The best books I read in 2012 were Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) and Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There (1871). Although I made use of the books I did not actually write about them. This is a recurring pattern, my avoidance of the Best Book of the Year. I will hash this out with my therapist and in the meantime write about an overlapping subject: the Books I Most Enjoyed Writing about in 2012.
1. Madame Bovary, Gustave Flaubert; The Toilers of the Sea, Victor Hugo; The Kill, Émile Zola. I was actually worried that Madame Bovary would not be so much fun because of its familiarity, but I was wrong. All I had to do was plunge my hands into the muck of the text to dig up all sorts of unusual specimens, spiny or slimy, generally good whether grilled or fried.
The writers are half-lunatics and their novels are packed with unpleasantness, but writing about books in this tradition is like a holiday for me. Whenever I was having trouble with some other writer, which was all the time this year, I would think “Get another Zola novel, that’ll be fun.” I always resisted, though. Basically, if you see me reading Zola it will likely be as a desperate curative to a loss of blogging confidence.
2. But then again trouble is fun, too. Robert Browning is often intensely difficult, sometimes to the point of obscurity. Reading him, writing about him, is a vigorous, thrilling struggle.
The challenge with Fernando Pessoa is not always the individual poem, some of which, like those of the shepherd heteronym Alberto Caeiro, are deliberately if deceptively simple, but the system, the enormous imaginative contraption of poets and poems and non-poems Pessoa constructed. My metaphor is wrong, since much of the fun of Pessoa is that the reader constructs his own system out of all of the amazing parts Pessoa created.
3. This was a good year for writing about short fiction: Robert Walser, Giovanni Verga, Ambrose Bierce, Arthur Schnitzler, Mark Twain, Rudyard Kipling, the masterpieces of world literature of Machado de Assis. Part of the fun, I suppose, is that it so quickly becomes possible to hop around among texts, so even lesser – heck, often trivial – work like the early Twain I read suggests a lot of ideas. Given major work like the best Kipling or Verga or Machado and the possibilities overwhelm.
4. Charles Dickens could fit in with the French writers in that I knew how to attack Little Dorrit and Our Mutual Friend. The latter seemed like the better novel; the former was more fun to write about. I do not know why.
Knowledge of the writer is not the key, but comfort with a set of techniques. So though I barely know the work of Henry James it was easy to see how to attack Washington Square and "The Aspern Papers" with some well-worn tools.
5. Writing about Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives was made vastly more entertaining because of all of the other people writing about it at the same time. I hope that Little Women in January is half as fun. I am still working on it, but I have an angle.
Thanks to everyone who helped me write, whether through a comment here or a half-remembered but inspirational post from three years ago at your own place.
And happy holidays to everyone! Soon I will be on Christmas break until early January.
Friday, December 21, 2012
The best books I read in 2012 were Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) and Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There (1871). Although I made use of the books I did not actually write about them. This is a recurring pattern, my avoidance of the Best Book of the Year. I will hash this out with my therapist and in the meantime write about an overlapping subject: the Books I Most Enjoyed Writing about in 2012.
Thursday, December 20, 2012
And so it will be with all the works of art that now exist; an eternal veil of forgetfulness will lie over them
You might ask if I have any larger point when I gather up the Best Books of Year 18XX, besides the jolly fun of literary history. I do, several points, some of them contradictory.
In part I am parodying the mass of year-end Best of lists, which I enjoy and read with avidity, but also with the strong sense that almost none of the championed books – good books, worthwhile books – will outlive their authors. In a few years they will be gone. Or a few decades. A century whittles the pile – the worldwide pile! – down to a few dozen books; another century wipes out most of those. So my listing is a memento mori. Art is long, life is short, but art is also short.
The context is antique furniture restoration, but otherwise this passage from Adalbert Stifter’s Der Nachsommer (or Indian Summer, 1857) says what I want to say:
However, all means, even the most complete, would not prevent the ultimate perishing of a work of art; this is due to the constant activity and necessity for change within men as well as the transitory nature of material. Everything that now exists, no matter how great and good it is, lasts for a time, fulfills a purpose, and then passes on. And so it will be with all the works of art that now exist; an eternal veil of forgetfulness will lie over them, just as there is now over those things that came before. (I.4, 68, tr. Wendell Frye)
Identifying the books they thought of as important in 1812 and comparing to the 1812 books we think are important is a way to understand the “constant activity… within men.” It does not help predict the future except to demonstrate that the future is unpredictable, which we all knew.
The compilers of real Best of 2012 lists based on the reading of genuine 2012 books are helping books last for a time and fulfill their purpose, perhaps more than I do, even if that time is short and that purpose limited. Some books are intensely good right now. Who cares if they are worthless tomorrow? That plate of fried oysters becomes less valuable the longer it exists, so dig in, eat up. Most books get cold quickly, too, but that does not mean they were not worth reading when they were hot.
That Stifter novel, by the way, in case anyone was wondering, is amazingly dull, easily living up to its reputation. I just read a passage about the proper building of birdhouses, and it seems that we are about to move to bird seed. A representative sentence:
I also noted that I had studied botany somewhat, not with regard to gardening, but for my own edification and enjoyment, and the cactus had not been the least to which I had devoted my attention. (I.5, 80)
I should save this for my week (at least) of posts on this masterpiece, but I cannot restrain my enthusiasm. That sentence was entirely sincere, as is this one.
Wednesday, December 19, 2012
The Best Books of 1912 – you know, I usually do not push on to the 20th century. Ignorance is the reason. I have read most of the books I suggested as the Best (surviving) Books of 1812 and 1862, but I do not believe I have read more than three books from 1912, and more importantly I have not spent much time – what metaphor should I use – living in 1912. I do not know what any of it means.
