Thursday, February 28, 2013

From that hour I did not leave the couch, and I read for forty days on end - Goethe, Stifter, Goethe, Keller, Goethe

I have not written about the literary tradition of Indian Summer.  It is a Bildungsroman, a novel of personal growth, of which Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship (1796) is not the first but for a long time the most read, the most important.  Certainly the center of the German tradition.  So that is the tradition.

R. J. Hollingdale, in his introduction to the Penguin Classics edition of Arthur Schopenhauer’s Essays and Aphorisms, argues that “the overwhelming presence of Goethe” crushed nineteenth century German-language literature and channeled the “most original” thought into philosophy, a field “Goethe had not harvested” (9-10).  Hollingdale is not wrong.

The existence of Indian Summer and other German literature would seem to refute Hollingdale, if it were not for passages like this, where a mother is giving her son, who is maybe twelve, a gift:

“You’ve been asking me for them for a long time, which I’ve had to refuse since you weren’t yet ready.  They are the Works of Goethe.  They belong to you.  A great deal in them is for a more mature age, indeed, the most mature.  You can’t choose which books you’ll now take in hand or which ones you’ll save for later days.  Your Foster Father will add that to the many kindnesses he has shown you; he’ll choose for you, and you’ll obey him in this, just as you have in everything up to now.”  (144)

The mother has given her son her personal set, full of her notes and underlinings.  Her son protests, but she insists, and anyway “Since I will probably still want to read the works of this remarkable man sometime during the remainder of my life I am going to buy a new set of books.”

With Goethe you do not simply read a book, but rather a fifty volume set, tied up in string.  Or that is what Gottfried Keller’s Green Henry does:

As if I had all these threads [of association] together in the clumsy knot of the string, I fell upon it and hastily began to untie it, and when at last it came loose, the golden fruits of his eighty years of life fell apart gloriously, spread over the couch and tumbled over the edge on to the floor so that I had my hands full, trying to hold the riches together.  From that hour I did not leave the couch, and I read for forty days on end, during which time the winter returned, and the Spring came back, but the white snow, whose shining I saw but heeded not, passed me by like a dream. (Green Henry, tr. A. M. Holt, III.1, p. 312).

Now that is a serious reader.  Green Henry (1854-5/1879-80) is yet another jumbo-sized Bildungsroman, although with an entirely different flavor than Stifter’s novel.  Where Stifter’s Heinrich has two father figures, poor Green Henry has no father at all; where Heinrich moves smoothly from one stage of growth to the next, Henry stumbles from mistake to mistake, eventually, in an inversion of Stifter, rejecting an artistic vocation and entering the Swiss civil bureaucracy.

Henry does not even get to keep his set of Goethe.  His mother takes it away because of its dangerously addictive properties.  Goethe was the Angry Birds of the nineteenth century.  But readers of Stifter know that Goethe needs to be read under proper adult supervision.

Both Indian Summer and Green Henry are drenched in Goethe.  There are constant allusions and references to Goethe, or at least Goethe’s work is so all-encompassing and inescapable that the later novels appear to be constantly referring to Goethe. Keller, Stifter and Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship (and its 1821 sequel, Wilhelm Meister’s Years of Wandering) share a common ethos.  They are all novels of idealism, Kantian ideas worked out through fiction.  Stifter is in a way the most radical of the three, with the most abstract characters inhabiting the most “realistic” landscapes.

Eh, I should do some sort of massive re-reading of Goethe.  I do not know how to convey what a titan he was.  And in the context of Stifter’s and Keller’s novels, he had only been dead for twenty years!

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

I wonder who first discovered the existential significance of bureaucracy - Kundera on Stifter

A little fragment of Indian Summer has acquired its own life.  These are fragments of Milan Kundera in his fragmentary essay The Curtain (2005), in a section title “Bureaucracy According to Stifter”:

I wonder who first discovered the existential significance of bureaucracy.  Probably Adalbert Stifter…  he is the key writer of the Central Europe of the nineteenth century, the pure flower of that era and its idyllic, virtuous mentality that we call Biedermeier!  (130-1)

After a brief summary of Indian Summer Kundera looks at a single long paragraph (six pages in the English edition, pp. 397-403) near the end of Indian Summer, what turns out to be the beginning of the host’s recounting of his early life and his purpose in creating the Rose House.  “[A]s far as I know it is the first (and a masterly) phenomenological description of bureaucracy” writes Kundera (131).

The host is a Baron, ennobled because of his service to the state during and after the Napoleonic Wars (which are of course not named).  His function is vague, but he was clearly superb at it, earning wealth, a title, and the friendship of the Emperor.  Yet he describes himself as a bad civil servant, a sufferer from a proto-Marxist white collar alienation from his labor, for whom “[d]oing something just because it was prescribed to satisfy some rule or complete some organizational plan was irritating, even painful” (398).  The Baron describes his character, his “urge to create tangible things,” and his childhood love of “plants blossoming” and “watch[ing] the shore ice forming” (400-1).

I would call this the creative urge.  It is more or less present in many people.  (400)

Yet the Baron does not attack the state bureaucracy.  He refuses to suggest reforms: “I wouldn’t presume to even offer one” (399).  His eventual resignation from state service to create the Rose House is entirely personal and temperamental – “My inclinations required forms, they revolved around forms” (401).  And just as the Baron will help Heinrich avoid the destructive passions of youth, he will also keep the young man from mistaking his vocation.

The co-plot with Heinrich’s father ends with the father’s retirement from business, what Heinrich described as his “sacrifice,” in order to build his own Rose House-inspired estate.  The young couple will move between all of the idyllic, art-packed homes of the relatives who suffered in order, it turns out, to allow Heinrich and his bride to reach their highest ethical and aesthetic potential.  They will presumably do the same for their descendants, down through the ages.  The narrator’s final words: “[E]verything…  has now gained significantly in clarity, solidity, and importance” (479).

As happens so often with this novel, I was left not with a sense of calm but rather greater unease.

“His [the Baron’s] break with bureaucracy is one of the memorable breaks of mankind from the modern world,” Kundera concludes (133).  Indian Summer was published in the same year as Charles’ Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du mal.  The modern world has arrived! Just in time to break with it.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

He took care of his son and didn’t even try to prove to him how beautiful these things were - Stifter's utopia

With all of my attention on Indian Summer’s Rose House and its Idealist host, I have neglected the narrator Heinrich’s winter quarters, with his family, with his father.  Heinrich spends the spring, summer, and fall in the mountains or at Rose House, making discoveries about nature and art, his Bildung moving along at a steady pace.  Every time he returns home to Vienna, he makes further discoveries in his own home.

