Thursday, July 2, 2015

Sea-satiate, bruised with buffets of the brine - Swinburne goes swimming

Vacation Friday; lucky me; no post.

My last Algernon Swinburne post was about his two remarkable sea poems from 1880.  I incidentally mentioned some funny stuff from Swinburne’s letters about his 1882 epic poem in rhyming couplets, a version of the Arthurian story of Tristram and Iseult called Tristram of Lyonesse, which approaches the unreadable – I do not understand why the editors of Major Poems and Selected Prose (2004, Yale UP) included the entire thing – but it has two spectacular long passages in which Tristram goes swimming in the sea.

… the glad wave gladdens, and the light
Sees wing and wave confuse their fluttering white,
So Tristram one brief breathing-space apart
Hung, and gazed down; then with exulting heart
Plunged: and the fleet foot round a joyous head
Flashed, that shot under, and ere a shaft had sped
Rose again radiant, a rejoicing star,
And high along the water-ways afar
Triumphed…            (IV, ll. 103-11)
…  happier for the imperious toil,
Swam the knight in forth of the close waves’ coil,
Sea-satiate, bruised with buffets of the brine,
Laughing, and flushed as one afire with wine  (ll. 117-20)

This bit is only forty lines long; the second is a hundred and fifty, pure indulgence by the poet, a chance to “taste / the rapture of its rolling strength” (VIII, 520-1).  The scene does tie into the story in that the rough sea prefigures Tristrams’s death.  The poem ends with a glance back to “By the North Sea,” with the shared cliff-top tomb of Tristram and Isolde falling into the sea,

And over them, while death and life shall be,
The light and sound and darkness of the sea.  (IX, 575-6)

It is as if Swinburne picked the subject because it is set on various coasts.

The editors of the Yale volume have a strong sense of Swinburne’s peak.  Selections from his first books, in 1865 and 1866, occupy 40% of the pages given to poetry.  The last twenty-six years of his life, from 1883 on, take up only 7%.  I will note that the Penguin Classics volume of Swinburne currently in print is 100% from 1865-6.  I detect a consensus.  But what I want to note here is that the poems the editors pick for those 7% of the pages, examples of the embers of Swinburne’s art, are almost entirely sea poems: “To a Seamew” and “Neap-Tide” from 1889, and “The Lake of Gaube” from 1904, terrific poems.

Death-dark and delicious as death in the dream of a lover and
    dreamer may be,
It clasps and encompasses body and soul with delight to be living
    and free:
Free utterly now, though the freedom endure but the space of a
    perilous breath,
And living, though girdled about with the darkness and coldness
    and strangeness of death:  (“The Lake of Gaube,” ll. 36-40)

Locals told Swinburne that people who swam in this freezing Swiss lake would die, which he of course found irresistible.

As a sea-mew’s love of the sea-wind breasted and ridden for
    rapture’s sake
Is the love of his body and soul for the darkling delight of the
    soundless lake  (ll. 49-50)

The earlier poem, “To a Seamew,” is in part about the imagined joys of flying, here transferred to the actual joys of swimming.  The correspondences between swimming and death are part of the attraction of dangerous swimming.  The adrenaline rush has been elevated to metaphysics.

Outside of the range of time, whose breath
    Is keen as the manslayer’s knife
    And his peace but a truce for strife,
Who knows if haply the shadow of death
  May not be the light of life?  (“Neap-Tide,” 56-60)

Had Swinburne become a brilliantly narrow poet in this period, or are the editors weirdly with poems about swimming and cliffs?

I suddenly wish I were spending my holiday on the shore.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

He had almost ceased to hope for anything except the end of it - that is not my experience of Phineas Redux

The property of manliness in a man is a great possession, but perhaps there is none that is less understood…  (Ch. 68)

Phineas Finn possesses the ideal characteristics of a gentleman – discretion, integrity, courage, good looks, wit but not too much wit, smarts but not etc., (the list of Finn’s virtues could go on and on), and most importantly a willingness to work.  The Trollopian gentleman has a purpose; the exact value of his purpose may not matter much.  Finn’s chosen work, in politics and government, is a tough road without money, and then is some discussion in Phineas Finn about whether he is too hasty – perhaps he should work for decades as a lawyer and then run for office – but the author seems to be on Finn’s side.  Give it a shot.  The perfect gentleman knows how to take risks.

It is the idlers who disgust Trollope, author, over the course of thirty-five years, of seventy or so books.

What I want to get at is what Trollope does with the ideal he has established.  He crushes it. He accuses his gentleman of murder and puts him on trial and in the newspapers.  A few friends believe he is innocent, more say he is innocent, others deal with their conscience in different ways.  Trollope allows Finn to be almost strong enough for his ordeal:

He had become almost numb from the weariness of his position and the agonising strain upon his mind. The gaoler had offered him a seat from day to day, but he had always refused it, preferring to lean upon the rail and gaze upon the Court [Finn stands during his entire trial!].  He had almost ceased to hope for anything except the end of it.  He had lost count of the days, and had begun to feel that the trial was an eternity of torture in itself. At nights he could not sleep, but during the Sunday, after Mass, he had slept all day.  Then it had begun again, and when the Tuesday came he hardly knew how long it had been since that vacant Sunday.  (Ch. 64)

It is this delay in the trial, entirely because of evidence in his favor, that knocks the strength out of him.  Once acquitted, he falls into a state that looks suspiciously like clinical depression.  He recovers through the continued and thoughtful assistance of his friends.  Trollope is redoing Reverend Crawley’s humiliations in The Last Chronicle of Barset, but with a character who is a gentleman, not a saint.  A different set of virtues.  They are saved in the same way, too, socially.

Almost all novels are social in the sense I mean here, but Trollope’s are moreso, and the Palliser novels even more than that.  There is a thought that could use some development.  Maybe with the next novel.   Thus the repeated, perhaps even repetitive gossip passages, or the characters who function as a chorus. Trollope’s social intricacies are closer to Proust’s than Balzac’s.

It is quite interesting to see Trollope but his creation in prison and break his spirit while the world watches.  Not what I was expecting from the novel.

I could have written a similar piece about one of the women in the novel, who in a parallel plot is similarly crushed, not by prison but by her bad marriage, and since she does not have the social support enjoyed by Finn, and is not the character in the title, she will have a harder time recovering.  She suffers more for her mistakes than does Finn.  Her story, the novels B plot, may even be a little more interesting.  Her story was also a surprise.  It is, oddly, a bit like Gwendolen Harleth’s story in Daniel Deronda, published two years later.  Maybe Eliot stole it from Trollope.  Ha ha ha!  If she did, it was fair game.

Everything else I might say about the novel is an incidental point – e.g., look, it is the return of the dirty, clever defense attorney Chaffanbrass, who I last saw in Orley Farm! – but I think I will retire Phineas Redux.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

were it even desirable to maintain a doubt - Trollope writes a murder mystery

In Phineas Finn, the title character, an ambitious yet conscientious young Irishman of good family but little means is elected to Parliament with the assistance of a number of prominent women.  He is extremely good-looking, but also an embodiment of Trollope’s complex ideas of gentlemanliness.  To stay in Parliament, he both needs to marry well and to balance the interests of his party against his own integrity.  By the end if that novel, he has retired from the field in a novelistically satisfying manner.

That novel had more marriage proposal scenes than any Trollope novel I have encountered, including, thankfully Phineas Redux, which only has a half dozen or so, three of which are explicitly comic relief.  That still sounds like a lot.

Phineas returns to Parliament in Phineas Redux, and the romantic question returns, too; it is the position of the various women that takes so many pages to establish.

The reader, if he has duly studied the history of the age, will know that the Duke did make an offer to Madame Goesler, pressing it with all his eloquence, but [plot plot plot]  (Ch. 17)

The phrase in bold translates as “if he has read Phineas Finn.”  I believe Trollope meant that as a joke, but it no longer is – what better way to study the history of that age than read Trollope novels?

