He needs to be accompanied when addressing the short flight of stairs up to the bedroom or down to the main level, but he manages them without assistance. The ability to do so was one of the criteria for discharge. Sam is home. He is not able to do much yet, but, after more than a month in the hospital, and another full month in rehab, this not much he can now do at home. And there is so much that he wants to do. It is the season of Advent. Waiting.
I had intended to tell you about reading Nadirs. In my last post I shared some of the feeling of amazement I experienced when my friend Viet presented me with an autographed copy of this book. This time I wanted to tell you about the book itself, about Herta Müller’s dark vision put forth in these almost gruesomely denuded – I lack, at the moment, a better term – stories. I even had the following opener all worked out: “Be careful, when you pick up a copy of Nadirs and start to read, that you don’t crack a tooth.” But life at our house has only just scrabbled to the far side of a rather deep nadir of its own, and still strains against a new rhythm relentlessly beaten out by bare physical need: gauze, urinal, cane, medicines, pill crusher, syringe, and learning to fall asleep to the sound of a feeding tube pump – and life rebels, wanting vantage. Müller’s thin, grim first volume, as good as it is, is not for now. Not yet.
While Sam was away, I consoled myself by reorganizing the portion of our personal library that lives in our room. So that yesterday, while getting dressed, my eye fell on… I’m not going to tell you what my eye fell on, at least not yet, except to say that it is one of the great reading experiences I know. And I thought how no one else I know has had it. And it occurred to me that it was just what the times require, and that I haven’t posted a Nobel mystery passage in a very long time.
Those of you who were following this blog last year will remember how this works: First, read the passage below, taken from the novel’s first chapter. Then turn yourself loose. Share your thoughts. What do you hear? How does it strike you? Any guesses what country the author is from? Does it trigger any memories? Does it remind you of anything else you’ve read? Does it make you curious, or does it repel? Do you have a guess as to who the author is? Think you might know the title? Have you, by chance, read the book? Right answers are far less fun than wild speculation and surmises, why you might make a certain guess more interesting than the guess itself. Please ask for clues.
And speaking of clues, here is one: A careful ear will hear that this writing belongs to the first half of the Nobel Prize’s one hundred and twelve year history rather than the second. Best to lose, for the moment, whatever imagined need you might have for post-modernist irony.
In the bed by his mother’s side the child was stirring again. An unknown sorrow had risen from the depths of his being. He stiffened himself against her. He twisted his body, clenched his fists, and knitted his brows. His suffering increased steadily, quietly, certain of its strength. He knew not what it was, nor whence it came. It appeared immense,— infinite, and he began to cry lamentably. His mother caressed him with her gentle hands. Already his suffering was less acute. But he went on weeping, for he felt it near, still inside himself. A man who suffers can lesson his anguish by knowing whence it comes. By thought he can locate it in a certain portion of his body which can be cured, or, if necessary, torn away. He fixes the bounds of it, and separates it from himself. A child has no such illusive resource. His first encounter with suffering is more tragic and more true. Like his own being, it seems infinite. He feels that it is seated in his bosom, housed in his heart, and is mistress of his flesh. And it is so. It will not leave his body until it has eaten it away.
His mother hugs him to her, murmuring: “It is done— it is done! Don’t cry, my little Jesus, my little goldfish….” But his intermittent outcry continues. It is as though this wretched, unformed, and unconscious mass had a presentiment of a whole life of sorrow awaiting him, and nothing can appease him….
The bells of St. Martin rang out in the night. Their voices are solemn and slow. In the damp air they come like footsteps on moss. The child became silent in the middle of a sob. The marvelous music, like a flood of milk, surged sweetly through him. The night was lit up; the air was moist and tender. His sorrow disappeared, his heart began to laugh, and he slid into his dreams with a sigh of abandonment.
I look forward to hearing from you.