For example:

My father had paintings by Titian, Guido Reni, Paul Veronese, Annibale Caracci, Dominichino, Salvator Rosa, Nicolas Poussin, Claude Lorraine, Albrecht Durer, both Holbeins, Lucas Cranach, Van Dyck, Rembrandt [all right, that’s enough].  We went from one to the other, admiring each one, placing many of them on the easel, discussing each.  My heart was filled with joy.  (260)

A Titian, you don’t say.  Remember that the path for Heinrich has been: science leads to the direct study of nature which leads to drawing which leads to painting, and at the same time there is the study of marble, all of which culminates into the sudden discovery of the beauty of a Classical Greek sculpture, which in turn leads to an appreciation for the host’s collection of Old Master paintings.  Back home, when he enters his father’s art gallery, he “is utterly astonished,” understandably.  I mentioned the Titian?  Previously, Heinrich, had been undeveloped, unprepared to even see his father’s paintings:

A strangely profound sensation came into my soul.  That was my great and indescribable love for my father.  He owned these precious things, his heart was devoted to them; his son had simply passed them without giving them any notice at all; yet Father hadn’t withheld even a fraction of his affection from his son; he sacrificed himself, he had been sacrificing himself for most of his life, he took care of his son and didn’t even try to prove to him how beautiful these things were.  (258)

This is a strange passage, a strange response.  That “sacrifice” is the father’s long hours working as a merchant, obviously a successful one (“Forced into business of the most boring type or perhaps having entered it of his own volition since he conducted it with such order, integrity, tenacity, and devotion,” 263).

Even if I think of Indian Summer as an exemplary novel, like Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women or Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Émile, not necessarily a guide to my own behavior but an ideal example, I begin at this point to wonder exactly what Adalbert Stifter expects his reader to do.  Neither my own family nor my fortuitously discovered mentor have collections of Old Master paintings or Greek carvings (the father also has a drawer of Classical carved stones), and Heinrich has both.  No wonder his Bildung is so smooth.  But what about my Bildung?  I am in trouble, I am afraid.

Stifter creates a utopia in Indian Summer.  Next I will try to figure out exactly what kind.

Monday, February 25, 2013

In general, cactus blooms are the most beautiful in the world if you except a few parasitic plants - Stifter in the greenhouse

Inorganic nature, provided it does not consist of water, produces a very melancholy, indeed oppressive impression upon us when it appears without anything organic…  [W]e derive a high degree of immediate pleasure from the sight of vegetation, but this is naturally the greater the more abundant, manifold and extensive – that is to say left to itself – the vegetation is.  The immediate reason for this lies in the fact that in vegetation the law of gravity seems to have been overcome…  (Arthur Schopenhauer, Essays and Aphorisms, Penguin Classics, p. 161)

And conversely rocks make us sad because they have succumbed to gravity.

Indian Summer is a novel that finds great pleasure in both plants and rocks.  I wonder if Adalbert Stifter had read that passage of Schopenhauer’s.  It was published in 1851; Stifter’s novel in 1857, although I assume they were both responding to scientific currents of the day.  Still, this is funny:

“Form is inextricably bound up with material.  Stone is serious, it strives upward and can’t be bent into the softest, finest, most supple figures.  I’m referring to building stones and not marble.”  (359)

Stifter's speaker, the “host,” is referring to Gothic architecture, actually.  Stone escapes gravity when assembled into a Gothic spire.

Early in the novel the narrator, Heinrich, encounters a giant greenhouse cactus, a Cereus peruvianus, that is being neglected.  He suggests it be moved to the Rose House greenhouse, which it is (the host buys it – no conflict, not in this book), and twenty pages later “the Cereus, which had to twist and wind itself along the ceiling of the greenhouse at the Inghof, now could grow straight again.  I wouldn’t have imagined that this plant was so big or that it would grow so beautifully.”  (185)

The cactus theme recedes – or I have forgotten its appearance – for a time, but it returns with one of my favorite lines in the novel: “In general, cactus blooms are the most beautiful in the world if you except a few parasitic plants and a very few other individual blossoms” (349).  Yes, Heinrich, of course.  The cactus is healing, and has changed color, from “yellowish” to “a dark blue-green which now covered the entire plant like vapor.”  Perhaps it will bloom.

Of course it does, but not until the very end of the novel, at Heinrich’s wedding.  The gardener has “’retarded it by cold’” so that it would bloom as a wedding present – “’It can unfold in just the next five minutes’” (472).

The blossom had already opened by the time we got there.  A large splendid exotic blossom.  Everyone was unanimous in its praise.

“So many people have the Peruvianus,” Simon said, “since it isn’t rare at all, but even though they can get its stem to grow tall and mighty, very few can get it to flower.  Few people in Europe have ever seen this white blossom.  Now it is unfolding, tomorrow it will be gone with the break of day.  Its very presence is a treasure.”  (472)

There are a few more symbolic utterances to go before moving to the next page when – this is very exciting – the zither theme finally resolves!

Schopenhauer wants the vegetation to be abundant and left to itself.  Stifter argues for a single flower cultivated by an expert hand.  Similarly, the sheer cliff and bare rock are aesthetically and emotionally exciting for Heinrich (“the winter is also very beautiful”), but the Gothic church or marble statue is even more powerful.  In Indian Summer, life fulfills itself in the workshop and the garden.

I have omitted the workshop side of the argument.  It is mostly about restoring antique furniture.  You might guess that another wedding present is a particularly meaningful piece of restored furniture.  Yes.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Sir, the winter is also very beautiful. - enjoying the view atop Indian Summer

Stifter carefully places his characters in a landscape.  Sometimes – often – he invents them, like the boulder-strewn hills in his novella “Limestone.”  I actually looked that one up in a book about Stifter several years ago, because I wanted to see photos.  But Stifter had made it all up.

The fields and Alps and glaciers of Indian Summer are not so unusual, so I am not sure what it would mean to say that Stifter had invented them, although in some sense he obviously did.  Instead, Stifter has a character, a painter, do the invention.  His immense painting features “naked cliffs towering up not as an ordered formation but as if by chance like massive boulders placed here and there indiscriminately on the earth, like strangers who, like the Norsemen, settled on islands that didn’t belong to them…  it was torn and jumbled, devoid of trees and bushes, it had dry grass lining white glaring furrows, and piles of quartz stones.”  (387)

And most importantly, it is all imaginary:

“He has set a task for himself of portraying a subject he has never seen,” my host said, “he only sees it through the power of his imagination.”

Those Norsemen were a surprise.  Indian Summer is generally sparse with the metaphors.  I do not really understand the purpose of this painting, but I certainly recognize it as Stifter’s work.

The narrator, Heinrich, begins the novel on a path to be a scientist, with geology and botany as his main interests.  I guess I am just writing about geology now.  Heinrich is pondering his collection of marble specimens:

Will a great deal, will everything completely change again?...  If through the influence of wind and water, the mountains are constantly broken off, if the rubble falls down, if they are further split and the river ultimately brings them to the lower areas in the form of sand, how much can that continue?...  Thus, will one day the mountains have disappeared completely?...

