A life in books

A review of Anthony Rudolf's 'Silent Conversations'

Silent Conversations: A Reader’s Life

Silent Conversations: A Reader’s Life

Anthony Rudolf

Seagull Books 2013, 748 pages, $35.00 ISBN 978-0857420800

Poet, publisher, anthologist, and translator Anthony Rudolf has had a number of fascinating — the phrase is derived from Landor — “silent conversations” throughout his life, many of which are eloquently related in this penetrative, free-flowing exploration of those texts that have considerably enriched Rudolf’s intellectual and artistic life. Cleverly framed as a surveying of his many shelves of a lifetime’s collecting of books, Rudolf’s book, Silent Conversations: A Reader’s Life, consists of a series of fascinating and insightful memoirs addressing those writers with whom Rudolf has had his most profound conversations — those that spoke most directly to his head and heart. 

Each of us lives many lives: as sons and daughters, wives and husbands, fathers and mothers; of labor and leisure, lives both public and private. With writers, these lives can become intertwined. This is due in part to language making public the life of the mind; language is the currency by which one’s inner life is given a public showing. Conversation is a kind of mental intercourse, an exposing of the intellect. And when the conversation is between the printed word and its reader, the even stranger and more complex alchemy of self-conversation occurs. The author’s words become in a sense the reader’s mental property. An especially excellent author’s individual thoughts can become the possession of any number of disparate minds. And the more perceptive the reader, the more alive the writer’s words become. Without good readers, words are mere marks on a page.

Seen this way, Silent Conversations can be described as Rudolf’s autobiography in books. Interspersed throughout this book are various fascinating autobiographical details, some humdrum and some salacious, particularly the various bits of literary gossip and anecdotes he shares — one senses these are just the tip of the iceberg. Rudolf was, notably, the editor and publisher of the renowned Menard Press, started in 1969, and he published translations of Rilke, Mallarmé, Tsvetayeva, Vigée, and Mandelstam, in addition to works by F. T. Prince, Octavio Paz, and Robert Friend, the poems of Primo Levi, essays on the nuclear issue, Shoah survivor testimonies, criticism on Reznikoff and Pessoa (writers also examined here), and many of Rudolf’s conversations filtered through this role; certainly publishing involves its own unique form of conversation, a multifaceted dialogue between editor/publisher, author, and audience.

Compulsively readable, erudite and alive, Rudolf’s prose here displays the virtues that have impressed this particular reader on previous occasions, albeit in much smaller and more focused books. For a work of this size necessarily risks ranging too far and thereby losing its focus. “My book, like many literary works, involves excess,” Rudolf writes perceptively in his introduction. Thankfully, Rudolf’s voice lends this book a surprising coherence so that, whether he is discussing a poet, novelist, cartoonist, scientist, philosopher, architect, painter, or playwright, his voice and intellect remain wonderfully concentrated.

“Why do I read, why do I engage in these silent conversations?” Rudolf asks in his brief, enigmatic preface. “I read because the forms of life and the structures of experience, the energy and beauty of the mind and its double, the body, are explored, incarnated, and traced in the best literature.” Always present as a guiding thesis — what he calls in his introduction “inventory and classification,” in particular a revisiting or rereading (which essentially involves a conversation of a different sort, that of a dialogue with one’s younger self, who purchased these books and at one time cherished them, and perhaps still does) — is how these particular artists have spoken to Rudolf, how their words and thoughts and images have weighed on his heart, and guided him, inspired him, or even just stirred in him an aesthetic delight. Some of these artists Rudolf knew or knows personally — and so, one assumes, engaged in conversations of the audible variety — while others remained to him strangers, inasmuch as any author is a stranger to their audience.

Rudolf’s excitement for the works he discusses is palpable and infectious. When he writes in praise of a certain work, it makes one (this author, at least) interested in tracking the source down. A bit of autobiography on my part: were it not for Rudolf, for example, I may never have read the astonishing works of one of his literary “heroes,” the heartbreaking novels and memoirs of Primo Levi, or the apocalyptic prose of Piotr Rawicz. Rudolf’s exploration of the catastrophes of the twentieth century — politically, metaphysically, and morally — helped to form the backdrop of my extended meditation on the life and work of poet George Oppen, an author whose work Rudolf greatly admires, and whose poetry, incidentally, first led me to Rudolf’s. (Rudolf published a long poem of Oppen’s in an early 1980s anthology Voices Within the Ark, coedited with Howard Schwartz, which contains poems by the editors.)

