Friday, October 27, 2017

No Accounting for Taste

I tend to avoid library book sales. Too many temptations. Too much jostling. But now that my primary source of books, the Ridgedale Library de-aquisition shop, has been closed down to accommodate a huge remodeling project, the rivulet of enticing volumes entering the house has become a mere trickle at best.

That's not necessarily a bad thing. In any case, I sometimes pay full price for a book, for example The Scandinavians by Thomas Ferguson. I have also been known to order a specific book used, once it's been out for a few years and the price has dropped, for example Thus Bad Begins by Javier Marias. Then again, I more than occasionally pull a book off the shelves to read that I bought years ago, for example Stendhal's The Red and the Black. And I often check books out of the library, for example Ange Mlinko's recent book of poems, Distant Mandate.

In any case, it was entirely by chance that we happened by the Golden Valley Library the other day to return a few books and came upon its annual sale. The pricing was simple: $5 for a shopping bag of books, any size or binding. Who could resist?

We came away with a single bag, prudently, and it wasn't even full. Here are the items I now remember.

The Road to Delphi—Michael Wood
A history of oracles, including the famous one at Delphi.

On the Natural History of DestructionW.S. Sebald
Essays by the German master about bombing during WWII, I think.

The Appointment—Herta Müller
She won the Nobel Prize; maybe she's good.

Between You and Me: Confessions of a Comma QueenMary Norris
I read it; I reviewed it; now I own it.

Arthur PennRobin Wood
On the title page Igmar Bergman is quoted as saying, "Arthur Penn is one of the world's great directors." He was perhaps the most interesting, and certainly one of the most renowned, film directors working in the United States during the 1960s and early 1970s. His memorable string includes The Miracle Worker, Bonnie and Clyde, Alice's Restaurant, Little Big Man, Night Moves, and Missouri Breaks, a vastly underrated Western starring Marlon Brando and Jack Nicholson. I could easily see this little hardcover (six inches square) sitting on the shelf next to a film bio of the same dimensions I already own called Hawks on Hawks.

GauchosAldo Sessa
Another little hardcover, this one full of color photos. I can see now that it isn't worth much.

To the LighthouseVirginia Woolf
I have never succeeded in finishing a book by Virginia Woolf. I have a yellowing mass-market-sized copy of this one in the basement. Maybe the trade format will help me as I row out to the lighthouse?

A Postmodern ReaderNatoli and Hutcheon
Why would anyone want to buy a textbook of a phony and out-of-date intellectual fashion? Well, I might learn something, and once I do, I might change my view completely.

The Third Reich—Roberto Bolaño
I have never liked this Chilean novelist. Let's give him another shot.

A trio of novelsMaguib Mahfouz
I'll never go to Cairo. This may be a close as I get.

Slightly Chipped: Footnotes in Booklore—Lawrence & Nancy Goldstone
This is a chatty, lightweight account of a married couple who loves books, bookstores, bookfairs, libraries, and the people one meets at such places. Written in the first-person plural.

The Book of Kells
A small but  full-color paperback sampling of this classic.

A Reunion of Trees: The discovery of exotic plants and their introduction into North American and Europan landscapes—Stephern Spongberg
The subtitle says it all.

Taste: The secret meaning of things—Stephen Bayley
This British oversized paperback has a silly subtitle, but it looks interesting. Never having heard of Bayley, I googled his name and came up with a quote of his from an article in the Spectator:
"Terence Conran’s great achievement, although he does not perhaps see it this way, was to elevate design from an activity to a commodity. It was no longer something artisans did — whittling a stick, for example — but something that consumers could acquire. It was about fine things enjoyed by civilised folk. It was all about moral certainties and aestheticised hedonism."
Thumbing through the book later here at home, I came to the conclusion that there is little point in writing a history of taste. A history of art? Certainly. It would focus on work that has endured because it's beautiful. A history of styles? Of course. It would chronicle various movements, trends, and approaches to making art or designing elements of material culture such as the Rococo, Romanesque, and steamboat gothic, focusing on whatever has been truly novel, distinctive, or influential. (These two strands of history are usually explored at the same time, though they aren't quite the same thing, and the strands are seldom isolated.) But the word "taste" refers to the discernment with which an individual reacts to and makes use of various aspects of culture. In every era, some people have good taste, while others have bad taste. (It's always someone else.) And there's no way to write a history about that.
The salient point, I guess, is that Bayley's book, and others like it, focus not on art but on design. He is more interested in how a room is typically furnished during a certain era than on the most significant works of art or most brilliant design solutions the era produced. Thus, in the opening pages, he contrasts the taste exhibited in rooms furnished by Sigmund Freud, Nancy Mitford, and Walter Gropius, describing the first as "somber academism," the second as "snobbish antiquarian glamour," and the third as "a monument to functionalism and the machine aesthetic." 

To my mind, Freud's is far and away the most appealing of the three. Books are never somber, and the objects d'art on display in the glass cases against the wall in Freud's office appear to be pre-Columbian rarities rather than porcelain figurines from the eighteenth century. Gropius's office (which Bayley loves) strikes me as deadly and uninteresting. Dedicated to a severe and doctrinary  "style," It lacks nuance and character. Perhaps Freud would have called it "anal."

