Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Notes on Machado de Assis using his characteristic form

I. No more than 37 pages into Quincas Borba, the 1891 Machado de Assis novel, I have no idea what the story might be.  A schoolteacher inherits a fortunes and a dog from a mad philosopher, whose great saying is “TO THE VICTOR, THE POTATOES” (Ch. XVIII).  The teacher is the victor, and thus he gets the potatoes, although I wonder about the dog.  An earlier translation of the book is in fact titled Philosopher or Dog?  Both philosopher and dog are names Quincas Borba.  I guess this setup could go anywhere.

II.  The Posthumous Memoirs of Bras Cubas (1881) could go anywhere, and does, while also going nowhere.  Thinking over the story, I am surprised to recall how little there is.  A man of leisure has a long-term affair with a married woman which eventually fizzles.  He has other ambitions which also fizzle.  Eventually, he dies, after which he composes his memoirs.  How is that a novel?

III.  The story of Dom Casmurro (1899) is more substantially novelistic.  A teenage boy, Bentinho, does not want to go to the seminary, and does not want to become a priest.  He is in love with the girl next door, the startling and original Capitú; she, for some reason, loves him, too.  They scheme to keep Bentinho at home.  Aside from some peculiar digressions by the narrator, the adult Bentinho, and the knowledge, from the early chapters, that something separates the lovers, the novel is almost a conventional love story.  That lasts for about a hundred pages.  Then the novel spins off into the void, but slowly, sneakily.

IV.  Although I would not guess it from the novels, Machado de Assis was full of stories.  He published over 200 of them among which – I have opened the Oxford Anthology of the Brazilian Short Story (2006) to Machado’s biography on page 37 – he “exhibits a polished, concise, and masterful style in sixty-three stories.”  In fact, “at least sixty are masterpieces of world literature.”   I greatly admire the confidence and precision of the biographer’s judgment.

V.  It would be useful, certainly, if someone would translate and publish Machado’s final five volumes of short stories, home of the 63 world-class masterpieces, in their original format and order.  Maybe half of them have wandered into English elsewhere, in three short collections, in this anthology, and in the little 1921 volume I wrote about here.  That means I am missing out on at least thirty masterpieces!  Of world literature!

VI.  In 480 pages of stories, the Oxford Anthology gives 63 (10 stories) to Machado de Assis.  Next is the linguistic innovator João Guimarães Rosa (56 pages, 6 stories), then the mysteriously symbolic Clarice Lispector (37 and 9).  Érico Veríssimo, father of the author of Borges and the Eternal Orangutans, has three stories in 27 pages; no one else has more than two stories.  The anthologist admits that this distribution slights Jorge Amado “who never specialized in the story per se.”   So that’s Brazilian literature from one angle.

VII.  I guess I will spend the next week or two pawing through Machado de Assis, although not in this irritating format.  I believe one more reader will join me.  Outstanding.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

An impression of excess passed only fleetingly through us - jolly sexual confusion with the decadent Sá-Carneiro

A wild-eyed loon today, Mario de Sá-Carneiro, Portuguese decadent, pal of Pessoa, self-poisoned at age 25, poor sap.  I have read his short novel Lucio’s Confession (1913),  and there is also a book of short stories, both translated by the overworked Margaret Jull Costa.

I am afraid that “Portuguese decadent” is almost sufficient to describe Sá-Carneiro’s novel.  Any real ideas are recycled from the French, some dating back 60 years to Baudelaire.  But what adult reads decadent literature for the ideas?  Decadence, sincere or fake, gives an artist freedom.  So gimme your best stuff, Mario, the weirdest nonsense you can imagine.

Lucio’s Confession is inventive.  The central conceit is convoluted, but amusingly absurd.  A handsome young poet materializes his repressed homosexual attraction for his friends in the form of a wife, Marta.  The wife, you understand, is a product of the poet’s imagination, yet real.  She can have affairs with the poet’s friends while he works on his book.

The novel is narrated by one of the writers, Lucio, who sleeps with Marta.  He is completely nuts – unreliable and then some – so another interpretation is that the narrator is the one repressing his homosexuality.  He either has an affair with the poet’s actual wife as a form of sublimation, or he imagines he has an affair with the actual woman, or he imagines he has an affair with an imaginary woman.  Or something like that – maybe he has an actual affair with an imaginary woman – and then everything ends in violence,  and thus Lucio confesses in the pages in front of me – “I wanted to write an honest account of my strange adventure, keeping it as simple as possible” (120).  Mm hmm.

Colors and light give the book its coherence:

Her face was truly lovely, it had a vigorous beauty, as if carved out of gold. (61)

His reddish-blond hair, parted in the middle, fell gracefully over his forehead and his golden-shadowed eyes never left Marta, or so I was to remember in retrospect. (62)

Until at last, mysteriously, the fire faded into gold and her dead body floated, heraldic, upon the gilded waters – now calm and dead as well.  (35)

Gold and red, fire and light.  “Heraldic” even – “the gold coat of arms danced wildly before my eyes” (114).

In the first chapter of the novel an aristocratic Lesbian demonstrates her theories of sexualized light in a decadent Parisian extravaganza, “an orgy of flesh distilled into gold!” (31).  It’s a wonderful crazy scene:

Her tunic was color gone mad. (30, italics courtesy of Sá-Carneiro)

A mysterious breeze blew through it, a grey breeze blotched with yellow (31, italics ditto)

Her legs, knotted with muscles, were hard, masculine and aroused in everyone present the violent urge to bite them. (33)

The line I put in the title is from the same scene.  I assume I am reading all of this in the right spirit.  I hate to think that poor Sá-Carneiro meant any of it too seriously, that it is much more than literary playfulness.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Some unsuspected secret life that included fun - Jean Thompson's The Year We Left Home

I used to read a lot more contemporary American fiction.  Realistic stuff, regionalist.  Dirty realism, as it was amusingly called in an old issue of Granta.  Bobbie Ann Mason and Tobias Wolff are the two writers whose work has really stuck with me, although I have not made much effort to keep up with either of them.

Jean Thompson’s new novel The Year We Left Home (2011) is comparably good.  Over thirty years, four siblings and a cousin leave their home in rural Iowa, sometimes traveling far, sometimes just down the street.  Each chapter is focused, often self-contained:  we spend time with a single character in a single enlightening moment, ending in a dramatic Joycean epiphany, or perhaps a squelching anti-epiphany where nothing is learned.

For example, in the first chapter (January 1973) young Ryan is helping out at his sister’s wedding (“The whole import of the wedding embarrassed him powerfully, though he could not have said why”).  Ryan gets stoned with his cousin Chip and they philosophize about family, Vietnam, and hideous AM radio hits.  Ryan and Chip will be contrasted on a recurring basis as the novel goes on: restless sense versus free-ranging nonsense.  Sense has less fun but gets to keep his teeth.

