Sunday, March 30, 2014

Nothing in an intelligible language - Lars Gustafsson's profession

The first two books of Lars Gustafsson’s that I read were collections, tiny little selections from his work covering a career of twenty years or more.  I read each poem as a poem, but I also read the books like I read novels, like I read Niels Lyhne, scouring them for the little markers that connect one poem to another the way Jacobsen’s flowers and moss pulled distant scenes together.

Or more simply if I do not understand a poem I move to the next one.  Perhaps it will have a clue to the previous poem.

A well-written novel, within my usual sense of “well-written,” has to contain such clues.  A book of poems, especially a selection, has so such obligation.  Individual poems may well be radically dissociated.  Not usually, though.

Thus I discover that Gustafsson is fond of images of flight – birds or balloons or the Wright brothers – and that he loves dogs.  “I don’t know if I like cats. / Dogs are more my sort of animal” (from “Sleeping with a Cat in the Bed”).  And he has not just a poet’s but a philosopher’s interest in language.  In “Of Course Superman Is Clark Kent” Gustafsson describes his early philosophical training in the ideas of W. V. O. Quine “who always  / greeted me so kindly at the tobacconist’s / on Harvard Square,” including their preposterous results (“that Clark Kent is not Superman…  Did we really believe all this / in my youth?”).

A Time in Xanadu (2002, tr. 2008 by John Irons) is the one complete book of Gustafsson’s poems available in English.  It begins with a poem about language:

(Let L be a language
composed as follows:
V is a vocabulary
with words for love, hate, despair,
dreaming and waking, snaps and stinging nettles.  (“Monologue for Some Prince in Denmark”)

Until those snaps and nettles appear this promises to be the worst poem ever written.

In this book, Gustafsson kindly organizes the poems by subject – Reminiscences (mostly about Gustafsson’s Swedish childhood), Philosophies, Everyday Life (like that cat) – which encourages me to read across the poems.  If, for example, I do not get much out of the moldy surreal “Walk through a Dream Landscape,” I at least note “the boats / Tugging at their moorings” at the end of the poem, since they seem to reappear several poems later:

The Tired
The tired old boats
break their moorings in the first autumn gale
and go adrift,
heavy, half waterlogged,
melancholy
and quietly philosophical
until they start to rot away in the reeds

Or I can wonder about a later dream landscape in “I Often Dream Here,” more clearly Swedish, that inspires a cry of “What does his place want of me?”

Whether any of this is intended I do not know.  Do the poems follow a plan or do they spill out of the same place?  “I did not choose this profession.  \ This profession chose me” Gustafsson writes in “The Profession,” where poetry or inspiration is like a radio that is always on.

Not the old set there, you blockheads!
I mean a different one, a so-called “inner” radio
where four or five stations fuse
crackling into noise and interference!
And nothing in an intelligible language!

So the poets job is clear enough.  “Of course Superman is Clark Kent.”  L and V “may grow into a song.”

Friday, March 28, 2014

four words and a fifth which is conjectural - the poems of Lars Gustafsson

Has anyone read the novels of Lars Gustafsson? Anyone who stops by Wuthering Expectations I mean.  New Directions has published a half dozen of them, some with first-rate titles: Funeral Music for Freemasons or The Death of a Beekeeper.  I do not believe I have ever come across an article about Gustafsson or review of his books written by anyone besides Michael Orthofer.

I did stumble across his poetry, which I recently read in bulk and enjoyed quite a bit.  The bulk is not so bulky in English, just three tiny books of 116, 69 and 84 pages, and since these are books of poetry those pages are nearly blank.

Fragment

I’ve always had a liking for fragments.
The shred of papyrus, threadbare, brown
as an autumn leaf in the park in spring.
A philosopher quoted only once,
and then imperfectly, distorted,
by a very grudging patriarch,
who can’t hide the golden glow
issuing from four words and a fifth
which is conjectural.  *

Fans of Sappho and Heraclitus will appreciate that.  Of course I picked a poem with a literary subject.  Gustafsson is himself a philosopher as well as a poet and novelist, and was a longtime professor of philosophy at University of Texas – Austin.  He often writes about his childhood in rural Sweden, but also about Texas, where

there was music in the humidity.  It came from every
street.  Ballads and blues and a special kind of

pensive jazz.  It resembled nothing else I’d heard.
It came from warmer air, smelling of earth.



Never again to need my wool mittens,
sleeping like nice kittens in the closet! (“Austin, Texas”) **

Gustafsson frequently uses those unrhymed couplets.  Or maybe they rhyme in the original, although I doubt it.  All of the poetry was translated into English in close collaboration with Gustafsson.  Christopher Middleton notes that some of the “deviations in the English occasionally led to changes in the original” (Stillness, xii).

One more complete poem tonight.

The Stillness of the World Before Bach

There must have been a world before
the Trio Sonata in D, a world before the A minor Partita,
but what kind of world?
A Europe of vast empty spaces, unresounding,
everywhere unawakened instruments
where the Musical Offering, the Well-tempered Clavier
never passed across the keys.
Isolated churches
where the soprano line of the Passion
never in helpless love twined round
the gentler movements of the flute,
broad soft landscapes
where nothing breaks the stillness
but old woodcutters’ axes,
the healthy barking of strong dogs in winter
and, like a bell, skates biting into fresh ice;
the swallows whirring through summer air,
the shell resounding at the child’s ear
and nowhere Bach nowhere Bach
the world in a skater’s stillness before Bach. ***

I know, isolating “isolated churches” is almost too cute.

*  From The Stillness of the World Before Bach: New Selected Poems (1988), tr. Christopher Middleton.
**  From Elegies and Other Poems (2000), tr. Yvonne L. Sandstroem.
***  From Stillness, tr. Philip Martin.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

She was rather fond of scenes - Niels Lyhne, irony, and the eternal gnome child

Happiness generally makes people good, and Niels strove earnestly in every way to shape their lives so nobly, beautifully and usefully that there would never be a pause in the development of their souls toward the human ideal in which they both believed.  (194)

My struggle with Niels Lyhne was with passages like this, the ones that directly challenged my usual, and useful, ironic mode of reading.  In the same paragraph Niels looks at his old poems, and finds that “he would regularly get tears in his eyes over his own poems.”  It seems cruel, yet necessary, to laugh at this, especially since a horrible tragedy strikes Niels two sentences later.

Jacobsen never gives us any of Niels’s poems.  I have a theory that the especially gooey passages, the ones with the great wingspans of tenderness and oceans of love, are meant to be extractions from Niels’s awful, awful poems.

The structure of the book sees Niels encounter a woman, one chapter, one woman.  Crushes, love affairs, his mother.  Although the bulk of the book belongs to Niels, in every case there is a point where the perspective shifts to the woman, and in almost every case the woman’s perspective is in some way ironic.  Early in the novel, for example, Niels spends too much time yearning after a widow.  She becomes engaged, Niels (finally) makes a pass at her, perhaps with her encouragement, but the result is a fight and tears.

The widow is genuinely upset, but as she cries she watches herself cry in a mirror.  (Are there flowers? Yes, “the variegated flowers of the sofa cushions”).  She begins to imagine other endings to the fight.  She begins to enjoy herself.  “She was rather fond of scenes” (107).  Poor, foolish Niels.

The women in Niels Lyhne are types, but at least with some variety.  The great flaw in the novel is that Niels Lyhne is so flat.  He is something of a Romantic Everyman and as such is never allowed to be too interesting.  I have not yet mentioned his atheism, a major theme of the novel, but it does not help much with the personality.  It is more of a position to argue.  What is the opposite of a Bildungsroman?  Niels never really develops much, part of the cost of the short novel’s birth-to-death scope and constant summarizing.

