Monday, January 28, 2019
I Think About Books and Their Authors'
I was newly and only temporarily sober, and living in a small town in Ohio and working in a library when I read in The New York Review of Books an essay by V.S. Pritchett on a writer unknown to me, Gerald Brenan. The issue was dated Jan. 25, 1979, forty years ago today. Brenan was Pritchett’s longtime friend and both men loved Spain. The country had interested me since I first read Unamuno, years before. I had read and enjoyed Pritchett’s Marching Spain (1928) and The Spanish Temper (1954). Thanks to him I had readFortunata and Jacinta (1886), a great novel by Benito Pérez Galdós. Pritchett remains one of my oldest and best teachers. How good it is to remember reading his review and eventually reading Brenan, including The Spanish Labyrinth(1950) and his study of St. John of the Cross (1973). Here is how Pritchett begins his review:
“There is a moment in the old age of a writer when he finds the prospect of one more long haul in prose intimidating and when he claims the right to make utterances. We grow tired of seeing our experience choked by the vegetation in our sentences. We opt for the pithy, the personal, and the unapologetic. For years we have had a crowd of random thoughts waiting on our doorstep, orphans or foundlings of the mind that we have not adopted: the moment of the aphorism, the epigram, the clinching quotation has come.”
I happened on an attractive thought attributed to W.H. Auden: “Art is our chief means of breaking bread with the dead.” Because I found it online and no source was cited, I was skeptical. Fake, distorted and misattributed quotations blow across the internet like so many snowflakes. A brief search disclosed what seems to be the source, a 1971 story about Auden in the New York Times. Here, quoting Auden, is the fuller context:
“A blunt story – rather like one of his own.”
“Blunt” is a forensic word, modifying “object.” It describes a murder weapon, a pipe or hammer applied to the skull. It might also describe a personal manner, lacking tact or gentleness, as in a thug or brutish cop. A softer version suggests simple directness, an unwillingness to soften a message. In this case, the writer, V.S. Pritchett, is recounting the fate of Isaac Babel, who was executed, probably with a single bullet to the skull – blunt force – on this date, Jan. 27, in 1940. In “Five Minutes of Life” (The Complete Collected Essays, 1991), Pritchett continues:
“His works vanished; references to them were cut out of histories and criticism; his manuscripts and papers were either destroyed or, haphazard, lost. Not until 1964 was he rehabilitated and there was a public celebration of his genius."
Four or five years later I first encountered Babel’s stories thanks to Frank O’Connor’s The Lonely Voice: A Study of the Short Story (1962). The Irishman said, “the man who has influenced me most, I suppose, is really Isaac Babel.” A brash statement from a lineal descendent of the author ofDubliners. At sixteen, I had already outgrown the adolescent appeal of Hemingway, though Babel’s material sometimes overlapped the American’s, especially the violence. I read the Walter Morison translation of the Collected Stories, with the introduction by Lionel Trilling. There was bluntness, yes, but also a weird poetry, even in translation. “Guy de Maupassant” was mysteriously sexy, “The Story of My Dovecote” broke my heart and “The Sin of Jesus” is never far from my mind. That final story concludes: “‘There’s no forgiveness for you, Jesus Christ,’ she said. ‘No forgiveness, and there never will be.’”
Today we have a Babel for our time: Boris Dralyuk’s Red Cavalry (2014) and Odessa Stories (2016), both published by Pushkin Press. These chaste-looking little white volumes are made for rereading and ease of transport, genuine pocket books. Boris' rendering of the final sentence of “The Story of the Dovecote”: “And so Kuzma led me to the tax inspector’s house, where my parents had found refuge from the pogrom.” Compare this to Morison’s choppy version: “And so with Kuzma I went to the house of the tax-inspector, where my parents, escaping the pogrom, had sought refuge.” Boris ends on that dreadful word pogrom.
Jerome Charyn writes in Savage Shorthand: The Life and Death of Isaac Babel (2005): “Babel never had a chance. Azhid from Odessa who flourished for a little while, thanks to Gorky.” The same Gorky who denied Osip Mandelstam a pair of pants. Babel dedicated “The Story of the Dovecote” to Gorky.
It’s good to have friends who know how to swap stories, an art I used to take for granted. Now it seems rare. The ritual has two parts. First, the ability to tell a good story, one that is more than a punchline. This requires a well-stocked memory and some gift for narrative – pacing, brevity, knowing what to leave out, and a knack for accents and other voices. Nothing’s worse than a story burdened with excessive detail. Second, the give and take of exchanging anecdotes. These swap sessions have an architecture and etiquette of their own. No one can dominate nor appear too eager to jump in with the next story.
On Sunday I visited Kaboom books here in Houston. After browsing for an hour I spent another hour at the counter chatting with the owner, John Dillman. The subjects were books, bookshops and their owners, with an emphasis on the eccentricity of book people. John has been in the business for more than forty years and, like me, has haunted bookshops since he was a kid. I told him about the time I was working as a clerk in a Cleveland bookstore and had Tiny Tim as a customer. He was in the market for old sheet music and agreed to autograph the wall before he left. John told me about a bookshop owner in New Orleans who fell down the steel staircase in his shop and suffered a compound fracture of the leg. He crawled back up the stairs to his apartment above the shop, fell into bed and died a few days later of the subsequent untreated infection. Not every story in a swap session is amusing, but a good storyteller knows when to vary the mood.
I bought three books in John’s shop, all of which I have read before. Henry Green’s Blindness (1926) was the first novel he wrote. This is the reissue from 1978. John mentioned he had read all of Green’s books except his rather peculiar memoir Pack My Bag (1940), which I recommended. I found a 1991 hardcover reissue of Evelyn Waugh’s second travel book, Remote People (1931), an account of his travels in East and West Africa. This prompted wonder at that extraordinary generation of English writes born around the first decade of the twentieth century. Along with Green and Waugh, there is Pritchett, Powell and Auden, and such lesser figures as Cyril Connolly and Orwell. Finally, I bought a pristine hardcover of Adam Zagajewski’s Two Cities: On Exile, History, and the Imagination (1995). In a brief essay titled “In the Library,” Zagajewski writes: