Sunday, March 20, 2011

Great Moments in Parentheticals

One of the marks of a truly great writer is that their asides contain more wisdom than most lesser authors' entire writings.

Consider Theodore Dalrymple's latest piece in the New Criterion. It's a great description of Dalrymple exploring whether literary acclaim actually accrues to the best writers. He does this by buying some poetry books by relatively unknown World War 2 poets, and I think shows them to be quite beautiful and underappreciated.

But what I what to focus on is the aside he puts in the middle of the first sentence of the essay:
"One of my many regrets—and there comes a time in life when regret is almost inseparable from memory itself—is that I received no formal literary education, at least not after the age of sixteen."
What a wonderful observation! That half a sentence could be expanded to an entire book and not lose any of its sense of importance. Upon reading it, it seemed immediately apparent that he was surely right.

Compare this, for instance, with the bogus sentimental braggadocio in the far more famous song, 'My Way', most notably sung by Frank Sinatra. This also considered the question of regrets on old age:
"Regrets, I've had a few, but then again, too few to mention." 
I do not know what it will be like to be old, but it seems inconceivable that this describes how the average person feels about things when they get there. It also squares with one of the best descriptions I've read, in an interview with Harry Bernstein. Harry started writing his first book, The Invisible Wall, when he was 93, and published it when he was 96.

I remember something he said in the interview really stuck with me:
"You know when you get into your 90s like I am, there's nowhere else to think except the past. There's no future to think about. There's very little present, so you think of the past, particularly at nighttime when you're lying in bed. And it all came back. So I began to write, and I was occupied, and it was really the best therapy I could have had."
The media being what it is, the piece ends somewhat flippantly with the observation that this is a feel-good story
"So, all you writers out there — you're not too old to get published. Keep it going!"
While true, this seems like the least interesting part of his whole story.

It must be strange to be old.

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