“These women are insufferable!” Every day for about two weeks, the same refrain.
Before October of 2007 neither Sam nor I had read a word of Doris Lessing. We knew her by reputation only: a minor colossus, not in the Proust-Joyce-Mann-Woolf-Faulkner range, but prominent in the Naipaul-Grass-Morrison-Gordimer range, whose work had, by some arguments, wider social impact than any in either range. For years a copy of The Golden Notebook had taken up its blocky space on our shelf, occasionally shifting position one way or another as new books squeezed in around it. Whatever might have seemed forbidding about it – its specs, its status as icon – had long since been mitigated by familiarity, like with the bulky house a few blocks from the street on which I grew up which my childhood cohorts and I delighted in taking for haunted, the possibility of which, somewhere along the line, we lost interest in verifying. But on that October morning, when reporters met her outside her London home as she returned from shopping to inform her she’d won the Nobel Prize and she uttered her now famous “Oh Christ! I couldn’t care less”, Sam decided it was time. He decided to crack The Golden Notebook first.
And quickly decided to make it his last. “These women are insufferable,” he’d moan every twenty pages or so. “Cold. Heartless. Narrow!” Not having read it myself, I nonetheless felt compelled to come to the famous book’s defense. I put it to him that she was breaking new ground. “Maybe she’s showing what can happen to women’s psyches when they decide to not to capitulate to the society that holds them down. In other words, maybe she deliberately drew them to be as you are finding them.”
“But it’s about choices, isn’t it,” he would counter. “These women never really grow or change. Toni Morrison’s characters face profound oppression. But there’s real drama in their choices, with real consequences, and they don’t become narcissistic bitches.”
“A character doesn’t have to be likable for a book to be good.”
“But there has to be something about a character that gives the reader a stake in her fate. These women are just bores.”
“The writing itself?”
And so it would go.
My late partner Sam was one of the two or three most serious readers I have ever known. Books were an indelible part of our life as a couple. And yet we read very differently. He entered into a book far more completely from an emotional standpoint than I do. If he was moved, it was a physical experience for him. If he loved a character, it was almost as a lover. He thought about them outside the context of the printed page. I’ll never forget how riled our friend Nathan got when Sam, who was reading Ulysses, said he wondered if Stephen Dedalus brushed his teeth and whether or not he thought about girls. “It’s not in the text!”, Nathan protested. Because his relationship with a book was so intimate, so totally personal, if a writer, such as Doris Lessing, struck him poorly, his refusal to forgive was absolute.
My own relationship to books is, I believe, hardly less personal. But even the books that affect me the most tend to retain about them something of the artifact, an object that can be turned over, sniffed, tasted, examined and wondered about as part of the large world outside my body. This does not make me a better reader than Sam, and it certainly doesn’t mean I’m an “objective” reader, because I don’t believe there is such a person. I might even consider that the bit of distance I keep from the printed page in some ways limits me; Sam’s openness to his own passionate response was part and parcel with the fullness with which he engaged with life. But it does mean that a writer such as Lessing, for whom I, too, will never have much fondness, can remain at least interesting to me.
I’ve now read five of Lessing’s novels (though, strangely, not yet The Golden Notebook), and, have noted that a hard, rather self-involved female protagonist, much as Sam described Anna Wulf, seems to make the rounds to each of them. I was struck by an observation Michiko Kakutani made in her review of Under My Skin (1994), the first installment of Lessing’s autobiography. Responding to a passage in which Lessing discusses her decision to leave her husband and two small children, Kakutani writes:
This matter-of-fact tone informs much of this volume, leaving us with a vivid, if somewhat chilling picture of the author as a self-absorbed and heedless young woman. Ms. Lessing tells us that she was not in love with her first husband, or her second, and that her maternal instincts temporarily “switched off” after the birth of her second child. Again and again, she describes her actions as a mere reflection of the Zeitgeist, a point of view that may illuminate the social dynamic animating so many of her novels, but that also suggests a certain reluctance to assume responsibility for personal choices.
