (Maybe I've just had it with Emily Dickinson. And Anne Frank, who's hiding in this essay as well.)
At its worst it includes a Gorey-esque sketch of Emily's trademark white dress; at its best it includes the full citation of "Taking Off Emily's Dickinson's Clothes" by Billy Collins, a poem that makes both of us retch. For Ruefle, the import of the smarmy Collins poem is pretty simple: "Rape: to take away by force." (less)
Not long ago I re-read William Gass's 1976 classic On Being Blue. Typically, I remembered almost nothing...more[Warning: this review contains blue language.]
Not long ago I re-read William Gass's 1976 classic On Being Blue. Typically, I remembered almost nothing of the book I read when it first appeared, except what a handsome little book it was, one of the first David R. Godine/Nonpareil Books I'd ever seen. Gass actually doesn't have much to say about the color blue. He's more interested in the word, the metaphor, particularly in its sexual aspect. (Naturally, it being 1976 and his blue being exclusively heterosexual, he has nothing to say about L'amour bleu or the contemporaneous skinrag Blueboy.) What struck me most, on re-reading, was how determined he was to keep his writing blue. "What good is my peek at her pubic hair if I must also see the red lines made by her panties, the pimples on her rump, broken veins like the print of a lavender thumb, the stepped-on look of a day's end muff? I've that at home."
So it was impossible for me not to keep recalling Gass as I read through Maggie Nelson's Bluets. "There is a color inside of the fucking, but it is not blue." She of course is aware of the inevitable comparison, and (quoting the exact passage I quoted above) summarily dispatches On Being Blue as "puritanism, not eros" – because Gass asserts "The blue we breathe, I fear, is what we want from life and only find in fiction." Nelson's blue is all about loss, a loss that is intensely physical, "the pulsing of a pussy in serious need of fucking – a pulsing that communicates nothing less than the suckings and ejaculations of the heart." The book is a rigorous 240-point lament for the "prince of blue" who abandoned her.
Nelson's tormented mind crosses and re-crosses her obsession with the color blue and the range of reading that feeds it. We get Wittgenstein's late musings on color, Joni Mitchell's smoke-ravaged voice, Joan Mitchell's disintegrating paintings, Leonard Cohen's famous blue raincoat, Plato, Warhol, Joseph Cornell and (my favorite apophatic) Dionysius the Areopagite. Oddly, her method works. Nelson's reflections are suffused with blue rage, etching their points with broken glass. The book is not afraid of its own pretensions, nor to strain after the cerulean sublime.
For blue has no mind. It is not wise, nor does it promise any wisdom. It is beautiful, and despite what the poets and philosophers and theologians have said, I think beauty neither obscures truth nor reveals it. Likewise, it leads neither toward justice nor away from it. It is pharmakon. It radiates.
All the way through I kept muttering to myself that I didn't really like this book, but I couldn't stop until I'd reached the end. Pharmakon for sure.(less)
Nabokov's strong opinions about Gogol were welcome company when reading Dead Souls, pointing out swift bits of artistry that I missed on my own. One c...moreNabokov's strong opinions about Gogol were welcome company when reading Dead Souls, pointing out swift bits of artistry that I missed on my own. One can't help but see how much his own fiction (and criticism) were influenced by the wizardry of Gogol, even when he's describing Gogol himself:
His boyhood? Uninteresting. He passed through the usual illnesses: mumps, scarlet fever and pueritus scribendi. He was a weakling, a trembling mouse of a boy, with dirty hands and greasy locks, and pus trickling out of his ear. He gorged himself with sticky sweets. His schoolmates avoided touching the books he had been using.
I love that pueritus scribendi. This is scholarship worthy of Kinbote. (less)
poems never opened themselves to me, and that was because I had no "right" to them: they were not for me… they always said: Who do you think you are, coming in here? That was what Osip Mandelstam's poems said, that was what Ezra Pound's poems said, that was what Gottfried Benn's poems said, that was what Johannes Bobrowski's poems said. You had to earn the right to read them. How? It was simple, you opened a book, read, and if the poems opened themselves up to you, you had the right, if not, you didn't.
I remembered this passage when I picked up Glyn Maxwell's little book a couple days ago. I think he'd probably agree with this severe sentiment.
On Poetry is for people who've struggled to write a poem – a well-crafted poem, I mean, not some simple exudation of sentiment.
