Friday, October 24, 2014

It may be hard on the reader - an inspirational quote from Kyle Gann

First, a reminder: next week we will implement readalong blogging procedures for Knut Hamsun’s Mysteries and Nicanor Parra’s Poemas y Antipoemas. Still plenty of time to read either, or both.  The Hamsun novel is by the far the crazier of the two, but the Parra is fun, too:

The author will not answer for any problems his writings may raise:
It may be hard on the reader
But he'll have to accept this from here on in.

(click Anthology, then “Warning to the Reader”)

Now, an inspirational quotation.

Kyle Gann is one of the great critics of what he calls post-classical music, works grounded in one way or another in the classical or Romantic tradition yet distant enough that most supposed fans of hate them, composers like Alvin Lucier.  I have learned so much from Gann, who now is a composition teacher at Bard and thus reserves his criticism for his PostClassic blog, or for books.  His forthcoming book on Charles Ives’s Concord Sonata could make an appearance on Wuthering Expectations.

The quote.  Gann is, in the oldest professorial tradition, complaining about his students.  I’ll skip all that.  I want this part:

No one has ever called me un-opinionated, but when I was 18, I was going to be damned before I would admit that there was a piece of modern music in existence that I couldn’t understand.  I’d listen to the same record a dozen times in a row until the piece started to make sense to me.  I wasn’t committed to liking everything I heard, but I was going to understand every single piece well enough to understand why somebody liked it, even if I didn’t, and I was going to be able to articulate why, of all the complex and opaque pieces ever written, I’d decided I didn’t like this one.  I withheld judgments for years, decades, until I felt I had done sufficient analysis to come to an opinion.

Impassioned Appreciationism.  Of course I admire Gann because he flatters by prejudices.  The last line is challenging, though.  I certainly jump to conclusions too quickly.  Sure, we can do both things at once – judge and withhold judgment.  I am impressed, though, by anyone willing to say “I don’t know” or “I don’t get it – not yet.”

In my own experience, whenever I have put in the kind of work Gann describes I invariably end up liking, or appreciating, or let’s say no longer disliking the piece in question.  I have not just studied the text but extended my sympathy to those who genuinely liked it.  It usually turns out that they were to some degree right.  Why else do I read so much criticism?  Show me what you see.  Maybe then I will see it, too.

it just wasn’t as I’d imagined it, and so the pleasure wasn’t that great ––– Strindberg, big and small

There is a minor character in A Dream Play, the Billposter – you know, like theatrical posters – who is the first happy person the goddess meets on earth.  “beside him is a fishing net with a green handle” – what could that mean?

DAUGHTER.  You all complain, at least with your eyes and voices.

BILLPOSTER.  I don’t complain that much… not now that I’ve got my net and a green fishing chest!

DAUGHTER.  And that makes you happy?

BILLPOSTER.  Oh yes, so happy, so… it was my childhood dream and it’s all come true, even though I am fifty now, of course…

DAUGHTER.  Fifty years for a fishing net and chest…

BILLPOSTER.  A green chest, a green one…  (186)

All of those crazy ellipses are in the original.  The only thing I omitted was an asterisk by the translator explaining that “green” might possibly be symbolic.  This bit is not much in itself, but the follow-up is excellent.

OFFICER.  It’s the Billposter, with his net…  How was the fishing?  Good?

BILLPOSTER.  Oh yes!  The summer was warm and rather long… the net was pretty good, but not quite as I’d imagined it!

[snip some stuff with the Officer and his girl trouble]

DAUGHTER.  What was wrong with the net?

BILLPOSTER.  Wrong?  Well, there wasn’t anything wrong, not really… it just wasn’t as I’d imagined it, and so the pleasure wasn’t that great.

DAUGHTER.  Just how had you imagined it?

BILLPOSTER.  How? ––– I can’t really say…

DAUGHTER.  Let me tell you! ––– You had imagined it a little differently!  Green, yes, but not that green!

BILLPOSTER.  You do know, don’t you!  (191-2, S. went a little crazy with the !, didn’t he?)

The Billposter is not a character of any depth.  This is it; you’ve seen it all.  Yet Strindberg has given him an outstandingly human moment in the play, and one that contrasts with all of the passion and agony of most of the rest of A Dream Play, a moment worthy of Pascal.

But perhaps I just recognize myself in it.  Many others, too.  So often in the dream plays, I just recognize Strindberg, who is awfully interesting whether as a creative artist or a clinical case study.  The central characters can be close to blanks, because they are needed to experience all of the successive steps of the dream journey and to express the Big Ideas of Strindberg, as when the Daughter jerks the play to a halt to deliver a lecture on Buddhism:

DAUGHTER.  In the dawn of time before the sun shone, Brahma, the divine primal force, allowed Maya, the world mother, to seduce him, so that he might multiply himself.  [etc.]  The world , life, and mankind, are therefore only phantoms, an illusion, a dream image –––

POET.  My dream!

DAUGHTER.  A true dream! ––– [more Brahma]  But this yearning for suffering conflicts with the desire for pleasure, or Love…  do you understand what Love is yet, a supreme joy coupled to the most profound suffering, sweetest when it is most bitter?  (243)

This is the tiresome Strindberg of the Age of Aquarius, crowding out his minor characters and original imagery for someone else’s predigested mix of Schopenhauer and Eastern religion.  Pedro Calderón de la Barca spends his play working hard to earn the claim that life is a dream.  Strindberg assumes it from the beginning and then treats it as a revelation, as if I had not been following along.

But this is the risk of Strindberg’s later technique, of his originality.  A scene that surprises with its audacity is followed by, or mixed with, received twaddle; images that have lost some of their shock only because they have been stolen by so many films are accompanied by Strindberg’s own thefts from across two thousand years of theater.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

the scene is dull and says nothing, but cannot be excluded ––– Bergman directs A Dream Play

Ingmar Bergman devotes a chapter of The Magic Lantern to A Dream Play (1901).  “In 1986, I was to direct Strindberg’s A Dream Play for the fourth time, a decision that seemed good” (35), even though the three earlier attempts had “come to grief” or “turned out poor” or “been ruined” (36).  But this time, despite the small stage, pregnant lead actress (the great Lena Olin), and heartbroken stage designer, Bergman tries again, as certain kinds of artists do.

I wanted the audience to experience the stench of the backyard of the Advocate’s office, the cold beauty  of Fagervik’s  summer countryside in snow, the sulphorous mist and glint of hell in Skamsund and the magnificent flowers round the Rising Castle, the old theatre behind the theatre corridor.  (36)

Hang on, I want to return to that stage designer.

The designer’s lips trembled and he looked at me with his slightly protruding eyes.  ‘I want her to come back,’ he whispered.  I did not embark on a cure of souls and persisted, but a few weeks later, he broke down and said that he couldn’t cope, after which he packed his bags and returned to Gothenburg, where he hoisted sail and went to sea with a new lover.  (36)

Someday a Swedish director will make a film based on this chapter.

In A Dream Play Indra’s Daughter (an Indian deity) descends to earth to experience humanity.  The first thing she see is that Rising Castle, a flower-like structure steadily growing out of a pile of manure, the primary sex-and-dirt image in this play.

DAUGHTER:  Tell me, Father, why do flowers grow out of dirt?

GLAZIER [piously].  Because they don’t like the dirt, so they hasten up into the light, to flower and die. (181, pages from the OUP edition)

This is not Strindberg’s answer.  The goddess plunges into the muck, experiencing love, marriage, poverty, and so on, accompanied by a number of Strindbergish figures, until she reasserts her godhood and brings the play to a close in a Prospero-like manner, in verse, even.

