Monday, August 29, 2011

Warwickshire Death Trip

A writer will sometimes swim into my ken like a duck swimming through an open window. A few of Barbara Comyns’ books had been paddling about the periphery of my attention during some recent bookstore shopping, and I felt particularly attracted by one title, Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead. If you too happen to have picked up this book, you’ll know that the first line indeed features ducks swimming through open windows, by way of casually introducing both the flood that starts the story and the affected home around which it revolves.

The flood is hardly the only misfortune to befall the Willoweed family and the small Warwickshire community in which they live. Before Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead comes to an end, other grave and not so grave challenges have impacted the family and the town, leaving some dead, and some, well, changed. I’ve already given away enough by mentioning the flood, so you’ll have to read the book yourself if morbid curiosity gets the best of you about what other afflictions lie in store. But even were I to recount the entire, short plot, you’d probably still be unprepared for Comyns herself, with her particular blend of sensitive, playful characterization, dark humor, and blithe tone of warm and genteel dread. Plus, she’s able to write sentences that are as original and resistant to imitation as the phrasing in a Frank Sinatra song.

This is a quite memorable a cast of characters for such a short novel. Each teeters on caricature - until he or she isn’t. Grandmother Willoweed comes across as a slightly more vicious, animated and purposefully hard-of-hearing version of Caroline Blackwood’s marvelous creation, Great Granny Webster. The father in the family, Ebin Willoweed, is an amiably obtuse but kind-hearted fatherly type. The story’s most central character, the eldest Willoweed daughter Emma Willoweed, through whom much of the novel’s gothic actions are filtered, provides a marginally heroic presence, despite possessing a kind of naturalistic fatalism: “I shall be just me, and nothing will happen at all.” A great cast of more minor characters, from Old Ives the gardener to Doctor Hatt the town physician, fill out the queer community that Comyns creates in her village microcosm. Despite Comyn’s portrayal of her characters with a notable lack of flattery that almost borders on cynicism, it’s a kind of cynicism so mild and warm-hearted as to deserve some kinder appellation. For kicks, I’ll invent one, and call it “cyncretism” – a striking ability to reconcile radically opposing elements in a radiant and tenderly cynical manner. Actually, Comyns does such a stellar job of hiding this cynicism under her magnanimous vision that she manages to emulsify it into the overall recipe. You end up believing that Comyns’ hint of cynicism is a bit of a put-on; she stands out as a writer of unusual depth and generosity of feeling, capable of plumbing ordinary and extraordinary horrors while spreading much love and affection over the moral and emotional faults of her characters.

Comyns’ novel has elements that would be horrifying (or more horrifying, I should say) were they not overlaid with this kindly sort of pastoral acceptance. Imagine one of those lovely, childhood-centered stories of Katherine Mansfield such as “Prelude” or “At the Bay” in a mash-up with Edward Gorey’s Gashlycrumb Tinies and you’ll get some idea of Comyns’ tone (it’s a very short jump from Comyns’ Willoweed family to Gorey’s Willowdale handcar). Yes, there are ducks contentedly quacking their merry way around flooded drawing rooms, but there are also drowned kittens, pigs with their throats sliced open, a scene involving a murderous angry mob so terrible that it might have given Shirley Jackson the shivers, and various cruelties playing along the whole keyboard of impression, in both major and minor keys (according to the preface by Brian Evans, not everyone initially found this placid juxtaposition of bucolic family life and Boschian horror appealing; the book was banned in Ireland when it came out in 1954).

Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead is a small novel that feels much larger than it is. It’s a story of exactly what the title (borrowed from Longfellow) suggests it is, but also an account of how people respond to calamity, both natural and human (including, perhaps foremost, the calamity of one’s own family). One senses in its geographical localism a tug on connecting threads that extend far out around the globe. The smallest tragedies recapitulate the largest ones, as the town baker Horace Emblyn seems to realize after a batch of ergot-contaminated rye bread gets out into the community: “He noticed a trap with a crushed mouse spread upon it. There was a bead of blood upon its mouth and he turned away for a moment and then forced himself to look at it. Who was he to turn away from a murdered mouse, when he was responsible for so many deaths?” Reading Comyns’ novel, my mind drifted to other writers and books, from the quirky characters of Jane Bowles to the darkly funny humor of Evelyn Waugh and Beryl Bainbridge. Curiously, though, no work came to my mind more frequently than Albert Camus’ The Plague, despite these two books being about as different from one another in tone and style as two books could be. There’s a deceptive lightness to Comyns that overlies a serious moral core: how does one live a good life? How should one react in the face of disaster or cruelty? Camus laid out a set of memorable characters who represented various responses to these questions.  Comyns inverts Camus; no one could ever mistake her characters for representations, as they are first and foremost fully-fleshed, idiosyncratic and extraordinary ordinary people, and only afterwards the decisions they make.

