Category: Writing

Interviews and Obstacles, a text from Listenings, by Jason Weiss, published by Interlitq

Interviews and Obstacles

by Jason Weiss

For three and a half decades I have sometimes made a practice of interviewing people, mostly in the arts.  You might say I became a professional listener.  For newspapers and magazines, later for books, it was a mode of writing in which I felt comfortable, working with the voices of others.  Never made much money at it, but that wasn’t the point; nor did it end up turning into a full-time occupation, except at certain moments.  What qualified me for that line of work?  Nothing particular, just interest.  And because I said I could.  Besides, when I got to Paris and realized there were a few people I would like to have occasion to meet, I wondered why in the world should they care to meet another young writer.  So, I decided that writing about them might be a fair trade—assuming they wanted to bother.  Generally, that worked just fine and somehow I always came prepared.  But it was a special kind of listening:  the questions I sketched out were like a ghost script, and I had to be ready to let go of them at any turn.

Often my questions were too wordy on the page.  They just had to serve as points of departure, since from there I would follow up according to what my respondent said.  That might then trigger a question I had a page or two further in my notes.  So, whatever I thought I wanted to cover in our conversation might indeed get addressed, but in a different order than what I imagined and coming from a direction I didn’t anticipate.  I had to listen to where the conversation was going to help it find its most natural order.  If I could manage such dexterity of mind.  A sort of listening ahead and behind of the listening.

Be that as it may, I also had to read the person or personality for a sense of obstacles, willingly posed or not.  My very first interview, with Ferlinghetti in Paris in June 1980—to me at 24, he just seemed old and tired.  Not because he was 61, about my age now, but because he knew I wanted to talk to him about poetry and jazz experiments from the late ’50s in San Francisco—this was for Jazz Magazine—and he kept dodging me.  “How do you expect me to remember all that?  It was 25 years ago!”  A bit less, actually.  I understood that was old stuff for him and maybe he didn’t remember so well, or wasn’t interested and wanted to talk about something new.  He had insisted from the start that the only honest transcription of an interview was with all the pauses and hesitations intact, and I agreed without hesitation.  Only gradually over the following years did I understand that in fact I don’t agree, because I saw how difficult such texts were to read.  That principle turned out to be an illusion, in my view.  When we hear or listen to an interview, we are not hearing the pauses or hesitations, for the most part.  Rather, we are listening through those moments, that biding of time, we are ignoring those expressive snags in an effort to maintain the coherence of the statement.  As listeners, in effect, our understanding edits out those pauses and self-corrections, except to the degree perhaps that they contribute to an overall impression of a style or rhythm.

But this notion of listening through a kind of obstacle or static applies in other settings.  A year later, I interviewed the great Roger Blin, the original director of Beckett and Genet in French, amid the mess of his apartment.  In what I took to be genuine humility, he asked me first why I wanted to interview him.  Beyond that, though, I was faced with a much tougher display of resistance, or self-resistance:  he had a terrible stutter.  He was perfectly willing to talk about it, how that led him to acting and the kinds of roles he got.  I had never met anyone who had it so bad, but I quickly learned to let him set the pace; just let him speak however he does and not jump in to move things along.  And I suppose by the end of my visit I didn’t much notice it.

Another early instance of this lesson in listening:  a dozen days before I saw Blin (17 April 1981), I went out to Montfort l’Amaury (changing trains at Chartres) to meet Céleste Albaret.  Known to the world as Proust’s “dear Céleste,” she was 90 by then and some years prior had had a stroke.  I’m not sure at what point during my visit I learned of the stroke; it may have been only at the end, after Céleste carefully signed my book as I requested, that her daughter told me when I was leaving.  But certainly I did not know how to talk to a 90-year-old, let alone how to listen to her.  That seemed ancient to me, and I could see she was slowed down.  I knew she was going to have to be very patient with me, as I with her.  Besides, I had really learned French just in the past year, so my ear would also be tested.  With her frail voice Céleste spoke eagerly and answered my questions, happily recalling sixty or seventy years into the past like it was no problem.  It helped that her daughter was there, to fill in the story and add perspective.  And it also gave Céleste a chance to listen as well.

 

 

About Jason Weiss

Jason Weiss is an American writer: born and raised at the Jersey shore, schooled in Berkeley, spent a decade in Paris, and living in Brooklyn for the past 30 years, working as a writer, editor, and translator. His first book was Writing at Risk: Interviews in Paris with Uncommon Writers (Iowa, 1991; including Jabès, Cioran, Sarraute, Kundera, Ionesco, Cortázar, etc), followed by four other books on literature and music, published mostly by university presses; that first book was published in a Farsi translation in 2018 in Tehran. More recently, he published Cloud Therapy (Talisman House, 2015), a small literary nonfiction book of short texts on swimming, and Silvina Ocampo (New York Review Books, 2015), his translation of selected poems by the Argentine writer. Ten other texts from Listenings have been published bilingually in the French online journal Le Ventre et l’Oreille.

Letters for a New World, an essay by Patricia MacInnes-Johnson


Patricia MacInnes-Johnson

                                                           

Letters for a New World

“Mither, mither, I want to pish in the strone,” he said in Scots slang, looking into the Atlantic as the steamer sailed from Scotland to Philadelphia in 1872.  My grandfather, about age two or three, was telling his mother he wanted to piss in the stream.

“So you can judge how much of an impression the great Atlantic made upon the small Scotch lad.”  I read this from letters my grandfather wrote to his son, my uncle, always referring to himself in the third person — he or lad.  In life, he also went by Mac. The letters covered 1934 to ’37, the last three years of Mac’s life, about two decades before I was born.

Four generations, rather than two, might have separated us, but my father was born later in Mac’s life and was 41 when I was born. The reach of fathers now spans more than 150 years through the telescoped generations.

Mac’s family were weavers in Paisley, one of the poorest towns in Scotland. Using handlooms, they wove shawls in the paisley teardrop pattern using wool dyed in colors such as seaflower bled, pearl ash, Congo orange.  The weavers had their own poets and were considered the most well-read among Scottish workers. Laboring tedious hours, they listened to books read aloud and kept canaries to entertain them.  The town was known for its paradoxes, puritanical extremes and yet its political radicalism and drunken squalor. Or maybe the religious fanaticism roused those fierce contradictions.

When the shawls were no longer fashionable, Paisley weavers struggled for work until Philadelphia factories recruited the craftsmen to make carpets and rugs in the States.  My great grandfather left to work as a weaver in a Philadelphia mill and brought his family over later — a wife, Mac, a frail girl of five, and a baby boy.

The whole ship vibrated from a loud propeller in the crossing to “the New World,” as my grandfather called the U.S. The dank-smelling steerage was an open area with tables and bunks secured to hold steady through the roiling North Atlantic.  Many passengers were too sick to move for most of the voyage but left steerage for the deck when they could. Mac might have played there with a weaver’s broken loom shuttle, twirling it like a top.

In Philadelphia, the sound of horse-driven streetcars and wagons rattling over cobblestone streets could be heard for blocks.  Men with buckets of water sponged off horses collapsing from heat in summer.

Mac’s Scottish burr was so strong he wasn’t understood.  “Mam, mam, a laddie threw cly in your bine,” he tried to tell a neighbor about a boy muddying her washtub.

When Mac was older, he helped at a horse stable and had a finger crushed in the cogs of a hay cutter. He turned a streetcar track switch for a conductor who paid him a few cents, money he spent on chewing tobacco. At the shipyards, he tried to join a ship’s crew to leave home but was too young.

In his letters, Mac began to reveal more about his father and the harsh childhood that would follow him for life.

A stern Presbyterian in religion and a strict disciplinarian, he inspired fear rather than affection in his children . . . If I were chastised for something I did not do or was not guilty of, no amount of whipping could make me even whimper. It only intensified my hatred of my father. I believe I never feared him. I never loved him. I never feared him. I believed I really hated him . . .  I can now see that he was but following out what had been “bred in the bone,” that the wife and children were not equals but only subjects to himself.

My grandfather’s earliest memory was about inadvertently bringing a hatchet down on his brother’s fingers as Mac dug a hole in their yard, impatient for his brother to move quicker. Mac crawls under a bed to hide from his father, who grabs his leg and lays on a razor strap.

The picture of the hole, the dangling fingers with blood running from them, the bed, and the frightened boy, and the hand that seized the leg and the strap that came down with a stinging sensation are all vivid after more than fifty years, a half a century. For memory not only recalls an experience but says, “I passed through that experience.” Such a record is part of one’s very life and helped to make . . . individuality or personality. 

One of Mac’s favorite memories was going to a circus with an undercurrent of fear that he’d be punished for it.