DAUGHTER.
Our parting is at hand, the end approaches;
Farewell you child of man, you dreamer,
You poet who understands best how to live;
Hovering on wings above the earth,
You dive at times into the mire
To graze against it, not fasten in it!  (246)

Bergman worries over scene after scene.  “[T]he unhappy coal-heavers are a taxing affair.”  In the Fingal’s Cave scene characters “declaim beautiful and worthless verses about each other, the vilest and the most lovely side by side” (39).  That scene climaxes in a shipwreck and a vision of Christ walking on the water; it involves one of the strangest mixes of tone I have ever seen, equal to the most baffling parts of Goethe’s Faust

The rising waves threaten to drown them in the cave.

DAUGHTER.  If only I were sure it is a ship…

POET.  To tell you the truth…  I don’t think it is a ship... it is a two-storied house, with trees outside… and… a telephone tower…  A tower reaching up into the skies…  It is the modern Tower of Babel, sending its wires up there – to communicate with those above…

DAUGHTER.  Child, human thoughts need no metal wires to transmit themselves; ––– The prayers of the devout make their way through every world…  That is certainly no Tower of Babel, for if you would storm heaven, then storm it with your prayers.  (234-5, ellipses all Strindberg’s)

Have I just copied out a chunk of Swedenborg, updated for the age of telephony?  The characters at this point pop back out in the theater to witness the satirical argument of the Deans – “The following scene in the theatre corridor is dull and says nothing, but cannot be excluded” (Bergman, 40).

Of course the production is a failure, as was, on a smaller scale my reading of the play.  “So much effort, pain, anxiety, tedium, hope, all to no avail” (51).  This was Bergman’s last try, with this play, not with Strindberg.  Not mine, though, not yet.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Strindberg becomes part of the great pancake - To Damascus - Life used to be just a great nonsense.

STRANGER:  I’ll soon believe nothing is impossible.  This is the worst I have ever known.

MOTHER:  Oh no.  There's worse possible.  Just you wait.

That beautiful sentiment is from Act II, Scene 5 of To Damascus I  (1898).  These are the most perfectly Strindbergian lines I found in all of Strindberg.  Why did Samuel Beckett even bother (because Beckett is funnier).  This play is Strindberg’s return to drama, practically to writing, after several years of spiritual, artistic, sexual, you name it crisis.  It is not his return to theater, since the play is unplayable, not that that has ever stopped a theater director.

Two great artistic benefits came out of Strindberg’s crisis.  First, he abandoned his misogyny, finding the female within himself and turning his attention to integrating the male and female principle, etc., etc., not a good idea but as bad ideas go much less painful to read and I think more imaginatively fruitful than Woman-as-Enemy.  Some of this he picked up from alchemy, some from Swedenborg, some perhaps from his second wife.

Then second, he invented the dream play, or his version of it.  Strindberg acknowledged The Tempest and Life Is a Dream as precedents, directing attention away from his great debt to Goethe’s Faust and his enemy Ibsen’s Peer Gynt.  I love all of these plays.  None of the three To Damascus plays rank with them, although A Dream Play (1901) might.

As the title suggests, To Damascus is a conversion narrative, with a Strindberg-like Stranger who as the Saul who becomes Paul.  He is subjected to a series of trials and torments on his way from this world into the next, from doubt to belief. 

STRANGER:  Yes.  I’ve been noticing everything lately.  Not just things and incidents, forms and colours – now I see thoughts and what things signify.  Life used to be just a great nonsense.  Now it has a meaning, and I see a purpose in it where before I only saw a game of chance.  (To Damascus I, Act I, Sc. 1)

Since the play has just begun, the Stranger is only in the preparatory stage of conversion.  There are three plays (the first two written in 1898, the last in 1901) not because Strindberg had planned a trilogy but because he doubted that he had really gotten the Stranger across the divide.  It is as if there are always more tests.  Strindberg was likely right about that.

The form is completely free, limited only by the convention the scene.  Sets float around, light and sound replace action, and characters all have allegorical labels.  Dream logic prevails, supposedly.  I have doubts.    The results are passages like this one, perhaps my favorite in all the Strindberg I read:

DOCTOR:  He’s lost already, like a broken egg.  Now he’ll be whipped into a froth, and atomized, and become part of the great pancake.  All right, then.  Go to hell.  [To the OTHERS.]  Howl, victims!  Howl! [The GUESTS howl.]  (To Damascus II, Act IV, Sc. 1)

No point in giving any context; context will only damage the sublimity of the great pancake.

For the To Damascus plays I have switched to the Michael Meyer translation in The Plays of Strindberg, Volume II, Vintage.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Perhaps when death comes, life begins. – – – Strindberg's Dance of Death

The Dance of Death I (there is a sequel I have not read), from 1900, a year when August Strindberg wrote six plays.  The next year he wrote seven.  Eighteen plays in four years .  One might suspect Strindberg of being a hack, but this is just how his creativity functioned, years of nothing and then an outpouring.

These are the years when Strindberg created his dream plays, radically detached from even the conventions of theatrical realism.  The Dance of Death is a blend of the dream play with the warring couples of The Father and Miss Julie, as a rotten marriage jerks from plausibility to mannerism without warning.  Beckett’s Happy Days or Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, or maybe Sartre’s No Exit, those are descendants of The Dance of Death.

The husband this time is the Captain, author of a “rifle manual” and in some position of authority on an island fortress; the wife is Alice; Kurt is an old friend whose appearance catalyzes the action of the play, which means he becomes a weapon the man and woman try to use to destroy each other.  I guess, unlike in the earlier plays, neither clearly succeeds.

This is what I remember most vividly from seeing Ian McKellan and Helen Mirren do the play:

ALICE plays ‘The Entry of the Boyars’, while the CAPTAIN performs a kind of Hungarian dance behind the desk, his spurs jangling.  Then he slumps to the floor, unnoticed by KURT and ALICE, who continues to play the piece to the end.

ALICE [without turning round]:  Shall we take it again?
                                                         Silence.

ALICE [turns round and sees the CAPTAIN lying unconscious, concealed from the audience by the desk].  Good God!

She stands with her arms crossed over her breast, and gives a sigh as of thankfulness and relief.  (136)

But it is much too early in the play for her to remain happy.  The word “slump” does not convey the surprise and comedy of McKellen’s collapse; “sigh” gestures towards whatever Mirren was doing.  The Captain and Alice are both juicy ham parts that reward big acting.  I suppose there is also a way to play them small.

CAPTAIN [sits again].  So you didn’t escape this time.  But you didn’t get me put away either! [ALICE is amazed] Oh, I knew you wanted to have me put in prison; but I’ll cross that out!– – –You’ve probably done worse things than that.– – –[ALICE is speechless] And I wasn’t guilty of embezzlement!

ALICE.  And now I’m to be your nurse?

CAPTAIN.  If you wish.

ALICE.  What else can I do?

CAPTAIN.  I don’t know.

ALICE [sits down apathetically in despair].  This must be everlasting hell!  Is there no end, then?

CAPTAIN.  Yes, if we’re patient.  Perhaps when death comes, life begins.

ALICE.  If only that were so!  (173)

See, I said it was like No Exit.  This is on their silver wedding anniversary.  Mature Strindberg has renounced the satisfying closure of tragedy.

The triple dash (– – –) is a common feature in Strindberg’s late plays.  I used two different translations, and it is in both, so it must be in the Swedish.  I wonder what it means.