The best scene in the book is part of the long chapter that fills twenty percent of the novel, the account of an affair between Niels and Fennimore, who is married to Niels’s best friend.  Again, the best part of the best scene is given to the woman.  During a bleak winter night, Fennimore, alone, learns some terrible news.  For six pages, she wanders around her house, miserable.  “In black swarms, from every direction, the dark thoughts came flying like ravens, lured by the corpse of her happiness, and pecked at, beak after beak, while the warmth of life still lingered in it” (173).  A new set of images are developed, as if this is a novella within the novel.  The furniture turns sinister and Gothic.  The portraits of the family that owns the house become:

all those strangers who had been witness to her fall and guilt, somnolent old men, prudish-mouthed matrons, and the eternal gnome child that they had everywhere, the girl with the big round eyes and the protruding, high-domed forehead.  (174)

The “footstool with the black poodle on it,” a blatant reference to Goethe’s Faust, is also strange, but not as strange as the eternal gnome child.

Niels and Fennimore meet, fight, and separate.  In this case each character’s “ending” is ironic, but the irony is the usual novelistic stuff, where the characters do not understand each other or even themselves, where they act for reasons other than what they believe.  This, at least, I know how to read.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

the mist of distance had veiled the turbulent throng of details - Jacobsen's flowers

Niels Lyhne’s father has died, and his mother is ill.  Mother and son travel for her health.  Here, I thought, Jens Peter Jacobsen will surely include some details.  Please watch Jacobsen laugh at me:

In dreams and in poetry it had always somehow been on the other side of the lake; the mist of distance, full of presentiment, had veiled the turbulent throng of details and gathered the shapes in broad outlines into a completed whole, and the silence of distance had spread its festive mood over it, and it had been so easy to grasp in its beauty…  (92-3)

Well, there is a lake, since the trip eventually ends in Switzerland (and not just anywhere, but at the setting of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Julie, ou la nouvelle Héloïse).  You might wonder  – I certainly did – what the antecedent of “it” might be.  I believe that “it” is defined in a preceding paragraph as “the glory she had so sadly longed for,” but I cannot be sure.

So on the one hand there is the mode that veils the details in mists, but then there is the other side of Niels Lyhne:

… the blended smell of ordinary tobacco and earthen floors, of spices and rancid dried fish and wet homespun… a simple, bright garland stencil beneath the molding; there was a plaster rose in the middle of the ceiling, and the doors were ridged and had shiny brass handles in the shape of dolphins…  blue agapanthus, blue pyramid bells, finely leaved myrtle, fiery-red verbena, and geraniums, colorful as butterflies...  mirrors with flowers in white and bronze painted in the glass – rushes and lotuses floating on the smooth lake...  (124-5)

The ellipses are mine, since this is from a two-page paragraph.  I have omitted all of the furniture, some of it inlaid with mythological scenes.  I had read that Jacobsen had influenced Thomas Mann, and here we see Niels Lyhne turn into Buddenbrooks – this is even the description of the house of a grain merchant!  A young Mann must have gotten a good jolt when he found Jacobsen inventorying Mann’s own family home.

I don’t know what to do with the broad outlines, but I know what to do with those flowers.  If I turn back to the trip with the mother, the vagueness about “it” is soon followed by a long, elaborate furnishing of Switzerland. White snowdrops, “the veined goblets of crocus blossoms,” yellow primroses, blue violets, “velvet-soft moss,” and cherry blossoms “which butterflies speckled with red and blue” (all of this from page 94).  I haven’t named a third of the flowers.  In the furnished room, there is the mirror painted with bronze flowers to resemble a lake; in Switzerland the lake is “red as a copper mirror” (95).  The lake as a mirror is not so original, but combined with the later image something else is going on.  The rebirth of love in the grain merchant’s house is linked back to the death, surrounded by flowers, of Niels’s mother.

Niels does not marry Fennimore but later meets her again and begins an affair.  Could that later scene also be packed with flowers once I know what I am looking for?

She didn’t speak either; she lay there in silence with a heavy smile on her lips, pale as a flower.  (159)

Now that the work has been done, Jacobsen does not even need real flowers to build links, although there are plenty of those, too, and also two kinds of moss, the ground moss “which almost looked like firs or palms or ostrich feathers” and the tree moss that looked “the way you might imagine the grain fields of the elves would look” (162).  Just to make sure, Fennimore even reminds us of that furniture:  “Do you remember the furniture at home?...  How I love that furniture…” (157).  Jacobsen is as directly as he possibly can instructing his reader to page back and reread the description of the furniture.

All of this – the structure, the colors, the metaphors – is first-rate writing.  That moss is exquisite.  What a strange, frustrating novel!

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

So enormously mild were his judgments - Jens Peter Jaobsen's Niels Lyhne

The back cover of the paperback translation of Jens Peter Jacobsen’s novel Niels Lyhne (1880) has testimonials from Rainer Maria Rilke, Sigmund Freud, Thomas Mann, Herman Hesse, and Henrik Ibsen.  Jacobsen is Danish, while four of those five fellows are German and Austrian.  Jacobsen’s novel is itself quite Germanic, another descendant of Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister.  The path of influence or transmission or simply translating and publishing, maybe that is all I mean, went from Scandinavian to German and back.  Thus books that are obscure in English are well known in German.  What percentage of the English-language readers of Niels Lyhne have come to it because Rilke, in the Letters to a Young Poet, writes about it so enthusiastically?  Very close to one hundred, is my guess.

Lord, what nonsense Rilke writes.  “[T]he more often you read it, the more everything seems to be contained within it, from life’s most imperceptible fragrances to the intense, full taste of its heaviest fruits.”  Who can argue otherwise?

Niels Lyhne has just recently been described accurately by litlove when she invokes two of the blurbers:

Hesse, like Rilke, is one of those writers who seems to write about the things I am properly interested in. He writes about how to live, when you do not feel like you fit with the ‘normal’ run of humanity, when you are miserable in ways others say you should not be, or when you simply want to live a good life and do not know how that can be achieved. His characters are always searching for a cure for living, and the answers they come up with – art, love, transcendent wisdom, acceptance with humour – feel like they might just work.

Jacobsen’s novel is one of those, right in that tradition.  Unfortunately for me, these are exactly the things I am not so interested in, because I do not really trust fiction to do them well, so I continually felt like I was reading the novel badly.  There is, after all, really only one cure for living, and by the end of the novel the title character is healed (by a Prussian bullet).

And then finally he died the death – the difficult death. (205)

This is from the 1990 Tiina Nunnally translation.  Whatever whining I might do about the novel, I always appreciated Nunnally’s struggle with it. 

The novel is an episodic parents-to-deathbed story about a sensitive Danish Romantic who flounders about with his vocation (can he be a poet?) and with women.  Sometimes the novel is comic, sometimes not so much; sometimes ironic, all too often sincere; sometimes sharply written, sometimes disastrously gooey. 

He had never known the intensity and vastness of this kind of feeling before [Niels is having an affair with a married woman], and there were moments when he felt himself a titan, much more than a human being; he sensed such an inexhaustibility within him, such a wingspan of tenderness swelled from his heart, so wide was his vision, so enormously mild were his judgments.  (166)

The whole page is like that.  “They were currents in the great ocean of love, single reflections of its full light, splinters of love, just as meteors that race through the air are splinters of a planet, because that’s what love was” etc. and so on.  Then two pages later begins one of the sharpest, most precise scenes in the book.  It has been a while since I read a book with such wild swings in rhetorical mode, and in quality.

But perhaps the result is more aesthetically coherent than I realize.  I will write about the book for another day or two, mostly the good parts, I hope.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Some few of the most beautiful lines ever written - a Sebald bibliography

A couple of days of vacation are on their way, so this will be the last post until Monday.

