Tuesday, July 10, 2012

ABC of Writers

Readers' Alphabet
Lesson One
  A  is for Apollinaire

Guillaume Apollinaire (1880 – 1918) was a French surrealist poet and playwright; indeed, he is said to have coined the tem “surrealism.” Apollinaire is known for his light touch, for the mysterious delicacy of his language, and for the ingenuity and humor that grace his poetry, however serious its themes. Apollinaire’s early poetry treats traditional themes of love and loss, chance and destiny, within a framework that becomes more and more open to technical innovation. One of his early thematic collections, published in 1911, puts a new spin on a medieval formula: a modernist bestiary, it is illustrated with woodcuts by Raoul Dufy. The Bestiary displays Apollinaire’s affinity for the plastic arts – he was an art critic as well as a poet – and his tender feeling for animals. Apollinaire’s poetry, at its most experimental in Calligrammes (published posthumously), deploys typography and layout as the matrix holding the poem’s meaning.

Apollinaire was an integral member of Paris literary and artistic circles in Montparnasse. The surrealists were taken seriously within the literary community, but they also had fun: Apollinaire is said to have painted a black tie on his white shirt in order to get into a black-tie event. Whether true or not, the story commemorates Apollinaire as a free spirit, one who always used art to gain admission to the party.

Below, perhaps his best-known poem, more romantic than experimental: “Le Pont Mirabeau” (“Mirabeau Bridge”)


Sous le pont Mirabeau coule la Seine
           Et nos amours
     Faut-il qu'il m'en souvienne
La joie venait toujours après la peine
           Vienne la nuit sonne l'heure
           Les jours s'en vont je demeure

Les mains dans les mains restons face à face
           Tandis que sous
     Le pont de nos bras passe
Des éternels regards l'onde si lasse
           Vienne la nuit sonne l'heure
           Les jours s'en vont je demeure

L'amour s'en va comme cette eau courante
           L'amour s'en va
     Comme la vie est lente
Et comme l'Espérance est violente
           Vienne la nuit sonne l'heure
           Les jours s'en vont je demeure
Passent les jours et passent les semaines
           Ni temps passé
     Ni les amours reviennent
Sous le pont Mirabeau coule la Seine
           Vienne la nuit sonne l'heure
           Les jours s'en vont je demeure

Translated by Richard Wilbur

Under the Mirabeau Bridge there flows the Seine
          Must I recall
     Our loves recall how then
After each sorrow joy came back again
Let night come on bells end the day
The days go by me still I stay

Hands joined and face to face let's stay just so
          While underneath
     The bridge of our arms shall go
Weary of endless looks the river's flow
Let night come on bells end the day
The days go by me still I stay
All love goes by as water to the sea
          All love goes by
     How slow life seems to me
How violent the hope of love can be
Let night come on bells end the day
The days go by me still I stay

The days the weeks pass by beyond our ken
          Neither time past
     Nor love comes back again
Under the Mirabeau Bridge there flows the Seine
Let night come on bells end the day
The days go by me still I stay

B is for Byatt

"A book starts when two things you thought were different come together."

–– A.S. Byatt, The Guardian, Interviewed by Sam Leith, 2/24/09

A.S. Byatt was born on August 24, 1936, in Sheffield, England. One of Britain's preeminent writers, she is the author of critical studies, short story collections, and many acclaimed novels. Byatt’s novel Possession, set in Victorian England, won the Booker Prize in 1990.  Among her other novels are those comprising the quartet The Virgin in the Garden (1978), Still Life (1985), Babel Tower (1996), and A Whistling Woman (2002); Byatt’s quartet narrates the story of Frederica Potter, her family and her friends at university across several decades of the 20th century.  Byatt’s 2009 novel The Children’s Book, loosely based on the life of children’s writer Edith Nesbit, was short-listed for the Booker Prize. Byatt taught English and American literature at University College, London, and reviews new literature. Perhaps not unlike one of her characters, Byatt comes from a family of creative, intelligent, and possibly driven women. Her sisters are novelist Margaret Drabble and art historian Helen Langdon; their mother was Browning scholar Kathleen Bloor, wife of John Drabble CC.

