Friday, December 16, 2016

Please do not bother me with practicalities - The Wuthering Expectations Best Books of 2016 - falling in love with war again

The best books of 2016, meaning that I read.

1.  Among recent books, Christopher Logue’s War Music, the English poet’s from-the-foundation anachronistic reconstruction of The Iliad.  The renovation has been ongoing since the 1950s, but is now complete, by the sad reason of Logue’s death in 2011.  A sample, which begins with Zeus talking to his daughter Athena, and suddenly shifts:

    And giving her a kiss, He said:

    ‘Child, I am God,
Please do not bother me with practicalities.’

    Hector and Agamemnon.  Slope sees slope.
    Drivers conducting underbody maintenance.  (p. 123)

Funny, brutal, tough, with armies that “Moved out, moved on, and fell in love with war again” (82).  Quite likely gibberish without a pretty decent knowledge of Homer.  That the book is a fragment only roots it more firmly in its epic tradition.

2.  I completed a re-read – mostly “re-” – of Anton Chekov’s short stories in the thirteen-volume Constance Garnett translation.  Paying some non-neurotic, I hope, attention to chronology, I was mostly past the earlier, shorter, simpler stories; however good that stuff can be, this year it was “The Steppe” (1888) and “Ward No. 6” (1892) and so on, ending last week with “Peasants” (1897), “The Lady with the Dog” (1899), and “In the Ravine” (1900), examples of the greatest fiction ever written.

I guess the plays will have to wait for next year’s list.

3.  This was the year I took Oscar Wilde seriously, reading his short fiction, novel, plays, a volume of criticism, and a 1,200 page book of letters – not everything he wrote, but a lot, and with the exception of The Importance of Being Earnest, which even Wilde saw as a freak, none of these books were as interesting on their own as they were together.  The meta-story of Wilde as artist, prisoner, and exile was a great story.

I had a similar experience with Mark Twain, where even some pretty trivial pieces became more interesting as part of the Mark Twain story.  And then once in a while he writes a masterpiece, just to keep my attention.

4.  The most famous books I read for the first time were The Return of the Native and Tess of the d’Urbervilles, The Bostonians and What Maisie Knew, Pudd’nhead Wilson and Life on the Mississippi, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and The Hound of the Baskervilles, and to get away from English, Nana and La Regenta (famous in Spain, anyways – many thanks to everyone who gave a shot at the readalong).

None of these are among my favorites, exactly, but finally, finally.

5.  Similarly, I finally read The Education of Henry Adams – “greedily devoured it, without understanding a single consecutive page” (Ch. 31), as Adams says about his own reading.  This would have been the perfect book with which to close out a 19th century book blog, but I did not know enough to plan that well.  Maybe I’ll write about this book next year.

6.  As for poetry, I spent the year cramming poems of the 1910s (and earlier, and sometimes later) down my gullet like I was a goose fattening my own liver.  Stefan George, Stephen Crane, Walter de la Mare, Ezra Pound, G. K. Chesterton, T. S. Eliot, H. D., Anna Akhmatova, Osip Mandelstam, Isaac Rosenberg, Robert Frost, Thomas Hardy, Edward Thomas, and many more.  Four books by Edwin Arlington Robinson.  Four books by Vachel Lindsay.  So much great, good, bad, crazy poetry.  Welcome to Modernism.  The movement from poet to poet and from year to year was as exciting as almost anything an individual poet was doing.  Finishing one book, however good, I moved to another.  I wanted to see what happened next.  I still do.

There is no way my poetry-liver is absorbing these poems well.  I feel like an undergraduate again, tearing through the poetry section of my Norton Anthology of American Literature – what is this – what is this?  Absolutely terrific fun.

Wuthering Expectations will be on a holiday break for a couple of weeks, and back in early January for more good books.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Let it explain / Me its life - the best books of 1916, in a sense

I usually do not mess around with a “best of a hundred years ago” post, however fun it might be, because I am too ignorant to make basic judgments.  To the best of my knowledge, for example, I have read no more than four novels from 1916: James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Sholem Aleichem’s cheery Motl the Cantor’s Son (I think just the second half, Motl in America, is from 1916), Gustav Meyrink’s well-titled Bats, and L. Frank Baum’s Rinkitink in Oz.  However easy it is to pick out the best book from this group – Rinkitink is awesome – I do not have a good sense of what other novels are in contention.

But this year I have been reading a lot of English-language poetry from 1916 – eight or ten books depending on how I count – plus, recently, plenty of individual poems from French, Italian, German, and Russian from various collections, so I thought I would pull some of them together.  Maybe just the books, to make my task easier.

It is the ferment that is so exciting, the variety, the movement.  On the one hand, Robert Graves, in his first chapbooks Over the Brazier and Goliath and David, sounding like Housman or Hardy, skilled but not radical:

from The Shadow of Death

Here’s an end to my art!
    I must die and I know it,
With battle murder at my heart –
    Sad death for a poet!

The old forms are good enough for war poetry.

