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

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.

Monday, November 25, 2019

Berlin Alexanderplatz and city literature

I’ve been spending my time in the 1920s, and the German Reading Month organizers kindly picked Alfred Döblin’s fragmented, jittery, pessimistic Berlin Alexanderplatz (1929) for a readalong.  It is a member of an odd genre, the “city novel,” where the city is not merely a setting for the novel but part of is “aboutness.”  The city infects everything in the book.  A number of writers in the 1920s worked on these creatures.

Find me a piece on Berlin Alexanderplatz that does not begin with a lot of other books.  This post will not be much more than a list of books.  Ulysses (1922), Manhattan Transfer (1925), Mrs Dalloway (1925), “The Waste Land” (1922), for example.  Most commonly Joyce’s novel, perhaps because we can be sure everyone subsequent read it, which helps when claiming “influence.”  Nobody reading in English or German was reading Andrei Bely’s Petersburg (1913/16/etc.), which would have been an eye-opener.  Somebody writing about Berlin had read it – I’ll get to him.  Döblin actually read and reviewed Ulysses, in German, while writing Berlin Alexanderplatz, and specific aspects of the one book pretty clearly infiltrated the other.  That helps.

Eliot aside, the poets are not given enough credit.  They were exploring the cities first.  Charles Baudelaire demonstrated, or created, the link between the city and the new, the modern, soon to become the Modern.  City people were restless and uprooted.  They were constantly moving.  The city was constantly changing.  How to capture any of that in writing, or notes, or paint?  Lots of experiments; lots of different ways.

Some of the great New York writers were Yiddish immigrant poets, read by no one else, like Moishe Leib Halpern’s In Nyu York (1919).  Or they were European visitors, like Federico García Lorca or Blaise Cendrars.  I should write about Cendrars later, too.

Something changed with the introduction of film, too, especially montage, leading to pure narrative-free “city film”s like Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera (1929).  How to represent the city – how about a little of this, a little of that, just glimpses seen from the tram window?  Collage changed things – why invent an advertisement when you can just paste in a real one?  Karl Kraus, in Vienna, would sometimes “write” pieces that were little more than him pointing at an appalling ad or article that summed up the age.  Look at how the set, nominally London, of the first scene of G. W. Pabst’s The Threepenny Opera (1931) has so much text, just above the people.

Part of the fun of Modernism is enjoying the dense and rapid network of ideas and techniques, with Picasso leading to Stravinsky to Eliot to Eisenstein, perhaps through something identifiable as “influence,” perhaps not – it is so vague to say that ideas were “in the air,” but “influence” is inadequate, often even false.  Artists of all kinds are looking carefully at the world around them, and looking at their materials.  Sometimes they see the same thing.  Sometimes they represent it similarly.

Tomorrow I will try to write about books, although not Berlin Alexanderplatz, and not just arrange them, however fun that is.  The reader might think “Not sure this guy has that much to say about BA.”  The reader might be right.  The reader who has gotten this far should probably skip this post and come back tomorrow.

Friday, November 22, 2019

Mann's novel of Anti-Ideas - primal ideas of beauty turn into slack-lipped gibberish - "That didn't get us very far."

3. The Magic Mountain is a novel of Ideas.  A Dialectical Novel.  An Anti-Dialectical Novel.

Characters spend a lot of time, and pages, arguing, about revolution, religion, Jesuits, Freemasons, canning – you know, storing fruit in jars, canning.

“Preserves don’t have time, so to speak, but stand there on the shelf outside of time.  But enough about canning jars.  That didn’t get us very far.”  (6, “A Good Soldier,” 502)

There’s the time theme again.  That is just a portion of a paragraph about canning  from what is generally considered to be one of the most profound, most intellectual novels of the 20th century.  Curious that Willa Cather beat Mann to the novelistic use of preserved fruit in jars as mystical objects by six years.

I should have read The Magic Mountain decades ago, and I knew I should have.  But I had picked up an aversion to the Novel of Ideas, and I took Mann to be the leader of the field, so I put it off for thirty years.  The Magic Mountain is in fact highly essayistic, as in the excursions about time I mentioned yesterday, but also surprisingly dialectical.  Meaning, ideas are less often portrayed in essays, as the product of the thinking of the narrator, but in argument, two characters debating, often with our young, attentive hero literally in the middle, stuffing it all into his spongy brain.

Some of these debates are tedious beyond belief, and a number seemed to degenerate into gibberish.  Others degenerated into shouting, which is at least dramatic.

