Merry Jesting

Rousseau_Carriole-Juniet

(Henri Rousseau, ‘La carriole du père Juniet’ (1908): Musée de l’Orangerie, Paris.)

Published in the Partisan Review in the summer of 1939, Elizabeth Bishop’s appreciation of Gregorio Valdes made no claims for him as a great painter—‘sometimes he was not even a good “primitive”’—and observed that the artist himself saw no difference between ‘what we think of as his good pictures and his poor pictures’, that success and failure seemed to be merely a matter of luck. Most were copied from photographs or reproductions, nevertheless, ‘when he copied, particularly from a photograph, and particularly from a photograph of something he knew and liked, such as palm trees, he managed to make just the right changes in perspective and coloring to give it a peculiar and captivating freshness, flatness, and remoteness.’

Bishop commissioned Valdes to paint a picture of the Key West house she was living in with Louise Crane, and asked the painter for extras: more flowers, ‘a monkey that lived next door, a parrot and a certain kind of palm tree, called the Traveller’s Palm.’ She began her memoir by describing the first Valdes painting that she saw, ‘a real View’: ‘In the middle of the road was the tiny figure of a man on a donkey, and far away on the right the white speck of a thatched Cuban cabin that seemed to have the same mysterious properties of perspective as the little dog in Rousseau’s The Cariole of M. Juniot.’[1] In letters of that period, she referred to Valdes as ‘our new Key West Rousseau’ and ‘our local Rousseau’.[2]

In 1949, Flannery O’Connor met Robert and Sally Fitzgerald, and subsequently moved into their house, Ridgefield, Connecticut, as a paying guest. In a letter to Janet McKane, 27 August 1963, O’Connor wrote: ‘Thanks so much for the museum bulletins with devilish dogs etc. The dog I like in painting is one in a painting of Rousseau. I don’t know the name of it but the family is in a wagon, all looking ahead and there is one dog in the wagon and one underneath, kind of prim diabolical dogs. It’s very funny. It used to hang in the Fitzgeralds’ kitchen (the people I lived with in Connecticut) but I have never seen it anywhere else.’[3]

OConnor-InaDillardRussellLibrary

(Flannery O’Connor: Ina Dillard Russell Library via New Georgia Encyclopedia)

It is, of course, the same painting, ‘La carriole du père Juniet’ (‘Old Juniet’s Cart’), by Henri Rousseau, commonly called ‘Le Douanier’, although ‘he was never a douanier (customs inspector) but a gabelou (employee of the municipal toll service).’[4] Like most of the work of Valdes, Rousseau’s painting began with a photograph, ‘which shows how he selected and revised at will. The bleak snapshot is transformed into a study of red wheels and shafts penetrating masses of black. In the painting the people sit in a compact arrangement in the cart, with space around them, instead of standing formlessly on the kerb. They have become, recognizably, creatures of Rousseau’s vision.’[5] (And four of the people in the picture plus one dog are, pace O’Connor’s memory, not looking ahead but rather at us—only old Juniet and two of the dogs seem to be looking ahead.)

Rousseau has consistently been mocked or celebrated, and sometimes both simultaneously, as was the case with most of the guests attending the famous banquet, given in Rousseau’s honour by Pablo Picasso and Fernande Olivier at the Bateau Lavoir, probably on 21 November 1908. Those guests included Guillaume Apollinaire, Marie Laurencin, Gertrude Stein, Alice B. Toklas, André Salmon and Georges Braque. Many years later, Picasso commented that it was ‘vraiment une blague [really a joke]. Nobody believed in his talent, only Rousseau took it seriously. He wept with joy.’ And yet Picasso was ‘the only person present who genuinely admired Rousseau’s work.’[6]

André Derain commented on the work of Henri Rousseau that, ‘“It seems hardly worthwhile searching and using technical training, when a person so simple, so pure, such a dope, in fact, can succeed in giving such an impression; his work is the triumph of the dopes.”’[7] Nevertheless, his influence on several other painters, notably Robert Delaunay, is often remarked, and Guy Davenport suggests that Picasso’s career-long habit of ‘combining full face and profile’, which became ‘a stylistic trademark’, prompted Rousseau’s ‘perfectly accurate observation, “You and I, M. Picasso, are the two greatest living painters, I in the modern manner, you in the Egyptian,” the full-face eye in a face seen sideways being the rule in Egyptian drawing.’[8]

So too, the impact of the Rousseau retrospective at the 1911 Salon des Indépendants (the year following his death) was considerable. The younger artists ‘conspired to present a retrospective exhibition’ of forty-seven of Rousseau’s paintings. ‘Esteemed as a true “primitive” by Delaunay and Léger, Rousseau was considered a precursor by the salon cubists, on a par with Cézanne, another modernist primitive’.[9]

John, Gwen, 1876-1939; A Corner of the Artist's Room in Paris

(Gwen John, A Corner of the Artist’s Room in Paris: Museums Sheffield)

There were other, perhaps less predictable, appreciations. ‘In the Indépendants a man named Rousseau had a collection of pictures which you would be very interested in, I’m sure’, Gwen John wrote in a letter of 22 August 1911. ‘He has died lately. He was a douanier and at fifty year[s] old he felt he must paint and so he painted, not knowing at all how to paint. His pictures are very remarkable works, as you can imagine, but they are works of art. I hope you will be able to see them some day, but I don’t know where they are now. I suppose they have gone to his family. The other exhibitors in the Indépendants are just mad people.’[10]

Among recent critics, Robert Hughes wrote that Rousseau meant his visions to be absolutely real, the authenticity of the jungle scenes resting on a tissue of fibs about serving in the French army in Mexico in the 1860s. It was important, Hughes went on, that these spectacles ‘should seem witnessed, not invented’ – and they had, in fact, been witnessed twice, once in Rousseau’s imagination, once more in the Jardin des Plantes.[11] In fact, Roger Shattuck comments, much of the ‘lingering falsehood’ stems from Apollinaire’s articles, in which he stated that Rousseau ‘went to Mexico with troops sent by Napoleon III to support Maximilian, and that it is the memory of the “forbidden” tropical fruits in Central America that obsessed him in his jungle paintings.’ There’s no evidence of such a trip but, as Shattuck remarks, ‘Rousseau’s imagination was capable of its own voyages.’[12]

So it was. His paintings are unsettling but oddly compelling, with their huge children and tiny animals, moustachioed figures frozen in peculiar poses, startling vegetation, sly self-portraits, the sleeping gypsy (who is, in fact, awake, though pretending to be dead), the velvety exoticism of his snake-charmer.