Looking up from the screen, I catch a glimpse of my own office style, which might fall under the rubric of "eclectic" or "shabby genteel," If it could he said to have a style at all. This expression--shabby genteel--dates back to Dickens' London and probably farther. Dickens wrote an entire essay about the concept, which you can read here. In our day, when gentility has largely lost its meaning, shabby genteel might almost be a synonym for "middle-class bohemian."

I see a birchbark basket made by an Ojibwe woman from the Mille Lacs Reservation (it holds the credit cards I seldom use, including one from every grocery store chain in California); a faux Talavera mug from Mexico containing quite a few pens that don't write; a Dutch painting of some fruit, artist unknown; and a reproduction of a Madonna and Child by Bellini (Yes, but which Bellini? Giovannir or Gentile?) 

The lamp (and dismal lampshade) belonged to my mother's parents. Here they are. (That's my mom, with her pants legs rolled up, next to grandpa. It might be the late 40s.)

In the office photo, a wooden table that my dad's grandparents might have brought over from Sweden is just out of view to the left. More recent Scandinavian design is represented by the scissors with the orange handles sticking out of the mug (Fiskars) and the white coffee mug on top of the manuscript (Littala). 

(Incidentally, the man who designed that mug, Harri Koskinen, was born in Karstula, Finland, in 1970. His web bio reports that Harry "strives to find solutions that are innovative for both the consumer and producer. He works with companies like Artek, Danese, Finlandia Vodka Worldwide, Issey Miyake, Montina, Muji, Genelec, O luce, Venini and Woodnotes." He received the Compasso d’Oro Award, one of Europe's most prestigious design awards,  in 2004.)

The "desk" itself is an old door resting on a file cabinet and a piece of discarded furniture from the defunct Bookmen warehouse.

A few of the authors I work with have come over to the house to sit beside me at the computer as we make corrections or fiddle with a cover. One poet, as she was leaving, couldn't help remarking, "Your house is so ... austere—in a nice way." That's not a word I would ever have chosen to describe it, but I think I know what she means. Our house dates from the late forties, when heavy oak buffets and thick woodwork were no longer in style. A dining room addition with a twelve-foot ceiling, set at a 45 degree angle from the kitchen, gives the back of the house a distinctly "modern" feel. To me the entire spread, which is dominated by floor-to-ceiling windows, seems light and yet earthy, like a Japanese temple made of wood and paper stuck off in the woods somewhere.

Bayley's book will be fun to peruse, but I fear there's going to be something missing. I came upon this passage on page 12, where he describes the 3rd Earl of Shaftesbury's Letter Concerning Design (1714) as typical of the trend to associate "taste" with judgment. He writes:
 "It was published just as critical discernment was about to become an intellectual sport. The Letter was written when art had been separ­ated from its didactic and divine purposes and was well on the way to becoming a consumer product. At this moment taste did not have any particular values: it was only identified as a part of the human apparatus of discernment; you either had it or you didn’t and there was no question of ‘good’ or ‘bad’."
On the face of it, this is simply untrue. In those days, if you had "taste" in was ipso facto good taste. That's what the word referred to. If you were "without taste" you had bad or indiscriminate taste, not worth mentioning. Shaftesbury's signal contribution to philosophy was to suggest that our aesthetic sense and our moral sense are similar. They rely on discerning balance and proportion and are driven by both intellect and heart, though the values they seek out—beauty and goodness—are not the same.
Bayley writes, "When man replaced God as the chief object of study, it was inevitable that the idea of beauty deriving from divine inspiration was replaced by a more secular, even materialistic, notion of aesthetic satisfaction." He seems to see consumerism everywhere in modern life, failing to sufficiently acknowledge that among the vast array of choices now available to us, some will always have more value--be more beautiful or utilitarian--than others.  

Monday, October 23, 2017

Halcyon Days

The word for these golden fall days is "halcyon." The colors of the changing leaves are magnificent, and the temperature is perfect—low sixties creeping improbably into the seventies from time to time, with cool nights and bright stars.

Yes, but how are we to respond? Each moment is perfection in itself. Why do anything? But we must do something. It's the definition of poetry: the intensification and exaltation of experience.

I'm not a poet. So I spent the day Thursday repairing and regrading the window well behind the magnificent yew bushes just outside our living room windows. All the while, I was thinking to myself, "I should be reading Sir Thomas Browne's Religio Medici." But first things first.

I dug out five inches of soil from the well while lying on my stomach behind the bushes, and replaced it with two bags of cherry stone pebbles, wondering as I did so if anyone really appreciates how beautiful cherry stone pebbles are. I used the excavated dirt to shape the drainage away from the house, topped that with a sheet of landscape fabric and a few bags of cyprus mulch, and had a lightning flash of intuition that sent me back to Home Depot to buy a five foot piece of drain pipe to extend the nearby downspout out beyond the roots of the shrubs into the yard.

