Thursday, February 27, 2014

There’s nothing half-hearted about your way of doing things - on the pleasures of Njal's Saga

How about some notes about Njal’s Saga, one of the great Icelandic sagas?  I have no argument, just notes.  On the Pleasures of Icelandic Sagas.

For some reason Iceland experienced a literary boom in the 13th and 14th centuries.  Iceland was hardly unique – this is the High Middle Ages.  The form of the literature is strange, though, and even unique.  The sagas are prose tales that mix history, genealogy, legends, fiction, and anything else the typically anonymous author wants to include.  They ought to be incoherent, and I suppose some of them are.

Njal’s Saga begins:

There was a man called Mord Fiddle, who was the son of Sighvat the Red.  Mord was a powerful chieftain, and lived at Voll in the Rangriver Plains.  He was also a very experienced lawyer – so skillful, indeed, that no judgement was held to be valid unless he had taken part in it.  He had an only daughter called Unn; she was a good-looking, refined, capable girl, and was considered the best match in the Rangriver Plains.  (Ch. 1)

The sagas I know – not that many – are always written in this kind of plain style.  Lots of proper names.  Lots of real places, well identified, stops for saga tourists.  See Nancy Marie Brown, who writes about Vikings and posts at God of Wednesday, visit the site of the Althing, the annual assembly of the chieftains, where so much of the action of Njal’s Saga takes place (it is an early legal thriller).  I have borrowed her photo of the Law Rock, where one-third of the law was recited from memory every summer, and where the characters declare their lawsuits.

I read an edition of Grettir’s Saga that included numerous photographs of the Icelandic sites.  The one I cannot forget is a photo of a boulder, the very boulder that the super-strong Grettir moved.  I think it also had the ravine where he fought the ghost.  There is obviously a lot of fiction in these old identifications, but also a lot of something else.

The plain style is sometimes tedious.  I do not believe that the opening above would by itself entice too many readers.  But the style sets off the moments of tension or weirdness or wild violence peppered throughout the saga.  Or, say, when one of the men tries to avoid violence only to be insulted and goaded to revenge by his wife or mother or daughter.

An example.  Hallgerd is the foster-daughter of Thjostolf.  She has already had her foster-father kill one of her husbands for slapping her.  She has married Glum, and is happy with him, but during a fight he slaps her.  Hallgerd forbids vengeance this time, but “Thjostolf walked away with a grin on his face” (Ch. 16).

Hallgerd was outside.  She saw the blood on his axe.  Thjostolf tossed the gold bracelet to her.

“What has happened?” she asked.  “Why is your axe covered with blood?”

“I don’t know how you’ll take this,” replied Thjostolf.  “Glum has been killed.”

“Then you must have done it,” said Hallgerd.

“Yes,” he replied.

Hallgerd laughed.  “There’s nothing half-hearted about your way of doing things,” she said. (Ch. 17)

There, that is what I am looking for.  “Hallgerd laughed.”  Yikes.

I am using the Magnus Magnusson translation, the old Penguin edition, now replaced.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Mere virtue and rancid matter - Swinburne's letters - The original probably verges on coarseness.

In A Place in the Country (1998), the new (in the U.S., and more importantly in my hands) W. G. Sebald book, Sebald calls what appear to the naked eye to be long, detailed literary essays “extended marginal notes and glosses” (p. 5), and if that’s what those are, then I hate to think what these are here at Wuthering Expectations.

So today, some genuine marginal glossing, on Volume 2 of The Swinburne Letters, Yale University Press, 1959, covering 1869-1875.  When we last saw Swinburne, he had just achieved early fame and notoriety with Atalanta and Calydon (1865) and Poems and Ballads (1866).  Now he is in his thirties and is settling into a career as a poet and essayist, if he does not drink himself to death first.

He also goes hiking in the French Massif with Richard Burton, corresponds with Victor Hugo, and hangs out with Robert Browning and James McNeill Whistler.  None of this is why I enjoy Swinburne’s letters.  Rather I am on the lookout for this sort of thing:

A foul mouth is so ill matched with a white beard that I would gladly believe the newspaper scribes alone responsible for the bestial utterances which they declare to have dropped from a teacher whom such disciples as these exhibit to our disgust and compassion as performing on their obscene platform the last tricks of tongue now possible to a gap-toothed and hoary-headed ape, carried at first into notice on the shoulder of Carlyle, and who now in his dotage spits and chatters from a dirtier perch of his own finding and fouling; Coryphaeus or choragus of his Bulgarian tribe of autocoprophagous baboons who make the filth they feed on.  (Jan. 30, 1874, p. 274)

Take a breath, Algernon!  Two guesses who the “teacher” is.

Here Swinburne needs to title a book of poems, but his favorite is too close to someone else’s.

Damn the minor poets, what right have they to call their titles (or their souls) their own, if we condescend to find any use for them?  (Jan. 20, 1875, 374-5)

Swinburne is some kind of comic demon.  An old woman possesses artifacts of Percy Shelley: “I need not say that I suggested strychnine, duly reduplicated, with earnestness worthy of Carlyle, but seemingly in vain” (Feb. 23, 1869, 6).  He wants to review Flaubert’s Sentimental Education “foreseeing that as before in his case the British press will generally exude mere virtue and rancid matter” (Nov. 25, 1869, 56).  After delivering a scatological burst borrowed from Rabelais (“turdilousifartishittical etc.”), Swinburne suggests that

the translation is no doubt – and very properly – softened down to the standard of English delicacy.  The original probably verges on coarseness.  (Feb. 12, 1870, 89)

Lest it seems that Swinburne is all rancid matter, I suggest a glance at any of Swinburne’s letters to Dante Gabriel Rossetti  (sorry, not Mar. 1, 1870 which is full of obscene parodies of Elizabeth Barrett Browning poems) in which Swinburne works his way through Rossetti’s upcoming collection of poems, including the sonnet sequence “The House of Life.”  It is a high level poetry workshop in which Swinburne the craftsman weighs the sound, sense, and beauty of every detail.  It is a treat to see how much this gleeful weirdo loves poetry, to see him wallow in it.

A couple of years later, D. G. Rossetti cut off his friendship with Swinburne (“and no one knows why,” including Swinburne, says the editor, p. 178).  Swinburne talks poetry with others – it is the only thing he really cares about – but no one else, in this book, who is really his peer.  It is sad, really.  Damn the minor poets.

Miscellaneous Eugene Onegin: shandrydans, true Gibraltar pies, Toby Keith, or any other kind of nonsense

Ideas from the scrap heap, posts I thought about writing.  I mean, pick a stanza of Eugene Onegin at random.   There will be something interesting in it.  Or work through a chapter, not just the famous duel in Chapter 6, but any of them.

Or write about the dancing, or the furniture, or the food:

and in passing
I’ll just remark, my verses talk
as much of banquets and the cork
and eatables beyond all classing
as yours did, Homer, godlike lord,
whom thirty centuries have adored! (Five: XXXVI, Johnston)

But see One: XVI for a feast, including a “Strasbourg pie,” for which I need Nabokov’s note.  It is a goose-liver pie (not a terrine):

The pie was un vrai gibraltar (as Brillat-Savarin describes it somewhere) that had to be attacked and “cut into by a carving knife” (as Brummell says in a letter).  (Commentary Book I, p. 74)

Or if drink is preferred, try Four: XLVI, in which Pushkin renounces champagne for “sedate Bordeaux,” for his health of course:

But you, Bordeaux, are like a friend
who is, in grief and in calamity,
at all times, everywhere, a comrade,
ready to render us a service
or share our quiet leisure.
Long live Bordeaux, our friend! (Nabokov)

“Both this and the previous stanza, XLV, are very poor, bubbling with imported platitudes,” says Nabokov (Commentary, I, 483).  Similar language was used in Toby Keith’s 2011 smash “Red Solo Cup,” which I will forever after call Pushkinian.

