Friday, August 31, 2012

The Relic's vision - to see this page of the Gospel living before my eyes

Teodorico finds his relic about halfway through The Relic, and then something strange happens.  He has a dream which takes him to the Jerusalem of the distant past, to a particular Easter Day, “to see this page of the Gospel living and sounding before my eyes” (97).  Teodorico is going to witness the trial and death of Jesus Christ.

A dream with this length and specificity is not really a dream, but a vision.  I have been emphasizing the comedy of the novel, but this long episode is not, a few little touches aside, at all funny.  It aims at something like genuine religious awe.  It is also heretical, but that is a point separate from the aesthetic decision to crack the novel apart.  The vision of Jerusalem fills over a third of the novel.  It is not a digression.

The dream world is thickly described:

A slave, his hair bound by a metal diadem, entered carrying a jar filled with warm water smelling of roses, in which I cleansed my hands; another offered me cakes of honey on large vine leaves; another poured out a strong black wine of Emmaus.  And that his guest might not eat alone, Gamaliel cut a slice of pomegranate and with closed eyes raised to his lips a bowl in which pieces of ice floated among orange-flowers…  I lit a cigar and went to stand at the window. (113)

I picked that passage for the cigar as much as anything, one of the anachronisms that slip into the scene to remind us that something ain’t quite right.

All of this description, of food and architecture and perfumes and sunshades made of peacock feathers, remind me that Eça de Queirós is as usual deliberately imitating Gustave Flaubert.  The Relic, or this one part of it, is Eça’s Salammbô, his Hérodias – he even tells his own version of the history of Herod and Salomé and John the Baptist.  That one is the obvious nod, I guess, but compare Eça’s description of the sacrifice of the Passover lambs to Flaubert’s nightmarish human sacrifices to Moloch:

With the constant austere mutter of the sacred ceremonial mingled the bleating of lambs, the tinkling of silver plates, the crackling of wood, the dull thud of wooden hammers, the slow trickling of water into marble vessels and the blare of trumpets.  Despite the aromatic gums kept burning and the long fans of palm leaves which the attendants were waving in the air, I put my handkerchief to my face, overcome by the enervating smell of raw flesh, blood, frying fat and saffron which the Lord required of Moses as the best gift of earth.  (152)

Eça hardly dwells on the cruelty of the sacrifice as much as Flaubert.  His description of Christ’s suffering, for example, is strong but not sadistic.  The great point of the vision is to historicize the life of Christ, to explain and abolish the miracles of the Church.  Teodorico moves from religious awe to human sympathy.  Fortunately, back in the real world it takes him a while for what he learned to sink in, which allows the comedy to return in the last quarter of the book.  The mix of tones, the social comedy and parody combined with the humane spiritual message of the vision, is pretty strange, an is the great mystery of The Relic.

Dwight covers the same chapter.  It is unusual.

Monday is a holiday for me, so no post.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

The soothing presentiment that Auntie would soon die and molder in her grave - The Relic takes its hypocrisy on the road

A couple of major jolts to the plot occur about one-seventh of the way into The Relic – the one-seventh mark is not where good novel-writing principle says to put a major turn, but The Relic is a strangely structured novel – and Teodorico learns that in all likelihood his rich Auntie will leave her wealth to the Church, not to him.  He amps up his pious act (“in Auntie’s presence I ascetically drank a glass of water and ate a crust of bread”) between visits to his kept woman (33).  His piety impresses his aunt who offers him – or demands – a pilgrimage to the Holy Land and the acquisition of a holy relic.

“What a tremendous bore!  Jerusalem!” (47)  He wanted to go to Paris.  But Teodorico quickly realizes the opportunity at hand as he begins to imagine, what else, the exotic prostitutes.  Teodorico is not just a character in a Portuguese Flaubert novel – he is almost a Portuguese Flaubert.  I occasionally wondered if Eça de Queirós had somehow seen some of Flaubert’s letters from Egypt, the ones about his uninhibited sexual adventures, but that seems impossible, and Teodorico is completely unlike Flaubert in that he is a sentimental sensualist who falls in love with his fling.

The novel now turns into a kind of travel book, although Teodorico, more interested in women than culture or history, is a bad guide.  He barely sees Egypt – barely leaves his new companion’s bedroom.  Jerusalem is mostly the source of complaints:  dirt, boredom, tourist traps.  He does find his relic: a branch of a thorn tree, surely the same kind of tree that supplied Christ’s crown of thorns, possibly even the exact tree, prove that it ain’t.  In a peculiarly Proustian passage a suspicious Teodorico interrogates the tree:

The monster remained dumb, but suddenly I felt within my soul, like the consoling freshness of a summer breeze, the soothing  presentiment that Auntie would soon die and molder in her grave.  The Tree of Thorns, through the general communication of Nature, sent from its sap into my blood the sweet announcement of Dona Patrocinio’s death, as a sufficient promise that none of its branches, when transferred to the oratory, would prevent the horrible old lady’s liver from being the death of her.  (93)

What Teodorico does not realize – as the narrator, writing in retrospect, he must, but he plays dumb – is that 1) the thorn branch is not the first but actually the second relic he has acquired, the first something rather more secular he picked up in Egypt, and 2) the branch, and the other relic, too, are genuinely capable of miracles.  I count three between them (the relics have to cooperate on one of the miracles). 

Miracle # 2 is the final big plot twist, one that is visible many pages earlier and almost painful to see approach, although when I consider that the victim of the twist is the one writing the book the pain of the false tension becomes psychologically interesting.  #3 comes when Teodorico hits bottom, allowing him to Learn His Lesson, not a lesson that I was expecting.  The Relic is essentially pro-hypocrisy:  the right hypocrisy for the right reason.

Then there is Miracle #1.  That’s the wild one.  So that’s tomorrow.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Heavens, what a good smell of church - the hypocrisies of The Relic by Eça de Queirós

I have never read a novel like The Relic, the peculiar 1887 masterpiece by José Maria Eça de Queirós.  It is both one thing and another.  Both things are good.  The meshing of the things is unique.  I would like to think that with some effort I could come up with a more precise word than “things.”

Teodorico is an orphan, now an adult, dependent for everything on his horrible Auntie who is not merely pious but a religious fanatic, while Teodorico is a sensualist.  A sample of awful Auntie:

In her presence the prudent friends of the house had learnt not to mention interesting stories read in the newspapers revealing a love motive, since they scandalized her like a naked offence.  “Padre Pinheiro,” she called out one day furiously with blazing eyes to the luckless priest, on hearing him tell of  a servant girl in France who had thrown her child into a drain.  “Padre Pinheiro, be good enough to respect me.  It is not the drain, it is the child that disgusts me.”  (27)

With Auntie, Teodorico is a hypocrite and liar, waiting for her to die, spending his allowance on operas and a favorite prostitute.  He always goes to Mass before visiting her in the hope that one of Auntie’s friends will observe his devotion.  He carries incense in his pocket and, after an amorous evening:

I would go furtively into the deserted stables at the further end of the courtyard and on the lid of a barrel burn a piece of the holy resin, and remain there bathing in its purifying odor the lapels of my coat and my manly beard.  Then I went up and had the satisfaction of hearing Auntie sniff delightedly and say: “Heavens, what a good smell of church”; and with a modest shrug I would murmur: “It is I, Auntie.” (27)

Much of the comedy of the novel comes from the baldness, the purity of Teodorico’s hypocrisy.  I was on to him, I thought.  Soon he will slip up and reveal that he is The Unreliable Narrator.  But no, he is in fact completely reliable.  Whoever he thinks he is telling his story to – himself, a future reader, who knows – is getting the truth.  The fun, then, is the contrast between the secret truth, which I am in on, and the lie that is the rest of his life.  I’m sure rigging the novel the other way would be fun, too, but this is fine.

This puts me about one-seventh of the way into  the novel.  Maybe I will have to write about it for six more days.

The Relic was reissued a few months ago by Tagus Press; the translation, by Aubrey Bell, is from 1925.  I have no doubt that the more recent Margaret Jull Costa translation is as good or better, but this one is fine.  I had meant to read The Relic back during the Great Portuguese Event, but I had run myself ragged.  My energy has returned, so I’ll spend another day or two, not six, with Eça.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

She was, by now, in the throes of a particularly revolting literary seizure - Gary fights for the honor of the French uniform

I hadn’t really planned on spending more time with Romain Gary’s Promise at Dawn, but I got caught just leafing through it.  The structure is episodic both in the childhood and wartime sections, so it is easy to fall upon particularly enjoyable adventures.