The weather on Friday was so inviting that Hilary and I drove down to Rice Lake State Park, one of the least celebrated parks in the state, but a mere ninety minutes from the Twin Cities. We camped, we hiked the perimeter of the park, past golden leaves and cattails rustling in the gusty wind. We ate chips and dip for dinner, washed it down with a bit of bad sauvignon blanc, then looked up at the brilliant stars beyond the branches of the naked branches overhead, faintly lit by flickering campfire light. The Orionid Meteor Show was at its peak...but we saw nothing along those lines.

The next morning I was awoken by a flash of lighting—or the headlights of a car passing by on the gravel loop road around the campsite. Thunder a few seconds later, then the rain arrived. Ten flurried minutes later we were packed up and in the car, only half soaked ourselves, headed for Owatonna in the dark with the smell of wet manure coursing through our nostrils.

We ate breakfast at The Kitchen in downtown Owatonna, bought a pumpkin in the dark at the farmers' market in the town square, and stopped for another cup of coffee at a place called Goodbye Blue Monday Coffee House in downtown Northfield.

The place was bubbling with activity. A large group of men sat around a long table near the front window. Closer to us, five young women were discussing an event they had all attended the previous evening, though I never gleaned what it was. The street outside was still fairly dark, but the long  warm room inside was well-lit, colorful, and filled with animated chatter—a sort of ideal vision of funky intellectual stimulation and collegial gemütlichkeit

I was only a little disappointed to discover that the women behind me were discussing, not Hegelian dialectic or even the novels of Doris Lessing, but their pets. One of them was trying to find someone, without quite asking outright, who would agree to give her "million dollar cat" shots twice a day while she was gone on a four-day trip to Madison.  (There were no takers.)

Northfield was hosting its annual art crawl that morning. (Before we left the house I had printed out a map pinpointing the participating galleries and studios.) But the event wasn't set to open until ten, and by that time, we were back home again, sitting comfortably in front of another fire. It was still drizzling, but not a single drop had penetrated the window well in the basement.

In the midst of this pleasant hygge (pronounced "hoo-ga," I'm told), I turned, finally, to Religio Medici by Sir Thomas Browne, the English essayist whom I had been eager to get a handle on for some time.
[Music] unties the ligaments of my frame, takes me to pieces, dilates me out of myself, and by degrees, mee thinks, resolves me into heaven.
Yes, music. I fetched my 12-CD collection of the keyboard works of William Byrd, a composer Browne himself might have listened to. Upon first listen, years ago, I got the impression that this set was actually composed of a single CD reproduced 12 times. I am now convinced that a harpsichord doesn't sound exactly like a virginal or a muselar. There's a good deal of exploring still to do here.
I love to lose myself in a mystery, to pursue my reason to an "o altitudo." 'Tis my solitary recreation tp pose my apprehension with those involved enigmas and riddles of the Trinity, with Incarnation and Resurection. I can answer all the objections of Satan, and my rebellious reason, with that odd resolution I learned from Tertullian, "Certum est quia impossible est."
Browne is sometimes thought of as an English Montaigne, but that French skeptic fueled his reflections on Horace and Ovid, while Browne seems more concerned to reconcile Christian doctrine with human reason, or at least to conjecture how much of experience lies beyond reason's purview. 

The two writers share an easy command of prose, always curious, often bemused, never strident. Browne is credited with adding more than a hundred new words to the English language that are still in use. Quite a few of his neologisms have since vanished from the lexicon, too, hence the need for the lengthy but easy-to-use set of notes in the back, which help us to figure what, for example, dissentaneous and improperations mean.   

One of Browne's favorite words is indifference, which he uses to describe, not the attitude we might have toward an idea or thing, but a point or issue itself that is not so important as to demand our assent. An indifference is a position that we can take or leave to suit our whimsy, or suspend judgment on altogether, entertaining it, as it were, without embracing it wholeheartedly--the way that we vacuously enjoy a halcyon afternoon in front of the fire, well knowing that a long string of less agreeable days lies ahead.

Monday, October 16, 2017

Thelonious Monk at 100

The hundredth anniversary of the birth of Thelonious Monk was widely celebrated in the press. Didn't you see the article by Ethan Iverson, jazz scholar and pianist for The Bad Plus, in the New Yorker? Iverson posted a more casual and extensive series of articles on his website, do the m@th, including an annotated discography.

Monk's music is well-loved by musicians—Iverson observes that more than sixty of his compositions are still in the jazz repertoire—and his personality is well-loved by journalists. He was the ultimate "cool cat," with dark glasses, pointy goatee, funny hats, and strange habits, such as, for example, dancing in circles while his band mates were soloing. The jury is out as to whether Monk was schizophrenic, autistic, or just plain weird. If you get a chance to see the documentary film Straight, No Chaser, take a look and decide for yourself. 

Soprano saxophonist Steve Lacy spent some time in Monk's band, and he wrote down some of Monk's words of advice, underlining the key phrases:

Just because you're not a drummer doesn't mean you don't have to keep time.

Stop playing all those weird notes, play the melody.

You've got to dig it to dig it, you dig?

Let's lift the bandstand!

Don't play the piano part. I'm playing that.

The inside of the tune (the bridge) is the part that makes the outside sound good.

Don't play everything. What you don't play can be more important than what you do play.

