Thursday, March 31, 2016

It’s like living in Australia - Chekhov's Ivanov

Last night I read Anton Chekhov’s Ivanov, the first of his major plays.  The most minor of his major plays.  His only minor major play.

It was written in two weeks in 1887 and performed three weeks later.  I like that pace.  Chekhov rewrote the play from scratch in 1888, made major revisions in 1889, and tinkered with it occasionally thereafter.  I read the final version, I think.  Whatever is in the Norton Critical Edition, tr. Laurence Senelick.

Chekhov was beginning his great period about this time, with “A Dreary Story” and “The Steppe” and so on.  He did not write a play as good as his best stories on his first try.  He still depends on some stagey stuff that he will squelch soon enough, although some of the stagey stuff is pretty funny.  This is how the play begins:

IVANOV is sitting at a table, reading a book.  BORKIN, wearing heavy boots and carrying a rifle, appears at the bottom of the garden; he is tipsy; after he spots IVANOV, he tiptoes up to him and, when he has come alongside him, aims the gun in his face.  (I.1.)

You can tell that Chekhov is a beginner, because he has not yet formulated his famous “Chekhov’s gun” principle. This rifle, introduced in the first act, never goes off!  It is a different gun that is fired in the last act.  But not this one.  Totally different thing.

Maybe this opening does not look so funny, but the play is in tone a comedy, even if some of the events are pretty grim.  It is Chekhov, is what I am saying.

A Superfluous Man has fallen out of love with his wife, who is dying of tuberculosis, something she only learns when her husband blurts it out at the end of Act III.  The wife’s doctor is in love with her.  Chekhov’s doctors are always questionable figures.  A young neighbor is in love with the husband, making a love rectangle.  Aside from her feelings for the protagonist, she is the only sensible person in the play.

The comic supporting cast is excellent , like the young neighbor’s mother, a wealthy miser who resents her guests:

The Count didn’t finish his tea.  A waste of perfectly good sugar.  (II, 5)

Or the tax collector whose only subject is old games of whist, a classic bore:

KOSYKH: And suddenly, of all the bad luck, the ace of spades was trumped first round.

SHABELSKY (Grabs a revolver off the desk.[okay, this is the gun that goes off an act later])  Get out of here or I’ll shoot!

KOSYKH (Waves his hand in dismissal.)  What the hell…  Can’t a man even talk to people?  It’s like living in Australia: no common interests, no solidarity… Every man lives on his own…  (III, 3, all ellipses in original)

From the movie Country Life (1994), which is Uncle Vanya moved to Australia, I know that Kosykh is right, even though he is an idiot.  Everyone is bored, bored, bored, and it’s their own fault.

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

I only hoped that he would be hit just a little - Crane goes into battle

“War Memories” is the most unusual part of Wounds in the Rain.  The rest of the pieces are easier to identify as short stories, single episodes in the Cuban war experienced by a single character, sometimes but not always a journalist.  More good Stephen Crane short stories.

The opener, “The Price in the Harness,” seems designed to showcase Crane’s updated approach to war fiction.  He takes a simple, small action – a supply train runs into some trouble – and describes it with some thickness.

The brown leggings of the men, stained with the mud of other days, took on a deeper colour.  Perspiration broke gently out on the reddish faces.  With his heavy roll of blanket and the half of a shelter-tent crossing his right shoulder and under his left arm, each man presented the appearance of being clasped from behind, wrestler fashion, by a pair of thick white arms.  (7)

Just a touch of weirdness.  Here the strangeness comes from a relatively new technology, a military balloon,

a fat, wavering, yellow thing, [that] was leading the advance like some new conception of war-god.  (12)

Personified, the balloon is the battle’s first casualty:

The balloon was dying, dying a gigantic and public death before the eyes of two armies.  It quivered, sank, faded into the trees amid the flurry of a battle that was suddenly and tremendously like a storm.  (13)

Crane works hard, in this story, on the sounds of battle:

The noise of the rifle bullets broke in their faces like the noise of so many lamp-chimneys… (13)

It reminds one always of a loom, a great grand steel loom, clinking, clanking, plunking, plinking, to weave a woof of thin red threads, the cloth of death.  (25)

Maybe a little overdone there at the end.  The story ends with more sounds, the sound of voices.  The characters in these stories are often interchangeable, made generic by their uniforms or roles.  The most curious title is “Marines Signalling under Fire at Guantanamo,” which sounds like it ought to be reportage, and likely almost is.  It could be an episode in “War Memories.”  Who knows why it is not.  A journalist watches marines signal a ship, asking it to redirect its artillery fire.  To signal, a marine has to carry his signal flags to the top of a ridge, where he will be exposed to enemy fire.

It seemed absurd to hope that he would not be hit; I only hoped that he would be hit just a little, little, in the arm, the shoulder, or the leg.  (188)

It’s the kind of casual courage that Crane has always found so fascinating.

One irony of the book is that almost none of the action Crane witnesses has much to do with the outcome of the war, which was largely decided at sea.  One story, “The Revenge of the Adolphus,” is about a naval action, again as witnessed by war correspondents, and the irony here is that the participants have difficulty seeing the significance of what they did.

A couple of stories are trivial.  Otherwise, Christopher Benfey is right, it’s a shame that Wounds in the Rain has been squeezed off to the side of Crane’s works.

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

"But to get the real thing!" Stephen Crane remembers the war

Somewhere I saw Christopher Benfey, a critic and biographer of Stephen Crane, call Wounds in the Rain (1900) Crane’s most underrated or underread or ignored or misunderstood book.  Something like that.

It’s a collection of short fiction about the Cuban theater of the 1898 Spanish-American War.  Crane was a war correspondent.  He had written a novel and a book of stories about the Civil War, all of the details about soldiering pulled out of his imagination and books, but as a journalist he got to see the real thing.

On the third night the alarm came early; I went in search of Gibbs, but I soon gave over an active search for the more congenial occupation of lying flat and feeling the hot hiss of the bullets trying to cut my hair.  For the moment I was no longer a cynic.  I was a child who, in a fit of ignorance, had jumped into the vat of war.  I heard somebody dying near me.  He was dying hard.  Hard.  It took him a long time to die.  (“War Memories,” 237-8)

Of course this is not the real thing, even if the narrator is a Crane-like war correspondent, but rather a fictional simulation of it.  (“’But to get the real thing!’ cried Vernall the war-correspondent.  ‘It seems impossible,’” 229)  The difference from the Civil War fiction is that Crane could have been killed gathering his materials, or killed by something other than a book falling on his head.

His style did change, but it had been changing rapidly anyways that I cannot guess how direct experience of war might have affected it.  That “Hard” line was unthinkable in the more baroque The Red Badge of Courage (1895), written all of five years earlier.  I am continuing the same scene:

I thought this man would never die.  I wanted him to die.  Ultimately he died.  (238)

A new mode of war writing is forming in this book, and a new ironic tone.  Ernest Hemingway must have clawed a copy of Wounds in the Rain to pieces.  Does this not sound like it could have been written by Hemingway?

The day broke by inches, with an obvious and maddening reluctance.  (239)

There are other pages in the book, even though I am stuck in this one spot.  “War Memories” was the biggest surprise in the book.  It is long, a quarter of the book, as long as Crane’s novellas, and most directly in his voice and about his experiences.  Yet the character is named Vernall, and the events vary from those experienced by Crane.  It is a story both about the journalist’s experiences but also about his attempts to turn them into something.  The essentially random nature of war destroys effective narrative.

Or perhaps the story is a ragbag.  Here is everything Crane could not turn into something else, plus some things that he could and did, one event after another.  Look at all of this stuff.

