Friday, July 29, 2016

’I require gossip worthy of me’ - some last La Regenta notes, symbolic in some mysterious way, voluptuous even

Another readalong post, by Simon Lavery, on La Regenta covering one of the main characters, the bad priest, in particular how he is introduced in the first couple of pages of the novel.  Lavery covers almost every major technique Leopoldo Alas uses, just by looking at a couple of pages: the limited third person interplay of the narrator and the characters, the humor, the sharp metaphors, the too-muchness, and most importantly the character himself, “the duplicitous, manipulative ambition of this muscular priest, oozing barely repressed sexuality and male energy.”  It is a good trick the way Alas creates some sympathy for this fellow, even if some of it is sympathy for the man he could have been if he had not been pushed into the priesthood by his wonderfully awful, greedy, narrow-minded mother.

Poor guy, 35 years old, full of energy, the strongest man in town, and he lives with his mother over the Catholic supply store, which she secretly owns.  Here we have one more curious link to the 19th century French novelistic tradition – the priest joins, as a Spanish adjunct, the long list of fictional strongmen: Balzac’s super-criminal Vautrin, the Count of Monte Cristo, numerous Hugo characters, the Conan-like protagonist of Salammbô.  I don’t get it.

A much later example of the priest’s male energy:

The canon picked a rose-bud, with some fear that he might be seen.  The cool touch of the dew covering this little egg gave him a childish pleasure; it smelt of youth and freshness, but this did not satisfy his desires, his longing to bite it and enjoy its taste and contemplate the mysteries of nature hidden under the layers of satin.  (Ch. 21, 478-9)

Then a couple of lines later, the priest takes a big bite out of the rosebud – there is a lot of sexual sublimation in this novel – just before walking into cathedral, and one of the lushest scenes in the book.

The organs above him stretched forth their pipes in dazzling vertical and horizontal lines, like two suns, face to face.  Golden angels played violins under the vault, to which the organs’ plateresque reliefs climbed, and through the pointed windows and the rose windows behind the choir and high in the aisles light flowed into the cathedral, separating into tones of red, blue, green and yellow.  (479)

Everything in the cathedral becomes sensuous – “the smell of damp mingling with the smell of wax seemed delicate, symbolic in some mysterious way, voluptuous even.”  The scene gets weirder, more sexual, perhaps blasphemous, as everything in the cathedral contributes to his ardor.  That’s one side of La Regenta, of this kind of writing, the merging of the sensory world with the psychology of the characters.

The other is the big social world.  “They were burning in the holy enthusiasm of slander” (Ch. 22, 502).  These are priests, too, the canon’s enemies.  “’I require gossip worthy of me,’” one declares.  At one point in the novel, an actress “achieved a poetic realism whose full worth neither [her fellow actor] nor the greater part of the audience was capable of appreciating” (Ch. 16, 376) – a statement of purpose by the author.

Thanks to everybody who joined in on the readalong, however far you got.  The posts and comments along the way have been very helpful.

Thursday, July 28, 2016

seemly abbreviations and a gongoresque style - some bits of La Regenta

The sarcasm of Leopoldo Alas can be a thing of beauty:

They were going to inspect the hunting dogs and a St Bernard which Paco had bought a few days before.  They were his pride and joy.  After prostitutes, the Young Marquis’s greatest admiration was for tame animals, in particular dogs and horses.  (Ch. 13, p. 284)

You may note that this is not elaborate or poetic prose.  Lively, but not fancy, and not afraid of clichés, which can generally be assigned to the characters, as here, not the narrator, although who knows – the usual slippery result of limited third person.  There is a hilarious example earlier:

The chef almost fell flat on his back from pure delight when, in order to ascertain the amount of boiling required by the peach preserve, Obdulia came up to him and, with a smile, slipped into his mouth the same spoon which had just been caressed by her ruby lips (the ‘ruby’ is the chef’s).  (Ch. 8, 173)

The narrator is so offended by the cliché that he has to protest that it is not his responsibility.

When he wants to, though, Alas can turn on the tap, so to speak:

Dull grey clouds, as broad as the steppes, drove up from the west and were ripped open on the peaks of Mount Corfín.  The rains poured from them on to Vetusta, sometimes cutting down aslant like furious whiplashes, like a biblical punishment, sometimes falling in a calm leisurely flow, in fine vertical threads.  These clouds passed over, and others came, and others – the first clouds back again, it seemed, after going around the world, to be torn open on Corfín once more.  The spongy earth was eaten away like the flesh on Job’s bones; a sluggish grey plume of mist was wafted over the sierra by the languid wind; the country extended, naked and frozen, into the distance, motionless like the corpse of a castaway shedding the water which has flung it ashore.  (Ch. 18, 401)

Five more sentences like this before Alas turns to a character and some stuff about hunting that is part of the plot.  The heroine, Ana, has something like Seasonal Affective Disorder, so the rains will affect her, too – the next chapter, about her illness, is one of the best.  Here is Ana’s husband, helping out:

Every day her abdomen had to be felt and questions asked about the lowest animal functions.  Don Víctor did not trust his memory and, watch in hand, he kept a record in a notebook where, using seemly abbreviations and a gongoresque style, he set down everything the doctor needed to know about these details.  (Ch. 19, 426-7)

When a new, younger doctor arrives, Don Víctor is thrilled, because he and the doctor can argue about politics and “the plurality of inhabited worlds.”  The husband is a marvelous fool.  I am leafing through the chapter – so much happens in it.  Ana is ill, and recovers, entering a new phase in her sainthood.  Meanwhile, the Don Juan character infiltrates her home by flattering her husband, although he “drew the line” at “the examination of the collections of plants and insects,” aside from a stuffed peacock.  “He would stroke its breast while Quintanar discoursed.   A great chapter, full of fine, strange things.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

as if to make amends, and to deceive himself - La Regenta is a religious novel

Oh thank goodness someone has already written a better readalong piece about La RegentaIt is by Scott Bailey.  He goes straight for the argument of the novel, which is about saintliness, or maybe just true religious feeling, and its place in the world.  His one-line summary of the book: “a devout woman whose world is controlled by selfish men is slowly poisoned by the toxic city in which she lives.”  The Catholic Church, the legitimate outlet for Ana’s mysticism, is completely corrupt; her confessor, the priest Fermín de Pas, the most toxic of all men.

Bailey compares Ana to the holy fool Prince Myshkin in The Idiot.  The major difference is that where Dostoevsky in some important way, however much he argues with himself, is committed to the positive example of the Russian Orthodox church, Leopoldo Alas, a secularist and cynic, does not have much to offer as an alternative.  He suspects that Ana’s enthusiasms are more psychological than spiritual, but he allows the possibility of a genuine mysticism.  Ana has plenty of doubts herself.

Each year, as soon as March began, Don Robustiano Somoza diagnosed all his patients’ illnesses as spring fever, although he had only the haziest notion of what he meant by this; but since the handsome doctor’s principal mission was to console the afflicted, and sense the climatological explanation usually satisfied them, he did not bother to search for another.  Spring fever it was (according to Don Robustiano) which prostrated the judge’s wife [Ana], who went to bed one night at the end of March uncontrollably clenching her teeth, and feeling as if her head were full of fireworks.  As she awoke the next morning and emerged from dreams of ghosts, she realized that she was feverish.  (Ch. 19, p. 420)

This is what I mean – Alas may not be a religious believer himself, but unlike the idiots who populate his novel – “spring fever”! – he takes Ana’s experiences as meaningful.