Nabokov’s commentary eventually inspired Pale Fire, and by that standard it is disappointing, since it is not written by a madman, but still (VN is working on Onegin’s thirty brushes):

The boredom of reading through the English, German, Polish, etc. “translations” of our poem was much too great to even be contemplated, but I find in my files copies of the following atrocious, incredibly “expanded,” and abominably vulgar versions of this stanza.  [examples snipped]  (I, 102)

Or how about, in an evisceration of Babette Deutsch’s version:

The sins of omission are too simple to be noted; but there is one sin of commission that is typical of this particular version of EO, in which all kinds of images and details are bountifully added to Pushkin.  What, for instance, are those birds and trees doing here: “And wake the birds in beech and larch”?  Why this and not, for instance: “And take in words to bleach and starch” or any other kind of nonsense?  The charming point is that beeches and larches, not being endemic in west central Russia, are the very last trees that Pushkin would imagine growing in the Larins’ park.  (1, 286-7)

After that, you can bet there ain’t no birds or trees in Charles Johnston’s translation of 2: XXVIII.

Nabokov begins that stanza “On the balcony she liked \ to prevene Aurora’s rise,” and here we have another element that makes Nabokov’s translation something more than plain prose.  “To prevene,” huh?  The Russian is Preduprezdhát’, obsolete in Russian so fair game in English, says Nabokov (see Commentary I, 285).  I remember that Edmund Wilson particularly hated these archaic words, proof that immigrant Nabokov’s English was better than his.

I began the series of posts with “Where do you trample vernant blooms?”  Some more:

along the highway \ one heard their lonely shandrydans (Two: V)
with neglection \ harking their ringing voice (Three: XL)
a taboon of cast steeds \ the breeder from the steppes has driven (Onegin’s Journey IX)

Even a literal translation can have a personality.

Thanks again to Tanglewood for inspiring my return to Eugene Onegin.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

A parody, an empty show - Pushkin opens his Byron

We all enjoy a fiction that attacks fiction don’t we?  Madame Bovary and Don Quixote and so on.  Eugene Onegin belongs on the list.  Like the Cervantes novel, Pushkin’s poem both attacks and rehabilitates.

The title character, the bored dandy, is not much of a reader.  The quotation I used yesterday, about how books were dullness, deceit and raving, ends with Onegin decorating his bookshelves “in taffeta of mourning black” (One: XLIV, Johnston).  Books are dead.  Later we discover that Onegin does read, but narrowly – Lord Byron, Benjamin Constant’s Adolphe, Maturin’s Melmoth the Wanderer.  He seems to only like books in which he identifies with the main character.  Literature as a mirror.

Near the end of the novel Onegin turns to books to escape from heartache – “Gibbon and Rousseau, Manzoni and Chamfort…  and at times even a Russian” (Eight: XXXV, Johnston).  Not surprisingly, none of this works.  It does serve to remind me of one of the obstacles facing the reader of Eugene Onegin, a reason Nabokov wrote a thousand pages of commentary, why the Penguin edition still has over a hundred, one page of notes per two pages of text.  Of course I have read all of those authors (the ones I have not read I hid in the ellipses), and of course you have read them.  But some unintended distance is introduced.  Or so I guess.  This never seems to bother the Janeites.

The heroine’s reading is used more ingeniously.  Young, innocent Tatyana Larin seems to be as corrupted by literature as Emma Roualt when the novel begins, although her models are more elevated.  The perfect man is the title character of Samuel Richardson’s endless Sir Charles Grandison (1753), the perfect heroine the title character of Jean-Jacque Rousseau’s Julie, or the New Heloise (1761).

From early on she loved romances,
they were her only food… and so
she fell in love with all the fancies
of Richardson and Rousseau.
Her father, kindly, open-hearted,
but dwelling in an age departed,
could see no harm in books; himself
he never took one from the shelf,
thought them a pointless peccadillo;
and cared not what his daughter kept
by way of secret tome that slept
until the dawn beneath her pillow,
His wife, just like Tatyana, had
on Richardson gone raving mad.  (Two: XXIX, Johnston, ellipses in original)

The latter experience is common for readers of Grandison.

Tatyana is not completely corrupted, though, since it turns out she has not read Byron or Melmoth or similar books – too naughty, I suppose.  She only reads them after she has fallen in love with her idealized Onegin, once he leaves his estate after his stupid duel (Sir Charles Grandison refuses to duel).  She in fact reads Onegin’s books, in Onegin’s library (“Lord Byron’s portrait on the wall”).  She reads not just the books but Onegin’s marginal notes, even noting passages “where a sharp nail has made a dent.”  She reads, in other words, not to find herself but to find Onegin, and what does she find?

Just an apparition,
a shadow, null and meaningless,
a Muscovite in Harold’s dress,
a modish second-hand edition,
a glossary of smart argot
a parody, an empty show?  (Seven: XXIV, Johnston, ellipses in original).

Fiction is both cause and cure.  Onegin just mimics his fictional models.  Tatyana critiques them.  He drifts, she matures.

Thomas Carlyle has a line in Sartor Resartus that always makes me laugh – “Close thy Byron; open they Goethe.”  Pushkin proves Carlyle wrong.  Tatyana finds wisdom by opening someone else’s Byron.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

this lacked conscience, that lacked sense; on all of them were different fetters - translating Eugene Onegin

Eugene Onegin, young and bored, attempts to stem his ennui with a desperate measure – reading books:

he put a troop of books upon a shelf,
read, read – and all without avail:
here there was dullness; there, deceit and raving;
this lacked conscience, that lacked sense;
on all of them were different fetters;
and the old had become old-fashioned,
and the new raved about the old.  (One: XLIV, tr. Nabokov)

I guess I first read Eugene Onegin twenty-five years ago, in Vladimir Nabokov’s 1964 translation, which is accompanied by about a thousand pages of commentary.  I read that, too, all of it.  Seven or eight years ago, sometime before the aborning of Wuthering Expectations, I read Charles Johnston’s 1977 version.

Recently I reread Nabokov’s version and immediately followed it with a return to Johnston’s, which I have not quite finished.  Both translations are super.  Each one presents about, let’s invent a figure, 30% of what is in Pushkin’s poem; read jointly, 40%; read with Nabokov’s commentary, 50%,  along with some choice Nabokov.  This is pretty good.  Readers with what they claim are principled objections to reading poetry in translation are fools.

I fear that on occasion in comments I have steered people away from Nabokov’s translations, succumbing in retrospect to the notion that it is – well, I do not remember what.  Dry, pedantic?  It is unpoetic, certainly, but nevertheless artistically effective and emotionally moving to the extent the ironies of the poem allow much emotion.  See, for example, Tatiana’s final speech (“Today it is my turn,” Eight: XLII) and thunderclap exit from the book.  Eugene Onegin is, among other things, a fine narrative with complex characters and interesting movement of plot.  An attentive prose translation has a lot to work with.

