Thursday, May 30, 2013

It wasn't all I expected it would be - baked goods in The Country of the Pointed Firs

I’m going straight to the pies:

Once acknowledge that an American pie is far to be preferred to its humble ancestor, the English tart, and it is joyful to be reassured at a Bowden reunion that invention has not yet failed.

This is near the end of The Country of the Pointed Firs, Chapter XIX.  The narrator, Sarah, is at her landlady’s family reunion, part of her acceptance into the community of Dunnet Landing.  The sentence is unnecessarily fussy, I admit – "once acknowledge," as if there is doubt, what nonsense, despite Pykk’s claim that “a pie is an object with gravy; a pie without gravy is the thing that appears in the world while the world is waiting for a pie with gravy to arrive; it's a stopgap.”  I believe this is the only misjudgment at Pykk.  The New England fruit pie is the greatest contribution of the United States to world cuisine that did not originate in the South, making it, overall, something like our 45th greatest contribution.

Never mind that.  Read this, this is shocking:  

Beside a delightful variety of material, the decorations went beyond all my former experience; dates and names were wrought in lines of pastry and frosting on the tops. There was even more elaborate reading matter on an excellent early-apple pie which we began to share and eat, precept upon precept. Mrs. Todd helped me generously to the whole word BOWDEN, and consumed REUNION herself, save an undecipherable fragment…

They frost their pies!  Even more amazing:  they read their pies!  And the pies are not even the most impressive pastries:

the most renowned essay in cookery on the tables was a model of the old Bowden house made of durable gingerbread, with all the windows and doors in the right places, and sprigs of genuine lilac set at the front.  It must have been baked in sections, in one of the last of the great brick ovens, and fastened together on the morning of the day.  There was a general sigh when this fell into ruin at the feast's end, and it was shared by a great part of the assembly, not without seriousness, and as if it were a pledge and token of loyalty.  I met the maker of the gingerbread house, which had called up lively remembrances of a childish story.  She had the gleaming eye of an enthusiast and a look of high ideals.

"I could just as well have made it all of frosted cake," she said, "but 'twouldn't have been the right shade; the old house, as you observe, was never painted, and I concluded that plain gingerbread would represent it best.  It wasn't all I expected it would be," she said sadly, as many an artist had said before her of his work.

Now, it is obvious that I am cheating, taking the day off, not really writing a thing, just copying huge gobs of text, but this is the finest passage in the novel and what could I do but single it out.  I mean, “not without seriousness”; “the gleaming eye of an enthusiast.”  The gingerbread house baker never appears before in the book nor is she seen again after her sublime lament, the new motto of Wuthering Expectations.  “It wasn't all I expected it would be.”  It never is.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

A daily life busied with rustic simplicities and the scents of primeval herbs - The Country of the Pointed Firs, domestic picaresque

Messing around  in the comments of a Jam & Idleness review of Elizabeth Gaskell’s Cranford, I amused myself by calling the novel a “domestic picaresque.”  In Don Quixote and Lazarillo de Tormes, the characters have adventures simply because they travel around.  There may be nothing more to the plot than movement and variety of experience.  The women of Cranford have adventures by moving around to each other’s houses for tea.  The adventure may consist of observing different domestic habits and eating cake.  Boy, Cranford ought to be dull.

The logical question, when inventing a new genre – based on Bing and the MLA International Bibliography, my idea is not purely original, but close – the next question is what other works belong to it.  The only title that occurred to me was Sarah Orne Jewett’s The Country of the Pointed Firs (1896), which I had not actually read.  Now I have, and the important thing I learned from it – the most important thing I can learn from any book – is that I was right.

A narrator much like the author (I will call her Sarah) spends a long summer in a coastal town in Maine, nominally to write, but soon the visitin’ begins.  Folks come to visit Mrs. Todd, Sarah’s herbalist landlady, and Mrs. Todd takes Sarah to visit others.  What do people do on these visits?  They visit.  I am introducing my own regionalisms here, which are not necessarily those of Maine.  They visit about the news and weather and the past. 

When zhiv, several years ago, called the book a “plotless novel” but also a “modern novel,” this is what he meant.  We are now used to calling this sort of organized prose fiction a novel.

A line that runs through the book, connecting the episodes, is Sarah’s adaptation to the town, so that it is a moment of triumph when, near the end (Ch. XX), she goes visitin’ on her own.  Other unifying themes are the series of eccentric or even damaged men, mostly widowers – this one is shared by Cranford, and true Mainers might suggest that what I call eccentric is what Maine calls ordinary.

Another line is housekeeping and cooking and Mrs. Todd’s herbs, the domestic rather than picaresque side of the book, a different genre.  I found an interesting study by Ann Romines, The Home Plot: Women, Writing & Domestic Ritual (University of Massachusetts Press, 1992), which puts The Country of the Pointed Firs at the head of housekeeping fiction, as in specific works of Willa Cather (who I barely know) and Eudora Welty.  Jewett’s touch on the latter’s “family get together” novels Delta Wedding and Losing Battles was clear enough even before I got to Chapter XVIII, “The Bowden Reunion.”  Romines never mentions Gaskell, which is odd.

The genres are proliferating, which was not my point.  I guess I will spend a couple of days with the book and its “sorrows and the remoteness of a daily life busied with rustic simplicities and the scents of primeval herbs” (Ch.  X).

Jewett and her narrator have a mild and pleasant sense of humor but this book is not nearly as wickedly funny as Cranford.  I will just get that out of the way here.  Jewett wrote a mild book.  It ought to be dull.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

The Stray Dog Cabaret - When fearful friends abandoned me music stayed

The Stray Dog Cabaret (2007) masquerades as an anthology of Silver Age Russian poets – Anna Akhmatova, Alexander Blok, and six others, all of whom knew each other and were patrons to a greater or lesser extent of the bar in the book’s title.  It was a scene, as we might say now.

Paul Schmidt, the translator and anthologist, organizes the book so that the poets and poems comment on, respond to, and even directly address each other.  History progresses – the war, the revolution, the terror.  A series of biographical notes, presumably written by Catherine Ciepiela, with Honor Moore the book’s editor, are almost too depressing to read.  The headers are by themselves too depressing:  Vladimir Mayakovsky (1893-1930), Velimir Khlebnikov (1885-1922), Marina Tsvetaeva (1892-1941).  Let’s move back to 1913:

The Stray Dog Cabaret

All of us here are hookers and hustlers
We drink too much, and don’t care.
The walls are covered with birds and flowers
that have never seen sunshine or air.

You smoke too much.  There’s always a cloud
of nicotine over your head.
Do you like this skirt?  I wore it on purpose.
I wanted to show lots of leg.  (Anna Akhmatova)

Osip Mandelstam is not so sure:

This life of constant thrills will drive us crazy:
wine in the morning, hangover every night.
How can we get away from this sick excitement,
the awful flush of feverish delight?

But Blok sends her a drink:

I sent you a rose in a glass of champagne
while the gypsies played as the gypsies do.
Then you turned to the man you were with and said:
“You see his eyes? He’s in love with me too.”

Akhmatova rejects the offer – “You’re a very bad boy.”  And you’re crazy.”

Translation purists, a sad lot, will be horrified when they turn to the notes and discover that with the Blok poem the translator “has created a new poem from three stanzas of ‘In the Restaurant’” and that “[t]he poem actually was dedicated to Maria Nelidova.  “The original poem has no title.”  “The phrase ‘And it makes me cry’ does not appear in the original poem.”

As fine a translator as Schmidt was (his Rimbaud is sure good), to the bone he was a man of the theater.  The Stray Dog Cabaret is a theater piece in disguise.  The actors playing the poets step forward and read their poems to each other before returning to their drinks and dancing.  Before slipping off of the stage, one by one, until only Akhmatova is left, now old, the survivor:

(for Dmitri Shostakovich)

Something miraculous burns in music;
as you watch, its edges crystallize.
Only music speaks to me
when others turn away their eyes.

When fearful friends abandoned me
music stayed, even at my grave,
and sang like earth’s first shower of rain
or flowers suddenly everywhere alive.

A burst of Silver Age Russian reading would be enormous fun, I am now convinced of that.  Chekhov’s plays, Bely, Babel, and all of these amazingly alive doomed musical poets.

The Blue Lantern has improved The Stray Dog Cabaret by introducing two painters to the show.  

Thursday, May 23, 2013

By which alone the invisible is made complete - Rilke's character harrow Hell, breathe an air elemental, and are killed by God

Familiar stories, surprising touches.  Details, points of view, motivations.  That is what I am enjoying in Rilke’s retellings.

I am going to abandon the New Poems, so I had better give page numbers now.  The Poetry of Rilke, tr. Edward Snow, that’s the book.

The surprise in “The Death of Moses” (535) is that Rilke finds a clever way to explain why God kills Moses – only one angel, the “dark, fallen” one was willing to do the deed, and even he balked at the last minute (“I can’t!”).  So God must take care of it himself.  He first convinces Moses’ soul to die (the soul of Moses is female):

Fulfilled, she
admitted it was time.  Then the old god
slowly bowed his old countenance
to the old man.  With a kiss extracted him
into his own older age.  And with hands of creation
closed up the mountain tomb.  So it would be merely one,
a re-created one, among the mountains of the earth,
indistinguishable to men. 

This includes everything from the end of Deuteronomy yet it altogether gentler.

What’s another good one.  “Christ’s Descent into Hell” (507) begins with Christ’s death leaving him confused and exhausted (“His expelled spirit thought perhaps to bide its time \ in the landscape, inactive.”)  But the earth opens and he hears the cries of the damned.  For Rilke, the harrowing of Hell is the result of Christ’s boundless compassion and his empathy, his ability to imagine their sufferings as his own.  So he plunges in.

I, and also Rilke, make Christ sound a bit like a superhero.  Writing about Rilke’s Orpheus poem, I made the poet sound like Neil Gaiman in Sandman, specifically Sandman Special #1.  I looked that up.  I did not know it offhand.  I swear.  I take this as a testament to Rilke’s imaginative power.

More superpowers – “The Spirit Ariel” (493) has Prospero’s thoughts on his magical servant.  He imagines freeing Ariel (“How sweet and almost tempting \ to let him go”) in order to enjoy his pure friendship “without any strain, nowhere any obligation.”  He imagines himself without his magic and Ariel returning to his element, dissolving in the air:

Powerless, aging, poor
yet breathing him like incomprehensibly far-flung
scattered fragrance by which alone the invisible
is made complete.

This is all quite strange, wonderful and strange, a worthy companion to Robert Browning’s extension of The Tempest in “Caliban Upon Setebos.”

As with the New Poems, this stuff is not what people usually identify with Rilke.  I did not, at least.

A four day weekend approaches, so this will be the last post until next Tuesday.  

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

white, dripping, and confused - red, dead, and open - Rilke witnesses the birth of Venus

Maybe I should put a warning label on this post.  Graphic Poetic Content.

I guess “The Birth of Venus,” another of Rilke’s New Poems, counts as a story.  It is a mythological event, it has a character.  It allows Rilke to be almost purely descriptive, though.  First, the birth:

In the morning after that night which fearfully
had passed in outcry, tumult, uproar, -
the sea split open once again and screamed.
And as the sea slowly closed up
and from the sky’s pale light and brightness
fell back into the fishes’ chasm –:
the sea gave birth.

Two characters, then, the newborn Venus ("white, dripping, and confused"), and the sea, who is given all of the trauma of childbirth.  The next seven stanzas do nothing but look at Venus, who is nude and described with a physical, sexual language, mitigated by the distance of metaphor:

Beneath [the navel] the small wave rose lightly
and lapped continuously toward the loins,
where now and then there was a silent ripple.

Much of this seems to describe the concept of Venus more than the character, but of course this is myth, so the birth of the person is the birth of the concept.

I find some of the metaphors close to ridiculous, but they maintain a connection to the sea, the wind, and perhaps the zodiac.

Now the shoulder’s quick scales already stood
in perfect balance on the upright body,
which rose from the pelvis like a fountain
and fell hesitantly in the long arms
and more swiftly in the hair’s cascade.

The zodiac business is just a guess – Libra and Aquarius are here, with Virgo presumably implied.  I do not see how all of twelve symbols are present in the poem, though, and have no knowledge about how different signs interact with each other.  A wild swing, is what this is, an attempt to stuff fit those metaphors into a system.

Here is the end of the poem, when Rilke finally sets Venus, and the world, in motion:

Behind her,
as she strode swiftly on across the young sands,
all morning long the flowers and grasses
sprang up, warm, confused,
as from embracing.  And she walked and ran.

But at noon, in the heaviest hour,
the sea rose up once more and threw
a dolphin on that selfsame spot.
Dead, red, and open.  [Tot, rot, und offen.]

Kind of a surprise ending there, huh?  Mother sea delivers the placenta of Venus:  primal, violent, horrible.  Yet natural, as natural as the grass and flowers lusting after the new goddess.  Venus walks the earth.  There is no turning back.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

She was already root - Rilke, story-teller

I missed or skipped or forgot something about the New Poems (1907, 1908) of Rainer Maria Rilke during my last attempt on them.  They demonstrate that Rilke is an extraordinary story-teller.  On the one hand, this is a minor element in Rilke’s work; on the other he is surprisingly good at it.  Reading about Rilke, about the New Poems, I do not remember seeing anyone emphasize it.  So I will.

The New Poems are sometimes described as “thing poems,” since many or perhaps all of the poems are about isolated objects, something outside of the poet, a statue or a flower or – this broadens the concept of a thing – a story.  Classical Greek stories like Orpheus and Eurydice, or Biblical stories like the death of Moses or the Prodigal Son, or in one case Shakespeare, The Tempest.  I am actually wandering away from the New Poems, into other books and “uncollected” and “unpublished” poems, all of which I read in Edward Snow’s The Poetry of Rilke (2009).

Orpheus, Eurydice, Hermes

This was the souls’ strange mine.
Like silent silver ore they wandered
through its dark like veins.  Between roots
the blood welled up that makes its way to men,
and it looked hard as porphyry in the dark.
Nothing else was red.

The New Poems are typically short, formal, and rhymed.  The story poems are long (two pages, even three) and irregular in stanza and meter.  So after another stanza about the rocks, and the “unreal forest,” and “the pale stripe of a single path,” the characters in the title appear:  “And up this single path they came.”

