So I’m hand-coding an EPUB file to salvage a badly-OCRed and not-much-better auto-converted PDF, because these are the things I do when I can’t sleep or write and I decide it’s better to do something constructive and thoughtful rather than brainless but I only have the firepower to, like, delete a whole bunch of excessive line breaks one after the other while I read the text.
The book is Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis, which you might or might not remember I wrote about a couple years ago in a Longshot essay called “Hero’s Welcome.” It’s a favorite of mine. I’m cleaning up the introduction, written by the great and now-late Palestinian scholar of comparative literature Edward Said. Then Said pulls this long quote from Auerbach’s book, taken from a little chapter on Schiller’s 1780s play Luise Millerin, a petit-bourgeois tragedy you’ve probably never heard of.
And b’gosh, for Auerbach, writing a book on the history of European literature, from exile in Istanbul, as World War 2 is crashing all around him, the quote is everything:
Basically, the way in which we view human life and society is the same whether we are concerned with things of the past or things of the present. A change in our manner of viewing history will of necessity soon be transferred to our manner of viewing current conditions. When people realize that epochs and societies are not to be judged in terms of a pattern concept of what is desirable absolutely speaking but rather in every case in terms of their own premises; when people reckon among such premises not only natural factors like climate and soil but also the intellectual and historical factors; when, in other words, they come to develop a sense of historical dynamics, of the incomparability of historical phenomena and of their constant inner mobility; when they come to appreciate the vital unity of individual epochs, so that each epoch appears as a whole whose character is reflected in each of its manifestations; when, finally, they accept the conviction that the meaning of events cannot be grasped in abstract and general forms of cognition and that the material needed to understand it must not be sought exclusively in the upper strata of society and in major political events but also in art, economy, material and intellectual culture, in the depths of the workaday world and its men and women, because it is only there that one can grasp what is unique, what is animated by inner forces, and what, in both a more concrete and a more profound sense, is universally valid: then it is to be expected that those insights will also be transferred to the present and that, in consequence, the present too will be seen as incomparable and unique, as animated by inner forces and in a constant state of development; in other words, as a piece of history whose everyday depths and total inner structure lay claim to our interest both in their origins and in the direction taken by their development (443–444).
Now this in turn reminds me of a lovingly-written and well-thought essay by Joshua Rothman on Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina appearing a week ago at The New Yorker’s website. This, too, digs into something similarly human and inspiring, both bounded and boundless:
Tolstoy, when he wrote the novel, was thinking about love in a different way [from a typical love story]: as a kind of fate, or curse, or judgment, and as a vector by which the universe distributes happiness and unhappiness, unfairly and apparently at random.
Those thoughts aren’t very romantic, but they are Tolstoyan. When he turned to “Anna Karenina,” Tolstoy didn’t simply leave behind the themes of “War and Peace.” Instead, he found a way of thinking about many of same issues that had always interested him—fate, chance, our powerlessness against circumstances and our determination to change them—in a different context.
For the titular Anna, love is a disaster. She runs smack into the limits of what is possible specific to her time and place. She struggles against them, but the universe is indifferent to her heroism. Her limits are just as real as the prohibitions laid down by the gods of Ancient Greece, but there’s no oracle to announce them, with or without room for irony. These gods roll dice; these gods leave seams. Rothman:
In “The Hedgehog and the Fox,” Isaiah Berlin writes that, for Tolstoy, wisdom consists in the ability “to grasp what human will and human reason can do, and what they cannot.” The only way to find those limits is to struggle against them, but gently, with the goal of finding and accepting them. You can’t think your way to the limits. You have to feel your way, learning through experience and suffering. And there is a risk in experimenting with what will and will not work in life, which is that it might not work. You might move to New York to pursue your dreams, and end up with no career to speak of. You might think you can wait to find the perfect spouse, but wait too long, and end up alone. You might think you can have that affair and still have the love of your spouse and children—but you may be mistaken about what’s possible, and lose everything.
Can you think your way through time and recognize yourself on the other side, not through a false sense of universal humanity but through the textures of lived experience? Can you encounter the dark miracle we have chosen to christen “literature”?
This column/essay/interview with avant-short-story-writer/French-masterwork-translator Lydia Davis, written by Emily Stokes for the Financial Times, just made me smile from start to finish. I’m really looking forward to her take on Madame Bovary. (Which would be the third French novel to complete the trilogy of cultural touchstones + undeniable awesomeness? I’m thinking maybe Stendhal’s The Red and the Black.)