Several of the recent readalongers used James Falen’s 1990 translation, which I have only read in their excerpts.  It sounds good, too.  Both Johnston and Falen maintain Pushkin’s stanzaic form and rhyme scheme – it is a kind of modified sonnet, fourteen lines with a punchy closing couplet.  They both end up sounding something like a watery, domestic Lord Byron, an appropriate tone given Eugene Onegin’s period and frequent references to Byron.  Yet, to stick with the one I have read, Johnston, the fetters that squeeze arbitrary rhymes out of the substance of the story are balanced by a nimble sense of tone and sufficient cleverness.  The key scenes, Tatiana’s surreal prophetic dream in Chapter 5 or the duel in Chapter 6, are terrific.

A duelist has died.  The previous stanza ended with a list of trivial romantic clichés about young death (“the bloom has withered on the bough”).  This one is rather different.

He lay quite still, and strange as dreaming
was that calm brow of one who swooned.
Shot through below the chest – and streaming
the blood came smoking from the wound.
A moment earlier, inspiration
had filled his heart, and detestation
and hope and passion; life had glowed
and blood had bubbled as it flowed;
but now the mansion is forsaken;
shutters are up, and all is pale
and still within, behind the veil
of chalk the window-panes have taken.
The lady of the house has fled.
Where to, God knows.  The trail is dead.  (Six: XXXII, Johnston)

Not unsurpassable.  Pushkin presumably surpassed it.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

The eloquent crackbrain - joining the Eugene Onegin readalong

The Tanglewood book blog ran a readalong of Eugene Onegin (1825-32), Alexander Pushkin’s novel – or novella, or short story – in verse, a high point of Russian poetry and not so bad in English translation, either.  The Tanglewood link should lead to many of the readalongers.  They read on a schedule and posted regularly, which was enjoyable to read.  Some Pushkin every week.

Onegin is a bored St. Petersburg dandy who inherits a country estate where he becomes entangled with young Tatiana, who falls in love with him, and young poet Lensky, with whom he fights one of the earliest in a long line of idiotic Russian literary duels.  These are the only three characters of real consequence, and I am perhaps giving too much credit to poor Lensky.

The two translations I have both give the poem two hundred pages.  If it were printed as prose, without the stanzaic form, it would be about half that, and if it were reduced to the story as such – I am imagining Chekhov retelling the story as some sort of formal exercise – I doubt it would need more than fifty pages.  The “novel” is as digressive as Tristram Shandy, or at least Byron’s Don Juan.  For example, Pushkin is describing Onegin’s dressing table:

Amber on Tsargrad’s pipes,
porcelain and bronzes on a table,
and – of the pampered senses joy –
perfumes in crystal cut with facets;
combs, little files of steel,
straight scissors, curvate one,
and brushes of thirty kinds –
these for the nails, these for the teeth.
Rousseau (I shall observe in passing)
could not understand how dignified Grimm
dared clean his nails in front of him,
the eloquent crackbrain.
The advocate of liberty and rights
was in the present case not right at all.  (One: XXIV)

This is Vladimir Nabokov’s translation.  One might object that this ain’t poetry.  One might object that the first few lines ain’t English, although they ai, however bent the syntax.  Nabokov’s is a literal translation that sacrifices rhyme and rhythm but introduces no extraneous matter, the great if necessary sin of any translator attempting any sort of poetry.  He keeps all of the wonderful stuff, which is want I want here.

The entire passage – virtually the entire opening chapter – this rapid tour of a life of idle partying in the capital, is a digression from the story of Eugene and Tatiana, but note the digression within the digression, where the mention of nail files triggers an irrelevant anecdote about Rousseau.  It is thematically relevant, part of the patterning of the novel, but in this spot it mostly serves to characterize the easily distracted narrator.

Onegin, having filed his nails and brushed his teeth is off to a ball.  The narrator begins to describe the ball but wanders into the famous “foot fetish” section, where the dancers remind him of a beloved pair of feet from his past:

Ah, little feet, little feet!  Where are you now?
Where do you trample vernant blooms?
Fostered in Oriental mollitude,
on the northern sad snow,
you left no prints:
you liked the yielding rugs’
luxurious contact.
It is long since I would forget for you
the thirst for fame and praises,
the country of my fathers, and confinement?
The happiness of youthful years has vanished
as on the meadows your light trace.  (One: XXXI)

Mais où sont les pieds d'antan!  Another advantage of literal translation is that with some luck the rhetorical mode of the passage is clear.  Is this supposed to sound ridiculous?  I mean, “fostered in Oriental mollitude”!  Yes, yes it is.  Eugene Onegin is a masterpiece of mode, parody, and allusion.  Also image, character, and story.  Also, I am told, Russian verse.  I will have to live without that.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

I even took pleasure in inciting him to begin his philosophical instruction - a little song, a little dance, a little seltzer down the pants in the writings of Søren Kierkegaard

If nothing else I have learned to take Kierkegaard ironically, and once I do that I can enjoy his grim humor:

There was a man whose chatter certain circumstances made it necessary for me to listen to.  At every opportunity he was ready with a little philosophical lecture, a very tiresome harangue.  Almost in despair, I suddenly discovered that he perspired copiously when talking.  I saw the pearls of sweat gather on his brow, unite to form a stream, glide down his nose, and hang at the extreme point of his nose in a drop-shaped body.  From the moment of making this discovery, all was changed.  I even took pleasure in inciting him to begin his philosophical instruction, merely to observe the perspiration on his brow and at the end of his nose.  (56)*

Kierkegaard’s humor often comes from his inventiveness, as he pursues an idea, for example describing a true “knight of the faith” as an accountant who walks “as sturdily as a postman” and “thinks about the special hot dish which his wife has been preparing for him, a grilled lamb’s head garnished with herbs perhaps” – given the chance, “he will discuss it with a passion” (107), the grilled lamb’s head, a classic Danish dish which you should not Google if you do not want to see a photo of a grilled lamb’s head.  I am still not exactly sure what a “knight of the faith” is meant to be.

In a discussion of “demoniac despair,” Kierkegaard invents a sentient clerical error:

perhaps it was no error but in a far higher sense was an essential constituent in the whole exposition – it is then as if this clerical error would revolt against the author, out of hatred for him were to forbid to correct it, and were to say, “No, I will not be erased, I will stand as a witness against thee, that thou art a very poor writer.”  (158)

I suppose I should be pulling out some sharp aphorisms, too, but Kierkegaard is no G. C. Lichtenberg, and I find his inventions, these little characters than emerge, more amusing than his sayings, although those are not bad either.

The characters are part of the one part of Kierkegaard that I feel I misunderstand most fruitfully, the “Exordium” to Fear and Trembling in which he retells the story of Abraham and Isaac in four different ways, each with a variation not in action but in the psychological outcome.  Abraham, for example, is intentionally cruel to his Isaac in order to protect his son’s faith, to direct Isaac’s doubt or despair onto himself (so Abraham sacrifices not his son but himself).  Or in another version, the reverse:

But Abraham prepared everything for the sacrifice, gently and quietly, but when he turned aside and drew the knife, then Isaac saw that his left hand was clenched in despair and that a shudder passed through his body – but Abraham drew the knife.

Then they returned home and Sara hastened to  meet them; but Isaac had lost his faith.  No word of this has ever been mentioned in the world, and Isaac never spoke to anyone of what he had seen and Abraham never suspected that anyone had seen it.  (100)

So Abraham’s entirely human and understandable – almost necessary (that’s another one of the variations) – moment of doubt is destructive.