Such questions put me in a serious, solemn mood; it seemed as if a more profound existence had come into my very nature.  (192)

This is the sort of thing W. G. Sebald pulled out of Stifter.

In some sense the climax of the narrator’s story, before the host’s revelations and the romantic plot necessarily bring the book to a close, is a winter hike to an Alpine glacier that he had first visited around page 277.  The hike, in the company of a local mountaineer, is described in detail.  The glacier, the mountains, and the view shift into abstraction – e.g., the glacier’s “sides peered out from the general white in iridescent blue or green” (381) or “[e]verything stood out immovably, silently, solemnly in a gentle blue, a golden shimmer or a distant dull silver” (382).  A few pages earlier, lower down the mountain, Heinrich’s companion

standing beside me, commented, “Sir, the winter is also very beautiful.”

“Yes, Kaspar,” I replied, “it is beautiful, it is very beautiful.”  (379)

Some sort of perfect balance of science and art, of knowledge and beauty, has been achieved, a duality has been resolved, within one branch of the larger symbolic world of the novel, the rock side of the Plants and Rocks idea.  Roses and marble.  The garden and the glacier.  The ephemeral but continually renewed; the permanent yet continually changing.

Next, then, some flowers.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Then I thought of my marble – how remarkable marble is! - the marble theme in Stifter's Indian Summer

After all of my (accurate) complaints about the limits of the art of Indian Summer, I want to enjoy a couple of examples of Stifter at his best.  I mean his best just as a prose writer, a novelist, not where he fits in a strange tradition on what larger ideas he is trying to convey.  I will get to all of that later.  Don’t try to stop me.

I’m going to return to the Greek statue I mentioned yesterday.  Here is the narrator, Heinrich’s, first glimpse of it, by candlelight; remember that he is visiting the ideal Rose House for the first time.

We were in the beautiful marble corridor; a staircase of the same marble led up from it…  In the middle of the stairway where there was a landing like an enlarged area or stairwell, I could see a figure made of white marble standing on a pedestal.  By a few lightning flashes that just then illuminated the room the head and shoulders of the figure glowed ruddier than it would have with just our candles…  (50)

Heinrich sees the sculpture again the next day as while on his tour of the house.

He led me to the stairway where the white statue was…  serene white daylight shone down upon it, illuminating the head and shoulders in a gentle splendor.  Not only the steps but also the side walls of the stairwell were made of marble.  (53)

A powerful distraction is through the next door, a room made entirely of marble, “a veritable collection of marble, ”with no furnishings but just doors and windows, open so that “the hall was also filled with the fragrance of roses” (54).

At this point in his Bildung, he is incapable of seeing the statue well.  Notice that he does not identify the subject of the sculpture, even though even by the faintest light he instantly identifies its material.  The scientific sensibility of the young geologist is well developed, but not his aesthetic sense.  When he returns home, Heinrich tells his family about the wonders of the Rose House:

I was able to describe the marble exactly and the antique furniture almost…  I was able to say less about the carvings, not much about the books either, least of all, actually practically nothing, about the statues and paintings. (108)

I mentioned yesterday that Heinrich’s mid-novel encounter with the statue during yet another lightning storm is used as a sort of test of his artistic education.  After 160 pages of Bildung, he finally truly sees the sculpture (“it seemed quite different to me,” 214).  He finally describes it in detail, its subject (a young woman), form, and effect on him (“I gazed enraptured at the figure, watching the reddish flashes and the grayish white color alternating several times,” 215).

The sexual overtones of Heinrich suddenly noticing a beautiful woman are reinforced by an earlier scene featuring a different marble statue of a woman, this one at the mansion of the young woman with whom he will later fall in love and marry.  That other, lesser, sculpture somehow prepares his understanding of the better one.

I wonder how many other carefully placed incidental mentions of the statue I missed because I, like Heinrich, did not realize until the middle of the book that it was meaningful.  In fact, an entire marble theme runs through the novel.  “Then I thought of my marble – how remarkable marble is!” Heinrich says as he surveys his geological specimen collection (191).  The love affair is conducted in the shadow of one of the statues, the wedding dinner takes place in that amazing marble room, etc., etc.  I am not going to trace it all out, not this time.  It is Advanced Novel Writing, and a sight to behold.

You will know it all the more certainly than if someone else had said something about it - Indian Summer, a plot summary

Adalbert Stifter’s Indian Summer has very little story but a great deal of carefully described incident.  The novel is a Bildungsroman, so the story is the development and education, ethically and aesthetically, of a young man.  That is plenty vague.  So here is more of the story.

Heinrich, the young man and narrator, finished with his tutors, embarks on a scientific career, with an emphasis on geology and botany.  He takes trips to the Alps to further his education, collect specimens, and draw.

I realize now that I have no idea when or where I learned the narrator’s name.  It is almost never used, a recurring theme in a novel where the Danube and the Alps are frequently named; Vienna (always “the city”) and Austria, never.

One summer he comes across the Rose House and the story really begins:

The first floor was covered with roses reaching up to the windows of the second…  The plants were so well arranged and cared for that there were no blank spaces any where to be seen; the wall of the house was completely covered as far as the roses extended.  (31)

A thunderstorm is approaching.  Heinrich asks for shelter from a bareheaded, white-haired, oddly dressed man, the owner of the house, “my host” as he will be known for most of the novel.  The host insists that the storm will not break, but that Heinrich is welcome.  They tour the grounds, and later the house.  The house tour is room by room.  Everything on the estate is perfectly arranged, the crops, the flowers, the birds (attracted by bird seed and artificial habitats), and also the paintings, furniture, marble floors (requiring felt slippers), the household schedules, habits, everything.

This first visit lasts three days and occupies 16% of the book.  It is thorough.  A storm that does not break is a perfect symbol for Adalbert Stifter.  The perfection, the lack of drama, is itself a source of tension.  What is the cost of perfection?

A seasonal pattern is established for Heinrich:  winter with his family, spring and summer in the mountains, autumn at the Rose House.  The pattern is subtly varied – Heinrich sees the roses bloom, or misses them entirely.  Heinrich’s scientific and artistic knowledge expand. He moves from drawing to painting.  He studies architecture, and glaciers.

The centerpiece of the novel is an encounter with an ancient Greek sculpture (first glimpsed back on page 50) during a thunderstorm (now the storm comes, just when Heinrich needs it):

“Why didn’t you tell me before,” I continued, “that the statue on your marble stairway is so beautiful?”

“Who told you that now?” he asked.

“I could see it myself,” I replied.

“Then you will know it all the more certainly and believe it all the more firmly,” he answered, “than if someone else had said something about it.”  (216)

Hints of two more novelistic stories have appeared by now.  At some point a woman Heinrich’s age is introduced, perhaps a relation or friend of the host.  A romantic story, perhaps?  Yes.  And then there is the mystery of the host’s identity, seemingly defused early, but the culmination of the romance subplot leads the host to tell his own story in detail, filling another 10% of the book.

