Wednesday, October 16, 2019

Beginning the 17th century at a young age - La Fontaine and Perrault

In practice, for French readers, French literature begins in the 17th century.  Two works, really, that are not exactly children’s books but that are perfectly adaptable for children, the Fables of Jean de La Fontaine (1668-94) and the Contes of Charles Perrault (1697), or Les Contes de ma Mère l'OyeStories from My Mother Goose.

Early on, when my French reading level was that of a little child, I went to a Paris bookstore specializing in children’s books, Chantelivre, where I asked for the poetry section.  It was only a shelf or two, even in this store, and it was mostly illustrated selections of La Fontaine’s Fables, dozens of different editions of La Fontaine, a few poems, many poems, simplified poems, the real thing.  Luckily there was also a lonely copy of Les Plus Beaux Poèmes pour les enfants (The Most Beautiful Poems for Children), featuring a surprising number of poems about dead and dying mothers, which is more what I was looking for.  Still, I learned something about the place of the Fables in French culture just by looking at that shelf.

In a sense, we have them in American culture, too, and in a sense not.  The Fables are poetic versions of (mostly) Aesop’s Fables, beginning with “The Grasshopper and the Ant”:

La cigale, ayant chanté
      Tout l'été,
Se trouva fort dépourvue
Quand la bise fut venue:
Pas un seul petit morceau
De mouche ou de vermisseau.

The grasshopper, having sung
       All summer long,
Found himself much deprived
When the North Wind arrived:
Not a lone little bite
Of worm or of fly.

Look at the rhymes and sounds I was able to keep.  But why am I translating this myself, when I have Marianne Moore:

Until fall, a grasshopper
                 Chose to chirr;
With starvation as foe
When northeasters would blow,
And not even a gnat’s residue
Or caterpillar’s to chew…

I had wondered, reading Moore’s 1954 translation of the Fables long ago, how much of what I was reading was La Fontaine, and now that I have read (about half of) La Fontaine in French, I can see that the answer is that Moore includes a lot of herself and a lot of the original.  She keeps form, even line lengths, rhymes, plus the stories and characters and morals, some of which go on longer than the fable itself.

What a perfect match of translator to text.  But how many children find Aesop in Moore’s, or any, poetic form?  You likely remember that a big chunk of La Fontaine is on the reading list for next year’s Bac.  For many students, these will be poems and stories familiar from their earliest experience with books.

We have the Charles Perrault Contes, too, although I believe now we call them Disney stories.  Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Little Red Riding Hood, Bluebeard.  No Disney version of that, surely.  Retelling fairy tales was a popular activity in intellectual salons of the time, and I do not believe anyone knows whether the Contes were written for children or for an adult salon audience.  Both, I assume.  They are pretty sophisticated, rhetorically and linguistically, more so than the Grimm Brothers equivalent.   They are longer than the Grimm texts.  They are more composed.  But they lend themselves to simplification and illustration.  They lend themselves to rewriting.  There are a number of later periods in French literary history when writers become excited about the idea of the “conte” as opposed to the modern short story.  It is still a live form.

I had never, myself, read Perrault in English. Just versions of the stories.

Is there an equivalent in English literature, where children encounter the 17th century early on, and keep returning to it, even unto a painful exam to graduate from high school?  Maybe in the days of The Pilgrim’s Progress and Tales from Shakespeare, but that was before my time.  How much youthful Bible reading is of the King James Version?

In France, they start young.

Thursday, October 10, 2019

"Of the Bac" by Michel de Montaigne - eight times I have abandoned them

Charles Dantzig, author of the Selfish Dictionary of French Literature, gives the impression that he has read everything, but not quite.  Of Montaigne (Michel de):

It will be for my old age, Montaigne.  Eight times I have decided to read the Essays: all right, this time, the whole thing, all the way to the end!  Eight times I have abandoned them, the longest after two hundred pages.  He does not speak to me much, or I don’t hear him much.  (654)

He dislikes Montaigne’s narcissism, his gossiping, his French.  His French!  But I have only read him in Donald Frame’s English.  No, as with Rabelais and Proust, I have read a few French pages extracted in a school edition of I do not remember what.  Montaigne is too hard.  He is hard enough in English – difficult rhetorically, really, the challenge being to follow the flow of thought and quotation.

They are hard enough that two essays count as a book.  What do I mean by that.  French students take a series of exams to graduate from high school, including a substantial baccalaureate exam, written and oral, on French literature.  I saw them in the library, coming back early from vacation to study for their bac.  The Lyon public library was never more full of high school students than on the last few days of vacation.

This year’s texts were announced in April.  “You can already begin the reading.”  I feel that should have an exclamation point.  It is quite a reading list, although the student is only responsible for one work from each category.  No, you don’t choose; your teacher chooses.  That website will croak, so here is the list:

Poetry of the 19th to the 21st century
Victor Hugo, Les Contemplations, books I to IV
Charles Baudelaire, The Flowers of Evil
Guillaume Apollinaire, Alcools

The literature of ideas from the 16th to the 18th century
Montaigne, Essays, “Of Cannibals” and “Of Coaches,” in modern French translation
Jean de la Fontaine, Fables (books VII to XI)
Montesquieu, Persian Letters

The novel and the story from the Middle Ages to the 21st century
Madame de Lafayette, The Princess of Clèves
Stendhal, The Red and Black
Marguerite Yourcenar, Memoirs of Hadrian

The theater from the 17th to the 21st century
Jean Racine, Phèdre
Beaumarchais, The Marriage of Figaro
Samuel Beckett, Happy Days

Pretty good list, right?  If you are reading for fun, not for a test.  I have read two from each category.  Three works from the 17th century, two from the 18th, three from the 19th, three from the 20th – no idea why the headers say “21st” – and just one from the 16th, and that’s just two essays, 23 pages in Frame’s edition, big pages, admittedly.  There are suddenly a half-dozen school editions with just these two essays and another hundred pages or more of supplementary material.  Context, ideas, additional texts, relevant artwork.  “The important words,” writing exercises, analysis of grammar.  I am looking at the table of contents of this French edition.  Even for me, this is kinda painful.

Honestly, I like Montaigne plenty, but I hope my teacher picks Jean de la Fontaine.

Monday, October 7, 2019

Poetry, theater: French literature Petrarchizes - However well one may be educated / In Greek and Latin subtleties

More from the difficult French 16th century. I won’t get to Montaigne.

3.  French classical theater, this is just what I mean when I say that 16th century French literature is in some sense too hard.  French writers were absorbing and transforming a flood of new classical texts coming to France from Italy, plus what had already been a century or two of Italian responses to those discoveries.  With the plays of Seneca as the crucial example, a new kind of French theater came into being.

The English history is a little bit later, but parallel.  In England, though, the academic theater quickly turned into a chaotic popular theater, while in France it became more of a purely courtly form.  More intellectual, specialized, and boring.

Shakespeare, or Kyd, or whoever, read Seneca and thought “Ghosts and murders!”; French writers apparently thought “Sententiae!”  The two plays I have read (in English) are not dramatic.  They are both by Robert Garnier, the most important French playwright of the century, although by no means the earliest.  I wrote about Les Juifves (The Hebrew Women, 1583) a few years ago, and have also read Marc-Antoine (1578), a tragedy about Anthony and Cleopatra, in Mary Sidney’s 1592 version.  These are plays where characters barely interact.  Anthony declaims a monologue and leaves the stage; Cleopatra ditto and ditto; Anthony returns etc.  The two characters do get to talk to each other at the very end of the play.

Sidney’s poetry is exquisite, and I assume Garnier’s is comparable, but you can’t give this stuff to high school kids, even French ones.  They are punished enough with Corneille and Racine.  The 16th century French theater is for graduate students.  I guess English is not so different – who outside of graduate school reads Gorbuduc (1561)?  Still, Garnier is contemporary with Marlowe and The Spanish Tragedy – dramatic plays.