The episode was closed.  And you can depend upon it that I have told you nothing at all, nothing at all, nothing at all.  (308)

Because of its length, I guess, the Library of America volume of Crane omits “War Memories,” but it is easy enough to find online.  Page numbers are from a scan of the original edition.

Monday, March 28, 2016

Fusion, transfusion, diffusion, confusion, and profusion - Machado de Assis at his Dalkeyest

Four years ago I read three collections of the short stories of the Brazilian writer Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis.  With a bit of scrounging in anthologies I ended up reading forty of his stories.  Since then three more collections have been published in English, increasing both the quantity of good stories available and also the redundancy.  The novella The Psychiatrist or The Alienist (1881-2) is now published, and in print, in three different translations, for example.

Good news, but confusing.  Now there is room for specialization.  I read Selected Short Stories (2014), translated by Rhett McNeil, published by Dalkey Archive, and the title is accurate – these stories (1878-86), including The Psychiatrist,  are specifically selected to show the most experimental side of Machado.  These are the Dalkeyest of his stories.

There was once a barrel-maker and demagogue named Bernardino, who, in the realm of cosmography, professed a belief that the world was an enormous tunnel of marmalade, and in the realm of politics insisted that the throne should belong to the people.  (“The Dictionary,” 90)

The barrel-maker becomes king and through a series of events kicks off a language reform, including a Dictionary of Babel:

There wasn’t a single phrase that bore resemblance to the spoken language.  Consonants scrambled atop consonants, vowels were diluted by other vowels, words with two syllables now had seven or eight and vice versa, everything was jumbled, mixed up; a complete absence of vigor, of elegance: a language of shards and tatters.  (93)

That last phrase, especially, has a pure Dalkey flavor to it.

In the next story, “The Academies of Siam,” a king and his favorite concubine switch bodies – why not? – and learn a valuable lesson about their advisors.  “She couldn’t understand how it was that fourteen men gathered together in an academy could be the light of the world, yet, individually be a bunch of camels” (103).  In the next, “The Priest, or The Metaphysics of Style,” Machado describes the journey of an adjective and a noun in a priest’s brain, before they are joined romantically and written on a page.

Give me your hand, dear lady, my reader; stay close to me, good sir, good reader.  Let’s trudge along with them.  (108)

Conceptual, satirical, odd, that is the rule in this collection.  Lots of parables of artistic creation.  “Fusion, transfusion, diffusion, confusion, and profusion of beings and objects” (“Ex Cathedra,” 129)

The playful conceptual stories show an essential side of Machado de Assis.  It is hardly his only side, though.  We will have to go elsewhere for his poignant social protests (“Father against Mother”) or his Chekhovian psychological insight (“Midnight Mass”).  Aside from the political parody of The Psychiatrist, there is surprisingly little of Brazil in Selected Stories.  There is plenty about Brazil in stories in Machado’s other modes.

Perhaps someday someone will publish in English Machado’s stories as they were originally published.  A complete and non-redundant set would be handy.  Still, it’s not so bad now, is it?

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Thomas Hardy's independent world of ephemerons - featuring real skellington bones

My favorite moment in The Return of the Native.  A Celtic barrow has been opened, and the pagan spoils looted.  One of the protagonists, Clym Yeobright, was there.  “’Mr. Yeobright had got one pot of the bones, and was going to bring ‘em home – real skellington bones – but ‘twas ordered otherwise.’”  He gives the burial urn, full of bones, to his sweetheart who “’has a cannibal taste for such churchyard furniture.’”

When Clym came home, which was shortly after, his mother said in a curious tone, ‘The urn you had meant for me you gave away.’  (III, 3)

Hardy is grim, sure, macabre, even, but hilarious.

The entanglements and resentments of these three characters form much of the plot of the novel.  For some reason Hardy does not think the disposition of old bones is motivation enough, so he comes up with another device.  At this point the novel becomes either cleverly plotted or contrived or both depending on one’s tastes.

A minor character, an idiot, is supposed to deliver some money.  On the way, as in a fairy tale, he wins a raffle – his prize is a lady’s dress – and becomes fired up with the idea of luck, so he gambles away all of the money, which is not his, in a dice game.  Then the winner gambles away all of the money to a third character, who delivers the money but not quite correctly.  This is the beginning of a chain of events leading to the novel’s climactic wet catastrophe.

Gambling is among the worst plot devices for a fiction writer, the most arbitrary way to solve a plotting problem, which is why it is aggravating and ingenious that Hardy doubles the gambling.  Not only is there no such thing as luck in the plot, which is entirely under the control of the author, but there is no luck even within the world of the novel.  Only Fate.  The unlikely outcomes of the gambling are just more of “’the cruel satires that Fate loves to indulge in,’” (III, 5) as another character says.

The gambling scene is made as weird as possible, set at night among the giant ferns, the wild horses watching the game, which is completed to the light of glowworms.

He probed the glowworms with a bit of stick, and rolled them over, till the bright side of their tails was upwards.

‘There’s light enough.  Throw on,’ said Venn.  (III, 8)

Again, this is some kind of fantasy world.

I return to the old woman out on the heath on a hot August day:

Occasionally she came to a spot where independent worlds of ephemerons were passing their time in a mad carousal, some in the air, some on the hot ground and vegetation, some in the tepid and stringy water of a nearly-dried pool.  All the shallower ponds had decreased to a vaporous mud, amid which the maggoty shapes of innumerable obscene creatures could be indistinctly seen, heaving and wallowing with enjoyment.  (IV, 5)

After this point, as the plot began to squeeze the characters hard, there were times when I wondered why Hardy was writing a novel.  Why not a book of geology or entomology, but fictional, with the laws of nature under his control?  And he would answer, What do you think this book is?

How about a holiday break - next post on Monday.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

The Return of the Native as a fantasy novel - Black chaos comes

The heath-dwellers are gathered around a bonfire built atop a Celtic barrow.

… it is pretty well known that such blazes as this the heathmen were now enjoying are rather the lineal descendants from jumbled Druidical rites and Saxon ceremonies than the invention of popular feeling about Gunpowder Plot.  (I, 3)

The heathmen themselves, not just their bonfires, are lineal descendants of Druids and Saxons.

Black chaos comes, and the fettered gods of the Earth say, Let there be light.

The characters are enacting a ritual, casting a spell, protecting themselves, and it seems the world, from the oncoming winter.  Or so the narrator seems to think.  It is always the narrator who is talking this way, describing his characters as Celts or Romans, pagans.  He is a bit of an anthropologist.  The lead characters are passionate and impulsive, even to the point of destruction, while the narrator sometimes seems more interested in taking notes on their quaint customs.

Indeed, the impulses of all such outlandish hamlets are pagan still: in these spots homage to nature, self-adoration, frantic gaieties, fragments of Teutonic rites to divinities whose names are forgotten, have in some was or other survived mediaeval doctrine.  (VI, 1)

This lecture follows a description of a Maypole.  We are almost at the end of the book, which makes this line especially irritating – Hardy, I know this already – I have been reading your novel!  But I now understand lines like this as part of Hardy’s struggle with his form, which also means a struggle with his readers as he imagines them.  He is training his readers to recognize the kind of symbolic apparatus he is constructing.  Later writers, Modernists, will not have to spend so much time repeating themselves to their well-trained, and smaller, audience.

The lead heroine, the great Eustacia Vye, is perceived to be a witch, the kind that curses people, by some of her neighbors.  She is metaphorically a witch, the kind that bewitches men, for the novels two male leads.  I was genuinely surprised when, near the end of the novel, the neighbor who most strongly insists that Vye is a witch casts a spell on her – the accuser is herself a witch!

