Thursday, November 29, 2012

Alcott and pathos - the presence of human sympathy, perhaps, had lightened that hard hour

Although Louisa May Alcott was only an army nurse for a month, she had the good luck to arrive just in time to treat the mass of casualties of the Battle of Fredericksburg, a bloody disaster for the Union.  Alcott wanted to see service, so for her this was good luck.  Her first chapter of actual hospital work is about the first day the wounded poured in to be cleaned, re-bandaged – their bandages had not been changed for days – and stitched up.

Alcott first published Hospital Sketches, or most of it, in a New England anti-slavery newspaper.  She was writing for an audience desperate for news, and likely with family in the army.  A patriot and abolitionist, Alcott might well have avoided criticism and protected her readers from unpleasant subjects.  That book would not be worth reading.

She steers a middle course, openly critical of the bad food (coffee “like mud soup, scalding hot, guiltless of cream, rich in an all-pervading flavor of molasses, scorch and tin pot,” III, 43), the unhygienic conditions, and the indifferent or thieving staff, and writing in an open-eyed but careful manner about the blood and wounds.  Anesthetic-free amputations are routine – “whipping off legs like an animated guillotine” (VI, 88) is her description of a particular doctor – and much of a nurse’s job involved treating horrible wounds, and Alcott does not conceal any of this, yet I believe the book is readable by almost anyone.  A “six foot New Hampshire man” has “a leg broken and perforated by a piece of shell, so large that, had I not seen the wound, I should have regarded the story as Munchausenism” (III, 35), and a “rough Michigander” has “an arm blown off at the shoulder, and two or three bullets still in him – as he afterwards mentioned, as carelessly as if gentlemen were in the habit of carrying such trifles about with them” (III, 33).  She uses words to describe but also to conceal.

Hospital Sketches is at its core about death.  Ten pages of the short book, the longest single episode, are given to a single death and life.  John the Virginia blacksmith is the character who stands in for all of the others.

I thought him nearly gone, and had just laid down the fan, believing its help to be no longer needed, when suddenly he rose up in his bed, and cried out with a bitter cry that broke the silence, sharply  startling every one with its agonized appeal:

"For God's sake, give me air!"

It was the only cry pain or death had wrung from him, the only boon he had asked; and none of us could grant it, for all the airs that blew were useless now.  (IV, 56-7)

Alcott divides her wards into “’my duty room,’ my ‘pleasure room,’ and my ‘pathetic room.’"  John is in the pathetic room.  Alcott means the word in its older sense, not inferior but evoking pity or sympathy, and she uses her book to create pathos as well.  I believe we again see the influence of Dickens, the master of elevated sentimentality – not that he never succumbs to the cheap stuff!

He never spoke again, but to the end held my hand close, so close that when he was asleep at last, I could not draw it away.  Dan helped me, warning me as he did so that it was unsafe for dead and living flesh to lie so long together; but though my hand was strangely cold and stiff, and four white marks remained across its back, even when warmth and color had returned elsewhere, I could not but be glad that, through its touch, the presence of human sympathy, perhaps, had lightened that hard hour.  (IV, 57)

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Louisa May Alcott's Hospital Sketches: Pigs also possessed attractions for me

Little Women and its sequel Good Wives are on the horizon.  I am in theory reading along with Dolce Bellezza, as are, I hope, many people, although I will be on vacation the week following Christmas, just when DB plans to write about the novels.  I will catch up, I promise, at least if whoever is hogging the library copy, probably some ten year old who can hardly appreciate the book the way I will and should surrender it for the greater good of book blogging, ever returns the dang thing.  So it will likely not be until January that I write about who I think Jo should marry and which of the characters I most want to slap, which I understand are the key interpretive difficulties of the novels.

In preparation, I read Louisa May Alcott’s earlier little memoir Hospital Sketches (1863), a surprisingly humorous account of her one month as an army nurse (she contracted typhoid and had to abandon her service).  Rob Velella, proprietor of The American Literary Blog, twittered that Hospital Sketches is a better book than Little Women.  I don’t remember Little Women well enough to say, but Hospital Sketches is a good book.

A sample of Alcott’s humor, from a Chapter V, “Off Duty,” where we get to see a little bit of wartime Washington, D. C., including the new Capitol building, the statuary (“rather wearying to examine”), the army mules, and the free-range pigs:

Pigs also possessed attractions for me, never having had an opportunity of observing their graces of mind and manner, till I came to Washington, whose porcine citizens appeared to enjoy a larger liberty than many of its human ones. Stout, sedate looking pigs, hurried by each morning to their places of business, with a preoccupied air, and sonorous greeting to their friends. Genteel pigs, with an extra curl to their tails, promenaded in pairs, lunching here and there, like gentlemen of leisure…  Maternal pigs, with their interesting families, strolled by in the sun; and often the pink, baby-like squealers lay down for a nap, with a trust in Providence worthy of human imitation. (V, 71-2)

Although Alcott often reminded me of Mark Twain (this is before Twain had published anything of significance), her model is Charles Dickens.  Hospital Sketches is packed with references to Dickens.  I in fact concealed one of them in the ellipses above, where young pigs are not only compared to Mrs. Peerybingle from The Cricket on the Hearth (1845) but Alcott actually includes a close paraphrase of a Dickens passage about neat stockings.  Not only is the tone that of Dickens, but so is some of the language.

Hospital Sketches, in the edition I read (Belknap, 1960), is only 84 pages long.  The editor, Bessie Z. Jones, fills it out with a fascinating essay on military nursing before and during the Civil War.  That is the heart of the novel, of course, Alcott’s work as a nurse.  I should write something about that.  Dickens is again relevant.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

I know what youth is. And I can't shoot them all - another Schnitzpard play

Schnitzpard’s other play, Das weite Land / Undiscovered Country (1911 / 1979), is longer and more ambitious than the earlier and later Dalliance, and is less punchy, but features a more complex – an aggravatingly complex – lead character.  Like Dalliance, the play climaxes with an offstage pistol duel over adultery.  What a strange society.

This time the male lead, Friedrich, is older, with a grown son, but still a lady-killer.  His wife is long-suffering; his friends suffer in a different way: car accidents, suicide, mountaineering  fatalities.  For an act or so I wondered if I was reading a play about a dashing serial killer, but no, he is just the lucky one of the bunch.  As is typical with Schnitzler if not Stoppard, death is a constant presence.

FRIEDRICH:  Oh yes – how is Stanzides?

MAUER:  I’m just going to see him, as a matter of fact.  He’s very impatient, considering he ought to be grateful he didn’t break his neck.

FRIEDRICH:  Not to mention mine.  I was thrown thirty feet up the road.  But it’s certainly true that the insurance companies will soon be turning down anyone who is acquainted with me.  (I, 69-70)

And this is just after the funeral for the suicide.

