Saturday, October 01, 2016

`In the Presence of This Mystery'

“It’s Sunday. Where can you go? To the zoo? To Sokolniki Park? No, the cemetery’s more enjoyable. You can do a little leisurely work, and you can get some fresh air at the same time.”

The original is in Russian but everyone recognizes the sentiment. The other public space a cemetery most resembles is a park, often a well-tended landscape of grass and trees, a place that invites contemplation and an unhurried pace. No one visits a cemetery to run laps. The writer is Vasily Grossman, author of one of the last century’s great novels, Life and Fate. The passage quoted above is from “Eternal Rest,” collected in The Road: Stories, Journalism, and Essays (trans. Robert and Elizabeth Chandler, with Olga Mukovnikova, NYRB, 2010). Written around 1958, the essay describes a visit to Vagankovo Cemetery in Moscow, the final resting place of the lexicographer Vladimir Ivanovich Dahl (much admired by Nabokov and Solzhenitsyn) and the poet Sergei Alexandrovich Yesenin. Also of Grossman’s father, Solomon Iosifovich, who changed his name to Semyon Osipovich.

The novelist and his wife, Olga Mikhailovna, lived in an apartment across the street from the cemetery. Grossman died of stomach cancer in 1964, and his widow hoped to bury his ashes in Vagankovom, but her request was denied. Then she sought a plot in Moscow’s best-known cemetery, Novodevichy, where Grossman’s beloved Chekhov is buried. That too was denied. He was finally interred in Troyekurovskoye Cemetery, on the western edge of Moscow. Grossman writes in “Eternal Rest”:

“Life is powerful. It bursts through the fence around the cemetery. And the cemetery surrenders; it becomes a part of life.”

In Hebrew, a Jewish cemetery is called beit chaim, “house of life,” or beit olam, “house of eternal life.” As a correspondent for Red Star, the Red Army newspaper, Grossman covered the battles of Stalingrad and Kursk, the defense of Moscow and the fall of Berlin. He covered Babi Yar and the slaughter of some 30,000 Jews, including his mother, at his birthplace, Berdichev. He wrote some of the earliest reports on the Treblinka and Majdanek death camps. After all this death, Grossman finds respite in the cemetery, sometimes of a mutedly comic sort:

“So here we are—a mound of earth over a grave, and a woman planting forget-me-nots. No, her husband won’t be seeing any more of his other women now. Everything is so peaceful. Her only anxiety now is whether or not she should have planted pansies instead. She has forgiven him, and this forgiveness ennobles her.”

Like a fiction writer, Grossman enters the lives of cemetery visitors and their dead, animating them with stories. Widows mourn and lovers arrange trysts. “The cemetery lives an intense, passion-filled life,” he writes. Where others see death, Grossman celebrates life. He contrasts human worth with worldly pomp: “The sanctity of the soul’s holy mystery makes everything else seem contemptible. The drums and brass trumpets of the State, the wisdom of history, the stone of monuments, howls of loss, prayers of remembrance—all these seem as nothing in the presence of this mystery.” The lines recall Thomas Gray’s meditation in a cemetery:

“The boast of heraldry, the pomp of pow’r,       
  And all that beauty, all that wealth e’er gave,
Awaits alike th’ inevitable hour:
  The paths of glory lead but to the grave.”

Friday, September 30, 2016

`What the Diaries Do Not Tell'

“The reader might also explore what the diaries do not tell.”

Safely in the West, we think of journals and diaries as places where everything can be told. Such writing has an audience of one. We can be as candid, sloppy, provocative and tedious as we wish. Some years ago, when I was in constant pain following an automobile accident, I kept a notebook beside my bed, and gushed – frightfully tiresome stuff. That’s about as close as I have ever come to writing-as-therapy. Naturally, I later burned the notebook. But I am a citizen of the United States, where the First Amendment still shields me and goons don’t knock down my door looking for samizdat.

