Saturday, August 09, 2008

"I cannot deny there is much repetition," or, Letters Week, Part VI!

From Canto XXI of The Beauty of the Husband (2001), by Anne Carson
To say what letters contain is impossible. Did you ever touch your tongue to a metal surface in winter--how it felt to not get a letter is easier to say.
In a comment to a post from earlier this week, Warren Hynes wrote,
Makes you wonder how much we're losing in our own chronicle of the modern day now that so many of us choose e-mails over old-fashioned letters. I can't imagine someday reading "The Collected E-mails of Dave Eggers."
It's a thought that's inescapable if you spend enough of your time reading letters collections: what have we lost with the decline of the letter? To take a simple example, So I Have Thought of You, the new volume of Penelope Fitzgerald's letters that I wrote about yesterday, is rich with business letters, notes to her editors and agents and publishers about various details regarding the publication of her books. Working in publishing, I find them fascinating--they offer a certain pleasant element of, "So that is how they used to do this!" And there's the occasional straight-up gem that originates in a work letter, like this one to Fitzgerald's publisher at Duckworth, Colin Haycraft:
I am in hopeless trouble (as usual) with all my Georgian permissions. Except for yourself, everyone who has to deal with them becomes maniacal, secretive, suspicious, very old or very ill. I'd no idea there would be such trouble.
Such communication does continue in today's offices via e-mail. But if my own e-mail archive is any indication, business e-mails in general attempt to make up in volume what they lack in clarity or lasting interest; if editing a chaotic trove of letters is a largely thankless task, then editing a lifetime of business e-mails would surely be resemble diabolic punishment.

It's the lost personal letters that are more pang-worthy, of course: what resources for understanding (or wickedly gossiping about) today's authors have we lost to the ephemerality of cell phones? At least The Collected E-mails of Dave Eggers is conceivable. The Collected Cell Phone Calls of Dave Eggers, with a New Appendix of Dropped Calls is a book only shelvable in the Imaginary Library.

I do still write letters fairly regularly, though more from of a dislike of the telephone than out of concern for posterity, the very thought that someone might want to someday collect my letters being ludicrous. (And, I have to confess, were it not ludicrous, the thought would almost instantly send me--despite all my complaints about destructive authors--matches in hand, to the nearest trash barrel.) I've maintained reasonably reliable paper correspondences with a couple of friends for nearly fifteen years, as we've lived in different cities or even countries.

That leads me to today's letter, with which I'll close Letters Week: in part because of our years-long correspondence, for Christmas this year I gave my friend Maggie Bandur a copy of Samuel Richardson's Clarissa (1748), whose 1,536 pages reign over the form of the epistolary novel. Knowing that Clarissa has its fans (including Jenny Davidson), I gave it in all kindness--but I will admit to being unsurprised when the cynical and worldly Ms. Bandur assumed I had given it as a cruel dare, an unspoken challenge to her honor. Refusing to take umbrage at her impugning of my intentions, I pleased myself instead with the knowledge that her misconception meant she would plow through the book with unstoppable determination.

Which she did. The result was a letter, received Friday, from which I draw the excerpts below:
My Dear Mister Stahl,
I hope you will excuse the familiarity of my addres, but I know not how else to express my boundless gratitude for the gift of the most virtuous, but most ill-used Clarissa. What a noble creature! What an excellent moral leson! Alas, for me, it has come too late. But what are the sorrows and disappointments of this earth, compared to the comfort of being held in our Father's bosom for eternity? And believe me, I now know what eternity feels like.

In truth, I must confess the book is exceedingly long. . . . Although Clarissa longs for escape from this mean existence and her meaner troubles, she learns, "Death from grief was the slowest of deaths." Cowars and villains expire in one epistle; a saint of nineteen requires 1,300 pages.

In answer to your question if it is worth reading, yes, yes, a million times yes. Put aside all other pursuits and pick up--nay, heft, this volume, eyesight and back problems be d----d! I know this is not womanly speech; you must excuse the violence of my passions. How can anyone not love this most exemplary of women? . . .

The book is full of beautiful language, charming observations of human nature, and an excess of moralizing. . . . . I would not say I didn't enjoy the book, but there is so, so much of it. The moments of intense action come as a surprise. I cannot imagine that even in simpler times, people were desirous of such a very long, complete, and earnest lesson. I was not unhappy while reading, but I cannot deny it has been an albatross around my neck. . . . I read nine other books while working my way through this one, and I'm haunted by what I could have read instead. Three Dickens! The entire works of Graham Greene! And surely there is a paradox, that one can write a book so improving to the spirit and yet leave young people absolutely no time to pick up a Bible.

Richardson's conclusion warns against happy endings. For virtue to always be rewarded and evil always to be punished in literature creates an unreasonable expectation in the reader. Life is not fair, and we must be prepared for such. All the justice is in the hearafter. I do confess I yearn for the order I've seen only in art. Like punishments for those who give presents that can be seen only as a dare.

Ah, but you know my prideful ways as well as anyone. What are months of study and a new eyeglass prescription compared to the bragging rights I've acquired?

So thank you, dear sir. I am much improved in mind and spirit since last we met, although I remain,

Your humble servant,
Maggie Bandur
Ah, but Maggie, think of all the fun you can have once you get to the afterlife slagging on the book with Henry Fielding! Isn't that alone worth your investment of time?

As for me, well, as I'm sure my letters over the coming months will reveal, I'm busy developing a serious dread of next Christmas.

1 comment:

  1. Many thanks, sir, for inspiring the choice ot Hadji Murat. The weekend's minatory reverberations inclined me towards something Russian, but, alas, it was your echoing endorsement which pushed my hand. I read most of it at Home Depot, while my wife selected lumber for our shelves upstairs. I completed this bejeweled treasure our on the front steps, enjoying a breezy afternoon in the heartland. cheers