What a surprise, given all this, when in Chapter 47, Phineas Redux turns into a murder mystery, with police detectives and private detectives and clues and red herrings.  Did Phineas Finn, in a fit of rage, murder his political enemy in a dark alley?  Few writers today would wait until page 510 to spring the murder on their readers, but regardless, things should really cook now.

Except that now Trollope faces a serious problem.  He is employing an omniscient narrator, and unlike more shoddy writers understands what an omniscient narrator is.  Trollope does not cheat.  So Phineas Redux is a murder mystery for all of 24 pages, as the narrator visits various characters to get their reaction to the murder – the poison of gossip and rumor is a major theme of the novel – but soon enough, he has to move Phineas back on stage, and then, in my favorite passage in the novel, the mystery is called off due to the integrity of the narrator, a thematic parallel with the strict integrity of Phineas himself:

The reader need hardly be told that, as regards this great offence, Phineas Finn was as white as snow. The maintenance of any doubt on that matter, – were it even desirable to maintain a doubt, – would be altogether beyond the power of the present writer.  The reader has probably perceived [he has!], from the first moment of the discovery of the body on the steps at the end of the passage, that Mr. Bonteen had been killed by that ingenious gentleman [that other guy].  (Ch. 49)

The phrase in bold is concentrated Trollope.  It is not desirable to maintain a doubt.  Your desire for suspense in fiction is a moral flaw.  Trollope does generate a certain amount of suspense during the trial of Phineas Finn – will he be hanged by the neck until dead? seems unlikely – of the cheaper kind by using a trick I had previously seen in The Last Chronicle of Barset (1866-7), in which the narrator is only omniscient regarding occurrences and characters in Great Britain.  Fog in Channel; continent cut off.  So the author has to dispatch characters to Europe to learn what is going on there.  An arbitrary but clear rule.  It is probably for the best that so few of his readers seem to notice what a formalist Trollope was.

Monday, June 29, 2015

taking the pernicious draught with his cheese - Phineas Redux is a sequel

The title is the first sign of trouble.  Phineas Redux (1873-4) is the first true sequel in Anthony Trollope’s Palliser series, and perhaps his first true sequel ever, certain portions of the later Barchester books aside.  Most of the plotlines successfully resolved in Phineas Finn (1867-8) are now dissolved, stirred back into the pot to be re-resolved, along with another plot from the intervening The Eustace Diamonds (1871-3) the resolution of which was impossible to believe.  I knew Lizzie Eustace would be back.  Like Glencora Palliser, she is too much fun.  As a character, Phineas Finn is less fun; as a novel, Phineas Redux is less fun.

For 150 pages, maybe 200, Phineas Redux was the most slack, the most minor, Trollope novel I have read, although it is only my eleventh – but eleven is a lot, right, with most novelists I could make confident generalization, while with Trollope and the other forty novels out there I can only guess.  Some of them must be slack to the point of immobility.

By slack, I mean that a novel-length portion of the 880 page novel is spent rearranging and reinflating the characters, who in this analogy are not marionettes, as I usually describe fictional characters, but balloons, apparently.  The fox hunting scene, obligatory in late Trollope, is introduced almost immediately, but even it seems perfunctory.  Around page 100 there is an actual scene, what a relief, in which the central balloon takes on flesh at a miser’s dinner:

There was some very hot sherry, but not much of it.  And there was a bottle of claret, as to which Phineas, who was not usually particular in the matter of wine, persisted in declining to have anything to do with it after the first attempt…  He played with his fish without thinking much about it.  He worked manfully at the steak. He gave another crumple to the tart, and left it without a pang.  But when the old man urged him, for the third time, to take that pernicious draught with his cheese, he angrily demanded a glass of beer.  The old man toddled out of the room, and on his return he proffered to him a diminutive glass of white spirit, which he called usquebaugh.  (Ch. 10)

Even slack Trollope is amusing, even without a “pernicious draught with his cheese,” and the fact is that four novels into this series I do have a stake in the characters and an interest in what Trollope will do with them.  The reader impatient with Trollope will not make it to Ch. 22, p. 234, when a media satire subplot starts up that is something new and savage.  But what is that reader doing with the fourth volume of a Trollope series?  Is it the only book in the cabin?  In which case, he likely will finish it, having little choice, plus halfway through the novel turns into a murder mystery, and it takes a reader of strong character not to finish a murder mystery.

I’ll undo some of the above tomorrow.  The second half of Phineas Redux is a lot more interesting than the first half, that is all I am trying to say here.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

The land of lost content - A. E. Housman sings the tunes that killed the cow

A. E. Housman is chronologically a poet of the 1890s, and since I have been reading some of them I took the excuse to revisit A Shropshire Lad (1896).  Any excuse is a good one, since he is a great favorite of mine.  Aesthetically, he is about as far from the elaborate, Decadent world of Dowson and Wilde as I can imagine.  The 1890s did not know what to do with Housman (although British composers liked his songful poems right away), but soon enough England learned, to its sorrow, that Housman had somehow, twenty years in advance, written a classic of war poetry, ready for when England needed it.

With rue my heart is laden
    For golden friends I had,
For many a rose-lipt maiden
    And many a lightfoot lad.

By brooks too broad for leaping
    The lightfoot boys are laid;
The rose-lipt girls are sleeping
    In fields where roses fade.  (poem LIV)

Pure, melancholy lyric poetry as song-like as possible, with hints of old ballads and Robert Herrick but hardly anything to suggest composition in the 19th century, much less 1894.  I might even call Housman’s poems simple, grudgingly – the compliment, for me, is “complex” – but if the poems are so simple why are there so few like them?  Housman’s poetry is still much read but little studied.  Study seems pointless.  Memorization is rewarded, though.  Housman is easy to memorize.

Into my heart an air that kills
    From yon far country blows:
What are these blue remembered hills,
    What spires, what farms are those?

That is the land of lost content,
    I see it shining plain,
The happy highways where I went
    And cannot come again.  (XL)

“Heart” is a favorite word.  So is “lad,” “man,” “young.”  Neither of the above has “grave” or “earth,” even though they are present in the first poem, veiled by metaphor.  At least the sad sack in the second poems is presumably alive.  Housman can become repetitive and morbid, sometimes comically so, especially when the 63 poems of A Shropshire Lad lead directly to Last Poems (1922) and the posthumous More Poems (1936), published much later but I believe mostly from Housman’s youth.  More young men wandering the earth or falling in love only to die.

Now hollow fires burn out to black,
    And lights are guttering low:
Square your shoulders, lift your pack,
    And leave your friends and go.

Oh never fear, man, nought’s to dread,
    Look not left nor right:
In all the endless road you tread
    There’s nothing but the night.  (LX)

I have included these little eight-liners simply in order to enjoy complete poems, but they rarely go over forty or fifty lines.  One that does, one of my favorites, is proof of Housman’s sense of humor about his low key excesses:

  ‘Terence, this is stupid stuff:
You eat your victuals fast enough;
There can’t be much amiss, ‘tis clear,
To see the rate you drink your beer.
But oh, good Lord, the verse you make,
It gives a chap the belly-ache.
The cow, the old cow, she is dead;
It sleeps well, the horned head:
We poor lads, ‘tis our turn now
To hear such tunes as killed the cow.’  (LXII, ll. 1-10)

The poet spends the next sixty lines or so describing his method, comparing it to the taking of tiny doses of poison to build immunity for when, as is inevitable, your enemies try to assassinate you.  He also recommends beer as a cure for the ills untempered by poetry.

