In a lovely reminiscence in the The New Yorker (March 18, 2019), Kathryn Schulz celebrates a domestic landmark of her formative years: her father’s casually elaborate stack of books, which grew in piles on both sides — and across the top — of her parents’ dresser. Describing the reading life layered into the slow-motion evolution of interest and intent that this “Mt. Kilimanjaro of books” represented (“Or perhaps more aptly the Mt. St. Helens of books,” she glosses that initial description, “since it seemed possible that at any moment some subterranean shift in it might cause a cataclysm”), Schulz muses on the challenge of keeping books organized in any permanent way:
The difficulty is that anything that is perfectly ordered is always threatening to become imperfect and disorderly — especially books in a household of readers. You are forever acquiring new ones and going back to revisit the old, spotting some novel you’ve always intended to read and pulling it from its designated location, discovering never-categorized books in the office or the back seat or under the bed. You can put some of these strays away, of course, but, collectively, they will always spill out beyond your bookshelves, permanently unresolved, like the remainder in a long-division problem.
When it comes to the problem of ordering volumes in our house — to pause for a moment on the vinculum of Schulz’s mathematical metaphor — we long ago lost track of the dividends, divisors, and quotients and have been wandering among errant remainders for quite some time. They’re piled on night stands and kitchen counters, on the arms of sofas and against the legs of tables, in bedrooms and bathrooms as well as on desks and other surfaces in den and study. They spread through the basement like a benign infestation. When I was asked on my book tour how we organized our books at home I said, only half facetiously, “I can’t really say. The piles on the floor have been there so long and grown so tall I haven’t seen the shelves behind them in years.”
I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately — well, I’ve been thinking about it for most of my adult life, but the question looms larger lately as we contemplate a move from our home of a quarter century and find ourselves confronted with the most obvious challenge of this change of life: what do we do with all this stuff? It’s more than just books of course, and it’s more than just ours: there are the Xanadu-like storehouses of our daughters’ childhoods, the professionally-informed laboratories of my spouse’s cooking equipment, the accumulated tchotchke’s of school and social lives, dishes and decorations passed across generations, file cabinets filled with paper trails whose destinations have been obscured by time, the boxed remains of the winnowing of possessions that marked the closing and transfer of my in-laws’ homes, sooner or later to be accompanied by similar mute memorials concentrating the disinhabited estate of my own nonagenarian parents. My back hurts just thinking of it all, although both the stuff and the back pain does me the service of distraction from the harder decisions about where to go next and, when we get there, where will we be from?
It’s a Saturday morning in July and I’ve enlisted the aid of three helpers — sons of friends — to pack up some of the inessential volumes and haul them to the local library as stock for their next book sale. The boys are here to protect my back, but more importantly to keep me honest: the need to keep them busy will spur me to decisiveness as I review spines on shelves and in piles and pull the ones I can live without. How many times have I begun this task previously and ended up with five books — two of those duplicates — deemed fair game for sacrifice after two hours of surveying? My strapping assistants will focus my effort on the task at hand.
Still, the choices I’m making are fairly easy, the flotsam and jetsam of four decades in bookselling providing enough fodder for today’s session — no need to tap more treasured cargo to fill the three dozen cartons we have on hand for the purpose. For me, naturally enough, the best part of the job is the small pile of forgotten enthusiasms I lay my hands on, and put aside to be perused, glass of wine at hand, when the library expedition is complete.
Top of the pile is Bonnettstown: A House in Ireland, a book of photographs by Andrew Bush. It was published in 1989 and, as long as it remained in print, was a staple in the pages of the book catalogue, A Common Reader, which I ran back then. Its ostensible subject is Bonnettstown Hall, an early 18th-century limestone manor house situated in the countryside near Kilkenny. Finding himself captivated by its beauty and its weathered elegance, Bush visited Bonnettstown — as a guest of the four elderly aristocrats who inhabited it — many times over a three-year period to produce an evocation of the dwelling that is both reverent and candid.
