Deporting Postmodernists

Yesterday we moved a bunch of furniture around, and part of that was bringing books up from the basement to my new study, and part of that was weeding through bookshelves to eliminate volumes. Why do I have five collections of short stories by Guy Davenport when I’ve only read the first story in one, even read it a second time and still found it perplexing? I have heard that Davenport, who died in 2005, was the most original exponent of something or other and not afraid to break the last taboo, but he’s practicing a kind of postmodernism that I just can’t penetrate and I suspect to be a private conversation with himself. “My few readers will recognize that ‘Wo es war, soll ich werden’ completes a trilogy begun with [stories in two previous books],” he writes. Maybe I should’ve been a Rhodes Scholar and gone to Oxford and written about Joyce and Pound, as Davenport did, in order to be able to understand it. On the other hand, that’s the beauty of a works like “To Kill a Mockingbird” or anything by Henry James. I get it the first time, and the second, and don’t feel trapped inside an equation. I separated out the two paperback collections of Davenport’s stories but kept the three hardcover ones, just in case I suddenly acquire a Classical education and also become thoroughly steeped in high modernism.

Additionally, foolishly designated for disposal: Neruda’s “Veinte poemas de amor y una canción desesperada,” a pocket edition purchased at a Madrid train station. But I reconsidered my hasty decision, which was influenced by the disgust I feel with a certain someone who also likes Neruda. It isn’t the poet’s fault that what’s-her-name is intractable.

Here also is Christopher Sawyer-Lauçanno’s “E.E. Cummings: A Biography.” Yes, another poet admired of what’s-her-name. But this time, she may claim no involvement. The problem with the 606-page book, I realized after reading more than 415 pages of it, is that I didn’t like Cummings, even after his promotion to the upper case. His writing is fun for an hour or so, but the man himself was consistently reprehensible. I left off in the year 1937, when Cummings was 42 years old and twice divorced. He had taken his $400 advance for a book, along with $300 in royalties, and went to England with his companion, Marion, a former model, who straightaway let herself be seduced into the bed of the philosopher A.J. Ayer. She confessed all the next day, but Cummings forgave her, probably because he hoped she could earn some money for them. They went to Paris, but at 31 years old, Marion was unable to get modeling jobs. Cummings wired home to his mother for $300, to be followed by two more appeals for money before the pair sailed home in late August. The life is nicely written by Sawyer-Lauçanno, but I had learned as much as I cared to know.

Based on my appreciation of Don DeLillo’s novels “White Noise” and “Libra,” I just had to plunk down $27.50 for “Underworld,” his 825-pager that follows a collectible baseball as it’s passed from hand to hand over a half century. But long, long novels are such a bane to me. I could instead reread “O, Pioneers!” In the edition on my shelf, it’s 150 pages, so I could read it five times with change to spare. It’s a beautiful novel. Sometimes I wonder if postmodern writers haven’t been trying to kill literature. “Underworld” has sat here and I’ve felt guilty when it has whispered, “Hey, Mister!” But I doubt that I would ever finish it.

Finally, we consider “Setting the Pace: Oldsmobile’s First 100 Years,” by Helen Jones Earley and James R. Walkinshaw. This was given me in June 2008 when I drove a vintage Olds for a magazine story. Someone handed me this book, a large eight-by-eleven as compared with the usual six-by-nine of a novel. The paper is heavy, glossy stock and the volume weighs an even five pounds, according to my bathroom scale. Handling a book like this could almost require protective gloves and steel-toe boots, just in case it slams shut on your fingers or falls on your foot. It would be very useful to keep around if I wanted to know the year the Cutlass Ciera was introduced. Here’s hoping the book will find its way into the possession of one who needs that information more than I.

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