Friday, October 30, 2009


Chatting with Lore Segal

Certain writers are easy to characterize. They're quotable. What they do, they do in every paragraph, every phrase--you could clone the entire novel from a stray syllable. Others are more elusive. Their quicksilver charms make it hard to pin them down, and to get the real flavor of the novel, you have no choice but to read the whole thing. No substitutions accepted. Anyway, Lore Segal belongs to the second group. On at least one prior occasion I've written about her work--the fluid, funny, heartbreaking Shakespeare's Kitchen--and am now reading Lucinella, an earlier novella that Melville House has just reprinted. It's about poetry, parties, herd behavior, sex, and the infinitely fragile human ego. (To write about such things, of course, you must have a sturdier ego than you think.) Here's a bit about Zeus, who's just a guy but also a god, at least when you're in love with him:
I used to laugh at gods and kings. I'd imagined Zeus muscle-bound, stupid with power, rattling his enormous thunder, unable to control the whims and spectacular tempers of his oversized relations, but in my bed his mind moves feelingly. It's just that mine, being Jewish and from New York, leaps more nimbly, which he enjoys. I sense his smiling in the darkness. When I get silly he reaches out laughingly to fetch me home to good sense and we make love again, sleep awhile, and more love and more talking.
More love, more talking: maybe that was Segal's original title. The narrator is happy and in a hurry to convey her happiness, hence the missing verb in the last clause. Who needs it? But two pages later she's less happy, anticipating the end, making a clumsy stab at defensive irony, which never works when you need it most:
I'm crying for the day when Zeus will not be holding me like this, or will be holding me like this while I am scheming to inch myself out of the constriction of his arms. He doesn't ask me what's the matter. Think of all the women, mortal and the others, who've wept in Zeus's arms and he perhaps, when he was young, in theirs. He strokes my hair and keeps holding me. My tears grow cozy. For sophistication's sake I'll tell you the nature of ardor is to cool, but I can't believe it.
Aside from the sheer, elliptical speed of her narratives--Segal simply leaves out whatever isn't interesting--her brand of irony may be the most distinctive thing about her work. Her nimble, Jewish, New York-by-way-of-Vienna mind inclines her toward gentle mockery. Yet her ardor is genuine: she treats love as fact, not delusional fiction, and three cheers for that.

This is all by way of saying that I'll be chatting with Lore Segal this coming Monday night at McNally Jackson Books in Soho. Well, mostly she'll be reading and taking questions from the audience, but in the brief interlude between those activities, I'll be asking her about Lucinella and other more general matters. More details here. Come one, come all--not for my questions, but for her answers!

Labels: , ,

Wednesday, October 28, 2009



Walking home this morning after a meeting, I came across this splendid specimen stuck to the sidewalk. There were plenty of leaves to choose from, heaped up in their damp, golden anonymity, but this one caught my eye. I liked its air of indecision. Not quite red, not quite yellow, clinging to its last-ditch quotient of green. Mostly dead, but incrementally alive. Or perhaps not, I'm probably projecting there. It's hard to avoid the temptation with leaves, they're metaphorical magnets. And by coincidence, I just came across an excellent example of leafy metaphor-making on Patrick Kurp's Anecdotal Evidence. He's quoting from a poem I've never read, R.S. Thomas's "Autumn," which is actually an argument against the sort of anthropomorphic mischief I've just been engaging in:
Happy the leaves
burnishing their own
downfall. Life dances
upon life's grave.
It is we who inject
sadness into the migrant’s
cry. We are so long
in dying -- time granted
to discover a purpose
in our decay?

Monday, October 26, 2009


With a grain of salt

When a writer dies, you look at the work and see valedictory notes everywhere. Last week I picked up Aldo Buzzi's A Weakness for Almost Everything (a great title, especially for a man who could become downright rhapsodic about the correct way to dress a salad) and stopped when I came to this passage about his mother, a painter who kept her talent under wraps:
Some small paintings of hers keep me company at home, although it's painful to recall that while she was alive she was not appreciated as she deserved. Who knows where those paintings will be in a few years, I think, if they still exist--in what houses, entrusted to whose hands. Best not to think about it.

