gentle rereader

. . . rediscovering Jacques Barzun

Living Books

The inaugural meeting of the Jacques Barzun Book Club (JBBC) might not have occurred on Monday, 14 May 2012, if Mr. Eric Robert Morse had been unwilling to take a risk.  The conversation described in “Classic Barzun” was diverting for a time, but the chances of engaging in much anticipated “Jacques talk” were dwindling like my beer.

Then I recalled that to make coordination possible Eric had gambled and put his cell phone number on the Internet.  Now I wished that I’d captured it earlier, instead of trusting to an old-fashioned rendezvous.  Still, I managed (with the help of 1Password) to get my mobile to locate his number online.  Moments after making the call I shook hands with Eric who had a great table out on the patio.  All along we’d been just a hundred feet from each other.  His lookout had been over the other entrance to Citrus – at the top of the stairs leading up from Riverwalk.  (Take note, future participants in the San Antonio chapter of the Jacques Barzun Book Club.)  Thank you, Eric, for being patient and for taking the chance that made our first meeting happen.

We settled into adjacent seats, facing west and the river.  The first thing I noticed on the table was Eric’s paperback copy of A Stroll with William James, my old friend.  A well thumbed first edition remained in my backpack, along with the first volume of Berlioz and the Romantic Century (1969), and the bibliographic database of Barzun’s works.  Eric’s posting the day before suggested the possible value of bringing my laptop:  “We will probably discuss Dr. Barzun’s works in general and lay out a plan for future readings.”  I’m glad to report that we didn’t get to the planning that night.

Let the record show that Stroll was the JBBC’s first topic of conversation.  We quickly moved on to other favorites, and I glowed within.  Only the horizon showed signs of gloom as dark clouds piled upward.  The slowly advancing thunderheads stole none of the warmth.  Our talk did turn to the next night’s Berlioz concert and its curious ending with a funeral march.  I mentioned to Eric my recent exchange with Peter Bloom.  He had been struck by the marche funèbre closing a program meant to honor a 104-year-old man, considering it in questionable taste … unless Barzun’s strong preferences had governed the selection.

Recounting for Eric the powerful conclusion in each of Barzun’s several editions of Berlioz, I elaborated on the nutshell reply I’d sent to Professor Bloom:  “My response to the Berlioz selections was similar to yours.  My bet is that Jacques did ask for the funeral march, and at the brief concert’s conclusion.  There is a certain fitness to combining the personal importance to JB of Hamlet and HB’s funeral music to remind us of the horses bolting through the cemetery gates with Berlioz alone.”  Would the World War I survivor make a similarly dramatic departure the next night, expiring with the musketry at the march’s conclusion?  I dismissed the phantasm, deciding that Jacques would not allow himself such a breach of decorum.

Happier thoughts followed and we eventually ordered appetizers and antelope.  Already the author of several published works, Eric described his first reading of Barzun, saying that he discovered something needed that had been missing.  I poorly convey his meaning, and hope that he will take the first opportunity to correct and amplify what I only mention.  I also look forward to seeing what effect reading JB may have on his future work.  May Barzun’s influence be as salutary for Eric Morse as it was for Tony Hillerman at the outset of his crime fiction career.

Like any good book group we wandered off topic, covering our past residences in San Diego (his recent, mine ancient), his auspicious beginning in San Antonio, and when the Spurs’ playoffs run came up our shared enthusiasm for basketball.  (Barzunian orthodoxy is an oxymoron, cf. baseball.)  We also watched out for Eric’s friends who planned to join us after their conference broke up.  And the clouds kept coming.

We frequently returned to Barzun’s latest masterwork.  My recent rereading of From Dawn to Decadence had been unplanned.  I was about a third of the way into The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire when the almost inevitable thought occurred to compare Gibbon’s treatment with Barzun’s handling of the theme in From Dawn to Decadence.  The anticipated quick comparison turned into a renewed perusal of Barzun’s most complex work.  (Gibbon calmly waits for me to return as soon as I finish reading the third of Jim Lynch’s sparkling novels set around Puget Sound.)  I wondered aloud to Eric whether a couple of centuries from now From Dawn to Decadence will be as accessible as The Decline and Fall is to present-day readers.

