Monday, 22 December 2008
In purest song one plays the constant fool
Theodore Roethke, “Infirmity” from Collected Poems of Theodore Roethke. Copyright © 1963 by Beatrice Roethke, Administratrix of the Estate of Theodore Roethke. Reprinted with the permission of Doubleday, a division of Random House, Inc.
Source: The Collected Poems of Theodore Roethke (1961).
For more on Roethke - a summary guide - and further poems.
Monday, 13 October 2008
James Baldwin & Barack Obama
Colm Toibin's article on James Baldwin and Barack Obama, at its best, serves to remind one of how very fine a writer Baldwin was, how unique his position in American society, and how needful it is to be reminded of both his life and his work. It also has the effect of making one eager for Obama's presidential autobiography eight years hence, or, less eagerly, should he not succeed, his account of this year's election: out of his failure might come a better book, but it's one I hope we never get to read. The article in full can be found at The New York Review of Books.
It seemed important, as both men set about making their marks on the world, for them to establish before anything else that their stories began when their fathers died and that they set out alone without a father's shadow or a father's permission. James Baldwin's Notes of a Native Son, published in 1951, begins: "On the 29th of July, in 1943, my father died." Baldwin was almost nineteen at the time. Barack Obama's Dreams from My Father, published in 1995, begins also with the death of his father: "A few months after my twenty-first birthday, a stranger called to give me the news."
Both men quickly then established their own actual distance from their fathers, which made their grief sharper and more lonely, but also made clear to the reader that they had a right to speak with authority, to offer this version of themselves partly because they themselves, through force of will and a steely sense of character, had invented the voice they were now using, had not been trained by any other man to be the figure they had become. "I had not known my father very well," Baldwin wrote.
We got on badly, partly because we shared, in our different fashions, the vice of stubborn pride. When he was dead I realized that I had hardly ever spoken to him. When he had been dead a long time I began to wish I had.
Of his father, Barack Obama wrote:
At the time of his death, my father remained a myth to me, both more and less than a man. He had left Hawaii back in 1963, when I was only two years old, so that as a child I knew him only through the stories that my mother and grandparents told.
Both men then, using photographs and memories, commented on their fathers' blackness. In both cases it seemed important to state or suggest that the father was more black than the son. Baldwin wrote that there was something buried in his father which had lent him
his tremendous power and, even, a rather crushing charm. It had something to do with his blackness, I think—he was very black—with his blackness and his beauty.
When Obama was a child, he wrote, "my father looked nothing like the people around me—that he was black as pitch, my mother white as milk."
In both cases too, the writers sought to make clear that their fathers' pasts were not their own pasts, but the past as a different country, a country they did not share. "He was of the first generation of free men," Baldwin wrote.
He, along with thousands of other Negroes, came North after 1919 and I was part of that generation which had never seen the landscape of what Negroes sometimes call the Old Country.
Obama's father was from a place even more distant: "He was an African, I would learn, a Kenyan of the Luo tribe, born on the shores of Lake Victoria in a place called Alego."
Although Obama mentions in passing in Dreams from My Father that he had read Baldwin when he was a young community activist in Chicago, there is no hint in the book that he modeled his own story in any way on Baldwin's work. In both of their versions of who they became in America and how, there are considerable similarities and shared key moments not because Obama was using Baldwin as a template or an example, but because the same hurdles and similar circumstances and the same moments of truth actually occurred almost naturally for both of them.
Baldwin and Obama, although in different ways, experienced the church and intense religious feeling as key elements in their lives. They both traveled and discovered while abroad, almost as a shock, an essential American identity for themselves while in the company of non-Americans who were black. They both came to see, in a time of bitter political division, some shared values with the other side. They both used eloquence with an exquisite, religious fervor.
As Northerners, they both were shocked by the South. They both had to face up to the anger, the rage, which lay within them, and everyone like them, as a way of taking the poison out of themselves. It is almost as though, in their search for power—Baldwin becoming the finest American prose stylist of his generation, Obama the first black nominee for president of the United States—they would both have to gain wisdom, both bitter and sweet, at the same fount, since no other fount was available. Their story is in some ways the same story because it could hardly have been otherwise.
In Notes of a Native Son, James Baldwin wrote about rage:
There is not a Negro alive who does not have this rage in his blood—one has the choice, merely, of living with it consciously or surrendering to it. As for me, this fever has recurred in me, and does, and will until the day I die.
In his speech on race in March 2008, Barack Obama, in tones more measured, more patient, but no less urgent, dealt with the same issues as they were experienced more than fifty years after Baldwin's essay appeared:
That legacy of defeat was passed on to future generations—those young men and increasingly young women who we see standing on street corners or languishing in our prisons, without hope or prospects for the future. Even for those blacks who did make it, questions of race, and racism, continue to define their worldview in fundamental ways. For the men and women of Reverend Wright's generation, the memories of humiliation and doubt and fear have not gone away; nor has the anger and the bitterness of those years. That anger may not get expressed in public, in front of white co-workers or white friends. But it does find voice in the barbershop or around the kitchen table. At times, that anger is exploited by politicians, to gin up votes along racial lines, or to make up for a politician's own failings.
In his first novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain, published in 1953, Baldwin wrote with remarkable intensity about the power of prayer and preaching for an otherwise powerless community, the sense of time spent in church as a time filled with soaring possibilities in contrast to the bitter world outside. It was as though that very bitterness offered the congregation a unique insight into the suffering of Christ and made the congregation for that time of prayer and preaching a chosen people whose spiritual exaltation, in all its fiery rhetoric and colorful abandon, could never be experienced by white people.
Baldwin matched his novel with an essay, "Down at the Cross," published in 1962, where he wrote about his own conversion as an adolescent filled with doubts and fears and ambitions and a sharp sense of exclusion:
One moment I was on my feet, singing and clapping and, at the same time, working out in my head the plot of a play I was working on then; the next moment, with no transition, no sensation of falling, I was on my back, with the lights beating down into my face and all the vertical saints above me.
Baldwin made it clear that the black experience in America could not be described using merely political terms; it could not be dealt with as a set of demands that could simply be satisfied by legislation. Because black suffering had been transformed so secretly and so completely by black religious leaders into spiritual suffering, what happened in black churches would have to be fully understood, dramatized, and explained before any solution would be possible. His first novel and his essay "Down at the Cross" sought to let white America into the secret that was Sunday for the black community:
The church was very exciting. It took a long time for me to disengage myself from this excitement, and on the blindest, most visceral level, I really never have, and never will. There is no music like that music, no drama like the drama of the saints rejoicing, the sinners moaning, the tambourines racing, and all those voices coming together and crying holy unto the Lord. There is still, for me, no pathos quite like the pathos of those multicolored, worn, somehow triumphant and transfigured faces, speaking from the depths of a visible, tangible, continuing despair of the goodness of the Lord.... Nothing that has happened to me since equals the power and the glory that I sometimes felt when, in the middle of a sermon, I knew that I was somehow, by some miracle, really carrying, as they say, "the Word"—when the church and I were one.