Friedrich is a perfect hypocrite – he always has a reason, a good one, for whatever he does, no matter how it contradicts something else he does.  He is sincere when that is useful, cynical when he needs to be.  As I said, aggravating.  I suppose the ultimate success of the play depends on whether the production and Schnitzpard are convincing in giving Friedrich a core that makes him more than a specimen.  If he earns these words near the end:

FRIEDRICH:  Hush!  I know what youth is.  It’s not an hour since I saw it.  It glows, it laughs, it has an insolence in its eye.  I know what youth is.  And I can’t shoot them all…  (V, 147, italics not mine)

Dalliance ends with a sort of sincere and surprised despair, while Friedrich’s despair is more of a long-cultivated philosophy of life.

In the introduction to the volume that contains Dalliance and Undiscovered Country, Tom Stoppard describes the technical side of the adaptation in some detail.  Knowing no German, he began with a trot, and went through it word by word with an expert in German.  This is “the high water-mark of literal accuracy” after which the playwright and director begin to rampage through the script, filling it with their own ideas and improvements and jokes – I more or less assume that every actual joke is Stoppard’s – until the word “translation” becomes an embarrassment and “adaptation” is quietly substituted.  “[A] surprising number of critics turned out to be Schnitzler purists,” Stoppard says (ix-x).  Not me, though.  I wish there was more jolly Schnitzpard for me to read.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Schnitzler and Stoppard collaborate - our love is eternal, of course, but there is a limit.

Special surprise bonus Schnitzler for the next two days!  I didn’t mean to read it, but I did.

Specifically, I read two Tom Stoppard adaptations of Arthur Schnitzler plays, Dalliance, a version of Liebelei (1895, English version performed in 1986) and Undiscovered Country, an adaptation of Das weite Land (1911, performed 1979).  Edith Grossman, telling reviewers how to do their jobs in Why Translation Matters,  demands that authors and translators be treated as creative co-equals.  In this case, I think she is correct, and will write accordingly.

I will call the composite author Schnitzpard.

Schnitzpard’s play begins with Chekhov’s gun:

FRITZ is discovered practising marksmanship with a duelling pistol…  It is clear from the way FRITZ inspects the target that he is not much of a shot.  There does not appear to be a hole in the target at all. (I., 5)

So the only question is who, by the end of Act III, is gonna get plugged.  Things are not looking good for Fritz, but who knows, his fate may end up being ironic somehow.

Fritz is just a student, but he is having an affair with a married woman, and at the same time having a fling with a seamstress who works at a theater.  The seamstress makes the mistake of falling in love.  Fritz and the seamstress each have friends who understand things better:

MIZI:  Well, next time we go out anywhere together you must wear your uniform.

THEODORE:  I only put it on for funerals [foreshadowing!].  But I’ll be wearing it for August – I’ve got manoeuvres.

MIZI:  Heavens, it won’t wait till August.

THEODORE:  No, that’s true – our love is eternal, of course, but there is a limit.  (I., 11-12)

Theodore's lines should be read in a Wildean spirit.

The very short third and final act is set backstage at the seamstress’s theater, with a rehearsal taking place on stage, meaning of course the actual backstage of whatever theater we might be in – typical Schnitzpardian theatrical playfulness – but with a point.  The contrast between the singing and botched cues in the background and the audience’s knowledge, my knowledge, that Chekhov’s gun has gone off in a duel with who knows what result while the women, knowing nothing about the duel, fret about entirely pointless problems, creates some outstanding tension.  There are lots of nice bits to quote, but they would resolve the tension a bit too abruptly.

Dalliance is a conventional play in many ways – love affairs and goofing around take up most of the action.  It is hardly as innovative as La Ronde (written 1897) or Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (1968) but is written with a lot of zing.  I would love to see it.

Page numbers refer to the 1986 Faber and Faber edition of Schnitzpard’s plays.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Finding Salzburg in Trakl's poems - But he descended the stony steps of the Mönchsberg

Georg Trakl was born and lived in the Georg Trakl House in Salzburg, right by the cathedral.  I suppose it was not called that at the time - otherwise, what a coincidence!  From his poems, which always seem to be out in the woods or in strangely deserted villages, I might guess that he was a country poet.  But no, he was a city kid – Salzburg, Vienna, Innsbruck.  Mostly Salzburg.

I never catch Trakl writing about Salzburg’s ubiquitous Mozart and Sound of Music kitsch, but once I start looking I can find other traces of the city.  “To One Dead Young” begins with the usual angel:

Oh, the black angel, who stepped softly from inside the tree,
When we were gentle playmates in the evening
At the edge of the bluish fountain…

A tree, a fountain, a dryad-like angel – this could be anywhere.  It is in Salzburg, though:

But he descended the stony steps of the Mönchsberg,
A blue smile on his countenance, and strangely cocooned
Into his stiller childhood, and died.

The Mönchsberg is the mountain that curves around the old city of Salzburg.  A castle is perched on one end of the mountain.  Young Trakl would have seen it every time he left his house through the front door.  At  the other end, a ways to the right (we are standing just outside the house) the ridge is now capped by a quite good Museum of Modern Art.  I suppose it was just woods in Trakl’s time.  Walls, maybe, or a watch tower.

Soul sang death, the green corruption of the flesh,
And it was the rustling of the forest,
The ardent lament of the prey.
Always the blue bells of evening rang from the dusky towers.

It is funny how what at first seemed so abstract falls into place once I put the poet up on the Mönchsberg, overlooking old Salzburg and the Salzach River.  One word does it.

I wonder if this is Salzburg, too, if these are the same bells, or perhaps, a “great city,” it is Vienna, or perhaps a fantasy.

To Those Grown Mute

Oh, the madness of the great city, where stunted trees
Stiffen at evening along the black wall;
The spirit of evil peers from a silver mask;
Light drives out the stony night with a magnetic scourge.
Oh, the sunken tolling of the evening bells.

Whore, who bears a dead infant in icy shudders,
God’s wrath whips raging the brow of the possessed,
Crimson plague, hunger, which shatters green eyes.
Oh, the hideous laughter of gold.

But a muter mankind bleeds silently in a dark cavern,
Joins from hard metals the redeeming head.

It’s like a parody of a Trakl poem, although it would be the rare parodist who would think up “magnetic scourge,” the “magnetischer Geißel” that is sonically linked to the earlier “Geist (spirit).”  The evil spirit is not simply electric light is it?

