Monday, March 29, 2010

Wuthering Expectations is on Spring Break

I think I'll be back on Thursday.

In the meantime, here is a Dante Gabriel Rossetti poem (1870) about spring. I recommend not reading it.  It's not very good.  Is it?  This is actually relevant to the Ford Madox Ford novel I'm reading, along with others, as organized by The Reading Life.

Barren Spring

So now the changed year's turning wheel returns
  And as a girl sails balanced in the wind,
  And now before and now again behind
Stoops as it swoops, with cheek that laughs and burns,--
So Spring comes merry towards me now, but earns
  No answering smile from me, whose life is twin'd
  With the dead boughs that winter still must bind,
And whom to-day the Spring no more concerns.

Behold, this crocus is a withering flame;
  This snowdrop, snow; this apple-blossom's part
  To breed the fruit that breeds the serpent's art.
Nay, for these Spring-flowers, turn thy face from them,
Nor gaze till on the year's last lily-stem 
  The white cup shrivels round the golden heart.

Friday, March 26, 2010

My eyes delved further than the real world goes - big Hugo

I have been using two different collections of Victor Hugo translations, Selected Poems of Victor Hugo, E. H. and A. M. Blackmore, University of Chicago Press, 2001, and The Distance, the Shadows: Selected Poems, Anvil Press Poetry, revised 2004 edition.  I loved both books and have no particular interest in comparing them (although they're quite different).  I read both because I wanted more, More, MORE, a highly Hugolian response.  Victor Hugo is one of those writers who is always willing to give the reader more, even as far as too much.  I guess on the more, more, more principle, the Blackmore and Blackmore book is preferable, since it is longer.

This is a common response to Hugo.  On the left, please see an 1841 caricature of Hugo by Benjamin Roubard.  At this point Hugo is not the author of Les Misérables, is not the thunderbolt-hurling opponent of Louis Napoleon, is not the author of what are now his most-read books of poems.  Yet he is already the most famous, greatest writer in France.  He sits on a stack of already-classic books, leaning against Notre Dame, now one of his literary possessions, with one foot on the French Theatre and one on the French Academy, and creates.  The witches to his right are a nice touch.  He's the giant who occupies, and fills, literary France.  And he still has forty creative years ahead of him.

Hugo was ambitious enough to attempt the omnibook, the book that contains everything, meaning not just the bulbous Les Misérables, but a series of poetry books meant to bring all of human history and religion into Hugo's work.  The Legends of the Ages (1859-83), The End of Satan (1886), and God (1891), are what he calls those books.  They're full of stories from the Bible and classical mythology and Hugo's views on the meaning of all things.  The rhetorical pitch is high, the sense of humor or pathos mostly absent, the purpose entirely serious.  They're a bit of a trial, brilliant but exhausting.  I don't quite know what to do with them, or how to think about them.  Hugo's vastness exceeds my grasp here.

I'm going to retreat, and end the week near Hugo's beginning, with a bit of God and the sea from the 1829 collection  Les Orientales (Blackmore and Blackmore translation):


I walked the shore alone, one starlit night.
No sea-sails, and no sky-clouds were in sight.
My eyes delved further than the real world goes.
The woods, the hills, and nature all around
Appeared to question with a muffled sound
       The skies' flames, the sea's flows.

And, bowing down their crowns of golden fire,
The endless legions of the starry choir -
A thousand varying voices in accord -
And, curling the white spray down from their crest,
All the blue waves who never submit or rest -
        Cried: "It is God the Lord!"

The stars and waves are not bowing to Hugo, are they?  No, that's crazy.  Still read enough Hugo, and you begin to wonder.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

this is why the sea has a despairing sound - a Hugo sea poem

Victor Hugo wrote repeatedly about the sea.  In exile in Guernsey, he could view the sea from his house, so a number of his great sea poems, as well as the novel The Toilers of the Sea (1866), which I have not read, but must, date from that period.  Here's the beginning of an earlier sea poem, from 1840:

from Night on the Ocean \ Oceano Nox

Captains seamen     how many
leaving light-hearted     on distant cruises
vanished beyond     the bleak horizon
how many have gone    confronting their fate
one fathomless sea     one moonless night
buried for ever     beneath a blind ocean

The ocean is a destructive force, a killer.  Hugo incessantly links the ocean with death, and identifies it as malevolent, as if it had a will, yet natural, which, of course, it is.  It has some resemblance to Hugo's conception of God.

The poem is more about the dead sailors than the blind ocean.  Their "poor drowned skulls" roll about on the sea-bottom.  Men on shore kiss their fiancées "while the green seaweed     covers you sleeping."  Soon the sailors are forgotten, without even a tombstone or a shipwreck ballad to be "sung by a beggar."  The poem ends:

and this is why the sea     has a despairing sound
at evening when we hear     waves approach the shore!

Does that sound come from the dead men in the sea, or the sea itself?

I'm back to the Harry Guest volume, The Distance, The Shadows.  I love what he does with this poem, which, in the original, rhymes and has ten syllables per line and does not have huge gaps in the middle of each line.  Guest is duplicating or at least emphasizing the caesurae in the poem, the pauses in each line, that are essential to the rhythm of the French poem but are likely to be ignored or rushed by the English reader.  Guest forces them on us.

Hugo's celebrity is based on the crazed pro and con response to his 1830 plat Hernani.  My understanding is that the Classicists began booing and howling the very first line, because the caesura was in the wong place.  Can I possibly have this story right?  It seems nuts.  Anyway, my point is, I like what Guest is doing with the pauses.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Drunken with ignorance, dazzled with gloom - the grief of Victor Hugo

My Two Daughters

In the cool of the twilight coming on,
One like a dove, the other like a swan -
Both of them happy, and both of them fair,
The sisters, young and old, are sitting there
On the verge of the garden; over them
Carnations, white blooms on a slender stem
Hang in a marble vase stirred by the air,
View them with an immobile living stare,
And quiver in the shadows - seem to be
A flight of butterflies stilled in ecstasy.

Poem I.iii from The Contemplations (1856), translated by E. H. and A. M. Blackmore.

The girls are like birds.  The carnations, like the poet papa, watch them.  The carnations are themselves like butterflies, not quite immobile.  This is a joyful poem.

It appears in a complicated book of Victor Hugo's, an extended poetic response to the 1843 drowning of his daughter Léopoldine, nineteen years old, in a boating accident.  I do not know if she is the dove or the swan in the poem.