Early in the chapter we are introduced to Uncle Norm and Aunt Martha, stereotypical Lutheran farmers, representatives of Restful Sense, as well as hard work, reticence, “privation, thrift, cleanliness, and joyless charity,” and enormous quantities of food (“potatoes topped with shredded orange cheese, beef in gravy, chicken and biscuits, corn pudding”), the home the kids will leave.

Now Thompson has set us up for Ryan’s epiphany.  The wedding band starts into a swing tune.  Uncle Norm has a can of Dance Wax:

Little powdery flakes, like snow falling inside.  Then Aunt Martha joined him, and the two of them clasped hands, Norm’s arms around her waist.  They stepped together, stepped and twirled and glided, up and down and round and round, some fast step they must have learned back when they were kids and had been practicing ever since in some unsuspected secret life that included fun, moving in perfect time with each other and the jazzy music. (19)

It may take Ryan thirty years to absorb the moment, but we have the whole novel ahead of us for that.

Thompson’s prose does not get much fancier, although she has her little flights, like a wintry Carl Sandburg parody (215) or a bit of simple Nabokovian plotting (“the god of coincidences couldn’t be expected to attend to everything ,” 287), or a hilarious ranting visiting artist:

“But you know something?  Those guys [Drake University art students] are never going to do squat, because they have all the creativity of one of the four basic food groups.  They might as well be dark green leafy vegetables or dairy products.” (306)

A lot to like here.  A lot of “Yes, it’s just like that!”  For whatever reason, the contemporary writers that attract my attention are the international Modernists, the Surrealists and innovators and wild-eyed loons.  I do not read so much of the kind of thing Jean Thompson writes, The Way We Live Now 2011.  But it’s not because the insights are not true or the writing is not good.  I assume there are plenty of recent American novels as good as The Year We Left Home.  Well, no; a few as good.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Both theory and practice - The Psychiatrist by Machado de Assis

Wuthering Expectations will be closed for the holiday on Thursday and Friday.  Next week, if all goes well, I will balance my Eça de Queirós obsession with some Machado de Assis.  Exact contemporaries, careful readers of each other’s work – Eça actually rewrote an entire novel because of Machado’s criticisms – they could hardly be more different.

A preview today, Machado’s novella The Psychiatrist (1881-2), a prescient satire of the new profession and of social science in general.  I read it in The Psychiatrist and Other Stories (1963); William L. Grossman translated.

A famous psychiatrist, “one of the greatest doctors in all Brazil, Portugal, and the Spains,” returns to his obscure home town to conduct his researches, marries, and opens a mental asylum, although to many citizens “[t]he idea of having madmen live together in the same house seemed itself to be a symptom of madness” (3).  Dr. Bacamarte’s reasons for choosing his wife (“neither beautiful nor charming”) tells us exactly who he is:

The doctor replied that Dona Evarista enjoyed perfect digestion, excellent eyesight, and normal blood pressure; she had had no serious illnesses and her urinalysis was negative.  It was likely she would give him healthy, robust children… he would not be tempted to sacrifice his scientific pursuits to the contemplation of his wife’s attractions.” (1)

After the first surprisingly large “torrent of madmen,” Dr. Bacamarte’s theories evolve, and the definition of insanity expands.  A revolutionary political plot develops, opposed to the coercive madhouse, at least until it takes power and the madhouse becomes a useful tool for enforcing the junta’s power.

Soon enough, eighty percent of the town’s population are in the asylum, which leads the psychiatrist to again revise his theories: because, statistically, insanity is the norm, the insane must therefore be sane, and the sane insane.  The eighty percent are released; members of the bizarrely “mentally well balanced” twenty percent are put in the madhouse.  Soon the asylum is full of the town’s most unusual inhabitants: the modest, the truthful, the wise.

Can you guess how the story ends?

“This is a matter of science, of a new doctrine,” he said, “and I am the first instance of its application.  I embody both theory and practice.”  (44)

Machado’s story zips through many of the next century’s critiques of psychiatry, from the shaky authority of the psychiatrist to the abuse of the field by totalitarians, all of this pre-Freud.  His novels, first person and digressive, are quite different.  The Psychiatrist is focused, fierce and purposeful.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

It shakes accepted values–disperses former glory–dismays age-long courage - Georg Kaiser's The Burghers of Calais

One last German-language play.  Last for now.  Georg Kaiser’s The Burghers of Calais (pub. 1914, perf. 1917) is, I am told, the signature Expressionist drama.  I do not know what Expressionism is, exactly, or to the extent that I do know, I cannot see the relationship between Kaiser’s play and Expressionist artists like Franz Marc and George Grosz.  Let’s not make this post about my ignorance, though.

The Burghers of Calais is inspired by one of Rodin’s most famous sculpture groups (here’s the plaster version at the Musée Rodin), itself inspired by an episode in Froissart’s Chronicles.  During the Hundred Years War the English besieged the port city of Calais.  Rather than sack the town, they demanded that six leading citizens surrender themselves while dressed in sack cloth and a noose.  The humiliation and presumably execution of the six, in exchange for safety.  Six leaders, including the city’s wealthiest merchant, volunteered for the sacrifice.  Rodin’s sculpture enacts their most pathetic moment, as they leave the city to their deaths.  Presumed, as I said, since the men were spared by the intervention of the Queen of England.

Kaiser takes advantage of the men’s humiliation in the play’s final act, where the public removal of their ornate garments and donning of the sack cloth and noose gains, as it is repeated, a ritual power that a much worse playwright could hardly damage.  But Kaiser has a stranger, ahistorical purpose.  He adds a number of ludicrous complications to the story – mainly that seven men volunteer when only six are needed – in order to test the meaning of the sacrifice.  Ordinary concepts of glory, honor, or duty are somehow insufficient, not meaningful enough.  The volunteers go through a scourging or purging process before their sacrifice, overcoming their fear of death and attachment to the world.  I think.

Thick smoke swirls about your heads and feet and shrouds the way before you.  Are you worthy to tread it?  To proceed to the final goal?  To do this deed–which becomes a crime–unless its doers are transformed?  Are you prepared–for this your new deed? –It shakes accepted values–disperses former glory–dismays age-long courage–muffles that which rang clear–blackens that which shone brightly–rejects that which was valid! –Are you the new men? (114-5)

That passage is just a scrap of a characteristic two-page monologue.  I picked it because the Nietzschean or visionary overtones are unusually clear.  New men, huh?

I do not know if the odd use of the dashes in the translation is straight from Kaiser or if the translators are attempting to recreate one of the many peculiar features of Kaiser’s anti-naturalistic text.  The play begins in crisis, at a high rhetorical pitch, and maintains the tone almost to the end – once the men have reached their apotheosis, the tension is allowed to relax.  I was reminded of the unrelenting intensity of a contemporary drama, Charles Péguy’s The Mystery of the Charity of Joan of Arc, with which Kaiser's play shares the theme of transcendent sacrifice.