Rousseau_Merry_Jesters

(Henri Rousseau, Les joyeux farceurs: Louis and Walter Arensberg Collection, Philadelphia Museum of Art)

‘Until we are willing to enter Rousseau’s world’, Guy Davenport writes, ‘we are going to misread all his paintings.’ (He has just discussed five such misreadings, of Rousseau’s Les joyeux farceurs.) And, ‘What, psychologically, was most useful to Rousseau was not childishness but a quality wholly mature: the ability to fool himself.’ That is, he saw his paintings as he wished to see them. ‘In this he was a kind of Don Quixote; and, as with the Don, Rousseau wins us over to his way of seeing.’[13]

In a letter to Hugh Kenner (1 March 1963), accompanying his long poem, Flowers and Leaves, Davenport signed himself ‘The Douanier Rousseau of Poetry’ (Kenner’s letter of 1 May 1963 began ‘Dear Mr Rousseau’).[14] * And, as Davenport mentions in the essay just cited, Monsieur Rousseau is there, in that poem:

Henri Rousseau’s garden jungle
Is sincerity’s domain.

And:

Mr Rousseau, master in the modern manner,
Has depicted us in forests of flowers, inquisitive
As catfish, intelligent as Miss Gertrude Stein.[15]

* (Currently scheduled for October this year, and keenly awaited in some quarters, is Questioning Minds: The Letters of Guy Davenport and Hugh Kenner, edited by Edward Burns, published by Counterpoint Press: a total of 2016 – no, that’s not a date – pages: two volumes of a thousand pages each. Quoted price is $95.00 which, given that a lot of slim UK monographs come in at £70 or even £80 these days, seems a snip.)

 

 

References

[1] ‘Gregorio Valdes, 1879-1939’, in Elizabeth Bishop, Poems, Prose, and Letters, edited by Robert Giroux and Lloyd Schwartz (New York: Library of America, 2008), 326-332.

[2] Elizabeth Bishop, One Art: The Selected Letters, edited by Robert Giroux (London: Pimlico, 1996), 75; Bishop, Poems, Prose, and Letters, 746.

[3] Flannery O’Connor, Collected Works, edited by Sally Fitzgerald (New York: Library of America, 1988), 1190.

[4] Roger Shattuck, The Banquet Years: The Origins of the Avant-Garde in France, 1885 to World War I, revised edition (New York: Vintage, 1968), 46.

[5] Shattuck, The Banquet Years, 100.

[6] John Richardson, A Life of Picasso. Volume II, 1907-1917: The Painter of Modern Life (London: Pimlico, 1997), 110, 112.

[7] Derain, in Denys Sutton, André Derain (London: Phaidon, 1959), 27: quoted in Judi Freeman, The Fauve Landscape (London: Guild Publishing, 1990), 110.

[8] Guy Davenport, Objects on a Table: Harmonious Disarray in Art and Literature (Washington: Counterpoint, 1998), 68.

[9] Mark Antliff and Patricia Leighten, editors, A Cubism Reader: Documents and Criticism, 1906-1914 (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2008), 120, 121.

[10] Gwen John to John Quinn, in Letters and Notebooks, edited by Ceridwen Lloyd-Morgan (London: Tate Publishing, 2004), 69.

[11] Robert Hughes, The Shock of the New, revised edition (London: Thames and Hudson, 1991), 229.

[12] Shattuck, The Banquet Years, 46.

[13] Guy Davenport, ‘What Are Those Monkeys Doing?’, in Every Force Evolves a Form (Berkeley: North Point Press, 1987), 14, 26.

[14] Edward M. Burns, ‘Questioning Minds: The Letters of Hugh Kenner and Guy Davenport’, The Hopkins Review, 8, 3 (Summer 2015), 338-371 (349).

[15] Guy Davenport, Flowers and Leaves (Flint, Michigan: Baumberger Books, 1991), 91, 110.

 

Larking about

Henry, George, 1858-1943; The Lark
(George Henry, The Lark: Newport Museum and Art Gallery)

After last week, when the rain drenched and draggled so doggedly that I was reminded of Louis MacNeice’s comment on ‘those April showers which in Ireland persist for twelve months’,[1] we are back to more settled unsettled weather, veering from sunshine to rain in the merest jiffy. We’re even promised a heat wave soon.

In a cool room, anyway, inching my eyes down the page, I encounter this:

Can vei la lauzeta mover
De joi sas alas contral ray,
Que s · oblida e · s layssa cazer
Per la doussor qu · al cor li vai
,
O my!’

Hmm. Yet it seems faintly familiar. The next lines are: ‘Bird and she bird / Love and fall’.[2] I recalled Guy Davenport outlining his initial version of Ezra Pound, ‘first of all a man who had written a rich, barely comprehensible poem, a man whose portrait bust had been chiselled by Gaudier. My first response was to learn Italian and Provençal, and to paint in the quattrocento manner. All real education is such unconscious seduction.’[3]

henri gaudier-brzeska hieratic head of ezra pound 1914
(Henri Gaudier Brzeska, Hieratic Head of Ezra Pound, 1914: Tate)

I myself have signally failed to learn Provençal and must blunder along as best I can. Perhaps not Arnaut Daniel, and not Bertran de Born. I rummage in teetering piles. In Anthology of Troubadour Lyric Poetry, I find, ah yes, Bernard de Ventadour’s poem, translated there as prose: ‘When I see the lark beating with joy its wings against the ray of the sun until, oblivious, it swoons and drops for the sweetness which enters its heart’.[4] Ah, ‘Bird and she bird / Love and fall’ – so larks, like swifts, mate on the wing? Elsewhere, the poet W. D. Snodgrass offers rhymes:

‘Now when I see the skylark lift
His wings for joy in dawn’s first ray
Then let himself, oblivious, drift
For all his heart is glad and gay’.[5]

And, of course, the path snakes back to Pound: ‘When I see the lark a-moving / For joy his wings against the sunlight, / Who forgets himself and lets himself fall / For the sweetness which goes into his heart’.[6] That must be where I first saw it, thirty years back, probably more. So early in Pound’s career; but, very late in that career, in one of the last scraps of Cantos, the fragment ending ‘To be men not destroyers’, we find this:

“es laissa cader”
so high toward the sun and then falling,
“de joi sas alas”
to set here the roads of France.

In fact, the third line of Bernard’s verse has appeared in the first of the Pisan Cantos; the line about the roads of France, two cantos later.[7] And, apart from the sources of a Bible and an anthology of poetry, the Pisan Cantos are, of course, primarily memories—fragmentary, often imperfect, no doubt, adhering in odd patterns and permutations—mixed with observation of the day-to-day life of the camp. In retrospect, among Pound’s glimpses of paradise were life in pre-war London and his great ventures into Provence, in 1912, 1919 and 1924, but particularly the first. ‘Or, again, a man may walk the hill roads and river roads from Limoges and Charente to Dordogne and Narbonne and learn a little, or more than a little, of what the country meant to the wandering singers, he may learn, or think he learns, why so many canzos open with speech of the weather; or why such a man made war on such and such castles.’[8]

Layng, Mabel Frances, 1881-1937; The Gypsy
(Mabyl Frances Lang, The Gypsy: Bristol Museum and Art Gallery)

Or a man might write ‘The Gypsy’ or ‘Provincia Deserta’—or ‘Near Perigord’:

Take the whole man and ravel out the story.
He loved this lady in castle Montaignac?
The castle flanked him—he had need of it.
You read to-day, how long the overlords of Perigord,
The Talleyrands, have held the place, it was no transient fiction.
And Maent failed him? Or saw through the scheme?[9]

The lark is, I gather, ‘one of the most popular birds in post-classical Europeans poetry.’ I am directed to Shakespeare, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Spenser, Wordsworth, Milton. Tennyson, Dante, Goethe, Shelley and Blake, among others.[10] It was George Meredith’s poem that gave Vaughan Williams the title of his ‘tone poem’, The Lark Ascending. It sometimes seems that this piece has been damned by its widespread popularity, though I don’t tire of it any more than I tire of, say, the several points on Somerset and Dorset roads where you breast a rise between trees and the world suddenly opens up, with great sweeps of country on either side and the clear sky fled endlessly away—or, in bookish vein, Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories or yes (I’ve just confirmed) Hergé’s adventures of Tintin. A sweetness entering the heart – more or less.

