Sunday, March 5, 2017

Dead Friends

Sitting on the terrace of the Monterey Court on a recent mild February evening in Tucson and listening to my neighbor John Coinman finish a song about the loss of an old friend, my attention turned inward. When you lose a friend who was the companion of your youth, your blood brother with whom you shared all the hope and determination of conquering the world with your art—when this happens to you and you are my friend John, you sing a song about it.
            My friendship with Pat Kent, dead these twenty-five years now, was like John’s with his friend: hitchhiking together through the Southwest, dropping out of college together, getting as far from home as we could, dreaming of being writers. What happens when you lose a friend so close you finish each other’s sentences? You finish your own sentences, I guess.
            It’s an old, old story, older even than the Greek epics. Gilgamesh’s friendship with Enkidu, the tamed wild man of the forest, begins with a fight that ends in their sworn fellowship. Together they kill the Bull of Heaven sent by the vengeful goddess Ishtar. Together they tackle the most fearsome creature imaginable, the Humbaba. Gilgamesh strikes the first blow, Enkidu the second. We are not told who strikes the third blow that fells the monster; thus does the poet indicate the closeness of their cooperation. To find the creature, Gilgamesh and Enkidu have braved the fearsome wood that stretches ten thousand leagues in every direction. But Enkidu has a dream: the gods have decided that one of them must die. Enkidu knows that Gilgamesh is the hero of this poem, so it is Enkidu who sickens and dies. The author of the Gilgamesh epic, writing at the end of the third millennium before Christ, knows the varied feelings the death of a friend engenders and how these are mixed.
            When my friend Pat died he and I were in our late forties. The bloom of youth was off, but there was plenty of world left to conquer. Pat had increased the number of languages for which he did technical translations to twenty-two—he was a remarkable linguist. I had published my fourth book and was a couple of years from being named chair of my college department. His cancer had already metastasized when he was diagnosed and took only about a year to kill him. This death brought me stinging grief followed by the emptiness of loss. But other feelings forced themselves into the grief. The bloom of youth was off for sure with the realization of my own mortality. Pat’s death was the closest that had yet touched me. A kind of futility replaced my anticipation of the future.
            Montaigne’s great friend Étienne de La Boétie was only thirty-two when he died, and Montaigne was thirty. He celebrates their comradeship in one of his first essays, “On Friendship.” Astute readers, including Virginia Woolf and Montaigne’s translator Donald Frame, have written about his need to write to preserve his mental health, and the fact that the first series of essays was written in the half dozen years after the death of his friend. He tells us himself that his first idea about the form his writing should take was letters written to La Boétie. But he happily settled on a form which, if he didn’t invent it, certainly traces its modern origin to him. For Adam Gopnik, the form of the essay itself reproduces the wish to communicate in this personal fashion: it says to the reader, “You’re my best friend.”
            Gilgamesh experiences a profound fear of his own death following that of his friend. He goes on a quest for eternal life. After a number of adventures, the futility of the quest finally gets through to him, and he returns to the city of Uruk, whose walls he built himself, and, in the words of one of his translators, Nancy Sandars, he “engraved on a stone the whole story.”
            Grief, thoughts of one’s own mortality, and a stab at immortality for ourselves, our dead friends, and our friendship. Sing the song, build the city and preserve the story in stone, write the essay.

Saturday, January 21, 2017

Election 2016

I am renaming Orozco's print, "Election 2016."
Like all right-thinking people, I conclude, when an election goes my way, that a good system is working as it should. When it doesn’t go my way, I bemoan a deranged system where the δημος, the mob, can be unduly influenced by a δημηγορος, a demagogue. In the case of the election of 2016, it was hardly any skill of a demagogue that did the trick. Anybody can see through that guy—unless you’re in love. Proust says more than once in In Search of Lost Time that the beloved is never a real person but always the imaginary creation of the lover. The electorate fell in love with a figure of their own imagining, a combination of wealth, celebrity, and take-me-back nostalgia, who was going to restore a past that meant different things to everyone who imagined that the promiser could bring it back. For one guy it meant a time when you didn’t have to have a college degree to get a good job. For another guy it was a time when everyone “knew his place.” For one woman it was a time when the faces all looked like hers. 

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Suite Française

The last couple of years have begun for me with reading about the beginning of WWII. At the beginning of 2016 I read A. J. Liebling’s The Road Back to Paris about the fall of Paris (Liebling was there until a day or two before the Germans marched in) and the beginning of the war before the U. S. entered the European theater and the Germans began to be pushed back in North Africa.  At the beginning of this year I read Irène Némirovsky’s Suite Française, about Parisians fleeing the city just before the Germans marched in, and the people in provincial France coping with the occupation. These were two completed novels of a projected five that Némirovsky wrote in 1942, just before she was sent to Auschwitz, and which weren’t published until 2004. In the first novel, Storm in June, Némirovsky follows four groups of people as they attempt to get out of Paris and to what they hope is the safety of Nîmes, Tours, or Vichy. In the second novel, Dolce, she shows us the people in and around the village of Bussy: the local aristocracy, the families of the village, and the farmers, as they cope with German officers living in their houses. Némirovsky skewers the provincials and their stinginess, one farmer’s truculent, jealous and resentful nature, the haughtiness of the local aristocracy, and the minute hierarchical gradations among the bourgeoisie. She strikes me as owing more to Flaubert than to any Russian novelist. She delights in careful description, often, as in Flaubert, choosing the physical details that give insight into a venal, selfish, or weak character. Clarity and precise word choice, lyrical passages, but mostly lucid and simple storytelling characterize her writing. By 1942 Némirovsky had been a successful novelist for thirteen years and though writing in a tense and deteriorating situation, she got her adopted countrymen down on the page with grace and precision.