Oh many a peer of England brews
Livelier liquor than the Muse,
And malt does more than Milton can
To justify God’s ways to man.  (ll. 17-20)

The poetry will be more help on “the dark and cloudy day.”  Housman’s poems have never seemed so bitter or poisonous to me, though, but perhaps I had been previously immunized and thus developed a taste for mournful tunes.

Friday, June 26, 2015

several poems of great merit - Isabella Bird gives a glimpse of a strange time and place

A side issue from A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains in the category “the past is an alien place.”  Even 19th century Victorians are alien.  Isabella Bird becomes close to a genuine mountain man, Mountain Jim Nugent, a violent, dangerous drunk who is murdered a year after Bird leaves Colorado.  He lost an eye to a grizzly bear – “the loss made one side of the face repulsive, while the other might have been modeled in marble.”  He is an Englishman, and when he cleans himself up has beautiful golden curly locks.  He is also – this is the alien part – a poet:

"Jim" shortened the way by repeating a great deal of poetry, and by earnest, reasonable conversation, so that I was quite surprised when it grew dark…  I wrote to you for some time, while Mr. Nugent copied for himself the poems “In the Glen” and the latter half of “The River without a Bridge,” which he recited with deep feeling.  It was altogether very quiet and peaceful.  He repeated to me several poems of great merit which he had composed, and told me much more about his life.  (Letter XVII)

In the 1870s this was all entirely normal.  No idea what poems those are that Mountain Jim copied.

The book’s great comic interlude features a second poet.  Bird and a couple of silver miners fear they will be trapped in their Estes Park cabin for the winter, to the extent that they are rationing their provisions.  To their surprise, a young man, a “theological student,” appears, an additional mouth to feed.

This “mouth” has come up to try the panacea of manual labor, but he is town bred, and I see that he will do nothing.  He is writing poetry, and while I was busy to-day began to read it aloud to me, asking for my criticism.  He is just at the age when everything literary has a fascination, and every literary person is a hero…  (Letter XV)

The poet is lazy, worse than useless, doing no work and losing the milk cow when he tries, and a parasite, sneaking food at night.

He has eaten two pounds of dried cherries from the shelf, half of my second four-pound spice loaf before it was cold, licked up my custard sauce in the night, and privately devoured the pudding which was to be for supper.

Worst of all, he shows Isabella Bird his published poetry:

In one there are twenty lines copied (as Mr. Kavan has shown me) without alteration from Paradise Lost; in another there are two stanzas from Resignation, with only the alteration of “stray” for “dead”; and he has passed the whole of Bonar's Meeting-place off as his own.  Again, he lent me an essay by himself, called The Function of the Novelist, which is nothing but a mosaic of unacknowledged quotations.

A post-modernist ahead of his time.  This epsiode would not be so amusing if the plagiarist caused everyone to starve to death, but everything worked out all right.  Mr. Kavan is not a hard case like Mountain Jim (he “makes the best bread I ever ate”), but still.  In those days Rocky Mountain silver miners could identify passages from Paradise Lost.  I’m not sure I can do that.  A strange, alien time.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

If it's the English lady traveling in the mountains - A Lady's Life in the Rocky Mountains by Isabella Bird

Since I was just in the Rocky Mountains, I will linger there for a day by writing about A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains (1879) by Isabella Bird, the greatest tourist of the 19th century.  In this book she is mostly in Colorado, exploring the mountain trails on horseback, often alone, sometimes assisted by the desperados, settlers, and other tough characters she encounters.

…  I at once inquired if I could get to Green Lake.  The landlord said he thought not; the snow was very deep, and no one had been up for five weeks, but for my satisfaction he would send to a stable and inquire.  The amusing answer came back, “If it’s the English lady traveling in the mountains, she can have a horse, but not any one else.”  (Letter XII)

Her adventures – her unlikely existence – featured in the Colorado newspapers, Bird becomes a celebrity while she is there.  She is not the only celebrity in Colorado, but perhaps the only one who is not an outlaw, like the terrifying Comanche Bill (“my intelligent, courteous companion was one of the most notorious desperadoes of the Rocky Mountains, and the greatest Indian exterminator on the frontier,” Letter XI) and a man who becomes Bird’s close friend and companion, Rocky Mountain Jim Nugent (“She was as proud of having him in her house as if he had been the President, and I gained a reflected importance!,” Letter XVII).

Mountain Jim guides Isabella Bird on her ascent of Longs Peak, a highlight of the book.  Nowadays I believe you can drive most of the way to the top, and Bird herself writes that “[t]ruly terrible it was for me, to a member of the Alpine Club it would not be a feat worth performing” (Letter VII).  Nevertheless Bird’s book is part of the 1870s mountain-climbing craze, in the less crazed division.  Photo from the National Park Service.  They also have a little tribute to Bird as one of the founders of Rocky Mountain National Park.

Once Bird started traveling, and writing, she never stopped.  Trips to and books about Australia and Hawaii preceded A Lady’s Life, and the next stop would be Japan.  She is the woman that rode the mule ‘round the world, so to speak (warning: music).  I have read Unbeaten Tracks in Japan (1880).  As interesting as that book is, it does not have as good a story as A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains, which in places has the narrative drive of an exciting novel and is curiously made more interesting by being less exotic.  Bird observes her own culture but in an unfinished form, as if civilization has collapsed but is being rebuilt amidst the rattlesnakes, blizzards, and black flies.  “Here the life was rough, rougher than any I had ever seen” she writes early in the book (Letter IV).  She not only develops a taste for certain parts of that roughness – not for the filth and flies – but helped develop that taste in who knows how many readers.

Friday, June 12, 2015

thous and thees and titanic glooms and whatnot - Francis Thompson's "The Hound of Heaven"

For the next week and a half, Wuthering Expectations will be vacationing.  No posts on vacation.

I did not mention that Francis Thompson wrote cricket poetry.  The sport, not the insect.  Talk about obscure.  I will ignore those in favor of his unusual religious poems.  Every poem I quoted yesterday was a religious poem, so I mean more religious poems, ones I understand.

The clearest, to me, is “’In No Strange Land,’” a vision of the “world invisible” as it operates on earth, specifically in London.

But (when so sad thou canst not sadder)
Cry; - and upon thy so sore loss
Shall shine the traffic of Jacob’s ladder
Pitched betwixt Heaven and Charing Cross.

And Christ is “walking on the water / Not of Geneserath, but Thames!”  I think “thou” and “thy” are referring back to the poet, but that is just a guess.  It is the specificity of the angels in London that I am enjoying here, “[t]he drift of pinions… at our own clay-shuttered doors.”  But then I wonder what “clay-shuttered” might mean.  If I just quote Thompson lines from which I understand every word, I won’t have much to quote.

Thompson’s masterpiece, “The Hound of Heaven,” is more abstract but succeeds in suggesting the sinful life of the speaker, who feels that Christ is a wild animal in pursuit of him, and who, if he catches the poet, will kill him, perhaps by eating his heart. 

Whether man’s heart or life it be which yields
       Thee harvest, must Thy harvest fields
       Be dunged with rotten death?

So the poet flees:

            Up vistaed hopes I sped;
            And shot, precipitated
Adown Titanic glooms of chasmèd fears,
    From those strong Feet that followed, followed after.

The poet indulges in the pleasures of this world, asking nature to display herself naked to him, in a passage that has not aged so well.  The results are ugly:

In the rash lustihead of my young powers,
         I shook the pillaring hours
And pulled my life upon me; grimed with smears,
I stand amid the dust o’ the mounded years –
My mangled youth lies dead beneath the heap.

The Hound, at the end of the poem, explains that the traumas suffered by the poet are not caused by the Hound but by the flight from it.  The poet is Catholic, but the psychology of the poem, the fear that a spiritual experience can be a source of terror or harm, is more general.  Not universal, perhaps, but common.  It is the vision that drives a number of Flannery O’Connor characters, this frightening sense that the Hound will save them but in the process murder them.