Out of oppression then came a freedom that only the church could offer and that gave the church a special, defining power for black communities, which was both beyond politics and deeply political, a power the Catholic Church in Poland and Ireland would also have. "Perhaps we were, all of us," Baldwin wrote,
bound together by the nature of our oppression, the specific and peculiar complex of risks we had to run; if so, within these limits we sometimes achieved with each other a freedom that was close to love.
In Dreams from My Father, Barack Obama described finding religion in Chicago, hearing about the history of the black church in America, the
history of slave religion,...Africans who, newly landed on hostile shores, had sat circled around a fire mixing newfound myths with ancient rhythms, their songs becoming a vessel for those most radical of ideas—survival, and freedom, and hope.
He described attending a sermon given by the Reverend Jeremiah Wright, pastor of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago:
People began to shout, to rise from their seats and clap and cry out, a forceful wind carrying the reverend's voice up into the rafters. As I watched and listened from my seat, I began to hear all the notes from the past three years swirl about me.... The desire to let go, the desire to escape, the desire to give oneself up to a God that could somehow put a floor on despair.
The sermons heard in those churches preached not only about eternal life and the ethereal life of the soul, but about the sufferings of the soul on this earth, in this America, and the emotions to which this suffering gave rise, including despair and anger. In March 2008 Obama would try to explain that anger as one of the many essential parts of the religious services that black people had been attending all of their lives, the services that Baldwin had dramatized and described, and that the white majority had been excluded from. "The fact," Obama said,
that so many people are surprised to hear that anger in some of Reverend Wright's sermons simply reminds us of the old truism that the most segregated hour in American life occurs on Sunday morning. That anger is not always productive; indeed, all too often it distracts attention from solving real problems; it keeps us from squarely facing our own complicity in our condition, and prevents the African-American community from forging the alliances it needs to bring about real change. But the anger is real; it is powerful; and to simply wish it away, to condemn it without understanding its roots, only serves to widen the chasm of misunderstanding that exists between the races.
Obama's church was like the one that Baldwin described in Go Tell It on the Mountain, a place where "all the men seemed mighty," that "rocked with the Power of God," that offered the community a sort of nobility and unity and sense of transcendence not available elsewhere. "That has been my experience at Trinity," Obama said in March 2008.
Like other predominantly black churches across the country, Trinity embodies the black community in its entirety—the doctor and the welfare mom, the model student and the former gang-banger. Like other black churches, Trinity's services are full of raucous laughter and sometimes bawdy humor. They are full of dancing, clapping, screaming and shouting that may seem jarring to the untrained ear. The church contains in full the kindness and cruelty, the fierce intelligence and the shocking ignorance, the struggles and successes, the love and yes, the bitterness and bias that make up the black experience in America.
Baldwin was a child preacher, and that tone never left his system, just as it is part of the rhetoric he came to use later on. Since both men made clear that the church was not a place where arguments were held, but rather where souls were lifted up by grace as much as by language, where voices rose not in reason but in pure denial of reason for the sake of a great salvation, then to isolate some of Reverend Wright's views as expressed in his sermons and ask Obama to distance himself from them was to miss the point.
Had their ambitions been less focused and their personalities less complex, Baldwin and Obama could easily have become pastors, preachers, leaders of black churches. But for both of them there was a shadow, a sense of an elsewhere that would form them and make them, eventually, more interested in leading America itself, or as much of it as would follow, than merely leading their own race in America. Both of them would discover their essential Americanness outside America, Baldwin in France, the home of some of his literary ancestors, Obama in Kenya, the home of his father.
There is a peculiar intensity in the quality of their engagement with these foreign countries. Indeed, there are very few American writers born in the twentieth century whose level of involvement with another country equals Baldwin's with France; and it is impossible to think of another American politician who has been involved in the life of another country as Obama has been with Kenya.
Baldwin and Obama did not merely observe these countries, finding out much about foreign morals, manners, and social problems. What is crucial in both cases is that what they most fruitfully observed in the end was themselves. What they found within themselves changed them profoundly and made them different from everyone else around them; what they found gave these two fatherless men, already possessed of an eloquence which came from a source hidden from most Americans, a new power and a freedom and a sense of a destiny to fulfill.
Baldwin moved to Paris in November 1948 when he was twenty-four. "I left America," he wrote in 1959,
because I doubted my ability to survive the fury of the color problem here.... I wanted to prevent myself from becoming merely a Negro; or, even, merely a Negro writer.
In these years it occurred to him that while he was a stranger in Europe, he was not, as he had supposed, such a stranger in his own country. In one essay, describing life in a Swiss village, he wrote:
No road whatever will lead Americans back to the simplicity of this European village where white men still have the luxury of looking on me as a stranger. I am not, really, a stranger any longer for any American alive. One of the things that distinguishes Americans from other people is that no other people has ever been so deeply involved in the lives of black men, and vice versa.
In his introduction to Nobody Knows My Name, published in 1961, Baldwin wrote of his stay in France: "The question of who I was had at last become a personal question." In one of the essays in that book he described attending the Conference of Negro-African Writers and Artists in Paris in 1956 and finding an enormous gap between himself and the writers who had come from Africa:
For what, at bottom, distinguished the Americans from the Negroes who surrounded us, men from Nigeria, Senegal, Barbados, Martinique...was the banal and abruptly quite overwhelming fact that we had been born in a society, which, in a way quite inconceivable for Africans, and no longer real for Europeans, was open, and, in a sense which has nothing to do with justice or injustice, was free. It was a society, in short, in which nothing was fixed and we had therefore been born to a greater number of possibilities, wretched as these possibilities seemed at the instant of our birth. Moreover, the land of our forefathers' exile had been made, by that travail, our home.
Baldwin summed up the result of his experience in France: "I found myself, willy-nilly, alchemized into an American the moment I touched French soil."
The realization that he was an American, albeit one who came into being through alchemy, had a profound impact on Baldwin not only as a political thinker and essayist, but as an artist. It allowed him to write two masterpieces—Giovanni's Room and Another Country—in which the souls of white people are examined with sympathy and tenderness; it allowed him to formulate a credo, as an artist who wrote also about black people, that their fate should not be predetermined by their color but by the intimate spaces hidden in their souls. Our failure to love with due care became his subject; his genius was to spread that failure wide, make it an existential problem, almost a religious one, rather than one which could be solved, for example, by liberal legislation. It also allowed him to realize that the history of black America belonged to whites as much as to blacks and that the
black-white experience [in America] may prove of indispensable value to us in the world we face today. This world is white no longer, and it will never be white again.
