Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Jane Austen’s record collection

“Record collection” is a metaphor.  The collection that does exist is of sheet music, songs and piano pieces, in eight books, two in Austen’s own hand.  Of those two, one contains nothing but piano music, the other nothing but songs.  I have been listening to recordings based on these books.  For reference:

Jane Austen’s Songbook, Albany, 2004, featuring soprano Julianne Baird and others.
The Music and Songs of Jane Austen, Isis, 1996, performed by The Windsor Box and Fir Company.
The Jane Austen Collection, Divine Art, 2007, performed by the Concert Royal.

The first album presents the entire book of thirty-seven songs,  beginning to end.  The other two mix the piano music with the songs.  The Jane Austen Collection also includes relevant spoken excerpts from Sense and Sensibility and Emma (who gave Jane Fairfax that piano?) and Austen’s letters, extremely irritating interruptions during ordinary listening.  I have library copies, and therefore booklets for the first two.

Each album pretends to simulate a musical evening at the Austen house, or perhaps, if the moon is full, at a neighbor’s place.  I found this plausible, and Janites or Janists or whatever they call themselves will likely find a lot of charm in any of these performances.  The piano pieces are generally worse than the songs, either curiosities or etudes; a five minute theme-and-variations on “Deck the Halls” was almost unbearable.  The fact that it was likely composed by Austen’s own piano teacher makes it no less grating.   A couple of pieces are by Haydn; I am not complaining about those.

The songs have lyrics, and the lyrics allow annotators and fantasists to squeeze biographical meaning out of them.  The only song shared across all three albums is “The Irishman,” which surely held a special place in Austen’s collection because of her romantic entanglement with the Irishman Tom LeFroy.  Well, who knows, but I am more amused imagining Austen and company belting out these lyrics:

The turban’d Turk, who scorns the world,
May strut about with his whiskers curl’d,
Keep a hundred wives under lock and key
For nobody else but himself to see.
Yet long may he sway with his Alcoran
Before he can love like an Irishman.

The second verse, about corrupt London, is almost smutty.  The songbook has several more supposedly Moorish songs, borrowed from forgotten operas like The Mountaineers or Alcanzor and Zaida, as well as a number of French songs.  “The Marseilles March” is another that, in this context, makes me laugh:

Aux Armes, Citoyens!
Formez vos bataillons,
Marchez, marchez!
Qu’un sang impur
Abreuve nos sillons!

To Arms, citizens!
Close your ranks,
March, march!
Let their impure blood
Soak our fields!

How I would love to root through the record collection of all of my favorite writers, even though I am perfectly aware that the useful information in a collection is limited, not much more than trivial correspondences – Borges loved the Beach Boys!*  Me, too!  Even here, the assumption that Austen particularly loved the songs in her own hand, compared to the ones in the other books, copied out by a sister or friend, is just wild guesswork.  All I am sure that I learned here was that Austen’s musical tastes were of her own time, although it is nice to be able to listen in.

All of this is a response to an invitation by the Sparkling Squirrel to Austenize a bit without necessarily reading Austen.

*  Plausible, but an invention.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

The Death of Moby Dick as imagined by Jon Langford – plus an anonymous thank you

Today’s book is Skull Orchard Revisited by Jon Langford “with David Langford & photographs by Denis Langford,” Verse Chorus Press, 2010.  Jon is best known as a founder of the Mekons, an art-punk band from long ago; David is a British science fiction writer; Denis is their father.  The hardback book is a hodgepodge of family snapshots, Jon’s paintings (see above) and lyrics, David’s “South Wales Alphabet” (R is for Rationing, S is for Sheep), and a short story entitled “Inside the Whale.”  All of this is jumbled together, like in a scrapbook.

Oh, there’s a CD, too, a re-recording of Jon Langford’s 1998 album Skull Orchard, this time featuring the Burlington Welsh Male Chorus.  Both versions of the record are excellent.  The songs, like the book, are mostly, if cryptically, about growing up in, or living away from, Newport in South Wales.  One of the best songs, “The Butter Song,” is actually from Gertrude Stein’s libretto Doctor Faustus Lights the Lights, but it presumably has thematic resonance – R is, after all, for Rationing.

The book is an enormous help in explaining the songs and paintings and vice versa.  Why is Sputnik in the painting with the whale?  Because Jon Langford was born in the same week as the Sputnik launch.  But then why the whale?  Many reasons:  1) Melville’s Moby-Dick is a rich source of imagery and ideas, 2) Wales = whales, yes?  “But no light escapes \ from inside the whale” (p.15).