Or perhaps the book is not simply a response to the death of his daughter, but to a more complicated loss.  The editors, and the poems, suggest that Hugo's exile from France - and the loss of his annual visit to his daughter's grave - are also important somehow.  Many of the poems are about Hugo's public role, or religious subjects, or the sea.  A rough chronology holds the pieces together.  The first three parts, as above, are about the public and private life of a Hugo-like poet.  Then a line of dots portrays Léopoldine's death, and Hugo moves to sections about grief and death and eternity.  "It's all a tomb.  You climb out, back you fall," he writes in VI.xviii, prefiguring Beckett.

The book ends with the long, extraordinary "To the One Who Stayed in France," directly addressed to Léopoldine, as a child and as something else:

Settle yourself in your bed, raise your eyes, disarrange
The icy cloth that is pleating your angel-brow,
And take this book in you hands:  yes, it is yours.

The "finished book \ Beg[ins] to flutter and breathe and live," but by the end of the stanza Hugo writes:  "I give it to the grave."  That's just the beginning.  The poems ends with a vision of creation, of comets and bronze walls and monstrous chasms, witnessed by a poet "Drunken with ignorance, dazzled with gloom," that is worthy of Milton or Blake.

I should have just written about this poem all week.  And I should point out that despite claiming that the book does this and the book does that, I have not read The Contemplations, but merely the twenty-five poems picked out by the Blackmores, supplemented by a few additional poems chosen by Harry Guest.  My understanding is that the entire book has never been put into English.  I am baffled as to why.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Why old grandmothers must sew up little boys of seven in their shrouds

Another kind of Hugo poem, from the 1853 collection Les Châtiments:

A Recollection of the Night of 4 December 1851

The boy had been shot -
two bullets in the head.
                                   The house
was clean and humble
showing all the signs of peace
and honesty.  There was a palm cross
placed above a portrait.

The grandmother was there in tears.

We undressed the child in silence.

And the poem goes on a bit longer.  The grandmother, tormented, speaks now and then.  Sounds of violence come from outside ("Others were being killed"). The poem ends with a direct attack on Louis Napoleon, by the publication of the book Emperor Napoleon III, the cause of the boy's death:

He'd like to buy Saint-Cloud, a château
thick with roses in summer
where all the mayors and all the prefects
can come and worship him.  And this is why
old grandmothers,
their hands, grey hands, shaken by time,
must sew up little boys of seven
in their shrouds.

Les Châtiments is an angry book, satirical and unforgiving.  Hugo describes Louis Napoleon as, among many other things, a wolf that needs to be hunted down (in "Le chasseur noir"), dangerous vermin.  Hugo wrote the book in exile, in Belgium and Guernsey, and unsurprisingly it was not published in France until the downfall of Louis Napoleon in 1870. 

Unlike The Art of Being a Grandfather, I do not mind not being able to read the whole thing.  I assume that much of it is too topical to make much sense as poetry anymore.  But some of it, as in this poem, or in the extraordiary descriptions of the original Napoleon's retreat from Moscow in "L'expiation, I"*, have the power of the best scenes from Hugo's novels.

This translation of "Souvenir de la nuit du 4" is by Harry Guest, and is from The Distance, the Shadows: Selected Poems.  Guest translates Hugo freely, very freely.  The original poem is in regular rhyming couplets!  Either Guest has destroyed the original, or turned it into something fresh and immediate.

*  A sample, also from Harry Guest:

Each night the challenge, then
the alarm and then attack.  The phantom men
picked up their rifles seeing
appalling horsemen hurtle through the dark,
storm-clouds of fierce assailants shrieking
like birds of prey.  Throughout these hours
of darkness every night a whole
army was being lost.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Jeanne likes it, I have no defense against her - Victor Hugo takes his grandchildren to the zoo

I want to spend the week, of part of it, with Victor Hugo's poetry, which is amazing in itself but has also been helpful in my reading of the poets of Weird France.  Baudelaire, Verlaine, Rimbaud, Mallarmé, Corbière - they are all constantly knocking up against Hugo, parodying him, fighting with him.  Pretending to ignore him.

Hugo was a poet of immense reach and ambition.  He dared not only to write a book-length poem entitled God (1891) but to mean it.  I have no idea what to do with that book, which exceeds my grasp.  More comprehensible are the poems from The Art of Being a Grandfather (1877).  It's about what the title says it's about.  It's about, mostly, Hugo taking his grandchildren to the zoo, created, Hugo thinks, "Just so that Jeanne and her nurse could visit it":

Summer displays some intensity, here in this garden;
June glistens, and flowers gleam, in an Eden of this kind,
Where the bears air their gripes; and Jeanne and Georges take me around it.
Why, it's a small-scale replica of the universe!
I visit these precincts because
Jeanne likes it, I have no defense against her.(IV.i. 18-23)

Come to think of it, this poem is also about God:

Just when we're happily surveying his work,
Giving full credit to his many talents,
Admiring the brindled tigers' gold eyes,
The swans and the blue-eyed antelopes,
The constellations in peacocks' tails -
He unlocks the door of some crazy cage,
And lo and behold, he flings kangaroos in our faces! (IV.i. 60-66)

This is not a book of children's verse - the language and rhetoric is much too complex - but a rarer thing, a book that is genuinely about children, how children see the world, what it means to be a child: 

I'm asked a sou for the poor (let's make it a
Franc); "Thank you, grandpa!" and then the game is resumed;
There's climbing, and dancing, and singing.  And how blue the sky is! (VII. 10-12)

This last bit is from a poem titled "The Immaculate Conception" in which Hugo watches his grandchildren play and ponders the meaning of original sin.  According to "Everything that has authority on this planet," the children are born to sin, "All cribs are black."  But grandpa can't see how these joyful creatures can be sinners.

I wish someone would translate the whole book for me.

Translations by E. H. and A. M. Blackmore, in Selected Poems of Victor Hugo (2001, University of Chicago Press).

Friday, March 19, 2010

The Lady Fern reads Samuel Johnson and tells me about Scotland

Marieke of The Lady Fern has been reading Samuel Johnson and doing something I wish I could:  comparing Johnson's view of Scotland with today's Scotland, with her own.  She helps me with something I have been thinking about in my own reading of Scottish literature, most of which is hardly Scottish at all. 