I have been ignoring the issue of just who Gottfried Keller and Johann Peter Hebel and so on actually are, or what they wrote – everyone knows Jean-Jacques Rousseau, right, but not Eduard Mörike – just taking it for granted that they are worth reading not only because Sebald found them valuable but because I have read them myself, not that I have written much about them.

Keller is a good example.  You would think that Keller’s massive Green Henry (1854) would have given me two weeks of material, but I barely mentioned it, likely because I never really got hold of it, or I was writing about something else.  Keller’s novel is a portrait of a young artist much like himself who runs through a series of troubles with school, girls, and his attempts to become a painter.   Sebald is writing about a description of Henry walking at night:

What is remarkable about this passage is the way in which Keller’s prose, so unreservedly committed to earthly life, attains is most astonishing heights at precisely those moments where it reaches out to touch the edge of eternity.  (109)

Like, Sebald says, “the work of a baroque poet of mortality and vanitas.”  And this really is just a passage about a man out walking in the dark.  Sebald is talking about the mysteries that slip in, like the “invisible swarms of migratory birds [that] passed high overhead with an audible rustling of wings.”

Green Henry is a strange book that violates almost every idea I have about good writing, much like Adalbert Stifter’s Indian Summer, the other long German-language masterpiece from the 1850s.  One strange thing about it is that it is constructed out of a series of novella-length and novella-like episodes, an unusual structure.  Why I did not write about Keller’s actual novellas, like the heartbreaking A Village Romeo and Juliet or the fine folk tale-like comedies Clothes Make the Man and The Three Righteous Combmakers is more of a puzzle, although I see that I did write a bit about not writing about them.  How very helpful.  Those stories are all easy to like.

Eduard Mörike is a different, since I have not read his long Kunstlerroman titled Nolten the Painter (1832) – Sebald makes it sound like a mess – but rather some poems, which I wrote about many years ago, and his effervescent novella Mozart on the Way to Prague (1855).  The poems are so sweet and charming, except for the one where the poet kicks acritic down the stairs, and the Mozart story is also a delight, and frankly a corrective to the “kooky Mozart” stereotype.

I feel that Sebald cheats a bit with Mörike, since he never mentions Mozart on the Way to Prague or the more amusing poems.  Not melancholy enough, I guess, although they, too are part of the artistic “mystery” Sebald describes, the result of craft and “a very long memory” and

possibly, a certain unluckiness in love, which appears to have been precisely the lot of those who, like  Mörike and Schubert, Keller and Walser, have bequeathed to us some few of the most beautiful lines ever written.  (87)

If I have turned this post into a bibliography, it is because the translator of A Place in the Country, Jo Catling, has created such a fine bibliography herself, with German and English sources, primary and secondary.  It would make a fine course of study, or a good guide to take with on a search for those beautiful lines.  It is full of temptations.  I predict I will soon succumb.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

The teeming black scrawl - Sebald makes connections

Sebald is discussing the Robert Walser story “Kleist in Thun.”  He describes his discovery, “in a three-volume biography of Gottfried Keller which had almost certainly belonged to a German Jewish refugee,” of an old photograph of a house where Heinrich von Kleist lived and wrote.   Kleist, Keller, Walser, Sebald.  “Since then I have slowly learned to grasp how everything is connected across space and time” (158-9) Sebald writes, and if anything tells us that I am not reading one of his prose fictions, it is the directness of this statement, which would have been cloaked in some way in the novels.

Eduard Mörike and his friends, as young German radicals, wear “open-necked shirts with wide flowing sleeves, Renaissance berets and suchlike extravagant headgear, sideburns and unkempt locks and those strange small steel-rimmed spectacles which have clearly been the hallmark of the conspiratorial intelligentsia since time immemorial” (76).  That is a joke there at the end.

All of this is visible in a drawing of the young writer and his friends on p. 75 of the essay on Mörike, but also in a drawing of young Gottfried Keller and his radical pals, no less than three of whom, including the author, who is leading the charge with a drum and top hat.  “It is difficult to imagine that these five heroes are off to storm the barricades” (96).  The theme is pinged again in the Walser essay, in a passage about his youthful dandyism, his cane and “loud checked suit,” but now “[a] fondness for conspicuous costume and the dangers of indigence often go hand in hand” (137).

Just as an example.  Everything is connected when made to be so by an artist of Sebald’s caliber.

Sebald does hide himself in A Place in the Country, or I think he does, and in one of the most common ways, by writing about visual art.  For example, when describing a painting of a bowl of grapes on a white tablecloth (reproduced in the book), Sebald writes:

The more I look at the paintings of Jan Peter Tripp, the more I realize that beneath the surface illusionism there lurks a terrifying abyss…  The dark background, the white linen cloth with the embroidered monogram – already we have begun to sense that it is spread out not for a wedding breakfast, but on a bier or catafalque.  And what is the business of painting in any case but a kind of pathological investigation in the face of the blackness of death and the white light of eternity? (177)

The question is absurd if taken literally, but I note that writing, and for that matter the act of reading, are generally a matter of a contrast between blackness and whiteness.

The word “pathological” is also questionable, but the previous five essays have been about people for whom writing is in fact pathological or close to it with Walser the most extreme case.  “No one… recognized the pathological aspect of thought as acutely as Rousseau, who himself wished for nothing more than to be able to halt the wheels ceaselessly turning within his head,” (58) – not even writing, but thought

So Walser, at the end of his essay, drifts off in a balloon provided by Nabokov; Keller writes to “contain the teeming black scrawl which everywhere threatens to get the upper hand, in the interest of maintaining a halfway functional personality” (122-3), and Mörike is last seen with his family, “not very content in his role as a poet from which – unlike his clerical calling – he can no longer retire.”  A painter friend

relates how on several occasions he observed Mörike noting things down which came into his head on special scraps and pieces of paper, only soon afterward to take these notes and “tear them up again into little pieces and bury them in the pockets of his dressing gown.”  (91)

Today’s Mörike would perhaps instead do what I am about to do.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Unwavering affection - Sebald's A Place in the Country

The only certain thing is that he writes incessantly, with an ever increasing degree of effort; even when the demand for his pieces slows down, he writes on, day after day, right up to the pain threshold and often, so I imagine, a fair way beyond it.  (129)

W. G. Sebald is describing Robert Walser in a chapter of A Place in the Country, his 1998 book of essays on all of my favorite writers:  not just Walser but Johann Peter Hebel, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Eduard Mörike, and Gottfried Keller, as well as the artist Jan Peter Tripp.  If not my favorites, exactly, I can at least say that I have read something by all of them, which must be rare among English readers although not among serious readers of Sebald.

I can still remember quite clearly how, when I set out from Switzerland for Manchester in the early autumn of 1966, I placed Gottfried Keller’s Der grüne Heinrich, Johann Peter Hebel’s Schatzkästlein des Rheinischen Hausfreunds, and a disintegrating copy of Robert Walser’s Jakob von Gunten in my suitcase.  The countless pages I have read since then have done nothing to diminish my appreciation of these books and their authors, and if today I were obliged to move again to another island, I am sure they would once again find a place in my luggage.  This unwavering affection for Hebel, Keller, and Walser was what gave me the idea that I should pay my respects to them before, perhaps, it may be too late.  (3)

That last phrase is a little too sad.  The pieces on Rousseau, Mörike and Tripp have different origins but share thematic material with the others.  To point out an obvious one, Rousseau, Keller are Swiss, while Mörike, Hebel, and Tripp (and Sebald) are from nearby parts of Germany.

