June 22, 2015

Daniel Mendelsohn was "An irresistible critic" at AWF15



Egyptian cat sarcophagus













He had seemed grey-eyed, seated on the low dais of the slightly drab, multifunctional room where his two earlier sessions were held, but under the lights of the ASB Theatre Daniel Mendelsohn's eyes glittered bright blue. They called to mind those ancient Egyptian cat sculptures whose eye sockets, archaeologists tell us, were filled with blue glass. I remembered that his publicity photo had something else suggestive of those four-legged sacred beings: that raised eyebrow look which Dante called altero.

How to translate altero, derived from the past participle of the Latin verb alere, to grow, as in, a person who stands above the rest? Funnily, considering that I used to be a translator and I'm describing someone who spent 12 years translating the works of the Alexandrian Greek poet Cavafy into English, an exact translation escapes me. Suggestion after suggestion from online dictionaries and translator forums seem to only point up what it is not: it is not 'superior', even less so 'arrogant', and not at all 'vainglorious', a word I have never used in speech (has anyone in the last 50 years?), but which I was amused to see matched to the Italian borioso, a new word for me, from the Latin borea, meaning 'wind'. As in, perhaps, 'puffed up'? Definitely not.

Perhaps the closest word was "lordly". In fact, what the photo had prompted me to wonder -- just a bit -- was if Daniel Mendelsohn, whose writings I so admire, might not let me down in person by turning out to be someone who would lord his superior talent and taste over us.

With every appearance he made, the worry receded, until it was laid definitely to rest at this third session, in which he appeared as an "irresistible critic". He was... irresistible, with his takeaway flat white, reading glasses, and mix of impudent throwaway lines and candid, intelligent reflections.

Ian Wedde, who gets top marks as an interviewer, started off by asking about the critical mentality, or the critical sensibility. Mendelsohn's take on it involved what he called the "vivacity" of the argument, or dialogue, as a way of being social, as a way of living.

Wedde brought up Mendelsohn's descriptions of his grandfather's talent for storytelling, which we had heard him extol affectionately in his previous session, in relation to his memoir The lost: a search for six of six million. Was that a formative influence?

It was. "The allure for me is storytelling. I think that as a critic, as well as a memoirist, the activity I'm engaged in is to narrate something. You narrate the path by which you arrived at the opinion of the work that you now have".

The word "critic", he told us, comes from the Greek krinein, to make a judgement. And, "We come from a society that increasingly doesn't want to. People say, 'Who am I to judge?'.  Well, you have a brain -- you are!"

The importance of using your brain led to considerations about his formation as a scholar of the classics, beginning with the study of the Greek and Latin languages. "Greek and Latin: the rigour of the grammar enforces a rigour of thought. I don't know why that had such appeal to me, but as a kid I was already trying to learn Greek."

The study of classics turned out to be a useful formation in many other ways as well.

"As a classicist you have to process an immense amount of material." He gave us a glorious vignette from his University years, in which he was in the office of his classicist mentor. "She took a drag on her cigarette and said to me, 'Of course you can't write anything until you've read everything'."

What she was describing, he said, was the "scholarly duty to a body of knowledge". In some ways, the same concept applies to criticism. "I have a wonderful editor who says criticism is a service industry. You don't have time to read everything. I do. That's my job."

The job does not include telling you what you should think or do. "Of course, I want my audience to be with me, but I don't care if you read the book or see the movie."

It played as impertinent, but at heart it's a serious creed which Mendelsohn shares with the critics he grew up reading in the pages of The New Yorker, about whom he explained, "By dramatising the process by which they arrived at their judgement, the critics implied that you also could form your own opinion".

It was a point he had made in "A Critic's Manifesto", a piece which appeared in The New Yorker's Page-Turner blog a few years ago, a thoughtful and, if it's not too strong a term, enthusiastic exploration of the role of the professional critic in our society (and of Mendelsohn's own development as a critic), which should be read by anyone interested in the topic, but above all by anyone who, like Dave Eggers, thinks that only a person who has written a book, or made a movie, has the right to dismiss a book, or a movie.

