Monday, April 6, 2020

Translation as amateurism - Roberto Arlt's The Flamethrowers - a cranny in his flesh where it could be safe from his horror

Caravana de Recuerdos is for some reason encouraging people to read some literature from Argentina this year – a “full year of “’the strain of doom’” that characterizes so much Argentinean literature from its beginnings.  What, now, who needs it, you might say, loudly.

Regardless, I took a run at doomy Roberto Arlt’s The Flamethrowers (1931), not really a novel on its own but rather part two of the perfectly titled Seven Madmen (1929).  A bunch of anarchists, nihilists, and lunatic gangsters jitterbug around Buenos Aires as part of a conspiracy to overthrow the government by means of poison gas, funded by and manufactured at a chain of brothels.  This plan somehow does not work, and the first part of the novel jerks to a halt with the shattering of the conspiracy.  Someone is murdered, maybe?  I find crazy stories hard to remember.

Seven Madmen is available in two good, professional translations, but for some reason no one published The Flamethrowers until 2017, when the tiny, deconstructionist River Boat Books released it.  The translator is either Larry Riley, who learned Spanish solely in order to read and then translate this book, or is possibly the oddball novelist Rick Harsch under a complexly-maintained pseudonym.  Please see Steve Holt on Twitter for the plausible evidence.  “Riley’s” translation is amateurish in both the better and worse ways.

The Astrologer’s hands remained in the pockets of his shirt.  He listened to Hipólita contemptuously scrutinizing her with a grimace that left his eyelids half closed, so as to filter through his eyes the possible intentions of his visitor. (22, the second page if you want to check the Spanish)

Some of the prose, especially in its more functional mode, has this kind of strain in the English, an awkwardness that a professional translator would relax.  Where exactly do the adverbs go in the sentence; “shirt pockets,” or just “pockets”; drop “so as”; do something with “filter through his eyes,” something.  The tone ought to be more informal.

Having said that, the entire novel, in conception, characters, incidents, meaning, and of course prose, is completely insane, written by the eighth madman.  The novel had better have some awkwardness, some pieces that just ain’t right, where there is no way to know who is to blame, the translator, the author, or the metaphysics.

Sometimes “Riley” gets the voice right, especially in sections that are more interior or extreme, like “The Death Agony of the Melancholy Ruffian” or “The Curtain of Anguish,” a piece of tormented late-night mad scientist existentialism:

The voice shrank and retracted.  Erdosain felt that it was searching for a cranny in his flesh where it could be safe from his horror.  It filled up his belly as if it wanted to make him explode.  And Erdosain’s body vibrated as if it had been placed upon a chassis supporting a supercharged motor.  (75)

Elegance and efficiency are beside the point in scenes like this.  And these are the best parts of the novel, easily, the important parts.

The good side of amateurism is that the translation is an act of love, and I am glad to have it.  I finally know how the dang story ends (in a bloodbath, as I could have guessed).  And parts of the translation are pretty good.  Someday someone will do a better one, but now I have this one.

I once thought that blogs and the like would lead to a lot more amateur translation.  On this very website there is a short piece by César Aira that as far as I know has still not been translated anywhere else.  My Spanish is a lot worse than “Larry Riley’s.”  Let’s get it all out there, then fix it up.

Wednesday, April 1, 2020

The Makioka Sisters implies another novel - You can imagine how we suffered.

The Makioka Sisters begins in late 1936 and ends on April 26, 1941.  It was published in three parts from 1946 to 1948.  The beginning was serialized in 1943 and then censored, suppressed – I would love to know what happened there.  Imagining an original reader, the novel begins seven years in the past, and by chance ends seven years in the past.  Some of those intervening years were all-too-eventful.

Japan is at war during the entire length of the novel, in Manchuria at the beginning and then more broadly when Japan invades China in 1937.  All of this is at a great distance from the events of the novel.  I see why Tanizaki wanted a family of sisters.  Just the homefront here.  An unknowing reader might think that the “ordinary life” of the Makioka family in the beginning of the novel is just preparation for the extraordinary, almost unimaginable, except that every reader of 1946 had just survived it, life during the war with the United States.

But no.  The entire 530 page novel – in the original edition, 1,400 pages! (Keene, 109) – is just preparation.  The catastrophe is always coming but never comes.  Donald Keene notes that the novel’s “continuous movement of life is not interrupted by the ends of chapters” (108).  It is not even interrupted by the end of the novel!  This is the famous last line:

Yukiko’s diarrhea persisted through the twenty-sixth, and was a problem on the train to Tokyo. (3.37, 530)

That is a perfect Makioka sentence, with the interesting event, the illness, and the date.  The only strange thing is that no sentence or chapter or page follows it.  The next five-hundred page novel, the one where there is no longer such a thing as ordinary life, the one containing the bombing of Osaka (March 13, 1945) and the American Occupation, is not written but entirely implied.

I could see that the implied novel existed.  Imagine those first Japanese readers.  What novel did they see?

Tanizaki builds towards the war.  Outside events are mentioned rarely, then occasionally, then frequently.  The 530 pages are justified.  Time has to pass; the outside world has to impinge in a way that feels natural.  By the end of the novel, Tanizaki even, finally, shifts his tone, allowing a more direct ironic effect.  A chapter about Sachiko’s vacation, a “second honeymoon,” is unique:

Perhaps she was too tired, however, for there had been an air-raid drill that day [first mention of this!] and she had found herself in a bucket brigade.  In any case, she would doze off and dream of the air-raid drill and wake up only to doze off and dream the same dream again…  Coffee cups and beer steins and wine glasses and wine and whisky bottles would be snapping and cracking in the dining room too.  This is just as bad – she would lead them upstairs, where they would find all the light bulbs exploding.  (3..25, 462)

The explicit symbolism (drinking vessels from around the world) and violence of the dream are clear enough.  A couple of pages later, when I read that the lake “had until recently been noisy with refugees from the heat” (464) the innocent metaphor takes on another meaning.  A few pages from the end of the novel, Tanizaki reprises the theme.  The Makiokas receive letters from their German friends, now back in Germany.  One is from Hamburg (“Here in the city we all live in caves,” 3.36, 522, remembering that this is merely 1941), the other from Berlin:

It has been very cold, but from now on it will be warmer, they say.  In January it went down to zero.  You can imagine how we suffered.  We have steam heat, however, and it is pleasant and warm indoors.  German houses have double windows and are far better built than Japanese houses.  We are not bothered by wind through the cracks!  (524)

This passage, to rub it in nominally written by a child, is excruciating.  Vladimir Nabokov ends his 1947 totalitarian fantasy Bend Sinister by looking away from his own pages as his story becomes too cruel to bear.  Tanizaki seems to be doing something similar, except more radical.  You know, he suggests, what happens next.

Dolce Bellezza hosted this readalong of The Makioka Sisters for her long-lived Japanese Literature Challenge, may it last forever.

Tuesday, March 31, 2020

The Makioka Sisters flows - Would she be able to stand the ordeal of a permanent wave?

The Makioka Sisters (1946-8), Junichiro Tanizaki’s UNESCO-stamped novel, was a puzzler.  It has two conceptual levels.  One of them took me quite a while to figure out.  The other was clear early on.

The stuff of the novel is not the ordinary life of the bourgeois Osaka family in the title, but the events of ordinary life.  Holidays, restaurant meals, trips to Tokyo, the terrible Kobe Flood of 1938, illnesses, that sort of thing.  This novel has more variety of illness – beriberi, dysentery, gangrene, scarlet fever, and many more – than any novel I can remember, yet not implausibly so.  It is all perfectly plausible.