In her fiction, Byatt develops her affinity with the cultural and intellectual preoccupations of Victorian era England, and shrewdly analyzes British society from the 1950s onward, focusing on women’s changing place within that society. Overall, her writing discloses a complex relation between illusion and reality. A wry critic of utopian ideals and social projects, she nevertheless suggests a place for fantasy in the life of the individual, where illusion can become a legitimate alternative to the harshness of reality.

For all the sophistication of her metafiction, Byatt is a meticulous realist. Her skills at  representing reality, and storytelling, are on display in this passage from one of her early novels:

Frederica, entering Long Royston for the first time, did not take to it. She had meant to.
It was a step, several steps, up and out of Blesford. Like Everest, climbed this year, it had always been there, but inaccessible. Now, invited by its owner, she walked across its gardens, planted, according to Crowe’s instructions, more or less in accordance with Francis Bacon’s prescriptions in his essay “Of Gardens”. It was a hideous grey spring, that year, but Bacon’s April flowers, in walled gardens, were struggling out. Bacon liked
the breath of flowers on the air. Frederica breathed in: the double white violet; the wallflower; the stock-gillyflower; the cowslip; flower-delices and lilies of all natures; rosemary flowers; the tulippa; the  double piony; the pale daffadil; the French honeysuckle; the cherry tree in blossom; the dammasin and plum tree in blossom; the white-thorn in leaf; the lilac tree. It was all in the guide-book, issued with pretty drawings when the gardens were thrown open at Easter and in June. You may, said Bacon, have ver perpetuum, as the place affords.  Even in North Yorkshire, though the moorland winds do softly ruffle. Frederica crunched along the terrace gravel, on which later the play was to be enacted. The breath of flowers is far sweeter in the air than in the hand. Wallflowers are very delightful to be set under a parlour or low chamber window. They were. But those which perfume the air most delightfully, not passed by as the rest, but being trodden on and crushed, are three: that is, burnet, wild thyme, and watermints. Therefore you are to set whole alleys of them, to have the pleasure, when you walk or tread. Crowe had provided that pleasure. Frederica saw other people walking and treading in pleached alleys planted with these things, known faces, unknown faces, familiar from photographs and posters. The revels are now beginning, she told herself.
   When she got in she was less happy. There was a white-coated butler, who took her macintosh and her name: there was Crowe, who said “how lovely” and passed on: there was a young man in a peacock corduroy jacket, studying a carving, half his face hidden behind huge tinted aquamarine lenses. She thought what she felt was social unease – alarm at being unable to impress herself on this knot of highly articulate, loudly fluting, brilliantly mobile creatures. Social unease always made her aggressive. Later, she wondered if what daunted her was not Long Royston itself.

“In the Humanist’s House,” Chapter 13, The Virgin in the Garden


          C is for Chekhov

Anton Chekhov (1840 – 1904) was a physician, a great Russian playwright, and a master craftsman of the short story. He famously said that “Medicine is my lawful wife and literature is my mistress.”  In the long view however, Chekhov may have proved more faithful to literature than to medicine, though he practiced medicine throughout his literary career. His plays The Seagull, Uncle Vanya, Three Sisters, and The Cherry Orchard have been reinterpreted for the stage by every generation up to the present, and form part of the standard modernist repertory. Chekhov’s stories, from short stories to novellas, continue to be read by a vast international audience, and are everywhere emulated by students of creative writing.

Chekhov owned a home and a summer cottage in Yalta, Russia’s famous resort town on the Black Sea. In 1899 he wrote a story set in Yalta and in Moscow: the shrewdly poignant masterpiece “Lady with a Dog.”