I wonder what point there is in pinning Trakl’s poems down to a specific place, even when he is the one who mentions the Mönchsberg.  The translator, Robert Firmage, informs me that Heidegger wrote about Trakl, attracted by mankind grown mute in the cavern, the “unspeakability of human experience” (217).  Heidegger is as interested in the absence in Trakl’s poems, in his “single and unspoken poem” (217, italics mine, words actually Firmage’s, not Heidegger’s).  I hope to return to Trakl soon with a little more poetic context, but I suspect I might as well give up hope if I do not limit myself to Trakl’s multiple written poems, to the sound of the bells above Salzburg, and leave the negative space to Heidegger.

Vacation looms.  No more writing until Monday.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

forgotten things, extinguished angels - the poetry of Georg Trakl

Georg Trakl, a drug addict with mental health problems, died young of a drug overdose, possibly a suicide.  He was also a poet – one of those poets, like Rimbaud and Baudelaire, derangers of the senses.

This is how he sounds in English, or one way he sounds:

Rest and Silence

Shepherds buried the sun in the naked forest.
With a net of hair
A fisherman hauled the moon from the icy pond.

The pale man dwells
In a blue crystal, his cheek at rest against his stars,
Or he bows his head in crimson sleep.

But the black flight of birds always touches
The watcher, the holiness of blue flowers;
The nearby silence thinks forgotten things, extinguished angels.

Again the brow turns night in moonlit stone;
A radiant youth,
The sister appears in autumn and black putrefaction.

Trakl’s only book was published in 1913, the year before he died, but otherwise I do not know how to date his poems; this one could have been written years earlier.  I took this translation from Robert Firmage’s ideal Song of the Departed: Selected Poems (Copper Canyon, 2012), but there is a lot of Trakl in English.

Trakl’s favorite words (or those of Firmage's Trakl): silence, stillness, angel, and then colors, primary mostly but also silver and black and white.  “Crimson” is almost too fussy, but Firmage is working with a problematic word, “purpur,” that does not quite overlap with English color words.  Mostly it is “brown wine,” “white water,” “black destruction,” “the yellow walls of summer” (all from “Helian”).  Seasonal words, those should go on the list, too.

With a little simplification, the pale man is just the man in the moon (“a blue crystal”) so of course his cheeks brush the stars.  Why the shepherds bury the sun is a puzzle – they didn’t murder it, did they?  The forest is naked because of the season, I see at the end, so a bit of early strangeness becomes plain description.  But then should the blue flowers be there?  They allude to Novalis and German Romanticism, a century in the past at this point. The strangeness of the silence “thinking,” and what it thinks (“erloschene Engel”), remains.

Firmage matches the poem’s form and, as far as I can tell, images.  He makes no attempt at its rhythm or sound.  Trakl sometimes rhymes:

from The Accursed

The night is black.  The nightshirt of the child,
Who wanders, bloats out ghost-white in the wind.
And tenderly snakes the dead woman’s hand
Into his mouth.  Sonia smiles, fair and mild.

Perhaps some readers would enjoy the German.  In this case, Firmage sacrifices literal sense for rhyme and meter.

Die Nacht is schwarz.  Gespenstich bläht der Föhn
Des wandelnden Knaben weißes Schlafgewand
Und leise greift in seinen Mund die Hand
Der Toten.  Sonja lächelt sanft und schön.

This does not sound like fair and mild German to me, but perhaps someone else will hear it differently.

I could have fun just pulling out lines:

Lepers, who rot away perhaps at night,
Read convoluted omens of birdflight.  (“Dream of Evil”)

Unspeakable the flight of birds, a meeting
With the dying; dark year follows year.  (“Afra”)

Immersed in the gentle string music of his madness  (“Helian”)

Across the footbridge of bone, the hyacinthine voice of the boy,
Softly reciting the forgotten legends of the forest.  (“At Mönchsberg”)

Tomorrow I will see if I can make anything of Georg Trakl.  Meine Frau reminds me that I have been to his childhood home.  That should help.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Two imaginary Viennese museums

Today I will describe and enjoy two imaginary museums that I found in Carl E. Schorske’s Fin-de-siècle Vienna: Politics and Culture (1980).

The actual Viennese Museum of Fine Arts, the Kunsthistorisches Museum, is the most beautiful big art museum I have ever seen (and the collection is not so bad either).  The photo of the interior featured at Wikipedia is merely the coffee shop.  Vienna has other nice buildings, too, I have heard.  I was not there for very long.  This post is about what the Viennese, circa 1900,  could have had.

Camillo Sitte became more influential as a theorist of city planning than as an architect.  He was a backward-looking Wagnerian, a devotee of the total work of art that was not only beautiful of itself but also created a national myth that would lead to “the revitalization of the German people in this hyper-cerebral, utilitarian age” (70).  Wagnerism, the ideology of Wagner, is a puzzle, a subject for future research.

Sitte’s museum would be “a great tower, a national monument to German culture” (104), located not in the city but on “a barren beach” – of a lake, I guess, right?  The tower would be filled not with the treasures of the imperial Hapsburgs but with the results of a seven-volume encyclopedia of art forms Sitte was compiling.  The museum would be called “The Dutchman’s Tower,” likely named after Richard Wagner’s Flying Dutchman perhaps conflated with the crazy scene in Goethe’s Faust Part II where Faust builds a tower in Holland.  All scenes in Faust II are crazy.

So: bad idea, yes, the Wagnerian Goethean tower on a beach?  No?  How about this next one.

Otto Wagner (an unrelated non-Wagnerian Wagner)was a theorist but also a practical architect, the designer of a number of significant buildings in central Vienna.  He became a supporter of the Viennese avant garde, including Gustav Klimt and other artists of the Viennese Secession, as I might have guessed from his idea for a museum.

He wanted a single unfinished gallery divided into twenty units.  Every five years, a commission of artists, or perhaps a single artist, would fill a unit with “am integrated exhibition of the best art and architecture produced in a given half-decade” (105).  Then – this is the great part, the bad idea that lifts into greatness – that section is never changed.

The building would become a series of time capsules.  No curation, no revision.  Wagner wrote that this system would show “’a clear picture of the state of artistic production over the coming century.’”  I am imagining two visits to the museum, one in 1905, with one room full of Klimts and other wonderful things – I will give the initial period credit – and the other 95 percent of the empty hall, brightly lit, stretching into the future.  And then I imagine visiting the hall today, marveling at the kitsch.  What might be in the “1936-1940” room?  How often would a room be the visual equivalent of the World’s Best Novels, 1899 edition?

Do not get me wrong, if some madman had built one or both of these museums, they would be high on my list of places to visit the next time I am in Vienna, at least on the days when I had worn out the Kunsthistorisches Museum and checked off the Secession building and Hundertwasserhaus and – I guess they would not be that high on my list, but they would be on it.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Schnitzler's Dream Story - Even the reality of a whole lifetime isn't the whole truth

The best for last, or at least the most distinct for last.  I have been emphasizing the repetition in Schnitzler’s short stories, repetitions of theme and pattern and structure.  In his novella Dream Story (1926) Schnitzler at least varies the structure quite a lot, and though the Sex and Death theme is stronger than ever, the use of dreams and dream imagery is a new, rich addition.

