Monday, February 28, 2011

H. G. Wells and writing about plot

I had not really planned to write more about H. G. Wells, and tomorrow I will move on to an even duller writer, but I thought of something I want to say about the plots of the Wells novels.

Plots are information delivery systems.  Wells has cooked up a mixture of ideas, images, set pieces, cool things, and, potentially, at least, characters.  He needs to arrange them in a sensible manner.  With The War of the Worlds, a number of steps are pretty well fixed by the choice of story.  The Martians arrive, spread, are resisted, defeat the resistance.  These two steps can be repeated as long as the writer thinks the reader can stand it, although the scale of the threat and the ingenuity of the resistance have to ratchet up each time.  Wells really only does this twice.  Two more steps: victory belongs to the Martians!  Or not!

But the problems have only multiplied.  How does Well describe each of these steps?  Does he tell the story as if he is floating in the air, going wherever he wants?  Is he a historian, retrospectively assembling imaginary sources?  How about an eyewitness account?  Wells chooses the latter, which allows a lot of immediacy and surprise, but creates new dilemmas.

The narrator is present at the point of invasion, and presumably survives long enough to write up his account – in fact, Wells tells us on the third page that the “storm burst upon us six years ago now,” so we know the narrator will give us a complete story.  No “and as I pen these last words, they come for me” and ominous final sentence fragment.

How likely is it that one person observes all of the steps of the story?  Not too likely, so Wells has to bend a bit.  In particular, Wells wants to see how the invasion looks from London, leading to the great “Exodus from London” chapter.  He switches to the narrator’s brother, or, really, the narrator switches to tell us what happened to his brother.  He also, as he sees fit, refers to newspapers and some “as we now know” information.  Wells also drops the narrator into one extraordinarily unlikely coincidence which gives him some privileged information, and explains why he, of all people, is writing this particular book.

Some features of the plot make Wells’s life easier.  Characters, fleeing the Martians, wander the countryside, allowing Wells to have his narrator meet anyone he wants.  The reader won’t mind the coincidence – any encounter is coincidence.

I could repeat the same exercise with the efficient The Island of Dr. Moreau.  In the two and a half pages of the first chapter, we have a shipwreck, the threat of cannibalism, and the delivery of one piece of mysterious information, “a disconnected impression of a dark face with extraordinary eyes close to mine.”  No island yet, and no doctor, but Wells lets us know how we’re going to get to them, and gives us just one little clue about what to expect when we get there.

Readers, bloggers, often claim to care a lot about plot, even to read for plot.  I never quite believe them, because they so rarely write about plot, meaning the decisions a writer makes about plotting, which decisions are better and worse, what the consequences are.  Book bloggers write about characters, mostly; book groups discuss characters.  The creation of plausible imaginary people who we can get to know in a uniquely intimate way is the greatest achievement of prose fiction, so this is as it should be.  Plots give those characters something to do. 

Except in, for example, science fiction novels by H. G. Wells, where the characters are simply useful cogs in the plot machine.  The three Wells books I have read all feature nearly identical narrators, dullish fellows.   Dull first-person narrators result in occasional dull passages.  Or do the dull passages result in dull narrators?   Perhaps, in the kind of wild stories Wells writes, a dull narrator is a necessity.  I mean, the dang Martians are invading!  What more do I want?

Friday, February 25, 2011

International Harvesters, a Chaplinized shuffle, irresponsible use of sucralose - reading Illinois, My Apologies

The fifteen poems in Illinois, My Apologies do not tell a story, not exactly, but they suggest one.  The speaker is from Illinois and has a bookish temperament.  His father, “a massive hulk \ of hardened laborer,” has a decidedly different personality.  The mother is gone – the father is now “The Electric Widower”:

In the weeks after
my mother passes on
the old man contracts
a scorching case
of the lonesome
electric jitters
and takes to pacing head floorward
feet all atwitter in
a Chaplinized shuffle

That’s probably my favorite image in a book that has plenty of good ones.

A new baby– no other kind, I suppose – makes an appearance, as does the poet's mother, or a mother, in the energized, roaring “The Autobiography, Nearly,” right at the end.  She has her own movement, she:

sometimes oracled
and danced the Quixote wild
or sucralosed without regard
for independent testing

As I look at that fragment, the joke about “independent testing” feels hilariously un-roaring, but that, of course, is the son talking.

Perhaps those are different fathers in different poems, someone else’s mother at the end.  On the page, they are characters, fictions, good ones, composed, since this is poetry, of almost nothing.  What do we know about the grandfather, an old farmer, in “The Last Year on the Farm”?  He has glasses,* he will eventually suffer from dementia, but in the poem we, with the poet, mostly watch him watch

     an ancient International Harvester
rusted beyond orange, a fragile,
     a fossil-like thing half-swallowed
by the unruly bluestem and Indian grass
     bearding the rough face of the prairie.

Hamm tells us more about the old combine than about the grandfather, but of course it is all about the grandfather.

How much am I allowed to quote in a proper review?  I never get this right.  Just one more.  Voice, this time, not character, the beginning of “Show Me Forlorn”:

Welcome to
the great state
of Missouri.

I haven’t listened to the Hamm’s own reading of the poem, but I think you really want to emphasize those line breaks.  “Welcome to” (depressed sigh) “the great state” (forlorn silence) etc.  International visitors to Wuthering Expectations might want to know that Missouri calls itself, irritatingly, The Show Me State – they’re a bunch of empiricists, unlike those gullible theorists in Illinois, why those rubes’ll believe anything you tell ‘em – and that Hamm, I fear, plagiarized all three lines from a highway sign.  The outstanding line breaks are his own.

Hamm begins his book with this kind of clipped line, sometimes just two or three words, and then relaxes the line as he progresses, lengthening it, packing in more words, slimming down again at the end.  Illinois, My Apologies has a thick midsection, just like the state.

Eh, reviews.  I just like messing around with the bits I like.  Illinois, My Apologies has a lot of those bits.

That’s a crummy blurb.  Justin, if you sees a better one here, if I wrote one by accident, let me know.  The part where I accuse you of plagiarism would make a good anti-blurb, a kind of punk poet gesture.  Probably not what you’re going for.  Be sure to let me know about the next book.

* Uh, glasses, right, Justin? Where is grandpa sitting?

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Weeping sheep and the consolations of philosophy - an introduction to the poetry of Justin Hamm, reformed classics blogger

from Illinois, My Apologies

At thirteen fourteen and fifteen
I was an alien among
the Rockwellian agricreatures
of my home galaxy

I’m turning from Martian invaders to Martian poetry, the American Midwestern version.  Those lines begin Justin Hamm’s poem “Illinois, My Apologies,” and his new book of the same title.  “Rockwellian agricreatures” gives a pretty good sense of Hamm’s strengths.  Tableflat, tarbrained, flannelclad, sheepshapes, fleshyfat, holyspeak – chewy words with a solid mouthfeel.

Once upon a time, perhaps as long as three years ago, Hamm had a book blog called What Do I Know, a so-called classics blog.  In real life he, like Tony Curtis in Spartacus, “taught the classics to the children.”  At some point he mentioned that he had a poem in something called Renaissance Magazine, which was fortunately on the newstand at Borders.  The feature article was all about Renaissaince Faire wedding dresses, oh, so hideous, so hideous, but the poem was – well, it was a real poem.  “To the Venerable Bede,” it was called.  Hamm posted or linked to another couple of poems, and after reading them I thought to myself, this book blog sure as heck won’t be around much longer.  This fellas got bigger fish to fry.

from At Sixteen

but the black sheep
reads Boethius to the spiders
by flashlight
beneath the stairs
weeps for everything
worth weeping for

If you detect a note of adolescent self-pity, that’s the subject of the poem, a subject of the book, even.  I do believe Hamm is mostly sincere about the title of his book.

