Tuesday, November 07, 2017

Reads of the moment


Camille Paglia, Glittering Images: A Journey through Art from Egypt to Star Wars. (New York: Pantheon Books.) I read this aloud to my husband on our drive to my mother's house in western North Carolina in October and finished it up on the way back to our home in upstate New York. Some of her speculations are of the very sheerest, but it's a great read-aloud if you love art and don't care for the sterility and jargon of much arts criticism. Enthusiasm and respect for spiritual search inform the book. With the early works, the miracle of survival of ancient art and the admiration for the distinctive styles and crafts of shaping wielded by ancient, anonymous people are on Paglia's mind. And if you feel at all uncertain about the history of Modernism, she'll help you out in understanding how one sub-movement reacted to another. (And I must say that she managed to make me see Mondrian in an surprising new way--I had no real sense of what Mondrian thought that he was doing and found him surprisingly symbolic in his mode of conceiving and carrying out paintings.) I like and agree with her ideas of Warhol (or Mapplethorpe) as the dead-end of the avant garde, and I think those ideas translate well to what happened with poetry in the twentieth century, particularly when you look at how both painters pursuing realism and narrative and poets pursuing formal variety (including some ancient forms) and a widened subject matter are slowly gaining ground. Paglia insists (mightily!) on formulating her own thoughts without a whit of care for the winds and trends of culture in an era when academics tend to march together.

C. Day Lewis. The Poetic Image. 1946 Clark Lectures, Cambridge University. Still pertinent and well worth reading. Essays/lectures from someone who understands literary history and the Modernist place in it for good and for ill. "The Lyric Impulse" is a wonderful introductory piece. I thoroughly enjoyed the whole book, which is governed by the idea that human beings naturally seek to create and find harmony and orderliness in a world that is ever in flux, ever more various than we can compass. Highly recommended for those interested in song, ballad, and shapely poems.

Kingsley Amis, Lucky Jim. I read again after many decades and was surprised to find how well I remembered it, particularly the episode of the burned bedclothes and the "Merrie England" talk. The apex of the drunken address still reminded me of Fink-Nottle's, and antihero Jim Dixon of a sharper, much less hapless and sweet Bertie Wooster. After a stint in the British army, Kingsley Amis must have been out to break all the campus rules.... Is Dixon sometimes roiling with class rage, spite, boredom, maliciousness, immaturity, self-contempt, and an Amisian-Larkinesque view of women? Sure. He's an antihero all the way down. Here's Dixon in the morning: "Consciousness was upon him before he could get out of the way; not for him the slow, gracious wandering from the halls of sleep, but a summary, forcible ejection. He lay sprawled, too wicked to move, spewed up like a broken spider-crab on the tarry shingle of morning. The light did him harm, but not as much as looking at things did; he resolved, having done it once, never to move his eyeballs again. A dusty thudding in his head made the scene before him beat like a pulse. His mouth had been used as a latrine by some small creature of the night, and then as its mausoleum. During the night, too, he'd somehow been on a cross-country run and then been expertly beaten up by secret police. He felt bad.” Now I feel like rereading some Wodehouse and maybe The Loved One.

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Here is the close of this post, written a day after Sayfullo Saipov, the man whose name means "Sword of Allah," mowed down bicyclists in Manhattan: "After hearing another New York round of generic responses and platitudes following the latest terrorist attack, I think we all need to send our politicians a well-written book or two. And maybe that should include a novel or two so they can begin to understand that not every human being thinks alike." But now that closing is already out of date, as we go on to the next massacre, alas.

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I practice imaginative eliminativism about the category of entities known as "politicians." This is always a problem on election day.

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Tonight I voted, and it was all so very Village of Cooperstown. First I walked with my husband to the Vets Club and had the traditional Rotary Club pancake dinner (with sausages from The Otesaga, mind you.) And I saw and chattered with all sorts of people I knew (including the former mayor, Carole) and was served by other people I knew (and the one I didn't know my husband knew and I promptly met.) Then we went a couple of blocks to the polling station, where I also saw lots of people I knew, voted for people I knew, hugged people I knew (especially Janet, whose birthday it was, and MaryAnne, who I hadn't seen in a long time), laughed with people I knew, received invitations from people I knew, and was asked if I was old enough to vote by somebody I knew (the sassy Rick, naturally.) So village-y. So lovely. So astonishingly NORMAN APPLE PIE AMERICA ROCKWELL! Okay, maybe not Norman Rockwell but pretty dear. Sometimes being a Southerner in Yankeedom is sweet. Yep.

And hey--it snowed. First flakes of the season. Pretty late, but I still resent it on principle. Southern principle.

11 comments:

  1. The passage you quote from Amis is delightful, and yes, very Wodehousian. "He felt bad" is the perfect dry conclusion to all that hyperbolic suffering.

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    1. Haha, yes! I'm sure it must be many people's favorite lines in the book, and that many have woken to thoughts of that small, widdling mouse.

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  2. Dixon is poor and Wooster is rich: both are the product of their respective bank balances. Dixon is consumed by class rage, Wooster is hardly aware there is a class system. Both are defined by their eras, the twenties and the early fifties, Wooster being well-fed, Dixon being mal-developed (to the point where most North Americans would have lurched away from him in horror: bad orthodontics, underpants - if worn - unchanged for a week, pallid complexion, synthetic jacket bagged round the elbows, etc). Far from being immature Dixon is well on the way to being a revolutionary, albeit for no worthwhile cause. If time were to slip they might both have met in the WW1 trenches, Wooster (a subaltern) dying within a week, Dixon (ever a private) developing the slyness necessary for survival.

