Robert Browning was, for a time, best known – well, first he was best known as the husband of a famous and beloved poet, so I mean aside from the sheen of Elizabeth Barrett Browning – he was best known as the author of “The Pied Piper of Hamelin”:
They fought the dogs and killed the cats,
And bit the babies in the cradles,
And ate the cheeses out of the vats,
And licked the soup from the cooks’ own ladles…
This first-rate children’s poem has been replaced by “My Last Duchess,” now the representative* Browning anthology piece. “My Last Duchess” is a perfect textbook on how to read the dramatic monologue. The narrator is a character, certainly not Robert Browning, who was not an Italian duke. He tells us a story but skips crucial juicy bits (“This grew; I gave commands; \ Then all smiles stopped together”) but I can sleuth out the gaps without much trouble. Maybe I have to read the short poem twice.
My point is that these two famous Robert Browning poems are clear. Reading Browning in bulk, though, I cannot escape the fact that much of his work is defiantly obscure. His earliest works, the long Shelleyan closet dramas Pauline (1833) and Paracelsus (1835) are close to incomprehensible; Sordello (1840) was more than close, and defeated me after a few pages. As if I remember a thing about the first two, which I read!
Young Browning was allusive and learned, but he also left out too much. His leaps in argument are too great. Perhaps we see a reason I like Browning so much; the same charges could be brought against Wuthering Expectations.
In Browning’s mature poems, obscurity transforms into difficulty. “Caliban Upon Setebos; Or Natural Theology in the Island,” one of the masterpieces from Dramatis Personae (1864) will show what I mean. Caliban leads me to The Tempest, but what is Setebos, a person, a place? The name is from the play, invoked twice by Caliban, “my dam’s god Setebos,” so a god, or God.
Caliban is the speaker or thinker in the poem, but he refers to himself in both the third and the first person, sometimes hiding the “I” behind an apostrophe:
‘Will sprawl, now that the heat of day is best,
Flat on his belly in the pit’s much mire, (1-2)
Only in the pit can Caliban safely speculate on the purpose and nature of Setebos (“Because to talk about Him, vexes”). God cannot see into the cave, it seems.
All of this is clear enough upon re-reading, but is baffling at first. Early references to Miranda and Prospero at least assure me that I have picked the right Caliban, but the where and how and why require work, and of course Caliban does not develop his ideas in a coherent order. Of course there are huge gaps in his natural theology. For whom is that not true?
It is only looking back, for example, that I see that Caliban is worried about first causes, “the something over Setebos \ That made Him” (129-30). The monster speculates that Setebos may have driven off an earlier god, who still exists somewhere, perhaps in the stars, the part of the universe Setebos did not create (27). Setebos himself lives in the moon. Caliban has a really fine imagination.
But now the leap, after the invocation of the absent god:
I joy because the quails come; would not joy
Could I bring quails here when I have a mind (135-6)
The mysterious actions of the absent or arbitrary or incomprehensible god is a source of joy to Setebos, just as the quails are to Caliban, and the joy comes from Caliban’s (and thus God’s) lack of control over them. Caliban always makes Setebos in his image, but then models his own behavior after his God:
‘Am strong myself compared to yonder crabs
That march now from the mountain to the sea;
‘Let twenty pass, and stone the twenty-first,
Loving not, hating not, just choosing so.
A storm approaches as the poem ends, sent by Setebos, who after all can see into the cave, to chastise Caliban. “Fool to gibe at Him!” The Tempest is about to begin.
* Or maybe “’Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came’”? No, surely “My Last Duchess.”
Wednesday, February 29, 2012
Robert Browning was, for a time, best known – well, first he was best known as the husband of a famous and beloved poet, so I mean aside from the sheen of Elizabeth Barrett Browning – he was best known as the author of “The Pied Piper of Hamelin”:
Tuesday, February 28, 2012
The subject at hand is not Robert Browning, but Browning’s 1864 book Dramatis Personae, a great book, his fourth great book in a row. I looked at one of its less known poems yesterday, seldom collected elsewhere. Today I will enjoy a better known poem, although not one of the book’s big anthology hits like “Rabbi ben Ezra” or “Caliban Upon Setebos”. This one, “Apparent Failure,” is about suicide, and includes a fairly direct statement of Browning’s religious belief, assuming that the speaker of the poem is Robert Browning, and the real one at that. Who knows.
The poem has an epigraph, from a “Paris newspaper”: “We shall soon lose a celebrated building.” That building is the morgue on the Ile de la Cité, which I last visited with Wilkie Collins in The Woman in White (1860 - why did I not write about this?), and will soon see again (I am respecting chronology) in Zola’s Thérèse Raquin (1867). The building was not demolished, at least not then, as it appears again in an 1883 story by Villiers de l'Isle-Adam.
This particular morgue (“The dead-house where you show your drowned”) was famous because it was open to the public, with the bodies, many pulled from the Seine and in horrible states of decay, on display in hopes of identification. Zola is direct about the entertainment value of corpse-watching. Why does Browning go in, as he did in 1856?
One pays one’s debt in such a case;
I plucked up heart and entered, - stalked,
Keeping a tolerable face
Compared with some whose cheeks were chalked:
Let them! No Briton’s to be baulked!
I see. A demonstration of national fortitude.
Here are the corpses. Browning has no interest in Zola’s evocation of disgust, but rather with the dignity of the undignified dead.
Poor men, God made, and all for that!
The reverence struck me; o’er each head
Religiously was hung its hat,
Each coat dripped by the owner’s bed,
Sacred from touch: each had his berth,
His bounds, his proper place of rest,
Who last night tenanted on earth
Some arch, where twelve such slept abreast, -
Unless the plain asphalte seemed best.
Browning puzzles over the causes of suicide: thwarted idealism, the world’s cruelty, plus the usual stuff, money and women. He hopes for the best, for the suicides, for all of us.
It’s wiser being good than bad;
It’s safer being meek than fierce:
It’s fitter being sane than mad.
My own hope is a sun will pierce
The thickest cloud earth ever stretched;
That, after Last, returns the First,
Though a wide compass round be fetched;
That which began best, can’t end worst,
Nor what God blessed once, prove accurst.
Monday, February 27, 2012
When I started this Robert Browning poem, as usual a monologue, I got everything wrong.
Dîs Aliter Visum; Or, Le Byron de Nos Jours
Wait, I had better unpack the title first. The Latin is from the Aeneid, and means “the gods see things differently”; the French is “the Byron of our time.” What gods? Why in French? Etc. Typical Robert Browning. The poem begins:
Stop, let me have the truth of that!
Is that all true? I say, the day
Ten years ago when both of us
Met on a morning, friends – as thus
We meet this evening, friends or what? –
Did you – because I took your arm
And sillily smiled, “A mass of brass
That sea looks, blazing underneath!”
While up the cliff-road edged with heath,
We took the turns nor came to harm –
A pause again: that “mass of brass” is hard to ignore. Moving back to the first stanza, and leafing ahead, I see that line 2 always features this close internal rhyme. “Walked and talked,” “youth and mouth,” verse and worse.” I do not know the name of the form: ABCCA, but with B hiccupping.
The narrator is a well-to-do English woman, the “you” a famous French poet. He is the Byron of our time, and also perhaps the god who sees things differently. Ten years ago, the woman wanted to marry him. The poet was tempted but for egotistical reasons never pressed the point. They both subsequently married others, and married worse. The woman spends the poem recreating the meeting when, with some sort of nudge, both of their lives could have been different. And should have been, she argues, whether to herself or to the poet’s face I can only guess.
