Saturday, June 22, 2013

Thomas Mann's antidote to decadence - never had he lost himself in a book

This is the last pre-vacation post.  It is an odd one to have atop Wuthering Expectations for two weeks, but it provides a clue as to where I am going, so that’s all right.

To catch us all up, “The Blood of the Walsungs” is Thomas Mann’s story of Wagnerian decadence that ends in an eye-rolling act of unapologetic incest.  Twenty years ago or more, I found the whole thing repulsive.  Now it seems hilarious, narrow but successful as a satire, not decadent but a parody of literary decadence.

Thus the mannered speech of the brother and sister:

‘I should enjoy an ice,’ said she, ‘if they were not in all probability uneatable.’

‘Don’t think of it,’ said he.

Or the preposterous clothing:

She wore a Florentine cinquecento frock of claret-coloured velvet, too heavy for her slight body.  Siegmund had on a green jacket suit with a tie of raspberry shantung, patent-leather shoes on his narrow feet, and cuff-buttons set with small diamonds.

Or the abuse with which the poor fiancé, a sort of point of view character, is subjected.  These people are ridiculous and behave accordingly.

And thus the long description and theft from Wagner, the conceit that the characters in the story behave like other fictional characters whose name they happen to share, something I remember finding deeply irritating.  Couldn’t Mann come up with his own symbolic action?  Or couldn’t he make it less obvious?  But I now take this as Mann’s point, that the twins have become so corrupted by wealth and aestheticism that they are only capable of imitation.

The brother, Siegmund, while dressing for the opera is given a reverie, an internal wandering that is as close as Mann comes to directing sympathy towards a character.  Siegmund is aware of the emptiness in his life.

The preparation, the lavish equipment for what should have been the serious business of life used up all his energy.  How much mental effort had to be expended simply in making a proper toilette!  How much time and attention went to his supplies of cigarettes, soaps, and perfumes; how much occasion for making up his mind late in that moment, recurring two or three times daily, when he had to select his cravat!

Yes, admittedly, that exact problem may not be one many of us share, but at least Mann allows for some possibility of an alternative other than a Wagner-inspired sexual affair with his sister.  He does it most clearly in a description of a problem many of us do share:

Siegmund loved to read, he strove after the word and the spirit as after a tool which a profound instinct urged him to grasp.  But never had he lost himself in a book as one does when that single work seems the most important in the world; unique, that single work seems the most important in the world; unique, a little, all-embracing universe, into which one plunges and submerges oneself in order to draw nourishment out of every syllable.  The books and magazines streamed in, he could buy them all, they heaped up around him and even while he read, the number of those still to be read disturbed him.  But he had the books bound in stamped leather and labelled with Siegmund Aarenhold’s beautiful book-plate; they stood in rows, weighing down his life like a possession which he did not succeed in subordinating to his personality.

In other words, he behaves badly because of the size of his To Be Read pile.  And his life would be transformed if he could just find that one great book among the corrupting excess.

Back in a couple weeks.  I will have to juice up the bug zapper a bit while I am away, sorry.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

I summarize the Thomas Mann story "The Blood of the Walsungs"

Thomas Mann, “The Blood of the Walsungs,” 1905.  A story in two scenes.

Scene 1:  Lunch with the Aarenhold family, massively wealthy Polish Jews who have become assimilated Prussians, so assimilated that the oldest son has become an Erich von Stroheim-like Prussian officer, “a stunning tanned creature with curling lips and a killing scar” and the youngest son and daughter, nineteen year-old twins, are named after Richard Wagner characters.

The aestheticized manners and grandiose wealth of the characters are a sight to see:  “With careful, skinny hands Herr Aarenhold settled the pince-nez half-way down his nose and with a mistrustful air read the menu, three copies of which lay on the table,” for example.  They are at home.  I am going to institute this practice.  Hand-written menus at every meal for every guest.  This will be easy because they will only need one word: BEANS.  And I can reuse the menus every night.

A more ordinary German has had the bad luck (“[t]owards the end of the luncheon [his] eyes were red and he looked slightly deranged”) of becoming engaged to the daughter.  He apparently has not noticed that she and her brother “were always hand in hand, heedless that the hands of both inclined to moisture.”

Scene 2:  The twins, Siegmund and Sieglinde, are going to attend Die Walküre for the last time before her marriage.  He dresses, exchanging his “rose-tinted silk drawers and socks” for “black silk drawers, black silk socks, and heavy black silk garters with silver buckles.”  His sister joins him, and they make out (“They spent another minute on the chaise-lounge in mutual caresses”).

The next quarter or so of the story shows the twins at the opera.  Many pages present a detailed summary of the plot of the opera, focusing mostly on the twins Siegmund and Sieglinde who fall in love, discover that they are brother and sister, and behave in a manner that eventually produces the hero Siegfried:

Crouching on the bearskin they looked at each other in the white light, as they sang their duet of love.  Their bare arms touched each other’s as they held each other by the temples and gazed into each other’s eyes, and as they sang their mouths were very near…  In ravishment he stretched out his arms to her, his bride, she sank upon his breast – the curtain fell as the music swelled into a roaring, rushing, foaming whirlpool of passion – swirled and swirled and with one might throb stood still.

Rapturous applause.

Curiously, the “real” Siegmund has a white bearskin rug in his white room lit by “soft milky” light.

The twins return home, eat caviar sandwiches with red wine (“a combination offensive to good taste”), and copulate on the bearskin rug.  “Thus Mann has life imitate art” writes Peter Gay in Savage Reprisals (2002, p. 120) after his own summary of the story.

Gay is wrong.  Mann has art imitate art.  There is not a hint of life in any of this.