A chilling picture indeed. Lessing’s use of the equivocal virtue of candor to convey what should be a monumentally difficult piece of personal information is fraught. There can be humility in candor, and there can be arrogance. When humility is up, we feel invited to take a look around the subject itself and see complexity. Forgiveness becomes moot because we see ourselves and feel braced by an honoring of our fragile humanity. When it is arrogance, we can feel under assault, and may experience the need to forgive without being sure we have the reserves for it. To say “matter-of-factly” that one walked out of the life of one’s young children, and to style this as zeitgeist-driven, is really no different than self-absolution via “the Devil made me do it.” We sense an attempt to warp the moral universe to one’s own needs. Our response becomes truncated; it’s either “you monster” or “you trailblazer”, and our sense of human possibility becomes thin fare indeed.
I, like Sam, and apparently many others, both among her admirers and her detractors, have noted her rather pedestrian and occasionally leaden prose. “Indigestible,” in the words of one critic. After her Nobel win, American critic Harold Bloom (himself a marvelous windbag of genius) said he found her novels of the last fifteen years to be “unreadable”. I was interested to read in the New York Times tribute that no less a writer than J. M. Coetzee weighed in on this, saying, “Lessing has never been a great stylist — she writes too fast and prunes too lightly for that.”
And yet there remains something about Lessing. Her standing as a major writer seems to transcend the writing itself. When she turned her own problematic choices into materials and brought them to bare on her novels the result was nothing less than the clarion call of a new epoch, especially for educated women, and by extension, everyone else. She was, indeed, a zeitgeist prophet. Margaret Atwood put it this way in her tribute in The Guardian:
If there were a Mount Rushmore of 20th-century authors, Doris Lessing would most certainly be carved upon it. Like Adrienne Rich, she was pivotal, situated at the moment when the gates of the gender disparity castle were giving way, and women were faced with increased freedoms and choices, as well as increased challenges.
It is perhaps a touch whimsical to illustrate Lessing’s greatness by invoking that famous piece of gigantic kitsch in the hills of South Dakota. But Atwood’s meaning is clear; in a very real way, at least in the land of literature, there was a “before Lessing” and an “after Lessing”. Virginia Woolf was, by orders of magnitude, the greater writer, but she didn’t write about women’s orgasms. More importantly, she didn’t level her sights directly on a society which, by precluding such discussion, showed its true, imperialistic colors, its dependence for continuance on the enslavement, either emotional or actual, of huge segments of the Earth’s people. Whatever else may be said of the work of Doris Lessing, her vision was necessary and transformative. For this, Sam’s opinion notwithstanding, her honors are merited.
And so its happened this year. Alice Munro has won the Nobel Prize. I think all of us who have been reading her for years have wondered if the Swedish Academy would ever get it together. She is regularly described as one of the greatest living short story writers, one of the greatest Canadian writers, one of the greatest writers in English. Time to drop the qualifiers. She is simply one of the greatest writers. No writer I know can use the smooth, flat surface of words in less adorned sentences to convey more densely layered information. As you read the excerpt below, the opening passage to the story “Floating Bridge” in Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage, let yourself stop for a moment after each sentence to consider what you’ve just been handed. Hold how it ramifies that “One time she left him.” One time? If you allow it – and this is why she is, for all her surface accessibility, a mighty and difficult artist – you will find that by the end, your heart is in shards around your feet and you have been all but tricked into becoming, at least for a moment, a fuller, kinder, sadder, richer, human being.
One time she left him. The immediate reason was fairly trivial. He had joined a couple of the Young Offenders (Yo-yos was what he called them) in gobbling up a gingerbread cake she had just made and intended to serve after a meeting that evening. Unobserved—at least by Neal and the Yo-yos—she had left the house and gone to sit in a three-sided shelter on the main street, where the city bus stopped twice a day. She had never been in their before, and she had a couple of hours to wait. She sat and read everything that had been written on or cut into those wooden walls. Various initials loved each other 4 ever. Laurie G. sucked cock. Dunk Cultis was a fag. So was Mr. Garner (Math).