All of this has been pieced together from the rest of the poem. On my first pass I became confused about who was speaking and even more confused about the identity of the French poet’s “you,” in effect inventing a third character. My imaginary poem was not bad, but awfully confusing, and in the last stanza it crumbled in my hands. Oh, oops. Start again. Robert Browning poems.
The odd rhyme scheme now looks integral to the poem. Taking “mass of brass” as genuine speech, we hear the young narrator trying to impress the famous poet (in his words, or, really, her imagined version of his words “she tries to sing… Reads verse and thinks she understands”). The repetition of the repetition in each stanza becomes a parody of the poet, climaxing in his description of her (her imagined etc.) in stanza XIII, when the internal rhymes explode:
“And this young beauty, round and sound
As a mountain-apple. Youth and truth
With loves and doves, at all events
With money in the Three per Cents;
Whose choice of me would seem profound: –
The narrator, over the last ten years seems to have learned something about poetry, or has at least revised her valuation of the French Byron’s verse, if not his person. They should have married – “you had saved two souls: nay, four.” Kind of a sad poem, whatever the struggle to pull out the sadness.
The poem is from the 1864 Dramatis Personae. I wonder if I have the fortitude for a week of Browning. I will find out.
Friday, February 24, 2012
The pair of Machado de Assis stories Clifford E. Landers translated for Words without Borders a couple of years ago are excellent; perhaps I should say more about them. Curious reader can test my impressions against them and can come back here and really rake me over the coals. One is “A Visit from Alcibiades”; t’other is “Justice Unbalanced.” The former is the only English translation of the story; the latter exists in another version more accurately but somehow irritatingly titled “Wallow, Swine!” (“Suje-se Gordo”).
“A Visit from Alcibiades” is deliberately minor, but still tasty. The narrator, reading Plutarch’s Life of Alcibiades, somehow summons the Athenian general and dandy. After some fuss, the story turns out to be a satire on clothes – thus the need for Alcibiades in particular. The narrator is going to dress the Athenian for a ball:
"Black tubes!" he exclaimed.
These were the black trousers that I had just put on. He exclaimed and laughed, a cynical laugh in which surprise mingled with mockery, greatly offending my sensitivity as a modern man. Because, Your Excellency will note, although to us our times may seem deserving of criticism, even of execration, we dislike it when an ancient ridicules them to our face.
That last line is prime Machadian (Assisisian?) humor, as is an earlier aphorism, “death is the ultimate sarcasm.” Next in the narrative comes, each more absurd than the last, the cravat, then the frock coat, then, as a climax, the hat, and I suppose I should stop there. I said it was minor! But the sense of Machado in the story is strong.
“Justice Unbalanced” is more clearly one of those Masterpieces of World Literature. The narrator tells us about two terms on a criminal jury. In the first trial, he and his fellow jurors convict a man of a minor forgery. The narrator is shocked by a “corpulent and redheaded” fellow juror who seems to judge the guilt of the defendant by the pettiness of his crime. I am going to switch to the quite different, more vivid version of the story found in The Devil’s Church and Other Stories and the Oxford Anthology of the Brazilian Short Story:
“And all for twenty dollars, a pittance. Let the swine wallow in his filth! Wallow, swine, wallow!”
“Wallow, swine!” I confess I was astonished. Not that I understood him nor felt that he was being fair, and that’s why I was astonished.
The big twisteroo occurs when the narrator again serves on a jury, and the defendant turns out to be the red-headed juror, now thin, charged with embezzling a huge amount of money. No matter what the other evidence might be, the narrator is sure of the man’s guilt. I will switch back to Landers for contrast:
The verb rigidly defined the action. "Steal something big!" It means a man shouldn't commit an act of that kind except for a considerable sum. No one should defile himself for a few coins. If you're going to steal, steal something big!
The story ends on an ambivalent note with the narrator drawing a quite different lesson from the story than I did, one that focuses my attention on his motives and psychology.
A couple of days ago I claimed that the stories of Machado de Assis were unlike his novels, but my last claim is exactly of a piece with the novels.
I hope someone is currently translating another collection of Machado de Assis stories for me.
Thursday, February 23, 2012
The Machado de Assis short story “The Celebrity” (“Um Homem Célebre”) caught my attention with its subject. It is an 1888 story about a pop musician, a songwriter. I do not know any earlier fiction on the subject, although I wish I did, because I would like to read it. This one begins:
“Oh, so you’re Pestana?” asked Miss Mota, with a sweeping gesture of admiration. And immediately correcting her familiar address: “Pardon my manners, but… are you really he?”
Annoyed and dispirited, Pestana answered yes, it was he.
The celebrity Pestana is at a party where he has just played, as a special favor to his hostess, his newest hit song “Don’t Kid Me Honey.”
The very latest – published just three weeks earlier, there was no longer a nook or cranny of the city, however remote, where it wasn’t known. The tune was on everybody’s lips.
“Don’t Kid Me Honey” is a polka. Pestana writes hit polkas. Walking home after the party, he finds that last line to be literally true, to his frustration. Pestana surrounds his piano with portraits of “Cimarosa, Mozart, Beethoven, Gluck, Bach, Schumann, and three others,” and wants to compose “just one immortal page,” but inspiration never comes. Or actually it does, frequently:
He began to play something that was his very own, with genuine inspiration: a polka, a frolicsome polka, in the language of the billboards. No resistance on the part of the composer.
It is the ur-plot for the popular artist, isn’t it? The bestselling author who wants critical acclaim, the hack painter who wants not just success but respect. This part of Machado’s story is not so original. Or perhaps it is, and I am only remembering the mass of later stories on the same theme.
The polka writer marries a consumptive woman hoping that she will be his muse, and an ironic twist or two follow, ones. She does inspire him, and he composes, in secret, a nocturne for her:
One Sunday, however, he could no longer hold back, and he called his wife to hear him play a passage of the nocturne. He didn’t tell her what it was or who had composed it. He stopped suddenly and looked at her questioningly.
“Don’t stop,” said Maria, “it’s Chopin, isn’t it?”
Pestana became pale, stared out into space, repeated one or two passages, and got up. Maria sat down at the piano and after making an effort to recall it to her memory, executed the piece by Chopin.
That is pretty good, but honestly my favorite parts of this story are the passages about the business of pop songwriting. Pestana’s publisher is always ready with a title. The one written in the passage up above, for example, is “Please Keep Your Basket to Yourself, Ma’am.” It is another smash hit. Sometimes the titles are political, “The Law of September 28” Or “Bravo for the Timely Election!” Early on Pestana asks his publisher what the title means and is told “’It doesn’t mean anything, but it’ll become popular right away.’”
Like a good novelty song, a song about something songs are not often about, “The Celebrity” is a fine novelty story.
I found “The Celebrity” in The Devil’s Church and Other Stories.
Wednesday, February 22, 2012
More of a catalogue than real writing, that is what I will do today.
