A Year in Reading: Matt Seidel

1.I’ve spent most of the year exploring (dictionary in hand) French and Italian contemporary literature, including Adeline Dieudonne’s La Vraie Vie. This engrossing, horrific coming-of-age tale involves a tyrannical father, taxidermy, time travel and the mortal dangers of ice-cream trucks. Luckily, the English translation, Real Life, is coming out this February. On the Italian (and as-yet-untranslated) side, Ezio Sinigaglia’s Il Pantarei features a young writer composing an idiosyncratic account of the 20th-century novel. It is about how novels shapes not only one’s style but also one’s life, and it doubles as a neat little primer on literary history. Il Pantarei, originally published in 1985 and reissued this year in Italy, would make an excellent addition to the list of an Open Letter Books or Dalkey Archives Press.

Three other works that stuck with me this year involved men in trouble, one farcical take on contemporary society and two sly, meta-literary comedies.

In the Uruguayan Mario Levrero’s Empty Words, a man embarks on a regimen of “graphological self-therapy” on the suggestion of a “crazy friend.” The idea is that beautifully formed characters reflect, or help shape, a beautiful character. His goals are both modest and comically ambitious. On the modest side, he hopes to replace his “microscopic scrawl” with a “large, expansive handwriting”’ and to write a “continuous” cursive in which the pen never leaves the page, thereby aiding the “continuity of thoughts.” His more outsized hopes are delivered with an irony that undercuts the project even before it begins:

I know these daily exercises will do wonders for my health and character, transforming a whole plethora of bad behaviors into good ones and catapulting me blissfully into a life of happiness, joy, money, and success with women and in other games of chance.  

The narrator is a Tristram Shandy figure diverted from his ambitious course of self-improvement by a stream of interruptions: “I live from one urgency to the next.” He is perennially distracted by his obligations as a writer and crossword setter, the misadventures of his dog, Pongo, and his girlfriend, a “fractal being,” so much so that he develops a persecution complex: “I know full well that every step I take toward self-affirmation on the inside is harshly punished on the outside.”  

Sometimes, the pestered cruciverbalist distracts himself, neglecting his graphology to program a computer to make chirping noises. And yet he perseveres with heroic resolve, sounding eerily like A Confederacy of Dunces’s Ignatius J. Reilly: “…I decided to prioritize this [handwriting] activity and put off—at no small personal sacrifice—my lunch.”   

When
the narrator does set down to work on his handwriting, another problem
surfaces. Nature, and narrative, abhors a vacuum. Despite his resolute efforts
to keep the exercises as mechanical as possible—pure exercises in calligraphic
style—content, or “discourse,” seeps in. His “narrative urges” overwhelm his
self-discipline. Or as he puts it in terms to which even the non-creative can
relate: “The blank page is like a big chocolate pudding; I’m not allowed to eat
it because I’m on a diet, but I can’t resist.”

Writing
crosswords is the opposite process in a way. In that work, he constructs a
hidden order out of blankness; in the writing exercises, he blindly stumbles up
against an unknowable order: 

I feel trapped inside a mechanism I know nothing about, gripped by the magical fear that my apparently private, personal, and innocent act has put me in touch with a formidable and dangerous world, a world I can’t control and can only barely, uncertainly, feel is there.

Then, at the very end, he matter-of-factly reveals a crucial piece of information that explains some of the anxiety, depression and self-loathing (he sees himself as physically and psychically grotesque) that motivated the project in the first place. After reading this self-referential twist on the self-help book, I’m awaiting the forthcoming translation (also by Annie McDermott) of another of Levrero’s works, The Luminous Novel.

2.From a narrator who forces himself to write, we move to one who is compelled to write, despite his yearning for silence. Sam Savage’s debut novel The Cry of the Sloth was an epistolary blaze of literary rancor; “My Life in Writing: A Confession in Fable,” one of the most memorable pieces in his posthumous collection An Orphanage of Dreams, is another lament of, or curious paean to, the writerly life. 

The
narrator is a thoroughly Beckettian figure: a clochard accustomed to
“proddings and nudgings administered by guardians of the law.” He stumbles
along in search of a former lover whom he wouldn’t recognize even if he should
come across her. Because of “erosions of time and blows to the head,” he has
forgotten, among other things, his name, though one fellow traveler informs him
he looks like a Ned. He is never without at least one notebook, a pencil and a
sharpener. The notebooks contains either 44 or 48 pages, presumably because of
a production inconsistency, which prompts the narrator to wonder whether he has
been ripped off or has cheated the shopkeeper with each purchase: “I never know
whether to count my blessings or curse my fate.” This is also the key question
surrounding the true, that is inescapable, literary vocation: is it a gift from
the gods, a torment, or, as suggested by this fable, both?  

Whenever
he feels overcome by the “thicket of words” crowding his brain, the narrator
writes them down, an “orderly production and disposal of dreams and
memories”: 

So I go on writing, laying down one sentence after another. I lay them down like sponges hoping they will soak up the noise, the howling, the mumbling, the creaking, the chattering, that they will become swollen with the noise, grow fat on the absurdity of the noise, and come to an end. 

Afterwards,
he crosses out the text (but not completely), rips out the page and tosses it
on the street, sibylline leaves scattered to the wind: “I leave them legible
out of vanity, I suppose, or loneliness, imagining as I walk along that
somewhere behind me someone will pick up the page…” Some people do, as it turns
out, but mostly because they think it’s litter. 

So
what then, causes him to forge on, despite the obstacles (“bad luck, a bad leg,
a lost bike, blows to the temple, tendencies to inebriation and sloth”) and
despite the clear view of all those promising ephebes who came, and failed,
before him (a “mountain of carcasses”)? The answer is simple: the hope,
inexhaustible if quixotic, for some glint of recognition, a readerly
communion: 

…a person reading it, if there is such a one, will be looking at my soul through the wire of its cage, or the other way around, that my soul is peeking out through laced fingers at the mystery of the world.

3.In Peter Mehlman’s #MeAsWell, Arnie Pepper is a wise-cracking sports columnist for the Washington Post with a growing disdain for sports (“The NFL’s biggest impact on society is that now dumb people donate their brains to science”), media coverage (“Turn to ESPN and there’s so much laughter, you’d think Rodney Dangerfield is giving the scores”) and fans, “putrefying savages” with a “wantonly false sense of entitlement.” Kibitzing with other reporters at Marlin’s Park during batting practice, he delivers a one-liner about an injury-prone basketball player: “How long does a guy usually stay on the injured list for a hysterectomy?” The male reporters find it funny, but then someone posts the joke on social media, landing Pepper—“content and carefree as a white, wage-earning, statin-popping, middle-aged American male could be”—at the center of a minor controversy.

After the joke stirs up moral outrage, a protester using the nom de guerre Bruce Bader Ginsburg sprays Pepper with “artisanal estrogen mist…with a drizzle of Malaysian sterilization powder.” Worse, the Post brass call him up to the carpet for what could be the end of his career. But what, Pepper protests, of his impeccable bona fides? “I named my daughter after Althea Gibson, for Chrissake!” and that’s just for starters. His columns have earned the admiration of stars like Martina Navratilova, Danica Patrick, and Brandi Chastain: “I’ve been on the right side of their every issue…NOW cited me as an example of forward thinking in the primitive tar pits of Sports Journalism,” he cries. 

The
novel would be less convincing if it merely echoed complaints about cancel
culture. “Giving people a break has become un-American,” says Pepper for
example, bemoaning a population high on “Moral Outrage Oxycontin.” Melhman’s
humor saves the novel from being an enervating lament—I should note here he
wrote for Seinfeld—and because Pepper’s righteous anger is tempered by doubt,
a sense that his self-pity might be overblown. Indeed, his patient but
exasperated daughter delivers the sagest hot take on l’affaire Pepper: “This is
the world now and you’ve finally gotten your first taste…a tiny taste….life
is unfair, but if you hang around, you can still steal a game here and
there.” 

The novel is also too busy to descend into bathos. Pepper gets a scoop involving one of the Trump administration’s odious members saying something odious; a Madoff-like friend on the lamb contemplates a return; he receives a mildly credible death threat; and dips his toes in the dating pool. And as if to prove the notion that sports are the great uniter, over one 24-hour period, the maligned sportswriter comes into contact with Kirsten Gillibrand, Bob Woodward, a prelapsarian Les Moonves, and, wait for it, Jamal Khashoggi. 

The turmoil shakes Pepper but doesn’t affect his antic garrulousness, and indeed his voice—wisecracking and quick-witted—makes the novel. Ironic, then, that Pepper’s breakthrough involves him discovering his “inner mute button.”

Ten Writers to Watch in 2019

This list of 10 writers to watch features the authors of five translated works—from the French, Italian, Japanese, and Spanish. Even the American authors’ books have a distinctly international flavor, with a collection riffing on Turkish history, a Cold War intrigue, and a sweeping novel about a historically black community in Nova Scotia.
1. Ayşe Papatya Bucak: Turkish Delights
“As a creative writing teacher, I read so many short stories,” says Ayşe Papatya Bucak, a professor at Florida Atlantic University. “Nothing seems original to me unless it’s pretty out-there, so I was trying at least to do stories I hadn’t seen before.”

The result is Bucak’s debut collection, The Trojan War Museum (Norton, Aug.), which spins sly, inventive stories from Turkish history. “Her work is historical and contemporary, real and imagined, a blend of myth and fact,” says her agent, Julie Barer.
Alane Mason, Bucak’s editor, praises the “freshness and power of the prose—never a word wasted or a risk shied away from.”
The title story imagines a series of museums dedicated the Trojan War, some curated by the Greek gods and some of which are horrifyingly immersive. “I wanted to write a story that had multiple stories in it, like the layers of Troy, and where the setting performed the narrative structure,” Bucak, 48, explains.
Other stories animate colorful 19th-century figures—wrestler Yusuf Ismail, diplomat and art collector Khalil Bey—and grapple with their Orientalist depictions in the West.
Bucak, whose father is Turkish and whose mother is American, attended Princeton University and studied with novelist Russell Banks before working in publishing for several years. “I learned pivotal lessons as an undergrad, but then it took me a really long time to execute them,” she says. “Writing is like a lot of things—you have to learn over and over.”
Though Bucak was initially cautious, writing about her father’s homeland opened up new possibilities. “The only Turk I knew for most of my life was my dad, so I wondered if I was entitled to write about Turkey,” she says. “It really took me until my 30s to realize, ‘Oh, I’m mixed!’ That let me write about Turkey the way I experience it.”

