Thursday, August 21, 2014

Oh there’s repristination! - or, Robert Browning roasts a porcupine

Here is where I lean on quotations I pulled from The Ring and the Book for various reasons.  It’s an instructive exercise!   I hope.

First, one example of one reason Robert Browning is difficult.  He is describing the ring in the poem’s title, how it was made:

That trick is, the artificer melts up wax
With honey, so to speak; he mingles gold
With gold’s alloy, and, duly tempering both,
Effects a manageable mass, then works:
But his work ended, once the thing a ring,
Oh there’s repristination!  Just a spirt
O’ the proper fiery acid o’er its face,
And forth the alloy unfastened flies in fume…  (I, ll. 17-24)

Word-power builders like “repristination” are regular features of Browning’s poems.  “A coinage of B’s, meaning a return to an earlier, purer state,” note on p. 263, emphasis added to make me feel better about not knowing the meaning of “repristination.”

Please review the last two lines above.  Goal #1 is to follow the rules of blank verse, to count syllables and stresses.  Goal #2 is to make the blank verse natural enough to credibly fit the character speaking the lines.  Goal # 3 is cranking up the poetic effects, like the long string of “f” words in those two lines. 

Granite, time’s tooth should grate against, not graze, -
Why, this proved sandstone, friable, fast to fly  (I, 660-1)

Or even better:

Come, here’s the last drop does its worst to wound,
Here’s Guido poisoned to the bone, you say,
Your boasted still’s full strain and strength: not so!
One master-squeeze from screw shall bring to birth
The hoard i’ the heart o’ the toad, hell’s quintessence.  (II, 1364-8)

It is possible that the more the poetic effects are laid on, the more obscure the verse becomes and the more damage is done to Goal #2, naturalness.  An entire poem or this length written this way – well, Browning could never have finished it.  Algernon Swinburne even in quite long poems is attracted to the idea that every single line must be puffed and polished to peaks of poetic perfection, and as a result he is even more obscure than Browning, at times a poet of songful gibberish, lovely, sonorous gibberish.

As interesting as the story is and as cleverly designed as the multiple perspectives are, the reader of The Ring and the Book has to enjoy the poetry, or else the enterprise if pointless.  That is what I am trying to say.

Or, if not the poetry, the recipes (Gigia is the cook):

(There is a porcupine to barbacue;
Gigia can jug a rabbit well enough,
With sour-sweet sauce and pine-pips; but, good Lord,
Suppose the devil instigate the wench
To stew, not roast him? Stew my porcupine?
If she does, I know where his quills shall stick!
Come, I must go myself and see to things:
I cannot stay much longer stewing here)  (VIII, 1368-75)

The old Joy of Cooking is with Gigia – porcupines are for stewing.  A bit earlier (ll. 535-41) there is a recipe for liver with parsley and fennel – “nothing stings / Fried liver out of its monotony / Of richness, like a root of fennel, chopped.”  How I would like this to be Browning’s comment on his poetry.  He must constantly sting his blank verse out of his monotony.  He uses every trick he’s got.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

This comes of being born in modern times - the most audacious sexual scene in Victorian literature

To recap: Robert Browning; The Ring and the Book; an antique murder story told in dramatic monologues; difficult; long; brilliant.

Most people who have read it probably had the sensible old Penguin edition, but for some reason  my library has a recent set of the Complete Works, which has its annoyances but also has rewards like this note (Vol. IX, 299):

The analogy between the death of the sage [Archimedes] and the death of innocence is a masterpiece of double entendre and innuendo.  As Altick and Loucks say, the passage “must be the most audacious sexual scene in Victorian literature.  Only a poet confident of his reputation for unintelligibility would have dared such lines.”

And bloggers whine that academic writing has no personality.

You’re maybe going to be disappointed:

As to love’s object, whether love were sage
Or foolish, could Pompilia know or care,
Being still sound asleep, as I premised?
Thus the philosopher absorbed by thought,
Even Archimedes, busy o’er a book
The while besiegers sacked his Syracuse,
Was ignorant of the imminence o’ the point
O’ the sword till it surprised him: let it stab,
And never knew himself was dead at all.
So sleep thou on, secure whate’er betide!
For thou, too, hast thy problem hard to solve –
How so much beauty is compatible
With so much innocence!  (Bk. IX, ll. 751-763)

The shocker, in more than one way, is “let it stab.”  Pompilia is the child bride who will be murdered – savagely, repeatedly knifed – by her noble husband, Count Guido.  The monologist here is, please indulge the anachronism, the prosecuting attorney, writing up his case.  Pompilia fled her husband’s mansion with the help of priest.  Subsequently, she gave birth to a son, and only after that did Guido murder her.  The paternity of the child is thus one of the factual puzzles of the book.

The prosecutor in effect becomes the defense attorney of Pompilia.  He decides that in her defense he will posit that she was raped in her sleep by the priest, a story much worse in several ways than a love affair with the priest.

Why the prosecutor thinks this is a useful argument for the conviction of the murderer is something I do not want to untangle here.  The previous book was told by the defense attorney.  The two lawyers operate in a parallel fashion.  Note that these are the eighth and ninth chapters of the novel, making them the eighth and ninth trip through the facts of the story.  By this time, with enough repetition, I was solid enough on the basic facts to enjoy how both attorneys mangle not only their opponent’s side of the story, but their own, how despite the zero-sum nature of a trial they succeed in making everyone look worse.

Able once more, despite my impotence,
And helped by the acumen of the Court,
To eliminate, display, make triumph truth!
What other prize than truth were worth the pains?  (1557-60)

Thus ends the attorney’s bravado assault on truth.  But there is a coda, not part of the brief:

There’s my oration – much exceeds in length
That famed panegyric of Isocrates,
They say it took him fifteen years to pen.
But all those ancients could say anything!
He put in just what rushed into his head:
While I shall have to prune and pare and print.
This comes of being born in modern times
With priests for auditory.  Still, it pays.  (1561-8)

Browning’s characters can be so outrageous, and the irony so complex, that I lose my way, just as I do in the complicated story.  Of course, we expect lawyers to behave this way, which I suppose is just one more irony.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

How happy those are who know how to write! - Browning's little joke - a post on The Ring and the Book

No one wants to read about it and I don’t want to write about it, but I read The Ring and the Book (1868-9) so I’m going to get some blog posts out of it.  It’s Robert Browning’s massive 21,000 line verse novel about a sensational Roman murder and trial from 1698.  Not exactly pulled from the headlines, but rather from a yellow book of documents Browning bought from an antique dealer in Florence’s Piazza della Signoria.

The problems with Browning’s “Italian murder thing” (Vol. VII, p. 261) are, to be clear: 1) length (800 pages of blank verse), 2) difficulty (it’s by Robert Browning), and 3) monotony, although much of the latter is a necessary help with the book’s difficulty.

The poem is in twelve chapters, an introduction by a narrator I will call Browning, ten dramatic monologues by participants in the case, including two by Count Guido, the murderer, and a return to Browning for a wrap-up.  Each of the characters tells the story of the murder in his (or, once, her) own words, which means that the entire story is actually repeated ten times, each time with subtle variations in detail and emphasis.  Ideally, I would I would file away every discrepancy and error with an eye to discovering the motive of the speaker, then filtering it all to piece together the True Story of the murder.