The narration is distant and the prose is fairly flat.  There is little description, little metaphor.  What struck me the most was the most was the evenness of the tone.  Every event is told with the same emphasis.  The flood, a natural disaster that killed hundreds, receives more pages but the same rhetorical weight as a meal at a favorite sushi restaurant.  The sushi chef gets two long paragraphs, and is never seen again:

She first gave them a description with gestures: he looked like the dwarf with the enormous, mallet-shaped head one sees in illustrations to horror stories; he turned customers off most haughtily, and he attacked a fish with his carving knife as though it had insulted him.  (2.30, p. 293, tr. Edward Seidensticker)

Hey, that has description and metaphor!  I know, it is not a typical sentence.  How about this:

He always used white Kobe vinegar, never yellow Tokyo vinegar, and always a thick soy sauce not seen in Tokyo.  He offered only fish taken before his very eyes, so to speak, here along the shores of the Inland Sea.  (293)

A list of fish follows.  The writing is precise and thick with stuff, counting etiquette and customary behavior as a kind of “stuff.”

Here, this passage is more typical:

To forget the sadness [of the younger sister moving out], they would go to Kobe every other day or so and search out old movies and new movies, and sometimes they even saw two movies a day.  Among the movies they had seen in the last month alone were Bagdad, Das Mädchen Irene, Hélène, Burgtheater, Boys’ Town, and Suez.  (3.12, 383)

As much as I enjoyed the list of films from around the world, the word “among” shows how this narrator works.

How about some interiority, while in line at the beauty shop:

Sachiko looked nervously at her sister, silent and dispirited.  Might Yukiko faint with hunger?  Would she be able to stand the ordeal of a permanent wave?  (3.30, 491)

Tanizaki has a powerful sense of anti-climax.  Here is the end of a chapter where something almost melodramatic has happened:

Then, as if she remembered something, she opened her cosmetic case – she tried not to let [her daughter] see – and poured the cap of the pocket flask a third full of brandy.  (2.18, 239)

One more:

Sachiko had been taking down [from a radio broadcast] recipes said to be good for the season.  Now someone was reciting a Nō play.

“Would you turn it off, please, Koi-san?”

“Wait.  Look at Bell.”  Taeko pointed her jaw at the cat, asleep by Sachiko’s feet.

Bell was drowsing happily in the warmth from the stove.  Taeko had noticed that its ears twitched at each drum beat.  Only the ears were affected, it seemed, by a reflex of no concern to the rest of the cat.

“What do you suppose does that?”

“Very strange.”

They watched, fascinated, as the ears twitched an accompaniment to the Nō, and when the Nō was finished Taeko turned off the radio.  (3.12, 385)

And the novel just moves on like this, for five hundred pages.  Donald Keene, in Japanese Literature: An Introduction for Western Readers (1953) wrote that “Here, then, is a true roman fleuve, a slow and turbid river of a book, which moves inevitably and meaninglessly to its close” (108).

Meaninglessly!  To a reader interested in Japanese culture, many episodes – the sushi restaurant, the cherry blossom festival, the firefly hunt, you name it – are deeply interesting.  Are they more interesting than the equivalent passage in, say, an oral history of 1930s Japan?  Does fiction of this type have any advantage over non-fiction?  I have some doubts.  But tomorrow I will try to undo “meaninglessly” by looking at the Big Irony.

Monday, March 30, 2020

Big Ironies with Musil, Roth, Mann, Tanizaki, and Gide - he says nothing but stupidities, speaking loudly, wrongly, and incessantly, all day long

Lately I have read a number of novels that depend on Big Historical Ironies.  The Big Irony is a big part of the point of the novel.  I mean “irony” in a simple sense – “I know, you know, the author knows, the characters do not know.”  As for “big,” I mean something like the line at the end of the last paragraph of The Man Without Qualities, the first volume published in 1930: “It was a fine day in August 1913” (tr. Sophie Wilkins).

The reader of September 1913, encountering that line in some other story, would not think much of it, but the reader of 1930, the Austrian reader, is immediately engulfed in a shadow that never lifts.  And Musil rubs it in, puffs it up.  Much of the action of the book takes place in a committee that is planning a jubilee celebration for the 75th year of the reign of Emperor Franz Joseph, in 1918.  The themes they pick are “Emperor of Peace” and the “Global Idea of Austria.”  Musil is not being subtle.  He wants Huge Irony.  The Biggest Irony.  He seems to want his reader to wince frequently.

Franz Joseph died in 1916, while the whole notion of an Emperor died in 1918.  There was also a major war.  The non-Austrian reader of 2020 may have to look up the former, but surely few readers pick up The Man Without Qualities who do not read “a fine day in August 1913” and think “Oh no.”

In The Radetzsky March (1932), Joseph Roth moves his cavalry officer protagonist to the frontier, right in the middle of the bloodlands, just in time for the war.  Occasionally, in a barracks scene, Roth notes that everyone in the room will be dead in a few months.  When war is declared, a bolt of lightning strikes the house where the officers are having a party.  Big, big, big irony, and no hiding it.

Thomas Mann began The Magic Mountain (1924) before the war.  The joke was on him, this time.  He did not know, and then he knew, and once he knew, there was really only one way for the novel to end.

I will save Junichiro Tanizaki’s The Makioka Sisters (1946-8) for the next couple of days, but I am pretty sure that the same kind of Big Irony is at the center of that novel.  Look at those publication dates, then guess when it is set.

André Gide creates the same kind of effect in what passes for real life, in his Journal for summer 1914.  For context, first, The Vatican Basements has just been published, and Gide’s journals often take an odd turn post-book publication; second, Gide is realizing that his recent trip to Turkey was mere tourism and thus not going to give him anything to publish; and third, it is June 1914 and he reads the newspapers.  However, in the Journal he utterly suppresses #3 and writes extensively about his attempt to turn a foundling starling into a pet.

I had tried to put him in a cage, but he would die there; letting him have the freedom of the room, he dirties everything; within ten minutes, he leaves it does not matter where little liquid and corrosive droppings.  I give him bread crumbled in milk mixed with the yolk of a hard-boiled egg to eat, or some little earthworms, of which he is fond.  He flies form the table to my shoulder as soon as he sees me return.  (June 22, tr. mine, is it ever)

The experiment of keeping the starling in the house only lasts a couple of days.  On July 3, Jean T. arrives for a long visit.  He is a little boy who is related to Gide somehow.  Journal entries now alternate between the sparrow and the boy, who drives Uncle André insane.

I believe him to be intelligent; very intelligent even; but he says nothing but stupidities, speaking loudly, wrongly, and incessantly, all day long… (July 5)

All of this culminates in the amazing sitcom-like episode where little Jean the Menace locks Gide in the little aviary (July 8, a comic highlight).  I don’t know when Jean goes home.  The poor starling is finally “torn apart by the cats” on July 19.  Austria and Serbia mobilize for war on July 26, and the Journal shifts to a wartime footing, relieving my tension.  What was Gide supposed to do about the imminent war?  So he writes about his tame bird.  The war comes soon enough.

Wednesday, March 4, 2020

Yoko Ogawa's The Memory Police - “And what will happen if words disappear?”

Yoko Ogawa’s The Memory Police (1994, tr. Stephen Snyder 2019) is a conceit-heavy fantasy about a novelist who lives on an anonymous island where entire categories of objects occasionally “are disappeared,” after which the island’s citizens systematically destroy the things in the category, after which the memories of and word for the thing disappear.  Ribbon, bell, emerald, stamp…” (Ch. 1, 5).