How I hated this story when I read it long ago; how it poisoned Mann.  On re-reading it, I have changed my mind, although without cleansing the story of its toxins – it is deliberately poisonous – but I will save the defense for the next post.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Ringing and shimmering, and giving hint of their infinite origin - I fail to make the case for Thomas Mann

It has been twenty years or more since I read Thomas Mann, in the old Death in Venice and Seven Other Stories collection.  I do not want to say that I read Mann well – I am sure I did not – but he left a bad taste so I never pursued the matter until recently.  I believe I have narrowed the offender to a single story, so perhaps the experience was like eating a bad clam.  Puts a fellow off clams for a while.  Buddenbrooks (1901) has turned out to be a tasty clam, thank goodness.

I want to postpone Buddenbrooks to sometime after my upcoming vacation and instead look at some of Mann’s early short fiction, most of it new to me.  The book at hand is Little Herr Friedemann & Other Stories, Minerva Press, 1997, the translator nowhere mentioned although I was able to figure out it is H. T. Lowe-Porter.  Eighteen short stories ranging from 1896 to 1911.

The last one I read, “A Weary Hour” (1905) is an internal monologue by Friedrich Schiller about the meaning of art and life and so on (Schiller’s name is never used).  It contains almost everything I find artless in Mann.  “And from his soul, from music and idea, new works struggled upward to birth and, taking shape, gave out light and sound, ringing and shimmering, and giving hint of their infinite origin – as in a shell we hear the sighing of the sea whence it came” – I was tempted to add “and hot gas” after “light and sound.”  So this is not the place to reconcile myself with Mann.  I note the year, the centennial of Schiller’s death so perhaps it is a special case, for a commemorative issue of a magazine.

Mann loved dogs.  The 1918 story “A Man and His Dog,” too long and late for this collection, contains little more than a man taking his dog for a walk.  I have not reread it recently, and remember it as a marvel, a wonderful piece of writing, so it has been a kind of mental cocklebur reminding me that Mann was worth another try.  A number of these stories have appreciative writing about dogs.  Sensitive dog lovers might want to avoid “Tobias Mindernickel” (1897), though, in which a grotesque misfit finds love in a dog, but for temperamental reasons should not own a dog.  Mann can be cruel, even to innocent dogs.

He is more cruel to people, especially the grotesques he returns to again and again, like the disfigured and bent hero of “Little Herr Friedemann” (1897), who as a baby was dropped by his drunken nurse.  After a life of self-denial he foolishly falls in love, is rejected, and drowns himself by force of will in shallow water.

Or how about Jacoby the lawyer:

He was stout, Jacoby the lawyer; but stout is not the word, he was a perfect colossus of a man!  His legs, in their columnar clumsiness and the slate-grey trousers he always wore, reminded one of an elephant’s…  The upper lip and the round head were covered with harsh, scanty, light-coloured bristles that showed the naked skin, as on an overfed dog.

His beautiful, evil wife and her no-good composer boyfriend bully Jacoby into performing  at a public theatrical.  They make him dress like a little girl and sing an insipid song (thus the title of the story, “Little Lizzy,” 1897).  He is killed by the F-sharp major chord on which the composer ends the song.  Mann is quite specific about that chord; he always is when he writes about music.

Humiliation, abuse, loneliness, death and more death.  I am not really making the case in favor, am I?  Tomorrow, the bad clam.  Let’s get it out of the way.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

And the reading, the learning, the constant stimulation and stretching of the mind! - Goncharov's ideal

The worst thing in Oblomov today.  The boring part, I mean.  The novel is a comedy, a great one.  The long first single scene is the comic highlight, but there are plenty of later returns to form, and the wind-down to the ending is entirely satisfying.  This is all Oblomov’s story.

Yet two chapters (Part 4, Chapters 4 and 8) have no jokes at all, no humor.  They are serious, sincere, and lack Oblomov, instead finishing off the stories of two supporting characters, Oblomov’s “active” friend Stoltz and one-time fiancée Olga.  I did not believe that their stories required any but a summary resolution, yet Ivan Goncharov gives them 10% of the book.  This is the purpose of calculating the percentages, by the way, to emphasize myself that the author thought this part of the book was important.

As far as Oblomov, the character, is concerned, the contents of these chapters could have been compressed into a paragraph.  The characters meet in Paris, fall in love, and marry.  They then establish the ideal household, perfectly managed, and ideal marriage, energetic and loving, while Oblomov falls into, let us say, a different ideal.  But Goncharov wants his readers to understand the machinery of perfection.

Some sample sentences:

It was with joyous serenity that she contemplated the broad expanses of life, its vast green fields and hills. (374)

Like the perpetual beauty of nature that bathed its surroundings, the interior of the house was constantly abuzz with ideas and vibrated with the beauty of human activity.  (395)

Leaving aside the question of love and marriage as such and without bringing in such issues as money, connections or position, Stoltz did nonetheless ponder the problem of reconciling his outer and hitherto ceaseless activity with an inner family life, and his role as a traveler and businessman with that of a homebound family man.  (398)

The prose is that of a different writer, a different novel.  I suspect many readers, after that last example, will say a worse writer.  In an amusing paradox, this novel about sloth is full of comic energy, while the two chapters about activity are without spark.

And the reading, the learning, the constant stimulation and stretching of the mind!  (401)

He did not actually draw her diagrams or go over tables with her, but her talked to her about everything…  Like a philosopher or artist he tenderly molded her intellectual development and never in his life had he found himself so deeply absorbed…  there had been no task so challenging as that of nurturing the restless, volcanic intellect of his life’s companion.  (402)

There is the clue – these two chapters are modeled after the fiction of Jean-Jacques Rousseau.  They update the idealized love affair of Julie, ou la nouvelle Héloïse (1761) and the idealized pedagogy of Émile, ou de l'éducation  (1762), two of the strangest books I have ever read.  Émile is particularly insane.