A quick recap:  Introduction 6%; Host’s Estate Tour 16%; Develop Develop Develop (Love!) 62%; Host’s Story 10%; Conclusion 6%.  I detect symmetry.

The big climax, the secret of the host, is that the perfection of his estate and life are the consequence of a failed love affair of his youth, the one eruption of passion and anguish in the novel.  He is somehow attempting to make restitution for his lost happiness, and the narrator and his bride become the embodiment of the host’s efforts.  The breach is healed, order is restored.

Is this a good story?  I do not know.  But Stifter packs it with meaning, and also with zithers, mountains, engravings, nests, cacti, furniture, and flowers.  So much furniture, so many flowers.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

The most boring and mendacious author in the whole of German literature - beginning Adalbert Stifter's Indian Summer

For very long stretches of his prose Stifter is an unbearable chatterbox, he has an incompetent and, which is most despicable, a slovenly style and he is moreover, in actual fact, the most boring and mendacious author in the whole of German literature.  (Thomas Bernhard, Old Masters, 1985, tr. Ewald Osers, p. 35)

So there is one view, admittedly that of a fictional character, of Adalbert Stifter.  It contains some truth. His first novel, Indian Summer (Der Nachsommer, 1857), is dull, mannered, distant, completely devoid of humor, virtually devoid of story, and free of characters who might be described as naturalistic.

For example, dull:

“Once I took the trouble of measuring the area of this hill as far as it is planted in grain so I could make a prediction about the average amount that would be harvested in one year.  I based my calculations on our previous harvests as well as those of our neighbors.  I couldn’t believe the figures; I wouldn’t have even dreamed that they were so large.  If you are interested, I’ll show you this study which is kept in our house.” (45)

The novel could be even more dull, I suppose – Stifter could spend several pages describing that study of grain yield; thankfully, it is never mentioned again, although the characters do spend a great deal of time looking at drawings of buildings and furniture.

Humorless:

We finally learned from each other, spending many joyous and loving hours with the zither.  (208)

Sorry, that is actually an example of humor, assuming you find the word “zither” as inherently humorous as I do.  The narrator spends a fair amount of time playing the zither and commissioning beautiful hand-crafted zithers.  This is the voice, by the way, of the main character and narrator of the novel.  Hundreds of pages, much like that.

Mannered:

“Thank you, Mother,” her son replied, “you are so kind, Mother dear; I already know what it is and shall do exactly as Foster Father decides.”

“That will be good,” she answered.  (142)

Everyone talks in this way.  They have to, because a defining feature of the novel is that there is no drama or even conflict of any sort.  Everyone says the words they ought to say and takes the actions they ought to take.  In a pattern typical with Stifter, for example in his novellas Limestone (1848) and Brigitta (1844), the events in the present of the story are a sort of ideal resolution of a conflict from the past, a conflict the existence of which is only revealed at the end of the story.

Imagine how this works when the text of the novel is eight times longer than the novellas.  The tension is almost unbearable.  When will something happen?  Something has to happen, doesn’t it?  Or was Stifter writing some kind of expectation-crushing 19th century avant garde anti-novel?

He was not, but it took me a long time to understand what he was doing.  As my understanding grew, so did my enthusiasm for this quiet, odd novel.  Indian Summer turns out to be a – what is a good metaphor – a foundation stone of Austrian literature.  Austrian culture, perhaps.  That grump in the Bernhard novel also calls Stifter “an author I myself had always so enormously revered that it became more like artistic addiction,” at least before he finally read him “accurately and radically.” (34)

That sets a good example for me.  I am going to write about Stifter and Indian Summer until I run out of things to say.

All quotations are from the 1985 Wendell Frye translation, which I still, after 470 dense pages, can hardly believe exists.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Gyula Krúdy’s The Adventures of Sindbad - The arts of dreaming, chivalry and sensibility

I will be away from the computer for a few days, so this post ends the week.  I will be back Tuesday, when I will begin a long – perhaps endless – investigation of Adalbert Stifter’s tedious 1857 masterpiece Der Nachsommer (Indian Summer).  So come back for that.  Hoo boy.

Meanwhile, a final note on the dream theme.

Gyula Krúdy’s The Adventures of Sindbad is a collection of story-like textual objects, published between 1911 and 1917*, that could at times be mistaken for dreams.  The title character, a Hungarian with a nickname stolen from The Arabian Nights although he is more of a Casanova type, is alternately a youth, three hundred years old, dead, a ghost, resurrected, a spring of mistletoe, and so on.  Sometimes this is part of the story, other times just casual Surrealism, dream-stuff.  Sindbad is always in pursuit of a woman, or sometimes revisiting a former lover, which provides the theme and variations for the set of stories:  lost love, lost passion, lost youth.  Or as Krúdy puts it near the end of the book, “the arts of dreaming, chivalry and sensibility” (174).

This passage feels typical to me, but is not particularly dream-like:

He imagined himself wandering aimlessly in a foreign city, bundles of unopened mail waiting for him at the hotel.  He couldn’t bear to pronounce the woman’s name because the effort cost him such physical pain it flooded through him from head to foot so that the thermometer beneath his arm showed a distinct rise, and whenever he found himself alone and took out her picture it was such delicious agony he had to rest his head on his arm.  “How marvellous it was to love her,” he wrote on a scrap of paper then dropped it into the Danube.  (188)

That thermometer is what I meant by casual Surrealism.  I do not see any other context for it.  The last sentence is a kind of Romantic parody that is one of Krúdy’s modes.  On the next page, a woman packs for a romantic getaway – her luggage consists of several volumes of Hungarian poetry, a human skull, and:

“Oh, and I mustn’t forget my pistol,” muttered Mrs. Bánatvári in that voice so often adopted by faint, expensive, dreamy women.  (189)

Now I think I am making the book sound funnier than it mostly is.  The list of things Sindbad likes (102-3) shows another mood – “snowdrifts and women’s legs,” “[l]eaves in the park in autumn, blotched as if with blood,” “wooing complete strangers in highland towns,” and “lies, illusions, fictions, and imagination.”  Hey, me too!

To be honest, a problem with, or feature of, Krúdy’s stories is that although full of images and sentences that on inspection seem memorable, the disassociated form, whether dream-like or absurdist or just very free, makes the details and stories dang hard to remember.  But the contact with them was pleasant.

I read the old Central European Classics edition, not the NYRB version, but they are the same book, translated by the culture hero George Szirtes.  Szirtes says Krúdy wrote “some fifty novels, some three thousand stories,” etc.  What, what?  And to think people are  amazed by how much Balzac or Trollope wrote.

*  The Sindbad stories were not all collected into a book until 1944, or so the publication information suggests.  What did it take to publish a book in Hungary in 1944?