Despite almost every character’s preoccupation with adultery, La Regenta is only nominally an adultery novel.  Ana’s story is about her spiritual struggles, the priest’s is about his struggles with his vocation and, hilariously, his mother, and even the Don Juan figure’s story is less about sex than mortality.  All variations on the search for a meaningful life.

I found this very hard to see at first because of the imbalanced, show-off structure of the novel.  The huge first half covers three days and is almost all setup, one enormous scene that is largely dramatized exposition and barely goes anywhere but rather is.  The second half of the novel covers several years and is more conventionally structured – scenes, a story, character development, etc.  The usual stuff.  Lots of great individual scenes: a big theater scene, a Holy Week procession, an acidic inset story about the life and death of the – yes, “the” – town atheist.

“No, God doesn’t exist,” he was thinking, “but if he did, I’d be in a pretty pickle.”  (Ch. 22, 528)

The chapter that begins with the “spring fever” line, which works through Ana’s illness, is especially good.  It has, among other treasures, one of the narrator’s greatest cynical asides:

And as if to make amends, and to deceive himself, he heaved a large sigh and exclaimed: “My poor, beloved Anita!”

And, satisfied, he slept.  (424)

Bailey says he will post favorite excerpts next.  Good idea; me too.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

the stupidity of people agreeing to get bored together for a day - general impressions of La Regenta

To remind myself how to write, I will gather some general notes about Leopoldo Alas’s gigantic 1885 novel La Regenta, perhaps still the focus of a readalong event.  Such a post is worth writing after my vacation, put perhaps not worth reading.  I will point the interested to this omnibus post by Dwight at A Common Reader and this post at seraillon.

The leading lady of Vestustan society, Ana, the judge’s wife, La Regenta, is changing confessors, upgrading to the powerful, corrupt vicar general, who quickly falls in love with her.  Meanwhile, the town Don Juan is in pursuit of her as well.  Ana’s husband, a fool who prefers hunting and abstract ideas of honor to the physical reality of his beautiful wife, is the fourth major character.  Dozens of minor characters populate the town, which is described thoroughly.  Alas makes Oviedo, in Asturias sound quite appealing to the tourist, but miserable to the Professor of Roman Law trapped among all of these vulgar rubes.  Alas is a recognizable type, the big city prof teaching at a cow college.  In Asturias, a fish college, I guess.

The novel is written in the great 19th century tradition of Iberian imitations of French fiction, payback for the great French looting of 17th century Spanish theater.  Flaubert, Flaubert, Flaubert.  La Regenta is in some deliberate ways an imitation of Madame Bovary, including its satire of provincial Philistinism, its fluidly shifting points of view, its emphasis on physical detail, and the basic setup of the restless wife, dope of a husband, and flashy pursuer.

Big differences:

1.  Bulk.  The novel is 700 pages in John Rutherford’s Penguin edition, but the type is so small, the pages so large; the book is 900 or 1,000 pages in Spanish editions.

2.  Depth and intelligence (of characters, not authors).  The portrayal or even discovery of the interiority of the shallow, a Flaubert specialty, is one of the great contributions of modern fiction.  Several characters in La Regenta continue this fine tradition, include the Don Juan figure and the husband, who is not a simpleton like Charles Bovary but is nevertheless as great a fool.

But the heroine, Ana, is no Emma Bovary.  She is intelligent, mystical, even a little weird, with a visionary imagination.  There is a hint that she is synesthetic.

3.  Satire.  I argue that Flaubert’s satire is incidental to his art, a vengeful bonus of writing about Normandy.  Alas is much more interested in blood.  “There’s almost too much satire” says Dwight,correctly.

They talked about the horse, the cemetery, the sadness of that afternoon, the stupidity of people agreeing to get bored together for a day, the uninhabitableness of Vetusta.  (Ch. 16, p. 361)

And those are the characters!  The narrator is crueler.  seraillon has some amusing examples of the narrator who is anything but invisible – “a quagmire of triviality” and so on.  I was thankful when he got tired of mocking characters for their bad Latin.  The Professor of Roman Law who wrote the book found that a lot funnier than I did.

4.  What is important for Flaubert is creating elaborate patterns underneath the surface of the novel, patterns likely to be invisible upon the first reading of a book, even more so in one as huge as La Regenta.  My first guess is that Alas was not working at that artistic level, that he was writing a more ordinary novel, but I have obviously written myself into a trap.  How would I know? But right now, I don’t see it.  Whatever I write about for the next few days, it won’t be that.  Maybe someone else will.

Friday, July 8, 2016

Sweet taste of being alive - some clearer Antonio Machado

Antonio Machado became a schoolteacher in the 1907 – French, and later Spanish.  He taught in schools all over Spain, and in each case wrote poems about the landscape, or about himself in the landscape.

    Yes, I have brought you along, landscapes of Soria,
still evenings, lavender hills,
poplar lanes by the river, green dreaming
of gray soil and drab-brown earth,
aching melancholy of a town’s decay,
you have found your way to my heart –
or were you already there?  (from “The Soria Country,” ll. 129-35, p. 121)

Do these poems ever feel Spanish.  Maybe too much so, as if they were written for the tourism board.  But they make it easy to understand how Machado became a beloved poet.

At the end of his life, he was involved in the awful politics of the 1930s, and Trueblood only includes three poems from the period, all clear and lovely, including a heartbreaking tribute to Federico García Lorca (“The Crime Was in Granada”) and a return to the landscape seen above, “The Poet Remembers the Soria Country,” but this time he asks an “avión marcial,” a “warplane,” if the river “recalls its poet still / amid red ballad sagas reenacted.”

I wanted to counter my trouble understanding Machado’s philosophical or mystical side with some poems with a clearer surface.  Whatever else the poems might mean, the political poems have a public purpose, and the landscape poems have something specific to evoke.

I am tempted by a perfect sonnet Machado wrote about his father, and his childhood:

    My father, young still.  He reads and writes,
leafs through his books and muses.  He gets up,
goes toward the garden door and walks about.
Sometimes he talks out loud, sometimes he sings.
  And then his large eyes with the restless look
seem to be wandering in a void,
unable to settle anywhere.  (Sonnet IV, ll. 5-11, p. 217)

A portrait as self-portrait.  And I am tempted by another kind of self-portrait, “Gloss,” meaning notate, interpret, a poem that begins with a Heraclitean quotation from the Coplas of Jorge Manrique, another tribute to a father:

    Our lives are rivers
flowing in to the sea,
the sea of dying.  Matchless lines!
    Among all my poets
I worship Manrique most.
    Sweet taste of being alive,
hard learning how things pass,
blind rushing to the sea.
    After the fright of dying,
the joy of having arrived.
    Boundless joy!
But – that dread of a return?
Endless pain!

In the Spanish, most of the lines end with an infinitive verb as part of a prepositional phrase, a series of ongoing actions – living, passing, dying, returning – somehow all at once.  The lines do not exactly rhyme, but all end with -ar, -er, or -ir, and even the lines that do not end with verbs repeat these sounds, like “placer” (pleasure) and “la mar” (the sea).  A poem of great complexity constructed from the most basic materials.

I’ll be wandering about for a couple of weeks.  Writing resumes sometime during the last week of July.

Thursday, July 7, 2016

Oh, deep wisdom of the cipher - some Antonio Machado

Spanish Literature Month!

My July vacation has gelled so that I will be away for most of the month and will thus not write about Leopoldo Alas’s La Regenta until the last week, starting on July 26th if I have la fuerza.  I have finished the novel, but will leave it atop my Currently Reading list to encourage other readers.  When I return, I will have completely forgotten everything about the book, so it is essential that other readers do not wait for my return, but write long, detailed posts which I can use as refreshers.  ¡Muchas gracias por anticipado!

