Category Archives: Reading

INTELLECTUAL HEROES

In human behaviour there are unforgiveable acts and unforgiveable qualities. Lying, cheating, brutality and torture, betrayal and treachery occur in a staggering variety of manifestation, while superficiality, laziness and self-obsession are distressingly common. But unforgiveable acts and qualities do not necessarily lead to a permanent rupture between people (or communities, or countries) – nor should they. In my last three novels there are several instances of unforgiveable acts: between parents and children in The Prosperous Thief, between friends in Reunion, and between married couples in The Memory Trap. In nearly all these instances the relationship endures.

I am reading A Long Saturday (University of Chicago Press, 2017), a slender book of conversations between the literary scholar and critic, George Steiner, and the French journalist, Laure Adler. (‘Conversations’ is the term used on the cover of the book; more accurately, Adler interviews Steiner, and she does so with familiar ease and admirable perspicacity.) George Steiner has been a lifelong companion for me, an enduring love. From the time I first read his Language and Silence as a twenty-year-old, through his many essays and monographs, right up to this week when I have been reading his conversations with Laure Adler this man has afforded me pleasure, stimulation, understandings, excitement, inspiration, questions. Steiner feeds and awakens my curiosity. No long-term partner could have been so consistently rewarding.

I was happily immersed in this latest book, acknowledging familiar Steinerisms, delighting in new offerings when I came to a section where, in a single page (p.48), Steiner is rudely dismissive of Simone Weil, Hannah Arendt and Simone de Beauvoir. Three women scholars discarded in a handful of lines. In recent years Steiner has been far more mindful of women, acknowledging among other things, their historical lack of opportunity in intellectual life. But no male writer in A Long Saturday warrants such curt dismissal as Steiner gives these women.

It would seem that Steiner remains a man of his generation (he was born in 1929), whose own heroes are exclusively men. I find myself wondering if his recent inclusiveness of women is nothing more than lip-service, something he knows he must be seen to be doing. So, for example, he is critical in this book of the former Oxbridge tradition of seating men and women separately, but nonetheless, he joined in the practice for decades. He’s a scholar who has argued persuasively both in the present volume and elsewhere about the importance of polyglottism, of reading (knowing) the greats in their original language. Yet this man who confesses to being unable to read Russian (p. 40) cites Akhmatova and Tsvetaeva as women ‘to admire’. These are the only women who receive his praise in this volume, but given he can’t read them in the original it is questionable praise, even demeaning praise; he seems to suggest that their work does not warrant a reading in their original language. It leeches both the poets and the critic of dignity.

He dismisses Hannah Arendt as follows: ‘I was unfortunate enough to meet Hannah Arendt. Very little of her work is first-rate, in my opinion. A woman who writes a huge volume on the origins of totalitarianism and doesn’t say a word about Stalin because her husband was a true Stalinist-Communist? No thank you.’

Hannah Arendt, like Steiner, is one of my intellectual heroes. But rather than leaping to her defence, I am wanting to silence Steiner, to stopper these appalling statements that condemn him far more than they do her. So he doesn’t like Arendt as a person, but you don’t have to like your heroes. (Not that I’m suggesting Arendt could ever be one of Steiner’s heroes!) The fact is you get the best of a writer in her/his works, those works over which s/he has pored and thought and considered and redrafted. Conversation, on the other hand, while drawing on years of scholarship, nonetheless is marked by spontaneity; there’s no second or third or tenth draft to refine the argument and smooth the syntax. I’ve always been happy enough not to meet my heroes. So it is of no import that Steiner did not like Arendt, but as for his next complaint and the sole example he provides as to why he dismisses her work, this I do not understand. The third part of Arendt’s work on Totalitarianism is devoted to National Socialism under Hitler and Bolshevism under Stalin. Far from Arendt ignoring Stalin, Stalin, along with Hitler, is the major focus of this third part of her study.

When Steiner turns his attention to Weil, again he begins with a personal aside. ‘General de Gaulle said, “She’s mad!” Which is an opinion difficult to refute.’ Like his throwaway comment about meeting Arendt, this quip does no-one any favours. Steiner continues: ‘She [Weil] writes some very fine things, but very little.’ This comes across as insulting, underscored by his use of the term ‘things’ to refer to her work. He continues: ‘…allow me some blind prejudices. A woman who refuses to enter a Catholic church, saying she is too Jewish, at the time of Auschwitz? No thank you. It’s inexcusable! If there is a last judgment, that woman is in a lot of trouble.’

Yes, I expect this is the voice of ‘blind prejudice’, a stance Steiner would be quick to criticise in others. But as well, it is a statement that lacks Steiner’s usual clarity; indeed, I remain unsure what he means.

All he deigns to say about Simone de Beauvoir is, ‘She was a great woman. She was very lucky to live with Sartre! Very Lucky! That was a truly intelligent choice.’ That is, her greatness lies in her choice of Sartre. This is so sarcastic and so utterly contemptible, I read it three times to make sure I’d not misunderstood.

Steiner’s swipe at de Beauvoir suggests that Sartre is a writer he does admires. And this is, in fact, the case. Later in the book Steiner criticises Sartre for his blind support of the Soviet regime, but unlike Arendt, de Beauvoir and Weil, Sartre’s political views do not contaminate Steiner’s appreciation of the work.

Sartre was a good philosopher, perhaps even a great one, but as a novelist he was ordinary. I read all his novels in my twenties, but they resist a second reading. Sartre was not a good novelist; the philosophy paralyses the fiction, there are long static sections, the temperature and tone remain caught in an existential trough. This notwithstanding, while Steiner disposes of de Beauvoir (both person and work) in a flippant sentence, Sartre’s work, it seems, is beyond reproach.

This is the crucial fact about heroes. They may let us down, they may betray our belief in them, yet nonetheless we keep them in our personal pantheon. As I am doing with Steiner. I’m not tempted to throw him over, rather I wish he hadn’t made his appalling comments.

