The Latest Immortal
WE WERE recently in Paris and the city was basking in an unusually warm and sunny October. Parisians were busy picking up new suntans in the Luxembourg Gardens, leaving the streets to American tourists, still flocking to the capital (and filling all the starred restaurants) despite setbacks to the dollar. While there we had the pleasant task of visiting an old friend, Michel Mohrt, the newest member of the French Academy, the prestigious body of 40 persons given official status in 1635 by Cardinal Richelieu to oversee the health of the French language and literature. In France they call the members of the Academy "the Immortals" (and no, the country's new Nobel laureate, Claude Simon, is not one).
Mohrt is known in France as a friend and promoter of American literature. For many years, he was in charge of the purchase and translation of American fiction for the prestigious house of Gallimard, establishing it as the premier publisher of American works. In the late 1940s and early '50s, Mohrt often split his time between France and the United States, doing teaching stints at Yale, Berkeley, Smith and Middlebury. He has written on American literature, most notably on Faulkner, and translated Robert Penn Warren's Night Rider and William Styron's The Long March. He is also the author of seven novels with his eighth due out next year. Two of his works have been translated into English and published here by Viking -- Mariner's Prison and The Italian Campaign.
We called on Mohrt in his book-lined office at Gallimard. He is a handsome and dapper man, with a carefully tended mustache of the sort associated in France with "le gentleman." He speaks perfect English with something of a British accent. On the day following our visit, Mohrt had an appointment with the couturier Cardin to be fitted for a green and gold uniform for his official induction into the Academy next year. The uniform comes complete with frock coat and sword. The sword will be embossed with two emblems recalling his literary heritage -- one representing his birthplace of Brittany (he was a bit of a Breton nationalist) and an eagle to commemorate his association with American letters.
At his induction, Mohrt -- like all new members -- will deliver a lecture summing up his thoughts on life and literature. Among the listeners will be the two Academy members best known to American readers -- the novelist Julien Green (American-born and an alumnus of the University of Virginia) and Margu,erite Yourcenar (still the only woman ever elected to the Academy). The armchairs in which the Academy members sit date back to the organization's founding. Members always occupy the same chair, and its history is a matter of comment in the French press. The ost famous bottom that has adorned Mohrt's armchair is that of Voltaire, a fact that gives the new incumbent enormous pleasure. Eyeing Anthologies
WE LOVE, admire, and respect poetry anthologies for the poems contained therein. But it is also fun to use them to chart the rise and fall of that gossamer thing, reputation. Even poets have a greasy pole they must contend with, and anthologies are their equivalent of the corporate annual review. The anthologist calls them in, tells them what they've been doing right and wrong and doles out a certain number of pages as a reward for their work.
The recent appearance of The Harvard Book of Contemporary American Poetry (Harvard University Press) edited by Helen Vendler, professor of English at Harvard, provides an opportunity to see how the reputations of certain American poets are faring. We compared the Vendler volume with the second edition of Donald Hall's Contemporary American Poetry, published by Penguin in 1972. Since the Vendler volume naturally includes the work of younger poets we confined our mathematics to one standard set by Hall -- poets born between 1914 and 1942. Hall has 39 of them, Vendler (who devotes a larger number of pages to each poet selected) has 25.
Nine poets from this era appear in Vendler who are not in Hall: Frank Bidart, Amy Clampitt, Michael Harper, Randall Jarrell, Robert Pinsky, Charles Simic, Dave Smith, Mark Strand and Charles Wright. They received, so to speak, promotions. Vendler also issued pink slips to some noted bards included in Hall. Among them are William Stafford, David Ignatow, Anthony Hecht, Denise Levertov, John Logan, W.D. Snodgrass, Louis Simpson, Robert Bly, Robert Creeley, Galway Kinnell, and -- Donald Hall. Ten weeks' severance and the services of our counseling firm.
Who are the top execs? In terms of number of pages alloted, Hall's stars were Robert Lowell, Richard Wilbur, W.S. Merwin and James Wright. Vendler's are Allen Ginsberg, John Ashbery, James Merrill, and the same Mr. Lowell. Vendler's allotment of 36 pages to Ginsberg compared to 29 for Ashbery, 24 for Merrill, and a mere 20 for Lowell is probably her most interesting and controversial decision. But don't rest on your Lowells, Allen, there's always another anthologist around the corner. Remembering Peter Zenger
THE YEAR 1985 marks the 250th anniversary of the trial of newspaper publisher John Peter Zenger for seditious libel for criticizing the administration of Gov. William Cosby of New York. Zenger, defended by Andrew Hamilton of Philadelphia, was found not guilty in a one-day trial. Curiously -- or perhaps not so curiously -- the anniversary of the Zenger trial has aroused little or no comment this year. This is in sharp contrast to the public notice that attended the 200th anniversary in 1935 when Americans were aware of what was happening to the press in Nazi Germany. Indeed, Zenger was mentioned more often during the McCarthy era in the early 1950s as the Wisconsin senator badgered the newspapers of the time. In response, the University of Arizona in 1954 established its Zenger Award in the name of freedom of the press.
To mark the 250th anniversary of the trial, the American Antiquarian Society of Worcester, Massachusetts, the great research library and repository of early American newspapers, has published facsimiles of the six issues of the New-York Weekly Journal that got Zenger in dutch, together with an introduction and afterword by Prof. Stephen Botein of Michigan State University (who is this year a visiting scholar at the Institute of Early American History and Culture in Williamsburg). The paperback volume costs $8.95. It is also available through the Univerity Press of Virginia in Charlottesville. In the Margin
THERE'LL always be room in this column for information about really expensive books. How else will we know how the other one tenth of one percent live? The big bucks book of 1985 goes by the hefty monicker National Audubon Society- Abbeville Press Limited Edition Facsimile of John James Audubon's Birds of America. The price is $15,000 leatherbound, which you'll want, or $12,000 in portfolio. The book, with page sizes of 261/2 by 391/2 inches, is composed of 4 volumes and weighs 240 pounds. That's about $65 a pound for the leather- bound version. Unfortunatley, there's no paperback. . .
American ingenuity strikes again! A gentleman named James H. Schmidt has invented a new form of reading for airplane travelers -- classic short stories printed in a form about the size of an airline ticket envelope and weighing less than an ounce. Thus you can slip Philip Roth's "The Conversion of the Jews" or Chekhov's "The Lady With the Lap Dog" into your handbag or suit pocket and have a quick dose of serious lit on your flight without the burden of carrying a big book around. Twelve short stories in a slip case costs $7.50 plus $2 for shipping. Two sets of 12 are currently available. For more information, write the ingenious Mr. Schmidt at 333 Randolph Rd., Napa, Calif. 94559.