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Posts Tagged ‘John Hollander’

What We’re Loving: Great Teachers, Great Books, Giant Wigs

November 15, 2013 | by

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1778 fashion plate of French court dress with wide panniers and artificially enhanced “big hair.” Plate 43 in Galerie des Modes for 1778.

Some years ago, when I was trying to learn Spanish, I bought Borges’s lectures on English literature. As it turned out, these were largely concerned with Old English, so actual Spanish was required to read them and I had to throw in the towel. Now, New Directions has translated the talks as Professor Borges: A Course on English Literature. Recorded in 1966 at the University of Buenos Aires, this introductory class oozes charm. Quoting from memory, because he’d already lost his sight, and relying on his own translations, Borges ranges from Caedmon’s Hymn to the Victorians. It’s been a long time since I went back to the poems of Rossetti—and longer since I had any urge to reread Beowulf—but Borges is no ordinary teacher, and his old-fashioned taste, for Germanic heroes and doomed love and G. K. Chesterton, is sincere, untroubled, and contagious. —Lorin Stein

It suddenly feels like winter here in New York: we saw the first snowflakes of the season on Tuesday morning. I don’t have a fireplace, but it’s hard to resist the urge to curl up by the heating pipe with a fat, favorite classic. Enter the new Penguin Clothbound Classics edition of Vanity Fair, beautifully rendered in pale blue, and scattered with stylized gems in honor of the ambitious Becky Thatcher. I am generally fairly indifferent to what my books look like, but I love this series, which manages to feel both modern and heirloom. As to the novel, it’s just the best; you don’t need to hear that from me. From the opening lines of Thackeray’s preface, “Before the Curtain,” you know you’re in for a treat, whether reading it for the first time or the twentieth. The author subtitled Vanity Fair “A Novel without a Hero,” but though it’s peopled with some of literature’s most memorable characters, it’s true that the real star is a sweeping story that manages to be both tragic and fun. —Sadie O. Stein

On Saturday afternoon, I took the Southeast line from Grand Central Station to Mount Kisco and read a fitting book: the 116-page Train Dreams by Denis Johnson. A mélange of sharp realism and muted surrealism, this novella was first published in the 2002 summer issue of The Paris Review; it was released in book form to great acclaim in 2011. Johnson takes us from the turn of the twentieth century through the late 1960s; Robert Grainer is the stoic loner who guides us through both the Idaho Panhandle and industrialization. “Now he slept soundly through the nights, and often he dreamed of trains, and often of one particular train: He was on it; he could smell the coal smoke; a world went by.” —Caitlin Youngquist

Among the many wondrous artifacts left by the late poet John Hollander is Rhyme’s Reason: A Guide to English Verse, a 2001 volume of slim dimension and  great poetic wisdom that has traveled with me for the past few days. I have been thinking about poetry’s relation to music, and early on Hollander writes, “It should be remembered that all poetry was originally oral. It was sung or chanted … poetic form as we know it is an abstraction from, or residue of, musical form, from which it became divorced when writing replaced memory as a way of preserving poetic utterance.” The book does not linger in sermon though, hastily moving into witty explorations of wide-ranging forms, schemes, and meters. —Adam Winters

The eighteenth-century French court’s rococo hairstyles—if such a word can even be applied to the elaborate confections—are the stuff of legend. Will Bashor’s Marie Antoinette’s Head: The Royal Hairdresser, the Queen, and the Revolution certainly gives you plenty of bang for your buck in that regard: thirty-pound wigs, mouse-infested coiffures, and the occasional miniature naval battle all make appearances. But it is also a scholarly history not merely of the vagaries and politics of Versailles court fashion, but the rise and fall of Léonard Autié, a man of modest background who rose to become hairdresser to the queen, and whose fortunes were inexplicably tied to that of the doomed monarchy. —S.O.S.

