Big booksPosted: November 6, 2016
Pretty into two articles this week about enormous imaginative projects.
In 1931, a legal scholar named Austin Tappan Wright died in a car accident in Las Vegas, New Mexico, not far from Santa Fe. He was forty-eight. His father had been one of the preëminent academics of the previous century—“A History of All Nations from the Earliest Times,” for which he served as editor, runs to more than twenty volumes—and his mother, Mary Tappan Wright, was a famous novelist, a progenitor of what we now think of as the campus novel. Wright’s own career was more quietly successful. Before his death, he taught at Penn, Stanford, and Michigan, and published articles on maritime law, their scope profoundly, almost rebukingly more modest than that of his father’s work—“Supervening Impossibility of Performing Conditions in Admiralty,” for example, or “Private Carriers and the Harter Act.”
After his unexpected death, Wright’s wife and daughter had the task of going through his papers. They were unprepared for what they discovered there.
In an afterword to the novel, Wright’s daughter recalls that when her father spoke to his wife from a telephone booth, he would remove his hat. This small gesture explains “Islandia,” to me: Wright was part of that great age of anonymous managerial Harvard men who assumed their expected places in society while also maintaining the most intense imaginable internal worlds—Wallace Stevens, T. S. Eliot, Charles Ives if you expand the range to include Yale.
(Ugh, must we include Yale?)
Also wild was this New Yorker thing by Esther Yi about German writer Arno Schmidt and the effort to translate his 1300 page book:
“Zettel’s Traum” is both Schmidt’s most famous book and his least read, and for the same reason:
because it’s thirteen hundred pages long?
it is dedicated almost entirely to applying a Freudian theory of language to the works of Poe. (This was familiar ground: Schmidt spent years translating Poe, in collaboration with Hans Wollschläger.) Dan argues that words are composed of units of sound, or “etyms,” that reveal an author or speaker’s unconscious thoughts. To say “whole” is to think “hole,” for instance. With his ear cocked to sexual harmonics, Dan finds in Poe an impotent man who is possessed by the erotic and, unable to express his sexuality in bed, resorts to voyeurism, notably of what people do on the toilet.
“One could not tell if this was amazing, or if this was something for crazy people,” Susanne Fischer, the head of the Arno Schmidt Foundation, which manages the writer’s literary estate, told me.
There was a method to Schmidt’s madness:
Each night, at 2 a.m., he would begin writing in the upstairs room, from which even his cats were barred (not least because the one he called Conte Fosco, after a Wilkie Collins character, had urinated on his prized edition of James Fenimore Cooper). He compiled roughly a hundred and twenty thousand scraps of paper, or Zettel, in shallow wooden boxes, which he spread out on his desk. On each Zettel, there was written a bit of dialogue or sexual wordplay (“Im=pussy=bell’–!”) or a literary quote rerouted through his one-track mind (“the fleshy man=drake’s stem. / That shrieks, when torn at night”). After twenty-five thousand hours of knitting the pieces together, Schmidt handed the manuscript to his publisher in a large cardboard box tied with a curtain sash.
For a less hefty read might I recommend: