When, or how, do a writer’s words take their place in the memory and imagination? What does their having done so have, in fact, to do with those words? This is the accident.
Edwin Frank, “The Accident,” Snake Train: Poems 1984-2013
AV: One of my earliest memories is flipping through a book my father was reading, and trying to work out by what incantation the signs on the page would shape themselves into a meaning or a message; it wasn’t clear to me at all that there would be any correspondence between what my father found in the book and what I might find there, but I thought that if he could pull a rabbit out of it, I might muster a flea. After a lot of willful flipping I gave up, and I only figured out many years later what book that had been, because of the whale on the cover – a Norton edition of Moby Dick.
Somehow the first book I read on my own was also a whale book—William Steig’s Amos and Boris, about a whale and a mouse, and I remember the eerie moment when I recognized in the (very minimal) lines of print the story as it had been read to me. I was lying in the grass in a park, the smell of eucalyptus and the pride of a new power. Do you remember learning to read?
EF: I do and I don’t remember. That is, there’s a very distinct moment in my personal history when I became a reader and, in a sense, embraced books as a destiny of sorts, having no idea what that might mean. I have no real remembrance of developing the actual competence of reading.
When I was six, my mother was given a Fulbright to go to France and do research for her thesis, which had to do with Chaucer’s finicky and unpleasant prioress and her ugly tale in relation to various French religious orders. We crossed the Atlantic on the USS United States. I was placed in a French public school in Paris, and, since I didn’t speak a word of French, the Fall of that year, when I was struggling to learn the language and must have felt wordless, is something of a blank. (Weirdly one of my few distinct memories, apart from the wet and the cold and playing marbles in the playground—you competed to exchange the cheap painted ones, “immies,” for real glass Cat’s Eyes—is being served alphabet soup in the school refectory.)
Also, my grandfather died, and my father left us to go back to his native Chicago to look after business. I think I felt quite alone. In any case, that Christmas I was given a wonderful picture book of The Iliad and The Odyssey, as retold and illustrated by Alice and Martin Provensen, and this book became my Bible: the names of the heroes, Ajax the lesser and Ajax the greater, the boats pulled up on the beach, the face-offs of the heroes on the battlefield, the crested helmets with their pointy nose guards, greaves, and, above all, the great wonder of the terrible injustice that Achilles should triumph over Hector. Many years later I read Lukacs saying that, while reading this as a child, he had realized it meant that, historically, the true victor was the loser—a strange lesson for a life-long Marxist—and this was certainly how I responded to the story, a confrontation and loss that is compulsively restaged in the imagination.
So that was the book I read and stared at, seeking to see in it and through it the world. I don’t think I quite thought of myself as reading the book, however: I turned its pages the way you might turn up Tarot cards. Not long after, my grandmother came to visit, and, one day when I came back from school, she said to me, “Sit down and listen to this. I think you’ll like it.” It was Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, and she was just at the point where the story goes into the great resplendent and ruinous halls of the abandoned mines of Moria. I was utterly spellbound. For my birthday I was given The Hobbit, and I sat down to read it. There were no pictures, or few, and now I knew I was reading.
Another book that came to me from that same year, given to me as we went through New York by a college friend of my mother’s who worked in publishing, was from Sendak’s wonderful Nutshell Library: “The tale of Pierre, who didn’t care”; “In January it’s so nice, / while slipping on the sliding ice, / to sip hot chicken soup with rice,” etc. I loved those little red books and later read them to my children
AV: I have real trouble distinguishing between books that were read to me, like the Penguin Book of Animal Verse, and books I read myself. I’m sure there was a phase when I looked at the page as my mother read and pretended that I myself was reading. It was a little similar to learning to read music – you pretend to be reading notes, whereas you’re really recalling what the teacher just played. The essential moment, where you decipher the code, remains an enigma to me. There’s a moment when you start to read an acquired language which may be a version of the same—anyway, a moment accompanied by a sense of physical transformation, alchemy. Thaumaturgy.
