Stochastic Bookmark

abstruse unfinished commentary

about correspondence


Ain't what she used to be

The New York Times is effectively closing down its chatrooms, including bookchats (except a vestigial Book-of-the-Month), though the evisceration has been long in the unmaking. Started in '99 (I joined the party a year later), these were consistently undermined by the lack of any coherent strategy for the paper's internet presence and by a cavalier disregard for its participants, as topic deletion on short notice sans archiving (odd ephemeralism for a periodical that styles itself 'of record') became established as one of the few norms. What got me in was a long-standing Nabokov discussion group, which had also attracted the attention of NABOKV-L and the likes of Kurt Johnson (Nabokov's Blues) and Brian Boyd (biography, also Nabokov's Pale Fire), both of whom cited these chats in Nabokov Studies #6. That chat evanesced despite continuing interest (recent BotM selections have included Pale Fire and, currently, Lolita); the departure of a Borges forum followed many months later, and so then did I, for the most part, a couple of years ago. As with most such on-line discussions, the cliques and trolls took their toll, but unlike, say, The Guardian or The Atlantic (both of which still maintain WebX chat even as they emphasize other online approaches, and which permitted users to initiate discussion groups), NYT malignly neglected the core community that gathered around its service. Of course blogging has since taken discussion elsewhere, but for the Times that is just another venue in which to display ineptitude. Instant obsolescence could not be planned better, or in a more timely fashion.

All this by way of prelude/excuse to dredge up an old posting there from LatAmLit (where, among others, Roa Bastos and Saramago [inherited from defunct EuroLit discussion], drew me back in for a time), on Guillermo Cabrera Infante's Three Trapped Tigers:

So what to say about T^3? Synaesthetic, in all senses of the words. The whole, through the ears of a photographer, screen/tested by a writer, philosophized by an actor. (Not to mention, which singer makes the big time, good, or goodlooking.) Synthetic/aesthetic, a syncresis of influences, reflecting Havana (and justifying comparison to Ulysses at that level); and sin aesthetic, playing havoc with orthography, disfiguring double entendre bookkeeping (and winking, traduttore traditore, but one of the former, Suzanne Jill Levine, has done Borges & Bioy Casares before, not to mention Puig, and Havana slang is hardly lunfardo), Sternean turns (and having reread Carroll's Alice books helped). Great ride! (21.5.2005)

Cabrera Infante selected his epigraph from Alice: "And she tried to fancy what the flame of a candle is like after it is blown out." And so it goes, down the rabbit memory hole ... (cf)



The making of poems does not a poet make; there is more to it than that, though what is hard to say. Something sets the poet apart from other creative artists, something ideally recognized as deserving of special consideration even by the philosoper-king of yore. But what in an ancient mode was both misdirection and too close an approach to logos has become in the modern view an investment of self in its projection, not merely of voice or of the linguistic matrix fashioned by the poet, but of some spiritual relict as well. What had been ascribed to some daemon now has biographical consequence; inspiration is drawn not from without, but from somewhere within. The poem retains its creator in imago, as the poet is seen to be composed largely of words.

Something of these words does make the poet, or the writer more generally. It calls for a different reading of Euripides' Heracles, as used as epigraph to Flann O'Brien's At Swim Two Birds:
existatai gar pant' ap' allêlôn dicha
Usually rendered as for all things change, making way for each other, it is literally [bringing into being/setting apart] is surely in every [way/case] a mutual sundering, but containing the sense as the maker makes the made, so the making makes the maker (not without application at its source, as Amphitryon precedes these words with "So calm yourself, and wipe those tears from your children's eyes, and soothe them with soft words, inventing a tale to delude them, piteous though such fraud be"; FO'B's application is clearer, though it should be noted he made late gestures to distance himself from his early novels). And so words come back to haunt.

Relative to other arts, particular opprobrium is reserved for the versifier who falls short of the standard, not just for want of craft (poetaster has overtones of patzer, chess slang from German patzen, to bungle) but also as poseur. (Ern Malley's backstory was the most critical invention of the hoax.) Nonetheless, accomplished poets interpose between themselves and their audience a constructed persona, as a kind of reverse imprint of the poems. This supposed life story colors how the poetry is received, how the poet is read in full. The popular conception of the poet still carries some sentimental residue as the last redoubt of the romantic or as saintly confessional.

Yet the purity of the poetic form may compare to that of the most impersonal of expositions, the mathematical proof. There is no room for anything extraneous or out of place; it is a distillation of thought, precise and rigorous. But the coherence is not broken down into component parts, in localized exposition, and definitions, lemmas and corollaries remain implicit. (I tried to approximate this in my peninaugural post, but my approach to poetry may be that of several blind fakirs to an elephant.) Beyond formal considerations, beyond elemental and grammatical constructs, it is the logic itself (broadly conceived) that bears a personal stamp. It is how one learns to read the poet beyond the poems.