Kierkegaard immediately turns these scenarios to a complex argument about faith, dread, and despair that I did not understand at all.  Whatever fragments Auden used went unrecognized, except for the four stories themselves; whatever idea I was supposed to be following was replaced by an idea about narrativity, about how stories imply other stories, with especially rich stories implying many other stories.  Once each new story is recognized – told, written, imagined – it becomes a permanent part of the original story.  Maybe it was invented, maybe it was there all along.

Meanings accumulate, too, complementary or contradictory, but unresolvably so, because as stories they may well all be true.  Or many of them may be true. Or none. Who knows.

In other words, I recognized in Fear and Trembling the Kierkegaard of Borges and Derrida, or a simple outline of such a creature.  I read Kierkegaard, and all philosophy, as if it were literature, and perhaps too much as if it were about literature, but in this narrow case it really was.

*  Page numbers from The Living Thoughts of Kierkegaard, so I have no idea which book this is from.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Neither more nor less than pure nonsense - I did read Kierkegaard

I read a bit of Søren Kierkegaard rather than Hegel.  Actually, understanding Kierkegaard is another reason to read Hegel, another place Hegel kept popping up, even in the strange mangled hybrid book I read, The Living Thoughts of Kierkegaard (1952). 

If Hegel had written his whole Logic and in the Preface disclosed the fact that it was merely a thought experiment (in which, however, at many points he had shirked something), he would have been the greatest thinker that has ever lived.  Now this is comic.  (125)

I disagree on one point.  It would be funnier to make the disclosure in the afterward.  Even funnier, never disclose that it was merely etc.  Pretend you mean every word.  The greatest prankster that has ever lived.

Kierkegaard came to English-language attention fairly recently.  A major translation effort brought his major works into English in the 1940s.  W. H. Auden plundered these books to create his.  It was supposed to introduce Kierkegaard to a wider audience.  Did it?  I don’t know.

However useful the book is, it has two massive problems.  First, any possibility of coherent argument is destroyed.  A three page excerpt from one book is followed by a paragraph from another.  Which books?  Which bits are from published texts and which from private journals?  Auden does not say.

Then, second, the hilarious Kierkegaard pseudonym system is destroyed.  Fear and Trembling (1843) was written by Johannes de Silentio, The Concept of Dread (1844) by Vigilius Haufniensis, other books by Hilarius Bogbinder, H. H., and Anti-Climacus.  Kierkegaard had books that contradicted each other published on the same dayEither/Or (1843) has various authors arguing with each other within the book.  What a shame to throw out all of this.  To a book blogger of a certain temperament, it is practically the best part.  Some of what we now blithely call “Kierkegaard” is a pose or a parody or fiction.

Auden’s book gives no hint of dates either.  Just glance at those above.  Kierkegaard spent a decade working privately, and then kaboom, this amazing mass of published material in the 1840s and on to his death in 1855.  Of course this is why there are so many anthologies of mangled Kierkegaard excerpts.

Even chopped up (or because), I found much of Kierkegaard’s (or Anti-Climacus’s) thought to be difficult or beyond comprehension, such as a concept of subjectivity that went well beyond ordinary English usage, or a sharp distinction between the “aesthetic” and “ethical” that appeared arbitrary in its either/or divisions.  I would be surprised if I got something out of one page of five.

An author writes a clear, consistent, connected, fully matured presentation of some thought, perhaps the fruit of many years’ labor.  Nobody reads it.  But a [book blogger] reviews the book; in the course of half an hour or so, he writes something that is neither more nor less than pure nonsense.  This is then supposed to be the purport of the author’s book; moreover everybody reads it.  The significance of an author’s existence thus becomes evident: he exists for the sake of affording some journalist an opportunity to write nonsense for everybody to read.  (31)

Now that I understood.   I am doing my part to prove Kierkegaard right.

And honestly, one page out of five is a success.  If I thought I could hit that mark with Hegel, I would read him too.  So tomorrow, thought experiments, Kierkegaardian comedy, philosophy as a form of play.  Some of the parts I think I understood.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

She will not read the philosophy of Hegel.

She can neither make a pancake nor darn a sock, and she will not read the philosophy of Hegel.

This misguided fellow, an Isak Dinesen character, is thinking of marrying – these are reasons not to marry the woman, if you can believe it.  I say marry that lady and go out for pancakes.  Here I am looking at Seven Gothic Tale s (1934), “The Poet,” p. 385.

I, too, will not read Hegel, although in some sense I should.  He has been popping up everywhere.

Alexander Herzen has just returned from exile in the provinces to Moscow, where he discovers that there is a hot new thing among the literary radicals:

My new acquaintances received me as people do receive exiles and old champions, people who come out of prison or return from captivity or banishment, that is, with respectful indulgence, with a readiness to receive us into their alliance, though at the same time  refusing to yield a single point and hinting at the fact that they are ‘to-day’ and we are already ‘yesterday’, and exacting an unconditional acceptance of Hegel’s Phenomenology and Logic, and their interpretation of them, too.  (My Past and Thoughts, Vol. 2 of the Garnett/Higgins translation, 398)

Young Russians fresh from the German universities have gone crazy for Hegel and the dialectic. “People who loved each other avoided each other for weeks at a time because they disagreed about the definition of ‘all-embracing spirit’” (398), and “[n]o one in those days would have hesitated to write a phrase like this: ‘The concretion of abstract ideas in the sphere of plastics presents that phase of the self-seeking spirit in which, defining itself for itself, it passes from the potentiality of natural immanence into the harmonious sphere of pictorial consciousness in beauty.’” (399)

Herzen is allowed to mock because, he says, “Carried away by the current of the time, I wrote exactly the same way myself.”  Plus, as he describes at some length, he successfully absorbed but also eventually purged himself of dialectical “scholasticism” – “I stretched its bow until the string snapped and the blindfold dropped from my eyes” (403).

I really need Hegel for Henrik Ibsen, as serious a Hegelian as Herzen once tried to be, with what level of understanding I do not know.  Brand and Peer Gynt make sense dialectically, a thesis and an antithesis.  The synthesis may be Emperor and Galilean, Ibsen’s long play about Emperor Julian, although I do not see how.  The latter play, with its unusual two part structure, presents another thesis and antithesis – they are right there in the title, Classical and Christian, and a synthesis is discussed in the text, a Messiah figure that blends the two.  That does not work out well for Julian, but perhaps it describes the age Ibsen saw himself living in.

Even better, Ibsen scholar Brian Johnston has argued at length that the twelve “realist” plays written from 1877 to 1899, including A Doll House and Ghosts and so on, were not meant to be taken as separate plays but in fact make up a single long tragedy “whose subject was modern humanity undergoing (in Hegelian terms) a journey of spiritual recollection,” with each play covering one of twelve steps from The Phenomenology of Spirit.

This sounds nuts – the kind of nuts I like.  Johnston, who died a year ago, put all of his work up at Ibsen Voyages, and I plan to loot it thoroughly as I read Ibsen’s plays, but with just a tinge of regret that I will not really be able to evaluate the argument about Hegel, because I will not read the philosophy of Hegel.  I know my limits.  It won’t do any good.

