Ever since I happened upon The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony in 1993, I've bought every book by Roberto Calasso published in the US. No one writes boEver since I happened upon The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony in 1993, I've bought every book by Roberto Calasso published in the US. No one writes books like he does – he's created his own genre of elegant, elusive meditations on literature, books that sweep across the centuries, from subtle commentaries on Greek and Indian mythology to arcane classics in the modernist pantheon. For anyone familiar with his work, there's no point in piling up praise; for anyone who loves literature but does not know Calasso's work: here's the tip.
From the first I was curious about Calasso: this cultivated European essayist is also a publisher. Often I've wished I was fluent in Italian and had access to the collection of books he's published in their original form. The Art of the Publisher addresses this curiosity. After that encomium above, I should say that this isn't like his other books. It's a short collection of talks provided for specific occasions (and is as repetitive as such collections tend to be). I suspect its audience will be small: readers who are interested in Calasso specifically, and readers who appreciate the art of publishers like Knopf and New Directions. (I distinctly recall the look and feel of that first book, published by Knopf, beautifully designed and presented with a slightly archaic Bodoni typeface.)
Despite the occasional nature of the chapters and the somewhat predictable publisher complaints, there's also a scattering of insights that could only come from Calasso.
In every aspect of our experience we are in contact with things that escape the control of our ego – and it is precisely in the area outside our control where we find that which is most important and essential to us…. If everywhere – in the forests of Brazil and the Kalahari Desert, in ancient China and Homer's Greece, in Mesopotamia and Egypt just as in Vedic India – the first form in which language manifested itself was the story, and a story that each time told of beings that were not entirely human, then this presupposes that no other use of words appeared to be more effective in establishing contact with entities that are around us and beyond us. And there is no risk of these stories, often immensely remote in time and space, being extraneous or inaccessible to us. All mythical stories, whatever their origin, are to do with something very close to us, though we often fail to realize it.
Calasso is convincing when he argues that judgment is "the basic founding element for the existence of the publisher," that publishing is indeed an art in which a line of books are, in a sense, one book with many chapters because they share the publisher's intuition of their value and singularity. I am not as opposed to ebooks or the information cloud as Calasso is – for certain types of texts the electronic form is completely adequate, and in the skilled hands of a publisher like touchpress the experience of a classic text like Eliot's "Wasteland" or Beethoven's 9th Symphony or Leonardo's notebooks is completely transformed. But I'm passionate in my hope we will always have publishers like Calasso, printing books that are also art with fine covers, elegant layout and typefaces, ink, paper, and texture, "that kind of book that is an experiment in knowledge, and as such can be transmuted into the experience of those who read it, thereby transforming that experience." Faire plaisir, a pleasure we cannot live without....more
Kafka can't be understood if he isn't taken literally.
It took me 10 years to finish this short book. For some reason I was generally satisfied with aKafka can't be understood if he isn't taken literally.
It took me 10 years to finish this short book. For some reason I was generally satisfied with a few pages, something that easily happens with Calasso's writing, always astonishing in its erudition even when it seems to glide across the page. K. is less a commentary than a meditation on what Kafka called "the indestructible."
This word brings to mind the Vedic akshara more than it does any term used in less remote traditions. Kafka never chose to explain its meaning. He wanted only to distinguish it clearly from any faith in a "personal God." Indeed he went so far as to assert that "belief in a personal God" is nothing more than "one possible expression" of a widespread phenomenon: the tendency of "the indestructible" to "remain hidden."
Recently I read Roberto Balaño's short story "Police Rat," which echoes Kafka's late tales "Josephine the Singer, or the Mouse Folk" and "The Burrow." What is it, I wondered, with Kafka and mice? Specifically, the noise they make en masse, which I would have called chirping, but Kafka (and Bolaño following him) refer to as "whistling" or "piping." Toward the end of Calasso's book I found the answer, in a letter Kafka wrote from Zürau.
