Monday, July 17, 2017


Iris Origo, Leopardi: A Study in Solitude

Robert Galassi (translator), Canti

He lived under conditions of "unbearable oppression," in a Catholic household of such strictness that he felt himself always alone in his sinfulness; bereft of love, incapable of spontaneity, ill in body, sick at heart. (39-40). His father, Conte Monaldo, a banal reactionary and minor grandee,  belonged to an ancient, if fading family; he was, after a fashion, the master of Recanati a small hill town in the Marches, fifteen miles from the Adriatic. (Leopardi could smell the sea on his walks). The poet's mother, Countess Adelaide, a woman of narrow and fanatical piety, was the true master of Recanati, a domineering woman whom the Count deferred to in all matters relating to both his household and his children.  As a child, Leopardi was dressed as an abbot and surrounded by priests. To say he was cloistered is an understatement--he lived as a monk lives, secluded, repressed, fearful, and guilt-ridden. Yet he would become the greatest Italian poet since Dante, one of the finest philologists of the 19th century, and a philosopher of great depth and originality. He died, aged thirty-eight, in 1837.

"Everything that will follow in two centuries of Western lyric poetry is here [in Leopardi]: a new self-consciousness of the writer's alienation from life, with the constant companionship of pain and the consolation of the power of memory--all evoked with unmediated directness and haunting, expressive beauty." (Jonathan Glassi, from the Introduction to the Canti).

Iris Origo, Leopardi's fine biographer, evokes the fruits of the poet's melancholy solitude in the pages of her engaging and empathetic Study in Solitude--how, for example, after an idyllic spring wandering the "fields and lanes" of Pisa, and experiencing--as was the norm with Leopardi--the pangs of unrequited love--he returned to his solitary study at Recanti to write the beautiful song "Silvia":

Silvia, rimembri ancora
Quel tempo della tua vita mortale, 
Quando belta splendea
Negli occhi tuoi ridenti e fuggitivi,
E tu, lieta e pensosa, il limitare
Di gioventu salivi?  

(Silvia, do you still recall
the time during your mortal life,
when beauty shone
in your laughing and startled eyes 
And you, lively and thoughtful, 
arrived at the threshold of youth?)
[my translation]

Origo provides readings of many of the Idylls and Canti, as well as ongoing psychological insights into the poet's state of mind as he wrote his verses and the great, unclassifiable text we know as Zibaldone. In terms of the reach of his interests, his erudition and clarity of mind, no one rivals Leopardi among early nineteenth century poets aside from Coleridge--indeed, the two poets, different in so many respects, were remarkably alike in their engagement with poetic expression as a form of world-making. For Leopardi, words were real--more real than anything else--and from them one could, as he did, craft a reality more accommodating, more habitable, than the one in which he lived.

Anyone new to Leopardi, or wishing to extend his or her grasp of this great poet's work, could do no better than to read Origo along with Galassi's accurate and poetic renditions of Leopardi's finest work. At some level, I believe that Leopardi is like Rilke--untranslateable for the simple reason that his language is so uniquely his own--but Galassi has done a remarkable job of bringing these great lyrics to English readers.

Leopardi: A Study in Solitude, is published by Books and Co./Helen Marx Books' Galassi's versions of the Canti, with an excellent introduction by FSG.

George Ovitt (7/17/17)

Sunday, July 9, 2017

The Uses of History

News from the Empire by Fernando Del Paso

                        “I’ll tell you,” she said, in the same hurried and passionate whisper,
                        “what real love is. It is blind devotion, unquestioning self-humiliation,
                        utter submission, trust and belief against yourself and against the whole  
                        world, giving up your whole heart and soul to the smiter—as I did!

                                                                                               Charles Dickens

True history, insists historian J.H. Plumb in his 1969 book The Death of the Past, is basically destructive in the way that, by its very nature, it attacks those mythical, religious, and political interpretations of the past by which cultures and nations sanctify themselves, cleansing “the story of mankind from those deceiving visions of a purposeful past.” It is a passage that might very well be used to describe certain types of literary fiction as well, novels—like War and Peace and The Man Without Qualities, like Del Paso’s truly magisterial News from the Empire—that not only cleanse the story of mankind from those deceiving visions of a purposeful, mythical past, but enrich and complicate it by adding flesh and feeling to its bones. History—as novelists know well—is finally an eminently personal thing.  