From the little I know about Comyns, I apparently have ten more of her novels to go. On the strength of Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead, I’m eagerly looking forward to reading every one.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

An Incredible Glacial Dream-Scene

Anna Kavan’s Ice certainly counts among the most singular – and intense – works of literature I’ve read. I struggled with it at first, alternately repelled by this intensity and by its abrupt plunges into “dream” states, and drawn back again and again to its hard-edged, glittering prose and phantasmagorical, bracing atmosphere almost as a need (few books this slim have taken me so long to read, but few that have taken so long to read have so repeatedly called with such insistence from the nightstand). Good taste should probably forbid me from describing the novel’s intensity as like that of the acute burning sensation one feels when touching dry ice, but as I’ve just done that, I’ll stand by it. This is a tremendous work of concentrated imagination and ambiance, with a contemporaneity and freshness scarcely betrayed by the fact of Ice’s having been written more than 40 years ago. But the magnitude of its force comes not simply from its dazzling winter lyricism and mood, but also from the seriousness that underlies it, which conveys a rawness that – even had I not learned some outline details of Kavan’s psychological crises and heroin addiction – would have nonetheless suggested a writer in full control yet on a razor’s edge.

The preface to my 1970 Doubleday edition is by science fiction writer Brian Aldiss, who knew Kavan and was the first to suggest to her that her work was a kind of science fiction, an observation towards which she initially expressed some surprise but came to accept (this lack of self-conscious science fictionality only adds to the book’s power). The plot of Ice, such as there is one, could be characterized simply: a man attempts to rescue a fragile and persecuted woman also pursued by another man, a kind of despotic figure, with the pursuit and rivalry among these nameless characters across northern landscapes and seaports set against the rapidly encroaching catastrophe of a new worldwide ice age and its attendant panic, deprivations and violence. But this synopsis only provides the barest branches around which Ice is formed. Its complexity of mood and impression also figures gender and sexual power dynamics, a psychology of victimhood and oppression, a vision of an apocalypse that humans have brought upon themselves (in addition to its explicit suggestion of nuclear winter, Ice may well be the among the first novels beyond conventional science fiction to resonate with the threat of climate change as we understand it in its contemporary context), and an overwhelmingly dream-like, sustained representation of struggle against an array of oppressive forces within a surrounding aura of menace. Kavan’s novel unfolds through contrasts of gaiety and destruction, of violence and immobility, of imprisonment and freedom, of power and helplessness, all overshadowed by looming, pulsing waves of imminent catastrophe. Linearity of narrative is broken and buffeted repeatedly; the metaphor of invading ice extends to the narrative style itself, which splinters, fractures, crashes, subsides and glows with a cold blue hue. Yet the actual ice in Ice obeys no recognizable physical laws; at the same time hypnotically attractive and frighteningly threatening, it waits along the horizon at times, rushes in like a tsunami at others, and rears up as though exploded out of nowhere at others – as does the narrative. Temporal continuity is repeatedly interrupted, thwarted. Unreal elements burst through the narrative as though heaved there by deep geological forces, as though the walls of consciousness have suddenly collapsed and invited an overwhelming rush of frozen sea.

A reviewer on has asked, “How can one not discuss Anna Kavan first when discussing her work?” I assume that this question refers to the writer’s psychiatric struggles and above all to her heroin addiction, since, armed with knowledge of the latter, one can’t help but also see Ice as a work about addiction. But given its date of publication (1967) and its narrative mélange of the real and irreal, one scarcely need know of Kavan’s drug use to perceive the novel’s drug influences. Until reading Ice, I’d never really thought much about the distinction, in terms of psychological phenomena, between hallucinations and dreams, though Ice’s irrealistic passages partake far more of an opiated dream-state, albeit an irruptive one, than of disjointed hallucinations. The narrator’s accounts possess the kind of convincing internal logic that dreams can have, with points of view that would be impossible in the physical world and equally impossible shifts of perspective that at times seamlessly transfer from observer to observed. There’s also an odd sort of performative rehearsal marking some of the scenes in Ice, in which an event will be described with one outcome and then re-described with another, as though the dreamer were trying on different versions of her dream.

Ice possesses a dazzling poetic and thematic magnification and resonance. Aesthetically, it’s like a massive wall of ice itself, with an indistinct and illusory surface of prismatic sparkles and glints, but also startlingly profound translucent glimpses into unfathomable blue depths. This enrapturing, stupefying blast-frozen imagery interweaves with Ice’s lowering mood of portent and peril:

With a threatening scowl, he went out, banging the door behind him. A silence followed, while she stood like a lost child, tears wet on her cheeks. Next she started wandering aimlessly round the room, stopped by the window, pulled the curtain aside, then cried out in amazement.

