Stochastic Bookmark

abstruse unfinished commentary

about correspondence



Helen Vendler, Poets Thinking: Pope, Whitman, Dickinson, Yeats: Vendler bravely takes on Pope after John Shade (I had puzzled over "The Nature of Electricity", but Pope's appreciation of Montaigne clarified: "Electricity seems to play upon all he writes, dramas of changeable states and passions flash before the mind, vivacities and volatilities dance before the attention, all in the interest of life's unpredictability.") and Yeats after Cleanth Brooks (opposing "The Circus Animals' Desertion" to "Among School Children"), and succeeds with both; she also opens aspects of Whitman that I had not properly appreciated. But Dickinson remains elusive.

Bertolt Brecht, Selected Poems (trans H.R.Hays): Beyond the ballads to the barricades and an early romantic sensibility, Brecht has his moments, such as his retelling of "The Shoe of Empedocles" (after a throwaway in Nat Hawthorne's "A Virtuoso's Collection"?); but this collection (including theatre songs) is weighted towards polemic which, however artful, suffers aesthetically.

Varlam Shalamov, Kolyma Tales (trans John Glad): A part of the Gulag Archipelago Solzhenitsyn left unexplored due to this effort, a hybrid of testament and (as Glad says, Chekhovian) short story. Shalamov (or Glad?) saves the best for the last sections, "The Virtuoso Shovelman" and "The Resurrection of the Larch", when the territory covered expands beyond the work camps.


Updating Tradition

Halldór Laxness, Iceland's Bell (trans Philip Roughton): More playful than Independent People, and yet more true to the spirit of the sagas, this is multitemporal, mid-20thC secular Iceland looking back on mid-18thC Lutheran Iceland recovering the writings of 13thC Catholic Iceland about 10thC pagan Iceland -- Laxness himself was credited with rescuing Icelandic literature, an earlier novel national front page news (with the headline, At Last!). The trajecstory is true to the arc of the saga, with its climax in the middle section. Much more to it than that, though ...

C.P.Cavafy, Collected Poems (trans Keeley and Sherrard): There's a new translation now, but this will do, as no degree of precision will capture the resonances of Greek language through two millenia (over which Cavafy ranges). Though there are some misses (whether to ascribe to author or translator), there are more hits, as not all is lost -- for exemplar, I particularly liked "When the Watchman Saw the Light", which concludes:
... Ancient houses are not eternal.
Of course many people will have much to say.
We should listen. But we won't be deceived
by words such as Indispensable, Unique and Great.
Someone else indispensable and unique and great
can always be found at a moment's notice.

Cavafy himself seems a counterexample, largely brought back from the brink of oblivion by ...

George Seferis, Poems (trans Rex Warner): The cover invokes T.S.Eliot, whom Seferis studied and translated, but Seferis' roots go deeper (among other things, per linguistic resonances) -- his 40's work (The Thrush and selections from Exercise & Log Books) are remarkably consistently excellent, but I'd single out The Thrush, the "Stratis the Sailor ..." poems and "The King of Asine" (on a throwaway Homer reference) as a cut above.

Bashō, The Narrow Road to the Deep North and other travel sketches (trans Nobuyuki Yuasa): The title cut stands out, as the travels about Japan encompass not only territory but time and verse, with the reader along from the opening words: "Days and months are travellers of eternity." And the barrier-gates, though strait, are always inviting. So, with that, I must be off.


Cause and Affect

Stefan Themerson, Tom Harris: A return to detective fiction, of the epistemic/hermeneutic variety: A crime may or may not have been committed, a self-made man may be responsible for another's unmaking, investigation of a dubious web of relationships unfolds and refolds (as a novel in two parts, both first person), filling in the pattern (and the reader) like the marbled or moiréd endpapers of a well-made (Gaberbocchus) book. I didn't have much to say about Hobson's Island, except its Roubaudian/Hortensean cleverness; this shares that aspect but goes well beyond it. As facts accumulate, in seemingly haphazard fashion, the protagonist is reconstructed but not fully reconstituted. A case of mistaken, or at least ambiguous, identity, resolved only via circular reasoning, fully, in the end, but still left unstated, or better, beyond the reach of explicit statement, unattributable to a particular passage, putting the reader into a predicament similar to that of Harris' artificial butterflies:

But it seemed that on the third (imago) stage a sort of electronic top level would form itself. It would have nothing to do with stimulations and work (anyway not directly). It would deal with only the registrations supplied by the lower levels. In the case of strong stimulations, it was comparatively simple, the top correlated the registration of stimulations with the subsequent registration of the work done and it registered the event in its "memory" for future reference. In the case of a weak stimulation, the thing wasn't simple at all. The top would have found the registration of the work done but wouldn't be able to find the registration of the relevant stimulation and -- as Harris said -- it was puzzled. [...] Not finding the direct "cause" (which would "tell" it why the work had been done), and ignorant of the existence of weak stimulations (which hadn't been registered), it looked for possible causes among all the other registrations memorized in it. Some of them being less improbable than others, it accepted them as registrations of the true causes, which fact, consequently, led it to committing all kinds of "irrational" fallacies [...] (p33)

The prose throughout is not so unadorned as here, but it never carries literariness on its sleeve -- the complications are enough to be elucidated in a more plain-spoken manner, the art residing in selective disclosure, teasing out plot, sorting up from down, recto from verso, letting structure bear part of the epistemic/hermeneutic load, and doing so via a mechanism as ingenious as any of Tom Harris' invention.

Supplemental considerations:
Nick Wadley: Reading ST
Tom Harris:
Ben Ehrenreich
Seamus Sweeney
Derik Badman (who also takes on
The Mystery of the Sardine)
Bob Williams (ditto)

bonus: six short texts (14.5 & much more


Just this side of Byzantium

Mircea Cărtărescu, Nostalgia (trans Julian Semilian): A novel, five stories tall, located in Bucharest, when it has a location, which shifts, is hard to place. The author, via the translator's afterword:
"Even though this volume is comprised of five separate stories, each with its own world, it could be said that what we're dealing with here is a Book, in the old and precious sense of the word. The stories connect subterraneously, caught in the web of the same magical and symbolist thought, of the same stylistic calligraphy. This is a fractalic and holographic novel, in which each part reflects all the others. The first and the last story, linear texts of a parabolic simplicity, are merely the frame for the other ones that make up the book's marrow and contain the three principal themes ..."
But that would be telling, which it is all in. Bildungsromanish, a coming-of- -- not age, something timeless about it, also as much in dissolution as in formation, as is all the stuff dreams, and worlds, are made of. And the frame blends into the picture, trompe-l'œil narrative effects and tricks of perspective intrude, informed and yet naïve, all nonetheless integral to the story. Another instance of a writer too long detained for us anglots. (As I told another, if you have not yet read it, you must; if you already have, you must forget it entirely.)