Saturday, October 17, 2015

How to talk about the vertical

Finished McGregor’s biography last night.  He maybe rushes through the later years, listing the moments of fame and accolades.  Sweet that Beckett and Lax exchanged books and compliments.  Had not known that Lax published a piece on Beckett in the Review of Contemporary Fiction.  By doing that he succeeds in turning the ordinary literary biography into a genuinely moving, graceful portrait of Lax as spiritual seeker and of himself as devoted younger friend during the final fifteen years of Lax’s life.  It reminds me of when I visited Kenneth Burke at his home in New Jersey.  As the younger writer and admirer the possibility is there one sees to write the life, become the Boswell.  An age-old pattern there.  Why it happens and doesn’t happen is also as age-old.  McGregor has the conviction at the outset when he describes their meeting that Lax apparently saw something in him that he liked and trusted and thus the friendship took root and deepened over the years.  In the final years I wonder if McGregor doesn’t artfully leave out a good deal so as ultimately to protect the friendship from the prying eyes of the crowds that had begun to flock to see Lax, the pilgrims.  He gets in the one juicy anecdote about the American pilgrim who as astonished to meet Lax’s cousin, Marcia, on the beach.  By the end each anecdote like this has the weight of the emblematic, a token illustration of much more that might have been said, that might be said at a later time.  You can’t help but think that McGregor will do a good deal more publishing of Lax and on Lax.  Perhaps.  Surely given the Merton industry now fully renewed as the Merton-Lax industry, a new generation of scholars will want to bring into publication more and more of Lax’s journals and notebooks.  Just as they might be waiting for the Trust to release more of Merton’s massive archives.  I know one retired scholar who might inform me more fully on these matters, especially since they are celebrating this year the one hundredth anniversary of the birth of Thomas Merton and of Robert Lax.  Meanwhile McGregor’s new book will get lots of attention and it deserves it. 

I had hurled a mock-curse midway into the book when I felt McGregor didn’t really try hard enough to appreciate the paintings of Ad Reinhardt.  If you understand abstract painting at all, you know that Reinhardt’s black paintings are still far more important to the art world than McGregor seems to have comprehended.  With his devotion to Lax and to Lax’s unique style of formatting his poems, how could McGregor not have understood the place of Reinhardt more deeply? 

My other moment of high umbrage and disbelief came on page 274 of the book when McGregor says Lax’s poem “dribbles” down the left hand side of the otherwise blank page.  Ouch.  “a dribble of words.”  What an ugly and unfortunate choice of wording.  The same word shows up way too soon within the next twenty pages, so perhaps there was some editing and final proofing glitch at work, always a problem in getting any book into production.  But then later I wondered if he had had basketball in mind, the words dribble pointedly down the page like the ball under the commanding palm of the player?  No, that would be a stretch.  I considered synonyms he might have used---the words “flowed,” “processed,” “marched,” “stuttered,” “descended” (like the famous nude), “stained,” “swayed,” even “dropped.”  All terrible.  But “dribble” is still also terrible. 

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