His large, autumnally-toned color images — of rooms and their lived-in, tattered furnishings; cloudy windows softening the sun’s incursions; desks habituated to persistent papers; draperies that seem to be announcing something, like the endpapers of a book of outmoded but resplendent dramatic verse — are saturated by the palpable time that suffuses every nook and cranny of the ripe old manse. An off-kilter lampshade salutes the deep-worn majesty of the entrance hall sofa; tire tracks mark the light snow before before the stately front elevation like impatient fingers reproving dust; assorted throw rugs cover a floor like miscellaneous postage stamps juxtaposed by convenience on an envelope; and then a doorway frames a fading Vermeer, opening into an absence that is endless yet somehow intimate, like all human relations with time. And that’s the real subject of Bush’s beautifully composed book of visions, not Bonnettstown per se but the household spirits who abide in it, at ease with time, embedded in it, in a way our more transient domesticity seldom allows.
“Time can never relax this way again,” wrote the poet Richard Murphy in a tribute to his grandmother and the house she animated in the west of Ireland; Murphy’s poem is invoked in Mark Haworth-Booth’s foreword to Bonnettstown, for it captures succinctly the sense of lived experience Bonnettstown itself held fast even in its waning days more than three decades ago, when its time stood still for Andrew Bush’s camera.
I wonder what’s happened to it since.
“No matter how beautifully your life is arranged, no matter how lovingly you tend to it, it will not stay that way forever,” writes Kathryn Schulz in the meditation on her father’s stack of books with which I began. Is there an exception that proves her rule? Maybe life was different for Mario Praz, the erudite Italian critic of English literature who was also a connoisseur of interior decoration. He certainly tried to make it so, as he elaborates in the pages of his memoir, The House of Life, another volume I put to one side as I cull the shelves.
The book is an impressive object in itself, its jacket a regal, elegantly tarnished gold, its binding a colorful burst of red and white decorative paper. The interior pages are a heavy, creamy stock that give the volume a heft weightier than one would expect from its dimensions, which are those of a standard hardcover. I remember when I found this copy, some twenty-odd years ago when it was itself already thirty years old, in The Complete Traveler bookshop, which is now gone, but in those days was on Madison Avenue in New York City, a block or two south of the Morgan Library. From the moment I saw it, on the “Rome” shelf in the store’s Italy section, I knew I had to have it; its golden jacket and sturdy binding fit my hand like a metaphorical glove. In the weeks that followed, I was so taken with the experience of reading it that I tracked down the rights and republished the book in paperback to share with the audience of A Common Reader. But our edition had none of the allure of that secondhand copy I’d picked up in The Complete Traveler when I knew absolutely nothing about the book, but sensed with a reader’s intuition that it embodied the objective correlative of the sensibility it captured between its covers. Even unopened on my desk today, it still seems eloquent.
Serendipitously I find, paging through old notebooks, that the first time I wrote down thoughts about Praz’s book I also had house cleaning on my mind, and had later edited them for the Reader’s Diary that was an occasional feature in A Common Reader. Here’s what I wrote:
The calendar had barely crept into spring when the air delivered a summer’s day: it was nearly eighty degrees by noon, and I spent the morning trudging up and down stairs to fetch and install our window screens. While I was at it, I even scrubbed the sills of their wintry grime, brushing out the crumbled remnants of last autumn’s leaves (or did they in fact belong to the fall before?). Inspired by my labors — is there any exertion more thoughtlessly ennobling than that recorded in the self-evident progress of cleaning? — I circled through the house, restoring pieces of furniture to their proper poses, collecting the toys and stray shoes that marked our children’s travels through the week, hid piles of mail behind the doors of kitchen cabinets, gathered dirty laundry into baskets (once the clean clothes had been emptied from them), and collected the breeding books from every surface in sight (only to have driven home to me that the miles of bookshelves we’d recently had built had already been outstripped by our reading journeys). Upon my family’s return from their early outing, my daughters seemed determined to undo my diligence, while my wife, noting how pleased I seemed with my weekend contribution to the workaday housework, drolly asked if I had come across the copy of The Myth of Sisyphus she had been reading. I retired to the shower to rinse off the residue of my sense of accomplishment, the only practical result of my efforts being that no one could find anything for the next couple of days. Late that evening I returned, via the polished prose corridors that line the pages of The House of Life, to the cultivated chambers of Mario Praz’s lodgings, where I had dwelled a good portion of the previous week.
