Monday, July 6, 2009

David Castronovo

David Castronovo--a New York critic, essayist, and humanities educator whose work largely concerns modern literature, English and American social life, and the history of ideas--is currently C. Richard Pace Professor at Pace University in New York City.

His latest book is Blokes: The Bad Boys of English Literature (Continuum International, 2009).

Last week I asked him what he was reading. His reply:
I’m on summer literary manoeuvres these days, which is to say preparing for the next book I’m thinking of writing and kicking back a bit. W.H. Auden’s demanding but very rewarding long poem titled “New Year Letter (1940)” in Collected Poems (The Centennial Edition, Modern Library, 2007) has taken up some time. It’s a pungent, moving survey of civilization on the brink of war. Auden’s subjects in this crisp poetic discourse--very classical in style--are art, the just society, social sin and guilt, European suffering, failed ideologies, and the spirit doing battle with mass culture. He twists and turns his reader’s mind as he describes his own doubts and his hunger to believe in individual men and women.

Edward Mendelson’s superb biography Later Auden (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1999) is extremely useful for deepening an appreciation of the poem and does what these monster biographies almost never do--provides lucid, searching commentary on the work of literature as well as the writer. Also from the same period is Delmore Schwartz’s In Dreams Begin Responsibilities. I only knew the title story, but now I’ve found the entire New Directions volume a rich exploration of Jewish life in Washington Heights in the 1930s and 1940s, complete with all the mishegas and misgivings. The sly style, the miseries mixed with the absurdities, the streets and interiors, the speech cadences make this book an original source for those who want to know about the social and intellectual yearnings of Jews in America. The title story--terrible and lovely at the same time--is bold in conception: our narrator watches a movie of his parents as they are about to become engaged in a Coney Island restaurant. But the stories about groups--young people who hang out and argue on Saturday night in “The World is a Wedding,” family in “The Child is the Meaning of This Life”--are wrenching social studies of thwarted lives. Clifford Odets covered such things in “Awake and Sing,” but Schwartz left this much richer legacy for Bellow and Roth. His kibitzers and whiners and yearners have real depth.

Now while kicking back I have enjoyed Irish Brooklyn of the 1950s in Colm Toibin’s beautifully controlled and evocative novel Brooklyn: having been a boy in that borough back then, I can say that he captures the restrained mores of the time and the feel of old downtown with its department stores and nearby row houses. Joseph O’Neill’s masterpiece Netherland is a crazy mix of Brooklyn elements from a different period; it’s an exuberant and very sad treatment of West Indians, American dreaming--and a dream of making cricket a major American sport.

I’m also reading the Pevear and Volokhonsky translation of Anna Karenina. I first read Anna in 1970--and believe me, this translation makes it seem like I’m having a completely new adventure. Lucidity and nuance on every page.
Learn more about David Castronovo and Blokes: The Bad Boys of English Literature.

--Marshal Zeringue