Thursday, September 30, 2010


“Then one day I started writing, not knowing that I had chained myself for life to a noble but merciless master.”

On this day in 1924, one of the greatest literary artists in American history was born. His fame, his sometimes frivolous and sometimes tragic public image, and his blatantly “queer” persona often blinded (and still blind) certain readers. Lost to them are the subtlety and finesse of his finest prose. To my mind, however, no one before or since has ever quite matched Truman Capote’s way with a sentence.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

On Poetic Prose

Like a genie emerging from an envelope on my writing desk, the phrase “poetic prose” swirls into the room, coloring the atmosphere, suggesting imminent possibilities of magic, wish fulfillment, and astonishment. As the sorcerous puffs hover in the incensed air, I recall the precise (though very general) question recently sent by friends at an academic journal: “What do you think of ‘poetic prose’?” This open-ended inquiry, distributed to a wide range of potential respondents, seemed intended to form the theme of an upcoming issue—and struck me as an appealing subject. After all, what lover of literature and composer of paragraphs can resist the idea that prose, far from languishing amid the prosaic, should attain to the virtues of poetry? This sentiment, I felt, might be delicately unspooled across blank pages and threaded into a pattern. But, now, within the deep green walls of this antique room, the initial phrase behaves more like the rubbing of a magic lantern.

The genie—who has, true to the dictates of enchantment, already crossed over from metaphor to embodied guest—stands before me, arms folded, chestnut skin gleaming. His turban, like the vest he wears over his otherwise bare chest, is golden; his wide belt and billowy silken pants are turquoise; his boots a darkling purple. His commanding presence—and he does have “presence” in every sense—sends through me a barely suppressed tremor: his black-brown eyes, sly under arched brows, suggest that some mischief, more than magic, is taking place.

Telepathically I imbibe his story. Having once been the indentured servant of a wizard, he had been promised immortality if he could solve a puzzle set for him by his master. Eagerly agreeing, he found himself promptly imprisoned, for centuries (or did it only seem like centuries?), in an ingenious but infernal box: a kind of supernatural cell. Or, more precisely, pseudo-supernatural. He finally solved its mysteries and escaped only after learning to use every facet of his own imagination to generate elaborate hypotheses. Upon finding the fictional scenario that held the key mixture of analysis, intuition, and invention, he immediately freed himself, then discovered that his mental abilities had been honed to such perfection that he could now manifest anything he visualized. In other words, he had become a genie.

As I stare at him I wonder if, given his remarkable expertise, he might answer my friends’ inquiry with a theory definite, substantial, and unassailable, something superior to my romantic notions about literary quality. But even as the idea flickers across my mind, the genie makes clear, in concise nonverbal language (only a split second of one of his remarkable glances) that this would be a foolish choice. And in the same instant I understand an alternative possibility.

Answering a question with another question is often more useful and poetic than serving up a more finite—and hence prosaic—response, just as the opening of doors is more intriguing, to a certain temperament, than the adept construction of boxes. And the door to an understanding of the secrets of “poetic prose” (and its mysterious dwelling place in the realm of imagination, fiction, and linguistic pleasure) is guarded, I suspect, by a riddle with a deceptively simple ring:

Why do we humans have such a propensity for discovering genies?


Copyright 2002 by Robert Pranzatelli. All rights reserved. Originally published in the scholarly journal Yale Italian Poetry, Vols. V-VI (double issue for 2001-2002) as part of an “international inquiry on poetic prose.”

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Scaling Mount Proust

Today, July 10, is Marcel Proust’s birthday. The master of long, complex, sensuous sentences and paragraphs, his pages rich with metaphor and the astonishingly lucid rendering of perceptions of unprecedented subtlety and nuance, Proust represents the antithesis of our contemporary short attention span, and what he offers is needed now more than ever.

Reading his multi-volume masterpiece In Search of Lost Time will change you. It is thousands of pages long, but the only way to read it is to slow down rather than speed up. To begin reading it is to begin climbing a mountain. One must acclimate to the author’s unusual style, which for many readers requires reading each long, elaborate sentence or paragraph twice in order to process it. The rewards are not always immediate—and like a climber out of breath one will experience moments of exhaustion, and exasperation, and doubt—but the discoveries and pleasures are sublime; and each phase of the journey is marked by new vistas. One returns with a vision that could never have been obtained by any other means, and with one’s mental apparatus and perceptual abilities expanded—not temporarily but for life.

