Friday, April 29, 2011

Pleasing the eye as things do, \ They are what they are - Alberto Caeiro, poet

In a comment yesterday, Vince of the Philosophy of Romance blog reminded me that Alberto Caeiro’s writing often functions more as aphorisms than as poems, however he labels them.  His plain pieces often seem like settings for his maxims, or wisdom, or punchlines, or whatever I should call them, which can often be stripped from the poem without too much damage.

Whether or not his paradoxes are resolvable, or his wisdom is wise, Caeiro does his work in chewy fragments:

Only Nature is divine, and she’s not divine. . . (XXVII, HB)

For the only hidden meaning of things
Is that they have no hidden meaning at all. (XXXIX, PR)

Like the Universe, I pass and I remain. (XLVIII, HB)

I don’t care about rhyme.  You seldom find
Two trees alike, standing side by side. (XIV, PR)

That “seldom” (“raras” in Portuguese) is a hilariously fussy touch.   I think this is how I have been responding to him, as a sage, or a trickster.  As a philosophical stance, which I then try to understand, or, if I am Ricardo Reis, try to cram into my own stuffy poems.  But Caeiro was a poet, too, a narrow one, but real.  Here’s my favorite poem of his:

The soap-bubbles which this child
Blows from a straw for amusement
Are transparently a philosophy in themselves.
Shiny, useless and transient as Nature,
Pleasing the eye as things do,
They are what they are
In a precisely spherical and airy way,
And no one, not even the child who launches them
Claims they are more than they seem.
There are some you can scarcely see in the clear air.

They’re like the passing breeze which scarcely stirs the flowers,
Its passing known to us only
Because something quickens within us
And accepts all things with clear insight.  (XXV, PR)

Caeiro takes a step or two outside of himself in this poem, which does not hurt.  “Transparently” is a pun, an actual joke, as is, I suspect, “precisely,” a word that is often invoked to conceal imprecision.

The soap-bubbles are an effective metaphor for Nature, Caeiro’s idea of Nature, exactly because they are created by a person.  In Caeiro’s poems, Nature is often a setting for the human – a river has meaning (or no meaning) because it flows through his village; in one poem a ticking watch beside his bed somehow becomes Nature (XLIV); and, even if the physical objects are just trees and plants, there is always the observer, the poet, “a human animal produced by Nature” (XLVI).

The bubbles are also poems, of course, Caeiro’s poems, inspired by “something,” shiny, useless, and transient.  Can they really be no more than what they seem?  A bluff, a gag, a writer’s false arrogance.

Maybe I’ll get this little Portuguese project going and see how Caeiro’s poems look a few months from now.

PR is Peter Rickard’s translation of Caeiro; HB is Honig and Brown, whose translation I also used yesterday but forgot to mention.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

My soul is simple and doesn’t think - untranscendent Caeiro

The Keeper of Sheep, treated like a book, contains 49 poems, most quite short, a stanza or two, the longest, a trivial fantasy of Christ’s return, as long as six pages.  The importance of the collection is disproportionate to its size, and can hardly be indicated by any particular poem.  Almost every poem, though, has a blunt argumentative power.   Alberto Caeiro is kin to Thoreau, a prick for our thick hides.  Yelling “Knock it off!” is, to Caeiro, better than doing nothing.  Caeiro, like Thoreau, is kind of a jerk, or plays one in his writing.

I find it so natural not to think
That I start laughing sometimes when alone
At what, I really don’t know, but something
Having to do with people who think. . . .  (XXXIV, ellipses in original)

Hey, he’s laughing at me!  “Nothing thinks anything” he writes later in the same poem.  I don’t like where he puts me.   Poets get the same treatment in poem XXXVI:

And there are poets who are artists
And work on their poems
Like a carpenter on his planks! . . .

And Caeiro is almost cruel to this crusader for humanity:

And, looking at me, he saw tears in my eyes
And smiled with satisfaction, thinking I felt
The hatred he did, and the compassion
He said he felt.
(But I was scarcely listening…)  (XXXII, ellipses mine)

If I make Caeiro sound like too much of a Transcendentalist, it is my fault more than his.  What is bracing about Caeiro is his continual rejection of the transcendent, often just at the moment I expect the leap into the unknown:

If they want me to be a mystic, fine.  I’m a mystic.
I’m a mystic, but only of the body.
My soul is simple and doesn’t think.  (XXX)

And then the poet retreats to his “solitary whitewashed cabin.”  If he writes, if he uses language, it is for the sake of “deluded men” and “their stupidity of feeling” (XXXI).  In four poems in a row, Caeiro explicitly embraces transcendence of himself – “I’d give anything if only my life were an oxcart” (XVI) or “I’d give anything just to be the roadside dust” (XVIII), but these poems are preceded by another, in which Caeiro insists that “I wrote them when I was ill…They agree with what they disagree” (XV) which is either completely ridiculous or a fine joke.  That ungrammatical, nearly nonsensical last sentence is what one would expect from an untutored shepherd poet, yes?

Caeiro’s poems are packed with bad ideas, plainly stated, and better ideas, concealed, perhaps.  Ricardo Reis, for example, always seems to indulge in what I take as the shallowest side of Caeiro, the pointless search for authenticity, the rejection of subjectivity, like Caeiro’s example gives him an excuse for his pessimism.  Words like “subjectivity” belong to Reis.  Caeiro does not write like that. Reis is Caeiro gone sour.

This will take more reading and, although Caeiro forbids it, thought to sort out.  Maybe I should try to learn some Portuguese, too.  Maybe tomorrow I’ll look at his single best poem, make the case that Caeiro was a poet, not just a bundle of crude philosophical positions.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

How hard it is to be oneself and see only what is there! - radical Caeiro

Sometimes, on days of pure and perfect light,
When things are as real as real can be,
I quietly ask myself
Just what makes me suppose
That there is beauty in things.

The beginning of poem XXVI of The Keeper of Sheep is what we have here, this time in the translation of Peter Rickard (University of Texas Press, 1971).  Readers who follow me more closely than is wise may detect a hint of my interest in Alberto Caeiro, although I merely asked if there was beauty in literature, conceding the beauty of things from the start.  The naïve Caeiro is, unlike me, a real radical.

Is there beauty in a flower, then?
Is there beauty in a fruit?
No: they have colour and shape
And they exist, that’s all.
Beauty is non-existent, the name
I give to things in return for the pleasure they give me.
It has no meaning.
Why then do I say that things are beautiful?

Holy cow, Caeiro pushes this idea a lot farther than I dare – “they exist, that’s all”!  But that’s a lot, I think to myself, and why do we want to stop there?  Most of us, most of the time, stop all too soon, reflexively.  Caeiro makes an ideology of reduction.  He has a response for me, in poem XXII: “But who ordered me to want to understand? \ Who told me I had to understand?”