We pardon our heroes their failings because of what they do give us. It is like the beloved partner who strays and then wants to return. You don’t need to forgive her or him, all you need to do is work out whether your life is enriched by their presence, whether you are enriched by their presence. Their act was unforgiveable, unpardonable, but in the end you take them back: you want them like you want your intellectual heroes, right there in the centre of your life.

One of my heroes has disappointed me, let me down, betrayed my faith in him. This intellectual lover has done me wrong (one feels it so personally). But I know I won’t do to Steiner as he has done to Arendt, Weil and de Beauvoir, I know that the occasional lapse, and yes there have been a few over the years, is insufficient for me to end this affair. Steiner can be pompous, he can be unnecessarily obscure, his sentences can become clotted, and at times his male Weltanschauung clouds his judgment, but my life is richer for George Steiner: he’s earned his place in my pantheon. Yet as I continue through the book and come across a few more personal comments I wish had been edited out, I find myself wondering about intellectual heroes. After all, it is the work that matters, so why have intellectual heroes at all?

The answer lies, I believe, in the intimacy of reading, the unparalleled intimacy of reading. These heroes creep up on you. Hour after hour there’s just you and the author in a connection that proceeds at your pace, that draws on all that is in your mind, spurred on by all that is in the author’s work. Over the course of my adult life I have spent days and weeks at a time with Steiner. I have witnessed the reoccurrence of certain themes, certain books, certain authors, certain composers and I feel I know something of the man. If asked, I would say that I have spent the day or week with George Steiner, I rarely say I have spent the time with, say, No Passion Spent or Real Presences. I have attended a Steiner lecture, I have listened to recordings, I know his voice. Sometimes when reading a difficult passage in one of his books I hear his voice in the process of my deciphering his meaning.

People will say they are a devotee of Henry James, or an ardent follower of Jane Austen – or Virginia Woolf or Proust or, indeed, George Steiner. When it comes to literary and scholarly loves, when it comes to creative loves (whether writers, artists, composers), it is the person we tend to cite not the work, it is the person we bond with. ‘I’ve been reading the new George Steiner,’ I will say. For this reader, the man and his work are inseparable. And if now and then the man steps up centre stage and makes an unforgiveable aside, the work saves him as it has often saved me.

As for this latest volume, it now carries my underlinings and marginalia. Pencilled in are agreements and arguments, ideas to ponder and others to follow up. In short, for all my quibbles, A Long Saturday, is an provocative and satisfying book. Steiner’s words have inspired, Steiner has inspired. This is what heroes do.

Risky Reading

My greatest and reliable pleasures have been found in the pages of books. From the beginning this has been the case. In the crowded confines of the family if I was reading I was left alone. For my mother, I was one less child to worry about; while for me, with a book in hand, I gained respite from the demands of family life and escape into lives so much more interesting than my own.

Novels provided me with an entrée into the desires and disappointments, the loves and resentments, the thoughts and actions of country parsons, well-born but impoverished girls, low-born but inspiring urchins. Through fiction I came to know military men, peasants, unhappily married women, demanding men; I learned of Russians and French people, English and Americans, Spanish, Italians and long-dead Australians.

Through the decades, my love affair with reading has faltered only once: when the fleeting delights and mind-dumbing seductions of the digital world altered the way my mind worked to such an extent that prolonged immersion in a book became increasing difficult. This was the impetus for my National Library of Australia Ray Mathews Lecture (posted on this site).

If a good book affords great pleasure and gratitude, what then for a disappointing one? With so many riches on offer – both new and those favourites to which one returns – I see little point in continuing with a book that it is not rewarding. Similarly with a play or film that has failed to grab me. Mind and memory need exercise, but at the same time there’s only so much you can take in and you need to select with care.

Sometimes there is no choice. Recently I reviewed a book that did not live up to expectation. If not for having to write the review I would have closed the book after a couple of chapters, deeply disappointed but pleased I’d made the decision not to waste more time. Instead I had to read through to the end, increasingly angry and resentful, like a lover trapped in an affair that has soured.

And it occurs to me that an about-to-be-read book is exactly like those tantalising moments when you meet someone and feel a spark. There’s a bubbling excitement over the possibility, of the yet not-known but desired. And you are confronted with risk: to plunge or to step back. The reader is the lover who plunges. A one-night stand? A long weekend? A lifetime? The reader is the lover whose pleasures are huge and whose disappointments are cataclysmic. But who would want to live any other way?

gottliebI have just finished reading Robert Gottlieb’s wonderful memoir, Avid Reader (FSG, 2016). Gottlieb, the renowned editor (Simon & Schuster, Knopf The New Yorker), writer, serial collector of all manner of things, and dance – ballet – aficionado has been a great reader all his life. His love for and appreciation of books and writing runs through this memoir. Gottlieb shares his love so generously that I experienced a strong sense of gratitude as I turned his pages. To meet someone over a mutual love, and to meet in that extraordinary intimacy of reading, there is little to compare. Gottlieb’s book is the perfect long weekend.

BOB DYLAN – NOBEL LAUREATE

The choice of Nobel laureates for literature falls into three main categories:

  1. justly deserved;
  2. surely there were others more deserving, and
  3. incomprehensible and/or bizarre.

Glancing down the list from 2016 back to the first winner, Sully Prudhomme from France – a writer who has certainly not withstood the weathering of time – I would include In the first category: Doris Lessing (2007), J.M. Coetzee (2003) Szymborska (1996), Derek Walcott (1992), Nadine Gordimer (1991) Joseph Brodsky (1987), Milosz (1980), Saul Bellow (1976), Patrick White (1973), Neruda (1971), Pasternak (1958), T.S. Eliot (1948), Thomas Mann (1929), Yeats (1923), to name just a few. Indeed, the Nobel Committee gets it right, or close to right, surprisingly often.

