Friday, April 17, 2015

Now there had come one glorious day - a Trollope proposal, a Trollope hunt

I have mocked Trollope for his excessive number of proposal scenes – Trollope had mocked himself for the same thing – but The Eustace Diamonds only has maybe six proposals, far fewer than in the previous Palliser novel, Phineas Finn, where they became an aggravation.

In smaller quantities, I can be more impressed with Trollope’s inventiveness.  Sir Florian Eustace is proposing to Lizzie Greystock.  One proposal out of the way, and we are still in Chapter 1:

The speech he made was somewhat long, and as he made it he hardly looked into her face.

But it was necessary to him that he should be made to know by some signal from her how it was going with her feelings.  As he spoke of his danger, there came a gurgling little trill of wailing from her throat, a soft, almost musical sound of woe, which seemed to add an unaccustomed eloquence to his words.  When he spoke of his own hope the sound was somewhat changed, but it was still continued.

I do not think of Trollope as much of a descriptive writer, but “a gurgling little trill of wailing” is pretty good.  And the most effective touch is that her strange sound adds color to his speech, or so he thinks, since I take that as Sir Florian’s thoughts, or illusions.  In other words, the beautiful, penniless, deceitful adventuress has hooked the rich, “vicious and… dying” baronet but good.  By the end of the chapter he is dead and Lizzie is a rich widow in possession of the diamond necklace that gives the book its title and the plot its momentum.  Again, I mean  by the end of Chapter 1 – this novel really cooks at first.

The six Barchester books had no hunting scenes.  I believe that Trollope, in real life, had not yet become a fox-hunting addict when he began that series, and as we know from Framley Parsonage, clergymen should not hunt.  All four non-Barchester novels I have read feature long, detailed hunting scenes.  When he is interested enough, Trollope cannot stop himself from describing a scene in detail – every horse, every obstacle, every movement of the game.  Some readers must find these chapters as dull as a play-by-play of a fictional baseball game.  Trollope does make use of these chapters, so they are not entirely there for his own Fantasy Fox-hunting entertainment.  The hunt in Chapter 38, for example, results in, what else, a  proposal.

I will save that for tomorrow, though, and turn to the poor fox:

They were off again now, and the stupid fox absolutely went back across the river. But, whether on one side or on the other, his struggle for life was now in vain.  Two years of happy, free existence amidst the wilds of Craigattan had been allowed him. Twice previously had he been “found,” and the kindly storm or not less beneficent brightness of the sun had enabled him to baffle his pursuers.  Now there had come one glorious day, and the common lot of mortals must be his.  (Ch. 38)

Trollope is so fluid – “They” are the hunters, “stupid” and “absolutely” are their words, collectively.  It is practically dialogue, from when one of the huntsman recounts the hunt at the pub.  Omniscient Trollope takes the reins and begins sympathizing with the fox – he sympathizes with everyone – and the rhetoric heightens, including some pleasing indulgence in the pathetic fallacy, entirely appropriate, since what reader will not feel the pathos of the death of the fox?

Thursday, April 16, 2015

He was astonished to find how sweet a thing was poetry - Trollope characters read

Should I write about the books in The Eustace Diamonds.  Whenever I can, I write about the books.  They are so much fun.  Even a shortage of books is fun:

“There isn't anything for you to do.  There are Miss Edgeworth's novels down-stairs, and ‘Pride and Prejudice’ in my bed-room.  I don't subscribe to Mudie's, because when I asked for ‘Adam Bede,’ they always sent me the ‘Bandit Chief.”  (Ch. 34)

John Sutherland did the notes in the Penguin edition I read.  He tells me that the lending library would substitute books if it thought your request was unsuitable, so the shocking Adam Bede is replaced by The Bandit Chief; or Lords of Orsino. A Romance (1818).  The poor heroine, Lucy Morris, not the pathological liar but the novel’s more traditional heroine, is being punished for the sins of her fiancée here by being forced to live with a woman who has only four books.  If I thought summaries of novels were of much value I would explain why.

Lucy has her own book, too, Proverbial Philosophy by Martin Tupper, a poem in three volumes with a “theme of self-help.”  What a dreadful thing to be stuck with.  I would have Pride and Prejudice and Castle Rackrent memorized by the time I left that house.  In her previous house, this character had “catalogued the library” (Ch. 3) for fun, so that is who she is.

Most of the reading in the novel is done by the false heroine, the actual protagonist, the “dishonest, lying, evil-minded harpy” (Ch. 11) Lizzie Greystock, Lady Eustace who in a bold break from novelistic tradition is not led to her ruin by over-indulgence in novels but by her love of poetry, especially Romantic poetry, in particular Byron and Shelley.

“Ah,” she would say to herself in her moments of solitude, “if I had a Corsair of my own, how I would sit on watch for my lover's boat by the sea-shore!”  And she believed it of herself, that she could do so.  (Ch. 5)

She means this Corsair, the Byronic Corsair from The Corsair (1814), the one with a “forehead high and pale” and “sable curls in wild profusion.”

The comic high point of the thing is the three page scene in Chapter 21 in which Lady Eustace reads Percy Shelley’s Queen Mab (1813), sacred text of the radical Chartists, en plain air.  “Her darling ‘Queen Mab’ must be read without the coarse, inappropriate, everyday surroundings of a drawing-room…”  But the bench is too uncomfortable and “there were some snails which discomposed her.”  Finally, she makes it through the first stanza, “eight or nine lines,” which are so magnificent that she memorizes them.  She never progresses a line farther with Queen Mab:

As she grew older, however, she quickly became wiser, and was aware that in learning one passage of a poem it is expedient to select one in the middle, or at the end.  The world is so cruelly observant now-a-days, that even men and women who have not themselves read their "Queen Mab" will know from what part of the poem a morsel is extracted, and will not give you credit for a page beyond that from which your passage comes.

Again, we are in Chapter 21 – yes, I read the novel.  Trollope rubs in the joke at the beginning of the next chapter, noting that Lady Eustace had meant to finally read The Faerie Queene at this time, but due to distractions reads even less of it than the Shelley poem, instead wasting her time with novels.

My title is from the first chapter; the theme runs through the entire book.  Trollope always does the same thing, I always think, but I am always in some ways wrong.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

‘Umpty Dumpty was a hegg - Trollope fails to invent the detective novel

The great Victorian novelists all missed a great opportunity.  I cannot see how they did not see it.

The Eustace Diamonds is plotted around a terrifically expensive diamond necklace – who is the proper owner, who is the actual owner, how to move it from place to place, that sort of thing.  It is not a McGuffin in that plenty of meaning is attached to it, and to the iron box in which Lizzie Eustace keeps it, by the characters.

The police become involved, and for two chapters out of eighty The Eustace Diamonds recognizably becomes a detective novel.  The detectives are Officers Bunfit and Gager of Scotland Yard.  Bunfit has interrogated a suspect, Billy:

“And what did he say to that, Mr. Bunfit?”

“Well he said a good deal.  He's a sharp little fellow, is Billy, as has read a good deal.  You've heard of ‘Umpty Dumpty, Gager?  ‘Umpty Dumpty was a hegg.”

“All right.”

“As had a fall, and was smashed – and there's a little poem about him.”

“I know.”