The characters themselves use Oblomov as a foil, discussing how they can maintain their energy and interest in their marriage and lives and avoid falling into Oblomovism.  My guess is that Goncharov more or less means all of this, and that readers are meant to choose virtue over vice, but in the end even the noble couple acknowledges their love for Oblomov:

“’I’ve felt love for many people, but never such a strong and lasting love as for Oblomov.  To know him is to love him forever; right?’”  (413)

They love him for his sincerity and “gentleness,” while I love him because his parts of the novel are well-written, but we end up in the same place.

Monday, June 17, 2013

The root cause of Oblomovism - real life and fairy tales were hopelessly intertwined

The best thing in Oblomov, Part 1, Chapter 9, “Oblomov’s Dream.”  It is a long episode, 8% of the book, 29% of Part 1.  My understanding is that it is the germ of the novel, the first part of the novel Goncharov wrote years before it was published.  The conceit is that Oblomov is sleeping in his St. Petersburg apartment, dreaming about his childhood and the estate where he grew up.  The dream is not especially dream-like, but it does explain Oblomovism.

Oblomov’s dream begins strangely, with the narrator setting the scene by insisting that it contains “no sea, no high mountains, cliffs or precipices, no dense forests, nothing at all imposing, wild or menacing” (82).  In other words, nothing sublime.  Goncharov is adopting Burkean language.  Mountains are “menacing and fearsome like the unsheathed claws and bared fangs of some wild beast going for the throat,” while the sea is “wailing and groaning like some monster doomed to eternal torment.”

There will be nothing like that in Oblomov’s dream where even “the sky seemed to crouch closer to the earth… so as to enfold it more snugly” and each season “proceeds in the orderly sequence ordained by nature” (82-3).  The landscape is purely picturesque, “ a series of charming, attractive, picture-postcard landscapes.”  The estate is nowhere near a railroad, a town, or even an ordinary road.  The arrival of a letter is not merely a rare event, but a source of confusion.

So the entire household, the entire estate, is suffused with the spirit of Oblomovism.  It appears to be a family trait.  But that is not enough.  Oblomov, in the first part of the dream, is seven years old.  This is one source of Oblomovism:

Oblomov, seeing in his dream his long dead mother, started quivering with joy and his heart contracted with a fierce spasm of love for her as two warm tears slowly slid from beneath his eyelids and hung motionlessly on his lashes.  His mother smothered him with passionate kisses and devoured him hungrily and anxiously with her eyes.  (88)

The other source is the imagination, centered on his nanny telling him fairy tales:

The adult Ilya Ilyich, of course, eventually came to realize that there were no such things as rivers of milk and honey or good fairies, and cheerfully dismissed his nanny’s tales with a smile, but the smile was not entirely genuine and was always accompanied by a wistful sigh.  For him, real life and fairy tales were hopelessly intertwined and, in spite of himself, the thought that life was not a fairy tale and fairy tales were not life, depressed him at times.  (97)

Three great accounts of childhood on a Russian estate were published during the 1850s, Leo Tolstoy’s Childhood (1852) and its sequels, Sergey Aksakov’s A Russian Gentleman (1856) and its sequels, especially Years of Childhood (1858), and “Oblomov’s Dream.”  It is a curious conjunction.  My guess is that the pace of progress had become so fast that writers were looking backwards, whether twenty years for the young Tolstoy or seventy for Aksakov, to tally up the changes.

Oblomov’s inactivity is some kind of retreat to childhood.  It is a protest against the passage of time, a protest against existence.  Thus to his friend Stoltz, a person of the world, Oblomov seems to be rejecting life.  In a sense he is.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Oblomov and Oblomovism - some contrasting characters

I promised on Twitter that this piece would be more coherent than yesterday’s.  Likely an error.  But I will number my points for clarity.  The book at hand is Ivan Goncharov’s 1859 Oblomov.

1.  Oblomov was once a student, a civil servant, a man who attended the  theater and kept up with fashionable books, the usual stuff of his class, the landowner who leaves the estate for St. Petersburg.  But he gradually withdrew from all of that until he ended up where we find him at the beginning and throughout the first 30% of Oblomov, on his couch, in his dressing-gown,  living off the dwindling proceeds of the mismanaged estate he inherited.

Based on the behavior of the friends who appear throughout the opening part of the novel, Oblomov’s complete removal from society is fairly recent.  They assume he is still mobile, eccentric but not a recluse.

We know the truth soon enough, though, that Oblomov has settled into a “deep and all-pervasive inertia” as Stefanie at So Many Books calls it, a Russian Bartlebyism where Oblomov prefers not to, whether the act is painful or pleasurable, necessary or frivolous.  He does not always act, by which I mean do nothing, as he prefers.  But the tendency is clear enough, the desire for an existence that suspiciously resembles non-existence (thus the temptation to invoke Buddhism).

This is Oblomovism or oblomovshchina (Pearl explores but does not translate the word).  Torpor as ideology.

2.  The novel operates by a contrast of characters.

a.  The servant Zakhar is genuinely lazy.  He prefers ease.  After describing Oblomov on the first page of the novel, Goncharov turns to the filthy apartment – the “back of one couch had collapsed and the wood veneer had come unstuck in places,” “mirrors had ceased to reflect anything,” and the pages of the “two or three” open books “had yellowed, were covered in dust, and had clearly been discarded long ago” (2-3).  This is the result of Zakhar’s laziness, not Oblomov’s, who “would actually have liked to see everything clean, only he wanted it to somehow happen by itself, spontaneously and in a flash” (8).

This makes for good comedy.

b.  Oblomov’s friend Stoltz and his eventual fiancée Olga are active people.  They are convinced that they can overcome Oblomov’s inertia, and they are to some degree correct – the key is to apply constant goading, which is exhausting and likely not worth the effort.  But they both try.  Stoltz is half-German and is allowed some comedy of a satiric variety; Olga is taken all too seriously.