Praz, who lived from 1896 to 1982, spent a decade between the wars teaching in British universities before returning to Rome to continue his professorial career. In addition to his command of literary scholarship (which produced The Romantic Agony, the best-known of his many books), Praz was, as I mentioned, a connoisseur of antiques and domestic decor. Under the light of that inspiration, he composed a quirky and magnificent Illustrated History of Furnishing from the Renaissance to the Twentieth Century, and his intelligence seemed to find its true definition inside the suite of the apartment, in a palazzo on the Via Giulia in Rome, in which he lived for many decades, beginning in 1934. Within (and upon) its walls he carefully set the remarkable and storied stars — pieces of furniture (much of it Empire), pictures and sculptures, curios — that together constellated his sensibility.
In form, The House of Life is a simple tour of the author’s home — room by room, exquisite object by exquisite object — with learned digressions into a collector’s recondite passions or a deep reader’s erudition (sometimes the two are charmingly combined, as when “the style of the rosewood sofa-table on which the little bust of Shakespeare reposes” suggests to Praz Keats’s relation to the decorative arts of the Regency, and engenders a fascinating small essay on the conversation between Classicism and Romanticism); each piece has its own history, as well as an association value supplied by its place in Praz’s memory, a value that is enhanced by the sophisticated style (splendidly rendered into English by the translator, Angus Davidson) of the author’s reminiscence.
“a mould of the spirit, the case without which the soul would feel like a snail without its shell.”
What seems at first a circumspect, dutiful survey of possessions grows to house a many-layered narrative of infatuation and discovery, intuition and serendipity in the pursuit of beauty and personal purpose, a tale as rich and subtle in psychology and expression as the later novels of Henry James; through Praz’s sketches of his past we inhabit Manchester and the English countryside, Rome at peace and at war, and the intellectual landscapes of an aesthete’s apprehension. We are introduced, through the vehicle of a packet of letters discovered tucked away in what was once his daughter’s bedroom, to intriguing intellectual colleagues such as Italo Svevo, Benedetto Croce, Maurice Baring, and the eccentrically gifted English author Vernon Lee (the excerpts from her letters alone, so tellingly illuminating the “painful slow emergence out of the unreal self of first youth into the reality, prosaic but comfortable and let us hope useful, of mature age,” are, to my mind, worth the price of Praz’s book all by themselves). We spend hours with the author in his quests through the catalogs of antique dealers and auction houses, enjoying vicariously what Henry James himself called “the mysteries of ministrations to rare pieces.” And we recognize at last in this house of life both the temper of genius and the soulfulness of taste, and see the apartment on the Via Giulia as what Praz himself, in writing this singular and original personal testament, proved it to be: “a mould of the spirit, the case without which the soul would feel like a snail without its shell.”
