The end of "The New-England Boy's Song About Thanksgiving Day" (1844)
by Lydia Maria Child
Over the river, and through the wood -
When grandmother sees us come,
She will say, Oh dear,
The children are here,
Bring a pie for every one.
Over the river, and through the wood -
Now grandmother's cap I spy!
Hurra for the fun!
Is the pudding done?
Hurra for the pumpkin pie!
Well, I don't really think this is much of a poem, but, like our new President, I am strongly pro-pie. I am scheduling this post in advance, so at this exact moment it is likely that I am either making or eating pie.
Actually, I like the way grandma sounds vaguely worried that the hellions have arrived, and plans to keep them torpid by giving each one an entire pie.
Wednesday, November 26, 2008
The end of "The New-England Boy's Song About Thanksgiving Day" (1844)
Tuesday, November 25, 2008
For everything, for everything, O Lord,
I thank Thee -
for the secret pangs of passion,
the poisoned fangs of kisses,
the bitter taste
for the revenge of foes
and for the calumny of friends,
and for the waste
of a soul's fervor burning in a desert,
and for all things that have deceived me here.
But please, O Lord,
henceforth let matters be arranged
in such a way
that I need not keep thanking Thee
Mikhail Lermontov, 1840, tr. Vladimir Nabokov in Verses and Versions, p. 289
I don't think that's exactly the right spirit of the holiday. I'll try something more traditional tomorrow.
Monday, November 24, 2008
So what would be a good starting point for a reader new to Balzac? It depends.
Eugénie Grandet is flawless and short. I really think it's an achievement of a higher level than any other Balzac novel. But it's not exactly typical. It's not a Paris novel, it's has almost nothing about high society, it just barely brushes against the Comedie Humaine system of recurring characters.
For that, Père Goriot is the place to go. This is the one that launches characters who reappear again and again, and this is the one that stands as Balzac's greatest Paris novel, by which I mean, among other things, that this is the one I would read before a trip to Paris. Next time I'm there, I'm going to Balzac's house. (Both Père Goriot and Eugénie Grandet have the virtue of being quite short).
Père Goriot, which stands perfectly well on its own, also serves as a sort of vestibule to Lost Illusions and its sequel A Harlot High and Low. These three works together form a grand epic of 1,500 pages or more, and show Balzac at his operatic wildest. Throw in the short story "The Firm of Nucingen", while you're at it.
Cousin Bette or Cousin Pons would work just as well as starting points as Père Goriot, I think, and are both pretty typical. Cousin Bette is longer and crazier. Cousin Pons is sweeter. For art collectors, Cousin Pons is a must, actually; similarly, people who work in journalism or publishing should have a go at Lost Illusions sometime.
Ursule Mirouet is nice, too. Haven't mentioned that one at all.
In a way, I would urge any reader new to Balzac to forego all of the above books (well, not Eugénie Grandet) and start with a good selection of short stories. The Penguin Classics editon is almost perfect, except for the bizarre exclusion of "A Passion in the Desert" (come on, ten more pages!). The variety of Balzac is here - the religious mystery of "An Incident in the Reign of Terror", tales of murder in "The Red Inn" and "A Tragedy by the Sea", the genuinely funny "Pierre Grassou" (also a must for painters and art collectors) "El Verdugo"'s harsh story of honor during wartime. Read this, and in a mere 272 pages you will have read 12 of the 91 "novels" in Balzac's Human Comedy.
Friday, November 21, 2008
Well, not necessarily right now. But let's say that, at some point, I decide that 30 Balzac storives out of 91 are not enough. What should #31 be?
Over the last couple of years, I've seen a lot of sentences that start "Among Balzac's novels are..." followed by four or five or six titles. I have never seen the same list twice, never. They almost all include Père Goriot and Eugénie Grandet. Most include Cousin Bette; otherwise, anything goes.
Penguin Classics publishes, or used to publish, a bunch of Balzac novels I haven't read: The Black Sheep, The Country Doctor, A Murky Business, Cesar Birotteau. What are these like?
A few years ago, Modern Library published a new translation of Balzac's last novel, The Wrong Side of Paris. Someone must think it's good, although it's hard to tell from this A. S. Byatt "review." Hey, look at what she says: "he seems unapproachable and vast - the Comedie Humaine contains 81 novels." See, there it is again! If a 10 page story counts as a novel, then Balzac may have written 81 novels. Otherwise, not even close.
Sorry, I got distracted. Oh right, here's a strange example. Roland Barthes's S/Z is a book of semiotics, and something I have no business reading, but it is apparently based somehow on a Balzac story called Sarrasine, about a castrati singer; the book even includes the text of the story. Did Barthes use it because it's a really good story, or because it serves some other analytical purpose?
Anyway, recommendations are much appreciated. What Balzac have you read, what was it like? Was it good? Was it - dare I hope - Eugénie Grandet good? If you can direct me to some Eugénie Grandet-grade Balzac, I would be in your debt.
One more note on Balzac on Monday, a roundup of the roundup: advice on where to start.
Thursday, November 20, 2008
So I think Eugénie Grandet (1833) is Balzac's best book, by a length. But I don't want to argue with anyone who prefers the wide-eyed cynicism of Père Goriot, or the grand opera of A Harlot High and Low, or the hysterical comedy of Cousin Bette, or the sweetness of Ursule Mirouet. Well, I want to argue a little bit, but I won't. I'll just look at some of the best things in Eugénie Grandet.
I mentioned yesterday that the basic story of Eugénie Grandet is uncommonly interesting. The story is ingeniously structured. This gives me an excuse to count things.
The Penguin Classics edition I read this time is 216 pages long. The first 23 pages give us background on the town of Saumur, the Grandet house and garden, and the life of Papa Grandet. Then, starting with the evening of Eugénie's twenty-third birthday, the next three days fill 113 pages, more than half the novel. That first evening alone takes up 37.
Then it's "the springtime of love for Eugénie," which lasts 10 pages. "Since that kiss in the passage, the hours had slipped away for Eugénie with terrifying swiftness." That's it, that's what's going on here. The structure of the novel exactly mirrors Eugénie's love for her cousin. Nothing happens in her life until that fateful birthday, when the cousin arrives. Then, for three days, every detail about every aspect of life becomes inordinately interesting. Once the love is mutual, time simply vanishes. The last fifty pages cover twelve or thirteen years. They're quite eventful, to the reader, but nothing in Eugénie's life will ever match those three days.
Eugénie and her father share the book in some ways, and both are wonderful characters. The art with which Papa Grandet's miserliness and deviousness are woven into the story, and the surprising directions from which his conscience occasionally intrudes (he's not quite a monster, he falls just short), are marvels. But it's Eugénie's name in the title; it's Eugénie's story that controls the entire structure of the novel.
When I talk about Balzac's, or any novel's, perfections, this is part of what I mean. Eugénie Grandet has some of Balzac's best descriptive passages, and three or four really fine characters, and a snappy story. But it's the combination of the characters, and the structure, and the details of the house and town that amaze me. It's all perfectly logical, inexorable, as if there were no other way to tell the story. There are some transitions, for example, from paragraph to paragraph, that were startling but exactly right. Maybe I'll save that for the next reread.
If Balzac's other novels are this good, then I have failed to understand them. Which, come to think of it, is likely. Good, that gives me something to look forward to. Perhaps someday I will write about my discovery that Père Goriot is, it turns out, Balzac's best novel, obviously.
Wednesday, November 19, 2008
I won't be able to do Eugénie Grandet justice. I think it's Balzac's best novel, easily, by which I mean his most artful, the one that's perfect. Other readers may not be interested in my ideal of perfection. Balzac certainly wasn't. Henry James seems to agree with me, if I understand his speech "The Lessons of Balzac," which I certainly don't, except for that part.
Eugénie Grandet is the daughter of the richest man in a country town. Her father is a real peasant miser, so miserly that his wife and daughter don't understand how rich they actually are. Everyone else has a pretty good idea, though, so Eugénie is much in demand, although she only leaves her house to go to church.
This would seem like enough of a plot for a good novel - two families battle for an innocent girl's money, while her father squeezes them all. Good stuff. Balzac lets you think that's what the story will be for the first 30 pages or so. Then Eugénie's dandified Paris cousin suddenly crashes her twenty-third birthday party, and Eugénie's certainly never met anyone like him, and then the novel really gets going, oh yes it does. The last forty or fifty pages have some twists, or at least bends, that, for the reader who has really entered the spirit of the thing, are real shockers.
Anyway, the story in and of itself is very strong. The stage is small - the Grandet's house and garden, mostly - but the characters, the clashes, are big.
I suspect that I like this novel a bit too much to write about to effectively right now, but tomorrow I'll try, or try again.
Tuesday, November 18, 2008
"A Passion in the Desert" (1832) is the story, over the course of ten pages or so, of a love affair between a soldier and a panther. The soldier accompanies Napoleon to Egypt, and is captured by nomads. We join him just as he escapes to a Saharan oasis, where he wakes up next to the second important character:
"It was a female. The fur on the belly and flanks were glistening white; many small marks like velvet formed beautiful bracelets round her feet; her sinuous tail was also white, ending with black rings; the overpart of her dress, yellow like burnished gold, very lissome and soft, had the characteristic blotches in the form of rosettes, which distinguish the panther from every other feline species."
Yes, bracelets, rings, "her dress" - the story is a fable about the relationship between men and women. What I really like, though, is that the panther never turns into an abstracted woman. She's always a panther. The pretense of realism is never dropped. We learn all there is to know about life at the oasis, for the soldier and the cat, and it's almost credible. How does it end? Well, we're hearing the story, not from the soldier, actually, but from someone who heard it from him so the soldier must get out of the desert.
"A Passion in the Desert" is the first thing I ever read by Balzac, twenty years ago. I developed certain prejudices against Balzac based on this and that scrap of information - he was a sloppy writer, a first-drafter, not concerned with aesthetics, all basically wrong, or wrong enough. But I actually always knew this had to be wrong, because, if nothing else, he had written the amazing story of the soldier and the panther.
There's a 1997 film of "A Passion in the Desert" about which I am very curious. I can see how it would work.
Monday, November 17, 2008
The Big Balzac Blog Blowout continues this week with my Balzac Top Two list. But first, as a palate cleanser, I'll briefly look at some Balzac works that I don't like.
Balzac's first novel under his own name was The Chouans (1829), a novel that is directly derivative of Walter Scott. It's set in southeast Brittany under the Revolutionary government, and deals with Monarchist guerillas, backed by England, fighting the Revolutionary army. The subject could hardly be more interesting, but I'm afraid it's just a botch, with a lot of implausible nonsense and a ludicrous romance that turns out to be the point of the thing. A shame. There is one chapter, where the guerillas execute a collaborator, which is intense and excellent, a harbinger of the better Balzac to come. Heck, a harbinger of Tolstoy.
I have almost no interests in Balzac's Big Ideas, his philosophy, and am irritated whenever he inserts them into his novels at greater length than a sentence or two. It all has something to do with Swedenborg and "essences." If you think you might be interested, the place to start is the novella Louis Lambert, in which the young, mad genius of the title is a vehicle for pure philosophizing:
"According to Swedenborg, the angel is an individual in whom the inner being conquers the external being. If a man desires to earn his call to be an angel, as soon as his mind reveals to him his twofold existence, he must strive to foster the delicate angelic essence that exists within him. If, for lack of a lucid appreciation of his destiny, he allows bodily action to predominate, instead of confirming his intellectual being, all his powers will be absorbed in the use of his external senses, and the angel will slowly perish by the materialization of both natures. In the contrary case, if he nourishes his inner being with the aliment needful to it, the soul triumphs over matter and strives to get free."
Hope ya didn't actually read all of that - yuck!
Louis Lambert is the earliest example I know of the "boys at boarding school" genre. Those parts are pretty interesting.
The Girl with the Golden Eyes (1834), one of three stories in The History of the Thirteen, is the only Balzac I have read that I dislike with intensity. I think it's supposed to be a sort of Marquis de Sade-like Romantic shocker, a deliberately decadent, immoral story. It's finely written in places, but also quite cruel and sickening. I don't even like thinking about it. Thank goodness it was just an experiment.
There are two points to this. First, although I don't like any of these three stories, and actually despise The Girl with the Golden Eyes, they are worth reading for various reasons, The Chouans, for example, as history, or Louis Lambert for, if you like that sort of thing, Balzac's ideas. And they all have portions, at least, that are well written.
Second, this should give some idea about the variety in Balzac's works. He's the great writer of Paris, or of society, or of money - yes, all of those things, sometimes. But he really was a writer of large scope, of subject and form.
Friday, November 14, 2008
A curious thing has happened to Balzac's story The Unknown Masterpiece (1832). The meaning of the story has been completely transformed, hijacked, by later writers and artists. It now does something that Balzac could hardly have guessed.
The story is set in 17th century Paris, and the protagonist is the young Nicolas Poussin, just beginning his career. It's the only Balzac story I know of set at that time, and the only one starring an actual person. The (non-actual) painter Frenhofer, a great master, has been working on a single painting for ten years; no one has ever seen it. There's some plotty stuff about whether Poussin will allow his girlfriend to pose nude for Frenhofer, and whether the girlfriend will do it. Finally, she does, and Frenhofer finishes his painting, and Poussin and his friend Porbus get to see it. Frankly, nothing interesting has happened so far. Then:
"The two painters left the old man to his ecstasy, and tried to ascertain whether the light that fell full upon the canvas had in some way neutralized all the effect for them. They moved to the right and left of the picture; they they came in front, bending down and standing upright by turns...
'The old lansquenet is laughing at us,' said Poussin, coming once more toward the supposed picture. 'I can see nothing there but confused masses of color and a multitude of fantastical lines that go to make a dead wall of paint.'
'We are mistaken, look!' said Porbus.
In a corner of the canvas as they came nearer, they distinguished a bare foot emerging from the chaos of color, half-tints and vague shadows that made up a dim, formless fog. Its living beauty held them spellbound. This fragment that had escaped an incomprehensible, slow, and gradual destruction seemed to them like the Parian marble torso of some Venus emerging from the ashes of a ruined town."
Confused masses of color, half-tints and vague shadows, with a form somehow underneath - who does this sound like to you? Willem de Kooning? Kandinsky? Toulouse-Lautrec? If it reminds you somehow of Cézanne, at least one great artist agrees with you - Paul Cézanne. "Frenhofer, c'est moi!" he supposedly declared, between sobs, when his art dealer mentioned Balzac's story. Picasso, weirdly, also claimed to identify with Frenhofer.