Enough about the book, of high interest to fans of the Mekons or of Langford’s art, and, I would suppose, to anyone who from South Wales.  How many of those people have wandered by Wuthering Expectations?  I want to look at that short story.

“Inside the Whale” is narrated by Moby Dick himself; he has met a well-read dolphin who has filled him in on Melville:  “’You’re most famous,’ she clicked. ‘You’re bloody mythic,’ she added with a frantic nodding screech.”  But Moby Dick does not remember any of the events of Moby Dick, or even realize that that is who he is.  The story ends like this:

THE DEATH OF MOBY DICK

In one early version of the book I am the only survivor, the bit about Ishmael and the savage’s coffin got lost at the printers and, despite the first-person narrative, I am the only one who doesn’t die.  Imagine that!  Now you can write a song about me and call it The Death of Moby Dick, and though the hunt is over and the monsters have finally won, it’ll be the last thing ever to cross your lips, because now I’m just like you.  There’s really no difference at all. (79)

Last summer, during the Moby Dick Fantasia, I, too, envisioned the death of Moby Dick, although Langford’s version is quite different than what I had cooked up.  Moby Dick should have many deaths.

Now, it seems that I have been nominated for an award – I am on this Classics Book Blog list.  Many thanks, really, to whomever put me on there.  It was kind to think of me.  My understanding is that the list of five will soon be boiled down to three.  To support my nomination, I picked out five posts, including The Death of Moby Dick, a real favorite of mine, which should put a quick end to this award business.  It is an honor just to be nominated, etc.  But it really is, so thanks again.

Oops - I forgot the useful Skull Orchard myspace page which seems to load quietly, bless 'im.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Stempenyu: A Jewish Romance - Sholem Aleichem's first long novel

A couple of years ago, I read eight books by Sholem Aleichem, not including what the author calls “my first long novel,” Stempenyu: A Jewish Romance (1888, quote on p. xi), about a star fiddler and the women who fall for him.  The novel has its moments, but is, in general awkward and minor.  Some passages and characters prefigure the greater works to come.  Otherwise, I can recommend the novel only to readers particularly curious about the origins of the Yiddish novel or the development of the artistry of Sholem Aleichem.

A reader like me, for example.  I am glad I read the book, but I cringe a bit to think that it has been the introduction to this great author for so many good readers.  Bibliographing nicole assumes, or hopes, that “its style [is] characteristic,” and she is right, but also entirely wrong.  “Folksy, intrusive, exuberant” – all useful words for Sholem Aleichem’s third person novels.  The problem is that Sholem Aleichem’s greatest works are all in the first person, and are almost all representations of speech.  Sholem Aleichem is among history’s greatest monologists.  The third person novels are all weaker; of the three I have read, Stempenyu is easily the weakest.

I wrote a guide to Sholem Aleichem way back when.  The linked monologues of Tevye the Dairyman are my pick as Single Best Book, but the back-and-forth Letters of Menakhem-Mendl and Sheyne-Sheyndl or the extra-exuberant Motl, the Cantor's Son or the traveler’s motley of The Railroad Stories are of comparable quality, as is, I suspect, any random collection of Sholem Aleichem’s monologues.  Nineteen to the Dozen is an especially good recent example.

The curious thing about the novels that I have read is that they are all about performing artists, extraordinary ones:  an ecstatic fiddler in Stempenyu, a flawless cantor in The Nightingale (1889), an actor and a singer in Wandering Stars (1909).  The monologues that I have read have all been about ordinary folks.  Interesting, isn’t it, that when Sholem Aleichem wanted a “big” story, a story for a novel, he so often reached for performers, to characters who had a big cultural role.

Note that The Nightingale was published only a year after Stempenyu.  It rewrites much of the earlier novel, borrowing much of the story and language, particularly the ecstatic musical language (“divine voices,” “magical tones,” etc., all borrowed from the typical p. 23 of Stempenyu), and unfortunately borrows or fails to expunge some of the same structural problems.  The last quarter or so of The Nightingale, an extended wedding scene, turns into something much more powerful and original.