I mocked (gently, gently) the editor of the Oxford Anthology of the Brazilian Short Story for his amusingly precise insistence, borrowed from another critic, that “at least sixty [of Machado’s stories] are masterpieces of world literature” (38). What amuses me, aside from the vague pedantry, is wondering what the rest of the list would look like. Chekhov wrote at least 100 masterpieces of world literature; Hemingway wrote at least 40 MoWL; Flannery O’Connor did not write many stories, but at least 20 are MoWL. I am just guessing at the numbers. An odd exercise. Suddenly the world is overflowing with masterpieces.
Not that the general point is wrong. I have now tracked down all of the short Machado that I can find in English, forty stories if I am counting correctly, almost all from the post-1880 Phase II of Machado’s career, written alongside his five great novels. It seems like a shame and a mistake that, just to pick a prominent example, the Norton Anthology of Short Fiction does not have a Machado story. Note to Norton: “Father versus Mother” is the one you want.
Machado’s stories have been translated and collected in three books:
The Psychiatrist and Other Stories, tr. William Grossman and others, University of California Press, 1963.
The Devil’s Church and Other Stories, tr. Jack Schmitt and Lorie Ishimatsu, University of Texas Press, 1977.
A Chapter of Hats and Other Stories, tr. John Gledson, Bloomsbury, 2008.
The Oxford Anthology of the Brazilian Short Story has three that do not appear in the above, and Words without Borders has two fine Clifford Landers translations online, one of which is the only English version. I think. Let me know if I am wrong about any of this.
The three collections are all strong. The degree of overlap is high and irritating, yet all three books have a number of excellent stories found nowhere else. The Devil’s Church is an unusually ugly book, with an odd font and pointless clip-art illustrations, but the stories are first-rate. The title story of The Psychiatrist, more of a mini-novel than a short story, is enough to recommend that collection, but A Chapter of Hats has the most stories, also a recommendation.
I would not be surprised if all sixty MoWL would fit in a single 400 page book, but such a book does not exist. During Machado’s lifetime these stories were published in five short collections. A set of translations of those five books is a pleasant thing to imagine, and would be even more pleasant to own.
Machado’s short fiction is surprising in how much it is unlike the novels. The author’s puzzle-solving and digressive how-fiction-works tomfoolery are reserved for the novels. The short stories are focused and more directly purposeful. While the novels are always about the Rio de Janeiro upper class, the stories explore every corner of the city.
I think I will spend the next couple of days looking at a few of them, not to worry about their status as MoWL, but just to enjoy what I found in them.
Tuesday, February 21, 2012
For, the attentive, truly ruminative reader has four stomachs in his brain, and through these he passes and repasses the actions and events, until he declares the truth which was, or seemed to be, hidden. (142)
Machado de Assis, and the narrator of Esau and Jacob, seem to have called his attentive readers cows. Never mind that. My question is, what truths are at issue here? What is hidden, and what merely seems to be hidden?
The context of the quotation is that the father of the novel’s heroine has changed political parties for reasons of ambition – his wife’s ambition, specifically. The mystery, for the narrator, is why the man abandoned his principles so easily; the hidden truth is the role of the wife. Machado’s novels, with their fractured chronologies and digressions, can superficially resemble puzzle novels – Dom Casmurro more than superficially – but the greatest puzzles are those of motive: why do people do the strange things that they do? Within the novel, it is Counselor Ayres who is continually working to solve the mysteries, ruminating along with the reader. In this case, the narrator (also Counselor Ayres) simply tells the reader the “truth”:
Note that I have spared him [me, the reader] Ayres’ work; this time I did not oblige him to find out everything for himself as he has been obliged to do on other occasions. (142)
Then he calls me a cow; I have inverted the quotation. My point is that the mysteries of Esau and Jacob are not so different than those of Henry James or Marcel Proust, however differently they are presented.
The central mystery of Esau and Jacob is the heroine Flora’s love for the twin brothers of the title. Does she love Pedro or Paulo or both? Is there a way to choose between them?
The girls that saw them go by on horseback, along the shore, or up the street, fell in love with that perfect order of form and motion. Their very horses were exactly alike, almost twins, and beat their hooves in the same rhythm, with the same vigor, with the same grace. Don’t go imagining that the tossing of their tails and of their manes was simultaneous: it is not true, and might make one doubt the rest. But the rest is certain. (73)
Neither James nor Proust are likely to scold the reader for extending an image too far. I usually emphasize, when I am writing about tricky narrators, the bumps and sharp turns in the way they tell the story. But Machado is clear in Esau and Jacob that the central issue is how we read it.
Monday, February 20, 2012
Esau and Jacob, 1904, seventh novel by Machado de Assis, fourth of his amazing late run. This one, Esau and Jacob is another ingenious masterpiece, although not a particularly welcoming one. I suspect it requires a bit of commitment to the Machado project.
The obstacle, for me, was a theme that fussed with late nineteenth century Brazilian politics. Helen Caldwell, the novel’s translator and premier Machado scholar, makes a convincing case that the novel works as an allegory – over here is the soul of Brazil, over there a cluster of symbols of Brazilian monarchism, and on like that. Oh no no no. Knowing about this interpretation helps explain some of the flatter parts of the novel, but it is not needed for the hilly and even mountainous passages, so let us never mention it again.
If you want to write the book, here is the pen, here is paper, here is your humble admirer; but, if you only want to read, keep quiet, and go from line to line, I will grant you permission to yawn through a couple of chapters, but wait for the rest, have faith in the narrator of these adventures. (72)
Yes, have faith! For Esau and Jacob is another of Machado’s brilliantly digressive narrated novels. As another anonymous narrator explains in a preface that the text in front of me is the seventh manuscript volume of the notebooks of the recently deceased Counselor Ayres. I know something the contemporary reader would not have known, that Machado’s next and final novel is titled Memorial de Aires (1908). Most curious.
Counselor Ayres is then the writer and narrator of Esau and Jacob. He is an omniscient narrator, wandering into any character’s thoughts, prayers, or private moments as he likes. One character whose thoughts receive particular attention is Counselor Ayres, who functions, as per his diplomatic title, as an adviser to the protagonists of the novel. Nowhere outside of the preface is there a hint that this same Counselor Ayres is telling the story. The reader only knows the truth from the preface.
Very clever, having the narrator as a character while never letting on, except that someone else spoils (or enhances) the joke. Some readers may not be all that interested in cleverness. Fair enough. I recommend the earlier Dom Casmurro to their attention, a devilishly clever book, but less merely clever.
Ayres narration is primarily about a pair of young twin brothers who fall for the same woman, the mysterious Flora. “Mysterious” is Ayres’s word, Ayres the character, not the narrator; the character Ayres is puzzling away at the motives and behavior of Pedro and Paulo and Flora just as the narrator is, perhaps our one clue within the text that they are one and the same. Flora becomes something of a real character while the twins are part of the book’s flatness, really brought into service only to help create Flora. At the point where Flora is introduced (the passage I quoted above is about the narrator’s irritation that the reader has likely predicted her existence before he could properly introduce her), I realized that the novel’s title is a red herring – Esau and Jacob did not fight over a woman, no one is going to sell his birthright for a mess of pottage , etc. And if I have been misdirected by the title, who knows what else has tricked me.
I begin to write about the actual story and characters and find myself back to the cleverness of how the story is told. That is the kind of novel Esau and Jacob is; those are the novels Machado de Assis wrote.
Friday, February 17, 2012
The commercialized dust heaps of Our Mutual Friend (1865) make the novel a classic of the Literature of Recycling, if there is such a thing. Dickens was himself a master recycler. A good part of the fun of reading so much Dickens is watching the author return to characters, images, and problems – problems of how to write fiction, I mean.
See how the grave robber of A Tale of Two Cities (1859), the one whose alibi each night is that he is “fishing,” returns in Our Mutual Friend as Jesse Hexam, who fishes corpses out of the Thames. Both men make their living by recycling the dead, as does Mr. Venus in his bone shop.
A new strain appears in Our Mutual Friend, in the subplot of the dual obsessions of Eugene Wrayburn and Bradley Headstone for Lizzie Hexam. Wrayburn’s nihilism is paralyzing; the unassuming Headstone turns out to be something of a sociopath (“as I was saying – undergoing grinding torments,” from III.10, where one might wonder if both men are maniacs). This is Dostoevskian Dickens; The Mystery of Edwin Drood (1870) takes up the theme again and builds the novel around it, reflecting Dickens’s deepening ideas about the nature of evil. But different shades of the characters, of Wrayburn at least, had been appearing in Dickens novels for a decade, in the Sydney Carton of Two Cities and Arthur Clennam of Little Dorrit (1857), and now I wonder about Pip, and have something new to look for when I reread Great Expectations (1861).
Dickens was always working on the problems of past novels, and had little interest in perfecting the novel at hand. One might blame serialization, where the published chapters constrain the unwritten ones – too late to scrap a character or plot and start over – but the issue is one of artistic temperament. Dickens was a master of serialization because of the way he wrote, not the other way round. He was an exploratory writer, one who had to write to know what he was going to write, wholly unlike Gustave Flaubert or other conceptual perfectionists. Flaubert would stop everything else to fix a word in the wrong place; Dickens, recognizing the artistic error, would try to do better next time.
The cleanest example of Dickens recycling is A Christmas Carol (1843), his first Christmas book. It was written and published in the middle of the ongoing Martin Chuzzlewit (1843-44). Ebenezer Scrooge is a reworking of Jonas Chuzzlewit, one of Martin Chuzzlewit’s villains. They are similar in appearance, behavior, and attitude, but one is redeemed by the Spirit of Christmas while the other inevitably destroys himself. I do not know of another example quite like this, where an author retells a story that he is currently publishing. Today one would have to look at genres where serialization has survived, to television and comic books.
Roberto Bolaño had the Dickens “write first” temperament. He came close to the Christmas Carol experiment twice. After Nazi Literature in the Americas (1996), Bolaño published Distant Star (1996), a reworking and expansion of the last episode of the earlier book. The next book after The Savage Detectives (1998) was Amulet (1999), a Savage Detectives episode blown up into its own novel.
I wish I had a conclusion, a grand summing up, although that is not in the Dickensian spirit. There is no summing up, there is no conclusion, until the inevitable one, death ending the exploration halfway through the new novel which has already suggested the next one that we will never know about.
Thursday, February 16, 2012
An entire novel built on the symbolic base of giant mounds of dust spilling onto London, at least everywhere but the corpse-filled Thames, does not sound like the production of the sentimental social reformer many readers seem to identify as Charles Dickens. Dickens was a pathos-wringing wrong-righter, yes, that is part of who he was. But he, Dickens-the-author, the only Dickens of any continuing interest, was also crazy, and wrote crazy books. By “crazy” I mean that he was prodigiously inventive, that he had a freakishly capacious and active imagination, and that he was willing to follow his fancies wherever they led him.
Thus: In Dombey and Son (1847), a child dies in a suitably pathetic scene. It really is quite sad. But: the child, by dying, becomes a sea spirit – in fact he dies because the sea has been calling him to itself. The sea spirit is later reincarnated as his own nephew. This is in the novel Dickens wrote.
The villain in Dombey and Son is a kind of human cat. The villain in The Old Curiosity Shop is a fire spirit, some kind of imp. I wrote something many years about the little monster Quilp which still seems to say what I wanted it so say, and more importantly includes the relevant illustrations. A writer always has to demonstrate the villainy of his villains, so Dickens includes a scene in which Quilp torments a chained dog, which we can all admit is terribly cruel. He torments the animal by “taunting the dog with hideous faces.” The monster!
This is the same novel that ends with the apotheosis of sickly sentimentalism, Little Nell’s ascension to heaven in the arms of three little girl angels (in an illustration, granted). Dickens is many things at once, or in succession.
The Old Curiosity Shop is almost too strong for my argument. A formless and almost entirely improvised novel, it allowed Dickens perhaps too much freedom to aimlessly indulge his imagination. In the tightly controlled Bleak House, the craziest moment starts small and builds:
"Why, there's not much air to be got here; and what there is, is not very freshening," Weevle answers, glancing up and down the court.
"Very true, sir. Don't you observe," says Mr. Snagsby, pausing to sniff and taste the air a little, "don't you observe, Mr. Weevle, that you're - not to put too fine a point upon it - that you're rather greasy here, sir?"
"Why, I have noticed myself that there is a queer kind of flavour in the place to-night," Mr. Weevle rejoins. "I suppose it's chops at the Sol's Arms." (Ch. 32)
Ha ha ha ha ick! Some pages go by, discussion and plot. Oh look, there’s the famous candle flame with “a great cabbage head and a long winding-sheet.” Great description but not crazy like:
As he is going to do so again, he happens to look at his coat-sleeve. It takes his attention. He stares at it, aghast.
"Why, Tony, what on earth is going on in this house to-night? Is there a chimney on fire?"
"Chimney on fire!"
"Ah!" returns Mr. Guppy. "See how the soot's falling. See here, on my arm! See again, on the table here! Confound the stuff, it won't blow off - smears like black fat!"
If anyone is wondering, Dickens is a master of the flip from present to past tense, with present used here for typical tension-building reasons. Everyone knows the source of the soot, yes? Or has a good guess. It ain’t the chops.
I am just emphasizing the more extreme side of the superior imagination of Dickens, the part that makes him a forefather of Thomas Pynchon and Salman Rushdie and other writers of the pack it in and see what happens variety. The part that gives characters silly names and that gleefully Goes Too Far at times; the part that is a little crazy.
Wednesday, February 15, 2012
While visiting the skulls, warious and mummified birds of Mr. Venus, I neglected to say anything about Mr. Venus himself. His hair is dusty, that is the important thing to know, dust-colored and dusty. Our Mutual Friend is built on giant mounds of dust:
By which means, or by others, he grew rich as a Dust Contractor, and lived in a hollow in a hilly country entirely composed of Dust. On his own small estate the growling old vagabond threw up his own mountain range, like an old volcano, and its geological formation was Dust. Coal-dust, vegetable-dust, bone-dust, crockery dust, rough dust and sifted dust,-- all manner of Dust. (I.2)
Humphry House, in The Dickens World, tell me that “[t]heir chief value was in the ashes, which were used for brick-making, while the soot section of the heap was good for manure” (167), and the mounds are a source of great wealth, worth all kinds of fuss with wills and blackmail and disguises. The dust heaps were in the northern suburbs of London, “a tract of suburban Sahara,” and they coat the entire city in their grit.
I'd give the dustman five shillings, to carry you off in the dust cart. (II.5)
Now that is Jenny Wren, if it matters, threatening her alcoholic father. Fortunately for him she does not have five shillings to spare. The surreal dust mounds are so metaphorically promising that I was almost disappointed with how little use Dickens makes of them, although the fact is that the dust is mentioned constantly, as metaphor and reality. The “dust cart” threat is good by itself, but made better since we know where that dust cart will take the old man.