Thus when William Styron published The Confessions of Nat Turner in 1967 and was attacked by African-American critics for stealing the voice of a slave for his fiction, he was defended by Baldwin: "He has begun the common history—ours." Later, Baldwin told The Paris Review:
I admired him for confronting it, and the result.... He writes out of reasons similar to mine—about something that hurt him and frightened him.
Although there are moments in Baldwin's speeches and writings that are more bitter and more sectarian than the main body of his writing, his work seems astonishingly wise and forgiving, constantly ready to include the other side, insisting that the complex fate of being an American involved America in its both rich and hidden diversity and its both gnarled and noble history. It appears that such wisdom and sense of forgiveness came from how he lived, from his walking the streets of European cities knowing that he was not at home and slowly realizing where home was. Home, oddly enough, was the United States.
On his first trip to Kenya, before he went to Harvard Law School, Barack Obama, who was twenty-seven, sensed his father's ghostly presence in the streets of Nairobi:
I see him in the schoolboys who run past us, their lean, black legs moving like piston rods between blue shorts and oversized shoes. I hear him in the laughter of the pair of university students who sip sweet creamed tea and eat samosas in a dimly lit teahouse. I smell him in the cigarette smoke of the businessman who covers one ear and shouts into a pay phone; in the sweat of a day laborer who loads gravel into a wheelbarrow, his face and bare chest covered with dust. The Old Man's here, I think, although he doesn't say anything to me. He's here, asking me to understand.
In these chapters of his autobiography, as Obama attempted to make sense of his Kenyan heritage, there is a sharp feeling that this was an interlude in the life of an earnest American, at times a form of tourism, at other times a serious effort to resolve the most complex matters of identity and selfhood. There is a moment when he sat by the graves of his ancestors and wept:
When my tears were finally spent, I felt a calmness wash over me. I felt the circle finally close.... I saw that my life in America—the black life, the white life, the sense of abandonment I'd felt as a boy, the frustration and hope I'd witnessed in Chicago—all of it was connected with this small plot of earth an ocean away, connected by more than the accident of a name or the color of my skin. The pain I felt was my father's pain. My questions were my brothers' questions. Their struggle, my birthright.
This passage displays the great difference between Baldwin's sensibility and that of Obama. Whereas Baldwin sought to make distinctions, Obama always wants to make connections; his urge is to close circles even when they don't need to be closed or the closure is too neat to be fully trusted. Whereas Baldwin longed to disturb the peace, create untidy truths, Obama was slowly becoming a politician.
Despite his best effort to reconcile his own life at home with that of his Kenyan father, the chapters about Kenya in Dreams from My Father show Obama puzzled and ill at ease. Later, in his book The Audacity of Hope, he moved closer to the truth when he described his wife's admission on a flight back from Kenya to Chicago that
she was looking forward to getting home. "I never realized just how American I was," she said. She hadn't realized just how free she was—or how much she cherished that freedom.
Just as Obama, in his increasing urge to inspire, a necessary aspect of his calling perhaps, often seeks a rhetoric free of bitterness and high on healing, Baldwin, in his urge to speak difficult truths, to tell white people what they least wished to hear, sometimes moved toward a tone which was almost shrill. In his great good humor, however, he would perhaps enjoy more than anyone else reading this passage from an essay written by him in 1965:
I remember when the ex-Attorney General, Mr. Robert Kennedy, said it was conceivable that in 40 years in America we might have a Negro President. That sounded like a very emancipated statement to white people. They were not in Harlem when this statement was first heard. They did not hear the laughter and bitterness and scorn with which this statement was greeted.... We were here for 400 years and now he tells us that maybe in 40 years, if you are good, we may let you become President.
Obama, running for President forty-three years later, just three years too late to fulfill what Robert Kennedy saw as conceivable, as Baldwin saw as far too late, ends Dreams from My Father with the phrase, "I felt like the luckiest man alive." Later, when he won his first election to the US Senate, he wrote:
Still, there was no point in denying my almost spooky good fortune. I was an outlier, a freak; to political insiders, my victory proved nothing.
Similarly, Baldwin in 1985 wrote about his own unique position and attitude in the formative years in Greenwich Village: "there were very few black people in the Village in those years, and of that handful, I was decidedly the most improbable." More than twenty years earlier he had written:
To become a Negro man, let alone a Negro artist, one had to make oneself up as one went along.... My revenge, I decided very early, would be to achieve a power which outlasts kingdoms.
Both men set about establishing their authority by exploring themselves and how they came to make it up as they went along, as much as by exploring the world around them. In Obama's own mixed background and complex heritage he saw America; out of his own success, he saw hope and a new set of values. Out of his own childhood Baldwin produced a number of enduring literary masterpieces and out of his efforts to make sense of his own complex, playful personality and his own unique place in history he produced some of the best essays written in the twentieth century. Reading these essays and Obama's speeches, especially the ones that are high on inspiration and short on policy, one is struck by the connection between them, two men remaking the world against all the odds in their own likeness, not afraid to ask, when faced with the future of America as represented by its children, using Baldwin's wonderful phrase, questions that are alien to most politicians: "What will happen to all that beauty?"
John McCain's Faith of My Fathers (Random House, 1999), on the other hand, sets out on page one to establish levels of continuity between generations of men in his family: "My grandfather loved his children. And my father admired his grandfather above all others."
Styron's wonderfully wise and affectionate obituary of Baldwin is included in a recently published collection of Styron's personal essays: Havanas in Camelot (Random House, 2008). He wrote:
James Baldwin was the grandson of a slave. I was the grandson of a slave owner.... We both were writing about the tangled relations of blacks and whites in America, and because he was wise Jimmy understood the necessity of dealing with the preposterous paradoxes that had dwelled at the heart of the racial tragedy.... I think our common preoccupation helped make us good friends.
Monday, 22 September 2008
Philip Roth's latest work Indignation is getting respectful but grudging reviews. His greatness seems inarguable and the late flowering from Sabbath's Theatre onwards is near miraculous in its certainty, surprise and ambition, but most of the reviews for Indignation have been sniffy about its length and seeming slightness - note the dismissive use and discussion of 'novella' and 'novellette' in Mcrum's otherwise excellent article that follows this.
I remember similar muted praise greeting The Dying Animal, suggesting that, Roth, when not working on the full canvas of The Human Stain or American Pastoral, is offering something more terminal and vaporous and hurriedly done, but slightness and brevity are the the short novel's virtues, and the terminal and vaporous apt qualities for this short, sustained and tender work.
McCrum's interview is interestingly complicated in its response to both the man and his work, and a good thumbnail sketch of his work as a whole, and worth reading in full. The Observer link above will lead to other Roth and McCrum related articles.
