Tuesday, November 24, 2015

`Discoveries that Demand Expression'

The only thing better than a prolific good writer, is a costive bad one. We should count our blessings for every time Norman Mailer didn’t publish a book. On the other hand, Evelyn Waugh turned out peerless prose at an industrial clip. One could easily spend a month reading nothing but Waugh without fear of the supply running dry. My current Waugh-binge has included Decline and Fall, Scoop, Put Out More Flags, his life of Ronald Knox and occasional dips into Essays, Articles and Reviews of Evelyn Waugh. That last collection, in which Waugh the novelist is joined by Waugh the scrambling freelance journalist and reviewer, reacquainted me with “Literary Style in England and America,” an essay he published in Books on Trial in 1955:

“Literature is the right use of language irrespective of the subject or reason of the utterance. A political speech may be, and sometimes is, literature; a sonnet to the moon may be, and often is, trash. Style is what distinguishes literature from trash.”

Waugh is no Yellow Book aesthete. He thought James Joyce was insane, and in “Literary Style” says the Irishman was “possessed by style. His later work lost all faculty of communication, so intimate, allusive and idiosyncratic did it become, so obsessed by euphony and nuance” – as good an encapsulation of Finnegans Wake as I know. In contrast to the ingrown mutations of late Joyce, Waugh says the “necessary elements of style are lucidity, elegance, individuality; these three qualities combine to form a preservative which ensures the nearest approximation to permanence in the fugitive art of letters.”

Lucidity in Waugh’s estimation doesn’t mean Dick-and-Jane flatness. Several years ago I tried to read a novel by the noir cult-favorite David Goodis. Every sentence seemed stamped out with the same subject-verb-object cookie cutter. Goodis plodded along in four-four like a drummer on the nod. Was he intelligible? Sure, but so is the phone book. Waugh clarifies:

“Henry James is the most lucid of writers, but not the simplest. The simplest statements in law and philosophy are usually those which, in application, require the greatest weight of commentary and provoke the longest debate. A great deal of what is most worth saying must always remain unintelligible to most readers. The test of lucidity is whether the statement can be read as meaning anything other than what it intends.”

Elegance has a dubious reputation among readers and critics. The just-the-facts crowd deems elegant writing effete, elitist and probably intended to conceal its absence of substance. Not Waugh:

“Elegance is the quality in a work of art which imparts direct pleasure; again not universal pleasure. There is a huge, envious world to whom elegance is positively offensive. English is incomparably the richest of languages, dead or living. One can devote one’s life to learning it and die without achieving mastery. No two words are identical in meaning, sound and connotation. The majority of English speakers muddle through with a minute vocabulary.”

About individuality, the third of his prerequisites for true style, Waugh is succinct: “It is the hand-writing, the tone of voice, that makes a work recognizable as being by a particular artist.” Most of Waugh’s prose readily meets that criterion. “Style,” he says, “is what makes a work memorable and unmistakable.” He cites Max Beerbohm and Ronald Knox as exemplars of style, saying, “[Knox’s] Enthusiasm should be recognized as the greatest work of literary art of the century,” a sentiment I wouldn’t get into a fight over. As to novelists with “intensely personal and beautiful styles,” Waugh names Anthony Powell, Graham Greene, Ivy Compton-Burnett and Henry Green. For some reason, while I admire and enjoy the others, I’ve always found Greene almost unreadable. Waugh concludes his essay like this, probably writing in an autobiographical mode:

“In youth high spirits carry one over a book or two. The world is full of discoveries that demand expression. Later a writer must face the choice of becoming an artist or a prophet. He can shut himself up at his desk and selfishly seek pleasure in the perfecting of his own skill or he can pace about, dictating dooms and exhortations on the topics of the day. The recluse at the desk has a bare chance of giving abiding pleasure to others; the publicist has none at all.”

Monday, November 23, 2015

`Who Without Reserve Can Dare'

A kindling impulse seized the host
Inspired by heaven’s elastic air;
Their hearts outran their General's plan,
Though Grant commanded there--
Grant, who without reserve can dare;
And, `Well, go on and do your will,’
He said, and measured the mountain then:
So master-riders fling the rein--
But you must know your men.”