    It is clear Amis loved Dixon. Any critic who mis-remembered the tiniest detail of Lucky Jim could expect a corrective letter by return post. As Amis grew older he became a curiously distorted version of his most inventive creation. Martin in his reminiscences tries to suggest that his dad was kinder than most people thought. I, for one, was never persuaded.

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    1. Rebel without a cause... yeah. Agh, I hadn't really considered the state of his underwear. Or synthetics!

      I must say that I tend to think of Wodehouse as fantasy. Edwardian fantasy, but fantasy.

      The Amis-Larkin letters have probably colored my thoughts about both as men and as writers.

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  3. VR refuses to read non-fictional material about writers, doesn't care to know whether they're fascist, pederast, vegan or underwear-unsympathetic. Since in an average year she reads approx. 230 books (almost all fiction) across a wide spectrum of popularity she could claim she hasn't the time but, no, it's a matter of principle. The works should proclaim the writer, she says. The rest is for academics for whom novels are a business rather than a pleasure. I admire her purity of attitude but am not tempted to adopt it. Since the Amis-Larkin letters were a good deal more entertaining than late Amis novels, and since writing has reduced me to reading no more than about 40 new books (mostly non-fiction) a year I reserve the right to make books pay their way.

    Even so I recall a moment of betrayal during my youth. I was very much influenced by the semi-autobiographical novels (Dandelion Days, The Dream of Fair Women, Young Philip Maddison, etc) of Henry Williamson which I re-read and quoted over meal tables. (I ignored Tarka the Otter, thinking it was for children). It was a great blow to discover, at least a decade later, his extreme right-wingism, so much at odds with the lyricism of the novels. To the point where Dandelion Days has remained on my shelf unread for half a century, simply because I fear what I might find. You could tell me to grow up and I'd accept that as fair criticism. Truth is after all truth. But the essence of our younger lives is such a fleeting matter I resent being deprived of it. Go figure (A concise, apt and sturdy exhortation I learned from living in the USA. I love using it mainly because it never made the whole of a transatlantic crossing.).

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    1. In general, I am uninterested in writers' lives, though I do find the lopsided Melville-Hawthorne friendship to be heartbreaking. And I at one time read Woolf and Dickinson letters. And other historically-interesting letters. Read some seventieth-century Massachusetts ones last year... Can't say I've read more than bits of the Amis-Larkin letters. Colorful bits, though!

      Otters! My husband caught seven brook trout while we were in North Carolina, and an otter came along and stole one and released two! I read Gavin Maxwell's "Ring of Bright Water" as a child--found it on my parents' bookshelves. And I love some poems by Kathleen Raine, who is so tightly connected to him in strange ways. People's loves can be so fantastical! (So there's a whit of biographical curiosity in me, I suppose.)

      Williamson's "Salar the Salmon" was the book that made me send my first fiction ms. (a novella and stories) to David R. Godine in Boston. It was just so soulful. And that submission would have ended up as my first two books except that I withdrew the stories because I didn't want them reviewed as my third or fourth book. Publishers can take their time... I don't know anything else about him.

      Mostly, I don't care a fig for the varied views of my friends or of writers. When I went to vote the other night, I found three good friends--two who are active in the Democratic party, one active in the Republican party--volunteering. And was glad to see all three.

      Writers, like everybody else, see rather different ways of solving the world's problems but most of them don't cross the line into evil. Ezra Pound did, alas, and we could dredge up others. And time makes the behavior of people in the past look strange, since we tend to judge them by current standards. Why? It seems absurd. Our own time will look just as ridiculous in its passions and errors in another century.

      I have been profoundly uninterested in politicians, few of whom demonstrate reliable common sense and an understanding of history, or any imagination about unintended consequences of actions. I prefer practical local volunteering to being active with political parties. No doubt it is a fault, but I think it is a useful fault for a writer. And it helps with liking people of all sorts. I confess that I do. It is evidently strange in the current atmosphere, but I don't claim it as a fault. It satisfies my rampant curiosity about the world and people (aside from politicians. Although I do have several magistrates in my current novel. Seventeenth-century ones. Maybe they count.)

      I have books from childhood that I reread. And now that I run them through my mind, the authors run a gamut of political stances. No doubt there's a long distance from W. H. Hudson (aka Guillermo Enrique Hudson) to Kipling. But I can't do without either "Kim" or "Long Ago and Far Away." There are wide expanses between James Weldon Johnson and Frost, but I Iiked them both as a child. Etc.

      It's an interesting question. We have certainly taken to judging writing by the writer's politics. I think you should judge writing by writing. People die and leave us. Books can live and stay if they contain sufficient life. Few do. Probably a bad idea to reject the ones that do.

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    2. Certainly it wasn't; I read every word!

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    3. Y'all are too kind. I am too blathery.

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Alas, I must once again remind large numbers of Chinese salesmen and other worldwide peddlers that if they fall into the Gulf of Spam, they will be eaten by roaming Balrogs. The rest of you, lovers of grace, poetry, and horses (nod to Yeats--you do not have to be fond of horses), feel free to leave fascinating missives and curious arguments.