I met Davis briefly at an event she did at Penn just after publishing her terrific translation of Proust’s Swann’s Way. It was a joint event at the Kelly Writers House with Edith Grossman, who was just about to publish her also-excellent translation of Don Quixote. (Note — I’ve read Proust in French, but not Cervantes in Spanish, so I can’t vouch for fidelity, just joie de lire.)
I felt badly for them, because the place was virtually empty. I don’t remember if it was on an odd night or the advertising got confused, but there were maybe a dozen people in the room. I wasn’t going to miss it, because I was working up this whole theory about the relationship between Proust, Don Quixote, and slapstick comedy that ended up becoming the coda to my dissertation. (Basically, read Bergson’s On Laughter, Walter Benjamin’s long essay on Proust, watch a whole lot of Buster Keaton, then think really hard about photography, and it will all make sense.) I was taking a seminar on Proust that semester, and only my professor and I showed up (and she hadn’t known about it until I told her). It was strange.
Also, Davis (as you’ll gather from the piece) is a little quirky, introspective, more comfortable in the text than in conversation. Grossman was garrulous, which doesn’t quite actually mean what I want it to mean: aggressively but charmingly outsized, yet totally at home with herself. Davis cares about the squeak of the pepper grinder; Grossman would care about the ravioli. I am Davis, but pretend to be Grossman. Harold Bloom wrote the introduction to Grossman’s translation, and there’s a little bit of Harold Bloom in Edith Grossman. She spoke to this intimate room like Jim Harrison eats food.
After the talk, Davis and Grossman both sold their books, in hardcover, for $20 each. Now, the Quixote, if I remember correctly, normally retailed at $40, Proust at $30. Also, Swann’s Way was already out in stores; Don Quixote hadn’t actually been officially made available yet. Plus, I had exactly $20 cash in my wallet. So, being a good economic rationalist, I bought Grossman’s book, which she signed and we talked about Don Quixote. It was great. Davis, meanwhile, floated on the edge of conversation, with a glass of wine I think, barely touched, watching everything, waiting for her host at the Writers House to take her out to dinner and then to a hotel.
I got to talk with her for a little while just before, during the Q-&-A, about Proust and comedy; she was insightful, and funny, in very much a Samuel Beckett way. And it’s a Beckett take on Proust she’s got, which is pretty much my take too, which is probably why I liked her translation so much once I finally got the chance to read it, which didn’t happen until Christmas 2007. I read most of it out loud to my son, who was about four months old then. In retrospect, it’s probably why he gets such a kick out of kissing his mom and me goodnight. But jeez — I really wish I’d had more cash that night.
This is a long way around of reading the essay at hand, where Davis parts with two different stories that I think taken together manage to say everything I want to say about reading and the encounter with media. The first is from an actual short story of Davis’s, at the end of this paragraph; I’ll keep the whole series to preserve the rhythm.
As Lorin Stein – previously Davis’s editor at Farrar, Straus and Giroux, now editor of the Paris Review – once noted, Davis’s narrators are “precise about feeling muddled”, occasionally so precise they can seem a little “unhinged”. In one story, for instance, a speaker writes a scientific report of 27 get-well letters sent by a class of fourth graders. In another, a woman struggles to find the correct tense with which to speak about a dying man. In another – which pops into my head as we sit down to eat (there is a Davis story for most occasions) – the narrator describes how, on reading a line of poetry while eating a carrot, she finds that she has not really read the poetry – or hasn’t really “consumed it, because I was already eating the carrot. The carrot was a line too.”
The second is from an anecdote, related by Stokes:
As we walk to the car, she tells me about a recent project, based on dreams and dream-like experiences, inspired in part, she says, by French surrealist Michel Leiris, whose work she has translated. A thunderstorm is brewing outside and Davis drives me to the train station. As we draw up outside it starts to pour but Davis hops out of the car to stand under an awning for a moment so she can show me two pictures from her wallet. The first is her home – a large redbrick schoolhouse covered in ivy with large windows. The second is a photograph of two cows – standing in the snow like black cut-outs on white paper, staring flatly at the camera. Something about the picture is irresistibly funny.
She sent the photo, she tells me, to her friend Rae Armantrout, a poet, who called her afterwards. “She asked me why I had sent her a picture of two pigs strung up on a spit,” says Davis – and then turns the picture upside down.
I can see what she means; the line of horizon does resemble a wire, and the cows do look a bit like pigs. “It was just one of those confusions,” she says, shrugging.
Then she bids me farewell, and drives away.