Friday, February 23, 2018

`Of Authors My Favorite is Tolstoy'

Long or short, most autobiographies are deadly exercises in self-aggrandizement and creative remembering. We cherish the good ones – by Berlioz, Ulysses S. Grant, Henry Adams, Nabokov, Whittaker Chambers – for their rarity. Not coincidentally, all five merge History with personal histories, suggesting that more is at stake than the writer’s precious vanity. There is at least one more good one, and it’s a mere 200 words long. Dense with facts and autobiography-spoofing irony, Chekhov’s capsule bio comes in a letter to V. A. Tikhonov (1857-1914), a playwright, Chekhov admirer and editor of a magazine, North, who had asked for information to accompany a photograph. On this date, Feb. 23, in 1892, Chekhov begins with a straightforward recitation of facts: “I was born in Taganrog in 1860. . .” With the sixth sentence, the tone changes:

“In 1891 I made a tour in Europe, where I drank excellent wine and ate oysters. In 1892 I took part in an orgy in the company of V. A. Tihonov [sic: Constance Garnett’s transliteration] at a name-day party.”

Then another tonal switch, back to vital stats: “I began writing in 1879.” That year, at age nineteen, he became the principal economic support for his family. There’s self-deprecation – “I have sinned in the dramatic line too, though with moderation” – and silliness: “I have been translated into all the languages with the exception of the foreign ones.” He writes: “I practice medicine, and so much so that sometimes in the summer I perform post-mortems, though I have not done so for two or three years. Of authors my favorite is Tolstoy, of doctors Zaharin." [Who can identify Zaharin? He’s not mentioned in Rayfield’s biography.]

In my job, I’m more accustomed to reading self-penned biographies that amount to lengthy lists of grants and awards. In his twelve remaining years, Chekhov turned himself into a genius.

Thursday, February 22, 2018

`He Did Not Join Groups'

The best-known depiction of alcoholism in Edwin Arlington Robinson’s poetry is probably “Mr. Flood’s Party.” The solitary old man has walked into town to buy a jug. He pauses in the dark, sets his liquor on the ground, “With trembling care, knowing that most things break,” and talks to himself:      

“`Well, Mr. Flood, we have not met like this
In a long time; and many a change has come
To both of us, I fear, since last it was
We had a drop together. Welcome home!’”

Experienced drinkers will recognize Eben Flood’s self-dialogue and his habit of personifying alcohol. We woo it and seduce it, and the booze returns the favor. Even the happiest drunk knows he has done something wrong. For male drinkers, alcohol is often female, making it doubly attractive and double-crossing. We’re left feeling betrayed when it no longer works. What made us sociable turns us anti-social:    

“There was not much that was ahead of him,
And there was nothing in the town below—
Where strangers would have shut the many doors
That many friends had opened long ago.”

In Edwin Arlington Robinson: A Poet's Life (2007), Scott Donaldson documents the poet’s self-destructive drinking through early middle age. By the time he turned fifty, on Dec. 22, 1919, Robinson had mostly stopped. That year happened to coincide with the Volstead Act and ratification of the Eighteen Amendment. Prohibition went into effect twenty-six days after his fiftieth birthday, and inspired Robinson’s only known political act. Donaldson writes: “Distrustful of government and most of its practitioners, Robinson customarily stayed on the political sidelines. He did not join groups, resisted signing petitions, and deplored the use of poetry as propaganda.” He was, in short, a grownup who, unlike so many writers, understood that he had no understanding of politics. Nor should we confuse his newfound sobriety with a self-centered fear of breaking the law. True to his Yankee contrariness, Robinson purposely fell off the wagon just weeks after Prohibition became law. He knew alcohol no longer worked for him, that he was unable to write while under the influence and he would pay the price the following morning. Robinson got drunk as a principled act of civil disobedience. Donaldson writes:

“Like many others, Robinson opposed Prohibition because it didn’t—and couldn’t—work. Making liquor illegal led to rampant violations of the law. A generation grew up observing the liquor laws flouted with impunity.”

His biographer tells us one of Robinson’s fundamental principles was that “no collective body had the right to invade the personal liberty of the individual.” Boy, could we use a man and poet like Robinson today.

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

`Outside It Is Already Winter

My review of The Day Will Pass Away: The Diary of a Gulag Prison Guard 1935-1936 by Ivan Chistyakov, and Stalinist Perpetrators on Trial: Scenes from the Great Terror in Soviet Ukraine by Lynne Viola, appears in the Los Angeles Review of Books.

`Inclusion in This Gallimaufry'

I’ve been reading stacks of anthologies devoted to “light," “humorous,” “funny” and “comic” verse. The shifting adjectives suggest the slipperiness of the genre. But the exercise reminds me of the important role anthologies have played in my education, starting with the poetry collections edited by Oscar Williams. Anthologies are the autodidact’s best friends. The good ones serve as literary buffets, encouraging a promiscuous sampling of many dishes. Among them is The Fireside Book of Humorous Poetry (Hamish Hamilton, 1965), edited by William Cole. That’s a name I knew from The Most of A. J. Liebling, published in 1963, just two months before Liebling’s death. Cole was a writer of light verse and the editor of more than fifty anthologies. He includes three of his own poems in The Fireside Book. It’s a good thing he kept his anthologist job. Savor these lines from “Undersea Fever”:

“Hark, hark, the shark!
What ho, the blowfish!
(This is how fishermen in the know fish.)
Egad, a shad!
Shalom, a jewfish!
Off with the old and on with the new fish.”