Instead of the darkness, she faced a stupendous sky-conflagration, an incredible glacial dream-scene. Cold coruscations of rainbow fire pulsed overhead, shot through by shafts of pure incandescence thrown out by mountains of solid ice towering all round. Closer, the trees round the house, sheathed in ice, dripped and sparkled with weird prismatic jewels, reflecting the vivid changing cascades above. Instead of the familiar night sky, the aurora borealis formed a blazing, vibrating roof of intense cold and colour, beneath which the earth was trapped with all its inhabitants, walled in by those impassable glittering ice-cliffs. The world had become an arctic prison from which no escape was possible, all its creatures trapped as securely as were the tress, already lifeless inside their deadly resplendent armour.

Kavan’s employment of imagery of forbidding winter – almost undoubtedly a metaphor chosen with the icy lowest depth of Dante’s Inferno in mind - is as multifaceted as it is relentless, and overlays the narrative like a controlled abstraction. Several times I found myself thinking of the novel’s aesthetic ordering as similar to that of a late Jackson Pollock painting, an elaborate, concentrated gesture in which one easily discerns a certain order, pattern and palette (I also could not shake a recurring thought of Pollock’s mysterious mid-career painting “The Deep,” with its wintry colors and illusory play of surface and depth; for some future edition of Ice it might make a fitting cover image).

Jackson Pollock, "The Deep" - 1953
Centre Pompidou, Paris
Thematically Ice is equally multifaceted. Its apocalyptic imagery suggests the threat of nuclear winter and environmental neglect, crystallizing into a weighty mass the atomic age fear of self-destruction of the planet. In its tale of men questing after a woman who doesn’t want to be found, Ice plunges into the psychology of patriarchal presumptiveness and rescue fantasies. In the woman’s seeming helplessness and passivity, it explores as well the notions of victimization and psychological paralysis. In its continual evocation of inevasible ice and snow, it loosely suggests, on a meta-level, an onerous struggle against addiction, but one that the addict has elected to recount via fascination with its absorbing psychological effects, rather than parlaying personal distress into a confessional warning.

And Ice is also an existentially courageous, starkly unsentimental story of coming to terms with death, the courage and generosity of Kavan’s story all the more remarkable for its having dared to stretch beyond a narrative of personal distress to suggest resistance against great systemic forces at work, and to situate the young woman’s suffering in a global context in which these forces – patriarchal, political, neglectful and presumptive in anything but a benign way - impinge from multiple directions. Were this a simple experiment in presenting addiction, Kavan might easily have made Ice an accession of her own struggle. But whatever personal aspects may underlie this deliberate, unique and impressive novel make little difference in the context of its mesmerizing dream-like lyricism, its disconsolate and poignant moods and complex, expansive themes. To read too much of the personal into Ice would seem little more than a disestimation to a writer who produced a novel as meticulously written and as aesthetically and thematically sui generis as this one, and that expands so eloquently far beyond the personal to address humanity’s common fate. 

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Frederic Prokosch's Journey

That Frederic Prokosch’s literary star has all but vanished in the nearly 80 years since his novel The Asiatics exploded onto the literary world like a bomb presents a mystery that is at first almost as unexpected as one’s first reading of one of his novels. Here is a writer whose work, hailed as something completely new in modern literature, met with effusive praise from Thomas Mann, Graham Greene, William Butler Yeats, Sinclair Lewis, Somerset Maugham, André Gide, Thornton Wilder, Malcolm Cowley, Albert Camus, Issac Bashevis Singer, and scores of other towering figures of 20th century literature. A few years ago, I passed on to two French friends, both of them “grands lecteurs” who had been regularly dismissive of American writers, a copy of Prokosch’s The Seven Who Fled. It had an immediate, paradigm-changing impact on their conception of American literature, as it had on mine when I read it some twenty years ago.

These first two “Asian” novels of Prokosch – stunning feats of imagination about places he’d never, in fact, visited - plunge one into a deep lyricism of mood and impression amid profoundly evocative and atmospheric landscapes, filled with danger and adventure and existentially adrift characters, wandering and seeking without knowing what it is they seek. At the time these novels were published in the mid-1930’s, there was nothing like them in American literature, not least for their geographical abandonment of the confines and comforts of the United States and old world Europe in favor of the mysteries of far-flung places (while British writers like James Hilton and W. H. Hudson may have toyed with exotic locales, their works capture nothing remotely like the degree of alienation in Prokosch’s characters, who are dwarfed in every way by the landscapes through which they move). Even today, the impression these novels initially provide a reader is of a thrilling, perilous and darkly fatalistic freedom extending to limitless, lost horizons.