Gary is in England, flying with the Free French.  It is 1940, during the Battle of Britain.  He has discovered that he has made a mistake at a London dance hall:

On the second day, while a more than usually violent raid was in progress, I found myself in the company of a young poetess from Chelsea…  My lady friend was a great disappointment for she never stopped talking and talking about T. S. Eliot, and about Ezra Pound and Auden, into the bargain, gazing at me with blue eyes literally sparkling with imbecility.  (Ch. 36)

Kissing provides only a temporary respite because “I was obliged, after a while, to abandon her mouth in order to breathe – and off she went again about E. E. Cummings and Walt Whitman.”  Gary thinks about faking an epileptic seizure (“it had worked before in similar circumstances”) and tries to fob her off on a series of Polish officers hoping that “with a little luck my Ezra Pound might find other points of contact besides literature, and I would be rid of her.”  But she always returns, “embark[ing] upon a dissertation on the symbolism in Finnegans Wake.”

Meanwhile, the rest of the officers in the nightclub are interpreting events a little differently – those Poles are stealing a French officer’s girl!  The “prestige” of the French uniform must be defended:

“Well what next?” I asked them.

“Duel!” barked one of the three lieutenants.

“Nothing doing,” I told them.  “No more audience, blackout everywhere, no more spectators, so no more need for heroics.  Get that, you stupid asses?”

“All Frenchmen are cowards,” stated the second lieutenant, with a polite Polish bow.

“All right: duel,” I said.

I mentioned yesterday that Promise at Dawn is in part about the Lithuanian Jewish Gary becoming French.  Here we witness a step in the process.  Heck if they don’t fight a duel, in a hotel corridor, in the middle of a massive air raid that could pulverize them at any time, all in the company of Ezra Pound:

She was, by now, in the throes of a particularly revolting literary seizure, and, raising her moist eyes to mine, kept murmuring, in erotic undertones:

“You are going to kill a man!  I can feel it!  You are going to kill a man!”

But of course he will do no such thing, “because Mickiewicz was a great poet but also because I did not want to get into trouble.”  The whole episode, which with some minor adjustments, might as well come from a Dumas novel.  It is funny, has several little twists I have omitted, and is extremely French.

I am not convinced I gave a good sense of the Gary’s voice yesterday.  This should do it – “eyes literally sparkling with imbecility” is representative.  I could do this several more times and cover Gary’s idealism, his fatalism, and of course the center of the book, his deep love for his titanic mother.  But the comedy and derring-do should be enough.  If this scene sounds good, the rest of the book ought to work out all right for you.

Monday, August 27, 2012

You are going to be an Ambassador of France; your mother knows what she is saying - Romain Gary's Promise at Dawn

Promise at Dawn, Romain Gary, 1960.  A novel disguised as an autobiography, or a memoir packed with amusing lies.  Emma of Book Around the Corner loves Gary and suggested I read this one, given that it is funny, revealing, dramatic, and features one superb character, Gary’s irrepressible, smothering, preposterous mother – the book is worth reading just for her, honestly.  Emma has written a number of pieces about Gary; the one about a stage adaptation of Promise at Dawn contains lots of good information that I can now skip.

Yet as good as the book is, I am having trouble approaching it.  One reason is the subject matter.  The novel is roughly split two-thirds childhood and school years, one-third World War II.  The latter is exceptionally interesting, but do you see a lot about WWII at Wuthering Expectations?  The other problem is that nobody ever talks about Gary.  By “nobody” I of course mean writers in the literary magazines I have been reading for twenty-five years.  Well-read Francophiles like litlove know his work.  The strange thing is that Gary was once a best-selling author in the United States, a reasonably big deal.  What happened to his reputation here (he is still a big deal in France)?  Have I been reading the wrong magazines?  I should have picked up a received opinion by now, one that I can test when I actually bother to read Gary’s books.  That’s the way literature is supposed to work, right?  Why did no one tell me what to think?

The central line of the book is Gary’s mother's work to make her son a man, and French, and also a great artist of some sort.  They settle on writer after some misfires:

The singing lessons were discreetly abandoned.  I heard one of my coaches refer to me as “the child prodigy”: he claimed that he had never in his life seen a youngster so completely devoid of ear, voice or talent.  (Ch. 13)

Since Gary began life as a Lithuanian Jew, even the journey to Frenchness is complicated enough:

From the age of eight, whenever we hit on difficult times – and we seldom hit on anything else – my mother would come and sit opposite me, her face weary and a haunted expression in her eyes.  She would smoke a cigarette, look at me for a long time with a knowing and satisfied eye, and state with calm assurance:  “You are going to be an Ambassador of France; your mother knows what she is saying.”

All the same, one thing puzzles me.  Why didn’t she ever make me President of the Republic while she was at it?  (Ch. 13)

And heck if Gary – the real Gary, not just the one in the novel – does not become a French ambassador, win France’s highest honors during the war, and win the Prix Goncourt not once but twice, the second award the result of a hard-to-believe hoax, all of it – all but that second prize which comes later, after Promise at Dawn – urged on him by his amazing mother.

Thanks, Emma, for the recommendation and the advocacy!  Lots more people should read Promise at Dawn.  The title’s kind of fuzzy, so there is a criticism.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Realists are people who think reality isn’t how you think it is. - Down the Rabbit Hole by Juan Pablo Villalobos

Another kind of fantasy novel, a new one: Down the Rabbit Hole (2010, tr. Rosalind harvey), the tiny first novel by Mexican author Juan Pablo Villalobos.  It is narrated by a boy named Tochtli (“rabbit” in Nahuatl) who is – here is the big fantasy conceit – the only son of a Mexican druglord.  He lives in a bizarre world where every ordinary value is inverted and every material comfort is instantly available.  Or almost every comfort, since Tochtli’s demand for a Liberian pygmy hippopotamus is complicated even for a narcotics kingpin.  Not impossible – the characters spend the middle of the book in Liberia – but challenging.

Some voice – the whole novel is voice:

Yolcaut is my daddy, but he doesn’t like it when I call him Daddy.  He says we’re the best and most macho gang for at least eight kilometres.  Yolcaut is a realist and that’s why he doesn’t say we’re the best gang in the universe or the best gang for 8,000 kilometres. Realists are people who think reality isn’t how you think it is.  Yolcaut told me that.  Reality is like this and that’s it.  Tough luck.  The realist’s favourite saying is you have to be realistic.  (4-5)

Yolcaut = rattlesnake, a footnote informs me.  Does the voice sound like that of a seven year-old?  How about a seven year-old who is obsessed with vocabulary words?

What happens is I have a trick, like magicians who pull rabbits out of hats, except that I pull words out of the dictionary.  Every night before I go to sleep I read the dictionary.  My memory, which is really good, practically devastating, does the rest.  (3)

Alice merely visits the world down the rabbit hole; the rabbit lives there.  Tochtli’s off-kilter facility with language is one of many nods to Lewis Carroll, although the novel hardly has the linguistic dazzle of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland or Through the Looking-Glass.  Of course if Alice had narrated those books they would sound quite different.

That line above has the rabbit paired with the hat, so that’s a nod to Carroll.  Tochtli’s second obsession is hats (“I don’t think I’m odd for wearing a hat”).  Amusingly, the hippopotamus is also a reference, an obscure one.  Each of the Alice books contains exactly one mention of a hippopotamus, both pretty arbitrary, used, I assume, because the word is fun to say and the beast is fun to imagine, but incongruous enough for me to notice them when I revisited Carroll recently.

Another Carroll reference gets right at the power of Villalobos’s little book.  Tochtli is young enough to be genuinely innocent, but the world he lives in is a violent nightmare.  His father is a psychopath and anyone he meets is likely to suffer a bloody death.  No surprise that Tochtli is fascinated by beheadings, but through the safe distance of history, by means of the samurai sword in Japan or the guillotine in Revolutionary France.

The Queen turned crimson with fury, and, after glaring at her for a moment like a wild beast, screamed 'Off with her head! Off –'

'Nonsense!' said Alice, very loudly and decidedly, and the Queen was silent.

But that's not how things work down Tochtli's rabbit hole.

Idly checking Amazon, I see that Down the Rabbit Hole is due for an American release in October.  The copy I read was purchased in England (see spelling of “kilometres” above) and smuggled into the United States.  If I were a professional critic I would embargo this review, but I ain’t and it’s done been wrote so off it goes.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

In which I enjoy the Victorian Hugo Awards

A little tribute to amateurism today.  Jess Nevins is a librarian and the author of a 1,200 page Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana along with a huge amount of comic book annotations.  A great reader of old-timey clever conceits, Nevins came up with one of his own:  the Victorian Hugo Awards, which I would like to call the Victor Hugos.