Before vacation, a couple of posts of poet Antonio Machado (1875-1939), as translated by Alan S. Trueblood in Selected Poems (1982, Harvard UP).

Oh, deep wisdom of the cipher, savor
of ripe fruit for man alone to taste,
dream-water and dark wellsprings,
God-given shade cast by the mighty hand!  (from “The Death of Abel Martín,” ll. 21-4, p. 253)

I found Machado to be, in general, difficult, largely because he is a genuinely philosophical poet.  By “philosophical” I mean that he read Henri Bergson, Miguel de Unamuno, etc. – by the 1930s, of course, yikes, Martin Heidegger – for fun, like I read Trollope, and wrote poems that express specific moods or states drawn from his own experience but filtered through philosophy.  Here is an Idea approached analytically through philosophy; here is the same Idea approached through some kind of lived experience, perhaps something as simple as a walk by a river.

Abel Martín, the subject of the above poem, is a fictional philosopher and the “author” of some of Machado’s poems; the poems about his death is “by” one of his students.  Machado has got a little Fernando Pessoa action going.

Luckily for me, Machado’s favorite philosopher is Heraclitus, who is not so hard – water and fire.

The Waterwheel

    Evening was falling,
dusty and sad.
    The water sang
its workaday tune
in the brimming scoops
of the slow-turning wheel.
    The old mule was dreaming,
poor worn-out mule,
keeping time with the shadowy
sound of the water.
    Evening was falling,
dusty and sad.
    I can’t say what noble
and godlike poet
linked the soft accord
of the dreaming water
    to the bitter toil
of the endless round
and blindfolded you,
poor worn-out mule…
    But that poet, I know,
was noble and godlike,
a heart steeped in shadow
and ripe with knowing.  (pp. 85-7, ellipses in original)

The lovely match between subject and stanzaic form is visible in English, whatever other rhythmic pleasures have been lost.  Machado has a strong post-religious mystical side, which is visible here in this metaphor for the nature of existence – I am, we are, generally, the blindfolded mule, not the godlike poet who somehow is able to make a little more sense of the shadows and dream, of that inexplicable, endless sound of flowing water.

A reader with some Spanish might well notice that Machado’s vocabulary is mostly entry-level and his syntax untangled.  He was anti-Baroque, anti-gongorism.  He is a perfect poet for anyone working on his Spanish, with some level of meaning available to a basic level of the language.  Then there’s that next level, a whole other problem.

Saturday, July 2, 2016

And it seemed to him that nothing could ever set it right. - now there's a Chekhovian line

Once I start looking for correspondences between Chekhov and Tolstoy, they become too easy to find.  Such rich writers give me a lot to mess with.  “’Anna on the Neck’” features a young woman named Anna who is married to a much older, ambitious civil servant.  The “Anna” of the odd title refers to a medal he wants to earn, if necessary by means of his lovely wife flattering a superior officer.  Is there some kind of parody of Anna Karenina here, the alternate timeline life of young Anna K.?  Probably not!  Anyway, this story has a happy ending for Anna.  Happiness turns out to be a nightmare, a destruction of principles, an effacement of the self.  Chekhov must have shaken off his Tolstoy anxiety by this point.

A minor, maybe, story of Chekhov’s called “Neighbours,” from earlier in his Tolstoyan phase (1892), is a nice example of his inability to be anyone but himself.  Constance Garnett’s version in in The Duel & Other Stories.  The story is about the impossibility of living a life based on abstractions.  Or perhaps it is about living with inevitably irreconcilable principles.

Pyotr Mihalitch Ivashin was very much out of humour: his sister, a young girl, had gone away to live with Vlassitch, a married man.  To shake off the despondency and depression which pursued him at home and in the fields, he called to his aid his sense of justice, his genuine and noble ideas – he had always defended free love! – but this was of no avail, and he always came back to the same conclusion as their foolish old nurse, that his sister had acted wrongly and that Vlassitch had abducted his sister.  And that was distressing.

I wish every story summarized itself so cleanly in its opening paragraph.

After much dithering, he rides off to confront his neighbor – a duel, maybe, or a horsewhipping – but once at their home, setting aside his timidity, he is reminded that he likes Vlassitch, likes his sister, and sees them both as essentially human.  The couple can’t marry, for example, because Vlassitch is already married to a woman he was trying to save from a worse fate, “a strange marriage in the style of Dostoevsky,” regrettable, now, but an act of compassion.  His sister was hardly abducted, and has plunged into her freely chosen role as Vlassitch’s wife and homemaker.

“It’s a charming house altogether,” she went on, sitting opposite her brother.  “There’s some pleasant memory in every room.  In my room, only fancy, Grigory’s grandfather shot himself.”

A passage worthy of Uncle Vanya, there.  The brother ends up in a state of “spiritual softening,” unwilling to do anything that will bring additional unhappiness to the couple – “he had a deep conviction that they were unhappy, and could not be happy, and their love seemed to him a melancholy, irreparable mistake” – although the truth is that he is the one who is unhappy, not the couple.

And thinking about his life, he came to the conclusion he had never said or acted upon what he really thought, and other people had repaid him in the same way.  And so the while of life seemed to him as dark as this water in which the night sky was reflected and water-weeds grew in a tangle.  And it seemed to him that nothing could ever set it right.

The End.  Poor sap.

“Neighbours” has a beautiful pair of pagan trees, so I will add them to my collection:  “Near the dam, two willows, one old and one young, drooped tenderly towards one another.”

I’ll be on vacation much of next week.  Back on Thursday, let’s say, for a couple of posts on Antonio Machado, let’s say.  Spanish Literature Month.

Friday, July 1, 2016

"Dear storm!" - the Chekhovian dialectic - "But what am I to do to make my character different?"

“Now that’s from Chekhov’s Tolstoyan period,” says Scott Bailey, again and again – he said it yesterday – and I used to think, “What is he talking about?  These are Chekhov stories, Chekhov, Chekhov!”  But that was based on reading them years ago.  Reading them now, the Tolstoyan anxiety is pretty obvious.  But by the early 1890s, Chekhov had developed a strong personal style, so whatever his intentions, his writing remains deeply his own, in style and ethics.  He has become such a great artist that he can’t write like anyone else.

My understanding is that the source of the anxiety was conversations with Tolstoy himself, who was brazenly projecting his own artistic conflicts onto poor, innocent Anton.  Write about big ethical problems; write to reform people.  Chekhov, who was moving fast, soon moved on to other problems, certainly by “Peasants” (1897).  Poor Tolstoy never got so far.

Chekhov’s Tolstoy appears to me to reduce to two stories, The Death of Ivan Ilych and the Levin half of Anna Karenina.  For several years he attacks from various angles.  Chekhov had good taste.  What is a good life? What is the point of life given the certainty of death?  Big, big questions, the kind that reduce most writers to trivialities.

“The Duel” (1891) and “The Wife” (1892) show how Chekhovian impulses defeat Tolstoyan intentions.  The narrator of “The Wife” wants to do good, to fight famine and feed the poor, in between writing a “History of the Railway.”  He is hindered, though, by the fact that he is intensely annoying.  No one wants his help; they barely even want his money.  He is that much of a pest and egotist.

“Do you remember, Ivan Ivanitch, you told me I had a disagreeable character and that it was difficult to get on with me?  But what am I to do to make my character different?”  (Ch. 6)

His friend can only answer “I don’t know.”  The story ends with a kind of progress – the narrator becomes reconciled to his weakness.  “Now I feel no uneasiness.”  His wife feeds the peasants while he writes his history.  Described like this, the story almost sounds like a self-parody.  Maybe I have described it incorrectly.

“The Duel” features a self-created Superfluous Man, a hilarious character, a lazy, lazy man who blames his weaknesses on the tenor of the times, on Turgenev, basically.  If the men of his class are superfluous, nothing is his fault.  The fact that he is latching onto a thirty-year-old political argument to justify his behavior is part of the joke.

A duel with a rationalist leads him to reform his life.  He races through the stages of The Death of Ivan Ilych in an evening, although since Chekhov is a pagan, his religious turn looks like this:

“The storm!” whispered Laevsky; he had a longing to pray to some one or to something, if only to the lightning or the storm-clouds.  “Dear storm!”  (Ch. 17)

He changes his life.  “When he went out of the house and got into the carriage he wanted to return home alive.”

All of these stories are filled with debates and discussions, perhaps too much, but Chekhov’s method is a dialectical humanism.  Many sides of an argument are represented; many sides contain truths; many truths are irreconcilable.  The arguments often disintegrate.  The doctor in “Ward No. 6” spends many pages arguing about the meaning of life, but with a madman, the only person in town who will indulge such topics.  The madman is often in the right, but he is not exactly reliable.  Hey, maybe this story is also about Chekhov’s relations with Tolstoy.

Thursday, June 30, 2016

"So this is real life" - Chekhov's delicately grim "Ward No. 6"

Mark Twain, Anton Chekhov, both kind of dark.  I could use that as a transition from Twain to Chekhov.  Twain moves in an anti-humanist direction; Chekhov is always firmly humanist.  There we go.

I have noted that when Constance Garnett compiled her thirteen volumes of Chekhov stories, she at times followed a thematic scheme – a series of stories about children or what have you.  Garnett’s idea for The Horse-Stealers & Other Stories, Vol. 10, seems to have been to showcase Chekhov at his grimmest.

This book houses the long 1892 story  “Ward No. 6,” one of Chekhov’s greatest works, from a period that is entirely great.  Why this one is not as well-known as “The Lady with the Little Dog” – eh, why ask this question.

Ward No. 6 is a “lodge,” a ruined shack behind a provincial Russian hospital.  It houses, as the story begins, five mentally ill patients, the refuse of Russian society, with ailments far beyond the capacity of the medicine of their time, and a caretaker who treats them cruelly.

The hospital is run by Dr. Andrey Yefimitch Ragin, “a strange man in his way,” educated and thoughtful enough to be horrified by the conditions of his own corrupt and filthy hospital but with a character too weak to do anything of consequence.  He “had two cupboards of instruments put up,” and that is about it.  “[H]e had no strength of will nor belief in his right to organize an intelligent and honest life about him.”

Chekhov slowly, gently, lovingly, spends the story grinding the doctor down to a fine powder, finally putting him in Ward No. 6 with his former patients.  His view:

Andrey Yefimitch walked away to the window and looked out into the open country.  It was getting dark, and on the horizon to the right a cold crimson moon was mounting upwards.  Not far from the hospital fence, not much more than two hundred yards away, stood a tall white house shut in by a stone wall.  This was a prison.

“So this is real life,” thought Andrey Yefimitch, and he felt frightened.

The moon and the prison, and the nails on the fence, and the far-away flames at the bone-charring factory were all terrible.  (Ch. 18)

A prison!  I feel as if a parallel Chekhov story is taking place there, with the indifferent warden finding himself locked in a cell.  The bone-charring factory!  Perhaps Chekhov is laying it on a little thick.

The death of Andrey Yefimitch is written with great delicacy.

And what if it [immortality] really existed.  But he did not want immortality, and he thought of it only for an instant.  A herd of deer, extraordinarily beautiful and graceful, of which he had been reading the day before, ran by him; then a peasant woman stretched out her hand to him with a registered letter…  (Ch. 19, ellipses in original)

Then the story ends with a viewing of the corpse that owes a debt to Cormac McCarthy.  That letter has attracted much commentary.  It is not mentioned elsewhere in the text, and is a little insoluble mystery, although I have a guess about it, based more on gaps in the text.

The basic irony of “Ward No. 6,” the bad doctor who becomes a patient, could hardly be more blunt.  Everything else, though, artistically, ethically – what subtlety.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

the vision vanished away; we were prisoners in this dull planet again - Twain darkens

This piece is just one long, soulful, sardonic laugh at human life.  (from “About Play-acting,” 1898)

Mark Twain is describing a Viennese play, not his own writing circa 1898, but, well.  I have been enjoying the Library of America Collected Tales, Sketches, Speeches, & Essays 1891-1910, the writings from 1891 through 1898, to be specific.  Just one long laugh.  I don’t really know what Twain meant by “soulful.”

Some funny, funny stuff in this period, most famously that magnificent piece of literary spite “Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses” (1895), but plenty of others.  I found “About All Kinds of Ships” to be a killer, from the title on down, but I will not insist on that opinion.  My kind of humor.

Behind the scenes, but visible to readers now – I wonder how visible to contemporary readers – Mark Twain was turning into Dark Twain.  A series of catastrophes, personal and financial, had struck Samuel Clemens, and he began to write more unpublishable pieces alongside his usual productions, with religious and political opinions unpalatable to the magazine audience.

So there is the “Extract from Adam’s Diary” (1893), on a religious subject but just a good comedy revue sketch, ready for Your Show of Shows:

The new creature eats too much fruit.  We are going to run short, most likely.

Many pages of the bit involve Adam trying to figure out what kind of a critter a baby might be – a fish, or maybe a kangaroo, or, eventually, a talking bear.  He never does learn where Eve gets them.

But a few years later he writes, just for himself, “Man’s Place in the Animal World” (1896, pub. 1962), in which he suggests a modification of Darwinism, replacing the Ascent of Man with “a new and truer” theory, “the Descent of Man.”

Man is the Religious Animal.  He is the only Religious Animal.  He is the only animal that has the True Religion – several of them.  He is the only animal that loves his neighbor as himself, and cuts his throat if his theology isn’t straight.  He has made a graveyard of the globe in trying his honest best to smooth his brother’s path to happiness and heaven.

I would not want to argue that any of Twain’s arguments are original; some of his jokes, yes.  He ends with the “grim suggestion: that we are not as important, perhaps, as we had all along supposed we were.”

“Which Was the Dream?” (1897, pub. 1966) contains some of the most boring passages I have ever come across in Twain.  He is suppressing his voice for conceptual reasons while he establishes the perfect life of his narrator – perfect career, wife, children, wealth – before destroying the first and last.  The title of the story suggests what is going to happen, that the preposterously ideal beginning – the war hero narrator is, for example, a Senator who is expected to be elected President of the United States as a soon as he is old enough – will dissolve when the character wakes up.  No, not exactly.

I was in the room that had been set apart as a nursery, and was employed as usual at that hour of the evening – inventing a blood-curdling story for the children; a child seated on each arm of my chair, their feet in my lap, their elbows on their knees, their chins crutched in their plump hands, their eyes burning duskily through their falling cataracts of yellow hair and black.  For ten minutes I had been wandering with these two in a land far from this world; in the golden land of Romance, where all things are beautiful, and existence is a splendid dream, and care cannot come.  Then came the bray of the brazen horns, and the vision vanished away; we were prisoners in this dull planet again.

And this comes before the character is ruined.  Reading “Which was the Dream?” was like reading a hyperbolized version of Twain’s diary.  He was never at risk of being elected President, nor did he fall back to a log cabin, but he is working through his own crises in fiction here.  No need to publish it, but a strong need to write it.

Monday, June 27, 2016

"I's sole down de river!" - some ragged notes on Pudd'nhead Wilson

Pudd’nhead Wilson (1894), what a strange novel.  First, that apostrophe – there should be two, right?

