Saturday, November 24, 2018

A PURPOSELESS PUGATORY


I have not been posting at the blog for some time.  The isolation of the writer has never been greater and now when there are no longer any book sections in American newspapers that even attempt to describe... the best books... when to look at The New York Times Book Review is to be insulted.  Mediocrity seems the only quality  they seek to praise.  The Wall Street Journal continues on Saturday to publish a book section but literature is by no means its focus... and while the pieces on history and art etc are of interest they usually lack authority.  I know no one who reads The New York Review of Books... but it should have died a long time ago... though the publisher New York Review Books is now one of the great world publishers as it is about the only publisher that has not been totally swamped by political correctness coupled with an adoration of identity politics... and earlier this month I was invited to Beloit College to read.

SELF-QUOTING from a page on Facebook

Invited by English Department at Beloit College. Gave craft talk in basement classroom to 20 students. One question. Read for 30 minutes with no questions to be asked by audience. Four faculty in audience plus the professor who invited me... mostly students from his class. No one talked to me. Two dinners with 3 faculty members. One serve-yourself-lunch with one faculty member. The college seemed in emotional lockdown with students incredibly atomized and solitary... public spaces sparsely populated and when not so mostly individuals looking at cellphone and laptops... reminded me of my experience when visiting universities in East Germany in 1965 and Bulgaria in 1967... a touchable dutiful silence. But at Beloit, people seemed in shock after two years of bruising nasty arguments about identity... the chair of the English department mentioned that the chair rotated and it was his turn to take out the garbage... while said with levity I found myself shocked at the  so evident self-contempt... and finally I was told the new head of library does not have a degree in library science and first order of business is to throw away 50,000 books... to be decided by an information expert which is the jargon for a non-expert in books.


 TALKING AT
             by  Thomas McGonigle
                  BACK FROM BELOIT
-he remembers saying to Anna as he was driving from Wisconsin for Chicago:  how easy it is to go full speed into an abutment of a highway overpass. 
-the sentence was spoken calmly and precisely and Anna did not respond.
-Explain.
-he was invited out to Beloit College to read from his books and to give a craft talk.
-he was a student at Beloit College and was given a BA degree in 1966.  He dropped out of the college for the academic year 1964-65 to be a student at University College, Dublin and made his first journey to the East by going in the spring of 65 to the German Democratic Republic, the DDR.
-Anna and he flew from Newark, New Jersey in the early morning of November 7, to Chicago, Illinois, rented a car at the airport and drove up to Beloit. 
-they flew back from Chicago on Sunday arriving at midnight in New Jersey.
-3 nights in the Beloit College guesthouse and one night in a motel in Appleton, Wisconsin. 
-Other than Beloit they were in the following places or cities: Madison, Verona, Fort Atkinson, Oshkosh, Neenah, Menasha, Appleton, Watertown. 
-According to the car rental receipt, 116 miles were driven which must have been a mistake as the mileage between all these cities and the going to and from Chicago is at least 444 miles, he was saying, though it might be possible to think it had only happened in his imagination or in his hope for it to have happened or he had it confused with another trip to the mid-west:
1
-He was to be saying and he did not say, My first attempt at…  allowed me to resort to the sayings:  that instead of history--- my last year at Beloit--- repeating as farce the three nights at Beloit seemed to be a dropping into a purgatory with no prospect at the end of being …. I need not fill out the traditional belief but I would wish to avoid the easy resorting to saying, it seemed like a dropping into an abyss.
--He writes and then said,  On November 6, 1918 my first literary creation died or should I say--- I ruthlessly and out of necessity killed him as sure as the imaginary German bullet--- and thus begun the writing that lead me to this moment of my reading talking to and with you.  The person to whom that writing had been directed to did not respond to it and I discovered here in the library of Beloit College that I had been not alone in writing with such a purpose as I shared that with Dante and Petrarch who each had begun out the same impulse but I didn’t learn until much later the reality I came to find myself in--- as Turgenev remarked: I write for my five unknown readers and find myself as lonely as a finger.  That war---World War One---ended as you might remember on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th day in November, 1918. When I finally did talk with the girl to whom that first writing was meant, she admitted she had read the story as I had kept her first name, Melinda and added an L to her Brady, but she never approached me and yet she wondered how I had known her birthday was November 6?  This of course was a long time ago before the current moment when a simple search on the internet reveals such information so easily… but I had wrote with her in the mind of my creation based on seeing her one morning on the second floor of Patchogue High School.  I was a senior and she was a sophomore… now, in the present which seems more fictional than that other fiction, the past, we are two people who have  been married three times and she lives in a great house on  large tract of land in rural northern Maine and I live on the Lower East Side of Manhattan and find myself spending long weekends at a near lakeside house with my wife, 30 miles from that apartment. In New Jersey, in a town with a Main Street that is crossed by Haig, Pershing, Joffre and Foch streets with a little side avenue named for Petain and there is an American Legion Hall named for Joyce Kilmer 
-BUT every writer should have at least one great prejudice that is beyond argument and I will name Julian Green as the great writer of the 20th Century and I hope to read and to  be read to on my death bed. 
-Julian Green American born not made as he liked to say was the only American in the French Academy and the first non-French person in that body.  He succeeded to the chair that had been occupied by Francois Mauriac…  but for the immediate purpose of this talk there is in his PERSONAL RECORD 1928-1939 a link to another writer who I always think of as being the great writer of Wisconsin GLENWAY WESCOTT.
Green kept a diary as did his friends Gide and Mauriac and all of it along with all his writings are published in the Pleiade edition and he might have the largest number of volumes in that series… but the quote : 19 December 1928.  Lunched yesterday with Wescott.  He told me that it seemed to him impossible for a journal to be written that should be absolutely sincere and bear the stamp of truth.  But sincerity is a gift--- one among others.  To wish to be sincere is not enough.”
-Knowing that was my introduction to Julian who I first visited in Paris.  I would see him for almost the next two decades and did a profile of him for The Guardian in London which was a little embarrassed to publish since that paper was aggressively liberal and skeptical of religion but with Green that allowed me to report that when I asked him what he looked forward to at 90, he simply said Purgatory. 

