Slowed by a Brick in the Road

I’m not accustomed to being this current in my reading, especially with something other than the occasional sports page, but yesterday I launched into the summer ’06 edition of Brick, a literary journal published in Canada. (While it’s still summer. Imagine.) It is far from alone in deserving (and needing) a wider readership, and in bringing something just a little loftier to minds ready for more than stock quotations and Red Sox scores; that is to say, to most educated adults. The rewards are many.

Here are two of them. First, I read the transcript of a radio interview I’d heard last spring with Leonard Cohen. Five of his songs were being inducted into the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame; he was humble, charming, intelligent. (I wrote about it here in an earlier entry.) It was a pleasure to stumble upon such a rare treat again.

Second, I was introduced to literature’s Mr. Roth, not the American novelist Philip but the Austrian writer Joseph, a little-known figure that scholar and translator Michael Hofmann has made it his life’s work to know and love and advocate. “My Life with Roth” gives scant detail about its subject – surprisingly few traces remain, though he lived until 1939 – but recounts Hofmann’s rather random discovery of Roth and the ten subsequent translations he has done of his novels and letters. He had already convinced me to scribble down The Radetzky March on my burgeoning list of Books I Will Get To Someday, but Hofmann sealed the deal by concluding his essay with the following selection from Roth’s greatest novel. Like much great writing, it is more true now than when it was written. It pierces our nearly omnipresent conviction that efficiency and sheer pace are the hallmarks of our cultural greatness. He echoes Gandhi’s famous dictum that “there is more to life than increasing its speed”. Roth wrote,

In the years before the Great War, at the time the events chronicled in these pages took place, it was not yet a matter of indifference whether a man lived or died. When someone was expunged from the lists of the living, someone else did not immediately step up to take his place, but a gap was left to show where he had been, and those who knew the man who had died or disappeared, well or even less well, fell silent whenever they saw the gap. When a fire happened to consume a particular dwelling in a row of dwellings, the site of the conflagration remained for a long time afterwards. For masons and bricklayers worked slowly and thoughtfully, and when they walked past the ruins, neighbours and passers-by alike recalled the form and the walls of the house that had once stood there. That’s how it was then! Everything that grew took long to grow; and everything that ended took a long time to be forgotten. Everything that existed left behind traces of itself, and people then lived by their memories, just as we nowadays live by our capacity to forget, quickly and comprehensively.

 This was my ouch for the day.

(You’re welcome.)