The actual Hugos are the premier English-language science fiction and fantasy fan award but “[u]nfortunately,” Nevins says in his first column, “they've only been awarded since 1953,” so, a genuine expert, he hands out his own.  So far he has novel and short story Hugos awarded for 1885 through 1891. Nevins has to consider not just the quality of the works, but their reception, their popularity and prestige.  Along the way, he tells the shadow story of how the genres and audiences coalesce.  It is all enormously informative.

I mean, as far as the nominees and winners go, Nevins is making it all up.  He has read all of these books and accumulated all of this information.  The Victor Hugos are a way to play with what he knows.

The winners so far (novel; short story):

1885:  Jules Verne, Mathias Sandorf, Jules Verne; Margaret Oliphant, “The Open Door”
1886:  H. Rider Haggard, She; Ambrose Bierce, “Can Such Things Be?”
1887:  Haggard, Allan Quatermain; Vernon Lee, “Amour Dure”
1888:  Edward Bellamy, Looking Backward; Mrs. Riddell, “The Last of Squire Ennismore”
1889:  Marie Corelli, Ardath; Mrs. Riddell, “A Terrible Vengeance”
1890:  Ignatius Donelly, Caesar’s Column; Guy de Maupassant ,“La Horla”
1891:  Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray; Henry James, “Sir Edmund Orme”

The mix of obscurities and canonical titans is the first thing that I notice, and more still-famous names appear if I move to the other nominees – Robert Louis Stevenson, Sarah Orne Jewett, Rudyard Kipling, After London (which “would have been the deserving winner”), Arthur Conan Doyle, Thomas Hardy, E. T. A. Hoffmann (works are eligible the year they are published in English), William Morris.  And of course dozens of semi-forgotten writers.

Nevins does not hesitate to identify duds – he calls Marie Corelli’s Ardath, about a poet who travels back in time to ancient Babylon to restore his poetic genius, “a bad book with nary a redeeming quality to it; it is self-indulgent to the point of mania, laughable in its attempts at profundity, and an unwitting self-parody.”  Corelli was likely the best-selling fiction writer of her time.

He notes injustices, too (ignore that Nevins also creates them).  What else came out in 1886, when the laughable She won the Victorian Hugo?

She would have won the 1886 Hugo, but Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde was the more deserving of the two.  She is a great read, vivid, memorable, and packed with a surprising amount of Haggard's fin-de-siecle pessimism, but there's a reason that Jekyll and Hyde is in the literary canon and She is not.  Jekyll and Hyde is better written and more complex symbolically and psychologically.  She is good fun; Jekyll and Hyde is good literature.

I have read She and found it close to idiotic.  That Nevins is able to mount a reasonable defense of Haggard shows why he is the expert, not I.  I would not have the patience.  But I still love to learn about some new possibilities to read and the literary oddballs who I will leave to the specialists.  The anti-Bellamy dystopia Caesar’s Column sounds unreadable, but I am happy to know that its author Ignatius Donnelly, in an earlier book, “established the modern cult of Atlantis.”  Just think, without Donnelly we would have no Aquaman, no Namor the Sub-mariner.

The main lesson, though, is a reminder that many of the very best late Victorian writers turned their attention to ghost stories, weird tales, and stories of the future.

The Victorian Hugos appear irregularly.  They look like a lot of work.  I always learn a lot from them.

But this was not a method, it was an idea - science and The Invisible Man

Here comes science fiction book #3.  Ideally it would round out and definitively prove my arguments about science fiction, but I fear it does not.  The Invisible Man (1897 – I have returned safely to the 19th century) is barely a science fiction novel at all.  I have been calling science fiction a branch of fantasy; the Wells novel at least supports that argument.

Oh sure, there is plenty of science.  Whatta ya call this if not science?

I found a general principle of pigments and refraction – a formula, a geometrical expression involving four dimensions.  Fools, common men, even common mathematicians, do not know anything of what some general expression may mean to the student of molecular physics…  But this was not a method, it was an idea, that might lead to a method by which it would be possible, without changing any other property of matter – except, in some instances colours – to lower the refractive index of a substance, solid or liquid, to that of air – so far as all practical purposes are concerned.  (Ch. 19)

Just ask this scientician! (Warning, the link talks).  The invisible man might as well be a practitioner of alchemy for all it would matter in the novel.  And if Wells had any actual interest in science he would not make the invisible man a sociopath.  That decision kinda narrows the possibilities of the story.

Yet The Invisible Man is an entirely different creature than the kind of dream-fantasy George MacDonald or Lewis Carroll wrote.  The invisibility is magic but once that is granted the rest of the novel proceeds logically.  The section describing Mr. Invisible’s frustration with his superpower is especially amusing:

"I was fasting; for to eat, to fill myself with unassimilated matter, would be to become grotesquely visible again."

"I never thought of that," said Kemp.

"Nor had I.  And the snow had warned me of other dangers.  I could not go abroad in snow – it would settle on me and expose me.  Rain, too, would make me a watery outline, a glistening surface of a man – a bubble.  And fog – I should be like a fainter bubble in a fog, a surface, a greasy glimmer of humanity. Moreover, as I went abroad – in the London air – I gathered dirt about my ankles, floating smuts and dust upon my skin.  (Ch. 23)

This, to me, was among the finest inventions in the novel, the image of the ambulatory man-shaped bubble of air pollution (quaintly called “fog” in olden times).  The business about eating refers back to an earlier memorable scene, in which an observer notes  that Mr. Invisible has been eating cheese and bread.  Ick!  Fortunately the superpower conceals his excretory tract.  Our standards of permissibility have made one of the novel’s shocks invisible.  I do not know another Victorian novel that spends so much time emphasizing – concealing but by concealing revealing – digestion and male nudity.

The face of Mr. Cuss was angry and resolute, but his costume was defective, a sort of limp white kilt that could only have passed muster in Greece. "Hold him!" he bawled. "He's got my trousers! And every stitch of the Vicar's clothes!"  (Ch. 12)

The invisible man flees the dangerous city for an English village, which is where the real fun lies.  He is, at his worst, just one naked maniac, but he acts as a chaos seed in the quiet, orderly villages.  Coordination against him is impossible, plans collapse, and no one seems to realize that blankets would make decent weapons.

I suppose The War of the Worlds (1898) repeats the idea.  In both novels, the peaceful English countryside is disrupted; in one case the threat is small, in the other enormous.  Comic rather than sublime.  Blissfully free of ideas, except perhaps that the English villager will, after several clumsy missteps, come through in the end.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Damn your pseudo-science! Somehow this isn’t at all how I envisioned it. - Roadside Picnic by Strugatsky & Strugatsky

Science fiction actually has a “cool stuff” sub-genre (also a branch of exploration literature) typically involving the discovery and exploration of an alien artifact.  Larry Niven’s Ringworld (1970) and Arthur C. Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama (1972), for example.  An enormous structure is invented and then filled with the most interesting creatures, machines, and puzzles the author can think of.  The characters and I wander around and admire the result.  These particular novels are especially pure examples since the origin of the structure is never really explained, perhaps because the author has not come up with one, or because he has and it is lame.

Both novels have several sequels which might well contain ingenious and satisfying solutions to their puzzles.  For now I will stick with my sense of wonder.

Roadside Picnic (1972) by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky is an example I recently read.  The Strugatskys bring the alien space to Earth.  The Zone is a small American town which unknown aliens turned into a nightmarish magical landscape full of physics-bending gadgets and traps.  And zombies, it turns the dead into zombies, but surprisingly friendly ones.  The traps are deadly, the gadgets useful or decorative or also deadly.  The small town location sacrifices the awe created by the giant alien structure device but nicely drapes everything with an uncanny feeling.

I have a problem now.  If I want to demonstrate the inventive qualities of Roadside Picnic, I should provide a description of a good invention.  But the method of the novel is to normalize  the weirdness.  To the alien gizmo smuggler (the “stalker”*) with whom we spend most of our time, The Zone is not cool or intriguing like it is to me but a constant threat.  Here is what he sounds like when something strange happens:

Over the pile of ancient trash, over the colorful rags an broken glass, drifts a tremor, a vibration, just like the hot air above a tin roof at noon; it floats over the mound and continues, cuts across our path right beside a marker, lingers over the road, waits for half a second – or am I just imagining that? – and slithers into the field, over the bushes, over the rotten fences, toward the old car graveyard.  (24)

The narrator has been creeping into The Zone, pausing, evaluating the weeds and sidewalks, for several pages, and this is the first “event” of the trip.  What happened?  “God knows!  It came and went,” he says, and that is all we ever find out from him.