The simple pastoral poet seems to have been (not) reading Plato or Kant or who knows who – someone with genuine knowledge can help me out.  Or he is a throwback to the sorts of philosophers who talk about properties of matter, “extension,” that sort of thing.  Each brand of breakfast cereal is a specific combination of traits – sweetness, crunchiness, mouthfeel, and so on, all measured on a five point scale.  Everything is like breakfast cereal.  Color, shape, existence.  Why are these components not themselves understandable, or beautiful?  Perhaps Caeiro has an answer to his difficult question.

Yes, even to me, who live just by living,
Come all unseen the lies men tell
When faced with things,
When faced with things which simply exist.

How hard it is to be oneself and see only what is there!

Kinda strong, huh, “lies”?  The corruptions of men, received ideas, I guess, must be resisted.  At least the poet acknowledges the difficulty of his stance.  If Caeiro, who lives just by living, has so much trouble, what can I, who live not only by living, but also by thinking, possibly do?

Ricardo Reis, a contemporary of Caiero, wrote that “my knowledge of The Keeper of Sheep opened my eyes to seeing,” a paradox more interesting than anything I have seen in his own poems.  Did Reis’ knowledge just happen somehow, or did it require something more active, some kind of knowing?  My eyes were already open, and already saw, or so I claim.

I just read – I think I just read, but cannot find – a line by Annie Dillard, in Living by Fiction (1982) to the effect that good criticism has no obligation to be right but rather to be fruitful.  The same is true of poetry.  Is there beauty in the abundant fruitfulness of Caiero?

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

One who doesn’t understand what’s said \ And likes to pretend he does - Alberto Caeiro never kept sheep

I have been thinking about doing some Portuguese reading.  A project, a Challenge, maybe.  I don’t know.   Regardless, I decided to start at the top of the heap, so to speak, with the most influential Portuguese poet of the 20th century, Alberto Caeiro (1889-1915), the paradoxical pastoral poet, the shepherd without sheep.  Or so he says in the poem that leads The Keeper of Sheep, the collection he wrote in 1914.*

I never kept sheep,
But it’s as if I’d done so.
My soul is like a shepherd.
It knows wind and sun
Walking hand in hand with the Seasons
Observing, and following along.
All of Nature’s unpeopled peacefulness
Comes to sit alongside me.

And I’ll stop, because the next set of images is in bad taste and might spoil the effect.  Caeiro was what we would now call a naïve artist, untrained and unconnected to Portugal’s literary culture, born in Lisbon but spending most of his life living with an aunt in the countryside.  Thus the free verse, the informal language, the plain vocabulary.  As if he were a character in a Theocritus pastoral poem.  As if.

Thinking is discomforting like walking in the rain
When the wind increases, making it look as if it’s raining harder.
I’ve no ambitions or desires.
My being a poet isn’t an ambition.
It’s my way of being alone.

Caeiro conflates writing and walking.  Like William Wordsworth, he composes while walking.

I write lines on the paper of my thoughts,
I feel the staff in my hands
And glimpse an outline of myself
On top of some low-lying hill,
Watching over my flock and seeing my ideas,
Or watching over my ideas and seeing my flock,
And smiling vaguely like one who doesn’t understand what’s said
And likes to pretend he does.

The simple poet seems not-so-simple now.  The simile suggests that he actually does understand what’s said but likes to pretend he doesn’t.   Is the whole thing a pose?  I do not remember Wordsworth advising his reader like Caeiro does, as the poem ends ("they" are the imagined readers):

And when reading my poems thinking
Of me as something quite natural –
An ancient tree, for instance,
In whose shade they thumped down
When they were children, tired after play,
Wiping the sweat off their hot foreheads
With the sleeve of their striped smocks.

An unusual depiction of reading, isn't it?  It's something I do after exhausting play.  The twenty-five year poet is an ancient tree; his poems are the shade.  A couple of lines before, the reader is in "Somebody's favorite chair."  Poetry puts us in two places at once.

Well, let’s spend some more time with Alberto Caeiro and see if we can get to the bottom of this.  He is a long ways from a perfect poet, sometimes a long ways from a good one, clumsy, facile, sneering.  Then there are those other times.

“I never kept sheep” now exists in several English translations.  I’m using the version by Edwin Honig and Susan M. Brown in The Keeper of Sheep, Sheep Meadow Press, 1986.

*  The publication history of The Keeper of Sheep is a little complicated.

Friday, April 22, 2011

On Easter break

Wuthering Expectations will take a little Easter holiday break, returning Tuesday.

The woodcut is another by Raoul Dufy, from his and Apollinaire's Bestiary.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

This inhuman monster is I - adorable Apollinaire, with bonus Raoul Dufy

Did I say something about writing about Goethe?  I’m too fidgety.  I need something lighter.  Something easier.  Something fluffier.

Devilfish (Le Poulpe)

Squirting his ink to the sky,
Sucking his lovers’ blood,
Finding the taste of it good,
This inhuman monster is I.

Well, that’s not all that fluffy.

The poem is by Guillaume Apollinaire, and translated by X. J. Kennedy.  The woodcut is by Raoul Dufy.  They can be found side by side, along with the French poem, in The Bestiary, or Procession of Orpheus (John Hopkins University Press, 2011).  It is Apollinaire’s first book of poems, originally published in 1909, just thirty little poems, one woodcut per poem, and it is not particularly innovative or odd.

I had read a couple of the poems in an Apollinaire anthology, and they slipped past me.  They make sense as a book.  In three poems, Orpheus introduces animals by group – mammals, then insects, then fish, then birds, roughly.  The ox is a bird.  Look, the classifications have some problems.  Some of the poems have some allegorical significance (see above), some are merely clever.

Maybe I can find one fluffier than that devilfish.

Cat (Le chat)

I hope I may have in my house
A sensible right-minded spouse,
A cat stepping over the books,
Loyal friends always about
Whom I couldn’t live without.

That’s nice.  Honestly, though, Raoul Dufy steals the show (click for more Dufy, courtesy of The Blue Lantern).  My favorite is this Art Nouveau peacock.


When opening his fanlike tail
This bird whose plumes behind him trail
Looks lovelier than when it’s shut,
But he reveals his naked butt.

That really is pretty much how the French goes (“Mais se découvre le derrière”).

Ask your library to buy this book for you.  Don’t buy it yourself – it’s, like, $45 for a comic book.  Nuts.  While you’re at it, ask for X. J. Kennedy’s little book of selected poems, too, The Lords of Misrule (2002), which includes “The Ballad of Fenimore Woolson and Henry James” and is generally excellent, even better than Apollinaire’s Bestiary, although not half as cute.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

An unbearable little cry, in which distress and satisfaction were equally mixed - the slimy, tattered little doll and The Goethean Meaulnes

Goethe has distracted me from Alain-Fournier.  I had hoped to pursue the Goethean thread, but I am not sure many people would understand what I was talking about, and I am less sure that I would understand it, either, so perhaps that should wait for another day.