A Place in the Country is not a work of fiction, but it is written in the hybrid style Sebald had developed in his novels.  It is easy enough to imagine Sebald making it fiction.  It is no surprise to see, for example, Nabokov (another Swiss writer) make an appearance in the Walser essay, although this time as a writer, as a source of quotations, rather than as the ghost who floats through The Emigrants.  If Sebald’s fictional prose works are not exactly novels, this late work of criticism gestures towards fiction, more so than, I think, his next book, also criticism, On the Natural History of Destruction (1999).  This book is rather a history of destruction through writing.  Please revisit the description of Robert Walser up above.

Sebald’s colleague Jo Catling translated the text and added thoughtful notes.  She is, I am amazed to see, now translating Sebald’s earlier critical essays on Austrian writers, thornier stuff than in this book.  I never thought any of this would be translated – Hebel! Stifter! You gotta be kidding me! – but I could not be happier to be wrong.  I will wander in it for a couple more days.  Terry Pitts at Vertigo has, as one might guess, already written a piece on each chapter, beginning with Hebel.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Alphonse Daudet's Letters from My Windmill - I ought rather to be dispatching rose-coloured poems and basketfuls of love stories

Letters from My Windmill (1869) is a collection of newspaper columns – folk tales, sketches, lazing around – by Alphonse Daudet, an author who for a time, a bit after Windmill was written, was the most popular novelist in France, the “Dickens of France,” a designation I would not take too seriously.

This particular book has become his most prominent in English, and I believe also in French, by chance.  The pieces are mostly about Provence, about “noble peasants living uncomplaining lives of suffering amidst the cicadas and lavender and Mistral and so on, drinking harsh red wine and eating their simple but nutritious peasant fare,”* and how was Daudet to predict Vincent van Gogh and Michelin Guides and the now massive Provencal tourist industry.  Americans romanticize Provence more than the French do, but it is summer cottage land for all of us.

Provence is in France, and therefore wonderful, so my argument against its romanticization is that Normandy, Bordeaux, Roussillon, etc. are also in France and also wonderful.  But  I have barely been in Provence, just in the edge of it, two days in Avignon, which was wonderful, so perhaps someday I will recant much of this.

What role Daudet had in popularizing Provence I do not know, but the love of Provence has helped keep the book alive, much like Washington Irving’s Tales from the Alhambra has remained attached to a visit to Granada.

The book itself is a work of pure charm.  Colleen of Jam & Idleness liked it so much she vowed to read all of Daudet’s books.  It is a happy, sentimental book.

After all, why should I be sad?  I live a thousand leagues from Paris, on a sun-soaked hill, in the country of tambourines and muscat wine.  Around me all is sunshine and music…  I ought rather to be dispatching rose-coloured poems and basketfuls of love stories.  (Ch. 15)

The little joke here is that the stories generally end in suicide, revenge, shipwreck, or, in one memorable case, mortal combat with a wolf.  The sentimentality is that of Dickens or Hugo.

The style is more of a blend of Flaubert and Hugo.  Daudet catches some nice effects.  Here is a priest racing through a Mass:

Like hurrying wine-harvesters treading the grapes, both splatter about in the latin of the Mass, sending splashes in all directions.  (Ch. 17)

Here Daudet has shifted to Algeria to see a snowfall:

In this so pure, so rare air of Algeria, the snow seemed like dust of mother-of-pearl.  It had the sheen of white peacock feathers.  (Ch. 18)

That last piece, “The Oranges,” begins in Paris, where “oranges have a sad look.”  In the winter they are sold from handcarts, so that “thousands of oranges [are]scattered about the streets, the peel lying in the mud of the gutters, making you think of some gigantic Christmas tree shaking its branches laden with artificial fruit all over Paris.”  If you are writing a historical novel set in 19th century Paris, you would be crazy not to steal this.  With a step or two, memories about oranges take Daudet to a Campo Santo in Corsica, where he watches, in between naps, an old man tend the cemetery:

Yet, without his being aware of it, this good man worked with a kind of reverence, softening all noises and gently closing the door of the vault each time, as if he feared to waken someone.  In the great, radiant silence, his care for that little garden disturbed not one bird, and it had nothing of sadness about it.  It only made the sea seem more immense, the sky more high; and this siesta without end, amid the ever-restless, ever-triumphant life-forces of nature, diffused all around it the feeling of eternal rest.

Two truffled turkeys, the skin “stretched so tightly you would have thought it was going to burst as it was roasting,” appear at the beginning of Chapter 17.  I read an old Penguin Classics edition, tr. Frederick Davies.

*  I am quoting myself, something I wrote before I had actually read the book.  I was not quite right, but I was close.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Author of the Edda, but not the uncrowned king of Iceland - Nancy Marie Brown's biography of Snorri Sturluson

My Icelandic reading, the sagas and Eddas, led me to Nancy Marie Brown’s The Song of the Vikings (2012), her biography of Snorri Sturluson, author (by best guess) of Egil’s Saga, the prose Edda, and the chronicle of Norwegian kings Heimskringla, but it would also be true to say that Brown’s outstanding God of Wednesday blog led me to the Icelandic books.  What commitment to her subject – whether she is writing about her travels in Iceland, or the accuracies and inaccuracies of television Vikings, or most recently her attempts to row a small Viking ship, she is invariably interesting.  Actually, it is her good sense about exactly what is interesting that is so impressive, on the blog and in the book.

I admit that I do not find the posts on Icelandic horses, also the subject of one of her books, all that interesting, although I do enjoy the photographs.

Snorri Sturluson’s literary efforts make him the most important figure in Norse literature.  He not only wrote works of the highest significance but encouraged other writers and made copies of earlier texts.  The earliest surviving Icelandic manuscript has his writing on it, although it is a legal rather than literary document.  The books might make a reader suspect that Snorri was a monk or some kind of court historian.  In fact he was among the wealthiest men in Iceland, a chieftain and lawgiver.  For several years he schemed and fought to become what Brown calls “the uncrowned king of Iceland.”  He died hiding in his cellar, murdered by his rival’s thugs.  Snorri was like a Mafia boss.

Mobsters seem to have lost their taste for poetry.  Snorri was never much of a warrior – other people did his fighting – but he lived in a culture where writing and poetry were sources of prestige, or weapons.  Thus the prose Edda, a gift meant to win the support of an indifferent Norwegian king. 

But King Hakon didn’t acknowledge the poems Snorri composed for him – he may have declined to hear them.  The sixteen-year-old king didn’t like skaldic poetry.  He didn’t understand it.  Worse, it was old-fashioned.  (115)

Our greatest source of those wonderful Norse myths, the only source for a number of them, was the result of a political miscalculation by Snorri, the first of many.  “Hakon was the best-educated king Norway ever had,” so he wanted Latin and French.  Stories of the hot new thing in the early 13th century, King Arthur and his knights.  While Snorri was creating the conditions for the explosion of Icelandic literature, he was also inadvertently helping, in his attempt to become “uncrowned king,” to cause its downfall when Norway takes over Iceland and makes it a backwater, a source of cod and coarse wool, not poems and sagas.

Brown ends the book with a nice discussion of the long recovery of Icelandic literature beginning in the 17th century and really taking off among 19th century philologists, culminating with hit movies about cursed gold rings and Thor.  So a triumph, however tragic Snorri’s own life.

Brown’s book in progress is a history of the Vikings organized around the Lewis chessmen, an irresistible hook (click to see why).  I will clear some reading time for it in 2015 or so.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Competing causes of the doom of the Golovlyovs - blind, unexpected, haphazard

“It would be lovely to have soup with goose giblets or mushrooms fried in sour cream,” the thought flashed through her mind so vividly it made her mouth twitch.  (124)

Absolutely.  I am still fussing over The Golovlyov Family.  The tough old matriarch has mistakenly handed the estate over to her worthless son Porphyry and is on short rations, which turns out to be the beginning of the blah blah blah descent into the void.  “She had been afraid of death before, but now she seemed to have completely forgotten about it” (124) – in this novel’s world, forgetting about death is the first step to death.

