Friday, June 29, 2012

The meaning of Flaubert's meaninglessness - he condemned the ideas but admired the style

Madame Bovary’s preposterous philistine pharmacist M. Homais has four children, all with meaningful names:  “Napoléon stood for fame, Franklin for liberty; Irma was perhaps a concession to Romanticism; but Athalie was a tribute to the most immortal masterpiece of the French stage” (I.3).  The Irma business has me stumped, but I have read Racine’s Athalie (1691) and get the joke.  The play is sincerely religious and Homais is a free-thinker, but as a “man of discrimination” he “condemned the ideas but admired the style, abhorred the conception but praised all the details.”

Generally anything Homais does or thinks is a target of scorn, but here he seems to be describing a large number of the readers of Madame Bovary.  Also, perhaps, its author.

Madame Bovary is actually the fourth novel Flaubert wrote, if I am counting correctly.  The third, the first version of The Temptation of St. Anthony, barely has any story or characters or any of the usual novelistic apparatus but is just, as Flaubert’s friend Maxime du Camp wrote, “harmonious phrases expertly put together…, noble images and startling metaphors” (Steegmuller, 163), and nothing else.  Another friend, Louis Bouilhet, planted the seed of the real-life incident on which Madame Bovary is based as a vehicle to constrain Flaubert and allow him to correct his faults. But:

How could he [Flaubert] bear to spend several years describing such people as those?  The prospect revolted him. (Steegmuller, 260)

More than one reader of Flaubert says “Hey – me, too!”  But the subject obviously worked as a purgative.

The obstacle here is the notion of creative expression.  The artist  - any artist – is presumably trying to express something, and in a novel it is generally safe to assume that the characters and events of the story are a significant part of what he is trying to express.  They take up so much room.

But what if the incidents and insights are only in the novel because the form of the novel requires them?  Say that Flaubert chooses to write a novel, and as a result of that choice seeks to perfect every necessary element of the novel, but that whatever meaning he is trying to express is inherent in the creation of the object.  Rohan Maitzen, champion of Middlemarch and a tradition not just different than but antithetical to Flaubert’s, wonders if Madame Bovary’s achievement lies “in its perfect realization of its own concept, perhaps.”  Yes, I think so, and here we see the difference between the amateur and the professional.  I had to read four books by Flaubert culminating in the sublimely absurd Salammbô to get this point; the English professor only needed one.

Flaubert’s purpose resembles that of his neighbor Claude Monet.  Monet did not paint two dozen grainstacks because he wanted to express an idea about Normandy agriculture, nor did he paint his series of paintings of the Rouen Cathedral, the setting of the one of the best scenes in Madame Bovary, because of an interest in religion or architecture or the novels of Gustave Flaubert, but in both cases because the forms of the haystack and cathedral allowed him to explore changing light and shadow effects.  Flaubert is creating a novel, though, not a series of paintings or a symphony, so he includes signifiers of novelistic meaning.  It’s the light effects and harmonies he is after, though.  That’s where whatever he is trying to express can be found.  The opportunity to mock the Normandy bourgeois who irritate him so is just a bonus.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

White and black butterflies & Flaubert's visible narrator

The unadorned Flaubert I mentioned yesterday was a necessary piece of what Mario Vargas Llosa calls in The Perpetual Orgy the Invisible Narrator, “a glacial, meticulous observer who does not allow himself to be seen” (188), the narrator who resembles a movie camera.  I always think of the cab scene (III.1) as the perfect example, the scene that the journal publishing the Madame Bovary serial suppressed as obscene even though the camera shows us nothing but 1) the exterior of an enclosed carriage, 2) the face of the “demoralized” cabbie, and 3) the streets of Rouen, sometimes from the perspective of the cabbie, sometimes, seemingly, from the air, sometimes perhaps on a map.  A film version might resort to animation.

I am amazed to note that the famous scene is only two pages long.  The narrator keeps his cool, never glancing in the carriage, avoiding adjectives and metaphors until the end, when he gives us a useful one that serves as a naughty punchline:

Along the river front amidst the trucks and the barrels, along the streets from the shelter of the guard posts, the bourgeois stared wide-eyed at this spectacle unheard of in the provinces – a carriage with drawn shades that kept appearing and reappearing, sealed tighter than a tomb and tossing like a ship.

The cinematic version of the scene places the camera among the bourgeois, perhaps in a café.  Prose allows Flaubert to compress the appearances of the carriage into three words.  Having changed the path of the fictional sex scene forever, Flaubert indulges himself with a showstopper (Emma is discarding a letter she had written to Léon):

At a certain moment in the early afternoon, when the sun was blazing down most fiercely on the old silver-plated lamps, a bare hand appeared from under the little yellow cloth curtains and threw out some torn scraps of paper.  The wind caught them and scattered them, and they alighted at a distance, like white butterflies, on a field of flowering red clover.

Silver, yellow, white, red.  Re-readers, or first-timers with a better memory than mine, will remember the black butterflies that went up the chimney back in I.9.

Aspiring and impressionable writers of a certain temperament read this passage, these sentences, and swore fidelity to Gustave Flaubert.  This was what they would write.  Hugo is too crushingly present, Balzac is too sloppy, Stendhal too – well, I do not understand Stendhal so well.  Different models, all “realists” in their own way, for different creative tendencies.

And anyway Flaubert is not all that invisible in Madame Bovary.  Reading this astringent novel after the all-Hugo, all-the-time Toilers of the Sea perhaps exaggerated the difference.  Vargas Llosa identifies “no more than half a hundred” (194) intrusions by the Philosopher Narrator.  I included the one of the strongest yesterday, Flaubert’s lament for the dancing bears, but others are more ambiguous and amusing:

Here they make the worst Neufchâtel cheese in the entire district; and here farming calls for considerable investment: great quantities of manure are needed to fertilize the friable, sandy, stony soil. (II.1.)

The objective narrator, almost an agronomist here, cannot resist the chance to attack their cheese.  Who among us could?

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

We long to make music that will melt the stars - Flaubert's plain prose

We now start to enjoy yet another masterpiece, yet another fairy tale. Of all the fairy tales in this series, Flaubert’s novel Madame Bovary is the most romantic. Stylistically it is prose doing what poetry is supposed to do. (Vladimir Nabokov, Lectures on Literature, 125)

Given that last sentence, and it is easy enough to find other critics saying the same thing, it can be surprising how ordinarily well written so much of Madame Bovary can be.  An obsessive attention to the perfect sentence and most original metaphor is one of the legacies of Flaubert, perhaps a bad one.  Descendants of Flaubert like Marcel Proust and Nabokov and John Banville strive to make every sentence intensely interesting and to make every metaphor new.  Sometimes they succeed.  So shouldn't their ancestor be more dazzling?

