Wednesday, January 30, 2013

And altogether he was most wonderful - Kipling's Jungle Book stories

he theme is tricky colonial literature.  If I have doubts about Bernardo Atxaga, I am sure about Kipling – there is the text, the subtext, and then also, at his best, another layer or two.  One might think that The Jungle Book (1894) and The Second Jungle Book (1895), written explicitly for children, would be simple.  No, not necessarily.

A bibliographic interruption.  The Jungle Book and The Second Jungle Book have been published, with Kipling’s approval, in multiple arrangements depending on whether the Mowgli – raised by wolves, schooled by a singing blue bear, everyone knows about Mowgli – stories all go in one volume.  Originally they did not, but were mixed in with the other animal stories like “Rikki Tikki Tavi” and the one about Eskimo sled dogs, which a careful reader will note is probably not set anywhere near a jungle.  And then I read them at random.  So I will ignore the books as such, except to steal their illustrations.  The links go to the Google Books scans which have the original arrangements.

I was saying that Kipling was tricky.  Not always.  “The King’s Ankus” has a first-rate co-star:

"Am I nothing?" said a voice in the middle of the vault; and Mowgli saw something white move till, little by little, there stood up the hugest cobra he had ever set eyes on – a creature nearly eight feet long, and bleached by being in darkness to an old ivory-white.  Even the spectacle-marks of his spread hood had faded to faint yellow.  His eyes were as red as rubies, and altogether he was most wonderful.

The albino cobra is guarding a long-forgotten treasure hoard under a long-dead city.  The snake is memorable, but the story turns out to be a simple parable about greed, as a priceless elephant goad causes a series of people to murder each other while a bewildered Mowgli watches from a distance.  I had already learned this lesson.  Perhaps, though, you suggest, some of the children reading this book for children could use a little reinforcement.  You are right, these are stories for children.

The stories are violent, too, although I have little idea how they compare to today’s more complex kiddie lit.  Kipling’s Nature is Tennyson’s, “red in tooth and claw.”  Red in eye, too, like the cobra: “Rikki-tikki's eyes grew red again, and he danced up to Karait with the peculiar rocking, swaying motion that he had inherited from his family.” The animals kill each other as animals do, with the mongoose Rikki-tikki, an instinctive snake-exterminating machine, the most ruthless example.  And the mongoose is the hero of the story:

The big snake turned half round, and saw the egg on the veranda.  "Ah-h!  Give it to me," she said.

Rikki-tikki put his paws one on each side of the egg, and his eyes were blood-red.  "What price for a snake's egg?  For a young cobra?  For a young king-cobra?  For the last--the very last of the brood?  The ants are eating all the others down by the melon-bed."

That is a cold-blooded mongoose.  But what can he do, it is his mongoosish nature.  Mowgli, though, is a human, so what is his excuse?

I will spend a couple of days picking out some of my favorite Jungle Book complexities.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

The lion appeared completely oblivious - Atxaga, Baudelaire, Sebald - looking for patterns

What is Bernardo Atxaga up to in his Belgian Congo novel Seven Houses in France?  What patterns should an attentive reader see?

Friendly, thoughtful readers supplied some good ideas which I will ignore in favor of Atxaga’s Baudelaire theme.

Lalande Biran, the commanding officer, is a published poet.  Specifically, he is a disciple of Charles Baudelaire, who he occasionally quotes and even met:

Sleep overwhelmed him as he was searching for the next line of the poem, and the word that had been in his mind shortly before – syphilis – stirred in his head, presenting him with the image of the Master as he had seen him in Paris once when he was very young and the Master was ill and ugly and contorted with pain.  (46)

Biran’s section of the novel climaxes with two triumphs, an enormous killing in the corrupt mahogany and ivory trade, and the composition of a poem.  The novel is typically written in a realistic mode, so this passage is unusual:

The two numbers [“the price of mahogany and ivory: 330 and 370”] began to change shape in his mind…  First, he saw them floating in the air and then, immediately, they were transformed into birds flying over a vast green meadow…  Except they weren’t birds now, but two bats.  ‘Yes, bats,’ said the voice.  (101, ellipses mine)

The numbers and the dream-bats together form the poem, “those two numbers – 330, 370 – as the title, but without telling anyone why” and the bats in the text:  “But, friends, Sisyphus cannot stop.  If he does, he will be assailed by ravenous bats” (103).

Bats, you don’t say:

When earth becomes a trickling dungeon where
Trust like a bat keeps lunging through the air,
Beating tentative wings along the walls
And bumping it head against the rotten beams  (from “Spleen (IV)” tr. Richard Howard)

And take a look at “Spleen (III)”:  “I’m like the king of a rainy country, rich \ but helpless…”  Even before this point in the novel I began to wonder if there could be a series of encoded Baudelaire references that I was missing because I do not know his poems well enough.

Maybe this is nothing more than a simple reminder that culture is no defense against barbarism, that the elegant poet can be a monster, too.  Baudelaire himself merely played at monstrousness.  Or maybe Biran is just a derivative poet.

Two more ironies come with Baudelaire.  One is that Biran is old-fashioned.  It’s 1903!  Get up to speed, ya dinosaur.  The other is that Baudelaire, as we all know, loathed Belgium.  “Don't ever believe what people say about the good nature of the Belgians” and on and on in that vein.  Baudelaire’s letters are something else.

W. G. Sebald writes in the same spirit in The Rings of Saturn:

And indeed, to this day one sees in Belgium a distinctive ugliness, dating from the time when the Congo colony was exploited without restraint and manifested in the macabre atmosphere of certain salons and the strikingly stunted growth of the population, such as one rarely comes across elsewhere.  At all events, I well recall that on my first visit to Brussels in December 1964 I encountered more hunchbacks and lunatics than normally in a whole year.  (122-3)

But “the very definition of Belgian ugliness, in my eyes, has been the Lion Monument and the so-called historical memorial site of the Battle of Waterloo.”  The lion takes me back to Atxaga, to the final lines of the novel:

The lion did not move a muscle.  It remained lying down, watching the men unload the cargo.

Near the beach, a monkey screamed.  The lion appeared completely oblivious.  It seemed to be deaf.  (250)

Symbolism has intruded.  Forget Baudelaire – work backwards from the end.

The translation of Seven Houses in France is by my hero Margaret Jull Costa from Atxaga’s Spanish, which was itself translated from Atxaga’s original Basque.

Monday, January 28, 2013

The climate of the Congo triggered a kind of dementia - I am puzzled by Bernardo Atxaga's novel about the Belgian Congo

Maybe someone can help me out with this novel.  I had the idea that Basque writer Bernardo Atxaga was a tricky post-modernist, and I thought I knew how to read tricky post-modernists.  So what am I missing in this book?

Seven Houses In France is Atxaga’s 2009 novel about the nightmare world that was the Belgian Congo.  A new officer arrives at a distant outpost.  He is openly religious, a superb shot, and avoids native women from an entirely justified fear of syphilis.  The jealousy and resentment – other officers are lustful, irreligious, and mediocre shots, and also thoroughly corrupt, and at least one is a sociopath, although they are all violent racists – causes a series of plotty and unlikely events that eventually lead to, from a certain point of view, disaster.

From the perspective of the Congolese, every disruption of the Force Publique is a life-saver.  Literally millions of lives would have been saved if the Belgian officers had concentrated on murdering each other rather than the Congolese.

The novel begins in 1903, when the vast territory of the Congo was a military work camp owned by King Leopold II of Belgium, operated by his army, devoted to harvesting rubber by means of slave labor enforced by violence:  beating, torture, murder, and mass killings.  The characteristic act of brutality was the severing and smoking of the right hand:

He proudly showed Sheppard some of the bodies the hands had come from.  The smoking preserved the hands in the hot, moist climate, for it might be days or weeks before the chief could display them to the proper official and receive credit for his kills.  (165)

That is not Atxaga but Adam Hochschild, from Chapter 10 of his history King Leopold’s Ghost (1998).  The kind of institutionalized violence described by Hochschild is present throughout the novel, but always in the background, as an ordinary part of life and work.