The progress of the love affair between Olga and Oblomov occupies the middle 47% of the novel.

c. Then there is Agafya Matveyevna, Oblomov’s landlady in the latter half of the book, who is an embodiment of domestic activity.  She unquestioningly supplies Oblomov with food, cleaning, care, and even sex – Oblomov does have a sex drive, but just barely.  Bartleby eventually rejects the basic elements of life, while Oblomov takes them for granted.  Someone always provides.

3.  Perhaps Oblomovism is a disease of the rich.  Goncharov performs a demonstration.  At one point, Oblomov loses all but a subsistence income.  His clothes fall apart, his luxuries disappear, but he barely seems to notice (Oblomovism is monstrously egotistical).  He eats his barley soup with the same gusto with which he used to eat oysters (see pp. 384-5).  He prefers luxury, but as with a clean room it is not worth sacrificing a single nap.  Oblomov is not above money, which is a common source of anxiety for him.  He is beyond money.

Goncharov is clear enough about why Oblomov is an Oblomovist, but I will save that for tomorrow.  It is the best thing in the novel.

Friday, June 14, 2013

It's not a dressing gown - notes on Oblomov

Plenty of guff and hot air has been generated about the “Russian soul,” for example by Tatyana Tolstaya in her foreword to the 2006 Stephen Pearl translation of Ivan Goncharov’s Oblomov – “anyone who wants to understand the inscrutable Russian soul should start by reading Oblomov” (xi).  I might then guess that one aspect of the Russian culture is a predilection for self-puffery if that were not a universal human trait.  The title character of the 1859 Oblomov is a universal type; of course the fact that the type is set within a Russian context matters, as do the specific actions and thoughts of the character who within the novel is decidedly not a type but an individual, living a fiction life different from other real and fictional people like him, and so do the actions and thoughts of the supporting characters, Oblomov’s friends and servants, different than the friends and servants of other Russian and non-Russian Oblomov-like people, and also unique and perhaps even determining is the style of the author who tells his story in his own way, one that is not especially universal, although he is certainly not as distinct a stylist as Turgenev or Dostoevsky.

Tolstaya suggests that there are affinities between Oblomov and Buddhism, and quotes as her authority on Buddhist spirituality the Russian rock star Boris Grebenshikov (p. x);  at this point I realized that the whole thing was a put on of some sort.  So no more talk of Russianness or Russian souls as I write about Oblomov.

Ilya Ilyich Oblomov is so lazy, or perhaps depressed, or maybe something else – neither of the first two conditions describe Oblomov correctly – that he has trouble moving off of his couch, and something more than trouble doing anything else, for example changing out of his dressing gown (“’It’s not a dressing-gown – it’s more of a kimono,’ said Oblomov, wrapping the voluminous folds of the gown lovingly about  himself” (I.2).  Or such is the case in the first act of the play, the only part of the book I can remember anyone mentioning.

I mean first part of the novel, although what immediately struck me is how much of it might as well be a play.  It has a single set, takes place over a continuous eight or nine hours, the action consists of a series of visitors, and an amusing servant even has some physical bits, dropping trays and so on.  It is mostly dialogue and action, or really inaction.  The stage version, to really get the spirit right, should move in real time, including long stretches where the audience just watches Oblomov doze for a half hour.  Novels are magical – a half hour nap passes in no time, unless we are in the amazing Chapter 9, “Oblomov’s Dream,” to which I might return later.

The first part introduces Oblomov and his servant, both outstanding characters, and is often hilarious.  It is justly the best known part of the book.  It is also only 30% of the novel.  In the other 70 percent, Oblomov leaves, the couch, gets dressed, and falls in love.  Supporting characters are given their own stories.  It turns out there is more to the novel than lazing in a kimono.  Perhaps I will write about some of that; perhaps something else.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Canetti's mother - she forgot about the time, we kept reading and reading

I should write something about Elias Canetti and his mother.  Early in The Tongue Set Free, just a fifth of the way into the memoir, Canetti’s father suddenly dies.  Canetti is eight, I think.  He ends up moving into his father’s role in some ways.  The mother’s psychology is the curious thing, how she demands from her young son some of the intellectual and emotional satisfactions she once got from her husband.  Thus her insistence that he learn German instantaneously, or her course of reading Shakespeare and Schiller with Canetti – German was the language she shared with her husband, theater was the art the loved together.

I hate to think what this would do to a kid less tenacious and brilliant than Canetti, but she likely would have demanded less in that case.

She made an effort not to influence me.  After each scene, she asked me how I understood it, and before saying anything herself, she always let me speak first.  But sometimes, when it was late, and she forgot about the time, we kept reading and reading, and I sensed that she was utterly excited and would never stop…  Her wide nostrils quivered vehemently, her large, gray eyes no longer saw me, her words were no longer directed at me.  I felt that she was talking to Father when she was seized in this way, and perhaps I, without realizing it, had become my father.  (83)

A break is inevitable; thus Canetti’s confusion between the Schnitzler-like doctor who pursues his mother and the forbidden sexual content of the Schnitzler books his mother reads in place of Schiller.  Canetti’s own move toward independence occurs in Switzerland, in part due to his discovery of Swiss literature.  He first has contempt for it, as when, at the celebration of the Gottfried Keller centennial, he cannot believe that this writer he has never heard of can be any good:  “but what struck me to the core of my naïve attitude was the lofty claim for a writer whom not even mother had read” (168).  This bit of the story has a happy ending, by the way: “at the time, I couldn’t guess with what delight I would some day read Green Henry.”

