I read most of the Yiddish books I meant to read, almost as many more that I found along the way, and now have an even longer list of books I want to read. A successful project, then. All right.
What am I likely to read next, when I am ready for more? I'll make a list.
1. More Mendele Mocher Sforim / S. Y. Abramovitch. The forefather of Sholem Aleichem and I. L. Peretz is, compared to them, second rate. But I just finished his 1888 version of Fishke the Lame, in which Abramovitch extended an earlier story to novel length. He adds a little bit of plot filler, which is mostly useless, and a lot of, of, of everything - two hundred pages of digressions and descriptions about bath houses and piles of garbage and confidence schemes and country inns and horses and sunsets over the woods. Life, the book is packed with so much life. I'll read more.
2. Yiddish poetry. The poets considered to be the best - Jacob Glatstein, Mani Leib, Moishe Halpern - are all a little too late for the project. Ruth Wisse's Little Love in Big Manhattan, though, about Mani Leib and Halpern, is very tempting.
3. Hebrew. My impression is that "literary" Hebrew literature is rarer than Yiddish during the 19th century. But it exists. H. Bialik is a writer whose name kept showing up. I want to try him, at least.
4. The genuine Hasidic tradition: In Praise of the Baal Shem Tov, and the strange, strange oral tales of Rabbi Nahman. I. L. Peretz knew these inside and out. I've read a bit of this in anthologies. It's wild, not what I expected.
5. More names: Itzik Manger, Y. Y. Trunk, Rakhel Feygenberg, I. J. Singer, (more) I. B. Singer, Chaim Grade, all too late for the project. Isaac Meier Dik and more S. Ansky, in the right period but insufficiently translated. Abraham Cahan and Isaac Babel, contemporaries who chose languages other than Yiddish for their literary works. While I'm at it, why not Cynthia Ozick, Steve Stern, Max Apple, on and on into the 20th century.
Along these lines, the National Yiddish Book Center has an annotated list of 100 great Jewish books that I recommend to anyone wanting to pursue this idea into the 20th century, or away from Yiddish (the list includes Kafka, H. Roth and P. Roth, Isaac Babel and Anne Frank). When I was doing my research, I found only their irritating non-annotated list. Why do they have both on their site? Never mind. It's a good resource. I read and read, and I've still read only twenty of those books.
Thanks to everyone who offered suggestions, criticism, and comments. I learned so much. A sheynem dank.
Friday, July 31, 2009
I read most of the Yiddish books I meant to read, almost as many more that I found along the way, and now have an even longer list of books I want to read. A successful project, then. All right.
Thursday, July 30, 2009
“We have no desire to make extravagant claims: Yiddish literature can boast no Shakespeares, no Dantes, no Tolstois.” That's from the introduction to The Treasury of Yiddish Stories (1954), edited by Irving Howe and Eliezer Greenberg, p. 2.
Last year, Harold Bloom echoed this fifty year-old judgment: "There is no Proust or Kafka in this panoply; that is an impossible standard to apply." Actually, there is a Kafka, the same one who wrote about the bug and so on - the fact that he wrote in German, not Yiddish, is just a detail. But that's not my point.
These eminences are right. I know what they mean. Still, Yiddish literature does have Sholem Aleichem, who turns out to be a much bigger figure than I had guessed. His stories contain so much variety of character, so much Jewish life. They range across classes and occupation and education, and across Europe, from Kiev and Odessa to London and even New York City.
Sholem Aleichem's greatest achievement can be found in his monologues and his related first person narrations that imitate speech. In his more conventional novels and other stories, there is a distinct Sholem Aleichem voice, clever, jokey. In the monologues, though, there's a cacophony. Occasionally, when a story turned a new corner or I met a new character, I would compare Sholem Aleichem to Charles Dickens, and then draw back. No, no, Sholem Aleichem's world is not that big. Except in the monologues - there he's the equal of anyone.
I've read five Sholem Aleichem books that I can recommend very highly. The sad-sap schemer and his put-upon wife of The Letters of Menakhem-Mendl and Sheyne-Sheyndl; the cheerful nine year-old, Motl, the Cantor's Son; the commercial travelers, third class of The Railroad Stories; the little bit of everything in the collection of monologues Nineteen to the Dozen. That's four.
And then there's Tevye the Dairyman. I'm now convinced that this book, this character, really is a world-class creation. No, not King Lear or Don Quixote, fine, but something much more complex than The Fiddler on the Roof would suggest. I hate to throw around words like proto-existentialist, since I don't know what I'm talking about, but that's the idea. The stories are much more than funny tales of a traditional father's conflicts with his modern daughters (though his warmth and intelligence are certainly appealing). We only hear Tevye's voice, his jokes and endless quotations and family troubles, but somehow that's enough to depict his endless struggle to understand himself, his place in the world, and his ongoing argument with his God.
A day or two ago I called I. L. Peretz the foil of Sholem Aleichem. Peretz was small and deep, Sholem Aleichem big and shallow. More or less. Tevye's an exception.
These five short books fill maybe 900 pages, less. I've read a couple of Sholem Aleichem's novels as well. They have problems, structural mostly. It's not a good thing that The Nightingale (1889) doesn't really take off until the last quarter or so, in a long section about a young woman's wedding and its consequences, although that last part is pretty great. Wandering Stars (1909) is a sprawling, overstuffed mess, but the sprawl and stuffing are themselves quite enjoyable. I plan to read more of his novels, but I'm not expecting to find another Tevye.
Anyway, if I were to recommend a single Yiddish author, among the batch I have read, it would be Sholem Aleichem; Tevye the Dairyman would be the single book. Number two would be Peretz and The I. L. Peretz Reader. Number three - oh, there's too much.
Wednesday, July 29, 2009
Meaning, not for me. For someone else. One thing I've noticed reading Yiddish literature is its similarity to Senegalese literature, to West African literature. Saving the difference, as they say.
My little insight sometime last winter was that 19th century Yiddish literature was a colonial literature. The colonized people were the Jews of the Pale of Settlement; the colonized lands are, now, Byelorussia, Ukraine, and part of Poland. The colonizer, the empire, was Russia. The rule of the imperial power was heavy (the draft, especially), inefficient, bizarre, and at times murderous.
Just as an example, the reason that Yiddish stories concentrate so much on town life is that almost no Jews were allowed to be farmers.* Tevye the Dairyman was unusual in that he worked in agriculture, but if he wanted to buy a field and grow some wheat, he would have had to apply for a special permit, for which there were strict quotas.