References

[1] Louis MacNeice, The Strings are False: An Unfinished Autobiography, edited E. R. Dodds (London: Faber and Faber, 1996), 216.

[2] Guy Davenport, Flowers and Leaves (Flint, Michigan: Baumberger Books, 1991), 56.

[3] Guy Davenport, ‘Ezra Pound, 1885-1972’, in The Geography of the Imagination (Boston: David R. Godine, 1997), 174.

[4] Anthology of Troubadour Lyric Poetry, edited and translated by Alan R. Press (Edinburgh: Edinburgh Press, 1971), 77.

[5] W. D. Snodgrass, ‘The Skylark’, in Lark in the Morning: The Verses of the Troubadours, edited by Robert Kehew (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005), 75.

[6] Ezra Pound, The Spirit of Romance (1910; New York: New Directions, 1968), 41.

[7] The Cantos of Ezra Pound, fourth collected edition (London: Faber and Faber, 1987), 802, 431, 455. In fact, Bernard’s poem crops up in Canto VI (22) as well.

[8] Ezra Pound, ‘Troubadours – Their Sorts and Conditions’ (1913), in Literary Essays of Ezra Pound, edited by T. S. Eliot (London: Faber and Faber, 1960), 95.

[9] Ezra Pound: Poems and Translations, edited by Richard Sieburth (New York: Library of America, 2003), 304.

[10] Michael Ferber, A Dictionary of Literary Symbols (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 104, 105.

 

All roses and shadow: Guy Davenport’s Sappho

Sappho

Reading Guy Davenport’s poems and translations, I paused on one of Sappho’s addresses to the goddess Aphrodite, liking the directness of its call, a sinewy compound of appeal and command:

Come out of Crete
And find me here,
Come to your grove,
Mellow apple trees
And holy altar
Where the sweet smoke
Of libanum is in
Your praise.

Where Leaf melody
In the apples
Is a crystal crash,
And the water is cold.

All roses and shadow,
This place, and sleep
Like dusk sifts down
From trembling leaves.

I paused even longer, I think, on this:

When death has laid you down among his own
And none remember you in all the years to be,
Know, grey among ghosts in that twilight world,
That, offered the roses of Pieria, you refused,
And wander forever in the dark lord Aida’s house
Reticent still, with the blind dead, unknown.[1]

GD-JW-1964

(Guy Davenport, ‘in a somewhat silent, Shakerish mood and garb’, by Jonathan Williams, 1964. Taken from Portrait Photographs , Coracle Press, London, 1979)

Yes. I was reminded of the physical responses to authentic poetry that A. E. Housman famously described in a 1933 lecture. He cites a figure named Eliphaz (in the Book of Job), to whom he ascribes the sentence, ‘A spirit passed before my face: the hair of my flesh stood up.’ He mentions bristling skin, a shiver down the spine; and mentions one of Keats’s letters, in which the poet writes of Fanny Brawne, ‘everything that reminds me of her goes through me like a spear’. Housman is making the point, at some length, that to him poetry seems ‘more physical than intellectual.’[2] Many readers would describe their reactions, rather, as ‘both’, though probably granting that each might apply at different times and in different states of mind or knowing.

Davenport’s translation wears the simple title ‘Vale’, ‘farewell’. The poem is also included in his Seven Greeks, where he gives a little more space to Sappho than to any other of his chosen writers. His note to this poem explains that ‘Aida’ here is Hades and adds: ‘Written, seemingly, to a standoffish girl. Thomas Hardy translates this in a poem called Achtung.’[3]

Achtung? Hardy’s version of Sappho quotes The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám and Shakespeare as epigraphs and runs:

Dead shalt thou lie; and nought
Be told of thee and thought,
For thou hast plucked not of the Muses’ tree:
And even in Hades’ halls
Amidst thy fellow-thralls
No friendly shade thy shade shall company![4]

thomas-hardy-portrait

(Thomas Hardy: Dorset County Museum)

There is no poem called ‘Achtung’ in the index to Hardy’s Collected Poems. The title here is ‘Sapphic Fragment’, which seems reasonable. Two anthologies, The Oxford Book of Classical Verse, edited by Adrian Poole and Jeremy Maule, and Charles Tomlinson’s Oxford Book of Verse in English Translation, point me to more versions of the poem, but they too sternly name Hardy’s translation ‘Sapphic Fragment’. Ah, but there’s one more anthology to check: Confucius to Cummings, edited by Ezra Pound and Marcella Spann. Here’s Sappho and here’s that poem, called here, yes, ‘Achtung’.[5] The Pound connection is often useful when reading Davenport.

The Loeb edition offers: ‘But when you die you will lie there, and afterwards there will never be any recollection of you or any longing for you since you have no share in the roses of Pieria; unseen in the house of Hades also, flown from our midst, you will go to and fro among the shadowy corpses.’ The notes cite Stobaeus and Plutarch to the effect that the poem was addressed to ‘an uneducated woman’, ‘a wealthy woman’ or ‘an uncultured, ignorant woman’.[6]

Still, ‘Written, seemingly, to a standoffish girl’, feels about right to me. ‘Her Aphrodite laughs’, Davenport writes of Sappho, adding, with characteristic sharpness, ‘Sexual frenzy was as respectable a passion to Sappho as rapacious selfishness to an American. Few societies have been as afraid of the body as ours, and in the West none has, within history, been as solicitous as the Greek of its beauty.’[7] And elsewhere, ‘Seems to me that Sappho was the poet of desire.’[8]

Desire, yes.

Percussion, salt and honey,
A quivering in the thighs;
He shakes me all over again,
Eros who cannot be thrown,
Who stalks on all fours like a beast.[9]

‘Vale’—or ‘Achtung’—sets the speaker, the poet who has accepted those Pierian roses, who has drunk deep of the Pierian spring, the fountain of the Muses in Thessaly, against that other, who has not embraced, either directly or through the person of the poet, intimate knowledge of the arts and sciences, who will pass into the shadows of Hades, unmourned and unremembered.

‘Pierian roses’ recalls that man Pound again: in Hugh Selwyn Mauberley, ‘The pianola “replaces” / Sappho’s barbitos’, while in Dr Johnson’s old haunts, Fleet Street has gone to the dogs; or, at least, to stallholders with socks to sell:

Beside this thoroughfare
The sale of half-hose has
Long since superseded the cultivation
Of Pierian roses.[10]

HD

(H. D.)

