What is The New Yorker? I know it’s a great magazine and that it’s a tremendous source of pleasure in my life. But what exactly is it? This blog’s premise is that The New Yorker is a work of art, as worthy of comment and analysis as, say, Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” Each week I review one or more aspects of the magazine’s latest issue. I suppose it’s possible to describe and analyze an entire issue, but I prefer to keep my reviews brief, and so I usually focus on just one or two pieces, to explore in each the signature style of its author. A piece by Nick Paumgarten is not like a piece by Dana Goodyear, and neither is like a piece by Ian Frazier. One could not mistake Finnegan for Friend, or Bilger for Lepore, or Collins for Khatchadourian. Each has found a style, and it is that style that I respond to as I read, and want to understand and describe.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Sundays With Updike: "Survivor / Believer"

My “Sundays With Updike” selection this week is “Survivor / Believer” (The New Yorker, December 24, 2001; in Updike’s Due Considerations, 2007), a review of Czeslaw Milosz’s essay collection To Begin Where I Am (2001). I treasure this piece for its celebration of specificity:

In To Begin Where I Am, the author’s brief opening statement, “My Intention,” expresses the lifelong priority Milosz has given to subjective specifics over abstract conceptions: “I have read many books, but to place all those volumes on top of one another and stand on them would not add a cubit to my stature. Their learned terms are of little use when I attempt to seize naked experience, which eludes all accepted ideas.”

“Subjective specifics” is a great phrase; it precisely captures what I most value in life and in art. It’s a variation on “thisness,” magnificently defined by James Wood as “any detail that draws abstraction toward itself and seems to kill that abstraction with a puff of palpability, any detail that centers our attention with its concretion” (How Fiction Works, 2008).

“Survivor / Believer” is valuable in another way, too. It affirms one of writing’s prime purposes – the preservation of memory. Updike says,

But Milosz does not remember only the victims of violence; he recalls his cousin the French poet Oscar Milosz; a Polish actress who murdered her lover at his own request and became a nun after being pronounced not guilty; and, in “Miss Anna and Miss Dora,” a pair of “old, poor, and helpless” spinsters, for little more reason than that “no one but me remembers their names anymore.” For an exile, no remembered face or scene is too incidental to clarify the basic mystery of being.

Milosz is a poet of memory. His retrieval of those “old, poor, helpless” spinsters from history’s murk is, for me, an exemplary artistic achievement. Thanks to him, they'll live on and on. 

Credit: The above portrait of Czeslaw Milosz is by Riccardo Vecchio; it appears in the December 24, 2001, issue of The New Yorker as an illustration for John Updike’s brilliant “Survivor / Believer.”

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