Taste is a major factor in the second category. I am not drawn to the work of Hemingway (1954), Alice Munro (2013) and V.S. Naipaul (2001) but many readers are. As for the third category, Pearl Buck has become representative of those who were chosen to the astonishment of all but the committee. But she is far from being alone in this third group.

Many of the winning writers have been politically active both on the page and off. Alfred Nobel stated that the prize would be given to an author who has produced ‘in the field of literature the most outstanding work in an ideal direction’ (emphasis added). This requirement might help explain that small group of winners like Winston Churchill (1953), Bertrand Russell (1950) and possibly Jean-Paul Sartre (1964) who actually declined the prize, writers who warrant praise for so much of their work, but not, it seems to me, for any literature that flowed from their pen. Winners like Churchill and Russell have excited heated controversy. Indeed, over the 100+ years of the prize controversy has been a major player. And no more so with the choice of Bob Dylan for the 2016 Laureate.

I think Dylan is an inspired choice.

By anyone’s estimation I would be considered a serious reader. Many of the Nobel winners figure among my favourites: Mann, Eliot, Yeats, Russell (yes, although I would not have given him the prize), Camus, Gide, Neruda, Patrick White, Eugenio Montale, Saul Bellow, the utterly essential Milosz, Joseph Brodsky, Gordimer, Szymborska, Coetzee, Doris Lessing. I’ve read Proust, my comfort reading is Jane Austen, I belong to a small group that discusses a different Shakespeare play every month. I read widely in contemporary fiction, and I always have a volume of non-fiction and another of poetry on the go. People have been surprised that a serious literary person like me would celebrate the awarding of the world’s premier literary prize to a singer-songwriter.

Dylan is not a great poet and he’s not the greatest lyricist who ever lived – of the moderns that prize might possibly go to Col Porter – but I do think he was deserving of the Nobel.

The selection committee chose Dylan ‘for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.’ This is a restrained, vague even coy citation, I’m not even sure I know what it means. ‘New poetic expressions within the great American song tradition’ is ambiguous, and one of the interpretations is a contradiction. But leaving that aside, I think the Committee’s citation is off the mark.

Dylan was the voice of a generation. Even more than this, he provided the words to a generation wanting to break with tradition, with the past, with political leaders, with parents. This was a generation growing to adulthood under the threat of nuclear destruction, in a world where the separation between rich and poor was widening, where unions (at least in the USA) were weakening, and workers were being squeezed. Dylan burst on the scene in the 1960s and for the next decade or two his songs expressed what the alienated youth of the time were feeling. He was anti-war and anti-nuclear weapons, he protested injustice, he sang for the worker, the immigrant and the poor.

Dylan’s songs were anthems for the time. ‘The Times They Are A-Changin’’ (1963-4), ‘Masters of War’ (1963), ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ (1962), ‘I Am a Lonesome Hobo’ (1968), ‘I Pity the Poor Immigrant’ (1968). Dylan expressed uncomfortable truths, and he gave direction for those who no longer trusted the old leaders.

As a teenager I would sit around with friends and we would sing Dylan songs. This was not an occasional happening. Most weeks, a group of kids would descend on our house, and accompanied by guitars and bongos and occasionally the piano we would sing – folk songs, Pete Seeger, what were known in those days as Negro Spirituals (I don’t know what the politically correct term is these days), Peter Paul and Mary (who often sang Dylan), and the master himself.

Dylan’s songs introduced us to people, places, politics and events far beyond suburban, middle-class Melbourne. And they taught us not to take things on faith or trust. They taught us to question authority, tradition and traditional institutions like the church, the family, the military.

And Dylan’s songs also taught about love – not in a gauzy, dewy-eyed way like most of the offerings on the Top 40, but honestly. A half a century on ‘It Ain’t Me, Babe’ remains one of the most brutally honest songs about love.

You say you’re lookin’ for someone
Never weak but always strong
To protect you an’ defend you
Whether you are right or wrong
Someone to open each and every door
But it ain’t me, babe
No, no,. no, it ain’t me, babe
It ain’t me you’re lookin’ for babe

(It Ain’t Me, Babe, 1964)

Some have criticised the choice of Dylan because, they say, the lyrics cannot be separated from the music. But they can, they have a different effect, a different power when read as poetry rather than song lyrics with the music playing in your mind. The best analogy is reading a Shakespeare play as against seeing it performed. No one suggests that the plays of Shakespeare are any less worthy on the page rather than the stage. And I think the same goes for Dylan.

Others have criticised the choice of Dylan, not because he is a songwriter, but rather he was the wrong songwriter to receive the prize. These people say that Leonard Cohen should have been the candidate.

I am a lifelong fan of the work of both Cohen and Dylan, but for the politics and the history, for the courage and uncompromising gaze, for the breadth of material Dylan is my choice. This is not to suggest that all his lyrics are breathtakingly good, there are some that are shoddy and banal. But as Somerset Maugham wisely noted: only the mediocre man is always at his best.

And there are those who insist that song-writing is not poetry, in the same way that in the early days of film there were those who insisted that film was not legitimate performance like theatre. There are poets who find their calling through pop songs – Dorothy Porter was one such poet – who see the modern song-writer within the context of poetry’s fluid boundaries. The conjoining of music and poetry is an ancient coupling, witness the minstrels of old wandering from village to village in days long gone.

Are there other writers more deserving of the prize? My reading is very much in the European and English-speaking traditions, so I can’t speak for African and Asian writers. I hope one day the Polish-American poet Adam Zagajewski gets a gong; I think it was inexcusable that the great Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai (died 2001) was never selected. But in the choice of Bob Dylan for the 2016 Nobel Laureate for Literature, I am surprised that the committee was willing to take such a risk, but very pleased they did.