From Portnoy's Complaint to American Pastoral, Philip Roth's jostling alter egos have provided the literary world with some of the great masterpieces of the past half-century. Here, as he celebrates his 75th birthday, the novelist talks to Robert McCrum about losing friends, living alone and why the next book will be his last
It was the last weekend of summer - the Democratic convention looming; a late heatwave baffling the chills of fall - when I drove upstate from New York City to meet Philip Roth at home in northwest Connecticut. It's like Switzerland round here - sparkling streams; plush, manicured properties; perfect meadows - with countless American flags advertising an air of patriotic entitlement. Roth's remote grey clapboard house, dating to the revolution, is high on a hill down a quiet country road, not hard to find, but some miles from the nearest village, which is really a nothing place with two antique stores.
The tall figure who emerges from among the apple trees in greeting wears grey tracksuit bottoms and a long-sleeved grey sweatshirt that makes me think of prison garb in some progressive correctional regime. Before I find the composure to take in the burning intensity of his expression, the smooth grey features and interrogative tilt of the head, reminiscent of an American eagle, my first impression is that Philip Roth looks as much like a Supreme Court judge on furlough as one of his country's most admired writers.
In his own words, from the opening of The Ghost Writer, you could 'begin to understand why hiding out twelve hundred feet up in the mountains with just the birds and the trees might not be a bad idea for a writer, Jewish or not... Purity. Serenity. Simplicity. Seclusion. All one's concentration and flamboyance and originality reserved for the gruelling, exalted, transcendent calling.' Like his hero Zuckerman, Roth seems to have thought, 'This is how I will live.'
We walk slowly across the cool, nicely rambling grass to a kind of gauzy yurt, a converted fruit cage with garden chairs in which Roth and his guests can enjoy bug-free conversation. Stepping into this bubble feels like entering the outdoor jurisdiction of the writer's mind.
'Let's work,' says Roth, stretching back on his sun-baked recliner to signal the start of the interview. It sounds informal, but the truth is that all conversations with the author of Portnoy's Complaint are highly controlled: your questions submitted in advance; the transcript scrutinised afterwards; the watchful eye of agents and publicists along the way. Make no mistake: we are being admitted into a well-defended environment.
In the American literary undergrowth, Philip Roth is a big beast as fabulous as the hippogriff, rarely sighted, spoken of with awe, and the subject of wild, sometimes scandalised, gossip. Ever since Portnoy, he has endured the kind of attention that might drive you to crave solitude, or into paranoia: incessant self-abuse jokes, a persistent drizzle of hostility and the envious scrutiny of lesser writers. Now, more than 50 years after he began to write, the author of The Counterlife and American Pastoral might agree with Peter De Vries, who observed of American literary life that 'one dreams of the goddess Fame - and winds up with the bitch Publicity'.
This house in Connecticut represents the private, contemplative Roth. His apartment in New York sponsors something more public. There, as his literary biographer Hermione Lee has written, 'going out with Philip Roth in Manhattan is like going out with Louis XIV in Versailles: the king is in his kingdom'. The writer himself says that his appetite for exposure lies somewhere between the reclusiveness of JD Salinger and the self-advertising of the late Norman Mailer.
Flitting between the private and the public, Roth today is as much of a literary celebrity as either of these near contemporaries. He owes this to Portnoy of course, and also to his lifetime's writing: Roth has never taken his eyes off the prize, or neglected the artistic duty of work. Compared with his peers, and compared with virtually any American writer of stature, Roth's output, for a man in his seventies and with some 29 books behind him, is astonishing. Never a day passes when he does not stare at those three hateful words: qwertyuiop, asdfghjkl, and zxcvbnm. 'I'm over in my studio most of the day,' he says. 'I return to the house every night, like a workman coming back from the fiction factory: "I'm home, honey."'
Except that now there's no honey at home. Divorced from his second wife, Claire Bloom, in 1993, Roth lives totally alone out here, cooking his own meals and keeping to himself. 'I've fallen out of any kind of social world,' he says.
'I don't really know anybody up here any longer.'
Once, he lived here year round, but in old age he finds the winters too brutal. He has 'a place in New York' and says that when he's there 'I see people; usually I have dinner with somebody in the evening.' But, either in the country or the city, he sticks to the schedule he's always worked, morning, noon and night, 365 days a year. 'I am,' he once said, 'very much like somebody who spends all day writing.'
Now he's more isolated than ever. 'All my friends around here have died,' he says, running through the honour roll. 'Richard Widmark? Dick died about two months ago. Arthur Miller, he died; he lived half an hour away. And Bill Styron. And I had a very good pal, a doctor in the next town over who I was very close to. So I'm four for four,' he says, sadly slipping into baseball jargon. Death, observed WH Auden, is like the rumble of distant thunder at a picnic. Roth's roll-call tells him that the picnic is drawing to a close, that death is out there, waiting. 'It seems to creep into one book after another,' he remarks.
'I don't think anybody's gotten out alive in my last five books.'
With Roth, art and life are strangely braided. 'I made a list of people who've died in the past few years. It's staggering. The funerals and the eulogies keep it all in mind.' Does he speak at these funerals? 'I speak at some. It's not a genre I've mastered, the eulogy. I find it very difficult.'
Similarly, Roth can't quite believe his age. 'I'm 75, a strange number,' he volunteers. 'It's a strange discovery, for me at any rate. In your early years you don't go to funerals every six months.' Among his peers, there has been a steady winnowing: Arthur Miller, George Plimpton, Kurt Vonnegut, and most recently, Norman Mailer. These were not all close friends, but he knows he's playing in injury time.
Roth's place in American letters is not just a matter of seniority, or productivity. The sequence of novels, well-wrought explorations of his country's recent past, that began in 1997 when Roth was in his mid-sixties - an age when many writers would have been content to rest on their laurels - amounts to an extraordinary portrait that has been saluted by critics on both sides of the Atlantic: American Pastoral, an elegy for American family life set in the Vietnam era; his blistering portrait of Eve Frame in I Married A Communist (1998); The Human Stain (2000); The Dying Animal (2001); The Plot Against America (2004); Everyman (2006) and finally, his farewell to Zuckerman, Exit Ghost (2007). This list is testament to as remarkable a late-season career surge as any in living memory and leaves all his competitors standing in his dust.
And it's not over yet. His latest, Indignation, was published last week. He knows it's short, and possibly slight. A volume of some 230 pages, Indignation narrates the morphine-induced recollections of the young Marcus Messner, a fatally wounded conscript in the Korean war. Messner will die in the closing pages of the novel, and it is ambiguous how much his memories are actually posthumous or feverishly imagined on the point of death.