Of all the Scottish writers I came up with when I launched the Scottish Reading Challenge, I think exactly none are Highlanders.  The funny thing about Scottish culture - I mean Scottish culture now, Scottishness, like Marieke writes about here - is that so much of it is derived from the Highlands.  The tartans, for example, and the tree-throwing competitions are from the Highlands.  Or, what I really mean, Scottishness is now a blend of Highland and Lowland culture and institutions.  It was not always so.

Many of the key Scottish writers of the 18th and 19th century - here's what I find interesting, I guess - were actively stirring the pot, creating the blend.  I recently read Kidnapped (1886), one of Robert Louis Stevenson's four Scottish novels.  The basic story is about a Lowlander thrown into the Highlands, into Highland politics and legends and geography.  The Lowland norm is contrasted with the Highland extremes, some of which are admirable, some not.

Kidnapped is a boy's adventure novel, but it's entwined in a curious way with Scottish literary history.  The hero's Highland trek begins in the Hebrides, where he crosses paths with Boswell and Johnson (or, since the novel is set in 1751, they cross paths with him).  Stevenson borrows an actual inn that was also used by Walter Scott in The Antiquary (1816), which I hope to read soon, and one episode involves an encounter with a son of Rob Roy.  Scott's first novel, Waverley (1814), also includes some Lowland-Highland contrasts, so Stevenson is going back to the beginnings of the Scottish novel.

I don't want to say what I think Stevenson is doing with all of this - I had better read Catriona and The Master of Ballantrae first.  I just want to note that Lowlanders Scott and Stevenson are moving Highland history and culture into a more general Scottish culture. 

I've wandered off from The Lady Fern's posts.  She has a cluster of quotations of Johnson's, including his harping on the lack of trees and comments on the rain and the ubiquitous oats, and a most interesting comment on Johnson's fear of the Scottish landscape.  He was upholding the official aeshetic tastes of his time, that the Picturesque was admirable and untamed wilderness was scary.  Not just his time - almost 100 years later, Ruskin, throughout Modern Painters, assumes that mountains are terrifiying.  It's just around this time that mountain climbing becomes a lesiure activity.  Has anyone read Edmund Whymper's Scrambles Amongst the Alps (1871)?  Whymper essentially invents modern mountain cliimbing, in spite of - or is it because of - the multiple fatalities in his conquest of the Matterhorn.  Mountains are scary!

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Fiery swirls of slime - erotic disgust in Aurora Leigh

Aurora Leigh's cousin Romney, with whom she is in love, is getting married.  A Fourierist, he believed that the seas would turn to lemonade, although that's not relevant here.  A dedicated, humorless, social reformer, Romney is marrying a woman from the lumpenproletariat who can help him operate his phalanstery.  True to his beliefs, he invites London's lumpen to his wedding:

Of course the people came in uncompelled,
Lame, blind, and worse–sick, sorrowful, and worse,
The humours of the peccant social wound
All pressed out, poured out upon Pimlico.  (4.542-5)

That sounds terrbile.  Sickening, even.

Exasperating the unaccustomed air
With hideous interfusion: you'd suppose
A finished generation, dead of plague,
Swept outward from their graves into the sun,
The moil of death upon them. (4. 546-50)

What a strange piece of personification, the air becoming exasperated by these stinking poor people.  The voice here is Aurora's.  This is our heroine, brilliant, successful, thoughtful, reacting to the presence of the impoverished.  She could have married Romney and worked side by side with him, helping these horrible people.

Here's my favorite part:

They clogged the streets, they oozed into the church
In a dark slow stream, like blood. To see that sight,
The noble ladies stood up in their pews,
Some pale for fear, a few as red for hate,
Some simply curious , some just insolent,
And some in wondering scorn,–'What next? what next?' (4.553-558)

And it only gets better.  The unwashed masses move toward the altar "As bruised snakes crawl" (4.566).  They have faces that one does not usually see "in the open day,"  forgotten babies, beaten children:

Those, faces! 'twas as if you had stirred up hell
To heave its lowest dreg-fiends uppermost
In fiery swirls of slime (4.587-9)

This is, of course, obviously, all about sex, Aurora Leigh's panicky sense of losing the possibility of sex.  That's the source of the physicality of her disgust.  Aurora is normally not so mean-spirited! 
The novel, at its center, is about Aurora Leigh's integrity as a poet, and the sacrifices she has to make.  To be a poet, she cannot marry, since to marry would be to subsume her identity under her husband's, and more importantly, perhaps, to give up her time to his causes.  But in her social world, there is no other path to a physical relationship.  The novel, so dry and abstract in places, becomes sensual, even erotic (although abstractly!) in others.  See the amazing numbers of references to and images of breasts, for example - now there is a post I don't want to write.  Let me refer the interested reader to the same Novel Readings post I linked yesterday, which contains some fine examples.
Aurora Leigh is a surprisingly weird book.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Stiff, dubious-statured with the weight of years - wrestling with Aurora Leigh

I just finished Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Aurora Leigh (1856), a novel in blank verse about the struggles, romantic and professional, of a lady poet.  Do I want to write abou it?  I'm not sure.  I was inspired to read it by this post of Rohan Maitzen's, in which she describes how wild the book can be.  It's a frustrating book, alternately brilliant, then weird, then as dull as its blank verse peers.  Like The Prelude, like Paradise Lost, it was an easy book for me to not pick up.  Browning's blank verse was both compressed and prolix, giving the text a density that was sometimes hard to penetrate.

So it was not an easy book to read, at least in places, and is so thickly meaningful that it is not an easy book to understand.  Let me go the heart of the problem.  The scene is, let's see, the poet Aurora Leigh has fled her romantic troubles.  She is in Florence, depressed, not writing (her last book is a surprise hit), not doing anything:

I did not write, nor read, nor even think,
But sate absorbed amid the quickening glooms,
Most like some passive broken lump of salt
Dropt in by chance to a bowl of œnomel
To spoil the drink a little and lose itself,
Dissolving slowly, slowly until lost. (7,1306-11)

This is, top to bottom, superb blank verse, with one little lump of salt right in the middle.  This reader was stopped dead by "œnomel."  Those more skilled in languages, Meine Frau, for example, will be able to use the roots (œno = wine, mel = honey) to discover the honeyed wine concealed within the word.  I had to go to the Norton Critical Edition's footnote ("used as a beverage by the ancient Greeks (OED)").  Reading Aurora Leigh was a hiccupy experience for me, a bumpy ride.  EBB, as the footnotes call her, turns out to have the same vice as her husband, RB:  they are both obscure without knowing it.