“In 1861,” writes Del Paso in his prefatory remarks to the novel, “Benito Juárez suspended payment on the foreign debt of Mexico. This suspension was the pretext that the Emperor of the French, Napoleon III, used to send an army of occupation to Mexico with the purpose of creating a monarchy there, at the helm of which would be a European Catholic monarch. An Austrian, Ferdinand Maximilian of Hapsburg, was chosen. He arrived in Mexico in the middle of 18164 accompanied by his wife, Princess Charlotte of Belgium.  The book is based on these historical facts, and on the story of the tragic end of this ephemeral Emperor and Empress of Mexico.”  

Indeed Maximillian, for all his good, liberal intentions, proved particularly ill-suited to the post, to the demands of successfully contending with both the international intrigues that had brought him to power there and with the increasingly violent divisions within Mexico itself. Preferring to ‘chase butterflies’ on his estate at the ancient Borda Gardens in Cuernavaca, gardens perhaps most recently made famous as the site of the final scene of Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano in which the body of the novel’s hero, the British consul Geoffrey Firmin, is dumped like so much rubbish into the barranca below:


Maximillian’s death, by firing squad, was scarcely more distinguished than that. 

What is particularly remarkable about this novel, aside from its often extraordinarily fine prose, is that, for all its historical sweep and grandeur, it is rendered up for the reader on a decidedly intimate, decidedly human scale, filtered as it is, in large part, through the mad and fevered reveries of the aged, long-widowed Carlota, an embittered, broken-hearted, remarkably Miss Havisham-like woman who, passes the time, following her inglorious return to Europe, in “mercurial madness,” pining daily for her late husband and true love, Maximilian, and berating the world for its indifference to such refined, once-noble fates.  

The novel opens with her haughty, still imperious voice:

I am Marie Charlotte of Belgium, Empress of Mexico and America. I am Marie Charlotte Amelie, cousin of the Queen of England, Grand magister of the Cross of Saint Charles, and Vicereine of the Lombardo-Veneto Provinces, which Austria’s clemency and mercy has submitted under the two-headed eagle of the House of Habsburg I am Marie Charlotte Amélie Victoria, daughter of Leopold. Prince of Saxe-Coburg and King of Belgium, known as ‘The Nestor of Europe,’ and who would take me onto his lap, caress my chestnut tresses, and call me the little sylph of the Castle of Laeken. I am Marie Charlotte Amélie Victoria Clémentine, daughter of Louise Marie of Orléans, the saintly queen with the blue eyes and the Bourbon nose who died of consumption and of the sorrow caused by the exile and death of Louis Philippe, my grandfather, who, as King of France, showered me with chestnuts and covered my face with kisses in the Tuileries Gardens. I am Marie Charlotte Amélie Victoria Clémentine Léopoldine, niece of Prince Joinville and cousin of the Count of Paris; I am sister of the Duke of Brabant, who became King of Belgium and colonized the Congo, and of the Counts of Flanders in whose arms I learned to dance, at the age of ten, under the shade of flowering hawthorns. I am Charlotte Amélie, wife of Ferdinand Maximilian Joseph, Prince of Loraine, Emperor of Mexico and King of the World, who was born in the Imperial Palace of Schönbrunn, and who was the first descent of the Catholic Monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella to cross the ocean and tread on America soil; who built a white palace for me with a view of the sea on the shores of the Adriatic; who later took me to Mexico to live in a gray castle with a view of the valley and the snowcapped volcanoes and who, on a June morning, many years ago, was executed in the city of Querétero. I am Charlotte Amélie, Regent of Anahuac, Queen of Nicaragua, Baroness of Matto Grosso, and Princess of Chichén Itzá. I am Charlotte Amélie of Belgium, Empress of Mexico and America. I am eighty-six years old and for sixty years now I’ve quenched my lunatic thirst with water from Roman fountains…

Rounding out this singular voice and perspective are those of a wide variety of contemporary players, both distinguished and prosaic, ranging from Napoleon III, Count Metternich, Emperor Maximillian, and Benito Juárez to a patriotic camp follower, a cuckolded palace gardener, and a randy Basque priest. For those with a fondness for Mexico, News from the Empire is a demanding, if exceptionally rewarding tale.

