Tuesday, July 9, 2013


July 9, 2013:

     Three months since I've posted a blog. Shameful. I've been busy writing magazine assignments and I've felt the loss; this blog is my comfort and myself, and magazine assignments, while they're fine and often very interesting, do not leave you free to be yourself. But I finished the last one this morning, I've heard from my editor, who's pleased, not to mention prompt, and now I'm at loose ends for a little while. And when that happens, I often turn to TLS.

     Aka the Times Literary Supplement, for those who are not as bookish as I am. It is the best of the big three of book reviews, the others being the New York Review of Books and the London Review of Books. They constitute my university in a way, certainly my continuing education. They cover all kinds of subjects I'm never going to know much about otherwise and give me enough background information to make my way around them, and they give me ideas, expand my mind, all the hard candy an odd brain like mine thrives on. For instance, in the latest TLS, just arrived, I learned, in the order in which the information came, that Joseph Duveen, the great art dealer, connoisseur, and creator of collections who flourished in the late nineteenth-early twentieth centuries, sold to Mr. and Mrs. Benjamin Franklin Jones of Pittsburgh, for a considerable sum, a very poor copy of a Gainsborough as the real thing. Which means that Duveen was a crook, much suspected over the years but here confirmed.

     And then that Maurice Girodias, publisher of the Olympia Press, the famous French house that first published Lolita and much of Samuel Beckett and William Burroughs, as well as a great deal of elegant pornography, lost his fortune investing in a restaurant in Paris, La Grande Severine, housed in a basement next to what had been a cemetery, and when they tried to expand they found themselves inconvenienced by having to remove skulls at night, which they dumped in remote sections of the Seine. When they ran out of remote sections of the river, they dumped them in the garbage cans of nearby restaurants.

     Then there's this, in the same review, a story that "Becket's use of deracinated heads in his work may have been inspired by a grisly experiment in which the heads of guillotined criminals were allegedly questioned for several minutes, responding to questions by blinking their eyelids." This couldn't happen, of course, as the reviewer pointed out, although--there's often an although--Camus pointed out in his essay on the guillotine that guillotined heads have been seen trying to speak.

     If you don't find this amusing and refreshing, as well as horrid, you need to look more deeply into the works of Edgar Allan Poe, or those of the aptly named Edward Gorey.

     But the best for me came a couple of weeks ago, when I discovered via TLS that Bloomsbury has just published Vol. 99 of The Ancient Commentators on Aristotle, a project that has been ongoing for the last twenty-five years. It just pleased me no end. Scholarship! It's indefatigable. This series translates these ancient commentators into English, most for the first time. The volume in question contains the work of Aeneas of Gaza, his Theophrastus, along with the Ammonius of Zacharias of Mytilene. Hardly names to conjure with, and at first sight it's easy to think, my, what a waste of paper the whole project is. But think about it: what if hidden in this bulk lurk gems of forgotten wisdom, or better yet revealing comments on Aristotle's best-known lost book, the book on comedy that was the twin of his book on tragedy, which I've read and is still read; it's a standard text on Greek tragedy, it's where we get the idea of hubris. The lost book on comedy was the hinge, furthermore, around which the story in Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose turned, and I've read that, too, and they made a movie of it starring Sean Connery (whom I'm said to resemble). All knowledge is not equal but it all has value. At first I thought it was a joke that they have begun to publish all the letters of Henry James, which will run to a similar frightful length; it will include notes accepting dinner invitations, or refusing them; perhaps laundry lists; in short, everything left. I have the four volumes of his letters previously collected and think it sufficient. But forty-four volumes? A hundred and forty-four? Well, I suppose so. You never know, if you're a scholar, where you'll find the facts you need to back up an idea or a theory, or guide you down the road you're taking into some arcane subject matter that, although arcane, is also fascinating, and may matter in ways you never suspected.

     TLS, then. It gives me hope. It also gave me the first money I ever made writing, when they published a poem of mine, many years ago. Now they won't publish my poems at all; the poetry editor has told me not to bother, he will never publish my poems. But the late Ian Hamilton, revered on both sides of the Atlantic, was the poetry editor then and he bought my poem, which was called "The French Revolution." Pretty good poem. And to be frank about it, the poems they publish now are generally pisspoor. The fee was one English pound; the check came in U. S. dollars, about three of them. Sweet. And it published a fine full-page review of my last book. How could I not love it? It reveres learning. We fail to revere learning at our great peril.