Friday, February 14, 2014

The Bog People by P. V. Glob - who in return so often gave their faces her blessing

I will ease myself back into Scandinavia by going back to the beginning, to the Iron Age tribes unearthed in The Bog People (1965) by Danish archaeologist P. V. Glob.  Glob was closely involved with the excavation and analysis of some of the most famous bog people found in Denmark, including the Tollund Man and the Grauballe Man, so he writes in some detail about those finds, including numerous photographs of the mummies and their artifacts.  Also photos of the various bogs, all of which look exactly the same.  Subsequent chapters catalogue other discoveries of bog people in Denmark and elsewhere and draw some conclusions about the society and culture in which the bog people lived and died.  His argument is that a number of the mummies were the victims of human sacrifice.

Last summer I saw some bog mummies for myself, in the Gottorf Castle in Schleswig, including the Windeby “Girl” (actually a boy).  The bog people are a fascinating subject for their own sake, uncanny in the preservation of their faces, or eyes, or fingerprints, or stubble, depending on the luck of the bog.  Black and white photographs are ideal for conveying the resigned expression of the Tollund Man, even if the expression must to some large degree be a matter of chance.

Why, though, read this book on the subject?  It is incomplete and outdated, containing errors of fact (see the parenthetical above) and interpretation.  Why not read a more recent book?  Why does NYRB Classics have it in print?

Two reasons.  One is that Seamus Heaney read it (“my Christmas present to myself back in 1969”) when Rupert Bruce-Mitford brought it into English (I am actually reading this edition, not the NYRB version).  He was deeply struck by the humanity of the mummies and wrote a number of outstanding poems about them.  Still, another book with the same photos would do.

The second reason is that Glob’s book has become literature, and who reads literature for its accuracy?  I did not really understand this until the final quarter of the book, a long chapter titled “When Death Came” which is about the meaning of the deaths of these people.  It begins:

Death is the inescapable lot of man, and it comes in many guises.  Among the Iron Age people from the peat bogs we have seen signs of death in its grimmest forms.  Young and old, men and women, met their ends by decapitation, strangulation, cutting of the throat, hanging and drowning.  Very probably they suffered torture, mutilation and dismemberment before they died.  Yet these are the ones the bogs have preserved as individuals down to our day, while all their relative and contemporaries from the eight centuries of the Iron Age have totally vanished or at the most only survive as skeletons in their graves. (144)

Glob is writing with the distance and rhetoric of a scholar, constructing a culture and religion out of the physical evidence in the museum he ran, not just the mummies and their nooses and blindfolds but a stunning silver cauldron and some gods hacked out of logs whose survival is as unlikely as that of the bog people.  Still the gaps are so large, and Glob’s sympathy for these distant people is so great.

The Tollund man and many of the other bog men, after their brief time as god and husband of the goddess – the times of the spring feasts and the wanderings through the villages – fulfilled the final demand of religion.  They were sacrificed and placed in the sacred bogs; and consummated by their death the rites which ensured for the peasant community luck and fertility in the coming year.  At the same time, through their sacrificial deaths, they were themselves consecrated for all time to Nerthus, goddess of fertility – to Mother Earth, who in return so often gave their faces her blessing and preserved them through the millennia.  (190-1).

Glob wrote a legitimate successor to Sir Thomas Browne’s Hydriotaphia, Urn Burial, or a Discourse of the Sepulchral Urns lately found in Norfolk (1658), another work that begins with descriptions of recently discovered archeological remains and slowly turns into a meditation on mortality, how they died leading to why they died culminating in why we die.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Other things are doubtful, but that is certain - some Wellsian political allegory, and even some science

Two more modes or lodes or nodes Wells uses in The First Men in the Moon.  Politics and science.

The novel is not just an excuse for inventing wondrous atmospheric explosions and moon sunrises and so on.  It is also an anti-imperialist allegory.  Not a bad one at that, although Wells makes one really cheap decision.  His moon is, it turns out, abundant with gold.  Sure, why not gold.

"On the other hand, here's gold knocking about like cast iron at home.  If only we can get some of it back, if only we can find our sphere again before they do, and get back, then –“

“Yes?”

“We might put the thing on a sounder footing.  Come back in a bigger sphere with guns.”

“Good Lord!” cried Cavor, as though that was horrible.  (Ch. 18)

Cavor is the scientist, at once narrowly devoted to the cause of knowledge yet in the end much more of a humanist than the narrator who is always wishing for guns.  He wants to conquer the moon people and plunder their resources, an impulse that he feels is entirely natural, while the scientist just wants to study them.  Here we see that  Cavor has joined a Committee for the Abolition of War:

“Sooner or later it must come out, even if other men rediscover it.  And then ... Governments and powers will struggle to get hither, they will fight against one another, and against these moon people; it will only spread warfare and multiply the occasions of war.  In a little while, in a very little while, if I tell my secret, this planet to its deepest galleries will be strewn with human dead.  Other things are doubtful, but that is certain.”  (Ch. 18, italics in original)

It was really the spears that caught my attention, though.  The moon people are a highly advanced, tightly organized society that fights with spears.  The Anglo-Zulu Wars were fought in 1879, not that long before the novel was written.  I suppose there are other relevant colonial conflicts.  I don’t know.

The science – that actual science.  Wells was trained as a biologist.  Jules Verne wanted him to be an engineer, but in The Time Machine and The Island of Doctor Moreau and The War of the Worlds, the scientific principle under investigation is that of Charles Darwin.  In The First Men in the Moon Wells ingeniously prefigures sociobiology.  The moon people are part of a superorganism, an ant colony that has evolved to the point of employing language and advanced technology by means of extreme specialization, each individual “exquisitely adapted to the social need it meets” (Ch. 24).  Wells is the prophet of E. O. Wilson.

These two strands, the political and sociobiological, are combined at the novel’s end, as the scientist fumblingly explains to the big-brained ruler of the moon ants impossible concepts like nations, democracy (“When I had done he ordered cooling sprays upon his brow”, Ch. 25), and war.  However extraneous the satire, Wells does fold it back into the plot in the last few pages.  He is still a novelist more than a reformer at this point.  The scientist becomes the simian snake in the moon ant Eden, destroying their innocence and leading them to commit their first act of war.

The sequel can be found in what must now be hundreds of science fiction novels, stories, and movies.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

towards the edges magnified and unreal - Wells writes well

The two lunonauts land their gravo-sphere in a moon crater just before sunrise.  Wells imagines that the moon’s atmosphere freezes into a kind of snow during the two weeks of darkness, and then rapidly, almost explosively returns to its gaseous state when the sun reappears.

The sunlight had crept down the cliff, it touched the drifted masses at its base and incontinently came striding with seven-leagued boots towards us. The distant cliff seemed to shift and quiver, and at the touch of the dawn a reek of gray vapour poured upward from the crater floor, whirls and puffs and drifting wraiths of gray, thicker and broader and denser, until at last the whole westward plain was steaming like a wet handkerchief held before the fire, and the westward cliffs were no more than refracted glare beyond.

This is a sample of Chapter 7, “A Sunrise on the Moon.”  Besides an element of chemical thermodynamics, and a bit of literal atmospherics (“shift and quiver”) this is just good invention and good writing.  No amount of science plops that wet handkerchief into the crater.

Much of the chapter is similar.  In the next chapter, the plants pop up, which is just as good.  “Beyond, out of gullies and flats that had been hidden from us, but not from the quickening sun, over reefs and banks of shining rock, a bristling beard of spiky and fleshy vegetation was straining into view, hurrying tumultuously to take advantage of the brief day in which it must flower and fruit and seed again and die.”