Page numbers have all been to the Oxford World’s Classics Miss Julie and Other Plays, tr. Michael Robinson.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Short story oddities by Anthony Trollope and Charlotte Mew - it made a claim to something like supremacy of charm

The logical step following The Father and Miss Julie is The Dance of Death, but right now I am going to take a one-post break from Strindberg while another subject is fresh in my mind.  I have returned, briefly, to A. S. Byatt’s Oxford Book of English Short Stories (1998), and I am worried that if I wait I will not have as much fun mocking the stories I read today.

To be clear, Byatt’s anthology has been a treat to paw through, and now I hope someday to read ‘em all.  But one admirable feature of the book is Byatt’s complete lack of interest in compiling the best English short stories.  She went for the oddest, or the oddest given the need for a certain number of famous names.

Story 1: “Relics of General Chassé: A Tale of Antwerp” by Anthony Trollope (1860), the only Trollope short story I have ever read.  It is an elaborate joke based around two related points, the fun to be had with a fat clergyman who has lost his pants, and the impropriety, within the world of the story and in the text itself, of uttering a specific word:

‘He has lost his things,’ and I took hold of my own garments.  ‘It’s a long story, or I’d tell you how; but he has not a pair in the world till he gets back to Brussels, – unless you can lend him one.’

‘Lost his br–?’ and he opened his eyes wide, and looked at me with astonishment.

‘Yes, yes, exactly so,’ said I, interrupting him.  (54)

How do the ladies address the problem?

‘We just found a pair of black –.’  The whole truth was told in the plainest possible language.

‘Oh, Aunt Sally!’  ‘Aunt Sally, how can you?’  ‘Hold your tongue, Aunt Sally!’  (59)

Trollope was quite inventive in the many ways he dodges the word “breeches.”  The story also has some reasonable satirical points to make about celebrity and about dignity carried to far, not that any reader will learn anything he didn’t know.  Byatt picked the story for the writer’s trick, the telling of a story based on a forbidden word.

Story 2: “A White Night” by Charlotte Mew (1903).  Mew is worth knowing about for her own sake.  Virginia Woolf called her “the greatest living poetess” based on her 1916 collection The Farmer’s Bride, which is why I try not to make such generalizations without a hundred years hindsight, since the greatest living “poetess” at the time was either Anna Akhmatova or Marina Tsvetaeva.

In the story, English tourists have accidentally gotten themselves locked in a remote Andalusian church, where they witness the Spanish monks commit a terrible ritual murder.  I know, a return to The Monk in 1903!

It’s the style, though, that had me laughing here.  The tourists have reached the isolated Spanish village:

In its neglect and singularity, it made a claim to something like supremacy of charm.  There was a quality of diffidence belonging to unrecognised abandoned personalities in that appeal.

That’s how I docketed it in memory – a city with a claim, which, as it happened, I was not to weigh.  (141)

I don’t know, maybe you like it.  I know what the last bit means – they leave the town without exploiting it – but “unrecognised abandoned personalities,” if you say so.

Whenever Mew turns to abstraction she uses this Jamesian mode.  It sound like James to me.  The story begins with a frame, an imitation of the beginning of the Turn of the Screw (1898):

‘The incident,’ said Cameron, ‘is spoiled inevitably in the telling, by its merely accidental quality of melodrama, its sensational machinery, which, to the view of anyone who didn’t witness it, is apt to blue the finer outlines of the scene.  The subtlety, or call it the significance, is missed, and unavoidably, as one attempts to put the thing before you, in a certain casual crudity, and inessential violence of fact.’  (139)

Not “inevitably,” pal – it’s just the way you tell it.  And the curious thing is the mismatch between voice and subject does not spoil the central horror of the tale at all.  Accentuates it, if anything.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Some Strindberg filth - Miss Julie - now you know what I’m talking about

Miss Julie (1888) reverses and rearranges The Father.  Now the man will defeat the woman.  What begins as a seduction, with the complicity of the woman, turns into something much uglier, much worse, a battle of willpower that ends with the destruction of Miss Julie’s will, literalized through some kind of hypnosis.

Since the story is about a man revenging himself on a woman for having sex with him, it might seem like the play is Strindberg’s punishment of Miss Julie for her sexual discretion.  Strindberg’s misogyny is infamous.  Miss Julie comes with a preface full of this kind of twaddle:

The half-woman is a type who thrusts herself forward and sells herself nowadays for power, decorations, honours, or diplomas as formerly she used to do for money.  She is synonymous with degeneration.  (60)

Other parts of the Preface are so ironic, even plainly satirical, that I am careful not to take any of it too seriously, but the remarkable thing is that the play itself reverses the claims of the preface and the logic of its own story.  The servant deliberately turns the sexual encounter into a weapon to avenge himself not for the sex, but for earlier humiliations going back to his childhood, humiliations that he attributes to his class but are in fact the result of his own weakness.  Julie’s tragic end is not the result of the erasure of her will, but rather its assertion.  The servant is humiliated again at the moment of his supposed triumph.  He’s the weak one, not Julie.  Seen this way, the play is a double of The Father from the previous year.

Miss Julie introduced me to Strindberg’s filth theme.  If it was in The Father, I missed it.  The servant tells Julie the story of the first time he saw her.  He was a child; he had snuck into the estate’s park to steal apples.  He was intrigued by a building like “a Turkish pavilion” of unknown purpose.

The walls were all covered with portraits of kings and emperors, and over the windows there were red curtains with tassles on them – now you know what I’m talking about.  (82)

Actually, I thought I knew, and I was right, but those portraits threw me off the foul scent for a minute.  So that’s how rich people decorated their outhouses in 19th century Sweden.  The boy, hearing people approach, escapes through the toilet, so when he first sees the “pink dress and a pair of white stockings” belonging to Julie he is literally covered in the excrement of his masters.  The servant is at this point still trying to seduce Julie.

Turning to the introduction of the Oxford World’s Classics edition:  “[Miss Julie] had to wait eighteen years for its first professional production in Sweden and an unexpurgated text was not published or performed there until well into the following century” (xiii).  No kidding.  Sex, filth, death – whatever excesses Freudian critics may have committed against other writers, they are on firm ground with Strindberg.

All of this in one plain set, a kitchen, with three actors plus some mimes.  Kitchen mimes are an example of the Naturalism for which Strindberg is so well known.  I will never stop mocking the term “Naturalism.”

Friday, October 17, 2014

It’s all here in these books! - The Father, some realistic Strindberg

DOCTOR.  There are many different kinds of women, you know.

CAPTAIN.  Recent research has shown there’s only one!  (Act II, Sc. 4, p. 31)

The Father (1887) is the earliest Strindberg play I read.  It is a good place to start to see the great Strindberg theme of the battle of the sexes.  Just blatant open warfare. 

PASTOR.  You’ve too many women running your home.

CAPTAIN.  You can say that again!  It’s like being in a cage full of tigers.  If I didn’t keep a red-hot iron in front of their noses they’d tear me to pieces the first chance they got!  (I.3, 6)

The Captain lives in a house of women – wife, daughter, childhood nurse (see above) who is a substitute mother figure, mother-in-law (who never sets foot on stage), and numerous servants.  And however hyperbolic he sounds, the Captain is right.  He and his wife Laura compete for the affection of their daughter.  The wife wins by having her husband sent to a mental institution.  Perhaps she has actually driven him insane, or perhaps she has merely convinced the law he is crazy.  Also possible is that he was essentially insane already; his own weakness has destroyed him with his wife just giving him the slightest tap over the edge.  The mother is a first-rate villain, a monster.  Yet perhaps the family is better off rid of the father.