“Well: – Billy says to me: ‘Mr. Camperdown don't want no hinformation; he wants the diamonds.  Them diamonds is like ‘Umpty Dumpty, Mr. Bunfit.  All the king's horses and all the king's men couldn't put ‘Umpty Dumpty up again.’“

“Billy was about right there,” said the younger officer, rising from his seat.  (Ch. 57)

If more detective novels were written like this, I would read more detective novels.  Trollope here approaches the sublimity of Blind Man with a Pistol (1969) by Chester Himes, of the conversations between Coffin Ed Johnson and Gravedigger Jones.  In the second chapter of the mystery, Officer Gager makes perhaps the boldest move I have ever seen a police detective make.  How I wish I could read a novel starring Gager and Bunfit.  Perhaps someone has written such a thing.  Those are the kinds of books people write now.

Dickens has the Inspector Bucket chapters in Bleak House (1852-3), Collins practically invents the detective novel with The Moonstone (1868) and Sergeant Cuff, and here Trollope takes the trouble to invest Gager and Bunfit with some personality, and none of these popular commercial writers ever think to use their characters again, even with the example of Poe’s Dupin stories.  Collins is the real puzzler, but it is clear enough that Trollope had a great deal of fun in these two chapters.  But I know why he didn’t he do it again.

Trollope hates secrets.  The only thing he keeps from his readers is the future, as if his imagination does not allow time to pass until it has been written down.  Several chapters earlier he had already explained the mystery.  “The chronicler states this at once, as he scorns to keep from his reader any secret that is known to himself.”  So ends Chapter 52, which features events that cheaper writers would extend for suspense.

It is hoped that the reader, to whom every tittle of this story has been told without reserve, will remember that others were not treated with so much open candour.  (Ch. 56)

This is one of the oddest sentences I have ever seen in a novel.  After 500 pages, Trollope feels he needs to remind readers of the rules of his fiction, to remind them that the characters do not know everything the readers know.  I almost feel insulted.  But Trollope has become anxious that he has introduced too much suspense into his novel, that the readers have become too interested in the mechanics of the crime, that perhaps they are even doubting the omniscience of the narrator despite – or because of  - his protests.  The Eustace Diamonds was serialized in monthly four-chapter chunks, so it is possible that Trollope had picked this idea up from actual readers.  Or maybe it was all in his imagination.

So Trollope was not going to invent the ongoing series of detective novels, is what I am saying, even if he came close.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

With whom are we to sympathize? - the great and only aim of The Eustace Diamonds

Anthony Trollope books have become comfort reading for me, in the sense that after seventeen encounters with his books I do not have to spend much time learning the rules of his fiction.  I have long overcome the most of the initial resistance that a text presents to a new reader.  There is always some resistance – who are these people, and why them, and that kind of thing.  But in The Eustace Diamonds (1871-3), begun at age 56 after writing dozens of novels, Trollope is not going to make any major changes to how he presents information, or the kinds of details he emphasizes.  I know what I need to pay attention to now, on this page.  Or I think I do.

I suppose this is not what many people mean by “comfort reading.”  Maybe I should call it comfortable reading.  Some readers relish the work in establishing the rules of a text, while others see it as a burden, thus the demand for novels in long series.

These are the opening lines:

It was admitted by all her friends, and also by her enemies – who were in truth the more numerous and active body of the two – that Lizzie Greystock had done very well with herself.  We will tell the story of Lizzie Greystock from the beginning, but we will not dwell over it at great length, as we might do if we loved her.  She was the only child of old Admiral Greystock, who in the latter years of his life was much perplexed  by the possession of a daughter.  (Ch. 1)

I would like to go longer; the first paragraph is so good, Trollope in his cruel, funny Evelyn Waugh mode.  Even if this Trollope novel is a Trollope novel like other Trollope novels, the author must keep himself entertained, so he takes as a protagonist someone unusual for him, a bad person.  Trollope’s sympathy project, the heart of his fiction, is the demonstration that much behavior that looks bad is merely weak, and thus deserving of sympathy at least at the distance of fiction.  He challenges himself in The Eustace Diamonds by writing about a woman who is an ignorant and  pathological liar,  “Too Bad For Sympathy” as the title of Chapter 35 calls her, who will definitely not “assume the dignity of heroine in the forthcoming pages” (Ch. 3)

“The major was not so well acquainted with Lizzie as is the reader, and he pitied her,” writes the bullying author in Chapter 68 after one more of Lizzie’s lies and after 600 pages with Lizzie as protagonist, but not heroine, so that the good joke here is after all of those pages with Lizzie and her thoughts, many readers will have felt some pity before the stern author reminded them that she is not weak, but bad.

That “Too Bad For Sympathy” chapter begins with an amazing four page attack on his readers.  It is the hero of the novel who has been behaving badly, so the narrator must defend him.

But why should one tell the story of creatures so base?  One does not willingly grovel in gutters, or breathe fetid atmospheres, or live upon garbage…

With whom are we to sympathize? says the reader, who not unnaturally imagines that a hero should be heroic.  Oh, thou, my reader, whose sympathies are in truth the great and only aim of my work, when you have called the dearest of your friends round to your hospitable table, how many heroes are there sitting at the board?...

The persons whom you cannot care for in a novel, because they are so bad, are the very same that you so dearly love in your life, because they are so good.

It is very clever, the way Trollope sets up his omniscient narrator as the heavy, making me argue against him in Lizzie’s favor, but with the arguments he had made 300 pages earlier.  The ethical argument of The Eustace Diamonds is not the comfortable part.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

it was feared that the story was not true - Mark Twain tells the truth

Variations on my favorite Mark Twain joke – the ur-joke – all from Roughing It (1872):

This was the most faultless piece of road in the mountains, and the driver said he would “let his team out.”  He did, and if the Pacific express trains whiz through there now any faster that we did then in the stage-coach, I envy the passengers the exhilaration of it.  We fairly seemed to pick up our wheels and fly – and the mail matter was lifted up free from everything and held in solution!  I am not given to exaggeration, and when I say a thing I mean it.  (Ch. 12)

And they tell of a native diver who went down in thirty or forty-foot waters and brought up an anvil!  I think he swallowed the anvil afterward, if my memory serves me.  However I will not urge the point.  (Ch. 72)

A white man cannot drink the water of Mono Lake, for it is nearly pure lye.  It is said that the Indians in the vicinity drink it sometimes, though.  It is not improbable, for they are among the purest liars I ever saw.  [There will be no additional charge for this joke, except to parties requiring an explanation of it.  This joke has received high commendation from some of the ablest minds of the age.]  (Ch. 38)

Roughing It is nominally a memoir.  Much of it is in fact a memoir, describing Twain’s life in the Nevada silver-mining country only a decade earlier.  He did, in fact, take the mail coach from St. Joseph to Carson City, Nevada; he did, in fact, visit the saline Mono Lake, which he describes in detail with some accuracy.  But everything is material for a joke, at the least, and I believe I have given here a couple of examples of the least of Twains’ jokes, which is why he urges the point while insisting that he is not. The commentary on the jokes, the insistence that they are not jokes – or that they are – is funnier than the jokes themselves.

The paradox of Twain’s travel writing is that contains a great deal of travel writing, as if Twain were a journalist producing material according to the professional standard of his time.  His travel writing as such is written much like that of many other professional writers of his time, and thus at times a little on the dull side.  His visit to the interior of an active volcano is interesting – volcanoes are interesting – but there is not much Mark Twain in it.  It is when he tires of his own account that Twain returns, as when he describes the prowess of Hawaiian divers, tells someone else’s story that perhaps goes too far, and decides he has to top it.  See above, second example.

