Russell Edson Denise Levertov - Essay

Denise Levertov

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Russell Edson is one of those originals who appear out of the lonesomeness of a vast, thronged country to create a peculiar and defined world. Seen as through the wrong end of a spyglass, miniscule but singularly clear, this world within a world of his is one in which 'things'—chairs, cups, stones or houses—may be immobile but are not inanimate, and therefore experience solitude and suffering; where animals are unlikely to be dumb; and where man is often essentially immobilized by the failure to communicate. There is interaction but no interrelation. The inanimate before the animate, a child before his parents, man before woman, the eye before the world of appearance, each is alone….

[While The Very Thing That Happens] can be opened anywhere it can also be read as a sequence that begins with marriage as a story of mutual destruction and leads through the deformation of offspring to the wanhope possible escape of the survivors. (p. v)

The themes sound grim, and they are; yet many of the stories are at the same time wildly funny. It's as if King Lear had been written and illustrated by Edward Lear. The violence in Lear's limericks, his persistent use of words like bash and smash to describe what happens to protagonists, surely expresses a desperation of similar quality to that pervasive desperation of Edson's world, in which the persons are rarely said to speak, but, quite casually, scream their conversation (their expressive non sequiturs seeming strangely kin to the virtuoso candor of the conversationalists created by Miss Compton-Burnett). Edson's mode is detached, oblique, austere. He is able to pass without loss of grace from the hilarious to a kind of dark gothic beauty, and sometimes to a tenderness that reveals him as no cruel puppetmaster but the anguished beholder of inexplicable cruelties. His art—its syntax, its elegant dryness, its bizarre condensed events—is the unique outgrowth of an eccentric imagination, the convoluted shell of the mind's hypersensitive, clairvoyant snail. (p. vi)

Denise Levertov, in her introduction to The Very Thing That Happens by Russell Edson (copyright © 1964 by Russell Edson; reprinted by permission of New Directions Publishing Corporation), New Directions, 1964, pp. v-vi.