Technically, this is an exercise in manipulating sympathy.  The father starts at a high level, the mother low; there is a modest attempt to increase sympathy for the mother, but mostly Strindberg systematically destroys sympathy for the father.  I have been reading Bleak House, where the standard Dickens (Trollope, Eliot, etc.) move is to create sympathy for the most unlikely characters.  Strindberg is helping found the great Modernist tradition of literature with only horrible characters.

CAPTAIN [gets up].  Get out, woman!  To hell with you, you witches!...  Get out, woman!  At once!

NURSE.  Lord preserve us, what’s going to happen now?

CAPTAIN. [puts on cap and equips himself to go out].  Don’t expect me home before midnight!  [Exits

NURSE.  Sweet Jesus, help us, how is this all going to end?  (I.9, 23-4)

A naïve Strindberg reader, that is just what I was asking! Not now, though. As he grows mad, the Captain begins to transform himself into a character in a tragedy, as if he realizes he is in a play, or as if his madness requires dramatization. The Father is often considered one of Strindberg’s “realistic” and Naturalist plays, but the range of literary reference suggests something else.

The CAPTAIN enters with a pile of books under his arm.CAPTAIN [puts the books on the table].  It’s all here in these books, every one of them.  So I wasn’t mad! (Act III.5., 45)

I am making The Father sound a bit more like Pirandello than it really is, but it is a bit like Pirandello.  And I see that in this scene, the Captain is on the wrong track, furiously leafing through the Odyssey, Ezekiel, and Pushkin, when what he needs is Aeschylus.  Well, he figures it out in the end, that he is Agamemnon (or Othello) while his wife is Clytemnestra (or Iago), when it is far too late.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

'To me it’s among the greatest works in the history of drama,’ I replied truthfully - poor suffering actors - some Ghost Sonata

Four more days on August Strindberg, I promise, and I already have no idea what I want to say.

Strindberg is weird and I barely understand him.  Some of his plays, or large parts of them, are obviously immensely effective theatrical art.  Then other sections, even in the same play, are baffling, cryptic, tedious, didactic – name your sin.  The “dream plays” – A Dream Play, To Damascus, The Ghost Sonata – abandon ordinary narrative logic and structure, which leaves Strindberg free to write as a genuine visionary writer, but also allows him to spew some pretty dubious nonsense.

Then there are Strindberg’s ideas, about women, marriage,  and sex, particularly, that occasionally take some pretty appalling turns but are always –and remember I have only read eight plays, but within those, I do mean “always” – redeemed by an irony or reversal so fierce that the original terrible idea is at least challenged and sometimes demolished.  The latter effect is impressive.

Or so it seems to me.  Here is Ingmar Bergman, who is directing The Ghost Sonata:

At my side was a tiny little creature, or possibly a ghost, the grand old lady of the theatre.  Maria Schildknecht, dressed up in the parrot dress and hideous mask of the Mummy.  ‘I assume you are Mr Bergman,’ she whispered, smiling kindly but terrifyingly.  I confirmed my identity and bowed awkwardly.  We stood in silence for a few moments.  ‘Well, what do you think of this then?’ said the little ghost, her voice stern and challenging.  ‘To me it’s among the greatest works in the history of drama,’ I replied truthfully.  The Mummy looked at me with cold contempt.  ‘Oh,’ she said.  ‘This is the kind of shit Strindberg knocked up so that we should have something to play at his Intimate Theatre.’  She left me with a gracious nod…  Imperishable, in a role she hated under a producer she hated.  (Ch. 12 of The Magic Lantern, italics added)

So there are differences of opinion.  This is her part:

MUMMY [like a baby]. Why are you opening the dawer; didn’t I twell you to keep it cwosed?...
BENGTSSON  [also babbling like a baby].  Ta, ta, ta, ta!  Ittle lolly must be nice now, then she’ll get a sweetie! – Pretty Polly!
MUMMY [like a parrot].  Pretty Polly!  Is Jacob there?  Currrrre!
BENGTSSON.  She thinks she’s a parrot.  Maybe she is…  [To the MUMMY]  Come on, Polly!  Give us a whistle!
The MUMMY whistles.  (Scene 2, tr. Michael Robinson, Oxford World’s Classics, p. 266, italics in original)

Actors sometimes have to suffer for our entertainment.  She gets her revenge by the end of the scene, though.

MUMMY.  [opens the closet door]  Now the clock has struck! – Get up and go into the closet where I’ve been sitting mourning our misdeed for twenty years – You’ll find a rope in there like the  one with which you strangled the Consul upstairs, and with which you thought to strangle your benefactor…  Go!
[The OLD MAN goes into the closet]
MUMMY  [Closing the door].  Bengtsson!  Put up the screen!  The death screen!  (Sc. 2, italics in original)

I am making Strindberg sound like Alfred Jarry here, a writer of nightmare gibberish.  The Mummy whistles.  The death screen!  And this isn’t the craziest stuff.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

There was no hairpin, but I saw it - a week of August Strindberg

This is where I spend a week writing about an author about whom I knew close to nothing a month, or let’s say a year ago, and now I’m some kinda expert.  It’s August Strindberg week!  This’ll be fun!  He was nuts!

He really was somethin’ else.  I will do my best to avoid anything biographical, because that really is all secondhand for me, and at least I did read some of the plays for myself, but I understand the temptation.  What family drama, what wild swings of opinion, what invective.  After a crisis of confidence in his marriage and writing and beliefs Strindberg spent five years working on science.  What science?  Creating gold!  He was an actual alchemist, in the 1890s.  He’s a character in a John Crowley novel.

The sheer bulk of Strindberg’s writing is hard to understand.  He wrote something like eighty plays, of which I have now read eight, and only the most famous. He wrote novels, short stories, history, popular science, and rants.  Elias Canetti, in his memoir A Tongue Set Free, described his mother’s obsessive reading of Strindberg – this was during and after World War I, so after Strindberg’s death.  Teenage Canetti would buy his mother every volume of Strindberg he could find, assiduously avoiding glancing at the contents because his mother forbid it.  Canetti’s book gave me my first hint of what Strindberg meant to people outside of the theater.

No, the first hint, which I did not understand, came from Ingmar Bergman’s autobiography The Magic Lantern (1987).  Bergman constantly returned to Strindberg throughout his life, in his films, his reading, and especially in the theater:

When I was twelve, I was allowed to accompany a musician who was playing the celeste backstage in Strindberg’s A Dream Play.  It was a searing experience.  Night after night, hidden in the proscenium tower, I witnessed the marriage scene between the Advocate and the Daughter.  It was the first time I had experienced the magic of acting.  The Advocate held a hairpin between his thumb and forefinger, he twisted it, straightened it out and broke it.  There was no hairpin, but I saw it.  The Officer was backstage waiting for his entrance, leaning forward at his shoes, his hands behind his back.  He cleared his throat soundlessly, a perfectly ordinary person.  Then he opened the door and stepped into the limelight.  He was changed, transformed: he was the Officer.  (Ch.4, tr. Joan Tate)

I suppose this story has happened to many children at many different plays, but how appropriate that it was this play, one where the theatrical illusion is constantly violated.  The result was a life of the highest creativity that was suffused with Strindberg.

Here is what I read, by the way, the material for the next few days.  This is a good time to let me know what I should have read not instead of but of course in addition to these.  Always in addition.

The Father (1887) – terrific, intense, deeply misogynist, and yet…

Miss Julie (1888) – as a bonus, it has a preface as hilarious as those of Zola.

To Damascus I & II (1898) – these are oddities, but boy do they explain a lot.

The Dance of Death I (1901) – I saw Helen Mirren and Ian McKellen do this one in 2001 or 2002.  Was that ever fun.