Eat Shit H.W. Gange rules. Skate or Die. God hates filth. Kevin S. is Dead Meat. Amanda W. is beautiful and sweet and I wish they did not put her in jail because I miss her with all my heart. I want to fuck V.P. Ladies have to sit here and read this disgusting dirty things what you write.
Looking at this barrage of human messages—and puzzleing in particular over the heartfelt, very neatly written sentence concerning Amanda W., Jinny wondered if people were alone when they wrote such things. And she went on to imagine herself sitting here or in some similar place, waiting for a bus, alone, as she would surely be if she went ahead with the plan she was set on now. Would she be compelled to make statements on public walls?
She felt herself connected at present with the way people felt when they had to write certain things down—she was connected by her feelings of anger, of petty outrage (perhaps it was petty?), and her excitement at what she was doing to Neal, to pay him back. But the life she was carrying herself into might not give her anybody to be angry at, or anybody who owed her anything, anybody who could possibly be rewarded or punished or truly affected by what she might do. Her feelings might become of no importance to anybody but herself, and yet they would be bulging up inside her, squeezing her heart and breath.
She was not, after all, somebody people flocked to in the world. And yet she was choosy, in her own way.
The bus was still not in sight when she got up and walked home.
Neal was not there. He was returning the boys to the school, and by the time he got back somebody had already arrived, early for the meeting. She told him what she’d done when she was well over it and it could be turned into a joke. In fact, it became a joke she told in company—leaving out or just describing in a general way the things she’d read on the walls—many times.
“Would you ever have thought to come after me?” she said to Neal.
“Of course. Given time.”
from: “Floating Bridge”
I would congratulate you, Ms. Munro, if I didn’t feel a heartfelt Thank You wasn’t more in order.
Societies in which arranged marriages are still prevalent must wonder what all the brouhaha was about when Mo Yan won the Nobel Prize for Literature last year. In some quarters (China) his win was celebrated as if he was a conquering hero on the order of, say, Genghis Kahn. Others, of which yours truly is one, felt his win to indicate, if not actual malignancy at work in the universe, then at least mindless absurdity at work in Stockholm, not least because of his slapdash writing. But societies with arranged marriages must view all this backing and forthing as a curious instance of democratic vanity. In such societies, families pair off boys and girls for marriage, often very early in life, at some point the boy and girl are told of the arrangement, and that is the end of it until the wedding day, unless, as in some cultures, the wedding day is the day of revelation. The pair is either happy about it or not, much to the indifference of those who’ve chosen for them. For it to work – and in many places it has long worked rather well – there must be a broad-based acceptance of a cosmos in which things are given or taken without much regard for the wishes or agency of the ones receiving or yielding. It’s only when love, a human universal, turns to regard itself, and in doing so steps beyond its provenance in the body to style itself as a compelling thought process capable of making vital decisions that people begin to get touchy about who’s being foisted on them.
People who direct their love towards books tend to become deeply attached to certain authors. For such counterculturists, the Nobel Prize can feel rather barbaric. Like an arranged marriage. Once we’ve been handed our winner – because it does feel somehow like a bestowal – our feelings about Stockholm’s choice, approval or dismay, become more at issue than the choice itself. In other words, it becomes all about us.
In about a week that famous secular conclave will meet to decide who to shack us up with this year. Busybody pundits are giving themselves little orgasms asking who, or what kind of writer, it will be. Will it be a captivating storyteller who ravishes her readers with a gorgeously over-stuffed vision of humanity, someone in the line of, say José Saramago or Gabriel Garcia Marquez, or will it be someone whose rewards are cloistered behind a wall of aesthetic that will keep him a rather arcane fetish for a few, someone akin to Claude Simon or Samuel Beckett? Will it be a curiosity, like Dario Fo, or a well known literary force, e.g. Saul Bellow? Another bony Eastern European to join Herta Müller, or a non-colonial African to keep Wole Soyinka company? Will the political objective driving the choice be baldfaced, as with Orhan Pamuk, or restrained, as with Tomas Tranströmer? Male or female? Novelist? Poet? Playwright? Someone uncharacteristically category-defying?