2. Jeffrey Colvin: Sister Cities
“I can still remember segregation in the Alabama education system,” says Jeffrey Colvin, 61, who grew up in Tuscaloosa, Ala. A former Marine who holds an MFA in fiction from Columbia University and now lives in New York City, Colvin was working on series of stories set in and around his racially divided hometown when he learned about Africville, a black community in Halifax, Canada, “that no longer existed, wiped out during a thing called urban renewal.” He thought to incorporate his Alabama stories into a larger narrative about Africville, first settled in the 18th century by freed slaves and exiled Jamaicans. The idea developed into his debut novel, Africaville (Amistad, Dec.).
“I’ve been wrestling with how to write about the South in my own way,” Colvin says. “This allowed me to talk about the South, but also stand apart from it and think about how it connects to the larger world.”
Opening in 1918 during a fever epidemic, the novel relates the ordeals of the Sebolt family. “I was in awe that Jeffrey sustained that balance of a shadow—literal and metaphorical—always looming over the Sebolt family,” says Colvin’s editor, Patrik Bass. “And yet there’s a resilience—rooted in a sense of home—that takes them, and readers, to other places,” he adds.
“Once I started reading, I was instantly drawn in by his story of a family and the town that both defines and confines them,” says Colvin’s agent, Ayesha Pande.
Race is similarly defining and confining for the Sebolts, one of whom passes as white after moving to Alabama. “One of the things I find fascinating is the way in which people cast off their past,” Colvin says.
Colvin cut his novel down significantly, sometimes painfully, over the various revisions. Laughing, he paraphrases James Baldwin: “You don’t get the novel you want, you get the novel you got.”
3. Jean-Baptiste Del Amo: Nostalgie de la Boue
“Mine wasn’t a family of readers, and I never expected to write books,” says Jean-Baptiste Del Amo, who grew up in southwest France. When he completed a draft of what would become his first novel, 2008’s Une Education Libertine, he had no connections to the Parisian publishing world and a miniscule postage budget to work with. “I didn’t have enough money to send the book to more than four publishers,” he says.
Del Amo chose wisely; two weeks later, he received a positive response from the venerable Éditions Gallimard. “My life changed completely,” he recalls.

Animalia (Grove, Sept.), Del Amo’s fourth novel, his first to be translated into English, is a century-spanning, mud-splashed epic about a clan of hardscrabble pig farmers in a small French village. “I wanted to tell a story about family and how violence can be transmitted from one generation to the next,” Del Amo, who is 37 and lives in Paris, explains. “I could use pigs and breeding as a metaphor for the human condition.”
In the book, Del Amo mixes lyrical passages of the French countryside with merciless descriptions of the sights, smells, and barbarism of industrial pig rearing. “The first half of the novel is like a landscape painting and the second half has a more documentary feel,” says his editor, Peter Blackstock.
“I want the reader to be physically involved,” Del Amo says. “Sense is the best way to bring the reader into my universe.”
“Jean-Baptiste’s hypnotic, poetic and sometimes terrifyingly visceral prose shimmers and quivers on the page,” adds his translator, Frank Wynne.
Cruelty, toward humans and animals, is the novel’s central theme. Since writing the book, Del Amo has taken a more activist stance on animal rights. Animalia, though, was not written to be a political statement. “The book led me to the activism, and not the contrary,” he says.


4. Juan José Millás: Domestic Help

Juan José Millás’s From the Shadows (Bellevue, Aug.) features one of the most memorable closets since C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. In the book, Damián, a middle-aged, recently unemployed handyman, fashions himself a cubby hole behind the antique wardrobe in a family’s home.
“He is a sort of modern Robinson Crusoe, trapped on an island that turns out to be a closet,” Millás says of his handy, ghostly protagonist. “He in fact controls the movements of the family, which gives him a feeling of power that he had never possessed.”
When the house is empty, Damián leaves his redoubt to tidy it up. Millás, 73, says he shares his protagonist’s Zen-like approach to cleaning: “It’s one of my favorite activities. As I polish the cups and glasses, I enter a special state of consciousness, from which I understand the world and its problems better.”
A strange character, Damián stages an imaginary talk show, of which he is the star, in his head. “The contrast between his reality—the closet—and fantasy—the set—seemed to me to be very symbolic of the isolation in which people live and the hunger for fame to which they aspire,” Millás says.
From the Shadows, translated by Thomas Bunstead and Daniel Hahn, is Millás’s first novel to be published in North America. (Two works were pubbed in the U.K., but both are out of print.) Millás lives in Madrid and is a columnist for the newspaper El País, contributing “hybrid pieces” called articuentos: “They are hybrids because they have the appearance of a journalistic column, but they hide a short story inside them,” he explains.
Millás’s editor, Erika Goldman, says she was captivated by his “whimsy and the logic of his imagination” and praises his “lively, mordant social satire that gives us what we look for in the best of international literature: insight into another world that deepens our understanding of our own.”
5. Hiroko Oyamada: Corporate Bestiary

Hiroko Oyamada’s The Factory (New Directions, Oct.) is an oneiric satire of corporate life in contemporary Japan. In the novel, three employees—a document shredder, a copy editor, and a scientist who classifies the moss growing on a factory’s massive campus—struggle to make sense of their company’s opaque mission.
“Even the smallest pond has its own ecosystem,” Oyamada says. “The same holds true for any workplace.”
After graduating from Hiroshima University with a degree in Japanese literature, Oyamada worked as a temp at a sprawling car factory with a massive staff. “Just being there in the middle of it all left me feeling anxious,” she says. One day, she started writing on the clock. “At first, it was practically a diary, but soon it became something much closer to a novel.”
Oyamada, 35, explores the unsettling parallel between the employees and the eerie creatures roaming the company’s grounds, each of which has adapted to corporate life and the facilities. This fantastical animal element was inspired by a surreal moment from her factory job. “I looked up and saw a woman by one of the printers, holding a giant black bird by its wings,” she recalls. “When I looked back, what I saw wasn’t a bird at all. It was a part for the printer—maybe a toner cartridge. Still, the image of that bird in the basement stuck with me.”
David Boyd, who translated The Factory, says, “Every time I go back to Oyamada’s writing, I find something new—something major that changes the entire story.”
Oyamada’s tale conveys the economic insecurity felt by a generation of Japanese. “I finished the book in 2010—a time when young people were working as hard as they could in exchange for woefully low wages,” she explains. “These deplorable conditions have become so normal that no one even talks about them anymore. What may have immediately struck some readers a decade ago as comically awful working conditions may now seem less terrible and more tolerable.”
6. Kimberly King Parsons: Lone Stars
Frustrated by her progress on a novel, Kimberly King Parsons says that she started “cheating by writing these really fun, illicit short stories”—a form that has always appealed to her. “There’s something about the compression that does it for me in a way that most novels don’t.”

Those stories coalesced into Black Light (Vintage, Aug.), Parsons’s debut collection. They are set in Texas, where she was born and lived until she attended Columbia’s fiction MFA program. “It’s kind of ridiculous, but it took my agent to tell me that they all took place there,” says Parsons, who is 40 and currently lives in Portland, Ore.
That agent, Meredith Kaffel Simonoff, says she was struck by Parsons’s “Texan-twanging voice” and how “despite shades of sharp-tongued truth-telling, feral desperation, white-hot rage, and often giddy narcotic abandon, the stories also somehow capture the magic, warmth, and enchantment of hope.”
“I think the bed is the place I can write the most comfortably for the longest amount of time,” Parsons says. But despite her Proustian writing habits, the tales hum with a jittery energy.
“Her unique sentence structure makes you want to stop dead in your tracks and listen, the way an unusual guitar hook does,” says Parsons’s editor, Margaux Weisman.
The collection features iridescent characters “trying to get at what’s underneath real life,” Parsons says. “There’s a lot of game playing in these stories, whether it’s children or whether it’s adults behaving badly to get to a place where they can feel that glow.”
One such game takes place when two married colleagues call out sick and spend the day in a seedy motel. “I personally love hotels,” Parsons says. “There’s something magical to me about how it becomes a stage and what happens in that room is potentially performative.”