NOT NOSTALGIA

A little over a century ago, E.M. Forster wrote ‘The Machine Stops’, a short story that depicts human civilisation some time in the future. I expect Forster was projecting into the far-distant future – millennia not centuries – but in certain respects the world of his story bears a remarkable resemblance to human society today. In Forster’s story people live by themselves in their own room (children are raised in special nurseries). Within these rooms everything necessary for life is available at the push of a button. When you are hungry you press a button and food appears, when thirsty, another button produces a drink. When you want to sleep you push a button and a bed materialises, when you wish to wash, the right button will conjure a bath. If you are feeling ill, a thermometer, stethoscope and other diagnostic tools will appear to test and diagnose, following which, appropriate drugs will be dispensed. Under normal circumstances people do not meet in the real world, there’s no need and besides, touch between humans is considered rude, even disgusting. There’s plenty of company via a blue screen which links each person with thousands of others located across the world. With so many friends and so much activity via the screen, people are busy, their every moment occupied. Art has no place in this world. Creativity itself has been rendered obsolete. Nature – mountains, sunsets, clouds – is feared. With everything in hand’s reach, direct observation of the world is deemed neither necessary nor desirable. People are happy to stay in their rooms. And why not? The machine looks after all of their needs.

I read this story in my twenties during my Forster phase – what a pleasurable plunge that was. I have returned many times since to the essays and the novels – Howard’s End and The Longest Journey in particular. But I’ve never consider Forster to be an aficionado of the short story form and wouldn’t have reread ‘The Machine Stops’ if not for an article by Atul Gawande about Oliver Sacks in The New Yorker (September 14th, 2015). Gawande, a physician and writer like Sacks himself, was an admirer of the great doctor who died 30th August, 2015. Gawande met Sacks only twice, the first time in 2002 when Gawende was completing his medical training and again in 2014. The two of them did, however, correspond by letter.

Sacks, according to Gawande, never used email, rather he wrote letters long-hand with a fountain pen on quality paper. In a letter, four weeks before he died, in which he bemoaned the deadening effects of social media, Sacks referred to the Forster story.

So, because of Sacks and because of Atul Gawende and because I am months behind with reading The New Yorker I have just reread ‘The Machine Stops’. I needed this story because of a recent longing for my old, portable Olivetti typewriter which, in a state of technological euphoria, I packed up and took to the Salvos some time last century.

I want it back.

I haven’t capitulated to nostalgia. I considered those milky yearnings an excuse to escape the demands and challenges of today. The term ‘nostalgia’ was coined in 1688 by a Swiss doctor, Johannes Hofer, in a dissertation to Basle University. He meant it as ‘a medical term to describe a depressed mood caused by intense longing to return home.’ (I gleaned this from an essay by Avishai Margalit on the role of the British in the making of modern Israel published in the NYRB, 7/2/2013.) A few centuries on, nostalgia relates to ‘home’ in the broadest sense: as a concept and a feeling – as well as a place. It is a notion fed by memory, by photos, by shared recollections, and by objects too. In essence there is nothing worrisome about this. The problem arises when longing for the past becomes primarily a longing for the familiar, for the known and certain. When longing for the past is used to flee from today’s rambunctious unpredictabilities.

My pangs for the old Olivetti tossed out during a technological high of several decades duration relates very much to concerns I wrote about in ‘Escape from Cyberspace’ (5/2/15) and the two posts about letter writing (‘Epistolary Pleasures’ – 22/6/15, and ‘The Passion of Letters’ – 16/7/15). In those articles I mounted a case for uncommitted time: time to think and imagine and create. Being constantly digitally connected is like being on speed: fabulously energising but not particularly productive. I have a desire for slow time. The manual typewriter, like writing letters, like the delights of onion skin paper, like my digital-free Saturdays, is in service not to nostalgia but a desire for deep and prolonged thought, and remaining with a train of thought long enough for ideas to emerge and be fleshed out, and understanding (quite different from knowledge) to be furthered.

My long discarded typewriter has been on my mind for months. The combination of Forster’s story, the fact that Sacks wrote letters longhand, and my own admiration and gratitude for Sacks work prompted me finally to make a move.

Having an Olivetti back in the days of yore wasn’t the same as having a Remington or an Olympia or an Underwood. It was akin to driving a Renault, reading Borges, travelling to Peru, and sitting through festivals of central European films. I was so taken by my Olivetti I made a tapestry of it. (And perhaps this is the time to confess that my Olivetti was actually not mine. Although it did become mine, but whether by fair means or foul, I can no longer say.)

Olivetti Typewriter

For decades I have noticed a shop near Melbourne University in the inner-city suburb of Carlton. The shop is called Elite Office Machines. The window display is a jumble of typewriters and adding machines. Some of these machines are not real but rather cute models. I have often wondered whether the owner of this shop collects typewriters or sells them. This morning I rang the proprietor. He’s a seller all right, a seller and a repairman, in fact Zeljko Koska is one of the few remaining typewriter repairmen in the country – possibly the entire world. He’s been operating from this location for 50 years, and yes, he said, he had a portable manual Olivetti.

I checked my phone. It was 38 degrees outside. Only a necessary mission would drive me into such heat (25 degrees is the upper limit of what I find tolerable). To Carlton I drove and found a parking spot right outside the shop. The parking gods are clearly partial to a manual typewriter, I decided. I entered the shop. Mr Koska – Tom – had just finished checking the Olivetti he had in stock. I looked at it. I looked at the case. It was mine, my old machine. I’m sure it was my machine. I couldn’t wait to get my fingers on it.

As it happened fingers, hands, wrists, indeed whole arms were needed. I had forgotten the pressure required to depress the keys of a manual typewriter. But the noise, that soothing yet driving clacking sound, was writerly Bach.

I went to an ATM to get some cash – no credit cards at Tom’s business – and decided that as much as I wanted an Olivetti, I also wanted a manual typewriter that was comfortable to use. On returning to the shop I tried a Brother Deluxe 750TR, a machine that would be a good decade younger than my Olivetti. The clack was even more musical and there was a spring in the keys that delighted my fingers. I tore myself away from my Olivetti – it was hard, very hard, but either I could capitulate to nostalgia or I could buy a typewriter that I knew would assist in a slower more meditative approach to work.