If it was not clear before it is now  - the word “up” does so much work – that the strange mine is the path to and from the underworld.  The blood that is pumped through the rock up to mankind is Rilke’s invention, as far as I know.  These strange original touches are Rilke’s claim to the stories, although it is exactly the familiarity of the tales that make them objective “things.”

Orpheus is in front, “His stride devour[ing] the path in huge mouthfuls \ without slowing to chew,” yet desperate for some sign that the Eurydice is following – “his hearing, like an odor, lagged behind.”  It for some reason seems logical to me that the center of the story should be Orpheus’s fatal impatience, the reason he looked back.  Rilke is not logical and not me; he understands how Eurydice, guided up the path at the side of Hermes, is more interesting.

Eurydice, after all, died, and is being led back from the dead. 

She was in herself.  And her having died
filled her like abundance.
Like a fruit ripe with sweetness and night
she was filled with her great death,
which was so new that she understood nothing.

I suppose we have all read enough mythical stories to know that Orpheus was mistaken to want to seek Eurydice after death.  She is merging with the world spirit of Lucretius or the Will of Schopenhauer. 

She was already root.

And then without warning
the god stopped her and with pain in his voice
uttered the words: He has turned around-,
she didn’t understand, and answered softly: Who?

And of course now the point of view returns to Orpheus as he watches Eurydice turn and descend.  Eurydice’s single word reply seems sublime to me.  The line about Hermes, the sole fragment of characterization he gets, is also surprising – he was rooting for Orpheus, apparently.

Who knows if I captured the effect here.  I will try another Rilke story tomorrow.

Monday, May 20, 2013

“I’m falling,” cried the mouth - a perplexing, bizarre, Goethean, fragmented Hofmannsthal story

Kind of an orphan post tonight, a follow-up on Hugo von Hoffmansthal that would have made more sense several months ago.

Despite the declaration of renunciation described, possibly, in “The Lord Chandos Letter” (1901), Hofmannsthal occasionally returned to fiction.  Andreas (written 1912-13) is a novella that threatened to expand into who knows what.  Hofmannsthal pulled the plug on it, having finished the first seventy pages and two episodes as well as fifty pages of notes that suggest not one but several directions for the novel, each more abstract than the last.

Andreas is a young Viennese man of unformed character on a sort of Grand Tour.  He is robbed by a servant who turns out to be an escaped murderer and meets a weightless dream girl on an idyllic farm.  In Venice, he finds a room with a family that is in the process of holding a lottery to auction off their daughter’s virginity – “’Well, it isn’t really so unusual, what she’s doing’” (53) – meets a Knight of Malta, and encounters other mysteries like women who transform into other women, one of whom is probably this woman, encountered in a courtyard atop a grape trellis:

The whole pale face was wild and tense, with a flash of satisfaction, almost childish in its candour.  The body lay somehow on the light trellis of the roof, the feet probably rested on a hook in the wall, the fingertips on the top of a post.  The a mysterious change came over the expression of the face.  With infinite sympathy, even love, the eyes rested on Andreas.  One hand forced its way through the leaves, as if to reach his head, to stroke his hair; the four fingers were bleeding at the tips.  The hand did not reach Andreas, a drop of blood fell on his forehead, the face above him turned white.  “I’m falling,” cried the mouth…  (64)

Hofmannsthal was working on something that could have rivaled Alain-Fournier’s Le Grand Meaulnes, published the same year Andreas was abandoned, for sheer weirdness.  Andreas is as Goethean as Alain-Fournier’sbook, drawing together pieces of a number of century-old books – Italian Journey, Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship, the Venetian Epigrams, and likely many more I have failed to identify or not read.  One of the endings seems to have that Knight willing himself to death in a Rosicrucian ceremony – I must be misinterpreting the fragment, but it invokes the semi-Masonic initiations of Wilhelm Meister.

Those metamorphosing women remind me of E. T. A. Hoffmann’s Princess Brambilla, also set in Venice.

Since Hofmannsthal’s fragment is bizarre, complex, and unfinished, I am just banging books against it to see if any meaning drops out.  The colliding texts produce a satisfying clank, at least.

Well, some posts are themselves more fragmented than others, more like notes on a subject for future research.

Hofmannsthal presumably got whatever he needed out of Andreas, anyway.

Andreas can be found in Hugo von Hofmannsthal, Selected Prose, Bollingen, 1952, tr. Mary Hottinger.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

There wasn’t, so far as I could discover, a line of his writing in the house - the radically uninterpretable "Figure in the Carpet"

I was as game as anyone.  A secret thread runs through the novelist’s work; the critic fails to uncover it; another writer succeeds.  Maybe I can succeed, too.  Maybe the clues to the meaning of the fictional novelist’s imaginary texts are ingeniously concealed within the actual text of “The Figure in the Carpet.”

For example, maybe the novelist’s secret is that he is homosexual.  Anyone ever tried that one?  Or am I the first to suggest it?

A couple of other possibilities:  the novelist was lying (or drunk) when he suggested that his books revealed a plain-sight “figure in the carpet” if only anyone would see it.  Perhaps the novelist is kissing up to the critic (and, later, the editor of a literary magazine).  Or perhaps he is teasing them, playing a prank.

Another possible hidden story:  the editor, when he claims to have found the solution to the novelistic puzzle, is actually lying in order to trick a woman into marrying him.  He succeeds – she marries him in order to learn the secret.  This may sound absurd, but I am having trouble with some recurring fuss over exactly when the characters become engaged to marry, e.g. “I subsequently grew sure that at the time he went to India, at the time of his great news from Bombay, there was no engagement whatever” (598).  This must mean something; it must be part of an interpretation of the story, this attention to what looks like a peripheral question.

The clue that convinced me that I was getting “The Figure in the Carpet” more or less right was actually an absence, a dog that did not bark, so to speak.  It would be possible to make a long list of characteristics of the “figure,” most of them straight from the novelist.  But nowhere does the critic who narrates the story give a hint of what might be in the novelist’s texts.  Neither description nor scene nor a single line, not even a title.  No, there is one title, The Right of Way, but the title is of the novelist’s last book, released after the critic has given up on seeing the figure, after the editor claims to have seen it.

A joke, it is all just a joke, even before we get to the absurd over-reactions of the characters who do see the figure.  I mean, I myself have seen such figures in the carpets of other writers.  It is not such a big deal.

James has created a radically uninterpretable story.  Thus the necessity of the vagueness and even absence of what should be essential detail; thus the details that are included pointing towards alternative, unresolvable, stories.  Vladimir Nabokov, when writing a parable of the difficulties of literary interpretation, has to write an entire 999 line poem to make his case.  In the James story, characters insist that they are reading with a Kinbotean intensity, but it is all concealed from the actual reader – of course it never exists.

At three o’clock in the morning, not sleeping, remembering moreover how indispensable he [the novelist] was to Lady Jane, I stole down to the library with a candle.  There wasn’t, so far as I could discover, a line of his writing in the house.  (583)

Now there, that turns out to be a clue.