I’ve wondered if a Goethe re-read is in order.  Goethe was a titan, but I am not sure any single work conveys his capaciousness.  He was, among other things, almost beyond form, meaning that his novels and memoirs and plays and poems do not look quite like novels and plays and so on should look, except that “should” is then demonstrably wrong.

Generations of German-language writers have benefitted from Goethe’s expansion of literary form.  Judging by the most recent German novel I read, a Jenny Erpenbeck novel that takes its title from Wilhelm Meister’s Years of Wandering (1821), they are not yet free of him.

Alain-Fournier borrows liberally from Goethe – form, theme, scenes, and, I suspect, images.   This is what I mean – I should go back to those Wilhelm Meister novels, and Elective Affinities, and [insert long list here].  Le Grand Meaulnes works within, for example, Goethe’s all-encompassing “renunciation” framework.  This is how I cope with the mass of Goethe, by the way – I reduce him to one word that I barely understand.  Goethe = renunciation.

I detected Goethe most strongly in Alain-Fournier’s theatrical interlude, right in the center of the book, where I picked up whiffs of the theatrical troupe arguing about Hamlet in Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship, and young Goethe or young Wilhelm, or both, staging puppet spectaculars.  But I do not quite remember the equivalent of the clown’s “falling act” in Goethe:

And every time, as he fell, he gave a little cry, different every time, an unbearable little cry, in which distress and satisfaction were equally mixed.  At the climax of the act, climbing on a heap of chairs, he made a tremendous, very slow fall, and his shrill, agonized wail of triumph lasted as long as the fall did, accompanied by gasps of terror from the women in the audience. (II.7.)

That may well be an act Alain-Fournier witnessed himself, but whatever its source, it is powerfully strange, as uncanny as Adalbert Stifter at his woozy best.  What does it mean?  It must mean something, yes?

This act is followed by a puppet show – I had known, per Goethe, that there would be puppets – although this puppet is actually “a little doll, stuffed with bran” that the falling clown has had hidden in his sleeve the entire time:

In the end, he made all the bran that was inside her emerge from her mouth.  Then, with doleful little cries, he filled her up with porridge and, at the moment of greatest concentration, when all the spectators were watching open-mouthed and all eyes were on the poor pierrot’s slimy, tattered little doll, he suddenly grasped her in one hand and threw her with all his strength into the audience…

Suddenly, I forget where I got the idea that Le Grand Meaulnes is much like Proust, or Hoffmann, or Goethe, or any other book ever written.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Then it was a dream like the one he used to have - Alain-Fournier, German Romantic

Le Grand Meaulnes, Alain-Fournier’s gentle little 1913 novel, is a German novella snuck into French.  It’s ancestors are not, decidedly not, Balzac or Hugo or, despite some fine writing, Flaubert.  I reserve judgment, due to my ignorance, about Zola, although I suspect that Alain-Fournier is an anti-Zola, opposed to each and  every Zola-esque principle.

I can see hints of Alain-Fournier in Rousseau and Chateaubriand, but I really know only one French precursor, Gérard de Nerval’s gentle little 1853 novella Sylvie.  I called Nerval “the most Germanic of French writers” – Alain-Fournier joins him.  Both stories are mixes of the idyllic and the ordinary; both feature heroines who are idealized to the point of unreality but also turn out to be characters with their own points of view and autonomy; both feature elaborate fêtes champêtres, country parties that take on strange dream-like qualities.  The parties are crucial.

Nerval and Alain-Fournier are borrowing their structures, and those parties, from Goethe and his followers, from Elective Affinities (1809) and Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship (1795), and from any number of stories of E. T. A. Hoffmann.  A typical Hoffmann plot, or at least one that he used many times, involves young lovers who continually change identities, guided, perhaps, by a wizard figure.  Magic is common, but is seldom quite fixed in the real world; dreams or drunkenness or excess tobacco or high spirits are likely culprits of the hallucinations and weirdness.  The characters are shuffled around until they end up in the right combination, and the fête, often a literal one, a carnival or masked ball, ends along with the tale.  I’m thinking of Princess Brambilla here, but The Golden Pot and many other Hoffmann stories – honestly, too many – work similarly.

Alain-Fournier moves the Surrealist party, where, in this case, the activities are planned by children, and the guests are either juvenile or elderly (except, of course, for the wandering commedia dell’arte clowns), up into the beginning of the book, and thus makes it more of a violation of the ordinary world.  The dream world is introduced dramatically, and then vanishes.  But somehow it seeps into the “real” world, until by the end of the novel there is no point in trying to separate them.

Silently, while the young woman carried on playing, he went back and sat at the dining-room table where, opening one of the large red books scattered around it, he absent-mindedly began to read.

Almost immediately one of the children who had been on the ground came over, clasped his arm and clambered up on his knee so that he could look at the same time, while another did the same from the other side.  Then it was a dream like the one he used to have.  For a long time, he could imagine that he was in his own house, married, one fine evening.  And that the charming stranger playing the piano, close by, was his wife . . . (I.14., chapter-ending ellipses in original)

Readers made anxious by violations of their received notions of “realism,” beware.

Monday, April 18, 2011

haggard and distraught, the gypsy in his carnival dress - the weird and wonderful Alain-Fournier

Le Grand Meaulnes (1913) is a tricky little thing.  A charismatic new boy comes to school, and our lives would never be the same, and we all remember that magical summer, and on like that.  We have all read, or seen, plenty of versions of this story. They are rarely as well-written, or as surprising, as Alain-Fournier’s little novel.

The first surprise – this one comes early – is that the magical event is not caused by The Great Meaulnes, the natural leader, the friend of every schoolboy, but actually happens to him.  The narrator has to spend the rest of the novel assembling the fragments of the story.  It is as if Mary Poppins, rather than taking the Banks children on adorable adventures,  instead disappears for a long weekend, cannot quite explain what happened to her, and is frankly never again such a good nanny, always somehow distracted.

Let’s have a sample of Alain-Fournier:

The children, waking up in fright, pressed closer to one another, saying nothing.  And while he [Meaulnes] was shaking the window, with his face pressed to the pane, thanks to a bend in the road, he noticed a white shape running along.  It was the tall pierrot from the party, haggard and distraught, the gypsy in his carnival dress, carrying in his arms a human body , which he was holding against his chest.    Then they vanished.  (I.17.)

