Friday, January 30, 2009

The point where the imagined fortress does not coincide with the real one - everyone likes a good prison story

Strange how so many of the French novels contemporary with The Count of Monte Cristo prominently feature prisons. Stendhal ends The Red and the Black in a prison, and much of The Charterhouse of Parma is set in a strange prison tower. Merimée's Carmen is narrated from prison. The last quarter (half?) of A Harlot High and Low takes place in La Conciergerie. Dumas himself returned to the subject with The Man in the Iron Mask. Then there's Victor Hugo, who was obsessed with the subject of prisons and criminals - see not just The Last Day of a Condemned Man, but parts of Notre Dame of Paris, and substantial chunks of Les Miserables.*

I haven't read Les Miserables, but what I know of it makes me wonder if Hugo may have been deliberately responding to The Count of Monte Cristo is some way, maybe showing how to take the subjects of justice and vengeance seriously. The Count seems to share some qualities with Jean Valjean - they both have superhuman abilities. Both, in fact, owe a debt to Balzac's super-criminal, Vautrin (aka Jacques Collin, etc.), who appears in several Balzac novels. The Count, like Vautrin, wanders around disguised as a priest. Both command mysterious resources and have loyal retainers who owe their lives to their master.

The funny thing here is that although the Count is clearly modeled after Vautrin, the last part of A Harlot High and Low, the prison chapters which star Vautrin, were published two years after The Count of Monte Cristo. It's likely that Balzac influenced Dumas who then influenced Balzac.

Italo Calvino's "The Count of Monte Cristo", which ends t zero (1967), spins off from Dumas's prison scenes. Edmond Dantès ponders how to escape from the island prison; meanwhile the Abbé Faria tries to dig his way out, never quite getting it right:

"At times I hear a scratching at the ceiling; a rain of plaster falls on me; a breach opens; Faria's head appears, upside down. Upside down for me, not him; he crawls out of his tunnel, he walks head down, while nothing about his person is ruffled, not his white hair, nor his beard green with mold, nor the tatters of sackcloth that cover his emaciated loins. He walks across the ceiling and the walls like a fly, he sinks his pick into a certain spot, a hole opens; he disappears."

This is typical Calvino stuff. Time and space don't quite behave correctly, paradoxes fold into more paradoxes. Edmond concludes that the way to escape is to dig inward, not outward. Somehow the Abbé digs his way to the study of Alexandre Dumas, where he rifles the manuscript of The Count of Monte Cristo, looking for an escape route. Here's the final paradox:

"If I succeed in mentally constructing a fortress from which it is impossible to escape, this conceived fortress either will be the same as the real one - and in this case it is certain we shall never escape from here, but at least we will achieve the serenity of one who knows he is here because he could be nowhere else - or it will be a fortress from which escape is even more impossible than from here - and this, then, is a sign that here an opportunity if escape exists: we have only to identify the point where the imagined fortress does not coincide with the real one and then find it."

Is there an "escapist literature" pun here? The Italian term seems to be "letteratura d'evasione", so I wonder. The Count of Monte Cristo coincides with our world, the real one, in few points. It's just a marvelous, preposterous work of imagination.

* If I set aside the Gothic dungeons and debtor's prisons - big exceptions, both of them - I don't see such an interest in prisons in English literature. Scott's The Heart of Midlothian - the prison is in the title; Barnaby Rudge; Emily Brontë's poems. What am I forgetting? I'll bet A Tale of Two Cities has some prison scenes. I'll bet the prisons are French. I assume the French preoccupation with the subject is in response to the Revolution and Napoleon.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

There is a Providence, there is a God - ideas, or the lack thereof, in The Count of Monte Cristo and Slumdog Millionaire

On Monday, I mentioned that I did not think there was much reason to re-read The Count of Monte Cristo. I meant something specific. I might want to re-read the novel because my brain has softened to the point where I have forgotten the story. The re-reading won't be much different than the initial one.

The novelist Lorenzo Carcaterra, in his introduction to the Modern Library edition, appeals to nostalgia. This novel was important to him as a child living in a bad neighborhood; it spurred his imagination, led him into the bigger world. That's interesting enough as a story about one reader's response, but how it's useful to readers whose young imaginations were instead fired by Treasure Island or Harry Potter or Alice in Wonderland, I don't understand. Still, another reason to re-read is simply to revisit the pleasures experienced in the past.

I suspect, though, that The Count of Monte Cristo does not offer much else to the re-reader. There won't be many moments of illumination - oh, now I see. No, it turns out I saw everything the first time. Dumas gives up his secrets right away.

This is just a guess, since I have merely read the book. It's my view of the lack of depth of the novel, its art and its ideas, the latter especially. Like many best-sellers before and since, Monte Cristo is plated with a thin layer of seemingly serious ideas about justice, evil, and providence that serve to motivate the characters and give the story a little more heft. See, for example, Chapter 84, "The Hand of God":

"'No,' said Caderousse, 'no; I will not repent. There is no God, there is no Providence - all comes by chance.'

'There is a Providence, there is a God,' said Monte Cristo, 'of which you are a striking proof, as you lie in utter despair, denying him; while I stand before you, rich, happy, safe, and entreating that God in whom you endeavor not to believe, while in your heart you still believe in him.'"

Not much in the way of subtlety here. Did I mention that Caderousse has just been stabbed and is expiring?

Is the Count justified in his revenge? Can evil acts be redeemed? Should the sins of the father fall on his children? If one wanted to discuss these ideas, the novel would work as a conversation starter, but I'll bet the discussion won't spend much time with the book itself. There isn't any depth, or resolution, or surprise in the content of the ideas. Dumas doesn't really mean any of it, or doesn't care.

I saw Slumdog Millionaire recently and was amused to find that another Dumas novel, The Three Musketeers, plays an important part. I was less amused to find that the movie was overlaid with a set of "ideas" about destiny that were just as shallow as those in The Count. They were decoration, slipcovers for the story's clichés. No one involved actually believes any of it.

I sound so negative. There may be other, more interesting, thematic ideas, in the movie or in The Count of Monte Cristo (the economic development theme, maybe?) and other reasons to see the movie. Still, most of the characters (the love interest, the gangsters, the cops) are clichés, as is most of the plot, and are reviewers mentioning that you have to sit through almost an entire episode of Who Wants To Be a Millionaire? I could not believe I had paid money to watch something I didn't want to see when it was free.