It is a multi-step conceit, which is part of its strangeness.  Sometimes, as with novels and photographs, the human destruction is central, with bonfires that evoke totalitarian horrors.  And sometimes:

The disappearance of the fruit was much simpler.  When we woke in the morning, fruit of every sort was falling from trees all over the island.  A pattering sound could be heard everywhere, and in the northern hills and the forest park, fruit came down like a hailstorm.  Some were big as baseballs, some small as beans, some covered in shells, some brightly colored – fruits of all kinds.  (Ch. 12, 95-6)

Part of the fun of the novel is trying to figure out the rules, but be warned that there are none, or anyways they are fluid.

“And what will happen if words disappear?” I whispered to myself, afraid that if I said it too loudly, it might come true.  (4, 26)

The Memory Police is a novel about semiotics, about the functioning of language, with strange constraints put on ordinary human capacities.  I mean, if the words disappear, we make more words.  If we all forget the word “emerald,” we start using “greenstone” or something.  But these poor people can’t do that for some reason, maybe genetic manipulation, the only hint of science fiction in the novel.  Ogawa wants to watch it all – everything – disappear, not eventually, but quickly.

The narrator is herself a surrealist novelist, and unfortunately Ogawa includes generous abstracts from the dull novel in progress, which features a mute typist imprisoned, by her sadistic typing teacher, in a clock tower filled with broken typewriters.  Her captor sews her clothes made from metal and fruit peels.  My impression is that contemporary Japanese literature features a fair amount of this kind of quirk.  The important thing, as far as I can tell, about the novel-within-the-novel is that the novelist keeps using words that she has supposedly forgotten.  Clues, but to what?

Early in the novel, birds are disappeared.  Later in the novel, the characters eat chicken.  Here we approach a novel I would have enjoyed, where characters successfully outwit the semiotic entropy by shifting signifiers.  A chicken is a bird, but chicken is meat.  The meat comes from – who cares, it is, linguistically, a separate issue.  The final disappearances take a hilarious Dada turn that move towards the novel I was imagining.

The conceit of The Memory Police created a curious Oulipo-like effect for me, where the most banal list of objects – “The rest of the tools of his trade were close at hand – files and cards, a bottle of correction fluid, a letter opener, a stapler” (13, 103-4) – becomes full of significance.  Unlike almost all other novels, I cannot assume anything about this history-free, disintegrating world.  I have to imaginatively populate it item by item.  Weird.  It is a little like the moment in Titus Alone (1959) when the “car” appears.

The prose is pretty flat.  There are many banal lists of objects.  But the conceptual justification is clear enough.  Maybe the novel had more interesting words that disappeared.

I liked Peter Gordon’s review of The Memory Police in the Asian Review of Books.  He thinks the whole thing is “an allegory on aging and mortality,” which is plausible.  I myself was strongly tempted to allegorize, but I resisted.

Tuesday, February 25, 2020

Emmanuel Bove's sad, ironic My Friends - I imitated him, limping for no reason.

The title of Mes Amis (My Friends, 1924) is ironic.  Our narrator, poor Victor Baton has no friends.  In each of the short sections of Emmanuel Bove’s episodic novel, Baton almost makes a friend, almost.  The failures are often but not always his fault.  Some of the failures are deliberate self-sabotage.

Baton has no family, and no past, except for his injured hand, a war injury that brings him a small disability pension.  Is he suffering from some kind of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder or some other mental illness?  Or is he taking, although he would not call it that, a philosophical stance?  A proto-existentialist rejection of the world, to the extent that rejection is possible.  Bove’s novel is a strong, pure expression of a kind of alienation that will soon appear in a thousand French books.

The prose is simple and material, full of ordinary details and actions.  It is perfect for the French language learner.  If you are one of those, you can read the first edition digitized by the Bibliothèque nationale de France, the one I read and the source of my page numbers.  Several post-war French writers pushed back against the traditional elegance and even correctness of literary French.  Mes Amis is one of those books.  Much of it is even written in the present tense.  It is the oldest French novel I have come across written in the present tense.

Not that it stays in the present.  The EuropeNow website features a couple of pages of Janet Louth’s 1986 English translation, reissued in 2019.  See the plain language, and the short sentences and paragraphs.  Baton has noticed an attractive woman noticing him.  He fantasizes that she (or someone) becomes his girlfriend, that they go on dates:

I should pay without looking at the meter. I should leave the door open.

Passers-by would watch us. I should pretend not to see them.

Look at all of those conditional tenses.  You, the French student, still have to know your tenses, sorry, what can you do.

Note the ordinariness, the generic quality, of Baton’s fantasy.  Please also note, hidden in the middle the sudden appearance of metaphorical language:

The solo violinist would sway backwards and forwards as if on a spring-board, balancing his body. Locks of hair would flop over his eyes, as if he had just come out of a bath.

This is my favorite part of the novel, the surprising eruption of original and interesting metaphorical language amidst the usual clear, plain prose.  Bove gives his characters lot of little psychological insights, too.  There is the big psychological question – why does he drive everyone away – but also good small ones like this (Billard is a potential friend):

Billard rose slowly, balancing with his arms, limping a little, without doubt because he had remained immobile.  I imitated him, limping for no reason.  (“Henri Billard I,” 47, tr. me)

What is our narrator looking for, really?  He can’t say.

As a little bonus, the Paris of the novel, functionally described is highly recognizable.  In the “Neveu, the Sailor” episode, for example, Baton and a depressed sailor come to the verge of killing themselves by jumping in the Seine.  Various clues put them under the Pont d’Austerlitz, on the Left Bank.  Now the bike path goes right by the spot (“there was a heap of peaked sand, some tools of the city of Paris, a gatehouse, and a chained wheelbarrow” (106) – all still there).  Someone should put up a plaque.

Monday, February 24, 2020

Evelyn Waugh's Labels - traveling "with a mind as open as the English system of pseudo-education allows"

Since I was complaining that I read too many great books, I will poke at a couple of not so-greats I recently enjoyed.

The pleasure in Evelyn Waugh’s Labels: A Mediterranean Journey (1930) is in the voice, the jokes and use of adjectives and I guess the vision of life, although compared to his novels from that time the latter is watery here.  Mild* Waugh.

The author claims that the idea was to write a book about the Soviet Union, but he does not make it there, or anywhere especially close, and instead wanders the Mediterranean on a cruise ship, writing about places “constantly and completely overrun with tourists” (11), with the hope of “investigating with a mind as open as the English system of pseudo-education allows, the basis for the reputations these famous places have acquired” (12).  See, there is one of signature Wavian those adjectival jokes.

Perversely, Waugh writes almost nothing about Athens or Venice, instead going on endlessly about Port Said (“Few people stay in Port Said except for some rather dismal reason,” 91).  But since all that matters is the voice, who cares where Waugh wanders.

William Pritchard, in his study of the English literature of the 1920s and 1930s (Seeing Through Everything: English Writers 1918-1940, 1977) uses Labels as a way of isolating Waugh’s style from his content, since the content of the travel book is so obvious.  For example (Waugh is in Palestine):

The driver of our motor car was a restless and unhappy man.  He smoked “Lucky Strike” cigarettes continuously, one after the other.  When he lit a new one he took both hands off the wheel; often he did this at corners; he drove very fast and soon outdistanced all the other cars.  When we most nearly had accidents he gave a savage laugh. (78)

The description goes on for a page more, with most of its sentences featuring something as surprising as “restless” or “savage” or those semicolons.