Illinois, My Apologies is Hamm's first book, a fifteen poem chapbook tied up with string that binds in a poster and a CD of Hamm reading his work.  The poet, who I only know as a blogger, asked me if I wanted a review copy.  A prig about free books, I said, no, of course not, how dare you, and bought my own.  The madmen* who operate Rocksaw Press will send you a copy, too, for $12.

from Goodbye, Sancho Panza

I meet
a Slim Jim munching
Sancho Panza
goateed now
all leathered out
and in close contact
with his inner beast

Now that’s a good hook, and the rest of the poem lives up to the promise.  I suppose I should try to give the book something like a proper review.  Not my strength, but tomorrow, I’ll try.  What’s a good reviewer's cliché – a promising debut!  Quite a bit better than that, really.

* “Madmen,” defn.: anyone who runs a small poetry press, God love ‘em.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

this dear vast dead city of mine - smashed cities

I’m reading H. G. Wells because of Gustave Flaubert.  Salammbô ends with the siege and near-destruction of Carthage.  Any number of details evoked the horrific 1870 Siege of Paris, but since Flaubert’s novel was published in 1862 that event was probably not a source for the book.  Probably.  The siege of Sevastopol, though, during the Crimean War, now that’s a possibility.  Don’t miss young officer Tolstoy’s Sevastopol Sketches (1855-6).

So I began casting about for other fiction about the destruction of cities.  Thus, London-as-toxic-waste site in After London (1885).  Or, London eroded by the passage of eons in The Time Machine (1895).  Or, London pulverized by Martians a few years later.  I’m pretty sure Wells levels London at least once more, in The World Set Free / The Last War (1914), this time with atomic weapons – or so I guess, since I have just glanced through it at the library.

Then there’s a related path, books leading to more books, exploring exotic North African cities and satirical Utopias, but set that aside.  What smashed up 19th century cities am I forgetting?  Great fires, perhaps?  Plagues?  We are so used to our cities and monuments being demolished by cinematic aliens and tidal waves and so on now.  Ho hum.  I'm trying to recapture the excitement.

Parts of 19th century London, the poorer, cholera-ridden sections, may not have literally been poisonous swamps, but the metaphor was close enough.  As economic specialization spread, as wealth concentrated in cities, and as the urban populations exploded, I am guessing that European writers began to see how cities were not just the centers of civilization, but in some ways the weakest parts.  No cities, no civilization – I know, an etymological tautology, but I wonder if disasters like the bombardments of Paris and Sevastopol made the fragility of cities more obvious.

London actually comes off fairly well in The War of the Worlds.  It’s the suburb of Woking that really gets the business, although they seem to have forgiven their enemies (do click, oh, do).  Wells does not destroy London, but instead indulges in the “empty city” fantasy, allowing the hero to wander through an abandoned metropolis.  I saw part of a recent Will Smith movie that did the same thing.  The idea stretches back to Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year (1722), at least.  Leafing through the book, looking at chapter II.8., “Dead London,” I see that the scene where the narrator explores a silent, empty London is only a couple of pages long.  Too bad – it’s good, but Wells has a story to wind up.  And ending in London allows this:

The dome of St. Paul's was dark against the sunrise, and injured, I saw for the first time, by a huge gaping cavity on its western side.

And as I looked at this wide expanse of houses and factories and churches, silent and abandoned; as I thought of the multitudinous hopes and efforts, the innumerable hosts of lives that had gone to build this human reef, and of the swift and ruthless destruction that had hung over it all; when I realised that the shadow had been rolled back, and that men might still live in the streets, and this dear vast dead city of mine be once more alive and powerful, I felt a wave of emotion that was near akin to tears.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

removed his boot, shook out a pebble, and hobbled on again - England Invaded! Thousands Flee London!

More chronicling of what I didn’t know.  The War of the Worlds (1898) was not near the beginning of a genre, but merely earlyish, if the genre is not science fiction but English invasion literature, which was launched in 1871 by George Chesney, author of The Battle of Dorking.  Germans invade England; England resists; England triumphs - no, England is conquered!  I haven’t read it.  Sampling a page or two, it looks like a curiosity, literary wargaming.

Chesney is obviously responding directly to the Franco-Prussian War and the horrors of the Siege of Paris, fresh in the mind, or the newspapers, at the time.  Replacing the German or French army with Martians is not exactly a minor adaptation – the hundreds of subsequent stories of alien invasion could exist in ignorance of The Battle of Dorking, but not of Wells.  Sparkling Squirrel reminds me that one of the best, John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids (1951), actually features invaders who are clever blends of the original Martians and the invasive weed they bring with them.

The strange experience, reading The War of the Worlds, was the feeling that I was reading a novel about World War I.  I’m thinking not so much of the poison gas attacks, although there are those, but of the extraordinary chapter I.16, “The Exodus from London,” which is almost generic, in the sense that it in no way requires invading Martians.  London will soon be attacked; an unprepared populace flees; the result is chaos and disaster.  I wonder if, sixteen or seventeen years later, Belgians fleeing Brussels, or refugees from any number of other cities in Europe, felt any déjà vu, if they thought “I’m living through that scene in War of the Worlds!”

They began to meet more people.  For the most part these were staring before them, murmuring indistinct questions, jaded, haggard, unclean.  One man in evening dress passed them on foot, his eyes on the ground.  They heard his voice, and, looking back at him, saw one hand clutched in his hair and the other beating invisible things.  His paroxysm of rage over, he went on his way without once looking back.

That’s pretty good.

A little old man, with a grey military moustache and a filthy black frock coat, limped out and sat down beside the trap, removed his boot - his sock was blood-stained - shook out a pebble, and hobbled on again; and then a little girl of eight or nine, all alone, threw herself under the hedge close by my brother, weeping.

Also pretty good.  I guess we are used to scenes like this now, from movies, movies about wars and perhaps even alien invasions.  And for all too many people, all over the world today, from experience.  My imagination fails.  Thus the usefulness of fiction, of H. G. Wells.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Its cactus-like branches formed a carmine fringe - invasive species and Victorian ecosystem fiction

The Old Book Conundrum:  I make startling discoveries that are already well known to anyone who cares about the subject.  I plant my flag on the peak, not noticing the other flags, and the little book in the tin box which has been signed by thousands of other climbers, and the little café that sells hot cocoa and strudel.

Everyone already knew, yes, that in early English science fiction much of the “science” under discussion was Darwinism?  I had no idea.  I guess I thought it was all about machines.  The inventor in The Time Machine (1895) invents a time machine.  The invading Martians in The War of the Worlds (1898) crush humanity with their ray guns and space dreadnoughts and ansibles and whatnot.  Perhaps Jules Verne really is a bit more about machines?  Like I know from Jules Verne.

The time machine of The Time Machine is not related to science in any way – it’s pure fantasy.  Necessary, though, because H. G. Wells correctly understood the time scale of Darwinism.  If he wanted big evolutionary changes, he needed millions of years.  Thus, a veneer of time travel was draped over a story about advantageous evolutionary traits and natural selection.  Thus, the strange decision of the time traveler to constantly push forward – I hardly see how, for the sake of the story, Wells needed the final vision of the entropic death of the Earth.  But that scene, stripped of human content, is the thematic climax of the novel, and the best thing in the book.

Richard Jefferies explored new Darwinian ideas in After London, or Wild England (1885) by eliminating the machines altogether, regressing to medieval technology.  He was working on the idea of the ecosystem, although he did not yet have that word.  His novel was, in part, a mental experiment:  remove human pressure on the environment, and see what happens to fields, forests, rivers, wildlife, and, not least importantly, humans.  I’m sure a modern biologist would find it all too simple, but I was able to detect Jefferies’s excitement about the idea that it all fits together.  Or perhaps the new idea was that the system is dynamic, but coherent and understandable.