A Viennese doctor experiences a long, strange, dream-like, sexually charged night, a kind of surreal sexual picaresque, featuring a kindly prostitute, weird figures in costumes, a decadent secret orgy which may or may not involve rape and murder, that sort of thing.  His wife is at the same time having a complex, sexually charged, violent dream; at the end the husband is crucified.  All of this is told to the husband in suspicious detail.  He then, the structure of the plot now resembling that of a thriller, tries to reconstruct or undue or put right the events of his own wild night, all the while haunted by his wife’s dream – perhaps that is the problem he is actually trying to solve.

This structure is odd, isn’t it?  Husband’s adventures, wife’s seemingly unrelated dream, reversal of husband’s adventures.

In the end, the husband relates his adventures, pre- and post-dream, to his wife.  Once they have both expelled their anxieties or neuroses or unconscious desires they are reconciled and can live in peace.

“Are you sure we have [come away unharmed]?” he asked.

“Just as sure as I suspect that the reality of one night, even the reality of a whole lifetime, isn’t the whole truth.”

“And no dream,” he said with a soft sigh, “is entirely a dream.”  (272)

The novella ends with the laughter of their child, which is close to the scene that begins the story, where the parents are reading a dream-like story to their daughter.

Schnitzler is competing with the Surrealists and E. T. A. Hoffmann and other dream-peddlers.  Since literary dreams allow anything, they had better be particularly good.  Schnitzler dreams like a champion.  The doctor’s episodes, for example, move pleasingly from weird to weirder:

… and all at once a blinding light poured down to the end of the hallway where a small table set with plates, glasses, and bottles was suddenly visible.  Two men dressed as inquisitors in red robes arose from the chairs to the left and to the right of the table, while at the same moment a graceful little creature disappeared…  a graceful, very young girl, still almost a child, wearing a Pierrette costume with white silk stockings…  (227, this time all ellipses are mine)

And this is from the episode before the really strange one.

I wonder to what extent some of the details in the wife’s dream or the husbands narrative can be pinned directly to those in The Interpretation of Dreams or some other work of Freud or, by this point, one of his students.  If I ever to Freud, I will read him with Dream Story in the back of my mind.

I rarely do this, but what the heck – of the limited Schnitzler I have read, if you are going to read one, read Dream Story and La Ronde, so read two.  I assume as I read more Schnitzler two will grow to three or four.  Well-read commenters can suggest likely candidates.

Thanks to Caroline and Lizzy for the German Literature Month business!   I’ll have a little more next week.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Night Games - Schnitzler stretches out

I read two novellas collected along with the shorter stories, Dream Story (1926) and Night Games (1927).  Please note that these works are from thirty years later than the other stories I have been writing about, and are similarly far from the composition of La Ronde.  Schnitzler’s career was impressive.

In Night Games  an Austrian officer in a single night gambles himself into massive debt.  Nothing is so artificial in fiction as the tension created by gambling, and Schnitzler is not above giving me a shot of the cheap stuff, but the wins and losses do have meaning.  Winning big means sex, because the officer will finally be able to marry; losing big means death, since the officer’s code makes it likely that he will choose suicide over dishonor.

In other words, the officer embraces or succumbs to the “death drive” as described in Freud, Sigmund, Beyond the Pleasure Principle, 1920.

Schnitzler’s protagonists can be generic.  They are often a bit more like representative specimens than individuals.  In La Ronde, the characters are not even given names but are just Soldier or Actress, and in most of the stories this would work just as well.  The greater length of the novella allows Schnitzler to include some idiosyncratic secondary characters in Night Games.  Since they are not part of the psychological study, they are allowed to be a little bit strange.

He looked around the circle as though he sought approval.  Everyone was silent.  Herr Elrief looked away, very aristocratically, and lit a cigarette; Wimmer bit his lips; Greising whistled nervously, almost soundlessly; and the theatre manager remarked somewhat rudely, as though it were trivial, “The lieutenant has really had bad luck today!”  (VII, 32)

The short stories did not have much room for these sorts of individualizing touches, characters who will now be packed away, never to return in the fifty remaining pages.

I have been describing the plots of Schnitzler’s stories, however compactly, more than I usually do because so much of the meaning of the stories comes directly from the plot.  A typical person, the generic representative of a particular social status (bourgeois wife, poor officer), stumbles into an atypical situation.  The steps  the character then takes begin to generate meaning, begin to individualize the character and move him from the generic to the specific.  The climax of the story is simultaneous with the complete creation of the character, the moment of greatest individuality.

So now, back in Night Games, the game has ended and the officer needs to scrounge up a lot of money, or else.  As a result he encounters the best character in the story, his aunt Leopoldine, who he happens to have known previously to her marriage to his uncle.  Sex has again intersected with death:

He saw the little gold ring with the semi-precious stone on the ring finger of her right hand, which was lying on top of the red bedspread, and the slender, silver bracelet that encircled the wrist of the left hand that she had stretched out toward him in waving him farewell from the bed as he was leaving.  She had pleased him so much that when he left he was firmly determined to see her again.  It happened, however, that just at this time another woman had prior claims on him, a woman who, since she was being kept by a banker, didn’t cost him a kreuzer – a consideration given the circumstances.  (XI, 59)

Schnitzler cleverly begins to tell Leopoldine’s story not alongside but somehow behind the rest of the officer’s story.  Because of their entanglement, because of her story, he makes a decision that is not itself a surprise; however the reason for his decision is a shock.   It’s very impressive, but aside from the variety of characters and greater intricacy of the plot, this is exactly how Schnitzler was writing stories thirty years earlier.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Schnitzler's substitute for the talking cure - He felt as if nothing bad could happen to him now

It’s all so Freudian, isn’t it, the basis of all these Schnitzler stories?  Schnitzler’s characters reveal or discover  themselves as the result of a crisis, but not through any action they take themselves.   The characters attempt to defend themselves, but the truth resides in the unconscious and is made apparent by a breach in the defenses.

Schnitzler is anticipating the Freudian “talking cure,” in which the therapist guides the patient to create his own breach without having to suffer through the actual crisis.  The errant wife can resolve to confess her affair to her husband (or not) without having the lover die in a carriage accident.  This is the idea, right?  Let no one assume I know too much about Freud or Freudianism.*

 Schnitzler was an avid reader of his neighbor Freud, but it turns out Freud was also an enthusiastic reader of Schnitzler.  Although a late novella like “Dream Story” (1926) is obviously, even blatantly indebted to The Interpretation of Dreams (1899), several of the stories in Night Games, including the ones I have written about so far, precede any significant contact with Freud’s ideas, making me wonder just how much Schnitzler there might be in Freud.  They were both studying the same set of clinical subjects, the bourgeois Viennese.

