Sunday, September 25, 2005


Opera mezzo-soprano Pauline Viardot’s St. Petersburg dressing room theatricks circa 1843: “There in the softly lit, heated room beneath the stage she would receive Turgenev and his three fervent rivals, seating each of them on one paw of the magnificent bearskin they’d brought her, the bear’s claws now replaced with claws of gold. As Virginia Woolf cruelly remarked, this paw was to become his permanent lodging. Viardot herself seems to have sat somewhere in the middle in a white lace peignoir . . .”

Viardot: “her fiery, hooded eyes, sooty black, her large mouth and her shiny black hair, drawn back severely in a part from her high, white forehead.”

Heinrich Heine (and nearly everybody) thought Viardot ugly: “‘but with the kind of ugliness which is noble.’ When she opens her large mouth to sing he wrote, ‘we feel as if the most monstrous plants and animals from India and Africa are about to appear before our eyes, giant palms festooned with thousands of blossoming lianas,’ leopards, giraffes, ‘even a herd of young elephants.’

Robert Dessaix, Twilight of Love: Travels with Turgenev (Shoemaker & Hoard, 2005)


(Note: Shoemaker & Hoard’s forthcoming Forrest Gander essays, A Faithful Existence.)


The ci-gît is an unruly white lie, a contre-verity of itself. A here marker envelopes a now that is irrefutably absent, a never-here. A monstrous restlessness measures the way one proceeds “down.” A songe (revery) enraptures every mensonge (lie).

Th’irascible Edward Dahlberg, who hated everything and everybody, turns up eponymously in Jonathan Lethem’s The Disappointment Artist (Doubleday, 2005). Out of The Sorrows of Priapus, “a kooky,” according to Lethem, “diatribe against the human body and sexual desire”:
The phallus is a slovenly bag created without intellect or ontological purpose or design, and as long as the human being has this hanging worm appended to his middle, which is not good for anything except passing urine and getting a few, miserable irritations, for which he forsakes his mother, his father, and his friends, he will never comprehend the Cosmos.
A man may want to study Mark or Paracelsus, or go on an errand to do a kindness to an aging woman, but this tyrant wants to discharge itself either because the etesian gales are acerb or a wench has just stooped over to gather her laundry . . . the head is so obtuse as to go absolutely crazy over a pair of hunkers, which is no more than a chine of beef.

Lost is the basic slant craft’d beatitude of making it up out of whiled away swaths of afternoon sloth. Replaced by teem and oratorio, loud manumissions, Latinate urges, a broth.

Lost the gall-big leaf, the inky cap smear, the spore-dusky slip of a moth in trouble. Operatic noises disengaging, metaphoric bluster as puerility itself.

Lost the manner of irresolute thinking laid down, sliced together. Thought daub’d over with vocabulary.


Note: Tom Stoppard, The Coast of Utopia