Loads of Learned Lumber

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Stephen Burt, _Close Calls with Nonsense: Reading New Poetry_

THERE ARE PUNCHIER and more provocative reviewers of contemporary poetry out there, but I'm now 56, and I'have learned the hard way that the punchy and provocative typically has a very early sell-by date. So Stephen Burt is my favorite reviewer of contemporary poetry. He's gracious, he's smart, he's open-minded, and when he says something is worth reading, it almost invariably is. He's not above trying to launch a bandwagon (see "The Elliptical Poets"), but he doesn't puff poets for being oin the right side of some movement, nor trash them for being on the wrong side. I'm glad he's out there.

This handy volume from Graytwolf collects about thirty of the reviews and articles Burt has published since the mid-1990s, some on general topics in poetry, most reviews of particular poets. Quite a few I had read before, but they are worth re-reading, if only to confirm that they are really as good as I thought they were the first time around. Burt may not be infallible -- not quite sure what he sees August Kleinzahler, for instance (speaking of poetry reviewers, sub-category punchy and provocative) -- but he's to contemporary poetry what the late John Hammond was to contemporary music: a guy who knows the real thing when he encounters it.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Dezsö Kosztolányi, _Skylark_, tr. Richard Aczel

I don't quite know how, with book publishing apparently in critical condition, the people at New York Review Books are making a go of things by re-publishing obscure and neglected masterpieces. Maybe they're not making a go of it, but are instead subsidized to the hilt by some enlightened benefactor; or, to be optimistic, perhaps it is a case of virtue rewarded, since with their current track record one can buy a New York Review Books publication, even if you have never heard of the author, and be fully confident that you have something worth reading.

I had never heard of Dezsö Kosztolányi, nor of Skylark, before the NYRB version appeared, but the plot description had some appeal. We're in a small Hungarian town around the turn of the 20th century, observing the Vajkays (Ákos and Antónia), an aging modestly-genteel couple whose unmarried adult daughter (Skylark) still lives with them. Skylark takes a week's vacation with relatives in the country, and after half a day of wondering how they will ever manage to get along without her, the Vajkays begin doing things they had given up years ago: eating at restaurants (which Skylark dislikes, too much paprika), going to theater (ditto, too vulgar), Ákos going to his old club, Antónia playing the piano. To their horror, they find themselves living a much more enjoyable life in Skylark's absence. What will they do when she returns?

Go back to being Mother and Father, of course. After a brief dramatic outburst the evening before Skylark returns, they accept their lot, meet her at the station, and slip into their old hebetude as into an old out-at-the-elbows bathrobe. In the final chapter, we finally get an extended look at things from Skylarks' point of view, and they are hardly rosier: her marriage prospects are virtually extinct, and she has nothing to look forward to but continuing to keep house for her aging parents, who will at some not-too-distant time die and leave her alone in a gray blankness she can hardly imagine.

A lot of Skylark is a charming, sepia-toned gallery of small town life during the twilight of the Austro-Hungarian empire. The town, Sárszeg, is a kind of Lake Wobegon, with its own small-town characters, habits, gossip, and institutions, and Kosztolányi a kind of Garrison Keillor, perceptive about his characters' foibles and narrowness but ultimately forgiving.

But underneath the charm we also sense a small but genuine domestic tragedy: three people in a situation no one of them likes, that does no one of them much good, but to which no one of them can conceive of an alternative. It's a study in resignation to the inevitable, an Old World lesson if there ever was one; here in the New World, we learn before we go to kindergarten that if one is unhappy, one Does Something About It. Skylark is about another world, and not just in the geographical or historical sense.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Muriel Barbery, _L'élégance du hérisson_


The English translation of this novel, The Elegance of the Hedgehog, was the book club selection for August. I read the original because it was summer and I had the time to do so -- besides, since I'm an American, everything sounds witty and intelligent in French. But the enchantment didn't entirely hold with this novel, since it feels like a Catcher with two Holdens.

There are two narrators, 54-year-old Renée, concierge in a haute-bourgeois apartment building, and going-on-thirteen Paloma, the younger of two daughters of a family that lives in the building. Like Holden, Renée and Paloma are perceptive and articulate but not taken seriously by the people around them. Like Holden, they can be savagely dismissive of anyone who strikes them as pretentious, insincere, or acting in bad faith. Like Holden, they tend to categorize all people other than themselves as pretentious, insincere, or acting in bad faith.

Most of the first half of the novel is mini-essays from either Renée or Paloma on the pervasive pretentiousness, insincerity, and bad faith that surrounds them. Paloma is so oppressed by it all that she plans to commit suicide on her 13th birthday by setting fire to her family's apartment.

Wheels begin to turn with the arrival of Monsieur Ozu, a Japanese gentilhomme of ample means, refined aesthetic sense, and pitch-perfect non-western sensibilité. Through his agency, Renée and Paloma discover each other and forge a cross-generational friendship of the sensitive, considerate and plucky, in Forster's phrase.

There is even a budding romance between Renée and M. Ozu, despite the formidable obstacle of her engrained suspicion and dislike of all wealthy people, but then fate of the tomorrow-we-could-be-hit-by-a-truck variety intervenes when Renée is hit by a truck. She dies, but Paloma has discovered a reason to live, and does not burn down her family's apartment.

Apparently L'élégance du hérisson is phenomenally popular all over the place, and I suspect that popularity may be due to the large number of people who feel that they, too, are perceptive, articulate, yet not taken sufficiently seriously, and moreover surrounded by phonies. Ever since Mark David Chapman, it's been hard to contemplate this segment of the population without a little inward shudder.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Bill Bryson, _The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid_

THE BOOK CLUB that my spouse and I belong to read this for July. Bryson is a witty, likeable writer who has handled a variety of subjects; this is a memoir of growing up in Des Moines, Iowa, during the Eisenhower-Kennedy era.

Since I am just a few years younger than Bryson, and also lived in Des Moines, and also had a father who worked on the staff of the Register and Tribune, this book was like a carton of madeleines for me. Younkers. Bishop's Buffet. Riverview Amusement Park. That enormous globe in the lobby of the Register and Tribune building. Not to mention all the odds and ends that anyone who was a child at the time will remember: Nehi soda, comic books, the communist threat.

The younger Bryson was more than capable of unmixed snarkiness about Des Moines -- cf. his first book, The Lost Continent -- but the tone here is more that of mildly bemused elegy. He seems to genuinely miss the pre-franchise when any modestly-sized American city had a full spectrum of its own shops, restaurants, and amusements: Reed's Ice Cream, in Des Moines, rather than Baskin-Robbins, the Younkers Book Department rather than Barnes and Noble.

Odd how attractive the era now seems, given how fervently, circa 1968-1970, everyone in Bryson's and my generation wanted to get away from it all, or blow it all up -- the martinis, the obligatory hats for men, the tiny white gloves for women, the tailfins, the whole split-level ranch-style nuclear bomb Ed Sullivan Show world.... Now, thanks perhaps to Mad Men, it has this strange paradise lost aura.

A few months ago I saw a billboard in town advertising Canadian Club whiskey: Cold War paterfamilias in his Cold War den (fallout shelter?) with a glass of whiskey, over the legend, "Damn Right Your Dad Drank It." None of your fancy-ass single malts for Dad, you pathetic twig on the family tree! Canadian Club and soda on the rocks, and pass the Chex mix.