Dear Felix, the first great flaw of Zürau: a night of mice, a frightening experience. I am unscathed and my hair is no whiter than yesterday, but it was the most horrifying thing in the world. For some time now I've heard them here and there, every now and then at night I've been hearing a soft nibbling, once I even got out of bed, trembling, to take a look, and then it stopped at once – but this time it was an uproar. What a dreadful, mute, and noisy race. At two I was awakened by a rustling near my bed and it didn't let up from then until morning. Up the coal box, down the coal box, crossing the room diagonally, running circles, nibbling the woodwork, whistling softly when not moving, and all the while the sensation of silence, of the clandestine labor of an oppressed proletarian race to whom the night belongs.
First my bias: ever since its inception in the mid-80s, I've regarded Queer Theory as a species of rhetorical barbarism, a ferreting of fabrications fFirst my bias: ever since its inception in the mid-80s, I've regarded Queer Theory as a species of rhetorical barbarism, a ferreting of fabrications fueled by incestuous citations and discredited deconstructionist fantasies of domination, liberation and transgression – all crimped within the conformist cadences of academia. Sebald's Bachelors certainly has its share of these.
The tension in the first three sections of Schwindel. Gefühle. is, more precisely, between what Deleuze and Guattari term 'a schizo Eros and an Oedipal Thanatos,' here a queer erotics that resists the Oedipal process… It further demonstrates what Laura Penny has usefully diagnosed as a tension between Benjaminian and Deleuzoguattarian readings of Kafka, between 'Benjamin's modernist mourning and Deleuze's schizoid affirmation.'
There are occasional hilarities ("the queer heterotopia of the railway toilet"), dutiful affirmations of anti-Orientalism etc. and a crash of jarring metaphors (Sebald's Vertigo "is not a fully realized revolutionary literary machine"). And there is a wealth of insight, nourished by an astonishing range of Sebaldiana.
Despite my queer resistance to this style of argument, Finch held my interest throughout. True, at key points I felt she simply misrepresented the texts she was reading, conjuring homosexual eros out of the most unlikely relationships. (I was reminded of the early days of Gay Liberation when everyone everywhere had to be gay.) But fundamentally I was convinced: there is something queer about Sebald's bachelors. It was worth fighting past the scholastic fetish of Theory. Serious fans of Sebald will find much to enchant them here.
PS: Legenda did a beautiful job publishing this text....more
An extra star for The Fellowship because the Zaleskis flouted my expectation. I was skeptical. The authors previously published Prayer: A History andAn extra star for The Fellowship because the Zaleskis flouted my expectation. I was skeptical. The authors previously published Prayer: A History and Gifts of the Spirit: Living the Wisdom of the Great Religious Traditions – titles that would send me running to the opposite end of the bookstore – but this book provides a richly detailed portrait of an odd quartet, not the pious pondering I feared I'd find.
There's already a library of books on these writers, starting with Humphrey Carpenter's The Inklings: C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Charles Williams, and Their Friends (1978). Worse (for me) there is also evangelical America's obsession with Oxford Christianity, instantiated in the Wade Center at Wheaton College. Yet at some point in my teens and twenties I read almost everything by these men, so I suppose this book was a way of looking back at my own life, starting with C. S. Lewis's books on "mere Christianity." Those hearty apologetics seemed glib even when I accepted their substance. A sample:
A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said wouldn't be a great moral teacher. He'd either be a lunatic – on a level with the man who says he's a poached egg – or else he'd be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse.
Or maybe not. (To my delight, the Zaleskis supplied some background on the poached egg madman, who was an urban legend dating from the early 20th century.)
It is the most controversial of Lewis's fictions, intensely disliked by many of his readers, extravagantly praised by a few, an anomaly among his works with its female narrator, its bleak landscapes, its bitter, ironic tone – more than a few passages might have come from Camus or Sartre – its complex plot, its cultivated obscurities, and its uncertain conclusion… the book's presiding darkness and relentless melancholy make it a struggle to read and nearly impossible to cherish.