Wells was studying the ecosystem, too, in The War of the Worlds, this time by introducing invasive species.  I knew about the highly evolved Martians, of course, but not about the other invasive species:

[T]he seeds which the Martians (intentionally or accidentally) brought with them gave rise in all cases to red-coloured growths.  Only that known popularly as the red weed, however, gained any footing in competition with terrestrial forms…  It spread up the sides of the pit by the third or fourth day of our imprisonment, and its cactus-like branches formed a carmine fringe to the edges of our triangular window.  And afterwards I found it broadcast throughout the country, and especially wherever there was a stream of water.  (II.2.)

The red weed spreads throughout the novel, until it, too, succumbs to the clever ecological trick ending, when the terrestrial ecosystem strikes back.

I have not read any other Wells.  I would guess that The Island of Doctor Moreau (1896) has more of this, while The Invisible Man (1897) does not, although I am probably wrong.  The novel about bicycles is presumably really about bicycles, maybe?

A day or two more, I guess, poking at the hideous corpses of the Martians.

Friday, February 18, 2011

bibliographing's contribution to Melville scholarship - dusting the old lexicons and grammars - Long live responsible bloggers!

Punchline first: nicole, at bibliographing, has made an original contribution to Melville scholarship.  In a dang old blog post!  Well done, nicole!

Leading her triumphant readalong of Herman Melville’s epic poem of doubt and despair, the 1876 Clarel, nicole wrote a little piece showing the precise link between a bit of the poem and Nathaniel Hawthorne’s sketch “Foot-prints on the Sea-shore.”  A character in Clarel can be identified with Hawthorne in various ways, and this sort of connection is how the critic knows he’s not just blowing biographical smoke.

She had read the sketch a year earlier in the Library of America anthology American Sea Writing.  I had coincidentally read it a few months earlier during my long slog through Hawthorne, and in some sense I had read it twice, since the sketch is a heavily polished entry from The American Notebooks. Let me copy the key line from the published sketch:

There lies my shadow in the departing sunshine with its head upon the sea.  I will pelt it with pebbles.  A hit!  A hit!

Melville lifts the action directly into his poem.  Even the sea theme is intact – if the episode is where I think it is, the pilgrims are leaving the Dead Sea, and perhaps even just returning to sea level.

It’s a marvelous conceit of Hawthorne’s, a nice little revelation of character through action, with a little bit of extra symbolic zip.  Reading Melville triggered nothing at all, I'm afraid, but when nicole wrote about it, I certainly remembered the scene.

Just a few days ago Hershel Parker came across nicole’s piece.  Parker is something like the world’s greatest Melville scholar, author of the recent two-volume biography of Melville, and one of the editors of the exemplary Northwestern-Newberry edition of Melville’s complete works.  He discovered, in nicole’s post, a solution to a problem.  I should allow Parker to speak for himself, over in the post’s comments.  All of this is going into the book Parker is working on, cited “in the neatest most professional way.”  I don’t prof-bash at Wuthering Expectations, but I can enjoy Parker’s own lament:  “The academic failure to think!” 

The bulk, I would guess, of literary scholarship is the result of conscientious thoroughness, and some small but essential part requires real brilliance, but how much insight comes from these sorts of stumbled-upon discoveries?  A lot, I think, quite a lot.  And they are not really accidental – the base of careful and wide reading is crucial, and so is the writing, the so-called blogging.  Nicole, would you have remembered the passage in Hawthorne’s story if you had not written about it?  Speaking for myself, the writing is enormously helpful.

I don’t know if this is a good analogy, but I often compare my own progress with literature to the knowledge of some of the bird-watchers, amateur naturalists, I have met (like this guy), people who have acquired an extraordinary amount of knowledge about their subject, knowledge they really do need to do something as seemingly simple as watch birds.  Anyone can say “Hey, that red one is kind of pretty,” but surely it is even more rewarding to understand that the red one is on the Endangered Species List and was last seen in your state in 1975.  It takes real work for a birder to get to that point.  I feel like I am slowly working that way, with what purpose I do not know.  I’ll find out when I get there.

Parker supposes that discoveries like nicole’s “will happen more and more often, and everyone will be grateful, I trust...  Long live responsible bloggers!”

Great work, nicole!  Those of you who made excuses, who did not read Clarel, you won't make that mistake next time, will you?  Those grammars (I am of course paraphrasing the famous second line of Moby-Dick) won't dust themselves.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Sergei Aksakov goes fishing, and goes to school

I wanted to continue pulverizing London, but I have a library book due, and that takes priority.  It’s a spiritual cousin of After London, actually, another book that seems to be about one thing but is also about a real love of nature.

Sergei Aksakov’s A Russian Schoolboy (1856) is the last of his trilogy of memoirs about his family and childhood.  I thought it was the least of the three, the one I am least likely to reread.  Still, anyone serious about Russian literature should read them all.

Aksakov has an odd place in Russian literature.  He was born eight years before Alexander Pushkin, so he was of the first great generation of Russian authors – Pushkin, Lermontov, and Gogol.  By the time he published anything, though, these writers were all dead, and the hot new thing was a young Leo Tolstoy.  Or second hottest, since, for three years or so, until his death in 1859, Sergei Aksakov was the Greatest Living Russian Writer.

His memoirs reach back even farther, to the 18th century, and to pre-Napoleonic Russia.  It feels oddly like a Russia before Russian literature – the students’ great literary arguments are over writers like Karamzin and Derzhavin.  Even the non-Russian writers feel strange – young Sergei becomes obsessed with the theater, and sees or acts in plays by the hugely popular Kotzebue, or the Lovers’ Vows of Elizabeth Inchbald, immortalized a few years later by Mansfield Park.  It’s all wonderfully exotic, or askew, a glimpse of a lost culture.

Although A Russian Schoolboy is primarily about his life at boarding school, Sergei’s greatest pleasures are outdoors - fishing, hunting, hawking, lepidoptery - and much of the finest writing in the book is in the chapter “A Year in the Country,” a reprieve from school caused by Sergei’s neurotically Proustian relationship with his mother.  He fishes, and fishes some more:

Meanwhile the building operations made it necessary to let the water out of the pond; and such fishing followed as was never known wither before or since.  All the fish in the pond made for the river which fed it, and the fish were as thick as they are in a tureen of good fish-soup…  Chub, carp, perch, pike, and large roach (three or four pounds’ weight) took constantly and at all hours…  My father liked especially to catch perch and pike, and I remember that he sometimes tied two hooks on one line and used small fish as bait; and often had two perch on at once, and once a perch and a pike. (73)

That’s part of one page.  There’s a lot of fishing.

It’s a nice little book.  A Russian Gentleman, about Aksakov’s grandfather and other relatives, is an even stranger look at an even more distant world, the last gasp of Russian feudalismA Russian Childhood counters Aksakov’s pleasant but strange childhood with an insightful portrait of his parents’ complicated marriage.  A Russian Schoolboy is more or less what its title suggests, a simpler book.  Come to think of it, I had the same reaction to Tolstoy’s contemporary Childhood, Boyhood, Youth – the child’s story is fresh and charming, the adolescent’s awkward and off-putting.  Such is life.

Translation by J. D. Duff in 1924.  I read the 1983 Oxford World’s Classics edition.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

They regretted when they emerged from the trees - a Richard Jefferies forest fantasy

Five years before Richard Jefferies published After London, or Wild England, John Ruskin had published his own fantasy of poisonous London, in the form of an essay about how novels are bad for us. The primrose, daisies, and purple thistles of his youth have been destroyed by encroaching London, and replaced by garbage, sewage, and, most noxious of all, printed matter.  I invite my readers to reacquaint themselves with this little masterpiece: “festering and flaunting out their last publicity in the pits of stinking dust and mortal slime.”  Ruskin may well be the finest writer of English prose of his century.

Jefferies, too, wants to recover those thistles.  The heart of his novel is in the subtitle.  Jefferies is going to regrow, or at least conjure up, Wild England.