4.  French poets are working on the same project, pulling the Italian Renaissance into French.  The parallel with English poetry is close.  The equivalent of Sir Thomas Wyatt, the first poet to bring Petrarch into the language, is Clément Marot, who I have not read.  The most important is Pierre de Ronsard, who is lying when he writes that his suffering is so powerful that he does not know how to express it, either “Tant lamenter, ne tant Petrarquiser” (Des Amours, sonnet 129) – “as lamenting, nor as Petrarchizing.”  This man knew how to Petrarchize.  He was the greatest of Petrarchizers.

One result, just like in English, was ingenious but esoteric demonstrations of poetic learning like the Délie of Maurice Scève, which I read some portion of in Richard Sieburth’s translation.  The reader is assumed to know his Petrarch, his Horace, and his Horace-via-Petrarch inside out, while also interpreting riddle-like emblems and so on.  Advanced intellectual pleasure.

By contrast there are The Regrets (1558) of Joachim du Bellay, expat poetry.  Du Bellay worked in Rome and missed France.  He wrote a 191-poem sonnet sequence on that subject, mostly in some way about life in Rome, although he makes it home at the end.  The poems are full of personality, and are almost conversational, a good trick in a sonnet.  Ronsard is a genius, but is always performing, however beautifully.  Du Bellay – well, he is performing, too, but he tricks me into intimacy.

However well one may be educated
In Greek and Latin subtleties, I think
The effect of this place is to teach something
One didn’t know before one came this way.
Not that one finds here better libraries
Than any that the French have put together,
But that the atmosphere, perhaps the weather,
Spirit away our less ethereal faculties.
Some demon or other, with his sacred fire,
Purifies even the worst of us, tempers and refines
Till our judgment is too wary to be misled.
But if one stays here too long, all one’s strength of mind
Goes up in smoke, and leaves nothing behind,
Or so little that one loses the thread.  (Sonnet 72 in C. H. Sisson)

It’s complex, but not because it is learned.  We are lucky to have C. H. Sisson’s 1984 translation of (most of) Les Regrets.  An all-time great translation, partly accomplished by a subtle mastery of slant rhymes.

Someday I should read the entire sequence in French.  I should read an entire book by Ronsard, too, Les Amours (1552) or something.  Long ago, I scoured the versions of Ronsard in English; they range from functional (the Penguin Classics edition, clearly meant for French students) to hilariously bad (there is one from the 1960s in free verse with “erotic” drawings by the author).  So without French, du Bellay yes, Ronsard no.

The great feminist rediscovery of the period is Louise Labé.  French critics spent the 1990s debating whether she existed, or was really a persona of Scève.  That’s some feminism!  Anyway, the consensus, now, is that she existed.  I should read her, too.  When you go to see Rabelais’s hospital in Lyon, look for the plaque identifying Labé’s childhood home, which is just across a little restaurant-packed plaza.

Saturday, October 5, 2019

16th century French literature is too difficult - “In your throat, my Lord,” said I.

In the 16th century, the Renaissance arrives in French literature.  Everyone is absorbing and imitating the great new discoveries in Greek and Latin literature and two centuries of Italian responses to that literature.  Amazing books are written.  Modern French literature is invented.

I count five major literary events in the 16th century.  They have a minimal place in the French school curriculum.  Putting the pieces together, I understand why.  They are too hard.  Mostly too hard.  Advanced topics in French literature.

I will number them, and mention the “mostly” first.

1.  Marguerite de Navarre’s Heptameron (1558) is Boccaccio’s Decameron (1353) not merely imitated in French, but consciously made French in language, obviously, but also subject, characters, and attitudes.  It is not exactly what I would call modern fiction, but it is a big step closer than Boccaccio.  I can’t really tell apart Boccaccio’s frame characters, the ones who tell the stories, but they are distinct as characters in the Heptameron.

So here we have a woman author, a princess and queen of historical significance, and seventy stories on a range of subjects and social levels, written in a range of styles, easy to arrange into a variety of school editions.  If there is even one school edition on French Amazon – very useful for this sort of thing, French Amazon – I can’t find it.  I don't get it.

2.  François Rabelais, author of Pantagruel (1532), Gargantua (1534), and three more sequels (1546-64), books unique enough that the author’s name has turned into a useful adjective for the more earthy side of existence.  Man as an ambulatory and talkative digestive and excretory system.  The language is crazy, innovative, full of new words and jokes and nonsense.  Great stuff, especially the first two novels.

English translations are always of the whole 800-page monster, but the French often seem to think of “Rabelais” as five novels.  They are published separately, and there are a number of school editions – lycée level – of either one of the first two novels or of selections from the whole thing.  Or maybe selections from the first two books, I don’t know.

Rabelais’s language is hard enough that many ordinary editions of the novels are in “modern French” translations.  I assume that is what I have read.  Although Rabelais is an advanced topic, he is introduced early.  The school editions often come with excerpts of related works, and I read two that had bits of Rabelais.  How I loved those school editions.  A terrific collège-level collection of travel writing, Les récits de voyage, which included bits of Herodotus, Joinville, and Columbus, that sort of thing, included a few pages of Chapter 32 of Pantagruel, in which a traveler gets lost inside Pantagruel’s mouth – everyone knows that Gargantua and Pantagruel are giants, yes? – and describes the “twenty-five inhabited kingdoms, not counting the deserts and one great arm of the sea” that he finds there.  It sounds nice, except for the plague caused by the time Pantagruel “ate all that garlic sauce.”  The traveler finally returns to our world:

When [Pantagruel] noticed me, he asked me: “Where are you coming from, Alcofribas?”

“I answered him: “From your throat, sir.”

“And how long have you been there?” said he.

“Since you set out,” said I, “against the Almyrodes.”

“That,” said he, “is over six months ago.  And what did you live on?  What did you drink?”

I answered: “Lord, the same as you, and of the choicest morsels that passed down your throat I took my toll.”

“All right,” said he, “but where did you shit?”

“In your throat, my Lord,” said I.

“Ha ha! you’re a jolly good fellow,” said he.  (Donald Frame’s translation, p. 241)

I have not and I think cannot read much Rabelais in French, but that I read.

The hospital in Lyon where Rabelais was a physician has been beautifully restored and turned into a City of Gastronomy, whatever that is.  You can have lunch or relax in the courtyard on a long chair while admiring this medallion of Rabelais:

Then you can retrace his footsteps to the printers which printed his books.  Those buildings are also now occupied by restaurants, probably.

The remaining three topics in 16th century French literature are: the invention of French classical theater, the invention of modern French poetry, and the invention of modern man – Montaigne’s Essays, is what I mean by that last one.

Thursday, October 3, 2019

French literature from the beginning - let's get back to our sheep!

The foundation of French literature, as with English literature, lies in the 16th and 17th centuries.  French literature is perhaps even more narrow.  There is a twenty year period in the 17th century – well, I will return to that.

The origins of vernacular French literature go back to the 11th century, with some saint’s lives about which I know little and heroic epics like The Song of Roland and many other chansons de geste.  I say that as if I have the slightest idea what is in any of the chansons de geste besides Roland.  I do not.

The great, still entertaining, Arthurian poems of Chrétien de Troyes are from the late 12th century.

All of this is in Old French and, as I understand it,  is more or less unreadable for most French readers.  Looking at the text of La Chanson de Roland, I would say that Old French is nowhere as far from modern French as Old English is from modern English, but it is not nearly as close as Chaucer’s Middle English is to my English.  Somewhere in between.  Maybe like the Middle English of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.  I can read Chaucer, but I can’t read that.