That last line made me laugh out loud. What I remember most from the book is Lewis's palpable love for the Greeks. It was also my introduction to the grim myth of Psyche and Eros, my favorite account until I read James Hillman's The Myth of Analysis: Three Essays in Archetypal Psychology years later. I'm also fond (at least in memory) of another late book, Studies in Words, which elicited the sour response from Tolkien "[Lewis's] ponderous silliness is becoming a fixed manner."
Volumes have been written on the relationship between Lewis and Tolkien, and on Tolkien himself. Like everyone else who is lucky to discover it before they're too old, I was completely captivated by The Lord of the Rings. However, apart from his Middle-Earth obsession, Tolkien has always struck me as the least interesting, most cantankerous member of the group, and the Zaleskis' account only confirmed this impression.
Finally Owen Barfield, for me the most interesting of the Inklings. I discovered Saving the Appearances: A Study in Idolatry in my early 20s and was so intrigued by his version of the "evolution of consciousness" that I ended up writing an MA thesis on his work. Reading The Fellowship confirmed my suspicion that I never fully acknowledged his work, or rather that I'd pushed aside the aspect I could never accept – his unshakeable commitment to Anthroposophy and Rudolph Steiner – preferring to focus instead on his provocative meditations on poetry and consciousness. (His magnum opus What Coleridge Thought might be justly titled "What Barfield Thought.") Barfield spent most of his career as a solicitor in obscurity while the other Inklings triumphed; he came into his own in his 60s, celebrated in the United States by the likes of Howard Nemerov and Saul Bellow and surviving into his 90s.
The Zaleskis conclude that the Inklings represent an unprecedented achievement: they "renewed a current that runs through the heart of Western literature… they have recovered archaic literary forms not as an antiquarian curiosity but as a means of squarely addressing modern anxieties and longings." This is bland and unconvincing. Fortunately, the rest of the book is not.
I stumbled on this book in Green Apple and I'm glad I picked it up. It's a poet's meditation on the poems of another poet rather than an exhaustive inI stumbled on this book in Green Apple and I'm glad I picked it up. It's a poet's meditation on the poems of another poet rather than an exhaustive investigation like Helen Vendler's The Odes of John Keats.
Keats is the archetype of the Romantic poet – a young man of incredible gifts who died just as he was beginning to realize how gifted he was. A couple years ago in Rome, like every literary tourist, I visited the small room overlooking the Spanish Steps where Keats died in 1821 and his simple grave in the Protestant Cemetery with the epitaph "Here Lies One Whose Name Was Writ in Water." Grief and beauty are inextricably intertwined in his odes and letters. Beachy-Quick reveals a fine appreciation of these poems, and every chapter of this slim book demonstrates the quality of his attention.
To read Keats's poem is to suffer a small portion of his death, one finely attuned to the fact of our own mortality; to read the poem is to lend back to its words a portion of our own life, one astonishingly aware than any immortality is composed of our own eye's brief flicker, and that recognition found deep in the blood as it surges toward the heart and away, that this pulse in human life may best be called thought.
For anyone who loves Keats's poetry, this book is a gift....more
Saki is the nom de plume of Hector Hugh Munro, born in Burma in 1870, where his father was an inspector-general for the Burmese police. His great-unclSaki is the nom de plume of Hector Hugh Munro, born in Burma in 1870, where his father was an inspector-general for the Burmese police. His great-uncle was devoured by a tiger while hunting in India (an incident later immortalized in Staffordshire pottery). In 1872 his mother was charged by a cow; she miscarried and died. He and his siblings were shipped back to Britain where they were raised by a set of strait-laced aunts who could barely tolerate children. And therein lies the tale.
I've loved (the little I knew of) Saki ever since I read The Open Window at 11 or 12, and still pick up my colorful copy of The Complete Short Stories and find something new. A few years ago I wrote the libretto for Srendi Vashtar, a comic opera composed Nicholas Pavkovic. So I was delighted to discover this recent study.