The old men say their fathers told them that soon after the fields were left to themselves a change began to be visible.  It became green everywhere in the first spring, after London ended, so that all the country looked alike.

That is actually the first two lines, the first paragraph, of the novel.  First lines can be made to do a lot.  The next three pages or so are about plants, nothing but plants.  The couch grass invades the arable fields.  The wheat soon shares space with “quantities of docks, thistles, oxeye daisies, and similar plant.  Charlock, too… sorrel, wild carrots, and nettles…”  Nettles and wild parsnips “spread out into the fields from the ditches and choked [the grain crops].”

Brambles, aquatic grass, hawthorn bushes, sapling ashes, horse-chestnuts.  The brambles protect the saplings until they become the new forest.  Ditches fill, streams and rivers recover their freedom, marshes spread.  “By the thirtieth year there was not one single open place, the hills only excepted, where a man could walk, unless he followed the tracks of wild creatures or cut himself a path.”

Jefferies begins his novel with the creation of a forest, in detail, based on his own observations and botanizing.  It’s a bit like Henry David Thoreau’s essay “The Dispersion of Forest Seeds,” but lightly fictionalized.  Jefferies is trying to rebuild the entire ecosystem.  The abundance of unharvested wheat creates an explosion in the mouse population.  Domestic animals adapt to the forest, as do men.

The sylvan fantasy reaches a peak early in the more novel-like part of the novel, when the protagonist and his brother spend a couple of chapters (6 and 7) riding through the forest.  The hero is happy, as is, I suspect, the author – “it was still fresh and sweet among the trees.”  Cuckoos, thorn bushes, wood-pigeons, “furze now bright with golden blossom.”

There were several glades, from one of which they startled a few deer, whose tails only were seen as they bounded into the underwood, but after the glades came the beeches again. Beeches always form the most beautiful forest, beeches and oak; and though nearing the end of their journey, they regretted when they emerged from the trees and saw the castle before them.

The novel’s arguments do not suggest that Jefferies wanted to exchange English civilization for the long-depleted English forest.  But he missed that forest, and did something about it.  His novel is still a way to visit it.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

All the rottenness of a thousand years - Richard Jefferies's surprisingly humanist eco-apocalypse

The world of After London, or Wild England is essentially medieval - feudal barons, catapults, serfs, that sort of thing.  Steel-making has been lost, and the Christian Church is oddly stunted.  Antigone is performed at a party, so Sophocles has survived, unlike later English works, which were too long to bother copying out in manuscript – “so many of them were but enlargements of ideas or sentiments which had been expressed in a few words by the classics” (Ch X).  Ha!  Take that, English literature!

By 1885, when the Richard Jefferies's novel was published, the use of the Middle Ages in social criticism was well-established.  In Past and Present (1842), Thomas Carlyle argued for a particular English monastery run by a particular hero-monk as the ideal model for the organization and governance of modern society.  If Carlyle, a devilishly tricky ironist, did not actually advocate a return to the Catholic monastery, he was entirely serious about the value of the model – substitute, perhaps, “factory town” for “monastery” and “industrialist” for “abbot.”  John Ruskin, William Morris, and many more writers developed their own medieval critiques of modern society.

I had assumed that Richard Jefferies, a proto-environmentalist, was working in that tradition, and he is, in the sense that he is working against it.  Life in the New Middle Ages is, it turns out, horrible.  The novel is a demonstration of the power of the ideas of Thomas Hobbes.  Strong men rule their tiny domains, warfare is continual, life is short, ideas and beauty are valued only to the extent that they reinforce power.

The story takes these ides in some fruitful directions, and I won’t pursue them.  Felix, the non-Carlylean hero, embodies a different spirit, a hopeful one.  He values knowledge, he experiments, he explores the giant lake.  The conceit of the fictional book, the manuscript we are reading, is that his work was valuable, worth transmission.  Perhaps a New High Middle Ages is possible.

Jefferies was obviously not comfortable with his own world, since he destroyed London in a sewage explosion, for pity’s sake.

They say the sun is sometimes hidden by the vapour when it is thickest, but I do not see how they can tell this, since they could not enter the cloud, as to breathe it when collected by the wind is immediately fatal.  For all the rottenness of a thousand years and of many hundred millions of human beings is there festering under the stagnant water, which has sunk down into and penetrated the earth, and floated up to the surface the contents of the buried cloacae. (Ch. V)

So modern England is appalling, but neo-medieval England is awful in its own way.  What does Jefferies actually want, what is the fantasy at the heart of the novel?  The spectacular London apocalypse is so interesting that I have ignored the novel’s subtitle.  Tomorrow, Wild England – the best part of the book.

Monday, February 14, 2011

London is a posionous swamp - the wishful thinking of After London

After London, or Wild England, by Richard Jefferies, 1885.  The premise has two connected pieces.

First, a comet, or some other meaningless device, caused massive environmental changes to England, and presumably the rest of the world.  Most dramatically, central England is now covered by a huge freshwater lake.  The catastrophe destroyed civilization, which has returned, in terms of technology, population, and social organization, to the early Middle Ages.

Second, the accumulated filth of London so overwhelmed its infrastructure that the city literally exploded, becoming a toxic swamp, death to any living creature who enters it.

The novel has an odd structure.  The first fifty pages are a description of this new world by some sort of scholar who compares the current day to what little is known of the past.  Chapters are titled “The Lake” and “Wild Animals,” things like that.  Wildlife, political structures, geography.  There follows the story of Felix Aquila, a restless young man from the impoverished nobility who, it turns out, will become the first person to seriously explore The Lake.  The scholar seems to be telling this story as well, although it is, mostly, written like a third person novel, from the limited point of view of Felix.

When the “story” part of the novel began, I knew nothing about it, or, really, just one thing – if Felix did not somehow make it into, and, I guess, out of, that nightmarish, poisonous London, then the novel would be a complete failure.  But of course, he does, and it is not.  I’m just saying, to dangle that in front of the reader and not use it!

Although the genre had not been invented yet, we are clearly at the beginnings of the post-apocalyptic science fiction novel.  I kept picking up little flashes of later examples, other novels set in a ravaged England, some of which I certainly do not remember in any detail.  J. G. Ballard’s The Drowned World (1962) also puts London, and most of England, underwater.  Brian Aldiss’s Greybeard (1964) features a similarly empty England, as does a novel I almost dread mentioning, because it is so much more accomplished than any of these: Russell Hoban’s ingenious Riddley Walker (1980). Please see Fred’s Place for a taste of Riddley Walker.

I first heard of After London in another clever book, In Ruins (2003), by architectural historian Christopher Woodward, a cultural history of ruins that deftly blends literature, art, and architecture.  One chapter, as I remember it, is devoted to fantastic ruins, imaginary ruins, and one key example is After London.  Woodward describes Jefferies, a great nature lover, trapped by his poverty in a London slum, so desperate in his hatred of the city that he repeatedly destroys it in one fictional cataclysm after another.  The Oxford World’s Classics edition of Jeffereis that I have includes one of the alternatives, in which a blizzard is so severe and lasts so long that it literally demolishes English civilization in a mere six pages.

Not bad.  But the symbolic potential of the industrial sewage swamp is much richer.  A day or two more with After London, and then maybe we’ll destroy the city a different way.

Friday, February 11, 2011

but – oh man – what I have read

The Nobel Prize

The Nobel Prize for Reading
should be awarded to me
I am the ideal reader,
I read everything I get my hands on:

[And then follows a list of everything this fellow reads, the usual stuff, although he avoids the cliché of the cereal box]

I need to interrupt for a moment.  I’d been planning to spend the week writing about, oh, other things.  Sailing on a big lake.  Building siege machines.  Riding through the woods.  Breathing poisonous fumes.  That will have to wait until next week.  Instead, I wrote about writing, about how to write, and, really, about reading.