7. Lara Prescott: Hot off the Cold War Presses

One of Lara Prescott’s prized possessions is a CIA-printed copy of Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago, whose publication history is the subject of her debut, The Secrets We Kept (Knopf, Sept.). “It’s a tiny second or third edition printed on Bible stock and small enough to fit in your pocket to conceal,” she says.
Prescott’s novel focuses on the role that women agents played in the CIA’s effort to secure, publish, and distribute the U.S.S.R.-banned novel behind the Iron Curtain in the late 1950s. “It seemed like a novel while I was reading all these declassified documents on CIA.gov,” Prescott says. Her protagonists are a young typist in the CIA typist pool and a glamorous woman skilled at extracting secrets from powerful men.
The story immediately grabbed her agents, Jamie Chambliss and Jeff Kleinman, who describe the novel as “A Gentleman in Moscow meets Hidden Figures.”
While researching the novel, Prescott, 37, realized that she “just couldn’t write from the Western perspective” and decided to chronicle the difficult life of Pasternak’s mistress and muse, Olga, twice sent to the gulag because of her lover’s subversive novel.
Prescott—who lives in Austin, Tex., where she received her MFA in creative writing at the Michener Center—studied political science and international relations at American University. Before turning to fiction, she was a communications writer for various political campaigns. “I didn’t have the fortitude or the underlying passion for being next to power,” she says.
Prescott’s tale also weaves in the Lavender Scare, the government’s Cold War–era persecution of gay and lesbian federal workers. “Though the CIA was promoting freedom through these works of art, at the same time they were persecuting their own employees,” she says. “Censorship and persecution exist on both sides.”
8. Veronica Raimo: Utopia and Its Discontents

Set on the fictional island of Miden, Veronica Raimo’s first novel to appear in English, The Girl at the Door (Black Cat, Oct.), recounts a sexual abuse allegation that upends the lives of a professor and his pregnant girlfriend.
Raimo’s editor, Elisabeth Schmitz, likens the novel to Kristen Roupenian’s “infamous” short story “Cat Person” in that it “considers a narrative other than a clear-cut perpetrator vs. victim one in a story of sexual transgression,” she says.
The professor and his girlfriend narrate in alternating chapters as a citizen committee determines whether they can remain on the utopian island. As she worked on the novel, Raimo became more drawn to the girlfriend’s experience. “I thought it would be more interesting to have this woman, neither the victim nor the perpetrator, forced to live this conflict from an external point of view,” she explains.
For years, Raimo, 41, bounced between her hometown of Rome and Berlin, which she first visited on a graduate scholarship to study East German cinema. “You can feel the tension between a society like Germany, which is richer and works better and is more progressive, and Italy’s,” Raimo says. “I needed the conflict that you experience every day in Rome.”
The darkly ironic tale pokes fun at bureaucratic procedures regulating sexual misconduct and desire, even as it honors “the inner truth of someone feeling that he or she was abused,” says Raimo, who is currently working on Italian translations of Octavia E. Butler and Ray Bradbury. “You can’t really have a protocol for love, even in a society that has a protocol for everything.”
9. Karina Sainz Borgo: Survivor’s Guilt

“Sometimes I think I have been writing this novel my whole life,” says Karina Sainz Borgo, a Venezuelan journalist living in Barcelona. In It Would Be Night in Caracas (HarperVia, Oct.), Adelaida mourns the death of her mother while fighting to survive in a Caracas beset with paramilitary marauders and debilitating inflation.
“I’m trying to explain how one of the most important countries of the region became a very primitive society,” Sainz Borgo says. “Dictatorships create differences between people, and one of those is between those who left and those who stayed.”
Sainz Borgo knows this firsthand, having left Venezuela 13 years ago at age 24. “I wanted to write about why I feel guilty because I’m no longer there.”
Capturing Adelaida’s shifting voice challenged Sainz Borgo’s translator, Elizabeth Bryer. “Sometimes her utterances are staccato in nature, truncated as they are by grief,” she says. “At other times her voice is all energetic resilience, fueled by her determination to survive.”
Adelaida’s mother’s death is emblematic of Venezuela’s collapse, Sainz Borgo explains. “It was supposed to be a mother country for all these people, but it didn’t work.”
Sainz Borgo’s editor, Juan Milà, acquired the novel for the new HarperVia imprint focused on translated fiction. “It had everything,” he says—“a gripping voice and plot as well as a deep emotional intelligence that allows us to connect with the human stories in newspapers and on television.”
Sainz Borgo stresses, though, that the novel is not necessarily a tale specific to Venezuela. “Many have said that this is a topical novel, but I do not say ‘Venezuela’ very much,” she says. “I was trying to maintain the universalist nature.”
10. Lila Savage: Written with Care
Lila Savage didn’t write any fiction until her 30s, when she started a novel based on her experience as a care worker. “I was interested in exploring the intimacy that develops between the caregiver and the family,” says Savage, who grew up in the Twin Cities and now lives in San Francisco. “I became very close with so many people, but I also had to start protecting myself emotionally.”

Savage eventually quit care work to focus on writing her debut novel, Say Say Say (Knopf, July). “The work that I did offered a lot of emotional reward, but it’s also tedious and stressful,” she says. Savage, 38, was accepted into the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and later secured a Wallace Stegner Fellowship. “For folks from professional backgrounds like mine, it makes such a big difference to have funding to write.”
In Say Say Say, Ella, a young queer woman, cares for a rapidly declining woman—the novel’s title comes from one of her verbal tics—and develops an intense bond with her patient’s dutiful, undemonstrative husband. In portraying his male stoicism, Savage interrogates what she describes as the “cultural expectations for masculinity and the belief that caregiving is women’s work.”
“The novel takes on decline and grief with tremendous courage, honesty, and insight,” says Savage’s editor, Robin Desser. “Lila writes with a delicate restraint that belies how hard this book hits.”
Savage’s agent, Chris Parris-Lamb, hadn’t seen a novel on the subject, despite the fact that caregiving is “one of the most common, and fastest-growing, professions in the country.” He adds, “It felt like the sort of novel Alice Munro might write, if Alice Munro were a queer millennial who wrote novels and had perhaps read some affect theory.”
This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly and also appeared on publishersweekly.com.

Dear Match Book

In her New York Times column “Match Book,” Nicole Lamy “connects readers with book suggestions based on their questions, their tastes, their literary needs and desires.” Some of those questions, tastes, literary needs and desires are stranger than others.

1.Dear Match Book,

I
like sympathetic protagonists who become slightly, but not too, unsympathetic
following some kind of loss, then gradually become sympathetic again while
coping with said loss. Close third-person narration preferred, with some epistolary
bits (email only) judiciously sprinkled in. No second person please! A strong
sense of place is a must, though that place need not be named as long as the
protagonist is—or vice versa.

Dear
Anonymous,

My
advice would be to write this book yourself, and then check back in after it’s
published so l can recommend it to you.

2.Dear Match Book,

I love trilogies: Olivia Manning’s Fortunes of War, Evelyn Waugh’s Sword of Honour, and more recently, Rachel Cusk’s Outline trilogy. My problem is I can’t stand quartets! The very thought of four books in a series—or their readers—makes me physically ill. And yet I’ve heard great things about Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet. Help!

Dear
Fourth Wheel,

I am terribly sorry to hear about your tetralogical dysfunction, which is barring you off from experiencing the wonders of Ferrante’s Naples and Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria. Has your therapist already suggested breaking the foursomes into two twosomes? (You do have a therapist, right?)

Alternatively, you could try wetting your feet with books with “four” in the title (e.g., Ian Caldwell and Dustin Thomason’s bibliophile mystery The Rule of Four)? I don’t know. I’m grasping at straws here.

What about Ali Smith’s in-progress Seasonal Quartet? Why don’t you read Winter, Autumn, and the forthcoming Spring, and then pretend that Smith got tired of the project? Next, hole up in a cabin somewhere. After 10 to 15 years, emerge from seclusion, visit a bookstore, and thumb through a copy of Summer. If you don’t retch, you’re cured!  

3.Dear Match Book,

You
up?

Dear
Romeo,

Is this a booty call? If so, this is a first for me at Match Book. I am indeed up, but I’d prefer to keep this professional. I can, however, recommend some saucy books to get you through the night. Philip Roth’s Deception and Nicolson’s Baker’s Vox each are dazzling verbal displays that plumb the depths of desire.

4.Dear Match Book,

I earn $400 a day working from home! Want to learn more? But first, do you have any well-observed family dramas to recommend? I loved the latest Ann Tyler.

Dear
Bot,

Domestic drama has been at the core of literature since Greek tragedy, so there is much to choose from. What about the Eca de Queiros’s 19th-century epic The Maias, which tells of forbidden love in a lively Lisbon? Or for something more contemporary, try Barbara Kingsolver’s Unsheltered, her era-spanning chronicle of two New Jersey families.

I
could think of more, but I’m intrigued by your offer. $400 a day you say? Would
I still have to write this column?
Please advise.

5.Dear Match Book,

A veritable and unrepentant gourmand, I’ve devoured Valerie Luiselli, inhaled Karl Ove Knaussgard, delected Ben Lerner and glutted on Ottessa Moshfegh in the last month alone. I really don’t need a recommendation. I was just writing to communicate how well read I am.

Dear
Voracious Reader,

Barf.

6.Dear Match Book,

Recommending
books is simply a matter of data analysis. For example, with the right
algorithm I could tell you which novel to read based on the kind of paper
towels you buy.

Dear
Bot Book,

You’ll never replace me with a machine, Bezos!

p.s.
Sorry about Queens. And the dick pics.

7.Dear Match Book,

I’m looking for the perfect bathroom read. It doesn’t necessarily have to be thematically related to defecation—though bonus points if it did—just gripping enough to get me through my morning ritual.

Dear Multitasker,

I believe the best time to ingest knowledge is when one is expelling waste. The urbane musings of Joseph Epstein are my favorite companion, but perhaps it’s easiest to tell you what’s in our bathroom here at The Times: Clives James’s Cultural Amnesia, his sharp, sardonic portraits of 20th-century intellectual and artistic figures; Marcel Schwob’s Imaginary Lives, a toilet-friendly collection of mesmerizing biographical vignettes; and The Selected Poems of Kay Ryan, whose whimsical, technically proficient verse helps to move things along, so to speak.

There’s also The Penguin Book of Similes, but that’s in Dwight Garner’s personal stall.

8.Dear Match Book,

I’ve always looked forward to reading the latest from Michael Chabon, whom I believe to be our greatest living author. This is an impossible question, but if you could choose just one masterpiece from his incredible oeuvre, what would it be?

Dear
Michael Chabon,

As I
tell you each week, I am particularly attached to The Yiddish Policeman’s
Union
.

9.Dear Match Book,

We’ve
been hosting a book club on the Victorian novel for several years now. Reading Daniel
Deronda
, Our Mutual Friend, and the Barchester novels has taught us
the indispensability of timeless literature and great friends.

The
problem is I can’t stand one member of the group—let’s call him Uriah. Can you
recommend a “loose baggy monster” that will get him to quit the club?