Flaubert, in his letters, whines, moans, and howls, accurately, it seems, about the difficulties of producing single sentences.  He tested his sentences by “bellowing” them, as did his friend and collaborator, the poet Louis Bouilhet, scrutinizing not just the images or words but the assonances, alliterations, and rhythms.  The music of the writing is obviously impossible to capture in English and no one tries, although I would love to read a translator’s attempt at a passage of imitation Flaubertian verse.  Herman Melville is the only fiction writer working in English before Flaubert whose prose does what poetry is supposed to do, whose prose can frequently be converted to verse.  Melville risked – and achieved! – the incoherence of compressed verse; Flaubert was nothing if not clear.  He could write plain prose as well as fancy.

Rohan Maitzen has assembled a sampling of some of Madame Bovary’s striking metaphors.  Every one is good – the snake-like hiss of the corset string is a favorite of mine.  Maitzen emphasizes Flaubert’s restraint.  His imagery and metaphors are not written in the interest of bee-yoo-tee, and he is only lyrical or, worse, luminous, on special occasions.  Flaubert savagely expunged metaphors, adjectives, and effusive description from Madame Bovary.  He wrote lots more than he kept.  This is what André Gide was getting at when he criticized as inartistic Victor Hugo’s “uninterrupted mobilization of all the possible resources,” for “not spar[ing] us a single one.”  Hugo gives us every metaphor he can think of; Flaubert only keeps the best one, the one that best serves the novel.  Or such is the idea.

Look at me go on and on, without offering a single sentence of Flaubert’s, brilliant or indifferent.  All right, another favorite.  The first sentence belongs to Emma’s first lover Rodolphe, the “he”; the second is one of the novel’s rare direct addresses to the reader, the purest merging of narrator and author in the book, a barely concealed statement of purpose:

Since he had heard those same words uttered by loose women or prostitutes, he had little belief in their sincerity when he heard them now:  the more flowery a person’s speech, he thought, the more suspect the feelings, or lack of feelings, it concealed.  Whereas the truth is that fullness of soul can sometimes overflow in utter vapidity of language, for none of us can ever express the exact measure of his needs or his thoughts or his sorrows, and human speech is like a cracked kettle on which we tap crude rhythms for bears to dance to, while we long to make music that will melt the stars.  (II.12)

I am relying on Francis Steegmuller’s biography of creativity Flaubert and Madame Bovary (1950) for any biographical details.

Fishmongers, cigars, knives, and broken bridles - Madame Bovary's motifs

Gustave Flaubert uses imagery and ordinary objects to create an elaborate pattern that complements the surface meaning of the novel, or ironically comments on the surface meaning, or is perhaps completely independent of it but nevertheless neato, interesting or beautiful or meaningful for its own sake.  I know, I know, everyone does this.  Everyone does it now, in 156 AMB (Anno Madame Bovary).

Flaubert was not really the first fiction writer to build up this kind of pattern – he was never the inventor of any of the innovations critics, and I, commonly associate with him – but he thoroughly systematized a number of elements of the novel into something more or less new.  This is what I mean by Madame Bovary being less fun to write about.  So I’ll drop it.

No, one digression.  Mostly an innovation in fiction is little more than a new emphasis on some aspect of fiction that was there all along, perhaps inherent even in the act of storytelling.  But hasty and easily distracted readers like me have to be trained by an especially insistent novelist to see what has always been right in front of me.  Thus the strange phenomenon of discovering that Cervantes and Don Quixote already did everything.

An example of the patterning, a guest at the wedding of Charles Bovary and Emma Roualt:

The bride had begged her father that she be spared the usual pranks.  However, a fishmonger cousin (who had actually brought a pair of soles as a wedding present) was just beginning to spurt water from his mouth through the keyhole when Roualt came along and stopped him, explaining that the importance of his son-in-law’s position didn’t permit such unseemliness.  (I.4)

Early in her marriage Emma, dissatisfied with provincial life, becomes obsessed with the idea of Paris.  I think this is the only other fishmonger in the novel:

At night when the fishmongers passed below her window in their carts, singing La Marjolaine, she would awaken; and listening to the sound of the iron-rimmed wheels on the pavement, and then the quick change in the sound as they reached the unpaved road at the end of the village, she would tell herself: “They’ll be there [Paris] tomorrow!”  (I.9)

So not only do we have a pair of passages with fishmongers, but in both cases they are associated with waking Emma.  Flaubert is using what at first seems like an unnecessarily fussy detail to link the two scenes.  At a high point in Emma’s life, a fishmonger was beneath her, while later she absurdly associated them with glamour and escape.  For good measure, throw in a curious scene near the end of the novel in which Emma is awakened by the “metallic clang” of “a wagon laden with long strips of iron” (III.6), just after Emma has experienced a sort of parody of the life she imagined in Paris.

The entire novel is built like this.  Returning from the ball in I.8 “they had to stop: the breeching broke, and Charles mended it with a rope,” while the romantically indulgent finale of Emma’s seduction (“her blood flowing in her flesh like a river of milk” and so on) is punctured by “Rodolphe, a cigar between his teeth, was mending a broken bridle with his penknife” (II.9).  Back in the first scene, Charles discovers a fancy cigar case, lost by the nobleman who hosted the ball, so again Flaubert gives me two chances to remember the connection.  Later Emma gives Rodolphe a cigar case; she also gives him an expensive riding crop, which takes me back to the riding crop in the scene where Charles and Emma first meet (I.2).  A riding crop and a broken bridle are just part of the elaborate horse motif (Vladimir Nabokov tears into it with gusto in Lectures on Literature).

And is there not a scene in which Emma, not yet seduced, is embarrassed that her oafish husband  (“like a peasant!”) carries a knife? There is: II.5.

Little of this is visible on a first pass, even though Flaubert makes use of so many strands.  It was only near the end this time that I discovered the barking dog motif.  I would figure out how the scenes with barking dogs were connected if I had kept track of where they were.  Next time.

This is what I usually mean when I say someone writes like Flaubert.  It is really very difficult to do.

All quotations from the Francis Steegmuller translation.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

There really is a time before Flaubert and a time after him - but this week is "during"

The idea seems worse the more I think about it, but I am going to spend the week writing about Madame Bovary (1856).  I mention Gustave Flaubert frequently, but the only book of his that I have really written about is his overheated Salammbô, surely a special case, except that Flaubert’s vulgar historical epic was as much fun to write about as anything I have done here, and I was thrilled to see Mario Vargas Llosa have his fun, too:  “I remember a number of Olympian discussions I had, in that summer of ’59, with friends who laughed when I heatedly asserted that ‘Salammbô is a masterpiece, too.’”  My concern is that writing about Bovary will be less fun.

Less enjoyable because, just as an example, I have read too much about the novel.  The Vargas Llosa quotation is from p. 31 of The Perpetual Orgy: Flaubert and Madame Bovary (1975, tr. Helen Lane), a model study, specifically from the fifty page love letter to the novel and to the title character with which Vargas Llosa begins his book before turning to more technical questions.  All I want to write about are technical questions which, if they have not been covered by Vargas Llosa are likely to be at least glanced at in How Fictions Works (2008) by James Wood:

There really is a time before Flaubert and a time after him.  Flaubert established, for good or ill, what most readers think of as modern realist narration, and his influence is almost too familiar to be visible.  (39)

That first sentence is at once trivially true when taken literally, and mostly false when taken as a metaphor, only true in the sense that we can retrospectively see the split which was created not by Flaubert but by later writers reacting to and against him.  But when I invoke Flaubert, I am using him as a shorthand reference for exactly the break Wood identifies.  My idea for the week is to try to write out what I mean.

One word I will not use is “realist” or any variation.  Absolutely useless as a designation, I have concluded, in fact pointlessly confusing.  Best to ignore it entirely.

I plan to ignore the sympathy question, too, even though it is central and has been productive to later writers.  Meaning, the author clearly despises his heroine – and in letters says he does – except often it is anything but clear how he feels about her, and what a reader is “supposed” to feel may well have little to do with what the cantankerous author feels.  The ambivalence is built into the novel.  Vargas Llosa claims that the first time he read the novel, at the end of Part II (the opera scene), “he knew that from that moment on, till my dying day, I would be in love with Emma Bovary” (9).  I align myself with Vladimir Nabokov, who, opening his lecture on Madame Bovary, calls the novel a “fairy tale” and reminds his sensitive Cornell undergraduates that “Emma Bovary never existed” (125).

So that will be my approach, I guess.  Form, style, imagery, language, when not necessarily expunged by the valiant but helpless translator.  Delight.  We’ll see.  Or just some goofing around with the parts I like best; that would be all right, too.

Scott Bailey has, by coincidence, just written something about Madame Bovary.  Perhaps he will gently correct my worst errors as I move along.  Thanks in advance!

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Tumult and silence combined - a Hugolian miscellany

As usual, while playing around with The Toilers of the Sea I have paid little mind to the characters and plot and ethical conundrums and that sort of thing.  The story I have mentioned, at least.  There is a long stretch in which Hugo relates every single little thing that has struck him as unusual about Guernsey:

On all the walls of Guernsey is displayed a huge picture of a man, six feet tall, holding a bell an sounding the alarm to call attention to an advertisement.  Guernsey has more posters than the whole of France.   This publicity promotes life; frequently the life of the mind, with unexpected results, leveling the population by the habit of reading, which produces dignity of manner.   (33)

Sometimes Hugo writes the oddest things.

But then comes the heist plots, zip zip zip, and then Gilliatt and the shipwreck and the storm and the octopus, most of which is amazing, and then a romantic plot, a Romantic romantic plot to round out the book.  Most of the best writing is in the long sea-related section.

The hero is another of Hugo’s super-strong characters.  I have read three Hugo novels, and all three star strongmen, Quasimodo, Jean Valjean, and now Gilliatt.  They are also super-resourceful and super-agile.  The latter two are super-knowledgeable.  They are Batman, basically, as is the Count of Monte Cristo and Balzac’s super-criminal Vautrin.  The hero of Flaubert’s Salammbô is also superhumanly strong, although that character is certainly not like Batman, but is rather a forefather of Conan the Barbarian.  This is a peculiar feature of 19th century French fiction.  I have no explanation.  Victor Hugo was a sort of superhero himself, but his powers were super-energy and super-imagination.

And this is as good a time as any for you, gentle reader, to learn that I can wander a bit while storytelling so that the very imminent digressive passage on the judicial creation of Miranda warnings can be entirely skipped by the uncurious without the slightest loss of narrative steam.

Now this is the narrator of Sergio de la Pava’s A Naked Singularity (2008, p. 5) behaving in a typically Hugolian manner.  Hugo should be a deity to the postmodernists, the Pynchon and Wallace readers, the information overload crowd.  Is he?  I have doubts.

I also recommend The Toilers of the Sea in particular to the readers of W. G. Sebald, who was clearly a powerful influence on Hugo.  Hugo is always careful to tell me what I can still see, what is left from the time of the story, forty years in the past.  Can I see Gilliatt’s house, for example?  No, it is gone, as is the land on which it rested.

… the island of Guernsey is in course of demolition.  The granite is good: who wants it?  All its cliffs are up for auction.  The inhabitants are selling the island by retail… (52)

Guernsey is being systematically blasted apart and shipped to London.  But the story is more complex than predatory man versus helpless nature.  English is replacing French.  Can we find the boarding house in St. Malo I mentioned a couple of days ago?  No, “[i]t no longer exists, having been caught up in improvements to the town”  (162).  Can I see the rock towers that trapped the shipwreck, the Douvres, the setting of most of the novel?  Well, the tallest tower is gone:  “on October 26, 1859, a violent equinoctial gale overthrew one of them” (186).

Man versus nature, man versus man, nature versus nature.  Perhaps Henry Adams is the relevant precursor.  Hugo’s endlessly energetic and profligate novel is a classic of entropy, of the passing of all things.

The solitudes of the ocean are melancholy: tumult and silence combined.  What happens there no longer concerns the human race.  Its use or value is unknown.  Such a place is the Douvres.  All around, as far as the eye can see, is nothing but the immense turbulence of the waves.  (186-7)

Friday, June 22, 2012

The octopus attacks - Hugo's uninterrupted mobilization of all the possible resources

Among the fine features of the recent Modern Library paperback of The Toilers of the Sea, the edition I read, are a selection of Victor Hugo’s watercolors, the ones which were illustrations not for the published book but for Hugo’s manuscript.  He pasted them in himself.  The friendly fellow on the left is acknowledging his creator with the V and H he is creating with his tentacles.  If that is hard to see, please visit the much larger version at 50 Watts, from whom I borrowed the picture.

  When God so wills it, He excels in the creation of the execrable.  Why He should have such a will is a question that troubles religious thinkers.  (II.4.ii, 349)

The chapter title is “The Monster,” the subject of which is described at length, and width and depth, too.  As impressive as the description is (“It looks like a rag of cloth, like a rolled-up umbrella without a handle”) Hugo has not convinced me that religious thinkers, pondering the existence of evil, have actually given all that much thought to the jolly, squashy octopus.  But in Toilers it is a physical embodiment of the evil of nature.  What an odd idea.