The one story in the Night Games collection not about Sex and Death, “Blind Geronimo and His Brother” (1900), shows how guilt is actually Schnitzler’s central concern.  Carlo blinded his brother when they were children, accidentally of course, but he has devoted his life to leading his blind brother around Austria and Italy, living off Geronimo’s earnings as a street musician.  A meaningless chance encounter causes a sort of crisis of faith – has Carlo’s lifetime of sacrifice been meaningless?  Rather than atone for his guilt, has he only committed more sins? And Schnitzler then woks through some plotty stuff to get us to this point, which is the end of the story – I am always quoting from the ending:

For he saw Geronimo smile in the mild, blissful way that he had not seen him do since childhood.  And Carlo also smiled.  He felt as if nothing bad could happen to him now – neither before the judge, nor anywhere else in the world – for he had his brother again…  No, he had him for the first time…  (124)

All of those ellipses are Schnitzler’s, not mine.  Please note that the Sex and Death story I wrote about yesterday, “The Dead Are Silent” (1897) literally ends with “a great calm comes over her,  as though everything will be all right again…” – in other words, with an almost identical ending.

The mention of the judge reminds me that Carlo and Geronimo end their story at a material low point, but at a psychological peak.  The intervention of a trained therapist earlier in the story would have been helpful.

*  Although I am old enough to have been assigned Freud in college, in a class called, and also about – youngsters will find this hard to believe, but it is true – “Western Civilization.”  Freud was assigned to every student getting a BA!   And read by about one in ten, I would guess.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

As though everything will be all right again - Schnitzler's breakthroughs

The one hour of voluptuous joy he had experienced with Clara now seemed to him to be surrounded by spine-chilling horror.  (172)

Now that is what I am talking about.  That is the Arthur Schnitzler I have been reading, although this particular story, the 1904 “Baron von Leisenbohg's Destiny,” is admittedly the silliest of the stories in the Night Games collection.  It involves a deadly curse.  A deadly sex curse.  Any effect of a sex curse is of course merely psychological, of course, of course.

Let me try a story that is less unlikely.  “The Dead Are Silent” (1897) begins with a young man awaiting his married mistress in a hired carriage.  The lovers direct the cabbie to the Vienna suburbs, where there is no risk of meeting anyone they know.  An accident occurs, and the point of view deftly switches from the man to the woman, a necessary change because he seems to have been killed, while she is uninjured.

The next five or six pages are mostly just the woman’s interior monologue.  She confronts her lover’s death (“Well, why don’t I believe it? – it’s a certainty… this is death!  A horror seized her whole body,” 92, ellipses in original).  Her thoughts, as one might guess, are confused, but she soon decides to flee the scene (“She can’t be of use to anyone here anymore, and she’s only courting tragedy,” 93).  She spends a four page paragraph walking home, all the while justifying her behavior:

Franz himself would have said she was right to do what she did.  She has to get home, after all.  She has a son, she has a husband, she would be lost if they had found her there with her dead lover.  There’s the bridge; the street seems brighter…  (94)

That passage is typical – thought interrupted by something exterior like a landmark or a racing ambulance on the way to you-know-where.

So far, so explicable.  Schnitzler is moving the character down a clear path.  A reader may support or deplore her behavior but everyone will understand it.  Schnitzler is still working on the surface of the character.  It is only in the last couple of pages, once she is home, safe, that the more complex psychological story can begin.  This is the end:

And she knows that in the next moment she’ll tell this man, whom she has deceived for many years, the whole truth.

And as she slowly goes through the door with her boy, her husband’s eyes on her, a great calm comes over her, as though everything will be all right again…  (100, ellipses again Schnitzler’s).

So Schnitzler spends sixteen pages steadily moving a single action to a resolution and two pages shattering it.  His interest is in that last leap or fall; it is what makes him a great writer.

The story I mentioned yesterday, “The Widower,” has an identical structure.  Most of these stories have the same structure.  The widower discovers his dead wife’s affair with his best friend, and in a several page internal monologue works though his grief and moves to forgive them both.  Yet in the last line he is frothing with rage at his friend for an unexpected reason.  As with the wife in “The Dead Are Silent,” Schnitzler writes a story that breaks his character.  He adds stress, the surface cracks, and I am granted a glimpse of the truth.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Arthur Schnitzler's short fiction - “You bastard!” he screams, and throws the pages in his face.

For last year’s German Literature Month, I tried out Arthur Schnitzler’s best known play, Der Reigen / La Ronde, which was about sex and its discontents.  This year I tried some of his short fiction, which is not just about sex but rather sex and death, over and over again.  Eight out of nine stories in Night Games (Ivan R. Dee, 2002, tr. Margret Schaefer): sex, death, death, sex.

My one criticism as such of Schnitzler is that, based on what I have read so far, he is kinda narrow.  The same translator and publisher have produced two more volumes of Schnitzler’s novellas that I am eager to read, to see if I am right, or wrong, or who cares.  Schnitzler is deep rather than broad.  Well, he is not always that deep, either, but here is what I am getting at, every story in this book has at least one moment where I could say, ah, yes, that’s it, that is just what that character in that situation would do, although not being an insightful psychologist like Schnitzler I would have guessed something else entirely, likely some cliché.

For instance, in “The Widower” (1894) Schnitzler gives me a husband who has just lost his young wife (“He still doesn’t understand it; it all happened so fast”).  Left alone, finally, in his house he begins rummaging “mechanically” in his wife’s desk.  Why, there is a locked drawer.  Why, it contains – oh no, speaking of clichés!  It contains love letters between his wife and, who else, his best friend (death, sex).  After a few hours of angry, painful reflection, the friend arrives – “The door opens and his friend is there.”

Now I will skip to the last sentence:

“You bastard!” he screams, and throws the pages in his face.

That sentence is, I suppose, predictable given the setup I have described, but Schnitzler arrives at it from a surprising direction.  The reason for it, the psychology, is surprising yet true, insightful.

In this sense many of Schnitzler’s stories are built like many stories published today, where ordinary people, facing some moment of stress, react in an unpredictable way, and the quality of the story is in part determined by the arbitrariness of that single climatic moment – does the final action feel random, or right?

Schnitzler reminds me of Chekhov or Joyce or Giovanni Verga in that he has crossed the line that divides us and them.  Schnitzler is still us, still now.  Kipling, Stevenson, and Maupassant, innovators, masters of their own kind of short story, are them and then.  Take the metaphor for what it is worth, please.