The collection and storage of waste is the economic center of Our Mutual Friend, whether in dust heaps or bone shops, but less dusty economic activity is also possible. The novel begins with Lizzie Hexam and her father fishing a corpse out of the Thames. That is how he makes his living, looting the pockets of dead men and collecting rewards.
The gentlemen of the novel avoid the dust, too. They traffic in Shares: “As is well known to the wise in their generation, traffic in Shares is the one thing to have to do with in this world” (I.10). In other words, in the terms of Our Mutual Friend, they make money from nothing at all, not dust but air, which once in a while goes poof. Or not poof, as it should, but smash:
'And what is to happen next?' asked Mrs Lammle of the skeleton.
'Smash is to happen next,' said Mr Lammle to the same authority. (III.12)
Look, there is another skeleton, more bones, a metaphor here (it is in the closet), but an unusually intrusive one. To recap: money in Our Mutual Friend can be made from nothing, or from garbage. Garbage is more difficult but more stable. There will always be garbage.
Note to Richard: This is not the post I promised to write, something about Crazy Dickens, but it is preparatory.
Tuesday, February 14, 2012
I suppose in the end it makes sense to have some idea of a book as a whole, good or bad, worth reading or not, morally edifying or blighting, but in fact I do not read books as wholes, but rather passages, and sentences, and sometimes even individual words. As I have improved as a reader I have retreated further from the whole; as I continue to improve, I will move past the passage, and then the sentence, and perhaps even the word, reading nothing but a series of letters, each deeply meaningful, until I am adept enough to read nothing but the nirvana of the blank space between and among the letters. Every day, then, after an hour or so of clear thought, careful writing, and judicious editing, I will produce the perfect blog post about what I read, one that is completely blank.
I have not yet achieved that level of sophistication. What I am trying to say is that I have read 14 ½ Charles Dickens novels because of, as an example, this:
From these, in a narrow and a dirty street devoted to such callings, Mr Wegg selects one dark shop-window with a tallow candle dimly burning in it, surrounded by a muddle of objects vaguely resembling pieces of leather and dry stick, but among which nothing is resolvable into anything distinct, save the candle itself in its old tin candlestick, and two preserved frogs fighting a small-sword duel. (I.7)
Allow me to savor the image: “two preserved frogs fighting a small-sword duel.” Readers familiar with Our Mutual Friend will know that I have just accompanied the one-legged Simon Wegg into the anatomy shop of Mr. Venus. The latter is presumably the creator of the frog tableau; he is a taxidermist and assembler of skeletons by trade: “’You may go and buy a skeleton at the West End if you like, and pay the West End price, but it’ll be my putting together.’” Again, I will pause – “and pay the West End price.” I have been led to believe that there are people in the world who criticize Dickens for wordiness, who wonder why he does not just get on with it. But he is! This, the dueling frogs and proud craftsman, are it, or much of it.
Mr. Venus gives a tour of the shop:
‘My working bench. My young man's bench. A Wice. Tools. Bones, warious. Skulls, warious. Preserved Indian baby. African ditto. Bottled preparations, warious. Everything within reach of your hand, in good preservation. The mouldy ones a-top. What's in those hampers over them again, I don't quite remember. Say, human warious. Cats. Articulated English baby. Dogs. Ducks. Glass eyes, warious. Mummied bird. Dried cuticle, warious. Oh, dear me! That's the general panoramic view.’
I have to suppress the kerfuffle over teeth (“There was two in the coffee-pot at breakfast time. Molars.”) in order to marvel at the delights of this passage alone, “Say, human warious,” for example, or “Ducks.” The penultimate exclamation is the result of something, the bird mummy or cuticles, reminding Mr. Venus of his romantic troubles, which will work out fine; do not lose any sleep over the love life of Mr. Venus the skeleton articulator.
The frogs, by the way – this is a tip for aspiring fiction writers – could be found on Dickens’s own writing desk, not as taxidermy but in the form of a French bronze sculpture (and they were toads, not frogs). So the tip is to surround yourself with useless knickknacks which you will someday insert into your story as a telling detail.
All of this is just one little slice of one little chapter of Our Mutual Friend. Dickens is so generous.
Monday, February 13, 2012
Our Mutual Friend (1864-5) was the last Dickens novel I had not read, which means that I have now read them all. Rather than write a post about this milestone, I will quietly celebrate on my own.
That took a lot less time than I had expected. It was a little too quiet, if you know what I mean. Guess I’ll write something.
I am never sure what people – by people I of course mean book bloggers – are really planning when they declare, after reading two novels, or maybe a novel-and-a-half, that they have fallen in love and will soon read “all” of an author’s work. They should investigate the “all” a bit before making their empty declarations. “All” can be pretty dire, even for a major writer.
Many years ago, I was the proud reader of all of Thomas Pynchon, not just the five published books but every published scrap of text uncovered by his lunatic bibliographers. The highlight, from the completist’s point of view, was a short article published in a 1960 issue of Aerospace Safety magazine which had exactly one Pynchonian line, a joke about a flagman signaling “The plane ran over the general’s foot.” Or so I remember. Then Pynchon wrote the liner notes to a CD by a minor indie rock band called Lotion, and I thought forget it, I am not buying a goldang Lotion album in order to maintain my neurotic all-of-Pynchon status. Now I have not even read all of his novels. This is progress.
The “all” of Dickens is so enormous that it is unreasonable. Fourteen and a half novels, check; five “Christmas Books,” check; the confusingly labeled “Christmas Stories,” at least half are still unread; and then there are travel books, and Sketches by Boz, and A Child’s History of England, just to stay with books that might be readable. What to make of his plays, or his poems? (Answer: nothing, ‘cause I’m not going to read them). And all of that magazine and newspaper writing, masses of it.
The exciting thing about having read every Dickens novel is that I have completed a necessary step to re-reading not all but most of them. Finally, some real reading! It has been almost twenty years since I read The Mystery of Edwin Drood, so that one is tugging at me a bit, particularly since it is closely related to a plotline of Our Mutual Friend. Been a while since Great Expectations, too, which prefigures OMF in interesting ways. Bleak House I have read twice, but having read the rest in the series – with Little Dorrit and Our Mutual Friend, it forms a thematic and artistic trilogy – I want to go back to it. Dickens is often revising the previous novel in the current one. It is nice to be able to line them all up in my head.
Himadri, the Argumentative Old Git, provided the encouragement to check off Charles Dickens Novel #14 now rather than later. If I write something - I was going to say “more” but I have deftly avoided the novel this time – about Our Mutual Friend, I will bounce some ideas off of his pieces.
Friday, February 10, 2012
Sophia de Mello Breyner Andresen: Our attention to the world is the observance they claim, or Writing insists on solitudes and deserts
Sophia de Mello Breyner Andresen is a poet of the sea, but which sea? She is a dedicated Hellenist, and a characteristic poetic effect is a blurring of the difference between Portugal’s ocean and Greece’s Mediterranean. When Sophia, a dedicated Catholic, discovers the gods in the landscape, which gods does she mean?
She shares her interest in Greece and its gods with an earlier Portuguese poet, an imaginary one, the sad Epicurean Ricardo Reis. Reis insisted that he was a true pagan, and that his encounter with the shepherd poet Alberto Caeiro showed him how to turn his beliefs into poetry. Reis perhaps taught Sophia something similar:
Homage to Ricardo Reis III
The gods are absent yet they preside.
