too often, after a promising initial launching or first run, a
distinguished book or film will disappear from public view and
go gently into oblivion. In the spirit of finally 'getting it
right,' Arts & Opinion tries to catch some
of these on-their-way-out works and put them back into the dawn's
early light. One such work is Random Walks, a collection
of remarkable and remarkably written essays by David
Solway, one of North America's most thought
provoking literary critics.
Eric Ormsby, poet and literary critic
of Time), reviews Random Walks.]ed.
to popular impression, the essays of a genuine poet can be more
exact than the essays of a philosopher or a magistrate or a molecular
biologist. This is because the poet's exactitude is never merely
factual. A fidelity, almost Linnaean in intensity, to the entire
character of words - individual words and words acting in concert
- preoccupies the writer of the essays included here. "He
was a poet," writes Rilke, "and hated the approximate."
The poet and essayist David Solway is alert to the penumbras of
words as well as to their more central shadings. His fidelity,
his exactitude, is lexical, but it is also emotional.
In one of the essays in the present collection Solway speaks of
a "lexical radiation of pleasure," but his choice and
application of words are never simply lexical. The notion of pleasure
in language is surprisingly neglected nowadays and I will return
to this later.
At the outset I wish to call attention to Solway's language in
these essays, chosen from over two dozen written during the last
decade. It is not my intention to examine Solway's works from
a literary-critical point of view, nor to situate them within
the context of contemporary Canadian literature (though both of
these tasks are long overdue). Instead, I focus on a particular
and salient feature of his work, his quite distinctive use of
language. It would have been easy to dwell on the high moral seriousness
of these essays, or to point out how very funny, sometimes outrageously
funny, they can be. It would have been an easy matter too to expatiate
on the unusual range of the present collection, reaching from
the eight essays of the first section that address theoretical
and critical concerns (and that constitute, almost en passant,
a modern poetics) to the seven essays on individual authors that
make up the second section and which extend from Kafka to the
great Canadian poet Irving Layton (with an interlude devoted to
a minute critique - some might think it a vivisection - of the
contemporary Canadian poet Erin Mouré) on to Shakespeare,
Browning, and Joyce and which culminates in the majestic and utterly
original concluding essay on Jonathan Swift entitled "Swift
and Sartorism." I have chosen instead to dwell on Solway's
language because language at its utmost - what Solway terms "seraphic
speech" - is itself a powerful (and conspicuous) protagonist
in these essays.
It may seem gratuitous to call attention to Solway's prose. There
is scarcely a sentence in Random Walks that does not call
attention to itself, sometimes slyly but sometimes in the most
bravura fashion. Solway's prose, like his marvellous poetry, never
resembles the inert, exiguous, virtually comestible sentences
of his contemporaries who write a prose so vapid that it dissolves
as it is read and, like junk food, leaves neither taste nor nourishment
behind. Solway's prose, by contrast, is memorable; it is also
lithe, mischievous, shapely, impudent, and ceremonial. His is
a style that manages to be magisterial and agitated, in equal
measure and at the same time. In my view, this is because Solway
presents the distinctive intellectual phenomenon of a stubbornly
conservative mind incessantly drawn to risk itself. In Solway's
risk-taking, it is form - the shape of a sentence, the shape of
a poem - that rescues and exposes him at every moment. This concatenation
of such disparate tendencies within a single sensibility lends
a sense of danger to his writing. The words in his sentences sit
uneasily beside one another like riders on a New York subway car.
This is a style, unique not only in Canadian but in contemporary
English letters, that bristles with the force and presence of
an unpredictable energy. At moments as we read we find ourselves
wondering just where these headlong glissandos will land not only
ourselves but their progenitor. We have the sense that the author,
for all his stylistic control, is hurtling forward as he writes
in the momentum of his own surprise.
Open almost any book by David Solway on almost any page and you
will be brought up short, before anything else, by the language.
There are those famous "$50 words" which an admiring
but exasperated fan once wrote to him about. I would place these
unusual words at a higher dollar value, but I too could easily
fill a page or two of this introduction with examples of such
words, the stubborn use of which argues some perverse strategy
on the author's part. Among our contemporaries perhaps only in
Solway's work does one come across such rara aves as borborygm
and sordine, anamorphoscopic and nisus, exantlation, lenticular,
ipsissimosity, bregmatic, despumated, and (my own favour-ite)
ultracrepidarian. To make matters worse, it is invariably clear
when you are reading Solway's prose that the appearance of such
words is deliberate, for he is fond of resorting to them when
he most wishes to clinch a point. Meanwhile the reader, drawn
on to some apparently quite reasonable and even ineluctable assent,
is baffled, brought up short. A sense of betrayal begins to take
shape. "I've entrusted myself to this author, and this is
how he treats me? He's used a word I do not, possibly cannot,
know, and he has used it purposely because he presumes that I
will not know it." Such a reader will not be mollified to
learn that Solway also delights in words not to be found even
in the twenty-volume Oxford English Dictionary.