I scouted around for O’Connor writing about “The Hound of Heaven” and found something quite funny, a 1963 letter wondering if youngsters should be kept from “The Hound of Heaven.”

Probably what he means about impounding “The Hound of Heaven” is that it ought not to be set up as THE type of religious poetry – lest the students think they had to have thous and thees and titanic glooms and whatnot in all religious poetry.  I wouldn’t impound “The Hound of Heaven,” but I would impound “Trees” early on.  Our pastor has a piece of bad verse to decorate most every sermon, all of which I feel sure was supplied him in some Catholic grammar school.

The sideswipe crack at Joyce Kilmer, another poet in the line of Patmore and Thompson, is pretty choice.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

A Francis Thompson tasting - Curse on the brutish jargon we inherit

Another pale aesthete of the 1890s today, Francis Thompson, as represented in the 1908 Selected Poems that followed his death at age 47 from tuberculosis.  The anonymous author of the book’s biographical note calls him “this aloof moth of a man” (p. vii).  He and Ernest Dowson are the English ur-poets of the 1890s.  Thompson was a homeless opium addict, kept alive by a prostitute with a heart of gold who, once he was taken up as a poet, renounced him so as not to damage his reputation, after which he became a kind of monk.

None of that is remotely believable.  How I would laugh if I were tricked into seeing a movie about this character.  What nonsense, what clichés!

And I have not even gotten to his poetry, which is unbelievable in its own way.  Thompson was a baroque Catholic poet, in the line of Richard Crashaw and Coventry Patmore, who became Thompson’s great champion.  Thompson is wilder than Patmore, and as befits a baroque poet he more often veers into bad taste.

Thou fill'st thy mouth with nations, gorgest slow
On purple aeons of kings; man's hulking towers
Are carcase for thee, and to modern sun
Disglutt'st their splintered bones.  (From “An Anthem of Earth,” p. 109)

Is that awful or magnificent?  “Disglutt’st.”  Some fragments from “A Corymbus for Autumn”:

            Suffer my singing,
Gipsy of Seasons, ere though go winging;
            Ere Winter throws
            His slaking snows
In the feasting-flagon’s impurpurate glows!

***

            Thy mist enclip
Her steel-clear circuit illuminous,
            Until it crust
            Rubiginous
With the glorious gules of a glowing rust.

Am I mocking Thompson?  Only a little.  I admire his audacity with the language – “Curse on the brutish jargon we inherit” (“Her Portrait,” 40), yes, that’s the spirit – but then I have trouble taking him seriously.  He is a grapey poet (“Her skin was like a grape, whose veins / Run snow instead of wine,” “Daisy,” 1).  As is typical with baroque modes, Thompson’s poems face two constant problems, obscurity and kitschiness. 

Yea, not a kiss which I have given,
But shall triúmph upon my lips in heaven,
Or cling a shameful fungus there in hell.

***

Thou to thy spousal universe
Art Husband, she thy Wife and Church;
Who in most dusk and vidual curch,
Her Lord being hence,
Keeps her cold sorrows by thy hearse.  (“Orient Ode,” pp. 92 & 94)

The poem is addressed to the sun, rising in the east; “she,” the wife, is the Earth; the last three lines are a way of saying that it is dark at night.  The Christian allegory is made explicit only at the end.  Looking back at the poem, perhaps most of its obscurity just comes from its length – who can follow seven pages of that stuff.  The most kitschy bit, by the way, although “shameful fungus” is tempting, is the accent mark in “triúmph.”

Thompson may at this point survive as the author of one poem, the dense, harrowing “The Hound of Heaven,”  a masterpiece that could not have been written by a poet afraid of “impurpurate glows” and “disglutt’st” and making a single line out of “rubiginous.”  Thompson “[s]ublimed the illuminous and volute redundance” (“A Child’s Kiss,” 16).  I guess. I probably don’t understand that line.

I have notes with many more lines as good, let’s say, as these.  But I will give Thompson another day and will try to do something more than just swish his verse around in my mouth.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

so many different and surprising things - like a 17th century French zombie novel

Several years ago I wrote a bit about 17th and early 18th century French fiction, a subject about which I am two books – now three – short of complete ignorance.  My point was that there exists a large mass of French fiction from this period, often multi-volume series, almost none of which is read by any non-specialist, the bulk of it read by no one at all.  The books that have survived have done so because they retrospectively look like what we call novels.

I am thinking of Madame de La Fayette’s La Princesse de Clèves (1678) and the Abbé Prévost’s Manon Lescaut (1731).  I have not read it, but I suspect Alain-René Lesage’s Spanish-style picaresque Gil Blas (1715-35), which must still have some readers, is similar.  It is not just that these books are good but that I do not have to be a specialist in the period or form to recognize that they are good.

I bring this up because I recently read a book from the period that defies my judgment.  It does not look like the later books I know.  Maybe it is not like the books of its time, either.  I have little idea if it is good.  I am sure that it is wonderfully strange.  The book is The Zombie of Great Peru or The Countess of Cocagne (1697) by Pierre-Corneille Blessebois, himself a strange figure who should be the subject of a novel, just translated by Doug Skinner along with the preface by Guillaume Apollinaire that caught his attention.

Great Peru is in Guadeloupe, and the Zombie is part of a complex hoax:

… the Countess of Cocagne entered through the back door, which I had carefully left open, and came up to our room disguised as a snow white Zombie, believing herself invisible.  The Foreign Prince, as I said, had been told, but she knew nothing of this, and it was upon him that we had decided that she would enact her masterpiece.  At first, she strode about the room; she furiously rattled the windows; she struck us one after the other, and did so many different and surprising things that old La Forêt below was stricken with terror, and asked me several times what was wrong.  We replied, the Foreign Prince and I, that we were being beaten but could see nobody.  (58-9)

The “Countess,” seeking revenge, has asked the narrator to turn her invisible.  In exchange for sex, he agrees, but since he obviously cannot make people invisible, he just lies to her.  In the above passage, we see the narrator and Prince pretending that they cannot see the Countess as she beats on them.  If I am not sure of the point of the hoax, I can see that everyone gets what they want – revenge, laughs, sex – at least for a while.

We sat at the table, and feasted on the Countess’s tadpoles…  (86)

My favorite detail, included for no other reason.  The little hints of life in colonial Guadeloupe, corrupt and indolent for the French, brutal for the slaves, make the book for significant than it might seem.  Scholars of early colonial literature like Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko (1688) ought to read The Zombie of Great Peru.

Makes we wonder what else is out there, forgotten, buried in those twelve-volume French romances.  Thanks, Doug, for the work on this book, whatever it is.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

That ain't the way it is in the book - some Tom Sawyer goo - there was no getting around the authorities

The great surprises for me in revisiting Tom Sawyer were the narrator’s varied rhetorical modes, away from boy’s book storytelling and aside from the inset humor writing.  Passages like:

Saturday morning was come, and all the summer world was bright and fresh, and brimming with life. There was a song in every heart; and if the heart was young the music issued at the lips. There was cheer in every face and a spring in every step…  Cardiff Hill, beyond the village and above it, was green with vegetation and it lay just far enough away to seem a Delectable Land, dreamy, reposeful, and inviting.

So begins Chapter 2, the home of the famous fence-painting episode, the first strong dose of Tom Sawyer’s ingenuity, imagination and ruthlessness.  There is no way that the above language belongs to Tom.  It is the narrator almost mocking Tom, laughing at him because he has to waste this wonderful day doing chores.  Tom Sawyer’s sentiments, but someone else’s language.