Peter Adam Nash

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Looking Askance

Michael C. Keith, Perspective Drifts Like a Log on a River

In the glory days of the logging industry, tens of thousands of cut trees would float on the rivers of New England and the Northwest to saw mills situated near larger port cities, to be milled and shaped, and transported to markets here and abroad. Thirty years ago I witnessed such a log float in Vermont--a kind of round up, not unlike the cattleman's springtime gathering of the herd--and what struck me above all, aside from the sheer number of oak and pine logs harvested in the northern forests,  was the capriciousness and power with which they moved downstream. When not crowded together at bends in the river, the logs surged ahead, spinning and toppling over one another, again, not unlike (I imagine) the massive buffalo herds that trampled the Great Plains, as irresistible as an avalanche or tsunami.

I mention log floats in search of a metaphor to describe one of the fundamental dilemmas faced by writers and their readers today--how to capture the fragmented nature of experience without capitulating to the disorder inherent in fragments. It isn't enough to justify the production of gibberish by asserting that it mirrors the noise around us--art is charged with making order, however random and capricious that order might be. The great modernists, having been informed of the existence of the unconscious, apprised of the imprecision of language, and divested of any lingering faith in old- fashioned truths, sought new literary forms, apart from the realistic novel and the rhyming couplet,  to express their view of human experience. In doing so, the great modernist writers like Joyce and Woolf  expanded the range of possibilities available to the poet and novelist.

But the conundrum we now face is more serious--in a world divested not only of meaning but even of the presumed existence of facts themselves--where a kind of joyous, apocalyptic destruction of language has overtaken politics, the media, the arts, and even ordinary human discourse--where lying isn't lying but one's preferred version of events (individualism run amok!), what is the writer to do? The options appear to be a self-conscious reversion to older forms of expression, with a wink and a nod toward the reader, as if to say, "yeah right," or the embrace of the kind of sickening irony that makes a mockery of art--"I don't believe in what I'm writing, and you don't believe in what you're reading, but so what?"

But lots of writers, many occupying the edges of fiction--writers who aren't fashionable--have continued to search for authentic ways of expressing their vision of the world. Michael Keith is one such writer. Over the course of a long career--fifteen books of stories and one remarkable memoir--Keith has experimented with a wide range of voices, styles, subject matters, and vernaculars. His early stories were macabre--eerie and menacing tales heavily influenced by Poe and H.P. Lovecraft. Their vision of the world was dark--nothing much could be trusted to be what it seemed...I often thought of Rod Sterling as I read the stories collected in  And Through the Trembling Air and Hoage's Object. In those early books, Keith's Everyman was a regular Joe who had underestimated the animosity of those around him--and the dangers of the world at large. Think of the Coen Brothers' films, of John Goodman cold-cocking  George Clooney in "Oh Brother"--the kind of world where it is folly to trust too much or to believe the ground is granite and not quicksand.

But Keith had other things he wanted to express--life isn't all quicksand. His deeply affecting 2003 memoir The Next Better Place--the story of his wanderings with his father--had already demonstrated another side of Keith's sensibility, and in particular his interest in character studies. The feckless Joe of the earlier books became, in later collections, a multi-faceted figure who, though still battered about by the forces that batter us all (other people!), operated with greater free will and to greater effect (see, for example, the stories in The Near Enough, 2015). I also note that in collections like Bits, Crumbs, Specks, Flecks, Keith was beginning to move toward greater compression, stripping away conventional narrative elements in favor of powerful psychological portraits of a society torn apart by irreconcilable forces.  I wasn't surprised to learn, in reading Keith's newest book--Perspective Drifts Like a Log on a River, that he had been reading Lydia Davis and Joy Williams--two masters of what I think of as the story of implication, that is, the story that invites the reader to fill in the blanks (a slice of a slice of reality).