But – there is a danger in inquiring too closely into the object of one's affections. Saki's heartless, Wildean humor is the art of a damaged boy; that is its genius and limitation. Sandie Byrne is very good at tracing the darker cross-currents below the puckish play of his fiction. As V.S. Pritchett observed in one of his essays,
Saki was short of pity. He was an egoist and had no soothing word for pain. He knew that certain kinds of pain cannot be forgotten.
Saki's miniatures bristle with the revenge of animals and children on the world of uncaring adults; their sparkle and laughter barely conceal the sharp teeth of their sentiments. Byrne is too wise to make excuses: she presents this rare Edwardian in all his feral brilliance and allows her readers to draw their own conclusions. I'd forgive much for Laura alone....more
Bishop has been fortunate in her critics and biographers (David Kalstone's Becoming a Poet; Lorrie Goldensohn's Elizabeth Bishop). Tóibín provides somBishop has been fortunate in her critics and biographers (David Kalstone's Becoming a Poet; Lorrie Goldensohn's Elizabeth Bishop). Tóibín provides something different, an intense appreciation of one writer by another. He doesn't hesitate to mingle his own memories and methods with his discussion of hers, nor does he shy away from offering his own analysis of Bishop's famous reticence and control.
It was an essential aspect of her talent, indeed of her gift, as a poet, that she did not manage to confront what mattered to her most. Instead, she buried what mattered to her most in her tone, and it is this tone that lifts the best poems she wrote to a realm beyond their own occasion.
He muses upon her loves and friends. Sometimes it seems he's drifting far from his subject but each divagation brings us closer. I particularly appreciated his pages on Thom Gunn, who knew Bishop from her time in San Francisco, whom Tóibín knew from his time in San Francisco. I consider Gunn's The Man with Night Sweats almost without equal. Tóibín compares its Elizabethan elegies with Bishop's late verse, his taut restraint with hers. (Her grief, I find, is much colder.)
Mostly, though, he pulled me back into the poems, quoting generously and sending me time and again to my battered paperback of The Complete Poems, marveling again at "The Armadillo" and "The Moose" and (my new favorite) "The End of March." He admires her exquisite craft, even more the spirit behind it.
Faith goes; language remains. Slowly, the new faithless language takes on a power much greater than it ever had when it was there merely to express faith. Language is all there is now.
I read this liberating little book over three days of lunch and coffee breaks – it's a somewhat severe meditation on eight 20th-century American writeI read this liberating little book over three days of lunch and coffee breaks – it's a somewhat severe meditation on eight 20th-century American writers: Lionel Trilling, Dwight Macdonald, Alfred Kazin, William Maxwell, Saul Bellow, Norman Mailer, W.H. Auden, and Frank O'Hara. An odd octet, but it reflects Mendelson's interest in "the conflicts between the inward, intimate private lives of authors and the lives they led in public, the choices they continually made between wearing a mask and exposing their face." Of this group, I'm only familiar with Maxwell, Auden and O'Hara. At some point in my reading life, I sampled the others and waved them aside for boring me, which probably makes me an immoralist.
I can't say Mendelson changed my opinion, but he certainly illuminated my prejudices. It's tempting, even in a sally such as this, to pluck sour cherries from each chapter, but I'll limit myself to a few bon mots:
Instead of writing the novels he wanted to write, Trilling wrote fictions about other people's novels and made them seem like truth.
Kazin's breast-beating mythologizing was his favored method of consoling himself: he confessed to a grave fault that he didn't commit so that he could avoid thinking about the lesser one he did. To betray his people was daemonic and exciting; to betray his wife was merely tawdry.
"Saintly" is a word that recurs in everything written about Maxwell and his work. But in the same way that his friends ignored the primitive, amoral magic that governs the realistic-looking world of his fiction, they ignored his contempt for any ethical understanding of life.