A couple more days of Schnitzler’s fiction, Schnitzler’s Vienna.

German Literature Month is up and running, by the way, so this is part of that.

Friday, November 9, 2012

They're better raw - the great Fortunata

The title of Fortunata and Jacinta is misleading, suggesting some sort of balance between the two characters, and Galdós does his best to increase the confusion.  The novel does not begin with Jacinta – it begins with a detailed history of the retail fabric trade in Madrid, including a baffling genealogies of the key families (“a tangle whose threads are almost impossible to follow,”, 83), much of the latter in a section amusingly titled “Still More Details about the Distinguished Family.”  “There’s more yet,” Galdós warns me (83), and he means it.

The novel is divided into four roughly equal parts.  It turns out that Jacinta only has a starring role in the first, and even there we meet Fortunata first.  It is a heck of a debut:  “a pretty woman, young and tall” – no that’s not so interesting, I have to skip a sentence or two:

The girl wore a light blue scarf on her head and a large, heavy shawl over her shoulders, and the minute she saw the Dauphin she swelled up at him, I mean, she put her hands on her hips and raised her shoulders with that characteristic gesture the low-class women of Madrid have, filling out their shawls with a movement that reminds you of a hen ruffling her feathers  and swelling out before coming down to normal size again.  (I.iii.4, 43-4)

And that’s not the best part:

“What are you eating, sweetheart?”

“Can’t you see?” she replied, showing it to him.  “An egg.”

“A raw egg!”

Very gracefully , the girl lifted the broken egg to her mouth for the second time and sucked it again.  (44)

There is no  way the heroine of the novel is going to live up to this introduction.  Talk about vigor: “Then she finished sucking the egg and threw away the shell, which smashed against the wall one flight below them.”

All of the business about birds and eggs and shells is going to return near the end of the novel.  This was vivid enough that, even seven hundred pages later, I knew exactly which earlier scene  Galdós was invoking.

It is not uncommon for authors of difficult novels to at some point give readers their theory of the novel, instructions on how to read their books.  It is also common for these instructions to appear near the end of the book, because writers are perverse cusses who enjoy suffering.  Galdós waits until five pages from the end, when a secondary character tells Fortunata’s story to a literary critic:

The response from the famous judge of literary works was that it had the makings of a play or a novel, although in his opinion the artistic texture wouldn’t be especially attractive unless it were warped in places so that the vulgarity of life might be converted into esthetic material.  He didn’t tolerate “raw life” in art; it had to be scrubbed, seasoned with aromatic spices, and then thoroughly cooked…  in the end they agreed that well-ripened raw fruit was very good, but so were compotes, if the cook knew what he was doing.” (, 813)

As I read this, I remembered the woman they were discussing, who declared, almost eight hundred pages in the past, “’They’re better raw.’”

Dwight: thanks for the hosting and motivation and twenty-one posts!

Thursday, November 8, 2012

His thick lips shone with the goo - non-Victorian Galdós

I was surprised at the earthiness of Fortunata and Jacinta, at its vulgarity.  Victorian English (and American, and for that matter Russian) novels distort my view of the literary world.  The French, of course, are hopelessly smutty, we all know that,  but shouldn’t the literature of Catholic Spain, home of the Counter-Reformation, be as demure as the Victorians?  Well, it ain’t, not Galdós, at least, who is very much in the tradition of the uninhibited Cervantes and Lazarillo de Tormes.

I am thinking of scenes or elements like:

The sexual symbolism of the dreams I have been writing about, with what appear to be phallic symbols and descriptions of female orgasms.

Straightforward descriptions of the mechanics of breast-feeding and to a lesser degree childbirth.

A lack of judgment by the narrator about Fortunata’s occasional turn to prostitution.  Some of the characters judge her harshly enough, but the narrator is neutral.  I do not remember more than a couple of clear references.  This is plain, yes?:

Sra. Rubín let herself be led along and mechanically got into the cab.  She had done the same before with whomever she’d picked up in the street.  (III.iii.2, 483)

Here is a passage which does not seem to be daring:

The bedroom was still totally dark.  She heard her husband’s breathing – harsh, then wheezing, rising and falling in pitch, as if the air got blocked in that chest by gelatinous obstructions and metallic strips…  The nonsensical thought – for it was sheer nonsense – that occurred to her was that she should slip out of bed, grope for her clothes, put on her underwear, go to the clothes rack, put on her dress.  (, 576)

As innocuous as this is, it is unimaginable in a Victorian novel in 1886 – “put on her underwear”!

Finally, some digestive explicitness.  I do not remember anything scatological, but there is a magnificent scene with a priest who “positively could not sleep unless he had a lettuce or escarole (depending on the season) salad at eleven at night; well-dressed and tossed, with that indispensable touch of garlic rubbed into the salad bowl, and the special treat of celery too, when it was in season” (II.iv.3, 305).

Let’s watch the priest chew for a moment:  “His thick lips shone with the goo, and it trickled down the sides of his mouth in threads that would have run straight to his throat if the thick stubble of his badly shaved chin hadn’t stopped them.”

The inevitable result:

He didn’t finish the sentence, because from the pit of his stomach there emerged such a voluminous quantity of gas that the words had to scurry away to let it escape.  The burp was so loud that Doña Lupe had to turn away, even though Nicolás had put the palm of his hand in front of his mouth to act as a shield.  This was one of his relatively few polite habits.  (306)

Now imagine the scene as rewritten by Henry James or Anton Chekhov.

None of this has much to do with the art of the novel, this novel or any other.  Aside from that salad, I mean.  One of the great salads of 19th century fiction.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Pipes all over the place! - another dream, more patterns in Fortunata and Jacinta

Jacinta’s dream, early in Fortunata and Jacinta, is matched by Fortunata’s dream late in the novel.  A reminder, Jacinta is the angelic wife who is dying to have a child; Fortunata is the wild sometimes mistress.  At this point, Fortunata has worked herself up into a hysterical state about Jacinta and is currently not seeing the rakish Juanito.

Galdós plays a dirty trick by 1) not directly telling me the passage is a dream, but 2) letting me know it is a dream using verb tenses:

… her thoughts blurred in grief and pain and drowsiness finally overtook her.

She has a strong urge to go out, heads for Magdalena Street, and stops in front of the pipe store, obeying that instinct that tells us if we have a happy meeting at a certain place we can have it again if we go back to the same place.  Pipes all over the place! (¡Cuánto tubo!)  Bronze faucets, spigots, and a multitude of things to conduct water.  (III.vii.4, 609)

I have been reading the short fiction of Arthur Schnitzler, the most cleanly Freudian author I have ever seen, so I may be a little over-sensitive, but c’mon, right?  At this point, I remember, I had noticed the switch to present tense but did not understand that Fortunata was dreaming.  Here’s where I figured that out:

On Barrionuevo Street she stops at the door of a shop where there are bolts of material unwrapped and hanging in waves.  Fortunata examines them and touches some with her fingers to feel their texture.  “This cretonne is really pretty!”  Inside there’s a dwarf, a monster, dressed in a red cassock and a turban, a transitional animal, halfway along the Darwinian road, where the orangutans become man.