These questions, while entertaining, are really of only passing interest, in the end not much different than church basement gossip. The real question, or the only one that matters to any of us inclined to take an interest, is whether or not when we lift the veil and gaze upon who has been chosen for our regard, we find the face lovely or dispiriting.
Here is a list of five authors I would be more than happy to live with should Stockholm choose them. There are, of course, many others. Philip Roth and Alice Munro don’t appear on my list this year even though I would probably pee myself if either of them made the cut. But they’ve been on my short list for the past two years, and I decided to only put forth candidates who I’ve not put forth before. I would be fascinated if either Kenya’s Ngugi wa Thiong’o or Algeria’s Assia Djebar won, and am eager to get to know their work, but on this list you’ll find only writers I’ve actually read. The Nobel literature prize is always geopolitically interesting: On my list this year, two are Hungarian, one is Australian, one Irish, one Spanish. I’m struck that all my choices are men, and all fiction writers. Call my list one-sided, but these guys are all as good as it gets. I’ve listed them alphabetically because if I were to rank them in order of who I most want to win, they’d all have to pile into a rather ill-suited cluster in the first spot. Along with their names, I offer you a passage from each of their bodies of work. You decide who you would choose. I’m sure I can’t.
László Krasznahorkai (Hungary)
Rubbish. Everywhere he looked the roads and pavements were covered with a seamless, chinkless armour of detritus and this supernaturally glimmering river of waste, trodden into pulp and frozen into a solid mass by the piercing cold, wound away into the distant twilight greyness. Apple cores, bits of old boots, watch-straps, overcoat buttons, rusted keys, everything, he cooly noted, that man may leave his mark by was here, though it wasn’t so much this ‘icy museum of pointless existence’ that astonished him (for there was nothing remotely new about the particular range of exhibits), but the way this slippery mass snaking between the houses, like a pale reflection of the sky, illuminated everything with its unearthly, dull, silvery phosphorescence.The awareness of where he was exercised an increasingly sobering effect on him—he had by no means lost his capacity for calm appraisal—and as he continued to appraise, as if from a considerable eminence, the monstrous labyrinth of filth, he grew ever more certain that, since his ‘fellow human beings’ had utterly failed to notice this flawless and monumental embodiment of doom, it was pointless talking about a ‘sense of community’. It was, after all, as if the earth had opened up beneath him, revealing what lay underneath the town, or, and he tapped the pavement with his stick, as if some terrible putrescent marsh had seeped through the asphalt to cover everything.
from: The Melancholy of Resistance
Javier Marias (Spain)
“People used to venerate them or at least their memory, and they would go and visit their graves with flowers, and their portraits would preside over their homes,” I thought, “people spent a period in mourning and everything stopped for awhile or slowed down, the death of someone affected the whole of life, the dead person really did take with them a part of the lives of their loved ones and, consequently, there wasn’t such a separation between the two states, they were related and they were less frightening. Now people forget the dead as if the dead were plague victims, sometimes they use them as shields or dunghills in order to blame them and make them responsible for the terrible situation in which they have left us, often they are loathed or they receive only acrimony and reproaches from their heirs, they departed too soon or too late without preparing the ground for us or without leaving us free, they continue being names but not faces, names to which all manner of villainies and cowardices and horrors are imputed, that’s the current tendency, and thus they do not find rest even in oblivion.”
from: Tomorrow in the Battle Think On Me
Gerald Murnane (Australia)
“On that day it appeared that the whole state was alight. At midday, in many places, it was dark as night. Seventy-one lives were lost.” The previous sentences are from a report of a royal commission that followed the bushfires of January, 1939, in the state of Victoria. The day when the bushfires were at there worst was known afterwards as Black Friday. By chance, it was the day when my youngest aunt left the convent that would have overlooked, among much else, the paddock whereon would be lain down fifteen years later a certain street beside which would be built twelve years later again the house in which my aunt’s oldest nephew would live for at least forty years and would write books of fiction, one of the last of which would include a passage in which the narrator, who was wholly lacking in imagination, would report mere details in the hope that fiction truly was, as someone once claimed, the art of suggestion and that some at least of his readers might intuit or divine or suppose, if not imagine, some little of what his aunt had seen or felt on the day when she left the convent where she had hoped to live for the rest of her life.