Sappho’s art, Davenport, comments, ‘belongs to cultural springtimes and renaissance’—hints here of the Persephone theme which increasingly appears to occupy an entire continent in the world of modern literature—and she spoke ‘with Euclidean terseness and authority of the encounters of the loving heart, the infatuated eye’s engagement with flowing hair, suave bodies, moonlight on flowers.’ Her imagery ‘is as stark and patterned as the vase painting of her time’ – ‘Never has poetry been this clear and bright.’ And he quotes, by way of comparison, one of H. D.’s— Hilda Doolittle’s—‘conscious imitations’:

delicate the weave,
fair the thread:

clear the colours,
apple-leaf green,
ox-heart blood-red:

rare the texture,
woven from wild ram,
sea-bred horned sheep:

the stallion and his mare,
unbridled, with arrow pattern,
are worked on
the blue cloth.[11]

This is from a late H. D. poem ‘Fair the Thread’ (topped and tailed), though H. D. did produce translations, or imitations, of several of Sappho’s poems – or, rather, fragments. Sappho’s corpus consists almost entirely of fragments, which are often fleshed out by translators with guesswork and conjecture. They are also used—by poets—as taking-off points for longer, connected poems. One example is Swinburne, whose version of the fragment that Davenport called ‘Vale’ is embedded in the 300-plus lines of ‘Anactoria’, beginning there ‘Thee too the years shall cover’.[12] H. D. herself is another example, though a complicated one: the editor of her Collected Poems cites three early poems which are ‘masked as expansions of fragments of Sappho’, while one of her later critics, referring to those poems explicitly based on Sappho’s ‘fragments’, suggests that H. D.’s ‘textual play’ with Sappho ‘goes far beyond these’.[13]

Sappho’s concision and precision seem peculiarly fitted to excite the minds of the early modernist poets, particularly the Imagists; but then the fragmented state of her work, its blanks and inscrutabilities, bafflements and painstaking decipherments are also very appropriate to the story of modern literature.

Flowers-Leaves-REM

(Jacket of Davenport’s long poem, Flowers and Leaves, published by Jonathan Williams in 1966: Ralph Eugene Meatyard, ‘Untitled’, 1959. © The Estate of Ralph Eugene Meatyard.)

One more Davenport-Sappho detail. Writing about his friend, the extraordinary photographer Ralph Eugene Meatyard, Davenport remembered that, ‘Greek nor Latin had he, though he once figured out with a modern Greek dictionary that a lyric of Sappho (which he had set out to read as his first excursion into the classics) had something to do with a truck crossing a bridge.’[14]

The art of the possible. Why not?

 
References

[1] Guy Davenport, Thasos and Ohio: Poems and Translations, 1950-1980 (San Francisco: North Point Press, 1986), 32, 33.

[2] A Shropshire Lad and Other Poems: The Collected Poems of A. E. Housman, edited by Archie Burnett, with an introduction by Nick Laird (London: Penguin Books, 2010), 254-255: the whole lecture, ‘The Name and Nature of Poetry’, is reprinted here (231-256). The letter he refers to is to Charles Brown, 1 November 1820: Letters of John Keats, edited by Robert Gittings (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979), 397.

[3] Guy Davenport, Seven Greeks (New York: New Directions, 1995), 234 n.6. For his introduction, see 4-14 on Sappho, and for translations of her work, 69-116.

[4] Thomas Hardy, The Complete Poems, edited by James Gibson (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1976), 181.

[5] Confucius to Cummings: An Anthology of Poetry, edited by Ezra Pound and Marcella Spann (New York: New Directions, 1964), 18.

[6] Greek Lyric I: Sappho and Alcaeus, edited and translated by David A. Campbell (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1990), 99.

[7] Davenport, Seven Greeks, 9.

[8] W. C. Bamberger, editor, Guy Davenport and James Laughlin: Selected Letters (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2007), 163.

[9] Davenport, Seven Greeks, 87.

[10] Ezra Pound: Poems and Translations, edited by Richard Sieburth (New York: Library of America, 2003), 550, 556.

[11] Davenport, Seven Greeks, 5.

[12] Algernon Charles Swinburne, Poems and Ballads & Atalanta in Calydon, edited by Kenneth Haynes (London: Penguin Books, 2000), 52.

[13] H. D., Collected Poems 1912-1944, edited by Louis L. Martz (Manchester: Carcanet Press, 1984), xiv; Eileen Gregory, H. D. and Hellenism: Classic Lines (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 148.

[14] Guy Davenport, ‘Ralph Eugene Meatyard’, The Geography of the Imagination (Boston: David R. Godine, 1997), 370.

Jubilant jaunty Jonathan

JW-via-New-Directions

(Jonathan Williams, via New Directions Publishing Corporation)

In 1973, William Blissett, on a visit to the poet and painter David Jones, went with him through a list of queries about In Parenthesis, one of them ‘yon’s wick as Swale-side rat’. Yorkshire dialect, Jones told him, quick, alert, artful. He was surprised that the Oxford English Dictionary gave only ‘wicked’: that was ‘not what he meant at all.’ Blissett added: ‘He remembers a Yorkshireman in his unit who used to pass things to him, saying “’ere ye are, wick’un.”’[1]

That rang a bell with this Southerner and the ringing sound was traced to the fine collection of Portrait Photographs by Jonathan Williams, with a short preface by Hugh Kenner.[2] One of the photographs is of David Hockney and beside it Williams wrote: ‘I worry sometimes that La Grande Chic will gobble up David and turn him into High Society’s current stand-in for Cecil Beaton or Noel Coward. But, maybe that argument is neither nowt nor summat, as they say in the West Riding where he comes from. Our David is wick as a lop and still knows what’s what.’

JW-DH

(David Hockney by Jonathan Williams)

‘Wick as a lop’, yes, that was the phrase. Getting on for forty years later and Hockney still knows what’s what, is still working endlessly, exploring, experimenting, trying stuff out and giving pleasure. Not bad going.

Jonathan Williams (born 8 March 1929), was poet, publisher, photographer, essayist. He studied at Black Mountain College and, with David Ruff, founded The Jargon Society in 1951. It published an extraordinary range of writers, mainly poets, including Robert Duncan, Mina Loy, Louis Zukofsky, Paul Metcalf, Kenneth Patchen, Robert Creeley and Denise Levertov, though its all-time bestseller seems to have been White Trash Cooking. Following Williams’ death in March 2008, his long-time partner, the poet Thomas Meyer, took the decision to present The Jargon Society’s inventory and publication rights to the Black Mountain College Museum & Arts Center: see http://jargonbooks.com/

Niedecker-TG

Charles Olson’s early Maximus volumes appeared from Jargon. So too did Lorine Niedecker’s beautiful T & G: The Collected Poems (1936-1966), printed by the Falcon Press in Philadelphia, in September 1969. Niedecker lived most of her life on Black Hawk Island, Wisconsin.

Black Hawk held: In reason
land cannot be sold,
only things to be carried away,
and I am old.