Under their influence, and deploying his own mordant wit to good effect, Keith has produced one of his strongest books, not only of micro-stories, but of meditations on stories, or thoughts about bits of life that might become stories. A writer's notebook. There is flash fiction and micro-fiction--how much meaning can be packed into how few words--and what Keith has done in this beautifully produced book is to use both modes interchangeably, often in pursuit of the same themes.

"After finishing ninety-nine stories of God, I phone the author and ask why she gave the book that title since most of the pieces in it don't even mention God. When I sense she is about to say something, the line goes dead." Disappointment, hopes raised then dashed, an agenda uncovered, a feeling of failure momentarily exchanged for a (fleeting) sense of success. Like logs on a river, each of the 200 plus stories/observations/thoughts bumps against its fellows. The overall effect is of a writer looking askance at the world, not in mockery (though there is self-mockery in much of what Keith writes) or what I think of as destructive irony, but with a healthy appreciation of the many ways we fail to understand what is right there in front of us.Reading Keith is like having a cool drink of water on a hot day--not only is he refreshing, but his wry sensibility keeps one healthy.

For Perspective and the other books mentioned here, see

George Ovitt (6/28/17)

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

To Double Business Bound

The Opposing Shore by Julien Gracq

While the narrator in every work of fiction is charged with the task of seeing, of serving—at least to some degree—as the reader’s own eyes, there are those narrators who seem to see more, to see differently, more complexly, their eyes not simply their own. Agents, emissaries, they are bound in what they experience by a sort of tortured double vision, their own often gravely human reckonings compounded at every turn by what they’ve been sent there to look for, to see.

Western literature is crowded with such figures, men mostly, often middling, reluctant witnesses, who’ve been shunted off to the margins of empire, men like Marlow from Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Don Diego from Di Benedetto’s Zama, Geoffrey Firmin from Lowry’s Under the Volcano, Giovanni Drogo from Buzzati’s The Tartar Steppe (see my earlier post on The Tartar Steppe), Major Scobie from Greene’s The Heart of the Matter, and, more recently, the hapless Magistrate from Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians.

Then there is Aldo from, Julien Gracq’s lush, unsettling 1951 novel, The Opposing Shore, a protagonist and anti-hero very much in this line. Dispatched from the capitol to the rugged, once-hostile coast of Syrtes, Aldo soon finds himself lost in a menacing labyrinth of secrets, innuendo, and subterfuge, that he struggles alone and in vain to map. Centered upon the themes of boundaries and borders (both real an imaginary), and upon the stubbornly dichotomous, endlessly destructive mentalities of Us vs. Them/Good vs. Evil, Gracq’s The Opposing Shore remains a smart, telling study of our times.  

Yet what strikes me most about the novel (at least in translation) is his language itself—both its syntactical strangeness and its saturated, densely lyrical, nearly Conradian diction and phrasing. Much as when I first read Moncrieff’s translation of À la recherche du temps perdu, I suffered the odd if liberating impression, in reading this novel, that I was not reading it in English after all, but in some other, more florid tongue. As with Moncrieff’s translation, I also felt that I was not just experiencing the original novel (at least an approximation of it), but seeing the English language itself, its scope and potential, refashioned before my eyes—just one more reason I am grateful to the many fine translators I’ve read.

Gracq himself is no less intriguing than his novel. Born Louis Poirier in 1910, he spent twenty-three all but invisible years teaching history and geography at the Lyce Claude Bernard in Paris. He, this modest, Walser-like man, this friend and admirer of Andre Breton, is known by many as writer whose fiction was often brilliantly tinged by Surrealism.  Deeply averse to celebrity, he refused to accept the Prix Goncourt, which he was awarded for this novel in 1951. He never married nor had children, and, in the later years of his life, lived quietly with his sister until she died in 1996. Alone (to quote from The Guardian’s fine obituary of him), “…he would spend the evenings watching television, particularly football. He continued to read.” He died in 2007.

* Special thanks to my friend, Eric Diler, for sending me this novel from France. Remarkably, for all my love of French literature, I had not read anything by Gracq. I am happy I have.