Perhaps that is a clue to the purpose of Atxaga’s novel, this casual acceptance of violence and its destructive effects on the perpetrators.  I wonder who Atxaga is trying to convince?  King Leopold blamed the climate, not violence:

Leopold explained that he considered the work done by the blacks as a perfectly legitimate alternative to the payment of taxes, and if the white supervisory personnel at times went too far, as he did not deny, it was due to the fact that the climate of the Congo triggered a kind of dementia in the brains of some whites, which unfortunately it was not always possible to prevent in time, a fact which was regrettable but could hardly be changed.  (128)

Or perhaps he did not, since I am now quoting Chapter V of The Rings of Saturn by W. G. Sebald (1995), which is a novel, and therefore full of untruths, of which this may well be one.

I have some doubts about the ethics of Seven Houses of France.  The foreground of Atxaga’s novel, the story he tells, is trivial compared to actual events.  It is like a tale of adultery and revenge among Auschwitz guards.  However well written and engaging, I would hope most readers spend their time watching the calendar, waiting for the Soviet Army to arrive.  When Joseph Conrad visited the same territory, he wrote about how ego and ideology can cause horrific crimes.  Atxaga appears to be writing about how horrific crimes incidentally cause much less horrific crimes. 

Michael Orthofer, in his review of the novel, says the novel “does all feel a bit tame and simple -- there's an odd sort of nonchalance to the whole narrative.”  That is just how I felt.  But Atxaga is a tricky post-modernist, so Orthofer and I must be wrong.  There must be something more to the book.  Tomorrow I will look for clues.

I do not have a solution.  If you know the answer, you can save me the trouble of speculating.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Obscenities drawn with charcoal on the bare brick - Hofmannsthal's realistic dream-like "Cavalry Story"

Leaving fictional essay “The Lord Chandos Letter” aside, I believe that the 1898 “Cavalry Story” is Hofmannsthal’s most famous story.  It appears in every gathering of Hofmannsthal’s prose and is sometimes included in short story anthologies.

A couple of Hofmannsthal’s short fictions are about cavalry soldiers, this one and the more sketch-like “Military Story” (written 1896).  They are full of convincing details about tactics, horses, weapons, that sort of stuff.  I could easily believe that Hofmannsthal was writing from experience, like Leo Tolstoy or Stendhal, except that Hofmannsthal would not* join the army until World War I and was, at the time he wrote the military stories, working on a PhD in Romance language philology.  So Hofmannsthal is really more like kid wonder Stephen Crane, pulling his apparent realism out of books and his imagination.

“Cavalry Story” begins:

On the morning of July 22, 1848, a patrol squadron, the 2nd squadron of Walmoden cuirassiers numbering 107 cavalrymen under Captain Baron Rofrano, left the San Alessandro mess before six o’clock and rode in the direction of Milan.  An inexpressible stillness lay over the open, glittering landscape; early-morning clouds climbed from the peaks of the distant mountains toward the shining sky like tranquil puffs of smoke; the corn stood motionless in the fields, and country houses and churches shone between stands of trees that seemed to have been washed.  (1)

The beginning could be straight from some regimental history, while the second sentence is firmly fictional, what with its metaphors and hint of subjectivity.  The rest of the story will be similarly split between a clear and direct presentation of military action, and passages describing the increasingly heightened perceptive or emotional sensibility of the story’s protagonist, Sergeant Anton Lerch.

The first long paragraph quickly covers the start of the squadron’s big day as they drive off an attack, take numerous prisoners, capture a spy with “detailed plans of the greatest importance,” and then a cannon, and then more prisoners.  “The squadron suffered one casualty” (2).  Sergeant Lerch is, as someone other than me might now say, pumped.  His passions are by no means tamed when he discovers that he may well be able to bivouac with an ex-lover, possibly a prostitute.  Her appearance in Milan is a coincidence, a little odd.  Lerch is excited.

The squadron returns to action.  Passing through a village, “[s]o inflamed was his imagination” the Sergeant experiences a series of almost hallucinatory sights (ellipses are all mine):

The village remained deathly quiet – there was not a child, not a bird, not a breath of air…  obscenities drawn with charcoal on the bare brick…  a weird half-naked figure lounging on a bed…  A dog ran busily out of the next house, head raised, dropped a bone in the middle of the road, and tried to bury it in a crack in the pavement…  (6)

A story that first seemed realistic has become dream-like.  Next, battle is joined, close and bloody, with Sergeant Lerch fighting at his peak.  Has he passed through the dream, or does he remain within it?  Every episode of the story increases the intensity of the character’s emotional and perceptual state, leading to – well, if this story resembles that of anyone else, it is Heinrich von Kleist, so do not expect a jolly ending.  Sergeant Lerch is not an aesthete, like the protagonist of “Tale of the 672nd Night,” but for Hofmannsthal a heightened aesthetic sense, however attained, is dangerous.

I am still not sure why.  I will keep reading.

All quotes are from the NYRB collection.

* Update: Nope, I was wrong about that. Hofmannsthal spent a year in military service in 1894, when he was 20. Not that that explains his sense of what combat was like.

An effort that was fruitless and thus exhausting - Hofmannsthal's collected fiction

In his fiction, Hugo von Hofmannsthal is a ghost.  His invisibility amazes me.  Arthur Schnitzler for decades obsessively rearranged the same story; each Hofmannsthal story exists is unique, which is frustrating.  Repetition is easier to understand.

When I say “each Hofmannsthal story,” I mean all five of them, all published before he was 28 years old.  In the last one, the “Lord Chandos Letter” (1902), which I am perhaps abusing by calling it a story, Hofmannsthal obliquely announced his renunciation of prose fiction, and poetry, too.  Afterwards, he wrote essays, criticism, plays and libretti, but no poems and no stories (discounting an unfinished novel).

Thus my failure to understand the valuable service New York Review Books did by assembling The Lord Chandos Letter and Other Writings (2005, translations by Joel Rotenberg).  I first thought the book was a bit of a ragbag.  Just 128 pages, several of them blank, for such a varied and productive writer.  Several of the pieces are prose poems, several are unfinished.  What a mess – but I was wrong,  the principle of selection was not eccentric but completist.

For the sort of reader to whom poetry is tedium and the idea of reading a play or, you gotta be kidding me, an opera libretto is laughable, the NYRB book is the way to read Hofmannsthal.  Other valuable collections of Hofmannsthal’s prose exist, but they omit published stories and some good scraps.  End of bibliography.

“Tale of the 672nd Night” (1895) is the earliest story.  The title tells me that I am in the world of the Arabian Nights.  A wealthy young Persian man cuts himself off from the affairs of the world on order to devote himself to beauty:

For a long time he was drunk on this great, profound beauty that was his, and all his days were more beautiful and less empty among these objects, which were no longer dead and insignificant, but a great legacy, the divine work of all the generations.

Yet he felt the triviality of all these things along with their beauty.  The thought of death never left him for long, and it often came over him when he was among laughing and noisy people, at night, or as he ate.  (16)

When I said Schnitzler, but not Hofmannsthal, was constantly rewriting one story, I was unfair.  The difference is Hofmannsthal keep changing the form and style of the story.

Even his few servants begin to torment him simply by their human existence:

A terrible apprehensiveness came over him, a mortal fear of the inescapability of life.  What was more terrible than their ceaseless observation of him was that they forced him to think about himself, an effort that was fruitless and thus exhausting.  (20)

But soon whatever remains of his concern for his servants leads to a bizarre series of adventures (surreal and Kafkaesque would not be bad descriptors) in which his search for beauty betrays him.  By the end the story is not at all like anything I remember from the Arabian Nights, but rather more like Heinrich von Kleist.  Life is escapable after all.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Partly not yet intelligible, partly no longer so - an early Hugo von Hofmannsthal verse play

The early verse plays of Hugo von Hofmannsthal could easily be staged along the lines of a Noh drama.  The characters, such as they are, might as well wear masks and accompany their monologues with five hundred year old gestures and ritual music.  It is no wonder that he later turned to opera.  I have no idea what Hofmannsthal knew about Japanese theater – I do not know what the German equivalent of Pound’s book might have been – but he was working on similar problems.