This is my little contribution to the massive Art of the Novella reading that has been occupying the attention of so many, so all page numbers are from the recent Melville House edition, which uses an old translation by Hannah Berman.  Well done, Nonsuch Frances, although I will admit that I had wondered, from the beginning, about the desire to rush through these books, even through Stempenyu, which is worth reading carefully if it is worth reading at all.

Friday, August 26, 2011

For heaven’s sake cut out the cross-talk vaudeville stuff! - the mysteries of great dialogue

‘A note for you, sir.’

‘A note for me, Jeeves?’

‘A note for you, sir.’

‘From whom, Jeeves?’

‘From Miss Bassett, sir.’

‘From whom, Jeeves?’

‘From Miss Bassett, sir.’

‘From Miss Bassett, Jeeves?’

‘From Miss Bassett, sir.’

At this point, Aunt Dahlia, who had taken one nibble at her whatever-it-was-on-toast and laid it down, begged us – a little fretfully, I thought – for heaven’s sake to cut out the cross-talk vaudeville stuff, as she had enough to bear already without having to listen to us do our imitation of the Two Macs.

A long quote, but P. G. Wodehouse is easy on the old brainpan.  Right Ho, Jeeves, 1934, Ch. 20.  Were the Two Macs an act or a bit?  I am wandering back to the subject of dialogue, of speech.

We are awash in imagined talk.  Television and screen writing is mostly talk, although the finished product may well be mostly something else.  First person novels are often simulations of speech, strangely unending one-sided conversations.  Plays are often nothing but speech.   If I complain that Middlemarch has too much dialogue, when in another sense it has little, what can I make of Uncle Vanya or Glengarry Glen Ross?

Great talk in a great play by a great writer – there is a wonderful mystery.  The author must successfully imagine and differentiate the speech of his characters, yet somehow maintain a consistent voice.  Iago sounds like Iago and Othello like Othello, yet both sound like Shakespeare.  A good trick.

One solution to the puzzle is that great dialogue writers abandon the notion that speech should be smooth or realistic or natural.  Great dialogue is so often mannered, eccentric, labored, even bizarre.    Meine Frau discovered the complete Glengarry Glenn Ross (1984) online.  Start anywhere  - start at the beginning (warning: one may stumble across a bit of profanity here and there):

LEVENE:  John...John...John.  Okay.  John.

John.  Look:

(pause)

And pretty soon the Mametian cross-talk vaudeville gets going, clumsy and weird and obviously, just looking at the page, unactable.  The amazing thing is how quickly a reader or listener can be lulled into the pleasant fantasy that this strange talk is in fact realistic and smooth and so on.

AARONOW:  Why?

ROMA:  They're inured to it.

AARONOW:  You think so?

ROMA:  Yes.

The playwright has the enormous advantage of professional actors who can do all sorts of surprising things with even the flattest dialogue.  I wish you could hear what David Pasquesi did with the word “inured” in the 2002 Steppenwolf production; he made it sound like it he had just learned it, like it had just turned up on his word-a-day calendar and he was testing it out.  The fiction writer is stuck with the sleepy and unimaginative reader.  I do my best with Uncle Vanya, but the actors in Vanya on 42nd Street do better.

Still, what am I doing with fiction that I am not doing with a play?  I imagine voices, clothes, rooms, movement.  Or I omit much of this – I leave the background and blocking just as gray and blurry as the author typically does.  But I cannot omit the voices, can I?  I always have to work with the author on those voices. I have to be the actor, I have to play Darcy and Elizabeth and Heathcliff and Dorothea Brooke and, I don’t know, Papa Moomintroll and young Laura Ingalls and both Bertie Wooster and Jeeves.  What a fine challenge for an actor.  What a mystery.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Productive Trollope --> productive Wuthering Expectations

At one point, I doubted that it would be possible to write and write and write about Trollope and his nearly endless string of not indistinguishable novels.  How wrong I was!  But of course a good critic, or even his amateur imitation, should be able throw off  200 or 500 or, heaven help us, 1,000 words about any passage of literature picked at random, and since Trollope is stuffed with passages that almost seem to have been written at random, he is an outstanding book bloggish resource.  Not the tightest of writers, Trollope.  I believe I said that yesterday.  Another useful tool for writers, bloggers or Trollope, is repetition.

