Authors: Michael Hofmann
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FOR BARBARA H., LIGHT OF MY LIFE
I have translated novels (a lot of novels) and written poems (not so many poems), but probably what the Germans call the “red thread” of my life is here: in what I have written about novels and poems and, more occasionally, paintings and films. Here, safely between covers, you will find my most regular and responsible writing, the hand on the shoulder, the earnest or incredulous voice in your ear, the animated gestures of deprecation or delight or indifference or bafflement. Here you will find a history of my spontaneity, a requiem to my intransigence, calipers for my taste. Here you will seeâif you are disposed to at allâmy version of what to read, why to think, how to like.
In 2001, a first book of my “pieces on writing and pictures” came outâfifty-six of them, called
Behind the Lines
. That was taken from twenty years of workâif you call literary reviewing workâand was adventurously assembled from an array of carbons, photocopies, and newsprint, three things that probably need footnotes nowadays. Even then, it felt like a late book of its kind. And now here we are again, the same but different, with thirty more pieces from the dozen years since, turned out at the rate of two or three a year (given the time it takes me to prepare and write them, an almost unbroken chain). Is thereâaside from the sourcing of everything on computer files, where “documents” are so effortlessly preserved and traced, though less well by your maladapted writerâa difference?
The pieces seem to have become longer and more rounded. Their blending of service to the reader (information, summaries, background, quotations, dates, titles) and self-delighting freedom of expression is more pronounced. Their occasionsâLowell, Seidel, Hamilton, Antonioni, Zweigâmean more to me, and I have had more time to rise to them; many I have spent years, sometimes even decades, waiting for. Just as the publicationsâthe
of Ted Hughes or the
of Adam Zagajewski, the life of Weldon Keesâare events, so it was my hope that my consideration would be something of an event too: Schnitzler in 2003, Herbert in 2007, the Bishop/Lowell letters in 2010. As I was taught, by my father and others, I wanted my words and noticings to be of a piece with my subjects'; I aimed to write an homage (for the most part) to literature in something that itself approached the condition of literature. If there is something monumental about most of my subjects, something marble or granite or bronze, then maybe (I thought) I can investigate and animate them, make them resonate, play with and in and over them, like the water in a fountain.
Just as it was my hope and part of my brief in the original writing to pique and amuse everyone from the author (if alive) and the devotee to the skeptic and the happily or unhappily oblivious, so now I hope this book can be read with profit and enjoyment by anyone from
to layperson. I like to think the reader of Schuyler might (in spite of all) make his way back to Lowell, or the reader of Bishop to Solie, or of Seidel to Bernhard (I don't believe in a language island or a poetry island or even a literature island, though that would come closest!). I don't see why books have to be written on purpose, or by design, and from scratch. Wouldn't there be as much intensity, originality, adventure, and revelation here as in, say, a single-author study or a book with a thesis to fail to prove? So, yes, as the TV chefs say, here's one I made earlier. These are pieces that were written, most of them, to commission, and that have appeared here or there. I wrote them, even at the time, so that they might be reread years later, and why not a gaggle of them, “scratching each other's backs,” as Lowell says, “like cans in a sack”? Why not in fact a book already tested by its separate occasions, by the discipline of print, and the challenge of propinquity?
Last thing. My title,
Where Have You Been?
As is often the way, it
the last thing. I imagined it leveledâpersonally or impersonally, kindly or accusinglyâat me, and this my answer. And then, I thought, isn't it also the constant clamor or refrain, bandied from book to reader, reader to critic, critic to book, in an endless farce of ill timing? And vice versa, too, of course. Where increasingly everything is global and blogal and instant and on demand, where the things we think we want talk to us (or at least the things that have been told to want us), isn't it odd and lovely and even a little reassuring that there's so much itinerant lostness about? This book is a sort of baroque convenience, a vade mecum, a few more connections, a few more lines, a further wrinkle of mapping.