None of the other books I’ve subsequently read by Prokosch has had quite the same sustained effect on me as The Seven Who Fled (though it’s possible that had I read The Asiatics first I might have written this sentence with the two titles interchanged, and I’m just now starting one of his stylistically different late masterworks), but he remains a writer I turn to with anticipation and admiration – even when his novels’ flaws provoke storms of exasperation. I recently discovered in a secondhand bookstore another of these lesser works, Nine Days to Mukalla, about a group of travelers attempting to traverse the forbidding Hanhramaut area of southern Arabia after a plane crash. Starting to read it I experienced again that initial Prokoschian thrill of feeling the foundations of the familiar world dropping out from beneath me as I entered Prokosch’s. His ability to plunge one instantaneously into an intimate, exotic geographical expansiveness is simply remarkable, like a sudden step off the edge into some spatial portal. The novel’s title derives from an empty reassurance, repeated day after day to the hapless travelers, that they’ll reach Mukalla in “nine days.” Alas, I too began to feel that, trapped in this eternal recurrence, I might never get there either, and by the end of the book had come to think of it as Two Hundred and Forty Nine Pages to Mukalla. That the novel so quickly turned sour did little, however, to mitigate the disorienting excitement of its opening. Rarely does a dividing line between reality and fiction seem so sharp as in the first pages of a Prokosch novel; he’s a modern writer who evinces little interest in blurring that line – odd, perhaps, for one whose personal life involved so much wanton misrepresentation of the truth. But as the seductive glow of the first riveting pages of Nine Days to Mukalla faded into the frustrating meanderings that would mark the rest of the book, my curiosity about Prokosch himself grew. So the next day I headed to the library to see what I might find in terms of critical works about him.

I was astonished to find little more than a book in German (this is a world-class library, after all), but was even more surprised to spot a recent Prokosch biography on the shelf. Robert M. Greenfield’s Dreamer’s Journey: The Life and Writings of Frederick Prokosch, had come out only about a year ago – and apparently rather quietly, too, since I’ve been unable to locate a single detailed review of it.  My arrival in Mukalla would be even further delayed, as I left the novel dormant while instead devouring Greenfield’s utterly compelling, deeply researched, tightly written and sensitive book. Greenfield’s uncovering of the enigma of Prokosch’s decline into obscurity is fascinating, and his examination of the writer’s unusual, complex trajectory provides an uncommon and invaluable angle from which to view 20th century literature and literary figures, both American and, to some extent, international.

From the start, Greenfield makes clear that Prokosch – even putting his literary works aside – was a complicated, captivating and difficult figure. Readers will hopefully excuse the absurdity of my attempting to distill Greenfield’s formidably researched 400+ pages into a summary paragraph, but I’ll try to touch on some highlights without, I hope, being too wretchedly reductionist. Born in Wisconsin in 1906 to German/Bohemian emigrant parents, Prokosch and his siblings grew up under a doting mother and an almost tyrannically perfectionist father, an academic who moved through a series of university appointments around the U.S. as a leading figure in German language studies. Frederic (familiarly, “Fritz”) was taunted as an adolescent for his small stature, feminine mannerisms, and intellectual “Prokoschiousness,” but at university, the surprising imago that emerged from this rather unpromising pupa was a tall, handsome athlete - who went on to win numerous tennis and squash championships in the U.S. and Europe – as well as something of a sexually profligate homosexual, a factor that led to an enduring estrangement from his coldly disapproving father. Aspiring to become a poet, (and along the way obtaining a Ph.D. in literature), Prokosch in his initial literary forays met with repeated rejection, until, lying about in a hammock one summer, he wrote The Asiatics – a startlingly atmospheric tale of a young man’s capricious and directionless adventures as he drifts across Asia from Lebanon to Indochina (parts of the world that Prokosch had never, at the time he wrote the book, visited). Upon its publication in 1935 The Asiatics became an astonishing overnight success, garnering great critical acclaim. A book of poems, The Assassins, shortly followed and earned similar accolades for Prokosch’s poetry. Thrust into sudden literary stardom, Prokosch began frequent travels around Europe. After a second less popularly successful but still widely hailed novel, The Seven Who Fled, Prokosch entered a lengthy period of literary decline, with most reviewers dismissing his several subsequent novels, despite their flashes of lyrical brilliance, as little more than tiresome variations on The Asiatics containing poorly drawn characters subservient to thinly linked series of moods and impressions too detached from story – and from reality – to be readable. Following public indifference, disdain and even ridicule from some establishment poets, including W. H. Auden (Greenfield produces a bitingly satirical poem by Louise Bogan poking fun at Prokosch’s verses), Prokosch abandoned poetry altogether and spent much of the 1930’s traveling about Europe, though still churning out one flawed, unsuccessful novel after another. The rise of Nazi Germany and the world’s entry into the Second World War cast Prokosch in an unfavorable light. Having originally taken as his literary models such diverse authors as May Sinclair, Isak Dinesen and Auden, Prokosch adopted as one of his chief idols during this period the French writer Louis-Ferdinand Celine, sharing with Celine an admiration for fascism and, at least in the early years of the Third Reich, for Hitler’s transformation of Germany. While he later recanted these sentiments and spent much of the war working in the U.S. Army’s Office of Communications, serving for a time in the diplomatic corps in Stockholm (and boasting to have been involved in intelligence work and espionage), he seems to have initially viewed events leading up to America’s entry into the war as little more than intrusions into the sybaritic private life he led beachside in a Portuguese resort town. After the war, Prokosch’s literary efforts took a backseat to an intense social and promiscuous sexual life. He shuttled back and forth between Europe and the U.S., with erratic appearances among a crowd that included Tennessee Williams, Gore Vidal, Christopher Isherwood, and other literary figures (Greenfield offers an amusing anecdote of an inquiry by Richard Wilbur as to Prokosch’s whereabouts, to which Stephen Spender replied, “He is doubtless in Europe somewhere, in a large car, out of touch with reality.”). For the most part abandoning the United States, towards which Prokosch felt increasingly deep disdain given his literary reception there, he settled in southern France and maintained a relationship with Jack Brady, a finance executive who – despite business concerns that kept him abroad for all but a few weeks of each year – would remain Prokosch’s closest companion for the rest of his life. In France, Prokosch experienced something of a resurrection of his literary talent (if not his career), putting out a few historical (and historically inventive) novels now critically viewed as among his best, including A Tale for Midnight, a fictional account of the Cenci family tragedy, and another, The Missolonghi Manuscript, detailing Byron’s final months. Prokosch then lapsed again into a frustrating and fruitless period during which he continued to write but failed to gain publisher interest in his work, which had taken a turn towards surrealist science fiction. In the 1970’s, Prokosch was implicated in an embarrassing and personally shattering forgery scandal, caught selling purported first editions of what have come to be known as his “butterfly books” – limited edition decorated pamphlets of his own and others’ poems, often with forged inscriptions and printed himself decades after the dates he ascribed to them.  A late burst of affirmative recognition would come upon publication of his critically and popularly received literary “memoir,” Voices (which turned out to be almost entirely fictitious) and with further respect from the European community, which bestowed upon him a number of high honors for lifetime literary achievement. Prokosch died at his home in Grasse, France in 1989 at age 83.