This is Herman Melville on the hero of the day, Maj. General Ulysses S. Grant, in “Chattanooga (November 1863),” collected in Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War (1866). The Battle of Chattanooga started on this date, Nov. 23, in 1863. Around 1:30 p.m., 14,000 Union troops advanced on six-hundred Confederate defenders, launching an engagement that lasted less than three days. Union casualties numbered 5,824; Confederate, 6,667, and probably higher. Grant decisively routed Gen. Braxton Bragg,  and Confederate morale was shaken. Read the Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant (1885) for an almost cinematic account of the battle: 

“I watched their progress with intense interest. The fire along the rebel line was terrific. Cannon and musket balls filled the air: but the damage done was in small proportion to the ammunition expended. The pursuit continued until the crest was reached, and soon our men were seen climbing over the Confederate barriers at different points in front of both Sheridan’s and Wood’s divisions.” 

Grant, no braggart, writes in a Dec. 5, 1863 letter to J. Russell Jones: “An Army never was whipped so badly as Bragg was. So far as any opposition the enemy could make I could have marched to Atlanta or any other place in the Confederacy. But I was obliged to rescue [Gen. Ambrose] Burnside.” 

In The Civil War World of Herman Melville (1997), Stanton Garner deduces that Melville met Grant the following year in Virginia. He cites a note the poet wrote to accompany “Chattanooga (November 1863),” in which he refers to an unnamed “visitor” discussing the battle with the Union commander: “General Grant, at Culpepper, a few weeks prior to crossing the Rapidan for the Wilderness, expressed to a visitor his impression of the impulse and the spectacle: Said he: `I never saw any thing like it:’ language which seems curiously undertoned, considering its application; but from the taciturn Commander it was equivalent to a superlative or hyperbole from the talkative.” Garner also quotes the brief memoir Melville’s wife, Elizabeth Shaw Melville, wrote about her husband: “Herman went to Virginia with Allan [Melville’s brother] in April 1864 Visited  [sic] various battlefields & called on Gen. Grant.”                                                     

To a reader, it’s reassuring to know that two of America’s greatest writers should have met, however briefly or distractedly. In “The Armies of the Wilderness,” Melville writes of Grant: “Like a loaded mortar he is still: / Meekness and grimness meet in him-- / The silent General.”

Sunday, November 22, 2015

`Not Only Important But Also Beautiful'

George Santayana was born in Madrid on Dec. 16, 1863. In November 1949, as his eighty-sixth birthday approached, a wealthy cousin of Mark Twain’s, Cyril Coniston
Clemens (1902-1999), wrote to the philosopher in Rome, saying he and his friends wished to send Santayana a birthday gift. The old man’s response is a model of gracious demurral followed by a change of heart and polite acceptance – all in less than three-hundred words. On this date, Nov. 22, in 1949, Santayana writes: 

“You and your friends are very kind to wish to celebrate my 86th birthday by sending me something. I receive regularly parcels and of course money from America, but apart from cryptic modern poetry, or books by cranks, asking for a word of endorsement to figure on the dust-jacket of their first work, I receive little that is beautiful; nor have I any place in which to put any object of any value.” 

This was true. Santayana spent the final decade of his life living at the Convent of the Blue Nuns of the Little Company of Mary in Rome, cared for by the Irish sisters. He lived with admirable simplicity, as his former student at Harvard, Wallace Stevens, noted: “The beds, the books, the chair, the moving nuns, / The candle as it evades the sight, these are / The sources of happiness in the shape of Rome.” Santayana shifts gears. He tells Clemens he almost ordered the first volume of a “monumental history of Thomas Jefferson" (probably Jefferson the Virginian, the first of six volumes by Dumas Malone), but changed his mind because his reading is “casual” -- Lucretius, Ovid, Catullus and a few other Romans. “But Latin poets are not the characteristic things to ask for from Missouri [Clemens lived in St. Louis].” So, Santayana reverses his earlier refusal of a gift and asks for the Jefferson volume because it “would certainly open a new scene to me that is not only important but also beautiful.” He adds: “Or send me anything small that you may prefer. I say small, because I have only one small room of my own; and even my books have overflowed into the adjoining public reception room.” 