The Stolen Elephant includes a seventy page account of a pleasure trip to Bermuda (“Some Rambling Notes of an Idle Excursion”) that kills off close to half of its pages with the trip to the island, including a recurring joke about a young man “(who, by a sort of kindly common consent, had come latterly to be referred to as ‘the Ass’)” who does not understand humor.  The final ten pages have nothing to do with Bermuda at all, but contain “The Invalid’s Story,” a tasteless, overly long, and funny story about nitwits mistaking Limburger cheese for a rotting corpse.  A footnote reads “Left out of these ‘Rambling Notes, when originally published in the ‘Atlantic Monthly,’ because it was feared that the story was not true, and at that time there was no way of proving that it was not. – M. T.”

There we go, that is Mark Twain.

Friday, April 10, 2015

a delicate spider’s web over the face of the watch - Twain gets odd

I made a note on a three page Twain story, “My Watch – An Instructive Little Tale” (1870), that I thought could not be right: “Superb – like Kafka or Walser or Landolfi or Aira.”  Has anybody who wanders by here read Tommaso Landolfi?  He wrote a story where Nikolai Gogol marries a balloon woman.  He had a strange imagination.  So did Twain.  His strangeness is not always visible, maybe rarely visible, and is always concealed behind his jokes and his voice.

I could see it in “My Watch.”  Twain accidentally lets his new watch run down. He “stepped into the chief jeweller’s to set it by the exact time,” but is pulled into a minor repair.

I tried to stop him – tried to make him understand that the watch kept perfect time.  But no; all this human cabbage could see was that the watch was four minutes slow, and the regulator must be pushed up a little; and so, while I danced around him in anguish and beseeched him to let the watch alone, he calmly and cruelly did the shameful deed.

So the watch runs fast, is repaired again, runs slow, is repaired, runs alternately slows and fast, etc.  Each repair is more elaborate and damaging than the next.  The ending is the usual Twain humor column tall tale sort of thing.

The great conceit is nowhere above, but rather in the effect the watch has on its owner.  His life always moves at the pace of the watch.  When it runs fast, “[i]t hurried up house-rent, bills payable, and such things”; when slow “I failed all appointments, I got to missing my dinner.”  The watch becomes increasingly surreal – I mean like something in a dream sequence: “everything inside would let go all of a sudden and begin to buzz like a bee, and the hands would straightway begin to spin round and round so fast that their individuality was lost completely, and they simply seemed a delicate spider’s web over the face of the watch.”  So those are the two pieces, human time matched to the watch and the watch surreal independence, that move Twain into rarer imaginative company.

Or I am just noting a story where Twain uses technology as the source of jokes.  Many of the tales that look especially strange to me have a conceit built around technology.  The original 1875 Sketches, New and Old has, you will note, illustrations.  In “Political Economy,” the technology is the lightning rod (see illustration).  The comic conceit of the piece is entirely unrelated (see title, and also jokes about a writer interrupted by a salesman).

The idea is to push the effects of the technology too far, which is the place where some interesting imaginative effects can occur.  Not always, though, as in “The Loves of Alonzo Fitz Clarence and Rosannah Ethelton,” an overly elaborate story of a romance that occurs entirely over the telephone, invented only a few years earlier, with the man in Maine and the woman in San Francisco – they even marry over the phone –  and here the conceit that maybe does not work is that Twain does not mention the telephone at all for fifteen pages from the end, but rather has Alonzo set his watch for three pages to let the reader know either that he is insane or that the person he is speaking too is in a different time zone.  I had to go to the Stolen White Elephant collection to find this curiosity that reaches for a parable of higher interest but keeps getting tangled in its own wires.  Still pretty odd, if not odd like Tommaso Landolfi.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

It will probably never be accounted for - Mark Twain, comedian

Paging through Twain’s humor columns reminds me how hard they are to remember.  They are throwaways, time-killers, desperate ideas pounded into comedy often by means of a single line.  What I am doing here is thinking about Twain sitting at his desk in Buffalo or Hartford, trying to Be Funny.  I doubt anyone was ever so successful at the task for so long, but the strain is visible once I look for it, as is the mystery of humor.

Luckily, Twain repeats himself.  Lucky for him, lucky for me.  He is so angered by the idea of a “temporary insanity” defense that he mocks it again and again.  He loves nonsensical descriptions of women’s clothes, parodying the fashion items in the newspaper.  He invents the McWilliams family, where the wife is paranoid and the husband henpecked, whether the problem is lightning, burglars, or the “membranous croup.”  These stories always have a happy ending.  “Hence the tide of our days flows by in deep and untroubled serenity.”

Has there ever been an American humor columnist who has not declared that he is running for President?

The rumor that I buried a dead aunt under my grapevine was correct.  The vine needed fertilizing, my aunt had to be buried, and I dedicated her to this high purpose.  Does that unfit me for the Presidency?  The Constitution of our country does not say so.  No other citizen was ever considered unworthy of this office because he enriched his grapevines with his dead relatives.  Why should I be selected as the first victim of an absurd prejudice?  (“A Presidential Candidate,” 1879)

Then there are the improving books for boys.  Twain is driven to distraction by the transparent falsity of the improving books for boys.  Thus “The Bad Little Boy Who Did Not Come to Grief,” “The Story of the Good Little Boy Who Did Not Prosper” (1870) and many more, including “Poor Little Stephen Girard” (1873) which is not even by Mark Twain!  Yet there it is on p. 547 of the Library of America collection!  But is so much like this Twain specialty that the confusion is almost necessary.

Thus perished the good little boy who did the best he could, but didn’t come out according to the books.  Every boy who ever did as he did prospered, except him.  His case is truly remarkable.  It will probably never be accounted for.

It occurs to me that beginning with The Adventures of Tom Sawyer in 1876 Twain launched on his own series of improving books for boys wherein bad boys prosper and good boys are not demolished in nitro-glycerin accidents like the good boy just above, which relatively speaking is a kind of prospering.  My point is that Twain had been worked up about boys’ books for fifteen years before deciding to solve the problem directly.

This has been random.  I am so indecisive – write about what is good, or what is dull, or what is new.  Look at “A Telephonic Conversation” (1880).  Look at the comic form that Twain invents, or so I suppose.

What did you say?

Pause.

Oh no, I don’t think it was.

Pause.

No! Oh, no, I didn’t mean that.  I meant, put it in while it is still boiling, - or just before it comes to a boil.

Pause.

WHAT?

Pause

I turned it over with a back stitch on the selvage edge.

Pause.

Yes, I like that way, too; but I think it's better to baste it on with Valenciennes or bombazine, or something of that sort. It gives it such a air, - and attracts so much notice.

Pause.

It's forty-ninth Deuteronomy, sixty-fourth to ninety-seventh inclusive. I think we ought all to read it often.

Pause.

Perhaps so; I generally use a hair-pin.

Etc. etc. etc., or as many etc. as three pages requires.  The “overheard on the phone” piece written today in imitation of Twain would be set on the subway or in a coffee shop.

So what I think I am trying to show here is Twain as a comedian.  Not that I did not find these bits funny, but tomorrow I will pick some pieces where Twain outdoes not just other comedians, but himself.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Now what - Mark Twain, magazine writer

Although I do not doubt that I write better when I have some idea as to what I am writing about, I am always pleased to take a run at a book with no ideas whatsoever.  The original writer already did the real work.  If I scrounge around, like a coyote or an opossum I will surely find something.  And what if I have four books at hand – what riches!