I read the translation of J. M. Ritchie and Rex Last found in Kaiser’s Plays Volume One, 1985, John Calder.  An admirably modest blurb on the back cover says “This book was worth publishing”; I agree.  Kind of a low standard.

Oh yes, thanks to the Caroline and Lizzy for the poke in the ribs that was German Literature Month.

Monday, November 21, 2011

I for one welcome our new insect overlords.

Why did I read a book about leafcutter ants?  It interferes with all of my important projects, the one’s where I – do – well – all of those important things I was thinking of.  I don’t remember what those things were.  Ants, why not ants?  The Leafcutter Ants: Civilization by Instinct (2011), by Bert Hölldobler and Edward O. Wilson, that’s the book.

I read the book because: a) it was on the New Books shelf at my library, b) it is short, c) it is full of hideously detailed close-up photographs of leafcutter ants cutting leaves and doing all of the other strange things they do:

Please note how the one mandible becomes a serrated knife while the other guides the path of the cut.  Please note how the foreleg lifts the severed edge of the cut.  Please note how horribly spiky the ant is.

Millions of leafcutter ants, all over South and Central America, are as I write sawing up vegetation, which millions of other ants carry back to their enormous underground fungus farms, where millions more tiny, specialized ants carefully dismember the plant fragments and feed them to the symbiotic fungus, while other tiny ants harvest the fungus to feed the hive.  Other parasites and symbiotes wander through the system.  It is all so wonderfully strange.

A team of Brazilians researchers have become leafcutter nest archeologists, specialists in “the megalopolis architecture of Atta colonies” (115).  They pump a nest full of liquid cement (for one particular nest, over 6 tons of cement), and then excavate the ant city using standard archeological techniques:

One reason to read a book like this is to witness the creativity of scientists.  There are so many kinds of creativity.

The little leafcutter ant book is an expansion of a chapter of another recent Hölldobler and Wilson book, The Superorganism, which is presumably packed with forbidden knowledge beyond the ken of mortal man.  The leafcutter ants, though, are “the greatest superorganisms on Earth discovered to the present time” (127).  That last qualifier scares me.

This schematic of a leafcutter ant brain is just a bonus illustration for 50 Watts, who likes this kind of thing, as do I:

If you have a niece or weird uncle who is into zombies, get them this book for Christmas.  They will be furious at first, but they’ll enjoy it and will thank you, perhaps many years later.

Friday, November 18, 2011

The beautiful land of Portugal, so full of endearing charm - the party and the coda in Eça de Queiros

Two tools that Eça de Queiros loved.

Party scenes.  Not big ones, balls or weddings, but more intimate gatherings, friends gathering over dinner, drinking themselves senseless, arguing about profound nonsense.  Sometimes the party is a regular event, not really a party at all but just a routine social activity.  A little piano playing, some snacks, some cards.  The Crime of Father Amaro and Cousin Basilio both structure the entire book around this kind of scene.  Sometimes the party is a rarer bird, a chance to indulge.  The Maias has some superb scenes of this type.  Chapter 2 of The Illustrious House of Ramires has a good one, too.

The great advantage to the author is that the party almost forces the reader to plunge in to the world of the novel, just like in a real party where I only know the person I came with.  I am introduced to a bewildering array of names and descriptions, lucky if I tack a characteristic or two onto each name.  In Chapter 2 of Ramires, Gonçalo meets his friends for dinner.  Here comes Titó (“powerful limbs…  slow rumble of his powerful voice…  idleness”) , maybe a bit of a weary libertine, and Gouveia (“very dark and very dry…  a bowler-hat tilted over one ear”) who has an aversion to cucumbers.

Wait, do I need to remember that?  Right now, there is no way to know.  The dinner scenes are humorously exhausting.  Luckily, the food is good:

Gonçalo , who claimed he had been miraculously cured [of a kidney pain] after the walk to Bravais and the excitement of the card-game, at which he had won nineteen tostões from Manuel Duarte – began with a dish of eggs and smoked sausage, devoured half the mullet, consumed his ‘invalid’s chicken’, cleared the dish of cucumber salad and finished off with a pile of quince jelly cubes; and as he accomplished this noble work, he emptied (without any flushing of that pure white skin) a glazed mug of Alvaralhão wine, because after the first sip of the Abbot’s new wine, he had cursed it, to Titó’s annoyance.  (29)

What juicy, thick writing.  It’s just a way to show the characters in action, any kind of action.

Then there is the coda.  Every remotely longish Eça novel ends with a coda chapter, letting us look back (“Four years passed lightly and swiftly like a flight of birds over the ancient Tower” – that was swift!), often with a lot of irony, although I do not remember there ever being anything like a plot twist.  The plot is finished.

The last chapter of Ramires does have a formal twist.  We have spent the entire novel with Gonçalo, sometimes watching him, sometimes deep in his thoughts, but the limit of the limited third has been strict.  The coda is entirely about Gonçalo, but he never appears in it, although he is described in a letter.  Many of the characters are reunited – they are preparing for a party that we do not get to attend.

The gentle last line of the novel, in the voice of whom?:

Father Soeiro, his sunshade under his arm, made his way slowly back to the Tower, in the silence and softness of the evening, reciting his Hail Maries and praying for the peace of God for Gonçalo, for all men, for the fields and the sleeping farms, and for the beautiful land of Portugal, so full of endearing charm, that it might be for ever blessed among lands. (310)

Thanks, Scott, for the readalonging.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Where to start with Eça de Queirós, a non-answer

Where should a reader start with Eça de Queirós?  Or Charles Dickens, or Virginia Woolf, or William Shakespeare?  These are not my questions.  I assume the existence of a reader with a large appetite, and enough sense to not dismiss the judgments of previous good readers on the basis of a random encounter with Barnaby Rudge or Henry VIII.

As I get to know an author, the question I ask is: where should I stop?  Which books are just trivia, or impenetrable period pieces, or juvenilia, or scrapbooks? For a certain kind of critic – Edmund Wilson, Frank Kermode – who reviews new novels only after reading something close to everything the author had ever written, there is no stopping place.  How this was feasible, I do not know, except that I suppose these critics read a lot faster than I do, or magazine deadlines were more leisurely than I imagine.

Given enough time, almost anyone can read almost everything.  Major works are read in pursuit of the experience of great art, minor works in the pursuit of knowledge.  Knowledge about the major works, most likely.   I am getting close to “everything” – well past the halfway point – with Eça de Queirós.  Wilson and Kermode, unlike me, were not blockheaded enough to publish their notes, or to work for free.