So I will now write pretending that I do know (but I do not). Ideas I might develop if I knew more.
Two of the books I have read are Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice and Leo Tolstoy’s posthumous Hadji Murad. What else has lasted as well as these? George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion, James Weldon Johnson’s The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man. Shaw’s reputation seems to be slipping now, and Johnson’s ascending.
Now I start rummaging. Stefan Zeromski’s The Faithful River is said to be an important Polish novel. Theodore Dreiser’s The Financier is in print. Perhaps our economic hard times have given it new life; I do not know what is in it. Anatole France’s Les dieux ont soif (The Gods Are Thirsty), Saki’s The Unbearable Bassington, D. H. Lawrence’s The Trespasser, Willa Cather’s Alexander’s Bridge – what kind of audience do these books have now? Lawrence and Cather both have big fun in 1913. Max Beerbohm still has a cult audience, of which I am a member in bad standing, so A Christmas Garland, his book of literary parodies, still has some readers.
In art history, 1912 means this:
In other words, everyone has gone innovation-crazy and is turning traditional painting inside-out. But in fiction: Dreiser, France, Tolstoy, for pity’s sake – fiction has not yet taken the Modernist turn. Virginia Woolf said that everything changed in 1910, but she may have been off by a couple of years.
Then again, 1912 saw the first books from Gottfried Benn, Anna Akhmatova, and Robinson Jeffers. Something is changing in poetry:
from Gottfried Benn’s Little Asters
A drowned drayman was hoisted on to the slab.
Someone had jammed a lavender aster
between his teeth.
As I made the incision up from the chest…
[yikes, what have I done, let’s skip this part]
Drink your fill in your vase!
Five more surprising survivors from 1912: The Lost World by Arthur Conan Doyle, Riders of the Purple Sage by Zane Grey, Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town by Stephen Leacock, and two Edgar Rice Burroughs novels, Tarzan of the Apes and A Princess of Mars. That last one I have read many times. The Burroughs books are available in special Library of America editions, and the Leacock has a Norton Critical Edition!
Who would have guessed? If you are lazily speculating on which of today’s books will be read a hundred years from now, do not hesitate to include your favorite massively popular fantasy novel series.
Note to self for future research: is A Princess of Mars a descendant of Flaubert’s Salammbô?
Marcel Duchamp’s “Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2” is a proud possession of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Tuesday, December 18, 2012
Emily Dickinson was in the middle of a creative rush that had lasted several years and would last many more. Or so it looks now – she was having doubts. In 1862 she sent four poems to Thomas Wentworth Higginson who had just published an article in The Atlantic giving advice to new writers about publishing their work. Dickinson asked “Are you too deeply occupied to say if my Verse is alive?” He said it was, yet Dickinson did not try to publish.
The hidden and lost works of the past, the ones that survive by chance and magic, make for such interesting stories. But this is not the story of the Best Books of 1862. 1862 was the Year of the Best-seller.
The big bookish events in France were 1) the publication of Victor Hugo’s massive Les Misérables, his first novel in thirty years, and 2) controversial upstart Gustave Flaubert’s followup to Madame Bovary, the gory and insane Salammbô. Flaubert was understandably nervous that he would be crushed by Hugo, but both novels were hits. Hugo’s audience was broader, a genuine mass readership, and much more international. Salammbô has never had much luck outside of France.
Another international hit, albeit with a much smaller audience than Hugo’s, was Ivan Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons. I believe this was the novel that really introduced Russian literature to Europe. It also began within Russian literature a chain of attacks and responses that is unlike anything I know in any other literature, but that story has to wait until 1863. One of the participants was Fyodor Dostoevsky, whose House of the Dead is from 1862.
Meanwhile the new craze in English fiction was the Sensation Novel: Lady Audley’s Secret by Mary Elizabeth Braddon, No Name by Wilkie Collins, and even Orley Farm by Anthony Trollope. The latter two could easily have been titled Lady _____’s Secret, and in the case of the Trollope should have been, since Orley Farm is a crummy title. Trollope was only a half-hearted Sensationalist, divulging the secret about halfway through the novel, but at least he tried.
Lady Audley’s Secret was a dead book for a while, but scholars interested in women writers and so-called genre fiction resurrected it. I just finished it and may write about it a bit after the holiday.
If the Collins and Trollope novels feel a bit second-tier compared to their best-known books, as does George Eliot’s Romola (which began serialization in 1862), English poetry was anything but. Lucky Victorian poetry readers enjoyed, amidst the mound of poetry that now looks tediously unreadable, George Meredith’s Modern Love, posthumous collections by Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Arthur Hugh Clough, and the almost shockingly assured debut of Christina Rossetti, Goblin Market and Other Poems. Here is one of the others, the first half of “Song”:
When I am dead my dearest,
Sing no sad songs for me;
Plant thou no roses at my head,
Nor shady cypress tree:
Be the green grass above me
With showers and dewdrops wet;
And if thou wilt, remember,
And if thou wilt, forget.
Édouard Manet’s 1862 “Music in the Tuileries” is in the London National Gallery.
Monday, December 17, 2012
The dying light of the autumnal sunset reminds me that it is the season for Best Books of the Year lists, those jolly collections of well-meaning ephemera.
1812 featured two big, lasting literary events.
The most dramatic was the birth of Byronism with the publication of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, a Romaunt; and Other Poems. George Gordon had published a couple of earlier books, but it was Childe Harold that made him an international celebrity (“I awoke one morning and found myself famous”):
What exile from himself can flee?
To zones, though more and more remote,
Still, still pursues, where'er I be,
The blight of life – the demon Thought.