Seizing with tongs the image that she had made of Eustacia, she held it in the heat, and watched it as it began to waste slowly away.  And while she stood thus engaged there came from her lips a murmur of words.

It was a strange jargon – the Lord’s Prayer repeated backwards…  (V, 8)

Never before had Hardy reminded me so strongly of Nathaniel Hawthorne, and that was before I got to this scene.

The Return of the Native is as close to what we now call a fantasy novel as any novel I know that is not normally called a fantasy novel.  One character is red, literally red.  The weird environment is full of ferns and strange flowers, and mysterious creatures called “heath-croppers” wander through it.  They are semi-wild horses, but the novel would be no different if they were unicorns, or dinosaurs, if the magic were “real,” which in some sense it is, and if the red man were some kind of gnome rather than a man who makes his living dying sheep.

The novel makes more sense thought of this way.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

It had a lonely face, suggesting tragical possibilities - landscape and form in The Return of the Native

The form of The Return of the Native is a strange experiment of Hardy’s, an attempt to mesh the novel with a five act play and the classical unities, yet also aligning the pacing, and even the chronology, with that of the novel’s serialization.  I take the experiment as a big success, clever and effective.

Thus the first quarter of the novel is one long action that covers not much more than twenty-four hours, introducing all of the major characters but one (and announcing that one – the native who returns in Act II, scrambling the status quo).

The starting date is November 5, Bonfire Night, a blend of Guy Fawkes Day and a pagan celebration.  The entire novel covers a year, or just a bit more.  Hardy pegs the big scenes to holidays whenever he can.  Or if no holiday is available, how about something astronomical:

While he watched the far-removed landscape a tawny stain grew into being on the lower verge: the eclipse had begun.  This marked a preconcerted moment; for the remote celestial phenomenon had been pressed into sublunary service as a lover’s signal.  (IV, 4)

The seasons and holidays provide one logical structure, the five “acts” or big scenes another.  Yet Hardy keeps things loose.  The Zola novel I am reading now, Nana (1880), is stricter – one chapter is usually one scene.  Hardy allows himself more cuts and edits.

The first chapter is all landscape, the place first, not the people.  Egdon Heath, a semi-fictional semi-wilderness, empty of humans for four pages, the sun setting, the bonfires not yet lit.

In fact, precisely at this transitional point of its nightly roll into darkness the great and particular glory of the Egdon waste began, and nobody could be said to understand the heath who had not been there at such a time.  It could best be felt when it could not clearly be seen…  The obscurity in the air and the obscurity in the land closed together in a black fraternisation towards which each advanced half-way.  (I, 1)

Those last two lines are the psychology of many of Hardy’s romantic couples projected onto the landscape, or in this novel vice versa.

The description is so strange.  Hardy moves so quickly to metaphor.  No one is expected to visualize the landscape, but rather to see it in some other imaginative sense.  For example, it is personified in several ways.  The heath is a Titan who has “waited thus, unmoved, during so many centuries.”  What is it waiting for?  “[O]ne last crisis  - the final overthrow.” 

It had a lonely face, suggesting tragical possibilities.

Civilisation was its enemy.  Ever since the beginning of vegetation its soil had worn the same antique brown dress, the natural and invariable garment of the formation.

Hardy’s imagination is simultaneously mythic and geological, even is his geology is wrong.  It must be wrong – no change since “the beginning of vegetation,” that can’t be true can it?  Well, it is true in this novel, for this place.

Chapter 2 is titled “Humanity appears upon the scene, hand in hand with Trouble.”  Its first line is “Along the road walked an old man.”  Those tragical possibilities suggested by Egdon Heath begin to become actual and the story begins.

Monday, March 21, 2016

“But I am getting used to the horror of my existence.” - Thomas Hardy in a sentence, plus more metal Hardy from The Return of the Native

Am I a good reader of Thomas Hardy’s novel?  I most surely am not!  Please keep that in mind for the next few days as I work on The Return of the Native (1878).

The difference of temperaments is one problem:

“But I am getting used to the horror of my existence.”  (Book Fifth, Ch. 9)

This line comes near the end of the novel, after an unlikely catastrophe.  Reading this line, am I supposed to burst into laughter?  That is what I did.

But here is what follows after that line:

“They say that a time comes when men laugh at misery through long acquaintance with it.  Surely that time will soon come to me!”

Wait, maybe I am supposed to laugh.  Maybe my temperament is not so different from Hardy’s.  I always get along well with his poetry, which I think of as a purer expression of his self.

I have no problem with the poetry of The Return of the Native, by which I mostly mean imagery in heightened language.  It is the hottest day of the year, and an old woman is wandering around on the exposed heath:

She looked at the sky overhead, and saw that the sapphirine hue of the zenith in spring and early summer had completely gone, and was replaced by a metallic violet.  (V, 5)

The language, and her perceptivity, reflects her heightened emotional state:

There lay the cat asleep on the bare gravel of the path, as if beds, rugs, and carpets were unendurable.  The leaves of the hollyhocks hung like half-closed umbrellas, the sap almost simmered in the stems, and foliage with a smooth surface glared like metallic mirrors…  among the fallen apples on the ground beneath were wasps rolling drunk with the juice, or creeping about the little caves in each fruit which they had eaten out before stupefied by its sweetness.  (V, 5)

The great flexibility of the novel can be seen here.  A painter cannot speculate, by means of simile, on the motivation of the cat, nor can he move inside the hollyhocks or describe the state of mind of the wasps.  What does the repetition of the word “metallic” mean, to the character, or the narrator?

In the next chapter, the same character, still out on the heath, sees a symbolic heron:

He had come dripping wet from some pool in the valleys, and as he flew the edges and lining of his wings, his thighs, and his breast were so caught by the bright sunbeams that he appeared as if formed of burnished silver.  Up in the zenith where he was seemed a free and happy place, away from all contact with the earthly ball to which she was pinioned; and she wished that she could arise uncrushed from its surface and fly as he flew then.  (V, 6)

Again, metallic, using different words, and a return to the zenith from the beginning of the previous chapter, now invested by the character with enormous meaning.  “Pinioned” is a funny word here, not quite a pun but a return to the old meaning of the word.

When we next meet the woman, she has gotten her wish, or perhaps a grotesque parody of her wish.

This side of Hardy I am reading all right, I guess.

Saturday, March 19, 2016

It was quite unbearable - an Oscar Wilde ghost and some other stuff

Alongside whatever else I have been doing, I have been reading Oscar Wilde, both The Complete Letters of Oscar Wilde and The Artist as Critic: Critical Writings of Oscar Wilde, but in snatches, as the mood strikes me, so the books never seem to move to my “Currently Reading” list.  I read a book review or a couple of months of letters and set the books aside.  The pace seems to suit the subject.

I am at October 1888, roughly, a strange period for my received idea of Wilde.  He is married, has two infant children at home, and is the editor of a magazine titled Woman’s World.  Most of his letters are requests for contributions – how about 4,000 words on Concord, Massachusetts, with photos, or 2,500 on Goethe’s house, with photos?  Woman’s World sounds terrific.

Wilde’s wife, Constance Lloyd, sounds terrific, too.  “[A] grave, slight, violet-eyed little Artemis, with great coils of heavy brown hair which make her flower-like head droop like a flower, and wonderful ivory hands which draw music from the piano so sweet that the birds stop singing to listen to her” (Letter to Lillie Langtry, Jan. 22, 1884).