A new edition of Labels has appeared in England, and Kaggsy read it a couple of months ago, choosing a number of quotations that I wanted to use, especially the one with the bed stuffed of skulls.  I will just borrow some of it from her:

My next hotel was remarkably less comfortable. It was exactly facing into the Metro, where it runs very noisily above ground, and the bed was, I think, stuffed with skulls. The only furniture was a bidet and a cupboard full of someone else’s underclothes. There were some false teeth under the pillows, and the door opened oddly, being permanently locked and detached from both hinges, so that it could only be moved at the wrong side just far enough to admit of one squeezing through. (10-11)

We are in the tradition of Mark Twain’s travel books, and Bill Bryson’s.  Labels is not as good or funny as The Innocents Abroad (1869), which in fairness invented this genre, but is maybe comparable to Following the Equator (1897).  I have never read an entire Bill Bryson book.

I actually read the original American edition, retitled A Bachelor Abroad for some reason, possibly because of the surprising number of times Waugh visits brothels, just to describe them for the book and have a drink.  Look, it’s none of my business.  I am just saying who knows how the page numbers line up with any other edition of the book.

Look at all those words.  I guess I will write about Emmanuel Bove’s novel Mes Amis (1924) tomorrow.

Vile Bodies (1930), Scoop (1938), those are full-strength Waugh.

Wednesday, February 19, 2020

Christopher de Hamel meets remarkable manuscripts

Bookish Twitter now and then has a cathartic freakout about someone or another destroying a book for some reason or another.  Living, as I do, in the age of mechanical reproduction, I am not bothered by art projects and backpacker tips.  And what proportion of published books end up in the pulper?  I sometimes enjoy thinking about that.  I say I write about “books,” but that is a metaphor.  I don’t care so much about books.

Now, the books in Christopher de Hamel’s Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts: Twelve Journeys into the Medieval World (2016), those are something else.  Those are treasures, mostly invisible except in facsimile.  De Hamel, a leading expert in medieval manuscripts has written a book about meeting these unique books in person.  A page of The Spinola Hours (p. 541 in de Hamel), at the Getty, is to the left.  Meetings fills many pages with that sort of thing.

Twelve books in twelve chapters.  The Book of Kells in Dublin, the Carmina Burana in Munich, a “poem on ancient astronomy” (140) in Leiden, one of the two oldest copies of The Canterbury Tales in Wales.  Gospels, psalms, books of hours.  A Latin textbook on military strategy, now in St. Petersburg.  A lot of variety.

Part of the fun of this book is that each manuscript is in a different library, so Meetings is also a travel book, assuming you like to visit libraries.  Boy, I do.  On the right we see the view from the manuscripts reading room of the Royal Library in Copenhagen (295).

Different kinds of texts, different libraries, and finally different issues in book history.  De Hamel picks books that allow him to emphasize different ways to study the manuscripts.  Each book stars in multiple stories.  Who created the book – who were the scribes, the illustrators, the patrons, the binders?  Who changed the book over time?  How did the book move around?  Few of the twelve manuscripts are near where they were created.  Where did the materials come from?  Where did the text come from?

The chapter on the Chaucer manuscript is more about the search for the identity of the scribe, for example.  The one on The Hours of Jeanne de Navarre spends more time on the way the book moved.  It was Nazi loot, so the story is dramatic.

The key is that de Hamel is not just showing off the manuscripts, although he does plenty of that – a page from the 15th century Visconti Semideus military manual is to the left (496).  He shows how to think about them.  He demonstrates the kind of evidence experts look for and the kind of arguments they make.  That is fascinating.  On their own, bindings, parchment, Latin in incomprehensible script – why would I care.  But, no, this all goes somewhere.

De Hamel is a lively writer:

My private impression from having pages of the Book of Kells turned before my eyes, one after the other throughout the day, is that the picture pages interrupt the text and are hard to enjoy, despite all their fame.  I am not even sure we can regard them as beautiful.  They are spectacularly important in the history of art and their commercial value is almost beyond estimation (I write as a former employee of Sotheby’s), but they are confusing and difficult to decipher…  There is too much decoration.  The eye has nowhere to rest.  (121)

It is not just me who can’t make heads or tails of Kells, I am happy to learn.

This is a terrific book on this subject, a great way to spend some time with superb art objects that are generally only barely visible in a case, if that.  These art objects happen to be books.

Tuesday, February 11, 2020

Mrs. Ramsay and the bay leaf - peering into the dish in To the Lighthouse

This is a piece about how readers change.  And about food.

The long dinner chapter of To the Lighthouse (1928), Chapter XVII of “The Window,” what a masterpiece.  It does so much.  Here is a taste.

… and an exquisite scent of olives and oil and juice rose from the great brown dish as Marthe, with a little flourish, took the cover off.  The cook had spent three days over that dish.  And she must take great care, Mrs. Ramsay thought, diving into the soft mass, to choose a specially tender piece for William Bankes.  And she peered into the dish, with its shiny walls and its confusion of savoury brown and yellow meats and its bay leaves and its wine, and thought. (100)

Mrs. Ramsay thinks of celebration but also death, that love “bear[s] in its bosom the seeds of death.”  Then the outside intrudes on her and the dinner guests praise the dish, a boeuf en daube, and mock English cooking as “an abomination (they agreed).”  I have to say, I ate so well in London, the English food included.  No doubt circa 1910, the time of the novel, things were not so good.

The stew is first mentioned about twenty pages earlier, in Ch. XVI.  Mrs. Ramsay is nervous about her big dinner:

… and they were having Mildred’s masterpiece – Boeuf en Daube.  Everything depended upon things being served up to the precise moment they were ready.  The beef, the bay leaf, and the wine – all must be done to a turn.  To keep it waiting was out of the question… things had to be kept hot; the Boeuf en Daube would be entirely spoilt.  (80)

When I last read To the Lighthouse, maybe twenty-five years ago, I suppose I nodded along, sympathizing with Mrs. Ramsay’s anxiety.  This time, though – do you cook? – you saw it, right?  “The bay leaf must be done to a turn”?  The bay leaf!

Boeuf en daube is beef stewed in wine, and is not a difficult dish.  It is classic Provence country cooking, not imperial cuisine.  I can make a daube – come over some time.  One good way to agitate bookish Twitter is to say a book is or is not “difficult,” because the word can mean different things.  In fact, daube is difficult in three ways – let’s use a recipe attributed to Julia Child:

1. The list of ingredients is long.  Nothing exotic, but many pieces.

2.  The preparation ideally takes, as the cook has told Mrs. Ramsay, three days, which requires planning.  One day of marinating, one day of checking the stewpot, one day of just sitting there until reheated.  The amount of work by the cook is, mostly, minimal, although see below.  I am assuming the Ramsay vacation house has a stove.

3.  At one point, you have to make a basic roux, and you could burn that.  I mean, I could.  Pay attention!

Otherwise, this is a forgiving and flexible dish.  It will not be “entirely spoilt,” nor spoilt at all, if reheated.  The meat was actually “done to a turn” the day before the dinner.

As for the bay leaf, and for that matter the wine and many other ingredients, you just toss them in your Dutch oven, or your daubière if you have one, and put it in the oven.

Mrs. Ramsay does not understand what her cook has told her.  Apparently, at some point in the past, there was some fuss over bay leaves.  Perhaps the cook insisted that she could not make a certain dish because there were no bay leaves, and now Mrs. Ramsay fixates on them.  “Done to a turn” may be the cook’s phrase, too.

Now, having said this, the logistics of getting the food to the table at the right temperature for a dinner of twelve or more is a challenge.  Then there is the question of the stove.  A cook at the time often functioned more like a naval engineer, keeping a complex and temperamental machine operating at a consistent temperature.  Too bad Kipling never wrote a story about this, a great cook and the things she can make her Victorian stove do.  Keeping dishes hot required real skill.  We have it easy, now.

I wonder if I had any idea what boeuf en daube was when I first read this novel.  Now that I know, and even know how to make it myself, an entire extra little dimension of the story unfolds.

So this is one way we change as readers.  We learn things.