We inhabit this
Their thought emerges when everything
Their gaze guides ours:
Our attention to the world
Is the observance they claim.
I cannot tell if Sophia is speaking to Reis or as Reis. The poem is meaningful either way; the poets share their purpose, even if the absent gods are less metaphorical for Reis than for Sophia.
Our world is transparent yet ambiguous - an obscure enough adjective. The transparent becomes visible, the ambiguous fixed, when we direct attention to the things of the world, to their exactness. Or the confused invisibility then becomes “exact” as the result of our attention. “Lord, free us from the dangerous game of transparency” she writes in “On Transparency.” Sophia is positing a corollary to Heisenberg’s much-abused Uncertainty Principle: we can observe either the position or momentum of a particle with precision, but not both; but without “attention to the world” we know nothing at all. The poet is the operator of the electron microscope. Like Coral the cat, the poet asks each thing its name.
Lest Sophia de Mello Breyner seem too mystical, the editor of the Marine Rose collection sets beside the pair (only two, unfortunately) of Homage to Ricardo Reis poems an alternative description of the poet’s vocation. What can Sophia share with Lord Byron, a writer of satire and long narrative poems about pirates and lady-killers? The title is the first clue:
In Palazzo Mocenigo where he had lived alone
Lord Byron used every grand room
To watch solitude mirror by mirror
And the beauty of doors no one passed through
He heard the marine murmurs of silence
The lost echoes of steps in far corridors
He loved the smooth shine on polished floors
Shadows unrolling under high ceilings
And though he sat in just one chair
Was glad to see the other chairs were empty
The empty chairs imply full ones, and in fact Byron’s life in Venice at this time was manically social:
By the end of the year 1818, in which he had begun his greatest poem, Don Juan, he was to be discovered morosely climbing the balcony of an 18-year-old Italian heiress at midnight. He afterwards told Medwin that he was indifferent to the outcome of the affair, and did not care whether the police officer had come to have him shot or married. (Richard Holmes, Shelley: The Pursuit, 420)
Sophia is interested in the first part of that passage, the writing, amidst chaos, of the great poem, as her poem concludes:
Of course no one needs so much space to live
But writing insists on solitudes and deserts
Things to look at as if seeing something else
We can imagine him seated at his table
Imagine the full long throat
The open white shirt
The white paper the spidery writing
And the light of a candle – as in certain paintings –
Focussing all attention
Byron, too, if guided by the gaze of the gods and giving them the observance they claim. He is a poet.
Translations are again from Ruth Fairlight's Marine Rose.
Thursday, February 9, 2012
Sophia de Mello Breyner Andresen: Fantastic sea gods stroll at the edge of the world, or She asked each thing its name
Three collections of Sophia de Mello Breyner Andresen exist in English, I think, all miniscule. Their titles help place the poet: Log Book; Shores, Horizons, Voyages; and Marine Rose. I have read that last one (tr. Ruth Fairlight, Black Swan Books, 1988). Portuguese literature from its roots is a literature of the sea; Sophia* is a poet of the sea.
The pines moan when the wind passes
The sun beats on the earth and the stones burn.
Fantastic sea gods stroll at the edge of the world
Crusted with salt and brilliant as fishes.
Sudden wild birds hurled
Against the light into the sky like stones
Mount and die vertically
Their bodies taken by space.
The waves butt as if to smash the light
Their brows ornate with columns.
And an ancient nostalgia of being a mast
Sways in the pines.
Just taken as a bundle of imagery I find a lot to like here. The first two lines may be ordinary scene-setting, but the salt-crusted sea gods are excellent. Are they purely imaginary, or is Sophia transforming Speedo-clad bathers into deities? The lines about the birds are all about motion, about moving faster than the eye. The waves I do not quite see – are the columns the rays of the sun (the light that is being smashed)? The pines return with added weight, the brilliantly paradoxical addition of the fate they might have had back in the time of the sea gods, who are as likely to be Portuguese explorers as Neptune and his court.
Marine Rose ends with an essay by Kenneth Krabbenhoft that makes as much use of Heidegger as I can take. Such philosophical firepower is hardly necessary, but the connection is not fanciful. Besides a common interest in ancient Greece, Sophia is, like Andrade, a poet of the moment, of something like Heidegger’s Being (Dasein). How that helps me more than this, I do not understand:
In the Poem
To bring the picture the wall the wind
The flower the glass the shine on wood
And the cold chaste severe world of water
To the clean severe world of the poem
To save from death decay and ruin
The actual moment of vision and surprise
And keep in the real world
The real gesture of a hand touching the table.
In a short talk included in Marine Rose, Sophia says “For me, poetry has always been the pursuit of what is real.” The creation of the poem, an act of imagination, is what “keeps” the gesture of the hand “real.” Or so the poet argues. Prove her wrong!
One last tiny sea poem:
He went and came
And asked each thing
No, that’s a trick. It’s not a sea poem at all – Coral, a note tells me, is a cat.
The Poetry International site has a number of Richard Zenith’s translations of Sophia, plus a sweet personal essay about her which inventories the art in her apartment. And do not miss St. Orberose, where one can enjoy Sophia alongside three other tantalizing contemporary female poets. Marvel at the way Adília Lopes can write a good poem which includes the line "I need a hug." I would not have thought it possible. The poem is called "I don't like books."
* How nice to discover that the poet with the multi-part name is typically just called Sophia.
Wednesday, February 8, 2012
An odd thing about Jorge de Sena, I mean for a poet as obscure in English-speaking countries as he is, is that translations of his individual books outnumber books of selections of his poems. I believe the only English Selected Poems is from 1980, just after his death. Subsequent volumes of his short stories have been translated, as well as little books or booklets like the ones I read, Metamorphoses and The Evidences.
I wonder if his books have such a strong conceptual bent that they resist selection. A few years after Metamorphoses, all poems about images, Sena published The Art of Music (1968). The Poetry International site features a poem from the book which fills me in on the concept:
Chopin: An Inventory
Almost sixty mazurkas; about thirty etudes;
two dozen preludes; a score of nocturnes;
[etc., etc., but the inventory soon expands]
a talent for concertizing; many mundane successes; an unhappy passion;
a celebrated liaison with a famous woman; other assorted liaisons;
[an ingenious conceit, isn’t it?]
the repugnant possibility…
a piece de non-résistance for performers who play for those who believe
they like music but really don’t
Ouch, ouch. Well, I should track down this book, too.
I mentioned yesterday that the sonnet sequence titles The Evidences had stumped me. How irritating. Fight back!
Let’s see. The title is peculiar. Not quite English. Evidences, plural. Evidence of many things or many of one thing? I’ll skip to the end, Sonnet XXI.
Ash-colored light is darkening the day,
so pale on rooftops in the distance there.
I barely see to write, and anyway
pain more free than hand guides me and may
look on its like in me, and ease my care.
At the fearful end that waits me from afar,
I can ask no comfort, can voice no plea.
From freedom the sheet unfolded to the air
will shroud my face. Nor know if thought is there
or if I’ll think as I escape from me.
The fading letters are lost. Night again,
my love, my life, who spoke was never me.
For us, for you, for me, who spoke was pain.
And the pain is evident – and set free.
