Friday, April 30, 2010

If he has never been on a quest for buried treasure, it can be demonstrated that he has never been a child

Robert Louis Stevenson’s single clearest literary essay, I’d say, is “A Humble Remonstrance” (1884).  Stevenson’s piece is a response to what is now considered a seminal Henry James essay, “The Art of Fiction” (1884).  The quality of his opponent presumably encouraged Stevenson to bring his best arguments. He only scores one point on James, but it’s a good one.

James first.  He is arguing that the novel is an expansive form, and favorably comparing Treasure Island to a psychological novel by Edmond de Goncourt:

I call Treasure Island delightful, because it appears to me to have succeeded wonderfully in what it attempts; and I venture to bestow no epithet upon Chérie, which strikes me as having failed in what it attempts - that is, in tracing the development of the moral consciousness of a child…  [But] the picture of the child's experience has the advantage that I can at successive steps (an immense luxury, near to the 'sensual pleasure' of which Mr. Besant's critic in the Pall Mall speaks) say Yes or No, as it may be, to what the artist puts before me.  I have been a child, but I have never been on a quest for a buried treasure, and it is a simple accident that with M. de Goncourt I should have for the most part to say No.

The temptation to edit Henry James was irresistible.  Stevenson, as one might guess, could not have been more pleased with James’s approval of his “little book about a quest for hidden treasure”, but that does not prevent him from flying straight to the weakness in James’s argument, “some rather startling words”:

In this book he misses what he calls the "immense luxury" of being able to quarrel with his author.  The luxury, to most of us, is to lay by our judgment, to be submerged by the tale as by a billow, and only to awake, and begin to distinguish and find fault, when the piece is over and the volume laid aside.  Still more remarkable is Mr. James's reason.  He cannot criticise the author, as he goes, "because," says he, comparing it with another work, "I have been a child, but I have never been on a quest for buried treasure."  Here is, indeed, a wilful paradox; for if he has never been on a quest for buried treasure, it can be demonstrated that he has never been a child.  There never was a child (unless Master James) but has hunted gold, and been a pirate, and a military commander, and a bandit of the mountains; but has fought, and suffered shipwreck and prison, and imbrued its little hands in gore, and gallantly retrieved the lost battle, and triumphantly protected innocence and beauty. (86)

Now, I can see a convincing objection to Stevenson: if there was ever a boy who did not behave as Stevenson suggests, that child could very well have been Henry James.  But that’s beside the point.

Stevenson’s literary essays form a concerted argument not to put away childish things.  They are a defense of a certain strain of the imagination, narrow but powerful.  “I believe, in a majority of cases, that the artist writes with more gusto and effect of those things which he has only wished to do, than of those which he has done” (86-7).  I suspect this is as true for James as for Stevenson, even if the things they wish to do vary considerably.  And I begin to see how this precise issue can divide readers of Stevenson, how a reader like Borges feels free to indulge this side of his imagination, while James, and perhaps Nabokov, join in more reluctantly, and another set of readers can dismiss Stevenson as willfully immature.  He is; they’re right. Stevenson’s literary essays are an argument for the high value of retaining some portion of our immaturity.

In real life, James and Stevenson became fairly close friends as a result of this exchange, a surprising happy ending to the story.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

I rejoiced to plunge into the book again at breakfast - R. L. Stevenson reads Alexandre Dumas

Robert Louis Stevenson’s favorite book, which he claims to have read “five or six” times, was The Vicomte de Bragelonne, or Ten Years After (1847-50) by Alexandre Dumas.  It’s the 1,500 page third part of the Three Musketeers saga. Most readers seem to skip to the final third of the novel, issued in English as The Man in the Iron Mask.  Stevenson loved the whole thing.

Almost.  In “A Gossip on a Novel of Dumas’s” (1887), Stevenson justifies his perplexing preference.  First, though, he is obligated to concede the novel’s faults.  The book “goes heavily enough” until Chapter XVII, which he admits is a bit long for an adventure, or any, novel.  The title character is inconsequential; the heroine is similarly weak, a fault that poor Stevenson finds understandable, if not forgivable:

Authors, at least, know it well; a heroine will too often start the trick of "getting ugly;" and no disease is more difficult to cure.  I said authors; but indeed I had a side eye to one author in particular, with whose works I am very well acquainted, though I cannot read them, and who has spent many vigils in this cause, sitting beside his ailing puppets and (like a magician) wearying his art to restore them to youth and beauty. (121)

I’m told that I can expect to find Stevenson’s only decent female character in Catriona, the sequel to Kidnapped.

What does Stevenson love so in The Vicomte de Bragelonne?  Well, what’s not to love about this:

I would rise from my book and pull the blind aside, and see the snow and the glittering hollies chequer a Scotch garden, and the winter moonlight brighten the white hills. Thence I would turn again to that crowded and sunny field of life in which it was so easy to forget myself, my cares, and my surroundings: a place busy as a city, bright as a theatre, thronged with memorable faces, and sounding with delightful speech. I carried the thread of that epic into my slumbers, I woke with it unbroken, I rejoiced to plunge into the book again at breakfast, it was with a pang that I must lay it down and turn to my own labours; for no part of the world has ever seemed to me so charming as these pages, and not even my friends are quite so real, perhaps quite so dear, as d'Artagnan. (119)

Stevenson spends some time defending the morality of the novel and praising the depth of characterization of d’Artagnan, which he says will surprise readers who only know The Three Musketeers.  But really, his experience of reading Dumas is not quite explicable.  Readers will have their own books, their own adventures, which they carried to bed and rejoined at breakfast.  “A Gossip on a Novel of Dumas’s” is as much about the joys of reading as it is about Alexandre Dumas. And the subtext, of course: Stevenson is telling us what he is trying to do in his own books.

It’s curious that Stevenson never attempted anything of the sort himself.  His own novels, whatever their vices or virtues, are taut and efficient.  They are invariably well-written, by the standards of his day and ours.  They’re polished.  Which is the answer to the puzzle. Stevenson cared about his own writing, in a way that Dumas did not.  Stevenson wanted to write stirring, romantic Dumas-like scenes without giving up on good sentences.  So he wrote short, punchy stories rather than immense, sprawling ones.  Good.  Good.

This post is my contribution to the Alexandre Dumas Classics Circuit, which sneakily avoids any actual Dumas.  My own Dumas reading seems to have stalled out after The Three Musketeers (1844) and The Count of Monte Cristo (1844-5).  Despite Stevenson's best efforts, Twenty Years After (1845) remains on the shelf.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Fiction is to the grown man what play is to the child - Stevenson's "A Gossip on Romance"

I seem to keep using Robert Louis Stevenson to bang on Zola.  I don’t really mean to – but it’s Stevenson who keeps looking at Zola as the anti-Stevenson.  He does it again in “A Gossip on Romance” (1882), a full-throated defense of the Art of the Novel (as written by R. L. Stevenson).  So forget Zola.

Stevenson’s art is based on scenes. On “incident,” he says, in a term I find misleading. He means not the one-thing-after-another, but scenes, the scenes that crystallize the book (I’m borrowing from Stendhal), the scenes that stay with the reader as if he saw them:

The words, if the book be eloquent, should run thenceforward in our ears like the noise of breakers, and the story, if it be a story, repeat itself in a thousand coloured pictures to the eye. It was for this last pleasure that we read so closely, and loved our books so dearly, in the bright, troubled period of boyhood. (52)

One example, among many supplied by Stevenson, is Robinson Crusoe finding the footprint, a fine scene considered every which way. A scene is built of nothing but language, so the writer’s control over his words is essential, yet Stevenson’s ideal reader is then meant to forget the words and retain only the image they created.

How, then, do scenes work? Scenes are composed of details:

True romantic art, again, makes a romance of all things. It reaches into the highest abstraction of the ideal; it does not refuse the most pedestrian realism. 'Robinson Crusoe' is as realistic as it is romantic; both qualities are pushed to an extreme, and neither suffers. (60)

Emphasis on things. Robinson Crusoe again: Stevenson is thinking of that mound of stuff Crusoe rescues from the wreck:

Every single article the castaway recovers from the hulk is 'a joy for ever' to the man who reads of them. They are the things that should be found, and the bare enumeration stirs the blood. (60)

When Stevenson refers to his “bright, troubled childhood,” I am pretty sure he is veiling his early ill health, the real possibility that he could die that young. Stevenson’s childhood reading might have possessed an intensity I’m glad I don’t share. Still, I think any childhood reader knows this feeling:

Eloquence and thought, character and conversation, were but obstacles to brush aside as we dug blithely after a certain sort of incident, like a pig for truffles. For my part, I liked a story to begin with an old wayside inn where, 'towards the close of the year 17-,' several gentlemen in three-cocked hats were playing bowls. A friend of mine preferred the Malabar coast in a storm, with a ship beating to windward, and a scowling fellow of Herculean proportions striding along the beach; he, to be sure, was a pirate. (52-3)

It was hard to know when to stop quoting. Readers of Harry Potter or The Wizard of Oz are similar pigs nosing after similar truffles. Stevenson wanted to recapture these moments, or, really, to create his own new ones. It’s what he thought great fiction did. “Fiction is to the grown man what play is to the child” (61).

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

The true realism - R. L. Stevenson's "The Lantern-Bearers"

These boys congregated every autumn about a certain easterly fisher-village, where they tasted in high degree the glory of existence. (140)

So this is the first sentence of "The Lantern-Bearers" (1888), an essay, not a story.  Strange beginning, isn't it?  Which boys? Which village?  They did what, exactly?

Stevenson's boys, of which he is one, are in a resort town, on summer vacation.  The glories of existence include fishing, penny cigars, tide pools, the illustrations in The London Journal, "bottled lollipops," a beach with the jawbone of a whale for a landmark, endless numbers of wonderful things.  "[Y]ou might go Crusoeing, a word that covers all extempore eating in the open air," or even golf, although Stevenson writes "I seem to have been better employed."  The most wonderful sport is to go lantern-bearing.

The essence of this bliss was to walk by yourself in the black night; the slide shut, the top-coat buttoned; not a ray escaping, whether to conduct your footsteps or to make your glory public; a mere pillar of darkness in the dark; and all the while, deep down in the privacy of your fool's heart, to know you had a bull's-eye at your belt, and to exult and sing over the knowledge. (144)

This sentence must be taken literally.  Boys, led by young Stevenson, attached lit bull's-eye lanterns to their belts and essayed into the dark, but with the lanterns hidden by their overcoats.  The boys could detect each other only by the smell of "blistered tin" issuing from their coats.  The boys assembled in some isolated spot, unveiled their lamps, and "delight[ed] themselves with inappropriate talk."  This was the height of pleasure.

"The Lantern-Bearers," perhaps the third-best thing Stevenson ever wrote, is a piece of literary criticism.  Stevenson is lighting into the "realists" again, just as he was yesterday.  Zola might faithfully record every detail and "turn out, in a page or so, a gem of literary art, render the lantern-light with the touches of a master, and lay on the indecency with the ungrudging hand of love" and yet have come nowhere near the real life of the scene.

To the ear of the stenographer, the talk is merely silly and indecent; but ask the boys themselves, and they are discussing (as it is highly proper they should) the possibilities of existence. To the eye of the observer they are wet and cold and drearily surrounded; but ask themselves, and they are in the heaven of recondite pleasure, the ground of which is an ill-smelling lantern. (148)

Stevenson suggests some models of realistic art – Anna Karenina, George Meredith, King Lear, “Dostoieffsky’s Despised and Rejected,” or, at least, key scenes from these books.  But he is really talking about his own writing, what he is trying to do.  In “The Lantern-Bearers,” he calls realistic novels romances, too, “in the hope of giving pain.”  “Romances” are what Stevenson writes.  The word is associated with adventure stories, with fantasy, but Stevenson here suggests another meaning, another goal:  “the true realism, always and everywhere, is that of the poets to find out where joy resides, and give it a voice far beyond singing” (149).

I believe Stevenson would agree with me that he did not hit this mark too often in his own work.  I think he did in “The Lantern-Bearers.”

Please venture to Emily’s Evening All Afternoon for a more humanistic look at “The Lantern-Bearers.”

Monday, April 26, 2010

Our passionate story drowns in a deep sea of descriptive eloquence - Robert Louis Stevenson on detail

Robert Louis Stevenson, in his 1883 essay "A Note on Realism," called the Naturalism of Zola and Maupassant and others "[t]his odd suicide of one branch of the realists."  Stevenson accuses the Naturalists of fetishizing detail.  He attributes the wash of details found in the realistic novels of his contemporaries not to the theories of the writers, or to a conceptual desire to accurately portray the world, but to their skill, their craft.  Now this is a curious and revealing argument.

After Scott we beheld the starveling story - once, in the hands of Voltaire, as abstract as parable - begin to be pampered upon facts.  The introduction of these details developed a particular ability of hand; and that ability, childishly indulged, has led to the works that amaze us now on a railway journey. (67)

Stevenson asserts that Zola, "[a] man of unquestionable force," "spends himself on technical successes," and that his devotion to "the extremity of detail" is often little more than "literary tricking."

The innovation of the mass of literary detail does belong to Scott, something I tried to describe two years ago, although Jane Austen made the same discovery at almost exactly the same time, and now I want to look back at Goethe and Sterne and so on, but will restrain myself.  The important question here is, how does the novel select details out of the available mass.  See this Interpolations post for a discussion of the issue in the context of Flaubert's A Simple Soul (1877) - Flaubert gives the reader very little, but somehow just enough.  How does he do it?

The question of realism, let it be then clearly understood, regards not in the least degree the fundamental truth, but only the technical method, of a work of art.  Be as ideal or as abstract as you please, you will be none the less veracious, but if you be weak, you run the risk of being tedious and inexpressive; and if you be very strong and honest, you may chance upon a masterpiece. (67-8)

Stevenson attributes the proliferation of detail - here's the point I'm trying to get at - to genuine advance in the craft of novel writing.  Writers picked up the new tool and mastered it, completely.  but now that they are expert with the nail gun, they want to solve every problem with it.  Everything needs to be pumped full of nails.  Every story must be told through rich, descriptive details.  Writers do just the thing they know how to do well - "any fact [is] welcome to admission if it be the ground of brilliant handiwork" (70).  The detail-obsessed writer comes to regard "the omission of a tedious passage as an infidelity to art."

I'm now reading a Walter Scott novel, The Antiquary (1816), in which Scott sometimes seems to be burying the reader in detail.  I recently finished Ford Madox Ford's Parade's End (1924-8), which consists of almost nothing but detail, brilliantly arranged, but exhausting.  Zola, or at least Thérèse Raquin (1867), is plain muslin cloth compared to those books.

I said that Stevenson's argument was revealing.  Stevenson's critical writing is always, in the end, about himself.  In the passage above, he does not really mean "you" - he means "I," himself.  He's describing his own methods and goals.  He's worried about his own use of details, his own reluctance to chop away some especially successful but useless description.

Stevenson was, I now think, a brilliant critic and essayist.  He was narrow, very much so compared to Virginia Woolf or Henry James, because his critical subject was fundamentally himself, his own creativity.  A worthwhile subject!

Page references are to the highly useful collection R. L. Stevenson on Fiction, ed. Glenda Norquay, Edinburgh University Press, 1999.  It will be my "text" this week.

Friday, April 23, 2010

It is difficult for analysis to penetrate to such depths - art and reading in Thérèse Raquin

Thérèse Raquin is almost culture-free, just as it is free of politics or history or (almost) religion.  The exceptions are worth examining, because they're hilarious.

Zola's first serious novel owes a great debt, conceptual and legal, to Flaubert.  Madame Bovary, eleven years earlier, was corrupted by her reading, especially by novels.  She became a worse person, morally, because of her reading.  Not Thérèse Raquin.

