Friday, June 8, 2018

LETTERS SENT INTO THE FUTURE with other things

                                                    76

        There was a PAUSE  in my writing of these pages.  

        The now usual feeling of fatigue and despair as to the future of printed words.  But for some reason that gate has opened.  

        Possibly the news that the complete ANNIVERSARIES by Uwe Johnson will be appearing in the early fall from New York Review Books.  Like many I had read the two book version that Johnson himself had approved but the new version is the complete version of 2000+ pages.  

         A novel unimaginable in American writing yet the novel is set in the US in the year 1968.  The New York Times is a central fixture of the novel as it is read by the woman who is at the center of the novel and as she exists in both New York and in her past in Germany.  More about this... 

         and also in the fall, a biography from the French of Maurice Blanchot...  at one time only some years ago Blanchot was read and read by all those who were really interested in writing...but as the universal dumbness descended thanks to the now totalitarian political correctness in the colleges and the imposiiton of a rule by identity politics such a writer is now impossible to imagine being read... yet a biography is appearing from Fordham University Press...

         while the third push to return is the beginning of the translation and publication of the complete stories of VARLAM SHALAMOV.  Two books of his stories had appeared but they are but a taste of the breadth of this most heroic survivor of the Gulag...  

         Again it is New York Review Books that is doing the complete stories, translated by Donald Rayfield and the first book is now available at over 700 pages.  

         The simple reason that Shalamov is not better known is that he resisted any form of collaboration with the regime that had kept him as a slave in a gold mine in the Gulag for six years and then as a hospital worker so spending more that 15 years in the Gulag.  What makes his work remarkable is that he survived and did not shrink away from the simple awfulness and the fact that nothing is really learned from the experience except that one has survived.  

        A friend George Kamen who was a medical doctor and psychcoanaylst and exile from Bulgaria went back to Bulgaria after "the changes" to interview both the guards and the prisoners and discovered that both groups of people felt a great shame as to what had happened to them.  

          The shame of the guards was understandable to anyone but George did not live long enough to fully understand the shame of the prisoners as it was more than the survivor guilt.  It is this terrible truth that is at the center of Shalamov's work.  

       Rayfield includes in his intrioduction an unpublished fragment by Shalamov with the title:  WHAT I SAW AND UNDERSTOOD IN THE CAMPS...  I will record three of them:  

17:  I understood why people do not live on hope---there isn't any hope.  Nor can they survive by means of free will---what free will is there?  They live by instinct, a feeling of self-preservation, on the same basis as a tree, a stone, an animal. 

36. I understand the thieves were not human. 

45.  I understood that a writer has to be a foreigner in the questions he is dealing with, and if he knows his material well, he will write in such a way that nobody will understand him.

      Statement 45 I have the feeling describes  my own understanding in some way  of my own books both published and unpublished. 

                                                     79
         A sure sign of incipient crankhood is the writing of letters to the editor.  I have done this over the years and once achieved the feat of two letters within one week in The Irish Times IN (1974).

        I have recently sent 4 letters to the Times Literary Supplement and they have published one of them.  Here they are and I will not pick out the one which was published.


One

          Sir, It was nice to see the review of new edition of a biography of Hans Henny Jahn (June 1) but one must question the assertion "effectively unknown."  I have next to me as I type the Charles Scribner's Sons edition published with a nice spare green dust jacket of The Ship (from 1961) and of course one has from 2012 the Atlas Press edition of the stories mentioned in your review.  I would note that the collected edition, in German it is true, of Jahn was prominently on display in the library of Julian Rios who I interviewed in France once upon a time for The Guardian.  
       It would be better to lament the dreary prejudice of too many publishers for the living when it comes to doing translations into English.  More frequently the dead give better value as they are not celebrating the commonplace cliches of the present.

TWO

       Sir, A certain sadness over here at the news (May 11) that the Pillars of Hercules is boarded up as I recall meeting there on July 27, 2012, the writer (Born in the UK and  Dire Straits) and former editor of Melody Maker, Mike Oldfield to talk about something I have forgotten but then very important.  We were both surprised when we looked up to the TV and realized the Olympics were opening that night in another part of London.  I wonder if any other writers were in there as could one have  had better seats?

THREE

       Sir,  I would like to second the very thoughtful defense of George Steiner by Leslie Chamberlain (Letters 23 March 2018).  He came to a class in the School of the Arts at Columbia University while I was a student  there in the very early 70s to talk about his own fiction.  He admitted that he was a bit jealous of our good fortune to have Anthony Burgess as a professor since he was the only British writer who he thought was really interesting and knowledgeable of world writing both in his own writing and in his criticism.  He also admired the school for having visitors like Jorge Luis Borges, Nadine Gordimer and Nicanor Parra as such revealed what could be done.  He left us with the comment that the only living German language writer he was interested in was Thomas Bernard.  
       Later I wrote to Steiner that the chairman of Alfred A. Knopf, Bernhard's publisher, told me that the first three of Bernhard's books that they had published  had sold less than a 1000 copies  each. Steiner replied that he thought the man was exaggerating given the reality of American literary culture.

FOUR

The review of "The Discovery of Chance" a book by  Aileen M. Kelly (March 3) about the Russian writer Alexander Herzen reminded me of Eugene Lambe, who lived for many years in Long Acre in a top floor flat above what was at first Bertram Rota and then The Gap.  There were three objects in the flat:  a David Hockney print on the wall, a wooden painted flower and the bound hardcover edition of Herzen's My Past and Thoughts.  These objects were never discussed but their meaning was supposed to be obvious.  

Lambe was from Northern Ireland, a one time  law student at Trinity College, Dublin, the dedicatee of poems by Derek Mahon, was claimed as being a servant by the very wealthy property owner George Lawson, was a friend of Peter Ackroyd, J.P. Donleavy and Giles Gordon, a frequenter of The French Pub, the father of a son named Orlando whose mother was an heir of the Hudson Bay Trading Company and after dying of a heart-attack in a gay disco in Covent Garden  among those attending his funeral were his two brothers, high officers  in the British Army, one of whom was in charge of British forces in Bosnia at that time.  

To the writer of this letter Lambe insisted that when visiting the nearby National Gallery  one should never look at more than two paintings  per visit as the third will make you forget the three of them.

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