Aurora Leigh is worth the struggle, the up-and-down, text-to-note eyestrain.   I'm now convinced it is an Essential Victorian Book, like Carlyle's Past and Present, to which it often refers.  But it takes work:

                             Alas, the best of books
Is but a word in Art, which soon grows cramped,
Stiff, dubious-statured with the weight of years,
And drops an accent or digamma down
Some cranny of unfathomable time,
Beyond the critic's reaching. (7.884-9)

Look, she did it again!  I'll leave "digamma" to the curious Googler.  And I'll write about the wedding scene tomorrow.  The wedding scene is fantastic.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Roberto Bolaño is a character in a Robert Louis Stevenson story

This isn't much of a poem, but stay with me for a minute, if you don't mind:

Mr. Wiltshire (El señor Wiltshire)

It's all over, says the voice in the dream, and now you're the reflection
of that guy Wiltshire, copra merchant in the South Seas,
the white man who married Uma, had lots of kids,
the one who killed Case and never went back to England,
you're like the cripple turned into a hero by love:
you'll never return to your homeland (but which is your homeland?)
you'll never be a wise man, come on, not even a man
who's reasonably intelligent, but love and your blood
made you take a step, uncertain but necessary, in the middle
of the night, and the love that guided that step is what saves you.

This poem inhabits page 81 of The Romantic Dogs (2008), a Roberto Bolaño poetry selection translated by Chris Knight.  I have the terrible feeling that the poems in the book were chosen because they contained, or might contain, clues to Bolaño's big books.  See, for example, the many the poems employing the word "detective" - "I dreamt of frozen detectives, Latin American detectives," etc.  I was naïvely hoping they would be good poems.  A back cover blurb, written by someone who has apparently read no poetry written after 1950, tells me "His poetic voice is like no other."

Regardless.  Did everybody identify the literary work at the base of this poem?  Would I have been able to identify it, or have the slightest idea what was going on, six weeks ago?  No!  Lines two through five are an accurate if plain summary of "The Beach of Falesá" (1893), my favorite Robert Louis Stevenson story.  Favorite as of six weeks ago, when I read through all of Stevenson's stories.

Is there a single hint in that poem, for the reader who has not read the story, or (I'm thinking ahead), for the reader who has read it, and even wrote a blog post about it, but whose memory is not so good?  I'm imagining that I'd read the poem a year from now, and how agonizing the "this seems so familiar" sense would be.

I have no point here, except that I got a kick out of recognizing the source of this poem, even if it was merely by chance.  I do wonder, though, how many other poems in this little book are built on works that I have never read or never heard of, or if it matters, or why it would.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Gothic Revival bookshelves - some build-it-yourself ideas

The Gothic Revival (1999) by Chris Brooks is another of those beautiful books in the Phaidon Arts & Ideas series, my Ideal Art Book.  It is hardly the most mellifluously written book in the series, I believe because it is burdened by necessary but tedious lists of architects and buildings.  I don't have a better suggestion - maybe tables, not lists?  Hardly more elegant.

Regardless, the book did just what I wanted it to do, filling in a lot of the intellectual and artistic context of the Gothic Revival in England and elsewhere.  Reading and teaching Ruskin led me here.  If I ever go on a driving tour of England, I am going to return to this book an make my own list, of places to visit.  The illustrations and building photography are superb, as in every book in the series.

Forget the buildings, though, and the ideas, and the political meaning of Belgian Gothic Revival ecclesiastical architecture.  I want to look at bookshelves.  To the left (from p. 340), we see The Great Bookcase (it has a name!), built 1859-62 by "William Burges and others."  Take a trip to Knighthayes Court in Devon to see it for yourself.  It's about ten and a half feet high.  You might want to contact your local cabinet-maker and commission one of these.  It's your duty, really, to help fight the recession.

The book owner who is understandably worried about the inadequate size of The Great Bookcase will want to consider the oak specimen pictured below (p. 356), built by the Austrians Bernardis and Kranner in 1850.  This beauty was dispatched to the 1851 Geat Exhibition as an example of Austrian craftsmanship, and now resides in the Victoria and Albert Museum.   The dimensions are 463 x 579 cm, or 15 ft 2 1/2 in x 19 ft.  You could omit the little statues and towers if that's too tall for your library.  Or you could raise the ceiling of your library.

Friday, March 12, 2010

You know the shell is heading in your direction - Tolstoy's early war writing

I had the idea that I was going to somehow balance Early Tolstoy week between Childhood, Boyhood, Youth (1852-7) and the exactly contemporary Sevastopol Sketches (1855-6), three stories about the Siege of Sevastopol during the Crimean War.  In the 1850s, Tolstoy began his career by writing War and also Peace, but in separate books.

The Sevastopol Sketches at times resemble some form of reporting, and are certainly based on Tolstoy's own observations.  My understanding is that they were treated as reporting, as dispatches from the front.  But they are fictional, obviously fictional.  The first sketch, "Sevastopol in December" takes "you," a young officer like Tolstoy, on a tour of the city, all the way to the battlements, with detours to a field hospital and a tavern.  The hospital scene not much less grisly than it would be in a novel today, so fair warning to the squeamish.  Let me just swerve around that section and pull out a bit of Tolstoyan battlefield psychology:

At the moment you know the shell is heading in your direction, you are bound to think it is going to kill you; but a feeling of self-respect will sustain you, and no one will observe the knife that is lacerating your heart.  When, however, the shell sails past, leaving you unscathed, you will recover your spirits and be seized, if only for a moment, by a sense of relief that is unutterably pleasant. (199)

The second story, "Sevastopol in May," hops around among a group of officers - the main characters in the Sevastopol Sketches are all officers - on a more or less ordinary day.  I was startled by how much Tolstoy's officers are motivated by vanity.  Sometimes they want to be brave, but mostly they want to look brave, to expose themselves to as little danger as possible while maximizing their visibility.  And, as one might guess, the importance of looking, or being, brave varies from one moment to the next when the officer is actually in battle.  Tolstoy is insightful, so perhaps my surprise is that this unflattering portrait of the Russian officers was so easily published.

The center of this story is an extraordinary scene in which two officers take cover just before a shell explodes.  Both expect to die; one does, one does not.  If there is any doubt that the Sketches are fiction, the detailed interior thoughts of a man just before his death should remind us that, however truthful the story seems, Tolstoy is making it up, since he did not experience dying in battle.

