Sometimes it seems that literature is an excellent medium for measuring intimacy; sometimes the white space and the black letters seem to gleefully record the distances between us. "The Jump-Off Creek," written by Molly Gloss in 1989 and reissued by Mariner, is about a woman, Lydia Sanderson, who homesteads alone in Washington state. The book is a prism of loneliness in the form of a novel. Refracting off Lydia's scantly recounted past is her determined present; she will not ask for help, finding the land, clearing the land, rounding up the cattle. She will not look--to her far-flung neighbors--like some damned-fool woman. Each time she meets someone new she answers their questions about her life with the phrase, "I have never been inclined to loneliness," though as the months tick by and the backbreaking labor of clearing ground, bringing in cattle, protecting goats from bears, planting a garden wears her down, the phrase gets tinnier with each iteration. The writing is sometimes rank with the wet mud, decaying carcasses left by bounty hunters and filth: "All at once he could smell the oily gun and the wet mold of the ground and the bouquet of the dogwood trees, their big cream stars. . . ." When a neighbor, a good man with deep attachments, proposes, she politely refuses. "Nothing was holding still inside his head. He didn't feel anything he could name, except that restlessness." While he reels from rejection, Lydia thinks to herself: "I shall not submit to the Tyrant myself [by which she means marriage], having by long denial learned the value of Self Rule." And she does not submit, choosing what is for her the lesser tyrant: loneliness.
READING RILKE Reflections on the Problems of Translation By William H. Gass, Alfred A. Knopf: 234 pp., $26
"The poet himself," William H. Gass writes of Rilke, "is as close to me as any human being has ever been. . . . [H]is work has taught me what real art ought to be; how it can matter to a life through its lifetime; how commitment can course like blood through the body of your words until the writing stirs, rises, opens its eyes. . . ." "Reading Rilke," a deep celebration of reading and translating, is a kind of antidote for when words become unhinged from meaning, an antidote to the loneliness of reading and of writing. Gass repairs the arteries between the heart and the mind and the mouth and the hand, giving them new flexibility and vigor. He recommends reading "with recognition [not just simple understanding]." "Forget," he writes, "that the poem belongs in its body as utterly as you do in yours. . . . Try to realize the presence of Apollo's decapitated head. . . . Are you as real as this ancient, battered remnant of statue? Change, then. Change your life." Later, he explains that whenever Rilke admonishes a reader to change, "we can be certain that Rilke himself has failed the charge." It is clear that Gass thinks less of the poet than of the poet's work, which has given him a standard to try, for a lifetime, to live up to. Nonetheless, Gass' understanding of Rilke's life is remarkably eloquent: Of Rilke's death, rumored to be from the prick of a rose but actually from leukemia, Gass writes, "We grow our death inside us like a talent or a tumour." Of the poet's love life, he writes: "Love is always dreamed before it is performed." Of the poet's finances: "Poverty eventually disillusioned Rilke about poverty." Gass sets up a firing line of 15 translations of a particular line and shoots: "Leishman is sappy. MacIntyre is insipid. Pitchford has never heard of Vietnam." It is a clear and refreshing book, like bathing away the hollowness of the words we must translate every day. *
THE BLACK ROOM AT LONGWOOD Napoleon's Exile on Saint Helena By Jean-Paul Kauffmann
Four Walls Eight Windows: 298 pp., $25
Jean-Paul Kauffmann, in this story of his nine days spent on St. Helena, never mentions his own experience of exile: While working as a reporter for Le Figaro in Beirut, he was taken hostage and held for three years in a basement by Shiite Muslims. He doesn't have to mention it--every pore, every clause in the book is informed by it. Kauffmann visited Longwood, the house Napoleon lived in from 1815 until his death at 52 in 1821, to get the smell of the place, to put all the facts and all the books he has read about Napoleon into a human skin. "I only had to breathe the air, the odor of a damp cellar mixed with a strange tropical perfume...to become aware of the dimension of time on St. Helena." If St. Helena is menacing, a maritime prison on a pile of rocks, Longwood is equally haunted and haunting. "Captivity is above all a smell," Kauffmann writes, "an incommunicable odor of humiliation." He has a sense of time moving backward, "eating slowly away in the dark." "I know that rumbling sound," he writes, "that vague menacing presence is nothing but the murmur of time, the fermentation of memory." The story of Napoleon's last years is beautifully interwoven with Kauffmann's attempt to understand how Napoleon felt in captivity--the author's six senses working in concert with his restrained intelligence: "I sense movements of energy," he says of the house, "as if spreading out from an unknown source. At times I feel caught in a trap." On these pages, which contain a history of Napoleon's captivity and an evocation of the place, the very ghost of loneliness walks, vaporous, interminable.
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This story has been edited to reflect a correction to the original published text. Napoleon lived 1769-1821; he was 52 when he died.
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