issue 30 > slavitt tribute > cherry
Prolific and Impish: In Tribute to David R Slavittby Kelly Cherry
Not long ago, writing about David R. Slavitt's 2011 novel The Duke's Man, I found myself saying that he composes the best sentences in America. I want to start this tribute here, with those sentences. They float, those sentences. They are so unburdened by the trivial or any kind of distraction, so transparent, that it would be too gross even to say that they are like angels in the sky. Because they don't just hang around in the sky like angels; they are the sky. They are not merely fluent, though fluency is hard to come by and something to be treasured; they flow as unhaltingly as a creek or waterfall. If I compare Slavitt's sentences to natural phenomena, it may be because he himself is rather a natural phenomenon: a man who writes easily, copiously, and beautifully.
I certainly do not mean to say that Slavitt does not work at his work. It was eye-opening for me to read one of his stories in progress and note the author's many cuts. The author was doing the hard work of revision: but even the deleted sentences evinced his fluency.
Here are the first two sentences in The Duke's Man:
It is a mizzly afternoon, dank and clammy but not cold enough for a fire. Staring idly through none too clean window panes, one can scarcely decide the color of the stone walls of the buildings surrounding a familiar, oppressive, but unimpressive square.
We feel the chill, the drizzling dark, we see the smeary windows-hand prints? streaks brushed from a tree or bush?-the stone walls that could be gray, brown, black, or dark red, and the unimportant, somewhat claustrophobic square. A town square, possibly, or a square where fairs are held, or just a one-off, mostly ignored, square. Reading further will, of course, tell us more, but in the meantime these simple yet exact words-forty-three of them, in two sentences-have brought us to a place and time that are out of our place and time and, even so, as the author says, familiar.
This place is familiar because we have all, since there were towns, found ourselves in the dark in damp weather, considering lighting a fire but not quite moved to do so. We know something about the psychological foundation of this place, too. We know what it is to feel isolated, too depressed or at least unmotivated to clean windows or undertake any other large activity, perhaps weary of the repetition of rain on the rooftop.
Two simple, straightforward sentences, and yet the book, without changing gear, proceeds to be a parody or mock-up of Alexandre Dumas, the nineteenth-century adventure writer most famous for The Three Musketeers. Someone has even suggested that graduate literature students might better grasp deconstructionism having read The Duke's Man, but surely the main reason for reading The Duke's Man is that it is wonderfully written and extravagantly funny.
In any case, the reason for mentioning the opening sentences here is not to promote The Duke's Man, although I should mention it's a marvelous novel which will take you along with it as easily as a river if you just step into it. It is to introduce you to a fluency that astonishes even as Slavitt switches to nonfiction prose or poetry. Consider his much-anthologized poem "Titanic," wherein he comments on the tragedy-the thought-to-be-indestructable ship brought down by a glacier-and the shame-the incredible luxury of the ship enjoyed only by First Class passengers. The poem closes,
Not so bad, after all. The cold
water is anesthetic and very quick.
The cries on all sides must be a comfort.
We all go: only a few, first class.
Funny, right? Of course. The First Class has been treated well: wined and dined and billeted in top cabins, and, after all, the icy sea will drown them swiftly, nor are they alone. Not everyone dies in such "amenable" circumstances. Not even everyone on the ship: the third-class passengers locked in on lower floors, the orchestra, valiantly playing in the hope of calming passengers' nerves, the hardworking staff. As Slavitt says, "We all go" sooner or later, here or there, in this way or in that, and only the lucky few are serenaded as the ship tilts and sinks. So this is irony, or sarcasm, and it is smoothly stated, as are the sentences in The Duke's Man. But there is another note here, a note of anger. The missing figures-the third-class, the orchestra, the staff-have lost their lives and have not even been mentioned. We need to read, in addition to the poem, the absence that purposefully surrounds the poem: the absence of stories told, of movies made in which the Third Class are remembered. The absence of the unknown, although we know they were there.
Slavitt handily jumps the fences ordinarily separating genres. His productivity is extraordinary. The latest count of his titles according to the Library of Congress is ninety-seven (The pseudonymous titles bring it up to 107.) This number likely leaves out some of his wilder literary escapades, such as The Cock Book, or, The Child's First Book of Pornography . "It's just impish, as indeed I am. It's not shocking," Slavitt has said, and I believe him. There is no stopping a writer whose brain is chockfull of ideas. Why, if he had not permitted himself to write that, he might have closed his mind to The Crooning Wind: Three Greenlandic Poets, his "translations" ("co-translations" with Nive Grønkjær) of Torkilk Mørch, Gerda Hvisterdahl, and Innunquaq Larsen. His translation of "Light" by Torkilk Mørch bears out Inger Christensen's insightful remark that Mørch "understood the world and the universe as a continuum of correspondences."
Unable to sleep, we are always tired. The eye
of day stares down, relentless as a god
inspecting our defects that in these endless days
of exquisitely protracted light are glaring.
Shadows dog our footsteps. In our fatigue
they begin to seem malevolent. The darkness
we hated for so long we begin to long for.
The long days of winter nights force us to an excruciating awareness of our lacks, our faults, our, yes, defects. It matters little whether we are near the Arctic Circle or the tropics: in certain moods, worn down, fatigued, shadows always "dog our footsteps," malevolently so. In such moods, we spite ourselves, we "long for" what "we hated for so long." Thank goodness he did not stop himself from writing this or any other of his masterful volumes.