Then there’s Lustra of Ezra Pound:

from Further Instructions

You are very idle, my songs.
I fear you will come to a bad end.
You stand about in the streets,
You loiter at the corners and bus-stops
You do next to nothing at all.

Which is not really how it seems, reading the poems and their mixture of ancient Greek, classical Chinese, and now.

H. D. wants her songs to do something.  In Sea Garden she strips them down more than Pound, merging the Maine coasts with ancient Greek myths to create her new voice:

from Sheltered Garden

O to blot out this garden
to forget, to find a new beauty
in some terrible
wind-tortured place.

Make it new, make it new, as explicitly as possible, in this year of the birth of Dada.

Even for Pound, though, “newness” was less a goal of its own than a search for a voice, which is closer to what I see in 1916.  Many poets, not all but many, found the old poetic modes inadequate, at least not them, thus all the improvisation, innovation, and flailing about.  What, in Amores, is D. H. Lawrence trying to do that is new other than express himself?

from Restlessness

But oh, it is not enough, it is all no good.
There is something I want to fell in my running blood,
Something I want to touch; I must hold my face to the rain,
I must hold my face to the wind, and let it explain
Me its life as it hurries in secret.

I am not sure that is good, but is it ever Lawrence.  Their flavors are not as strong as Lawrence’s, but H. D. is working on a similar problem; so are Isaac Rosenberg (Moses) and Conrad Aiken (The Jig of Forslin, A Symphony and Turns and Movies).  Edwin Arlington Robinson (The Man against the Sky) has already found a strong voice. Robert Frost is only on his third book, Mountain Interval, but it feels as if he had been Frost forever.  Maybe I should have started this post with Frost.  What a confident poet.

from The Oven Bird

There is a singer everyone has heard,
Loud, a mid-summer and a mid-wood bird,
Who makes the solid tree trunks sound again.

And, I remind myself, I have heard poets singing just as loudly in Russian, German, Italian, and French.  The list is long; the idea of “best” becomes moot.

White-eyed and poisonous-finned, shark-toothed and serpentine-curled - the best books of 1866

The best book of 1866 is so obvious that it is barely worth disagreeing, but as Raskolnikov says himself, “The wrong form, you mean – the aesthetics aren’t right!” (VI.7, tr. Oliver Ready).  My favorite book of 1866 is not Crime and Punishment but Victor Hugo’s staggering and preposterous man-against-nature – man-against-hurricane – man-against-octopus – epic The Toilers of the Sea, illustrated above.  The steamboat pictured is about to get stuck on a strange rock formation, and the hero will spend most of the novel fighting everything Hugo can throw at him to get it moving again.  “Then, taking up in the hollow of his hand a little water from a pool of rainwater, he drank it and cried to the clouds: ‘Fooled you!’”  That’s right, he is insulting the clouds, defying the cosmos, as one does in a Victor Hugo book.

Dostoevsky wrote The Gambler this year, too, alongside Crime and Punishment, under contractual conditions that would have crushed most writers.  Now there is some kind of heroism.  I would like to read a Victor Hugo novel about Dostoevsky writing Crime and Punishment and The Gambler.

Henrik Ibsen’s Brand is from 1866, as well, about another defier of the cosmos.  Brand, Raskolnikov, and Hugo’s hero – big characters in big stories.

I do not believe I have read any English-language novels from the year.  Wilkie Collins’s Armadale, George Eliot’s Felix Holt, and Elizabeth Gaskell’s Wives and Daughters, just barely unfinished, would be likely candidates for the Booker Prize, if there had been such a thing.  Gaskell had never won the prize, beat by Thackeray, Dickens, and Trollope, so I think she picks this one up posthumously.  I am just making this up.  Like I care about prizes.

It was a broadly interesting year for poetry.  Paul Verlaine published his first book, Poèmes saturniens, which I have only read in part, and of course in English.  The French looks like this, from “Chansons d’automne,” one of Verlaine’s best-known poems:

Les sanglots longs
Des violons
     De l'automne
Blessent mon cœur
D'une langueur
     Monotone.

Lip-smacking French verse.  Those first three lines, those vowels, those nasalizations.  Maybe the poem also means something.

Algernon’s first books of lyrics, Poems and Ballads, appeared, ruining English poetry for decades until austere, brutal Modernists dynamited and carted off his lush, sweet gibberish:

from Hymn to Proserpine

Where beyond the extreme sea-wall, and between the remote sea-gates,
Waste water washes, and tall ships founder, and deep death waits:
Where, mighty with deepening sides, clad about with the seas as with wings,
And impelled of invisible tides, and fulfilled of unspeakable things,
White-eyed and poisonous-finned, shark-toothed and serpentine-curled,
Rolls, under the whitening wind of the future, the wave of the world.

It is like The Toilers of the Sea turned into English verse.  Swinburne was Hugo’s greatest English champion.

Christina Rossetti’s second book, The Prince’s Progress and Other Poems seemed like a paler version of her brilliant first book, but I’ll note it, at least.