When The House of Life was first published in English, Edmund Wilson wrote a long review of it for The New Yorker; the piece, called “The Genie of the Via Giulia,” was later collected in Wilson’s book, The Bit Between My Teeth, his literary chronicle of 1950–1965. Characteristically attuned to the tenor of his subject, Wilson infuses his essay on Praz with studious intelligence, as evidenced, with amusing emphasis, by the footnote we can read on page 657 of Bit Between My Teeth. There, with earnest application of his fine attention, Wilson splits hairs about a point in Praz’s comic description, in a book called Unromantic Spain, of a day at the bullfights in Seville in the company of an American couple and their daughter. Noting Praz’s distaste for the cruel spectacle itself (to say nothing of his exasperation with the reactions of his companions), Wilson perfectly details, over a couple of pages, the descriptive enchantment of Praz’s handling of the scene. But what’s most memorable is Wilson’s footnote to one portion of Praz’s treatment of the coming and going of animals from the arena: “Signor Praz has written giovenchi, bullocks, instead of giovenche, heifers, but, in the light of other evidence, is now inclined to believe that these animals must have been females.”
Were the fabled New Yorker fact checkers embroiled in this debate, I wonder? But not as much as I ponder who the footnote was for, or who, more broadly, Wilson — or Praz, for that matter — was thinking and writing for. Was there ever really an audience in a national magazine for the one’s elaborations on the arcane tastes and favors of the other? It’s hard to imagine. (Here’s the opening of a 1953 letter from Wilson in Wellfleet to Praz in Rome: “Dear Mario: Dr. Melchiori’s book is very able. I think he has got hold of something in his ideas about tightrope walking and the baroque style . . . .”)
What’s even more difficult to imagine is anyone reading either of them today. A few years ago, having taken one of Wilson’s old tomes with me as a companion on my commute into Manhattan, I arrived at the office and went straight into a meeting with a group of admirable young colleagues who, it occurred to me as I scanned their faces, had likely never even heard of Edmund Wilson, much less read one of his books. There was no special reason they should have, but that shock of recognition comes back to me now as I sit in a room in which I can count twenty-seven of his volumes in view, and can remember the exact number of additional Wilson works I counted — and refused to disturb — on an ancillary shelf in the basement this morning as our purge of books progressed: sixteen. That makes forty-three monuments to an author’s industry and a reader’s predilection, collected with care over decades yet bound to be dispersed with anxious abandon when my daughters come into their unasked for literary inheritance and are forced to deal with the hundreds and hundreds of volumes that will surely survive my most assiduous gleaning in the years before I close my last book, and for good. They might do worse than choose one each to keep as a memento of how a restive youth became their old man.
Unable to sleep one night not too long ago, I got out of bed and went to a bookshelf in my study in search of something by Wilson, whose prose I always find pleasing and absorbing; since I’ve spent a lot of time reading it over the years, most of his work also has the benefit of being familiar, a quality the impatient lethargy of insomnia appreciates. Additionally, the distinctive format of most of his books — roughly five inches wide by seven-and-a-half inches tall (only an ego as formidable as Wilson’s could have prevailed upon various publishers to conform to this singular standard across decades) — fits beautifully in any hand, especially a tired one. I reached for A Piece of My Mind: Reflections at Sixty, published in 1956, and first read by me, most likely, twenty-five years later, when the opinions it collects on a range of topics struck me, with the author’s encouragement, as the expression of an aging master’s crankiness: “I have lately been coming to feel that, as an American,” he writes, “I am more or less in the eighteenth century — or, at any rate, not much later than the early nineteenth. . . . Old fogeyism is comfortably closing in.” Considering these sentences in the wee small hours, it dawned on my foggy consciousness that I was older reading them than Wilson was when he wrote them, and rather than confront the force of that fact, I deflected it by turning my mind to just what I’d learned from spending so much time in this particular author’s company.
As with no other writer whose life has overlapped mine (no matter how short the coincidence), I’ve always sensed that one might acquire a valuable and operative education within the pages of any number of Wilson’s books. The reader with access to a good library has a few dozen to choose from, for the great critic, who died in 1972, published volumes steadily throughout the last forty of his seventy-seven years. Subject would be immaterial — revolutionary visions in the writing and acting of history (To the Finland Station); the literature of the Civil War (Patriotic Gore); the Roaring Twenties and the Great Depression (The American Earthquake); symbolism in literary modernism (Axel’s Castle); the discovery of ancient and obscure Hebrew and Aramaic manuscripts (The Dead Sea Scrolls) — as would be the author’s specific conclusions. For what leads me to my large assertion is not my respect for Wilson’s powers of interpretation (although these are often accomplished and considerable), but rather my admiration for his mode of apprehension. To witness the way his mind wraps itself around a theme is to watch culture itself parse the grammar of its learning, decipher the code of its semantic legacy: the method of making meaning is the real matter of almost every paragraph that Wilson penned.