Central to Greenfield’s biography is his focus on the many ways in which Prokosch often served as his own worst enemy, maintaining throughout his life a narcissistic self-absorption that kept him at a remove from others as well as from the events of his time. He details Prokosch’s lifelong inclination towards self-promotion, exaggeration, manipulation and prevarication, which enraged many who crossed his path, including publishers, whom Prokosch played against one another to extract concessions and advances, and other writers, towards some of whom Prokosch ran, like a Scottish shower, unpredictably hot and cold. Greenfield does an impressive job of examining both the roots of this constant shadowy dance with the truth as well as its more innocent side, allowing us to see it as Prokosch himself may have seen it, a means of creating a kind of idyllic presentation of himself. This “packaging” is a motif that ran throughout his life, from the personalized slipcases he designed for his library of first editions, to the exquisitely prepared editions of poems that would later cause him such trouble, to his aggressive and often highly imaginative machinations in strategizing his career with publishers and others. Greenfield also handles Prokosch’s homosexuality with great sensitivity, offering revealing and sometimes surprising (and damning) glimpses of the subtle and not-so-subtle anti-gay bigotry displayed by several well-known writers and critics. In this, Dreamer’s Journey obliquely provides a fascinating and significant look at sexual attitudes in the mid-century American and European literary world. Greenfield only skirts the margins of this life Prokosch led “in the shadows,” although going any deeper would obviously have been a daunting task for any biographer, particularly one whose subject, in his seventh decade, said of himself:

I have spent my life alone, utterly alone, and no biography of me could ever more than scratch the surface. All the facts in Who’s Who, or whatever, are so utterly meaningless. My real life (if I ever dared to write it!) has transpired in darkness, secrecy, fleeting contacts and incommunicable delights, any number of strange picaresque escapades and even crimes, and I don’t think that any of my “friends” have even the faintest notion of what I’m really like of have any idea of what my life has really consisted of…With all the surface “respectability,” diplomatic and scholarly and illustrious social contacts, my real life has been subversive, anarchic, vicious, lonely, and capricious.