Perhaps Byron’s fatalistic attitudinizing has become the poem's greatest legacy, but the poem itself is masterful and the book surrounding the poem would have served to undercut the facile Byronism if the facile Byronists had bothered to read it, with its lengthy footnotes and appendices on Albanian linguistics, classical references, and travel writing trivia:
As a specimen of the Albanian or Arnaout dialect of the Illyric, I here insert two of their most popular choral songs, which are generally chaunted in dancing by men or women indiscriminately.
Childe Harold would surprise people who only know Byron by reputation.
The second event was the publication of the first volume of the first edition of Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm’s Kinder- und Hausmärchen. Now it is a truism that the original versions of the Fairy Tales, more violent and weird than later redactions, are worth seeking out. They are.
Funny how both of these landmarks are partial and mutable texts. Not only are they both incomplete, with more fairy tales and cantos of “Childe Harold” to follow in a few years, but they would both be published in all sorts of configurations. Almost no one reads the original books – I haven’t.
What else survives from 1812? Not much, honestly. Two hundred years is a long time. Johann David Wyss’s Swiss Family Robinson, the second volume of Goethe’s memoir Poetry and Truth, Maria Edgeworth’s The Absentee. I have only read the Goethe. How is The Absentee?
I am sure I have read George Crabbe’s Tales, a collection of narrative poems along the lines of his 1810 masterpiece “Peter Grimes,” but heck if I remember it. My fault or Crabbe’s? Either way, I can hardly pretend that this is a living book in 2012.
I wonder what I have missed?
John Constable’s 1812 “Autumnal Sunset” is owned by the Victoria and Albert Museum. To see it, just go to the Prints & Drawings Study Room, room WS and paw through case R, shelf 29, box L.
Friday, December 14, 2012
At the Caravana de Recuerdos, Richard has been running a Foreign Film Festival all year long. He encouraged watch-along challenges, and I responded with “The Cameraman’s Revenge” (1912, 12 min.) the landmark of animation by pioneering Polish puppeteer Wladyslaw Starewicz, available in a marvelously tinted version at archive.org.
Starewicz’s puppets are insects (and one hapless frog). Actual insects, killed and preserved and turned into puppets. They do uncanny things. The grasshopper or whatever it is on the left actually paints that portrait. At a cabaret performance, a stag beetle applauds by clicking its mandibles together while a grasshopper drums on the floor with his long legs.
Given that he has for some reason begun filming insect puppets, what did Starewicz think to do with them? His answer: domestic melodrama.
Mr. Beetle is amorous and picks up a beautiful dragonfly who performs at a nightclub. A jealous grasshopper and camera buff and, why not, bicyclist, secretly films their assignation which he later projects – the grasshopper is also the projectionist at the local cinema – for the world to see (on the right, filmed through a keyhole), humiliating Mr. Beetle and enraging his wife, who beats him with her parasol.
Now Mr. Beetle wants his own revenge which lands Mr. and Mrs. Beetle in jail, where they perhaps reconcile their differences.
What do you do with your taxidermic bug puppets? The freedom, inventiveness, and light-hearted insanity of the great early filmmakers is a thrill to see.
The real virtues of the film are threefold, first, as I mentioned above, Starewicz’s attention to detail in the actions of his puppets, as we see them paint, operate a camera, fight, and come dangerously close to an explicit bug-puppet sex scene.
Second, and closely related is the casual surrealism of seeing the insects riding bicycles, going to a movie or checking into a seedy hotel for an assignation. The décor of the Beetles’ home for some reason strikes me as especially fine, although at a small scale it may be too difficult to make out their modish Asian theme, including the porcelain monkey statuette on the fireplace mantel.
Third, form determines content in this case, as it is a movie about movies, both about the kinds of stories told in movies and about the medium itself. The movie shown in the theater up above is made of scenes from “The Cameraman’s Revenge,” and in the ensuing fight Mr. Beetle escapes by punching his way through the screen.
How did Starewicz come to make such an odd film? I will quote from his biography at IMDb.com: “fascinated by insects, he bought a camera and attempted to film them, but they kept dying under the hot lights.” So he made them into puppets so he could film them in action. And then that action turns out to be packing a suitcase and driving a car. There is a step missing here.
I hope Richard enjoys the movie! When I founded Wuthering Expectations I thought I would write about movies a lot, the good old ones like “The Cameraman’s Revenge.” But I was wrong.
Thursday, December 13, 2012
Himadri, the Argumentative Old Git, wants more confessional writing on book blogs: “why don’t you write a post about a passage from your reading that is of particular significance to you, and explain why it is significant?” Because it’s none of your business, that’s why – I mean, sure, how about this.
A., Baron, Oswin Affenpin, last Baron of Aff, a puny traitor, 286.
Acht, Iris, celebrated actress, d. 1888, a passionate and powerful woman, favorite of Thurgus the Third (q.v.), 130. [I’ll skip the rest of this entry]
Alfin, King, surnamed The Vague, 1873-1918, reigned from 1900; K.’s father; a kind, gentle, absent-minded monarch, mainly interested in automobiles, flying machines, motorboats and, at one time, seashells; killed in airplane accident, 71.
Andronnikov and Niagarin, two Soviet experts in quest of a buried treasure, 130, 681, 741; see Crown Jewels.
I am, of course, copying out the beginning of the Index at the end of Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire (1962). Should a novel have an index? The numbers refer to the line numbers of S.’s poem and K.’s commentary on it. Nabokov's novel, not straightforward to begin with, seems to have ended yet here are nine more pages. What does one do with it? Some people read it. I did, twenty-five years ago. Now, how to read it. I will follow the directions, this time at least.
Crown Jewels, 130, 681; see Hiding Place.