Dear
(Middle)Marching Orders,

Part of what makes Victorian literature so compelling are its villains, from Alec d’Urberville to Becky Sharpe. Why don’t you try Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White? Embrace your inner Count Fosco to lie, scheme, and gaslight the son of a bitch until the mere sight of a triple-decker sends shivers down his spine.

10.Dear Match Book,

I
recently murdered someone during an unfortunate encounter. I’m coping just
about as well as could be expected and devoting myself to self-care, including
reading literature about the ethics of killing a (former) friend. Any tips?

Dear
Raskolnikov,

N.B. The Times in no way condones murder. Having said that, reading is a great way to begin the healing process. I would start with Albert Camus’s haunting existentialist novel The Stranger. Another book to help you come to terms with your homicidal instincts is Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment. And finally, for a more recent novel to help you cope with brutally ending another life, try Oyinkan Brathwaite’s delightful satire My Sister, the Serial Killer.

If
you don’t like these, don’t shoot the recommender! Please, don’t shoot me. I
have a family and a lot of readers dependent on my help.

11.Dear Match Book,

He
was a world-renowned roller-coaster engineer, but he couldn’t control the
precipitous decline of our marriage….

Dear Thrown for a Loop,

Let me stop you right there. I believe this is a “Modern Love” submission that was sent to me in error.

Image credit: Unsplash/Josh Felise.

The Man Who Couldn’t Scan

The poetry community is looking inward after revelations about the treatment of a 34-year-old subject suffering from an extremely rare condition called aprosodia: the total inability to detect poetic meter. The subject’s identity remains undisclosed for privacy reasons, but officials did reveal that he is a college English professor and that his name is trochaic. “It has a nice tripping lilt to it,” said the lead meter scientist at the National Prosody Center, which bills itself as the world’s most stressful workplace.

The NPC had long been aware of the subject’s existence. His high school English teacher queried the center after the otherwise sharp student failed to grasp the basics of iambic pentameter. “The wóods decáy, the wóods decáy and fáll. Da-dum, da-dum, da-dum, da-dum, da-dum. Nothing. He would just stare at me in utter incomprehension,” said the teacher.

The subject learned to fake the ability to scan during his graduate studies, nodding sagely when a classmate pointed out an inverted foot or a cheeky instance of catalexis. And yet, because he could not hear any of the metrical effects described, he began to think of himself as the victim of an elaborate hoax. His psychological state deteriorated, and he was finally admitted to the National Prosody Center after accusing a colleague of communicating with foreign agents via his metrical notation of Elizabethan verse.

A subsequent MRI revealed that the areas of the subject’s brain
that normally lit up during scansion remained completely dark. Over the next
several months, researchers devised an audacious plan to rehabilitate him that pushed
the bounds of prosodical ethics.

First, they tried animal therapy. The subject received daily
visits from Donovan the Dactylic Duck, a waterfowl trained to vocalize in a
distinctive pattern: “Qúack quack quack, Qúack quack quack.” He enjoyed these
visits but consistently failed to replicate Donovan’s dactyls on a decoy.

Next, NPC researchers attempted sleep deprivation therapy,
locking the subject in a padded room while piping in Anglo Saxon verse day and
night. By the third morning, he seemed to be grasping the basics of the
alliterative-stress meter, but the experiment had to be suspended after he attacked
an orderly he thought was Grendel’s mother. (“A brief caesura until his visions
subside,” a NPC spokesperson noted.)  

The subject was then put on a diet of limericks, the restorative effects of anapestic trimester being well documented. Indeed, he gave researchers hope when he appeared to have correctly identified a pyrrhic foot, but subsequent tests revealed it to have been a lucky guess. (“An ultimately hollow victory,” admitted a NPC spokesperson.)

Stymied, the brass decided to bring in its heavy hitter: U.S. poet laureate Tracy K. Smith. She saw it as her mission not only to spread the love of poetry to the general public, but also to beat the principles of poetic stress into any and all. Meeting the subject in the NPC’s boxing ring each morning, Smith demonstrated flawless pugilistic and poetic technique in pummeling the refractory denier with virtuosic combinations of weak and strong punches—all according to the strictures of various meters.

Preliminary results were promising, as the daily lessons appeared to be penetrating the subject’s thick skull. However, Smith took things too far in one sparring session when, feeling she was nearing a breakthrough, she unleashed a hard thud of a spondee that knocked him senseless.

This time the AMA intervened, calling a halt to any future experiments. Furthermore, the ACLU declared that even mentioning the metrical complexities of Hopkins’s sprung rhythm within the patient’s earshot would violate his civil liberties.      

The failure was a blow to the reputation of the National
Prosody Center, which had earned plaudits for its work with another subject, “The
Ear,” known for her ability to detect over 300 distinct stress levels. (She
currently presides over a metrical review board that resolves disputes between bickering
prosodists.) The controversy also affected the center financially. Owing to the
backlash, sales of the NPC’s footware line, Fresh
Kictus, plummeted.   

The case of the man who couldn’t scan thrust scansion to the forefront of roiling intellectual debates. Some claimed the subject was the ideal poetic reader, immune to the hegemonic structures embedded in both meter and society. “I prefer not to scan” became the rallying cry for those seeking a radical democratization of the heretofore fascistic poetic line. Others took a reactionary stance, arguing that he was a symptom of metrical decadence: His inability to discern the most basic pattern of stresses reflected a larger societal collapse of moral values.

After recovering from his Tracy K. Smith tutorial, the subject seemed baffled by the buzz surrounding his strange affliction and expressed an eagerness to return to his normal life. One sympathetic NPC researcher slipped a copy of Pope’s An Essay on Criticism in his bag as he was being discharged. In the hopes that the shoddy treatment wouldn’t turn the metrically challenged man off poetry for good, she had highlighted the following passage:

But most by numbers judge a poet’s song;And smooth or rough, with them is right or wrong:In the bright Muse though thousand charms conspire,Her voice is all these tuneful fools admire,Who haunt Parnassus but to please their ear,Not mend their minds; as some to church repair,Not for the doctrine, but the music there.

The subject
has adjusted to life outside the center and resumed teaching. He still has
weekly visits with Donovan the duck.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

In Memoriam: Anthony “One-Take Tony” Hollander

The audiobook community audibly mourns the passing of one of its giants, Anthony Hollander, or “One-Take Tony” as he was known in the business. Whether narrating an epic, farce, or cozy mystery, his recordings all started the same: a clearing of the throat, a deep breath, and then the gruff-but-good-natured command to Scop, his dog, to vacate the studio. Hollander would then set to work reading, without interruption, one of the thousands of books he recorded over his career.

“I’ve been reading since I was four years old. So why would
I need multiple takes?” he told an interviewer in 2010.

The sound of his gravelly baritone has transported readers from
Hardy’s Wessex to Garcia-Marquez’s Macando. A more controversial figure than
Flo Gibson, his longtime rival (and, some rumored, lover), he will be
remembered not only for his recordings—including the definitive version of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn—but also
for the narratorial intrusions that delighted and frustrated audiences in equal
measure. There was a Rabelaisian energy to Hollander’s recordings, and indeed
his eructations (frequent), flatulence (intermittent) and snores (rare) were as
recognizable to devoted fans as his voice.

Hollander was an unpredictable reader, a narrator-as-critic. He grunted upon reading overwrought sentences, paused to deride mixed metaphors, and, in one particularly infamous episode, launched ad hominem attacks: “Who wrote this crap?” he could be heard on the recording of [redacted]’s latest novel. “Look at this author photo. Figures.”

He permanently alienated David Foster Wallace fans by interrupting Infinite Jest to take a phone call.  “Hello? No I haven’t thought about solar panels. Oh? I can sell my excess electricity back to the power company? That’s interesting. Look, I’m narrating a book right now but can I get back to you? OK, send along the info. Now where I was? Oh yes…”

Hollander once claimed that, had audiobook fame not been thrust upon him, he would have been a detective. Mystery fans did not appreciate his tendency to breezily dismiss clues (“Obvious red herring”) and to identify, often accurately, the killers before they were revealed (“Murderer written all over him”). The Crime Writers’ Association, incensed after Hollander had ruined one too many P.D. James plot twists, sponsored a short-story contest in his (dis)honor: the prize going to the most ingenious mystery imagining his murder.


In Hollander’s defense, he offended across genres. Henry James scholars bristled at his vulgar commentary on Isabel Archer and Caspar Goodwood, “Just fuck him already,” which earned his recording of The Portrait of a Lady a rare NC-17 rating.

According to his autobiography, Sounding Myself, Hollander discovered the transfixing power of his voice during grade-school reading exercises. “My stentorian delivery put the other toddlers to shame, their snotty fingers inching along the page as they hazarded one quavering syllable at a time,” he wrote in his memoirs, the audio version of which was read by Jeremy Irons. (“The one mortal whose voice I envy.”)


An audiobook talent scout discovered Hollander after hearing him summon a waiter for the check in his local North Carolina diner. His first taping was of Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, during which he got up and said, “I’ve got to take a piss” about 10 pages in. The director, feeling the interruption jibed with Wolfe’s freewheeling gonzo journalism, kept the tape rolling, thus ingraining in One-take Tony his lifelong habit.

Hollander was an autodidact, and some critics held it against him. They snottily observed that it was all well and good to record a book in one take, provided one could actually pronounce the words. Though many an author, editor, and listener attempted to correct him, Hollander never could quite master pronouncing “bough” or “draught” in the heat of the moment, and consistently mangled all French words—emboinpoint and décolletage causing him particular consternation. And yet these flubs endeared him to listeners, who saw in Hollander a relatable everyman: “Ama-nu-ensis? What the hell is an amanuensis? I know I’ve seen that word somewhere.”

Hollander’s vocal range could accommodate several character
types—dainty, dangerous, homespun—but differentiation wasn’t his strong suit. Minor
characters confused him. “Wait, who is that guy again? Is that the cousin or
the friend from college? No, the cousin died. Or was he the gardener?”