All of this seen “you must bear in mind… through a thick bent glass, distorting it as things are distorted by a lens, acute only in the centre of the picture, and very bright there, and towards the edges magnified and unreal” (Ch. 8).

Even if it is all made up, what reader does not want to see the creation of the moon-air?  I know the answer to that question: readers who claim to have no visual sensibility and skim or skip descriptive passages.  The rest of us will take that last phrase – “magnified and unreal” – as literal within the story but also a metaphor about how we are reading and what we are imagining.

Just thinking about these descriptive flourishes, I would call The First Men in the Moon the best written of the Wells novels I have read.

It is also the most comic – the most purely comic – a result, as I mentioned yesterday, of the necessity of winking at the long tradition of moon journeys.  Between the jokes and the nuggets of especially good writing, the novel was a treat.

Wells had a couple more modes which I will save for tomorrow, plus the adventure story mode which I will skip as more standard stuff.

Let me get these curiosities out of the way here.  Did you know that Jack Kirby stole the huge-brained, tentacled Kree Supreme Intelligence directly from The First Men in the Moon, Chapter 25, “the enhaloed supreme intelligence that hovered above me”?  Now I am talking about superhero comics.  Between one and zero Wuthering Expectations readers care about this.  Tolkien fans may want to compare certain passages from the flight through the caves in Chapters 15 through 16 to certain passages in the “Mines of Moria” section of The Fellowship of the Ring.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

“It’s this accursed science,” I cried. - The First Men in the Moon by H. G. Wells - but he was not a reader of fiction

What I should be doing is continuing on with Ibsen, writing about his ungainly ten act masterpiece Emperor and Galilean.  But at some point I took a break from Ibsen to read The First Men in the Moon (1901) by H. G. Wells, so now I will take a break to write about it.  Easier to read, easier, to summarize, easier to bat around.

Summary:  An absent-minded scientist, Cavor, invents an anti-gravity metal, Cavorite.  For some reason the first thing he does with it is fly to the moon.  For some other reason he takes a venal bankrupt with a fancy prose style with him.  The men are captured by the moon-men, the Selenites, and taken to their phosphorescent moon-caves.  Thus the puzzling preposition in the novel’s title.  Wells wrote “in” and meant it.  The bankrupt escapes and writes a shocking and, frankly, almost unbelievable memoir about his experiences.

The literary tradition of trips to the moon goes back at least to Lucian’s True History (2nd century), where the method of transport is a whirlwind.  A knight in Orlando Furioso (1532) gets to the moon by hippogriff.  Jules Verne shot his astronauts to the moon with a giant cannon, much like Georges Méliès did in A Trip to the Moon (1902).

“That's perfectly easy. An air-tight manhole is all that is needed.  That, of course, will have to be a little complicated; there will have to be a valve, so that things may be thrown out, if necessary, without much loss of air.”

“Like Jules Verne's thing in A Trip to the Moon.”

But Cavor was not a reader of fiction.  (Ch.  3)

The 1993 Everyman paperback I read has a lot of baffling stuff about the reaction to this particular Wells novel, a lot of nonsense about science and Wells as a “prophet,” even though a trip to the moon is less of an original prophecy than anything Wells had written before.  The passage above is a winking acknowledgment.

Yet Jules Verne insists the science is on his side, as he says in a 1903 interview:

I make use of physics.  He invents.  I go to the moon in a cannonball, discharged from a cannon.  Here there is no invention.  He goes to Mars [?] in an airship, which he constructs of a metal which does away with the law of gravitation.  That’s all very well but show me this metal.  Let him produce it.  (p. 189)

Yes, H., why do you not produce the magical metal?  Verne, after all, produced the giant cannon.  He must have.  Otherwise his challenge makes no sense.  Charitably, I take all of this an amusing hoax on gullible readers.  Less charitably, I fear Verne believed himself – “Here there is no invention.”

The Wells novel is almost nothing but invention, some of it absolutely marvelous, some of it satirical and even political, some of it just for laughs.  The First Men in the Moon is a fifth book of Gulliver’s Travels, or Alice in Lunarland, or the teleplay for Laurel and Hardy in Space.  I am not sure who should play the scientist, Laurel or Hardy.  The movie would work either way.

There is even some science, although not where it seems it should be.  Ignore Verne’s misdirection.  Remember The Time Machine (1895) and so on.

I might be able to avoid Ibsen for several days with this piece of fluff.

The quotation in the title is from Chapter 13.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

I’m more in need of life than you - Ibsenian gusto

My temptation is to wander through Act V of Peer Gynt in the same way I pawed through my favorite bits of Act IV.  “Part of the lasting strangeness of Peer Gynt is that it is more of a trilogy of drama than a single work” writes Harold Bloom in The Western Canon (p. 339).  A small part of the strangeness, given all of the other strangeness, but this is true.

I guess I will not do that.  The play ends with some sort of escape from or transcendence of death, or with a great victory of the Female Principle, or It Was All A Dream (“Sleep and dream, my dearest boy!” is the last line), or Peer never did get out of that insane asylum at the end of Act IV, or he was there all along, or he died earlier in the play without my noticing, since he is still there, on stage.

At this point I am not going to choose an answer or try to reconcile them.  I see why I always want to refer back to the clearer, narrower Brand as a handhold.

Whatever else the two plays have in common, the central characters are big, full of life, and should be played big.  The paradox of Brand is that his gusto is so destructive.  Peer Gynt, and the acting of Peer Gynt, ought to be fun, like Mephistopheles in Faust of Falstaff in Henry IV, two characters so big it took two plays to contain them.

Robert Brustein, in The Theatre of Revolt (1964), argues that Brand is meant to be “Ibsen in his best moments (which is to say, at his most morally elevated)” while Peer Gynt is “Ibsen at his most irresponsible moments (which is to say, at his most morally lax)” (p. 50), which if true is instructive, since I find it difficult to avoid condemning Brand and loving Peer.  I respect Brand for his integrity, but also fear him as a fanatic.  Meanwhile, Peer Gynt has so little integrity that he becomes a slave trader and even murders a cook at the beginning of Act V (they are fighting over a capsized lifeboat):

PEER GYNT:  Let go that hand!
THE COOK:                                  Spare me please!
                       Think of my children, what they’ll lose!
PEER GYNT:  I’m more in need of life than you;
                       I haven’t had children up till now.   (V.ii.)

This scene has another of the play’s many blasphemies, as the cook drowns while trying to recite the Lord’s Prayer.  “Give us this day our—(Goes under).”  I am not sure why the character is a cook.  If it was just for this “daily bread” joke, he should have been a baker.

At this point one of the last act’s multitudinous devil figures pops out of the sea to reassure Peer:

PEER GYNT:  Clear off, you monster!  Get away!
                       I won’t die!  It’s the land for me!
THE PASSENGER:  You needn’t worry in that respect –
                                No one dies halfway through the last act.  (Glides away.)

Look, I am on the verge of doing what I swore I would not do.  I will just repeat the paradox, that in literature liveliness outweighs many sins.  Who would want Falstaff to reform?

Friday, February 7, 2014

This observation is new, and mine. (Later came to another conclusion) - crazy Peer Gynt

Brand is a single-minded and intense play about a monomaniac proving himself right, whatever the cost.  Of course he is not actually right, which is irony.  Or perhaps he is partly right, which is ambiguity.  Regardless, Ibsen marches his fanatic down one mountain and up the other, trimming everything away until nothing is left.

