The Daily

My Literary Hero

Meeting Coleridge

April 10, 2014 | by

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Hazlitt’s self-portrait, 1802

William Hazlitt, born in England on April 10, 1778, had a diverse and storied career in the arts: he was an essayist, a philosopher, an art critic, a literary critic, a drama critic, a cultural critic, and—just to even things out—a painter. Despite their age, his essays remain surprisingly readable. They are, in their sense of purpose and their tweedy vastness, distinctly nineteenth-century English; Hazlitt’s subjects are so broad, so plainly monumental, that any undergraduate who dared to write on them today would be flunked immediately. (His essay “On Great and Little Things” begins, “The great and the little have, no doubt, a real existence in the nature of things.”)

Hazlitt also chose his acquaintances wisely, at least insofar as many of them wound up ascending into the canon: Wordsworth, Stendhal, Charles and Mary Lamb. His landlord was Jeremy Bentham. But then there was Coleridge, ah, Coleridge! In his 1823 essay “My First Acquaintance with Poets,” Hazlitt rhapsodizes about his first encounter with the poet, who would become a kind of distant mentor, though later there came the requisite falling-out. It’s a gushing account, endearingly thorough and fanboy-ish, full of deft turns of phrase—and it humanizes both men, reminding us that these two Dead White Guys were once … Living White Guys, with fears and ambitions and impressive heads of hair. Read More »

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Lobster and Vodka Chez Burroughs

February 5, 2014 | by

Meeting William Burroughs on his eightieth birthday.

William_S_Burroughs Christian Tonnis

Illustration: Christian Tonnis

I have this fairy godmother, a childhood friend of my mother’s who lives in Lawrence, Kansas. My mother and I call her up several times a year and she’s always turning me onto cool stuff. One day, when I was a senior in high school, it occurred to me to ask her,

“Do you know William S. Burroughs?”

“Oh, sure.”

I should emphasize that this moment came at the feverish height of a blind obsession I had with William Burroughs and everything Burroughs related.

“Personally?”

“Oh, sure.”  

“You’re friends with him?”

“Well, we certainly know each other. He’s one of our local characters.”

“Do you see a lot of him?”

“I see him all the time, but mostly in the cat-food aisle of the supermarket.”

I went straight to my mother and demanded that we visit my godmother at the earliest opportunity. That summer, after I’d graduated high school and had had my wisdom teeth out, we went to Kansas. Read More »

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The Price of the Ticket

November 14, 2013 | by

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Photography credit: Carl Van Vechten.

Back in 1985, on the morning of November 23 (a cold, wet, gray autumn Saturday), I woke up happy. At that time in my life, nothing could have been more unusual.

But I knew that before that day’s sun had set, I was going to meet James Baldwin, whose body of work (the novels and short stories, his plays and all those exquisite essays) had inspired my own burning desire to write.

Baldwin was on an interview-and-autograph tour which would be his last, crisscrossing America after the simultaneous publication of The Evidence of Things Not Seen (a book-length essay on the Atlanta child murders that were then still common knowledge) and The Price of the Ticket. On that Saturday afternoon, Mr. B. (as I privately referred to him) was scheduled to appear at a bookshop on Lincoln Avenue in Chicago. For the preceding month, each customer who made a purchase at Guild Books had received a Xeroxed postcard-size printout of an invitation to the event. Baldwin’s appearance had also been touted in a news story printed that week in the Tribune.

I thought of how strange it must be—how truly bizarre—for a great writer who has spent thousands of hours alone in a room, grasping for words, struggling to sculpt just the right image on paper, to be confronted suddenly with hundreds of smiling, book-buying admirers; dozens of them invariably requesting special inscriptions for someone special; others craving a momentary brush with celebrity; still others bearing poems, plays, or stories they’re praying to share, plus the others who want to say a few words. I belonged in the latter category. Or I told myself I did. And what I wanted to tell Mr. B., more than anything else, was something like this: Thank you—for your books, for all of your work, and for being such a formidable mentor. I knew he’d heard some variation of that a thousand times before, but I was determined to say it.

Baldwin’s appearance was set for three P.M., and when I arrived at Guild Books just after two o’clock, a crowd of some three hundred was already crammed inside. A line of people stretched out the door and snaked around the corner and down the block. It may have been the most successfully integrated aggregation ever to peacefully assemble in Chicago (food festivals and ChicagoFest notwithstanding). Blacks and whites, Hispanics and Asians, Sikhs with turbans and Jews with yarmulkes were all in line, drawn together by the power of the words.

Passersby inquired about the reason for such a gathering. When told that hundreds were ignoring the autumn chill in order to meet James Baldwin, some of them smiled. Others drew a blank: they wanted to know why he was famous. Read More »

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Natural History: Adalbert Stifter

May 20, 2013 | by

Statute of Stifter, Linz.

Statute of Stifter, Linz.