The sentence at the top comes from the introduction to Intimacy and Terror: Soviet Diaries of the 1930s (The New Press, 1995), edited by VĂ©ronique Garros, Natalia Korenevskaya and Thomas Lahusen. Translated are nine diaries, sometimes excerpted, kept by Soviet citizens during and immediately preceding Stalin’s Great Terror (1934-39). In many of the diaries, the mundanity of the events recorded – jobs performed, food consumed -- is touchingly human. The editors refer to the “wondrous freedom” typically accorded diarists. Not so, in Stalin’s Russia. The mere existence of such private writing could be cause for arrest, torture and execution. In most cases the writers are not motivated by a Solzhenitsyn-style documentary impulse, and sometimes quite the opposite.

Take the case of Vladimir Petrovich Stavsky, an apparatchik hack: general secretary of the Union of Soviet Writers and editor-in-chief of Novy mir. He joined the party in 1918, served as a commissar during the civil war and took part in the grain confiscation and resulting famine in the Kuban region of Southern Russia. The editors of Intimacy and Terror tell us Stavsky is known as the “executioner of Soviet literature.” He authorized the arrest of hundreds of members of the Writers’ Union. Coolly, without comment, the editors report: “His denunciation of Osip Mandelshtam, which led to the poet’s arrest and eventual death in a labor camp, was published in the newspaper Izvestiya in 1992.” Many years after his death, scholars determined Mandelstam died in a Siberian transit camp on Dec. 27, 1938. In a passage from his diary written late that year, Stavsky says:

“I’d give anything not to have to do my gymnastics. I just barely managed to drag myself out of the house. And I couldn’t get any energy up the whole time I was exercising. The wind rustles. The birches are covered with yellow leaves. The oaks are still at their peak. These are my favorites: three of them, triplets, that grew from a single acorn.”

This is what the editors mean by “what the diaries do not tell”: whining and prose poems from the man who condemned Mandelstam to a lonely, miserable death.

Thursday, September 29, 2016

`A Festivity Pursued for Its Own Sake'

“Improbable as it might sound to digital natives, information is a tool but love of reading is a way of life.”

A useful, healthy-minded distinction. We don’t read Coriolanus or Leskov’s stories for information, and most of us don’t read dictionaries or field guides for pleasure (there are exceptions). But Maureen Mullarkey, in “Because the Incarnate Matters,” points out a fading reality lost on the congenitally digital: books exceed their merely utilitarian purposes.  She continues, on the subject of reading:   

“And like any love, it has a physical dimension. There is more to it than simply ingesting print. Love of reading begins with pleasure in the look, feel, and weight of a book. Even the smell of books—seasoned ones—carries an enchantment. Redolent with memory, they do more than conjure the past for us. They bind us to it.”

I remember the pleasure all my sons took in books as physical objects even before they were toddlers. Sure, they tore some pages, and my youngest chewed off part of a paperback cover, leaving tooth marks. But the ingenious engineering of a book, the way pages move when riffled, like leaves of grass in a breeze, is seductive, and gives us a handy metaphor for the book’s contents, its latent energies. All it takes to get things moving is a reader.

The danger here is fetishizing. The e-books Mullarkey discusses have never tempted me. I’m generally resistant to new gadgets of any sort, and don’t like clutter, digital or otherwise. But it’s good to remember that most traditional books from any era are junk. Ever hopeful, I scan the crowded “Book Sale” shelves in our neighborhood branch library, but in five years I’ve purchased only two volumes, at 50 cents apiece, one of which was for the book-chewer mentioned above. The rest are bestsellers, self-help, computer manuals, textbooks and old National Geographics. In short, clutter. But the books important to me, the ones I’m certain to read again, are layered indelibly with memories. They are more truly mine than my neckties, laptop and car.

Reading is an intimate, solitary pleasure. I can’t imagine the horrors posed by a book club. We know our books with an intensity and thoroughness customarily reserved for friends. And like friends, they change across time as we change, and are never stale, always new and a little mysterious. Mullarkey writes: “Reading for the delight of it—however sober the topic—is a kind of play. To be lost in a book is a festivity pursued for its own sake.” I have no wish to condemn or abolish e-books. Like so many passing vogues, they leave me not hostile but indifferent. I feel the same about electric razors and electric cars. I like the idea of an object -- a book -- suffused with the sensibilities of its creator and its user. As Mullarkey puts it:  

“Words flicker across a screen, fugitive and insubstantial. By contrast, words inked onto a page are still corporeal, however slight. They occupy space, have weight and texture. They are really there. So, too, the page that holds them: Every physical book is a concrete embodiment of mind, in its way an incarnation.”