We now read Balzac's story with a frame of reference that he could not have had. In 1832, there was no such thing as abstract art, no such thing as Impressionism. I have to struggle a little to try to get back to whatever meaning Balzac was going for. Balzac saw Frenhofer's labors as a complete failure, I'm pretty sure, a pointless and destructive obsession over perfection. Watching the other painters look at his canvas, Frenhofer suddenly sees what they see:
"Frenhofer looked for a moment at his picture, and staggered back.
'Nothing! nothing! After ten years of work...'
He sat down and wept."
The Unknown Masterpiece is not much of a story, really. But there's an idea in it, an idea that I'm pretty sure was not Balzac's, that is rich enough to have kept this story alive and inspired later artists and writers. Henry James either parodied this story in "The Madonna of the Future," or pushed it to its logical conclusion. It's been so long since I read it that I don't remember which. Maybe both. I understand that there's a Zola novel that also makes use of The Unknown Masterpiece. And then there's the Jacques Rivette modernization, La Belle Noiseuse, a four (!) hour movie that mostly consists of alternating shots of a nude Emmanuele Béart, and closeups of the hand of the artist who draws her.
Maybe this is a good place to mention another Balzac story about a painter, Pierre Grassou (1840). This one is about a hack painter who becomes wildly successful. It's mean, and funny, almost a joke with a punchline. Balzac doesn't like the agonized Frenhofers, but he doesn't like the hack Grassous either. The proper way to be an artist is to be like Honoré de Balzac.
My quotes are from an Volume 22 of an antique collected Balzac, no translator specified. If possible, try to get the NYRB edition, or at least take a look at Arthur Danto's introduction (pdf).
Thursday, November 13, 2008
Balzac wrote a lot, quickly. If he had lived long enough to hear about the way Flaubert agonized over each sentence, he would have laughed, and then written a jolly story about a writer who ruins his life by agonizing over each sentence (no, not a writer, a painter - come back tomorrow).
Balzac's books sprawled as he aged. Henry James called Tolstoy's novels "loose, baggy monsters," which I have never understood, but that phrase is a good fit for A Harlot High and Low (1839-47) or Cousin Bette (1846). I find this frustrating sometimes, but Balzac was not interested in perfection. In the 1840s, in his 40s, Balzac seems to me to be completely confident in his methods and manners. He has loosened the stays of his corset, so to speak - see left, Rodin's portrait of Balzac, to get a sense of the work that corset would have had to do. He's comfortable, hopped up on strong coffee, and having a great time.
For example, look at this description, from Cousin Pons (1847), of a seedy attorney's office:
"The drain into which the household slops were discharged added its quota of nauseous odours to the stairway, whose ceiling was everywhere decorated with arabesques - such weird ones! - traced in candle-smoke... She [the servant] was unhealthily corpulent and wore an appalling dress of cheap printed cotton, with a Madras scarf tied round her head; her hair was still in curl-papers made of printed forms which her master received gratis; from her ears hung something resembling gold carriage-wheels... Monsieur Fraisier, a shrivelled and sickly looking little man with a red face covered with spots which spoke of impurities in the blood, and who moreover was constantly sratching his right arm, and whose wig, pushed far back on his head, incompletely concealed a sinister-looking, brick-coloured cranium..." Ch. 18
Why does Balzac, more than halfway through the novel, spend three or four pages describing the hideous M. Fraisier and his greasy office? Because it's so much fun.
Cousin Pons circles around a hack musician who has devoted his life to two things: collecting art and antiques, and sponging dinners off his relatives (one of the great pleasures in his life is the moment the lid is lifted from a covered dish). When he becomes ill, everyone he knows turns into a vulture, circling the art collection. Almost everyone - not his roommate and one true friend, the pathetic Schmucke. The scheming for the inheritance is one plot strand; the sorrows of Schmucke are the other. Both are quite good, one funny, one sad.
It's a bit of a surprise when, a third of the way into the fairly long Cousin Bette, Balzac declares that he has finally set the stage and can now begin the real story. It's even more surprising to read the same announcement ("And here begins the drama...") at the end of chapter 17 of Cousin Pons, about 60% of the way through the book. There's some evidence that Balzac started with just the art collection plot and came up with the friendship plot along the way. This is a relaxed approach to novel writing that would not work for a writer with a less abundant imagination than Balzac's.
Here's a bonus quotation from Pons, just for literature, and possibly anthropology, professors. One of the schemers has visited a fortune teller, allowing Balzac the opportunity to insert a long, long digression on the "occult sciences":
"Just now, when so many professorial chairs are being set up in Paris - chairs in Slavonic, in Manchurian studies, and in literatures so unprofessable as those of the North; chairs which, instead of offering instruction, stand in need of it themselves; chairs whose titular holders eternally grind out articles on Shakespeare or the sixteenth century - is it not a matter of surprise that, under the name of anthropology, the teaching of occult philosophy, one of the glories of the old-time university, has not been restored?" Ch. 13.
Translations by Herbert Hunt, Penguin Classics edition.