In a controversy that threatened to derail his career, Hollander could be heard pleasuring himself while reading Philip Roth’s Sabbath’s Theater. (Thankfully he was alone in the studio, having long served as his own producer, director, and sound engineer.) The stigma lingered for years. During negotiations to narrate 50 Shades of Grey, he was forced to agree to the humiliating stipulation that he record the erotic thriller with his hands tied behind his back. (“All the kinkier,” he would write in Sounding.)

Certain authors refused to have their novel read by Hollander, especially during his later years, when, having “become allergic to nature scenes,” he started derisively glossing over descriptive passages: “Sky, weather, pathetic fallacy, yada yada yada.”

Hollander died where he belonged, in the recording studio,
narrating a debut novel that, judging from the absence of naps, bathroom breaks,
and crusty asides, he seemed to thoroughly enjoy. Perhaps too thoroughly. On
his final recording, the fatal heart attack—a disturbing, yet still mellifluous,
groan—can be heard in the middle of Chapter 5, right before Jeremy Irons
graciously takes over.

Image credit: Unsplash/Claus Grünstäudl.

A Year in Reading: Matt Seidel

It could be this Love Actually earworm that afflicts me this time of year, but I’m feeling love in my fingers, my toes and my year-in-reading list. And since love is supposedly a universal language, the following highlights are eros-themed works in translation.

When we first see the titular governesses in Anne Serre’s The Governesses (translated from the French by Mark Hutchinson), they have unbuttoned their blouses to combat the heat: “Even in a state of semi-undress, they’re a model of discretion, as smooth-skinned as infants fresh from the tub.” Set on the country estate of a well-heeled family, the novel generates its energy from this sense of decorous abandonment. The three women are less traditional caretakers than “mistresses of games and pleasures,” pleasures that include the occasional bout of murderous Bacchic frenzy: “This one will be tackled head-on, licked, bitten and devoured in a ladylike manner,” we read of one stranger lured onto the estate. (The governesses are great with the children, though.) The novella, Apollonian in its composition, pays homage to the Dionysian wellspring of life.

Over in Italy, Paolo Volponi’s The Javelin Thrower (translation by Richard Dixon) begins with a traumatic scene: a young child sees his mommy kissing not Santa Claus but a fascist officer. The officer is never seen without his gleaming silver dagger dangling from his belt; he even brings it to his trysts, highlighting the combination of virility and violence extolled by Il Duce. The boy soon reaches for a phallic object of his own, taking up the javelin, where under the tutelage of the officer he excels. Nonetheless, his beautiful mother’s adulterous liaison predictably haunts the child, and as we follow him through his adolescence and early adulthood, his sexual education, and view of women, is colored by the revulsion, shame and fascination of those spied upon encounters.

Whereas The Javelin Thrower is a slow burn of a novel, Elsa Morante’s Arturo’s Island, newly translated by Ann Goldstein, bursts with fervor. Arturo is a creature of excess—excessive in his self-reliance, fantasy-life, intensity of emotions and bravado. Left largely to look after himself on a small island off the coast of Naples while his father roams, he alternately desires and disdains his new stepmother, only a few years older than he is. His father seems more interested in the fate of a male convict held on the island’s penitentiary. Both stepmother and prisoner are rivals for his father’s affection and their mere existence gnaws at the ardent Arturo, prone as he is to “opposing and intertwined jealousies, the many-sided passions, that were to mark [his] destiny.”

Next on our Italian tour is Vitaliano Brancati’s The Beautiful Antonio (trans. Patrick Creagh), whose Sicilian, Adonis-like protagonist inspires outsized lusts his diminished libido can’t satisfy: “There’s a dead man in the midst of your life,” Antonio explains of his impotence, “a corpse so placed that whatever move you make you’re bound to brush up against it, against its cold, fetid skin.” His innocent wife eventually discovers that there is more to marriage than “chaste and fraternal embraces,” leading to an annulment and anguish that seems to be felt more keenly by Antonio’s father than himself. “…at his age he ought to be lifting rocks without using his hands…He died, my son, he died. I had a son, but he died.”
Like The Javelin Thrower, The Beautiful Antonio is set in Fascist Italy, and behind the comic depictions of masculinity lies a darker statement about the allure of potency. When Antonio’s elderly uncle, who returns to a bombed-out Catania from a concentration camp to find his nephew still stewing in self-pity, he loses it:

For anyone in any other country it would have been a piddling little mishap. But for us? Oh, we have to make a Greek tragedy of it! Because all we can think of is the one little thing, and that’s it! In the meanwhile along comes a despotic gangster. One kick in the pants from him and we go flying into this war…


If these Italian novels—especially Volponi’s and Morante’s—have an overwrought intensity, Christina Hesselholdt’s deploys a cooler, more ironic approach to human passion. “We are still miserable, and again we are rambling in the realm of a powerful love,” says one of the six narrators of Christina Hesselholdt’s mosaical Companions while visiting Haworth Moor (Bronte country) with her husband. A few pages later, we find ourselves in less romantic climes, a German strip club, and in the hands of another, equally well-read narrator: “Ohhh, the human, oh-so Zizekian need to make sense of thing where none exists,” she muses while analyzing her surroundings. In this literate novel—inspired by the multi-perspective structures of Virginia Woolf’s The Waves and Lawrence Durrell’s The Alexandria Quartet—chronicles a group of Danish friends approaching middle-age. Translated by Paul Russell Garrett, Companions is a fascinating story about friends, lovers, and the pleasures and perils of intimacy.
Happy holidays, boun Natale, joyeux Noel, glædelig jul!

More from A Year in Reading 2018

Do you love Year in Reading and the amazing books and arts content that The Millions produces year round? We are asking readers for support to ensure that The Millions can stay vibrant for years to come. Please click here to learn about several simple ways you can support The Millions now.

Don’t miss:A Year in Reading 2017201620152014201320122011201020092008200720062005

A Year in Reading: Matt Seidel

I tend to buy used books in bunches, which means the haul from some expeditions stays buried for weeks, months, years even. For this entry, I highlight three finds that, breaking custom, I bought and read almost immediately this year: Hugo Charteris’s The Tide Is Right, Cyril Connolly’s The Rock Pool, and A.J.A. Symons’s The Quest for Corvo. Given that I opened each without delay, I was tickled to find a common thread—postponement—running through all three. The publications of the first two novels were deferred for different reasons—libel, indecency—while the biographical “quest” sought to unearth the out-of-print or never-published works of a singular, and singularly impossible, writer who died penniless and unrecognized. All are urbane works shadowed by a sense of life’s and art’s precariousness.

Upon hearing that The Tide Is Right, his 1957 novel about the squabbles of a Scottish aristocratic family, would be dropped by his publisher for its libelous potential, Charteris considered changing the setting to Wales. The house still balked, and it wouldn’t be until 1991 that the novel found its way ashore.

The Tide Is Right, opens with an early morning tableau set along an icy bay that is as chilling as it is mystifying. This initial sense of inscrutable menace persists throughout, even as the scene shifts from wild landscapes to drawing rooms. The plot concerns the Mackeans, whose patriarch, a “sort of archetypal Highland god-figure,” has died. The new laird is Alan Mackean, whose myopia and “partiality for rubber-shoes, big soft concealing chairs” produces an effect “of almost hermetic escape and indifference.” That indifference largely extends to his wife, Augustine, whose “capacity for silence when any normal person would have spoken sometimes came as near to gaining his attention as anything in which he had no vested interest ever did.” Alan is heirless, and the next in line is his more spirited cousin, Duncan, a spendthrift with an inferiority complex. Alan intuits, if not acknowledges, the danger Duncan represents: “Two hundred years ago do you know what Duncan would have [done]? He would have rubbed me out. Like that.”

But in modern Scotland? Such an action seems unlikely in these less rugged times, and yet its possibility hovers over every guarded utterance. When a visiting Londoner claims to grasp the family dynamic clearly, he is quickly disabused: “…if you tried for forty bloody blue moons you couldn’t see—except like a sort of aerial photograph taken through pink fog.” As that outsider (and stand-in for our readerly ignorance) will later realize, “whoever he spoke to seemed to know, guess, feel more.”

One never quite gets one’s footing in this elemental novel of half-voiced thoughts, a dizzying reinforced by the setting, with its “deserted footbridges…double planks suspended on iron hawsers [that] remained motionless and fragile above pressures and pace which could have crushed them inaudibly in black jaws of granite.” Don’t look down.

Our second waylaid work is Cyril Connolly’s only novel—originally planned as part of a trilogy on English snobbishness. It was to be published by an English house until a senior partner intervened, supposedly ruffled by the book’s lesbian characters. The Rock Pool did come out in France (in 1936), but wouldn’t appear in England until a decade later, prompting Connolly to chide: “…I think that the chill wind that blows from English publishers, with their black suits and thin umbrellas, and their habit of beginning every sentence with ‘We are afraid,’ has nipped off more promising buds than it has strengthened.”

Like the heroes of most thwarted bildungsromans, The Rock Pool’s Edgar Naylor is a vague creature, “neither very intelligent nor especially likeable.” He is delineated only by borrowed affects: “Oxford had fostered, the one through the dons, the other through the undergraduates, two separate veins of pedantry and lechery, which, united when drunk and when sober divided, were the most definite things you noticed about him.” An apprentice stock-broker and would-be writer—he is contemplating a biography of Samuel Rogers, the banker-bard of St. James’s Place—he travels to Trou-sur-Mer, (literally hole-on-the-sea) on the French Riviera, “a microcosm cut off from the ocean by the retreating economic tide.” There Naylor hopes to “derive a pleasant sense of power” by “looking down knowingly into his Rock Pool, poking it and observing the curious creatures he might stir up.”