Similarly, here is how he describes the artifacts he pinches:

Two empties.  A box of pins.  Nine batteries.  Three bracelets.  And another hoop – resembling a bracelet but made from a white metal, lighter and about an inch larger in diameter.  Sixteen black sparks in a plastic bag.  Two perfectly preserved sponges close to a fist in size.  Three shriekers.  A jar of carbonated clay.  There was still a heavy porcelain container, packed carefully in fiberglass, remaining in the bag, but Redrick left it alone.  (76)

He does not know what these things are.  Those are just the names ("empties," "sparks") that have become attached to them.  Some are described in more detail elsewhere, some not.  That last container is explained – it figures in the plot.  Otherwise, a mystery.  A good science fiction joke that runs through the novel is that scientists figure out how to use some of the artifacts, like the batteries, without ever understanding the science.**

So to recapture the "cool stuff" thrill I have to translate the stalker’s normal to my weird.  Where he is jaded I am freshly curious.  A late chapter – the post’s title is from it, p. 132 – includes a scientist seeming to explain this and that, but mostly just reinforcing the mysteries.  The authors do not want to explain their crazy creations which are more fun – cooler, weirder – as mysteries.

It was Scott at Seraillon who recently recommended this novel to me – thanks!

*  The stalkers are named, amusingly, after the title character of Rudyard Kipling’s Stalky & Co.  See p. 197 of Boris Strugatsky’s afterward to the new translation of the novel (Chicago Review Press, tr. Olena Bormashenko).

**  Roadside Picnic is a demonstration of Clarke’s Third Law, although the novel precedes Clarke’s aphorism by a year.

Monday, August 20, 2012

This is her nest - The Space Merchants and Chicken Little, imagination at play

Science fiction is about ideas, I sometimes read.  I resist the usage.  Kant and Nietzsche work with ideas.  Fiction writers, fantasy writers most prominently, work with conceits.  They imagine something new and interesting which I then admire using words like cool and neato and awesome.  The new cool thing is like a new toy.  I do not develop a toy, or take it to its logical conclusion.  I play with it.*  Or, in literature, I follow along while the writer shows me the cool, neato, etc. ways he thought to play with his new toy.

I take this as the greatest pleasure of fantasy literature and its branches, including science fiction: imagination in isolation.  Thus enthusiastic readers overlook or forgive or indulge lapses in story, characters, writing, and taste.  Just keep the cool stuff coming, please!

The Space Merchants (1952) by Frederik Pohl and C. M. Kornbluth is one of the earliest American science fiction classics.  I revisited the novel after twenty years in part because it has just been reissued as part of a Library of America collection (the accompanying website is itself pretty neato), and in part because I wanted to play with its best toy again.  The Space Merchants was originally published under the title Gravy Planet – that’s one of those lapses of taste, although I am not sure that I do not prefer it, given the part of the book I like best.

The novel is a satire of consumerism and advertising.  Michael Dirda runs through that side of the book, the parts that have dated and those that have not.  Many of the jokes would work well today in a situation comedy set in an ad agency.  Timeless or shallow?  A little of both.  One solid idea, or running joke, is that although this future society is completely captured by consumerism and advertising  the standard of living, despite all sorts of magical technological advances, is lower than in 1952.  Wealthy people in New York City can afford cabs, but the cabs are bicycle-powered.  Meat is plentiful, but meat comes from Chicken Little.

That’s the one great invention, I think: Chicken Little,  the giant pulsing living blobs of meat that feed the planet.  Pohl and Kornbluth understand the value of their own idea well enough to know that just talking about Chicken Little is not enough.  They have to rig the plot so we meet it.  Sensitive eaters, avert your gaze:

He swung open her door.  “This is her nest,” he said proudly.  I looked and gulped.

It was a great concrete dome, concrete-floored.  Chicken Little filled most of it.  She was a gray-brown, rubbery hemisphere some fifteen yards in diameter.  Dozens of pipes ran into her pulsating flesh.  You could see that she was alive.

Herrera said to me: “All day I walk around her.  I see a part growing fast, it looks good and tender, I slice.”  His two-handed blade screamed again.  This time it shaved off an inch-thick Chicken Little steak.  (Ch. 9)

Almost the exact midpoint of the novel, right at Syd Field’s Plot Point 2.  Maybe this does not look like much.  No, as prose, as a description, it is not.  I wonder why “fifteen yards” is not “fifty” – reach for the sublime!   The authors build to the moment well, dropping the name without quite saying what it is, and they cleverly use Chicken Little in the plot, so that is part of the scene’s effectiveness.  Even better, though, is the carver and his blade.  I have to imagine him bouncing around on this enormous blob of gum, slicing away with his oversized sword, all of which is completely ridiculous but vivid, a fun use of the new toy.  Perhaps I have to play with the imaginary toy myself, too.  Perhaps that is what it is for.

*  I play with ideas, too, but with toys I only play.

Friday, August 17, 2012

The appalling and calm solitudes awaiting the breath of future creations - some Lord Jim puzzles

What’s going on with the narrator in Lord Jim?  It puzzles me.  Not Marlow-the-narrator, but the other one, the semi-invisible, semi-omniscient one.  He has the first four chapters and twenty pages to himself before Marlow appears, his performance already in motion, to circle around the story of what happened to Jim out on that ship, what he did that was so bad, why he acts like it is worse than it was.  I think I basically get what Marlow is up to, at least.

My misreading of Lord Jim is that Marlow stretches a simple martyr complex to unnecessary lengths for his own dramatic reasons – another presentation of the Great Marlow Show.  “You thrilled to the spear attack, you shivered at ‘The horror, the horror’!  Marlow is back with another existential shocker” etc. etc.  I would have to reread the novel to build this up, though.

In the meantime, Omniscient Conrad.  Here’s how he writes (Jim is on the deck of a cargo ship which for some reason is full of passengers to Mecca):

The thin gold shaving of the moon floating slowly downwards had lost itself on the darkened surface of the waters, and the eternity beyond the sky seemed to come down nearer to the earth, with the augmented glitter of the stars, with the more profound sombreness in the lustre of the half-transparent dome covering the flat disc of an opaque sea.  The ship moved so smoothly that her onward motion was imperceptible to the senses of men, as though she had been a crowded planet speeding through the dark spaces of ether behind the swarm of suns, in the appalling and calm solitudes awaiting the breath of future creations.  'Hot is no name for it down below,' said a voice.  (Ch. 3)

This narrator mostly simulates a Flaubert-like objectivity, but he bursts into these adjective-packed passages, the kind of thing lazy reviewers now call “luminous.”  Jim is on deck, and the first sentence may attach itself to his point of view – perhaps he was looking at the moon, or is feeling the pressure of the stars.  The second sentence, though, is explicitly not Jim’s or anyone’s.  The motion is imperceptible, available only to the disembodied author and his lucky reader.

The more I look at the line, the less it seems to mean.  The ship is crowded, so the planet it resembles is likewise.  But it the planet is in a strange place – behind the stars – and not just in any old empty space but one where Yahweh moves over the waters.  For a line, Conrad creates a mythological space, but the voice that dispels it is not a demon from the underworld but just the ship’s second engineer.

I wonder what imagery or reference I am missing later in the book that should bring me back to this point and others like it, these little glimpses into the Cosmic.  Perhaps they are just flourishes, Conrad flexing his poetic impulse, giving me some enjoyably flavorful and chewy sentences.  But more likely they mean something.

I’ll do an entire week of this with some book.  Day 1: What does this mean?  Day 2:  How about this?  And so on.  Not all that different from what I usually do.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Three dirty owls - Conrad and Kipling, compared and contrasted

I read Lord Jim (1899-1900) a couple of weeks ago – when was I in France – a month ago.  Conrad’s novel  has a lot of surface similarities to Captains Courageous which I thought would make for a facile post.  I am sure I meant to type “fascinating.”  For example, they were published around the same time, and they are both seafaring novels.  Probably a lot of other similarities.

Or differences.  The core of the Conrad book is an episode in which Jim, older than fifteen but still untested, behaves shamefully during an emergency at sea.  His great desire is to be a hero, and instead he finds himself to be a coward.  That covers about half of the novel; the rest tells of Jim’s attempt, perhaps successful, perhaps not, to efface his humiliation.  I likely had Lord Jim in mind while reading Captains Courageous.  Because Kipling is writing a boys’ book, he will form his hero’s character until the boy demonstrates his heroism in the climax, saving the cod fishers from pirates, for example – the notorious Newfoundland Pirates, led by the bloodthirsty Captain Cod – while the adult novel begins with the emergency and explores its consequences.

I can see how that could make up a little post.

