Sunday, September 7, 2008


I’m in London and jet-lag is nearly dispelled. James Byrne (see blog for June 1 of this year) met me at Heathrow, which was an enormous favor done to the bedraggled traveler weighed down with enough luggage to last him for the next six months. James presented me with a copy of the latest number of The Wolf, the magazine he edits. I’ve had a chance to read it since, and it probably is the best so far. James looks alert, fit and happy, off in a few days to Belgrade on a poetry mission. I look forward to seeing him again with his partner Sandeep Parmar who just received her degree and is a Mina Loy scholar, as well as a poet in her own right.

My host for the first night was the American poet Kathryn Maris (author of The Book of Jobs) at her attractive house on Warwick Avenue. Her two adorable children Mathias and Cosima kept us company while we exchanged news about friends in common, books, trips, plans. Poets in general are rather plain where looks are concerned, Kathryn being a great exception, with classical Mediterranean features of the sort that we imagine would have led Sappho to compose breathtaking verbal equivalents.

I have a temporary sublet down in Kennington, a flat belonging to friends of James’s. They are Anna Smaill a poet and poetry scholar from New Zealand and the novelist Carl Shuker. They’ll be in Japan for a month, which ought to give me the leisure to find something longer-term for my stay here. This is the first time I’ve lived in South London, but I always find working-class neighborhoods bracing. Nearby Walworth Road reminds me of Canal Street in Manhattan, lined with shops of every description, the clientele equally diverse—Asian, West Indian, Eastern European, and just plain old British. Anyway, it all feels like a homecoming, given that I’ve had more than a dozen stays in London since 1967. It isn’t always easy to explain a love for London to everyone: the standard plain brown brick, pierced by windows with white painted frames, the chimney pots, the prevalence of bizarre Victorian architecture, the turbulent gunmetal skies, the damp. But then my maternal Lahey grandfather was born in Liverpool, and on the paternal side there’s a Scottish great-grandfather, not to mention the first English Corns who came to Virginia in the 17th century. So perhaps it’s genetic, but in any case something there is in the gray, brown, and green of these isles that speaks to me.

Turning to the arts, you really feel that people read here. You can pick up a copy of the TLS or London Review of Books plus half a dozen literate newspapers (The Guardian a special favorite) at almost any newsstand; and bookshops are everywhere. The current TLS has several absorbing essays, beginning with a review of two new books about Mme. de Staël and Benjamin Constant. (These may have scooped a forthcoming biography of Mme. de Staël written by my friend Francine Duplessix Gray and soon to be published by Penguin.) Odd that there’s suddenly so much interest in this not terribly well-known figure. The review has it wrong, from a French standpoint: for the French Constant is the more important author; his brilliant récit Adolphe is still on the reading lists, whereas Mme. De Staël’s novel Corinne and De L’Allemagne are reserved for literary specialists. Granted, the book on Germany launched the vogue for Northern European Romanticism in France (I'm sure that's the explanation for Pierre Bayle's adoption of the pseudonym Stendhal), and there’s no question that she was important politically and as a literary-political salonniere. The review didn’t make the point that Constant (whose name seems ironic, given the facts) had already wooed and won a literary lioness before meeting Mme. De Staël. This was Mme. de Charrière a Low Countries noblewoman who married into the minor Swiss aristocracy and became an important figure in the later French Enlightenment. She published under the pseudonym of Zélide and is the subject of a lucidly written biography, The Porrtait of Zélide by Geoffrey Scott. (The book was recenty reissued with an introduction by Shirely Hazzard.) Scott, briefly Berenson’s secretary, was a figure on the London literary scene in the teens and 1920s; his first book, titled The Architecture of Humanism, discussed variants of neo-classical style in post-Renaissance Europe. Scott and the Berenson circle are the subject of an interesting biography by an acquaintance of mine, Richard Dunn; but not many people seem to have read it.

New subject: yesterday I had lunch with Samuel Shimon, author and editor of a magazine titled Banipal, which publishes Arab writers from the world over, some of them translated from Arabic, some from other languages. Samuel is riding the crest of the success of his autobiographical novel, published earlier this year and enjoying special success in France. Certainly his experience is unusual: born in Iraq to Christian parents, he became an expatriate at an early age and was, like Orwell, down and out in Paris, his ultimate ambition to get to the U.S.A. We sometimes forget the religious diversity of the Middle East. Not only are there Christians in Iraq there are (or used to be) Jews, Zoroastrians, and a strange sect known as Yazidis, whose hybrid doctrines draw from several sources. The Christian-Muslim divide in Lebanon is better known, but people don’t seem to realize that about 35% of Palestinians are Christians.

Anyway, Samuel was brimming over with enthusiasm and plans. Later this month there will be a tribute here in London to the Palestinian poet Darwish, with Fady Joudah, a Palestinian-American poet who lives in Houston, Texas, and translates Darwish, as a special guest. I mentioned Fady’s Yale Younger Poets book The Earth in the Attic in an earlier blog, and it will be a pleasure to see him again. Samuel is also planning an evening of Arab poetry in New York City, at the Pomegranate Gallery in SoHo, for this coming October. He gave me the latest issue of Banipal, filled with good work, including an excerpt from the fiction of Lebanese author May Menassa—as it happens, the sister of the distinguished poet and novelist Vénus Khoury-Gata, who lives in Paris and publishes in French. The author photograph confirms the cliché that Lebanese women are particularly beautiful, Ms. Menassa in a mode different from her sister. I first met Vénus a decade ago at a French-language conference in Montréal, and then again in Paris three years back, when Marilyn Hacker brought me to have lunch at Vénus’s elegant flat in the 16e arrondissement.

I’m breaking the rule that blogs should be short, my only excuse the uprush of elation about being back in the swim here in London.


Karen said...

As Mrs. Parker used to lament:

"Mr. Benchley, please come home. Nothing is forgiven."

Glad you are settling in, but you are sorely missed stateside. The New York Post just endorsed McCain, and, as you can see, in your absence everything is going to hell in a handbasket!

Looking forward to the continuing Notes From an Ex-pat of Paradise...

Alfred Corn said...

Thanks for good wishes, Karen. The eve of McCain's nomination seemed a good point to depart those shores. Since the electorate is now closely split, that means McCain will win, just as Bush did in his two bids. The Republicans in the divided states always manage to put their thumbs on the scale so things come out in their favor. And for some reason, no one insists that these techniques of vote manipulation be challenged. If I were in the media, I'd dispatch video crews to every closely contested voting precinct and get it all on camera. But they wouldn't let that happen, would they, not when there's so much to hide.