French readers, and certainly French students, read these works in modern prose translations.  The prose versions of the medievalist Joseph Bédier, for example Le Roman de Tristan et Iseut (1900), have become classics in their own right.  I should read that someday.

I have no idea what French schools do with medieval not-quite-French literature, like the poems of courtly love cooked up by the Occitan troubadours, the poems that would migrate into Italy and eventually return to France in the 16th century.

I also have little idea when French literature becomes modern, becomes reasonably readable.  Differences of spelling aside, are writers of the early 15th century like Christine de Pisan and Froissart accessible?  They must be.  I am examining Villon’s Testament (1461), the or anyways a French text, in Galway Kinnell’s The Poems of François Villon (1965), a masterpiece of translation, and it looks readable, goosed by Kinnell’s version, certainly:

Icy se clost le testament
Et finist du pauvre Villon
Venez a son enterrement
Quant vous orrez le carillon
Vestus rouge com vermillon
Car en amours mourut martir
Ce jura il sur son couillon
Quant de ce monde voult partir.  (ll. 1996-2003, p. 152)

Heck, it’s spelled all screwy but it’s practically English.  This is Kinnell:

Here ends and finishes
The testament of poor Villon
Come to his burial
When you hear the bell ringing
Dressed in red vermillion
For he dies a martyr to love
This he swore on his testicle
As he made his way out of this world.

Yes, that’s Villon.  Half of what I am doing here is thinking about what I should read in French, what I can read.  I should read Villon’s Testament; with Kinnell’s help, I can.

Myself, I have read exactly one pre-17th century French book, The Farce of Monsieur Pathelin (1457), an anonymous popular play.  The title character is a con man and a lawyer.  I am currently reading Johannes Fried’s The Middle Ages (2009, tr. Peter Lewis), an intellectual history of the thousand-year period named in the title.  One long chapter is on “The Triumph of Jurisprudence,” about the 13th century innovation of law and lawyers that began in the papal and imperial courts and spread everywhere.  A couple of hundred years later, the lawyers have diffused among the peasantry and there are hit comedies making fun of them.

The play climaxes with a scene where the lawyer represents a shepherd in court.  Their strategy is to pretend that the shepherd has gone nuts and thinks he is a sheep, so that he responds to every question with bleating.  In good hands, this scene must be a scream.  The play is performed to this day, and this scene is the reason.  It contains one line that has become a commonplace: “Revenons à nos moutons [Let’s get back to our sheep],” which I am pretty sure I myself heard in an ordinary conversation, although with my comprehension, who knows.

All right, on to the 16th century.

Wednesday, October 2, 2019

Introductory methodology for a series about my French reading, which I sure hope will be more fun than what I wrote here

What I want to do is to stroll, wander, and hike through my French reading of the last couple of years, as it relates to my study of French and for its own sake.  French literature is a subject of high interest.

This is a bad idea for several reasons.  I remember the books poorly, I likely do not have them at hand for reference, and I read them in French, a language I do not understand well.

This is a good idea because it offers ample outstanding opportunities for people to correct my errors, which, I have observed, makes people happy.  It is a kind of public service.

I will likely refer, often, to the educational use of various texts, especially when they are taught, at what level in school, more than how, because I have little idea about the how.  Much of my evidence, which I guess does include quite a bit of how, comes from the superb school editions French publishers produce of a wide range of texts.  They are probably sources of dismay for French school kids, but I loved ‘em.

For quick reference, the collège is close to, in American terms, junior high and early high school, while the lycée is late high school, taught, at least in literature and the arts, at what in American terms is “university level.”  The lycée has a “literary” track that only a small number of students pursue; it is definitely at university level.

I am repeating some things I wrote a year ago (beginning here), when I looked back on my time in France and discussed how I learned and read French.  I am sure I will repeat a lot more as I write.  I will repeat that I have two reasons for tying what I am reading to the French school system: first, that the reading level of books is so clearly indicated – how helpful!, and second, that the literary and arts education is fundamentally historical, taught to at least some degree for its own sake, rather than instrumental, taught as a means to teach more important things like writing and spelling and comportment, as we do in the U.S.

The humanities are inherently historical.  Every subject becomes a humanity once it is historicized.  And anyways I always think of literature historically, so I am going to move through my French reading while moving through French literary history.  It is a way to look at what I have read, but also what I might read someday.  It is a fun way to play with books.

I guess I have gone on so long about my methodology, a more German than French way to start, that I will save the French Middle Ages until tomorrow.  Setting aside all of this throat-clearing, things should move quickly.

Monday, September 16, 2019

French literature in "selfish dictionary" form

I present another beautiful literary artifact I brought back from France, a non-mint condition second-hand paperback of Charles Dantzig’s Dictionnaire égoïste de la littérature française (2005), his Selfish Dictionary of French Literature:

Or perhaps not Selfish but Egotistical.  Definitely not Personal, which is to warm and inviting for these 1,132 pages of jokes, aphorism, jabs, and criticism, although it all is truly personal in the sense that they are just his opinions.  The book is a paper brick of opinions.

Dantzig is a pure French literary professional, a poet, translator, critic, essayist, radio producer, and editor at the publisher that publishes his books.  He is right in the middle of things.  I have seen him described as iconoclastic, but I have doubts, and do not care.  I am interested in this book exactly because it comes out of the heart of the French literary world.  I know how American critics and American magazines jabber about books – the rise and fall of writers and issues and fashions – and I want to learn something about how things looked in France, from someone with a point of view.

Dantzig is wrapping up a seven-page entry on Jean-Paul Sartre:

During the 1970s, he was a god to adore, and I suffered a lot from him in high school.  Sartre here, Sartre there, interpreting “existence precedes essence.”  Sartre bis, Sartre ter, Sartre again, you make me do three rounds of Sartre, Sartre, Sartre!  Hell, it was Sartre.  He remained sacred for a long time: in 1991, I published an essay that contained a joke about him, not two, not three, one, very accessory to the rest and accompanied by another on the ignorant people who hated him, two lines out of two hundred pages, and the critic in Le Monde reproached me for them.

That one is more on the personal side.  Dantzig does not have such personal feelings about Maupassant or Molière.  He has insights, though.  In the entry on “Adjectives, Adverbs,” which he defends against so-called good-writing rules, he argues that “French, is one can take a shortcut, is a language of verbs” (11), an idea he explores throughout the book, for example in the entry on “Verbs”: “In effect, rather than a qualifier it is better to choose a verb that includes it” (1079).  I may return to this idea as I write about French literature.  Within my linguistic limits, I have become convinced Dantzig is right.  I have no idea whether this is an original idea or a commonplace.

Much of the Dictionary, of which I have read fifteen, maybe even twenty, percent, remains incomprehensible to me – awfully “inside,” awfully French – but that is much of what makes it so interesting.

The bulk of the entries in the Dictionary are for writers, and the essays are substantial, often six or seven pages.  But there are entries for books and techniques and concepts: Ideas; Idiosyncrasies; Ignorance; Images; Imagination; Impostors, just to pick some cognates from the letter I.  It is a little bit – it is more than a little bit – like Dantzig has taken his book blog and put it in a no-less-arbitrary alphabetical order.  Not to give anyone ideas.  You yourself have written 1,100 pages, haven’t you?  Or far more.  Oh yes, I would eagerly buy the book of your alphabetized blog, as soon as I found a used or perhaps remaindered copy.

Many non-French writers are pulled into the book in various ways, but it is still French literature bis, ter, and again.  But look, just now, for the rentrée littéraire, Dantzig has published a 1,248-page Selfish Dictionary of World Literature.  Follow him on Twitter to see which prizes the book has already won.