from: Barley Patch
Péter Nádas (Hungary)
A shipwrecked person whose feet desperately seek something solid to keep him afloat will grab at anything, anyone, the first available object, and if it buoys him up he won’t let it go, he’ll swim with it,and after a time he’ll see he has nothing else! just this? and the object will grimly concur, yes, just this, nothing else! and the implacable impulse of self-preservation, joined of course by rationalization and mystification, will have him believe that the object that drifted his way by chance was really his, it chose him and he chose it, and by the time the sheer force of unrelenting waves casts him onto the shore of mature adulthood, his faith and gratitude will have made him worship what was accidental and adore fortuity, but can his rescue from destruction be really accidental?
from: A Book of Memories
William Trevor (Ireland)
Growing up in the listless nineteen-eighties, Celia Normanton knew her father well, her mother not at all. Mr. Normanton was handsome and tall, with steely gray hair brushed carefully every day so that it was as he wished it to be. His shirts and suits gave the impression of being part of him, as his house in Buckingham Street did, and the family business that bore his name. Only Mr. Normanton’s profound melancholy was entirely his own. It was said by people who knew him well that melancholy had not always been his governing possession, that once upon a time he had been carefree and a little wild, that the loss of his wife – not to the cruelty of an early death but to her preference for another man – had left him wounded in a way that was irreparable.
from: “The Women”
I first heard Seamus Heaney’s name as an undergraduate in a seminar on Norse Mythology. The class had nothing to do with him, but the visiting professor, a rosy-cheeked, crinkly-eyed British poet and translator named Kevin Crossley-Holland, clearly wanted it to have something to do with him, if only for a moment. I have no memory of what he said about him, except that he was one of the foremost poets writing in English, what poem he referenced, except that he intoned its lines with an artful facsimile of naturalness, or in what context he mentioned him, except that it had nothing to do with Heaney’s and Ireland’s importance to one another.
A few years later, when I saw Heaney’s name and picture towards the bottom of the front page of the paper and read that he’d won the Nobel Prize, I remembered again that seminar. I remembered that for my final presentation I managed, much to the puzzlement of my classmates and the evident bemusement of Crossley-Holland, to work in a bit of the fourth movement of Sibelius’s Second Symphony because for me it evoked something of Wotan, but really because, like Crossley-Holland’s bringing Heaney to bare on that class, I wanted the music to be there, and niceties such as Sibelius’s own affinity for Finnish mythology as opposed to Norse counted for nothing.
As I stood at the kitchen counter reading the column announcing Heaney’s win, I remember feeling keen that he was a poet. As much as I loved poetry, I loved loving poetry even more. I always wanted to be a poet. By that I mean that in high school I wanted to be Percy Bysshe Shelley, a desire which, with adolescent urgency, I soon transferred onto T. S. Eliot. The thought of writing something as happily sonorous as “In the room the women come and go/ Talking of Michelangelo”, was a reason to pull myself out of bed in the morning. Who cared what it meant. In college I fell head over heals for Auden –his poetry, certainly, but more Auden himself, or rather the Auden I constructed out of bits of myself, my insecurities, my fantasies of meriting a face like that (without, let it be understood, having to bare the face itself); I fetishized what I imagined to be his urbane relationship with his world, his sexuality, his fellows, his apparent capacity to hold in balance being at once supremely disabused and wide open, someone capable of a quatrain like “How should we like it were stars to burn/ With a passion for us we could not return?/ If equal affection cannot be,/ Let the more loving one be me.” Neruda, too, I used to gild my mirror on the wall. What better than to be a person who loved Pablo Neruda? How different, I imagined, my life would be had I the internal reserves to say “I want/ To do with you what spring does with the cherry trees.” Heaney, at the time of his Nobel, I had not yet read, so I had no idea how he would fit into my accrual of sensibility. But I remembered Crossley-Holland’s reverence and thought him a good bet.