One of the directions, at least, since I could also turn to line 130 or line 681 or line 741. A good reader should do that sometime, but for now I will stay in the index.
Hiding Place, potaynik, (q.v.).
Potaynik, taynik (q.v.).
Taynik, Russ., secret place; see Crown Jewels.
All right, you got me. But I am not done yet. I can go back to the relevant lines, or take another stab at the Index. This looks familiar:
Niagarin and Andronnikov, two Soviet “experts” still in quest of a buried treasure, 130, 681, 741; see Crown Jewels.
And then there is one more entry I will omit since it contains the solution to the puzzle of where the Crown Jewels are hidden, or one of the solutions.
All works of art are puzzles. Nabokov is merely unusually direct and specific about the kind of puzzle he has created, but every text is a code that assumes a set of rules and methods for decipherment. Some of these shared rules fall in the categories of “language” and “reading,” but otherwise the types and meaning of the puzzles vary endlessly. The greatest writers invent their own puzzles. “Puzzle” has now become a metaphor, I admit.
To squeeze the metaphor, we all make a start on each literary jigsaw puzzle, but the best ones are so complex that we rarely finish them, or when we do there are pieces left over, suggesting that if I combined the pieces differently I would see another picture. I am amazed how many readers assemble a portion of the border and then plop the box on top of the mound of pieces – look, I have finished the puzzle, isn’t it beautiful – but that is another story.
Anyway, this was all revelatory, this index of clues and paradoxes. “Flatman, Thomas, 1637-88, English poet, scholar and miniaturist, not known to old fraud, 894” for example – this is an obscure puzzle, but a good one. One of the neatest tricks is how the last line of the index is effective as the last line of the novel.
Someday I will rewrite this post and substitute “magic tricks” for “puzzles” (this is from Kinbote's Foreward):
Shade’s poem is, indeed, that sudden flourish of magic: my gray-haired friend, my beloved old conjuror, put a pack of index cards in his hat – and shook out a poem.
Wednesday, December 12, 2012
I should be truly thankful if they were all mankind, but such is not so - some Dickens Christmas stuff
Almost every December from 1843 to 1868 Charles Dickens published a Christmas story. The first one, A Christmas Carol, was the archetype of the genre and Dickens never equaled it again – or I assume he did not; I have to assume since I have not read the last four. They vary enormously in length, subject, purpose, and Christmasness. Christmasosity. Some do not obviously have much to do with Christmas is what I mean, except that they are all scripture for the Religion of Christmas, as Humphry House cleverly, cruelly and accurately named the simpler side of the ethics of Dickens World.*
Reading the Christmas stories is sometimes like rummaging around in the Dickens attic, but the two examples I recently read, “Mrs. Lirriper’s Lodgings” (1863) and “Mrs. Lirriper’s Legacy” (1864) are both quite good. Mrs. Lirriper tales in lodgers, including, at one point, a couple who, through death and dishonor, leave behind a newborn child. Mrs. Lirriper and another lodger, Major Jackman, adopt and raise the boy. Everything works out fine. There is even a vacation in France, in Sens, home of a great medieval cathedral. This is not much of a story.
The voice, though, that’s the good stuff. This is the first sentence of “Mrs. Lirriper’s Lodgings”:
Whoever would begin to be worried with letting Lodgings that wasn't a lone woman with a living to get is a thing inconceivable to me, my dear; excuse the familiarity, but it comes natural to me in my own little room, when wishing to open my mind to those that I can trust, and I should be truly thankful if they were all mankind, but such is not so, for have but a Furnished bill in the window and your watch on the mantelpiece, and farewell to it if you turn your back for but a second, however gentlemanly the manners; nor is being of your own sex any safeguard, as I have reason, in the form of sugar-tongs to know, for that lady (and a fine woman she was) got me to run for a glass of water, on the plea of going to be confined, which certainly turned out true, but it was in the Station-house.
Top that, Thomas Bernhard! Up your game, László Krasznahorkai! Javier Marías would get out a kick out of Mrs. Lirriper. Dickens spills out information here – who is speaking (a lone woman letting lodgings), where she is (her own room), her problems (theft, with some examples), and her surprising use of a pun (“confined”) which turns out to be foreshadowing, since a pregnancy later features in the plot.
Is the entire thirty page story written like this? No, I am sad to say no, Dickens relaxes the conceit a bit after the initial shock of contact. Not every sentence skirts so close to gibberish. He is careful, though, to slide one in every page or so to give me something to chew on. I would quote another, but they are so long. Here is a short one that I like for entirely different reasons:
The military character went in front and he stopped at a pork-shop with a little statue of a pig sitting up, in the window, and a private door that a donkey was looking out of. (from “Legacy”)
I believe I have seen that pig in France, and also that donkey, but he was in Morocco.
Beauty Is a Sleeping Cat and Postcards from Asia are hosting a Dickens in December event. This can count for that, if it does them any good.
* Humphry House, The Dickens World, 1941, Oxford University Press; recommended to everyone even vaguely interested in Dickens.
Tuesday, December 11, 2012
I’ll end this burst of Kipling with a glance at what I think is a new feature of the 1893 Many Inventions: statements of purpose disguised as fiction. The book contains at least four; I will just go over three, which seems like plenty.
“The Children of the Zodiac,” closes the collection. I do not understand this one and may have mis-classified it. We follow two children of the immortal zodiac gods, Leo and the Girl, who sound like a 1970s soft rock act and in fact are singers, which is why I think the story has something to do with Kipling’s vocation. The story seems to be an allegory, not my strength, so who knows. “Then Leo’s speech was taken from him, and he lay still and dumb, watching Death till he died” but along the way Leo’s songs have taught people to laugh at death.