Second, Twain’s original idea was to write a novel about conjoined twins – Italian, why not – who for some reason move to a Missouri river town.  What he wrote in the end was an early Elmore Leonard novel, a crime novel.  The twins are still there as pure plot devices and comedy, but separated.  Yet the conjoined twins survive as ghosts, as imperfect edits.

Here a prodigious slam-banging broke out below, and everybody rushed down to see.  It was the twins knocking out a classic four-handed piece on the piano, in great style. (Ch. 6)

This chapter is the strangest, with the twins separate but inseparable, separate only because I had earlier been told that they are. “The twins took a position near the door, the widow stood at Luigi’s side, Rowena stood beside Angelo, and the march-past and the introductions began.”  This sentence is obviously unchanged from the conjoined draft.

Vladimir Nabokov had a long nurtured idea to write a novel about conjoined twins, until his wife, as I understand it, ordered him to abandon it.  A remnant survives as “Scenes from the Life of a Double Monster” (1958), as I remember it his single worst story by far.  What do writers see in this terrible idea?

Third and finally, Pudd’nhead Wilson is even ferociously ironic – problematic, as some say today – about race slavery than Huckleberry Finn.  A black nanny, a slave, switches her son, 1/32nd black but 32/32nds enslaved, with her master’s son.  Twain builds the plot on the single cruelest aspect of American chattel slavery, even more than its violence, the separation of families, whether the result of events or, as is threatened repeatedly in the novel, as punishment.  Twain runs the thread all the way to the last line of the book.

The former and future slave grows up to be a scheming monster, so interesting that whatever Twain’s plans might have been he and his crimes gets most of the book’s attention.  His mother, the baby switcher, is a Strong Female Character, is she ever, pretty fearsome herself.

Then there’s some nonsense about finger printing and a bejeweled knife, an adjunct to those ludicrous twins.  A murder, a courtroom revelation, topsy-turvy world restored.  All in the most fast-moving, bare bones Twain prose I can remember.  No stops for humorous diversions or lyrical idylls.  No time to waste and I believe, in real life, some pretty big bills to pay.

The running battle with Walter Scott and Southern honor is only briefly alluded to in the form of a dueling scene, which includes Twain’s old gag that in an American duel the seconds and spectators are as likely to be hit as the combatants.

I cannot remember why I had not previously read this novel.  Is it somehow thought of, or in the past thought of, as a book for children?  If I had read it as a child, I could write about how badly I had misunderstood it, but as it is I am stuck with implicitly writing about how badly I understand it now.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

It often seems to me that art conceals the artist far more completely than it ever reveals him - looking for Wilde in Dorian Gray

My problem with The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890) had been that one major character, Lord Henry Wotton, speaks in the voice of Oscar Wilde, the voice that Wilde would soon use so effectively in his great comedies, the voice of Wilde the celebrity.  Jokes and paradoxes.

“A man cannot be too careful in the choice of his enemies.”

“Being natural is simply a pose, and the most irritating pose I know.”

“One should absorb the colour of life, but one should never remember its details.  Details are always vulgar.”

That stuff.  Sometimes really funny, sometimes chaff.  I fell into the trap of taking Wilde’s voice as representative of Wilde the author, the persona as the artist.

In A Woman of No Importance (1893), the single most Wilde-like man is openly a rake, and the villain of the play.  His name is Lord Illingworth, for pity’s sake.  Wilde sometimes pairs him with a different kind of comic figure, a woman who has no idea what he talking about.

LORD ILLINGWORTH. The only difference between the saint and the sinner is that every saint has a past, and every sinner has a future.

LADY HUNSTANTON. Ah! That quite does for me.  I haven’t a word to say.  You and I, dear Mrs. Arbuthnot, are behind the age.  We can’t follow Lord Illingworth.  Too much care was taken with our education, I am afraid.  Too have been well brought up is a great drawback now-a-days.  It shuts one out from so much.  (Act III)

Wilde repeats this joke several times, always after an especially empty quip of Illingworth’s, every one of which is, I will bet, a line that Wilde himself used at parties.  He is puncturing his own persona.

In Dorian Gray, he does it in a couple of different ways.  After the horror story gets going, Lord Wotton reappears after a long absence, and is given a long stretch of bantering with a new character.  What was fresh and lively in the first chapter is sour and tedious, and out of place, after the murder and sordidness of the book’s middle.  Now this seems like a deliberate effect of Wilde’s.  But even earlier, right from the beginning, he was doing something that makes me curious.  The line up above about the natural pose is followed closely by:

The sunlight slipped over the polished leaves.  In the grass, white daisies were tremulous.  (Ch. 1)

Similarly:

“I am quite sure I shall understand it,” he replied, gazing intently at the little golden white-feathered disk, “and as for believing things, I can believe anything, provided that it is quite incredible.”

The wind shook some blossoms from the trees, and the heavy lilac blooms, with their clustering stars, moved to and fro in the languid air.

Perhaps the narrator is introducing a pause while the reader laughs.  Or the narrator’s attention turns to the flowers, away from the vapid line.  The overcooked lyricism of the lines (“tremulous”) is suspicious.  If the details are always vulgar, well, what about these?

Now I am more inclined to find Wilde in the painter Basil Hallward, earnest, thoughtful, so in love with Dorian Gray’s beauty that he magically preserves it, a pure artist:

“Art is always more abstract than we fancy.  Form and colour tell us of form and colour – that is all.  It often seems to me that art conceals the artist far more completely than it ever reveals him.”  (Ch. 9)

Which could itself be a paradox or misdirection.  It survives for other reasons, but this is a novel about aesthetics.

Friday, June 24, 2016

What Dorian Gray’s sins are no one knows.

When The Picture of Dorian Gray was serialized, it was widely and snarkily reviewed.  Wilde engaged, with a couple of the reviewers, leading to exchanges of letters that are worth reading.  I mean Wilde’s – come to think of it, maybe I should read the other side, but only Wilde’s letters are included in The Artist as Critic: Critical Writings of Oscar Wilde (ed. Richard Ellmann, 1969).

The publicity was obviously good for all parties involved.

The letters contain a number of Wilde’s aesthetic principles, cleanly stated.  “The supreme pleasure in literature is to realise the non-existent,” that sort of thing (p. 240).

Dorian Gray magically acquires eternal youth and beauty, and thus enters into a life of sensuality and vice.  Setting aside the homemade perfumes and stamp collecting and so on, many readers, including this one, have been puzzled by the vagueness of Dorian’s vices, at least before we watch him commit a murder. 

It was rumoured that he had been seen brawling with foreign sailors in a low den in the distant parts of Whitechapel, and that he consorted with thieves and coiners and knew the mysteries of their trade.  His extraordinary absences became notorious, and, when he used to reappear again in society, men would whisper to each other in corners, or pass him with a sneer, or look at him with cold searching eyes, as though they were determined to discover his secret. (Ch. 11)

Brothels and opium would be the usual candidates, but in his response to the Scots Observer, Wilde is clear:

To keep this atmosphere vague and indeterminate and wonderful was the aim of the artist who wrote the story.  I claim, sir, that he has succeeded.  Each man sees his own sin in Dorian Gray.  What Dorian Gray’s sins are no one knows.  He who finds them has brought them.  (248)

So the novel is different for each reader.  In my case, that “low den” is a apparently a fried chicken shack, or a taqueria, or maybe a barbecue stand.  Dorian gets to eat and eat and it only his picture that suffers, while I have to be virtuous.  Wilde to the newspaper:

But, alas! they will find that it is a story with a moral.  And the moral is this: All excess, as well as all renunciation, brings its own punishment.  (240)

So true.  Other readers, other renunciations, or excesses.