Thursday, September 12, 2019

More brand new French novels, first chapters only - metaphors, slaughtered hogs, and a new New Novel

More from the fascinating Best Extracts before the Fact, Jack!, the little collection of the beginning of forthcoming French novels.  No, in July, when I bought the book, they were forthcoming; since then they have forthcome.

There is plenty of plain-style prose in today’s French novel, just like in American and English fiction.  I mentioned the most extreme example yesterday, but most of the extracts are flat, unadorned, and not too difficult.  It was a relief to read a chapter by a writer who wrote complex sentences.  It was a relief to read figurative language.  I was a little shocked to read excerpt after excerpt with no figurative language at all, aside from that inherent in French, I mean.  Nothing is ever like anything else.  Everything is merely what it is.

Figurative language is fundamental to my idea of literary writing.  It is the way to hack through the gluey tangle of language.  If language is inadequate to say what something is, a writer can say what it is like, which is often more precise, not less.

Many of the novels are about somber, difficult subjects.  Yann Moix’s Orléans is about child abuse; Jean-Paul Dubois’s Not Everyone Lives in the World in the Same Way and Nathacha Appanah’s The Sky above the Roof (Le Ciel par-dessus le toit, there must be a zippier translation) have characters in prison; Sorj Chalandon’s A Ferocious Joy has a bookstore owner with cancer – an understated style likely suits these subjects more than baroque play with language, fine.  But metaphors should be part of how a novelist thinks.

A Badminton Game by Olivier Adam is about a novelist whose last novel did not get reviewed or sell well.  For this, there is no excuse.  Why are people still writing these?  The introduction says that “the defense of a refugee agency” is also part of the novel, and that Adam “sculpts a work mixing realism, politics, and sociology” (35).  So dump the novelist character.

I have no doubt that this novel, at some point after the self-pitying first chapter, is terrific.  That all of these novels, after the first chapter, are outstanding.

Cécile Coulon writes good French prose and uses metaphorical language in A Beast in Paradise.  “When she moved among the farmhands, her complexion pink and fresh, smiling at one and all like a Madonna distributing her blessings, the overseer had a bad feeling” (81).  The woman here, is the farm’s teenage heiress; she and her boyfriend have just had sex for the first time, scheduling the event during the farm’s hog slaughtering, when they knew everyone else would be occupied.  Some kind of irony there.  The name of the farm is Paradise, which is also irony, the kind known as “laying it on thick.”  There have always been Starkadders in Paradise.  The author is twenty-nine years-old and this is her seventh novel.  Her first was published when she was seventeen.  This book has already won a big prize from Le Monde, despite, or because of, the ridiculousness of its first chapter.

The first chapter that most tempted me to read the rest of the novel was Guillaume Lavenant’s The Nanny Protocol, where the text is a set of branching instructions for a job applicant.  As the absurd detail grows, so does the comedy.  Whether the instructions are written by a neurotic employer or an anxious applicant, I have no idea.

She will invite you to sit down.  Do it.  She will explain to you that her husband etc…  And then she will pass a hand through her hair, look at the wall clock, rub her nails against her palm, sniff, raise her eyebrows, etc…  You will drink something?  Yes, a Schweppes, for example. (86)

Italics and etceteras all mine, the point being that it goes on and on at this level of detail.  If you have thought, that New Novel thing the French did, Alain Robbe-Grillet and so on, that all died off in the 1970s, right?  Oh no, here is a brand new example, a new New Novel.

The great thing for the French language-learner is that The Nanny Protocol, or at least this bit, is a literary text where almost every verb is in the imperative, conditional, or future tense.  So useful to see these textbook creatures in the wild, so to speak.  So educational.  My fear is that the plot of the novel, if it has one, turns into some kind of dumb thriller.  Robbe-Grillet’s novels turned into thrillers, too.

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

It's flat - Returning to literature with some brand new French books!

I’m beginning my promenade through my last two years of reading in French.  There are many bad ideas built into this project.  I am going to ramble through books I read as long as two years ago, with who knows what memory or comprehension – surely with many outright errors in comprehension.  That is what I want to find out, I guess.  All translations, unless otherwise noted, will be mine.  This will be another fascinating source of error.

Let’s start with this beauty, the July 2019 issue of Lire:, which I would translate as Read!, stretching out that semi-colon, and more importantly the little book that was packaged with it, The Return to Literature 2019: The Best Extracts Before the Fact!  In September, everyone in France is returning from vacation to – everything – to school and literature and arts seasons and neighborhood clubs.  For some reason it seems like a good idea to publish a large fraction of the year’s novels at the same time.  This year there are 524 novels, “the fewest in twenty years” Michael Orthofer notes, in the rentrée littéraire.  That still seems like a lot to me, all at once.

For a couples of months, the attention paid to the rentrée littéraire is enormous, even more than the high French baseline.

So, fifteen first chapters of books that back in July had not even been published.  Now they are all out and have presumably all been longlisted for some prize or another.  What an opportunity to quickly “catch up” on the French novel of today!

The first book is from Baroness Amélie Nothomb, who has contributed a book a year to the rentrée littéraire since The Hygiene of the Assassin in 1992, among the very silliest books I have ever read.  Her new book is Soif (Thirst) and it is, of all things, a comic novel from the point of view of Jesus Christ.  People are still writing these things?  “Who else, in the rentrée littéraire, would have the ambition to write a fifth gospel?” asks the anonymous introducer (each extract has a helpful introduction).

Here is some of the humor.  The recipients of Christ’s miracles are testifying against him, “airing their dirty laundry.”  The couple who got married at Cana are now upset that Christ turned water into wine.

Because of him, we served the better wine after the worse.  We have become the laughing-stock of the town. (6)

Not a funny joke, surely not even original, but quite French.  The most interesting thing to me is the voice of the novel is so audibly that of the only other Nothomb I have read, that debut from twenty-seven years ago.

Here’s the worst extract: Marie Darrieussecq’s La Mer a l’envers (The Upside-Down Sea or maybe The Backwards Sea).  A French woman with a case of ennui is on an Italian cruise; the ship rescues some African migrants in distress; the woman’s life becomes entangled with one of the migrants which presumably gives her new meaning etc. etc. there is no way this can be good, is there?  I mean, if you want to write about current issues in immigration, you could write about the migrants themselves, yes?

How is the prose?  This is the beginning:

It was her mother who convinced her to take the cruise.  A way of getting some distance.  To reflect on her marriage, her job, on her upcoming move.  To be alone without the kids.  A change of air.  A change of water.  The Mediterranean.  For a girl from the Atlantic.  It’s flat.  A little sea. (28)

An entire novel written like this would drive me bonkers.  I checked an earlier Darrieussecq novel; this is her signature style.  Not every line.  Not every page. But many lines, many pages.  “It’s flat.”  Is it ever.  Odds are that an English-language translator would toss in some commas and hide some of the fragmentation, maybe a lot of it.

More extracts tomorrow.  I will not write about all fifteen books, but just those that, like these, have some unusual, or possibly all-too-common, feature.

Thursday, September 5, 2019

The ethics of the anti-smooth translation - to do right abroad, this translation practice must do wrong at home

The multiple translations of Andrey Platonov’s The Foundation Pit and Nabarun Bhattacharya’s Hārabārta fall along a continuum of the domesticated and foreignized translation.  What makes both of these cases so interesting is that the same translator has created translations at different points on the continuum, which cannot be too common.

Joe at roughghosts, who pointed me to the Bhattacharya novel, notes that the practice or something like it in fact is common in translation from Afrikaans.  Here we see Leon de Kock, the translator of Marlene van Niekerk’s Triomf (1994), describe what happened to them:

We’d been counting on a South African publisher only, so we were making a mixed language polyglot translation, and suddenly Marlene’s agent in London came up with a contract with Little, Brown, a major trans-national publisher. She phoned me up and said, “We have a big problem here. We can’t go on with this mixed, bastardized publication. We have to render it in straight English.”