When I finally began to read him, I quickly realized he would not yield so easily to any narcissistic projects. I came across stanzas like this one:
Tonight, a first movement, a pulse,
As if the rain in a bogland gathered head
To slip and flood: a bog-burst,
A gash breaking open the ferny bed.
Your back is a firm line of Eastern coast
And arms and legs are thrown
Beyond your gradual hills. I caress
The heaving province where our past has grown.
I am the tall kingdom over your shoulder
That you would neither cajole nor ignore.
Conquest is a lie. I grow older
Conceding your half-independent shore
Within whose borders now my legacy
(from “Act of Union”)
None of my previous poetic loves could give me a leg up on this. Its not a “difficult” poem per se. That Britain and Ireland are two land masses interfering erotically with one another is not hard to deduce. And with words like “pulse”, “flood”, “gash”, “ferny bed”, “hills”, “caress”, “culminates”, you would think, wouldn’t you, that some erogenous brain center would get at least a synaptic tweak. But the sex here is cold, Neruda on ice. In any case, it wasn’t really the means of his poetry that eluded me. It was the ends. What was Heaney saying by saying what he was saying?
In retrospect, the reason for my block was twofold: First, unlike the poetry I had typically found simpatico, which tended to be romantic, even in Auden at his crustiest, Heaney made no appealing, romantic gestures like “His soul stretched tight across the skies/That fade behind a city block”. No self-involved gasps like “Make me thy lyre, even as the forest is:/ What if my leaves are falling like its own?” Instead we get “Conquest is a lie. I grow older/ Conceding your half-independent shore/ Within whose borders now my legacy/ Culminates inexorably”. Whatever it means, it’s not very nice.
My second block stemmed from a loose and grossly under-informed grasp of modern Irish history. I knew that Ireland was one of the geopolitical Earth’s hot spots, a place where Catholics and Protestants vigorously eschewed Christian behavior with one another, and that the strife was between the North and South. But this is all I could have said. I didn’t actually know which faction was in the North and which South. I didn’t get it that for some the fight was about religious hatred and others political justice, or that masked members of the IRA pulled people from buses for massacre, or that Protestant loyalists blew up civilians in Belfast pubs, or that Britain had responded with violence to the nationalist’s demands for basic civil rights. I had no head for the why of the conflict or its duration. Finally, and most compromisingly, I did not even know to entertain the question, let alone approach comprehension, what it really meant to an Irishman, of whatever religious stripe, to be Irish.
Today I know a little more about the tragedy of modern Ireland, and I am aware of the indelible thumbprint left by the Irish on Western culture. This makes me a better reader of Heaney’s poetry, but it’s not why I now love him. I love him because he invites me to adopt a more vulnerable way of meeting the world. I have always been hungry to know what, on Earth, is going on, only in those flushed post grad years I conceived this as a largely self-referential task, realizing my “gifts”, deepening my skills, learning the star chart of my sensuality. Heaney’s poetry invites me to use all that as a starting point from which to move into a much broader landscape, wilder, often hostile, always awash in grandeur. When he writes “Tonight, a first movement, a pulse,” I need no context, I know what that is, and not only through concupiscence. It’s that thing we all feel in our bodies when we find ourselves alone in our rooms at night and realize the world has waxed strange. By the time I arrive at “A gash breaking open the ferny bed” he’s tumbled me into a new and violent place, a place where I, terrifyingly, may not signify at all, like when, as a child, I first became aware of the erotic life of my parents. In the very next lines, “Your back is a firm line of Eastern coast/ And arms and legs are thrown/ Beyond your gradual hills,” I’ve been brought to crouch behind a wall, or a shrub, from where I am to witness something grave and large and against which all my supposed gifts and skills will count for nought. What, after all, is possible where implacable kingdoms loom tall over shoulders? That this is England and Ireland is only intellectually significant as the emotion has made a “bog-burst” through cartographic constraints. By the last two words of the stanza, “Culminates inexorably,” all my narcissistic projects have splintered and fallen in the face of what, on Earth, is really going on.