A lot of this is parody, mild but targeting the conventional language of Twain’s competition, although as parody it is too pure, slack language that knows itself to be slack, as when Tom is mooning over a girl who will not come to her window: 

And thus he would die – out in the cold world, with no shelter over his homeless head, no friendly hand to wipe the death-damps from his brow, no loving face to bend pityingly over him when the great agony came.  And thus she would see him when she looked out upon the glad morning – and Oh! would she drop one little tear upon his poor, lifeless form, would  she heave one little sigh to see a bright young life so rudely blighted, so untimely cut down?  (Ch. 3)

Then the maid pours a bucket of “water” over Tom and he throws a rock through a pane of glass.  That’s more like it.

Perhaps some of that really is meant to be Tom’s language, though, or the language to which he aspires.  It is Tom Sawyer who is the great reader in the novel, for Twain the real reader, the one who fully absorbs his books about robbers, pirates, and Robin Hood:

So they “went it lively,” panting and perspiring with the work. By and by Tom shouted:

“Fall! fall! Why don't you fall?”

“I shan't! Why don't you fall yourself? You're getting the worst of it.”

“Why, that ain't anything. I can't fall; that ain't the way it is in the book. The book says, ‘Then with one back-handed stroke he slew poor Guy of Guisborne.’ You're to turn around and let me hit you in the back.”

There was no getting around the authorities, so Joe turned, received the whack and fell.  (Ch. 8)

Maybe it is Tom who is the sentimental reader, the one who has sponged up all of that drivel like “upon the glad morning.”  If Mark Twain could and obviously did, why not Tom Sawyer?  Even if it is hard to attach a line like “The marvel of Nature shaking off sleep and going to work unfolded itself to the musing boy” (Ch. 14) to Sawyer, he is the one to “sat still as a stone” watching the worms, ants, and ladybugs with the focus of an entomologist, sponging it all up.

I was also surprised to see how much of the content of Huckleberry Finn was present in the final chapter of Tom Sawyer – the possibility of that book, an ethically thinner version, was already on Twain’s mind – including the sour taste that Tom would leave at the end of the later novel.  But that third person narrator, if there was any getting around the authorities he had to go, and Twain knew it.

Monday, June 8, 2015

You would never come across anything like this - Tom Sawyer, Sunday-school book

Mark Twain, early on, had a long-running shtick attacking moralistic stories for children.  See, as examples, humor pieces like “The Story of the Good Little Boy Who Did Not Prosper” (1865) or “The Story of the Bad Little Boy” (1875): “And he grew up and married, and raised a large family, and brained them all with an axe one night, and got wealthy by all manner of cheating and rascality; and now he is the infernalest wickedest scoundrel in his native village, and is universally respected, and belongs to the Legislature.”  Half of the joke is the incredulous, naïve narrator who cannot understand why things don’t go like they do in Sunday-school books:

But the strangest thing that ever happened to Jim was the time he went boating on Sunday, and didn't get drowned, and that other time that he got caught out in the storm when he was fishing on Sunday, and didn't get struck by lightning. Why, you might look, and look, all through the Sunday-school books from now till next Christmas, and you would never come across anything like this.

It occurred to me that in his second novel, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876), Twain was possibly writing an extended version of his old joke, the story of the bad little boy (and his even worse friend) who prosper and then some.  And I was right, that is likely the core idea of Tom Sawyer, although, eh, where does that get me.

It helps explain the passages where Tom Sawyer disappears and Twain the humor writer takes over, detachable sections mocking patent medicines, church services (“After the hymn had been sung, the Rev. Sprague turned himself into a bulletin board and read off ‘notices’ of meetings and societies and things till it seemed that the list would stretch out to the crack of doom,” Ch. 5), and school Examination Days – poetry recitation and original oratory performed by twelve year-olds.  The latter had some especially good lines. 

Then arose a slim, melancholy girl, whose face had the “interesting” paleness that comes of pills and indigestion, and read a “poem.”  Two stanzas of it will do: [with respect to Twain, one would have “done”]…

This nightmare [not the poem, a speech] occupied some ten pages of manuscript and wound up with a sermon so destructive to all hope to non-Presbyterians that it took the first prize.  (Ch. 21)

Tom Sawyer is in a sense present in these scenes, but they could have been cut out and published in The Atlantic Monthly as further Old Times on the Mississippi without much trouble.

I wonder if they were cut out, in the edition of Tom Sawyer I read as a child, I mean. They were completely unfamiliar to me – likely over my head – unlike Chapter 6, when Huckleberry Finn is introduced, and each line immediately suggested the next:

Tom hailed the romantic outcast:

“Hello, Huckleberry!”

“Hello yourself, and see how you like it.”

“What's that you got?”

“Dead cat.”

“Lemme see him, Huck. My, he's pretty stiff. Where'd you get him?”

“Bought him off'n a boy.”

“What did you give?”

“I give a blue ticket and a bladder that I got at the slaughter-house.”

On through the spunk-water and split beans and other remedies for warts.  How many times did I read this passage, or other marvels of materiality like the list of goods Tom acquires in the fence painting chapter:

…a key that wouldn't unlock anything, a fragment of chalk, a glass stopper of a decanter, a tin soldier, a couple of tadpoles, six fire-crackers, a kitten with only one eye, a brass door-knob, a dog-collar – but no dog…  (Ch. 2)

I am happy to say that I had no more taste for abstract fictional goo when I was a youngster than I do now.  No more taste than Twain had – but wait, see above, “romantic outcast,” what is that?  Tomorrow: complaints about rhetoric.

Friday, June 5, 2015

Sylvie and Bruno, begun and Concluded - It are ever so many other things

Little, Big has a major character named Sylvie.  She has a lookalike brother named Bruno.  Her adventures have some vague resemblance to the title character of Lewis Carroll’s Sylvie and Bruno (188) and Sylvie and Bruno Concluded (1893), the most flummoxing Victorian novels I have ever read.  Perhaps the resemblance is more than vague, but if so I missed it.  As I said, I was flummoxed.

The narrator, a character not so different than Charles Dodgson, falls into dreams and trances that move him back and forth between a crazy Alice in Wonderland-like dream world and a no less unreal world that is like a sentimental Victorian romance, with noble renunciations and temperance pledges and self-sacrificing doctors heroically exposing themselves to the Plague.  Neither of these worlds are especially “real.”  Behind both of them is a vaguely glimpsed Fairyland, the home of the fairies Sylvie and Bruno, which overlaps with the other worlds during “eerie states” distinct from the dreams and trances.  The process is “such as we meet with in ‘Esoteric Buddhism’” (SBC, Preface).

So there is this mode, in which fairies lead a laborer to take a temperance pledge:

I know full well that the taste for this kind of sentimentality thrives today, but some of this stuff feels like kitsch.

“It’s a miserable story!” said Bruno.  “it begins miserably, and it ends miserablier.  I think I shall cry.  Sylvie, please lend me your handkerchief.”

“I haven’t got it with me,” Sylvie whispered.

“Then I wo’n’t cry,” said Bruno manfully.  (SBC, ch. 23).

Bruno is not referring to the melodramatic plot, but to a poem that runs like this:

Little Birds are writing
    Interesting books,
    To be read by cooks:
Read, I say, not roasted –
Letterpress, when toasted,
    Loses its good looks.

I was happier with the ample nonsense of the other plot, when cruel, fat, spoiled boys turning into giant porcupines:

Or when the Gardener recounts his autobiography in verse:

“He thought he saw an Argument
    That proved he was the Pope:
He looked again, and found it was
    A Bar of Mottled Soap.
‘A fact so dread’, he faintly said,
    ‘Extinguishes all hope!’”  (SBC, ch. 20)

Or when the Professor describes the famous 1:1 scale map:

“We very soon got to six yards to the mile.  Then we tried a hundred yards to the mile.  And then came the grandest idea of all!  We actually made a map of the country, on the scale of a mile to the mile!”