Wednesday, November 12, 2008
There was some point I wanted to make yesterday that slipped by me because I was too sleepy. What was it? Right, the whole Human Comedy business, the characters that show up in multiple stories.
I think the whole thing is a bit overrated. In some ways, it's just shtick. If Balzac needed a doctor in his story, he pulled in Bianchon. Rastignac is a dandy, Nucingen is a banker, Derville is a lawyer; employ as necessary. Mostly, they're just cameo appearances. The same names keep reappearing, but rarely are they much more than names.
At its best, though, the reader who knows the character from another story is rewarded somehow, with a joke or an irony. Rastignac,the hero of Père Goriot, appears again and again, even though there is never, to my knowledge, another story that is actually about him. But the reader who is keeping up with Balzac over the decade from Père Goriot (1835) to, say, Cousin Bette (1846), is constantly informed about Rastignac's rise in society.
Cousin Bette provides a good example of another problem with the Human Comedy concept - Balzac leans on it to solve plotting problems. The story of Cousin Bette is excellent - Balzac is pretty much an ace with plots - and mostly proceeds with its own internal logic. Bette is a plain and sour peasant woman whose pretty and lively cousin married well. Over the years, Cousin Bette's resentments have turned into hatred; the novel is the story of her revenge on her family, turning their weaknesses against them, all behind a facade of perfect service.
The problem is that, near the end of the novel, Balzac decides to tie up a big chunk of the plot by dragging in a bunch of previously unmentioned characters from his other novels. What a tiresome episode. It's all mixed up with the Brazilian Baron, another part of the novel I wish had been snipped. It's ridiculous stuff. Fortunately, the last chapter, the end of the part of the story that really matters, is one of Balzac's best.
Let's have some real human comedy. The rich, ludicrous ex-perfumer Crevel and his "attitude":
"The ex-perfumer got up with considerable difficulty. This circumstance made him so angry that he struck his attitude again. Nearly all men affect some posture that they believe brings out all the advantages with which nature has blessed them. For Crevel, this attitude consisted in crossing his arms like Napoleon, turning three-quarters face, and looking in the direction that the painter had made him look for his portrait - that is, toward the horizon." Ch. II
And that painter, it turns out, is Pierre Grassou, star of the earlier story Pierre Grassou! Crevel is a buffoon, so it's always a good laugh when he strikes his pose, and even funnier when other idiots begin to imitate him. The joke reaches its culmination when, several years later, Crevel's mistress convinces him to "improve" his pose, just to make him look ridiculous:
"He put his thumbs in his armholes and beat his chest with both his hands, for all the world like a flapping pair of wings, thinking that he thus was making himself desirable and charming." Ch. XXIX
I guess I can tolerate a Brazilian Baron or two for this.
Translations by Kathleen Raine, Modern Library edition.
Tuesday, November 11, 2008
I briefly considered writing up my Balzac Top 10, and then counting down the hits for two weeks. Père Goriot (1835) would have had to wait until the beginning of next week, coming in at #4, perhaps, but for many readers it would be his obvious #1 greatest hit, for understandable reasons. Père Goriot is the purest Balzac, the most Balzackish Balzac. It's the center of Balzac's works, it's his greatest portrait, or really vision, of Paris, and it's the root of the Human Comedy.
The novel begins with a hilariously mean attack on its readers. This is funny stuff:
"And you, too, will do the like; you who with this book in your white hand will sink back among the cushions of your armchair, and say to yourself, 'Perhaps this may amuse me.' You will read the story of Father Goriot's secret woes, and, dining thereafter with an unspoiled appetite, will lay the blame of your insensibility upon the writer, and accuse him of exaggeration, of writing romances. Ah! once for all, this drama is neither a fiction nor a romance! All is true,--so true, that everyone can discern the elements of the tragedy in his own house, perhaps in his own heart."
Then we get one of Balzac's best passages, the description of the rundown Latin Quarter boarding house where most of the novel's characters reside:
"Here you see that indestructible furniture never met with elsewhere, which finds its way into lodging-houses much as the wrecks of our civilization drift into hospitals for incurables. You expect in such places as these to find the weather-house whence a Capuchin issues on wet days; you look to find the execrable engravings which spoil your appetite, framed every one in a black varnished frame, with a gilt beading round it; you know the sort of tortoise-shell clock-case, inlaid with brass; the green stove, the Argand lamps, covered with oil and dust, have met your eyes before."
The engravings which actually spoil your appetite! Note the attention to the frames, one of Balzac's career-long obsessions. One of my little knocks against Père Goriot is that the descriptive writing is not as good anywhere else in the book as it is in this opening passage.
One of the boarders is the law student Rastignac. He gets a taste of the good life, and that's it for him. He wants it - money, women, Paris - now, rather than later. A common theme in Balzac - not just ambition, but haste. Another boarder, Goriot, has impoverished himself, continues to impoverish himself, for the sake of his two heartless daughters. Rastignac becomes tangled up with the daughters. These are the two plots of the book.