As a counter-argument, I will link to an ingenious symbolic explication of The Count of Monte Cristo involving Dante's Purgatorio. I find it completely unconvincing, working only by ignoring most of the book, but it gave me something new to think about.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

A streak of blood traced with a pencil - the best sentence in The Count of Monte Cristo

Sometimes Alexandre Dumas writes well. It's nothing like a priority, obviously, but there's some good writing here and there. Here's the setup for my favorite sentence in The Count of Monte Cristo.

The Count plans revenge on four people. How strange, then, when his servant describes how he, the Corsican servant, stabbed M. de Villefort, revenge target #1, in the chest and left him for dead many years ago. Those Corsicans and their vendettas, always getting in the way of more important vengeance.

The thriller-trained reader will assume that either the servant has his story wrong, or Villefort did not die of his wounds, so it is no surprise when Villefort turns out to be alive. I believe there are another 500 pages before the matter is actually explained. Before then the small issue of the stabbing is mentioned exactly twice, once when the servant glimpses Villefort and realizes that his stiletto had failed him, and once when the Count first meets Villefort in Paris.

Here's the description of Villefort from that scene:

“All his costume was black, with the exception of his white cravat, and this funereal appearance was only broken in upon by the slight line of red riband which passed almost imperceptibly through his buttonhole, and which appeared like a streak of blood traced with a pencil.” Ch. 49, “Ideology”

That's it, the only hint of the stabbing, for hundreds of pages. Pretty good, huh?

Let's try one more. "The Carnival at Rome", Ch. 36, is a favorite chapter, with some unusually good descriptive material about the festival. For example:

"Lovely women, yielding to the influence of the scene, bend over their balconies, or lean from their windows, and shower down confetti, which are returned by bouquets; the air seems darkened with the falling confetti and flying flowers. In the streets the lively crowd is dressed in the most fantastic costumes--gigantic cabbages walk gravely about, buffaloes' heads bellow from men's shoulders, dogs walk on their hind legs; in the midst of all this a mask is lifted, and, as in Callot's Temptation of St. Anthony, a lovely face is exhibited, which we would fain follow, but from which we are separated by troops of fiends."

I don't think the grammar of the last part is quite right, botched by either the translator or Dumas, since I can't find the lovely face in the Callot print, but you can compare Dumas to Callot for yourself. In plot terms, this is all filler, but it also reinforces the transformation / change of identity theme. Most of Dumas's sentences do one thing; these do more than one. That's almost what I think of as the art of fiction.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

revenge!, Revenge!, REVENGE!

Although it is true that A Watched Plot Never Spoils™, much of the fun of The Count of Monte Cristo lies right on the surface of the story, so I'll watch my step. Fortunately, the two most interesting ideas in the book are structural, not incidental.

The story, from a high altitude: The dashing young sailor Edmond Dantès is imprisoned for a crime he did not commit. On his wedding day, the poor sap. He spends many years in prison, in the section that is, I suppose, the most famous. The moment when Dantès leaves the prison, for example, is, I have to say, pretty great.* Edmond vows revenge!, Revenge!, REVENGE!**

The last 900 pages or so comprise the unwinding of a single, insanely elaborate revenge plan simultaneously directed at four separate targets. This is one of the best ideas in the book. The standard thriller revenge plot goes after its villains one at a time, least important to most. The Count could have had his enemies stabbed or poisoned, but instead he creates a Rube Goldberg machine of a scheme whose mainspring is the vanity and greed of his enemies. What, you don't want to see how that works?

The ingenuity of The Three Musketeers, by contrast, is the creation of an endlessly flexible vehicle for episodic stories, something plenty of people have done since, if not before. The inspiration may vary from episode to episode, but it doesn't matter much, because the structure is loose. Not like the final two-thirds of The Count of Monte Cristo, a single massive, crazy whatsit.

One might wonder why the first third was even necessary. V for Vendetta, to pick a contemporary knockoff, gets straight to the revenge. Dumas could have done that, but then we would have missed his most outrageous innovation, the pivot that occurs once Edmond is out of prison. He adopts a new identity to help enact his revenge - many identities, actually. What's nuts is that all of the other characters have also adopted new identities. One story basically disappears and is replaced by another, with only occasional, vague nods to the first story.

The novel is like a train that jumps the tracks but then miraculously lands on another set of tracks pointed in a different direction. Or like a movie that sudddenly changes both characters and actors a third of the way in, but occasionally makes shadowy references to the first set of characters. This is aside from the complementary device where four characters actually (symbolically actually) return from the dead.

For example, say that in the first part, Edmond is played by Errol Flynn, and then after prison Edmond becomes the Count and Errol Flynn becomes Groucho Marx. His enemies turn out to be Chico and Harpo, his fiancée becomes Margaret Dumont. Etc. etc. A few plot details would have to be changed. This would have been a great movie. Now I feel bad that I mentioned it - I want to see the Marx Brothers' The Count of Monte Cristo.

* I realized, as I read this scene, that I knew it from my childhood, from a 1975 TV movie starring Richard Chamberlain and Tony Curtis. Nothing else in the book triggered any memories; just this one scene. I had misunderstood it, I now discover, but I never forgot it.

** Here's how effective the story can be. Ma femme finished the book before I did. For days after, whenever the cat misbehaved, she would point at it and hiss "Vendetta! Vendetta!" Terrifying.

Monday, January 26, 2009

The Count of Monte Cristo - clichés, 1,462 pages, and jelly on the side

I'm not such a bad reader of literature. I pay attention to what the text says. I read each sentence. I store away the details. If the writer is good, they’ll show up later. When I hear someone say that he didn’t appreciate this or that book because he “reads too fast”, my sympathy is limited. Slow down, dude. Or get the plot out of the way, and then read it again for the good parts.

With a book like Alexandre Dumas's The Count of Monte Cristo (1844-5), though, I’m the one reading it wrong. This is not a well-written novel. It’s a compilation of clichés - clichés of characterization, clichés of expression. Individual sentences, or dialogues, or, in mercifully few cases, entire chapters (see Ch. 52, “Pyramus and Thisbe”), are teeth-grindingly bad. It’s the skimmers who are reading The Count of Monte Cristo correctly. Speed up, pal, speed up. No, don’t stick around to the end of that sentence. It’s not getting any better.

In the Modern Library edition, which reprints an anonymous 1846 English version, presumably done in haste and packed with grotesque translation errors, that momentum-killing Chapter 52 (two young lovers deliver expostion to each other through a hole in a wall, like Pyramus and Thisbe, ain't that cute) begins on page 686. Good Lord, that's not even the halfway point -there are 1,462 pages total.