But that’s not my point, which is, rather, that The Illustrious House of Ramires, although well-written, humorous, representative of Eça’s lifelong concerns, and on in this vein, may not be a great place to start, although Scott Bailey did darn wellRamires is the most deeply Portuguese of the Eça novels that I have seen so far.  It makes more demanding assumptions about the history and culture of the country.  I suspect that the demands would be similar for Portuguese readers who are not medieval history buffs, but still, the names, dates, and places come thick and fast in the first few pages:

One of the most valiant of the line, Lourenço, nicknamed the Butcher, foster-brother of Afonso Henriques (with whom, the same night in Zamora Cathedral, he kept vigil over his arms before receiving his knighthood) appears at once in the Battle of Ourique where Jesus Christ also appeared, on fine clouds of gold, nailed to a cross ten ells high. (6)

One of those names I admit I already knew.  Our hero Gonçalo, a coward, in fact a Portuguese nebbish, lives under the shadow of “a House ten centuries old, with more than thirty of its males killed in battle” (288).  Over the course of the novel, we see Gonçalo make peace with his past and overcome his nebbishness – Ramires is, in form, a classic Nebbishroman – partly through the means of the historical novel about his own ancestors, The Tower of Don Ramires, that he is writing or more accurately rewriting, stealing the whole thing from a poem written by his uncle:

The whole plot, with its passion of barbaric grandeur, the savage battles in which family feuds were settled by the dagger, heroic words uttered by steely lips – there it all was in dear Uncle’s verses, sonorous and nicely balanced:

[poem snipped]

Really, all that was needed was to superimpose the mellifluous tones of 1846 Romanticism upon its terse, virile prose…  Would this be plagiarism?  No!  To whom, more than to him, a Ramires, belonged the memory of these historic Ramires?  (16)

A summary of the historical novel is, as it is composed, part of Ramires – more names, more history, and at first with only the broadest thematic connection to the contemporary story.  It all works out in the end, though, in the third act, as Scott calls it – “you realize that you've been marvelously set up.”   Gonçalo grows out of his plagiarism.

So, a place to start, why not, right, Scott? Bad place to stop, though.

What else should I write about? That Nebbishroman thing was just a joke.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Yes, really, all of them were so little guilty before God - the surprisingly sweet Illustrious House of Ramires

I was reading an early novel of Eça de Queirós, The Crime of Father Amaro, alongside a much later one, The Illustrious House of Ramires (1900, published just after the author’s death).  Eça may well have mellowed with age.  Father Amaro is cruel; Ramires is almost sweet.

Young and aimless nobleman Gonçalo Ramires holds the oldest title in Portugal and lives in the shadow of a thousand year-old tower and a string of illustrious ancestors.  He dreams of imitating the medieval exploits of his heroic forebears, but times have changed a bit – leading one’s feudal retainers to ravage one’s neighboring enemies is frowned upon – and anyways Gonçalo is a coward.  He is also a terrible braggart, which is a kind way of calling him a congenital liar; he is also extraordinarily kind to children, the ill, and other weak people.  Weak people like himself.

After the chilly elegance of The Maias, the savageness of Father Amaro, and the hysterics of Cousin Basilio, I am almost shocked at how gentle Ramires is, how nice Gonçalo is.  Not that he’s not a fool – the last line in this passage (ellipses in original) could stand as a description of any number of  Eça’s characters:

He, Gonçalo, had stupidly and irresistibly succumbed to the fatal Law of Increase, which had led him, as it leads everyone in their desire for fame and fortune, to pass rashly through the first door that opened to him, without noticing the dung that cluttered up the doorway…  Yes, really, all of them were so little guilty before God, who had created man so variable, so weak, so dependent on forces that were less governable than the wind or sun! (218)

This is being thought by Gonçalo himself.  One of his most endearing, and frustrating, traits is his changeability.  He can be venal, but never for too long.  He can be skeptically thoughtful, but is too easily comforted.  He is ambitious, artistically and politically, but is too easily distracted.  An inevitable result is self-pity.  Another motto (ellipses again not mine):

“Why?” murmured Gonçalo, miserably removing his coat.  “So much deception in such a short life…  Why?  Poor me!”

He fell upon his vast bed as if into a tomb, and hid his face in the pillow with a sigh, a sigh full of pity for so frustrated and helpless a fate.  (235)

Gonçalo is an early edition of a popular Modernist character, the kind who through charm and good intentions quickly engages my sympathy, but then spends the rest of the novel making me wince.  Oh, Gonçalo, pull yourself together!

I want to spend a couple more days with the book.  Perhaps I will engage with the ideas of Scott Bailey, who write about the novel here and also here.

The Illustrious House of Ramires is translated by Anne Stevens.  The translation is so good that the novel has not been re-translated by Margaret Jull Costa!

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

A kind Brazilian wrote a mystery novel for me

The author is the Brazilian Luis Fernando Verissimo, the novel is Borges and the Eternal Orangutans (2000), the translator is the omnipresent Margaret Jull Costa, the page count is 129, the genre is ratiocinative mystery, the detective is Jorge Luis Borges, in the year before his death, and not Borges Luis Jorge or the poet Juan Carlos Borges, author of “botanical poems,” also characters in the novel.

That’s half of the title.  The orangutans invoke Edgar Allan Poe, and the novel is in fact a locked room mystery, like “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” except this time a famous Poe specialist is murdered in his hotel room at an international Poe conference in Buenos Aires.  Our narrator, Vogelstein, is a Brazilian translator who has been keen to meet Borges.  Because of the murder, he gets his wish.

“Borges will like the fact that there were three knives,” I said.

“Yes, Borges will,” sighed Cuervo, as if that were a further reason for his probable migraine. (78)

Verissimo was unable to squeeze a reference to H. P. Lovecraft into the title, even though Lovecraft plays a role in the novel, along with the magician John Dee and the usual esoteric nonsense associated with Borges: cryptography and the Kabbala and mirrors and such.

For some time now, Cuervo had been squirming in his armchair.

“Really, Jorge!” he said at last.  “Gozatoth, Soga-Tog…  You don’t believe in all that!”

“Don’t confuse the author with the characters,” you replied.  “I don’t believe in anything.  The important thing is that they do.”  (105)

“You” is Borges – the narrator actually addresses the novel to Borges, all of which is explained in the end when the “I” switches to Borges himself as he presents his ingenious and original solution to the crime, the clues to which have been slyly distributed through the novel.  The one truly ingenious thing about the book, actually, is that the complex solution perfectly coexists with a simple solution that is never mentioned.  Borges is surely aware of the easier answer, but rejects it as insufficiently interesting.  He also faults the entire novel, in its last line, for lacking “a minimum of verisimilitude,” where we find the actual author's actual name.

I have no clue what the reader unschooled in Borges and Lovecraft and Poe, the sane and settled reader who has of course read “The Gold-Bug” and “The Purloined Letter” but has not neurotically read through the Library of America Poe all the way to “’X-ing the Paragrab’” – which is obscure enough that Verissimo explains the reference – what this reader will get out of Borges and the Eternal Orangutans.   I fear it is a tad specialized.

For specialists, though, what fun.  Thanks, V!

Verissimo does not count for the Portuguese Reading Provocação.