In practice, it was hard enough just keeping track of where I was in each retelling.  “Oh, this is where Pompilia meets the priest, right.”  Very useful, repetition, for the reader who is lost.

The murder story is complicated, but Browning had the right instinct, since it’s a good one.  Pompilia, all of fourteen, has been married off by her aged parents to the noble but poor Count Guido, who mistreats her.  With the help of a young priest Pompilia flees her husband.  The fugitives are captured and separated, the priest exiled, Pompilia put in a convent.  The twists start coming – e.g., Pompilia is pregnant (but by whom?) – leading to Count Guido’s murder of his child wife and her parents.  One more twist – Pompilia, a tough teenager, clings to life long enough to identify her own murderer, along with a 1,828 line dramatic monologue.  “How happy those are who know how to write!” she says in line 81, an inside joke from a poet whose specialty is speech in verse.

Anyway, thus the trial, the real-life documents, and the imagined monologues, from the murderer, the victim, the priest, lawyers for both parties, and even the Pope.

Jeanne of Necromancy Never Pays was, on her sixth anniversary, taking requests for poems.   Eying the bulk of the thing myself, I suggested The Ring and the Book – as a joke, I swear, as a joke, except that I was going to and in fact did read it. The poem’s a stunner, a great achievement, and I will do my best, or at least second-best, let’s not go nuts, to point out some of its real pleasures, despite the element of absurdity about the whole thing – to reading it, or writing about it, or, directed at Browning, having written it.

I felt, once I had finished the poem, that I was finally ready to read it, that if I turned back to the first line and began again I might be able to get somewhere.  But instead I read something else and write this.

I read The Ring and the Book in volumes VII, VIII, and IX of The Complete Works of Robert Browning, Ohio University Press, 1985-9.

Monday, August 18, 2014

I could feel my brain moving nearer and nearer to chaos - Hamsun's intensity, Hamsun's influence

Should I go into influence and literary history and all that?  I may enjoy it a little too much, but it is so important.  It helps answer the “Why this book?” question, which in turn illuminates the “What is this book?” question, always the most important question.

The puzzle is the narrowness of Hunger.  For a book of its stature and time – mainly the latter – Hunger is a narrowly focused novel.  We are used to this now.  Nothing could be more common.  But compared to the social sprawl of Trollope and Zola, or the ambitions of Buddenbrooks or Hardy, or simply the amount of incident in a Stevenson or Kipling novel, Hunger might seem like a fragment of a novel.

The action of Hunger is repetitive and trivial (the narrator sleeps in the woods or tries to sell a blanket), the social context stripped away as much as possible,*and the ambition – well, Hamsun is working through or enacting some ideas of Schopenhauer and maybe Nietzsche, so he is plenty ambitious.  Small-scope ambition, though.  One character, one setting, one problem.

What I found inescapable both when I did not know what would happen and when I reread the novel was the intensity of the narrator, of his voice or perhaps I mean his presence.  To what extent is he a genius, to what extent a lunatic? 

I snapped my pencil off between my teeth, leaped up, tore my manuscript in two, ripped every page of it in shreds, threw my hat down on the street and jumped on it.  “I am a lost man!” I whispered to myself.  “Ladies and gentlemen, I am a lost man!”  And I repeated that over and over as I went on jumping on my hat.  (Ch. 4, 224)

The narrator is imbalanced – I mean not mentally but as a fictional creation – in the way we can find in Dostoevsky.  Hamsun’s narrator is a cousin of the Underground Man and several characters from the big, sprawling, incident-filled, ambitious novels, characters like Crime and Punishment’s Raskolnikov.

 Hunger has not penetrated too far into American or English literature, but it was much read by not just Scandinavian but German and Russian writers.  Isaac Bashevis Singer claims that Yiddish and Hebrew writers like David Bergelson were influenced by Hamsun, too.  “European writers know that he is the father of the modern school of literature in every aspect – his subjectiveness, his fragmentariness, his use of flashbacks [not really present in Hunger], his lyricism” – this is I. B. Singer, in the introduction to my edition of Hunger, p. ix.  Too strong to be true, surely, but that is the idea.

Wild ideas popped up again in my head.  What if I quietly went over and cut off the mooring ropes on one of the ships?  What if I suddenly cried fire?  I walked farther out on the pier, found myself a wooden box to sit on, and folded my hands; I could feel my brain moving nearer and nearer to chaos.  I did not move this time, did absolutely nothing to prevent it.  (Ch. 4, 231)

The next page is the last one, so salvation or catastrophe is near.  I wonder if this is really what so many writers found interesting.  I do not wonder that much, actually, since I know what they were writing.  They were ready for fiction about chaos.

*   Aside from the physical setting, Christiana, which is pretty interesting.  I suspect it would be possible to track the narrator’s wanderings on a map.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

My joy overpowered me - Mr. Hunger tries to sell his buttons

Each of the four sections of Hunger escalates the narrator’s misery.  Each time he has gone without food for longer; he has a harder time finding even a scrap of money.  The structure of the chapters is repetitive, but I would guess few readers find them repetitive in practice.  The narrator’s suffering creates tension.  The fact that in each chapter his suffering gets worse is itself a source of tension.  I know, from the first sentence that the starving writer does not, in the end, starve, yet I experience something close to genuine relief when, at the end of each chapter, gets some money in his hands.

Chapter 3 violates the pattern in numerous ways, which I am ignoring.  There is a woman involved in that one, a different appetite.

In Chapter 2, the narrator has become so hungry that he decides to sell the buttons of his coat.  Or, he has become so craze with hunger that he believes he can get money for his buttons.  He has already sold everything else of value, and tried to sell everything of no value. 

The hope of selling these five buttons cheered me up instantly, and I said: “See, it’s all going to come out all right!”  My joy overpowered me, and I immediately started cutting he buttons off, one after the other.  All that time, I kept up a silent chatter with myself:

“Well, you see, a man becomes a bit pressed for money, just temporary of course….  Worn out, you say?  You mustn’t make reckless statements.  Just show me someone who wears out fewer buttons than I do. [snipping the fantasy conversation] All right, all right, go and get the police then.  I’ll wait here while you’re looking for a policeman.  And I won’t steal a thing from you…  Yes, good day! Good day!  My name is actually Tangen, I’ve been out a little too late…”  (Ch. 2, 93-4, all italics in original)

To be clear, this is one side of an imaginary conversation the narrator, whose name is not “Tangen,” is concocting while cutting buttons off his coat.  Even his fantasy ends with humiliation and even the police.

Later, more desperate, the narrator finally gives the buttons a try:

How well I knew that large basement shop, my refuge in dark evenings, my vampire friend!  One by one, all my possessions had vanished down there, the little things I had brought from home, my last book.  (110)

That, however vague, is almost the only time any mention is made of the character’s past.  No family, no education, no hometown – this all remains a blank.

“Well, I have something here, and I wanted to ask you if you had any use for – something that was really in the way at home, you understand, no room for them, some buttons.”  (110)

This is the real conversation.  The narrator is, throughout the book, an imaginative and implausible liar, lying as he does here to shield himself from humiliation. The actual pawnbroker does not call the police but does something perhaps worse.