There’s that fabric again, always fabric.  Juanito’s family is wealthy due to their success as fabric retailers.  The dwarf is perhaps a stand-in for Fortunata’s impotent, unhealthy husband, although one could go in other interpretive directions.

Next comes “a huge grill for roasting chops, and underneath it the enormous flames.”  That might be symbolic of something.  Some piano music – that’s foreshadowing.  Seven mules “strung together like rosary beads” – no idea.  More fabric.  Here’s the culmination of all of this strange stuff:

The ground is damp and slippery.  Suddenly, oh!, she feels as if she’s been stabbed. (610)

And just a few lines later

Fortunata looks at him [it’s her beloved Juanito!] and feels such intense pain that she might as well have had a dagger driven into her.

If I duck back to Juanita’s dream, the one with the chalky baby, I find:

A long time passed in this way, the child-man looking at his mother, and slowly melting her firmness with the power of his eyes.  Jacinta felt something tearing inside her.  (114)

And now I will leap to the end:

Shortly after being left alone, Fortunata felt something strange happening inside her.  Her vision blurred and she could feel a mass breaking away from her that reminded her of when Juan Evaristo came into the world… (800)

When I think about the art of Fortunata and Jacinta, I do not always think of passages like these, which take a turn to the bizarre, or carefully planned patternings that span the novel, recurring nearly seven hundred pages apart from each other.  The novel did not always feel so tightly woven while I was reading it.  The more I look back on the book, though, the less I trust that feeling.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

She lost count of the buttons she’d undone. There were a hundred, maybe a thousand. - realistic Fortunata and Jacinta

Fortunata and Jacinta is nominally a work of “realism,” whatever that is.  How odd that it is so full of dreams, mental illness, and saints, the same things I find in novels called Romantic or Symbolist  or what have you.  The reality of Benito Pérez Galdós is a strange one.  If you want to argue that it is therefore realistic, I salute you.

Dwight wrote about a long, detailed dream of Jacinta, the wife of the novel’s cad.  The dream’s environment is amusing – Jacinta is at the opera, being punished by Wagner (“[e]xcellent music according to [her husband] and everyone who had taste,” 113), in particular “a descriptive piece in which the orchestra was imitating the buzzing with which mosquitoes amuse mankind on a summer night.”

Her ensuing dream is about her longing for a baby, so it is highly sexualized yet also strangely domestic, literally wrapped in fabric (“Everything was lined in the white flowered satin that she and [her mother-in-law] had seen the day before”).  The breast-feeding theme is explicitly introduced; it will become important at the end of Fortunata’s story, and is one of the many parallels in the scene between Jacinta and her husband’s  mistress, Fortunata.

The button theme, for example (the baby is trying to get at Jacinta’s breast):

The fourth button, the fifth, all the buttons slid through their buttonholes making the material strain.  She lost count of the buttons she’d undone.  There were a hundred, maybe a thousand.

Fortunata later has a button superstition – “’If it’s a button like this – white with four holes – it’s a good sign; but if it’s black, and it has three, it’s bad business’” (II.vii.2, 385). And here is where I pull my hair and say “Arrgh,” because I swear there is another important button scene that I have forgotten.  As if I was looking for buttons while reading the novel!  I should have been looking for buttons.

So the strange dream-baby, once given the breast, begins to change – “his mouth was insensitive and his lips didn’t move…  The touch Jacinta felt on this very delicate area of her skin was the horrifying friction of chalk, friction from a rough, dusty surface.”  Jacinta awakes from the incipient nightmare to find that the orchestra “was still imitating mosquitoes,” and to discover that her husband has still not arrived.

Where is Juanito, the husband?  Galdós tells us, or has the husband tell his wife, but not until ninety pages later (“’You were going to the Royal Opera that night…  You wouldn’t remember,” I.x.7, 204).  He was with Fortunata, his (at this time) former mistress.  Fortunata has contacted Juanito because their baby, their son, is dying.  The poor thing dies more or less just as Jacinta dreams.   Juanito buys a blue coffin for the baby, which may or may not have some relation to the “powder-blue bathrobe” Jacinta is wearing in her dream.  I am sure that garment or one much like it is somewhere else in the novel, too.  No, it’s not the colors, it’s the buttons that recur.  I am back to the buttons.

To recap:  Jacinta dreams about a dying or, I don’t know, calcifying child at the moment her husband is attending to his dying child.  And the word we use for this is “realism.”

What I seem to have done here is rewrite Dwight's post. Please, Dwight, consider this a compliment, rather than theft.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Sulfur people, lizard-belly green, and yellow that mixes poetry and consumption - beginning a week of Fortunata and Jacinta

Fortunata and Jacinta, the gigantic 1886 novel by Benito Pérez Galdós, is one of the two greatest Spanish novels of the nineteenth century, or so I am told.  A number of book bloggists have been reading it along with Dwight at A Common Reader, who just put up his twenty-first post about the novel.  The book can handle the attention.

The novel is long and quite complex; some of the complexity is of a nature I do not understand well.  Perhaps this week will be a series of admissions of failure and lists of subjects for future research.  Dwight has read it twice so I will pillage some of his stuff for assistance.

A plot summary does not make the book sound so complicated.  The two women in the title are in love with the same lazy, no good, rich, charming dog of a man.  The richer woman marries him; the poorer one steals him once in a while.  The wife cannot have children, the mistress can (or perhaps the problem is the husband’s).  Although the women are competitors, even enemies, the main ethical argument of the novel will likely create a deep sympathy for both, whatever mistakes they might have made.  The case for the poorer woman, the impulsive, vulgar, uneducated Fortunata, is harder to make so she gets most of the pages.  The case for sympathy would have been easy if Galdós made Fortunata more of a victim, but he takes the hard road.

The creation and peopling of Madrid fills out the novel.  Galdós reminded me of Balzac more than anyone else.  Not only does Galdós have a system of recurring characters much like Balzac’s, but his Madrid is as lifelike and interesting as Balzac’s Paris – I can say that with confidence on the basis of just one big book.  He suggests a world behind and beyond the story he happens to be telling.