If the novel is so bad (which it isn't, quite), and so long, why is it one of the most popular stories ever written? I had to wrestle with this for a while, I admit. My tolerance for clichés - other people's clichés, at least, ha ha - is low. My interest in plot - incident, really - is minimal. What did readers like Jorge Luis Borges or Italo Calvino see in this ridiculous book?

Oscar Wilde argued, or asserted, or anyway wrote, that we should divide books into three classes: Books to read, Books to re-read, and Books not to read at all (for example, “all books that try to prove anything”).*

The Count of Monte Cristo is definitely worth reading. I’m not so sure it’s worth re-reading, at least not for the reasons one re-reads, to pick some contemporaries of Dumas, Balzac or Hugo . I’ll spend this week grumbling about Monte Cristo’s defects, enjoying its virtues, and eating deep-fried sandwiches.

* The Artist as Critic: The Criticism of Oscar Wilde, ed. Richard Ellman, p. 27

Friday, January 23, 2009

Life consists in what a man is thinking of all day - I have been enjoying Emerson's journals

I have been reading more of Emerson than his journals - the second series of Essays, his poems, Representative Men - and I had some vague idea of writing a little about these books. The "Montaigne" essay in Representative Men, for example, is fantastic. But I seem to keep circling back to the journals, I think because they present a cogent, concise portrait of the true essence of Emerson.

No, what nonsense. It's because they're easier. More fun to read. Emerson is hard - "Nominalist and Realist," what am I doing reading something titled "Nominalist and Realist"? The essays are dense, rhetorically complex, deliberately contradictory, and long. The same ideas in the journal are bite-size and more easily digested. And if something is too baffling, just skip on; Emerson will be thinking about something else.

The biographical momentum helps, too. Emerson marries, loses his wife, marries again. He has crises of faith. He laments his interest in sex. He praise novels and gets worked up about politics and travels to England. He adores his children; he loses his son. Oh, that last one, almost too hard to read:

"Jan. 28, 1842
Yesterday night at 15 minutes after eight my little Waldo ended his life."

Waldo was five years old. "Every tramper that ever tramped is abroad but the little feet are still." He mourns and moves on, and writes about that, too.

Some Emersonian wisdom, or at least attempts at such:

"At Brook Farm one man ploughed all day, & one looked out of the window all day & drew his picture, and both received the same wages.

The one event which never loses its romance is the alighting of superior persons at my gate.

Life consists in what a man is thinking of all day.

The old writers, such as Montaigne, Milton, Browne, when they had put down their thoughts, jumped into their book bodily temselves, so that we have all that is left of them in our shelves; there is not a pinch of dust beside."

The last one is from Aug. 1848; the others from mid-1847. Just a sample. The last one may be a tautology; the first may not make quite the point Emerson wants. Hardly relevant - when Emerson had a thought, he wrote it down. If, soon after, he thought the opposite, that went in the journal, too. Reading the journals is akin to watching Emerson think.

I have been reading the one volume Emerson in His Journals, and am vaguely tempted, just barely, to read the entire journal, all ten volumes or so.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

His only illustration is his own biography - Emerson criticizes his friends

Emerson's journals - most of his writings - are an enormous project of self-criticism and self-improvement. No surprise than that they also contain criticisms of his friends, a central part of his life, criticisms that are constructive and penetrating:

"Henry Thoreau is like the woodgod who solicits the wandering poet & draws him into antres vast & desarts idle, & bereaves him of his memory, & leaves him naked, plaiting vines & with twigs in his hand. Very seductive are the first steps from the town to the woods, but the End is want & madness." August 1848, p. 391.

And here's the most famous knock on Thoreau:

"Thoreau wants a little ambition in his nature. Fault of this, instead of being the head of American Engineers, he is captain of a huckleberry party." July 1851, p. 426.

Emerson constantly doubts and questions the value of his own work, and you can see the element of self-criticism in his portraits of Thoreau. And I should point out that Emerson considered Thoreau something like the Greatest Man Alive. I've misplaced the reference, but somewhere in his journal he describes Thoreau as the only man who actually lives by Emerson's ideals. Not the only other man - Emerson excludes himself. But then there's Emerson's frustration - if you're so smart and talented, get out of your canoe and do something.

Thomas Carlyle, Branson Alcott, Margaret Fuller - along with his barbs, Emerson occasionally expresses amazement that he has been able to associate with these people, great intellects, original thinnkers, brilliant weirdos. But here he is on Alcott:

"Unhappily, his conversation never loses sight of his own personality. He never quotes; he never refers; his only illustration is his own biography. His topic yesterday is Alcott on the 17 October; today, Alcott on the 18 October; tomorrow, on the 19th. So will it be always... this noble genius discredits genius to me." April 1842, p. 281.

This counts as Emerson humor, at least the middle part. Is it also a bit mean? True, but mean? I'm not sure I have the strength of character to hear this sort of thing about myself. When, up above, I called his criticisms "constructive", I meant theoretically. Heard and understood in the proper spirit. How that would actually work, even, or especially, coming from one's closest friends, I have no idea.

This was all private, of course, just for Emerson and posterity. Emerson could be kind of a cold fish, but was not actually cruel, I don't think. It all slept in the journal.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

The angel would eat too much gingerbread - Emerson cracks a joke

Somewhere on Wuthering Expectations, although heck if I can remember where, I included Ralph Waldo Emerson in a list of writers I considered humorless. Having read more deeply - or more shallowly? - anyway, more something - in Emerson, I am happy to retract the charge.

In his essay "Nominalist and Realist" (1844), Emerson reminds us that even Great Men are imperfect: "I verily believe if an angel should come to chaunt the chorus of the moral law, he would eat too much gingerbread, or take liberties with private letters, or do some precious atrocity."

That's, I say, that's a joke, son. I didn't say it was necessarily funny, but an angel stuffing himself with gingerbread is comic. Still deflating the Great Men, he varies the joke in the "Napoleon" chapter of Representative Men (1850) when listing Napoleon's bad qualities:

"He treated women with low familiarity. He had the habit of pulling their ears, and pinching their cheeks, when he was in good humor, and of pulling the ears and whiskers of men, and of striking and horse-play with them, to his last days. It does not appear that he listened at key-holes, or, at least, that he was caught at it."

OK, "that he was caught at it," not bad.

I have been reading Emerson in something like chronological order. I think he gets funnier as he ages, although I may have only now learned to identify his comic tone. He becomes a bit sour, even, but there's an accompanying recognition of the ridiculousness of things that is very genial. This is easier to see in his journal than in his essays, but traces begin to appear everywhere.

