Silent Conversations: a reader’s life


Anthony Rudolf

Seagull Books: Chicago University Press 2013

ISBN: 978-0857-420800

Anthony Rudolf is poet and a teacher, a publisher, critic and a translator. His moving and exhilarating new book, Silent Conversations, is a kind of autobiography. The frontispiece photograph shows the author sitting surrounded by untidy shelves and piles of books and papers perilously spread: they seem to threaten the neat space in the corner of a room where the writer himself looks out at us as if sitting for a portrait, in fact a self-portrait with books. By his shoulder is a globe – appropriately, for Rudolf is a reader ‘much… travelled in the realms of gold’, as Silent Conversations proves.

Only one book in the entire room has a visible title, Early Winter, and one could, perhaps, read the photograph differently: ‘these fragments I have shored against my ruins’. For Rudolf, literature provides the answer to a question that resonates through all 748 pages of this guide to and through his library: ‘What do we mean by a good life and why do we spend so much time reading the best literature, and what is the connection between the two?’

Rudolf’s book is moving, because his conversations with the authors he values often read like the repaying of debts:

When I return to a book that I love and that has deeply influenced my understanding of literature and therefore of life … I can, thanks to annotations and marginalia, go straight to the passages that moved me during my first reading of it.

The conversations can, in other words, spread over many years, and have often been between Rudolf and another author, alive when the book was first read but now no longer. His tone is thus sometimes elegiac, but edged, too, with a sense of frustration that – in spite of literature – the world is not a better place. At the same time this book is exhilarating, because the more one browses along the shelves of Silent Conversations, the more one finds oneself wanting to join in the discussion, willing it to go on longer. For each conversation here is necessarily brief: Rudolf covers literally thousands of books in the course of what becomes a truly Borgesian enterprise; but by the end one hears not a Babel of voices but one clear and modest voice (Rudolf’s own):

Books deepen the past of the young and the future of the old. The literary imagination, in all its ways and means, creates worlds where true witness is our bond.

Silent Conversations has no index; or rather, it has two: both the Table of Contents at the start (17 pages) and the Bibliography at the end (117 pages) are indexes which, like many a private library’s, are idiosyncratic but make good sense when one has grasped their guiding principle. The book is divided into sections and sub-sections. ‘France and French Literature’ follow the Introduction: Rudolf has devoted much time to reading, translating and advocating the work of one particular Frenchman. Here he repays that debt with a discussion of ‘Poets discovered through Yves Bonnefoy’. Then comes a major section on ‘Jewish Worlds’, which covers an enormous range from ‘Writings of the Disaster’ to ‘Folklore and Humour’, from Beth-Zion Abrahams to Amos Oz.

For readers not well versed in Jewish culture or the literature of the diaspora, Rudolf provides a valuable induction course with remarkable economy: in a single twelve-line paragraph for instance, he links Leon Wieseltier’s book on mourning, Kaddish, to Alan Ginsberg’s celebrated poem with the same title; recalls a conversation with Isaiah Berlin, and notes how Esther Broner’s meditation, A Kaddish Journal, evokes the power of Kaddish to ritualize grief even while it excludes women from the minyan, that ‘quorum of ten adult Jewish males, without whom there can be no service and therefore no Kaddish.’

Rudolf is clear-eyed about Israel today: ‘For forty years,’ he writes, ‘I have understood that Israel will never be free and secure and, given certain policies, not deserve to be free and secure until there is a viable Palestinian state. Only then, in the words of Isaiah, will “Zion be redeemed with justice”.’ He is clear-eyed about many writers, even those one might have expected him to view with greatest unease. He defends Ezra Pound, for instance, against the charge by FR Leavis that ‘Only in ‘Mauberley’ has he achieved the impersonality, substance and depth of great poetry.’ Rudolf argues that Leavis is

…wrong to reject the Pisan Cantos. While accepting that the critic’s hatred of fascism and anti-semitism is not the reason he disallows even the best Cantos, I cannot agree that Pound’s versification is boring and that he has no creative theme. What about memory and language, loss and disgrace?

This is a good example of the author’s conversational method, and the way it invites the reader to take part: a forthright discussion of literature and life, conducted as in a genial, informal seminar. At school, Rudolf was lucky enough to study EM Forster’s Howards End for A level; now, looking back, he quotes with approbation Forster’s dictum that ‘Art is based on an integrity in man’s nature which is deeper than moral integrity’. To this the author assents, inviting his readers to do the same but still leaving the conversation open for disagreement.

Touchingly, as the partner of the artist Paula Rego, Rudolf describes himself as ‘a writer fallen among painters’, a man ‘enthralled by their freedom to invoke or construct a world within a pre-ordained space, something the writer is spared ….’ But Rudolf has not spared himself, and his achievement in Silent Conversations is to have constructed an exemplary world within the pre-ordained space of his own accumulated and haphazard library, classifying and reordering his lifetime’s reading so that, in the end, his shelves are neatly arranged with the books that define him.

Adrian Barlow

[NB This review was originally published in the English Association Newsletter (December 2013) under my nom de plume GR Moor.]