So that’s another difference from the usual schoolboy coming-of-age stories:  Le Grand Meaulnes is really desperately weird.  It keeps shifting back and forth between some semblance of ordinary life and these eruptions or invasions from Dream-world, often with no preparation, leaving the reader, or me, at least, pleasantly disoriented.   Not that I haven’t seen this before.  Le Grand Meaulnes is one of the two most German French stories I have ever read, if you know what I mean.  Maybe I’ll explain tomorrow.  This is another surprise, another trick, since the novel begins with an invocation that reminds me of that other great French novel of 1913:

At least, this is how I imagine our arrival today; because whenever I try to recapture the distant memory of that first evening, waiting in our courtyard at Saint-Agathe, what I remember are, in fact, other times of waiting, and I see myself with both hands resting on the bars of the gate, anxiously looking out for someone coming down the main street. (I.1.)

But Alain-Fournier’s search for lost time is of a different character and tone than Proust’s.

My understanding is that Le Grand Meaulnes is a genuinely beloved novel in France, spiritual kin to The Little Prince, Little Women and The Catcher in the Rye.  Why it is not better known to American readers is perplexing.  Is it the title, just the title?  Translators always want to fix it.  The Penguin Classics edition I read, translated by Robin Buss, goes with The Lost Estate (Le Grand Meaulnes), an admirable surrender.

The Great Meaulnes would be a fine title, accurate and perfectly, ironically analogous to The Great Gatsby, but I suppose we’re still stuck with the peculiar-looking Meaulnes.  It is very close to “moan” – now slip in the “l,” but gently, please, and go easy on the “n.”  Close enough, unless I am wrong – please let me know.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Aha, a perfect Frenchman! - questions about A Tale of Two Cities

Two questions.

1.  Why did Charles Dickens write A Tale of Two Cities?  Many reasons, yes.  Imagining the germ of the story, or a character or two, was sufficient.  But I also presume that Dickens had another purpose.

Is this novel his own response to Hard Times, published five years earlier?  In Hard Times, the Condition of England is Not Good, and the workers are up in arms, but only figuratively.  In some sense, Dickens is on the side of those workers, but in some other sense he is on the side of everyone.  If only we would all be nicer to each other, etc.  The practical politics of Hard Times are incoherent, and I’m not sure the impractical policitcs are much better.

I’m currently, oh, a third of the way into Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South (1855), listening to her characters rehash the same arguments.  Listening patiently, I hope.  This sort of thing is not the great strength of the novel as a form.  A strike is about to begin.  Perhaps the workers will begin breaking machines, forming committees, building barricades, and beheading noblemen.  There’s something the novel is pretty good at.

Charles Dickens does not want the workers to get to the point of beheading the mill-owners.  It would be easy enough to shade Hard Times into part of a call for revolution.  The events of 1848 left England untouched, but the example was fresh.  Perhaps A Tale of Two Cities is a piece of an extended novelistic argument – reform should go far, and Dickens is not quite clear on how far, but not that far, not as far as the French Revolution.  Earlier parts of the novel, the “Two Cities” sections, emphasize the poverty of London as well as Paris, but Paris and the Revolution swallow the novel.  The French go too far.

2.  Now, this will probably be of no interest to anyone who has not read the novel, and I believe I just made some unwarranted assumptions about those who have.

Please just go ahead and tell me this is nonsense:

Sydney Carton is Charles Darnay’s cousin or half-brother, yes?  We have the set of French twin brothers, Darnay’s father and uncle, and then we have his inexplicable English look-alike, who is, who must be, the illegitimate son of one of the brothers.

Dickens never mentions any of this – or there’s my question – did I miss it? The idea only occurred to me with about sixty pages left in the novel.  This passage did it:

‘But you are not English,’ said the wood-sawyer, ‘though you wear English dress?’

‘Yes,’ said Carton, pausing again, and answering over his shoulder.

‘You speak like a Frenchman.’

‘I am an old student here.’

‘Aha, a perfect Frenchman!  Good night, Englishman.’  (III.9)

A perplexing business.  Dickens wants to reassure me about Carton’s facility with Paris and with French, skills he needs to move the story along.  He sure does it in an odd way.

What I like about this idea – and, again, feel free to point out the so-obvious-they-are-not-even clues that I missed – is that Dickens, no stranger to over-explaining, omits all of this from the novel.  Maybe the resemblance between Darnay and Carton is just a freakish coincidence.  Maybe not.  Dickens never says.  Good for him.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

I enjoyed the style of A Tale of Two Cities

Prof. Maitzen recently wrote a little something about Thomas Carlyle’s staggering and enormous second novel, The French Revolution (1837), including a generous excerpt on the execution of Louis XVI that gives the flavor of the thing.  Here is Carlyle on the aftermath of the sacking of the Bastille:

A declining sun; the need of victuals, and of telling news, will bring assuagement, dispersion: all earthly things must end.

Along the streets of Paris circulate Seven Bastille Prisoners, borne shoulder-high; seven Heads on pikes; the Keys of the Bastille; and much else…

But so does the twilight thicken; so must Paris, as sick children, and all distracted creatures do, brawl itself finally into a kind of sleep.  (I.1.vii)

It’s strange stuff for history, either built out of metaphor (Paris as “sick children”) or turning historical material into metaphor, which is what Carlyle is signaling with his odd capitalization (which is probably also a Germanophile’s affectation) – the number seven plays a strange recurring role in the novel, as in his use of the story of the seven sleepers, of which the seven prisoners are somehow versions.  As Carlyle piles up these metaphors and substitutes, the novel becomes increasingly tangled.  The reader beginning somewhere in the middle might well find it incomprehensible, as might many readers who start at the beginning.

Did I say novel?  The French Revolution is, of course, a work of history, non-fiction.  I should fix that.

How does Dickens end the same scene in A Tale of Two Cities (1859)?  With an homage:

Seven prisoners released, seven gory heads on pikes, the keys of the accursed fortress of the eight strong towers, some discovered letters and other memorials of prisoners of old time, long dead of broken hearts, - and such, and such-like, the loudly echoing footsteps of Saint Antoine escort through  the Paris streets in mid-July, one thousand seven hundred and eighty-nine.  Now, Heaven defeat the fancy of Lucie Darnay, and keep these feet far out of her life!  For, they are headlong, mad, and dangerous; and in the years so long after the breaking of the cask at Defarge’s wine-shop door, they are not easily purified when once stained red.  (II.21.)

The letter of the broken-hearted prisoner is from Carlyle, too; it is concealed behind the ellipses up above.  Dickens has to expand on Carlyle’s “much else” for plot purposes – keep an eye on those discovered letters – and deftly slips a couple of his own themes into the passage.  The heads, for example, need to be gory as part of the red \ blood \ wine theme, which he hits again at the end of the paragraph.  That wine cask broke way back in chapter V, about 25 pages into the book.  I do have some doubts about the mixed metaphor of the “headlong” feet, but they come from six pages earlier, from the morning of July 14:

Headlong, mad, and dangerous footsteps to force their way into anybody’s life, footsteps not easily made clean again if once stained red, the footsteps raging in Saint Antoine afar off, as the little circle sat in the dark London window.