Many never even begin, daunted by those enormous sentences. Vladimir Nabokov, in his Lectures on Literature, notes Proust’s “tendency to fill in and stretch out a sentence to its utmost breadth and length, to cram into the stocking of the sentence a miraculous number of clauses, parenthetic phrases, subordinate clauses, sub-subordinate clauses. Indeed, in verbal generosity he is a veritable Santa.” [Emphasis mine.] Yes, you read that right: Santa! Many readers starting their ascent of Mount Proust may find it difficult to see that the seemingly overwhelming quantity of words before them, the seemingly unwieldy length of sentences, is, as Professor Nabokov nonchalantly pointed out to his students, a bounty, an abundance of brilliant goodies, not a burden. VN’s witty evocation of an overstuffed stocking should be kept in mind.

At the same time, however, it also helps to think of reading Proust as a bracing challenge, the literary equivalent of a daily workout at the gym. Mentally deconstructing and reconstructing those sentences in order to interpret them is an invigorating intellectual exercise that yields results as real as any muscle tone. On this process E. M. Forster, in Abinger Harvest, proves even wittier than Nabokov:
A sentence begins quite simply, then it undulates and expands, parentheses intervene like quick-set hedges, the flowers of comparison bloom, and three fields off, like a wounded partridge, crouches the principal verb, making one wonder as one picks it up, poor little thing, whether after all it was worth such a tramp, so many guns, and such expensive dogs, and what, after all, is its relation to the main subject, potted so gaily half a page back, and proving finally to have been in the accusative case. These, however, are the disciplines of Proust. No earnest sportsman would forgo them.
Here Forster captures the initial encounter with Proust’s style with precision and humor, and more than a touch of parodic Proustian structure. He sees the reader of Proust as an earnest sportsman, who may occasionally be baffled or bemused yet proceeds undeterred, whereas Nabokov implies we are kids treated to a bounty from Santa. Both are correct. Add to these my thought that the reader of Proust might be like a mountain climber and the seeker of a disciplined mental workout. All of these suggestions, and many more, are apt.

Let me confess without further delay that it took me many years to “scale Mount Proust” because I did it piecemeal, letting a great deal of time go by between volumes. This probably isn’t the best approach and I don’t particularly recommend it, but in my own meandering way I finally reached the peak and now I love to pull a volume off the shelf and dive in at random, to revel in a paragraph or a few pages, which is one of the great pleasures open to the person who has read the entire work. And like most confirmed Proustians, I too want to read the whole thing again someday.

So, find your way in. The very first sentence of the first volume is uncharacteristically short, and not at all intimidating. Start there, and be drawn into the mind of a genius:

For a long time I would go to bed early.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Revisiting E. M. Forster

At the time of his death—in June 1970, at the age of ninety-one—E. M. Forster was known primarily as the author of five novels, all published many decades earlier. His other legacy, relegated almost to a sort of backdrop, consisted of everything else he’d published in book form: twelve short stories, dozens of essays and reviews, and a few ventures into biography, criticism, and travel writing. Soon after his death, however, it became apparent that he had written vastly more: a sixth novel, Maurice, finished and saved for posthumous publication; a seventh, Arctic Summer, left unfinished at novella-length; enough uncollected and unpublished short fiction to more than double his total number of stories; scores of additional uncollected essays and reviews; an abundance of private writings of various kinds; and more than fifteen thousand letters. Much of this material found its way into print in subsequent years, mostly through the Abinger Edition of Forster’s works, and books and essays about Forster have continued to multiply as well. And yet, today, after all this posthumous attention, he is still regarded mainly as the author of those original five novels—while the “everything else,” though greatly expanded, remains relegated to a distant second place.

Forster achieved major success as a novelist by his early thirties (with Where Angels Fear to Tread, The Longest Journey, A Room with a View, and Howards End), and then, in his mid-forties, after A Passage to India, he famously stopped publishing fiction. As a result, he is often said to have “abandoned” fiction in midlife, but that term is misleading, given that he went on to write a book’s worth of audacious short stories, meticulously revised the first few chapters of Arctic Summer, and, most importantly, continued to fine-tune, on and off for a half century, his novel Maurice, which, like the stories, could not be published in its author’s lifetime due to its homosexual theme. All of these works were left for posthumous publication. Their relative merits and appropriate place in the Forster library have been debated, but their significance—to both their author and to those of his readers who cherish them—can’t be denied.

After he stopped publishing fiction, Forster did not remove himself from the public sphere; he continued to publish nonfiction, and became a familiar, rather avuncular figure to the British public as a BBC radio broadcaster.