I am on firmer ground with “A Matter of Fact.” A ship carrying three journalists, including “Kipling,” is caught in the wake of the eruption of an underwater volcano, and thus see some Weird Things from the depths of the ocean that have been flung to the surface, such as a dying sea monster:
The blind white head flung back and battered the wounds, and the body in its torment rose clear of the red and gray waves till we saw a pair of quivering shoulders streaked with weed and rough with shells, but as white in the clear spaces as the hairless, nameless, blind, toothless head.
At the descriptive level, “A Matter of Fact” is a triumph, especially considering Kipling has made the whole thing up from first principles, and given that the actual point of the story is a consideration of exactly how the story should be told (thus the need for all the journalists). “Kipling” wins the argument – the only way to tell it is as “a lie”:
And a lie it has become, for Truth is a naked lady, and if by accident she is drawn up from the bottom of the sea, it behoves a gentleman either to give her a print petticoat or to turn his face to the wall, and vow that he did not see.
“’The Finest Story in the World’” is a short story about the importance of precise details in fiction. This is the one I will skip – you’re preaching to the converted, Mr. Kipling!
“A Conference of the Powers” begins with “Kipling” chatting with three young soldiers on leave in London. A famous writer drops by, a regionalist like Thomas Hardy or Hall Caine. One of the soldiers is from the novelist’s region, and is thrilled to meet him: ‘… I read the book in camp on the Hlinedatalone, and I knew every stick and stone, and the dialect too; and, by Jove! it was just like being at home and hearing the country-people talk.’
The novelist becomes fascinated by the stories of the soldiers. He is more than a bit naïve to begin with, shocked that the soldiers have all killed:
‘Good heavens! And how did you feel afterwards?’
‘Thirsty. I wanted a smoke, too’
But his interest grows, especially once he is told a long, violent, comical account of action in Burma, and in the end he is converted to their view of the world, at least temporarily:
He replied with another quotation, to the effect that though singing was a remarkably fine performance, I was to be quite sure that few lips would be moved to song if they could find a sufficiency of kissing.
Whereby I understood that Eustace Cleever, decorator and colourman in words, was blaspheming his own Art, and would be sorry for this in the morning.
When Kipling called his book Many Inventions, he meant it literally. Perhaps all of the fictions are actually about fiction. Kipling gives his readers interesting problems to work on.
Monday, December 10, 2012
Since I wrote about the cruel side of Kipling last week, I will look at something a little easier to handle now. Friday’s post attracted some helpful and informative comments by people a lot more knowledgeable about Kipling than I am. Sometimes the right response is to stay out of the way. Thanks!
In The Portable Kipling, Irving Howe categorizes a number of Kipling stories as “fictions meant simply as entertainments” (xiv), including one from the 1893 Many Inventions titled “’Brugglesmith.’” The title is a drunk’s pronunciation of his West London neighborhood of Brook Green, Hammersmith, thus the irritating extra quotation marks. The story is about the night the “Kipling” narrator was saddled with the inescapable drunk, and is full of classic drunky humor:
Then he walked deliberately off the edge of the flat into the water. Somebody stuck a boat-hook into his clothes and hauled him out.
‘Now,’ he said triumphantly, ‘under the rules o’ the R-royal Humane Society, ye must give me hot whisky and water. Do not put temptation before the laddie.’
See, a running gag is that Brugglesmith keep saying “Kipling” is the drunk one.
The Kipling Society operates a valuable website that has commentary on every individual Kipling story, so I can learn that “[a]t a discussion meeting in 1961, members of the Kipling Society voted 'Brugglesmith' and 'The Vortex' as Kipling’s funniest stories.” I would like to have been at that meeting. I bet the port was excellent.
Irving Howe is taking a shortcut, telling me how the story was “meant.” I have become a little nervous about Kipling’s intent, which always seems ambiguous. But Howe is a pro and a pure lark is a good guess for “’Brugglesmith.’”
I would not have voted for it, though, but for another selection from Many Inventions, “My Lord the Elephant,” a farcical Mulvaney story in which our drunken Irish hero is pursued by, rides, tames, and becomes fast friends with a bull elephant:
‘”Now,” sez I, slidin’ down his nose an’ runnin’ to the front av him, “you will see the man that’s better than you.”
‘His big head was down betune his big forefeet, an’ they was twisted in sideways like a kitten’s. He looked the picture av innocince an’ forlornsomeness, an’ by this an’ that his big hairy underlip was thremblin’, an’ he winked his eyes together to kape from cryin’. “For the love a God,” I sez, clane forgettin’ he was a dumb baste; “don’t take ut to heart so!”’
I seem to have returned to the cruelty theme. Has a bully been tamed, or has a bully triumphed?
The best running joke in this one is Mulvaney’s excuse for never telling the story before – the violence that would result when his listeners inevitably called him a liar – combined with “Kipling”’s evasive refusal to say that he believes Mulvaney who “I knew, had a profligate imagination.” And all of that after beginning the story with this whopper:
Touching the truth of this tale there need be no doubt at all, for it was told to me by Mulvaney at the back of the elephant-lines, one warm evening when we were taking the dogs out for exercise.
Also, “Kipling” has an annoying white terrier named Vicy, presumably short for Victoria. That is as an aside.
“My Lord the Elephant” has a few hints, beginning with the title, that this entertainment has more to it than gags. It does build up to some good laughs, though.
Another aside: although the comic effect of this tale lies in Mulvaney’s telling of it, Kipling has also begun to write more passages like this one, near the beginning:
The sunset was dying, and the elephants heaved and swayed dead black against the one sheet of rose-red low down in the dusty gray sky. It was at the beginning of the hot weather, just after the troops had changed into their white clothes, so Mulvaney and Ortheris, looked like ghosts walking through the dusk.