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

`Scarcely Known But by the Catalogue'

My memory is littered with names, many of them vaguely literary, unattached to much of anything. For example: John Frederick Nims, Dudley Fitts, John Hall Wheelock. At one time, all were big, or biggish, guns in the worlds of American poetry, translation, teaching and criticism. To varying degrees all had influence in the world of literature and publishing, but I couldn’t name the title of a single volume any of them published. I’m not mocking these men. Rather, I’m pointing out the evanescence of literary reputation. Add to them the name of another, a contemporary of theirs: Babette Deutsch (1895-1982). Had we been playing a word association game, and you gave me her name, I would have replied, first, with “poet,” and then with “Avraham Yarmolinsky.” The latter was her husband, whom I knew because he edited The Portable Chekhov (1947). They were a team, like Nick and Nora.

As an experiment I borrowed The Collected Poems of Babette Deutsch (1969), a book that has not circulated from my university library since 1975, and browsed in it for several nights. Deutsch could write but wears her influences like a neon sign. The Modernist brand names announce their appearance – Yeats, Stevens, Eliot, Auden, Moore, Rilke. Her sense of humor tends to be flaccid and she finds sentimentality irresistible. “September” begins:

“This is the month when sun and wind contend
For the possession of that lapis, thinned
To milkiest opal, that is pure bare sky.
A cloud-puff is a milkweed soberly
Shredded by breezes with the fists of boys.”

Deutsch doesn’t seem to find words all that interesting, and a poet indifferent to her medium is asking for trouble – namely, dullness. She's left fashioning poetic gestures rather than poems. I found a few phrases amusing, but no entire poems that were satisfactory. This is sad and disappointing. I hoped to find pleasure in Deutsch’s work. At one time she was well-known and well-reviewed. Instead, I again remembered Dr. Johnson’s Rambler #106:   

“No place affords a more striking conviction of the vanity of human hopes than a public library; for who can see the wall crowded on every side by mighty volumes, the works of laborious meditations and accurate inquiry, now scarcely known but by the catalogue . . .”

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

`Pick It Up and Throw It Across the Room'

If the Library of America is happy to scrape the sub-literate bottom and make room for Lovecraft, Le Guin and Dick, surely they can spare a volume for the Stanford School, the irregulars associated with poet-critic Yvor Winters. Writers, especially good ones, are independent by nature, even solitary. Most often it’s critics who cram them into categories for their own convenience. The poets who studied under, or were to some degree touched by Winters, are a notably heterogeneous bunch, hardly a school at all in a reductive sense. Except for their connections with Winters, J.V. Cunningham, Edgar Bowers, Thom Gunn, Donald Justice, Turner Cassity and Helen Pinkerton share only a severe dedication to poetry. Add to their number Winters’ widow, Janet Lewis (1899-1898), who also wrote excellent fiction. The Wife of Martin Guerre (1941) is her masterpiece, one that “has the effect of calling into question the literary values of the age.” Also good is Against a Darkening Sky (1943). All of her novels and stories are written for grownups, an elusive quality among American writers. Someone has published an interview conducted with Lewis shortly before her death. Here are some samples:

“There have been many things I’ve tried to write about and could not. Things too serious, too painful, and that’s not the purpose of writing a poem. The point of poetry is to make something beautiful—something in itself. I’m not trying to pour my sorrows down on the page.”

Asked “How does one become a poet?” she answers: “By writing and also by reading poetry. Getting a lot of it in your head, and getting a feel for the form. I’m thinking more of the musical, lyrical form that is easier for most people. I’d say to read English poetry, lots of it. English poetry is the best of all poetry—the language is wonderful for poetry."

“We have great poems that go from generation to generation and most people know them and they are simple for the most part, sorrows and griefs, and I suppose those are the great poems. Shakespeare’s sonnets, `Dover Beach’—they mean a great deal to many people.”

On her husband: “He made an enormous contribution. It’s all in his books. It’s solid; you can pick it up and throw it across the room.”

Here is Lewis’ “Days” (The Selected Poems of Janet Lewis, ed. R.L. Barth, 2000):

“Swift and subtle
The flying shuttle
Crosses the web
And fills the loom,
Leaving for range
Of choice or change
No room, no room.”