Patrick White, 1912 - 1990
The time has come to speak of Patrick White, whose centenary on May 28th, is fast upon us. I will try to keep this post fairly short because I am currently in such a snit of idolatry that I won’t have anything especially coherent to say. I will simply put forth that, for me, Patrick White ranks along side Henry James, D. H. Lawrence, Joseph Conrad, Virginia Woolf, William Faulkner, James Joyce, and Saul Bellow as one of the greatest novelists to write in English in the twentieth century. Hyperbole? You decide:
The woman winding wool held all this enclosed in her face, which had begun to look sunken. It was late, of course, late for the kind of lives they led. Sometimes the wool caught in the cracks of the woman’s coarse hands. She was without mystery now. She was moving round the winding chairs on flat feet, for she had taken off her shoes for comfort, and her breasts were rather large inside her plain blouse. Self-pity and a feeling of exhaustion made her tell herself her husband was avoiding her, whereas he was probably just waiting for a storm. This would break soon, freeing them from their bodies. But the woman did not think of this. She continued to be obsessed by the hot night, and insects that were filling the porcelain shade of the lamp, and the eyes of her husband, that were at best kind, at worst cold, but always closed to her. If she could have held his head in her hands and looked into the skull at his secret life, whatever it was, then, she felt, she might have been placated. But as the possibility was so remote, she gave such a twist to the wool that she broke the strand.
—The Tree of Man
Here is the Whiteian sublime. The physicality he evokes signifies without strain: note her too large breasts, elected from, we gather, a panoply of attributes waxing too large in her plain life. And how about that biblical ninth sentence, gathering into her obsessions the hot night, insects filling the porcelain lamp shade, the eyes of her husband, and finally something vast and forsaken at her core. Of course, we realize upon reaching the end of this passage, which feels more like a perimeter than a terminus, how obvious, the strand of wool will break, lacking, as it does, the heart’s resilience. Whole chapters could be written plucking the riches from the limbs of this passage. And, in a fictional output comprised of some six thousand pages of such passages, this one is more or less garden variety, making the oeuvre of Patrick White one of the most valuable gardens in modern literature.
Which begs the question, why is no one reading him? Why am I practically the only one I know who has even heard of him (apart from those few of my friends who politely let me blather encomiums)? His oeuvre has received sufficient critical attention to persuade me that I am not alone in my admiration. But even those who speak highly of him tend to refer to him as “the most important figure in Australian letters,” or “the first to put Australia on the literary map.” Three cheers for post-White Aussie writers. But White himself is so much more than the down-underwriter of his country’s literary life. He is a world writer in every sense, and should be spoken of in the same terms we reserve for José Saramago, Thomas Mann, Philip Roth, Nadine Gordimer. Why isn’t he?
In my search for answers I’ve been reading his books like mad, reading criticism, trolling the internet, and talking with friends. A distillation of what I’ve found comes down to these four points:
1. Patrick White is a high modernist, making him unfashionable in a post-modern world. As far as I can tell, what this means is that he followed Joyce, Woolf, Pound, and their ilk, in the belief that the old assurances provided by religion, society, and political designations, could no longer bear the weight of modern life and thought. These writers saw a sharp division between literary art and more accessible, or popular, writing. Their books are frank about their difficulties. White has been criticized for the density of his “mannered” or “poetic” prose, his “clotted images”, and fragmented sentences. Naturally, this will limit his readership, but it cannot, on its own, account for his enduring obscurity. His writing is dense, but not daunting. Most of the best of Faulkner is much more difficult. We don’t call Samuel Beckett unfashionable just because no one writes like him now.
2. Patrick White is too pessimistic, too dark, and what he asks us to consider about human nature – ourselves included - is beyond the pale for most readers. I concede this may be so. Many readers have commented on the “shock of recognition” which assails them on nearly every page. But this laying bare, this “truth telling”, to use a rather hackneyed term, this “vivisection”, to use a Whiteian term, is solidly within the purview of the artist. Do serious readers really find the meanness of Nabokov so much more edifying? Does one turn to Eugene O’Neill for a little cheer-up? If White is too relentlessly grim, how, then, make sense of the ever-rising star of Cormac McCarthy, who throws a dense, gorgeous, ball of modernist prose at the violence at the heart of the void? (White’s biographer, David Marr, has said, perhaps too felicitously, that McCarthy could be “up before Media Watch on charges of plagiarism by spirit.) While we’re at it, why don’t we, for the sake of our constitutions, leave Shakespeare on his increasingly dusty shelf while we get a little spiritual r&r.
Patrick White and Manoly Lascaris in the kitchen
3. Patrick White was gay. This seems to be the pet gripe of educated gay men of a certain generation, who, to compensate for their admitted fragility in the world, draw strength from being “the only gay in the village.”