Just before the possibility of the editorship arose, Wilde had begin publishing comic fiction, just four stories that I know of.  All were originally published in 1887 but not collected into a book until 1891 as Lord Savile’s Crime & Other Stories, I presume as a quick cash-in on the success of The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890).  The two shortest stories seemed like trivia, but “Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime” is a good bit of vicious fun, and “The Canterville Ghost” is something more than that, a parody of ghost stories so forceful and thorough that I am surprised people still continued to write them.

This is Lady Windermere, a minor character in “Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime.”  “She looked wonderfully beautiful with her grand ivory throat, her large blue forget-me-not-eyes, and her heavy coils of golden hair.”  Kinda funny given that letter.  Great artists are masters of recycling.

In “The Canterville Ghost,” an American minister and his family move into an English haunted house.  The Americans are either firm in their beliefs, or gross materialists, or both.  The first encounter with a haunting, a recurring blood-stain:

‘This is all nonsense,’ cried Washington Otis; ‘Pinkerton’s Champion Stain Remover and Paragon Detergent will clean it up in no time,’ and before the terrified housekeeper could interfere he had fallen upon his knees, and was rapidly scouring the floor with a small stick of what looked like a black cosmetic.  In a few moments, no trace of the blood-stain could be seen.

‘I knew Pinkerton would do it,’ he exclaimed triumphantly…

Cold Comfort Farm owes a lot to “The Canterville Ghost.”  The great moment in the story, though, is when the point of view switches from the Americans to the poor, confounded ghost, who first feels “grossly insulted,” then frustrated, and finally openly terrified of these horrible modern people.  The ghost is an artist; the descriptions of his greatest hauntings are high points of the story:

With the enthusiastic egotism of the true artist he went over his most celebrated performances, and smiled bitterly to himself as he recalled to mind his last appearance as ‘Red Reuben, or the Strangled Babe,’ his début as ‘Gaunt Gibeon, the Blood-sucker of Bexley Moor,’ and the furore he had excited one lovely June evening merely by playing ninepins with his own bones upon the lawn-tennis ground.  And after all this, some wretched modern Americans were to come and offer him the Rising Sun Lubricator, and throw pillows at his head!  It was quite unbearable.

I wish I had read “The Canterville Ghost” twenty-five years ago and feel resentment towards every short story anthologist who failed to include it in whatever short story anthologies I happened to read.

Friday, March 18, 2016

Beerbohm's theater writing - I think I see some of my readers raising their eyebrows

The last fifth or sixth of The Prince of Minor Writers is Beerbohm on the theater.  He was a newspaper drama critics for over a decade.  What writing is more ephemeral than reviews of forgotten plays?  So here we have pieces on Ibsen, Shaw, and Sarah Bernhardt, of interest to this day.  And the pieces about forgotten performers – there are no pieces about forgotten plays or playwrights – are just as interesting.

Beerbohm is in his nostalgic mode in “Dan Leno,” a tribute to an actor of Beerbohm’s youth who specialized in patter, like Danny Kaye.  A long description of a Leno sketch, a shoe salesman bit, is about as funny as you would expect, if you have ever had anyone describe a comic sketch to you, minus the jokes:

I think I see some of my readers – such of them as never saw Dan Leno in this part – raising their eyebrows.  Nor do I blame them.  Nor do I blame myself for failing to recreate that which no howsoever ingenious literary artist could recreate for you.  (335)

Beerbohm foresees that recordings, film and audio, will someday solve this problem, but too late for Dan Leno.  “No actor of our time deserved immortality so well as he.”  There is also a lovely tribute to his much older “radiant” brother, Herbert Beerbohm Tree, a famous actor and theater manager, which includes Max’s own beginnings with the theater as a brother-worshipping schoolboy.

A couple of essays are, unsurprisingly, humor pieces disguised as theater criticism, or vice versa, one of them mocking Londoners who saw Hedda Gabler in Italian just because the lead was Eleonora Duse, who was not even, according to Beerbohm, any good in Italian.

… it was not the only performance of Hedda Gabler.  There was another, and, in some ways, a better.  While Signora Duse walked through her part, the prompter threw himself into it with a will.  A more raucous whisper I never heard than that which preceded the Signora’s every sentence.  It was like the continuous tearing of very thick silk.  (“An Hypocrisy in Playgoing,” 330)

The other, even funnier, has Beerbohm seeing a play in the pit rather than in his usual box; I am skipping the jokes on the impossibility of seeing the play or hearing the actors for the concluding bit of genuine criticism:

What matter, then, how great be the degree of remoteness from reality?  The marvel to me, since my visit to the pit of the Garrick, is not that the public cares so little for dramatic truth, but that it can sometimes tolerate a play which is not either the wildest melodrama or the wildest farce.  Where low tones and fine shades are practically invisible, one would expect an exclusive insistence in splodges of garish colour…  I shall in future be less hard on the public than has been my wont.  (“In the Pit,” 339, ellipses in original)

The Prince of Minor Writers end with three radio addresses from the 1930s and 1940s, all purely nostalgic, on the theater of Beerbohm’s youth.  He even sings.  With no mention of the war, the talks are in the genre of “Why We Fight,” a defense of English culture.  Nostalgia becomes patriotism, a form of civil defense.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

It was so like something I had known - some Beerbohm laughter in And Even Now

The Prince of Minor Writers leads off with almost all of the 1920 collection And Even Now.  The editor violates chronology because this collection, of pieces from 1910 to 1920, is so good, and a perfect showcase of Beerbohm.

Beerbohm the humorist, for example.  See  “’How Shall I Word It’” (1910), in which Beerbohm comes across a book of sample letters (“to Father of Girl he wishes to Marry” or “asking Governess for her Qualifications”) which he finds lacking in “wrath” and “bad motive.”  After a digression in which he confesses his desire to rob post office boxes, Beerbohm provides some samples that he thinks are more useful.  They mostly involve blackmail and insults.

Letter in Acknowledgement of Wedding Present

Dear Lady Amblesham,
  Who gives quickly, says the old proverb, gives twice.  For this reason I have purposely delayed writing to you, lest I should appear to thank you more than once for the cheap, hideous present  you sent me on the occasion of my recent wedding.  Were you a poor woman, that little bowl of ill-imitated Dresden china would convict you of tastelessness merely; were you a blind woman, of nothing but an odious parsimony.  As you have normal eyesight and more than normal wealth, your gift to me proclaims you at once a Philistine and a miser (or rather did so… (p. 25)

No, I should not quote the entire masterpiece.  I was impressed how Beerbohm skillfully orders the sample letters by funniness.

Or try “Kolniyatsch” (1913), a tribute to a pastiche of a Russian writer.

Kolniyatsch was born, last of a long line of rag-pickers, in 1886.  At the age of nine he had already acquired that passionate alcoholism which was to have so great an influence in the moulding of his character and on the trend of his thought.  (50)

Beerbohm sounds like Woody Allen in The New Yorker, or I suppose the reverse.

Mixed among the comedy, though, there are some pieces of a different kind, familiar essays or bits of memoir worthy of Charles Lamb.  One of them is “No. 2, the Pines,” his loving portrait of his visits to Algernon Swinburne.  Another is about a young married couple Beerbohm knew (or invented), “William and Mary.”  “Memories, like olives, are an acquired taste”  (267).  William is a socialist, poet and disciple of William Morris; Mary is “the Brave Little Woman” (277).  They are the perfect couple, an ideal of true love and happiness, made more perfect by their both dying young.

This is one sad story.  Beerbohm visits the couple frequently, drawn by Mary’s laughter more than William’s conversation, who switches from Morris to Ibsen (“At the time of my first visit, he was writing an extraordinarily gloomy play about an extraordinarily unhappy marriage”) then to Gissing (“he was usually writing novels in which everyone – or do I exaggerate? – had made a disastrous match,” 275).