All this came into play in reading The Collected Prose of Elizabeth Bishop. I've been reading poets' prose efforts to gain a different perspective, additional information beyond the scope of the poems themselves. Bishop blurs the line between memoir and short story -- while ostentibly split in two parts, the latter shades back into the former in the end (though the strong "In the Village" is ambiguous in this regard). There are only a handful of stories as such, of which only "The Sea and Its Shore" stood out, the rest being infested by a Hawthornean tinge (that's right, I'm no fan, though I'll concede some excellence on his part; ymmv). Of the memoirs, "Efforts of Affection: A Memoir of Marianne Moore" was the most interesting (its subject's approach to a baby elephant, scissors in hand, worth remarking) and put MM's poetry back on the burner for me. But, throughout, Bishop's prose functions smoothly, single paragraphs encapsulating as much as they can hold, seamlessly folded in to the larger work.

Bishop was a perfectionist. The dust-up between Vendler and Quinn over the latter's editing of what fell short of completion or publication embodied a conflict between canonical and biographical, between the finished object (and subject) and the artistic process. To me, the interest in the object, after it is determined to be worth attending to, is weighted more towards how it is made (and literature is the most self-reflexive of modes). That its maker didn't think it reflected well on her doesn't deter, merely qualifies. I found in Bishop's poetry-in-progress better insight than any of the stained-glass memoirs could provide -- particularly as regards her aesthetic judgment (and my own -- I think "Verdigris" a more interesting villanelle than "One Art", precisely because of the complexity that NYer editors complained of). But the interest was based first on her established corpus.

Other readings:

André Schwarz-Bart, The Last of the Just: What led to Auschwitz began long before. (précis; what it's doing among WSJ's espionage selection I don't know.) After a millenium of being outcasts within nations, is it any wonder that Israel is sensitized to being an outcast among them?

John Banville, Doctor Copernicus: Not quite up to the standard of Kepler; despite fine writing (and ambitious ideas behind it), this orrery creaks and shudders: A perspective shift in Part III (3rd rock and all that) jars, overworking the storyline to mimic publication history. For all that, reimagining the life and times of Nicolas Copernicus was time well spent.

Marcel Bénabou, To Write on Tamara: Coming of age, tragic first love, rerevisited (in time, in prior art). A bit precious, but that's the point, but still ... (précis)


I think it would be a very good idea

J.G.Farrell, The Siege of Krishnapur: The sesquicentennial of the Sepoy Mutiny (so called) provided a spur to start, but Farrell's style and voice (reminiscent of Penelope Fitzgerald's, spare and wry) carries the tale. Based largely on the siege of Lucknow, the perspective is limited to the confines of the insular and obtuse British colonial community, justifying their presence by the benefits of modernising civilisation they purportedly bring but keep to themselves. Part of the genius of this darkly comedic novel is that even without external reference, they indict themselves by pragmatically compromising core principles whilst rigidly observing proprieties and upholding (or at least keeping up the pretense of) the minutiae of social codes of honour amongst themselves (out-of-date though they may be relative to the Home Country). Another part of the genius is recognising that a reader with only a sketchy notion of the history will find the understated ironies apparent; yet another part of it is how well disguised a novel of ideas this is. And, while some metonymy to the situation of Indian expats in the postwar Commonwealth may have been intended, Farrell could not have anticipated how this might currently resonate in the information technology services industry. This book has provided a spur not only to pick up the rest of Farrell's Empire eutrilogy, but to investigate Indian literature beyond my passing familiarity with the headliners (a problem compounded by a literary economy that differentiates between domestic consumption and export -- translations can be hard to come by -- pointers welcomed).


Style ... the army in which all kinds of weapons may come into play

Isaac Babel, The Collected Stories (trans Walter Morison ['55 ed]): In Red Cavalry Babel does battle with words and with himself, each story a sortie but also part of a larger campaign. The 1920 diary is also out there (and in the Compete Works) for those interested in collating fact and fiction, and his life story is as compelling as the writing based thereon, but conflating them obscures both. However interesting its genesis, Red Cavalry stands alone, without need of footnotes (nor of Trilling's intro, displaying all LT's worst qualities), more a novel than a collection of stories (despite construction by accretion), and the interrelations among the vignettes have been given due attention, but generally within an imposed framework (biography being one among many). Not that the vignettes don't work in isolation, as Babel's stylistry can carry them, but that they are far richer in combination. Not that his other stories aren't rich without it, either. The blogpost-title is the bit that precedes the most commonly extracted literary quotation, from his "Maupassant": "No iron can stab the heart with such force as a period put just at the right place." Likewise, the following sentence further alters the contextual sense (consensually), back towards the story (and it should be observed that the local context is also translation). In a literary context, he can be as tight as Tolstoy (as with him).