“Have you used it much?” I enquired.

“It has never been spread out, yet,” said Mein Herr: “the farmers objected: they said it would cover the whole country, and shut out the sunlight!  So we now use the country itself, as its own map, and I assure you it does nearly as well.”  (SBC, ch. 11)

That map is Carroll’s invention, yes?  I always thought it was; now I have seen it with my own eyes.

Some of the transitions between the “worlds” of the novel are uncanny and surprising.  The puns are incessant and destabilizing, actively interfering with the movement of the plot (I am listing good things about the book now – this is a plus, the element that led James Joyce to wonder if it would be possible to make every single word a pun).  Characters transform in lively and unpredictable ways.  The inset sentimental novel I found so irritating is pretty clearly both what it seems but also a parody of its genre.

“It are ever so many other things,” said Bruno. “Aren’t it, Sylvie?” (SBC, ch. 11)

Bruno’s insufferable cutesy-poo baby talk is another difficulty.  Oh well.  He is right, he has hit the Sylvie and Bruno novels smack on the snout.  I don’t know what they are.

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Nothing but sane and moonshot water - what is it like to be Grandfather Trout?

Somewhere at Wuthering Expectations – I suppose in a post about Puck of Pook’s Hill, Pykk claims to have seen “the Trout from Little, Big being described as a gateway between different states of the world, which is true,” which is not true, I mean that I or someone else used the word “gateway” or something like it, or mentioned states of the world, but is true if books are different states of the world and repeated elements and borrowings serve as ways to move among them.  So, true, and certainly true of Grandfather Trout.

“Suppose one were a fish,” Crowley writes, much like Richard Jefferies had written a century earlier in “Mind under Water.”

Fish-dreams are usually about the same water they see when they’re awake, but Grandfather Trout’s were not.  So utterly other than trout-stream were his dreams, yet so constant were the reminders of his watery home before his lidless eyes, that his whole existence became a matter of supposition.  Sleepy suppositions supplanted one another with every pant of his gills.  (Book 1, Ch. IV, “Suppose One Were a Fish”)

Since the fish is a fictional character, his doubts are warranted.  This particular fish is uncertain if he even is a fish.  He is perhaps a victim of a curse.  Perhaps someday he will be freed from the curse.

That however truly a satisfied fish he might appear to be, or however reluctantly accustomed to it he had become, that once-on-a-time a fair form would appear looking down into the rainbow depths, and speak words she had wrested from malign secret-keepers at great cost to herself, and with a strangulating rush of waters he would leap – legs flailing and royal robes drenched – to stand before her panting, restored, the curse lifted, the wicked fairy weeping with frustration.  At the thought a sudden picture, a colored engraving, was projected before him on the water: a bewigged fish in a high-collared coat, a huge letter under his arm, his mouth gaping open.  In air.  At this nightmare image (from where?) his gills gasped and he awoke momentarily; the shutters shot back.  All a dream.  For a while he gratefully supposed nothing but sane and moonshot water.

I could not find a colored version of the Tenniel picture, sadly.  Please note that Grandfather Trout has misremembered the position of the letter.  Little, Big has barely begun at this point.  The lifting of the curse takes place 530 pages later in my edition, but offscreen, so to speak.  Why write it out twice?

In the meantime, the fish sleeps and dreams and eats mosquitos, “the endless multiplication of those tiny drops of bitter blood.”

I had thought about working more on the prose of Little, Big, the best descriptions and metaphors and details, applied to more conventional objects than a talking fish; “my models were Dickens and Flaubert and Nabokov,” says Crowley, and it shows, not just in the sentences, but in the patterning, the little gateways that lead from scene to scene parallel to or against the movement of the plot.  The hard stuff in the art of fiction.  I’ve been writing about the easy stuff.

The “Suppose One Were a Fish” section of Little, Big is for some reason available, for $30, as a poster.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

subject to subtle change as they stand waiting to be called forth - Little, Big on the Art of the Novel

A character in Little, Big is the “greatest mage of this age of the world,” a common personage in fantasy novels.  Crowley cleverly makes her master of a single form of magic, one that is in fact real, the Art of Memory.  Like Giordano Bruno and other masters of the art, now “for the most part rendered obsolete by the invention of the filing-cabinet,” the wizard creates a place, a memory palace, which she furnishes with everything: “her dog Spark, a trip to Rockaway, her first kiss.”  How is this skill magical rather than merely impossible?

It was discovered, for instance, that the symbolic figures with vivid expressions, once installed in their proper places, are subject to subtle change as they stand waiting to be called forth.  The ravished nun who meant Sacrilege might, when one passes her again, have acquired a depraved air about the mouth and eyes one hadn’t thought he had bestowed on her…  Also: as a memory house grows, it makes conjunctions and vistas that its builder can’t conceive of beforehand…  that new gallery might also turn out to be a shortcut to the ice-house where he had out a distant winter once and then forgot.  (Book 3, Ch. IV, “The Art of Memory,” ellipses mine)

Crowley is describing his own novel, in fact all novels and literature, and in a sense the history of literature, since the builders it turns out do not all have to be the same person.  But he is specifically describing his own novel, first in that much of it takes place in a house that functions as described here, and second because this is his method: do not just create but accrete, which is itself a form of creation.  Little, Big is a Joseph Cornell box of a novel.

Crowley uses tarot cards similarly, with the entire novel, every plot and subplot, implicit in the deck of cards.  “As in Calvino’s Castle of Crossed Destinies I wanted to create a situation where it was impossible to know whether the cards were bringing about, prophesying, or summing up the story” (the Perpetual Crowley Interview).  Calvino’s book (1969 / 1973) lays out the entire deck of cards in a sort of crossword puzzle and then tells stories using every row and column, backwards and forwards, discovering or creating the stories of Faust, Parsifal, Roland, and Hamlet within the cards.

I began by trying to line up tarots at random, to see if I could read a story in them.  “The Waverer’s Tale” emerged; I started writing it down; I looked for other combinations of the same cards; I realized the tarots were a machine for constructing stories; I thought of a book, and I imagined its frame: the mute narrators, the forest, the inn; I was tempted by the diabolical idea of conjuring up all the stories that could be contained in a tarot deck.  (p. 126, tr. William Weaver)

The good joke here is that all possible stories are contained in the tarot deck, given the free application of the imagination by the storyteller, and if somehow a limit is reached, the writer can always switch to another deck, which Calvino does – the book actually has two parts, the Castle and the Tavern, each using a different deck (the Tavern is pictured above, the scan borrowed from a writer interested in the book's architecture).  Crowley creates his own imaginary deck.

When I first read The Castle of Crossed Destinies many years ago, I placed it among Calvino’s most minor works.  That was not correct.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Is this book true? - John Crowley tells stories - he couldn't quite get at those secrets

The last line of Little, Big suggests that the John Crowley’s fairy novel may not be about fairies as such:

Even the weather isn’t as we remember it clearly once being; never lately does there come a summer day such as we remember, never clouds as white as that, never grass as odorous or shade as deep and full of promise as we remember they can be, as once upon a time they were.

Not fairies, but fairy tales, stories.  The novel is a pastiche of old stories, forms of stories, and stories about stories.  The method is to create something original by assembling and rearranging things created by others.  Thus a garden is lifted directly from Through the Looking Glass, and a fish from Rudyard Kipling or Richard Jefferies or both, and a photograph from the Cottingley Fairies hoax.  Characters take the place of birds and reenact the medieval Persian Conference of the Birds.  Folktale motifs are everywhere.  Santa Claus is a character for a single paragraph.  Every chapter begins with a quotation.  In Book 5: Augustine, Ben Jonson, Shakespeare (Coriolanus), and one from Thomas Love Peacock that just about knocks the wind out of the novel. The entire section is titled “The Art of Memory,” from the 1966 Frances Yates book on the history of memory systems.  The interaction between the novel and outside texts is dense and constant.