And here it is.

Olivetti tapestry

Tom, while fit and trim, is a man of a certain age. It turns out he is 73. If he’s not around who will service my typewriter? Who will supply the ribbons? He told me he had no plans to retire. He also revealed that people in their 20s and 30s make up a good many of his customers these days. Young people who seek the sort of slow, contemplative, creative intellectual stimulation that comes from books and digital-free days and manual typewriters.

In Forster’s story, diversity among people has disappeared. Fortunately in this aspect of his futuristic view he was wrong. Although the noise from social media, Google, iTunes and the rest fills our lives, the readers and creators and thinkers are still out there – in small numbers, but that has always been the case. And while they are, there’ll always be a place for hand-written letters, portable manual typewriters, and afternoons spent reading books – alongside the convenience, the wonders, the speed and the reach of digital technology.

 

The Passions of Alberto Manguel

Passions require time: time to develop in the first place, time to be expanded, time to be enjoyed. Passions, like any experience/activity that requires prolonged attention and an active imagination, can be tripped up even before they’ve found their legs in our contemporary fast-paced world. It is fortunate then, that the pleasures of passionate engagement whether with music, reading, maths, theatre, people or just being alive are such that even a short exposure is generally enough to hold a person for a life-time.

There have always been people who appear to inhabit lives of uniform colour and temperature, who can walk a glacier or climb a mountain and be occupied, not by the magnificence surrounding them, but their growling muscles. There have always been people who hear Bach or read Dickinson and complain of boredom, or see a flamboyant parrot or a scampering lyrebird and remain unmoved.

And there have always been people who inhabit the world as if on alert. Nature, art, people, so many experiences elicit from these people responses that are invariably high-octane. These are exciting people to be with, their enthusiasm rubs off, you feel more alive, more geared to possibility when you are with them.

There are friends who belong in the passionate category, and there are authors too. I have thrived in the company of Iris Murdoch, Virginia Woolf, Oliver Sacks, Walt Whitman, and many others. I’m excited when there’s a new book from, say, John Banville, Ann Patchett or Justin Cartwright. And even if their latest is not among their best I still enjoy moments walking the high peaks with them.

Alberto Manguel is one such writer. Recently I reviewed his latest book Curiosity. Even if I had not known his work, the title would have lured me in. Below is the review, published in Australian Book Review, September, 2015.

 

CURIOSITY by Alberto Manguel.
Yale University Press, $44.95 hb, 377pp, 9780300184785

There are two broad approaches to reading Alberto Manguel’s, Curiosity. The first type of reader will study the book – or rather, the text – assiduously connecting the personal narratives that introduce each chapter with the books Manguel references in the more theoretical and discursive aspects that follow. Dante’s Commedia is a constant presence in Curiosity, so they will have their Dante in easy reach for ready consultation, and they will strive to connect Dante’s journey with Manguel’s chapter titles, all of them questions: ‘How Do We Reason?’ (Ch. 3), ‘What Is Language?’ (Ch. 6), ‘What Is an Animal?’ (Ch. 11), ‘What Comes Next?’ (Ch. 15). They will make notes as they read, in an attempt to harness the voluminous material. And they will keep a separate list of the surprisingly numerous literary references that are unknown to them. This type of reader will try to get on top of the material, bring it to heel, master it.

The second type of reader will plunge in. They will not feel the ground beneath them, rather they’ll be swept up in Manguel’s narrative. As Virgil guides Dante, and Dante Guides Manguel, so Manguel guides this type of reader. It is an unpredictable journey. In the first chapter alone, ‘What Is Curiosity?’, Manguel saunters from Dante to Thomas Aquinas; he makes a quick digression to Augustine and Aristotle before slipping past Dante to David Hume and Diderot and Jean Le Rond d’Alembert, Diderot’s co-editor of the Encyclopédie (I had always thought Diderot did the job alone); there are nods to Boccaccio, Isaiah Berlin, Seneca, Socrates, and several others like Covarrubias (a Spanish lexographer who wrote an etymological dictionary in 1611), previously unknown to this reader. This is a journey without an itinerary. A risky odyssey, it is impossible to anticipate where Manguel is heading. But this second type of reader, trusting that Manguel knows what he is doing, goes with the current. These readers are so immersed in Manguel’s wanderings, they might be in a trance as they read – this book is their entire reality – they’re prickling with awareness, in a world bathed in a golden, if sometimes opaque light. These readers are guided by Manguel but, at the same time, they are nudged along by books they’ve read themselves, experiences they’ve had, and thoughts and ideas that surface without warning.

The first type of reader seeks control of the material, the second, although no less hungry for understanding, can tolerate the mystery of the not-yet-known (and perhaps never to be fully known) and the uncertainties of an intellectual quest without a plot.

The capaciousness of Manguel’s curiosity, his voracious reading, and his eagerness to share both with his readers are simultaneously wonderful and daunting. This is old news to those familiar with Manguel’s earlier work. With an author who can leap from the mid-thirteenth century Spanish scholar Abraham Abulafia to Borges in a single paragraph, any attempt to control the material is, I believe, counter-productive. Too much in the way of analysis somehow annuls the meaning and sense of understanding that arises from this material. Trust Manguel: in The City of Words, A Reading Diary, A History of Reading and A Reader on Reading*, he has proved to be not simply a reliable guide, but the best there is outside Dante’s first circle of Hell.

Manguel, driven by his own ravening curiosity, ranges here, there and everywhere in Curiosity, so it is somewhat amusing that he adheres to a strict format in the structure of his latest book. It is comprised of seventeen chapters, each titled with a question, and each beginning with a full page illustration depicting a woodcut from the 1487 printing of the Commedia (with commentary by Cristoforo Landino). I am wedded to Doré’s illustrations to Dante, their detail and lyricism form a perfect duet with the poem. These fifteenth century woodcuts do not speak to me in the same way; they simply do not – to me – depict the terrible horrors that are related in the Inferno, nor the sublime joys of Paradiso. I am curious as to why Manguel chose them over Doré’s plates. Sometimes the connection between the particular canto from the Commedia and the chapter question is obvious, sometimes it becomes clear by the end of the chapter, and on other occasions a second or third reading will be required. Understandings surface when one reads Manguel.

