Sunday 26 July 2015

I came back to ee cummings by a circuitous route. His poems give a kick to a grey and turbulent afternoon. Take them like a tonic, as with Gertrude Stein. Wake up, go back to the day with a different head on you.

ee cummings was at Harvard at the same time as Joe Gould, later, in the nineteen thirties, forties and fifties, the Greenwich Village bum known as Professor Seagull (because he did seagull imitations) who was writing, he said, the oral history of his times. He was immortalized, as they say, by Joseph Mitchell, who maybe impersonated or invented or wanted to be Joseph Gould.

Last night I read an article in The New Yorker about Joe Gould and Joseph Mitchell: did Joe Gould really write the 9 million words of oral history he claimed? Did Joseph Mitchell really want to get to the bottom of it? Jill Lepore investigates, via ee cummings and Ezra Pound, among others.

I read the article inside the insomniac hour between four and five, and by the end I was woven in with the two Josephs, the facts of it and the fiction, the onlookers, the benefactors, malefactors, psychiatrists, poets, artists and reporters.

ee cummings, against the odds, became famous. Joe Gould did not. No one wants to take on the possibility that Joe Gould's 9 or 11 million words in their dusty copybooks exist somewhere, on a chicken farm (where he said many of the books were stored, though it turns out the chicken farm was a psychiatric hospital). If enough people know that an oral history of his times may have existed it will start to exist.

After reading Jill Lepore and today the poems of ee cummings, it exists a little more.

One ee cummings edition I found on my shelves, 50 poems published in 1940, had an obituary tucked inside from the Herald Tribune of September 9, 1962, written by Malcolm Cowley, another Harvard Man. The brown newspaper cutting smells of vanilla. On page 13, where the review has lodged these 75 years, there is a ghostly imprint of the folded paper insert. The brown fades into page 12 and then disappears.

(will you teach a
wretch to live
straighter than a needle)

Thursday 16 July 2015

I've rarely read a book as fast as I read Fletch by Gregory Mcdonald. The Avon paperback with red-edged pages and cover text out of register, invited speed and derision; the short sentences and perpetual dialogue propelled a version of plot-driven impatience I'd forgotten about.

I'd seen the film the night before and was curious to see if it was as funny on the page or if it was born to be plundered. I found myself looking only for differences in the plot, locations, characters. Why is the name Underwood changed to Underhill in the film? or Nevada to Utah? Adultery to bigamy?

I must have bought it in the seventies or eighties during a trip to New York. My taste was more catholic then, and I was trying to understand America. Even cowgirls get the blues, for example, illuminated a road trip across America in 1980/1. Teach Yourself Irish and the autobiography of Sean O'Casey, Volume I, illuminated my early years in Ireland.

Fletch is less funny on the page than in the character played by Chevy Chase. Such is the wraparound nature of film, and the open nature of reading.

I read Fletch that day because I felt disinclined for most else. Dan and Alessandro were up in the field trampling dock around the new trees; I didn't feel like working on poems while they were doing that. They were doing the work and I felt tired. So I read Fletch and listened to Fidelio (talk about crossed lines) and I read it fast.

Friday 3 July 2015

I have always shied away from Primo Levi, whether for the chemistry that informed his profession (running a paint factory) or for the chemistry that informed his and my origins (jewish). I read a selection of his stories and found the language annoyingly subservient to the plot (I can get very impatient with plot, especially on a hot day), then began The Periodic Table, the Penguin edition festooned with praise from other jewish writers like Roth and Bellow, neither of whom attract me. I have enjoyed Oliver Sacks on the subject of his youth and chemistry, so why not this?

The Urstoff of Primo Levi is jewish, which I prefer with a small j, as with french, english, irish and arab. This is how far from Primo Levi I am. My father would have been closer. He liked Primo Levi. In fact he seized Primo Levi, as Saul Bellow seized the day and Philip Roth assumed a supremacy I find intolerable. If these characteristics are also mine I'd rather not know.

That is why I have always shied away from Primo Levi.