How to compress meaning, basically, like so many of the poets who were his contemporaries, but with an emphasis on meaning, separating him from Stéphane Mallarmé and Stefan George, poets who often seemed to pursue a pure form of poetry, free of meaning.  Hofmannsthal wrote some poems in that vein, too, but he quickly turned against aestheticism.

In his verse play “Death and the Fool (Der Tor und der Tod),” Death, “the bow of his violin in one hand, the violin hanging from his belt,” comes for the aesthete:

In every hour pregnant with more than chance
Experienced fully in your earthly station,
‘Twas I who touched your very soul’s foundation
With power most holy, fraught with mystery.  (114-5)

Death is claiming that he is actually the source of the aesthete’s sense of beauty, the familiar idea that the Sublime is the result of fear.

Claudio, the aesthete, has been suffering through a crisis of meaning:

Too much attracted to mere artifice,
I saw the very sun with eyes long dead
And through dead ears drew sounds into my head:
Not wholly conscious, not free from consciousness,
My sufferings petty and my joys gone stale,
Always I dragged along that awful curse
Which made my life a book, some twice-told tale
Partly not yet intelligible, partly no longer so…  (103)

A crucifix, a painting, and an old decorated chest (representing tradition or history, I guess) are by turn rejected as insufficient.  Death is accompanied by Claudio’s own dead, his mother, a girlfriend, and a friend who he drove to suicide, all of whom deliver their monologues of woe and exit the stage.  Claudio concludes that he has never really lived (“Indeed unloving and indeed unloved,” 133), and is therefore reconciled with death.

Now obviously this is hardly as compressed or obscure or allusive as a Noh play.  If anything it is all too thumpingly obvious, the ideas hardly justifying the quality of the verse.  But Hofmannsthal was only nineteen years old when he wrote it.  The ideas would develop quickly.  He moved fast.

DEATH:  Strange are these creatures, strange indeed,
Who what’s unfathomable, fathom,
What never yet was written, read,
Knit and command the tangled mystery
And in the eternal dark yet find a way.  (137)

Michael Hamburger is the translator here, as found in Poems and Verse Plays, Pantheon, 1961.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

The possibilities of an absolutely unemphasized art - Modernism meets Noh drama

Tony’s Reading List has nothing but Japanese literature all month.  I am joining in by reading the little anthology The Classic Noh Theatre of Japan (1916) by Ezra Pound and Ernest Fenollosa.  Fenollosa was one of the great early American experts on Japanese art (see Christopher Benfey’s The Great Wave (2003) for more of that story).  He died in 1908.  Pound came across his papers and became fascinated by Fenollosa’s translations of Noh plays and his extensive but fragmentary notes on the subject.  So Classic Noh Theatre includes fifteen complete plays translated by Fenollosa, notes by both Fenollosa and Pound and, as a bonus, a separate essay by William Butler Yeats.

Yeats had been trying to bring Celtic legends to the stage but in an “indirect and symbolic,” even “aristocratic” fashion (p. 151).  He was part of an extended group of poets and playwrights like H. D. and Hugo von Hofmannsthal who were interested in finding alternatives to so-called realism, to Ibsenism.   They turned to classical models like Greek drama.  How startling it must have been to discover this preserved Japanese tradition that like Greek plays featured masks, a chorus, ritual music and dance, and compressed retellings of foundational stories, in the case of Noh from, for example, The Tale of Genji and The Tale of Heike.

And how pleasing it must have been, for Pound at least, to find that Noh drama is so compressed, intense, and laden with tradition that it can seem completely impenetrable.  In a typical play – I will look at “Kakitsubata” by Motokiyo – a wandering priest encounters a spirit which appears first in ordinary form (a young girl) but after an act of devotion returns as a legendary figure, in this case a character from the 9th century Tales of Ise who is associated with the iris.  She displays her fine robes and then, with the assistance of the chorus, dances and sings an iris dance:

SPIRIT:  The flitting snow before the flowers:
              The butterfly flying.

CHORUS:  The nightingales fly in the willow tree:
                  The pieces of gold flying.

SPIRIT:  The iris Kakitsubata of the old days
               Is planted anew.

CHORUS:  With the old bright colour renewed.  (130)

The spirit fades as it “flower soul melts into Buddha.”  Is this much of anything?  Pound recognizes the difficulty; it is exactly his point of interest:

Our own art is so much an art of emphasis, and even of over-emphasis, that it is difficult to consider the possibilities of an absolutely unemphasized art, an art where the author trusts so implicitly that his auditor will know what things are profound and important.  (130)

Noh does have other moods, though, even (profound, unemphasized) humor.  See the epistemological confusion when the priest meets the ghost in “Tsunemasa”:

SPIRIT:  I am the ghost of Tsunemasa.  Your service has brought me.

PRIEST:  Is it the ghost of Tsunemasa?  I perceive no form, but a voice.

SPIRIT:  It is the faint sound alone that remains.

PRIEST:  O! But I saw the form, really.

SPIRIT:  It is there if you see it.

PRIEST:  I can see.

SPIRIT:  Are you sure that you see it, really?

PRIEST:  O, do I, or do I not see you?  (55)

I have no doubt that other, later anthologies would serve as better introductions to Noh drama.  But Pound’s hodgepodge is the moment English-language Modernism was introduced to Noh.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Only a man can be that inconsiderate. - Arthur Schnitzler's 1893 eternal sitcom

The earliest Arthur Schnitzler work I have found in English is the 1893 play Anatol, a comic, poignant, insightful, etc. investigation in seven scenes of the human sub-species of which Schnitzler himself was a member, Homo sapiens canis sexualis, commonly known as the skirt-chasin’ dog.  I got all the detail I needed on that subject, in fact more, from Peter Gay’s history of the Victorian bourgeoisie, Schnitzler’s Century (2002), which is not even about Schnitzler.  A big biography of him would be a trial.  Schnitzler recorded everything.

The cast of the play: Anatol (the dog), his pal Max, and seven women, one for each scene.  In not one but two scenes, Anatol is about to get married, but the woman in the scene is never the prospective bride.  Anatol pursues women, juggles multiple girlfriends, has flings and long-term affairs, and beds an old girlfriend the night before his wedding (without telling her that he is about to marry).

Given that Anatol has a resemblance to his creator, I might think that the play excuses Anatol’s behavior, but in fact in each scene Anatol is portrayed as hypocritical and cruel.  Schnitzler was a perceptive self-analyst, for all of the good it did him.  Quoting Peter Gay, “As usual, this insight had no effect on his conduct” (p. 75), which could have been Schnitzler’s motto.  But a positive result is that the play is pretty good.

Anatol is throwing a farewell supper for one of his girlfriends, at which he is planning to dump her.  Viennese period note:  they are at the Sacher Hotel which is still in operation, so you could do the same as Anatol!  He has been giving a farewell supper every night for a week, it turns out.  Maybe his friend Max will help him:

MAX:  As for convincing her?  I could never do such a thing.  You’re a far too likable man.

ANATOL:  But my dear Max!  You could, up to a certain point?  Couldn’t you?  I mean, you could tell her that I’m no great loss.

MAX:  I suppose I could.

ANATOL:  And that she’ll find hundreds of other men who are – handsomer – richer –

MAX:  More intelligent –

ANATOL:  No, no, please.  Don’t exaggerate.  (Sc. V)

Max always gets the best lines.  Once Annie arrives, she begins guzzling the champagne and oysters:

ANNIE:  I’m just wild about oysters!  It’s the only food one can eat every day.