A Dream Play (1901) – Bergman has a funny section describing the impossibility of doing this play, yet he tries again and again.

To Damascus III (1904) – more of the above.

The Ghost Sonata (1907) – short, concentrated, pure; Strindberg aspiring to the condition if music.

This will give me something to do.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

As many times as I’ve been able to, I’ve avoided looking at corpses - Horacio Quiroga looks at corpses

Lugones had a stove, which was extremely comforting to my winter debility.  We sat down once again and continued our pleasant chat concerning the insane.  (“The Pursued,” Decapitated Chicken, 25)

This is an example of Horacio Quiroga as a descendant of Poe.  Leopoldo Lugones was another Doomed Argentinean writer with a strong streak of Poe.  Maybe Quiroga was not influenced by Poe, but rather Lugones; how would I know.  Anyway, this is the kind of thing Quiroga eventually abandoned.

He never gives up on stories about how people die.  The two collections I read have examples from across his career.  In “Drifting,” a man is bit by a venomous snake.  He heroically tries to reach a doctor, but fails.  He is on the Paraná River, omnipresent in Quiroga, paddling:

The sky to the west opened into a golden screen, and the river, too, took on color.  A dusky freshness spilled from the mountain on the Paraguayan shore – in shadows now – a penetrating aroma of orange blossom and woodsy sweetness.  High overhead a pair of macaws glided silently toward Paraguay.  (DC, 72)

I believe those lines describe the moment the snake’s toxins reach the man’s brain.

“The Dead Man” has tripped and impaled himself on his machete.  He spends four pages dying:

What a nightmare!  But, of course, it’s just one of many days, ordinary as any other!  Excessive light, yellowish shadows, oven-still heat that raises sweat on the motionless horse next to the forbidden banana grove.  (DC, 124-5)

I remembered these kinds of stories as intensely concentrated on the dying man, but I note that this one occasionally shifts to the point of view of the horse, who watches the man die.  For the horse, there is a happy ending – she gets a banana.

The vision on the river suggests some sort of transcendence with death, a common idea in Quiroga’s earlier stories.  “The Dead Man” is more typical of later stories – “just one of many days.”  Meaning is found in life.  In “The Darkroom,” the narrator has photographed a corpse at a funeral.  After developing the photo (“the two of us alone in profoundly concentrated darkness”) he emerges into the dawn.

A few steps away were banana plants laden with flowers, and drops were falling to earth from their huge leaves heavy with moisture.  Farther away, a cross the bridge, the sunburned manioc was standing erect at last, now pearly with dew.  Still farther off, in the valley that went down to the river, a dim have enveloped the yerba plantation, and rose above the woods to mingle there below with the dense vapors that ascended from the tepid Paraná.

All this was very familiar to me, for it made up my real life.  And I walked here and there waiting calmly for daylight, so as to begin that life again.  (Exiles, 132)

Horacio Quiroga’s house in Misiones is now a museum.  Perhaps someday I will go see that scene for myself.  Earlier in the same story, the narrator says “As many times as I’ve been able to, I’ve avoided looking at corpses” (129), an amusing irony from the author of these corpse-filled stories.  Look, they say; look.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Too gruesome - Hiracio Quiroga and Uruguayan Doom

The Argentinean Literature of Doom, 2014 edition, is in progress at Caravana de recuerdas.  Richard has included Uruguayan literature, too, this year, because it seems Uruguayan literature is comparably Doom-laden.  I tried a couple of short story collections by Uruguayan Hiracio Quiroga, who must be one of the Doomiest authors of all time, and that is just in his fiction.  The number of violent deaths in his actual life is nightmarish.

Quiroga settled and worked in the Misiones district of Argentina, right across the Paraná River from Paraguay and also bordering Brazil and Uruguay.  It was a frontier forest region, wild and dangerous.  Every story I read was set in Misiones, bar one, which was in a similar area just a bit north.  Quiroga was a dedicated regionalist.  In some of his early stories, Quiroga shows the clear marks of Edgar Allen Poe, who he presumably read in Baudelaire’s French version, but he shed that influence and became something more original.  He reminded me quite a bit of Jack London, actually, with the Misiones forests in place of the Yukon.  Jack London with more snakes.  Way, way, way more snakes.

The two short books I read, which I believe covers most of Quiroga in English, were The Decapitated Chicken and Other Stories (pub. 1976, tr. Margaret Sayers Peden) and The Exiles and Other Stories (1987, tr. J. David Danielson), both published by University of Texas Press.  They include stories from a variety of Spanish-language collections, dates ranging from 1907 to 1935.

The volumes, curiously, although I assume by design, create two Quirogas.  The Decapitated Chicken has Quiroga the horror writer.  The title story – eh, I don’t even want to describe it.  By the end I was thinking, why would you even write this?  It is in the tradition of Heinrich von Kleist, of “The Earthquake in  Chile” (1807) but in particular a horrible Kleist shocker that was published by some mistake as “How Some Children Played at Slaughtering” in the first (1812) edition of Grimm’s Fairy Tales but was omitted in later editions because it was “too gruesome” (see note to the story in the Jack Zipes Complete Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm).

Now no one knows what I am talking about.  “Too gruesome” describes many Quiroga stories.

The other Quiroga, the one in The Exiles and Other Stories, write about work.  Look at the titles: “The Contract Laborers,” “The Log-Fisherman,” “The Charcoal-Makers,” “A Workingman,” “The Orange-Distillers.”  Most of the rest are about labor, too, brutal, unforgiving labor, labor that kills.  There is as much death in this volume as in the other.  Maybe this is the horror volume.  Just try the scene in “Beasts in Collusion” where the two workers, one a peon, one skilled, are openly tortured (ants, etc.) by their monstrous boss, or for that matter the scene where with the help of a semi-tame puma – the one beast in the story who is not human – they get their revenge.

Quiroga makes fine Halloween reading.

I guess I need to write one more post with quotations and examples and so on, picked from stories that are not too gruesome.  I pulled the “literature of doom” line from an essay about Argentinean literature by Roberto Bolaño, and I originally assumed he was having his obscure joke, but no, it’s true, it’s true.  The more I get to know the region and its writers, the more I find it to be the most violent and strangest literary tradition I have ever seen.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

An amateur, a simple amateur is all that I am - the plays of Alphonse Allais made me laugh

I have in my hands the Selected Plays of Alphonse Allais, another collection of the French humorist’s columns, monologues, and whatnots, including even a couple of miniature plays, the sequel to last year’s enlightening Captain Cap: His Adventures, His Ideas, His Drinks.  That last part of the title is enough to identify the earlier book as the superior one.  No drink recipes in Selected Plays.  Dates of publication run from 1879 to 1900.

Here we are in the theatrical realm not so far from today’s stand-up comedy and yesterday’s sketch comedy.  The monologist has a little story to tell, and although one hopes the end is good the jokes and asides along the way are just as important.

The narrator is ill and receiving house calls from his doctor:

One morning when I was feeling not at all well, my doctor, after auscultating me more carefully than usual, asked me:

“Are you content with this apartment?”

“Why yes, pretty much.”

“How much is your rent?”

“Three thousand and four.”

“Is the concierge acceptable?”

And on like that.  “Etc., etc.”  I know this joke in its later New York City version.  Now a comedian would have to modify it somehow to get rid of the house call.  Plus, who’s going to have the better apartment these days, the doctor or the comic?