Galdós is not always such an exciting stylist, but then again sometimes he is.   Here Jacinta, the wife, is walking through a market in a Madrid slum:

Jacinta ran into various ceremonial individuals.  They were mannequins dressed up as ladies in huge bustles, or gentlemen in flannel outfits.  Then caps, scads of caps placed high on racks and aligned with a stick; sheepskin jackets and other garments that looked rather – yes, indeed – rather like legless and headless human beings.  Eventually Jacinta didn’t look at any one thing.  All she noticed were some yellow men hanging from pitchforks, swaying in the breeze.  They were matching shirts and trousers sewn together that all of a sudden looked like sulfur people.  (I. ix.1, 133)

The novel is packed with clothes, a veritable steamer trunk, but those sulfur people are especially good.  More from the same scene:  “pieces of nougatlike stone cut out of a quarry; olives oozing out of barrels.”  One more example, as Jacinta becomes synesthetic looking at bolts of cloth:

Orange blazed out in some areas, screeching like an ungreased axle; native  vermilion, scratching one’s eyes; carmine, as bitter as vinegar; the cobalt blue, vaguely suggesting poison; lizard-belly green; and linden yellow, which mixed poetry and consumption, as in La Traviata.

I wish had been able to write eight hundred more pages like this, but he was actually writing a quite different book, so that is the one I will write about for the rest of the week.

I read and will always quote from the Agnes Moncy Gullón translation.

Friday, November 2, 2012

The Gilded Age By Mark Twain and some other guy - just the good parts

The absence of recognizable fiction for such a long stretch of Mark Twain’s early career explains what had been a mystery to me, why his first novel, The Gilded Age (1873), is such a crashing dud.  Twain was still practicing.

The novel is actually co-written with Twain’s neighbor, Charles Dudley Warner, another professional writer who had never attempted a novel.  Reading The Gilded Age is a useful exercise for a critic.  Identifying Twain’s chapters is pretty easy.  Both authors showcase the clichés of American fiction circa 1873.

Yet The Gilded Age has its merits.  I will annotate them.

1.  The title is a stroke of genius.  An historic title, as an historian might say.  I would say “a historic title.”

2.  The first successful temporary insanity defense for murder dates to 1859.  Twain was still mad about it in 1873 – thought it was a scam – and uses it in the climax of the novel.  Kinda interesting.

3.  Chapter XXIV is an Innocents Abroad-like description of Washington, D.C.  it is excellent and can be read on its own.  I have seen it in an anthology of some sort.  Gaze upon the incomplete Washington Monument:

Still in the distance, but on this side of the water and close to its edge, the Monument to the Father of his Country towers out of the mud – sacred soil is the customary term.  It has the aspect of a factory chimney with the top broken off.  The skeleton of a decaying scaffolding lingers about its summit, and tradition says that the spirit of Washington often comes down and sits on those rafters to enjoy this tribute of respect which the nation has reared as the symbol of its unappeasable gratitude.  The monument is to be finished, some day…

4.  Chapter XXXIII features one of the three or four funniest pieces of Twain’s I have ever seen, a conversation among Washington socialites.  It has nothing whatsoever to do with the novel's story.  Everything begins reasonably enough, with the weather, and a preference for Paris (“I dote on Paris; I'd druther scrimp along on ten thousand dollars a year there, than suffer and worry here on a real decent income”).  Things take an odd turn when the women begin discussing the delicate health of little Percy and François (“He was always delicate – especially his lungs”).  Doctors are consulted (“The first thing he suggested for Percy was to have him taken out in the back yard for an airing, every afternoon, with nothing at all on”), but behave strangely:

“By and by I flung out next door and dragged in Dr. Sprague, President of the Medical University – no time to go for our own doctor of course – and the minute he saw François he said, 'Send for your own physician, madam;' said it as cross as a bear, too, and turned right on his heel, and cleared out without doing a thing!"

The story culminates with this footnote:

[** As impossible and exasperating as this conversation may sound to a person who is not an idiot, it is scarcely in any respect an exaggeration of one which one of us actually listened to in an American drawing room – otherwise we could not venture to put such a chapter into a book which, professes to deal with social possibilities. – THE AUTHORS.]

The reader who wisely skips The Gilded Age as a whole should jump straight to page 305 of this electronic edition, which includes pleasing illustrations, and stop seven pages later, after the footnote.  The piece lends itself to reading aloud, I can vouch for that.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Even that poor satisfaction was denied me - let's murder some Mark Twain jokes!

Let’s strangle some jokes today.  Just writing about them makes them shrivel.

This one is from “’Mark Twain’ on the Launch of the Steamer ‘Capital’” (1865); the conceit is that Twain is a journalist going to cover a tedious boat launch.  He and the other journalists find a bar:

We proceeded, two-by-two, arm-in-arm, down to the bar in the nether regions, chatting pleasantly and elbowing the restless multitude.  We took pure, cold, health-giving water, with some other things in it…

I should create categories.  This one is a combo of some sort, with the innocent adjectives not funny on their own but made hilarious by the reversal at the end, even though the switcheroo is an old gag and entirely expected.

All right, that one does not seem to be breathing any more.

A running gag in early Twain is the fashion correspondent piece, dresses and so on at “The Pioneers’ Ball” (1865):

Mrs. W. M. was attired in an elegant pate de foi gras, made expressly for her, and was greatly admired…   Miss R. P., with that repugnance to ostentation in dress which is so peculiar to her, was attired in a simple white lace collar, fastened with a neat pearl-button solitaire.  The fine contrast between the sparkling vivacity of her natural optic, and the steadfast attentiveness of her placid glass eye, was the subject of general and enthusiastic remark.

The surprisingly expressive glass eye is another recurring joke, one that always makes me laugh.  What category is this?  Incongruity, so many jokes are based on nothing but surprising incongruities.

I would assume that the mangled French of the “pâté de foie gras” is also a joke of some sort, but Twain fixes it in the 1875 Sketches, Old and New.  So maybe just a botch.  You never know with Twain and French.

Maybe I should attach a reader's poll to each joke: funny or not funny?  No one has any obligation to find any of this funny.  No obligation to me, I mean.

Twain is visiting Niagara Falls for the first time in “A Day at Niagara” (1869).  He is annoyed by the signs:

It was because I noticed at last that they always happened to prohibit exactly the very thing I was just wanting to do.  I desired to roll on the grass: the sign prohibited it.  I wished to climb a tree: the sign prohibited it.  I longed to smoke: a sign forbade it.  And I was just in the act of throwing a stone over to astonish and pulverize such parties as might be picknicking below, when a sign I have just mentioned forbade that.  Even that poor satisfaction was denied me, (and I a friendless orphan).

This piece is pretty much pure nonsense – Twain of course goes over the falls at the end (“However thus far he thinks only six of my wounds are fatal.  I don’t mind the others”).  It is that last insertion that I would love to be able to mimic.  The silliness that comes before it seems achievable; the sense of exactly when to deploy the “friendless orphan” gag I fear is innate.