The cultural similarities are so striking. In Senegal and in the shtetl, boys went to religious schools and spent hours memorizing ancient passages of Arabic or Hebrew. The pious life of study and prayer was or is a male ideal. Underemployment is rampant - hence the number of middlemen, peddlers, and matchmakers. Beggars are treated with surprising respect, since charity is a pious act. Some of these similarities go back, I presume, to common roots in the Near East.
Someone has to make dinner, though. That's for the women, who have to earn a living while their husbands and sons pray in the study house. The abandoned wife is a central theme of both literatures. The social details differ - in Senegal, the mechanism is not just divorce but polygamy - but the underlying problems are so similar.
Another similarity, of central importance to readers - both literatures, at least in their earlier stages , consist almost entirely of short books, because of the constraints of publishing and the low literacy level of the population. I would hypothesize that this pattern would repeat itself in many "early" literatures. Pushkin and Gogol and Lermontov wrote short books, too, come to think of it.
So I asked ma femme, I asked her "Why hasn't anyone done this?" to which she replied "Who needs the grief?" A good point. But look, here's one Professor Marc Caplan, a Johns Hopkins professor who specializes in both Yiddish and West African literatures. What do you know? Here we see him in action, running a conference panel titled "Deterritorialization After Deleuze." Um. His own paper is “The ‘Minor’ as Methodology: Deterritorialization in Yiddish and African Narrative.” This is not exactly what I had in mind, but I guess that's the way things are done now.
* One of the Yiddish plays I read, Peretz Hirschbein's "Green Fields," was about a little cluster of Jewish farmers. It was written for people living in Lower East Side tenements who had immigrated from the shtetl, and had never set foot on a farm.
Tuesday, July 28, 2009
I. L. Peretz was expert with the sort of story I wrote about yesterday, detailed, small-scale. See not just his stories, but the remarkable Impressions of a Journey through the Tomaszow Region in the Year 1890 (1891), supposedly the record of an actual research expedition on the condition of rural Jews, but who are we kidding.
His signature pieces, though, are a series of neo-Hasidic fables or folk tales. Peretz himself was not a Hasid, and not at all a mystic, and in general the more secular, rationalistic Jews saw the Hasidism as misguided and its followers as superstitious gulls. That's what makes Peretz's fables so surprising. They are not satirical, or not merely so.
In "If Not Higher," all three pages of it, a Hasidic rabbi vanishes every Friday morning. Where is he? "In heaven, no doubt," his followers say.
"But a Litvak came, and he laughed. You know the Litvaks. They think little of the holy books but stuff themselves with Talmud and law. So this Litvak points to a passage in the Gemara - it sticks in your eyes - where it is written that even Moses our Teacher did not ascend to heaven during his lifetime but remained suspended two and a half feet below. Go argue with a Litvak!"
The rationalist outsider, the Litvak, decides to debunk the miracle. He conceals himself and follows the rabbi secretly engages in charitable acts. The Litvak becomes a disciple of the rabbi. Whenever anyone claims that the rabbi ascends to heaven, he no longer laughs, but "only adds quietly, 'if not higher'."
So the Hasidic believers in fact are superstitious and ignorant. Except that they are correct, the rabbi is a miracle worker. Except the miracle is the result of acts, not divine intervention. Except the acts are directed from where, exactly? Who wins the argument, the Hasids or the rationalists?
That's how Peretz's fables work. Ironies follow ironies. Meanings unfold one after the other. The Hasids are fools, but so is the Litvak, so are the secularists. So is Peretz, maybe. That's something else he shares with Chekhov - they're both modest writers, not pronouncers of grand doctrines.
My library has an illustrated, slightly simplified, children's' version of "If Not Higher," as well of a few other Peretz tales. I read the version in The I. L. Peretz Reader, a remarkable book. I think I said that yesterday, too. Don't miss "Yom Kippur in Hell."
Monday, July 27, 2009
This week, God willing, I wrap up the Yiddish project. More on that later. Now I want to look at a great writer I somehow never wrote about, I. L. Peretz,* an exact contemporary of Sholem Aleichem's. His foil, in a way. Save that for later as well, please.
One lesson I have learned: Yiddish fiction is unusually concerned with story-telling. Yiddish writers did not need postmodernism to learn about meta-fiction. Self-reference is embedded in the culture. In modern Yiddish literature, two traditions come together: oral culture and the folktale, and the written, learned culture of the Torah and the Talmud, of commentary on commentary. Actually, these traditions joined in early 19th century Hasidic literature as well, and probably many times before that.
So the result is Sholem Aleichem's masterful monologues, and Mendele Mocher Sforim's narrative frames, S. Anski's use of folklore, and the two modes of I. L. Peretz's short stories, one the neo-Hasidic fable or parable (tomorrow for those) and the other more Chekhovian, stories about educated, secularized Jews like himself.
A superb one is actually called "Stories" (1903). A young writer, struggling, not quite literally starving, has fallen in love with a Polish girl who wants the stories he tells, symbolic folk tales with princesses and heroes. The stories become the writer's weapon, or perhaps offering, in a frustrated sexual struggle with the girl.
"She opens the door, and asks from the doorway, 'Got any stories for me?'
'Yes, I have.'
If he hasn't, she turns back. She doesn't like him, she says. In fact she's frightened of Jews. But she loves his stories."
We follow the writer around the city as he tries to come up with a new story for the girl. He discovers that it is Passover. Although a non-believer, his story, his imagination, is invaded by Passover stories, some about his own family, some horrible ones about blood libel ("Not for me," he thinks after a grisly one, "that needs a stronger pen than mine.")
Perhaps it is useful to know that holiday stories for newspapers, particularly Passover stories, were important sources of income for Yiddish writers. So the Peretz story is at once a parody of the modern Passover story, and a brilliant example of it.
"Stories" is about the different types of stories in our lives, and their different kinds of power. I think it's really an all-time great short story. I read it in The I. L. Peretz Reader, ed. Ruth Wisse, tr. (this story) by Maurice Samuel.
* Actually, he made a brief appearance with a brief tale during Golem Week.
Friday, July 24, 2009
"Everything that is beautiful and noble is the product of reason and calculation. Crime, which the human animal took a fancy to in his mother's womb, is by origin natural. Virtue, on the other hand, is artificial, supernatural, since in every age and nation gods and prophets have been necessary to teach it to bestialized humanity, and since man by himself would have been powerless to discover it." Charles Baudelaire, "The Painter of Modern Life," 1862.
I find it hard to know when to take Charles Baudelaire's pronouncements, of which there are many, seriously and when to try to tamp down his hyperbole. This passage I take as something close to a true vision of the world for the poet. It's hidden in section XI of his influential essay "The Painter of Modern Life." The section is titled "In Praise of Make-up," and Baudelaire means that, too.
