Dante’s Shoe Soles

It’s difficult reading poetry in translation. I’ve read all the usual Russian poets: Akhmatova, Tsvetaeva, Pasternak, Brodsky, and the elusive Mandelstam, but I can’t imagine that much of the poetry comes through. English translators usually avoid trying to reproduce the metres with any exactitude, and English is a notoriously rhyme-poor language, despite its richness and subtlety.

I’ve read, on and off, for some weeks Mandelstam’s poem Solominka which, even in English is beautiful and abstruse. As Guy Davenport writes in The Geography of the Imagination, “A Mandelstam poem lives inside itself.” Mandelstam likened the physical quality of the word to a paper lantern with a candle inside. “Sometimes the candle inside was the meaning and the paper and frame were the sound structure; and sometimes the paper and frame were the meaning and the candle was the sound.” Even the poem’s title is rich in allusion, being the diminutive of the Russian word for straw, but also the Russian diminutive form of Salomé, who not only famously danced for John the Baptist’s head (my favourite Strauss opera), but also is the name of a Georgian beauty with whom Mandelstam was in love.

Mandelstam was also a superb essayist, and these offer a more accessible way to his thought, as in the collection in The Noise of Time [PDF]. In particular I adore Mandelstam’s apprehension of the rhythmic cadences “of the Divine Comedy first of all as a literary sublimate of the physical motion of walking”:

The question occurs to me-and quite seriously-how many shoe soles, how many ox-hide soles, how many sandals Alighieri wore out in the course of his poetic work, wandering about on the goat paths of Italy. The Inferno and especially the Purgatorio glorify the human gait, the measure and rhythm of walking, the foot and its shape. The step, linked to the berthing and saturated with thought: this Dante understands as the beginning of prosody. In order to indicate walking he uses a multitude of varied and charming turns of phrase.

We Are Alien

Guy Davenport (1927-2005), The Symbol of the Archaic in The Geography of the Imagination (David R. Godine, Publisher, 1997), p. 19-20:

[..] we are alienated from all that was most familiar. Basically he [Charles Olson] meant that we no longer milk the cow, or shoot the game for our dinner, or make our clothes or houses or anything at all. Secondly, he meant that we have drained our symbols of meaning. We have religious pictures in museums, honouring a residual meaning in them, at least. We have divorced poetry from music, language from concrete particulars. we have abandoned the rites de passage to casual neglect where once we marked them with trial and ceremony.

Thirdly, he meant that modernity is a kind of stupidity, as it has no critical tools for analysing reality such as the ancient cultures kept bright and sharp. We do not notice that we are ruled by the worst rather than the best of men: Olson took over a word coined by Pound, pejorocracy. Poetry and fiction have grieved for a century now over the loss of some vitality they think they see in a past from which we are by now irrevocably alienated.

Uncommon Readers

A genuine interest in criticism is an achievement in creation.

Marianne Moore

In selecting the title for this post, I should point out that it in no way refers to that dreadful Alan Bennett novel, but is a term that Christopher Knight uses to single out three especially perceptive readers: Denis Donoghue, Frank Kermode, and George Steiner. In his book Uncommon Readers, Knight describes these as critics “who bring to their reviews less a position (though positions they have) than an acute intelligence, prepared to be provoked by the last book they have read and to place it at the centre of a discussion that ripples outward.”

Donoghue, Kermode, and Steiner are generally considered rather conservative, anti-theory critics, but such labels are unnecessarily reductive. James Wood is the contemporary public critic placed in a similar pigeon-hole. All three of the former are touchstone critics that I’ll read for their insight into literature, but also because of the lucidity and elegance of their work.

Virginia Woolf in How It Strikes a Contemporary wrote that any common reader possesses the capacity to interpret a text, providing they are willing to be intellectually challenged. Her goal was to create a system in which a common reader is also a common critic. My Links list on the right of this blog connects to several common readers and critics who would fit into Knight’s definition as uncommonly perceptive readers.

Criticism is rewarding when it confirms my perspective, but thrilling when it changes the way I see a book (or film or whatever). These are the critics I turn to repeatedly, not just for their insight into literature, but also for the sheer headiness of their writing: Christopher Ricks, Virginia Woolf, Hugh Kenner, Susan Sontag, Joseph Brodsky, Martha Nussbaum, Gabriel Josipovici, Edward Said, Harold Bloom, Cynthia Ozick, Guy Davenport, Marjorie Perloff, Zadie Smith, and Helen Vendler.

No doubt there is someone significant that I’ve forgotten from this list. Please feel free to remind me, or let me know of the critics you read for sheer pleasure.

 

Guy Davenport, Deconstructionist

On the shelves I’ve at least two books of Guy Davenport’s critical essays, just never got around to them. This Paris Review interview encourages me, with greater urgency, to read him. I’d filed Davenport away as a traditionalist, so was amused to read the interviewer’s description:

That surprises me, because on some level you are a deconstructionist. That is, in the sense that Borges was one—a writer who enacts aspects of the theory, as opposed to one who elaborates it. What you’ve done with interwoven texts, quotation—text as character, one could almost say—is revolutionary.

Davenport’s high praise of Eudora Welty also urges me to sample her work (I’ve got an unread Delta Wedding) at some point. He considers Welty the true heir of Joyce.

I doubt that there are more than two people who can read the first page of Ulysses; that is, give an account as to what’s going on, who’s doing what, yet it’s a beautiful, magical page with as much on it as Rimbaud could pack into a poem. No illustrator could paint it, nor a film depict it. It is a new way of writing, approached afterwards only by Eudora Welty. For all Pound’s saying that Joyce’s technique was une affaire de cuisine, it’s ultimately the technique that’s making it all beautiful. Getting the red in the right place.