We all – I beg you to correct me if I’m wrong – we all want to write well and read well.  I sometimes pick up hints that suggest otherwise, but I must misunderstand them.

for a person like me
the word is something holy

members of the jury
what would I gain by lying
as a reader, I’m relentless

These lines are from an anti-poem by Chilean anti-poet Nicanor Parra, found in the anti-collection Antipoems: How to look better & feel great (New Directions, 2004), anti-translated by Liz Werner.  Please do not confuse this book, as is only natural, and as I did myself, with Parra’s Poemas y Antipoemas (1954).

The "anti-" of the anti-poem is not meant to suggest the word "against" as much as to create an analogy with anti-matter (Parra is a physicist and mathematician).  If the poem ever meets the anti-poem, they will both be annihilated.

Reading the anti-poem is perhaps a mistake.  I should anti-read it, and then anti-write about it on my anti-blog.  Perhaps I should abandon reading entirely in favor of anti-reading.  I have enough trouble reading well, though. I fear it is too late to master the skill of anti-reading, much less anti-writing.  If only I had taken up anti-reading years ago, decades ago.

The great reader in the poem understands:

of course these days I don’t read much
I simply don’t have the time
but – oh man – what I have read

that’s why I’m asking you to give me
the Nobel Prize for reading
as soon as impossible

Do not hesitate to visit Parra’s anti-website.  Readers of Robert Bolaño not well-versed in South American anti-verse, readers of Nazi Literature in the Americas and The Savage Detectives, will find a glance at Parra to be most instructive.

I suppose, for lack of a better idea, lack of imagination, I will continue reading, relentlessly.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

The really exciting part - or, too many machinery metaphors

There are three points of view from which a writer can be considered: he may be considered as a storyteller, as a teacher, and as an enchanter. A major writer combines these three – storyteller, teacher, and enchanter – but it is the enchanter in him that predominates and makes him a major writer. (Vladimir Nabokov, “Good Readers and Good Writers,” Lectures on Literature, 1980, p. 5)

When I suggest, or directly state, that I do not care about plot, I am lying.*  I love good plots; I love good stories.  Who doesn’t?  Story is central to fiction, and in an important sense to all writing.  An argument is a story – “John Galt is worth reading, and here’s why.”  Maybe that's not a good story.  Readers, creative devils, fill in or make up stories when the one in front of them is insufficient.

Why so little attention, then, to story, or to plot, the mechanism that drags the story along?  My metaphor reveals my prejudices – even in many of the greatest novels, I can hear the clanking cogs and perhaps even see the novelist turning the crank.  Now, of course, novels run on electricity, and are quieter, but the internal contraption is similar.

In a review of Henning Mankell’s first Wallander mystery, Rohan Maitzen is able to compress her description of the mechanism of the novel into a single word, “procedural.”  The functioning of the procedural machine is so well understood that nothing else is necessary.  Maitzen can then concern herself with the interesting parts of the novel – atmosphere, the lead character, the light dusting of politics.

When I spent some concentrated time on mysteries a couple of years ago, I ended a week of posts by noting that six recent mysteries by six different writers, whatever their surface dissimilarities, all followed identical plot paths – the same dang thing over and over again, I called it.  One of the authors, Steve Hockensmith, actually read the posts and wrote an entirely reasonable piece about the ways he creates variety – tone, setting, theme.  But not form!  I concede that the mystery writer who makes too many custom modifications to the well-functioning machinery is probably no longer writing mysteries, but that hardly makes the standard plot interesting, by which I mean, worth writing much about.

I’ve picked on standard mysteries only because the genre is so well-understood, but the fact is that most fiction is not so different.  The stories told are old ones, the machinery built from standard blueprints, which hardly means I do not want to hear the stories again, any more than I dismiss a piece of music written in sonata form – oh, that old thing!  No, the old forms are capacious.  They seem capable of containing anything.  But then I want to spend my time playing with the unusual contents, not the container.

[A] great writer is always a great enchanter, and it is here that we come to the really exciting part when we try to grasp the individual magic of his genius and to study the style, the imagery, the pattern of his novels and poems.

The three facets of the great writer – magic, story, lesson – are prone to blend in one impression of unified and unique radiance, since the magic of art may be present in the very bones of the story, in the very marrow of thought. (5-6)

Nabokov concludes the talk, a sentence or two later, with his insistence that we read “the book of genius not with his heart [story], not so much with his brain [meaning], but with his spine.”  “[T]he book of genius” is a necessary qualifier.  The spine, one might note, is directly connected to the brain, and not so distant from the heart.  I fear I am too dismissive of story, and I know I’m too cavalier about meaning, but this is why – I’m excited by the really exciting part.

* I always laugh when I see a negative review praised as “honest” – e.g., “Thanks for the honest review, you brave truth-teller.”  All of my reviews and posts are dishonest, whether negative, positive, or wishy washy.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

The necessary but onerous duty of summary

The phrase is pilfered, more or less, from 10 Rules for Criticism by D. G. Myers.  Please note that Prof. Myers does not specify what needs to be summarized, and also note Rule 10, which suggests something about the spirit of the list.

James Wood, in How Fiction Works (2008), includes chapters titled “Detail,” “Language,” “Character,” and so on, but none called, or at all about, “Plot” or “Story.”  Wood is, though, an eminently professional critic – he dutifully summarizes.  What does he summarize?  How does he do it?  Here he is introducing Robert McCloskey’s Make Way for Ducklings:

Mr. and Mrs. Mallard are trying out the Boston Public Garden for their new home, when a swan boat ([clarification on what a swan boat is]) passes them.  Mr. Mallard has never seen anything like this before. (How Fiction Works, 12)

A quotation from the McCloskey's book follows.  This strikes me as something close to ideal.  What the book is about in one clause, followed by an illustrative incident.  Wood follows the identical pattern on the next page, this time with What Maisie Knew by Henry James.  Wood claims to be a gleeful revealer of plot secrets, but he is fibbing.  He in fact reveals only what he plans to use, like any parsimonious writer.  It might well still be too much for a reader far over on the experience side of the continuum, but his touch is delicate.

I find it hard to understand how Wood’s plain plot summary is any more intrusive than something like this, another type of necessary summary:

The nameless narrator of Knut Hamsun’s Hunger is highly unreliable, and finally unknowable (it helps that he is insane)…  Italo Svevo’s Zeno Cosini may be the best example of truly unreliable narration.  He imagines that by telling us his life story he is psychoanalyzing himself (he has promised his analyst to do this).  But his self-comprehension, waved confidently before our eyes, is as comically perforated as a bullet-holed flag. (How Fiction Works, 6)

Wood has now given us specific instructions on how to read these two novels.  Good instructions, yes, but aimed directly at the core experience of reading the books.  The thrill of discovery in these novels lies exactly in figuring out what these lunatics are doing, why and how they’re telling us their stories.  The plots, the incidents, just give the narrators something to do.  The narrators could do a range of other things with similar results, although the first chapter of The Confessions of Zeno, the “last cigarette” chapter, is irreplaceable.  Hunger is particularly pure – it has a “theme and variations” plot, a repetition of a specific kind of rise and fall in tension.  I seem to have summarized it in three sentences in this antique post, which, oddly, also has movie recommendations, darn good ones.

Hunger and The Confessions of Zeno are Modernist novels, working on principles that directly question earlier methods of fiction.  Pre-Modernist novels also question earlier methods of fiction, often in similar ways, but let's just stay on the standard path here.  I read on Modernist principles (other principles, too), regardless of what I am reading, so I feel comfortable with these novels.  I have been trained by them (experience), and by critics like Wood (knowledge). 

The service Wood is providing as a critic is to provide a point of entry into these books for readers not used to their peculiarities.  Wood is not suppressing discovery, but allowing it, encouraging exploration.  Or so I hope.  In those last two sentences, please replace “Wood” with “I,” “is” with “am.”