Greenfield uncovers and investigates in Dreamer’s Journey a remarkable wealth of sources, pulling out gems of biographical and historical detail. These include Prokosch’s lifelong interest in lepidotery; his remarkable ability to copy, convincingly, almost anyone’s handwriting, even while writing upside down and backwards; a welcome affirmation of something that in retrospect seems obvious in reading his early novels, that he’d spent much of his youth poring obsessively over maps; and his having finally made a voyage across Asia covering, in reverse, many of the places he described in The Asiatics (one of my sole disappointments in Greenfield’s biography is the brevity with which he treats this journey; should anyone be looking for a potentially stimulating subject for research, here’s one that’s ready-made). In addition, there’s a brief mention of a lengthy overland voyage in the late 1930’s from Vienna to Constantinople, which had me wondering whether Prokosch, while in Europe, might have somehow learned of the remarkable journey taken along this route slightly earlier by a young man named Patrick Leigh Fermor. Of particular interest are the synopses of the half dozen or so books that Prokosch could not get published, the manuscripts of which Greenfield unearthed in the archives at the University of Texas. His late unpublished novels flirt with magical realism, science fiction, and a sordid kind of horror (the wildly over-the-top plots of a couple of them, The Inn of the Wolf and The Mermaid, sound from Greenfield’s descriptions like something one might have concocted from an amalgam of And Then There Were None, The Exterminating Angel, and Salò).

Most fascinating to me about Greenfield’s book is its sidelong glance at Prokosch’s attempts to escape the existing parameters of American fiction and create an “international” literature, and at the differences between European and American literary cultures as viewed through their differing receptions to Prokosch’s work. Prokosch emerges as an especially intriguing figure, given his strong European roots, his returns to Europe throughout his life and his final choice to settle there, as well as the “internationalist” quality of his writing, which found him, as though craving escape from his immediate surroundings, repeatedly projecting his plots and characters into remote, forgotten corners of the globe. Prokosch’s own view of American literature as insular and shallow (a view that can still find a resonant echo, as in Nobel Prize committee secretary Horace Engdahl’s 2008 complaint that American writers fail to participate “in the big dialogue of literature”) led him farther and farther afield from American concerns (though he did briefly attempt to return to them in his late novel, America, My Wilderness). No doubt Prokosch’s nearly constant string of disappointments from American publishers, critics, and the reading public pushed him into an increasingly pronounced anti-Americanism, but this was an attitude formed early and only enhanced by these failures. Still, Prokosch’s best works are undeniably unique creations, and a more generous view of their “internationalism” might underscore a kind of valor in his effort to transcend literary smallness and provincialism (that he was admired by a writer with such strong social convictions as Sinclair Lewis is perhaps less surprising than it might at first appear). His best known work, The Asiatics, and the variations on it that followed, might well wither under the harsh light of some contemporary critical approaches (particularly, I’d imagine, from post-colonialists and others employing Edward Said’s notion of Orientalism, who would likely make quick hash out of something like Nine Days to Mukalla, with its potpourri of hookahs, snake charmers, bejeweled prostitutes, mad camels, fiercely barbed and turbaned nomads, and other stereotypical Arabian rangelanda). But Prokosch’s more successful work certainly deserves more recent critical attention than it has received. He remains a singular, intriguing, and underappreciated American writer.

In the end one comes to see Prokosch as an immensely complicated and rather tragically lonesome figure, whose works spanned a range of quality from the nearly unreadable to a few unparalleled masterpieces, and who was at one time far from the marginal literary figure he is today.  While restraining himself from advocacy, Greenfield, in Dreamer’s Journey, makes a convincing argument that Prokosch remains one of the most enigmatic and unusual of 20th century American authors, who left us at least a handful of brilliant books that deserve revisiting and perhaps some rehabilitation of a literary reputation that, until now, with the welcome corrective arrival of Greenfield’s superb biography, has been built on a glaringly incomplete picture.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Patrick Leigh Fermor: A Reader's Appreciation

One writer who certainly did not need 250 pages to answer the question “Why read?” was Patrick Leigh Fermor, who passed away this June at age 96 and who, with a mere sentence or exactingly crafted phrase, could provide any sentient reader a compelling, unequivocal answer. On a single page Fermor could encapsulate as much elegance, passion and life as most writers manage to fit into a lifetime of writing. And if ever there were a monument to affirm the value of education, erudition, intellectual curiosity, and rationalism, it is the body of work Fermor left us, including, one eagerly hopes, at least another book to come, given reports of a draft manuscript that may at last bring to a close the journey to Constantinople on which he set out by foot from the Hook of Holland in 1933 at age 17 and, in the written record of his adventure, had yet to reach. I came to news of Fermor’s death the same way I came to his works: late. And while I know him only through the several books of his that I’ve read, the debt I feel to those works and to the person who wrote them is beyond measure. They opened for me entire worlds, and stand as a testament to the profound possibilities that life – and the life of the mind - can offer. Over the past two months I’ve felt increasingly remiss about letting go the passing of a writer so important to me without making some gesture of acknowledgement and gratitude. I can almost certainly best accomplish this by directing anyone still with me to the Patrick Leigh Fermor blog, where Tom Sawford has done a tremendous job in drawing together a great number of memorials and reminiscences that testify to Fermor’s remarkable life. By way of a more personal commemoration, I thought I'd embark on another of Fermor’s books, and chose his Mani: Travels in the Southern Peloponnese for Fermor’s obvious love of the region.