The four books, all by Mark Twain, are:

Collected Tales, Sketches, Speeches, & Essays 1852-1890, of which I read everything from 1870 through 1885, 550 pages out of 950, but I read 1852 through 1869 last year and wrote several posts begun with no predetermined notions, and you remember how those turned out.

Sketches, New and Old (1875), Twain’s first proper collection of the contents of the above, mostly humor pieces written for newspapers and magazines, mostly high-quality ephemera.  Lots of overlap with the Library of America book.  I read Elizabeth Conway’s copy.  Many thanks to Ms Conway.

The Stolen White Elephant Etc. (1882), more of the same except in some ways different.  My copy was the warmly appreciated gift of Mrs. Katherine Warthin.

Roughing It (1872), the other book about mountaineering in the Sierra Nevada published in 1872, except that Twain’s idea of geologizing consisted entirely of striking it rich with a silver mine.  He did, in fact, strike it rich, although a lot more slowly, by learning how to write tall tales and fabrications for frontier newspapers.

Not to obsess about pages, but an interesting feature of the Library of America book is that a single year, 1870, gets 18% of the pages and by far the most tales and sketches.  Given the book’s coverage the proportion should be more like two or three percent.  Twain has just had a hit with his first book, The Innocents Abroad (1869), and was in demand as a newspaper and magazine writer, a humorist, a job he was able to do, apparently, from such outposts of civilization as Elmira and Buffalo, and this was before the internet, if you can believe that.

Twain was ambitious, and he hated Buffalo, if you can believe that, so soon enough the magazine writing became intermittent and the pieces often longer and something closer to short stories.  Twain’s fame as a lecturer grew to the point where he could publish his speeches.  And he wrote more books, first another travel book – that’s Roughing It – then a mediocre novel (The Gilded Age) followed by a series of adventure books for boys.  His art and thinking deepened.  He did not stay in Buffalo and become the Dave Barry of the Gilded Age.  He could have, though, if he were a bit less of a genius.

When I compared Alphonse Allais to Twain, I was thinking of the Twain of this period, Twain as a popular magazine humorist.  Like Allais at around the same age, he had perfected his voice and his shtick.  He knew what kinds of jokes suited him and which were funny when repeated – like all humor columnists, he was highly repetitive, but of course I was supposed to read his pieces a couple of times a month, not a hundred in a row like I did.

That ought to be enough to write about, at least.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Alphonse Allais, pale slave of the truth

Another collection of jokes, stories, and nonsense by French humorist Alphonse Allais, chronicler, in his way, of the Montmartre Bohemia of the 1890s, has been charmed into English by Doug Skinner.  It is comparable to the others, comparably good.

The Squadron’s Umbrella is a collection of newspaper pieces and such ephemera, cullings from Allais’s humor column, but it is, I want to note, also a genuine book published in 1893.  Inevitably many references have become obscure,  the jokes dim or overly familiar, and the humor more theoretical than actually funny.

The same is true of Mark Twain.  Such is the nature of humor writing.  Later this week I want to write about Mark Twain’s first two collections of his newspaper writing.  Exact same problem.  The American context is more familiar to me, which helps, and Twain was a greater genius than Allais, although in the specific form of the punchy two-page newspaper anecdote, Allais does a lot better in the comparison than I would have guessed.

Oddly, The Squadron’s Umbrella even includes a Twain story, “Poor Little Stephen Girard,” translated and modified by Allais which I read just recently in the Library of America Collected Tales, Sketches, Speeches, & Essays 1852-1890.  The oddest thing is that the story is not by Twain.  See p. 149 of Skinner’s book.  It’s a good imitation of Twain, and a good fit for Allais.

How Allais works.  See “Too Many Kangaroos”:

At the present time, Paris – if I count correctly – holds within its borders no fewer than three boxing kangaroos.

The number three, which would be insignificant were we enumerating stars in the firmament, or grains of sand in the desert, acquires a special importance when the census of kangaroos is the subject.

For a long time, Paris was bereft of boxing kangaroos.  We found ourselves no worse, and no better, for that matter.  (30)

Allais goes to the zoo to interview the non-boxing kangaroos on the subject.  The zoo kangaroos, it turns out, think the boxing kangaroos are kind of trashy.  I am employing my usual demotic rhetorical mode, but please note how little of Allais’s humor really comes from any jokes about kangaroos but from  his lightly elevated rhetoric – “if I count correctly,” or the comparison to the stars and the sands, or the detached wisdom of “and no better.”  That last is the Allais signature.   The style can be applied to anything, and make anything funny. 

We must have Baudelaire, of course, but we must not have too much.  (41)

So true.  Or:

I apologize to my female readers for the unpoetical vulgarity of this detail, but when one writes for posterity, as I do, one renounces forever the right to embroider or to change the facts.  See in me nothing but a pale slave of the truth (lividus servus veritatis).  (137)

Twain has his own version of this exact joke; I plan to supply numerous examples over the next few days, since it makes me laugh every time.

Skinner’s annotations and illustrations are, as usual, exemplary.  Tracking down the Oxnard Beet Sugar Company in Grand Island, Nebraska (pp. 61 and 143) – above and beyond, Doug.  Skinner has an even newer new book out just now, a 17th century French zombie novel which I will have to see to believe.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

the only Italian nineteenth-century novel which had... - Calvino and Lampedusa steal form Nievo, Nievo steals from Foscolo, Foscolo steals...

From a 1985 interview with Italo Calvino, found in Hermit in Paris (2003, tr. Martin McLaughlin):

You would like me to mention some book I read as an adolescent and which subsequently made its influence felt in things I later wrote.  I will say at once: Ippolito Nievo’s Le confessioni di un ottogenario (Confessions of an Octogenarian), the only Italian nineteenth-century novel which had a novelistic charm that was comparable to that found so abundantly in foreign literatures.

What I am pretty sure Calvino meant was the kind of foreign books boys like: Treasure Island and Poe and The Count of Monte Cristo, books I have seen Calvino mention elsewhere as favorite childhood reading.  The Nievo novel he loves, then, is likely a partial one, the novel of the kitchen boy in the crumbling castle.

An episode in my first novel, The Path to the Spiders’ Nests [1947], was inspired by the meeting of Carlino and Spaccafumo [the bandit].  An atmosphere vaguely reminiscent of the Castello in Fratta is evoked in The Cloven Viscount [1952].  And The Baron in the Trees [1957] reworks Nievo’s novel around the protagonist’s entire life, and it covers the same historical period, straddling the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and the same social environments; moreover, the female character in my novel is modelled on Nievo’s La Pisana.  (240, everything in brackets are my insertions)

Calvino has mentioned his first three novels.  I doubt any other writer has made such through use of Nievo.  I reread Path and Viscount to see for myself, but actually before I came across this interview, and the connections were obvious.  The Path to the Nest of Spiders, as translator Archibald Colquhoun called it, is a realistic novel about a band of misfit anti-Nazi partisans operating in the woods of Calvino’s native Liguria.  It is told from the point of view of a boy, a ruffian, too young to understand women or politics or even violence, really, so a good outsider.  His name is Pin, so he is a protagonist like Kipling’s Kim (mentioned by name on p. 105) or Huck Finn or Jim (Hawkins).  Or Pinocchio.  It is only that one scene that looked like a direct nod to Nievo, where Pin, like Carlino, is lost in the woods and is guided to safety by a misfit, a smuggler in Nievo, a partisan in Calvino.