Maybe Kipling did not mean much by this story, but he sure wasn't throwing the prose away.
Friday, December 7, 2012
George Orwell, in his 1942 essay “Rudyard Kipling,” gives me some peace of mind. I have been puzzled by Kipling’s reputation. It turns out the bad Kipling predates Edward Said and Homi Bhaba; it was there all along:
Kipling is in the peculiar position of having been a byword for fifty years. During five literary generations every enlightened person has despised him, and at the end of that time nine-tenths of those enlightened persons are forgotten and Kipling is in some sense still there.
I will take a crack at the despised Kipling. Let us open our Complete Works to “The Mark of the Beast,” near the end of Life’s Handicap (1891), a story that is never anthologized. Some contemporary reviewers described it as “poisonous stuff” and “loathsome… Mr. Kipling at his very worst,” and they are not wrong (the post's title can also be found at the link).
The “Kipling” narrator and “[m]y friend Strickland of the Police, who knows as much of natives of India as is good for any man” become entangled with another Englishman, Fleete, who has been cursed by a temple leper and appears to be in danger of turning into a werewolf. Strickland and “Kipling” capture the leper and torture him until he lifts the curse:
Strickland wrapped a towel round his hand and took the gun-barrels out of the fire. I put the half of the broken walking stick through the loop of fishing-line and buckled the leper comfortably to Strickland’s bedstead…
Strickland shaded his eyes with his hands for a moment and we got to work. This part is not to be printed.
And a line of dots interrupts the text. A few hours later – Fleete has recovered from what he thinks was just a bender and makes a comment that causes this reaction:
[Strickland] caught hold of the back of a chair, and, without warning, went into an amazing fit of hysterics. It is terrible to see a strong man overtaken with hysteria. Then it struck me that we had fought for Fleete's soul with the Silver Man in that room, and had disgraced ourselves as Englishmen for ever, and I laughed and gasped and gurgled just as shamefully as Strickland, while Fleete thought that we had both gone mad. We never told him what we had done.
So, Kipling condones the torture of Indians. Note that there is no frame story here, that Kipling deliberately makes his fictional stand-in one of the torturers. The non-fictional Kipling is, of course, inventing the whole thing. Still, here we have the imperialist English doing what needs to be done to control India.
Of course, the reason Fleete was cursed is that he drunkenly desecrated a temple of Hanuman, to the horror of both Strickland and “Kipling” (“[Strickland] said that we all three might have been knifed”). The narrator insinuates that Fleete’s crime is deeply significant, and that Strickland’s vaunted knowledge is useless:
Strickland hates being mystified by natives, because his business in life is to overmatch them with their own weapons. He has not yet succeeded in doing this, but in fifteen or twenty years he will have made some small progress.
And then the final sentence upends the entire story:
I cannot myself see that this step is likely to clear up the mystery; because, in the first place, no one will believe a rather unpleasant story, and, in the second, it is well known to every right-minded man that the gods of the heathen are stone and brass, and any attempt to deal with them otherwise is justly condemned.
The sensible imperialist, in other words, “justly” condemns Strickland and the narrator not for torture but for superstition for acting as if Indian beliefs are meaningful.
“The Mark of the Beast” is certainly loathsome, but it is unclear what is to be loathed, or who, exactly, is the beast.
Thursday, December 6, 2012
I’ll wander back to Kipling. An older Kipling, although the teen prodigy stills makes an appearance. After reading the contents of his 1888 stunt, when Kipling published seven books in a single year, I moved on to his next collection, the 1891 Life’s Handicap, and I enjoyed myself enough that I am halfway through the 1893 Many Inventions (and reading it on the computer – I must really be enjoying Kipling, because I hate that). Along the way I have skipped at least three books, a novel, a co-written novel, and a short travel book about the United States, and there is also a book of poems that I have read. Kipling is a writer whose productivity becomes almost irritating.
Both collections contain a mix of new stories and some scrounging from the Kipling newspaper archives, so the lengths range from four pages to fifty, and the substance swings wildly from short jokes to tragedies to long jokes to ghost stories to fictional statements of purpose. Some stories are problematic masterpieces, while others are so trivial I wonder why Kipling wanted to re-publish them. Well, I have a guess about that.
Although I would not mind trimming the trivia, the reason to read the books as they were first published is simple – every attempt at a Selected Stories of RK is obliged to skip some of the good stuff, maybe a lot. “Good” is not always the right word.
For example: two of the stories in Life’s Handicap are told to the “Kipling” narrator by the German naturalist Hans Breitmann. “Reingelder and the German Flag” (orig. 1889) is the second story in the book; “Bertran and Bimi” is second from the end, 330 pages later. Breitmann speaks with a thick accent and is written accordingly, as if designed to aggravate an entire class of readers other than me:
‘We lifed upon soup, horse-flesh, und beans for dinner, but before we vas eaten der soup, Reingelder he haf hold of his arm und cry, “It is genumben to der clavicle. I am a dead man; und Yates he haf lied in brint!”’
I give you the point of the anecdote there, the actual joke. Reingelder is a herpetologist hunting for a particular Uruguayan snake. When he finds the snake he blithely carries it around, assured by “[h]is big book of Yates” that it is not poisonous although it obviously is. The joke, to be clear, is the dying professor’s insistence that Yates was not simply wrong but actively lied in his book.