Instead, attracted to and repulsed by the town’s bohemian clan—its artists, drunks, eccentrics, frauds—he falls headlong into the hole. He experiences a coming-of-age on steroids: “Here life was too crude, too brutal, he had run in a couple of weeks the course in dissolution which for the ordinary eupeptic professional man is spread over a period of years.” Connolly depicts the sordid exaltedness of Trou’s inhabitants, who “rather resembled beautiful cave-dwellers supporting in hieratic and traditional raggedness a dying religion while underneath them when on nothing but bribery, politics, and the making of money.” Despite Naylor’s ardent participation in the debauch, his best efforts to ascend the squalid heights, he remains firmly rooted to the world below. In the saddest part of the bleak comedy, Trou’s true denizens instinctively sense in  him “some ancient enemy of youth and spirit.”

Without further delay, we come to The Quest for Corvo. Symons’s hunt for the dubiously titled Baron Corvo (or Frederick Rolfe) begins when a friend (and rare book dealer) gives him a copy Hadrian the Seventh, Rolfe’s self-portrait as a pope: “How was it that I had never heard of a man who had it in his power to write such a book as Hadrian the Seventh?” It turns out that the writer had other, darker powers. Symons’s friend shows him letters from Rolfe’s last years, in which the destitute author attempts to lure a well-heeled debauchee to Venice, where he will guide him, for a fee, through the city’s depravity:
What shocked me about these letters was not the confession they made of perverse sexual indulgence: that phenomenon surprises no historian. But that a man of education, ideas, something near genius, should have enjoyed without remorse the destruction of the innocence of youth; that he should have been willing for a price to traffic in his knowledge of the dark byways of that Italian city; that he could have pursued the paths of lusts with such frenzied tenacity: these things shocked me into anger and pity.
But they also intrigued Symons even more. Thus begins an “experimental biography” in which he relates both the story of Rolfe’s life and  that of his dogged investigative efforts.

Rolfe, who died in Venice in 1913, was an entertaining, strange novelist; historian of medieval Italy; and failed priest. He was also a penurious spendthrift who, once funded, would engage in an expensive and “elaborate idleness;” a sponger, certainly, but one who endured long periods of abject poverty; a paranoid convinced that “others, far less gifted than he, were enjoying the pleasant fruits of a world in which he had no share.”

Before the inevitable falling out, he would entertain his friends and patrons with his erudition and outlandish tales of being buried alive, pursued by Jesuit kidnappers, or communicating with cats in their secret language. Like Saul Bellow’s Herzog, he composed acidic letters to any and all—he thought of these missives, “whether to a publisher or to a cobbler” as literature. “I’m going to flick that gentleman with my satire,” he would crow to a friend before undertaking such an endeavor, a collaborator who attested that Rolfe was never “happier than when he had to answer an unpleasant letter.”

This aggression masked a profound vulnerability, as the following passage about Nicholas Crabbe, the protagonist of The Desire and Pursuit of the Whole, makes clear:
Have you, o most affable reader, ever dissected a crab? If not, pray do so at once, if possible, plunging him first into boiling water for five whole minutes and evitate unnecessary barbarity. Life the lid of his shell, and look inside. You will find it filled with a substance like new cheese; and a magnifying-glass will shew you that this is held together by a network ramification infinitely closer and finer than spiders’ webs. Under his shell, in fact, your crab is soft as butter, and just one labyrinthine mass of the most sensitive of nerves. From which pleasing experiment you should learn to be as merciful as. God to all poor sinners born between the twenty-first of June and the twenty-fourth of July…They are the cleverest, tenderest, unhappiest, most dreadful of all men.
That is first-class horoscope writing.

Symons’s quest culminates in a sad irony. Towards the end of the biography, we find Symons sharing sumptuous meals with a wealthy admirer of Rolfe’s who is willing to expend considerable resources to track down any surviving manuscripts. The munificent, Renaissance-style patron whom Rolfe searched for all his life arrives too late.

More from A Year in Reading 2017

Do you love Year in Reading and the amazing books and arts content that The Millions produces year round? We are asking readers for support to ensure that The Millions can stay vibrant for years to come. Please click here to learn about several simple ways you can support The Millions now.

Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005

That Glorious Syllable: On ‘On’

Whether introducing a charming essay or slim monograph, a witty epigram or stately sonnet, on is the most accommodating of words: the eternal handmaiden, the chivalrous cicisbeo, the dutiful emcee welcoming the main topic on stage. Though it plays this obliging, some might say servile role impeccably, it is high time that on emerge from the syntactical shadows to bask in the light of its lapidary splendor.

To be on is to be alive, energetic, aflame, to display one’s best self. Similarly, on is language’s best self, demonstrating how much can be done with so little. Compact, suggestive, manifold, on is the preposition that launched a thousand idioms.

Derived from the Proto-Germanic ana, on conjures up Iron Age images of unruly beards and makeshift encampments: the terse utterance of a culture hardened by the elements. These rude forbears, emerging from their mist-shrouded forests to rampage across Europe, were not prone to reflection. No Teutonic Hazlitt composed his lucid thoughts in essay form (e.g., “On Pillaging”). Rather, these restless warriors were in thrall to their wanderlust. On, on! we hear their guttural voices echoing through the millennia.

And yet we would be neglecting on’s suppleness were we to focus solely on its muscular genealogy. In its imperative form — on! — it is certainly a spur to action, but when reversed, a brake: no! Moreover, on displays a nobility of spirit, charitably lending its services to other nouns (onlooker) or prepositions in need, either supporting them from behind — “onto” — or lighting the way forward—“upon.” It can introduce the most heartbreaking of topics, such as Ben Jonson’s elegy to his son, or, from the same pen, a Rabelaisian bibelot: “On Gut.” (The poet was even said to have written a jeering missive to a deceived husband, “On Thy Wife,” but that bit of doggerel has been lost to time.)

A preposition wrapped in an adverb wrapped in an enigma, on is a tiny word, yet it contains multitudes. Its deceptive modesty could even be said to conceal the most fundamental of our drives. After all, what is the coupling of one vowel and one consonant but a chaste replication of the sexual act? And lest I be accused of overanalysis — as I often have been by blinkered partisans of under or beneath — consider on’s entanglement with the mating ritual: courtship is initiated with a come-on, which, if accepted, leads to both parties being turned on, and, if all goes well, a hard-on, and then…but enough. In the interests of decency, I won’t go on.

Any scholar of Shakespeare’s sonnets will gladly explain the equally bawdy potential of on’s chief rival, in, which the perceptive reader has noticed I have avoided mentioning till now. While the two words do occasionally tolerate proximity — e.g., come on in, in on it — tolerate is all. How it pains me even to type those shoddy combination of letters, so similar and yet vastly inferior to the virtuous one under review. Replacing on’s lovely o, a perfect form, with i, that impudent, egotistical erection, in is boorish, vulgar, so denotatively and connotatively crass that the mouth seems to resist pronouncing it. Compare the generous, open pronunciation of on, the mouth expanding to greet the world — all its marvels and follies — in blissful communion. “Come one, come all, and feast,” it seems to say, “dinner’s on me.”

On, on! The next time you encounter on beginning a title, ignore what follows. Recite the glorious syllable to yourself in stentorian tones, revel in its wondrous reverberations. Let your eyes linger on its elegant appearance, take in its curves, appreciate its eternal form and endless content. Soon your own love affair with the sublime word will commence, a romance that, unlike ephemeral passions, will go on and on, powering an inner light that will never turn off.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

The League of Extraordinary Critics

Before the summer onslaught of comic book movies featuring X-Men, Avengers and Justice Leaguers, let us pay homage to a cadre of merely human, though still valiant, book critics who have attained something like superhero status themselves.

Though they adopted radically different methods, and were bickering among themselves more often than not — and one of them is currently incarcerated — so strong was their shared devotion to the sacred duty of criticism that future generations will surely say of them:
Such once were Criticks, such the Happy Few
Athens and Rome in better Ages knew.

Rex Hume: The Highbrow Hound
Rex Hume, the famed allusion-hunting critic known as “The Highbrow Hound,” “The Tweedy Truffler,” and “Causabon 2.0” has been universally praised for his “near-sensuous pedantry.” Whereas some of our more conscientious critics take it upon themselves to read the whole of an author’s oeuvre before reviewing his or her latest, Hume, lest he miss one literary reference, thematic reworking, or subtle resonance, re-reads the whole of the Western Canon.

Famously averse to new works, the reactionary Hume cultivates an irascible persona. Nearly every publicist has received one of his dreaded form replies to notices touting a debut effort: “If it were that good, wouldn’t I have seen it alluded to elsewhere?”

Hume’s allusive obsession stems from an adolescent trauma. One spring, that season when a young man’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love, he asked a young lady, handsome, clever, and rich, to the prom. She curtly referred him to “Bartleby the Scrivener.” The prancing, yellow-stockinged swain hurried home, hoping to find in the story an invitation to come live with her and be her love. When instead, he read those devastatingly demurring words, his eyes burned with anguish and anger. He awoke the next morn a sadder and a wiser man and vowed to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield in his quest to shore each and every fragment against his ruined ego.

The path was not easy. Medical setbacks dogged the bookish lad from his college years, when Hume’s brain literally exploded — or so his detractors quipped — after Planet Joyce first swam into his ken. (Though his doctors maintained that it was nothing more than an “Oxen of the Sun”-induced aneurism.)

Hume’s mania has also landed him in legal trouble. He was sued after putting George Plimpton in a chokehold, convinced that one of the dilettante’s witticisms was cribbed from a Martial epigram. Hume wouldn’t release him until two Commentary editors and William Styron assured him that the bon mot was most definitely a Plimpton original.