4. Patrick White was Australian, making him peripheral to the bossier entities of the literary world. This argument is, sadly, the most persuasive. It grieves me to think that literature may be subject to the same laws as cynical politics: if a country fails to find ascendance in the consciousness of a more established block, it could drop off the map altogether and the privileged parties would be none the wiser. Sam, my partner, has a different take. “There is just so much literature,” he says. His point being, if you are looking to expand your knowledge of even just the essential modern writers, would it occur to you to look to a country known mainly for kangaroos, English convicts, a rather flamboyant strain of machismo, the world’s largest Gay Pride parade, one famous piece of architecture, and an accent often invoked in comedy? Of course there is great writing coming out of that lonely desert of a continent, or at least the thin portion of it strung along its Eastern cost, but its not where most of us would go looking for it. All the same, I would think the fecund sub-genre of post-colonial literature would be happy to hold up Patrick White as one of its shining lights. Can it really come down the banality that Naipaul, Walcott, Gordimer, Coetzee, and Rushdie hale from politically sexier homelands? But then, how to account for Les Murray, widely considered one of the three or four greatest poets currently writing in English. He’s Australian.
None of these explanations finally compel. Factoring in the idea that depth and brilliance in a body of work ought to outweigh whatever might be put in the opposing balance – an apparently fanciful notion in which I persist - here is one further explanation:
5. Ignorance of Patrick White and his work has, quite simply, become a habit. A bad one, I might add.
As with racism, car crashes, and other absurdities, I find Patrick White’s obscurity hard to live with. My question – why is no one reading him? – is not rhetorical, but an honest plea for responses. Someone, please tell me.
New Year. The usual sense of beginnings attends this time, and most of us who brought in the New Year on January 1st put forth a wish – even the hard-core rationalists among us who won’t continence the metaphysics of wishes – and that wish, silent or spoken, was that 2012 be a year of greater justice, reconciliation, and peace in the world. For a few of us, myself among them, it was our birthday.
To mark the new year, and to express my appreciation to you for stopping by my little corner of the web, and perhaps as a birthday present to myself, a stroking of my greedy curiosity, I’m extending an invitation to you, a chance to participate more directly in the on-going conversation about those wacky Nobel laureates. First, the invitation, and then something about what lies behind it:
I INVITE YOU TO SHARE WITH ME AND THE READERS AT THE SHELF A BOOK YOU HAVE READ BY ONE OF THE “FORGOTTEN” NOBEL LAUREATES.
You know the ones I mean. I’m talking about those names on the Nobel roster that make your brow furrow, many from the first two or three decades of the prize – Gerhardt Hauptmann, Theodor Mommsen, Grazia Deledda, for example – names that almost no one has heard of but that somehow, by chance or design, you have. Conversely, you can write about a little known, “forgotten” work by a more famous laureate. Has anyone looked into William Faulkner’s screenplays? You can write about a book you have read or a book that you hope to read. No high-falutin’ literary criticism necessary. Simply, tell us about your experience with the book: What did you think or feel about it? At what point in your life did you come across it? Did you finish it? Perhaps there is a body of work, like the epics of Henryk Sienkiewicz, that has always intrigued you, but that you haven’t yet found the time to read. Tell us why this obscure book or eclipsed author attracts you.
Send your reflections as a comment. You can leave it in the comments section found at the bottom left of any post on this blog. Share as much or as little personal information as you like. Unless you request otherwise, rather than publish what you send as a comment, I will make a post of it.
There is no time limit on this. You can share your reflections at any time throughout the year. I’ll be offering periodic reminders about this invitation. So, all you lovers of Maeterlinck, Eucken, Seifert, and Johnson, now is your chance. Don’t be shy!
The idea for this came to me on my birthday. One of Sam’s gifts to me was Fiasco, a novel, newly available in English, by the Hungarian Nobel Laureate Imre Kertesz. I’d been childishly giddy when I saw it, briefly, on the shelf at our local Barns & Noble. But, as so often happens with me, old sober-sides superego interposed and reminded me of the shelving crisis we have at home (really, its catastrophic) and of the backlog of books I have waiting to be read. Among the benefits of having someone in your life who knows you well and cares about you is that such a person is not bound by the dictates of your superego and can make things happen for you that you wouldn’t do for yourself. So. I now own Fiasco.
In spite of his having won the Nobel Prize relatively recently, in 2002, I know almost no one who has even heard of Kertesz. He is, apparently, another in the ever-expanding gathering of authors celebrated abroad whose course down American literary back roads kicks up barely a puff of dust.