You really have to imagine the performance.  In “The Umbrella,” the narrator comes up with an amazing invention to keep off the rain, a silk cloth attached to a cane by rings and rods.  “That’s all there is to it, but you do have to think of it.”  He even comes up with an elegant name at the end, “’little shade’ in Italian.”  There is barely any joke aside from the monologist describing the umbrella in utter seriousness, as if he had no idea it already existed.  I’ll bet the bit killed.

“A Malcontent” is about a grump who shouts “Hooray for Boulanger,” a political slogan, whenever anything goes wrong for him, which is often, like when the bus is late.  The odd thing is that I met this fellow on a train in Paris once, an ancient man wearing a number of Catholic medals, who when forcefully informed he was sitting in the wrong seat shouted “Vive la République!  Vive la privatization!”  A true story, pointless, but true.

I wonder if I am emphasizing the wrong thing.  Allais has some importance as a forerunner of the Surrealists, and this book and Captain Cap make it clear why.  But I found myself laughing at the mother-in-law jokes,  the publisher jokes, the door-to-door salesman jokes, many of which would not have been out of place on Your Show of Shows.  The sex jokes, probably not on American television, back in the 1950s, I mean.

Somebody else can do a post about Allais as a proto-Dadaist.  I’ll just admire a humor writer who at the distance of 130 years and another language remains funny.

The book is like Captain Cap a production of Doug Skinner, friend of Wuthering Expectations, who translated, annotated, and even illustrated it.  It is another gift to English readers.  Great job; many thanks; more, please.  Title quotation from “The English Accent.”

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

And strange moods are born within me and the blood rises to my head - loving the twigs, kissing the grass, flinging the shoes - Pan is odd

A little bit if Knut Hamsun weirdness.  Pan, like Hunger, is awful weird.

Also awful awful in some ways.  Pan’s story features some genuine shockers, horrible jaw-droppers. 

Then I did something that I regret and have not yet forgotten.  Her shoe slipped off; I seized it and hurled it far out over the water – whether from joy at her nearness or from some urge to assert myself and remind her of my existence, I do not know.  It all happened so quickly; I did not think, I just acted on an impulse.  (Ch. 15, 65)

Like that except much worse.  The above is part of the love story I mentioned yesterday, where gestures that in another context might be flirtatious or playful go wrong, so that whatever love there is curdles.

I’ll move earlier, when the cursed couple has just met, a happier time.  Note the change of tense.

The monotonous sighing of the wind and the familiar trees and stones mean much to me; I feel a strange sense of gratitude, everything reaches out towards me, blends with me, I love all things.  I take up a dry twig and hold  it in my hand as I sit there and think my own thoughts; the twig is nearly rotten, its meagre bark distresses me, and pity steals through my heart.  And when I get up to go, I do not fling away the twig but lay it down and stand and gaze fondly at it; finally, with moist eyes, I give it one last look before I forsake it.  (Ch. 6, 27)

The possibility of earthly love causes the narrator to becomes a transparent eyeball, or in Schopenhauer’s terms to catch a glimpse of Will as embodied in the beloved rotten twig, certainly among the greatest beloved twigs in the history of Western literature.

A later passage is even better.  I am giving away all the best parts of the book.  Spoiler alert, etc.  Note that this comes just after the narrator has thrown his girlfriend’s shoe into the sea.

If I could win her, I would become a good man, I thought.  I reached the forest and thought again: if I could win her, I would serve her tirelessly as no other would, and even if she showed herself unworthy of me, if she took it into her head to demand impossibilities of me, still would I do all in my power and rejoice that she was mine…  I stopped and fell on my knees; and in humility and hope I licked the blades of grass by the side of the path; then I stood up again.  (Ch. 15, 69, italics his, not mine)

Did you see that coming, the part with the grass?  Maybe I had over-prepared you with the twig.  It was a surprise to me.

The novel is narrated from the distance of two years, and is obviously self-serving, so anything the narrator writes is open to question from a number of angles.  The most unusual artistic effect, though, is a sort of layering of different levels of reality – are some parts invention?  Are some parts perhaps dreams or hallucinations?  Almost everything can be taken as real – when I had doubts it was really an effect of language, a shift in rhetoric, where the narrator describes an event as if it were not real, which, of course, nothing in the book is.  An explicit dream or forest fantasy in Chapter 20 (“And strange moods are born within me and the blood rises to my head,” 92) perhaps gives a clue to how some other scenes might be taken.

A crazy narrator, the senses heightened to the point of suffering, by hunger or passion – no surprise that the fictive reality of scenes in Hunger and Pan are often ambiguous, or that the much of the art of the novel depends on my confusion.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Hamsun's Pan, another Hamsun readalong, and some antipoetry - a chaotic post

“Yes, that sounds horrible, doesn’t it?  I must admit it does.  But if you repeat it to yourself seven or eight times and think it over a little, it soon sounds better.”  (Pan, Ch. 15, p. 60)

All too soon Ricardo de la Caravana de recuerdos, and I hope many, many others, will join me in a reading of and conversation about Knut Hamsun’s 1892 novel Mysteries.  If it is like other Hamsun novels, some of that “conversation” will be closer to stunned silence and questions like “What is this?”  It is not too late to scramble your plans and join in on a whim.  It’s just a regular old novel, 338 pages, 23 chapters, no big deal, I hope.

Sometime around the end of October, more or less, one or more of us will write something, comments will follow, then more posts, and more comments, until interest in the whole idea slides into the abyss as if it never happened.

At the same time, which will be a good trick, Richard and I plan to read and write on Chilean poet Nicanor Parra’s legendary 1954 Poemas y Antipoemas, so join us for that as well, why don’t you?  Some resources: the original text (pdf), a selection of English translations (click Anthology), and a 14,000 word essay on Antipoetry by Edith Grossman (click Essays).  This year is, as with Tove Jansson and Romain Gary, Nicanor Parra’s centennial – but he is still alive, so we will wish him a happy 100th from afar.

So even though both of these ideas sound horrible, I admit, just repeat them to yourself seven or eight times until they sound better and then head to the library.

Meanwhile, I have been reading Hamsun’s subsequent novel, the 1894 Pan, which is, curiously, a book about the pleasures of hunting and fishing, much like William Henry Harrison’s Adventures in the Wilderness, except set in the northern forests of Norway rather than New York.  The two books even share semi-Transcendentalist appreciations of natural beauty.  The main difference is that Pan is narrated not by a married Boston pastor but rather a lust-crazed madman.  I suppose the title of the book is a tipoff, since the narrator is or becomes an avatar of the ancient Greek god.

The core of the story is a love affair between the hunter and a local young woman.  Hamsun does what writers rarely do successfully, or at all – he shows by a series of seemingly inconsequential encounters and gestures how the two people fall in love, and then at the same level of detail the tiny, awkward misunderstandings that turn the love into hate, the petty jealousies, imagined slights, statements that would normally be innocuous but in this precise context wound.  The blossoming and collapse of the romance is quite insightful.  I can imagine a similar novel, with a sane narrator, where that is the point of the book.

But that’s not Pan.  I’ll write at least one more post about the crazy side of Hamsun’s novel.

I’m reading the 1956 James W. McFarlane translation.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

my chief preoccupation, the link between fish consumption and the superiority of the Nordic race - a couple of little Sjón novels

Two novels by Icelandic wonderboy Sjón, The Whispering Muse (2005) and From the Mouth of the Whale (2008), both translated by Victoria Cribb, both published in English along with The Blue Fox (2004) in April 2013.  I wonder, did the stunt work?  In terms of sales, attention, anything?  I read and enjoyed all three, but that is evidence of nothing.

