Tuesday, January 20, 2015

David Slavitt's new novel, Walloomsac

   David Slavitt is the most wide-ranging man of letters of our time. Any of his careers—as novelist, poet, and critic—would be more than enough for one person to have as their life’s work. That he has fully established himself in all the above categories as well as being our era’s most skilled and curious translator is truly stunning. This may indeed by a great age of translation; but it is often translations of already-established classics: Don Quixote, Dante, Dostoevsky. While not neglecting the obvious masterworks—his Aeschylus, from which I have taught many times, is especially outstanding--Slavitt’s true merit ahas been translating obscure works from the medieval and early modern period, which have either not been rendered into English at all or have only received dry, scholarly translations Sometimes one feels as if the few in these writers resent any potential broadening of interest. In a particularly scabrous  review, Laurance Wieder presumably not (a relation of Carlos Wieder in Roberto Bolaño), writing for the ultraconservative journal First Things, says of Slavitt’s Prudentius translation  “The urbane surface of his introductory prose can’t hide the vacancy of his aesthetic pose.” Even if true, )which it is not), why not applaud the fact that this important fourth century Christian poet, a pivotal figure in the transformation of  the Roman world from classicism through  late antiquity to the medieval, has been translated? Why not hail Slavitt for not being intimidated by repeated assurances in literary history, that Prudentius is dry as dust and only for scholastics and that the true, well-rounded reader should be content with the list of Great Books given them by the likes of Mortimer Adler, never to rove into obscure crevices frequented by true scholars such as Gibbon and Huysmans and Curtius? He should be so hailed.
  The remarkable achievement,though, of Slavitt's work is that this erudition is organized and controlled by classicism in another sense-the sense of  the writer knowing his limits, of preferring concision to verbosity, of keeping their knowledge all under control. Slavitt, though far more wide-ranging than previous American classicists such as Rolfe Humphries or Dudley Fitts or Stark Young, has their willingness to harness their creativity (which one must have creativity in the first place to do). Postmodernism and magical realism have made it easy to be erudite and swath one;s knowledge in a mantle of allegedly transgressive form, but Slavitt takes the harder task of writing a wild, prodigious, extravagant work which still possesses a sense of self-possession—decorum and equipoise are not quite the right words-amidst all its intellectual richness. Of major writers, the one most comparable is Borges: not that Slavitt is on this level, nor has particular Borgesian idiosyncrasies, but the mixture of erudition and discipline is analogous. The much duscussed brogue genre of  "Menippean satire"--something that is a bit of a mixture of everything, and is self-ironizing--is also pertinent, 
   Walloomsac, Slavitt's latest work, may well be his bravest and most  idiosyncratic. It is subtitled a roman fleuve, a river-novel, and its course indeed delightfully eddies from subject to subject, from the curiosity that Sir John Harington, the acclaimed Elizabethan translator of Ariosto, also invented the water-closet, to the history of syphilis and the Wasserman test (I am a bit surprised that Slavitt does not mention Fracastoro, the great poet of syphilis), to the novels of Sir Walter Scott and James Fenimore Cooper, novelists whom Slavitt’s novel does not resemble in the least but who he respects for their ability to meld fact and fiction and their knowing sense of what they were trying to do as writers. Literary strains that Waloomsac does evoke more concertedly are the deeply felt opulence of the George Garrett of The Succession (Garrett was a good friend and literary sparring partner of Slavitt’s), the wry self-discernment of an Italo Svevo, the mania and inventiveness of Thomas Pynchon with far more serenity and control, and, given that the Walloomsac, and the other river mentioned, the Hoosic, are in the Taconic Hills just across the border from the Berkshires of Meivlle’s Pierre, and Walloomsac emulates that bitter attempt of the great American writer to be as misunderstood as possible. (The third section is called “Tomahanack,” which is a slight misspelling of a reservoir near Troy ,but is probably just  meant to be fictive and to burst the frame a bit). We learn about disease, the relations between men and woman, Shakespeare, disappointment, fonts and their origin, and the perils of misunderstanding. We are exasperated, dazzled, and confused, but always sure of our guide: our most underrated major American writer, and someone who combines learning with a sensibility truly—for once---conscientious.

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