Confusion reigned.  “Objective reality,” shouted one; “The self!” cried the other.  Finally one side was talking about “Art!” and the other about “Criticism!”  And both constantly returned to “Nature!” and “Spirit!” and to which of them was more noble… (6, “Operationes Spirituales,” 457)

Early on in the novel, I blamed my aversion to Ideas for my difficulty with these passages, but at this point it finally sunk in that Mann was deliberately enacting much of the gibberish.  He is critiquing dialectic, the very notion of argument and of any possibility of synthesis.  The above exchange ends in a ludicrous duel, with firearms.

All of this is before the introduction, in the final book, of Mynheer Peeperkorn, a character who speaks almost entirely in a hash of rhetorical fragments that infects our hero Hans and the other residents of the sanitorium, perhaps in part because Peeperkorn is wealthy and generous with alcohol:

The party gave itself over to its own blissful idleness; they exchanged disconnected small talk, scraps of elevated emotions, which in their primal state as ideas had promised ultimate beauty, but on the way to being spoken turned into fragmentary, slack-lipped gibberish, some of it indiscreet, some of it incomprehensible… (7, “Vingt et un,” 561)

Peeperkorn’s presence makes argument useless.  He “neutralized intellect instead” (7, “Mynheer Peeperkorn (Continued),” 580).  His story climaxes when he throws a party at a waterfall, and gives a long speech, with dramatic gestures, that is made completely inaudible by the water.

Mann is not using the novel to express his Ideas as much as he is attacking the possibility of expressing Ideas.  Perhaps Peeperkorn give a more hopeful solution in his great speech; too bad that no one “understand[s] a single syllable of what he expressed” (612).

Why so many pages expended on blow-by-blow arguments if so much of it is gibberish?  It is just like the (novelistic) argument Mann makes about time.  The reader must experience the uselessness of the arguments, even participate in it by working through the Ideas, as if they were what mattered.

I am not so sure that Mann is right, that I really needed to read quite so much nonsense about the nature of progress and so on to get to his point, but I am pretty sure that is why he does it.

Not reading The Magic Mountain has been a useful defense against whatever overhyped, soon-forgotten nonsense became trendy.  “I can’t read that,” I would think, “ I haven’t even read The Magic Mountain!”  But now I have.  What will I do.

Thursday, November 21, 2019

The Magic Mountain as a novel about time - Can one narrate time?

 2. The Magic Mountain is a novel about time.

Can one narrate time – time as such, in and of itself?  Most certainly not, what a foolish undertaking that would be.  The story would go: “Time passed, ran on, flowed in a mighty stream,” and on and on in the same vein.  No one with any common sense could call that a narrative.  It would be the same as if someone took the harebrained notion of holding a single note or chord for hours on end – and called it music.  (7, “A Stroll by the Shore,” 531)

I will direct Mann’s, and your, attention to this superb essay by Laura Glen Louis, in the Autumn 2019 Hudson Review, on her experience performing a choral version of Yves Klein’s Monotone-Silence Symphony (1947), which does not hold the note for hours but is in the ballpark.  Where would we be without the harebrained?  We live in a harebrained age.

I was so pleased with myself, figuring out that The Magic Mountain was in fact a novel about the narration of time, and then at the beginning of the final chunk, Book 7, see above, Mann just blurts it out, for four pages in the John E. Woods edition.  “[I]t is apparently not such an absurd notion to want to narrate about time” (532, emphasis Mann’s).

The novel simultaneously accelerates and decelerates.  The first short book describes a few hours, as Hans Castorp arrives at the sanatorium; the second hops like many novels hops back to his childhood, family, and education; the third, quite a lot longer, is one full day at the hospital, from breakfast to bedtime, in about 50 pages.  Then 90 pages cover the next three weeks; the next 150 pages covers – why am I describing this myself?

[T]he coverage of the next three weeks of the visit, however, will require about as many lines – or words, or even seconds – as the first three weeks required pages, quires, hours, and working days.  We can see it coming – we’ll have those three weeks behind us and laid to rest in no time.  (5, “Eternal Soup and Sudden Clarity,” 180)

Look at the standards of measurement.  Literal pieces of paper, counted two ways; words on the page; time measured two ways.  How long is a “working day” for Mann?  As The Magic Mountain expanded past the original conception as a novella, as years of writing passed, the subject of the book changed, and these meta-fictional comments, or occasionally essays, on time became a part of the experience of the book.