Mad footsteps; raging footsteps; hard to clean footsteps.  As if I’m complaining!  The rhetorical excesses of Victor Hugo,* of Thomas Carlyle, and of Charles Dickens are thrilling.  Watching them fly out of control, even escape into incomprehensibility, is part of the pleasure.

*  I had promised Rohan Maitzen a “Hugo and Carlyle, rhetoric of” comparison post, but I don’t think that’s going to happen.  It’s a good idea, though.  They share a wild-eyed enthusiasm, among other things.  No idea if they knew of even the existence of each other’s work.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

I did not exactly enjoy the Christian imagery in A Tale of Two Cities, but it was hard to miss

I’m on the barricades in Les Misérables (1862) with Victor Hugo’s revolutionaries:

The old man fell to his knees, then rose up, let go of the flag and fell heavily backward onto the pavement inside, with his arms stretched out in a cross. (IV.14.ii)

Subtle, huh?  Let’s skip to the end of the long defense of the barricade:

[The revolutionary], pierced by eight bullets, remained backed up against the wall as if the bullets had nailed him there.  Except that his head was tilted.
[His disciple], struck down, collapsed at his feet. (V.1.xxiii)

The chapter title is “Orestes Feasting and Pylades Drunk,” a classical rather than biblical allusion, and I am, of course, cheating by calling the friend, Pylades, a “disciple.”  Still.  I detect the shadow of the Crucifixion, even if it is borrowed from Goya.

In Hard Times (1854), Charles Dickens restrains himself from shaping his Christ-figure into a cross, but that is perhaps because we only see him taken down from his metaphorical (industrial) cross, and simultaneously emerging, resurrected, from his metaphorical (industrial) tomb:

But, ring after ring was coiled upon the barrel of the windlass safely, and the connecting chains appeared, and finally the bucket with the two men holding on at the sides – a sight to make the head swim, and oppress the heart - and tenderly supporting between them, slung and tied within, the figure of a poor, crushed, human creature.  (III.6)

The two Marys cleanse his wounds; he preaches to his disciples; he ascends into heaven:

Very few whispers broke the mournful silence.  It was soon a funeral procession.  The star had shown him where to find the God of the poor; and through humility, and sorrow, and forgiveness, he had gone to his Redeemer's rest.

In A Tale of Two Cities (1859), the cross is replaced by a guillotine, and the Marys are replaced with Martha, or so I guess based on the insertion of John 11:25-6, “I am the Resurrection and the Life” etc., which, oddly, is in quotation marks but is attributed to no particular speaker.  It is Sydney acting as Anglican priest for the girl, or for himself, or a higher power, the author, perhaps, speaking to both.

More curious is the anti-Christian figure, the great Madame Defarge, who “might, from your appearance, be the wife of Lucifer,” or so says the great Miss Pross, the only person who can see Madame Defarge’s true nature.  How can she see the truth?  “I am an Englishwoman.”  And soon Lucifer’s wife disappears in “a flash and a crash” and a cloud of smoke.

I had not really noticed Madame Defarge’s Satanic nature until the end of the book, so I was not looking for the cloven hoof earlier.  The most interesting scene that I have found is the end of the visit to Versailles that I mentioned yesterday, where Madame Defarge converts a disciple using a parable, a horrible inversion of the parables of Christ.  A bit of the murderous Parable of the Dolls and Birds:

“And if you were shown a flock of birds, unable to fly, and were set upon them to strip them of their feathers for your own advantage, you would set upon the birds of the finest feathers; would you not?” (II.15)

Um, no – what?  Hey, I’ve got another one.  There’s a character who claims to go fishing every night, but is, in fact, a fisher of men, although not quite in the way Christ meant.  He’s also known as a Resurrection-man.  “’Oh, father, I should so like to be a Resurrection-Man when I’m quite growed up!”

I don’t have any argument here.  This is more of a catalogue, a guide to my future re-reading of A Tale of Two Cities.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

I enjoyed the characters in A Tale of Two Cities

Not all of them, of course.  Now that I have read all but two of his novels, and a fair swath of his shorter fiction, I continue to be astounded at his constant failure to imagine heroes and heroines of the slightest artistic interest, particularly baffling given that Charles Dickens is the most inventive creator of characters in – I want to be careful not to exaggerate here – in the history of literature.

Worse, Dickens was perfectly aware of the problem, and had solved it twice already, in David Copperfield and Bleak House, and was on the verge of writing Great Expectations.  Let’s not revisit that argument.  The solution, such as it is, that Dickens employs here, is to displace the conventional characters, to the extent possible, with more interesting people, especially in the final thirty pages or so.

The story of the supposed hero actually ends with him unconscious, as interesting as he was when awake.  But the conventional hero is not the genuine hero of the book, so Dickens seems to be cleverly attempting to deflect my attention with this non-entity.  Too bad we have to spend so much time with the dull blocks of wood in the process.  Too bad Dickens could not have given Charles Darnay a hobby, or a funny hat, or anything.

Great shame about the heroine, too, but I have given up hope there.  No, I still hope – fingers crossed for Little Dorrit and Our Mutual Friend.  And the problem is with the bland heroines, not with other women.  The great triumph of A Tale of Two Cities is a woman, sort of, a parody of Joan of Arc and Marianne, the embodiment of the totalitarian spirit of the French Revolution, the great Madame Defarge:

She tied a knot with flashing eyes, as if it throttled a foe. (II.16)

The superhuman Mme Defarge is a force of history that has somehow become incarnated in a woman who runs a Paris wine shop.  She is in no sense a real character, even in ordinary fictional terms.   That she is entirely unchanging over the eighteen years of the novel, that she is ageless, that her powers never diminish, is only logical once we realize that she is not human but a tool of higher powers.

She is visiting Versailles to see the king and queen.  The Revolution is still many years in the future:

‘You work hard, madame,’ said a man near her.
‘Yes,’ answered Madame Defarge; ‘I have a good deal to do.’
‘What do you make, madame?’
‘Many things.’
‘For instance – ‘
‘For instance,’ returned Madame Defarge, composedly, ‘shrouds.’ (II.15)

The imaginative leap Dickens makes in A Tale of Two Cities is to insert a character along the lines of The Ghost of Christmas Past into a nominally realistic novel, a representation of Death, with knitting needles replacing the scythe, draping her in just enough ordinary novelistic characterization to allow her to walk amongst the more human characters and readers, unknowing and complacent until it is too late.

Monday, April 11, 2011

I enjoyed the plot of The Tale of Two Cities

By which I mean the construction of the plot, the mechanism, the solution to the puzzle.   All of which is mere metaphor, but I hope is clear enough.  A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens’s 1859 fantasy of the French Revolution, is well-plotted.