In the final pages of the essay, Beerbohm revisits their cottage, long abandoned, for the first time in years.  It takes four pages for him to reach the front door and ring the bell, senselessly, just to do something.  Then he rings again.  The bell is like “a trill of laughter echoing out of the past.”

It was so like something I had known, so recognisable and, oh, recognising, that I was lost in wonder.  And long must I have remained standing at that door, for I heard the sound often, often.  I must have rung again and again, tenaciously, vehemently in my folly. (285)

This piece is fit company for Lamb’s “Dream Children.”  I wonder why it was omitted from The Prince of Minor Writers.  But I do not wonder much, since it is so easily available elsewhere.  My page numbers are from the copy at the link.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Already I feel myself to be a trifle outmoded - some Max Beerbohm

Max Beerbohm is at the core a humorist, and humorists, good ones, are at the greatest risk of falling into the category of “I just don’t get it.”  The art is in the performance, in the voice.   I get it, but I make no promise for anyone else.

Now, his fiction, Zuleika Dobson (1911) and Seven Men and Two Others (1919/1950), especially “Enoch Soames,” those can be read in a number of ways, for example as horror stories.  The essays, though, are little monologues, conversations, so the listener has to be in tune.

Plus, as ephemera, newspaper entertainment, some of Beerbohm’s subjects are now pretty obscure.  Beerbohm is not only a writer of the 1890s, but he took the 1890s as his subject and wrote about it for the rest of his life.  Some immersion in the period probably helps.  The new collection edited by Philip Lopate, The Prince of Minor Writers (2015), makes an effort to screen out the pieces that have become cryptic.

Lopate leads with almost all of And Even Now (1920), omitting only three pieces, including the best one in the book (why, why) then moves back to his first book, The Works of Max Beerbohm (1896), a classic gag for a young comic writer (Beerbohm was 24 years old), then to More (1899), another good dry joke, and Yet Again (1909), yet again the same joke.  Most of the rest of the book, about a fifth of it, is related to the theater.

Beerbohm’s signature tone is mock nostalgia, which at times is also real nostalgia, but generally not.  Works ends with a college memoir, Beerbohm’s days and nights at Oxford, bumping into Walter Pater and so on.  “The serried bristles of his mustachio made for him a false-military air” (185).  The memoir ends with Beerbohm moving to the suburbs (“Next door, there is a retired military man who has offered, in a most neighbourly way, to lend me his copy of The Times”) and declaring his retirement.

Once, in the delusion that Art, loving the recluse, would make his life happy, I wrote a little for a yellow quarterly and had that succès de fiasco which is always given to a young writer of talent.  But the stress of creation soon overwhelmed me…  I shall write no more.  Already I feel myself to be a trifle outmoded.  I belong to the Beardsley period.  Younger men, with months of activity before them, with fresher schemes and notions, have pressed forward since then.

The essay it titled “Diminuendo.”  It was published in 1895.  Beerbohm was at most 23.  He had entered Oxford in 1890 and left in 1894.  The “Beardsley period” would be 1894, although Aubrey Beardsley himself was still alive and productive.  I suppose for  the reader who knew none of this the word “months” ought to be a clue to the joke.

In The Works of Max Beerbohm, this essay is followed by a Bibliography, which consists entirely of magazine pieces and caricatures published from 1894 to 1896 except for an 1886 letter to the editor (“A bitter cry of complaint against the dulness of the school paper”) and some 1890 Latin homework.  Lopate excludes the Bibliography, perhaps because he thinks it takes the joke too far. 

Monday, March 14, 2016

William Morris among the hobbits - "You are very bitter about that unlucky nineteenth century"

Before I make some notes on William Morris’s communist utopia News from Nowhere (1890), I want to ask if anyone has a strong opinion or two on Morris’s fantasy novels of the 1890s, The Wood Beyond the World and The Well at the World’s End and so on.  Maybe I’ll read one.  I quite liked his much earlier fantasy short stories.

News from Nowhere is the sweetest, most generous utopia I have ever encountered, certainly for a utopia meant sincerely.  Morris time travels to a future England where a communist revolution led to the abolition of private property and thus the restoration of proper medieval craftsmanship.  This is the novel where England is the Shire, properly Scoured of factories, pollution, and iron bridges, and the English have becomes hobbits, spending their time making elaborate tobacco pipes to give to each other.

The novel is much less ridiculous than I just made it sound.

As a utopia, it does some of what utopian fiction generally does.  The narrator asks if the Houses of Parliament are still in use, given that the state has withered away:

“Use them!  Well, yes, they are used for a sort of subsidiary market, and a storage place for manure, and they are handy for that, being on the water-side.”  (Ch. 5, 34)

Ho ho.  Money is gone, marriage is gone, property is gone, and thus (Morris’s “thus,” not mine) so is poverty, disease, religion, most crime, most conflicts, and history, in the sense that it seems to have reached a steady-state.  One of the more historically-minded women of the future expresses some doubts that her perfect society can be permanently static – “’Who knows? happy as we are, times may alter; we may be bitten with some impulse towards change…” (Ch. 29, 202)

Here we see an example of Morris’s generosity.  He was publishing the novel in a socialist journal, and he meant it polemically (“’You are very bitter about that unlucky nineteenth century,’ said I,” Ch. 15, 99), as part of an argument about actual possibilities.  Thus he allows doubts, differences, even complaining.  There is some crime, some political conflict.  Morris allows some diversity of human temperament and belief.  My experience with utopians both fictional and all too real is that they are too quick to file down the essential rough edges of humanity.  By “file down,” I mean shoot and throw in a mass grave, murder in a deliberate famine, imprison in a terror camp, etc.  Morris allows people to be imperfect.

The charm of the novel is that it is also a highly personal fantasy about Morris’s own ideal world.  After designing Nowhere, Morris spends the last third of the novel living in it, giving his character a holiday trip with a beautiful, sympathetic lady hobbit up the Thames, which has now been freed from the tacky mansions, poisonous mills, and iron bridges that Morris hates so.  The water is clean and the ecosystem has recovered.

H. G. Wells puts a Year Zero in his utopian novel In the Days of the Comet (1906) in which the space gas-befuddled Earthlings spend a year tearing down every building on the planet, a passage that I now suspect is a parody of News from Nowhere, which is obsessed with architecture but allows some buildings – the good ones – to survive.  The climax of the novel is the narrator’s visit to the lovingly preserved Kelmscott Manor, Morris’s own beloved house!  Of course, they kept that.

Some readers might roll their eyes at Morris’s self-indulgence.  I thought it was adorable.  We keep it, too.

Morris added several chapters to the book after its first publication.  That’s the version I read, in the 1995 Cambridge University Press edition.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

I have walked over these roads; / I have thought of them living - Ezra Pound is mildly abashed

My final poetry rummage-book is Ezra Pound’s Personae: Collected Shorter Poems of Ezra Pound (1926), which includes most of Pound’s early books – Personae (1909), Ripostes (1912), Cathay (1915), Lustra (1916), and more, plus a lot of miscellaneous nonsense.  I also referred to the Library of America Poems and Translations to help me with chronology and annotations, but I expect this post will include several grotesque errors.  Probably already does.

What I want to say is that Pound’s early poems are so much fun, so zippy and alive.  It takes an extra act of imagination to enjoy them.    Pound is young, trapped in Indiana, he fears, or plunging into Europe, full of what Edmund Wilson calls a “cavalier spirit.”  There are as yet no Cantos, no books about usury, no treason. 

You are very idle, my songs.
I fear you will come to a bad end.  (from “Further Instructions”)

Pound is an amateur poet, not a professional crank.  And when he is a crank, he is having some fun of his own. 

