- On a Shelf
It is perhaps not surprising to learn that Anthony Rudolf, an accomplished poet, critic, translator, editor, longtime partner of the painter Paula Rego, and founder of Menard Press has over the course of his seven decades acquired an impressively massive book collection. Much more unexpected however is that, as a kind of capstone to his reading life, he has chosen to compile in a single 740 page volume, a written review of the entire collection. In Silent Conversations, Rudolf provides commentary for every book on his shelf, interweaving his thoughts and reactions as a reader with fragments of autobiography and social commentary.
Silent Conversations is that rare book equally suited to opportunistic browsing and long afternoons of immersion. The prose glides pleasingly, but also rewards careful deconstruction. Rudolf, as a poet and a translator, knows how to build with subtlety and complexity upon the rhythms of conversational speech. This enables him to convey difficult ideas with clarity and directness, and without exhausting the reader. The large volume never bores, and is often difficult to put down. Despite its fragmentary structure, it can be enjoyed in sequence, read through as one would a novel.
In an introductory paragraph, Rudolf explains: “I read because the forms of life and the structure of experience, the energy and beauty of the mind and its double, the body, are explored, incarnated, and traced in the best literature.” Dante could have lived happily in this sentence, even as it embodies concepts firmly rooted in modernity. The book abounds with such little jewels; locutions which can be read effortlessly, glossing across their prettiness without further thought, or which can instead be ruminated over and for many minutes, revealing layers.
The books in Rudolf’s collection run the full gamut of poetry, fiction, criticism, history, memoir, biography, reference, and so on a full library, in short. Each category is broken down into further subdivisions. Rudolf does not provide long-form reviews or in-depth critical analyses. Rather, each book is given an informal capsule review, which may quickly lead to a recollection of an encounter with the author, or a personal or historical note related to the subject matter. His detours are entertaining and unpredictable, revealing again and again how reading can be inextricably woven into one’s exterior life, touching upon personal relationships and social responsibilities.
While Rudolf’s political views are not the focus of the book, they come up more than occasionally. His commitments to social democracy, peace, and nuclear disarmament are, however, deeply connected to his belief that literature is the very substance of society and memory and, by extension, of social responsibility. But even at his most impassioned, one never senses that he is arguing or lecturing—rather, that he is confessing his hopes and fears, relating his personal history of involvement and activism only because it is inherently interesting. He expresses his views in a manner that invites conversation and debate rather than repels it. In a polemical world, this humility is immensely refreshing.
One of the most involving sections, “Jewish Worlds,” serves as a microcosm of the book as a whole. Or perhaps, more accurately, it is its heart. It includes subdivisions on politics, history, folklore, poetry, film, theology, fiction, and memoir, all preceded by a review of “Writings of the Disaster.” The works included here are wide-ranging, and Rudolf’s reviews of them do more than pique one’s curiosity—in the aggregate, they transform it. Rudolf writes here that “‘Jewish’ is a different kind of category, synthetic rather than analytic.” While he offers this observation to defend the porous nature of that section’s subcategories, it perfectly describes his own writing throughout the book, as well as his approach to literature in the broader sense. Analytic writing puts the subject under a microscope, seeking out ever-finer distinctions. Synthetic writing follows the opposite impulse—expansion into wider territories, broader associations and meanings, creating a whole out of parts. In this sense, Silent Conversations is a review...