Santayana closes with “grateful regards.” Epistolary elegance is rare (as are epistles, today). Accompanied by wit and gratitude, it is nearly nonexistent. And the spectacle of the Spaniard living in Italy who never became an American citizen accepting a book about Jefferson from a cousin of Mark Twain is satisfyingly all-American.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

`The Rest Could Be Left Out'

Perhaps the model for today’s “public intellectual,” hard-wired to the Zeitgeist and hair-triggered with opinions, is H.G. Wells. He dabbled in utopia and eugenics, wrote science-fiction novels and once said of Joseph Stalin, with whom he shook hands in 1934 (the year of the start of the Great Purge, following the murder of Sergey Kirov): “I have never met a man more fair, candid, and honest.” Wells believed in progress and World Government. I had read The Time Machine and his other “scientific romances” by the time I read John Updike’s “Pigeon Feathers” (1961). David Kern, Updike’s stand-in, is thirteen and has also read The Time Machine. David’s encounter with Wells’ The Outline of History, first published in two volumes in 1920, shocks him and sets off a crisis of faith:

“. . . before he could halt his eyes, David slipped into Wells’s account of Jesus. He had been an obscure political agitator, a kind of hobo, in a minor colony of the Roman Empire. By an accident impossible to reconstruct, he (the small h horrified David) survived his own crucifixion and presumably died a few weeks later. A religion was founded on the freakish incident. The credulous imagination of the times retrospectively assigned miracles and supernatural pretensions to Jesus; a myth grew, and then a church, whose theology at most points was in direct contradiction of the simple, rather communistic teachings of the Galilean.”

Updike nicely captures the condescension and contempt associated with the dull, earnest scientism of any era. I remembered the early Updike story while reading Broadcast Minds (Sheed & Ward, 1932) by Ronald Knox, the Roman Catholic priest, Bible translator and author of Enthusiasm: A Chapter in the History of Religion with Special Reference to the XVII and XVIII Centuries (1950). Knox took his title from the credence people put in the chief medium of his day, radio: “the habit of taking over, from self-constituted mentors, a ready-made, standardized philosophy of life, instead of constructing, with however imperfect materials, a philosophy of life for oneself.” In his chapter “The Omniscientists,” he anatomizes those who establish a pet thesis, withhold conflicting evidence, and then “serve up the whole to us as the best conclusions of modern research, disarming all opposition by appealing to the sacred name of science.” Among his targets are Wells, Julian Huxley, Bertrand Russell and Gerald Heard, the Harris, Dawkins, Dennett and Hitchens of their day.

Knox traces the rise of “omniscience” in his day to the publication of The Outline of History. Wells, he says, is “a man who could turn his hand to anything, who, by his uncanny literary gift, could make any sort of improbability seem probable, in the manner of Jules Verne. Knox might be referring to Wells’ sci-fi novels and stories, or to almost anything he ever wrote. About his Outline of History he writes:

“But we had not pictured him as a historian. And then the book came out, and we realized that his treatment of his subject did not really need any knowledge of history, beyond the 1066 and All That standard; the rest could be left out.”

Conceding that Wells is “readable,” Knox adds: “It was a phantasia, history as Mr Wells wanted us to see it, with materials drawn from so wide a range of sources that, look where he would, he could always find some point of view, some opinion, which favoured his own thesis.”

Friday, November 20, 2015

`In the Tremor and Heat of Occurrence'

For four years in his twenties (and the twentieth century’s), V.S. Pritchett lived away from England, in France, Spain and Ireland, places he later called, collectively, “my university,” just as Ishmael and his creator said “a whale-ship was my Yale College and my Harvard.” That’s where he started writing, in 1923, for the Christian Science Monitor. Pritchett’s first book was Marching Spain (1928), based on his three-hundred-mile walk across that country. More than twenty years later he returned to Spain, and in 1954 published The Spanish Temper. This most English of twentieth-century writers came alive as a writer elsewhere. He had a reporter’s hearty appetite for gossip, landscape, history and conversation, coupled with a non-cloistered bookishness. I’ve known reporters who adopt Homage to Catalonia (1938) as their journalistic bible, but Orwell is necessarily sidetracked by politics and that hobbles the book. Pritchett’s is the volume I would hand to a young writer and urge him to read if he wished to learn about Spain or how to write about an alien place with sympathy tempered by skepticism. Here is Pritchett describing a walk in Madrid:

“It was on our way to the Prado that I saw an old man kneeling before the crucified Christ in one of the Jesuit churches., a figure splashed by blood specks and with raw wounds, gaping as they would upon the mortuary slab, the face torn by physical pain, the muscles and tendons stretched. One imagined that the sculptor must have copied a crucified model to be so inflexible an anatomist and that the thought of imagining the agony of Christ had been beyond him.”