Porphyry, the hypocrite, make a great pretense of piety, and even prays frequently.  His argumentation is so perverse that it at times turns religion into blasphemy, which is perversely one of the pleasure of the novel, watching Porphyry go too far:

“No road, no path showing – all covered with snow.  And there are wolves too.  But here with us it is lights and comfortable, and we are not afraid of anything…  We won’t drink more than we need, but will drink just as much as we should.  And why is this?  It is because God is kind to us.  If it had not been for him, for the King of Heaven, we might be wandering about the fields now, in the cold and the dark, dressed in some wretched old jerkin tied with a shabby belt, with bark shoes on our feet.”  (136)

Porphyry’s mother interrupts now, objecting that she is a lady and would never wear bark shoes, which is not exactly what I meant by going too far.  I see at least two other ironies, here.  One, that Porphyry is himself a kind of wolf, and two, that later in the novel he takes to the hard stuff in despair, so that “all sense of pain disappeared and both the past and present were obliterated by a luminous void” (326).  Perhaps this is part of a religious crisis.  In the last few pages of the novel Shchedrin almost offers the possibility of redemption, before cruelly kicking it away.  Not for these characters.

In the middle of the novel, one of Porphyry’s nieces returns for a time.  She and her sister had escaped Golovlyovo to become provincial actresses, and she is able to escape again.  A naïve reader, like I was at that point, could wonder if the novel had taken something like a feminist turn.  Strong, independent women striking out on their own, throwing off the poison of their horrible family.  Maybe in a less stringently pure novel.  The result here is poverty, prostitution, alcoholism, suicide, disease.  But they could have done worse.  They could have stayed home.

In a remarkable passage near the novel’s end, Shchedrin briefly turns in to Émile Zola, offering a materialistic explanation for the “kind of doom” destroying the Golovlyovs.  “Everything in those pitiful families’ existence – both success and failure – is blind, unexpected, haphazard” (321).  It is all just luck.  They have had enough bad hereditary throws of the dice that they fall apart, like Zola’s Macquarts or Faulkner’s Compsons.

Yet only a few pages later, the religious theme dominates.  Maybe the characters are being punished for their sins.  Maybe there is no way to tell the competing explanations apart.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

A Golovlyov death - window, window, window

The author of The Family Golovlyov is hardly the artistic equal of Leo Tolstoy, nor does he have the strong personality of Fyodor Dostoevsky or the imagination of Nikolai Gogol.  But he has comic integrity.  I want to look at the first major death in the book.  This will not convince anyone that the novel is comic.

Stepan Vladimiritch Golovlyov, also called (by his mother) Styopka the dolt, is bad with money and a drunk.  I have a five dollar bet with myself that each of the novel’s seven chapters were first published in a magazine.  The first chapter, anyways, stands on its own.  It is Styopka the dolt’s story, his life and death.  He has squandered his (advanced) inheritance and moves back to the estate with his chintzy mother.  He does nothing but drink, when he can get the money, and stare out the window.

He sat in his room all day gazing through the double glass of the window at the row of peasant huts sunk in the mud.  None the worse for the summer’s hard work, people were flitting to and fro like black dots in the autumn fog.  (54)

He has begun his descent into oblivion.

He had nothing to do except sit at the window and watch the heavy masses of clouds… The clouds stood there as though spell-bound: an hour, two hours, three hours passed and they were still in the same place, without the slightest change in their shape or color.  (55)

The description of the clouds is elaborate.  It was about here that Shchedrin’s writing began to get my attention, as where a cloud is hanging over a village “as if to strangle it.”  “Clouds, clouds, and clouds – all day long.”

Is that the first triplet?  No, see just above, hours, hours, hours.  Keep an eye out for triplets.

A sickly languor lay heavy on Stepan Vladimiritch’s mind, in spite of his idleness his whole body felt unreasonably, unendurably tired; one fretting, gnawing thought obsessed him; that thought was – “This is my grave, my grave, my grave!”  Those black dots flitting by the village threshing-yards against a dark background of mud were not obsessed by that thought…  (56)

Styopka is numbing himself with drink.  But I do not believe this is merely a naturalistic description of the effects of vodka.

… at last the darkness disappeared and was replaced by space filled with phosphorescent brilliance.  It was a dead, endless void, sinister and luminous, without a single sound of life…  He felt frightened; he wanted to stifle his consciousness of the outside world so completely that even this void should cease to exist.  (58)

Even the void should cease to exist.  This is interesting.  Styopka’s mother calls him “a bottomless pit” (61), but she is referring to his expenses, to money.

He had not a single thought, not a single desire.  The stove was in front of him, and his mind was so occupied with taking it in that it was impervious to any other impression.  Then the window replaced the stove; window, window, window…  He wanted nothing, nothing at all.  (58-9, ellipses in original)

A reader of Schopenhauer might suggest that we are witnessing the eradication of Styopka’s Will.  The chapter is almost over.  Nothing is what he is going to get.  The clouds return.

It was as though a black cloud enveloped him from head to foot and he did nothing but watch it, following its imaginary curves, and at times with a shudder trying as it were to ward it off.  This mysterious cloud swallowed up both the outer and the inner world for him.  (64)

In subsequent chapters, each member of the family succumbs to the cloud.  It is a kind of theme and variations structure.  Perhaps it sounds a bit narrow.  I suppose it is.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

The Golovlyov Family - as though she were trying to understand something and could not

Russian literature is depressing, people say, and they have not even read The Golovlyov Family by Shchedrin* (1876).  It may be the bleakest novel I have ever read.  Eh, probably not, but one of them.  The book is, of course, a comedy.  If it were all meant seriously it would be too easy to laugh at it, but as a comedy it is truly grim.

The Golovlyov Family is the story of a family destroyed by the meaninglessness of everything.  Arina Petrovna Golovlyov and her offspring waste their pointless lives and then die miserably, one by one, mostly one per chapter.  Life has no meaning, but it is well-organized.

Golovlyovo – that was death itself, cruel, greedy death, that is forever stalking a fresh victim…  All deaths, all poison, all sickness – all came from here.  (318)

At first – no, for quite a while – I did not think this novel had much to do with the Turgenev \ Chernyshevsky \ Dostoevsky chain we will all have so much fun with in April, but I see now that I was wrong.  Shchedrin, a famous satirist, has watched fifteen years of debate about nihilists and thought: you want nihilism, I’ll give you real nihilism.

Sorrow and joy, love and hate, did not exist for him: the whole world was in his eyes merely something dead that simply provided one with an opportunity for an endless flow of talk.  (151)

This is Shchedrin’s most original creation, Porphyry Golovlyovo, the hypocrite, if “hypocrite” is a sufficiently strong word.  Porphyry does not mean what he says, about religion or family or work, not because he is hiding his real meaning but because he never means anything at all.  He just wants to talk.  The line above is in a paragraph about his indifference to his son’s suicide.

Porphyry’s emptiness leads to evil, more from the absence of any other value rather than from maliciousness.  It is the evil of the void.  The story, such as it is, is about a succession of characters falling into the void.  They do not die in agony – that would be a different kind of miserable novel – but slide into the pit.