Don't get me wrong - the default Emerson style is "earnest gasbag", but there's a lot of variation around that. Look at this defense of earnestness, in "Montaigne; or the Skeptic":

"The first dangerous symptom I report, is, the levity of intellect; as if it were fatal to earnestness to know much. Knowledge is the knowing that we cannot know. The dull pray; the geniuses are light mockers."

This is immediately followed by a parody of his "subtle and admirable friend" Thomas Carlyle, a heavy mocker, who becomes "San Carlo." Again, not exactly funny, but comic, and the only example of Emersonian parody that I have come across, or anyway recognized.

As enjoyable as it is to find this side of Emerson, there is no excuse for this journal entry from December 1850:

"How could the children of Israel sustain themselves for forty days in the desart?
Because of the sand-which-is there."

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

We promise not to look at their tails or incisors when they come into company - Emerson on the Fugitive Slave Law

"We shall never feel well again until that detestable law is nullifed in Massachusetts & until the Government is assured that once and for all it cannot & shall not be executed here. All I have, and all I can do shall be given & done in opposition to the execution of the law." (p. 420)

This is Emerson on the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850. Emerson's journals contain plenty of politics, mostly regarding abolitionism, but nothing before 1850 had got him so worked up. Emerson in His Journals, the selection I'm reading, has five pages, basically all of April and May 1851, of nothing but anger and bitterness and first-rate rhetoric.

Note that the use of the word "nullified" is pretty radical, a reference to the Nullification Crisis, when it seemed possible that President Jackson would use the Federal military to enforce a tariff law in South Carolina. Emerson is playing with the idea of the breakup of the United States. He's prescient, and in despair.

"Let Mr Webster for decency's sake shut his lips once & forever on this word. The word liberty in the mouth of Mr Webster sounds like the word love in the mouth of a courtezan." (p. 421)

Senator Webster was not just a hero of Emerson's - Emerson thought Webster was a Carlyle-style Great Man of History. But not after Webster supported the compromise that included the Fugitive Slave Act:

"Against this all the arguments of Webster make no more impression than the spray of a child's squirt. The fame of Webster ends in this nasty law." (p. 422)

Unususally scatological for Emerson. He may have had Jonathan Swift on his mind. Here he is a few days later, playing with Swift's "Modest Proposal" - slavery is cannibalism, and slave-owners are devils:

"It was a little gross, the taste for boiling babies, but as long as this kind of cookery was confined within their own limits, we could agree for other purposes, & wear one flag... though they had tails, & their incisors were a little long, yet it is settled that they shall by courtesy be called men; we will make believe they are Christians; & we promise not to look at their tails or incisors when they come into company." (p. 423)

Emerson here acknowledges that slavery was an evil with which he had to some degree made his peace - as long as it was kept down there. The Fugitive Slave Law returned the evil to his hearth, and shook him out of his complacency. His journals are rarely so fiery. This reminds me of what I was trying to say about Roberto Bolaño. Emerson is forcing himself to gauge his own hypocrisy. How unpleasant and difficult; how often do I do that?

Perhaps often enough, actually. Too much of that sort of thing and a person could hardly function. Tomorrow, then, Emerson the comedian.

All page references are to Emerson in His Journals, 1982, ed. Joel Porte.

Monday, January 19, 2009

On him they could not calculate - a note on Thoreau, Emerson, and Reverend King

"Mr Webster told them how much the war cost, that was his protest, but voted the war, & sends his sons to it. They calculated rightly on Mr Webster. My friend Mr Thoreau has gone to jail rather than pay his tax. On him they could not calculate. The abolitionists denounce the war & give much time to it, but they pay the tax."

July 1846, Ralph Waldo Emerson's journal, Emerson in His Journals, pp. 358-9.

This is a tricky passage, full of irony. Webster is the great Senator, a hero of Emerson's. Here we see an early warning of the complete disillusionment that will come a few years later when Webster voted for the Fugitive Slave Act.

Another irony is that neither Emerson or Thoreau are really protesting the Mexican War in and of itself. They are opposed to the war because they believed it was waged in the interests of expanding slavery. Thoreau wrote about his protest in the 1849 "Civil Disobedience" essay, which eventually leads us to Rev. King's "Letter from Birmingham Jail." Thoreau's protest was an unusually productive one.

But yet another irony is that Emerson was one of the abolitionists who paid the tax. He didn't go to jail. Emerson was fully aware of this irony.

Yet another: Emerson and Thoreau were both intellectually indebted to Thomas Carlyle. Around the time Thoreau published "Civil Disobedience," Carlyle was vigourously defending black slavery. This is why intellectual history is so interesting - ideas move around in such mysterious ways. One of the many strands of history that lead to our new President made an important stop in that jail cell in Concord.

I have been reading a lot of Emerson lately; I think I'll spend the week with him.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Robert Bolaño and Edgar Allan Poe discuss interior decorating

The first story or sketch or whatnot in Nazi Literature in the Americas (available here via the Virginia Quarterly Review), describes, in twelve pages, the long life of the Argentinian poet Edelmira Thompson de Mendiluce. She publishes poems, marries a rancher, tours Europe, founds a publishing house, becomes a "committed Hitlerite."

Many reviewers have described Bolaño's novel as a menagerie of obscurities and failures, which is not exactly correct. Edelmira, for example, has an "eminent place in the panorama of Argentinean and Hispanic letters." She achieves that status with "her finest work, Poe's Room (1944), which prefigured the nouveau roman and much subsequent avant-garde writing."

Poe's Room contains: a description of a room that Edelmira has had constructed, a "treatise on good taste and interior design," details about the construction of the room and the "search for the furniture, and so on. The room is an exact reproduction of the perfect room described by Edgar Allan Poe is his story or sketch or whatnot "The Philosophy of Furniture" (1840/1845).

In this actual story, available (semi-readably) here,* Poe describes the correct principles of interior decorating, and ends with a long single paragraph, nearly two pages of the six total in the Library of America edition, describing a room, an ideal room, built by a friend. The room is an oblong shape, the colors are gold and crimson, the paintings are large and lie flat against the wall. "Beyond these things, there is no furniture, if we except an Argand lamp, with a plain crimson-tinted ground glass shade, which depends from the lofty vaulted ceiling by a single slender gold chain, and throws a tranquil but magical radiance over all."

That's the last sentence. Really driving it home there, Ed. The Poe story is extremely tedious, although less so than two later pieces ("The Domain of Arnheim", 1847, and "Landor's Cottage", 1849) that do the exact same thing for landscapes. The one touch of weird Poe, just a bit of dreamy surrealism, is the brief mention, buried in the paragraph, that Poe's friend is all the while sleeping on the sofa.