I should perhaps wonder more if I can write and write etc. about Trollope without boring my soft-hearted readers, or myself, into the grave.  We shall find out!  2 Barchester + 6 Palliser + He Knew He Was Right + the one about manuring techniques + the autobiography + a few more, multiplied by, say four posts per book, gives fifty posts, more or less.  I can almost see the shadowy form of my future Best Classics Blogger award hidden among those imaginary posts.*

A note for further Trollope reading:

Mark Robarts, Framley Parsonage’s clergyman protagonist, falls, or leaps, into money trouble because of his association with fast-livers, leisured gentlemen who kill their day by “riding after a fox or killing poor birds,” as Lucy describes her beloved’s pursuits in the great Ch. 26.  So of course Mark takes up hunting too:

The reader must not think that he had taken to hunting, as some parsons do; and it is singular enough that whenever they do so they always show a special aptitude for the pursuit, as though hunting were an employment peculiarly congenial with a cure of souls in the country.  Such a thought would do our vicar injustice. (Ch. 3)

Or, I guess, Mark does not take up hunting.  Trollope just denied it, even called it an injustice.  A key Trollopian problem is figuring out how seriously to take anything narrator-Trollope says.  Here is the end of the paragraph, which I now suspect I should take quite seriously:

It would be absurd to say that his time would be better employed at home in clerical matters, for it was notorious that he had not clerical pursuits for the employment of half his time.

This specific idea, that Mark does not work hard enough, and that almost no one expects him to work harder than he does, is an undercurrent of Framley Parsonage.  Idle hands, as they say.  But “absurd,” “notorious”: though Trollope plays at defending Mark, at propping up our sympathy, that last line is a rhetorical stiletto.  One might detect a hint of anger.  I need to keep my eyes open for the Carlylian Trollope, the Trollope whose motto is “Produce! Produce!” and who is skeptical or worse towards the non-productive.

*  Many thanks, by the way, to whomever was involved in nominating me for this award.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Loose, Baggy, Soapy Trollope

Although I have never been exactly sure what Henry James meant when he described War and Peace and The Three Musketeers as “loose baggy monsters,” I can at least see that the Dumas novel could be endlessly extended with more adventurous episodes, and that War and Peace could easily – easily in theory – be extended out in scope, could weave in the stories of even more characters.  Both novels have a structure, but one that is capacious and flexible.

Framley Parsonage is, if not so monstrous, easily the loosest and baggiest of the first four Barchester novels.  Trollope is never exactly the tightest of writers, but the structure – the parallel plots and so on – of the earlier novels is clear enough to distinguish.  Framley Parsonage, almost exactly the same length as its predecessor Doctor Thorne, at first trots along a well-marked path, but at some point the road grows indistinct, and the frame begins to dissolve.

The novel was serialized in sixteen parts of three chapters each, one a month, which by itself should provide a fair amount of structure, and, for a while, does.  The first nine chapters and three parts tell the straight-line story of a clergyman, Mark Robarts, who rises too quickly and falls in with a crowd that is too fast for him; money trouble ensues that will be serious enough to take the story to the end of the novel.

As good as Trollope is with stories about money, it should be clear that something is missing.  Mark Robarts is married; where is our romantic heroine?  She is mentioned in Chapter 1, briefly, and only because “it will come to pass that my readers will know her hereafter.” Chapter 10, the beginning of the fourth installment, bears her name (“Lucy Robarts” – she is the clergyman’s sister), telling the impatient reader that the romantic plot can finally begin.

But now a new structure appears:  two chapters of Lucy \ romance, one chapter of Mark \ money, or occasionally two money and one love.  The money chapters, though, begin to shift.  Entire chapters pass without Mark Robarts appearing at all, with no one but (no longer) incidental characters: the dissolute MP Sowerby, for example, or the skin cream heiress Miss Dunstable.  We met the admirable Miss Dunstable in Doctor Thorne, and soon more Barchester characters appear not just in cameos and party scenes, but in full-fledged subplots.  Were we not done with these people?  Reading Doctor Thorne, it did not once occur to me to wonder who the title character might marry.  Now I knew.  Well, I knew the last time I read the novel, but I had forgotten.  Now I knew again.

The subplots eventually resolve and recede, allowing the original story to wrap itself up, if that is the right metaphor, which it is not, as Trollope demonstrates in Framley Parsonage.  In this useful post, The Argumentative Old Git attempts to narrow the meaning of “soap opera” enough to make it critically fruitful, working on the structure of the soap opera, its potential unendingness.  Framley Parsonage is Trollope’s first real soap opera.  It never has to end.