But the story itself is full of story-telling.  I know, now, from book blogs, that many readers actively loathe art about art and postmodern screwing around with stories.  Crowley’s novel is one of those.

Some of the story-telling metaphors that are built into the plot:

One character becomes a soap opera writer, transmuting the story I have been reading into another I only read about:

He save for the last a letter from Edgewood, some weeks in transit, a good long one from his mother, and settled to it like a squirrel to a large nut, hoping to find something within he could use for next month’s episodes.  (Book 6, Ch. I, “Carrying a Torch”)

His grandfather wrote children’s books about adorable animals.  Those also get looted for the soap opera.  Part of one of the children’s books, Brother North-wind’s Secret, is read aloud to me by a series of schoolchildren, so I get a good look at that kind of story.  This secret of this North Wind is different than the one in George MacDonald’s The Back of the North Wind.  The source of the children’s book are – well, one of my favorite jokes in the book.

Three characters, in succession, become devotees of an unusual pack of tarot cards, one that does not have the usual Major Arcana (no Death, Devil, or Hanged Man) but has a series of Least Trumps that include The Bundle, The Banquet, and Multiplicity, the latter being the governing principle of a tarot deck.  The seventy-three cards are constantly rearranged into many different stories that may or may not somehow imply a single larger story.  The latter idea is stolen directly from Italo Calvino.

There are, of course, books:

Books!  Opening with a crackle of old glue, releasing perfume; closing with a solid thump.  he liked them big; he liked them old; he liked them best in many volumes, like the thirteen on a low shelf, golden-brown, obscure, of Gregorovius’s Medieval Rome.  Those – the big ones, the old ones – held secrets by their very nature; because of his years, though the paragraphs and chapters passed each other under his scrutiny (he was no skimmer), he couldn’t quite get at those secrets, prove the book to be (as most books after all are) dull, dated, stupid.  They kept their magic, mostly.  (Book 3, Ch. III [Marlowe epigraph], “Books and a Battle”)

These old books lead the character to the book that is like another running joke, Architecture of Country Houses, the one book that could explain everything that goes on in the novel to its characters if they could only understand it or perhaps believe it.

“Dad,” Auberon said, “is this book true?”

“What book is that?”

Auberon held it up, waggling it to show the covers…  “Well, ‘true’,” he said, “’true’. I don’t know exactly what you mean by ‘true’.” Each time he said it the invisible doubt-quotes around the word became clearer.  (ellipses mine)

I have included a number of examples of Little, Big describing itself.  The final major self-description is the use of the Art of Memory, which I will save for tomorrow.  I also want to return to Calvino. And to that fish.

Monday, June 1, 2015

Sometimes we don’t entirely understand - Little, Big, somewhere in between

When I started reading Little, Big (1981) twenty years ago, I wondered if John Crowley had the novel as the result of a dare, or losing a bet.  Fantasy novels did not have as many fairies back then as they do now.  Things have changed.  Anyway, I was close to right:

It also offered a challenge: could I get readers to take seriously these very standard Victorian fairies as beings of power and scope? So it was a moment of hilarity and also alarm or apprehension, which only made the hilarity richer — could I bring this off?  (from the Perpetual Crowley Interview).

The book is about an extended family, the Drinkwaters, and their house (Edgewood) in the Catskills, roughly.  The women of the family believe in and see fairies; the men of the family struggle along as best they can.

“Sometimes we don’t entirely understand,” Doc said, as though it were wisdom he had arrived at after some cost.  “But we have out parts to play.”  (Book, Two, Ch. I, “Responsibilities”)

A surprising amount of the book takes place in New York City, in a grim version of Manhattan that perhaps now seems dystopian but was at the time merely New York in the 1970s, the “Drop Dead” era, accurately described.  Now there are books that are written to fit something called “urban fantasy”; Crowley’s book is, retrospectively, an early example of one of those.

The Drinkwaters are part of a larger story involving the fairies, something like this-world agents or avatars of fairy powers.  Since this is a fantasy novel, I can just take this as something like fact, however indistinct.  The characters spend a lot of time worrying about, or ignoring the problem of, free will and predestination.  Do I have a destiny, am I part of a larger story, that sort of thing.  Some of the characters are sure, others have doubts.  The fantasy device allows Crowley to highlight the theme.

This is what Dolce Bellezza, who suggested a Crowley readalong, writes about, that and the unconventional domestic arrangements of the Drinkwater family.  Most of the novel, setting aside the tarot cards and talking storks and perpetual motion machines, is domestic fiction, a soap opera that in a parodic move supplies material for a television soap opera within the novel.  I wonder if Crowley is parodying some of the domestic fiction of the 1960s – Updike or someone like that – but I do not know that literature so well, and likely never will.  There is a strong whiff of the 1960s in the ethos of the book, its family something of a religious cult living in a communal arrangement.  One character even ends up, thirty years ahead of his (our) time, running an urban farm while hopped up on magical hashish, except now the farm would be in Brooklyn, not Manhattan.  It is the dawning of the Age of Aquarius.  Parody, again.

The domestic scenes, especially some of the big parties, remind me a lot of Eudora Welty’s Delta Wedding; other parts are more like William Faulkner’s The Hamlet.  Maybe the closest analogues are Vladimir Nabokov's Ada and One Hundred Years of Solitude, all novels, like Little, Big, that demand family trees.  With  Gabriel García Márquez, Crowley shares a century, more or less, of action, characters who share the same name – multiple Auberons, multiple Lilacs – and in some ways an ending.  Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series uses this ending, too.  I am not sure that this particular story can have a different ending, other than “that schoolboy device he had once used, that last line that every schoolboy has once used to complete some wild self-indulgent fantasy otherwise uncompletable: then he woke up” (Book 6, Ch. IV, “Storm of Difference”).

Metaphorically, I mean.  Depends on who the “he” is who wakes up.  Crowley actually ends the novel with “once upon a time.”  There, that is what I need for tomorrow’s post.  I knew if I kept on I would find it.

Saturday, May 30, 2015

Swinburne's songs to the sea

Swinburne is giving his publisher instructions for publicizing his new book, Tristram of Lyonesse (1882):

If you print among the advertisements of Tristram any passage from the ‘Saturday’ review, I wish it to be this and no other: ‘We have some difficulty in taking this kind of thing seriously.  Any man who abandoned his mind to it “could reel it off for hours together.”’  (letter 1167, Aug. 6, 1882)

I am  about halfway through Swinburne’s enormous verse retelling of the Tristram and Isolde story, and I disagree with the anonymous critic on one point: it is not “any man” that could pound this out, no, but for Algernon Swinburne, this is poetry supplied by the yard.  Every line is purple.  Impressive in some ways, but more commonly I am with the poet Henry Taylor who wrote to Swinburne that the poem “sweeps me along through one or more pages with a consciousness that I am only half understanding what I read” (note to 1179, October 1, 1882).  Swinburne insists that he “hold[s] obscurity to be so great a fault that I should think no pains too great to take in the endeavour to avoid it” but concedes that “one must see a fault before it can be avoided, and this one is so difficult to see.”

I mention these letters because in 1880, Swinburne published a pair of masterpieces, long poems of 400 or 500 lines titled “On the Cliffs” and “By the North Sea,” both of which are complex and the former of which is maddeningly obscure, the most difficult thing I have ever seen by Swinburne.  It is addressed simultaneously to Sappho and to a (or the) nightingale, figures who merge not just into not just a muse of poetry but a new trinity, “woman and god and bird,” while the poem is also about a particular favorite seaside spot from Swinburne’s childhood.