What is Bolaño doing here? This is not a small thing. Bolaño spends four of the twelve pages of the story on this imagined book. More than half of that is directly plagiarized from Poe's story, except that where Poe has a single paragraph, Bolaño makes a list:

"- The frames broad but not deep, and richly carved, without being dulled or filigreed.

- The paintings lying flat on the walls, not hanging off with cords."

Two full pages of just this, straight from Poe, with just minor changes in wording and verb tense (e.g., Poe has "The frames are broad but not deep"). What does this have to do with fascism, or with anything?

Let's see. The point of this piece of conceptual art is that Edelmira actually builds Poe's ideal room; that she brings a fantasy into the real world. Perhaps the analogy is with totalitarian states enacting crackpot ideal rules about art and life.

Or possibly it's the artist - not just Edelmira, but Poe - who is covertly totalitarian. Maybe Poe is serious about his precepts of interior design, or landscaping, that there really is an ideal, he has identified it, and if he had the power that's the way things would be. Bolaño's novel might then be anti-idealistic, the artist presenting the world as it should not be.

This episode gave me one of my hints that Bolaño is going after Modernism. Edelmira reads "The Philosophy of Furniture" and is thrilled: "She felt that she had found a soul mate in Poe: their ideas about decoration coincided." The last clause is a joke; the first is an invocation of a founder of Modernism, Charles Baudelaire, who said the same sort of thing about Poe. If I were a Professional Reader I would find an exact quote of Baudelaire's. I hate to make too much of the absence of a name, but I think this reference is meant to be specific.

As I said, or meant to say, yesterday, I don't understand more than hints of Bolaño's undermining of Modernism, which is itself a Modernist sort of thing to do. Romantic, too, like Baudelaire's attack on Romanticism, hyper-Romantic; not like the Elegiac Poet in that Hugo play, who wants to be a "moderate Romantic."

Glub glub glub. I'm in over my head. I'm sure someone is at this moment writing a conference paper on this exact subject. Good luck with that.

* Please note the hilarious bracketed editorial comment at the bottom: "[It should be noted that Poe, in this article, has adopted an intentionally humorous tone.]" Intentional, you don't say? So noted.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

In plagiarizing Senghor his art reached a summit of perfection - Nazi Literature in the America and suspicion about politics in literature

Writing about an explicitly political Victor Hugo story reminded me that I wanted to write a note or two about another novel that is actually about the place of politics in literature, Roberto Bolaño's Nazi Literature in the Americas (1996). Cuz people aren't writing enough about him.

Nazi Literature in the Americas is a fake biographical encyclopedia, short sketches, mostly just a few pages long, of imaginary North and South American writers, all with some connection to some sort of fascist politics, mostly not related to Nazis. That word in the title is the first of the novel's many obscure jokes.*

The novel is an investigation of, or attack on, the political underpinnings of literary Modernism, or perhaps the reader's assumptions about the politics of Modernism. The imagined writer's area all modernists. One follows the theories of Charles Olson, another writes like Gertrude Stein, yet another is a Beat. Yet they all advocate ideas that range from the crackpot harmless to the murderously dangerous. And most obtain some degree of success and fame as writers. So it's not just the writers who are culpable. There's something about Modernism itself.

A hint lies in the number of poets who are poètes maudits, accursed poets, criminals and madmen, whose works are published in prison newsletters, or only as mimeographs, or as skywriting. Something quite a bit more obvious than a hint is in the entry on "Luiz Fontaine da Souza", Brazil's "leading Catholic philosopher", who begins his career with books titled Refutation of Voltaire, A Refutation of Diderot, and so on: D'Alembert, Montesqieu, Rousseau. This fascist writer's target isn't modernity, but the Enlightenment. And Nazi Literature's target, then, is Romanticism, or at least it's totalitarian tendencies.

Or perhaps the criticism is of aestheticism? What to make of the "John Lee Brook" sketch, which begins "Widely regarded as the best writer of the Aryan Brotherhood, and one of the best Californian poets of the late twentieth century..." Brook is executed, for multiple homicides, after "various appeals, supported by influential members of the Californian literay community."

Or look at the head-spinning chapter "The Many Masks of Max Mirebalais", about a Haitian poet whose art is plagiarism, looting modern French poetry and publishing under a series of Pessoa-like heteronyms. "In plagiarizing Senghor his art reached a summit of perfection: no one realized that the five poems that appeared in the Monitor in the second week of September 1971 signed Max Kasimir were texts that Senghor had published in Hosties noires (Seuil, 1948) and Ethiopiques (Seuil, 1956)."

Much of the interest of this novel comes from following the "author" of the sketches, who, we learn in the last sketch, is named "Roberto Bolaño", as he alternates between something resembling objectivity, revulsion at some (but not all) of the ideas of his subjects, and detailed praise of some (but not all) of their poems and books. The author it turns out, is a pretty strange fellow himself.**

I should perhaps point out here that this is the only Bolaño book I have read, and that I have no idea what the actual author himself thought about any of this. But I can read the book I have in front of me. The novel does not argue that politics do not have a place in literature, or in an author's life. And it is not obvious that Bolaño is advocating a more humanist philosophy, for example, or a return to the Enlightenment, or some other alternative. He's careful to not present an alternative. He creates a void. What should fill it?

If you like this sort of Borgesian literary game you probably will enjoy the novel, and if it's not your sort of thing, you probably won't. But if you were hoping I would say that Bolaño is overhyped, sorry, although I don't blame you. In Nazi Literature, Bolaño is clever and funny, and presents some complicated ideas in an original way. He appears to be the real thing.

Tomorrow, I want to look at a specific episode that will put me safely back in the 19th century.

* There are also plenty of completely transparent jokes: "Schürholz, whose fame had previously been restricted to Chile's literary and artistic circles, vast as they are, was catapulted to the very sumit of notoriety", or, if "vast as they are" is still too obscure, how about "His work, published piecemeal in magazines, consists of more than fifty short stories and a seventy-line poem dedicated to a weasel."

** Or maybe Latin American encyclopedists are just generally, um, different than I expected. Bolaño mentions the actual Uruguayan poet Juana de Ibarbourou. When I looked her up I found this on Wikipedia:

"Like most poets, Ibarbourou nursed an intense fear of death. Though it is easy to surmise this from her poetry, she states so explicitly in the first line of 'Carne Inmortal.'"