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Virginia Woolf and Edmund Wilson - to summarize, or not?

Although I doubt it is visible, I write with models in mind, critics who read well, think well, and, most importantly, write well.  All errors in fact, style, opinion, and grammar are, unfortunately, mine, but I try.  Joseph Epstein, Guy Davenport, Virginia Woolf, William Pritchard, Ruth Franklin, Edmund Wilson, Christopher Benfey, Ingrid Rowland, James Wood (your list is presumably different - please, share).  I’m thinking about their work as magazine writers, although most of them have done other kinds of writing, too.  Reviews of novels or biographies, career surveys, topics of interest to readers.  “How Should One Read a Book?”  “The Pleasures of Reading.”

Virginia Woolf, in “The Novels of George Meredith” (1928) – I’m looking at The Second Common Reader (1932) – surveys, in a fundamentally Appreciationist style, the decaying reputation of the once-eminent novelist.  “This brilliant and uneasy figure has his place with the great eccentrics rather than the great masters,” but should you, common reader, read him?  Of course, of course.

The piece begins with a bit of life-and-fame, ends with a summary judgment, and in between visits three of Meredith’s many novels, The Ordeal of Richard Feverel, Henry Richmond, and The Egoist.  I have read the last one, hope to read the first, and have doubts about that middle one.  The entire essay is about 3,500 words, or close to what I would write if I did a weeklong, five-part survey of Meredith that covered three novels, life-and-fame, etc., etc., although I would not dare employ Woolf’s enormously long paragraphs.

What does Woolf think is in Meredith's novels?  Here’s how the description of Feverel begins:

The style is extremely uneven.  Now he twists himself into iron knots; now he lies flat as a pancake.  He seems to be of two minds as to his intention.  Ironic comment alternates with long-winded narrative.  He vacillates from one attitude to another.  Indeed, the whole fabric seems to rock a little insecurely.

The reader wondering what Meredith’s novel might be about is still wondering.  In the next lines Woolf mentions a baronet, an ancestral home, “great ladies flaunting and swimming; the jolly farmers slapping their thighs,” “whiskers and bonnets.”  Honestly, I have no idea what the novel is about.  Why should I read it? “[T]he vigour of its intellectual power and its lyrical intensity” – that’s it.  The other novels are treated similarly.  Meredith is discussed entirely in terms of 1) style (“flamboyancy”) and 2) purpose.

Edmund Wilson was the finest writer of plot summaries I have ever encountered.  His pioneering essay on Marcel Proust (in Axel’s Castle, 1931) includes a long summary of the entirety of In Search of Lost Time, ingeniously woven into the fabric of the essay along with interpretation and biography.  Wilson is not assuming that his readers know the plot, quite the opposite.  The essay is a work of advocacy – read Proust!  Read all of it!  The meaning of the novel is inseparable from what happens.

He does the same thing with a more straightforward review of a brand new novel, Lady Chatterley’s Lover (in The Shores of Light, 1952, pp. 403-407), although the summation only takes two paragraphs.  "We are left with the prospect of the lady and her lover [doing what they do at the conclusion of the book]" – Wilson takes us right though the end of the novel.  His purpose, again, is serious.  He has to convince readers that Lawrence’s novel, already infamous as a dirty book, is artistically and ethically serious.  The “about” of the novel is indispensable.

By contrast, in a pair of short reviews of Willa Cather novels, One of Ours and The Lost Lady (pp. 39-43), Wilson efficiently crams all of the plot he wants into one longish sentence per novel, all the support he needs for his brief discussion of the quality of Cather’s prose and her methods of characterization.

I worry, sometimes, that I am too neglectful of the onerous but necessary duty of summary, that my dutiful readers skim through four days of Salammbô or Barchester Towers with increasing bafflement.  Look, one is about a bunch of barbarians besieging an ancient city, and the other is about a turf battle among pampered clergymen – I don’t quite remember which is which, but that’s not my point.  The stories in both novels are pleasurable to read, but I’m not convinced that they are terribly interesting to read about, even draped with Wilson’s expert prose, while Trollope’s asides and Flaubert’s earrings give me something to chew on.  Every novel has a story.  Many novels have excellent stories.  Very few have Mrs. Proudie or crucified lions.

Monday, February 7, 2011

A Watched Plot Never Spoils, revisited

It has often been said that a watched plot never spoils.  Often said by me, at least, since that phrase, coined in 2008, remains my greatest contribution to Western civilization.  A Watched Plot Never Spoils, in two parts.  Overly attentive readers of Wuthering Expectations will not be so surprised when the dismissal of the very concept of spoileration turns into a defense of the value of first contact with a strong story.  The Appreciationist can see all sides.  Or, I am inconsistent and confused.

The Lifetime Reader, pondering away upon The Iliad, asks her readers for their opinions on Spoilerism, which it turns out, showed me something.  Now, the main reason I am writing this post at all is to rescue a good joke* from her comments, but I also have a point.  Please consider:

As is often the case in Debussy’s compositions, the 1894 tone poem Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune begins with a dissonant chord that (spoiler alert!) never resolves.

The Frank Lloyd Wright-designed entrance to The Rookery begins with a narrow, dark corridor which soon (spoiler alert!) opens up into a large, light-filled atrium.

Masaccio’s importance as an innovator rests on the skillful incorporation in his paintings of the new technique of (spoiler alert!) linear perspective.

Writing about music is like (spoiler alert!) dancing about architecture.

In Citizen Kane, the identity of “Rosebud” turns out to be (spoiler alert!) some depressingly idiotic sub-Freudian nonsense, barely worthy of the term “MacGuffin,” in an otherwise brilliantly-written film.

I find these hilarious, so please contribute more.

In each case, just as in a key point in a story, a moment of tension has been created.  What does happen to that chord?  The word “that” signals the continuation of the narrative.  The tension, presumably mild enough to begin with, lasts a moment and is then swept away by the simple act of finishing the sentence.  The tension created by a first encounter with the story of Abraham and Isaac is considerably greater, but it hardly lasts much longer.

One could resolve the tension in another way, though.  One could, and should, go to Chicago and visit The Rookery.  The visitor will discover how Wright created and resolved tension by experiencing the effect himself.  He does not have to read about it in a book, or, heaven help us, a blog post.  Similarly, he could watch Citizen Kane, listen to Debussy, perhaps with the assistance of some training in composition, and master the fundamental concepts of Renaissance art history solely through careful attention to the artworks of Masaccio and his contemporaries and predecessors.

I do not want to argue against the importance of experience.  I want to identify its cost, which I will call knowledge.  Once I begin to study an art, once I begin to treat it as a field of knowledge, I begin to replace my direct experience of art with others' experience of art.  Spoilage abounds.  The diehard Anti-Spoilerists put all of their weight on experience, at the expense of knowledge.  Knowledge is then acquired slowly, and without the benefit of the expertise of others.  But the cost of the active pursuit of knowledge is a dilution of the thrill of discovery, including but not limited to our experience of a well-told story.

I am convinced that the rewards of knowledge are ample, even enormous.  I could make a half-hearted argument that the shift from experience to knowledge is not only necessary but inevitable.  It would involve an odd juxtaposition – the desire for a pure experience is a component of innocence.

I don’t want to make that argument, though.  For one thing, I’m not sure how to do it without loaded, and I suspect inaccurate, words like “mature” and “serious.”  For another, just look at the books I write about – on the list of Most Interesting Features of Salammbô, the plot ranks somewhere between the binding and the typeface.  Talk about a moot point.

And, really, I dance around plot twists and surprises with what I hope is some degree of respect for unspoiled readers, even though I doubt I have any.  I bluster, but I’m actually a sweetheart.

But: another of my lines retrieved from Lifetime Reader’s comments – I'll start including spoiler warnings as soon as Virginia Woolf and Edmund Wilson do.  That one’s not a joke.  Separate post, some other time.