Humorously, Roth says it stands somewhere between a novella and, 'a worse word', a novelette. 'The publisher called it a novel. They tell me "novel" is a better word to use.' In repose, Roth's expression can be severe, even intimidating. When he smiles, everything lights up, and for a moment the world becomes an easier place to be.
People who are close to him, friends I spoke to in London and New York, always say that, in the right mood, he can be one of the funniest men alive. But today he is working, explaining how he made his latest book from the discarded pages of another story, and the occasional laugh lines in this conversation do not translate into print.
In American literature, the 'posthumous novel' is a rare device, exploited most recently in Alice Sebold's bestseller The Lovely Bones. Momentarily professorial, Roth is quick to acknowledge that it's not original, pointing out that Epitaph for a Small Winner, by the 19th-century Brazilian writer Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis, employs the same narrative point of view. The truth is that it's not wholly successful, though the prose seems undiminished; but Roth is untroubled. 'In the morphine sleep he doesn't know where he is, so he imagines he's dead... If it's ambiguous, that's OK, too.'
Anyway, Roth's real concern in Indignation is to explore the world of a Jewish boy, born and raised in Newark in the Thirties and Forties, a young man who flees his over-protective parents to enrol in a liberal arts college away from home and come of age in the America of the Fifties, a young man curiously similar, in outward appearance, to Roth himself.
At this point veteran Roth readers will exclaim with a sigh, Here we go again. But what did they expect? The point about Roth is that he is the most interesting person he knows, and quite unabashed about his extraordinary singularity.
Describing his own chapel attendances at Bucknell College in rural Pennsylvania, which mirror those of Marcus Messner, he says he felt 'like a Houyhnhnm who had strayed on to the campus from Gulliver's Travels'.
That is the writer's authentic voice. Roth, as Martin Amis says, 'is somehow inordinately unique. He is himself, himself, himself.' To another of his many interviewers he declared, simply: 'I'm the emergency.' Sitting here in the afternoon sunshine, he instinctively frames himself as a character, almost in the third person. 'I'm like an old man,' he says, as if not quite willing to concede that he might actually be old. Friends confirm that there is no one more competitive with himself than Roth. Similarly, if there is one person who has celebrated Philip Roth and his legend it must be Roth himself. What interests him, he writes in Deception, 'is the terrible ambiguity of the "I", the way a writer makes a myth of himself and, particularly, why'. One place to start might be his origins.
Philip Roth was born into a family of second-generation Jews, 'before pantyhose and frozen food,' he says, in the year of Hitler's rise to power, 1933. His parents were intensely, even maddeningly, devoted to their son. 'To be at all,' he writes of his mother and father in his autobiography, The Facts, 'is to be her Philip, but in the embroilment of the buffeting world, my history still takes its spin from beginning as his Roth.'
Roth's sensibilities will always be marked by the themes and tempo of the 'low, dishonest decade' into which he was born, but just as influential was his milieu: a lower middle-class Jewish community in Newark, New Jersey, across the river from Manhattan, a suburban city that occupies the kind of relation to the metropolis that, say, Croydon does to London.
He was, and is, a passionate American, a baseball fanatic who at one point cheerfully refers to himself as 'a Yank'. After himself, the great, wounded republic is his subject. Years ago, in The Facts, he wrote: 'It's hard to imagine that anyone of intelligence growing up in America since the Vietnam War can have had our unambiguous sense, as young adolescents immediately after the victory over Nazi fascism and Japanese militarism, of belonging to the greatest nation on earth.' Today, looking back at the Fifties from a post-Bush perspective, he disputes this, saying, 'There never was a golden age.' It is, nonetheless, a moment in American history that dominates the brief narrative of Indignation
The Newark of Roth's childhood was 'still largely white', but already in decline, which is perhaps why he remains so attached to it. Today, the city is almost wholly black, with a black mayor and the civic afflictions of drug-related criminality. 'My old neighbourhood is bad, but the whole city is bad. Downtown, there's lots of people selling stuff on the street, mostly stolen goods. I wouldn't wander around the streets by myself. So it's pretty bad, and very depressing, too.'
Newark and Newarkness shaped Roth's life profoundly, and continue to do so, as though he has never left. He and his fellow Newark-ite Paul Auster like to speculate about making a literary pilgrimage to their roots. He says, half in jest: 'We'd have to take a cop with us. It's very dangerous.' Indignation, indeed, opens in Newark and celebrates its ethnic vitality with a thunderous crescendo: 'hard-working, coarse-grained, bribe-ridden, semi-xenophobic Irish-Italian-German-Slavic-Jewish-Negro Newark'.
Many of the great American writers are creatures of their neighbourhood. Bellow has Chicago, Fitzgerald jazz-age Manhattan, and Faulkner Yoknapatawpha County. Updike cleaves to Massachusetts, and for Roth it's Newark. So much so that the city has named a plaza for him. He's proud of this, in an ironical way. 'You'll score better drugs on Roth Plaza than Malamud Plaza,' he jokes, adding that 'the then mayor has now been indicted, tried, and convicted on various illegalities.'
In old age, he recoils from urban extremism, but as a young man he relished it. Roth has said his adolescent experience was 'about our aggression, our going out into Newark, three or four of us, wandering the streets at night, shooting crap in back of the high school with flashlights, girls, going after your date to this gathering place called Syd's on Chancellor Avenue and telling your sex stories... Appetite. Maybe that's the word. It was the appetites that were aggressive.'
In this highly verbal, frustrated and competitive hothouse the young Roth incubated the wild, comic voice that would explode into American consciousness with Portnoy's notorious 'complaint'. The Jewishness of old Newark shaped Roth in another way, too. Through all the subsequent phases of his literary life, there is a consistent character thread, which many readers have found intensely, almost viscerally, appealing. Perhaps it was this psychic inheritance that inspired Roth to boast about 'my good fortune in being born a Jew'. As much as he is infuriated by the predicament in which it has landed him, he enjoys the originality. 'It's a complicated, interesting, morally demanding and very singular experience,' he says, 'and I like that.'
The classic Roth protagonist, who surfaces once again in Indignation, is painfully intelligent, self-aware and over-protected. An instinctive aesthete, he is divided between mind and body, sex and reason, family and self, desire and duty. A martyr to neurasthenia, this troubled figure is tormented by impossible (even mad) women, overweening parents and, worst of all, a bad conscience. Over the years, Roth has had a hard time from some feminists, and now strongly resists the suggestion that there is - shall we say? - a strain of craziness in many of his fictional women.
'Well, let's see,' he replies equably, as if enunciating a quasi-biblical exegesis. 'In Exit Ghost there isn't, I don't think. There are two sane women there. And in Everyman the women are all sane. There's a crazy one in When She Was Good (1967) and another in My Life As a Man (1974). I think proportional to the population I have the right number of crazy women.' So, there you are, QED.