I was reminded on New Year’s Eve of the shadowy charisma of the forgotten laureate. While friends and acquaintances were making plans for fireworks and inebriation, I decided to address the problem of the shelf of books in the bedroom, which is there at all because of the shelving crisis in our basement. Books, cascades of them, had long orflowed the adjacent foot area, and New Year’s being that time of new beginnings and all, it seemed the perfect moment to do a little rearranging (really, I can be a lot of fun, given suitable conditions). What I had thought would be a simple matter of taking the books off the shelf, moving it to a more auspicious wall, and returning them to the shelf, turned out to be more complicated than that: If I was going to take this much trouble, then I should do it right and assess which books I really wanted on this shelf, which could be sent down to the beleaguered basement shelves, and which could be boxed for storage or relocation.
Among the nearly two hundred books I pulled off the shelf and stacked in crappy little piles around the room were many by Nobel laureates, Müller, Lessing, Pasternack, Gordimer, Grass, and Pamuk being among the more familiar names. Also on the shelf were several titles by one of my favorite authors, François Mauriac, a very great French novelist whose renown seems not to have cleared the shadow cast by the existentialists who followed him. But two books struck me as particularly… what?… esoteric? One is by an author I know, and one by an author I intend to read sometime this year. The first is The Collected Stories of Ivan Bunin. This nearly forgotten Russian emigre, the first Russian to win a Nobel for literature, is the author of one of my all-time favorite stories, “The Gentleman from San Francisco”. The second, Lucky Per, is the most famous novel by Henrik Pontoppidan, the Dane who won in 1917, and one of the most floridly obscure laureates on the list. Lauded by Thomas Mann, this work was only translated into English in 2010. I remember that when it arrived in the mail the thought occurred to me that I could be – really, its not impossible – that I was the only person in Denver to own this book.
For those of us in thrall to such fetishes, the pleasure we derive from them is complex. There is the romance of discovery, the feeling of kinship with Hiram Bingham when he pulled back the Andean foliage and goggled at Macchu Picchu for the first time. “You mean, that’s been here all along?” Like all ploys for elite status, this one has about it the usual hedge against death, the feeling that knowing who Miguel Angel Asturias is, and even having read several of his books, somehow gives one special dispensation. Our immortality project is compounded when we project onto our discoveries and our heads whisper to themselves something like this: “If I’ve just come across Henrik Pontoppidan, so long languishing in the Hades of literary reputation, and through this discovery have in some way called him back to the upper world, then its not impossible that I, too, will be remembered, resurrected.
As I placed these books back on the shelf it struck me that there must be others who derive the same pleasure, and that these people, like me, must also derive the corollary pleasure of running across other readers who share their fondness for the forgotten. Hence, my invitation. I can’t wait to hear from you!
In the words of the late David Foster Wallace, “I wish you way more than luck” in the new year.
Before I say more about Pearl Buck, there is something you should know about me: I have a great affection for hidden writers, those whose reputations haunt hard-to-find alleyways on the cultural map, whose nationality or language has kept them in the shadows of the recognized monuments; writers whose books, once considered great achievements, now sit forgotten in spottily frequented library stacks, or are stumbled across in mould-scented used bookstores when traveling in unlikely places. Such books are heavy with the stories of their own journeys. Their covers are often dull, the embossing faded, or, if it is a paperback, the cover art is unnervingly earnest with the life of its day, reminding us that books, too, have lifespans.
Sir Henry Rider Haggard, author of “King Solomon’s Mines”
The stories of these books, their trajectory from the author’s flaming pen to a collective, embering memory, are as varied as their contents, but, like their contents, follow a few essential gestures. Sometimes a writer’s work gets left in the dust raised as the culture shifts; social attitudes change, blind spots are exposed and corrected and all at once we find that King Solomon’s Mines have yielded, not gold, but Song of Solomon.
Or something new seems to appear under the sun; one writer breaks so spectacularly through a wall that nobody even knew was there that every writer to come after must reassess the whole literary project or risk obsolescence. Waiting for Godot, for example, Lolita, and To The Lighthouse, redefined not just what thoughts or aspects of experience literature could apply itself to, but, in some sense, reshaped what we might, on the average afternoon, think about or experience. Such tectonic shifts can all at once knock other writers, even excellent ones, off the shelves and into the archives. Wasn’t Shakespeare just Christopher Marlowe’s luck.