The original titles are, respectively, Argóarflísin, Rökkurbýsnir, and Skugga-Baldur, all of which should have been retained for the English versions.  The first is especially aggravating.  The “whispering muse” of the English title is, as the Icelandic title specifies, a splinter from the Argo, the ship that carried Jason and the Argonauts, but heaven forbid you scare off a reader with a classical literary reference from a novel packed from beginning to end with classical literary references – a novel based in part of a fragmentary Euripides play, in fact, about classical literary references.

Also medieval, and even Victorian, since one of the models for The Whispering Muse is William Morris’s The Earthly Paradise, which is, as you likely do not remember since you likely skipped those posts, a gigantic poem consisting of alternating stories in verse, one classical, one medieval, on and on seemingly forever – no, there were only twelve of each.  Sjón, a creature of our time, sensitive to our shortened attention span and electronic distractions, has the good sense to tell only one classical and one medieval story, although now the medieval story is also a classical story.

Sjón brilliantly blends the Argonautica with the Niebelunglied, with Sigurd as Jason and Gudrun as Medea; the result is entirely credible, bravura, even.  The author is looking for, finding, universal stories.

Then the whole thing is surrounded by a frame that sounds like this:

I, Valdimar Haraldsson, was in my twenty-seventh year when I embarked on the publication of a small journal devoted to my chief preoccupation, the link between fish consumption and the superiority of the Nordic race.  It was written in Danish, under the title Fisk og Kultur, and came out in seventeen volumes over the space of twenty years.  (3)

This dullard has also written Memoirs of a Herring Inspector, self-published, 1933), and is a Nazi fellow traveler.  Knut Hamsun makes a cameo appearance, sort of, to rub in the point.

What a reader who is not already familiar with these stories – maybe even invested in them – would think of this novel is an open question.

From the Mouth of the Whale is longer and more varied, the story of a 17th century Icelandic sage, Jónas Palmasson the Learned, who runs into trouble at every turn.  He is a man of science and reason, yet, a man of his time, a mystic.  The big show-off scenes are a couple of visions (or hallucinations) and the messy, long exorcism of a filthy Icelandic ghost.  The half-troll hero of the 14th century Grettir’s Saga is powerful enough to crush a ghost to death – Icelandic ghosts are not like English ghosts – but Jónas Palmasson defeats it with learning, which means learned poetry, “’tell[ing] the ghoul the history of the world, of spirits and men, both evil and benevolent [and] where it fits into God’s great mechanism’” (87-8), which, after a struggle, works – “it flinched under the verses, which became ever harder for it to bear the more skillfully and aptly they were composed” (89).

This novel is the story of a man who was born in the wrong time and suffers for it, but never loses his curiosity or integrity:

And so we leave Jónas Palmasson the Learned in that happy hour, a frail old man dancing with the universe.  (227)

I would read another of these Sjón novels, if there were one for me to read.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

The 100 Greatest Adventure Books of All Time - read these books, please

This post is about 105 books.  It is about a list.  How we all love lists.  This one is among my very favorites.  It is the list of The 100 Greatest Adventure Books of All Time as assembled by National Geographic (five extra books were tacked on as lagniappe).

The list is apparently the result of a poll, with scores based on “the book's pure literary merit; its ‘adrenaline factor,’ or the level of excitement they felt reading it; and its impact on our history and culture.”  My experience is that the scoring system worked – ever book I have read from the list, several of which have been featured here at Wuthering Expectations, have defensible is rarely first-rate literary value, and there are specific passages or even moments in which the level of excitement is as high as I am likely to find in literature.

As I mentioned with Nansen’s Farthest North (#11), a great deal of the matter in any book of exploration is inevitably tedious.  The chronicle of any expedition across an icesheet, desert, or ocean is filled with many changeless days.  The great challenge is simply endurance; the reader is privileged to share the slog.

In others the excitement lies in discovery, as with Charles Darwin’s The Voyage of the Beagle (1839, #23) or Incidents of Travel in Yucatan (1843, #60), in which the author, “the father of American archaeology,” discovers the lost cities of the Mayans.

Many of the books on the list are about disasters, including the winner, if that is the right word, Apsley Cherry-Garrard’s The Worst Journey in the World (1922), an account by a survivor of the Scott Antarctic expedition, and a good pick to win a poll of the 100 Greatest Titles of All Time.  Owen Chase’s Shipwreck of the Whaleship Essex (1821, #61) is not a great piece of literature, however important it is as a source for Moby-Dick, yet the scene early on when the whale turns on the whaling ship, rams it, and then comes back to finish the job, is thrilling and unimprovable. 

Or think of the desert plane crash in Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s Wind, Sand & Stars (1940, #3).  The excitement is unvitiated by the evidence that Saint-Exupéry will survive the crash – that crash, at least – the evidence of the book itself, I mean.  There is inevitably some survivor’s bias.  These are the books of people who made went out and made it back in, this time.

Then there’s a book like Murray’s Adventures in the Wilderness (1869, #87), where the excitement comes from chasing a trout or shooting a rapids.  Not exactly getting staved in by a whale.  But the list has a great deal of variety, with settings in caves and outer space as well as both poles and every major mountain range and desert, times ranging from Marco Polo (#10) in 1298 to the present.

There is maybe too much mountain climbing for my tastes, although when I line up the mountaineering books a miniature history of human ambition, or folly, is outlined.  I suspect the mountaineering  books would by themselves make a fine course of reading.

I have an ulterior motive in writing a post about this list, which is that I wish more people would read the books on it – any of them – and then tell me about them.  I have read only 24 of the 105 books, and since I read only about two or three travel books of any sort per year, I will likely never finish them all.  I’ve covered disproportionately more of the books about the American West than the poles, about sailing rather than mountain climbing, and about the 19th century rather than the 20th, so, although I recommend for one reason or another all of the 24 I have tried, I would appreciate hearing about the oddballs I have not tried – Osa Johnson’s I Married Adventure (1940, #95), about life with a wildlife photographer (“She tells their story in straight-on American gee-whiz style”) or Tracks (1980, #70) by Robyn Davidson, who travels “alone across 1,700 miles (2,735 km) of Australian outback on wild camels that she herself had trained.”  How can those not be good books?

Friday, October 3, 2014

Oh, how the snow refreshes one’s soul - Fridtjof Nansen explores the Arctic

Now, a whole ‘nother kind of travel book, Farthest North (1897) by Dr. Fridtjof Nansen, zoologist, oceanographer, innovator in skiing, pioneer of polar exploration (that’s this book), symbol of the Norwegian nation, and humanitarian. 

Nansen had the idea, based mostly on the fact that Siberian driftwood washes up in Greenland, that if he built the right ship he could sail it east along the Siberian coast then let the ship be frozen into the icepack after which the ship would slowly drift across the pole towards Greenland.  Slowly meant several years.  Nansen turned out to be right about everything except that the ship did not drift far enough north to reach the pole itself, so after a year and a half Nansen decided he and another crew member would try to walk to the pole.  How would they get home, since the ship would have drifted who knows where?  Oh don’t worry, they’ll just walk home, or at least to one of the frozen Arctic islands where someone will probably find them.

Nansen and his men were all obviously insane.

Everything worked pretty much as planned.  Nansen and his companion reached 86° 14' N, the farthest north anyone had ever been, before turning back.  The ship reached 85° 57' ̒N, which would have been farthest north if Nansen and his partner had not wandered off on their own.  Nansen arrived back in Norway just a few days before the ship with the rest of his men.  No one died; no one was ever even seriously ill or injured.  They were national heroes for the young Norwegian state.  Later, Nansen would receive the Nobel Peace Prize for his work with World War I refugees, so Farthest North just covers his lesser achievement.