Roth's novels brilliantly anatomise the manic carousel of passionate feelings. Mixed with the volatile chemistry of his own temperament, his Jewishness and an indefinable lower middle-class awkwardness vis à vis that great unmentionable, American class, seem to have inspired plenty of rage, to use a less genteel synonym for 'indignation'. 'Rage', 'revenge', 'acrimony' - these words pop up all over the landscape of Roth's work. Now, perhaps, in his mid-seventies, there's a softening. The 'indignation' of his new book may be 'the most beautiful word in the English language', but it comes from the Chinese national anthem, the one we all heard during the Beijing Olympics.
Like Marcus Messner, the young Roth was taught in grade school by left-leaning teachers who, in addition to patriotic songs such as 'Anchors Away', at weekly assembly, encouraged their kids to learn clunky Chinese propaganda:
Arise, ye who refuse to be bondslaves!
Indignation fills the hearts of all our countrymen,
Arise! Arise! Arise!
In one of the more surreal scenes from America's wartime mobilisation, Roth says that in Newark you had 'all these little Jewish kids belting out the Chinese national anthem! The only Chinese we knew was the laundryman.'
We agree, now, that this is a lost world, almost as remote as the stagecoach or the silver dollar. Who, meeting the grade A student Philip Milton Roth in 1953 (the year in which he locates the end of Indignation) could have foreseen his literary life? The Roth of myth was yet to come, and all but invisible.
In the Fifties, indeed, young Roth followed a career path that might have fashioned him into the kind of literature professor you might find in one of his novels - sombre, mildly lecherous, immersed in literature. 'I thought I was going to be an English professor, but six months into my PhD I couldn't stand it. So I dropped out, and began to write. I got $800 from Esquire for a story.'
Looking back on those times, he confesses to a pessimism now about the future of what he calls 'aesthetic literacy'. There was then, he says, 'a literary wedge in the culture'. He explains, 'There were probably 30 literary quarterlies in America at that time. The most famous were the Paris Review, the Kenyon Review and the Hudson Review - most of them are now out of business - but there were 15 or 20 more. So if you wrote a short story, you'd get a publisher. There was a truly literary culture, very small, but that culture's gone. There were people who read seriously, and their numbers were far greater than they are now. You can say, what's the difference if you have 50,000 or 20,000 readers?'
In answer to the question, What is the difference? Roth tells the story of his friend, the Romanian writer Norman Manea. 'Under Ceausescu, Norman went to an older writer from the Party to complain about his readership. The man said, "Norman, all a writer needs are eight readers. Think about it. Why do you need more than eight readers? That's enough. [Pause.] You, unfortunately, have only three,"' Roth laughs. 'Well, we're down to three here, too.' More soberly, he rejects the contemporary evidence of literary striving as a sham, and has no patience with Creative Writing, which he thinks is a waste of time. 'American college students don't take expository writing, which they desperately need, but they take Creative Writing, which is like taking doodling.'
Roth was never a doodler. There was always a moral seriousness to his work. But then he discovered the cost of exploring his Jewishness, and perhaps this is one source of the rage that permeates his work. In April 1959, another early story, 'Defender of the Faith', published in the New Yorker, so offended some Jewish readers with its suggestion that a Jewish soldier might exploit the Jewish sensitivities of his Jewish commanding officer to secure preferential treatment that the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith stepped in.
Suddenly 'Philip Roth' was the subject of synagogue gossip and household arguments. His offence, which now seems impossibly arcane, was compounded the following year by the inclusion of the story in his debut volume, Goodbye Columbus. For much of the Sixties he was declared a traitor to his people, abused and denounced up and down as worse than anti-Semitic. 'I defended myself,' he recalls, 'but I was thrown by it, a big assault at 26. I could handle it, but I didn't like it.'
Of course, this tribal brouhaha was nothing compared with the scandal of Portnoy's Complaint, which came out at the end of the Sixties. Portnoy's Complaint, which made him a celebrity, is an iconic book that changed everything, pitching him headlong into a world of banal public curiosity.
Roth has often said he cannot identify any single experience from which Portnoy's Complaint originated. In early drafts it was 'The Jewboy'; then a play (workshopped by Dustin Hoffman); then 'Whacking Off'; then a short story, 'A Jewish Patient Begins His Analysis', and finally, with the appearance of his psychoanalyst, Portnoy's Complaint
This 'wild blue shocker' (Life), a novel in the guise of a confession, was an immediate bestseller. Taken by hundreds of thousands of American readers as a confession in the guise of a novel, it placed its author inexorably centre stage in the minds of his audience. He's been there ever since.
To my suggestion that he might have unconsciously courted outrage with Portnoy's Complaint, after his experience of the Jewish-American persecution complex, he replies carefully, 'I don't have any sense of audience, and least of all when I'm writing. The audience I'm writing for is me, and I'm so busy trying to figure the damn thing out, and having so much trouble, that the last thing I think of is: "What is X, Y or Z going to be thinking of it?"' Whatever the motivation, there was no going back. 'Literature got me into this,' says his character Peter Tarnopol in The Great American Novel, 'and literature is gonna have to get me out.'
Perhaps writing literary fiction was hardly an ideal escape route, but it was what he knew. Roth's work in the early Seventies seemed to exhibit what one critic dubbed 'the perils of an over-literary mind'. After the wild comedy of Portnoy's Complaint, Roth experimented with satire (Our Gang), satirical fantasy (The Breast), the chaotic fantasies of The Great American Novel, and the 'miraculous mess' of My Life as a Man. Finally, he settled, in young middle age, into his exploration of the self, through Tarnopol, through Kepesh (The Professor of Desire) and eventually Zuckerman (The Ghost Writer and Zuckerman Unbound). This was the middle period of Roth's career, and it coincided with his relationship with Claire Bloom, who decided early on that she wanted 'to spend my life with this remarkable man'.
When the British actress first met Roth in 1975, she says she found him 'daunting and flattering', but within a year they were lovers, and soon Bloom was visiting him here in Connecticut, becoming a kind of muse. The Professor of Desire (1977) is dedicated to her, and this mid-season ferment also yielded, among others, The Ghost Writer (1979), Zuckerman Unbound (1981) and The Counterlife (1986), one of his very finest and most original novels.
By then, the Roth-Bloom liaison was so well-established on both sides of the Atlantic that he was spending half the year in London and had found a studio in Notting Hill. Despite an inevitable struggle with what he felt to be English anti-Semitism, he says he liked living in England. 'I met lots of people and made many friends, more friends than I had in New York, strangely; and I liked going back and forth.'