One painting shows the window of the room in Via Santo Garovaglio, in Como, where I was born, open onto the looming face of the mountain of Brunate, in shadow, where some black swallows are flying.
I must have seen some of those paintings during my visit. There were small landscapes on the wall in the living room, and more in the bedroom, but it didn't occur to me to ask who had painted them. Meanwhile, that brings me to another paragraph in the same book, where he bids his native city goodbye as a passenger on a celestial locomotive, ending (as must we all) in silence:
The train leaving Como travels slowly along one of the main streets of the city, as if it were in America; the jolts are muffled by the red velvet of first class, with the embroidered cover for the head. Farewell, royal city of missoltitt, and town of the onions. Farewell, my fellow citizens, freshwater sailors and mountaineers of the plain. The Palazzo Terrragni, rationalist dream of the Como architect Terragni, passes wavering before my eyes; rising steeply behind it is the mountain of Brunate, Como's arcropolis, where the place of the Parthenon is occupied by the former annex of the Hotel Milano, whose facade, faded by the distance, sticks up continuously above the roofs of the city. The duomo goes by, and the famous frog, carved in the fifteenth century by the brothers Tomaso and Jacopo Rodari (by which of the two we will never know) and decapitated by a fanatic with a hammer in 1912; which should be seen not, as some believe, as a mark of the level reached by the lakewater during a big flood, or as a descendant of the large tadpole carved at the bottom of one of the holy-water basins in the duomo, but, as the back legs, which seem to be extended in a spasm, clearly indicate, as the prefiguration of the frog of Galvani, who was to open the way to the artificial electric organ, later called appareil a colonne, then appareil a pile, and finally pile. And here again are the white neon lights of the ancient Cinema Plinio (the Elder), and, almost at the end of the street, the mysterious sign of the Silenzio restaurant: as if the blessed god of silence himself, the boy Arpocrates, were to suddenly appear among the laid tables in his usual pose, with the index finger of his right hand on his lips.
The passage is beautiful. Perhaps it wanders too far afield during the froggy bit, and Ann Goldstein, who has done an otherwise elegant job, introduces an error when she talks about the "artificial electric organ"--an image that made me think of a lounge player hunched over his B-3. Here's the deal: Galvani's experiments led his occasional adversary Alessandro Volta to invent the first electric battery. Volta had based his design on the shock-inducing apparatus of the torpedo fish or ray, which he considered to possess an organe electrique naturel--hence he called his own creation an organe electrique artificiel. He was talking about a battery. An appareil a pile is also a battery. Sigh. It seems blasphemous to be mucking around with trivia here, but trivia was, in some sense, Aldo's meat and drink.

Another thing, which struck me only as I typed the sentences myself, is that the passage slyly recapitulates the author's career. You have the early, architectural phase, with a tip of the hat to Giuseppe Terragni. Then, after the galvanizing transition, we're suddenly at the cinema, where Aldo spent the second phase of his professional life. And where, you ask, is the final phase of literary production? Note the name of the movie theater. Pliny the Elder was, like Aldo, a son of Como who turned to writing after a long life spent on other pursuits. He had a similar attachment to the homely detail, the telling fact, which he collected by the bushel in his Natural History. It was Pliny who wrote: "Indeed, what is there that does not appear marvelous when it comes to our knowledge for the first time?" Aldo could have written that, if Pliny hadn't beaten him to the punch, but he would have seasoned it a bit more. Cum grano salis.

