Marjorie Perloff

  • Empire Falls

    “The feuilleton,” Joseph Roth once declared to his editor at the Frankfurter Zeitung, “is just as important to the paper as its politics. . . . I don’t write ‘witty glosses.’ I paint the portrait of the age. That ought to be the job of the great newspaper.” Michael Hofmann, who has, over the past two decades, translated most of Roth’s major fiction, including his great novel The Radetzky March (1932), concurs with this boast. “Roth’s masterpieces,” he writes, “were not his novels but his feuilletons.”

    Hofmann may well be right. These topical pieces—at their best they are indeed prose poems—combine

  • The Return of the Repressed

    When was it that I stopped writing confidential and intimate letters? That I had to force myself to write letters at all? I no longer knew. When had the period of the “as if” letters begun—when I had decided to write as if no one was intercepting my mail; as if I was writing freely. . . . Could I still feel disappointment at this? Horror? Hadn’t I come to accept it? They’re succeeding, I thought. And how.

    —Christa Wolf, “What Remains”

    The unnerving title story of Christa Wolf’s What Remains tracks one day in the life of its narrator (transparently the author herself), who, like so many of

  • The Last Waltz

    IN 1914, THE AUSTRO-HUNGARIAN EMPIRE was a multicultural and polyglot entity covering 116,000 square miles. Its thirty million inhabitants included what are now Hungarians, Czechs, Slovenes, Serbs, Croats, Bosnians, and Romanians, as well as the Poles of Galicia, the Russians of the western Ukraine, and the Italians of the southern Tyrol and Trieste. By 1918, when World War I ended and the Dual Monarchy was dissolved, Vienna became the capital of a small and fragile republic that had only six million inhabitants and a territory of thirty-two thousand miles. From the hindsight of a

  • He Grew Old

    Volume 1 of The Letters of T. S. Eliot, which takes us from the poet’s childhood in St. Louis through The Waste Land, appeared in 1988, the year of Eliot’s centenary; the revised edition, meticulously edited by the poet’s widow, Valerie Eliot, this time with the help of Hugh Haughton, adds some two hundred additional letters, many of them negligible but some containing real revelations, as do the amended notes. Volume 2, more than twenty years in the making, covers only the years 1923–25. Given that Eliot was to live for another forty years, and that these first two volumes run to more than

  • Sam I Am

    In literary annals, 2009 may well go down as the year that saw the publication of not this or that novel, set of poems, or “important” theory book, but, quirkily enough, the first of four promised volumes of the letters of Samuel Beckett. As Joseph O’Neill put it in the cover story for the New York Times Book Review of April 5, “an elating cultural moment is upon us.” That sentiment has been echoed by many other reviews: In the March 11 TLS, Gabriel Josipovici takes Beckett’s letters to be, along with those of Keats and Kafka, among “the ten or twenty greatest books of their time.”

    Can a

  • Sniveling Rivalry

    On April 27, 1951, a few days before he died of cancer, Ludwig Wittgenstein completed one of his most important books, On Certainty. The previous day had been his sixty-second birthday. As Ray Monk tells it in his definitive biography,

    he knew it would be his last. When Mrs. Bevan [the wife of the doctor with whom Wittgenstein was staying] presented him with an electric blanket, saying as she gave it to him: “Many happy returns,” he stared hard at her and replied “There will be no returns.” . . . When told by Dr. Bevan

  • Necessary Deranger

    John Ashbery’s 1985 Selected Poems drew on the first thirty years of his career, from 1956’s Some Trees to 1985’s A Wave. The new Selected spans the twenty years following ’85 in roughly the same number of pages. Indeed, the volumes have a nice symmetry: Each covers ten books of poems (the most recent, A Worldly Country [2007], is not included in the new collection); each of the books in Notes from the Air: Selected Later Poems is reduced to approximately one-third of its length. Ashbery’s preference, in making these selections, has been for shorter poems: Just as the first Selected reproduces

  • Quoting Scriptures

    In the middle of the tenth century, a young Moroccan Jewish poet named Dunash ben Labrat arrived in the Andalusian city of Cordoba, then ruled by the blue-eyed caliph of Spanish-Basque descent 'Abd al-Rahmaan III. Dunash had studied in Baghdad, then considered the most spectacular city in the world, with the head of the Babylonian Jewish academy of Sura, Sa'adia ben Yosef al-Fayuumi, a man of great learning, who taught him, among other things, a keen appreciation of Arabic and its notion of fasaaha (radiance, clarity), as well as its importance for the understanding of Hebrew Scripture.