        So shall you be also,
You slut-bellied obstructionist,
You sworn foe to free speech and good letters,
You fungus, you continuous gangrene.  (from “Salutation the Third”)

If that sounds more like the Pound I know is coming, I will note that it was published in a magazine called Blast in 1914, and sounds to me exactly like what an avant garde poet should be publishing in something called Blast:  “Let us deride the smugness of ‘The Times’: GUFFAW!”  Yes, let’s do that.  Even if it is now less amusing when, in the same poem, Pound writes:

But I will not go mad to please you,
        I will not flatter you with an early death,
Oh, no, I will stick it out…

But early on, oh how Pound loves poetry, his own and that of everyone else – Heine, Leopardi, Du Bellay, lots of Latin and Provençal poets, and, later, classical Chinese poets.  He just wants to play with it. He wants to make it new, but he also loves “certain accustomed forms, / the absolute unimportant” (“Au Salon”).

That age is gone;
Pieire de Maensac is gone.
I have walked over these roads;
I have thought of them living.  (from “Provincia Deserta”)

He wants the new to be as exciting as the old, so he translates and imitates and parodies.    How is he supposed to know that  in a few years everything he does will be so heavy with importance?

As Pound moves towards the Cantos – not that he knew exactly that he was doing that – the collage of languages and references becomes more obscure, by which I mean I sure don’t understand it.  The Browning-like pseudo-translation “Homage to Sextus Propertius” is already too difficult for me, for how I normally read poetry, and it’s only from 1919.  As Wilson says:

His early poems were full of gallant and simply felt emotions; but they were already tainted with an obsession which has cursed him all his life: the frantic desire to flee as far from Idaho as possible, the itching to prove to Main Street that he has extirpated it from his soul.  (“Ezra Pound’s Patchwork,” 1922, in The Shores of Light, p. 45)

Until then, he can write a poem as good as “The Study in Aesthetics,” where he first watches the Italian children praise a woman for her beauty (“Guarda!  Ahi, guarda!  ch’ è be’ a!”) and then see ones of them play with the sardines when the fishermen bring them in:

And when they would not let him arrange
The fish in the boxes
He stroked those which were already arranged,
Murmuring for his own satisfaction
This identical phrase:
                                          Ch’ è be’ a.

And at this I was mildly abashed.

How beautiful!  How beautiful!

I’m going to take a day off.  On Monday, I will write about something in prose.

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Have we not the deed? - youthful William Carlos Williams rides to fight, and describes leaves

William Carlos Williams, The Tempers, 1913.  WCW’s second book, I think, after the 1909 Poems.  I read The Tempers in The Collected Poems of William Carlos Williams, Volume I, 1986, and it only includes three poems from 1909, so I guess someone thought the rest were not worth collecting.  Two of those included are sonnets!  I hadn’t read anything so regular from Williams before:

from The Uses of Poetry

I’ve fond anticipation of a day
O’erfilled with pure diversion presently,
For I must read a lady poesy
The while we glide by many a leafy bay… 

There comes a point where jittery young poets say, “enough of this” especially when they are friends with Ezra Pound and H.D. and that crowd.  The Tempers is where Williams begins to make it new, whatever “it” and “new” might mean.

from To Wish Myself Courage

But when the spring of it is worn like the old moon
And the eaten leaves are lace upon the cold earth –
Then I will rise up in my great desire –
Long at the birth – and sing me the youth-song!

The poet says he will sing this “long song” only “[w]hen the stress of youth is put away from me,” but it sounds to me that he is singing the youth-song in The Tempers, an exuberant little book.  Love and life. 

from Con Brio

Miserly, is the best description of that poor fool
Who holds Lancelot to have been a morose fellow,
Dolefully brooding over the events which had naturally to follow
The high time of his deed with Guinevere.

How can we have less?  Have we not the deed?
Lancelot thought little, spent his gold and rode to fight
Mounted, if God was willing, on a good steed.

Williams does not sound quite like himself to me.  It is not that I know WCW so well, oh no, but that what I do know has such a strong voice.  Maybe it is just odd to see Williams messing around with Lancelot, even to invert the example.  Later he will be confident enough not to feel the need to take a jab at the pre-Raphaelite poets or the 1890s poets or whoever he has in mind.

from First Praise

Lady of dusk-wood fastnesses,
        Thou art my Lady.
I have known the crisp, splintering leaf-tread with thee on before,
White, slender through green saplings;
I have lain by thee on the brown forest floor
        Beside thee, my Lady.

Please note that I have included two separate, excellent descriptions of fallen leaves.  Other especially vivid bits:  the coroner’s “merry little children” who “laugh because they prosper,” for “[k]ind heaven fills their little paunches” ( in “Hic Jacet”), or the “crimson salamander” in the flames of “The Ordeal,” or the swirling leaves – yes, more leaves – that “follow me / Talking of the great rain.”

I was pleased to see that Williams included four translations of early modern Spanish Romanceros.

Poplars of the meadow,
Fountains of Madrid,
Now I am absent from you,
All are slandering me.

That sort of thing.  Of course, this is Pound’s influence – Pound in fact gave Williams the books with the Spanish poems – so maybe I will save the topic for tomorrow.

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

An apple, a child, dust - Walter de la Mare's The Listeners and Other Poems

The poetry book for today is The Listeners and Other Poems (1912) by Walter de la Mare.  Simpler Pastimes is throwing a Classic Children’s Lit party in April – we had so much fun with Pinocchio last year – and I was thinking of reading more of de la Mare’s poetry for children, likely the 1914 Pigeon Pie.  But it is not always clear to me what de la Mare’s distinction is between poetry for children and for adults.  The Listeners is full of flowers and dreams.

Dreams

Be gentle, O hands of a child;
Be true: like a shadowy sea
In the starry darkness of night
        Are your eyes to me.

But words are shallow, and soon
Dreams fade that the heart once knew;
And youth fades out in the mind,
        In the dark eyes too.

What can a tired heart say,
Which the wise of the world have made dumb?
Save to the lonely dreams of a child,
        “Return again, come!”

This is clear enough – one set of poems is for children, another for former children, yearning for their childhood, or parts of it.

The Listeners is like An Adult’s Garden of Verse.  There are even weeds.

from The Bindweed

The bindweed roots pierce down
  Deeper than men do lie.
Laid in their dark-shut graves
  Their slumbering kinsmen by.

Yet what frail thin-spun flowers
  She casts into the air,
To breathe the sunshine, and
  To leave her fragrance there.

Which is exactly my dilemma when fighting bindweed.  For the sake of the flowers I would love to keep them, although I will note that the blossoms are not fragrant.  Maybe English bindweed flowers are fragrant.

“Winter” is on the next page.  Its last stanza:

  Thick draws the dark,
  And spark by spark,
The frost-fires kindle, and soon
Over that sea of frozen foam
  Floats the white moon.

Adult poems are perhaps a matter of attitude, or melancholy beauty.  These lines are delightful in the shift of sounds, “ah”s and “k”s shifting into “f”s, “oh”s and “ooh”s.  The image is pretty enough, but it is almost swallowed by the vowels.

There are people in The Listeners, too, not just flowers and moods.  Old Susan is a childhood servant – always back to childhood – who sets a good example by reading when not working.

And sometimes in the silence she
Would mumble a sentence audibly,
Or shake her head as if to say,
“You silly souls, to act this way!”

Some characters are more like fairies, or spirits.  Look at this sequence of titles near the end of the book: “Haunted,” “Silence,” “Winter Dusk,” “The Ghost,” “An Epitaph.”  Yep, that’s The Listeners.  The final poem brings in another melancholy, fragrant flower.