Thérèse's pale, sluggish husband Camille is an uneducated idiot: "His entire learning consisted of basic sums and a very superficial grasp of grammar" (Ch. II).  His mother is sure that "books will kill him," and Zola asserts that "his ignorance was just one more weakness in him."

Once Camille finds a job with as a clerk with a railroad, he begins to feel bad about his ignorance.  He's like me!  So he assembles a pile of obsolete books - by the 18th century naturalist Buffon, for example - and begins a course of self-study, twenty to thirty pages each night, "although he found it very boring" (Ch. III).  He tries to read to his wife Thérèse (or, actually, "would force her to listen"), but concludes that "his wife was basically not very bright."

The scene is partly an elaborate joke, and a nod at Flaubert.  Emma Bovary is damaged by books.  Camille and Thérèse are completely immune to books.  Jenny at Shelf Love calls Camille "over-educated... always with his nose in a book," a representative of civilization.  That seems to me to contradict the text.  He is uneducated, and untouched by civilization.

The adulterer Laurent is a better stand-in for culture - he wants, or wanted, to be a painter, not for artistic reasons but he thought it would be "an easy living."  "His great body asked for no more than to do nothing but lounge about all day in idleness and contentment" (Ch. V).  He is interested in nude models and sleeping late, not art or culture.  So by "better," I mean "terrible."

Late in the book, Laurent again tries ties his hand at painting.  He was once a hack, but is suddenly good.  Why?  

Some strange transformation had undoubtedly come about in the organism of Camille's murderer.  It is difficult for analysis to penetrate to such depths.  Perhaps Laurent had become an artist in the same way that he had become a coward, as a result of the drastic upheaval that had thrown his body and his mind off balance.  In the past, he was weighed down and stifled by his sanguine temperament, and his vision was blocked by the dense vapours of good health which surrounded him; now that he was thinner and more sensitive, he had the restless vitality and keen, direct sensations of those of nervous temperament.  (Ch. XXV)

The passage goes on like this for quite a while.  Laurent transforms from an untalented to a talented painter because he loses weight, and dissipates the "dense vapours of good health."  I hope it's easy enough to see why I don't take all of this seriously, and why I give Zola credit for not taking it too seriously himself.  And that before we get to the episode's fantastic twist ending, worthy of the best thriller writers.  Everything fits the theory perfectly, as long as the writer is allowed complete control over the results, which he is.

As an aside:  The Classics Circuit really worked well this time, (for me, I mean).  So thanks, Rebecca, and - I know there are a dozen or more other people.  Was it helpful that a relatively small number of books were covered?  Thérèse Raquin eight times, Germinal six times, and so on.  I'm all for more of that.

I didn't really adjust my own reading list - my biases were confirmed.  Germinal is obviously essential, as is NanaThe Masterpiece is based on Zola's first-hand knowledge of the world of Impressionist painters, so I want to read it for its subject, and, one would think, as a corrective to the painter in Thérèse Raquin, but it sounds a bit second-tier.  I'm curious about his short fiction, and no one read L'Assommoir, which I hope to try someday.  Someday is key.  Zola did not write the kind of novels that I want to read one after another.  I want some space between them..  I want to maintain the dense vapors of my good health.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Putrid Zola - don't read this post over lunch

It's the day after the murder.  The murderer was injured while committing the crime.  We're at the beginning of Chapter XIII.

Against the white of the neck, the bite stood out a deep and powerful brown; it was on the right, below the ear.  Laurent stooped forward and stretched his neck out to see, and the greenish mirror distorted his expression into an atrocious grimace.

I love that Laurent keeps a funhouse mirror in his room.  That's not my point.  My point is, the sentence just before this one contains a vivid, detailed, and disgusting description of the wound.  My method today is to not quote the relevant parts of Thérèse Raquin, on the grounds that some of it is too repellent.  I am charmed to observe that my readers have the sensitive nerves of young girls, and I want to protect them. 

Because Chapter XIII is really completely disgusting, I mean physically.  Don't read it over lunch, I say from experience.  The chapter is short, surprisingly short, only six pages.  But we spend five of them with Laurent in the Paris Morgue.  "Although it made him feel sick with repugnance and occasionally sent shivers down his spine, he went there regularly..." - and he has the advantage of being fictional.  My stomach is real!

In this chapter we get the smell of the morgue, the feel of the air dampness, and, mostly, the corpses, one after another, laid out on slabs, naked, "in patches of colour, green and yellow, white and red."  Laurent at first sees only the colors, but soon not only can see the bodies, but begins to revel in their deformity and decay.  Two bodies are presented in particularly graphic detail.  The one with the water running over it - okay, that's enough of that.

How about a list of words?  How disgusting can that be:  softened, mushy, greenish, grim, shuddering, entertaining, buxom, muddy, disgusting, disgusting, disgusting.  Did you detect a hint of sex in that list?  "Laurent looked at her for a long time, running his eyes all over her body, absorbed in a kind of fearful lust."

The Paris Morgue was open to the public attracted spectators, so we spend some time with them.  They joke, whistle, and weep, and "go away well satisfied, declaring that the Morgue has certainly put on a good show that day."  Laborers with iron stomachs come in with "their tools and a loaf of bread under their arm."  Schoolboys come in to ogle the young female suicides.  I'm on pp. 76-7 of the Oxford World's Classics, the single most blatantly satirical page in the book, and a relief from the rotting corpses.

The funny thing is that I visited the Paris Morgue just last year, on the arm of Villiers de l'Isle-Adam, in a story in his 1883 Cruel Tales.  The narrator wanders about Paris, observing the gray, death-like people, and when he stops in at the Morgue, there they all are.  Villiers, seventeen years later, seems merely quaint compared to Zola.

Evening All Afternoon Emily recently wrote about the literary use of disgust - please take a look.  The body-centered, animalistic literary tradition is prominent in French literature.  Rabelais sometimes seems to view us as little more than jolly ambulatory digestive tracts.  Voltaire delights in cutting pieces off of his characters.  I don't even want to know what goes on in the grisliest of the Marquis de Sade's books.  The Spanish tradition, back in the Golden Age, is similar.  In English, I can find plenty of memento mori, poor Yorick's skull among them, and Swift can revel in excrement and bodily decay.  The closest equivalent to what Zola is doing that I can think of is Francisco Goya's horrifying The Disasters of War (1810-20) prints, which protest the destruction of his country by emphasizing the physicality of death - the decay, the flesh, the wounds, the bones.

The Morgue chapter is the conceptually purest piece of the book.  No plot, minimal psychology, little story.  Just the human animal, up close and well lit, in a form we rarely see, lucky for us.

A curiosity:  I believe eight bloggers are reading Thérèse Raquin as part of the Classics Circuit (because, who are we kidding, it's short).  They've not all posted yet, and I may have missed one or two.  No one mentioned this chapter.  No one hinted at it.  I wonder why.  The novel contains cruelty to an animal, too (as well as cruelty to humans).  Fair warning.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Pieces of him squashed revoltingly between them - touring the wards with Dr. Zola

The second edition of Thérèse Raquin contains a preface, a defense of the scandalous novel, that I suspect Émile Zola had at the ready.  He was a savvy character.  "I am charmed to observe that my fellow writers have the sensitive nerves of young girls" - that's the general tone.  Here's what he says he meant to do:

I chose to portray individuals existing under the sovereign dominion of their nerves and their blood, devoid of free will and drawn into every act of their lives by the inescapable promptings of their flesh.  Thérèse and Laurent are human animals nothing more.  In these animals I set out to trace, step by step, the hidden workings of the passions, the urges of instinct, and the derangements of the brain which follow on from a nervous crisis...  There is a total absence of soul, as I will readily admit, for such was my intention.

Zola is a clinician, a writer in a lab coat, "a doctor lecturing to students about disease."  Is Zola describing his own book adequately?  Up to a point, Lord Copper.  I've been trying to argue that side myself, for the last day or two.  But.