Often its all rather less grandiose than this; one writer simply etiolates in the shadow of another. Think of Louis McNiece, a magnificent poet by any standard. Too bad for him, and perhaps for us, that he diligently tended his verse while his compatriot, W. H. Auden, was depleting the English-speaking world’s supply of ink.
Bohumil Hrabal, author of “Closely Watched Trains”
Sometimes, for whatever reason, a writer doesn’t export well. The spectacularly gifted Milan Kundera is, at least to Americans, by orders of magnitude the best known Czech novelist (It is a mystery that he has not yet been ushered into the ranks of the Nobelity). But he himself defers to his equally gifted compatriot, Bohumil Hrabal, who, for all his high regard among those lucky to know his astounding satires, is still a name you must work considerably harder to put yourself in line to hear. Even having two famous movies made of his novels, Closely Watched Trains and I Served the King of England, has not made his name trip off more tongues.
John Cowper Powys, author of “A Glastonbury Romance”
Sometimes the reasons for a writer’s relative obscurity are readily apparent, discoverable in the writing itself. Take for instance the book I am currently reading, A Glastonbury Romance, by John Cowper Powys. It is not by any means an unknown work, but there is no mystery as to why it is rarely encountered. It is a lumbering hippopotamus of a novel, eleven hundred pages of animistic mysticism, insufficiently sublimated sexuality, religious hysteria and spiritual agony, all relaid in the most autumnally swollen prose I can remember. I happen to love it. Or, I should say, I love reading it. There is a difference. It fascinates me as would the grooming habits of someone who is unequivocally brilliant, but perhaps a bit socially maladjusted. I am reading it because one of the goddesses in my literary pantheon, Annie Dillard, deems it a work of genius. This it may be, but if so, it is one that could only appeal to a highly circumscribed group of readers. Which means, of course, there is a measure of ego gratification that attends my personal conquest of its final page.
Vasily Grossman, author of “Life and Fate”
In other cases, the reasons for a writer’s obscurity are complex and hard to fathom. We’ve all heard of Alexandr Solzhenitsyn, but only now is a tiny reading public becoming aware of the great Vassily Grossman. Sam Sacks, writing for the literary web site, The Quarterly Conversation, suggests that when his masterpiece, Life and Fate, was published in the United States in 1985, twenty-one years after his death, Soviet-era literature in America had already been “spoken for” by the redoubtable Solzhenitsyn, and that, “whereas Grossman was dead, Solzhenitsyn was very much alive, and in fact a celebrity, periodically sallying out from rural Vermont to fulminate against Western decadence or something else that caused excitement. Life and Fate, on the other hand, could do nothing unless it was read, and with 871 pages and over 160 characters, it was and remains a book that’s easier to tip one’s hat to than read.”
This subject, the darkening of a book’s life, the leave-taking of certain oeuvres, is one to which I will return frequently in future posts because one of the functions the Nobel Prize has served, especially in its first six or so decades, has been to provide a kind of living center for retired reputations. Take, for example, Fredric Mistral, who won in 1904. After a lifetime of service, through poetry, to the dwindling Occitan language of Provence, his conservative, bucolic verse has become among the most difficult to find of any body of work represented on the list. If he were not a laureate, there would be almost no occasion to run across even his name. There must be a few souls in the world who still read him. Who are they, and where?
Pearl S. Buck
And then there are the hundred works of Pearl Sydenstricker Buck. The publication of The Good Earth in 1931 made her an instant celebrity. It was her second novel. By 1935, she had published two companion novels to make a trilogy called The House of Earth. It took an uncharacteristically swift three years for the Nobel committee to leap over an American mountain range whose peaks included F. Scott Fitzgerald, Theodor Dreiser, John Dos Passos, Willa Cather, Wallace Stevens, and the already far more famous William Faulkner, T. S. Eliot and Ernest Hemingway, to make her the third American, and the fourth woman to receive its imprimatur (Edith Wharton had died, un-honored, the previous year).
Today it is difficult to fathom why Stockholm would single her out. The claim has been made that she is the most translated of all American authors. This may be, but, with the exception of her one famous book, she must also be among the least read. Her reputation’s current repose on the lower slopes of a mountain whose summit it once came within sight of owes to reasons that are both apparent, of the John Cowper Powys variety, and complex. Regarding the latter, I will not torture out a comparison to a writer such as Grossman, except to say that, like him, at least some of her current standing has to do with factors other than her writing. This I will address in my next post.
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