Saturday, December 20, 2008

The Pleasures of Reading, Viewing, and Listening in 2008, Part Eight: Mark Rich

Mark Rich:

A Few Readings, 2008

In some years — in the back of little black pocket notebooks — when I remember to — I write titles of books I have read. At end of year, these lists seem strangely short. I must spend my time reading invisible, untitled books. Some years, though, the press of life, garden, house, and writing is great enough that reading comes in snippets and fragments; and other years, what reading there is, is in magazines, not books.

Then years come such as this one when I seem to have jotted not a single title down — not, at least, in the back of my little black pocket notebook.

The reading this year grew out of control, under pressure of necessity. I had a year peppered, here and there, with dark flecks of books: and which titles they were, absent the back-of-notebook, notches-in-gun list, I may never really know. Strange, sometimes: the marvellous acquaintance you have with a book, when you turn the closing page. Equally strange, how memory of having had that knowledge vanishes. Many of the books this year were re-readings, in any case; and some were swift skimmings.

Sometimes, it seems, it matters not which books you have read, but which ones in your reading you have grouped together in a cluster — so that you can emerge with such useful insights as to learn, as I did this year, that in 1998 Martin Amis and A.N. Wilson each wrote a novel with a female character named Mike. Somehow, goes the irrational thought, that is a clue about the end of the 20th century. Between the handful of novels I read by those two writers, there were odd correspondences and echoes: tabloid newspaper writers and media moguls, pedophilia, whatever. Today, I would have to strain, to re-taste those nibbles of useless insight, as to what commonalities and inter-resonances there were. What remains is the opposition between the two writers: on the one hand, the harshness of Amis, with his affection for society's damaged goods and undestroyed egos; on the other, the endlessly developed character insights of Wilson. I liked Wilson better, found Amis easier and certainly quicker to read. I grew irritated with the latter's biting surface smartness and even more so with the former's tedious beginnings about this and about that and then about this again — even as I emerged thinking Wilson's Dream Children astonishing, an involving and damning work bringing to unexpected life the pedophile. How sad it is that Wilson lacks that sense of lightness which the late Muriel Spark possessed as if a childhood instinct: for Dream Children is, in essence, a comedy — a weeping comedy, a tragic farce. And in its fullness and intelligence and gradual entrapment of the reader it misses doing what Spark could do with the seeming snap of a finger — which is that very act of finger-snapping, that well-timed and sharp report, that skin-thocking instant itself.

I think suddenly, as I write this ... of going about our front and back yards, during this last autumn, and seeing the scattered, fallen leaves, and picking up some colorful ones and leaving others behind, and wishing I could hold onto the best moments of vision, and wishing I had more time for oil painting — that sort of thing. And now our yards are blankets of snow; and beneath that snow, here and there, are some of those leaves, still there. Or they are blown about, and not still there, so much, as there despite everything else.

Which is an image about books, I think. Here: a book I was working on most recently, for a review, is Gerald Stern's Save the Last Dance. A new collection. I was mostly if not entirely unaware of his poems, before reading this. Now I have this sense of an old, somewhat content-with-himself writer gliding back through life and dishing up an impressionistic melange. I am interested. Am I convinced? In some poems, clearly no: there is enough self-indulgence in the longest work in the book that I begin to distrust the others. Yet a few of those others are excellent, to-the-point works.

Or here: Armageddon in Retrospect. Kurt Vonnegut. If I ask myself the same question, the answer is — yes. I have not always enjoyed reading Vonnegut's every word but enjoyed reading this book. All here is good work. Some is gemlike. I think the story "Happy Birthday, 1951" is a marvel — a marvel in the way some Bradbury stories are marvels — in its simplicity, in its open, daylit, emotional nature. I had not thought of the writers together but now do. The story is a little fable; and it reads as heartbreak. Maybe it reads like truth. And it is, as is the book as a whole, about war and peace. The book has its repetitions — and in that way I suppose it recapitulates one of Vonnegut's weaknesses — at least one that I perceived without really having read enough of his novels to make so crude or rude a statement. Yet the repetitions are fine, here. I welcomed them. This is a fine book of the sort I suspect has been and will be largely ignored.

This year I was reading Vonnegut and Stern for a review annual that in other years has given me some interesting women writers to spend time thinking about and puzzling over: the carefully concise but lyric Elizabeth Bishop; the thorny experimentalist Susan Howe. No women this year. Which is just happenstance. I do usually read a bit from two now-highly-unfashionable women poets of that 19th to 20th period when women poets were actually read by the general public — they were good poets, is one reason why. Wilcox, and Millay. This year I think I have done so less than usual: but that is probably how I feel every year, about certain writers of bygone times, going into the winter: that I have neglected them. And then in the depths of the darker months I will be in a rocking chair — we have several (aging rockers that we are: the joke will not die) — and some of those slim old volumes just pop into my hands. I sometimes wonder if the charges of sentimentality leveled against certain poets, ones who did not feel themselves above taking an emotionally-informed outlook, arose because the Western literary digestive system had all kinds of acidic rubbings-off and irritating splinters from Dadaism and Futurism in its stomach linings. (This is not to say the Western literary digestive system had any say about the matter. It did not. It took in what it had to.)