They tried to get me to hate white people, but someone would always come along and spoil it.

A genius is the one most like himself.

As for the music, the best way to become familiar with that is to listen to it, hence the importance of the discography. Iverson's is so inclusive as to be forbidding, but it's useful as a point of reference.

Years ago, a friend of mine who was just trying to get into jazz bought Thelonious Monk: Genius of Modern Music. He hated it so much he gave it to me, unasked.

I didn't like it much, either. Iverson remarks: "As a set, these have the weakest performances in the Monk canon." I guess that explains it.

Monk's piano style isn't difficult to describe: lots of clinkers, discords, repeated poundy chords and downward whole tone runs. On the other hand, Monk has written some of the most lovely melodies in the jazz canon. " 'Round Midnight" is probably the most often-recorded jazz tune of the last half-century. Other classics include "Ruby, My Dear," "Pannonica," "Ask Me Now," and "Reflections." Monk also penned a large number of mid-tempo tunes that are staples of the jazz repertoire. These include "Four in One," "Nutty," "Blue Monk," "Monk's Dream," "Tinkle, Tinkle," "Hackensack," "Well, You Needn't," "In Walked Bud," and "Straight, No Chaser."

I've heard these tunes a thousand times, performed in a variety of instrumental settings, and I recognize them as Monk tunes immediately, though I couldn't put names to most of them. I used to spend a lot of time listening to the two-CD set of solo Monk recordings on Columbia, on which originals and standards are interspersed. As a result, I'm likely to identify "Sweet and Lovely," a popular song from 1931, or "Dinah," as Monk tunes, too. He infuses them with tinges of Monkish gravity, and reminds us that the originality of his musical world might draw as much from the "stride" era from which it emerged  as it does from the "bebop" he helped to create.

The common wisdom is that once Monk appeared on the cover of Time magazine and signed with Columbia, the quality of his recordings declined a little. Nevertheless, the neophyte could do worse than to pick up a copy of  Straight, No Chaser or Monk's Dream or Underground. Along with Monk Alone: the Complete Solo Recordings 1962-1968.

Throughout Monk's career other musicians found it a challenge to solo in front of his unorthodox piano phrasing. Then again, many performers have recorded albums with their own bands devoted exclusively to Monk's tunes, and several of these have become classics, too. Let me recommend Steve Lacy's Reflections (1958), Carmen McRae Sings Monk (1990), Sonny Fortune's Four in One (1994), and Fred Hersch's solo piano offering Thelonious (1997).

In a recent article devoted to Monk's career, Hersch remarked:

Monk’s works, some of them cryptic and difficult and others just plain fun, are designed as springboards for improvisation. Everything he wrote fits in a book of around a hundred pages—compare that to the volumes of work by Mozart, Bach or Beethoven! Yet his canonic compositions, which are subjected to reimaginings in almost every music style, still retain their essential “Monkishness.” His tightly constructed themes and challenging harmonic progressions take years to master.

Some of Monk's compositions are hardly more than rhythmic chants supporting brief and childlike melodies. But then the rhythms shift, the melody drops (or gains) a note, and things take on an entirely new harmonic perspective. Yes, "springboards for improvisation," but also catchy in themselves. Two of my favorites along these lines are the minimalist "Evidence" (check out the version by Lacy and Don Cherry here) and the relentless "Locomotion." (Listen here.) 

On the other end of the spectrum is the haunting "Round Midnight," which helped transform Miles Davis into a superstar. Here's a recording of Monk doing a solo rendition of that tune near the end of his career, in 1969.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Taking the Day Off

There are days in the life of a free lancer when he's just waiting for things: new chapter files, PDFs filled with proofer marks, images, proofs from the printer.  Why not take the day off?

It seems sensible enough. And besides, there are always quite a few things that need to be done around the house: mow the lawn, change a light bulb. Most important of all, perhaps, is to deal with those glorious tomatoes we brought home from the farmers' market on Sunday morning.

I had gotten an email from my friend Michel--a far better cook than me--mostly a photo of the spectacular tomatoes he'd gotten at the farmer's market. In response I sent him an old photo of my own.

"This is the perfect morning to head downtown," I wrote. "Here are a few heirloom tomatoes from our garden--the last two!"

The following email exchange ensued:

Michel: "Those look beautiful!"

Me: "And tasty!  But this morning I am thinking of leeks and squash with ground almonds. And I am literally stepping out the door as I write this. If you can recall how big my desk-top computer is, you will be able to imagine how difficult this is!"

Michel: "I find myself in a euphoric state when I go to the farmers market during the week when it's not busy and pick up bags of produce for a few dollars. I come home, lay them out of my table and want to take pictures of them or paint them, immortalize them...cook them."

It was, indeed, a remarkable morning. The air was so fresh and cool that as we approached the stalls I said to Hilary, "I feel like I'm at the beach!"  We bought so many things that we decided to carry our purchases back to the car and return for a second look around. At the very least, we still needed to pick up a bunch of cut flowers.

In the end, we brought home three robust bunches of leeks ($4 total); a nice basket of six tomatoes ($3); two huge red bell peppers, misshapen but firm ($1 total); a butternut squash; an acorn squash; a basket of potatoes ($3); some fairly tough-looking green beans ($2.50); a bunch of fresh basil the size of a bride's bouquet ($1.50); and some fresh dill ($1) which was worth the price for the aroma alone.