The translator actually moved in with the author.  Together they squashed the “Afrikaans-isms” and “South African-isms.”  The result was two translations, one for the South African market and one for everyone else.  De Kock thinks that maybe today this would not be so necessary.  “[P]eople have begun to realize that it’s OK that not everything be in proper English anymore.”

He might be right.  The newer versions of The Foundation Pit and Hārabārta suggest he is.  Even with a more domesticated Harbart from New Directions and a wilder Herbert from Seagull, both are more linguistically out-there than previous translations.

I thought I would remind myself about what I meant by “domesticated” and “foreignized,” so I took a look at Lawrence Venuti’s The Translator’s Invisibility: A History of Translation (2nd ed., 2008).  I was surprised to see that the distinction was so old, going back at least to Friedrich Schleiermacher:

In an 1813 lecture on the different “methods” of translation, Schleiermacher argued that “there are only two.  Either the translator leaves the author in peace as much as possible and moves the reader towards him; or he leaves the reader in peace, as much as possible, and moves the author towards him” (Lefevere 1977:74)*.  (p. 15 of Venuti)

The translator chooses, Venuti paraphrases, between domestication, “an ethnocentric reduction of the foreign text to receiving cultural values, bringing the author back home,” and foreignizing, “register[ing] the linguistic and cultural differences of the foreign text, sending the reader abroad” (p. 15).

Schleiermacher and Venuti make an ethical case for the foreignized translation.  You should want more messiness and obscure references and endnotes explaining it all.  The last thing you should praise is the “smoothness” of the translation.  “Fluency” is the word Venuti finds in professional review.  We have been lectured that we should say something about the translation, so professionals say it is “fluent” and amateurs say it is “smooth.”  The hell with that, argues Venuti: “to do right abroad, this translation practice must do wrong at home, deviating enough from native norms to stage an alien reading experience” (16)

I don’t know.  On the one hand, yeah!  That’s what I like.  That’s what Joe argues for: “If you read literature from foreign cultures, don’t you want your equilibrium challenged a little along the way?”  But he is not quite willing to make an ethical argument, and – this is the other hand –  I am not either.  It is more an argument about taste.  It is too much like telling people what to read.  If you want smooth, read smooth; there is plenty of that.   But it is great to see translators and publishers who recognize that there is also an audience for foreignness.

* André Lefevere’s Translating Literature: The German Tradition from Luther to Rosenweig (1977) is Venuti’s source for the quotation.

Wednesday, September 4, 2019

Nabarun Bhattacharya’s Harbart - Bengali innovation becomes a translation theory case study

A review-like bit first.  The book at hand is Nabarun Bhattacharya’s short, crazy 1994 (or 1993?) Bengali novel Hārabārta in the New Directions edition, translated by Sunandini Banerjee.  Harbart is what they’re titling it.  Harbart is the hero.  He kills himself five pages into the time-scrambled first chapter.  The rest of the book is more conventionally structured: childhood, adolescence, a surprising career as a “Conversations with the Dead” mystic.  Suicide, eventually.  There are real ghosts, although his medium business is a con; there’s a blue fairy, like in Pinocchio; there are some other unusual things.

Harbart has some resemblance in tone and attitude to the novelinos of César Aira which I enjoy so much, so the book is a good fit at New Directions.  Aira would love the ending.

Bhattacharya’s conceptual purpose has nothing in common with Aira’s.  Bhattacharya was political, a left radical.  He was blowing up Bengali literature.  I get the idea that one of his innovations, one reason Hārabārta became a cult novel, is that it is full of swears.  He introduced the street’s everyday crudity and idiom” – full of swears, I think that means.  That 2013 Shamik Bag article goes through the politics in much more detail than the novel itself.

The exciting thing in the novel is the language.  The Banerjee translation is the third English version – confusingly, also the fourth, but let’s save that idea.  I know nothing of the first version, but looked at the second (2011), by Arunava Sinha, on Indian Amazon.  Here he is, on the first page:

The mad old woman in rags was sitting there, her legs, splayed, splashing water.  Dogs with rotted flea-ridden skins were trembling in their sleep at the sound of screeching owls.  (Sinha)

Vivid, yes?  And here is Sunandini Banerjee, the new version:

A mumble-mad woman sitting there in rags, legs wide open, splashing the water.  Every now and then an owl letting out a screech and the skin-rotten dogs whimpering in their dreams. (Banerjee, 3)

The first page of the Banerjee also has “frothy-foaming light-dust,” “piss-cross games,” and “a Star-TV-signal-sucking satellite dish,” more compound neologisms.  The inventive compound words are a feature of the entire novel, a central device.  Great fun.  The novel is also full of languages – Hindi and English especially – which are translated or absorbed in the older translation but highlighted in Banerjee’s, the Hindi annotated and the English italicized.  This a noisy novel.

Looking back to that 2013 article, Sinha says that he “wants to retranslate Herbert (Sinha translated it as Harbart) in more creative ways.”  Banerjee has done it.

Harbart is now an outstanding case study in the domesticated (Sinha) versus foreignized (Banerjee) translation.  Better than I have suggested, even, because next week in England and elsewhere, yet another translation of Hārabārta will be published – also by Sunandini Banerjee!  Two translations appearing at roughly the same time by the same translator.  This cannot be common.  As Joe at roughghosts describes the books, the non-American version is even more foreignized, with more compound words and with Bengali in the translated text.  No reviewer of the American translation besides Joe has any idea that there are two versions.  I hope, once the texts are all available, that someone – ideally someone with Bengali – will knock the translations together and see what happens.

So interesting.  I want to pursue this idea tomorrow.

Tuesday, September 3, 2019

Notes on The Foundation Pit's strangeness - thoughtfulness among the general tempo of labor

France, this summer, was pleasant, but I did not want to write about it.  I do want to write about some French books, lots of them really, so I am going to organize my French reading from the last couple of years and see if I can make anything of it.

But I will freely interrupt that project.  I will begin by interrupting it, first with a couple of books with bold translations.  Books with multiple translations, weird and less weird.

Andrey Platonov’s The Foundation Pit (written 1929-30) is a nightmare in prose about recent and ongoing events in the Soviet Union, famines and forced collectivization and the liquidation of the kulaks and so on.  The events of the novel are in a sense satirical or allegorical or satirical – I mean, one of the characters is a bear, who is also a blacksmith and is always hammering, when he is not liquidating kulaks.  That seems like it might be symbolic in some way.  But I am not sure that allegory or symbolism is the way to go.

Actual life, everything around Platonov, a civil engineer who had abandoned (public) literature, had become the equivalent of a nightmare.  What literary language is capable of representing the nightmare?  I think that is the problem Platonov was working on.

It is the problem the translators are working on.  I read the most recent translation by Robert and Elizabeth Chandler and Olga Meerson.  Robert Chandler had co-translated a previous version, too, but was dissatisfied.  It was not wrong enough.  He and his colleagues wanted this version to be as messed up as the original.  This is how I understand the problem.

I will stick to the first few pages.  Voshchev, the first character Platonov introduces, not a protagonist , exactly, is “removed from production” at the factory for “thoughtfulness amid the general tempo of labor” (1).  He wanders by “a large house where children with no family were being habituated to labor and use” (1) – an orphanage, I would call this, but not Platonov.   In the bar, he “listen[s] to various sad sounds, and feel[s] the torment of a heart surrounded by hard and stony bones” (2).  He and a creepy dude are watching a parade of Pioneer girls, and “he was glad that socialist children would always be beyond the reach of this freak of imperialism” (7).

There is something like this every few sentences, something odd, a slogan or awkwardness or peculiarity that in a more ordinary text would need to be fixed.