In the United States, Herman Melville published Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War, his debut as a poet and his first book in a decade, the first of all too few volumes of poetry.  Even more surprising somehow is James Greenleaf Whittier’s nostalgic, ironic “Snow-Bound,” surprising because Whittier was generally such a bad poet, but one who occasionally wrote a great poem.  Whether the torments inflicted by the poem on several generations of schoolchildren are to the demerit of Whittier I leave to the conscience of the individual reader.  Those days are long past.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Stop! - for thy tread is on an Empire's dust! - the best books of 1816

Isn’t that 1816 Constable landscape pretty.  It’s Wivenhoe Park, Essex, for some reason now in Washington, D. C.  1816 was the Year without a Summer, the year of a worldwide volcano-induced deep freeze, even with the Napoleonic Wars over, a terrible year in Europe.

It was a wonderful year for English poetry, with Shelley’s first great book, Alastor; or The Spirit of Solitude: and Other Poems, and Keats’s first published poems, including “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer” (a book would come in 1817).  Few knew it.  Everyone knew about best-seller George Gordon Byron’s great year, with three big hits: the third canto of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage (the post’s title is from stanza XVII), “The Prisoner of Chillon,” and one of his dumb Orientalist narrative poems, The Siege of Corinth, my personal favorite of his dumb etc.

Alp, “the renegade,” has been refused the hand of the woman he loves, so he has thrown in his lot with the Turks.  Is he helping them besiege the recalcitrant Greeks in Corinth for love or revenge?  Regardless, the poem ends in not just a battle scene but a massive explosion, just like it would in the Hollywood action movie of which The Siege of Corinth is a genuine precursor.  The last seventy lines describing the explosion are superb, with the shock moving out to the armies, then to the animals, to the birds, as if the world is protesting the event:

Many a tall and goodly man,
Scorch’d and shrivell’d to a span,
When he fell to earth again
Like a cinder strew’d the plain:
Down the ashes shower like rain…  (Canto XXXIII)

Horrible, violent, shocking poetry.  I had meant to reread the more allusive and difficult Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage before writing this post, but picking up the Selected Poems I was sucked into The Siege of Corinth instead.

Walter Scott published three books in 1816.  To understand this silly story it is important to remember that he was a best-selling poet but published Waverley (1814) anonymously, then Guy Mannering (1815) as “By the Author of Waverley,” and now The Antiquary (1816) as by the same.  The latter is the favorite Scott novel of many eminent writers, so I am glad I have read it.  Waverley kicked off the craze for historical novels that continues to this day; The Antiquary is in many ways about historical novels.  If only it were better.

At this point, with three hit anonymous novels under his belt, Scott decided to play a prank.  He retired “the Author of Waverley” and began a new series, with a new publisher, the Tales of My Landlord, which resulted in one short novel, The Black Dwarf and one long one, Old Mortality, published simultaneously.  To extend the prank, Scott published vicious (anonymous) reviews of his own novels.  Nevertheless, both books were hits, and readers with any sense of style knew they are by the Waverley writer.

Old Mortality is Scott’s best novel, I think, along with The Heart of Midlothian (1818).  It is about religious fanaticism, a topic of continuing relevance.  The stakes are higher than in Waverley, the world more dangerous.

What else is going on in 1816?  Goethe’s Italian Journey, Hoffmann’s “The Sandman” and “The Nutcracker and the Mouse-King,” Benjamin Constant’s Adolphe.  I have often mentioned how little French literature survived this period, but here is a major exception, a politician’s novel about a love affair with an older, stronger woman.  It is a dissection of the love affair and the narrator’s feelings about it:

We were living, so to speak, on a sort of memory of the heart, strong enough to make the thought of separation painful, but too weak for us to find satisfaction in being together.  I indulged in these emotions as a relaxation from my normal tension.  I would have liked to give Ellenore tokens of my love that would have made her happy, and indeed I sometimes went back to the language of love, but these emotions and this language resembled the pale and faded leaves which, like remains of funeral wreaths, grow listlessly on the branches of an uprooted tree.  (Ch. 6, tr. Leonard Tancock)

The entire book is written like that, with few scenes, description, or even dialogue, but rather alternating movement and analysis.  It is a kind of fiction I associate strongly with French literature.  The Albertine sections of In Search of Lost Time are in this mode.

The Empire is dust, and French literature is returning to life.

Monday, December 12, 2016

The best books of 1516, 1616, and 1716 - Thou joy’st in better markes

The best books of the year!  Always a lot of fun. In this case, three years: 1516, 1616, and 1716.  Why not?

How would I know which are the best books of those years?  How many can I Have possibly read?  Right.  So I just read the ones that centuries of other readers have told me are the best.  I am just repeating what they say.

My pick for 1516 is Orlando Furioso by Ludovico Ariosto, at this point just the first forty cantos – the whole big thing will not be finished until 1532 – which are thrilling enough.  I’ll put Thomas More’s Utopia in second place.  There, those are the two books from the year that I have read.  Good ones.  Still, look at the Wikipedia entry for “1516 in art.”  Start with Grünewald’s Isenheim Altarpiece and work your way down.  Wow.  That’s where the creative energy is.