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

A psychical complex of the most intricate possible structure. - a Freudian reading of Lady Audley's Secret - no, not like that, but still Freudian

I will repeat a couple of fragments of Lady Audley’s Secret:

“My lady's portrait stood on an easel, covered with a green baize in the center of the octagonal chamber.” (I.VIII)

“The green-baize covered card-table was adorned with…”  (II.VIII, 130 pages later)

The “green baize” is mentioned several times in the novel, mostly as an accessory of the portrait.  The reader of the novel knows that the portrait plays an important part in the uncovering of Lady Audley’s secret.  In the second passage, an amateur detective is also searching for clues to the secret, and is about to find an important one.  But the presence of a common color and type of cloth is just a coincidence for the detective.  Even if he unconsciously associates that cloth with Lady Audley, its presence in someone else’s house can hardly be meaningful.

 It is only the attentive reader who can perceive the association, who sees the trace of Lady Audley.  What is meaningless in crowded reality is meaningful in spartan fiction.  It is not a coincidence for me, or for the author, who picked these particular descriptive details out of many possibilities.

Or perhaps Braddon did not create this connection purposefully, but only by chance, without thinking about it.  But she might, then, have picked the green baize unconsciously.  After all, she is the one who has been repeatedly associating Lady Audley with the green baize, going so far as to write out the words several times.  So it is no surprise when, casting about for furnishings for this room where Lady Audley had once been, the phrase “green baize” pops into her head.

In Sigmund Freud’s 1901 essay “On Dreams” (a summation of the 1900 The Interpretation of Dreams written for slackers like me), a dream is described as

a psychical complex of the most intricate possible structure.  Its portions stand in the most manifold logical relations to one another: they represent foreground and background, conditions, digressions and illustrations, chains of evidence and counter-arguments.  Each train of thought is almost invariably accompanied by its contradictory counterpart. (60)

“He is describing fiction,” I thought to myself, not just dream-fiction but all of it.  We use some different vocabulary – replace “contradictory counterpart,” for example, with “ambiguity and irony.”  I want to doctor this one, too:

The restoration of the connections which the dream-work [fiction] has destroyed [concealed] is a task which has to be performed by the work of analysis [reading]. (60)

But this is almost perfect as is:

An immediate transformation of one thing into another in a dream seems to represent the relation of cause and effect.  (61)

Lady Audley is transformed into green felt, just for a moment.  How strange that I, that a good reader of fiction, can follow Braddon’s nonsensical dream-logic.

The Freud quotations are all from the Standard Edition, Volume V, tr. James Strachey.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Lady Audley's Secret, like some demented class of vegetation, whose prickly and spider-like members had a fancy for standing on their heads

I do not have an argument but rather a suspicion.  Lady Audley’s Secret was serialized (in several magazines, oddly), and although the plot is slick enough that I am sure Braddon planned it out ahead of time I am convinced that she ran into a problem with length.  Since the plot frame had already been built, so to speak, she had to pad the book with digressions and strangely detailed descriptive passages that become more frequent in the last third or so.  Near the beginning, the narrator’s intrusions look like this:

If any one could at that moment have told the young barrister that so simple a thing as his cousin's brief letter would one day come to be a link in that terrible chain of evidence afterward to be slowly forged in the only criminal case in which he was ever to be concerned, perhaps Mr. Robert Audley would have lifted his eyebrows a little higher than usual.  (I.VII)

Clumsy and unnecessary.  Later,  though:

The floating mists from the boiling liquid in which she infuses the soothing herbs; whose secrets are known to her alone, envelope her in a cloud of scented vapor, through which she seems a social fairy, weaving potent spells with Gunpowder and Bohea.  At the tea-table she reigns omnipotent, unapproachable.  What do men know of the mysterious beverage?  Read how poor Hazlitt made his tea, and shudder at the dreadful barbarism.  (II.VII)

The passage goes on and on and is about nothing but Woman’s superiority at making tea; as far as I can tell it is utterly incidental to the story, and thus is both filler and a place where Braddon felt she could cut loose with the juicy, grapey purple prose.

What I am imagining is a mystery novel written by Tristram Shandy’s great-niece, one in which the commentary eventually subsumes the story.  Braddon did not write that book.  She did write this:

Knitted curtains shaded the windows, in which hung wire baskets of horrible-looking plants of the cactus species, that grew downward, like some demented class of vegetation, whose prickly and spider-like members had a fancy for standing on their heads.

The green-baize covered card-table was adorned with gaudily-bound annuals or books of beauty, placed at right angles; but Robert Audley did not avail himself of these literary distractions.  (II.VIII)

Detective Audley is at a school for girls, looking for the truth about Lady Audley.  If this were a Nabokov novel I would file away the “right angles,” surely a link to another scene, say II.XIII, “the looking-glasses, cunningly placed at angles and opposite corners by an artistic upholsterer, multiplied my lady's image, and in that image reflected the most beautiful object in the enchanted chamber,” and the green baize, too, which appears in I. VIII, “My lady's portrait stood on an easel, covered with a green baize in the center of the octagonal chamber.”

When I knock these passages together, they begin to suggest a control of the detail work that I do not believe Braddon really had.  Amazing the patterns our imaginations create.  Note to Googling students of Prof. Maitzen: surely this is a dead end.  Go back before it is too late!  (Hint: follow the pre-Raphaelite theme instead).

Regardless, that cactus is worth seeing, and perhaps even better is the implication that the Audley might possibly be tempted from his purpose by gift books for girls.  That is clearly Shandy’s niece speaking – who else would want to know what is in those tedious books?

I guess what I am doing here is enjoying the passages where Braddon most seemed to be enjoying herself.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Notes on Lady Audley's Secret - How clumsily the wretched creatures attempt to assist the witch president of the tea-tray

Since Rohan Maitzen’s “19th Century Fiction” class is moving on towards Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s Lady Audley’s Secret (1862), I should write up my long-postponed notes.  Professor Maitzen for some reason pointed people towards my little series on Elizabeth Gaskell’s Cranford, which is, I admit, an especially good bit of blogging, since it is packed with quotations from Cranford.  Whatever I have to say about Braddon will be approximately a third as good, because Braddon Lady Audley’s Secret is about a third as good as Cranford (which is pretty good).

I said “notes,” yes?

1.  Although the mystery novel had not yet been invented, Braddon’s book is one of them, or is almost one.  A long stretch of the middle has a crime, a detective, clues, the works.  The beginning and end defy my notion of the genre as it normally works, which is pleasing. Any fan of mystery novels who is also comfortable with the language of Austen or Dickens or a Brontë should read Lady Audley’s Secret.  That’s millions of people, right?

