Saturday, February 6, 2010

Got to Put My Cheaters On

I heard a coworker today, in conversation with another at the information-desk, suggest that they might "google" the answer to a question I didn't hear. While he did this, she looked up from the desk, caught my eye and intending to be overheard, said, "-- or we could ask Brad, he's faster than google." That was very sweet of her. As it happened, I did know the answer, once I'd heard the question. Walt Whitman was a kind of a nurse during The Civil War, a most affectionate and patient kind of untrained volunteer, so one might say he put himself at the service of the wounded soldiers, rather than serving in the war. That was the answer. Not perhaps so innocently asked of me -- judging from the knowing smile I got with the question -- and easily answered. (I think quite innocently done by Walt, by the way, though I may be wrong, and happily so, about that.) I did point out, despite the flattering suggestion that I might best Google, that I'd been lucky, and the answer happened to be something I knew. It took no special knowledge of me, or of Whitman, to guess that I might.

Still, flattering to be thought of as likely to know such things.

While it is difficult to admit without sounding like a real ass, I do know quite a bit, at least in the way of books, and I do like being turned to as someone who does. My more experienced interlocutors, knowing better just how much I enjoy rattling away about such literary and biographical stuff, sadly may have learned to hesitate to ask me such questions, for fear of setting me off without being able to stop me once I've got going. They might also be right in thinking, however confident I may sound and or actually be in my answers, that I get things wrong frequently; that dates tend to escape me entirely, that I often muddle things and ascribe details of biography to the wrong people, or titles to the wrong authors, or imagine, having the most imperfect memory, that I'm talking sense when I may well be talking nonsense. I often misremember the books I've read, and I've caught myself, or been caught, with embarrassing frequency, telling more of a story than the story I was asked to tell. I like to think that this last is a flaw of my memory rather than one of character, but it may well be both. I want to be helpful, I want my answers, when I have them, to be not just informative, but entertaining, if always not as interesting, or accurate, as I sometimes imagine my answers or myself to be.

I mean to say, I'm not altogether to be trusted. My authority, my memory, even when it comes to books, may be no better than it is because I have never been, and can't really claim to ever really have wanted to be, a serious student of anything. A serious reader, I suppose, I am, but best check anything I might say against better sources.

I have my own, of course. Beyond what can be had from the Internet, I find certain books of reference essential. An old fashioned idea; that answers are best found in books, but I am what my education and reading have made me, and I still trust books. I should say, having found a book I trust, I believe in having it, and keeping it, at the ready. I own all sorts. Some live at my elbow as I write: like my two versions of the Compact Oxford English Dictionary, my various dictionaries of foreign phrases, my Oxford one volume Shakespeare, etc. I've mentioned all these here before. There are other books of reference, less straightforwardly practical, but no less valuable I've found, that I consult not to correct but rather to inform and direct my reading. Some, like Gosse's English Literature, whatever its reputation -- if it can still be said to maintain one -- are old books but still marvelously entertaining. The illustrated edition in four volumes that I came across not all that long ago, after having read about these books not infrequently, and about Gosse's misjudgements and mistakes, is now among my treasures. Not long after its initial publication, first one, then another contemporary of the author leveled a number of devastating criticisms, not only at certain failures of scholarship, but at Gosse, his style, his intentions and his qualifications for having even undertaken such a history. Doesn't much matter now, any of that controversy. The books themselves are lovely; beautifully illustrated, well made, easily arranged, and full of good things, I think. I can't imagine not being able to turn to books just like these, when, for example, I want to know something about -- opening Volume Two at random --Sir John Vanbrugh, who, says Edmund Gosse:

"... has none of Congeve's pre-eminance in style. He has no style at all; he simply throws his characters at one another's heads, and leaves them to fight it out as they will."

Now, I've know idea if this is fair to Vanbrugh, but it is good, isn't it? And it suggest that reading further might be fun, doesn't it? Does to me anyway.

