Thursday, June 26, 2008


One from Montale

Year in, year out, I never tire of Montale. He can be cryptic, yes, and you sense the ongoing effort as he digs himself out from under the avalanche of Italian literary culture. (Supposedly the first thing you do as the tsunami of snow overtakes you is make an air pocket in front of your face, so you can breathe until the rescuers show up. As a metaphor for writing poetry, that will do.) Anyway, here's one I happened across the other day. It's in Satura, one the poet's final collections, and by this time he had abandoned the clenched and crepuscular style that won him his early fame. This is Montale in a mellow mood, although he still felt that civilization was in the dumpster, and had been so for some time. The translation is William Arrowsmith's, and the (cheerful) title is "Götterdämmerung." God, how I love an umlaut:
We read that the twilight of the gods
is about to begin. A mistake.
Beginnings are always unrecognizable;
when an event is verified, it's been spotted before.
Twilight began when man thought
himself of greater dignity than moles or crickets.
A self-repeating hell is hardly the tryout
of a "grand première" long postponed
because the director's busy, sick, holed up
who knows where, and no one can sub for him.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008


"Nobody sought me out."

I've been thumbing through Letters of Ted Hughes, a massive collection that FSG will publish in September. My only previous exposure to the poet's epistolary style was the blistering communique he sent to A. Alvarez when The Savage God was first serialized in the British papers--and that was only because Janet Malcolm quoted it in The Silent Woman. Glancing at it again, I'm still impressed by its tone of steel-belted outrage. "You saw little enough of us," writes Hughes. "Both of us regarded you as a friend, not a Daily Mirror T.V. key-hole rat-hole journalist snoop guaranteed to distort every observation and plaster us with his know-all pseudo-psychological theories, as if we were relics dug up from 10,000 BC. Of our marriage you know nothing--but you can't even give us the benefit of your ignorance." Elsewhere, eviscerating Alvarez for the effect his speculations might have on Sylvia Plath's (and his own) children, he writes: "You were searching out details to enthral your academic audience & didn't realise you were sticking electrodes in her children's brains." This masterpiece of pained invective resides, appropriately, in the British Museum.

But my eye was also caught by a later communication. In a letter written in the fall of 1986, Hughes corrected some mistakes he had found in the manuscript of Anne Stevenson's Bitter Fame: A Life of Sylvia Plath. Again, he noted the intense misery caused by the perennially prying eyes of Plath's biographers. What he has learned is that "no mistake can be corrected, no fantasy or lie can be extinguished, and that any attempt to correct the record only gives a weirder energy to the lies... Having the monkey world of all this play among one's nerves for twenty years induces a stupor of horror--it finally affects your judgment of mankind." Still, he offered quite a few pages of corrections, including this jaundiced account of his youthful notoriety:
Nobody sought me out. The only Journalist who ever came to see me, an Italian woman from some Italian glossy, was expecting to find the Fox In The Attic novelist and was disappointed. Though I was in the generation of the Angry Young Men, and felt I had better barbarian credentials than any of them except maybe Alan Sillitoe, I was never noticed even among their hindermost baggage train. I would have liked a bit of fame in those days, but it seemed far off. I was far more aware of being abused, by people I'd never met, for using the 'affected, proletarian familiar abbreviation' of my first name, and for 'using language above my station.' The Cultural Church, whose high priests were the Evelyn Waughs, didn't fall on its face to the North until the Beatles came along.
So: what Crow couldn't do, "Piggies" did quite nicely. Meanwhile, I'm fascinated by the idea that calling yourself Ted was once enough to earn you twenty lashes from some hi-cult Captain Bligh.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008


Topic A

Lately I've fallen down on blogging. It's the usual combination of pre-summer doldrums plus the ongoing puzzlement about why I'm doing it in the first place. But if there's one thing that can jog me out of such a torpor, it's my favorite topic: me. So I thought I'd add a couple of updates. First: "Faint Music," an essay I wrote some time ago, then pulled out of the drawer for a few minutes of nip-and-tuck, recently appeared in The Harvard Review. The piece includes some whimsical speculation about the source of Mozart's dizzy spells:
I've thought about it, and I've come to ascribe Mozart's fainting to the impossible pressure of all that music on the inside of his skull. That flimsy chamber wasn't designed to house a fraction of what it did: the galloping tempos, the transparent woodwind and clarinet parts, the punchy D-minor trombone chords. The last act of Don Giovanni. The K. 626 Requiem. Those two sorrowing notes that begin "Masonic Funeral Music." Beauty, sublimity, and (this being Mozart) toilet humor. The overspill is what made him black out.

There's even a bit of corroborating evidence. As Mozart lay on his deathbed, roughing out the parts for the Requiem, he often summoned his friend Sussmayr to explain how the work should be performed. On one occasion he tried to clarify the role of the drums, "and was observed in doing this to blow out his cheeks, and express his meaning by a noise intelligible to the musician." Here is the very picture of music--highly pressurized music--escaping from the composer's skull, the way air might from a tire.
Although some of the current issue is available online, my own piece, alas, is not. So interested readers may be obliged to fork over ten dollars (it's for a good cause, folks!). Meanwhile, I gave a reading from my novel, The Only I News I Know, last Thursday. I was in excellent company, sharing the bill with Joshua Ferris and John Burnham Schwartz, and the narrow subterranean chamber at the Cake Shop was packed. I went first. Initially I was a little concerned about the stage lighting, which consisted of white Christmas bulbs stapled to the low ceiling. But the curators of this excellent series soon brought out a kind of Klieg lamp, suitable to an operating theater or antiaircraft barrage, and the problem was solved. In the short clip below, you can see me (just barely) reading a couple of short bits. In order to cram a longish passage into my 15-minute allotment, I read pretty damn fast. In the beginning I sounded like one of those breathless men listing the side effects on the Nexium commercials. But eventually I slowed down to the brisk canter in the video, like so:

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