It seems unlikely that the real Baudelaire, whatever that might mean, is on display in a piece of writing praising make-up. Quite the reverse, really. The Penguin Classics collection Selected Writings on Art and Literature I read contains Baudelaire essays on Edgar Allan Poe, Théophile Gautier, Madame Bovary, Richard Wagner, and many visual artists, especially Eugène Delacroix.
Every piece is about its subject - Baudelaire's reputation as a critic is deserved, and his writing, if rhetorically quite different than modern critical writing, is insightful - but also about Baudelaire, and the poet's views on the proper functioning of and approach to art. In this way, his appreciation of the epic works of Wagner is not so different than his enthusiasm for Poe, his poetic soulmate ("And then - believe me if you will - I found poems and short stories that I had thought of, but in a vague, confused, disorderly way and that Poe had been able to bring together to perfection," letter to Armand Fraisse, 18 Feb 1860).
"The Painter of Modern Life" is nominally about the artist Constantin Guys, now best known as the subject of this essay, but at the time an illustrator for the Illustrated London News. "Illustrator" is not quite right, since he was more like a photojournalist in water colors - some of his best known pictures are from his coverage of the Crimean War for that magazine.
Ma femme warned me that Guys's work may not be what I expected, following Baudelaire's praise. See left and judge for yourself; I also found an old volume titled The Painter of Victorian Life, 1930, that consists of Baudelaire's essay interspersed with dozens of black and white reproductions of Guys. I see what she means. Guys is deft and likable, but is not the neglected rival of Édouard Manet. Baudelaire praise Guys for being what he says in the title - not Modernist, which did not exist, but modern. He sees the details of dresses, carriages, uniforms, makeup, and mustaches and gets them right. Other painters in other times did the same thing. Baudelaire's aesthetic program is more important than his particular esteem for Guys.
I'm not sure I've gotten any closer to Baudelaire here, to his poetry or to Paris Spleen. Ah well, I'll try again some time. Baudelaire, Verlaine, Rimbaud, Mallarmé, Apollinaire, who knows. The whole nerve-wracking crew.
Thursday, July 23, 2009
Why do I have so much trouble with Charles Baudelaire? I have read four of his books recently, which helped some, but I remain nervous. What were they? The Flowers of Evil (1857/1861), Paris Spleen (1868), a modest collection of his letters, and a more comprehensive collection of essays (Selected Writings on Art and Literature, Penguin Classics, 1972).
The puzzle, to me, is that, looked at poem by poem, Baudelaire is not so intimidating. His famous albatross poem, for example, is perfectly straightforward, an ordinary sonnet with (in French) regular rhymes:
Often, to amuse themselves, the men of the crew
Catch those great birds of the seas, the albatrosses,
Lazy companions of the voyage, who follow
The ship that slips through bitter gulfs.
The Poet is like the prince of the clouds,
Haunting the tempest and laughing at the archer;
Exiled on earth amongst the shouting people,
His giant's wings hinder him from walking.
I omitted additional, excellent, description of the albatross. The translation is by Geoffrey Wagner, and other translations are at the link. The albatross is a graceful bird in the air, but clumsy on land. The poet is like the albatross.
What's so hard about that? I know, I know. The anxiety is the result of the cumulative effect of Baudelaire, the series of poems about vampire lovers and sexualized wounds and opium and wine and beating up beggars and other bizarreries. Perhaps reading him in any bulk is exactly the wrong approach.
More accessible, to me, although still quite mysterious, is the volume of fifty prose poems, generally titled Paris Spleen, although I read a version (tr. Edward K. Kaplan, 1989) titled The Parisian Prowler. That gets at one of the themes that links the short, odd poems, the great joys of the wandering around Paris, the thrills of crowds and street musicians and clothes and noise, of being a poet in the city. Some of those joys are not necessarily so joyous:
The Soup and the Clouds
My little crazy beloved was serving me dinner, and through the dining room's open window I was contemplating the moving architectures that God fashions from vapors, the marvelous constructions of the impalpable. And I was saying to myself, through my contemplation, "All those phantasmagorias are almost as beautiful as the eyes of my beautiful beloved, my little green-eyed monstrous madwoman."
And suddenly I received a violent punch in the back, and I heard a hoarse and charming voice, a hysterical voice and husky as if from brandy, the voice of my dear little beloved, which was saying, "Will you ever eat your soup, you goddamn cloud peddler!"
Wednesday, July 22, 2009
I don't spend much of my imaginative or literary life in Belgium. But lately I've been spending time with two vicious Belgium-bashers. Oddest thing.
Charles Baudelaire lived in Belgium from April 1864 to July 1866, hating every minute of it, apparently. He had gone to deliver a series of paying lectures, and stayed for complicated reasons involving debt, illness, publishing, his mother, and contrariness. From a letter to the painter Manet, 27 May, 1864, just after arrival in Belgium:
"The Belgians are fools, liars, and thieves... Here deceit is the rule and brings no dishonor... Don't ever believe what people say about the good nature of the Belgians. Ruse, defiance, false affability, crudeness, treachery - now all of that you can believe."
Some more abuse: "the stupidest race on earth (at least I presume there's none stupider)" (13 Oct 1864). "You know there's no Belgian cuisine and that these people don't know how to cook eggs or grill meat... The sight of a Belgian woman gives me a vague desire to faint." (3 Feb 1865)
Almost as soon as he arrives, Baudelaire begins working on a book attacking Belgium, Pauvre Belgique!, or A Ridiculous Capital, or Belgium en déshabillé. It will be "a means of trying out my claws" in which "I'll patiently explain all the reasons for my disgust with mankind." Never finished. Such a shame.
The other Belgium-hater is Charlotte Brontë, or at least her narrator Lucy Snowe. The Villette (Little Town) in Villette turns out to be Brussels, capital of Labassecoure (Poultry-yard). The inhabitants, including her students, regardless of social standing, are mostly fat peasants. It's not just Rubens and his fat women. See the parenthetical dig at her students in Chapter 9, for example, about "their (usually large) ears." Plus they spy, they're narrow in spirit, and, worst of all, they're Catholic.
Perhaps this is not really Belgium. Perhaps in the world of Villette, there is no Belgium, or it has a very similar neighbor named Poultry-yard. But I've become convinced that the mean names are not just Charlotte Brontë's joke. They're also Lucy's - it's merciless Lucy who identifies the Duke of Turkey (the Duc de Dindonneau) and calls professors who torment her Drywood and Deadrock. She's just like that.
Here, by the way is the Brussels Brontë Group Blog, where there are no hard feelings. That's the spirit.
This is what they call a transition - I'm going to spend the next two days with Baudelaire. Which is a shame, since I'm enjoying Villette so much. Plenty more Villette here.
