Monday, March 26, 2012

Literary Genes

This tale begins with my library. I love it, of course (because I’ve yet to meet a library I didn’t), but ours here is a poor relative living in a rich neighborhood—suggesting that great wealth and literary aspirations rarely coincide except in members of  the  third or fourth generation following the one that minted gold. Best sellers crowd the fiction shelves here; here and there between them one finds an old book, one of the classics—and sometimes not. In one of the branches I frequently visit while Brigitte does swimnastics, I went looking for Trollope. I found eight volumes by one Joanna Trollope but none by Anthony. Then the other day I was scanning the shelves again; I had no name in mind; I was, however, using my trusted technique: I ignore the slick-bound colorful volumes and look for something pale and old. Here’s one! I pulled it out. The title was The Old Country by Sholom Aleichem. Sholom Aleichem? Who might that be? More puzzlement followed. Julius and Frances Butwin translated this book from the Yiddish, and Frances wrote a foreword. In it she begins thus:

Years ago when Sholom Aleichem came to New York, Mark Twin was among the first to visit him. “I wanted to meet you,” he said, “because I understand that I am the American Sholom Aleichem.” History does not record the answer of the man who is called variously “the Jewish Mark Twain,” “the Jewish Dickens,” “the modern Heine.”

In the wake of these experiences I looked up these individuals—Joanna Trollope and Sholom Aleichem. And that in turn made me think that at least some part of literature might be in the genes.

Joanna Trollope (1943-) turns out to be a very popular British novelist with some twenty-eight novels to her credit, nineteen written under her own name and nine as Caroline Harvey. She is an Officer of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire, an order of chivalry; she writes OBE behind her name; the award is testimony to her literary rank and reach. Several of her works have been turned into movies and one, The Choir, into a BBC miniseries. One of the Caroline Harvey historical novels is titled Parson Harding’s Daughter. Why goodness gracious. Wasn’t Harding the lead character in Anthony Trollope’s The Warden? Well, gentle reader, it turns out that Joanna and Anthony Trollope are relatives. She is a fifth-generation niece of the famed nineteenth century postal inspector. Joanna wrote her first novel at 14; it isn’t published, was all about herself, she says, and says she keeps it locked up lest her children see it. Fine and good—but also a clear indicator of the born writer. It’s in the genes. And my annoyance at that library shelf, missing Anthony, seeing the slick volumes of someone called Joanna, must now be revised. Next time I go, I’ll check one of them out. Stick with the genes.

Oh, before I forget. Trollop’s mother, Frances (nee Milton) Trollop (1779-1863), was also a writer, predominantly a novelist, with thirty-four novels and seven nonfiction books to her credit; the first of these latter was also her first book, Domestic Manners of Americans, a book said to be acerbic and witty (like mother like son). She’d moved to America and made a name for herself here (Cincinnati)—although in old age she moved to Italy and lies buried in Florence. Milton is a common enough name—but one kind of wonders…

Sholom Aleichem is of course a pseudonym, the Yiddish rendition of shalom aleikhem. Peace be upon you. The man behind it was Solomon Rabinovich (1859-1916), an extraordinarily prolific and popular author. He began writing in Russian and Hebrew then wrote the rest of his works in Yiddish, some forty volumes! Had I not been distracted when young, I would have learned something about Tevye the Milkman, and Tevye and his Daughters, stories that, by various bounces of fate became The Fiddler on the Roof. But my theme is literary genes. Solomon’s daughter Lyalya Kaufman became a Yiddish writer; his son became a painter and teacher of the arts. Lyalya’s daughter, Bel Kaufman, wrote Up the Down Staircase, which I did read and much enjoyed in my younger years. The genes march on. Sometimes they skip a generation or two or three or five. Sometimes they don’t wait.

In my own family the best-known literary figure is my great-uncle Károly Darnay (though only known in Hungary); he wrote histories, memoires, and romances. My aunt Olga was an accomplished writer. And some of those genes even reached Ghulfdom. We are, of course, but servants of our genes—to echo a modernist. When the genes want you to take the pen in hand, can you refuse?

1 comment:

  1. Wonderful. Thanks for the info on Ms. Trollope. Some of the best writing I've ever come across was by writers "incognito" to the rest of the world of popular writing:
    Pamela Hansford Johnson (wife of C.P.Snow)is one that comes to mind. ("Night and Silence, Who Is There" is a book I've read 4 times.)

    The genealogy of "written communication" is fascinating, and even though I may have been aware of the phenom., I paid it little attention; now it seems worthy of more attention.

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