Yet nearly a half-century after his death, there has still never been a single one-volume collection of all of his short stories (the overtly “homosexual” ones remain segregated in a separate edition, as if they might taint the others by association). Likewise there is no single-volume selection of essays that spans the author’s full career to bring together his most important and lastingly relevant short nonfiction. And Forster’s slightly creaky Aspects of the Novel, a book derived from a series of lectures, remains the standard text to reference for his aesthetic beliefs, even though it could be wisely augmented, if not eclipsed, by an astute, brief selection of his more engaging pieces on Austen, Proust, Woolf, Voltaire, and others.

The posthumous novels Arctic Summer and Maurice remain undervalued. In the case of Arctic Summer, there is the usual tendency to pay less attention to that which is unfinished; but Maurice has received quite a lot of attention through the years. It has been, and still is, disparaged and dismissed by critics who fault it as “wish fulfillment” and “sentimentality” or declare it unrealistic, or, with upturned nose, “unpersuasive.” These complaints are hard to fathom, as the book is very much of a piece with Forster’s other novels—far more so than has been recognized. Its author, never much interested in realism, always had an instinct for melodrama (consider the courtroom scene in A Passage to India) and from the start defined himself as a defender of the sentimental and supernatural in fiction. More to the point, Maurice is a gay romance novel; in one emblematic scene, a forbidden lover, the living embodiment of the yearning protagonist’s deepest desires, not only seeks him out but makes an entrance through a moonlit bedroom window—from a balcony, no less. How could anyone read such a book and not realize that it is intended as a work of wish fulfillment? Of course it is sentimental; why wouldn’t it be, when that’s the whole point? Realism? Forster? One might as well fault Shakespeare for including a ghost in Hamlet. Maurice is, among many other things, a sort of Brontë novel for gay men, beautifully wrought and interwoven with other, more modern elements, and written at a time when the concept itself was completely radical. It is every bit as worthy of classic status—and, met on its own terms, as powerful, on the level of humane emotional resonance—as Jane Eyre or Wuthering Heights.

Wendy Moffat begins A Great Unrecorded History, her new biography of Forster, with a rich, resonant sequence in which Christopher Isherwood and John Lehmann get together a few months after Forster’s death to pore over the unpublished manuscript of Maurice, which the two men plan to shepherd into the world. It’s a fitting start for this partly revisionist biography, which deliberately places Forster’s sexuality center stage and provides a detailed portrait of his sexual development and various amorous adventures and misadventures.

This focus, however, exacts a price. Through a plethora of confessional quotations, Forster the diarist and letter writer remains in front of us page after page, but Forster the conscious literary artist hardly puts in an appearance; his most fully realized artistic self—a self significantly different, larger, and in certain ways truer than the everyday person—is mostly absent. There are other problems, too, comparatively minor ones, such as occasional unevenness of tone and texture; but although A Great Unrecorded History doesn’t match the scope and skill of P. N. Furbank’s indispensable E. M. Forster: A Life, it does have virtues of its own, twenty-first-century candor among them. Its portrait of Forster’s delicately calibrated relationship with Bob Buckingham, which endured for decades alongside—one might almost say “interwoven with”—Buckingham’s marriage and led to a remarkable friendship between Forster and Buckingham’s wife May, is particularly good, as is a vivid chapter devoted to Forster’s 1947 trip to America and his visits in New York with the painter Paul Cadmus. Here and in other of its best passages, the book adds memorable brushstrokes to the existing portrait of one of the finest writers in history.

In this it joins another, perhaps even more impressive volume added to the Forster bibliography in recent years, The BBC Talks of E. M. Forster 1929-1960: A Selected Edition. Published by the University of Missouri Press in 2008 after more than a dozen years of scholarly development, the book rescues for posterity another side of Forster’s identity: that of the plainspoken radio broadcaster who, thoroughly established as one of the greatest of English novelists, spoke about books directly and unpretentiously to the British public through the “wireless.” Gathered and meticulously but unobtrusively annotated are a generous selection of seventy of his carefully constructed broadcasts on such subjects as Shakespeare, Jane Austen, Mark Twain, Rebecca West, D. H. Lawrence, the Bhagavad-Gita, and many more. Begun by the late Mary Lago and completed by Linda K. Hughes and Elizabeth MacLeod Walls, the book is a shining example of the irreplaceable cultural contributions that scholarly presses make at their best. And so the Forster canon continues to grow.