The following quotation in Russian from “Lady with a Dog” is followed by a translation of the passage into English:

 У него были две жизни: одна явная, которую видели и знали все, кому это нужно было, полная условной правды и условного обмана, похожая совершенно на жизнь его знакомых и друзей, и другая - протекавшая тайно. И по какому-то странному стечению обстоятельств, быть может случайному, всё, что было для него важно, интересно, необходимо, в чем он был искренен и не обманывал себя, что составляло зерно его жизни, происходило тайно от других, всё же, что было его ложью, его оболочкой, в которую он прятался, чтобы скрыть правду, как, например, его служба в банке, споры в клубе, его "низшая раса", хождение с женой на юбилеи, - всё это было явно.   ––ДАМА С СОБАЧКОЙ

He had two lives: one, open, seen and known by all who cared to know, full of relative truth and of relative falsehood, exactly like the lives of his friends and acquaintances; and another life running its course in secret. And through some strange, perhaps accidental, conjunction of circumstances, everything that was essential, of interest and of value to him, everything in which he was sincere and did not deceive himself, everything that made the kernel of his life, was hidden from other people; and all that was false in him, the sheath in which he hid himself to conceal the truth -- such, for instance, as his work in the bank, his discussions at the club, his "lower race," his presence with his wife at anniversary festivities -- all that was open.  ––Lady with a Dog

                                                                                 Lesson Two

                                                        D is for Diotima of Mantinea

"Those who are pregnant in the body only, betake themselves to women and beget children­­–this is the character of their love; their offspring, as they hope, will preserve their memory and giving them the blessedness and immortality which they desire in the future.  But souls which are pregnant–for there certainly are men who are more creative in their souls than in their bodies–conceive that which is proper for the soul to conceive or contain. And what are these conceptions?  Wisdom and virtue in general.  And such creators are poets and all artists who are deserving of the name inventor.”

Diotima’s speech in ‘The Symposium,’ translated by Benjamin Jowett

E is for Erasmus

"And now to sum up (lest I go on with these citations to infinity), the entire Christian religion seems to bear a certain natural affinity to folly, and to relate far less clearly to wisdom."

–– ‘In Praise of Folly’
                                     F is for Flaubert

The son of a physician, Flaubert (1821 – 1880) was hyper-aware of the skull beneath the skin. Among his five well-crafted novels, Madame Bovary is the best known. Flaubert kept a diary of human follies, which he saw as rampant among the middle class; his novel Bouvard and Pécuchet recounts the commission of folly after folly by two hapless adventurers. There is plenty of folly in Madame Bovary too, but with a difference: Flaubert strongly identified with Emma Bovary, the novel's main character, and famously stated, "Madame Bovary, c'est moi." ("I am Madame Bovary.")

A writer's writer (as well as a reader's writer), Flaubert became France's preeminent Realist as a result of his precision, that is, his emphasis on using "le mot juste" ("just the right word"). Flaubert's realism extended well beyond verbal verisimilitude, however. In Madame Bovary and Sentimental Education, Flaubert captured the spirit of his time, putting a new twist on middle class aspirations. Flaubert saw these aspirations in retrospect, colored by disillusionment and philosophical pessimism. Perhaps in keeping with his characters' ultimate mood of disillusionment, Flaubert is a master of irony. Readers can enjoy the author's wit, and the irony inherent in many situations he depicts, as an effective way of keeping the human suffering he exposes comfortably at bay.   

              Following is an oft-quoted passage in French and English.

“Mais c’était surtout aux heures des repas qu’elle n’en pouvait plus, dans cette petite salle au rez-de-chaussée, avec le poêle qui fumait, la porte qui criait, les murs qui suintaient, les pavés humides ; toute l’amertume de l’existence, lui semblait servie sur son assiette, et, à la fumée du bouilli, il montait du fond de son âme comme d’autres bouffées d’affadissement. Charles était long à manger; elle grignotait quelques noisettes, ou bien, appuyée du coude, s’amusait, avec la pointe de son couteau, à faire des raies sur la toile cirée.” 

“But it was at meal-times that life seemed especially unbearable, down there in that little ground-floor dining-room with its smoking stove, its creaking door, its sweating walls, and its damp floors. It seemed as though all the bitterness of existence was served up to her on her plate and that with the fumes of the stew there rose up from her inmost being all manner of other sickly exhalations. Charles was a slow eater; she would nibble a few nuts or, leaning on her elbow, beguile the time by making little lines on the shiny table-cover with the point of her knife.”