My pick for 1716 is: I don’t know.  Addison has shuttered the Spectator.  Pope is busy with his Iliad.  Swift is doing I don’t know what.  Voltaire is writing plays.  Congreve is not writing plays, having shifted entirely to politics.  Marivaux is not yet writing plays.  Defoe has not yet re-invented the novel.

I’ll have to go with the only 1716 text I am sure I have read, a couple of pages from John Gay’s satirical poem “Trivia: Or the Art of Walking the Streets of London,” as plucked out in The Penguin Book of English Verse (2000), a description of the weather, cleaning days, market days:

  When fishy Stalls with double Store are laid;
The golden-belly’d Carp, the broad-finn’d Maid,
Red-speckled Trouts, the Salmon’s silver Joul,
The jointed Lobster, and unscaly Soale,
And luscious ‘Scallops, to allure the tastes
Of rigid Zealots to delicious Fasts.

I should read the entire poem someday.

The best book of 1616 – now that’s an easy one.  It’s The Workes of Benjamin Jonson, Jonson’s First Folio, the inspiration for that later, more famous, First Folio.  Nine plays, of which three – Volpone, Epicoene, and The Alchemist – are unique masterpieces.  By “unique,” I mean no one else had ever written comedies quite like them.  Two clusters of poems: Epigrammes, satirical; The Forest, lyrical.  Then a number of masques and “entertainments,” also unusual texts, which I have only sampled.  I mean, I have not read this book, just most of its contents.  Complete plays in two volumes, complete poetry in another, masques in yet another.

The Forest includes a number of “To Celia” poems, like:

Drinke to me, onely, with thine eyes,
    And I will pledge with mine;
Or leave a kisse but in the cup,
   And Ile not looke for wine.

And:

Come my Celia, let us prove,
While we may, the sports of love;
Time will not be ours forever:
He, at length, our good will sever.

Etc., etc., perfect lovely singable fluff.  Other poems flatter, insult, seduce, flatter some more – one of the best, “To Penshurst,” flatters a house, an estate:

Thou joy’st in better markes, of soyle, of ayre,
    Of wood, of water: therein thou art faire.

I picked an illustration from 1616, “The Hippopotamus and Crocodile Hunt” by Peter Paul Rubens that is preposterous nonsense, but I have seen it with my own eyes in the Alte Pinakothek in Munich.  Huge, a monstrosity, but it has a lot going on.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

more / Lovely than things that were not / Lovely before - an Edward Thomas calendar

The Edward Thomas collection I read – The Annotated Collected Poems (Bloodaxe, 2008) – ignores the original publication of the pieces in Poems (1917) and Last Poems (1918) and so on and puts them all in the order in which they were written.  There are a few poems in December 1914, close to two-thirds of the total in 1915, a third in 1916, and a few in January 1917.  Thomas is killed in April, 1917.

In effect, the poems are written over the course of two years.  Because Thomas is a kind of nature poet – a rural poet – the sequence becomes that of a calendar.  Months, holidays, seasons, agricultural activity, the movement of birds, the life-cycle of plants – that covers a lot of the poetry.  The repetition of the sequence is especially interesting, as Thomas returns to a poem from a year ago, or for all I know completely forgets the earlier poem but returns to the same seasonal inspiration.  I showed an example yesterday, two four-line poems written a year apart.  Wouldn’t it be nice if I had taken the notes needed to pursue this idea?

All right, let’s just rummage.  Every poem is good.  Thomas’s signature line resembles Frost, a ragged blank verse, but then again plenty of poems are something else entirely:

The Wasp Trap

This moonlight makes
The lovely lovelier
Than ever before lakes
And meadows were.

And yet they are not,
Though their hour is, more
Lovely than things that were not
Lovely before.

Nothing on earth,
And in the heavens no star,
For pure brightness is worth,
More than that jar,

For wasps meant, now
A star – long may it swing
From the dead apple-bough,
So glistening.  (March, 1915)

What a tangle up there, especially in the second stanza.  The poet sees a jar hanging in a tree, used to trap and kill wasps, and thinks something like “Gee whiz, that jar is pretty in the moonlight,” and this chain of thought eventually comes forth.  The jar is a thing of ugliness, a utilitarian death trap, but for a moment it is not just beautiful but “worth” more than anything on earth, or any star!

A little more than a year later, Thomas, in one of his grimmest poems, returned to one of the lines of this poem in a way that darkens the entire poem:

from The Gallows

There was a weasel lived in the sun
With all his family,
Till a keeper shot him with his gun
And hung him up on a tree,
Where he swings in the wind and rain,
In the sun and in the snow,
Without pleasure, without pain,
On the dead oak tree bough.  (1st stanza, July 1916)

In each of the three subsequent stanzas, the keeper hangs more animals from the “dead oak tree bough”.  Each stanza ends with that line.  The jar, so beautiful a year ago, returns to its role as a death trap, the wasps joining the weasels, crows, and “many other beasts” hanged from a tree branch.  One may wonder if “The Gallows” is also a war poem.  I wonder.