This is a novel where knowing the ending may pique a readers interest more than knowing the story - how does Rastignac get from that boarding house to here:
"He went a few paces further, to the highest point of the cemetery, and looked out over Paris and the windings of the Seine; the lamps were beginning to shine on either side of the river. His eyes turned almost eagerly to the space between the column of the Place Vendome and the cupola of the Invalides; there lay the shining world that he had wished to reach. He glanced over that humming hive, seeming to draw a foretaste of its honey, and said magniloquently:
'Henceforth there is war between us.'
And by way of throwing down the glove to Society, Rastignac went to dine with Mme. de Nucingen."
Rastignac standing in Pere-Lachaise cemetery, overlooking Paris, vowing to conquer it - now that is Balzac.
Translations are again from the old-timey Gutenberg.org version, by Ellen Marriage. But try to get the Norton Critical Edition, which has, among other curious items, a map of Paris that I found extremely useful.
Monday, November 10, 2008
A couple of years ago I had read two of the 91 or 93 or 97 components of Honoré de Balzac's Human Comedy. Now I've read 30. So it's time for an extra special Wuthering Expectations Big Balzac Blog Blowout. This is so big it's going to last two weeks.
I've noticed some confusion about the exact size of Balzac's shelf of books. Everyone who writes an introduction to a Balzac book is obliged to mention his "91 novels and stories", or even just "91 novels". Granted, he wrote a tall pile of books, but do those sound like the same thing to you? One novel and ninety short stories is a lot less writing than ninety novels and one short story. Is this some confusion over the word nouvelles?
Of the 30 works I have read, only 8 are novels (over 200 pages). I don't know what the ratio is for the entire 91, but I would be surprised if it's too different. My actual point is that there's as much good writing in Balzac's shorter works as in his novels.
Look at Colonel Chabert (1832), which is maybe 100 pages. Here, near the beginning, is the first meeting between the Colonel and the lawyer Derville:
"Monsieur," said Derville, "to whom have I the honor of speaking?"
"To Colonel Chabert."
"He who was killed at Eylau," replied the old man.
That's a good start. At his best, Balzac knows to set up a plot. Colonel Chabert, a Napoleonic-era hero, was thought killed at the Battle of Eylau; he actually received a severe head injury. He returns to Paris, years later, to find his wife remarried, his pension gone, any hint of his old life destroyed. He is meeting the lawyer to sue his wife, but for what purpose, exactly? That's the story - what does the old soldier really want, what does he regard as justice.
This is early Balzac - he had only been publishing under his own name for three years. There are two descriptive set pieces that are real Balzac classics. One is the description of the lawyer Derville's office, where we start the story:
"The stove-pipe crossed the room diagonally to the chimney of a bricked-up fireplace; on the marble chimney-piece were several chunks of bread, triangles of Brie cheese, pork cutlets, glasses, bottles, and the head clerk's cup of chocolate. The smell of these dainties blended so completely with that of the immoderately overheated stove and the odor peculiar to offices and old papers, that the trail of a fox would not have been perceptible...
The dirty window-panes admitted but little daylight. Indeed, there are very few offices in Paris where it is possible to write without lamplight before ten in the morning in the month of February, for they are all left to very natural neglect; every one comes and no one stays; no one has any personal interest in a scene of mere routine..."
That's just where Balzac disagrees, that's just what he is interested in. This passage suggests a central tension of Balzac's method. He wants to generalize, to tell us what everything is like, but he can only do it by telling us what this specific thing is like.
Chabert finds himself living with one of his soldiers in a disgusting dairy farm. We get to see it when the lawyer visits:
"Though recently built, this house seemed ready to fall into ruins. None of its materials had found a legitimate use; they had been collected from the various demolitions which are going on every day in Paris. On a shutter made of the boards of a shop-sign Derville read the words, 'Fancy Goods'...
The house had been left in charge of three little boys. One, who had climbed to the top of the cart loaded with hay, was pitching stones into the chimney of a neighboring house, in the hope that they might fall into a saucepan; another was trying to get a pig into a cart, to hoist it by making the whole thing tilt. When Derville asked them if M. Chabert lived there, neither of them replied, but all three looked at him with a sort of bright stupidity, if I may combine those two words."
Maybe the joke of the "Fancy Goods" sign in this repulsive place is too obvious? I think it's pretty great, although the boys may be even better. I don't know. Colonel Chabert has a lot to like, anyway.
There is an excellent French movie of Colonel Chabert from 1994. The great fun of the movie is watching Gérard Depardieu and Fanny Ardant go after each other. But the dairy, the Battle of Eylau, the lawyer's office - they're all there, too, right in front of you.
Old collected editions of Balzac typically top 30 volumes, and that usually omits his early hack work. So I don't mean to say that the man didn't drink enough black coffee and write enough pages. For many readers, this abundance becomes a problem. I hope my guide this week is useful to someone other than me.
All quotations are from the Clara Bell and Ellen Marriage version, available at Gutenberg.
