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Some time when the river is ice ask me
mistakes I have made. Ask me whether
what I have done is my life. Others
have come in their slow way into
my thought, and some have tried to help
or to hurt: ask me what difference
their strongest love or hate has made.
I will listen to what you say.
You and I can turn and look
at the silent river and wait. We know
the current is there, hidden; and there
are comings and goings from miles away
that hold the stillness exactly before us.
What the river says, that is what I say.
This talk was delivered at the opening of the first book fair in Turin, Italy, on May 18, 1988.
THE idea of a book fair in the city where, a century ago, Friedrich Nietzsche lost his mind has, in its own turn, a nice ring of madness - a Mobius ring to be precise (commonly known as a vicious circle), for several stalls in this book fair are occupied by the complete or selected works of this great German. On the whole, infinity is a fairly palpable aspect of this business of publishing, if only because it extends a dead author's existence beyond the limits he envisioned, or provides a living author with a future he cannot measure. In other words, this business deals with the future which we all prefer to regard as unending.
On the whole, books are indeed less finite than ourselves. Even the worst among them outlast their authors - mainly because they occupy a smaller amount of physical space than those who penned them. Often they sit on the shelves absorbing dust long after the writer himself has turned into a handful of dust. Yet even this form of the future is better than the memory of a few surviving relatives or friends on which one cannot rely, and often it is precisely the appetite for this posthumous dimension which sets one's pen in motion.
So as we toss and turn these rectangular objects in our hands - those in octavo, in quarto, in duodecimo, etc., etc. - we won't be terribly amiss if we surmise that we fondle in our hands, as it were, the actual or potential urns with someone's rustling ashes. In a manner of speaking, libraries (private or public) and book stores are cemeteries; so are book fairs. After all, what goes into writing a book - be that a novel, a philosophical treatise, a collection of poems, a biography or a thriller - is, ultimately, a man's only life: good or bad, but always finite. Whoever it was who said that to philosophize is an exercise in dying was right in more ways than one, for by writing a book nobody gets younger.
Nor does one become any younger by reading it. Since that is so, our natural preference should be for good books. The paradox, however, lies in the fact that in literature, as nearly everywhere, ''good'' is not an autonomous category: it is defined by its distinction from ''bad.'' What's more, in order to write a good book, a writer must read a great deal of trash - otherwise, he won't be able to develop the necessary criteria. That's what may constitute bad literature's best defense at the Last Judgment; that's also the raison d'etre of these proceedings.
YET since we are all moribund and since reading books is time-consuming, we must devise a system that allows us a semblance of economy. Of course there is no denying the possible pleasure of holing up with a fat, slow-moving, mediocre novel; still, we all know that we can indulge ourselves in that fashion only so much. In the end, we read not for reading's sake, but to learn. Hence the need for concision, condensation, fusion - for the works that bring the human predicament, in all its diversity, into its sharpest possible focus; in other words, the need for a short cut. Hence, too - as a byproduct of our suspicion that such short cuts exist (and they do exist, but about that later) - the need for some compass in the ocean of available literature.
The role of that compass, of course, is eagerly played by literary criticism, by reviewers. Alas, its needle oscillates wildly. What is North for some is the South (South America, to be precise) for others; the same goes in an even wilder degree for East and West. The trouble with a reviewer is (minimum) threefold: (A) he can be a hack, and as ignorant as ourselves, (B) he can have strong predilections for a certain kind of writing, or simply be on the take with the publishing industry, and (C) if he is a writer of talent, he will turn his review-writing into an independent art form - Jorge Luis Borges is a case in point - and you may end up by reading reviews rather than the books themselves.
In any case, you find yourselves adrift in the ocean, with pages and pages rustling in every direction, clinging to a raft of whose ability to stay afloat you are not so sure. The alternative therefore would be to develop your own taste, to build your own compass, to familiarize yourself, as it were, with particular stars and constellations - dim or bright but always remote. This, however, takes a hell of a lot of time, and you may easily find yourself old and gray, heading for the exit with a lousy volume under your arm. Another alternative - or perhaps just a part of the same - is to rely on hearsay; a friend's advice, a reference caught in a text that you happen to like. Although not institutionalized in any fashion (which wouldn't be such a bad idea), this kind of procedure is familiar to all of us from a tender age. Yet this too proves to be poor insurance, for the ocean of available literature swells and widens constantly.
