Today would have been the one hundred and first birthday of John Ciardi. Primarily a poet, and a very good one, he is much better remembered for other things. He wrote the seminal explainer, How Does a Poem Mean? (1961, and no, I am not mis-typing), and he produced what may be the best translation of Dante in the twentieth century (1954-70). Finally, he was one of the original commentators on NPR’s Morning Edition, checking in with periodic “Word Rambles,” etymological discussions on whatever moved him. If you heard him, you would understand the word “stentorian.” His voice certainly was. Those are good things to be remembered for.
Happy eightieth birthday to the great Indian novelist Anita Desai. Shortlisted for the Booker three times, and winner of many other awards, she was one of the first really internationally significant women fiction writers from India. Clear Light of Day (1980), In Custody (1983, made into a Merchant-Ivory film), and her young readers’ novel The Village by the Sea are probably her best known. Her most recent work is the 2011 novel The Artist of Disappearance. She has a long history of excellence.
Her daughter, Kiran, won the Booker for her second novel, The Inheritance of Loss. Life is a funny old game.
Today’s birthday boy is Salman Rushdie, born June 19, 1947 (not 1974, as the Paris Review had it). Rushdie is responsible for one of the truly great novels, Midnight’s Children, one truly awful controversy, over The Satanic Verses, and several more very good works and a clunker or two. It’s bad when the semi-literate set themselves up as literary critics, terrible when they can issue fatwas. Like Joyce, his brilliance can sometimes make your head hurt. But that might be because he can take your breath away.
Happy Bloomsday, the annual fete that draws thousands of celebrants who want a brush with the literary but have no intention of reading the book. Too bad: it’s challenging, to be sure, but also canny about human nature, politically charged, occasionally profound, and quite funny. I’m fairly certain it is the first book to connect sexual climax with exploding fireworks, at least in English, since no other work had dared to show the former, much less connect it to the latter. No, I’ll not; you’ll have to find it on your own. You needn’t read the whole book. You can’t, all on this or any other June 16. But give it a look. Read a few pages and let yourself hear the music of the language. At the very least, trot over to YouTube and seek out a reading of Molly Bloom’s soliloquy. I recommend either the audio version by the great Siobhan McKenna or the video with equally fabulous Angeline Ball (of The Commitments, no less), who finds all the sexiness of that monologue. That’s shi-VON, by the way, just like it’s spelled.
Today is the birth anniversary of William Butler Yeats. Most people know him as Ireland’s (and possibly the twentieth century’s) greatest poet, but they may not know he also wrote 26 plays. They range from the almost-realistic The Countess Cathleen (1892) to his highly stylized later dramas based on Japanese Noh drama such as At the Hawk’s Well and The Only Jealousy of Emer (1922). His plays were always somewhat stylized; hard not to be when you write verse dramas. We tend to consign those to Shakespeare and Marlowe, but several poet/playwrights undertook them in the modern era, T. S. Eliot and Christopher Fry being the notables beyond Yeats. For me, Yeats will always be a poet first and foremost, but we do him a disservice in forgetting his importance to modern theater.
Today is the birthday of two of my favorites who also happen to be in my age cohort. Turkish Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk is exactly my age, fellow Dartmouth alum Louise Erdrich two years younger. None of us is well-served by revealing quite what that age is, so let’s just say that it is sufficient. I started reading Erdrich shortly after Love Medicine came out in 1983 and I’ve never stopped, although I’m slightly in arrears at the moment. I remember reading what turned out to be the first chapter of Tracks in The Atlantic and being completely blown away. I was also blown away by Pamuk’s Snow a couple of years after it was published in English and immediately predicted that he would one day win the Nobel. I just didn’t know that one day would be in five months. He wasn’t the youngest–that would be Kipling, who was 41–but he probably had the shortest bibliography of any writer when the prize was awarded (five books, I think). I have a lot of catching up to do with him, but he is always interesting, so catching up is a pleasure. So here’s hoping that their respective days are happy and that they produce lots more novels–and that I get to hang around to read them.
I listened to Bob Dylan’s Nobel acceptance speech and learned, among other things, that I had forgotten a good bit about Moby Dick. Or that my Melville ain’t like Bob’s. It was a pure Dylan performance–rambling, specific, squirrelly, unexpected. The experience prompted me to think again about his receiving the Nobel Prize in Literature. This award, also unexpected, occasioned much consternation last October, of course, because it was a first. The thrust of much of the criticism went something like this,:”How can you compare his lyrics to [fill in blank with poet you consider least like Dylan],” or “Songs aren’t a recognized genre of literature,” or least charitably, “Those Scandinavians are nuts.” This last one I won’t touch, lacking the expertise (or sanity) to render a judgment.
As for the genre issues, a couple of thoughts. First, more novelists have won Nobel Prizes than writers in any other genre. At one time, however, the novel was regarded as a debased form, a bastard child of narrative poetry aimed at the middle class, and particularly (horrors) middle-class women. That went on for a couple of centuries or so, until Henry James and one or two French novelists in the late nineteenth century began writing seriously about prose fiction as an art form, and now we take it as an article of faith that prose fiction has always been a cornerstone genre in the house of literature. As to that first question, the award was never the Nobel Prize in Poetry, and that particular response struck me as deliberately obtuse. The desire to denigrate songs for not being poems is as wrong-headed as the one to disparage films for not being novels–or novels for not being Homeric epics. Every genre is up to something different from all others. But if we are going to undertake a comparison, let’s make it to T. S. Eliot, who may be the only artist to be as transformational in his chosen field as Dylan has been in his. And let’s also recall that there have been a fair number worse choices by the Nobel Committee (think, John Galsworthy) than their 2016 selection.