Friday, May 17, 2013

"The Figure in the Carpet" - they missed my little point with a perfection

Now it is time for the reverse, the Wuthering Expectations signature move, when I argue that the stylistic irritations I have been whining about are in fact necessary for the writer’s ingenious artistic purpose.  Which is pretty obvious in the case of Henry James, although it has taken me a while to see it.

And I am not entirely wrong.  In a weaker James story, the indirection and vagueness can cause the text to crumble in my hands as I read it.  Some Chekhovian or Flaubertish eggs would help stiffen the batter.  My baking metaphor may have some problems.  Never mind that.

“The Figure in the Carpet”  (1896) would be ruined by more detail or closure.  It is about vagueness, the meaning and purpose of a lack of definition in fiction.

A novelist tells a literary critic, the story’s narrator, that the critic has not understood his novels, as have all critics, as has everyone, “they missed my little point with a perfection exactly as admirable when they patted me on the back as when they kicked me in the shins” (578).  The critic, conceited and intrigued, badgers the novelist into revealing a series of clues about his ”exquisite scheme”:  it is “the loveliest thing in the world,” as “palpable as the marble of this chimney,” but not at all an “esoteric message”:

“My whole lucid effort gives him [the reader] the clue – every page and line and letter.  The thing’s as concrete there as a bird in a cage, a bait on a hook, a piece of cheese in a mouse-trap.  It’s stuck into every volume as your foot is stuck into your shoe.  It governs every line, it chooses every word, it dots every i, it places every comma.” (581)

The critics takes this as a challenge but after ransacking the novels gives it up as a waste of time: “The buried treasure was a bad joke, the general intention a monstrous pose” (583).  But his friend and editor, a magazine writer takes up the challenge and in a moment of mystical inspiration while on a trip to India solves the mystery:  “The figure in the carpet came out.”  On his return to England, he visits the novelist who confirms his discovery, and also reveals the secret to his new wife, herself a novelist.

The poor sap of a critic never learns what it is, though.  In a strange series of events, the magazine writer is killed and the novelist also dies.  The wife refuses to divulge the answer (“It’s my life!”), unless she covertly does so in her novel Overmastered.  Then she dies, but not before marrying a second critic, now the last chance for our narrator.  But it turns out that this poor sap was never told a word about the secret, and ends the story in a state of agitation and dismay.

So, just to be clear about how perverse this allegory of reading and interpretation is, there are five characters, all writers.  The three who are not literary critics are able to see the marvelous figure in the carpet; the two who are critics are mystified.  The story appears to be an irresistible trap for critics.  It begs the reader to solve its puzzle.  Peculiar details of plot and speech are emphasized in such a way that they must be clues.  At the same time, the nature and function of the trap could not be more evident.  And the two baffled critics are alive at the end of the story, while the happily enlightened are not.

Next I will work through how what I think of as James’s weaknesses are in fact necessary to create the Borgesian effect of “The Figure in the Carpet.”

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

A villa, a carriage, a piano and a banjo - detail in James

The smart thing to do would be to expand – or, honestly, rewrite – yesterday’s business about how Henry James sometimes allows ambiguities that other writers telling similar stories would close off, whether to satisfy convention or to show off their cleverness.  I have a strong taste for writers in the latter group, so this is a reason I do not always read James so well.  I am looking for the wrong kind of clues and solving the wrong mystery.  Failing to solve, of course.  But I will save this for “The Figure in the Carpet.”

Now I will mention a characteristic of James that I think is related, his maddening physical vagueness, which unfortunately intersects another strong taste for the opposite.  Neither of these are merely tastes, but well-defined, justifiable aesthetic positions, but that is irrelevant for this whine about the difficulties of reading James.

The fixed observer of “The Pupil” is a tutor who becomes entangled with a slippery, almost devious family, the Moreens, rich enough to lounge around Europe as long as they occasionally skip town ahead of their creditors.  The tutor is not the narrator but is what D. G. Myers calls a “third-person onlooker,” an outsider who observes only pieces of the family’s eventful story and does not comprehend everything he does see.  The real story, the important one, is the deep friendship between the tutor and his sickly, sensitive pupil and the alliance they form against the boy’s horrible family, so of course the tutor’s point of view is perfect for all of that, even if it is a story taking place “backstage” in some sense.

A description of the chaotic family, part of it, early in “The Pupil”:

They lived on macaroni and coffee—they had these articles prepared in perfection—but they knew recipes for a hundred other dishes.  They overflowed with music and song, were always humming and catching each other up, and had a sort of professional acquaintance with Continental cities.  They talked of “good places” as if they had been pickpockets or strolling players.  They had at Nice a villa, a carriage, a piano and a banjo, and they went to official parties.  (718)

Now, there is a lot to like here, obviously.  Strolling players!  A banjo!  One of the marriageable daughters even strums it a bit later.  Henry James is not typically described as efficient, is he?  But this is pretty crisp.  The tutor “once found [the father] shaving in the drawing room.”  They all mix their French and Italian with “cold, tough slices of American.”  It takes just one long paragraph to pump the Moreens full of life.

But the description remains at this level.  Scenes are almost entirely conversation, sometimes but not always with a few words to establish the setting.  James is specific when generalizing, and general when specific.

Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks (1901) begins with a long party scene in which Mann describes what every character is wearing, where they are sitting in relation to each other, the furniture they sit on, plus all of the other furniture, and also the paintings and wallpaper.

He wore a cinnamon jacket with broad lapels and leg-of-mutton sleeves that closed tight just below the wrist.  His fitted trousers were of a white, washable fabric and trimmed with a black stripe down each side.  The silk cravat wound around his stiff high-wing collar was fluffed to fill the broad, open neck of his multicolored vest.  (5, tr. John E. Woods)

Maybe this all becomes pointlessly fussy as the novel goes on, I don’t know.  Mann demands that I see that pair of pants; James rarely wants me to see anything.  He fills his fiction with imaginative blank spaces.  And he does it on purpose, he says so openly.  But that is “The Figure in the Carpet,” so it will have to wait until tomorrow.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

She has depths and depths, and all of them bad - interpreting Henry James

In a fortuitous coincidence, D. G. Myers just wrote a piece about stories with “onlooker narrators,” like Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby, a “secondary character who also participates in events.”  I have just read three Henry James stories in a row that feature clever variations on the device.  Myers suggests I look at What Maisie Knew (1897) as well, which I will do once I read it.  Now I will keep things simple.  No, one of the stories is “The Figure in the Carpet” (1896).  There is no way to keep that one simple.

The literary critic in “The Figure in the Carpet” is at first an active character but recedes into the onlooker role for most of the story.  The tutor in “The Pupil” (1892) is placed in what should be the position of an onlooker, but his seemingly peripheral story turns out to be the meaningful one.  The cold Jamesian fish who narrates “Louisa Pallant” (1888) is the purest onlooker of the three, except James creates the possibility that his role is something else, even if he does not realize it.

I want to start with the one that is least famous, “Louisa Pallant,” because it is the easiest to deal with.  The narrator meets his old flame, Louisa, at a European spa.  She jilted him long ago (“She had not treated me well and we had never really made it up,” 193).  Now Louisa has an appealing daughter and the narrator has a rich nephew who coincidentally joins them at the spa.