Hume’s dogged sleuthing lent his reviews, essentially scorecards of real or imagined literary references, a bizarre quality. One cannot, though, argue with the lapidary precision of his assessment of Bonfire of the Vanities: “Dickens (42), Trollope (28), Fitzgerald (11), Dostoyevsky (8.33), Baudelaire (p), Dumas (1)…” After readers began to demand more expansive considerations, Hume’s editor steered him away from covering allusion-rich literary novels and towards romance fiction. However, these peppery tales only stimulated the Hound’s nose, detecting as he did the soupçon of a Rabelais, a pinch of Rochester, a tang of Sade, a dash of Nin, or the perverse wafting of Jonathan Edwards in each concoction.

And so Hume was finally assigned to his current post, covering children’s picture books. He has yet to produce a review, as he immediately enrolled in the Columbia Art History graduate program. But colleagues report, whether with dismay or eagerness is unclear, that he has been holed up for weeks with Ernst Gombrich’s The Story of Art, a Biblical concordance, and Go Dog Go.

Sydney Duff: A King on His Throne
Blessed with incredible stamina and a prodigiously broad backside, Sydney Duff has never reviewed a book he couldn’t read in one sitting. He burst onto the scene with his review of The Corrections — “I read it in one sitting” — which he finished while riding the A train end-to-end throughout the night. Another one of his famous pieces came during a 100-mile charity bike ride through the Hudson Valley — White Teeth perched on the handlebars — in support of deep vein thrombosis research. “I read it in one sitting,” he raved, “and raised money for a great cause!” And who could forget the scathing review of Don DeLillo’s Underworld: “I read it in one sitting, though at times I was tempted to put it down and stretch my legs.”

The young Duff could be brash and insensitive, universally reviled for once accusing a wheelchair-bound colleague of impinging on his brand. In another notorious incident, he was so enraged at the mere sight of his assistant’s standing desk that he threw it out the fifth-story office window. Such anecdotes reveal the latent dynamism of the sedentary creature.

Then there was Duff’s daredevil affair with Rex Hume’s wife. Having cracked open a novel shortly after their adulterous afternoon assignation, he refused to leave his lover’s bedroom until he had finished it. Hume, who had been out hunting truffles, eventually returned home, but luckily headed straight to his study to reacquaint himself with Flaubert. When Duff snuck out that night, the Highbrow Hound was none the wiser.

Duff mellowed with age, perhaps drained by his near-continual feats of biblio-endurance. The ravages of time lent an introspective air to his work as Duff grappled with his own mortality. Consider the terse pathos of his reassessment of Proust: “Though the bed sores almost derailed me, I read it in one go. For a long time it was painful.”

Those curious about what the photo-shy Duff looks like need only visit the Tate Modern, which houses the portrait Lucian Freud painted of the corpulent critic, toilet-bound and reading a copy of The Portrait of a Lady. As Duff put it in a rare cross-disciplinary review that demonstrated the full range of his aesthetic judgement: “Both the novel and the portrait were completed in one session.”

Duff retired some years ago to fully devote himself to activism. He is not fond of marches or picket lines — or progressive causes truth be told — but whenever a group of young idealists gathers at a statehouse or university president’s office, they can count on the old lounger, book in hand, for support at their sit-ins.

Aristophocles: Two-Faces, One Name
Some swear that the one-named critic Aristophocles is the merriest man alive. Indeed, many a witness could testify — and many a review confirm — that the one-named critic never sat in a café, enjoyed a sunny day in the park, or infuriated fellow passengers in the Amtrak quiet car, without his distinctive cackle echoing round. And yet similarly upstanding citizens aver that at the same cafés, on the same country greens and in the same quiet cars, could be heard the guttural sobs of a profoundly moved reader. So which is it? Does Aristophocles, who emotes so fulsomely in public spaces, wear a tragic or a comic mask? Identify with l’allegro or il penseroso?

Simple questions for a complex man, torn between vain deluding joys and loathed melancholy. The hint of a pun produces peals of mirth, and the mere premonition of loss cues the waterworks. He is a creature supremely attuned to the jollity and sorrow of literature, and didn’t hesitate to show it. As he put it once in his full-throated defense of affective criticism, “I Laughed, I Cried, Then Criticized: “If one emotes in the forest, and no one hears it…[sobs]…Excuse me, the mere thought of a lone emoter emoting on his own brought tears to my eyes. How silly of me. [giggles]”

He never chortled but guffawed, never teared up but wept, for such beings as he were made for more intense feelings, and there were so many feelings. (It must be noted that some cynics doubted his overzealousness, claiming that he never left home without an onion in one pocket and a nitrous oxide canister in the other.)

Aristophocles does not do well at poetry readings; unsure whether to laugh or cry, he merely ejaculates strangled whimpers from time to time. He likes his genres well-defined. Family and friends, seeing him swing so violently between giddiness and agony, had him institutionalized when he attempted to review a tragicomedy. Fortunately, he was released shortly thereafter, greeting his fans with tears of joy.

His performative antics have rubbed more than one colleague the wrong way, Sydney Duff among them. In one encounter, Aristophanes and Duff squared off in a hotel lobby at the Frankfurt Book Fair. Duff, so the story goes, had been in the lobby for hours with a copy of The Wallcreeper, but was having trouble finishing the last chapter because Aristophocles, reading the same novel, had taken the seat across from him.

“I read the novel in one sitting, despite the tittering simpleton impeding my best efforts,” read Duff’s subsequent piece.

As for Aristophocles’s competing review: “I laughed so much reading this rollicking debut that Sydney Duff almost got off his ass for once in his career.”

Quentin Dent, Proud Blockhead:
To have one’s book reviewed by Quentin Dent is, as any author will attest, a gratis psychotherapy session, an X-ray of one’s creative soul. Other critics might describe, explain, and contextualize the work, tease out patterns of imagery, grapple with its philosophical claims, or delve into the author’s biography. Worthy endeavors all, but how much cleaner (naysayers would say lazier) was Dent’s method: let the text speak for itself.

Having taken his mentor Cleanth Brooks’s coinage “the heresy of paraphrase” rather literally, he steadfastly refused to paraphrase, or analyze, or do much of anything really. Dent’s reviews even dispensed with the author name and book title. He filled his column instead with three well-chosen block quotations, which were typically introduced with “To wit,” “Consider,” or, “Regard.” At the end of each passage would follow a closing statement, perhaps “Indeed,” “Hmm,” or, were he in a gushing mood, “Quod erat demonstrandum.”

A sample essay, on Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park:
Take:
Maria’s notion on the subject were more confused and indistinct. She did not want to see or understand
Quite.
Ergo:
“How kind! How very kind! Oh! Mr. Crawford, we are infinitely obliged to you. Dearest, dearest William!” she jumped up and moved in haste towards the door, crying out, “I will go to my uncle…”
Und so weiter.
To conclude:
“It was a silver knife.”
Sharp.
A cult of fervent believers, the Blockheads, extolled Dent’s mystical abilities to see into the heart of things. They would pore over Dent’s passage selections like ancient priests sifting through entrails. Why these three? Were they merely chosen to hit the requisite word count — or could some deeper insight be divined? If one could only uncover the secret, so the ephebes thought, one could eventually learn to sustain the fevered pitch throughout the whole book.

Anti-Blockheads wryly pointed out it that his selection of key passages was less insightful than haphazard — a case bolstered by the high percentage of selections from page 22 of the books in question.

For longer pieces on multiple works or multiple works by the same author, Dent would simply lay out more quotes, the theory being that to butt in with an attempt at synthesis would merely interrupt a mellifluous conversation in progress. A much-anticipated comparative study of the novel has been delayed for years because of fair-use problems.

Valerie Plume: Critical Agency
Quentin Dent’s longtime wife, Valerie Plume, has led the most novelistic life of any of the aforementioned superstar-critics. As a spy rising through the ranks of the CIA during the Cold War, she drew on her English major background to funnel money to literary magazines through the Congress for Cultural Freedom. She was in line to make station chief somewhere, but was burned after the Paris Review accepted a poem of hers and ran the following bio: “A cultural attaché living in Paris, Plume is the author of thousands of classified memoranda.”

Plume was livid but ultimately relieved, since having her cover blown allowed her to pursue her true passion: poetry criticism. The Paris Review, sheepish after the faux-pas, was all too happy to launch her career with a column. At the outset, she relied on her close reading skills to confront the often thorny works under review. But Plume was incapable of remaining content with half knowledge, as Keats put it, and she soon decided to dust off her old spy-craft toolkit for her new mission.

And why not? Espionage and criticism are both, broadly speaking, intelligence work, and in intelligence work of any kind, one cultivates assets and secures information. An offhand remark, discarded draft, pilfered dream journal, or juicy bit of gossip could unlock a hidden symbolic world. Therefore she had the Yaddo retreat bugged; placed one mole on the Iowa Writers’ Workshop faculty and another as an assistant librarian working under Philip Larkin; had an intern root through Anne Carson’s dumpster; and tailed Czesław Miłosz through the streets of Berkeley, though the wily Lithuanian, no stranger to such solicitude, quickly dropped her.

Such methods were bound to catch up with Plume. She was excoriated by PEN America  after she scooped John Ashbery off the street, shot him up with truth serum, then grilled him about the meaning of his work in an abandoned squash court. Despite the outrage, she justified her tactics as necessary when interrogating refractory postmodernists. In Plume’s defense, however, it must be said that even during the excesses of the Bush administration, she was firmly opposed to waterboarding poets.

Plume’s career came to an ignominious end after it was revealed that she had returned to spywork, this time for the enemy. It was alleged that she was using her husband’s book reviews to pass coded messages to the Russians. Authorities couldn’t get anything out of the steely Plume, but Quentin Dent buckled almost immediately, admitting that his wife had chosen his block quotation passages for years.

Epilogue:

Hume, Duff, Aristophocles, and Dent visit Plume in prison every week to discuss literature and debate whether “greater Want of Skill / Appear in Writing or in Judging ill.” The lively gatherings, whose attendees are known in publishing circles as “The League of Extraordinary Critics,” only rarely necessitate intervention from the jailhouse guards.

Illustrations courtesy of Zane Shetler, who lives and works in Durham, N.C. He specializes in drawing fictional book critics in their bathrobes.