The old pawnbroker laughed and went back to the desk without saying a word.  I stood there.  I hadn’t actually hoped for much, and yet I had thought it possible I would get something.  The laugh was a death sentence.  (111)

Yet, when I turn the page, I see that the chapter is ending and our poor hero is, by a stroke of luck and kindness, saved.

From my earlier reading, years ago, I remembered this scene with the buttons more vividly than anything else in the book.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

I was in the mood to conquer obstacles - Knut Hamsun's Hunger

Knut Hamsun, Mysteries, 1892.  I will be writing about this novel, which I have not yet read, in conjunction with Caravana de recuerdos, at the end of October.  Please, join us, anyone.  The novel is supposed to be good.

I have read Hunger (1890) and Pan (1894).  I recently reread Hunger and hope to get through Pan again before long.  The disadvantage of picking Mysteries as the joint book is that it at around 340 pages by far the longest, which is still not very long.  But Hamsun is intense, exhilarating but also exhausting.  Hunger is just over 200 pages, Pan just under.  Even a short book can feel like too much, especially when it is as concentrated as Hunger.

All of this happened while I was walking around starving in Christiana – that strange city no one escapes from until it has left its mark on him…  (first sentence, ellipses Hamsun’s)

And this is what the narrator does.  He is a freelance writer who has trouble writing,  and thus has trouble eating.  Perhaps the causality should be reversed.  Shall we watch him write?

I had taken my pencil and paper out again and was sitting mechanically writing 1848 in all the corners.  If only one good thought would rush in, then words would come!  That had happened before, I had had times when I could write out a long piece with no effort at all, and it would turn out to be first-rate besides.

I wrote 1848 twenty times, wrote it crossways and intersecting and every possible way, waiting for a usable idea to come.  (I, 32)

This is not the way to make a living writing for newspapers, especially given the narrator’s ambitions:

My courage had now returned; it was not enough any longer to write an essay on something so elementary and simple-minded as “Crimes of the Future,” which any ass could arrive at, let alone read in history books.  I felt ready for a more difficult enterprise, I was in the mood to conquer obstacles and I determined on a consideration in three parts of Philosophical Consciousness.  (I, 12)

This will involve a thorough refutation of Kant, or at least a reworking of “the problem of Space and Time” (13).  Norwegian newspapers must have been loads of fun circa 1880.

In each of the novel’s four parts, he has reached a material crisis – no food, no money, just some hope for money that will allow him to stagger forward.  The money obviously does appear at least three times, or else the novel would come to an abrupt end.  Come to think of it, unless the narrator is a ghost, that first sentence suggests that he keeps body and soul together, however tenuously.

This tension between the demands of the material world and this intellectual’s radical desire to be free of it.  He wants to exist in a state of perfect integrity, but his attempts to do so inevitably lead to violations of integrity, the most basic of which is the pain of hunger.  Few things so inescapably pull us back into the physical world as hunger.  I suppose I should be thankful that the workings of the excretory system were still taboo.  I am sure a later novelist has written that book, Hunger re-written for the bowels.

The translation is Robert Bly’s.  I have done nothing yet to make the novel sound as good or interesting as it really is.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

“It’s probably that socialism, isn’t it?” - Pelle The Conqueror, Volume 2 - suspense in starvation itself

At the end of the first volume of Pelle the Conqueror, our young hero was triumphantly, expectantly leaving the countryside for the town, farm labor for a skilled trade, and his father for independence.  In Volume II, Apprenticeship (1907), he achieves all of that but is ground back into the dirt.  At the end, he is leaving again: next stop, in Volume III, Copenhagen and who knows what else.

Behind him he had left everything, and he just kept staring forward – as if the great world might appear at any moment before the bow.  He didn’t bother to think about what was to come or how he would grapple with it – he simply longed for it!  (concluding lines)

Does the third volume end the same way, more or less?  It almost has to, doesn’t it, given that there are four volumes.  Down then up, four times.

The second part of Martin Andersen Nexø’s novel is still quite good.  The first book was better, certainly, for a number of reasons:

1.  Pelle’s father, Lasse, is a wonderful character, and by necessity there is now less of him.  Whenever he does appear, the novel perks up.  In future volumes, he is presumably gone for good.  The new minor characters are still just as good.

2.  In the middle of the bildungsroman, the story is less satisfying on its own.  The first book had a natural place to end.  I now have a dilemma.  Stephen T. Murray and Tiina Nunnally translated only the first two volumes of Pelle, so if I want to continue I will have to resort to the bowdlerized 1913 version.  But what choice do I have; I can’t stop in the middle.

3.  Maybe this is just me, but with stories like this I always find the childhood of the character more interesting than his adolescence.  This is true in Dickens, in Proust, you name it.  The authors are following an accurate model of development, where the child is working on his relationship with the outside world while the teenager becomes more self-involved and awkward.  The child’s defeats are mostly from something external, the adolescent’s from his own humiliating mistakes.

Having said that, a couple of Pelle’s most significant obstacles in Apprenticeship are also external, and an important part of his larger story, which ends, I believe, with Pelle becoming a labor organizer (Nexø was himself a Communist).

First, Pelle is now poor, perhaps poorer than he was on the farm:

There was suspense in starvation itself: were you going to die of it, or weren’t you?

Pelle was poor enough that everything lay ahead of him, and he possessed the poor man’s wide-open spirit  (68)

Nothing more material than food and its absence.  “Why should you carry on as if the world were collapsing because you didn’t have a tub of pork and a heap of potatoes to face the winter with?” (68)  Pelle has to learn how to be poor.

The other external force is industrialization.  Pelle falls into one of the worst possible apprenticeships, shoemaking, just as mass production is wiping out shoemaking as a skilled trade.

“It’s probably that socialism, isn’t it?” says Jeppe scornfully.  (126)

But Jeppe, a master shoemaker on the verge of obsolescence, has it backwards.   I am a little bit worried that Pelle the Conqueror will become more didactic – no, I mean propagandistic – as it goes along.  But so far, so good.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

It’s the mystery that’s important, somehow very important - creative Tove Jannson

To finish what I charitably call my thought, the second thing I have found to be uniquely enjoyable in the fiction of Tove Jansson is her complex understanding of creativity.  It is perhaps her great subject.

Jansson was painter, her parents were both visual artists, her brothers were artists – the subject is lifelong.

Daddy’s women are sacred.  He doesn’t care about them after they are cast in plaster, but for everybody else they are sacred.  (Sculptor’s Daughter, “Christmas,” 184)

The word “sacred” is meant ironically, which does not mean it is not true.

As soon as the Christmas tree was in the studio everything took on a fresh significance, and was charged with a holiness that had nothing to do with Art.  Christmas began in earnest.  (“Christmas,” 185)

So art is not the only source of sacredness.  Just one.