Cole is a better judge of other poets’ work. Most of the better poems he collects are harsh and barbed, not cute, whimsical, topical, nonsensical or nice (common light verse failings): Swift’s “A Gentle Echo on Woman” and Nabokov’s “A Literary Dinner.” He includes no Byron or J.V. Cunningham. Cole writes in his introduction:

“The standard set for inclusion in this gallimaufry is that it is all funny stuff. Of course, there are all kinds of funny . . . Humor, like war, is the great leveler, and if the comic spirit is alive in any particular poem, it will find appreciators, be it farce, irony, wit, caprice, burlesque, nonsense, satire or high-flown tomfoolery.”

I don’t know about you but I hate caprice and I’m not fond of tomfoolery, high-flown or otherwise. Give me venom. Cole wisely includes “Epitaph on Charles II” by John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester (1647–1680), whose observation is timeless:

“Here lies our Sovereign Lord the King, 
  Whose word no man relies on,   
Who never said a foolish thing,    
  Nor ever did a wise one.”

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

`The Flatulence of Pride'

“Nothing better than covert insults which serve to give vent to the flatulence of pride.”

The speaker is Melissa, a stand-in for Dr. Johnson in The Rambler #75. Once she had all the advantages: “I was born to a large fortune, and bred to the knowledge of those arts which are supposed to accomplish the mind, and adorn the person of a woman.” She knew “universal veneration.” Until misfortune strikes: “the failure of a fund, in which my money was placed, reduced me to a frugal competency, which allowed little beyond neatness and independence.” We return, as always, to Johnson’s perennial theme, vanity and its comeuppance. Melissa learns the hard way what Bessie Smith was singing about. Friends insult and abandon her:  

“. . . nor did any of my female acquaintances fail to introduce the mention of my misfortunes, to compare my present and former condition, to tell me how much it must trouble me to want the splendour which I became so well, to look at pleasures which I had formerly enjoyed, and to sink to a level with those by whom I had been considered as moving in a higher sphere, and who had hitherto approached me with reverence and submission, which I was now no longer to expect.”

That’s what Melissa means by “covert insults” giving vent to “the flatulence of pride.” What a perfect way of phrasing everyday human nastiness. We all know what flatulence is and implies, but savor the OED’s poker-face definition: “The state or condition of having the stomach or other portion of the alimentary canal charged with gas.” The word is rooted in the Latin flātus, “blowing.” In other words, hot air.  And in still other words, blowhard. Figuratively, in Johnson’s usage: “Inflated or puffed-up condition, windiness, vanity; pomposity, pretentiousness.” How perfectly contemporary a word. But Johnson, by way of Melissa, doesn’t let her off the hook. Here is the rest of the sentence, and another, that follow “the flatulence of pride”:

“. . . but they are now and then imprudently uttered by honesty and benevolence, and inflict pain where kindness is intended; I will, therefore, so far maintain my antiquated claim to politeness, as to venture the establishment of this rule, that no one ought to remind another of misfortunes of which the sufferer does not complain, and which there are no means proposed of alleviating. You have no right to excite thoughts which necessarily give pain whenever they return, and which perhaps might not have revived but by absurd and unseasonable compassion.”

It’s the commonest and most pleasing of sins: gratuitous malevolence.

Monday, February 19, 2018

`The Illusory Nature of All Labels'

“. . . politically the most subversive aspect of Chekhov’s thinking is his systematic demonstration of the illusory nature of all labels, categories and divisions of human beings into social groups and social classes, which are the starting point of all political theories of his time and ours.”

My sense is that we no longer recognize individual human beings. They – we -- have become invisible, in Ralph Ellison’s sense: “I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.” We see not hapless, bumbling, fallible souls like ourselves but members of arbitrarily defined tribes, which makes it easier to demonize, segregate and disregard them. As individuals, we’re too sticky and contradictory. “Categories and divisions” are much easier to deal with. Life must be enviably simple for a social justice warrior. Thinking can be confidently kept to a minimum. No need to peer below surfaces. The observation at the top is from Simon Karlinsky and Michael Henry Heim’s Anton Chekhov's Life and Thought: Selected Letters and Commentary (1973). Karlinsky goes on:

“Chekhov’s repeated insistence `labels and trademarks’ such as `liberal,’ `conservative,’ `Populist’ or `neurotic,’ when used as a total description of any one person, are nothing but superstitions which keep people from perceiving the deeper moral and human realities implies a reasoned rejection of the political thinking that has been one of the mainstays of Russian literature and literary criticism from the 1840s on.”

