A Sportsman’s Notebook is the title Charles and Natasha Hepburn chose for their translation of Ivan Turgenev’s early book of stories, or whatever they are. Other translators have used other titles – Sketches in place of Notebook is common, and more accurate as a description of the contents of the book.
A Turgenev-like hunter, and his servant, and his dog, roam the Russian woods and fields, hunting birds. He meets people and writes about what he sees. Sometimes what he hears or sees resolves itself into something like a story, sometimes not. Landowners, peasants, merchants, men and women, sick and healthy, young and old. The single most charming sketch is nothing more than Turgenev eavesdropping on some boys looking after horses.
One reason I would recommend the book to anyone interested in Russian literature is simply the variety of characters and social relationships, the wide range of Russian culture on display, the food and religion and superstitions and furniture. We never visit a city, but otherwise, Turgenev covers a lot of ground. Of course, if the book’s value were simply utilitarian, why bother?
“Kaysan from Fair Springs” is a favorite of mine. Turgenev is in his cart, “driving back from shooting,” enjoying the scenery – “in the distance, small birch-copses were all that broke the almost straight line of the horizon, with the rounded tracery of their tree-tops” (114). A standard beginning, including the precision, or attempted precision, of the description of nature. He passes a funeral, which is bad luck, so his axle breaks. Searching for a new axle, he meets a dwarf, Kaysan, who I was expecting, given the title of the story. This wandering around has taken 5 of the 18 pages.
The sketch is a character piece, a description of the dwarf. The trick of the story is to slowly move closer, to get to know Kaysan in little steps. His appearance (“thick curly black hair sticking out on all sides of a tiny head like the hat on top of a mushroom” (118)), then his odd behavior, then other people’s view of his odd behavior. Kaysan collects herbs, and imitates birds (“conversed with them”), and thinks shooting them is sinful, although he apologizes, near the end of the story, for “call[ing] all the birds away from you,” ruining the hunting. He composes little poems, and has traveled extensively, and is a healer. Each little fragment fills him out, but also somehow deepens him, deepens the story. I don’t want to say that he becomes “real,” since I’m never sure what that means, but I suspect I would not have got to know him so well if I had actually met Kaysan.
Near the end of the book, Turgenev includes two stories that really make up a separate novella. “Chertopkhanov and Nedopyuskin” is a sketch, a description of a fool of a landowner and his ridiculous life. By the end of the piece, as with the Kaysan sketch, in a fine bit of sympathizing, the fool seems less foolish, and the life not so ridiculous. Sort of wonderful, actually. “’Bravo, bravo, bravo!’ Nedopyuskin gabbled after him” (317).
The next story, though, is “The End of Chertopkhanov,” so the high times can’t last. It’s actually the most gripping thing I’ve ever read by Turgenev, even if much of the plot as such is basically a man looking for a horse. I should reread it and try to figure out what makes it so atypically exciting, and how it can possibly feel so genuinely tragic, this tale of a fool and his beloved horse.
Update: A Common Reader's resource-packed Sportsman's Notebook post.
Tuesday, August 31, 2010
A Sportsman’s Notebook is the title Charles and Natasha Hepburn chose for their translation of Ivan Turgenev’s early book of stories, or whatever they are. Other translators have used other titles – Sketches in place of Notebook is common, and more accurate as a description of the contents of the book.
Monday, August 30, 2010
Books Many People Should Read. In this case, books by Ivan Turgenev, early Turgenev. This was my non-American, non-Melvillean, not-so-difficult, not-so-crazy reading for the last month or so:
A Sportsman’s Notebook (1847-1850, published as a book in 1852; stories)
The Diary of a Superfluous Man (1850; story)
A Month in the Country (written 1850, published 1855, staged 1872; play)
Yakov Pasynkov (1855; story)
Faust (1856; story)
Rudin (1856; novel)
A Correspondence (1856; story)
A Journey to Polesje (1857; story)
The Home of the Gentry (1859; novel)
On the Eve (1860; novel)
First Love (1860; story? novella?)
Hamlet and Don Quixote (1860; speech)
This is the raw material for early Turgenev week. Everything was good, but there was a lot of variation. I’ve only just started The Home of the Gentry, but otherwise, I’ll give away my conclusion, allowing busy readers to skip the whole week:
Must read, for readers with any sympathy at all for 19th century Russian literature: A Sportsman’s Notebook (or selections, at least) and On the Eve.
Must read, for the above and more: the bittersweet First Love.
Must read, for devotees of Chekhov’s plays: A Month in the Country.
The twenty-five stories in A Sportsman’s Notebook add up to 380 pages, so that book is almost long, but everything else is quite short. The Home of the Gentry is the longest novel, all of 186 pages in the Penguin Classics edition.
The next item on the list should be Fathers and Sons (1862), which I have not read for a long time. I am just going to take for granted that it is essential reading, a great masterpiece, blah blah blah. After the success of and controversy over Fathers and Sons, Turgenev’s literary productivity decreased substantially, so I’m covering a more or less coherent phase of his career, not that I have anything interesting to say about that.
One reflex I’m going to try to avoid this week: knocking Turgenev up against Tolstoy, or Dostoevsky, or Chekhov. Chekhov especially (see my recommendation of A Month in the Country). It happens too often – I read a passage and think, boy, that’s as good as (Chekhov, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky). I don’t ever read (C, T, D) and think, boy, that’s as good as Turgenev. Chekhov is the worst problem, because Turgenev was actually an important influence – that play is a model, in structure and tone, for Chekhov’s own dramas. The line of connection is too clear. I don’t want to fault Turgenev for not writing Uncle Vanya – he’s hardly alone there. (Unstated assumption: Uncle Vanya – what a play! I love that play.) So, no more of that. Turgenev, on his own ground.
Why did I put my conclusion in the middle of the post? Who will read this far? Why am I still typing?
Friday, August 27, 2010
There is nothing for a man but genius or despair. We cannot answer in the smart language, certainly it would be a bastardization of our own talents to waste time to learn the language they use. I would rather sneak off and die like a sick dog then be a well known literary person in America – and no doubt I’ll do it in the end. (215)
Here we have well known literary person William Carlos Williams, or his narrator double, whining about the place of the poet in American life. It’s from his prose poem In the American Grain (1925), a Modernist period piece that attempts to define the meaning of America through the writings of its Great Men. Young America needs literature! This particular passage, for example, is pulled from a four page essay about, of all people, Sam Houston, first President of the Republic of Texas. Twenty years later, WCW narrowed his scope and spent a decade trying to define the meaning of Paterson, New Jersey, with more success.
Herman Melville was a genius; Herman Melville despaired. Produce! Produce! exhorted dyed-through Calvinist Thomas Carlyle. Calvinist Herman Melville produced, and did he ever. Ten volumes (nine novels and a book of stories) in ten years, roughly, and he poured everything he had into them. I read Moby-Dick (1851) and am amazed he ever needed to write anything else – what’s not in that book? But Melville’s capacity exceeds mine. Bartleby is not there, nor Billy Budd, nor had Melville yet been to the Holy Land.
Melville had finished his last novel, The Confidence-Man (1857), before he left for Europe and Palestine. Did he know it was his last novel? Regardless, it was going to be poetry from here on out, although it took Melville a little longer to master the form. An early volume of poems could not find a publisher. Battle Pieces and Aspects of the War appeared in 1866. The massive Clarel was next, in 1876, its publication funded by Melville’s uncle, 350 copies or so, of which 220 were pulped. Melville was at this point working as a customs inspector. His retirement led to two more tiny books, chapbooks, really, John Marr and Other Sailors (1888) and Timoleon, etc. (1891), both published by the author in editions of twenty-five (25!). Melville’s death prevented similar private publication of a third book of poems and, probably, Billy Budd.
There is nothing for a man but genius or despair. So Melville chose genius. Perhaps the reader should despair, confronted with 220 copies of Clarel fed into the pulper, or with that tiny number, twenty-five. But what was the correct number? How many readers should Melville’s poetry have? That Melville knew he had twenty-five real readers, and acted accordingly - what integrity. How many readers should the massive, tangled Clarel have?
Levi Stahl worries that he should be one of those readers. His skepticism is understandable. I did not think Clarel really got moving until about 200 pages in, as Melville builds to the terrifying night by the Dead Sea, the book’s first great imagistic climax. That’s a lot of pages, although I think it just means that I did not understand how to read the poem until then. At the end of the next section, Melville pushes the characters into another heightened state, of a completely different character (it involves the contemplation of a palm tree, which sounds ridiculous, but is not), and then does it again at the stark end. The end is amazing. Like bibliographing nicole, given a long enough life, I’m reading Clarel again. Levi – yes, you should be one of Clarel’s readers.
Almost every person who bothers to wander by Wuthering Expectations spends plenty of time with difficult books, and those who don’t are doing other difficult things. What argument do I have for this difficult book over that other one? None. None at all. I wish Herman Melville, and Thomas Carlyle, and William Carlos Williams, a few good readers. I hope I’m one of them.
Speaking of good readers: First, many thanks to bibliographing for doing the hard work on Clarel. We’ll do more of these, I bet. Second, Nonsuch Frances says the prose of In the American Grain is “dazzlingly gorgeous” and calls the book a “must-read,” a judgment that surely requires a lot of qualifiers. I call it a must-read for people who are a) particularly interested in Modernist poets and their ideas about America and b) have a high tolerance for conventional ideas swathed in gauzy nonsense. Please note the way Williams has to dodge Whitman and Hawthorne, and lament that Williams wrote the book just a little bit before the Great Melville Revival.
Next week: Books Many People Should Read.
Thursday, August 26, 2010
I could go on about the imagery in Clarel. I’d like to – the rose images, and the palm. There’s this short canto (2.35) titled “Prelusive” which begins with a detailed description of a Piranesi prison print, perhaps the one on the left. “In gibe of goblin fantasy - \ Grimace – unclean diablery” – what? The human heart is like the Piranesian prison, and all of this is related to St. Paul’s “mystery of iniquity.” Melville ends the passage by suggesting readers who “retain \ Childhood illusions” skip the next canto, because it will be too scary. What, what?
That canto, “Sodom,” involves bibliographing nicole’s favorite character sitting on a salt-encrusted camel skull on the shore of the Dead Sea and orating on Doom and Death and Wickedness and Mammon.
Unfathomably shallow! – No!
Nearer the core than man can go
Or Science get – nearer the slime
Of nature’s rudiments and lime
In chyle before the bone. Thee, thee,
In thee the filmy cell is spun – (2.26.94-99)
What nonsense have I been spouting about prosaic Melville? This whole section is wonderfully wild. The ends of each of the four sections typically build to vivid and bizarre climaxes.
Anyway, this character, Mortmain, is one of a string in Clarel who Go Too Far. Our hero, a young divinity student, is searching for meaning and truth, and the other characters provide competing models or temperaments. Mortmain is a failed revolutionary who now sees the world as irredeemably evil. Another dark character with another lost cause is a former Confederate officer, now an international mercenary. Others are religious fanatics or martyrs or miserable wanderers. These characters are what-not-to-do models for Clarel, yet somehow, within the ethics of the book, they are also heroic.
The truly negative models, amusingly, are people like me. The fact that I find this amusing is, in Clarel, an example of why I’m a bad model. Derwent, an easy-going Anglican priest (oddly like the hero of Margaret Oliphant’s The Perpetual Curate) is, on Clarel’s own terms, a figure of suspicion because he wants to smooth over conflicts, because he is, though a clergyman, not spiritually restless. Then there’s Vine, who is an awful lot like Nathaniel Hawthorne, an aesthete and an ironist, often bored by the religious arguments of the other characters. Melville takes these characters’ refusal to be tormented by religious doubt as weakness, as avoidance. My interest in the style of Clarel – which is all Melville’s fault, since he wrote the book – is an indictment against me.
The third commonsense character comes off a lot better, for some reason, but he is an ass, by which I mean a donkey, whose great final action is to drink the holy water in Bethlehem. Clarel is a deeply serious, even ponderous, book, but Melville will still have his jokes.
The ultimate answer Melville provides, I think, is one of constant struggle and endless searching, an eternal Gnostic agon (I’m pretending to be Harold Bloom). One’s spiritual doubts and yearnings have no simple answers, and the solutions others find are likely to be little help. Still, Going Too Far is preferable to Not Going Far Enough.
Even death may prove unreal at the last,
And stoics be astounded into heaven. (4.35.25-6)
This seems wise to me, even if I am one of the weak-willed, like the priest or Hawthorne, who prefer to look away.
Wednesday, August 25, 2010
How to read Herman Melville’s enormous 1876 Clarel: A Poem and a Pilgrimage? And, I know, why. I’ll come back to that one, maybe. How – that’s hard enough. Dang thing is five hundred pages long, and dense, and complicated.
Nicole, leading the pilgrimage, has so far been writing about the quality of the verse, about its beauty. She’s working on the central paradox of Melville’s poetry – why did an effusive, poetic prose writer like Melville want to constrain himself with formal verse? Whatever his frustrations with his fiction might have been, why did he turn to poetry? Why did he want to tell this particular story in verse?
The first thing that struck me about the verse of Clarel was how ordinary so much of it was:
Beside him in a narrow cell
His luggage lies unpacked; thereon
The dust lies, and on him as well –
The dust of travel. (1.1.11-14)
We’re at the very beginning of the poem, describing Clarel, the young divinity student and restless spiritual seeker. Plain stuff. There’s an image just before this, where Clarel’s room is “like a tomb new-cut in stone” which is all right, but still pretty simple. The allusions, which start up soon, can be thick and obscure, but they’re mostly to the geography or history of Jerusalem, and footnotes dispel the obscurity. But isn’t poetry supposed to be, I don’t know, fancy?
Some lines, some stanzas, are fancy. I’ll borrow a favorite that nicole also mentions (the pilgrims are in the desert, ascending from the Dead Sea):
They climb. In Indian file they gain
A sheeted blank white lifted plain—
A moor of chalk, or slimy clay,
With gluey track and streaky trail
Of some small slug or torpid snail.
With hooded brows against the sun,
Man after man they labor on. (3.8.1-7)
The last two lines, and the first, are prosaic, Melville working on the action. That’s where the verse is plainest – when Melville uses it to move characters around. But that description – the incongruous slug appearing in the desert, even the four forceful adjectives before “plain” – that’s writing with a good chewy mouthfeel, to borrow a word from the breakfast cereal industry. “With gluey track and streaky trail” – yum.
The snail trail is a clue, of sorts. If I turn back to the beginning of the book, the first couple hundred lines, I find some things I had not really noticed before: a “sail-white town,” “the ice-bastions round the Pole,” “Banked corals,” “the reef and breaker,” and so on. Clarel’s thoughts, and the poet’s description are crowded with sea imagery. Everything is like something related to the sea. The light coming from an inn is like “a three-decker’s stern lights.” A tower is like a lighthouse.
The sea imagery permeates the entire book. It’s a book by Herman Melville, yes. But the linked imagery is also the core of the book, the way it functions. “Sands immense \ Impart the oceanic sense” (2.11.25-36). The brilliant culmination is near the middle of the book, when the pilgrims descend to the Dead Sea, an aquatic Hell:
Southward they file. ‘Tis Pluto’s park
Beslimed as after baleful flood:
A nitrous, filmed and pallid mud,
With shrubs to match. Salt specks they mark
Or mildewed stunted twigs unclean
Brushed by the stirrup, Stygean green,
With shrivelled nut or apple small. (2.28.1-7)
The pilgrims are now, in some sense, literally below the sea, by over 1,300 feet, and the imagery never lets them forget it. Here's how Clarel ends:
Emerge thou mayst from the last whelming sea,
And prove that death but routs life into victory. (4.35.33-34)
I’m pretty well convinced that Clarel is a great book, although one that perhaps has just as many readers as it should. It took some work to learn to read it. The web of interconnected imagery, that’s the artistic method of Clarel. Not beautiful or striking lines, not that there aren't a number of those, and not that I don’t wish there were a few more.
Tuesday, August 24, 2010
As I plan out my writing, I realize I’m working with a concept: it’s Books Few People Should Read Week. Thank goodness it’s not Blog Sweeps Week, or I’d be sunk.
I’m not sure about Friday’s entry, but Sartor Resartus is a great Book Few People Should Read. The reader has to care about prose, though, about prose and rhetoric. The argument of the book is, roughly, an attempt to bring Kant’s ideas into the English-speaking world. Who cares. I’ve learned plenty from Carlyle, but why do I really value him? It’s how he writes. How does he write?
Considered as an Author, Herr Teufelsdröckh has one scarcely pardonable fault, doubtless his worst: an almost total want of arrangement. In this remarkable Volume, it is true, his adherence to the mere course of Time produces, through the Narrative portions, a certain show of outward method; but of true logical method and sequence there is too little... Many sections are of a debatable rubric, or even quite nondescript and unnamable; whereby the Book not only loses in accessibility, but too often distresses us like some mad banquet, wherein all courses had been confounded, and fish and flesh, soup and solid, oyster-sauce, lettuces, Rhine-wine and French mustard, were hurled into one huge tureen or trough, and the hungry Public invited to help itself. (1.4)
If everyone wrote like this, I would give up literature for scrimshaw, but with books as with food, I am a gourmand. Variety, please. But this dish may be too rich for some diets. It is fat-full, gluten-full, and was processed in a facility that contained at least one nut.
The passage is immediately preceded by the scene where Herr Teufelsdröckh laughs, the single time the editor observes his laughter “tears streaming down his cheeks, pipe held aloft, foot clutched into the air.” The editor continues with the theme, anatomizing laughter – some do not laugh but “wear an everlasting barren simper,” others “produce some whiffling husky cachinnation, as if they were laughing through wool: of none such comes good.” I believe Carlyle is defining his ideal reader. He wants readers whose laugh is “not of the face and diaphragm only, but of the whole man from head to heel.”
The book ends with – Stefanie noted this yesterday – a "friendly farewell" to Carlyle's “irritated readers.” Yes and no. How many other writers wrote with such a wild spill of words, such wastefulness, even? How many wanted to make sure there was something interesting in every sentence he wrote?* How many vowed to exterminate the prosaic?
I’ll bet bibliographing nicole can think of one more. Tomorrow, Books Few People Should Read Week joins up with the Clarel pilgrimage.
* I mean, to be clear, how many writers of Carlyle’s time. Rabelais, The Anatomy of Melancholy, A Tale of a Tub, Sir Thomas Browne, Tristram Shandy, a number of Germans – Carlyle has predecessors. And what predecessors!