As soon as these exotic vocables appear, reviewers of Solway's
books usually begin spinning their sharpening stones. The predictable
response of such reviewers is to complain that this author likes
to send us "scuttling" to our dictionaries (others,
more ably, "scurry"). That the encounter with a new
English word, however recondite, should reduce a reviewer to a
vaguely roach-like creature - a semantic Gregor Samsa, as it were
- suggests that for such readers words are little more than weaponry
to be used in covert power plays. They react to unknown words
with the animal panic of infantrymen suddenly overtaken by cavalry.
It strikes me as curious that men and women of letters take offence
at what is patently a conscious artistic strategy on Solway's
part. Even more basically, it is curious that those whose business
is words should not rejoice in the discovery of new words. After
all, the words unearthed and newly burnished by poets have their
own inimitable lustre. We associate trips to the dictionary with
a kind of drudgery imposed on us in school when, in fact, the
encounter with unknown words should induce a lexical excitation
which only dictionaries can assuage.
Solway's prose, like the prose of Nabokov or Joyce, like the prose
of Sterne or Donne, says to its readers: Stop. I am not disposable.
I too am a thing among things, a being among beings, a creation
among other created things. Works of art are entities in their
own right; they not only deserve, but command, attention. And
the essays in the present volume are works of art. In a work of
art, nothing is unimportant, least of all the very surface, the
texture, of the language in which the work is raimented. "Depth
must be hidden," wrote the great Austrian poet Hugo von Hofmannsthal,
"Where? On the surface." Moreover, it is one of the
cardinal theses of this collection that works of art are "facts
of nature" in a very real way, and the prose mirrors and
reinforces this thesis. This is what Goethe meant when he remarked
that "a work of art is just as much a work of nature as a
Nowadays, of course, we like our prose plain and unadorned. The
high style makes us uneasy. Style itself, like form, is suspect.
The commissars have migrated to the West. The Russian novelist
Nina Berberova, in her brilliant little study of the Russian symbolist
poet Alexander Blok, noted that in the early years of the Revolution,
"Russian criticism resolutely separated form from content.
Only the subject was considered important ... Form played no more
than a modest, auxiliary part. Indeed, the question of form was
not even raised with regard to prose. In poetry, the only requirements
were to observe the most elementary rules of prosody. All complexity
was regarded as superfluous dandy-ism, all efforts to achieve
formal perfection, far from being looked on sympathetically, were
denounced as reactionary" (Nina Berberova, Alexandr Blok
[Manchester: Carcanet, 1996], 12).
Actually, Solway deals masterfully with this predicament in the
essay entitled "The Word and the Stone," but he is one
of very few to have done so. (The American novelist William H.
Gass struggles with comparable issues in his essays and, in fact,
seems to me the only writer now active who comes close to Solway's
singular achievement. Both Gass and Solway are upholders, and
supreme practitioners, of form.) Nowadays, alas, style is associated
with privilege or mandarin notions of "class." To many
there is something disquieting, even faintly disreputable, in
style. Perhaps this is because a pleasure in words, a delight
that is not just cerebral but palpably physical - a tactile, even
palatal pleasure that can be subtly sensual - can be also, as
Barthes pointed out, distinctly libidinous. Nevertheless, one
of the comical paradoxes of our fin de siècle, in
which "sexual liberation" is a piety monotonously intoned,
is that the language of our sexual liberators should be so bland,
so colourless and capon-pale, so anhedonic. David Solway's freedom
from self-censorship is especially refreshing in this respect.
He remains unintimidated by the present-day Robespierres, and
Robespierrettes, of language.
This facet of Solway's writing is perhaps most conspicuously in
evidence in the essay entitled "Never on Sontag," though
the hilariously accurate "The Autoerotic Text" runs
a close second. The witty title evokes the modern Greek experience
so dear to Solway even while it pokes some gentle fun at its subject.
There is the playful implication of Sontag as a resolutely unhermeneutic
sensualist, a Melina Mercouri of the intellect; but there is also
a serious satirical nip: Sontag is a kind of Sunday sensualist,
the way others are Sunday painters, an intellectual trading her
birthright for a mess of pottage short on taste as well as nourishment.
The "lexical radiation of pleasure" is not just a matter
of words. In these essays good sense prevails; there is a kind
of fundamental justice of the eye. Solway loathes cant, persiflage,
and obfuscation and he can be scathing, as in "The Autoerotic
Text," one of the wittiest demolitions of contemporary literary
criticism. This strong rationalist in Solway coexists, happily,
with a verbal prankster. On every page there are surprising formulations,
as when Solway speaks of an attempt "to spackle the abyss,"
the homely, household word "spackle" conjoined with
"abyss," with its great-vowelled vastness, in a way
that is almost apothegmatic. There are also puns, many outrageous,
of which "walks the Planck" is perhaps my favourite.
