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This item is taken from PN Review 186, Volume 35 Number 4, March - April 2009.Letters from Anthony Rudolf, Silas Gunn, Neil Powell
I enjoyed reading John Wedgwood Clark’s excellent article in PNR 185, ‘A Gift of Bricks: Silence and the Poetry of George Oppen’. However, in one footnote he writes: ‘For the full history of Oppen’s political activity, silence and poetic renewal see … Selected Letters (1990) and Meaning a Life (1978).’
At one time these two volumes may have presented the ‘full history’ of this period in Oppen’s life. Not any more. Perhaps Clark is unaware that in the last fifteen months several highly informative and well written works have appeared that further explore these difficult matters, in particular Peter Nicholls’s authoritative and immaculately researched George Oppen and the Fate of Modernism (OUP); Michael Heller’s Speaking the Estranged: Essays on the Work of George Oppen, reflecting a lifetime of insightful rumination on Oppen’s poetry (Salt); and a major essay by Eric Hoffman in the December 2007 issue of American Communist History, ‘A Poetry of Action: George Oppen and Communism’, in which Hoffman makes the controversial argument that Oppen was a dedicated Stalinist as late as the 1950s and may have briefly been involved in low-level espionage for Soviet intelligence. Despite this, Hoffman yields to no one in his admiration for Oppen’s poetry.
While enjoying the malice and necessary cutting down to size of an over-rated writer in PNR 185, I can’t help but note an error in one of Mr Raphael’s minute particulars. He takes McEwan to task over ‘the widow of a naval officer lost on the Atlantic convoys.’ Raphael writes ‘Close in in on that final “s” and you know that McEwan never truly imagined the widow he affects to describe. No genuinely conceived naval officer was ever lost on a plurality of convoys.’
Actually in this instance McEwan is absolutely exact as to what a widow of a naval officer in the 1950s might say to comparative strangers about her dead husband. Adding a plural inflection in English in the twentieth century and, indeed, in this one, is the commonest way that informal English generalises. By generalising the widow creates a necessary distance between her private history and the stranger to whom she is selling the car. If she had said ‘one of the Atlantic convoys’ that entails recalling which of the convoys and thus a complete personal, painful memory which a stranger, buying her late husband’s car, would not be allowed to share in middle-class, mid-twentieth-century England. ‘The Atlantic convoys’ is what she would have said, communicating the bare fact of her loss and perhaps her felt sense of her husband’s heroism.
Frederic Raphael writes: Mr Gunn affects to know what widows of the 1950s always/often said. Does he? I do not find it easy to construct period dialogue in which such a widow, however reticent, would say, if obliged, that her husband died in ‘the Atlantic convoys’; but we can let that pass since Ian McEwan did not attribute this expression to a widow: it occurs in standard narrative (not even oratio obliqua) and is clearly his phrase. In the same passage, he also says that Edward (the narrator’s father) paid eleven pounds for the widow’s car; would the actual amount of cash involved in the purchase be stipulated by a representative of the Old Proprieties? Mr Gunn has confected so slushy a snowball from the neiges d’antan that it scarcely holds together long enough to be thrown back.
In ‘Tree at my Window’ (PNR 184), I mistyped the date of my mother’s birth as 22 March 1922: it should be 23 March. This is one date I really should get right and a record I must put straight.
This item is taken from PN Review 186, Volume 35 Number 4, March - April 2009.