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Anthony Rudolf’s literary Wunderkammer.

A Fortnightly Review of

silent conversations: A Reader’s Life
by Anthony Rudolf
Seagull Books 2013
distributed by the University of Chicago Press | xxvii  + 748 pp. |$35  £24.50


THE TITLE IS taken from Walter Savage Landor’s Imaginary Conversations: “What is reading but silent conversation?” However, this beautifully produced account of Anthony Rudolf’s solitary give-and-take over the years of ideas and experiences moves all the way from Kennedy’s Latin Primer (schoolboys always inked the second word on the greenish cover to make it read “Eating”; schoolgirls, one feels sure, were above such vandalism) to Antony Sher’s Primo and Michael Schmidt’s Lives of the Novel — and its author chooses to listen in silence to real people.

In one sense, this fascinating book complements Rudolf’s autobiography, The Arithmetic of Memory, as well as A Vanished Hand, that charming analysis of his childhood’s autograph album which includes Margaret Lockwood and Alma Cogan (the book’s title derives from the inscription on the latter’s grave of Tennyson’s “O for the touch of a vanished hand / And the sound of a voice that is still”) and, indeed, the intensely moving life-story Rudolf tells from his grandfather’s mouth in his 2010 collection Zig Zag.

All four books reveal moments of enthusiasm, discovery, tenderness, bafflement and surprise over the poet’s 70 years – a warm family background, education at the City of London School and Trinity College Cambridge (where he transferred from Modern Languages to Anthropology) followed by an immensely productive career as poet, translator, lecturer, art historian and creator of the Menard Press. His worth has been recognised both in this country, where he is a Fellow of The Royal Society of Literature, and in France where he is a Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres.

silent conversations (the lower case helps an aura of secrecy) is a book which holds something for everyone — although not all the subjects will appeal to all readers. This is an individual look-back at a life of reading and no individuals have the same tastes. The book is arranged meticulously in sections – some only a paragraph, some many pages long. There is a bibliography of 138 pages but no index. However, the table of contents (17 pages) displays clearly where a fair proportion of the authors included can be found. It is a work to consult, think about, learn from — even just to dip into and find wonderful anecdotes like the fact Joyce would wait patiently on the threshold till the precise moment given on the invitation arrived and only then he would ring the bell.

Rudolf is a scholar – not, he stresses, an academic — and a polymath, an intellectual with a heart and a lover of good gossip. He has a throw-away sense of humour which makes enjoyable reading. He looks up “sorites” in his Mansion’s French dictionary only to find it means the same thing in English! In pre-war anthologies one often finds poets given initials (also in those days their public schools and universities — hardly ever anywhere but Oxbridge) and Rudolf goes on to say “neither fore like gentlemen nor aft like players (arcane cricket reference)”. He saw “a photograph of his great-great grandfather holding me in 1943. It follows (as it were) that he was alive in 1927”. He defines Bonnefoy at one stage as “the young (shortly to be ex-) surrealist”. Translating a poem about Valéry in which Brassens says – generously and correctly – “ses vers valent mieux que les miens”, Rudolf uses Eliot’s praise of Pound: “he is il miglior fabbro”. In Prague a Nazi officer was ordered to destroy the statue of Mendelssohn. He had no idea what the composer looked like so chose the one with a large nose. That was Wagner. History (or Rudolf) doesn’t relate what happened after.  He quotes Robbe-Grillet’s claim that “when Chateaubrand lies he lies in good faith”.

HIS REAL GURU is Walter Benjamin.  His preferred poets are Rimbaud, Celan, Bonnefoy, Jabès, Vigée, Hölderlin, Mallarmé, Rilke. For prose, he reveres Balzac, Kafka, Flaubert, Camus, Perec, Beckett, Chekov, Joseph Roth, Marguerite Duras. Curiously, he has never read any Conrad except Heart of Darkness, no Faulkner, no George Eliot, excusing these lacunae because he was concentrating at Cambridge on Russian and French literature. Even so. . . !

As an example of Rudolf’s wide-ranging tastes and scholarly delight in finding links and similarities between books (and paintings and films and music) of all kinds, he suspects with Norma Rinsler (a genuine and most sensitive academic) that Nerval, who’d been at school with Gautier, knew the latter’s Melancholia when writing El Desdichado as well as Milton’s “darkness visible” (which Golding used as the title for a novel). Perhaps surprisingly, the French did read Paradise Lost enthusiastically. Nerval refers to Dürer’s engraving in Aurélie. Rimbaud described his mother unenthusiastically as “la bouche d’ombre”, referring to Hugo’s poem in Les Contemplations. Rudolf remembers Corneille’s line in Le Cid — “Cette obscure clarté qui tombe des étoiles”. These intricate echoes are an essential part of the joy of reading. Another joy is getting introduced to the unexpected like a poem by Bertrand de Born in the original Occitan; “Si tuit li dol e.lh plor e.lh marrimen” (“Si tous les deuils et les pleurs et les malheurs”). Reading this, one is privileged to glimpse the mediaeval seed from which modern French has flowered.