The text of each chapter begins with a page or two of personal material: a happening from Manguel’s childhood, a recent illness, sexual discrimination in his childhood books (Anne of Green Gables for girls, The Coral Island for boys), Argentina’s dirty war, the economic crisis in Argentina in 2006, concern over the environment, animals, injustice in the world. Following the personal snippet are approximately ten pages during which Manguel wanders through art and literature gathering material that enhances and elaborates on the chapter question. The dynamic is reminiscent of musical improvisation.

Questions, as Manguel makes clear, are far more saturated with meaning than answers. Curiosity is short on answers. What it has are intellectual explorations triggered by all the crucial questions that comprise the human project; indeed, most of the chapter questions have inspired entire schools of philosophy. No précis nor synopsis would do this book justice. Suffice it to say that for readers of Manguel, his favourites are here – Montaigne, Plato, Alice, Don Quixote – and his customary concerns: how we make sense of the world, how we can understand one another. There are many delights. In the chapter ‘What Are We Doing Here?’, Manguel reveals Dante as an environmentalist (with a touch of Paganism) and the Commedia as an environmentalist tract. And surprising thoughts. After reading his account of Nimrod and the building of the Tower of Babel, atheist that I am, I found myself thinking that God made a big mistake, that he should have found a different punishment for the people’s heresy, anything but the confounding of language and meaning. How much more difficult it would be for hatred, prejudice, brutality and corruption to occur if we shared a common language.

The last two chapters of Curiosity, ‘Why Do Things Happen?’ and ‘What Is True?’ represent, at least to me, Manguel’s narrative assent into paradise. As I closed the book, I felt a little as Dante did when brought into the presence of his Beatrice.

 

*Reviewed by AG in ABR, May 2010.

 

 

The Passion of Letters (2)

This is the follow-up article to EPISTOLARY PLEASURES, posted 22/6/15.

I am reading Jonathan Galassi’s novel, Muse, an indulgent, insider’s treatment of independent literary publishing houses, together with their publishers, editors and pesky authors. (Jonathan Galassi is publisher at Farrar Straus Giroux, and Homer Stern, one of the main characters of Muse, shares much in common with Roger Straus.) The first half of the novel consists of long, flat character sketches, with no narrative to flesh out the characters or, indeed, make them stick, dotted with pseudonyms for well-known writers such as Sontag (here a black woman writer, but otherwise Sontagian), Brodsky (can’t resist citing S and B together), Bellow, Malamud, Walcott, and many many others. (Even our Les is mentioned later in the book, and by intimate first name – no pseudonym for him.) Fortunately Muse picks up halfway through when it shifts from tuneless character description to a story with narrative pull.

So I’m reading about Ida Perkins, the famous, successful poet at the centre of this novel, when I come across a reference to onion skin paper. The American narrator associates it with European paper suppliers. That sends me on a search of French web-sites for papier en pelure d’oignon (pelure, I have just discovered in my long-neglected Petit Larousse, is the skin, peau, found on fruits and vegetables). Much to my disappointment, thirty minutes of wandering the web has yielded nothing so concrete or desirable as un canet de papier pelure (a pad of onion skin paper).

Onion skin paper, so rare in today’s world, is mentioned in Muse, a recently published novel. And I recall that Patrick White, in order to save on postage, used onion skin paper to send his manuscripts – typed single spaced – to his overseas publishers. I’m scrabbling for onion skin paper references, as if the mention might somehow conjure up the real thing. (Jean Porter, Dorothy’s mother, sent me an aged half-quarto onion skin pad containing a half a dozen airmail blue sheets. I now ask all people of a certain age to search deep in their desk drawers for long-forgotten onion skin pads. And I ask the same of you, too, dear followers of this website.) The fact is I can’t have too much of the stuff.

I pass the days with a heightened awareness of onion skin paper; I’m also alert to any references to letter-writing. The latter are surprisngly common given the ubiquity of email, twitter, texting and the like. The mind seeks out what it needs. If it is focussed on onion skin paper, it will find references to onion skin paper that would have been previously missed. A mind attuned to letters will find them, in drawers and filing cabinets, in conversation, and most particularly in books.

One of the great pleasures of reading is that it generously satisfies the bookish wanderlust of the devoted bibliophile. You start with one book, follow a reference to a second, double back to the first; then you might take a tangent off to a third book, a fourth, a fifth, and so on. People think that this sort of meandering was invented with the web, but of course it has been around for as long as print.

Last month was a Ted Hughes month for me. I began with Elaine Feinstein’s concise and informative biography, moved on to Hughes’s poetry, and I revisited Janet Malcolm’s excellent book, The Silent Woman, about the stoushes surrounding the writing of the various biographies of Sylvia Plath. One of these biographies was written by Anne Stevenson – a very torrid and trying project for her – who, I discovered in my rereading of Malcolm’s book, wrote a verse novel called Correspondences. A Family History in Letters, (OUP, 1974.) This detail entirely escaped my attention when first I read Malcolm’s book in London, back in 1994, but then I was not alert to letters in the same way as I am now.

I finally located a copy of Stevenson’s book through Better World Books*, and it arrived a couple of days ago. It is a lovely red cloth hardback. It carries a library catalogue number plus the imprint of the library: University of California, Riverside. The withdrawal slip on the inside of the back cover is pristine: there has not been a single borrower. The spine of the book is very stiff, it does not feel as if this book has ever been opened. Sad, I find myself thinking, but pleased that this handsome book has found a home now with me..