Peter Adam Nash

Sunday, June 11, 2017


Amos Oz, Judas

Nietzsche wrote in The Antichrist that the last Christian had died on the cross. He may have been right. Another thought, even more radical, is that the most devoted disciple of Jesus wasn't Peter or John but Judas, reviled as the agent of betrayal, but at the same time the man without whom the drama of atonement would have been unthinkable. As a boy in catechism class, and as a young man in Catholic school, I was taught to despise Iscariot (we were told to note the "scar" in his name).  Dante put Judas in the lowest pit of hell, literally in the jaws of Satan, a punishment the otherwise meek nuns who trotted me through the Baltimore Catechism would have approved had they been familiar with the great Florentine poet. But even as a child I couldn't help but wonder about the punishments of hell fire and eternal damnation that were visited upon Judas, Pontius Pilate, Herod, and the Roman soldiers for their part in a drama that was, after all, ordained from the beginning of time. How, I remember wondering in grade school, could you send a man to hell for doing what he was condemned to do?  Masaccio pictures Judas in dark shadow, makes him an outsider, but without him would the sin of Adam have been expiated? As with the horrible "hardening of Pharaoh's heart" in Exodus, so too with the Betrayal: is God playing fair with his victims by punishing them for a role that, in the scheme of things, they have no control over? Do we blame the butcher for shedding the blood of the paschal lamb?

I admit that these are sophomoric theological questions, roughly akin to wondering if God can contradict herself, but they are questions that have rich bearing on Amos Oz's new novel, a book that examines the paradoxes of fate and asks non-trivial questions about what might have been the case had certain historical actors possessed free will, or, to put the question another way, if human frailty were not so closely allied to to historical contingency. For those of us schooled in the "great man" view of the past, Oz is the perfect antidote, for his is the "average-man-as-victim" view of history. Things might have been different, but only if we were different. And that, of course, is the meaning of tragedy. 

Every great drama requires a great villain.  Without Lucifer, Milton's epic of salvation history would be the dullest poem ever written (after The Faerie Queen); no Shylock, no Portia; be honest, who do you prefer, literary wimps like Alyosha Karamazov or dastardly scoundrels like Ivan? Which is not to say that we should revel in the crimes of non-fictional criminals, psychopaths, and murderers--on the contrary, what we learn from novels is how to spot the sociopath in the crowd; empathy, after all, is not sympathy, but understanding. But Judas doesn't even rate as a run-of-the-mill sociopath: he loved Jesus; he wanted the Son of Man to be the Messiah and not just another false prophet; he wanted a miracle, the End Times, a world reborn.* Or, as Luke puts it, Satan "entered into Judas," and all questions of free will flew out the window. (See Matthew 26:23 for the ambiguity of Judas's betrayal; also the contradictory accounts found in the Gospel of John).

 Few Israeli writers have been as sensitive to the paradox of the Jewish state as Amos Oz. His novels depict not only the plight of the European Jews after the war, but treat with compassion the plight of the Palestinian and other Arabic-speaking peoples of Palestine--Muslims, Christians, and secular men and women caught in a maelstrom of historical forces--Zionism, socialism, Arab nationalism, and, above all else, the aftermath of the Holocaust. Oz has negotiated the desert ground of his beloved Israel for forty years, drawing richly textured stories out of a painful reality that most Westerners cannot imagine, or that they choose to imagine in a purely politcal way. Oz has never been above politics, but he has seldom allowed politics to undermine his humane vision of an inclusive Israel.**

"Rabbi Elbaz Lane led down the slope of Sha'arei Hesed toward the Valley of the Cross." Oz's richly imagined novel occurs, appropriately enough--given that it is a novel about Palestine--in the cramped rooms of a tiny house in Jerusalem. Three lost souls occupy the house in the winter of 1959-1960. A young man, Shmuel Ash, a young university drop-out whose heart was broken when his girlfriend left him to marry an engineer and technocrat. Gershom Wald, an old and broken man who is housebound but whose intellect and penchant for polemics is very much alive. And Atalia Abravanel, the beautiful and aloof daughter of one of Israel's founders, the widow of Misha Wald, son of Gershom, who was a brilliant mathematician killed in the fighting of 1948-1949. Three grieving souls whose lives briefly rub against one another and against a shared but by no means identical sense of the immediate past. (Whether or not the multiple views of Israel's history are commensurable is a question Oz asks in most of his novels). Wald, a Zionist and admirer of David Ben-Gurion, describes for Ash, a lukewarm socialist and cosmopolitan, a hard-headed view of Israel's founding--a small country surrounded by hostile Arab neighbors, an enclave settlement forced to fight for its survival. Ash agrees, but is intrigued by the views of Atalia's dead father Shealtiel Abravanel--Ben-Gurion's bitter enemy--who forswore the idea of a Jewish state in favor of an inclusive, bi-national, Jewish-Arab nation. Most interesting of all are the views of Atalia--a shadowy figure, sensuous and distant--whose melancholy has hardened into misanthropy, a hatred of the cant of men with their wars and politics.