Like most poets, you say? This could have come straight from Bolaño's novel. Maybe the entire Wiki entry is a Bolaño-esque prank.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Please don't throw it on the fire: it's a library book - more of Hugo's Condemned Man

The story so far: in 1829 Victor Hugo wrote and published The Last Day of a Condemned Man as a protest against capital punishment. In 1832, he republished the story, adding a fiery preface that included grisly tales of malfunctioning guillotines and calls for prison reform.

But just a month or two after initial publication, back in 1829, Hugo had already added a sort of preface, one of the strangest I've ever seen. It's an 8 page play titled "A Comedy about a Tragedy". Characters include The Elegiac Poet, The Fat Gentleman, and The Philosopher. They debate the merits of the latest novel:

"The Ladies: Which novel is that?

The Fat Gentleman: Enough, sir, I know the one you mean. The title alone grates on my nerves.

Madame de Blinval: And on mine. It's a dreadful book. I have it here.

The Ladies: Oh, do let us see.

[The book is passed from hand to hand.]

Somebody [reading aloud]: The Last Day of a...

The Fat Gentleman: Madam, I beg of you!

Madame de Blinval: Quite so; it is a shocking book, a book that gives you bad dreams and makes you feel quite ill.

A Lady [aside]: I must read it."

Hugo gleefully skewers the idiots: the poet who wants to be Romantic, but not too Romantic; the lawyer who worries that the book will influence juries and undermine the social fabric; the reader who doesn't want to read about anything depressing; the philosopher who says that "[t]he subject required cogent debate", and "[a] play or a novel prove nothing." Hey, that one is me! Hugo is mocking me. My feelings are hurt. And at the end, the Philosopher is mostly concerned about whether there will be food at the party. That's also me.

I first supposed that this preface would be too topical, made up too much of inside jokes. On the contrary. The caricatures and reactions are instantly recognizable and still with us. The jokes are funny. The whole company has finished taking turns attacking Hugo:

"Ergaste: Oh, the vile book!

Madame de Blinval: Please don't throw it on the fire: it's a library book.

The Chevalier: Let's speak of the good old days. Everything has gone downhill since, both taste and standards. Do you remember what it was like in our days, Madame de Blinval?

Madame de Blinval: No, sir, I don't."

I know, it's just a joke in the "never mention a lady's age" genre. I have the highest respect for writers who, however serious their purpose, can't resist going for the joke. Always go for the joke.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

This was not on the agenda! - choice bits from The Last Day of a Condemned Man

The Last Day of a Condemned Man, whatever its political purpose, is a fine work of art. The range of moods and variety of ideas impressed me. The story if only 67 pages long, but it's broken into 49 chapters. The prisoner rages and consoles himself; he describes his cell and his guards; he hears a song, watches other prisoners leave, and gives away his coat. The short chapters allow Victor Hugo to squeeze in everything he can think of. If he rarely develops an idea, or leaves fragments scattered around, he simply reflects the emotional state of the prisoner.

One of the longest chapters, over six pages, is one of the best. The condemned man is watching a group of prisoners depart for the prison at Toulon, where they will serve out their time doing hard labor. It's also a death sentence for most of the prisoners, but who knows, maybe they will survive, like Jean Valjean in Les Miserables, or Balzac's master criminal Vautrin, or a couple of bad dudes I'm currently reading about in The Count of Monte Cristo. I guess if you were a fictional prisoner, you were pretty likely to survive, actually.

Here's a bit of Chapter 14, when the prisoners are assembling. There's an audience to see them off:

"Some of them, as convict celebrities, were greeted with cheers and applause, which they acknowledged with a kind of becoming modesty. The majority of them had hats of a sort that they had woven themselves from the straw in their cells, always bizarrely shaped so that the wearer would be recognized by it in the towns they passed through. The applause for these men was even greater. One in particular, a young man of seventeen with the face of a girl, received a rapturous ovation. He had come from the cell where he had been in solitary confinement for a week; from his bale of straw he had made a garment that clad him head to foot, and he came cartwheeling into the courtyard with snake-like suppleness. He was a strolling player convicted of theft. There were waves of clapping, and joyful shouts." pp. 41-2.

The acrobat in the straw suit - that's good stuff. As the chapter continues, the mood darkens, as does the weather. One more quote:

"Only one old fellow remained cheerful. He shouted out, as he tried to dry himself with his wet shrt, that this was not on the agenda; then he started to laugh, and shook his fist at the sky."

An example of a completely different tone, as, in a later scene, the prisoner imagines the afterlife:

"I feel that the sky will glow with its own luminosity, that stars will be dark speckles, and instead of being golden spangles on black velvet, as they are for living eyes, will appear like black spots on a cloth of gold...

Or perhaps I shall awaken after the blow to find myself on some flat and slimy surface, on hands and knees in the darkness and turning round and round like a head as it rolls. With a high wind at my back, and buffeted every so often by other rolling heads... When my eyes swivel upwards, they will behold nothing but a pitch-black sky, its heavy layers bearing down on them, and in the far distance will loom up great arches of smoke that is blacker than the darkness. Tiny red sparks hovering in the night will turn into birds of fire as they draw closer. And thus it will be for all eternity." p. 79.

These visions of heaven and hell has some relation to Dante, I suppose. But they sound original to me; the context is certainly original.

Hugo would return to the subject of The Last Day. Notre Dame de Paris, written just three years later, ends with an execution, and a good part of Les Miserables is about crime, punishment, and injustice. Come to think of it, The Red and the Black, published in 1830, also features a prisoner condemned to death. Stendhal's treatment of the subject could hardly be more different than Hugo's. Curious.

I mentioned yesterday that Hugo later added a polemical preface to the original story. He added something else as well, something very peculiar. I'll save that for tomorrow.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Victor Hugo and the death penalty - The Last Day of a Condemned Man

Victor Hugo's The Last Day of a Condemned Man (1829) is a novella-length story, 67 pages in the edition I read, a first person account of a man condemned to the guillotine. It's not the prisoner's confession - the chapter headed "My Story" is actually blank - but his moods and reflections, his suffering and panic and anger. The condemned man is supposed to be writing all of this while awaiting his punishment, so we do not actually witness the execution. The story ends when the prisoner stops writing: "The sniveling lackeys! Here they come, back up the stairs... FOUR O'CLOCK". That's it.

This is a political book, propaganda, meant to assist in the abolition of the death penalty. It was first published anonymously, not exactly as if it were an authentic account, but at least allowing for the possibility. A few years later, suddenly famous and disgusted by the failure of the 1830 Revolutionaries to carry through on their promise to abolish capital punishment, Hugo added a long (22 page) preface in which he makes his argument explicit. In contemporary American terms, the logical argument of the book is that capital punishment, specifically the period between the sentencing and the execution, amounts to “cruel and unusual punishment”.

