Sunday, December 17, 2017

Rescue of the houseguest: Our book of the year

One couldn't characterize the con-
sternation in the guest room as a
groundswell of dissidence over the
lack of a book of the year, but it
has projected a clear enough sus-
picion of rudeness in that depriva-
tion, as to moot the effect of the
bonsai, bibelots, bouquets and bon-
bons scattered about that sanctuary.
It's enough, it seems, to put the
cabin's insulation against the in-
ternet in an almost monastic light.
And, no, this was not one's intent.

                                    I know I will go back
             down & that it will not be the same though
             I shall be sure it is so. And I shall be even
             deeper by rhyme and cadence, more held
             to what isn't mine. Music is truly
             the sound of our time, since it is how we most
             deeply recognize the home we may not
             have: the loss is trust and you could
             reverse that without change.

If this is so, then the prose essay is how we most deeply recognize the home which we might not keep, by acts of revocation, reform, perverse Reconstruction or degenerate negligence. Such prospects, setting the tone of 2017 in the United States, our book of the year arrives by discerning compilation of an epistolary trust of great range and penetration, whose virtues - fearlessness, acuity, vitality and consistency - place these essays under comparison with very few writings conducted over a comparable span of time. And there isn't a redundant tone or concession to fashionable flippancy in a one of them. 

             . . But is this a long or a short time?
             I have, however, worked on this place, as
             one speaks of working on some new language.
             I have studied it a bit, driven about alone,
             inland, looking, wondering. Is the quiet a
             true tranquility and peacefulness? I some-
             times think it is and then again - perhaps
             it is something else. There is about the re-
             gion a curious and fascinating softness that
             seems to spread like a blanket over the hard-
             ness of rock and woods and icy turf. This is
             a perturbation, this ambiguous softness in
             the drifting fogs, the thick greens of the
             trees, the dampness, the swampy meadows. It 
             is in the people, too, in the men as well as
             in the women. Not a tropical softness, . .
             but the odd snowy lassitude of isolation.

American readers in the English language
are indebted to the vigorous and discern-
ing critic, Darryl Pinckney, for an edi-
Hardwick, which effusively explode with or-
iginal penetration, music, panache, and
incisive grace. The temptation to quote at
length from them is as intensely seductive
as the qualities of Maine, she discovered,
above. But this aspect of her extraordinary
perceptions has warned critics off, to go
read the whole thing, instead, since that
pathbreaking essay from 1959, The Decline
of Book Reviewing, with which she prefig-
ured her creation, with her husband and
their stupendously competent neighbors, 
of a periodical which has set the standard,
ever since. In a year which saw the loss
of its longtime master-editor, this astute
selection works a double rescue, of guests
who know where their language is welcome.

Mr Pinckney, a former student of hers at
Columbia (from which she had dropped out,
to go write), presents fine contributions
of his own now, to her New York Review of
Books, and a solidly persuasive defense
of his processes of exclusion and selec-
tion. There is an appendix for tracing
the breadth of her publishing, which un-
fortunately omits dates. This compromises
the anthology's primary structural advan-
tage - a chronological sequence of ent-
ries to furnish some supportive context
to every one. But her consistency, with-
out redundant tone or lazy resort to a
familiar stylistic accent, is proof of
more than a self-controlled and trusted
mind; it is the work of determined, con-
stant application, across a broad spec-
trum of human life. Pinckney relates, how
she would frequently decline subjects if
they held no interest to her, but to this
attractive model of behavior, there was
unfailingly a corollary, of illuminating
the house where we might stay.

i   J.H. Prynne
       The White Stones
        Thoughts on the 
          Esterházy Court Uniform
    New York Review Books, 2016©

ii  Elizabeth Hardwick
     1916 - 2007
     The Collected Essays
     Darryl Pinckney, editor
       In Maine
    New York Review Books, 2017©

Phillip Helmke
  Jennifer Adler, photography