Here we witness, in nonfiction, the fiction writer’s gift for imaginative projection into another. Pritchett dependably animates scenes that might otherwise be flat and static. On the following page, and in a slightly different key, he digresses into autobiography, and then into art, and then Spanish art -- Velázquez, El Greco, Goya-- and eventually into an anatomy of the Spanish temper – all without having yet entered the Prado. He begins:

“I am not an art critic, but since I live chiefly by the eye, I get more pleasure out of painting and sculpture than any other arts. I have a purely literary point of view; that is to say, when I see a picture  I find myself turning it into writing about human nature, habits of mind, the delight of the senses—all that is meant to me by `pride of life.’”

More than a mere self-indulgent confession, this serves as Pritchett’s natural transition into the genius of Spanish painting. Its masters, he says, “are not copyists from a still model [recall the sculpture and “crucified model” Pritchett imagined outside]; they are readers of nature.” On first acquaintance, we look at Velázquez’s portraits from the court of Philip IV, including the sublime Las Meninas (c. 1656), and we see “the infinitely patient copyist who never conveys more than the visual scene before him.” But with time,

“. . . we observe [Velázquez] is a painter of light, a critic of reflections. We see that he has caught the trance of human watchfulness, as if he had caught a few hard grains of time itself. Life is something pinned down by light and time. He has frozen a moment, yet we shall feel that it is a moment at its extreme point; that is, on the point of becoming another moment [a fiction writer’s gift]. If he is the most minute observer in the world, notice how his subjects are caught, themselves also minutely watching the world, with all the concentration the hard human ego is capable of. This is what living is to the human animal: it is to look. To look is to be.”

I last read The Spanish Temper about thirty-five years ago, but had no memory of this passage. Its profundity took me by surprise. One moment I’m reading what amounts to an exceptional travelogue, and the next I’m reading an essay in aesthetics and applied epistemology, and the author’s apologia for his life as a writer.

With Kipling, Pritchett is England’s foremost story writer, author of at least one masterpiece of a novel (Mr. Beluncle, 1951), and probably its finest critic of the last century. Of Goya he writes: “Once again: psychological realism is not psychological analysis or speculation after the event, but the observation of the event in the tremor and heat of occurrence.”

Thursday, November 19, 2015

`The Most Coveted and Desirable Book in the World'

Years ago, probably in the late seventies, I read a profile of Dr. Oliver Sacks in one of the news weeklies in which the writer/neurologist said he enjoyed reading the Oxford English Dictionary. This was before I had read Sacks’ work but I already sensed a kinship with this friend of W.H. Auden, another OED devotee. I too spent hours wandering in James Murray’s precursor to the internet. Last summer I read his second memoir and final book, On the Move, not long before his death on Aug. 30 at age eighty-two. In it he describes taking the test, after drinking “four or five” pints of hard cider, for a scholarship to study anatomy at Oxford. Sacks wins it, and writes:

“Fifty pounds came with a Theodore Williams Prize—50 pounds! I’d never had so much money at once. This time I went not to The White Horse but to Blackwell’s Bookshop next door to the pub, and bought, for 44 pounds, the 12 volumes of the Oxford English Dictionary. For me, the most coveted and desirable book in the world. I was to read the entire dictionary through when I went on to medical school, and I still like to take a volume off the shelf now and then for bedtime reading.”

One hears a strain of braggadocio, perhaps some blustery exaggeration, but I like to think the story is true. Sacks clearly loved language, enjoyed playing with it and hearing its music. Unlike Auden, he seldom used arcane words except for some scientific jargon, which he would carefully translate into lay language. For Sacks, words, like knowledge, were a sensuous pleasure. Though his prose is not showy, he was a disciplined voluptuary of language, as every writer ought to be. I thought of Sacks and the OED when reading the Irish poet Richard Murphy’s “Bookcase for the Oxford English Dictionary” (New Selected Poems, 1989):

“All the words I need
Stored like seed in a pyramid
To bring back from the dead your living shade
Lie coffined in this thing of wood you made
Of solid pine mortised and glued
Not long before you died.