Mendelson's morality is sharp in every sense, and informs his criticism throughout. Its import is best grasped in the contrast he makes (several times) between European and American writers. In the chapter on Mailer he notes:
No European writer imagines writing the Great English or French or German Novel because the great theme of European literature is the mutual relation of individual persons with each other and with the differentiated hierarchy of the social world… The European novel always exists in dialogue with other novels. The Great American Novel – if it could actually exist – would stand alone in its capacious greatness.
I was surprised to learn of Bellow's fascination with the work of Owen Barfield. (For a period in my 20s I was also fascinated, to the point that I ended up writing a master's thesis on the man.) And I was a bit shocked by his judgment that
The moral and emotional truths that Maxwell's wise-sounding realistic novels studiously deny are the same truths that his wild and naive-sounding improvisations – freed from his power, released from his circle – triumphantly and movingly affirm.
The best chapter is on Auden (not surprisingly; Mendelson is the author of Early Auden and Later Auden). Mendelson focuses on Auden's "religionless Christianity" (a term from Bonhoeffer), summed up in the duty to love one's neighbor.
Auden had a secret life that his closest friends knew little or nothing about. Everything about it was generous and honorable. He kept it a secret because he would have been ashamed to have been praised for it.
Mendelson concludes his study with Frank O'Hara, and naturally this was my favorite. Its few pages are packed with precise, vivid appreciations of the man and his poetry. "O'Hara was a major writer who tried to convince himself that he was a minor one." That's perfect. Frank we love you get up....more
Once in a great while I stumble onto a new book by an author I'd forgotten, and discover his work all over again. Twenty years ago I got lost in RoberOnce in a great while I stumble onto a new book by an author I'd forgotten, and discover his work all over again. Twenty years ago I got lost in Robert Pogue Harrison's Forests. In the next decade I brought home The Body of Beatrice and The Dominion of the Dead, read a chapter or two and buried them in the back of the book closet. A few days ago I came across Juvenescence and it has transformed my week, in part because it led me as well to Harrison's podcast Entitled Opinions which I have been enjoying immensely. This book wins an extra star just for that pleasure.
Juvenescence is the best book I've ever read on aging, tipping a whole shelf of self-help books onto the floor. "This book is at best ambivalent toward the unprecedented juvenescence that is sweeping over Western culture." Harrison doesn't question that "70 is the new 50" – but he does make us wonder if this is the Good Thing everyone supposes, particularly for the young.
our youth-obsessed society in fact wages war against the youth it presumably worships. It may appear as if the world now belongs mostly to the younger generations, with their idiosyncratic mindsets and technological gadgetry, yet in truth, the age as a whole, whether wittingly or not, deprives the young of what youth needs most if it hopes to flourish. It deprives them of idleness, shelter, and solitude, which are the generative sources of identity formation, not to mention the creative imagination. It deprives them of spontaneity, wonder, and the freedom to fail.
Here Harrison has articulated a host of my own inchoate ruminations. Over the last few years I've watched the San Francisco I loved disappear, replaced by the purr of high-tech buses pouring back into the city from Silicon Valley late at night, dropping serious twenty-somethings onto almost deserted streets, streets that used to throng with hippies, drag queens, activists and artists. I marvel at millennials buying condos in this unaffordable city; then I remember how I survived my 20s & 30s on temp jobs, surrounded by a wealth of friends, books, bars and cafés, when conversations (and much else) wandered into the wee hours. I don't envy the young, any more than they would envy me.
Harrison posits a polarity between youthful Genius and older Wisdom. His development of this theme is interesting but not always convincing. Twice (pp. 30, 132), while arguing for the critical importance of solitude and passionate thinking in our Genius years, he cites Poe's hypnotic poem "Alone."
From childhood’s hour I have not been As others were—I have not seen As others saw—I could not bring My passions from a common spring— From the same source I have not taken My sorrow—I could not awaken My heart to joy at the same tone— And all I lov’d—I lov’d alone— Then—in my childhood—in the dawn Of a most stormy life—was drawn From ev’ry depth of good and ill The mystery which binds me still.