MAX:  Can?!  Should!  Must!

ANNIE:  I know!  I told you so!

It turns out she is dumping Anatol.  He becomes hysterical, demanding, and finally cruel, revealing that he has been cheating on her, his secret turned into a weapon.

ANNIE:  (At the door.)  I would never have told you.  Never.  Only a man can be that inconsiderate.

The women do not necessarily win every battle, but they do well in the war.  Some might object that love affairs are not battles.  They are once the woman has been dragged down to Anatol’s level.

It is likely that you have seen this sitcom before, perhaps many times.  Why read or watch a 120 year old version of what you can see in some form on Girls or How I Met Your Mother or some better example I have never seen?  That is a good question.  Some works of art are eternal; some are constantly updated and replaced.

Update: I forgot to include the source. Four Major Plays (1999), tr. Carl R. Mueller.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Ah, what do we know about time and space? - Schnitzler loots Tolstoy

Arthur Schnitzler’s novella Dying reminded me of Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilych in its insightful depiction of the thoughts over time of a dying man, and Schnitzler impressed me by giving equal attention to the thoughts and fears of his wife or girlfriend or - I’ll just say wife for today’s purpose.

In his recent Anna Karenina hatchet job, obooki singles out the well-known passage in which Anna is in a carriage, turning over recent events but being distracted by shop signs.  Here is a sliver of Anna’s thoughts:

Office and warehouse … Dental surgeon … Yes, I will tell Dolly everything. She doesn’t like Vronsky. [I’ll skip a bit]  I won’t give in to him. I won’t allow him to teach me … Filippov, pastry cook – I’ve heard he sends his pastry to Petersburg. The Moscow water is so good.  (Pt. VII, Ch. XXVIII)

And so on.  The ellipses are in the original, an orthographic feature, although different translators treat them differently.  They signify Tolstoy’s pauses, not obooki’s omissions.  This is an early example of stream of consciousness used for a specific purpose, (I am quoting obooki) “to show a disordered human mind – a mind pushed to emotional extremes – rather than the everyday state we find ourselves in.”

The dental surgeon is foreshadowing, and the pastry cook's pancakes – but I am not writing about Tolstoy.

Schnitzler’s dying Felix and the faithful Marie have been in the mountains, hoping to improve Felix’s health, and are now returning to Vienna by train.  Felix's mind is understandably disordered:

She looks so pale, or is that just the light? ... Ah, yes, the overhead lighting is on.  But it isn’t entirely dark outside yet …  And now autumn is coming … autumn, such a sad, quiet time …  We’ll be back home in Vienna this evening …  And then I’ll feel as if I’d never been away …  [I gotta skip some of this]  There are a great many passengers in a worse way than me on the train …  It’s good to be alone …  How has this whole day passed?  Was it really today that I was lying on the sofa in Salzburg?  It’s so long ago …  ah, what do we know about time and space? ...  the mystery of the world, perhaps we’ll solve it when we die …  And now a melody sounded in his ear.  He knew it was only the sound of the moving train, yet it was a melody …  A folk-song, a Russian song …  monotonous …  very beautiful …  (67)

He is asleep by the end.  Ellipses again in the original.  Somewhere in the middle I was thinking, gee this sounds, and even looks, a lot like that part of Anna Karenina, and then Schnitzler drops in the Russian folk-song, out of nowhere.  The previous scenes in Salzburg had taken place in the midst of “a great festival of vocal music” (53), but there was nothing Russian until this moment.

“Russian” is like a signature or seal – “yes, dagnabit, I have been reading Tolstoy!”

Why I do not write reviews – just look at these:  Winston’s Dad, Lizzy’s Literary Life, John Self, and Pechorin’s Journal, all enjoying Arthur Schnitzler’s Dying.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Schnitzler's Dying - some idle speculation

Another pleasant Pushkin Press book today, their edition of the 1895 Arthur Schnitzler novella cheerily and accurately title Dying.  A young writer, Felix, learns that he has a year to live and we watch him live out that year, badly and well by turns.  At times the story and Felix’s behavior reminded me a bit of Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilych (1886), but in a fundamental shift the point of view of Felix alternates with that of Marie, his wife or girlfriend.  Sometimes their views of life and death sync up, sometimes not.  Mostly not.

Now that is an odd detail there, isn’t it, that I do not know if the couple is married.

The novel opens with Marie waiting for Felix in a Viennese park.  They are young, they are a couple – “she said lovingly,” “he took the hand she casually offered him.”  Felix acts like a jerk for a while before admitting the bad news he got from a doctor, so that is how the story moves.  I assumed that the couple was unmarried, especially once Felix demands that Marie leave him to spare her the suffering and similar balderdash.  But Felix and Maria also cohabitate, share a bed, stay in hotels together, and so on.

Perhaps their surnames would provide a clue, but Schnitzler never mentions them .  Maybe a legal matter comes up, like a will.  No.  Perhaps another character, say a family member, will mention something, but neither Felix nor Marie have any family at all.  In fact, Dying only has one other character of consequence, a friend who happens to be a doctor.  So this is a deliberate ambiguity.  Maybe the translator missed something, but the translator is Anthea Bell, so I strongly doubt that.

Dying reinforces my sense that Schnitzler is a powerful but narrow writer.  No family, no religion, no work except some vague writing about which the dying man claims, near the end of the story, to have “thousands of fresh insights” (p. 96).  I cannot remember, actually, a single reference to religion in any of the Schnitzler I have read so far, although I was not looking for them, so who knows.

Schnitzler’s imaginary world is cramped.  Many of the scenes in Dying are not much more than two people in a bedroom or railroad carriage, talking or fighting or thinking.

This is strange, too.  The three earliest Schnitzler stories I have read, aside from Dying, are about:

1.  “The Widower” (1894): a young man’s wife has just died.

2.  “A Farewell” (1896): a young man’s secret mistress has just died, and he cannot grieve properly because of course the husband makes all of the funeral arrangements.

3.  “The Dead Are Silent” (1897): a young adulterous couple have a carriage accident; the man is killed.

You cannot say that Schnitzler does not squeeze the juice out of a conceit when he gets hold of it.  His plays from the same period, like La Ronde and Liebelei, do not fit this pattern.  Still: narrow.

I have done no justice to Dying, so we are stuck with it for another day.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

The things Altenberg writes, we already know them anyhow! - Vienna's perfect Bohemian

Yesterday I wrote about Stefan Zweig, who was loathed by his writerly peers like Hugo von Hofmannsthal and Thomas Mann.  Today, Peter Altenberg, who was adored by the same crowd.

Altenberg was a Viennese Bohemian, the artistic kind, not the Czech kind, the artist who hangs out in cafés with the other Viennese writers, wears shabby clothes, and always seems to have just changed his abode.  Altenberg published a twenty five year stream of odd little newspaper pieces – prose poems, sketches, stories, fantasies.  Charles Baudelaire is the useful but insufficient predecessor.  On the basis of Telegrams of the Soul: Selected Prose of Peter Altenberg (2005), enthusiastically translated by Peter Wortsman, Altenberg is not nearly as weird or outrageous as Baudelaire.

I wonder if the Austrian artistes were simply thrilled to have their very own flaneuring Bohemian – “just like you read about in the Paris newspapers!”  Arthur Schnitzler or Karl Kraus, early supporters of Altenberg, are saying that, or so I imagine.  Franz Kafka called Altenberg a “genius of nullifications,” which sounds exciting but, to pick a representative quotation, “Art is art and life is life, but to live life artistically; that is the art of life” is just the sort of thing I expect an 1890s aesthete to say (quoted from Carl Schorske, p. 306).