Silent Conversations is divided into several sections, each of them further subdivided into various subsections and themes. It is best to read them as presented, as Rudolf has obviously taken great care in the ordering of this book; each section is intentionally placed, and each builds thematically upon the last.

Rudolf begins with a discussion of French literature, as these writers were a part of his early self-education; for example, the early ’60s vogue of Sartre and Camus — both here are knowingly explored. Yet it is French poetry that provided Rudolf with entrée into a more literary avocation. (Unlike most of his contemporaries, Rudolf has never held a university position, and in that sense, freed from the senseless politicking such employ necessarily entails, has remained something of a literary free agent, able to follow his interests and passions organically.) “I ‘used’ France and its poetry as a cover story for my early attempts to experience life as a writer and poet, even as I endured boring day jobs,” tells Rudolf. It was as a young man chancing upon a copy of Yves Bonnefoy’s seminal volume Hier régnant désert that instigated Rudolf’s lifelong obsession with French poetry. His subsequent discussions of various French poets (including nineteenth-century poets Hugo, de Lamartine, de Nerval, Baudelaire, Verlaine, Mallarmé, and Rimbaud, and twentieth-century poets Valery, Apollinaire, Jacob, Jabès, Levis-Mano, Aragon, Char, Reverdy, Bonnefoy, Deguy, and Royet-Journoud) are knowing and insightful, filled with glorious detail of their lives and works.

Equally important to Rudolf’s identity as author and reader is his being Jewish. Rudolf notes that “Jewish is a different kind of category, synthetic rather than analytic” and therefore crosses categories from literature to music to cinema to social anthropology. Always a careful delineator of Jewish identity, he chooses his subject matter wisely: with miniature essays on Jewish responses to the Shoah, to Israeli politics, to history and religion, to folklore and humor, to literature, poetry, and film — all in an effort to “find out what story, personal to me, is told by the hundreds of Jewish books” he has gathered in his library.

What follows is a lengthy consideration of the subject perhaps closest to Rudolf’s heart: poetry. Rudolf begins this section by admitting that “in recent years poetry has fallen away in terms of my existential involvement and psychic need”; he has since obviously turned his attention toward fiction and autobiography, as both reader and writer. Whatever Rudolf’s current psychic needs, it is clear from the extent of his collection that poetry has formed the greater extent of his interest in literature throughout the years, and his discussions of the many poets included here, largely defined by region, and mostly in English (British, American, Irish, Scottish, and poetry in translation) are on the whole quite lucid and perceptive. Many of the poets Rudolf has seen fit to include are for the most part under-read and undervalued, and as such the book does them a marvelous service by giving them the much-needed serious critical estimation they deserve; I’m thinking mainly of British poets Donald Davie, Charles Tomlinson, the English works of Celan translator Michael Hamburger, Jon Silkin, Andrew Crozier, and others. Rudolf also takes the opportunity to address certain British poets, whose work is better-known though has still loomed large in his personal pantheon, including the omnipresent Ted Hughes and the hermetic yet lately productive Geoffrey Hill, always a force to be reckoned with. Across the pond, Rudolf looks at a number of American poets who have influenced him: the high modernists Stevens, Eliot, Pound, Williams, Moore, and Stein are discussed as a matter of course (Rudolf’s discussion of personal favorite Stevens is revelatory), along with the modernist precursor Emily Dickinson, mid-generation poets Bishop, Berryman, Lowell, and Sexton, and second-wave modernists Robert Creeley, Denise Levertov, John Wieners, Joel Oppenheimer, Ed Dorn, Gilbert Sorrentino, Jack Spicer, and Gary Snyder. The section of poetry in translation is also demonstrative, dealing with some lesser known poets from throughout the world; Rudolf knows something about translation, having done a fair amount of it during his long career in poetry.