“The Hawthorn Hath a Deathly Smell”

The flowers of the field
  have a sweet smell;
Meadowsweet, tansy, thyme,
  And faint-heart pimpernel;
But sweeter even than these,
  The silver of the may
Wreathed is with incense for
  The Judgment Day.

An apple, a child, dust,
  When falls the evening rain,
Wild brier’s spicèd leaves,
  Breathe memoires again;
With further memory fraught,
The silver of the may
Wreathed is with incense for
  the Judgment Day.

Eyes of all loveliness –
  Shadow of strange delight,
Even as a flower fades
  Must thou from sight;
But oh, o’er thy grave’s mound,
  Till comes the Judgment Day,
Wreathed shall with incense be
  Thy sharp-thorned may.

The poems for adult have thorns.

Monday, March 7, 2016

No more than twilight on a ruin - Edwin Arlington Robinson's The Town down the River

I believe I will continue to spend the week rummaging through old books of poems.  No pretensions to any insight.  Look at this; look at that.

Today, The Town down the River (1910) by Edwin Arlington Robinson, his third or fourth book of poems, depending on how I count (#2 contained all of #1).  It was his first book published after acquiring an unlikely patron, President Theodore Roosevelt.  Robinson was no longer a struggling bohemian, and as if to justify his new status, the book contains the most famous poem he would ever write, “Miniver Cheevy.”

I mean, this was once a genuinely famous and popular poem, widely memorized, a common cultural reference, which staggers belief.  It has shriveled up because it is all too relevant.

Miniver loved the days of old
   When swords were bright and steeds were prancing;
The vision of a warrior bold
   Would set him dancing.

Too obsessed with King Arthur, World of Warcraft, Renaissance Fairs, etc., dismissive of ordinary life –

Miniver scorned the gold he sought,
   But sore annoyed was he without it;
Miniver thought, and thought, and thought,
   And thought about it.

– he becomes a failure, joining a host of other Robinson characters.  The poem is ripe for an update.

What else is in this book.  As usual, the better poems are shorter, although “An Island,” the Robert Browningish monologue of Napoleon’s last words, is fun.

Ho, is it you?  I thought you were a ghost.
Is it time for you to poison me again?
Well, here’s our friend the rain, -
Mironton, mironton, mirontaine
Man, I could murder you almost,
You with your pills and toast.  (ellipses in original)

But mostly, the characters are American, from Robinson’s childhood, like “Uncle Ananias,” the story-teller – “Of all authoritative liars / I crown him best” – or more small-town failures like “The Doctor of Billiards”:

Of all among the fallen from on high,
We count you last and leave you to regain
Your born dominion of a life made vain
By three spheres of insidious ivory.

Perhaps he is the same doctor, “’Liar, physician, hypocrite, and friend,’” who is on trial for a mercy killing a few pages later in “How Annandale Went Out.”  He is acquitted in the last line – “’You wouldn’t hang me?  I thought not.’”  I would write more about the poem if I understood it, but the title character was introduced in “The Book of Annandale” in (1902) and returns in some way in “Annandale Again” (1932).  There is more to this story that I don’t know.

Robinson’s Tilbury Town device has some kind of cumulative effect.

We go no more to Calverly’s,
For there the lights are few and low;
And who are there to see by them,
Or what they see, we do not know.
Poor strangers of another tongue
May now creep in from anywhere,
And we forgotten, be no more
Than twilight on a ruin here.  (from “Calverly’s”)

But it is really Robinson’s melancholy, ironic temperament or stance that brings the Tilbury world to its dim, sad life.

At some point, I should perhaps give up the original volumes of poetry for Robinson’s Selected Poems.  Not yet, though.

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Trumbull Stickney's hopeless exercise of beauty

Sir, say no more.
Within me ‘t is as if
The green and climbing eyesight of a cat
Crawled near my mind’s poor birds.

This poem or fragment ends the 1905 Poems of Trumbull Stickney, the poet who resembles a real-life Henry James character: an American born in Switzerland, home-schooled by his classicist father until old enough for Harvard.  Doctorate at the Sorbonne, then a faculty appointment back at Harvard.  Meanwhile, he wrote poems, a few of them extraordinary, many of those published as Dramatic Verses (1902).  A brain tumor killed him in 1904, at the age of 30.

I recommend that the (imaginary) reader of Stickney skip anything that resembles a verse drama, including the odd attempt to write a Shakespearean play about Emperor Julian in which Julian is Hamlet, and maybe avoid anything with a strong narrative thrust, like “Lodovico Martelli,” which culminates in a swordfight between a poet and the Pope over a prostitute.  I am not sure his Classical knowledge serves him so well, either.

Skip to his sonnets.  Skip to this:

The melancholy year is dead with rain.
Drop after drop on every branch pursues.
From far away beyond the drizzled flues
A twilight saddens to the window pane.
And dimly thro’ the chambers of the brain,
From place to place and gently touching, moves
My one and irrecoverable love’s
Dear and lost shape one other time again.
So in the last of autumn for a day
Summer or summer’s memory returns.
So in a mountain desolation burns
Some rich belated flower, and with the gray
Sick weather, in the world of rotting ferns
From out the dreadful stones it dies away.

I think this is terrific as a whole, but especially good in the last six lines, where please note that Stickney alliterates and rhymes the beginnings of each line – So / Summer / So / Some / Sick / From.  What a show off.

I do not expect original ideas from a sonnet, or any poem, but Stickney’s commonplaces are at least a little bent.  In “You Say, Columbus with his Argosies,” Stickney argues with a champion of Columbus, of human greatness:

You say this is the glory of the brain
And human life no other use than this?

But Stickney calls the great men, “The line / Of wizards and of saviours” – labels that seem to go beyond Columbus –

                 Actors, ill and mad with wine,
And all their language babble and disgust.

Poetry is something else, as Stickney says in Poem XXVI of the “Juvenilia” section of Poems not a path to anything like greatness:

I struggled, and alongside of a duty,
A nagging everyday-long commonplace!
I loved this hopeless exercise of beauty
            Like an allotted grace, –

This is the first of the four poems I have mentioned that does not invoke the poet’s brain.  He refers to his brain or mind incessantly, both before he had cancer and, as in the fragment atop the post and in the next poem, after.

I used to think
The mind essential in the body, even
As stood the body essential in the mind:
Two inseparable things, by nature equal
And similar, and in creation’s song
Halving the total scale: it is not so.
Unlike and cross like driftwood sticks they come
Churned in the giddy trough: a chunk of pine,
A slab of rosewood: mangled each on each
With knocks and friction, or in deadly pain
Sheathing each other’s splinters: till at last
Without all stuff or shape they ’re jetted up
Where in the bluish moisture rot whate’er
Was vomited in horror from the sea.

The poem is from the year of the poet’s death, and I do not know for a fact that it refers to his cancer, but that is how I take it.  It is an outstanding poem.  What a loss.

Friday, March 4, 2016

It's moving! It's alive! - Tolstoy's The Power of Darkness combats evil and good taste

With “The Kreutzer Sonata,” I was visiting an old enemy.  Completely new to me was Leo Tolstoy’s most famous play, to the extent that they have any fame at all, The Power of Darkness, published in 1886, the same year as “The Death of Ivan Ilych.”

At first the play looks like it might be a kind of peasant “Ivan Ilych.”  The father of a well-off peasant family is mortally ill at age 42, likely with some kind of cancer.  To my surprise he dies at the end of the second act; with three acts left, this is not a peasant “Ivan Ilych.”