Monday, September 26, 2016

`The Secret Handshake'

“In Yiddish, Yahrzeit. There is no English word
that serves correctly. Anniversary
is gay, wears party hats, has dinner out,
but Yahrzeit tells the time by throbs of pain,
mourns the turning of each season’s screws
and can predict by inner aches the outer
             as the wounded learn to do
from predictable cycles of agony and numbness.”

David Myers was good at remembering the dead, his own and the world’s. He noted their passing, rousing us to reflection and hallowing memory. Now it’s our turn. When David died two years ago, the bookish precincts of the blogosphere lost their finest – most acutely analytical, most stylish, most widely and deeply read -- representative, and ever since it hasn’t been quite so much fun. David was the most difficult friend I have ever had. He was touchy, contrary and argumentative. His deportment before the world was unlike my own, and yet we felt some essential, brotherly affinity. I miss him every day. The passage quoted above is from the title poem in David R. Slavitt’s Equinox and Other Poems (Louisiana State University, 1989), and here are the subsequent lines:

“Pain and its diminution are the two
companions we trust, stars in our firmament.
We also have the telephone and each other.”

I miss our long discursive telephone conversations and almost daily exchanges of emails.  The best way to honor David, or any worthy writer, is to read him. A Commonplace Blog is a rare blog that remains vital and memorable long after its author departs. It rewards rereading. I remember the morning more than seven years ago when he took Isaiah Berlin’s hedgehog/fox dichotomy and personalized it for all congenital foxes.

“These are writers united not by doctrine or ideological commitment, but by an ambition to copiousness and eloquence—and the secret handshake that passes between those who have spent a life among books. They are proud to be foxes. They don’t avoid hedgehogs; they just don’t want to be one. They are happy knowing many small tricks. Or, rather, such knowledge brings them great happiness.”

Sunday, September 25, 2016

`Only a Woman's Hair'

“Lo here I sit at Holyhead
With muddy ale and mouldy bread
All Christian victuals stink of fish
I’m where my enemies would wish . . .”

Like photography and marksmanship, the art of invective relies on focus and strict recognition of existing conditions. Otherwise, it’s mere rant, a formless tantrum in words. Passion is less than half the job. The rest is “proper words in proper places,” as Swift wrote elsewhere. The poem excerpted above, “Holyhead. September 25, 1727,” was written in his journal and not published until 1882. Swift arrived at Holyhead on Sept. 24 but stormy weather kept him from traveling for five days. On Sept. 29, his ferry set sail but returned to Holyhead because of rough seas. He didn’t ship out until Oct. 1, and weather again delayed him. Swift came ashore in County Louth, some seventy miles from Dublin, and reached the city on Oct. 6 or 7:   
“I never was in haste before
To reach that slavish hateful shore
Before, I always found the wind
To me was most malicious kind
But now, the danger of a friend
On whom my fears and hopes depend
Absent from whom all climes are curst
With whom I'm happy in the worst
With rage impatient makes me wait
A passage to the land I hate.”

The “friend” is Esther Johnson, better known as “Stella,” to whom he addressed his Journal to Stella. Swift prayed at her bedside and composed prayers for her, but couldn’t stand to be present at her death, on Jan. 28, 1728. In another poem from his Holyhead journal, Swift writes of Ireland:

“Remove me from this land of slaves,
Where all are fools and all are knaves;
Where every knave and fool is bought,
Yet kindly sells himself for naught;
Where Whig and Tory fiercely fight,
Who’s in the wrong, who in the right;
And when their country lies at stake,
They only fight for fighting’s sake,
While English sharpers take the pay,
And then stand by to see fair play.”

Few writers could so combine political invective with the outlines of a love letter. Thackeray writes in his essay on Swift:

“In a note in his biography, Scott says that his friend Dr. Tuke of Dublin has a lock of Stella’s hair, enclosed in a paper by Swift, on which are written, in the Dean’s hand, the words: `Only a woman’s hair.’ An instance, says Scott, of the Dean’s desire to veil his feelings under the mask of cynical indifference.”

[“`Jonathan Swift’ is the only Fast Ferry on the Irish Sea route taking you across in just 1 hour 49 mins!”]