EF: It is interesting to me that even those books which I must have read when I was just learning to read exist in memory after this moment of realization described above. I don’t remember reading anything in, say, kindergarten or preschool—just wanting to get my assignments back with a shiny star from my teacher, Miss Starr. In any case, a favorite was Munro Leaf’s Wee Gillis, which I have since republished. Wee Gillis is about a Scottish orphan boy whose mother’s people come from the Lowlands and whose father’s people come from the Highlands, and who shuttles back and forth between the two sets. One day, on coming of age, he is taken to the dividing line between Highlands and Lowlands and told to choose between them. Poor Wee Gillis has eyes like zeroes and doesn’t know what to do, until he hears someone sobbing: a bagpiper whose bagpipes are too big for him to play. But Wee Gillis, with his fortified lungs, can play them, and so he settles right there, or, rather, neither here nor there, to make music as he will. It’s a lovely parable of art as evasion and assertion, and perhaps of reading, too.
AV: What was the first ‘grown-up’ book you read, and when?
EF: After I started reading, I didn’t distinguish sharply between “grown-up” and children’s books, and read both. I loved fantasy: Alan Garner’s books, Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea books, Masefield’s Box of Delights, but also things like Harriet the Spy. I had friends who were sincere fiction fans, and Stranger in a Strange Land made a big impression on me—this was when people were people were making buttons saying “Grok It” and the like, especially in Boulder, where hippy culture thrived. I also read Tom Wolfe’s Electric Kool Aid Acid Test, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, the records of the trial of the Chicago 8 (we had been in Chicago in August 1968 during the riots at the Democratic Convention, and my father and uncle had gone down to Grant Park. I remember sitting with my mother watching the TV and seeing the cops charging the demonstrators, and her weeping with worry.) I loved and laughed and laughed at Catch 22. There was a sense that modern American life was a great adventure, which, however, by the time I reached adolescence in the 1970s, was gone.
AV: After we moved back to Europe when I was seven, my sense of America came in contradictory volleys—from TV and movies, of course, and from my father who fed me from his memory and library. It was a cocktail of stories about the jazz world, which he’d inhabited as a jobbing trombone player from the early 50s, and about the writers he particularly cared about, Algren and Bellow, Ellison and Katherine Anne Porter, whose lawn he also claimed to have mowed once for fifty cents or whatever. And then Henry James and Stephen Crane. It took me years to liberate myself from my father’s canon, so that it wasn’t until I was at university that I took in Gertrude Stein and Djuna Barnes, et alia, and even then guiltily, covertly. What was the first book you felt guilty reading, or read in secret?
EF: Like most children who love to read, I wanted to go on reading after the lights went out, and I kept a flashlight handy under the covers. There was an anxiety about that reading, though my parents were nothing if not readers themselves. Otherwise, sex, of course, was the usual snare and confusion. Friends down the block came to me with pilfered copies of their fathers’ Playboys, and hid them under the dry grass on top of the compost heap in back. When Portnoy’s Complaint came out, I was thrilled by its electric yellow cover and excited by its contents, though too young, I imagine, to make much sense of them. I took it to school to show my best friend. I was able to walk home from lunch, and I did that day, but after lunch I couldn’t find the book anywhere and was worried I’d lost it—my parents’ expensive new hardcover copy. It was nowhere to be found. And then—many years later—I found it in the attic of the house. My mother, alerted by the school, had confiscated the book and hidden it away. Ten years later it was still there, which tells you something about how much Roth mattered for her.
That said, my mother did not believe in censoring reading matter, even if her own tastes—
Jane Austen, Trollope—were entirely respectable. I was a kid when she urged me to read leRoi Jones’s The System of Dante’s Hell. And I can remember the bookseller’s wide eyes when, at a tender age, I asked her to buy me Genet’s The Thief’s Journal, which she did.