Now the city had been decorated with billboard pictures of the Great Railroad Circus . . .   — fierce lions in cages. Monkeys. Leopards . . .  And above all, the clowns . . .  But the idea of ever seeing a circus was beyond me. First your grandfather was a Presbyterian of the old school. Theatres, circuses, cards, dancing were all roads to perdition and strictly forbidden. Besides, I had no money.

A friend told Mac not to worry about getting a licking and paid their way into the circus with coins he’d stolen.

We visited all the side shows. . . . Drank pink lemonade, ate quarts of peanuts. Saw the bearded lady and tattooed man . . .  Elephants. Camels. Beautiful women riding wonderful horses . . . We sat with mouths open . . .  It was 3:30 in the afternoon when we started for home. Then the realization of what was coming dawned upon me.

His schoolteacher had sent a boy to his house to inquire where he was, and Mac’s mother was worried he’d drowned in the river.

I told her of the wonderful day I had at the circus and all about it, with ardent promises of reform. The wood was split, the coal brought up from the cellar . . .  Promises were made of the most righteous kind if only she would not tell. Finally your grandfather came from work. I waited in breathless suspense. The story was not told. Your grandmother had an understanding heart, and she would not spoil a perfect day. So no licking came.

Mac would ditch school, “bag it,” whenever he could and head for the Schuylkill River for a swim or to slide and skate on the ice in winter.

We had a good time and everything was forgotten till it came time to go home, then life was not so rosyI knew what was in store for me . . .  A hand was run through my hair and if the roots were wet, I got what was coming to me . . .  But I tried to comfort myself with the thought, Well, I have had plenty of fun. Why dread the strap? . . .  For what is five minutes of licking to five hours of fun?

At last your grandfather saw that force from without could not change the force from within. . . . So he said to your grandmother, ‘Since he will not go to school he must go to work.’ The three R’s were supposed to be enough education for the average boy. He was then ready for work in the mills. . . . He said he could keep his eye upon me but I fooled him in many ways. I was always quick to pick up a thing and fast in doing it. So I would wind up a lot of bobbins and sneak out for the day, often getting a whaling when I got home. By 16, Mac was skilled at weaving staircase carpets.

They were narrow so I could easily reach from one side of the loom to the other, and I became proficient. . . . In fact, I could bring home a bigger paycheck than my dad. I got cockey [sic]. A very unwise attitude . . .  If we should disagree, there was only one solution and that was the strap or blows . . .  Here were two antagonistic spirits, one that dictates what you must do and one that seeks to express itself in its own way . . .  It is the right of the individual to direct his own life and not have it directed by an outside force.

I came home one evening when your grandfather had been imbibing too liberally in scotch. In that condition, he was usually belligerent. He first picked on me, and when your grandmother intervened, he struck her. Well, that was too much for me. With a high hander, I laid him out. Fearing the consequences, I left the house. Near where we lived was the Lancaster Pike, a road that led from Philadelphia.   

At a railroad construction site, Mac hid in a dirt-filled cart that was hauled away by horses.  Maybe he was cold as he bargained with the severe God of his upbringing, worrying  about his mother and brother left behind. He thought of his sister, who had died a few years earlier from illness, now watching the family with exasperation or maybe repose.         

Mac ended up by a wheat farm in another county. He was hired on to work in the fields, paid in room and board. Later he took a job as a driver working on the railroad.

I was able to get a few dollars ahead and at the end of the season I was determined to get back to Philadelphia and look up my people. But I found that they had moved from Philadelphia to Canada.

After my grandfather’s death, my grandmother found a remaining letter to my uncle that Mac may not have sent.

Well, I went to work at my old trade of weaving. And at that time I began to have a desire for a better education. I worked during the day and went to night school. As you recall, up to my 8th year I hated school and every chance I had would play truant. I did not even pass the primary department.

Of course when I went to night school I had much to learn  . . .  But I was quick to learn and in earnest to get ahead. I worked that way for two years, saved my money, and decided to go to Canada where the folks were.

I had not seen my people for four years. I recall the greeting I received. My mother gathered me into her arms, held me tight, and tears rolled down her face. Dad and I just shook hands.

Mac worked again in a rug factory with his father but left after his mother passed suddenly, and his brother died from an accident a little later.

Finally I decided to give up the work and go to school. That was the beginning of my real education.

Years later I’d learn about the schools my grandfather attended and moves he made around the country.  Bucknell Academy and then a BA in Literature in 1894 from Amherst, at the time a school for “indigent young men of piety and talents for the Christian ministry.”

Mac worked as a coach and an English literature instructor at Stetson University in Florida.  He then attended the Divinity School at the University of Chicago and took classes toward another degree in English. Later he became an assistant pastor in California and a pastor in Chicago.

In 1900, he enrolled in Yale Divinity School and Yale Graduate School, receiving a master’s in philosophy in 1901.  My grandfather tutored wealthy students to help pay his way through Yale.  A photo shows him and another student in suits and ties, peering into weighty tomes in a Victorian study.  Mac is handsome with sandy hair, a moustache, and glasses.

At Yale he tattooed a cross on his arm.  Maybe it was religious passion or possibly self-punishment.  He might have been at a desk, jabbing a sewing needle and fountain pen ink under his skin for the painful creation.

My grandfather became a pastor in Connecticut and then moved west to Washington state in 1903.  From the moves, it would seem he was restless, conflicted, maybe pressured by inner dictates to pursue ministry, but his interest was in literature and philosophy.

Mac had already turned away from the Presbyterian Church and ministering, maybe struggling with a God who melded into his harsh father.  Perhaps he could no longer advise others how to live, or maybe ministry was what his father wanted for him and he rebelled, the conflict on his arms, one with and one without the cross.

In 1910, Mac came to White Salmon, Washington, to campaign for Teddy Roosevelt. Arriving after dark, too late for the ferry, he took a rowboat across the Columbia River, according to the local newspaper, and reached the town hall in time to boost for Roosevelt.

Mac stayed on, sold real estate, and helped develop an orchard company, using a root graft method.  He became the town’s mayor and part of the effort to build a highway to the Portland area through the Columbia River Gorge.

Mac first saw Viola in White Salmon where she was on vacation.  The sky is grey and about to rain. Mac makes an inquiry at her hotel. A school teacher in her early 30s, intelligent, friendly. Her long brown hair is swept up in a twist on her head. Viola, my grandmother, rode in the Oklahoma Cherokee Strip Land Run when she was a teenager. If she hadn’t been cheated out of her land claim by relatives, maybe she wouldn’t have ended up here at this time and place.

She notices he’s missing a button on his jacket, and there are worn spots in the weave that require mending. He’s a man who needs a woman but may not know it yet.

They married and moved into a two-story house with a view of the Columbia River. But in 1916, the house burned down. My grandmother watched the smoke from across the river at a hospital where my uncle was born.

My grandparents didn’t have fire insurance, and most of what was saved from the fire was stolen later. I have a teacup that survived the fire, the glaze bubbled over the Asian holy figures on it, their halos flamed from the intensity of the heat.

I believe the fire did something to my grandfather. Disappointment, despair at trying to get ahead and being thrown back into lack.  Maybe he believed the fire meant a force taking away good, a damnation for leaving the ministry and his religion.

They moved to Portland where he tried this and that to make a fortune, believing in the promise of America. Mac proudly displayed the flag on holidays, even though it was outdated with only 46 stars and embarrassed his sons.

There were inventions that didn’t pay off, a Mason jar opener and a cleaning solution for chimneys. He tried selling ultra-violet light machines that were supposed to improve health. When cigarettes and soda were selling in vending machines,  Mac decided to try apples. He  hocked my grandmother’s wedding ring, according to a story, and traveled to California to start a business, but the plan didn’t work out.

My grandfather had realized part of the American Dream, fleeing from the mills to a higher education, but the Depression, hard luck, ill health, and maybe self-sabotage thwarted his plans. He spent his time reading and took jobs cleaning furnaces.

I think of Mac’s health problems — a chronic ulcer and nephritis — as the manifestation of anger and punishment he could never stop.  His father still at him from the inside, maybe yelling that whatever he does isn’t enough, not even getting an education.  What good was it now anyway?

Maybe it was logical that Mac insisted my father go to a vocational high school instead of one that focused on academics. Mac followed what his own father had done, trying to push his son into a trade, not encouraging him “to direct his own life,” as Mac had wanted for himself. Even in his last years, my father was still bitter toward his father for trying to control him just as Mac had felt.

But Mac had shifted in some other ways — in his religious and philosophical views. In the end he believed in Christian Science and the power of a positive mind.

“Christian Science was just because he was too cheap to pay for medical care,” my father once said. But maybe Mac’s new faith signaled something else, another way of seeing divinity as loving and good, not separate from the world and shaming it.