These creatures almost cause her [Philosophy] concern about the Creator.  They are hideous surprises.  They are the killjoys of the contemplator:  he observes them in dismay.  They are deliberately created forms of evil.  In face of these blasphemies of creation against itself what can be done?  Who can be blamed for them?  (354)

This is hardly Hugo’s only idea about the force or purposefulness of nature, though.  He has plenty of  ideas.  The novel’s hero, Gilliatt, once he has survived, through heroic effort, the great storm I mentioned a couple of days ago, insults nature:

Then, taking up in the hollow of his hand a little water from a pool of rainwater, he drank it and cried to the clouds: “Fooled you!”

… Gilliatt felt the immemorial need to insult an enemy that goes back to the heroes of Homer.  (343)

Hugo is clear enough about the tradition he wants to join.  Achilles merely battles and defeats a river in the Iliad; Hugo’s champion defeats the sea.

Hugo’s profligacy, of ideas, of images, and of himself, of his own massive personality, is fascinating but also maddening.  André Gide writes in his journal, developing a complaint about my nemesis Richard Strauss:

And same causes of shortcomings: lack of discretion of the means and monotony of the effects, annoying insistency, flagrant insincerity; uninterrupted mobilization of all the possible resources.  Likewise Hugo, likewise Wagner, when metaphors come to mind to express an idea, does not choose, does not spare us a single one.  Fundamental lack of artistry in all this.  (Journals, Volume I: 1889-1913, tr. Justin O’Brien, May 22, 1907, p. 213)

The octopus is a rag and an umbrella, a wheel and a harpoon, “spiderlike” and “chameleon-like,” a disease.  In a passage that approaches self-parody, Hugo lists every animal the octopus is not like:  “The whale is enormous, the devilfish is small; the hippopotamus is armor-plated, the devilfish is naked,” and on to the howler monkey, the vampire bat, the lammergeyer, and many more.  Inartistic, sometimes, yes, but it is still thrilling to watch Hugo perform his feats of superhuman literary endurance and strength, however preposterous.  Who else could have done them?

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Visual Hugo - imagining goffered seaweed and skull-like houses

The Toilers of the Sea is an intensely visual novel.  But do I “see” what Hugo wants me too?  He is describing an abandoned hilltop house, perhaps haunted, certainly used by smugglers:

The house turns its back on the sea.  The side facing the ocean is a blank wall; but if you look closely you can see a window that has been walled up. ..  On the first floor – and this is what strikes you most as you approach the house – are two open windows; but the walled-up windows are less disturbing than these.  They have lost their glass, and even the frames are missing.  They open on the darkness within.  They are like the empty sockets of two eyes that have been torn out.  (I.5.iv., 148)

Even with my omissions, I say the answer to my own question is yes.  Where is that walled-in window, to the right or left if I am facing the back wall?  Who cares?  Put it somewhere.  The empty windows in front, where do they go?  The final metaphor is not so original in and of itself, but I read it and know instantly where Hugo wants me to see those holes in the wall.

The skull that is suggested actually links the scene to another skull we will discover two hundred pages later, but that is a different kind of novelistic effect, not necessarily a visual one.

Let me try another one.  A ship has wrecked against a reef, and a subsequent storm has actually lifted the ship out of the sea, wedging it between two rock towers.

The two Douvres, raising the dead Durande above the waves, had an air of triumph.  It was like two monstrous arms emerging from the abyss and displaying to the storms this corpse of a ship.  It was like a murderer boasting of his achievement.  (II.1.i, 241)

These rocks, the Douvres, have already been described several times by Hugo – “two black columns… their roots were in underwater mountains.”  I think I see them.  Or, even though I have never seen a shipwreck suspended between two pillars, I can imagine it at a certain level of abstraction.  “The huge capital H formed by the two Douvres linked by the crossbar of the Durande stood out against the horizon in a kind of crepuscular majesty.”

The hero of the novel will clamber all over this reef.  He will scale the towers, store equipment on ledges, and construct a forge in a cave inside one of them.  My mental picture has to shift now.  The letter H is pitted with holes big enough for a man to walk into.  One of the columns is in fact is close to hollow.  Five pages is given to describing the cavern within the tower.

A luxuriant growth of moss in every shade of olive concealed and enlarged the protuberances in the granite.  From every projection hung slender goffered ribbons of varech, a seaweed used by fishermen as a form of barometer, their glistening strands swaying in the mysterious breathing of the cavern.  (II.1.xiii, 277)

I cannot imagine every shade of olive – hardly any, in fact.  I replace Hugo’s specific seaweed with my generic one.

A film would solve all of these visual problems for me.  A set designer would choose one plastic seaweed out of all of the possibilities at hand, spray it with some sort of oil, and hide an intern behind it to make it sway.  There it is; I see it now.  And he would discard the goffered ribbons and crepuscular majesty and empty sockets.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

A dilapidated old novel and a witch are not unlike each other - like the tongue of a trigonocephalus - Hugo and getting on with it

The pacing of The Toilers of the Sea is strange.  Perhaps even stranger than Les Misérables, although the scale of the book is more manageable.  Hugo does not have as much space to linger on the Waterloo battlefield or its aquatic equivalent.

Still, his basic method is to constantly break his own momentum.  A hurricane approaches; our hero’s efforts – and mine, since I read about them for 100 pages – will likely be destroyed. “The abyss was making up its mind to do battle.”  How does Hugo kill time waiting for the storm, which we can see in the distance, “a small unwholesome-looking stain,” what does he do while the hero and I are waiting?  He tells me about storms for five chapters and twelve pages.  Winds and clouds around the world.  Science (“winds that construct circumcumuli, and those that construct circumstrati”) and metaphor (“[winds] that shake out of their clouds, like the tongue of a trigonocephalus, the fearful forked lightning”).  I am wandering around Part II, Book III, waiting for the storm.  Then it hits, in a single eighteen page chapter.  This is Hugolian pacing.  Frustrating, tense, profoundly satisfying.  I am half convinced that, born a century later, he would have been a film director.

During the heist plot, a character arranges to buy a contraband gun.  I have witnessed this scene before, more than once, although never in the setting in which Hugo puts it, in a sort of tenement rooming house in Saint-Malo that “no longer exists, having been caught up in improvements to the town.”  The house and its occupants are described in some detail over five or six pages with sentences like this:

A dilapidated old novel and a witch are not unlike each other.*

This is the rubbish heap of souls, piled up in the corner and swept from time to time by the broom that is called a police raid.

This is the spittle of society rather than its vomit.

We should not, out of hand, value a Louvre highly or despise a prison.

Hugo writes interesting sentences.  At this point, I do not actually know about the revolver and have no idea why Hugo is telling me about this place.  The house has a courtyard with a well in the center.

