Dear Jon . . . (#2) re: Gifts

Dear Jon,

Thank you for your letter that isn’t a letter. This is clearly going to be the basis for a thrilling epistolary novel; Pamela here we come. So, your post (you’re sehr welcome BTW) sent me on a series of thoughts on gifts, or gifting. These are thoughts that, I think, I have expressed to you before. Thoughts about what a gift (on birthdays, at yuletide) is, or at least can be. Personal relationships (of whatever vaguely intimate kind) can quite easily become transparent, part of the background noise of day-to-day life. A friendship is often made up of a series of ordinary things: it may be meeting at a bus stop each day before school, an exchange of how-are-yous of a morning, the making of mugs of tea. This isn’t all of it (there’s the 2:00am phone calls, the shoulders to weep over etc, etc), but is certainly part of it. However, we can easily get caught in the web of obligations, answers, rejoinders, emails, and pigeon attacks of ordinary life, and the ties that bind us become transparent; we don’t see them, and we forget to pay our thanks for them. A gift is a chance to bring such ties to the fore, to make the invisible opaque: a concentrated gesture in which we get to check in with a friendship, and pay attention to what about it is important. 

It’s this kind of move that’s often an aspect of what some literature does. The novel I’m reading currently is Vladimir Nabokov’s The Gift (1938), (which was, in turn, a gift from another friend). What’s particularly striking is Nabokov’s passion for ordinary detail, his insistence on wringing dazzling poetry out of each and every particular: 

‘Every morning just after eight he was guided out of his slumber by the same sound behind the thin wall, two feet from his temple. It was the clean, round-bottomed ring of a tumbler; after which the landlord’s daughter cleared her throat. Then came the spasmodic trk-trk of a revolving cylinder, then the sound of flushed water, choking, groaning, and abruptly ceasing, then the bizarre internal whine of a bath tap that finally turned into the rustle of a shower.’

The novel details (I use that word advisedly) the life of a young poet, Fyodor, in 1920s Berlin. The attention to detail extended to Fyodor’s work too: the opening chapter gives us fragments of his poetry – which are all on childhood memories, with titles like ‘The Lost Ball’. I was reading fast (several books during last week, they flickered past like planets with me zooming at warp speed), but now all has slowed, after entering the dense cloud (nebulaic, perhaps) of Nabokov’s prose. It is both exhaustive, and exhausting. It’s what Kingsley means about Mart’s style, when he says there’s ‘a high idiosyncratic noise level in the writing.’ It’s lucky that we don’t live aware of that amount of detail, that would be exhausting, a proper ka-blammo overload. If we didn’t filter out some of the noise, we’d be these vulnerable, tenderised creatures crazed out, stress-stacked, and muttering to ourselves about the price of soup (as our brains steadily liquidise). 

Such writing gives us the space to be ponderous; it gives us back what we lose in order to live.

But giving itself, is a kind of exposure – when a writer offers up pages of their hard-wrought writing, or when someone is giving us a clumsily-wrapped book-shaped item (dear god, will they like it?) they make themselves vulnerable. It tells us something about the giver, even if it isn’t always clear what. But once gifts are given, it is forever. Control has been given over. To go back to your post, I doubt that Eliot intended, perhaps would have actively disapproved of (that is not what he meant at all), a man pacing up and down, up and down, in a freezing lounge in November (evening encroaching), reading himself into the words:

Where shall the word be found, where will the word
Resound? Not here, there is not enough silence
Not on the sea or on the islands, not
On the mainland, in the desert or the rain land—

And, of course: 

Do I dare
Disturb the universe?
In a minute there is time
For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.

He did not write these words to comfort a closeted-but-soon-to-be-uncloseted gay man, but his gift is there nonetheless. And Eliot, out of all the writers I could name, is someone whose position on the political spectrum is perhaps one of the easier to disagree with, for both you and me. But even those who feel closer to politically can challenge us in this way. Christopher Isherwood is rampantly anti-semitic in his diaries, despite positing himself as the camera that saw the rise of the Nazis in Berlin. You mention Bloomsbury, but even Virginia Woolf herself had a complicated attitude, and certainly a haughtiness, about Jews; at the same time she married Leonard Woolf, himself Jewish, and wrote of him movingly: ‘my Jew has more religion in one toe nail – more human love, in one hair.’ She had a complicated feelings about male gayness too, associating it with a kind of transparency or paleness; in her diary in 1925, she remarks: ‘the pale star of the Bugger has been in the ascendant too long’, though some of her closest friends (Lytton Strachey, E. M. Forster, Duncan Grant) were of my tribe, and in other places (The Waves, The Years, Between the Acts) she portrays gay men with sensitivity. Aldous Huxley doesn’t especially portray his gay characters with sensitivity, but had a stronger homophobic streak, despite his friendship with Isherwood. 

But it’s probs cray to have this kind of box ticking attitude. Expecting everyone we read and meet to be quietly passionate clear-eyed self-righteous enlightened liberal Remainer (also skilled at baking, sex and gardening, with a penchant for reading novels in the original French) is a mistake. But you know that, natch. Maybe the best guide on this is Eliot himself, using some of his remarks in “Tradition and the Individual Talent” (1919). He notes of the poet (who is male, of course) 'it is not his personal emotions, the emotions provoked by particular events in his life, that the poet is in any way remarkable or interesting. His particular emotions may be simple, or crude, or flat. The emotion in his poetry will be a very complex thing.’

I wanted to end with one of the greatest artists of vulnerability: Jimmy Baldwin, of course. He penned a poem called “The giver (for Berdis)” in his collection Jimmy’s Blues (1983): it is complicated, mysterious, and above all, moving. It ends:

I cannot tell how much I owe.

Yours sincerely,