In fact, reduced to its essential character, Wilson’s method can be revealed in less than a paragraph, for its unit is the periodic sentence — to the use of which (“And to my use of the colon and the semicolon”) Wilson once attributed “such success as I have had” as a writer. Despite the waggishness of his self-appraisal, Wilson identified precisely the distinguishing feature of his composition, for his prose — with its eloquent confidence of clauses, its elegant symmetries, its poised marshaling of ideas — proceeds with unhurried purpose in its consideration of every subject that falls within the ken of its maker’s voluminous curiosity. Whether constructing period or paragraph, Wilson’s writing is stately yet always dynamic, surveying its subject with a sweeping intelligence whose compass is built into the structure of the sentence, orienting itself — and the reader — by the careful ordering of details both pointed and digressive. The act of composing in multifarious clauses provides both the form and the content of the author’s literary enterprise. Here’s an example, from “The Old Stone House” in The American Earthquake:
As I go north for the first time in years, in the slow, the constantly stopping, milk train — which carries passengers only in the back part of the hind car and has an old stove to heat it in winter — I look out through the dirt-yellowed double pane and remember how once, as a child, I used to feel thwarted in summer till I had got the windows open and there was nothing between me and the widening pastures, the great boulders, the black and white cattle, the rivers, stony and thin, the lone elms like feather-dusters, the high air which sharpens all outlines, makes all colors so breathtakingly vivid, in the clear light of late afternoon.
And another, on the Hebrew alphabet, from the Israel section of Red, Black, Blond and Olive, in a chapter called “On First Reading Genesis”:
These twenty-two signs that Moses was believed to have brought back from Egypt graven on the Tables of the Law, and from which, in their early Phoenician form, all our European alphabets have been derived, have, austere in their vowelless terseness, been steadily proceeding from right to left, over a period of two thousand years, among people that read from left to right; and in the Bible they take on an aspect exalted and somewhat mysterious: the square letters holding their course, with no capitals for proper names and no punctuation save the firm double diamond that marks the end of a verse, compact in form as in meaning, stamped on the page like a woodcut, solid verse linked to solid verse with the ever recurrent “and,” the sound of which is modulated by changes of vowel, while above and below them a dance of accents shows the pattern of the metrical structure and the rise and fall of the chanting, and, above and below, inside and out, the vowel pointings hang like motes, as if they were the molecules the consonants breathed.
Writing some years ago in The Threepenny Review, P. N. Furbank brilliantly analyzed Wilson’s reliance upon the periodic, or “Ciceronian,” sentence (“the virtues of a good Ciceronian sentence lie in the skill and grace with which its subordinate clauses — which may be numerous — are folded in, one upon another, in their progress towards the end”), as opposed to the “improvisatory” sentence, (“where a writer begins a sentence without knowing exactly how it is going to end, relying on his syntactical resourcefulness to bring him safely home”). To write in periodic sentences, Furbank continues, is, in a sense, to make an ideological declaration. A writer who goes in for leisureliness, decorum, and forward-planning within a long though single sentence is giving an impression that he means to take long views in every sense — an impression which, in Wilson’s case, is certainly correct. Most tellingly, Furbank argues, “A work in which form and structure are doing so much to express the author’s ‘long views’ can afford not, from moment to moment, to be telling the reader what to think.”