Many Dickens novels are not.  The Old Curiosity Shop (1841), which I wrote about back at the dawn of Wuthering Expectations, has, which is impressive in its own way, an improvised plot.  Many of his novels have quite good plotting up to some point at which Dickens begins to rely a bit too much on novelistic wood glue and duct tape.  One could blame serialization, except that A Tale of Two Cities was serialized, as was the cleverly plotted Bleak House.

I wonder where Dickens started with this book?  At the end, I would guess, by which I mean the last couple of pages – “’It is a far, far better thing that I do’” and so on.  Then he worked backwards – how did that particular character, who may be a bit vague at first, end up in that particular fix, which I will bet was vivid from the beginning.  He has to be in Paris, although he’s English, and the chronology is limited – mid-1792 through mid-1793.  Then he needs a love interest – she barely requires much invention, and, unfortunately, that’s about as much attention as Dickens gives her.  She needs a family, so that creates some more characters.  Perhaps a servant.  Similarly, a villain is necessary, and the French Revolutionary Mob is rather too blobbish for the purposes of a novel, so an actual character or two begins to emerge from the crowd.

Other scenes appear – some, perhaps, alive from the beginning.  A French nobleman murdered in his country house, dagger in his chest, wonderfully gruesome.  A trial, a spy, a smashed wine barrel.  Themes and imagery – red, red, red – waft up from the story, or the story is knocked about to fit the imagery.  An advantage of a “red” motif is that it can be slapped in pretty much anywhere.

Solutions, what do I mean by that?  About two-thirds in, most of the characters are in London, and Dickens needs them to be in Paris, which they really should not visit at this point in 1792.  Dickens has to find a way to spur each one to Paris.  He needs not just one solution but several.  None of his choices are entirely arbitrary, none of them are entirely implausible (although one fellow does have quite bad luck), all of them are prepared earlier in the novel, even if, looking back, I see that certain hooks were screwed into the wall only to await these particular bits of plotting.

It’s all, in other words, artificial, visibly artificial, but ingeniously, pleasurably so.  Dickens is constrained by the events of the French Revolution, but not much else.   Some oddities still protrude, particularly the unchanging agelessness of most of the characters, even though the novel covers an eighteen year span.  The geography can be strange, too, as a single village stands in for the French countryside, and a single neighborhood* represents impoverished Paris.

The story is not bad, either, but it’s the brilliant plotting that averts the gaze from the story’s nonsense, that makes the story look almost plausible.  Enjoyable stuff.

*  It’s Saint Antoine, home of one of Victor Hugo’s Surrealist 1848 barricades, the one that prefigures environmental art and the sculpture of Gordon Matta-Clark.

Friday, April 8, 2011

It prevents them from seeing the weeping child - Hugo plays on our sympathies

I have been pretending, writing about Les Misérables this week, that Victor Hugo was an avant-gardist, an author of postmodern fiction, a peer of Pynchon and Rushdie and their hyper-realist pals.  My excuse is that Victor Hugo was, in fact, writing that kind of novel, an immense collage, a mixing of rhetorical modes, a mélange of high and low, convention and experiment.  It’s an adventure novel that includes digressions on linguistics and architecture.  It’s a novel of religious conversion that somehow also needs to describe, in detail, the battle of Waterloo and the Paris sewers.

The Modernist enterprise, the world of intense interiority and stream-of-consciousness writing, the followers of Flaubert, may not have needed Hugo for much (although I now am looking at Proust a little cock-eyed), but I am puzzled that more recent writers, the authors of cram-it-all-in fiction, have not championed Hugo.  Perhaps they have.

Or perhaps  they refuse to associate themselves with scenes like the one near the end of the novel in which two starving boys race the Luxembourg garden swans for a piece of half-eaten bread.  It begins:

At that very moment in the Luxembourg gardens – for the eye of the drama should be present everywhere – two children were holding each other by the hand.  One might have been seven years old, the other five.  Soaked by the earlier rain, they were walking in the paths on the sunny side; the older one was leading the little one; they were pale and in rags; they looked like wild birds.  The smaller one said; “I want something to eat.” (V.1.xvi.)

Here we have the very definition of novelistic sentimentality – wet, ragged, hungry children – if that definition is based only on content, not style.  The swans, the tame birds who will contest with the wild ones, appear five pages later; in between, a complacent father and his over-stuffed son supply the brioche.

After establishing the setting in an ecstatic mode (tulips, bees, statues that “were all tattered by the sunshine; it hung from them in shreds on all sides”), the three-way encounter between the father and son, the urchins, and the swans is told in a plain, precise style that would not be out of place in a Zola novel:

[T]he older boy quickly lay down with his face over the rounded edge of the pool, and, holding on with his left hand, hanging out over the water, almost falling in, with his right hand reached his stick out toward the cake.  The swans, seeing the enemy, made haste, and in making haste produced an effect with their breasts that was useful to the little fisherman; the water flowed away from the swans, and one of those smooth concentric waves pushed the bun gently toward the child’s stick. (V.i.xvi.)

It’s an earlier long paragraph, though, that colors the scene, a passage I have trouble imagining anyone writing today (this is just a bit of it):

The mother has no milk, the newborn dies, I know nothing about that, but look at this marvelous rosette formed by a transverse section of the sapwood of the fir tree when examined under the microscope!  Compare that with the most beautiful springtide!  These thinkers forget to love.  The zodiac has such success with them that it prevents them from seeing the weeping child.  God eclipses the soul.

And so on.  “[T]he nakedness of the poor in winter” and “the rags of shivering little girls.”  It’s all laid on a bit thick, except, and this is the crux, Hugo means every word of it.

Hugo believes that I, the aesthete and rationalist who marvels at the rosette, will, confronted with this passage, these ragged children, this immense novel, actually change my ways.  I will be surprised into sympathy with sufferers, with convicts and poor children, and will do something.  Do what?  Yes, a problem remains.  But sympathy is the first step.  Hugo is a leader, a charter member, of the International Sympathy Project.

Many fiction writers still believe in this possibility, or so I assume, but many, and many readers, too, must regard it with great suspicion, as naïve or foolish at best.  In Mary Barton, Elizabeth Gaskell seems to argue that an increase in sympathy is in and of itself ameliorative, or will inevitably lead to concrete changes that we cannot specify in advance.  Hugo would agree, I suspect, as, secretly, do I, although I have doubts about the pace of change.  The sympathies produced by reading are too distant, and fade too easily, but who knows what residue they might leave behind.  Hugo and Dickens and others thought that their fiction would change the world.  I suspect they were right.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Eternal city, unfathomable sewer - a Hugovian omni-metaphor

Paris has another Paris underneath herself; a Paris of sewers, which has its streets, its crossroads, its squares, its blind alleys, its arteries, and its circulation, which is slime, minus the human form.

The sewer is the conscience of the city…  All that used to be painted is besmirched.  The last veil is rent.  A sewer is a cynic.  It tells all.

At times this stomach of civilization had indigestion, the cloaca flowed back into the city’s throat, and Paris had the aftertaste of its slime.