BUT THERE IS GOOD NEWS.  THE DECEMBER ISSUE OF THE HOLLINS CRITIC IS TO HAVE MY VERY LONG ESSAY ON ANNIVERSARIES BY UWE JOHNSON... THAT CAN WITHOUT HYPE BE COMPARED WITH THE GREAT BOOKS OF JOYCE, PROUST AND MUSIL...  ANNIVERSARIES IS AVAILABLE NOW FROM NOW FROM NEW YORK REVIEW BOOKS..AND I WOULD OFFER A MONEY BACK GUARANTEE AS TO ITS QUALITY... ONCE BEGUN TO READ YOU WILL AT THE END BE SADDENED THAT THE BOOK IS ONLY 1600+ PAGES AND YOU AVE NOW LIVED EITHER AGAIN OR FOR THE FIRST TIME THOUGH THOSE YEARS FROM AUGUST 1967-1968 AND AT THE SAME TIME BACK TO THE 1930S BOTH AT FIRST IN GERMANY AND THEN LATER IN NEW YORK CITY.

5 comments:

Aaron Barlow said...

Thanks. You leave me both depressed and content. Beloit: would I teach there? I don't know. I have spent my teaching career at "lower caliber" colleges and have learned to love the students I have, for whom "identify" is of little interest. So, I am depressed about my alma mater but content to be where I am. And I guess I could say the same about books: I rarely teach canonical literature--not because I don't love it but because my students need to be eased into reading at all. Right now, I'm teaching a course on Cold War spying and the fiction of John le Carre. I was hoping to smooth the path to "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy" through two earlier novels and his recent "A Legacy of Spies" (after), but I am not sure how well it is working. They are learning, at least, a great deal about spies, patriotism, moral ambiguity and the Cold War itself. That makes me content, though the starting place for my students sometimes depresses me.

Pop Leibel said...

I love this blog. I come here at least once a week to see if there are any new entries. This guy has a unique albeit curious style of writing. This blogger seems pretty lonely, though. If I lived near NYC I'd go over to Manhattan and have a few beers with him. I don't though I live in North Carolina. I don't use many commas. One must wade through sentences slowly and decipher information carefully.

I'd imagine a lonesome leaf tumbling down a NY sidestreet. A red leaf because it's autumn. A leaf with a pencil in one hand and a Big Chief writing tablet in the other. I know leaves don't have hands but this one does. He could be a hand model like George Costanza was. Beautiful hands. The girls in Prague had always said he had nice hands. And so large!

He uses Big Chief tablets because they have large spaces to capture his fancy cursive chirography and also that's what the guy in Confederacy of Dunces used. I'm not punctuating much here in veneration to Thomas.

Anyway, I wish I was a red leaf in NYC. I might be blowing up to a cool museum right this very second. Or to a pub that serves beer and good food. Why doesn't 'good' and 'food' rhyme? That sentence would be so much cooler if they did. Anyway (again), take it easy Thomas McGonigle. I'll keep checking back for new stuff.

Unknown said...

The book Faulkner in the University contains transcripts of Faulkner’s meetings with University of Virginia students in the late fifties when he was writer in residence there. The book is stunning in that the students are so well informed and ask many excellent questions that show they have read Faulkner’s work carefully. It’s hard, or even impossible, to imagine engagement like that between students and a serious writer these days.

Thomas McGonigle said...

UNKNOWN is right..I had forgotten about that book about Faulkner and his students . and I think there is also one from when he was at West Point... and of course Faulkner's novels are never much talked about since profs are usually too dumb to read them...

Anonymous said...

"Faulkner's novels are never much talked about"? I don't know where you get such generalized information. In the University where I teach Faulkner is very much part of classes in modern American literature: "The Sound and the Fury"; "As I Lay Dying"; and, of course "The Bear" are taught. I suspect that in survey courses "A Rose for Emily" and "Barn Burning" are regularly taught. Perhaps you could ask a librarian to tell you how many citations to Faulkner there are in a recent MLA bibliography.