The conversation that had been both humorous and serious tapered off when Eric’s guests arrived.  Introductions exchanged, his friend from northern California was hardly surprised but thoroughly delighted that Eric had started a book group during his first week as a San Antonio citizen.  We talked a bit about Barzun and then shifted the conversation to their conference and lives.  We felt a few sprinkles but remained outside, leaning forward under the table’s umbrella.  Soon thereafter, but after several wonderful hours, the inaugural meeting of the Jacques Barzun Book Club had to be called on account of rain.

Eric and I resumed play the next night, following the concert and reception, as we ate a less exotic but still delicious late supper at a riverside restaurant’s bar.  That’s when Eric brought up the question of which Barzun works to read next, asking me to send recommendations along as soon as I had the time.  I whipped out my pocket notebook instead.  I laughed when he said it was like getting assignments done in class in order to avoid homework.  True enough, though the context of our discussion provided the right preparation for the impromptu list I made.

I began with The Energies of Art, explaining how the commercial success of Teacher in America, praise for the first edition of Berlioz, and a recent bestseller also favored by critics, God’s Country and Mine, had created a market for Barzun’s work as scholar-critic in the collection of essays.  The earliest among them, “Truth and Poetry in Thomas Hardy” from The Southern Review (Summer 1940), recast for Energies as “Hardy’s One World”, shows Barzun as much more than a journeyman building up to From Dawn to Decadence.  The cultural historian lived in literature (as well as the musical and fine arts), and then turned his experience into cultural criticism, re-presenting art for life’s sake.

It’s hard to imagine a Jacques Barzun Book Club as a batch of Baker Street Irregulars or a Wolfe Pack, confined to a single canon.  When his admirers find themselves back at the beginning with The French “Race”, and no more of his books to read, there need not be an end.  The glory of Barzun is that his thought coruscates with others’ works that merit attention.  Those bring me back to Barzun’s brilliance, as his explorations discover what is most valuable – as well as disposable – in each of them.  A Barzun essay coupled with the work discussed would afford an excellent opportunity for rewarding conversation.

Anyone who cares to test the assertion might try reading Barzun and Stendhal “On Love”, and then savor “William James and the Clue to Art”.  Until the acidic paper turns to dust, the best version of Energies will remain the Vintage edition of 1962, despite a pair of reversed lines in the sharp new preface.  The good Greenwood Press printed five of Barzun’s books on paper made to last, but the 1975 reprint of the original Energies of Art, despite library binding, cannot preserve what it does not include.  Here is a brief sample from Barzun’s four-page credo in the Vintage paperback:

“I believe that criticism is a serious undertaking, but I do not believe that it is a technical process requiring rubber gloves and manufactured apparatus.  Works of art are complex, but that does not seem to me a valid excuse for making criticism complicated and leaving no room for the reader to enjoy art through fugitive, inexplicit response.  One would have thought that modern pride in subtlety would have prevented the manhandling of that fragile flower, Response, just as the devotion to the Work of Art should have kept criticism from being called ‘creative.’  But both abuses exist and indeed prevail.” (page ix)

I look forward to listening more than talking if FaceTime or Skype makes it possible for me to attend the next meeting of the Jacques Barzun Book Club on July 8th.

Eric Morse (on the left) launched the Jacques Barzun Book Club. John Adams joined him that first night and in this photo following the “Berlioz and Barzun” concert.

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2 thoughts on “Living Books

  1. Mirriam on said:

    You once left a comment on my blog, where I was discussing the rare art of letter-writing. You suggested I read the book “84 Charing Cross Road,” and so I ordered it from my library. I read it and adored it, and shared it with my mother, my sister, my aunt – and I have told many of my friends about it. I actually just got through watching the movie adaption from 1984 which, I was surprised, was absolutely charming and did the book complete justice.
    I wanted to say thank you for suggesting the book to me, it gave me great joy.

  2. You are very kind to take the time to pass along your thanks. I’m glad you found Helene Hanff’s epistolary account of her developing friendship with a London used bookseller as charming as I did … as did the friend who first presented it as a gift to me. Recommending the things that bring us pleasure is a delight in itself, especially when we hear how many others have smiled along with us.
    Thank you for reminding me of a thank you card I keep meaning to send but have yet to make time for. Tonight then, I’m resolved.

Responses welcomed. Courtesy appreciated.

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