Here’s a pleasant switch from the daily grind of awful news:
A tribute by Donna Tartt to the late Arkansas author Charles Portis is the cover article of the Sunday print edition of the New York Times. It first appeared online several days ago, but it was a nice surprise when I opened the print edition this morning.
Tartt recorded an audio version of “True Grit.” She writes admiringly (but the real treasure in the article is her detailed account of conversations with Portis over the years):
I’ve loved his work all my life — “The Dog of the South” is a family favorite, as is “Masters of Atlantis” — though the work closest to me is “True Grit,” which I recorded as an audiobook a number of years ago. I’m often asked how I came to record another author’s book; most simply, the answer is voice. I grew up hearing “True Grit” read aloud to me by my mother and my grandmother and even my great-grandmother. This was a tremendous gift, as Portis caught better than any writer then alive the complex and highly inflected regional vernacular I heard spoken as a child — mannered and quaint, old-fashioned and highly constructed but also blunt, roughshod, lawless, inflected by Shakespeare and Tennyson and King James but also by agricultural gazetteers and frilly old Christian pamphlets, by archaic dictionaries of phrase and fable, by the voices of mule drivers and lady newspaper poets and hanging judges and hellfire preachers.
Then too, the books are so funny that they cry to be read aloud. Pick up any novel by Portis and open it to any page and you will find something so devastatingly strange and fresh and hilarious that you will want to run into the next room and read it aloud to somebody. His language is precise but whimsical, understated but anarchic, and as with Barbara Pym or P.G. Wodehouse, it’s tough to communicate the flavor of it without resorting to long quotes. All readers who love Portis have lines they like to swap back and forth; and a conversation among his admirers will mostly consist of such gems — committed to memory — exchanged and mutually admired. One thinks of Dr. Buddy Casey’s lecture on the Siege of Vicksburg, which Raymond Midge, the narrator of “The Dog of the South,” plays again and again on Sunday drives and at the shaving mirror, an action that, we are given to understand, has helped to drive away his wife, Norma. Ray explains: “I had heard the tape hundreds of times and yet each time I would be surprised and delighted anew by some bit of Casey genius, some description or insight or narrative passage or sound effect. The bird peals, for instance. Dr. Bud gives a couple of unexpected bird calls in the tense scene where Grant and Pemberton are discussing surrender terms under the oak tree. The call is a stylized one — tu-whit, tu-whee — and is not meant to represent that of any particular bird. It has never failed to catch me by surprise. But no one could hope to keep the whole of that lecture in his head at once, such are its riches.”
Such too are the riches of Portis.