The intimacy of Roth's connection to England is captured in Deception, a novel narrated entirely in dialogue, which imagines a literary man's affair with, among others, a middle-class English woman. The raw immediacy of this fiction, with its Rothian declaration that 'In my imagination I am unfaithful to everybody', provoked a crisis with Bloom, who writes in her memoir of this episode that, 'I no longer gave a damn whether these girlfriends were erotic fantasies. What left me speechless - though not for long - was that he would paint a picture of me as a jealous wife who is betrayed over and over again. I found the portrait nasty and insulting.'
Almost simultaneously with this rift, Roth suffered a freak breakdown (induced by the Halcion prescribed after knee surgery) together with a new, and urgent, longing to come home. 'I began to feel less and less connected to America. I began to feel I was losing touch with American life. And so by 1989 I realised I couldn't do this any more. So I came back. It was a wonderful return home, because I rediscovered an old subject, which was this country, and I began to write those books about America. It was the best situation. I found a new subject which was an old subject that I knew. All the old stuff was fresh for me.'
In 1993, there was a second renewal. He got divorced from Claire Bloom and entered the phase that has culminated in Exit Ghost and Indignation. 'Freedom, it's called,' he says, freighting the sentence with an almost tangible exhilaration. Now he was in the clear. He could come and go as he pleased. He could work where, how and whenever he chose, read as he pleased, and revel in the exploration of his many selves. So does he, I wondered, read his contemporaries?
'No, I don't, and it's not out of principle. I don't read very much fiction any longer. If I'm going to read something I much prefer to read non-fiction. And I do; I read every night. I re-read. That's what I've been doing. Last month I was re-reading Camus. I haven't read The Plague in 40 years.' Recently he's also re-read Turgenev and Conrad.
Which brings us to the re-reading of Roth himself. Portnoy's Complaint is still a recklessly funny tour de force, but a young man's book and a great comedy of its time. From his middle age, many novels of Roth's literary self-obsession do not weather well. They seem contrived, and rather lacking in humanity. At this point in the game, perhaps the best you can say is that he still harbours an ambition for simple greatness that has, thus far, seemed to slip through his fingers.
Roth's prose, famously, displays the artifice of no artifice. On the page, he achieves a voice that's plain, natural and close to the everyday rhythms of speech. At its finest it is breathtaking, lean, sleek and muscular, a downhill racer, with a mesmerising momentum and demotic zest. Throughout his writing, he exhibits a deep admiration for two English writers, Shakespeare and George Orwell. It was Orwell who celebrated 'good prose' being 'like a window pane', and I think Roth's clarity derives in part from Orwell, whose great books, Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four, were published in the Forties, at an impressionable stage of Roth's adolescence.
But when you try to approach this tetchy, isolated man through his books, the difficulties pile up. The lives in the novels, weighed down with 'the terrible ambiguity of the "I"', lack the simplicity of the prose. Rather, they hover in a no-man's-land between imagination and reality. This is because the author himself is elusive, indifferent and defensive towards vulgar efforts to locate him. Like many comic writers, he seems troubled, and especially by the attentions of the outside world. He prefers his solitary confinement, and his library.
Enter Roth's world and you step into a hall of mirrors. Roth has done himself in so many different voices that, facing the title page of Indignation, 'books by Philip Roth', some 29, are now catalogued as 'Zuckerman' (eight titles, including The Anatomy Lesson), 'Roth' (five, including Operation Shylock and Deception), 'Kepesh' (three, including The Dying Animal, recently filmed as Elegy, starring Penélope Cruz), as well as 'Other' (10, including Portnoy's Complaint and Goodbye, Columbus.
His preferred critic, Hermione Lee, gives the best account of this: 'Lives into stories, stories into lives: that's the name of Roth's double game.' The playfulness, if that's what it is, does not end there. Roth's highly contrived 'novelist's autobiography' The Facts opens with a letter to Nathan Zuckerman, his most celebrated alter ego, asking for his verdict on the book, and it ends with Zuckerman's 'reply': 'Dear Roth, I've read the manuscript twice. Here is the candour you ask for: Don't publish.' In addition to many, carefully scripted, interviews there is the memorable moment of awesome solipsism in Reading Myself and Others (1976) when Roth actually interviews himself! What on earth is going on? Critics have been driving themselves into paroxysms over this for decades. Is it authorial playfulness? A giant tease? Postmodernism run mad? Neurasthenic insecurity? Or the desperate strategies of a writer with insufficient material?
Roth himself hates to be asked about his many alter egos. He speaks contemptuously of critics who get snared in the barbed wire of the Rothian no-man's-land, gunning them down with: 'Am I Roth or Zuckerman? It's all me... Nothing is me. I write fiction and I'm told it's autobiography; I write autobiography and I'm told it's fiction. So since I'm so dim and they're so smart, let them decide what it is or isn't.'
Roth will always be defensive towards any attempt to link him to his protagonists. So when, rashly, I ask him if Marcus Messner is 'another of your alter egos?' he does not reply at once, and then responds coolly with, 'Ask me another way.' Finally, after a bit of sparring, he says, 'I'm not crazy about it [the alter ego]. It suggests a stand-in for me, when it's a character who grew out of the narration, and when none of those things happened to me. None of those things happened to me. It's imaginary.' As well as the continuing irritation about the alter ego question, however hard he tries to break new ground, there will always be disappointed readers harking back to 'the early work'.
Christopher Hitchens, who has lived as a reader through every phase of Roth's writing and has also read Indignation, says he is enraged by the new book: 'There was a time when Roth was falsely accused of self-hatred by the elders of his own tribe (and defended from the charge by men of the calibre of Ralph Ellison). But to see him repeatedly fouling his own nest, and trying by vain repetitions like Exit Ghost to drag down the level of his previous work, and insulting us with Indignation is to wonder whether in some awful way he isn't trying to vindicate the original accusation, as well as to make his old age shame his youth.'
What any critic says now will have little traction with Roth. He does not bother with reviews. 'I try to read as few as I can. It's not really very rewarding, except in a few instances, and it depends upon who's written it. If Frank Kermode reviewed my book I would read the review.'
Novella, or novelette, or long short story, some of the material in Indignation is recycled from previous books. But if there is here an intimation of waning powers, there is also a new focus: a self that recognises the approach of the end, and another that looks back to the beginning. As well as reflecting on mortality, Indignation is about a young man's coming-of-age.
'Coming and going, yes,' Roth replies, alluding to the death of his protagonist. 'I was trying to get away from writing about old men [Exit Ghost, Everyman, The Dying Animal]. I wanted to say I just don't want to think about that stuff any more. I have nothing fresh to say about it.'
Was he, I wondered, not tempted to write a comedy to dispel the chill shadows of mortality? 'I would love to, but... [a beat] ...I don't think I know how to be comic any more.'
Indignation argues against this. There's a comic set-piece at the heart of the narrative in which Marcus Messner gets a blow-job from his girlfriend. Roth acknowledges this, but seriously. 'What I wanted to do in this book is, through a little incident in this small place, depict sexual mores that have disappeared.'