Atalia's father was a noble idealist and in the Israel of 1948 his defense of Arab interests branded him a traitor; his daughter, who Oz cleverly makes a private investigator, a connoisseur of others' secrets--having lost her husband, has renounced the world and hides on Rabbi Elbaz Lane with her father-in-law.

Here are words of Gershom Wald, describing Shealtiel's political views: "'The real tragedy of human kind, Shealtiel used to say, 'is not that the persecuted and enslaved crave to be liberated and to hold thier heads high. No. The worst thing is that the enslaved secretly dream of enslaving their enslavers. The persecuted year to be persecutors. The slaves dream of being masters...' Shealtiel lived in a Manichean world. He had set up a sort of utopian paradise and portrayed the opposite as hell. Meanwhile, they had started calling him a traitor. They said he had sold himself to the Arabs for a lot of money. They said he was the bastard son of an Arab..." (226-7)

And Judas? The shadow of betrayal lingers over every page of Oz's novel. Ash has been betrayed in love; Wald's body has betrayed him; Atalia's father was thought to have betrayed his country. And, the question is implicit, Israel--has it betrayed the ideals of its founding by becoming just another belligerent nation state? Deftly, and with great compassion, Oz allows each of his three characters to appear reasonable in their assumptions about their country and themselves. There are no epiphanies in this quiet and affecting book, no resolutions, but only the glacial evolution of the self that is in accordance with real life. The wisdom of the desert feels connected to the sense of imperceptible nature of change, to the sense of the eternity that overwhelms the passage of time.

Betrayed with a kiss. 

*Such, in any case, is the view of Judas propounded by Ash in Oz's novel. I can't help but wonder if Oz had Borges's story "Three Versions of Judas" (in Ficciones, 1944) in mind as he wrote Judas.

**I am well aware of the complexity of Oz's political views, but I am content, on balance, to view him as a voice of reason in a place where reason is often in short supply. See this profile for more nuance than I can supply here:

George Ovitt (6/11/2017) 

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

That the Soul May Wax Plump

Nature: Poems Old and New by May Swenson

It was in reading Megan Marshall’s recent biography of Elizabeth Bishop, Elizabeth Bishop: A Miracle for Breakfast, that I was reminded of the poet May Swenson, of her friendship with Bishop, of their lengthy correspondence, and of her poems themselves, which I’d remembered liking very much. Considering them again, I was pleasantly surprised.

Water Picture

In the pond in the park
all things are doubled:
Long buildings hang and
wriggle gently. Chimneys
are bent legs bouncing
on clouds below. A flag
wags like a fishhook
down there in the sky.

The arched stone bridge
is an eye, with underlid
in the water. In its lens
dip crinkled heads with hats
that don’t fall off. Dogs go by,
barking on their backs.
A baby, taken to feed the
ducks, dangles upside-down,
a pink balloon for a buoy.

Treetops deploy a haze of
cherry bloom for roots,
where birds coast belly-up
in the glass bowl of a hill;
from its bottom a bunch
of peanut-munching children
is suspended by their
sneakers, waveringly.

A swan, with twin necks
forming the figure 3,
steers between two dimpled
towers doubled. Fondly
hissing, she kisses herself,
and all the scene is troubled:
water-windows splinter,
tree-limbs tangle, the bridge
folds like a fan.

Digging in the Garden of Age I Uncover a Live Root
                                          ( For E.W.)