At the end of his life, Mac was weak from a heart condition, pneumonia, and the effects of chronic alcoholism. He was in pain, bedridden in a hospital, maybe looking out a window at the rain, an apple tree with petals blown loose and sticking on the greying glass.  He might have been thinking about what he’d done in his life and still wanted to do.  There had to be more time.  Which God was with him, punishing or healing?  He was a boy again, fearless, without pain, gliding over the bright ice of the Schuylkill River.

 

 

In 2005, my husband, Henry, and I made a trip to White Salmon. I saw why my grandparents loved this place with its view of  Mount Hood and the Columbia River Gorge.  I got up at dawn to find what I could of my grandparents, trying to locate the foundations from their burned home.  I looked in the window of an abandoned, dilapidated house from their era.  They might have visited friends there, laughing, singing parlor songs as I’d seen in a photo, someone playing “Pineapple Rag” on a piano.

Henry and I located the orchards my grandfather had helped establish and manage. On the ground was a seedless pear, a sign of the grafting method the company had started a hundred years earlier.  At home I planted the whole pear anyway, as if it would magically sprout.

I bought flowers in White Salmon and took them back to the Portland columbarium where my grandparents’ urns were interred in the walls of a locked room on the bottom floor.

As the dead took up residence, the building was expanded.  No one goes to the Daisy Room anymore; most people who would remember the dead there are also dead.

A few days earlier, I had located my grandmother’s urn but not my grandfather’s.  The place was about to close. A workman tried to help by unscrewing the glass panel that covered what looked like an outdated card catalog drawer in a library. He pulled out the long metal box that held my grandmother’s cremains and looked in the niche for my grandfather’s urn, dropping the screw and then searching for it on the floor.  I was startled at first and then wondered if the dead would be amused at human small blunders no longer relevant in their solemn archives.

When we returned from White Salmon to the mausoleum a few days later, I found my grandfather’s urn in a wall adjoining  my grandmother’s. Among the papers my grandmother had left when she died was an aged card with a number, possibly a room number. Maybe it was from the hotel where they first met or their honeymoon.  I couldn’t find it for a while. They hadn’t wanted to give it up, keeping the number to themselves. What had the card been to them, a reminder of romance, intimacy? Passion so alien now to the ashes contained in separate walls.

 

 

Mac wrote that the history of one’s people is “handed down from parents and children,” that “all history begins with traditions.”

Traditions, the transmitted beliefs and customs, the precedents that become future influences — like genetics and generational behaviors. From Mac’s letters, I saw the distillation of both passed down. Possessed by his father and fathers before him, Mac followed in their traditions, alcoholism and the harsh physical punishment of children so common in the past.

As my grandfather had, my father resented his father for the whippings, the expectations he didn’t fulfill, for missed opportunities, for never feeling he was good enough. My father vowed never to physically punish his children but was lost in alcoholism and dark emotional ills.

Too many of those traditions carried over in my family, the chain of human errors, as well as a railing against the reach of fathers.  My brother Bill became a behavioral geneticist involved in researching the physiology of alcoholism, an unforgiving genetic disorder stringing DNA through generations. He committed suicide a day before my father’s sixtieth birthday.

In my immediate family, there are no traditions to pass on. There are no descendants.  But when there is a next generation, it’s like traveling to a New World with the highest of hopes.

The voyage was supposed to make Mac’s sister stronger, but she’d die in 11 years. In Philadelphia, the father is waiting.  Mac will be a boy mesmerized by a circus or hiding under the bed from his father, not realizing that his father was once a boy hiding from his own father’s grasp. Mac won’t know that years later he will be the father, doing what he swears he’ll never do.  If he could, he might see the pattern, his father and his sad son as one. Mac might hold them both and tell his boy that he was only doing what he knew, but he knew something else now.

Crossing the strone will bring the new and unexpected. Spectacular as the phosphorescent waves that splashed up on the ship deck at night, illuminating the immigrants’ worn shoes as they laughed and held on in the pitching ship.  Someone yelled to step into the waves, that the sea foam was lace and pearls at their feet, a sign from the New World of all the good ahead.

 

About Patricia MacInnes-Johnson

Patricia MacInnes-Johnson is the author of The Last Night on Bikini (William Morrow and Company, Inc.; published under Patricia MacInnes), a collection of short stories about the nuclear testing in the Marshall Islands during the 1940s and ‘50s. She has been a Wallace Stegner Fellow and a Provincetown Fine Arts Work Center Fellow. In addition to receiving grants from the California Arts Council and the Ludwig Vogelstein Foundation, MacInnes-Johnson has been the recipient of the Nelson Algren Award for Short Fiction. Her stories have appeared in Chicago magazine and the anthology The New Generation, among other publications.

 

                                                 

 

Interlitq’s Californian Poets Interview Series: Bart Edelman, poet and editor, interviewed by David Garyan


Bart Edelman

Interlitq’s Californian Poets Interview Series:

Bart Edelman, poet and editor

interviewed by David Garyan

 

Click here to read Bart Edelman’s contribution to Interlitq’s California Poets Feature

 

DG: Readers well-acquainted with your work wouldn’t say that you’re a particularly political poet—not that one needs be—but your poem, “U.S.A.,” published in the 2001 collection, The Gentle Man, is a wonderful example of what really represents the best of this genre, if we may call it that. You capture the committed indecisiveness of a country that’s both powerful and at the same time unsure of itself, mainly because of its polarizing tendencies—these are quite memorable lines: “Here, in a united America, / We slip into perfect position, / Depending on the issue at hand. / We turn left to center / And center to right— / Sometimes, in the same night, / And strike only when danger / Rears its scaly little head.” It seems that twenty years later this work has aged perfectly, which reflects well on our craft, but the ability of such poems to really influence matters on the political level seems to be highly contended—poets writing in this genre believe in its effectiveness while those eschewing it seem to perceive nothing but futility. What’s your take on the issue and would you prefer to see more or less political poems today?

BE: Thanks for referencing my poem, “U.S.A.,” from The Gentle Man.  Seems hard to believe, but, yes, you’re correct.  It’s been twenty years since its publication.  And, sadly, in a way, it’s as potently relevant today, as it was back then.  I don’t know if it “represents the best of the genre,” as you kindly relate in your question, but it was my attempt to come to grips with this ambivalent, yet deceptive country of ours, and its rather fragmented, splintered population, hell-bent on hypocrisy, at every level, both public and private.

The poem begins with America, generally speaking, forwards to a somewhat united America, and ends with the “United Snakes of America,” slinking and slithering until it’s got nowhere to go but sleep.  God forbid it wake and show any more of its true nature.  The connection with modern day politics, of course, is the egregious sense of polarity, as you state, above.  Just think of Trumpism, itself—what it entails—and the division it continues to sow at this very moment.  How foolish to believe it’s a one-and-done political syndrome.  Politics aside, it crawls into its own morbid place on the historical and psychological scale of doom.

Another poem, on the political spectrum, “Little Daddy’s Thanksgiving,” from The Last Mojito, explores the Bush dynasty, and its consequences on foreign policy, including the futile attempts at “Restoring their good names / In these inhospitable times.” Little Daddy is a “lovesick missile,” whose target is anyone’s guess.  And where he eventually lands or strikes confounds the troops he sends into battle.

Concerning how poets can truly influence their audience is a highly charged discussion.  There are many avenues writers travel to deliver their messages.  And you’re correct, in my case; I write few poems that appear outwardly political in nature.  Yet, there’s always a political context of sorts at work below the surface, whether it be through personal relationships, business endeavors, or how the government operates on a day-to-day basis. To that same degree, any poet must ask how individuals legislate the soul.  What does it mean to operate in a society of human beings who need to find their place in the world?

As to my desire for more poems of a political bent, it’s a bit of a trick question.  Sure, the more provocative poems, the better, especially if they’re effective in their scope and not a means of mere protest, for its own sake.  However, this genre answers to both the voice of the poet and the readers who comprise the audience.  Yeats might eloquently add, “How can we know the dancer from the dance?”

 

DG: Speaking of genres in poetry, there seems to be a balkanization in the field, usually among aesthetic lines; there are experimental poets in one camp, lyric poets in another; there are those who write nothing but light verse, while others tackle mostly “serious” themes. Poets like Edgar Allan Poe, for example—capable of elegies, ballads, lyric works, long and short poetry alike, seem to be a rarity in our times.  The catalog of your own work, I’m happy to say, does reflects a broad range of styles. You’ve done prose poems like “Towards Sleep,” a very introspective, poignant work, which will appear in your forthcoming collection, Whistling to Trick the Wind; you’ve tackled political themes, relationships (both in serious and humorous ways); more importantly, you’ve been comfortable with both emotion and sensitivity, but also boldness and daring. It would be intriguing, thus, to hear your thoughts on how a unique voice can be developed. Is it a matter of reading a lot, extensive travel, or simply talent? Do you believe the latter exists, and if it does, where does the teaching of writing fit into that?