–– Madame Bovary

                                                                                        G is for Goodman


Allegra Goodman is her real name. As the author explains: “My parents were young and happy when I was born. My name is a cameo of my father and mother as newlyweds with their whole lives before them.” (www.allegragoodman.com) Allegro aptly marks the tempo of some of Goodman’s best writing: quick, lively, and bright. Passages like her snapshot of ebullient newlyweds George and Jess in The Cookbook Collector capture the spirit of Milton’s lilting “L’Allegro” – his poem about the happy man who spends a day in the country, and values music, laughter, and urban pleasures like the theater. Likewise in The Cookbook Collector, the author's lighthearted spirit glides above the surface of her story, unfurling passage after passage evoking youthful exuberance, the green world of nature, and communal festivity. Deeper, more thoughtful aspects of Goodman’s work, however, can be seen to reflect the spirit of Milton’s companion piece “Il Penseroso” – a poem about a man, wise and meditative, who spends nights walking in the woods and studying in a tower. Here too, in Goodman’s most recent novel The Cookbook Collector (2010), it can be said that Milton’s Il Penseroso surfaces as an archetype in the character of Rabbi Helfgott, appears hauntingly at the peak of the existential learning curve confronting sisters Emily and Jessamine Bach, and materializes in the new found wisdom culminating the late coming-of-age of George Friedman, book collector and former Microsoft whiz kid.  

Born January 1, 1967, in Brooklyn, New York, Goodman grew up in Honolulu, the daughter of Lenn E. Goodman, Professor of Philosophy, and Madeleine Goodman, a biologist at the University of Hawaii. Goodman graduated from Punahou, an independent school founded in the 19th century by Congregationalist missionaries, in 1985, completed her undergraduate work at Harvard, and earned a doctorate in English Literature from Stanford. Goodman is married to computer scientist David Karger, and lives with her husband and their four children in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

The Cookbook Collector, from which the excerpt below is taken, has been praised for its spot-on descriptions, astute social comedy, and perfect understanding of the financial crisis of 2008. By contrast, some reviewers found Goodman’s Intuition disappointing because it did not readily display Goodman’s vaunted wit. A victim of favorable expectations, Goodman’s novel about the intense world of cancer research, with its laboratory hierarchies, dependency on grants, and hungry post-docs, failed to win the audience it deserved. In fact this versatile writer produced a different type of novel in Intuition: a raw, truth-telling novel of relentless realism, which nevertheless features Goodman’s signature non-judgmental, gentle regard for even the least likeable of her characters.

I have seen her in person, as a speaker at a writer’s conference, and Goodman is indeed so lively that it is hard to imagine her sitting still long enough to write a novel, let alone a work of consummate craftsmanship like The Cookbook Collector. Fittingly, Goodman says she writes on the go: any time, anyplace, anywhere. Goodman was a National Book Award finalist for her 1998 novel, Kaaterskill Falls. She has received other awards as well, but not so many or so prestigious that we have to worry about her being ‘loaded with honors and sinking without a trace.’

What will Goodman write next? In the case of this author, that remains an open question. In an interview with Five Books in November of 2011, Goodman chose George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda to recommend as a work of Jewish fiction. Defending her choice, Goodman argues that it was Eliot’s brilliance as a writer-researcher that allowed her to author a great work of fiction about Jewish life in the 19th century – something of which she had no direct experience. “Eliot showed me that you should write about what you know but also about what you learn,” comments Goodman, avowing that she did just that in creating her scientist characters in Intuition, and the technocrats in The Cookbook Collector (Five Books/ The Browser: http://thebrowswer.com/interviews/allegra-goodman-on-jewish-fiction).

Whatever she writes next, Goodman’s eighth work of (published) fiction will startle and delight, inform, inspire, and challenge.