Friday, December 9, 2016

"Everything would have been different" - reading Edward Thomas

As far as I can remember I had never read an Edward Thomas poem until recently.  How sad for me.  What a fine poet.  What a sad story.

Thomas worked as a hack writer – for example, “from 1900 to 1914 Thomas wrote ‘just over a million words about 1,200 books’” (Introduction, p. 12).  Yee-ikes.  His nature writing, or more accurately rural writing, is something well beyond hackwork.  I read Thomas in The Annotated Collected Poems (ed. Edna Longley, Bloodaxe Books, 2008) where the annotations dwarf the hundred pages of poems, mainly because of the long samples of Thomas’s good prose.

By good luck, Thomas became friends with Robert Frost just as North of Boston (1914) was published, and something in his creative organ was set off.  He began writing poems, lots of them, a couple a week in 1915, then maybe one a week in 1916.  For reasons that are a mystery, Thomas, at age 38 and this late in the war, volunteered to fight in France, where he was killed within a few months.  His first book, Poems (1917), was in press when he died.  His second was thus titled Last Poems (1918).

Strictly speaking, he is not a war poet – not a trench poet – since he did not write any poems while serving in France and only rarely addressed the war directly while in England.  The war is mostly a source of absence, the reason there are no young men in his countryside.  Sometimes he is explicit, as in this little poem:

In Memoriam (Easter, 1915)

The flowers left thick at nightfall in the wood
This Eastertide call into mind the men,
Now far from home, who, with their sweethearts, should
Have gathered them and will never do again.

A year later he writes another version:

The Cherry Trees

The cherry trees bend over and are shedding
On the old road where all that passed are dead,
Their petals, strewing the grass as for a wedding
This early May morn when there is none to wed.

In another poem from 1916, “At the team’s head-brass,” the poet talks to a ploughman, first “About the weather, next about the war” and then about the fallen elm on which Thomas is sitting.  Why has it not been removed – it is an obstacle for the plow:

‘Only two teams work on the farm this year.
One of my mates is dead.  The second day
In France they killed him.  It was back in March,
The very night of the blizzard, too.  Now if
He had stayed here we would have moved the tree.’
‘And I should not have sat here.  Everything
Would have been different.’

In a few early poems, Thomas sounds like Frost, but he soon only resembles Frost conceptually, both poets writing dialogue poems and poems about the woods and so on, both, to me, looking like modern children of Wordsworth, like a century of poetry had been leaped.

I will do another day of browsing through Thomas, just fir the excuse to quote more poems.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

save our treasures of beauty - Thomas Mann's "Death in Florence"

Long, long ago, when Thomas Mann was a living writer and his status in English literature was at a peak, a 1936 collection titled Stories of Three Decades, introduced by Mann himself, was the way to read “Death in Venice” and much else.  Over time, Helen Lowe-Porter’s translations have been revised and replaced, and the stories republished in many (shorter) arrangements, often with the earlier stories neglected and the complex later, longer novellas pulled together.

What I wanted to know was if there was anything in Stories of Three Decades that later anthologists had ignored, anything that I had missed.  There is, and surprisingly it is a play, Fiorenza (1906), although likely a closet drama.  I think the last act would work on stage, but otherwise I have doubts.

Fiorenza a character in the play, the only woman, but also Florence – so this is another example of a German in Italy – in 1492, the day before Lorenzo de Medici dies.  The last act is a confrontation between the dying Lorenzo, a demonstrably great man, especially in contrast to the pale idiots who surround him, and Friar Girolamo Savonarola, a fanatic, a madman, but very much alive, and on the verge of taking over Florence.

Lorenzo is the representative of art, beauty, and the Classical spirit of the Renaissance.  He recognizes, unlike the pale idiots, including his useless sons, that the Renaissance values he embodies are too abstract and empty.  His sycophants flatter his poems – better than Dante! – and “divine origins.

LORENZO:  That is poesy, poesy, my friend!  That is beauty, beauty – but neither knowledge nor consolation!  (239)

Not what a dying man needs to hear, even though Lorenzo embodies these values himself, however corruptly.  Too corruptly.  Some of the emptiness is a pagan hedonism.

LORENZO:  I was the state.  The state was I.  Pericles himself took the public money unhesitatingly when he needed it.  And beauty is above law and virtue.  Enough.  But when they rave against it, then Piero [useless son], save our treasures of beauty.  Rescue them.  Let all else go, but protect them with your life.  This is my last will.  (250)

But Piero, the perfect courtier, is hardly the man for that job.  The impulse to destroy these values, to burn books and slash art, as advocated and enacted by Savonarola and his followers, will have its moment of triumph.  As I understood the last act, Mann is entirely on the side of Lorenzo, but suggests that the refusal to curb the excesses of the pursuit of beauty, the embrace of decadence, inevitably created the counter-reaction of Savonarola.  The bonfires are not Lorenzo’s fault, but he is to blame for failing to imagine them.