So where is terra firma, even though it may be but an uninhabitable island? Where is our good man Friday, let alone a Cheetah?
Before I come up with my suggestion - nay! with what I perceive as the only solution for developing sound taste in literature, I'd like to say a few words about this solution's source, i.e., about my humble self. I'd like to do it not because of my personal vanity, but because I believe that the value of an idea is related to the context from which it emerges. Indeed, had I been a publisher, I'd be putting on my books' covers not only their authors' names but also the exact age at which they composed this or that work, in order to enable their readers to decide whether they care to reckon with the information or the views contained in a book written by a man so much younger - or, for that matter, so much older - than they are themselves.
THE source of the suggestion to come belongs to the category of people (alas, I can no longer use the term ''generation,'' which implies a certain sense of mass and unity) for whom literature has always been a matter of some hundred names; to the people whose social graces would make Robinson Crusoe or even Tarzan wince: to those who feel awkward at large gatherings, do not dance at parties, tend to find metaphysical excuses for adultery and are finicky about discussing politics. Such people normally dislike themselves far more than their detractors dislike them. Such people still prefer alcohol and tobacco to heroin or marijuana - such people are those whom, in W. H. Auden's words, ''one will not find on the barricades and who never shoot themselves or their lovers.'' If such people however occasionally find themselves swimming in their blood on the floor of prison cells or speaking from a platform, it is because they rebel against (or, more precisely, object to) - not some particular injustice - but the order of the world as a whole. They have no illusions about the objectivity of the views they put forth; on the contrary, they insist on their unpardonable subjectivity right from the threshold.
They act in this fashion, however, not for the purpose of shielding themselves from possible attack: as a rule, they are fully aware of the vulnerability pertinent to their views and the positions they defend. Yet - taking the stance somewhat opposite to Darwinian - they consider vulnerability the primary trait of living matter; they are interested in the survival of the defeatist. This, I must add, has less to do with masochistic tendencies, nowadays attributed to almost every man of letters, than with their instinctive, often firsthand knowledge that extreme subjectivity, prejudice and indeed idiosyncrasy are what helps art to avoid cliche. And the resistance to cliche is what distinguishes art from life.
Now that you know the background of what I am about to say, I may just as well say it. The way to develop good taste in literature is to read poetry. If you think that I am speaking out of professional partisanship, that I am trying to advance my own guild interests, you are badly mistaken. For, being the supreme form of human locution, poetry is not only the most concise, the most condensed way of conveying the human experience; it also offers the highest possible standards for any linguistic operation - especially one on paper.
The more one reads poetry, the less tolerant one becomes of any sort of verbosity, be that in political or philosophical discourse, be that in history, social studies or the art of fiction. Good style in prose is always hostage to the precision, speed and laconic intensity of poetic diction. A child of epitaph and epigram, conceived indeed as a short cut to any conceivable subject matter, poetry to prose is a great disciplinarian. It teaches the latter not only the value of each word but also the mercurial mental patterns of the species, alternatives to linear composition, the knack of omitting the self-evident, emphasis on detail, the technique of anticlimax. Above all, poetry develops in prose that appetite for metaphysics that distinguishes a work of art from mere belles-lettres. It must be admitted, however, that in this particular regard, prose has proven to be a rather lazy pupil.
Please, don't get me wrong: I am not trying to debunk prose. The truth of the matter is that poetry simply happens to be older than prose and thus has covered a greater distance. Literature started with poetry, with the song of a nomad that predates the scribblings of a settler. And although I have compared somewhere the difference between poetry and prose to that between the air force and the infantry, the suggestion that I make now has nothing to do with either hierarchy or the anthropological origins of literature. All I am trying to do is to be practical and spare your eyesight and brain cells a lot of useless printed matter. Poetry, one might say, has been invented for just this purpose - for it is synonymous with economy. What one should do, therefore, is repeat, albeit in miniature, the process that took place in our civilization in the course of two millennia. It is easier than you might think, for the body of poetry is far less voluminous than that of prose. What's more, if you are concerned mainly with contemporary literature, then your job is indeed a piece of cake. All you have to do is to arm yourselves for a couple of months with the works of poets in your mother tongue, preferably from the first half of this century. I suppose you'll end up with a dozen rather slim books, and by the end of the summer you -that is, your literary taste - will be in great shape.