2.  The plot is at times exceedingly clever.  I will pick an early example, Chapters VII and VIII.  By this point any reader paying attention has a pretty good idea what the titular secret is, or at least what Braddon wants me to think it is.  One character, George, does not know the secret but will know it instantly if he ever meets Lady Audley.  So the chapters are arranged as a series of near-misses, some of them highly artificial (“but Lady Audley was seated on the side of the carriage furthest from the inn, and he could see nothing of the fair-haired paragon of whom he had heard so much”), but knowingly so, meaning that Braddon knows I know she is toying with the mechanisms of fictional suspense, and I know she knows I know, and so on, clever enough, but the best part is that George never does meet Lady Audley in this section but learns her secret anyway, after which Braddon tosses in another near miss, just to rub it in.

At the end of Chapter VIII, I applauded – well done, Braddon!

3.  The detective, Robert Audley, is an indolent barrister on an independent income.  He spends his days smoking cigars and reading French novels, until he falls in love with the aforementioned George.  When George disappears, Audley takes up sleuthing, determined to discover the fate of the man he loves.

I have over-interpreted a bit here.  It is of course an anachronism to interpret Robert’s effusively homosocial language as homosexuality, but once I saw it, it was hard to unsee, and I am not sure there is any need to unsee.  The novel is no worse for it.  There is a strong streak of camp (another anachronism) in Robert’s character.  Why can’t more than one Lady Audley have a secret?

Robert does eventually fall in love with a woman, which should deflate my theory, except the woman is the absent George’s sister, who looks much like George.

4.  Sometimes Braddon writes the weirdest things sometimes, often in digressions that become increasingly frequent as the book progresses.   Maybe it is filler.  Dang curious filler, if so.

I will save this for tomorrow, although I put an example in the title (II.VII).  Do not expect anything Cranford-level.

Friday, February 8, 2013

As though by lecherous women in high-necked long robes - Musil's metaphors, or revisiting the limits of language

This has been my third time through The Confusions of Young Törless.  I have read it at ten year intervals.  The book is rich, so of course I make new discoveries every time, although I am not sure if that is because I read it better or because I have just read more – more relevant texts, more Goethe or philosophy or German novellas.

I have certainly not solved the puzzle of the novel, which is how its different pieces work together, how the political parable meshes with the philosophical novel and the Bildungsroman and the homosexuality.  This week I have deliberately fragmented the pieces, in part because I am not sure that they all fit together so well.

But they do work to form a novel, because they are all pulled together by Robert Musil’s style.  He is not, at this point, a first-rate stylist – I mean, he is not Flaubert or Proust – but he has some good tricks.

Musil’s physical world in Törless is plain and functional.  He is good with space.  That tradition of 19th century novellas was always good at placing its characters in space.  But the main feature of the novel is a constant swing between the outside world and Törless’s jumbled interior.   Similarly the narrator sometimes shares that interior with the character and sometimes is commenting on it like a trained analyst:

Törless’s taste for certain moods was the first hint of a psychological development that was later to manifest itself as a strong sense of wonder…  Indeed, the more accurately he circumscribed his feelings with thoughts, and the more familiar they became to him, the stranger and more incomprehensible did they seem to become, in equal measure…  (etc. etc., 28-9, ellipses mine)

The narrator is more confident in his judgment than Törless but has as much trouble describing the state and process of the boy’s thoughts.  Which is, let’s face it, a challenging task.  The narrator might actually be Törless (as an adult).  Never mind that.

The tool that moves Musil from the analytic to the artistic is his use of metaphor:

And Törless felt that under that immovable, dumb vault he was quite alone, a tiny speck of life under that vast, transparent corpse. (i.e., the sky, 92)

It [T.’s “sense of urgency”] was something that was encircled by a whirling throng of emotions, as though by lecherous women in high-necked long robes, with masks over their faces.  (168)

One phase of development was at an end; the soul had formed another annual ring, as a young tree does.  (202)

Metaphorical language of this sort is not common in the novel but is reserved for moments of unusual tension, whether Törless is at an impasse or making a breakthrough.  Musil, like Törless, finds language inadequate to directly describe how Törless feels, but as an artist he has another path: he can show what the feelings are like.  By moving away from the thing itself, the writer moves his reader closer to it.  Language is inherently imperfect; the writer makes art out of the imperfections.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

It was the failure of language that caused him anguish - the linguistic turn of young Törless

Do I have any grad student readers left?  The Confusions of Young Törless was published  while Robert Musil was working on his PhD at the University of Berlin.  Psychology and philosophy; he finished in 1908, two years after the novel came out.  Just a little something extra he knocked out whole working on a philosophy PhD.  So there is some inspiration for the grad students, my little gift to them.

Has any literature been more concerned with the failures of language than Austrian literature?  Hofmannsthal and Broch had crises that led them to abandon this or that form; a Peter Handke novel ends with the narrator abandoning words for abstract symbols; Wittgenstein did whatever it was that he did (I must remain silent).

And young Musil makes young Törless’s crisis of meaning in part a linguistic crisis:

It occurred to him that once, when he had been standing with his father, looking at one of those landscapes, he had suddenly cried out: ‘Oh, how beautiful it is!’ – and then been embarrassed when his father was glad.  For he might just as easily have said: ‘How terribly sad it is.  It was the failure of language that caused him anguish, a half-awareness that the words were merely accidental, mere evasions, and never the feeling itself.  (91)

Much of the novel consists of descriptions of Törless’s thought.  Sometimes he is directly working on an idea; sometimes an experience leads to the idea, as when staring into the sky leads him to question his  received notion of infinity (“now it flashed through him, with startling clarity, that there was something terribly disturbing about this word,” 88).  The process of thinking is more important than the content, and both are believably adolescent, often shallow and unfocused, frequently tangling themselves with Törless’s sexual frustration.  Törless is confused – it says so right in the title!

When he turned round, Basini was standing there naked.

Involuntarily Törless fell back a step.  The sudden sight of this naked snow-white body, with the red of the walls dark as blood behind it, dazzled and bewildered him…  He could not shake off the spell of this beauty.  He had never known before what beauty was. (148)

Unlike his experience with his father, Törless knows that “beauty” is the right word.  Arthur Schopenhauer argued that aesthetic perception was one of the few ways for us to transcend the endless suffering of our existence, however imperfectly.  In this scene and many others, I detect hints of Schopenhauer.  Törless often seems to be working towards Schopenhauer’s ideas without knowing it.

The sex has to wait another fifteen pages (“Then Törless abandoned his search for words,” 163).  If Törless is searching for freedom from his own thoughts, in this scene he finds it, at least temporarily.

The novel ends with a mix of thought and experience:

“What is it, my dear boy?”

“Nothing, Mamma.  I was just thinking.”

And, drawing a deep breath, he considered the faint whiff of scent that rose from his mother’s corseted waist.  (217)

That is a strange word, isn’t it, “considered”?  But after the experiences of the novel, Törless has developed, as characters in Bildungsromanen do, so he is calmer, self-controlled, able to direct his thoughts to a single detail of the objective world, one that just happens to have sexual connotations and involve his mother.  I guess.

