From the shelf, TRIPTYCH by Max Frisch. I had read it when it first came out in 1981 as a partial commentary on the death of Ingeborg Bachmann and so focused on the third section. This time it was the opening part that caught me. A man is talking to a widow in a cemetery chapel. He says, “He had a good death. Today not many people nowadays have the good fortune to die at home, and seventy is a good age, after all.
The widow sobs as the funeral guest stands helplessly beside her; it takes her some time to get a grip on herself again. WIDOW: I can’t really take it in. I still see him. Sitting there is his chair. I can see him. All the time I can hear what Matthis is thinking.
There is no protection against feeling something when reading such sentences… with a birthday two years shy of 70 arriving in October. That was Sunday afternoon. But Sunday night I happened upon a criitical book I had forgotten I had on the Russian writer Andrei Bitov: ANDREI BITOV THE ECOLOGY OF INSPIRATION by ELLEN CHANCES I am sure you know his great novel PUSHKIN HOUSE, the one Russian novel that might compete with Bely’s ST PETERSBURG, with Bulgakov’s THE MASTER AND MARGARITA, a book belonging to literature and not to publicity--- as I am told Russians say to distinguish such books from the equivalent of the rubbish written by, in the American context, Jonathan Franzen or Toni Morrison--- books not of the passing season… but in the critical book I was reminded of Bitov’s travel books and in particular the ones devoted to Armenia and Georgia. Published as one book by FSG, A CAPTIVE OF THE CAUCASUS containing : LESSONS OF ARMENIA Journey out of Russia and CHOOSING A LOCATION Georgia Album.
I had been given the book back in 1992 but had not read it. I didn’t get the first sentences of each of these books within A CAPTIVE OF THE CAUCASUS: FROM THE AUTHOR: LESSONS OF ARMENIA Journey out of Russia TRANSLATING PAST TO PRESENT On the first page of this book:::::: I was thirty years old, the entire Soviet regime was preparing for its fiftieth anniversary, Russian Christianity had not yet reached its millennium and the Armenian Christianity had already celebrated a millennium and a half. From the second book within A CAPTIVE OF THE CAUCASUS: CHOOSING A LOCATION Georgian Album. There is a quote from Lermontov and then THE PHENOMENON OF THE NORM When you try to prove that something is something, you lose it completely. The plot of a book possesses the peculiarity that it must be concluded. Having entered into it you cannot exit via some other labyrinth. Do a thing once, and you’ve gained experience; gain experience and it immediately proves unusable.. .
I had totally forgotten these other books by Bitov and in particular the one about Georgia from which in that cliché, in fact I had I came back from on 22 June 2012.. now, so far into the past it might as well have been a century ago… but I am well aware of the slippage and had found a way to restart the book I have been writing about going about Bulgaria two years ago: the new version begins:
EMPTY AMERICAN LETTERS
to quote: and if it is to be another seventeen years before my next visit: the place was Istanbul but I am tempted to think of other cities I might have named, as if the actual city mattered--- a change of mood you will notice, a hint of optimism, seventeen years, another visit, I will be 57, my life nearly at its end--- if my parents are to serve as a model--- possibly dragging along some awful child, who will not want to be here, I could probably sell him or her if there is still a market for white children, would anyone be the wiser, when back in New York City--- though the irony is I will have come back here only a year later with the woman who would be the mother of the now 21 year old son I was traveling with and now I am on my way to 68 and to think—in another 17 years: 85 years old…the prefatory paragraph done and now the warning.
A reader, and there is never a reason to write unless one expects to be read… I could find an ear, for sure, any ear and pour all of these words into that receptacle and have done so but that ear will surely die and then… a reader, should know, what follows is concerned with work and with a journey around Bulgaria and with why a few people were not with me and Piret as we made our way in June two years ago as we went from Sofia to Strazhitsa, to Veliko Tarnovo to Varna to Plovdiv to Sofia.
But this was written before I picked up Bitov, picked up the Frisch… to be given such a book as Bitov’s to now read in competition with my memories of Georgia and Istanbul and indeed in Istanbul the appearance of a museum devoted to depicting the contents of a novel--- a fiction!!!--- by Orhan Pamuk…. And a museum with an illustrated guide book in which many of the exhibits are carefully and romantically photographed… photographs of something made up…
But reading books do add, the very best do not take away…only rubbish diminishes a person…I am not thinking of those simple books a person receives when he asks for the latest mysteries or she asks for the latest sci-fi books… or even the latest romance or cowboy books.. there is another class of books, far larger and more insidious that can only diminish a reader and you will know them if you read on the back of as I did the galleys for Craig Nova’s THE CONSTANT HEART, to be published by a rather good publisher, this quote from the New York Times, “[Nova’s fiction] is so powerful, so alive, it is a wonder that turning its pages doesn’t somehow burn one’s hands.”
For an author to take pride in such a reaction… and to allow it to appear on a book cover.
Or, a publicist wrote this about TRIBURBIA by Karl Taro Greenfield, “ Triburbia is an enveloping look at the lives and yearnings of a particular breed that will speak to anyone plugged into the contemporary zeitgeist. An impressive, wholly original debut, it introduces a remarkable new voice…” Greenfield has seen five other books published.
Why bother remarking on any of this?
The first of August begins the silly season as the English say. Colonels in Somerset go into conspiracy mode and I added just after EMPTY AMERICAN LETTERS a quote from a song by Zeki Müren:
seni gormem imkansiz imkansiz imkansiz