Years ago I picked up a copy of Frank Kermode's The Sense of an Ending, and one evening not too long ago picked it up to look at, thinking it a study of the sense of closure, in fiction; and that was something I thought I might enjoy reading about. I cannot read all books of criticism, but I can usually read older books of criticism; and I could read this one. It turned out to be about the apocalyptic sense. Since title words are capitalized anyway, I had failed to realize the book was about Endings. That topic pleased me as well as the sense of closure would have. I read it with mixed admiration and incomprehension. Whether the seemingly obfuscatory passages will resolve into brilliant clarity, someday, I have no idea. At least they did not seem to be deliberately obfuscatory. I think Kermode was not so much uttering mumbledy-gumble as dealing with the difficulty of speaking directly about matters that are not always directly perceivable, or directly presentable. I could be wrong.

That bit of reading, at least, was not done because I had to. It was a lark, in a year of few larks. Much of the other reading has been larklike, all the same: I mean, reading and thinking about some poems, for a job? Even a poorly paying one? Happily. Several times I was reading books out of a sense, ridiculous as that sense is, that I should prepare a little for a panel appearance ... as I was doing early one morning during Denvention, this year's Worldcon, in a thickly cushioned chair outside the Con Suite, cup of tea beside me (the Con Suite was not yet open, but being ignorant of the fact I got my tea anyway) — immersing myself for a while in Kornbluth's lovely The Syndic. How is that for a vision of stupidity: taking time off from the bustling wonder of a Worldcon to blank out over an old, several-times-read novel? Yet it is a centering activity, if you are of the mind to do it, and if the book is one that still sends echoes down the long corridors. As it turns out, I may yet read that novel again before the year winds itself away. Not in Denver, though, and likely in a less luxuriant chair. Just the other day I was rereading — and this is purely larklike — C.S. Lewis saying something to the effect that he did not feel he knew a novel until he had read it, I think it was, three times. I am impressed enough with the strong and weak aspects of Dream Children, it occurs to me, that I hope not to read it again. This may mean I will never truly know it. Yet I have the same feeling about The Syndic, and other Kornbluth novels ... the same feeling, I mean to say, that I will never truly know them. In their case I keep having this yearning to reread. Similarly, for another instance, anything by Poe: and I had the pleasure, early this winter, of a careful reading of some seventy thousand words of Poe. As a part of this reading I was comparing texts and considering such elevated aspects as whether to keep certain commas in the text, or to allow a later version's judgment of a comma's deletion to stand ... and while I was glad to have that particular week over and done with, it had been willing labor. I have a new familiarity with certain matters, now. Especially within the genre that owes Poe a tremendous amount — that perhaps owes him its very life blood — Poe comes in for abundant easy dismissal. Well, let people dismiss. In its heart the world has not overcome its astonishment at the man's writings, which is as it should be. I would rather be one to still detect that heart-quiver than to think our 19th-century forebears just so many strewn-about literary corpses for the living to lord over. In many ways we are less alive than they were. Maybe even than they are.

Dibs and dabs from the year: I read a bit of Jack Williamson. No conclusions: I was rushed. It was for a Diversicon panel, in Minneapolis. Interesting, though, that he was one of the writers using science fiction to speak against racial intolerance. Aqueduct's second WisCon volume: fun. Reading it at bedtime, I found it not at all soporific — not that I hoped it would be. And somewhere back there, this year, were some Spark novels — her later ones. The grand old lady still could wield a pen. Wickedly? Maybe so, maybe so: Aiding and Abetting lingers in mind. There were a couple of Alasdair Gray novels in there, too. In some ways Gray is all over the page, and in some ways that reckless energy makes him worth reading. A History Maker is, if I may say so, subversive. Gray talks war and peace in that short novel, and positions himself well toward the feminist side — I am not really one to say if he achieves it, although I am inclined to think he relishes being over where he thinks it is ... and that is a side, as I recall, to which Vonnegut gave little consideration or weight. I want to ponder deeply upon whether they are antithetical activities — smoking in bed and feminist thinking — but will resist the impulse.

And Ursula Le Guin's Lavinia: what a pleasure, to listen to a voice so filled with thoughts from the past so well brought to the present. I read it during a squeezed day or two, in between other novels, and cannot say I know it very well. Yet the reading was distinctly what I said it was — a pleasure — and the book itself may well be a long-term treasure.

Mark has been publishing poetry since the 1970s and short fiction since the mid-1980s, in venues ranging from Analog to the Full Spectrum anthology series, to Electric Velocipede and Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet and has been collected in the Small Beer chapbook Foreigners, and Other Familiar Faces and in Lifting, from Wordcraft of Oregon. He reviews often for the New York Review of Science Fiction and has published four books about toys. He's a frequent attendee of WisCon.

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