Thus the snow horse in Moominland Midwinter:

Moomintroll now saw that it was made of snow.  Its tail was the broom from the woodshed, and its eyes were small mirrors.  He could see his own picture in the mirror eyes, and this frightened him a little…

“If there only were a single soul here that I knew of old,” Moomintroll thought.  “Somebody who wouldn’t be mysterious, just quite ordinary.”  (32)

One might detect here a link with the theme of sublimity I described yesterday.  In the title story of Jansson’s 1978 collection Art in Nature, a couple has bought an abstract painting at an outdoor art fair that they insist is actually representational (and perhaps it is).  They argue about exactly what is represented.  A guard, who understands art like Jansson does, has a solution:

“Since a piece of art can be just about anything, and since we only see what we want to see, you could just not unwrap it and hang the package on the wall.  Then you won’t need to argue.”  (19)

The guard sounds like Andy Warhol, but the emphasis is actually different: he, and Jansson, are urging the viewer to match the artist in creativity.  The results don’t matter that much.

But what I said was completely right, he thought.  It’s the mystery that’s important, somehow very important.  He went and lay down in the sauna with its four bare walls.  It was nice to look at them and fall asleep without all the humdrum thoughts he was used to.

Or perhaps the couple has been bamboozled by a lunatic who likes to stare at blank walls.  But I think, rather, that he is not contradicting but reassuring Moomintroll.

It is a utopia that Jansson recommends, in which everyone is perpetually creating mystery, but it was the world she lived in, or at least created for herself.

Thomas Teal translated Art in Nature; Thomas Warburton did Moominland Midwinter.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

They "had no idea what fun the whole thing was, which served them right" - Tove Jansson's catastrophes

Tove Jansson’s 100th birthday was  August 9.  Please see the pictures posted at the NYRB Classics Tumblr (sic) to get an immediate sense of who Jansson was.  I believe they will be putting up more Jansson stuff for the centennial.  Much of what I see on Twitter is just photographs of Moomin-related coffee mugs or Japanese Moomin restaurants.  This is not what I have found interesting in Jansson’s books, the opportunity to collect mugs.

No, there are two things I have found in Jansson that are unusual.  One or both themes run through all of her work that I have read.

The first is a strong sense of the sublime.  Her books are full of catastrophes – hurricanes, tidal waves, and floods, or even the destruction of the earth by a comet (Comet in Moominland, 1946).  The date of the latter suggests that she is, in part, allegorizing the external catastrophe of World War II, but there is something else at work.  Jansson’s books are set in coastal Finland, and on little rocky islands in the Gulf of Finland.  Readers of the novel The Summer Book (1972) are likely to remember the little girl who thrills in the massive August storm that hits them, but also fears that she summoned it, that it is her storm, her possession, which is exciting, but also her fault.

In Sculptor’s Daughter (1968), a memoir from the point of view of young Tove circa age six or seven, the storm is nothing but fun.

Everything lying on the slope below the house had floated out to sea and the off-shore wind was carrying it out towards the sound and the wind was getting stronger and stronger and the water was rising higher and higher.  I was shouting with glee, too, as I waded up and down and felt the floating grass getting tangled round my legs…

And the visitors hauled on the rope and were soaked to the skin in their nightshirts and had no idea what fun the whole thing was, which served them right…

Then Daddy went out again.  Mummy poured out tea for us all.  It was the best storm we ever had.  (“High Water,” 103-4)

For example.  Or see “The Tulle Skirt,” in which a little girl crawls around in a big black skirt which creates, in a mirror, a shapeless monster with its own frightening existence, at least until Tove tires of the game.  Or try “Snow,” where the girl and her mother are alone in a big house during a long blizzard.

The snow on the ground began to slither away.  It slid in an enormous avalanche which grew and grew over the edge of the world…  oh no! oh no!

I rolled backwards and forwards on the carpet to make the horror of it seem greater, and in the end I saw the wall heave over me and the pictures hung straight out on their wires.

What are you doing? Mummy asked.  (“Snow,” 163-4)

This is all just child’s play, but of a kind Jansson kept doing in her fiction.  The chapter in the memoir parallels the earlier Moomintroll Midwinter (1957) – the Swedish title, Trollvinter, is unimprovable – in which the young Moomintroll inexplicably awakes from hibernation and experiences, for the first time, winter, which from his point of view is a kind of catastrophe, unknown and frightening, but is really just an ordinary winter.

Thus, the sense of sublimity, the aesthetic pleasure that comes fear at a distance, from danger that is real but remote or controlled.

Kingsley Hart translated Sculptor’s Daughter.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

An extension of the idea of literary sympathy bounced off of the Phineas Finn chapters about politics.

The first Palliser novel, Can You Forgive Her?, had politics in it, just a little.  It is only minimally about politics.  A reader is not asked to be particularly interested in the political activities of the characters, in what a politician in Parliament in the 1860s actually does.  One prominent character, for example, when elected to Parliament does nothing at all.

This character runs for Parliament almost as an investment, or a gamble.  Phineas Finn, the hero of the second novel in the series, has not only ambitions but beliefs and even ideas.  The political side of the novel – remembering that 70% of the book is about the love troubles of Finn and his friends – is very much about what he does in Parliament:  how he speaks and votes, what it means to be a member of a party, and what it means to work in a ministry.  In the latter, Finn’s specialty turns out to be the financing of Canadian railroads.  Trollope does, happily, spare us too much detail about that.

But he does not spare us what we might now call the wonkery of the main issue that runs through the five years covered in the book, the issue of Reform, the issue that earns its generic name, since it is so purely concerned with the functioning of politics – who has the right to vote and how much does their vote count?  In other words, as tedious a political subject as I can imagine to a reader not especially interested in politics.

I began to wonder about those readers.  However much we might flatter or delude ourselves, we can’t be interested in everything, and political reform in mid-19th century England seems like one of many reasonable places to draw a line.  I Care; I am Interested; I am Curious; I Just Can’t Bring Myself To Care.

Personally, that last category has shrunk over time.  Classical music, dance, religious painting, abstract painting, wine, fashion – at some point, thankfully long ago for many of them, something I did care about finally got a hook into the subject I did not think I would ever care about.  Often learning the history of the field helped, but sometimes it was the luck of seeing a particular performance.

By definition, because I do not care about them, it is difficult to think of subjects that still belong in the category.  From experience, one I am sure of, from going to art fairs and museums, is jewelry.  I can look at pottery with active pleasure, billing and cooing over glazes and artistic flaws, but a case of jewelry is instantly exhausting.  I need to sit down, over there, where I can’t see the jewelry.

Some of the political chapters in Phineas Finn must be, for some readers, like cases of jewelry.

Literature has the curious effect of making us care about things we do not care about, if only – often for only – the length of the work.  I care because the heroine cares; I sympathize with her so I join in with her interests.  Or I care, temporarily, because I sympathize with the implied author and want to help him out with whatever he is trying to accomplish.

If there is a well-made novel that is actually about jewelry, with lots of descriptions of jewelry, I should try to read it, just to test this idea.  Can fiction make me care even about this?

Friday, August 8, 2014

The bewildered brain of a poor fictionist - Phineas Finn's recommended course of reading

The disadvantage of reading a Trollope novel on vacation is that I take few notes and thus have forgotten where the juiciest lines are.  True of any novel, I suppose, but the plushness and repetitiveness of the Trollope works against me.  That line I want could be anywhere.