Wending his Ciceronian way through the worlds of literature and history, Wilson instead instructs us in how to think, imparting to us by his very style a degree of his own resourcefulness. Constructive and infinitely expandable, the periodic sentence essays its themes with a comprehensiveness and concentration that nevertheless admits into its course — indeed, welcomes — the vigor of personal, speculative, and otherwise intellectually engaging asides; thus the singular combination of ease and rigor the reader of Wilson’s writing comes to know so well. And, not least, the measured cadence assumed by the march of ordered clauses supports with sensible rhythms the labors of the author’s audience. To immerse oneself for any length of time in the attentions of this author’s prose is to become informed by a habit of mind that is both active and insatiable, a tool with which to explore — and, more importantly, honor — all there is to know.
Reading the news, it’s easy to worry that such respect for learning is not only in decline, but gone for good as humanities programs in many colleges, and the liberal arts tradition in general, are increasingly threatened by a combination of self-inflicted wounds and the society-wide redefinition of schooling that equates education with earning power. The deterioration in the seriousness and quality of public discourse, an obvious outcome of this shift, seems to be accepted as a small price to pay for the unfettered pursuit of Randian ideals: greed is not only good but imperative and, in the short-sighted distortions of technological visionaries, inevitable.
What’s lost in the not reading, alas, may be a nuanced sense of time and a tolerance for ambiguity, a feel for the emergence of learning in the suspension of certainty
While the engineers of human souls who command the search and social media platforms that shape our lives may have no need for the inexact tool kits of English majors, it’s in no small part because the engines they command are closed systems systematically stripped of the one dimension of experience the humanities, at their most ingenious, were established to explore, the dimension in which meaning emerges, evolves, and multiplies: time. Experience reduced to a newsfeed is a present awash in the amnesia of its own devices, everything urgent for a moment and then disappeared; there is no past or future to provide context or convey significance beyond the kicks of clicks. Knowledge defined by search results, returned by algorithms limited by tautologies of relevance and compromised by the briberies of advertising, can inform predictions but not lived experience. Without a proper sense of time, a past and future to shadow big data with the tiny mortalities that animate collective legacies, the present is a simple declarative sentence with no habitable clauses to find our meanings in; it’s just one damn data point after another, until there’s enough of them to determine the future with such accuracy there’s no point to presence at all, which makes it simple to turn the ostensible here and now into a new kind of manipulated fantasy (not for nothing does Carina Chocano, in the current issue of Vanity Fair, recognize in Instagram “a giant, continually updated portrait of Dorian Gray, stashed in our collective closet, getting prettier and prettier as the world becomes increasingly grotesque”).
I have my own fantasy, in which a digitally savvy editor is opening one of Edmund Wilson’s books and marking every periodic sentence with the hanging judgment of our inquisitorial age: “tl;dr.” For those of you not subject, at work or play, to the slings and arrows of relentless efficiency, that’s “Too long; didn’t read.” Wilson would at least appreciate the semicolon. What’s lost in the not reading, alas, may be a nuanced sense of time and a tolerance for ambiguity, a feel for the emergence of learning in the suspension of certainty, a native reliance on the past and belief in the future. “Without future,” ruminates a character in Valeria Luiselli’s Lost Children Archive, “time feels like only an accumulation. An accumulation of months, days, natural disasters, television series, terrorist attacks, divorces, mass migrations, birthdays, photographs, sunrises. We haven’t understood the exact way we are now experiencing time.”
Speaking of accumulation, let me get back to the books. This morning we delivered twenty boxes of them to the location designated by the Friends of the local library. Vetting piles before they were packed up by the boys, I said hello and then a wistful goodbye to enthusiasms I haven’t engaged in decades: the lives of the saints; the history of roads; city planning; the study of insects; folly gardens; Isaac Disraeli; the Borgo Pio in Rome; Latin grammar; the French New Wave; Homeric topography and seascapes; Joseph Cornell; the operas of Verdi; Chinese scholar’s rocks; poets and novelists of every stripe, the fancy for whom once flared, then passed. When all is said and done, I was more sparing than I should have been, a little too intoxicated by the vapors of promise that arose from nearly every shelf — of intended contemplation of subjects that seemed at one time essential — to be severe. I was afraid to edit too definitively what remained of the most comprehensive and articulate personal narrative I possess. We must make meaning to keep it close at hand and, if we do, it’s hard to let go.