From The Cookbook Collector:

"Harvard Square glowed with artificial light. Damp air misted the doors of Brattle Street Florist with its potted azaleas and glossy-leaved gardenias. Cardullo’s stocked Dutch licorice and Belgian chocolate, Bendicks mints, Walkers shortbread, Turkish delight. Every shop tempted with earrings and antiquities, evergreens and crimson KitchenAids. But the millennium’s end was not altogether jolly. The hungry still hungered, addicts scratched and stole. The season had its somber rites, exams and funerals. Hushed students filed into Houghton Library to view the manuscript of “Ode to Autumn” and puzzle at its wailful choir of loss and consolation.
  The market dipped and rose, and rose again, and some speculated that the new economy had limits. It was popular to say, even without believing, that this time might never come again, that it was late in the day. Some said the markets had already peaked, and Wall Street wizards agreed that timing was everything. Therefore, ISIS celebrated its December IPO with equal parts relief and trepidation.
  Orion noticed that where there had been banter about boats and cars, bikes and ultralights, now the talk was strictly options and derivatives, wills and trusts."   

* * *
"One night, as he and Molly walked through Harvard Square, he saw a tall figure standing on a pedestal in front of Jasmine Sola. An angel dressed in white and painted white from head to toe. Feathery wings rose up behind her and white robes draped her body down to her white feet. Orion had seen these living statues before: angels, brides, cavaliers, standing on their pedestals, never moving, scarcely breathing until passersby dropped money at their feet. Like coin-operated automatons the statues bowed or curtsied, doffed hats or winked. He had seen them all before, but he
stopped in front of this one.
  “Come on,” Molly said, eager to get to their movie, but Orion couldn’t help staring at the angel with her outspread wings.
  “Sorel?” he murmured. The ghostly figure did not move. “Is that you?”
  Molly was puzzled. “Is that who…?”
  “It’s someone from work.”
  “From ISIS? Are you sure?”
  He wasn’t sure. The figure stood so still and seemed so solid, her face layered with thick white greasepaint, her figure heavy in its draperies. Maybe he was just imagining Sorel. He saw her everywhere. Then he caught a red-gold gleam, one loose hair. “It is you!” he called up to her.
  But Sorel was a Method angel who would not break character. She continued, calm, majestic, unblinking even as children tried to touch her feet, and other buskers covered Simon & Garfunkel in shop doorways. Hello, darkness my old friend…Orion allowed Molly to hurry him away.
  “That was you!” he told Sorel on Monday, as soon as she walked in.
  “That was art,” she said, sliding her guitar under her desk.
  “Admit it,” he said. “You saw me in the square.”
  “She laughed. “I admit nothing.”
  “Why do you do that?” Why do you stand out there in the cold? You don’t need the money.”
  She conceded. “I give it away.”
  “Why do you stand out there so late at night?”
  “It’s personal. It’s intimate.”
  “It’s intimate to disguise yourself and stand out there in a crowd of strangers?”
  “Yes. Compared to this place.”
  He leaned against the gray wall of her cubicle. “What if some guy starts hitting on you? What do you do then?”
  A smile played on her lips. “Turn him to stone.”

–– The Cookbook Collector by Allegra Goodman

                                                                                                         H is for Homer

Picture of 1st century B.C. coin from Smyrna shows Apollo, and Homer seated, holding a scroll.


 So he escaped. But as the wave flowed back once more,                           430
it charged, struck, and flung him out to sea.  Just as
an octopus is dragged out of its den with pebbles
clinging to its suckers, that's how his skin was scraped
from his strong hands against the rocks, as that great wave
engulfed him.  And then unfortunate Odysseus                            
would have perished, something not ordained by fate,
if bright-eyed Athena had not given him advice.
Moving from the surf where it pounded on the shore,
he swam out to sea, but kept looking at the land,
hoping to come across a sloping beach somewhere                                    440
or a haven from the sea.  He kept swimming on
and reached the mouth of a fair-flowing river,
which seemed to him the finest place to go onshore.
There were no rocks, and it was sheltered from the wind.
Odysseus recognized the river as it flowed                                    
and prayed to him deep in his heart:

                                        "Hear me, my lord,
whoever you may be.  I've come to you,
the answer to my many prayers, fleeing
Poseidon's punishment from the deep sea.
A man who visits as a wanderer
commands respect, even with deathless gods

just as I've now reached your stream and knees,
after suffering so much.  So pity me,
my lord—I claim to be your suppliant."                                           450