The next day I used up half of the leeks and all the potatoes making a batch of the best potato-leek soup I've ever tasted. 

We didn't have much of a chance to eat it, however. We'd been invited to Norton Stillman's annual Sukkoth party. (If we'd gone to the framers' market a half-hour later, we would have run into him buying a big bag of corn on the cob.)

I always enjoy these parties, which are like a book convention, only smaller, and you know a lot more of the people. I relish the opportunity to reconnect with authors I got to know pretty well while working with them on their books, only to lose sight of them later. Sharon Chmielarz, Kate Dayton, Norita Dittberner-Jax, and Margaret Hasse spring immediately to mind. They were all there—thoughtful, kind, and generous souls one and all.

Margie's husband, Dave, told me he was winnowing his vast collection of classical music CDs.

"When should I come over?" I replied, eagerly.

A few old friends from the Bookmen years are also likely to be there. Brett Waldman and I discussed the best places to buy fresh fish in Bayfield, where he loves to sail; he recommended a shop I've seen but never ventured into. And I had a good time with Bill Kaufmann reminiscing about shipping issues way back when, and the pleasures of lunch-time touch football.

Author John Coy complimented me once again on the fonts I used on a reprint of his book Vroomaloom Zoom back in 2010. "Ah, yes,  I replied, "Croomby and Babelfish. I don't get much of an opportunity to use either of those nowadays." John and I got around to talking about the Portuguese empire, and when his wife, Fiona, joined us, we discussed  the interview she did with essayist Geoff Dyer a few years back at the downtown library. (Once again, lost in the past.)

A few minutes later, Tom Pope was telling me about a book he's working on comparing psychology as it's variously conceived by dramatists and psychologists. "You ought to read Philosophy as Dramatic Theory by the Spanish philosopher Julien Marias," I said.

"Who?" He replied. And he strode off to find a piece of paper and a pen.

Norton had grilled seven planks of salmon for the event, and there were pots of ratatouille, bowls of pesto and spinach dip, corn on the cob, and three kinds of apple crisp at least. Freya Manfred had brought one, Michael Keisaw Moore a second. No one seemed to know who had brought the third.

That event occupied our evening, and it wasn't until the next day that a bit more of the soup got eaten. But we'd been invited to a small retirement gathering that night for a friend at Ginger Hop. They have a good happy hour there. We filled up on spring rolls, calamari, and Jackie Chan burgers, and Sheila told us about various things her co-workers had given her at her retirement party, including a bottle of single malt scotch. We had soon hatched a plan for a Halloween poker game, with everyone arriving in kilts, drinking scotch, and watching Jackie Chan's masterpiece, Rush Hour, together.  

It might not have been the high point of the evening when I raised the question: "Why doesn't anyone read Stendhal's The Red and the Black anymore?"

Having raised the question, I felt it was incumbent upon me to re-read some of the book again myself. And when we got home I made my way through the first three chapters in a new translation by Burton Raffel. I enjoyed them, though it occurred to me that if a new translation had been published recently, it was absurd to consider the book a forgotten classic.

All the while, the potato soup was doing just fine in the fridge. But by the next morning, the dill was shot, the basil had lost its glisten, and the tomatoes were starting to show their age—a few brownish patches on the skins. I was going to make spaghetti sauce and had gotten the onions going on the stove, but when I started to cut up the tomatoes it struck me that after removing the blemishes, they still looked (and tasted) quite good. Why turn them into a ho-hum pan of sauce?

The result of this dramatic about-face was a bowl of tomato-basil-garlic topping for toasted bread, commonly known as bruschetta, and also a bowl of pepperoni siciliana. (The word bruschetta actually refers to the bread, not the tomato topping. I have a hunch there's an etymological connection between that word and the English word brusque, though I've never investigated.)

It's a never-ending story. The butternut squash will go with the leeks in a melange, baked with heavy cream and topped with chopped almonds....The sun will continue to strike the dew on the grass, later there will be frost, you'll be able to see your breath. Orion will return, and the day will come when darkness arrives at four in the afternoon. You will look down from the freeway overpass to see that the farmers' market, brightly lit under the snow-covered canopies, is filled with evergreen trees.

But not yet.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Inside Lydia Davis

I first learned about the writer Lydia Davis on the Facebook feed of the Paris Review. Perhaps she'd just won the Booker Prize and they were reprinting a critique of her work they'd published years ago. She sounded strange, and interesting.

This summer, at a sparsely attended noon book event in front of the football stadium downtown, I noticed on a flyer put out by the university that she would be speaking here in the fall.

A few weeks later I ran across an advance reading copy of Davis's collected stories at a library sale in downtown Duluth on sale for a dollar. Naturally, I bought it.

Hilary and I were on a mid-week vacation, and though the book is thick—740 pages—I found it very easy to dip into. Some of the "stories" are so short that they, and similar works by other writers, have been described as "flash fiction."  Here are three examples:

No one is calling me. I can't check the answering machine because I have been here all this time. It I go out, someone may call while I'm out. Then I can check the answering machine when I come back in.

