Monday, September 14, 2015

Ghost Writers and New Lives

Summer in Baden-Baden, Leonid Tsypkin

Vita Nuova, Dante Alighieri 

Like many other readers, I enjoy novels about writers--Flaubert's Parrot comes to mind, as well as Philip Roth's Ghost Writer--and also non-fiction works that take as their subject not the quotidian lives of those who scribble but the ineffable magic of making art from language: Olivia Laing's The Trip to Echo Springs: On Writers and Drinking is one such, as is Geoff Dyer's Out of Sheer Rage: Wrestling with D. H. Lawrence. Sarah Bakewell's How to Live is not so much a life of Montaigne as an exploration of his ideas; Sebald writes about Stendhal in a similarly oblique way in Vertigo, and Jay Parini's Benjamin's Crossing is about the last days of Walter Benjamin and is rich in psychological detail (ditto Parini's The Last Station). And then there are the books that aren't directly about writers but about the authors of the books as they reflect on the lives of authors--a little meta- I admit, but a brilliant form of literary expression if you can pull it off. Alain de Botton's How Proust Can Change Your Life and Nicholson Baker's U and I are examples, as is Tsypkin's wonderful Summer in Baden-Baden, a novel about both Tsypkin and the Dostoevskys (Fyodor and Anna Grigoryevna). Tsypkin has used the Master's sojourn in Germany--his gambling, his tempestuous relations with his wife, his obsession with and revulsion toward literature--as a mirror reflecting his own life and, in particular, his journey to Petersburg that culminates in a visit to the house in which Dostoevsky died. The novel doesn't move from one story to another, from Baden-Baden to Petersburg, but folds two narratives into one another--Tsypkin's life as a dissident within the USSR overlaps and embraces Dostoyevsky's exile in Germany, an exile that is as much spiritual as physical. The brilliance of the novel lies in its seamless entangling of two literary lives, in Tsypkin's reprising the life of the Master as if it were a facet of his own. Joseph Frank's great biography of Dostoevsky (I've read only the one-volume abridgment) makes plain enough the pain out of which Dostoevsky fashioned his art--his time in the house of the dead, his epilepsy, his addictions--to writing and gambling, or perhaps to writing as gambling--his ambivalent passion for Anna Grigoryevna, his self-imposed exile. What Tsypkin does admirably is to reassemble in coherent fashion the fragments of Dostoevsky's outer and inner lives in such a way as to make his genius seem a function of his biography rather than a triumph over it.

It occurred to me a few months ago that I had better get started on my long-postponed project of rereading those books that have meant the most to me--not all of them classics, but each one significant in marking out a period of my life, or, if that's too grandiose, then let's leave it at this: books I've carried with me through a lifetime of being the sort of person who carries around books and throws away everything else. Carried them because I meant to read them again "someday." And, at last, "someday" has arrived. For no special reason I've started this project with Dante's beautiful Vita Nuova--a hymn to his muse Beatrice Portinari and to the making of poems--and C.S. Lewis's The Discarded Image, one of the half-dozen works of literary criticism that isn't a chore to read and which is a perfect companion to Dante. Lewis's book teaches us how to read medieval and Renaissance poets; Dante teaches us how to read Dante--or perhaps how to misread him.  I reread my 1973 Mark Musa edition, with its no-nonsense literal versions both of the canzoni and the prose excursuses through which Dante not only prepares us with scanty biographical tidbits for his poems, but in which he explains, as a coy philosopher might, the progress of his Platonic-Christian love for the maiden Beatrice, on whom he laid eyes (if at all) exactly three times, and yet "she seemed to be the daughter not of a mortal but of a god,"as Dante describes her, reworking Homer. It was Boccaccio who identified the married (to one of the banking Bardis, according to my old guidebook to Florence's churches) Beatrice with Dante's sacred muse, his companion from Purgatory to Paradise, and the inspiration for his "book of memory," as Dante called the Vita Nuova. Thoroughly "medieval," that is, rooted in the neo-Platonic and Augustinian epistemology of the fourteenth century, Dante's love poems in the VN surely remind one of Symposium, with its yearning for erotic transcendence, but also of the medieval romans (of Chretien de Troyes) or, more intimately, of the Lais of Marie de France. But Dante is an original, and no comparison can do justice to the richness of his imagery, his mastery of the rhetorical tropes that defined late medieval poetry, or the alternating repression/confinement and overflowing of his emotions.

The first time Dante is addressed by Beatrice he nearly swoons. He records the event in detail: "It was precisely the ninth hour of that day, three o'clock in the afternoon, when her sweet voice came to me. Since this was the first time her words had ever been directed to me, I became so ecstatic that, like a drunken man, I turned away from everyone and sought the loneliness of my room, where I began thinking of this most gracious lady, and, thinking of her, I fell into a sweet sleep, and a marvelous vision appeared to me."

This is conventional. Boethius's Consolation of Philosophy, allegedly written while its author was in prison, awaiting execution, also falls into a dream, but his "Lady" isn't a teenage beauty but Philosophy/Wisdom herself, summoned to bolster Boethius's justifiably waning faith in God's sense of fair play.  (Still the best book on the theodicy question btw).

Dante, who has only just now "taught himself the art of writing poetry"--as if!--sets out to write a sonnet for his lady, the first of thirty-two sonnets, canzoni, and a single ballad that make up the poetic matter of the Vita Nuova. The first sonnet has always been one of my favorites, especially the arresting image of stanza two:

Joyous, Love seemed to me, holding my heart
within his hand, and in his arms he had
my lady, loosely wrapped in folds, asleep.
He woke her then, and gently fed to her
the burning heart; she ate it, terrified.
And then I saw him disappear in tears.

[Poi la svegliava, e d'esto core ardendo
lei paventosa umilmente pascea. 
Appresso gir lo ne vedea piangendo.]

"Ardent," is right, but "burning" is better; and she ate his heart, not in terror, but with humility (umilmente pascea) as if, let's face it, she were eating sacramental bread and wine. In his gloss Dante mentions how the meaning of this poem was not clear to anyone at first, but is now clear even to the unlearned. The Vita Nuova isn't only about a rebirth in love, but about death--including, in the final sections, the death and transfiguration of Beatrice. This Beatrice, real or no, turned out to be a gold mine for Romantic and Pre-Raphaelite painters and poets--swirling clouds of dust and soul-stuff, eternal love, chaste longing. Gustave Dore does a fine job of capturing the overwrought frenzy of pure love, in the same vein as Bernini's St. Theresa.

"After I wrote this sonnet there came to me a miraculous vision in which I saw things that made me resolve to say no more about this blessed one until I would be capable of writing about her in a nobler way."

Poems and glosses, prayer and prophecy.

George Ovitt (9/14/15)

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