Rudolf explores Racine’s Esther most tellingly and identifies it accurately as “the warm up for Athalie“ and goes on to cite Emily Dickinson, Melville and R.S. Thomas  who, ”like many Hebrew poets, worry their heads and their verses about the hidden face of God called hester panim in Hebrew”. He reveals Donald Davie’s crass advice that “nobody need read The Ring and the Book” – only one of Browning’s countless masterpieces – and informs us Mallarmé wrote a charming letter to Debussy after the first performance of Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune saying how much he’d enjoyed it. He also said to a friend “je croyais l’avoir moi-même mis en musique” using — even when speaking — a characteristically complicated word-order. Rudolf discovers Verlaine was wrong in thinking that Rimbaud’s subtitle of Painted Plates for Les Illuminations refers to engravings. They are the decorated “plates” from the Lambeth potteries near where Rimbaud lived for a time. This subtly changes one’s response to those marvellously enigmatic prose-poems and adds a touch of intimacy to the exile’s daily life in London. He quotes Richard Wilbur’s description of the Etruscan Poets as “pure matrix, joining world and mind” and remembers the painter Josef Herman’s statement “autumn is my season, twilight is my hour”. He admits that his friendship with Paula Rego has greatly assisted him in contemplation of art and has dedicated this splendid book to her — even though she made him change something in a poem at first much against his will!  

Rudolf finds in Robert Creeley’s poems “a kind of educated and subtle precursor of text messaging” but “respects rather than loves” Robert Duncan.

GOING TO SCHOOL on the ‘bus with friends, Rudolf would learn poems by heart: speeches from Shakespeare and Walter de la Mare’s superbly mysterious poem The Listeners — far better than frowning into a tiny screen or slitting the fabric of the seats. Later, he reads his near-contemporaries — Hughes (he has one of Baskin’s crows from Ted’s book on his wall), Gunn (he feels that Thom was “Donnean/Baudelairian as opposed to the other’s “Shakespearean/Hugolean”) and Tomlinson (whom he admires as poet and graphic artist) before he sets about exploring the poetry across the Atlantic. First, Emily Dickinson who found “For each beloved hour / Sharp pittances of Years — / Bitter contested farthings — /And Coffers heaped with tears”, though he unfortunately quotes repellent reactions to her work from two American females unworthy to untie the laces on her nineteenth-century shoes. Then he analyses Wallace Stevens’s wonderful poem “The House was Quiet and the World was Calm”. To Rudolf, Marianne Moore is “a tough-minded and devious lady” but he greatly and rightly admires John Berryman’s long poem Homage to Mistress Bradstreet as well as his impeccable “three-stanza poems”. He cites Berryman’s poem in memory of Dylan Thomas. Berryman had visited him in the New York hospital shortly before he died. Rudolf was thrilled but terrified when asked by Ginsberg at a reading to fit a “musician’s triangle” together before the poet launched into his dreadful pseudo-Buddhist moaning and places him as “a major poet out of Whitman”. That “major” may be a bit too generous but there are fine lengths of passion to be found in Howl. Rudolf finds in Robert Creeley’s poems “a kind of educated and subtle precursor of text messaging” but “respects rather than loves” Robert Duncan. Bizarrely included among American poetry are the whining platitudes of that so-called “popstar” who ditched his surname and filched the Welsh cognomen of a genuinely marvellous poet, presumably in an attempt to give himself “gravitas”. Zimmermann is, after all, a noble surname worn by the director of The Search and The Day of the Jackal.

As an excellent translator himself (his versions especially of Yves Bonnefoy are already recognised as classics in both France and the UK) Rudolf is interested in those splendid introductions to Chinese poetry by Arthur Waley, Arthur Cooper and Angus Graham — also in Pound’s blithely inaccurate attempts  which do (quite) work despite the fact he astonishingly could not recognize that Chinese is monosyllabic and has no “r” whereas Japanese is largely polysyllabic and has no “l” so  he never realized that his “crib-provider” Fenollosa had transcribed Li Po’s name into Japanese as Rihaku!

The most important section of silent conversations is undoubtedly Jewish Worlds. Rudolf is proud of his heritage and has done a tremendous amount of research into Jewish history in this country and abroad. His forebears came to London about the late nineteenth century escaping from antisemitic Russia only, alas, to find here in the 1920s the same foul attitude slipped into works by T.S.Eliot, Agatha Christie, Dornford Yates and too many others. The details given of the Holocaust make horrific reading. It is so hard to imagine how one human being can take such cool pleasure in being cruel — to operate without anaesthetic on another human being not in the interest of science but to inflict unbearable pain or to ask a dying rabbi already emaciated beyond help which of his sons he would prefer to be killed. That these and similar crimes were committed under Nazism should never be forgotten. It is our human duty to ensure succeeding generations learn how inhuman people can become in order that (we hope) such monstrously awful behaviour will never happen again.