Heaney is a great poet because he invites his readers into this, at best, difficult world, but doesn’t abandon them to it. However fraught the place to which he carries us, we are carried still, held in the arms of his artifice. The language of a Heaney poem is clear and high and beautiful and deeply moral, even when speaking of the slashed throat of a third century man discovered preserved in a peat bog:
The head lifts,
the chin a visor
raised above the vent
of his slashed throat
that has tanned and toughened.
The cured wound
opens inwards to a dark
Who will say ‘corpse’
to his vivid cast?
Who will say ‘body’
to his opaque repose?
(from “Grauballe Man”)
In his remarkable Nobel lecture, he speaks to this very quality of vulnerability chaperoned by beauty in all “necessary poetry”, poetry whose raison d’être is “to touch the base of our sympathetic nature while taking in at the same time the unsympathetic reality of the world to which that nature is constantly exposed”. By these lights, necessary poetry allies itself with that in me which once longed to take on the guise of Auden, and which needed the Sibelius Second to be about Woton because it needed Sibelius, period. These are signal flares from my sympathetic nature. Poetry is the large, warm hand that guides this nature into the great and difficult world from which it must, at last, draw sustenance.
As I write this, I can’t shake the feeling that Shelly, Eliot, Auden and Neruda are staring at me from whatever heaven they have found, and biting their tongues. “Is that not what we all were about?” they say. Seamus Heaney, newest among them, says gently, “Let him rant.”
Seamus Heaney (1939 – 2013)
Portland. Walking west across the Burnside Bridge at dusk can bring you to your senses. Your legs tighten against the wind of passing cars and the lewd buzz of a motorbike fleet. Your vision grows fat on the baroque skyline glowing before you. Unlike other cities whose profiles front the sky, Portland’s is cradled by wooded hills to the southwest, rendering it, against its own extroversion, intimate, offered. You can’t refuse. Momentarily glutted, you look to your right for relief from the Willamette, and see in the waning light the illuminated windows of the light rail rolling through the trusses of the North Steel Bridge, and your memory skirts the peripheries of Bladerunner, Metropolis, Miyazaki. On the descent, you look over the guard into a waterside park deep in the city’s shadow, where youth trade joints and important thoughts. As you leave the bridge, you meet a contingent of the homeless gathered about the walls of the Portland Rescue Mission. A drunk man in pajama bottoms wends between parked cars, barking. At the base of a sidewalk tree you catch a whiff, not of urine, of life for once not your own.
If you read books and know Portland, you know where this is heading. Ten blocks up from the bridge a large unprepossessing sign presides over the intersection –”Powell’s”. Because you are, at base, a romantic, you were half expecting this famous million-volume bookstore to be housed in something a bit lovelier than this particular building, this industrial rectangle with less architectural romance than a laundromat. Yet as you approach, as you take in the glass storefront, you feel expanded, as at that first sight of the ocean which had countered and held your sense of loss.
I went to the Oregon Coast to see wave-bashed basalt, miles of sand, lighthouses, and to feel my tiny life threaded back into the large and varied world. Now I was in Portland, at Powell’s, looking for books, those cultural artifacts which more than any others address that very threading.
Of the hundreds of books that beguiled from the kilometers of shelves, I came away with just six, an act of will helped along by the knowledge that whatever I bought had to fit in my carry on. Looking at this little pile now, I’m bemused. If not entirely arcane, its certainly idiosyncratic:
OMEROS (Derek Walcott) Once again I was holding this book and looking at Walcott’s cover art, that yellow skiff scudding green surf, carrying four figures under a stormy sky. The skiff rides from right to left. In film theory, when a camera pans from right to left, the effect is of moving back in time, towards memory. I’ve always felt Walcott’s skiff is carrying its people home rather than to unknown shores. This is the aim of the epic as a form, to carry a culture across its own history back to itself. I have a recording of Walcott reciting a passage near its end: “I sang of quiet Achilles, Afolabe’s son,/ who never ascended in an elevator,/ who had no passport, since the horizon needs none…” Time to finally own a copy. A first edition, no less.
