Posts Tagged ‘Vladimir Nabokov’

He got an “A” from Nabokov

Tuesday, March 26th, 2013
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Six feet tall and balding.

Delightful piece over at the New York Review of Books by Edward Jay Epstein, recalling his 1954 class with Vladimir Nabokov at Cornell.  We’ve written about Nabokov’s time at Stanford in 1941 here, but that was before he was quite the big-shot.

Here’s an excerpt:

The professor was Vladimir Nabokov, an émigré from tsarist Russia. About six feet tall and balding, he stood, with what I took to be an aristocratic bearing, on the stage of the two-hundred-fifty-seat lecture hall in Goldwin Smith. Facing him on the stage was his white-haired wife Vera, whom he identified only as “my course assistant.” He made it clear from the first lecture that he had little interest in fraternizing with students, who would be known not by their name but by their seat number. Mine was 121. He said his only rule was that we could not leave his lecture, even to use the bathroom, without a doctor’s note.

He then described his requisites for reading the assigned books. He said we did not need to know anything about their historical context, and that we should under no circumstance identify with any of the characters in them, since novels are works of pure invention. The authors, he continued, had one and only one purpose: to enchant the reader. So all we needed to appreciate them, aside from a pocket dictionary and a good memory, was our own spines. He assured us that the authors he had selected—Leo Tolstoy, Nikolai Gogol, Marcel Proust, James Joyce, Jane Austen, Franz Kafka, Gustave Flaubert, and Robert Louis Stevenson—would produce tingling we could detect in our spines.

Read the rest here.  It’s very short and a lot of fun.

Remembering William Maxwell: “He used a pause better than most of us use a paragraph.”

Tuesday, October 30th, 2012
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Sophisticated? He didn’t think so. (Photo: Brookie Maxwell)

In preparation for Stanford’s “Another Look,” a new book club launched by the English department at Stanford, I wrote a retrospective on author William Maxwell, whose  masterpiece, So Long, See You Tomorrow, will be the inaugural book for  “Another Look”  on Monday, November 12.   The book will be discussed by award-winning author Tobias Wolff, with Bay Area novelist, journalist, and editor Vendela Vida and Stanford’s lit scholar Vaughn Rasberry, to be followed by an audience discussion.  More on “Another Look” here

***

“I never felt sophisticated,” the erudite and elderly Midwesterner explained to NPR’s Terry Gross in 1995.  His modesty is certainly one reason why William Maxwell remains a connoisseur’s writer, never achieving the wider recognition he deserves.

Yet Maxwell’s career was situated at the epicenter of American literature and letters: On staff at the New Yorker from 1936 to 1975, he was the editor of J.D. Salinger, Vladimir Nabokov, Eudora Welty, Frank O’Connor, John Cheever, and many other luminaries.  He also contributed regularly to the magazine’s reviews and columns, and continued to do so until 1999, a year before his death.  Maxwell wrote six novels, many short stories, a memoir, two books for children, and about forty short, whimsical pieces, which he called “improvisations.” Three volumes of letters have also been published.

Others have readily compensated for Maxwell’s modesty.  Christopher Carduff, editor of the Library of America edition of the author’s complete works, once called him “a kind, wise, quiet voice. One of the essential American voices of our time.”

“I don’t think he tried very hard to promote himself,” said writer Benjamin Cheever, son of novelist John Cheever, in a telephone interview. “He was very, very quiet – both as a public person and as a conversationalist.  He used a pause better than most of us use a paragraph.”

“He lived for art, its appreciation as well as its creation,” wrote John Updike in The New Yorker.  “His shapely, lively, gently rigorous memoirs, out of the abundance of heartfelt writing he bestowed on posterity, are most like being with Bill in life, at lunch in midtown or at home in the East Eighties, as he intently listened, and listened, and then said, in his soft dry voice, exactly the right thing.”

The path of Maxwell’s life took few sharp turns. He was born in Lincoln, Illinois, on August 16, 1908. His professional life was almost entirely bound up with the New Yorker, where he worked for four decades – in a sense, he became the “company man” his father would have approved.