An adulterous couple murder the inconvenient husband and marry.  However, they suffer from an "organic disorder" that in another novel would be called guilt, so even though they marry, they cannot have sex.  Why not?  Because they simultaneously hallucinate the decayed corpse of the dead man, right there in the bedroom, right between them in bed, every night.  Both of them see and feel it.  I'm not sure how the story, as opposed to the concept, would be different if there were a plain old ghost. 

But no, this is science.  The shared hallucinations are the result of "a kind of equilibrium between them based on the complementarity of their organisms."  The woman's nerves are over-wrought, the man is in a "state of nervous hypersensitivity," like "a young girl suffering from an acute neurotic condition" (he's like one of the novel's critics!).  When the narrator claims that "[t]heirs was the inept hypocrisy of two insane people," I was prepared to agree, although I am not sure what "inept hypocrisy" is:

It would be interesting to study the changes, determined by circumstances, which sometimes come about in certain organisms; these changes begin in the body but quickly communicate themselves to the brain, and thence to the whole individual.

All of this has been from Chapter XXII, about two-thirds of the way through the novel.  The great climax of the dual hallucination theme comes in the next chapter, when the inept hypocrites simultaneously realize that they might be able to exorcise the ghost through sex:

They hugged each other in a horrible embrace.  Pain and terror took the place of desire.  When their limbs touched, they felt as if they had fallen on to a pile of glowing embers.  They let out a scream and clung more tightly to each other, so as not to leave any room for the [murdered] man between their bodies.  But they could still feel pieces of him squashed revoltingly between them, freezing their skin in some places while the rest of them was burning hot.

My guess is that, confronted with this passage, some readers will permanently excise Zola from their lifetime reading plan, while others will add him.  That last sentence - "pieces of him squashed" and so on - not every writer will give you that!  Thank goodness.  And I'm not even going to get into the scar.  The horrible pulsating scar!

None of this is science.  None of this is based on close observation, or documentation, or any of the other attributes of Naturalism.  This is all made up.  Fiction.  It's intense, repulsive, exciting, vivid, nuts.  This is Expressionism, forty years in advance - emotions and images pushed to extremes, realism be damned.  Or maybe it's just horror writing.  It's effective.  But natural, or Natural?  Émile, I'm on to you.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

This ennobled lemur, this hair-crowned bubble of the dust - Zola the conceptual anti-humanist

Thérèse Raquin (1867) is a conceptual novel, or an experimental novel.  Two questions, then:  what do those words mean; what is the concept?

Here's what I mean.  Genuine scienticians may have their own, correct, ideas. 

Experimentation is a method.  The method leads to results and discoveries.  Sometimes the results are proof or disproof of a hypothesis.  Sometimes the discovery is a new concept, a new hypothesis.  Concepts are not necessarily the result of experimentation, though.  They can emerge full-fledged from the old brainpan, so to speak.

Writers, artists, continually experiment, and continually invent or discover new concepts.  The exact process varies enormously from artist to artist.  This is why I am always interested in how creativity works.  Sometimes, we can actually watch an artist experiment.  The Pickwick Papers (1836-7) began with a concept, a trivial one, frankly, but as Dickens wrote and published the serialized pieces, he began to discover a new way of writing a novel.  By somewhere around the middle of the serialization, the nature of the book had completely changed.  We can see some of the steps, some of the combinations of elements that did not work (failed experiments) and the combinations that did.

Émile Zola, in Thérèse Raquin, is not experimenting.  He is demonstrating a concept.  He is the chemistry teacher blowing something up for the entertainment of his students.  No, that's not right.  The chemistry teacher knows that combining X, Y, and Z always gives a harmless flash and puff of smoke.  Zola himself is responsible for the intensity of the light and the color and quantity of smoke.  It's all a trick, a trick called fiction.  He's cloaking his fiction in science and psychology, which I guess Zola also identifies as science.

The concept is that humans are merely animals, bipedal ferrets.  The sub-concept is that even if humans are not merely animals, novelists have ignored our animalistic side - this fiction is a provocative response to other fictions.  What would happen if the author stripped away culture, morality, religion, and ethics?  Say the protagonists of the novel are a lazy hedonist and a "wild animal," governed by appetites and primitive psychology, driven to passionate extremes by pheromones and repression.  Here's what happens:

It was inevitable that it would come to hatred in the end.  They had loved each other like animals, with the hot passions of the blood; then in the nervous upheaval following their crime, love had turned to fear and they had felt a physical horror at the thought of their embraces... (Ch. XXVIII)

Inevitable!  Except in a different story, governed by a different concept.  But this is the language of Thérèse Raquin:  animal, passion, blood, savage, green, horror, irrational. 

Of all earth’s meteors, here at least is the most strange and consoling: that this ennobled lemur, this hair-crowned bubble of the dust, this inheritor of a few years and sorrows, should yet deny himself his rare delights, and add to his frequent pains, and live for an ideal, however misconceived.

Now I am averting my gaze from the unpleasant Zola.  This passage is from the essay "Pulvis et Umbra" (1888) by Robert Louis Stevenson.  The author is somehow able to incorporate scientific ideas about evolution and the size of the universe, about the unimportance of humanity, while still maintaning that humanity is, in fact, important, that the poor fools have rare delights and live for ideals. 

Zola claims, in the preface to the novel, to be writing in the service of "truth."  "Sincere study, like fire, purifies all," he writes, absurdly.  Fortunately I have no obligation to believe an author.  More on that tomorrow.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Human animals nothing more - Émile Zola's Thérèse Raquin

For some misguided reason, I was reading three complex novels at once, The Brothers Karamazov, the four novels that make up Ford Madox Ford's Parade's End, and Thomas Carlyle's Sartor Resartus (Stefanie, how's that going - bonkers, huh?).  They are all quite difficult books, and in quite different ways.  The Modernist Ford novel is a stream-of-consciousness blizzard of cultural references and time-shifting.  The Carlyle novel is, if anything, even more crammed with stuff, just pages and pages of stuff, all meant to explicate or domesticate some form of Kantian Idealism.  Karamazov has surprised me with its abundant literary references as well, and the book is fraught with other difficulties, ethical and stylistic.  One thing these books have in common: they're all exhausting.

What a relief, then, to turn to Thérèse Raquin (1867), an early Émile Zola novel.  This book is simple.  Maybe even primitive.  It's my first Zola novel, so I do not mean this as a description of "Zola," of Germinal or the other Rougon-Macquart novels, which cannot possibly be so basic in their conception.  Can they?

Thérèse Raquin is a short crime thriller, an adultery-murder shocker.  It's claustrophobic, with only four main characters and a handful of others, and just a few settings.  Not much to keep track of.  The language is simple, the imagery is simple, the story is simple.  After some mocking references to books in Chapter III (an idiot is reading out of date books), there is essentially no culture, history, or politics.  The Oxford World's Classic edition has, and requires, almost no annotation.  Virtually all of the endnotes are about Paris streets and buildings.

A murderer has begun to feel - well, not guilty, exactly, but nervous:

The awful darkness in the alley and on the stairs filled him with dread.  Normally, he would have crossed this dark area quite light-heartedly.  That evening he did not dare ring the bell, telling himself that behind a certain projection  by the cellar entrance there might be murderers lurking who would leap at his throat as he went by...  [He lights a match]  The sulphur stared sizzling, setting light to the wood so slowly that it further increased Laurent's alarm; in the flickering shadows cast by the sulphur's pale, bluish glow he thought he could make out monstrous shapes...  The huge, weirdly-shaped shadows, like those which always flit to and fro around anybody carying a lamp up a staircase, filled him with vague apprehension as they loomed up in front of him, then vanished.  (Ch. XVII)

We have another name now for this kind of book - Thérèse Raquin is a noir.  It's an ancestor of The Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity, but with more explicit sex, eighty years earlier.  It's a good, vivid noir.