No, wait, I found this one:

He had recommended to her a certain course of reading, – which was pleasant enough; ladies like to receive such recommendations; but Mr. Kennedy, having drawn out the course, seemed to expect that his wife should read the books he had named, and, worse still, that she should read them in the time he had allocated for the work.  (Ch. 23)

I thought bookish people would enjoy it.  The “ladies like” bit is hilarious; that he “expect[s] his wife should read the books” is sublime.  The next line: “This, I think, was tyranny.”  Mr. Kennedy and his wife are newlyweds.

The main thrust of Phineas Finn is about the title character’s ambitions for his political career, but two of the side plots are about the ambitions of women, who are no less ambitious but live under much worse constraints than Finn.  The wife in the passage above, the former Lady Laura Standish, should be in parliament herself, perhaps even in place of Phineas Finn, but since that is impossible she has to direct her energy elsewhere, resulting in the terrible mistake of her marriage.  “[A] certain course of reading,” how awful.

That genial, sympathizing omniscient narrator is fairly restrained in Phineas Finn, a younger, high-spirited Trollope having purged most of his meta-fictional impulses way back in Barchester Towers, although there is one glorious eruption in Finn, when Trollope feels he needs to move into forbidden territory and write up a meeting of Cabinet Ministers:

And now will the Muses assist me while I sing an altogether new song?  On the Tuesday the Cabinet met at the First Lord's official residence in Downing Street, and I will attempt to describe what, according to the bewildered brain of a poor fictionist, was said or might have been said, what was done or might have been done, on so august an occasion.  (Ch. 29)

Trollope says that he, “[t]he poor fictionist,” the “strictly honest fictionist,” is used to getting things wrong (“He catches salmon in October; or shoots his partridges in March”) and suffering the rough correction of critics, but when dealing with, for example, legal matters he at least has lawyer friends from whom he can ask advice.  He does not know anyone in the Cabinet, so he just has to make up the whole thing.

But then, again, there is this safety, that let the story be ever so mistold, – let the fiction be ever so far removed from the truth, no critic short of a Cabinet Minister himself can convict the narrator of error.

A fortuitous result of this meta-fictional fussing is that the chapter is the most finely described scene in the novel, the only one where Trollope describes the furniture, including the “certain papers which lay upon a side-table, – and which had been lying there for two years, and at which no one ever looked or would look.”  Soon enough, the scene shifts to an all-talk format, but not until the imaginative hard, fun work has been done.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Mr. Clarkson was fond of poking fires - specific Phineas Finn

Phineas Finn was in one significant way the weakest of the mere nine Anthony Trollope novels I have read.  Twenty-plus years and twenty-plus novels into his career, with Phineas Finn Trollope comes close to abandoning any kind of physical or sensory description of the world of his novel.  He takes it all for granted – the clothes, the furniture, the arrangement of rooms, even the appearance of characters.

Yet there is a huge mass of detail, as in the novel’s first two sentences:

Dr. Finn, of Killaloe, in county Clare, was as well known in those parts, – the confines, that is, of the counties Clare, Limerick, Tipperary, and Galway, – as was the bishop himself who lived in the same town, and was as much respected. Many said that the doctor was the richer man of the two, and the practice of his profession was extended over almost as wide a district.

The paragraph continues with information about Dr. Finn’s reputation, family (Phineas Finn, the novel’s hero, is his only son), pecuniary history, and his favorite cliché.  Every detail except perhaps the last is not sensory and immediate but social.  The information the reader needs is how characters exist in relation to each other: status, wealth, power, and attitude.  A scene is then a passage in which these bundles of status, attitude, etc., by which I mean characters, are arranged in varying configurations so that they can converse.  A scene in Phineas Finn is almost all talk – chatter, flirting, debate, advice.  Everything important is between quotation marks.

There are few exceptions.  Phineas has been visited by an unpleasant bill-broker who commandeers the fire:

“I can pay no part of that bill, Mr. Clarkson.”

“Pay no part of it!” and Mr. Clarkson, in order that he might the better express his surprise, arrested his hand in the very act of poking his host's fire.

“If you'll allow me, I'll manage the fire,” said Phineas, putting out his hand for the poker.

But Mr. Clarkson was fond of poking fires, and would not surrender the poker.  “Pay no part of it!” he said again, holding the poker away from Phineas in his left hand.  (Ch. 21)

In most scenes in Phineas Finn, the characters might as well be disembodied word balloons.  Lots of writers do that kind of thing well.  And that is setting aside the times, increasingly frequent as the novel nears its ends, when the conversations turn into debates about the duties of a parliamentarian or the role of the wife in a marriage.  These passages are period pieces, artistically null.

The poker scene should make it clear that I am not demanding dazzle, nothing like the elaborate descriptions of pumpkins and cheeses I can find in an Émile Zola novel, but rather a sense of imaginative integration of character, language, scene, and action, like when the traveling salesman in Orley Farm springs onto a painted table.  This is close to what I think of as the finest, rarest kind of fictional art.  I am also skeptical of Zola’s baroque lists, which go to the other extreme.  And there are, of course, other kinds of fictional art, many kinds, some of which can be found in Phineas Finn.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

In France I read Phineas Finn

Since I went to Europe, I read a Trollope novel.  No, there is no logic there, but it has become a pattern.  Phineas Finn (1867-8), the second book in the Palliser series, was the novel I took this time.  The book is well suited to reading in interrupted chunks, a chapter or a serialized cluster of chapters at one sitting.  I can take advantage of Trollope’s repetitions, which in mass can be maddening, but with some distance I don’t mind the gentle reminders – where was that character’s last scene, how did we leave that subplot?

Trollope is always careful about the passage of time in his novels, keeping all of the characters and threads consistent, which I suspect I find psychologically helpful.  It is easier to put the book down for the day when I come to a “time passes” transition.  Let some actual time can pass along with the fictional.  And more time passes in Phineas Finn than in any other Trollope novel I have encountered.  A Barchester novel might cover five months; Phineas Finn needs five years.  So there are plenty of breaks.

The title character is young, smart, and handsome.  He falls in with a powerful set who assist him, with the help of a lucky accident, to become a Member of Parliament at age twenty-five.  Finn has talent but little money, and this is a time when the MPs had no salary, so a central surface theme of the book is how a successful career in politics can be pursued without money.  In reality, the main theme is how such a career can work for a young man without sex.  The bulk of the book is about Finn’s romantic troubles: who should he marry, who can he marry?  Some of those women have their own money, tying the two ideas together.

I am joking, just a bit, but this story could not work in a French novel.  M. Finn would have an affair with his maid or the wife of the Minister under whom he serves, and thus carry on his political work without distraction.  The Irish Finn, who has no other outlet, falls deeply in love with, it seems, every young woman he meets.

My guess is that 70% of the book is about Finn and women, 30% about politics and vocation.  Many readers likely find that ratio to be unbalanced, with much too much detail about the minutiae of offices, political intrigues, and colonial policy towards western Canada.  I would not have minded a shift the other way, with a little less romantic stuff.