The Soviet regime has transformed, mutilated, and corrupted everything, including language, metaphor, and thought.  Even more than contemporary Soviet novels like We (1924) and Envy (1927), The Foundation Pit looks like a radical attempt to represent the destruction.  Or so these translators make it appear.  Maybe they are wrong.  How would I know.  I am convinced.  The apparatus in the NYRB edition, the notes and afterword and so on, are half as long as the novel and are superb.

The novel’s structure and characters are similarly broken.  But it is the language, and its problems for the translators, that really caught my attention.

The odd thing is that at my distance, in time, language, space, and trouble, the entire book becomes an exercise in “make it strange.”  Mere aesthetics.  But I know that is not the source of the strangeness, and my understanding is that for many post-Soviet authors Platonov looked like a way out, an escape from the Soviet novel.  His publication is complex, but for Russians he was effectively an author of the 1990s, his books appearing at just the right time.

Friday, May 31, 2019

A bit of Kristin Lavransdatter - What if she screamed now so that her voice pierced through the song and the deep, droning male voices

Since I am going to Norway for a little vacation and am reading around in the 1920s, I read the first volume of Sigrid Undset’s beloved Kristin Lavransdatter, The Wreath (1920), the story of a young woman who is a Strong Female Character even for 14th century Norway, when the women generally seem pretty strong.

I read the 2005 Tiina Nunnally translation which is obviously superior to the old one, the beloved one.  Undset wrote in a plain style with lyrical interludes, much like so many novels written today, and was sexually frank in a way that is surprisingly not so far from another novel from 1920, Women in Love, and Lawrence had to publish that by private subscription to avoid the obscenity laws that squashed The Rainbow.  The older translation is full of pseudo-medieval “aughts” and “naughts” and “thees” and “thous”; Nunnally cleans out all of that and restores substantial passages that were too sexy for the Americans and English in the 1920s, so this is “the first unabridged English translation,” Nunnally says in her translator’s note.

But it is the older translation that was beloved by a large number of readers.  It is obviously inferior, but maybe I should have read the novel that people really read, the text of the phenomenon.  Do I want the phenomenon or the novel itself?  I guess the novel itself, and I guess the new one is closer.

In the novel itself, remembering that we are in a plausible and well-researched 14th century Norway, Kristin is first a child, then a teen who is promised to one man but falls in love with a bad boy, and finally through cussedness and suffering marries the one she wants.  Those are the three parts of the book.  The ethos is what I would call feminist, a challenge from the 14th century to the 20th, and very feminine.  Kristin makes butter, Kristin cooks, Kristin goes shoe shopping.  I can see why some readers love this book, and why others are bored to tears.

Characters in The Wreath, male and female, regularly burst into tears.  “Then Kristin burst into tears” (III.6).  Kristin Lavransdatter seems to be an exercise in mentalité, an attempt to novelize not just the clothes and customs of an earlier time, but also the psychology, the ways of thinking.  The characters are meant to be a little bit alien.  They are like us, but also definitely not.

But as Dion sang so long ago, "Well, if you want to make me cry, that won't be so hard to do," and The Wreath is about a "Teenager in Love." They are not like us, but then again are.

The long wedding scene that fills roughly the last sixth of the novel is formally the most interestingly scene.  Undset parallels a carefully reconstructed wedding of the time – clothes, language, ritual – with the increasingly chaotic thoughts of the heroine.  It is a bit Expressionist.  “Kristin thought: What if she screamed now so that her voice pierced through the song and the deep, droning male voices and reverberated out over the crowd?” (III.8).  Many motifs of the novel, not necessarily so interesting by themselves, are pulled together in the wedding, at both the “material” and “psychological” levels.

I know, it is not a great recommendation – “the last thirty pages are really good!”  Well, that is one way novels work.

My favorite novelistic detail, easily: “The titmice clung to the timbered walls and hopped around on the sunny side; the pecking of their beaks resounded as they looked for flies asleep in the gaps between the wood” (III.4).  An observation, I suspect, from the 20th century, or the 19th, from Undset’s childhood, another way to link the past and present.

Monday, May 20, 2019

texts chosen at random - Fench novels, Virginia Woolf, and a lot more - Auerbach says "write your own book!"

Wrapping up Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis.  He ends with three chapters on the modern novel, mostly French, but covering a lot of territory.

19. “Germinie Lacerteux,” Goncourt brothers, Flaubert, Zola.

This chapter is by itself a history of the 19th century French novel, repeating some of the ideas of the previous Stendhal / Balzac / Flaubert chapter.   It is too bad that Auerbach begins with the novel that is not read much, but it is too useful for his purposes, since it is about a servant, a maid, which links back to the passage from the Odyssey in Chapter 1.  And the background of Germinie Lacerteux (1865) is useful, hilarious – the longtime servant of the brothers dies and they discover that she had her own life, that she was human, thus inspiring the novel.  How do you represent such a person?  Can a novel be built from “the sensory fascination of the ugly, the repulsive, and the morbid” (499)?  I know, now this sounds ridiculous.  It might have sounded slightly ridiculous at the time to a reader who – but now I am repeating my doubts about Zola’s “ideas.”

Auerbach has great fun with Zola.  “Even today, after half a century the last decades of which have brought us experiences such as Zola never dreamed of, Germinal is still a terrifying book” (512).  So-called Naturalism died off because “there was no one left to vie with him in working capacity, in mastery of the life of the time, in determination and courage” (515).

This chapter is so expansive that it includes significant sections on 19th century German and Russian literature, plus Ibsen.

20. “The Brown Stocking,” Woolf and Proust.

The passage with which Auerbach begins is the longest in Mimesis, three and a half pages of To the Lighthouse (1927) in which Mrs. Ramsay knits a sock and thinks, or maybe just exists.  Auerbach then summarizes the passage, which takes him six pages, or perhaps eight.  Woolf’s text is so compressed that merely describing it expands it.

That is pretty much all Auerbach does with Woolf’s text.  He just looks at it.  Looking at it carefully is a lot of work and source of insight.

When I noted a few posts ago that Mimesis was half French, I was understating, since I was counting this chapter as English, when it is actually half French.  Auerbach moves to Woolf to some passages from Proust, and then wanders freely – Joyce, Hamsun, Mann, Gide.  He writes that he “could never have written anything in the nature of a history of European realism; the material would have swamped me” (548).  Well, the book he did write is quite the substitute.


Auerbach describes his method.  Take some texts – passage, really – from each period and use them as “test cases for my ideas.”  Which texts?  “[T]he great majority of the texts were chosen at random, on the basis of accidental acquaintance and personal preference rather than in view of a definite purpose” (556), which is random in a sense but maybe not in some other senses.  He wishes he had been able to cover more “English, Spanish, and German texts” (557).  He wrote Mimesis in Istanbul, in exile, away from a research library.

As useful as always, the commenters at Languagehat pointed me to Edward Said’s introduction to the 2014 edition of Mimesis.  Said argues that some features of the book are personal responses to the war.  France is a conquered country; Germany is the conqueror.  Auerbach is righting the balance.  Maybe so.

In the end, the reader is left to fill in the gaps, pick his own passages from various languages, and write his own book, possibly in some other form.

Which book should we all read together next?  European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages or what?  What will possibly be as good as Mimesis?

Sunday, May 19, 2019

Auerbach on Voltaire, Goethe, Balzac - we've reached the modern novel - They will then seem most real.

I console myself with thinking that this is a real story and that, after all, real stories are probably told best in the way a person telling a story would tell them.  They will then seem most real.  (The Good Soldier, 1915, Ford Madox Ford, Part 4.1)

16. “The Interrupted Supper,” Abbé Prévost, Voltaire, the Duc de Saint-Simon.

