Tuesday, June 19, 2007

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Summer Literature

Summer reading, and some are not. So what? Summer season reading as escapist beach recreation is just holdover East Coast chauvinism. Where there even are beaches in the rest of the country, it’s either warm or cool all year. What does figure as a summer season difference is academic freedom—that is, the freedom of people employed in academia from all the regular nonsense they do that has nothing to do with why they got into academia in the first place.

So for them, it’s a time without committee meetings, assessments, grade conferences, promotion portfolios, classes teaching the Same Old to the newly uninterested, and more committee meetings. For some, it is a time for writing and/or reading, and getting reacquainted with the Real Thing. It’s a time for, in a word not often spoke anywhere (least of all in academia): literature.

Following are considerations of several new books that unashamedly “valorize” literature.
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THE CASE FOR LITERATURE is the title of Gao Xingjian’s Nobel Lecture, delivered upon his acceptance of the 2000 Nobel Prize for Literature, and also the title of this slim but powerful collection of his essays published by Yale University Press. It also represents the effect of the other books briefly reviewed here—they all make a case for literature as a living, crucial source of nurture and a noble human activity, in these times of doltish cynicism, profit-taking ignorance and commercially manufactured discouragement.

Gao Xignjian achieved his first success in China in the early 1980s with plays, and continued to write for the theatre, as well as fiction and literary essays through years of shifting political winds until he went into exile towards the end of the decade. His output only increased in the 1990s. Though his autobiographical novel, Soul Mountain, was published in the U.S. in the same year as his Nobel Prize, and remains his best known work in America, it was completed shortly after he left China.

For Gao, the purpose of literature is simple: the search for truth. “…its value lies in discovering and revealing what is rarely known, little known or thought to be known, but in fact not very well known, of the truth of the human world.” “For the writer, truth in literature approximates ethics, and is the ultimate ethic of literature.”

But this truth is not in the realm of metaphysics or ideology. “Truth is perceptual and concrete. Full of life, truth is available for human observation at any time and in any place; it is the interaction between subject and object.” It is the individual’s “testimony of his times.”

“The language required by literature comes from spontaneous speech that goes straight to truth.” Gao is a particular champion of the auditory. “The human need for language is not simply a need for the transmission of meaning; language is also needed for one to listen to, and for affirming one’s own existence.”

“It is my view that the only responsibility a writer has is to the language he writes in.” And that language must sing. “The musicality of language is of extreme importance, and music provides me with more insights than any sort of literary theory.” “If I fail to hear music in the sentences I have written, I acknowledge defeat…”

Gao stresses this rigorous program for the writing of literature, which earns it a place on my own short shelf of indispensable and inspirational books on writing. But the individual expression Gao champions should not be confused with the self-indulgent and programmatic confessionals lining the bookstore shelves. “In this postmodern age, which is concerned only with consumerism, the unchecked bloating of the individual is already a far-off myth…” Though he rejects ideological purposes, he does believe literature has social benefit, in the creation of empathy. “Yet through literature there can be a certain degree of communication, so the writing of literature that essentially has no goal does leave people a testimony of survival. And if literature still has some significance, it is probably this.”

Gao writes about his own approach to fiction and theatre, and (especially in a terse but harrowing chapter near the end) his battles with Chinese authorities, but all within the context of this literary purpose. Agree or disagree with his assertions, this is a book anyone involved in literature must read. In the main, it is a book that everyone should read to understand the activity of literature—the single voice singing a surviving truth beyond the amorphous noise.

"In Memory of Bruno Schultz" (1992)
by Tani Fred.
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The casually serious literary reader probably has some grasp of national characteristics and literary history of England, France, the U.S., Russia, perhaps Germany. Beyond that, it’s individual writers, two or three to a country, and for some, maybe one, or none. Trinity University Press has embarked on a series of books to enlighten us about the literatures of other nations, through the words of the writers themselves.

Under the series editorship of Edward Hirsch, three volumes have now been published : Irish Writers on Writing (edited by Eavan Boland), Mexican Writers on Writing (Margaret Sayers Peden) and Polish Writers on Writing (Adam Zagajewski.)