So, not such a surprise that Thomas Mann, in 1936, thought it a good idea to include this old curiosity among his other stories, whatever he had meant by it in 1906.  German art, literature, and learning, however extraordinary, were no defense against modern Savonarolas.  They instead needed to be defended.

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Urmuz disappears into the small infinite

The Complete Works of Urmuz (tr. Miron & Carola Grindea) is a little Atlas Press chapbook sort of thing.  Urmuz’s complete works seem to fit easily in 33 pages.  A few of the summaries on his impressively thorough Wiki page are as long as the works themselves.

Ismail also gives audiences but only on top of the hill near the badgers’ nursery.  Hundreds of job-hunters, contributions of money and firewood are first introduced under an enormous lampshade, where each is obliged to hatch four eggs.  (from “Ismail and Turnavitu”)

Much of the prose is like this – nonsense, keeping enough coherence to give the illusion of a narrative.  Urmuz is a pseudonym, a crazy name to go with crazy prose.  The actual human was a judge and law clerk.  He killed himself in 1923, when he was 40; I do not know the dates of specific pieces – the 1910s and 1920s.

The world is falling about; so is language; so is meaning.

One day, deep into his usual philosophical researches, Stamate had for a moment the feeling that he had laid his hand on the other half of the “thing in itself,” when suddenly he was distracted by a female voice, the voice of a siren that goes to one’s heart as it wafts from afar, fading into an echo.  (from Part III of “The Funnel and Stamate”)

Reasonably, Stamate rents a sailing ship and blocks his ears with wax, pursuing the siren in the manner of Odysseus.  But at the end of the story he is still searching, “climbing into his crank-driven perambulator for a final journey,… shrinking his size in the hope that he will some time in the future penetrate and disappear into the small infinite.”

The search will never end in life.  Language and art undermine the search for truth as much or more than they assist.  So Urmuz just plunges in.

The least nonsensical Urmuz piece is the longest, “The Fuchsiad: An Heroic-Erotic (and Musical) Prose Poem,” in which the pianist Theodor Fuchs, who “spent three years hidden at the bottom of a piano” – it is still awfully nonsensical – is summoned to Olympus to copulate with Venus and produce a “new and superior race” of true art-lovers.  He does the best he can, composing a “Romance for piano” while perched in Venus’s ear.  No, that’s not what was wanted.  He is hurled into Chaos, which is a kind of Modernist music, “a shower of dissonances, of inverted and unresolved discords, of interrupted cadences, false relations, trills and especially of pauses… a longer rest broke his spectacles.”

Urmuz urges Fuchs, as the story ends – I remind myself that Fuchs was a real performer, and Urmuz “never missed a concert” (Introduction, p.11) – to continue, even if defeated and corrupted, to “bring about on this planet by dint of education a better and superior race of men for his own glory and for the glory of the piano and of Eternity.”

Anything that I hopefully identify as a statement of purpose may be a false clue, just another version of this fine stuff:

His only wish was to be able to celebrate his silver wedding anniversary.  To do this, he summoned all of his servants and, after first inviting them to peck some hemp seed, threw them into a lime pit.  (from “Going Abroad”)

Tristan Tzara admired Urmuz.  So did Eugène Ionesco.  People turning into rhinos and so on logically follows from Urmuz.  It would be useful for me to learn more about this artistic pathway between Romania and France.

Monday, December 5, 2016

Marcel Schwob preaches the Book of Monelle - the green girl led her by the hand to an unknown liberty

A week of writing about short books chosen as if at random, but no, all following some long-running Wuthering Expectations theme, I believe that is what I have in front of me this week.

First up is The Book of Monelle (1894) by French oddball Marcel Schwob, in the Kit Schluter* translation from Wakefield Press, a book beloved by Symbolists, Dadaists, Surrealists, in general by artists with sympathy for conceptual art.

Monelle is Schwob’s Beatrice, a muse and a saint, apparently the patron saint of conceptual art:

And to imagine new art you must break its forebears.  And thus new art seems a sort of iconoclasm.

For all construction is made of debris, and nothing is new in this world but forms.

But you must destroy the forms. (7)

Monelle is the apostle of Modernism.  The above is from the first part of the book, “The Words of Monelle,” which per the novel’s title is a Biblical parody:

Monelle found me in the plain where I was wandering and took me by the hand.

“Do not be surprised,” she said.  “It is I, and it is not I”…

And Monelle said again: I shall speak to you of young prostitutes, and you shall know the beginning.  (3)

Then she reveals the prophecy of Modernist conceptual art to her true believers.

The last part of the book returns to the religious aspect of Monelle.  It is something like Dante’s New Life merging into Paradiso.  Monelle dies but is resurrected etc.  I am skeptical about this section.

