Writers and Readers

  Two Reviews by Cooper Renner

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Penelope Fitzgerald
"The Knox Brothers"
Washington, D.C.: Counterpoint, 2000

Penelope Fitzgerald's The Knox Brothers is the "corrected" republication of a book first offered in 1977, just before she began her marvelous career as a novelist. It was her second book, following another biography, Edward Burne-Jones, and it foreshadowed the delights to come when she turned her skills to fiction. The Knox brothers were her father, E.V., comic poet and editor of "Punch," and his three younger brothers: A.D. (Dillwyn), classical scholar and cryptologist who worked on breaking the codes generated by the German Enigma machine; Wilfred, Anglican priest and author; and Ronald, Catholic priest and author so prolific that even he had no idea how many books he had published. The brothers' witty and sometimes barbed approach to the world seems, to Americans, both quintessentially English and almost unbelievably clever. Used as we are to public figures who can barely complete a sentence correctly, we tend toward awe when faced with folks whose off-the-cuff remarks are as lively as Tom Stoppard dialogue.

"When, seventy years later, the eldest was asked to consider writing his life, he declined, but suggested the title: 'Must We Have Lives?'"

Fitzgerald notes this temperament from the outset and proves that she is herself a worthy inheritor. Her book begins with deceptive, folktale-like simplicity: "This is the story of four brothers who were born into the family of a Victorian vicarage." She immediately follows with an instance of what readers of her fiction might call characteristic Fitzgeraldian wit—"When, seventy years later, the eldest was asked to consider writing his life, he declined, but suggested the title: 'Must We Have Lives?'" This is not of course an invention, and the wit is E.V.'s, not his daughter's. Or is it not? It was her choice, after all, to employ this sly deflation of biography at the very beginning of a biography. But she goes on—"If we must [have lives], and if we want to understand them, we need to go back two or three generations." A distinctly Fitzgeraldian thought. Despite her father's implicit disapproval, she will write the life, and will do so with all the wit, humo! r, attention to detail and circumstance, and incisive depiction of human relations which mark her remarkable novels.

Not that there was any lack of material, even for a writer of lesser skills. These four men, though mostly unknown to contemporary Americans, were involved with a number of the movements, events and persons of early twentieth-century Britain. Ronald's crowning achievement was the Knox Bible, a complete retranslation into English of the Latin Vulgate, by which Father Knox hoped to rekindle in English Catholics a joy in reading the book which was central to his life.

The Knox Brothers is first-rate—insightful, sympathetic, rounded, and critical when necessary. Furthermore, it serves the corollary function of providing, for lovers of Fitzgerald's fiction, a fascinating look into the family situation which bred her, even though she is careful not to insert herself into the story, except minimally—generally referred to simply as X's niece or E.V.'s daughter, and that very rarely. By all means, read this book, but don't stop with it. Go on to the simply astonishing The Blue Flower, about the German Romantic poet Novalis before he was calling himself that, or to The Bookshop or The Golden Child or any of the others. And be ready, as I am, to snap up Means of Escape, her only collection of short stories, due for imminent release.

Jorge Luis Borges
"This Craft of Verse"
Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2000

This Craft of Verse is truly posthumous, constituting the text of six lectures never before issued and in fact essentially forgotten for three decades, surviving on magnetic tape. Borges delivered these lectures at Harvard during the 1967-68 school year in the Charles Eliot Norton series, and they have now been rediscovered, transcribed and published by HUP in an elegant little hardcover which almost any devoted reader would appreciate owning.

It is primarily, in fact, as a reader that Borges speaks.

The sentences and thoughts flow smoothly and almost nonchalantly, reading less as the texts of organized lectures than as loosely thematic conversations by one of the world's great readers. To be sure, one can easily be forgiven for suspecting, as he makes his way through these gentle pages, that Borges has read everything. Discussing such topics as translation, metaphor, the epic, and the music of poetry, he refers to Homer and Shakespeare, of course, but also to Plato, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Robert Browning, the "Arabian Nights," Heraclitus, G. K. Chesterton, the anonymous Anglo-Saxon poets, Robert Frost and Walther von der Vogelheide, as well as such Spanish language writers as Rafael Cansinos-Assens and Jorge Manrique, hardly read in the U.S. And his references are almost always to specific lines and sentences, which he analyzes carefully, elucidating everything they hold and suggest Several of these quotations are from languages other than English (the language of ! the lectures) and Spanish (in which Borges wrote), further astounding us with the breadth of his reading.

It is primarily, in fact, as a reader that Borges speaks. He talks about his own writing mostly in the final lecture, dedicated to that subject, but clearly he prefers to discuss the books and authors he cherishes. In that final lecture, he nails down both the contract between reader and writer and the way in which reading and writing differ. "[T]he happiness of a reader," he says, "is beyond that of a writer, for a reader need feel no trouble, no anxiety: he is merely out for happiness." Earlier he had said, "I think of myself as being essentially a reader. As you are aware, I have ventured into writing, but I think what I have read is far more important." And again, "[O]ne reads what one likes—yet one writes not what one would like to write, but what one is able to write"—words which are cutting indeed for those of us who fight to bring words to paper.

Just a few pages (or a few minutes, if you prefer) into the first lecture, he mentions Keats' poem, "On First Looking into Chapman's Homer." "What is strange about that poem—" he says, "and I thought of this only three or four days ago, when I was pondering this lecture—is the fact that it is a poem written about the poetic experience itself." In the poem's final lines, Borges explains, "We have George Chapman, the friend and rival of Shakespeare, being dead and suddenly coming to life when John Keats read his 'Iliad' or his 'Odyssey'." This, for Borges, seems to be an essential part of what happens when a reader connects with a work, and that work and its writer are immediately resurrected and restored to us—an experience which the devoted reader can have repeatedly throughout his life.

More recently, on the other hand, too much attention has been given to more and more inventive plots, he says, which are necessarily artificial and even trivial.

In the last lecture, "The Poet's Creed," Borges tells us that he "fell into a very common mistake: I did my best to be—of all things—modern." A few sentences later he notes quite correctly, "[W]e 'are' modern; we don't have to strive to be modern. It is not a case of subject matter or of style." These remarks link back, I think, to Borges' investigation of tale-telling in the third lecture, in which he tells us that, around 1800, "men began to invent stories. Perhaps one might say that the attempt began with Hawthorne and with Edgar Allan Poe, but of course there are always forerunners." Borges contrasts this situation with the past, in which the same stories were retold and recast repeatedly. "I don't suppose Chaucer ever thought of inventing a story." And this retelling made life easier for the reader/listener and for the poet, Borges says: both were able to focus not on the events of the tale itself, which they already knew, but rather upon "all the differences" that the new telling brought to it. More recently, on the other hand, too much attention has been given to more and more inventive plots, he says, which are necessarily artificial and even trivial. One is reminded of Pound's remark that a writer's skills are best observed when he is translating because then his "matter" is already given and all that lies to him is the manner of his speaking it.

Endlessly self-effacing and -deprecating, just as a reader might expect of a writer whose stories teem with "I"s who are not in fact the writer, Borges doesn't reveal much about his methods of writing. No "Paris Review" interview, this. Yet one learns a great deal about the sort of man, the sort of reader Borges was, and that in itself lends to an increased understanding of how and what he produced.

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About Cooper

Cooper Renner also reviews books and engages in various critical activities for the online magazine 'elimae', under the name b. renner. He is a published poet and a very eclectic fellow.