If that seems kinda awful, “Bertran and Bimi” is much worse. Breitmann tells of a naturalist he knew in New Guinea (Bertran) whose best friend was a jealous orangutan (Bimi). Bertran eventually decides to marry:
‘Only I say, "Haf you thought of Bimi? If he pull me away when I talk to you, what will he do to your wife? He will pull her in pieces. If I was you, Bertran, I would gif my wife for wedding-present der stuff figure of Bimi." By dot time I had learned some dings about der monkey peoples.’
And then events take the horrible turn we would all expect, expressed as horribly as possible by Kipling and Breitmann, although Breitmann sees the point of the anecdote a little differently than I do. Contemporary reviewers called the story “a kind of thing that ought never to have been written” and “detestable… not in the least saved by being extremely cleverly written.”
Now I am getting somewhere. Tomorrow, more of brutal Kipling, something much worse than this.
Wednesday, December 5, 2012
Would you believe I was reading Miles Franklin because of Rudyard Kipling? He had got me thinking about teen prodigy writers. The decades at the end of the 19th century had an unusual number of them – Alfred Jarry, Hugo von Hofmannsthal; Rimbaud if I can slip back a bit, Trakl if I can skip forward.
I used to think that the there was no such thing as a literary child prodigy, but I was wrong, even setting aside clever 17th century haiku written by six year olds, for there existed Miles Franklin’s exact contemporary, the amazing Daisy Ashford, author of The Young Visiters or, Mr. Salteena’s Plan, unpublished until 1919 but written in 1890 when the author was – see left – nine.
Mr. Salteena “was an elderly man of 42 and was fond of asking people to stay with him” (17). His current guest is the young, beautiful Edith, who Mr. Salteena would like to marry, except that he is “not quite a gentleman but you would hardly notice it but cant be helped anyhow” (19). The story is in two parts, Mr. Salteena’s attempts to become a gentleman, and the courtship of Edith my someone more her age and less pathetic.
Bringing a duel-plot novella (the book is perhaps sixty pages) to completion is an achievement for a child, but enthusiasts for the novel care about it because of how it is written, because of this sort of thing:
This is agony cried Mr Salteena clutching hold of a table my life will be sour grapes and ashes without you. (71)
The better writers are so often separated from the lesser by their audacity, their sense of when to plunge in and write incorrectly, when to say the thing that is new and right. I perhaps should have saved this, my favorite line in The Young Visiters, until last, but “my life will be sour grapes and ashes” has stayed with me ever since I read it. Ashford is blissfully free from convention.
Earlier in the novel, Mr. Salteena pays a visit to Edward, Prince of Wales, who is “in a lovely ermine cloak and a small but costly crown” (57):
Then the Earl chipped in and how is the dear Queen he said reveruntly.
Not up to much said his Highness she feels the heat poor soul and he waved to a placard which said in large letters The Queen is indisposed. (59)
Then the Prince has a strawberry ice. I suppose a bit of the appeal of Ashford is the silly dash of avant-gardism created by her cavalier attitude towards spelling and punctuation, but it is the recurring surprises like the placard that make up the novel’s original touches. She just writes the oddest things sometimes:
… he passed on to a lady with a very tight waist and quearly shaped. That is Mary Ann Fudge my grandmother I think said Bernard she was very well known in her day.
Why asked Ethel who was rarther curious by nature.
Well I don’t know said Bernard but she was and he moved away to the next picture. (30)
I don’t know either. A book in its own category.
My page numbers refer to the 1951 Doubleday edition.
Tuesday, December 4, 2012
Sybylla Melvyn, the young heroine of My Brilliant Career is like us:
The pleasure, so exquisite as to be almost pain, which I derived from the books, and especially the Australian poets, is beyond description. In the narrow peasant life of Possum Gully I had been deprived of companionship with people of refinement and education who would talk of the things I loved; but, at last here was congeniality, here was companionship. (Ch. 9)
I presume a bit, but she is, right? Books are a precious commodity in the Australian bush. Sybylla is horrified whenever she finds herself stuck in a house without books. And here she finds herself, after a long reading drought, in a house with books:
... my attention was arrested by what I considered the gem of the whole turn-out. I refer to a nice little bookcase containing copies of all our Australian poets, and two or three dozen novels which I had often longed to read. I read the first chapters of four of them, and then lost myself in Gordon, and sat on my dressing-table in my nightgown, regardless of cold, until brought to my senses by the breakfast-bell. (Ch. 9)
What does Sybylla like to read?
The regret of it all was I could never meet them – Byron, Thackeray, Dickens, Longfellow, Gordon, Kendall, the men I loved, all were dead; but, blissful thought! Caine, Paterson, and Lawson were still living, breathing human beings – two of them actually countrymen, fellow Australians! (Ch. 9)
Hall Caine has appeared at Wuthering Expectations before, having written The Deemster, one of the 100 best novels of all time; he is from the Isle of Man. Otherwise, the names less familiar to me are Australian, members of the first great generation of Australian literature: Banjo Paterson, who wrote “Waltzing Matilda,” Henry Lawson, Adam Lindsay Gordon, Henry Kendall. Other than some random facts about Paterson – I don’t forget a name like Banjo Paterson – I know nothing about these writers.
But the Australians are the ones the narrator returns to throughout the book, giving me the pleasure of meeting an unknown literary tradition. That is the tradition she wants to join, and presumably does join, given the evidence of the text of the novel, memoir for Sybylla, novel for Miles Franklin. Henry Lawson actually wrote the preface to the novel, published when Franklin was twenty-one.  A proud literary nationalist, he emphasizes the Australianness of the book and the author – “the book is true to Australia”.
A digression - to me, this is the most perfectly Australian sentence in the novel: “Several doors and windows of the long room opened into the garden, and, provided one had no fear of snakes, it was delightful to walk amid the flowers and cool oneself between dances.”