All Baudelaire quotations from Selected Letters of Charles Baudelaire: The Conquest of Solitude, ed. Rosemary Lloyd, University of Chicago Press, 1986.
Tuesday, July 21, 2009
Rubens might be a mummy, though, or a ghost. It's in Chapter 23, "Vashti." Lucy Snowe is watching a play, and is enraptured by the actress. She compares this great artist, whose craft, like Lucy's, is based on deception, to the Cleopatra painting that she attacked in Chapter 19.* Compares is not quite right - she imagines that the actress cuts Cleopatra in half with a sword:
"Place now the Cleopatra, or any other slug, before her as an obstacle, and see her cut through the pulpy mass as the scimitar of Saladin clove the down cushion."
And then (a portrait of Rubens and his wife is included to aid visualization):
"Let Paul Peter Rubens wake from the dead, let him rise out of his cerements, and bring into this presence all the army of his fat women; the magian power or prophet-virtue gifting that slight rod of Moses, could, at one waft, release and re-mingle a sea spell-parted, whelming the heavy host with the down-rush of overthrown sea-ramparts."
That end is a tangle, really crazy, but comprehensible. The scene is specific, and easily imagined: zombie Rubens and his army of fat women are for some reason pursuing Moses (the actress) across the parted Red Sea; he (she), of course, reverses the spell and drowns them all.** This is actually one of several puzzling references to Moses at this point in Villette.
Lucy Snowe's vivid imagination is one of the treats of Villette, a mix of the weirdest Biblical and classical and folkloric references. It's obviously Charlotte Brontë's as well, but Lucy so seldom sounds like Jane Eyre. Lucy-the-author's taste for personifying abstractions is part of this. In a single paragraph in Chapter 16, she gives us Life, Death, Grief, Fate, Adversity, and Destiny. The abstractions are not completely abstract - Destiny has "stone eye-balls," for example. Lucy brings them to life. Her extended debate with "[t]his hag" Reason, "always envenomed as a step-mother" in Chapter 21 is central. Lucy submits to Reason, but worships Feeling. Or so she says. Before allowing Lucy Snowe to submit to you, hire a food-taster.
* Her description of the painting is worthy of Mark Twain, a scream. "She was, indeed, extremely well fed," and so on.
** So Rubens is probably not a ghost. Ghosts are incorporeal and can't be washed away. Or can they?
Monday, July 20, 2009
I had a certain pleasure in keeping cool, and working him up - the astounding insular audacity of Villette
Fiction writers, even the most perverse, especially the most perverse, like to give their readers clues about how to read their novels. Charlotte Brontë provides a direct one in the ingenious Chapter 19 ("The Cleopatra") of Villette (1853). Our drab, prickly heroine Lucy Snowe has been looking at a monumental canvas of a nude Cleopatra. A fellow teacher is appalled:
"M. Paul's hair was shorn close as raven down, or I think it would have bristled on his head. Beginning now to perceive his drift, I had a certain pleasure in keeping cool, and working him up.
'Astounding insular audacity!' cried the Professor."
I think Lucy is revealing one of the aesthetic principles of the novel here. She keeps cool, and works him up, "him" meaning not just M. Paul, but me, the reader. This is one wild book; Lucy Snowe is one wild narrator. It's easy to say that she is unreliable, easy but incorrect. If you ask your friend to feed your dog while you're out of town, and when you get home the dog is suspiciously thin, that friend is unreliable. Lucy Snowe took your dog to the pound the day you left.
Here's an early, simple example, one that threw me off at first. In Chapter 5, Lucy makes what I think is her first reference to the composition of her book: "Fifty miles were then a day's journey (for I speak of a time gone by: my hair, which, till a late period, withstood the frosts of time, lies now, at last white, under a white cap, like snow beneath snow)." Lucy Snowe-the-character is twenty-three at this point; Lucy Snowe-the-author, with her snow beneath snow, is, then, what - sixty? Eighty?
Well, I had my doubts about that, and it turns out that there's pretty good evidence that Lucy-the-author is an ancient thirty-seven years old. See Chapter 20, "The Concert," and compare to the biography of King Leopold I of Belgium. But I want to save the Belgian business for later.
Lucy, both Lucy-the-character and the slightly older Lucy-the-author, is a gleeful liar. The character lies to other characters; the author lies to the reader, who is at her mercy, and then cackles when she reveals her deceptions. Since I'm only about two-thirds through, I'm a little nervous about making even this claim. At the current pace, there's room for at least two more major turns in the plot. Maybe she's deceiving me about her deceptions. Certainty does not seem like the right approach to this book.
I finally understand the Charlotte Brontë-William Thackeray mutual admiration society. Both authors are audaciously cussed. They like to mess with their reader. I can understand how some readers really dislike this sort of thing, and want a more stable point of view. Not me, though. I'm having a great time with Villette.
Friday, July 17, 2009
Dickens was a master of the rhetoric of fiction. His range of modes and methods rivaled that of any writer who ever lived. I would guess that this was related to his gift for speech - that he was a great mimic, and could imitate anything. Speeches, sermons, advertising, journalism, the novels of everyone else. His range and control improved with experience.
Dombey and Son is full of magnificent passages that demonstrate his mastery. But something has gone wrong. The writing can be too thick, too worked up. Dickens has added too much starch to his pudding. He has whipped his cream to butter. He has whipped his egg whites to - what happens when one overwhips egg whites? Meine Frau tells me that they become lumpy. Yes, parts of Dombey and Son are lumpy. Dickens's Christmas story from the same year, The Haunted Man and the Ghost's Bargain (1848), has the exact same problem. I found a few passages in that story almost incomprehensible. They were so very thick.
Should I quote extended rhetorically heated, dullish paragraphs to make my point? That'd be fun. Instead, I'll point to one odd feature of Dombey and Son that I don't remember seeing anywhere else in Dickens: his use of a refrain.
He does this three times, I think. I'll just stick with the first example, Chapter XX, "Mr. Dombey goes upon a Journey." Great chapter. It's full of excellent railroad detail. Once Mr. Dombey is actually on the train, we enter into his troubled thoughts (he has just suffered a great loss). The speed of the train somehow reminds him of his loss. The paragraph ends:
"The power that forced itself upon its iron way--its own--defiant of all paths and roads, piercing through the heart of every obstacle, and dragging living creatures of all classes, ages, and degrees behind it, was a type of the triumphant monster, Death."
There's some social criticism here (the railroad as an agent of destruction) aside from gloomy Dombey's thoughts. Comes back at the end of the novel, too. The personification of the railroad as Death is rhetorically extreme, but so far so good, although that's clearly not Mr. Dombey any more.