The French 18th century, with all that drags in.  “In the literature of the eighteenth century tears begin to assume an importance which they had not previously possessed as an independent motif” (397).  Thank goodness for the “light, agile, and as it were appetizing” Voltaire.  It is Rousseau who poisoned everything.

… [Voltaire] is free from the cloudy, contour-blurring, overemotional rhetoric, equally destructive of clear thinking and pure feeling, which came to the fore in the authors of the Enlightenment during the second half of the century and in the authors of the Revolution, which had a still more luxuriant growth in the nineteenth century through the influence of romanticism, and which has continued to produce its loathsome flowers down to our day.  (407)

For Auerbach, romanticism is long regression, a slide away from reality.

The section on the Memoirs of the Duc de Saint-Simon introduces, a new theme, historicism, which moves us to:

17. “Miller the Musician,” Schiller and Goethe.

More German literature more generally, really.  This is a complex, subtle chapter that will, for readers of Wuthering Expectations, contain few surprises.  German imaginative literature, in the 19th century, was off in its own world, wrestling with the Ideal while other literary traditions made big moves toward the Real, ironically influenced in many cases by 18th century German historicism (Auerbach calls it “Historism”), meaning that a good novel, for example, is not just set in a specific time and place but is in some important way engages with the setting.  Comments on it, critiques it, whatever.  We take this almost for granted now.  Every Trollope novel I have read does this.  Adalbert Stifter novellas do not.  Roughly speaking.

Auerbach blames Goethe, obviously, such a giant that he is responsible for everything that happens in German literature for a hundred years, but more specifically his response to the French Revolution, “his aversion to everything violent and explosive” (447).  Goethe responds directly to the Revolution, but he does so by shifting towards Classicism, towards some kind of Idealism.  I guess I never wrote about this before, but Nicholas Boyle writes about it in detail in Goethe: The Poet and the Age Volume II: Revolution and Renunciation, 1790-1803 (2000).

This is an unusual chapter of Mimesis.

18. “In the Hôtel de la Mole,” Stendhal, Balzac, Flaubert.

Many readers should probably skip from Chapter 1 to here, since Auerbach writes about modern novels for the last three chapters.  I know, many of you only care about novels.  That is fine.  You are a creature of the age.  You cannot help it.

Here is Auerbach saying what I just said up above:

[Balzac] not only, like Stendhal, places the human beings whose destiny he is seriously relating, in their precisely defined historical and social setting, but also conceives this connection as a necessary one: to him every milieu becomes a moral and physical atmosphere which impregnates the landscape, the dwelling, furniture, implements, clothing, physique, character, surroundings, ideas, activities, and fates of men, and at the same time the general historical situation reappears as a total atmosphere which envelops all its several milieu. (473)

Auerbach has – obviously! – chosen a chunk of the opening of Père Goriot, the long description of the boarding house, as his representative Balzac passage, a landmark in prose fiction.  I have expressed, all over Wuthering Expectations, a lot of skepticism about the value and even the existence of Realism or even so-called “realism,” so it might seem that I do not have much sympathy with Auerbach’s project.  Yet I spend a lot of time quoting writers describing furniture.  But Auerbach is really writing about, as in his subtitle, the “representation of reality.”  It is the representation that is changing so much over the centuries.  It is the representation that matters.

These last chapters could have been their own little book, and one that more people would have read.

Saturday, May 18, 2019

Erich Auerbach on Rabelais, Montaigne, Shakespeare, Cervantes, Molière, etc. - the lyrico-everyday polyphony

Erich Auerbach has gotten to (early) modern literature.  Things should roar along now.

11. “The World in Pantagruel’s Mouth,” Rabelais, obviously.

Pantagruel is a giant, so big that there are people and cities and so on in his mouth. Maybe you are living in Pantagruel’s mouth right now!  We are in a sense a long ways from a “representation of reality,” but of course the great fun of the conceit is the realistic portrayal of human civilization in a fantastic context.  As far as Auerbach’s running themes, we get the increased role of ordinary people in literature, the mixing of styles, and one of the greatest examples of what I call baroque prose, but Auerbach calls “his lyrico-everyday polyphony” (282), a phrase I would adopt if I thought anyone would understand it.

Auerbach wonders if Rabelais really belongs in Mimesis (282 again), except that he is so much fun.  Who would want to omit him?

12.  “L’Humaine Condition,” Montaigne.

Maybe Auerbach should have omitted this one (and published it separately – it is a wonderful essay).  Montaigne offers an extreme case for Auerbach, a “random life” presented in great detail.  For  a page number, see 298, 299, and many others – the word “random” recurs frequently.

13.  “The Weary Prince,” Shakespeare, specifically Henry IV, Pt. 2, but ranging widely, and then Goethe.

In the last few chapters, Auerbach has been concerned that the mixing of styles and levels, Classical and Christian, low and high, is good for comedy and personal essays, but destroys tragedy.   In this chapter, he works in the other direction.

“I open a volume of Shakespeare at random and come across [a bit of Macbeth]” (325) – this is, really, Auerbach’s method.  Start with a passage - any passage - and move outwards.

Auerbach is open about Shakespeare’s “often unrealistic style” (327).  Shakespeare is another example of a baroque style, really, a writer almost too concerned, for Auerbach’s purposes, with linguistic play.  But Shakespeare does everything, so here he is.  How tired we all are of Shakespeare doing everything.

Speaking of which.

14.  “The Enchanted Dulcinea,” Don Quixote, starting with one of the endless great bits of Part 2.

It is possible that I have read so much about Don Quixote that Auerbach’s chapter just looks like one more terrific essay about Don Quixote.  I hope I never tire of reading about Don Quixote.

15.  “The Faux Devot,” Jean de La Bruyère, Molière, Corneille, Racine.

Or the unmixed style, the return to Classicism, especially Racine’s attempt to find a pure form of the tragic style in French, so pure that it strips away much of what Auerbach finds valuable – detail, sociology, anything but the most intense psychology.  “[I]t is comparable with the isolating procedure used in modern scientific experiments to create the most favorable conditions; the phenomenon is observed with no disturbing factors and in unbroken continuity” (383).

Even Molière is surprisingly narrow.  It has struck me as I have read through him in French – his easier prose plays, still, but there are a number of those – how limited his range and rhetoric are compared to Shakespeare.  I would not subject many writers to a comparison with Shakespeare, but Molière can handle it.  The thing he does is perfect of its kind.

I just blasted through Rabelais, Montaigne, Shakespeare, Cervantes, and Molière.  Ridiculous.  Next: the novel.  Exciting!

Friday, May 17, 2019

More is packed into this passage than in any of the others we have so far discussed in this book - Dante's miracle and its consequences

An “earnest and likeable” student has asked Professor Joseph Epstein for a post-graduation reading list.  He fears his Northwestern University education was inadequate.

An obvious answer would have been to tell him to read the Bible straight through – something I myself have never done – and then proceed to read the Iliad and the Odyssey back to back.  Yet this advice, I felt, would only have depressed him; and contemplating it briefly, sound though it was as advice, I had to admit that it depressed me a little too.  (“p. 34, “Joseph Epstein’s Lifetime Reading Plan,” in Once More Around the Block, 1987)

Epstein’s actual advice can be found in this oldie.  Still, the Bible, the Odyssey – I mean, they are going to come up again.  For example, in Mimesis:

8. “Farinata and Cavalcante,” Dante

Auerbach is a real Dante specialist, so he does not need to wander too far from the exemplary passage he chooses.  It does everything.  “More is packed into this passage than in any of the others we have so far discussed in this book…” (178).