The tone of The Clove Viscount could hardly be more different.  The title character is split in half by a Turkish cannonball, one side purely good, the other evil.  The evil side returns to his castle to terrorize his subjects.  The narrator is an eight year-old boy, a neglected nephew of the Viscount – so now we are in Nievo’s world.  Little action takes place in the castle itself, but rather everywhere in the surrounding countryside, the woods and hills.  I am getting more of a hint about what part of Confessions Calvino really liked.  The Baron in the Trees, which I have not read for twenty-five years, is also almost completely set outdoors (see title).

I had forgotten how comically disgusting The Cloven Viscount was, how many mutilated corpses of men and animals, casual murders, and disfiguring diseases were featured, all for a laugh along with details like the bride who “still had a few yards of veil left, [so] she made a wedding robe for the goat and a wedding dress for the duck, and so ran through the woods, followed by her two pets, until the veil got all torn in the branches and her train gathered every pine cone and chestnut husk drying along the paths.”  (240)

I had thought about writing a bit about Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s The Leopard (1958), in which the author reaches back a century to describe the moment his family’s world was demolished by Garibaldi’s invasion of Sicily (by his side, Ippolito Nievo, who had just written Confessions).  But it is so obvious, right?  Manzoni, Nievo, Lampedusa, all following the same strategy.   Lampedusa also stole Nievo’s dog.  Lampedusa made some improvements, but the death of the dog in Confessions is a fine scene.

Nievo played the same game.  The great recurring guest star in Confessions, aside from Napoleon, first seen getting a haircut, is the radical Italian nationalist poet Ugo Foscolo, who plays apart in the overthrow of the Venetian Republic.  Nievo’s novel is even more packed with collapses, suicides, and weeping than The Last Letters of Jacopo Ortis.  It has more weeping men, actually, than any non-Japanese novel I have ever read.  Foscolo’s novel is a blatant imitation of Goethe.  Etc. etc. etc.  It is all one great chain of books if you want to look at it that way.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

I swear to you that I’m spinning no romance here - the narrator of Confessions of an Italian spins a romance

Carlino the kitchen boy is in love with his cousin, La Pisana, daughter of the Count, but second daughter, and thus neglected and badly raised by a noble family nearing its end.  She treats Carlino badly, promises marriage then dumps him, flirts with other boys, and is alternately kind and cruel.  Carlino is ten years old, La Pisana eight.

I loved and I despised.

You will probably laugh at this tale of two children pretending to be adults, but I swear to you that I’m spinning no romance here: this is simply the story of my life.  (Ch. 6, 241)

No, Carlino is fourteen there and La Pisana twelve.  I need to go back to when they were ten and eight to find the most shocking, sexual scene in Confessions of an Italian.  Carlino has wandered far from the castle, far enough that he has gotten his first glimpse of the sea, instantly and permanently converting him into an early Romantic, which is amusing.  He is out late, gets lost, and is escorted home by a friendly bandit.  For years, he has slept in the same room as his beloved cousin, but now he is banished to a closet as punishment, not just for being late but for lying to protect the bandit.  Carlino screams and even injures himself to no avail.  But finally, late at night, La Pisana sneaks into his little kennel:

“But before I go I want you to thrash me and pull my hair hard for all my wickedness towards you.”  And here she took my hands and put them on her head.

“Goodness, no!” I said, withdrawing her hands, “I’d rather kiss you.”

“I want you to pull my hair!” she said , taking my hands again.  (Ch. 3, 111)

And after some back and forth, he does.

She was in a fury now.  And while I stood there, uncertainly, she jerked her head back so forcefully and so suddenly that the lock was left in my fingers.  “You see?” she said happily, “that’s how I want to be punished when I ask to be punished!  Goodbye now and do not move from here or I shall never come to play with you again.”  (112)

Finally, a reminder  - the boy is ten, the girl eight.  And the history between the two characters goes on for another six hundred pages, with the basic pattern that they are separated by circumstances, Carlino plunges into History, giving his life to Italy if he cannot give it to this woman, until the characters are reunited in some unlikely fashion, usually involving one saving the other from death, like in a Dumas novel.

I went with the love affair, which is never as intense as in this one scene, however the effect might linger, likely because the censorship allowed more license with the children.  I also thought about working through Chapter 5, the Siege, which really is like something from Scott or Dumas, one long adventure purposefully designed to feel like an episode from the Middle Ages except now made farcical, unless you are a little boy in which case it is absolutely thrilling.

During Carlino’s childhood, history is purely local, almost frozen for hundreds of years.  Then comes adolescence and the French Revolution; the end of the Venetian Republic; the first efforts to create Italy – in other words, History.  Until finally History passes Carlino by and he writes his book.  That is the conceit of Confessions of an Italian, plainly stated.

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

As I recall it aloud, I write what I recall - Nievo describes the kitchen, and other things

It was all about getting the voice right, said the translator of Confessions of an Italian.  The opening chapter is a tour of the Castle of Fratta (“today no more than a pile of rubble from which the peasants gather stones to brace their mulberry trees”), in Venetian territory a bit north and a ways east of the city, by the boy who turns the spit in the kitchen.  Chapters are long – 42 pages here – so there is room for a couple dozen characters, from the ancient Countess down to the old loyal servant now useless for anything except “grating the cheese.  Down to “Marocco, the Captain’s dog,” actually, another resident of the kitchen.  The friendly  Penguin edition thankfully includes a Cast of Characters for reference.

As if all those characters, including several clergymen of various ranks, were not sufficient, it turns out that the narrator (and the author, Ippolito Nievo) is a fan of Tristram Shandy and has a tendency to wander.  The seven page digression on the functioning of the Venetian legal system is the most surprising of them, and the dullest.  Then it is, finally, back to the kitchen.  There were points where I wondered if the narrator was ever going to get out of the kitchen.

He addresses the point in the first lines of the second chapter:

The principal effect of chapter one on my readers will most likely be a great curiosity to finally learn just who this Carlino is.  In fact, it has been quite an accomplishment on my part – or maybe just simple fraud – to send you rambling through an entire chapter of my life, always nattering on about me, without first introducing myself.  (Ch. 2, first lines, p. 45)

So Nievo is much more efficient than Sterne.  It is only Chapter Two, and the memoirist is not only born but as old as eight or nine.  If anything, the rambling, chaotic first chapter suggests Sterne much too strongly.  Mostly the novel is more conventionally told than the first chapter suggests.  Mostly Nievo and Carlino moves forward.  “As  I recall it aloud, I write what I recall,” Carlino says, and I believe him (Ch.6, 241).  As when he describes his discovery and love of Dante – surely this is the author himself speaking without a mask – and ends by saying that “It is unfortunate, but we often have to put up with such digressions when someone is telling his story,” which leads to an amusing digression on clarity:

Courage, therefore: I criticize no one, but when you write, consider the fact that many are going to read you.  (Ch. 10, 372-3)

Lucky for me, Carlino is wrong; I am read by few.

I also had the strange feeling in the early chapters of resemblances to later novels by writers that cannot possibly have known Nievo.  The decaying castle at the end of its long history full of useless inhabitants evoked Mervyn Peake’s Titus Groan, if that novel were narrated by the kitchen boy Steerpike.  There are several parallel characters.  Odd.

One of those characters suggests even more novels.  Confessions is built on a duel plot where one long line is Italian history, the futile struggle for independence, and the other is the kitchen boy’s ongoing love affair with his demonic cousin La Pisana.  Ongoing for decades, so at points the novel resembles Vladimir Nabokov’s Ada, or Ardor and Gabriel García Marquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera.  Those examples suggest a command of language and imagery which Nievo does not have, but there are – I need a vague word – resonances.