I’d heard of Patrick Leigh Fermor for years, but only last year finally decided, on a whim, to pick up A Time of Gifts. Having fallen under its spell, I quickly moved on to its sequel, Between the Woods and the Water, and then to A Time to Keep Silence. I’ve saved a few of his books for later, confident of the rewards they’ll inevitably provide and hesitant to get through all of them too quickly; riches like these need to be relished and given the patience they seem to gently request. Fermor’s writing - vastly informed and capacious, poetically keen, lyrically rapturous, of an astonishing linguistic agility and versatility - surpasses genre. His works are not just travel, history or art history, anthropology or sociology, not even what today might fall under the opaque rubric of “cultural studies.” They possess a literary quality that’s almost novelistic, with careful structuring, compelling narrative propulsion, memorable characters and a sense of forward movement marked by growth and expansion. Their attention to rhythm, meter, sound and structure can be as concentrated as that of serious poetry. Searching out a copy of Mani for a friend after having finished it myself, I found Fermor’s travel works both in the travel section of the bookstore and, as though they had migrated there on their own power, filed under “Fiction.” The store had plastered a sticker on the back of the NYRB copy I purchased categorizing it as “Travel Essay” - but calling Mani a mere travel essay is a bit like calling the Winged Victory of Samothrace a mere slab of rock.

Fermor’s accounts plunge one into realms that to outside eyes probably would have appeared exotic enough when he traveled through them, but which now, through the alchemy of time, exist in large part only as fictions, as jewel-like glimpses of disappearing or now bygone people, places and experiences.  It strikes me as perfectly congruent that Fermor wrote the preface to the English translation of Miklós Bánffy’s great Transylvania trilogy, as he shares with Bánffy a curious temporal distance from his subjects. A Time for Gifts, the first volume of Fermor’s 1933-36 journey from the Netherlands to Constantinople, saw publication in 1977, more than 40 years after the journey itself, just as Bánffy’s strongly autobiographical work, covering the first few years of the 20th century, was not written until the 1930’s. This distancing in time adds to an unearthly earthiness in these books. The places and people they describe, as palpable as in the best literature, at the same time appear as though viewed through a glass – though certainly more lightly than darkly, particularly in Fermor’s sun-drenched Mani, where he explores the people, geography and history of this wild, remote, southernmost peninsula of the Greek mainland – the place he chose to make his home for much of the rest of his life.

I can think of few other writers who have been so successful in stealing so much from time.  In recording aspects of the world in the process of their dissolution and/or disappearance, Fermor somehow manages to pin and hold them in abeyance, much as cold matter physicists have been able to stop and hold light for nanoseconds (this acute attention to the moment is helpfully underscored by Fermor’s having lovingly given a descriptive heading to each page of Mani[i]. Beyond this powerful immediacy and vitality in his accounts, the rich history that he provides to bracket his personal experiences lends a an acute and pervasive awareness of time’s erasures, as in his preface to Mani, where he offers this partial justification for the book: “…between the butt of a Coca-cola bottle and the Iron Curtain, much that is precious and venerable, many living mementoes of Greece’s past are being hammered to powder. It seems worthwhile to observe and record some of these less famous aspects before the process is complete.”

Yet, not content to simply rail against the ravages of time, Fermor balances his disappointments with a sanguine and broad view of change. One senses in everything he writes a vital acknowledgment of the brevity of individual lives in the context of great movements of history, as well as an effusive delight in the intellectual challenge of tracing the tiniest of details back to their remote origins, in part to unsettle their sense of permanence, as, for example, in his gentle rebuke in Mani of those who would see the Greek language purged of its foreign influences, as it would dishonor history and “rob the rich spoken tongue of much of its stimulus and bite” (a point of view that might be stressed to language purists everywhere).  Fermor’s task, as he seemed to see it – “observing and reporting” – took the long view. I don’t know enough about his convictions to ascertain whether anyone might characterize this perspicacity and deep, respectful engagement as religious. His sojourns in monasteries detailed in A Time to Keep Silence suggest an attraction to the concept of spiritual retreat and development, but he seems to have spent this time in them largely out a desire to write in solitude, partly out of his unquenchable curiosity, and, at least in small part, as sober respite from his adventures. In any case, Fermor clearly felt towards the righteousness of the world’s religions much as he felt about linguistic purism, and repeatedly expressed a wistful appreciation of the old polytheistic worlds that were generous and receptive enough to welcome and incorporate other gods and beliefs, as opposed to a less morally accommodating monotheism he described in Between the Woods and the Water as being as inseparable from strife and conflict as “stripes from a tiger.”