Now I sound as if I am complaining.  Oh no no.  The fragments and images and overheard conversations and attitudes Wortsman collects in this attractive Archipelago Books edition are enjoyable and edifying.  How could I not like a list of “My Ideals” like this:

The adagios in the violin sonatas of Beethoven.
Speckled tulips.
Franz Schubert.
Solo asparagus, spinach, new potatoes, Carolina rice, salt sticks,
Knut Hamsun,
The blue pen “Kuhn 201.”
The condiment: Ketchup. (87)

Not to be confused with the composer: Ketchup, although he was quite good, too.

Altenberg gave me a tour of his Vienna.  Sitting in a “champagne pavilion,” someone in his party recognizes a celebrity – Gustav Klimt! – but no one is impressed until someone else says “But that’s the guy who paid for twelve bottles of Charles Heidsieck champagne at the Casino de Paris last winter!” Now everyone is impressed.  In a note, Altenberg confesses that the champagne was actually a different brand, but he has hopes that the Charles Heidsieck company will compensate him for the endorsement.  See p. 26.

Altenberg goes to the cabaret, chases women in the big amusement park, and not only visits the Ashanti Village, an appalling living anthropological exhibit, but over the course of a series of pieces makes friends with the exhibited Africans and treats them as if they were human:

“We’re supposed to represent savages, Sir, Africans.  It’s completely crazy.  We’d never go around like this in Africa,  Everybody would laugh at us” (65).

Altenberg is on to me, way ahead of me:

“The things Altenberg writes, we already know them anyhow!”

Because he writes in such a way as to give you the impression that you’ve always known it anyhow.  (55)

Maybe so, maybe so.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

What humanity now calls monstrous - some Stefan Zweig stories

The Austrian miscellany continues with some Stefan Zweig period pieces.  If I am looking for masterpieces, these ain't them; if I am trying to learn about a period, they are where the action is at.

I read the three stories in one of the attractive Pushkin Press miniatures, Wondrak and Other Stories, translated by Anthea Bell, who also supplies a surprisingly cool endnote.

Zweig was born in 1881, just as Vienna was changing from a society where anti-Semitism was a faux pas to one where anti-Jewish hatred was close to the accepted norm.  An openly anti-Semitic mayor had only recently been elected mayor of Vienna, triggering a two-year political crisis that the reactionary party won decisively – the “last stand of Viennese liberalism” is how Carl Schorske describes the struggle.*  Theodor Herzl responded by founding the Zionist movement.

It is possible that “In the Snow” (1901) is Zweig’s criticism of Zionism.  A group of medieval Jews try to flee a blood-crazed crusade but become trapped in a blizzard.  The last sentence:  “Soon it [spring] will be bringing buds and green leaves back again, and will lift the white shrouds from the grave of the poor, lost, frozen Jews who have never known true spring in their lives” (26).  Or maybe the story is pro-Zionist.  That line sounds so hopeful.  But the characters have all frozen to death!

In “Compulsion” (1920) an Austrian painter working in Switzerland receives his conscription notice.  He and his wife are pacifists, and he had assumed that he would ignore the draft and stay in Switzerland, but once he receives it he feels strangely compelled to return to Austria and join the fighting.  The scenes in which the painter deals with the consular bureaucracy and rides the train, scenes where he tries to understand his compulsion, are not bad, but they are mixed with long one-sided arguments where his wife batters him with what are presumably Zweig’s own sentiments:

“And why do they have the power?  Because the rest of you hand it to them.  And they’ll have it only while you’re still cowards.  What humanity now calls monstrous consists of ten men with strong wills in the countries concerned, and ten men can destroy the monstrosity again.  A man, a single living man can destroy their power by saying no to them.”  (64)

Then she took a long drag from her cigarette, which had little dollar signs on the tip.  No, not true, but during the “discussions” I felt like I was reading Ayn Rand – that last line is entirely Randian in sentiment, and just as artful.

So that was half dud.  “Wondrak” (unpublished and unfinished, presumably written during the war) is also about conscription, but this time a weird, ugly (she is missing her nose) Czech peasant tries to save her son from the Austrian army.  The change in setting alone is good because it introduces competing national loyalties, but it also helps that the mother is not a theorist.  She just wants to keep her son:

She snapped and bit; it was a terrible sight.  “God must see this,” she howled, “God must see this.”  Finally the soldiers had to drag both of them away like beasts going to be butchered.  But she went on shouting, her voice cracking horribly, “God must see this, God must see this!” (116)

I know very little about Stefan Zweig.  Knowledgeable readers can tell me is these stories sound representative or unusual.

*  I am relying on Chapter III of Carl E. Schorske, Fin-de-Siècle Vienna: Politics and Culture, 1981, Vintage Books; the quote is on p. 116.

Monday, January 14, 2013

One false move and we could have a farce on our hands. - Tom Stoppard on the razzle in Vienna

On the Razzle, a 1981 Tom Stoppard play, is efficient.  We are only fifteen pages in, a half hour at most, when Stoppard clears the stage of everyone but Zangler, a Viennese shopkeeper, who delivers a monologue:

ZANGLER:  Well, that seems all right.  Just the ticket.  First class.  Why do I have a sense of impending disaster?  (He reflects.)  Sonders is after my niece and has discovered the secret address where I am sending her to the safe keeping of my sister-in-law Miss Blumenblatt, who has never laid eyes on him, or, for that matter, on Marie either since she was a baby – while I have to leave my business in the charge of my assistant and an apprentice, and follow my new servant, whom I haven’t had time to introduce to anyone, to town to join the parade and take my fiancée to dinner in a fashionable restaurant in a uniform I can’t sit down in.

One false move and we could have a farce on our hands.  (He exits.)  (84)

I regard this as the height of courtesy, an author summarizing his own work, not only the plot but the method.  What else is a farce built of but this kind of needless complication?  Needless but comically potent, thus essential.

That assistant and apprentice use the absence of the owner to knock off early and hit the town, to go on the razzle, and somehow end up in the same restaurant as their boss, in the company of a woman who is, unknown to anyone, the above-mentioned boss’s fiancée, leading to – well, the usual stuff.  Leading to a scene where all of the characters flee a room “by different routes but with identical timing,” through every door and window and even “by the chimney, if possible.”

On the Razzle is full of puns ("I won't feel married until we've had the consommé") and spoonerisms and other gibberish, which I am told are a low form of humor.  The merchant has particular trouble with his cant phrases and can always use a little help:

ZANGLER:  Everything’s arranged…  He’s emptied my seal but his lips are pursed.  No – he pursed to suppose – no –

MELCHIOR:  Supper is served –

ZANGLER:  No! – Oh, supper is served! (121)

On stage the speed of the patter must make some high proportion of the jokes blast by, but as long as someone hears it and someone is laughing, soon enough everyone is laughing.  Since, I was reading, though, I had the privilege of laughing at every single joke, such as this one, where Melchior is applying for a job as Zangler’s servant:

ZANGLER:  You strike me as highly impertinent.

MELCHIOR:  I was just talking shop.  Please disregard it as the inexperience of blushful youth, as the poet said.

ZANGLER:  Do you have a reference?

MELCHIOR:  No, I just read it somewhere.  (78)

Foyle’s War fans will enjoy imagining Melchior as Detective Chief Superintendent Foyle, since Michael Kitchen originated the role.

The play is an adaptation but not at all a translation, Stoppard insists, of Johann Nestroy’s mid-19th century Austrian play Einen Jux will er sich machen, which means that I am kicking off my look at Austrian literature with a work that feels like cheating.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Beth played the old Scotch airs, and played at the Fifth Symphony - Charles Ives and Beth play the piano

So, sitting at the dear little piano, Beth softly touched the keys, and in the sweet voice they had never thought to hear again, sang to her own accompaniment the quaint hymn, which was a singularly fitting song for her: -

And then follows the lyrics, which are from Pilgrim’s Progress:  “I am content with what I have \ Little be it or much” (Ch. 22).  Beth is singing about herself:  “Since I had my little piano, I am perfectly satisfied.”