As our conversation turns to the, strictly speaking, fabulous experience of fellatio in the Fifties, we slide back to the world of Roth's youth, and he's talking about the books he read as an aspiring writer, 'sports books and adventure stories', Mark Twain, Theodore Dreiser and John Dos Passos. 'Every budding literary kid fell on Thomas Wolfe [Look Homeward, Angel] with a passion. There was this stream of rhetoric.' He begins to quote, happily. '"O lost, and by the wind-grieved ghost, come back again...!" Whatever that means.' A smile. 'Sounds good, though. As a kid, I wrote in the margin, "Yes!"'
These half-remembered writers from the Twenties and Thirties haunt the Roth of Indignation. Even the name of his fictional midwestern town is taken directly from a collection of stories, Winesburg, Ohio, by Sherwood Anderson, a writer whose subject, like Roth's, is 'repression'. Roth's unconscious, inner dialogue with the American writers of the past is perhaps more revealing than he will allow.
Curious, I turned up the opening pages of Anderson's 'book of grotesques', and found this passage, which stands almost as an epigraph to our conversation: 'Perfectly still he lay and his body was old and not of much use any more, but still something inside him was altogether young... It is absurd, you see, to try to tell what was inside the old writer as he lay on his high bed and listened to the fluttering of his heart. The thing to get at is what the writer, or the young thing within the writer, was thinking about.'
When Roth published The Dying Animal in 2001, I asked him about his next book, and he replied, 'I hope it takes the rest of my life. I can't take starting from scratch.' But the experience of real life contradicts the writer's imaginative expectations. He's just finished another book - 'it's probably a novelette' - about another kind of death, a suicide. He insists this has 'no therapeutic value. I just find it's an interesting subject. I wanted to see if I could drive a character to that point where -' He stops. 'I'm trying to drive somebody crazy,' he summarises, with his usual deadpan delivery.
So now he's looking for a new subject, and is once again in that dreadful limbo between books. 'Starting a new book is hell. You just flail around until something happens. It's miraculous. It comes to you out of nothing and nowhere. That's the problem with writing short books. You finish them too quickly. And that's what's wonderful about a long book. So I've decided I've got to find a big project that will take me right through to the end. Finish the day before, and - exit ghost.'
The end of the tape comes with a 'click'. Our time is up. 'Would you like the tour?' he asks, slipping into a belated hostly ritual. When Roth stretches on his recliner, you see how painfully thin his legs have grown. We step out of the bug-free tent and stroll beneath a canopy of ancient oaks towards Roth's writing room, a well-appointed wooden summer house at the top of the garden.
Inside, it's spartan but well-equipped, with the warm, comforting smell of wood. There are two desks - one for writing, one for 'business', a Roberts radio and a lectern where Roth, who has a bad back, likes to work standing up. On the mantelpiece over the empty fireplace ('I used to light a fire, but then I discovered I was spending all my time looking after it') there's a touching display of faded family photographs going back to the turn of the century. We inspect the sepia generations of Roths: his grandparents, his parents, his elder brother, and his younger self. There's a notable absence of wives or girlfriends, and almost the only outsider appears to be Saul Bellow, a lovely photo of his friend in his prime.
Does he, I wonder, regret not having children? 'Well, I don't seem to go around regretting it, no. I was busy doing other things, you know, and then the opportunity slipped away because of age and the age of the women I was with.'
He still likes to exercise. Most days, while it's warm, he'll swim in his pool at the bottom of the garden. Now, when summer ends, he will go back to New York City, and the familiar routine of dinners with friends and girlfriends.
When the tour is over, he signs a copy of Indignation and we say goodbye. As I turn the car in the short driveway I see an old grey man walking slowly through the trees back to his studio for the inevitable rendezvous with his desk, a writer happily alone with his many selves, all passion spent.
Friday, 22 August 2008
I'm not, at heart - and certainly not in practice - a blogger, and I seem to be using this space almost entirely as some sort of commonplace book, but, increasingly, I find it's the blogs, and not the print media, that best serves my appetite for the literary essay or review that not only offers me new and different voices, but also reminds me of voices I have either forgotten or to which I have never sufficiently attended.
Wyatt Mason's latest entry in his intelligent and contentious blog, Weekend Read, was a thoughtful pointer to the work of essayist, Arthur Krystal, but a previous entry in July reminded me of how much I enjoyed and admired the essays of the late Guy Davenport. Mason's entry also reproduced the essay, 'Findings' from Davenport's The Geography of the Imagination.
“A difference of imagination”
By Wyatt Mason
The difference between the Parthenon and the World Trade Center, between a French wine glass and a German beer mug, between Bach and John Philip Sousa, between Sophocles and Shakespeare, between a bicycle and a horse, though explicable by historical moment, necessity, and destiny, is before all a difference of imagination.
So begins one of the twentieth century’s most varied, diverting, probing and re-readable works of thought and prose, Guy Davenport’s The Geography of the Imagation. First published in 1980 by Jack Shoemaker’s late great North Point Press, its forty essays on literature and art have provided a generation of writers and readers a continuing education on how to look, think, write, feel.
As Hugh Kenner wrote in the pages of this magazine, 28 years ago:
this review was scheduled when The Geography of the Imagination was announced, and it was not to be aborted by the discovery, when the review copy arrived, that the name on the book’s dedication page was my own. If having known a man for twenty-five years is to disqualify one from talking about his work, then our literary culture will have to be left to hermits.
It is telling of a culture in which the best of what we have is often drowned beneath waves of things much worse that Guy Davenport’s friends have so often felt duty-bound to argue for his uncommon and commonly underknown virtues. Erik Reece, the poet, essayist, activist and, soon, memoirist, wrote the epic and all but unknown study of Davenport the all but unknown painter, in A Balance of Quinces (New Directions). John Jeremiah Sullivan, the critic, essayist and memoirist, conducted an unusually sensitive and probing Paris Review interview with Davenport, in 2001. And, in these pages, I wrote about the last book Davenport published before his death, in 2005. All three of us were fortunate to befriend and be befriended by Davenport in the last part of his life, and have, in our different ways, seen it not as an act of friendship to Davenport but to readers that we might try to see that his work continue to find them.
To that end, as a 4th of July Weekend Read, I propose a personal essay of Davenport’s called “Finding,” from The Geography of the Imagination. For those who believe that memoir, as a form, has become little better than a huckster’s paradise, see in “Finding,” that no form is exhausted when cunningly designed to hide its intentions—in this case a primer on the quality of attention required for critical enterprise to succeed (posing as personal history). And, anyway, “Finding” fulfills the ancient requirements for any piece of writing: that it move, that it teach, that it delight.
With thanks to David R. Godine publishers, for permission to reprint.