Monday, October 11, 2010

Joseph Skibell

Joseph Skibell is the author of the novels A Blessing on the Moon, The English Disease, and the newly published A Curable Romantic. He has received a Halls Fiction Fellowship, a Michener Fellowship, and a National Endowment for the Arts Literature Fellowship, among other awards. He teaches at Emory University and is the director of the Richard Ellmann Lectures in Modern Literature.

Recently, I asked Skibell what he was reading. His response:
Usually it’s a choice between reading or playing the guitar for me, and lately the guitar has been winning. So mostly I’ve been reading Bach’s Complete Sonatas and Partitas for Unaccompanied Violin (Dover Publications). I’m working my way through the first fugue. In terms of difficulty, the piece is at the outer rim of my musical abilities. I don’t even have a classical guitar. I’ve been playing it on an Italian Plum-Colored Electric Parker Mojo Fly.

Though written for violin, the collection has long been a staple of the guitarist’s repertoire, a fact I learned reading – or rather rereading (I didn’t notice the detail the first time through) – Glenn Kurtz’s gorgeously written memoir Practicing: A Musician’s Return to Music.

Kurtz was, from childhood on, an accomplished guitarist, dedicated, passionate, disciplined. Written with an astute eye and ear for detail, the memoir describes his first lessons at guitar camp, his time at the New England Conservatory of Music, his attempts to begin a solo career in Vienna, and even his breakthrough, with a duets partner, into a new kind of classical fusion, all before he gives up on music entirely.

Along the way, the reader is given a crisply written history of the evolution of the guitar.

Practicing is a guitar-lover’s dream book – I read it with intense enjoyment the first time, but with an even greater pleasure the second time. Mostly though, despite the hopeful-sounding subtitle, the book is an honest and heartfelt testament to an artist’s disillusionment -- not a story we’re used to hearing in success-obsessed America. Kurtz’s unblinking record of the pain as well as the joy of his musical life makes the book a remarkable document.

The most recent novel I’ve read is Steve Stern’s The Frozen Rabbi. In all honestly, me reading a Steve Stern novel is a bit like Leon Russell recording Willis Alan Ramsey, or Robert Redford casting a blond Brad Pitt in And a River Runs Through It: we’re not the same, but it’s close. If you squint, you might confuse the two.

There’s a real pleasure, however, in seeing someone who does something akin to what you do doing it extraordinarily well. Stern is a master. The Frozen Rabbi follows a bifurcated narrative, describing, on one prong, the wanderings of a Hasidic Rebbe who has become frozen in a block of ice in a freak storm in the Galicia of the 1890s, and, on the other, the alienated adolescence of an American Jewish kid growing up in Memphis in the 1990s.

It’s absurdist, yes, but the dramatist The Frozen Rabbi brings to mind is not Ionesco, but Shakespeare – the Shakespeare of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. There’s no plot device so hoary Stern can’t reinvigorate it: kidnappings, mistaken identities, cross-dressed love stories, repeated encounters between characters over lifetimes and even generations. As a storyteller, Stern pulls out all the stops, goes for broke, bets the farm, but it’s the reader who wins. The book, a cold-eyed social commentary, hidden inside a frothy farce, is a delightful critique about spirituality in America.

The other book that’s keeping me busy lately is W.B. Yeats’ Collected Poems, a thick paperback I picked up at the bookshop at Yeats’ home in Sligo many years ago. I decided recently to commit 100 poems to memory. I wanted to poems to be able to drop from my brain onto my tongue like gumballs dropping out of a gumball machine. And so far, I’ve memorized Hamlet’s “To Be or Not to Be” and Vladmir’s final monologue from Waiting for Godot, along with Leonard Cohen’s mournful “Recitation” and W.H. Auden’s “Stop all the Clocks.”

These last two are mere nursery rhymes compared to Yeats’ late work. I’ve recited Sailing to Byzantium,” “The Circus Animals’ Desertion” and “The Second Coming” at dinner tables and over coffee, and the poems never fail to move and stir my listeners. I source the more obscure references through David A. Ross’s comprehensive Critical Companion to William Butler Yeats: A Literary Reference to His Life and Work.

I’ve tried to branch into other languages – Iztik Manger’s beautiful Yiddish poem Afn veg stayt a boim” and some poems in Esperanto – but for some reason, Yeats continually draws me back to him. There are eleven stanzas to his “A Prayer for My Daughter.” If I attempt it, it will be the longest piece I’ve done so far, but I think I’m up to it. I hope so anyway.
Read more about A Curable Romantic and visit Joseph Skibell's website.

--Marshal Zeringue