But Poe's poem does not stop after "still" – instead after an em dash it wends its way into real weirdness:
From the torrent, or the fountain— From the red cliff of the mountain— From the sun that ’round me roll’d In its autumn tint of gold— From the lightning in the sky As it pass’d me flying by— From the thunder, and the storm— And the cloud that took the form (When the rest of Heaven was blue) Of a demon in my view—
Poe was haunted. For a generation that grew up with Jim Morrison and Jimi Hendrix, that's apparent – but maybe this is a point Harrison doesn't want to press too hard.
If you've followed this review this far, I'll throw in a final snippet, a passage that will ring true to anyone in middle age (or beyond, I expect) who revels in the unfathomable richness of reading.
Such is the paradox of human age in the cultural sphere: we get younger by becoming older. One of the blessings of the human condition, which is otherwise tragic and fraught with afflictions of every sort, is that, once it gets underway, the learning process never comes to an end, or at least never need come to an end.
Harrison also cites a poem by D.H. Lawrence, which concludes with the line "Thought is a man in his wholeness, wholly attending." Surely he has described himself....more
The celebrated canon of fairy tales has been done to death in the last generation by Freudians, Jungians, women who run with wolves, Iron Johns and thThe celebrated canon of fairy tales has been done to death in the last generation by Freudians, Jungians, women who run with wolves, Iron Johns and the prodigious Jack Zipes. Much to my relief, Marina Warner delivers on her promise of “a short history,” moving swiftly across two centuries of interpretation. Her short chapters are larded with unexpected illustrations (how could I not have known those by David Hockney?) and scintillating nuggets from Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Borges, Michel Tournier, Italo Calvino and Angela Carter, each of whom recreated fairy tales for the 20th century.* Warner does full justice to the anarchic inventions of Carter, whose revisionist tellings are better than the originals.
unlike most fairy tales, and certainly unlike the majority of the erotic fantasies selling fast today, her writing dazzles: her prose is unabashed in its festivity, lacerating scorn, and salty pungency. She puts on a performance of brilliant kinetic energy, displaying masterly handling of register, irony, allusion, phrase and lexicon. She is playful, richly layered, and exuberantly fearless as she attempts to reconfigure new possible worlds – where heroines will not submit but will understand their own appetites and act to fulfill them…
Carter’s originality has saved her from assimilation by the politically correct: in 1979, the same year that she published The Bloody Chamber, she also “issued a deliberate and outrageous provocation, an essay called The Sadeian Woman [in which] she upheld the pornography of the Marquis de Sade as a feminist tool of illumination.”
Warner includes a quick survey of fairy tales in film; her evocation of the films of Lotte Reiniger led me directly to YouTube. Her compressed account can only skim the surface but prompted associations of my own. (When she mentions the 17th century version of Sleeping Beauty by Giambattista Basile, she notes that the heroine “is raped while she lies unconscious” – an aspect omitted by Perrault but resurrected by Pedro Almodóvar in Talk to Her.) Maybe the best compliment I can give her book is to say that I need never read another history; I’d rather experience the tales themselves in all their inexhaustible metamorphoses.
___________________ * I’d hedge a bit in the case of Lewis – I could never stomach Narnia but still remember Till We Have Faces after 40 years....more
"My subject is War, and the pity of War." – Wilfred Owen
Some Desperate Glory is about "the feelings and vision of eleven fragile young men who were un"My subject is War, and the pity of War." – Wilfred Owen
Some Desperate Glory is about "the feelings and vision of eleven fragile young men who were unlikely warriors" in the First World War – some still well-known like Owen, Sassoon, Edward Thomas, Robert Graves, Rupert Brooke; others mostly forgotten like Isaac Rosenberg, Edmund Blunden, Charles Sorley and Ivor Gurney (somehow the most tragic, which is saying a lot). Among the pile of recent weighty histories of WWI I've accumulated out of some obscure obligation, Egremont's book is a relatively swift read, suitable for a melancholy evening and afternoon.