The Zurich poet and historical novelist Conrad Ferdinand Meyer (who I have not read) breaks through Canetti’s resistance, as does Jeremias Gotthelf’s nightmarish The Black Spider (“I felt haunted by it, as though it had dug into my own face,” 253), which leads to some sort of break with his mother, who uses the novella as a weapon to attack Zurich, Switzerland, and her son (“nobody with any understanding took Gotthelf seriously today,” 254).  The memoir ends with the mother’s long, brutal attack on Canetti’s Bildung, his education, his interest in Switzerland, and the writers he likes.   It is wild; neurotic, cruel and misguided and, psychologically, of high interest, however strange.

And it is only half as strange as the story Canetti tells his mother about a circle of dancing mice:

“You’re being unfair,” she said, “that’s just like you.  You expect too much.  Mice aren’t people, after all, even if they do have a kind of dancing.”  (221)

Good point, Mom.

Canetti’s memoir and mother often reminded me of Romain Gary’s Promise atDawn, as different as the books are, as different as the mothers are, two stories of powerful but displaced Jewish mothers and their brilliant sons wandering across Europe, searching for not just a home but a culture.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

I never had to skip a single day of reading - Elias Canetti's childhood reading plan

Elias Canetti’s childhood memoir The Tongue Set Free follows his education, which means, mostly, his reading.

A few months after I started school, a thing solemn and exciting happened, which determined my entire life after that.  Father brought home a book for me.  He took me alone into a back room, where we children slept, and explained it to me.  It was The Arabian Nights, in an edition for children…  My father spoke very earnestly and encouragingly to me and told me how nice it would be to read.  (39)

Wait, it gets better.

Once I’d finished the book, he’d bring me another…  He kept his promise, there was always a new book there; I never had to skip a single day of reading.  (40)

Canetti is six, and has just learned how to read in school.  Think of the abundance of books so many children have today, books piled on them from birth in the hopes that their brain development will be stimulated to the point of Nobel-prize winning.  Futile, obviously; unnecessary.  Just wait until kiddo is six and give him kiddie versions of Robinson Crusoe, Don Quixote, Tales from Shakespeare, Dante – although the seventy year-old Canetti is skeptical of that one:  “I wonder how it was possible to adapt Dante for children.”  He has bad dreams, and his mother scolds his father – “’it’s too early for him.’”

Canetti’s mother had a powerful sense of what was too early.  He had long readings and discussions with her of plays, of Schiller and Shakespeare, but when she becomes interested in contemporary writers who work with sexual material, she forbids her son to know anything about them.  He complies, refusing to glance at the contents even when he buys her volumes of Strindberg as gifts.  He suppresses all sexual interest through at least his sixteenth year, when the memoir ends, on his mother’s orders.  It is possible that not everything in the memoir is true, but more interestingly it is possible that everything is exactly as Canetti remembers.

The hilarious culmination of the two themes occurs in Vienna.  The mother falls ill and attracts the romantic attention of a bearded doctor, Herr Professor, who little Canetti entangles with the other claim to his mother’s attention:

I saw books by Schnitzler, and when she happened to tell me not only that he lived in Vienna and was really a physician, but also that Herr Professor knew him and that his wife was Sephardic like us, my despair was complete.  (122-3)

His mother tells him that “’[t]he best thing is to be both a writer and a doctor,’” which infuriates poor Canetti, although he is old enough at this point that he never takes after Herr Professor with an ax, although he does fantasize about the doctor’s death in a balcony collapse, the very balcony where Canetti and his mother used to read Shakespeare.

Strindberg comes later.  I can’t seem to write about this book in order.  Tomorrow, Canetti discovers Swiss literature.

Monday, June 10, 2013

The important thing was the letters, on which he knocked his fingers - Elias Canetti, young reader

If I am reading the first volume of Elias Canetti’s memoir, The Tongue Set Free (1977), tr. Joachim Neugroschel, it is in part for passages like this, from which I learn the most important thing I can learn from any book, that I was right:

She had intellectual interests and an ironic way of talking about things with Mother, none of which I understood.  She lived in the Viennese literature of the period and lacked Mother’s universal interest…  She was Viennese if for no other reason than because she always knew, without great effort, what was happening in the world of the intellect.  (111)

Right, I mean, about that marvelous, obsessive Viennese artistic culture and its literature, art, and music.  Canetti only lived in Vienna for about three years, 1913 to 1916, and he was only eight or nine when he arrived, but he was the perfect sponge for the city.  He was an unusual kid with an unusual mother.

I have never read anything else by Canetti, to my knowledge, nor do I know much about him or his work, and some of what I do know, like gossip about his sex life, is almost embarrassing to know.  I knew about his unplaceability, though.  He was born in Bulgaria, into a family of merchants, Sephardic Jews who spoke Ladino – they even had Ladino newspaper written in Hebrew characters.  Canetti eventually adopted German for his writing, but German was his fifth (!) language (but he came from a place where “[e]ach person counted up the languages he knew”).  The chapter in which his mother teaches him German by means of memorization and insults is hair-raising.  The memoir travels from Bulgaria to Manchester to Vienna to Zurich, which turns out to be in some ways paradise, and of course paradise is the place from which one is expelled, providing a good place to end a childhood memoir.

Canetti’s memoir is, broadly, about two things, his family and his education.  The latter mostly means books, literature, reading.  The Tongue Set Free is a memoir of reading (Canetti must be three or four here):

I tried to find out what fascinated [his father] in the newspaper, at first I thought it was the smell; and when I was alone and nobody saw me, I would climb up on the chair and greedily smell the newsprint.  But then I noticed he was moving his head along the page, and I imitated that behind his back without having the page in front of me, while he held it in both hands on the table and I played on the floor behind him.  Once, a visitor who had entered the room called to him; he turned around and caught me performing my imaginary reading motions…  [he] explained that the important thing was the letters, on which he knocked his fingers.  Soon I would learn them myself, he said, arousing within me an unquenchable yearning for letters.  (26-7)

The newspaper is of course Viennese.  A page later, in a chapter titled “The Murder Attempt,” Canetti tries to murder his cousin with an ax because she won’t show him the writing in her notebook, “letters of the alphabet in blue ink, they fascinated me more than anything I had ever laid eyes on” (28).  I believe this is one of the early predictors of winning the Nobel Prize in Literature, as Canetti did seventy years later.