One of the attractions to Fermor’s writing is his uncanny ability to create impressionistic passages, sentences and phrases stunning in their precision and bewitching in their beauty (not to mention – and I don’t think I’m being too unreasonably hyperbolic here - a capacity arguably unmatched by any English writer since Shakespeare of gleaning out of individual words unexpected facets and nuances of meaning). Even just the opening pages of Mani offer an abundance of such phrases, as in these few examples:

The sauntering loops of the Eurotas had shrunk now to a thread whose track was marked by oleanders opening cool green sheaves of spiked leaves and pretty flowers of white and pink paper over little more than the memory of water: a memory whose gleam, through the arid months to come, would keep their bright petals from languishing.

Wine-heavy sleep soon smoothed out these wrinkles of perplexity.

Felons on invisible treadmills, our labour continued through viewless infernos like the taste-shoots of lime-kilns…

A faint tinkle of bells from the abyss told that faraway goats were shaking off the mesmeric stupor of midday.

Fermor could also inject a remarkably subtle wit into his elegant sentences:

As the Taygetus range towers to eight thousand feet at the centre, subsiding to north and south in chasm after chasm, these distances as the crow flies can with equanimity be trebled and quadrupled and sometimes, when reckoning overland, multiplied tenfold.

Besides his precision of language, other aspects of Fermor’s erudition, so sharp and wide-ranging, inspire wonder at how he managed it all: his seemingly miraculous ability to keep centuries of historical family names at his fingertips; the comprehensiveness of his probing intelligence, equally adept, for example, at comparative studies of Byzantine ikons as at describing the glories of Mediterranean gastronomy; the dazzling ekphrasis, in one passage after another, of his appreciation of works and genres of art ranging over so many diverse styles and periods (I hope I don’t sound ungrateful in expressing a personal wish that such a prodigious mind and heart could have lived to explore still other corners of human experience; recently reading an amply fascinating account of late 19th and early 20th century archeological explorations of China’s Silk Road [ii], I nonetheless found myself wondering, with no small sense of loss, at what Fermor could have done with such provocative historical material). Yet at times, Fermor’s passion for the mind also carries him on fantastical elaborations almost exactly opposite to the dense, exactingly researched investigations of history, art history, and genealogy that mark so much of his writing, such as in the lengthy section of Mani that comes off as an extemporaneous, multi-page improvisation on the migrations of the world’s birds (birds often seem to invite Fermor to take off on wild flights of fancy; I can’t help but wonder whether his account of an old man in the village of Layia finding a quail tagged with “42, Rue Lenormant, Paris” is either an inside joke or pure invention, since I can find no reference to any such street ever existing in Paris).

At times his appreciation for an artwork, a person, a place or even some abstract element also inspires these free-form riffs, saturated with the sheer joy of literary invention and expression (every time I read him, I find myself compelled to copy down some such passage just for the pleasure of it):

The air in Greece is not merely a void between solids; the sea itself, the houses and rocks and trees, on which it presses like a jelly mould, are embedded in it; it is alive and positive and volatile and one is aware of its contact as if it could have pierced hearts scrawled on it with diamond rings or be grasped in handfuls, tapped for electricity, bottled, used for blasting, set fire to, sliced into sparkling cubes and rhomboids with a pair of shears, be timed with a stop watch, strung with pearls, plucked like a lute string or tolled like a bell, swum in, be set with rungs and climbed like a rope ladder or have saints assumed through it in flaming chariots; as though it could be harangued into faction, or eavesdropped, pounded down by pestle and mortar for cocaine, drunk from a ballet shoe, or spun, woven and worn on solemn feasts; or cut into discs for lenses, minted for currency or blown, with infinite care, into globes.

But the marvels of Fermor’s language aside, what makes his work so rich and affecting is the manifest, deeply genuine interest he conveys in not just the human experience, but also in human beings individually. His profound respect for and interest in others – be they rich nobles or poor fishermen, be the occasion a ceremonial dinner in a palace or the asking of directions from a young girl tending goats on a mountain path – comes across with a tremendous property of dignity, a recognition in each encounter of the mutual sharing of an unprecedented and never to return again moment of humanity amid the great sweep of history. All of Fermor’s meticulous intellectualism, his adventuring and his devotion to service, seem in him not points of pride, but rather an expression of a grand responsibility towards life itself, a firm, almost devotional stand against the indifference he viewed as “a sign of brutishness and a denial of human feeling.”  Though Fermor is no longer with us, his time of gifts appears nowhere near its end; like the miracle of the loaves and fishes, it promises to keep providing, offering the limitless pleasures and insights of reading a deep and generous mind, and reminding us that the effort to travel, to explore, to acquire knowledge of history, literature, languages, art, diplomacy and wit, and above all, of people, is not an end, but rather a means for participating more profoundly in, and sharing to the utmost with others, the marvels of the world in which we find ourselves.

[i] The NYRB edition of Mani preserves this pleasant feature; it’s a shame, though, that NYRB was unable also to preserve the wonderful black and white photographs taken by Joan Fermor that feature in the original edition of the book.
[ii] Foreign Devils on the Silk Road, by Peter Hopkirk