BE: Hmmm ….  Yes, I guess, there is this fragmentation in the field, as you state it.  Certainly not my style to make it any more divided than need be.  It’s a large house, thank goodness.  A plethora of rooms.  You choose where you’d like to live.  Or move around to your own content.  Everyone has to dwell somewhere, it seems.  But you’re right.  It’s just too damn convenient to pigeonhole poets, place them in a box, and watch them struggle to escape.  It’s the squirming that takes its toll.  Then, again, maybe the very fight to gain individuality aids in the poet’s progress, step by step, day by day.  Who’s to say what it is that often sparks creativity in any number of curious ways.  There’s a noble effort involved in the plight that leads to occupying your own address on a street you call home.  And should you, as a writer, spend too much time questioning your own space and listening to others dictate where you belong— aesthetically or not—you’re, essentially, closer to extinction than you may think.

I’m glad you believe my work “does reflect a broad range of styles.”  I’m not cognizant of following a definitive path or making the effort to mix it up, now and then.  You mention “Towards Sleep,” from the new collection, Whistling to Trick the Wind.  Honestly though, I’m still not clear on how it became a prose poem because I’ve written so few of them.  It seems to have developed first from a traditional stanzaic poem, to a short story, and, finally, to a more compressed work that emerged and felt as if it fit the space where it settled and rested.  Solomon Schwartz appears happy, contented, and at home in his own genre, so to speak.  The subject of the prose poem did his best to awaken me before he ambled off towards sleep.  As for “emotion and sensitivity,” and “boldness and daring,” it’s good to know you’ve discovered these qualities in my work, but, again, I may be the last person to provide a guide to how they occur or why.

Unique voices, I presume, are a product of a poet’s or narrator’s honest and provocative view, regarding the choice and frame of reference.  And the language employed to create the soft and credible bridge between speaker and audience is often challenging, compelling, and at the heart of our craft.  What you cite as possible examples of a poet’s development, “reading a lot,” “extensive travel,” “or “simply talent,” warrant more examination than I am capable of here; however, they’re all extremely important, even if a writer can’t bag them all, in that order.  Surely, talent, itself, exists for many aspiring poets.  Yet a fairly good and dedicated compass, of sorts, can augur well for what success a poet achieves and how that success may be measured.

The teaching of writing is, indeed, a rather controversial subject.  Suffice it to say a poet’s progress can be hastened, the craft fine-tuned, the object of publication, directed and encouraged by an academic mentor, in many cases.  But how far that eventually takes the student is a humble, personal matter that defies a universal response.

In my own case, let it be known, I enjoyed teaching graduate students in an MFA poetry program who, I learned, benefitted from our union.  Oddly enough, though, the only creative writing class I ever attended was in high school, tenth grade, to be exact, with the reverential William Moore.  I include this example only to illustrate the different paths writers travel in their unique, literary journey.

 

DG: It seems to me that much of contemporary poetry lacks passion and intensity—the courage to deal with any given subject matter head-on, which is why it often chooses to obfuscate under the guise of experimentation; if poets fail in this respect, they can get away scot-free because should their “experiment” be misunderstood, they can simply blame the reader—or fall back on the notion that experiments aren’t always meant to work, and, of course, they aren’t; indeed, simply trying them is courageous. However, there are other ways to experiment besides just trying to be difficult; and, naturally, openness, honesty, and vulnerability also require ample amounts of courage—perhaps more than simply trying something “new.” Having said that, how do you find the poetry scene today? Do you mostly enjoy what’s being published or do you look elsewhere for inspiration?

BE: You’ve lobbed a loaded question at me, indeed.  Defining and evaluating passion and intensity approach a slope I’m not prepared to climb, for safety’s sake alone, with or without the necessary hiking boots. But your point remains valid, as it relates to experimentation in current poetry and the many forms it takes, both on an academic level and far outside formal education.  I doubt anyone would quibble with the exploration of genres, technique, structure, and, even, typography, for that matter, yet if the experimentation merely becomes an exercise in variety, for that sake alone, than the serious nature of poetry’s message may well be lost.  Now should the experiment allow a poet to employ a new technique or form to add another layer of, brace yourself, complexity, to its ability to engage the reader and provoke an authentic response, then it’s high time for celebration.  Bring on Kool and the Gang!

As far as “openness, honesty, and vulnerability” are concerned, we can settle that question simply, if need be.  And “courage,” as you suggest, joins the discussion, relating to what makes a poem “work,” on its most elemental level.  I would propose, first and foremost, that a keen sense of voice is always necessary to create the basis of what allows poetry to grab us by mouth, throat, or foot, especially on an initial reading.  Without the intimate, credible connection with the speaker of choice, who waves that magic wand and begs us to enter into a world we dare not exit, we have no chance to take the journey, capable of preparing us for life, its teachings, and what it means to have a soul we are fortunate to share with other kindred spirits, through verse.

The poetry scene today is a thriving, contemporary collection of writers who are unafraid of confronting the political, social, and moral upheavals swirling around us on a non-stop schedule.  Not that this moment in time dictates a far more vocal and literary response than other decades, but the advent of media, in all its blaring forms, hurls us deeper into a vortex of communication, demanding greater responses from writers, so capable and ready to impart their own stamp of approval, disapproval, or, even, quasi-apathetic angst.

Finally, you ask about “inspiration,” and if I find it in what’s published these days.  Yes.  There is so much fine poetry published in print and on-line journals.  I wish I had the time to read even more than I do, currently.  When I edited Eclipse, a literary journal, we were only able to publish 1% of the work we received.  There were so many other capable poets who submitted their work, but we didn’t have the space for it.  I envision, if I’m ever fortunate enough to live another life, here on earth or not, a literary oasis, of sorts, where I can publish a journal of talented poets whose work may not have made it the first time around, but now have a home within its pages.  This would be a blessed reward for these poets—and me ….

 

DG: Speaking of inspiration, many poets and non-poets alike have different ideas for where it comes from. On one hand, in a Paris Review interview, E.B. White once said that “the members of my household never pay the slightest attention to my being a writing man—they make all the noise and fuss they want to. If I get sick of it, I have places I can go. A writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a word on paper.” On the other hand, Victor Hugo was a master procrastinator, having often preferred the entertainment of guests and other projects to writing. How does your own schedule look? Do you work meticulously or spontaneously, and, also, do you think the “mechanical” approach, promoted by so many writers, is always necessarily better? According to the Paris Review, Balzac supposedly drank lots of coffee and likened inspiration to military maneuvers.

BE: I’m glad this question allows me the latitude to discuss, more fully, what my personal schedule is these days, pertaining to writing, and I will discuss that, momentarily.  Inspiration, on the other hand, and its many forms, is a much more difficult topic to corral, lasso, and examine.  You know … the aspect of the muse and how and why she appears when she chooses to do so.  I’m buoyed by your reference to E. B. White and the idea that in his household he is not considered “a writing man.”  And the noise he must endure if he attempts to compose at home base.

That is certainly not the case with me, fortunately.  My wife knows when I’m in my creative, reflective space and leaves me in that state, content to do her own work or contemplate the grandkids latest exploits, while hosing down the patio or doing battle with the treadmill.  Certain nights, I will read her what I’ve written for the past few days and elicit her response to the work.  Just listening to the sound of my own voice often gives me another perspective in the somewhat endless path towards revision that most poems enter on their way to a final draft.  Even then, before a poem is published in a journal, or it becomes part of a manuscript, I’m always tinkering away, changing this and that —words, punctuation, cadence, line breaks, stanzaic shifts, the whole rigmarole … and then some.

I think, again, of Yeats and his constant changes to poems, long after they were published and made famous.  He was still cobbling, left and right, never quite finished, decades and decades later, compressing and compressing until he claimed his rightful place and restful sleep—finally free from any more contemplative revisions.

One more note on the responses of those close to my work and me needs mention.  Most of the friends around me are not poets or writers.  We rarely discuss anything having to do with my work or the craft of poetry.  The only time my work is a topic of conversation appears to be when a book is ready to drop or I might leave town for a reading or lecture.  At first, long ago, I thought they were neglecting me; not at all interested in my literary passion and pursuit.  But the bonds of friendship have actually enlightened me and shown how liberating it is to be yourself, appreciated for who you are, regardless of your devotion to a craft or calling.  Sure, friends know I’m a writer.  Yet they’re more interested in where we’re headed for dinner and what selections of bourbon the bar is serving these days.  Patently refreshing, indeed.