* The idea here actually belongs to Carolyn of A Few of My Favourite Books.  My innovation was to understand its comic potential, or to trivialize it.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Blessed be the god of bookshops! - the stupid Salammbô

This time, I can promise you, the flag of Art for Art’s sake will be boldly displayed!  Because this book proves nothing, it says nothing.  It is neither historical nor satirical nor comical.  On the other hand it may well be stupid.  (Flaubert to Edmond and Jules de Goncourt, July 3, 1860)*

One should be wary of relying too much on an author’s understanding of his own work, but when Flaubert is right, he’s right.  What does one do with such a stupid book as Salammbô?  I had to fight past the exoticism, the archaic vocabulary, the grotesqueries.  What else?  The absence of a stable point of view, the absurd central characters (although the psychology of the mobs and armies is actually quite insightful), the nonsense of the part of the plot not drawn from history.

I had a couple of points of entry.  First, as I worked my way into the imaginary world, I became genuinely interested in the historical plot:  the war, the battles, the generalship.  Flaubert’s battlefield scenes are clear, logical, easy to understand without a map, but also richly detailed, cinematic.  By that last word, I mean that the fundamentally visual Flaubert uses techniques analogous to jump cuts, panning shots, jittery handheld cameras, a mix of panoramic and soldier’s-eye views that I found dramatic and effective.  By that last word, I mean that I turned the pages with easy pleasure, which was not true everywhere in the novel.  Readers who hate battle scenes should avoid Salammbô.

The interest in the story became inseparable from the violence.  As the novel ends, the chapters achieve ever greater effects of horror.  As the pattern became clear, the tension grew.  What catastrophic nightmare will Flaubert come up with this time?  He can’t top (or, maybe, bottom) that, can he?  Oh no, he can – aaaahh!  The last third of the book is intense, in terms of forward motion, and cruelty.

So, the second point of entry.  I was reading Salammbô in the same way I read Les Chants de Maldoror or Mademoiselle du Maupin, other bizarrely imaginative, ethically dubious books.  The gorgeous sexual fantasia of Maupin is, at least, in no way cruel, but Maldoror is at least as bad as Salammbô.  Because Maldoror is more like a prose poem (read: incoherent), it is easier to read on an episodic, imagistic basis.  Salammbô, in the disguise of a historical novel, fooled me, for a time, into thinking it had something else to say.  Perhaps it does.  But perhaps even its nihilism is meaningless.  It proves nothing, says nothing.  Perhaps Madame Bovary and A Sentimental Education and the poignant A Simple Heart, Flaubert’s “realistic” books, are written along the exact same principles.  I am not prepared to actually argue that point – it is, rather, a formless fear.

Flaubert and Saint-Beuve had a curious public exchange about the merits of Salammbô.  Defending, the novel Flaubert admits to six defects, some hilariously trivial (“5. The Aqueduct”), but one truly keen:  “1. The pedestal is too big for the statue.”**  The pedestal is the history, the architecture, the jewelry, the zaïmph, the strange words and siege machines and sacrifices to Moloch.  The statue is what would normally be considered the novel – plot, meaning, and characters, particularly the heroine, Salammbô – “there ought to have been another hundred pages exclusively about Salammbô.”  Moloch preserve us from that!  Salammbô is one of the most finely-crafted pedestals in the history of the novel.

No matter; that book was written for a very small number of readers and it happens that the public has taken to it.  Blessed be the god of bookshops!†

Not For Everyone.  By no means.

* Selected Letters, tr. Geoffrey Wall, Penguin Classics, 1997, p. 282.

** Reply to Saint-Beuve, December 23-4, 1862, p. 297.

† To Laure Maupassant, December 8, 1962, p. 288. Laure is Guy de Maupassant’s mother; Guy is twelve at this point.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Like a drop of water on a red-hot plate - the violent Salammbô

Salammbô is the most violent 19th century novel I have ever read, or read about.  Other candidates for this honor are welcome.

The trees behind them were still smoking; half-burned carcasses of apes dropped from their blackened boughs from time to time into the midst of the dishes.  Drunken soldiers snored open-mouthed by the side of the corpses, and those who were not asleep lowered their heads, dazzled by the light of day.  The trampled soil was hidden beneath splashes of red.  The elephants poised their bleeding trunks between the stakes of the pen. (end of Ch. I)

“Poised” sounds odd – the French is “balançaient.”  Regardless, this is just the end of the first chapter, in which a splendid feast for the Mercenaries erupts into typically horrific violence.  The scene is set, violence explodes, calm returns – Flaubert uses this pattern in many chapters.  The violence and destruction accelerate, flesh is rended, tortures are inflicted, corpses are heaped.

I’m using this odd passive voice because the point of view in the most violent scenes is rarely that of an individual but of a group (sound familiar, Emily?), the citizens of Carthage or the riders of the war elephants or the left flank of the Mercenary army.  The subject is often “they”:  “Sometimes they [marching Carthaginian soldiers] would see what looked like the eyes of a tiger-cat gleaming in a bush by the side of the road” (Ch. IX).  But the point of view flits around wildly, as is typical with Flaubert.

Walter Scott set the standard for fictional battles in Waverley (1814) – fix on a single character and follow him across the historical battlefield.  The author might have to stretch a detail or two to make sure his character sees everything the author wants the reader to see.  One can think of Fabrice at Waterloo in The Charterhouse of Parma or any number of scenes in War and Peace for more sophisticated examples.  Flaubert ignores all of this.  He would have been an outstanding writer of military history, except then he would not have been able to dwell on what he really cared about: blood, suffering, wounds, death.  Chapter XII begins “Twelve hours afterwards all that remained of the Mercenaries was a heap of wounded, dead, and dying,” and then Flaubert really gets going.  “The foot trod on” – no, let’s just move on.

The novel ends with a series of three climaxes, each more violent than the next.  Carthage has to destroy itself to save itself, that’s the theme of Chapter XIII, “Moloch,” an orgy of child sacrifice, Carthage throwing its own sons into the flames:

The victims, when scarcely at the edge of the opening, disappeared like a drop of water on a red-hot plate, and white smoke rose amid the great scarlet colour.

The citizens demand that General Hamilcar sacrifice his son as well, and at this point the reader might begin to feel a hint of something resembling sympathy.  Since Hamilcar’s son is Hannibal, the famous one, prosecutor of the Second Punic War, we can be certain that he is not sacrificed.  Perhaps there will be a spot of relief?  No.  Wrong novel.  Leave it at that.

Salammbô has no heroes, no center of sympathy, no one to root for, another result of the obscure setting – what reader really cares which side wins the war, the brutal and destructive Mercenaries, or the corrupt, empty, child-sacrificing Carthaginians?  It’s a sadistic novel.  I’ve never read Sade’s work, and I hope I never will, but that’s the tradition Flaubert is working in, although he thankfully seems to have little or no interest in sexual violence.  Flaubert’s novel, like certain poems of Baudelaire, or Isidore Ducasse’s Maldoror, or the Zola of Thérèse Raquin, is anti-humanist, not just skeptical but profoundly pessimistic, verging on nihilistic.

The novel is, in all sorts of odd ways, a shadow version of Les Misérables, published the same year.  Hugo’s novel, Hugo’s Paris, is also filled with corruption and cruelty, but the book is humanistic, an angry protest, an exhortation to reform.  Flaubert is after something else.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Honey, pepper, incense roses, with another odour still - the disorienting scents of Salammbô

Since literature began no one has ever undertaken anything so absurd.  (Flaubert, in an 1858 letter, on the writing of Salammbô).*

Salammbô is Gustave Flaubert’s 1862 historical novel about Carthage in the 3rd century BC.  The venal, money-grubbing Carthaginians refuse to pay the mercenaries they employed in the First Punic War.  The mercenaries wage war on Carthage for three years, and are eventually destroyed.