In his essay on The House of Life, Wilson writes:
I have always, in visiting Praz’s apartment, as soon as I came into the entrance hall, with its charming statue of Cupid, which he says one of his maids used to kiss, and passed by the portraits of the anteroom, been made to feel there were presences lurking about me, and I am interested to find, in his History of Furnishing, the reflection that “for a soul that loves order and cherishes experience, numerous delicate affinities are established between itself and the things of its outward abode, so that finally there is no longer any distinction between the outward and the inward.” These presences — artists long passed into eclipse, craftsmen no longer famous, vanished families, faded myths — have been somehow brought to life, refreshened, by proximity to Mario Praz.
For Praz, what the ancient Romans called the “household gods” inspirited the objects and furnishings he curated with so much care and left to the museum in Rome that bears his name today. For readers like me, and Kathryn Schulz’s book-stacking father, perhaps, they abide in the books squirreled in every corner of our livable space. Even in homes not as book-laden as ours, the household gods often hide between covers: a Bible inscribed with births and deaths, the family album of photographs. I remember the first time I visited the hometown of friends I’d made in Rome in the early 1980s. When we arrived at their parents’ apartment, their father pulled a large volume off the shelf to lead me through the history of Rieti and its environs. He spoke no English and I little Italian, but our improvised language was clear; he was leading me through the personal geography in which he and his family were rooted.
Of the many bound spirits that occupy my shelves, Wilson’s lovely 1971 memoir, Upstate: Records and Recollections of Northern New York, is one I hold in particular regard. In its pages — which I am turning now, having brought a copy to my desk after the morning’s book review — the crusty old critic dwells on his old family house in Talcottville, a tiny community northwest of Utica, the same old stone house he described decades earlier in the passage quoted above. In Upstate, he tells the story of the house’s construction at the end of the eighteenth century, as well as the installment saga of his own repairs in the middle of the twentieth. He relates how title to the house changed hands across the decades, and narrates the family intrigue that left the house in his possession upon the death of his mother in 1951. He steeps us in the history of Talcottville and the surrounding region, and — through the extensive excerpts from his diaries and notebooks that make up the bulk of the book — his own life there both as a child and in the two decades following his inheritance. We watch a searching mind as it scans the landscape of its own aging, with books, unsurprisingly, in the foreground:
At first, after my mother’s death, I filled shelves with the books from her Red Bank house — from her girlhood favorites, with signatures of the eighties, the stories of Juliana Horatia Ewing, which I never quite liked or understood, but, since her death I have had rebound; to W. W. Jacobs, which I read with her, and Somerville and Ross, which I didn’t; and my father’s collection of travel books, about Africa and Tibet, the Arctic and the Antarctic, which last explorations have always peculiarly bored me; and my own childhood favorites: Raffles and Sherlock Holmes, Frank Stockton and William De Morgan, with my later prep school reading: George Borrow, Francis Thompson, the Everyman Ring and the Book; complete family sets of such by now almost unreadable nineteenth-century writers as Wilkie Collins, Bulwer-Lytton, Disraeli, Charles Kingsley and Ruskin; complete Dumas and Hugo and Balzac. But I soon came to see that this was not enough, and added Pushkin, Chekhov, Swift, some Henry James, a number of the Pléiade volumes, the new complete edition of the Goncourt diary, Skelton and Beaumont and Fletcher together with a number of books — Clarissa, Hazlitt, Gioacchino Belli, Milton’s complete prose, which I laid in for the dismal and impassable winters which I have always made sure not to spend here, so never had read these books.