Mendelsohn quoted for us what might be considered the manifesto of the Manifesto: "Knowledge plus taste equals meaningful judgement. The key word is meaningful".

Wedde brought up the subject of highbrow vs lowbrow. Mendelsohn responded by declaring a taste for Noel Coward, and "I'm not interested in a high-low separation. It can sound funny coming from a classicist, but you know everyone went to see Greek Drama".

Our culture isolates the categories, he said, but he doesn't. "In my own enjoyment of things I don't think I'm a snooty person -- you know I watch 'Revenge'. I watch 'Scandal'. I have no patience for people who say 'I don't watch TV'. I mean, this is your culture. As an intellectual you have to inhabit your culture."

"If you're doing anything seriously, that's your invitation to me. If you take it seriously, I'll do it seriously."

He went on to express the opinion -- which had me, for one, exulting -- that one of the most non-serious pursuits of our society is the ranking of books and movies, for which we have Amazon to thank. "The idea that it is a useful criterion -- it was a 5 star book -- is completely idiotic to me."

After all, "Everything interesting is mixed". 

To finish off, he read us an excerpt from his upcoming book. It was about how after his father retired from his job as a scientist, he asked Daniel if he could sit in on the class he was teaching at Bard University on The Odyssey. Partly, we are given to understand, it was because he was curious about the poem itself, which had never really appealed to him, his preference being for The Iliad. But even more, it was about getting to know his son better, to experience this thing which was such a chunk of his life.

Every day he would appear, it was the winter semester, snowy weather in upstate New York, they'd meet in the car park and walk to the classroom together, his father, already quite old, in his eighties I think, always careful how he stepped, because he was afraid of falling.

And then after the class ends Daniel sees an ad for an Odyssey cruise which retraces Odysseus's route home, and he and his father go on it together. Numerous adventures rise up before them, just like in the Cavafy poem, and in the end, again like the Cavafy poem, they never do get to Ithaca, the canal of Corinth closed by a strike, and ... and then, they come home, and soon after that, "My father fell."

He stopped reading there, but you knew what that was leading to, because he had said his father is no longer alive.

It was maybe the best reading I'd ever heard at a literary festival. Mendelsohn read beautifully, his measured cadence perfectly matching the long and lyrical sentences, which managed however to be as simply and clearly written as Hemingway could ever have wished. Write the truest sentence you know.

Although I never did come up with a word for altero, I did find a definition by Armando Testi which could have described Mendelsohn reading the words he had clearly worked and re-worked so that they would say exactly what they needed to say, "A pride which is always unruffled, which we may perceive as majesty."

As I waited in the signing line, I couldn't help accosting the woman next to me to enthuse about the reading. She said, "I loved the story but I'm really not sure about having yet another term for dying -- I already didn't like passing and now we've got falling".

I said, "I think (you know how you're so polite, but inside I was sure she was completely off course, to use an odyssean metaphor) that he really was talking about falling. Remember at the beginning he said his father was always afraid of falling? I think that was meant as a premonition of what would happen at the end. Then of course with old people, whether 'falling' means falling on an icy path and breaking a femur, or falling to the floor from a heart attack, we can imagine that it will lead to death. But I'm sure falling meant falling!" She said, "Oh, I hadn't thought of that, maybe you're right!"

Looking back, however, I think she could have been right. I think that if anyone could pull it off, Daniel Mendelsohn, classics scholar and believer in the endless possibilities of human expression, could have created a new metaphor for death, born from the language of myth. "He fell."


Thanks to the iMalqata blog for the image of the Egyptian bronze cat. Now in the Michael C. Carlos Museum, it would have been  part of a cat sarcophagus, and was once given as a gift by Charlie Chaplin to his wife,  Paulette Goddard.

--Karen

Ditulis Oleh : Karen Craig // 21:03
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