The earliest poem-letter in the book is dated 1829, the latest, 1968. The letters are supplemented by fictional newspaper clippings and other bits and pieces of connective tissue. The book is slender, just 88 pages. I read it at a sitting and glean through these letters the lives and times of several generations of a New England family. The letters provide plenty of narrative, but, at the same time, they open up huge narrative spaces which I willingly fill.

This, I decide, is one of the pleasures of reading the letters of others: what is written leads easily on to what is not written – but could be. Or what’s an imagination for?** So it’s not simply the entrée to a private life that’s the attraction of letters, it is also that letters, from someone unknown to you written to someone else also unknown, provide space for you: the intruder, the snoop, the trespasser, the eavesdropper, the peeping Tom, the insatiably curious, the writer in search of characters: you.

I’ve always known this. So many diaries are written with an eye to posterity; the writer at her/his desk copying out today’s offering, every now and then glancing over a shoulder to see who is watching. Letters, too, can carry this same self-consciousness – but not all of them. In a single volume of a famous person’s letters it is not so difficult to determine which have been written primarily for future generations and which are utterly rooted in the time, the place and the grievances of the author’s present. This immediacy of an authentic letter is gold for all future readers, but particularly for biographers. Indeed, letters are the gold standard in manuscripts.

Janet Malcolm expresses this exactly. (The Silent Woman. Picador, 1994. P. 110.)

‘Letters … are the fossils of feeling. This is why biographers prize them so: they are biography’s only conduit to unmediated experience. Everything else the biographer touches is stale, hashed over, told and retold, dubious, inauthentic, suspect. Only when he (sic) reads a subject’s letters does the biographer feel he has come fully into his presence, and only when he quotes from the letters does he share with his readers his sense of life retrieved. And he shares something else: the feeling of transgression that comes from reading letters not meant for one’s eyes. He allows the reader to be a voyeur with him, to eavesdrop with him, to rifle desk drawers, to take what doesn’t belong to him. The feeling is not entirely pleasurable. The act of snooping carries with it a certain discomfort and unease: one would not like this to happen to oneself. When we are dead, we want to be remembered on our own terms, not on those of someone who has our most intimate, unconsidered, embarrassing letters in hand and proposes to read out loud from them to the world.’ (Emphasis added.)

In The Science of Departures, the character, Sylvie, who collects letters knows exactly this close, intimate connection with a stranger, this artless exposure of the letter-writer; she knows, too, the thrill of secret transgression. She was taught, as was I, that to open a letter not addressed to you was tantamount to stealing. It was, simply, one of the worst sins you could commit. Sylvie’s life is narrow. Born in 1930, she is too old to benefit from the freedoms of the 1960s, and too timid to draw from feminism and free education in the 1970s. The letters in her collection, about 200 in total, transport her to times and places she would never visit in a lifetime, and they take her into the hearts and minds of men and women whom, even if she were to meet them or their ilk, she could never know – or herself – so deeply or intimately as she does from their letters.

I find myself wondering if Sylvie’s life were fuller would she continue to collect letters. I have just finished a chapter in which I introduce her to the man who will become her lover (she’s in her fifties, it will be a grand passion) so I will have to decide at some point. Yet my inclination is that her letter collecting will endure: that most lives ought to be large enough to contain more than one passion, and messy enough to benefit from the the order that accompanies any collection.

Sylvie is not the only character I’ve created whose pleasures are bound up with letters. In Reunion, (4th Estate, 2009), Jack, knows the power and pleasure of writing and receiving letters. He and his beloved Ava complete their post-graduate study in Oxford. She stays in Oxford with her husband, while Jack returns to Australia. The following is from Reunion, p.6.

‘Within days of arriving back in Melbourne Jack had written to Ava, a long humorous account of the potholes of homecoming that disguised the misery he actually felt. And she had quickly responded. The pleasure of that letter was astonishing. This written communication, Jack realised, involved the two of them in the sort of intense and intimate conversation he had always longed to have with her. Soon they were exchanging weekly letters in what would eventually become a twenty-year correspondence.’

Jack has loved Ava almost from the time of their first meeting. The correspondence between them manages to sustain his unrequited love, and it does so safely, fuelled not by uncertain and flawed reality but rather his fertile and utopian imagination.

‘Anyone who has enjoyed an intense written relationship is well-acquainted with the impact of words that are read rather than spoken. In the silence of a room, with all stops pulled out on imagination, emotions swirl like magma below a charged earth. You feel the fire and the erotic plumes, you spark with possibilities, and it begins even before you open the latest instalment, when you collect the mail and recognise her letter. You know her handwriting, the way she prints your name and address, the way she underscores the area code, you know her scrawl of sender details on the back, you can see her fingerprints, her signature as it were, all over the envelope. You feel the quickening of your heart, the thump of anticipation as you take the mail inside. You sort through the letters, you leave hers till last. Then you make yourself a fresh cup of coffee, sit in a favourite chair, open her letter and read, once, twice, three times, the burn of just you and Ava together and nothing to intrude on your secret and highly charged tryst. And during the writing and the reading and the re-readings and all the times in between as you shop and cook and clean, as you sit out the tedium of dried-out colleagues and plodding students, you not only relive your love, you make it and remake it and embed it in a world that seems both miraculous and tangible. There is nothing to compare with the clandestine enclave of letters.’ Reunion, p. 139.

And this is the case whether love is your passion, as is the situation with Jack, or whether the passion is for something else: books, ideas, humour, friendship.

Since acquiring my onion skin paper I have been writing letters. In addition to my old friend who lives in the next suburb, I have written to my agent, Barbara Mobbs (and also Patrick White’s agent). How well she remembers onion skin paper, Barbara wrote back to me. ‘Having left home at 19 and lived all over the place, I must have written hundreds of letters on that paper. And yes,’ she adds, ‘PW loved it because it made the postage cheaper when he sent the novels to London and New York.’

Most especially I have written to my old friend in London, the one with whom I used regularly to exchange long and thoughtful letters about life, ideas and the books we were working on (she is a scholar of the long 18thC). F and I have frequent contact via email, but the letter I sent her on onion skin paper and the one I received back from her have quite a different depth and tone from our emails.