Amazingly – I mean, it seems amazing given that I only know her as a sixteen year old – Miles Franklin is herself now at the center of Australian literature as a pioneering female author and the founder of the premier Australian literary prize.
If anyone would like to tell me about Franklin’s other books, I would enjoy that. The sequel to My Brilliant Career has a fine title: My Career Goes Bung.
Monday, December 3, 2012
Do I have many readers left who, when thinking of the pinnacles of novelistic art turn to Anne of Green Gables and Jane Eyre and Little House on the Prairie for examples? I fear I have driven these people off, what with my irony and desecrations and what have you. If not, if they – if you – are still around, or if you know readers like this, I want to press a book into your – their – hands. Miles Franklin’s My Brilliant Career (1901) belongs on that list of books.
I want to steal a line from Stefanie at So Many Books: “Pride and Prejudice meets Jane Eyre in the Australian Outback.” Sybylla Melvyn is sixteen or so, funny, tough, ugly (or at least plain), smart, short, cussed, an outstanding heroine, although I came across JLS Hall at A Little Reading who found her “exasperating… sometimes you just want to grab her and give her a good shaking.” That would be a bad idea:
I calmly produced my switch and brought it smartly over the shoulders of my refractory pupil in a way that sent the dust in a cloud from his dirty coat, knocked the pen from his fingers, and upset the ink.
He acted as before – yelled ear-drum-breakingly, letting the saliva from his distended mouth run on his copy-book. His brothers and sisters also started to roar, but bringing the rod down on the table, I threatened to thrash every one of them if they so much as whimpered; and they were so dumbfounded that they sat silent in terrified surprise. Jimmy continued to bawl. I hit him again. (Ch. 29)
You shake her while I hide. I would run, but Sybylla can outrun me. The saliva is a reminder that Sybylla is at this point serving as a sort of governess for The Worst Family in Australia (“The tea and scraps, of which there was any amount, remained on the floor, to be picked up by the fowls in the morning,” Ch. 28).
Two big problems for Sybylla make up the novel. First, how to get off of her parents’ hardscrabble, drought-stricken dairy farm:
This had been their life; this was their career. It was, and in all probability would be, mine too. My life – my career – my brilliant career! (“A Drought Idyll,” Ch. 5)
The novel’s title is entirely sarcastic. The second problem is romantic, which I will leave aside except to say that Sybylla ends up making a truly difficult decision. The novel is as feminist as they come. If I had known nothing I would have guessed that My Brilliant Career was written by a young woman, it does feel young, so maybe the author was twenty-six, and there are passages, at least, which would have led me to guess a publication date decades after 1901. But no, Miles Franklin was sixteen! Several years younger than the heroine is at the end of the novel, even. The confidence with which the book is written, the skill, or at least instinct, is perplexing. She knew herself and kept her eyes open, and somehow knew how to knock it all into the shape of a book.
Saturday, December 1, 2012
History is indifferent to the fine points of literary composition - Saramago's The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis
Oops, my schedule has slipped a bit. I can tell you why: shame. Book blogging shame.
Miguel at St. Orberose has spent November making other book bloggers look bad. No offense. He has been celebrating José Saramago month by writing and translating and making some sense of a fascinating and diverse range of material – plays, diaries, journalism, even a science fiction epic in verse. Most of the texts he wrote about are otherwise unavailable in English.
What a resource. When have I done anything this useful? When have I wanted to work this hard? It’s humbling.
Miguel spurred me to read Saramago’s 1984 novel The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis, translated by Giovanni Pontiero, which follows Baltasar and Blimunda, the one I read earlier this year, and of course stars the great imaginary poet Ricardo Reis.
Reis returns to Lisbon from Brazil after years of exile. His friend and fellow poet Fernando Pessoa has just died. Salazar has been “Prime Minister” of Portugal for two or three years; dictator, really. Reis is a monarchist, so he has some sympathy for certain aspects of Salazar’s rule. He does not really comprehend the rise of fascism, news of which, in Germany and Spain, runs through the novel. Saramago’s novel is a political novel, but for the character the point is that his old beliefs have become irrelevant. “[H]istory is indifferent to the fine points of literary composition” (295).
Despite the big events in the background, little happens in foreground of the novel: Reis begins an affair with a chambermaid that deepens in surprising ways, pursues an affair with another woman of his own class – some surprises there, too - half-heartedly restarts his medical practice, and writes poems. He also meets, once in a while, the deceased Fernando Pessoa:
He recognized him at once, though they had not seen each other for many years. Nor did he think it strange that Fernando Pessoa should be sitting there waiting for him. He said Hello, not expecting a reply, absurdity does not always obey logic, but Pessoa did in fact reply, saying Hello, and stretched out his hand, then they embraced. Well, how have you been, one of them asked, or both, not that it matters, the question is so meaningless. (64-5)
Not that this is so absurd, given that Ricardo Reis is an imaginary poet created by the actual poet Pessoa, that all of the biographical details (medicine, monarchism) are the invention of Pessoa, that Reis’s poems are written by Pessoa. Why shouldn’t he outlive Pessoa by nine months? In the real world, Pessoa has outlived Pessoa.
What else is in the book? Lisbon, what a fine Lisbon novel. Some time with Google maps was helpful, and also feasible, because Reis mostly stays in a small central area. I could follow the “itinerary of the statues” on page 352, including Eça de Queiros and the epic poet Camões.
Saramago’s previous novel, Baltasar and Blimunda, is in the novel, mentioned a couple of times. For example, out of almost nowhere, Saramago muses that Blimunda is a strange name. The beauty of the voice Saramago developed is that it can go anywhere he wants. I guess any author can do that, but few do.