I am not convinced that Mann’s specific ideas about time are so deep.  Time is experienced subjectively, for example – I knew that.  What is new is that he explicitly moves the subjectivity onto his readers.  Time moves subjectively but in different flowing ways for the characters, for the author, and for the readers – and presumably in many different ways for different readers, who are often stubborn cusses, fighting with the author, reading perversely.  Mann gives us something new with which to fight.

Every piece of narrative writing works with time in some way or another.  Mann brings it to the front, so I can think about it.  He is not the only one.  I am thinking of the first chapter of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916), or the interlude in To the Lighthouse (1927), or maybe Benjy’s chapter in The Sound and the Fury (1929).  This is some of the high-level novelistic work of the age, making time do new things.

The chapter with the single day gives The Magic Mountain a pulse.  Once described, it is in the background, repeated endlessly without me having to read it endlessly.  Then there are the months, the seasons, the years, departures and deaths, a series of repetitions of varying intervals.  Mann is right, it is like music, with a lot of simultaneous cycles.  How does he keep the novel from being many simultaneous notes, played for hours but at varying intervals?  One answer is the usual novelistic stuff, characters and furniture and so on, see yesterday’s post, and the other answer is Ideas.  That’s for tomorrow.

Wednesday, November 20, 2019

The Magic Mountain, many novels in one - I chop it into a pasty hodgepodge - "Malice, sir, is the spirit of criticism"

“Malice, sir, is the spirit of criticism, and criticism marks the origin of progress and enlightenment.” (Ch. 3, “Satana,” 59)

Given that invitation, and the approaching end of German Literature Month, I had better write a bit about The Magic Mountain (1924), Thomas Mann’s comic tuberculosis-infected novel of ideas.  It is several novels in one.  I count at least three.  This helps me organize the long. complex novel, if nothing else.

1. The comic sanatorium novel, a novel about illness.  Illness, as we all know, is a useful metaphor.  Young Hans Castorp visits a Swiss sanatorium to spend some time with his cousin and somehow never leaves, not for years, until life finally intrudes too strongly (meaning, a world war breaks out).  As the director of the sanatorium says:

“First and foremost: there’s the air up here.  It’s good for fighting off illness, wouldn’t you say?  And you’d be right.  But it’s also good for illness, you see, because it first enhances it, creates a revolution in the body, causes latent illness to erupt…” (4, “The Thermometer,” 179)

The rest-cure that causes illness is pretty funny.  Sometimes the novel made me wonder what Kafka’s sanatorium novel would have been like, if he had lived to write it.  He certainly had enough experience with the institution.

The characters are mostly tuberculosis patients, so they are ill but active, with big appetites for food and life and sometimes sex.  The sanatorium is full of young, and less young, people in a world where some of the social rules are a bit relaxed.  Hans quickly falls for the lovely Frau Chauchat – one more reason he cannot bring himself to return to the outside world.  One of the comic high points of the novel is the chapter where he visits the director’s apartment, nominally to see his paintings but really to obsess over his crush.

The scene is packed with oddball sexual language.  The doctor owns an obscene coffee grinder, a gift from a patient, “an Egyptian princess” (“’Yes, that’s a tool for single gentlemen,” Behrens said,” Ch. 5, “Humaniora,” 258).  Hans, constrained from speaking directly about his lust, asks the doctor detailed medical questions about skin and fat, as if he is interested in science.

“I could easily have become a doctor.  The formation of breast milk… the lymph of the legs – it all interests me very much. The body!” he suddenly cried in a rapturous outburst.  “The flesh! The human body!  What is it? What is it made of?”  (261)

Hans uses this language to seduce Frau Chauchat (the italics signify that the conversation is supposedly in French):  “’Let me take in the exhalation of your pores and brush the down – oh, my human image made of water and protein, destined for the contours of the grave, let me perish, my lips against yours!” (5, “Walpurgis Nacht,” 537)

Death is never far from sex, or from anything, in The Magic Mountain.  It is not all comic.  But it is this side of the novel with all of the best little novelistic details, the kind of thing I enjoyed in Buddenbrooks, the cigars and furniture and food:

The room glistened with white from all the milk – a large glass at every place, a good pint of it at least. (3, “Clarity of Mind,” 66)

And fine minor characters:

At the next table on their left was an adolescent boy – still of school age, to judge by his appearance – whose coat sleeves were too short, and who wore thick, circular glasses; he chopped up everything heaped on his plate until it was a pasty hodgepodge, then bent over and wolfed it down, now and then pushing his napkin up behind his glasses to dry his eyes – it was unclear whether this was to wipe away sweat or tears. (3, “But of Course – a Female!,” 74)

My understanding is that Mann began The Magic Mountain as a comic counterpoint to Death in Venice – that was back in 1912 – but that the book expanded as he wrote it, turning into something more complex.  Thus, the second novel, the one about time. Tomorrow, that.