So my childhood reading was a mix of children’s books and “grown-up” books. I suppose the first book I read that I thought of as an altogether different kind of book, a book that—and isn’t this what we mean by “grown-up” books—demanded things of me, rather than just being fun to read, was The Brothers Karamazov. There I fully encountered the kind of book whose demands we respond to, if we respond, with love, a love that the book itself appears to return to us, telling us all sorts of new things that only it knows. Again, we were out of the country for a year—in England this time, my father being on sabbatical—and before we arrived there we traveled in Europe a bit. One night, while we were on the road, my father told me about Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor. I was fascinated by what he told me, fascinated at the idea of the Inquisitor assuming the burden of condemning God, at the believer standing in judgment and condemning the ground of his belief, fascinated, I suppose, by the perspective that opened and elated by a feeling of vastness. I knew I had to read that. When we got to London, I went to our local bookstore and bought The Brothers Karamazov.
That year in London was another year in which I was lonely. I took short biographies of Mazzini and Trotsky out from the local library, and I assembled a little library of Penguin Classics and Modern Classics. I read Darkness at Noon, and, having observed how my father underlined his books, underlined an entire chapter. I discovered Virginia Woolf. I discovered poetry, first from a wonderful anthology in several volumes entitled Voices, which had an array of mostly modern and contemporary poets: I can remember Edwin Morgan’s concrete poem, “Window,” with the word “window” splayed out like a window frame and, in the middle, simply “wind.” There was a poem I loved about Vietnam by Denise Levertov, a poem in a series of questions about the customs of the Vietnamese—Did they do this or that? Did they discuss this or that?. The poem ended “Who can say? They are silent now.” And I was already a sucker for the dour sublime. That year a friend of my parents also gave me the Quiller-Couch Oxford Book of English Verse. I had been found sitting on the floor behind an easy chair puzzling over The Waste Land, and she thought I needed a better foundation. It was a great gift.
I can’t emphasize how much Vietnam figured into my childhood. Americans reminisce about the TV they watched as children, and I remember a few shows, though God knows no episodes: Gilligan’s Island, Mannix, Saturday morning cartoons, Wile E. Coyote. But I remember very vividly the Siege of Huê going on night after night. The nested machine-gunners. The nightly casualty count. My father, who was, in a sense, driven mad by the whole thing. Vietnam was a judgment that America had passed on itself, and by which it stood irremediably condemned. I absorbed that in various ways. The American poets meant a lot to me, perhaps because the greatest of them are great doubters of America, and the seeming celebrants, like Whitman and the American novelists, are the recorders of the daily business of the country.
It should be said, too, that I grew up at a time when school left you a lot more time to do what you wanted to do. I wasn’t an especially good student overall, and only became all the more determined with each year of schooling to learn only what I wanted to learn. Even then, I would always prefer to read something I had chosen to read rather than to read something assigned. Assigned reading I would leave to the last minute.
I have said that the two formative moments of my life as a reader—and, in the end, that is perhaps the life that I have most intently and intensely led, the life that, unlike, say, marriage, always seemed to hold some additional promise, a possibility of real encounter and friendship—began in the two years that we went away from the small university town at the foot of the Rockies where I grew up. Reading for me was a way of handling being apart; when I came back, it became a way of being apart, since, for reasons that are mysterious to me, I felt apart at home. In that way, my reading life has a reflexive and reflective dimension. What do I do to try to correct that? Read. It doesn’t escape me that apartness is clearly a form of isolation and false gratification frustration, a way of saying “Leave me alone” and of feeling alone, a kind of unfulfillment, or, to use the cant of the day, addiction.
AV: I remember reading The Brothers Karamazov for days and nights on end, lying on a waterbed that had been left in an apartment my father rented when he went back to the US to teach and I went with him as a sulky fifteen-year-old. The book itself is quite sufficiently oceanic to set its reader sailing before the wind beyond all known horizons, but the waterbed definitely added a swaying, half-exhilarating, half-sickening uncertainty to it all. And probably an erotic dimension too. That was for me a year when I started translating poems.