Young Lincoln’s general moved,
pawpaw in bloom,
and to this day, Black Hawk,
reason has small room.[3]

In the early 1960s, as Niedecker wrote to Louis Zukofsky, ‘Letter from Jonathan says he reads my poems to English audiences but tho the response was good, “very tentative. The English tend to want a lot of ‘profound talk’ in everything, and they are so non-sensual that they find it difficult to enjoy anything else. . .”’.[4] Williams was also given to ‘reading and slide-showing tours around the Republic in his Volkswagen, The Blue Rider’. He is, Guy Davenport wrote, ‘the iconographer of poets in our time, and of the places and graves of poets gone on to Elysium.’[5]

Williams’ own poems were written in the Pennine Dales and the Appalachian Mountains. Hugh Kenner’s observation that ‘Jonathan Williams is our Catullus and our Johnny Appleseed’ hints at the hybrid nature of the poetry.[6] It’s hugely various, veering from high modernism to folk art, exploratory, a little crazy, jaunty, ingenious, funny, often splendidly indecent. From two-line epigrams through acrostics, clerihews and what Williams calls ‘Meta-fours’, four words to a line, these and others often skirting the edge of nonsense, if not toppling over; there’s the fifty-page Mahler; and then many ‘found’ poems. They may be literally so, reshaped from newspaper reports or postcards or public notices; but the term could be applied more widely, to Williams looking and listening with close attention to ordinary lives in the Appalachians or in Cumbria. Guy Davenport quotes such a poem, suggesting that it demonstrates its author having learned from William Carlos Williams’ insistence that ‘the poet’s business is to let the world speak for itself’:

UNCLE IV SURVEYS HIS DOMAIN FROM HIS ROCKER OF A SUNDAY AFTERNOON AS AUNT DORY STARTS TO CHOP THE KINDLIN

Mister Williams
lets youn me move
tother side the house

the woman
choppin wood’s
mite nigh the awkerdist thing
I seen.[7]

As with many of Marianne Moore’s poems or, for that matter, Ezra Pound’s ‘In a Station of the Metro’, the title is an integral part of the text of the poem. It contains twenty words; the poem itself, twenty-one.

Williams quotes with approval Bentley’s Milton clerihew:

The digestion of Milton
Was unequal to Stilton.

He was only feeling so-so
When he wrote Il Pensoroso.

And devises many of his own:

Why did Professor J. R. R. Tolkien
never really come clean

about the scientologists in cupboards
in the House of L. Ron Hubbard?

or (one of my favourites):

Gertrude Stein
arose at nine

and arose and arose
and arose.[8]

GD-JW-Poet

His acrostic on Guy Davenport’s name ends with the line, ‘To keep afloat the Ark of Culture in these dark and tacky times!’ His prefatory ‘A Greeting to the Reader’ mentioned that Davenport ‘has been reading the poems since the 1960s.’[9] The two writers had enjoyed a long and fertile friendship, apparently damaged by the publication of A Garden Carried in a Pocket: Letters 1964-1968, including material that Davenport had specifically asked Williams to omit.[10]

Jubilant Thicket appeared in 2005, the year of Davenport’s death. One of the last poems in it is for Lorine Niedecker:

she seined words
as others stars
or carp

laconic as
a pebble
in the Rock River

along the bank
where the peony flowers
fall

her tall friend
the pine tree
is still there

to see[11]

 

Tremendous collection of photographs of Williams’ life here:
http://jacketmagazine.com/38/jw-life-pictures.shtml

Jeffery Beam’s obituary here:
http://www.ashevillepoetryreview.com/2010/issue-18/the-truffle-hound-of-american-poetry

 

References

[1] William Blissett, The Long Conversation: A Memoir of David Jones (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1981), 123; see David Jones, In Parenthesis, (1937; London: Faber, 1963), 114.

[2] Jonathan Williams, Portrait Photographs (London: Coracle Press, 1979): the Hockney portrait is Plate 22.

[3] Taken from Lorine Niedecker, Collected Works, edited by Jenny Penberthy (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002), 99.

[4] Letter of 3 February 1963, Jenny Penberthy, Niedecker and the Correspondence with Zukofsky, 1931-1970 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 328.

[5] Guy Davenport, ‘Ralph Eugene Meatyard’, in The Geography of the Imagination (Boston: David R. Godine, 1997), 368; ‘Jonathan Williams’, first published as introduction to Williams’ An Ear in Bartram’s Tree, then as a pamphlet from Jim Lowell’s Asphodel Bookshop; reprinted in The Geography of the Imagination, 180-189.

[6] Dust jacket blurb quoted by Willard Godwin, Hugh Kenner: A Bibliography (Albany, New York: Whitston, 2001), 402.

[7] Jonathan Williams, Jubilant Thicket: New & Selected Poems (Port Townsend, Washington: Copper Canyon Press, 2005), 136.

[8] Jonathan Williams, Jubilant Thicket, 101, 102, 108.

[9] Jonathan Williams, Jubilant Thicket, 114, ix.

[10] W. C. Bamberger, editor, Guy Davenport and James Laughlin: Selected Letters (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2007), 139n.

[11] Jonathan Williams, Jubilant Thicket, 273.

Odysseys: man—and woman—of many devices

Turner, Joseph Mallord William, 1775-1851; Ulysses deriding Polyphemus- Homer's Odyssey

(J. M. W. Turner, Ulysses Deriding Polyphemus
Photo credit: National Gallery)

Standing in the bright kitchen, darkness still pressing closely against the windows, waiting for the coffee to brew, I turn the pages of The Odyssey, the first published translation into English of Homer’s epic by a woman, Emily Wilson, (British) Professor of Classics at the University of Pennsylvania.

Thinking of the beginning of the poem in English, the phrase I usually have in my head is ‘Tell me, Muse, of the man of many devices’. I can’t now be sure of precisely where that came from. The closest is the old Loeb edition, translated by Murray, except that he seems to have ‘O Muse’. I thought it might be E. V. Rieu’s prose translation from 1946, the first-ever Penguin Classic, later revised by his son. That was certainly the first version I ever read but the copy I now have begins: ‘Tell me, Muse, the story of that resourceful man’.[1]

‘Sing to me of the man, Muse, the man of twists and turns’, Robert Fagles has it.[2] And Emily Wilson? ‘Tell me about a complicated man.’ The next line begins ‘Muse’—I’d thought at first the opening line ended with a comma but it doesn’t.