The next paragraph ends "like as in the track of the remorseless monster, Death!" The one after that ends with the exact same phrase. The next, with "and what else is there but such glimpses, in the track of the indomitable monster, Death!"
So four paragraphs in a row end almost identically, a poetic effect, as if the passage is a ballad. Or perhaps the proper comparison is with a sermon, the preacher hitting his point again and again.
I'm not so sure that this section, or the other two places in the novel that use the same device, all moments of keen mental stress for someone, are novelistically effective. They seem to end up a great distance away from the characters. They draw attention to their rhetorical effect, their artificiality. Did Dickens ever repeat this experiment?
I wonder if the move to the first person in David Copperfield was also a way to push back against the thickening of his style, a way to limit or control some of the rhetorical flights. We'll see. By Bleak House, if I remember correctly, he had the problem completely under control. That foggy opening passage, for example. Just the right amount of starch.
Thursday, July 16, 2009
Poor Wal'r! Drownded, an't he? - more complaints about boring Dickens characters, and a hypothesized solution
The continuing Dickens problem, for the first decade of his career as a novelist: the young, pure heroes and heroines are boring. In Dombey and Son, Dickens made a good attempt at a fix, but couldn't quite make it stick.
Florence Dombey, Mr. Dombey's neglected daughter, and plucky Walter, one of Dombey's office boys, are perfectly serviceable characters when introduced, as children, more or less. An improvement, I thought. But as time passes and the plot moves along, Florence fades a bit and poor Walter is sent on a sea voyage and actually vanishes for 400 pages. That's one solution, I guess. It works! But when he returns, the book is firmly in plot wrap up mode, and Walter seems to have lost his personality somewhere in the South Pacific. Or maybe Captain Cuttle (see title) was right after all, and Wal'r really was drownded, and the fellow who returned was a cardboard cutout.
The rest of the book, meanwhile, presents a dozen top drawer Dickens characters: Captain Cuttle, the fertile Toodles family and their underachieving son Rob, sadsack Mr. Toots and his pal the Game Chicken (a boxer, not a bird), Dombey's prissy sister, Mrs. Chick and her perpetually humming husband.
The great puzzler is how characters as unimportant as Mrs. Miff, "a wheezy little pew-opener," who is really not much more than part of the decor at a church that is a setting for a few scenes, has so much more life than some of the central characters. "A vinegary face has Mrs Miff, and a mortified bonnet, and eke a thirsty soul for sixpences and shillings." A mortified bonnet! And there's plenty more.
A friendly commenter (this commenter) argues that Edith Dombey, Florence's stepmother, is Dickens' best realized female character. She is good, although I'll have to vote for Bleak House's Esther Summerson.
Which leads me to my hypothesis. Dombey and Son is novel number seven. David Copperfield, which I have not read, is next. That's the first Dickens novel in the first person (Chapter I: I Am Born). My theory is that Dickens finally attempted a first person novel as a way to ensure that his central character really exists, to give him some interior life, to force him to be interesting.
New problems arise - how can the narrator be everywhere the writer wants him to be, for example? Bleak House solves that problem brilliantly, with its split structure, half omniscient and half Esther telling her own story. I'm very fond of Esther, but if we only got the external view, she would likely be as colorless as Florence at her worst.
Then it's back to third person, right, in Hard Times (1854), with Great Expectations (1860) as the only other first person novel? Anyway, it's a theory. I'll read David Copperfield and see what I think.
Tomorrow, another problem, a new one.
Wednesday, July 15, 2009
Hey, waddaya know, I finished Dombey and Son (1846-8). This was Dickens's seventh novel, and his best yet.
Months ago, a friendly commenter mentioned that her mother claimed that it is better than Bleak House. Not to me, but I can see how one could think that. This is the first time that the big arc of the whole book really makes sense. A businessman of narrow soul gives all of his affection to his son, and none to his daughter. We know that, by the end of the novel, Mr. Dombey will have been either humbled, and reformed, or destroyed. Some of the steps to that end are what one might expect, while others are quite original.
The previous novel, Martin Chuzzlewit (1843-4), contains the first plot that Dickens planned in advance and stuck with (aside from the short The Christmas Carol, written in the midst of the Martin Chuzzlewit serialization). But it's a pretty simple plot, and a simple structure - there's a selfish man who learns his lesson, and another who does not. The end is typical "wrap it all up" stuff.
Martin Chuzzlewit has its delights, but Dombey and Son is richer, the best characters are more complex, and the structure is innovative, even surprising. The first quarter or so really builds to a moving and significant climax. I can see why someone might single this part out as a great favorite. Then there are seven hundred more pages. Long book, ain't it? The long part two builds to a satisfying end as well, although Dickens seems to need more plotty nonsense to get there.
Reading Dickens in something like chronological order has been so interesting. Some gifts - the comic characters, imitations of speech - he had from the beginning and never lost. Other skills, like plotting and story structure, he had to work on. Despite his early success, he never stopped experimenting. He didn't stop with Dombey and Son, either - it's not half as ingenious as Bleak House, two novels later.
I think that tomorrow I'll write about one old problem Dickens still hadn't solved - his boring virtuous heroes and heroines - and a new one, potentially worse, that cropped up. Each novel is like a serial issue in the story of the artistic development of Charles Dickens. They have cliffhanger endings - what will Dickens do next?
Oh, right. "Hooroar," that's what Captain Cuttle says. "'Hooroar, my lad!' exclaimed the Captain, in a burst of uncontrollable satisfaction. 'Hooroar! hooroar! hooroar!'" And so on.
Tuesday, July 14, 2009
Just a bit on the actual book, first. So feel free to skip ahead to the eight year old if uninterested in the history of classical China.
The book is The Early Chinese Empires: Qin and Han (2007, Harvard University Press) by Mark Edward Lewis, a distinguished Stanford professor. The book is excellent for its purpose, which is to cram one with knowledge. Since I started from little, the Return on Investment has been very high. Just as an example, I can now place Emperor Qin Shi Huangdi, buried with his terra cotta warriors, in some real context. He's not just a very old Chinese emperor now. Please, do not test me on this in five years. Or months.
It is not a narrative history, not a book of personalities or dramatic events. Chapters are titled "Kinship," "Rural Society," "Religion." Sounds a little snoozy, looked at that way. But I'm used to, and can even enjoy, this sort of thing, and, look, the eight year old kid liked it fine.
Maybe he was nine, I don't know. I never met him. See this piece at Anecdotal Evidence, in which Patrick Kurp encounters the Mark Edward Lewis book in the hands of a schoolkid who is also a master wizard. Or something. Anyway, I'm not going to be outread by a dang third grader.