IF your mother tongue is English, I may recommend to you Robert Frost, Thomas Hardy, W. B. Yeats, T. S. Eliot, W. H. Auden, Marianne Moore and Elizabeth Bishop. If the language is German, Rainer Maria Rilke, Georg Trakl, Peter Huchel, Ingeborg Bachmann and Gottfried Benn. If it is Spanish, Antonio Machado, Federico Garcia Lorca, Luis Cernuda, Rafael Alberti, Juan Ramon Jimenez and Octavio Paz will do. If the language is Polish - or if you know Polish (which would be to your great advantage, because the most extraordinary poetry of this century is written in that language) - I'd like to mention to you the names of Leopold Staff, Czeslaw Milosz, Zbigniew Herbert and Wieslawa Szymborska. If it is French, then of course Apollinaire, Jules Supervielle, Pierre Reverdy, Blaise Cendrars, Max Jacob, Francis Jammes, Andre Frenaud some of Eluard, a bit of Aragon, Victor Segalen, and Henri Michaux. If it is Greek, then you should read Constantine Cavafy, George Seferis, Yannis Ritsos. If it is Dutch, then your must is Martinus Nijhoff, particularly his stunning ''Awater.'' If it is Portuguese, you should try Fernando Pessoa and perhaps Carlos Drummond de Andrade. If the language is Swedish, read Gunnar Ekelof, Harry Martinson, Werner Aspenstrom, Tomas Transtromer. If it is Russian, it should be, to say the least, Marina Tsvetaeva, Osip Mandelstam, Anna Akhmatova, Boris Pasternak, Vladislav Khodasevich, Viktor Khlebnikov, Nikolai Kluyev, Nikolai Zabolotsky. If it is Italian, I don't presume to submit any name to this audience, and if I still mention Quasimodo, Saba, Ungaretti and Montale, it is simply because I have long wanted to acknowledge my personal, private gratitude and debt to these four great poets whose lines influenced my own life rather crucially, and I am glad to do so while standing on Italian soil.
If after going through the works of any of these, you would drop a book of prose picked from the shelf, it won't be your fault. If you'd continue to read it, that will be to the author's credit; that will mean that this author has indeed something to add to the truth about our existence as it was known to these few poets just mentioned; that would prove at least that this author is not redundant, that his language has an independent energy or grace. Or else, that would mean that reading is your incurable addiction. As addictions go, this is not the worst one.
Let me draw a caricature here, for caricatures accentuate the essential. In this caricature I see a reader whose both hands are occupied with holding open books. In the left, he holds a collection of poems, in the right, a volume of prose. Let's see which he drops first. Of course, he may fill both his palms with prose volumes, but that will leave him with self-negating criteria. And of course he may also ask what distinguishes good poetry from bad, and where is his guarantee that what he holds in his left hand is indeed worth bothering with?
WELL, for one thing what he holds in his left hand will be, in all likelihood, lighter than what he holds in the right. Secondly, poetry, as Montale once put it, is an incurably semantic art, and the chances for charlatanism in it are extremely low. By the third line a reader will know what sort of thing he holds in his left hand, for poetry makes sense fast and the quality of language in it makes itself felt immediately. After three lines he may take a glance at what he has in the right.
This is, as I told you, a caricature. At the same time, I believe, this might be the posture many of you will unwittingly assume at this book fair. Make sure, at least, that the books in your hands belong to different genres of literature. Now, this shifting eyes from left to right is of course a maddening enterprise; still, there are no horses on the streets of Torino any longer, and the sight of a cabby flogging his animal won't aggravate the state you will be in leaving these premises. Besides, a hundred years hence, nobody's insanity will matter much to the multitudes whose number will exceed by far the total of little black letters in all the books at this book fair put together. So you may as well try the little trick I've just suggested. Like the proverbial proletariat, you stand to lose nothing; what you may gain are new associative chains.