No other character in Little Women, not even Jo the writer, is so intimately associated with art.  Her music and piano serve a functional purpose for Alcott, plumping up a character at risk of flatness, but Beth’s piano, like Beth’s story more generally, also suggests an alternative source of transcendence unavailable to most people.  Beth is remembered by readers for her almost saintly virtues, or for her passivity and timidity, but she is also an artist, even if at times her art is intensely personal, an escape from earthly cares.

If you want, you can hear Beth play, sort of, or at least hear an expression of the idea of Beth playing.  The third movement of the Piano Sonata No. 2: Concord, Mass., 1840-1860 by Charles Ives is titled “The Alcotts.”  Surrounded by the spiky “Emerson,” mysterious “Thoreau,” and chaotic “Hawthorne” (at certain points the piano is played with a wooden rod of a specified length, creating massive dissonant clusters of notes), “The Alcotts” is the quiet, peaceful, domestic piece.  Mostly quiet.

I will imagine Beth is playing.  Listen along – here is Jeremy Denk; here is Ives himself.  The first four notes could hardly be more familiar, since they are those of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.  But Beth has just settled in, she is playing quietly, picking at the notes of the Beethoven transcription in front of her.  Or perhaps she is looking at Piano Sonata No. 29, the “Hammerklavier,” or a hymn book, since the sonata and a hymn titled “Missionary Chant” quickly blend together.    Ives is always borrowing, and in fact the Beethoven motifs occur in every movement of the sonata.  But Beth is playing this time; back to her.

She plays at whim, gains confidence, and returns to try the beginning of the Fifth again.  She repeats the figure she has improvised, creating variations, gaining speed and volume.  Some wrong notes here and there – who cares, now she’s having fun.  Back to those four notes, as can be seen above, fortissimo this time – we are at the two minute mark of the performances.  But this is Beth, so she does not stay loud for more than a few seconds.  She switches to a Scottish folk song, beginning at the bar line (see below, "Slower and quietly"), for about thirty seconds (3:00-3:30 or so).  The folk song collapses and is somehow rebuilt as sweet, meditative Beethoven.  Jeremy Denk cannot believe - look at 4:36 – how pretty the end is.

To Ives the Beth playing is the real one, Elizabeth Alcott, or perhaps a blend of the real and imagined sister.  “Here is the home of the ‘Marches’,” Ives writes in Essays Before a Sonata:

all pervaded with the trials and happiness of the family, and telling, in a simple way, the story of “the richness of not having”…  And there sits the little old spinet piano Sophia Thoreau gave to the Alcott children, on which Beth played the old Scotch airs, and played at the Fifth Symphony.  (p. 47,  W. W. Norton & Company, 1970)

It is a beautiful piece of music, especially meaningful to readers of Little Women.

The names of the hymns and so on can be found in the comprehensive Descriptive Catalogue of the Music of Charles Ives.  I would not have figured out much of that on my own.  The score has a long, complex history, but was first published in 1920.  My copied bits are from the revised 1947 version.

Jeremy Denk wrote a fine piece for the New Yorker about the difficulties of playing and recording the Concord Sonata, but it seems to be unavailable for non-subscribers.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Alcott the scold - a lunatic, a corpse, a villain, and a viper

There are other ways to read Little Women.  As a temperance tract, for example.  Take a look at Chapter 25, “The First Wedding,” which is really  Chapter 2 of Two.  One of the sisters is getting married, so Alcott can give us every last detail of what a wedding should be.  No breakfast, just “a plentiful lunch of cake and fruit, dressed in flowers” and “water, lemonade, and coffee.”  Guests sent wine, but the teetotaling Marches sent it to the Soldier’s Home – Papa March “thinks that wine should only be used in illness.”

This leads to a page-long discussion of the evils of wine, which climaxes with the bride bullying poor innocent dim-witted college student Laurie into taking a temperance pledge:

She did not speak, but she looked up at him with a face made very eloquent by happiness, and a smile which said, "No one can refuse me anything today."  Laurie certainly could not, and with an answering smile, he gave her his hand, saying heartily, "I promise, Mrs. Brooke!"

What a dirty trick!  But Alcott lacks confidence and concludes the scene with:

So the toast was drunk, the pledge made and loyally kept in spite of many temptations, for with instinctive wisdom, the girls seized a happy moment to do their friend a service, for which he thanked them all his life.

If I had suspicions before, I was certain now – the narrator in Two is different than in One.  Alcott had never resorted to this clumsy look into the future before.  She senses that some readers might be skeptical of Laurie’s moral fortitude so she cuts them off.

My favorite moment with the new narrator comes later in Two, in Chapter 34, the one that introduces The Fantastic Professor Bhaer.  Back in One, it was a matter of celebration when sixteen year-old Jo published her first story in a newspaper even if it was, as Alcott says in her journal, “Great rubbish!”  In Two “[s]he took to writing sensation stories – for in those dark age even all-perfect America read rubbish.”  Now that last remark is obviously sarcasm, isn’t it?  But later in the chapter Prof. Bhaer condemns sensation fiction as immoral causing Jo to repent and burn her manuscripts, although with regret:

"If I didn't care about doing right, and didn't feel uncomfortable when doing wrong, I should get on capitally.  I can't help wishing sometimes, that Mother and Father hadn't been so particular about such things."

Ah, Jo, instead of wishing that, thank God that “Father and Mother were particular,” and pity from your heart those who have no such guardians to hedge them round with principles which may seem like prison walls to impatient youth, but which will prove sure foundations to build character upon in womanhood.

I have resisted the idea that Little Women is easily autobiographical, but this scene is much funnier if we imagine that Alcott is scolding her younger, fictional self.  Like the temperance pledge, this was also a two-against-one bullying scene.  It was not so coercive until the narrator stepped in.

Scenes like these led me to want to reform my ways, to drink more wine and to write a story like the one she describes earlier in the chapter about “a lunatic, a corpse, a villain, and a viper.”

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Pin it round your neck, and then it will be useful - Meg's shockingly revealing dress

Chapter 9 of Little Women, “Meg Goes to Vanity Fair,” that is where I want to spend my time today.  Bunyan describes Vanity Fair as the place where “all such merchandise sold, as houses, lands, trades, places, honours, preferments, titles, countries, kingdoms, lusts, pleasures, and delights of all sorts, as whores, bawds, wives, husbands, children, masters, servants, lives, blood, bodies, souls, silver, gold, pearls, precious stones, and what not.”

I can see why Pilgrim’s Progress has fallen out of favor as a children’s book.  Still that is just what Alcott’s chapter is about: Meg, the oldest sister, visits a marriage market, a fair where husbands are captured and wives are bought.  A party with the wealthy Moffats in Boston, I mean.

Meg’s sisters join her for the first few pages, as they pack her trunk and prepare her clothes.  The chapter is nothing but folds, silk, pins, ribbons.  Meg, sixteen, unworldly, and poor, only has one dress that is presentable at a fancy party; that is the crux of the action.  “My silk stockings and two pairs of [spick-and-]spandy gloves are my comfort,” she says, but that does not last.

That one functional dress is enough to escape Vanity Fair for one party, but a second does her in.  Her friends supply her with an appropriate dress, a blue silk “so tight she could hardly breathe” that is so revealing that only a frill and rose-bud bouquet “reconciled Meg to the display of her pretty white shoulders.”  She feels “’so queer and stiff, and half-dressed.’”  She wrestles with her dress’s train:

Meg smiled and relented, and whispered as they stood waiting to catch the time, "Take care my skirt doesn't trip you up.  It's the plague of my life and I was a goose to wear it."

"Pin it round your neck, and then it will be useful," said Laurie, looking down at the little blue boots, which he evidently approved of.

It was not until this point that I realized that Alcott was serious – that the shoulder-revealing dress was not unwise but immoral, not necessarily in its display of flesh but in its encouragement of the sin of vanity.  The dress is so dangerous that despite Laurie’s sarcasm, Meg finally throws herself into the party, dancing wildly and drinking champagne to the point of illness (“She was sick all the next day”).