I suppose I complacently think of my compulsive book-buying as the addiction, rather than the reading itself, but perhaps you’re right. I would have to say, upon reflection, that my bookish parents, feeding me books, always in some way accompanied that conditioning, consciously or not, with a corrective or supplement, in my father’s case music (which provided him with an unusually varied social life, one that allowed him to cross, at least from time to time, boundaries of race and class that remain extraordinarily difficult to cross, either in the US or in Europe). In my mother’s, the natural world and the opportunities it offers—not unlike music—for companionship beyond or at least next to language. I think my mother, who knew all the difficulties and humiliations of trying to earn a living as a literary translator, rather cunningly turned her non-literary pursuits (mushrooms, edible plants) into a new source of income. The joke, for me at least, being that it leads back to books, the ones on foraging that she now writes. I translated one of her books, what she calls her contribution to erotic literature, on the fig and the quince, into English from Dutch, her first language and my second.
EF: From 7th to 12th grade, I studied German, with few results apart from passing tests and getting out of language requirements. I did, however, puzzle my way through German poems: Goethe, Hölderlin, Heine, and Eichendorff. I began reading French seriously when, after graduating from college, I received a modest grant to go abroad in order to study French poetry. I read in the morning: Racine, Claudel, Char.
It was in the course of the year in London that I also became a book-buyer. I have never really cared for handsome books, signatures, first editions, and so on. One year, I had a summer job working for a scientific publication whose offices were in the American Museum of Natural History, and one of the long-term employees was also a book dealer. He had all sorts of great books, all neatly bundled up in cellophane, and I asked him, “What’s your favorite? What do you think about this or that?” “Oh, I never read them,” he said. I was completely thrown for a loop.
In any case, the books I love most are the mass market paperbacks that came out at the height of the postwar boom, when there was mass market for good books, and The Penguin Modern European Poets series: Milosz’s Postwar Polish Poetry—one of the first books of poems I read—Herbert in that series. The lovely, more boutique, Cape Editions, with French flaps. The Penguin edition of Mallarmé, with its psychedelic pink cover. I remember knowing I had to buy Gravity’s Rainbow when it came out—one of the first books to come out in paper as well as in hardcover, which meant I could afford it—with its smear of red and charcoal, not too different from that Mallarmé, and “A screaming comes across the sky” on the back. For a while I fetishized the books from Knopf. I had read an old copy of Hamsun’s Growth of the Soil, with lovely supple ivory pages. I think the first hardcover I ever bought, with great trepidation at the expense, was Donoso’s The Obscene Bird of Night. It had a great Leonara Carrington-style dust jacket and nice raggedy edges. Then Knopf had its mysterious notes about the type of the book, though typography itself—much like the Rocky Mountains I grew up among—was something I did not, as a child, actually see.
AV: I must confess to a (brief) phase of stealing books, aided by several early jobs in secondhand bookstores. Have you ever intentionally stolen a book?
EF: Gide’s The Counterfeiters impressed on my adolescent self the importance of gratuitous criminality. A friend’s older brother had a small business selling plexiglass paperweights, featuring Mercedes emblems in them, which he made in high school Shop. My friend and I were delegated to go out and twist the emblems off the hoods of cars. My not-all-that-strong need to test my criminal instincts continued into high school, where I felt that I must shoplift to prove my mettle, and now I can’t remember whether it was Lowell’s History or Hill’s Somewhere Is Such a Kingdom that I made off with from the local bookstore, heart pounding. A one-time affair. I did also abscond with some library books that I coveted, but this actually made me feel evil, so I stopped.
AV: Has there ever been a time when reading was repellent to you?
EF: Unfortunately, no. When I was 17, I had graduated from high school and, cashing in some bonds my grandmother had given me at birth, I went with a friend to Mexico and Latin America. My backpack contained more books than clothes. I had a wine carton full of books as well, since we meant to stay and study Spanish in Mexico for some months before proceeding on. We stopped with a friend of my parents in Santa Fe, and our host said, “What are you taking all those books for? Leave the books.” It was impossible for me.