At the same time, and often on the same page, Solway can give
way convincingly to an exquisite delicacy. What other essayist
writing today could suddenly introduce, in an essay on hermeneutics,
such a simile as "like pansies in a box of summer savory,"
or term critics "the belletristic counterparts of the paddle
bearers in Japanese subways?"
Indeed, in the end it is the particular and unmistakable voice
of the poet which sounds through, again and again, and it is fitting
that this voice sound throughout the essays in this volume. As
Solway has himself noted, "The essay, like the lyric, is
an intensely subjective form, an investigation and expression
of the self, but unlike the lyric it is not subsumed under the
aspect of pure utterance or (hypothetical) spontaneity."
Or, more pithily: "[The essay] carnalizes the indiscernible
in the catastrophic body of print." ("On the Essay")
In Solway's prose there is also what I can only term a sweet seriousness,
which is deeply characteristic of the rationalist as well as of
the verbal craftsman. This quality emerges often in the course
of these essays and can be quite moving: "Literature and
scholarship, in any authentic sense, have no raison d'être
if they are not animated through and through by intentionality,
if they do not offer to connect, meet, and fructify, if they are
not founded on the discipline of literacy and the impulse toward
reciprocal intimacy" ("The Autoerotic Text").
Underlying these disparate essays, which range over a huge array
of literary works with a delicacy of allusion and reference that
is quite remarkable, is a passionate conviction that words matter
and that words, like things, are to be honoured and respected.
For all the irreverence Solway so wittily displays, there is a
profound reverence for language and for literature that is, sadly
enough, unique in contemporary Canadian letters. When Solway speaks
of "the surprising presence of a genuine vernacular, a lucid
unpretentiousness accented by a touch of humour ("Culling
and Dereading"), he is describing his own style. In the essay
on Kafka, he writes: "One of the great difficulties in life
as well as literature is how at the same time to be serious and
unpretentious, how to achieve the profound while avoiding the
lugubrious, how to express feeling without being sentimental;
or, in the Jewish idiom, how to suffer without redundance"
("The Trial As Jewish Joke").
And in "The Word and the Stone," a key essay in Solway's
oeuvre, and one that constitutes a kind of poet's credo, he writes:
"For the great poems inevitably participate in both dimensions
of our experience, situated in language that is constantly recuperating
itself as something unique, memorable, noble, ophicleidic, resonating,
and at the same time urging us outward towards the world in all
its beauty and ugliness as something that demands our recognition
In dwelling upon Solway's use of language and his choice of words,
I would not wish to obscure his many other brilliant qualities.
And yet, style is no mere patina gleaming along the surfaces of
a thought. Style is the very movement of the mind; words do not
clothe thought, they are simultaneous to thought and indistinguishable
from it. Just as in a poem one word cannot be arbitrarily subsituted
for another without impairing the whole, so too, in these essays;
and it is this critical coherence which makes them almost impossible
to paraphrase and yet irresistible to quote.
At the outset I remarked that the time was long overdue for some
assessment of David Solway's place in contemporary Canadian literature.
In actuality, however, I believe that this is too limited a context
in which to judge his achievement for he is a thinker and a writer
of international scope and import. He is the least parochial,
the least regional, of Canadian writers. Of course, one could
point to certain undeniable influences, among whom A.M. Klein
and Irving Layton might deserve particular mention. But the tracking
of influences reveals only what a writer has assimiliated and
passed beyond. More importantly, Solway is one of the first Canadian
essayists and poets consciously, and with admirable ambition,
to envisage and address a global readership, and not merely some
local coterie. And it is in this sense that Solway's abiding passion
for things Greek may be understood: that is, not merely as an
effort to go beyond the confines of present-day "Canadian"
experience, but to return to the luminous source of all that is
most fully human, the fons et origo of all our reasonings
as of our musings. That this is invariably and fatally frustrated,
however often the attempt be made, that there is in the end no
Arcadia, not even in our origins, only goes to show the depth
and complexity of his quest. There is a tension in Solway's work
in prose as well as in verse, a tension that extends to the very
relations between the words that make up his lines and sentences.
It is the tension that arises from the inevitable disparity between
words and the things that they evoke, between what is hoped for,
longed for, and what simply is; but instead of promoting bitterness,
this inner disparity spurs his thoughts and gives them immense
verve and a nervous elegance which is unique.
This exquisite suspension between the world, as it is given, and
language, as it shapes itself in our nerves, brains, and mouths,
informs all of the essays in Random Walks which, like his
poetry, refuse to let go "that eclectic and voluptuous world
which art at once creates, transcends, denies, and adores"
("Never on Sontag").
Walks: Essays in Elective Criticism, McGill-Queen's University