The sewer is the taint the city has in its blood.

Imitate Paris, and you will be ruined.

I’m near the end of Les Misérables.  A couple of characters have escaped a fraught situation by escaping into the Paris sewers.  Hugo decides that a twenty page digression on sewers is in order.  Hugo is right.

The above lines are fragments, plucked from here and there.  Much of the passage is written like this, although I have omitted the hideously disgusting lists, some of which I can barely believe were publishable in England (some startling objects can be found under those ellipses).   I can hardly reproduce the bulk of Hugo’s rhetoric, the solidity of some of it, the gaseousness of the rest.

Hugo is preparing the ground for an action scene, one that must be a high point of any movie version.   He wants the reader to trace out the map, and I’m not sure that I don’t mean that literally.  Hugo is going to follow his characters through the sewers while keeping track of what they’re under, and I am expected to follow along as best I can.  But that hardly explains the passages about the ancient history of the sewers, not just of Paris but of Rome:

When the Campagna of Rome was ruined by the Roman sewer, Rome exhausted Italy, and when she had put Italy into her cloaca, she poured in Sicily, then Sardinia, then Africa.  The sewer of Rome engulfed the world.  This cloaca offered its yawning depths to the city and to the globe.  Urbi et orbi.  Eternal city, unfathomable sewer.  (V.2.i, 1259)

Or how about Hugo’s crackpot idea about collecting the human waste of Paris for fertilizer (“Paris throws five million a year into the sea”), or the point where a separate adventure story pops up, an account of the actual exploration and rebuilding of the ancient sewer that took place from 1805 to 1812, or the detailed statistics, geology (“seams of very fine clay and laminar schistose beds”), and geography of continued construction, up to Hugo’s present – “Today the sewer is neat, cold, straight, correct.”

Hugo wants our understanding of the sewers to be complete.  No part of the novel is allowed to exist only vaguely, and everything has to exist not just visually, as with Flaubert, but in space and time, in history.  And, perhaps most importantly, the sewers then become an enormous, all-encompassing metaphor for any number of aspects of the novel – the weight of history, the suddenness of change, the forgotten miserables.   Every line I excerpted is built out of metaphors.   I know another writer or two as good as Hugo in this regard.  Not many more.  I think I’ll save that for next week.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

He sinks, he strains, he struggles - the rhetoric of Les Misérables

I marveled, repeatedly, at the freedom with which Hugo wrote Les Misérables.  Chapters vary in length from dozens of pages to a single paragraph; the chapters are then gathered into sections that themselves range from eight pages to ninety.  Paragraphs and sentences show the same freedom.  One sentence – and I frankly do not remember which – contains, I am told, 823 words, making  it one of the longest in any novel.  Paragraphs span pages.  Or, as commonly, they are two words long:

Man overboard!

Who cares?  The ship sails on.  The wind is up, the dark ship must keep to its destined course.  It passes on.  (I.2.viii.)

Thus begins a two page chapter that contains nothing, nothing at all, except for a description and actions of the man who fell overboard, a character who exists only within the metaphor.  The metaphor tells us about the circumstances, the mentality, of Jean Valjean, an ex-convict, but it is hardly a necessary interruption of the story.

Here’s another sentence, another entire paragraph, from the same chapter:

Night falls; he has been swimming for hours, his strength almost gone; the ship, a distant far-off thing, where there were men, is gone; he is alone in the terrible gloom of the abyss; he sinks, he strains, he struggles, feels beneath himself invisible shadowy monsters; he screams.

Phrase by phrase, this is not complex writing – “Night falls… he screams.”    The rhetorical effect depends on the piling up of small, even banal, effects, much like the barricade built by Hugo’s revolutionaries.  The few extensions or poetic touches magnify the effect – create it, I suppose.  “[H]e is alone” has its own simple power, but add an abyss, a gloomy one, a terribly gloomy one, and those invisible monsters (a foreshadowing of Hugo’s next novel) begin to take on imaginative life.

Les Misérables was written, or accumulated, over a twenty year period.   At times, it felt like it, like Hugo was writing not with a pen but a wheelbarrow.  Or, other times, that he was more interested in rhetorical flourishes than in sense.  Hugo is not exactly a tightly controlled fiction writer.

Yet – the metaphor in the “Deep Waters, Dark Shadows” chapter becomes literal.  Jean Valjean is, early in the novel, just freed from prison after nineteen years, like a man fallen overboard.  But later in the novel, he actually becomes such a man – “All at once, the crowd shouted; the convict had fallen into the sea” (II.2.iii).  When does this occur? 280 pages after the two-page metaphorical man-adrift chapter.  280 pages!

I am imitating Hugo – he loves those little interjected questions.  His control over the novel he wrote greatly exceeds my control over the one I read.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

It was large and it was small - Hugo's omnibook

Les Misérables is an Omnibook, a book that contains everything.  All of Hugo, everything he knew, and he knew everything, poured into one book.   Absurd but admirably ambitious.  Every reader of the novel can identify a section or two or ten he would not miss.  I myself have doubts about a long chunk describing the history of a Paris convent.

I have seen French abridgements that follow a single character, so we have a Cosette novel and a Gavroche novel and a Jean Valjean novel, with parts that overlap and parts that stand alone.  I doubt too many novels could survive this treatment.  I can also imagine a version that skips the story and characters completely, or contains only one character, the inescapable one, M. Hugo.  Hugo on History, Hugo on War, Hugo on God, Hugo on All Things.  A preposterous book, but Hugo was a preposterous figure.

About a fifth of Les Misérables is devoted to a few days in 1832, during the futile July Revolution.  Students and workers build a street barricade in a corner of the Marais, prepared to give their lives for liberty, fraternity, and equality.  The description of the barricade and its construction is extraordinary, but it is somehow only a warm-up to a long passage about two other barricades, “two frightful masterpieces of civil war,” both from the 1848 revolution – the novel  is as much about 1848 (and 1789) as about 1832:

The Saint-Antoine barricade was monstrous; it was three stories high and seven hundred feet long…  Of what was this barricade made?  Of the ruins of three seven-story houses, torn down for the purpose, said some…  It was the collaboration of the pavement, the pebble, the timber, the iron bar, the scrap, the broken windowpane, the stripped chair, the cabbage stump, the tatter, the rag, and the malediction. It was large and it was small. (1171)

Hugo is not finished.  He has another two pages to go.  He cannot stop describing this beast, even interrupting himself to add more details – “disjointed chimneys, wardrobes, tables” (what it all means) “knuckle bones, coat buttons” (more interpretation) “its crest was thorny with muskets, with swords.”