Friday, February 7, 2020

Tanizaki's Seven Japanese Tales - Maybe you think I’m just being perverse, but I’ve never been more serious

Seven Japanese Tales (1970, tr. Howard Hibbett) by Juichiro Tanizaki.  Four of the “tales” are short stories from the 1910s and 1920s, pretty obviously newspaper pieces, although heaven forbid an editor mentions where anything is from.  Three tales, two from the 1930s and one from 1959 – impressive career! – are more like novellas.

I thought this would be a good place to get to know Tanizaki, who I had not read at all.  Poking around, I found a review or two saying it was not the place to start.  I suppose I did not think anything in this book was world-class, but I know Tanizaki wrote other books.  And much is visible right here.

The oldest story, “The Tattooer” (1910), made Tanizaki famous.  That is worth seeing.  A sadistic tattooer dreams of creating the perfect tattoo (“a huge black-widow spider,” 167) on the perfect woman.  He does so, but somehow in the process transfers his creative strength to the woman:

“All of my fears have been swept away – and you are my first victim!”  She darted a glance at him as bright as a sword.  A song of triumph was ringing in her ears.  (169)

Sure, why not.  I had picked up somewhere that Tanizaki was a fan of Edgar Allan Poe, and in these early stories I can see it, not so much in the Gothic giant spider but in the extreme, self-destructive psychology of the men, who all succumb to Poe’s “Imp of the Perverse.”  I noted Theodore Dreiser borrowing the same idea in The American Tragedy (1925), contemporary to Tanizaki’s early stories, although Dreiser also borrows Poe’s distinctive, bizarre language, Tanizaki much less so, at least in this translation.  But in the character who has a phobia about riding on a train (“Terror,” 1913), or the kleptomaniac who can’t bring himself to tell a lie (“The Thief,” 1921), I can see the shadow of Poe.  “’Maybe you think I’m just being perverse, but I’ve never been more serious’” (184).

Also immediately visible was Tanizaki’s interest in another aspect of the word “perverse.”  Five of the seven stories feature dominant / submissive relationships with a woman in the dominant and a man in the submissive role.  “The Tattooer” is the only one where the man is dominant but becomes submissive.  Some of these relationships are sexual, some not, but the psychology is repeated.  Theme and variation.

The most interesting variation was in “A Portrait of Shunkin” (1933), where the woman is a blind music prodigy and the man is first her servant, then pupil, then lover – husband, really.  She is a tyrant, willful and capricious; he is perfectly devoted.  At one key point, his devotion goes way, way too far, in a way I do not want to describe.  Yikes!  Ick!  Tanizaki seems to like extreme cases.

I thought “Shunkin” was the best-written story, too, in the sense that the sentences were the most interesting.  More phrases and clauses, more rhetorical variation.  In some of the stories, the prose got pretty flat.  The recurrent symbolic songbird theme was blatant but effective:

Nightingales are often long-lived if properly cared for, but they require constant attention.  Left to an inexperienced person, they soon die.  (51)

The Japanese Literature Challenge, now in its 13th year, is ongoing, so I read this book and hope to read another Tanizaki or two.


Monday, February 3, 2020

Yet somehow this is not the Fool’s own book - The Book of the Red King by Marly Youmans - One can only go so far with logic

I read only a few new books last year, but two of them starred Fools - the capital F kind – Kehlmann’s Tyll and Marly Youmans’s The Book of the Red King, a collection of lyric poems that do not make up a narrative, exactly, but suggest one, or many.

I, Fool, unpacked The Book of the Red King
And wrote these words because I could not bear
For every spark and speck of mystery
To die, then sealed them with my foolish kiss.  (from “Naked in the Sands”)

The Fool searches for the Red King; the King awaits the fool.  Or the Fool dreams of the Red King; the King dreams of the Fool.  Who can say which creates the other.  The title is the first of many, possibly endless, literary references.  Lewis Carroll and John Tenniel’s Red King, from Through the Looking-Glass (1871), is on the left – do not wake him!  Youmans’s characters dream a lot, and occasionally try to pass through mirrors (see “The Looking-glass Stop”).

King Lear had a Fool, I was thinking, and then he appeared in “’My Poor Fool is Hang’d,’” although luckily this king rescues his fool, who is hanging by his foot, like the Hanged Man in the tarot deck.  The Fool is himself one of the Major Arcana, and the next poem is “The Tarot Fool.”

Yeats is everywhere, his gyre built into the book’s third major character, a spiral shell that could be the female principle, the Holy Ghost, or a pretty souvenir the Fool picked up at the beach, and in the Red King’s spiral tower.  The cento near the end of the book, “Fool’s Motley,” is composed of lines of Proust, Yeats, Dickens, Christopher Logue, Charles Causley, and other authorial spirits.

I have followed the  writers because I enjoy the pursuit, but they are no help, in the sense that they do not explain the poems, no more than following the motifs of snow, mirrors, stars, games, leaves, or many others from poem to poem.  Stated plainly, they look so simple, but Youmans creates such complex patterns with them, or perhaps she scatters them about like seeds so her readers can create their own patterns.  I have noticed that readers have been reluctant to quickly interpret The Book of the Red King.  See Scott Bailey’s piece, please, or Fred Chappell’s metaphor of the book as “a mystical, metaphysical board game.”  It is a game with a large number of pieces.

Hart Crane is explaining the obscurities of his own poem sequence, The Bridge (1930), to Yvor Winters in a letter: “One can only go so far with logic, then willfully dream and play – and pray for the fusion.”*  The fusion is up to me.

And why is this the book of the Red King
When it was plainly written by a fool?
Its every word proclaims its lunar source,
Yet somehow this is not the Fool’s own book…
The Fool has done nothing to earn the book.
The Fool was given a gift, and that is all.  (from “The Red Book of the King” – note the curious alternative title)

I wonder how the poems look on their own, without their neighbors or any sense of sequence, without my attempt to connect them.  They would look different.  Perhaps my favorite, all by itself, although it fuses with several other poems, is “The Fool Tells the Children a Story at the Solstice,” about Hob, the  speck of dust who dreamed of becoming a star:

Hob floated in the dark’s abyss,
Dreaming of a burning kiss

To change his coat of soil to light,
To pin his flame against the night.

See Bailey’s post for the ending.  Hob’s dream comes true, logically, even.

The Book of the Red King seems to me like a major work, if that is a term anyone still uses in the context of poetry.  I suspect you will have to buy it yourself if you want to read it.

Marly is Friend of the Blog.   We have discussed, in comments here and there over the years, some of the poets who lie hidden behind or around her book.  She has recommended Charles Causley to me several times, but still I have not read him.

* O My Land, My Friends: The Selected Letters of Hart Crane, eds. Langdon Hammer and Brom Weber, letter from Nov. 15, 1926, p. 289.

Wednesday, January 29, 2020

Daniel Kehlmann's Tyll - All this is true, he says, even what has been made up is true.

One of the new books I read last year, Daniel Kehlmann’s Tyll (2017 in German, 2020 in Ross Benjamin’s English) was from the future.  I accidentally bought an Advanced Reader’s Copy – “Not for Sale” the cover declares.  But surely at this point I can think of myself as an Advanced Reader, in English, at least.  Maybe an Intermediate Reader in French still.

Tyll is the merry prankster, a German medieval folklore figure who wreaks havoc with his honestly not-so-merry pranks.  He has some importance in German literary history because Tyll stories were among the early products of German printing.  Some old Tyll leaflets appear on page 4, along with those about “the Ship of Fools and the great priestly folly and the evil Pope in Rome and the devilish Martinus Luther of Wittenberg and the sorcerer Horridus and Doctor Faust and the hero Gawain of the Round Table and indeed about him, Tyll Ulenspiegel, who had now come to us himself.”