A surprisingly jolly chapter, but all in the service of setting an example about how girls should and should not find husbands (not at balls, not in questionable dresses).

Speaking of jolliness, the rich Moffats, the mother and father – this is a curious little detail – are a “fat, jolly old gentleman” and a “fat, jolly old lady.”  The latter at one point “lumber[s] in, like an elephant, in silk and lace.”  Only one other character in the novel is fat, the wealthy Aunt March.  Or two characters, if you count her poodle, “a fat, cross beast” (Ch. 19).  Not every rich person in the book is fat, just most of them.

I keep forgetting to mention it, but Amanda at Simpler Pastimes is hosting a Classic Kiddie Lit Challenge this month, with a George MacDonald Princess and the Goblin readalong at the end of the month.  I have vaguely considered running a project.  Some fun!  Once I hit publish I will register Little Women over at her place.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

The little books were full of help and comfort - Bunyan as structure in Little Women

Structure.  I thought the most interesting thing in Little Women – I mean in One – was the layer of structures Louisa May Alcott used to construct the book.  There are at least three.

1.  The year and seasons, roughly Christmas 1861 to Christmas 1862, with time passing at what feels like a natural rate.  “One July day she came in with her hands full…” I read at the beginning of Chapter 12, while Chapter 13 begins on “one warm September afternoon,” and “the October days began to grow chilly” at the head of Chapter 14.  Time moves differently in the sad, stressful November and December, so those months need more chapters.

2.  Episodes.  Many chapters belong to a single sister.  All four get their share.  All four have virtues to emulate and vices to expunge.  Sometimes we work as a group, sometimes we work on our own, so to speak.  The girls are always working, even while playing.

3.  Pilgrim’s Progress.  Alcott employs John Bunyan’s 1678 allegorical novel, and also its 1684 sequel, as a structural device throughout her own novel, both within the novel – meaning the characters read the book and refer to it – and outside of the novel, so to speak, in chapter titles and in the novel’s epigram, so that the first words of the book are actually Alcott’s adaptation of a poem from Pilgrim’s Progress: “Go then, my little Book” and encourage the “little tripping maids” to “choose to be \ Pilgrims better, by far, than thee or me.”  Alcott immediately blends her own novel with her model.

On that first Christmas, in Chapter 2, the girls all receive new copies of Pilgrim’s Progress, hidden under their pillows during the night, with each sister getting a different colored cover.  Which is great, right?  Those were the days.  These are the “little books” that the sisters are always reading for comfort and instruction.  The fictional characters are again modeling behavior for the actual reader engrossed in his own little book, as seen as Chapter 16 opens:

In the cold gray dawn the sisters lit their lamp and read their chapter with an earnestness never felt before.  For now the shadow of a real trouble had come, the little books were full of help and comfort, and as they dressed, they agreed to say goodbye cheerfully and hopefully, and send their mother on her anxious journey unsaddened by tears or complaints from them.

The Pilgrim’s Progress takes the place of the Bible for the March sisters.  I may well have missed a reference, but I believe the Bible is directly mentioned only once, in Chapter 33 – now we are in Two – where it is found in the possession of the 1848 revolutionary Professor Bhaer who keeps his edition of Shakespeare “with his German Bible, Plato, Homer, and Milton.”  In other words, the Bible is kept in the company of literature, not religious texts.  The fact that almost no one in the novel can even read this Bible is an additional irony.

Two unfortunately loses much of this overlaid structure.  The sequel becomes, as the passage about the books suggests, a kind of Bildungsroman for Jo, with the other sisters sidelined in one way or another, a functional but less complex way to organize the story.

Jane GS was inspired, when she read Little Women, to read The Pilgrim’s Progress as well, which more Alcott readers should do.  Bunyan’s book is sectarian and narrow, but also one of the great pieces of English prose, and I find that reading it in the context of Little Women softens its Calvinist harshness, which by itself is a debt I owe Alcott.

Monday, January 7, 2013

Buy Little Women or else - Alcott's discomfort read

Some groundwork for Louisa May Alcott’s  Little Women.  It is actually or at least once was two books, Little Women, or, Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy published in October 1868 and a sequel with the same title plus Part Second, published in 1869.  The second book is a genuine sequel in that its existence was determined by the success of the initial book, as Alcott threatens in the last lines of One:

So grouped the curtain falls upon Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy.  Whether it ever rises again, depends upon the reception given to the first act of the domestic drama, called “LITTLE WOMEN.” (Ch. 23)

That sounds almost extortionate, which reminds me that I should mention that I now refer to the two parts of Little Women as One and Two, exactly like the mobsters in The Sopranos refer to the different parts of The Godfather.  An English publisher, unknown to Alcott, solved the problem by calling the second book Good WivesTwo is its own book, a worse book, unfortunately, an aggravating book in places, but I will save that topic.  They’re different.

Little Women is a didactic novel for children, explicitly improving.  I do not think that current readers have lost their taste for didactic novels, but the kind of didacticism we tolerate or even like has certainly changed a lot, and it does not look much like that of Little Women.  It is amazing, given its open agenda and homiletic passages, how well the book has survived, how beloved it is.

But we love the characters, the sisters, not Alcott’s wisdom.  Perhaps we even love their weaknesses more than their virtues.   I assume most young readers simply ignore the improving sermonettes, just racing past them.  I would guess that I did thirty years ago – no, it must be longer – when I last read the novels.

Most readers seem to pick a single sister with whom to identify, although since the people most likely to write about their favorite character are bookish sorts, the bookish Jo is over-represented in the written record.  Readers can divvy the sisters up, too – another ingenuity – identifying, for example, with Jo’s ambition but Beth’s quietness and Meg’s unquenchable thirst for champagne (that is in the text, Ch. 9 – she even has a hangover!).

Alcott’s didactic strategy is to trick the reader into transforming sympathy into self-examination.  If I share Jo’s best qualities it is likely that I also have some of her worst, that I sin in the way she sins.  So even without direct intervention by the narrator or the girls’ mother, I may find myself learning from Jo’s struggle against anger or Meg’s against vanity.  Or I may enjoy a virtue from Sister A but need to work on a problem from Sister B.

It can be amusing to see readers call Little Women a “comfort read.”  The novel is supposed to be a discomfort read, a quiet undermining of my complacency, a gentle call to reform my wicked ways.  Adult readers, though, are mostly perfect, so I suppose we are comforted by the memory of our old childhood struggles against Apollyon and the Slough of Despond, now that we reside in the Celestial City.

Friday, January 4, 2013

Five Austrian alternatives

Alternatives, expansions, appendices, problems, and ignorance.  Or:  What about…?

1.  Austria as an empire, Austrian literature beyond Austria.  Gyula Krúdy in Budapest, Italo Svevo in Trieste, and Gustav Meyrink and Franz Kafka in Prague.  Kafka is a great temptation but would swamp the boat, so to speak – too absorbing, too good.  Much like

2.  Robert Musil’s Man without Qualities (1930-42) and Joseph Roth’s The Radetzky March (1932), published far beyond the period I am thinking about but perhaps even more valuable because they are influential interpretations of pre-War Austria.  I pick those two out because of their prominence,  but Austrian culture and history have been obsessively picked apart by lots of later writers like Gregor von Rezzori and Thomas Bernhard.  Hearing the narrator of Old Masters (1985) tear into Adalbert Stifter and Anton Bruckner is hilarious fun.  Poor Bruckner, what’d he do?  Perhaps if I really want to dig into Austrian aesthetics I need to spend more time with

3.  Art and music.  Bruckner, Gustav Mahler, Richard Strauss, and Arnold Schoenberg; Gustav Klimt, Egon Schiele, and Oskar Kokoschka.  For example.  The “worlds” of fine art and music are usually much narrower than that of literature, and the audiences, the core audiences, much smaller and easier to study.  To understand the audience, though, I do not necessarily need to spend much time with the music or paintings but rather with the

4.  Secondary literature.  Histories cultural, political and social, monographs on artists or movements, albums of photos of Viennese coffeehouses.  It turns out that I am not the first person to think turn-of-the-century Vienna might be interesting.  Please recommend relevant favorites – to save you the trouble, I have read or am reading Carl Schorske and Peter Gay, and am curious about the recent Eric Kandel book although I fear it is a bit long.