Hugo has trouble looking away, as did I.*   The barrier, like his novel, contains everything.   But he has to get to the next one:

This wall was built of paving stones.  It was straight, correct, cold, perpendicular, leveled with the square, built on a line, aligned by the plummet…

It was fitted, dovetailed, imbricated, rectilinear, symmetrical, and deathly.  There was in it science and darkness.  You felt that the chief of that barricade was a geometer or a specter.  You beheld it and you spoke softly. (1174)

These fragments may entirely fail to convey the dual nightmare that Hugo conjures in this passage, the creation of these two horrors, objects that should not exist, renegades from Borges or Kafka that somehow escaped into the past, into a work that is mostly thought of, incorrectly, as an old-fashioned and sentimental adventure story, Dumas with a social conscience.

Les Misérables, more than any novel I can think of, except, perhaps Samuel Richardson’s hilariously long Clarissa (1747), begs for abridgement.  Not just one, though – many abridgements.  A different abridgement for each reader.  The reader wanting to Get On With It will want to snip away this interruption of the actual story.  I am certainly not that reader.

* C. B. James has provided more of this description of the first barrier, from a different translation, the lightly abridged Penguin Classics version, or the recent Julie Rose version.  I'm using the revised Wilbour translation, Signet Classics.

Monday, April 4, 2011

It would be a mistake to believe that one can walk in this way alone in the uninhabited regions of Paris, and not meet with some adventure - space in Les Misérables

Les Misérables, the 1862 Victor Hugo novel, is built around a series of elaborately constructed, complexly organized scenes.   The book is packed with incident, yet its plot is anything but one-thing-after-another.

Gavroche is twelve years old or so, and is a street urchin:

One evening, little Gavroche had had no dinner; he remembered that he had had no dinner the day before either; this was becoming tiresome.  He decided to try for some supper. (IV.4.ii.)

A note or two.  I am on page 916 of 1,463, in the blocky Signet Classics edition.  I barely know Gavroche at this point – I only met him on page 593, so we’re barely acquainted.  No, sorry, he first appeared on page 377:

When the brat’s insistent racket became too much to bear, “Your boy is squalling,” Thenardiér said.  “Why don’t you go see what he wants?”

“Aah!” the mother answered.  “I’m sick of him.”  And the poor little fellow went on crying in the darkness. (II.3.i.)

Back on page 377, I had not realized that I would need that baby later.  This is one way Les Misérables works.

Another way:  Gavroche “remembered” that he was hungry, which was “tiresome.”  Those are not Gavroche’s words, exactly – this is not stream of consciousness writing – but those are his thoughts.  He’s a funny kid.  Now, he has wandered towards a garden in which he remembers seeing an apple tree:

An apple is supper; an apple is life.  What ruined Adam might save Gavroche.

Those two sentence are pure Hugo.  They are syntactically simple but rhetorically complex.  Les Misérables is a masterpiece of the rhetoric of fiction, which is, admittedly neither the only nor the most important aspect of fiction.  But the novel does other things well, too.

Gavroche, scrunched under a hedge, discovers a penniless old man in the garden.  I had already met the old man, too, although Gavroche had not.  As the street darkens, two more figures come along, one of whom I could identify as Jean Valjean, the novel’s central character, and another Hugo has to identify, although he is not new, either.

Four characters, all known to me, not all known to, or even aware of, each other.  Only Gavroche, and Hugo, and I, see them all.  There is a mugging, and a struggle, and a nearly three page lecture on the wages of crime.  A little purse ends up in – let’s see – four pairs of hands.  Everyone present handles the purse.  The scene is seven pages long.

Understanding the physical space of the scene is crucial to comprehending the mechanics of the scene.  Gavroche, in his hedge, is right here; the old man under the tree is therefore over there, and the mugging  over there, and Gavroche has to move from A to B and then back to A.  Such is the case for every major scene in the book.

In most fiction, characters are disembodied voices, floating through an indistinct landscape.  In a few novels, better ones, they begin to take on some sort of form, and their world, or at least a few spots in it, solidify.  Hugo’s characters can be ghostly, too, but his world, his Paris, his stage sets, are  - not real, that is the exact wrong word - but substantial, existent enough that the imaginary people can occupy them.

Does any of that make any sense?  Regardless - forward!  This week, I make an attempt at How Fiction Works, Les Misérables edition.

Friday, April 1, 2011

An appreciation of Robert M. Adams - an April Fools' Day post (I am the fool)

I have never written an April Fools’ Day sort of blog post, and do not plan to start now.   Wuthering Expectations is an intrinsically foolish pursuit.  Plus, I don’t have any ideas.  On an entirely unrelated note, I cannot wait to get my hands on Duty, Esther, Duty: Or, Esther Summerson, Vampire Killer.  The new Ian Rankin novel also sounds like keen fun.

Instead, I will write more Robert M. Adams, the critic who wrote the wonderful nonsense about Milton that I wrote about yesterday.  I know nothing about Adams, nothing not on this Norton page.  I first encountered him, without knowing it, in the Norton Anthology of English Literature, volume 1, fifth edition, and have since read five or six of the Norton Critical Editions which he edited – The Prince, The Egoist, Candide, The Red and the Black (he titles it Red and Black), and Ben Jonson’s Plays and Masques.*   Candide and The Prince are in his own translations.  The Prince, in particular, holds the peculiar distinction of Greatest Critical Edition I have ever read.

How strange, to pay so much attention to the editor of the edition I am reading.  But how strange, also, to encounter a critic, a scholar, adept at the reading and study of Milton, Voltaire, Ben Jonson, Machiavelli, etc.  Thus, my interest – I, too, want to be a person who reads Milton, Meredith, and Machiavelli well, who can hop from era to era and country to country, who can write clearly, without reverence, without jargon.**  Adams seems to be something of a fellow Appreciationist. 

The beginning of “On the Bulk of Ben”:

He was a heavy man.  Everyone felt it, and he said so himself, heavily.  What other lover, in the course of recommending himself to his mistress, ever took occasion to remind her of his mountain belly and rocky face?  Earth and the earthy are always close at hand in Jonson’s work…  The impulses of the gut and groin, if generally subject to some limit of correction, are given voice throughout his work to a degree unparalleled. (482)

From “Getting the Point,” on Candide:

Our hero is, of course, indestructible.  Like one of those toy soldiers with a lead weight in his round foot, he pops upright no matter how many times he is knocked down. (177, 2nd edition)

A bit on The Egoist:

The characteristic action of Meredith’s style is a sting – a small, unobtrusive puncture is made, a bit of acid is silently injected – and only after a while does a large, itchy red patch appear to remind us of something actively at work which our complacencies don’t gladly tolerate. (557)

To aspire to the insights and quality of Adams’ writing, without his training, concentration, languages, or intelligence, is a sufficiently foolish idea, one that should keep me busy for a while.

* The second edition of Jonson’s plays, not edited by Adams, has been, why be polite, ruined by faddish nonsense.

** Not that obscurity, reverence, and jargon don’t have their place.