In Peer Gynt, Ibsen sprawls.  The first act is almost deceptive.  It stays in the village, mostly at a wedding part, until Peer Gynt runs off with the bride.  Outlawed and wandering the mountains, in Act II he has some strange encounters with the Troll King and his court, and with the mysterious invisible Great Boyg, the subject of much interpretation:

PEER GYNT:  Who are you?
THE VOICE:                             Myself.
PEER GYNT:                                            That stupid answer
                        You can keep; it makes nothing clear.  (II.vii.)

In Act III, Peer Gynt returns to the natural world, down from the mountain, to say farewell to his dying mother in that wonderful scene I looked at yesterday.  Then he is off “[t]o the sea…  and farther still” (III.iv.).

In the last two long acts, Ibsen cuts loose.  The action moves to a symbolic plain.  Peer Gynt becomes a slave trader and plantation owner and arms dealer (almost).  He spends a scene in a tree fighting off a pack of monkeys:

PEER GYNT:               The beast!
    The whole load on top of me!  Ugh, horrible - !
    Or could it be food?  It tastes – equivocal;
    But then, it’s habit that forms our taste.  (IV.iv.)

Try to imagine this philosophical scatology in a English play from 1867.  I wonder how this scene is staged.  Monkey puppets, maybe.

Peer Gynt fantasizes about recovering the desert by flooding it.  He has an affair with a houri.  He engages in archaeological research, discovering the statue of Memnon that sings at sunrise.

PEER GYNT:              (Writes in his notebook.)
“The statue sang.  Hear definite tones,
But can’t quite figure what it all means,
A hallucination, obviously.
Nothing else worthy of note today.”
                                   (Moves on.)

The statue of Memnon shows up in one of the Ubu plays, where it is thrown in the toilet.  The statue reminds Peer Gynt of the King of the Trolls, while the Sphinx, in the next scene is more like the Great Boyg, a puzzle since the Boyg was invisible.  In the Oedipus story, the Sphinx asks a riddle, but here it is Peer Gynt who asks the sphinx questions.

PEER GYNT:  Hi, Boyg, who are you?
A VOICE (behind the Sphinx)
                                         Ach, Sphinx, wer bist du?
PEER GYNT:  What?  An echo in German?  How odd!
THE VOICE:  Wer bist du?
PEER GYNT:                         The accent, it’s very good!
This observation is new, and mine.
                        (Writes in his notebook.)
“Echo speaks German,  Dialect – Berlin.”
(BEGRIFFENFELDT comes out from behind the Sphinx.)
BEGRIFFENFELDT:  A man!
PEER GYNT:                       So he’s the explanation.
                                                           (Notes again.)
“Later came to another conclusion.”  (IV.xii.)

Mythologists and Sophocleans will likely note that the answer to that other Sphinx’s riddle was “A man.”  The next and final scene in the act takes place in a lunatic asylum, making me wonder if that is where Peer Gynt has been all along.

I guess I have just been cataloguing the free weirdness of Act IV.  The final act is similar, with taking Threadballs, the return of the Troll King, and three different avatars of death.  This stuff would not exist without the example of Part II of Goethe’s Faust (1832), but once Ibsen has borrowed Goethe’s free dramatic form and inventive use of symbolic characters, the contents are all his own.  This is all a lot of fun.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Some Ibsen blasphemies - I’ll sit and sing you ballad and song

Brand (1866) is a long play in verse about a Norwegian pastor who seeks martyrdom and finds it.  “Mere lifelong sacrifice / itself may not suffice” (Act II) describes the action well.  Pastor Brand begins up in the mountains, descends to the coast, and again ascends the mountain when the play ends.

Peer Gynt (1867) is a long play in verse about a Norwegian folk hero who seeks himself.  “I gave up love and power and glory / Since being myself was more necessary” (V.viii.) describes the theme if not the action of the play.  The action is wild.  Peer Gynt also begins his play up in the mountains where he has ridden a giant reindeer buck off a cliff, or at least claimed he did – the first line of the play is “Peer, you’re lying!” – before descending to the coast and the desert and then returning to Norway and the mountains as the play ends.

There are parallels between the plays, is what I am saying, even though the plays and characters in many ways stand in opposition.  Brand has too much self, is too sure of himself, while Peer Gynt has almost no self, adopting roles as they comes along – hero, troll, slave trader, emperor – whatever is handy.

The mothers of both Brand and Peer Gynt die in the third act of their respective plays.  Brand refuses to see his mother or comfort her in any way because she refuses to sacrifice her miserly fortune, even on her deathbed.

BRAND:  I don’t make different laws,
one for my own hearth, the other
for strangers.  My mother knows
that ‘all or nothing’
is absolute.  One piece
struck from the Golden Calf
is an idol, no less
than the beast itself. 

Ibsen has a dramatic problem with this scene, so it requires a series of messengers, one after the other, to deliver Brand news about his mother, but in these plays Ibsen had liberated himself from dramatic problems.  Peer Gynt has it better.  Here is how the godless, outlawed anti-hero treats his dying mother:

PEER GYNT:  Pah! Let me tuck in the coverlet,
Like so.  If the night seems long,
We’ll shorten it.  There; I’ll sit
And sing you ballad and song.
AASE:  No, my Bible!  I’ll read the Apostle.
My thoughts are weighing me down.
PEER GYNT:  In Soria-Moria Castle
There’s a feast for the king and queen.
Lie back on the silken cushion;
We’ll drive there over the snow.
AASE:  But – I have an invitation?
PEER GYNT:  Why, of course!  Both of us do!  (III.vi.)

At this point Peer Gynt pretends to drive a carriage.  The mother is dying, but her son explains away her fears:

AASE:  Dear heart, what is it, that ringing--?
PEER GYNT:  The silver sleighbells you heard!

Saint Peter awaits at the castle gate.  There are cakes with wine and coffee at the party.  Peer Gynt even concocts a little drama where Saint Peter keeps his mother outside, but God himself intervenes to let her in.

PEER GYNT:  (in a deep voice)
“An end to this fuss and bother –
Mother Aase can come in free!”
                         (Laughs aloud and turns to AASE.)
Isn’t that how I said it would break?
Now they’re singing a different tune!

And at this point the mother dies, led personally to heaven by her sacrilegious, blaspheming son.

(Closes her eyes and bends over her.)
Here’s thanks for all of your days,
For the blows and kisses I had –
But give back some little praise –
(Presses his cheek to her mouth.)
There – that was thanks for the ride.

Peer Gynt is in places so crazy, with its invisible trolls and singing statues and talking threadballs that Ibsen risks losing the humanity of his characters, but not in this fine scene.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Henrik Ibsen ground work - the strange plays in the middle

Henrik Ibsen escaped a narrow little town much like (or so I imagine) the one in Kielland’s Skipper Worse.  His plays began to be performed when he was only twenty-two years old, and he was employed as playwright-in-residence at a theater company by age twenty-three.

This should be where my interest in Ibsen begins, but I have not come across an Ibsen scholar who has not steered me away from his first ten plays, mostly pastiches of Norwegian history or Viking sagas modeled on the history plays of Schiller and Shakespeare.  Too specialized for non-specialists.  And not all that good, even though one is titled The Vikings of Helgeland, which seems like a sure thing, but I guess not.

But no, the plays mostly flopped and Ibsen’s theater went bankrupt.  So he escaped again.  In 1864 he went to Italy with the help of a government art’s grant.  Inspired by the Italian air, or Roman antiquities, or a crisis of vocation, Ibsen quickly wrote a pair of verse drama masterpieces, Brand (1866) and Peer Gynt (1867) that made his name in Norway; a related closet drama, Emperor and Galilean followed in 1873 – it has ten acts, so I am assuming a big closet.