Of course, all the Paris Review interviews are worthwhile, even if you think that you have little interest in the artist, but Guy Davenport’s is superb.

Beckett: A Bibliography of Secondary Literature (edited 16/04/13)

My starting point for Beckett is the four-volume Grove Press Centenary edition, containing seven novels, thirty-two dramatic works, thirty poems, fifty-four stories, texts and novellas, three pieces of criticism. Though not a true Collected Works, the set forms the essential part of the Beckett canon. I’m now reading Beckett’s Trilogy: Molloy, Malone Dies and The Unnamable (sharing the reading with Emily).

Of the thirty or so writers that constitute the core of my literary exploration, I like to go beyond the primary works. Looking past the Grove Press collection I intend to read an enlightening biography, the letters and Disjecta: Miscellaneous Writings and a Dramatic Fragment. But which biography, and what other ‘divine analysis’ is worth reading?

Beckett distrusted biography as a form of knowledge but curiosity is irrepressible and Knowle’s biography the most illuminating. Beckett critical scholarship is vast and frequently dull, but what are the works that, to quote Hugh Kenner are not intended “to explain Samuel Beckett’s work but to help the reader think about it.” Which works are worth exploring? Starter list below, please help me to add any worthy titles (or to remove discredited or dull works):

  1. Damned to Fame: The Life of Samuel Beckett – James Knowlson
  2. The Irish Beckett – John P Harrington
  3. Beckett Remembering: Remembering Beckett: Unpublished Interviews with Samuel Beckett and Memories of Those Who Knew Him  – James Knowlson
  4. Flaubert, Joyce and Beckett: The Stoic Magicians – Hugh Kenner
  5. Samuel Beckett: A Critical Study – Hugh Kenner
  6. The Beckett Canon – Ruby Cohn
  7. Beckett’s Dying Words – Christopher Ricks
  8. “Where now? Who now?” (The Book to Come) – Maurice Blanchot
  9. Know happiness – on Beckett (Very Little…Almost Nothing) – Simon Critchley
  10. Beckett’s Fiction – Leslie Hill
  11. Narrative Emotions: Beckett’s Genealogy of Love (Love’s Knowledge) – Martha Nussbaum
  12. Saying “I” No More – Daniel Katz
  13. Samuel Beckett: Photographs – John Minihan
  14. Samuel Beckett (Overlook Illustrated Lives) – Gerry Dukes
  15.  Beckett chapter (Theatre of the Absurd) – Martin Esslin
  16. Beckett: “En Attendant Godot” and “Fin de Partie” (Critical Guides to French Texts) – J.P. Little
  17. The Beckett Country – Eoin O’Brien
  18. Samuel Beckett and the Meaning of Being – Lance St. John Butler
  19. How it Was – Anne Atik
  20. No Author Better Served – edited by Maurice Harmon
  21. Samuel Beckett: Humanistic Perspectives edited by Morris Beja
  22. Review of Contemporary Fiction, volume 7, #2, Samuel Beckett issue
  23. The Mechanic Muse – Hugh Kenner
  24. Just Play: Beckett’s Theater – Ruby Cohn
  25. Innovation in Samuel Beckett’s Fiction – Rubin Rabinovitz
  26. The Drama in the Text – Enoch Brater
  27. Bram van Velde (Grove Press)
  28. The Grove Companion to Samuel Beckett – Stanley E. Gontarski
  29. On Beckett – Alain Badiou
  30. Samuel Beckett’s self-referential drama – Shimon Levy
  31. Samuel Beckett – Andrew Gibson
  32. Samuel Beckett and the end of modernity – Richard Begam
  33. Beckett and Poststructuralism – Anthony Uhlmann
  34. Samuel Beckett: Repetition, Theory, and Text – Steven Connor
  35. Beckett: A Guide for the Perplexed – Jonathan Boulter
  36. Remembering and the Sound of Words: Mallarmé, Proust, Joyce, Beckett – Adam Piette
  37. A Reader’s Guide to Samuel Beckett – Hugh Kenner

Best of Literary Criticism

Recently I posted this quote from Julian Barnes:

You do often feel when you read academic criticism, not that I do it much, or when you hear academics talking about their books, that they forget that theirs is a secondary activity. They forget that however important a critic is, a first-rate critic is always less important, and less interesting, than a second-rate writer. Their job is, firstly, to explain, but secondly to celebrate rather than diminish.

I’m mostly behind Barnes’s opinion but some literary criticism is first-rate writing. When I feel like reading criticism I want erudition, something cultured, digressive and preferably tendentious. This list comprises ten favourite books that stand proudly alongside first-rate fiction:

  1. Hugh Kenner – The Counterfeiters: An Historical Novel
  2. Maurice Blanchot – The Space of Literature
  3. Harold Bloom – The Western Canon
  4. Guy Davenport – The Geography of the Imagination
  5. Cynthia Ozick – Metaphor & Memory
  6. Denis Donoghue – The Practise of Reading
  7. William H. Gass – A Temple of Texts
  8. D. J. Enright – The Alluring Problem: an Essay on Irony
  9. Susan Sontag – Against Interpretation
  10. Vladimir Nabokov – Lectures on Literature
The list is in no particular order. It could have easily grown to twenty and included work of Cyril Connolly, William Empson, Joseph Brodsky or Viktor Shlovsky.