Monday, December 26, 2016

2016 Reading

About a quarter of my reading this year was nonfiction. A J. Liebling’s The Road Back to Paris (1944) gave me a view of the beginning of the war in Europe by a writer whose style I’ve always liked; my friend Chris Buckley’s book of memoir/essays Holy Days of Obligation (2014) told me much about him I hadn’t known. I very much enjoyed a collection of Max Beerbohm’s essays called The Prince of Minor Writers (2015), selected and with a fine introduction by Phillip Lopate. Beerbohm is the funny, urbane, self-deprecating writer Virginia Woolf, no slouch at the form herself, called the prince of essayists. Not so much fun was Bruce Chatwin’s quirky travel book In Patagonia (1977). The worst book I read his year was Charles Fernyhough’s The Voices Within: The History and Science of How We Talk to Ourselves (2016), which does not deliver on either of its subtitle’s promises. I was in search of something helpful toward an essay I’m writing about talking to myself, and Fernyhough was a disappointment.
            I finally finished Walter Benjamin’s Illuminations in the 1968 edition introduced by Hannah Arendt. I had read the essay on art and mechanical reproduction years ago, and also the essays on Baudelaire, and “Unpacking My Library,” but some of the other pieces were new to me. In an odd deconstruction of Proust’s mémoire involontaire Benjamin asks whether it is not closer to an art of forgetting than remembering. The two Kafka essays were also “illuminating.” Like David Foster Wallace, Benjamin highlights Kafka’s way of literalizing metaphors in his stories, though Benjamin doesn’t see this as a source of humor the way Wallace does.
            One of the year’s pleasant impulse reads was Witold Rybczynski’s entertaining, well-illustrated history of the chair, Now I Sit Me Down (2016). And after rereading E. H. Gombrich’s Art and Illusion (1965) last year, I went on to read again two other, very different art books: Erwin Panofsky’s Studies in Iconology (1939) and Joshua Taylor’s Learning to Look (1957).
            I also reread two modernist books on the novel: Percy Lubbock’s The Craft of Fiction (1921) and E. M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel (1927). I looked at them partly because I read this year, for the first time, some of the novels they talk about: Balzac’s Eugénie Grandet (1833), Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina (1878), Stendhal’s The Red and the Black (1830), and Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov (1880). I’ve decided despite being blown away by all these and, in the past, by War and Peace (1869) and Crime and Punishment (1866), that my favorite Russian novels are Anna Karenina and Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons (1862).
            Other books that I’d put off reading in the past that I got around to reading with pleasure this year: Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried (1990), Toni Morrison’s Beloved (1987), and an Alice Munro collection called Too Much Happiness (2009). They all pleased me as they had already done for so many others. Do you find that the books you’re reading always justify their reputations?
            Beloved raised a question in my mind right away about the ghost. Am I comfortable reading about ghosts? I guess the question for me is really an aesthetic one rather than a metaphysical one: what do you do with your ghosts? The Christian tradition divides into those on the Roman Catholic side, who’ve always believed that the dead continue to have an interest in the living, and the Reformation/Protestant side who thought they didn’t. If you think spirits abide then ghosts can’t be utterly foreign to you; even the hyperconservative Samuel Johnson had an open mind on the subject. I don’t believe spirits abide, but I believe in fiction.
            The most unusual books I read this year were the Rybczynski book on the history of chairs, Machado de Assis’s The Posthumous Memoirs of Bras Cubas (1881)—which is a satiric, anti-Romantic novel narrated by a dead man—and Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin (1833). Onegin is a novel in verse, but not just any verse; it’s written in patent imitation of Byron’s comic novel in verse, Don Juan (1821), though its matter is a tragic look at the honor code that leads Onegin to kill his best friend Lensky in a duel, and it treats cynically the sheltered Russian class from which its characters come. Also out of the ordinary in this year’s reading was Wild Apple (2015), a book of poems by HeeDuk Ra, sent to me by my friend and former student Daniel Parker, who translated the poems with his wife YoungShil Ji. They live in Daegu, South Korea, and Daniel teaches at Keimyung University. The poems range in reference from the southwestern United States, which inspired the title poem, to Ra’s homeland of South Korea and feature, among much nature description, pig’s heads for sale in the market, the female clam divers of the southern islands, and public baths. I was grateful for Daniel and Shil’s clear notes about Ra as well as about Korean language and culture.
            For balance and mental hygiene I also read this year a couple of Pogo collections and eight P. G. Wodehouse books.