Monday, August 23, 2010
Since I started Wuthering Expectations, I’ve had this mass of overheated gibberish dragging along at the bottom of the blog:
I too could now say to myself: Be no longer a Chaos, but a World, or even Worldkin. Produce! Produce! Were it but the pitifullest infinitesimal fraction of a Product, produce it in God's name! 'Tis the utmost thou hast in thee; out with it then. Up, up! Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy whole might. Work while it is called To-day, for the Night cometh wherein no man can work.
This is Thomas Carlyle, the end of Book 2, Chapter 9 of the literary staple Sartor Resartus (1833-4). It’s the, or a, climax of the book, the point where Herr Teufelsdröckh, having said No! to the EVERLASTING NO, says Yea! To the EVERLASTING YEA.
As with any writing by Carlyle, this passage is at once serious – I mean, I think it contains some genuine wisdom – and ridiculous, self-mocking. A Worldkin? Or that “Produce! Produce!” Laughable. And the wisest wisdom is borrowed:
Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might; for there is no work, nor device, nor knowledge, nor wisdom, in the grave, whither thou goest. (Ecclesiastes 9:10)
I must work the works of him that sent me, while it is day: the night cometh, when no man can work (John 9:4, both from the King James Version)
The red ink in my Bible reminds me that the last line is spoken by Christ himself, so Carlyle has bent the idea just a bit. Or perhaps not. Carlyle’s favorite rhetorical methods in Sartor Resartus are paradox and, his own word, nonsense. The book is deliberately packed with joyous nonsense.
Stefanie at So Many Books has just written about Sartor Resartus, as a Scottish challenge book, and as part of her continued study of Emerson and his world. Her description of the book is exactly accurate. She provides a list of predecessors – Sterne, Goethe – which is also correct, and a logical place to look for help with such a strange, difficult book.
I’ve now read Sartor Resartus twice, and parts of it several times. Thirty pages or so were assigned in my Brit Lit II class, many years ago, the pieces in The Norton Anthology of English Literature, Vol. 2, Fifth edition. I’m looking at them now. I dutifully read each word and turned each onion-skin page, and was surprised, irritated, to discover, at the end, that I had understood nothing at all. An insight, a new one to me: I began again. I reread the assignment. Ah – a young man has a spiritual crisis, but is somehow able to rouse himself enough not to discover meaning but to reject meaninglessness:
‘What art thou afraid of? Wherefore, like a coward, dost thou forever pip and whimper, and go cowering and trembling? Despicable biped! what is the sum-total of the worst that lies before thee? Death?” (Book 2, Ch. 7)
Meaning follows, but slowly, imperfectly, always imperfectly. Produce! Produce! I really do say that to myself, on the days when I’m wondering not just what to write, but why. So I produce something now, my pitifullest infinitesimal fraction of a Product, and save the meaning of it all for later. The struggle against Chaos is never-ending.
Friday, August 20, 2010
Lived reclusively following wife’s death.
I’m reading the paragraph on Frederick Goddard Tuckerman at the end of the Library of America’s American Poetry: The Nineteenth Century, Volume 2. Only book (Poems) self-published in 1860. “[R]ecognised as authority on local flora.”
Tuckerman wrote five sonnet sequences, unpublished until 1931, that I liked quite a bit more than the greatest poem of the nineteenth century, “The Cricket.” They were all written in the 1850s and 1860s, and are grief-ridden. To what extent they are “genuine” expressions of grief, I would not want to say. The formality of the sonnet sequence seems like a poor choice for a spontaneous outpouring of emotion, but Tuckerman may have thought otherwise.
The sonnets are packed with extraordinary images drawn from nature. Tuckerman does not write sonnets describing bird nests and eggs like John Clare, but he seems more interested in nature for its own sake than, say, William Wordsworth. Thus:
[Sins] That hedge me in and press about my path
Like purple-poison flowers of stramony
With their dull opiate breath and dragon wings. (I.iv.)
And hard like this I stand, and beaten and blind,
This desolate rock with lichens rusted over,
Hoar with salt-sleet and chalkings of the birds. (III.x.)
Or, one I find amazing:
Nor can I drop my lids nor shade my brows,
But there he stands beside the lifted sash;
And with a swooning of the heart, I think
Where the black shingles slope to meet the boughs
And, shattered on the roof like smallest snows,
The tiny petals of the mountain ash. (I.x.)
The sonnets are full of crickets, too. The cricket had some personal meaning to Tuckerman that his poems only partly communicate. One might fairly ask what any of these passages mean. The perfectly observed detail gives us – what? Yvor Winters suggests that the “general intention” is all that is really knowable: “somehow the sensory details express the sickness of the man; the tiny details are the items on which he can concentrate; but that is all we know.” (xiii)
So this is how Winters links Tuckerman to his French contemporaries, to Verlaine and Rimbaud and, I would say, Tristan Corbière (joyous where Tuckerman is melancholy), poets who are actively, deliberately exploring the poetic uses of obscurity. These French poets were all, more or less, working in public. Tuckerman’s obscurities, like Emily Dickinson’s, may be perfectly clear to the poem’s author. Who knows. Tuckerman’s little 1860 book of poems is more clear, more conventional, and more dull than his unpublished poems.
What did he see in the tiny, shattered petals of the mountain ash?
Thursday, August 19, 2010
The nineteenth century. So says Yvor Winters:
Tuckerman is flawed by the vices of his century; but The Cricket, I feel sure, is the greatest poem in English of the century, and the amount of unforgettable poety in the sonnets is large. (xvi)
Winters greatly underestimates the power of my memory, but he is otherwise correct about the sonnets of Frederick Goddard Tuckerman. I'm much less sure about The Cricket, although I like Winters' confidence, of which there is more:
F. G. Tuckerman (1821-73) was one of the three most remarkable American poets of the nineteenth century. The others were Jones Very (1813-80) and Emily Dickinson (1830-86). Emerson had talent, which was badly damaged by foolish thinking; Bryant might be described as a fine second-rate poet, better than most of the British poets of the century. Of Poe and Whitman, the less said the better. (ix)
Winters grants the superiority of “an occasional line or short passage in Wordsworth.” I love this sort of thing. I wish I could do it myself, but my temperament is too strongly Appreciationist. The less said – for a while, I couldn’t shut up about Poe. Winters presumably backs up his slagging somewhere.