My forebears are Calvinist, Methodist circuit-riders, Talmudists, Abolitionists from the Burned-Over district, and it is hard not feel that I have inherited a kind of blinding obsession with the word. What is all this reading for? It is a kind of devotion, clearly, and a kind of compulsion. It will not save me.
The intensity of my engagement makes me a poor writer about books (It is not that I am uncritical). I have a sense of the book as, say, a kind of bird testing the currents of the air, dipping and weaving, or, for that matter, a boxer of a sort—in any case, a sense of the book making the moves it makes, some of which are inevitably wrong moves, is part of what engages me in a book, the spectacle of a book fashioning itself before the reader’s eyes. So, the feeling of a game won or lost, and the appreciation of the beautiful or of something I haven’t seen before—these are continually with me, and these judgments occur at the level of form as well as at the level of content, needless to say: a sentence or the interrelation of sentences can always be remarked upon, and part of the pleasure of reading is the way books continually shift the level at which they address you, and the way that, in a given reading, one’s focus of attention changes. The changing interaction of book and reader is yet another story. It is not unlike playing chess, in some ways. Or being at sea, having to mind the winds and the currents and the doldrums.
All this means, however, that, in writing about books I have read, I want in some sense to convey and revive just that experience of sheer engagement on a second level, but second order commentary is rarely as engaging as experience itself.
AV: Where do you most like to read now, and is there a time of day or a season that seems to you most propitious to reading? I’m fascinated by reading habits, the what where how of reading.
EF: I do my serious reading in the morning. I approach a book with a strong bias toward reading it through, and one of the benefits of setting aside a given time every day for reading is that it allows one to make one’s way through pretty much anything, unless the book just doesn’t seem worthwhile. I guess I got into this habit in my late twenties or early thirties, when I felt filial piety called me to read Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit. I read on, from one day to the next, for how long I can’t remember. Contrary to his reputation, Hegel is, in fact, a great writer, and the Phenomenology a stupendous drama.
AV: I plowed through it in Chicago, aided by the endless winter. Do you read with music on; while eating; while drinking; on the subway; in the car; on planes; in libraries; in the bath; in public places?
EF: I read magazines at dinner, Shakespeare on planes, anything over a drink in a bar, or when depressed in the bath. Once I could read with music in the background, and would, thinking to absorb two different artforms at once. I can’t now.
AV: I am a bit of a dictionary junkie, both book-form and online Do you use a dictionary often when you read? Have online dictionaries changed your search habits?
EF: From time to time, sure. The internet has made it easier to look things up, and inevitably I take advantage of that, though I won’t get up and go to the computer to look up a word if I have a dictionary at hand. Of course, there is also the whole business of reading dictionaries, a skill and focus I have never had, and that perhaps is difficult to cultivate without a background in Latin and Greek. I’m thinking, above all, of the romantic and abusive relationship James Joyce conducted with the language of the dictionary.
AV: I do love reading dictionaries, though mostly specialized ones, like dictionaries of slang. The rarest book I own is a lexicon of World War II slang published in Amsterdam in 1944. It’s been very helpful to me in my various projects but also engrossing in its own right. I also can’t resist things like concordances and “harmonies”. How many books do you tend to read at one time? Do you read books or genres tactically, against each other? Do you often read many books by the same author or on the same subject in succession?
EF: I typically read three or four books at a time. For the last few years, I have begun my day by reading poetry for an hour or so before usually turning to a novel for about the same amount of time. Before that, I went through a period of waking up to the Bible. Using a daily lectionary from an old edition of The Book of Common Prayer, I made my way through both Testaments in the course of a year, The New Testament several times. After that, I would turn to a novel.
AV: Do you read poems aloud, alone or in company?
EF: Silently and out loud, but mostly alone, though I do inflict them on others from time to time.
AV: Do you like readings, giving them and attending them? What is the most memorable reading you’ve heard?
