Monthly Archives: May 2019

“Let it stand.” (an exchange of emails about James Joyce)

 
Once or twice [Joyce] dictated a bit of Finnegans Wake to [Samuel] Beckett, though dictation did not work very well for him; in the middle of one such session there was a knock at the door which Beckett didn’t hear. Joyce said, ‘Come in,’ and Beckett wrote it down. Afterwards he read back what he had written and Joyce said, ‘What’s that “Come in”?’ ‘Yes, you said that,’ said Beckett. Joyce thought for a moment, then said, ‘Let it stand.’ He was quite willing to accept coincidence as his collaborator. Beckett was fascinated and thwarted by Joyce’s singular method.

 

— Richard Ellmann, James Joyce (Oxford University Press, 1965), pg. 662

 

 

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I had the following exchange of emails with my brother the other day. We were discussing certain aspects of writing.

 

 

 

May 8, 2019

 
ROGER

 

Writing shouldn’t amount to an incoherent, rambling screed; a sort of data dump of the brain. But sometimes thoughts creep in and occur that don’t have to be excised.

P.S. There is an interesting passage in Richard Ellman’s biography of Joyce describing how in Paris Joyce was dictating a passage from either Ulysses or Finnegans Wake (I don’t recall which) to his amanuensis, Samuel Becket. There was an interruption such as someone knocking on the door and Joyce said something which Becket wrote down. Then, Becket asked, was that supposed to be included? Joyce mulled it over and said leave it in. It was words such as “Come in.”

 

 

 

PETE SMITH

 

Agree.

But leaving “come in” in text when it was just a remark that happened while writing and when it has nothing to do with the subject about which is being written is absurd. Joyce’s ego must have been enormous by then.

 

 

 

ROGER

 

Joyce was a genius. Us mere mortals can’t carp or judge.

Yes, a bit nutty at times.

Dr. Colp [my former psychiatrist] and I talked quite a bit about Joyce from time to time. Dr. Colp once said to me: “What would I do with a genius like Joyce for a patient?”

 

 

 

PETE SMITH

Yes, a genius, but clearly his self-importance was out of control if he had become arrogant enough to leave something in that made no sense.

 

 

ROGER

I wouldn’t argue the point. When I read this (years ago), it made me wonder.

 

 

 

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I read Richard Ellmann’s biography of Joyce when I was in my twenties.

I don’t think it will be surpassed.

 

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

    May 12, 2019

how could she omit the dates? (Whitman scholars won’t be happy)

 

 

 

 

'Walt Whitman Speaks' -book cover

 

 

I purchased yesterday at the Stand Bookstore the following slim book:

 

Walt Whitman Speaks: His Final Thoughts on Life, Writing, Spirituality, and the Promise of America

as told to Horace Traubel

edited and with an introduction by Brenda Wineapple

New York: Library of America, 2019

 

 

Whitman’s remarks are grouped, arranged, by topic.

They are all taken from With Walt Whitman in Camden by Whitman’s friend and acolyte Horace Traubel. Nowhere in the present volume is there any indication of on what DATE the conversation with Traubel occurred (all of which is fully indicted in the nine volumes of Traubel’s).

In James Boswell’s Life of Johnson, the date on which a conversation with Johnson occurred is an important consideration, and was duly noted by Boswell. Same thing here (regarding the importance of dating when the remark was made).

What was Brenda Wineapple thinking? She is an accomplished and well known American literary scholar. I blame her, and also the Library of America.

Whitman scholars will be disappointed.

 

 
— Roger W. Smith

May 2019

Schubert (specifically, his last sonata), Mitsuko Uchida, and my mother

 

 

Shubert piano sonata in B-flat Minor, D. 960

his last piano sonata

not published

he died two months later

 

 

Mitsuko Uchida

flawless performance at Carnegie Hall on May 4, 2019

 

 

I have criticized her (perhaps unfairly) with reference to Schubert performances.