After an intensely long and lonely bachelorhood, he married the most beautiful woman he had ever met.  Their marriage lasted until her death, a week before his own.  He and Emily (universally called “Emmy”) had two daughters – the first born when he was 46.

His work habits were relentlessly predictable:  According to his daughter Katharine Maxwell, he was consistently in bed at 10 p.m., and up at 6 a.m.  He didn’t like the superficial chitchat of cocktail parties.  He excused himself abruptly from dinner parties at 9.45 p.m. – he wanted to be fresh to write the next morning.

About four-fifths of his oeuvre is set in or around his hometown. Thanks to him, Lincoln has become a landmark as indelible as Hannibal, Missouri, in the annals of American literature.

“The shine went out of everything”

There was one defining peak on the otherwise rather flat landscape of Maxwell’s life: his mother’s death in the 1918 influenza epidemic, when he was 10. He never really got over it; almost all his friends and acquaintances speak about it when recalling him.

“He couldn’t speak of her without tears welling up in his eyes,” recalled his daughter, Katharine Maxwell. She said it resulted in a sort of flinty atheism, a grudge almost – “yet he said he thought God could write a better story than he could.”  Maxwell’s friend and fellow writer at the New Yorker, Alec Wilkinson, described him as “melancholy-minded.” Said Wilkinson: “His mother’s death stamped him forever with an awareness of the fragility of human happiness.  It kept him away from any religions. I remember him saying that ‘no one can fail to be astonished by creation – that’s as far as I’m going to go as to a governing faculty to the universe.’”

(more…)

Christopher Plummer playing Vladimir Nabokov talking about Franz Kafka.

Monday, September 17th, 2012
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The genuine article.

It’s not quite Vladimir Nabokov (witness the video of the real thing on video here), but rather the actor Christopher Plummer takes a shot at performing the Russian author, who taught at Cornell University  from 1948 to 1959.

There doesn’t appear to be much online about Peter Medak‘s short television film from 1989, Nabokov on Kafka, which dramatizes Nabokov’s lectures on Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis.  Despite NEH funding and TV airing, this film seems to have pretty much disappeared from public awareness.  Certainly I had never heard of it before.  Anyone know anything about this quirky show?

Thanks to 3quarksdaily for pointing it out.

 

Nabokov biographer Brian Boyd replies – and offers a pretty good sales pitch

Tuesday, July 24th, 2012
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Sold!

Yesterday, we wrote about the new edition of Vladimir Nabokov‘s  ”Pale Fire” poem, liberated from the pages of the the Pale Fire book and published as a stand-alone work.  We also mentioned Stephen Gertz’s reservation about the Gingko Press’ effort – principally that this book is not the first time “Pale Fire” was published all by its lonesome; Arion Press published the poem in 1994.

We received a charming reply today from the eminent Nabokov biographer Brian Boyd, who edited the small volume and wrote a commentary (in another letter below, R.S. Gwynn writes that Boyd’s “close reading of the poem is masterly”). It’s so much fun we thought we would publish the note as a separate post. Boyd writes:

999-line poem on file cards, as the author intended.

“I was also an adviser on the 1994 Arion Press edition of “Pale Fire,” which is an exquisite thing, with a moiré cloth box and cover that manage to capture the interplay of sun and moon in the passage of “Timon of Athens” from which Nabokov and Shade pick the phrase “pale fire.” But that was a limited fine edition of the whole novel (at $600 on release), including the poem of course, but also with a separate booklet for the poem (also in a moiré cloth cover), as part of the same boxed set, typeset as if typed on index cards and bound into booklet form.