What business to I have venturing into philosophy?  Tomorrow, style, literary style, finally, thank goodness.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

One thing he did not understand, and that was how anyone could approach this matter in such a long-winded way. - in which I identify with young Törless

The title of The Confusions of Young Törless suggests a relationship with Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther (Die Leiden des jungen Werthers, 1774), and it would not be too hard to pull together some parallels.  There is a trick, though.  Musil’s actual title is Die Verwirrungen des Zoglings Törless.  My German does not have to be very advanced to note that “Zoglings” is capitalized and is therefore not an adjective but a noun.  The Confusions of the Student Törless is closer, or “cadet” maybe.  Now people who actually know German can get to work on alternatives to “confusions” and additional associations of “Zoglings.”

To add to the confusion, the 1966 Volker Schlöndorff film adaptation is called Der junge Törless, or Young Törless.  I cannot just blame the English translators.

Goethe will reappear in a minute.

When I left Törless, he was passively watching his supposed friends bully and torture another student, meanwhile having sex with the victim.  When I left Törless before that, he was being taunted with an unspecified book by Immanuel Kant.  This was supposed to calm his anxiety, but instead it put him “in a state of inward upheaval” (114).  Törless has never read Kant yet knows him well:

Now, in Törless’s hearing the name Kant had never been uttered except in passing and then in the tone in which one refers to some awe-inspiring holy man.  And Törless could not think anything but that with Kant the problems of philosophy had been finally solved, so that since then it had become futile for anyone to concern himself with the subject, just as he also believed there was no longer any point in writing poetry since Schiller and Goethe.  (115)

It gets worse:

At home these men’s works were kept in the bookcase with the green glass panes in Papa’s study, and Törless knew this book-case was never opened except to display its contents to a visitor.  It was like the shrine of some divinity to which one does not readily draw nigh and which one venerates only because one is glad that thanks to its existence there are certain things one need no longer bother about.

Part of the story of Musil’s novel, however circuitously he goes about it, is how Törless gets out from under the crushing weight of German culture, how he cultivates “a longing for quietness, for books” (195).  Even his failures are helpful, as when, stung by the math teacher, he tries to read Kant:

But with all its parentheses and footnotes it was incomprehensible to him, and when he conscientiously went along the sentences with his eyes, it was as if some aged, bony hand were twisting and screwing his brain out of his head.  (118)

He makes it through three pages, with teeth clenched and “sweat on his forehead.”

I do not usually write about how I identify with this or that imaginary bundle of words, but at this point I strongly identified with poor Törless.  I have felt that hand.

I still need a title for my post.  This is appropriate:

One thing he did not understand, and that was how anyone could approach this matter in such a long-winded way.  (78)

Invent your own context, please.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

I have a liking for these mass movements - Young Törless and fascism

There have been plenty of novels about fascism; that is clear enough.

The Confusions of Young Törless, Robert Musil’s 1906 debut novel, is one of them.   Except, hold it, in 1906 there was no fascism.  I assume that Musil was such a keen observer of some of the psychology of the proto-fascist movements of his time, like the anti-Semitic political parties that were governing Vienna, that he was able to tease out the direction of events.  Or else the fascist bullies in Young Törless are exact portraits of boys Musil knew in school who just happen to prefigure the future.  Could be.  Either way, it is weird.

Young Törless lives at an isolated boarding school on the Hungarian plains.  The covers of the Penguin Classics edition and the older Pantheon I read include helpful photos that remind me that the students are always in military uniform, at least when they are not naked.

Törless has fallen in with “the boys who counted as the worst of his year,” a bad set, the brutal Reiting and the mystical Beineberg.  Reiting discovers that another boy, Basini, has been stealing, and the trio begin to blackmail Basini.  What Reiting wants from Basini is power; Beineberg wants a specimen on which to test his esoteric theories; the Törless, passive, but cruel in his own way, want answers to metaphysical questions.  And sex, they all want sex, which they extract from Basini in one way or another:

“You know that sort of thing, it happens every few years.  But they went a bit too far.”

“How do you mean?”

“Well – how!  Don’t ask such silly questions!  And that’s what Reiting’s doing with Basini!”

Törless suddenly understood what he meant, and he felt a choking in his throat as if it were full of sand.  (75)

This is almost the limit of the novel’s explicitness, in other words wild stuff for 1906, plus it is not quite the limit.  Törless’s response to Beineberg’s news is actually pretty explicit.  One of Törless’s confusions is that he is homosexual, or so I see it, although that is an interpretive question.  Perhaps it is a just a phase in Törless’s development.

It is for Reiting, by contrast, who is simply a monster, with sex as another form of humiliation for when he tires of beating and insulting Basini.  Reiting in his later life will marry a women of his class and chase women below him; he will enter politics, eventually joining the Austrian Nazi Party and rising to a high position after the Anschluss.  Obviously this is not in the novel.  But is is Reiting who says things like “And anyway, I have a liking for these mass movements” (175) while planning a violent public humiliation of Basini.

Reiting is really just a charismatic thug, while Beineberg’s evil is ideological.  He is under the influence of Eastern mysticism and perhaps some form of degenerate Nietzschean thought:

“First of all, as far as Basini goes, it’s me view he’s no loss in any case.  It makes no difference whether we go and report him, or give him a beating, or even if we torture him to death, just for the fun of it.  Personally. I can’t imagine that a creature like that can have any meaning in the wonderful mechanism of the universe.  (77)

Beineberg calls Basini a worm – step around him or on him, what difference does it make.  At this early point in the novel, it is likely a reader takes this all as adolescent bluster, which it is in part.  But Musil’s novel is also about the other part, the part that acts.

Also, there is the stuff about math.

Monday, February 4, 2013

You see this book. Here is philosophy. For the present I think it would still be a little beyond you - plunging into Robert Musil's Young Törless

Not enough novels are about math; that is clear enough.

The Confusions of Young Törless, Robert Musil’s 1906 debut novel, has some math.

“I say, did you really understand all that stuff?”

“What stuff?”

“All that about imaginary numbers.”

“Yes.  It’s not particularly difficult, is it?  All you have to do is remember that the square root of minus one is the basic unit you work with.”

“But that’s just it.  I mean, there’s no such thing.” (105)

Young Törless is having an intellectual and emotional crisis, in part caused by a simple yet deep linguistic confusion.  He is having difficulty relating the name of a mathematical concept to the thing-itself.  Imaginary numbers are no more imaginary than real numbers are real; both are identically real and imaginary.  René Descartes is endlessly smarter than either Törless or me, but this particular confusion is apparently his fault.  If someone had at some point given the concept a less imaginative name – if imaginary numbers were called “Euler numbers” or “Cardano numbers” – Törless would have to go back to worrying about infinity, which he works on a bit earlier in the novel.