Friday, November 7, 2008
A few weeks ago, I mentioned that Theodor Storm referred to a novel and writer I'd never heard of, Wilhelm Hauff. Poor Hauff, dead at the age of 25, author of Lichtenstein, the first Scott-style historical novel in German (unEnglished since 1839, apparently).
Hauff also wrote children's stories and fairy tales (he was employed as tutor for a Baron's children). That's why, when on a whim I typed Hauff's name into the library computer, I found myself directed to the Juvenile section. Honestly, I was expecting to find nothing. Instead, I found Little Long-Nose:
What's the story? A youngster is kidnapped by a witch and turned into a squirrel When the witch lets him go, she lets him be human but, unfortunately, gives him a bizarrely squat frame, big head, and long nose; fortunately, she has trained him to be a gourmet chef. Adventures ensue. A number of the illustrations are food or kitchen related:
The illustrations in this little Candlewick Press edition are by Laura Stoddart. They're fantastic. I love that overhead view of the park. There's an earlier translation called Dwarf Long-Nose with illustrations by Maurice Sendak, but I don't see how it could be better than this. Strongly recommended to Lemony Snicketers, or kids who have become obsessed with cooking shows.
What else did I find? A genuinely funny story called The Young Foreigner, in which an orangutan is trained to speak, and dance, and go to parties. He becomes very popular. The lesson is, don't act like an ape just because someone else is, because the someone else might, in fact, be an ape, and then you would feel stupid:
"He had read nothing, studied nothing, and the priest would often shake his head over the young man's extradordinary ignorance. And yet everything that he said or did was held to be excellent, for he was brazen enough always to insist that he was right, and the end of all his remarks was, 'I know better.'" (p. 79)
I found this story in a 1924 translation by Christopher Morley, accompanied by a not quite as good Alfred de Musset fable, and surrounded by this distracting "German" (note the steins) border on every page:
There was a third tale, The Adventures of Little Mouk. It was pretty good, too, a playful Arabian Nights variation. The mysterious ways that books persist; the mysterious things one finds in libraries.
Thursday, November 6, 2008
I found a translation of Theodor Storm's Der kleine Häwelmann at the library. Not just any library - Bigshot Research Unversity Library. So it must be an important work, of interest to researchers:
Anthea Bell's name caught my attention. She's a big-deal translator - Freud, Stefan Zweig, Sebald's Austerlitz. This story probably took her about 20 minutes to translate, including a hot tea break. In terms of ordinary text, it might be two pages long.
Little Hobbin is a genuine bedtime story. The kid won't go to sleep; he just wants to ride around in his wheeled crib. I've forgotten how many children Storm had - seven, maybe? So it's easy enough to imagine the inspiration for this cautionary tale about the consequences of spending the night joy-riding. The story has its curious points, like the cat who wants to shine like the stars, or the trouble the moon has walking in the woods, on account of her horns.
The illustrations of Lisbeth Zwerger are very nice. I particularly like the sun, costumed as Goethe:
Think of how many books I could read if I read nothing but children's books. Like, 2,000 books a year or something.
Wednesday, November 5, 2008
I had planned to write something about Theodor Storm's last major work, The Dykemaster aka The Rider on the White Horse (1888), written almost 40 years after Immensee. It's quite different than that quiet masterpiece - this one is all about earthworks and envy and North Sea storms and ghostly devil horses. The climax takes place on Halloween, for Pete's sake. It's long, too, or long for Storm, just over 100 pages.
But the day has slipped away and I don't have much to say. Luckily I can just refer the curious reader to the Philospher, who hits a lot of the high points, including some of the obligatory uncanny scenes,* or to Literary Lizzy, who got a response from Denis Jackson, Storm's translator and literary curator. Neat.
I'll say one thing. It turns out that I'm enjoying Storm so much that I'm reading everything by him I can find. I'll prove that tomorrow, oh yes I will. A lot of readers, including many who do not normally read dusty old books, would really enjoy Storm. If Adalbert Stifter is the herring of German literature, Theodor Storm is the cocktail shrimp. I'm just enjoying my own joke, please ignore me. My point is, where Stifter, say, is an acquired taste, Storm should have wide and immediate appeal. And it does not hurt, no it does not, that he only wrote short books.
The Denis Jackson translation of The Dykemaster, as with his Hans and Heinz Kirch and Journey to a Hallig, includes a hand-drawn map that is very, very helpful. The big drawback of Jackson's little books is that, for Americans, they are quite expensive ($24 at Powells!). NYRB will soon publish the old James Wright translation of this novel, as well as Immensee and some other stories, which will be convenient and economical. But there won't be any maps, nor Jackson's unbelievably thorough notes.