I won’t write it, though, because, leafing through Lord Jim, I find myself distracted by other things.  Like this:

“’They sat in the stern shoulder to shoulder, with the skipper in the middle, like three dirty owls, and stared at me,’ I heard him say with an intention of hate that distilled a corrosive virtue into the commonplace words like a drop of powerful poison falling into a glass of water; but my thoughts dwelt upon that sunrise.  I could imagine under the pellucid emptiness of the sky these four men imprisoned in the solitude of the sea, the lonely sun, regardless of the speck of life, ascending the clear curve of the heaven as if to gaze ardently from a greater height at his own splendour reflected in the still ocean.” (Ch. 10)

I tell you, that passage if nothing else is written.  Conrad wrote the heck out of it.  I find it hard to tear myself from the “three dirty owls” – that really took me by surprise.  Conrad’s prose is full of surprises.  I am not sure that particular simile is a likely one coming from this character (Jim in disgrace) in this situation (telling how he was adrift on the Indian Ocean), but I do not care much about that.  I can see them there, as if in an Edward Lear poem.  “Jim and three owls went to sea. \ Jim was clean, the owls dir-tee.”

I direct attention to the extra quotation marks.  The owls belong to Jim, but the poison and “pellucid” and ardent gaze and splendor are all Marlow, Conrad’s favorite distancing mechanism, who is supposedly saying all of this and hundreds more pages much like it in a single nighttime story-telling session, which is also not exactly likely, although I buy it, completely.  If you hear that Marlow is telling a story, do not hit the hammock early.  Stay for the whole story, even if you have to get up early the next day.

Bibliographing nicole wrote about Lord Jim a long time ago.  She covers Marlow more sensibly.  Here’s the great similarity between the Conrad and Kipling novels:  the telling in both is more interesting than the substance, but Conrad’s telling is far more complex, and is in fact part of the subject of the novel.

I see, in nicole’s comments, a pretty decent parody of Javier Marías which has my name on it, although I do not remember writing it.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Death in Kipling's boys' book - one hundred and seventeen of them

What does Harvey need to do to become a man, great or otherwise, according to Captains Courageous?  He needs to learn the value of work.  He needs to learn the various codes of masculinity – I have not written about this theme since it seems like standard boys’ book stuff.  And he must learn to face death.  Perhaps this is the usual stuff as well, courage on the battlefield or in an emergency.  I do not think so.  Kipling is up to something a little more interesting.

Death recurs in the novel.  Death is mysterious.  Perhaps the uncanniest scene is when the fishing crew sees a ship sink; it is manned by drunks and has been neglected for who knows how long.  It looks like this:

She sailed into a patch of watery sunshine three or four miles distant.  The patch dulled and faded out, and even as the light passed so did the schooner.  She dropped into a hollow and – was not.

The fishermen hurry to the spot to help survivors, but the ship is gone, as if into fairy land.  As for Harvey, he “could not realise that he had seen death on the open waters, but he felt very sick.”

Death returns in the back story of the fishermen (one lost his family in the Johnstown Flood and is addled), in stories, and in storms and accidents (“When a man has lost his only son, his summer's work, and his means of livelihood, in thirty counted seconds, it is hard to give consolation”).  In one unlikely but effective scene, Harvey faces death in as literal a fashion as possible.

Once Harvey is in Gloucester, reunited with his parents, and on the path to Great Manhood, death recedes.  I was puzzled.  What was the point of the theme?  A final, expansive scene explains.

Harvey and his parents stay in town long enough to attend Gloucester Memorial Day, which includes speeches, recitals, and a reading of:

the names of their lost dead – one hundred and seventeen of them.  (The widows started a little, and looked at one another here).

Kipling begins to list off the names, one by one.

“September 27th. – Orvin Dollard, 30 married, drowned in dory off Eastern Point.”

The shot went home, for one of the widows flinched where she sat, clasping and unclasping her hands.

Harvey is affected physically.  “Great lumps were rising in Harvey’s throat, and his stomach reminded him of the day when he fell from the liner.”  Another name is announced, “Otto Svendsen, 20, single… lost overboard,” and Harvey actually faints.

Otto is the ghost that has haunted Harvey throughout the book.  He was on the crew of Harvey’s ship, and died not long before Harvey was rescued.   Harvey took Otto’s place, slept in his bunk, ate his food, earned his wages.  Did his work.  Harvey’s life is somehow owed to this other man’s death, a man he never met, who the reader never sees.

It is time for a lesson: “he understood things from the inside – more things than he could begin to think about.”  Vague but more satisfying than the earlier thumping stuff about the value of hard work.

Then Kipling gives me one of those “a few years later” codas that is aesthetically pointless but is fortunately just a page long.  Oh well.  I did not write about Captains Courageous for three days because it is a perfect book.  Or even a second-rate book.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

It’s just the greatest thing that ever was! - Kipling's Great Man, and Carlyle's

Kipling writes seven fine chapters on ordinary life in the cod fisheries, extraordinary only because so risky.  He has to wrap the book up, though.  The hold is full of fish; our hero Harvey returns to shore; his parents learn that he is not dead.  For thematic reasons as well as elementary story-telling, Harvey, having lost his callowness at the hands of a substitute father, the sea captain, Captain Courageous #1, needs some sort of scene with his father, the self-made millionaire, Captain Courageous #2.  Thus the odd plural title.

Mr. Cheyne is in San Diego and needs to get to Gloucester, Massachusetts.  He will travel by private rail car – we get a scene where he and his secretary plan the necessary connections and couplings:

The train would take precedence of one hundred and seventy-seven others meeting and passing; despatches and crews of every one of those said trains must be notified. Sixteen locomotives, sixteen engineers, and sixteen firemen would be needed – each and every one the best available.  Two and one half minutes would be allowed for changing engines, three for watering, and two for coaling. (Ch. IX)

And then we see the trip unfold just as planned.  The entire section, of roughly six pages and two thousand words, is “a classic of railway literature,” as a Wikipedist succinctly describes it.  Of trainspotting literature, says I.  The intricacies of private intercontinental rail travel have a mild interest, and I was anxious for Harvey’s parents to reunite with their lost son – I’m not a monster! – but the whole thing is baffling.  Nothing is at stake.  At least Phileas Fogg was trying to win a bet.  So a connection is missed and the reunion is twelve hours late.  So what.  Some vague attempts are made to symbolically mix the father’s rail journey with the son’s sea voyage, the effects of which are vitiated by the next scene, the one suffused with the ideology of Thomas Carlyle.

The depth of Carlyle’s influence continues to astound me.  Here we are, fifty-five years after the publication of Past and Present, and a writer as strong as Kipling has nothing more original to offer than Carlyle’s idea that the Captains of Industry are (or at least should be) the new Great Men of history, filling the roles of Frederick the Great and Oliver Cromwell and Odin (yes, the Norse god – see On Heroes, Hero Worship, and the Heroic in History, 1840). Harvey’s father tells the story of his rise to wealth and power (“Harvey gasped.  ‘It’s just the greatest thing that ever was!’ said he.”), and offers Harvey a choice:  he can be a layabout or a lawyer.  Useful or useless, labor or laziness.  I spent the book watching Harvey develop, so I know that he will choose to produce! produce!

Captains Courageous does thus modify the boys’ book formula.  Harvey does not just learn through adversity how to be a man, but how to be a Great Man, a Carlylean hero.  The idea that he might be inspired to become, I don’t know, an ichthyologist, that never comes up.  The novel demonstrates how an other-made man can becomes just as heroically useful as a self-made man.

It’s the dangedest thing, and between that and the railroad nonsense almost staves in the end of the book.  Luckily, there is one more scene.

Monday, August 13, 2012

The wrench and shloop of torn heads, the frizzing of tiny silver fish - Kipling's Captains Courageous

Captains Courageous (1896-7), Rudyard Kipling’s short second novel, is a pure boys’ book.  It does not transcend its genre or undermine the conventions.  It is, or would have been if I had read it as a boy, Improving.  Too late now, I fear.

Harvey is a poshie, son of a self-made American millionaire (railroads, steamships), falls off a passenger ship into the Atlantic, where he is rescued by a fishing boat.  The fishing captain refuses to interrupt the catch, in part because he thinks Harvey is delusional about the whole “millionaire father” business, in part because that is not how things are done.  Harvey overcomes his petulance and joins the crew, where he does honest work, acquires practical skills (knots, for example), overcomes his class prejudices, and learns to appreciate useful work.

If I mock, I mock myself more than the book.  My respect for what Kipling was doing began to rise about a third of the way into the book as I began to suspect that there would be no big plot twist, no big surprises, and no implausible adventures.  Nothing Treasure Island-ish.  The only truly unlikely event is the first one, Harvey’s rescue.  Then Kipling writes seven detailed chapters about the ordinary life of cod fisherman off the Grand Banks of Newfoundland (there are two chapters of epilogue I will ignore for a bit).

Songs, jokes, work, fish, fog, sailing, rowing.  Readers who hate any talk of staysails and foc’sles will find Captains Courageous unreadable.  Some of the ordinary events are actually extraordinary – Harvey witnesses the sinking of two fishing vessels, for example, one sunk by a passenger liner, the other by incompetence – but they are all within the bounds of plausibility.  Kipling does not cheat much.  Harvey does not – what would be a good adventure novel climax? – save the ship during the hurricane by means of his pluck and new skill with knots.  He just becomes and remains one of the crew.