Muse, tell me how he wandered and was lost
when he had wrecked the holy town of Troy,
and where he went, and who he met, the pain
he suffered in the storms at sea, and how
he worked to save his life and bring his men
back home.[3]

Not having the Greek for purposes of comparison, I go by ear as, I presume, the vast majority of readers must. Or I simply trust Guy Davenport, who did know Greek and translated Sappho, Herondas, Archilocos and Herakleitos, among others. In his essay ‘Another Odyssey’, he discusses translations by Richmond Lattimore (the ostensible occasion for the essay), Butcher and Lang, Robert Fitzgerald, William Cullen Bryant, William Morris, T. E. Lawrence, Chapman, Pope, Christopher Logue and Samuel Butler—opening with the poet Salvatore Quasimodo’s rendering of the opening lines of the third book of The Odyssey into Italian. Davenport mentions ‘the two most exciting translations from Homer in recent years’—Robert Fitzgerald’s and Christopher Logue’s—and quotes an extract from the nineteenth book of The Iliad as translated first by Lattimore, then by Logue. ‘We have all been taught,’ Davenport comments, ‘to prefer the former, out of a shy dread before Homer’s great original; we instinctively, if we have ever felt a line of poetry before, prefer the latter.’[4] Davenport was writing in 1968 and estimated that there had been at least fifty versions in English of Homer’s second epic poem. There have been around twenty since then, with three just in the past year (Emily Wilson, Peter Green and Anthony Verity).

Wilson-Odyssey

Wilson’s version goes with a swing because she’s opted to use iambic pentameter, the traditional metre of English narrative poetry (she also matches the poems line by line). ‘The original’, she points out, ‘is written in a highly rhythmical form of verse. It reads nothing like prose and nothing like any spoken or nonpoetic kinds of discourse.’ The Odyssey, she argues, ‘needs to have a predictable and distinctive rhythm that can be easily heard when the text is read out loud.’[5] True enough; I can vouch for the efficacy of that rhythm, having begun reading her Odyssey aloud to the Librarian.

The beginning of the poem is a very obvious point of comparison: the address to the muse, which seems straightforward but is, apparently, not. As far as my fingertip decipherings in Liddell and Scott’s dictionary go, Odysseus could be described as ‘much-turned, i.e. much-travelled, wandering’, turning many ways, versatile, ingenious, changeful or manifold. Plenty of scope there, then.

(Emily Wilson discusses the decisions to be made about that single word, polytropos, here:
https://www.nytimes.com/2017/11/02/magazine/the-first-woman-to-translate-the-odyssey-into-english.html )

I’m reminded of the debate over the ‘correct’ rendering of Camus’ ‘maman’ in the first line of The Outsider (or The Stranger, as it’s always been known to the far west of me). I always remember that line as ‘Mother died today’, probably from Stuart Gilbert’s 1946 translation, which was followed only after a long interval by Joseph Laredo’s version, then by translations from Kate Griffith, Matthew Ward and Sandra Smith. ‘Mother’ seems to have shifted only as far as ‘my mother’, with the exception of Ward’s reversion to maman.

It’s a question of relative formality (mother, mum, mummy, mom) but there are obvious cultural differences too, French retaining certain formalities or faint memories of a courtliness which English and American speakers have largely shed. The issue was discussed by Ryan Bloom in The New Yorker (11 May 2012), where, reviewing Camus’ opening sentence—‘Aujourd’hui, maman est morte’­—he concluded: ‘The ordering of words in Camus’s first sentence is no accident: today is interrupted by Maman’s death. The sentence, the one we have yet to see correctly rendered in an English translation of “L’Étranger,” should read: “Today, Maman died.”’
(See: https://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/lost-in-translation-what-the-first-line-of-the-stranger-should-be )

‘He observed, that all works which describe manners, require notes in sixty or seventy years, or less’, Boswell remarks of Samuel Johnson.[6] Cultural habits, cultural assumptions, such things change constantly, in both small and fundamental ways. So do expectations of who might read a literary work: their gender, their social class, their level of education. But as to who might read this Odyssey, it’s pretty safe to venture ‘anyone at all’.

References

[1] Homer, The Odyssey, revised translation by D. C. H. Rieu, in consultation with Peter V. Jones (London: Penguin, 1991), 3.

[2] Homer, The Odyssey, translated by Robert Fagles (London: Penguin, 1997), 77.

[3] Homer, The Odyssey, translated by Emily Wilson (New York: Norton, 2017), 105. Caroline Alexander’s The Iliad: A New Translation (Vintage, 2016) is, apparently, the first published version in English of that poem by a woman. See A. E. Stallings’ review of Alexander in The Spectator (9 April 2016).

[4] Guy Davenport, The Geography of the Imagination (Boston: David R. Godine, 1997), 29-44; 36, 37.

[5] Wilson, ‘Translator’s Note’, 81, 82.

[6] James Boswell, Life of Johnson, edited by R. W. Chapman, revised by J. D. Fleeman, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980), 509.

A matter of fact, a matter of error

Evoe .

(‘Evoe’, Edmund Knox via Jot101: http://www.jot101.com/ )

On my way through the park, I pass four people, each accompanied by an average of 2.75 dogs. It seems a little excessive but the total is dominated by the woman gripping five leads, to each of which is attached to a dog of such slender proportions that, taken all together, they would barely comprise a single, ordinary-sized dog.

Perhaps I was taking refuge in such arithmetical precision because I’d been thinking of error, specifically of writers’ errors, even more specifically of novelists’ errors and wondering whether that was a contradiction in itself.

Penelope-Fitzgerald-Guardian

(Penelope Fitzgerald via The Guardian)

Edmund Knox, later ‘Evoe’ of Punch and father of Penelope Fitzgerald, began his editorial career as a boy, taking charge of the family newspaper, The Bolliday Bango. His brothers, ‘Dilly’, classical scholar and later code breaker, Wilfred, priest and teacher, and Ronald, the celebrated Catholic theologian, translator and writer of detective stories, all contributed to the Bango’s production. One venture was the detection of ‘a number of inaccuracies, even downright contradictions, in the Sherlock Holmes stories’. They sent a list of these to Arthur Conan Doyle, ‘in an envelope with four dried orange pips, in allusion to the threatening letter in The Sign of Four’, but received no reply.

Later, in 1911, Ronnie Knox expanded that original letter into a paper given to the Gryphon Club in Trinity College, Oxford. ‘A satire on all higher scholarship, including his brother’s work on Herondas and his correspondence with German textual experts’, which entailed Ronnie’s invention of Professors Ratzegger and Sauwosch. ‘He set out to show, strictly from internal evidence, that the Return stories are clumsy inventions by Watson, who had taken to drink. This would account, for instance for his neglect of his practice, and the ludicrous errors he makes in the colour of Holmes’s dressing-gown.’