What makes the Gingko edition so unprecedented–and here the credit belongs, if first to Vladimir Nabokov, then next to artist Jean Holabird, who proposed the project, is:

a) that it is of the poem alone;

A poet as well as novelist, and perhaps a pugilist, too

 

b) that the poem appears as if handwritten on index cards (just as Kinbote describes it), with the last 50 lines as if in first draft rather than fair copy (and with the twelve cards of legitimate variants kept by Shade also downloadable from Ginkgo), as if the reader has direct access to what Shade wrote, without the intervention of Kinbote;

c) that the poem is also presented as a booklet, for easier reading, almost as if it might have been published had Shade been real, and Kinbote had not intervened (with a brief note About the Author and a page listing Other Books by the Author), and with Jean Holabird’s delicate art work, as it were, belatedly launching Shade’s last poetry volume;

d) that there is also a booklet with two essays, by R.S. Gwynn and myself, that focus only on the poem. The focus on the poem, in design and detail, the play throughout with the fiction that readers are for the first time allowed immediate access to a major American poem of 1959, is unique to the Gingko edition, and the result of an admiration for the poem, and a sense of regret that it has been overshadowed by the novel as a whole, however much we might like it (it’s my favorite novel in the world), that is shared by Jean Holabird, Mo Cohen of Gingko Press (and those at the press who became entranced by the project), and Sam Gwynn and myself.

And the Gingko “Pale Fire” pack is not a fine limited edition, but both a literary intervention–very successful, indeed, in inviting people to read and discuss the poem as poem–and “an almost ridiculously lovely package” selling for only $35!

Nabokov’s “Pale Fire” on its own: Does it work? The jury deliberates…

Monday, July 23rd, 2012
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Some time ago we wrote about Sam Gwynn (a.k.a. the poet R.S. Gwynn) and his newest venture:

Ron Rosenbaum, writing in Slateannounces the next hot Nabokov controversy, and the story is making the rounds in the blogosphere.  The poem “Pale Fire” is about to be liberated from Pale Fire. The 900-line poem at the center of what many call Vladimir Nabokov‘s finest novel, written presumably by the murdered John Shade, will be published separately by Ginkgo Press:  “Nabokov wrote it, and the question of why he wrote it and who he modeled Shade on is the subject of what will be an equally controversial essay accompanying the edition, by poet and poetry professor R.S. Gwynn.”

David Orr‘s New York Times review writes that the the long poems comes in “an almost ridiculously lovely package”: “the poem itself is printed in a small booklet, the note cards upon which Shade ‘wrote’ the poem are recreated (complete with faux ink stains), and an accompanying critical text contains helpful essays from the Nabokov scholar Brian Boyd and the poetry critic R. S. Gwynn (who makes a smart case for Nabokov having used couplets partly as a response to Robert Lowell’s early work).”

“But does it work? Can the poem ‘Pale Fire’ exist without the novel Pale Fire? [You see, contra Josh Landy, here is where the Chicago Manual comes in handy. The finky New York Times style italicizes "Pale Fire" both as poem and novel. I have corrected the ugliness. – ED.]
There are reasons to think it cannot. In a New Yorker blog post last year, Paul Muldoon conceded that ‘Pale Fire’ is ‘a quite wonderful poem,’ but he asked, ‘Isn’t it like one of those tall buildings which incorporates in its core the very crane that raised it?’”

Sam at the helm

What can I say.  I wanted to reach out across the continent, shake them both, and cry out:  ” Dr. Zhivago!  What of the poems of Yuri Zhivago in Doctor Zhivago?” They’ve been published separately for years and years and years.

“I’m very fond of Pasternak’s poems from Doctor Zhivago,” Nobel laureate Joseph Brodsky told Solomon Volkov. “They’re remarkable poems, especially ‘Christmas Star.’ I think of them often.”  No talk of buildings and cranes here.

However, Orr continues:  ”This is beautifully put, but there is another way to look at things. When authors write ‘as’ a character, particularly in a third-person novel, we usually understand that the text created by that character is subordinate to the world in which the character exists. In Persuasion, for example, Jane Austen brings the novel to its emotional peak with a letter written by Frederick Wentworth — which we understand is really written by Austen and dependent for its resonance on the world of Anne Elliot, the Musgroves, Lady Russell and the rest. It’s hard to imagine anyone reading the letters of Frederick Wentworth for their own sake … In general, the writing of fictional characters is dependent on the larger work, and it is the larger work that reflects the author’s worldview.”