“Words you’ll never read
Are good for nothing but to spread
Your greater love of craft in word and deed,
A gift to make your friends’ desires succeed
While inwardly with pain you bled
To keep your own pain hid.”

A word lover is a logophile, not so old a word as one might guess, according to the OED. Its first citation dates from 1959, and all five are drawn from newspapers or magazines. This is from the October 1972 issue of Scientific American, probably from Martin Gardner’s “Mathematical Games” column: “Who except a numerologist or logophile would see the letters U, S, A symmetrically placed in LOUISIANA?”

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

`On the Crown of the Road, Out of the Gutters'

Some of us value bluffness in writing and speech, especially from doctors, cops and critics. Get to the point, don’t try to ingratiate yourself, don’t soft-soap, euphemize or curry favor, and hold the filigree, please. Listen to Charles P. Curtis Jr. in the opening words of his preface: “To begin with, this anthology is for the thinker, and not for the feeler, primarily for the extrovert thinker. Needless to say, it runs over into some of his introverted and intuition margins.”

With this voice I’m already sympathetic, though I knew in advance Curtis was a Harvard-educated lawyer. His dichotomies seem central to understanding human nature: thinker/feeler, extrovert/introvert. By “extrovert” he doesn’t mean “hail fellow well met” or Mr. Popularity. He means the public man or woman, the parent, child, spouse, worker and citizen, not the sensitive plant.  Curtis and his co-editor of The Practical Cogitator; or, The Thinker’s Anthology (1945), Ferris Greenslet, work hard to address grownups. One can’t imagine such an anthology being assembled today, when adults are routinely treated (and treat themselves) like slow-witted children, and yet twenty-four editions of the Cogitator were published between 1945 and 1985. Curtis says he took his title from The American Practical Navigator (1802), an encyclopedia of navigation written by Nathaniel Bowditch, suggesting the book was intended not as a collection of greeting-card sentiments but as a sort of instructional manual. In the preface, Curtis outlines his rules for inclusion in the book:

“Nothing purely inspirational, nothing sentimental. And yet nothing cynical. Nobility of thought keeps on the crown of the road, out of the gutters.”

When was the last time you saw “nobility” used in a non-ironical sense? And another refreshingly common-sensical rule:

“Treatise, textbook, letter, novel, speech, verse, anything is given equal welcome. As to verse, none for its own sake, none simply because it was beautiful. Verse has been treated simply as another, more elegant, more memorable form of speech.”

You can glean a sense of Curtis and Greenslet’s values by considering the writers they most often quote: Montaigne, Oliver W. Holmes Jr., William James, and Whitehead. They have an unfortunate fondness for Emerson (and John Dewey, and E.B. White), partially redressed by the presence of Johnson, Santayana, Unamuno and Chesterton. In their chapter devoted to reading they quote with approval Edward Gibbon’s essay “Abstract of My Readings; with Reflections”: “Let us read with method, and propose to ourselves an end to which our studies may point. The use of reading is to aid us in thinking.” The editors quote a writer new to me, Guy Murchie. Despite their stated intention to include nothing “simply because it was beautiful,” Murchie’s two-page excerpt contains a list of names for the winds of the world. Here is a sample, pure poetry:

“. . . the brickfelder of southern Australia; the harmattan of North Africa; the belat, maloya, imbat, chubasco, bora, tramontane, leste, simoon, galerna, chocolatero, bize, crivetz, etesian, baguio, elephanta, sonora, ponente, papagayo, kaus, puelche, siffanto, solona, reshabar, purge, and others. . .”

That’s only half of Murchie’s catalog, but it suggests Curtis and Greenslet’s assumption that the world is a vast, well-stocked place, full of wonders and horrors (the volume was assembled during World War II), leaving us with no excuses for boredom. This is an ideal bedside or bathroom book, and Curtis himself makes excellent company. Here he is in his preface:

“We have tried to build a dry wall. If the reader finds that one of the stones has fallen out into the field, let him only take care not to stumble over it. The only cement is a few comments, from which the editors, looking over the reader’s shoulder, could not refrain.”