This is my scheduled post for The Classics Circuit, Zola Edition.  If anyone has wandered here from there and found this at all interesting, I should warn you that I'm not done writing about this book.  Are you kidding?  The remaining question:  is there anything more to the book?  I put the answer, drawn from Zola's preface, in the post's title.  Thérèse Raquin is a conceptual novel, governed by a single clear idea.  The simplicity is presumably necessary as a trimming away of the inessential, a way to reveal the essential concept of the novel.  The match between the concept and the content is close, clean.  Whether the concept is "true" or "not ridiculous" is another matter.
Tomorrow for that.  Then later in the week, Thérèse Raquin as "putrid literature."  Don't read that one over lunch!

Quotations from the Oxford World's Classics edition, translated by Andrew Rothwell.

Friday, April 16, 2010

from his troubled shelves he takes the volumes of friends long dead - experiment, concept, and a great new book by Fred Chappell

Next week, or part of it, is Zola Week, Thérèse Raquin, specifically. What do I know about Zola?  Not much.  This is the first time I've read him.  One unfortunate legacy of Zola's is the introduction of the confusing term "experimental writing," drawing an analogy with experimental science.  I think the analogy is deceptive, but I don't want to pursue that now.  See Prof. Myers for more of the anti- case.  Forget the "experiment."  Zola didn't mean experimental.  He meant conceptual.

I've already written too much about Zola.  Next week, next week.  My point, my point.  Charles Baudelaire, Arthur Rimbaud, Paul Verlaine, Tristan Corbière, Stéphane Mallarmé, and Jules Laforgue - all of the assorted French Symbolists and other weirdos - all made conceptual breakthroughs.  They came up with new ideas about how poetry could be written.  The ideas were not specific to French poetry, and as a result English and American and German and Portuguese poets quickly pulled the key innovations into their own language.  Fine, fine.  This is all literary history.

As a reader, though, my wonderful discovery has been that they were all great poets aside from their conceptual stance.  They had new ideas about poetry, but they also wrote poems.  For counterexamples, I can't help moving to the visual arts, to Marcel Duchamp's readymades, say.  The difference between saying you could submit a signed urinal to an art exhibition, and actually doing it, is real, but small.  The difference between saying you could write a good poem according to some specific principle and then actually doing it is large.  The key word there is "good."  Duchamp, at that point, had no interest in "good."  As crazy a nut as Arthur Rimbaud wanted, once in a while, to write a great poem.  Then he'd do it.

I just read a new book of poems by North Carolina poet Fred Chappell that at first looks like pure concept.  The book is shadow box (2009).  The poems imitate the title.  Here we have a wife watching her husband, a poet near death:

The Elder Poet's Search

Through tears she sees him fumble about the room
And how from his troubled shelves he takes this one
And that, the volumes of friends long dead, undone
Or done with, and in their stanzas seeks with numb
Fingers lines that when first read in gloom
Or joy shone warm as island lakes in sun.
She sees him, now grown chill with dread, write down
The granite words she must order for his tomb.

What's going on with those annoying italics?

from his troubled shelves he takes
the volumes of friends long dead
and in their stanzas seeks
lines that when first read
shone warm as island lakes
now grown chill with dread

The thoughts of the poet, the husband, are embedded in his wife's poem.  Some of their shared phrases refer to exactly the same action ("and in their stanzas seek") while others take on a new meaning ("now grown chill with dread").  In some cases, either the internal or external poem, either the shadow or the box, seemed obviously the better poem.  Not here, not to me.

Is every poem in the book like this?  No.  Mostly, yes.  Chappell has a few other inventions - some interwoven dialogue poems, and some ingenious embeddings of translations of classic German poems.  Are the poems experiments?  No, no, no.  They may be the results of experiments.  Now, they're just poems, good ones.  Chappell had a concept that he turned into real poems.  The concept, once created, is available to everyone.  But the poems in shadow box, they're his.

Anyone who finds this all a little too conceptual should instead seek out Chappell's Family Gathering (2000), a hilarious little book of poems set where it says they're set. Find out what happens when "Uncle Einar smokes his big cigar."  Hear how "Aunt Wilma Describes Her Many Charms."  Fear "the terror of the soul: \ Aunt Lavinia's casserole."  I love that book.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

The moon-clowns of Jules Laforgue

No one is more frequently mentioned in discussions of modern poetry than Jules Laforgue...

So says William Jay Smith at the very beginning of his Selected Writings of Jules Laforgue, Greenwood Press, 1956.  What a wonderful absurdity.  Readers more knowledgeable about discussions of modern poetry circa 1956 will please let me know which one of us is wrong.  Either way, I will mention him now.

The Imitation of Our Lady the Moon (1886) is a book of poems about clowns who live on the moon.  What?  You heard me.  "Tattooed upon their pure white hearts \ Are the maxims of the Moon."  They wear black silk skullcaps and use dandelions as boutonieres.

They feed on little but thin air,
On vegetables also at times,
Rice that is whiter than their costume,
Mandarins, and hard-boiled eggs.

Laforgue describes the moon-clowns, follows them around, eavesdrops on them.  They seem to have romantic problems.  They hope, as one might expect, to transcend lunar existence and become myth.

Let's see.  Those were the moon clowns.  What else do we have?

Laforgue rewrote Hamlet, so that the Prince, upon writing his revenge tragedy, becomes bit by the bug of authorship and runs off with the theater troupe.  Hilarious, although not the whole story.

He was a deft art critic.  Laforgue's articles about Impressionist painters feel entirely up to date.  I have seen Laforgue described as an "Impressionist poet," which means that he composed his poems in the open air with newly invented oil paints, and tried to precisely capture fleeting instances of light and life.  No, that's not at all what he did, so I have no idea what "Impressionist poet" means.

Poor guy died when he was twenty-seven, of tuberculosis, a couple of years after The Imitation of Our Lady the Moon.  He'd just married an English girl he had met in Berlin.  She sounds nice.  She died a year later.  It's all so, so sad.

It comes with the force of a body blow
That the Moon is a place one cannot go.
Descend and bathe my sheet tonight
So I may wash my hands of life!

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

as far as one place fuses with beyond

Now, Stéphane Mallarmé.  Here we have a challenge.  He aspired to the condition of music, and perhaps reached it.  With Mallarmé, and with Jules Laforgue, even more than with Rimbaud or Corbière, I may have reached a stopping point in my rampage through French poetry.  For now, for now.

Still.  "Dice Thrown Will Never Annul Chance" (1895).  A page of it is up above, the final page below.  The translation, by Brian Coffey, is from the essential Selected Poetry and Prose, 1982, New Directions, edited by Mary Ann Caws.  The poem consists of nine and a half of these pages.  I am tempted to photocopy each page and arrange them from northwest to southeast, to see the full extent of the constellation of words. 

Or the entire score.  I have seen jazz compositions that look not unlike Mallarmé's poem.  Which mental instrument should the reader assign to the giant, timpanic CHANCE, or to the reedy, italicized

                         more nor less
                                                  indifferently but as much

or to the perfectly ordinary

evidence of a tot of the sum however little one
                                MIGHT IT ILLUMINE

I think violins followed by brass.  Assuming one reads the words in order.  Mallarmé allows the reader to follow the size of the words, or the spacing; to read across the page, or down it.  The trick, actually, is to try to juggle two or three meanings at a time.  A story emerges - a sea captain, at risk of shipwreck, rolls dice - or doesn't.  I splash through the jumble of words, or simply look at the stars

What am I talking about?  Click on the images to make them a bit bigger.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Ah! The endless egoism of adolescence - dithering around Rimbaud

I'm dithering.  I want to write about Arthur Rimbaud, and I don't.  A mental signal I should presumably heed.  yet now I'm writing.

Rimbaud is scary.  Not his poetry so much, not its complexity - Mallarmé is the one who really stumps me.  And it's not his behavior, although he was the sort of person I'm glad I don't know.  No, it's the intelligence of Rimbaud, the creative intelligence.  What do I mean?