FREDDY NEPTUNE (Les Murray) A few years back, Dan Chiasson, writing for the New Yorker, described Australian poet Les Murray as “routinely mentioned among the three or four leading English-language poets.” In whose routine? Apparently Walcott and Heaney had company about whom I knew nothing. I found and read a couple of volumes and discovered a cranky, captivating voice, brilliantly subversive, even of its own heartbreak. Chiasson wrote that Murray’s 1998 verse novel, Fredy Neptune, about a German-Australian sailor who, during the First World War, witnesses something so horrific it causes him to lose all sense of feeling in his body, has “little competition…for the claim to being the best verse novel of our time.” I have never seen it in a bookstore, so when I saw it at Powell’s my impulse was to honor it for being there by buying it.
THE END OF THE AFFAIR (Graham Greene) When I asked my friend Anna Pendleton what her favorite book was, without a moment’s hesitation she said The End of the Affair, by Graham Greene. “I love that book!” were she a gusher, she would have gushed. Anna is young, fiercely bright, lovely in all ways, a middle school English teacher, and a self-proclaimed introvert who nevertheless projects terrific energy. She will, I suspect, be single for a much shorter time than she imagines, though she will probably always be mildly chagrined by whomever she finds sitting intimately across from her. When I saw her literary love at Powell’s I opened it and began to read:
A story has no beginning or end: arbitrarily one chooses that moment of experience from which to look back or from which to look ahead. I say ‘one chooses’ with the inaccurate pride of a professional writer who – when he has been seriously noted at all – has been praised for his technical ability, but do I in fact own my will to choose that black wet January night on the Common, in 1946, the sight of Henry Miles slanting across the wide river of rain, or did these images choose me?
Oh Anna, I thought, you like this? Are there no men like you?
THE LOVED AND THE UNLOVED (Francois Mauriac) After Patrick White, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and William Faulkner, François Mauriac may be my favorite novelist on the Nobel roster. I say “may be” because on any given day he would be elbowing in somewhere between Saul Bellow, Thomas Mann, and José Saramago. Like Patrick White, Mauriac is not talked about much these days. I suspect it is because, as a flinty and ardent Catholic, the existentialists sautéed his reputation and ate it with a glass of Pinot. Too bad for those who read only for confirmation of the rightness of twentieth century malaise. Mauriac’s Catholic malaise, démodé though it is, can attain gruesome heights which leave even malaisophiles gasping for air. I had not heard of this book, a late one in his oeuvre.
THE TROLLEY (Claude Simon) I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of novels I’ve begun and failed to finish. Conducting Bodies, by Claude Simon is one. It was the spoils of one of my undergrad expeditions into the library stacks. Willing I was, but simply not prepared for the nouveau roman’s daunting repudiations. Of plot, for example, and a meaningful sense of time. I’m a different reader now, and with Simon’s centenary coming up in October, it seems time give him another go. This book was his last, written at the age of 88.
TWO LEGENDS: OEDIPUS AND THESEUS (André Gide) I love modern versions of classic literature. Milosz’s “Orpheus and Eurydice”, for example, is one of my favorite poems. A few years back I wrote what I believed to be a brilliant poem on the subject of Theseus. I imagined him in old age, living in a ratty urban apartment, and returning to Hades to liberate Persephone who he and his friend Pirithous had once tried, and catastrophically failed, to abduct. The pathos I evoked, the intellectual rigor and linguistic flights, the adroit iambic pentameter – move over Derek! When I re-read it last year I was appalled by its pompous rigidity. The language certainly took flight –from clarity at every opportunity. I had come across this late work by André Gide in Santa Fe awhile back, and failed to buy it. I wanted to learn; no author’s pen runs more fleetly over maters of greater moral import.
Like a one-night stand who in the morning you realize you’d actually like to get to know, I brought my purchases from the night before to a coffee shop south of the Burnside Bridge on the east side of the river to have a look at them in sober daylight. The Frenchies had won, I saw, and a point each for the Brits, the Aussies, and the Caribbean expats. Two were poets, four novelists. One had lived openly gay. Four had won a Nobel Prize, one probably should have, one still might. I felt happy. I knew that Sam, whom I had loved and lost, and whom I was missing terribly, would never have let me leave Portland without a stack of books just like this one.
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