As it is, he has recently become a member of the 100 club, whose members are authors who have published or contracted for one hundred books. More books are already in line over the next two years. It's true that Honoré de Balzac still holds the record for Most Books, but then, Balzac hadn't much more to do, besides writing, than drink coffee, whereas Slavitt has taught, reviewed, and lived an actual life. Poor Balzac married Ewelina Hańska, his longtime love, in 1850 and died only five months later. On the other hand, Slavitt is married to Janet Abrahm, a professor of medicine at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute of Harvard Medical School. She is board-certified in several areas and specializes in palliative care.
As Slavitt himself says, a smart writer marries a doctor. This allows him to stay home to write, allows him to buy books, and keeps him healthy. But Janet Abrahm is not only a brilliant and distinguished doctor. She also manages to read Slavitt's books (no short-term task, as we have seen), match his wit, and, when necessary, argue with him.
In another of his books, 2009's George Sanders, Zsa Zsa, and Me, Slavitt's splendid sentences tell the story of, or a story of, his career as a film reviewer. George Sanders and Zsa Zsa Gabor are not exactly present, but whenever I think of this book, which I read with great pleasure, I can't help imagining David Slavitt in a George Sanders role. Slavitt would expertly convey Sanders' attitude-slightly disdainful of the less intelligent but in practice quite forbearing, his authoritative voice not always above shtick. And Janet would be adorable as a thirties movie star, far sharper and slyer than any of the hound dogs surrounding her at the cocktail table.
The pleasure of this book lies not in the anecdotes (which are, however, fun) regarding the movies and movie stars and movie directors Slavitt knew or knew of or knew about. It lies, let me say again, in the sentences, which begin in apparently innocent places and proceed to take in all manner of matter. This is the quintessential thrill of reading David Slavitt. Here is a paragraph in which both obtain: it is anecdotal and translucent; his subject is Audrey Hepburn:
Well, she was different from what you think—less fragile, tougher—and funnier than they let her be on-screen. Just as gorgeous, though, as you always thought. Maybe even more so, because we try to allow for the cosmetics and the cinematography and the lighting. But she didn't need them all that much. She was drop-dead beautiful. And playful.
John Hersey and his wife were at the lunch, and Barbara Hersey asked the weirdest question: "Where in Rome can one find a cat?"
A brief pause. Was it a setup for a joke? Was she serious?
Then Ms. Hepburn, in a perfectly serious tone, suggested, "You must call Anna Magnani. She breast-feeds them."
A beat. And then a wonderful, radiant grin.
But David and Janet are not, after all, movie stars. They are serious people, David and Janet. Just take a look at Slavitt's poetry, in which he has addressed and investigated history from classical times through continental bifurcations and transitions to America's successes and failures. Conversant with Homer, Virgil, Ovid, the French, the Italians, and the English, his view of literature is both broad and acute. If there is something that David does not know-and I think there is little that he doesn't-he is happy to make it up, as in The Crooning Wind, and surely this is any writer's raison d'etre: to make it up. His translations have given new life to old work. They vivify anew worlds that have been forgotten or misplaced.
They also revivify words. Thus:
I should have supposed that mizzle is a portmanteau word, a cheeky combination someone coined by jamming mist and drizzle together, but that guess turns out to be incorrect. What we have, it seems, is a perfectly legitimate word from dialect Dutch Mieselen, or perhaps from the French Mizzelen, both of which mean rain in fine droplets.
(from The Duke's Man)
He then elaborates on the nature of mizzle:
The frequency of this kind of weather gives the stone walls an unhealthy sliminess that, over the course of time, erodes the souls of the Flemings and Dutchmen. Their gloomy dispositions are understandable in such dankness that through the years they cannot help but internalize.
But by now we have sensed something fishy, or playful, or at any rate, suspect: Are all Flemings and Dutchmen gloomy? Is David being serious here? Perhaps not; perhaps he is exaggerating. And perhaps he is exaggerating in order to let us in on a secret: that this novel will be a re-invention of the Alexandre Dumas, a postscript to the original, a study of and reply to the original.
And next, he returns to the consideration of the word mizzle, writing as if his only interest is in researching language:
There are other quite unrelated words that are spelled and pronounced exactly the same but have different etymologies and meaning. To mizzle can mean to decamp, to slink away, to disappear suddenly, or, alternatively, to succumb, to yield; . . .
One of the many pleasures of his sentences is the way they trace the movement of his mind-his thinking, his logic. That it is logic becomes clear as we follow the writer through his narrative to endings that surprise or reveal or soothe or question.
David can be, á la George Sanders, gruff or dismissive when he considers the circumstances warrant it. He pokes fun where poking fun is called for. He has no fear. By the same token, when he is engaged with serious ideas, his concentration is focused and full-hearted, his senses attuned, and his books offered as gifts to readers of all stripes. In George Sanders, Zsa Zsa, and Me, Slavitt makes several astute comments about how the actor is forever tied to his own body; there is no escape from it, even if it is being used for a project the actor finds inglorious or foolish. He is obliged to say the words and take the actions that the director or screenwriter has drafted him for. Thank goodness, says Slavitt, that, as a writer who long ago paid for his children's educations, he is free to write only what he wishes to write. He has taken the high road, he tells us, and so he has.
I call this high-road writer a teddy bear. I call him sweet. I'm not at all sure he enjoys being called these things but the words pop out of my mouth whenever I see him. They are beyond my control. He has always been sweet to me, though I do remember he once sort of terrified a friend of mine. He was being very Republican, and she was no Republican. But I think she missed the fun he was having. He is also, willy-nilly, sweet to his audience, for he has given his time, his energy, and his very big heart to the improvement of literature and thought. To stories and characters and ideas that enrich and enliven. To the enlargement of laughter and the consolation of the hurt. These are accomplishments of crucial importance, for they are what we hope for everywhere and all the time. Slavitt gives them to us in abundance.