“Mamma! dearest! bless me!“ [Porphyry, of course, always talking]

But Arina Petrovna did not hear.  Her wide-open eyes gazed dully into space as though she were trying to understand something and could not.  (177)

The back cover of the NYRB edition (tr. Natalie Duddington) invokes William Faulkner and One Hundred Years of Solitude.  The Faulkner feeling was present early, the Faulkner the almost unbearably horrible or stupid characters of As I Lay Dying, another great comedy, or the decaying Compson family of The Sound and the Fury.  I first thought the comparison to García Márquez was cheating, since he was so influenced by Faulkner, but by the end of Golovlyov it almost seems false that the manor, the estate, and the entire world of the novel does not collapse into the void much like One Hundred Years of Solitude disappears into itself.  Shchedrin instead gets in one last joke.

*  I am honestly confused about how to refer to the author.  Shchedrin is a pseudonym.  James Wood uses it, so I guess I will, too.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Fun with the What Middleton Read Project

Let’s have one more day of lists.  Let’s mess around with the What Middletown Read Project.

Archivists punched in the surviving “circulation records of the Muncie (Indiana) Public Library from November 5, 1891 through December 3, 1902” (with “one gap from May 28, 1892 to November 5, 1894”), so they cover about ten years, handy for off the cuff math.  The database “documents every book that every library patron borrowed during that period.”

What can we do with it?  First, who was checked out the most?  I calculated the top 20.  I will at this point note that my results are likely full of errors.  The table has rank and total number of transactions – how many times a book by the author was checked out over the ten year period.


1 Horatio Alger   9,230
2 Charles Fosdick   7,394
3 William T. Adams   5,067
4 Martha Finley   4,731
5 Edward Sylvester Ellis   3,038
6 Edward Payson Roe   2,989
7 Louisa May Alcott   2,976
8 F. Marion Crawford    2,119
9 Rosa Carey    1,992
10 Eugenie John    1,821
11 G. A. Henty    1,814
12 Charles King    1,626
13 L. T. Meade    1,588
14 Mary Mapes Dodge    1,517
15 Francis Hodgson Burnett   1,444
16 Clara Burnham    1,418
17 Susan Coolidge    1,316
18 Augusta Evans    1,315
19 Kirk Munroe    1,237
20 Isabella Alden    1,229

The most popular author – by such a margin! – makes me cringe, but what can I do.  Ma femme suggested that people read Alger so avidly because they were trying to learn how to strike it rich and get out of Muncie.

Another caveat: I do not know how any of this correlates with book sales or library use anywhere else in the country. Still,  I did not realize that Alcott, just a few years after her death, was such a popular author, and not just with the Little Women series.  Her single most popular book here is An Old-fashioned Girl.

I looked up enough of the other writers, most of whom I had never heard of, to see that they were fiction writers.  Patrons mostly left the library with novels.  The first poet I found, James Whitcomb Riley, was way down the list at 326 transactions.

What about writers I might have heard of, or even read?


27 Mark Twain 877
39 Charles Dickens 691
40 J. M. Barrie 677
43 Walter Scott 651
52 J. Fenimore Cooper 587
58 W. D. Howells 538
58 Edward Bulwer-Lytton 538
63 Robert Louis Stevenson 516
67 Nathaniel Hawthorne  468
72 George Eliot 462
75 Rudyard Kipling 460
76 Arthur Conan Doyle 454

Note that Peter Pan does not yet exist, and the Muncie library did not own a Sherlock Holmes book.  Doyle’s winner is Rodney Stone.

Twain, Barrie, Howells, Stevenson, Kipling, and Doyle were all alive during the period covered.  Eliot had died only about a decade earlier.  Dickens twenty years, Hawthorne thirty, Scott sixty.  They are mostly contemporary writers, and all fairly recent.  There is nothing like our current Brontë or Jane Austen phenomenon.

Speaking of whom (I will abandon the rankings):  Charlotte Brontë (253), Jane Austen (179), Anne Brontë (28), Emily Brontë (23).  When I write about the decline of Scott and the rise of Austen, this 3.6:1 ratio of Scott to Austen, shows what I mean.

Were the bookish Muncians reading any foreign fiction? Yes.  What?


Jules Verne 392
Henryk Sienkiewicz 374
Ossip Schubin 361
Victor Hugo 318
Alexandre Dumas, Sr. 220
Afolph Streckfuss 185

Schubin wrote “O Thou, My Austria”, what a title; Streckfuss wrote the more promising Castle Hohenwald.  Half of the Dumas is The Count of Monte Cristo.  The library had only one Tolstoy book, Resurrection, his new one in 1899, in English in 1900, checked out 30 times before the data runs out, which is not bad.  Some other figures look peculiar because of timing, or because of the exact books available.  The Thomas Hardy (160) and Henry James (196) selections, for example, are a little odd.   The library apparently had just one book by Tennyson, checked out only 36 times, which feels like an error.

We all know that Herman Melville was an unjustly forgotten author.  The library owned four of his first five books, so no Moby-Dick; they were checked out 51 times.  Omoo alone left the library 38 times.  Melville was not forgotten.  He was remembered as a South Seas travel writer.

Five brave Muncians, though, took the avant-garde Mardi home with them.  Who were these lunatics?  Mary J. Luick, wife of a retired farmer; Norwood Carnes, florist; Lizzie Banks, wife of a night watchman; Catherine Kusick, bookkeeper; and Ohle Gill, nurse.  The patron records have all been linked to census and city directory data.  You can see their age, address, birthplace, and spouse.  And then you can see all of their other books.  Lizzie Banks also checked out 155 books including Felix Holt, Far from the Madding Crowd, Doctor Thorne, and Jane Eyre.

Just for example.  I am have been careful not to pursue this possibility.  This kind of fun should be accompanied by a fellowship.  Please, play with the database and report back.

Friday, March 7, 2014

Authors I have not read.

Ten authors I have not read.  The conceit at The Broke and the Bookish, who originated the idea, is to list popular authors, and they succeed to the paradoxical extent that I have never heard of seven of their ten choices.

My conceit will be that I will pick authors whose work I should have read because I would likely enjoy it quite a lot, and whose work I would have read if I had not followed a path back to older and older books.  This is one of those road not taken sorts of things.  To follow the exercise to its end, I will pair each choice with the writer I actually did read but would not have read if I had read this one.

This game is not as fun as it might seem because you, the reader, are missing information that allows suggestions.  You cannot tell me that I ought to try – I will pick someone no one will suggest – William Burroughs, because I might have read Burroughs.  And I have.  I have met William Burroughs (at a signing, not an interesting story).  I guess you can argue I should not want to read someone I chose.

I remind myself that these are authors who I have not read, so as little Edith Wharton as I have read, for example,  I cannot put her on this list since I have read the one about the sled.