Tomorrow, let’s follow the loves of Carlino and La Pisana.

Monday, March 30, 2015

a miserable account of a few, ordinary boyish feats - Ippolito Nievo's Confessions of an Italian

The week, a short one (holiday on Friday) is devoted to Confessions of an Italian (1867) by Ippolito Nievo, one of the two great novels of 19th century Italy, meaning “great” in the sense of “large” (858 pages in the new Penguin edition) as well as important.

The author wrote this beast in 1858 in a frantic fit of despair after one of the long series of failed attempts to free Italy from foreign rule.  Nievo was 27 and maybe a bit of a propagandist hack, not so promising as an artist, and he had never written anything on this scale.

The narrator is in his 80s.  So his story reaches back far before Nievo was born, back to the series of invasions, fizzled revolutions, and double-crosses of the Napoleonic Wars that shattered the lasting medieval institutions (for example, his beloved Republic of Venice) and inspired the dream of a free, unified Italy.

Perhaps Nievo thinks the earlier revolutions had something to do with the one for which he fought.  The other great – greater – Italian epic novel, Alessandro Manzoni’s The Betrothed (1827), also features invasions of Italy by French and Austrian armies, but during the 17th century.  What else is the historical novel for?  Three-quarters of Confessions of an Italian are set during the 18th century.  Although the narrator lives on, it essentially ends with the failed revolutions of 1848, one more in the series.

The novel is full of events, maybe too full, described at secondhand, interspersed with “a miserable account of a few, ordinary boyish feats” (620).  The reader without a strong sense of the relevant Italian history will need some patience.  It does not help that Nievo is not a first-rate prose writer.  He uses conventional language, is unafraid of cliché, and has limited descriptive capacity.  But, you say, is that not perfectly appropriate for the narrator, since the book is written by an ordinary fellow, not a professional writer, and is memoir, not fiction?  Yes, you are right!  The concept of the novel was ingeniously chosen to hide what I assume are real artistic limitations of Nievo’s.

Tim Parks has a terrific review of the novel in the April 2, 2015 New York Review of Books, not available online, I am afraid, which he ends with a little comparison with Manzoni who, he says,

is still a staple of the Italian school curriculum, while it is rare to meet anyone who has read Nievo.  Yet there is no doubt in my mind which author English-speaking readers will prefer now that Confessions of an Italian is at least attractively translated in its entirety.  (66)

I also have no doubt – they’ll prefer Manzoni!  I seem to always disagree with Parks.

An abridgement of Confessions of an Italian has been available in English before, but Frederika Randall has made the first complete translation.  What a service she has done.    It was all about getting the voice right, she says.

Now that I know what is in Nievo’s novel, I am seeing it all over Italian literature.

The saddest line in this sad novel is on p. 466:

“To die at twenty-eight, greedy for life, avid for the future, mad with pride, replete only with pain and humiliation!”

Ippolito Nievo died at twenty-nine, in a shipwreck.  He had joined Garibaldi’s Thousand and had helped Garibaldi liberate or conquer Sicily and Naples.  He helped create a unified Italy, but he did not quite get to see it.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

It was most horrible - Henry James in New York - "I like that!"

Aside from James-in-Europe I have been poking at the lesser phenomenon of James-in-New-York, using the contents of the NYRB collection The New York Stories of Henry James, an odd book in that a third of it is the novel Washington Square (1880), the book James wrote to raise cash to fund the writing of The Portrait of a Lady.  It does not look like James took New York that seriously as a subject.

“Crawford’s Consistency” (1876) has a lot of good New York flavor, though.  James never put this story in a collection, so he must not have thought much of it, but I enjoyed it as much as any of the other early James stories.

Crawford is in love with a beautiful, rich woman.  When that engagement falls through, out of cussedness he marries a woman who runs a boarding house.  Out of further cussedness he sticks with her even though the marriage is no good.  The story is a comedy for everyone put poor Crawford.  James is arguing for inconsistency.

I always mention my trouble with the vagueness of James’s world, but that was not a problem here.  There are few passages of descriptive writing, but rather little bits slipped in that do the necessary work.  Lots of good bits.  The narrator is a young doctor:

I see again my shabby little consulting-room, with an oil-cloth on the floor, and a paper, representing seven hundred and forty times (I once counted them) a young woman with a pitcher on her head, on the walls…

What better way to say he did not have many patients?

Here the parents of the rich woman, declaring the end of the engagement to Crawford:

Mrs. Ingram, very pale, and with her thin lips looking like the blades of a pair of scissors, turned to her husband.  “Mr. Ingram,” she said, “rescue me from this violence.  Speak out – do your duty.”

Mr. Ingram advanced with the air and visage of the stage manager of a theater, when he steps forward to announce that the favorite of the public will not be able to play.

All I need for each character.

The new wife, the boarding house-keeper, is at a “concert-garden” in Central Park – I would call it a beer-garden.  She is complaining that Crawford did not take her to see Niagara Falls.

Crawford listened to this, smiling, unflinching, unwinking.  Before we separate – to say something – I asked Mrs. Crawford if she liked music?  The fiddlers were scraping away.  She turned her empty glass upside down, and with a thump on the table – “I like that!” she cried.  It was most horrible.  We rose, and Crawford tenderly offered her his arm; I looked at him with a kind of awe.

What a shame that James was not more interested in writing about working class people.  He is so good with them.  Maybe a little cruel.  Maybe this is all he had.  I can easily imagine it being an incident from life, perhaps from years earlier, that James had tucked way waiting for the right story.

That is enough James for now.  Maybe I’ll be ready for more six months from now.  The Americans and “Daisy Miller” are up next.  That should be fun.

Friday, March 27, 2015

to sharpen his perception of the ridiculous - James claims Europe

Let’s see, what other Henry James stories did I read that I have not mentioned.

“The Last of the Valerii” (1874).  Almost a fantasy story, a Hawthorne story, a comedy at the expense of Europe.  An American woman marries a Roman Count, who is devoted to her.  There is a trivial conflict about the bride’s Protestantism and the groom’s Catholicism, which is just a screen for the real story, which is that the Roman Count actually worships Roman gods.  He is a pagan.  Those Europeans are as bad as you thought, says James.  On the other hand, James is falling in love with Italy, and who can blame him.  The one “tourist” scene is in the Pantheon, the only Roman monument I have visited myself, which was handy for me:

“This is the best place in Rome,” he murmured.  “It’s worth fifty St Peters’…  Now, only the wind and the rain, the sun and the cold, come down; but of old – of old” and he touched my arm and gave me a strange smile – “the pagan gods and goddesses used to come sailing through it and take their places at their altars.” 

“Madame de Mauves” (1874) also has a naïve American who marries a pagan, this time a corrupt Frenchman:

The Baron was a pagan and his wife was a Christian, and between them, accordingly, was a gulf.

The Baron’s paganism is “the same sort of taste, Longmore moralized, as the taste for Gérôme in painting, and for M. Gustave Flaubert in literature.

That is the judgment of a sexless American loafer  who is too in awe of the perfection of the woman to begin an affair with her.  Some bits of what I quoted may suggest that James thinks he is an idiot.

An early chapter – “Madame de Mauves” is a novella – describing the rich young woman’s education and courtship by the caddish French nobleman is the best thing in the story, which has a lot in common with The Portrait of a Lady which James will write a few years later, having realized, with the assistance of Daniel Deronda, that the interesting point of view is that of the wife who enters into the bad marriage open-eyed.