All quotations and page numbers are from the 1995 John E. Woods translation.

Monday, November 18, 2019

A survey of literary gangsters of the 1920s - “We got to keep amused, haven’t we?”

I’ve been reading heavily, over the last year or two, in the literature of the 1920s, and that means one thing: gangsters.  Criminals who organize their crimes.

Berlin Alexanderplatz (1929) and The Threepenny Opera (1928) are German variations on the theme.  The Odessa Stories (1923-4), Isaac Babel’s other masterpiece, cover a Russian version.

Junichi Saga’s Confessions of a Yakuza (1989) takes care of Japan.  This one is non-fiction – I believe it is thought to be accurate, but with this subject, who knows.  Junichi, a doctor, transcribes the life story of his patient Eiji Ijichi, a professional criminal. He covers roughly the 1910s through the 1940s, but the 1920s get disproportionate attention, when Eiji was setting himself up as a Yakuza, primarily, says he, in the gambling racket.  The section about the 1923 Tokyo earthquake alone is worth reading, if you do not mind that it is a horrible nightmare.  Recommended to anyone interested in Japanese culture – this is not a story I had seen anywhere else.

The United States is at this point going through the episode of mass delusion known as Prohibition, giving gangster plenty to do.  They enter literature slowly.  The earliest I encountered are in The Great Gatsby (1925), where they are either a minor or major part of the story depending on how receptive you are to  - now here I am going to refer to an idea that is not exactly a spoiler of the plot, but is perhaps something worse – to the idea of Gatsby as murder mystery.  Meaning, does our narrator Nick get Gatsby’s murder right, and if he gets it wrong is he ignorant or obfuscating, and if the latter is it unconscious (hiding something from himself) or purposeful (hiding something from me).  Regardless, any complete interpretation of the novel had better figure out what to do with the gangsters and Gatsby’s con-artist bond scheme.

Ernest Hemingway’s “The Killers” is the next place I get a good dose of gangsterism.  The twelve-page story spends eight pages just watching a couple of hired killers perform, like an early version of Pulp Fiction.  “In their tight overcoats and derby hats they looked like a vaudeville team.”  They act like a vaudeville team.

“I don’t like it,” said Al.  “It’s sloppy.  You talk too much.”

“Oh, what the hell,” said Max.  “We got to keep amused, haven’t we?”

A curious, possibly central, aspect of enjoying Hemingway’s writing as art is feeling where he slips into kitsch, but this entire story is about someone else’s kitsch, a representation of kitsch, which is perhaps why it is so good.

1929 saw two great monuments to the American gangster.  One is Dashiell Hammett’s violent, lunatic Red Harvest, in which a detective solves a town’s gangster problem by arranging the murder – occasionally personally murdering – every thug who lives there.  Around the three-quarter mark, I was thinking that I should have kept track of the murders, but then in Chapter 16 the detective tallies them up for me: “’That’s sixteen of them in less than a week, and more coming up,’” and the next chapter is actually titled “The Seventeenth Murder.”

The other book, not as good but possibly more important, is W. R. Burnett’s Little Caesar, a nominally realistic picture of Chicago’s small-time gangs, with Capone as the big figure in the background.  Burnett’s great problem, as he spent years on this book, was that he wanted it to be literature, to sound like Edith Wharton or something, but at some point he realized that he should use the simpler, almost stupid, language of the gangster’s themselves, or at least something that sounded like their language.

Rico [our little hero] smiled.  Then he took out his billfold and handed Seal Skin a ten.

“There’s a little cush for you.  You ain’t sore at me cause I socked you, are you?  I got red hot mad, that’s all.”

“You didn’t sock me hard,” said Seal Skin, “but it was ten dollars’ worth.”  (Ch. 6)

This kind of writing is pretty much screenplay-ready, so it is no surprise that the film that made Edward G. Robinson famous appeared in 1931.  More surprising is that it spurred a wave of gangster films, including Public Enemy and Scarface (which Burnett co-wrote); in other words, Burnett’s novel led to the creation of the genre of the gangster film.  Amazingly, Burnett pulled off the same trick a second time, writing the heist novel The Asphalt Jungle (1949), which is made in to a heist film that more or less creates or popularizes the genre of heist film.

This particular kind of high-speed entanglement of literature and film seems like something new.

