Monday, November 27, 2017

Aeneas, Isabel Archer and "the conquest of time"

What has brought about such recurrence
of scrutiny of these two figures in
literature, as to have made it impos-
sible for anyone in the generation in
which I participate ever to be free of
asking oneself, how much one cares a-
bout them? The question is not entire-
ly the same as, how settled one may
be in understanding their story, giv-
en that it is so frequently raised by
ventures - critical, creative, indus-
trial - committed to reopening every-
thing one has thought of them. Now we
come upon another Christmas season,
with two unquestionably leading lights
in our language, presenting the ques-
tion yet again, and competing for our
attention and laurels with fine works
without their notorious provenance.

This year, there can be no doubt that
Aeneas and Isabel ride in on conveyances
of such prestige - the poet David Ferry,
the novelist John Banville - as to draw
an almost nervous apprehension that, per-
haps, one's lifetime indenture to their
stories had not actually been as sincere
as we'd supposed. But how often this is
the case, whenever the chance exists to
learn anything about what one already
likes; one doesn't really resist, it's
just a question of how appallingly dull
one's going to be revealed to be.

in introducing us to Alexander Calder
for truly the first time (for all in-
tents and purposes), has subtitled his
critical biography with a suggestion
which certainly applies to this phen-
omenon, "the conquest of time." What
we spontaneously like about Perl's
assertion for Calder, only excites
the keenest interest. For Aeneas and
for Isabel, it conveys almost a chas-
tisement, and the reader enjoys a
gruesome sense of one's mortality, as
having simply stood in the way of an
immortality he has never fathomed. 

Belong as one may, to that pathetic
fan club of the Great and the Good
in literature, with any new burst of
radiance from The Aeneid or subtlety
apt to beg to believe that this must 
be the end, and we'll not be stuck in
Mobile, with the Memphis blues again.

Banville has done this, as you must 
know, with a character not of fic-
tion but certainly of myth, the spy,
Anthony Blunt. Saturated as our lib-
raries are, with tales and counter-
tales of the talented Cambridge
traitors, Banville created the
most penetrating study of Blunt in
print; and it is so convincing that
even (say) Miranda Carter's fine bi-
ography answered, to be fair, to a
simple fan club interest in the nar-
rative of naughty Apostleship. Now
that he opens his imaginative eye
upon the later life of Isabel Archer,
we stand in acute peril of his il-
luminating Henry James. Is anyone
honestly ready for that?

The hazard with David Ferry is en-
tirely the same, only more extreme.
It isn't really Aeneas, we haven't
fathomed; and we know it. It's the
poet. Precisely as the truth of Is-
abel's story is locked within the
structure of her own seeing what it
is, the truth of Aeneas' enterprise
is embedded within the extraordinary
interaction of past tense and present
tense of cognition, within the same
passage. Virgil's "historical pres-
ent" sustains suspense, in a story 
whose every shred of content has been 
known for two thousand years (roughly
as long, many undergraduates must feel,
as they've known Isabel Archer). To
take us with Aeneas is to unpack us
of factual mass and temporal certainty, 
even of memory, in the face of poetry.

In appraising the mastery of Alexander
Calder at his fortieth year, Jed Perl
makes reference to one of the great
critical texts of our time, Charles
Rosen's The Classical Style - finding
in the sculptor's reconciliation of
mass and movement an imaginative elas-
ticity, an optimistic solution to time
which is at the heart of The Aeneid, 
of its reader. Perl is gifted, as
Rosen was, with acute learning in a
variety of disciplines, and a fine
polemicist's zeal for principles,
in which regard for form is not mere-
ly pre-eminent, but defining. With
this perspective his guidance through
the evolution of Calder's art has the
buoyancy and grounding it deserves, 
with a thrilling range of delectation.

The projects of David Ferry and Jed
Perl took more than a decade to bring
forth, and probably John Banville has
not known a moment's distance from his
great heroine. What a fortunate con-
vergence it is, for any English read-
er at this Christmas, to find three
such stunning adventures in poetics
by one's side, just now, in our caul-
dron of misdirected fascinations - to 
cite but one of Perl's fierce denig-
rations of populist topicality in the 
arts. These wonderful gifts plainly
disqualify themselves as a Book of 
the Year, for having earned no less
than they give, a better life.

John Banville

Mrs Osmond
Alfred A. Knopf, 2017©

Alfred A. Knopf, 1997©

April Bernard
  A review of David Ferry's
  translation of The Aeneid
The New York Review of Books
November 23, 2017©

Hermann Broch
The Death of Virgil
  A Novel
Jean Starr Untermeyer
  translation and
  Translator's Note
Random House, 1945©

Henry James
The Portrait of a Lady
Peter Washington
Everyman's Library
Alfred A. Knopf, 1991©

Jed Perl
Alfred A. Knopf, 2017©

The Classical Style
  Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven
W.W. Norton & Company, 1971©

The Aeneid
ca 20 BC
University of Chicago Press, 2017©

Alexander Calder
National Gallery of Art
Washington,  DC

Fionn Creber x Cecilie Harris
Nevs Models

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