* "He walked home, but on one of the very next evenings he was out again on the dyke. In those same places the ice was now cracked, and it rose up like billowing smoke from out of the fissures, a blanket of vapour and fog spreading itself out over the entire surface of the flats and blending strangely with the evening twilight. Hauke stared long and hard at it; for within the mist dark forms were striding back and forth and they appeared to be as tall as people. He saw them far in the distance walking to and fro along the steam fissures; dignified, yet with strange frightening gestures and with long noses and necks. Suddenly they began to jump about weirdly like clowns, the tallest over the shortest and the smallest against the biggest; then they grew large and lost all form." p. 22
Tuesday, November 4, 2008
Theodor Storm's novella Hans and Heniz Kirch (1882) contains a story that could be, has been, set anywhere. A father is ambitious for his son; the son has other plans; small misunderstandings create large problems. As is common with Storm, though, the actual setting, in the German Baltic port town of Heiligenhafen, is crucial.
I have become so impressed with Denis Jackson, the English translator and scholar of Storm. The extent of the notes in his little collections are absurd, and should mostly be ignored while reading, but are a sign of loving devotion (the hand-drawn maps placed before most stories, though, are an essential reference).
Jackson tells me that most of the key details used by Storm are still in Heiligenhafen. The odd church, a tower with no steeple, is still there, and it still has the special gallery once reserved for ship owners and captains. There is still a giant whale tail, inscribed with a poem, hanging over the towne hall door, although now it is wooden, while in Storm's time it was the actual preserved tail of a killer whale. One new thing in the town is a statue of Theodor Storm, erected just because of this story.
Hans and Heinz Kirch is a fine example of the art if the novella. It covers forty years of a family's history in sixty pages without feeling rushed (the opposite, really). So the story is a model of economy. This is one reason the setting is so important, whether real or invented. It's the repetition of a few details, like the ringing of the church bell at curfew, that bridge the gaps between episodes, and provide their own map to the story.
I don't pretend to have all of the imagery and themes in Hans and Heinz Kirch sorted out for myself. Well, that's why we reread. Next time.
Monday, November 3, 2008
The beginning of Theodor Storm's short story Journey to a Hallig (1871):
"There were once vast forests of oak along our coast, and so dense were the trees that for miles a squirrel could spring from branch to branch without touching the forest floor...
But these forests have long since disappeared; only occasionally is a petrified root still dug out of the dark earth of the moors or out of the mud of the tidal flats, which gives us descendants a sense of just how violently those crowns of leaves must have swayed in their struggle with the north-west storms." (tr. Denis Jackson and Anja Nauck)
Theodor Storm had clearly been reading W. G. Sebald. The connection to the end of Chapter IX of W. G. Sebald's The Rings of Saturn (1995), describing the destruction of southern England's trees by the 1986 hurricane, seems obvious to me:
"The forest floor, which in the spring of last year had still been carpeted with snowdrops, violets and wood anemones, ferns and cushions of moss, was now covered by a layer of barren clay. All that grew in the hard-baked earth were tufts of swamp grass, the seeds of which had lain in the depths for goodness knew how long. The rays of the sun, with nothing left to impede them, destroyed all the shade-loving plants so that it seemed as if we were living on the edge of an infertile plain. Where a short while ago the dawn chorus had at times reached such a pitch that we had to close the bedroom windows, where larks had risen on the morning air above the fields and where, in the evenings, we occasionally heard even a nightingale in the thicket, its pure and penetrating song punctuated by theatrical silences, there was now not a living sound." (p. 268)
And then, as if this were not clear enough, two pages later the characters in the Storm story sail over the sunken port of Rungholt, utterly destroyed by a storm in 1365, a passage clearly modeled after the Dunwich section of Chapter VI of The Rings of Saturn, which describes the pulverization of an English port on the opposite coast of the North Sea in 1328.
Perhaps it was Sebald who was reading Storm.* Regardless, what a marvellous story. It's a close relative of Immensee, with the narrator reflecting back on the moment he ruined a love affair. Or maybe he didn't, maybe it wouldn't have worked anyway:
"I kept my hat and my moustache until finally both became the general fashion and were absorbed in it. On the other hand, it has not been vouchsafed to me to know whether in the course of life the look of those blue eyes, besides the radiance of a precious stone, might not also have taken on something of the same hardness. The day on our Cousin's hallig, and in the middle of it Susanne's youthful figure, remain for me, like Rungholt, safely locked away in the secure land of the past." (p. 88)
Journey to a Hallig is set in, thematically as well as physically, the North Sea tidal mud flats, a strange and possibly unique landscape (a "hallig" is an island, just barely, at high tide). Meine Frau, it turns out, has not only been there, but went swimming with seals. I asked her if the terrain was like the mud flats we saw in the Ria Formosa Natural Park in Portugal. Yes, she said, except completely different. The Denis Jackson translation, linked above, includes a useful map.
Since I wrote about Immensee I have read a bit more Thedor Storm. Even though it was immediately clear to me that Immensee was a real work of art, I had sort of assumed that Storm was otherwise a minor writer. I am now sure that I was wrong about that. More Storm, and less Sebald, the rest of the week.
* I'm obliquely responding to this post at The Valve, which as usual I only half understand.