1.  August Strindberg, although I have seen The Dance of Death, a wonderful production, which might violate the spirit of the list.  And anyways I am going to read him soon enough.  (Gotthold Lessing)

2.  Nathaniel West.  Easily the most puzzling omission.  Funny, audacious, sharp.  The other big American writers I have not read – Frank Norris, Sinclair Lewis, Sherwood Anderson, Thornton Wilder – do not bug me so much, and in fact I fear that a couple of them might be big drags, but West is my kind of writer, yet somehow I never quite got past browsing through Miss Lonelyhearts  in the Library of America edition I bought several – many – years ago.  (Sir Thomas Browne)

3.  Andrei Platonov.  When I put together my mental map of Russian literature twenty-five years ago, Platonov was off in the hinterlands.  His translator Robert Chandler has argued that the current generation of Russian fiction writers has been finding all sorts of new things in Platonov; meanwhile a series of his books have become available in English.  A copy of The Foundation Pit is in my house.  (Marguerite de Navarre)

4.  Vasily Grossman.  See above.  The attention to Grossman has grown enormously over the past decade or so.  Every blog review I have read has sharpened my interest.  Life and Fate is very long, which is an obstacle, but Everything Flows is not.   (Plutarch)

5.  Witold Gombrowicz is the kind of writer I used to read a lot more of, original and surprising modernists messing around with fiction.  Ferdydurke sounds fun.  All his books sound fun.  (Oliver Goldsmith)

6.  Dorothy Richardson’s stream of consciousness novels, especially the thirteen volume Pilgrimage sequence, do not sound like fun, exactly, but rather a bracing challenge.  I am surprised that Woolf fans have not explored her work more.  (Samuel Richardson)

7.  Grazia Deledda.  Sardinian, a plus, since what do I know about Sardinia; her books are short, a plus.  After the Divorce (1902) and The Mother (1920) sound especially good.  (Stendhal)

8.  Paul Valéry wrote a little bit of everything, which somehow, even with a twenty year crisis period where he did not publish, added up to a huge mass of stuff.  I worry that he is too difficult for me in any bulk, but that is no reason to avoid his poems.  (Michel de Montaigne)

9.  Miguel de Unamuno, speaking of difficult.  Forget his philosophy – I want to read his mishmash of fiction and criticism Vida de Don Quixote y Sancho (1914), available in English as Our Lord Don Quixote.  The English title alone has affected my thinking about Don Quixote.  Why have I not read the actual book?  Do I fear it does not live up to that title?  (Pedro Calderón de la Barca)

10.  Now I am undecided.  Isaac Babel?  Richard Wright?  Christina Stead?  Louis-Ferdinand Céline, who sounds awful, but interestingly so?  Julio Cortázar, how did I miss him?  Or perhaps I will reserve a spot for a writer whose name I do not know, whose books I have never seen, whose existence I am not even aware of.  I am imagining her, or perhaps him, now.  What a great writer.  I can hardly wait.  (William Shakespeare)

Thursday, March 6, 2014

The authors I have read.

A Top Ten Tuesday list I saw at Jane Greensmith’s place got me thinking.  The conceit is to list author’s you have never read, a variation on the Humiliation game.  Authors, not individual books.  Never read, nothing, not a word – a strong criterion for a vigorous reader.

My first thought, a pleasant one, was that for major writers of the 19th century I am draining the pool pretty well.  Ten years ago it was full.  Stendhal, Hugo, Zola, G. Eliot, C. Brontë, Thackeray, and Ibsen, to run through the best-known names before I get to great writers like Leskov, Storm, Sholem Aleichem, Machado de Assis, and Eça de Queiroz, were all unread.  They were hardly unknown, in a sense, but no matter how much I came across their names they were something close to rumors.

I have only mentioned novelists.  Poets are a different story, at least in English.  I come across a single poem in an anthology or magazine and I have knocked him out of the game.  I have never sat down to read a book by Constantine Cavafy, Eugenio Montale, or Elizabeth Bishop, but I have read poems, stray lines, and even passages from letters by them all, often in reviews of books about them.  Someday I will read these poets more seriously, but I have at least brushed against them, just as I had glimpsed Emily Dickinson, however dimly, before I read her more seriously a few years ago.  Someday I will stop confusing Edwin Arlington Robinson and Robinson Jeffers – I will really read them rather than rely on scattered poems encountered twenty-five years ago.

Sometimes it is not clear what it means to have read an author.  Two years ago, I wrote about my limited reading of Henry James.  I had read half a dozen of his works, but given the amount and variety of his work I did not feel like I had read him.  It was interesting to discover how many other readers felt the same way.  Four or five novels was somehow not enough.  I would guess that the reader of Huckleberry Finn, Connecticut Yankee, and “Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses” would happily say he had read Mark Twain, however many other good books Twain might have written.

I feel like I have read some writers without having read them at all.  How many articles and reviews have I read about V. S. Naipaul?  Over so many years, it seems endless.  Maybe someday I will try one of his actual books.  I have not, but I feel like I have, just as I feel like I have read more John Updike and Ian McEwan than the one book apiece I have actually read.

My success, to call it that, is all the result of the passage of time, a war of attrition with occasional offensives, like a winter assault on Scandinavian writers.  I am always grinding away.  At some point, I will over-extend my supply lines and lose the war, but so far I can pretend that I am Napoleon, that I am making progress towards some undefined but surely important goal.  But it is just time, time spent reading rather than doing something else.  Book bloggers fret a lot over the growth of the pile of books To Be Read, but the pile that Has Been Read keeps growing, too.

At this point I ought to offer my own Top Ten authors, but I believe I will save that for the next post.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Notes on Herzen's My Past and Thoughts - Those five years were for me, too, the worst time of my life

Since I am going to write a note on a Russian writer, I will first mention that I am for some reason organizing a readalong of Nikolai Chernyshevsky’s What Is To Be Done?, for which I will also be reading Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Notes from the Underground.  I suppose I should start reading soon.  Chernyshevsky’s novel is not all that long, but it calls for breaks, some perhaps extended.  I would love to know if anyone is able to just plow through it.  The novel does have a plot, more plot than Dostoevsky’s endlessly superior novella.

Alexander Herzen barely mentions Chernyshevsky in his memoirs, My Past and Thoughts (1866).  They are both radical socialists devoted to the overthrow of the Russian monarchy, both magazine editors.  But Chernyshevsky is younger, fiercer, and most importantly working right in the jaws of the Czar (and he paid the price for it), while Herzen is writing in exile.

The literary conceits are opposed, too – I am confusing history with literature.  Chernyshevksy’s revolution is the one that succeeded, while Herzen’s, non-violent and humanist, is the one that failed.  The second volume of My Past and Thoughts, the one I just finished, finally, is a memoir of failure.  This volume hinges around the European revolutions of 1848, especially in France and Italy where Herzen saw them fail in person.  His earlier book, From the Other Shore (1850), is his direct reaction to the catastrophe of 1848, a series of articles so rhetorically sophisticated I barely remember them.  It is a book of idealistic disillusionment or something like that.  The sensible and skeptical revolutionary – I can see how this is a difficult position.

My Past and Thoughts is a memoir as bracing as Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Confessions, so Herzen’s subject is not entirely political.  Parallel to the sputtering after effects of 1848 is an agonizing section titled “A Family Drama.”  Herzen’s wife Natalie falls for another revolutionary, charismatic but nuts.  She breaks off the affair, but her lover (and his wife) act like loons.  As if this were not painful enough, Herzen’s mother and one of his sons dies in a shipwreck.  And then Natalie, the wife, dies from what I assume is typhoid.  Meanwhile, the nutcase is challenging Herzen to duels or begging him to be friends again.  I have seen people say that Herzen’s memoir is like a novel.  This section is like a soap opera that takes a tragic turn.

Those five years were for me, too, the worst time of my life; I have not now such riches to lose or such beliefs to be destroyed.  (671)

A truffled turkey appears on p. 492, in Herzen’s encomium to an old friend who taught him that revolutionaries are allowed to have fun, for example to enjoy Schubert and good food.  The truffled turkey is an old obsession at Wuthering Expectations; I am just cataloguing its appearances.  Someday I will eat one.

I am not doing much more here than writing notes.  Finishing volume 2 puts me through a thousand pages of about 1,800 total.  I am reading the 1968 four volume edition, translated by Constance Garnett, revised by Humphrey Higgens. Volume 4 has an index, which is how I know about the near-absence of Chernyshevsky.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Sjón's Blue Fox - not as entertaining as a dried cod's head

Let’s look at The Blue Fox by Sjón, tr. Victoria Cribb, for a few minutes.  It is a little folkloric Icelandic novel from 2004.  In an odd stunt it was released in the United States last April simultaneously with two other Sjón novels.  I do not know why.  Probably to distract from what a huge ripoff the book is.