Somewhere – if I  could only remember where – I read an anecdote about Trollope coming to breakfast – he wrote every day before breakfast – and announcing that he had just written his fiftieth – or more likely his five hundredth – proposal scene.  Phineas Finn by itself has at least eight (8) proposal scenes involving a total of two men and four women.  Five of the proposals involve Finn.  The other three are all between the same couple, the man proposing to the same woman repeatedly.  One of the proposals comes after she has accepted him.  That is a lot of proposal scenes, although I guess I exaggerated when I said there were five hundred.  Fifty novels, eight proposals per novel, so that’s four hundred tops.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Back from France - some notes

When I have returned from long vacations I have had trouble writing, so this will be a shallow, digressive post about minor bookish aspects of my trip, designed more to rev up the word-generating machine more than to make a point.  Why would anyone want to read such a thing?  Follow that logic, though, and it’s the end of book blogging; extend the argument a bit more and it’s the death of criticism; then follows literature, the humanities in general, and, finally, civilization.  Working backwards, reading this post is a defense of civilization.

In a related attempt to defend civilization, France has a law banning the discounting of books, in effect protecting bookstores and publishers at the expense not just of French Amazon but also many book buyers.  One result of the law is more and better bookstores, marvelous bookstores, like Le Bal des Ardents or Librarie Passages in Lyon, the latter recommended to me by Emma of Book around the Corner, or the larger, deeper, crowded Librarie Kleber in Strasbourg.

I emerged from these stores weeping, or saying I was weeping, since I just meant it metaphorically.  How I would love to live near such a store.  With the books in English, I mean.

New topic.  We plan our travel loosely.  I knew we would be in Auvergne, the mountainous region in the center of France, but I did not know that we would visit Le Puy-en-Velay.  When I began to read The Child by Jules Vallès, the 1878 comic autobiographical novel about the abuse the author received at home and at school, I did not know that it was set in Le Puy-en-Velay.  Yet it is, and we in fact did spend a couple of days there, so I found I had directly if inadvertently prepared for my travels.

The town has some distinctive features:

The image is borrowed from Wikipedia.  On the left is an 11th, or really 14th, century church topping a pillar of volcanic rock.  On the right is the old city and its cathedral, the original starting point for the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela.  In the center is a colossal statue of the Virgin Mary planted on an even taller volcanic pillar.  The statue is made of melted Russian cannons.  Many of the tourists, including me, clamber up each of the pillars.  Many others seem to be happy to see them from below.

Vallès mentions almost nothing distinctive about the town.  Streets are steep, and at one point he mentions the unmistakable smell of the mold used by the blue cheese makers. Why doesn’t he mention that giant red statue?  Well, it did not appear until 1860, long after Vallès had moved elsewhere.  How about that aerial church - it was there?  Now I know the answer – he would almost never have seen it from any of his typical vantage points in the dense walled town.

Le Puy-en-Velay comes off well enough in The Child that the town can easily embrace him.  Vallès’s misery was not their fault.  Signs mentioned him frequently.  This square contained the market described in the book; here is the street where he lived and the hospital, previously a church and a revolutionary meeting hall, where he was born.  I had not gone looking for Vallès, yet there he was, and there I was, accidentally ready to meet him.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Goncourt in Paris - that reddish, burnt-paper black of present-day crowds

How about some Paris, via the Goncourt journals.  The Universal Exhibition of 1889 is opening!

A mauve sky, which the illuminations filled with something like the glow of an enormous fire – the sound of countless footsteps creating the effect of the rushing of great waters – the crowds all black, that reddish, burnt-paper black of present-day crowds – a sort of intoxication on the faces of the women, many of whom were queuing up outside the lavatories, their bladders bursting with excitement – the Place de la Concorde an apotheosis of white lights, in the middle of which the obelisk shone with the rosy colour of a champagne ice – the Eiffel Tower looking like a beacon left behind on earth by a vanished generation, a generation of men ten cubits tall.  (6 May, 1889).

The strangeness of the Eiffel Tower is certainly hard for me to imagine now.  In the next entry, Goncourt is dining on its platform with “the Zolas, etc.” where “we were afforded a realization, beyond anything imaginable on ground level , of the greatness, the extent, the Babylonian immensity of Paris, with odd buildings glowing in the light of the setting sun with the colour of Roman stone, and among the calm, sweeping lines of the horizon the steep, jagged silhouette of Montmartre looking in the dusty sky like an illuminated ruin.”  (2 July, 1889)

These novelists and their light effects.  Goncourt has become a tourist in his own city.  After this, the passage turns to less pleasant topics, so I will skip all that except for this one magnificent line: “And he [Zola] finished his sentence by squeezing his nose, which in the grip of his sensual fingers took on the appearance of a piece of indiarubber.”

Montmartre presumably looked especially ruinous because of the ongoing, endless, construction of Sacré-Cœur Basilica, the monument to the crushing of the Commune in 1871.  The passages of the Goncourt journals describing the Siege of Paris and the Commune are extraordinary, although the subject does most of the work.  Jules de Goncourt died just before the start of the Prussian War, which was oddly helpful in distracting Edmond from his grief.  He has lost interest in literature, temporarily, but he is intensely interested in his horsemeat ration and the shells crashing around his house.  And if the Siege is bad, the civil war is worse. 

There is smoke everywhere, the air smells of burning and varnish, and on all sides one can hear the hissing of hose-pipes.  In a good many places there are still horrible traces of the fighting: here a dead horse; there, beside the paving-stones from a half-demolished barricade, a peaked cap swimming in a pool of blood…  Behind the burnt-out theatre, the costumes have been spread out on the ground: carbonized silk in which, here and there, one catches sight of the gleam of golden spangles, the sparkle of silver.  (29 May, 1871)

See, the light; novelists cannot help themselves.  One more entry, from a two weeks later.

Dined this evening with Flaubert, whom I had not seen since my brother’s death.  He has come to Paris to find some information for his Tentation de Saint Antoine.  He is still the same, a writer above all else.  This cataclysm seems to have passed over him without distracting him for one moment from the impassive making of books.  (10 June, 1871)

I will be back from France in early August, well-fed and refreshed.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

The Goncourts on Flaubert - his style, his innovations, his jam jars

The issue with the Goncourt brothers and Gustave Flaubert is that all three writers were working on related aesthetic problems, and the Goncourts in some sense got to them first, with their first novel published in 1851, five years before Madame Bovary began to be serialized.  Yet it was Flaubert who was immediately understood to be an innovator; it was Flaubert who attracted disciples; it was always Flaubert.

Now, it is possible that Edmond de Goncourt was simply mistaken about exactly how critics were differentiating between Flaubert and the Goncourts, or it is possible that he was exactly right, except that what later critics, those writing now, for example me, value in Flaubert is not the same thing critics at the time valued; in other words, we can all be right.  This is one of the benefits of the humanities.  Or maybe the Goncourt novels really are second-rate compared to those of Flaubert and his disciples Zola and Maupassant.  It is as if there is not enough room in English for four French writers sharing a period and style.

I don’t know.  I should read a Goncourt novel someday and see for myself.