I think more carefully when I write a letter, it is a far more contemplative, ruminative process than email. In preparing to write, my mind meanders, collects, connects, and in the actual writing the mind moves forward. It is a deeply pleasurable activity.

I recommend it.

________________

*Better World Books is an excellent social venture that recycles old books, primarily from libraries but also other sources. From its profits, it donates back to libraries as well as to literacy programs. If it’s a second-hand book you are wanting and a hike through your local second-hand bookstores has proved fruitless, try betterworldbooks.com rather than feeding the behemoth Amazon.

 

**’Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp,
Or what’s a heaven for?’
          Andrea del Sarto. Robert Browning.

_______________

On an entirely different matter: for those of you in Melbourne, I am repeating my National Library of Australia’s Ray Mathew Lecture, titled PRIVATE PLEASURES, PUBLIC EXPOSURE: the Imagination in the Digital Age, at 6pm, 5th August, Boyd Centre, 207 City Road, Southbank. The event is free but bookings are essential on PH: 03 9699 8822 or email: rsvp@australianbookreview.com.au

READING AGAIN. Oliver Sacks’s new memoir.

I’ve had an excellent couple of weeks. In addition to my on-going reading of Soviet history, I read Helen MacDonald’s H is for Hawk, a wonderful account of how MacDonald trained a goshawk called Mabel at a time when she was experiencing the obsession, the desire for control and the longing for abandon that accompanies grief. I read Anne Tyler’s latest, A Spool of Blue Thread, an enjoyable story of the love, the loyalties, the secrets and the stressed connections of family. And I revisited Neruda’s love poems. Two in particular, I read over and over again.

IF YOU FORGET ME
Trans: Donald D. Walsh

I want you to know
one thing.

You know how this is:
if I look
at the crystal moon, at the red branch
of the slow autumn at my window,
if I touch
near the fire
the impalpable ash
or the wrinkled body of the log,
everything carries me to you,
as if everything that exists,
aromas, light, metals,
were little boats
that sail
toward those isles of yours that wait for me.

Well, now,
if little by little you stop loving me
I shall stop loving you little by little.

If suddenly
you forget me
do not look for me,
for I shall already have forgotten you.

If you think it long and mad,
the wind of banners
that passes through my life,
and you decide
to leave me at the shore
of the heart where I have roots,
remember
that on that day,
at that hour,
I shall lift my arms
and my roots will set off
to seek another land.

But
if each day,
each hour,
you feel that you are destined for me
with implacable sweetness,
if each day a flower
climbs up to your lips to seek me,
ah my love, ah my own,
in me all that fire is repeated,
in me nothing is extinguished or forgotten,
my love feeds on your love, beloved,
and as long as you live it will be in your arms
without leaving mine.

AND ALSO:

THERE’S NO FORGETTING (SONATA)
Translated by: Forrest Gander

Were you to ask me where I’ve been
I would have to say, “There comes a time.”
I would have to tell how dirt mottles the rocks,
how the river, running, runs out of itself:
I know only what left the birds bereaved,
the sea forsaken, or my sister weeping.
Why so many places, why does one day
cling to another? Why does a night’s blackness
drain into the mouth? Why the dead?

Were you to ask where I come from, I would have to talk
with shattered things,
with all too bitter tools,
with massive festering beasts, now and then,
and with my grief-bitten heart.

Unremembered are those who crossed over
and the pale dove asleep in oblivion,
only teary faces,
fingers at the throat,
and whatever falls from the leaves:
the darkness of a burnt-out day,
a day flavoured with our curdled blood.

Here I have violets, swallows,
we want anything and it appears
in that long train of impressions
that marks the passing of kindness and time.

But let’s go no further than the teeth,
we won’t chew on husks heaped up by silence,
because I don’t know how to answer:
there are so many dead,
and so many levees the red sun has cloven
and so many heads that knock against hulls,
and so many hands that shut up kisses,
and so many things I want to forget.

If my reading had stopped at this point I would have known a glorious week or so, but there was more to come. Oliver Sacks has recently published a memoir, On the Move: A Life (Knopf). I first learned of it in Jerome Groopman’s admiring review in the 21/5/15 issue of NYRB. I read the Groopman’s essay, I checked Readings website – yes, yes, in stock – and ordered a copy. It arrived the very next day and the day after that, a Saturday, I began to read.

I have previously written about how our fast-paced, ever-changing, ever-charged, digitally-mediated lives threaten the slow, leisurely, deep immersion that concentrated reading requires. We start to read and minutes later we’re checking mail, messages, Facebook, twitter, news. Or — we start to read and minutes later we’re checking a fact on the web; from there we are led through a maze of interesting and immediately forgettable information, returning to the book in 20 or 30 minutes having completely lost the thread of our reading. I have written elsewhere how, without practice, the ability to concentrate on a single task is quickly eroded, how, in my own case, there are times when I wonder if I have lost forever the joy of a day spent with a book, starting it in the morning and finishing it by day’s end.

My week spent with Helen MacDonald, Anne Tyler and the incomparable Pablo Neruda (and yes, the Soviets) led me to last Saturday and Oliver Sacks. I began his book in the morning and I read all day. I was gripped by this man and his story.

I have written about Sacks before (see ‘Oliver Sacks: Anthropologist of Mind’ in the published essays section of this website), have long been captivated by both the scientist and the great humanist. Captivated and grateful. And so again with his new memoir, although more fervently this time. We live in a culture in which the self seems always to be centre-stage, and care and curiosity about one’s fellow human beings is not a priority.

Reading Oliver Sacks I am brought back to the joys of prolonged, uninterrupted reading and the commensurate pleasures of solitude and contemplation. I am also reminded of the best that makes us human: curiosity, care for others, appreciation of others, the muting of self in order to respond to the world about us, intellectual rigour, and love.