There are only 115 pages to begin with, and several of those are section breaks.  Then the first third or so, in which a hunter stalks a blue fox, is told in tiny chapters, no more than a page; the top third of the page signifies that it’s a new chapter, so that’s blank; then the chapters are so short that the bottom third is typically blank as well, and once in a while there is a chapter like this:

The night was cold and of the longer variety.  (14)

with almost nothing on the page at all.  I guess "longer" is ironic.  Mentally add in huge patches of blank before and after that single line.  The Blue Fox is almost as poor a value as a book of poetry, and we all know what a waste of money those are.  I might as well buy a Moleskine for the amount of ink I am getting.

As if the empty pages weren’t bad enough, somewhere after the halfway point the action turns into a survival-in-the-wild plot with a supernatural element so exciting that most readers are likely to race through the last forty pages at maximum speed, greatly increasing the dollars per hour of entertainment.  No wonder fantasy fans go for twelve-volume series of a thousand pages per volume.  Speaking of whom, Neil Gaiman readers ought to get a lot out of this book, maybe even their money’s worth.

Yes, he wept sorely for the evil fate that had left him alone, with no one to share the entertainment that is to be had from a dried cod’s head.  (92)

But not as much as they would get from a dried cod’s head, apparently.  That might be my favorite line in the novel – in context, it is not especially absurd – although there are a lot of other good ones.  This is an Icelandic cemetery in 1883:

The churchyard at Botn stands on the banks of the Botnsa River.  This is a middling-size, smooth stream, of a good depth and high-banked, bordered by spongy patches of marsh, with plenty of good peat land and enough of that deceptive surface rust.  After a winter of heavy snow the river runs wild, bursting its banks with such demonic force that the dirty gray meltwater surges out of its course, flooding the marshes and forming lakes in the graveyard, leaving the church stranded on an island in its midst.  The water-ringed house of God remains cut off until the graveyard has swallowed enough of the mountain milk for the water to just cover a maiden’s ankle; by then the sanctified ground is drunk and wobbles underfoot until well into summer.  (70-1)

The next bit is as good or better, but this is enough.  We see a common Sjón move here, starting with something clear but prosaic that becomes stranger as a series of little metaphoric surprises are piled up.  He does something similar with the characters, and with the story, and with the magical blue fox.

I will have to track down those other Sjón novels.  The Blue Fox is not even the right one – the other two have to do with Icelandic sagas.  One of them is even about, or connected to, William Morris, if you can believe it.  That is a Wuthering Expectations must-read if there ever were such a thing.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

With laws shall our land be built up but with lawlessness laid waste - Icelandic sagas as cases studies in conflict resolution

Aside from all of the killing, this is the heart of Njal’s Saga, said by the wise man who gives the book its title:  “’With laws shall our land be built up but with lawlessness laid waste’” (Ch. 70).

I am thinking about where the author spends his time, especially what parts of the story he describes in detail.  The art is in the details.

I do not always understand the significance of the details.  Just before the legendary murder-on-ice scene I used yesterday is this:

It so happened that Skarp-Hedin’s shoe-thong broke as they ran down along the river, and he stopped.

“What keeps you back, Skarp-Hedin?” asked Grim.

“I am tying up my shoe,” he replied.  (Ch. 92)

After which he launches himself onto the ice into the midst of his enemies.

So one place where the author pauses is at the many killings in the saga, where every question – who, what, where, etc. – is answered in depth.  Which limb is severed by which weapon in what order.

The second place is the law, the first part of Njal’s dictum.  I called Njal’s Saga a legal thriller as a joke, but the joke is not so funny when, near the end of the saga in Chapter 142, several pages are spent on the process of jury selection, along with some other matters of Icelandic law less recognizable from television legal dramas.

Law and lawlessness.  In a comment, Alison of The Congeries asks ”how much it” – the author, the saga – “really disapproves of its Skarphedins.”  Perhaps this is just an artifact of the nature of storytelling, of drama.  The violence is so intense and enticing.  But there is something else.  The heroes of Njal’s Saga are clearly, from its rhetoric and focus, wise Njal and his friend Gunnar, men who try to avoid violence and tamp down the impulse for revenge.  Yet they obviously fail.  The story of the saga traces how small injuries lead to violence that spirals and expands until it seems to involve all of southern Iceland.  The law merely delays the violence.

I think I prefer the individual scale of two other stories, Egil’s Saga and Grettir’s Saga.  They both center on men who are superhuman, part-troll maybe, and capable of amazing, horrifying feats of violence.  Egil is quite openly a sociopath, while Grettir is more of a tragic figure, a monster-slayer who would have been a great hero in earlier times but has trouble finding a place in a society of laws.  Both men are useful to society in some ways and extremely dangerous in others.

Njal’s Saga and its cousin, Laxdaela Saga, another tale of a cycle of revenge that operates on a smaller scale, reflecting the more private cause of the conflict, a love triangle, feature characters closer to humans who nevertheless spend a good part of their energy destroying each other.  They are as much a threat to society as the homicidal Egil.  Maybe more of a threat.

I risk turning the sagas into political science case studies, but they are that, too, as well as history and fiction.  Literature, they are literature.

Thanks to Alison and Scott, who helpfully joined in on Njal’s Saga.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

No one could stop people talking - bloody Njal's Saga

It is not just that there are a lot of deaths in Njal’s Saga.  It’s that they’re described like this (sensitive readers, avert thine eyes):

A huge sheet of ice had formed a low hump on the other side of the channel.  It was as smooth as glass, and Thrain and his men had stopped on the middle of this hump.  Skarp-Hedin made a leap and cleared the channel between the ice-banks, steadied himself, and at once went into a slide: the ice was glassy-smooth, and he skimmed along as fast as a bird.

Thrain was then about to put on his helmet.  Skarp-Hedin came swooping down on him and swung at him with his axe.  The axe crashed down on his head and split it down to the jaw-bone, spilling the back-teeth on to the ice.  (Ch. 92)

The teeth are a nice Tarantinoish detail, aren’t they?  If we were watching the film adaptation of Njal’s Saga, this is a point where we might hear around us in the theater “Aw, c’mon!” as well as “Cool!” and “Gross!”  It is maybe a little far-fetched, yet I will bet the passage is based on a true exploit of arms so amazing that the story was passed down for decades before being plugged into Njal’s Saga.

The book reminds me that the taste for this kind of aestheticized violence was not the invention of Hollywood.

One the same page of my edition is another of my favorite deaths:

Hrapp swung his axe at Grim, but Helgi, seeing this, hacked off Hrapp’s arm.  The axe fell to the ground.

Hrapp said, “What you have done certainly needed doing; that hand has brought harm and death to many.”

“This will put an end to all that,” said Grim, and ran him through with a spear.  Hrapp fell dead.

I have not made a transcription error.  Hrapp is commenting sardonically on the severing of his own arm.  The Icelanders are mostly perfect stoics, shrugging at predictions of their own deaths, shrugging at their actual deaths.

An example, again not for the sensitive:

Thorhall Asgrimsson was so shocked when he heard that his foster-father, Njal, had been burned to death  that his whole body swelled up; a stream of blood spouted from his ears and could not be staunched, until he fell down unconscious and the flow ceased of its own accord.  Then he got up and said that he had not behaved like a man.  “My only wish now is to take vengeance for what has just happened to me upon those who burned Njal to death.”

The others said that no one would call his behavior disgraceful; but Thorhall replied that no one could stop people talking.  (Ch. 132)

If there is any truth to the story at all, people talked for two hundred years or more, and here I am talking about it another six hundred years later.

Perhaps I will move to a less horrible subject tomorrow.