Egremont is an expert, the author of Siegfried Sassoon: A Life. His book divides his treatment by the four years of the war. This is a logical choice, although as he moves from poet to poet the narrative can feel a bit pasted together, hopping from Thomas to Sassoon to Brooke to Graves to Blunden over the course of a page. Often I found myself resorting to Tim Kendall's excellent Poetry of the First World War: An Anthology, for Kendall's capsule biographies, trying to keep track of who was who. On the other hand, Egremont also provides a selection of poems from his poets for each year. This is brilliant: it carries the history to the heart. The poems feel fresh and shocking and sometimes sting with grief, especially when the poet has just died in the pages before. (And many of these poems aren't in Kendall's anthology.)
A book which covers so much so quickly can't help but scant the complexity of a poet's experience. This was especially apparent to me in the case of Thomas, after reading Matthew Hollis's Now All Roads Lead To France last year. Nor does it have the cumulative critical power of Paul Fussell's classic The Great War and Modern Memory, the book to which Egremont's will inevitably be compared. (Interestingly, Fussell is not mentioned at all.)
Still, there is much here to appreciate. I was surprised to hear sheer jubilation from poet after poet, how exhilarating the war was, how it had liberated them from the strictures of their own life. It's wasn't only the celebrated "patriots" like Brooke and Grenfell who rejoiced, but cynics like Sassoon, Graves and Owen. I was also intrigued by how many of these warrior poets were homo- or bisexual. Years after the war Robert Graves (who in his youth fell in love with one young man after another) remarked, "Owen and Sassoon were homosexuals, though Sassoon tried to think he wasn't. To them, seeing men killed was as horrible as if you or I had to see fields of corpses of women." Probably he was right. The same angry sentiment appeared before the next war in the writing of Auden and Isherwood.
The last chapter "Aftermath" is sharp. Writing of the death of Robert Graves in 1985, Egremont observes
By then, the poets' war was seen as the truth, judging by the flood of novels and films about it. This infuriated historians… Why, they asked, should what had ended in victory for the Allies be shown so often as a series of failed attacks from water-filled trenches across lunar landscapes threaded with barbed wire, in an atmosphere of dread, under the command of stupid, moustachioed, out-of-touch generals sheltering in châteaux miles to the rear? This, they claimed was the real myth.
The final essay "The Philology of World Literature" (1952) is a troubled reflection on what we'd now call the globalization of literature, long before the age of the internet and the amnesia of "tech culture."
I accept it as inevitable that world culture is in the process of becoming standarized.…we still live in the midst of and continue to experience historical diversity. Without this experience of diversity, I fear our sense of historical perspective might rapidly lose its vitality and concreteness. We appear to be living, then, at a decisive moment in the evolution of hermeneutical history writing. How many more generations will belong to this moment is uncertain. We are already threatened, for example, by the impoverishment of understanding associated with a concept of education that has no sense of the past. It is not just that this impoverishment already exists, it actually threatens to become hegemonic. What we are we have become in the course of our history, and it is only in history that we can remain what we are, and develop.
No doubt this is the kind of humanist complaint we're used to hearing. But what he means by "education that has no sense of the past" becomes shocking in the context of his writing, once you grasp what "having a sense of the past" really means. He does, and it's astonishing....more
Brown has a sure grasp of Ovid's classic, but her commentary is sometimes too knowing for my taste, digressing into pallid modern interpretations,* muBrown 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.
I relished this book when it first appeared 20 years ago. Bloom's grandiose passion for great literature is still comical, persuasive and refreshing iI 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....more
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 quHard 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.
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. ...more
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 cNabokov'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. ...more
Not long ago I re-read William Gass's 1976 classic On Being Blue. Typically, I remembered almost nothing[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....more
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 getIf 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." ...more
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 pleasurLast 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). ...more
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. ...more
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 mO'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.
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, iChristopher 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. ...more
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 essFor 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. ...more
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 readWhen 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." ...more
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… ...more
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 picAfter 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.) ...more
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 thA 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. ...more