Rimbaud's translators - both the Wallace Fowlie volume I quoted yesterday, for example, and the Paul Schmidt translation I prefer - compile not only Rimbaud's poems but his letters and school assignments and court testimony (not his best work).  Rimbaud's biography is crucial to their understanding of the poetry.  Because of references to his life,* or Paul Verlaine, or his mother?  No, not really, or not mostly.  It's something else.

Rimbaud began writing serious poetry at the age of fifteen.  He was all done by the time he was nineteen.  His career was so compact that the "phases" of his work cover a period of not years but months.  He moved so fast.  I kept referring back to the dates on the poems - he wrote this when he was how old?  And then his combination of perfectly mature craftsmanship and imagery with adolescent scatology and smirkiness confuses me.  Who else is like Rimbaud?  And this is all aside from his bizarre and dangerous moral ideas, aside from his pranks and absinthe abuse and chaos.

from Youth, Part III, "Twenty Years Old" (1875?)

Exiled the voices of instruction;
Physical ingenuousness staled in bitterness. . .
                                                                  . . . Adagio

Ah! The endless egoism of adolescence,
Its studious optimism:
   How the world this summer was full of flowers!
Dying airs, dying shapes . . .
A chorus to appease impotence and absence!
A chorus of glasses of nocturnal melodies . . .

(Of course, our nerves are quickly shot to hell!)

Translated by Paul Schmidt, Arthur Rimbaud: Complete Works, Harper & Row, 1967.

* I would like to draw the interested reader's attention to this review, by C. B. James, of Edmund White's recent little Rimbaud biography.  I would not normally recommend that a reader unfamiliar with an author's work bother with a biography, but Rimbaud is a special case, and White is as interested in the poetry as the gossip.  And what gossip!

Monday, April 12, 2010

Afloat with Rimbaud and Stevenson

A couple of weeks ago I was struggling with the poems of Arthur Rimbaud and Stéphane Mallarmé, with what result I know not, and at the same time reading Robert Louis Stevenson's A Child's Garden of Verses (1885).  I wondered, from time to time, if I was making a mistake. 

Into the furious lashing of the tides,
More heedless than children's brains, the other winter
I ran!  And loosened peninsulas
Have not undergone a more triumphant hubbub.

Rimbaud's poetry is by turns obscene, blasphemous, poisonous, and head-splittingly obscure.  He's testing the boundaries of what poetry can do.  He's not incomprehensible - the speaker of this poem is, at this point, a boat, adrift on the ocean, pilotless, touring the world.

Dark brown is the river,
  Golden is the sand.
It flows along for ever,
  With trees on either hand.

Stevenson's poems are anything but obscure.  They are simple in exactly the places where Rimbaud is complicated, transparent where he is obscure. 

Sweeter than the flesh of hard apples is to children,
The green water penetrated my hull of fir
And washed me of spots of blue wine
And vomit, scattering rudder and grappling-hook.

Rimbaud's imagery is intense, violent, and bizarre.  If I remember that this is a drifting boat, the meaning of the passage is clear enough.  It's the combination of images that is complicated - the blue wine, the green water, which is somehow sweet like an apple, but not sweet in the way I know, but like children taste.

Green leaves a-floating,
  Castles of the foam,
Boats of mine a-boating -
  Where will all come home?

Sometimes, when I turned from Rimbaud to Stevenson, the children's poems were crushed flat.  The plainest, sweetest song became insipid.  Sometimes, though, Stevenson's keen nostalgia was a necessary corrective to Rimbaud's adolescent nonsense.

I should have liked to show children those sunfish
Of the blue wave, the fish of gold, the singing fish.
- Foam of flowers rocked my drifting
And ineffable winds winged me at times.

Sometimes, though, the poems began to interlace.  What is "The Drunken Boat" actually about?  My understanding is that Rimbaud had never actually seen the ocean when he composed this poem.  The adventures of the boat, which visits the poles and the "unbelievable Floridas," and hears "The moaning of Behemoths in heat and the thick Maelstroms," are products of Rimbaud's reading and imagination.

On goes the river
  And out past the mill,
Away down the valley,
  Away down the hill.

The Stevenson poem, presented here complete, is "Where Go the Boats?"  It is one of several poems on the theme of a boy playing with a paper boat, setting them adrift, wondering where they go.  The boy in Stevenson's poems wants, like Rimbaud's boat, "to rise and go \ Where the golden apples grow" ("Travel").

If I want a water of Europe, it is the black
Cold puddle where in the sweet-smelling twilight
A squatting child full of sadness releases
A boat as fragile as a May butterfly.

So perhaps Rimbaud's boat is made of paper.  Perhaps the speaker is not the boat but the child.  Perhaps the two children will meet someday and share stories of their adventures.

"The Drunken Boat" was written in 1871.  Its author was seventeen years old.  It is among the greatest Modern poems.  The stanzas selected here are from Rimbaud: Complete Works, Selected Letters, 1966, University of Chicago Press, translated by Wallace Fowlie.

Friday, April 9, 2010

But he was a horse no more - the beasts of George MacDonald

The hero of Lilith has just returned to dream-land, where he is given a moon-horse. (What?):

Nineteen hands he seemed, huge of bone, tight of skin, hard of muscle - a steed the holy Death himself might choose on which to ride abroad and slay.  The moon seemed to regard him with awe; in her scary light he looked a very skeleton, loosely roped together.  Terrifically large, he moved with the lightness of a winged insect. (Ch. 31, "The Old Sexton's Horse")

So the story of Lilith is that a bookish fellow sees a ghost in his library, which leads him to Fairy-land, which is partly ruled by Lilith, Adam's first wife, who turns into a leopardess and steal babies, while the forest children fight the giants, and, let's see.  Anyway, the hero loves his moon-horse, and rides off to hunt the leopardess.  Lilith is a novel of repeated journeys over the same terrain, with variations on each trip.  The horse rushes past every obstacle the hero had previously encountered on foot.  Then the wolves howl and the moon sinks below the horizon:

The mighty steed was in the act of clearing a wide shallow channel when we were caught in the net of darkness.  His head dropped; its impetus carried his helpless bulk across, but he fell in a heap on the margin, and where he fell he lay.  I got up, kneeled beside him, and felt him all over.  Not a bone could I find broken, but he was a horse no more.  I sat down on the body, and buried my face in my hands. (end of Ch. 31)

MacDonald's novels are packed with beasts.  At the Back of the North Wind costars a horse.  In The Princess and the Goblin, the miner boy Curdie battles strange hybrid cave creatures, while in The Princess and Curdie, he gathers his own army, and then uses the special powers of each beast - one, for example, is a giant sphere with a face - to defeat his enemies, much in the manner of Pokémon.  The beasts return in Lilith as monsters - as "a solitary, bodiless head" which springs away with "a rapid rotatory twist," or "a dreadful head with fleshy tubes for hair" and a "great oval mouth" or "a long neck, on the top of which, like the blossom of some Stygian lily, sat what seemed the head of a corpse, its mouth half open, and full of canine teeth" (all from Ch. 40).

For some reason, though, it's the horses that interest me the most.  At the Back of the North Wind is in part a real London novel, set in the world of cabbies and their horses.  The treatment of horses is part of the plot.  MacDonald's novel began to be published nine years before Anna Sewell's Black Beauty (1877), which I last read at least thirty years ago.  Where else can we find this theme?  Perhaps - nay, in all likelihood - you have been leafing through John Stuart Mill's Principles of Political Economy (1848, with many subsequent editions), where in Book 5, Chapter 11 you will find:

The reasons for legal intervention in favour of children, apply not less strongly to the case of those unfortunate slaves and victims of the most brutal part of mankind, the lower animals. It is by the grossest misunderstanding of the principles of liberty, that the infliction of exemplary punishment on ruffianism practised towards these defenceless creatures, has been treated as a meddling by government with things beyond its province; an interference with domestic life. The domestic life of domestic tyrants is one of the things which it is the most imperative on the law to interfere with...

This immediately follows an argument against restricting the labor force participation of women, who are not helpess creatures like children or horses.