For further reading:

My post about the film version of Maurice

A selection of favorite Forster quotations

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Mark Twain

Last month brought with it, on April 21, the centenary of the death of Samuel Clemens, a.k.a. Mark Twain. If he were here to comment, I suspect he would make an amusingly irascible remark—something about the questionable implications of celebrating the anniversary of his death rather than his life, or about the irrational fondness we all have for big round numbers—on anniversary dates and on banknotes.

Certainly our twenty-first-century society could benefit from his presence: he would be kept busy with an abundant supply of public crooks, hypocrites, and con artists ripe for his skewering pen. But though the satirical humor and the more acerbic and superficially clever aspects of his work lend themselves to easy recall, and to the creation of a delightful caricature of “Mark Twain” the literary brand, he was far more than that: a literary artist of great depth and feeling. Revisit the scene in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in which Huck, convinced that to save his own soul from damnation he must betray his friend (the escaped slave Jim), writes a note revealing Jim’s whereabouts. Then, after setting the note aside, Huck thinks about his unsuspecting friend:
… But somehow I couldn’t seem to strike no places to harden me against him, but only the other kind. I’d see him standing my watch on top of his’n, stead of calling me, so I could go on sleeping; and see him how glad he was when I come back out of the fog; and when I come to him again in the swamp, up there where the feud was; and suchlike times; and would always call me honey, and pet me, and do everything he could think of for me, and how good he always was; and at last I struck the time I saved him by telling the men we had small-pox aboard, and he was so grateful, and said I was the best friend old Jim ever had in the world, and the only one he’s got now; and then I happened to look around, and see that paper.

It was a close place. I took it up, and held it in my hand. I was a trembling, because I’d got to decide, forever, betwixt two things, and I knowed it. I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then says to myself:

“All right, then, I’ll go to hell”—and tore it up.
Among the many things one can say about this famous, pivotal passage is this: its author clearly knew what love is.

The current issue of Smithsonian Magazine has an excellent article by Ron Powers entitled “Mark Twain in Love” that provides another window into the author’s heart. Among its many pleasures, the piece quotes Mark Twain’s description of his feelings upon encountering a beloved girl in a dream:
The affection which I felt for her and which she manifestly felt for me was a quite simple fact; but … It was not the affection of brother and sister—it was closer than that … and it was not the love of sweethearts, for there was no fire in it. It was somewhere between the two, and was finer than either, and more exquisite, more profoundly contenting.
The expansiveness and idealism of this understanding of love, and of love’s tendency to evade or transcend categories, seems to me closely related to the love of Huck and Jim—and central to the glory of Mark Twain.

Images: Lilli Carré, jacket art for Penguin Classics edition of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, 2009.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

The Triumph of Comedy

As my friend The Bunburyist pointed out earlier this month, Oscar Wilde’s story “Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime” has been happily revived in a new stage adaptation in Washington D.C. The comic tale on which the show is based is an old favorite of mine, from the bygone days (my twenties) when I used to read Wilde frequently and with great enthusiasm. Even his lesser works are often full of dubious but daring ideas, and reading the most engaging of them is like passing through a golden door into a golden room, to discover that its occupants and owner possess golden tongues.

When I think of Wilde, I often think of Chapter Three of The Picture of Dorian Gray, a delicious luncheon at which the epigrams are sharper than the cutlery. Alongside its ping-pong match of witty one-liners, the description of Lord Henry’s conversational games sounds like a portrait, analysis, and critique of Wilde’s own gifts as raconteur: “The praise of folly, as he went on, soared into a philosophy, and Philosophy herself became young, and catching the mad music of Pleasure . . . Facts fled before her like frightened forest things.”

Overall, The Picture of Dorian Gray—unlike Wilde’s masterpiece The Importance of Being Earnest, with its flawless orchestration of interconnected epigrams and brilliant comic premises—is extremely uneven; its quality seesaws throughout, interest sustained mainly by the sensibility (of decadence, transgressive sexuality, and amoral aestheticism) with which Wilde teases both the reader and society. Its one-liners even fall prey, at times, to the common tendency, rare in Wilde, to mistake tart negativity for wit (cf. Dorothy Parker, Quentin Crisp). “Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime” is far more unified and consistent, a thoroughgoing delight, but most of Wilde’s writing has an uneven quality—both an uneven quality and a mysterious way of transcending the unevenness.

