sábado, 6 de abril de 2013
By Stacy Schieff
People and Their Letters
by Thomas Mallon
338 pp. Pantheon Books. $26.95
Sometimes you write an elegy without meaning to. In the early 1990s, when Thomas Mallon began his book on people and their letters, you were marveling at your spiffy new dial-up modem, if you so much as knew what one was. His fine meditation on the art of letter-writing — he intended it as a companion to “A Book of One’s Own,” his study of people and their diaries — naturally reads differently today: The very physics of our universe, Mallon notes, have fundamentally altered. Time and distance are no longer what they once were. With them have gone, to varying degrees, privacy, eccentricity, suspense, your local stationer and, very nearly, the United States Postal Service. Intimacy has yielded to oversharing.
No matter. Mallon heads off — at long last — on an astute, exhilarating tour of the mailbag, one that has only acquired greater flavor while he was off writing novels and checking his e-mail these last 10 years. He quotes a 1928 chronicler: “The history of postal service has been the history of civilization,” a statement that anyone who has lived in a country with three mail deliveries a day (or been starved to death by five a week) knows to be true. And of course whole historical periods and inner lives have been extracted and resurrected from letters. Without them we would have no court of Louis XIV, no George Bernard Shaw and Mrs. Patrick Campbell, an entirely insufferable John Adams. Among other things, letters are the lifeblood of history, the beating heart of biography.
To Mallon they are tools with which to monitor the interior climate. His chapter titles — “Absence,” “Friendship,” “Advice,” “Complaint,” for starters — offer a virtual tour of the human condition. He concedes that his categories are fluid and arbitrary, as indeed they are. There is no reason whatever that Colette and her elemental passions belong to “Confession.” Similarly, Mallon feels free to depart from the beaten track. His old friends and the obvious suspects are all here — Flaubert and Sand, Freud and Jung, the Mitfords in all their ferocious fluency — but so are plenty of unknowns. Mallon sometimes embraces the obvious (“84 Charing Cross Road”), sometimes avoids it altogether (“Cyrano”!). He will visit some favorites and neglect others, but even the reader who lies futilely in wait for Elizabeth Bowen cannot fault him: the result is by any measure a charming, discursive delight. “Yours Ever” is nuanced, informed, full-blooded, a vigorous literary salute. Mallon offers up his text as one that “bows down to its bibliography, one that presents itself as a kind of long cover letter to the cornucopia of titles listed back there,” a line, I might add, that could serve as a fine definition of belles-lettres.
He opens with “Absence,” which used to be as good a reason as any to set pen to paper. It is impossible to resist the New York gems of the newly arrived William Faulkner, recovering, for example, from his first subway ride: “The experience showed me that we are not descended from monkeys, as some say, but from lice.” Faulkner found work at Lord & Taylor, where for a short time his mother sent his mail. The Postal Service betrays him, but only because Faulkner’s handwriting verges on the indecipherable. And of course he ultimately discovers the wait for mail is interminable: “Things happen and then unhappen by the time I hear of them,” he grouses, reminding us that once upon a time there was some suspense to this communication business. Over and over the postage stamp reveals itself to be the discontent’s best friend. There is plenty of on-the-page psychotherapy here, except when there is not: “Don’t believe that stuff about hereditary influences affecting the child. Insanity on all four sides of my family, and look at me! A model of mental stability if ever there was one,” Tennessee Williams boasts to Maria St. Just. Some of Mallon’s correspondents demonstrate an astonishing self-awareness. On his own behalf and Zelda’s, F. Scott Fitzgerald offers their daughter some impeccable advice: “Just do everything we didn’t do and you will be perfectly safe.”
Mallon knows why we are reading over his shoulder; we are in it for a glimpse of the great man in his pajamas, the great writer on a lark, his stylistic guard down, conjuring with the crumbs and lint, the burnt toast and sprained egos of everyday existence. (This is why some people write biography, as Mina Curtiss, in “Other People’s Letters,” made clear.) He is incisive on the subject of Churchill, Teddy Roosevelt’s equal “for epistolary output and bumptious eloquence.” Why is Churchill so good? He is simultaneously id and ego, “wholly onto every appetite and piece of foolishness in his makeup but sometimes quite unable to squelch their appearance on paper.” At the opposite end of the spectrum is Lincoln, that epistolary anorexic. He is as unforthcoming as Jefferson was expansive. “If Jefferson’s letters can be a sort of Louisiana Purchase, lighting out for more territory than they require, Abraham Lincoln’s are a struggle for union, battles for exactitude and strict coherence, limited-objective campaigns fought on short rhetorical rations,” Mallon notes. He advances his own theory about why diaries fail to extract similar riches from American politicians: Diaries are “unpollable.” “Letters, by contrast, with their actual and immediate audience, offer presidents a kind of flesh to be pressed, recipients who can be wheedled, ordered about, asked for approval, burdened with confidences.”
Think of a letter, Ralph Wald Emerson urged his daughter, as “a kind of picture of a voice.” Mallon recognizes letters as well to be monuments, marathons, performance art. He neglects neither Ann Landers nor the Unabomber. By way of unexpected detours — Jean Harris turns into the Madame de Sévigné of the prison world — he delivers up epistolary swooning, stroking, wincing, mulling, composting. For the most part the transitions are fluid, but occasionally he makes a jarring turn, swerving, for example, not altogether safely, from Eudora Welty to Thomas Jefferson. But his book is meant to be a ramble, a loose-limbed survey of that forgiving territory where you could safely park your despair, issue a cry from the heart, offer advice, share the ancillary epiphany, exact revenge; where you might be, in short, melancholy, tentative, boastful, sulky, brooding, nuts — emotions for which the letter (and that extinct species, the unsent letter) have always been the perfect medium. “We are most essentially ourselves when frantic and fidgety,” Mallon observes — you can always tell a novelist at 100 yards — and this is a book of shirttails untucked and egos exposed. With good reason “Yours Ever” takes as its hero Charles Lamb, author of “mood-driven miniatures,” precisely what Mallon has knit together here.
Mallon allows himself an occasional note of regret: he wonders, for example, if Thomas Merton and Czeslaw Milosz’s midcentury correspondence is “the kind of considered exchange to which e-mail is now doing such chatty, hurry-up violence.” For the most part though he gets through “Yours Ever” without succumbing to nostalgia. This reviewer was not so stalwart. It is next to impossible to read these pages without mourning the whole apparatus of distance, without experiencing a deep and plangent longing for the airmail envelope, the sweetest shade of blue this side of a Tiffany box. Is it possible to sound crusty or confessional electronically? It is as if text and e-mail messages are of this world, a letter an attempt, however illusory, to transcend it. All of which adds tension and resonance to Mallon’s pages, already crackling with hesitations and vulnerabilities, obsessions and aspirations, with reminders of the lost art of literary telepathy, of the aching, attenuated rhythm of a written correspondence. Mallon’s readers can only thank him for his tardiness.
Stacy Schiff’s new book, a life of Cleopatra, will be published next year.
Posted by Francisco Augusto Vaz Brasil at 19:58