Wednesday, October 14, 2020

Nearing 100

 Besides, a writer’s frequent probing of mortality is no reliable predictor of self-destruction. Much of what we know about death we owe to Dante, Shakespeare and Beckett ...

One sentence from William Hazlitt’s essay now reads prophetically:

“So I have loitered my life away, reading books, looking at pictures, going to plays, hearing, thinking, writing on what pleased me best.”

John Berryman’s “Eleven Addresses to the Lord”: 

“Forsake me not when my wild hours come;
grant me sleep nightly, grace soften my dreams;
achieve in me patience till the thing be done,
a careful view of my achievement come.

“Make me from time to time the gift of the shoulder.
When all hurt nerves whine shut away the whiskey.
Empty my heart toward Thee.
Let me pace without fear the common path of death.”

Mezey died in April and Dana Gioia wrote his obituary for the Los Angeles Times. Another generous friend, this one in Fredericksburg, Texas, sent me a box of books on Tuesday, including a signed copy of Mezey’s Collected Poems: 1952-1999 (University of Arkansas Press, 2000). In it I find “After Ten Years,” which is written “after Borges,” obviously very loosely:

“Now that the sum of footsteps given you
to walk upon the earth has been fulfilled,
I say that you have died.  I too have died.
I, who recall the very night we made
our laughing, unaware farewells, I wonder
what on earth has become of those two young men
who sometime around 1957
would walk for hours, oblivious of the snow
that slashed around those street corners like knives
under the lamps of that midwestern town,
or sit in bars, talking about the women,
or decades later, stroll the perfumed streets
of Pasadena, talking about the meters.
Brother in the felicities of the Herberts,
George and Zbigniew, and of Chivas Regal,
and the warm rooms of the pentameter,
discoverer, as we all were in those days,
of that timeworn utensil, metaphor,
Henri, my tipsy, diffident old friend,
if only you were here to share with me
this empty dusk, however impossibly,
and help me to improve these lines of verse.”

High among the virtues, near to love itself, is loyalty.

The Pure Merits of His Skill'

One underreported perk of working as a journalist is reading obituaries before they are published. We get a sneak peek at mortality and learn before others of deaths famous and obscure. Here’s a list of people I admire whose deaths I learned of while working on the city desks of various newspapers, monitoring the wire: Glenn Gould, Italo Calvino, R. Buckminster Fuller, Count Basie, Sam Peckinpah, Elizabeth Bishop, Bill Evans, Zoot Sims and Elias Canetti. The one that hit hardest came twenty-six years ago today while I was minding the desk at the now-defunct Knickerbocker News, the afternoon paper in Albany, N.Y. That’s how I heard Jorge Luis Borges had died, on June 14, 1986, in Geneva, Switzerland. 

Most deaths come as a surprise, even the death of Borges who was almost eighty-seven and known to be ailing, but I had discovered him while still in high school, not long after North America learned it shared a hemisphere with a world-class writer who didn’t write in English. Grove Press published A Personal Anthology in 1961 and Ficciones the following year, when New Directions brought out Labyrinths. Also in 1961, Borges shared the first Prix International with Samuel Beckett. By the time I went to college in 1970, Borges was being touted by John Barth and I was assigned to read Labyrinths in a modern fiction class. Only slowly did the range of Borges’ accomplishment become apparent, and it took decades to appreciate him as a major poet. Here, translated by Stephen Kessler, is the sonnet “Things” (Selected Poems, 2000): 

“My cane, my pocket change, this ring of keys,
The obedient lock, the belated notes
The few days left to me will not find time
To read, the deck of cards, the tabletop,
A book and crushed in its pages the withered
Violet, monument to an afternoon
Undoubtedly unforgettable, now forgotten,
The mirror in the west where a red sunrise
Blazes its illusion. How many things,
Files, doorsills, atlases, wine glasses, nails,
Serve us like slaves who never say a word,
Blind and so mysteriously reserved.
They will endure beyond our vanishing;
And they will never know that we have gone.” 

Come to think of it, today is an exceptionally sad day for readers, a day of much “vanishing.” On June 14 in 1837 we lost Giacomo Leopardi; and in 1936, G.K. Chesterton. In his obituary for the latter, whose death preceded his own by precisely fifty years, Borges called Chesterton “one of the finest writers of our time, not just for his fortunate invention, visual imagination, and the childlike or divine happiness that pervades his works, but for his rhetorical virtues, for the pure merits of his skill.”