Here the crew is cleaning and salting the day’s catch:

Down below, the rasping sound of rough salt rubbed on rough flesh sounded like the whirring of a grindstone – a steady undertune to the "click-nick" of knives in the pen; the wrench and shloop of torn heads, dropped liver, and flying offal; the "caraaah" of Uncle Salters's knife scooping away backbones; and the flap of wet, opened bodies falling into the tub. (Ch. II)

So the other thing that caught my eye  – or ear, in this case – early on was the writing, Kipling’s vigorous style.

Let me find another one.  Near the end of the novel, Harvey’s ship joins a hundred others at a spot where the cod are so thick they leap out of the water:

The sea round them clouded and darkened, and then frizzed up in showers of tiny silver fish, and over a space of five or six acres the cod began to leap like trout in May; while behind the cod three or four broad grey-black backs broke the water into boils.  (Ch. VIII)

Then the fishermen in their boats try to grab the cod out of the air with nets, all while avoiding the whales (those grey-black backs) and each other.  What an adventure!

From every boat dories [the rowboats] were dropping away like bees from a crowded hive…  The schooners rocked and dipped at a safe distance, like mother ducks watching their brood, while the dories behaved like mannerless ducklings.  (Ch. VIII)

Now I am just wallowing in the metaphors, avoiding what the book is really about:  Death and Thomas Carlyle.  That’ll be fun for tomorrow, hmm?  Maybe I will say something about zhiv’s fine piece on Captains Courageous, too.  “[I]t would bore kids on its own” he says, correctly.  Plenty of adults, too.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Picking through Edwin Drood

The main reason I know that The Mystery of Edwin Drood is not a mystery novel is that it is a Charles Dickens novel, and Dickens novels are where Charles Dickens went to solve problems and rework ideas from earlier Dickens novels.  Some of the revisions are at the level of devices.  A new character, the mysterious Datchery, plops into Edwin Drood in what should be the middle of the book.  For a stranger, he has an unusual interest in the murder of Edwin Drood and the doings of the other characters.  He is likely not what he seems.  If he is another character in disguise, who is he?

The previous Dickens novel, Our Mutual Friend, features a character who is thought murdered.  He is, unknown to anyone, alive, and, as any of us would, takes the opportunity to wander around in disguise, doing all sorts of odd and dubious things.  Dickens does not really mean for the identity of the character to be a secret so he reveals it fairly early in the book – it is a long book, so “early” might mean after 200 pages, but still.

In the half of Edwin Drood that we have, the presumed murder is a drowning and no body is ever discovered which leaves the possibility that the supposedly murdered man has returned in disguise to solve his own murder, which would make a great mystery novel and probably has.  One great novel, six mediocre novels, and fifty bad ones, is my guess.  It is just that the use of the device for nothing more than suspense is so unlike Dickens.

I think the impetus of the novel is another continuation from Our Mutual Friend.  The love triangle in that novel includes a harmless schoolteacher who is driven into an insane, murderous rage by his jealousy.  Bradley Headstone at first seems like a purely comic character, but he warps as the novel moves along.  He becomes evil.  The love triangle does some strange things to the other fellow, too.  The woman is unfortunately the usual Dickensian nullity.  Himadri was writing about this topic earlier this year.

Jasper Drood begins close to where Headstone ends.  He is planning his crime – see  the amazing chapter 12, “A Night with Durdles.”  The murder occurs about a third of the way through the phantom finished novel.  The missing half of the novel would have been split between the investigation of the crime and the self-torments of the killer, his attempts to escape justice, his guilt and agony, his lunges at some sort of redemption.  I have just made Edwin Drood into a different kind of mystery novel, a noirish crime novel from the point of view of the desperate killer.  Except written in a Dickensian style, and interspersed with comic scenes and a romance in which an orphan marries a sailor.  Boy, the book would have been a mess.  Well, that’s Dickens’s specialty.

I was thinking about writing about how the feral, stone-throwing child Deputy is like a refugee from a László Krasznahorkai novel.  Would that have been a better post?  I’ll just give that one away.  The novel has an opening that rivals that of Bleak House except somehow on a smaller scale.  That also might have been better.  The novel is full of amazing things.  I would create another binary category – there are people who like their books complete and people who do not care – but I guess the distinction does not come up much.

The mystery in The Mystery of Edwin Drood - setting aside assumptions

The Mystery of Edwin Drood (1870) might make a good test case for what misleading assumptions can do to a novel.  Charles Dickens’s final novel looks like a mystery, acts like a mystery, and is titled Mystery, but it is in fact probably not a mystery novel, except that it is.  Because the novel is unfinished – we have half of it – there is no way to decisively prove that it is or is not a mystery (which it is (not)).

I can decipher my own gibberish.  Edwin Drood is now a mystery novel, without a doubt.  It is the third entry in H. R. F. Keating’s Crime and Mystery: The 100 Best Books, for example, preceded (the list is chronological) by Poe and The Moonstone.  If people who read and write mysteries call it a mystery novel, it is.  Genres and canons form retrospectively.  And the novel has a murder, suspects, clues, a detective – or it probably has these things.  Later writers of mysteries learned from it, imitated it, and turned it into a mystery novel.

I have no idea when people started calling detective novels and crime fiction “mysteries,” when there was a genre known as “mysteries.”  In England in the 1920s it can seem like every third novel published has the word “mystery” in the title, but before then?  Sherlock Holmes always has “adventures.”  Perhaps a passerby will know the answer to this question.

But there was no mystery genre in 1870, even though Dickens was helping create it.  If I read the novel as a generic mystery I begin creating problems for myself.  The mystery has a straightforward solution (mad organist and opium addict Jasper Drood murders his nephew Edwin but in such a way as to throw suspicion on another) but the conventions of the mystery novel, of our mystery novel, almost demand that the plain answer is not the actual answer, and that all of the fairly blatant clues are red herrings or tricks.

The result has been a series of continuations and ingenious theorizing which is all, admittedly, a lot of fun.  Angus Wilson wrote the introduction to the Penguin Classics edition I read, and he describes a favorite example, Felix Aylmer’s The Drood Case (1964), in which Jasper is defended  with “a complicated, closely argued, but to me inherently improbable solution based upon the old Islamic family feud code” (13).  I love this sort of thing – I wish this were the solution!

But then I remind myself that 1) Edwin Drood is almost certainly not a puzzle mystery, and that 2) it was written by Charles Dickens, a writer whose methods and purposes are well understood and who was not going to make too wild of a leap in novel #15, although he sure as heck does not stand still.  In particular, Edwin Drood  contains all sorts of fascinating expansions and revisions of the some of the major themes of Dickens’s previous novel, Our Mutual Friend.  It would be a shame to toss all of that aside for a puzzle mystery.

Not that I know I am right.  Perhaps more novels should remain unfinished.  No, I suppose I believe that the author is better at finishing his own story than I am, even when the author is a notch or ten less inventive than Charles Dickens.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

In which I divide books into binary categories

“But I don’t want to go among mad people,” Alice remarked.

“Oh, you can’t help that,” said the Cat: “we’re all mad here.  I’m mad.  You’re mad.”

This is of course from the “Pig and Pepper” chapter of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, the high point of – of – let’s say – English literature – too weak, too weak – so – Western civilization.

Alice has a point, doesn’t she?  Many fine readers agree with her, and try to minimize their time among the lunatics.  We could come up with a long list of outstanding works of literature for those readers to avoid.  Other readers sympathize more with the Cheshire Cat and find more truth in the fiction of Franz Kafka or the poetry of William Blake.  Or perhaps just a rarer truth.

Sane and insane, sense and nonsense.  I fear these are the categories of someone with a strong taste for nonsense.  What are some alternatives?

“Explain all that,” said the Mock Turtle.

“No, no!  The adventures first,” said the Gryphon in an impatient tone: “explanations take such a dreadful time.”  (Ch. X, “The Lobster Quadrille”)

The Gryphon is the ideal reader for Stevenson and Conrad, while the Mock Turtle is likely a fan of Trollope and Eliot.  The adventure novel versus the domestic novel, both terms broadly defined.  The gender difference I noticed yesterday may now be explained a bit.  Is anyone surprised that more of the great women writers of the time wrote about settings (public or private) and problems involving women?  Some of the great writers I have dropped into the adventure category were able to ingeniously contrive novels with no women characters at all.