I saw her a couple of times performing at Carnegie Hall within the past year. A Schubert performance last year left me feeling lukewarm about her, despite the fact that the audience — she has a following — loves her.

But I shouldn’t jump to conclusions or “give up” on her too easily, I thought. It may be that I have been lacking in discernment and, consequently, appreciation for her playing.

She certainly confounded my expectations, and my prior less than enthusiastic opinions, on Saturday evening.

I realize that the three last Schubert piano sonatas are all great, just about equally. I have had a sentimental preference for the next to last sonata, D. 959. But I fully felt and experienced the greatness of the sonata D. 960 tonight. Mitsuko Uchida made me feel that.

And, I realized, as an auditor, why she is regarded, probably, as the foremost Schubert interpreter of our time.

So, from her hands, I heard Schubert and felt what makes his music unique and special. And so lyrical in a deeply affecting way. Note I said lyrical, by which I don’t mean to neglect what I would call complexity yoked to powerful, direct expression — a quality preeminent, unmistakably so, in Beethoven. It’s not quite the same thing, but — as to what makes Schubert great – in the program notes from last night’s concert, reference is made to Schubert’s “seemingly bottomless stockpile of melody, his ability to invest the simplest of musical phrases with dramatic significance.” (italics added)

Schubert sounds like no one else. His sound — if I were a musicologist, I could probably elucidate the distinguishing features; chords, for example (the program notes refer to “quicksilver changes of keys and moods”) — is sui generis. He is almost immediately recognizable. Perhaps this is a truism that applies to practically all great artists: the Handel of Messiah and Samson; the Haydn of the masses and The Seven Last Words of Christ; the Mozart of the Ave verum corpus and Masonic Funeral Music … the Melville of Moby-Dick; the Tolstoy of War and Peace, Anna Karenina and Resurrection; the Joyce of Ulysses and Finnegans Wake.

But– I’ll say it– I prefer Schubert to Chopin (with respect to the former’s compositions for piano).

 

 

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What is it about Schubert?

I would say that he is incredibly self-contained — his music is sufficient unto itself. By which I mean that his music holds, fulfills, and enraptures the listener without anything in it that was intended necessarily to impress or astonish. The music seems to bubble up like a spring. There is nothing imitative or referential. No other composer could write such music. There is was only one Schubert. Self-evident? Yes, admittedly. But I got to thinking about this at the concert, and my mind wandered without my losing focus on the music. (This has happened to me at other concerts, as I have noted in previous blogs.)
How could I express these feelings or opinions of mine about Schubert? In my mind, I strained to think of a way to put or couch it. I thought of my mother. Yes, my mother.

My mother was a remarkable person. People almost always seemed to notice her special personal qualities, and to speak about them. There was something “self-contained” about her too. The good things were just there, inherent, unchanging; sort of wafted out of her; were effused into the atmosphere, so to speak, to those around her. The good things, the remarkable things — her particular way of seeing things and relating to people and her milieu — seemed to have always been part of her.

She wasn’t trying to impress others (though she was self-conscious, naturally, about the impression she made and eager to be thought well of). She was, to the extent she was admired for her good qualities, just that way. One felt that one would never meet such a person ever again, which is not to say that she was a perfect person or deserved veneration. It’s just that what was good about her was constant; distinctive in her; treasured and consistently welcome for the sense of emotional satisfaction that came from being privileged to be related to or know her. By which I don’t mean that she was like a therapist, healer, or do-gooder (though she was kind and thoughtful), she was someone whom people wanted to know and associate with because of who she was.

 

 

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Like Schubert? Meaning one wants to listen to him. Not because one should (because someone told you you must, because of his musical standing or stature as a composer). Not because he is the best composer in this or that medium, or was important as a composer in the transition from classicism to romanticism. But because he’s Schubert . And, with my mother, people wanted to know and talk with Elinor.

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

May 6. 2019

 

 

 

IMG_4547 (2)

my mother and I in Danvers, Massachusetts

 

 

May 6, 2019