Looking back, I should perhaps label this post a “loose, baggy monster.”  Oh well, onward, endlessly.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

If you were in love you would not speak of it like that – dialogue as performance in Framley Parsonage

In theory I should continue my angry anti-dialogue screed, or at least address the enormous holes in the argument, commonly known as “plays.”  I’m going to pursue Trollope first, though.

My favorite scene, the most original scene, in Framley Parsonage is right in the center of both the novel and its romantic plot.  Young, insignificant Lucy Robarts has refused, for various complicated social and familial reasons, the hand of the great Lord Lufton, despite being in love with him.  In Chapter 26, titled “Impulsive,” Lucy confesses all to her sensible sister-in-law.

The conversation begins with banality, a discussion about how to help a poor neighbor girl:

“I don”t know how to set about it,” said Mrs. Robarts.

“No; one never does,” Lucy said.

“I was thinking about it all that day as I drove home,” said Fanny.  “The difficulty is this: What can we do with her?”

“Exactly,” said Lucy.

What a drag, all of this dialogue.  But I have cheated, grievously; I have given only the third line as Trollope wrote it.  The last line is actually:

“Exactly,” said Lucy, remembering the very point of the road at which she had declared that she did like Lord Lufton very much.

So even the ordinary dialogue is more interesting than it seems, once I know Lucy’s hidden thoughts.  They soon move into the open:

“I'll tell you what he has: he has fine straight legs, and a smooth forehead, and a good-humoured eye, and white teeth.  Was it possible to see such a catalogue of perfections, and not fall down, stricken to the very bone?  But it was not that that did it all, Fanny.  I could have stood against that.  I think I could at least.  It was his title that killed me.  I had never spoken to a lord before.  Oh, me! what a fool, what a beast I have been!”  And then she burst out into tears.

By this point, I had spent plenty of time in Lucy’s head, and had witnessed the proposal scene, way back in chapter 16, hilariously titled “Mrs. Podgens’ Baby.”  Lucy certainly has not fallen in love with Lord Lufton because of his legs and title.  Her sister-in-law is put in the place of the puzzled reader:

It was evident enough that [Lucy’s] misery was real; but yet she spoke of herself and her sufferings with so much irony, with so near an approach to joking, that it was very hard to tell how far she was in earnest.

Lucy, a dedicated ironist of a talent at least as great as Trollope’s, is not merely confessing her love and heartbreak, but performing it.  The ten page scene is barely a dialogue at all, but a monologue with commentary, from Fanny Roberts and from Trollope, who describes Lucy’s performance as “half tragic and half jeering.”  Lucy, the most self-aware of Trollope’s Barchester heroines, is engaging in a form of self-therapy:

“Lucy, I do not believe that you care for him one jot.  If you were in love you would not speak of it like that."

"There, there.  That's my only hope.  If I could laugh at myself till it had become incredible to you, I also, by degrees, should cease to believe that I had cared for him.  But, Fanny, it is very hard.  If I were to starve, and rise before daybreak, and pinch myself, or do some nasty work,-- clean the pots and pans and the candlesticks; that I think would do the most good.  I have got a piece of sack-cloth, and I mean to wear that, when I have made it up."

"You are joking now, Lucy, I know."

"No, by my word; not in the spirit of what I am saying.”

If I wanted less of anything in this scene, it was not less dialogue but less Trollope, less interpretation.  But he is kindly thinking of his poor reader, who, like Fanny, is wondering what to do with this strange, breathless, hysterical, yet tightly controlled performance of Lucy’s.  Brava, brava!

Monday, August 22, 2011

Too much dialogue

When I wrote, or did not write, about Middlemarch last month, I offhandedly complained that the novel had too much dialogue.  I am in an explainin’ kind of mood, so I will spend some time baring my prejudices.  Or – what is a more positive way to say that? – explicating my critical principles.  Better stick with prejudices.

Many readers rejoice to come across an unexpected patch of dialogue in a complex novel, like hikers in a dense forest emerging into a meadow full of wildflowers, butterflies, and a clearly marked trail.  Look at all of that white space!  The pages suddenly turn so quickly, as if the ink of the extra words had actually been weighing down the page.  I am not above this feeling, but the vagaries of my mental state while reclining with a book is about as far from a critical principle as I can get.  Reading Middlemarch, or any great book, writing about it, I want to be able to push back as hard as I can.  The novel can handle the pressure.