The romance between the youngsters is inevitable.  The mother eventually breaks it up by telling the nephew something about her daughter so terrible that he immediately flees her.  The narrator never learns what was said, from Louisa or from his nephew.  This is where the “onlooker” device is important.  He never learns what was said so neither do I.

Everything he and I learn comes from his conversations with the mother.  Some samples:

‘Do you really mean she is bad?’ I added.

Mrs. Pallant made no immediate answer to this…  (213)

We were silent a moment, after which I resumed:  ‘Then she doesn’t know you hate her?’

‘I don’t know what she knows.  She has depths and depths, and all of them bad.  Besides, I don’t hate her in the least, I pity her simply, for what I have made of her.  But I pity still more the man who may find himself married to her.’  (218)

I am emphasizing the word “bad” because I can only guess what it means – character, presumably, but also behavior?  Who knows.  Whatever the mother tells the nephew is enough to run him off without looking back.

The motive of the mother is an open question.  The truth about the daughter’s character is open, given the various possible motives.  The narrator’s interpretation of the mother’s motive is open – does he think the same thing I do?

We sat there some time longer, while I thought over what she had said to me and she apparently did the same.  I confess that even close to her side, with the echo of her passionate, broken voice still in the air, some queer ideas came into my head.  Was the comedy on her side and not on the girl’s, and was she posturing as a magnanimous woman at poor Linda’s expense?  (218)

For example, is the mother pursuing greater riches, or a title for her daughter?  Is she revenging herself on the narrator for past crimes – or expiating her own sins?

I hardly expect answers to all of these questions.  What is surprising about James is that he does not answer any of them, that he is able to keep a series of incompatible interpretations alive at the end of the story.  The plot does not close off readings but rather causes them to branch.  You probably knew this about James already.  I did not, not until I saw it in this minor story.

Page numbers refer to Complete Stories: 1884-1891, Library of America.

Monday, May 13, 2013

They ate in religious silence - enjoying a Camilleri detective novel

I’m trying to take it easy, so I read a mystery, The Potter’s Field (2008) by Andrea Camilleri, the thirteenth novel featuring Inspector Montalbano.  This puts me two novels behind in English, seven (!) in Italian, although my understanding is that Camilleri is planning to wrap up the series.

The last thing I want to do is review book #13 of 21.  The first thing I want to do is share the following passage.  Montalbano has been accused by his superior of committing a juvenile prank on a journalist; Montalbano is of course guilty, so he blusters: 

“Ah, so you, Mr. Commissioner, actually believed such a groundless accusation?  Ah, I feel so insulted and humiliated!  You’re accusing me of an act – no, indeed, a crime that, if true, would warrant severe punishment!  As if I were a common idiot or gambler!  That journalist must be possessed to think such a thing!”

End of climax.  The inspector inwardly congratulated himself.  He had managed to utter a statement using only titles of novels by Dostoevsky.  Had the commissioner noticed?  Of course not!  The man was ignorant as a goat.  (66)

An astute reader may see a clue as to why I have read so many books in this series.  This stunt is not exactly typical, but the Montalbano novels are always at least lightly salted with literature.  The detective is even named after a Spanish mystery writer, Manuel Vázquez Montalbán.  Montalbano sometimes reads Montalbán’s books, but not in The Potter’s Field, where he turns to “a book by Andrea Camilleri from a few years back,” not an Inspector Montalbano novel but one that “[takes] off from a passage in a novel by Leonardo Sciascia” (95).

I wonder if it is relevant that Italian literature has an unusual figure, a canonical writer who specialized in mysteries.  How else to deal with his great topic, the Sicilian Mafia?  Camilleri works the same ground, updating Sciascia, so it is no surprise that he frequently acknowledges his predecessor.

Then there is the food, the Sicilian cuisine, eaten with discrimination and gusto (this is another clue - nay, sufficient proof):

Having finished the first cannolo, he took another.

“I see you’ve helped yourself,” said Pasquano, coming in and grabbing one himself.

They ate in religious silence, the corners of their mouths smeared with ricotta cream.  Which, by the rules, must be removed with a slow, circular movement of the tongue.  (44-5)

Meine Frau began reading the Montalbano books in German, several years before they were published in English.  The German editions included recipes!  Which is admittedly a little silly.  Few readers would have access to the proper ingredients.

The mystery in The Potter’s Field is an unusually good one, which is a bonus.

I suppose there are a number of detective series set all over the world as good as Camilleri’s.  Or, depending on my mood, I doubt there are many others as good.  But I do not know either way.

If Wuthering Expectations ever switches to an all-mystery or all-science fiction format, it will be because I have succumbed to the pleasure of being able to read three hundred books a year.

Stephen Sartarelli translated this one, not to mention all of them.  A good gig.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Oh, I can permit myself a remark like that - Schnitzler's Fräulein Else

Fräulein Else (1924) is another Arthur Schnitzler stream-of-consciousness story.  I believe it is the other story, written an amazing twenty-four years after Lieutenant Gustl.  For Schnitzler, the technique was not a fundamental rethinking of fiction, but just a technique useful for telling  specific story.  For whatever reason, it took Schnitzler a long time to find a second story that fit.  Compare the almost plain prose of Casanova’sHomecoming (1918), or the surreal Dream Story (1926) or the intensely interior yet more traditionally told Night Games (1927).

I will interrupt myself.  The end of Schnitzler’s career – he died in 1931 – was impressive.  His cleverest work (La Ronde, Anatol) is from thirty years earlier, but he did his best writing when he was in his sixties.

Fräulein Else is a nineteen year-old Viennese girl on holiday with her aunt and cousin.  Her mother wires to ask that Else ask another guest, Herr Dorsday, for money to cover her father’s gambling debts.  Dorsday agrees, but demands sexual favors in return.  What will the innocent Fräulein Else do?

Perhaps the stream-of-consciousness device is not needed to tell so much as conceal, in Gustl a Maupassant story, in Else a melodrama.

Or it is meant to conceal something else.  I have not read any of Schnitzler’s early work (by early I am covering twenty years!) that had any Jewish subject matter, or Catholic or anything related to any other religion.  Professor Bernhardi (1912) is directly about secularized Judaism in an increasingly anti-Semitic Catholic culture.  Else is Jewish, too, although as far as I can tell this is mentioned in only one place (Rudi is Else’s brother):

No, Herr Dorsday, I’m not taken in by your smartness and your monocle and your title.  You might just as well deal in old clothes as old pictures…  But, Else, Else, what are you thinking of?  Oh, I can permit myself a remark like that.  Nobody notices it in me.  I’m positively blonde, a reddish blonde, and Rudi looks a regular aristocrat.  Certainly one can notice it at once in Mother, at any rate in her speech, but not at all in Father.  (24, ellipses in original)

This is pretty sneaky, obscure enough that I had forgotten until I went back to the passage that it first identifies Dorsday as Jewish – I had forgotten and assumed that he was not.  Else has to justify to herself her own anti-Semitic jab at him by acknowledging her own Judaism, however secularized and suppressed.  The line “Nobody notices it in me” is nicely tricky, since “it” looks like it should refer to “remark,” but in the flow of thought “it” has jumped ahead to “Jewishness,” where “it” remains as Else thinks of her mother.  She disparages her mother in favor of her father at other points in the novella; this passage gives a clue as to why.