Since I represent no one but myself here, I am going to be entirely personal in my responses. Of these three, the literature I know the most about—especially from school days-- is Irish, and indeed many of the names (from William Butler Yeats to Brian Friel) are familiar, though of the 77 writers represented, not even a majority. From the day in Catholic high school when a rebel nun slipped me her worn copy of A Portrait of the Artist As A Young Man and into my immediate post-college years (when I hauled the heavy consequence of Richard Ellman’s biography of Joyce like a talisman on my goofy 60s/70s journeys), I pretty much worshipped James Joyce, and he alone was an education in the history of Irish literature.

However, what interests me now about this volume is the role of theatre in 20th century Irish literature, and it’s there in the first dozen or so writers represented. My first impression was that compared to the other volumes, this one seems more like a standard anthology, containing excerpts of literary work rather than a focus on “writing on writing.” But maybe the selection is more subtle. It’s certainly extensive, and though I haven’t read much of it yet, it seems substantive, and likely to repay careful and sustained attention.

After Gabriel Garcia Marquez rocked my world (as we didn’t yet say in the early 70s), my passion passed to Mexican writing, although the only writers represented in this volume that I read then are Carlos Fuentes and the writer I still read and highly esteem, Octavio Paz. Paz I believe was at Harvard when I lived in Cambridge, which is when I wrote my first review of his work, for the Boston Phoenix. So it’s a fitting delight that the introduction to his chapter quotes a poem by Celia Gilbert, who was my friend and colleague at the Phoenix in those days.

The essays and statements in this volume I’ve sampled are more directly focused on the subject of writing. They speak of its mysteries and discoveries, its ironies and its relation to history and real life. I look forward to delving more deeply into them, and to discovering more of the breadth and character of writing in Mexico, including the women writers included in this volume, such as Rosario Castellanos, Margo Glantz and Elena Poniatowska.

But the volume I most naturally needed to read concerned Polish writing. Polish literature is a complete mystery to me, as is my own relationship to that land. Though my last name is (I’m told) a fairly common one in Warsaw, I don’t even know if it is the real name of my father’s family, or an approximation adopted when his grandfather arrived in America, probably recruited to work in the western Pennsylvania coal mines where I was told he toiled for the rest of his life. We don’t know where he came from—not the town or the region. We don’t even know if it was Poland, especially since that country’s borders changed so many times in the past century or so. We don’t know where his wife was from (my grandfather, born in the U.S., married a Slovak.) Though my father’s family was Catholic, there were Jews named Kowinski, and I found record of at least one having died in a concentration camp during the Holocaust. The only other Kowinski who turns up regularly in Internet searches is Fred, an actor in Germany.

There was at least one Kowinski who married into nobility (the “ski” is supposed to indicate nobility, though so many non-nobles adopted it that it lost its accuracy). But almost certainly, my immediate family came from the peasantry. Perhaps by the late 19th century they were working class: coal miners there as well as here. We were lower middle class economically in my childhood, and still mostly working class culturally, though I interacted with my father’s family far less than with my mother’s. She was born in Italy, and my upbringing was among the Italian community—immigrants with a craft (my grandfather was a tailor), mostly from the same region and even the same village; I seemed to be related to many of them. All of my father’s family was native born, and I recall no knowledge or interest about any ancestral homelands.

So I approached this volume on Polish writing with real hunger. I was hungry for information, and for some sense of what in me might be related to Polish writers. In terms of history, though these writers grew up in Poland, many were forced into exile by the Nazis and the Soviets and their own Communist government. This different sort of exile became a preoccupying theme. Editor Zagajewski writes in his preface that in many ways the dilemma of World War II is the focus of this collection.

History earlier in the century was also traumatic, and so the marks of history are everywhere on these writers and their literature. Still they write of the working demands and mysteries of literature itself, as well as its function in their lives and the life of their country.

Boleslaw Lesmian (1877-1937) is the first writer in the collection. “But the more we reflect and investigate,” he writes, “the more we look more deeply into the essence of the thing and listen to the faint whispers of existence, the more our sense of reality becomes discriminating, the more its field visibly narrows.” He reaches for the transcendent. “But beyond the self there exists some tone in the soul: some elemental song without words, waiting for the necessary words to come in a creative hour…” Again, music.

