WRB—August 30, 2023
"an Aristophonic perfect fit"
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In today’s edition:
(working backwards from the bottom):
Basho…the general public…Christopher Marlowe…Dune…love…easy listening…Connie Converse…translating poetry…Gay Talese…
Two in The New Statesman:
Will Lloyd on Evelyn Waugh’s attitudes towards the world:
That first novel set the pattern for all the rest. Waugh’s technique was so fully formed that he never really had to develop as a novelist. The economical style, leavened occasionally by baroque flights of fantasy, the masterful dialogue, the cast of aristocrats and foolish progressives, were already in place. His imagination fed off what he knew and experienced; Decline and Fall is filled with exaggerated characters and enlarged situations stripped from Waugh’s life. The mock hero, Paul Pennyfeather, is the man Waugh might have become had he never escaped his elder brother’s shadow – a punching bag’s punching bag. This is true of Adam Symes in Vile Bodies, Tony Last in A Handful of Dust, William Boot in Scoop, and all his other hapless protagonists. They are shadows; witnesses to their lives, not actors in them. Bad things—decapitation, cuckoldry, Welsh male voice choirs—happen to Waugh’s characters without explanation. When Paul, finding himself imprisoned after several absurd incidents, asks his heartless girlfriend, Margot, why she is leaving him for another man, she tells him, “It’s just how things are going to happen. Oh Dear! How difficult it is to say anything.” There is no why in these novels. There is only nastiness, followed by . . . oh dear!
Madoc Cairns on how the death of his brother shaped E.P. Thompson:
So it was something other than curiosity that brought Thompson, in the middle of the greatest crisis of his life, in late 1978, to Bulgaria, to Frank: to the mystery that made him a historian. As he retraced his brother’s final journey, Thompson found shadowy figures standing in his way. He called them anti-historians. Shredded documents, censored records, vicious rumours, convenient lies: if historians recover the past, anti-historians work to destroy it. Thompson still found enough to be deeply disturbed.
His brother’s mission was ill timed, badly planned and under-supplied: almost as if he was set up to fail. Thompson began to suspect he was: records suggested neither the Foreign Office nor the Soviets wanted the partisans to take power after the war. But even if Frank’s defeat was preordained, his death wasn’t. Eighteen days passed between Frank’s capture and his execution; 18 days that, Thompson discovered, the Bulgarian government had spent in continual communication with Allied intelligence, negotiating the country’s impending declaration of neutrality. Within that context, the state execution of a uniformed British officer seemed an unbelievable provocation. Unless it wasn’t a provocation at all, but a diplomatic headache neatly resolved: “somebody winked.” Frank Thompson died a hero because someone preferred it that way.
What was in Ellison’s head the whole time? As a reporter I am always interested in describing what my subjects are thinking as well as what they are doing and saying. And I am also interested in what I myself am thinking while I’m devoting my attention to other people. For example, what was on my mind as I observed Sinatra in his contrasting moods at the Daisy? On this evening I had most recently seen him behaving aggressively in the pool room, while earlier at the bar he had been a quiet and isolated figure. He did not even react to the playing of “In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning,” although this romantic music promptly drove dozens of couples to the dance floor; and as I stood watching while they held one another very close, I was thinking that Sinatra’s voice was an airy aphrodisiac—the very words I would write on cardboard in the men’s room—and I had visions of these young couples later leaving the Daisy and making love in their beds at home, or in rented rooms, or in any of a dozen other places—all sorts of places, including in parked cars, while Sinatra’s music was playing on the radio and the batteries were burning low.
Once, after listening to a text of mine mixing French and English, a first-year US student said reproachfully: “I didn’t understand the parts in French; I felt alienated.” I replied something like: “Relax! It’s okay, and liberating, not to understand sometimes and to realize that reality escapes in the form of languages one doesn’t know.” It’s also humbling to know that myriads of unknown or unidentified languages construct alternative realities. So, yes, there’s a need to reassert that opacité can be generative, totally! On the purely editorial side: Mosadeq pushed us to publish Recovery with some French in it, just like Récupérer had some English. The “tests” were written directly in English.
[Ezra Pound: “Skip anything you don't understand and go on till you pick it up again.” —Steve]
In the NYRB, Jill Lepore on inheriting her father’s library:
I picture my father—a very young man, who had lost his father, and seen war, and wandered the world—falling in love with this story of a homeland he had never seen, his father’s Italy. My father, too, was looking for a home, when he took Roman Civilization in his senior year, in Worcester, in 1949. A job, a wife, a family, children. He had found a story of himself, and even of his past, in Virgil. A story of wandering, a story of war and of the sorrows of war. He found Aeneas, wearing the mask of death, carrying the burden of grief. Honoring the dead. Building a new home. Wondering why the good suffer, and why war endures. Sighting Italy. And finding beauty in poetry. Seek we Crete and our forefathers.