Labels: ,

Saturday, October 17, 2009


Dream house

In my never-ending battle with the torrent of books, I was about to take the major step a few days ago of throwing out a galley: Letters of Ted Hughes. I've got the finished book, and disposing of the galley would free up a few extra inches of floor space in my office. Alas, I started skimming: mistake. First I came across this, from a 1961 letter to the newly married Daniel Weissbort: "Marriage is a nest of small scorpions, but it kills the big dragons. I'm an advocate, so have nothing but congratulations & good wishes, my very best wishes, for both of you." Hmmm. With advocates like these.... On the opposite page, he's trying to make up with Leonard Baskin, who illustrated many of his books. (Which reminds me, I recently declined to throw away a copy of Baskin's Figures of Dead Men, which had been sitting in my old bedroom at my parents' house since 1978. Oh boy.) Anyway, Baskin, who's seen here with the poet, clearly had a rocky visit to the Hughes-Plath menage:
Ever since you went I've been wondering if you'd write, since that last day was unpleasant for us too. If you're still curious to know the cause--or what was probably the main cause--it was that Sylvia hadn't been able to do any work all week in the middle of her first longish work which had been going like gunpowder up to that point, and she was upset at the same time at taking no part in your visit except to cook and so on. So your sharp remarks to her on that Friday hit her with a special irony.
Just a little later in the same letter, Hughes explains that he and Plath have fled the literary life in London (which he elsewhere defines as "a chance juxtaposition of individuals who wish to be known as 'writers' held in a semblance of community by the watchfulness of their mutual envy and malice.") Where they have fled to is a property in Devon. Yes, the two poets have pooled their resources and bought
a house with 6 bedrooms, a stable with 3 stalls, a spare 2 room cottage, a big vegetable garden, an extensive orchard and 2 1/2 acres of land. Also a thatched roof. It's an old farm--part of it 11th Century. There's a prehistoric tumulus or fort-mound in the orchard. It's a knock-out. We're having the owner clear out the population of woodworm and death-watch beetles before we move in, this weekend.
I know, I know, the place was probably tumbling down, and the insect population had been breeding in the beams for the last millennium. Still, it sounds like quite a retreat, doesn't it? They even got a tumulus at no extra charge. The description made me envious, as it must every New Yorker, grateful for every miserable square foot of living space. It also made me ponder my own dream house, which is not nearly so extensive. It seems to be located in a pine grove, simply because I like the smell of pines and the springy feeling of walking on the fallen needles. No stable. An orchard would be nice--pears and apples--as would a flat grassy area in back, cleared of deer ticks and other pests by the Army Corps of Engineers. I could write sestinas at the kitchen table. The living room, the biggest in the house, would be rustic but also modern and comfortable, like the interior of Davy Crockett's cabin with high-speed Internet access. I sound like I'm joking, but I'm not. Outside at night I would be spared the shouting and high-decibel flirtation from the singles bars out on Second Avenue. Just quiet, and velvety darkness, and a solid complement of stars on cloudless nights, which I could study with a Sears and Roebuck telescope on the front porch. I could go on.

Labels: ,

Friday, October 09, 2009


Aldo Buzzi 1910-2009

I was terribly sad to learn that Aldo Buzzi died earlier today in Milan. The news shouldn't have surprised me--he was a very old man, less than a year shy of 100, and he had grown weaker over the last few months. I met him only once, a meeting I described not long ago on this blog. As I said then, it was a privilege to chat with him, a privilege to receive his letters in their spidery, errant, characteristic script. Most of all I felt lucky to have read his work, and to have translated a tiny fraction of it. I will miss him. I will miss, too, the reassuring sensation that he was alive and reasonably well on Via Bassini, still relishing the small things he chronicled so beautifully during his last three decades as a self-described "young writer."

ADDENDUM: The Washington Post has run a lovely and informative obituary by Emily Langer. It includes a comment from me (heartfelt, if none too eloquent) and one of the photos Nina took during our visit. I was especially touched by this final paragraph. Six years later, I found his apartment simply furnished but not sparse: it seemed to contain those objects that mattered to Aldo and not much else. Anyway:
As Italian newspapers noted after his death, Mr. Buzzi was appreciated less at home than abroad. A reporter for the Rome-based La Repubblica recalled meeting Mr. Buzzi at the author's home in Milan and finding the 91-year-old Buzzi living in unexpectedly sparse surroundings. "This is a house that has been emptied out a little at a time," he told the visitor, "... full of holes, like the memory of an old man."


This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?