Sentences — December 22, 2008, 4:40 pm

Holiday Treats: Distant machine-gun rattle

In 1997, I sent Guy Davenport a cassette of some cool recordings. Most of them he’d already heard. Pound, Eliot, Yeats and others, reading their poetry. One he’d not heard, though. Walt Whitman, descanting.

Of those 39 seconds–perhaps recorded by the agents of Thomas Alva Edison–Davenport, who would write about Whitman for this magazine, wrote:

davenportnote001

And then said:

davenportnote002

Loans of tapes; students counted on to turn up: gifts like these tend to fall, or not, into our laps. Or, I should think, tended. Now, we don’t have to wait for nobody. We just go on YouTube, where it’s not all kittens these days.

My favorite find of this snowy weekend, not sought so much as stumbled upon, is a mini documentary about the National Book Awards from 1974. Pynchon and Isaac Bashevis Singer shared it, and Pynchon showed up to accept it… sort of. The five-minute documentary, which aired on Arte, the Franco-German PBS channel, features George Plimpton (and a very special guest) explaining what went down. I didn’t know this pocket history, but it’s pretty charming. Hang in there (or skip ahead) through the first 90 seconds of “artistic” overture:

If you’re in the mood for more charm, the weirdest wonderfulest thing I’ve come upon is this choreographed feast of oddity, featuring Vladimir Nabokov and Lionel Trilling (and interlocutor Pierre Berton), discussing Lolita. The whole thing plays like Feydeau, Nabokov reading his answers off the cards he shuffles not so discreetly in his lap, the trio rising apropos of nothing but a pre-arranged plan to do so and shifting from table to sofa, where Nabokov wolfs a cup of tea, and awkward banter continues (and leads to a sublime, and not at all awkward, closing minute, when VN goes rogue and stops reading). The whole of it conspires to a little dance of civility that might feel familiar, as you sit around the holiday hearth:

With that multimedia to round out your stocking, I leave you until next Monday.

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I sat in a taxi with Emma and her son, Stak, all three bodies muscled into the rear seat, and the boy checked the driver’s I.D. and immediately began to speak to the man in an unrecognizable language.

I conferred quietly with Emma, who said he was studying Pashto, privately, in his spare time. Afghani, she said, to enlighten me further.

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