Beyond the feet, in the semidarkness of the shed, your eye might distinguish bodies, forms, sleeping heads, figures lying inert, rags of both sexes, the promiscuity of the dunghill, a strange and sinister deposit of humanity.  This sleeping chamber was open to anyone and everyone.  The occupants paid two sous a week,  Their feet touched the well.  On stormy nights rain fell on those feet; on winter nights it snowed on those bodies…  The order of society is complicated by such human debris.  (, 164)

Ah, I don’t want to stop.  “The rags and tatters seeded the rubble” (166).  That’s something, right?  “The multitude of spiders provided some reassurance against the immediate collapse of the building.”  Why does Hugo give so much space to this house; why do I?  The book is about the sea, and after the next chapter we never return here.  But Hugo’s imagination created the space and then got tangled up in it.  Once he saw the alley, he saw the house; the house gave him the well; the well gave him the feet, and the rags, and the spiders.  Get on with it Hugo!  But he is – “it” is everything, characters and stories but also clouds and poverty and Sri Lankan vipers.

*  Hugo's word is actually "hovel," not "novel."

Monday, June 18, 2012

The Toilers of the Sea, Victor Hugo's amazing heist \ engineering \ sea novel

The Toilers of the Sea (1866) is Victor Hugo’s fifth novel, and his third masterpiece in a row.  I should note that I have not read the first two, Hans of Iceland and Bug-Jargal, despite their immensely appealing titles.  Notre-Dame of Paris (1831) followed those two, and Les Misérables (1862) came thirty-one years later.  The number of novelists with a gap that long between their two best novels must be few.  Admittedly Les Misérables is long enough for four or five ordinary novels, if one can say that anything about Hugo is ordinary.

In the meantime, in that gap, in those thirty-one years, Hugo had also written and published a body of poetry that should have made him the greatest French poet, as for a time it did, but gnawing worms named Baudelaire and Flaubert and Les Fleurs du Mal and Madame Bovary were at that moment undermining the firmament; these writers were well known to Hugo but not understood by him, or actually strongly misunderstood as followers of, who else, Victor Hugo.  If I had a copy of the letters of Baudelaire with me I could give his exact response to being congratulated by Hugo on writing poems for the struggling People.  I can paraphrase Baudelaire, though: “I hate the People!”

How Hugo loved the People; how they loved him.

The Toilers of the Sea, despite the first word of the title, is not about the People.  It is not a political novel at all, even though it was written during Hugo’s exile from France.  Unless – oh no, how awful – it is an allegory, and the shipwreck is France, and the octopus is Louis Napoleon.  The novel is very much about the Sea, though.  Hugo claims, in a Preface, that Notre-Dame de Paris is a denunciation of dogmas, Les Misérables is about laws, and Toilers is about things, the elements.  All three are about “the fatality within [man]… the human heart.”  Ah, how sad!  This is why Hugo lost his readers.

That and the lack of actual story.  The Toilers of the Sea has a ratio of story to non-story that may approach a 19th century novelistic record.  In much of the story that the novel does tell, a man tries to salvage a ship in a superhuman feat of engineering.  A rare genre:  the novel of engineering.

The floor of the engine room was framed between the eight cables from the hoists, four on one side and four on the other.  The sixteen openings in the deck and under the hull through which the cables passed had been linked with one another by sawing.  The planking…  (plenty more of this in, p. 300)

The other story is what may be – what must be – the greatest heist film of the century.  Not a film, I guess.  But there’s a hundred page stretch that bangs along like an Elmore Leonard novel.  A Leonard novel that spends a surprising amount of time describing rocks.

In a Hugo novel, you get everything.  Whether you want it or not.

Early on in Toilers, I was worried that Hugo was getting a bit stiff.  He loosens up.  The novel has some passages that approach unbelievability (not the one sampled above, not exactly).  I could write about the book all week.  I will.

I read the 2002 Modern Library / James Hogarth translation, an excellent edition all round. I read Les Misérables in the revised Wilbour version which goes back to 1862, and the Quasimodo novel in (I think) the Walter Cobb version from the 1960s.  My tribute to all three translators: their books all sound and feel like they were written by the same writer.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Barbara Tuchman's The Proud Tower - preparing the mental battlefield

The idea that reading a Zola novel set in Paris or a 16th century French play on a Biblical subject is preparation for a visit to southern France is questionable.  Rather than read about the subject that will be in front of me – I mean, I am doing a bit of that, and thanks for the suggestions – I just spend a month or two reading French literature more broadly.  "Broadly" has turned out to be kinda narrow actually, since a number of the books are about Madame Bovary.

Regardless, the hope is that the operation of the mental space I label France will be alert and active whenever I set foot in France.  The goal, I guess, is not to guide my experience in France but to be receptive to whatever I encounter.  I mean, whatever I encounter that is not pulled from the Mediterranean and sautéed in olive oil.  For that experience, I am amply prepared.

I recently read Barbara Tuchman’s history (or “portrait”) of the years before World War I, The Proud Tower (1966), to help with my mental battlefield preparation.  Multiple fields, I hope.  Tuchman’s book consists of eight long chapters, some focused on the politics of a country, some with international movements.  So France gets a chapter (on the Dreyfus Affair, mostly) and England gets two, but Tuchman also assembles chapters on anarchism, international socialism and pacifism.

All in all, I would guess that the content is about a third French, so excellent prep.

The trick of the book is that it is not about the path to or causes of World War I, even though it obviously, inevitably, is.  A good part of Tuchman’s work as a historian was to clear her own mental space of the presence of the war.  Catastrophe was, for most people, not just around the corner, no sirree.  For me, then, some sections read like Greek tragedy, where only I know what Oedipus is about to discover, while representatives of the major powers agree to forbid the dropping of explosives from airships, and to revisit that and other questions at the next Peace Conference, to be held in 1915.  Don’t you fools see, Oedipus is married to his own mother!

Although an interest in French history led me to the book, the most dazzling chapter was on Germany.  Apparently finding a narrative of the activities of Kaiser Wilhelm II too stupefying to stand on its own, Tuchman begins with Richard Strauss and ends with Igor Stravinsky, visiting Hofmannsthal, Nijinsky, Debussy and other avant-gardists in between.  The vulgar and brilliant Strauss continually dances around the idiotic Kaiser and his militaristic “Nietzschean cult.”

It is all very strange, actually, art history lashed to political history.  It should not work so well.  The political part of the story turns out to be not about the Prussian elites' actions but their tastes, their culture.   Some of Tuchman’s ideas about the changing taste for innovation are quite subtle, and I need to work through them more.  I do not read a book like Tuchman’s to answer questions but to help prepare new questions.  I loathe Strauss, honestly, but Tuchman has convinced me that I should try to get a handle on him some day.

The Proud Tower was just republished in a Library of America edition, although  I read an old paperback with a ludicrous psychedelic cover – look, the Kaiser is melting!  I feel a bit bad for not including a single example of Tuchman’s writing, although much of her skill is less evident at the sentence level than in the careful and even ingenious structure and balance of the book.   “She always believed that history was a branch of literature,” Tuchman’s editor says.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Robert Garnier's Hebrew Women - an early modern French detour - O the treachery of the bloodthirsty monster!