In his 1896 story “The House with the Mezzanine” (trans. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, Stories, 2000), Chekhov gives us Lida Volchaninova, an early incarnation of the social justice warrior, a distant, more strident cousin of Mrs. Jellyby in Bleak House (whom I think of as a female, English Rousseau). Lida and her creator share one quality – social work, self-sacrifice, a devotion to helping others. Chekhov built hospitals and libraries, as a physician treated thousands without charge and exposed the horrors of Sakhalin. But Lida is a humorless fanatic who brutalizes her mother and younger sister. Public do-gooder, private authoritarian and bully. We know the type. Public displays of virtue make it easier to be a self-righteous thug at home. The story’s narrator is a painter, and Lida disapproves:

“She did not find me sympathetic. She disliked me because I was a landscape painter and did not portray the needs of the people in my pictures, and because I was, as it seemed to her, indifferent to what she so strongly believed in.” Comrade Volchaninova is Chekhov’s prescient portrait of an apparatchik, a loyal Party servant who sees members of social classes, not people, and is eager to set things right.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

`Helped the Heart of Man to Know Itself'

A friend has read all of Dickens and all of George Eliot – the former several times over – and asks whose novels she ought to read next. Commendably, her favorite among Eliot’s books is Daniel Deronda. She is a stalwart reader with varied tastes. Someone else had suggested Elizabeth Gaskell, whom I have never read. I suggested Anthony Trollope. Of his forty-seven novels I have read perhaps eight, most memorably The Way We Live Now, which I recommended. If she finds Trollope to her taste, I told her, she could spend the next several years luxuriating in his fictional bounty.

The only time I met my late friend David Myers was here in Houston in March 2012. He gave me a copy of Henry James’ criticism of American and English writers in the Library of America edition, which includes the five reviews and essays James devoted to Trollope. In 1883, some months after Trollope’s death, James wrote a carefully admiring tribute to the novelist. Read it for the account of crossing the Atlantic in Trollope’s company. Also, read it to appreciate the amount of irony and insight James could pack into a sentence or passage, as in this: “His great, his inestimable merit was a complete appreciation of the usual.” More straightforward is the sweeping final paragraph, which begins:

“Trollope will remain one of the most trustworthy, though not one of the most eloquent, of the writers who have helped the heart of man to know itself. The heart of man does not always desire this knowledge; it prefers sometimes to look at history in another way—to look at the manifestations without troubling about the motives. There are two kinds of taste in the appreciation of imaginative literature: the taste for emotions of surprise and the taste for emotions of recognition. It is the latter that Trollope gratifies, and he gratifies it the more that the medium of his own mind, through which we see what he shows us, gives a confident direction to our sympathy.”

Saturday, February 17, 2018

`An Eye Ever Open for Detached Good Things'

Some writers we go on reading even when their time has passed and they are no longer in vogue, or when their faults and failings are undeniable. To acknowledge Max Beerbohm or Ivy Compton-Burnett as “minor” is no reason to stop reading them. Not everyone is cut out to be Marcel Proust. Such readerly attachments are mistaken for sentimentality or a flawed critical sense, when they are acknowledgements of affinity. They answer some temperamental/aesthetic need in us as readers and perhaps as writers. Here is Edwin Arlington Robinson writing to his friend Harry de Forest Smith on April 22, 1894:

“Excepting The Task I have read little during the past week. I wonder why it is that I like Cowper as I do? Something tells me that he is not, and never will be, one of the really great poets, although in occasional passages he is well nigh unsurpassable. There is much of the sandy desert in his work, but still it is comfortable traveling. The green and glorious places that come every little while are all the brighter for the comparative barrenness around them.”

Makes sense, but I hadn’t made the connection. Cowper and Robinson are solitaries. Both are melancholics, with Cowper shading into suicidal madness. Both have a droll sense of humor, Robinson more obviously. Cowper had a strong religious sense, often tortured. Robinson had none. The letter continues:

“[Cowper’s] religion is akin to mawkish to a man of my doubts, but I readily overlook that in the consideration of his temperament and his surroundings. He is popularly and justly, I suppose, called feminine; but human nature has a word to say regarding such matters, and a little sympathy is not likely to be wasted upon this poet. His timidity was a disease, and the making of verse and rabbit hutches, together with gardening, was his occupation. He was a strange man; and this strangeness, with its almost pathetic sincerity, go to make up the reason for my fondness for his poetry.”

Robinson is twenty-four and a sophomore at Harvard. After the death of his father, he will be forced to drop out at the end of the academic year for financial reasons. He never earned a degree. A little more than a week later, on May 1, Robinson writes to Smith again and promises to send him a copy of The Task. His advice to his friend is excellent:   

“Never read it when you are in a hurry, depend upon finding much that is commonplace, and do not let Book I count for too much in your opinions. You must read with an eye ever open for detached good things rather than for a continuous presence of splendid poetry.”

Cowper and Robinson are the poets of sadness and loss (not to be confused with self-pity, on most occasions), themes as important as happiness and celebration. Robert Frost, in his introduction to Robinson’s posthumously published King Jasper (1935) called him “a prince of heartachers.”

[Quotations are from Untriangulated Stars: Letters of Edwin Arlington Robinson to Harry de Forest Smith 1890-1905 (Harvard University Press, 1947).]