A Marbled Essay

LAMENT: A PERSONAL RECKONING

An Essay One Year Later

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Illustrated with marbled papers from the on-line book collection of the Natural History Museum Library, London, via Internet Archive

 

 Liz Mackie, 2019, for Nostalgistudio

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Inspired by the example of Herman Melville and Henry David Thoreau, writers unsuccessful in their lifetimes (somehow it’s customary to write “their own lifetimes” here but when I wrote this dedication in my notebook I couldn’t see the reasoning; on the other hand I was slightly blinded at the time by the sunlight bouncing off a polished Q train, Manhattan-bound, drawn up at the slice of elevated platform visible from my sofa through the gap between courtyard walls; back on the page, a small shrinking red-rimmed sun had begun to run across and burn through every line, the ink appeared to be dissolving). Melville, married with difficulties, in love with a beautiful and brilliant but also married man, the highly successful writer Nathaniel Hawthorne for whom he wrote Moby Dick: pure love, prophetically unrequited, the book sold badly after the day’s critics were scathing, his Whale an infamous flop. Not many years later, most of Walden’s original self-financed print run would be sitting unsold in Thoreau’s old Main Street, Concord bedroom.

These writers known for failure and their magnificent creations against which my work (my own work) leans like a Père Lachaise bouquet, a few blossoms and sprays among multitudes wilting there, crinkled wrappings pressed to the immortality we crave for ourselves, we who pray to be made of the same substance as our immortal heroes; this prayer makes the lips of such spirits as mine move without ceasing. But also I honor them because they enlightened me and I’m grateful, and because they move me. I feel what they went through and gave of themselves to bring me so much. At the same time I register like bright sunshine spread across the whole exchange, the great joy they took in what they did. Something of that joy I recognize, and so I wonder: how much of it derived from their anticipations of acclaim? Acclaim if not a certain wealth, recognizing the worth of what they’d found at the furthest edge of the known universe to come back and say: there they labored with bare hands, naked, like angels, but mortal. They suffered, they knew illness. They had to live on hope.

I bought an old book on-line, an edition of The Essays of George Eliot published in 1883 by Funk and Wagnalls, then occupying 10-12 Dey Street in Manhattan. It wasn’t expensive at all; cheaper than buying new in paperback, certainly. Of course the text is free on-line, I’d been reading it on my phone when I got the idea of buying an old copy. This one might have cost more except it wasn’t the fanciest of its time to begin with, just a good solid quality mass-produced item with rather thick, machine-cut pages considerably browned a century-plus along; the half-binding and black title stamped on the spine have held up more like new. Created to acknowledge reading as a reward of leisure, that leisure so precious to working, striving Americans, the volume feels good in the hand, substantial without straining it. These are essays that appeared (anonymously) during the 1850s in the Westminster Review, an influential and so-called radical journal that George Eliot also edited for a time. Coming to the second in the volume, “Women in France,” I read this opening:

In 1847, a certain Count Leopold Ferri died at Padua, leaving a library entirely composed of works written by women, in various languages, and this library amounted to nearly 32,000 volumes.

Women write. We produce books in floods. Those torrents in Padua, I find, were nearly all written in Italian—on the Italian Peninsula alone, women had this much in print by the mid-19th century. Impressive yet not so surprising, for book dealers need books and they can’t do without women authors, who pour themselves into writing book after book if you let us, the slightest encouragement and there’s another five hundred pages filled and delivered.

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Sonnets, epigrams, elegies, anacreontics are what dominate the As, at least, of the Paduan count’s library catalogue. Fashion’s sway is clear; less so the likelihood of general readership. Here instead was work for the engravers, typesetters, printers, papermakers and bookbinders who served the function of a private press for writers up and down an undemocratic Italian Peninsula, well-off women and others willing to pay to be bound in gilt-lettered calfskin between fine marbled endpapers in editions of twenty, a hundred—gifts, for the most part, styled-up to share some polished shelf with encyclopedias and the honored classics.

What, meanwhile, was being peddled to satisfy more widespread tastes? Cheap slapped-together productions, cardboard- or cloth-covered mostly, full of home cures, saints’ lives and other blood-curdling tales, planting calendars—useful reading, sold cheap in large quantities alongside the latest prophecies and political screeds (and dirty books, so-called pornography, stacked underneath, out of sight): all that a popular press working sleeplessly in every major town or city could contrive to throw at a public with small change to spend and small room for bookcases.