The problem with certain passages of dialogue in Middlemarch is not that they are bad, or even mediocre, or even merely good.  The dialogue is consistently quite good.  The voices of the characters are distinguishable, the conversations further both the action and themes of the novel, and the dross of ordinary conversation has been artfully trimmed.

My prejudice is not that an author should not solve the problems of her novel with dialogue, but rather that good, even very good dialogue, is a common virtue of fiction writers.  Not universal, but easy to find.  Writers with a fifth of the talent of Eliot write dialogue of similar quality all the time.  Dialogue is a problem that most professional writers solve quickly.  Imagery and structure take longer, or are always problems.  Genuine human insight is rare; genuine ideas almost endangered.  Valuing what is unique, or at least rare, I grow restless when a writer of Eliot’s power solves the problems of her novels with a device or a passage that I can find all over the place.  “Good” is not a high enough standard.

I do not know why I keep talking about Middlemarch, since it is Anthony Trollope’s lesser Framley Parsonage (1860-1) that I have in front of me.  A sample of Trollope, from what is, I have read, the greatest novel in the English language:

‘Do you remember that day, Lucy?’ he said again.

‘Yes, I remember it,’ she said.

‘Why did you say it was impossible?’

‘Did I say impossible?’  She knew that she had said so.  (Ch. 48)

And then another page or so in this vein.  In context, we are a few pages from the end of the novel, and are likely racing forward in order to finish the book, not putting too much pressure on any particular word or sentence or phrase, so this ordinarily good dialogue writing, which lets us eavesdrop on the central romantic couple, for whom we presumably, at this point, have significant sympathy and interest, works just how it ought to work.  Trollope has to do something to let the lovebirds spend some time together under our invisible gaze, and his standard solution (discuss and resolve an earlier courtship difficulty) is effective.  It is just not as artful or surprising as the non-standard solution, whatever that might be.

All of this is just a backwards preface to some further writing I want to do about Framley Parsonage.  The single most surprising chapter, the one that impressed me the most, is almost entirely in dialogue.

I make strong claims only in order to prove myself wrong.

Friday, August 19, 2011

A Death in Vienna, a pretty good psychological historical mystery

A Death in Vienna (2005, Mortal Mischief in the UK, it seems) is a historical mystery by Frank Tallis, the first of what will soon by six books starring a Holmes-like psychiatrist who solves crimes in turn of the century Vienna alongside a Watson-like police detective.  Tallis gives himself the amusing challenge of a combination locked room \ disappearing bullet mystery.  Sigmund Freud appears as a character in some of the novel’s best scenes; he is presented primarily as a collector, of antique figurines and Yiddish jokes.  The novel is pretty good.

I could complain about the usual stuff – the arbitrariness of the central mystery, particularly of the solution; the absurdity of the climax (mystery authors, I beg you: risk anti-climax!); the thinness of all but a few characters; the cut-and-paste assemblage of much of the historical detail (a Mahler concert in this chapter, a Klimt exhibit in another); and worst of all the unnecessarily manipulative withholding of information in the name of a misguided attempt at suspense.  Within the world of mysteries, again, all of this is pretty good, but that is not the world in which I live.

Instead, I want to emphasize something interesting.  The murder mystery plot is paralleled by one of the psychiatrist’s cases, a woman who is suffering from partial paralysis due to a repressed trauma.  The psychiatrist hero works on the mystery for a chapter, then treats his patient in the next.  The medical case is entirely unrelated to the mystery, or, really, it is merely thematically related.  The most important connection is general:  the methodological similarity between solving the whodunnit and treating the patient, piecing together the clues from her behavior, her symptoms, to solve her personal mystery.

I have no doubt that there have been other psychiatrist detectives and other mysteries with this structure, but it was new to me, and more importantly the clinical sections were completely convincing and interesting for their own sake.  Tallis is himself a clinical psychiatrist.  He is enormously knowledgeable about Vienna, but he seemed more deeply invested in the practice and history of his profession.

Unfortunately, Tallis eventually follows formula and pulls the parallel lines together, although not as gruesomely as I feared – say the killer discovers the relationship kidnaps the patient ethical dilemma heroic rescue shot in the shoulder blah blah blah.  Tallis’s plot is quite a bit better than that, although it is hard to forgive this:

Amelia paused respectfully before saying, “There is an error?”

“My good woman,” said Holz, “surely you do not mean to ascribe theta with these parameter values? An elementary mistake!”