Friday, June 7, 2013

Out of England it’s but a garish world! - Henry James, travel writer

“A Passionate Pilgrim” is about eighty pages long in the Edel edition of The Complete Tales of Henry James, and most of them are about what I would call the story, the American sap who will win his fortune or die.  Not die trying, simply die of purposelessness once he fails to acquire someone else’s Worcestershire country house.  It is a peculiar story.  This idea James has that Europe is literally fatal to Americans, where does that come from?  I suppose it is symbolic.

I want to look a bit at the other pages, though, which in terms of the story are nothing but the narrator and the sap traveling around England as tourists.  They are written differently than the “story” sections.  They are written like this:

We went forth without loss of time for a long walk on the hills.  Reaching their summits, you find half England unrolled at your feet.  A dozen broad counties, within the vast range of your vision, commingle their green exhalations.  Closely beneath us lay the dark, rich flats of hedgy Worcestershire and the copse-checkered slopes of rolling Hereford, white with the blossom of apples.  At widely opposite points of the large expanse two great cathedral towers rise sharply, taking the light, from the settled shadow of their circling towns, - the light, the ineffable English light!  “Out of England,” cried Searle, “it’s but a garish world!”  (250)

Aside from that concluding exclamation, this sounds exactly like the kind of magazine travel writing James was doing around the same time (see the earliest entries in Italian Hours, his collection of pieces about Italy).

Rhetorically, the tipoff that James has changed modes are the second person address – “you find… at your feet” – and the inconsistent switch to present tense.  When the characters are in the sentence, the verb is in the past tense (“lay”), but when they are absent James the travel writer is pretending that I am there with him right now (“rise,” “commingle”).  That last one, the commingling of green exhalations, I will bet that the reader who does not find that amusing is going to be routinely exasperated by James.

The two characters actually first interact as tourists (they first encounter each other in a restaurant but do not really meet) while visiting the palace at Hampton Court where “rooms…  follow [note tense] each other in endless succession” and “[y]ou pass from green painted and panelled bedchambers” etc.  I think I have made that point.  It is an odd effect, and not what I would call artful, this piling of one kind of writing atop another.

Not that the travel writing does not have its own interest.  James has fallen in love with England.  The narrator “had imagined that Oxford was the best thing in England,” so the characters visit Oxford, where the story eventually ends.  “No other spot in Europe, I imagine, extorts from our barbarous hearts so passionate an admiration…  the swallows niche more lovingly in the tangled ivy [at Magdalen College], I fancied than elsewhere in Oxford” (290-1)

Someday I will visit Oxford and see those swallows for myself.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

That vigorous dorsal resistance which expresses the old-English idea of repose - Henry James, tourist

Another genre for The Country of the Pointed Firs: tourism fiction, of the summer cottage variety.  The narrator is always an outsider, no matter how she might learn her way and make friends.  After all, she publishes accounts of her adventures in The Atlantic Monthly, secure in the knowledge that no Mainer reads it.  Or so I presume.

I recently read another example of tourism fiction, also published in the Atlantic, this time in only two parts rather than four, the 1871 Henry James tale “A Passionate Pilgrim.”  It is the earliest story James chose to include in the 1909 New York Edition of his work.  So James suppressed his early noirs and Civil War fiction.  He heavily rewrote his earlier work for the New York Edition, but I am reading the genuine 1871 production, as collected in The Complete Tales of Henry James, Volume 2, edited by Leon Edel.

Edel identifies this story and a couple of others that James and I skipped as important because they “reflect James’s discovery of Europe.”  He had just spent a year in Europe, so he was pouring his discoveries into his writing.  The inexhaustible (or repetitive) concern with Americans in Europe really begins here.

The narrator, James-like, except that he hails from Saragossa, Illinois, is on his first visit to England of which he “had dreamed much but as yet knew nothing” (227).  He accidentally encounters, via some contrived eavesdropping, another American, a nebbish in England to pursue a far-fetched claim to an inheritance.  The narrator takes pity on the sad sack and helps him initiate a longshot plot to gain the inheritance by marrying a naïve heiress.  The plot has one pretty decent twist, I am not knocking the plot, but I will for the moment ignore it in favor of the strangest feature of the story, the travel writing.

Or the narrator’s – he describes England as if he is writing a travel piece for an American magazine, one very much like those James was writing at the time.  He is self-conscious about this.  The inn that is the setting for the first scene, for example, is already familiar to him because he had seen it “in books, in visions, in dreams, in Dickens, in Smollett, and Boswell” (227-8).  Almost everything is described in terms of its Englishness – this from someone who has never before been in England.  My favorite example, still in the inn, because it is so silly:

Bracing my feet against the cross-beam of my little oaken table, I opposed to the mahogany partition behind me that vigorous dorsal resistance which expresses the old-English idea of repose.  The sturdy screen refused even to creak; but my poor Yankee joints made up the deficiency.  (228)

I have never been to England.  Perhaps I would react the same way.

Tomorrow, I will follow the characters as they visit the “best thing in England.”  What do you imagine that is?

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Jewett's domestic innovations

The Country of the Pointed Firs has been frustrating to write about.  Well, I managed to drop the second “the” in the title only once, which is an achievement.  No, I mean something else, that Jewett’s novel is quite subtly written, so that whenever I move in more closely on a passage, I discover a lot of shading that I had missed.  I have been writing about the scenes in the book from too great a distance, one that misses much of the art of the novel.