Anyway, that is the source of a passage like this:

Nowadays, among literary writers, style has become so affected, so selective, so eccentric as to make writing practically impossible.  It is bad style to place fairly close to one another two words beginning with the same syllable; it is bad style to use the word of twice in the same expression, and so on and so forth.  Poor Cladel, a victim of this modern malady of perfectionism, has just started rewriting for the fifth time a novel in which he has not yet reached page sixty.  (3 March, 1875)

Léon Cladel (1835-92), “novelist”; your guess is better than mine.  This is the result of everyone imitating Flaubert rather than Goncourt, although Goncourt does single out “the nebulous Mallarmé,” “a madman madder than the rest,” and Mallarmé ain’t Flaubert’s fault.

The argument goes back twenty years:

After that [an argument about metaphors] a tremendous argument over assonance, which Flaubert said had to be avoided even if it took a week to eliminate a single example.  The Flaubert and Feydeau started discussing a thousand different recipes for style and form, pompously and earnestly explaining little mechanical tricks of the trade, and expounding with childish gravity and ridiculous solemnity ways of writing and rules for producing good prose.  They attached so much importance to the clothing of an idea, to its colour and material, that the idea became nothing but a peg on which to hang sound and light.  We felt as if we were listening to an argument between grammarians of the Byzantine Empire.  (11 April, 1857)

That last simile is so good I am doubly tempted by a Goncourt novel, but I am warned away by the suggestion that they might possibly have ideas in them.   But of course I am a disciple of Flaubert.

Regardless, this is sublime:

Flaubert makes himself out to be the most extravagant and careless of men when it comes to handling money; but in fact he has no tastes to indulge, never buys anything, and has never been known to allow a sudden whim to make a hole in his pocket.  Flaubert makes himself out to be the most extraordinary of innovators in matters of interior decoration; but in fact the only idea he has had so far has been to use jam-jars as flower-vases, something of which he is inordinately proud.  (3 May, 1873)

On the one hand, see what I said above, on the other, I don’t care, I want this to be 100% true.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

He is a master of the art of poisoning with praise - rummaging through the journals of the Goncourt brothers

Soon I will be in France.  Thus some rummaging in Pages from the Goncourt Journals, the 1962 Robert Baldick edition of the enormous journals of brothers and novelists Edmond and Jules de Goncourt.  I have no idea what or how much Baldick omitted.  About 40% of this book, covering 1851 through 1870, is written by “we,” until Jules becomes too ill to continue and the journals belong to Edmond alone.  Jules dies; Edmond lives until 1896, the journal ending just twelve days before his death.

I have never read a Goncourt novel, although they sound like the kind of thing I like.  I don’t know how much they are read anymore, in France, I mean.  I just read the journals, abridged.  What is in them?

1.  Gossip, literary gossip.  The Goncourts knew almost everyone in French literature, over the course of a couple of generations of writers.  Going by the number of entries in the index, they spend the most time with, or at least writing about:

Émile Zola
Gustave Flaubert
Alphonse Daudet
Charles-Augustin Sainte-Beuve
Théophile Gautier
Victor Hugo

And scores of others in cameo appearances – Turgenev, Degas, Sand, Dumas father and son, Huysman, Mallarmé, Manet, Verlaine, Maupassant, Baudelaire, Swinburne.  A number of people on whom Proust characters are considered to be “based,” whatever that means.  They never met or mention Rimbaud or Corbière, but otherwise I think they knew everyone I had ever heard of.

That, in fact, is Saint-Beuve’s greatest and perhaps only conversational skill – savage criticism in the guise of support.  He is a master of the art of poisoning with praise.  (11 April, 1864)

Maybe a little self-description there.  The Goncourts make everyone look awful, including themselves.  No, Turgenev comes out all right.  Otherwise, the book is a chronicle of backbiting, jealousies, pointless feuds, and highly incisive and accurate insults.  Readers who insist on liking writers, personally liking them, should retain their illusions and avoid the journals.

2.  Literary insight.  Many of these writers held regular salons and dinners.  They often talked shop, perhaps especially while Flaubert was in attendance.  They – well, he, Flaubert – said all sorts of brilliant things about the art of fiction, or at least Flaubert’s fiction, that the Goncourts wrote down.  They have some insights of their own, too.  All of this has been plundered by later critics and biographers.

Dinner at the Café Riche with Flaubert, Zola, Turgenev, and Alphonse Daudet.  A dinner of men of talent who have a high opinion of each other’s work, and one which we hope to make a monthly occasion in the winters to come.

We began with a long discussion on the special aptitudes of writers suffering from constipation and diarrhoea; and we went on to talk about the mechanics of the French language.  (14 April, 1874)

Deep, deep insights.

3.  Paris.  Literary Paris, ordinary Paris, the streets, the theaters.  It’s a great Paris book.  Goncourt is superb on the Prussian war, the Siege of Paris, and the uprising of the Commune.  This is Edmond – the previous year of the journal is a moving account of the degeneration and death of Jules.  It is a tragic sequence – illness, death, grief, then the long list of shocks and horrors of the war – and also a fine piece of writing.

Three major topics and two days left before I leave for France.  That ought to do it.  I believe this book qualifies for Dolce Bellezza’s Paris in July event.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

What an event! - the baby in The House of Ulloa

Litlove, of Tales from the Reading Room, was reading a particularly male novel and had this amusing feeling:

I was also feeling incorrigibly feminine, and rather wishing that someone, in either of these novels, would have a baby or go shopping or need to sit down and speculate on another person’s emotions.

For all of their supposed realism and attention to the world around them, how many babies are there in 19th century fiction?  In L’Assommoir, baby Nana vanishes until she is old enough for Zola to find her interesting.  The House of Ulloa, though, has a baby, and what a baby:

The pink, waxen face; the moist, toothless mouth, like a pale coral taken from the sea; the tiny feet, whose heels were red from continuous and graceful kicking…  To this soft bun that still seemed to retain the gelatinous texture of the protoplasm, that lacked self-consciousness and lived only for physical sensations, the mother attributed sense and knowledge.  (Ch. 18)

That first line is from the point of view of the mooncalf priest “who had seen only chubby cherubs on altarpieces [and] limited knowledge of child nudes,” while the second, in a rare move, has shifted over to the mother.  The limited point of view in Emilia Pardo Bazán’s novels is almost always male – the priest, the lunkhead nobleman, and throughout the climax of the novel, an eight year-old boy who sees everything the reader needs to round off the novel, including a murder.  The baby features prominently; the climatic chapter actually ends with a struggle for the soft bun.

A page after the passage I quoted, the baby pees on the priest – “What an event!”  Other parts of the novel describe childbirth and nursing in ways that would be unlikely in Victorian novels, which are not allowed to get too earthy.  Zola was insistent on the importance of first-hand knowledge, of research.  Perhaps I see here a writer with her own expertise.

There is an outstanding baby, I should mention, in The Haunted Man and the Ghost’s Bargain, the otherwise nearly unreadable Charles Dickens Christmas novella of 1848.

Let’s see, what else does Pardo Bazán write about?  It’s not all babies.  She’s good with a kind of parody Gothic:

In the shadows of this almost underground place, among the clutter of old junk left to the rats, the leg of a table sketched a mummified arm, the sphere of a clock became the white face of a corpse, and a pair of riding boots that stuck out among rags and papers and was eaten away by insect evoked the fantasy of a man assassinated and hidden there.  (Ch. 20)

Maybe a tiny bit of foreshadowing there.