As far as I can tell, nothing by W. R. Burnett is currently in print in the U.S.  We have so little sense of history.  Heaps of Burnett novels, Westerns, mysteries, everything, are in print in France, of course.

Monday, November 11, 2019

I counted American books in French bookstores - a study, with methodology and results and so on

Now, something about the French reading Americans, rather than me reading the French.

In July, I counted the titles by American fiction writers on the shelves at a French bookstore.  I even made a few notes, although most of what I include here is from memory.

The exercise was just to count the number of titles.  Prestige as measured by the proxy of shelf space.  Likely also sales, but who knows.  These are for-profit bookstores.  I doubt they have much on the shelf just for show.  They want to sell books.  They know their readers.

So, which American authors had the most titles on the shelves of a particular French bookstore in July?  There was a tie, two authors with 21 titles each.  You can guess while reviewing my methodology.

The bookstore I studied carefully was Librairie Passages, an exemplar of the mainstream bookstore.  I checked my results, pretty casually, at Le Bal des Ardents, Lyon’s most picturesque bookstore (see left), and the Decitre at the mall, which is the closest bookstore to the main public library.  The library is almost in the mall.  French life is well organized.

Le Bal des Ardents is weirder than Passages, with more tiny presses and oddities.  It is more highbrow, with, for example, the Complete Works of Antonin Artaud in 26 volumes on the shelf – who is buying this?  Decitre is populist – mall bookstore – but local, a branch of a century-old Lyon institution.

My American control is Prairie Lights in Iowa City, the best bookstore for hundreds of miles in any direction, which I visited in August.  It is not a typical bookstore, since Iowa City is the home of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and is a UNESCO City of Literature.  All of these bookstores are roughly the same size, I think.

The non-American winner – I was not even counting non-Americans, but he stood out – was Stefan Zweig, who had 50 books (not titles, too many books to check for duplicates) on the shelf at Passages.  50 books!  Stefan Zweig!  Prairie Lights had one book, maybe.

The American winners at Passages were Philip Roth and Jack London.   Roth I had guessed myself.  But London!  London has a much higher status in France than in the U.S. Prairie Lights had a dozen or more Roth titles out, but just two by London, among the “adult” books, I mean, The Call of the Wild and I don’t remember.  Maybe there were more downstairs with the kid’s books.

The runners-up, all in the 10-to-12 title range:  Henry James, Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck, William Faulkner, Jack Kerouac, Jim Harrison.  Living writers in the same range: Joyce Carol Oates, Alice Munro, Margaret Atwood, Toni Morrison (alive then), Don DeLillo, Paul Auster.  I may have missed some of these.  I would have thought that Poe would be out of the running by this counting measure, but his works are rearranged into enough editions that he was close.

I did not jot down the numbers, but at Le Bal des Ardents, the winner (with fewer than 20 titles) was easily Faulkner, and second, including Russian works, was Vladimir Nabokov, who only had a few books at Passages.

Prairie Lights was generally similar.  Big differences, besides London: just three books by Joyce Carol Oates, and two or three by Kerouac.  I was surprised that it had as many Jim Harrison titles.  Maybe an artifact of the special qualities of that store.

Harrison mentions, several times, in the essays in A Really Big Lunch (2017), that his popularity at some point moved to France:

Luckily my books do very well in France…  The French saved my little family for which I’ll always be grateful.  I had many bestsellers over there but never in America.  (p. 265)

I remember Roth somewhere describing the same phenomenon (substituting Europe for France – German readers buy a lot of Roth).  It has struck me that French readers, or some of them, a lot of them, are interested in outsized American masculinity, thus the relatively high status of London, Hemingway, Kerouac, Harrison, and also noir detective novels and maybe even Oates.

Or maybe they like Harrison because of his many passages like this:

I have often thought that if I received an early warning that I would pass on sooner than later, I’d get myself to Lyon and eat for a solid month, after which they could tip me from a gurney into the blessed Rhône.  (164)

A kindred spirit.  Classic Lyon cuisine is not the healthiest food in France.

At the mall bookstore, the Americans with the most titles were, maybe – I did not keep exact track – Stephen King and George R. R. Martin and Mary Higgins Clark, like that.  Actually, it was probably a comic book writer, Geoff Johns or Stan Lee.  This was not true at Passages (I checked).  Donna Leon was up there, but nowhere near 21 books.

Anyway, something a little bit more concrete to go with all of the other impressions I have picked up.  How do other people think about literature, that is the endlessly interesting question.