`He Had a Way with Words'

On the day I finished writing an obituary for a chemical engineer who died shortly before Christmas, two friends, neither of whom knows the other, sent me obituaries they thought I would enjoy. Obits should always be taken seriously by their writers because they are read seriously by survivors. Often, the only public notice of a life, not to mention a death, is an obit. The first piece I wrote on my first day as a newspaper reporter almost forty years ago was an obituary for a farmer whose surname was Miller. From the start, I was taught to emphasize concision and scrupulous accuracy. That leaves little room for bathos or sentimental retrofitting of nonexistent virtue. 

Ian Jackson, an antiquarian book dealer in Berkeley, Calif., and a longtime reader of Anecdotal Evidence, sent me the obituary he wrote for the English polymath Eric Korn and published in the Winter 2014 issue of The Book Collector (not available online). Korn was a childhood friend of Dr. Oliver Sacks, who writes about him in Uncle Tungsten: Memories of a Chemical Boyhood (2001). Jackson quotes Sacks: 

“`We were much of the same age,’ wrote Sacks, `and would both be taken to Brondesbury Park to play by our nannies.’ They attended St Paul’s School, where Jonathan Miller was soon added to the equation: `He and Jonathan and I formed an inseparable trio, bound not only by personal but by family bonds. Our fathers, thirty years earlier, had all been medical students together, and our families remained close.’ It was a delightful and apposite combination, worthy of a nursery rhyme: corn, sacks and miller.” 

Jackson’s obit is no hagiography. He makes it clear Korn could be difficult and often exceeded the more genteel bounds of eccentricity. But he must have been autodidactically brilliant in a way almost extinct in this Age of Ph.D.’s: 

“Like many persons of scientific bent and humanistic inclinations, Korn was not a man of letters but a man of languages. For all the Kipling, Chesterton, Eliot and Browning he had memorized, literature remained for him essentially a wonderful game, a form of parallel play with words, not that such an approach (in the hands of Queneau or Perec or Joyce) cannot embody literary dimensions. Korn was not above showing off in several tongues, but it was the words that he savoured.” 

Another friend sent another sort of obituary, this one for Celene McInerney Siedlecki and published in the Chicago Sun-Times. Siedlecki was the matriarch of a mortuary dynasty, Thomas McInerney’s Sons Funeral Home, established in 1873 in Chicago’s Canaryville neighborhood. The writer, Maureen O'Donnell, works in a reference to Mike Royko’s Boss: Richard J. Daley of Chicago (1971) and a roll call of neighborhood names worthy of Studs Lonigan: 

“At one point, a representative of a conglomerate pitched to Rosemarie Barry the possibility of buying the family funeral home. But he didn’t grasp that McInerney’s is an establishment where amateur genealogists come to study logs that go back 141 years. He didn’t understand tight-knit Canaryville is where birth names permanently succumb to nicknames with long-ago neighborhood narratives, like Sailor, Muscles, Slugs, Chickie, Mixie and Ducky.” 

The obit I wrote this week is more strictly bare-bones factual, though I’m pleased that one of the professor’s friends, himself a retired chemical engineer, comes up with the best line: “Students liked him and he had a way with words.”

`And You Must Read Me'

The signature is wispy as a child’s rendering of wind. The “C” is a horizontal line almost imperceptibly curved at one end, the “H” a barred seven, and “Sisson” little more than a minimalist flourish. The volume is a first edition paperback of Collected Poems, published in 1998 by Carcanet, which I ordered from a book dealer in England. The virtual absence of his name’s presence suggests the opening sentences of Sisson’s On the Look-Out: A Partial Autobiography (Carcanet, 1989):    

“I have the greatest difficulty in believing in the existence of human personality, and I hardly know what sort of thing it would be if it did exist. That there are people—men and women, conveniently classified as such—I can of course see as well as the next man. But it is evident that when people talk of themselves they are thinking of something quite different . . . I find it easier to believe in God than in the existence of personality. That puts some difficulties in the way of an autobiography.”