Odysseus spoke.  At once the god held back his flow,                  
checked the waves, calmed the water up ahead of him,
and brought him safely to the river mouth.  Both knees bent,
he let his strong hands fall
—the sea had crushed his spirit.
All his skin was swollen, and sea water flowed in streams
up in his mouth and nose.  He lay there breathless,
without a word, hardly moving—quite overcome
with terrible exhaustion.  But when he revived
and spirit moved back in his heart, he untied
the veil the goddess gave him and let the river                                           460
take it as it flowed out to the sea.  A great wave                               
carried it downstream, and then without delay
Ino's friendly hands retrieved it.  But Odysseus
turned from the river, sank down in the rushes,
and kissed life-giving earth.  Then in his anxiety,
he spoke to his great heart:

                               "What now?  What's next for me?
How will I end up?  If I stay right here
all through the wretched night, with my eye on
the river bed, I fear the bitter frost
and freshly fallen dew will both combine
to overcome me when, weak as I am,                                      
my spirit's breath grows faint—the river wind
blows cold in early morning.  But if I climb                                     470
uphill into the shady woods and lie down there
in some thick bushes and so rid myself
of cold and weariness, sweet sleep may come
and overpower me, and then, I fear,
I may become some wild beast's prey, its prize."

As he thought it through, the best thing seemed to be
to move up to the woods.  Close by the water
he found a place with a wide view.  So he crept                                
underneath two bushes growing from one stem,
one was an olive tree, the other a wild thorn.
Wet winds would not be strong enough to ever blow
through both of these, nor could the bright sun's rays shine in,
and rain would never penetrate—they grew so thick,                                480
all intertwined with one another.  Under these
Odysseus crawled and immediately gathered up
with his fine hands a spacious bed—fallen leaves
were all around, enough to cover two or three
in winter time, however bad the weather.                                      
When resourceful lord Odysseus noticed that,
he was happy and lay down in the middle,
heaping fallen leaves on top of him.  Just as
someone on a distant farm without a neighbour
hides a torch underneath black embers, and thus saves
a spark of fire, so he won't need to kindle it                                               490
from somewhere else, that's how Odysseus spread the leaves
to cover him.  Athena then poured sleep onto his eyes,
covering his eyelids, so he could find relief,
a quick respite from his exhausting troubles.                                      

––The Odyssey, Book V, Translated by Ian Johnston

                                                                                  I is for Ishiguro

Japanese-born Kazuo Ishiguro was raised and educated in Britain. He won the 1989 Man Booker Prize for his novel The Remains of the Day, and is the author of dystopian science fiction novel Never Let Me Go (2005).  Both novels have been made into films.  Ishiguro’s writing often deals with self-deception and the unreliability of memory.

“But perhaps something of this sort has been on the cards for some time. For the truth is, over the past year, I have become increasingly preoccupied with my memories, a preoccupation encouraged by the discovery that these memories––of my childhood, of my parents––have lately begun to blur. A number of times recently I have found myself struggling to recall something that only two or three years ago I believed was ingrained in my mind for ever. I have been obliged to accept, in other words, that with each passing year, my life in Shanghai will grow less distinct, until one day all that will remain will be a few muddled images. Even tonight, when I sat down here and tried to gather in some sort of order these things I still remember, I have been struck anew by how hazy so much has grown. To take for instance this incident I have just recounted regarding my mother and the health inspector: while I am fairly sure I have remembered its essence accurately enough, turning it over in my mind again, I find myself less certain about some of the details…”

––When We Were Orphans, 2000

                                                          J is for Joyce

From the clear prose of his short story collection Dubliners (1914) and stream-of-consciousness novel A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916), to the exuberant feast of language – puns, allusions, figures of speech, argot – of his masterpieces Ulysses (1922) and Finnegans Wake (1939), James Joyce changed world literature while putting Irish literature on the map.

Joyce is less well known for his poems, like this one, written July 6, 1927, and published in Pomes, Penyeach:

On the Beach at Fontana

Wind whines and whines the shingle,
The crazy pierstakes groan;
A senile sea numbers each single
Slimesilvered stone.

From whining wind and colder
Grey sea I wrap him warm
And touch his trembling fineboned shoulder
And boyish arm.

Around us fear, descending
Darkness of fear above
And in my heart how deep unending
Ache of love!

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