Earlier in the book, the poet has some sort of crisis – political, railing against the “slimy and crustaceous” powers, and sexual, which begins to threaten the integrity of the sonnets themselves. The translator absolutely has to keep the rhymes, since Sena uses them to tell the story. In this final poem, although the form is odd, order has been restored. Night falls; the poet has to put down his pen as the letters fade. Or he could turn on a light. Whichever. The sheet that is both paper and a shroud suggests that the evidence is perhaps of the poet’s self, its nature or even existence.
That’s a start. I now see that the some of the obscurity of The Evidences belongs to the translator (Phyllis Sterling Smith, Jorge de Sena Center for Portuguese Studies, 1994), not the poet. She keeps “meus cuidados,” “my cares,” but finds no better rhyme than the thumping dud “there.” The Portuguese rhyme word is “telhados,” rooftops, so the whole line has to be scrambled just to get us “there.”
Many of the lines I find most puzzling in English look more straightforward in Portuguese, although Sena’s writing is more complex than Eugénio de Andrade’s, so I am mostly guessing. I do not think this translation has solved the puzzle of these poems. To the next translator: learn to love the slant rhyme.
Tuesday, February 7, 2012
Jorge de Sena: Even your skeletons will be looted for bones to pass for mine; or The shape of a god lounging where sand and water meet
In a nice coincidence, Miguel at St. Orberose just put up a long, action-packed piece about a Portuguese poet I did not know, Alexandre O’Neill. Miguel provides generous evidence of O’Neill’s quality. He has a spikier feel than Eugénio de Andrade or the other writers I have been reading, Jorge de Sena and Sophia de Mello Breyner Andresen. They are all from the same generation, born around 1920 – what a cohort of poets. Miguel writes “if it sounds like Portugal has too many poets, it does: I read somewhere it annually publishes as many poetry books as the United States.” May your country have too many poets.
With Andrade and Mello Breyner, I read career-spanning selected volumes, as one does and often should do, but with Jorge de Sena I tried a couple of short individual books, The Evidences, a sequence of twenty-one sonnets from 1955 and Metamorphoses, a 1963 book of poems that respond directly to images – paintings, sculptures, the “forest” of the Cordova Mosque, a photograph of the Sputnik I satellite.
The Evidences was completely incomprehensible. Metamorphoses was immediately pleasing. Easier, I guess. The images are helpful, giving the reader something on which to knock the poem. When a statue of Demeter in the British Museum is described as:
Monster in vast pleats, no head,
no legs, no arms. A mountain
of hips and trunk. Cliffs
the monster and the mountain are immediately visible, and when the poet plunges into the volcano to form the marble (“slowly pushed, pushed up \ through gaping crust”), the change is only logical, as is the statue’s final transformation into “immaculate flesh” at the end of the poem. Yes, I see it, even though the reproductions of the photographs in the 1991 Copper Beech Press edition are kinda crummy. Who cares – the poems brighten the photos.
Poets sneak into the images. A stone bust of Camoens inspires “Camoens Addresses His Contemporaries,” in which the touchy epic poet curses his plagiarists with:
and everything, everything you studiously pilfer,
will be reclaimed in my name. Even
the miserable particle of invention
that you squeezed out on your own, without theft,
even that will be mine, considered mine, counted mine.
You will have nothing upon nothing:
even your skeletons will be looted for bones
to pass for mine, so that other thieves,
like you, on their knees, can put flowers on my tomb.
Now there’s a scary curse, to be pillaged by scholars and critics. Sena himself was a distinguished thief, I mean critic.
The book’s final two poems are not paired with images, but instead evoke Ovid. A stone caryatid comes to life, or might, and the gods frolic on the shore – “frolic” is my G-rated description:
Only echoes of laughter
remain and, in our memory, the shape
of a god lounging where sand and water meet.
Translations by Francisco Cota Fagundes and James Houlihan. A little biography of Sena along with several of the poems from Metamorphoses are on display at the Poetry International site – the one about Goya is especially good, and the rest of the Camoens poem is there, too.
Monday, February 6, 2012
I want to spend some time writing about some Portuguese poets I do not understand well and do not know much about. Always a step ahead of myself, I am.
Eugénio de Andrade has come up at Wuthering Expectations before, in the context of my nearly fruitless attempt to study Portuguese.* His vocabulary is basic, the units with which he builds short, his aims modest, although also impossible.
The Art of Poetry
All the art is here,
in the way this woman
from the outskirts of Canton
or the fields of Alpedrindha
waters her four or five rows
of cabbages: the sure hand,
intimacy with the earth,
the heart’s commitment.
That’s how a poem is made. (1994)
Writing a poem is like watering cabbage; a poem is then, logically, like a cabbage. Perhaps what Andrade does is a bit more rare than growing a nice cabbage.
Putting one of the cabbage-growers near Canton (Cantão) invokes** one of Andrade’s models, the classical poetry of China. Haiku and other quiet, compressed forms are also suggested by different poems. How much can a poet do with twenty or thirty words? What can he capture?
The croaking of frogs is all the melody
the night has in its breast –
a song of marshes
and of rotting reeds,
at times with moonlight in its midst.
Andrade often seems to be trying to fix some precise moment or sensation or experience – something from nature, or thought, or a moment, often erotic, with a person – with as much linguistic music as possible. The problem of translation is not to recreate the original melody of stresses and vowel sounds, but to write a poem that keeps the sense of the original while having any music at all of its own.
Upon a Body
I fall upon your body
just the way the summer spreads its hair
on the scattered waters of the days
and makes of peonies a golden rain
or gives the most incestuous caress. (1971)
The translator I have been reading, Alexis Levitin, has been translating and working with Andrade for many years, so this will be as good as it gets.
My textbook is Forbidden Words: Selected Poetry of Eugénio de Andrade (New Directions, 2003), which includes selections dating from 1948 to 1998, crossing 24 books of poems. The translator, Alexis Levitin, has a nice little biography of Andrade, the introduction to the book, and ten more poems, all at the Poetry International site.
I do not plan to write more about Andrade. I am not sure I have written anything yet. He defies me, however useful I might have found his book. There are the squirrels, though. Late in life he becomes fascinated by American squirrels.
Wherever I go, since Washington
pursue me. Even in Camden,
next to Whitman’s tomb,
they come with the fall
to eat from my hand, but it’s at night
that they seek me most: black eyes,
Now I shall lie down in the shade of the river
till one of them enters this poem
and makes his nest. (1992)
* The “nearly,” though, is worth it. Minimal knowledge gives high rewards with translated poetry. Prof. Mayhew suggests that Spanish learners can use Antonio Machado like I have been using Andrade.
** Unless Cantão is a town in Portugal. Or Andrade is thinking of Ohio.
Friday, February 3, 2012
And then Laura asked me, pretending as if she didn’t know, how the young poets of Mexico were faring, whether my daughter had brought me news of their long, bloody march. And I told her they were fine. I lied, saying: they’re fine, almost everyone is publishing… (II.17)
The speaker is a madman, the context is a dream, but here we have an accurate description of The Savage Detectives. Roberto Bolaño’s novel is about the vocation of the poet. Who is a poet, and how can you tell? To a clear-minded fellow like me, the answer is obvious – a poet writes poetry. Bolaño is more sympathetic to other ideas, a classic Romantic. Perhaps poetry is a way of life. A poet is a person who lives like a poet.