As far as what my writing schedule looks like, I’m best in the afternoons and evenings.  My simple morning regiment includes stretching, before tackling those daily eight miles on the elliptical, completing correspondence and chores (yes, I still have them), and any other items that need attention.  When that is dispensed, I wander into that territory reserved for creativity and contemplation.  I set no time limit, whatsoever.  I imagine though I normally spend two or three hours, almost every day, writing, (on a legal pad with a pen), before I take a short break and then sit with my laptop, entering the day’s work for safekeeping, and to view, for the first time, how it appears on the screen, immediately beginning the first of numerous revisions, unless by the next day, I determine the poem to be quite dead with no hope of survival.  However, even then, there may be a line or two, perhaps, a mere word or phrase to be saved for another poem.  And, thankfully, all is not lost.  Whether or not I have any idea of the subject I intend to explore each day, I do make myself “approach the blank page,” steady my soul, and be ready for what follows.

 

DG: Very relevant to our discussion is Robert Frost. Poetry—is it a profession or condition? And condition not just in the bad sense, as in I’m suffering and I must do something about it, but something more positive, as in trait, attribute, or more generally, personality—indeed, writers and artists alike love the motif of torment. Yet, what does it really mean to compose in a genre that emerged, really, with the dawn of humanity—long before academia and before, perhaps, even professions? How would you answer Frost and where do you see yourself on this spectrum?

BE: So very glad you brought Robert Frost along for the ride.  This fellow knows his stuff.  Stopping by woods … snowy evening or not!  Yes, I would say poetry’s a condition, although in his case, I believe it also served him well as a profession.  Mark Twain’s quote comes to mind.  “When red-haired people are above a certain social grade their hair is auburn.”  Regarding Frost, suffice it to say, his hair was always auburn, whether he knew it or not.  And it had nothing to do, whatsoever, with his social grade.  He was a bit above it all, but that didn’t mean he didn’t suffer private tribulations, to his wit’s end, unfortunately.

As to whether, writers and artists gravitate to torment like you suggest, I’m not sure it’s always true.  I guess it depends upon your definition of torment and what that terror entails.  I tend to think poets, especially, labor intensively over every single letter, word, punctuation mark, and line break (at least this poet, you’ve chosen to question), that there’s a major construct telling us, whatever can go wrong, shall do so, and, thus, each poem is a lesson in patience, courage, and wonder.  All the empty space on the poet’s page allows the reader to jump into a pool of possibilities, with or without a life preserver—I’m betting without.  It’s a sheer act of unpredictable freedom, of course, yet it comes on the wings of doom, by its very nature.  No safety net here for either the poet or the reader.  Lawrence Ferlinghetti knew this all too well, as do we who hang high above our audience, knowing full well the dangers awaiting us.  But, then again, there’s often the splendid, spectacular view, despite the trepidation or torment, should you choose to name it such.

What I’ve stated, I believe, is true for all artists in genres galore; however, there’s a particular zone which poets inhabit, due to their occupation and need to compress, compress, compress.  This compulsion leaves us poor folks begging for mercy and requires a cold compress to keep from overheating.  Ah, precision, precision, precision, at all costs.  Yes, poetry surely existed long before academia got a hold of it and shook its very nature to a core it never realized it possessed.  We touched on this previously in a former question. How much formal study is necessary to interpret poetry and produce the voice that makes it effective?  And what of the countless, struggling students, MFAs in hand, who step into a perilous job market, expecting to land employment, tenured or not.

I’m not sure where I appear on the spectrum we’re describing here.  I certainly earned a living teaching students everything from remedial reading, to freshman composition, to introduction to literature, to poetry fundamentals, and, ultimately, advising graduate students on their thesis proposals and projects.  And, how, I enjoyed it.  I’d do it again, if offered, another time around the old college block should the next life come to that.  I was a lucky duck, indeed.  Fellowships, grants, and study abroad took me to India, Egypt, Nigeria, Poland, England, and the Czech Republic.  What’s not to like?  As a poet, alone, I doubt these opportunities would necessarily have been mine.  I think Frost grasped the tenuous nature between profession and condition, even if it did cause him more and more moments to reflect on his fate.  Again, akin to so many other writers, I feel compelled to create poetry in a manner that is far different than the study of the craft by which I’ve curiously made a living, thereby affording me precious time to write.

 

DG: The titular poem of your forthcoming collection, Whistling to Trick the Wind, seems, upon first reading, to have a very pessimistic tone. We go through much of life, really, attempting to make reality conform with our own views—sometimes with success when our perceptions are sensible, but too often we fail, mainly because of our great desire for things which may perhaps not be for us; nevertheless, we trick ourselves into believing that things can be the way we want—to lessen the pain, I guess. That could be the first interpretation of this particular poem, with its speaker declaring the following at the end: “Lived a rather fruitful life / In the company of boulders— / Too old and tired to converse— / Took his final act of contrition, / Whistling to trick the wind.” Upon further reading, however, the poem and many others in this collection do indeed sound very positive and life-affirming. As opposed to the Conradian notion which states that we’re trees swayed by the wind, the speaker in this poem believes in agency and freewill—if we can sing well enough, the direction of life’s wind may not be that relevant. Where do you stand on the issue of free will? Are we masters of our fate, as Henley wrote, or does fate “sit deep in the man,” as Emerson proclaimed?

BE: It would be too easy to dismiss the tone of the title poem, “Whistling to Trick the Wind,” in the new collection, as a pessimistic one.  While the central figure does appear, at a first reading, to have “run out of words,” “lost his job,” and given “his friends the heave-ho,” he is far from wringing his hands in desperation.  This would not be his style – no how, no way, no do.  And while he has abandoned speech, for the most part, refused an intervention, and promises to “wire his mouth shut,” he has found an inner peace that permits him to “commune with the moon,” “believe in a God,” and “live a rather fruitful life.”

When we learn that he takes “his final act of contrition,” he has, quite frankly, earned the right, privilege, and honor, if you will, “to trick the wind,” one whistling song after another.  After all, it may very well be the trenchant wind that reminds him, and the reader, also, of the entire list of misgivings we transport through life and the many destinations we fail to reach along the journey.  How shall we make do with the life we continue to live and the distractions which keep us from achieving, at least, some notion of peace and contentment?

This poem was, indeed, selected to be the final work in Whistling to Trick the Wind because I wished to address many of the issues you raise in the above question.  I imagine there are a variety of interpretations surrounding the entire idea of what is meant by the word “trick.”  And I hesitate to open up a discussion on this topic.  Suffice it to say, though, that we often find the need to trick ourselves, make sense of the nonsensical, and devise a world we deem ready for us to inhabit, somewhat, existentially speaking.  Without our own stamp of approval, even to a limited extent, there’s nowhere else for us to wander and look towards the promise of spring, for that matter.  Contrition demands the penitent exercise his or her own personal remorse, yet in agreeing to this act, another world may open, providing possibilities, nourishment, and sustenance for the excursion the soul undertakes, wherever it’s ultimately bound.

I’m glad that you perceive the poems in the collection to possess a “life-affirming” quality to them.  I see it that way, also.  And I hope the volume’s thematic arc presents itself as a journey of sorts, compelling both the speakers, central figures, and the readers to realize that there are paths to follow, missions to accomplish, poems to read and complete.  For like the individual selections of the collection’s progressive movement to this end, there is a song we are capable of learning if we listen closely enough, in silence, or through what wind waits at our back.  Pertaining to free will and fate, we are masters—should we choose to be.  Finally, it takes courage to chart your course, accept responsibility for the fate you display, and create a world you see as worthy, when you’re honest enough to take your place in it.

 

DG: Do you promote the release of new collections with many readings or would you say that the reputation of the book is mostly enough? My question really is the following: Has the pandemic affected poetry negatively or could it be that people are reading more today? Perhaps there could be different ways to promote poetry in these times, aside from readings, that is, and bring greater readership to it than before. What are your thoughts on these challenges?

BE: Time was when there were numerous live readings associated with a new book’s release.  A lot of this often deals with publishers, and their interest in this area, as well as poets and their ability to schedule readings, depending upon location, popularity, and how well an author connects to an audience.

Certainly, the pandemic brought a halt to in-person readings, for the most part.  However, online readings, Zoom, and other electronic-based media has allowed for countless performances and presentations, live or not, here in the United States and worldwide.  The same is true for workshops, lectures, and a host of avenues, capable of promoting a book’s release.

After a new collection of poetry appears, I’ve always done traditional readings, planned college speaking dates, coupled with workshops and seminars, and made it a point to be available every chance open to me.  Again, various publishers hasten the process, booking dates and championing the cause, depending upon their own methods and who it is they hire for publicity to announce the book, the poet, and a possible reading tour.

Of course, most small presses and university presses, too, have extremely limited budgets and rely on the poet to undertake the junket, if we can call it such.  A large budget is never in the realm of possibilities for almost every poetry publisher.  Grants, donations, and fundraiser after fundraiser, literary or otherwise, are, perhaps, the only tickets to increase budgets.