The smell of wet geraniums. On furry
    leaves, transparent drops rounded
         as cat’s eyes seen sideways.
    Smell of the dark earth, and damp
brick of the pots you held, tamped empty.
    Flash of the new trowel. Your eyes
    green in greenhouse light. Smell of
       your cotton smock, of your neck
      in the freckled shade of your hair.
A gleam of sweat in your lip’s scoop.
   Pungent germanium leaves, their wet
smell when our widening pupils met.

Anna Thilda May Swenson was born to Swedish immigrants in Logan, Utah in 1913. After college she settled all but permanently in New York City where she worked—while writing and publishing her poetry—as a stenographer, a ghost writer, and a manuscript reader at the groundbreaking New Direction Press. Her honors included fellowships from the Guggenheim, Ford, Rockefeller, and MacArthur foundations, as well as a National Endowment for the Arts grant. Of the poet and her work writer Cynthia Ozick remarked, “Swenson sees more minutely than anyone, and with a nearly holy exactitude.”  Note for yourself the ‘nearly holy exactitude’ in this, perhaps my favorite of all her poems:

That the Soul May Wax Plump

My dumpy little mother on the undertaker’s slab
had a mannequin’s grace. From chin to foot
the sheet outlined her, thin and tall. Her face
uptilted, bloodless, smooth, had a long smile.
Her head rested on a block under her nape,
her neck was long, her hair waved, upswept. But later,
at ‘the viewing,’ sunk in the casket in pink tulle,
an expensive present that might spoil, dressed
in Eden’s green apron, organdy bonnet on,
she shrank, grew short again, and yellow. Who
put the gold-rimmed glasses on her shut face, who
laid her left hand with the wedding ring on
her stomach that really didn’t seem to be there
under the fake lace?

Mother’s work before she died was self-purification,
A regimen of near starvation, to be worthy to go
To Our Father, Whom she confused (or, more aptly, fused)
With our father, in Heaven long since. She believed
In evacuation, an often and fierce purgation,
Meant to teach the body to be hollow, that the soul
May wax plump. At the moment of her death, the wind
Rushed out from all her pipes at once. Throat and rectum
Sang together, a galvanic spasm, hiss of ecstasy.
Then, a flat collapse. Legs and arms flung wide,
Like that female Spanish saint slung by the ankles
To a cross, her mouth stayed open in a dark O. So,
Her vigorous soul whizzed free. On the undertaker’s slab, she
Lay youthful, cool, triumphant, with a long smile.

Here, bristling with intelligence, with life, is one of her many long letters to Elizabeth Bishop:


Finally, this is Swenson reading some of her own work at the Poetry Center in New York: Click Here

Peter Adam Nash

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Engineers of the Human Soul

The Noise of Time by Julian Barnes

"What sort of people do they wish to please? And what kind of actions are the means of their success? How quickly time will cover everything--and how much is covered already." Marcus Aurelius, VI, 59. 

The terror was unimaginable. Dmitri Shostakovitch, among the greatest composers of the twentieth century, stood night after night, valise in hand, (a change of underwear, clean socks, two packages of cigarettes) waiting for the arrival of the KGB goons who, he was certain, would drag him to Lubyanka Prison for interrogation, torture, and a bullet to the back of the head. Why? The Great Helmsman had hated Shostakovitch's opera "Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk," calling it a "muddle." One bad review in Pravada, one failed interrogation with Power, one "musicologist" intimating an association--however slight--with one of Stalin's rivals (with the doomed Marshall Tukhachevsky, Hero of the Soviet Union, "The Red Napoleon," Shostakovitch's patron, for example), one bitter didn't matter what the cause...and the victim was  pulled from bed in the middle of the night, "disappeared," wiped clean from the slate of history. Hence Shostakovitch's nightly vigils: better to be dressed and ready than torn from sleep.