A related category might be fluid versus static, novels with more scenes of movement versus those with more conversation or thought.  Trollope’s most common strategy is to write scenes with varying combinations of characters.  They are rarely required to do much, and the story advances through their conversation and reflection.  Victor Hugo’s novels are always in motion.  The precise details of space and position are essential – where is Jean Valjean in relation to the pickpocketPride and Prejudice is static, Mansfield Park is fluid, relative to each other.  Both are domestic novels.

The grand old split is between the picturesque and the sublime.  My thoughts on the sublime can be found in the usual place, in a piece on Little House on the Prairie.  Novels in the nonsense category like the Alice books try to reach the sublime by means of the ridiculous, which tames the sense of fear inherent in the sublime.  Sensible books like Adam Bede or Dubliners move gradually towards surprising and sublime moments; crazy novels like Salammbô or The Toilers of the Sea sometimes attempt to maintain a sense of the sublime over the course of an entire book, which is impossible but thrilling to try.

What do I have, four binary categories?  Now I can construct a four-dimensional grid and map every book onto it, like Kellogg’s does with the sweetness and crunchiness and mouthfeel of breakfast cereals.  Readers can then match themselves to books in their quadrant.  A fair amount of book blogging is not much more than this, honestly.  I do it a lot, although unconsciously or automatically, not like here – I hope not like here – although in another sense my case is not so useful, since I like everything, although I do lean sublime-wards.

Anyway, none of this has anything to do with why or how or whether a book is any good.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

I hope there will be nonsense in it - two Victorian literatures

Three sisters beg a tale from a math professor:

In gentler tones Secunda hopes
    “There will be nonsense in it.”

Secunda is also named Alice; these lines are from “All in the Golden Afternoon,” a poem recounting the origin of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

Alice is an eminently Victorian novel, yes?  If I compare it to Rohan Maitzen’s advice on How To Read a Victorian Novel, I find myself in a suitably Carrollian mirror world.  Do I need tissues, a social conscience, time, or a set of non-modern assumptions?  No, no, no, and no.  Not really.  Modernist assumptions turn out to be particularly useful.  The Mad Reader who believes that Alice is the Greatest Novel of the 19th Century (I am speaking of myself in a certain mood) needs a different How To, one based on a different but still coherent set of aesthetic principles.

“Although British literature as a whole has to rank as one of the most overrated examples of a national literature anywhere,” declared Richard at Caravanas de Recuerdos, he found that he enjoyed The Woman in White well enough, as did Jorge Luis Borges.  St. Orberose recently discussed Borges’s assembly of a pair of series of books, his “Personal Library” and a “Library of Babel,” both of which contain plenty of Victorians – Kipling, Conrad, Wells, Shaw, Wilde, Collins, the Scientific Romances of Charles Howard Hinton, and perhaps most importantly the Robert Louis Stevenson who argued in “A Gossip on Romance” that “[f]iction is to the grown man what play is to the child.”

Borges put an especially high value on ingenuity and pure invention.  Is it new, is it delightful, is it at least a little bit askew?  Like Abbott’s Flatland and Stoker’s Dracula, or the visionary Lilith of George MacDonald, and the savage The House with the Green Shutters of George Douglas Brown.

Versus other questions:  Is it true, is it meaningful?  If I put more weight on the “creat[ion] of the possibility of sympathy” as Rohan Maitzen does, I will spend my time with authors who are more likely to satisfy the latter questions, likely including the exemplary Victorian novelists Rohan mentions in her How To: Eliot, Thackeray, Dickens, Gaskell, E. Brontë, Trollope, and Collins (Oliphant and Bulwer-Lytton receive rhetorical nods).  Collins overlaps the lists, greasy Dickens straddles the camps, Gaskell wrote ghost stories – the differences are far from absolute.  Wuthering Heights is, for example, completely bonkers through most of the novel.  I love it when Trollope surprises me, when his characters leap onto the tables, but Trollope’s books, like Gaskell’s and Eliot’s, are nothing if not sane.

The French literary tradition, for whatever reason, has been particularly welcoming to Crazy Lit, to writers like Baudelaire and Nerval, and even to Evil Lit like Sade and Lautréamont (19th century English literature has no equivalent of the latter set, not that I know of).  I have mentioned several times that I am fascinated by the way that Borges’s home tradition, the Argentinean Literature of Doom, often seems to consist of nothing but the violent or fantastic or bizarre.  Wuthering Heights and Heart of Darkness would fit right in.  Middlemarch and Cranford would be the freaks.

As for myself, I think the 19th century English novel is one of the glories of human civilization.  Plenty of individual novelists from other literatures are as great or greater (well, maybe not greater than Dickens), but no other literature of the time has the immense scope.  Dracula plus North and South plus Through the Looking Glass plus The Mill on the Floss plus Treasure Island.  Sense and nonsense, both of the highest quality.  I put a high value on both.

Addenda:

For what it is worth, I give the 19th century poetry prize to France.

You may have noted that Rohan’s “sense” list includes many women novelists, while the “nonsense” list includes none.  Yes indeedy.  This may be meaningful in some way.

Monday, August 6, 2012

What is the use of a book without pictures or conversations? - or, a note on how to read a Victorian novel

This is gonna be a rambler.

Alice was beginning to get very tired of sitting by her sister on the bank, and of having nothing to do: once or twice she had peeped into the book her sister was reading, but it had no pictures or conversations in it, 'and what is the use of a book,' thought Alice 'without pictures or conversation?' (opening line of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland)

Alice will grow up, I predict, to be a great reader of Victorian novels, which generally had plenty of both.  What a shame that novels have lost their illustrations.  I am with the Victorians on that one.

Rohan Maitzen has written an amusing guide on How to Read a Victorian Novel.  It has pictures and conversation and is useful, so Alice will be happy.  Most of Rohan's how-to secretly applies to all literature, non-Victorian and less novel, but not all of it (e.g., “they will be aiming at reforming you as much as (or more than) they aim at reforming society,” an idea that is not uniquely Victorian but is disproportionately represented).

I want to extend one of Rohan’s precepts:  “it will help to put aside modern(ist) assumptions about what novels should and shouldn’t do.”  She is right, it will help, sometimes enormously.  I have made runs at a number of literary traditions and periods, Classical and modern, European and otherwise.  Early on, every time, everything was a mystery.  I grasped what I could.  As I read more, though, obscurities lightened and mysteries evaporated.  Sometimes a repeated reference finally fit into its contextual slot, and other times the issue is one of vocabulary, when an archaic usage suddenly becomes clear, like the 17th and 18th century use of the word “aversion”:

LYDIA  Madam, I must tell you plainly, that had I no preferment for any one else, the choice [of suitor] you have made would be my aversion.  (Richard Brinsley Sheridan, The Rivals, 1775).

We should bring this usage back.  This play is on my mind since, oddly, it is appears in detail in the Willkie Collins novel I am reading.  Back to my point.

The point is that the answer to any problem is: read more.  The answer is not: throw the book aside as hopeless.  Renaissance Italian epics, Elizabethan plays, and Siglo de Oro poetry were constructed on aesthetic principles that are not the same as those of the contemporary novel, of any contemporary novel, but they have their own logic and illogic that can be deduced and inferred by the basic act of reading, and re-reading, and reading more.  Reading all of Shakespeare is a great idea; reading Shakespeare along with much of Ben Jonson, Christopher Marlowe, and John Webster (and Philip Sidney and John Donne and so on) is a better idea.  The Shakespeare is better, and in some sense easier, after reading the Webster and Donne, and vice versa.

Victorian novels are an 800 page breeze compared to that stuff, but the idea is the same.  I cannot emphasize how much reading Walter Scott and Lord Byron has affected my understanding of later Victorian novels, or the extent that Thomas Carlyle turns up in Dickens and Gaskell, or how Thackeray’s voice in Vanity Fair is absorbed by Charlotte Brontë and Anthony Trollope.

Well, I know I have not reached any surprising conclusion here – anyone who wanders by Wuthering Expectations understands the idea.  Yet every example I mention was a surprise to me not so long ago.  I could redo the argument with German or French or Russian fiction (Scott and Byron help with all of them).  And I am just reading as an amateur – the professional specialists find even more, at the admittedly high cost of diminishing returns and increasing tedium.  Fortunately for me they write down the best discoveries and share them.  Put aside your assumptions, like Rohan suggests.  Learn to use new assumptions.

Also, though, do not set aside your assumptions while reading a Victorian novel!  I should save that idea for tomorrow.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Not without a touch of poetry - sublime, savage Trollope

I do not always think of Anthony Trollope as a novelist of especially strong technical skill or imaginative power, but every novel of his I know contains a scene or two that shows otherwise.  If someone else would read Orley Farm and work through the big fox-hunting scene, chapters XXVII through XXIX, I would appreciate it - there you will find the skill.  I want to instead look at the “newly invented metallic tables and chairs lately brought out by the Patent Steel Furniture Company”:

“There's three tables, eight chairs, easy rocking-chair, music-stand, stool to match, and pair of stand-up screens, all gilt in real Louey catorse; and it goes in three boxes 4-2 by 2-1 and 2-3.  Think of that, sir.”