Another such book, which I've owned a long time in a terrible copy and only just replaced with a very nice, used hardcover, is The New Guide to Modern Literature, by Martin Seymour-Smith. Seymour-Smith was a respected, if unproductive poet, when he took up criticism and biography as something like a mission. His life of Hardy was one of the last comprehensive, meaning impossibly long, literary biographies I undertook. The biographer's style was so good, and what he had to say not only of Hardy's life but about his poetry and novels, so good, that I was for once glad of the cumbersome length of his study. In fact, I took up Seymour-Smith's Hardy, and took up Hardy again as a result, because I first stumbled across Seymour-Smith's life of Kipling while trying to decide just how much more of Kipling I would ever want to read. I'd read a life of Kipling by Angus Wilson, a novelist I particularly like, but I'd found Wilson's Kipling to be someone of whom I would not feel the want of having read more. Seymour-Smith's Kipling, on the other hand, proved to be someone I wanted to keep reading, and read more closely.

Seymour-Smith's greatest book though was neither of these biographies. I admit, I've never looked out for his poetry, or ever seen it pass conveniently close enough to just pick up on my way. His "Guide" though, I've gone to time and again. It is a masterpiece. Far and away the most comprehensive literary reference book of modern world literature I've ever known -- he takes on literature from every continent in it -- it is also that rarest of critical works, one that can be trusted both as to the author's point of view and his judgement. Not the same thing. Seymour-Smith's enthusiasm is infectious, and brings before the reader an astonishingly wide-ranging appreciation for every kind of writing. He clearly believes in literature as a common, human good. He is always eager to say what he finds best, each in its kind, what he feels ought not to be missed. He does this succinctly, reasonably, and without, somehow, making the reader feel inadequate for not having read all that he did. Amazing, that. Seymour-Smith also explains why some things are not so good as the opinion of his day (he died in 1998, age 70,) held them to be. Many times I've found what Seymour-Smith had to say, about Eliot, for example, explains my resistance to a particular author or work. He is never disrespectful of the effort, but never shy of saying just what he makes of the result. Seymour_Smith had enormous resources to call on in making any comparison. He understood the author's place in history, literary and actual, yet his assessment of an author's gifts, or a book's virtues, is justified by neither. He judges what he's read, with sympathy, but as an individual achievement. And even his harshest judgments, rather than cutting off interest or allowing something lasting to be dismissed, always suggest further reading. And when I have read further, I frequently find myself in complete agreement with whatever he's said. His recommendation may make me want to read a book, but more than that, his brief analysis has often provided me with the means to do so.

To just turn to familiar names from my own shelves, almost at random, he likes best the Markandaya novel that, reading her novels, I found to be the best, A Silence of Desire. He explains Agnon's wonderful strangeness not as an affectation of modernism, but rather as part and parcel of "... already established Hebrew forms, which seem strange to readers unfamiliar with the literature and in particular with the Hasidic tales." Just so. On Gide, "In 1947 he was awarded the Nobel Prize. He is much hated, and seldom loved. Yet warmth is perhaps what his best work needs to be fully appreciated."

That is all good, and he is as good with poets. He is entirely fair, for instance, to the now all but forgotten, like John Masefield: "The illusion was that he could ever be wholly free of that stifling gentility which he seemed, to his first admirers, to be so effectively challenging." And equally good in celebrating the best of a genius like Yeats, without cutting him the least slack for his failure as both a man and a poet: "The problem is this: Yeats' politics are stupid or humanly disgraceful, or both..."

I've found it best to use Seymour-Smith's great book either to suggest unfamiliar reading, or to help me understand better why I may have liked or disliked a book already read. I'm not saying that I've adopted his every opinion, but I will say, reading him has helped me form my own better and more frequently than almost any other critic I've ever read on modern literature.

And he makes me sound smarter at least, when I'm asked about such things.

This is a kind of cheating, I suppose, using critics not only as guide, but shamelessly using what they've had to say to say something for me better than I might on my own, but I don't think critics much mind when one does that, so long as some acknowledgement is made. So here's mine, at least in part. So if you happen to notice me spouting off, here or elsewhere, about matters literary, check my sources. They've probably said the same thing, only so much better than I might.

And they can certainly be trusted to know a great deal more than me, or Google, possibly, come to that.

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