The quantity of relevant books is overwhelming – there was nothing like this for Portuguese literature.  I mean, just look at the number of books that center on

5.  Sigmund Freud.  Scientific texts either dissolve into history or are elevated into literature.  I have no apparatus to deal with Freud as a scientist, but I should spend some time with Freud the essayist, the literary Freud.  Which texts, do you think?  The Interpretation of Dreams (1899), or some of the famous case studies?

Freud has appeared only once on Wuthering Expectations in his own words, when I made use of his 1908 insightful essay “Creative Writers and Day-dreaming.”  His ideas on the concept of the Uncanny have been important to my understanding of a great deal of literature, German and otherwise.  So I am sure there is a lot more of interest even if I am ill-equipped to understand or sympathize with the “scientific” Freud.

Well, who knows how many of these ideas I will have the energy to pursue.

Anyone wondering, by the way, if there were any women writers at all in Austria, the answer is yes.  Some were internationally famous, like the Nobel Prize-winning Bertha von Suttner, author of the 1889 pacifist novel Lay Down Your Arms!  (which sounds unreadable).  Some others of greater promise are included in the gloomily titled Into the Sunset: Anthology of Nineteenth-Century Austrian Prose (1999), which I plan to investigate at some point. Thanks to Will at 50Watts for pointing me towards the book.

Wish me luck!  Please join in as you think useful and appropriate.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Austria, what a naïve place you are!

That cheerful thought is courtesy of Peter Altenberg, the archetypal Viennese coffeehouse Bohemian, who spent his life wandering from café to café and writing Baudelaire-inspired prose poems or articles of short fiction or whatever they are.  As collected in the 2005 Archipelago book Telegrams of the Soul, his importance seems more historical than literary, but that is a thought I hope to sketch out some other time.  For the title line in context, see p. 120.

A greater writer, a greater figure, is the Diogenes of Vienna, Karl Kraus, who moved from journalism to founding his own paper Die Fackel (“The Torch”) in 1899 to writing every word of its contents for twenty-five years:

I no longer have collaborators.  I used to be envious of them.  They repel those readers whom I want to lose myself.

Kraus is highly quotable.  This one is from In These Great Times: A Karl Kraus Reader (Carcanet, 1984, p. 5).  It is amusing to joke that this or that old timey writer, Montaigne or Dr. Johnson or what have you, would now be a blogger.  Not a joke with Kraus.

Along with his articles, jokes, vitriol, parodies, shivs, and bile, Kraus also sometimes presented one-man performances of Shakespeare plays which must have been a sight.  Somewhere along the way he wrote an enormous play-like object titled The Last Days of Mankind, published 1918-19, of which a fraction has been translated.  Perhaps if we all read it someone will translate the whole thing!  I will do my part.

What other Austrian books might I try to read?

I am in the middle – no, closer to the front – of a long, tedious, magnificent Adalbert Stifter novel, Der Nachsommer (“Indian Summer”, 1856).  I have written plenty about Stifter before and recommend him strongly to patient readers, but anyone who introduces himself to Stifter with this novel is insane, no offense.   His subsequent novel, Witiko (1867), is reputed to be even more boring, which if true is an achievement.

Another mid-century writer who should have no existence in English is the comedic playwright Johann Nestroy, but one of his Viennese dialect comedies was adapted by Thornton Wilder and eventually turned into the 1964 musical Hello, Dolly!  That exclamation point is in the title of the show, but I also lay claim to it – what, really?  More appealing to me is that the same play was adapted by Tom Stoppard as On the Razzle (1981).

The young Salzburg poet Georg Trakl I read in November.  I should revisit him.  The other major poet of the period is Rainer Maria Rilke whom I should also revisit (after fifteen years).

If I stick to the kind of cutoff date I used in previous reading projects, say something around 1919, I will then stop before I get to Rilke’s best-known works, the Sonnets to Orpheus and Duino Elegies (both 1923).  I thus also cordon off most Robert Musil, all Joseph Roth, most Stefan Zweig, most Ernst Weiss, etc. etc.  Unwise, perhaps, but it is a guideline, not a rule.

An important exception: Young Törless (1906) is Robert Musil’s first novel, a story of boarding school sadism with a humanist turn.  It also features a long monologue about the meaning of imaginary numbers.  I have read it twice and will likely read it again.  A fine readalong book, but c’mon, The Last Days of Mankind, right?

Perhaps it is clearer why what once seemed like a project of wide scope has come to seem a bit narrow.  Valuable reading but less fun for more casual participants.

Tomorrow:  some supplementary or alternative paths that may well be more fruitful than anything I have mentioned so far.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

The Austrian Literature Non-Challenge - Mellow fruit unendingly

Happy New Year!  Welcome back to Wuthering Expectations, where the literature of the year, which usually means more like nine months, is Austrian.

The Austrian Non-Challenge was meant to be the sequel to the earlier Scottish and Portuguese Reading Challenges, surely among the greatest reading challenges in book blog history, but the more I explored and thought about what I wanted to accomplish, the less social the whole thing seemed.  It may all be too narrow to support the amusing Challenge rhetoric.

However, as I spend a few days planning ahead, showing my bibliographic work, I do want to invite anyone interested to read along with me.  If anything strikes your fancy, or I fail to mention something I ought to read, let’s read it together.  This has always worked out well in the past.

This is what I am looking for:  the big change, the birth of the New, the invention of the Modern.  The metaphors are bad because the New, birthed by Flaubert and Baudelaire and Manet and others, is already thirty or forty years old by 1890 when Austrian literature begins to crack open.  The transition in Austrian literature, and art, and music is late but fast.  So I hope that I might learn something about how it happened, about the change in the ideas or tastes, the artists or audience.

My guess is that I cannot, that I am fundamentally mistaken in some way and am looking in the wrong place, and it is possible that I will never mention the idea again.  The books should still be good either way.

Two writers with parallel careers will likely make up the core of my Austrian reading.  Arthur Schnitzler has been on Wuthering Expectations recently enough that I will zip past him.  I want to read more of his plays, including some puppet plays that sound promising, and more of his fiction, including his single novel, the 1908 The Road to the Open, which sounds more relevant than good (pretty good and highly relevant), but we will see.  More promising:  the early stream of consciousness showpiece “Lieutenant Gustl” (1901) and some later novellas.

Hugo von Hofmannsthal was a decade younger than Schnitzler but their careers overlap almost perfectly because Hofmannsthal was another of those weird teenage literary prodigies I have been coming across lately, a writer of poems, essays, short stories, and verse plays of remarkable assurance and originality. 

Still in his twenties, Hofmannsthal suffered an aesthetic crisis  that he describes in the 1902 fiction now know as “The Lord Chandos Letter.”  The result in his own life was an almost complete abandonment of poetry and to a lesser degree fiction for theater, leading, eventually, to his series of operatic collaborations with Richard Strauss.  Here is a Hofmannsthal poem from 1898:

Traveller’s Song (Reiselied)
To engulf us water’s eddy,
Down the boulders roll, to crush,
And to bear us off already
Birds on powerful pinions rush.

But a landscape lies below
In its ageless lakes reflecting
Mellow fruit unendingly.

Brim of well and marble brow
Gleaming rise from flowery meadows,
And the gentle breezes blow.  (tr. Michael Hamburger)

Can I get to the mellow fruit before I am crushed by the boulders, that is the question.  The poem is on p. 11 of Poems and Verse Plays, Pantheon, 1961.

Tomorrow:  more fine Austrian writers, and perhaps even some duds.