Some praise: “But if we start from his predecessors, Dante’s language is a well-nigh incomprehensible miracle” (182).  The divergent Classical and Christian tracks suddenly converge in Hell, in Dante’s rhetoric and language as much as in his big, wild theological system.  The mixing of styles is going to be a running theme for the rest of Mimesis.  In Dante, “nowhere does mingling of styles come so close to violation of all style” (185).

I am pulling out phrases that have some punch, but they are almost always supported by a paragraph or more of evidence.  As evidence of the Dantean linguistic miracle, Auerbach spends a page working on the Dante’s use of the word da, a preposition.

If it is funny that a book on the “representation of reality” hinges on a poet wandering around Hell with a ghost, first, Auerbach finds it funny too, and second, reality has many sides.  “More accurately than antique literature was ever able to present it, we are given to see, in the realm of timeless being, the history of man’s inner life and unfolding” (202).

9. “Frate Alberto”, Boccaccio and some earlier tales for the purpose of contrast

The idea here is that there is a medieval genre of short, funny, pathetic, improving, or obscene tales.  Why are the ones in Decameron any better?  The mixing of styles, especially rhetorical levels, allowing a greater emphasis on sensory detail and characters who are ordinary people.  “Boccaccio’s characters live on earth and only on earth” (224).  But it is his rhetorical skill that allows them to live at all.

It sometimes seems like Auerbach’s is steering the book towards the modern novel, towards Proust.

10.  “Madame du Chastel,” Antoine de la Sale and a bit of Fifteen Joys of Marriage

Narrative passages that are “literary representations of a night conversation between a married couple” (250), one of which is about a wife wanting a new dress. The texts are from the 15th century, but they still feel medieval.  French has not caught up with Boccaccio’s Italian.  But the next chapter is about Rabelais.  Oh yeah!

Thursday, May 16, 2019

Auerbach in the Middle Ages - It is a reawakening of the directly sensible

We’re enjoying Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis, a chapter at a time, but more briefly than yesterday.

3. “The Arrest of Peter Valvomeres,” Ammianus Marcellinus, The Golden Ass, Augustine’s Confessions

Late Classical Latin, with three genres, history, a novel, and something truly new, Augustine’s memoir.  “Equally at home in the world of classical rhetoric and in that of the Judeo-Christian tradition, he may well have been the first to become conscious of the problem of the stylistic contrast between the two worlds” (72-3), between classical and Christian prose.  That is the kind of thing that is likely to be wrong, but it sounds right to me.

With Ammianus, who I have not otherwise read, Auerbach introduces the idea of Baroque prose.  “With glittering words and pompously distorted constructions language begins to depict the distorted, gory, and spectral reality of the age” (57).  Or else the writer is just goofing around with language.  We can debate this and swing back and forth for the next two millennia.

4. “Sicharius and Chramnesindus,” Gregory of Tours

A complete change has taken place since the days of Ammanius and Augustine.  Of course, as has often been observed, it is a decadence, a decline in culture and verbal disposition, but it is not only that.  It is a reawakening of the directly sensible.  (93-4)

Gregory’s Latin may stink, but he can tell a punchy story.

Now we skip five hundred years, because “so few texts that can be used for our investigation have survived from his period and indeed from the entire half of the second millennium” (95).  We’re not supposed to call this the Dark Ages anymore, but Auerbach is right.

5. “Roland against Ganelon,” The Song of Roland

Here I will stop to note that there are sixteen chapters left, and the linguistic division is: two Italian, two English, one German, one Spanish and thus (I will need all of my fingers) ten chapters about French literature.  Which sounds about right to me.  Auerbach only glances at Russian literature because discussion “is impossible when one cannot read the works in their original language” (Ch. 18, 492), and he completely ignores American literature because he, I don’t know, does not care, however much I would love to read his (imaginary) chapter on Moby-Dick.

Mimesis is half French.  And Auerbach, and for that matter the translator, Willard Trask, assumes we all read French.  Long passages are translated, but untranslated sentences and phrases are scattered everywhere.

6.  “The Knight Sets Forth,” Chrétien de Troyes

As marvelous as the Arthurian romances of Chrétien may be, to Auerbach they are a regression, a move away from the depiction of reality.  In a familiar move, he criticizes the world-building of the Arthurian romances.  How does the economy work?  Who is paying for all of these isolated enchanted castles?  Not that he is wrong, but it is amusing.

7.  “Adam and Eve,” a 12th century French Christmas play, Mystère d'Adam, plus texts by Bernard of Clairvaux and Francis of Assisi

 I’ll just note that Auerbach assumes no one has read the play, since he describes it in some detail, but of course everyone knows the basic story.

With the help of mystery plays and writerly saints, we are on our way to Dante and Shakespeare.

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

its like does not exist in the literature of antiquity - beginning Erich Auerbach's Mimesis

Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature (1946, tr. Willard Trask) was the final book in my hodgepodge reading of classics of literary criticism.  It’s a great book.  Let’s go through each of the twenty chapters.  From Homer and Genesis in the first chapter to Woolf and Proust in the last.  Mimesis is, among, other things, a literary history.

1. “Odysseus’ Scar,” Homer and Genesis.

Readers of the Odyssey will remember the well-prepared and touching scene in book 19, when Odysseus  has at last come home, the scene in which the old housekeeper Euryclea, who had been his nurse, recognizes him by a scar on his thigh.  (p. 3)

This is the first line of the book; it is not typical.  Every other chapter begins with a long, or sometimes very long, quotation in its original language, the text from which Auerbach launches his sermon.  But why quote Homer?  You remember.

At this point, I have read almost every work Auerbach addresses, which certainly helps me follow along.  I do remember.

The first chapter is as much about the story of Abraham and Isaac in Genesis as it is about Homer.  It is a primal text in comparative literature.  Homer does this; the Genesis author, that.  “It would be difficult, then, to imagine styles more contrasted than those of these two equally ancient and equally epic texts” (11).  Homer uses “a definite time” and “a definite place” while in Genesis “time and place are undefined and call for interpretation.”  In Homer, “thoughts and feelings are completely expressed” while in Genesis they “remain unexpressed, only suggested by the silence and the fragmentary speeches.”

Yet both texts are attempts to represent reality.  Different rhetorical devices represent reality in different ways.  Homer merely tries to represent the real, while the Genesis author

… was oriented toward truth.  Woe to the man who did not believe it!  (14)

Although Mimesis is a coherent book, meaning there are transitions from chapter to chapter and arguments that build as the book progresses, every chapter is detachable.  If you want to know about Stendhal, read the Stendhal chapter.  I believe “Odysseus’ Scar” is commonly read on its own. It is a primal example of comparative literature.

2.  “Fortunata,” Petronius, Tacitus, and the Gospel of Mark

Auerbach moves to Rome and Latin, starting with a juicy, digressive page of Trimalchio’s banquet from Satyricon.  It is fiction, in a novel, and in the first person, one character at the banquet describing other characters while inadvertently revealing himself, much like we think fictional narrators do today, and much like we think – I think – people do in reality.  Tacitus is, if anything, behind Petronius.

Auerbach seems to be a believer in progress.  More (representation of) reality is good, less is bad.  Maybe this is a limitation of Mimesis.

The Marxist side of Mimesis comes to the front in this chapter.  Auerbach is interested in how ordinary people are portrayed in literature, how the servants in Homer become more prominent.  How the goofily abstracted shepherds in Tacitus turn into “real” shepherds in Thomas Hardy, say.  My example, not Auerbach’s.  His, in this chapter, is Peter’s denial of Christ in the Gospel of Mark:

A scene like Peter’s denial fits no antique genre.  It is too serious for comedy, too contemporary and everyday for tragedy, politically too insignificant for history – and the form which was given it is one of such immediacy that its like does not exist in the literature of antiquity. (45)

Progress.  1,900 years and eighteen chapters to go.  I gotta speed this up.