Friday, January 29, 2010

 

Palms, Logan

I just flew in from Abu Dhabi, and boy, my arms are tired. Before Abu Dhabi it was Mumbai, where the long list of forbidden weaponry on the plane included not only bazookas and hand grenades but pickles and pickling spices. Before Mumbai it was a resort on the Arabian Sea. As we approached the resort in a rented car, the terrain grew more and more tropical, and the road itself reverted to loose gravel, then dirt. The vegetation was thick but much of it seemed desiccated and drooping--strange, since there had been no drought. I saw, for the first time, somebody using a small elephant as a domestic animal, to move what looked like construction supplies. We approached a low wall of cinder blocks. Beyond it, we assumed, would be a South Indian Club Med. But no, beyond the wall was the exact same vegetation, and a row of bamboo bungalows, in one of which we watched Robocop later that night, as the rain pattered on our bamboo roof and the movie was interrupted by numerous commercials for skin-lightening compounds.


The next morning, in the hazy sunlight, I studied the ferns, the low deciduous trees I couldn't identify, and especially the palms. Despite the rain last night, they looked thirsty, in need of assistance--they brought to mind Bellow's famous line in Humboldt's Gift, where "the very bushes might have been on welfare." Yet in some odd way, they compelled your respect. And just the other day, I came across a perfect, metaphor-mad description of them by Henry James, who was discussing the Florida variety in The American Scene. Buckle your seatbelts, folks:
I found myself loving, quite fraternally, the palms, which had struck me at first, for all their human-headed gravity, as merely dry and taciturn, but which became finally as sympathetic as so many rows of puzzled philosophers, dishevelled, shock-pated, with the riddle of the universe.
Human-headed gravity--exactly what I have been aiming for all these years. Now, I cannot tell a lie: I didn't encounter that Henry James quote in The American Scene itself. It occurs in "The State with the Prettiest Name," from William Logan's latest, Our Savage Art: Poetry and the Civil Tongue. I know what you're thinking: more critical mayhem. But what struck me, as I read through the tongue-lashing assessments of our wittiest critic, is that many of Logan's best lines are directed at poets who have earned his exasperated admiration.

Take John Ashbery. Logan has sometimes grumbled about Ashbery, whose playful convolutions of the American language have poured out, with hardly a pause for station identification, since the appearance of Turandot and Other Poems in 1953. It's like one long, sad, waking dream; it's like a game of tiddlywinks that goes on for fifty years. But in a single paragraph, Logan nails his signal strength (his absolute mastery of the American idiom, which he plays like a pipe organ) and his weakness (he can't stop playing, like E. Power Biggs with a stash of pep pills). I will now yield the floor to Logan:
John Ashbery was born when Pola Negri was still box office, yet his poems are more in touch with the American demotic--the tongue most of us speak and few of us write--than any near-octogenarian has the right to be. He has published more than a thousand pages in the last fifteen years, almost twice as many as Wallace Stevens wrote in half a century--and Stevens was no slouch. Ashbery's poems are like widgets manufactured to the most peculiar specifications and in such great numbers the whole world widget market has collapsed.
It's that final sentence that kills me: perfect. I will quote just one more, on Frederick Seidel, whose elegant, icky verse would sooner die than beguile the reader. Writes Logan: "It's hard to get the radical sympathy and aristo loathing in focus--Seidel's an original, but you're glad there aren't more like him."

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Thursday, January 28, 2010

 

J.D. Salinger is gone

I just heard the news about the death of J.D. Salinger at 91. The author of The Catcher in the Rye and one of my favorite portraits of callow self-fabrication, "De Daumier-Smith's Blue Period," had been in seclusion so long that I tended to forget he was still alive: he seemed to occupy some silent Purgatorio in Cornish, N.H., to which the occasional plucky journalist ventured in hopes of ambushing him at the general store.

Yet he never vanished from the public consciousness. His detractors wrote him off as a precious purveyor of "New Yorker fiction." (Even John Cheever, often lumped in the same group, let fly at Salinger during a bad hair day in 1961, ranting at William Maxwell's proposed cuts to a recent story submission: "You cut that short story... and I'll never write another story for you or anybody else. You can get that Godamned sixth-rate Salinger to write your Godamned short stories but don't expect anything more from me." In his journal, however, Cheever was quick to recant, noting that "I admire Salinger... and I think I know where his giftedness lies and how rare it is.") In more recent years, memoirs by Joyce Maynard (the author's teen concubine in the early 1970s) and Margaret Salinger (the author's daughter) have smudged his reputation further. The New York Times has conveniently compressed these disclosures, along with Salinger's spiritual dabblings, into a single, savory paragraph:
Mr. Salinger pursued Scientology, homeopathy and Christian Science, according to the daughter. He also drank urine, and sat in a Reichian orgone box, Ms. Salinger wrote. He spoke in tongues, fasted until he turned greenish and as an older man had pen pal relationships with teenage girls.
So much for the life (and let's recall that Saul Bellow and many other heavy hitters did their time in the orgone box during the Fifties). That leaves the work. Salinger's books have never stopped selling--especially Catcher in the Rye, which remains a touchstone for chafing adolescents worldwide. And he continues to earn praise from other quarters, too, some of them quite unexpected. When I covered an appearance by J.M.G. Le Clezio last April, I was surprised to hear that the Hermit of Cornish had a prominent spot in the Noble laureate's pantheon:
At this point the two writers shared a moment of lexicological bliss (Gopnik indicated a preference for the big illustrated Larousse). Then they moved on to another of Le Cl├ęzio's early infatuations: J.D. Salinger, who Gopnik described as "one of the local gods" at The New Yorker. What the French author loved about Salinger was, in a sense, what he loved about the dictionary: an accumulation of luminous details, and the feeling that "each word is a world by itself." He had particular praise for "A Perfect Day for Bananafish," which he called "one of the best short stories ever written."
ADDENDUM: My pal David Shields has been working on a secret biographical project for some time. Now Nikki Finke has finally revealed his subject (which turned out not to be David Hasselhoff after all): yes, folks, it's J.D. Salinger. The book has been assembled in tandem with an equally hush-hush documentary by 37-year-old screenwriter Shane Salerno. You can get all the details here.

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