The middle of the book, though, is amazing.  “The Sisters of Monelle.”  It is a series of fairy tales and parodies of fairy tales, mostly with characters whose lives are ruined, or perhaps saved, by believing in fairy tales.   Poor Ilsée, in “The Fated,” spends her life waiting for what she sees in her mirror.  It comes, eventually.  Poor Bargette, in “The Disappointed,” hitches a ride to the south of France on a barge, where she thinks she’ll find the South Seas – turtles, coconuts – even though the practical couple who operate the barge keep insisting that “’there’s going to be a bit of sun, but really, that’s all’” (35).

One girl wants to be Cinderella, another wants to be Bluebeard’s wife (“’This is going to hurt!’”).  Another, Morgane, has read about the mirror in Snow White, and also the mirror in Ilsée’s story.  She goes on a quest for her own magic mirror:

And further on is an underground city of black men who go unvisited by their gods, except in sleep.  They eat hemp fibers, and cover their faces with chalk.  And those who intoxicate themselves at night with hemp slit the necks of those who sleep, that they be sent to the nocturnal divinities.  Morgane was terrified of them.  (61)

Me, too!  Schwob’s fairy tales are on the scary side.

She opened the door and held her arm out into the night.  Just as Bûchette had once led her to the homes of man, the green girl led her by the hand to an unknown liberty.  (41)

The sublime, as readers of Wuthering Expectations well know, is the mixture of beauty and fear.

*  A good interview with the translator at 3:AM Magazine; another at The Paris Review.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

"But that's poetry" - A Doppelgänger, Theodor Storm as Naturalist

A Doppelgänger (1886), the novella in Denis Jackson’s recent translation that is new to English, is a shocker, not like anything else I have read by Theodor Storm.  It is about the life and sufferings of an ex-convict, John Hansen, in Husum, walking around where I have walked.  He suffers because of the prejudices of his neighbors, the economics conditions of his time, but also due to his own psychology – his guilt, his lack of impulse control, that sort of thing.  He is in some ways a sympathetic figure, but at his worst he is violent and dangerous.  The domestic abuse in the story is the most shocking part.

Storm was for many years a judge, and much of the detail of the story must have come from his courtroom.  It was no surprise to see Jackson write that A Doppelgänger is “considered even today to be the first Naturalistic literary work in Germany” (188).  Meaning Naturalism as a subject, a genre, the unsentimental literature of the poor and downtrodden as in Zola’s Germinal, not anything to do with style.  For Storm, though, the style is pretty plain.

The world was increasingly hostile towards him; whenever he needed help, or wherever he sought it, he received in response only a reproach for the crime in his past; and he was soon to hear it too where no other person could hear it.  One might have asked: ‘You with those strong arms, with your mighty fists, why do you tolerate it, why don’t you just silence them?’  He had once, when a loud-mouthed sailor had called his wife a beggar girl.  He had knocked the fellow to the ground and almost cracked his skull…  (128)

Less plain language is reserved for special occasions, and for an uncanny old well that for some reason torments John.  You know someone is going to end up in that well.  You can pretty much guess who.

The other place where the prose is less plain, where it is Storm’s ordinary poeticized prose, is in the frame story, a forest idyll, in which the Stormish narrator, in a distant land, meets a woman from his home (he recognizes her accent).  A few clues and he realizes that he of course knew her father, the notorious ex-con.  But she barely remembers him:

“I looked up at the stars, and they all shown down at me so peaceful and friendly.  ‘Father,’ I said, ‘ask Him for a small piece of bread this evening!’  I felt a warm drop fall onto my face; I thought it came from the dear Lord. – I know I was still hungry later that night in my bed; but I quietly went to sleep.”  (111)

She has escaped her early poverty, now living in a world of “yellow irises blooming at its [a pond’s] edge in a profusion I had never seen before” (112).

Strangely, the central story is not a discovered document or memory of the narrator, but a vivid fantasy.  He imagines the life of the father of the woman in the woods, tempered by his few childhood associations with the character, one of which involves the well.  In a directly anti-Naturalism move, the narrator acknowledges that he’s made it all up.  “’Hm,’ said the level-headed man [the woman’s husband], his eyes resting on me trustingly.  ‘But that’s poetry’” (157).  However far from his usual work, still Theodor Storm, in other words.

How lucky we are to have these new translations.

Saturday, December 3, 2016

an irresistible feeling of compassion - the new translation of Theodor Storm's Aquis submersus

The great Theodor Storm translator Denis Jackson published his fifth volume of Storm’s novellas recently – A Doppelgänger with Aquis submersus.  The latter is also available in the old James Wright collection, The Rider on the White Horse; the former is new to English.

No offense meant to the actual translations of Wright, but the editions Jackson produces are ideal.  Jackson loves the North Frisian landscape and culture as much as he loves Storm, so his research on the villages and landscape and their connections to Storm’s fiction are worth seeing for their own sake.  I have been to Husum, Storm’s home, visited his grave and all that.  I have never been to a place more tangled with the works of an author.  Thomas Hardy’s Wessex is a useful comparison, but Wessex is much bigger, with novels set over a much larger space.  In Storm’s stories – in the two I just read – the characters keep walking past places I have been in Husum.  They keep visiting places that now have plaques telling me that this building stands on the site of the Aquis submersus house.