Poetry in Motion

“Running, friends, is boring,” to tweak a line from John Berryman’s The Dream Songs. I’ve been boring myself — that is, running regularly — for more than 20 years now, competitively, then somewhat competitively, then by-no-stretch-of-the-imagination competitively. It’s a generally invigorating but lonely endeavor. Gone are the days when I hit the trails with boisterous teammates, and only rarely do I jog with running companions (otherwise known, somewhat euphemistically, as friends). And as for musical accompaniment? Never, not so much for purist reasons — “Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard are sweeter,” etc. — but because I fear that if I rely even once on an up-beat song to get me through a run, I’ll never be able to lace up without an iPod again.

Thus deprived of the pleasurable distraction of conversation, as well the pulsating beats of pop music, I’ve had ample time over the course of thousands of runs to think. Or not to think. Or, as I’ve started doing over the past couple years, reciting poetry to pass the time.

There is a tradeoff involved. Moving fast is surprisingly difficult while sputter forth spondees between gasps for air. Some verses, though, causes me to drag my feet more than others. Reciting the metaphysical poets costs me about a minute per mile, not to mention attracting some strange looks from passersby, especially when John Donne is involved: “It sucked me first, and now sucks thee,/ And in this flea our two bloods mingled be.” Gerard Manley Hopkins easily trips up the tongue and brings all progress to a halt: “Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings.” Wallace Stevens lifts my spirits but lowers my speed: “Call the roller of big cigars, the muscular one/ And bid him whip in kitchen cups concupiscent curds.” Hard to dip under seven-minute pace reciting that. (Then again, the record for running a mile while chugging a beer before each lap is currently 4:39, so anything’s possible.)

But speed and prosody can go hand in hand, or rather foot over foot. Extolling the beauty of a bonnie lass in ballad meter (Robert Burns’s “A Red, Red Rose”); or giving oneself over to the pulsating majesty of William Blake’s “The Tyger” or the laconic stoicism of Robert Frost’s traveler (“And miles to go before I sleep”); or eulogizing A.E. Housman’s young athlete in sprightly tetrameter — “Smart lad to slip betimes away,/ From fields where glory does not stay” — only costs me about 20 to 30 seconds per mile. (Still too slow, sadly, to win my town the race.)

I reserve John Keats for long runs on secluded trails, when I can take my time with the great odes. What pleasant running companions are satiated (if a tad lethargic) Autumn, “sitting careless on a granary floor,/ Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind;” the cheerleading nightingale, “pouring forth thy soul abroad/ In such an ecstasy!”; alluring Melancholy, whose “sovereign shrine” is in the “very temple of delight;” and the frustrated Attic youth in his perpetual mad pursuit: “Bold lover, never, never canst thou kiss/ Though winning near the goal…” I give a little performance of “La belle dame sans merci” as well, usually at the end of a 14-miler when, haggard and woebegone, I most resemble those “pale kings and princes too/ pale warriors…their starved lips in the gloam/ With horrid warning gaping wide.”

I should clarify that both to avoid attention and the psych ward, I generally mutter rather than sing the words. Only rarely do other people notice the impromptu plein air reading they are unwittingly attending. Yet at times I do unleash my inner scop in all his stentorian glory. I generally restrain the juvenile urge to taunt a runner I’ve passed with a nonsensical reworking of George Herbert’s “Love (III)” — “Sit down and taste my meat!” — but I can never resist hamming it up in Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan,” specifically when the speaker plunges from the serenity of the “gardens bright” and “sunny spots of greenery” down into the darksome sublime:
But Oh, that deep romantic chasm which slanted
Down the green hill athwart a cedarn cover!
A savage place!
Such lines demand to be read with the same intensity as woman wailing for her demon lover.

And once, when caught in a terrifying summer thunder storm — the kind where you frantically try to remember whether you should seek shelter under a tree, as far away from a tree as possible, or just sprint through the ankle-deep puddles as fast as possible and hope that your sneakers will absorb any electric charge — I bellowed Lear’s heath speech:
Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks!
You cataracts and hurricanoes, spout
Till you have drench’d our steeples, drown’d the cocks!
You sulphurous and thought-executing fires,
Vaunt-couriers to oak-cleaving thunderbolts,
Singe my white head!
The performance slightly mitigated my terror, though, unlike Lear, I taxed the elements with plenty of unkindness.

In calmer climes, my recitals are more private affairs. A little Richard Lovelace gets me into the questing spirit and out the door:
…a new mistress now I chase,
The first foe in the field;
And with a stronger faith embrace,
A sword, a horse, a shield.
Settling in to my pace, I shift from a martial to pagan mindset, indulging in Andrew Marvell’s pastoral visions or William Wordsworth’s flash mob of daffodils: “Ten thousand I saw at a glance,/ Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.” In colder months, Thomas Hardy (“The ancient pulse of germ and birth/ Was shrunken hard and dry”) strangely invigorates the bleak landscape. If Hardy’s frail warbler can “fling his soul upon the growing gloom,” then I can drag my blast-beruffled ass over a barren hill.

Returning home, I usually cover a roughly 400-meter stretch reserved exclusively for Emily Dickinson poems. If I’m feeling in a good mood, “I taste a liquor never brewed;” burdened, “There’s a certain slant of light/ Winter afternoons/ That oppresses like the heft/ Of cathedral tunes;” or hurting, “After great pain, a formal feeling comes.” I call it the Dickinson quarter-mile, and the world record is 1:49 with three poems recited. More impressive, in my view, than the beer mile.

Speaking of beer, I wish I had some poetry memorized in college, especially during that transition from the shorter distances and weaker fields of high school cross country. One quickly learns that “the art of losing isn’t hard to master.” Perhaps Sir Thomas Wyatt’s bitterly erotic reverie, “They flee from me that sometime did me seek,” would have been à propos, or more to the point:
Whoso list to hunt, I know where is an hind,
But as for me, helas, I may no more.
The vain travail hath wearied me so sore,
I am of them that farthest cometh behind.
One especially fitting occasion for a dramatic poetic recitation would have been my first 8K race in Van Cortland Park, during which I collapsed on the top of the aptly named Cemetery Hill and, like Dante Alighieri upon hearing the pitiful tale of Paolo and Francesca, “caddi come corpo morte cade.” Given, however, that I was in no state to channel a foreign tongue, a terse bit from The Waste Land would have been more realistic: “And down we went.”

That head-thumping fall might explain why these days I forget poetry as quickly as I memorize it. Short lyrics vanish just as suddenly as longer pieces like Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach,” whose lines I lose and regain as regularly as the waves “draw back, and fling” the pebbles on the shore. “When to the sessions of sweet silent thought,/ I summon up remembrance of things past,” I can’t always summon up that remembrance. Despair not, though, for time flies when you are sifting through memory’s bric-a-brac and trying to reconstruct a poem. I once ran a three-mile stretch on a canal path while reassembling William Butler Yeats’s “The Wild Swans at Coole.” By the time I had seized it once again, I felt some of the poet’s pleasure upon viewing Coole’s mysterious, beautiful creatures return
Unwearied still, lover by lover,
They paddle in the cold
Companionable streams of climb the air;
Their hearts have not grown old;
Passion or conquest, wander where they will,
Attend upon them still.
That pleasure was tempered by the melancholy realization that I myself would awake some day to find that the lines, like the swans, had flown away.

(A brief interpretive water stop: Having a poem by heart lets one explore its construction in a looser, less dutiful way than close-reading. After repeated recitals, this particular poem’s spatial dynamics rose to the fore. “The Wild Swans at Coole” is the first, and most oblique, of the three consecutive poems eulogizing Maj. Robert Gregory, an Irish fighter pilot killed in WWI. In the first two lines, we move from the treetops to the woodland paths; then from still sky to the “brimming” water. “Under” and “upon” (used five times throughout) begin lines in this first stanza, and the rest of the poem dramatizes the constantly shifting relationship between the earth-treading poet, weighed down by his loss, and the nine-and-fifty swans, either drifting on the still water or climbing the air. The action, imagery and even prepositions reinforce the latent symbolic connection between the departing swans, “wheeling in great broken rings/ Upon their clamorous wings,” and the departed fighter pilot, once aloft and now, tragically, underground. And off we go again…)

Many of the poems I have floating around my head in various states of repair are amorous, memorable instances of courtly and not-so-courtly love. These naturally come to mind when passing, being passed, or crossing paths with other runners. I wouldn’t describe myself as a lecher necessarily — “Down, wanton, down!” — but then again, few people would. So I’ll simply grant that from time I notice the female form in motion and fiddle with my stock of verse accordingly: “Whenas in performance fabric my Julia goes, / Then, then (methinks)/ How sweetly flows/ That liquefaction of her clothes.” Or if I’m feeling more romantic, some altered Lord Byron: “She jogs in beauty, like the night/ Of cloudless climes and starry skies.” Theodore Roethke’s “I Knew A Woman,” however, needs no such tinkering: “Ah, when she moved, she moved more ways than one: The shapes a bright container can contain!”

During one run, I stumbled upon two ardent lovers in flagrante delicto within what they thought was a secluded grove. These encounters are just as embarrassing for the discovered as the discoverer. The pair looked to be doing a perfectly fine job, but annoyed by being thus importuned, I grumbled A.R. Ammons’s aspersive lines: “One failure on/ Top of another.”

That could just be the bitterness of middle-age talking. I am now in the middle of life’s journey. I’ll only get slower, and, if the last five years are any indication (three ankle sprains, calf heart attack — it’s a thing — bad hamstring, plantar fasciitis), I can look forward to new and exotic running injuries. But if you should ever come across me on the path and see in my halting stride and grim-faced muttering a defeated man, know that the “viewless wings of poetry” are transporting me and my aching feet to a better place:
And altogether elsewhere, vast
Herds of reindeer move across
Miles and miles of golden moss
Silently and very fast.
Image Credit: Pixabay.