Monday, November 14, 2011

In short – it only confuses one. - Arthur Schnitzler seizes the day

And I thought Spring Awakening was sex-crazed!  Arthur Schnitzler’s Der Reigen (in the Carl Mueller version I read, La Ronde) is about nothing but.  Pairs of characters approach sex via dialogue and groping, engage (concealed by three small dots), and gather up their things.  One member of the pair advances to the next round, men and women alternating

In scene I, for example,  The Prostitute and The Soldier dally under a Viennese bridge, and then in scene II The Soldier seduces The Parlor Maid, who subsequently topples upon The Young Gentleman, who is up to no good with The Young Wife, and on like this to scene X, when The Count is surprised to find himself with The Prostitute of scene I.

What a director does with the actual sex, hidden by Schnitzler, I do not know.  Kill the lights for three seconds, perhaps.  These days, probably not.

The scenes, and lines, expand as the play proceeds.  The Prostitute is efficient with her Soldier:

PROSTITUTE:  Shh!  Police.  Imagine.  The middle of Vienna.
SOLDIER:  Over here.  Come on.
PROSTITUTE:  Watch it.  You want to fall in the water!
SOLDIER:  (Takes hold of her.)  You little –
PROSTITUTE:  Hold tight.
SOLDIER:  Don’t worry.
[Now, the modest dots]
PROSTITUTE:  We should’ve used the bench.
SOLDIER:  Who cares.  Get up.

And then just a few more lines finish this indecorous scene.  Later seducers have to work harder, and philosophize more:

COUNT:  But there’s no such thing as happiness.  The things people talk about most don’t really exist.  Love, for example.  It’s the same with happiness.
ACTRESS:  You’re right.
COUNT:  Pleasure.  Intoxication.  Fine.  No complaints.  You can depend on them.  If I take pleasure in something, fine, at least I know I take pleasure in it.  Or if I feel intoxicated.  Wonderful.  That’s something you can depend on, too.  And when it’s over – well, then, it’s over.
ACTRESS: (Grandly.)  Over!
COUNT:  But as soon as you fail to live for the moment, and begin thinking about the future or the past – well then, the pleasure’s as good as dead.  The future is – sad – the past uncertain.  In short – it only confuses one.
ACTRESS: (nods, her eyes large with wonder.)  I think you may have hit on something there.

That (Grandly) direction is pretty good.  I would not want to argue strongly for the author’s view.  Everyone gets his say, or hers, and everyone is undercut.  The most common refrain is to seize the day, but the context is always pathetic, or ridiculous.  The day, however, is always seized, in some crude sense, which may well be better than the alternative.  The ennobled lemurs are doing what they can.

Austrian literature, concentrated in turn of the century Vienna, was the leading alternative to the Portuguese Literary Challenge.  Maybe next time.

Friday, November 11, 2011

The grass, the graves and the cold mists; the essence of city life - the sublime endings of The Crime of Father Amaro

The ending, or endings, of The Crime of Father Amaro.

Near the middle of the novel, a minor character dies; Amaro is her attending priest.  Eça de Queirós uses the episode to give us a look at the genuine spiritual power of even a bad priest like Amaro.  His delivery of the last rites is a serious and meaningful responsibility, meaningful to the dying and those around her, even if Amaro himself sees the duty only as a burden, and even though he uses the incident to chase women.

The early scene foreshadows two later deaths, one where Amaro fails in his ordinary priestly duties, and another where his failure is considerably worse than ordinary.  Whatever Eça may mock, he takes death seriously enough.

This last death leads to a funeral scene, too, although a curious one, since the author mostly does not show us the funeral – he is using the limited third person for all it is worth.  We follow the funeral procession to a chapel but do not enter it; we instead join a pair of servants who take the opportunity to “wander” into a tavern and gossip.  The chapel door is a threshold Eça does not want to cross, the genuine religious service something he does not want us to see.  It exists outside of this novel.  The servants rejoin the procession for the burial, so we do get to see that.  The scene ends with the point of view leaving the servants, the camera “pulling back”:

Amen,’ came the deep voice of the sacristan and the shrill voice of the choirboy.

Amen,’ said the others in a sighing murmur that was lost amongst the cypresses, the grass, the graves and the cold mists of that sad December day. (461)

This is not Father Amaro’s ending.  We need a few pages more for him.  A “man of state and two men of religion,” Amaro one of them, accidentally meet at the foot of the statue of Camões (see wiki for photo - when visiting Lisbon, you can recreate the scene!), author of The Lusiads, hero of Portuguese culture, representative of empire and glory.  An ironic contrast might be on its way.

‘Well, just look around you!  What peace, what vigour, what prosperity!’

And he made a sweeping gesture that took in the whole of the Largo do Loreto, which, at that hour, at the close of a serene afternoon, contained the essence of city life.  Empty carriages rode slowly by; women in twos tottered past, wearing false hair and high heels and displaying the anaemic pallor of a degenerate race… (470)

More: a hungover nobleman, people sprawling in “idle torpor,” pimps, an ox cart (“the symbol of an antiquated agricultural system dating back centuries”), lottery-peddling urchins.  The laying on, it is thick.  The geography of the square, and the nature of Portugal, is finally summarized as “two gloomy church façades… three pawnshop signs… four taverns.”  It’s a sublimely savage passage, worthy of one of Victor Hugo’s great explosions.  In the last words of the novel, our bad priest and his worse superiors congratulate themselves, under the gaze of their great poet, for the marvelous achievements of their civilization, the very thing that the reader of the novel has spent the previous 470 pages watching them destroy.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

It proves their true devotion to the priesthood - the mechanics of power in Father Amaro

Many readers, although people of boundless curiosity, non-insular and anti-parochial, true citizens of the world, might be unsure if The Crime of Father Amaro, a novel about  the misdeeds of mid-19th century Portuguese priests, has any continuing interest.  The Catholic priesthood is now, just to pick one of the book’s sticky points, entirely voluntary and vocational.  Fair point.

The abuse of power by the novel’s priests is just a specific example of a universal theme, though, and Eça de Queirós is a true artist, meaning that the only path to the large is through the small.  An abuse of power can be reformed, but we need a novelist like Eça to see how it works.

I'm in the middle of the novel.  Father Amaro and Amélia are in love but restraining themselves, and Amélia’s now-former fiancé is behaving, completely understandably, like a jackass, culminating in a pathetically ineffectual physical attack on the priest.  A group of priests and devout ladies gather every evening at the house of Amélia’s mother, so here they are together after the attack.  Father Amaro has turned the other cheek, and why not, since he is the victor:

Such saintliness drove the women wild.  What an angel!  They gazed on him adoringly, their hands almost raised in prayer.  His presence, like that of a St Vincent de Paul, exuding charity, gave the room a chapel-like sweetness… (264)

So far, so satirical.  Just a little vicious towards these women, fools, admittedly.  But they are not Eça’s true targets.  The most combative of the priests declares the fiancé has been automatically excommunicated and that having in the house any of the excommunicant’s possessions is a threat to the soul, for example, this magazine, and that cigarette case, and this stray glove:

‘We must destroy them!’ exclaimed Dona Maria da Assunção.  ‘We must burn them, burn them!’