Not that the detailed brushwork will make up for the lack of novelistic fun for the impatient reader who demands it.  The structure and story of The Country of the Pointed Firs are conceptual innovations that suggest new possibilities for the content and meaning if fiction, but at the same time withhold many of the usual pleasures.  As Ann Romines writes in The Home Plot: Women, Writing & Domestic Ritual (University of Massachusetts Press, 1992), the book:

lacks the pattern of complication and climax, the sense of accomplished external action, which we are accustomed to finding in nineteenth-century novels.   The events of the book occur again and again, as domestic tasks do.  (74)

One kind of intricacy is replaced with another.

Each of the two parts of Little Women features a chapter devoted to housekeeping, one in which the children must care for the house without the help of their mother, and a second in which the newly married Meg discovers the difficulties of managing a home on her own.  Both episodes are comic and pointedly aimed at a clear moral.  Alternatively, I think of Esther Summerson in Bleak House, once she is appointed head of the titular house, proudly bearing her basket of keys (I have come across a new wife doing the same thing in Buddenbrooks), with little indication of what she actually does.  Either Dickens has little idea, or he has no means to (or interest in) making art of it.  Jewett thinks, no, there is art here, too.

Later domestic writers – I barely know this tradition – find ways to work the good old novelistic stuff back into their novels, so that Delta Wedding and The Optimist’s Daughter (which, if I remember correctly, ends with a climatic bout of housecleaning), seem filled with incident and story, even if very little is actually going on.  but we are used to that now.  I wonder if the child’s point of view adds a gloss of novelty or strangeness to the domestic detail.  It certainly does in the novels of Laura Ingalls Wilder, where I can share the five year-old Laura’s interest in the mechanics of making maple sugar candy even if I am not so interested.  That is a bad example, because I am interested, but the principle is sound.

Another direction is to make the book even more boring, as in a novel I have not read, Willa Cather’s Shadows on the Rock (1931), about a young girl keeping her father’s house in late 17th century Quebec.  This is Romines:

In Shadows on the Rock, no detail is too small for attention; the book is full of menus, timetables, household hints, and recipes.  We even learn exactly how Cécile disposes of her kitchen garbage.  (153)

Romines calls the book “subtle and under-valued” (152).  I am curious, but I have read so little Cather.  Perhaps commenters will have other favorites from the tradition.  I have not even read Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping (1980), so what do I know.  As I said, frustrating; ignorance is frustrating.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

The history of Mrs. Tilley's best room - or, an escape from fog town

Coming early in The Country of the Pointed Firs, I wondered how Captain Littlepage’s town of fog people related to the “actual” town where the narrator, Sarah, was spending her summer.  At this point in the novel, the townsfolk might as well be made of fog.  She does not know them.  But her visit with the damaged Littlepage turns out to be her initiation.  Her neighbors begin to solidify.  Only poor Littlepage remains trapped in fog town, as we see later in the novel:

… and Captain Littlepage was sitting behind his closed window as I passed by, watching for some one who never came.  I tried to speak to him, but he did not see me.  There was a patient look on the old man's face, as if the world were a great mistake and he had nobody with whom to speak his own language or find companionship.   (Ch. XVI)

Most of The Country of the Pointed Firs was serialized in four parts in The Atlantic Monthly, but Jewett added a couple of chapters to the finished book, one of which is a response to the narrator’s encounter with Captain Littlepage.  Sarah has progressed so far in her understanding of the town that she is able to make her own friends and do her own visiting, even with as challenging a resident as Elijah Tilley, a widower fisherman: “You felt almost as if a landmark pine should suddenly address you in regard to the weather, or a lofty-minded old camel make a remark as you stood respectfully near him under the circus tent” (Ch. XX).

Sarah “often wondered a great deal about the inner life and thought of these self-contained old fisherman.”  It turns out that this one’s inner life is mostly concerned with his dead wife and with housekeeping.  The two subjects are inextricable.  Tilley has “enshrined his wife” in his home, especially  in a “best room” that is preserved intact.  Sarah finds it a “sadder and more empty place than the kitchen,” but perhaps because she is a writer she is able to revive the dead a bit:

I could imagine the great day of certain purchases, the bewildering shops of the next large town, the aspiring anxious woman, the clumsy sea-tanned man in his best clothes, so eager to be pleased, but at ease only when they were safe back in the sailboat again, going down the bay with their precious freight, the hoarded money all spent and nothing to think of but tiller and sail.  I looked at the unworn carpet, the glass vases on the mantelpiece with their prim bunches of bleached swamp grass and dusty marsh rosemary, and I could read the history of Mrs. Tilley's best room from its very beginning.

This is the second mantelpiece decorated with grass in the book.  In the earlier room, the carpet is covered with rugs to protect it from use, but here there is no use.  No one walks in this room.

At the end of the chapter, Sarah tells her friend and landlady Mrs. Todd that she has visited Tilley.  “’I expect you had kind of a dull session; he ain’t the talkin’ kind,’” is her first response, but when she is told that she is wrong, that Tilley was talking, she knows the subject (“’Then ‘t was all about his wife’”), and says that she “’don’t want to go there no more’” because it is too sad.  She misses the wife (“’there ain’t hardly a day I don’t think o’ dear Sarah Tilley’”), but I wonder if it is also too painful to watch Tilley’s struggle to evade the fog town.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Notions of Solomon's Temple and blowing gray figures - weird Jewett

Ghosts and weirdness tonight.

The Country of the Pointed Firs is now usually published with four more stories set in the same town and with the same narrator.  Three are even set during the same summer.  Two are visits, pure domestic picaresque.  One is actually a kind of wrapping up of a plot, which in the plotless context of the novel is almost like a twist ending.

