Reading Note:
La Différence
17 September 2019

¶ How long have been putting off reading Randall Jarrell’s Pictures from an Institution? I know that my antennae, which are hardly ever mistaken, have warned me for years that this “hilarious campus satire” is not as funny as all that. 

I ought to keep a list of supposedly funny books that are not as funny as all that. Lucky Jim would top the list. 

My antennae were not wrong about Jarrell’s comedy. It is clearly the work of a poet, and often cast in a limpid beauty that would have annoyed me when, as a callow youth, I howled with delight at the horrible things, described in exquisite terms, that happened in Evelyn Waugh’s earlier novels. I was a sort of cannibal of humor in those days, stomping with rhythmic appreciation around the kettle in which deserving targets were being fricaseed. There is a moment, toward the end of Pictures from an Institution, in which a young woman, reading “The Juniper Tree,” a tale from the Brothers Grimm, is so persuasively moved to tears that was moved to tears — I’d have hated that when I was twenty. So I suppose I held back on Jarrell until the time was right. 

Pictures from an Institution is one of those books that has its funny moments, some of them — the entire (if short) chapter, “Art Night,” for example — sublimely so. But what I treasure most is the passage about a retired (actually very ancient) lieder singer — a witty woman who is never, not for one second, a target. 

When she sang you decided that a singer does after all need a voice to sing, but you did not decide this until several minutes after she had finished singing. Even her breathing was unmistakable, so that her hearers would feel, in senseless pleasure: “Who else in all the world would have thought of breathing there?” She did what she did because there was nothing else possible to do, and when she had done it she did not know what she had done: or so you felt, hearing. this was a delusion, of course; she once talked for half an hour about Lehmann’s, Schiøtz’s and her ways of singing the song from the Dichterliebe that begins, Ich grolle nicht. (164)

By this point in the novel, having spent a good deal of time with the singer and her composer husband, you understand that, while any three singers anywhere might passionately compare performance notes, these three interpreters had taken it for granted that their ways of singing would have met with the approval of Goethe. 

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