So what is in The Cricket, the greatest etc? It’s an ode, more or less, about four pages long, written in the 1860s, but unpublished until 1950. It has some resemblance to Milton’s “Lycidas” and Thomas Gray’s “Elegy in a Country Churchyard.”
At first, the poem really is about crickets, or listening to crickets:
At hand, around, illimitably
Rising, and falling like the sea,
Acres of cricks!
Soon, the chirp of the "cricks" becomes something more, a harbinger of death, or the sound of grief:
Thou bringest, too, dim accents from the grave
To him who walketh when the day is dim,
Dreaming of those who dream of him no more;
A baffling pastoral section follows, which at least let me know I was reading an ode. Then the final canto, the longest and strangest, which features an enchanter mucking about in a swamp for poisonous herbs and much more poetic poetry, lines such as:
Or garden gravemound tricked and dressed -
The ceaseless simmer in the summer grass
Naught in innumerable numerousness. [profound, or ludicrous?]
And, the end:
It matters not. Behold! The autumn goes,
The shadow grows,
The moments take hold of eternity;
Even while we stop to wrangle or repine
Our lives are gone –
Like thinnest mist,
Like yon escaping color in the tree;
Rejoice! Rejoice! whilst yet the hours exist –
Rejoice or mourn, and let the world swing on
Unmoved by cricket song of thee or me.
Some real wisdom here, although a little banal? Seize the day, have some perspective on your own life, and so on? “The moments take hold of eternity” is a line that works well for me, but I can’t really explain it, since it verges on meaninglessness. “[T]ake hold” is the tricky part, something moments can’t do.
Winters detects touches, long before the fact, of Paul Verlaine and Paul Valéry, poets he values highly. I find the comparison helpful, unlike the “greatest poem” business, which might very well impede my reading. Harold Bloom’s anointing of “Lycidas” as the greatest poem in the language has a similar effect on me. I turn it this way and that, and say, really? Heaven knows what sort of damage I have been doing to Dead Souls (Greatest Novel of the First Half of the Nineteenth Century). Well, I have no authority, so not much.
By the way, anyone curious about Winters’ own poetry should visit Anecdotal Evidence, which also contains some fine slagging.
Page numbers from The Complete Poems of Frederick Goddard Tuckerman, ed. N. Scott Momaday, Oxford University Press, 1965.
Wednesday, August 18, 2010
The tricks memory plays.
Vladimir Nabokov taught me to listen for the poetry embedded in prose. In the magnificent Chapter 4 of The Gift (1938, sort of), we find:
Chernyshevski’s “philosophy” goes back through Feuerbach, to the Encyclopedists. On the other hand, applied Hegelianism, working gradually left, went through that same Feuerbach to join Marx, who in his Holy Family expresses himself thus:
. . . . no great intelligence
Is needed to distinguish a connection
Between the teaching of materialism
Regarding inborn tendency to good;
Of industry; the moral right to pleasure,
I have put it into blank verse so it would be less boring. (244-5, Vintage edition, 1991)
The “I” in that last line, the switch back to prose, is not Nabokov but Fyodor, the novel’s protagonist. The long chapter is “actually” Fyodor’s book about Nikolai Chernoshevsky, fascinating author of the terrible (but fascinating) novel What Is To Be Done? (1862). So the cheekiness (“less boring”) exists on two levels. This chapter is among the greatest pieces of writing of, let’s say, 20th century fiction. Five Branch Tree is writing about The Gift’s fraternal twin, Invitation to a Beheading (1938). Where was I?
Note, please, that Nabokov is not actually discovering the inadvertent poetry of Karl Marx, but putting Marx into verse. Not the same thing at all. My memory fooled me.
What, then, is this, from Chapter 12 of Bend Sinister (1947), VN’s second novel in English:
On the next slip of paper he had transcribed passages from a famous American poem
A curious sight – these bashful bears,
These timid warrior whalemen
And now the time of tide has come;
The ship casts off her cables
It is not shown on any map;
True places never are
This lovely light, it lights not me;
All loveliness is anguish –
and, of course, that bit about the delicious death of an Ohio honey hunter (for my humour’s sake I shall preserve the style in which I once narrated it at Thula to a lounging circle of my Russian friends). (155, Vintage edition, 1990).
Krug, the protagonist, spends several pages leafing through similar “dead and unusable” notes for an essay. I have no idea what that business about the honey hunter is. But the poem, the famous American poem. Searchable texts almost spoil the fun.
The first couplet is from Moby-Dick, Chapter 5, “The Breakfast.” The second is from Chapter 9, “The Sermon.” The profoundly Melvillean third describes Queequeg’s home, Chapter 12, “Biographical”; the painful last lines are Ahab’s, Chapter 37, “Sunset.”
Nabokov had discovered, or created, a lost Melville poem, shattered and scattered throughout Moby-Dick. So this is where I learned to look for poetry in prose. It was Melville all along.
How, by the way, did I know that the poem was Melville’s? The whalemen are a pretty blatant clue, aren't they, but that’s not it. Nabokov explains the gag in the introduction he added to the novel in 1963.
Tuesday, August 17, 2010
Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War (1866), Herman Melville’s collection of Civil War poems, is unusual (every Melville book is unusual). It is a book about observing war, or thinking about war. We visit a battlefield now and then, but usually after the battle, not during – “While over them [dead soldiers] the swallows skim\ And all is hushed at Shiloh” (“Shiloh: A Requiem”).
One of the best, or at least strangest, poems is set during the 1863 New York Draft Riots:
from The House-Top: A Night Piece (July, 1863)
No sleep. The sultriness pervades the air
And binds the brain - a dense oppression, such
As tawny tigers feel in matted shades,
Vexing their blood and making apt for ravage.
Beneath the stars the roofy desert spreads
Vacant as Libya. All is hushed near by.
The insomniac narrator is not obviously Melville, although he is a similarly odd bird, driven to his roof by the July heat, thinking of tigers and deserts. Well, his brain is bound, so logic may be unavailable. The riots are in the next line, but at an enormous distance:
Yet fitfully from far breaks a mixed surf
Of muffled sound, the Atheist roar of riot.
The rioters are not just godless but “ship-rats.” They come no closer to the poet on his roof, nor do the cannons that suppress the rioters, just a “low dull rumble, dull and dead.” The riots, or their suppression, or both, are a “grimy slur on the Republic’s faith implied, \ Which holds that Man is naturally good,” a faith that the narrator does not share. “The House-Top” is extreme in its distance from its subject – a modern reader (me) will likely find the clues insufficient and need a footnote – but not untypical.