The stories, fairy tales, plays, and essays (the latter sometimes in dialogue form) all mix wit, provocation, and drama in varying degrees. The continuing fascination of their implications and ambiguities has been increased, more than a little, by the world’s continuing fascination with their author, and all his implications and ambiguities. Perhaps if his life had taken a different, happier turn, Wilde might have eventually dramatized his various prose works himself, but as it is, no one can blame him for not writing more, or for failing to further perfect his body of work: Victorian England, history, and hateful human prejudice must be held responsible for that loss. What remains is his strange and original writing, marked by its abundance of audacity and ingenuity and its lasting ability to amuse. It’s a rare martyr whose legacy is to leave future generations not weeping for his tragedy but laughing at his comedy. Yet in an ongoing paradox that Wilde himself would have relished, that is his achievement: an irresistible, perpetual triumph.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Seven from E. M. Forster

In my recent Q&A interview about the Folio Club I named a few favorite authors, including E. M. Forster—from whom I now offer the following seven quotations.

• Only a writer who has the sense of evil can make goodness readable.

• Nonsense and beauty have close connections.

• The king died and then the queen died is a story. The king died and then the queen died of grief is a plot.

• The final test for a novel will be our affection for it, as it is the test of our friends, and of anything else which we cannot define.

• The work of art assumes the existence of the perfect spectator, and is indifferent to the fact that no such person exists.

• The only books that influence us are those for which we are ready, and which have gone a little farther down our particular path than we have yet got ourselves.

• At night, when the curtains are drawn and the fire flickers, my books attain a collective dignity.

Friday, January 15, 2010


Folio Club cover artist Onsmith has a penchant for head games. I don’t mean that he’s a manipulative person—on the contrary, he’s forthright, conscientious, and likable. It’s just that he does alarming things to the subjects of his drawings: their heads tend to explode, evaporate, shatter, or split; or their facial features melt, mutate, fall off, or simply consist of things that, um, don’t belong on a face. At least this is the vision to be found in the Onsmith drawings contained in the first issue of The Folio Club. One can’t help but conclude that to be trapped inside them would be rather… disconcerting. For those of us lucky enough to be on the outside looking in, however, this artist’s cheerful grotesqueries can be oddly exhilarating.

Above, a drawing by Onsmith; below, wraparound cover of Onsmith’s limited edition Claptrap No. 2. The cover is a two-color screenprint with rubber stamps printed on the inside.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Elizabeth Bishop

For the past year or so I’ve been gradually reading, or perhaps I should say imbibing, the Library of America’s edition of Elizabeth Bishop’s Poems, Prose, and Letters. Already firmly established among the top handful of American poets, Bishop still has profound pleasures in store for anyone who has yet to encounter this volume: the great revelation here is her prose, particularly the sixteen stories and sixteen personal essays, only half of which had been collected prior to this. Her gift for prose asserts itself even in the miscellaneous literary statements, reviews, and occasional tidbits that are conveniently grouped into a separate section, as a kind of supplemental archive within the book.

One of my favorite discoveries is a brief, four-paragraph piece entitled “In Appreciation of Shelley’s Poems” which begins:
This summer I spent on Cape Cod surrounded by picturesque, shadow-haunted groves of scrub pine, desolate, sun-brilliant dunes, and bays whose intense blueness numbs the senses to anything but color. Such things are extremely conducive to the reading of poetry and, at first, I feasted upon all sorts of morsels from various anthologies, but finally ended up by devoting all of my reading time to Shelley.
Having set the scene with such a precisely lyrical narrative frame, she proceeds to discuss Shelley’s poetry in a series of eloquent turns, as when she praises his drama Prometheus Unbound for its “intricate pattern of spirits, storms, song, and clouds, all moved by his sweeping ideas.”

Her concluding paragraph returns to the narrative structure with which she began, and tells the tale of “sailing late one evening this summer to an island far out in the bay” to camp overnight:
During all the long sail out we read Shelley from a water-stained, paper-bound copy. It was a cold, star-sharp night and I slept with the music of his lines echoing through my brain. Early in the morning we sat up to watch the sun rise. It began with faint, rosy fingers reaching up the east, and at last flamed a burning gold that glimmered across the water and stained the dunes and flying gulls with gilt. It seemed to me then that Shelley was a spirit of the sunrise—one of his own creatures of whom he says:

See where the child of Heaven with winged feet,
Runs down the slanted sunlight of the dawn.
Apart from the obvious pleasures of its evocative, beautifully felt and beautifully crafted sentences, its intelligence, and its tone (which captures an ideal reader’s embrace of Shelley’s sensibility), “In Appreciation of Shelley’s Poems” has another remarkable feature, perhaps its most remarkable of all: it dates, amazingly, from 1927, when its sixteen-year-old author published it in her school magazine.