Honoring the Subjunctive
It invariably precedes, even if it do not altogether supersede, the determination of what is absolutely desirable and just.

Information from the North Concerning the Ice
Each seal uses many blowholes, and every blowhole is used by many seals.

I do not think that a book filled with such creations would go very far. But I could well be wrong. (Now I'm starting to sound like her, deliberating, doubting my own judgment.) In any case, Davis's collections include pieces that are a paragraph, a page, and even ten pages. Here's another one:

We know only four boring people. The rest of our friends we find very interesting. However, most of the friends we find interesting find us boring: the most interesting find us the most boring. The few who are somewhere in the mid­dle, with whom there is reciprocal interest, we distrust: at any moment, we feel, they may become too interesting for us, or we too interesting for them.

From even these brief examples, it should be clear that Davis often prefers repetition to succinctness, and that a melancholy cloud hangs over much of her work. Interior monologues are the norm. In the course of her ruminations we get to know the narrator, who is often someone very much like Lydia Davis, and we begin to enjoy her quibbles, false steps, doubts, anxieties, assertions, and perplexities. 

Yet there are also plenty of stories that have a little more meat on their bones. For example, in "Glenn Gould," she introduces us to a woman who enjoys playing the piano, listens to Glenn Gould often, and also watches the "Mary Tyler Moore" show religiously. Davis describes this woman's scattershot thoughts when she learns that Glenn Gould was also an avid fan of that show. In "Kafka Cooks Dinner" Davis sets herself the task of recreating the thoughts of that writer as he prepares to cook a meal for his girl friend. Here are the opening lines:

I am so filled with despair as the time grows near when she will come and I have not even begun to make a decision about what I will offer her. I am so afraid I will fall back on the Kartoffel Surprise, and it’s no surprise to her anymore. I mustn’t, I mustn’t. I tell myself each morning that it will be different this time, I will plan the meal today, days ahead of time, but no—as though I am indeed my own enemy, the hours pass and I thrust the thought away from me: dinner, no, I will not think of it. Oh, such sickness, this is truly the sickness unto death.    

Davis's style bears obvious similarities to the crotchety  and obsessive book-long monologues of Thomas Bernhard, though the tone is entirely different, and her penchant for brevity might seem to ally her work more closely to that of Samuel Beckett. One thing is clear: she takes no interest in conventional dialogue or story-line. As she remarked at the reading the other night, with characteristic deliberateness, "Sometimes these experiments are successful; at other times they're less successful."

It's always fun to return to campus and mingle with the crowd. I spent eight years at the U, I had a good time, and I learned quite a bit, though nothing really came of it. It's good to see kids continuing to learn, continuing to strive, continuing to pursue enthusiasms and create little social worlds with their friends.

Then there are the tweedy academics who have developed specialties, explored arcane regions of history and thought, and perhaps made a name for themselves within their chosen field. A fairly high percentage of the attendees were women of a certain age, often arriving in pairs or small groups.

It's a vibrant and attractive scene. One thing I never would have guessed is how many translators were in the crowd. This is because the promotions for Davis's talk never mentioned that it was part of the 2017 American Literary Translators Association conference. And checking that conference schedule, I see that there was no official connection. Yet Davis is well known for her translations of Flaubert and Proust, and her presentation was devoted to enumerating the 17 ways that translating books can be pleasurable.

We arrived early and took two seats in the seventh row. After listening for several minutes to a man in the row behind us describing the plot of The Elegance of the Hedgehog to his friends in great detail in a painfully unctuous voice, Hilary suggested we move back a few rows, ostensibly so we could see more of the crowd as the place filled up. And we did. 

The seats immediately behind us were soon occupied by three young female students who seemed to be deeply immersed in the world of undergraduate creative writing.

"Like, I was going to take intermediate poetry, you know, I never took intro but they would have let me, but intermediate turned out to be at night, and like, no way, that wasn't for me. So I went for non-fiction."

"Is Maud in that class?"

"OH, MY GOD. Like, she volunteers to lead the class, and then, like, walks in twenty minutes late and says to the teacher, 'Why don't you lead it?' which she already was doing. I don't know what her problem is."

Davis's began her talk by remarking that one great pleasure of being a writer is that you do it at home, by yourself. Giving a talk is something else again. She read her talk, listing the seventeen pleasures of translating and elaborating on them one after another. The main point was that when you're translating a book, you don't have to generate the material yourself. It already exists. So you go about solving particular problems, though you also begin to inhabit other worlds.

It was an interesting talk, though I think this article by her that appeared in the Paris Review on a similar subject is more interesting.

In any case, the chief pleasure of such events is the experience of seeing a famous author, perhaps one you admire greatly, in person: how she talks, walks, answers questions. Lydia Davis talks in the same deliberate way she writes. She questions herself and amends her remarks with a vaguely melancholy humor. As I listened, I was reminded of one of her very short stories, "A Position at the University."