No surprise that Melville’s Civil War is as much a naval war as a land war, or that many of his best poems (such as “A Requiem for Soldiers lost in Ocean Transports”) are about the sea. He’s practically obsessed with the ironclads. “A Utilitarian View of the Monitor’s Fight” returns to the theme of distance:
Yet this was battle, and intense –
Beyond the strife of fleets heroic;
Deadlier, closer, calm ‘mid storm;
No passion; all went on by crank,
Pivot, and screw,
And calculations of caloric.
The “warriors \ Are now but operatives.” I have recently been - still am - a mere observer to my own country’s wars (“War yet shall be, and to the end”). Battle-Pieces functions well as a book, despite any number of weak poems. It is quietly patriotic, and weirdly earnest for Melville, particularly in a prose afterward about the need for reconciliation. Odd the number of times I thought “Yes, exactly.” I don’t read old books because of their relevance, but here it was.
Monday, August 16, 2010
The response to bibliographing nicole’s readalong of Clarel, Herman Melville’s massive 1876 epic poem of faith-and-doubt, has been fantastic, far above my expectations. As for the poem, having read just a bit, it is more or less as I expected, dense and complex. The sheer amount of stuff in the poem is the primary complication, but I had thought it would also be obscure, perhaps bafflingly so, and I was, I am happy to say, wrong about that. Melville’s poetry is, it turns out, often clearer than his prose. It’s often less poetic than his prose!
For example, this passage nicole found in Pierre (1852):
No Cornwall miner ever sunk so deep
A shaft beneath the sea, as Love will sink
Beneath the floatings of the eyes. Love sees
Ten million fathoms down, till dazzled by
The floor of pearls. The eye is Love’s own mag-
Ic glass, where all things that are not of earth,
Glide in supernatural light. There are
Not so many fishes in the sea,
As there are sweet images in lovers’ eyes.
And there’s more where this came from. Pierre is a novel; this is prose. I added the linebreaks and capitalization – but the first six lines really are perfect blank verse, although I am not so happy with the split in “magic”. An extreme case, maybe, but Melville’s actual poetry is rarely like this.
Or maybe it is:
The Maldive Shark (1888)
About the Shark, phlegmatical one,
Pale sot of the Maldive sea,
The sleek little pilot-fish, azure and slim,
How alert in attendance be.
From his saw-pit of mouth, from his charnel of maw
They have nothing of harm to dread,
But liquidly glide on his ghastly flank
Or before his Gorgonian head;
Or lurk in the port of serrated teeth
In triple white tiers of glittering gates,
And there find a haven when peril’s abroad,
An asylum in jaws of the Fates!
They are friends; and friendly they guide him to prey,
Yet never partake of the treat –
Eyes and brains to the dotard lethargic and dull,
Pale ravener of horrible meat.
The poem is about the shark, as the title suggests, but from the odd point of view of the pilot-fish, which is why the shark is all mouth, why the mouth is metaphorically described six times in sixteen lines. Or, really, the perspective is the poet watching the pilot-fish direct the shark. I’ve read this before, in Chapter 18 of Mardi (1849), “My Lord Shark and His Pages,” where the “dotard lethargic and dull” is instead “[a] clumsy lethargic monster.” I have no idea when Melville wrote the poem, but the publication dates are forty years apart.
Melville’s poetry is decidedly not beautiful. I’ve become suspicious of literary beauty, actually, so I’m not to be trusted on this, but the effects of this poem surely come from something else. Melville can be plenty clumsy, too. I have my doubts about “charnel of maw,” for example, or the intrusion of the Fates. But – “Pale ravener of horrible meat”! That’s the stuff, or the poem is nothing. Or “They are friends” – after all of those teeth, that’s a deeply weird line. Friends!
Friday, August 13, 2010
But I don't approve of a man ending off neatly like a novel in this sort of ridiculous way - the well-plotted The Perpetual Curate
Although I breezily dismiss the value of plot for the sake of overemphasizing style, plot is really another dimension of style, another place to study the how, whatever the what. Frank and Lucy, the stars of The Perpetual Curate, are going to overcome every obstacle and marry at the end of the novel. This is perfectly evident within a few pages, simply because of the tone of the writing. If this were a Theodor Storm novella, we might instead find a tale of renunciation and lost love, but this ain’t that. Frank and Lucy marry – but how?
Oliphant impressed me with the ingenious way she introduces possible solutions while simultaneously rendering them unsatisfying. We begin with the friction between the Curate and his trio of elderly aunts, who possess a clerical living and might or might not let Frank have it. So that’s Solution #1. But we have five hundred pages left, so things can’t be that simple, or, if they are, I, the reader, won’t be happy. Soon, Oliphant brings in Frank's older brother, a clergyman who is leaving the Anglican church for Catholicism. Ah, here is Solution #2: Frank takes the family living and is thus able to marry as a consequence of his beloved brother’s agonizing crisis of conscience. Oliphant has actually ramped up the challenge: now, she has to find a way to remove this solution, introduced too early, too ethically questionable, and too cheap.
Victorian novels can be a little too classbound for my tastes. Nicholas Nickleby is the example I’m thinking of. Nicholas has no money but somehow the idea of doing something “ungentlemanly” is not part of the novel. The Perpetual Curate impressed me with the way it begins within conventional class limits and then gradually, logically, pushes past them, allowing Oliphant and her characters more interesting ways to end the book. Readers looking for the Strong Female Character will appreciate the way Frank and Lucy mutually negotiate the satisfying ending.
They have an advocate in one of those aunts, one who is, for most of the book, a hysterical fool:
“There is one thing, and I must say it if I should die." She had to pause a little to recover her voice, for haste and excitement had a tendency to make her inarticulate. "Frank," said Miss Dora again, more solemnly than ever, "whatever you may be obliged to do - though you were to write novels, or take pupils, or do translations - oh, Frank, don't look at me like that, as if I was going crazy. Whatever you may have to do, oh my dear, there is one thing - don't go and break people's hearts, and put it off, and put it off, till it never happens!" cried the trembling little woman, with a sudden burst of tears. "Don't say you can wait, for you can't wait, and you oughtn't to!" sobbed Miss Dora. She subsided altogether into her handkerchief and her chair as she uttered this startling and wholly unexpected piece of advice, and lay there in a little heap, all dissolving and floating away, overcome with her great effort, while her nephew stood looking at her from a height of astonishment almost too extreme for wondering. If the trees could have found a voice and counselled his immediate marriage, he could scarcely have been more surprised. (478-9)
There is no way to really appreciate the surprise of this passage without having spent more time with Aunt Dora, but the little dissolved heap and the talking trees are excellent, and Aunt Dora’s vision of the worst possible careers – novels! - is a fine joke.