More popular known poets—those who’ve garnered national literary awards and prizes—may, of course, have the reputations to sell a far greater number of books and make more appearances at colleges and a host of literary events, especially in larger cities.  Poet-in-Residence gigs and other faculty appointments, if only temporary, aid in poets much needed attempts to place their work in the hands of more potential readers and, ultimately, consumers.

Online book sales are responsible for a bulk of purchases, these days, and it seems as if the pandemic has done little to slow this market down.  In fact, the lack of in-person live readings, and live events of all matters, has further opened a market devoted to folks who need additional entertainment and literary-based options at home.  Facebook, Twitter, and other platforms, encouraging communication and an exchange of ideas deserve mention in any discussion of promoting one’s book and being available as your own, personal agent, of sorts.

In my own case, with a new book dropping quite soon, from Meadowlark Press, a small but mighty band of poetry partisans, deep in the rural heart of Kansas, I intend to employ as many different forms of strategy, as possible, to create an audience and space for my work.  I wish I could call an end to the pandemic, for a plethora of reasons, obviously; however, it does seem, at least for the moment, that more readings and other in-person live events are now scheduled than in previous months, and, surely, the last year.  One can only remain patient, stay positive, and hope ….

 

About Bart Edelman

Bart Edelman’s poetry collections include Crossing the Hackensack, Under Damaris’ Dress, The Alphabet of Love, The Gentle Man, The Last Mojito, and The Geographer’s Wife. He has taught at Glendale College, where he edited Eclipse, a literary journal, UCLA, and, most recently, in the MFA program at Antioch University, Los Angeles. His work has been widely anthologized in textbooks published by City Lights Books, Etruscan Press, Harcourt Brace, McGraw-Hill, Prentice Hall, Simon & Schuster, Thomson/Heinle, the University of Iowa Press, and others. His newest collection, Whistling to Trick the Wind, will soon be published by Meadowlark Press. He lives in Pasadena, California.

C.K. Scott Moncrieff: A Man Out of Italian Time (Review of Chasing Lost Time, a Biography by Jean Findlay)

Jean Findlay, Founder and Head of Publishing at Scotland Street Press, author of Chasing Lost Time: The Life of C.K. Scott Moncrieff, Soldier, Spy, and Translator

Reviewed by David Garyan

 

Price Beyond Rubies: On Writing “The Hat Jewel,” an article by Jean Findlay, published by Interlitq
Read Jean Findlay’s Interview with David Garyan, published by Interlitq

 

C.K. Scott Moncrieff: A Man Out of Italian Time

C.K. Scott Moncrieff was a man of contradictions; like the land, Italy, he came to inhabit in the last years of life, it may perhaps be more precise to think of him not as the person who translated À la recherche du temps perdu into English, but as the embodiment of all the greatest virtues and likewise the lowest vices which the old country has embodied over its long history—and continues to exemplify. In many ways, it’s neither Marcel Proust—as many literary enthusiasts too often believe—nor his monumental work that came to define the soldier, translator, and spy, but rather the tense contradictions found in Italian life described here by Luigi Pirandello about his native Sicily.

Scott Moncrieff’s outlook on life largely resembled Giovanni Verga‘s; the two men’s lives were about—though Pirandello only writes about Vega in the previous paragraph—ambitiously going “where their certain fantastic sensuality” brought them, and because of this they tended to suffocate and betray “their true, hidden passion, with that ambition of an ephemeral life.” For the sake of brevity, we’ll avoid a discussion of the latter artist’s specificities, but the former, as Findlay writes, led a life full of opposing tensions: “A Catholic convert, he was also a family man, military man, a manly poet. A homosexual who flirted with women and had lasting emotional relationships with a number of close female friends.” Truly, this personality was closer to what Pirandello has described—the Italian soul—than what Proust embodied.

Those who live on the aforementioned island, which the great playwright and poet called home, have perhaps been given no choice but to learn the ways of successfully navigating the demands of life in the midst of totally opposing tensions—after all, it’s the descendants of exactly these people who once enjoyed the privilege of existing at the crossroads of civilization, but, at the same time, precisely because of this, they’ve also had to hold the curious distinction of perhaps being the most subjugated individuals in the world. “Palermo,” as the late American actor George C. Scott once joked, “is the most-conquered city in history. First the Phoenicians, the Romans, Carthaginians, Byzantines, then came the Arabs, the Spaniards and the Neapolitans. Now comes … the American Army!” The Chicago Tribune offers a likewise witty retort to the statement: “The Normans. Don’t forget the Normans. Or the Greeks, Vandals, Goths, Swabians, Aragonese, Savoyans, Austrians (in a trade for Sardinia and future considerations) and, finally, the Italians, through annexation via a referendum that was probably rigged.” It’s certainly been a complicated history and organized crime hasn’t helped free the place, by any stretch of the imagination, from a different type of colonialism altogether, but this is for another discussion.

What’s true is that those who reside on the island at once know the importance of displaying the highest honor and commitment in relationships, but they’re also equally comfortably in showing off those very same traits in revenge and hostility. Additionally, there’s the utter and total tendency to view foreigners and native strangers alike with the utmost suspicion and yet possess the comfort of being both extremely open and curious about others to an extent I have never seen—survival skills, I guess, passed down throughout the years from having to play good host to Romans and Arabs alike, people who, in all honesty, weren’t always such bad guests themselves, bringing innovation and culinary curiosities just the same. Who knew that arancini actually originated under Arab rule? And who knew, according to a UMass website, that the “orange was first introduced to Europe by the Arabs via Sicily?”

For good and bad, hence, the psyche of this nation has been shaped by what many would consider to be a negative phenomenon—domination—and for the most part, people have learned to make this a part of life; nevertheless, the ease and tact with which Italians are capable of navigating diametric opposition is also the reason why they can comfortably treat public resources and spaces in the most reckless, irresponsible way while having the capacity to maintain the greatest sanctity and cleanliness among family and in the home—streets and infrastructure littered with garbage while the floors at home are clean enough to eat from; such contradictions have not only been pointed out by Pirandello—a man Scott Moncrieff greatly admired and enjoyed translating—but also other Italian writers like Borgese as well.

It’s precisely this tendency to embody both the closed and open disposition—the mental effort to somehow synthesize diametrically opposed psychological forces so well described by both Pirandello and Borgese—that the great translator, solider, and spy himself embodied; and many times, as Jean Findlay, Scott Moncrieff’s great-great niece and biographer writes in her book, on more than two fronts: “Charles had a tough, discerning mind which disciplined his own life into several compartments: the literary man to Prentice, Marsh, and most of the world; the family man to his mother, brother, and relatives; the spy to Louis Christie and the Secret Intelligence Service, and the Rabelaisian homosexual to Vyvyan Holland alone. He was a man who one day could write a metaphysical religious poem of great depth, and on the next a filthy, funny limerick. He could, as Findlay describes, send a dirty limerick to Vyvyan Holland and in the very same letter he could thank precisely the same individual “for sending an Anthology of Catholic Poets.” The ability to reconcile such opposing forces and live with them is one of the trademarks of the Mediterranean sensibility, but they’re also the necessary ingredients for gregarious individuals, fond of hosting lavish parties, and, very naturally, spies—chiefly spies.

Even before Scott Moncrieff began translating the work that would really make both him and Proust famous in the Anglophone world, those reckless yet austere characteristics—especially typical of the Italian soul—and so well described by Pirondello and Borgese—were already very much a part of the future translator’s character, and the reader realizes this when he recklessly publishes “under his own name an ambitions story called  Evensong and Morwe Song,” in which he had “painted a recognizable picture of a Winchester master.” Winchester is world-famous for being the most prestigious boarding school in the UK, having existed in its present location for more than six hundred years. The fact that the young artist’s work had so to say painted a recognizable picture shouldn’t have been a problem, except for the fact that, aside from dealing with homosexual themes, it likewise exposed the “snobbery” and “hypocrisy” in such institutions. Findlay writes the following about the incident: “Even one hundred years later, a school magazine would hesitate before publishing such a story,” and although she admits that the family, to this day, has no idea why his scholarship to Oxford was rejected, it seems sensible to believe that the aforementioned episode had a great deal to do with it, given that he excelled in his studies, and more tellingly, that admission did not just depend on a “competitive entrance examination,” but also on “the report from the headmaster at Winchester,” at that time a man by the name of J.M. Burge. Since the latter’s endorsement was at best lukewarm, it is plausible to assume that the failure in securing the prize didn’t stem from a lack of academic competitiveness but rather with the contents of the recommendation.