The room echoed now with the shrill cries of the women, in the grip of a holy fury. (268)

Eça and I are still mocking the superstitious biddies, it seems, but here is the punchline:

The clamouring women raced into the kitchen.  Even São Joaneira followed them, as a good hostess, to watch over the bonfire.

Left alone, the three priests looked at each other and laughed.

‘Women are the very devil,’ said the Canon philosophically.

‘No, Father,’ said Natário, growing suddenly serious.  ‘I’m laughing because although, seen from outside, it may look ridiculous, the sentiment behind it is good.  It proves their true devotion to the priesthood, their horror of impiety.  And that, after all, is an admirable sentiment.’

‘Oh, admirable,’ agreed Amaro, equally seriously. (269)

All of this nonsense is just an arbitrary demonstration of power, a prank.  Eça, in scenes like this, shows how the older priests corrupt the younger, not by openly advocating for vice, but for their own power and privilege.  Poor Amélia’s not going to have a chance against Amaro.

Tomorrow I think I will move to the end, to the two ends, of the novel.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Ah, a priest could have enjoyed himself then - beginning The Crime of Father Amaro

Three readers have joined me to read The Crime of Father Amaro, the first (1875) or second (1876) or fourth (1880) novel of Eça de Queirós.  I finished the book last, after Richard (Caravana de Recuerdos), litlove (Tales from the Reading Room), and ombhurbhuva.  I believe this was the first Eça de Queirós for everyone but me, and I understand that everyone thought it was a good place to start with this fine novelist.

A young, worldly priest, Father Amaro, obtains a position in a provincial cathedral town, where he finds that the priestly class is venal, sexually active, gluttonous and domineering, especially of the city’s more pious and superstitious women.  Amaro , who never wanted to be a priest and who has a purely instrumental ethical sense, soon seduces the beautiful and all-too-susceptible Amélia, the daughter of his landlady.  Consequences ensue, mostly of the predictable variety.   See the links above for better summaries, please.

I was nervous that the novel, which is brutally anti-clerical, would be a topical period piece, but the version we all read, at least, is like Eça’s other novels: humanist Zola, or Flaubert with a heart.  Litlove called the novel “a study in how to keep a book engaging despite having a cast of unsympathetic characters”; Eça’s secret is that he allows us to understand everyone, no matter how stupidly they behave (and they can be awfully stupid), and cold understanding can sometimes melt into warm sympathy.  Another way to say the same thing: Eça de Queirós is, more than anything else, brilliant with characters.

For example, Amaro, our hero, a less intelligent Julien Sorel, the center of The Red and the Black, begins the novel with my sympathy but squanders it as he becomes increasingly corrupted.  His inner life, after a romantic setback:

And then the old despair returned that he was not living in the times of the Inquisition and could not therefore pack them off to prison on some accusation of irreligion or black magic.  Ah, a priest could have enjoyed himself then.  But now, with the liberals in power, he was forced to watch as that wretched clerk earning six vinténs a day made off with the girl, whilst he, an educated priest, who might become a bishop or even Pope, had to bow his shoulders and ponder his grief alone.  If God’s curses had any value, then let them be cursed. (176-7)

And an external view, after romantic success:

For [Amélia], at least, [Amaro] was handsome and better than any count or duke, and as worthy of a mitre as the wisest of men.  She herself had once said to him, after thinking for a moment:

‘You could become Pope!’

‘I am certainly the stuff Popes are made of,’ he replied gravely. (313)

Amaro’s vanity, humorlessness, and, worst of all, his sense of power is clear enough.  A potential monster.  One of the tragedies of this comic novel is that his potential is realized.

What else should I write about?  The ending, the last page, certainly.  Eça’s party scenes?  Dona Maria da Assunçao’s museum of arsenal of saints?  So many possibilities.

Margaret Jull Costa was, unsurprisingly, the translator of the New Directions edition I read.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

The tormenting doubt of everything - Frank Wedekind's Spring Awakening - I warm myself in my rotting decay and smile

Once upon a time, perhaps earlier this year, when I was reading Alfred Jarry’s Ubu nightmares, I wondered, amidst the adolescent violence and adolescent scatology, why there was no adolescent sex.  It turns out that the topic had already been covered in Frank Wedekind’s Spring Awakening: A Children’s Tragedy (published 1891, performed 1906), along with other pressing subjects like over-competitive schools and test anxiety, as if the theatrical avant-gardists of the 1890s had planned out an efficient division of labor.  To be clear, they did not, and Jarry could hardly have known Wedekind’s work, but the plays are kin, in subject, in audacity, and in their destruction of the clichés of the theater.

Melchior and Moritz (not Max and Moritz) cram for exams and ponder the mysteries of their pubescence,  while innocent but curious Wendla is protected from sex by her timid mother.  The children are all fourteen years old, but they are all played by adult actors.*  The result is pregnancy due to inadequate sex education, teen suicide, pornography (prints of famous paintings!), a botched abortion, homosexual exploration, nude modeling, and headless ghosts.  Much of this actually takes place off-stage.

Strangely, this hormonally over-heated tragedy is actually a black comedy, or could be.  In Act III, Scene One, Melchior is interrogated by his professors, accused of the crime of disseminating accurate information about sex.  His professors are Thickstick, Flyswatter, Sunstroke, and so on, and they spend much of their time debating whether and which window should be opened.  Conclusion:

FLYSWATTER:  Should it appear to our respected colleague that our room is not sufficiently ventilated, might I propose that he has a ventilator bored in the top of his head?

And then Harpo pulls a hand drill from one of his enormous pockets and Chico says “Atsa no good!”  The Ubu-like madness of the play comes from this lurch from Naturalistic “social issues” to surrealist nonsense to almost abstract pure theater, aided by the play’s short, fragmented scenes.  In the climax, Melchior escapes from prison to confront his ghosts, or something like that, but is rescued, or damned, by the intervention of The Masked Man (“In the end everyone has his part – you the comforting knowledge of having nothing – you the tormenting doubt of everything”).

To reduce this play to an attack on the complacent German bourgeoisie or poor sex ed does it an injustice.  Wedekind’s real concerns are existential.

Here’s the end, which is as likely as anything to spark curiosity about the beginning – the first line is meant literally:

MORITZ (alone):  I sit here with my head in my arm.  The moon covers its face, the veil falls away, and it doesn’t look any wiser.  So I go back to my place.  I straighten my cross after that clumsy idiot’s kicked it over, and when everything’s in order I lie down on my back again, warm myself in my rotting decay and smile.

* I am reading the Edward Bond translation, performed in 1974 – Moritz was played by a young Michael Kitchen, Detective Chief Superintendent Foyle himself.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Look at the disgraceful pair - looking at Max and Moritz

I have been rummaging around in a peculiar book, The Genius of Wilhelm Busch edited and translated by Walter Arndt, who I know as a translator of Pushkin.  Busch was an artist who inadvertently invented the comic strip, or at least a plausible prototype, particularly with the 1865 Max and Moritz, which Arndt calls “possibly the most universally cherished and quoted work of art in the German language,” which explains a lot.