This is the human activity of book publishing, this is what it consists of: two separate distinct and incompatible processes—one for the private shelf, one for the marketplace—that result in the same object, a printed book. Picture two islands, twinned, linked by sandbars, and swelling around them in every direction a blankness of sea that teems with pen marks to depths unfathomable: this sea is the unpublished writing. All is lost here and instantly replaced. Giant schools of letters swirl, disturbed by currents and greater forms in mysterious passage. Occasional coherences emerge to reenact the primeval scene; but from the shores of either island, far more get washed away by the tides than manage to stand up and grow lungs. Every so often a good one survives, wins through, finds readers and repute, perhaps enough to endure in ever-new editions, finally even in free ones; but for the molto most part, printed books are a form of ephemera, whether or not they were written to last. Whether those women in their multitudes were bent on immortality or just a sensational week in a minute Tuscan circle, the result for their books is the same: almost certain oblivion. If it doesn’t wind up discarded; if it doesn’t get pulped or tossed in a fire; if it isn’t devoured by larval beetles or mildew; if, age-brittled, it doesn’t just crumble to the touch; even if it used to ornament a striver’s well-loved library, chances are it sits unread, unsought, and rarely dusted. Those few escapees to posterity aside—George Eliot’s, for instance, aside—the floods of books women write into existence mostly evaporate.

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(While working on this essay at my desktop computer I had to stop, just when I left that last paragraph and pressed Enter, to get up and attend to a phone call—and readers will have to forgive me if this has started to get tiresome—about my mother. The floor nurse at the nursing home to report a 3cm bruise on her right forearm which it turns out she’s received from the arm of her wheelchair while reaching for the call button; another self-inflicted injury, I recognize but stop myself from saying. I look at the blue Bose clock numbers and think, Typical. It’s 9:11. My mother and her feeding times. The kind nurse goes on to tell me that they’ll stop leaving the call button within reach on my mother’s bed and instead attach some kind of clip or holder to the wheelchair. Good luck, I don’t say either, only thank you nicely and goodbye. Nothing could be more apparent than that my mother wishes and intends to have this call button placed directly in front of her on her wheeled tray-table beside her TV remote control, her cell phone, and her Kindle; I know the havoc of cuts, scrapes, and breakage in store as to any so-called clips or holders placed otherwise and requiring that she move a limb. But these are trained professionals and this is their problem now.)

(And then I spent the time until bedtime writing and re-writing that last paragraph. Another night gone.)

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Digital books, of course, are only here while the power’s on and their formats’ supported. Writers to whom exclusively digital publishing seems acceptably risky are by my guess few.

Is this some kind of work of art, this spouting?

A recent conversation with a friend reintroduced me to the way Alcoholics Anonymous uses the word “testing” to denote risky, slippage-y sorts of behaviors, especially around alcohol, that appear to raise doubts as to whether the program is necessary or even helpful; it’s very bad, this, and makes some sponsors mad enough to scold. The correct way on which AA insists, known as “working the program,” precludes the lifestyle conditions that give rise to “testing” before it can start doing harm; in their place go abstinence, meeting attendance, and service, as well as “12-stepping” in accordance with the program tenets; a lot of work, in fact. I consider how I stopped drinking in 1996 and waited a year before going to AA, and then I only went for a year, never had a formal sponsor, never made a fearless moral inventory. But I did admit myself powerless over alcohol and I’ve stayed off it ever since, with AA’s constant help; I always feel AA out there, a meeting somewhere near, a lifeline, a profound existential comfort. I just don’t bestir myself to go. Confident of having all the benefits I need from the program, I do no further work, even at the risk of downsides. Predictably, mindsets that end in “testing” plague me, although not when it comes to alcohol so far, thank goodness. Instead they manifest with suffocating force around my books.

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The woman who writes escapes from a room, gratefully. The woods and the waves come and go for us, but stifling walls are forever. Maidens and young wives of Risorgimento Padua, Brontë sisters, Agatha Christie, the reclusive, the vulgar, the lot of us, we can’t take feeling shackled inside. Myself, I flee restlessness, loneliness, frustrated wishes, a few lacerating sorrows; certain recurrent anxieties will send me straight to my notebook, too. There I aim for results higher, more worthwhile, than their motivations, making goals of my best thoughts and their articulation into publishable form. Idealistically,  I want to write the best books and bring readers to experience the most pleasure and enlightenment possible. I am purposeful and write these books. Then I send them out under cover of half-light and silence, all but unheralded, unsupported in their life-or-death fight for a speck of standing space on that ridiculous pitiless island overrun with self-financed rivals—an island, moreover, fixed in its own state of eclipse by its more successful twin beyond the sandbars.

But a private press is what I’ve chosen. For me, it’s more than adequate. I receive the benefit of the escape; I even get the artifact of flight, to preserve between covers of my own design. The book comes out and hangs there like a perfect apple on my tree, a real prize-winner as far as I’m concerned. I draw relief and pleasure from its contemplation; better yet, I’m walking in an orchard with the sunlight on me all the time, no longer trapped inside.

My poor books, however, the ones in existence there beyond the circuit of my thoughts (of my own thoughts, the small circuit), stranded on the island shores of the just-barely-published—what becomes of them? I don’t know either. Hands off, like a punctilious ethnographer, I wait to see. More “testing” at work. I start off by proposing: If a book is good enough, it’s bound to find readers and thrive, this being the nature of quality. Next, and indefinitely, as I do little or nothing to support the books in any search for general readership, I test that extremely shaky claim, daring it to prove itself; as if my loyalty were to the claim and not the books—as if it were better to believe they must succeed than act from a concern that they mightn’t. Of course it’s also easier to sit and fantasize about success in life than it is to toil obscurely. And ease—easy-does-ing it, a persistent inclination toward the sigh of relief, a slip-sliding into excessive self-sparing with an endpoint next door to paralysis—ease is in my blood, my genes, an ease alive and immediate enough on my family tree to be dripping narcotic sap into my mental habitat (my own, I wish) and blighting it. Ruddy-cheeked with ripe health to my self-enchanted view, my untended books could rot from neglect before I ever noticed.