And what of the "engineers of the soul"? Or, I suppose in the Soviet context, the "soul"?  With Barnes, I've been rereading my favorite book of wisdom, the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius. I was puzzling over the notorious notion of engineering a soul, the idea of it, the plausibility of doing it, thinking about the phrase itself, presumably first uttered, ironically I think, by Yuri Olesha, when I came upon this passage in Marcus Aurelius:

"If you set yourself to your present task along the path of true reason, with all determination, vigor, and good will: if you admit no distraction, but keep you own divinity pure and standing strong, as if you had to surrender it right now; if you grapple this to you, expecting nothing, shirking nothing, but self-content with each present action taken in accordance with nature and a heroic truthfulness in all that you say and mean--then you shall lead a good life. And nobody is able to stop you." [trans. Martin Hammond]

The key phrase, italicized above, is this: "...sed genium tuum purum integrumque servaveris, quasi illum statim esses redditturus...."  I have no wish to be pedantic, but what did Marcus mean by the "soul," and what did Olesha think was being "engineered" by Stalin and Beria and the rest of the Soviet machine of terror?  "Genium" is the accusative singular of "genius," and what Marcus wrote, literally, was that one must keep one's genius, or rather one's character pure in the face of life's vicissitudes. Is it a mistake to equate the soul with one's character, in the sense that character is a synonym for one's unique self? Elsewhere in Meditation III Marcus Aurelius mentions "the god within you," and here he is speaking unambiguously of the divine spirit that resides in each person, rather as a Quaker might talk of that of God within us. And of course, the divine spark cannot be engineered any more than it can be weighed or measured. What Stalin engineered was not the soul, but the external actions of those around him; fear motivated conformity, lies, and betrayals. It still does. Olesha was being ironic, and irony, as Shostakovitch understood, is the lingua franca of truth telling under tyranny.

The Noise of Time: incoherence, lies, arrogance, self-delusion--Shostakovitch lived in a world dominated by noise, a noise he tried to escape by creating music. His life, told by Barnes in brilliant, condensed vignettes, feels as if it were modeled on Marcus Aurelius; it has the same quality of self-examination, self-exhortation, as the does the great collection of thoughts written down by the Emperor in his campaign on the Danube in A.D. 168. Both men were disillusioned, both were melancholy by nature, solitaries even among wives and colleagues. Barnes hones the story of the great Soviet composer to a single point--how do we preserve our genius, our character, from the noise of time? How do we live with, and create, in the face of fear?  Shostakovitch used wit and irony to (sometimes) deflect the demands of Power, but he also capitulated--as, for example, when he denounced Igor Stravinsky, who was, in Shostakovitch's view, the greatest composer of the modern era.  While never an informer, Shostakovitch felt himself compromised at every turn: he wrote music that he hated to satisfy the fondness for the kitsch that appeals to tyrants; he compromised in his love life to please his domineering mother; he spoke in riddles when, more than anything, he wished to tell the truth.

Eventually, under duress, he joined the Party--in his own mind his worst betrayal. Barnes writes with great insight of what it feels like to betray oneself--that Shostakovitch speaks of himself in the third person heightens the sense of self-scrutiny:

"Those who knew him, knew him. Those who had ears could hear his music. But how did he seem to those who didn't know him, to the young who sought to understand how the world worked? How could they not judge him? And how would he now appear to his younger self, standing by the roadside as a haunted face in an official car swept past. Perhaps this was one of the tragedies life plots for us: it is our destiny to become in old age what in youth we would have most despised." (p. 176)

Julian Barnes has been writing brilliant novels since Flaubert's Parrot appeared in 1984--I don't know his earlier work. It felt to me as if The Noise of Time were a valedictory book, as if in speaking for Shostakovitch Barnes was also speaking for himself. Barnes hasn't lived under tyranny, but anyone born in 1946 knows well the folly of the world and the inevitable failures we must come to live with as we compromise our way through life. I loved this passage from the end of the novel:

"Just as he could not control his mind's rememberings, he could not prevent its constant, vain interrogations. The last questions of a man's life do not come with any answers, that is their nature. They merely wail in the head, factory sirens in F sharp. So: our talent lies beneath you like a swathe of peat. How much have you cut? How much remains uncut? Few artists cut only the best sections; or even, sometimes, recognise them as such. And in his own case, thirty years and more ago, they had erected a barbed-wire fence with a warning sign: DO NOT CROSS THIS POINT. Who knew what lay--what might have lain--beyond the wire?"


George Ovitt, Memorial Day, 2017

This link will take you to the Frankfort Symphony Orchestra's performance of Shostakovitch's Seventh ("Leningrad") Symphony., written 1939-1940.