My literary hero, Adalbert Stifter, was introduced to me by a professor of German studies during my sophomore year at Binghamton University. At the time, I lived alone in a studio apartment on the west side of Binghamton, a small city in upstate New York crippled by its loss of the computer and defense industries. The low standard of living and high crime rate, palpable even in the city’s nicer parts, are all the more jarring for the beautiful view of the Catskill Mountains that graces the area. At the end of the school year, the cold lifts, the rains stop, and the weather turns mild. The air, normally raw and wet, is balmy, and thick with the smell of pine.

In an e-mail, I expressed particular curiosity about the desiccated natural landscapes in Thomas Bernhard’s novels, and my professor suggested that I read Adalbert Stifter, an Austrian author who, despite the endorsements of Thomas Mann and W.G. Sebald, is remembered as a hokey sentimentalist, interested mostly in mountains and flowers.. The stories, novellas, and novels for which Stifter is known were written at the height of the Biedermeier period, a time of bourgeois reaction after the catastrophic, continent-wide destruction unleashed by the Napoleonic Wars. Beidermeier culture was fond of middle-class comfort, of painted plates, copper prints, simple furniture, and little knickknacks. Rather than challenge the political repression of post-Metternich Europe and take stock of the hopes for equality and immediacy in human relations shattered by the failed revolutions of 1848–49, the German-speaking world of Stifter’s time withdrew into the home, the family, and from there, into a world of fantasy.

Desperate for my professor’s guidance and approval, I found Stifter’s novella collection Bunte Steine (Many-Colored Stones) in the deathly quiet German-language stacks of Bartle Library. Read More »

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The Difference Between Me and Ann Beattie

June 21, 2012 | by

© Bob Adelman.

I remember reading my first Ann Beattie story. I was sitting in my dorm room on a loft bed with a hard mattress. This was in North Carolina, at night. The dorm was a big stone structure with crenelated battlements that made me dream of castles. My room overlooked the main quad, and I often heard boozy students in the background, college kids stumbling from the buses as they made their way across the lawn and back to their rooms. I was reading from a paperback copy of Park City. I don’t recall much else. I was probably in sweats and an old tee that smelled like pot, lying on my bed, legs crossed with Beattie’s book upright on my chest. Since it was late, I had likely already eaten dinner—gluey pasta and mozzarella sticks delivered in foil pans. Maybe the door was locked. But what I do remember is this: the soft shiver that gathered at the back of my neck as I flipped through the final pages of “The Burning House” and, in the end, chilled me to my core.

After that first story, I kept reading. Aside from admiring her effortless, cool prose, I was drawn to Beattie’s gay characters. They were everywhere—“The Burning House,” “The Cinderella Waltz,” “Gravity”—and they were so different from the kinds of gay characters I was used to reading about. None of them were dying of AIDS or getting beat up or coming out to their parents. Instead, they drank Galliano by the bottle and ashed their joints in unusual places—a boiling pot of sauce, for instance. The same could be said for the other characters who populated Beattie’s fiction. Their problems were so … ordinary.

But if you lined me and Beattie’s characters up, I’d stick out like a sore thumb. Here’s the difference: Beattie’s boys and girls are Greenwich, Connecticut; I’m just a kid from Columbus, Ohio. They’re post-Woodstock; I’m post-Britney. Even though I’ve traveled with parents as far as Rome and the Red Sea, we don’t have a mountain home in Vermont. We don’t have friends who own an art gallery in SoHo.

Read More »

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The Troubadour of Honed Banality

January 25, 2012 | by

Sergei Dovlatov (right) with Alexander Genis (smoking) at Novy Americanets office. Photo by Nina Alovert, 1980.

A., my girlfriend, is originally from Moscow. Her mother lives around the corner from us in Queens and throws dinner parties. It’s mainly an older, cultured ex-Soviet crowd. Lots of vodka, lots of overeating zakuski (appetizers to accompany vodka)—hours of nostalgic guffawing (Soviet jokes) and choral crooning (dissident songs and Stalinist patriotic rousers, with equal pleasure). Not speaking the lingo, I grin a lot—a genial, inebriated, slightly patronized potted plant.

The air of these evenings is thick with Russian irony and cultural chauvinism. Pushkin is beyond all criticism. “How dare you even pronounce his name with your filthy mouth,” A. will flare up, not altogether faking her indignance.

Or an old photographer-pal of Brodsky’s from Leningrad (inevitably old pals of Brodsky’s are present) will assert that Russian translations of Hemingway far surpass the originals.

This latter bit of flag-waving causes me to reflect that much of the literature that deeply influenced me as a writer I read in English translation. Foremost stands Isaac Babel, whose compressed, lyric violence overwhelmed me in my twenties. Then there was Bulgakov; even P—n’s fate-haunted tales. Later, in my early days with A., while she was away and I mooched disconsolately in her apartment, I read in translation Shalamov’s horrifying, degraded, flickering Kolyma Tales about his frozen years in the Siberian Gulag. I kept dropping the book and pacing away, moaning and clutching my head at the savagery, the unspeakable pathos. Then there were Cendrars and Simenon, Borges and César Aira (another alchemical Argentinean, rendered brilliantly by Chris Andrews) .

But, however good the English versions, there’s always in these books a slight straining—a hovering sense of idioms being just off. Read More »

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