Words in Air
is such a formidably and dramatically and lingeringly wonderful book, it is hard to know where to begin. Well, begin in the manner of the physical geographer and the embarrassed statistician and the value-for-money merchant, with quantity, though that's absolutely the wrong place. Here then are 459 letters, 300 of them not previously published, exchanged over thirty years, between 1947 when the two great poets of late twentieth-century America first metâRobert Lowell just thirty, Elizabeth Bishop thirty-six, both with one trade book and one round of prizes under their beltsâand 1977 when Lowell predeceased his friend by two years; covering all told some nine hundred pages from Bishop endpapersâone hand-scrawled, one typedâto Lowell endpapersâone in his laborious, also not greatly legible child-print (“I know I'm myself beyond self-help, and at least you can spell”), one typed. The apparatus of footnotes, chronology, and compendious glossary of namesâtake a bow, Saskia Hamiltonâis modest, helpful, and accurate. At this point in our postepistolary (no joke), postliterary, almost postalphabetical decline, we would probably receive any collection of letters with a feeling of stupefied wistfulness and a sigh of valediction, but
Words in Air
is way beyond generic. It feels like a necessary and a culminating book, especially for Bishop. To read, it is completely engrossing, to the extent that I feel I have been trekking through it on foot for months, and I don't know where else I've been. “Why, page 351,” I would say. “Letter #229; March 1, 1961. Lowell's forty-fourth birthday. Where did you think?”
But what is it like? How in fact do you read it? “I am underlining like Queen Victoria,” Bishop remarks at one stage. How do you filter, assimilate, crunch it down to the space of a review? Its eight hundred pages of lettersâevery one of them bearing my ambiguous slashes of delight, interest, demurral, startlementâstill left me with eight sheets full of page numbers of my own. It's like starting with a city and ending up with a phone bookâhardly useful as a redaction. Really, I might as well have held a pencil to the margin and kept it there, for bulk reread.
It's an epistolary novel, if not a full-blown romance, then at least at moments an
. It's a variation on GarcÃa MÃ¡rquez's
Love in the Time of Cholera
. Or it's an
in later life, both parties already poets but perhaps more importantly still on the way to becoming poets, as perhaps one only ever and always
a poet. It's an ideally balanced, ideally complex account of a friendship, a race, a decades-long conspiracy, a dance (say, a tango?). It's a cocktail of infernal modesty and angelic pride. It's a further episode in Bishop's increasingly sweeping posthumous triumph over her more obvious, more ambitious, more square-toed friend. It's a rat-a-tat-tat Ping-Pong rally, an artillery exchange, a story told in fireworks, a trapeze show. One can read it for gifts sent up and down the Atlantic, from Lowell's traditional northeast seaboard to Bishop's serendipitously arrived-at Brazil, where she mostly lived from 1951, having disembarked from a freighter for a short visit; for projects completed, adapted, revised, abandoned, published, and responded to; for blurbs solicited, struggled with, and delivered to greater or lesser satisfaction; for houses bought and done up and left; for other partners encountered and set down; for visits and time together passionately contrived, put off, and subsequently held up to memory or guiltily swept under the carpet; for gossip and the perennial trade in reputations; for a startlingly unabashed revelation of mutual career aid (“we may be a terrible pair of log-rollers, I don't know,” writes Bishop in 1965, having asked Lowell for a blurb for
Questions of Travel
after he had asked her for one for
); for loyalty and scruple, independent thinking and prudent silence, insistent generosity and occasional self-seeking; a longing to submit to the other's perceived discipline and a desire to offer unconditional admiration; for personal, professional, and public events. One can read it for movements of place, gaps in time, and discrepancies and disharmonies in feeling or balance; for the dismayed Bishop's agonized criticism of aspects of two of Lowell's books, the rather coarse free translations in
of 1961, and the use of private letters from his second wife, Elizabeth Hardwick, in
of 1973; for various other crises and cruxes: their heady, teasy-flirty mutual discovery of 1947, Bishop's difficult visit to a near-manic Lowell in Maine in 1957, Lowell's visit to Brazil and another manic episode in 1962, the death by suicide of Bishop's companion, Lota de Macedo Soares, in 1967, Bishop's uneasy return to Boston (to fill in for Lowell's absence, if you please), and Lowell's ultimate shuttling between wives and countries of the late 1970s. It's social history, comedy of manners, American dissidence, the search for a style. It's not least a gender myth more astute about men and women than that of Atalanta and Hippolytus (in any case, I always think Atalanta, like Bishop, should have wonâ
should have been provided with the apples, and Hippolytus, the ambitious, distractable male, goofed off in their pursuit, rather than the other way round). He is her anchor, she his kite.