At the same time, it’s hard to believe that Scott Moncrieff would ever have dared to pull such antics in the presence of his family, given that he had an almost austere (in the best possible sense) dedication and love for them. Anxious as he was to see Proust published in English, he was nevertheless quite embarrassed about the prospect of his relatives reading the Sodom and Gomorrah part of the novel, going so far as to change the English title to Cities of the Plain. Findlay writes that he was “glad in a way that his father would not see it, yet knowing that there were other family members whom it would no doubt offend. He was well aware that the active and promiscuous homosexual world described by Proust was offensive to most people, so in translation he had tried to soften the blow by not being as direct as Proust could be in French, using euphemisms and hidden innuendos where he could.” Once again, we see how the contradictory elements of recklessness and piety could fully manifest themselves in the man. Later in his life, upon discovering that his pet owl had died because he had left him alone to peruse Florence on a visit to the “fleshpots and fiaschi,” by his own account, the remorse was far too great, according to Findlay: “He wrote a gloomy and confused letter to Prentice saying that he had inherited the family trait of ‘accepting diametrically opposite advice and feeling the full importance of things that don’t matter.'” The reader never really finds out what these unimportant things or specific advices are, but one gets the sense that we’re talking precisely about the contradicting temperaments so well described in Italian, particularly, Sicilian personalities.

Being a homosexual in a society which not only imprisoned one of its greatest writers—Oscar Wilde—in 1895, but also handed down two years of hard labor which, according to Findlay, greatly contributed to “breaking his health and confidence,” was certainly risky business. Indeed although “he had written one of his most poignant pieces, De Profundis, in prison and been inspired while there to compose the Ballad of Reading Gaol,” Findlay’s former statement certainly holds far greater weight, as the notable Irish author would go on to die only five years later, at the young age of forty-six, in 1900. In 1907, when the young Scott Moncrieff began visiting Robert Ross (Wilde’s lover and literary executor) at Half Moon Street, which was a “haunt of the literary homosexual coterie,” those tragic details would’ve been no stranger to the impressionable schoolboy. And yet, he, even at such a tender age, already had the capacity to discern the importance of appearances; it’s perhaps, then, his capacity in mastering the ability to maintain them—something which would serve him well as a spy in Italy—why he ultimately chose the country to begin with, or more correctly, why he was chosen for the role by Louis Christie.

For all intents and purposes, and for all the good and bad which comes with that, Italy is the quintessential country of appearances. Anyone who was born here or has lived in it for some time—again for better or worse—will know the importance of maintaining a “tidy surface,” even when what’s underneath is in total ruin; in addition, the ability to maintain a proper exterior is good even when the effort actually contributes to ruining the precious life underneath. Unlike the specific traits discussed before about Sicilians, the concept of bella figura captures the imagination of all Italians; literally translated as “beautiful figure,” the term does not simply encompass the ability to project attractive physical attributes; on the contrary, even Italians are sensible enough to understand that not everyone can have Aphrodite-like beauty—the term, hence, really encompasses the capacity to act with proper dignity, respect, and tact in any given situation. Everything must have the proper presentation and decorum—moderation being the lifeblood of Italians; at least that’s what they say or seem to believe.

Naturally, a person who drinks too much at a party and thereby ruins its decorum has violated the tenets of bella figura; however, a woman dressed to the nines—simply out to buy groceries—seems to be tolerated just fine in these parts and such behavior is even heartily encouraged, and not just by the men either. Is this truly moderation or have we, once again, returned to the wicked duality of Pirandello and Borgese? And what about the all-too-exaggeratedly elegant piazzas and duomos—well, again, moderation in this respect would be a grave sin for Italians. Max Weber’s idea of the Protestant work ethic seems—just as a momentary, humorous aside—to be challenged here, as the Catholics supposedly have less propensity for labor, suffering from some kind of Mediterranean or mañana-madness-inducing shortage of capital, and yet it’s the Protestant churches which are generally much less extravagant and grand.

Returning to our discussion of bella figura, that, apart from its seemingly positive attributes, also has rarely-spoken-about undertones which are, to say the least, actually quite dark—something I discovered not long ago; in a conversation with a friend, who jokingly said that Italy’s communitarian nature, along with people’s desire to protect the virtues and sanctities of their associations, may seem very positive, until you realize there may, perhaps, be no problem with the happiness a husband receives from cheating on his wife, so long as no one finds out about it and the harmony of the community isn’t ruined—again, the importance of appearances. It’s precisely this type of lifestyle, based largely on semblances, that the soldier, translator, and spy—not himself an adulterer, but whose “sin” of homosexuality was very well interpreted as being just as grave in his time—had to adopt, and do so quickly; in a sense, he had to become an Italian before he ever had the chance to translate Proust, and certainly before he was actually forced, in a sense, to relocate to the old country for the sake of his “health.” It’s perhaps, then, not a stretch to say that the man known as C.K. Scott Moncrieff was not so much the translator of À la recherche du temps perdu (a work he not only translated very well, but interpreted in such a way that it ended up, to this day, best representing the novel in its time, despite the criticism he received for being too libertine in his interpretation) but rather the conduit for the highest virtues and likewise lowest depravities that Italians and their culture represented—not only then, but also now.

Even the German scholar of Proust, Ernst Curtius, is recorded as having written the following, included by Findlay in her biography: “I had imagined the translator of Proust to be an aesthete. He was something much better: an individual character … He was a Roman body and soul. It was not an antiquarian or artistic interest that drew him to Rome, but the everyday life of the city.” Despite Ernst’s totally captivating portrait of the soldier, translator, and spy, nowhere, however—at least in my analysis of the matter—is the case for Scott Moncrieff’s Italian soul more apparent than towards the end of the book, where Findlay writes: “Beneath the bravura was an exhausted man with far too much on his plate and no one to look after him. He [Scott Moncrieff] found in Pirandello’s chaotic world the irony he saw in his own life; that the appearance is rarely the reality and the layers of subterfuge people erect to present a face to family, friends, or the public is excellent material for drama.” Indeed, the Italian respect and affirmation for the arts—the need to uphold its reputation as being one of the progenitors, along with Greece, of Western culture—means, at once, that drama is not only highly appreciated but also actively encouraged by its citizenry, but only on stage, where the fourth wall prevents it from leaking out onto the incredibly ritualistic society held together by honor and decency, lest such a spectacle should ruin the meticulously constructed bella figuras of all those consuming the show in their chairs, naturally with all the proper etiquette; its bona fide, altogether genuine human display in public, however, is completely frowned upon, even if the person is on the verge of a breakdown—through all their fault in most cases or perhaps even none of their own.

In this sense, neither the biography nor perhaps even the living biographer can ever fully answer the question of whether Scott Moncrieff would’ve enjoyed living in Italy if his medical condition didn’t “demand” his relocation there; from the book we’re given to understand that health concerns, along with his work as a journalist and translator, were merely a cover, mainly because Britain now once again needed capable spies on the ground in the old country: “There had been one hundred intelligence agents based in Italy during the war, but since 1918 numbers had hugely decreased because officially Italy was politically friendly on the surface. However, it was apparent the country now needed watching again,” and who better to watch it than a capable person like Scott Moncrieff, a man of duty, honor, clever resourcefulness (what many Italians often refer to as arrangiarsi).

Findlay confirms that “the job description could have been written for Charles, his sense of honour was still paramount. Recruiting Charles was an enormous help to Louis, who was needed to travel in countries across the Mediterranean—Greece and Turkey, also Egypt, Yemen, Aden, Muscat, Iraq, and Palestine.” In any case, aside from the question of whether Scott Moncrieff would’ve enjoyed living in Italy out of his own volition or not, what’s undeniable is that he was an expert in the country’s customs and culture, and not just because of his Catholic conversion. Aside from the tenets of bella figura, the soldier, translator, and spy was also adept at what Italians refer to as the aforementioned arrangiarsi; literally it means to make do, but the real meaning is more akin to making something out of nothing—it’s the calculated ability to utilize the correct strategy in any given situation in order to make the right connections, to say the perfect thing, and to, literally, arrange all public and private matters in ways which are beneficial to you. An uneducated man living in Naples, for instance, where job prospects are already far and few even for those with university degrees, must necessarily be skilled in the art of arrangiarsi or effectively perish; good arrangiarsi exemplifies everything from washing car windows at red lights if you have absolutely nothing to ensuring your sons and daughters marry above their respective stations if you have only a little and are looking for more. As with bella figura, in the best sense, the aforementioned tenets imply a capacity for creativity and innovation; in the worst sense, however, they can also lead down the altogether undesirable roads of excessive cunning, deceit, and corruption.

