1. Archive

Souvenirs of the past, messages to the future


By Paul Bowles,

edited by Jeffrey Miller

Farrar Strauss Giroux, $30



Edited by David M. Gordon

Norton, $30

Reviewed by Philip Herter

Letters are a curious way to communicate. Over time they become souvenirs of no real value and inestimable worth. Letters always reveal something less (and more) than the writer wished. The cold type of a letter can break your heart from across continents, and damn you in fancy handwriting. But best of all, because a letter is both personal and public, a collection of letters brings out the voyeur in us all. Think of a book of collected correspondence as a model of communication for your own telephone-addled life.

Thanks to his constant traveling and almost life-long exile in Tangier, Paul Bowles, composer and author of Sheltering Sky, wrote a lot of letters. Writing to friends and family, his early letters are remarkably articulate, full of observations of people and especially places. Here is Bowles as an excited youth of 21, reporting on his first explorations in Europe: ". . . the Alps are the only place I could walk alone for twelve hours and think of nothing but external objects." Paul Bowles' letters, while often emotionally distant, offer fine lessons in the power of particular details to enhance feelings and thoughts.

Jeffrey Miller has edited these letters with care. He reveals the note-jotter as literary figure, composer and friend, but allows the hidden man to stay hidden. One long missive to a New York publisher interested in Bowles autobiography, breathlessly describes the author's peripatetic life with some of the leading literary and musical figures of the 20th century, capped with a sheepish paragraph apologizing for not being able to recall much.

It's also amusing to overhear Bowles' first impression of Tangier, where he would ultimately spend most of his life: "The town is too beautiful for words . . . like no dream one could have of a place where streets are absolutely indistinguishable from hallways . . . the sky disappears for stretches at a time . . . it will take weeks to learn it all." Paul Bowles' letters, the well composed and mostly succinct (a few here are longer than a page), are an excellent way to catch a glimpse of a publicly elusive writer.

In a letter to the poet Charles Henri-Ford, Paul Bowles observed: "It sees to me, a good letter has to have the smell of the personality of the one who writes it."

In 1933 when Harvard undergraduate James Laughlin wrote to him for the first time, Ezra Pound was already a well known poet with a strong aroma of opinion and controversy. Pound enhanced his reputation as a crank nonpareil with a series of war-time radio broadcasts for Mussolini's Fascist radio. When their correspondence ended with Pound's death, 40 years later, he was considered one of America's greatest poets, and Laughlin was the publisher of New Directions, one of this country's premier literary publishing houses.

Ezra Pound, known as a "revolutionary simpleton," wrote letters with a kind of fury in an idiosyncratic prose style. Peculiar punctuation, a great reliance on capital letters and stress breaks to make his point, mad spelling and punning on names make his collected correspondence a tough read _ on the page. I finally resorted to reading them aloud, and like magic, the passion and humor of Pound's strong mind came through loud and clear.

Daniel Gordon, once a student of Pound's, has meticulously organized and classified the letters, typed, handwritten, signed and unsigned. This book will prove valuable to students of literary history, but the average reader can be dazzled by Pound's sharp and concise language. Ribald lyrics, unflattering references to contemporaries, friends and enemies, phonetic puns and asides, even Pound's myopic ravings on international politics and in favor of Mussolini all display a diamond-like glimmer.

Here is Pound demonstrating his belief in poetry, especially his own: "I wish to hell you wd. PRINT (cantos) 52/71 in time to prevent at least six electors voting for Roosevelt. The american system of govt is worth restoring."

Thanks to the editor's conscientious reproduction of typing, spelling and punctuation, these notes are fresh. The cumulative effect of The Collected Letters of Ezra Pound and James Laughlin makes one feel that the short notes were dashed off yesterday, and directly to us.

Letters are a form of biography, unselfconscious and immediate. Souvenirs of the past, messages to the future, these letters reflect the grand ambitions of their writers, but also present a mosaic of smaller, daily concerns. After reading these books, you might want to engage in a little history of your own: Sit down with a pencil and drop a note to someone you haven't heard from in a while.

Philip Herter receives mail in New York City.