He does not merely die at the end of Act II.  He is in his deathbed, and could die any minute, but his wife – his second wife, who married him for money and is having an affair with Nikita, one of their farm laborers – poisons him, or has Nikita poison him, at the urging of Nikita’s evil mother.  The widow can marry Nikita and they can all live off of his money.  Nikita celebrates by beginning an affair with the daughter of the peasant’s first marriage, who is now technically his step-daughter.  Another of the cluster of stories about lust, maybe.

This may sound a little soapy.  The difference is that it is hard to enjoy the outrageousness of the affairs and betrayals.  These characters are endangering their souls.

All taste of soap dissipates in Act IV:

Enter NAN (Nan is 10 years old).

NAN.  Mother!  Grandmother’s calling!  I think sister’s got a baby!  I’m blest if it didn’t scream!

ANISYA.  What are you babbling about?  Plague take you!  It’s kittens whining there.

Nikita’s mother and wife tell him that the baby died at birth.  Just bury it in the cellar. No one will know.  The baby is, in fact, alive, so while Nikita is offstage digging a grave, the two women argue about whether they should baptize the baby before burying it alive.

ANISYA.  Take it, I tell you! [Throws the baby to him.]

NIKITA [catches it]  It’s alive!  Gracious me, it’s moving!  It’s alive!  What I am to do…  [ellipses in original]

ANISYA [snatches the baby from him and throws it into the cellar (offstage)]  Be quick and smother it, and then it won’t be alive!  [Pushes NIKITA down]  It’s your doing, and you must finish it.  (Act IV)

Then follows an offstage – but just barely offstage – infanticide that is described in detail onstage, by character who are looking into the cellar and then again by Nikita when he returns to the stage.  I could barely believe what I was reading.  The scene is so awful that it is followed by an alternative scene (“the one usually acted”) that is still quite horrible, but at least the infanticide does not take place immediately offstage.

I am not used to reading Tolstoy writing about peasants, I am not used to him writing so clearly, beginning with the play’s title, about his sense of evil, and I am certainly not used to him writing in such bad taste.

No idea whether The Power of Darkness is a good play.  Any opinions about Tolstoy's other plays?

I am quoting from the Maude translation.

Thursday, March 3, 2016

I did not wish to be ridiculous but terrible - Tolstoy is some of one, some of the other; also something else

“The Death of Ivan Ilych” (1886) is accurately titled and is a work of great somberness, mostly.  Yet it begins satirically, even farcically.  The judge Ivan Ilych has just died.  His colleagues wonder who will get his job, and dread having to pay condolences.  Tolstoy follows one who does, a special friend of the deceased.

In a scene where he comforts the widow, the friend sits

on a low pouffe, the springs of which yielded spasmodically under his weight…  on her way to the sofa the lace of the widow’s black shawl caught on the carved edge of the table.  Peter Ivanovich rose to detach it, and the springs of the pouffe, relieved of his weight, rose also and gave him a push.  The widow began detaching her shawl herself, and Peter Ivanovich again sat down, suppressing the rebellious springs of the pouffe under him.  But the widow had not quite freed herself and Peter Ivanovich got up again, and again the pouffe rebelled and even creaked.  (Ch. 1, tr. Louis and Aylmer Maude)

This is almost literally a farce, like a scene from a Jacques Tati movie, with the material world appearing to openly rebel against the characters, both of whom are at least alive and well.  In subsequent chapters, the life of Ivan Ilych is told from his own point of view, and again, the material world fights back, as it always does, although not always so early and so fiercely.  I was selfishly relieved to note that I have now outlived Ivan Ilych.

The illness transforms the character into a giant vermin, effectively.  James Chester notes that “Ivan Ilych’s experience of illness is quite like Gregor Samson’s transformation.”  His illness detaches him from everyone else, even from his family, who in their health can never understand what he has become.  Nor does he, until the very end, when he understands – now, if nowhere else, are we in didactic territory – that illness and death are illusions (“’Death is finished,’ he said to himself. ‘It is no more,’ Ch. 12) and I understand that I have been mislead by the title, which could as easily have been “The Life of Ivan Ilych.”

The two contemporary stories about the torments of the male sex drive, “The Devil” and “The Kreutzer Sonata,” more didactic and less universal, by which I do not just mean that we all die and are not all tormented by the male sex drive, but that Tolstoy never figures out how to tell the stories without making the protagonists seems merely nuts.  The stories, especially their violence, seems arbitrary.  “The Devil” even has two endings, one with a homicide and one with a suicide, suggesting that Tolstoy himself realized that the story had become disconnected from whatever argument he was trying to make.

My favorite part of “The Kreutzer Sonata” is when the lunatic protagonist, crazed by jealousy, discovers his wife with her possible lover – they are playing the piano.  The lover runs off.  “’I wanted to run after him, but remembered that it is ridiculous to run after one’s wife’s lover in one’s socks; and I did not wish to be ridiculous but terrible’” (Ch. 27).  To the extent that “The Kreutzer Sonata” can be saved as either a work of art or as an ethical argument, and I am not sure that it can, it is because the devil at the center of the story is merely ridiculous, however much harm he does.

But mostly I think, “You renounced Anna Karenina as trivial for this?”

All right, tomorrow, that crazy play.  

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Tolstoy's Confession - so what?

While Leo Tolstoy was writing the greatest novel of all time, Anna Karenina (1877) he was passing through a period of personal religious crisis that led him to renounce the artistic impulse that led to that novel and to War and Peace and so on as worthless.  As he writes in Confession (1884):

In spite of the fact that during these fifteen years I regarded writing as a trivial endeavor, I continued to write.  I had already tasted the temptations of authorship, the temptations of enormous monetary rewards and applause for worthless work, and I gave myself up to it as a means of improving my material situation and as a way of stifling any questions in my soul concerning  the meaning of my life and of life in general.  (Ch. 3, pp. 25-6, tr. David Patterson)

At some point, the crisis overtakes his life:

It happened with me as it happens with everyone who  contracts a fatal internal disease.  At first there were the insignificant symptoms of an ailment, which the patient ignores; then these symptoms recur more and more frequently, until they merge into one continuous duration of suffering.  The suffering increases, and before he can turn around the patient discovers what he already knew: the thing he had taken for a mere indisposition is in fact the most important thing on earth to him, is in fact death.  (p. 26)

I would not say that Confession is essential reading for a student of Tolstoy’s fiction.  It is obviously central for the Tolstoyan, like a religious text.  Much of it covers the basic issues of a loss of faith – is there a god, why do we die, does the Church have the answers?  Tolstoy works his way to the kinds of answers these questions lead to.  Rhetorically, Tolstoy’s book is superb, but people have been working on these questions for a long time.  Does life have any meaning?  Confession is a deeply Ecclesiastian book.  Is all vanity?

Or in the middle of thinking about the fame that my works were bringing to me I would say to myself, “Very well, you will be more famous than Gogol, Pushkin, Shakespeare, Molière, more famous than all the writers in the world – so what?”
And I could find absolutely no reply.  (p. 27)

As the previous passage, the metaphor about terminal illness, suggests, Confession casts a lot of light on the literature Tolstoy wrote soon afterwards.  Just naming what I have read:  “The Death of Ivan Ilych” (1886), in embryo in those lines, the nightmarish play The Power of Darkness (1886), and the two problematic novellas about the torments of the male sex drive, “The Devil” and “The Kreutzer Sonata” (both 1889).

The latter two are recognizably Tolstoy, although he has simplified his language and despite throwing every distancing device he has at them – frames, unreliable narrators – they are unappealingly didactic and unpleasant, to me, at least.  The play is beyond belief, bonkers.  “Ivan Ilych” is an astounding masterpiece.  All the product of the same shift in aesthetic ideas.