EF: I don’t go to readings often, but most of those I have gone to over the years have left a mark on me. I remember hearing Joseph Brodsky at the Cambridge Poetry Festival in England in the late 70s. His translator came out and read something innocuous and unimpressive: “Wystan you are dead, the butterflies flitter and flutter overhead,” or something. Then Brodsky came on and did the great whirring and whooshing and shouting thing of Russian poetry. “What is going on,” I wondered. I remember also James Wright reading his translation of Apollinaire’s La jolie rousse as an in memoriam for Elizabeth Bishop.
AV: It is hard for me to imagine what my life would have been if I had not had, almost simultaneously, the experience of reading Less Than One and of hearing Brodsky read poetry, also at a festival. There is a kind of tragicomedy, I sometimes think, in the abyss between his poetry in Russian, a poetry rising to the level of a great tradition, and his poetry in English. This is too often fudged and talked over, as if all translation is by definition a distant echo of the original. Readers expressing skepticism about the poems in English are browbeaten into submission or silence. Translations do not win their place in literature by bullying. As far as the bardic mode of recitation goes, it is the opposite of bullying. I am sure it was and can still be the organic lyric mode of a community, and in the absence of that community it functions as a kind of liturgical reminder of it, perhaps even a narrow path back to it.
It strikes me that the NYRB series, on its own, has changed the way people in the US read and configure Russian (and Eastern European) literature, something that was very necessary in the aftermath of the Cold War.
EF: We have an ongoing commitment to translating and publishing the work of Andrei Platonov, Vasily Grossman, and Victor Serge. As those names might suggest, I’m interested in literature as a response to history, literature that, against the odds, keeps alive a real sense both of critical awareness and of revolutionary possibility, of reading as a transformative encounter, that actual revolutions have all too often betrayed.
AV: My parents had a short-lived poetry press in the 1970s, which I was a small child. They published two books, one a translation by Phil Levine of the Mexican poet, Jaime Sabines. Of publishing I chiefly got the image of obsession and doomed defiance. But it was a few years of fever. You publish dozens of books every season. Has that made reading for pleasure more difficult? Do you read everything as an editor, i.e., correcting as you go along?
EF: Reading books in order to publish them is rarely a pleasure. You are constantly looking over your own shoulder, trying to decide: “Is this a good book? Good enough? Who else might like it?” And judging the book often gets in the way of actively reading the book, so, of course, that makes loving it more difficult.
So the question of choice interferes with real experience, which is perhaps something to bear in mind when you think how the question of choice has been so fetishized in our day. If you insist on having your choice, you may never be found.
As to the mechanics of editing—well, what I chiefly edit are translations, and there, too, I find myself blind to pretty much anything but the page under my pencil. I enter into a state of stupefaction in which sentence and paragraph and, at most, episode are more present to me than the sense of the book as a whole. I have edited translations very closely and come away with very little sense of what the book as a whole is about, though I can recall this or that sentence in the book perfectly.
Reading as an acquiring editor, you might say, leaves you suffering from farsightedness, unable to fasten onto the book at hand. Reading as a line editor leaves you myopic, seeing nothing much beyond your hands. Hence the need to read with no regard at all to editing for a good while in the morning.
AV: Many of the poems in your book, Snake Train, grow from contact with non-English texts. Have you ever translated anything?
EF: I sat down at one point to try to translate a Georges Simenon novel—I’d put in enough time helping to shape the sentences of some translations of Simenon that it seemed I might as well try doing the whole job—but I rapidly realized that I didn’t have the stamina necessary for taking that first step, putting French into something like English, time after time after time. The ability to see an English shape, even provisionally, in foreign words is a phenomenal gift, not to mention backbreaking work. I’m in awe of it.
It’s true that there are a lot of poems in Snake Train that are born of other poems from other languages, but they are neither imitations, in Lowell’s sense, nor versions, and certainly not translations. They take those other poems as starting points, and they could be said to take advantage of them, not least by incorporating them in sequences of poems with which originally they had nothing to do. (The book as a whole is less a volume of ‘selected poems’ than a sequence with a specific architecture of its own). But the poems in the book are, it’s true, the poems of a reader.