Orr makes a bigger point, about the lyrical “I,” which is a mask and the poet at once.  ”There is obviously great potential for confusion as to who is saying what in this arrangement,” he writes.  I’m not quite sure why it matters at all.  In the end, he rather concludes the same: “No poem is ever on its own. And the poem is not Nabokov’s any more than it is John Shade’s. ‘Pale Fire’ is a voice within a voice — a mirrored and thoroughly modern sensibility. And that sensibility, whatever name we give it, is one hell of a poet.”

On the other hand, Booktryst’s Stephen Gertz has a two-year-old bone to pick with Rosenbaum and Gingko Press, publisher of the new “stand-alone” edition of the poem “Pale Fire”:

There’s just one problem. The poem ‘Pale Fire’ was “freed from the shackles..free at last to be a poem on its own,” extracted from the novel and published in its first separate edition in 1994, by Arion Press in San Francisco.

Like the Gingko edition, it’s reproduced just as Nabokov described it in the novel – on file cards.  Read the rest here.

Nitpick, lightning.

Wednesday, May 23rd, 2012
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April 12: I said it was bad, and I meant it.

A gentle reader took issue with last month’s post on Library Porn: fabulous places for booklovers everywhere:  “I relished the Rabelaisian (would that it were Menippean and broke forth into verse!) satire in Ex vero portu librorum pars quattuor de bibliotheca erotica (From the Veritable Haven of Books, Installment the Fourth Concerning the Pornographic Library).”

But then he cut loose:

Placing weather first and foremost is a sine qua non of wretched writing, but rather than opening with “It is a rainy night with thunder and lightning,” introduce the porn theme immediately with learned literary allusion to Bulwer-Lytton and library classification systems: “It was a dark and STEAMY night in the PA-PN stacks.”

But is Edward Bulwer-Lytton‘s “It was a dark and stormy night” really the sine qua non of wretched writing? (We’ve written about the Bulwer-Lytton Bad Writing contest here and here.)  Coincidentally, about the same time I was scribbling the sentence-in-question, blogger Levi Stahl over at I’ve Been Reading Lately was wondering:

Like nearly everyone alive today, I’ve not read Bulwer-Lytton. I’ve long thought, however, that he didn’t deserve his infamy–at least not if the sole piece of evidence against him is, as it usually seems to be, the above sentence. Oh, it’s not a good sentence. Yes, it would likely have made Nabokov or Updike shudder. But is it really that bad? If we can pretend briefly that the opening phrase hasn’t yet become a cliché, then the ground for complaint are two:

Crummy father.

1 The unnecessary, interpolated elaboration of the gusts of wind
2 The poorly positioned parenthetical that locates the book in London.

Both are clumsy and could easily have been improved by the casting over them of even a weak editorial eye–but is the sentence as it now stands all that bad? Worse than what our best-selling, low-grade thriller writers turn out on page after page? Worse than James Frey‘s Hemingway-cum-Fight Club masochismo? I just don’t see it.

When did the opening line of the 1830 novel Paul Clifford become a cliché?  A Google’s Ngram viewer is inconclusive. The phrase was repeated a lot in the first three decades, but then faded over the subsequent century.

Stahl is convinced that Bulwer-Lytton has been damned for the wrong sin? Has he been consigned to the wrong circle of literary hell?

According to John Sutherland‘s Lives of the Novelists (Yale University Press) he was the world’s worst husband and father.  He abandoned his daughter to die of typhus in a London lodging house.  His wife eventually accused him of hiring an assassin to kill her. What’s a little rain compared with that?

Oh read it for yourself, over here.  Meanwhile, here’s the blogger’s Ngram:

 

 

 

Nabokov on Lolita: “I leave the field of ideas to Dr. Schweitzer and Dr. Zhivago.”