Now, finally, we get to the so-called “realist” plays that revolutionized theater around the world, Hedda Gabler and Ghosts and so on, twelve plays in twenty-three years.  To see what Shaw and O’Neill and Schnitzler are doing, these are the plays that will be helpful.  Those earlier plays are off in their own world, maybe even, in retrospect, dead ends.

But they are so good!  So I would like to spend a little time writing about them.  I wrote about Brand a bit a couple of years ago, a post about trolls and another about martyrdom, both posts shadowed by Alfred Jarry’s Ubu plays, which make explicit reference to Peer Gynt, perhaps even in Père Ubu’s name.  I have come at Ibsen from the wrong direction, from Jarry’s travesties rather than Shaw’s social reform.  Of course I am suspicious of received ideas about Ibsen.  Of course Peer Gynt is not a dead end.

I read Brand in Geoffrey Hill’s version, so it is trimmed but in first-rate verse.  Peer Gynt is Rolf Fjelde’s, Emperor and Galilean by Brian Johnston, two premier Ibsen scholars presenting every word of these long, crazy plays, leaving the dirty work of cuts to stage directors so I could enjoy the whole thing.

All right, good to get this out of the way.  Next, text.

Monday, February 3, 2014

gleaming herring scales all over their skirts - Alexander Kielland's Skipper Worse

The novels of Alexander Kielland was recommended by JeffryHouse back when I was soliciting advice about Norwegian literature.  I tried the 1882 Skipper Worse, which was short, engaging, and useful, and sometimes even artful.  I can easily recommend it myself to people who are for some reason concentrating their attention on Norwegian fiction.  That is meant to be narrow, but it obviously includes me.

Skipper Worse is a ship captain who in the lively opening scene returns to his small town after a long absence, “the first time a ship from that area had made the journey to Rio de Janeiro” (20), so his return is a triumph.  Worse becomes entangled with the town’s severe pietistic sect.  Kielland was a left-wing reformer, so he has no qualms about making some of the pietists as villains and hypocrites, as when greedy Madam Torvestad keeps her daughter from a love match within their faith by essentially selling her to the wealthy Skipper Worse, thereby ruining his life, her life, and the lives of several others.

The horrible Madam Torvestad arranges a marriage for her younger daughter, too, this time motivated not by greed but spite.  For some reason I have been reading a lot of stories about arranged marriages lately, almost all ending (or beginning) in disaster.  But those in Skipper Worse have been the worst.

All of this was fine, but the best parts of the novel were a bit separate from the story, scenes of action in the life of the little Norwegian port – a terrible storm in Chapter 15 and the arrival of the herring fleet in Chapter 5. 

The whole warehouse was full to the rafters with men, herring, salt, and barrels.  There were shouts and yells, the clang of coopers.  The floor and stairs were always wet and  slippery with herring blood and brine, which dripped between the floors.  Herring scales covered the walls everywhere you looked, and there was a smell like the inside of a whale’s stomach.  (69)

Maybe I should have preceded that with a lunch spoiler alert.

The girls would pull their fish scarves down, so their mouths were free, talking and lightly shouting as they walked in the middle of the street, warm and red-cheeked after the work, gleaming herring scales all over their skirts.  (66)

The girls are mocking the only people in town who to not have to gut herring, the “pale and sallow youngsters” who have to go to school, crushed by “the weight of Greek and Latin books, their thoughts confounded by the demands of a long-gone culture, their brains full of grammar” (66).  One reason I wanted to read Kielland was to see at least some of Norway through a writer other than Henrik Ibsen and Knut Hamsun, both of whom were huge weirdos, but it seems Kielland is a weirdo, too, at least when it comes to Latin. 

The editor tells me that Kielland is the author of a trilogy of novels that “might well be the most searing attack on formal education ever produced,” beginning with the 1883 Gift (translated as Poison), which “attacks the teaching of Latin as the most soul destroying activity ever invented” (167).  Deeply tempting crankery, but I guess not in English.

I read the Cross-Cultural Communications edition of Skipper Worse, 2008, tr. Christopher Fauske.  Alexander Kielland is also an offshore drilling platform that suffered a catastrophic disaster.  Norwegian oil drilling rigs are named after writers.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

now dogs, now cats, now pigs, now men - a parade of unwritten posts about Great Expectations

Pip is writing Great Expectations long after its events, maybe thirty-five years from the first scenes and twenty years from the end of Chapter 58.  Some of this is explicit, some I am inferring.

Thus Pip’s ironic tone towards his own life story.  He has achieved some critical distance.

So many problems are solved by this device.  In many earlier novels, Dickens has trouble creating interesting, non-stereotypical heroines.  He has trouble with heroes, too, but it takes him longer to figure out what to do with idealized, too-virtuous women.

But when Pip idealizes the perfect, wise Biddy, I am learning something not about the limitations of Charles Dickens but about the psychology of Pip.  It makes sense for Pip to make Biddy perfect, or, in particular, to always make her sound like an adult even when she is nine years old.  Maybe that is how Pip remembers her.  Maybe that is how he wants to remember her.

Similarly for the idealized father-figure Joe, who admittedly also has a lot more personality; similarly for the idealized (quite differently idealized) Estella.  Pip is telling the story his way.  And see that quotation about Biddy and the black-currant leaf, just the kind of action that gives the illusion that the character has a life outside the book.

Dickens writes a character a certain way in the third person and it is a flaw.  He writes her the exact same way in the first person and it is clever.  Yes, that’s right.

A new problem is created: why is Pip such a good writer?  Like the other Dickens first person narrators, David Copperfield and Bleak House’s Esther Summerson, Pip is not quite as good a writer as Charles Dickens, but he is still awfully good.  Scott Bailey has been writing about the case of Bleak House, where he works on the difference between Esther and “Dickens.”  This is the one place in Great Expectations where I really have to suspend my disbelief.  But it is a familiar problem.

I do not remember third-person Dickens spending too much time with the dreams of his characters, but both Pip and Copperfield (also writing in distant retrospect) report their own.  Here is fourteen year old Pip on the eve of leaving his family to be educated in London:

All night there were coaches in my broken sleep, going to wrong places instead of to London, and having in the traces, now dogs, now cats, now pigs, now men – never horses.  Fantastic failures of journeys occupied me until the day dawned and the birds were singing.  Then, I got up and partly dressed, and sat at the window to take a last look out, and in taking it fell asleep.   (Ch. 19)

Pretty strange, like a Breughel painting.  At the end of Chapter 31, Pip dreams that he has to “play Hamlet to Miss Havisham's Ghost, before twenty thousand people, without knowing twenty words of it.”  There are some other examples.  This might have made a good blog post.

Here is the core of another post I thought about writing: Great Expectations is a straightforward parody of the “benevolent patron” device that Dickens has leaned on since The Pickwick Papers (1836), where a jolly rich fellow swoops in and fixes whatever can be fixed at the novel’s end.  Dickens has been undermining his own device since Bleak House, where he is more subtle about it, but by the time of Great Expectations the mine has apparently been dug and it is time to fill it with gunpowder  and demolish the benevolent patron for good.

I guess I will wait to write that post after the next time I read Bleak House.  For this one, the credit goes to Dickens, not Pip.