Holmes-dressing-gown

(Sherlock Holmes by Sidney Paget)

It also prompted a letter from Conan Doyle to Ronnie, expressing ‘the amusement – and also the amazement’ with which he had read the article, going on to explain ‘the vexed point’ about the bicycle tracks in ‘The Adventure of the Priory School’.[1]

Studies in the Literature of Sherlock Holmes, the title under which it was published the following year and reprinted several times since, is widely credited with inaugurating Sherlockian studies, ‘The Game’, the world in which Holmes and Watson are real people and Conan Doyle a useful agent. Knox pointed out that the incident of Percy Trevor’s bulldog biting Holmes on his way down to chapel was ‘clearly untrue, since dogs are not allowed within the gates at either University’, while an Oxford scholarship paper including ‘only half a chapter of Thucydides’ was also absurdly improbable. ‘And, worst of all, the dummy in the Baker Street window is draped in the old mouse-coloured dressing-gown! As if we had forgotten that it was in a blue dressing-gown that Holmes smoked an ounce of shag tobacco at a sitting, while he unravelled the dark complication of The Man with the Twisted Lip![2]

A remarkable proportion of the annotations in Leslie Klinger’s edition of the Holmes canon are concerned with inconsistencies or contradictions while the majority of the ‘capsule’ entries on individual stories in Dick Riley and Pam McAllister’s compilation refer to ‘Oddities and Discrepancies’.[3]

There are degrees and types of ‘error’, of course: firstly, internal, those inconsistencies within the Holmes canon, a man writing prolifically and often hurriedly, over long periods of time and great stretches of material, with occasional lapses hardly surprising. An ‘error’ of a slightly different kind is in the opening passage of Samuel Beckett’s Murphy, where a man has tied himself to a rocking-chair with seven scarves: their positions are detailed but total only six. There are other practical improbabilities and impossibilities (how the last scarf was tied, for instance), concerning which Hugh Kenner remarks: ‘A novel, in short, is a novel, not a map of the familiar world, and Beckett’s novels differ from most in the consistency of their insistence upon this principle.’[4]

Davenport-Murphy-rocking

(Guy Davenport, ‘Murphy rocking: prior to inversion’. Drawing in Hugh Kenner’s The Stoic Comedians: Flaubert, Joyce, and Beckett, facing p. 98)

Indeed. But many novels, not excluding Joyce’s Ulysses, occupy a space so close to that familiar world that their breaths mingle. Joyce said he wanted ‘to give a picture of Dublin so complete that if the city one day disappeared from the earth it could be reconstructed out of my book.’[5] That implies a certain documentary accuracy, a topographical precision – even in a work whose hero is an advertising canvasser based on Homer’s ‘man of many devices’.

In Ford Madox Ford’s Some Do Not. . ., Christopher Tietjens, home on leave, proposes as spiritual adviser to their son the priest who has appeared earlier in the novel: ‘Sylvia stood up, her eyes blazing out of a pallid face of stone: “Father Consett,” she said, “was hung on the day they shot Casement. They dare not put it into the papers because he was a priest and all the witnesses Ulster witnesses. . . . And yet I may not say this is an accursed war.”’[6]

casement-Irish-Post

(Roger Casement via The Irish Post)

Roger Casement was hanged, not shot, in August 1916. A reviewer of Some Do Not. . . took Ford to task for his ‘inaccuracy’, as Ford noted in his dedicatory letter to the second volume in the sequence, No More Parades, where he discussed his reasons for referring to Casement’s being hanged, specifically his conversation with a woman who could not, she said, bear the thought that the English had hanged him.[7] In his Joseph Conrad: A Personal Remembrance, also published in 1924, Ford wrote about Conrad’s encounter with Casement in Africa and remarked that it was ‘as unspeakably painful to him when later Casement, loathing the Belgians so much for their treatment of the natives on the Congo, took up arms against his own country and was, to our eternal discredit, hanged, rather than shot in the attempt to escape’.[8]

Joyce went to enormous trouble to get the details of 1904 Dublin ‘right’. Ford too worried about factual accuracy in, particularly, the constituent parts of Parade’s End. He had always had ‘the greatest contempt’ for novels that were written with an obvious moral purpose. ‘But when I sat down to write that series of volumes, I sinned against my gods to the extent of saying that I was going—to the level of the light vouchsafed me—to write a work that should have for its purpose the obviating of all future wars.’ Given that intention, the rest followed: ‘So it was my duty to be sure of my details. For technical facts as facts I have no respect whatever. Normally I rather despise myself for playing for factual accuracy in a novel. It did no harm to Shakespeare not to know that Bohemia has no sea-coast or even to believe in the fabled virtues of the mandrake. I would just as gladly make such slips as not. But they give weapons to fools and if, in this case, I failed in factual correctness, I should betray the cause for which I was working.’[9]

One more. ‘It is my sense’, Guy Davenport wrote, ‘that I am always telling a story rather than projecting an illusory, fictional world. I am aware of the trap in argument whereby we can seem to square a story with reality, and I felt wonderfully helpless when various critics jumped on my “mistakes.” One brave Boston soul swore he was at that air show in Brescia, that Kafka wasn’t there (the crowd was estimated by La Sentinella Bresciana to be 50,000), and that Blériot did not look like my description. A Russian has written to know why I have Lenin speaking in a dialect he wouldn’t have used. And so on.’[10]

‘Wonderfully helpless’. Yes, in which world do you start? Or rather, when you’re standing up to your waist in water, in a strong current: which bank do you push for? A great many novelists now begin with ‘research’; some, alas, seem never to leave it, while the fiction is swept downstream.

As to facts, among other inhabitants of that borderland. . .

‘Facts do not find their way into the world in which our beliefs reside; they did not produce our beliefs; they do not destroy them; they may inflict on them the most constant refutations without weakening them.’[11]

 

References

[1] Penelope Fitzgerald, The Knox Brothers (London: Macmillan, 1977), 50, 105-106.

[2] Studies in the Literature of Sherlock Holmes, reprinted in Blackfriars, I, 3 (June 1920), 156, 158, 159 – essay downloadable here: https://www.lib.umn.edu/pdf/holmes/Blackfriars_v1n3_1920_RA_Knox.pdf

[3] Arthur Conan Doyle, The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes, 2 volumes, edited with notes by Leslie S. Klinger (New York and London: W.W. Norton and Company 2005); Dick Riley and Pam McAllister, The Bedside, Bathtub and Armchair Companion to Sherlock Holmes (New York: Continuum, 1999).

[4] Hugh Kenner, A Reader’s Guide to Samuel Beckett (1973; Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1996), 58.

[5] Frank Budgen, James Joyce and the Making of ‘Ulysses’ and other writings, enlarged edition (1934; London: Oxford University Press, 1972), 69.

[6] Ford Madox Ford, Some Do Not. . . (1924; edited by Max Saunders, Manchester: Carcanet Press, 2010), 218.

[7] Ford Madox Ford, No More Parades (1925; edited by Joseph Wiesenfarth, Manchester: Carcanet Press, 2011), 5-6.

[8] Ford Madox Ford, Joseph Conrad (London: Duckworth, 1924), 101, 129. All this and more elucidated by Max Saunders’ note in Some Do Not. . ., 218.

[9] Ford Madox Ford, It Was the Nightingale (London: Heinemann, 1934), 205, 206.

[10] Guy Davenport, ‘Ernst Machs Max Ernst’, The Geography of the Imagination (Boston: David R. Godine, 1997), 376.

[11] Marcel Proust, The Way by Swann’s, translated by Lydia Davis (London: Allen Lane, 2002), 149.

