Wednesday, August 31, 2005
August Reading #2

They had come in from the country. So begins Rachel Cohen's A Chance Meeting, a delightful, slight, rich book of imaginative non-fiction. The book presents a series of encounters between American artists and writers beginning with Mathew Brady and Henry James and ending 36 encounters later with Norman Mailer and Robert Lowell. Each chapter presents the encounters between two or three people--some life-long friendships, some passing ships; the chapters themselves are addictively short--around 10 pages or so--and present intimate, sidelong looks into longer lives of all veins and varieties--struggle and triumph, modest, steady achievement and blazing success, careers on wax and wane. The encounters themselves are based on substance--letters, reports, etc., but then also atmospherically imagined. I didn't like the combination at first--it felt forced, contrived. But they grew in assurance, and I to like them until I found myself racing unhappily toward the end.

The encounters draw in history, race, culture, politics, all around the edges of the threads of artistic flux. It is full of good lines from letters and diaries, and good anecdotes without needing to bear the burdens of completeness--it is full of savors and finds its own shape. A few:

Hearing the story behind Joseph Cornell's inspiration for Taglioni's Jewel Casket when 'the great ballerina Maria Taglioni had been pulled out of her carriage by a Russian highwayman and forced to dance naked on a panther's skin on the snow, an experience that had thrilled Taglioni so deeply that legend had it she forever kept a piece of ice in her jewel box to remember it by.'

That Carl Van Vechten: "barked to show enthusiasm...and had been known to bite people whom he liked and didn't like."

Or this line of Henry James's, in which he condemns historical novel in exactly the language I was struggling to find to praise Ali and Nino (see below):

The "historic" novel is, for me, condemned, even in cases of labor as delicate as yours, to a fatal cheapness....You may multiply the little facts that can be got from pictures & documents, relics & prints, as much as you like--the real thing is almost impossible to do & in its absence the whole effect is as nought; I mean the invention, the representation of the old consciousness, the soul, the sense, the horizon, the vision of the individuals in whose minds half the things that make ours, that make the modern world were non-existent....

The strongest chapter in the book is about 3 people who I know only a little (and am not especially drawn to read--Willa Cather, Annie Adams Fields and Sarah Orne Jewett). The delicate richness of their friendship is lovely. It reminded of a Norton Anthology of Friendship, put together by Ron Sharp and Eudora Welty. I studied with Ron at Kenyon for a summer, and he explained that for most of human history, friendship has been a major topic--of literature, poetry and philosophy--much examined, dissected and portrayed--and that it is only in our modern sexualized age that it has faded to the point where the idea of an anthology of friendship seems odd and quaint and full of cloying pablum. The book itself is not--one highlight is the exchange of letters between TS Eliot and Groucho Marx--affectionate, funny and sweet.

A Chance Meeting also reminded me of a collection of criticism I found in the American Library in Paris called A Shock of Recognition--it was an anthology of American writers writing criticism of other American writers--Poe, Melville and DH Lawrence on Hawthorne, TS Eliot on Henry James, Dos Passos on EE Cummings, etc. (The best of that is reading DH Lawrence rant about Hester Prynne: "Hester Prynne was a devil. Even when she was so meekly going around as a sick-nurse. Poor Hester. part of her wanted to be saved from her own devilishness. And another part wanted to go on and on in devilishness, for revenge. Revenge! REVENGE!"--you can see Lawrence starting to foam at the mouth--he starts shouting FIE! later on--demented and hilarious and delightful.

So, A Chance Meeting--quite unusual, but certainly worth a read (4 stars).

And stay tuned--we're just starting to crack the stack....


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