Especially since another aunt, the stubborn, stiff one, returns to the "novel" theme at the very end of The Perpetual Curate. That’s her in the title of the post. Because Oliphant, having resolved the central romance in a perfectly satisfactory fashion, pulls another ending, an outrageous one, out of one of the subplots. When Frank tells Lucy about it, tells her that the obstacles are gone, she chides him for joking. “If I had been making up a story, I would have kept to what was likely,” Frank replies. Aunt Leonora agrees:
"I suppose this is what fools call poetic justice," said Miss Leonora, "which is just of a piece with everything else that is poetical - weak folly and nonsense that no sensible man would have anything to say to. How a young man like you, who know how to conduct yourself in some things, and have, I don't deny, many good qualities, can give in to come to an ending like a trashy novel, is more than I can understand. You are fit to be put in a book of the Good-child series, Frank, as an illustration of the reward of virtue," said the strong-minded woman, with a little snort of scorn; "and, of course, you are going to marry, and live happy ever after, like a fairy tale." (535-6)
Frank replies with a good dig at his aunt. What a help that Frank (and Oliphant) are funny. I joked last week about Oliphant the Postmodernist, and this is what I meant. If the reader finds the ending false or arbitrary – trashy – he has support from the text, which at the same time is actually arguing that, on the contrary, this ending is just right, which it is.
Thursday, August 12, 2010
Mrs. Morgan is the wife of the rector of Carlingford. She is, perhaps, the fourteenth most important character in The Perpetual Curate. Her loathing of a carpet in the rectory is a small but crucial part of the plot of the novel. One of the treats of a “small” novel like this is watching the author take some inconsequential detail and weave it into the substance of the book. The Perpetual Curate is especially well-plotted in this sense. Once the characters are set in motion, the story proceeds inexorably, with only minor exceptions.*
But nothing is actually inevitable. It is all artifice, a creation of Margaret Oliphant. It’s all a trick!
Chapter XLV, right near the end of the book, belongs to Mrs. Morgan. The novel has an omniscient narrator, but we stay close to Mrs. Morgan here.
Mr Leeson was to come to dinner that day legitimately by invitation, and Mrs Morgan, who felt it would be a little consolation to disappoint the hungry Curate for once, was making up her mind, as she went up-stairs, not to have the All-Souls pudding, of which he showed so high an appreciation… And Mrs Morgan took out some stockings to darn, as being a discontented occupation, and was considering within herself what simple preparation she could have instead of the All-Souls pudding, when, looking up suddenly, she saw, not Mr Proctor, but the Rector, standing looking down upon her within a few steps of her chair. (487-8)
To whom is darning a “discontented occupation”? To Oliphant, or to Mrs Morgan? Both, surely. The horrible carpet appeared a page earlier. The pudding theme is introduced in this passage. Later in the chapter, Oliphant pulls in the fern theme, and the “wall that blocks the train” theme. These are the attributes of Mrs. Morgan that have been strung through the novel. Note how concrete they are. Yet they are not necessarily “actual” objects, but objects in her thoughts, which is also where they exist for the reader. The darning theme, by the way, is a new one, linking together bits of this single chapter. For example:
She gave a sigh as she spoke, for she thought of the Virginian creeper and the five feet of new wall at that side of the garden, which had just been completed, to shut out the view of the train. Life does not contain any perfect pleasure. But when Mrs Morgan stooped to lift up some stray reels of cotton which the Rector's clumsy fingers had dropped out of her workbox, her eye was again attracted by the gigantic roses and tulips on the carpet, and content and satisfaction filled her heart. (493)
That, now that is how this chapter works. Two pages later:
She changed her mind in a moment about the All-Souls pudding, and even added, in her imagination, another dish to the dinner, without pausing to think that that also was much approved by Mr Leeson; and then her thoughts took another turn, and such a vision of a perfect carpet for a drawing-room - something softer and more exquisite than ever came out of mortal loom; full of repose and tranquillity, yet not without seducing beauties of design; a carpet which would never obtrude itself, but yet would catch the eye by dreamy moments in the summer twilight or over the winter fire – flashed upon the imagination of the Rector's wife. (495)
Pudding, carpet, imagination.
The chapter ends with Mrs. Morgan leaving the house and wandering about Carlingford for a single two-page paragraph. It begins with “her vision of tasteful and appropriate furniture,” but then moves outward. She thinks of or glimpses all of the other major characters. She picks ferns “to decorate the peaches.” More gardening. The carpet again. The difference between what Margaret Oliphant is doing here, and what Virginia Woolf is doing in Mrs. Dalloway, is real, but not large.
The substance of the chapter occurs in between everything I’ve mentioned, all of which, in a worse novel, would be omitted. But Mrs. Morgan’s inner life, full of puddings and carpets and ferns – that’s the art of the novel.
* A couple of characters, related to the protagonists, know each other by coincidence, the only real bit of plot-fixing in the novel. Not counting the end, which I want to save for tomorrow.
Wednesday, August 11, 2010
How many guidelines for good book reviewing did I violate yesterday? I feel bad, genuinely, for omitting the slightest sample of Oliphant’s writing. A mortal sin, but, I tell myself, that’s what the rest of the week is for.
Because: “The book is about X Y Z.” Here, X = 19th century English religious controversy. Perhaps you are someone who reads every book about 19th century religious controversy, in which case you will be excited to hear what The Perpetual Curate is about, except that you surely already know all about it. For anyone else, though, who cares? Every bad book is about something. A great book can be about anything. So, about: who cares. How: that's better. How does Oliphant write about X Y Z? One example today.