In these later stories, Schnitzler is a great recycler – gambling, suicide as a solution to debt, the sexual sacrifice of a woman as a solution to debt, public nudity, and duels recur (well, the duels are an old Schnitzler fixture).  But the stories hardly seem similar, even dazzlingly different, all because of how they are told and who, not what, they are about.

I read an old translation, the 1925 F. H. Lyon version now published by Pushkin Press.

Friday, May 10, 2013

They are the hands of an old man - Schnitzler's Casanova

Arthur Schnitzler was blissfully free of the aesthetic crises that afflicted so many of his peers.  He wore Viennese culture lightly.  Schnitzler’s neuroses were sexual.  No wonder Freud learned so much from Schnitzler, and vice versa.  I know far more than I want to know about the inveterate womanizer’s sex life from reading Peter Gay’s Schnitzler’s Century (2002).  Readers with German and a high threshold for this sort of thing can enjoy thousands of pages of it in Schnitzler’s diaries.  He was a skirt-chasing dog, and a successful one.

What is interesting here is that Schnitzler was keenly aware of the psychology of his own behavior, and of its moral risks, too, of the dangers his lack of self-control posed to any woman who succumbed to him.  I know this because of his fiction, where he is insightful and ironic about people who behave like he does.

Thus Schnitzler’s interest in Casanova, the subject of the 1918 novella Casanova’s Homecoming and 1919 play Casanova in Spa (which I have not read).  The novella describes an adventure that is fictional but might as well be taken from the memoirs.  Casanova is 53, down but not out; the  author is 56.  This is why he is interested:

“Look well, Amalia.  See the wrinkles on my forehead; the loose folds of my neck; the crow’s-feet round my eyes.  And look,” he grinned, “I have lost one of my eye teeth.  Look at these hands, too, Amalia.  My fingers are like claws; there are yellow spots on the fingernails; the blue veins stand out.  They are the hands of an old man, Amalia!”

She clasped both his hands as he held them out for her to see, and reverently kissed them one after the other in the shaded walk.  “Tonight, I will kiss you on the lips,” she said, with a mingling of humility and tenderness, which roused his gall.  (171)

I will let Lizzy of Lizzy’s Literary Life address the story itself.  Casanova is still Casanova, even if he now relies more on his reputation than his looks.  “It’s hard to find anyone to admire in these pages” Lizzy says, and I would go a step further.  About two-thirds of the way into the story, several characters (not just Casanova) who seemed self-serving reveal themselves as evil.  The word is not too strong.  Rape, blackmail, and murder are the results.  Schnitzler is cruel in Casanova’s Homecoming, building some sort of understanding between Casanova and me, some sense of how his world works, how he lives in it, before pulling the lever that opens the concealed trap door.

Casanova, of course, does not believe that his acts are evil.  By the end of the story, the events have becomes just another episode for the Memoirs.  Casanova has moved on to his next adventure.  Yet, in the last paragraph, “he was overwhelmed with a weariness amounting to pain, while on his lips was a bitter aftertaste which seemed to rise up from his innermost being.”  The author grants his character the gift of sleep, “heavy and dreamless, taking pity on the aging adventurer.”

I read the version in the German Library Plays and Stories of Schnitzler, tr. Eden and Cedar Paul, revised by Caroline Wellbery.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Schnitzler's medical drama - he would most certainly wind up in jail before supper

If you are rummaging around in that Dedalus anthology of Meyrink, do not miss “The Clockmaker” (1926), which is not one of the Bats but is still quite good.  It replaces poisonous blue flowers and time-leeches with baroque descriptions of clocks.  I was planning to write about it, but I fear I would just be repeating myself, as Meyrink was, aside from all the fine descriptions of clocks (“they seem to be drunk and asleep, for sometimes they snore loudly or rattle their chains”).

Instead, then, onwards and sideways to Arthur Schnitzler.  I have read a few more of his works recently, let’s see.  How about I start with the boring one, which is the 1912 play Professor Bernhardi.

It is deliberately boring; boring is a strategy.  The play at first appears to be about the petty bureaucratic struggles at a private Viennese hospital.  Office politics, personality clashes, budget maneuvering.  Near the end of the first act, Dr. Bernhardi, one of the hospital’s founders, commits either an error or an act of integrity or both.  He refuses to let a priest give extreme unction to a dying woman, the victim of a botched abortion.  The medical reason for barring the priest never made sense to me, but it seems to be taken seriously within the play.

Bernhardi is Jewish.  He is accused of the crime of interfering with the Catholic religion, is tried, and jailed for two months.  Surrounding this bare plot is a lot of office politics, etc.  Act III is set in a conference room!  How dull.  But of course the central conflict, the collision between professional duty and an increasing vehement and angry anti-Semitic politics, is not dull at all.  Bernhardi is made a martyr.

To what, though?  To a cause or to pride?  I will give away the ending:

WINKLER (a friend of Bernhardi’s):  That precisely was your mistake.  If one were always to do the right thing, or rather, if one simply began one morning, without any further thought, to do the right thing and simply continued without interruption to do the right thing all day long, he would most certainly wind up in jail before supper.

BERNHARDI:  And shall I tell you something, Councillor?  In my position you would have done exactly the same thing.

WINKLER:  Possibly.  Then I would have been – I’m sure you’ll forgive me, Professor – just as unreasonable an ass as you were.

It was a pleasure to read a thoughtful Schnitzler story that was about something other than the battle of the sexes, about a meaningful ethical debate in an interesting social setting.  A sort of debate or reconciliation between Bernhardi and the priest in Act IV is even something like an Important Scene, and is probably what I should be writing about.

Look, Professor Bernhardi  is a period piece, but I am a student of the period.  Tomorrow, something more exciting by Schnitzler, with a duel and gambling and rape and other awful stuff.  No conference rooms.

I read the translation in Professor Bernhardi and Other Plays, tr. G. J. Weinberger, Ariadne Press, 1993.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Lures of shiny, silvery tin shaped like human hands - Meyrink's symbolizing

Jorge Luis Borges once edited a series of little books that have tantalized later readers.  One of them contained three stories by Gustav Meyrink, all from Bats.  St. Orberose discusses the project; he led to Grant Munroe’s piece at The Rumpus, who in turn relied on this Spanish-language site.  Borges picked “J. H. Obereit’s Visit to the Time-Leeches,” “Cardinal Napellus,” and “The Four Moon Brethren.”  When Munroe wrote his piece none of these stories were available in English, but here they are in the 2010 Dedalus Meyrink Reader.