The salesman Mr. Kantwise is working the magic of his own craft on the lawyer Mr. Dockwrath.  We are  at this point only in the sixth chapter of eighty.  The lawyer is an enemy of Lady Mason, so I know he will be important.  But what am I supposed to do with this group of traveling salesmen he has encountered, Mr. Kantwise and his collapsible tables, the obese Mr. Moulder (“What did the firm care whether or no he killed himself by eating and drinking?  He sold his goods, collected his money, and made his remittances”)?  Will I need them later?  Trollope is more efficient than he first seems, so the answer is yes; the commercial travelers are eventually pulled into the plot, but just at its fringe.

Comic is not quite the right word.  Sublime relief.  Mr. Kantwise has assembled his wares and given us a paragraph to admire them:

The top of the table was blue, with a red bird of paradise in the middle; and the edges of the table, to the breadth of a couple of inches, were yellow. The pillar also was yellow, as were the three legs. "It's the real Louey catorse," said Mr. Kantwise…

And then he does something amazing:

And then Mr. Kantwise, taking two of the pieces of whitey-brown paper which had been laid aside, carefully spread one on the centre of the round table, and the other on the seat of one of the chairs. Then lightly poising himself on his toe, he stepped on to the chair, and from thence on to the table. In that position he skillfully brought his feet together, so that his weight was directly on the leg, and gracefully waved his hands over his head. James and Boots stood by admiring, with open mouths…

I am with Boots – what a performance.  “Gracefully” is a well-employed word.  Kantwise perched on the bird of paradise, flapping his wings, has become for me the emblematic image not of the Orley Farm Trollope actually wrote, but of the Evelyn Waugh-like novel hidden within it, a novel of high merit.  This set of furniture, for example, is put to almost savage use as it becomes (see Ch. XXIII) the worst Christmas gift in all of England.

Speaking of Christmas, I will join the grotesque Moulder and his wife for theirs.  Mr. Kantwise is a guest, but he stays off the table, which is already full.  Mr. Moulder is carving:

When he had done all this, and his own plate was laden, he gave a long sigh.  "I shall never cut up such another bird as that, the longest day that I have to live," he said; and then he took out his large red silk handkerchief and wiped the perspiration from his brow.

"Deary me, M.; don't think of that now," said the wife...

"And how does it taste?" asked Moulder, shaking the gloomy thoughts from his mind.

"Uncommon," said Snengkeld, with his mouth quite full. "I never eat such a turkey in all my life."

"Like melted diamonds," said Mrs. Moulder, who was not without a touch of poetry. (Ch. XXIV)

I of course omitted many other interesting bits about the turkey in order to have room for that one unimprovable line, by itself worth reading 825 pages of Trollope, pages worse than those found in Orley Farm.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

As I have told her story that sympathy has grown upon myself till I have learned to forgive her - Trollope manipulates my sympathies

Lady Mason may or may not have altered her husband’s will, but the dispute was resolved in her favor twenty years earlier in “the Great Orley Farm Case” (Ch. I). Her stepson, nursing his wrong, receives new information that causes him to try the court system again, this time accusing his stepmother of forgery.  That is more or less the big story at the core of Orley Farm

Lady Mason has an adult son, and some sympathetic neighbors, and then there are all of the lawyers, so that almost but not quite gives us a cast that can fill 825 pages.  The son plus two of the attorneys and also one of the neighbors are young men of marriageable age, but by the middle of the book we only have two eligible young women, which gives us a romantic plot and the certainty that not every character will be happy in the end.

Two examples of the basic character arc of the novel:  Mr. Furnival defended Lady Mason’s position in the first trial and won the case.  Although now “his hair was grizzled and his nose was blue” (Ch. X) he is irresistibly attracted to the still-handsome Lady Mason, more, it seems, than to the “stout, solid” Mrs. Furnival.  So of course Furnival will assist Lady Mason when her legal troubles revive, and of course he thinks her innocent.  As time passes, though, he begins to have doubts – what if Lady Mason is, in fact, guilty? –  and his story changes.

Or:  A gentleman – Sir Peregrine Orme, an elderly baronet, a neighbor  – is obligated, given Lady Mason’s fine character and social status (and innocence), to be publicly supportive against her vulgar enemies.  But what if he begins to have doubts, too?  And what if he has doubts only after he has fallen in love with her?  Sir Peregrine’s story is about as moving as anything I have read in Trollope, but it is only one  variation on the theme.

All of this re-positioning happens gradually.  Much of the repetition in Orley Farm comes from characters thinking and re-thinking, changing their ideas by inches.  The pace and psychology is admirably realistic.  Realism can at times be awfully dull.  As can blog posts about Trollope novels.

Trollope’s point, stated plainly in Chapter LXXIX, all the way at the end:

I may, perhaps be thought to owe an apology to my readers in that I have asked their sympathy for a woman who had so sinned as to have placed her beyond the general sympathy of the world at large.  If so, I tender my apology, and perhaps feel that I should confess a fault.  But as I have told her story that sympathy has grown upon myself till I have learned to forgive her, and to feel that I too could have regarded her as a friend.  Of her future life I will not venture to say anything.  But no lesson is truer than that which teaches us to believe that God does temper the wind to the shorn lamb.

And then that of course goes on for a while, but what is interesting to me is how sympathy for Lady Mason grows in Trollope, how it moves from being taken for granted, from being shallow, to being earned and meaningful.  The multiple positions and points of view, each narrow and partial, allows the reader, me, to change in ways that the characters cannot since I can see the narrowness and know everyone’s argument.  The big clumsy omniscient narrator is powerful, and perhaps not actually all that clumsy.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Agriculturists will gain nothing from my present performance - disappointed by Trollope's Orley Farm

France, check; Spanish, check.  Back to England for a while.

Some time ago I promised Rohan Maitzen a three-part series on manuring techniques in Anthony Trollope’s Orley Farm (1861-2) but that was just a joke – you can’t hold me to that!  And anyway, here is how Trollope begins the novel, with an assurance to the suspicious reader:

I say so much at commencing in order that I may have an opportunity of explaining that this book of mine will not be devoted in any special way to rural delights.  The name might lead to the idea that new precepts were to be given, in the pleasant guise of a novel, as to cream-cheeses, pigs with small bones, wheat sown in drills, or artificial manure.  No such aspirations are mine.  I make no attempts in that line, and declare at once that agriculturists will gain nothing from my present performance.  (Ch. I)

So an opportunity has been missed here, but by Trollope, not by me.  If anyone knows of a good Victorian novel about cream-cheeses and small-boned pigs, please let me know.  As it is, Orley Farm may well hold the Victorian novel record for the use of the word “guano” (fifteen occurrences).*  No mention of mummified cats as fertilizer at all.  Oh well.

Instead, Orley Farm is a legal – I was about to say thriller.  Ha ha ha ha!  No, that is the wrong word.  Orley Farm climaxes in a trial, and Trollope creates a reasonable amount of tension about the result, although it was clear enough that one verdict was ethically more interesting than another, and Orley Farm, like every Trollope novel I know, is fundamentally an exploration of an ethical problem.  Or several, really, all spun out from the one that kicks it off, a dispute over an inherited property.

When the novel is not about property it is about love and marriage.  Somewhere, long ago, I read an anecdote in which Trollope, descending to breakfast, declares that he has just written his fiftieth proposal scene.  Perhaps I should replace “fiftieth” with “Xth,” where X is some absurdly high number.  Not as absurd as I thought, though, since Orley Farm alone contains six (6) marriage proposals!  One is purely comic; one is necessary to the plot and meaning of the novel.  One pair of proposals, both to the young romantic heroine, I am apparently supposed to care about (I do not, not much); the final pair, again to one woman, serve as ironic counterweights.  Orley Farm is a standard 20 part Victorian serial, 835 pages in the Oxford edition I read, which meant I got a marriage proposal every 140 pages or so, which was plenty for me.

Orley Farm is comparable in quality to the six Barchester novels.  To be clear about the post's title, I am disappointed that it contains so little about the latest mid-19th century advances in scientific manuring (it admittedly has more on the subject than any novel I have ever read).  The book's length likely encourages Trollope’s slackness and sometimes maddening repetition, but also gives him room for a big yet intricate story.  In some sense I wish the novel had been 200 pages shorter, but the least essential pages of the novel were exactly my favorites and I am glad Trollope had room for them.  But they belong in another post.

* No, wrong - The Prime Minister has seventeen! See comments.