The remaining story, “The Foreigner” (1900), is another surprise, since it is an almost conventional, well-made short story.  It is even a ghost story, told by one character to another on a stormy night.  The story reminds me strongly of some of Elizabeth Gaskell’s stories of female solidarity.  It even has a postcolonial angle (see title).  I wonder if it has become well-known in certain academic circles.  It seems that it should be.

But I will set the ghost story aside for something stranger.  The narrator, Sarah, has rented an abandoned schoolhouse (the Maine town has lost its children) to serve as a “room of her own” for her writing.  She has not become part of the community, so her first significant “visit” turns out to be with a visionary madman, Captain Littlepage, who tells a story that is half borrowed from Poe’s The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym (1838) and half from H. P. Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness (which would not be published or even written for another thirty-five years).

“’A shipmaster was apt to get the habit of reading,’ said my companion,” which might explain part of the strange tale that has become an obsession for him, much like (Sebald alert!) another sea captain he knew “’had notions of Solomon's Temple, and made a very handsome little model of the same, right from the Scripture measurements’” (Ch. V).  Littlepage was once shipwrecked in the Arctic, where he met the survivor of an exploring expedition who is the source of the weird tale.  The explorer told of a hidden town inhabited by “blowing gray figures that would pass along alone, or sometimes gathered in companies as if they were watching.”  When pursued they “flittered away” like “a piece of cobweb.”

Finally, the gray shapes attack:

'Those folks, or whatever they were, come about 'em like bats; all at once they raised incessant armies, and come as if to drive 'em back to sea.  They stood thick at the edge o' the water like the ridges o' grim war; no thought o' flight, none of retreat.  Sometimes a standing fight, then soaring on main wing tormented all the air.  And when they'd got the boat out o' reach o' danger, Gaffett said they looked back, and there was the town again, standing up just as they'd seen it first, comin' on the coast.'  (Ch. VI)

Does it make the passage more or less strange that much of it is taken from Book VI of Paradise Lost?  “’I was well acquainted with the works of Milton’” – the Captain had mentioned this a bit earlier for what seemed like no reason.

So the first important connection the narrator makes with the town is with a lonely madman while she is herself alone.  Things can only improve.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Castles on inaccessible crags - the view from The Country of the Pointed Firs with Buddenbrooks thrown in as a regionalist bonus

I am going to move on to curtains, but for more on pies, please visit Jam & Idleness, where I am interviewed, in a manner of speaking, while revealing as little about myself as possible.  The highlights of the interview are: 1) a legendary Dickens quotation about pie, 2) a fine joke from meine Frau, and 3) a fine joke stolen from John Malkovich’s Proust questionnaire. 

Now, curtains.  We are visiting the home of the herbalist’s mother, “one of the most adorable little old women I’ve ever encountered in any sort of book” as bibliographing wrote.  The antique but spry mother lives alone on an island with her oddball son,  while the daughter has chosen to live in town, on shore (“’I was married in this room,’ said Mrs. Todd unexpectedly”).

The narrator describes the little island house’s décor:

… the little old-fashioned best room, with its few pieces of good furniture and pictures of national interest.  The green paper curtains were stamped with conventional landscapes of a foreign order,--castles on inaccessible crags, and lovely lakes with steep wooded shores; under-foot the treasured carpet was covered thick with home-made rugs.  There were empty glass lamps and crystallized bouquets of grass and some fine shells on the narrow mantelpiece.  (Ch. VIII)

The word “crystallized” is an interesting puzzle, although the way it magically makes grass the bridge between glass and shells is clear.  But it was the curtains that caught my attention.  The narrator often describes the view of the islands, likely one of the reasons she is living in this particular town.  And of course she describes this island as part of her visit.  Later, the characters go herb gathering, which also gives them an excuse to enjoy the view, which is described using some typical indicators of the sublime:

… above the circle of pointed firs we could look down over all the island, and could see the ocean that circled this and a hundred other bits of island ground, the mainland shore and all the far horizons.  It gave a sudden sense of space, for nothing stopped the eye or hedged one in,--that sense of liberty in space and time which great prospects always give.

"There ain't no such view in the world, I expect," said William proudly, and I hastened to speak my heartfelt tribute of praise; it was impossible not to feel as if an untraveled boy had spoken, and yet one loved to have him value his native heath.

The “boy” is actually “elderly” and “gray-headed.”  I return to the other view that he sees every day, on the green curtains, the one taken from some Walter Scott novel.  Conventional taste side by side with the real Maine landscape.

By chance I ran into something similar in a novel contemporary with The Country of the Pointed Firs, Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks (1901).  The Buddenbrooks family have, in 1835, just bought and furnished a large home, including this showpiece:

They were sitting in the “landscape room,” on the second floor of the spacious old house on Meng Strasse…  The thick, supple wall coverings, which had been hung so that there was a gap between them and the wall, depicted extensive landscapes in the same pastel colors as the thin carpet on the floor – idyllic scenes in the style of the eighteenth century, with merry vinedressers, diligent farmers, prettily ribboned shepherdesses, who sat beside reflecting pools, holding spotless lambs in their laps or exchanging kisses with tender shepherds.  Most of these scenes were suffused with yellowish sunsets that matched the yellow upholstery of the white enameled furniture and the yellow silk of the curtains at both windows.  (I.1., tr.  John E. Woods)

I love visiting rooms like this in palaces and restored homes in Europe, since they make me happy I do not live in them.  Many of the most important scenes in the novel take place in this room, allowing Mann to insert lines like this, 250 pages later, during the reading of a will:

The painted gods atop their pedestals stood out white and proud against the sky-blue background. (V.1.)

Mannian irony, is what that is.

Both Buddenbrooks and The Country of the Pointed Firs are regionalist novels.  It is a curious pleasure to see them working some of the same ground with some of the same tools, as different as they are.