It is only now sinking in how often James rewrote his own, and other people’s, stories.

In “Eugene Pickering” (1874 – these are all from 1874 – busy writer) the corrupt European is the woman, the American fool hypnotized by the idea of Europe the man.

“Pickering’s unworldly life had not been of a sort to sharpen his perception of the ridiculous” – no, that is what James is here for.  In this story the stakes are much lower than in “Madame de Mauves” so James can have a narrator stand-in  who openly ridicules poor Pickering.

“That’s a polite way of calling me a fool,” said Pickering.  “You are a sceptic, a cynic, a satirist!  I hope I shall be a long time coming to that.”

And despite a hard fall, he does not come to that, being given the gift of innocence by his creator James in spite of the worst Europe can throw at him.

This first collection of James stories is like a flag James has planted in Europe.  “I claim this territory for my fiction.”

Thursday, March 26, 2015

All human life is there - kitsch and tourism in James

I wanted to include some Henry James humor from “The Madonna of the Future,” which I thought was among the funnier James that I’ve read.  How to describe his tone – not exactly withering:

She lived on a fourth floor, and she was not rich; but she offered her visitors very good tea, little cakes at option, and conversation not quite to match.

But a good ding on the hostess.  Subtle.  James, is subtle, yes?  Not always.  Most of the story is about the painter s obsessed with perfection that he produces nothing, but the narrator also has a run-in with the creator of “a peculiar type of statuette” made of “a peculiar plastic compound” of his own invention.  The statuettes “consisted each of a cat and a monkey, fantastically draped, in some preposterously sentimental conjunction.”

“The idea is bold; does it strike you as happy?  Cats and monkeys, – monkeys and cats, – all human life is there!”

James like that last line so much, and I do not blame him, that he later ends the story with it.  The contrast of the idealist painter with this artiste of horrible kitsch is blunt, not subtle, but effective, and funny.

What did I want to mention, besides the monkeys and cats?  The travel writing.  The title story of the 1875 A Passionate Pilgrim and Other Stories has some importance as the beginning of James’s fictional engagement with the big subject of Europe, or of Americans in Europe, and as I noted a couple of years ago it at times literally turns into travel writing, as if for the travel section of the newspaper.  James even switches to second person and present tense in these sections, as if they were written separately and then pasted into the story.

“The Madonna of the Future” integrates the travel writing into the fiction better, but the Florence of the story is the tourist Florence and nothing more.  The David statue, the Uffizi, the Pitti Palace, that’s Florence.  I almost expected the narrator to step into that gelato shop I liked so much.

We lingered often in the sepulchral chapel of San Lorenzo, and watched Michael Angelo’s dim-visaged warrior sitting there like some awful Genius of Doubt and brooding behind his eternal mask upon the mysteries of life.  We stood more than once in the little convent chambers where Fra Angelico wrought as if an angel indeed had held his hand, and gathered that sense of scattered dews and early bird-notes which make an hour among his relics seem like a morning stroll in some monkish garden.

A passage like this is a reminder that the narrator is not quite James, who in his own travel writing would turn the goop down a notch.  The narrator is more susceptible to the beauty-worshipping painter, more of a believer, than James would be, thus allowing the story to function, much as James restricting the settings to the Florence he knew himself makes perfect sense for the story.  The painter’s natural calling was to be not an artist but a tour guide.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

rather too fond of superfine discriminations - James says what kind of writer he is

I fancied he was rather too fond of superfine discriminations and of discovering subtle intentions in the shallow felicities of chance.

Strangely that is not a description of Henry James but rather a description in “The Madonna of the Future” (1873) of an American painter in Florence, an anti-Jamesian character, a figure James (but not his narrator) finds horrifying.

The painter has for years been working on a single masterpiece, a Madonna that will rival Raphael’s Madonna in the chair.  Most Florentines who know the painter express doubts that there is any painting at all, but he insists that he is working:

“If you but knew the rapture of observation!  I gather with every glance some hint for light, for color or relief!  When I get home, I pour out my treasures into the lap of my Madonna.  O, I’m not idle!”

A friend of the painter brings up Balzac’s great novella The Unknown Masterpiece (1832), in which a painter devotes his life to perfecting a single painting only to discover that a pure devotion to form inevitably leads to abstraction – well, that is how I interpret the story, although that is not what Balzac, one of literature’s greatest hacks, and I mean greatest in every good sense, was thinking. 

“There are many people who doubt whether there is any picture to be seen.  I fancy, myself, that if one were to get into his studio, one would find something very like the picture in that tale of Balzac’s,- a mere mass of incoherent scratches and daubs, a jumble of dead paint!”

We can guess where this ends:

“I never began!  I waited and waited to be worthier to begin, and wasted my life in preparation.”

At this point James had been a professional writer for a decade – at this point he was a successful professional, one of the finer hacks of American magazine writing.  It is as if James is warning himself about what would happen if he stopped writing so much – perhaps he would be likely to stop writing at all, paralyzed by perfection.  Or, perhaps, there is no risk at all that James would stop, and he is just mocking the ultra-Romantic inspirationists he has met.  He is telling them to do what he does, to write, and if it’s not good write some more.  Just keep writing.  James himself rewrites this story a number of times.

There really is some good stuff in this story mocking the painters Romanticism.  I do not know what James knew, so perhaps it is an unintended irony that the painter is completely wrong about how Raphael worked, that rather than being the Keats of the 16th century he ran a large and efficient workshop. 

“Think of his [Raphael] seeing that spotless image, not for a moment for a day, in a happy dream, as a restless fever-fit, not as a poet in a five minutes’ frenzy, time to snatch his phrase and scribble his immortal stanza, but for days together, while the slow labor of the brush went on, while the foul vapors of life interposed, and the fancy ached with tension, fixed, radiant, distinct, as we see it now!”

Completely wrong.  And I see that James makes sure the painter does not understand Keats either.

I would like to call “The Madonna of the Future,” James’s twentieth story, his first masterpiece,  except that I have not read eleven of the earlier stories, nor an 1871 novel, so how would I know?  But that’s what I would bet, that this is the first really good one.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

scrutinising with ingenious indirectness - Henry James sounds like Henry James

Some time ago I publicly declared that I would not read Henry James neurotically, meaning specifically that I would not be a completist or read in a particular order or read all five volumes of the Library of America Complete Stories, however tempting these options might be.  I do not think I am such a good reader of James, but the most likely way to read better is to read more.

So I have been reading more, non-neurotically, or just a little bit neurotically.  I picked out the short stories James picked himself for his first collection, A Passionate Pilgrim and Other Tales (1875). At this point James had published 27 stories; he picked six for the book, including one masterpiece, one nullity, and four stories that James would build on for the next forty years.

The nullity is “The Romance of Certain Old Clothes” (1868) set among 18th century descendants of Puritans and with a ghost story tacked onto the end.  I did not, as they say, get it.  The masterpiece is “The Madonna of the Future” (1873), which I want to save for a day or two.

I supplemented the James-picked collection with some early choices from The New York Stories of Henry James (NYRB), one of which was excellent (“Crawford’s Consistency,” 1876, saved for later), one trivial (“The Story of a Masterpiece,” 1868), and one – now here is where I wish I in fact had read as a completist, because what I want to say is that “A Most Extraordinary Case” (1868) is the earliest James story that really sounds like Henry James.  But I don’t really know that, do I?  Regardless, it took him four years of magazine writing to find his voice.  Pretty quick.