Monday, February 27th, 2012
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I had never heard Vladimir Nabokov speak, until I ran across this video while reading up my post a few days ago. In this late-1950s video, Nabokov discusses his novel Lolita – or appears to – with an unnamed moderator and the critic and author Lionel Trilling. I suspect much of what he’s saying is a leg-pull. If these comments and questions are typical of the kinds of interviews he faced, it’s no wonder he skived off to Switzerland with the cash he made on the appalling film version of Lolita with Sue Lyon.  (And the comments on the youtube video are a good indication of why he stayed.)

I learned a few things from these videos: According to Mr. Nabokov, I am a philistine.  I confess that I am, on occasion, “a user of cozies” – tea cozies, anyway.  Who knew it was so easy? On those who think his book is about sex? “But maybe they think in clichés. For them sex is so well-defined there’s a gap between it and love. They don’t know what love is, and perhaps they don’t know what sex is, either.” What does it all mean? “I leave the field of ideas to Dr. [Albert] Schweitzer and Dr. Zhivago.” He doesn’t miss a chance to get in a dig at Boris Pasternak.

Postscript on 3/8:  The Book Haven attracts a very broad readership, but never before have we attracted a fan from the tea cozy world.  This from a reader who identifies himself/herself only as FlockofTeaCosy: “This video is from Close Up, a CBC programme from the 1950s, and Nabokov is being interviewed by Trilling and Canadian author Pierre Berton.” There you have it. The name of the third man in the clips.  (And check out the avant-garde tea cozies here.) And from one of our more usual readers, Elena Danielson, “I think Nabokov would approve of your tea cozies – but not of Pasternak.” See their comments below.

The word has a life of its own – “it lives in the kingdom of the mouth and the mind.”

Saturday, February 25th, 2012
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The author

When I visited Ann Pasternak Slater last fall, I asked if her husband, the writer Craig Raine, might have a copy of the famously blistering review he wrote of Joseph Brodsky‘s poetry. I say “famous,” but my efforts had failed to uncover any copy of the review in any library. He hadn’t, but some weeks later she wrote that he had suggested I look up the review in his 500+ page book of essays, In Defense of T.S. Eliot.  Feeling a little rebuffed, I nevertheless found a copy of the book in Stanford’s Green Library, and I must say that he’s rather won me over, on every subject except Brodsky.

This paragraph, in particular, from the essay “A Book that Changed My Life,” about finding Vladimir Nabokov‘s Lolita as a 14-year-old boarding school student in 1959:

“I settled to read this dirty book – undeceived by the international tributes to Nabokov’s art which were anthologized at the back – and was at once bouleversé by the first paragraph, which had, as it turned out, a particular personal message from Nabokov to me. It was this: the word has a life of its own, a sound of its own and a shape of its own. It isn’t simply a harmless drudge, it is also a monarch with a retinue of associations. It lives in the kingdom of the mouth and the mind. If it is to obey you, you must cherish it as an individual and respect its unique powers and properties. Every word is irreplaceable, as Roget paradoxically but invariably demonstrates.”

Coincidentally, today’s Washington Post announced the death of 77-year-old Dmitri Nabokov, the author’s son, whose position as heir inevitably meant much of his life was spent protecting his father’s literary legacy and translating and editing his father’s plays, poems, stories, including the novella The Enchanter and the Selected Letters.

“My father is gradually marching — with his two favorite writers, Pushkin and Joyce — arm in arm into the pantheon to join the greatest of all, Shakespeare, who is waiting for them,” Nabokov told The Associated Press in a 2009 interview. “I like to think that I did my bit to keep things on track.”

 

Pablo Neruda: Greatest pick-up artist evah?

Thursday, January 12th, 2012
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The conversation erupted on my Facebook page, debating the eternally recurring subject of unjust Nobel awards. It’s recently been revealed that J.R.R. Tolkien had been snubbed by the Nobel committee because his writing wasn’t up to snuff.

Other poor Nobel choices came to mind among my FB friends – the 1971 Nobel to Pablo Neruda over Tolkien?  Or over W.H. Auden, for that matter?  Or Jorge Luis Borges?  Or Vladimir Nabokov?