In the novel Tyll is about the archetype Tyll come to life for another tour of central Europe, this time during the Thirty Years War (a new round of the evil Pope versus the devilish Luther).  Perhaps the spirit of Tyll inhabits a boy with a talent for juggling and tightrope walking.  Perhaps that boy consciously takes on Tyll’s identity.  If the spirit of Tyll has returned, it is not clear why.  The world of the Thirty Years War is irredeemably awful.  Juggling and ventriloquism can’t solve that problem.  But the novel puts Tyll in the background, mostly, of a number of other people’s stories.  He gives them little nudges, sometimes just by existing.

If I understand Michael Orthofer’s more thorough review, he would like the novel to have been more about Tyll himself.  But it is not.  It is more about the meaning of Tyll.

All this is true, he says, even what has been made up is true.  (126)

The world was once enchanted, and then became disenchanted, by science and bureaucracy and so on, argued Max Weber and many others.  The world of Tyll is still enchanted, in the sense that everyone believes in magic and religion, and the representative scientists are experts in crystals, or dragons, or, in the case of Athanasius Kircher, literally everything.  Kehlmann has some fun with Kircher’s cat piano; I would include an illustration if I could stand the cruelty.

Using the irony of a novel about a magician, Kehlmann seems to be arguing for disenchantment, for a little less magic in the world, for less religion, or at least less religious war, and for modern science, not Kircher’s science:

Kircher had grasped early on that one had to follow reason without being flustered by the quirks of reality.  When one knew how an experiment had to turn out, then the experiment had to turn out like that, and when one possessed a distinct conception of things, then, when one described them, one had to satisfy this conception and not mere observation.  (264)

A good novelist is likely all right with mere observation.  It is not so “mere” in the hands of an artist.  We can have as much enchantment as we want, by means of art.

The book I read begins with a letter to the Dear Reader from Dan Frank, the Editorial Director of Pantheon Books, that is filled with guff, especially the closer: “Whether you are a fan of Neal Stephenson, Jorge Luis Borges, George R. R. Martin, or Margaret Atwood, you will be captivated by the unique and original vision of Daniel Kehlmann’s Tyll.”  Stephenson wrote books set in the same century, which is something, although leafing through Quicksilver I will say that Kehlmann is rather lighter on his feet; Borges has me stumped; I have not read Atwood but looked up descriptions of her most famous books and am again baffled; as for Martin, Tyll does not have much in common with the only book of his I have read, the morally instructive Sandkings (1981) but does feature a Winter King and a Winter Queen and lots of characters who are murdered in the usual horrible ways.  I guess Martin fans like that?

I assume this letter is just part of the ARC, not the soon to be published version?  You people who get free books, do they usually come with this nonsense?  How can you stand it?

Thursday, January 23, 2020

A “new book” ramble - caves, Zurbarán, Proust, French nursing homes

Robert Macfarlane’s Underland (2019) is as good as everyone says, so what do I need to say.  It’s a travel book where the locations are caves, mines, and the tunnels of Paris.  The chapter describing Macfarlane’s three-day trek under Paris is completely insane.  Like much great travel writing, the stories of the people who work in, explore, and learn about the caves and mines and so on are really the highlight.

I fear that Macfarlane is some kind of tyrant in England.  Literally every British book in the Travel and Nature sections of the bookstores had a blurb from Macfarlane.  One could read nothing but books blurbed by Macfarlane.  Good books, they looked like good books.  But pity the poor schlub who does not get the Macfarlane blurb.

Józef Czapski’s Lost Time: Lectures on Proust in a Soviet Prison Camp (1944 in Polish, 1987 in the original French, 2018 in English) is as good as everyone says.  I suppose you have to enjoy reading about Proust and his novels.  How I love reading about Proust.  Here, though, there is no escaping the strange tension between the fine, enthusiastic, thoughtful essay about Proust and its circumstances, as described in the book’s subtitle, dictated and delivered in a Soviet prison camp for Polish officers as a way of distracting them from the almost certain, sudden death that awaited them.  Art and beauty against horror.  The essay would be outstanding without the horror, but there it is.  The notes and commentary added by the translator, Eric Karpeles, are also outstanding, but I love reading about Proust.

Hannelore Cayre’s La Daronne (2017) is as good as Book Around the Corner says.  The English translation (2019) picked the not quite accurate but necessary title The Godmother.  The narrator is a police interpreter, translating intercepted phone calls by Arabic-speaking drug dealers.  Some useful inside information falls in her lap.  She has an ailing mother with dementia in a nursing home, and can use some money.  She is one cool cat.  Thus, the novel.  The dry, sharp voice is really the appealing thing, as Emma describes.

Isabelle Huppert, perfectly cast, is starring in the movie, although that is the author herself, playing her character, on the cover over at Emma’s site. The author is what in the U.S. would be called a criminal defense attorney.  Emma met Cayre at the Quais du Polar festival; I think my wife did, too.  I must have had something else to do.

Florence Delay, Haute Couture (2018) – no idea what anyone has said about this smart essay in art history by the actress turned writer.  That title could be attached to about anything, but the carefully written book is in fact about the clothes worn by various saints in the paintings of Francisco de Zurbarán, for example Santa Isabel of Portugal, from the Prado, to the left.  Detailed descriptions of the clothes blend into the lives of the saints, and the strange paths their stories take, with miracles and martyrdoms moving from saint to saint over time.  Thus, the book is as much about myth-making as about clothes or painting.  Yet the stories are always embedded in Zurbarán’s painting somewhere.

The book has no illustrations, which is irritating, but I have the internet.  One little bonus: Delay explains why I could not find the dang Zurbarán in the Louvre, despite the clear sign saying where it should be.  They’re locked away in their own room for some reason “because of a lack of personnel” (p. 86).  So Delay, a French Academician can arrange to see it (and even for her it’s not so easy), but a poor schmoe like me has to look at it on the internet, see right, Saint Apollonia.  You do not want to know too much about her martyrdom.  “Between the jaws of the horrible pliers that Apolline holds at the height of her face there is a little white tooth” (87).

With all of the fabrics, garments, and colors, Haute Couture did terrific things for my French vocabulary.  It will never be translated into English, right?

Wednesday, January 22, 2020

The pleasures of keeping up

One angle I might take, if I were to write something about reading not fewer books but fewer great books, would be a “pop” approach.  It does not come up much here, but I listen to a pretty good heap of current music, mostly jazz and popular music in its various forms, some of which is in no way actually popular.  In some sense I “keep up” with what is going on in contemporary music, and have done so for thirty years.

I understand the appeal of spending time with the art of right now, art that means something in the moment but is ephemeral, that looks cool now but will look like kitsch in a few years.  Maybe it looks like kitsch now.  Kitsch has its own interest and pleasures.

A real music critic may easily listen to a thousand albums from a given year.  I don’t do that, which is its own profession, or hobby, but I pay attention to music critics and what they recommend.  Some of it I love, some is junk; some seems important, some trivial.  That’s all part of the fun.

I don’t think that is how I approach literature, but I see why it would be enjoyable.  I do not quite understand how to transfer the idea of “keeping up” to books, except perhaps for the people who read 500 pages an hour.  Has a professional reviewer, Sam Sacks or Katherine Powers or someone like that, written about “keeping up”?  Maybe they don’t think that way.  I would enjoy reading that essay.

We all listen to music at the same speed.  We sure do not read at the same speed.  Maybe that is not the issue.

Still.  More time spent reading new books looking for their hooks, their energy, for what is new, that would be fun.  I spend a lot of my reading looking for the new, but the new of a hundred years ago, which now, honestly, is rather old.