The hedgerows of hornbeam in our ‘Schlossgarten,’ which had earlier belonged to the ducal castle yet since time immemorial had been quite neglected, were once laid out in the old French fashion but in my youth had already grown into narrow, ghostly avenues.  (p. 31)

This is the first line of Aquis submersus (1876), and a good example of why I associate him with W. G. Sebald, who I assume knew his work well.  Although Storm is an author full of hope and joy, openly striving for beauty, his fiction has a similar sense of historical entropy.  He lived in a landscape where once in a while a North Sea hurricane destroys everything, literally smashing islands into pieces and drowning entire cities.  Storm is well aware of the natural history of destruction.

On the other hand, that garden, where I have been, is now best known for its spectacular spring crocuses.

In both of these stories, the “present” is idyllic, but the past is tragic.

Aquis submersus is historical fiction.  The narrator, as a child, was fascinated by a painting in a local church that showed

a beautiful boy of about five quietly lying in a cushion with lace decoration, holding a white water lily in his small pale hand.  The delicate face, as though beseeching help, still carried the last sweet trace of life beside the horror of death; and an irresistible feeling of compassion came over me when I stood before this painting.  (34)

The narrator actually describes the entire contents of a church, with Jackson, in his notes, telling me either where I can visit each artifact or when it was lost, but most importantly this painting, inscribed “1666” and “C. P. A. S.”, perhaps Cupla patris aqua submersus – “Through the fault of the father drowned.”  The bulk of the story is a fortuitously discovered manuscript written by the painter telling the tragic story of that painting and that inscription.

Back to the narrator:

[The painter’s] name does not belong among those who are named; hardly would he be found in any dictionary of artists; indeed, even in his own land no one knows of a painter of this name.  The chronicle of our town does in fact mention the large Lazarus painting, but the painting itself, like the rest of the art treasures dispersed following the demolition of our old church at the beginning of the present century, has disappeared.  (99)

Friday, December 2, 2016

The cynicism of it! - Shaw's Major Barbara

I barely know a thing about George Bernard Shaw, most of what I know is likely wrong, and now that I see that I took the dumbest notes on Major Barbara (1905), but how will I learn if I stay silent I say to myself.

Major Barbara is a major in the Salvation Army.  Act II takes place at a Salvation Army shelter.  Great stuff.  Barbara’s father, Andrew Undershaft, is England’s greatest armaments manufacturer.  Act III partly takes place at his gigantic manufacturing plant, which is something like the giant Krupp plant as if it were run by Robert Owen.

UNDERSHAFT [stopping to smell the bouquet].  Where did you get the flowers, my dear?

LADY BRITOMART.  Your men presented them to me in your William Morris Labor Church…  Yes, with Morris’s words in mosaic letters ten feet high round the dome.  NO MAN IS GOOD ENOUGH TO BE ANOTHER MAN’S MASTER.  The cynicism of it!

UNDERSHAFT.  It shocked the men at first, I am afraid.  But now they take no more notice of it than of the ten commandments in church.

Undershaft is such a perfect cynic about the effects of his products on the world – “Here I am, a profiteer in mutilation and murder” – that he is in practice perversely sincere, as much of a Utopian reformer as his daughter Barbara.  Much of the plot is about Undershaft’s attempt to find a successor to run the factory – a fairy tale where the prize for the plucky peasant hero is a dynamite plant – and I kept detecting the idea, never stated by Shaw that I noticed, that the heir really should be Barbara, even if her ideals are completely different.  She and her father share the impulse to organize the world.

Maybe that is what happens at the end, come to think of it.  Her husband gets the business, but he is an idiot, and a cynical cynic, not a sincere one, a classicist who bangs the bass drum in the Salvation Army only because he wants to marry the wealthy Barbara.

CUSINS.  It takes the poor professor of Greek, the most artificial and self-suppressed of human creatures, from his meal of roots, and lets loose the rhapsodist in him; reveals the true worship of Dionysos to him; sends him down the public street drumming dithyrambs [he plays a thundering flourish on the drum].  (Act II)

The “artificial and self-suppressed” part is accurate, at least.  Please note the appearance of the god of satyrs and fauns, like an Edwardian timestamp.

Perhaps a reader can detect some irony in the play’s central conflict.  Strangely, Shaw was criticized for attacking the Salvation Army, as he describes in the long preface to the play.  As if he were in favor of the cannons and warships instead.  Major Barbara is an argument against the illusion of purity.  “He must either share the world’s guilt or go to another planet” (Preface).  “He” being anyone, everyone.

The first act of the play is a drawing room comedy as funny as the others by Shaw I have read recently, Candida (1894) and You Never Can Tell (1896).  Shaw is expert with upper-class prigs and idiots.  But the rest of the play is bigger, more ambitious.  More in line with my received view of Shaw, the one I carried around for years, not completely mistaken but badly incomplete.