Another Nobel laureate, Octavio Paz called Neruda “the greatest bad poet of the century,” a much-repeated soundbite that sticks.  Yet Nobelist Gabriel García Márquez called him “the greatest poet of the twentieth century – in any language.” To which one can only reply Osip Mandelstam, W.H. Auden, Marina Tsvetaeva, T.S. Eliot, Czeslaw Milosz.

Our view of Neruda is now inevitably colored by his Stalinist politics.

Apologists say the Stalinists couldn’t possibly have known about the murderous excesses of the U.S.S.R.  Couldn’t possibly have known?  Despite a generation of slaughtered, imprisoned and exiled writers from Russia?  Despite a man-made famine that starved millions?  Despite the writings of Robert Conquest?  If Neruda had any questions, all he had to do was ask Czeslaw Milosz, who defected in 1950.  Instead, he infamously penned a denunciation of Milosz as “The Man Who Ran Away.”

There is nothing so dangerous to us as the thing we do not want to be true, the thing we turn our backs to.

Not bad for a dumpy-looking guy

In time for the 2004 Neruda centenary, Stephen Schwartz (not a literary critic, but a conservative political commentator), wrote in a seminal article that has been cited all over the internet:

There is probably no more chance of halting this current binge of Neruda worship than there is of banishing the cicadas, but, still, the truth does need to be said: Pablo Neruda was a bad writer and a bad man. His main public is located not in the Spanish-speaking nations but in the Anglo-European countries, and his reputation derives almost entirely from the iconic place he once occupied in politics – which is to say, he’s “the greatest poet of the twentieth century” because he was a Stalinist at exactly the right moment, and not because of his poetry, which is doggerel.

So does Neruda’s poetry have a future?

Eternally.  On Facebook, my friend Kevin assured me that Pablo Neruda has enduring market value in the Spanish-speaking world for his … pick-up lines. Not bad for a dumpy-looking guy (see right).

Hard to argue that point – an award-winning film was made on precisely that subject, Il Postino/The Postman.  The plot: nerdy Italian postman wants to pick up pretty girl.  He befriends the exiled Neruda and voilà!  Plagiarism is born in a small Italian village.

As Schwartz himself admitted:

Yes, his work is still plagiarized by teenage boys in Latin America, who see his Twenty Love Poems and a Desperate Song and figure there is nothing wrong with borrowing from it–just as one poem in the book is itself stolen from Rabindranath Tagore – and presenting its overwrought lines to their girlfriends. But if those boys grow up to be serious writers, they leave Neruda behind.

No luck with the line

But Kevin had a story of his own.  During a summer studying at the London School of Economics, an attractive young Spanish woman caught his eye.  How to attract her attention? His friend Pedro (there were a lot of Spaniards around that summer)  said it was very important to open with a sure-fire line.  Neruda was the ticket.

A dormitory lunchroom discussion of Neruda and the art of line-by-line seduction followed.  The young woman demanded an example of a florid Iberian pick-up line: “Let me hear it.”

Kevin recalled the line Pedro had taught him:  “The sentence would be something like “Oh, cielito mío, que Dios me dió” [Oh, my little heaven, given to me by God].

“It’s the cheesiest thing in the world.  And she said, ‘Wow, that’s really good.’”

Did he get the date?  No.  But he learned his lesson: “That’s how it’s done in España.”

 

No more billets-doux, no more epistolary novels, no more Collected Letters

Tuesday, October 4th, 2011
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Write a letter lately?  I haven’t either.

According to a story in the Associated Press, nobody else is, either:

For the typical American household these days, nearly two months will pass before a personal letter shows up.

The avalanche of advertising still arrives, of course, along with magazines and catalogs. But personal letters — as well as the majority of bill payments — have largely been replaced by email, Twitter, Facebook and the like.

“In the future old ‘love letters’ may not be found in boxes in the attic but rather circulating through the Internet, if people care to look for them,” said Webster Newbold, a professor of English at Ball State University in Muncie, Ind.