In any case, Scott Moncrieff’s translation of Proust, to this day, embodies the best sense of making something out of nothing, precisely because there was no model to work from and no one to help him. Aside from that, Proust wasn’t exactly the most organized individual (well, it’s difficult, anyways, to hold that against any writer), and Scott Moncrieff had to navigate various hurdles before he could even enjoy the comfort of what most publishers might call a perfectly typeset page, let alone our own privileges granted by Microsoft Word. As Findlay writes: “Proust’s novel was published in France before, during and after the First World War. There was a shortage of typesetters: many were dead and those who remained were overworked with under-trained assistants. The first volumes were printed with a lot of typesetter errors, far more than average because Proust was a complex writer and not all typesetters could follow the ideas or the sense of his sentences. Charles, however, did understand Proust. He also worked in a newspaper office and knew how typesetter errors occurred. In France the box of e’s and the box of a’s were adjacent to each other and to mistake le for la was a common error, but more so in Proustian compound sentences where the le or la is one of the many objects of the sentence, and could well be an idea. Much of the work in translating Proust was for Charles also a work of interpretation and instinct. He did not have access to the original manuscript (which was in longhand and extremely difficult to decipher anyways) and he still had a demanding day job.” If this doesn’t symbolize the best traits of arrangiarsi, I don’t know what does.

When his brother, John, accidentally shot himself cleaning a gun, the good translator took on more work (perhaps a greater amount than he could handle) to support his family; in this sense, too, he embodied the best of what honor and responsibility mean in countries like Italy, where family really is the centerpiece of every social activity. Having received, ironically, the tragic news immediately after securing a well-paying appointment, equaling “the purchasing power of over £100,000 a year,” Scott Moncrieff wrote the following to his brother’s widow: “by the greatest good fortune, I have now arrived at a decent position in the world and I swear to you that as a long as I live I will do all I possibly can to be a father to them [the children] and a helper to you. I think I knew more about him, knew him more intimately than anyone else but you—and I wish I could be with you to dry your tears, or mingle them with my own.” These are certainly not the words of archetypal hedonists concerned only with their own welfare and pleasure. As Findlay writes: “Charles contributed to the family income until his death. He was able to ensure that David, his nephew, was privately educated, and he visited the family in Oxford regularly.” Certainly we’re talking about a complex, contradictory figure, and this is meant in the best, almost exalted Mediterranean sense—having the capability to be flexible when life’s whims demand it, and yet, at the same time, marshalling a stoicism rigid as a rock when that very same life requires unbending dedication.

Indeed, one of the most touching and beautiful instances in the book where we witness those aforementioned traits is after the death of his father, when Scott Moncrieff begins to feel the full “call of family responsibility.” In the midst of deciding the future of Anna’s house in north Oxford, he oscillates so much between whose name it should be transferred under—his or hers—that Anna later remarked in a letter to Prentice the following: “Charlie changes his mind so much.” Indeed, the man is flexible to the whims of life’s demands, and, yet, at the same time, in the midst of this flexibility, he never wavers in the commitment to help the widow of his brother, simply because, in the end, it doesn’t really matter whether the house is in her name or his—he will be in both cases completely committed to the task of helping her financially. Having myself lived in this strange land for two years, no other trait I can think of but this indecisiveness yet stoic commitment to people and also things can perhaps be considered more representative of the Italian soul—it’s why, once again, many parts of the country can comfortably present crumbling infrastructure to the public, and, yet, those very same citizen may sport floors clean enough to eat from in their own private homes; the proverbial traits that Borgese and Pirandello have described so well.

Possessing this Italian soul is precisely why Scott Moncrieff may have allowed himself to take liberties with the translation, much to the chagrin of Proust and his later critics, who often attacked him for destroying the façade of the original. And yet, what “purists” don’t seem to understand is that the effort of translation is less about the bare transmission of words and more about the communication of culture. This is something that Peter France, the noted scholar at Edinburgh, quoted by Findlay in her book, also confirms—that it’s “not merely a technical task to be carried out with proper efficiency (as done ideally—though not so far in reality—by a machine). The sort of translation to be discussed here has to do with the values, the personality, the intention that underlie the original. In relation to these, the translator’s duty is in part ethical (or even political).” It was Scott Moncrieff’s job, hence, to connect the void not just between the Protestant and Catholic attitude, but also between their two respective literary traditions, mainly because “Proust was stylistically and morally foreign to a protestant English audience, and bridging that gap was part of Charles’s role,” as Findlay so correctly emphasizes.

The translator, soldier, and spy we’ve come to know as C.K. Scott Moncrieff was, in this respect, certainly a man of his time, even if reading the biography often gives us the sense of exactly the opposite—an individual trapped by the oppressive circumstances of his surroundings. Indeed, those not in possession of the Italian soul, which allows for the navigation and, ultimately, reconciliation of life’s contradictions, may view his existence according to the parameters of the latter—a sort of Stephen Dedalus-like figure trapped in the grayness of his native Ireland, seeking to exile himself from both his location and generation, except this time we find ourselves in Scotland and the Catholic identity is embraced instead of rejected. Findlay, to some extent, confirms this view, writing: “He was leading a double life and thinking double thoughts. His letters home extolled the ideal family life, while in London he was drawn as by a magnet to the Ross establishment, the antithesis of family life. However, a change was happening in him, as the war changed everyone. The gulf between his professed beliefs and his actions was beginning to show: he felt the battle of good and ill, the confusion, within himself; he did not know where he stood, and was tired and sore.” Reading the passage, one would be tempted to go down the path of the Stephen Dedalus interpretation, but it would be an altogether wrong assessment for a man like Scott Moncrieff, mainly because, in fact, he did embody those previously-discussed Italian sensibilities—the soul—a fiery divergent character in the most passionate instances, and the cold, determined stoicism in the most testing moments; and further still, the ability to not only embody such oppositions but also possess the strength to synthesize the antithetical forces within the confines of one anima, perhaps in the purely dialectical Hegelian sense, but perhaps also very naturally in the “mixture of litanies and sperm,” exactly that sense of style proposed by Montesquieu, who believed, as Findlay writes, “that the sacred and the profane create an invigorating blend and thereby embrace the whole of life.” This idea, upheld by all means and methods, and for all intents and purposes, is drama not for the stage but precisely for the streets—it’s the drama in all its contradictory Italian sensibilities of the soul that Pirandello, like Scott Moncrieff, actually embodied in real life, according to Findlay: “The plays and stories hit a switch in Charles—Pirandello tackled appearance and reality with a twist. Human situations are rarely as they seem from the outside, there is often a secret story, sometimes a sombre, sexual one. Pirandello’s plays touched incest, adultery, prostitution, with a keen and compassionate eye, unveiling dark stories from the inside.” Indeed, having to live “much of his life under great threat,” and at the same time being “bound by honor and secrecy,” it’s completely understandable why the solider, translator, and spy would’ve “sympathized with Pirandello’s themes intimately: his plays dealt with necessary lies and secrecy.”

In many respects, it would be wiser, hence, to look more at the man as Goethe (had they been contemporaries) might have seen him, precisely at the time when he himself visited Italy—that very moment when his own soul came to understand a people’s solemn and stoic resignation to things that simply don’t work, along with their ability to adapt and live merrily with such reality. Noticing the utter pollution of a particularly beautiful street in Palermo that “in its length and beauty,” was one that “vies with any in the Corso in Rome,” he emphatically clamors: “By all the saints …. Is there no helping it?” The shopkeeper replies. “Things with us are as they are,” going on to explain that surely they could brush away the horse dung and dust, but what good would that do to their already-rickety brooms, which are barely functioning, composed of nothing except for “very little besoms of palm-branches, which, slightly altered, might have been really useful; but as it was, they broke off easily, and the stumps were lying by thousands in the streets.” Either way, in this respect, the beautiful street will be polluted by something. The great Goethe, realizing this, along with noticing the cheerful way in which his newly-made acquaintance has communicated his town’s dilemma, the quick-witted German pronounces that this was “consolatory proof to me that man has always humour enough to make merry with what he cannot help.” In this respect, too, Scott Moncrieff was a man who had the power to change many things, and, in fact, moved a great deal of stones he was capable of lifting, but his mountains stayed firm—as nature intended them to be—and for this, no human being can be blamed.

 

About Jean Findlay

Jean Findlay was born in Edinburgh. She studied Law and French at Edinburgh University under Peter France and Theatre under Tadeusz Kantor in Kracow, Poland. She co-founded an award winning theatre company and wrote and produced plays which toured to London, Berlin, Bonn, Rotterdam, Dublin, Glasgow and the Pompidou Centre in Paris. She spent years in London writing drama and book reviews for the Scotsman, and has written for the IndependentTime Out and the Guardian.  In 2014 she published Chasing Lost Time: The Life of CK Scott Moncrieff, Soldier, Spy and Translator with Chatto and Windus, now in Vintage paperback and with FSG in New York. She founded Scotland Street Press in Edinburgh in 2014 and now runs this small, award-winning publishing house. For writing The Hat Jewel she won a Hawthornden Fellowship 2018 and a Lavigny International Writer’s Fellowship 2019.