Holz tossed the paper back at Amelia, who caught it before it fluttered to the floor.  (420)

Oh no, Herr Professor Holz, she picked that value of theta on purpose, thus solving, with mathematics, the missing bullet part of the mystery.

I am following the daring reviewer strategy of only quoting the single worst part of the novel.  If you can tolerate that, I assure you that the rest of the novel is better written and much less ridiculous, and it was satisfying plane and train reading.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

A visit to Proust's cork-lined room

Here it is, where genius labored, where the magic of the final parts of In Search of Lost Time was conjured, unless you are a heretic like me who finds that novel uneven and feels that the best parts had been written earlier:


Is this what you were expecting?  It threw me a little.  Seems a bit cramped, no?  A little more context might help:


I was in the Museé Carnavalet, a Paris museum on the subject of Paris, examining the reconstructions of writer’s rooms (the other writers airing the contents of their bedrooms are Anna de Noailles and Paul Léautaud, writers with no English reputation who I assume, bitterly, are as good as Proust).  The shell of the space is a replica but the contents are authentic, if I understand this text, which I doubt.  Follow that link to examine Proust’s furniture more closely, particularly that portrait.  I assume the storage closet-like dimensions are a liberty of the curators.

The Museé Carnavalet was itself once, surprise, surprise, a writer’s house, a residence of Madame de Sévigné, the favorite writer of the grandmother of Proust’s mirror-image narrator.  The pleasure and insight a visitor will receive from the museum will depend heavily on his taste for French furniture and curtains, but the building is a beauty, the collection of second-rate paintings take on greater meaning because of their common Paris theme, the old Paris shop signs are a delight, and then there’s this:


Why it is Villiers de l’Isle-Adam, the French Poe!  Imagine the set of steps, the human effort, that was required to bring this magnificently insane artifact into existence.

The Museé Carnavalet is just a few steps away from the Place des Vosges and the Maison de Victor Hugo;  in between is this artistic wonder:


That is a crumble d’agneau, or lamb crumble, obtainable, along with many other pleasant things, at Chez Janou.  I certainly did not go to France to look at writer’s houses and 18th century furniture, but one has to do something between meals.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

French literary tourism, voluntary and otherwise

Every trip to France is literary, or is to a visitor who knows the names of writers.  Victor Hugo was a daily presence during our visits to Grenoble, Lyon, and Avignon because of prominent, central plazas names after him.  “We need to go to that bakery in the Place Victor Hugo and get a brioche aux pralines,” that’s how I routinely invoked the name of Hugo.

I do not know the history of the naming of French streets and plazas, when city after city concluded that plaza needed to be named after a literary hero, when, for example, Dijon’s citizens demanded a Place Emile Zola even though Zola has no particular connection to Dijon.  The square now features a bar named L’Assomoir that frankly seemed too froufrou – too clean – for that name, a frog-centered restaurant named Le Germinal, and, most amusingly, Pizz’zola, and why not.


The small Burgundian city of Auxerre, well worth visiting for its surviving medieval and early modern architecture, has been able to celebrate writers with the help of a sculptor, François Brochet, who adopted the region.  Is there a more charming statue of a poet than that of Marie Noël?  She seems to be a poet of real, if modest, renown in France; she has no presence in English at all, not that I can find.  I wonder what her work is like?  One result of every vacation, for me, is a reminder of the thinness of my knowledge and the narrowness of my vision.


Has anyone, any wandering visitor to Wuthering Expectations, read Rétif de la Bretonne?  I have read a couple of his charming and sentimental stories about peasants, although he is best known, or so I believe, for his twelve (or is it sixteen?) volume autobiography Monsieur Nicolas (circa 1797), which rivals Casanova in its sexual prodigiousness.  He was born near Auxerre and briefly apprenticed in the city, as a printer – there is, of course, a plaque on the relevant building.  If only I had a point here.  I merely want to admire Brochet’s sculpture of Rétif de la Bretonne, where he and his lady friend are seated on that startling pile of books.

Sometimes it seemed to this tourist that all of France was built on a pile of books.

An irrelevant, unrelated note:  I logged in to Wuthering Expectations this morning to find this jolly message: “It looks like your blog is popular” (it is not!) ”and many popular blogs make money” (they do not!).