I wonder how you, as a poet who translates both prose and poetry, go about pacing yourself to get the job done and also how you work towards bringing out some aspect of the style of the original, which, I have a sense, always requires sacrificing something, if not some other violation. (Though then again what writing doesn’t?) What goes into working on a poet as, by all reports, dug-in to the peculiar resources of his own language as, say, Białoszewski?
AV: My experience has been that, like each poem or piece of writing, each translation has its own laws, which you discover along the way. The process of translating Białoszewski is not very much like the process of translating Herbert. It’s a little like playing two different instruments—there are fundamental principles of structure and tone that apply across the board, but the problem of capturing a voice, or creating a voice, really is quite distinct with each author.
And the reasons to translate are also different in each case. I started working on Zbigniew Herbert in the first place because I wanted his kind of clarity, control, comedy. With Białoszewski, the desire only came once I’d lived in Warsaw for a while and had become familiar with the everyday world—what remains of it—that Białoszewski inhabited and responded to. Which is not to say you need to live in Warsaw to read him, but it definitely helped me feel my way toward an English equivalent. Or I should say American, because with Białoszewski you can’t have a neutral, transatlantic English: urban slang requires that you choose—UK or USA, East End or East Side.
With Białoszewski, that is, you enter a new element, as you do with e.e. cummings or Joyce. What you’re calling the— ‘sacrifices’ –are necessarily greater, but maybe the opportunities for real invention or ingenuity are also richer. Still, it’s no accident that I’ve mostly translated Białoszewski’s short prose, which has a lot of the same linguistic play that the poems have, though with more of a tangible context and a narrative within which the language does its crazy stuff. It’s a luxury to be in the stage where you don’t yet have a publisher or a contract and you are alone with a writer, trying things out. And then Bill Martin invited a bunch of people to contribute to the issue of Aufgabe with lots of Białoszewski in it, and it was fun to compare how different translators did different things. I love that sort of thing, and seeing how the translations slowly work their claws into American poetry as well, since so many translators are also poets.
One book you did that was a wonderful discovery to me was Gilbert Highet’s Poets in a Landscape, which talks about seven Roman poets in the context of their physical environment, and combines travel writing and biography and deep reading in a way not unlike, say, Dyer’s Out of Sheer Rage. One thing that strikes me about your wonderful NYRB series is that it keeps alive a tradition of writing about literature and art in a way which is now seen as unacademic or even anti-academic but was, until fairly recently, practiced inside the universities—Highet taught at Columbia—and then you did Born Under Saturn by the Wittkowers, and Steegmuller’s Flaubert book.
EF: Funny it was that issue of Aufgabe that led me to publish Białoszewski’s Memoir of the Warsaw Uprising. Bill Martin had told me about the book, but I hadn’t gotten around to reading it. Then he asked me to read passages from it at an event at The Poetry Project, which put me on the spot. What an extraordinary book, with the young Miron Białoszewski in effect running for dear life through three Warsaws at once, the prewar one, the rebuilt postwar one, and the shattered city of the siege. It’s a book that is both all action and yet, at the same time, a meditation.
Those academic feats of haute vulgarization that you mention: the theoretical and cod-philosophical turn academic studies took in the seventies discouraged them for a long time, but I think there may be a turn, or swerve—because look at Greenblatt’s The Swerve—back to them, which I’d welcome. Curiously, the French, who inspired the theoretical turn in the first place, have continued to turn them out. Anyway, I like that kind of book and am always on the lookout for that kind book, since such books reflect a commendable desire on the part of the erudite to share what they know, a modest sense that what is important about what they know is that it is of interest to people who are not their colleagues, while also sustaining a sense of curiosity and inquiry in the world at large that—God knows—is also a good thing. Books like Auerbach’s Dante and the Secular World or Finlay’s World of Odysseus. People buy them, too.