I think I know what sort of person I am. But then I think, But this stranger will imagine me quite otherwise when he or she hears this or that to my credit, for instance that I have a position at the university: the fact that I have a posi­tion at the university will appear to mean that I must be the sort of person who has a position at the university. But then I have to admit, with surprise, that, after all, it is true that I have a position at the university. And if it is true, then perhaps I really am the sort of person you imagine when you hear that a person has a position at the university. But, on the other hand, I know I am not the sort of person I imagine when I hear that a person has a position at the university. Then I see what the problem is: when others describe me this way, they appear to describe me com­pletely, whereas in fact they do not describe me completely, and a complete description of me would include truths that seem quite incompatible with the fact that I have a position at the university.

To my mind, Davis does not seem really to be the sort of person who would have a position at the university. She exhibits that sort of deep honesty that a writer in her solitary room can cultivate, but which an academic at a committee meeting often cannot. Her work is original, largely due to Davis's devotion to her self, her problems, and the things she needs to work out personally—things that are often aesthetic problems rather than personal problems, and in either case, have far less to do with pedagogy than with art.

Friday, October 6, 2017

Summer Reading

Summer is over. Back in school, with that strange smell of library paste and musty plaster, we are required by our English teacher--Mrs. Deutsch, Miss Ganyo, Mr. Erdmann--to prepare a report on the books we read over the summer.

Looking back over the season it strikes me that I found time to absorb several interesting volumes, and I wasn't lying on a beach, either.

Travels with Herodotus - Rysard Kapuschinski

I was forced to read Herodotus in college, and it changed my life. The professor demanded that we take detailed notes to prove we'd actually read that long book, and he warned us sternly, "I can easily tell if you're copying from a study crib."

The book was full of detailed information about tribes from every part of the Mediterranean and the Middle East, much of it anecdotal and some of it wildly far-fetched. The central "event" around which Herodotus layers his weird mix of narrative and ethnography is the Persian invasion of Greece in 490 BCE. Good stuff. My thought was, "This is way more interesting than mathematics." So I changed my major, and the rest, as they say, is history.

The Polish journalist Rysard Kapuschinski tells us here that during his early years as a stranger with few language skills reporting from India, China, and various African nations on the verge of dying or being born, Herodotus's histories were his constant companion. Though he never comes out and says so, it's reasonable to assume Kapuschinski thinks of himself as a modern-day Herodotus, chronicling strange customs and violent events from every corner of the globe. His descriptions of his early years as a journalist writing for a country—Poland—that many of the people he met had never heard of, are interesting. His retelling of selected parts of Herodotus's account of the Persian war are less so. The parallels to modern events are too obvious to mention...but he mentions them. On the other hand, in the course of his narrative Kapuscinski raises some interesting historiographic questions.

At one point he visits the ruined city of Persepolis and ponders all the suffering required to construct the once-impressive buildings that now lie in ruins.

When we look at lifeless temples, palaces, and cities, we can't help but wonder about the fate of their builders. Their pain, their broken backs, their eyes gouged out by errant splinters of stone, their rheumatism. About their unfortunate lives, their suffering. But the very next question that invariably arises is: Could these wonders have come into being without that suffering? Without the overseer’s whip, the slave’s fear, the ruler’s vanity? In short, was not the monumentality of past epochs created by that which is negative and evil in man? And yet, does not that monumentality owe its existence to some conviction that what is negative and weak in man can be vanquished only by beauty, only through the effort and will of his creation? And that the only thing that never changes is beauty itself, and the need for it that dwells within us?

Maybe so. Maybe no. I don't think that beauty and monumentality are synonymous. We may get a tingling of sincere faith standing in the dark nave of Notre Dame de Paris, but the masons who crafted it might rather have been back home repairing their cottages and sheep pens.

I have been interested in Kapuscinski for decades by reputation, without ever having read him. Wandering the house I found that I'd picked up several of his other books over the years: Imperium, Another Day of Life, The Other, The Soccer Wars. He has a reputation as being the journalist's journalist, more daring in both his escapades and his prose than others. But reading half-way through The Soccer Wars, I didn't find that to be the case. The details were scanty, and the tribal soldiers at jungle check-points, all of whom held him at gunpoint, all started to sound like the same man—a journalistic cliché. And I began to wonder if Kapuschinski might simply be a thrill-seeker or a daredevil ham.

A controversy arose in 2010 as to whether Kapuschinski's books ought to be categorized as fiction rather than journalism or contemporary history. I don't know. But his Travels with Herodotus is an engaging read, and it made me pull my own copy of the West's first historian off the shelf again. Briefly.

The History of the Siege of Lisbon - José Saramago

Saramago is one of those wise fools who cultivates a very simple syntax and is very patient in developing a plot. This book revolves around a proof-reader names Raimondo Silva who, on a whim, arbitrarily changes a single word in the book he's proofing. The author had written that the Crusaders, on their way to the Holy Land by ship in 1378, agreed to help the Portuguese expel the Muslims from Lisbon. The proofer inserts the word "not"—they chose not to help them—thus changing the thrust of the entire story.