Well, not so.  We’re not likely to be able to retrieve them.  Such missives are likely to be harbored in defunct email systems on old computers.  I save a bunch seven-inch floppies with interviews on them, in hopes I’ll find a computer that can decode them.  Nothing like hard copies, even if I can’t lay my hands on them readily.

Voltaire wrote about 15,000 letters during his 83-year life.  In more recent times, C.S. Lewis is the patron saint of pen pals. His Collected Letters amount to thousands and thousands of pages. I reviewed the 1,800+ page third volume for the Washington Post here.

Lewis wrote everyone, including T.S. Eliot, the sci-fi maestro Arthur C. Clarke, and the American writer Robert Penn Warren.  “Other letters were from cranks, whiners and down-and-out charity cases; he answered them all,” I wrote.

"...the oar to a galley slave..."

“The pen has become to me what the oar is to a galley slave,” he wrote of the disciplined torture of writing letters for hours every day. He complained about the deterioration of his handwriting, the rheumatism in his right hand and the winter cold numbing his fingers. In the era of the ballpoint, he used a nib pen dipped in ink every four or five words.

Who, in the future, will have volumes of Collected that will be thicker than a slim paperback?

Beyond the prospect of no Collecteds, whole novels have been held together by letters – Laclos‘s Liaisons Dangereuses, for example, or, since we’ve mentioned Lewis, his  Screwtape Letters, or his Letters to Malcolm.  Or his friend Dorothy L. Sayers‘ mystery novel-in-letters Documents in the Case.  Or  Johann Wolfgang von Goethe‘s Sorrows of Young Werther and Friedrich Hölderlin‘s Hyperion.

Beyond even that, letters provide pivotal revelations in Jane Austen‘s Pride and Prejudice.  Or in almost anything by Henry James.  The sudden realization, the catharsis, the flushed cheek…

Vladimir Nabokov‘s Lolita begins with a letter – the letter that tells of the death, in childbirth, of the title character at age 16.  If people read it more carefully, they would have a different view of the “sexy” novel.  (Also if they read between the lines of Humbert Humbert’s self-serving pronouncements.  But without early training on all those day-after-Christmas letters and learning to write the evasive “thank yous,” how would we learn the most subtle nuances of writing at all?)

The very act of letter-writing consumed hours and hours of people’s time.  At Stanford, a whole project, Mapping the Republic of Letters, has evolved from the effort to track the to-and-fro correspondence during the time of the Enlightenment.  It turns out that we can map coteries, friendships, cultural epicenters, and famous journeys through letters.

AP again:

The loss to what people in the future know about us today may be incalculable.

In earlier times the “art” of letter writing was formally taught, explained Newbold.

“Letters were the prime medium of communication among individuals and even important in communities as letters were shared, read aloud and published,” he said. “Letters did the cultural work that academic journals, book reviews, magazines, legal documents, business memos, diplomatic cables, etc. do now. They were also obviously important in more intimate senses, among family, close friends, lovers, and suitors in initiating and preserving personal relationships and holding things together when distance was a real and unsurmountable obstacle.” …

But Aaron Sachs, a professor of American Studies and History at Cornell University, said, “One of the ironies for me is that everyone talks about electronic media bringing people closer together, and I think this is a way we wind up more separate. We don’t have the intimacy that we have when we go to the attic and read grandma’s letters.”

“Part of the reason I like being a historian is the sensory experience we have when dealing with old documents” and letters, he said. “Sometimes, when people ask me what I do, I say I read other people’s mail.”

What about all those books that describes when a pile of a love letters are ceremoniously burned?  Or returned to the beloved in a ribbon-tied packet after a break-up?  Not quite the same as pressing a “delete” button, is it?  However, that sort of rite-of-passage has been on the downswing since the invention of the xerox machine.

“Letters mingle souls,” as John Donne wrote, but in a wholly different way than what is commonplace on the worldwide web.  Despite my sentimentality, however, I, for one, am not sure I’d trade pages on cream-colored vellum for the zip and brevity and immediacy of quickly typed “Sure. Will do.” on my Mac.