Michael Orthofer and his Complete Review provide a model example of what I mean by “keeping up.” “There are currently 4509 books under review.” I am pretty sure he reads quite a bit faster than me.

My Best Album of 2019, by the way, is 400: An Afrikan Epic by Dr. Mark Lomax II, available for listening at no cost at his website.  This is a genuine “album” of music, a twelve volume jazz history of the African-American experience.  The first and last volumes are solo drums (Lomax is a drummer), and I cannot say I love those, but I love the rest.  The star performer is the saxophonist, Edwin Bayard, who plays in the idiom of John Coltrane.  For a literary connection, jump to part 8, “Blues in August,” a tribute to August Wilson.

I read, in 2019, roughly twenty books that were more or less new.  With music, I keep neurotic track of what music is really from 2019, but with books that seems silly.  Sillier.  Twenty recent books.  A long way from keeping up, but not total isolation from my own time.  I’ll write about some of them over the next few days.

Monday, January 20, 2020

As we are mock’d with art – a review and a preview – guest-starring Ian McKellen

How I enjoy “year in review” posts on book blogs.  I read all of yours.  Well, I was celebrating the holiday and then on vacation, and my reading of all kinds suffers, so I can say I looked at all of your “best books of 2019” posts.  I enjoyed them to the extent of my power.

The best book I read last year was The Iliad (8th century BC), an old friend that I have read four or five times.  That’s a lot, for me.  In London, I saw “Ian McKellen on Stage,” a one man show.  In the first half, McKellen made a running joke about everyone, including heores like Edmund Hillary, insisting on telling him that “I read The Lord of the Rings every year!”  McKellen said he had never read it at all until he was cast in it.

He seemed a little skeptical of the whole “every year thing.”  But this is a guy who puts on the same show every night, twice on Wednesdays.  It has never occurred to me to have a book that I read every year, but apparently I read The Iliad every ten years.

The next best “book” I read was the poems of Sappho (say 6th century BC), as translated by Guy Davenport in 7 Greeks.  Perhaps that entire astonishing book should fill this slot – Archilochos, Haraclitus, Diogenes.  And next would be The Winter’s Tale (1611, maybe), you know, Shakespeare.

McKellen spent the second half of his show talking about nothing but Shakespeare, reciting famous chunks, telling stories about productions, opinionating.  “I have nothing to say about Troilus and Cressida,” at one extreme, and quite a lot to say about Macbeth on the other.  About The Winter’s Tale, he said it was marvelous “until the action moves into the countryside and the play goes all” – and McKellen made a combination of deflating noise and wriggling hand gesture that I will interpret as “soggy.”  “But then in the last act” – yes, yes, in the last act.  I pulled the phrase in the post’s title from the last act, scene 3.

Last May, during the ill-fated readalong of Henrik Pontoppidan’s big Danish “tormented atheist” novel Lucky Per (1898-1904), I remember seeing a couple of readalongers say that the novel was the best thing they had read all year – they were not too far into Pontoppidan at that point, I guess – and I remember thinking that I had, earlier in 2019, read The Radetzky March (1930), The Age of Innocence (1920), The Tower (Yeats, I mean, 1928), prime Marianne Moore, Robert Frost, and Wallace Stevens, plus that Shakespeare play.  And that was just in January.

I read a lot of really great books.  Perhaps I read too many great books.  What do I think I am doing with it all?  What is the point?  I am mocked with art.  Maybe I should space the best stuff out more.  I would be interested in reading that argument.  Maybe I should write that argument.

Plans:  1. Last year, I read quite a lot of books from the 1920s, and felt that I learned a lot, so I suppose this year I will read mostly books from the 1930s, and if I am fortunate I will learn something from that.  2. Keep reading in French.  3. Read less, write more.

Wednesday, December 4, 2019

A glance at the complete poems of Blaise Cendrars - Your menus / Are the new poetry

My reading is tipping towards London, which I will visit for the first time in January – if you are there, let me buy you a pint.  The London I mean is the city, not the writer, although I am now reading a book by London about London, which will make for a confusing post if I ever write it up, which I likely won’t.

More French books, instead, books I have read in French as part of my effort to learn to read books in French.  I will abandon the glib literary history now that I have gotten to the 20th century, but for my own sake stick to the basic chronology.

Today, the book is Du monde entier au coeur du monde (1946, written 1912-26, From the Whole World to the Heart of the World), which is the complete poems of Blaise Cendrars under a fancy title.  If I were writing the more literary-historical post, I would be writing about Cendrars and Guillaume Apollinaire, the two writers and rivals who made the big parallel break in Modernist French poetry – before and after.  No more rules.  But I have only read Cendrars in French.

This book is a landmark for me, actually, since it is the first and only book over 300 pages that I have read in French.

To the left is Cendrars’s second published poem, “La prose du Transsibérien et de la Petite Jehanne de France” (1913, “The prose of the Trans-Siberian Railway and of Little Jehanne of France”), a collaboration with Sonia Delaunay.  It is sort of a poster, two meters long, that folds up like a map.  It has everything – a bit of collage on the top right, the Eiffel Tower on the bottom left, and a poem about young Cendrars riding on a Russian train with his French girlfriend.

Cendrars was twenty-six when he wrote the poem; in the poem he would have been more like sixteen.  He was in St. Petersburg in 1904 and 1905 as an apprentice watchmaker.  Why did a Swiss kid have to go to Russia to be an apprentice watchmaker?  I do not know.  Heck of a time to be in Petersburg, though.

Does it matter what is in the poem itself?  I mean, look at that thing.  There are no more rules.  Fragments, collage, montage, just like Berlin Alexanderplatz.

Cendrars was not formally educated.  He was a natural conceptual artist.  Do something new.  His first published poem was “Easter in New York” (1912), an early urban poem.  Third was “Le Panama or les aventures de mes sept oncles” (1918 but written in 1914, “Panama or The Adventures of My Seven Uncles”).  Cendrars is always on the move, writing about places he’s been, places other people have been:

Oh my uncle, you alone have never had homesickness
Nice London Budapest Bermuda St. Petersburg Tokyo Memphis
All the great hotels fight for your services
You are the master
You have invented numerous sweet dishes that carry your name
Your art
You give yourself you sell yourself they eat you
We never know where you are

You were always somewhere where something happened
You are maybe in Paris
Your menus
Are the new poetry

He wrote denatured sonnets, elastic poems, Kodak poems.  Menu poems, as if on an imaginary passenger ship, I love those.  They’re the new poetry:

Ragout of river crabs in pepper
Pork in milk surrounded by fried bananas
Hedgehog in nutmeg
Fruit

That is one of the Kodak (Documentaires) (1924) poems, number VIII of the Menu Poems.  And now many of us photograph actual menus.

Around this point, in a typical conceptual-artist move, he gave up poetry for novels, which he eventually abandoned for screenplays, before ending with a series of memoirs.  I have read just a bit of the latter, a school edition of a chunk of The Severed Hand (1946), about World War I, in which Our Hero is ordered to capture a German prisoner, and does, more or less.  I was surprised by how much profanity there was in a school text aimed at junior high students.  I had not yet quite figured out how the school editions were labelled.  It was not for junior high students.  It was hard.  Someday I should read the whole book, and see how Cendrars loses his right hand.  The novels sound good, too.

The image of  “La prose du Transsibérien” shows Princeton’s copy, borrowed from Wikipedia.


Wednesday, November 27, 2019

Berlin Alexanderplatz - he slices and squashes and bolts and snuffles and gulps and swallows - the hammer, the hammer comes down

The thing itself, Berlin Alexanderplatz (1929) by Alfred Döblin as translated by Michael Hofmann.