But The Last Day is fiction, not a tract, so the argument of the story, and even of the preface, is not presented in logical terms. The effect is emotional, psychological. I'm a hard-headed fellow, and this is not a method that is likely to convince someone like me of much of anything. Not just me, I guess, since the death penalty was only abolished in France in 1981.

The 2002 Hesperus Press edition I read is itself an explicitly political book, a sort of memorial to a classic of anti-capital punishment literature. The cover features "death row photographs", and the afterword is by the Director of Amnesty International UK, Kate Allen. Her case against the death penalty is presented in two efficient, logical, hard-headed pages and is exactly the sort of thing to convince someone like me. Different tools for different jobs.

Anyway, this has all been about The Last Day of a Condemned Man as political argument. For a number of reasons, I think the book fails in its political purpose. One of the reasons is that Hugo refuses to simplify his story, and sometimes even argues against himself. But - or perhaps, so - as a work of art, it's a great success, very much worth reading. I'll save this for the next couple of days.

Friday, January 9, 2009

It's somehow thicker'n other water - Mendele Mocher Sforim's "Fishke the Lame"

"The Little Man," from 1864, is Mendele Mocher Sforim's first Yiddish story. "Fishke the Lame," from 1869, is his third. "The Little Man" may have marked the creation of modern Yiddish literature, but it obviously took a while for things to get moving. In the meantime, Mendele / Abramovitsh wrote in Hebrew, and translated an enormous variety of stuff into Yiddish and Hebrew - biology textbooks, Russian history, Jules Verne.

In "Fishke the Lame," Mendele the Book Peddler tells us about poor Fishke; later Fishke tells us his own story:

"Cross-eyed, one arm twisted back, limping heavily on one leg, Fishke was no delight to behold. He was such a freakish creature that the town didn't even want him as a cholera groom."

A what? To end an epidemic, a town would try to create luck for itself through forced marriages of its "cripples, scoundrels, and beggars." Even grotesque Fishke finally gets to marry a blind woman, and together they hit the road with a troupe of beggars. This is obviously a story about the poorest of the poor. It's vivid, funny, and sort of horrible.

Fishke had worked as a tout at a village bathhouse. In Odessa, disillusioned with his travels, he decides to return to the baths, but discovers that the big city bathhouses are not like the one at home:

"I went to other baths, but ain't none like ours - they don't even smell like our brick bathhouse in Glupsk. Now, their ritual baths are a joke. In our mikve you can darn near cut the water, 'cause it has a special odor, a different color, and it's somehow thicker'n other water. Right away you know it has a Jewish flavor, but there the mikve water is clear, plain old water, you could even drink it."

Vivid, funny, and horrible.

Both "The Little Man" and "Fishke the Lame" are in Classic Yiddish Stories of S. Y. Abramovitsh, Sholem Aleichem and I. L. Peretz, 2004, edited and translated by Ken Frieden.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

But I'm getting off the point - Mendele Mocher Sforim's "The Little Man"

Despite working on this week's lists, I did not really plan to immediately start reading Yiddish authors. But the lists sharpened my appetite, so I went right to the beginning, to Mendele Mocher Sforim's "The Little Man", a short story published in 1864 in the Yiddish supplement to a Hebrew newspaper. Before this story, there was no such thing as modern Yiddish literature; after, there was.

I don't think anyone would know that just by reading the story. I mean, it's pretty good. Mendele the Book Peddler tells us a little about himself, and then tells us how he was present at the reading of a strange will. The will is part autobiography, part confession, of an unpleasant rich man who raised himself from poverty.

It's a bit like the 16th century Spanish picaresque, Lazarillo de Tormes. The narrator of the will tells how he moved from one terrible job to another, each worse than the last. But where Lazarillo de Tormes has no real ending - Lazarillo presumably just moves on to another bad job - the dead man figured out the path to riches. He learned to become a "little man", a hypocrite and a flatterer. In the will, he confesses his sins and leaves most of his money to charity, so everything is all right, yes?

So there are some of good satirical touches like that. But the humor of the story mostly comes from the way it is told. Mendele's refrain is "But I'm getting off the point." He's always on the verge of a serious digression, but always pulls himself back. And he lards the story with dubious Jewish wisdom:

"It's true that the rabbi is a fine and honest man - I should only have his good name - although still, in this world, one has to deceive people. Even the angels had to follow the way of the world and put one over on Abraham, when the Torah says that they ate, although they only pretended to eat. But that's really not at all what I'm driving at."

It's this sort of voice that Sholem Aleichem is going to perfect, twenty years or so later.

"The Little Man" stands in the company of Richardson's Pamela, which launched the epistolary novel craze in the 18th century, and Scott's Waverley, which caused an avalanche of historical novels. Neither of those books are the best of their genre, or even of their authors. But they did something unusual. Mendele Mocher Sforim did not just create, or popularize, a new genre, though. He created a new literature. It's a creative act that is hard for me to comprehend, really, and the story itself, good as it is, does not help much.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

A 19th century Yiddish reading list, pt. 3 - Dybbuks, postcards, and King Lear

More early Yiddish writers, on stage and in America.

S. Ansky (1863-1920), a scholar and ethnographer, wrote The Dybbuk (1914), a landmark in the Yiddish theater. The Dybbuk and Other Writings is the book I'll look at first, but his account of the Russian Army's devastation of the shtetls during World War I, The Enemy at His Pleasure: A Journey Through the Jewish Pale of Settlement During World War I, sounds fascinating.

The Yiddish theater seems to have been most active in the United States. For example, Jacob Gordin's The Jewish King Lear (1892), which is not quite just what it sounds like, but pretty close. This play was only recently translated - Stephen Greenblatt's review of it in The New Republic several months ago is one of the spurs to this project. God, Man, and Devil: Yiddish Plays in Translation includes another Gordin play, and who knows what else. An older collection, Six Plays of the Yiddish Theater, may also be worth a look.

The short story writer Lamed Shapiro (1878-1948) may push too far out of the 19th century. On the other hand, he seems to be amazing. Last year's The Cross and Other Jewish Stories is the place to go. Wyatt Mason posted an entire story in July.

I'd like to read Abraham Cahan (1860-1951) someday - The Rise of David Levinsky, or Yekl: A Tale of the New York Ghetto - but I think he wrote in English. We'll see. I have to draw a line somewhere.

How about poetry? The earliest Yiddish-American poets I know of, Mani Leib and Moyshe Halpern, start their careers just a little too late, I think. If I change my mind, Ruth Wisse's study A Little Love in Big Manhattan will fill me in.