What do I mean?  I mean that based on style and subject I might not have guessed that “The Romance of Certain Old Clothes” or a number of earlier stories were by James.  But I with “A Most Extraordinary Case” I would have guessed right.

Colonel Mason picked up some kind of deadly non-communicable illness during the Civil War.  Malaria, maybe?  James, in a classic Jamesian move, never names the illness.  “The disorder was obstinate and virulent, but there was no apparent reason why care and prudence should not subdue it.”  Whatever it is.  Mason is recuperating at the Hudson River home of his aunt, where he also finds a beautiful cousin with whom to fall in love.  She in turn falls in love with Mason’s doctor.  Their impending marriage destroys Mason’s will to live, making him an “extraordinary case” to the rationalist doctor.

It was a very simple matter to Miss Hofmann that she should be charmingly dressed, that her hands should be white and her attitude felicitous: these things for her had long since become mechanical.  But to mason, who was familiar only with books and men, they were objects of constant, half-dreamy contemplation.  He would sit for half-an-hour at once, with a book on his knees and the pages unturned, scrutinising with ingenious indirectness the agreeable combination of colour and outline which made up the physical personality of Miss Hofmann.

That sounds like James, right?  And this sickly, sexless man in love with a healthy, vigorous woman is going to reappear many times in James, in The Portrait of a Lady and elsewhere.  This is also the first story where, if you find this sort of thing entertaining, you can pretend that Mason is homosexual and actually in love with the doctor, not Miss Hofmann.

I was planning to include a joke or two, since “A Most Extraordinary Case” is lightly but funny, but they require too much setup.  A scene where Mason almost comes to terms with his illness (and thus knows he cannot have Miss Hofmann)  is poignant, more so even than his death scene.  These are genuine if minor Jamesian pleasures.  I am learning to see them.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

How can one pray that there are no gods? - David R. Slavitt finds lost Sophocles choruses

David R. Slavitt is a phenomenon.  He has published a hundred books since 1952, some of which were best-sellers, some worst-sellers.  I know him best, to the extent that I know him at all, as a poet and translator, the latter mostly but by no means exclusively from Classical Greek and Latin.  His work on Sophocles has led him to a good idea, his new Choruses from the Lost Plays of Sophocles (Barefoot Muse Press, 2015), the conceit explained by the title.

Slavitt invents choruses for several dozen of the Sophocles plays for which we only have the title, the name of a mythological figure.  The story has already been told. 

from A Chorus from Enomaus

Some Oracle is predicting disaster again.
Your son will kill you, or grandson, or son-in-law,
but the truth the rest of us have to learn to live with
is that they will survive us, bury us, and inherit
whatever we have won or earned in life. (16)

I guess a lot of the fun is that Slavitt has two modes to work with: first he can try to credibly imitate Sophocles, or more accurately modern translations of Sophocles – no one can check the original Greek – and second he can modernize or parody or comment on Sophocles, which is how I take the first line here, at least, a line that could be slid into any number of plays.

A possible third mode would be to build the poems around actual fragments of the lost plays.  No idea whether Slavitt ever does this.

Over and over, the choristers debate questions of fate.  Who is to blame?  “We cannot fault Orestes.  What he is doing / is necessary” (“A Chorus from Aletes,” 8).  “You can’t blame Alcmene.  She was tricked” (“Two Choruses from Amphitryon,” 10).  The gods are to blame.

from Two Choruses from Aigisthus

What is far worse is how the gods
use us as their instruments of torture,
so that we blame ourselves for the evils
that follow us and even our children.
[details of the horrible crimes of Atreus and Thyestes]
What hope could there be for Thyestes’ son,
Aigisthus, with such blood in his veins?
Knowing who he was and what he came from,
we wonder what were his choices, what could he hope for?
How can one pray that there are no gods?  (5-6)

Some of Slavitt’s characters seem to make peace with their fate.  The Chorus observes Cassandra “perhaps half-smiling,” while Philoctetes, although he hates both the Trojans and Greeks “will save us. / He is beyond caring, but does what he does.”

That last ends “A Chorus from Philoctetes at Troy,” the sequel to the surviving Philoctetes, one of the few times I know how the lost, imagined play fits with an existing play.  I had never looked at a list of lost Sophocles plays before, so I was amazed at how many of them are about the house of Atreus and their terrible acts and curses, including numerous plays about the characters familiar to us form The Oresteia.  Over and over again, year after year.

I am with this chorister in “A Chorus from Tyndareos” (also part of the Atreus story by marriage):

Not even wisdom is safe.  Look at the prophets
and how their lives are tortured.  Let me be
ordinary, unexceptional, one
unremarkable member of the chorus.  (55)

I love the conceit that Sophocles would have written such a line.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Umberto Saba's prose - as though they were the honorable dead

Poetry is to many people an allergen, or even a toxin, but fortunately Umberto Saba also wrote prose, short fiction and memoir that grew shorter over time until he published them as “shortcuts” and “very short stories.”  There is also a late, unfinished novel, Ernesto, that I have not read.  What I have read is a book title The Stories and Recollections of Umberto Saba (1993), translated and assembled by Estelle Gilson.

The fiction is mostly about poor and the Jews of Trieste.  “And at one and the same time, she felt both a certain compassion for him and a desire to grab him by the throat and throttle him” (“Valeriano Rode,” 54).  That is a wife describing her idiot husband, but the line could easily appear in a number of places, perhaps used by the reader.  High quality short fiction circa 1910 was populated by frustrating nitwits; this is not unique to Saba.  See “The Lottery Numbers” for a powerful example, where a husband refuses to let his wife play a set of lucky numbers turns out to be the tipping point of a series of resentments that destroy the marriage.

Or the best story, “The Hen,” in which a young man buys his mother the wrong gift.  He once had a pet hen:

…  the hours he spent with the hen were truly his own; whether he had her sit,  perch, really, next to him on the brick steps between the kitchen and the dining room, steps that turned a strange red in the setting sun and reminded him if the steps outside purgatory that he’d seen in a religious painting, or whether, hugging her so tightly to him that she shrieked, and happy in his belief that he had so much time ahead to live and enjoy the pleasures of the world (and thereafter, he’d have all eternity), he would talk to Có-có about daring deeds and journeys, and about future joys, in effect, about everything that went through his head.  (76-7)

Saba’s sentences do not usually roll on like that.  The story is a warning about the pain of trying to revive childhood pleasures and illusions.  This from a poet who is constantly returning to his childhood in his writing.

Saba has other subject – Trieste, the war and its aftermath.  Encounters with writers: his Triestine neighbor Italo Svevo who “used to drop in on me almost every evening” at the used bookshop, Curzio Malaparte who “tried to help me when I was in trouble,” and that maniac, “the Glorious One,” the “immaculately white-suited” Gabriele D’Annunzio, to whom Saba says he owes “three poems from his [Saba’s] Autobiographia” and “a recipe for preparing that superb pasta with tomatoes.”

Then there is the bookshop itself, an accidental career – “I bought it intending to throw all the old books in it into the Adriatic and to sell it empty at a higher price” – that became something else:

During all the years of fascism it was a refuge, sheltering me from loudspeakers.  It’s fairly hopeless for a poet to make a living in literature.  And during those years it seemed more hopeless than ever.  However, the antiquarian books, whose existence I’d just discovered, didn’t upset me or reflect the hateful face of the present, the way almost all of the new ones seemed to do.  What’s more they gave off a sense of peace, as though they were the honorable dead.  (“The Story of a Bookshop,” 141)