Rudolf, going to a Poetry Festival in Macedonia in 1972, found in the Jewish Community Centre in Belgrade a copy of The Black Book listing war crimes committed in the Balkans during the Second World War. He gave it to Richard Burns who in the same year wrote the dazzling long poem “Avebury” and would, having altered his surname to Berengarten, in 2006 go on produce The Blue Butterfly, a book of poems both intensely beautiful and intensely upsetting. Having spent some time in Serbia, Rudolf examines in this very important book the two reprisals taken by the occupying forces on the civil population in October 1941 after an attack by partisans on German soldiers, killing nine and wounding 27 of whom one died later. In all, 525 civilians of both sexes were shot, the youngest 11 and the oldest 78.

RUDOLF QUOTES A theologian who taught Lionel Blue:

In Christianity love is supposed to rule supreme, in Islam law is supposed to rule supreme, while Judaism, involved in a dialectical relationship with the two world religions for centuries, in principle marries the two.

Another rabbi defends the Pharisees (who get such a bad press in the Gospels) since they were “champions of freedom, champions of democracy, champions of neighbourly love and champions of social justice”. Rudolf himself (despite Lionel Blue’s hint he should study for the rabbinate) claims he is like Jonathan Rosen in respect of the Talmud and the Internet – “proficient in neither “but “a child of both”. Even so, he knows the Bible well and has consulted countless theological texts with reverence, understanding and tenderness.

The translation on p. 50 of Verlaine’s Du fond du grabat gives “qui n’a pas de grève” as “that never goes on strike” but surely it means “which can find no shore” rather like time in Lamartine’s Lacqui n’a pas de rive”. There are very few misprints: cimitière amuse-geules, mere without its grave accent, Dopplelganger with no umlaut and two unknowns: Beughel and Larforgue .Personally, I regret the lazy use of “quote”, the verb, instead of “quotation”, the noun, but it’s everywhere now.

Anthony Rudolf’s extensive library is obviously chosen personally and the (I hope) many readers of silent conversations will respond personally. The understandable intensity with which he reads is delightfully spelled out when he admits that his love for Hemingway’s uncharacteristic (but gently pleasing) A Movable Feast made him “not underline a single word in my much-thumbed copy, as if to say the prose works on me like a poem”. As a reviewer, I have relished the references to so many books I have known and loved since early childhood. Our tastes agree in so many cases but, inevitably, he approves of many I am far from keen on and the reverse must certainly be true. Although enjoying Michael Hamburger’s The Truth of Poetry  which is a richly rewarding investigation by a fine poet and (with reservations) Mario Praz’s The Romantic Agony, I always prefer the actual text and used to tell my classes never even to read prefaces (especially when written by the authors themselves) until after they have finished the book and considered it. Rudolf on the other hand is fascinated by the responses to texts by various writers who seem to me totally worthless. Barthes for instance didn’t think authors exist despite evidence to the contrary. Derrida apparently couldn’t spell “différence”. George Steiner completely misunderstood Racine. And how anyone could stand more than a page of Sontag’s smug irrelevance I cannot understand. (My wife tells me that she bored her classes at Sarah Lawrence to distraction by endless monologues about her divorce!) Those who believe, like Richard Webster, that Freud was wrong would have no qualifications for assessing Rudolf’s section on that Viennese charlatan who fashioned his “theories” from rich Viennese women who had too much time on their hands and are hardly templates for the average human being. Women don’t envy men’s equipment (described dishonestly by Proust in La Prisonnière as “du crampon resté  fiché dans une statue descellée”) — and it was Fate not Oedipus which got him married to Jocasta!

De gustibus. . . The important thing is that silent conversations is a gloriously entertaining and a most rewarding publication. To share the reading experiences of such a poet-scholar-translator-editor-critic is a rare privilege and this book is worthy to be spoken of in company with Montaigne’s Essays, Evelyn’s Diary and Stendhal’s Vie de Henry Brulard.

Harry Guest‘s latest publication (from Impress) is A Square in East Berlin, a translation of Torsten Schulz’s acclaimed novel Boxhagener Platz (which has been successfully filmed).



  1. wrote:

    Hello. I live on Landor Road London SW9 and was wondering if the road is named after Walter Savage Landor. I see you mention the lambeth potteries which is where I live so wonder if Rimbaud knew Savage? Thanks for any help you can give. Kind regards Melanie

    Wednesday, 15 January 2014 at 16:23 | Permalink
  2. wrote:

    I’m afraid Landor died before Rimbaud came to England. But there IS a French poetry connection with your road: Apollinaire has immortalised Annie Playden, who lived at 75 Landor Road, in his poetry. Check out the relevant keywords in Google

    Tuesday, 25 February 2014 at 19:39 | Permalink
  3. wrote:

    My dear mr Rudolf, I’m reading your immensely fascinating book Silent Conversations. It’s the most enjoyable book I’ve read in many years . Many thanks for the pleasures yet to come in this most delightful book experience SadaSiva Rao Kodali India

    Monday, 16 June 2014 at 09:15 | Permalink
  4. wrote:

    Dear Sada Siva Rao Kodali, I have only just seen your comment! So, rather belatedly I would like to say how grateful I am. I hope you have finally finished the book, and that you will see this message… Best wishes

    Sunday, 17 December 2017 at 12:54 | Permalink

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