Ah, the wickedness one sees
Or is told of such as these,
Namely Max and Moritz; there!
Look at the disgraceful pair!

Max and Moritz are a pair of hideous children who play seven hideous tricks which culminate in a hideous punishment, which they either deserve or do not, depending on whether Max and Moritz are actual children or kobolds, evil spirits.

The woodcuts are always accompanied by rhyming children’s’ verse.  The text is integral to the images.  Busch never tells a story with nothing but images – or Arndt does not include any examples where he does.  I am drawn to the images that do stand on their own, like this unusually complex heist:

I need the text, though, to know what the woman in the basement is doing:

With a ladle to scoop out
Just a dab of sauerkraut,
Which she has a passion for
When it is warmed up once more.

Ah, so that is the cellar sauerkraut bucket.  Mmmm.  Those chickens were murdered by Max and Moritz as their first trick, stolen and eaten in the second.   At least gluttony and greed is a motive here, but the little monsters mostly spread chaos among complacent working people – a tailor, a baker, a miller.  There is also a teacher, but as an educated person he presumably deserves to have his pipe filled with gunpowder.

Master Lampel’s gentle powers
Failed with rascals such as ours;
For the evilly inclined
Pay preceptors little mind.

Max and Moritz are destructive chaos agents, gleefully destructive, with no independent existence, meaning Busch never made a panel with just one of the pair.  They are sinister critters.  They can be baked in an oven with no lasting consequences.  The barnyard fowl get their revenge in the end, though.

Well, this has not been much besides “Look, ain’t that something.”  I’ll keep looking.  More Busch later, maybe.  “Painter Squirtle” or “Jack Crook, Bird of Evil,” Max and Moritz rolled into one ugly, drunken crow.

I borrowed the color images from this file.  The book was published by the  University of California Press in 1982.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Are you happy? No. - acting in Uncle Vanya

Does this look like much?  It’s from Chekhov's Uncle Vanya (1897), and is part of a reconciliation scene between Sonya and her young step-mother Elena:

SONYA:  Come, peace, peace!  Let’s forget it.

ELENA:  You mustn’t look like that – it’s not becoming.  You must believe in everyone, otherwise it’s impossible to live. (Pause)

SONYA:  Tell me honestly, as a friend – are you happy?


SONYA:  I knew that.

The question is: what to do with that “No”?  Is Elena earnest, sad, defeated, defensive?  How about Sonya, in her answer?

I have seen two stage productions of Uncle Vanya,  a flawless actor’s holiday at the Steppenwolf Theatre (2001), the other a cluttered and mis-paced 2007 Court Theatre version (no complaints about the acting, though).  In both productions, the actresses played this scene in exactly the same way.  They replicated what Julianne Moore and Brooke Smith did in Vanya on 42nd Street (1994), which can be seen here at about 2:40, although the whole seven minutes is choice.  Excuse me – I am going to watch it again.

For most of the above dialogue the camera is over Sonya’s shoulder, so we only see Elena’s face, and her reaction to Sonya’s fumbling question, her genuine curiosity.  “Are you happy?” – and Moore breaks into an enormous smile.  She might even be about to laugh, but exercises restraint.  Sonya – now the camera moves to her face – also smiles, broadly, happily.  “I knew you weren’t,” matter of fact.  Both actresses laugh, shaking their shoulders.

Sonya was genuinely anxious that her step-mother was happy, and is genuinely relieved that she is not.  Elena has already moved beyond happiness.  Her admission is old news, perhaps upsetting at some point in the past, but now something that can be treated ironically.  Now the two women can be unhappy together, which makes them happy.  Happier.

Vanya on 42nd Street is a showcase of interpretation via acting, full of actorly surprises, but for some reason this one stands out as a favorite, perhaps just because I have now seen live actors duplicate it twice, as if it is the standard interpretation of the lines, as if there is no other real choice.  Or perhaps I am just enjoyably amazed at seeing how much an actress can do with the word "No."

Sometime I would like to write about Sonya’s monologue at the end of Uncle Vanya, the “We shall rest” speech, with its “life that is bright, beautiful, and fine.”  It looks like it should ruin the play, just upend everything.  I think of it as an Alpine challenge for the actress, but every time I have seen the play it turns out to be a triumph.  Brooke Smith’s version is on Youtube here.

When reading a play, I have the book and my imagination, but I also have a lot of other people helping me out.

The translation is by Ann Dunnigan, found in an old Signet Classics paperback titled Chekhov: The Major Plays.  The Vanya on 42nd Street version is by David Mamet.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Your Schillers and your Goethes & all the stupid bastards who don't give you nothing but lies - Gerhart Hauptmann's characters

A weakness, or limit, of the German novella tradition is character, the lack of well-rounded, plumped up, lifelike characters.  I can think of exceptions, but what I typically remember from an E. T. A. Hoffmann story is some brilliantly inventive piece of weirdness or ingenious dissociation – the moments when the story suddenly shifts from one plane to another – rather than telling details about the characters, who are often interchangeable from story to story.  That cat in Tomcat Murr has a lot of personality – I said there are exceptions.

Some of this is the result of a complex exploration of the Ideal and the Real that begins with Kant, and Goethe’s response to Kant.  Characters are often three-dimensional but made of porcelain, not flesh.  Please see this marvelous example from Elective Affinities that nicole enjoyed.

The search for the uncanny is part of the story, too.  The external world is just as important as the internal, and much of the best German fiction from the 19th century is about the interaction between the two.  The forest and railroad in “Flagman Thiel” are at least as full and “real” as the title character, and have to be for Hauptmann to construct the sense of uncanniness that fills the last half of the story.  In English and French fiction, the intense interiority and limited third person view of writers like Flaubert and Woolf has become a standard mode.  German-language writers, before Fontane, were exploring a different method, one no less psychological or subjective, but different, maybe a little more mysterious, more willing to leave a character’s actions unexplained, and therefore distancing.

A playwright has the advantage that his characters, no matter how flat and empty, will be inhabited by actual humans with their own voices and gestures.  The “real” becomes real, occurring right in front of me.  As a reader, I have to imaginatively simulate all of this, as best I can.

Hauptmann’s characters in Before Daybreak are easy to imagine as genuine people.  Horrible people, but plausibly horrible.  The step-mother / mother-in-law, Mrs. Krause.  See her fear and belittle her step-daughter’s education (ellipses in original):

MRS. KRAUSE. (With increasing fury.)  ‘Stead o’ such a female lendin’ a hand on th’ farm… oooh, no!  God forbid!  Jus’ th’ thought o’ that makes ‘er turn green…  Buuuut – ya take y’r Schillers ‘n y’r Goethes, ‘n all them stupid bastards who don’t give ya nothin’ but lies; thaaat gets to ‘er – thaaat she likes.  It’s enough to drive ya crazy.  (She stops, trembling with rage.)

