Most writers fall in love with their words. They greet changes to the text, particularly of a published work, with the blank astonishment of a mother confronted with criticism of her first-born child. This cannot be said of Gore Vidal, who died in Los Angeles at 86 on July 31st. I remember sitting in early rehearsals of the 2000 Broadway production of The Best Man and Vidal asking Jeffrey Richards, the lead producer, “Should I update the international references? Make them more contemporary?” He expected changes in his play and embraced them, but, in fact, there were very few in this production. Prickly references to China were as relevant in 2000 as they were when the play was set in the early ‘60s.
I had a professor in architecture school who said that you couldn’t draw up a building properly at 1:100 scale until you had worked out all the details at 1:20. Whether or not this is true for architecture, Robert Caro demonstrates how well such an approach works for writing history. Throughout The Years of Lyndon Johnson, and most particularly in his fourth and latest volume, The Passage of Power, Caro zooms in and out without ever losing the complex whole he has so carefully built up. Immense as Caro’s project is, The Passage of Power demonstrates the logic of his decision to extend the project to a fifth volume (he originally planned only three). The first 47 days of the Johnson administration, in which the best version of the man took charge, culminate this volume and are well worth the several hundred pages Caro devotes to them. There will be plenty of space for “ruthlessness, secretiveness, deceit,” the worst aspects of Johnson’s character, in the Years to come.
Czesław Miłosz (proonouced Cheswav Meewosh), who died in 2004, was perhaps the best known of Polish literary men in the U.S., thanks to his 20-year tenure as a professor of Slavic languages at the University of Calfornia at Berkeley, where he carried on his work as an essayist, poet, fiction writer, and translator. While he could communicate and occasionally write in English, his poetry became familiar to American readers through translations published in magazines like The New Yorker. He became widely recognized as an ambassador from the land of exile, continually bearing the cross of his numerous emigrations. A Lithuanian Pole, he left for Warsaw under the German occupation. He received his education in Wilno (Vilnius), a city which was long a part of Poland, with many Polish associations, above all literary, since the two great nineteenth century poets, Adam Mickiewicz and Juliusz Słowacki, like Miłosz, spent their formative years there. A diplomat of Communist Poland in the U.S. and France, he sought political asylum in 1951 and lived as an expatriate intellectual in Paris until 1960, when he emigrated to the United States and claimed citizenship in the great everywhere and nowhere of academia. He won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1980. After 1989 he divided his time between Berkeley and Kraków.
I should most likely not distract you from giving a subscription to The Berkshire Review as a holiday gift. We need subscriptions to carry on our work, but there are a few items that have come in for review that I can warmly suggest as excellent gifts. These are not systematic, and they are not always serious, but we do recommend them. Some of them will be reviewed in detail over the following weeks.
Introduction: On July 23rd, 1846, Henry David Thoreau, protesting slavery and the ensuing Mexican war (1845 – 48) chose incarceration rather than paying his $1.00 poll tax. From this experience came the essay CIVIL DISOBEDIENCE which directly influenced Mohandas K. Gandhi in his efforts to free India from British rule and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., head of the civil rights movement in the 1960’s.
The following monologue is the author’s fictionalized attempt to portray Thoreau’s state of mind shortly after the incident and the areas of consideration leading to his momentous essay.
Setting: July 24th, 1846, Concord – H.D. Thoreau is invited to speak at the Concord Lyceum about his recent act of civil disobedience. The lyceum was a place where relevant topics of the day were presented to the public.
Note: H. D. Thoreau did, in fact, speak at the lyceum about this matter, but it was not until two years later in 1848 and later published CIVIL DISOBEDIENCE.
One thing you will not find in this rather brief (210pp.) but concentrated book is a recommendation of what recording of Beethoven’s “Harp” Quartet to buy, or a reminiscence of some outstanding performance of the work. When first perusing the book, I was naive enough to think that some bit of this kind of information might crop up in an appendix or in a footnote. But no, the only performances of the quartet mentioned in the book are nameless ones at the beginning—one great, one mediocre, and one terrible—as well as a performance by music students, which still remains in the future at the conclusion of the narrative part of the book.
The only complete analysis of the quartet as entire movements, in fact, occurs out of order: first the Adagio ma non troppo in the final section of Chapter Eight, and the rest in the appendix, which is a discussion of certain musical forms: dance form, theme and variations, sonata form, and fugue, which means that the Scherzo (third movement), finale, and first movement are discussed in that order, following other examples of their forms. There is no fugue in Op. 74—although there is one in the first movement of Op. 131, which is analyzed. Hence you should not expect to find Tovey-like analyses of the “Harp” Quartet either. You may reasonably conclude that this book is not really about the “Harp” Quartet, but about the “looking for” it—the search musicians and listeners become enmeshed in once they become conscious of a work they believe to be a great one, a classic…or perhaps, less promisingly, a teacher tells a student that it is part of the basic repertory and assigns it to study for performance.
There is a type of city, familiar but seductive, which resists writers even as its charms produce no shortage of readers. Paris, of course, is the number one suspect in the line-up. Overwhelmed by the city and its stories, writers run the perilous risk of being reduced to that style which is simultaneously vague and soppy (The American Society for the Promotion of Bad Writing About Venice was founded to celebrate such writing). Paris is too much, always too much, an excess which perhaps demands a microscope rather than an Imax camera. This was George Perec’s approach in his famous Tentative d’Epuisement d’un lieu Parisien, a book as list of all that happens in one little corner of the city. Métro insolite is much more practical, but it too is an attempt to exhaust the inexhaustible.
Il y a une espèce de ville, familière mais séduisante, qui résiste aux écrivains lorsque ses charmes ne produisent aucun manque des lecteurs. Paris, bien sûr, est suspect numéro un dans cette parade d’identification. La risque pour les écrivains, périlleux, est d’être bouleversé par la ville et ses histoires, réduit à un discours à la fois vague et, souvent, gnangnan(La Société Américaine de la Mauvaise Ecriture de Venise existe à célébrer ce vaste genre de littérature). Paris est trop, toujours trop, et c’est peut-être cet excès qui exige un microscope au lieu d’un appareil Imax. C’était l’idée de Georges Perec dans son fameux Tentative d’Epuisement d’un lieu Parisien, un livre comme liste de tous ce qui se passait dans un petit coin de la ville. Métro insolite est beaucoup plus pratique, mais c’est aussi une espèce d’épuisement de l’inépuisable.