On the front end-paper is a small white label stamped “AA” with the name Anthony Astbury printed below. Astbury is a poet and director of the Greville Press, which he founded in 1975 and named after Fulke Greville. In 1991, his press published Sisson’s Nine Sonnets. Tucked into the Collected Poems are photocopies of two obituaries of Sisson, who died Sept. 5, 2003 at the age of eighty-nine. One, written by Robert Nye, was published in the Royal Society of Literature’s review RSL. On it, Nye has written to Astbury: “You might not have seen this—done for the Royal Society of Literature, of which Charles and I had the honor to be Fellows.” In the obit, Nye quotes a satirical couplet by Sisson, who worked for thirty years in the Civil Service, retiring in 1972 as director of Occupational Safety and Health in the Department of Employment: “Here lies a civil servant. He was civil / To everyone, and servant to the devil.” Nye writes:

“Like much of his satire, that pins down its subject at a single stab, but it certainly won’t do as Sisson’s own epitaph. It was typical of the man and the poet to speak of himself with a kind of scrupulous self-deprecating irony, but he was servant to a more difficult and demanding master than the author of lies.”

The other obituary, published in Church Times, was written by Fraser Steel: “The content of his verse is often bleak (`Oh Light, I do not want you / The years have taken away / Whatever there was lovely / In the day’) [from “Burrington Combe” in Exactions, 1980], but that, in combination with its individual and authoritative cadence, and the way it expresses a consciousness informed by profound historical, political and theological insight, is its attraction for those who are capable of being touched by such things.”

I don’t fetishize first editions or signed copies, and don’t acquire them as investments or show them off like bowling trophies. Who would care? What I prize is the connection with a writer I admire, a genetically specific trace as real as a hand shake. My new copy of Collected Poems is nothing fancy, bibliophilically speaking. The spine shows evidence of frequent openings and the edges are smudged. Astbury and any subsequent owners left no underlinings or other marks, which is not necessarily indicative of inattentive reading. Sisson was a principled contrarian, immune to fashion and dedicated in his contrary way to tradition. “A Dedication” is the final poem, printed in italics like a traditional front-of-the-book dedication, in his 1987 collection God Bless Karl Marx:

Better that you should forget
Everything I ever said,
Everything I did
Should be hidden,
No-one ever know
That I was so:
But I have vanity
And you must read me.”

“Because I actively enjoy sleeping, dreams, the unexplainable dialogues that take place in my head as I am drifting off, all that, I tell myself that lying down to an afternoon nap that goes on and on through eternity is not something to be concerned about. What spoils this pleasant fancy is the recollection that when people are dead they don’t read books. This I find unbearable. No Tolstoy, no Chekhov, no Elizabeth Bowen, no Keats, no Rilke. One might as well be –

“Before I am ready to call it quits I would like to reread every book I have ever deeply enjoyed, beginning with Jane Austen and Isaac Babel and Sybille Bedford’s The Sudden View and going through shelf after shelf of the bookcases, until I arrive at the autobiographies of William Butler Yeats.”

That’s from William Maxwell’s essay “Nearing 90,” one of the saddest and most beautiful pieces of writing I know. I first read it in The New York Times Magazine in 1997, in a hotel room in Chicago. It was Sunday morning and I was killing time before my flight back to New York. In such a setting, who expects to be lastingly moved by something published in a newspaper? The only similar circumstance I can imagine is reading, unawares, the obituary of a loved one. Of course, Maxwell was, by all accounts, a loveable man, and certainly a loveable writer, and he died on July 31, 2000, three weeks short of his 92nd birthday. We know from Annabel Davis-Goff and Shirley Hazzard that the last book he read, or had read to him, was War and Peace.

Friends and colleagues, including Larry Woiwode, have described Maxwell’s emotional transparency, the ease with which he wept, yet he was no crybaby or depressive, and ranks among the least histrionic of writers. Both capacities – expressiveness and understatement – may be traced to the death of his mother when he was 10 years old. Hazzard, whose work Maxwell edited at The New Yorker, described her friend like this:

“The human encounter came always fresh to Maxwell. Singularity was intrinsic to his own nature and to his sense of other lives. He knew the world deeply, yet remained accessible to it, detached from the contemporary trend toward exposition and pronouncement. That he kept faith with the wound of his early knowledge helped him, I think, to become a happy man.”

The most heartbreaking part of Maxwell’s essay is the perfectly modulated conclusion. The wording is natural and plain-spoken. A Midwestern Prospero drowns his books, or resigns himself to their drowning:

“`Are you writing?’' people ask -- out of politeness, undoubtedly. And I say, `Nothing very much.’ The truth but not the whole truth -- which is that I seem to have lost touch with the place that stories and novels come from. I have no idea why. I still like making sentences.

“Every now and then, in my waking moments, and especially when I am in the country, I stand and look hard at everything.”

Have five words ever sounded sadder?

“I still like making sentences.”