Rudolf follows this section on poetry with a quite interesting short section on Russian literature, a subject that typically presents those without knowledge of the Russian language with a fair amount of difficulty. Not so for Rudolf, who “took up Russian in the sixth form solely because the [high] school told my father and mother at a parents’ meeting that I had more chance of getting into Oxbridge with modern languages than with classics.” This knowledge of Russian led him to a fascination with the Russian classics, including the major nineteenth-century powerhouses Pushkin, Turgenev, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Gogol, and Chekhov, all of whom receive treatment here. Yet it is with twentieth-century Russian writing — with its agonizing evocation of the various political and social disasters of the twentieth century and how these disasters have been addressed through art — that holds an ongoing fascination for Rudolf. Consequently, these works are given more extensive consideration, in particular the superbly chilling prose works produced by or about Russian poet Osip Mandelstam, including the works of Mandelstam’s widow (which should be required reading for any student of Russian history or art). Some less familiar names, at least for English audiences — Tvardovsky, Sinyavsky, Vinokurov, Prigov, as well as some English elucidators of Russian literature — are also given due consideration.

Rudolf turns his attention from Russian literature to his most current fascination: biographies, autobiographies, letters, journals, and memoirs; perhaps not an unsurprising interest given that the author, now in his seventies, in looking back at his own life, is now witness to the shape that life has now taken. As a result, this section consists of an extended thinking over what comprises biography and autobiography, what purposes they serve, and how the various authors under discussion here have utilized the form to give lend a pattern to their lives. There are some of the usual suspects (Hemingway, Hazlitt, Butler, Dahlberg), yet also some lesser-known explorations in autobiography that Rudolf has carefully chosen to spotlight, including those by American poet Michael Heller and English poet Kathleen Raine. There is a fascinating short section on those authors Rudolf describes as “fragmentarians” — including Walter Benjamin and F. Scott Fitzgerald — in addition to an altogether brilliant discussion on letters, journals, memoirs, and diaries of authors as diverse as Rilke, Celan, Odets, Babel, Clair, and Cheever.  

Rudolf has, in his time, written a fair amount of critical work, and thus, as a matter of occupation, has read his fair share of the stuff; these works make up the next section. Included here are responses to the critical work of a number of well-known and lesser-known critics, including Alvarez, Ricks, Chatwin, Olsen, Gass, and Steiner, with a brief section on various essayists. Fiction, another major current interest of Rudolf’s, is then treated, and the authors Rudolf has selected are surprisingly diverse, including the deeply Germanic work of Bernhard and Handke, but also the magical realist Márquez, American enfants terribles Fitzgerald, Ellison, Roth, Mailer, and Salinger, a number of British and European writers, and a lovely, candid discussion of his friends, including Elaine Feinstein, Alan Wall, and science fiction author Michael Moorcock.

Rudolf concludes this massive, 700-plus-page volume with a consideration of other books that do not fall into the above categories, including children’s books, reference books, rare books, books on painting and art history (given his interests and personal life — his companion of many years is the celebrated painter Paula Rego — a not unsurprisingly extensive section, comprised of artist books, writing about art, and various other works of criticism). Sections on architecture, photography, drama, music, and sport round out the section on visual arts, while the book’s concluding section consists of Rudolf’s readings on human sciences and science. I found this section, whatever Rudolf’s professed “severe shortcomings,” among the most thought-provoking.

Any author out of necessity ranges into territory for which he may or may not be best equipped; the finest writers are students of the world, as the saying goes, and Rudolf, in possession of an insatiable curiosity that is the hallmark of every good writer, reaches far and wide here, with engaging discussions of subjects as diverse as social anthropology, philosophy, psychoanalysis, language, history and historiography (a fascinating section, I found), travel books, an all too brief discussion of politics, given Rudolf’s lifelong political activism, and concluding with a short but highly poetic and touching discussion of the sciences, in particular the concluding section on his fascination with the word “pebble,” which is a hauntingly eloquent evocation of how words, even in their minutiae, open up worlds. I’m reminded of Oppen’s statement about “small nouns” and how these nouns carry with them an enormous metaphysical weight — an echo of George Steiner, perhaps. In Rudolf’s concluding lines, he puts that statement to test, quoting from Clarence Ellis’s history of pebbles: “The cycle goes endlessly and steadily on. The finest grains become compacted into solid rock. Millions of years later the encroaching sea, aided by the sun, wind and rain, breaks up the rock. A pebble is born.”

Rudolf has spent a life gathering ideas and images from his reading like pebbles from a beach. Silent Conversations: A Reader’s Life contains many of these resplendent stones, each of them held up to the light of perception, each carefully and perceptively illuminated.