A wild swerve today, to the 16th century stage: Robert Garnier’s Les Juifves or The Hebrew Women (1583). Long ago most of my reading was in the 16th century, not the 19th, but Garnier’s play was one I missed, thinking it was not available in English.  A friendly reader recently informed me otherwise, that The Hebrew Women was hidden in Four French Renaissance Plays (Washington State University Press, 1978) in a plain and unpoetic but clear translation by Michael Zoltak.  Thanks so much, Sean K., for the pointer!

The Hebrew Women is an undramatic dramatization of, roughly, 2 Chronicles 36 and 2 Kings 25, where the Jewish king Zedekiah rebels against King Nebuchadnezzar and is defeated and punished.  As per 2 Kings 25:7 “And they slew the sons of Zedekiah before his eyes, and put out the eyes of Zedekiah, and bound him with fetters of brass, and carried him to Babylon.”  Pretty horrible.

O cruel disasters!  O rage!  O fury!
O detestable deeds!  O Scythian horrors!
O the treachery of the bloodthirsty monster!
O everlasting disgrace for all sceptered kings!
O murderer of innocents  (etc., etc., Act V, p. 299)

Early French drama, even more so than the later drama of Racine and Corneille or the Classical model of Seneca, is static, almost immobile, really, and didactic.  Characters declaim to the audience or to the chorus.  Dialogues are often exchanges of aphorisms:

QUEEN:  He who pardons someone gains a debtor.
NEBUCHADNEZZAR:  He who forgives insult is rendered contemptible.
QUEEN:  By pardoning the vanquished you win their love.
NEBUCHADNEZZAR:  By pardoning one outrage you engender another.  (etc., etc., II, 256)

The emotional power of the play is real but it is constructed from imagery and an increasing rhetorical intensity, not from action or character development.  Nothing more happens on stage in a Racine play, but his characters are much more psychologically complex.

If my praise sounds faint, it is, genuine but muted.  Garnier is more Important than he is Good, although he is good enough to be worth the trouble.  His plays are crucial intermediate steps in the creation of modern European drama, where morality plays are mixed with Seneca to somehow create Julius Caesar and Phaedra.  Where The Hebrew Women leads directly to Racine’s religious plays like Athaliah, another Garnier play, Marc-Antoine (1578), is more important for English literature because of Mary Sidney’s outstanding 1592 translation.  It must be available on the internet somewhere, but heck if I can find it.  Garnier’s version of the fall of Anthony and Cleopatra is if anything more static than The Hebrew Women, but Sidney’s version of Garnier is an outstanding English poem.

Or so I remember it.  It has been a while.  My challenge as a reader of Garnier was to re-discover the path into the play, how to read for rhetoric and sententiae.  I used to know how to do this.  I guess I still do. The mental space where I store my early modern drama reading skills is rather dusty and cobwebbed, and not well organized.  Reading Garnier’s play gave me a good excuse to rummage around in there, and allowed me to fill a gap in my knowledge, and made me wish, again, that there were more, or any, early modern-focused  book blogs.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Oh! At least, take care of yourself, I implore you! - singing and translating Jules Laforgue

Much of the fun of writing about Jules Laforgue’s Derniers Vers just comes from leafing through the book, chancing upon fine, or peculiar, phrases and images.  The text itself is not even thirty pages, but each page has its flavor.  So one more day of indulgence.

The poems in Last Verses are among the founding texts of vers libre.  That is vague and passive enough, isn’t it, “are among”?  Like I know the history of free verse.  The rules of classical French prosody are, as I understand them, strict and peculiar, but the authority of the rules had been eroding for decades by the time Laforgue was writing, since the Romantic poetry of the 1820s, at least, and I do not know exactly which strictures Baudelaire and Rimbaud had left intact for Laforgue to violate.

Where I am going is:  what a surprise how often Laforgue rhymes and uses more or less standard, musical lyric forms.  He sounds like Walt Whitman in patches, but more often sounds like this (“VII.  Honeymoon Solo”):

Où est-elle à cette heure?  (Where is she now?)
Peut-être qu’elle pleure….  (Maybe she’s crying…)
Où est-elle à cette heure?  (Where is she now?)
Oh! Du moins, soigne-toi, je t’en conjure!  (Baby, take care!)

The long last line is sufficient to show that Laforgue’s form is loose, but not only are the rhymes clear enough, the internal music of “Du moins, soigne-toi” is spectacular.  The music of the entire stanza is pleasing.

An interruption:  however much I enjoyed Donald Revell’s English, I most strongly recommend his book, and Laforgue more generally, and 19th century French verse even more generally, to anyone with any French at all, even French as sparse and bad as mine.

Even someone with no French at all might well guess that whatever the last line might mean it does not translate as the not-particularly-musical “Baby, take care!”  No.  A nearly identical line, without the “Du moins,” appears later in the poem; Revell translates it as “Honey, take care of yourself, I’m begging you,” which is close.

I picked this stanza not just because I enjoy singing it, but because that last line demonstrates Revell’s method.  He is not trying to recreate the French but rather to move the book into a current American poetic idiom, as if it were 1990, the poem is not a translation, and Laforgue is familiar with Robert Creeley and John Ashbery.  The translation is the poem Laforgue would have written if all of the above were true.  Prof. Mayhew just posted a couple of paragraphs describing translation “as the place where two poetic traditions meet up.”  Revell is following Mayhew’s principles.

So Revell uses Laforgue’s slangy “Oh!” as license to be slangy himself.  “Baby” and “honey” are not from Laforgue’s French, but Revell finds them hidden behind the second-person pronouns and the “Oh!”  And these are hardly the largest liberties of the translator.

In the best of all possible worlds, I would like collections of translated poems to have the French on one page,  a pedantically footnoted, awkwardly literal English in the middle, and the translator’s best attempt at a good English poem on the right.  The world as it exists is not so bad, though.  Two out of three.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

A sweetness that makes you wonder: “When did all this actually happen?” - strange Jules Laforgue

I have concluded that much of my difficulty writing about Jules Laforgue’s Last Verses is that I have trouble sticking with a single text, the French or Donald Revell’s English.  Both are interesting.  The French is more interesting.  Perhaps tomorrow I will malign and praise the translation, but today I will use this throat-clearing preface as an anchor to the English.  Let’s look at the strangeness of Laforgue.  Revell does a great job with that.

The November weather runs through the twelve poems of Derniers Vers (“Pitch-black northern gale and howling downpour”), and so does the November hunt.  The beloved woman is compared to a hunted animal, for example, and not without sympathy (“Poor cornered animal heart, look out!”).  That idea is clear enough.  More perplexing is the recurrence of the sound of the hunt, “The Mystery of the Three Horns,” as the title of the second poem has it.