The ship, the Fram, can be inspected at the Fram Museum in Oslo.  Please see the museum’s website for photos and a map which may help make sense of my gibberish.

The book is a mix of action and tedium.  Polar bears attack (right), or a crushing ice shelf threatens to overwhelm the ship – very exciting.  Or, for days the trapped Fram slowly drifts “[s]teadily southward.  This is almost depressing” (Ch. VI, Oct. 16).

Ugh! that was a bitter gust – I jump up and walk on.  What am I dreaming about! so far from the goal – hundreds and hundreds of miles between us, ice and land and ice again.  And we are drifting round and round in a ring, bewildered, attaining nothing, only waiting, always waiting, for what?  (VI, Nov. 5)

On the other hand:

Oh, how the snow refreshes one’s soul, and drives away all the gloom and sadness from this sullen land of fogs.  (Ch. 5, Aug. 23, still off the Siberian coast)

Nansen and his men are where they wanted to be.  Most of them even gained weight.  The quantity and variety of foodstuffs they had brought along in tins is astonishing.  No more scurvy with all of that lemonade and pineapple.  In an environment like this, the most mundane details of life and landscape become of interest.

The most exciting part of the book is the hundred days on foot (and dogsled, kayak, and skis).  Hampton Sides covers that story in a superb January 2009 National Geographic piece, much of which is about his own trip to the Arctic island where Nansen spent an entire winter in a tiny hut.  I borrowed the photo from him; the other illustrations are copied from the electronic text.

I read the Modern Library Exploration edition of Farthest North which is intelligently abridged.  I actually checked, reading sections of the complete edition on Google books (Vol. 1, Vol. 2).  The only advantage of the complete version is that it has more of Nansen’s illustrations:


Wednesday, October 1, 2014

William Henry Harrison Murray invents the American vacation - You feel as if the very air was God

Today’s book is minor as literature but major as history: Adventures in the Wilderness: Or, Camp-life in the Adirondacks (1869) by William Henry Harrison Murray, a Boston preacher who loved nothing more than fishing, hunting, and canoeing in the forests of northern New York state, so much so that he wrote this book, cover on the left.

The book became a surprise best-seller, during tens of thousands of city-dwellers into the forest to “get a glimpse of the magnificent scenery which makes this wilderness to rival Switzerland” (9), which you might think would ruin it all but as of now has preserved it; Adirondack Park is the largest U.S. park outside of Alaska.  Murray “broached the then-outrageous idea that an excursion into raw nature could actually be pleasurable,” as Tony Perrottet writes in his outstanding April 2013 Smithsonian article on Murray and the Adirondacks.  I will direct readers there for more on the book’s significance.  The article makes the case better than the book itself does.

It is such an odd book.  I urge anyone curious to page through it (this is the Google books version of the original that I read – many thanks to the Harvard Library of the Museum of Comparative Zoology).  Murray begins with sixty pages of nominally practical advice – when to visit, how to hire a guide, how to avoid the nightmarish black flies (“a myth, – a monster existing only in men’s feverish imaginations,” 56, but maybe skip the woods during June), which hotel features “that modern prolongation of the ancient war-whoop modified and improved, called ‘operatic singing,’ in the parlors” (44) and which has “such pancakes as are rarely met with” (45), and where you should buy your tackle and flies.  The answer to the latter: J. C. Conroy &Co., No. 65 Fulton Street, New York (see right).  Another firm sells “’Bronze Yacht Guns,’ One-pounders, Mounted on Best Mahogany Carriages” (238), useless in the woods.

Then follows a collection of what are obviously short stories.  A canoeing exploit, a fishing exploit, a hunting exploit, a hunting failure in which Murray and his guide chase a loon around a lake – why on earth do they want to shoot a loon of all things?  One story, about a Union officer and his beloved horse, has nothing whatsoever to do with the Adirondacks.  Another is an imitation of Mark Twain (“Now Southwick was the best dancer there; that is, he covered the most ground,” 95).  Another is, of course, a ghost story, but really another excuse to brag about canoeing.  Murray and his guide chase a spectral Iroquois maiden in a canoe over a twenty-five foot waterfall.  There is way more about the handling of paddles than about the ghost.

And there is “Sabbath in the Woods,” the heart of the book, a day of wilderness experience as communion with God.

Even the Bible lies at your side unlifted.  The letters seem dead, cold, insufficient.  You feel as if the very air was God, and you had passed into that land where written revelation is not needed; for you see the Infinite as eye to eye, and feel him in you and above you and on all sides.  (195)

Murray was writing Emerson for tourists.  Tourists, it turned out, wanted Emerson for tourists.

Before I abandon Murray, I want to note a stylistic quirk I enjoyed.  I only noticed it three times:

With the thunder of the falls filling the air with a deafening roar, barely thirty rods away, with the siz-z of the current around me as we dashed down the decline, I felt as calm and confident as though the race was over and we were standing on the bank.  (163, in the ghost story)

But all of a sudden, when heart and hope were about to fail, some distance ahead of us we heard the well-known sounds, k-splash, k-splash, and knew that a deer, and a large one too, was making for the shore.  (180)

The heavy thug of the boat against the bank…  (186)

A minor writer, but an attentive one.  “Siz-z”!

Monday, September 29, 2014

On a Book Blog Entitled A Commonplace Blog – remembering D. G. Myers

D. G. Myers believed that Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita (1955) was “the greatest novel written in English of all time.”  Nabokov himself, in the essay that is now permanently attached to the novel, “On a Book Entitled Lolita,” described his own ideal of literature.

For me a work of fiction exists only insofar as it affords me what I shall bluntly call aesthetic bliss, that is a sense of being somehow, somewhere, connected with other states of being where art (curiosity, tenderness, kindness, ecstasy) is the norm.  There are not many such books.  (Vintage International edition, 314-5)

Myers was not the insipid aesthete that I am, but rather more of an ethical critic, a seeker after wisdom, yet this is close to how I think of Myers: endlessly curious and generous.  He perhaps kept some of his ecstasy to himself, except when getting excited about a book on Twitter.  He advocated reading literary criticism “with hate in the heart,” but he read fiction with tenderness, not because he feared he might bruise a delicate novel or writer but rather because of his openness to whatever art a book might have.

Actually, Myers was also being kind to the critics, hating them for their own good.  “A true disagreement obliges a literary critic to rethink his conclusions, to reexamine his premises, to doublecheck his logic, to scour for further evidence, to remain open to correction or even the possibility of being proved wrong.”  Myers wanted

book bloggers who are committed to argument—who are sworn to defend the books they cherish from those who would make a hash of them, who understand that the literary heritage can be lost…  when it ceases to be valued.

Nabokov is right – there are not many books worth defending, although in another important sense there are too many to defend.  Either way, Myers wanted to keep good books alive.  He assembled a lot of lists – see the left sidebar of A Commonplace Blog.  An anonymous commenter once asked Myers if there was a database he used to find books for the lists.  “Yeah, my memory,” he said.  He was a model humanist.  In the humanities, you can never quite trust someone else’s description.  You have to read the book for yourself.  And that is what Myers did, even in the face of death.  One of the books worth defending was serially published in an electronic format as A Commonplace Blog, or The Moral Obligation To Write Well, as Matt Hunte calls the collected edition.

I have mentioned that Golem Week was maybe the best idea I have ever had.  I am not joking, since it caught the attention of Myers and thus led me to his work.  He understood what I was doing here immediately.  For some reason that is not always the case.

Myers's passing over the weekend has deprived me of not just a colleague whose name and ideas can be found all over my own blog, but an ally.  Wuthering Expectations will be poorer without his presence.