The fissure in writing poetry, the chasm between what I believe absolutely and doubt profoundly, is not between the "metrical" (say Frost) and the "musical" (say Pound) – which is a crude reduction of the work of both… the fissure is between having a governing aesthetic like either – or having no governing aesthetic at all, which leaves you with nothing but your next thought, or your latest feeling. That's an impulse which waited ninety years to find its true literary form. It's called a blog.
which echoes TS Eliot's dictum "the division between Conservative verse and vers libre does not exist, for there is only good verse, bad verse, and chaos."
I have a small shelf of salutary books on the hard craft of poetry. As instruction goes, Maxwell's in the middle – not quite as learned as Fenton; not nearly as fun as McLane or Ruefle; not as savage as Logan or as impenetrable as Hill, but in another dimension from most academic or popular criticism. He's best at the beginning, in his exploration of the White of the page and Black of the text and the vital polarity between them. "Songs are strung upon sounds, poems upon silence." But as he finds his way to the end, the book becomes a bit precious, even silly as he coaches imaginary students. His examples are the classic ones – and classics are always worth reading again – but I would have liked to see his analysis applied to poets who've written, say, in the last 70 years. Eliot and his crew can use a rest.
Quibbles aside, I did enjoy being reminded of Osip Mandelstam's "Conversation about Dante," which Maxwell dubs "the most challenging and sublime essay I know on poetry." And he pointed me to what may be the earliest bit of recorded poetry ever, which is both spooky and comical. (less)
Hard to imagine a title better designed to appeal to Goodreaders. Lesser's Why I Read is the latest in the genre of books about reading books – not qu...moreHard to imagine a title better designed to appeal to Goodreaders. Lesser's Why I Read is the latest in the genre of books about reading books – not quite literary criticism, more an excuse for genial conversation. I scanned some of the other reviews before I started typing this one and was bemused to see that some readers found this book too academic or abstruse. If anything, it's too casual, completely obvious in its arguments. Another reviewer said she'd skipped the chapter on translation, which was by far my favorite. Despite my own meager rating, Lesser deserves better readers than these.
In a book like this there's one thing I'm hoping for – news of an author or a book that I would have never discovered otherwise. On this score I was disappointed. Her list of 100 books to read for pleasure offers the usual pleasure of lists* but few surprises. I share her zest for detective fiction, and tend to agree that Sjöwall/Wahlöö's Martin Beck novels are even better than Mankell's Wallander series** – but only a dullard would forgo either. I especially appreciated her remarks on translators, particularly her preference for Alfred Birnbaum as the translator of Haruki Murakami's novels. (Thanks to her I hunted down an obscure Japanese English edition of Norwegian Wood.) But readers looking for esoteric eccentricity or strong opinions will have keep looking.
___________ * I'm a long-time fan of The Guardian'sTop Tens. For the true aficionado, it's impossible to beat the canonical List of Lists at the end of Bloom's book – which indeed communicates its pleasure on every page.
I relished this book when it first appeared 20 years ago. Bloom's grandiose passion for great literature is still comical, persuasive and refreshing i...moreI relished this book when it first appeared 20 years ago. Bloom's grandiose passion for great literature is still comical, persuasive and refreshing in its intemperance.(less)
Brown has a sure grasp of Ovid's classic, but her commentary is sometimes too knowing for my taste, digressing into pallid modern interpretations,* mu...moreBrown has a sure grasp of Ovid's classic, but her commentary is sometimes too knowing for my taste, digressing into pallid modern interpretations,* muting the wicked inventiveness of Ovid himself. I give it an appreciative extra star for her two pages of Further Reading, which prompted me to seek out Leonard Barkan's The Gods Made Flesh, and pull Marina Warner's Fantastic Metamorphoses, Other Worlds out of the book closet. ___________________
* My favorite digression has to be her reflection on the death of Diana, Princess of Wales. In Ovid the hapless Actaeon stumbles into a shady grove where the huntress Diana is being bathed by her nymphs. She turns him into stag which is in turn ripped apart by his own hounds. When we turn to her doomed namesake, there's "fortuitous" irony. Diana turns into Actaeon:
[Andrew Motion's elegy] hints that she was partly responsible for the accident. By describing the photographers and journalists as her 'own quick hounds' Motion suggests that she had previously found them useful, and exploited their hunting instinct for the purposes of self-promotion.
I prefer Ovid (in the Hughes translation):
Destiny, not guilt, was enough For Actaeon. It is no crime To lose your way in a dark wood.