Frank Wentworth, the Perpetual Curate, is having a battle of wills with his three aunts. This is sufficient to get us 13% of the way through the novel, but probably won’t fill three volumes. So, at the end of Chapter VII, Oliphant introduces Conflict 2, story type: A Stranger Comes to Town. The stranger is somehow threatening to the family of the woman the Curate wants to marry, yet for some reason the Curate is protecting him. Mystery upon mystery. Chapter VIII begins with the stranger:
He was the strangest lodger to be taken into a house of such perfect respectability, a house in Grange Lane; and it came to be currently reported in Carlingford after a time, when people knew more about it, that even the servants could not tell when or how he arrived, but had woke up one morning to find a pair of boots standing outside the closed door of the green room, which the good old lady kept for company, with sensations which it would be impossible to describe. (69)
So I’m wrong. We do not begin with the stranger, but with his boots.
Such a pair of boots they were too - muddy beyond expression, with old mud which had not been brushed off for days worn shapeless, and patched at the sides; the strangest contrast to a handsome pair of Mr Wentworth's, which he, contrary to his usual neat habits, had kicked off in his sitting-room, and which Sarah, the housemaid, had brought and set down on the landing, close by these mysterious and unaccountable articles.
Oliphant then takes us into the kitchen, to hear the stranger ring his bell. Then back to the boots, which are sent out to be mended. Then his “shabby clothes.” Then his underwear! I mean, his linen, which he borrows from the Curate. Next: his whistling (so beautiful that it astonishes a canary, “and the butcher's boy stole into the kitchen surreptitiously to try if he could learn the art”. Then, his whittling (“he filled his tidy room with parings and cuttings of wood”). Then a gift ("a needlecase") for the housemaid.
Oliphant is employing the same trick she used in the first chapter of the first Carlingford story: delay, delay, delay. The special treatment of the maid turns out to be important for the plot, and the “green room” is actually a clue to the stranger’s identity, a clue available only to the reader, not the characters.
We, with the hysterical Aunt Dora, actually meet the stranger a few pages later, or, really, his beard. The stranger has become all beard. Just one sentence: “It was a great comfort to her when the monster took off its cap, and when she perceived, by the undulations of the beard, something like a smile upon its hidden lips” (74).
The undulations of the beard. I’m reading Moby-Dick now, a book in which every single sentence includes some wonderfully spiky writerly thrill. This particular sentence – not necessarily representative! – would not be out of place in Melville.
The stranger and his beard wander about the novel, nameless, for another 150 pages.
Page references to the 1987 Virago edition.
Tuesday, August 10, 2010
Geez, I take a break and I can’t write a word. Wait, here I go.
Margaret Oliphant wrote most of her books in the middle of the night, after all of her children and deadweight relatives had gone to bed. And this was her income! With that kind of constraint, she was able to crank out a novel as good as The Perpetual Curate (1864), a novel AGAT* - it’s extraordinary. And here I am dithering over a dang blog post.
The young, virtuous Perpetual Curate of St. Roque’s church in Carlingford is too poor to marry. He comes from a wealthy family, but is, unfortunately, not only the fourth son, but the second clergyman, so the family living is unavailable. His three maiden aunts own another living, and everyone assumes that it will go to the nephew once the current elderly occupant expires. Except the Curate is a High Church Anglican, and the aunts are Low, and they are all principled, and stubborn.
One might pause here and note that, looked at in a certain way, the mid-19th century Anglican church appears to be hopelessly corrupt. For the Curate, however, this is simply a fact to be faced. He thinks he can’t marry Lucy on his current income, and the only path to a more money is a violation of his conscience. How much is love worth, not in pounds, but in principles? Should the Curate compromise with his aunts on religious matters in order to be able to marry? Our hero is not so sure himself. Nor was this reader.
This single conflict was sufficiently interesting for me, although it has to be expanded in various thematically relevant directions to fill out the book. Another clergyman, that older brother, decides to convert to Catholicism. Then another brother entangles the Curate in his dissolute life. Church politics, town gossip, death, gardening – what else could I want from a novel?
It’s an easy book to recommend to anyone with any patience for Victorian novels, its humor a nice balance of sly wit about human weakness and some real sweetness. The plot is genuinely clever in places - there are several fine reverses and small twists. It is, like Trollope, image-poor, but also, like Trollope, character-rich. It would make a good BBC telepic. Jeremy Northam would be perfect as the Curate, except he’s now too old. One of the aunts is, no, must be, Judi Dench. Those aunts are hilarious.
Rohan Maitzen, writing about a later Oliphant novel (Hester), said it left her “feeling that thematic or philosophical interpretations are somewhat beside the point.” I’m guessing that The Perpetual Curate is richer than Hester, but Rohan is correct. I want to write about The Perpetual Curate for the rest of the week, but I have not the slightest interest in or insight about Oliphant’s themes or meaning. I’m just going to write about craft. The craft is a thing to behold. This is a well-written novel .
A while ago, I expressed doubt that there could be eight Margaret Oliphant books worth reading. Now, having read two, the existence of six more seems not just plausible, but likely. But can any of them be as good as The Perpetual Curate?
* AGAT = As Good As Trollope.
Monday, August 2, 2010
Away for a week. Back Tuesday.
Which will give me four days for Margaret Oliphant's The Perpetual Curate (1864), hardly enough. One day overview, one day of Oliphant the Modernist, one day of Oliphant the Postmodernist - then just one day left. Quick summary: As Good As Trollope. Oliphant pulls off some surprising effects in this novel. One example - there's a character who hates the pattern of a carpet, and this turns out to be a legitimate and necessary part of the workings of the plot. A delight to see how Oliphant works this out.
Maybe after that, some of Ivan Turgenev's early fiction? Since they're so short, I can read a bundle of them.
Then it will be time for Herman Melville's Clarel, or pretty close. I'm reading his first book of poems now, Battle Pieces and Aspect of War, and am shocked - genuinely - to find them completely accessible, not at all obscure, or not particularly so. Some basic (or basic plus) knowledge of Civil War history is helpful, I suppose. Maybe I'm all wrong about Clarel. Maybe it will be a breeze. Ha ha ha!
I want to spend some time with some of Melville's contemporaries, too. Mark Twain, for one, but also some other poets. Emily Dickinson, maybe. An aged Emerson. Frederick Goddard Tuckerman? His poem "The Cricket" is, I am told, the greatest 19th century English poem. Take that, Jack Keats! That'll take a week right there to sort out that crazy talk.
Everyone please have a nice week and read some nice books.