Why did he do this? I don't know. Perhaps I wasn't reading carefully. Though at one point Saramago makes an interesting point about the power of words:

It is well known, for example, that Nietzsche's proofreader, although a fervent believer, resisted the temptation to insert the word Not on a certain page, thus amending the philosopher’s phrase, God is dead, God is not dead. If proof-readers were given their freedom and did not have their hands and feet tied by a mass of prohibitions more binding than the penal code, they would soon transform the face of the world, establish the kingdom of universal happiness, giving drink to the thirsty, food to the famished, peace to those who live in turmoil, joy to the sorrowful, companionship to the solitary, hope to those who have lost it, not to mention the rapid disappearance of poverty and crime, for they would be able to do all these things simply by changing the words, and should anyone doubt these new demiurges, they need only remember that this is precisely how the world and man came to be made, with words, some rather than others, so that things might turn out just so, and in no other fashion, Let it be done, said God, and it was done immediately.

In any case, from this point on, the novel moves back and forth between two narrative strands. The proofer's boss, newly hired to make sure such mistakes do not recur, suggests that he rewrite the entire book as if the Crusaders had moved on, forcing the Portuguese to bring their siege to a successful conclusion on their own. Meanwhile, the proofer finds that he's falling in love with his boss. Saramago shifts deftly back and forth between the alternative history being fashioned by the proofer and his very-slow-to-develop romance with his boss.

Along the way, Saramago, like Kapuchinski, explores the issue of what makes history "true."  

...any piece of writing, good or bad, always ends up appearing like a predetermined crys­tallisation, although no one can ever say how or when or why or by whom.

But he also succeeds in interjecting a few vaguely erotic impressions, in case we were worried that the fictional history of the siege would be the only draw. For example, here is the passage wherein his boss first suggests that he write that counter-history.

Then why this interest, this proposal, this conversation, Because it isn’t every day that you come across someone who has done what you did, I was in a state of agitation, Come on, Without wishing to be rude, I’m convinced your idea doesn’t make sense, Then forget I ever mentioned it, Raimundo Silva got to his feet, adjusted his coat which he had never removed, Unless there is something else you wish to discuss, I’ll be going, Take your book, it’s the only copy of its kind. Dr Maria Sara wears no ring to suggest that she is married. As for her blouse, chemise, or whatever it is called, it looks like being made of silk, in a pale shade difficult to describe, beige, old ivory, off-white, whether it is possible that fingertips tremble differently according to the colours they touch or caress, we cannot say.

This passage may give you an idea of Saramago's style. He doesn't work very hard to distinguish who is talking when, but the sense isn't difficult to grasp in most cases. At one point it occurred to me that his prose bears some resemblance to that of the Anglo-Irish novelist George Moore. But no one reads George Moore these days, and we'll leave that discussion for another time.

Netherland - Joseph O'Neill

Unfolding in the aftermath of the Twin Towers debacle, this beautifully crafted novel follows the semi-vacant days of a Wall Street analyst named Hans once his estranged wife is impelled to escape the lingering ashes and return with their son to England. We learn, early on, that much of the plot, such as it is, will involve a Jamaican cricket-player named Chuck. Hans is Dutch, and was once an avid cricketer himself.

Time shifts come often and O'Neill handles them deftly. We aren't far into the book before Hans has rejoined his wife in England. Many months have passed. One night he receives a phone call from authorities in New York to inform him that Chuck's body has been found at the bottom of a harbor in New Jersey, handcuffed to a post. Genuinely perplexed, he tells them, "I can't imagine why anyone would want to kill Chuck."

The rest of the book consists largely of the narrator's ruminations about that strange and lonely interlude in his life, when, reverting to teenage enthusiasms, he played cricket often with the Jamaicans, took driving lessons from Chuck, and in the process learned about many ethnic neighborhoods in the boroughs that he'd never seen before, including one established by his Dutch ancestors centuries ago.  

On the dust jacket Michiko Kakutani of the New York Times compares Netherland to The Great Gatsby, but this novel is far better than that bland and clumsy tale. It might better be compared to Max Frisch's Homo Faber or Javier Marias's A Heart So White, both of which are exquisitely written and centered on the foibles of keenly observant but emotionally distant men.

She looked stricken; and I suppose, since I am now fully aware ... that the steamboat of marriage must be fed incessantly with the coals of communication, that I should have explained to my wife that I came from Holland, where I rarely saw dancing, and indeed that I’d been a little amazed to see how young Englishmen threw themselves around to music, dancing even with other men, and that this abandon was alien to me and that, perhaps, she might for this reason wish to bear with me. But I said nothing, think­ing the matter inconsequential. It would certainly have astonished me to learn that years later I would look back on this episode and ask myself ... if it represented a so-called fork in the road—which in turn led me to drunkenly wonder if the course of a relationship of love was truly explicable in terms of right turns and wrong turns, and if so whether it was possible to backtrack to that split where it all went wrong, or if in fact it was the case that we are all doomed to walk in a forest in which all paths lead one equally astray, there being no end to the forest, an inquiry whose very uselessness led to another spasm of wayward contemplation that ended only when I noticed Chuck leading a hobbled Dr. Seem back into the chair next to mine.

My one complaint is a minor one. The narrator could have given us a little more information about his home life and a little less about cricket. But the novel is so rich as it stands that I am suddenly tempted to start reading it again.