Out of the plain a horn
Blows insanely
While deep in the woods
Another replies;
The first sings yoo-hoo
To neighboring treetops,
And the second, whoo-hoo
To the echoing hills.

The “dying sun” returns from the first poem.  While before the sunset was an unconscious drunk, now it strips off its “papal garments” (“pontifical étole”) and releases “bloody sewage” into the town, a metaphor for the sunset’s red slanting light even more hideous than the drunk’s drool.  This sunset may well be the same drunk, since “Unscrupulous bootleggers” have released “Asian vitriol” into the flood, a “deluge of Chinese New Year fireworks and booze!”

The three hunters, the horn-blowers, emerge from the woods and decide to “Grab a drink \  Before we go home,” but to what effect?

Poor old horns!
So much bitterness, even in their laughter!
(I can still hear them laughing.)

Next day, the barmaid from the Grand Saint-Hubert
Found the three of them stone dead.

The cops and the coroner
Were called in,

And in due course they wrote a report
Of this most depraved of mysteries.

Despite their death, the sound of the horns can occasionally be heard in later poems.

Laforgue is mythologizing the love story at the heart of the book.  Two people meet, have a fling, fall apart.  Who cares?  The poem creates significance, or so the poet hopes.

Oh, I see… it isn’t autumn anymore,
It isn’t exile.
It’s the sweetness of legends, of the Golden Age,
Of Antigones,
A sweetness that makes you wonder:
“When did all this actually happen?”

This poem (“VIII. Legend”) also ends with a sunset, one that is “faithful to the West” just as “I was faithful to her in absolute hyperbole.”

The importance of Laforgue’s book has little to do with any of this, even with the imagery, but rather with the form, the freedom with which Laforgue breaks the rules of French prosody.  More surprising to me is how often, in one of the first books of vers libre, Laforgue follows the old rules, giving the violations their piquancy, but that is a separate topic.  Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot now had the form they needed, so they could shake out Laforgue’s contents and stuff in their own hobbyhorses and images.  Such is the nature of progress.

Monday, June 11, 2012

And as for you, last of the poets, \ Get out a little. You look terrible. - Jules Laforgue's Last Verses

A couple of years ago I read parts of Jules Laforgue’s The Imitation of Our Lady the Moon, an 1886 collection of poems about clowns who live on the moon, as well as the rest of the old Selected Writings of Jules Laforgue.  That book is a treasure, but I do remember being a bit puzzled by the claim that Laforgue was the inventor of vers libre and central influence on Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot.  I suspect that the variety of Laforgue’s writing, and the oddity of those moon clowns, blurred my focus.  A new book makes it all clear.

Derniers Vers (1890) is a posthumous collection – poor Laforgue died when he was twenty-seven – of twelve poems.  They may or may not be designed as a unit, although they feel like they are.  The poet, depressed by the oncoming winter, reflects on a love affair gone wrong; that, perhaps, is the story.  Or the November of the last poem could be a year, or many years, after the autumn of the first poems.  Within the sequence, though, the voice is indeterminate and likely moves among different characters or positions.

We begin in the rain, thinking of “The Winter Ahead:”

It’s drizzling;
In the sodden forest, spiderwebs
Bend under plops of raindrops, and that’s the end of them [et c’est leur ruine]…
Tonight the dying sun sprawls on a hilltop,
Turns onto his side, in the heather, in his overcoat.
A sun as white as barfly’s phlegm
On a litter of yellow heather,
Yellow autumn heather.

All of this is more or less literally translated by Donald Revell in Last Verses (2011).  On the one hand, the poet’s attitude is almost unbearably Romantic, abandoning himself to the pathetic fallacy, using the rain to reinforce his dismal mood, although what real Romantic would compare the setting sun to a disgusting drunk?

Even the blaring hunting horns do not move the sun:
He just lies there, like a gland torn out of somebody’s throat,
Shivering, utterly alone.

The poetic poet reasserts himself, though, with that final repetition, unfortunately much less song-like in English than French:

Sur une litière de jaunes genets
De jaunes genets d’automne.

I chose this passage because it has so many of the typical features of these poems, the mix of Romantic and anti-Romantic imagery, and the range of tone, from elevated to colloquial, even coarse.  A couple of poems later (“III. Sundays”), the love interest has been introduced, which hardly improves matters.  The poem ends with the poet trying to shore up his own confidence:

And as for you, last of the poets,
Get out a little.  You look terrible.
It’s a nice enough day.  People are out and about.
Take a walk to the drugstore.
Fix yourself up.

I fear this advice should also be directed at me, the last of the critics; my excuse is that it only amounts to thirty pages of text, the book is confoundingly complex.  I will try again tomorrow.  Perhaps this reviewer at Three Percent got it right.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Antigone: He was paraphrasing Hegel - On Anne Carson's Antigonick

A little bit about Anne Carson’s new adaptation of Sophocles, Antigonick.  The book as such is a pleasing physical object, although I do not claim to understand, or to have put much thought, into relating Bianca Stone’s illustrations to the text.  Please see here and also here at the New Directions blog to see what Antigonick looks like.  Now I will ignore the art book aspect and just poke at the text.

Antigonick is not exactly a translation of Antigone.  Here is how it begins – I will also ignore Carson’s handwriting, capital letters, punctuation, and spacing on the page (I especially regret the loss of the spacing):

[Enter Antigone and Ismeme]

Antigone:  We begin in the dark and birth is the death of us

Ismene:  Who said that

Antigone:  Hegel

Ismene:  Sounds more like Beckett

Antigone:  He was paraphrasing Hegel

Ismene:  I don’t think so

Antigone's reply is a compact version of lines actually written by Sophocles (I am consulting the Robert Fagles and Elizabeth Wyckoff translations).  This opening is sufficient information for most readers who happen upon Wuthering Expectations.  It does sound more like Beckett, and Ismene’s last line is hilarious.  Hegel recurs, too.

I wonder what readers who do not know the Sophocles play are doing with Carson’s book.  Carson’s version is quite short, for one thing, compressed to essentials, exposition not necessarily being one of them.   By compressed, I mean that where Wyckoff uses six lines and Fagles five for the lines of the Chorus that end the play, Carson has “Last word wisdom better get some even too late.”

Fagles actually keeps “wisdom” as the last word of his translation (“at long last \ those blows will teach us wisdom”), while Carson comments on the last word (her actual last word is “measuring”).   Antigonick is not just a re-telling of Antigone, but it is about the Sophocles play.  Meta, to lapse into Greek, as when the Chorus asks Antigone if she “Remember[s] how Brecht had you do the whole play with a door strapped to your back.”