All the details accumulate into an eloquence that speaks far beyond the confines of Wilson’s autobiography. Like some talismanic family album, it has mastered the language I shared with my friends’ father in Rieti, capturing the passing breath of life in a kind of prayer of memory.
Perhaps it is merely the manufacture of retrospect, which likes to handle best those memories that fit congenial forms, but I’d swear today that one of my earliest recollections hovers at the foot of a bookshelf in the upper front room — was it formerly my mother’s or my uncle’s bedroom? it had matured into a rather formal, seldom used parlor — of my grandmother’s small house in the Bronx. The volumes in that corner library were settled in their ways, proud in their spines despite the inattention they suffered, seeming to carry within them a promise both far off and familiar to the little mind that perused them visit after visit. There was a Divine Comedy, I think, and Milton Cross’s Stories of the Great Operas, the Travels of Marco Polo, and a large and Gothic-looking Goethe that rose like a strange and foreboding castle amidst the modest dimensions — Book of the Month Club and Reader’s Digest editions — of its companions. I think of that shelf now because my imagination, which like memory seeks its own level of comfort, would like, looking back, to find upon it some small work by Hubert Butler, the Irish essayist whose splendid, singular writing breathes the same mixed air — both provincial and exotic — as that remembered room.
Butler was a native of Kilkenny (and so, we’ll suppose for our own purposes, a neighbor of Bonnettstown), where he was born in 1900 and died in 1993. As Mario Praz collected furniture, pictures, and curios, so Butler collected the names of saints and local lore; for years his only book-length publication was Ten Thousand Saints (1972), an ingeniously arcane linguistic study of saintly myths and Celtic origins. In 1985, The Lilliput Press of Mullingar, County Westmeath, Ireland (it relocated to Dublin in 1989), published Escape from the Anthill, the first volume to bring together a selection of the then eighty-five-year-old author’s essays. The wide-ranging pieces, written over the preceding four decades, had previously appeared only in such disparate journals as Ireland of the Welcomes, An Cosantóir (The Irish Army Journal), and The Irish Times. Three years later, Lilliput issued a second volume, The Children of Drancy; a third (Grandmother and Wolfe Tone) and fourth (In the Land of Nod) followed in due course, and finally a fifth, The Appleman and the Poet, in 2014.
As these writings reveal, Butler was not only a chronicler of local culture, but also an amateur archaeologist, an astute student of Irish history and politics, a peripatetic conscience observing the tragedy of life in Central Europe in the abysmal middle of the last century, a market farmer, a literary critic, a traveler. Although rooted in his ancestral home (“When I was a boy of fourteen,” he writes, identifying the idea which knits together his diverse interests, “I decided I was going to live in the place where I was born and where my father, grandfather, and great grandfather had lived before me”), his essays spin out from a rich parochialism into a world as wide as curiosity allows. We learn of the history of his home, Maidenhall, and of the eccentricities of his family; of the intrigues and desperations of neighborhood politics; of the ancient and festering sores of the Irish state; of a vast and brutal campaign in Croatia in 1941 to convert two million members of the Orthodox Church to Roman Catholicism. There are insightful essays on literature as well (Maria Edgeworth, D. H. Lawrence, and our old friend Edmund Wilson, to name a few of the authors Butler assesses), and on the discovery of prehistory, the decay of archaeology, and other matters of heart and mind.
Butler’s overriding themes — that the lessons of life are both local and moral; that culture withers without a dwelling place; that conduct, like a compass, needs a fixed point to find its way; that time can collect itself without accumulating — are put in his essays through elegant, eloquent variations. From his perch on the banks of the River Nore, he worked his words toward wisdom in a way that is idiosyncratic and remarkable. In a modest voice, he teaches us magnificently how to address what James Merrill called “the dull need to make some kind of house / Out of the life lived, out of the love spent.” How happy I was to bring his books together on a single shelf today, and to keep them.