“Despite my aversion to soft-cover editions…” -May 19, 2003

Despite my aversion to soft-cover editions (a distaste I overcome as a matter of occupational necessity as a recipient of a storm of galleys and advance reader’s editions), I recently found three books (well, four, but Selected Writing of Jose Marti is not a book I plan to foist on my literate friends and acquaintances) that exist only in that degenerate format. There are people that extol the advent of paperbacks (Michael Ondaatje comes to mind) as there are those (Michael at the complete review), who share my antipathy. In any case this, uh, snobbish idiosyncrasy is one that I continue to indulge guiltlessly.

The Paris Review: Latin American Writers at Work has a special value for me as I am a practitioner of what Derek Walcott in the book’s introduction and Jim Harrison (in an email to me) both acknowledge as something of an art form. (Amen) But it is not this acknowledgement that draws me to this volume. In fact, I generally am averse to reading most Q&A’s. One exception is a remarkable book published in the early ’70s by Selden Rodman, Tongues of Fallen Angels, that includes conversations with Jorge Luis Borges, Ernest Hemingway, Octavio Paz, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Allen Ginsberg, Pablo Neruda, Robert Frost and Norman Mailer.

Anyway, the Paris Review anthology also includes a remarkable assemblage of literary giants including some of the above (Borges, Neruda, Paz, Garcia Marquez) and Julio Cortazar, Guillermo Cabrera Infante, Louisa Valenzeula and Mario Vargas Lllosa. The only writer missing from this pantheon is the inimitable Uruguayan Eduardo Galeano (a void that can be filled in by going to David Barsamian’s excellent recent interview).

Derek Walcott says of the interview form:

…and the little I knew of Brazil had come through its poetry like cracks light under a door. Now these interviews are a corridor down which door after door opens, and we sit down as guests do these illuminators.

There was the writer, there was what he or she had written, and now there is the tape recorder, creator of the interview, a twentieth century literary form, an intrusion on intimacy yet a form that requires journalistic, even Flaubertian distance: a literary from at which the writer looks at his life an his work with a new impersonality, with a rhythm that should sound spontaneous in its sentences. This creates a benign beast, a double who speaks for the writer but whose stories, given the fallibility of memory, we do not completely trust.

I can forgive Walcott’s failure to grasp the process and the second creator involved in the interview process. As a writer, he isn’t required to think his work is part of a real dialogue with a real reader. But he does seem to recognize some of the qualities of the interview’s attractiveness:

Interviews attract us because we want to devour banalities, the exactly ordinary, in other words, gossip. The old saying that no one cares "what porridges had John Keats" is a pretext. It is very important, bringing Keats up-to-date, to know if he prefers oatmeal to All-bran, because the knowledge does not diminish but increases our astonishment at the magic of the Odes.

In any case, this volume is loaded with gems. Here is Borges on Twain, "I think Twain was one of the really great writers, but I think he was really rather unaware of the fact. But perhaps in order to write a really good book, you must be rather unaware of the fact." And later Borges states that a writer shouldn’t be judged on ideas but, "He should be judged by the enjoyment he gives and by the emotions one gets. As to the ideas, after all it is not very important whether a writer has some political opinion or other because a work will come through despite them…" This from a writer frequently viewed as one of the most academic of the 20th century. Worth the price of admission, I say.

The benighted Gray Wolf Press, the port home for many worthy intellectual and literary vessels, recently published The Next American Essay by John D’Agata. Without dipping into a brief for creative non-fiction, I found that both the chronological approach, one essay representing each year from 1974 to 2003 and the lineup—Joan Didion, Susan Sontag, Jamaica Kincaid, John McPhee, Barry Lopez, Anne Carson, Susan Griffin David Shields and more—were seductive and compelling and a bit intimidating. Perhaps this is like an exhibition of great masters that has almost thirty paintings. There is a lot to take in. Brief introductions for each selections and prologue and epilogue essays fill out a heady array of literary thinkers. As a matter of personal taste, I have come to find good essays as stimulating as stories or novels. Which is another way of saying I don’t much care about the categories. I was reading Jamaica Kincaid’s "Girl" in D’Agata’s collection which is also included in short story anthologies. I read it as a prose poem.

D’Agata, who has previously published a quirky book entitled Halls of Fame, opines:

Let’s call this a book about human wondering. It begins in 1974, an arbitrary date as far as dates go because it does not mark the start of the essay. It marks, instead, the start if my own wondering—the only story I have any authority to tell…I was an eight-week-old fetus when my mother first read to me, and as we now know but did not know then, a fetus at eight weeks has developed its ears but not yet the ability to hear. What this means is that anything you read to a fetus will go in one ear but not come out.

Novelist Melvin Jules Bukiet has edited Nothing Makes You Free: Writings of Descendents of Jewish Holocaust Survivors, which might be considered of interest to a narrow audience of readers (Jews) but for Bukiet’s assertion:

What’s important is that the Holocaust has become a talismanic touchstone that every writer must genuflect toward. Try an experiment. Take every tenth book of fiction off the shelves of your local bookstore. A few will actually be about the Holocaust, but count how many others mention, just mention in passing, as a metaphor, the H word as a kind of seal of literary seriousness. My guess is seven out of ten.

Not the most elegant argument but elegance is not Bukiet’s strong suit. A ferocious directness is:

…but let’s keep one terrible truth on the table. In fact Hitler won. The Jews lost, badly. The continent is morally, culturally Judenrein [free of Jews]. Thus the survivors were expected to remain unobtrusive supernatural phenomena, not disturbing the living with the clanking of their chains and their alarming stories. In return a guilty world tried to salvage its conscience by granting passports to the United States and other nations to whose entry they barred a decade earlier.

The explanation for collecting writing by what Bukiets calls the 2G [the second generation] comes from the existential dilemma offered by Alan Finkelkraut:

"I inherited a suffering to which I had not be subjected, for without having to endure oppression, the identity of the victim was mine… The allotment was inescapable: for them utter abandonment and anonymous death and for their spokesman, sympathy and honor…I owed to the bond of blood the intoxicating power to confuse myself with the martyrs…no trace of them remains, except perhaps my taste for poppy seed bread, scorching hot tea, and the way I hold sugar in my teeth rather than let it dissolve."

Nothing Makes You Free includes works by an assortment of writers from Thane Rosenbaum and Joseph Skibell to Eva Hoffman and Peter Singer. This edition is one more signal of the self-revising nature of history. Bukiets bellows, "…there was a sense of passive acquiescence to circumstance that is no longer. Now, we are strident. Now we rub the world’s nose in our misery. Go to our museums. Go to our movies. Go read our books. Look at what you did. Behold."

Image by Frank Noelker: from Portraits exhibit @ http://howardyezerskigallery.com/

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