The reason the exact nature of the vice does not matter, and why there is all that stuff about perfumes and tapestries, is that the moral of the novel is not really what Wilde claims here, but is rather a warning about living an over-aestheticized life, just like in his earlier fairy tales, where birds and statues martyred themselves for a beauty that was ignored or obliterated.  Dorian’s first crime, early in the novel, is cruelty to Sibyl Vane, a young Shakespearean actress, who he wants to marry when he thinks she is good but dumps when he discovers she is bad.  He is in love with Juliet, not the actual person.

“The moment she touched actual life, she marred it, and it marred her, and so she passed away.  Mourn for Ophelia, if you like.  Put ashes on your head because Cordelia was strangled…  But don’t waste your tears over Sibyl Vane.  She was less real than they are.”

There was a silence.  The evening darkened in the room.  Noiselessly, and with silver feet, the shadows crept in from the garden.  The colours faded wearily out of things.  (Ch. 8)

Even though it is written in Wilde’s own voice, Wilde thinks this idea, especially the end of the dialogue, is monstrous, aesthetics as crime.  The curious thing is the authorial commentary that immediately follows.  I will try to follow that thread tomorrow.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Then he turned his attention to embroideries - the collage of The Picture of Dorian Gray

With some new context, I read The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890, 1891) for the third time.  Three times is a lot for me, especially for a second-rate books like Wilde’s only novel, or collage fiction, or whatever it is.  But I had new information to bring to the book – Wilde’s criticism, his letters, especially some amusing sparring with newspaper reviewers which is instantly identifiable as what some of us now call “clickbait,” and finally J.-K. Huysmans’s À rebours (1884), a novel that is alluded to at tedious length.

The book does look quite a bit different to me now, so I suppose this exercise has been a success.

The parts of the collage are as follows:

1. The two page “Preface,” a prose poem in aphorism form.  “All art is quite useless,” etc.  I used to think the Preface was meant sincerely, an error on my part.

2. A penny dreadful horror story, a good one, with a murder and so on.

3. Passages stolen pretty cleanly from Huysmans, mostly in the hilarious Chapter 11, declared unreadable by many good readers, in which young, beautiful Dorian, given license to live a life of pure, consequence-free pleasure, vice and evil, spends his time as follows:

And so he would now study perfumes, and the secrets of their manufacture, distilling heavily scented oils, and burning odorous gums from the East…

At another time, he devoted himself to music, and in a long latticed room, with a vermilion-and-gold ceiling and walls of olive-green lacquer, he used to give curious concerts  in which mad gypsies tore wild music from little zithers, or grave yellow-shawled Tunisians plucked at the strained strings of monstrous lutes, while grinning negroes beat monotonously upon copper drums, and, crouching upon scarlet mats, slim turbaned Indians blew through long pipes of reed or brass, and charmed, or feigned to charm, great hooded snakes and horrible horned adders…

Then he turned his attention to embroideries…

And so on.  “Then he became obsessed with quilting, and won several ribbons at the county fair.  Next, it was canning, especially spicy bread-and-butter pickles.”  Terrifying, the depths of Dorian Gray’s evil.

4. Prose versions of the paradox and banter that will soon, beginning with Lady Windermere’s Fan (1892), form the core of an extraordinary series of plays.  Although often hilarious in the novel, this kind of dialogue is set free in the plays.  Wilde frequently loots his own novel, stealing the best jokes, and also some other jokes, and distributing them among the plays.  E.g. from Dorian Gray,

“Men have educated us.”

“But not explained you.”

“Describe us as a sex,” was her challenge.

“Sphinxes without secrets.”  (Ch. 17)

And from A Woman of No Importance (1893):

Lord Illingworth: What do you call a bad man?

Mrs. Allonby: The sort of man who admires innocence.

Lord Illingworth:  And a bad woman?

Mrs. Allonby:  Oh! the sort of woman a man never gets tired of.

Lord Illingworth:  You are severe – on yourself.

Mrs. Allonby:  Define us as a sex.

Lord Illingworth:  Sphinxes without secrets.  (Act I)

Apparently that line is so good it counts as a scored point in the banter duel.

It is to Wilde’s credit that he recognized that #4 was his great innovation but belonged in another form.  A couple of years later, the plays would make Wilde rich and (even more) famous.  A couple of years later than that, he was breaking rocks in prison.

Monday, June 20, 2016

Well, be glad there's nothing worse - Edwin Arlington Robinson's Shakespeare

As much as  I have enjoyed Edwin Arlington Robinson’s books, and as good as The Man against the Sky (1916) is, it may be time for me to switch to his Selected Poems.  Robinson is becoming more abstract; I am becoming more baffled.

Some of the abstraction is a move to an attempt to describe feelings or ideas at a more character-free level – at least I often can’t figure out who the characters are supposed to be – and some of it is a natural side effect of pared-down Robert Browning-like monologues.  I am supposed to be doing a lot of the work, I get that.

Begin with the title of “Bokardo.”  It is a term from formal logic, pure gibberish to me, given as a name to a man stricken with remorse and guilt to the point where he has perhaps attempted suicide.  He is confessing or complaining to the poet, who is unsympathetic.  The 120 lines are the poet’s ironic dismissal of Bokardo’s self-pity:

There’s a debt now on your mind
    More than any gold?
And there’s nothing you can find
    Out there in the cold?
Only – what’s his name? – Remorse?
And Death riding on his horse?
Well, be glad there’s nothing worse
    Than you have told.

Those last lines are brutal, as are a number of others.  It is possible that Bokardo is meant to be Robinson’s brother, who sold the family home at a loss and etc. etc., some list of irritating but petty nonsense that explain nothing about the poem, nor add anything to its imagery or moves toward wisdom:

They that have the least to fear
Question hardest what is here;
When long-hidden skies are clear,
    The stars look strange.

The great treat for me in this collection was the least abstract poem, “Ben Jonson Entertains a Man from Stratford,” a 25-page monologue of one great poet talking about a greater.  Jonson is having a drink with a Stratfordian:

And I must wonder what you think of him –
All you down there where your small Avon flows
By Stratford, and where you’re an Alderman.

Nominally, he is grilling his guest about Shakespeare and his mysteries – Jonson presents Shakespeare as something of a cipher – but Jonson ends up doing all the talking.  This is all entirely plausible.

I gather something happened in his boyhood
Fulfilled him with a boy’s determination
To make Stratford all ‘ware of him.

The time of the poem is around Shakespeare’s retirement form playwriting, and he is given some kind of crisis of mortality:

“No, Ben,” he mused; “it’s Nothing.  It’s all Nothing.
We come, we go; and when we’re done, we’re done;
Spiders and flies – we’re mostly one or t’other –
We come, we go; and when we’re done, we’re done.”

Jonson suggests that Shakespeare get a dog, and dang it get his plays published (“what he owes to Gutenberg”).

He’ll do it when he’s old, he says.  I wonder.
He may not be so ancient as all that.
For such as he, the thing that is to do
Will do itself.

Just a wonderful tribute to “this mad, careful, proud, indifferent Shakespeare!” and to Jonson, too.  “I love the man this side idolatry.”

No post tomorrow.

Friday, June 17, 2016

in the light of my own vampire - Frankenstein as doppelganger novel

Shelley’s lack of narrative sophistication drove me crazy, as it always has.  I mean the times when Shelley loses control of her three-level narrative frame, when she forgets Victor Frankenstein is not English (II, 6), or inserts pointless digressions, like the digression on farming (I, 5, “A farmer’s is a very healthy happy life,” etc.), or travelogues, like the idyll in Oxford (II, 5, “The colleges are ancient and picturesque; the streets are almost magnificent,” blah blah blah).