I've come a bit far from George MacDonald, but I doubt he would mind.  His fantasies are the sorts of books that are meant to lie in the lap while the reader's imagination wanders through its own dream-land.

Thanks again to my mother for assisting with George MacDonald Week.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

It would have been odd here - dreamy George MacDonald

Little Diamond is dreaming:

It was such a nice stair, so cool and soft - all the sides as well as the steps grown with moss and grass and ferns!  Down and down Diamond went - a long way, until at last he heard the gurgling and splashing of a little stream; nor had he gone much farther before he met it - yes, met it coming up the stairs to meet him, running up just as naturally as if it had been doing the other thing.  Neither was Diamond in the least surprised to see it pitching itself from one step to another as it climbed towards him: he never thought it was odd - and no more it was, there.  It would have been odd here.  (At the Back of the North Wind, Ch. 25, "Diamond's Dream")

George MacDonald's novels are made of dreams.  Every time the North Wind comes to see Diamond, she has to get him out of bed, and somehow he always ends up back in bed, or nearby (he perhaps sleepwalks) when the adventure is over.  It was all just a dream.  Or not.  MacDonald won't say.  The passage with which I began is unusual in that it is explicitly a dream, about a bunch of naked angel boys who dig up the stars every night.  What?  Who knows, it's a dream. 

The hero of Phantastes wanders through a magic world that is a mix of German novellas, King Arthur stories, and actual fairies ("From the cups or bells of tall flowers, as from balconies, some [fairies] looked down on the masses below, now bursting with laughter, now grave as owls", Ch. III, which is full of fairy lore).

I found Phantastes too strange, too random, and in some sense, then, not so like a dream.  The later Lilith, however, perfectly mimicked dream-logic.  I cannot explain the difference.  The weird hodgepodge of Biblical apocrypha and dancing skeletons and tiny elephants and a librarian who is actually a raven (or vice versa) somehow all seemed to fit together.  The illogic of Lilith is more logical than the illogic of Phantastes.  Or less logical.  Who knows.  One scene near the end of Lilith is exactly like a recurring dream I have had for years, which is just too weird, or else completely understandable.

Since I'm on the topic, readers of Neil Gaiman's Sandman series really must take a look at Lilith, obviously a touchstone book for him.  Certain passages were uncannily like bits of Sandman.  And I haven't written a word, and might not, about MacDonald's less dream-like fairy tale mode, as in The Princess and the Goblin (please see raych's enthusiastic enthusiasm), which I could imagine many readers preferring to the Ludwig Tieck-like dream-space of Lilith

Update: Look, here's Things Mean a Lot on the joys of The Princess and the Goblin, hot off the presses.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Our life is no dream, but it should and will perhaps become one.

George MacDonald was a Christian writer. He was the author of realistic novels, often with Scottish settings, always with explicit Christian messages.  When I was putting together the Scottish Reading Challenge, I had concluded, mistakenly, that these books had retreated to the archives, and that only the fantasies were still read, but I was quite wrong.  Editions of the Christian novels were recently in print.  See left for The Baronet's Song, which has been "edited for today's reader."  One of those "edits" is the title, originally Sir Gibbie (1879), which, admittedly, sounds ridiculous.

I have leafed through a strange book assembled by C. S.Lewis, George MacDonald: An Anthology (1947), which is not a collection of stories or poems, but rather of aphorisms, of sentences of wisdom broken lose from MacDonald's many books.  What a way to treat a fiction writer.  MacDonald was enormously important for Lewis, who attributes some sort of conversion experience to his reading of the strange fairy novel Phantastes (1858).  If I understand Lewis correctly, he had not a religious conversion, but an imaginative conversion, a preparation for a later religious awakening.  "I fancy I have never written a book in which I did not quote from him," writes Lewis.  But also "Few of his novels are good and none is very good."  MacDonald was a sage to Lewis, but not quite an artist.  Quotations from the valuable George MacDonald website The Golden Key.

MacDonald's Christianity was his own.  He apparently believed that animals could achieve salvation, for example, which explains the talking horses in At the Back of the North Wind, among other oddities.  He had a very strong sense of a feminine aspect of God.  The powers in his fantasies are almost always women - the North Wind, the great-great-grandmother of The Princess and the Goblin, a host of fairy tale figures in Phatastes.  MacDonald's God is, among other things, a protective mother.  It's a gentle, sweet Christianity.

It's also a German Christianity.  MacDonald, like Thomas Carlyle and George Eliot, was a keen student of German literature, particularly the great German Romantics.  "Were I asked, what is a fairytale? I should reply, Read Undine," the 1811 novella by Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué, MacDonald writes in the essay "The Fantastic Imagination."  MacDonald is right, by the way, about Undine.  Most important to MacDonald was Novalis, a connection that is both obvious and a complete mystery to me.  Novalis is a poet I read with keen incomprehension.  He advocated, or sought, or found, for all I know, some sort of idealized Kantian transcendental Christianity, available to us all if we would only I don't know what.

The very end of Lilith (1895) - or non-end, since the chapter is titled "The Endless Ending":

Strange dim memories, which will not abide identification, often, through misty windows of the past, look out upon me in the bright daylight, but I never dream now.  It may be, notwithstanding, that, when most awake, I am only dreaming the more.  But when I wake at last into that life which, as a mother her child, carries this life in its bosom, I shall know that I wake, and shall doubt no more,

I wait; asleep or awake, I wait.

Novalis says, "Our life is no dream, but it should and will perhaps become one."

George MacDonald, by a means I do not quite understand, turned that idea into fiction.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

His rhymes were not very good - more of At the Back of the North Wind

Over the last three months, I read five George MacDonald novels, all fantasies, all good.  Phantastes (1858) and Lilith (1895) are fantasies for adults - and note the range of dates, what a career.  At the Back of the North Wind (1871), The Princess and the Goblin (1872), and The Princess and Curdie (1883) were written for children.  I've also tried a couple of shorter fairy tales, "The Light Princess" (1864) and "The Golden Key" (1867).  So that's what I'm working with.

My favorite, easily, was At the Back of the North Wind, which is why I suggested it to my mother.  It's such a richly weird book, full of peculiar dissociations and jagged edges that are beyond rational understanding but somehow make sense within the novel.  MacDonald was a real visionary writer, although a gentle one.  I'm comparing MacDonald to Arthur Rimbaud, who pursued a "disordering of the senses" by means of absinthe and sex and impulsive behavior.  MacDonald has his own way of disordering the senses, using more ordinary means.

Nursery rhymes, for example.  Diamond, the boy at the center of the novel, travels to the back of the north wind (meaning, he nearly dies), as first mentioned by "an old Greek writer" (although "I do not think Herodotus had got the right account of the place").  When he returns, he appears to have received the gift of visionary poetry.  My mother included a bit of a reworked "Little Boy Blue" from the extraordinary Chapter 20, "Diamond Learns to Read," which is retold so that Little Boy Blue leads a group of forest animals in a battle against a snake. Every MacDonald novel I tried has a variation on that idea.

Here's a bit of Diamond's vers libre:

for old Diamond's a duck
they say he can swim
but the duck of diamonds
is baby that's him
and of all the swallows
the merriest fellows
that bake their cake
with the water they shake...
baby's the funniest
baby's the bonniest
and he never wails
and he's always sweet
and Diamond's his nurse
and Diamond's his nurse
and Diamond's his nurse  (Ch. 16)

I've skipped some of it - it's about a page long.  He's singing to a baby, the only person likely to understand his poem:

When Diamond's rhymes grew scarce, he always began dancing with the baby.  Some people wondered that such a child could rhyme as he did, but his rhymes were not very good, for he was only trying to remember what he had heard the river sing at the back of the north wind. (Ch. 16)

A good passage to test the book.  The reader who does not feel a bit of the chill of the north wind at the end of that sentence might be better off somewhere else.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Guest Post: The apples they dapple; the cherriest cherries - George MacDonald's At the Back of the North Wind

This is so exciting. As part of the Scottish Literature Reading Challenge, Wuthering Expectations is delighted to feature it's first ever guest post.  Please welcome The Mother of the Amateur Reader.


