From the bitter to the sweet, here is an this eclectic roundup -- a salmagundi of essay, aphorism, letter and memoir -- that pays homage of sorts to the literary life.
TRYING IT OUT
Literary and Other Performances
By Richard Poirier
Farrar Straus Giroux 310 pp. $25
Richard Poirier likes what he likes and he lays elegant waste to what he doesn't. It has long been a pleasure to read him in the process of doing just that. For thirty-some years he has invited readers to join him on his trek, exploring the pleasures of the wasteland, celebrating the difficult and new of American literature, and venturing into the fringes where art and culture are remade and renewed. In this collection of recent essays, Poirier is delightfully himself and his preferred usual suspects are once again booked for the tour -- T.S. Eliot, Norman Mailer, Gertrude Stein, Whitman, Henry James, Marianne Moore, and Emerson, always Emerson. From time to time, Robert Frost breaks in when a small clarification is called for.
As a critic, Poirier is compelled by performances, by the "figure of the will [and] its still active and activating authorial presence." He is drawn to writers whose work "no matter how often read, reread, quoted, and exhaustingly analyzed [maintains] that aura of mystery, of some irreducible integrity of difficulty that fascinates even while it frustrates one generation of readers after another." Thumb a $1.95 paperback of The Performing Self from 1971 and it is apparent how little Poirier has changed; one turns to him for what he is, has always been: subtle, authoritative and immersed in his subjects.
He is also quirky and crabby and righteous. In his salute to Bette Midler's command of parody and tradition in her show "Clams on the Half Shell," Poirier locates her performance in the fast company of Mailer, Pynchon and Ginsberg. In his seductive essay "The Case of Arthur Inman," he makes this curious "social history, an autodidact's story of life in America from 1919 to 1963," seem a must-read, not just Daniel Aaron's edition of The Inman Diaries but all 17 million words of the crackpot invalid's accumulated papers. And just as Poirier relentlessly alerts readers to vitality in all its manifestations, he is unabashed in his willingness to
drive folly and error into their appropriate corners. Woe to the scholar who provokes Poirier's nonsense detector. On Peter Conrad's Imagining America: "If anyone can make mistakes, then by the same token anyone, even accidentally, ought to get things right more often than Conrad does"; or "Conrad seems to do everything with the material except read it." In a high-octane review of Christopher Ricks's edition of T.S. Eliot's juvenilia, Inventions of the March Hare, Poirier accuses Ricks of "annotative adventurism" in his handling of the Eliot materials and, in a contretemps over "whose command of obscure nursery rhymes is bigger," Poirier trumps Ricks with a devastating dismissal: "As it turns out, those who can recall the English nursery rhyme about the `grand old Duke' are no luckier than those who can't recall it." Take that.
I suspect Poirier has been somewhat underappreciated for how much sheer fun he is to read. For instance, he deploys the perfect 1935 Frost quotation (not everyone gets dates right as Poirier is obligated to note from time to time) to deflate while illuminating Eliot: " `It is immodest of a man to think of himself as going down before the worst forces ever mobilized by God.' " He makes the difficult appear easy without ever minimizing the importance of the effort. And in these troubled times for scholarly prose, Poirier induces sighs of pleasure with his diction, his syntax, his sense of structure. In Poirier's world, lush but precise and patrolled by the OED, words like "giddy" and "convulsed" romp as confidently as his corrections of careless Latin. He can detect "heavy terminological breathing" when he sees it, and he may be the only person alive who can turn an exclamation point into a dagger. It is easy to be outraged with Poirier for his occasional excesses, but in his deliberateness, his steady witnessing, I prefer to view him as Thoreau did his woodpile -- with affection, a reminder of pleasing work.
ALL GALL IS DIVIDED
Gnomes and Apothegms
By E.M. Cioran
Translated from the
French by Richard Howard Arcade. 151 pp. $14.95
Imagine a Romanian, in exile in Paris since 1937, envying "those Egyptian monks who dug their own graves in order to shed tears within them." The envy, discloses the Romanian, in his trademark style of aphorism (exclusively in French), grows from the certain knowledge that were he to dig his own grave he would drop in only cigarette butts.
As a young philosophy student, E.M. Cioran once planned a thesis on a general theory of tears. Some of what he produced in lieu of such a study were essay collections: A Short History of Decay (1949), The Temptation to Exist (1956), and All Gall Is Divided (1952), the last of the works in French to be translated by poet Richard Howard. Howard's title elaborately puns on the French title, "syllogisms of bitterness" (Syllogismes d'amertume), the allusion to Caesar's partition of France and, finally, Cioran's dissection of that other gall, the acrimony, the wormwood, the effrontery which is the consequence of " `being born,' the one regrettable act."
This work extends the dark illuminations from Cioran's center of absurd and chronic gravity, a place where he would loll and resolutely resist any temptation to move the world. Instead, he conducts his anhedonic, albeit desultory and futile, assault on the "bourgeois in the Abyss." Insomnia as heroism, indignation "from grousing to satanism," old age defined by a contentment of enemies already at arm's reach, and the nausea induced by the Buddha's sermons or Schopenhauer's pages give just a taste of the conundrums laced with venom in this "breviary of estrangement." Cioran vexes with delightful questions: "Whatever could it be that Socrates was doing around two in the afternoon?"; he diagnoses: "If just once you were depressed for no reason, you have been so all your life without knowing it"; he tantalizes: "What spoils joy is its lack of rigor; on the other hand, just consider the logic of gall"; he cheerfully blasphemes: "For two thousand years, Jesus has revenged himself on us for not having died on a sofa."