I am actually reading this book because of this kid, and Kurp. Since my surprise trip to Japan last summer convinced me that classic Japanese literature was far more accessible than I had thought, I have been trying to read a little bit of Asian literature, mostly old poems. Japanese poetry led to Chinese poetry. Chinese poetry led to a desire to fill in some substantial gaps in my knowledge of Chinese history. And then somehow I remembered Kurp's post, and that eight year old.
The Early Chinese Empires: Qin and Han is the "first of a six-volume series on the history of imperial China." I'll bet that kid is already way ahead of me. But I'm gonna catch up.
Monday, July 13, 2009
I feel so bad. I forgot, last week, when writing about Sholem Aleichem's The Railroad Stories, to mention the song "Train Across Ukraine," which is actually about The Railroad Stories. This is a new song, from earlier this year, found on the album Citizen Boris by the neo-klezmer band Golem!
The lyrics are little more than a summary of the premise of the stories - the traveler, third-class, tells us that he rides the train. He introduces himself as both Sholem Aleichem and as Hello, How Are You. Come to think of it, that's not correct, since The Railroad Stories are not narrated by Sholem Aleichem. Well, it's creative license, compression. Some of the lyrics are in Yiddish, but I'll bet they just repeat the English.
The link to Sholem Aleichem is in part a memorial and cultural celebration. But it's also an excuse to play a klezmer train song, with whistles and hoots and steam-engine like drumming. Great song. I wish I could link to it, but all I could find was a Youtube video with terrible sound that's not worth anyone's time.
You can go to Golem!'s Myspace page (warning:PLAYS LOUD MUSIC), though, and hear another of their best songs from the same record, "Citizen Boris," the lyrics of which are nothing but the citizenship oath and questions and answers from the citizenship test ("What is the 4th of July? Independence Day"). The song captures both the absurdity and the patriotic wonder of asking a Ukranian grandmother to swear an oath to die for her new country if called to service.
Perhaps I should have mentioned Golem! during Golem Week, but to my knowledge they have never recorded a song about the golem, although there is a golem-like fellow on the cover of their 2006 album Fresh Off Boat (left), which I think is marginally superior to Citizen Boris. If you know where to listen to such things, try the "Golem Hora," or the brilliant "Warsaw Is Khelm." The fools of Khelm, the most stupid people on earth, that's a whole 'nother set of Yiddish folk tales and jokes that I don't believe I've ever mentioned.
Oh look, Golem! gives away "Warsaw Is Khelm." So download it, and see a fragment of the cute video.
Now I feel that I have done my duty to Golem!
Friday, July 10, 2009
Talking is far better, because you never know what may come of it - what make a railroad story a Railroad Story?
I thought I was going to pin down a couple of my favorites among Sholem Aleichem's Railroad Stories, but I'm having trouble doing that, and not because they're all my favorites. I mean, there's some of this, and there's some of that. But I can't stop looking at the frames of the stories.*
Sholem Aleichem could have published all but a few of these stories as pure monologues, like the examples collected in the superb Nineteen to the Dozen: Monologues and Bits and Bobs of Other Things. The monologues in that books are pure - they are uninterrupted, and the reader has to infer the identity of the auditor. In The Railroad Stories, the narrator, the commercial traveler, is always present, but so, potentially, are a train car full of other people.
So in "Baranovich Station," it's important that the teller of the fascinating but unfinished story is in a full car with dozens of listeners. The pain of never hearing the end is that much greater than if there were an audience of just one, and the reader can share his own pain with the fictional crowd. Although, presumably, the reader also has some distance and can appreciate the joke in a way that the audience cannot.
"A Game of Sixty-Six," by contrast, has to be one on one (with the reader looking over the traveler's shoulder). A man relates to the narrator, confidentially, and at length, being cleaned out by card sharks, before suggesting a little game of their own. Our traveler may not be the sharpest card in the deck himself, but:
"I watched him cut the deck; he did it a little too skillfully, a little too fast. And his hands were a little too white. Too white and too soft. Suddenly I had a most unpleasant thought..."
The con man's story wouldn't work in public. The creepy gangster's story in "The Man from Buenos Aires" works the same way. It requires intimacy.
But sometimes, as in two stories told about an unimportant branch line called the Slowpoke Express, the railroad car provides a stage, even for an audience of one:
"And since we were on the Slowpoke Express, which I described in the last chapter - where, being the only passengers in our car, we had all the time and space in the world - he sprawled out as comfortably as if he were in his own living room and gave his narrative talents free rein, turning each polished phrase carefully and grinning with pleasure at his own story while stroking his ample belly with one hand." ("The Miracle of Hoshana Rabbah")
The plots of the two Slowpoke Express stories depend on the actual characteristics of locomotives (an engine running out of coal, for instance), which is not generally the case. What makes a story a Railroad Story? It's the train car as a public space, where strangers can impart their stories to each other. From the narrator's farewell, "Third Class":
"When you travel third class, on the other hand, you feel right at home. In fact, if you happen to be in a car whose passengers are exclusively Jews, you may feel a bit too much at home... At night you can save yourself the bother of having to fall asleep, because there's always someone to talk to - and if you're not in the mood to talk, someone else will be glad to do it for you. Who expects to sleep on a train ride anyway? Talking is far better, because you never know what may come of it."
Translation by Hillel Halkin.
* Prompted by D.G. Myers, a bit, perhaps.
Thursday, July 9, 2009
"My goodness, the things one sees traveling! It's a pity I'm not a writer. And yet come to think of it, what makes me say I'm not? What's a writer, after all? Anyone can be one, and especially in a hodgepodge like our Yiddish. What's the big fuss about? You pick up a pen and you write!"
That's the commercial traveler, third class, who narrates Sholem Aleichem's The Railroad Stories (1902-10, 1911). The traveler mostly just gives us other people's stories, in their own words, with a bit of framing. So most of The Railroad Stories are monologues, Sholem Aleichem's perfect form. Not everyone is a writer, but everyone traveling in a third class Ukrainian train car has a story to tell.
Some of the stories are jokes with punchlines, some are character sketches or social observations or commentary. "A Game of Sixty-Six" is a good con man story. A number are, almost inevitably, stories about story-telling. In "Baranovich Station," a passenger promises a great story. A village bands together to prevent a fellow-citizen's flogging. The story gets more and more complicated and compelling, but then the storyteller reaches his station and disembarks, before the end. "What end? It's barely begun. Let go of me!"
I don't want to say that every one of these stories is more consequential than those in Inside Kasrilevke, but the range of stories is important. There's more varied life here than in any other Sholem Aleichem book I've read. And the comedy is tinged with - sometimes about - some darker matter. Prostitution, suicide, pogroms, discrimination.