But who is in charge here, Shelley or me?  I’m the reader; I’m in charge.  It took some work, but I found the novel I enjoyed more.  It’s Frankenstein as a doppelganger story, the cousin of what E. T. A. Hoffmann had recently written in The Devil’s Elixir (1815-6) and other stories.

Victor is insane and a) there is no monster, or no monster besides himself, or else b) the monster he creates is somehow a version of himself.  He has imprinted his brain patterns on it, or split his personality, or something like that.  Like when the Hulk and Bruce Banner are split apart.  Like in the Buffy episode where Xander is separated into Strong Xander and Weak Xander.  The Victor who narrates is the weak version of himself.  This explains why when his experiment succeeds he immediately freaks out and abandons his poor monster, who could use some guidance and training at that point.  They need to practice their act (that’s a video link).

Here is the first place I noticed Victor stating this idea directly.  His younger brother has just been murdered by the monster – by some monster:

I considered the being whom I had cast among mankind, and endowed with the will and power to effect such purposes of horror, such as the deed which he had now done, nearly in the light of my own vampire, my own spirit let loose form the grave, and forced to destroy all that was dear to me.  (I, 6)

Victor becomes more openly insane as the novel progresses:

All pleasures of earth and sky passed before me like a dream, and that thought only had to me the reality of life.  Can you wonder, that sometimes a kind of insanity possessed me, or that I saw continually about me a multitude of filthy animals inflicting on me incessant torture, that often extorted screams and bitter groans?  (II, 6)

The cemetery scene near the novel’s end, which is also the beginning of the final chase, (II, 12) is pure Hoffmann.

I was answered through the stillness of night by a loud and fiendish laugh.  It rung on my ears long and heavily; the mountains re-echoed it, and I felt as if all hell surrounded me with mockery and laughter.

Perhaps Victor did build a corpse-monster, but is that what he is pursuing now?  The novel turns into a fantasia of motion, a blur of geography and dream.

At the end, as Shelley shifts back to the basic frame, both Victor and the monster, a few pages apart, compare themselves to Milton’s Satan.  Victor hoped to be God, but “’like the archangel who aspired to omnipotence, I am chained in eternal hell.’”  The monster merely hoped to be Adam:

“I cannot believe that I am the same creature whose thoughts were once filled with sublime and transcendent visions of the beauty and majesty of goodness.  But it is even so; the fallen angel becomes a malignant devil.”

The novel I read is even farther from the novel James Whale filmed, but it solves, or eludes, the problems with the narration.  It is not quite as funny as the more literal Frankenstein.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

A more divine being than I had ever beheld or imagined - Mary Shelley educates her monster

Today is the 200th anniversary of not the publication (1818) but the conception by the 18 year-old Mary Godwin of Frankenstein; or the Modern Prometheus.  Godwin, her lunatic sister, her deranged boyfriend, the most famous poet in Europe (also mad), and some non-entities were celebrating the holiday by reading their favorite passages of Ulysses to each other; creative types, they decided to come up with their own Greek-mythology derived episodes, two of which were published and are read to this day, even though Polidori’s Vampyre is terrible and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is also often terrible.

And at other times it is not.  It has a perfect last line, for example.

It is so rich with ideas.  Many books of the type – Dracula, for example – contain a concept so rich that it generates variations and retellings almost spontaneously, and Frankenstein has that kind of strength.  But it also is full of ideas as such, the product, I assume, of Shelley’s extraordinary education.  She would have been not just unusually well read, but would have read unusual things, and had the gifts to strap it all together.

Shelley had been reading Jean-Jacques Rousseau, certainly.  Frankenstein was created in Geneva, Rousseau’s birthplace; the novel of the name is full of Rousseau.  Sometimes Shelley is imitating Rousseau, as in the tedious early family scenes, which could be from Julie, or the New Heloise (1761).  The novice novelist needed a model, so she picked one of the four greatest novels ever written, as is only natural.

More fun is the argument or play with Émile, or On Education (1762) and other educational theories.  Victor Frankenstein, out of a weakness of character, builds and animates a corpse-monster only to immediately abandon it on aesthetic grounds.  The creature is thus responsible for its own education.  My favorite part of the novel has always been the Education of the Monster, the exact center of the novel, as the monster, with the help of some eavesdropping, teaches himself everything – language, philosophy, history, literature, social sciences, etc.  He is Rousseau’s ultimate and ideal experiential learner.

“These wonderful narrations [from world history] inspired me with strange feelings.  Was man, indeed, at once so powerful, so virtuous, and magnificent, yet so vicious and base?  He appeared at one time a mere scion of the evil principle, and at another as all that can be conceived of noble and godlike.  (Vol. II, Ch. 1)

When he finally acquires some books of his own, they are “Paradise Lost, a volume of Plutarch’s Lives, and the Sorrows of Werter,” which he reads again and again.

“But I thought Werter himself a more divine being than I had ever beheld or imagined; his character contained no pretension [!], but it sunk deep.  The disquisitions upon death and suicide were calculated to fill me with wonder.”  (II, 3)

The one thing the monster apparently does not learn is how to understand literary irony.  This sincere misreading of Goethe is going to cause problems later.  The use of Paradise Lost is a more ingenious and more necessary to the novel (is the monster more like Adam, or Satan?) but the self-pitying Werther monster makes me laugh more.

Dolce Bellezza put up a Frankenstein post earlier today, as did Nonsuch Frances, and she has more to come.  I will have one more, too, where I pretend that Frankenstein is the E. T. A. Hoffmann story that it could have been, and almost is.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

As literature, it is beneath contempt. - Kipling's puzzles

It covers a period of two days; runs to twenty-seven pages of large type exclusive of appendices; and carries as many exclamation points as the average Dumas novel.  (43)

This document, beneath contempt, which kicks off “The Bonds of Discipline,” is a puzzle for the Kiplingish narrator, full of indecipherable nonsense about the operations of the British navy.  “Kipling’s” solution to the puzzle is to track down and interview some of the involved parties, who tell a story that is preposterous but solves the puzzle.

The story in Traffics and Discoveries that has suffered a similar fate but without the possibility of interviewing the characters, since they’re fictional, is “Mrs. Bathurst.”  A railway engineer, a pair of sailors (one of whom if in a half-dozen Kipling stories), and “Kipling” share a Bass on a South African beach and work over the strange story of Click, who may or may not have been bigamously married to Mrs. Bathurst, a New Zealand barmaid world-famous (among English sailors) for her sex appeal.  He is freaked out, as we now say, when he sees Mrs. Bathurst in a film, obviously shot in London – why is she there?

“She come forward – right forward – she looked out straight at us with that blindish look which Pritch alluded to.  She walked on and on till she melted out of the picture – like a shadow jumpin’ over a candle, an’ as she went I ‘eard Dawson in the tickey seats be’ind sing out: ‘Christ! There’s Mrs. B!’”  (398)

I love that interruption, a literally nonsensical description that somehow perfectly describes one of the strange visual artifacts of early film.  Motion pictures are all of nine years old at this point.

The story-tellers do their best to pool information – they do pretty well – yet there remain massive gaps in the story.  Is the story about the gaps?  There are some clues to that effect.  But plenty of people have made claims for solutions based on other internal clues.  I have no idea.

“’They’” and “’Wireless’” – I hate Kipling’s habit of putting quotation marks in titles – anyway these two stories could easily be treated as puzzles, too.  In each case “Kipling” encounters a supernatural phenomenon and comes to a conclusion about what it is, with the how left as ineffable.  Perhaps the first-pass interpretations are so satisfying that there is less temptation to probe, while “Mrs. Bathurst” is more frustrating.  Subtle gaps versus huge ones.

