Friday, October 26, 2007

Rackety Empson

John Gross had a good piece in the last NYRB on the latest lot of Empson-related stuff (subscriber-only link, I'm afraid). Here's an entertaining bit--it's the mix of seriousness and insanity that appeals to me, I really must read at least the volume of selected letters, it sounds wonderfully good:
Empson once began a seminar on Henry James by taking off his shoes and socks, throwing the socks on the fire, producing a new pair, putting them on, and reassuring the class, "James would have approved." Other stories feature the quixotic Empson. In the middle of the war he commissioned a critic called Desmond Hawkins to deliver a talk for transmission to China on the novels of Ivy Compton-Burnett—a gesture that Hawkins himself described as "almost sublime in its impracticality!" There are also many stories of the boozy-bohemian variety. In December 1941, Empson got married. He and his bride, Hetta, gave a party in the basement flat which was to be their home for the rest of the war; at the end of the evening he turned to Hetta and said, "Well, I'll be going along, my dear." Haffenden considers the possibility that he was trying to get out of cleaning up the party debris, but thinks it far more likely that he had drunk so much that he had forgotten he was no longer single.
I would like to be in a position where I could make literary decisions that were almost sublime in their impracticality--right now the thing I would most like to do is publish a very beautiful English-language version of Aka Morchiladze's Santa Esperanza and also the complete works of Helen DeWitt in about twenty-five handsome volumes and perhaps, too, Toni Schlesinger's Pearl Street book. The authors would all receive lavish stipends and the books would be beautiful and magical and would find their way into the hands of exactly the right readers. The worst of it is that none of these projects should be at all impractical in a world whose literary values were more or less aligned with my own, it is only the actual world we live in which makes these things so difficult!

1 comment:

  1. Wow--I knew Empson was weird, but I had no idea how weird. This tempts me to read that bio from a few years ago.

    I can't even begin to imagine Compton-Burnett in another language. Her writing already feels sort of like dispatches from some odd other universe, with its pared-down brutality. I can't imagine what it'd be like without a shared language and cultural background--though it makes me admire Empson more that he was interested.

    Which all puts me in the mind of the old Trekkie joke: The only reason War and Peace hasn't been translated into Klingon is that Klingons are only interested in half of it. An alternate version claims that it's because the translator gets stumped on the third word of the title and gives up. (Is it possible that these aren't actually old Trekkie jokes at all, but that I made them up? Should that possibility worry me?)