If there is a return to that kind of writing underway, I think that reflects, not unlike the success of the Classics series, a broader sense of concern and alarm that liberal culture—as I might say faute de mieux, though I guess I’d prefer a phrase like ‘reflective culture’—is disappearing. I guess professorial specialization contributes to the problem, as does an educational system that is more rigorous and deadening than it was in my day, an educational system that increasingly discourages free thought, or the freedom and perspective that come with laziness. All these contribute to the problem, and then, of course, on the other side there is the sickness that is mass media—contemporary media, both mass and social, is increasingly and delusionally sick—and the problem that that popular culture is more and more debased, like the new president, is something we need to take to heart. But education, expensive education, not just the commercialized and quantified form of it, has done its part, too. I have no patience for the American pragmatic, or “positivist,” approach to education that comes out of Dewey, where students are given “tools” to think with, and history or whatever is turned into so many problems, history itself slipping from sight. Somewhere in Reflection of a Non-Political Man, Mann says the end of education should be reverence. And I think that’s entirely true. Or irreverence, but not—for Christ’s sake—’problematization.’ I was thunderstruck, when my son was attending a fancy school in New York, that books were not read because good books, good poems, are good things to have in your head—and that is the main reason to read books!—but that they were read as objects on which students would be trained to perform symbolic analysis. That way they’d know what to do if they ever had the mischance to run into a book again. Quick fetch the fire extinguisher!
Anyway, it’s a strange moment. Serious reading, the place of reading as an activity in the culture, is declining. On the other hand, there’s a saving remnant, it seems to me—though saving may be optimistic—of people, I think young people, aware of the anxious joylessness prevalent in the academy, but also of the limited opportunities outside of it, no doubt appalled now at this reactionary spasm we’re going through, who seem to be seriously concerned about that, seriously concerned to keep the vital spark alive, seriously concerned with the world of literature as a world that has a history and climate and character of its own that needs to be preserved. That the dreary flatness of globalization has to be offset by—a word you never hear anymore—cosmopolitanism. There’s something wonderful and even innocent about it: ‘O Brave New World that has such creatures in it!’
AV: What books do you return to periodically? Do you have a shortlist of “Desert Island” books, or a book you’d save from a conflagration?
EF: I enjoy rereading and coming back to the obvious things that never seem to disclose their secrets: Dante, Shakespeare, the Bible, the major English and American poets. When it comes to novels, I tend to think of every book I love as remaining essentially unread, and, it has to be said, I am often willing to give books I thoroughly dislike or hate another go. To hate something is to feel strongly about something, and if it makes you feel that strongly about it, there may well be something to it, something in it or in you that bears reexamining. In this way, books are like paintings, my other great passion. Reading the book or looking at the painting opens a space of devotion and contemplation and plain curiosity, at the level of content and form, that seems inexhaustible. And, certainly, as a kind of awareness, this space has a life and logic of its own apart from any one book or painting. Of course, books and paintings are also manifestations of nature. I grew up in a beautiful place, and I regret not learning to look at trees and flowers and clouds with the same intent attention that I have brought to books. Now, I wish I knew the name of the nameless shrub along the path, and how it branches, and so forth.
But, in the meantime, my happiest reading is probably rereading—Middlemarch, Our Mutual Friend (the one everything a great book should be, and a bit more; the other a work of unadulterated genius)—or reading a book by an author I am already attached to, most recently Henry James’ The Awkward Age.
AV: Is there an art work (painting, drawing, photograph) portraying a reader that you particularly like? I love Rembrandt’s portrait of his mother reading.
EF: There is a lovely Hans Thoma picture of a book left open on a windowsill, and all the green landscape beyond.1
Alissa Valles is the author of the poetry books Orphan Fire (2008), Anastylosis , a limited thermal paper edition for the Whitechapel Art Gallery in London (2014), andHospitium (2019); she is the editor and co-translator of Zbigniew Herbert’s Collected Poems and Collected Prose, and her translation of Ryszard Krynicki’s Our Life Grows was awarded the Scaglione Prize of the Modern Language Association in 2019.
Latest posts by Edwin Frank (see all)
- Habits of Reading: Alissa Valles and Edwin Frank in Conversation - October 26, 2020