I should note that mom has been hitting the Veuve Clicquot pretty hard, and that in the original she speaks a Silesian dialect, and that this is mostly not a dialect play:  Mrs. Krause is special.

I would like to keep quoting her, because she is the most vivid, or most loud, character.  Many other characters are just as good:  Loth, the principled prig of an idealist; Helen, the only truly sympathetic character, whose intelligence and virtue are undercut by her entirely understandable emotional neediness; Hoffmann, who first seems like a decent enough guy in a bad marriage, but has been corrupted, hollowed out, by wealth.  When I say “good” characters, I mean interesting artistic creations.  I have some doubts about the “reality” of the story of Before Daybreak, which lays the wretchedness on pretty thick, but the characters, although a trying bunch, are pleasantly full of sap and vigor, and by themselves a reason for me to read more Gerhart Hauptmann.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

It is exemplary, sets us an ideal which we may emulate - Gerhart Hauptmann's nightmarish Before Daybreak

My translator* insists on Before Daybreak for the title of Gerhart Hauptmann’s 1889 shocker of a debut play; I think it is more commonly called Before Sunrise (Vor Sonnenaufgang is the German).  The play has a subtitle, too: A Social Drama.  We are once again in the world of Naturalism, heaven help us.  The translator has a nice dig at the term, calling it, at its worst, the melodrama of the wretched.  Fortunately, Before Daybreak is Naturalism at its best, so I can ignore the entire issue forevermore.

The second line of dialogue will set the tone (ellipses in original):

MRS. KRAUSE:  (Screams)  You sluts!!... Honest to God, I never seen scum the like o’ you girls!... (To Loth).  Shove off!  You don’t get nothin’ here!... (Half to Miele, half to Loth.)  He got arms, he can work.  Get out!  Nobody gets no handouts!

Now that’s the way to start a play.  Her face is “bluish red with rage,” “hard, sensual, malevolent.”  She is in her early forties, so just imagine your favorite actress of that age chewing through this part.  Jennifer Aniston, say.

The joke of the whole thing is that the abused Loth, a rationalist and idealist, is just there to visit his old but newly wealthy college pal, Mrs. Krause’s son-in-law.  Coal has been discovered in Silesia; the riche are all nouveau, like the nightmarish former peasant Mrs. Krause; and Loth is there to reform the conditions of the workers.  In the meantime, he becomes romantically entangled with the only not-entirely-horrible member of the family, the stepdaughter Helen, who is not vicious but merely hysterical and neurotic.  Disaster comes crashing down in Act V.  Hereditary alcoholism is in some sense the cause, but this is not really a “social issue” play.  If t’weren’t t’one thing, t’would be t’other.

I’m just leafing through the play now, thinking about what I might quote.  The post’s title is from a discussion about reading.  Helen is reading, what else, The Sorrows of Young Werther, which earnest Loth calls “a book for weaklings.”  He recommends a historical novel about virtuous, self-denying Romans which he calls “rational and reasonable,” “an ideal which we may emulate” (Act II, p. 35).  The irony is that it is Loth who causes the final catastrophe by following his unreasonable ideals.

I might write more about the characters tomorrow.  The success of the play is the mix of people, awful and otherwise.  Hauptmann emulated Ibsen, but he reminds me a bit more of the slightly later Chekhov, if I imagine a Chekhov play with only two or three sympathetic characters, which is of course not Chekhov at all, since his great gift was to make us pity or understand or even indulge the follies of his puppets.  Before Daybreak is dingy Chekhov, Chekhov where everything goes horribly wrong.  I mean, you know, even worse.

*  Peter Bauland, Gerhart Hauptmann’s Before daybreak, 1978, University of North Carolina Press.  He argues, that the 1912 translation, the one available at, is a disaster: “substantially accurate, guts the play.”

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

The semblance of fiery snakes - Gerhart Hauptmann's grim and depressing "Flagman Thiel"

I guess I have done my share of raving about the great tradition of the Romantic German novella, that shadowy, uneasy alternative to the overstuffed Victorian and ponderous Russian and elegant French books that define 19th century literature for so many readers.  Because of its use by expert practitioners like Theodor Storm and Adalbert Stifter, among others, I associate the form with a mood of bittersweet weirdness.  Not that the form required a particular atmosphere: Eduard Mörike’s Mozart’s Journey to Prague (1856), to pick one example of many, is positively joyful.

So I can think of plenty of early melancholy novellas, but none so unrelentingly grim* as Gerhart Hauptmann’s 1888 story “Flagman Thiel.”  I am skeptical of the tastes of readers who do not like "depressing books", but I also doubt that any of us need too much “Flagman Thiel” in our reading diet.

Thiel is a stolid railroad signalman.  He marries but loses his wife in childbirth, and remarries for the sake of his son.  The first marriage is a sort of love match; the second a disaster.  The story, after the first few pages, is the unfolding of the disaster, misery turning into tragedy, tragedy into nightmare.  Hauptmann is labeled a “naturalist,” a word I never find helpful, but one possible use is to associate him with the intensely pessimistic stance of some of his contemporaries.  I am told that they were all under the spell of Schopenhauer.

Aesthetically, though, Hauptmann’s method is identifiably within the tradition of Storm and Stifter, with the world around the characters knocking the unpleasant story off kilter.  The railroad tracks “looked like the strands of a huge iron net drawn together to a point on the horizon,” and the telegraph lines are “spun by a huge spider,” but all of this is unnoticed by Thiel, who at this point in the story is merely depressed, for good reason:

The pillared arcades of the pine trunks on the yon side of the embankment took fire as from within and glowed like metal.  The tracks, too, began to glow, turning into the semblance of fiery snakes…  For a while a reddish sheen lingered on the extreme crowns [of the pines].

Then the train, “a snorting monster” blasts by in “a mad uproar.”  Odd, odd, odd.  Hauptmann’s “realistic” fiction can be as intensely uncanny as Storm or Hoffmann, especially in a series of hallucinations that foreshadow and follow the story’s tragic center.  A plain “realism” to describe ordinary life, a peculiar lyricism to describe the natural world, and a disturbing bizarreness to describe Thiel’s extreme mental state: Hauptmann’s story does not merely contrast these fictional tones, but smashes them against each other, leaving nothing but wreckage.

I read an old translation of “Flagman Thiel” – the story has been translated many times, under many titles, all trying to be precise about Thiel’s railroad job.  Adele S. Seltzer was my translator; the story is in the 1933 Modern Library Great German Short Novels and Stories.  Hauptmann was still alive when this collection was published, a contemporary writer, his Nobel Prize twenty years in the past.  German Literature Month – mustn’t forget that.

* Update: How could I forget Kleist's unflinchingly grim "The Earthquake in Chile" (1807)?