'Thank God, I'm only contused,' was his first thought, and he tried to touch his chest with his hands - but his arms seemed to be bound fast, and his head felt as though it were caught in some kind of vice.  Soldiers flickered past his gaze - and he found himself unconsciously counting them: 'One, two, three - ah, that one in the tucked-up greatcoast is an officer,' he thought; then there was a flash, and he wondered if it had been a mortar or a cannon; a cannon, more likely; and now there was some more firing, more soldiers going past - five, six, seven. (242)

The bald declaration at the end of the chapter, by the plain old omnisicent narrator, that the officer "had been killed on the spot by a shell splinter," seems entirely unnecessary, a bit of clumsiness that Tolstoy will learn to excise.  Many passages, though, would not seem out of place in War and Peace.  It all sounds like Tolstoy.  What a powerful writer.

Quotations from The Cossacks and Other Stories, tr. David McDuff, Penguin Classics, 2006.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Are there blue hares? - Tolstoy looses the bindings

A couple of bits from Childhood (1852), not presented for any particular reason besides their existence:

The collection of books on his own shelf, if not so large as ours, was even more miscellaneous.  I remember three of them: a German pamphlet on the manuring of cabbages in kitchen-gardens (minus a cover), one volume of a History of the Seven Years' War, bound in parchment with a burn at one corner, and a complete course in hydrostatics.  Karl Ivanych spent most of his time reading and had even injured his eyesight doing so; but except for the Northern Bee he never read anything else. (Ch 1).

I had only blue paint; but for all that I took it into my head to draw a picture of the hunt.  After representing in very lively style a blue boy on a blue horse, and some blue dogs, I stopped, uncertain whether one could paint a blue hare, and ran into papa's study to consult him.  Papa was reading something and in answer to my question 'Are there blue hares?' replied without lifting his head, 'Yes, my dear, there are.'  (Ch. 11)

Young Nikolai watches ants, and bars their way with a twig.  His father and the estate steward do the accounts on an abacus.  Nikolai, leaving the estate, kisses the servants goodbye "and the smell of tallow from their heads excited in me something like the annoyance irritable people feel" (Ch. 14).

I could go on and on, and perhaps already have.  All of this occurs in the course of a little more than a day, before anything at all happens in Childhood.  The day is, in fact an extraordinary one - it is the day before ten-year-old Nikolai leaves his country home to live in Moscow.  A hunt is organized, and a picnic.  The tutor, that reader of the course in hydrostatics, will be dismissed (there are a few very funny scenes about him), but on second thought, he can come with.  The hourly existence of the boy, though, is just as it is, no more or less real or interesting than on any other day.

James Wood recently needed an example of a "reality-artist," whatever that is, and reached for Tolstoy:  "When one first reads Tolstoy, one feels the bindings being loosed, and the joyful realization is that the novel is stronger without the usual nineteenth-century appurtenances—coincidence, eavesdropping, melodramatic reversals, kindly benefactors, cruel wills, and so on." 

I have no stake in the argument Wood is making, or not making - I am currently enjoying Robert Louis Stevenson's improbable Kidnapped (1886) about as much as I enjoyed Childhood, Boyhood, Youth - but that description is right, and it fits Tolstoy from his very beginnings as a writer.  He makes peers like Balzac or Dickens, whatever their strengths, seem so convention-bound.  Tolstoy wrote in the service of Truth.  His integrity is bracing.  Thank goodness, though, not everyone writes like him.  We, or I, need fantasists and pranksters, too.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Leo Tolstoy on How to Read

Young Nikolai, hero, or subject, of Childhood, Boyhood, Youth, is spending the summer before starting college at his family's country house.  He learns to play the piano - "fancying that classical music was easier, and partly for the sake of being original, I suddenly decided I loved German music" - and reads:

Reading French novels, of which Volodya had brought a large store with him, was another of my occupations that summer.  At that time Monte Cristo and the various Mystères were only just beginning to appear, and I devoured volume after volume of Sue, Dumas, and Paul de Kock.  All the most unnatural characters and adventures were as much alive to me as reality.  I not only never dared suspect the author of lying but the author himself did not exist for me, and real live people and real events appeared before me out of the printed book.  If I had never come across people like those I read about, I never doubted for a moment that I should one day.  (Youth, Ch. 30)

Sounds wonderful.  A nice summer.

I discovered in myself all the passions described in every novel, as well as a likeness to all the characters - both heroes and villains - in the same way a nervous man who reads a medical work detects in himself symptoms of every possible disease.

He enjoys the fact that the good characters are good and the bad bad, "just as I imagined people to be in my early youth."  He concocts stirring French phrases and witty comebacks to humiliate his enemies, whoever they might turn out to be, and to woo her, whoever she might turn out to be.  One might wonder if there is a bit of mockery here.  Wonder no more:

I remember that in one of the hundreds of novels I read that summer there was an extremely passionate hero with bushy eyebrows, and I so much wanted to be like him in appearance (in character I felt I was exactly like him) that one day looking at my eyebrows in the glass I conceived the idea of clipping them a little to make them grow thicker, but when I began to cut them..."

All right, we all know where this is going now.  Yes, mockery. 

The premise of Tolstoy's novel is directly opposed to the French romances.  Here we have a book that is virtually without plot, where many incidents are insignificant and others (deaths in the family, say) are ordinary parts of life, where every action, every detail, every character must be judged by their plausibility, a novel of natural characters who have no adventures at all.  And in the center is an confused boy, an unheroic adolescent with whom I can closely identify, just as Nikolai does with the Dumas heroes, except that in this case the identification is painful and humiliating - yes, adolescence was just like that.  An ugly business.

Dumas and company return near the end of the novel, in Chapter 43.  Nikolai joins a study group of social inferiors, all of whom are real students.  Nikolai tries to impress them with his knowledge of literature only to  discover that they "despised Dumas, Sue and Féval alike" and "knew and could appraise English and even Spanish authors," and read Pushkin as literature, not as "little books in yellow covers which one read and learned as a child."  In other words, they are developing adult tastes and judgment.  Poor Nikolai has to catch up.