The multiple examples and twenty-year scope of the novel allow Bolaño to see what some of those lives look like. Publish a single word and vanish, but keep writing. Writing what, only García Madero knows. Write feverishly, but publish nothing. Write as inspiration strikes, publish as opportunity allows. Work to become a professional writer. Hustle, or retreat. Bolaño gives us a little bit of everything.
Much of the argument, the possible arguments, are not about writing but publishing, which is central for the professional writer but more questionable for the vocational writer. Chapter 23 is composed, mostly, of a series of interviews with professional writers at the 1994 Madrid Book Fair. Bitterness, envy, crackpot ideas, social striving, greed – what fun a book fair must be. Spanish writers “act like businessmen or gangsters.” Writers must “resemble a newspaper columnist,” or a dwarf. This last writer, at least, is audibly insane. Another describes his career as a combination of discipline and “charm,” “telling [influential writers] exactly what they want to hear.” A poet, another crazy one, “smile[s] to keep from howling” and “sing[s] so I won’t pray or curse.”
In summary: professional writers are twisted madmen. This chapter was the comic high point of the novel. Everything that begins as comedy ends as comedy. Perhaps it is worth noting that in 1994, Roberto Bolaño, his first* novel published the previous year, was one of those professional writers. Was he also sitting in one of those booths at the Book Expo? Too bad he was not interviewed.
And I say (or if I’m drunk, I shout): no, I’m not anybody’s mother, but I do know them all, all the young poets of Mexico City, those who were born here and those who came from the provinces, and those who were swept here on the current from other places in Latin America, and I love them all. (II.4)
Part of the novel’s story of Arturo Belano parallels the author’s own long, difficult discovery that despite his deep love for conceptual poetry, he was not himself a conceptual poet. I have no idea what the fictional Belano wrote about, but the real Bolaño slowly shaped himself into a novelist whose subject was poetry. The Savage Detectives is Bolaño’s ironic and chastening love letter to the young poets.
* First novel, and book, I think, of his own, fifteen years after all of the infrarealist fun captured in The Savage Detectives. What do you think goes on in the 1984 Advice of a Morrison Disciple to a Joyce Fanatic, co-written with A. G. Porta?
Thursday, February 2, 2012
I could put together a book by now. My complete works. (Dec. 28)
The seventeen year-old Juan García Madero, having only recently entered into the adventurous life of poetry and sex, and on the verge of a more unusual adventure, wrote that. He has written 55 poems of 2,453 lines. I do not believe that Roberto Bolaño ever gives us a hint of what any of those lines actually look like, although I am probably wrong about that. This is an easy book to be wrong about. See, here’s a hint on November 29:
There’s no free table, I said and went on writing. My poem is called “Everybody Suffers.” I don’t care if people stare.
Oh good Lord. Thank you, Roberto Bolaño, for sparing this reader that poem. Also see the amusing Nov. 4 entry (“The first [poem] was about the sopes, which smelled of the grave”)
García Madero never publishes his book. He vanishes. The big central section of The Savage Detectives that interrupts García Madero’s diary is on one level a compilation of twenty years of the history of Arturo Belano and Ulises Lima, but it is also the record of the absence of García Madero, who appears only in flickers. The only explicit mention of his name is a denial of his existence. I did not notice any of this until I was on the next to last page of the novel. It is deliberately made hard to see – among the dozens of narrators and other characters, surely García Madero will turn up at some point.
So one strong temptation is to read García Madero back into the middle of the book, to tease out his complete works. A valuable effort, although I am pretty sure there is no answer. He is there in various ways, perhaps quite important ways, unless the lesson he learned in the Sonora desert in early 1976 was to escape from this crazy book, or perhaps to imitate Césarea Tinajero, with one improvement: publish nothing. Publish just one word and they come after you! By “they” I mean Death and the Eumenides. Best to engineer your own absence.
Much of Bolaño’s art is the creation of absence, the undermining of meaning. An analogy is a visual artist’s use of negative space. Bolaño, too, writes around the void. This is what I meant when I said yesterday that, while knocking down my fantastical theory about a particular detail of the plot, we found, as is typical with my experience with Bolaño, that even clearly stated points turn out to be deeply flawed as evidence, presented only by one of the novel’s many madmen, for example, or contradicted elsewhere. Bolaño creates jigsaw puzzles with pieces that do not fit, but different pieces depending on how you start the puzzle.
The Savage Detectives reminds me of no other book so much as Wuthering Heights, another novel of the void, another malformed puzzle that continually strongly suggests solutions to its puzzles but refuses anything resembling proof. Wuthering Heights is, of course, an utter freak among Victorian novels.
The Red and the Black is also kin to The Savage Detectives, and unlike Brontë's novel is mentioned several times by Bolaño. He wants us to know that García Madero has read it, for example. Stendhal’s novel is another that seems to retreat from or withhold a clear meaning at key points. Unfortunately, I am not such a good reader of Stendhal, so I am unsure how to pursue this idea. Well, no, I know how – read more. That is always the solution to the mystery, whatever it is, the only tool this Amateur Detective has.
Wednesday, February 1, 2012
he even liked Agatha Christie too, and sometimes we would spend hours talking about one of her novels, going over the puzzles (I have a terrible memory, but his was excellent), reconstructing those impossible murders. (II.7)
We, the gentle detectives, readers of The Savage Detectives, all had good fun on Monday, didn’t we, when in the comments, not even in the main post, I suggested a crackpot solution to one of the minor mysteries of the novel, one that sent everyone off in enjoyable directions. If nothing else*, wild misreadings force readers to abandon general impressions and reactions and love and antipathy and just look at the dang text.
Assuming the text is text. The most explicit riddling in The Savage Detectives takes the form of pictures, cryptic little hieroglyphics, some in the form of a children’s game used to kill time while driving, but also in Cesária Tinajero’s only published poem, "Sión":
Image borrowed from Archivo Bolaño (dig their website name). Readers of the novel know that I am cheating. This is not Tinajero’s poem, but a later interpretation of the poem. I am tempted to say that it is not Tinajero’s poem at all.
Do you understand now? They said. Well, to be honest, I don’t boys, I said. The poem is a joke, they said, it’s easy to see. Amadeo, look: add a sail to each of the rectangles like this: (II.18)
and the interpreted poem follows. So the reader who wants to see the original image needs to imagine – or perhaps print out and then erase – the sails and mast. Belano and Lima, the young poets turned critics, begin by arguing that the lines represent the sea, calm or agitated – fair enough, a good start – but they cap their interpretation by simply adding the missing pieces to the work. They do the same thing to the title: Sión is short for navigación. They’re right, this is easy!
I suppose the only difference between what they are doing and what a less physically assertive critic does is that they write their interpretation into the text. They could have said “imagine that the little boxes have sails.” What else does a critic do? We begin with the parts that are there and fill in the parts that are not, in a useful or creative or at least thorough way, so I hope.
The character who reports all of this to us is himself deeply skeptical of the interpretation, and the interpreters themselves remove the sails, invoking Moby-Dick and working through a series of rectangles (“in a universe where rectangles are unthinkable,” ahem, see last page), which they equate with “the desolation of poetry.” As always in The Savage Detectives, no claim to certainty (“it’s easy to see”) is left standing.
* We did accomplish something else – we demonstrated a fundamental principle of the novel – but I want to save that for another day.