“’Wireless’” is a parable of creativity, an investigation of how all the material and psychological and let’s say mystical influences come together in the right way and the result is, in the story, a Keats poem, or a number of lines from a great one, and yet the cause of the poem is still completely unknown.  The tension in this story, even re-reading it, is hard to believe.  The excitement lies in seeing what the next line of a poem will be, even though I already know the next line.  This should be dull.

“’They’” is a gentler thing, a parable of grief, one of the few non-comic ghost stories.  Oddly, also about motoring.  All of the more trivial stories in Traffics and Discoveries end up reinforcing or commenting on the more significant ones.  The motor car is the vehicle to fairyland, and it can help get a doctor to a child quickly.

“Useful things cars,” said Madden, all man and no butler.  “If I’d had one when mine took sick she wouldn’t have died.”  (358)

But now I am moving into the clues (or just ironies), and for what reason, as I have no solution here, either.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

“Would some one mind explaining to me the meaning of every other word you’ve used” - Kipling compresses

“Would some one mind explaining to me the meaning of every other word you’ve used,” I said.  “What’s a trackless ‘heef’?  What’s an Area?  What’s everything generally?” I asked.  (“The Army of a Dream,” 276)

I think, maybe I should write about the good Kipling stories – take a run at the puzzle of “Mrs. Bathurst” or something.  Then I think, good is so overrated.

“The Army of a Dream” is the one story in Traffics and Discoveries that is easily classified as bad.  Kipling dreams himself into a world where England has become highly militarized, with universal conscription and a kind of permanent rotating global militia.  Some of his friends in the militia lead him through its logistics, including a climactic war game in which the scouts rout the regulars.  Or something like that.  I was a couple of steps behind the narrator, and that’s him up above, plenty confused.

Although presented as fiction, as a dream, the ideas for military reform are apparently meant seriously.  Kipling wants peace, so he prepares for war.  The proto-fascist nature of the ideas is blinding, now, painful, in a way that no one in 1904 could have seen, and my impression is that a decade later England would prove that it was all too prepared for war, although the Kiplingist counter-argument would be “Not in the way I meant.”  The story ends with Kipling realizing that the soldiers who have been his guides are all dead, killed in South Africa.

Then it came upon me, with no horror, but a certain mild wonder, that we had waited, Vee and I, for the body of Boy Bailey; and that Vee himself had died of typhoid in the spring of 1902.  The rustling of the papers continued, but Bayley, shifting slightly, revealed to me the three-day old wound on his left side that had soaked the ground around him.  (335)

The end is strangely moving; it’s good.  “The Army of a Dream” is propaganda disguising grief.  A failure, but fascinating.

To return to that first quotation, the method Kipling is pushing harder in T&D than he had before, perhaps harder than is wise, is a radical excision of explanatory material.  Or at his friendliest, a rearrangement.  “A Sahibs’ War” (and this is one of the good stories) begins:

Pass? Pass? Pass? I have one pass already, allowing me to go by the rêl from Kroonstadt to Eshtellenbosch, where the horses are, where I am to be paid off, and whence I return to India. I am a—trooper of the Gurgaon Rissala (cavalry regiment), the One Hundred and Forty-first Punjab Cavalry. Do not herd me with these black Kaffirs. I am a Sikh—a trooper of the State. (85)

He is a Sikh, former servant to “Kurban Sahib, now dead,” etc.  An enormous amount of information here – names of South African cities and Indian military units, plus a large dose of the character’s voice and state of mind, his pride and anger (“Pass?  Pass?  Pass?”) which I can see now, since I have read the story, but the first time, who knows.  I didn’t know what to keep, or since the answer is everything, I was not sure how to keep everything.  It took a long while, for example, for me to understand that Kurban (Corbyn) Sahib was English.  Kipling teaches me the cipher to his code while telling the story.  Yes, as with all significant art, I object, but Kipling now moves faster and skips more steps.  He assumes I can handle it.

Everything in this book, difficult or less so, was originally published as popular magazine fiction.

Monday, June 13, 2016

Kipling tells his tale worthily - some lesser Traffics and Discoveries

What a shame that there is not a recent edition of Rudyard Kipling’s collections of short stories, annotated – in some cases, heavily annotated – on the shelf of a nearby library.  I have been resorting to the scans on Google Books, most recently of Traffics and Discoveries (1904).  The books make sense as books, and it has been valuable to read them as such.

It has been clear enough, though, why no such edition exists.  The wise thing to do with Traffics and Discoveries is to pull out just three stories of eleven, “’Wireless,’” “’They,’” and “Mrs. Bathurst” for a Kipling Selected Stories of whatever size and ignore the one where British sailors play a prank on a French spy, or the one where British sailors play a prank on other British sailors, or the one about driving a car (and then driving a different car (and also playing a prank on a traffic policeman)), or the one about a semi-Utopian, semi-fascist scheme to militarize society, which is barely even a story.

Three greats, and then this other stuff, including several less peculiar stories about soldiers in the Boer War.  The problem here is that the story about, for example, motoring, “Steam Tactics,” is amazing as a piece of craft.  It is almost free of larger meaning but is an extraordinary construction.  It’s ending strongly signals as much – this story is set, I’ll note, in southern England:

He pointed behind us, and I beheld a superb painted zebra (Burchell’s, I think), following our track with palpitating nostrils.  The car stopped, and it fled away.  (233)

An ibis and a cluster of kangaroos also make an appearance.  The exotic animals are explained, but obliquely.  Nothing is ever explained in any way other than obliquely.  How has Kipling been drummed out of Modernism?  These stories are written with a density of detail combined with an absence of explanation that exceeds James Joyce in Dubliners, and a decade earlier.  Anyone who has read “Ivy Day in the Committee Room” thinking Joyce maybe takes a little too much for granted about the depth of his reader’s knowledge about Dublin politics will be perfectly at home in Traffics and Discoveries, except the puzzling we be over naval terminology and technology, which Kipling is sure to get exactly right, or to have a good reason to get wrong, to the delight of British naval veterans of all ages and times – but the rest of us?  From “’Their Lawful Occasions,’” with Kipling on a torpedo boat in the English Channel:

Even now I can at will recall every tone and gesture, with each dissolving picture inboard or overside – Hinchcliffe’s white arm buried to the shoulder in a hornet’s nest of spinning machinery; Moorshed’s halt and jerk to windward as he looked across the water; Pyecroft’s back bent over the Berthon collapsible boat, while he drilled three men in expanding it swiftly; the outflung white water at the foot of a homeward-bound Chinaman not a hundred yards away, and her shallow-slashed, rope-purfled sails bulging sideways like insolent cheeks; the ribbed and pitted coal-dust on our decks, all iridescent under the sun; the first filmy haze that paled the shadows of our funnels around lunch-time; the gradual die-down and dulling over of the short, cheery seas; the sea that changed to a swell; the swell that crumbled up and ran allwither oilily; the triumphant, almost audible roll inward of wandering fog-walls that had been stalking us for two hours, and – welt upon welt, chill as the grave – the interminable main fog of the Atlantic.  (146)

I never use such long quotations and blame no one for skipping this one, but there are some fine things in there if you want to puzzle them out.

Thus we floated in space as souls drift through raw time.  Night added herself to the fog, and I laid hold pf my limbs jealously, lest they, too, should melt in the general dissolution.  (150)

If Kipling survives, “I vowed I would tell my tale worthily,” however much or little there might be to the tale itself.