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Vol. 2, No. 4, 2003

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Robert J. Lewis
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David Solway
Tariq Ali
Rochelle Gurstein




[Far 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 ( Facsimiles of Time), reviews Random Walks.]ed.


Contrary 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.David Solway 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 mountain."

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 and involvement."

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").

Random Walks: Essays in Elective Criticism, McGill-Queen's University Press, 1997
ISBN: 0-7735-1648-4




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