Franz Biberkopf (BBK, Beaverhead) is an ex-con, just out of prison on the first page.  He has some typical adjustment issues.  He makes a half-hearted – sometimes perhaps three-quarters-hearted – attempt to go straight, but is pulled pack into his old world of gangsters and prostitutes.

So this was the end of Franz Biberkopf, which I wanted to describe from the moment he left Tegel prison to his end in the mental asylum Buch in the winter of 1928-9.  (Ch.9, 428)

Berlin Alexanderplatz is a Bildungsroman, or perhaps a parody of a Bildungsroman, since Franz is pretty close to uneducable.  As in Wilhelm Meister or Green Henry, the hero develops by means of defeat, by the author stripping away the false layers.  In Goethe, the process is largely intellectual, but with Franz it is rather more physical.  He takes a beating.  Here is the summary of the seventh of the nine books of the novel:

Chapter Seven

In which the hammer, the hammer comes down on Franz Biberkopf.  (287)

Everything is taken away, including, possibly, Franz’s personality.  How else does Siddhartha become Buddha except by stripping away the worldly excesses?  Franz is pounded flat.

“We know what we know, we had to pay dearly enough for it” (440, almost the last line).  The decadent end of the Bildungsroman tradition.

Much of Berlin Alexanderplatz has little to do with Franz directly.  Döblin inserts advertisements, songs, newspaper stories pretty much directly (collage via Kraus, “To return to the train accident on Heerstrasse, all the injured passengers were said to be improving in the hospital,” 179); he hops freely from subject to subject, spending lines or pages on rewriting Job (“You haven’t lost as much as Job from the land of Uz, Franz Biberkopf,” 366) or wandering through a slaughterhouse or interrogating the poster of some dumb comic play:

Deeper meaning must and can only stand alone.  Exuberant humor should be got rid of, the way Carthage was got rid of by the Romans…  (181)

This is not the narrator, of course, but his description of the attitudes of certain Berliners.  The narrator, he thinks deeper meaning should be buried under a junk heap.  He enjoys shifts of register, parody, ordinary speech, technical language, everything, all at once.  My arbitrarily favorite example is a couple of pages where the narrator ducks into the cafeteria at the Criminal Claims Court and watches some nobody (“A fat young man in horn-rims,” 291) enthusiastically eat his lunch:

His eyes rove about his plate, even though no one’s threatening to take anything away from him, no one is sitting anywhere near him, he is all alone at his table, but he is still worried, he slices and squashes and shovels, quick, one two, one, one, and while he works, one in, one out, one in, one out, while he slices and squashes and bolts and snuffles and gulps and swallows, his eyes are wide open, his eyes are watching the diminishing quantity of food on his plate, guarding him like two Alsatians, alert to his surroundings.  (291)

That sentence is maybe more interesting than the norm – those dogs popping out of the eyes.  My one little bit of skepticism about Berlin Alexanderplatz is that the digressions and tone shifts don’t seem to make a more meaningful, artful pattern.  They mostly look like one thing after another, one thing piled on another.  Still, that’s what I found most exciting about Berlin Alexanderplatz – where will this nut go next?

Biblioklept’s review of Berlin Alexanderplatz points in many interesting directions, and describes pretty much how I read the novel.  I think I only borrowed one Döblin quotation from him.  A quote from Biblioklept himself: “Let Döblin’s narrator explain the relationship of temperature, starch, and sugar for you.”

Tuesday, November 26, 2019

Nabokov's guide to Berlin, and Kawabata's guide to Tokyo

The yakuza in Confessions of a Yakuza takes over the gambling racket in 1920s Asakusa, a part of Tokyo I, like most tourists, had visited to see the famous Shinto shrines and also of course the kitchenware stores, including the ones that sell the wax food.  Wanting to learn more, I read Yasunari Kawabata’s The Scarlet Gang of Asakusa (1929-30), not knowing that it was basically Tokyo Asakusaplatz, a true cousin of Alfred Döblin’s novel.

Advanced Japanese writers went through a rapid Western Modernism phase in the 1920s, reading Ulysses in English, for example.  This Kawabata novel is one of the results.  The novel is if anything more fragmented than Berlin Alexanderplatz (1929), more digressive.  The main characters are very young prostitutes and the main stories are about their fight to survive, but chapters and digressions wander everywhere (within the boundaries of Asakusa).

It is a brutal neighborhood, but it is also the home of Western-style theaters and most of Tokyo’s movie palaces.  Ultra-modern.  The whole place, including Tokyo’s tallest building, had been wiped out in the 1923 earthquake, and it would all be obliterated again in the war, but anyway in 1929 everything is brand new and exciting.  Kawabata’s prose tries to capture this energy in a dozen different ways.

I have to say, I found this book darn hard to pull into quotations.  Few passages, on their own, make any dang sense.  I am having the same problem with Berlin Alexanderplatz, frankly, but Kawabata’s book is even crazier.  The University of California Press edition, translated by Alisa Freedman, is, incidentally, superb – a map, photos, the original newspaper illustrations, an essay by Donald Richie, pages of desperately needed annotations.

I think of Kawabata as a quiet and restrained writer, in both subject and prose.  Scarlet Gang is anything but that.  It is written by a Kawabata who had not yet found his style and was trying out some new things, which he would soon jettison.

So that’s: same time as Döblin, similar style, similar subject, completely different place.

For the same time, same place, different subjects, and a completely different style, let’s turn to the Berlin stories of Vladimir Nabokov.  His beginnings as a fiction writer were in Weimar Berlin, where he wrote for a tiny audience of fellow Russian exiles.  The book will never exist, but a Nabokov’s Berlin collection, with the most Berlin-ish short stories and excerpts from the most Berlin-ish novels, would be pretty interesting.  For now, I have to piece Nabokov’s Berlin together from his complete Stories and King, Queen, Knave (1928) and so on.

Curiously, Döblin and Nabokov, writing at the same time, create characters who prefigure fascism through their passiveness when confronted with charismatic leaders.  Curiously, both characters are named Franz.

The style, though.  Let’s look at “A Guide to Berlin” (1925), a story that in its own way is highly fragmented.  The narrator tells his friend, over a beer, what he saw during the day.  “We sat down and I start telling my friend about utility pipes, streetcars, and other important matters” (155 of Stories, 1955, tr. VN and his son).  The tortoises at the zoo, life in the street.  Like this:

A young white-capped baker flashes by in his tricycle; there is something angelic about a lad dusted with flour.  A van jingles past with cases on its roof containing rows of emerald-glittering empty bottles, collected from taverns.  A long, black larch tree mysteriously travels by in a cart.  The tree lies flat; its tip quivers gently, while the earth-covered roots, enveloped in sturdy burlap, form an enormous beige bomblike sphere at its base.  A  postman, who has placed the mouth of a sack under a cobalt-covered mailbox, fastens it on from below, and secretly, invisibly, with a hurried rustling, the box empties and the postman claps shut the square jaws of the bag, now grown full and heavy.  (157-8)

The drinking companion is skeptical this adds up to much – “’Who cares?’”  But for Nabokov this is the stuff of art, looking closely, making it strange.  He’s the Berlin writer who has read Petersburg.  Where is the art, the interest, in a mailman emptying a mailbox?  It depends on how you look at it.

A book that does exist is Nabokovs Berlin (2001, note the absent apostrophe) by Dieter Zimmer, which is full of amazing facts about Nabokov’s life in Berlin.  Sadly, I cannot really read this book because it is in German.  The highly relevant picture up above, of the Graf Zeppelin over Wilhelmplatz in 1929, is on page 53.  The book has few pictures of Alexanderplatz because Nabokov’s characters rarely make it that far east.