 

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Recapping Dante: Canto 4, or the Halloween Special

October 28, 2013 | by

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Full disclosure: canto 4, despite the ominous nature of canto 3’s ending and the fact that 4 is meant to open in hell, is not that scary. There is a distinct shortage of zombie/ghost-chase/door-gag montage scenes in this segment, and almost no haunted houses. So, we are probably meant to assume that Dante decided to take this holiday episode in a slightly more cerebral direction—he’s skipped right over the cheap scares, and has decided to hit us with a sort of theological horror show. Indeed, as Dante awakens from his spell, and walks beside Virgil, he notices that his guide’s face is stricken with a fearful pallor. When Dante inquires, Virgil informs him that it is not fear, but pity, that has altered his expression; the pair are entering limbo, where those who might have been able to enter paradise, had they lived in the time of Christ, are instead forever confined. Which is to say, no matter how saintly you are, if you had the misfortune of being born during one of the richest cultural eras in human history (like Virgil himself), you’re still out of luck, if not in hell proper.

Dante asks Virgil if anyone has ever made it out, and in the slightly embittered tone of someone who has watched countless coworkers get promoted above him, Virgil tells Dante of Moses, Noah, and a few others who were “plucked” from limbo and taken upward by some mysterious stranger. (Jesus, obviously, but how could Virgil know that?)

At this point, Dante and Virgil come across a band of poets—Homer, Horace, Ovid, and Lucan. The poets join our travelers to help them solve the mystery of how two unvaccinated poets are going to make it safely through hell. The poets also make Dante part of their poets club. It’s probably no coincidence that seeing these great writers animated lends them a sense of immortality (both in body and in their work), and that anyone who should join them may also be graced with a similar literary significance; after all, Dante writes that “their honorable fame … echoes” in his life on earth. It’s also difficult to tell whether Dante is nerding out and imagining what it would be like to hang out with his heroes, or if he’s pulling some sort of lyrical power move and trying to assert himself as one of the greatest poets of history (again, only time will tell).

Dante briefly describes their conversation by saying that they spoke “of things that here are best unsaid, just as there it was fitting to express them.” This can be interpreted more or less as “We were talking about poet stuff … you wouldn’t probably get it.”

As the band of six approaches a haunted castle (ruh roh) with a giant river, they walk across the water without difficulty. A clue! It looks like the river is meant to keep the less than great or those who aren’t poets or philosophers or the out of this beautiful pastoral scene in Limbo. Time to investigate.

Dante names the shades he sees inside—Socrates, Plato,  Diogenes, Cicero, Seneca, and, roaming all alone, Saladin. (Hollander points out that the moderns in limbo, though Dante considered them infidels, are “representatives of … Islamic culture”). But there’s one shade that Dante does not call by a name, and refers to only as the “master.” It’s old man Aristotle!

But Dante and Virgil, having come this far escorted by the four poets, must go on alone. Dante writes “The company of six falls off to two,” which we all know really just means he’s really just saying “Let’s split up, gang!” Poet stuff.

This fall, we’re recapping the Inferno. Read along!

To catch up on our Dante series, click here.

Alexander Aciman is the author of Twitterature. He has written for the New York Times, Tablet, the Wall Street Journal, and TIME. Follow him on Twitter at @acimania.

 

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In Memoriam: John Hollander

September 3, 2013 | by

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During his five-decade career as a poet, the late John Hollander was a frequent contributor to The Paris Review. He was also renowned as a scholar and critic. Here he is remembered by two former students, our contributor Jeff Dolven and editor Lorin Stein.

John Hollander once told me a story that served him as a kind of ur-scene of explanation. As a boy he was sitting with his father at the breakfast table, and he asked, apropos of nothing he could later recall, “Dad, what is a molecule?” By way of an answer, his father reached into the sugar bowl and lifted out a cube.

“So what is this?” his father asked.

“Sugar,” said John. Next his father set the cube down on the table and rapped it sharply with a teaspoon, so that it broke into coarse crystals.

“And what is it now?”

“Sugar,” said John again.

“Well then,” said his father, “a molecule is the smallest piece of sugar you can get that’s still sugar.” The grown-up John delivered the last sentence like a punchline, laughing and widening his eyes and spreading his hands. Read More »

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John Hollander, 1929–2013

August 19, 2013 | by

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“Literature is not different from life, it is part of life. And for someone like myself, The Odyssey is as much a part of nature as the Aegean. And I react to the Aegean—as distinct, say, from the Caribbean—because its history is part of its physical substance. What I know about it, and feel about it, even mistaken things, is a part of it. Certain great texts are like this. Paradise Lost is like the Himalayas. It’s there. A part of nature, not separate.” —John Hollander, The Art of Poetry No. 35

 

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