O wind, O wingless wind that walk’st the sea,
Weak wind, wing-broken, wearier wind than we,
Who are yet not spirit-broken, maimed like thee,
Who wail not on our inward night as thou
In the outer darkness now,
What word has the old sea given thee for mine ear
From thy faint lips to hear?
For some word would she send me, knowing not how.  (ll.28-35)

All of those “w”s!  The “she” at the end is Sappho; the poet is on a cliff above the English Channel listening for inspiration from his goddess.

“By the North Sea” – more cliffs, more waves, more wind – is thankfully much clearer.  W. G. Sebald calls the poem Swinburne’s “tribute to the gradual dissolution of life” (Rings of Saturn, Ch. VI).  It describes “A land that is lonelier than ruin; / A sea that is stranger than death,” the ruins of Dunwich, the once-important medieval city that has been falling over the cliffs into the sea for the last seven hundred years.  There goes the cemetery:

Tombs, with bare white piteous bones protruded,
    Shroudless, down the loose collapsing banks,
Crumble, from their constant place detruded,
    That the seas devours and gives not thanks.
Graves where hope and prayer and sorrow brooded
    Gape and slide and perish, ranks on ranks.  (ll. 457-62)

Both writers end their visits to Dunwich with moments of “utter rapture,” Sebald by showing Swinburne, “like a startled moth,” telling a story from his childhood, a story about stories: “Tell me more, Aunt Ashburnham, please tell me more.”  Swinburne ends his poem with a prayer of gratitude to the destructive, creative sea:

Time gives what he gains for the giving
    Or takes his tribute of me;
My dreams to the wind everliving,
    My song to the sea.  (ll.  521-4)

Friday, May 29, 2015

Swinburne dries out - the most horrible and loathsome book ever to be got into type and other edifying subjects

Let’s check in with Algernon Swinburne, the fourth of six volumes of his Letters (1960, ed. Cecil Lang), covering 1877 through 1882.  I have run into a selfish problem.  With two volumes of letters to go, I fear that the bulk of the best ones might be behind me.

Swinburne begins the book as an out of control alcoholic, constantly ill, on the verge of death either from internal complaints or a drunken accident.  His friends and mother conspire against him to move him into the house of his lawyer, agent, nurse, and number one fan Theodore Watts, in order to not just dry Swinburne out but to keep him away from bottles.  A seven month gap in the letters is the only indication of the difficulty of the task of keeping Swinburne alive.  His friends succeed, and Swinburne live, and writes, for another thirty years.

Afterwards, though, Swinburne is not quite as interesting in his letters.  He is a lot more interesting than if he were dead.

Some highlights:

Swinburne’s repeated attacks on “that brute beast” Zola’s L’assommoir, a “damnable dunghill of a book” (letter 866, June 8, 1877), “the most horrible and loathsome book ever to be got into type” (942, July 11, 1879).  He singles out not the novel’s alcoholism, which would be too ironic, but the child abuse and filth.  Later (1020, July 3, 1880), Swinburne declares Humphrey Clinker “all but utterly unreadable to me” because of its scatology, at which point I find myself baffled by Swinburne’s Victorian fastidiousness.  All of this from the great champion of Sade’s Justine! “[D]e Sade at his foulest was to Zola at his purest ‘as moonlight unto sunlight and as water unto wine’ in the faculty of horrifying and nauseating the human stomach and the human soul” (942).  Some of this must be class, the aristocrat clubbing the bourgeois upstart with a Marquis.

Celebrity sightings, several before the fact, such as a letter from an 1882 letter by a young Oscar Wilde on behalf of an old Walt Whitman.  Wilde, at this point, had published a single book of poems and was touring America as a celebrity aesthete.  “I thought he seemed a harmless young nobody, and had no notion he was the sort of man to play the mountebank as he seems to have been doing” (1132, Aug. 4, 1882).

And here is John Davidson, at this point a pale aesthete in training, a decade from writing good poetry, declaring Swinburne “the greatest poet since Shakespere” (912, March 28, 1878).  Impressive how Davidson was eventually able to purge all trace of this early worship from his poems.

Speaking of Shakespeare, Swinburne gets into a pointless feud with Robert Browning, the figurehead president of the New Shakespeare Society, over an insult from another member of that organization.  More snobbery: “no person who remains in any way or in any degree associated with the writer of that pamphlet is fit to hold any intercourse or keep up any acquaintance with me” (1065, Feb. 20, 1881).  Good riddance, Browning must have thought, sitting on his balcony in Florence.

Near the end of the book, Swinburne finally meets his hero Victor Hugo.  The episode is a triumph – a triumph of staying alive.  The breathless letter describing the encounter (1193, Nov. 26, 1882) is, charmingly, to his mother.

His white hair is as thick as his dark eyebrows, and his eyes are as bright and clear as a little child’s.  After dinner, he drank my health with a little speech, of which – tho’ I sat just opposite him – my accursed deafness prevented my hearing a single word.

During these years, Swinburne wrote numerous articles for the Encyclopedia Britannica, a verse play, and enough poetry for an astonishing four books – three published in 1880 alone.  There are two great poems in that mass, two I know of.  Tomorrow for those.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Grazia Deledda's Elias Portolu, or how an ex-con becomes a priest

Grazia Deledda’s After the Divorce (1902) has a minor character, a priest, named Elias Portolu.  Her next novel is set in the same Sardinian town and is titled Elias Portolu (1903).  Perhaps it is the same character.

Happy days were coming for the Portolu family of Nuoro.  At the end of April their son Elias, who had served his time in a penitentiary on the continent, would come home; then Pietro, the older of the three Portolu boys, was to be married.  (Ch. I, p. 1, tr. Martha King)

Okay, maybe it is not the same character.  Elias returns from prison reformed in the sense that he does not fall back in with his former bad crowd.  His new problem is that he is tormented by love and lust for his brother’s fiancée, Maddalena, and she reciprocates (they are on horseback in this scene, sharing a horse):

Not only did her voice tremble, but her hand, poised on Elias’s belt, was also trembling, as was her whole body collapsed against his back.  He was also vibrating like a broken string and a shadow veiled his eyes: it was the same anguish, the same rapture as his dream.  (III, 64)

But in fact it is the same character.  Elias Portolu is the story of how this man becomes a priest:

In short, it seemed that a ferocious beast thrashed around in that pale young man with the mild appearance who was often seen sitting near the hut, immersed in little holy books.  (VI, 117)

As a means to escape sexual temptation, entering the priesthood is likely a bad move, and Portolu’s path to a religious vocation is painful and dangerous, at risk until the last sentence.  So as far as that goes, well done, Grazia Deledda.

The character is perhaps most interesting for the dream-like states that come upon him, apparently lingering psychological effects of prison, or, as he always thinks of it, “that place,” not even able to think or say the word “prison” without mental preparation.  Portolu’s interaction with the natural world up in the Sardinian mountains, where he works as a shepherd, interact curiously with his prison experience.

Meanwhile Elias, on top of the rock, with his vitreous eyes fixed as though enchanted by the pure splendour of the moon, was unmoving, immersed in a confusion of visions.  He felt the same bewilderment, the buzzing, the vague dizziness that he had felt in the family courtyard on the evening of his return [from prison].  (V, 90)

His father is watching him, wondering if he is “’Planning a crime?  Thinking of becoming a priest?’”  In a book of flattish characters, title character aside, the father is a lot of fun, always bragging about his wealth (which does not appear to be so substantial) and insulting his sons by telling them they are “made of fresh cheese.”

The characters are on the flat side because the main interest of this novel, other than the journey of Elias to the priesthood, is social or cultural.  A long scene at the beginning of the book is set during the Feast of St. Francis; a later scene is set during Carnival.  The ordinary life of the Sardinian shepherds is mixed with their holidays and entertainments.  Meanwhile, the extraordinary life of Elias Portolu mostly takes place within his head.