I remember – this is an aside – all of the confusion caused twenty or twenty-five years ago by so-called “chaos theory.”  Mathematicians have proven the world is chaotic, certain hasty non-mathematicians declared, which was as wrong as could be, since the “theory” suggested that certain processes that looked random were in fact perfectly orderly and predictable.  I suppose the great example of this kind of confusion is Einstein’s theory of relativity proving that all things – moral values, for example – are relative.  But that is history; I lived through the chaos confusion.

If only mathematicians would restrain their poetic impulses.

Törless, who attends a boarding school, visits his math teacher’s office, hoping for enlightenment.  He has apparently never been to the teacher’s office before.  It is “permeated with the smell of cheap tobacco-smoke,” and the teacher’s long underwear (“rubbed black by the blacking of his boots”) is visible over his socks.  Törless

could not help feeling further repelled by these little observations; he scarcely found it in him to go on hoping that this man was really in possession of significant knowledge…  The ordinariness of what he saw affronted him; he projected this on to mathematics, and his respect began to give way before a mistrustful reluctance.  (110)

Törless is in search of transcendent, not ordinary knowledge, beyond the scope of the teacher who urges Törless to trust math and be patient – “for the present: believe!”

But then the teacher makes a terrible error:

On a little table lay a volume of Kant, the sort of volume that lies about for the sake of appearances.  This the master took up and held out to Törless.

“You see this book.  Here is philosophy…  For the present I think it would still be a little beyond you.”  (112-3)

Which is not the right thing to say to this particular kid, although it might be good advice for me.  Nevertheless, we will see how far I can get this week with Robert Musil’s little book.

Page numbers refer to the 1955 Pantheon edition, titled Young Törless.  Eithne Wilkins and Ernst Kaiser were the translators.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

"How good – how very good is goat!" - that has little to do with what I wrote about The Jungle Book

f course I could comb through The Jungle Books selecting especially good sentences, phrases, and well-placed adjectives.  There are plenty of those:

It was a thick voice – a muddy voice that would have made you shudder – a voice like something soft breaking in two.  There was a quaver in it, a croak and a whine.

The voice is that of an ancient crocodile.  I do not know if the description is accurate, but it gives me something to imagine as, in “The Undertakers,” the crocodile tells his life story to a crane and a jackal.

This one practically screams “political allegory.”  The crocodile is the exploitive ruler of the nearby village.  The English will likely tame him.  This is apparently the only place in his fiction Kipling mentions the Indian Mutiny of 1857.  The crocodile greatly approved of it:

“But the season I think of, the river was low, smooth, and even, and, as the Gavial had warned me, the dead English came down, touching each other.  I got my girth in that season—my girth and my depth.”

Shudder.  Children’s book.  Anyway, the crocodile is a legendary figure, too, a god, or a monster, or both:

“'Look, he is driving the flood before him!  He is the godling of the village.'  Then they threw many flowers at me, and by happy thought one led a goat across the road.”

“How good – how very good is goat!” said the Jackal.

The non-Mowgli interact in curious and subtle ways with the Mowgli stories.  “The White Seal”’s white seal, Kotick, becomes a Mowgli-like hero, but in this case he is a prophet and culture hero.  The story is set in the Pacific Ocean and on an Alaskan beach where tens of thousands of seals gather every year.  The hero discovers that seal-hunters attack the herd every year, slaughtering hundreds.  Or rather, the hero notices this.  His unique white hide is accompanied by an unusual degree of cognition:

Hundreds and hundreds of thousands of seals watched them being driven, but they went on playing just the same.  Kotick was the only one who asked questions, and none of his companions could tell him anything, except that the men always drove seals in that way for six weeks or two months of every year.

I will just lightly step over the slaughtering scene.  Kotick vows to save the seals by finding a safe beach, unknown to men, and of course, since this is a children’s book, succeeds:

Of course it was not all done at once, for the seals need a long time to turn things over in their minds, but year by year more seals went away from Novastoshnah, and Lukannon, and the other nurseries, to the quiet, sheltered beaches where Kotick sits all the summer through, getting bigger and fatter and stronger each year, while the holluschickie [bachelor seals] play round him, in that sea where no man comes.

If this appears to be a simplistic ending, I suggest it is worthwhile thinking through the logic, which Kipling did.  If there is no place on earth where no man comes, and the seals go to a place where no man comes, the place they go must not be on earth.  Kotick the hero-prophet leads his people to the safety of the afterlife, of death.  “The White Seal” is a parable of extinction.  Children’s book, I say to myself, a book for children.

Friday, February 1, 2013

The Jungle Book as myth - Because the jungle is full of such tales.

ipling was an original and credible myth-maker.  I mean something specific and rare: in the Jungle Book stories he wrote stories that often feel like re-tellings of ancient stories.  Read in this way, they build to scenes of sublimity.

I have little idea what Kipling had been reading, so the fact that I pick up hints of any number of old stories means nothing.  Kipling is working with common tools.  It is odd, though, to realize that a story like “The King’s Ankus” that at first seemed slight contains so many elements of the Germanic Siegfried stories – the cobra is a dragon, the ankus is the Rheingold, Mowgli like Siegfried knows the language of animals.  References or archetypes?

Here is how David Ferry, in his version of Gilgamesh (1992) describes the wild man Enkidu, a prototype who predates Mowgli by thousands of years:

I saw a hairy-bodied man today
at the watering place, powerful as Ninurta

the god of war; he feeds upon the grasslands
with gazelles; he visits the watering places

with the beasts; he has unset my traps and filled
my hunting pits; the creatures of the grasslands

get away free.  (Tablet I)

Mowgli is a boy, not a man, and as an honorary wolf he feeds on gazelles, not with them, but the part about the traps is accurate, and in the most openly mythological of the stories, so is the gathering at the watering place.  The story, “How Fear Came,” even features gazelles and hunters eating grass.

A drought has struck the jungle:

and when Hathi, the wild elephant, who lives for a hundred years and more, saw a long, lean blue ridge of rock show dry in the very centre of the stream, he knew that he was looking at the Peace Rock, and then and there he lifted up the trunk and proclaimed the Water Truce, as his father before him had proclaimed it fifty years ago.

That is history, not myth.  But when the animals, tiger, deer, bear, and buffalo, gather around the Peace Rock for water but Hathi tells them the legend that gives the story its title.  The elephant’s tale has everything – a creation myth (“Tha, the First of the Elephants… drew the Jungle out of deep waters with his trunk”), a number of Just So stories (how the tiger got his stripes), and answers to some big questions – the origins of death, fear of Man, and the Law of the Jungle.  Some parts of the story, like the tiger’s Mark of Cain, are borrowed from Genesis and the Garden of Eden, while others are from I do not know where, perhaps Kipling’s imagination.  The pre-Fall vegetarian tiger really could be from Gilgamesh by way of Genesis.

As the Mowgli stories progress, Mowgli himself becomes a legendary figure, a hero or demi-god who follows a standard path – foster parents, the favor of friendly gods, a period of exile, and so on.  The effect is powerful.  I have not even begun to explain it.