 

Slouching towards Bedlam

JOAN DIDION

Joan Didion via The Paris Review. The Review‘s 1978 interview with Didion is available here: https://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/3439/joan-didion-the-art-of-fiction-no-71-joan-didion

I was struck by an exchange in the recently printed Guardian interview with the BBC journalist and news presenter Clive Myrie:

You’ve worked all over the world. Which posting do you have the fondest memories of?
Being based in Los Angeles during the Clinton years. The USA, pre-9/11, was a much more carefree place and the Clinton White House was incredible to cover. Because I was based in Los Angeles, I wasn’t just covering hard news; I covered Central America, hurricanes in Honduras, the Oscars, three times, so there was a breadth of story-telling. Strangely enough, I would say America is the most alien place I have ever reported from. I think we have far more in common with northern Europeans than we will ever have with Americans.
https://www.theguardian.com/media/2017/dec/03/clive-myrie-bbc-should-be-treasured-interview-bbc-yemen

Yes, that, ‘strangely enough’ and ‘the most alien place’. Recently, in the wake of President Trump’s offensive response to Theresa May’s characteristically restrained criticism of his irresponsible re-tweeting of extremist videos, a number of British politicians and commentators are finally interrogating the lazy platitudes surrounding ‘the special relationship’. It has dawned on some people that the relationship was always rather more ‘special’ in one direction than in the other.

In the United Kingdom, we watch a great deal of American film and television; some of us read a lot of American literature; and the language we speak is, in some regards, broadly similar. And yes, apart from my US cultural consumption, I have American friends and acquaintances. I even follow, with increasingly appalled fascination, American politics. But I also never quite lose that sense of distance, of strangeness, of great stretches of material never touched on, better left aside and not embarked upon. Two continents separated by divergent categories of insupportable weirdness, perhaps.

I recall Guy Davenport recounting a visit to Ezra Pound, when the latter was confined in St Elizabeths Hospital for the Criminally Insane in Washington. Pound had given Davenport a book by Leo Frobenius and asked how he was travelling. Learning that he was returning home by train, Pound reversed the dust jacket so that the title would be invisible to those likely to be ‘driven to fury that learning was being freely transported about the Republic.’ Having himself been born in Anderson, South Carolina, Davenport merely commented that ‘Southerners take a certain amount of unhinged reality for granted’.[1] And ‘unhinged’, yes, seems to be le mot juste, a fracturing of defences, a throwing open of doors to disorder and worse—much worse, as we see now.

(Leo Frobenius; Ezra Pound)

I’ve unsettled myself in an American context several times this year—I mean, apart from reading or watching the news in stark disbelief that such behaviour and such pronouncements can be tolerated in a Western democracy. What else has unsettled me? The Raoul Peck documentary, centring on James Baldwin, I Am Not Your Negro, for one, mostly in the yawning space of time between now and then set against the—in many ways—pitiful progress made since the events that the film deals with. Then the ten-part documentary series on The Vietnam War, directed by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick: the political duplicity and deceitfulness, the casualness of the decision-making that doomed hundreds of thousands to unnecessary deaths, decisions in which the Vietnamese civilians weighed nothing at all, a blueprint for much that followed.

Tallent

On the printed page, in various ways and to varying degrees: rereading Flannery O’Connor, though I note her comment that, ‘of course, I have found that anything that comes out of the South is going to be called grotesque by the Northern reader, unless it is grotesque, in which case it is going to be called realistic.’[2] Catching up on other titles, I finally read Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, which I was already embarked upon when O’Brien cropped up in the Burns/Novick series; and A. M. Homes’ Music for Torching. Of newer books, Mary Gaitskill’s book of stories, Don’t Cry, J. D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy and, perhaps in particular, Gabriel Tallent’s risky, brave and disturbing novel, My Absolute Darling.

And then, noting that today is Joan Didion’s eighty-third birthday, I should mention South and West: From a Notebook, dating to the summer of 1970 and largely comprising material for a piece on the South that was never written. I’ve just read this book, and also watched the documentary, The Center Cannot Hold, directed by Didion’s nephew, Griffin Dunne, currently available on Netflix, a film which will, of course, send me back to reread Slouching Towards Bethlehem and The White Album.

Didion has long been admired for her prose style and her ability to write the history of her time through the medium of the essay, as David Hare remarks in Dunne’s documentary. I know people who have always resisted her work, largely on political grounds—a child of conservative Republicans parents, she apparently voted for Barry Goldwater in the 1964 presidential election but would subsequently describe, in Political Fictions, ‘the abduction of American democracy’.[3] The political pieces that she gravitated towards, with the encouragement of Robert Silvers at The New York Review of Books, including Salvador, ‘Sentimental Journeys’, about the notorious trial and conviction of the five black boys accused of the rape of a white woman jogging through Central Park, and ‘Cheney: The Fatal Touch’, complicate that picture.

South-and-West

There are details and comments in South and West that seem to connect with the present time with startling directness, as if by underground cable. In Biloxi, Didion noted: ‘[t]he isolation of these people from the currents of American life in 1970 was startling and bewildering to behold. All their information was fifth-hand, and mythicized in the handing down.’ And, ‘[i]t occurred to me almost constantly in the South that had I lived there I would have been an eccentric and full of anger, and I wondered what form the anger would have taken. Would I have taken up causes, or would I have simply knifed somebody?’[4]

In Alabama, she sees signs supporting George Wallace’s campaign: he would serve two consecutive terms as governor from 1971-1979. The thought occurs to Didion that ‘the reason Wallace has never troubled me is that he is a totally explicable phenomenon.’[5] That question of explicability came up several times in Naomi Klein’s recent book. Looking back at some of the destructive trends that she’d researched over many years, she observed that, as she began to research Donald Trump, ‘he started to seem like Frankenstein’s monster, sewn together out the body parts of all these and many other dangerous trends.’ She added that, though Trump ‘breaks the mold in some ways, his shock tactics follow a script, one familiar from other countries that have had rapid changes imposed under the cover of crisis.’[6]

Joan Didion was also struck by ‘[t]he time warp: the Civil War was yesterday, but 1960 is spoken of as if it were about three hundred years ago.’[7] As Nathaniel Rich observes, ‘An unquestioned premise among those who live in American cities with international airports has been, for more than half a century now, that Enlightenment values would in time become conventional wisdom. Some fought for this future to come sooner. Others waited patiently. But nobody seemed to believe that it would never arrive.’ In such a view, he adds, ‘the past’ can in many ways be relegated to the ‘aesthetic realm’.[8] But, evidently, it is not safely dead: in fact, a great many people have never left it.

Not, of course, that such symptoms are confined to the United States. Alas.

References

[1] Guy Davenport, The Geography of the Imagination (Boston: David R. Godine, 1997), 174-175.

[2] Flannery O’Connor, ‘The Grotesque in Southern Fiction’, in Collected Works, edited by Sally Fitzgerald (New York: Library of America, 1988), 815.

[3] John Leonard, ‘Introduction’ to Joan Didion, We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live: Collected Nonfiction (New York: Knopf, 2006), xv.

[4] Didion, South and West: From a Notebook, foreword by Nathaniel Rich (London: 4th Estate, 2017), 34, 55.

[5] South and West, 71.

[6] Naomi Klein, No Is Not Enough: Defeating the New Shock Politics (London: Allen Lane, 2017), 2.

[7] South and West, 104.

[8] Rich, ‘Foreword’, South and West, xviii.