I'll pick out one or two of my favorites for tomorrow.
"Come to think of it again, though, writing is not for everyone. We should all stick to what we work at for a living, that's my opinion, because each of us has to make one. And if you don't work at anything, that's work too."
Wednesday, July 8, 2009
Lamed Shapiro was probably a pretty darkly hued fellow to begin with, but he was also rejecting some of what he saw as the sentimentality or lack of seriousness of older writers like Sholem Aleichem.
For example, the odd little volume of Sholem Aleichem published in 1948 as Inside Kasrilevke, which contains two longish stories, "The Poor and the Rich" and "A Guide to Kasrilevke."* Both are comic tales of life in Sholem Aleichem's fictional representative shtetl. They're comic, light-hearted, but with, just barely, touches of seriousness.
The "Guide to Kasrilevke" is mostly shtick. Each chapter has a travel guide title ("Hotels," "Restaurants," "Theater," "Bandits"), but it's really the story of Sholem Aleichem's own visit to Kasrilevke, the town where nothing functions. He just works through some good comic pieces - the tram that won't move; the restaurant that says you can have anything you want, but then doesn't seem to have any specific dish; the thieves who are disgusted by their victim's poverty. The scene that made me laugh the most was where the author, having barely set foot in his hotel room, is assailed by a string of sock vendors:
"Another individual stepped in; this one had a cap on.
'Buy my socks, mister, good and cheap!'
'I don't need any socks,' I told him. 'Thank you.'
'What do you mean, you don't need any?' he protested. 'Didn't you just buy half a dozen socks from the other fellow?'"
That's what we call logic. After a few more sock sellers:
"'Who's 'me'?' I asked. I was afraid to open the door for fear someone might be offering me more socks.
'Dovid,' came the reply.
'Who's Dovid Shpan?'
'Dovid Shpan the agent.'
'What have you got?' I asked. 'Maybe more socks?'
'Oh, you want some socks?' he replied. 'Just wait a minute. I'll run out to the stores and bring you some!'"
Simple Chico Marx stuff, I guess, but I liked it. The other story is a little different - a delegation of Kasrilevke elders travel to the big city to raise money to fix up their burned out town - but the shtick isn't that different. A good running gag, for example: the dignified rabbi always replies to questions with a parable, a very wise and beautiful one, which the narrator always somehow avoids relating: "But since I am telling you a story, I'd rather not interrupt it with another one."
Minor Sholem Aleichem, I suppose. But after the horrors of Lamed Shapiro, a great relief.
* First published when? She don't say. "This book contains the stories Dos Naye Kasrilevke, Kasrilevke Nisrofim, Kasrilevke Moshav Z'kenim, translated from the Yiddish by Isidore Goldstick." That's it. I know; looks like three stories, not two. The third is attached to the second as an epilogue. Both stories mention airplanes, so publication must be after 1908. From their tiny chapters, I would guess that both were originally serialized in Yiddish newspapers.
Tuesday, July 7, 2009
A couple of examples of Lamed Shapiro's mostly unhappy world that aren't so directly about violence. Indirectly, yes.
In "Before the Storm" (1906), the narrator hires a boat to row him across a river harbor. We read about the sky, the ships, the boat owner and his son. The owner asks the narrator a surprising question, about his belief in immortality, which is an opening for his own story, about his oldest son. He did everything he could for his son, educated him, and the result was that the boy became a revolutionary. Here's there last meeting; the father has just rowed his son across the same river:
"'I no longer knew what I was saying. The tears poured out of me. He only smiled at my words and embraced me in such a way that, honestly, I felt as if he were the father and I the son... Then he kissed his brother and left.'
The old man suddenly fell silent. After while he said, 'Two months later I got his things and a letter from a little town in Lithuania. The letter said that my son was dead.'"
So the story is about the father's endless love for his son, and his complete failure to understand him. But then the narrator disembarks, just as the son did, but "just in time," since "the far-off, angry sounds of a storm were heard." Is the narrator, about whom we know nothing, moving toward the same fate as the son?
The long "Eating Days" (1926-7) works entirely differently. The narrator is a student at a down-on-its-luck yeshiva, a teenager worn to a frazzle by his sexual desires and, maybe the same thing, a new sense of the wonders of life. He's restless and intense, he feels everything to much.
This narrator uses metaphorical language far more than either of the narrators in "Before the Storm": shop owners look out of their shops "like mice out of their holes," and another has "small round hen's eyes" that never shut, like a corpse. A strudel "crackled softly and faintly, as though someone were breaking matchsticks." The voices in the winter market "rang in the ears, like the roar of water in one's head after a dive in the river."
The student's restlessness finally drives him out of school, out of the town, in pursuit of a woman, possibly, or simply of more life. I love the ending ("hosts" refers to the families who fed the yeshiva students on a rotating basis):
"The sun was behind us and the clear dark shadow of the pier played on the water. Further on, the water was as yellow as oil, and over the entire length of the river the fat, thick waters, like huge and endless hosts, stretched on and on, from one end of the world to another.
And now let me think."
Monday, July 6, 2009
Now here's a tricky writer to recommend. Lamed Shapiro wrote some of the most graphically violent stories I have ever encountered. A lot of terrible things happen in his stories, and he wants to make sure you see them, up close, in sufficient detail. Don't look away, he says, not yet.
The anti-Jewish violence of the Russian pogroms was his great subject. They seem to have left him a little cracked, even. Word War I was, as I found in S. Ansky's non-fictional The Destruction of Galicia, even worse. Shapiro wrote about the war's violence, too.
The Shapiro collection I read was an older one, The Jewish Government and Other Stories (1971), translated by Curt Leviant, who also translated several volumes of Sholem Aleichem stories. There's now a new collection from Yale University Press, The Cross and Other Jewish Stories (2007), which has a lot of overlap with Leviant. The title story, "The Cross" (1909) is easily Shapiro's most famous, a terrifying pogrom tale that asks, what limits are there on the evil a decent person can do, and answers, none.
Fortunately, for this reader's peace of mind, at least, not every story in this collection is a tale of horror and bloodshed. Some are more ordinary pictures of Jewish life in the Pale. Shapiro's world is never too happy, but it is, at times, at least normal. In "A Guest" (1904) for example, a woman's son, a young doctor, returns home to the village for the first time, and deeply hurts his mother by not having lunch with her. That's the story. Or how about "Smoke" (1916), the life story of a good-humored smoker, whose last words are a sort of secret message to his wife about their good life together.