Pardo Bazán’s vocabulary can be surprising.  The first thing the translator does is apologize – don’t blame me, he says.  A long ride on a horse “had disjointed every one of his sacroiliac bones” (Ch. 1).  The dinner after a hunt is “the time for cynegetic anecdotes, and most of all for lies” (Ch. 21).  The word “cynegetic” (“of or relating to hunting”) shows up three times.  Pardo Bazán’s language creates an ironic distance.  She and her educated audience are in Madrid, studying the curious folkways of the Galician rustics.

A couple of chapters about local politics move too far away from the important characters.  They should have been told from the point of view of the priest, or the nobleman, neither of whom would have understood what the heck was going on, which is my point.  That would have made for better comedy.  Once that episode is over, the novel wraps up in a satisfying way – see above, eight year-old, witnesses a murder, etc.

Thanks to Ricardo and Stu for Spanish Literature Month!

Monday, July 14, 2014

flesh and blood in excess - The House of Ulloa by Emilia Pardo Bazán

I’ve got one last entry for Spanish Literature Month, the 1886 novel The House of Ulloa by Emilia Pardo Bazán.  My understanding is that is Spain this is and has always been a much-read book, of similar stature as Clarín’s La Regenta (1884-5) and Benito Pérez Galdós’s Fortunata y Jacinta (1886-7).  In the edition I read, translated by Roser Caminals-Heath, the novel is 260 pages long, compared to the 800 plus pages of each of those other two novels, so the Pardo Bazán is the easier one to deal with is what I am suggesting.

Look at those dates.  What a burst of books.

In The House of Ulloa a young, nitwit priest joins a noble household in the Galician countryside, where he is shocked by the young Marquis’s mistress and illegitimate son, as well as by the decay of the chapel, house, and entire way of life. He makes attempts at improvement; some succeed, some fail.   The priest has “an aversion to purely material things” (Ch. 6), a handicap in a Naturalist novel.

Pardo Bazán had absorbed her French neighbors pretty well, Zola and Flaubert and Balzac, so the novel is written with their bundle of tricks – a lot of good descriptive writing, a mostly limited point of view that freely moves among the characters, and a strong sense of how ordinary life functions underneath whatever excitement might be occurring in the plot.

Something like this, the description of an enormous uncle:

Constricted to a sedentary life, he clearly had flesh and blood in excess and did not know what to do with them.  Without being exactly obesity, his corpulence spread in all directions: each foot was like a boat, each hand like a carpenter’s hammer.  He suffocated in formal dress, did not fit in small rooms, panted loudly in a theater seat, and at mass elbowed his neighbors  to conquer more space.  A magnificent specimen suited for mountain life and the warfare of feudal days, he wasted away pathetically in the vile idleness of the city, where he who produces nothing, teaches nothing, and learns nothing is good for nothing and does nothing.  (Ch.9)

Nothing here would have seemed too out of place in the Zola novels I have read.

One reason to read a novel like this, even one less well written than Ulloa, is that it has an interesting, unusual setting.  The Galician mountains, Santiago de Compostela – where else can I read about these people, and these places?  Every place and every time should have its own Balzac, its own Trollope, its own novel of The Way We Live Now.

The House of Ulloa frequently reminded me of several different Eça de Queirós novels, the ones set in the countryside of northern Portugal, like The Sin of Father Amaro (1875) which also stars a young priest, or The Noble House of Ramires (1900), with another old aristocratic house in decay.  But Galicia borders Portugal; Pardo Bazán’s characters are practically neighbors with Eça’s.  This was not much of an insight.  Yet here I am, typing it out.

While I am wandering, readers of Tirso de Molina’s The Trickster of Seville may remember that one of the noblemen in that 17th century play was from the Ulloa family.  The name could hardly have a better literary pedigree.

I guess I’ll save the baby for tomorrow.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

when you recognize fire, say wherefore you yearn - some poems of Alexander Vvedensky

The book is An Invitation for Me to Think, a collection of the avant-garde poems of Alexander Vvedensky, the second of the NYRB Poets series.  Miguel Hernández led me not to another Spanish poet, but to a book that looks the same, but with a blue cover rather than green.

The two poets do share one terrible similarity.  Vvedensky died in 1941, just six months before Hernández, while being transported between prisons.  He was born in 1904, so he made it to age 37, while Hernández died at 31.  Vvedensky is closely associated with the somewhat better known poet Daniil Kharms (1905-42).  Died in prison, yes.  Their crime was, essentially, writing avant-garde poems.

Vvedensky and Kharms were in the cohort of poets after the Stray Dog Cabaret group, poets like Mayakovsky and Akhmatova, so I can see why they thought that the new regime tolerated and maybe even encouraged experimental literature.  They would have grown up in that little window when it was true.  They missed the moment when the window closed, or perhaps it was too late, experimental poetry was ingrained.  They both actually made their living writing children’s literature.

Vvedensky as a language poet, and is thus obviously untranslatable in some key way.  Not in other ways, though.  This is from a late poem, “Elegy” (1940):

With envy I look at beasts,
I trust neither thoughts nor words,
our minds have suffered a loss,
there’s no reason to struggle.
We apprehend all as a fall,
even the day the dream the shadow,
and even the buzz of music
won’t escape the abyss.

The poem is a cry of despair, a survey of the ruins.  It is an apology for poetry:

No swans above the festive boards
flap the white pinions of their wings,
together with bronze eagles
trumpeting hoarsely.
Eradicated inspiration
now visits for almost no duration,
orient yourself death by death,
singer and poor horseman.

The translator informs me that “Elegy” is, as is fitting for a poem about poetry, crammed with references to other poems.  Maybe even in English I can catch a glimpse of Pushkin in there; otherwise, I will take his word for it.

In an earlier prose piece, from “The Gray Notebook” (1932-3), Vvedensky is explicit about why he writes like he does:

The era of verbs is ending right in front of our eyes.  In art, plot and action are vanishing.  Those actions that exist in my poems are illogical and useless, they already can’t be called actions.  Of a person who used to put on a hat and walk outside, we used to say: he walked outside.  This was meaningless.  The word walked, an incomprehensible word.  But now: he put on his hat and it was getting light and the (blue) sky took off like an eagle.  (75)

There is a terrible irony here.  The Soviets , who could not understand what he wrote, accused Vvedensky of hiding anti-Soviet messages in his poems.  But Vvedensky wrote the way he did because he feared there was nothing in poems at all.

from The Meaning of the Sea

to make everything clear
live backwards
take walks in the woods
tearing off hair
when you recognize fire
in a lamp a stove
say wherefore you yearn
fire ruler of the candle
what do you mean or not
where’s the cabinet the pot

And so on for a couple more pages.  There is no logical stopping place, but rather a series of continuing associations based on image and arbitrary aspects of language, of which rhyme, which the translator keeps in various ways, is just the most familiar.  A lot of Vvedensky’s poems look like this one; then again, many do not.

The poems are translated by Eugene Ostashevsky and Matvei Yankelevich, both poets themselves who have translated other anthologies and collections featuring Vvedensky and his circle.  This would be a great little project, reading more of these poets, if it were not too overwhelmingly depressing that they are all senselessly murdered.