Borges shared Meyrink’s gnosticism and love of esoteric systems, although the former took it all a lot less literally than the latter.  Or such is my understanding, but perhaps I overstate Meyrink’s credulity.  This outstanding paragraph of “Cardinal Napellus” might have some symbolic relevance:

Giovanni Braccesco tried to strike up a conversation by describing our unusual methods of catching the ancient, moss-grown giant catfish that lived in the permanent darkness of the unfathomable depths of the lake.  They never came up to the light and spurned any natural bait; the only things that could get them to bite were the most bizarre forms anglers could think up: lures of shiny, silvery tin shaped like human hands which made swaying movements as they were pulled through the water, or others like bats made of red glass with cunningly concealed hooks on their wings.  (57)

The main character, a lapsed monk, spends his days on the lake, not fishing but plumbing its depths with “an egg-shaped ball of glittering metal on long, fine silk threads” (55).  His friends believe that this is some form of science, but he corrects them:

The intensity brought red blotches to Radspieller’s face and his voice cracked with the emphasis he put on each word: ‘If I could just have one wish’ – he clenched his fists – ‘it would be to let down my plumbline to the centre of the earth, so that I could shout out to the world, ‘See: here, there, see, nothing but earth!’  (64)

So Radspieler is, however strangely, deliberately avoiding a search for secret knowledge, even denying its existence.  A half page later it catches up with him, though.  The characters of H. P. Lovecraft, Meyrink’s literary cousin, are always destroyed by their quest for hidden truths, while this poor sap is punished for not looking.  He would have been happier learning about C’thulu.

If you click on the Spanish-language link above, you will see the cover of the Borges edition of Meyrink, which features a monk emerging from a blue flower.  That is almost accurate, almost in the story.  The “poisonous blue flower” is monkshood.  Any mention of a blue flower in German literature has been permanently poisoned by Novalis.  In “Cardinal Napellus” the Romantic longing for transcendent meaning leads not to bliss or escape or nirvana but to insanity and horror.

While I am making connections – I mean, Novalis and his blue flower, that one is obvious – in Adalbert Stifter’s Indian Summer the dedicated scientific protagonist makes a detailed multi-year study of the topography of a lake bottom (that does not sound right).  I had so many other unnovelistic parts of that novel to deal with that, when discussing Stifter’s novel recently, I did not even mention the scenes where he plumbs the lake and makes maps, leading to discoveries, I guess, about how the seasonal hydrology changes the lake.

So Novalis’s non-rational blue flower is poisonous and Stifter’s rational empiricism is completely useless.  What is left?  I wonder, to what work of German literature do those fishing lures refer?

Monday, May 6, 2013

And the world isn’t real, anyway - Gustav Meyrink's visit to the time-leeches

The book at hand is Gustav Meyrink’s 1916 short story collection Bats.  I love that title.  As in “Meyrink is completely ___ .“  Fledermäuse.  The cover* is perfect, too, a copy of “Lied in der Dämmerung (Song in the Twilight”, 1931) by my new favorite painter, Franz Sedlacek.

That is Meyrink in oil, right there.

No, the painting is too simple.  It is more like E. T. A. Hoffmann, Meyrink’s great precursor.  It omits Meyrink’s esotericism, his interest in tarot and kabbalah and secret knowledge.  I will disclose that I think all of that is in and of itself nonsense, but it serves two purposes for Meyrink beyond whatever belief he might have in it; first, many writers have done interesting, artful things with this or that esoteric system, the pre-built symbols allowing for all sorts of fun, and second, the mysticism stands in for a more universal gnostic impulse, a yearning for a glimpse of the reality behind reality, a momentary lifting of the earthly veil.

Hoffmann’s stories, full of dreams and hallucinations, use the idea, too.  For followers of Schopenhauer, this would be some sort of direct experience of Will; other systems use other terms.  The protagonist of “Herr Kuno Hinrischen, Businessman, and the Penitent Lala Lajpat-Rai,” for example, “managing director of the firm: General Charitable Works, ‘Wholesalers of fat, lard and oils,’” has a dream in which he becomes a Hindu ascetic.  Unfortunately the lesson he learns by becoming one with the universe is to become a more effective embezzler, since the victims are, after all, also him, so he might as well have the money as them.

“’And the world isn’t real, anyway.  I’d never’ve thought there was so much in this Indian philosophy’…  From then on Herr Kuno Hinrischen, businessman, was ‘master’ of even the most difficult situations and a convinced follower of the Indian doctrine of the Vedanta to the end of his days.  (100-1)

Not every mystic has Meyrink’s sense of humor.

In “J. H. Obereit’s Visit to the Time-Leeches” – no, I will stop there.  No story can be as good as that title.  It promises too much.

In “Amadeus Knödlseder, the Incorrigible Bearded Vulture” – same problem, right?  It is almost disappointing to learn that Knödlseder is actually a vulture, who escapes from the Munich zoo and sets up a neckwear shop which is in fact a front for the murder and devouring of marmots, “[j]ust like Cardillac, the jeweller in E. T. A. Hoffmann’s Fräulein von Scuderi!” (44)

I start with Meyrink’s esotericism but then go straight to his satire.  And I have gotten nowhere near what I think is most interesting about him, that he is often a fine writer.

*  Bats is to be found, almost, in The Dedalus Meyrink Reader, translated and assembled by the dedicated Mike Mitchell.  One story, “Meister Leonhard,” can only be found in The Dedalus Book of Austrian Fantasy 1890-2000, so strictly speaking I have not read all of the Bats.  Close enough.

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Kraus the prophet - Don’t ask why all this time I never spoke

Why have I been avoiding writing this final bit about Karl Kraus?  Because it is too sad, I will bet that’s why.

There are some things you would rather be wrong about.  What I mean is, if you enjoy worrying about catastrophes, I would rather you be wrong.  Maybe you would rather be right, catastrophe and all.  How would I know what you want.

Ricardo de las Caravanas de Recuerdas asks a useful question about Kraus: how “to determine where the slippery satirist ends and where the full-on real life nutjob begins”?  Kraus is one of the few true satirists.  Like Jonathan Swift and Thomas Carlyle, he is most serious exactly when he is most outrageous, when he says what he cannot possibly mean.  Although he likely does not mean what he says in exactly the way he says it.  Satirists are aggravating.

Kraus was both comedian and prophet, Isaiah at the Laugh Factory, Jeremiah Seinfeld.

Newspaper vendors (“E-e-xtra”) are heard throughout The Last Days of Mankind.  At the beginning of his final long monologue, The Grumbler, the Kraus-like pessimist, hears one:

GRUMBLER:  So it is five o’clock.  The answer is here, the echo of my blood-haunted madness.  And no longer does anything resound to me out of ruined creation except this one sound, out of which ten millions who are dying accuse me of still being alive, I who had eyes to see the world, and whose stare struck it in a fashion that it became as I saw it…  Have I deserved this fulfillment of my deathly fear of life?...  Why is my shout of protest not stronger than this tinny command that has dominion over the souls of a whole globe?  (V.54)

The jokes that were funny even at the beginning of the war have turned into something else.  The final scene, German and Austrian officers at a feast, is full of cheers and laughter, puns and jokes, but jokes like this:

GERMAN GENERAL STAFF OFFICER:  Yes sir – our German hand-gas-grenade type B!  With that thing the poisonous substance sprays out and creates suppurating wounds, with a secretion like an honest-to-goodness case of the clap.  (Laughter.)

The party is finally destroyed by artillery and replaced with “apparitions,” essentially a film montage of wartime atrocities, running from the pathetic to the gruesome.  In a strange turn, the apparitions begin singing, even when they are frozen corpses, children drowned by the sinking of the Lusitania, or twelve hundred horses drowned in the torpedoing of an Italian ship, an episode that Kraus mentions elsewhere in the play.  Dead trees have a song.  So do the ravens:

While you gluttons join in gorging,
We don’t do so badly, either.
Since we follow all your armies,
Never have we ached from hunger.