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

The Hugo Objects at the Maison de Victor Hugo

My suspicion of the concept of the value of the writer’s house museum does not stop me from visiting them whenever I can.  The grounds for suspicion are obvious, I assume* – the attempt to squeeze meaning out of seeing the pen with which the author wrote his masterpiece, the chair on which he sat, the fainting couch on which he reclined, the chamber pot which he hurled at a yowling cat that had interrupted his concentration, and so on.  In a painter’s house, we do what the artist did, we look carefully at interesting objects; in the writer’s house we look carefully at the contents of someone’s attic.

So I dunno.  The literary boosters of Grenoble are currently renovating and assembling a Maison Stendhal in the house of the author’s grandfather.  They have one great advantage – the local university curates the Stendhal archives, including his manuscripts – that may or may not overcome the endless obstacles to an interesting museum visit:  Stendhal hated Grenoble, left it as soon as he could, and so on.  He went to school over there; this plaza is featured in The Life of Henry Brulard; the vines on this trellis could be the ones planted  by his grandfather, but most likely are not.  All of this should be ready in – well, several years from now.

I am imagining, here, that the visitor is genuinely interested in the writer and has read some sample of his works.  Picture, instead, the poor sap who is dragged into one of these museums with no knowledge or interest.  Luckily for him, writer museums are typically small.

The Maison de Victor Hugo, on the charming Place des Vosges in Paris, has the enormous advantage of featuring the enormous Victor Hugo, not just a writer but a celebrity.  A floor of the house is currently devoted to an extraordinary display of Hugo objects, the Hugobjets, a bewildering selection of Hugo kitsch:  the Hugo fan could drink Hugo beer and gamble with Hugo playing cards; the aspiring sage could write with Hugo pens and Hugo ink.  Trademark laws being what they were, none of this was generated by Hugo himself – there was no Hugo, Inc. – but by anyone who hoped that Hugo’s aura would help move his merchandise.  A visit to Google Images should give an idea of the variety of stuff.


The ordinary objects with Hugo’s face pasted on them were most amusing to me, but the volume of commemorative plates, fans, cards, and busts, pictured above, were perhaps more instructive.  Everyone wanted a relic of Saint Victor of Notre Dame.  The Hugobjets date, mostly, from 1870 or later, near the end of Hugo’s life, when his popularity and stature somehow metastasized into a Hugo craze that continued for a decade or two after his death.  He was no longer just the greatest French writer, peer of Shakespeare and Goethe, but something much larger, and sillier.

The Hugobjets exhibit was enormously instructive.  It became obvious why writers like Verlaine and Corbière and Gide had to ignore or mock or reject Hugo, whether or not he was the greatest poet in the language, even if they had to jettison the poetry along with the plates and busts and playing cards.  What a burden; what a monster.

* See, please, April Bernard on the topic.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Returned from France but not to Wuthering Expectations, not yet

One must consider the possibility that one does not recover from international flights with the quickness that one did a number of years ago.  It is no coincidence that my Currently Reading list, typically containing six substantial volumes, now features a single P. G. Wodehouse novel.*   I’m back but I’m beat.  Ambitious, or even ordinary, writing will have to wait.  A further complication is a jolly family event, for which I leave tomorrow.  Next Tuesday, that is when I will return in force, or so I hope.

France is, by the way, still nice.  Lyons is nice, Avignon is nice, Burgundy is tres tres jolie.  If I were writing the early modern book blog that I wish someone else would write, Quixote Furioso or whatever it is called, I would concoct lengthy posts about the Duchy of Burgundy and the great Memoirs of Philippe de Commynes (1489+), and the French capture of the papacy, and the works of the 16th century Lyonnais poet Maurice Scève, and many other fascinating subjects.  But I do not write that blog.


On this one, I would like to demonstrate the results of my research at the Victor Hugo house in Paris, and to study a statue of the delightfully granny-like Auxerre poet Marie Noël, but that would involve sorting and cleaning my photos, which is exhausting.  Or I could, it seems, plunder French Wikipedia.  In their photo, you can see the dog, but the rabbit and snail are hidden.  C’est tres chouette, non?

I see that many other book bloggers are reading novellas, or close relatives thereof.  Perhaps I should read one as well.  I am afraid, though, that I will be too busy, once my joie de vivre returns, assembling my 19th century Danish paper theater as provided by 50 Watts.

Tuesday, that’s the revised goal.

* Update: As was inevitable, or at least likely, Right Ho, Jeeves has been completed. Onward.