I admit that I started out this book with mixed feelings and a hefty dose of suspicion. Do you want the good news or the bad news? Let’s start with the good news; good news is always nice. Here: The Anthologist is about poetry. Paul Chowder, the narrator, is a poet, and he spends a lot, maybe most, of the book talking about meter and rhyme and the way rhythm is stuck in our brains and bodies, and how important poetry and lyrics are to us whether we know it or acknowledge it or not, whether we ever read poetry deliberately or not. He talks about his favorite poets (even the dead ones) as if they might show up in his yard at any time and ask for a beer. He quotes Dryden and Swinburne and Tennyson, sure, but he also quotes Ogden Nash and Ludacris. He’s not choosy (except that he loathes and I mean capital Loathes Ezra Pound.) These are good reasons to read this book. It feels a lot like Stephen Fry’s The Ode Less Travelled, except in novel form; it’s charming and convincing, and it makes you want to read more poetry, especially by the poets you haven’t encountered yet.
I was suspicious because, in general, Nicholson Baker doesn’t write novels I want to read. Vox, a book about phone sex, has a premise that doesn’t really appeal to me; The Fermata, a book about a man who can stop time in order to undress and/or have sex with women, even less. Also, you know how Jenny reads the end before she reads the middle? I picked up The Anthologist, trying to determine whether I wanted to try it, given Baker’s track record, and read this piece in the middle:
As I drove I thought, no, it really wasn’t that Whitman killed rhyme, it was that Jules Laforgue translated Whitman into French. The translating exoticized him, and then one day Laforgue wrote Gustave Kahn and said, Gustave, my frère, I forgot to rhyme. Because remember, a lot of French free verse is only sort of free. It rhymes and it scans, it just doesn’t follow the superstrict rules that Boileau laid down back in the day. But we aren’t really conscious of the traditionalism of the French symbolists because French vers libre in English prose translation doesn’t rhyme. The death of rhyme is really all about translation. Everybody started wanting to write poetry that sounded like a careful, loving prose version of some sweet-voiced balladeer from a faraway land. Everybody read the prose in their own language, and then they imagined the glorious versificational paradise that they didn’t inhabit but that was glimmering greenly there in the original. The imagined rhyme-world was actually better and more lyrical than if they had the original poem in the original language with the actual rhyme scheme in front of them.
I don’t know if you see what I mean, but I kind of squinted at this. It’s what a friend of mine calls clever-clever. Here’s old Nicholson Baker having a lot of fun talking about translation and vers libre and so forth, and he’s also having a lot of fun with the language, and it’s a lot of fun to read, too. But I’m not actually sure it’s any good, and it’s so full of sweeping generalizations and so utterly without signposts that it’s not really true, either.
Paul, the narrator, is a rambling, digressive fellow, which I understand is Baker’s thing: he sacrifices narrative for the minutiae of one person’s mind. This is the narrative of someone who needs to write an introduction to an anthology of poetry, but who is so utterly blocked that his girlfriend has left him over it, and who is now simply rambling about meter and rhyme and blueberry-picking and his neighbors’ activities and Louise Bogan’s letters and the importance of Swinburne to the poetic landscape. The book is his gently opinionated, self-deprecating blather, trying to woo his girlfriend back and get his introduction written.
This book isn’t great. It’s okay. The parts about poetry are sometimes pretty good, and sometimes they’re kind of pretentious; the parts about Paul’s girlfriend are sometimes nice, and sometimes they’re pretty self-pitying and blind to any normal relationship dynamics. I liked the book more than I thought I would, given my deep suspicion about Nicholson Baker, and that’s saying quite a bit. I might recommend reading poets more than I’d recommend this novel, though. Try Mary Oliver and Louise Bogan and James Fenton first, and Jules Laforgue, why not.