I wonder what Tolstoy had planned for the last, unwritten volume of the novel.  Would it have been a novel of artistic development, perhaps, how the mediocre dandy and failed student becomes a real writer?  Or would that have been a little too close to Tolstoy?  I would regret the loss of that story if Tolstoy hadn't been so amazingly productive.  The Cossacks and War and Peace seem like a fair trade.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

All I had been thinking about was the most awful nonsense - Tolstoy's first book is Tolstoyan

Childhood, Boyhood, Youth is a short autobiographical novel in which an adult narrator describes his life from ages ten to seventeen or so.  Tolstoy combined his own childhood with that of friends and relatives.  He had been impressed by David Copperfield shortly before he began writing this novel, so that's probably one source for the idea of this account of an extraordinary ordinary life.*

The plot, as such, is minimal.  The Childhood volume only describes a few key days:  the day before young Nikolai and his brother leave their country house (and mother) to live in Moscow; a party at his grandmother's Moscow house; and a rush back to the country to see off the dying mother.  Just ninety pages in my old Penguin Classics edition.  Boyhood, even shorter, covers a day of humiliating punishment when Nikolai refuses to learn his lessons, and climaxes with the death of the grandmother.  The final, longest volume, Youth is more diffuse.  Nikolai crams for his university exams (separate chapters for history, math, and Latin), falls in love, or at least tries to do so, makes and loses friends, gets drunk, and ponders the meaning or meaninglessness of all things, depending on his mood.

It's Tolstoy's first novel, yet is so Tolstoyan.  The obsession with death, for example, the way death mingles with life.  In Chapter 23 of Boyhood the children are all sent on a surprise sleigh-ride.  What a lark!:

As we drew up to the house on the way back I open my mouth to make a fine face at [my sister] when my eyes are startled by a black coffin-lid leaning against one panel of our front door, and my mouth remains fixed in its distorted grimace.

'Votre grand'mère est morte!' says St-Jérome with a pale face, coming out to meet us.

Yes, the novel has a healthy sprinkling of the untranslated French that we all loved in War and Peace.  The Sevastopol Sketches, written at the same time, contain untranslated Polish, so count your blessings, I say. 

The single great touch, though, the art of that passage, is the boy's frozen mouth.

Along with the French dialogue, Tolstoy's essayistic philosophizing is already present - I seem to be ticking off the qualities of Tolstoy that most annoy people.  Fortunately, it is mostly presented as part of the tangled thoughts of the adolescent, filtered through our older narrator:

This argument [about eternal life], which seemed to me exceedingly novel and clear and whose logic I can now perceive only with difficulty, pleased me mightily, and taking a sheet of paper I thought I would put it all down in writing; but thereupon such a host of idea surged into my head that I was obliged to get up and walk about the room.  When I came to the window my attention fell upon the dray-horse that the coachman was just putting to the cart to fetch water, and my thoughts all centred on the question: what animal or man would that horse's soul enter when it died?  Just then [my brother], as he passed through the room, smiled on seeing me absorbed in speculative thoughts, and that smile sufficed to make me feel that all I had been thinking about was the most awful nonsense.  (Boyhood, Ch. 19)

If I were told that Childhood, Boyhood, Youth was the autobiography of Constantin Levin, from Anna Karenina, I would almost believe it, except that Nikolai is missing a brother.  So many of Tolstoy's characters share this intellectual and spiritual restlessness.

The final chapter of the novel is titled "I Fail."  Nikolai has somehow decided that he can pass his university finals by being extremely cool, by having, for example, perfect fingernails.  Unfortunately, he is not actually that cool, and there may be one or two other flaws in the plan, although I have met students who are trying the same thing.  Nikolai "experience[s] my first moment of repentance and moral resolution," and the novel ends with a dull thud.  Tolstoy apparently meant to continue the book, and could have, indefinitely, but of course moved on to other characters and other books, which, as good as much of Childhood, Boyhood, Youth is, was lucky for us.

*  He had also been translating(!) Laurence Sterne's Sentimental Journey through France and Italy, which to my eye has no relation to Childhood, Boyhood, Youth whatsoever, so who knows.

Monday, March 8, 2010

I wanted the lecture to be so clever from beginning to end that it would be impossible to omit or add a single word - enjoying early Tolstoy

When the professor entered and everybody first shifted about and then settled in their seats I remember extending my satirical observations to him, too, and was amazed that he should begin his lecture with an introductory sentence which, in my opinion, did not make sense. I wanted the lecture to be so clever from beginning to end that it would be impossible to omit or add a single word. (Youth, Ch. 36).

Boy oh boy do I hope my students were not expecting anything like that.  Doesn't matter if they did - they weren't going to get it. 

That's not my point, which is:  substitute "Tolstoy" for "the professor" and "novel" for "lecture,"and that's close to what I wanted from Leo Tolstoy's earliest publication, Childhood (1852), the first part of the novel Childhood, Boyhood, Youth (1852 / 1854 / 1857), although I don't think I exactly expected it.  Let's see how he did:

On the 12th of August 18--, exactly three days after my tenth birthday, for which I had received such wonderful presents, Karl Ivanych woke me at seven in the morning by hitting at a fly just over my head with a flap made of sugar-bag paper fastened to a stick.  His action was so clumsy that he caught the little ikon of my patron-saint, which hung on the headboard of my oak bedstead, and the dead fly fell right on my head.  I put my nose out from under the bedclothes, steadied with my hand the ikon which was still wobbling, flicked the dead fly to the floor, and looked at Karl Ivanych with wrathful if sleepy eyes.  (Childhood, Ch. 1)

Are we in a Gogol novel, with that fly, and that nose?  No, it's definitely Tolstoy, as we find a few paragraphs later, when little Nikolai works himself into a fit because he is: 1) irritated by his tutor, then 2) irritated at himself for being irritated, since he loves the tutor, which leads to 3) lying to the tutor rather than explaining why he is actualy upset, and claiming that he had a bad dream "that mamma was dead and they were taking her away to bury her," which is, unsurprisingly, foreshadowing.  Anyway, this, to me, is pretty typical Tolstoyan psychology, actions with multiple, tangled, half-understood causes.  Typical for him.

So not bad, right, not bad.  The beginning makes sense, although I'm not sure that one couldn't "omit or add a single word."  Besides Childhood, Boyhood, Youth, I've been reading other early Tolstoy works: The Sebastopol Sketches (1855), and now his first story, "The Raid" (1853).  It's all so good.  Ambitious, detailed, insightful.  Tolstoy.  Right away, he's Tolstoy.  This week, early Tolstoy.

Quotations from Childhood, Boyhood, Youth, tr. Rosemary Edmonds, Penguin Classics, 1964.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Tristan Corbière, poet-toad, toad-poet - It sings. - Horrible!!

The Toad

Some song on an airless night...
The moon tin-plates clear and bright
The cut-outs of gloomy greenery.