And then – well, Kraus is almost done.  Jeremiah’s prophecy is almost complete.  Except for the grumble grumble Epilogue that sounds if anything even wilder.

I would have thought that the end of the war would relieve some of the apocalyptic pressure on Kraus.  Perhaps it did for a time.  By 1933, though, Kraus was defeated.  He stopped publishing.  He realized that his weapons were useless against the Nazis.  He lived for a few more years, dying in 1936, never having to witness the worst, although he had already guessed it.

Here is his how he ended his career, his last published work, from p. 259 of In These Great Times:

Don’t ask why all this time I never spoke,
Wordless am I,
and won’t say why.
And silence reigns because the bedrock broke.
No word redeems;
one only spoke in dreams.
A smiling sun the sleeper’s images evoke.
Time marches on;
the final difference is none.
The word expired when that world awoke.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Kraus the comedian - now that we have Obu brand, we lack for nothing

The Last Days of Mankind is a piece of post-Biblical prophecy that ends with the destruction of humanity:

(The glow dies out.  Total darkness.  The , on the horizon, the wall of flames leaps high.  Death cries off stage.)

In fact the play ends twice, but the 1974 abridgement does not include the epilogue which includes – I am quoting a “Critical Analysis” by Franz Mauthner that follows the play – a sentence that is “probably the longest in German literature and also the longest catalogue of the sins of the German people” and a second apocalypse, for which God, in his own voice but oddly the words of the Emperor Franz Josef, denies all responsibility: “I did not will it so.”

But despite all this The Last Days of Mankind is mostly a comedy.  Monty Python stuff.  Blackadder.

SUBSCRIBER:  The rumor circulating in Vienna is that there are rumors circulating in Austria.  They’re even going from mouth to mouth, but nobody can tell you –

PATRIOT:  Nobody knows anything specific, but there must be something to it if even the government has announced that rumors have been spread.  (V. 17)

And thus a “rumors about rumors” sketch is up and running, with no one having any idea what the rumored rumors might be about.

OPTIMIST:  What do you say to the rumors?

GRUMBLER:  I am not aware of them, but I believe them.  (V. 18)

Act II, Scene 17 is the Restaurant Sketch, including the patriotic food jokes:

GENTLEMAN:  No, wait a minute – perfidy noodles – whatever does that mean?

WAITER:  Well, macaroni!

GENTLEMAN:  Oh, yes, right – Scoundrel’s salad, what’s that?

WAITER:  Salad with Italian dressing.

A woman at a pricey spa (“No Wounded Soldiers Allowed”) has become completely corrupted, able to speak only the language of propaganda and advertising:

FRAU WAHNSCHAFFE:  I have only two children, and unfortunately they are not yet eligible for military service.  And, to make things even worse, one of them, to our sorrow, is a girl.  So I have to make do by fantasizing that my boy has already been at the front, and has, naturally, already met a hero’s death.  (III.40)

Then she turns to her own duties.  I presume Kraus is simply giving her actual exhortations from newspapers and magazines:

We had a wholesome broth made with the Excelsior brand of Hindenburg cocoa-cream soup cubes…  In the beginning we really missed ersatz margarine, but now that we have Obu brand, we lack for nothing…  Today we’re going to try the much-praised hodgepodge with Yolktex brand of ersatz egg made from carbonite of lime and baking powder, and a bit of Saladfix, a delicious additive that I prefer by far to Salatin as well as to Saladol.

Battlefield skits, incompetent officers, idiotic leaders, self-serving journalists, repulsive psychiatrists – oh how Kraus hated psychiatry.  But as the play progresses, the tone darkens – as does the war – the comedy becomes blacker and in many cases moves beyond the comic as the absurd becomes nightmarish.  Finally Kraus blows it all up, which I suppose, in my next post, is where Kraus week should end.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Notes toward The Last Days of Mankind - this drama has no actor other than all mankind

“In These Great Times” (1914) is bookended by “Tourist Trips to Hell” (1920), concentrated Karl Kraus.  Half of the articles four pages consists of a reproduction of an actual advertisement for an actual organized tour of recent battlefields:

You ride through destroyed villages to the fortress area of Vaux with its enormous cemeteries containing hundreds of thousands of fallen men.

You receive in the best hotel in Verdun a luncheon with wine and coffee, gratuities included.

And the other half is Kraus’s spitting, incredulous response, although I am not sure any response is necessary besides pointing and glaring:

You receive unforgettable impressions of a world in which there is not a square centimeter of soil that has not been torn up by grenades and advertisements.

Kraus’s argument is again literary.  People should visit battlefields; people who visit battlefields should eat lunch.  The offense of the advertisement is in the language, and what the language implies.

The translations are from the old In These Great Times collection, which presents the advertisement as a four page foldout, the original German on the left, and a spatially accurate English translation on the right.  Richard at Caravanas de Recuerdas just wrote about “Tourist Trips to Hell,” including more of Kraus’s shock as well as a photo of Kraus reading the piece – half of the advertisement faces the camera.  For Kraus, the end of the war did not mean the end of the horror.

In between the two pieces, Kraus wrote a unique masterpiece, The Last Days of Mankind, an 800 page satirical play in five acts and 259 scenes about the public face of the war, the war as seen through censored newspaper reports, official dispatches, and propaganda.  Much of the text – perhaps as much as half – is not by Kraus, but is a collage of quotations.  The plot is the war.  Each act covers a year of the war, and the action that begins in Vienna gradually expands to Germany and elsewhere.  The characters are journalists, officers, politicians – anyone, really – with dialogues between the Optimist and the Grumbler frequently recurring.  The Grumbler is often said, by people with a weak understanding of fiction, to be the stand-in for Kraus himself.

The play lends itself to rearrangement – any performance would require it – and I have seen three attempts to give the poor English reader a glimpse of the contents.  The German Library selection of Kraus includes one key scene, the Grumbler’s final monologue and statement of purpose:

I have written a tragedy, whose perishing hero is mankind, whose tragic conflict, the conflict between the world and nature, has a fatal ending.  Alas, because this drama has no actor other than all mankind, it has no audience! 

In These Great Times compresses the play into less than a hundred pages.  The selection looks performable, but becomes deceptively coherent and more directly pacifistic, when the play’s pacifism is actually more ambiguous.  Or so it seems in the longest available selection, the 230 pages of the 1974 translation (by Alexander Gode and Sue Ellen Wright) on which I will rely for the next couple of days. 

Edward Timms, in his two volume critical biography of Kraus, writes that “[t]his edition eliminates from the play antisemitic and anti-capitalist utterances which might give offence to American readers.”*  The notion that whoever the American readers of Kraus might have been in 1974 would have been “offended” by “anti-capitalist utterances” is hilarious; the idea that British readers would not be offended by Kraus’s anti-Semitism is a different kind of joke.  All right, Timms did not think that sentence through.  But I take the warning that I am working with a fragment of a text, however impressive the fragment.

*  Edward Timms, Karl Kraus: Apocalyptic Satirist, 1986, Yale UP, p. 429.