Wisse also edited a collection called A Shtetl and Other Yiddish Novellas. No idea what's in it. Or in No Star Too Beautiful: Yiddish Stories from 1382 to the Present. Or in Great Works of Jewish Fantasy. I could go on.

Two books of photos look interesting. Roman Vishniac's A Vanished World (1947) contains photos of ghetto life in the 1930s, mostly in Poland. As one might guess, the book was published as an act of remembrance. But what Yiddish-related book is not an act of remembrance now. For example, Yiddishland, which collects actual shtetl postcards. See left. Amazing.

Please fill me in on your favorites - literature, history, art, criticism. I've told you everything I know, almost. I've listed more books than I will actually read. Point me in the right direction.

Update: David Bergelson was a major omission from the original post.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

A 19th century Yiddish reading list, pt. 2 - Mendele Mocher Sforim, Sholom Aleichem, and I. L. Peretz

Three authors are at the core of early Yiddish literature: S. Y. Abramovitsh aka Mendele Mocher Sforim (1836-1917), Sholom Aleichem (1859-1916), and I. L. Peretz (1852-1915).

Mendele Mocher Sforim* / S. Y. Abramovitsh is the inventor of modern Yiddish literature. He wanted to write for ordinary Jews in their own language. Abramovitsh published his first Yiddish novel, The Little Man serially in late 1864 to 1865. It is narrated by Mendele Mocher Sforim, Mendele the Book Peddler. I don't think he meant it as a pen name, but Abramovitsh brought Mendele back again and again, and the name stuck.

A number of Sforim novels have made it into English at one time or another. The Travels and Adventures of Benjamin the Third (1869) is a must, as well as Fishke the Lame. Other titles: The Wishing-Ring, The Nag aka The Mare, and The Parasite. My library has an anthology, Selected Works of Mendele Moykher-Sfarim, so I'll see what's in that.

Sholom Aleichem's Yiddish collected works fills 28 volumes, mostly short stories, mostly monologues, mostly about rural Jews in the Russian Pale of Settlement. Aleichem is a sort of Yiddish culture hero, and is almost famous because of The Fiddler on the Roof. Tevye the Dairyman (1894-1914) is the source for Fiddler, eight stories in which Tevye tells us about his troubles with his daughters. "Maybe you can tell me, though, why it is that whenever something goes wrong in this world, it's Tevye it goes wrong with?" That's the tone, always comical, or tragicomic, or comitragic.

The Railroad Stories (1902-1910) are also high on my list. This time, it's railroad passengers telling us their stories. After that, what? I have a little Dover collection, Happy New Year! and Other Stories, selected from the 1959 Stories and Satires. I've counted up at least ten other story collections in English, with who knows how much overlap. There's a lot out there.

Aleichem wrote a fake travel guide for the town he used in many stories, Inside Kasrilevke. Chapters include "Hotels", "Theaters", "Fires", "and "Bandits." I can't pass that up. There are at least a couple of novels to try, as well: The Nightingale, Or the Saga of Yosele Solovey the Cantor (1886), and Mottel the Cantor's Son (1916), which takes us to America, along with the author himself, who left Europe for New York City in 1914. Aleichem's funeral was attended by 150,000 mourners, and was covered on the front page of the New York Times.

Aleichem's contemporary I. L. Peretz is a little easier to deal with because of The I. L. Peretz Reader, ed. Ruth Wisse. Peretz mostly wrote short stories, as well, but this volume also includes some poetry, travel writing, and a memoir. I've come across at least six other collections as well. My understanding is that Peretz is more of a modernist than Aleichem or Sforim.

The anthology Classic Yiddish Stories of S. Y. Abramovitsh, Sholem Aleichem, and I. L. Peretz, edited by Ken Frieden, is just what it says, and is meant as an accompaniment to Frieden's study Classic Yiddish Fiction, which would be a logical place to continue my research.

Tomorrow, I'll continue my list with everyone who is not named Sforim, Aleichem, or Peretz. I encourage readers to leave any suggestions they might have.

* Or Seforim, or Sefarim.

Monday, January 5, 2009

A 19th century Yiddish reading list, pt. 1 - Why?

Before I went to Senegal last year, I put together a little reading list, a reader's bibliography, of Senegalese literature. Making the list was highly educational for me. So was reading the books, sure.

I don't have any plans to go anywhere anytime soon, so I am going to repeat the experiment with some place that can now only be visited through books: the Pale of Settlement, the shtetl, the New York City tenements. I'm going to read some Yiddish literature.

Modern Yiddish literature was created in the late 19th century, specifically 1864, in the serialized short novel The Little Man by S. Y. Abramovitsh aka Mendele Mocher Sforim. Before Abramovitsh/Sforim, there were traditional tales in Yiddish, and some religious writing, but no novels, no short stories. The elite wrote in Hebrew, which could not be read by most Jews. Sforim wanted to popularize, and to preserve.

Preservation - that's the center of the study of Yiddish now. Yiddish is a dying language, despite the wealth of its literary tradition. Harold Bloom, a native Yiddish speaker, recently wrote about this in an uncharacteristically humble essay in The New York Review of Books, highly recommended. Bloom foresees the day when Yiddish survives only in its literature. I'm not much help here - I'll be reading translations.

The three great early Yiddish writers, Sforim, Sholom Aleichem, and I. L. Peretz, all wrote, extensively, about the Jewish villages, the shtetl, in what is now Russia, Ukraine, and Poland. And so did later writers - I. B. Singer, Chaim Grade, Lamed Shapiro. This world is gone, utterly gone, destroyed by the Nazis. Irving Howe's anthology A Treasury of Yiddish Stories is dedicated "To the Six Million." Can a reader of Yiddish literature get out from under the shadow of the Holocaust, and read these writers on their own terms? Should he?

The strange, wonderful thing is that all three of these authors are basically comic writers - the whole tradition is basically comic, in the face of pogroms and persecution and poverty. That's one good reason to read them - they're funny. Or so I'm led to believe.

Tomorrow, I'll put together my little reader's bibliography of Sforim, Aleichem, and Peretz. Then on Wednesday, I'll move on to everyone else. I'm sticking to the 19th century, so no Singer brothers, for example. But there's plenty to read, and I don't think I ever mentioned that the Wuthering Expectations 19th century is longer than one might think, ending on November 11, 1918.

I'm going to create a sidebar for these posts as an invitation to help me fill out my list of books. What should I read? The mysterious, vanishing obooki says that 2009 is his year for Yiddish literature, too. So that's two of us.