... Some song; like an echo dies,
Buried alive in that clump it lies...
- Finished: there in the shadows, see...

- A toad! - Why ever this fear
Of me, you old faithful thing?
Look: a shorn poet, not a wing,
The mud lark... - Horrible to hear! -

... It sings. - Horrible!! - Horrible, why?
Don't you see its eye's bright look?...
No: gone, cold, to its stone nook.
.   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .
Goodnight - that toad is me. Goodbye.

                                                  This evening, 20th July

This is again, Tristan Corbière via Peter Dale.  However much the translator indulges himself, Corbière indulges himself more.  Those double exclamation marks, for example, are Corbière's.

I hope this poem gives some idea of how much fun Corbière can be - the croaking toad as "mud lark" and "shorn poet," for example, or the foliage as tin-plate cut-outs.  Some of his virtues are those of many great poets.  

I perhaps overemphasized his incomprehensibility yesterday.  Or perhaps not.  Corbière was an amazing oddball.  But then the oddest thing is that he ends up in the main stream of French poetic tradition.  It's Corbière and Rimbaud and Apollinaire who are important enough that someone bothers to tote them over into English so I can read them.  Who were the normal French poets?  What happened to them?

Thursday, March 4, 2010

I know no Art - gleefully bewildered by Tristan Corbière

It's been a few weeks since I finished Les Amours Jaunes (1873) by Tristan Corbière.  I've considered and abandoned a number of approaches to the book.  I still don't have one.  It's all too ker-ay-zee.

I'll give you a for example, from the second poem in the book, "That," which begins a section entitled "That."  In French, "Ça."  After the title, there is an epigram, a useful quotation that will surely help me understand the poem:


Ah, one of my favorite Shakespeare quotations.  With that helpful hint, let's begin:

Essays? - Pooh, I never have essayed!
A study? - Never plagiarized, idle hound.
A tome? - Too behind-hand to be bound...
Articles? - Sadly, no. It's not well-paid.

And on like this for six more stanzas, telling us what he is definitely not writing: poems, light pieces, a masterpiece.  He ends:

It's a fluke, and right or wrong, by chance's part...
Art doesn't recognize me.  I know no Art.

Then, in the crowning touch, Corbière dates and places the composition of the poem, as is traditional:  "Police Headquarters, 20th May 1873."  Very funny. So his book is two hundred pages of non-poetic non-art. 

I'm reading the translation of Peter Dale, Wry-Blue Loves (2005), published by the marvelous Anvil Press.  Dale is quite free with his translation, trying to enter into the spirit of the thing more than the sense, which is often only barely there in the French to begin with.  But please note that every punctuation mark, every orthographic oddity, is followed punctiliously, including the ellipses in the above excerpts and the lines of dots Corbière sometimes inserted between stanzas.  Corbière loved dots.   I don't know what a translator should do with these loopy things.  Dale seems all right to me.

These stanzas, from "I Sonnet," are not exactly typical, but might show what I mean:

- Sacred telegram - 20 words. - Help, step on it...
O Muse of Archimedes! (Sonnet; it's a sonnet.)
- The proof of any sonnet's adding one:

- I put 4 and 4 = 8! Go on to con it
With 3 and 3! - Let's hold Pegasus strictly on it:
'O lyre, O delyrium, O!...' - Sonnet - 'Shun!

That last word is substituting for "attention" - Dale ran out of syllables. Otherwise, that's pretty much what the French looks like.  Corbière tore French poetry to shreds and then stitched the pieces back together.  I can see how T. S. Eliot found real freedom in Corbière.  But he's got me stumped.  What a contrast to Victor Hugo, for example, whose verse I'm working on now.  With Hugo, I want to write about every third poem.  His poems are rich, overstuffed, even.  With Corbière, I laugh and then scratch my head.  What?  That!

Les Amours Jaunes is Corbière's only book.  Poor guy died two years later, age thirty.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Grumpy complaining about a book I won't finish

Well here's something unusual for me, so I'm going to stay in my Professional Reader role for another day. I picked up a book at the library, just yesterday, that seems like a dud.  I'm not going to finish it.

The book is historian Margaret MacMillan's Dangerous Games: The Uses and Abuses of History (2008).  MacMillan argues that history is important, and that sometimes history is used for bad purposes.  Historians should write good history, not bad history.  Politicians, and the rest of us, should try to draw the correct lessons from history, not the wrong lessons.

It sounds like I'm just mocking the book, but I'm just imitating its style:

History responds to a variety of needs, from greater understanding of ourselves and our world to answers about what to do. (6)

History has shaped humans' values, their fears, their aspirations, their loves, and their hatreds. (8)

The last two decades have been troubled and bewildering ones, and, not surprisingly, many people have turned to history to try to understand what is going on. (11)

I do want to mock that last line, inserting a parenthetical comment after "troubled and bewildering ones" - unlike any other decades, right, like the tranquil and perfectly comprehensible decades of, um, you know, let's see?   But that's not my point, which is that these statements, although more or less true, are banal, and the language, simplistic.  It's historiography for seventh graders.

I've only read the preface and one chapter.  That's just not fair.  Hang on while I read some more.  This is a Modern Library Chronicles book, so the chapters are short and the pages tiny.  I won't be long.

All right, Chapter 2 was not much better.  The subject is national apologies for historical misdeeds - should the United States apologixe for slavery, or should Canada apologize interning Ukrainians during World War I?  MacMillan lays out the pros and cons clearly, which is good, and simply, which is not, since I pretty much knew the issues already.  Not the book for me.  Maybe one more chapter.  Sorry, hang on.

Now that was a mistake.  MacMillan uses Chapter 3 to take swings at the history profession.  What is this supposed to be, I ask:

While it is instructive, informative, and indeed fun to study such subjects as the carnivals in the French Revolution, the image of the Virgin Mary in the Middle Ages, the role of the doughnut in the Canadian psyche..., or the hamburger in American life, we ought not to forget the aspect of history that the great nineteenth-century German historian Leopold von Ranke summed up as "what really happened." (38)

How condescending - "indeed fun."  Finish up your cute little pretend history and get back to real history.  Who is "forgetting"?  How are carnivals in the French Revolution not part of what really happened?  The next paragraph backs off a bit, mentioning the rise of social and gender history, but this is what she really means:

historians must not abandon political history entirely for sociology or cultural studies.  Like it or not, politics matters to our societies and to our lives. (37)

MacMillan is correct.  Fortunately, there is not the slightest danger of historians, who study a wide variety of subjects, "abandoning" political history.  MacMillan is arguing about the ratio or the hierarchy or something.  I'm missing some subtext.