My favorite moment of Antigonick, a sort of climax of the commentary theme, is Carson’s expansion of the role of Antigone’s mother Eurydike, who in Sophocles only has a few undistinguished lines asking a messenger to summarize the offstage action.  Perhaps the centuries have eroded a longer part.  Carson finds something to do with her:

[Enter Eurydike]

Eurydike:   This is Eurydike’s monologue it’s her only speech in the play.  You may not know who she is that’s ok.  Like poor Mrs. Ramsay who died in a bracket of To the Lighthouse she’s the wife of the man whose moods tensify the world of this story the world sundered by her I say sundered by her that girl with the undead strapped to her back…

We did everything we could for her, the mother laments – a bicycle, a therapist – but it was not enough.  Eurydike is in the denial stage of grief, though, and Carson eases the modern mother back into the Sophocles play:

Eurydike :  When the messenger comes I set him straight I tell him nobody’s missing we’re all here we’re all fine.  Why do messengers always exaggerate Exit Eurydike bleeding from all orifices

[Eurydike does not exit]

The messenger, although his report on the new round of deaths is, in both Sophocles and Carson, unusually grisly, is not exaggerating this time.

Messenger:  O my Queen I did not see death marry them at last oh so shyly.  But I did I did see it.  Exit Eurydike

Chorus:  Exit Eurydike

Eurydike:  Exit Eurydike

[Exit Eurydike]

Sophocles’s solution to a minor structural problem is transformed by Carson into a surprising and sublime moment of grief.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

One of the sweeter satisfactions of literary biography - I should try to write a less rambling post sometime

When I lived in Chicago it was common enough to see news stories about people stranded at O’Hare airport, sleeping on cots or slumped against their bags.  Gee, that must be rough, I would think.  It turns out it is rough, and certainly an excuse for the scattered and exhausted writing of this blog post.  Then again, the cab driver who picked us up from Willie Mae’s Scotch House yesterday spent eight days – “see that bridge up there” – on a highway overpass with his wife and ten kids, looking down on the flood waters, before a helicopter rescued them.  So one bad travel day is hardly a good excuse for bad writing.

I want to consider a line from a review of the newly translated Joseph Brodsky: A Literary Life by Lev Loseff.  The review is by Michael Scammell and is in the June 7 The New Republic; I am on page 35:

In the earlier chapter [the critical commentaries on Brodsky’s poems] attain a narrative tension of their own, offering one of the sweeter satisfactions of literary biography, which consists in reading about the early creative struggles and artistic successes of a major writer on the way up.

I just want to ask:  is that true?  Because, although I had never expressed it so well, this is exactly why I enjoy biographies of writers.  The discovery and exploration of genius is always an exciting story, much like the exploration of an unknown mountain range.  What is in there?  Anything could be in there.

Once an artist becomes famous, once his biography turns into a list of prizes, teaching positions, and honorary degrees, nothing is left for the biographer except gossip about the writer’s sex life and feuds. The mystique of the poet who dies young, of Keats and Shelley, is that we never see the end of the story.  Much of the pleasure of Nabokov’s creative biography is certainly that the story repeats.  Just as he achieved a unique mastery of the Russian language he fled to America and started over with English, so I get to enjoy two struggles, two successes. The Francis Steegmuller book on Flaubert that I am reading, Flaubert and Madame Bovary, is almost entirely devoted to this one stage, with just a few pages for his childhood and family and a few for his later career.

No, that is hardly true, that business about the later life of the poet and the mystique and so on.  Wordsworth can be one of the dullest poets imaginable – I know exactly how the creative story ends – yet his early life, his grasping for the breakthrough of Lyrical Ballads (1798), is an exciting story.  The mystery of that moment of creation is what matters.  Yeats only becomes more interesting – artistically interesting – as he ages.   Samuel Johnson’s creative instrument is fully developed by the time he meets James Boswell, yet the extensive treatment of Johnson’s later years, often pulled directly from Boswell’s journals, is extraordinary.  But Johnson’s biography, as Boswell discovers, mostly consists of Johnson’s own words (intermixed with those of his appreciative biographer).  For some artists the creative struggles never end.  Perhaps that is the definition of an artist.  Except now I have another list of unfair exclusions.

And so in summary: it depends.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Perhaps the purest ramble I have ever posted - travel plans, reading plans, bad plans

I have to disappear for a few more days – back Thursday.  I had planned to write a book review-like post today, but that’s bad planning, isn’t it?  Nearly a week with some random book review topping Wuthering Expectations.  I should instead feature something that strengthens the brand.  If only I knew what that something was.

The book was Demolishing Nisard (2006) by Eric Chevillard, a short novel full of goofy vitriol and revenge.  The narrator hates a particular critic and blames him for everything wrong in literature, and life – the critic’s life, all life.  Traffic accidents, crime, you name it.  “He uses his phone on trains” (55).  That the critic, Désiré Nisard, has been dead for 120 years, is a minor detail for the narrator.

The best reason not to review the book is that Trevor Mookse Gripes did such a fine job in April, so what is the point.  What does he say – “one of the funniest books I’ve read” – I don’t go that far, but parts are awfully funny.  Vitriolic Thomas Bernhard is funnier.  “The book’s existential conundrum: in hating Nisard, the narrator brings on his own Nisardification” – now that is just right.

The only real point I want to make here is directed at the PR person at Dalkey Archive:  because of Trevor’s review I bought a copy of Demolishing Nisard with my own money, so keep sending him books.  He has generated at least one sale.

The Chevillard novel was part of the recent Frenchification of my reading.  I am going to France in July so I am reading about France, even though the books have nothing to do with where I am going.  Not only am I not going to Jersey, the setting of Victor Hugo’s The Toilers of the Sea, but I am going about as far from it as I can get and still be in France.  And strictly, even loosely, speaking, Jersey is not even in France.  So why I am reading the novel?  General cultural seepage, I guess.  Also, it is awesome, although people uninterested in unusual parts of the world should skip the long introduction, and then also skip much the rest.

The Francis Steegmuller book Flaubert and Madame Bovary is outstanding but mostly set in Normandy.  I am working up to a Madame Bovary festival.  Flaubert is a sort of household god at Wuthering Expectations, so it should be fun to explain what I mean by that.  Has everyone read Prof. Maitzen’s Flaubert posts?  The second one, Bovary vs. Middlemarch is especially idea-rich.

The Janet Lewis novel, The Wife of Martin Guerre, is set near my destination, so it qualifies as more direct research.  Now there’s an idea – I should end with an open-ended question, allowing thoughtful strangers to do my research for me.  I have read that blog posts should end with questions.  How about this one:

What do you recommend I do in Languedoc-Rousillon, which is where I will be?  Eat cassoulet?  Yes.  What else?  And what should I read?