But then there's "The Jewish Government" (1918), a forty page epic of wartime destruction and murder, and "White Challa" (1918), where we get the Russian soldier's point of view, which is just a nightmare, and "The Kiss" (1909), which I don't even want to describe. Don't trust that title. "Ironic" is not the right word for the title - "cruel mockery of all that's decent," maybe.
The violence infected my reading of the stories. The short "Tiger" (1904) is a ten pager about a boy and a dog. Two pages in, I thought, oh no, what horrible thing is going to happen to this dog. After five pages, I was relieved - with such a light tone, this can't possibly be one of the brutal stories. On page eight, though, here it comes, cover your eyes. But no, it could be a lot worse. What a relief to watch the dog run off, never to return. Obviously, if I had read this story first, my expectations would have been entirely different.
Shapiro's violence is perhaps no more graphic than that of his contemporary Isaac Babel - see Red Cavalry, for instance - although Babel's style is more distant, for example filtered through a journalist who witnesses terrible acts. Shapiro sometimes seems to be after something more direct, more visceral (at times, I'm afraid, literally). I've only read one Cormac McCarthy novel, the 1974 Child of God, which may be unrepresentative, but Shapiro's violence reminded me, again and again, of McCarthy. And the worlds of both writers are worlds with absent gods.
So, come to think of it, maybe I should recommend Lamed Shapiro to everyone, without reservation. Look how popular McCarthy is now. People love that stuff.
Tomorrow I'll try to look past the blood and write a little about the art of Lamed Shapiro. Because he was a real writer, cracked or not.
Thursday, July 2, 2009
At the end of sixteen years every line in the worn face was present to him when he told the full story of this night - time in Silas Marner
Nineteenth century fiction can be monotonously linear. Chronologically, I mean. The narrative might split up in other ways - we follow Esther Summerson for a couple of chapters of Bleak House, and then see what Detective Bucket is up to. But the reader always remains in the "present" of the novel. When past events affect the plot, they're told to us by someone in the present.
There are brilliant, freakish exceptions like the 18th century Tristram Shandy or Melmoth the Wanderer, and framed stories are common enough. But look at Wuthering Heights, where the frame at first seems fairly complex, but rapidly simplifies to Nellie Dean telling the story in the usual chronological fashion. To the reader used to Modernism, raised on Mrs. Dalloway and The Good Soldier, where the order of events is psychological, and often quite independent from real time, it can sometimes seem like a color is missing. Not a primary or secondary color. Mauve, maybe. Lots of nice things a painter can do with mauve; shame not to have it. Lots of nice things a writer can do with scrambled narratives.
I bring this up because of a single sentence in Silas Marner:
"Mr. Kimble went on, and Godfrey turned back to the cottage. He cast only one glance at the dead face on the pillow, which Dolly had smoothed with decent care; but he remembered that last look at his unhappy hated wife so well, that at the end of sixteen years every line in the worn face was present to him when he told the full story of this night." (Ch. XIII)
Eliot jolts me out of the present, for just a moment. The feckless Godfrey not only becomes a bit deeper at this moment, but we're shown the consequences. Eliot could have preserved more suspense ("when the full story came out," say), but she wants us to know, now, sixty pages in advance, that it's Godfrey himself who will tell someone (who - still some suspense there) about the last time he saw his first wife.
I believe it's the only such line in the novel. Elsewhere, near the end, she slips a couple of short conversations back in time, just slightly (Nancy and Godfrey discussing adoption, for instance), and at the very beginning, she tells us about how Silas Marner lives in the village of Raveloe "now" before jumping back a bit to tell us how he got there.
Even these conventional narrative usages do not seem to have been so common in Eliot's time. I suspect the compression of Silas Marner, only a third as long as Adam Bede or The Mill on the Floss, led the author to employ some new tools, although I should be careful. The Mill on the Floss has a couple of "outside of time" interruptions by the narrator, and there's a continual strain of water imagery that lets the attentive reader know how the novel will end.
And Adam Bede has one similar moment, when the narrator suddenly enters the story and tells us about her conversations with Adam Bede, hale and hearty, sixty years after the events of the novel, which tells us, at least, that in the remaining 500 pages Adam is probably not killed or transported to Australia or crippled in a terrible sledding accident. I mentioned this at The Valve last summer and was scolded for my anachronistic modernism - "Eliot is not Borges." Mm hmm. When I observe something particularly sophisticated in a George Eliot novel, I'm going to go ahead and give her credit.
A holiday note: For some reason, I don't write anything when I have a day off, and tomorrow is a firm holiday. Anecdotal Kurp posts every day, even when he's on vacation. I don't know why I let them boss me around, but I won't post anything new until Monday. Have a nice holiday, weekend, etc.
Wednesday, July 1, 2009
Elizabeth Gaskell surprised me, just a bit, with her occasional resort to humor. I'm now well used to how funny George Eliot can be. Silas Marner (1861) is not, in general, what you would call a big barrel of laughs, but it does include an amazing couple of pages in Chapter VI, an argument, over drinks, between a butcher and a farrier.
The two men argue over the breed and former owner of a cow just purchased by the butcher. The butcher maintains that the cow is a red Durham with a white star on her brow, purchased from Mr. Lammeter. The farrier, by contrast, insists that the cow is, in fact, a red Durham, with a star on her brow, originally owned by Mr. Lammeter, "contradick me who will."
The argument grows heated, causing the landlord of the inn, "a man of neutral disposition," to step in:
"'Come, come,' said the landlord; 'let the cow alone. The truth lies atween you: you're both right and both wrong, as I allays say.'"
I loved this scene. It was far superior to an argument over nothing. The combatants are wrestling over facts with which they both completely agree, just for the pure pleasure of arguing. The landlord's great pleasure is to split the difference, even though there is no difference.
I noticed last summer that Eliot, in Adam Bede, kept a clear division between the characters who are allowed to be funny and those who are not. Supporting characters: funny. Main characters: not funny. The Mill on the Floss is not so strict, but Silas Marner maintains the distinction. Silas Marner doesn't seem to have been much fun before his successive traumas; Godfrey and Nancy aren't much different. They're Very Serious People.
In Silas Marner, humor is something that's out in the community, in the normal world, the social world. The loiterers in the tavern can be clowns, and the town doctor can joke about his wife punishing his loose tongue by over-peppering her pies, and Nancy's old maid sister Priscilla is allowed to say anything she wants. She's kind of a scream, actually. Narrator Eliot gets in a few good ones, too.
The novel is about the Serious People cutting themselves off from the social world in one way or another, and then finding their way back. So maybe there are some laughs for Silas and Godfrey after the book ends.
I now sort of wish that George Eliot had written a full-fledged comedy, like Cranford or Emma. She had the chops for it. But I suppose she knew what she was doing.