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From a marvelous bibliophile’s essay by Kevin McDonnell, some notable facts about the first print run of Walden that I learned while writing this one:

(Thoreau) also spent some time correcting various errors in the texts of some bound copies and many sets of unbound sheets. Some copies contain only one or two corrections, while others show five or more. By his own account, he kept the books in his room at the family home on Main Street in Concord, stacked about three feet high, and wrote, “Is it not well that the author should behold the fruits of his labor?” He kept two copies for himself. One was marked with more than 1,000 textual changes…

Last week I found what felt like a real blunder in LAMENT, one involving a cat’s name, a fictional cat, nothing historical, yet troubling enough to make me want to create a new edition right away. And unlike Henry David Thoreau, I can, in this digital world. Here’s what else I tell myself: Walt Whitman did this all the time to Leaves of Grass, he left many versions in existence. Some tries succeed better than others, this being the nature of nature.

Another way I’m prone to “testing” is this one, The Perfectionism. When I don’t succeed, my try-try again consists of nothing but starting from scratch; I welcome the more utter failure for clearing the way to zero again; with relief, I consider how many fewer eyes saw the bad version, not to mention the worse versions before, now entirely disavowed by me (myself and I). As if things will be different this time, another voice inside me mutters with a hard familiar edge; as if publishing books were only a way to keep busy and not for readers at all, not for anyone’s enlightenment at all, only by chance and some limited providence giving anyone pleasure; my self-proclaimed ideals turned inside out like empty pockets, my enterprise a sham—though I’m usually cloud-borne on exalted hopes, a mistake can send me crashing. I land back inside my mother’s world, a stuffy narrow family circle with at least one TV blaring.

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This time, though, some trajectory shifted. Being in the middle of writing this essay maybe created space for change. Poised to begin an entire new read-through and edit and 750-page print run plus multiple digital versions of LAMENT, another hours and hours-long reckoning with files—even replacing my slow old desktop computer I’d still be looking at several full weekends plus every work night I could snatch—instead I spoke up. I articulated. I told a wise and elegant elder about my cat’s name predicament and was advised to let it be. For sound reasons: what I thought a blunder wasn’t, really. Like someone in the path of a hurricane hearing a steep downgrade in its category-status announced, I felt the relief in my joints. The restaurant chair became suddenly more comfortable. Where traffic crowded Seventh Avenue outside, the gray air grew clear as if after rain, although the rain in Chelsea had long since ended. Outlines sharpened, possibility sparkled; approaches to readers via email and letters felt possible—felt real, and exciting; time opened up and revealed many other uses besides. The capper? When, a few days later, I began reading A Week on The Concord and Merrimack Rivers, I soon came to this in Sunday’s water-sermon:

It is not worth the while to let our imperfections disturb us always.

(A short line of words I wrote when I first started writing down ideas for this essay in my notebook, on the beach or back, in retreat from the searing August sun, on my sofa; now two months have passed, and I lower Thoreau on my Kindle to see an autumn sky opalescent between margins of brick, plaster, ivy. Silver trains slide past rows of roofs and buildings piled in blocks across the avenue below. The longer ivy tendrils bounce in earnest conversation. The old line hangs on, stuck to the hem of a series of edits.) All I can do is continue to do my best, the best I can. (That’s it.)

Just don’t shirk, I guess, now that I’ve been given insight into a better book-tending than the kind I practiced formerly. With LAMENT out a year, I feel the lack of a critical spiel, a word-set crafted to address being neither participant, relative, nor contemporary, but nonetheless fascinated and moved and inspired enough to spend five years researching and writing draft after draft of a novel about the lives of a Soviet Jewish woman and her family. For while this feels to me perfectly natural and inevitable, the result of being handed an irresistible story that swept me up in its scope and excitement, people who aren’t me might wonder, might ask. They might ask even if they don’t wonder, only idly, at the sight of something anomalous to poke with a dull stick. Late-fifties white American Protestant short person: Why so much from me? Explain such excess.

Because I’m a writer and a woman, too, I can say; a fellow woman, obscure and unheard, who writes for posterity, hers and our own. Because women write and some publish books, very often through their own private efforts, even sewing them as Emily Dickinson did with her own hands into editions of one; it’s a noble tradition we’re in, participating. Solidarity drove me, I can say. Digital technology enabled me greatly, no question: five years is a short time considering what a book based on so much research and translating would have required in the past; I think of the Soviet films I watched and re-watched on YouTube, for goodness sake, while sitting here safe in my room. I was probably wearing a comfortable pair of flannel pajama bottoms then, too. I could feel the book advancing in a line along the ocean floor.

 

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