I'd better stop.  Three chapters is almost a third of the book, which if not fair, is close to fair.  Readers less familiar with these sorts of issues - undergraduate hitory majors, perhaps? - will likely get a lot more out of it than I have.

Now look at this.  I have before me a review of the book by Max Hastings from the March 11, 2010 issue of The New York Review of Books.  The book's essays, says Hastings, "break no significant new ground" and "suffer somewhat in coherence and continuity by their obvious derivation from lectures delivered to a student audience."  I see, I see.  Fair enough.  I wish I'd known that.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

An ossifiant theory of progress - John Ruskin and a classroom failure

I introduced John Ruskin into my class in the role of a non-Marxist critic of capitalism.  We read about Utopian Socialists like Owen and Fourier, but I wanted to give the students a taste of another tradition, the British medievalism of Thomas Carlyle and John Ruskin and William Morris.  A key consideration: these men were good writers.  I have my doubts about those Utopian Socialists.

A brief look at Past and Present (1842), Carlyle's essential Condition-of-England fantasy, left me looking for alternatives.  It was all so Carlylean.  Too dense, too weird, too distracting.  An essential caveat here is that I don't know what I'm doing.  I needed something easier to swallow. 

So I assigned the first chapter or essay of Unto This Last (1860), one of Ruskin's assaults on the notion of economic man.  There's Ruskin, to the left, as painted by Millais.  My students found Ruskin frustrating, as they should have.  Unlike Marx, Ruskin had no system.  His insights come in sudden leaps.  He argues poetically, or by metaphor, or, most irritating to me, by etymology.  He knew how things ought to be.  For example, everything, including, especially, labor, should be priced at its moral value.  Ruskin is sure he knows what that means.  I am sure I do not.

I also do not know how Ruskin, or Marx, or other enthusiasts of the idea, was so sure that the medieval stone-carvers of Venice were not alienated from their labor.  I have no doubt that many led deeply fulfilled, creative lives.  Ruskin is sure that they all did, and that you would, too.  I'm afraid, though, that I think of restlessness, boredom, and dissatisfaction as human rather than capitalist problems, and have trouble pinning all of the blame on the division of labor.  Perhaps this is why I taught Ruskin so badly.

I did get a rise out of the students by briefly pushing on to William Morris and then linking the whole tradition to Tolkien and his hobbits.  That's what they'll take away - Carlyle, Ruskin, and Morris are old English men who want us all to live in the Shire.  Well done, Herr Professor Doktor.

Ruskin is such a good writer.  The skeleton metaphor, for example in Essay I.  Ruskin imagines a "science of gymnastics" that assumes that humans do not have skeletons:

It might be shown, on that supposition, that it would be advantageous to roll the students up into pellets, flatten them into cakes, or stretch them into cables;* and that when these results were effected, the re-insertion of the skeleton would be attended with various inconveniences to their constitution. The reasoning might be admirable, the conclusions true, and the science deficient only in applicability.  Modern political economy stands on a precisely similar basis.

He could have stopped there, but, no, he advances a step:

Assuming, not that the human being has no skeleton, but that it is all skeleton, it founds an ossifiant theory of progress on this negation of a soul; and having shown the utmost that may be made of bones, and constructed a number of interesting geometrical figures with death's-head and humeri, successfully proves the inconvenience of the reappearance of a soul among these corpuscular structures. I do not deny the truth of this theory: I simply deny its applicability to the present phase of the world.

I love that sarcastic dig at the end, and the whole structre of mock-pompous Latinisms.  But if I ever teach the subject again, I'll going to switch toWilliam Morris, "Useful Work versus Useless Toil" (1886), which I have not read, so it will hardly solve the incompetence inexperience problem, but will at least allow me to fail in a new and productive way.

*  It would be advantageous to roll the students into pellets, sometimes.

Monday, March 1, 2010

The enjoyable Karl Marx - a classroom success

I do not believe I have ever written a post about my teaching.  In the classroom, the Amateur Reader becomes a Professional Reader.  Not a reader of anything that might show up on Wuthering Expectations - there's the difference.

This semester, though, I have been able to briefly force a merger, during a two week unit on Karl Marx.*  My real coup was forcing John Ruskin on the unsuspecting young'uns.  As with many coups, a counter-revolution drove the rebels from the palace.  They were lucky to escape with their lives.  What a disaster.

Marx, though, I cannot believe how well the students responded to Marx.  We used The Portable Karl Marx, edited by Eugene Kamenka, reading The Communist Manifesto and selections from The German Ideology, Grundrisse, and Capital.  Light stuff, as Marx goes.

I had a copy of the book from college, and read or reread the whole thing.  I read an unhealthy chunk in Morocco, or on the plane home.  When I was an undergraduate, twenty years ago, I read Karl Marx, substantial chunks of Karl Marx, in courses in:  History, Economcs, Political Science, and Sociology.  Plus, everyone graduating with a BA was assigned The Communist Manifesto in Western Civ.  So that's five subjects.  That's a lotta Marx.

Of my sixteen students, four had read the Manifesto.  One of these had read Capital as well.  What, the first volume, I asked?  No, all of it, all of it.  Two thousand pages, more.  I thought it would be discouraging to ask why, so, to answer your question, I don't know.  No, I know.  Why do I read (some) of what I read?  To do it, to see what's there.  Good for him.

I do not believe I had any actual Marxists in my class, although a student did wear a Marxite novelty t-shirt on the final day (Lenin in a pointy hat, Mao with a noise-maker, all at the Communist Party, ho ho), and another said he had meant to.  The positive response, then, was not to the ideas of Marx, as such - hostility was more openly expressed, at least - but to Marx as a sort of intellectual puzzle.  We take a definition of surplus value from this reading, combine it with offhand comments about what capitalists produce from that one (short answer: nothing but trouble),  mix in some colonialism here and some peppery rhetoric there.  Combine enough pieces and a picture begins to emerge.  The students seemed to enjoy it, and seemed to understand that agreeing with any or all of it was entirely beside the point, an activity for elsewhere.

If they actually remember a single Marxian idea, I hope it is the concept of the worker's alienation from his labor.  I'm training students to be well-paid bureaucrats.  I accept that.  Best to be aware of the truth.

*  I will allow readers to guess at the class.  Standard class in my field.