I am not a literary scholar, just a retired elementary school librarian who reads books for the enjoyment I receive from them, not looking for hidden meanings and symbols.

My book for Amateur Reader’s Scottish challenge is At the Back of the North Wind by George MacDonald.  This was MacDonald’s first novel for children.  It appeared in monthly installments in Good Words for the Young, a children’s magazine published in London, beginning in November 1868, and was published as a book in 1871.

This fantasy takes place in Victorian Britain and is about little Diamond who was named after his father’s favorite horse.  Little Diamond sleeps in a bed in the hay loft above old Diamond’s stall.  One night little Diamond is visited by the North Wind.  He travels with her and they become friends.  Eventually little Diamond gets to the back of the north wind, returns home, and life as he knew it is changed.

As I was reading the story, I wondered why the north wind?  The north wind is very harsh.  MacDonald shows us two sides of the north wind.  One side is very destructive and the other side is very gentle.  In an afterword, Peter Glassman writes that At the Back of the North Wind is based on MacDonald’s religious beliefs.  The North Wind represents the will of God and faith in Him.  Even though the North Wind causes many to drown when she sinks ships, it will eventually result in good.  The story shows many examples of the moral and social values of the period.  Just like North Wind, the inequalities between the well-to-do and the very poor show two very distinct sides.

It is interesting to note that even as MacDonald was influenced by the writers who came before him, he also influenced writers who came after him such as J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis.  I have also learned that Madeline L’Engle, one of my favorite authors for young readers, gives him credit for influencing her writings.

Now I leave you with a sampling of the many nursery rhymes, fairy tales, and songs found throughout the story.  This is from “Little Boy Blue” which takes up almost six pages of the book. It’s not the “Little Boy Blue” that I learned.

Little Boy Blue lost his way in a wood.
Sing apples and cherries, roses and honey;
He said, “I would not go back if I could,
It’s all so jolly and funny.”

He came where the apples grew red and sweet;
“Tree, drop me an apple down at my feet.”

He came where the cherries hung plump and red:
“Come to my mouth, sweet kisses,” he said.

And the boughs bow down, and the apples they dapple
The grass, too many for him to grapple.

And the cherriest cherries, with never a miss,
Fall to his mouth, each a full-frown kiss.


Me again:  Thanks, mom!  All week, the fantasies of George MacDonald.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Somehow - Karamazovian aesthetics

My Dostoevksy problem, or one of them:

Lately he had somehow become bloated; he began somehow to be erratic, lost his self-control, and even fell into a sort of lightheadedness; he would start one thing and end up with another; he somehow became scattered; and he got drunk more and more often. (I.i.4., 22)

Or how about this jewel:

One could see by her eyes that she had come for some purpose and had something on her mind. (I.ii.3, 50)

Quotations from the Pevear and Volokhonsky translation of The Brothers Karamazov, page numbers from the 1990 North Point Press edition.  My impression, based perhaps on misremembering and misreading, is that Dostoevsky's best, or most fervent, readers, treat him as a wisdom writer, or a psychologist, but not necessarily as a first-rate literary craftsman. 

The ethical content of the Grand Inquisitor section or the Elder Zosima section are, then, the real substance of the novel.  Aesthetic matters are of secondary, or no, importance.  Whether or not that second quotation above is in and of itself execrable (it is) is inconsequential.  Maybe that's right.  Maybe this time through I'll learn how to read KaramazovNonsuch Frances mentions "surrendering to the flow" of the book.  I have not the slightest idea how to do that.  The Karamazov I'm reading is full of ruts and roots and switchbacks and dust.  There is no flow.  I proceed slowly, with great caution.  Perhaps, in the company of other readers, I will somehow learn to relax into Karamazov.

Somehow.  Please recall the first quotation.  What is missing in that sentence?  What is present?  With minor edits, the vague "somehow"s can be removed with no change in sense: "Lately he had become bloated; he began to be erratic," and so on.  The incessant vagueness ("one thing," "another") is intentional, an aesthetic effect, meant to do, ahem, something.  I'm not sure what. The Brothers Karamazov has a not-actually-Dostoevsky narrator, so the "some"s come from him.  I guess.

By contrast:

From the rectory had come the immense scarlet and lapis lazuli carpet, the great brass fire-basket and appendages, the great curtains that, in the three long windows, on their peacock-blue Chinese silk showed parti-coloured cranes ascending in long flights - and all the polished Chippendale armchairs. (II.iv., 245)

That's an almost randomly chosen bit of Some Do Not... (1924) by Ford Madox Ford, my other 800 page readalong novel (thanks to mel u at The Reading Life for organizing).  Soon after we find "peculiarly scented tea" and "a chin curved like the bow of a Greek boat" and "a great walnut-wood fluted chair."  And on and on like that. The organizing aesthetic principle could hardly be more different than Dostoevsky's.  There is no somehow.  Ford's function as a novelist is to tell us exactly how, within the limits of the language.

It will take me all month to read both of these books, so expect more Dostoevsky-Ford Ford juxtapositions, regardless of utility or sense.  That's what I've got!

Except for next week, which will be devoted to the lovely, odd Christian fantasy writer George MacDonald.  The week begins with an exciting event, with a special guest providing the very first Wuthering Expectations Guest Post.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

The case of the cast-iron tombstone - comparing translations of The Brothers Karamazov

The energetic Dolce Belleza is hosting a readalong of The Brothers Karamazov (1879).  I have resisted joining in, for reasons that are not too interesting, but I started reading the novel and that was that.  So I guess I'm reading along.

I read, long ago, Constance Garnett's 1912 version of the novel, when I had no idea who she was.  I wanted to try something more up-to-date, so this time it will be Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhnsky's 1990 translation, for no better reason than it was in the library.

The English-speaking world owes a great debt to the indefatigable Garnett, who in some sense introduced it to Russian literature.  When I read about her habits, though - her suspect rapidity, or the skipping of difficult bits - I become nervous.  Perhaps worse, she makes every Russian writer sound vaguely similar, or so I remember.  She makes them all sound like Chekhov.  I greatly admire her Chekhov.

I have done some spot-checks of Karamazov, some Garnett vs P&V.  It's surprising how often they are nearly word for word identical.  But why shouldn't they be?  The problems come in the difficult patches, not the easy ones.

A single passage (from I.iv.):

It was Gregory who pointed out the "crazy woman's" grave to Alyosha.  He took him to our town cemetery and showed him in a remote corner a cast-iron tombstone, cheap but decently kept, on which were inscribed the name and age of the deceased and the date of her death, and below a four-lined verse, such as are commonly used on old-fashioned middle-class tombs. (Garnett)

The "shrieker's" grave was finally pointed out to Alyosha by the servant Gregory.  He took him to our town cemetery, and there, in a remote corner, showed him a cast-iron marker, inexpensive but well tended, on which there was an inscription giving the name, social position, age and date of death of the deceased woman, and below that even some sort of four-line verse chosen from the old cemetery lore commonoly used on middle-class tombs. (Pevear and Volokhonsky)

P&V make this passage much weirder.  Or they allow it to be weirder. The "crazy woman" becomes a "shrieker," and "old-fashioned" becomes, sort of, "from the old cemetery lore," whatever that is.  That last long phrase looks like one of those rough patches that Garnett would simply smooth out.  This is one way the peculiar voice of Dostoevsky becomes ordinary in Garnett.

Worse, perhaps, is Garnett's "cast-iron tombstone."  That cannot be correct.  It is not English.  It is an example of what Vladimir Nabokov called a "howler," presumably because it made him howl with laughter.  I presume that the Russian word can be translated as tombstone, but surely not when modified by "cast-iron."  It is an offence to the ear.

So I don't trust Constance Garnett. One can do better. 

Good luck to all of the Karamazov readers.  Back to that passage for just a second, the P&V version - please do me a favor and keep an eye on that "our" (who?) and that "some," not present in Garnett.