Some of these writers are rigorously logical, others more poetic. Among the most poetic is Bruno Schulz (whose novel, Sanatorium under the Sign of the Hourglass was brought to the attention of English language readers when it was included in Philip Roth’s “Writers from the Other Europe” series for Penguin in the early 1980s). A truly remarkable writer, he recalls from his childhood being carried by his father “through the spaces of an overwhelming night, conducting a conversation with the darkness.” For him, literature is a door to such realities. “In a work of art the umbilical chord linking it with the totality of our concerns has not yet been severed, the blood of the mystery still circulates…”

For Schultz, literature is our version of the most basic and characteristic human activity. “The most fundamental function of the spirit is inventing fables, creating tales.” Julia Hartwig sees no contradiction between communication and the deepest mysteries. Concerning poetry she writes, …”although Kerouac’s slogan, ‘Write so the whole world understands you” may sound frivolous, it’s worth taking to heart. And it’s not at all in contradiction with Braque’s statement: ‘ Only one thing is important in art: that which can’t be explained.’ Because understanding in art is not always an intellectual act.”

And of course I glommed onto any tidbits that might tell me about Polish culture and society. Jerzy Stempowski observes that “The nobility did not derive from invaders and nomads but from the same settled population as the serfs.” Jozef Czapski narrates fascinating if horrifying experiences in World War II with a sense of national history. In writing about his own poems, Czelaw Milosz ruminates on landscape and character. Milosz is one of many exiles in this book—in his case, he lived many years here in California, which gave him the feeling of being in “some unearthly fields among the lotus eaters.” Of the writers here, he’s probably the most familiar to me, mostly through his admirable prose (even though he denigrated Arcata, the town where I now live, asking in his book Milosz ABCs, “Should one live there? Perhaps as punishment.” But he was writing about a time when smoke from timber mills darkened the sky; we see a lot more sunshine these days.)

Many of these writers who saw Communist social experiments came to oppose any utopian ideas, as Gao did. And Zbigniew Herbert saw the same social function for literature that Gao did, though in a different way: “In general, writing is not a medium of expression, of expressing oneself, but an art of empathy—that is, entering into others.”

It seems that many of these writers also practiced other arts, such as painting, music and theatre, or were primarily artists in another medium. Throughout this book, I get the impression of a real Polish literary and artistic culture, and community of writers and artists, supporting and of course sniping at each other, and taking very seriously their concerns and stances. They were very aware of western European art and literature (and American), but working through the dangers of xenophobia versus rootlessness, national character and universal principles.

The British playwright Tom Stoppard was born in Czechoslovakia, and has long wondered what his life might have been like had his parents not fled during World War II. These thoughts bear fruit in his newest play, Rock & Roll. My relationship to Polish culture is even more complicated, tenuous and ambiguous. Yet there is something to it, and in this personal sense, this book has been like a missing link, or a key to an as yet vague and tantalizing lost home.

As a writer, of course, all of these superior collections provide inspiration and provoke thoughts and feelings. The Writer’s World (as this series by Trinity University Press is called) is a brilliant contribution to literature, which these days needs reminders of its importance in this increasingly frenetic blizzard of addictive technology and commercially encouraged ignorance.
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Another timely contribution to literature is A New Handbook of Literary Terms by David Mikics from Yale University Press. It is clearly and crisply written, with concise yet rich and trenchant entries. You will find definitions and citations of relevant works on general topics (“culture,” “essay,” “nihilism”) and the more specific (“dream vision,” “New York school,” “quatrain.”) You’ll find “parody” as distinguished from “satire” and “burlesque.” There are older terms (“burden”), and newer (“language poetry.”) And if you don’t happen to have been a warring party in various university departments over the last few decades, you can recollect in tranquility the definitions of “Marxist criticism,” “deconstruction,” “discourse,” “semiotics,” “gender studies,” “new historicism” and “cultural studies.”

Scholarly without being “didactic,” accessible though not eschewing “lectio difficilior” (No, it’s not a Harry Potter curse—it means “the more difficult reading”), this book becomes automatically indispensable. There is something especially wonderful and important about reestablishing the integrity of literary terms, after the aforementioned decades of looking at the social effects and representations of literature from the outside—a useful cultural analysis—with unfortunate but characteristic overreaching to define the essence of literature in ways that just about killed it. Fortunately, the death of the writer didn’t kill writers reaching across time and borders as well as deep into themselves to reaffirm literature by creating it.
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