I knew, and know, almost nothing about this war, or about ancient Carthage.  Few do; few did.  Flaubert chose the subject for just this reason: readers have no strong associations with historical Carthage.  They don’t see anything.  A novel set in ancient Rome or classical Sparta or Cleopatra’s Alexandria is already contaminated by art and historians and literature.  Carthage is a blank.

Flaubert thus had enormous freedom.  He used this freedom to load himself down with information, to impose enormous constraints on himself.  He pillaged hundreds of volumes of history and archaeology and abandoned an early version of the novel after an 1858 trip to Tunisia.  Flaubert needed the constraints to create the world of the novel.  In this way, I’m not sure that Salammbô is so different than most conscientious historical novels.  Flaubert did not want freedom.  He wanted power.

The reader is at Flaubert’s mercy.  When we read a story, we fill it’s world in however we can.  Some readers are presumably better at this than others, but we all do it.  Clothes, faces, architecture, trees, gestures – great fiction writers are adept at giving us the right hooks on which we can hang all of the less essential pieces of the fictional world.

Salammbô, plunges the reader into the middle of a foreign and bizarre world, damaging his ability to imagine its world, forcing us to rely exclusively on Flaubert.  We obviously still bring our own resources, some mishmash of the Bible and movies about Cleopatra and mysteries set in Rome, but Flaubert then continually disorients the reader’s assumptions with incongruent names, customs, and details.  For example:

It was a huge lion with his four limbs fastened to a cross like a criminal.  His huge muzzle fell upon his breast, and his two fore-paws, half-hidden beneath the abundance of his mane, were spread out wide like the wings of a bird.  His ribs stood severally out beneath his distended skin; his hind legs, which were nailed against each other, were raised somewhat, and the black blood, flowing through his hair, had collected in stalactites at the end of his tail, which hung down perfectly straight along the cross. (Ch. II)

The illustration, which Flaubert would have hated, is from a 1928 edition.  The crucified lions are presumably something that he found in a book.  The great touch that Flaubert adds is at the end, his gruesome imagining of the smallest details of this terrible scene.  The lions run through the entire novel, a theme much like the horse motif in Madame Bovary.  Near the end of the novel, we in fact return to this scene from the beginning.  It’s a magnificent piece of architecture, this book.

Another example, less grisly.  The clothing of Salammbô, our heroine, is always described in detail.  It is never quite what I expect – peacock headdresses, hair powder made of “violet sand.”  I loved this accessory:

She had as ear-rings two little sapphire scales, each supporting a hollow pearl filled with liquid scent.  A little drop would fall every moment through the holes in the pearl and moisten her naked shoulder.  Matho watched it fall. (Ch. XI)

Those are nice ear-rings, huh?  A page later, Conan detects hints of “honey, pepper, incense roses, with another odour still.”  Again, for all I know, Flaubert actually saw these in a museum in Egypt or Rome.

The later equivalents of this technique, where the names and geography, the background and foreground, are all so disorientingly foreign and weird are in fantasy fiction.  Michael Moorcock’s Elric novels. Edgar Rice Burroughs books about John Carter of Mars.  The Book of Ptath by A. E. van Vogt (I think – I’m looking at a copy I know I read and remember nothing, but, of course, random weirdness is hard to remember).  These were all writers who were also pushing back against their own readers.  Don’t just fill in the scenery with the usual pseudo-medieval knights and wizards stuff.  Pay attention – this is weird, this is cool, this is new.

It’s very strange to think of Gustave Flaubert as a key influence on the pulp fantasy novel.  Maybe he wasn’t.  Maybe it’s a coincidence.  Well, if the reader sees it, it’s there, which is just what Flaubert did not want.

* Flaubert to Ernest Feydau, Oct. 1858, Selected Letters, Penguin Classics, 1997, tr. Geoffrey Wall, p. 263.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Weasel tea and the Quest for the Zaïmph - the bad taste of Salammbô

Next they uncovered a large bronze tub on a camel: it belonged to the Suffet, who had it for bathing in during his journey; for he had taken all manner of precautions, even going so far as to bring caged weasels from Hecatompylos, which were burnt alive to make his ptisan.

At this point, near the end of the second chapter of Salammbô, I set the book down.  A contemplative pause was in order.  Had I made a mistake?  I was reading an old translation, J. S. Chartres, 1886 – maybe it was a horrible botch.  I wanted to be fair to Gustave Flaubert – certainly a botch.  What did that sloppy translator do to Flaubert’s pain-staking mots justes?

Ensuite on découvrit sur un chameau une grande cuve de bronze : c'était au Suffète pour se donner des bains pendant la route ; car il avait pris toutes sortes de précautions, jusqu'à emporter, dans des cages, des belettes d'Hécatompyle que l'on brûlait vivantes pour faire sa tisane.

I’ve copied the passage from the curious,* led there by French Wikipedia, and will not vouch for the transcription.  Any advice from readers of French is appreciated, but the weasels from Hecatompylos are right there.  Burnt alive, tisane, bronze tub, etc.  The archaic “ptisan” is an irritant, but perhaps it was not archaic in 1886.

Flaubert’s practice was not to read but to “bellow” his prose aloud to make sure it sounded exactly as it should (see Bookphilia on David Mitchell, search for “garden”).  Please, bellow that French sentence.  Ah, come on, do it!  In the same paragraph, I find more marvels – “brushes, perfumes, and antimony pencils for painting the eyes,” “fishes preserved in honey,” “melted goose-fat covered in snow and chopped straw.”

The fact is, and I love the irony, that Salammbô is in bad taste.  Gustave Flaubert – bad taste!  But what I really mean is that it is packed with signifiers of bad taste, elements that I have learned signal bad writing, particularly in historical or fantasy novels.  Over-indulged Orientalism.  Long lists of archaic proper names.  Pythons wrapped around semi-nude priestesses.  One of the leading characters, the leader of the rebellious mercenaries, Matho, is very much like, very very much like, Conan the Barbarian.

In Chapter V, Matho and his crafty Greek sidekick have infiltrated Carthage in order to steal the mystical zaïmph which will cause the downfall of the city.  Yes, the zaïmph, a jewel-encrusted veil.  Much of the plot of the novel as such hinges on who possesses the zaïmph.  The chapter ends with Matho, one of many super-strong characters in 19th century French novels, opening one of the massive gates to the city by pulling on its huge chain.

Then when he was outside he took the great zaïmph from his neck, and raised it as high as possible above his head. The material, upborne by the sea breeze, shone in the sunlight with its colours, its gems, and the figures of its gods. Matho bore it thus across the whole plain as far as the soldiers’ tents, and the people on the walls watched the fortune of Carthage depart.

If I came across the weasel tea and so on in a Surrealist novel, or in Lautréamont’s Maldoror, I’m not sure I would bat an eye, not more than two or three bats, anyway.  Weirdness among weirdness, nonsense among nonsense.  Wonderful, why I else would I read Maldoror?  Why, then, is Flaubert any different?  I need a conceptual framework for Salammbô.  I’ve got three days left to construct it.  Salammbô is a historical novel, but it is not, for example, Walter Scott but more beautifully written, Alessandro Manzoni aestheticized.**  On Scott’s terms, or Manzoni’s, Salammbô is a disaster.  Forget them.  Forget good taste.  They’re just impediments to Salammbô.  I need Baudelaire, Gautier, and, unfortunately, Sade.

* houses several illustrated editions of Salammbô, from which I will liberally borrow.  Flaubert, whose art was so based on verbal representation of the visual, was adamantly, angrily opposed to illustrations.

** See Manzoni’s little book On the Historical Novel (1850), or, even better, read the enormously innovative yet conventionally successful The Betrothed (1827), one of the great novels of the 19th century.  It goes on the Books That Should Be Read More list.