Saturday, October 12, 2013

More old reading

Kaputt by Curzio Malaparte is vivid and bears the stink of truth in its recollections of the horrors of a war, the Second World War seen from the Axis side.  That so much of it has been revealed to be fiction disguised as journalism takes off some of the edge; but not much, really, because it retains its plausibility whatever the reality of the events it invents or purports to describe.

On The Yard by Malcolm Braly, a prison novel, is gritty and evocative.

I encountered the work of Jorge Luis Borges while a teenager, because I liked his publisher, New Directions, which had produced Labyrinths, an anthology of his stories.  This is still my favorite of his books translated into English, of which it was the first.

Isaiah Berlin's Russian Thinkers is a fascinating mix of literary criticism and philosophy, including his famous essay "The Hedgehog and the Fox," which includes a brilliant focus on Tolstoy.

I still prefer the Louise Varese translation of Rimbaud's Illuminations to anyone else's including Ashbery's recent publication.  As with Borges, the first translations to which one is exposed often evoke the most lasting affection.  It took a while for me to come to prefer Peter Constantine's raucous translations of Isaac Babel's stories to those translated by Walter Morison, which I had read so many years previously.  Perhaps someday a more recent translation than Stephen Spender's of Rilke's Duino Elegies and M. D. Herter Norton's of his Sonnets to Orpheus will loosen my expectations of the "right" words.

Speaking of Rilke, I remember as a teenager being much moved by The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, where the narrator's disease echoed my own adolescent uneasiness.  I wonder what I would make of it now, or Sartre's Nausea, or any of the other dimly understood books that I read at the time?  This was all in the air at the time and I breathed it in, however imperfectly.

The last of those teenage years appear in surreal fashion in my old friend Michael Disend's Stomping the Goyim, wherein I make two brief appearances.

Amidst all this literary company, I wanted to mention The Tallest Trees by Richard Preston, portions of which I first read in The New Yorker magazine.  He treats of scientists and adventurers who discovered entire ecosystems at the top of redwood trees, complete with meter-high shrubs and a unique species of nematode.  Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher by the journalist Timothy Egan, formerly of The New York Times, is a popular treatment of the life of the photographer Edward S. Curtis, mentioned earlier in this blog.  It quickly overcame my usually dismissive attitude towards popular history and biography.

I close today with a proverb, from the "Proverbs of Hell" section of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell by William Blake, a magnificent short work that I would describe oxymoronically, as manifesting an enigmatic clarity:  Enough! or Too much.

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