Cioran's work serves as antidote to a world gone mad for bedside affirmations. His limitless anxiety, his hostility cloaked in comic despair, makes him a Dilbert raised an order of magnitude. He is the writer for those who never wonder why postal clerks go berserk. He is the perfect read for the sentient driven mad by checkout clerks whose faces fill with wonder when they can say with confidence, "This is an avocado, right?" There is no annoyance of the day that bedtime reading of Cioran cannot put in delirious perspective.
Letters of May Sarton
to Juliette Huxley
Edited and introduced
By Susan Sherman
Norton. 400 pp. $29.95
Written by prolific poet and memoirist May Sarton, this intriguing but maddening collection of letters spans a nearly six-decade friendship with her muse and obsessive object of desire, Juliette Huxley. As wife to Julian Huxley, UNESCO secretary (and Sarton's lover too), Juliette realized the relationship physically with Sarton for less than a single week in 1947. Yet Sarton ardently hoped that Juliette would eventually embrace her love, and the letters document the poet's raging ache and realization that there was "no absolute defence against pain, against this frightful loneliness" for her "little blue flame" since Juliette would never reciprocate the passion at Sarton's pitch. So she lavishes praise on Juliette as wisest reader/editor, as anchor and crafter of the constructed calm that preserved the fraught Huxley household.
Still just a note can send Sarton swooning: "Your letters light little fires on the tops of the mountains." Any intimation of distance sparks desperate anxiety, and Sarton rushes to confirm addresses and boat schedules, to extract commitments for future visits, or to assure Juliette that even a short note would appease her hunger for contact. Her wild need for Juliette to acknowledge Sarton's offer of seemingly unconditional yet nearly oppressive love turns the subtext of their correspondence into a sustained ordeal of desire: "There is something dangerous in me, that longing to touch people, to reach them, to know them, to love them." Punctuating the relentless declarations of "what they could be," the letters preserve the rhythm of the everyday pleasures of Sarton's life as a young and ambitious author, her travels, her other loves, her friendships with Elizabeth Bowen and S.S. Koteliansky, and her writing process.
More than anything, however, these pages testify to Sarton's extraordinary capacity and longing for sustained and sustaining intimacy with all those she loved. The collection contains hundreds of letters leading up to the 27-year rift in their relationship, putatively over Sarton's threat to tell Julian about her brief physical affair with his wife. A note of condolence from Sarton, prompted by Julian Huxley's death, resuscitates the connection with Juliette, who ultimately returns a cache of letters proposing one day they might become part of a book.
Appendices include drafts of introductions Sarton prepared for just such a collection. Here in the unguarded process of revision, Sarton ruminates on the mystery of this long and troubled communion, finally admitting to her own resentments over the years of silence and separation, and even the hurt of exclusion from Juliette's memoirs, Leaves of the Tulip Tree. Finally the joy of the reconciliation prevails. In a handful of letters to Sarton, Juliette reveals her feelings about Julian's "demons," her own sense of being a "survivor, hanging on a cliff," and the joy and pain of the lifelong relationship with Sarton. Some previously unpublished poems and letters in French are also appended to the volume.
Alas, the pleasure of reading this collection is marred by a fatal editorial decision to gloss references at the end of each letter and without footnote numbers. Readers will be frustrated as they turn pages in search of each letter's close only to begin rummaging through the unnumbered notes in search of the needed annotation. Good luck recovering the place in the text if interrupted by a desire to check a reference. Though there is a helpful chronology, some nice photos and a good index, the book is insufficiently structured to prevent a reader from feeling as though she were drowning in words.
Writers' Reflections upon First
Edited by Pearl
Hill Street Press
118 pp. $16.95
Planned as a 90th-birthday tribute to Eudora Welty, this slim volume gathers 22 authors, friends, and critics of Mississippi's writing powerhouse for some brief and grateful reminiscences of their first encounters with the author and her work. Whether they discovered Welty through her fiction or at one of her readings, nearly all the contributors document a debt to Welty for her influence on their own art and for the daunting legacy of fiction, memoir and photography she has created. Ellen Douglas, Ellen Gilchrist, and a relentlessly admiring gang line up alphabetically to share their memories and appreciation of this Southern writer's "unadulterated and inimitable magic."
Barry Hannah's birthday salute is one of the best. He reports discovering Welty when he learned that one of his heroes, Henry Miller, had visited "old grumpy mushmouthed Jackson" to pay respects to Welty. Hannah claims he was chastened enough by her imaginative power to learn not to be "ashamed of my state's people anymore" and that "Good things can come if you shut up, watch, and work."
A box of literary truffles for the nightstand rather than the coffee table. Even the skimpily produced photographs don't spoil the sugar high from this special-occasion confection.
Dawn Trouard teaches modern American fiction at the University of Central Florida.